Three little monkeys jumping on a bed.
The song echoed through Bonnie's head, but it brought about a good memory. Her mother had read that book about the little monkeys to her so many times that Bonnie had memorized it before she was three years old and knew when Vivien left out a single word. Maybe the memory was so strong because her mama soon left off reading to her, and there weren't many other books in their trailer house.
Bonnie smiled as she picked up her bottle of beer and took a long drink from it. "Three sassy sisters livin' on a ranch," she singsonged. "One got married and went away. Two sassy sisters livin' on a ranch, one got married and went away. One sassy sister livin' on a ranch"—she paused—"it's mine now. All I have to do is sit still for another six months and it's mine, and then I can sell it and go wherever I want. Whatever I decide I'll never have to get up at five o'clock in the morning to feed cows in the cold or heat again. Do I go east or west? Both have a beach. All I need is a sign to point me in the right direction."
The sun dipped below the crest of the Palo Duro Canyon, leaving streaks of purple, red, pink, and orange in its wake. Black Angus cattle grazed in the pasture between the Malloy ranch house and the horizon. A gentle breeze wafted the scent of red roses and honeysuckle across the porch.
The sun set every evening. Cattle roamed around the pastures in search of green grass every day. Flowers bloomed in June in the panhandle of Texas. Not a single sign in any of that.
"Hey, we're here," Abby Joy and Shiloh yelled at the same time as they came around the end of the house.
Bonnie looked up toward the fluffy white clouds moving slowly as the breeze shifted them across the sky. "Is this my sign?"
Six months before, the three half-sisters had showed up at the Malloy Ranch to attend Ezra Malloy's funeral. He was the father they'd never met, the one who'd sent each of their mothers away when she'd given birth to a daughter instead of a son. Then he'd left a will saying that all three daughters had to come back to the Palo Duro Canyon and live together on his ranch for a year if they wanted a share of the Malloy Ranch. If one of them moved away for any reason—love, misery, contention with the other two sisters—then she got a small lump sum of money, but not a share of his prized two thousand acres of land at the bottom of the Palo Duro Canyon.
With both sisters now married and moved away in the last six months, Bonnie was the last one standing. All she had to do was live on the ranch until the end of the year, and every bit of the red dirt, cactus, wildflowers, and scrub oak trees belonged to her. If she moved away from the ranch early, for any reason, then the whole shebang went to Rusty Dawson, the ranch foreman and evidently the closest thing to a son that Ezra ever had. Unless that cowboy had enough money in his pocket or credit at the bank, he could forget owning the ranch, because Bonnie had full intentions of selling it to the highest bidder.
She'd liked Rusty from the first time she laid eyes on him. He'd taught her and her sisters how to run a ranch—at least what he could in six months. At first, he'd seemed resigned to the fact that one or all of Ezra's daughters would own the place and had voiced his wishes to stay on as foreman at the end of a year. That had been the fun Rusty. After Abby Joy had married and left the ranch, Bonnie had seen a slight change in him—nothing so visible or even verbal, except for a hungry look in his eyes. Now that Shiloh had married Waylon and moved across the road to his ranch, he had changed even more.
Tall and just a little on the lanky side, he had dark hair, mossy green eyes that seemed even bigger behind his black-framed glasses, and a real nice smile. It didn't matter how handsome he was, he was out of luck if he thought he could get rid of Bonnie and inherit the ranch. No, sir! She'd already given up six months of her life and was willing to give up six more to have the money to reclaim her wings. She'd never planned to stay in this god-forsaken place to begin with, and now that her sisters were gone, she and Rusty were about to lock horns when it came to the ranch.
Abby Joy sank down into a chair and tucked a strand of blond hair back up into her ponytail. Even pregnant, she still had that military posture—back straight as a board, shoulders squared off.
Shiloh, the only dark-haired sister in the trio, headed off to the kitchen. "Got lemonade made?"
"There's a pitcher in the refrigerator. There's also cold beers and a bottle of wine. Take your choice," Bonnie answered.
"Lemonade for me please," Abby Joy yelled.
Shiloh brought out two tall glasses filled with ice and lemonade. She handed one to Abby Joy and then sat down in a lawn chair on the other side of Bonnie. "Everything sure looks different now than it did last winter when we got here, doesn't it?"
"Are we talkin' about Abby Joy's big old pregnant belly?" Shiloh teased.
"I think she meant the ranch," Abby Joy shot back. "I thought I'd dropped off the face of the earth into hell when I drove past Silverton that day. This was the most desolate place I'd ever seen, and I'd done tours in Afghanistan. If I hadn't been so damned hungry, I wouldn't have even come up here to the house after the funeral, but I heard someone mention food."
Bonnie laughed out loud. "I was starving too, but I sure didn't want y'all to know that."
"Why not?" Shiloh asked.
"I thought you'd look down on me even worse if you thought I was so poor I couldn't even buy food," she answered, "but I was."
Abby Joy took a sip of her drink and nodded. "I looked down the row at y'all at Ezra's funeral and figured I'd outlast both of you, but I got to admit that I was just a little scared of you, Bonnie. You looked like you could kill us all with that stone-cold stare of yours."
"I felt the same about y'all, and now you've both moved away." Bonnie drank down part of her beer.
"Yep." Abby Joy smiled. "I was the smart one. I left when I figured out right quick that love meant more than any money I would get from staying on the ranch."
"That old bastard Ezra treated all of our mothers like breeding heifers, not wives," Shiloh chimed in. "I've come a long way toward forgiving him, but he'll never be a father to me."
Abby Joy shook her head. "He's more like a sperm donor, isn't he?"
"That's kind of the way I feel, so why would I want this ranch?" Bonnie asked. "If he'd done right by us, or any one of us, then the ranch would mean something, but he didn't, so why shouldn't I just sell the damned place and get on with my life. I'm not like you two. I didn't get to settle down and grow up in one place. Mama moved whenever the mood struck her, so I'm used to traveling."
"You've got six months to decide what you want," Abby Joy said. "Give it some time. Don't rush into anything, but if you ever do decide you don't want your name attached to anything that Ezra had, you can come live with me."
"Are either of you sorry that you left?" Bonnie asked.
"Not me!" Shiloh turned up her glass of lemonade and took several gulps. "I was having second thoughts about staying on the ranch those last few weeks, but Abby Joy can't have you all the time if you leave. I get you at least half of the year."
Bonnie smiled. "I'm not stayin', and I'm probably not moving in with either of you, but I appreciate the offer. I'm going to sell the place and travel. I will come see you real often though. I don't want us to ever be apart for very long at one time…" Bonnie downed the rest of her beer and stood up. "Getting you two for sisters was definitely the one good thing Ezra did for us."
Bonnie pulled both her sisters in for a group hug, then stepped back and slapped at a mosquito on her arm. "These damn bugs are horrible this time of year."
"Everything's bigger in Texas," Shiloh joked.
"It's all that moisture we got in the spring." Abby Joy pushed up out of her chair and led the way into the kitchen. "Come July, Cooper says that we'll be begging for rain and even a mosquito or two."
"Not me." Shiloh picked up the dirty glasses and the beer bottle and followed her sister. "This canyon grows mosquitoes as big as buzzards. I don't believe that they'll all be dead in a month. They'll be hiding up in the rock formations, and they'll swoop down on us and suck all our blood out when we're not looking."
Was the fact that her half-sisters had figured out love meant more to them than the ranch the sign she was looking for? Abby Joy had given up her right to the place when she married Cooper Wilson, a cowboy rancher whose land was right next to the Malloy Ranch. Shiloh had married Waylon Stephens, the cowboy who owned the ranch across the road from the Malloy place, just a few weeks ago. From what Bonnie could see, neither of her sisters had a single regret for the decision they'd made.
But finding love and settling down wasn't the right thing for Bonnie. She was born to fly, not grow roots in the canyon, and by the time New Year's Day rolled around, she would spread her wings and take off. Maybe she'd start with going to Florida or California to see the ocean. She loved bringing up the site for a little hotel in the panhandle of Florida and listening to the sound of the ocean waves.
"Wouldn't it be something, after everything is said and done, if Rusty bought this place when I sell it?" Bonnie picked up the pitcher of lemonade and a platter of cookies and carried them to the living room.
"Wouldn't it be poetic justice if all Rusty's children were all daughters?" Shiloh plopped down on the sofa and picked up two cookies.
"Serve Ezra right for throwing away his own daughters." Abby Joy eased down into a rocking chair and reached for a cookie. "Y'all ever wonder why he brought us back anyway. He didn't want us when we were born because we weren't boys, so why would he even give us a chance to inherit his ranch?"
At least once a week, the sisters had an evening at one place or another, and tonight was Bonnie's turn. She might be the one who'd showed up at the ranch six months before with her things crammed into plastic bags, but she knew how to be a good hostess.
Shiloh raised her glass. "To all of us for not killing each other, like Ezra probably wanted."
"Hear, hear!" Bonnie said as all three sisters clinked their glasses together.
Rusty Dawson stopped at the small cemetery on the way home from his weekly poker game with several of the area ranchers. That night Cooper, Waylon, and Jackson Bailey had been over at Cooper's place, and they'd all four played until almost midnight. Rusty had walked away five dollars richer, which was unusual for him. Usually, he was at least a dollar or two in the hole when the last hand was played.
He sat down on a bench that faced Ezra's grave and stared at the inscription on the tombstone for a long time. By the light of the moon, it was just obscure dark lines. So much had happened in the six months since the man died and his daughters had showed up at the ranch. Pictures from the day of the funeral flashed through his mind. Abby Joy had arrived just seconds before the graveside service began. She'd shown up in full camouflage and combat boots, and she'd snapped to attention and nodded smartly when it was her turn to walk past the casket. He'd always wondered if maybe she was showing Ezra that she was every bit as brave and tough as any son he might've produced. Shiloh was already there, of course. She looked like she'd just walked away from a line dance in a bar like the Sugar Shack up on the other end of the Canyon—pearl snap shirt that hugged her curves, starched jeans, Tony Lama boots, and a black Stetson hat.
Bonnie, the youngest of the sisters, had put a little extra beat in his heart from the first time he laid eyes on her. She drove up in an old rattletrap of a truck with duct tape holding the passenger-side window together, tires so bald that he was amazed she hadn't had a blowout on the trip and rusted-out fenders. She was wearing tight jeans, a leather jacket, and some kind of lace-up boots. A fake diamond sparkled on the side of her nose. He figured anyone with such a sassy attitude would surely be the one who inherited the place, and he was beginning to believe he'd been right.
You just going to lay down, roll over, and let her have it, or are you going to fight for what I meant for you to have? Ezra's voice was so clean in Rusty's head that he whipped around to see if the old guy's ghost haunted the cemetery. If you want the ranch, run her off it and take it for your own. Anything worth having is worth fighting for.