Ellen wakes one morning with nothing more than an inner sense that something just isn’t right. It doesn’t take long before this attractive divorced woman discovers that her beloved brother Bud is missing—and something has been added to her world as well. A handsome, abrasive stranger—Zack—has moved into the farm adjacent to her little paradise where she raises cattle and grows flowers. Her world has been turned upside down, and it will never be the same.
Ellen woke, disturbed; something was not right. She lay very still, listening. It seemed a clap of thunder had boomed through her head. Had she been dreaming? Had something fallen? She could hear nothing out of the ordinary and rolled over to look at the clock. Seven in the morning. She had deliberately not set the alarm so she could sleep in this Saturday and not get up until she felt rested. What was it that had so abruptly jarred her awake? Her mind cast about trying to determine the cause, trying to quiet the niggling uneasiness, not yet realizing her apprehension would grow throughout the day.
She tried to remember if she had turned off the water in the greenhouses, closed down the windows and covered the outside plants. Sometimes she did wake with a pressing anxiety if she had left some chore undone. But she could think of nothing she had neglected to do. She smiled. Perhaps her psyche was alarmed that she had overslept. Within the past few weeks, Ellen had started enough plants to fully sustain her spring sales. Surely she could now allow a few days of relaxation.
She was so glad Bud had decided to join her in her now thriving business. Her nursery-cattle ranching enterprise required a considerable amount of effort to keep things running smoothly. And her brother needed some new occupation that would allow him to be his own boss, to make more of his own decisions. This seemed the perfect solution, as they both loved planting and growing things.
As she got up and reached for a pair of faded blue jeans, a black SUV roared down the gravel road in front of her house. “Good Lord,” she said aloud. No one drives that fast out here in the country. What was after him? she wondered. She pulled on a bright red sweatshirt, appreciating the warmth of it. It was chilly in her bedroom. Since it was the first day of April in Oklahoma, she could expect frost to crystallize the landscape for three more weeks or until approximately April 20th. Sitting on the edge of her bed, she pulled on western suede boots, the ones she loved the best. The suede was soft, and boots always fit better than shoes. Plus, the tough soles gave her a much heftier kick if she needed to force a drag pin or some such thing while hooking up the equipment. But the best part was never having to polish them.
After weaving her long, dark hair into one abundantly thick braid, beginning high on the back of her head, she turned and headed for the kitchen. Just then another vehicle, a burgundy Ford pick-up, flew hell-bent for leather past her house. Ellen thought she recognized the truck. It belonged to the new neighbor who had just purchased the 200-acre ranch adjoining her property on the east. The stirrings of agitation she had felt earlier returned.
Not the way to start a good neighborly relationship, she thought. Hope that goose and his friends don’t make a habit of driving like idiots. Jeez…do they think this is the Indianapolis Speedway?
Ellen started the coffee. Then flipped on the TV, as she passed it on her way to the floor-to-ceiling windows in the den to check out the morning. The sun sent shafts of glittering light through the haze of fog still hanging in the tops of the trees. There was already a greening of grass in the pecan orchard between the house and road. Crocus blossoms of white, purple and porcelain blue lined the walk, and bright yellow daffodils formed a huge, solid ring in the center of the circular drive. Everything seemed to be at peace. Even Miss Muffy, her favorite cat, sat calmly on the white board fence with her tail curled around in front of her feet, looking for the world like a beautiful, calico ampersand.
With a deep sigh, Ellen reflected on how much she loved her home in the country. The quiet tranquility sustained her soul. The chirping of the birds, the croaking of the frogs, the yapping of the coyote at night were all a part of the whole, yet were independent and free to do their own thing. The harmony of all she had found here reminded her that God’s true promise must first be found inside one’s self, independent of and not through anything or anyone else. She had struggled several years, working many overtime hours, scrimping and saving to insure that her then-husband could attain two college degrees. Her understanding was that when he had his degrees, he would work, pay the bills and help some with the domestic duties so she could also earn a degree. Instead, he broke her heart. After seven years of dutifully and laboriously fulfilling her end of the bargain, she had nothing but an aching emptiness, painful memories and no money.
Her mind turned away from the bitter past and focused hopefully on the sweeter promise of the present. The delicious aroma of coffee filled the room and teased the hunger that pushed itself into her awareness. She would call Bud and offer him breakfast: bacon and eggs with steaming biscuits and a thick, creamy, bacon-flavored gravy—even some wild plum jelly he loved so much. He could be there before breakfast was ready, since he lived only a short distance down the road. Jennifer, his significant other, had flown to Houston to be with her mother, who was having knee surgery. Bud was no prize cook himself, but loved a good meal, so he would appreciate the offer.
She picked up the phone, pushed the “A” button and listened to the ringing. Out of the corner of her eye she spied her yellow tomcat, Old Yowler, creeping stealthily upon a chaparral. Frantically, she rapped knuckles against the glass to frighten away the bird lest he become only a pile of feathered remnants. Ellen prized the roadrunners, who were great snake catchers. She had far too many rattlers and water moccasins down by the creek. The bird took several flying leaps and was gone, his long tail causing him to teeter awkwardly as he paused momentarily on the fence.
Ellen cradled the phone, pushing aside the discomfort she felt when there was no answer.
Sliding open the glass door at the persistent yowling of her only male cat, she said, “I really named you right, didn’t I, old fella? Seems pretty bad to me that the only guest I can entice for breakfast is a yowling nuisance.”
She was gratified that he instantly stopped his awful noise and trotted into the house, stopping to rub up against her legs, thanking her in advance for the food he knew would be waiting.
Later in the day, feeling restless and needing to get something accomplished, Ellen decided to load Big John, the Limousin bull she had rented to father her new calf crop. Since he had fulfilled his duties and all her cows were now expectant mothers, she would return him to his owner.
Why pay for feed and services no longer needed? Ellen had to be frugal.
It had always been a challenge to figure out how to manage things alone, chores that really required at least two people. However, with determination and thoughtful persistence, Ellen had learned to be resourceful and tried to figure out in advance how to use the nature of the animals to help her achieve her goals. Many of her friends told her she was ridiculous to mess with raising cattle in addition to her nursery business. But tending the cattle, watching them grow and get fat and naming almost every one of them, was a work of joy for her. She especially loved it when the new babies came.
Maybe I just need babies of my own. Not likely. Not now that I’m…uh…spouseless, she thought.
For several days Ellen had been feeding Big John in the trailer, starting out at the tailgate and moving the firm, tasty cubes further into the trailer with each meal. She thought today she could get him fully up into the trailer and slam the door before he realized what was going on. It was a daunting task she was never quite sure she could accomplish.
Oh well, the best-laid plans of mice and men…and even women….
Ellen called Bud again to see if she might be able to enlist his aid. After receiving no answer, she reluctantly hung up the phone and went to the crib to get a bucket of cubes.
Big John heard the clang of the gate and knew it was feeding time. He came on the run. It was always a fearful sight to see the 2000-pound creature running straight at her. Ellen couldn’t force herself to stand until he reached her. He might not be able to stop soon enough. She hurriedly carried the bucket of cubes behind the trailer. Big John was not to be fooled. He was there in an instant, butting the bucket, demanding cubes. Ellen quickly opened the truck door and jumped inside the truck. She slid across the seat to get out the other side, spilling a few cubes as she went. Big John had practiced the procedure. He was at the other door before she could open it. She hesitated, trying to decide how to outsmart this big dude, for there was no question which one of them would win a pushing contest.
Finally, Ellen scooped up cubes and dumped them out the window. Big John came around the truck and was greedily chomping several at a time. Ellen knew she had only a few minutes to get the rest of them up in the trailer and to get out before Big John had finished his appetizer. She hurriedly jumped out the other door of the truck and ran to the back of the trailer. Taking a step up into it, she threw the cubes as far to the front as she could, trying to keep them in as neat a pile as possible. Big John was there as soon as she had stepped out of the trailer; thinking the cubes were still in the bucket, he was butting and pushing Ellen backwards. She set the bucket down and stepped away so he could check it out. Big John smelled the bucket and then started sniffing the ground. Some cubes had fallen close to the tailgate. He ate them, then proceeded to sniff his way up into the trailer. Soon he was totally in it. Ellen managed to slam and lock the gate behind him. With a sigh of relief, she thanked God and once again made a mental note that she should trade her trailer for one with no enclosing bars on the top. She might someday get trapped in there with no way out.
Ellen delivered Big John back to his owner. She was relieved the deed was done. Maybe in the future, Bud would be there to help her with this kind of work. Thinking of Bud, she decided to stop by his house to see if he had returned and to ask where he had been all day. She parked her truck and trailer along the side of the road and walked up the driveway to his house. Bud’s yard was not large and did not accommodate backing and turning a trailer and, admittedly, she was still not a pro at it.
Oh, good! He’s here, she reasoned as she saw Bud’s tan Silverado parked in the driveway next to his cinnamon colored Camaro.
Ellen knocked and waited. There was no answer. She knocked again and walked to the end of the porch to wait. She noticed deep, furrowed ruts leading out of the drive where someone had spun dirt and gravel while leaving in a hurry. She supposed Lila, his “ex,” had come over to rub more salt into the wounds she had so cruelly dealt him. She must have left in a great tiff to have thrown that much dirt. Bud still had not answered the door. Ellen was turning to leave when she noticed a dark stain on the porch. Was that blood? There was more on the door jamb. The apprehension she felt in the morning returned, greatly amplified.
She knocked again and called loudly, “Bud! Bud, are you here? Are you okay?” There was no answer. She tried the door. It swung open. Chairs were overturned; some were broken. Shattered glass was on the floor and on the kitchen cabinet. There was a large pool of what appeared to be blood on the floor between the table and kitchen sink. Smaller splotches and splatters trailed across the floor to the door. A stained kitchen towel lay on the table, along with several pieces of paper, some of which had fallen to the floor. She felt her knees giving way beneath her and clutched the table for support. Confused and fearful, her mind frantically searched for answers. Who had done this and why?
Ellen pulled herself together enough to call the sheriff. With some difficulty, she conveyed the necessary information and location to the dispatcher. The sheriff, she was told, was on his way.
Upon his arrival, the sheriff introduced himself. With a precursory handshake that was damp, but firm, he said, “I’m David Hewitt, Hawkins County Sheriff.”
He was a man of average height, who had begun to spread a little in the middle. His uniform fit snugly across shoulders that were beginning to stoop. Above a neat, but somewhat thick mustache, his eyes intently appraised her. His demeanor was almost unfriendly.
Ellen folded her arms in front of herself. She would have to pull her emotions together and be concise in reporting everything she knew about what had happened. And she realized she knew almost nothing.
Several uniformed deputies and other law enforcement officials arrived in different vehicles. Most of them ignored her or gave her only a slight nod.
One, however, did smile at her and said, “Hi.” His eyes even crinkled. “Brady” was printed on the nametag above his pocket.
All of them immediately began to take pictures, measure tracks, study all aspects of the surroundings and put up yellow tape, slowly working their way into the house.
Sheriff Hewitt, however, leaned against the fender of his car and began to question Ellen.
“So you are Bud’s sister?” he asked.
“Oh, you know my brother!” Ellen was surprised.
“We had met a few times, but I didn’t really know him. When was the last time you saw him or talked to him?”
“Late yesterday about 6 p.m., I guess. We talked on the phone.”
“Did he seem troubled about anything?”
“No. He was just anxious for Jennifer to come home,” she replied.
Sheriff Hewitt pulled a rather small pipe from his breast pocket and tapped the bowl of it against his left palm. Putting it in his mouth without filling it, he puffed small whiffs of air, but mostly seemed to enjoy it as something to clamp his teeth onto.
“Who’s Jennifer and why was she gone?”
“Jennifer is his fiancée. She’s in Houston while her mother is having knee surgery.”
After approximately twenty minutes of questioning, Ellen was finally able to volunteer the information about the two vehicles roaring down the road earlier.
“I don’t know if this has anything to do with what happened here, but a black SUV came barreling down the road this morning; then close on his tail was a burgundy Ford truck. Since both were speeding and within minutes of each other, I thought they must…uh…well…uh… be connected somehow,” Ellen offered. “I believe the burgundy truck belongs to my new neighbor.”
She admitted that, of course, she had no way of knowing if there were any connections between the vehicles and what had happened to her brother and his house. Though she hesitated to call it an abduction, that’s what it surely was. Bud would have called her if he had been able to use the phone.
The sheriff and his deputies finished their inspection and had fully taped off the area. Ellen still felt she could not leave. There were so many questions and no answers. But there was nothing here she could do. She drove home. Not bothering to unhitch, she went into the house. Though she didn’t want to, she had to call Jennifer.
When they were first introduced, Ellen had liked Jennifer a lot and thought Jennifer and Bud were a perfect match. She often secretly wished Bud had met Jennifer first and married her instead of Lila. Since the divorce was never finalized, according to Lila, Jennifer and Bud would now have to wait to marry.
Nervously tapping her fingers on the desktop, Ellen counted the rings before Jennifer answered.
“Hi Jen, How are ya?”
“Hey, Ell! I’m good. How about you?”
“Not so good really. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
“What happened?” Ellen heard the tightening in her voice. “Is it Bud?”
“Yeah, Jen. He’s not here. We don’t know where he is. And the house has been trashed.”
“Maybe he just went to see Perry to play poker with his friends and someone broke in.”
“We don’t know what happened, Jen. There’s a lot of broken stuff and a good amount of blood on the floor and some outside. Of course, we don’t know yet whose blood it is.”
“Oh my God, Ell. Don’t tell me he could be hurt.”
“We really don’t know anything yet.”
“I’ll catch the first flight back as soon as I can get a health care worker to look after mom. I’ll call with my flight number and arrival time as soon as I book,” she said.
Ellen hung up, glad Jen would be coming back soon. It would be good to have someone to talk to. But right now she would have to settle for a long walk.
Grabbing a light jacket against the late afternoon chill, Ellen did as she so often did when something bothered her. She trudged slowly down the path to the creek that crossed the back of her property, completely oblivious to all about her: the tall pecan trees, the showy-pink, peach blossoms, even the rows of onions and potatoes in the garden—all the things she had so enjoyed caring for. Seizer, her German Shepherd, trailed at a respectable distance, as if he knew she wanted no companion.
Baby, the little calf whose mother had died, came running up for her bottle even though it was not time for her dinner. Ellen gently rubbed her nose and walked on. Baby followed and bawled a few short, resentful objections, before giving up and going reluctantly back to the herd.
Ellen wandered on until she came to the edge of Sediment Creek that marked the boundary of her land. The water was clear and flowing, but not deep. It was usually comforting, quiet and relaxing just to sit and watch it flow through the meadow. She turned aside and found a small bank where she sank down on a sandy ledge, sheltered from the wind. She felt lost and alone. Bud was her last close relative. While she prayed that nothing bad had happened to him, deep within she knew better. There had been evidence of extreme trauma. Was all that blood his—or just partly his? Had he been able to deliver a few blows of his own? How could she find him? Help him? How did he leave—or who took him? Where was he?
Bud had always been a favorite person in her life. She had no other siblings. Her parents had been killed in an F4 tornado almost two years ago. She had to find Bud. Where to start? She had no clue.
As she sat there, letting the tears flow while the past claimed her thoughts, she gave in to memories of events that shaped the relationship she had with her missing brother.
In spite of her misery, she chuckled as she recalled his adventurous nature as a child, his uncanny ability to locate her most secret hiding places and steal her preciously rationed candy or gum. She remembered the time he drowned her baby chick after convincing her he could teach it to swim like a duck. Once he even took her lunch money to treat a friend to a milkshake. He had been a gregarious youngster, enjoying life and wanting everyone else to enjoy it as well. He also had a responsible side and had proven it more than once. He was only six years old when he first bravely assumed heroic responsibility.
Ellen vividly remembered feeling cold that morning, a few days after Easter Sunday. The day was clear and bright. There were beautiful yellow daffodils and red tulips along the lane that ran behind their house, all the way from the barn to the road. The wonderful smell of hickory smoke wafted out from under a black kettle filled with water her mother was heating to scrub the back porch.
It seemed incredible to Ellen that she could still feel that morning so intensely since she, herself, could have been no more than four years old. She and Bud each had a fluffy, yellow duck and Bud had talked her into “racing” them.
He wanted, as he had said, “To see which one can really stratch drabel.” Stratch drabel meant to scratch gravel or to really be able to make the pebbles fly.
Ellen smiled as she recalled how they had argued when Bud insisted his duck should get a head start since it was probably a little smaller than hers. Mostly, she had listened as he told her just how he was going to conduct the race between two unwilling ducks. Where the finish line was to be and just what would happen if one duck got confused and went the wrong direction or stopped to peck and dawdle away his time. She could still see his exasperation as he put his hands on his hips and continued to enlighten her on the rules of the race.
Quite unexpectedly, his demeanor changed. He sucked in his breath. His eyes, bulging, were fixed on something fearful behind Ellen. Ducks forgotten, Bud yelled, “C’mon. There he is!” He started running towards the house.
Ellen had turned to see what had scared him so. At first she saw nothing, but had started towards the house, still looking back.
Bud looked back and screamed, “C’mon. It’s that old mad dog.”
Then Ellen saw the huge, yellow creature watching them as a cat watches a mouse. She started to whimper and run, but her feet got tangled up and she fell. Bud stopped and came back for her. She felt his anger.
His face was red as he yelled, “You better c’mon. He’s gonna git you.” He grabbed her hand and jerked her up.
Ellen couldn’t seem to keep from looking back and fell again.
Bud was frantic. He kept screaming, “Hurry, Hurry….he’s gonna eat us up. C’mon… C’mon.”
Ellen tried to do as he demanded, but she just couldn’t seem to hurry fast enough.
Bud knew what he had to do. He didn’t ask her to get up any more. He just started running, holding onto her hand, dragging her like a rag doll. Ellen could still taste the grit and smell the dirt he kicked into her face as he ran. She remembered how it felt to bump along the ground and how she had cried when he dragged her up the rough wooden steps skinning her knees and ripping her dress.
Ellen could almost feel the breath of the dog and could still hear the shrillness of Bud’s frantic cries of “Mama, mama” as he neared the kitchen door.
Their mother saw them coming and flung open the door just in time for Bud to literally throw Ellen across the floor. She then slammed shut the heavy wooden door scant seconds before the angry, yellow monster hit the barriers and tore a hole in the screen. The dog went from open window to open window, jumping up against the weak, worn screens, determined to gain entrance to the house.
Their mother put Bud and Ellen in the middle of the bed while she found and loaded their father’s .22 rifle. Bud didn’t stay on the bed. He shadowed their mother as she followed the dog back and forth until she finally got good aim. Turning her head, she pulled the trigger. The bullet found its mark. The dog was hit but was able to run away.
Their father found the dog, dead, behind the barn when he returned home late that afternoon. He recognized the dog. So they all loaded up in the old Chevy truck and went to tell Mr. Abernathy their mom had shot his dog.
Mr. Abernathy said old Ringo had recently been acting strange and had even tried to bite him. There had been reports of rabies in the county, so he was worried when the dog disappeared and wasn’t sure what to do.
“It was the onliest thang a body could do wuz ta go ahead and shoot that dog,” he told their mom. She felt better about shooting Mr. Abernathy’s dog after that.
The excitement of the episode lasted for some time. Bud liked to tell everyone about the incident. He was very proud of their mom and bragged about her aim. As he poked his finger through the hole in the screen made by the single rifle shot, he would say, “Boy, just one shot. Pow! Right through that hole,” as though the hole had been there first.
Ellen was sure Bud had never considered himself brave, never even thought he had saved her life. For though he bragged of his mother’s great deed, he never once mentioned how he had gone back and dragged his baby sister to safety. But she would always remember the terror in his eyes, the flush on his cheeks and his shortness of breath as he, a six-year-old, struggled to fulfill a man-sized responsibility.
Tears still dampened Ellen’s cheeks as the sun began to set. She rose to attend to her chores. A great emptiness overwhelmed her, and all seemed as dark as the approaching night.
She spoke softly as she left the banks of the stream.
“My sweet brother, you were truly heroic, and I shall find you or never know peace again.”
But how? Where to start? Perhaps the new neighbor with the burgundy truck would shed light on the problem.
Rachael Stratford’s life mirrors that of some of the characters in her books: a professional career woman, she has always possessed an unquenchable allegiance to the farming life of her youth. After a lifetime time of working, studying human nature and writing, at last she has begun to share her literary gifts. Now Stratford’s first work of fiction, Right of Trespass, bursts into print, leaving her readers eager for more.