13 • At the Ranch
Will loved trips out into the Coteau. He lived in the bottom of a bowl, in the Arbon Valley. But once he got out onto the highway, he could see the blue-purple Coteau ringing the lip. Today, he would drive right into it and with any luck (and Barbara’s snippy cooperation), he’d not get lost in the hills.
He took the interstate part way, then defied Barbara’s histrionics just for the fun of it and exited to take a county road to the north. After three or four minutes she stopped recalculating and conceded to the new route. Will mused over the dilapidated farm buildings that cropped up in fields near the highway, one of his favorite parts of being on the road. He wondered when a certain swayback barn had last held livestock, or what year a granary with half a roof was last stocked. He always saw an old farmer in his mind, blue and white striped Dickey overalls buckled over a belly grown round on a certain farm wife’s meat and potatoes at every meal. He pictured him there touching the splintered boards starting to give way on the old building, thinking about just one more harvest before moving to town.
Entering the hills was like driving off the map into an other-world with all the spaciousness of the prairie but with the rich contours of softly rounded peaks and deep bottomed gullies, dotted with tree groves filling out with the green of spring.
After a couple of hours following Barbara from one lonesome, winding gravel road to another, Will arrived at Northwind Pastures, a horse ranch and supper club a good hour’s drive from anywhere else. It was the kind of place a guy could take his wife because she thought the Death by Chocolate dessert really was to die for. Only the early reservations could get a seat by the window of Northwind’s log cabin lodge, where he could watch the chef grill him a 20 ounce steak at the end of a pitchfork over the nightly bonfire, in some sort of primal tradition.
He parked in the gravel lot between the lodge and the horse arena and walked around to the entrance. Waiting at the counter, he felt the stares of five junior high girls wearing bed head and their nighties in the dining room, looking at him over bowls of oatmeal and blueberries. Will fidgeted at the counter, rolling the round knob on the silver toothpick dispenser until he had discharged the makings of a doll-sized raft, if he only had a length of dental floss to lash the toothpicks together. He’d learned years ago never to turn around but it did not stop him from feeling the stares keenly.
After a minute that felt like twenty, a short, rotund woman came out of the kitchen in Roper boots, dark blue jeans and a white apron. The food service head covering made her look like she was on her way to surgery.
“Can I help you?” she extended a plastic-gloved hand with bits of ring macaroni stuck to the fingers.
Will hestitated, then pulled a business card from his briefcase and slipped it between two of her fingers in place of a pasta-laden handshake.
“Will Phillips. I’m here to see Amos Bruner on an insurance matter.”
“Oh, right. Amos said you’d be coming. Have a chair by the bar, and I’ll let him know you’re here. Can I get you something? Coffee? Water?”
“A cup of coffee would be great, thanks.” Will sat down at the bar, positioning himself so the girls were in his line of sight. If they could sense the awkwardness of their continued staring they might go back to their oatmeal.
The cook returned with a cup of tepid coffee. “Amos will be right out. Cream?”
Will looked into his cup. “No need, thank you though.”
He pulled his phone from the holster. None of the messages required his attention but he flipped through them a few times to appear busy and important for the sake of the preteens. Reprieve came in the hard footsteps against the wood floor. Amos Bruner, owner of Northwind Pastures, was a tall, slender man in his late 60s. He wore thick-heeled Durango boots with a sharp pointed toe and weathered Levi 501s. A leather holster hung off his western belt, holding a black handled pair of pliers, standard issue for any respectable cowboy. He tipped his hat toward the back of his head and clapped a hand on Will’s shoulder.
“Mr. Phillips? Sorry to make you wait.”
Will put out a hand. “Mr. Bruner? Nice to meet you. And no problem. I think I’m a little early. I didn’t get lost.”
Amos chuckled. “Let me show you around and then we can go talk in my office.”
Will closed his briefcase and tucked it under one arm, following Amos into the dining room.
“You met our campers? It’s our girls intermediate week. Cassandra was here two weeks ago for our advanced camp.”
Will smiled at the girls as he walked past, which they took to mean they should resume staring. Amos pointed to the loft, accessed by a rough-hewn wooden staircase. “We’ve got bunks up there for about 20. House campers in the spring and summer, hunters in the fall and winter. Serve ’em meals in the dining room and then open the supper club to the public on the weekends.”
He stopped by the door to the kitchen and waved a thumb. “You already met Darla, our cook. At night she supervises the campers. And down the hall here is my office. Let’s go sit.”
Amos eased behind his enormous pine desk while Will took a seat opposite and opened his briefcase. “Mr. Bruner, what I need to do is photograph the grounds and in particular where Cassandra fell. I’ll need to meet the horse she was riding and interview any of your staff who were present. I’ll also need any paperwork you have on the horse. Registration, purchase records, vet records, you name it.”
“Well, she was riding Pharaoh. Bought him about a year ago; never had a problem.”
Amos picked up his phone and dialed. “Cade, I need you to come to the office and talk to the insurance guy about Cassandra Mills.”
He opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of yellow and blue papers, rifled through and pulled out Pharaoh’s paperwork. “I’ll go make a copy of this for you. Cade will be in here any minute to talk. He’s my ranch hand and runs the riding camps.”
Will sat back and looked at the photographs framed all over Amos’s walls—cowboys and ranch hands and horses at shows and rodeos. Amos came back in with a young cowboy.
Caden Carson stood nearly six feet tall. He took off his Stetson and shook his blond hair that was tousled in an intentional way. If he lived in California instead of the Dakotas, the muscular young man would surely be a surfer, not a ranch hand. A silver belt buckle as large as a tea saucer—not one earned at a rodeo but designed to look like one—held the ends of his embossed leather belt together, clearly not needed to hold up a starched, tight pair of dark Carhartt jeans that could stand up in the corner on their own.
He put his hat on the desk. “I’m Cade, the head wrangler. Amos said you needed to talk to me?”
“I do, yes.” Will motioned to a chair. “I need to interview you about the facts related to the Cassandra Mills matter.”
Cade blinked. “Am I being sued?”
Will smiled at Cade, who couldn’t have been much more than 20, leastwise far too young to be facing a lawsuit for doing his job. He should be sued for flashing that sparkly white grin and winking those deep blue eyes in a room full of teenage girls, though.
“Not that I know of, Cade. As best as I can tell, she was treated and released from the ER with a mild concussion and has recovered nicely. I’m here because the insurance company is taking precautions. You never know which way the wind might decide to blow.”
Will set his digital recorder between them and questioned Cade Carson, verifying that he took all the usual precautions when Cassandra Mills rode Pharaoh. He confirmed that Cade was standing nearby, as he always did, and that it appeared she had pulled the rein too tight on one side when she mounted, so that Pharaoh began to spin, as he was trained to do, when the rein was pulled. Rather than loosen her grip, Cassandra reached for the other rein, and Pharaoh reared up, throwing Cassandra to the ground and then falling back on top of her. According to Cade, it all happened too fast for him to intervene.
The ranch hand took Will out to the barn and arena where the incident occurred so he could photograph the scene. Pharaoh wandered up to the fence and aside of sneezing on his hand when Will reached to pat his nose, he seemed to be a gentle horse that got pulled the wrong way.
Will was pleased to see a bright yellow sign on the fence advising patrons of South Dakota Codified Law 42-11-2 that exempted equine professionals from liability for injuries or death due to inherent risks of equine activities. Meaning, the horse owner or trainer isn’t going to be responsible for things that horses do in the course of being horses. Will snapped a photo of the sign for his file.
After a couple of hours at the ranch, Will had gathered the information he needed. He couldn’t help thinking, though he had no idea why he thought it, that Joe Murphy would enjoy this place. He packed his gear and the file away and stopped back at Amos’s office to tell him he was finished.
“Feel free to call me if anything comes up. And if the family contacts you, best to refer them to me for any questions. That way you can keep running your business and be well thought of, and I can be the bad guy if anyone needs to be.”
“Thanks for everything, Mr. Phillips. Stop by some weekend for a steak.”
“I might just do that, Mr. Bruner.” Will smiled and shook the rancher’s hand. “Have a great afternoon.”
He passed through the dining room on his way out, happy to see the girls had dressed and gone to the barn for a grooming lesson. He went out to his truck and drove off the ranch in a direction that felt like south but without plugging Barbara in to be sure.
(to be continued)