"NO KISS FOR THE OLD MAN today, Casey love?" the weak voice asked from the hospital bed.
A determinedly happy smile curled the corners of her mouth upward as Casey Gilmore dodged the hanging ropes and weights that held her father's leg in traction. She brushed her lips lightly over his, noting the pallor under the mahogany tan of his skin. Not even the steady dose of painkillers had erased the reflection of pain in his brown eyes, only dulled their brilliance.
"Sorry to be so late, dad." The cheerful smile on her face didn't reach her troubled eyes as Casey glanced briefly at her mother seated in a chair next to the bed before she herself sat in the adjacent chair.
"We were just beginning to worry about you." Her mother studied her closely, her teasing voice showing the concern and apprehension that had become commonplace these last few days.
"I had lunch with Johnny before he went back to North Platte," Casey explained, keeping her voice purposely light so her father wouldn't know how disappointed she was with the results of that talk. She brushed her short-cropped brown hair away from her equally dark eyes in a nervous gesture, sensing that despite the lightness of their greetings, her parents had been having a serious discussion before her arrival. "I see you haven't started chasing the nurses yet," she jested to fill the silence.
"Not likely to, either," John Gilmore sighed. His dark hair, just beginning to become flecked with gray, moved restlessly on the white pillow. "Six weeks in this contraption!" His eyes looked at the ceiling in desperation even as he muttered what amounted to a curse. "Of all the times to get thrown by a horse, this wasn't one of them. How are things at the ranch, Casey?"
She had trouble meeting his earnest gaze. How glad she was that her mother had spent the last few days in Scottsbluff with her father so that she didn't know the latest crisis that had occurred. Her mother was horribly transparent about her feelings and couldn't have kept a thing from her husband no matter how hard she tried.
"Outside of everyone missing you terribly, everything's fine." Casey's fingers lay crossed in her lap; she refused to think about the broken water pump or the ten head of cattle missing from the Burnt Hollow pasture.
"You wouldn't be keeping anything from me, Casey?" he asked with his usual perception at reading her mind.
"You're a worrier! The most serious thing that's happened since your accident is that Injun threw a shoe," Casey grimaced. "And I wish he'd broken a leg so I could shoot him."
The weak chuckle at his tender-hearted daughter's vehement statement couldn't compare with his usual robust laughter. "I probably would have loaded the gun for you." His expression grew more serious as he glanced briefly at his wife, then back to Casey. "Fred Lawlor from the bank stopped in this morning after you and Johnny left," he said.
Not more problems, Casey groaned inwardly, knowing how precarious their position had become financially since the cattle market had taken such a nose dive. Her father's face told her that his oldest friend hadn't stopped merely in friendship.
"That was very kind of him," she commented aloud.
"Yes, yes, it was." John Gilmore moved uncomfortably in the bed. The white hospital gown looked unnatural coveting his chest. "He made a suggestion that your mother and I have been talking over." Casey stiffened unconsciously. "He knows I'm going to be in traction for at least six weeks while this broken hip mends. And after that—well, I'm not a young man anymore. Even with the surgery that inserted the steel pin, it's going to take time for my creaky old bones to heal. In the meantime, the running of the ranch has pretty well been dumped in your lap."
"I can handle it, dad," Casey asserted quickly. "We already finished all the dipping, branding and vaccinating before you got hurt. Mark will be out of school soon and he can lend a hand, even if he is only fifteen. You'll be up and around to supervise the fall work." The sympathetic exchange of glances between her parents told Casey that her arguments weren't successful. "Sam's there, too. If I need extra help, you know Smitty will always come over. Dad, I am twenty-one. I know every inch of the ranch. I've lived there all my life."
"I'm not doubting your ability. I've never pulled any punches with you or your mother. You know how hard we were hurt last year between the late spring blizzard and the cattle prices. If it wasn't for the rising land values, I don't know if I could have got another loan from the bank. Fred Lawlor knows you pretty well. If it was his choice, he'd trust you to take care of things." He couldn't meet her eyes any longer as his gaze shifted to his right leg dangling in the air. "The bank suggested that we bring someone else in to run the ranch until I'm in a position to take over myself."
Casey's teeth bit hard into her lips to keep her pointed chin from trembling. Staring down at the creases in her western cut blue pants and the pointed toes of her beige dress boots, she inhaled deeply. "It's because I'm a female, isn't it? If Johnny were home it would be different, wouldn't it?"
"Don't be bitter, dear," her mother said quietly. "It's just the way things are."
"Women's Lib sure know what they're talking about." Casey attempted to laugh, but only a bitter sound came out as she rose from her chair and walked to the window, her face clouded over.
"If there was a chance that I could recuperate at home, they probably wouldn't have even considered it. You have to face facts, Casey," her father said, "you can't consider a two-hour drive one way as being close in an emergency."
"But you're the only boss man the Anchor Bar has ever had," Casey protested. "I don't know if I could take orders from anyone else but you. Can't you talk to Mr. Lawlor? Can't you persuade him to—"
"He knows a man from Ogallala," John Gilmore interrupted firmly, "who's extremely experienced and capable. I've already told him to get hold of him and send him out." A little more gently he added, "I'd like to know I can depend on you to help things run smoothly for him."
"Take it like a man, huh?" Casey didn't bother to hide her bitterness, knowing that she and her father were too close for him not to know it was there. Her chin jutted out determinedly as she turned from the window toward him. "You can depend on me, dad, but you knew that all along."
"I was pretty sure of it," he said smiling, "but I feel better now that I've heard you say it."
A nurse walked into the room carrying a tray. "It's that time again, Mr. Gilmore." She glanced at Casey and her mother with a silent request that they leave.
"I'll say goodbye now, dad." Casey walked over to kiss her father's cheek. "I want to get home before Mark does." She paused. "This man that's coming, when should I expect him?"
"Fred said he'd try to get him out there the first of the week."
Casey raised her eyebrows and then smiled. It gave her at the most five days to make sure everything was shipshape. "Mark and I will be down Sunday," she promised, giving him a thumbs-up sign as she followed her mother out the door.
Outside she paused with her mother, taking in the pinched lines around her mouth and the way her dress hung loosely around her waist. Casey had often admired her mother's devotion to her husband. Now she could see the toll that love had taken in the four days since the accident. The serene composure of Lucille Gilmore's delicate features faded as she turned to her daughter.
"You do understand, don't you, Casey, that your father was hardly in a position to argue with the bank?" she said.
"I can understand it without liking it."
"To be truthful, I'm glad," her mother sighed, her blue eyes glancing apologetically at Casey. "I didn't like you shouldering all that responsibility alone, not when things are so difficult."
"Everything's going to turn out fine, mom. You just worry about dad and leave the ranch and the new boss man to me to worry about."
"All these years I've been so concerned about you being such a tomboy in some ways. Now with Johnny working for the railway instead of taking over the ranch like your father and I had planned, I guess we can be glad you're the way you are. When this is all over and John is back home—" There was a catch in her voice.
Casey laughed with the same tight sound to her voice that her mother had. Neither one of them could discuss the subject most prominent on their minds, that of the man lying in the hospital room with a broken hip. Even Lucille Gilmore's inquiries about her youngest son, Mark, were asked with the thought that if it weren't for her husband's injuries, she would be home with him.
After exchanging parting kisses, Lucille promised, somewhat reluctantly, that she would be returning home with Casey and Mark when they came to the hospital on Sunday. Casey could tell that her mother was torn between her desire to be at her husband's side and to be with her children. She had learned that despite her mother's outward look of delicate womanhood she was an exceptionally strong woman inside. The subject had probably been discussed thoroughly with her father and the result had been decided. There was no need for Casey to try to dissuade her that it wasn't necessary. Both of her parents' minds would rest easier knowing that Lucille was at the ranch with their children.
As Casey left the hospital, she toyed with the idea of making a side trip to North Platte to meet with her older brother again, to renew her earlier pleas at lunch that he return to the ranch to help out in this new crisis. She had only to remember his forceful refusal to her suggestion. During his teens, John had tried to live up to his father's wishes that he learn ranching so that he could one day take over, but after he had finished school, he had enlisted in the armed forces. While overseas, he had written Casey telling her that he had decided not to go back to working for his father. His enlistment had ended in the late summer of last year and he had wasted no time in letting his parents know that he was taking a job with the Union Pacific Railroad in North Platte.
The disappointment had been a bitter pill for her parents, combined with all the setbacks they had suffered, but whatever they felt had been concealed. Casey could only guess at the pain he had felt when her father had sent his eldest son on to make his own future. She had secretly hoped that during her luncheon with her brother she would have been able to persuade him to return, even temporarily. Johnny had been sympathetic and ashamed when he refused.
"I made the break once," he had said. "I know dad would never stand in my way. But don't you see how guilty I feel letting him down? I know how much he was counting on me. If I came back now, I'd be building his hopes up again. Let's face it, Casey, you think more of that ranch than I do."
But the following statement that he had made was the one that forestalled Casey from contacting him again about the news that someone was coming to take over control of the ranch.
"If things get too much for you, sis, you and dad can hire someone a lot more experienced than I am," Johnny had finished.
Her journey back to the ranch was made with a combination of anxiety and anger. The thought of her father confined to that hospital bed for six weeks when he was needed so badly at the ranch weighed as heavily as the rebellion that some stranger would be in charge of their future.