The sun was low in the Wyoming sky as the last two cars pulled out of the ranch driveway, taillights glowing dimly. Casey stood, watching the cars fade from view, the light illuminating her bright blond ponytail. Ray sighed heavily and pushed away from the side of the house where he’d been leaning and walked to sling an arm around her tiny shoulders. Bullitt, their blue heeler, picked herself up and trotted after him.
“Hey kiddo, how’s it going?” Sharp blue-green eyes flicked up at him before looking away again.
“Fine, Dad.” Silence. Ray cursed inwardly, damning Stella yet again for not calling. For leaving her daughter without so much as a word. For leaving him. Hell, for any number of things he could blame her for.
“Sorry, Champ. . .” he began, but she had already shrugged out of his grasp and was striding toward the back pasture, her head held high. Ray watched helplessly as she slipped between the barbed wire and whistled sharply; deftly hooking her halter from the fencepost she tended to hang it from. Leo, the kooky, crossfire paint gelding he had bought off the racetrack separated himself from the small group of horses scattered over the hill and ambled towards her, ever curious. Ray watched her slip the halter over his head and swarm onto his back like a little blonde monkey before turning him up the hill and riding out of sight.
It had been a fairly successful day. Ray had managed to pull off a decent impression of a normal birthday party for a nine year old girl. But no amount of effort on his part was going to make up for Stella’s abandonment. Nothing could make up for his daughter losing her mother. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Ray ran a hand through his hair, which was sticking up in all directions, and with some thought toward a hot cup of coffee, turned toward the house.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Lieutenant Harding Welsh sat heavily at his desk and sighed. Rubbing a hand across his face, he considered his options. The man presently known as “Vecchio” was a scourge on his department. Leaning over to the window, Welsh peered through the crack in his office blinds in the direction of the Mountie and his new partner. Fraser stood, rigid near Vecchio’s desk, his expression determinedly bland. Following the departure of his original partner, and the concurrent loss of his apartment building, the Constable was not doing well. Welsh knew Fraser was living at the consulate, and the tight quarters and certain lack of privacy were already taking their toll. There was a tightness around his eyes Welsh hadn’t seen since the Metcalfe incident, and looked as though he had lost weight. Although Welsh was not his primary commanding officer, Fraser had long since earned his liking and respect, proving to be an effective and driven, if somewhat unorthodox police officer. Unorthodox. Welsh snorted to himself at the understatement.
Taking another swig of what seemed to pass for coffee at the 2-7, Welsh clicked open his latest correspondence from Kowalski. Ray Kowalski had been one of the best detectives in the Chicago PD for a few short years before his father, a cattle rancher out west, had a stroke. Ray had dutifully packed up his wife and daughter and made his way back to Wyoming to run the family ranching business. His marriage hadn’t lasted long in Wyoming. Stella Kowalski had bigger plans for herself than being a rancher’s wife in the Rocky Mountains. Stella had taken off for California within a year of the move, leaving Ray, and their daughter Casey behind. Casey had been only four. That was five years ago, and Ray still sent Welsh bi-monthly updates on himself, Casey and the ranch. Welsh took a strong interest in the pair, as Kowalski had named Welsh Casey’s godfather.
Welsh scanned the e-mail again. Ray was struggling. The attempt to hold the ranch together and single-handedly raise a hotheaded, brilliant young girl had been steadily wearing Ray down. Welsh could read it between the lines about Casey’s ninth birthday party, and the climbing cost of hay. Not to mention the escalating water-rights dispute. An idea occurred to him, brilliant in its simplicity. Welsh considered just how much leverage he might have with Inspector Thatcher. His lips quirked, imagining her reaction to the idea brewing in his mind. Welsh reached for the phone.
Constable Benton Fraser of the RCMP was perilously close to losing his temper. He stood, rigid, his hands clenched behind his back to conceal their shaking. The man who dared to call himself “Vecchio” had maliciously gone out of his way to terrorize the abused female witness in a homicide case they had just responded to. Fraser had intervened as best he could, but if this insufferable –person- spoke one more word on the topic of the victim in question “asking for it,” Fraser wasn’t entirely sure of his ability to refrain from attacking the man in an animalistic rage. Ray- the real Ray- probably already would have done so. Fraser inwardly flinched away from thoughts of the true Ray Vecchio. He had left, as was expected. Everyone left, sooner or later. This morose line of thought did little to dissuade Fraser’s baser instincts, which still advocated powerfully on behalf of beating Detective Propst- now Vecchio- into a crumpled heap on the bullpen floor. Welsh’s voice came, an unexpected heaven-send, from his office.
“Constable! In my office, if you please.” Fraser turned sharply toward Welsh, thankful for the distraction. He was at Welsh’s door in seconds. When he stepped in, Welsh beckoned for him to shut the door. He did so, and stood at parade rest, his expression neutral. Welsh peered at him for a moment, before sighing and waving at him to sit. “Take a load off, Fraser.”
“Ah, thank you kindly, Lieutenant.” Fraser said, taking a seat. Welsh marveled at the man’s absurdly good posture for a moment before he remembered his purpose.
“Constable, allow me to be frank.” Welsh began. “You look like shit. “Vecchio,” out there is driving you to drink, and the Consulate is lacking in both work for you to do, and space for you to live. Correct?” Fraser averted his eyes, and flicked his thumb over his brow. Spot on, then.
“Truly Sir, I would never presume to-“ Welsh cut him off.
“Constable, you never presume. I’m well aware. Perhaps you should take it under consideration to “presume” more often, especially when your health is at stake.” Welsh said, pinning Fraser with his gaze. Fraser shifted slightly in his seat, and cracked his neck.
“As you say.” Fraser said, softly. Satisfied with the concession, Welsh relented, leaning back in his chair.
“Constable, I have a proposition for you. See, I’ve got this friend out in Wyoming. . .”
# # #
Ray Kowalski nearly spit his coffee across his computer monitor. After he stopped choking, he squinted at the screen again. Yep. Same line. No other way to take it. H must have lost his mind. A Mountie. Coming to “help out” at the ranch. Friday. There were holes in this story big enough to toss Bullitt through, if he was so inclined. The phone rang just as he reached for it.
“Kowalski,” he barked, intent on losing the caller as soon as possible so he could get in quick and furious contact with his old Lieu.
“No kidding.” Harding Welsh’s voice came across the line, full of knowing, dry humor. “I take it by your tone you received my e-mail?”
“H, what are you playing at here? I can barely hold it together as is- I can’t take care of some city-boy! I ain’t running no dude ranch out here, y’know?” In his pique, Ray pointed with two fingers, furiously into the air, even though Welsh couldn’t see him.
“He’s more country than you could ever hope to be, Kowalski- and he knows horses. He’s a good man, just give him a chance, would you?”
“Why’re you doing this, H?” Ray slumped forward at his desk and ran a tired hand through his hair. He could here Welsh sigh on the other end of the line, and imagined him leaning back in his chair at the 2-7. A wave of longing for Chicago swept over him. The noise, the people, the food, the build-up of a new case. Not his to miss though. Just as Stella was no longer his to miss. Damn, this sucked ass.
“Well, Kowalski, if you must know, I’m in a bit of a bind right now. I have an officer undercover and his replacement is an affront to the police force. For reasons that. . .” There was a long pause, followed by a heavy sigh before Welsh continued. “. . . Don’t need exploring at this juncture, the Mountie is partnered with the replacement. Don’t ask, you’ll hear all about it, I’m sure. Long story short, I have a good officer wasting away under my command. I need to get him separated from the new guy before an international incident blows up. Do me a favor here, Kowalski. It would really help me out. And Red, too.”
Ray sighed, knowing he was sunk. H was the closest thing he had to a father at this point, and Ray would never deny him anything.
“Red?” He asked, puzzled.
“You’ll see. I’m lending him my old Jeep. He should be there by Friday.”
“Fine. Fax me his file. If he’s going to be living here with me and Casey, I want the whole enchilada.”
Welsh snickered and Ray swore at him and they ended the call. Within the hour, Ray’s temperamental fax machine spit out a string of paper.
Constable Benton R. Fraser, Royal Canadian Mounted Police. First came to Chicago on a homicide case, the victim being one Robert Fraser, RCMP. Wow. Rough. Ray flipped through the rest of the paperwork. His records from both Canada and Chicago told an interesting story. His arrest record was through the roof, and cases he was involved in seemed to have a bizarre level of complexity on a regular basis. Reading between the lines, he gathered this Fraser guy was a world-class boy scout who couldn’t seem to get along with the troop. He was in Chicago a good year or more after the apprehension of his father’s killers. . . why did he stay? Everything in his file said “rural.” He had transferred out of a much smaller town than Chicago due to an inability to acclimate. There was no way this Fraser guy was in a big city for the past two years of his own va-, viol- of his own will, dammit. Ray hunched over the paperwork and checked the most recent Canadian arrest record. . . Gerard. . . RCMP. . . Dam project. . . attempted murder. . . police corruption. Bingo. That’s the ticket. The guy wrote his own reprimands for god’s sake, and his country exiled him for uncovering corruption within the force? How very… typical.
“Dad.” Ray, lost in his reading, jumped in his seat and spun around, heart pounding.
“Uh, yeah? What’s up, Champ?” Casey eyed him with a disconcertingly knowing expression.
“It’s lunchtime. What are you reading?”
“Oh, well, H is sending a guy out here to help with the ranch for a while.” Ray said, slowly resigning himself to the idea.
“Uncle Hardy is sending someone? Who?” Casey cocked her head slightly to one side, narrowing her eyes at him. Christ, but she looked like Stel’ when she did that. Ray slid past the familiar twinge in his chest to respond.
“Well, he’s Canadian. His name is Fraser. He’s a Mountie. Apparently, he’ll be here on Friday. . . Guess I should make up the spare room, huh?” Casey looked at him a moment longer and nodded.
“After lunch, though?”
“Yeah, after lunch,” Ray laughed.
# # #
Constable Benton Fraser of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was the apprehensive new owner of a battered 1989 Jeep Grand Cherokee. He glanced at Dief, who jumped through the open window and settled himself into the passenger’s seat as though it were the Riviera. The soft gray light of predawn was blessedly chill against his skin. Twice an exile, he thought, absently. Though this, he had to admit, was more of a reprieve than an exile. Certainly, something disastrous would happen if he continued to associate with Detective Propst. Now that Fraser was disassociated from Ray’s replacement, he could be honest about the man’s identity, at least to himself. Fraser took his hat off and slid into the driver’s seat. He glanced at the scrawled list of directions Welsh had thoughtfully provided him with, and headed due west.
# # #
Friday morning dawned cool and bright, with a simmer of anticipation in the air. After Casey had boarded the school bus, with a hug and an admonishment to “Be nice to Uncle Hardy’s friend,” Ray poured himself a second cup of coffee. By ten, he had swept the kitchen, taken out the trash, fed the barn cats and watered the heifers on the hill behind the barn. By eleven, he had cleaned both bathrooms and paid all of his bills, which were on the verge of being overdue. Again. At eleven-thirty, Bullitt launched herself from her post beneath the gas tank to bark madly at a battered Jeep Cherokee slowly approaching the ranch. Ray ambled out the back door and stopped when he was in view of the road, leaning in the shadow of the house. He whistled sharply and Bullitt wheeled around and loped to his side, where she sat, pawing the leg of his Levi’s.
Fraser pulled the Jeep up in the space next to the meat shed, and turned the car off. Before he got out, there was a flash of white and a giant white dog barreled around the far side of the Jeep and made a beeline for Bullitt. Ray was so distracted by the posturing dogs, he didn’t register Fraser’s approach until a pair of whoa!-shiny boots stepped into his line of vision. Laces up to the knees. Kinky. Heh. Ray pulled his gaze upward with some effort. And up. Wow. Red. Now it all made sense.