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Fiction - Mystery

WINNIE

 

Winnie Gabel lived alone. Occasionally she felt lonely but most of the time she was aware of her beautiful surroundings and loved her life on her thirty-five acres in the Rocky Mountains. This particular morning was another peaceful warm day unfolding around her. Winnie, a trim handsome woman, had taken good care of herself during her forty-four years. She poured herself a cup of coffee and she and the two yellow lab pups, Bonnie and Bud, stepped out into the soft morning air. The puppies mother, Ginger, rose from the porch where she had been sleeping. She stretched and moved to Winnie to be petted and have her ears scratched.  

 

The two gangly pups fell down the steps romping and running around the yard. The eastern sky blazed red and orange above the trees. Looking to the south down the gently sloped open space in front of her small but comfortable home Winnie often glimpsed deer, squirrels and jays darting through the thick forest of pines, fur and blue spruce beyond.  Those dark woods descended to the paved road running east and west into The Village before rising steeply on the other side.

 

The steep climb behind her house was a switch back trail through lodge pole pine, ponderosa and aspen. The aspen, electric yellow in the fall, now fluttered silver and green in the late summer breeze. “I love this early morning air,” she told the dogs as she sat down in one of the chairs on the wide front porch. She had a busy day ahead but took the time to enjoy the beautiful sunrise and her hot coffee.  

 

After a light breakfast, Winnie donned hat and gloves to get the weeding done in her garden while it was still cool. Flowers, vegetables and herbs filled the garden on the east side of her house. She often took vegetables to her neighbors, the Caudles, because she simply couldn’t eat all that the garden produced and standing over a hot stove canning was not her thing. This year the tomatoes were large and meaty and delicious, if she could beat the birds to them. She worked for a couple of hours mulching and tying up loose vines then pulled onions and tiny young leaves from the leaf lettuce to have for lunch with the yellow squash she had harvested yesterday.  She stood up rubbing her aching back as she walked to the compost pile with all the weeds and cuttings.     

 

Winnie heard the truck coming up the gravel road running along the west side of her property before she could see it. The Caudle’s sixteen-year-old son Cassidy came into view in his old beat up ranch truck with his little, seven-year old brother Ricky hanging out the window on the passenger side waving to her. She knew Cassidy had come to ask her again for one of the pups. Ricky fell out the open door as soon as the truck stopped to be greeted by the jumping and wagging dogs. While Ricky romped with the two pups, Cassidy greeted Winnie and said, “You think I could take a pup home with me today?”

 

“I still keep the pups inside overnight Cassidy, they’re just not wise enough yet to protect themselves from coyotes.”

 

“My hounds would do that Winnie. My hounds would protect them.”

 

“Give them another two weeks and you can take Bonnie.”

 

“Two weeks! Let me have her today and I’ll keep her inside at night.”

 

“Now Cassidy, you know your mother does not allow animals in her house.”

 

“I’ll convince her.”

 

“Two weeks.”

 

“Oh, OK, two weeks,” and as he knelt to stroke Bonnie he said, “Oh yea, Mom says come to our barbeque Sunday.”

 

“Barbeque? I’ll be there.”

 

Cassidy and Ricky stayed for a while and played with the dogs to delay going home to chores.

 

The next morning, heavy, thick fog pressed against her windows, but since it was supposed to burn off by noon she decided to drive to a new trail she had seen across the valley. As she parked, the clouds revealed patches of blue sky and wind cleared the fog. She started across a flat acre of knee high rippling yellow grass that led into a wooded area beyond. A dozen vibrant blue birds darted in and out of the trees ahead of her. It was quiet as she entered the thick woods. She was sheltered from the wind and deeply inhaled the rich smell of earth and pine needles. There were lodge pole pines, furs and an occasional juniper. The only sound was the scolding of the small, black, tufted-eared squirrels guarding the tall Ponderosas as she passed. She picked a bouquet of wild flowers on the way back to the car but left, as always, enough to reseed in the fall.

 

Soon, after she got back to the house, once again, she heard the truck before it came into view. She assumed the boys were coming to play with the pups again, but it wasn’t Cassidy’s truck. “Who could this be?” she thought. As the man got out of the truck, Win’s eyes opened wide and she held her breath. The sturdy, sandy haired man walking toward her was Steve, her ex-husband and her children’s father. She had not seen him or even heard from him since the divorce eight years ago. He waved and called “Long time no see.”

 

“You’re right there Steve, what on earth are you doing here?” she replied.

 

“Took quite a bit tu find ya. What are ya doin out here in the boonies? That nice Florida home I provided for ya not good enough? Sorta down graded here haven’t ya?”

 

What do you want Steve? Why are you here?”

 

“Hey, just really wanted to see ya. I think about ya a lot Win. Got anything to drink in that little bungalow?”

 

Steve had not wanted the divorce. He had moved out of their home to live with another woman when their children were sixteen and fourteen. When he decided he had “Made a mistake,” and wanted to move back “home,” he couldn’t understand why Winnie “Held such a grudge.” He fought the divorce, but Winnie prevailed and came away with custody of the children, their Florida home and ample child support.

 

Gwen and Greg had been hurt but not shocked by their father’s behavior. He had never been a doting dad. He had eventually remarried after the divorce, but divorced again after a couple of years. He had not reached out to his children since he had moved out of the family home nine years ago.

 

As he finished the coffee Winnie had prepared for him he said, “I thought I’d come by and give you another chance.”

 

“Another chance?”

 

“Yea, I have a new job waiting for me in Utah. Come with me. We could have a great time.”

 

She didn’t laugh; she managed to keep a straight face and began to tell him about his children. She told him that Gwen had graduated top of her class from Montana State and had a good job in Bozeman. “Greg is at Montana State and graduates next spring,” she said.

 

He neither commented or asked any questions about them and when he realized that Winnie had no interest in trying to reconnect, he became rude and offensive. By the time he left, she was shaken and in spite of herself tears flowed down her cheeks. “What a fool, what a pathetic fool he is,” she thought.

 

After the divorce, Winnie had searched for her “dream home” in Colorado, the state where the family had spent many vacations. She had shown the mountain homes to Gwen and Greg saying, “This is where I’m going to live when you guys leave for College.

 

To Winnie’s surprise, Greg had said, “Why wait? Let’s go now!”

 

Gwen had immediately agreed. “Let’s leave this sad place. Start over.”

 

“Yeah” Greg had said, “Let’s get out of here Mom. These last two years - - - well, Colorado sounds great.”

 

The three of them were up past midnight researching the area on line, the schools, the distance from an airport and since the property they chose was within forest, would it be a safe place for Winnie to live alone in the future?

 

Within the month they had toured the Colorado property, bought it, put the family home on the market, packed up the moving van and their car and drove the 2,000 miles to their new life.

 

~

Rita Caudle, a petit red head, was busy in her big old kitchen getting things ready for the barbecue when her husband James came in to shower and get ready. He had been riding fences on the ATV, feeding animals and shoveling manure. He had an amazing aroma and came straight at Rita to give her a big hug. She backed away with both hands up to shield herself. He feigned surprise. “You don’t love me anymore? Been out working hard all day and I get no sweet greeting?”

 

“I’ll be so happy to “greet” you after a shower.”

 

“How many folks coming tonight?” he said as he turned toward the stairs.

 

“There will probably be about a dozen of us.”

 

“I need to get the vet out tomorrow for one of the milk cows. You got anything going tomorrow?”

 

“No, nothing tomorrow. While you shower, I’ll get the meat ready for cooking. When do you plan to start the grill?”

 

“Soon.” he yelled back as he ran upstairs two steps at a time.

 

The two of them worked hard to keep their ranch, a mile down and across the road from Winnie, going. They had both been raised on ranches in the area and knew what it would take to live the life they had chosen on their 120 acres. Rita was a bundle of energy and efficiency, a true partner in the workload of running the ranch and raising three children. Their oldest, Warren, was away at University working toward a masters. James was a solid, strong, youthful man both physically and mentally.  Calm and level headed, he was usually upbeat and unflappable.

 

The Caudle’s big old farm house had a tall blue spruce and a few aspen close to the porch that ran along the front of the house facing the road. James had laid a stone patio out from the porch and that’s where the grill and picnic tables were. They had strung lights along the roof line and put checkered table clothes on the tables.

 

Winnie, her long legs in blue jeans and boots, got there early to help. She was a pretty woman with shiny chestnut hair turned under at her shoulders and big brown eyes. She felt so lucky to have this wonderful family as friends. Win was surprised to see the Nelson’s when they arrived. A trim, tanned middle aged couple, they owned the land to the east of her and spent summers there, but moved to Florida for the winters. She had seen them often and had them over once when she first moved in but Julia, Mrs. Nelson, decided Richard was too attentive to Winnie. Richard had helped Winnie with heavy lifting when she was moving in and offered to repair the storage shed out back for her. There had been no inappropriate behavior or advances made. Richard was a perfect gentleman. Within weeks the couple had started refusing invitations and Julia was very distant, flushed and rude, should they meet in town. Julia’s jealousy seemed extreme. Win regretted losing their friendship but did not want to cause trouble for Richard. At the barbeque she did not greet Richard individually, but made sure Julia and he were standing close together when she said, “Hello, so nice to see you two. Will you be closing up and heading for Florida soon?”

 

“I don’t see that as any of your concern.” Julia stiffly replied.

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t mean to pry.” Winnie quickly replied.

 

“Julia!” Richard said then turned to Winnie. “Sorry Winnie, we will be here through September this year.”

 

 Julia glared at him and Winnie nodded and turned away to greet the Watsons.

 

Anna Watson, young and beautifully dressed in a fringed shawl that complemented her long blond hair, had recently opened a shop in The Village. Her husband Ken was the local dentist. Winnie chatted with them for a while until James brought William Kirk and his charming wife Lee over and introduced them. The Kirk’s had recently moved into a condo in The Village. James had run into William at the hardware store and invited them to the barbeque.

 

Cassidy and Ricky helped their mother put food out as James loaded platters with ribs and hamburgers from the grill. Winnie sat between the Watson’s and enjoyed the good food and good company. The boys also helped clear the table once most of the guests had gone and Winnie stayed to help with the clean up.

 

~

Mid week, Winnie went down to The Village. The small town twenty minutes east of her place was a popular tourist stop as travelers drove through from Denver, an hour’s drive, on their way to other destinations out west. There were restaurants with outdoor tables and jewelry and ice cream and candy shops and the town was pretty architecturally with an abundance of trees. After doing her shopping, she ran into William Kirk. They exchanged greetings and pleasantries about how much fun the barbecue had been and he said, “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”

 

“I do, that would be nice. Where is your lovely wife today?”

 

“She had a doctor’s appointment in Denver and I decided to stay here and continue working on a few things that need attention at our condo. I was just on my way to the hardware store when I ran into you.”   Over coffee she found out that he was a consultant for petroleum engineers which had him traveling a lot. They had no children and their parents were deceased. William asked Win how she had come to live here and was surprised that she lived up in the mountains alone. As they parted, Winnie said she would love to have them up for dinner some night and got their phone number.

 

As Winnie got into her car she saw Steve walk out of the bank in town. He did not see her, got into his truck and drove away. She sat stunned. “What is he doing here? I thought he had a job waiting. Why is he still here?” she thought, confused.

 

The next day, Winnie drove down to the Caudles to exchange some of her produce for eggs and Ricky begged her to go out to the barn to see his new batch of kittens. “You can have one Win,” he said as he led her to the corner of the barn where they were.

 

“Well thank you Ricky, let me see. I would like that cute little grey one.”

 

“I’ll bring her to you as soon as she’s weaned, or Cassidy will. They still won’t let me drive the truck yet.”

 

“Ricky, you can’t even reach the pedals.”

 

“Aw, a minor detail.”

 

Winnie laughed and put her hand on his shoulder as they walked out of the barn. Cassidy called to them to come see his colt, born in the spring, as Rita called out the back door, “Winnie, plan to stay for dinner, I’m adding your veggies to the mix.” The family was such fun to be with and Rita’s food was always good. Winnie quickly said OK. It was a delightful evening and dark by the time she started home.

 

As Winnie drove into her driveway, her headlights swept across the front of the house. What was that on the porch? She backed up so that the headlights shined on it and got out of her Jeep. As she approached the porch she could see that it was a deer. Why was it lying on her porch? Was it dead? As she got closer she could see the pool of blood. Its throat had been slashed. She gasped as she covered her mouth. She immediately turned and ran to the car. Where was Ginger? Why hadn’t she greeted her? She drove as fast as she could back to the Caudle’s. They heard her drive in and rushed out to meet her. She was shaking and they helped her into the house. As she told them about the deer, James and Cassidy were putting on their boots. James drove Winnie’s car and Cassidy drove his old truck.

 

~

The next morning Win awoke and wondered where she was. Oh yes, of course, she was in one of the Caudle’s upstairs bedrooms where Rita had put her to bed last night after she was able to calm down a bit. They had all gone back to her place, found the dogs, all three of them, in the house. Win was sure she had left Ginger outside when she left for the Caudle’s. James and Cassidy had thrown the deer carcass into the truck to dispose of and washed the porch as well as they could.

 

James exclaimed, “Winnie, that deer is the lame deer that hangs around Richard’s place because he feeds it. It has that lame hind leg. It would be easy to lure that deer onto the porch with treats. Who would do that? Who would get that poor old deer onto your porch and cut its throat?’”

 

Immediate images of Julia’s rebuff swept through Winnie’s mind. “Julia hated that deer,” she thought. She remembered that Julia complained because the deer left droppings all around and berated Richard for feeding it.

 

After breakfast and chores, the whole family and Win drove back to her place. The guys walked the road looking for tire tracks. They walked the entire property looking for anything that might give a clue as to what happened to that deer. Rita and Win searched every corner of the house. Nothing was missing and Win decided that she must have put Ginger inside before she left yesterday and just forgot. But nothing explained the deer. Rita insisted she come back to the ranch with them and Win did not object. She was terribly unnerved. She ordinarily did not lock the house but locked it when they left, taking the dogs with her.

 

She spent another night with the Caudle’s, but felt she must go home. They had their hands full with their working ranch. The cattle, crops, garden, chickens and milk cows were more than a full time job and they didn’t need the added responsibility of feeding her and her three dogs.

 

A couple of days after she had found the deer, William Kirk had called to express amazement and sympathy. “What a scary thing. Is there anything I can do for you?”

 

“No, no thank you William, but thank you for calling,” she said as she thought, “I’m in no condition to deal with a stranger. How on earth did he know about the deer?”

 

A few days later he had called again and since he was being thoughtful she invited them up. She realized she was really looking forward to someone to talk to and began to make coffee and see if there were any cookies around or some of Rita’s lovely desserts. When William got there he was alone. Once again, Lee had a doctor’s appointment.  

 

William stayed a couple of hours. They had coffee on the porch and he admired the dogs. They toured her garden and she picked fresh veggies for him to take with him. Conversation came easily and he had her laughing a few times. He asked if he could come Sunday for a hike and she said yes, she would be delighted to get onto a trail since she had been too uneasy to go out alone. He explained that Lee did not hike. After he left, Win sat on the porch in the cool breeze. She had really enjoyed his visit. William was a handsome man, six feet tall with dark hair and long black lashes that framed blue eyes. It was so nice that he was well traveled and well informed about many of the same things she had always been interested in.

 

Sunday morning he arrived right on time. The dogs were glad to see him and he gave all of them attention. He greeted her with a smile and handed her a box of several special cheeses. She added a couple of them to her back pack along with her snacks, water and rain gear she had packed earlier. The trail she had chosen to show him sloped up behind the house for about a mile then began switch backs to a level open space where they could see across the valley. They continued to climb till about 1:00 when they picnicked and rested in the shade for a while before heading back down. Once back at the house he made no move to leave and mentioned that Lee was away visiting friends so about 6:00 she asked if he would like to stay for dinner. They worked together in the kitchen grilling chicken and making salad. She asked him to go to the garden and pick whatever vegetable he liked to add to their dinner. He chose the peas.

 

It had been a beautiful day and it had gone by so fast. William was really good company. Once again she harvested veggies from the garden to send home with him. He had asked her during their hike to call him Bill and he had started calling her Wonder Woman early on. He had said she was Wonder Woman because she was so self sufficient living in the mountains alone.

 

Winnie did not feel like Wonder Woman, but was proud of the life she and Gwen and Greg had built after the divorce. The fears of what divorce would do to them had proved fruitless. The years of coping during her marriage to Steve while trying to provide a happy, secure life for her children as they grew had taken a toll, but that was behind her now and she felt strong and safe.

 

She walked Bill to his car and he held her hand as he told her how much he had enjoyed the day. He continued to hold her hand as she wished him a safe trip home. She had to admit, being with Bill had stirred some feelings that had been dead for a long time. “What are you doing Winnie?” she thought, “What are you doing with this married man? What is this married man doing?”

 

Early the following morning as Win stepped out onto the porch, she stepped onto squashed and crushed vegetables. The porch was covered with - - - - - probably the entire yield from her garden. She rushed to the east side of the house to see her garden hacked and trampled - - - utterly destroyed. “Who would do such a thing? Why? Where is Ginger? Why hadn’t she barked?” The deer immediately popped into her head and she was suddenly afraid. “Who is doing these mean, frightful things?”

 

“Ginger” Win began calling. “Ginger.” “Where could she be? Had someone taken her?” With the two pups, Win walked her property calling Ginger, searching most of the day to no avail. “Why hadn’t the pups barked last night?” When Bill called mid morning he was aghast when she told him what had happened. He could tell she was frightened and said she should be. “I will be away for three or four days. Why don’t you stay with the Caudle’s until I get back?”

 

Winnie didn’t want to leave with Ginger still missing and stayed home. The following morning, Ginger was at the front door wagging her entire rear end and smiling like a Cheshire cat. She was obviously very glad to see Win. “Where had she been? Why hadn’t she and the pups barked the night before last?” Winnie wondered. She invited Ginger into the house and as she looked up to close the door she saw the truck. Steve’s truck was parked under the trees out by the road leading to the valley. As she stood in the doorway, he slowly backed up, turned around and headed down the mountain.

 

Winnie invited all three dogs into the house and just sat on the couch in her living room with the pups beside her. Ginger lay at her feet. She could make no sense of the last few days. Her life had been so beautiful and serene. What was happening?

 

With no lovely garden to spend her early morning in she was rather at loose ends. She could not bring herself to walk any of the many trails she loved. In all honesty she was really unnerved. James had given her a 22 rifle when she had found the deer and had shown her how to use it. She was glad to have it.                                                                             

 

It was a long week and she was very glad to hear Bill’s voice when he called Saturday morning. He asked if he could see her and she suggested she drive into town and meet Lee and him for lunch. It would be good to get away from the house for a while. She arrived at the restaurant a little early, chose a table and ordered coffee. When he arrived he was alone.

 

Bill mentioned during lunch that his wife did not go out much that she had been ill most of their married life, in and out of hospitals.

 

“Oh Bill, I am so sorry, please tell her to call on me for anything I can help with.”

 

Bill and Win saw a lot of one another over the next few weeks. She was grateful for the companionship, glad to have someone to hike with and they always found something to talk about. Each time they met, there was always some excuse why Lee had not come with him. Win eventually stopped asking. A Sunday hike up into the mountains across the valley from her place was especially fun. Bill had packed the lunch of wine and fruit and cheese. He had to catch a flight the next morning and would be away for about a week.

 

Win was surprised how much she missed Bill and knowing full well that she was dancing on a slippery slope she let him know that when he called each night. The night he arrived home he called her to make sure everything was OK. “No new surprises?” he asked. He had a surprise. His trip had been to admit Lee to the state hospital. He said “It’s a long story. Lee and I have not lived as man and wife for many years Win, but admitting her has been hell. May I come up?” By the end of the phone call he had not only asked if he could come up but had asked if he could stay for a few days. She did not hesitate, she said yes.

 

When Bill arrived, he got out of his car and walked swiftly to the porch where she stood waiting for him. He stepped up, wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her close. His kiss was long and searching. She responded and pressed closer against him as he wrapped her in his arms. His breath quickened and she took his hand and led him to her bed. 

 

The following morning over coffee, Winnie asked about Lee. “She is Schizophrenic. She has been in and out of hospitals for most of the twenty years we have been married.” Win could see the suffering in his eyes.

 

“I am so sorry for the both of you,” she said.

 

                                                                                                ~

 

It was a hard decision but Winnie finally allowed Ginger to stay outside again at night. Ginger did not like being in the house and having three big dogs inside had its drawbacks. She also called Cassidy and told him he could come for Bonnie. In reality, Ginger’s pups were much too big and too old to be called pups anymore. Cassidy was pulling into the driveway almost before she could end the call. “How many dogs do you have now Cassidy? Is this OK with your parents?” she asked.

 

“Yeah, they know and it’s OK. I’ll even take Bud if you let me.”

 

“Crazy boy, go, take your dog and go.”

 

Bud watched, puzzled, as Cassidy loaded Bonnie into the truck, seeming to wonder why he wasn’t going too.

 

Winnie and Bill spent the next two days together talking, cooking, eating, walking in the woods and making love. When Bill got one of his calls they did not part easily. He thought he would be back by the weekend.  He said “Please be careful and leave here if anything else strange happens.”

 

She had felt so safe and happy with Bill there she had hardly thought of the vandalism. She had to admit to some anxiety as he left and to add to the unease, Bud wanted to stay out with Ginger. With Bonnie gone he had seemed woefully lonely.

 

Next morning, Win picked up the rifle along with her coffee cup and stepped out her front door. It had been a quiet night and she felt more relaxed, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have the gun with her. She took her coffee onto the porch in the wonderful morning air. The first thing she saw was Ginger lying beside Bud stretched out on the ground.  Ginger tried to rise to greet her and fell back down. She stood again and wobbled toward Win. As Winnie walked toward them she could see the dark stain under Bud’s head. His throat was slit. She screamed as she threw the cup and rifle aside and sank to the ground. Head in hands she screamed over and over. Anger and sorrow tore at her until her head ached and she sobbed and sobbed. Poor Ginger cowed beside her trembling. Obviously Ginger had been drugged. Win had no idea how long she sat there on the ground holding Ginger close to her but she finally rose to get Ginger some water and something to eat. Maybe getting something into her stomach would help dilute the effects of whatever drug she had ingested. Once again the Caudles came to her rescue. James and Cassidy buried Bud and walked the property. They thought maybe they would find something to give them a clue about who was doing this.

 

                                                                                          ~

That night, as Win lay in Rita’s spare bedroom, the Caudles had insisted, would not take no for an answer, her mind darted here and there. “Could Steve be this furious at her for refusing to go with him? Surely she knew him better than that? Was he still in The Village? Could Julia Nelson’s jealousy possibly drive her to be that evil?

 

After a sleepless night, she could not eat any of the good breakfast Rita had prepared. She was a basket case and just needed to get herself and Ginger home, lock herself in her house and try to regain her composure, get her mind to calm. She must get hold of her emotions and decide what to do.

 

Winnie’s cell phone rang all day but she simply could not talk to anyone. She knew her children would worry when she didn’t answer. She knew Bill would worry, but she just could not talk to anyone until she could calm herself a little. The next day, she checked her messages. There had been no calls from Bill. “That’s strange,” she thought. When he did finally call late in the day he made no reply when she told him of Bud’s death. He was very agitated; he just said that he had an emergency that he must take care of. He asked if she would be available later in the evening that he needed to talk to her and hung up. She felt abandoned, alone and afraid.

 

Ginger made no move to go outside. She stayed as close to Win as possible. The two of them spent the day on the couch under blankets. A cold front had moved in during the night and a cold wind blew all day with low clouds scudding across the sky. Win tried to make sense of the fact that her ideal, wonderful, peaceful life had turned into a nightmare. She turned on the TV for distraction. She brushed Ginger and did a little house cleaning. Nothing worked, the tears poured and the ache in her chest grew.

 

Bill never came. Finally about midnight she fell asleep on the couch with Ginger to be awakened by the rumble of Ginger’s growl. Win opened her eyes. Someone was standing over her. She could make out a white blouse or shirt but the head was hidden in the dark. She began to tremble and shouted “Who are you? What do you want?” As she started to rise Ginger began to bark and jumped off the couch with her fur standing on end.  A woman’s voice spoke to the dog “It’s OK. It’s OK.” It was Lee, tall, thin, pale Lee. She turned back to Win who was sitting on the couch. “Be afraid Winnie. Be afraid. Stay away from Bill.” She turned and walked quickly out the door and Winnie jumped up and ran out onto the porch in time to see Lee disappear into the woods. Win stood there trembling.  “What in the world? I thought Lee was in the hospital,” she thought. “Was that a warning or a threat? Why is Lee wandering in the woods in the middle of the night?” Has it been Lee doing these terrible things?” She called Bill, he did not answer. She called the local sheriff’s office. They said they would send a car but it was daylight before they got there. The two young men in uniform were questioning her when they got a call. “Ma’am, we have to go, that was Sheriff Minsky.”

 

~

The following morning dawned with a crisp cool breeze. The sunrise was hidden behind a bank of clouds. “How strange that we still say the sun rises or goes down when we know how the solar system works,” she thought in a daze,“ but who is going to say ‘We’re turning, we’re turning, there it is,’ when the sun peeks over the horizon.” She had always loved fall. The beautiful colors and the cool air had always inspired her to walk in the forest with the dogs. But today she was hardly aware of the cool breeze, what time of year it was or even what day it was. She had not heard from Bill. “Why was Lee wandering in the woods in the middle of the night? What should she do?”

 

That afternoon the sheriff and one of his deputies turned into her driveway. They greeted her as she stepped out onto the porch. Sheriff Mensky said “Ms. Winnie could we ask you a few questions?”

 

“Of course, is this about my intruder?”

 

 “Your intruder, Lee Kirk, is dead.”

 

Win’s knees gave way and she sat down hard on one of the chairs on the front porch. “What happened?”

 

 As the deputy began walking the property the sheriff sat down across from Winnie on the porch.

“Ms. Winnie tell me how well you’ve known the Kirks?”

  

She recounted how she had met them but offered no further information.

 

“I hate tu ask but can we look through thu house?” He signaled his deputy and the two men began to examine the porch carefully.  As she opened the storm door for them to enter the house she asked again what had happened to Lee. While they walked through the house she asked what they were looking for. “Do you suspect foul play in Lee’s death?”

 

“We don’t really know yet.”

 

“Am I a suspect in Lee’s death?”

 

“We’re just lookin at everthin right now Ms. Win.”

 

“And Bill, does he know what happened?”

 

“We have not been able to locate’im or get’n touch with’im.”

 

Once they had gone, Winnie called her divorce attorney and got a referral to a local defense attorney. She was surprised how calm she was. She was no longer afraid or unsure. She was angry. Angry that Bill had not contacted her, angry that she had made such a mess of her life by allowing herself to become enmeshed in this tragedy. Or was she the cause of this tragedy, this sad tragedy? Were these things her fault? What was she thinking becoming involved with a married man? Well that was the whole problem, she hadn’t been thinking. Oh, her head ached from going over the past few weeks again and again.

 

Eventually Win was asked to come in and talk to the sheriff. She, accompanied by her attorney who had driven up from Denver, answered questions about how well she knew Bill Kirk. She said they were close friends and loved to hike and did so without his wife because his wife did not hike. When Sheriff Mensky asked her if the wife knew they were spending time together she truthfully said she did not know, she had assumed that she did. Sherriff Mensky said, “Ms. Kirk died from a bullet wound in the head.”

 

A vivid picture formed in Winnie’s head. The horror of it made her feel weak.

 

The sheriff could see Winnie’s distress and said, “I’m sorry Ms. Win, this is a terrible thing.”

 

Winnie’s attorney walked her to her car. She was shaken but assured him she was capable of driving herself home. She drove home trying to make sense of Lee’s death, of Bill’s disappearance. As she neared her driveway she, once again, saw Steve’s truck parked under the trees just off the road. She drove up to the truck so fast she rammed his bumper and slammed on the brakes. Jumping quickly out of the car she was at his window before he could register the hit. “What are you doing here?” she screamed at him through the closed glass.

 

Surprised, Steve started the truck, jammed it into gear, spun the tires and sped up the road. Winnie had jumped back when he started the truck but barley got out of the way of the gravel he threw up as he raced away.

 

                                                                                                ~

The authorities could not prove conclusively that Lee’s death was a suicide, but there was no forced entry and nothing was disturbed or missing in the condo to point to robbery. The fact that Bill had literally disappeared, had never gotten in touch with the authorities put him under great suspicion. The investigation to find Bill had gone nowhere. The small town authorities did not have the tools, manpower or experience needed and the inquiry just withered. All kinds of rumors circulated through the community. Anna and Ken Watson were curious, asking Win questions she did not know the answers to and the Caudles, of course, were there for her.  

   

Winter blew in about a month after Lee’s death. On a cold and snowy morning, thoughts surfaced of Bill’s arms around her, the tender kisses and the fun they had.  But then she would remember that he had not stayed in touch as this tragedy unfolded and the tears flowed. She had never been lonely before Bill but now the house seemed empty and Ginger’s companionship was not enough. As she poured a second cup of coffee, her cell phone rang. It was Bill. Anger flooded through her. She did not answer.

 

                                                                                                ~

Winnie missed her children. Greg had been at school in Montana for four years now. He and Gwen had always come home for holidays and summer vacation, but now they had jobs and came home less. Greg was working last summer and Gwen had an excellent full time job that she had started even before graduation so Winnie had flown up and spent almost a week with them in the spring. She spoke to each of them often, but she had told them little about Bill and only hints of the events at the house. She decided she needed to give them a few more details and tell them about the suicide of Bill’s wife. Gwen read a little more into her mother’s phone call than her brother did and asked a few pointed questions, but neither worried about their mother. They were involved in their own lives and saw her as strong and invincible.

 

                                                                                                ~

Win began to wake and realized how cold she was. The room was freezing. It was barely daylight when she jumped up and threw on a flannel robe and slippers and walked briskly to the closet where the furnace lived. Dead. Totally cold. She scrunched down close to the floor to read the directions and then with matches in hand tried to relight the pilot. Nothing. She knew the Caudles were early risers but didn’t want to call too early so she made coffee and dressed. She never had gotten James’ cell phone number so she called Rita and asked if James might tell her what to do next to get the furnace working. Rita said he had gone out to feed. “Why don’t you come down here where it’s warm? He won’t be back in for a while.”

 

Winnie bundled up and she and Ginger drove to the Caudles. She would ask James to look at her furnace today and see if it was something he could fix. If not, she had to call someone from Denver, an hour away. When she arrived, Rita was in the warm kitchen adding vegetables to a pot on the stove. It was a big room with a long dining table that sat across the room from the pot bellied wood stove and antique cook stove. It was a challenge to keep the big old sprawling ranch house warm in the winter. A quick “Good morning.” between the two women was followed by a hot cup of coffee placed into Win’s hands and “Will eggs and a biscuit be OK for breakfast?” Rita asked. She had a cup of coffee while Winnie ate. She had eaten with James before he had gone out to take hay to the cattle. When Winnie had finished her breakfast and was washing the dishes at the sink, Rita said “Please make yourself at home Win. I must feed the chickens but will be back in quickly.”

 

“I’ll go with you.” Win said as she dried her hands.

 

The two women stepped out the back door this cold twenty degree morning into two feet of snow. Their warm breath puffed out before them. “Do you want to gather the eggs while I get the feed Win?”

The hens began to hum and chortle and Win gingerly reached under the sitting hens for eggs hoping they would not peck her.

 

It was welcoming warm as Win and Rita came back in brushing snow off their pants and shedding their boots at the back door. Winnie remarked “Gosh this house seems so empty with all of the kids in school.”

 

“Cassidy drives himself and Ricky down and back. I think Warren may be moving home,” Rita said turning to Winnie with a sly smile and raised eyebrow.

 

“Really? Has he completed his masters?

 

He still has the thesis to complete. I think a breakup with the girlfriend might be driving the change.”

 

“Well that’s too bad, but I know you two would love to have him home.”

 

Rita moved to the stove to check her soup and said, “Win, I just got the seed catalog. Want to look at it?” The two of them sat down at the table and poured over the choices in the catalog and filled out their order forms. Amazing how excited those two women could get over seeds, they both loved to garden.

 

When James came in out of the cold, he and Win drove up to her house. He had her furnace running in no time. How lucky she was to have the Caudles as her neighbors. What would she have done without them this past summer? The memories, the sadness and the fear of this last summer flooded through her instantly. She had to work hard to keep those memories at bay and stay positive and optimistic. With the furnace running again Win began to plan her spring garden and put her starter trays in the living room to be ready for seeds when they came.

 

Rita called a few days later to invite Win to dinner. Warren was home. Win said she would love to come and would bring her famous scalloped potatoes. The Watsons were there, they had brought dessert. Rita had brought up veggies and peaches she had canned last year and cooked a smoked ham so the six of them enjoyed the good food, good wine and good conversation. Inevitably the conversation came around to Bill and Lee, but no clear ideas of what might have really happened came forth.

 

Winnie had a chance during the evening to visit with Warren for a while. He was solid like his dad but a larger version. He towered over his little red headed mother. It was obvious he was as glad to see her as she was to see him. He jumped up to help her anytime she moved to the kitchen and he gave her a big bear hug if she came near. He and his dad were obviously close and of course Cassidy and Ricky could not get enough of their big brother. He was their hero.

                         

~

Two days later, Ginger helped Win by lying right under her feet as she loaded the dishwasher after dinner. As Win came out of the kitchen talking to Ginger and rubbing cream into her hands, she looked up. Bill was standing in front of the closed front door. Ginger began to growl and Bill held up his hand saying “Hold on Win, hold on. Just give me a minute.”

 

“What are you doing here? -  Why are you in my house? You just appear out of nowhere and walk into my house? –I”

 

Bill interrupted her, “Please give me a chance Win. There is so much you don’t know.”

 

“I know you disappeared without a trace.”

 

“I was afraid I would be arrested. I called you, I tried to reach you and you never answered. I was suffering too Win. My wife was dead. I know, I had been unfaithful but I loved my wife. I met you and the heartache over my wife’s illness just faded away when I was with you.”

 

His tall presence, the sound of his voice, the tender memories of being in his arms - - -

 

She could feel the warmth of his body as he approached her. He smelled of the outdoors, fresh air.

 

Ginger had stopped growling but had not moved toward Bill to be petted. Bill moved closer and stooped down putting the top of his hand to Ginger’s nose then rubbed her head and she began to wag her tail. Bill stood up and put a hand on Winnie’s shoulder. Win had stopped shaking. She remembered the touch of his hands and it seemed so familiar to have him there. She remembered the kind, thoughtful, loving Bill she had known, but she moved away from his touch and motioned to a chair. He took his coat off and sat down. Win sat down on the edge of the couch. Bill said that when he called exclaiming that he had an emergency he had just been notified that Lee had walked out of the hospital and he had no idea where she was and knew he had to find her. “I was desperate to find her to keep her from you, to keep her from harming you. I didn’t show later that night as I had told you I would because I was looking for her. It was late before I realized it and didn’t want to call and wake you.”

 

Win thought that strange since one would think he would have called several times during that period to make sure she was OK and to make sure Lee wasn’t there. She did not tell Bill that Lee had been there that very night. Her mind began to race, “Why had he disappeared after that instead of working with the authorities? Was Lee really ill? Had she even been in the hospital? Had the sheriff checked all of that out or had he simply gone on the stories the neighbors had given him? I guess Lee could have lured that deer to my porch?” She rose and picked up Bill’s coat. “You’d better go.” she said. He did not protest, he put on his coat and walked to the door. He turned and said “I want to see you Win.” and walked out. She stood at the door and watched him walk to his car parked out close to the road. After he disappeared, she fell apart. She didn’t know what she felt, what to think, but during a sleepless night she knew what she was going to do.

 

Winnie was waiting for Sheriff Mensky when he got to his office the next morning. She launched right into her quest for answers. “Sheriff Mensky, Bill came to my place last night. Has he contacted you?”

 

“No Ma’am, I have not heard from’im.”

 

“Have you been able to get any information on his and Lee’s background?”

 

“Yes Ma’am, some. William Kirk had a permit for the gun Lee used and I contacted the local police in Florida and was told there had been multiple complaints from neighbors about loud all night fights. The Kirk’s home finally burned down and Bill was charged with arson and I think he served some time.”

 

“Oh my god. Bill says his wife has been in and out of hospitals all their married life; is there any way you can check on that?”

 

“I’ll do that. Did he mention any hospitals?”

 

“No, I don’t even know the name of the hospital she was supposedly admitted to recently.”

 

“You know Ms. Win, when I sent my deputies to your place after you said Ms. Kirk had come to you in the night, I wasn’t sure you hadn’t had a bad dream, but while they were there I got a call from the Kirk’s neighbor concerned that she had heard a noise that sounded just like a gunshot coming from their condo. Well I rushed right over there but couldn’t get anyone to come to the door so I broke in and found Ms. Kirk in the bathroom all crumpled to the floor.”

 

“That’s when you called your deputies at my house?”

 

“Yes Ma’am, I found her facing the sink with her right side towards the door so I could see the gun immediately in her right hand. She had a hole in her right temple.”

 

“This is so ghastly.” Winnie said as she put her hands to her face. “I don’t know what to think. Will you be doing any further investigation?”

 

“Oh yes Ma’am, I’ll let you know if we find out anything.”

 

She had little hope that he would or even could find additional information. Should she go to the authorities in Denver? Would they assign detectives to a crime in The Village?

 

Because Bill was still in the area and was obviously going to try to stay in touch, Winnie called Rita and asked if she could come to dinner soon, she wanted to discuss her situation with them. “I’ll bring my sour cream chicken enchiladas with homemade green chili if you will say yes,” she said.

 

“Ooooo, you know how I love your enchiladas,” Rita said, “I’ll open some of my homemade salsa.  Shall we say tomorrow night?”

 

After dinner Cassidy and Ricky went out into the cold to check on Cassidy’s colt. Warren sat in while they talked about Lee’s death. Warren of course knew very little about previous events, but was interested in what everyone had to say and asked questions. Rita said, “The last time I went into town Anna told me that Bill’s condo is up for sale.”

 

“Do you think he is leaving the area?” Winnie wondered.

 

James, ordinarily a quiet man, expressed his opinion. “Lee’s history shows that she was mentally ill and that she had done some violent things. I think Bill is a good man caught in a bad situation. He fell in love with you Win. I think his guilt about being unfaithful, feeling it probably was the thing that drove his wife to suicide, is the reason for his disappearing, withdrawing.”

 

His words were comforting to Winnie. She wanted to believe in the thoughtful, kind man she had fallen in love with.

                                                                  

~

Ginger hadn’t seemed to be her energetic self the last few days so Winnie drove in to The Village to take her to the vet. He said she was in good shape and pregnant.

 

“Pregnant?” Winnie gasped, “How on earth can she be pregnant? She has been living in the house, never out from under my feet since Bud’s death.”

 

Because of her age, the vet told Winnie to watch Ginger closely and to call him if she had any problems.

 

As they left the vet’s office Bill was sitting in his car at the curb. As he unfolded his tall body out of the car and walked towards her, her heart skipped a beat at the sight of his handsome face and strong physique.  “I was on my way to your place when I saw your car parked here and thought I would wait for you. Is Ginger OK?”

 

“She’s in great shape but pregnant,” she said.

 

“Win, when can I see you? There is so much I want to tell you. I want you to know why I stayed away so long, why I haven’t been in touch. ”

 

“Perhaps I could meet you for lunch one day.”

 

“I have an apartment in Denver. There is a nice restaurant close by. You know if we meet here gossip will roar around The Village. Would you be willing to drive into Denver, say tomorrow?”

 

“What have I done?” Winnie repeatedly thought while driving home with pregnant Ginger. She could not believe she had agreed to meet Bill. She had so many questions. She had appreciated James’ observations. It was just that his disappearance and strange behavior after Lee’s death made Winnie uneasy.

 

When Winnie arrived for lunch the next day Bill was already seated at a table and stood to greet her. He looked tired, there were dark circles under his eyes. He took her coat, put it on one chair and held her chair for her to be seated. He sat down and handed her a single rose. He thanked her for coming and told her how lovely she looked. He asked about Ginger. “Who do you think the proud papa is?” he asked.

 

“It could only be one of Cassidy’s hounds.” Win said. “I don’t know of any other time or place she could have been exposed so to speak.”

 

Bill leaned toward her and launched into explanations immediately, repeating that he had stayed away because of fear of arrest. “Win, I loved my wife. We were together twenty years and I grieved for most of those years over her illness. When I met you, I could rise above that constant grief and worry. My feelings at this point are relief, great sadness for the tragedy of her life but relief from her suffering and mine.”

 

Winnie could see the suffering in his eyes. She put her hand over his and said, “I’m so sorry Bill for what the two of you have gone through.”

 

Bill changed the subject and asked about her children. They talked about his job, his travels and his apartment in Denver. She told him about her starter beds and plans for her garden the coming spring. They talked about everything but Lee until Bill walked Winnie to her car.

 

“I love you Winnie. I want to put this tragedy behind me. Please give Us some thought.”

 

Bill called every day after that to wish her a good day. He let her know when he would be away and called her each night while away. He called her when he got home and wanted to hear about Ginger and her cat Beatle and what she had been doing with herself. She was loath to admit how eagerly she waited for his calls, how her life had brightened with Bill back in her life. After a couple of weeks he asked if she would like to go skiing and she said yes. They drove directly to the slopes and skied hard all day. Bill had chosen one of the cabins at the resort rather than stay in the lodge so it was easy to unload their luggage and gear. Cold and tired they unpacked and Win took the first shower. The hot shower warmed her and as she stepped out Bill wrapped her warm wet body in his arms. It was wonderful to be in his arms again. He carried her to the bed and his soft kisses grew more passionate as the night closed in around them. Later, the full moon rose flooding their room with light. They never made it to dinner.

 

They skied a lot that winter. Bill gave Winnie a beautiful silk robe for Christmas, but she did not invite him to join Christmas celebrations when Greg and Gwen came to spend the holidays with her. The three musketeers, Gwen, Greg and Warren spent time together over the holidays. Gwen and Greg had become part of the Caudle family right away after their move onto the mountain. Being the same age, Warren and Gwen had been best friends during their junior and senior years of high school. The three of them had done everything together until Warren and Gwen went away to college.

 

As winter passed, Bill and Winnie began to take long walks occasionally even though many of the trails were still covered in hard packed snow and they could slip easily on the icy spots. They met at the restaurant in Denver for lunch often when he was not traveling.

 

Rita called, Warren had decided to stay for a while. He had been nose to the grindstone working hard for the past two years and said he needed a break. Before they hung up, Rita, who did not share her husband’s opinion of Bill, urged Win to be careful. “Call us if he should bother you.” Rita had no idea that Win not only was seeing Bill but was falling in love with him all over again.

 

Soon after, Win had invited Bill to dinner one night. He had gotten a haircut and looked so handsome. He brought flowers and wine, a treat for Ginger and a fabulous flan he had picked up at the Mexican restaurant in town. He knew it was one of Win’s favorite desserts. As Winnie prepared dinner he began to talk about Lee. “It was so sad that none of us could keep her on medication to control her illness.

 

“Bill, do you think Lee was responsible for the deer, my garden?”

 

“Absolutely, Win. She simply drove up here and parked down by the road. You have no idea how devious, how determined she could be.”

 

“You have been through a lot standing by her through these troubled years.”

 

“I loved her deeply but the wear and tear of her illness tore at me, wore me down and then I met you. I was immediately attracted and as I got to know you I fell head over heels in love with you Win. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I hope you will think about that.”

 

“Oh my god Bill, I am still dealing with the heartache and astonishment of the past few months. I --- I have not thought about a life together.”

 

“Of course, we are both still dealing with these last few months. There is no rush to decide anything about the future, as long as we can spend time together, grow close again, that’s all I ask.”

 

Bill opened the wine. Win had made a special dinner and wanted to add some of Rita’s peaches to the table but couldn’t get the jar open. She handed it to Bill and he teased her. “You and Lee, you lefties just can’t manage these righty tighty, loosey lefty jars.” Win froze, but just for an instant. Had he noticed? Lee was left handed? She tried to be nonchalant and natural as she took the jar from him and poured the contents into a bowl. She was trembling. Had he noticed? They sat down to dinner and she managed to eat a little of everything. Conversation lagged. Was he quieter than usual or was it her imagination? Surly the sheriff could not be so incompetent as to have missed that Lee was left handed, but the “suicide” gun had been in the right hand. Bill helped with the dishes then turned on the TV. Win said she thought she would give Rita a call “I haven’t talked to her in several days.”

 

 Bill stood and said firmly “That’s not a good idea Win. Come watch TV, we’ll find a movie.”

 

“I’ll do that. You find the movie while I make the call and I will join you.”

 

“No call Win. I have to think.”

 

“Think?”

 

“I don’t plan to go to prison Win.”

 

“What on earth are you talking about?”

 

“Well it seems you are a little more astute than the sheriff.”

 

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

 

 “Sit down Win. I had such joy thinking of our future, thinking about our life together.” Bill sat down on the couch and held his head in his hands. Win began to move slowly towards the front door but Bill looked up and she froze. The sadness in his eyes, the weariness across his face was heartbreaking.

“I loved her once. It was so hard. But I had to end it. There was no escape from the self-mutilations, the jealously, the rants. I did it for us Win.” He put his head back into his hands and Winnie moved quickly to the door, opened it and ran out.

 

Winnie sprinted across the wide front porch and leaped into the dark night. She ran straight across the open space toward the trees to hide. She planned to head to the Caudles but heard Bill right behind her, shouting at her and she just ran, full out. She didn’t know how close he was, she just ran as fast as she could. She stumbled over limbs as bushes tore at her arms and her dress. She couldn’t hear Bill anymore but suddenly he grabbed her arm and she screamed.

 

Winnie tore loose, his nails scraping along her skin bringing blood. She ran as fast as she could through the underbrush, ducking under low tree branches. She ran until she thought her chest would explode. She ducked under and behind a thicket of low branches and held her breath. She could not see Bill anywhere. She stayed very still except to look behind her for a second, where is he? Finally she could see him about twenty feet away walking, looking right and left. She quietly began to creep away from him then began to run again towards the road in the valley. She hit a trail and followed it for a while. She could run faster on the open trail. She splashed through mud and water then hit a patch of ice and went sprawling face first. She got up, running again until the trail bent to the east and as she charged into the underbrush again towards the road she saw Bill through the darkness to her right just as he saw her. She just ran with everything in her, tearing through the trees. Something warm was running down her face from the fall on the ice and something ripped at her knee as she ran. She could hear Bill close behind her as she burst out onto the road in that black night. She wondered how close she could get to the village before Bill caught her. She had no hope of being able to outdistance him. She felt Bill’s hand on her arm as headlights raced towards them. She began to wave frantically and the car came to a stop right in front of her. She collapsed to the pavement and Warren’s voice came out of the darkness behind those blinding headlights. “Winnie, is that you? Winnie, what the heck? Cassidy, help me get her into the car.” They helped her into the back seat. “Winnie, who was that with you?” They all turned to see Bill step back into the trees, away from the light.

 

~

Warren had gone with her the next morning to the sheriff’s office. It was a draw to see who was more embarrassed, Winnie for involving herself with Bill not only once but twice or the sheriff for the fact that he had not discovered that Lee was left handed. They took Winnie’s and Warren’s account of last night and took pictures of Winnie’s wounds. The Sheriff said they would be contacting the police department in Denver for assistance in pursuing this case and working with them to find Bill.

 

Warren came up to stay with Winnie each night. Rita and James insisted she move in with them for a while but she felt it was just too much of an imposition. Warren had dinner with his family each evening  then spent the night at her place. He would sneak out of the spare bedroom early each morning to drive down to help his dad with farm chores.

 

Winnie called Gwen and Greg and gave them the terrible details of what she had done. She felt responsible for everything that had happened. Late Friday night the two of them drove into Winnie’s driveway.

 

Winnie was so surprised and overjoyed to see her children she could not hold back the tears. She had been extremely stoic and contained since her run through the woods, but the sobs wouldn’t stop as she embraced her son and daughter. Warren made coffee while Gwen sat with her mother on the couch. Gwen, like her mother had thick chestnut hair and big brown eyes, but was short and compact like her father. Greg continued to praise his mother for her bravery. He, unlike his father, was tall and slim and he too had his mother’s big brown eyes but with sun bleached blond, close cropped hair. Both repeated that she should not blame herself for what happened.

 

The four of them discussed what Winnie should do. All agreed she would not be safe here at her house. Greg wanted her to move to Montana.

 

“Mom, I’ll get a different apartment with two bedrooms he teased.  You can cook for me and be my housekeeper.”

 

“Yeah right,” Winnie said. “I did that ‘til you went to college. Been there, done that sweet boy.”

 

Gwen made no offer for her mom to move up and live with her and Winnie hated the thought of leaving the area, her friends, her mountains. Greg suggested a security system. Winnie joked that she would get two big black Dobermans and parade them around town to spread the word that her place was unapproachable. They talked in circles about making Winnie safe as the sky grew light outside. Warren finally left and three weary Gabel’s went to bed.

 

The weekend passed quickly. They had dinner with the Caudle’s one night and dinner in The Village another. Dinning on the patio of the best restaurant in the small town was a little cool but standing heaters scattered about made it pleasant. Gwen seemed preoccupied.

 

                                                                                                ~

Winnie did have a security system installed the Monday after her children left. Movement outside or at the windows or doors caused outside lights to illuminate the property and set off a ringing alarm. A few noisy false alarms were set off by deer and raccoons and Julia Nelson complained after each event, but Winnie felt safer. No news from the sheriff or the Denver police about Bill’s possible whereabouts. She began to look at property in other areas. Too many dark memories on her mountain.

 

Ginger had two little puppies. She was tired during her pregnancy and very tired after the birth but seemed to be doing well. She wandered away from the pups two or three times a day to check out the property and to eat and drink but stayed with her pups the rest of the time. She was a good mother. She was not happy when Winnie, after a week, went to the Caudle’s for dinner.

 

It was good to be with her friends and chat over one of Rita’s delicious dinners. They did not talk about Bill. They talked about world events and the latest events on the farm. Winnie asked the boys about school and sports and Ricky had to tell her about every new calf, colt and litter. Warren was excited about his new job in The Village.

 

“What will you be doing Warren?” Winnie asked.

 

“Drawing blue prints for Muster Engineering. That’s what I did for their main office for two years in Utah before I moved back here. I’ll work here with Pop most of the time and work three days a week for them. That’ll give me enough money to pay the rent on the apartment I rented down there today.”

 

“What?” Rita said. “You just forgot to mention that today when telling us about the job?”

 

“I need a place of my own mom. You don’t need another person to clean up after.”

 

Dinner over, Rita rose, gathered up dishes from the table, walked around, bent down and kissed her oldest son on the cheek. Warren and James left the table and went out to milk while she and Winnie did the dishes. Cassidy and Ricky had homework.

 

Rita and Winnie were doing dishes when Winnie’s phone rang. She excused herself because it was Gwen.  “Hi Honey, how are you?”

 

“Mom, I’m pregnant!” an almost hysterical Gwen gasped over the phone.

 

“Gwen, what are you saying? Pregnant?”

 

Rita, whirled around staring at Winnie, her hands dripping suds.

 

Gwen, a little calmer. “I just did the test Mom. I can’t believe it. Oh my god, I can’t believe it.”

 

“Gwen, I didn’t know you were even seeing someone.”

 

“Just a sudden attraction, a physical affair that started five or six months ago. I knew from the beginning he was not someone I would want to spend my life with. Oh Mom, I meant to end it, month after month I meant to end it and, Oh, what have I done? How has this happened? What am I going to do?”

 

“Honey, do you want me to come home?”

 

“I ---- I don’t know. Mom, could you come up? I hate to ask. You have just been through so much.

 

“I’ll leave in the morning. Are you going to work?”

 

“Work is where he is.” Long pause. “Don’t come yet. I’ll call you in the morning.”

 

“I love you. You know I will help you in any and every way I can.

 

“I know. Love you too. I’ll call early. I have a lot of thinking to do tonight. First thing I’m going to do is take that test again.”

 

Late summer, the realtor found Winnie a house. It was available because it was not in prime condition, but it was big enough for her and Gwen to have separate spaces. Gwen was coming home to have her baby.

 

                                                                                                ~

Rita and Winnie packed from early to late for a couple of days and had everything ready for the movers when they came with their huge van. It took most of a day to load everything. The following morning Winnie drove to the house alone to clean and meet with her realtor. She got there early and sat for a few minutes on the steps of the front porch. It was quiet. So many happy days here - - so many beautiful days here - - she was sad to leave. Those memories flooded over her. Not a sound came from the woods. Not a bird or the riffle of a breeze through the trees. Suddenly her skin felt prickly. She looked quickly into the woods to the left and right and rushed into the house to get her cleaning done. She locked the door behind her. Those sad, fearful memories were not ones she wanted to take with her.

 

Once the contracts had been signed and the pleasant lady left, assuring Winnie that she would keep her informed as she listed and started showing the house, Winnie took one last look back as she got into her jeep and said good-by. She wanted to get down the road to help Rita with dinner.

 

After dinner, James and Cassidy went out for final chores. Cassidy rushed right back in. “Oh my god! Come look.” They all rushed out to see flames leaping up above the tops of the trees between them and Winnie’s house. Huge tongues of orange and yellow shot into the black sky. They could hear the popping and snapping as sparks flew. James was on his cell phone giving directions to the volunteer fire chief. They all jumped into James’ truck, the boys in the back, and drove up the gravel road to see Winnie’s house totally engulfed in roaring flames. They stood speechless feeling the heat of the fire as they heard the far away wail of the fire truck.

 

Well after midnight, the firemen had all but a few glowing embers under control. There was nothing left of the house but it’s foundation. The fire chief walked toward them. “There was a big metal can, probably gasoline, at the back of the house and one inside,” he said. “I would bet that they sloshed gas all over the inside as well as the outside to make such a hot fire. It was blatantly arson. Whoever set that fire wanted everyone to know that he – she had burned that house down,” said the fire chief.

Winnie knew who set that fire. Would she never be free of this? “Will you be investigating to see if you can find out who set the fire?”

 

“No Ma’am, the sheriff will do that, he took the cans.”

 

The next day Winnie and Rita drove into town to see the sheriff. It seemed Sheriff Minsky had taken an early lunch and would be back in an hour so Win and Rita went to see their friend Anna Watson in her jewelry shop. When they got back to the sheriff’s office he had the five gallon burned cans sitting by his desk. “Good day Ms. Win, good to see you Ms. Rita. So very sorry for the loss of your house Ms. Win.”

 

Win thanked him and asked if there were any clues that might lead them to who might have done this terrible thing. “Not much Ma’am. We’ll take these cans to Denver to a few places where they coulda been bought. We’ll ask around to see if anyone mightuv seen somethin but the chances of findin somethin significant are slim.” He paused for a minute, “Ms. Win, Bill Kirk was never arrested and I know, - - - let’s see, that was what? - - how long ago? Could he still be a possibility?” Win knew it was a possibility, more likely a probability.

 

~

Winnie’s new house was old and big and rambling but she, Warren, Cassidy and Greg had painted the entire inside. Greg had driven down one weekend to help paint. He asked his mother a lot of questions about his sister while he was down. He was concerned. “Mom, she won’t tell me anything. Is she going to be all right? I will really miss having her close to me, but I feel it is best for her to come here to be with you.”

 

“Yes, she is going to be just fine honey.”

 

“What about her boyfriend?”

 

“She approached him and he wants no part of fatherhood. They had DNA testing done and drew up legal papers with an attorney. And as you know, since he is an executive at her office, she has given a month’s notice and will move here next month.”

 

“OK, I guess she had told me everything. I just want to be sure she is OK doing this.”

 

“Now we just have to get you back here. Are you still dating Holly, the girl I met when I drove up for your graduation? Is that serious? You two have been dating a long time now. Would she like to move to Colorado?”

 

“Whoa, Mom, hold on. We’re not talking marriage yet. Do you want me to come back next weekend to help paint the outside of the house?”

 

“No, I’ll hire that done, but you can come down anyway.” Winnie stood and threw one arm around her tall son’s waist squeezing him tight before he folded into his little car to drive back to Montana.

 

“OK, see you on moving day. Love ya mom.”   

 

Moving day arrived and she met the movers at her new big old house and spent the day directing them where to put her things. Greg was back down to help move things around and he and his mother spent the weekend unpacking. She thought her things made the place comfortable and attractive. Sunday afternoon, as Greg was preparing to leave, getting into his car, he turned and said, “Oh yeah Mom, I forgot to tell you. Months ago you told me dad had shown up here. Well he drove to my place from here.”

 

“What? Are you kidding?” She remembered his skulking around and leaving in a rush that last day she saw him near the house. “How did he even know where you lived? I told him you and Gwen were in Montana but gave him no addresses.”

 

“I don’t know but he was all friendly and asked how I was doing. He was there about fifteen minutes and asked me for money. He said he wanted to make me a partner in a business he was starting in Bozeman.”

 

“Is that why Steve hung around for days? Trying to get up courage to ask me for money?” Winnie thought. “Did you give him money”

 

“Nah, I felt bad for him, but I told him I didn’t have money to invest. Love ya Mom. Been great being here. Be safe. I worry about you.”

 

“Love you too. You be safe driving back. See you soon.”

 

Hugs again and Winnie watched him drive away and turned back to her new house.

 

The house was a couple of miles west of her lost mountain home. Insurance claims were still pending. The new place sat on ten acres of pine and spruce and sat far back from the road. A trail head with ample parking sat across the road from her, an entrance to a trail leading into deep forest.

 

After a week of getting her house in order, Win decided she and the dogs needed to explore the woods behind her house. One of Ginger’s pups, Lilly, was still with her, the one that looked like Ginger. The pup that had looked just like Cassidy’s hound had gone to Cassidy. As she, Ginger and Lilly stepped out of the big screened in porch on the back of the house, she saw the gas can. There was a five gallon gas can sitting beside the steps. She immediately began to scan the trees. Was Bill standing there watching her? She looked for a long time. There was no sound, no wind, just quiet and still. Nothing moved. She lifted the can, it was empty. Should she take the walk? She waited - - looking intently into the dark under the trees. No. She decided that she could not walk into those woods. She lifted the can and took it inside.

 

Win checked every window and door to make sure they were locked even though she knew that would not keep Bill out if he decided he wanted in. She called Sheriff Minsky.

 

                                                                                                ~

Gwen was four months pregnant when her mother picked her up at the airport in Denver in September. They enjoyed the fall colors on the hour long drive home. Gwen loved the new, big old house. She had two bedrooms and a bathroom for herself and her baby. Over the next few weeks she and her mother had wonderful trips to Denver to buy baby bed and high chair and clothes. They had her rooms looking beautiful within the month.

 

Bill was never far from Winnie’s mind. She presented an up-beat demeanor each day to Gwen and anyone around her, but in reality she found herself checking the dark woods surrounding her house often, peering into the shadows to see if he might be standing there. She had an alarm system installed and checked the locks on the doors and windows often. “Am I endangering Gwen having her here?” she wondered.

 

Rita was aware of the danger and had Winnie come up for early morning coffee often to urge her to be vigilant. She also asked Winnie to help her with chores some mornings to keep her busy, occupied, thinking it might keep her mind off Bill.

 

Gwen used her mother’s car to drive to The Village one morning for a doctor’s visit and came home to announce she had a job.

 

“A Job?”

 

“Yep! I am the new receptionist for Dr. Watson, DDS.”

 

“You’re kidding?”

 

“Nope. He has been without anyone for quite a while and was so eager for me to go to work he said, “Take six weeks when the baby comes, but can you start tomorrow?” I need to contribute Mom. I have savings for some of our expenses, but I need employment and insurance. I don’t expect you to support me.

 

Warren was around more and more after Gwen moved in with Winnie. He and Gwen began to go out to dinner together and off to Denver for a movie. As Gwen’s pregnancy progressed, he became totally involved and watched over her. 

 

Christmas was the best that year. Greg and Holly drove down for the party and Cassidy brought his girlfriend Shae. The Caudles had cut a huge spruce and James had it loaded with lights. The mantel was hung with stockings, and brightly colored packages filled the corner of the room under the tree. Rita’s long table, moved in from the kitchen, was set with china and shiny crystal and tiny candles burned, nestled among holly and pine branches along the center. She prepared roast turkey with all the trimmings. The Watson’s brought beautiful pies and Winnie and Gwen brought a huge salad and sweet potatoes baked with brown sugar. James served egg nog and good cheer. Outside in the quiet dark, snowflakes drifted into the glow of the porch light and silently blanketed the ranch in white.

 

Christmas morning found Winnie at home drinking hot coffee over croissants with butter and jam with Gwen, Greg and Holly. They exchanged gifts and watched Christmas specials on TV in their jammies. Warren came over around noon, hung out and stayed for dinner.

 

The roads were clear Monday morning when Greg and Holly began their drive home and Gwen went to work. The house seemed so empty, but memories of the Holiday and having her family with her kept Winnie warm.   

 

Warren was back for dinner Monday night and left late after a competitive game of Mexican Dominos. His dad gave him the dominos for Christmas and the family had played past midnight. No one wanted to play Monday night because Warren always won so he asked Gwen if she and Winnie were up for a game. Winnie and Gwen were determined to beat Warren and played hard for hours, but never won a game. All three being very competitive the games got serious.

 

As Winnie and Gwen turned out lights and checked all the doors and windows, Winnie said, “I believe Warren is in love with you Gwen.”

 

“I know mom. I like him so much, and I enjoy being with him, but I don’t know ------, in love? I don’t know.”

 

                                                                                                ~

Madalyn Louise Gable was born on a cold, blustery February morning. The Gables and Caudles filled the tiny waiting room of the small hospital in The Village. They had all been there all night. Ricky was fast asleep on one of the couches. The weary crowd sent up cheers as the doctor came out to say mom and baby were doing fine.

 

Warren picked Gwen and Maddy up the next morning to take them home. He had asked, no pleaded with Winnie. “Please, Winnie. Let me pick them up and I’ll bring them right home to you.”

 

Warren carried that tiny baby girl into the house from the car as if carrying whipped cream. He hung around for a while but finally left for the ranch. Winnie and Gwen could not get enough of that tiny little person. They held and fed and nursed and washed her all day and into the night.

 

Gwen went back to her job when Maddy was six weeks old. She felt good about the middle age lady she had found to leave Maddy with three days a week. Maddy stayed with Winnie Mondays and Saturdays.   Gwen picked Maddy up one night and came home with news. “Mom, Anna Watson is pregnant. They are soooo excited.

 

“What great news. I had no idea they wanted children.”

 

“And Sheriff Minsky is retiring.”

 

“Really, is he moving away?”

 

“I don’t know. I just heard he is retiring.”

 

Gwen fed Maddy, bathed her and put her to bed while Winnie put dinner on the table. Over dinner they talked about Gwen’s day and then she mentioned her real news. “Mom, Warren is in California with the engineers to finish a job. Before he left he told me he no longer wants to be my buddy. He wants more. He asked me to think about that.”

 

“Well, what do you think?”

 

“I do miss him. I miss him a lot. What would you do if Maddy and I moved out. You would be here all alone.”

 

Fear immediately gripped Winnie’s stomach. With Gwen and Maddy there she could forget the worry of Bill turning back up. She was fearful of living alone. “I must not let Gwen see this reaction. I must not hold her here. She has a life to live,” she thought.

 

“Honey, I lived alone for eight years before you came. I have loved, loved, loved having you here, but I do fine living alone. Do not let that influence your plans for the future. Do you love Warren?”

 

“I do love Warren Mom. There is not that wild passionate rush that got me in trouble, well, not trouble, that got me my precious Maddy, but I would not want to go forward without Warren and to think he might become involved with someone else if we broke up ------ I would not like that and he does love Maddy, and ---------

 

“You’re making a pretty good case there.”

 

Gwen picked Warren up at DIA the night he came home from California. When she pulled up to the curb where he was standing waiting for her she got out of the car, walked around, stepped up onto the curb and up to Warren. She pressed herself up against him, stood on her tiptoes, put her arms around him and kissed him hard and long. He dropped his bag and grabbed her around the waist, bent her back and kissed her back. Those around them began to applaud. Warren asked Gwen to marry him over dinner that night and she quickly said yes.

 

She, her mother and Rita began wedding plans for a June wedding. Winnie knew she needed to clear-cut trees around the house because of forest fire danger and the wedding was the perfect reason to get it done right away. James’ friends at the lumber yard took the downed trees and converted them to lumber. James took half and built benches and a couple of long tables. He and Cassidy built a trellis out back with the forest as a back drop and strung lights from house to trees. Warren was working more and more hours for the engineers and was unable to help much. Gwen, Winnie, Rita and Anna went to Denver for dress and decorations. Anna was well known and in great demand for her beautiful,  decorative cakes and was eager to make Gwen’s wedding cake.

 

Winnie and Gwen began a search for a band to play during the reception. They spent hours, but if they found one they could afford the audition tape was terrible. When they found one that was good and affordable they weren’t available. They happened to mention their frustration about the music to the minister at the local Methodist church as they talked to him about performing the ceremony. He said, “I have a group. We’re pretty good.”

 

Oh dear,” thought Winnie, “This is awkward.” She looked over at Gwen and Gwen’s look was “What do we say?”

 

“We will be glad to come out and play for you. You might decide to hire us,” preacher man said.

 

“Sure,” said Winnie. When would be convenient?”

 

“This afternoon?”

 

The musicians arrived, all six of them, with keyboard, two guitars, bass, drums and sax. They were fantastic. Great jazz, classical and any request flowed smoothly from their little group. Preacher man played the sax and he was good. Gwen was surprised and delighted.

 

Greg and Holly came for the wedding. Friends and co-workers from The Village came to the wedding and friends and co-workers from Montana came.

 

The wedding was beautiful. The weather was beautiful. The bride was beautiful and everyone danced ‘til one in the morning on the dance floor laid down after the benches were cleared away.

 

Warren had bought one of the new condos in The Village and moved his little family in. Winnie had Maddy for five days as he and Gwen honeymooned at The Broadmore in Colorado Springs.

 

Soon, Winnie was rattling around in her big old house alone, but Gwen and Warren brought Maddy to see gramma often. They were thoughtfully aware she needed to ween herself away slowly from having them there full time. Winnie loved to cook and one August night the four of them had a lovely dinner together.  Maddy was fast asleep when they hugged Winnie good night and left. As Winnie walked back into the house she locked the front door and moved toward the kitchen, turning out lights as she went. As she approached the back door to close and lock it, she saw a figure outside the screen door off the screened in porch. The dogs were barking wildly. She stepped out onto the porch, “Is that you Warren? Did you forget something?”

 

It was Bill. Winnie froze, fear flooded her body, but just as quickly anger rushed through her, her mind was suddenly clear and she whirled around toward the kitchen. She knew her twenty-two was leaning between the kitchen counter and the back door. As she turned, Bill opened the screen door and stepped inside speaking to her, “Winnie, don’t be afraid, I would never hurt you. I want to be with you. Don’t be afraid Winnie. Stop, I would never hurt you Winnie. I just want to be with you.”

 

Suddenly, Warren was beside her with the twenty-two raised and aimed at Bill. Bill continued to move forward. Warren fired. Bill staggered back. He turned and fled down the steps and around the house. Warren ran after him. Warren paused at the corner of the house, raised the rifle and fired again. He ran down the driveway following Bill, but by the time Warren got to the road, Bill was backing his car out of the trail head parking area across the street. He stopped, burned rubber and raced west away from town.

 

Winnie, running down the driveway, caught up with Warren as they watched Bill speed away. Shaking as violently as Warren, Winnie cried, “Where did you come from Warren? How did you know Bill was there?”

 

About that time Gwen ran up to them. “Are you all right?” she gasped looking repeatedly at both of them.

 

Warren put his arm across Gwen’s shoulders and pulled her close to him, the twenty two in his other hand. His face ashen, still shaken, he said “Winnie, as we were driving away we saw a man get out of a car at the trail head and walk up your driveway towards the house. I turned around as quickly as I could.”

 

Gwen interrupted and cried, “He parked us over to the side, jumped out and ran to the front door.”

 

Almost simultaneously Warren said, “It was locked. I used my key and walked through the house looking for you. Did you hear me calling?”

 

“No! - - -  No I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was hoping to get to my rifle before Bill got to me.”

 

“When I saw that man standing at that screen door I remembered where you kept the gun and by the time I had grabbed it he was coming in. I just shot. Oh my god. I just shot.”

 

All three stood staring after the car in disbelief.

 

“Oh my god, Maddy,” Warren cried and ran back to the car to drive it into the driveway as Gwen and Winnie went into the house to call the sheriff. The three of them, holding the sleeping Maddy, waited stiffly until one of the sheriff’s deputies arrived. It was one of the deputies that had come to Winnie’s house when Lee had come to her in the middle of the night.

 

“Ms. Winnie, was it that same guy?”

 

“Yes, same guy.”

 

“I’ll dust for fingerprints on the screen door and see what, if anything, I can find outside and across the street, but Sheriff Wayne will want to question you folks tomorrow.”

 

“Sheriff Wayne is the new sheriff?”

 

“Yes ma’am.”

 

Sheriff Wayne seemed competent next morning when he arrived early. He was courteous and took down their information. Warren and Gwen had stayed the night. The sheriff said there was a definite trail of blood from the back of the house, down the driveway, across the street and in the parking lot. He explained that he would contact the Denver Police Department since they had been involved before with this “Bill” person and that he and his deputies would drive west for a few miles. “I must insist that none of you leave the city until we have investigated this shooting further and I have had time to familiarize myself with the previous incident.”

 

Warren and Gwen left. Winnie was exhausted. Nightmares all night had a bleeding Bill banging on her doors or climbing in her windows, but she allowed herself to think this living nightmare might be over. “Could this finally be the end of this? Can I possibly think this might be over

 

Sheriff Wayne called Winnie that evening to say his deputies had found and confirmed ownership of the victim’s car. It had been abandoned, parked by the side of the road about ten miles west of Winnie’s house. “The driver’s seat is soaked with blood. I don’t know how anyone could survive that much blood loss.”

 

“But no Bill.” Winnie sadly stated rather than asked.

 

“No ma’am. We walked every inch of the woods within a mile radius of that car and found nothing. No blood and no body.”

 

“What now?” she flatly asked, discouraged beyond words. She sank into a chair, phone to her ear, knowing there was little anyone could do.

 

“Well we had already put out a bulletin and now that we have found the car we and Denver will update and see if he or his body surfaces somewhere.”

 

Days passed with no call from the sheriff.  Winnie sat with despair day after day uninterested in anything. Rita called repeatedly. “Come up this morning for coffee.” Winnie made excuses.

 

Rita called repeatedly. Winnie made more excuses or didn’t answer the phone.

 

Gwen called. Winnie cut the conversations short or did not answer. She asked if they could make other arrangements for Maddy for a while. She looked up one morning to see herself reflected in her mirror, disheveled, unwashed and wondering when she had last eaten. Someone was banging on her front door. By the time Winnie had pulled her robe close and run her fingers through her hair Rita had gone to the back and was banging on the back door.

 

“Get dressed,” Rita ordered when Winnie finally opened the door. Rita walked past Winnie to her bedroom, walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She went to the closet and began to pull out jeans. Winnie obediently showered and dressed as Rita cleaned up the kitchen.

 

They put the dogs into the car and drove to Rita’s, chatting about the weather and how well Rita’s hens were laying. When they arrived, Rita asked Winnie to peel potatoes and put them in water to be cooked later. “Winnie, would you be willing to clean out James’ grill? He failed to do that after he cooked the other night. You can put the ashes in that big barrel out by the barn.”

 

Winnie understood what her friend was doing for her and worked diligently all day on one chore after another. Gwen and Warren and Maddy came for dinner and before they left Gwen said, “Mom we would like to come for dinner tomorrow night. Could Maddy stay over? You are still going to take care of her two days a week, right?”

 

Rita drove Winnie home the next morning after chores, stopped in the driveway and said, “I’ll expect you for coffee tomorrow morning.”

 

“What a lucky lady I am,” she thought as she watched Rita drive away. “to have family and friends that care about me, love me.”

 

Winnie fed Ginger and Lilly. She opened all the doors and windows in the house and cleaned everything thoroughly. She and the dogs went for a long walk through the back woods. It was hot but she walked fast and for a long time. She remembered how proud of her self she had been when she had overcome fear and uncertainty and moved her children to Colorado after the divorce. She felt strong and sure when she built a good life for herself as her children grew into adults and moved away. She knew she must survive the guilt, the guilt she felt that she had brought all of this tragedy about by succumbing to the affair rather than using her head. “If my loved ones can forgive me, I must forgive myself. I can live my life about Bill or I can take back my life and be the best I can be going forward,” she told the dogs. They agreed, wagging their tails and running about.

 

Persistently she began to do the daily tasks of life. She took little Maddy two days a week and often drove up to help Rita with chores and summer passed into fall. Aspens exploded with color, their yellow splashed across the green mountains. Behind Winnie’s house sunshine lit the twinkling aspen leaves as if each was a tiny electric light. Red sumac danced through the pines and blue spruce. Winnie could once again enjoy the beauty of these mountains that she loved. Peace and relief began to move through Winnie.

 

James left to drive Cassidy to Utah State to get him settled and Rita and Winnie sat at the long kitchen table pouring over seed catalogs. Maddy sat happily in a little bouncy chair and something smelled delicious simmering on the stove.

 

“James will bring the tractor down when he gets back Winnie and get your garden area turned over for the winter to be ready for spring. He had hoped to get that done before he left, but, well, you know? things can get hectic around here.” Rita said.

 

“No problem. There’s plenty of time before first snow. Rita I want to have Christmas at my house this year. I’m hoping Greg will bring Holly down. Will you help me decorate? Maybe Warren and James will cut a big tree for me.”

 

“You know I’ll help. Cassidy will come home for Christmas and our granddaughter will be old enough to enjoy Santa.”

 

The two friends filled out their seed orders and put dinner on the table. Right after the rich stew and buttered cornbread dinner that Sunday evening everyone left early. Warren and Gwen had work Monday morning, Ricky had school and Winnie would be back up early to help Rita with morning chores. Winnie felt strong. Joy was returning as she looked forward to Christmas with those she loved.  

 

When Winnie got home, she made sure Ginger and Lilly had water, bid them good night, went in and locked the doors. The dogs stayed out at night. Too many enticing sounds and movements in the night to be confined indoors. Winnie had a double dog house for them close to the house, but they never used it in the summer and when temps went below thirty degrees in the winter she brought them into the house. Winnie turned out the lights and headed for bed. Her cell phone rang.

 

Startled, fearing family emergency to call so late she answered quickly. She had not noticed, it was just a phone number, no name.

 

“Winnie,” he said.

 

It was Bill.   

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