A Warrior’s Journey, Chapters 18-19

Chapter Eighteen

 

The following week flew as L.L. studied her case of the cattle theft ring. There were at least four thieves involved with several forms of transportation and walkie talkies or CB radios to communicate. They had researched and done surveillance on the targeted ranches. They had contacts willing to purchase stolen livestock likely in another state. No thefts had occurred in recent weeks so she felt they would hit again soon. She could not form a pattern. The thieves struck randomly. She needed to devise a plan to catch them, but how? She could not stake out 100 cattle ranches in Caddo Parish. She laid her files on her desk and walked to the bedroom window. She saw the day coming to an end. The sun was down and it would soon be time for supper. She had watched him walk to the family cemetery several times before. He made his visits alone and never spoke a word of it. She knew he was visiting his mother’s grave. He was entitled to his secrets and she respected them. If he wanted to talk about them, she would always be there for him.

She decided to help Bonnie, Cindy and Nicole in the kitchen. It was not long before Bonnie sent them all to the front porch. “Take you wine and go to the porch. I ain’t got time for all y’all under my feet.”

They did as ordered. It was rare when Bonnie allowed more than one person to lend a hand with the cooking. However Melissa and Julie would always be exceptions. They had a special bond and refused to share their time with others.

“How are things going with you and Shaun?” Nicole asked.

“We are great! I fought it as long as I could. He is the most determined man I ever met.  Once he makes up his mind, that’s it. Done.”

Nicole laughed as she shook her head.

“Yes, it runs in our family. That’s why y’all get along so well. You’re just like him. It was fun to watch you fight him every day and then fall head over heels. When is he going to propose?”

“He is his own man. I have no idea of his exact plan but I know it’s coming. I’m sure he can’t wait much longer.”

Cindy chuckled as she asked the question burning in her mind.

“Nicole, tell us about you and Dr. James Paxton. Seems you are smitten and on the same path as L.L. and Shaun.”

“I must confess. I was living the life I wanted not looking for a man when we met. I knew he was special. Something inside clicked. I can’t find the words to describe it. When I looked in his eyes, I knew I could fall in love with him. The night you and Shaun walked to the pool I began to wonder what if. Then you two kissed right in front of us. I was a little embarrassed and watched James for his reaction. I thought he might be a little upset taking you to dinner and then you end up in Shaun’s arms. He smiled when he saw you two and looked at me with a face that said, “I’m off the hook”. We began our relationship that night. It was awkward at first but soon we were comfortable with each other. We spend most of our free time together. He wants to ask me to marry him but he isn’t quite ready. I don’t know if I’m ready either. He is a most kind and understanding man. I’m a little scared not knowing how this will end.”

L.L. pointed and Cindy snickered as James pulled his Jeep in the driveway and parked in front of the house like he did every day. Cindy got him a wine glass as he took his seat next to Nicole and kissed her cheek. Her face flushed as she took his hand in hers.

Shaun was bolting on the seat rail Glenn located for him. Now he just needed to fill the tank with fuel and try to start the engine. He was a little nervous. What if it will not start? I better have Glenn and James in here before I try.

The morning of the unveiling was set. James rode to the plantation on his old Harley. He pulled to the back porch and killed the motor. The family was finishing breakfast and Bonnie rolled her eyes as she stood to fix his plate.

“He might as well go ahead and move on in now. He’s here for every meal. Reminds me of that old cat I took in years ago. She appeared out of no where and I made the mistake of feeding her. Never got rid of her after that.” Everyone laughed as James joined them at the table. He looked puzzled and felt the joke was on him.

“What?”

Nicole said, “Bonnie told us you remind her of an old stray cat she fed once and then it never left.”

He smiled as he lifted his cup to toast Bonnie. She shoved a platter loaded with biscuits, bacon, eggs and grits to him.

“I guess you are right, Bonnie! Too late to kick me to the curb now after I tasted your cooking. I’ve gained 10 pounds recently. I hereby announce I am addicted to your cooking. Which room shall be mine?”

“Not so fast, James. I know it’s too late to kick you out but you got a long way to go before I’ll be making your bed!”

Another motorcycle rumbled to the back porch as she finished laying down the law. Once again, she rolled her eyes and headed to the kitchen to fix Glenn a plate.

“Seems we are having a motorcycle convention here this morning.”

When they were finished eating, Shaun, Glenn and James walked to the barn to unveil the old Harley. The fuel was poured into the tank and it was time to start the engine. Shaun checked the fuel lines for leaks and asked Glenn if he wanted to do the honors.

“No way, man. You restored her. She is yours. It’s you.”

Glenn did offer a few pointers. “Leave the switch off for the first two kicks. Then flip it on and kick it over again. It may take a couple more kicks for the fuel to get to the jugs. But I bet she’ll fire.”

Doing as instructed, Shaun kicked a couple times before turning on the switch. On the first try, she fired up. Hitting hard, the twin cylinders came to life. The engine was stored with motor oil in the jugs. It took a while for it to burn out and the smoke puffing from the old cow bell exhaust to clear. After it idled for a minute, Shaun increased the throttle revving her up. The crack of her pipes was the most beautiful sound. He racked them a few times and turned her off.

They followed Shaun as he rolled her to the back yard by the porch. Everyone was present as he requested.

Jake stepped off the porch with a big grin on his face. He patted Shaun on the back as he  stood amazed at the classic motorcycle.

“I remember like it was yesterday when Dad rode this thing. He loved this old bike and took her out every chance he had. I never was bitten by the bug but I recognize and admire good craftsmanship. You did a great job, Shaun. We have all been speculating what you were up to in the barn these past weeks. I suspected it was the Harley.”

“Thanks Dad. It was fun to take it apart and rebuild it.” Melissa and Julie bolted off the porch jumping up and down pleading for a ride.

“I will give everyone a ride, I promise. But you will have to wait a bit for your turn.”

Shaun turned to the porch and called to L.L., “Come here, sweetie. First ride is with you.”

L.L. straddled the seat with her longs legs and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. He eased it into gear letting off the foot clutch slowly. Down the gravel road to the lake they traveled. Shaun was a little rusty during the takeoff but it all came back to him quickly.

He pulled to the dock and killed the engine. L.L. stood and stepped off the bike. He took her hand as they looked at his masterpiece. He led her to the end of the dock and leaned against the railing.

Something about the way he walked and the expression on his face told her he had something else on his mind besides the bike. He took a deep breath as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. For a minute, he did not speak as he gazed across the lake.

He pulled her to his lips kissing her with so much power it sent chills down her spine.  He gently broke away and looked in her eyes.

“Come. Sit with me,” he said leading her to the worn bench nearby. She sensed he was about to tell her something important.

They sat silently holding hands looking back down the dock at the bike. She did not speak giving him time to collect his thoughts.

He stood, took a step away and once again leaned against the rail.

I’ve never seen him act this way. What’s on his mind? He can’t seem to say it.

He shoved his hands deep in his pockets as he approached her again.

“I love you L.L., with all my heart. I’ve always dreamed God would one day bring someone into my life I would love and who would love me in return. The day we met, I heard a small voice say, “She is the one.” It shook me to my core. As I walked away, it continued to tell me she is the one. I struggled at first but it was so powerful I could not fight it. When I returned and Dad pulled you next to me, I knew I was in love with you. I decided then I wanted to marry you. It took time to convince you I love you and longer for you to admit you love me. I promised I would give you the time and space to understand we are meant to be together. I believe God puts people in our lives for a purpose. He does not make mistakes. We were instantly drawn to one another. I am grateful he brought you to me.”

He was on his knees as her mind was swirling. He was about to ask her to marry him. Her vision blurred as tears swelled in her eyes. She could scarcely breathe as he took her left hand. Her heart raced. It was a good thing she was sitting or she might faint.

“I love you, L.L., and I will until the day I die. I need you and I want you. I can’t go any further in my life without you beside me. Will you marry me, L.L.?”

His cypress green eyes pricked her heart. It was a good hurt as it washed over her. She wiped the tears from her eyes and took the breath she needed to answer.

“I loved you the moment you kissed my hand. I hated it in a way. I had my life under control and all planned out. You appeared and instantly took my heart. It frightened me a stranger could walk into my life and do that. I fought with everything within me but you would not give it back to me. I trust you, Shaun, with my heart and my life. I will marry you.”

Their lips met and he kissed the tears from her cheeks. Still holding her left hand, he opened his palm and revealed the solitaire diamond engagement ring he was holding. He slowly slid it on her finger as he looked in her eyes. He was beaming as he stood and pulled her to him. He wrapped his powerful arms around her, placed his chin on her shoulder and whispered to her, “It will be up to you to set our wedding date. Just know it will need to be soon or I will go crazier than I already am.”

“I want a spring wedding and winter is almost here. You will just have to wait, Shaun.”

“Somehow I knew you would torment me.”

“This is important to me, Shaun. Since I was a little girl, I dreamed of a springtime wedding. I have it pictured in my mind. I am marrying the love of my life. I see us standing at the altar with flowers everywhere. We will be married here at the plantation, Shaun, and it has to be in the spring. It has to be an outdoor wedding.”

“Then it will be, my darling. It will be as you have dreamed. I know it will be hard for us to wait but we will only do this once in our life so it will be as you wish.”

They stood holding one another for a long time before they took the first steps toward the old bike. They knew everyone was at home waiting for them. The announcement would be made when they returned.

He parked the bike as Melissa and Julie suddenly swarmed him. “I promised y’all a ride but I need to take a short break. Let’s flip a coin and see who goes first.” He took out a quarter and asked them to call heads or tails.

Melissa yelled, “Heads!” “Tails!” shouted Julie.

Tails it was and Julie squealed with joy.

Nicole was watching L.L.’s face as they rode up to the house. Something about her eyes, a sparkle she had not seen before. Was riding a motorcycle that exciting?

As L.L. walked to the steps, the sunlight caught the stone and flashed. A platinum diamond engagement ring was on her finger. Goosebumps ran over Nicole as she found her feet grabbing L.L. the moment she reached the porch. Nicole wrapped her arms around L.L. and began to cry. Jake looked on confused as did everyone else. What in the world has come over Nicole? Why is she crying? It’s just a damn motorcycle ride. He took it slow, there was no danger. He stood and walked to them joining the hug. He looked to his daughter as he asked, “What is it honey? Why are you crying? She’s safe now. It’s just a little motorcycle ride. That’s all.”

Nicole wiped her eyes and pulled up L.L.’s left hand for her father to see.

The large diamond twinkled in the sunlight as his eyes focused.

His smile grew as he took L.L. in his arms. “My! My! He did it!” Jake looked at Shaun as he climbed the steps pulling him in with L.L. as he laughed.

“So you asked her?” he said.

“Yes, I did, Dad, and she accepted.”

“Hey everybody! They are engaged!” Everyone was quickly on their feet hugging and kissing. “When is the date? Tell me what he said! Did he catch you off guard? Who is going to be your maid of honor? Where will the wedding be?” L.L. was bombarded by Bonnie, Cindy, Nicole, Melissa and Julie.

“He did catch me a little off guard even though I knew he was going to ask. I had no idea it would be this morning! We will be married here at the plantation in the springtime. Nicole I want you to be my maid of honor. Will you?”

“I will, L.L. It is the best day of my life! I’m so happy for you! Now you will be a McVeigh! The sister I always wanted.”

“It’s the best day of my life, too,” said L.L. as her smile grew across her face.

Shaun and the men walked to the bikes to visit. Glenn, James and Jake congratulated him putting him through the same series of questions L.L. was asked.

Shaun spent the morning giving rides to everyone but his Dad and Bonnie. He did his best to convince Bonnie she should ride a motorcycle at least once in her life.

“Good Lord gave me a brain and I intend to use it. I ain’t getting on no motorcycle with you, Shaun! You can just stop pestering me about it.”  Jake retrieved his new digital camera and was snapping shots like a news photographer. He needed to learn how to transfer the pics to his laptop now that he had a reason.

By the time Shaun finished his last ride with Cindy, Bonnie had a light lunch on the table. The ten of them filled the dining room table leaving only one seat open. As they filed into the room, Ray walked in. He took the seat between L.L. and Cindy. Jake stood at the head of the table to make an announcement.

“Ray, your timing is splendid! I will be right back. Just give me a moment.” He disappeared down the hall returning a moment later with a bottle of aged Brandy. Holding it in his hand, he spoke, “When Martha and I married, we took two drinks from this bottle. We planned to keep it in the family to use on special occasions as long as it lasted. After we eat lunch, I want us to toast the engagement of Shaun and L.L.”

Ray rose and walked toward Shaun. Shaun stood by his chair. The two men embraced hugging one another tightly and patting the other on the back.

“I’m so happy for you, Shaun!” He turned and walked to L.L.

“When you joined this family to take care of Dad, we all fell in love with you. I wondered how it would turn out if you and Shaun met. Now we know. It is wonderful you two are going to marry.” He learned over and gave her a little kiss on her cheek. Her face flushed as he returned to his seat.

The table conversations covered the engagement announcement, motorcycles and flying lessons. They were in small groups and each group talked about a different topic. It came time for the Brandy as everyone finished their meal. Jake stood as he prepared to speak.

“Cindy, do you mind if Melissa and Julie have a tiny sip? I know they are young but one sip will not hurt. After all, they are family, too.”

“I think this once is alright, Jake, especially for this occasion.”

Bonnie was back with a tray of crystal Brandy snifters before anyone noticed she left.  She stood by Jake as he poured the half shots into the glasses. Bonnie passed them down each side of the table. Jake announced, “Will you please stand with me?” With everyone standing, he toasted his son and future daughter-in-law.

“This is a special time in our lives. L.L. came into our family over two years ago. Living in this old house hasn’t been the same since. L.L., I have loved you since the day we changed that tire. You helped me get back on my feet in my time of need. I am so grateful. Shaun, for years I prayed God would protect you and bring you home to us for good. A few months ago my prayers were answered. Bonnie and I have been praying together for a long time, not only to bring you home, but to lead you to the one He wants you to spend your life with. I love this old house. It’s in my blood. It’s been mostly empty for years until L.L. came. We also prayed we will be blessed with a house full of grandchildren. Cindy joining us with Melissa and Julie sets us on the path. We still have plenty rooms available. I want every room in this house lived in. I am thankful for the love that has always lived in this house and I am excited about the love that is coming our way. Shaun and L.L., I wish you all the love and happiness this life can bring!”

They all clinked their glasses together and drank them empty.

Melissa and Julie’s eyes watered as they felt the strong drink burn its way down. They smiled at Cindy and Ray and secretly wished they too would fall in love and he would be their Daddy. They had not yet told him they loved him nor had he said those words. His actions told them he did. They saw the way their mother and Ray looked at each other. It had love written all over it.

After lunch, the girls were taken upstairs for a nap. All the women gathered in the living room to visit and get all the details of the proposal. L.L. was not comfortable sharing the exact details but she loved each of them and would pour it all out, no holding back.

Jake went to visit with Sam and Jimmy to invite them to the party he was planning this evening. Shaun, James and Glenn decided it was time to take the old bikes out on the highway and stretch their legs. They rode south to the Black Lake Road and turned west. They were in no hurry so took their time traveling along the back roads of Desoto Parish and South Caddo Parish. They made it to Mansfield and filled their tanks with fuel.  While they were taking a break, a crowd of customers collected around them. Some were older men who had ridden bikes like these years ago. They reminisced about all the fun they had back then.

The bikes rolled north towards Wallace Lake. The road traveled along near the edge of the lake. Ancient cypress trees covered in Spanish moss lined the roadside. From time to time they could see the black waters sprinkled with duck weed. In the shallow pockets, Mallards and Wood Ducks fished for food alongside floating logs covered with hard-shell turtles. The deep rumbling of the old engines caused many of the turtles to slide off and splash into the dark waters for safety.

They took another break to stretch their legs at the end of Norris Ferry Road. Norris, a boatman in the early 1800’s, ran a ferry from the north bank of the lake at the end of the wagon trail to the south side in Desoto Parish. The ferry saved travelers eight hours between Shreveport and Mansfield.

Shaun asked the men to follow him through the thick underbrush until the woods opened to larger timber. He searched a moment until he found it. He stepped into a shallow area and pointed back north into the forest. “See the tunnel like opening through the trees and the old road bed beneath them? That is the old wagon road that brought folks to Norris Landing. I’ve always wanted to use my metal detector to search as far north as I can. The road was used by the Caddo Indians before settlers arrived. It was also used by the troops during the War Between the States.”

“I have always wanted to go detecting. I will come with you anytime,” James said.

“Me too,” said Glenn.

“We should wait until the end of winter just before spring. It is the best time to search the ground. The leaves are off the trees and the snakes are hibernating.” Before they left to return to the plantation, they agreed to spend a day here searching for long lost treasures.

The temperature dropped as the sun set in the west. The cool, country air bit a little as  they rode out Ellerbee Road and turned north on Hwy 1. They were glad they brought jackets. The days of riding these old bikes was numbered since winter was upon them.  Shaun turned into the gravel drive heading for the barn. When he rounded the back of the house, he was struck by the sight of a party in the making.

There was a roaring campfire surrounded by tables and chairs. Sam and Jimmy were roasting a pig over the fire pit. The women and girls were setting the tables. Jake was standing next to several men Shaun had not met. They wore cowboy hats, boots and jeans, most were in their late 40’s to 50’s.

After the bikes were stored in the barn, the riders joined Jake and the cowboys. Names were exchanged and drinks were passed around. The cowboys were Cajun musicians here to entertain the family. Glenn and James would not be riding their bikes home tonight. Jake told Glenn to call his gal to come join them.”Tell her to bring an overnight bag. There’s plenty of room for y’all to stay and not drive home after. James, you can take one of the spare rooms, too. Let’s go stand by the fire to watch the pig roast and have us a few drinks.”

It was Sam’s turn to slowly turn the handle of the big, steel crank rotating the pig over the pecan log fire. Blue smoke drifted straight up to the sky while Sam sipped his Jack Daniels whiskey neat from a small glass. Jimmy was sitting straddle of an old work bench from the hangar. He was drinking what appeared to be Scotch.

Sam and Jimmy congratulated Shaun as he approached the big fire. Shortly, Jake joined them carrying a beer tray filled with glasses and bottles of whiskey.

“Name your poison, boys. It is serious drinking time now.”

Shaun and the others opted for Macallan Scotch. Jake filled their glasses taking one for himself.

A caravan of cars rolled into the back yard. Shawn realized these new strangers were family members of the musicians. Wives, brothers, sons and daughters mixed and mingled with the band members. Like a friendly mob, the group joined the men at the fire. Shaun’s head was spinning by the time the introductions were done. Most were from south Louisiana and spoke with thick Cajun accents. Many in the crowd spoke to one another in the French Cajun language Shaun could not understand. They flipped in and out of English and French fluidly.

When the fiddle player struck his bow, the accordion player joined in and soon the full band was blasting pure Cajun Zydeco music. Without hesitation, the Cajun family members gathered in front of the band stand dancing to the music. It was a sight to behold. The old and young alike were dancing in a big mob. L.L. took Shaun’s hand dragging him to the dance floor. She moved as if she was raised in the swamp with the Cajuns. They danced and drank whiskey for hours until the pig was ready. A hush came over the crowd as Jake gave the dinner blessing. Shaun surveyed the crowd. The party numbered over 50 people. Most were part of the band. Debbie was there sitting next to Glenn across from Shaun and L.L. Everyone was eating, drinking and laughing together.

Nicole noticed her the moment she stepped from the car. She was a beautiful woman who walked with ease and grace as she strolled to the lead singer to kiss him on the cheek. She wore a pair of tight fitting jeans and a snug purple sweater topped off with a flashy pair of cowboy boots. Her wavy, jet black hair reached the belt line of her jeans.  Nicole thought she must be in her late 30’s. Something about this woman intrigued Nicole. She walked over to introduce herself.

Nicole smiled and offered her hand, “Welcome to our home. My name is Nicole McVeigh.” The lady turned from the man she just kissed to look at her. Her eyes were deep blue and her skin, without a wrinkle or blemish, was the color of pure milk. Nicole was instantly envious as she studied her face. She had a tiny, turned up nose, thick ruby lips, jet black lashes and brows and stood at least 5’10”.

“Well hello, Nicole! It’s so good to meet you!” she said with her thick Cajun accent. “I am Marie DeBraux. I love your home! I have driven by many times. I moved here from New Iberia and miss the old plantation homes we have back there. I often thought about knocking on your front door to take a tour. This is my brother Nevel DeBraux and lead singer of our band.”

“I’m pleased to meet you two! You should have stopped. We open our doors often to people wanting to visit and tour the home.” Nicole saw Marie’s eyes shift over her shoulder and turned to see her father.

“Marie, Nevel, this is Jake McVeigh, my father. Dad, this is Marie and Nevel DeBraux. They are brother and sister.”

“Good to meet you at last, Marie, Nevel. We have spoken on the phone about coming here to play for us.”

“Yes, Jake, I remember. You wanted to throw a real Cajun party with our kind of music. Something about your son and an engagement party, I think.”

“That’s right. It was last summer. At the time, I didn’t know exactly when he would propose to her. I was happy to learn this morning you were still in town. They became engaged this morning. It is a Godsend you guys could make it.”

“You knew they would get engaged but not when?”

“That’s correct. First they had to meet, you see. After that, it was just a matter of time for the rest to happen.”

Nicole could not believe her ears. Her father had planned the entire thing. She was not sure if she was angry or awestruck with him. He knew before they met, L.L. and Shaun would fall in love and marry. Her mouth was open and the many questions were obvious on her face. Jake could read her like a book. He pulled her to him and continued to talk not allowing her to ask.

“Marie, I have heard so many good things about you over the years. I was visiting friends in New Iberia last year and saw y’all play in Henderson at the Crawfish Festival. You have a lovely voice! I made up my mind then I wanted y’all to play at my son’s engagement party.”

Nicole stepped forward to take Marie’s hand. “Let’s take that tour you’ve been wanting, Marie.”

“I would love it!”

“Your family is going back to south Louisiana after tonight?”

“They have rooms at the Express in town for one more night. In the morning, they’ll return home.”

“You live in Shreveport now?”

“Yes, for over two years. Shreveport needed a good Cajun café and I needed a change from the prairie life back home. I lost my husband three years ago and everything there reminded me of him. We were married over 20 years and I loved him deeply. It has been the hardest three years of my life. I sold my home and put all my money into my café. I have a small apartment behind it. Makes it easy for me to work there and live next door.”

“What is the name of your place? Where is it located?”

“It’s called The Cajun Café on the corner of Kings and Creswell. It was built in 1900. From the street, it looks like other homes in that area of town. I added a parking lot in the rear with a side driveway that led to an old two car garage in the back. I tore down the garage. Customers pull into the alleyway behind the house and walk in through the back door. I currently have seating for twenty. I needed a slow start to have the kitchen and menu in place to handle more than a few customers. Now things are rocking. We require reservations for the two meals we prepare. We serve lunch and dinner. It’s set up like an old boarding house. Everything is made from scratch and posted on my web page. Customers can call or make reservations online. If they call too late and we are booked, they try for the next day. We have firm rules. It is first come, first served for reservations. We have a loyal following of about 100 customers rotating in and out. My food is on the spicy side. Most folks around here can’t seem to handle it regularly.”

As they walked into the kitchen, Bonnie turned to meet them. She was wearing an apron and had a warm apple cobbler in her hands.

“Bonnie, please meet Marie DeBraux. Marie, this is Bonnie Whyte, the lady of our home and our adopted Momma. She raised my brothers and me after we lost my Mother many years ago.”

“It’s so good to meet you, Mrs. Whyte! I love your kitchen,” as she spun around taking everything in.

“Nice to meet you as well, Mrs. DeBraux.”

“Bonnie, I am taking Marie on a short tour. Would you care to join us?”

“I would love to, honey, but I have another cobbler to scratch out. When they finish eating that ole pig out there, I know the sweet tooth will hit ’em. I don’t want your Daddy and the others to want for anything tonight. Besides, it’s Shaun’s favorite dessert.”

Jake held Melissa in one arm and Julie in the other as he danced by the campfire to the rocking Cajun music. Cindy and Ray sat in the old rocking chairs brought from the porch. L.L. and Shaun danced over an hour before taking seats in lawn chairs beside them.

“Where is Nicole?” James asked as he walked up.

“I believe she is giving the Cajun singer a tour of the house. They should be back soon. They’ve been in there for a long time.”

“I think I will catch up to her,” he said as he bolted for the back porch.

“He can’t handle being away from her for more than 10 minutes,” Shaun laughed.

“No. He reminds me of someone I know.”

Ray pulled Cindy from her chair to the dance floor. They moved through the crowd and joined Jake and the girls. Shaun and L.L. held hands as they watched.

L.L. patted his hand, “I think Ray and Cindy make a lovely couple. Don’t you?”

“Yes, they seem to dance well together. Looks like they are having fun.”

“Yes, but beyond dancing together, I think they make a lovely couple.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize what you were really saying. I see what you mean. You think there is a little chemistry happening between them?”

“I’ve known her since fifth grade. I assure you she is interested in him. I know she needs to close the book on Bubba but I suspect she’s receptive to getting to know Ray on more than a business level.”

“I don’t recall seeing Ray dance with anyone, ever. In school he was a wallflower, never dated much. I often wondered why. Just selective, I thought.”

“He can’t do better than Cindy. She is beautiful and has a heart of pure gold. It’s been a long time since she smiled that way. I know Melissa and Julie love him already.”

The band finished the set and it was time to eat. People were scattered about the tables by the fire or sat on the back porch and steps. It was peaceful now. The soft rumblings of conversations along with the cracking campfire was a drastic change of pace from the lively Cajun music.

Never one to miss a toasting opportunity, Jake stood and rapped his fork against his whiskey glass.

“May I have a moment?” Everyone stopped talking.

“I want to do a double toast. First, I want to congratulate Shaun and L.L. once again for their engagement today. Secondly, I want to toast our Cajun friends, who by the grace of God, happened to still be in town and willing to entertain us tonight!”

The band members ate, drank and rested about an hour before returning to the stage. They played “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” then Marie took the stage.

She removed the mic from the stand and swayed as she clapped her hands setting the rhythm. The band joined her. Every Cajun in the crowd rushed to the floor to dance and sing along. The rendition of “Two Step de la Prairie Soileau” was performed twice. Once for the French speaking Cajuns followed by an English version so everyone could join the Cajuns in song. Even Sam and Jimmy found a dance partner.

By the end of the party, Shaun and L.L. were exhausted from dancing. The fiddle and accordion players remained on stage to serenade the party while the other band members continued drinking.

Marie sipped a small glass of wine sitting next to her brother and his family. Her laughter was contagious. Anyone within earshot smiled. She had a special spirit about her, open and approachable. He could not resist the urge to get to know her.

Jake dragged a lawn chair to seat himself beside her.

“I must tell you how lovely you sing! When I saw you perform in Henderson, I knew you would be perfect for tonight. You outdid yourself!”

“Thank you, Jake! It comes naturally. I was put on stage with my parents many years ago when I was too young to know better or be frightened. Everyone in our family for generations is musical. Nicole gave me a tour of your home. It is one of the most beautiful homes in our state. I can say this with certainty as I have been in most of the southern plantations in Louisiana. I recognized some rare French pieces of furniture.  How did your family acquire them?”

“My great, grandfather won this place from a Frenchman in a poker game in New York before the War Between the States. There was a smaller home then built on the banks of the river. This home was completed and everything moved here just before the floods washed the older home away. The home was filled with furnishings the original owners brought from France.”

“You know there are two different types of Frenchmen in Louisiana?”

“No, I was not taught that. Tell me about it, please.”

“The first Frenchmen were of royal blood, wealthy with means to travel to America to buy whatever they wanted. Many landed in Virginia and lived there until they found plantations to purchase. Their first born children were called Creole. They were all Caucasians and started a new bloodline here. When the French plantation masters forced their black slaves to have their children, they too became known as Creoles. Today there are black and white Creoles. My ancestors came from the poor people of France. They fled France to Canada for religious reasons. They settled in Nova Scotia, calling it Acadia, where their numbers grew. They were great fishermen and farmers. But again, they were persecuted and driven from their lands. They traveled down the east cost of America to New Orleans. Again, they were not welcomed in the City and forced to live in the backwoods and swamps. Most traveled west to the prairie lands of our state near Lafayette and New Iberia. They learned to survive in the swamps eating anything and everything. This is where gumbo, jambalaya and all other Cajun foods began. The word Cajun is derived from Acadian. As our ancestors evolved and mixed with Creoles, we became known as Cajuns. We are a proud lot and continue to teach our children our original language. My mother and father and many others in my family never learned English. We will never forget where we came from but we love Louisiana and our country. It’s home and forever will be.”

“Where is your husband? Could he not make this trip with you?”

She caught his eyes looking at her wedding ring she still wore.

“I lost my husband in a car wreck three years ago. I just can’t seem to take my wedding ring off my finger.”

“I understand completely. I lost my Martha over 15 years ago and still wear my ring. I know what it’s like to lose someone you love dearly. My world crumbled. I was blessed to have Bonnie beside me to help raise my children. I don’t think I would have made it without her. This house revolves around her. She is the light we gather around. You will always have a special place in your heart for him as I do for Martha. I believe our hearts can love more than one. I often ask myself if I have room in my heart to love another. I feel if the right one comes into my life, I can love again. What do you think?”

“We have a son finishing LSU in Baton Rouge with a degree in Business Management. He has been my rock in the storm since we lost his father. He wants me to move on with my life and find someone. It is vital that person meets with his approval.”

“Same here. My kids would need to give their blessing and that’s no easy task. They are extremely protective as I am sure your son is.”

“Yes, you are right. David will be no pushover either.”

“Would you care to walk with me into the house? I know Nicole gave you a tour but there is something I would like to show you I am sure she did not.”

“Sure, I’d love it.”

They walked into the den and stood with their backs to the fireplace. He pointed to the far wall above the double doorway. “Do you recognize that painting, Marie?”

“I did not notice it on my tour earlier with Nicole.” She stood by him for a moment before walking across the room to study the small landscape. “Is this the work of Paul Cezanne? Perhaps some of his later work?”

“Good eye, Marie. Right you are. It was painted in 1900. Some say his later work was his best. When Martha and I honeymooned in Paris, we bought it. Though it is a smaller painting compared to the others in the house, it is my prized possession. Like so many other artists, Cezanne was not appreciated until after his death. Did you study art?”

“I was an art major in college. I attempted painting but came away with knowledge rather than skill. I still paint landscapes from time to time. I find it therapeutic.”

“We should join the others…unless you would rather visit something else you don’t see every day?”

“How can I refuse? I can not turn down a chance to see something special over drinking by a fire.”

“Good. Let’s go out the front door.”

He lead her through the house to the front yard. “See the roses in the center area of the circle drive?”

“Yes, I do.”

“They too came from France. We brought 20 small plants home with us. They have thrived here in Louisiana. I worried they would not survive. How wrong I was.”

They walked into the Pecan Grove to the cemetery. Using the tiny flashlight on his key ring, he took her through his family tree. They ended in front of Martha’s grave. Sitting on top of the headstone was a crystal vase holding four long stem roses. He told her he picked the roses and placed them there every day. A rose each for him and their three children. She was touched deeply by the love he still held for his wife. He was a rare man indeed, Jake McVeigh.

“Now I know why I feel so comfortable around you. We have lived through the same struggles and relate to one another. I suspected you had a big heart. Now I know for sure!” She hugged him tightly.

It had been a lifetime since he held someone in his arms like this. It reminded him of holding Martha. She leaned back to look in his eyes. He leaned in and kissed her forehead.

“Thank you, Marie. Those were kind words. I feel the same as you. We do relate and understand as only those that have experienced it can. Let’s head back. What do you say?”

“Thank you, Jake, for sharing the things you have shown me tonight. It touched my heart that you brought me here. Yes, let’s go back to the fire.”

Nicole finished telling them about the conversation she witnessed earlier between Nevel and her Dad. Shaun leaned back in his chair smiling. L.L. faced a mixture of emotions ranging from potential anger to outright love. She looked at her husband-to-be and smiled.

“Your Daddy is a piece of work. I’ll say that. I suspect his accomplice is Bonnie. What do you think?”

“I think he knows me well. He knew I would fall in love with you. Not sure how he planned all the details but I’d like to hear his story. How about you?”

“Yes, I can’t wait to sit him down and watch him squirm through it!”

“Well, no time like the present!”

Jake and Marie walked to the fire laughing at something he said. Bonnie walked to Jake and handed him his drink. “Can I get you a wine, Mrs. DeBraux?”

“Yes, Bonnie, I would love another. Please call me Marie.”

“Be right back with it, Marie,” she said as she smiled.

L.L. was on her feet heading for Jake. “Jake, would you and Marie care to sit with Shaun and me and visit?”

“Sure honey, I’d love to.” He guided Marie’s elbow as they walked to Shaun, Nicole and James.

More chairs were dragged in the circle. Everyone sat before Nicole lobbed her little bomb in his lap.

“Daddy, we would like to hear how you planned last summer to hire Nevel’s band for Shaun and L.L.’s engagement party before they even met. Would you care to explain?”

Jake’s smile could melt the coldest heart and he knew it. He leaned back in his seat and took a long slow pull of his straight scotch without giving an answer. His smile grew as Bonnie handed Marie her glass of wine and dragged her chair to the circle. Their eyes locked for a second. It was clear to everyone that Jake and Bonnie were both involved in this scheme.

“Well?” Nicole asked.

Marie patted his knee as she said, “Busted, Jake!”

“OK, y’all got me! What I did was out of love. The day I saw L.L. walking up the driveway, I thought, ‘Man, I wish Shaun was here to see this lovely lady’. I first noticed her beauty and quickly looked to see if she wore a ring. She didn’t. Before she made it to the porch, I made up my mind. I used everything in my power to get these two together. With the help of Bonnie, we succeeded! I am not ashamed and have no regrets other than not telling y’all before now. Bonnie and I planned to tell but it all happened so fast. We had to wait until he asked her to marry him before we could own up to it. Ain’t that right Bonnie?”

“That’s right, Jake. Just like you said. When I saw this girl here, I knew like Jake she was perfect for Shaun. Just like two little puppies, all we had to do was rub their noses together. They would either fight or fall in love. I’m happy to say they fell and boy did they fall. We enjoyed watching it happen.”

Nicole couldn’t stand it any longer. “Did you play this same trick with me and James?”

“No sweetie. We did not. We knew L.L. and James would never be more than close friends. We were focused on her and Shaun. When we learned Shaun and L.L. were dating and you were seeing James, it was a pure blessing,” Jake told her.

L.L. walked to Jake and planted a big kiss on his forehead. “You are something, Jake McVeigh! But I love you for everything you are!”

“And I love you too, L.L. Always have and always will!”

Shaun sat with a big grin on his face shaking his head.

Nicole joined L.L., pecked Jake on the cheek and gave him a big hug. “I love you Daddy! You’re such a romantic guy! You and Bonnie promise me you two will not play your little cupid games with me and Ray. We are grown and can make our own choices without your guidance. Do I have your word, Daddy?”

“Yes, baby. I promise to keep my nose out of your business and Ray’s too.”

“Bonnie?”

“I will not mess with y’all, Nicole. You got my word.”

As Nicole turned to go back to her seat, she ran into James. He was standing behind her waiting for her to finish laying down the law.

“Oh, James. Sorry.” she said.

He took her hand and led her in front of Jake, Bonnie and Marie.

“Jake, I have something to say.”

Shaun sat up straight in his chair not knowing where James was heading.

“Jake, I am asking you for Nicole’s hand in marriage. I love her with all my heart. I want her to be my wife and the mother of our children. I have loved her since we first met. If you approve of me, I give you my word I will love her as long as I live. I will always put her before me and treat her with the greatest love and respect within my power. Will you give me her hand?”

Jake stood and turned his gaze from James to Nicole then back to James. “Well, James, have you asked Nicole to marry you?”

“No, I haven’t yet.”

“Then I can’t give her hand to you until you ask her and she agrees.”

James went down on his knee holding both of Nicole’s hands in his.

“Nicole, will you marry me? I love you. I will always love you. You have my heart in your hands. I need you so.”

Tears filled her eyes as she pulled him to his feet and quickly kissed him.

“Yes, James, I will marry you!”

Jake came in close taking her right hand. He placed it in James’ hand and said, “I give my daughter’s hand in marriage, James. She loves you and you love her.” He pulled the couple in his arms and congratulated them. Bonnie, L.L. and Marie joined in a big family hug. Tears of joy flowed, cheers and laughter rose from the crowd as the band returned to the stage to play for them.

The crowd of friends and family gathered around the two engaged couples to lead them to the dance floor. Everyone held hands joined in a circle of love around them as they danced.

In Cajun tradition, the party went late into the night. Slowly the band packed up and left for their motel rooms. Ray went to his home and Cindy put her little girls to bed. She took a long, hot bath before going to sleep. Bonnie retired at midnight planning a much needed brunch the next morning. Most would surely have major hangovers so Bloody Marys of course.

As the last couple of logs burned, Jake, Marie, Shaun, L.L., James  and Nicole sat by the fire. Nicole seated herself next to L.L. to talk about the two weddings.

“How do you feel about a double wedding, L.L.? Although I could not be your maid of honor.”

“I love the idea! I’m sure everyone else will too! I want to wait until a good spring day with no chance of rain. It must be held outside. Is this alright with you?”

“I always wanted an outdoor wedding! I am certain I can persuade James to wait until      spring.”

James took Nicole’s hand and asked her to walk with him toward the lake. L.L. and Shaun said goodnight and quietly went to their rooms leaving Jake and Marie by the fire.

“Have you dated any, Marie?”

“No, it takes all my energy to run the café. Actually I haven’t been asked. I’m not sure I am ready.”

“I would like to take you to dinner and a movie sometime. No pressure, just friends. I haven’t dated much over the years. I never found someone that met all of my needs.”

“What are your needs, Jake?”

“I want to be with someone who understands what I went through losing Martha. Sure, I want her to be attractive and intelligent but more than that, I want her to have a big heart. I want her to be my best friend in life, a partner with whom I share all my secrets and her with me. I want to get to know you better as friends. We will see where it takes us. What do you think?”

“I like the idea of a man in my life as a friend, someone special and close to me. I like your approach, slow and easy without pressure. That suits me for now. I have to open in the morning so I should head home.” She stood reaching out her hand to him.

“I had a great time tonight, Marie. My son and daughter engaged on the same day is one of the greatest pleasures of my life. I am pleased you were here to witness it. Your band did a great job. I hope they can play at the wedding reception.”

“I had a wonderful time meeting and sharing with you tonight, Jake. It is easy to be myself with you. I feel like I have always known you.” She reached for the handle of her car as Jake laid his hand on hers. She looked at him as his arms engulfed her. He held her tightly in his big arms. They both took deep breaths. He kissed her forehead and released her.

Smoothly and quickly she kissed him squarely on the lips and opened her door giving him a big smile. Her kiss caught him completely off guard.

“Good night, Jake. Come by for lunch one day soon and we’ll plan a movie date.”

“I will.”

She drove away leaving the big man standing in the moonlight with his hands shoved deep in his pockets. It had been a long time since he felt what he was feeling with Marie. She was pretty, smart and talented with a great sense of humor. He smiled as he walked to his room. As he opened the door to his bedroom, he heard the old wood floor squeak above him. Someone was barefoot crossing to L.L.’s room. He shook his head and went to bed with a grin on his face.

L.L. went straight for the shower taking a long hot one as she relaxed and reflected on one of the most important and exciting days of her life. She was thrilled to be engaged to Shaun. It was a dream come true. Jake set up the entire thing. He knew we would meet and fall quickly in love. Now I will have Nicole as my sister, James and Ray as brothers-in-law, Jake as my father and Bonnie like a second Mom. She crawled between the flannel sheets and fluffed her pillow. Closing her eyes she smiled as she said her prayers.

He waited in the old cloth, winged back chair wearing only his shorts as he heard her shower next door. His mind raced from one scene of the day to the next. He leaned back closing his eyes. Unveiling the Harley, riding L.L. to the lake, proposing to her and  watching Nicole call their father out in front of everyone in her fiery style. Then James asking Nicole to marry him in front of the family, the great Cajun music and the lovely Cajun lady his father was enamored by added to the eventful day. He saw the way they looked at one another. It reminded him of his Dad when his Mom was alive. He knew his dad was lonely and waiting for someone special. He wondered if Marie was the one God intended for him.

The water in her shower stopped. He imagined her drying her body with a towel. He wished he was there to help. Then he would take her to her bed to love her.

He hit the shower thankful she did not use all the hot water. He quickly soaped and rinsed. In less than five minutes, he was slipping on fresh shorts padding down the hallway to her room.

He did not knock as he opened the door and eased to her side of the bed. The moonlight shown through the window. He saw she was fast asleep.

He went to the other side and raised the covers. He gently eased next to her laying his arm across her. He took in a slow deep breath and began to relax. Just when his eyes were closing, she shifted to him.

“I knew you would come to my bed tonight, Shaun. I started to lock my door to keep you out. I made a promise to myself but I want you in my bed every night. We need to be discreet.We can’t have anyone seeing you come in here at night or leaving in the morning. So come in after everyone is asleep and slip out early in the morning. Deal?”

“Deal, my love. I will do as you say. I can’t sleep in the next room any longer. I won’t last until spring to love you. Is this the way you feel too?”

“I feel the same, Shaun. Now take off those shorts and love me!”

As they reached the landing at the top of the stairs, James took Nicole into his arms kissing her once more outside his room. “Good night, Nicole. It will be hard for me to sleep tonight. We will be married soon and you are only a couple of doors away. I’m sure I will toss and turn all night.”

Smiling, she took his hand tightly in hers. She held her index finger to her lips to shush him. She pulled him down the old hallway to her room. As she opened and closed the door behind them, she took him in her arms.

She whispered, “Don’t worry about not sleeping, James. Your mind will be other places tonight. There will be tossing and turning but not like you were thinking. Let’s go to bed.”

Chapter Nineteen

A blanket of heavy frost covered the fields and roof tops of the plantation. It was five in the morning as Shaun stood at her window looking across the beautiful landscape. Her long hair was tangled across the pillows. A little redness was on her left cheek caused by his beard. Her lips were red turned upwards in a fixed smile. She was deep asleep. He loved her with all of his heart.

He kissed her lips and she pulled him to her.

As James quietly closed her door taking his first step toward his room, L.L’.s door opened. He was face to face with Shaun. Panic rushed through James. He was caught red handed leaving the bed of this man’s baby sister.

They stood for a moment without saying a word. Shaun’s face frowned a little but soon it changed to a smile. He raised his right hand signaling to James with a silent thumbs up.

James returned the signal as they crept down the hall on their tiptoes to their rooms.

It was rare but Jake was up before Bonnie this morning. He turned on the coffee pot she prepared the night before. He and Sampson walked down the driveway to retrieve the Sunday paper. They entered the house through the front door heading to the kitchen table. As he rounded the doorway into the kitchen, he heard squeaks from above. He had lived in this house some 50 odd years and knew every moan, squeak and crackle in her.  Having raised Ray, Shaun and Nicole, he could recognize each of their masked footsteps as they walked the floor above him. Two men he thought. Shaun and James going back to their rooms. At first he was a little angry at both of them. Then he remembered the feelings he had when he was their age and the feelings last night with Marie. A slight grin appeared on his face as he filled Sampson’s food bowl.

October brought Halloween. This holiday was owned by Melissa and Julie. Everyone in the house catered to the two little princesses. The ladies of the house banded together to hostess a party for them. Their Sunday School class was invited. It was a total mad house the entire evening. Tons of candy were consumed as goons and goblins meandered throughout every square inch of the home. Wrappers were dropped everywhere and drinks were spilled in almost every room on the ground floor. Cindy and the others had forbidden the kids to take food or drink upstairs.

“This was the best Halloween we ever had, Bonnie!”  Melissa and Julie said together.

“Well, honeys, get used to it. I don’t want you two out on the streets on Halloween so a party for your friends will be held here each year. I am happy y’all had a good time.  Now go find your Mamma and off to bed.”

Thanksgiving at the McVeigh plantation was straight out of a storybook. Two traditional turkeys with all the trimmings were spread out on the large dining room table. The entire family was together. It was a great day for all. The men retired in the big den to watch the Dallas Cowboys play. They won for a change so it topped off a fine holiday.

The next day all the men gathered to put up the giant Christmas tree in the living room. When it was in place, they went outside and broke out the extension ladders to hang lights. Nicole brought out a tray of hot chocolate for them. She did not see James or her father. She asked Shaun where they were.

He pointed across the driveway to the other small pecan grove west of the house. Jake and James were standing with their backs to her as she approached. One was pointing across the land as they talked.

“Hey, here you are! I thought a cup of hot chocolate would warm you up.”

“Thanks, honey,” James said as he took one.

“Thank you, sweetie. I could sure use a warm up. I think we are in for a hard winter this year.”

“What are y’all doing out here standing around pointing at things?”

James wrapped his arm around her as he turned her to the grove. “Look here, honey. See the big opening in the center of the grove?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Your Dad and I settled a little business earlier. I need your approval before we begin. Your Dad sold me these five acres this morning. I want to build you a new house here as a wedding present. What do you think?”

“What? Build me a house here?”

“Yes, well our house to be accurate. I want you to plan and design it. I will build it and it will be ours. We will have our own home next door to where you were raised. We will have privacy and the convenience of living next door to the rest of our family. What do you say, Nicole?”

“I say I love it! I’ve never designed a house. I don’t know where to start.”

“Just start sketching out the floor plan with a stack of computer paper, downstairs and upstairs. I think we will need 4-5,000 square feet of floor space. I will design the detached garage and workshop. I want it large enough for a few vehicles and my plane.”

“You don’t have a plane.”

“Not yet but I will soon. As soon as I finish my lessons, I want to build time as a pilot in command. When I get 500 hours, I want to buy my own. Then when we decide to run to Dallas or New Orleans we only need to walk out to the back yard, hop in and take off.”

“My head is spinning. What do you think, Daddy?”

“I love the idea, honey. We have a lot of land. A house next door with you in it will be great! Shaun and L.L. or Ray may want to build next to you.”

She kissed James and walked back to the house. She was already planning the house, number of rooms, the lay out. It would be fun. She needed L.L. and Cindy to help.

During the Christmas holidays, LL. was off work over a week. She read and re-read the cases of cattle thefts yet still did not know how to begin. Sitting at her desk reading the reports, Shaun brought her a cup of coffee. He looked over her shoulder. “Do you mind if I read them?”

“Not at all. You are a deputy now and have the clearance to read them. When will you start training?”

“After the first of the year. I want the team to get through the holidays before I start working their butts off.”

They moved to the love seat near the bay window taking the reports with them. Two hours later he finished the last one.

“Well, what do you think?”

“I understand why you are frustrated with this case, no real leads. I do have an idea.”

“Tell me.”

“You have access to a computerized network within law enforcement, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

“I think you should post the dates, times and details of your cattle thefts to see if an officer in Texas, Arkansas or Mississippi can provide you with additional information. I bet these guys are hitting all over the South. Perhaps they caught these guys or busted the people who are buying the stolen cattle. This is the best I can do.”

“I love your idea! I will put an N.C.I.C. broadcast out today. I will also start searching arrest of cattle thieves in neighboring states. At least this is a starting place, thank you sweetie!”

Once again Melissa and Julie were the center of Christmas at the plantation. They received so many gifts they lost count. Family, food, friends and fellowship were lived out every day in their home. With approval from Cindy, Bonnie took Melissa and Julie with her and Jake to the Salvation Army near downtown Shreveport. They gave out presents and worked in the food lines serving less fortunate families. The girls asked to go back the next day to deliver presents they received. It was touching watching Melissa and Julie re-wrap their gifts to pass to the children staying in the facility. Some of the recipients had tears in their eyes when they learned the gifts were passed on from the girls. Bonnie beamed seeing the joy on the children’s faces. It touched her deeply.

For over 30 years, Jake never missed Bonnie’s breakfast. Today was a first. He walked in the kitchen and asked her not to fix him anything. He would eat in town. He poured his coffee in a travel mug and went to his truck.

It was still dark at six in the morning when he parked next to Marie’s little import behind the Cajun Café. He knocked lightly on the back kitchen door as he looked at her through the window. She was busy chopping something on a cutting board. When she looked up, her frown instantly turned to an excited smile. She dropped the knife and rushed to the back door to let him in.

“Well, look what the cat drug up!”

“Good morning, Marie! I skipped Bonnie’s breakfast so I could visit with you while you prepare for lunch. I thought I might give you a helping hand.”

“I have a hard and fast rule. I never allow anyone other than my staff to help in the kitchen. I am willing to make one exception for you. Do you know how to dice onions and potatoes?”

“Yes, I think I can manage.” He stepped to the large sink and washed his hands. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work. The kitchen smelled wonderful as something simmered on the stove top and something else baked in the oven.

“What is cooking on the stove?”

“I am par-boiling four chickens. I will turn them off in a few minutes to cool. I am making one of my special Cajun recipes. You call it chicken salad but mine is quite a bit spicier than what you find in north Louisiana. I have two large peach cobblers baking in the oven. I will store them in the warmer till it is time to serve. I have two more to bake and dessert will be finished.”

They spent all morning together working in the kitchen. As lunch guests arrived, Jake helped set tables and serve dishes. He even helped bus tables as needed.

At two in the afternoon, the customers were gone. It was time to clean the kitchen and begin preparing dinner.

By the time he left in his truck, he was exhausted. It had been nonstop all morning and afternoon. He had food spots all over his pants and shirt but loved every minute working with Marie. He drove home thinking how hard she worked each day.

No wonder she doesn’t date. By the time she finishes each day, all she wants is a hot bath and a bed just to do it all over again the next day.

She grinned at her reflection in the steamed mirror as she reflected on her day with Jake. He was pleasant to be with even in her kitchen. He knew a lot about cooking and seemed at home working alongside her, smooth and steady. She had to admit, when he volunteered to help, she almost cringed. She had visions of him cutting off a finger or spilling plates on the floor. She liked the way he hummed and sometimes sang a couple of old country songs under his breath. He had a deep baritone voice. Perhaps one day I will get him on the stage with me.

L.L. and Shaun fell into a good, early morning routine. They were up and out of the house before sunrise while the others were still cozy in their beds. As they jogged to the lake, L.L. told him her news. He had slipped to his room to dress for the outing while she  checked online for responses.

“I received a couple of responses to my inquiry last night. I learned Tyler, Texas Sheriff’s Department arrested a band of men two years ago trying to sell stolen cattle. The suspects got off with a slap on the hand. The officers could not prove they stole the cattle but they were charged and convicted with possessing stolen property. None of the suspects had previous arrest records so they were given probation. The cattle were returned to the owners and the suspects skated away. Also there is a livestock auction near Avinger, Texas that is a known hangout for the thieves. Not sure where to go with this information but it’s a starting place. What do you think?”

‘You should find out who was the lead officer in the arrest case and make contact with him or her. I bet there is more information to be shared not in the arrest reports.”

“I like that. I will track down the officer today and build a line of communication with them.”

“I will call our Sheriff today about training the S.W.A.T. team next week. I will ask if he will deputize Glenn Schach to put on my team. He proved himself when we caught the bank robbers. He can handle anything that comes his way. I trust him.”

“Glenn will be accepted without delay. The Sheriff was thrilled the day we caught the bank robbers. He is not one to forget. Having a SEAL and a Marine Recon on board makes for an outstanding response unit.”

After breakfast, L.L. went to her room to work on her case while Shaun went in the den to place the call to the Sheriff. He answered his cell on the first ring.

“Sheriff, may I help you?”

“Hey, Sheriff! Shaun McVeigh. Good morning and thanks for taking my call. I am ready to begin training the response team. I want to meet each person to conduct interviews. I want to learn the extent of their training and assess their mental and physical strengths. You said I would have major input how the team will be structured. Do you still feel this way?”

“I do, Shaun. The team we have is very good but there is always room for improvement.  If you determine someone is not suitable for the team, I will reassign them, no questions asked.”

“Great! I have a request or make that two requests. I need two additional people assigned to the team. I want L.L. brought in with us and Glenn Schach to come in as a reserve deputy like me.”

“I understand completely, Shaun. No problem with either. I’ve thought of placing a female on the team for some time. L.L. is at the top of my list. I will have the paperwork in place first thing Monday morning for her and Schach. She will remain in her current position as an investigator but will be a response team member as well. Have Glenn in my office with you at eight Monday morning so I can swear you in and issue your commissions and equipment. We have a couple of spare unmarked units I will issue to you and Glenn as well. I will have the senior team member give you a call. He will know you are in charge of the team in all training and during any calls for service. I want him to be your second-in-command so no feelings are hurt. L.L. and Glenn will fall under him. He’s been on the team several years and as good as we’ve got.”

“I can live with this arrangement, Sheriff. See you Monday.”

In less than 10 minutes, Shaun answered the call from Sgt. Donald Dean. Shaun asked him to come to the plantation to meet for lunch.

L.L. spent the entire morning online and on the phone. She located the lead officer in the Tyler case. Mark Johnson had been with the department for 16 years and was well respected throughout the judicial system in East Texas. He was polite but firm in his conversation with L.L.

“Deputy Johnson, please give me the run-down on how you caught those guys with the stolen cattle?”

“Sure, we have cattle thefts all over East Texas. Over the years, I built several reliable sources of information. I have two Confidential Informants that help me. One is a truck driver and distant relative to the leader of the group. The leader owns his own 18 wheeler rig with a cattle trailer. My man is kin to his wife. From time to time, the guy gets drunk and slaps her around. My guy will not confront him directly but calls me to step in and send officers to settle things. Don’t know why she stays with him but like so many abused women, she seems to love the bastard. They live about 10 miles south of Tyler on a little farm. My other C.I. is a cattle hauling driver who owns his own truck also. He was stopped for drinking and driving a while back. We went to school together so he asked me to help him. He’s always been a little shady even in High School. There is good in him and I always try to overlook his bad side.”

“I know the feeling. I have experienced the same with a couple of my old buddies. They call me from time to time when they get in a bind. I always try to help them. Tell me about the band of men. How many are involved?”

“There are about six or so of them. All were raised together and formed a little clan. Some jump in and out of the theft ring. Mainly there are four of them that are tight. My C.I. was invited to join them but he’s a little scared. Since we busted them, they have steered clear of steeling cattle in these parts. I see them all driving new, jacked up pickups and pulling new bass boats. They can’t afford those things on their earnings as simple truck drivers. I know they hit the road over the last two years and disappear for weeks at a time. When they pop up here, they park their trucks and go fishing. I heard they all pitched in and bought a nice fishing camp on Toledo Bend Lake.”

“Tell me about the Avinger Livestock auction.”

“Well, it’s not your basic auction. There is a man, a spoiled kid, who inherited a large ranch over there from his Daddy. He holds his own auction every now and again at his place. My C.I. tells me he is connected to the ring and buys anything that comes in without questions. I hear he shuffles the cattle to Oklahoma for a good profit. He hasn’t held an auction for a while. It’s hard for me to keep my finger on his operation from down here in Tyler.”

“We haven’t had a theft here in over a month. I have a feeling we will be hit again soon.  Do you think your C.I.’s can link up with them and let me know when and if they plan another theft?”

“I will meet with them today and see if I can persuade them to help. If so, I will give you a heads up when they plan the next op.”

“Thanks, Mark. I have a good feeling about this group. Look forward to hearing from you. Just text or call with any info.”

“Will do, L.L. Keep sharp on your end, if this is the right group, you need to be on your A game. These guys are bad players and will not go down easy. They like their rich ways of life and willing to do most anything to stay out of the pen. I know they all carry pistols and shotguns and will not hesitate to point them at any officer who tries to take them down.”

“Thanks for the heads up, Mark. We have a good response team on hand and will be prepared to deal with them, anyway they choose.”

The New Year celebration at the plantation was magnificent. Jake and Bonnie secured Marie’s Cajun band to perform. They invited 50 guests to attend the casual affair in the main dining room. Bonnie had Sam and Jimmy remove the giant dining table and chairs to make room for the crowd. The kitchen was a congested traffic zone as guests roamed about snacking and drinking. Bonnie set up a bar in the den and another in the foyer. Marie’s band, with her as lead vocal, sang several songs in English to start and then switched to her Cajun songs. Her family crowded the dance floor during the Cajun songs to put on a show. All the North Louisiana rednecks stood aside to enjoy the sight.

As the grandfather clock in the foyer chimed midnight, everyone had someone to kiss in the New Year, L.L. with Shaun, Cindy with Ray, Jake with Marie, Bonnie was kissed by Sam and Jimmy, James with Nicole. After the kissing was done, the band played on and the drinking continued well into the morning. As the sun peaked above the pine trees beyond the lake, the guests switched from drinks to coffee. Marie and Bonnie joined forces and made chicory coffee. It was served in tea cups so small the men had difficulty putting their fingers in the handles. Jake knew how strong chicory coffee was and sipped his from the back porch swing with Marie at his side. L.L. and Shaun sat on the steps and did the same. James had never tried it but heard how powerful it was. He frowned at his first swallow and Nicole laughed. Bonnie allowed Cindy and the girls to help her prepare a giant breakfast and soon every belly was full and every head was ready for a pillow. After breakfast, Jake ordered all those present to hit the sack. Every bedroom was filled and cots were set up in the dining room to handle the overflow. They slept through noon and began to stir by mid-afternoon.

Jake asked Marie to go for a ride in the side by side with him. They rode the entire property from the cotton fields to the swamp by the river. She loved the moss covered trees and backwaters of the swamp. It reminded her of home on the bayou. She was excited to learn the Northern part of the state had such scenery.

Shaun met his teammates at the training academy and spent the morning with Sgt. Dean interviewing them. Only one man seemed out of place. He was an older deputy in his early 50’s. He was sharp minded but a little out of shape and not agile enough to handle the upcoming training. Shaun met privately with Dean and shared his concerns.

“What do you think of Ben Taylor? He looks a little over the hill for what I have in mind.”

“He is a good man, not a spring chicken or in the best of shape but he is one of the best hostage negotiators in the history of our department.”

“Let’s re-assign him to the command unit. We need two people to deal with negotiations, media and ranking officers who always want to be in charge, someone who can stand up to them. I won’t even allow the Sheriff to take charge of a situation when we are running things. Do you think Taylor can handle them?”

“I know he can. He is well respected by the ranking officers and hard headed as a mule.”

“Good, then he needs to pick one more person to assist him.”

“Done. I will take care of it.”

January was the most difficult for all those on the response team. Shaun and Dean gained approval from the Sheriff to have all team members assigned to full time training. Shaun worked them hard. The men lost weight and gained muscle during the daily exercise classes. They trained with all weapons including flash bang grenades and fully automatic firearms. They practiced hard entries into building and vehicles and night ops crawling on their bellies through the woods to overtake armed suspects. L.L. out shot everyone on the team, second to Shaun with her hand gun and just behind Glenn with the long guns.

By the end of the first week of February, Shaun and Dean were pleased with the condition of the team. He was satisfied they could handle most anything they would face as law enforcement officers yet fell short of being equal to a real SEAL Team. After six weeks of training without days off, Shaun released the team back to their full time duty stations. All the members were on 24 hour standby. Each member was assigned a special unmarked take-home unit fully equipped with a complete complement of tactical gear.  James Paxton joined the team during the first week of training and caught on quickly with firearms. He was a little out of shape at the beginning. Shaun put him on a special weight training program in addition to team training. They simulated officer down situations and James learned how to rescue a teammate under opposing fire and treat the victim’s wounds. At the end of his training, he too was sworn in as a deputy sheriff.

Julie’s birthday was February 6. It was on a Sunday this year. Between Cindy, Melissa, Bonnie, L.L. and Jake, she received a surprise party at the plantation. Cindy invited Julie and Melissa’s Sunday School class. There was delicious cake and ice cream. The party was taken outside since the sun was shining and the skies were clear for airplane rides. Shaun used the Bonanza to carry  five passengers each trip. He took them over the river and across the vast cotton fields. None of them had flown before. When the last ride was finished, the kids climbed down the steps in the hangar. Jake rolled two new bicycles to them.

“I know it’s your birthday, Julie. I hope you’re OK with Melissa getting a gift, too?”

“I’m so happy, Mr. Jake! I wouldn’t be happy if Melissa didn’t get one too!” All the kids took turns riding up and down the driveway until the sun began to set.

Monday morning came and L.L. was back on duty working investigations. There was a rash of residential burglaries in the Blanchard area. Four investigators were assigned as a team to tackle them. One witness observed an old, rusty Ford pickup truck cruising the streets about the same time of the offenses. One witness had come face to face with the two young men on the previous Friday morning. Her husband’s truck broke down at work the day before. He was given a ride home that evening. The next morning he took his wife’s car to work leaving their open air carport empty. The suspects drove by slowly and assumed no one was home. They backed into her carport preparing to clean out the mobile home. They knocked on the kitchen door like a good neighbor. When the wife called out to them through the closed door, the suspects ran to the truck which was still running and left. She called in their descriptions. Both men were in their early 20’s, six feet tall and slender. One had a goatee with long blonde hair and the other had dark brown hair cut in a buzz style.

It was a few days before L.L. and her partner could identify them. Two weeks earlier, the suspects pumped gas at a small convenience store before paying. The clerk had firm instructions not to allow customers to fill their fuel tanks before paying but she routinely permitted it. This day the men drove off.  She reviewed the tiny security camera tape to obtain the license tag numbers. The report was taken over the phone by a 911 operator and that was it. The clerk had to reimburse the store for the $67 in fuel taken by the suspects.

L.L. pulled all crime reports for the last three months where two young, white males were listed as suspects with a rusty truck. She tracked down the registered owner of the truck. The man lived in Shreveport in a bad neighborhood. He was not pleasant as she and her partner stood on his porch asking questions. The male owner in his 60’s stated he sold the truck to a young, white male who needed it for his work as a roofer.

L.L.’s next stop was the state motor vehicle division office across the river in Bossier City.

The officer only took a few seconds to identify the current owner. He handed L.L. a printed copy of the suspect’s driver license, insurance company and registration information. She and her partner went to the address and found a run down house in the small rural town of Vivian. It was a rent house and the suspect had move a few months earlier. L.L. called the suspect’s auto insurance company to get a new address.

The mobile home sat at the end of a muddy road a couple of miles north of the town of Blanchard. “At least it’s still in our Parish,” she said as they dodged mud holes filled with water. The old truck was nosed up to the front porch. L.L.’s partner pulled within inches of its rear bumper to block it in. They did not walk up the steps of the small wooden porch but stood close enough to rap their fist on the metal siding of the home.

“Caddo Parish Deputies. Open the door!” she shouted as she banged on the siding.

They heard running footsteps at the back of the mobile home. L.L. cursed as she ran around the trailer house. The suspects bolted out the back door which did not offer a rear porch. The trailer home was at least four feet off the ground. They landed and rolled once before they found their feet. L.L. went for the blonde and her partner tackled the other. As L.L. caught the collar of her suspect’s shirt, he suddenly spun and popped her in the right eye with a dirty fist. She recovered shaking her head clear and landed a punch to his gut knocking the wind out of him. This blow caught the man off guard and he stumbled. Her second blow landed squarely on his chin. The crisp strike knocked him out completely. He landed with a thud on his back in the muddy yard. L.L. cuffed and left him to join the scuffle between suspect number two and her partner. They were rolling on the ground. The suspect was trying to reach for the officer’s weapon when she got to them. With an open right hand, L.L. slammed the side of the suspect’s head with all her strength. The blow forced the suspect off her partner knocking him out as well. He was handcuffed and left on the ground while she and her partner caught their breath and recovered.

The young, female Doberman Pinscher had wrapped her chain around a small oak tree unable to reach her five gallon paint bucket filled with water. L.L. grabbed the bucket dousing the slimy water on the faces of the two men. They coughed and gagged as she stood over them with a smile on her face.

L.L. and her partner shoved the suspects in the rear seat and headed back to the station for booking and questioning. Before leaving the arrest scene, she untangled the puppy from the small chain and refilled the water bucket. After they were placed in separate cells, L.L. and her partner acquired spare patrol uniforms from the supply office and changed clothes.

When she walked in the large detective room, her right eye was puffed surrounded with dark blue coloring. Several men smirked at her. She flopped down at her desk, took a swig of a Diet Coke and glared back at them.

“Looks like you had a little mishap.” one remarked.

Before she could fire back, her partner stepped in front of her.

“We caught the little bastards without your help! They were not interested in surrendering so bolted out the back door. I caught one and the fight was on. L.L. got hit but she knocked her guy out cold. Mine was not going down easy. We were on the ground with him trying to get my gun. L.L. slammed her hand to the side of his head and knocked him out too. She then dumped five gallons of filthy water on them to bring them around. They are upstairs now enjoying our four star accommodations.”

“We need y’all to get off your asses now and pitch in. Two of you go interrogate the dirt bags upstairs. You other two draft a search warrant for the mobile home. Here’s the address. Come with me, L.L. It’s time for lunch.”

Without a word, they headed down to the coffee shop.

When she parked her unmarked unit in the garage, exhaustion hit her. The winter sun was long gone as she sat in her car and thought back on the day’s events. She dreaded going inside to explain everything to the family but she had no choice. The warrant was productive. They recovered numerous guns, TV’s, computers and jewelry from the suspect’s house. She helped the young pup chained to the tree needing food and water. While the other detectives handled the search and recovery, she found the dog some food.

The pup jumped on her pants covering her with muddy paw prints. L.L. did not care after what she had been through today. They quickly became friends. While the pup gobbled down the food and drank a gallon of fresh water, L.L. phoned the Sheriff.

“I need a favor, Sheriff, and I need it now.”

“What is it, L.L.?”

“I’m sure you have been briefed on our case in Blanchard. The two suspects recently bought a young, female dog with some cash they took in their burglaries. This dog is neglected. She has a chain locked around her neck and tied to a tree. She keeps wrapping her chain around the tree unable to reach her food or water. The suspects are going down. It will be years before they get out. I want this dog and I want you to issue a seizure order for her.”

“Well, L.L., I have never issued one for a dog. Did one for a horse last year. I can handle this with Judge Clark. Take her home with you.”

“By the way, good job! L.L., you and Smitty did outstanding work. I’m told by your supervisor the suspects confessed to 20 offenses. I hear y’all recovered over $50,000 in stolen items. I am proud of you! Take the dog and head on home. Leave the clean up to the rest of them.”

“Thanks, Sheriff. I appreciate it very much.”

“You’re welcome, L.L. Now go home.”

She picked up the black trash bag containing her muddy, silk dress suit and the puppy and started for the house. Condensation obscured the window on the kitchen door but L.L. could see Bonnie and the girls sitting at the small table coloring. Supper was on the stove top and the aroma made her mouth water. As she opened the door, the puppy began to squirm in her arms. When Melissa and Julie saw her, they rushed her as the pup jumped into their arms. Licking and kissing went on for a few minutes as Bonnie surveyed L.L.’s appearance. Bonnie could see she had a rough day. She wanted to fire many questions at her but instead took her big arms and pulled her into a loving hug.

Bonnie looked down. Melissa and Julie were now on the floor with the puppy and Samson had joined them. His short nub of a tail wiggled as they made friends.

“Is she your puppy, L.L.? Melissa asked.

“No, I don’t have time for a puppy. She’s yours but you will have to take care of her.”

The two girls stood and hugged L.L. and Bonnie.

“Does she have a name?”

“No, you will have to name her.”

“I want to call her Marley!” Julie shouted.

“I like the name Marley!” answered Melissa.

“Then she is Marley,” declared Bonnie.

“Let me see her for a minute. Just as I thought, covered with fleas. Let’s take her to the laundry. We will bathe her in the mud sink.”

L.L. looked up as Shaun walked in.

He stood across the room with a worried expression on his face. He opened his arms and invited her to them. He kissed her gently and took her hand leading her to the shower.

When she was clean and refreshed wearing her white, terrycloth bath robe, she found him sitting in her love seat holding out a small glass of Brandy. She sat in his lap and kissed him deeply before she took the first sip.

“Now, I want to hear all the details, L.L.”

“Well, it started with a rash of burglaries near Blanchard……”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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