Cayce's Ultimatum

By Janet Brayden

As the sun slowly rose over the mountains to the east, a rooster crowed in the barnyard of the Lazy M ranch near Sunny Acres, California.

In the bunkhouse, Alex McGregor. the foreman, roused his crew and got them moving to wash, shave and dress.

On the second floor of the main house Cayce McKenna, the owner, ran the water in her private bathroom and got washed up. When she was through she padded into her bedroom and went to her bureau. Opening one drawer she retrieved a pair of jeans. Closing it, she opened a second one to retrieve a bra and socks. Closing that one, she walked over to her window to check the temperature and the weather. The thermometer read fifty-eight degrees. The sky was robin's egg blue with puffy white clouds. So far it looked like it would be a decent day, but early spring in the Sierra Nevada foothills, could be chilly.

Her next stop was her closet where she pushed hangers around until she found the brown denim shirt she wanted. Quickly she shed her pajamas and donned her working clothes. Grabbing her hairbrush and a hair elastic she quickly brushed and braided her hair. Lastly she donned her oldest boots. She had several pairs, but the oldest ones were reserved for barn chores, riding the range and doing errands in town.

Five minutes later she was on her way down the hall toward the stairs. She had taken but a few steps when the door to the guest room, next to her own room, opened and Murray Bozinsky stepped out. His hair was tousled and he was still a bit drowsy but he looked eager to start the day.

"Morning, Murray," Cayce greeted him.. "You're up early."

"I thought maybe I could help you with something," the skinny computer whiz said.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "I know you were awake pretty late last night worrying about Nick and Cody."

"Well, yes, but I know you'd make sure they got back okay and you did didn't you?"

"Murray!" Cayce pretended indignation. "You doubt me? Of course I did. The same person who let the air out of the Jimmy's tires followed them until they got to the driveway. Then he went cross country to get home following some of those trails we took on our hay ride last
Christmas." She sighed. "I love Cody and Nick dearly, but they've got to learn to keep their noses out of my social life. Uncle Brian trusts me but they - they have to check out every guy I date. I'm tired of it and that's why I set them up last night and let them walk all the way home."

Murray patted her on the shoulder. "You're right, you're a big girl with good judgment. They need to learn to trust you.""Cody's right, though," he giggled, "You are sneaky."

"If Cody said it," Cayce grinned, "I'm flattered. Last night he wasn't exactly flattering. I could hear him cussing all the way from the front door to their guest room."

"They'll get over it," the computer whiz told her.

The guest room where Nick and Cody were lodged was silent. Cayce, however, made no effort to be quiet as she and Boz headed for the stairs to go down to the kitchen - her usual route in the morning.

Outside the rooster crowed again. In the guest room Cody roused long enough to mumble something about fried chicken before pulling the covers over his head in a futile effort to block the noise. Nick, much more volatile, got up long enough to throw a shoe at the bird which had chosen to perch on a low hanging tree branch outside the window

In the kitchen, Cayce and Murray heard the rooster squawk indignantly and giggled.

"Cody or Nick?" Murray wondered.

"Oh, definitely Nick," Cayce laughed. "Mr. Football Hero probably got out of bed to throw something - probably a shoe - at Brewster." She grinned at her friend. "It won't stop him for long. Brewster takes his 'job' very seriously."

She was right. A moment later the rooster started again. In the guest room, Nick, who was back in bed again, swore as he plopped his pillow over his head.

"What can I do to help this morning?" Murray asked.

"Well, first of all you can get the coffee ready to go. I'm sure the guys will need it in order to function this morning. After that I'll give you the feed for the chickens. While they're eating you can gather the eggs." Cayce smiled at him, for Murray was always eager to be of some help when he visited. "Watch out for that speckled hen, though," she warned him. "I think she's brooding. If she's sitting on her eggs she's going to be nasty if you try to take them. Just gather the ones form the nests nobody's sitting on.

While Murray started the coffee Cayce set the table for four. Josefina was planning on sausage and eggs with home fries and sourdough biscuits for breakfast. Cayce got as much ready for her as she could. A few minutes later, while Cody and Nick tried to sleep through the noises of chickens clucking, Brewster crowing, horses whinnying and mens' voices calling to each other, the two youngest "siblings" went outside to take care of the chickens and discuss the work schedule for the day with Cayce's foreman.

McGregor grinned as he greeted his boss.

"Allen and Ryder aren't up yet?"

"Nope," Cayce grinned back.

"Got in kind of late - or should I say early? Where did you make them walk from?"

"Oak Grove - unless they got a ride, which I doubt considering the hour they did get in."

She looked at him curiously,"Does everybody know what I did?"

"Miss Cayce, everybody in the bunkhouse and probably on the surrounding ranches and in town know how frustrated you were with them. Besides, Gene and Brian are good friends. Brian knew about it before anybody."

"Sheesh! I'm going to have to be more careful about disguising my feelings."

"You must have had Rusty in your room. I didn't hear him bark."

"He started to but I calmed him down." Her green eyes danced with merriment. "I don't think they were too happy to find Cody's keys hanging on the door."

"I heard Brewster squawking rather indignantly a little bit ago," McGregor said.

"Yep. I think Nick got out of bed long enough to throw something at him."

"Didn't deter Brewster for long though," the redheaded foreman chuckled.

"Cayce," Boz called as he approached. "I think I've gotten all the eggs. Shall I take them to the house?"

"Let's see," the rancher said taking the basket from him and checking the contents. "Not bad, Murray. I think you found a couple more than I would have."

For some reason this made the computer whiz very happy and he beamed from ear to ear.

"Take them down to the bunkhouse first," she told him. "I think this week's cook - Brian isn't it, Alex?" Receiving an affirmative reply she finished her thought, "I think Brian said something about being a bit short. Leave a dozen with him and bring th rest up to the house."

The slender scientist hastened to do as she requested. It was nice to feel needed - even if it was just to gather eggs and feed chickens. He hated to feel like a sponge no matter what Cayce said about his being a guest. If he was family then he ought to have something to do besides bookkeeping - something which Cayce was controlling in order to keep him from spending too much time indoors.

A half hour later, Murray triumphantly returned to the house with a dozen and a half eggs nestled in the basket. Brian Hays, the ranch hand in charge of cooking in the bunkhouse for the week, had taken a dozen and a half. Cayce's flock were good layers and there were enough - enough without the speckled hens eggs - to feed everyone and use in whatever baking Josefina decided to do. Going over to the kitchen sink he proceeded to gently clean the shells of small feathers, dropping stains and dirt before putting them in the refrigerator. Josefina smiled at him as she bustled about cooking sausage and preparing biscuit dough.

Half an hour later, at six-thirty, Cayce came in from the barn. Stopping on the back porch the young rancher removed her barn boots and slid her feet into a pattered pair of loafers. Once inside she went to the kitchen sink to wash her hands.

Murray was cleaned up, shaved and ready to eat, but his partners were nowhere in sight.

"Nick and Cody still in bed?" she asked with raised eyebrows.

"As far as I can tell," Murray answered her.

"Well, not for long," Cayce said with a devilish gleam in her eye.

She went up the back stairs with a triangle in her hands. It was a smaller version of the one hanging on the back porch. Occasionally, when she had a houseful of company scattered in various rooms, she - or Josefina - used it to summon everybody to the dinner table.

She opened the door to the room her oldest "brothers" were sharing just enough so that the sound of the triangle wouldn't be muffled by the wood.

"Breakfast is ready! Come and get it or I'll throw it out," she yelled.

"What?" Cody startled awake.

"Huh?" Nick asked groggily. "What?"

"I said 'breakfast is ready'. If you're not downstairs in fifteen minutes Murray and I will eat it all," the young woman informed them before closing their door and heading back down the stairs.

Murray looked up as she entered the kitchen. Pushing his glasses back on his nose from where they had slipped, he gave her a quizzical look.

"They'll be down shortly," Cayce answered his unasked question.

Twenty minutes later, as she was putting the food on the table, the two oldest men stumbled down the stairs and staggered to the coffee pot.

With a wink at the skinny scientist, Cayce said, "Well, will you look at what the cat dragged in - or should I say out of bed? Did you sleep well fellas?"

Nick glared at her. "Very funny."

Cody didn't say a word. He just took a seat at the table and tried to wake up by sniffing his coffee.

Cayce giggled as she took her seat. Murray couldn't help but think that his friends had gotten off easy. From the stories they had told him about Brian McKenna he was sure they should be glad that the colonel knew nothing of their little escapade of the night before. He was also sure that the men in the bunkhouse knew - he'd heard a few snatches of conversation about it while delivering the eggs to Brian Hays - something of what had transpired. Cody and Nick were in for a rough time of it.

The meal was eaten in relative silence as the two youngest people at the table tried to stifle their giggles and the two oldest ones tried to stay awake. Going to bed at two AM and getting up at six AM (Cayce had allowed them to "sleep in" an extra hour) was taking its toll on the two senior detectives.

"Well, I have things to do today," Cayce said as she got up from the table. I've got private students coming for riding lessons, training sessions with a couple of Quarter Horses whose owners are hoping to start racing them in the spring. Doc and Tam both need a good run.

Placing her dirty dishes in the dishwasher she continued.

"There's a crew out gathering the last strays, another one loading hay in the loft and Keith and Brian are out gathering fallen tree limbs and dead wood to be chopped up for firewood."

Cody interrupted her detailed recital of who was doing what - and where.

"Excuse me, Cayce, but what about the Jimmy?"

"What about it?" she asked knowing perfectly well what he meant.

"What about it? It's sitting out there - miles from nowhere - with four flat tires!"

"Five," Nick corrected him. "The spare is flat too, remember?"

"Ok, five flat tires." Cody was still fuming over that and the long walk he and Nick had had the night before.

"No need to worry about it, Cody," she smiled. "It's safe where it is."

"Cayce," the blond growled.

"Look outside, silly," she pointed him toward the spot where he usually parked during visits to the Lazy M.

There was the modified Jimmy, all five tires - including the spare, properly inflated. Cayce had arranged to have the tires re-inflated and the truck towed back to the ranch. It had arrived, courtesy of the Sunny Acres garage, while the group was eating breakfast.

"You little..." Cody couldn't believe his eyes.

"Did you really think I'd leave your truck out there 'in the middle of nowhere'?" she asked him. "Let that be a lesson to you. From now on keep your noses out of my social life unless I ask for your help. Next time I might just leave you stranded further away and not arrange for the Jimmy to be brought back - and make you wait until I can free up a crew, or a vehicle, to go get it."Review this Story