Businesswoman Amelia Victoria “Vickie” Macaulay double-checked the address number of a decrepit house to make sure it was the office of Roy Allison, a lawyer in the small town of Dancing Creek, Montana.
This place looks like it used to be an old shed, thought Vickie with an air of contempt as she waited for lawyer Roy Allison, sitting in an old chair and looking completely out of place from everyone and everything around her. She was slim, delicate and tall, with brown hair worn in a ponytail, a black pantsuit, and high heels- dressed like she was at home in Chicago, not Dancing Creek, Montana, a small town of a thousand people where the mountains and the prairies meet. When Vickie was ten years old, her parents divorced. She lived with her mother, Rita Macaulay, in Chicago, but stayed with her father, George Clifton “Cliff” Macaulay in Dancing Creek. As a teen, she was annoyed by Dan Lee Bristow, two years older than her- a flirty rancher who ran the Double L Ranch, next to the smaller Kingly Ranch, which belonged to Cliff Macaulay.
All these years later, Vickie Macaulay was twenty-nine years old, Rita had been dead for years, and Cliff Macaulay was dead. He had left the ranch to Vickie in his will, but she already had a life- as a single, chicly dressed businesswoman in Chicago, not as the wife of a Montana cowboy. As Jennifer Colucci, the secretary for Roy Allison, barked at someone over the telephone in a loud, vaguely Italian East Coast accent and furiously typed at the same time, the door opened again and a handsome cowboy walked in. He wore a blue cotton shirt, a pair of blue jeans and the same hat he wore while working on the ranch. The cowboy gasped when he saw who was sitting in the chair next to her- Vickie Macaulay.
“Hello” he said in a low, barely audible voice. “What brings you here?”
At first, Vickie, caught up in her own problems, did not know who this man was until she said, “Mr. Bristow? Is it you?”
He took the hat off his head and responded, “Yeah, but please call me Dan. Are you moving back here?”
“My dad just died and he left the ranch in my will, but I sure don’t want it. I already have a life- in Chicago.”
Dan Lee Bristow figured she was a white-collar professional from the way she was dressed, nothing like his brothers Joel and Kevin’s wives- but, boy, was she beautiful.
Jennifer Colucci hung up her telephone and called out, “Ma’am, Roy will be right with you.”
“Okay, thank you” was Vickie’s reply. She did not want any men in her life, so why was she smiling at the sight of Dan Lee Bristow?
Vickie was the oldest of six, with Arnold “Arnie” being twenty-seven years old, Caleb twenty-four years old, and as she affectionately referred to her triplet sisters, “the Virtue Girls” who were twenty years old- Faith Macaulay Livingston, Grace Macaulay Holmes and Charity Macaulay. Hope, who lived in Great Falls, Montana, had moved to the ranch after Cliff Macaulay was diagnosed with cancer.
Vickie, waiting to be called by Roy Allison (the lawyer), thought of how Dan Lee Bristow would work on the ranch with her father, with the two of them exchanging offhand comments about Lauren, with Dan Lee hinting at a marriage proposal the year Vickie turned eighteen. The Saddle Steamer, a small café along Main Street near Roy Allison’s office, was where Dan Lee and Cliff Macaulay would go in the mornings to get coffee, as Cliff Macaulay rattled off long lists of complaints in a gravelly voice- about the weather, the government in Vaqueros County, the state of Montana, and Washington, D.C., the game warden, and the sheriff’s department.
Arnie, Caleb and the Virtue Girls all did not want the ranch, and Vickie certainly did not want it- or did she? The Bristow family already had their ranch, and Jimmy, the ranch’s caretaker, was still living there.
A few minutes later, Jennifer answered, “Ma’am, Roy will see you now.”
Vickie hurriedly picked up her briefcase as Dan sat slumped in the chair, smiles darting across his face as he saw Vickie in her high heels walking into Roy Allison’s office.
“Nice to see you again, ma’am” said Roy Allison as he got up from his swivel chair. After his old chair broke, Roy Allison had hauled in the old red swivel he found when he moved from a house in town to Sherman Mountain Road, three miles north of downtown Dancing Creek. He knew it was named after pioneer Josiah Sherman, who came in 1866 on a wagon train from Missouri. While playfully digging for worms with his children, Roy found two broken wagon axles and what appeared to be a broken plate, likely from the pioneer era.
“Nice to see you again, sir.”
“Now let’s get down to business” said Roy Allison, who was meeting with Vickie Macaulay to discuss the ranch’s future. If she didn’t take the ranch, it would go to someone outside the family, something she knew Cliff Macaulay would not want.
She gazed beyond the large windows of Roy’s office, and saw the snowy crags of the mountains, Dancing Creek (which was once so alight with ‘dancing’, silvery fish the town was named after it) and fields of wheat.
“Are there any possible buyers for the ranch?” asked Roy.
Vickie said to the strong, but friendly lawyer, “Well, there was a man who wanted it but I told him ‘no.’ Since you’re the only lawyer in Vaqueros County, I imagine he was by to see you.”
Lowering his husky voice to a whisper, Roy Allison inquired, “Do you mean William Moller? Yes, he did discuss the sale with your father soon after his cancer diagnosis. That man goes to that weird church off North Avenue and his mother sounds like she just came off the ship from Denmark.”
Vickie was horrified at the lawyer’s disregard for privacy and common courtesy. “Okay.”
“Would you be interested in fulfilling your father’s will?”
Part of her wanted to scream, No! I have a job, a life, everything in Chicago, and part of her wanted a change of scenery, which could include a move to Montana.
She said, “Let’s see how this meeting goes and I will decide.”
“Okay. Part of your father’s land has been rented by Joel Bristow from the ranch next to it, and he wants to buy the ranch. I told Mr. Bristow….”
“Yes, Joel Bristow and his wife were interested in buying the Kingly Ranch.”
Vickie Macaulay mulled over what to do with the ranch. She was happy as a Chicagoan “career girl” but also loved the wide-open spaces that Montana had to offer. She didn’t have a husband or children, only two cats. With her B.S. degree in Accounting, she could easily find another job as an accountant after moving to Montana. Nothing was keeping her in Chicago anymore, so she thought about leaving it all behind and moving west.
Her heart was racing as Roy tapped his fingers on his walnut desk. Finally, she asked him a question.
“Was this in writing?”
“Was what in writing, ma’am?”
Vickie clarified what she meant to the lawyer. “About Joel Bristow buying the ranch.”
“No, and you do not have any legal obligation to sell it to him.”
At this news, Vickie felt like she could hear her heart sing with joy. She praised God for his kindness and for opening her mind up to new possibilities. Before, she thought she would work at the same place until retirement, a large church in Chicago where she was the head of the accounting and payroll department.
Everyone sees God differently, she thought when she applied for the job, having no qualms working with Christians different from herself. The church, a short trip on the Metra from her apartment, was a Baptist church with a mostly African American congregation, and Vickie went to a Catholic church every Saturday since she usually worked Sundays.
Vickie mentally calmed down to ask Roy Allison, “Did Mr. Bristow mention a price?”
Roy gave her a number that was thousands of dollars higher than the relatively low price Cliff Macaulay had bought the ranch for, but it was a “fixer-upper” when Cliff bought it, putting money and time into the ranch to turn it around.
After signing a few legal documents, Vickie soon left Roy Allison’s office in a proud and determined mood, and felt like she could take on anything. Dan Lee Bristow was still in the waiting room, and a flash of excitement washed through Vickie when she saw his handsome face smiling at her.
“Mr. Allison told me your brother, Joel, wants to buy the ranch.”
Dan Lee shrugged. “It’s just a fixer-upper that Joel and his wife, Claire, won’t be able to sell unless they put thousands of dollars into it.”
Vickie was infuriated, but she kept her cool. “It is not a fixer-upper at all. It may be a bit unkempt, but there’s the caretaker living there.”
“Isn’t Jimmy his name?”
“Yep, Jimmy Vaughn.”
“Maybe Joel and Claire will want to buy that old ranch.”
Now, Vickie was really bold, especially concerning her old love interest… or was he her new love interest? If Dan Lee still thought of her as a friend, living in rural Montana would not be so boring after all!
She said to him, “Do you want to meet me for coffee in town?”
A smile hit the mouth of this rugged rancher, and this time it stayed there. “Sure, and then can we go to the ranch?”
“Your ranch or the Kingly?’
“The Kingly, of course. There’s an old shed I should take down while I’m there. You don’t mind soiling those fancy clothes of yours?”
Vickie was taken aback by this comment, and asked Dan, “What do you mean?”
“Well, the shed is on the edge of a marsh, and there’s some mud and bugs.”
Dan had dated a couple women before, but the relationships had not lasted long- he preferred women that were kind to him but independent, adventurous, strong and not afraid to do things like mucking horse stalls out or walking through marshes.
He was worried Vickie would tell him no, but much to his relief she responded with what he wanted to hear- “yes.”
“Really? You’ll help me with this old shed?”
“I’ll change my clothes, though. There’s a bathroom in the ranch house.”
“Where did all the animals go?”
Vickie sighed at Dan’s question. After Cliff Macaulay’s death, the two thousand head of longhorn cattle, twenty-one horses, and sixteen ponies had all been sold, with the Bristow ranch gaining some of the animals. Vickie wished she knew the fates of the other animals.
She told him, “Your family got some of them, but I am not sure where most of them went.”
“Leave your car here and I’ll drive the pickup.”
“Sounds good, but can I change my clothes in the car?”
“That’ll work, Vickie. You can do it while I put gas in the pickup at the Sunoco across the road.”
Vickie changed her fancy clothes into a simpler outfit more suited for mucking through a marsh on a ranch- a cotton T-shirt, a pair of jeans and mud-stained sneakers before the gravelly rumbling could be heard from the Sunoco station- Dan’s pickup.
They rode out of town and toward the mountains. As they passed a small farm with a herd of fluffy sheep grazing, Dan slammed on the red pickup truck’s brakes.
“What is it?”
“Mule deer” Dan pointed to a small brown shape growing larger and larger as it walked toward the road, leaping over a sheep fence and over another fence. It soon made its way across the road, disappearing toward the mountains and the ranch.
Soon after they saw the mule deer, Dan slowed down again along the twisty mountain road because of a sharp curve.
“Corpse Curve, they call it” he said in his slightly singsong, soothing voice. “If you’re ever driving down here alone, especially at night, be careful. The haulers come out here. My dad, Dub, is one of them.”
Vickie was enjoying her time with this handsome cowboy, despite her annoyance at him in the past. “A hauler? What do they do?”
“I keep forgetting you’re not really from around here. A hauler is someone who responds to people’s calls for roadkill- you know when there’s a dead deer on the road.”
“I see. So what do they do with the deer once they haul it?”
“It depends. Some they can salvage only the pelt, while a good chunk of meat can be salvaged off other deer.”
How gross, Vickie thought. To be eating a deer that was hit by a car. “Do people get sick from eating these deer?”
“No, not at all.”
They rattled and shook down a gravel road before turning down the main driveway of Double L Ranch, a sprawling farm with hundreds of cattle and grazing horses, swishing their tails while bending their heads downward to eat the grass that made up the bulk of their diet.
“We can park the pickup here and walk over to the Kingly” said Dan. “It’s not that far if you just follow me.”
They cut across two fields before reaching the Kingly Ranch. The barn was empty of animals, but there were still tools, old boxes, and empty feedbags.
“Aha!” exclaimed Dan. “Got it!”
“Is that a pry bar? I remember my dad tearing up a bathroom in the ranch house with something like that.”
“You sure know your tools for b…..” Dan begun, and then paused. He did not want to lose this woman, even if she did not love him. Instead of saying you sure know your tools for being a woman, he simply corrected himself.
“I meant, you sure know your tools. There’s that old shed over there, and a wheelbarrow.”
Dan smiled. “I hauled that wheelbarrow over a few days ago and almost did it yesterday, but we had some injured cattle. With our work and quick thinking, we didn’t lose any of the herd. Many hands, or even two pairs of hands, make light work.”
The old shed was falling apart, with nails sticking out of some of the boards. With a claw hammer, Dan pulled the nails out of the boards while Vickie handed him the wood.
It was about two o’clock in the middle of July, a sunny Montana afternoon. On these types of days, Vickie would sometimes call off work to have a “fun day out” by driving to the beach, riding the CTA bus to the Lincoln Park Zoo, or playing golf. Vickie knew she wasn’t the best of golfers, but enjoyed playing with her friends, especially because they were all so different from each other- Melissa Nowak was a Polish-American single mother of three living with her children and elderly aunt in Bolingbrook, Patricia Sheridan was a newly retired preschool teacher who had moved with her husband from Ohio to Illinois, and Jill Sinclair was a veterinary technician in Naperville about the same age as Vickie.
The squalling protests of the old nails could be heard as Dan put them aside to take them to the scrapyard for cash.
“Is that where these boards are going to go?” asked Vickie, unaware of their true destination.
“No, they are going to help rebuild a family’s barn down in Harbison. Have you ever been there?”
Vickie waited until Dan had pulled a nail out of a strip of wood before replying, “No. Where is it?”
“Harbison’s down by the national forest and is quite a ways from here. My mom, her name is Susie, is from there. She knows a family there who lost their barn in a fire and we are donating the wood to them.”
“Are you going to do it? It sounds like you have a busy life as a cowboy.”
“Yep, I’ll do it in a couple days and maybe you can go with me.”
Vickie was taken aback by Dan’s boldness. She planned to spend the night at the Saddle Stop Hotel in “downtown” Dancing Creek, and then the next morning leave for Chicago, a nineteen-hour drive through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and south into Illinois to Chicago, on the coast of Lake Michigan “sandwiched” between Wisconsin and Indiana.
It was about four-thirty P.M. by the time the old shed on the ranch was demolished. Frogs jumped out of the way as they slogged out of the marshy mud, while Dan reached into his jeans pocket and handed Vickie a $20 bill.
“Thanks for helping me out” Dan said to Vickie sincerely. “I hope I see you soon.”
Even though she was leaving the next morning for Chicago, she told him, “I hope so, too. Thank you for the money- it was so kind of you.”
Did Dan realize she was only in Dancing Creek to settle the ranch dispute and would go back to Chicago the next day, or was ranch life for her?
As Vickie ran toward the end of the driveway, Dan came walking up to her.
“Wait!” he told her. “I forgot your car is still at Roy Allison’s office. I’ll drive you there.”
As they headed back toward town and had passed Corpse Curve, Vickie told Dan that she planned to leave the next day.
“Aw, that’s a shame” was his reply. “If you ever want to come back to Dancing Creek, if you want to live on the ranch, give me a call and I’ll wire some money over to Chicago for airfare.”
“That’ll be good. What’s your phone number?”
“What’s your phone number?”
This question made Vickie’s heart beat faster, from an emerging love for this wild, but gentle cowboy and from remembering when a flirty older man would come to the gas station called Stan’s in Chicago where Vickie worked after school and on the weekends as a teenager. He always bought two cans of Dr. Pepper, one Hershey chocolate bar and two pieces of gum, and on one of the dollar bills he slipped her was his phone number, which Vickie ignored.
Vickie kindly said, “I prefer not to disclose that right now, so how about you call me first?”
Dan snorted. “Disclose? Did you go to one of those fancy big-city colleges in Chicago?”
Why was Dan criticizing her education? “Northwestern University in Illinois, maybe forty minutes or so from Chicago.”
“Chicago? Like it all you want, but I’ll never go to there. Missoula or Billings are big enough for me, and don’t even get me started on the time I went to Las Vegas.”
“I see. Thanks for the ride.”
Right before Dan left, he told Vickie his phone number and wished her “a safe trip home.” Secretly, Vickie was enthralled with this man, but she wasn’t sure if the relationship would be serious. While perusing the aisles of Moller’s Grocery to buy a few items, she heard an older man, likely a rancher, talk on the phone to a woman in a loud, raspy voice and he kept referring to “his aunt Joyce.”
This made Vickie remember that her aunt Bernadette “Bernie” Macaulay lived in Rolla, North Dakota, on the border with Manitoba. Rolla was hours out of her way, but Vickie decided to cancel the hotel reservation for that night and drive east until she either found a hotel or slept in her car before continuing to her aunt Bernie’s house the next morning.
Bernie was of Ojibwa, Cree, French Canadian and Welsh ancestry, and was married to Norman T. Macaulay (Vickie’s uncle Norm) until his death three years prior.
By 4:45 P.M., Vickie was on I-90 heading east, with country music blaring through the car radio. She rolled along through the grasslands of Montana, switching to I-94 East at Billings.
Gradually, she became tired and decided to pull off the seemingly endless highway when she reached a decently sized city. The sky of the vast empty spaces of Montana made Vickie feel dwarfed. Small towns rolled by, but Vickie preferred a larger town, where she would feel more secure sleeping in her car at a truck stop.
She was reading a few pages of a book before bed, and as she smiled at the escapades of the romance novel’s heroine, she thought of herself and Dan. Maybe we will get closer and eventually marry, she thought.
Right as she was about to close the book, her cell phone rang with Dan’s number.
“I’m falling asleep, so can I call you tomorrow, Dan?”
“Yes, but when I will call you before I get back on the road tomorrow. I am visiting my aunt in North Dakota, but she lives a few hours away.”
“Sounds good. Goodbye.”