The Half Mile of Baby Blue

Book Cover: The Half Mile of Baby Blue

No family can conceal its past forever. When forgotten findings inside a suitcase reveal a Stampede legacy, a new generation risks history repeating itself…

After Kit Wheeler learns her family’s ranch has been threatened with foreclosure, she puts her former project manager skills to work to initiate a plan. Secrets are revealed, altering her objective and inspiring a wagon race laden with family conflict. To triumph, she requires a strategy. Her genius sister stages an auction and an attractive businessman scores the winning bid.

Gabe Bradshaw first glimpses Kit through the pages of the morning newspaper. Drawn to her evocative portrait and baby-blue eyes, the President of TarSan Oil proposes a strategy to champion her acquaintance. His motives might seem suspicious, but Kit understands his gameplay.

What distance will a family go to save their ranch? What risks will a man and woman take to reach the finish line? The only question remaining is, will they secure the Half Mile of Baby Blue?

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Kit Wheeler couldn’t comprehend the news her father had shared with the family. Misfortune happened to other people, not the Wheelers, but she could see by her dad’s somber expression, the sad timbre of his voice, that every word was true. The bank had threatened to foreclose. But she wouldn’t lose their family home without a fight.

“How much time do we have to save the ranch? I have money set aside. I can help.”

Kit sat on an armchair in the corner of the living room feeling estranged from her family. The distance irritated her. She willed one of her siblings, her parents, or her grandmother, to speak— Silence. Defeat.

Her grandmother swayed back and forth on her old rocking chair as if waiting for death to come, or maybe the situation angered her. Kit couldn’t tell.

“Come on,” Kit begged, looking at each family member in turn, “will no one say anything?”

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Sitting on a worn, gray-leather sofa, her father folded his arms. “Look, Kit, it’s great you want to help, but I’m not sure I can let you. Your funds probably wouldn’t make a difference anyway.”

“It’s worse than you’re saying, isn’t it?” She stretched forward, crossing her legs at her ankles. “Or could it be you won’t take my money, won’t accept my help? Dad. Why did you call us here? Will you throw your cards on the table, folding, admitting ruin, or at least try to play another round?”

“I won’t give up without a fight if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t like losing.”

“Just tell us, then. The truth. We’re adults. We can accept whatever you have to say.”

“You’re right. We’re behind on our mortgage payments by three months,” Michael Wheeler said, sighing. “The bank wants their money, but they’re willing to negotiate terms to give us more time. I’ve been in contact with a senior financial advisor. He’s suggesting we sell.”

Kit scrutinized her mom, her sister, Samantha, her brother, Cole. Not one useful piece of advice was put forward. She’d have to push them for the truth.

“What do you think about this situation, Sam, Cole? Surely, you don’t want to sell?”

“Not me,” Cole remarked, his palms massaging his Wranglers. “But it’s not my decision to make.”

“I love it here,” Gina Wheeler added, a wistful smile appearing on her face. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Fresh air, blue skies, and the mountains in the distance. We’ve put in a lot of work to create a garden landscape by the pond. And you know how I love painting in the midst of the flowers in the heat of summer. I’d miss it, like I miss my daughter.”

“Oh, Mom. I’m sorry I don’t come home more often.”

“It’s all right. A mother understands. You’re home now.”

Kit dismissed the wistful expression on her mother’s face and turned her attention to her father. “I’m surprised there’s still a mortgage. I would have thought… but don’t mind that, how much time do we have? What are the payments? How much is owing on the loan?”

Her dad went silent.

Kit knew his disgruntled look. Michael Wheeler was a private man. He didn’t take pleasure in disclosing best practices or personal matters, but for a daughter to help, she might have to yank the nitty-gritty from him.

“Dad, is there something you’re not telling me?”

“Stop needling our father, Kit,” Samantha hastened to say, sneering. “Don’t you see he’s upset? Your questions are adding further fuel to a difficult situation. It’s just like you to try and manage everything. Let Dad handle this.”

“Sam—” Kit appealed, glancing at her sister, “don’t get emotional on me. Dad’s called us to the ranch for a reason. He needs our help, our support, not more frustration. I can’t offer my assistance without further information.”

Sam shook her head, not willing to back down. “You can’t project manage every hurdle in your life, Kit.”

“Children, this is not a time for fighting,” Gina Wheeler stated, trying to bring calm. “If we’re to survive this ordeal, we must stick together.” She rose from the sofa. “I’ll put a pot of coffee on. Might dig out the Baileys from last Christmas, too. I don’t know about you, but I could use a drink.”

Kit watched her mother leave the room. “What did I do?” she asked, raising her hands in supplication. “I’m only trying to hash out this situation. Find a solution. I can’t help without knowing how deep we’ve fallen into the hole. We can’t just sit here and drink; we need to communicate, talk for heaven’s sake, come up with a plan.”

“You’re not alone in wanting to make a difference,” Cole Wheeler angled, staring her in the face, appearing angry. He clasped his hands in his lap like his father. Kit determined the two men were a lot alike. “You think Sam and I don’t want to help? It’s not about you, Kit. Let Dad lead the discussion. He brought us here, not you.”

Where did her brother’s anger come from? She knew that look; she remembered it from when they were kids. Lies. What information was he keeping from them?

“I’ll forgive you for your comment, but since you’ve discovered your voice, Cole, you’ve been managing the land, the herd. What can you tell us about the financial difficulty this ranch is facing?”

“Have it your way. The debt extends beyond the mortgage.”

“You look so guilty. What have you done?”

“Kit,” her father interrupted, staring at the carpeting. “There’s credit card debt, too.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Cole? Have you mismanaged the ranch? This land is our family’s legacy, our heritage and our birthright.”

“Don’t look at me with your high-and-mighty attitude. This house was rotting, the land around it, too before I took over. It required substantial investment. New fences, barn supplies, and I wanted to explore dairy farming, so I invested in milking systems. What other choice did I have? If we’re to compete with our neighbors, we have to invest in the future.”

“With money we don’t have?”

“It’s just like you,” Samantha scoffed, “to come here in your high heels, your fancy suit, and accuse our brother of mismanaging the ranch.”

“Well, hasn’t he? We don’t own milking cows, Sam. What else is going on here? Facts someone isn’t sharing with me?”

“Kids…” Michael Wheeler pleaded, heaving a huge sigh. “Ugly conversations do not help our situation. The ranch is deep in debt. We have to find a solution. Together. This is why I’ve called you here.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. What do you have in mind?” Kit said, wishing her family understood her better, her gut instinct questioning if her father was keeping details of the financial losses secret. And if so, why?

He sighed. “We need to give the bank at least one mortgage payment before the first of the month. Two thousand dollars. That gives us two weeks to find a solution. A plan. We must find a way to satisfy our other creditors, too.”

“No!” Dot Wheeler, the family matriarch, spoke up. The room went silent with her outburst and everyone’s attention focused on her. “My family will not suffer to keep this ranch. It’s worth more than the payments owed. I will sell and give the bank their due.”

Kit glanced at her grandmother, observing her pinched expression. The only sign she was angry. She sat on her old pine rocking chair in a family room burdened with memories. She swayed back and forth, her foot tapping against an old worn carpet. Kit had run across the faded roses as a child when it was new, thirty years ago… She wanted her children, if she ever had any, to run across it, too.

“I’m sorry, Gran. This must be hard on you.”

Dot stared at something her family couldn’t see. “Nice of you to think of me. I’ve been forgotten in the running of this ranch, and in this conversation, too.”

“You’ve never been forgotten, Mom.”

“Son, please hear me out.”

“I’ll hear whatever you have to say. It’s your right. This is your home.”

“Michael, Gina, grandchildren,” she addressed them all, “this is my home. I’ve lived here for more than fifty years. Life has not always been easy. I’ve learned to accept the punches, and to bear the hurt that comes with life. It’s time to give in, let go, and move on.”

“You don’t mean that,” Kit began, “this is your home.”

“It’s four walls holding a gabled roof. Home? A home is a place where the living is cozy and warm, and the kids don’t fight. The ranch stopped being a home years ago, when… when John left me too soon. I should never have let go of the reins. I should have kept control of the ranch. It’s too late now. I’m tired. I don’t want my family to manage this concern, anymore.”

“We can help,” Samantha said, pleading. “We grew up here. This is our home as much as it is yours. I’m sorry, Gran, about the ranch and more besides.”

“It’s all right, dear. The decision is made. It’s my name on the title, after all.”

“We need to talk about this.”

“Kit, there’s nothing left to discuss,” Dot Wheeler proclaimed. “I don’t know why your father asked you to come.” She stopped rocking, appealing with sadness in her eyes. She stood. “I need to rest. I’m going to my room. I’d like my peace restored when I return.”

Kit watched Gran leave. Sadness etched her heart seeing her grandmother’s decline, tear-filled eyes, hunched shoulders, her advancing years shadowing the defeat in her eyes. Everyone was silent until they were alone again.

“She doesn’t want this?” Kit said, tears filling her eyes. “Gran could not have meant what she said.”

“Your grandmother doesn’t want her family to face this burden. This is why she wants to sell. She can live comfortably on the proceeds from the sale.”

“Dad,” Cole appealed, “if we had more time, we could realize the benefits of the investments I’ve made on the ranch. Kit, Samantha, you have to believe me, I never meant to place the ranch in jeopardy.”

“Despite your aggression toward me, I believe you.” Kit tried to see her brother’s side. “So, what do we do now?”

Gina Wheeler returned to the living room with a coffee pot and five mugs clutched in her hand. “We don’t give up. Obstacles might inhibit our progress, but if we work together, we’ll find a path forward. Tell me, family, will we pull together?”

“We’ll sure as hell try.” Samantha took a mug.

“Amen to that.” Kit agreed, taking her own mug. “Mom, we might need the Baileys.”

“I’ll get it,” Michael Wheeler offered, rising from his armchair, “after I take a breath of fresh air.”

* * *

Kit followed her father outside. The old screen door banged shut and closed behind them.

It was a comforting sound. She’d heard the bang often enough as a child. That and childish laughter as the Wheeler children raced across the threshold. Giggling, laughing like crazy fools. Sam and Cole, sister and brother, chasing her through the doorway in their bare feet. Good memories. Good times. She’d fight to protect them.

She stood beside her father on the portico, staring at Red Angus and Hereford cattle grazing on emerald green pastures that stretched into low-lying hills. White-capped Rocky Mountains glistened beyond. She listened to cattle mooing, studying a landscape so breathtakingly beautiful, her eyes filled with tears, considering they might lose it.

“Dad, I meant what I said. I’d like to help, if I can.”

He turned to her, a semblance of a smile on his face. “I wish I had your faith. I admire your strength, your spirit. You never give in, do you? It’s not easy managing a ranch. This isn’t the first time we’ve faced a crisis, but this time, we’ve failed. We’ve let this old girl down.”

“Oh, Dad,” Kit said, falling into his arms. “Don’t say that. Please, let’s not give up without a fight. Surely, there’s a plan to make, a strategy to buy us more time. To save the ranch.”

“You heard your grandmother, she doesn’t want to save the farm.”

“I don’t believe it. She’s lived here for fifty years for a reason. This is her life. Let’s go inside. The five of us will come up with a plan.”

The screen door opened, and her siblings and mother filed outside. “A beautiful view,” her mother said, sipping her coffee. “I thought my grandchildren would see those pastures, play on them, too.”

Samantha sat on the porch swing. She was soon swinging, no different than their grandmother had on the rocking chair. “I’d need a boy in my life for that to happen, Mom.”

“I didn’t mean to detract from our worries.”

“We know you want to be a grandmother; you tell us all the time. But back to the subject at hand, I don’t think Gran meant what she said.”

“How do you know? She appeared determined to me.”

“She’s a resilient woman, though she’s never left the room before.”

“True enough,” Kit concurred, coming to sit beside her sister. “I don’t know what’s happened to put this distance between us, but if we work together…”

Sam gazed at her fingernails. “Don’t give me that, you left us behind.”

Kit studied her sister, her gorgeous strawberry-blonde hair and amber-gold eyes that twinkled with mischief. “I miss you, too, Sam.”

Samantha looked at her expression for a long time, soon turning away. The action hurt Kit, but she didn’t bring attention to the slight. It would take time to mend this fence. She’d try.

“If you have any ideas,” Cole said, “I for one would like to hear them.”

“I can cover one mortgage payment, that will buy us more time.”

“We could hold an estate sale,” Samantha put forward, unsmiling. “Gran says she doesn’t want to live here anymore, and if that’s true, she won’t need fifty years’ worth of stuff.”

“That’s a great idea,” Gina added, sipping her coffee. “I can include my artwork in the sale. Some of my friends and colleagues might contribute. Ladies from the church might help, too. When should we have the sale?”

“As soon as possible,” Michael said.

“We need time to organize the household effects. We could start tomorrow by inventorying the house, the barn, the surrounding lands. Deciding what we should keep and what we should sell.”

“The old attic, too,” Michael began, “there’s a ton of stuff up there. How long are you home, Kit?”

“I’ve taken a vacation,” Kit said, nibbling at her lip. “Two weeks maybe, but I could press for more time if needed.”

“Request three, maybe four.” Cole winced, shaking his head. “The old barn is overloaded with pickings, and it could take years to prepare it for a sale. But if we can somehow save the ranch, I’d like to empty it anyway, to use it for the milking operation.”

“I’m sorry, Cole, for not having had more faith in you.”

“It’s okay, big sister.”

“I’ll start giving some thought to a social media plan,” Samantha offered, smacking Kit on the leg.

“Kids, Gina, are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes.” The Wheeler family assented, nodding. Gina toasted them with her cup of coffee.

The chase was on to save the Wheeler Ranch.

COLLAPSE

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