The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undoneHarriet Beecher Stowe
The wheels of the rental car ate the miles between the airport and what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Collin sighed as his hometown of Cottonwood, California came into view.
He was talking to his boss, Frank Phillips, on the phone, explaining who covering his cases while he was absent.
“I understand that someone else will need to be sent to Tokyo in my place, but all of the work is done, it’s just a matter of getting signatures, Frank,” Collin stated. He was tired.
“I don’t understand why you needed to be in, where did you say you’re going?” Frank asked. The 55 year old man had been complaining about the inconvenience of his mother dying since he got ahold of Collin shortly after his plane had landed an hour ago.
“Cottonwood. It’s a small ranching community. My family has owned a ranch there for three generations, and I need to make sure everything is handled properly for my mother’s services, as well as the ranch,” Collin fired back.
Frank grunted. “You don’t have a sibling or someone else who can handle this for you?”
Collin took a deep breath. He was already on edge and this conversation was not helping his nerves. He hadn’t taken a vacation in well over five years, then his mother dies unexpectedly and his requests to take two weeks off, and you would have thought Collin had asked for the moon.
“No, Frank, I don’t. My mother died last night, and I need to handle the arrangements, as well as the ranch. So, I’m taking time off,” Collin announced.
“All of my big contract projects are wrapped up, it’s mostly reviewing contracts and making sure it’s in the best interest of the client. My associates can handle it. Veronica can handle it,” Collin continued as the mile sign came up for his exit.
“I know Veronica can handle things until your return, but suddenly leaving before closing the Tokyo deal isn’t like you. This could cost you your partnership!”
Collin didn’t answer right away. He pulled the car off the interstate onto the off-ramp for Cottonwood.
“I don’t care about that right now. I’m almost to the funeral home, so I need to get off here,” Collin responded.
“Fine! How long are you planning on being gone?” Frank barked.
“I’m not sure at this point. Probably a couple of weeks, three at the most.”
“What?! A weekend sure, I get it. And I even understand needing an additional weekend for the service and whatever, but two or three weeks?”
Collin’s cheeks flushed, he could feel his blood beginning to boil. His anger had been simmering underneath his skin since last night, and he was dying to take out his pain on someone. However, his logical side told him to end the call and not piss off his boss, who was being a jackass at the moment.
“How much money did I make you and the firm last year? And I’m on target to beat that even if I’m gone for three months. If somethings happens, and you need me to come back for a day or two, or do some work from here, that’s fine. But I need to tie up the loose ends.”
Collin pulled into the funeral home and cut off the engine.
“Two weeks at the most! And if I need you and don’t hear back from you in a reasonable amount of time, you’re fired. I don’t care how much money you made me last year or even this year,” Frank announced fuming.
As if realizing that maybe he was being a tad unreasonable given the circumstances, and a modicum of humanity seeped into his cranky disposition, Frank added, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother. You two were close and this has got to rough on you. Take care and keep in touch.”
“Will do.” Collin hung up. He sighed and ran a hand through his hair before getting out of the car and walking into the funeral home. He wanted to get this over with as fast as possible, and then go over to the ranch.
A bell rang as Collin passed through the door.
“Collin Knight? Well, I’ll be! I haven’t seen you in years,” said Mr. Redford, the funeral director.
“Yes, Mr. Redford, it’s me. It’s been way too long since I’ve been home. Time just always seems to slip away,” Collin noted as he looked around at the brochures on the counter and the silk flowers everywhere.
“I’m real sorry about your mother. She was a real fine woman. Couldn’t have been prouder or loved you more,” Mr. Redford said.
“Yeah, Mom was an amazing woman. I just wanted to check on the preparations to see if there was anything that needed to be done, or even paid for,” Collin explained as he cleared a lump from his throat.
Mr. Redford looked at him in surprise.
“No, everything has been paid for and taken care of. Your mother didn’t want you to have to deal with the details of her death while you were grieving, so she took care of everything about three years ago.”
“Three years ago?” Collin echoed.
“Yep. That was when they told her that the cancer was back, and was spreading. She wasn’t sure how long she had left, but she wanted to make sure everything was planned out. She said she didn’t want her little boy to have to worry about anything in the end.”
He felt hollow inside. Just when he thought there couldn’t possibly anything else he didn’t know, he got blindsided all over again. How did everyone know more about his mother than he did?
Then a spark of anger fought through the numbing fog surrounding him. What the hell! He had been around off and on for the past three years and she had never told him about the cancer. Had he really been that inaccessible in to her?
“Apparently, she didn’t want me to worry about anything,” Collin whispered under his breath.
“What was that?”
Shaking his head, Collin replied, “Nothing. Just that she was always taking it upon herself to make sure I never had to worry about anything.”
“Very true. That was Margaret. She was a kind soul and couldn’t stand anyone making a fuss over her. To be honest, we were all surprised you weren’t here for her in the end,” Mr. Redford stated.
“You know her, she made sure I wasn’t. I didn’t even know how sick she was,” Collin confessed.
“Well, I’m sure when the time came, Margaret made sure you two were able to say goodbye until you meet again,” Mr. Redford acknowledged.
Collin squeezed his eyes shut and pulled a hand through his hair as the lancing pain of guilt shot through him before a wave of grief hit him anew. He took a moment to collect himself.
“Yeah, she did. Well, if there isn’t anything I need to do, I should get going.”
Mr. Redford’s sympathetic expression would be his undoing if he stayed any longer. In a town as small as Cottonwood, everyone knew everyone. And Mr. Redford? We’ll his family had owned the funeral home for four generations, so his family had been burying everyone’s kin in this area for almost a century.
“I’ll call you if I need to,” the older man said gently.
Collin nodded and walked out the door. Once he was in the safety of his rental car, he collected himself before heading home.
That word seemed so foreign to him. Sure he had a penthouse in Los Angeles, but he wouldn’t call it home. It was an extremely well decorated place to entertain, sleep, and on occasion cook.
No, home was the ranch. A place he hadn’t been in over a decade. A place he had pushed aside in an effort to prove himself, in an effort to find himself.
Collin snorted. In his efforts to find himself, he felt like he was free falling right now, reaching out to find something, anything to grab onto and anchor him back to the world and back into his life.
Maybe the ranch would do that for him.
Collin drove about fifteen miles outside of town before turning onto a country road. It had been paved since the last time he was home, which was a blessing. He drove down the road until he came to what he assumed was supposed to be the driveway.
The sun was high in sky as Collin pulled up to the dilapidated remains of his childhood home. He had known his mom had been struggling with some of the maintenance, he just hadn’t realized that meant all the maintenance.
“Are you freaking kidding me? Seriously!”
Collin pulled up to the house and just stared in disbelief. The paint was peeling off, well, everything, while the front porch was struggling to even stay on the house. A battle it was losing judging by the rot and slant.
The worst thing Collin could see from his vantage point in his car were holes in the siding allowing him to see into the house in places. And the roof? That has given up the battle for life a solid five years ago.
“What the fuck, Mom!”
It felt like a stone had settled in Collin’s stomach as it churned with regret and guilt. He climbed cautiously onto the creaking porch before turning to survey the rest of the buildings.
Neglect filled his sight for miles, as sagging fences, peeling paint and leaning outbuildings dotted the landscape. The driveway in front of the house had been concrete, but that had given up a battle with the weeds.
Now it was just red dirt, cracked concrete, and a structure out of Tim Burton’s nightmares that greeted those brave enough to survive the pothole rutted lane.
“Mom, how could you not have told me?” Collin whispered.
He turned to look back at the front door holding on by a wish and prayer, and blew out a long breath as he ran his hand through his hair.
“No, why didn’t I visit more? If I hadn’t been so busy trying to be partner, I would’ve known you were dying and the ranch too.”
The rumbling and crunching of dirt and rock alerted Collin to a truck in the distance ambling up the driveway. A few minutes later, an older man pulled up, cut the diesel truck engine before climbing down.
“Collin Knight? Is that you?” The man asked.
Collin wasn’t sure how this man knew him. “Yes, it is. But I’m sorry, I don’t recognize you.”
The older gentleman chuckled. “It’s me, Willie O’Brien, I own the ranch next door. I saw your car drive down the road, and figured I’d take my chances. Our ranches are the only ones for miles.”
Collin smiled and walked down the steps to shake his hand.
“Mr. O’Brien. Wow, it’s been years. Sorry, I didn’t recognize you,” Collin explained.
“Not visiting in close to 14 years will do that. But then again, your mother wasn’t too eager to have you come home and visit. She’d much rather visit her boy in the city,” Willie stated eyeing the house.
Collin looked down at his shoes and kicked at the gravel. A flush crept up his neck onto his cheeks. Why the hell hadn’t he ever bothered to visit?
“I didn’t know things were this bad. If she had just told me, I could’ve given her the money,” Collin told Willie.
“Margaret admitting she couldn’t handle herself, and asking for money? That would’ve been a sight,” Willie chuckled.
Willie seemed to know a lot more than he did about the ranch. Hell, he seemed to know a lot more about his mother’s situation than he did.
“Tell me, how long has the ranch been struggling?” Collin asked. He wasn’t really sure he wanted to know the answer, but he needed to know.
“Since you went off to college,” Willie replied.
The air rushed from Collin’s lungs. “What?”
That couldn’t be right. Mom would have told him if things were bad. He had even been here while she had gone through cancer treatments during that time. He had ran the damn ranch.
Collin opened his mouth to set Willie straight and then snapped it closed. He looked around the property. He had been busy in college, wearing too many hats. In all honesty, the ranch could have been struggling and he wouldn’t have known. He was running around, following the schedule he had created, not paying any attention to anything outside of the routine he had lived by.
Willie gestured for Collin to sit down on the sagging steps. Collin eyed the stairs suspiciously, and cautiously sat down. While the wood groaned out in protest, it held his weight.
“The ranch took a hit right before you went off to college, you know the cattle industry. One minute things are great, and the next, everything is crap.”
Collin nodded. He understood the ups and downs of ranching, what he couldn’t wrap his mind around is why his mom kept it a secret.
“But she never said anything. She paid my college tuition every year. I only got a partial scholarship to law school, so she paid the difference,” Collin stated.
“You had a college savings account, so I recon that’s how she paid for it. She’d never have taken that money from you. I believe she truly thought she could weather the storm.”
Willie looked out at the devastation neglect had wrought over the years to the once proud Knight Ranch.
“Beef prices fell, but that’s nothing new. Then she got cancer the first time, and the debt piled on,” Willie continued. “She managed to stay a float and pay it off. The money you sent her monthly helped her keep the utilities paid.”
Willie looked out over the landscape as a far away expression crept into his eyes. Collin just sat and waited for Willie to continue.
“However, it wasn’t until about five years ago when Margaret learned the cancer had returned.
She had stage two ovarian cancer. The doctors felt confident they had caught it in time, and she underwent treatment for almost a year before they declared her in remission.”
Collin began to construct a timeline in his head.
“That was around the time I was made a junior partner at the firm. I told her I wanted to visit her before my case load increases significantly, but she said she wasn’t feeling well, and would see me in a few weeks.”
Collin sighed and ran a hand through his hair for what felt like the thousandth time that day.
“Actually, any time I mentioned coming to the ranch she insisted it was better if she visited me.”
“That’s because she didn’t want you to know she couldn’t keep up with cattle ranching, especially not over the past four years. I offered to help her time and again to get everything back on track, but she declined,” Willie lamented.
As he gazed out over the landscape, Collin could tell he was again somewhere else in his mind.
“Then last year, the doctors said her cancer was back and had spread, and they weren’t sure if she could beat it again. So, she sold off all the bulls and breeding cows to pay for everything. And she mortgage the property to the nines,” Willie recalled.
Both men sat in silence for a moment with their thoughts. A soft breeze rustled leaves on the ground, pulling Willie from his trance.
“If she hadn’t passed away, she would’ve lost the ranch in foreclosure. She was already a few months behind on the payments,” Willie told him.
Anger coursed through Collin. She had been so proud she had almost cost them both his father’s family’s legacy.
“I close deals worth millions of dollars every day. I make insane amounts of money each year, I would’ve taken care of her! Why did she never ask?” Collin shot up from the steps and began pacing back and forth. He was exacerbated with this entire situation.
Willie patted Collin on the back.
“I’ve known Margaret my entire life, and she wouldn’t have wanted you to worry about her as she slowly slipped away. Especially not her boy.
“She sacrificed for years to build that college fund, and if you wanted to be a lawyer, then she was going to have the funds for your dream. And she’d rather eat soap every day for the rest of her life, than interfere with the career you worked so hard to build,” Willie explained.
The men sat in silence, taking in the ranch and the vastness of it all. It would take years to get the ranch back on track. Not to mention thousands of dollars.
“What are you going to do with the ranch?” Willie asked quietly.
Collin sighed. “I haven’t met with the lawyer yet, but I plan on keeping it. I thought I’d only be here a couple weeks, three at most, just until I found a foreman to run the place. But I can see now that it’s going to be much more than that.”
Willie chuckled softly. “You want some help?”
“Yes. I have money and can buy whatever, but it’s been years since I’ve had to do anything to do with cattle. Plus, I know next to nothing about home repair!”
Willie patted Collin on the back. He could tell the younger man was struggling under the weight of his grief, Margaret’s secrets, and the family’s legacy literally crumbling around him.
“Well, I’ll make a few phone calls on your behalf and see if I can’t get someone out here to fix the front porch and get a new roof on all the buildings before the storms start coming. In the mean time, where are you staying?”
A wave of despair washed over Collin. He was going to have to find a place to stay now. He was originally just going to stay here, but that was so not an option. Did the local motel have any vacancies?
“I was planning on staying here, but if the inside looks anything like the outside, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“If I know Margret, everything is tidy, but worn. She usually paid the utilities, and then sent any remaining money to try and cover the mortgage, but I make no promises about the house,” Willie explained as he stood up.
“I know there is a motel in town, and I -“
The older man interrupted Collin mid-sentence. “Come on! You’re staying with me. Emma is currently off traipsing the globe, so it’s just me in that big house.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose. The motel is more than adequate,” Collin reasoned.
“Nonsense! My house is nothing fancy, but at least you’re guaranteed running water, electricity, and a roof that doesn’t leak. Also, it will be easier to help you from my place because everything you’re going to need to learn is there,” Willie finished.
Collin hesitated a moment. He stood up and looked back at the house. He toed a rock with his thousand dollar Italian leather loafers. Oh the irony wasn’t lost on him.
“If you’re sure it isn’t an inconvenience,” Collin tentatively said.
“I wouldn’t have offered if it was.”
“Alright, I’ll stay. But it’s only for a few weeks,” Collin quickly stated. “It wouldn’t sit right with me to impose on you longer than need be.”
Willie laughed. “You are your Mother’s son. Sounds good to me.”
Willie checked his watch before climbing into his truck. “Dinner is in an hour. Why don’t you finish up here, and join me. Then after, you can unpack and handle any lawyer business type things you need to.”
Collin realized he hadn’t eaten anything since last night and hadn’t really planned ahead for dinner. “Sounds good to me.”
As Willie was closing the door to his truck, Collin stopped him. “And thank you. I don’t know what I would have done without your generosity.”
“It’s what neighbors do for each other.”
Collin waved to Willie as he drove back up the driveway. He then turned and made his way to the front door.
Collin unlocked the door, then took a deep breath before carefully stepping inside.
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