Read A Picture-Purrfect Christmas (A Klepto Cat Mystery Book 13) Online
Authors: Patricia Fry
“Sounds like an eclectic group,” he said, chuckling.
She nodded. When she noticed the boy had returned to the room, she greeted him. “You must be Adam.”
“How many animals do you have?”
“Let’s see,” Adam said. He pointed at the Afghan-mix dog who sat next to Lily’s high chair, looking rather regal. “That’s Lexie.”
Shelly walked over to pet the dog. “Hi, Lexie. Waiting for a yummy morsel to drop on the floor, are you?”
“There’s Buffy in her bed,” Adam said, indicating the part-Himalayan cat peering into the room from under a filmy canopy. “Rags was just here a minute ago, and Walter—he’s probably on his favorite chair in the living room playing…what do you call it, Dad?”
“Yeah, he plays camouflage. He’s black, so when he lies on that chair, you can barely see him.” He took a breath and said, “Okay, that’s four—three cats and one dog. I have a cat at my other house, too—so five.”
Shelly smiled. “Cool.” She addressed Savannah, “We’d better hit the trail before the animals go in for their naps.”
“What animals?” Adam asked.
“The wild animals we want to take pictures of,” Shelly explained.
Still standing, Michael said, “Well, nice to see you again. You ladies have a good ride and be careful. I hear they’ve seen bear out that way.”
Shelly patted her jacket pocket. “Got bear spray.”
“Bear spray?” Adam asked. “You’re gonna spray a bear?”
“I sure hope not,” she said. “It’s just in case a bear gets too close. It’s our last-resort defense.”
“Be sure to get a picture of him before you spray him,” Michael joked.
The two women looked at one another with raised eyebrows. “Sure,” Savannah said, laughing. She kissed Michael, tousled Adam’s hair affectionately, then ran one hand over Lily’s curls and down her back, saying, “Well, you guys have fun. Keep a close eye on Lily. She’s getting more adventurous.”
“We’re on it like ugly on an ape,” Michael quipped.
“What?” Adam asked, wrinkling his nose.
Savannah shook her head as the two women left through the kitchen door and headed out to load Peaches and her tack into Shelly’s rig.
“She’s an agreeable mare.” Shelly said as she drove toward their wilderness destination. “She loads nicely; seems to listen to your commands. I like that.”
“Believe me, so do I,” Savannah said. “I want riding to be a pleasure, not a fight. I so appreciate Peaches and the work Bonnie Teague has put into her.”
Shelly glanced at her passenger. “Oh, she’s one of Bonnie’s prodigies, is she?”
“You know Bonnie?”
“Sure. I take Clyde to her for a tune-up once in a while.”
“Tune-up?” Savannah questioned.
She nodded. “When he seems to forget some of his lessons, I know he needs Bonnie’s firmer hand. She has a nice touch with horses, and Clyde listens to her.” As if confiding in Savannah, Shelly said, “Actually, I’m the one who needs the tune-up and I go to the Teague Stables for riding lessons, too.”
The sun was just making its appearance over a mountain peak when they arrived at the trailhead. Shelly put the truck in park and lifted her camera from the seat. “Now there’s a spectacular sight. Look at that, Savannah. Isn’t it an amazing welcome?”
“Oh, it’s beautiful…almost spiritual. Wow, what a moment,” Savannah said, focusing her camera on the sunrays that had formed a giant cross in the distance through a crevice between two mountains.
“Did you get it?” Shelly asked.
“Yeah. That sight, alone, was worth the trip out here.”
“Let’s hope it’s an omen of more good things to come.”
Savannah smiled. “I like your way of thinking. In fact, it’s encouraging to see the sun at all. Maybe it’ll warm up some and our fingers won’t freeze solid.”
“One can only hope,” Shelly said.
Once the horses were saddled and the women had ridden along the trail for a few minutes, Savannah suggested, “Shelly, tell me about the children in the program.”
“Well…” she hesitated, “we have a kind of mixed bag. There are five boys and three girls. The girls seem more interested in photography than the boys do.” She gave Savannah a sideways grin. “Three of the lads have been given an ultimatum.”
“Ultimatum?” Savannah questioned. “By their parents?”
Shelly shook her head. “Unfortunately, no; by the sheriff’s department.”
Savannah raised one hand toward Shelly. “Wait, didn’t you say these kids are in grammar school?”
“And they’re already in trouble with the law?”
“A couple of them, yes. And we want to nip that in the bud.”
“Through photography?” Savannah asked.
Shelly peered at her for a moment and said quietly, “Through positive human contact while learning new skills related to a creative endeavor, and the opportunity to…shall we say…experience success.”
“So it’s a confidence-building sort of thing,” Savannah surmised.
“Bingo.” Shelly stared out over the horizon. “Photography may not ring their bell or tickle their passion, but it might give them the confidence they need to pursue the activity that will.” She tilted her head, squinting a little into the sun that shone from behind Savannah. “Know what I mean?”
“Sure do,” Savannah said. “I like the way you think.” She lifted out of the saddle briefly then settled back down. When she noticed Shelly nudge Clyde into a slow jog, Savannah smiled and urged Peaches to keep up.
The women had traveled at a walk, intermingled with an occasional jog, for half an hour when Shelly reined her gelding in. She sat tall in the saddle and stared off into the distance.
“What is it?” Savannah asked, gazing in the same direction.
“Looks like a couple of dudes on dirt bikes.”
“So there are methods of getting back in here other than by horseback or on foot, huh?”
“I guess so. Well, there goes our potential for seeing much wildlife,” Shelly lamented. “They’re coming this way.”
“Maybe they’ll ride on past.”
“I wonder what they’re doing,” Shelly said. “There’s nothing out here, except a few ancient mine shafts.”
Savannah thought for a moment. “I imagine those are kind of interesting to explore. Maybe they’re searching for old treasures left by the miners. Or they might be into photography, too.”
“I suppose,” Shelly said, obviously not convinced.
“Is this where you plan to bring the kids?” Savannah asked.
Shelly shook her head. “No. It’s a great place—when it’s peaceful—but not practical for transporting eight kids. Naw. I know of a spot closer to civilization that we can get to by car.” She pointed. “It’s down near the river on the other side of that rise…off the old frontage road.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the area. I got a great shot of an eagle near there once. I’ve seen a couple different types of woodpeckers over there and another colorful bird I couldn’t identify. Hey, we could make this a bird-watching adventure for the kids, too. I can bring my bird book. The kids might enjoy that.”
“Good idea.” Shelly stood up in her stirrups and shaded her eyes. “Looks like those guys are leaving the area. Good. Where I want to take you is just around that bend. Come on,” she said cheerfully.
After several minutes, they left the trail and reined their mounts up a knoll overlooking a small river. “Oh, isn’t it pretty back in here?” Savannah said. She glanced around. “It’s kind of like an oasis in a bleak landscape.”
“Yes isn’t it? Let’s hobble the horses in that clearing, take our cameras, and walk down to the creek, shall we? There are often deer in that meadow,” she whispered. “That’s where I got that great shot of the coyote.”
“I’m game. Want a slug of water first? And I have granola bars,” Savannah offered, digging them out of her backpack.
Shelly thought for a moment, then motioned toward the bars. “I’ll split one of those with you. Yeah, let’s hydrate before we head out.”
“That was great,” Savannah said as the two women rode back toward the trailhead later in the morning.
“Yes, it was a good day for shooting. I think that close-up of the beaver you got on top of the dam with the waterfall behind it could be a winner, Savannah. I loved the technique you used to get that shot. I hope you’ll teach it to the kids.”
“Sure.” She chuckled. “I learned it from my cat.”
“From your cat?” she asked, looking confused.
“Yeah, sometimes when I try to take Rags’s picture, he has this uncanny ability of darting precisely at the moment I shoot. So I’ve learned to shoot ahead of my target. My first shot often gets his attention and my second shot—if I’m fast enough—will sometimes catch the action or the attitude I want.” She turned in her saddle to face Shelly. “I love the shot you got of the hawk flying over. The glint of light around his finger-feathers was perfect.”
Shelly laughed. “Finger-feathers?”
“Yeah. Those wing feathers look like fingers, don’t you think? Was that a red-tailed hawk?”
“I think it was.” Suddenly, Shelly reined in her horse. “Hey, looks like those guys are back. Gads, they’re coming this way. Will their bikes spook your mare?”
Savannah paused. “I don’t think so, unless they do something crazy.”
“Well, sit tight. Let’s see what they have in mind.”
As the grungy men on the dirt bikes pulled closer, they shut down their motors and nodded to the women. “Howdy,” the tall, lean one said. “What’re you ladies doin’ out here?”
Shelly responded, “Just trail riding.”
“Got any booze?” the shorter one asked, grinning.
Shelly grimaced and shook her head.
“We do,” the taller one said, displaying a mouth full of tobacco-yellowed teeth. “Wanna party?”
“No,” Shelly said sharply. “In fact, we’re meeting our husbands here in a few minutes. They’re on horseback. They’re not carrying alcohol, either.”
The two men glanced at each other, the taller one rocking back and forth as if trying to decide his next move. Promptly, he started the bike and turned it around to head in the direction they’d come from. That’s when Savannah noticed a young boy about seven years old sitting behind the rider.
She glanced at Shelly and looked at the boy again.
Who is he?
The son of one of these men? Why isn’t he wearing a helmet out here in this rocky terrain?
All of a sudden she realized the shorter man was talking to them.
“Hey, does Scaif know you’re out here?”
“Who’s Scaif?” Shelly asked.
“The property owner. Well, does he? Cause we work fer him and he didn’t tell us no one was comin’ out here today.”
Shelly looked around the area, scowling. “Property owner?”
“Yeah,” the taller man said, “…like a homesteader. He moved in and now he owns the land.” When he noticed Savannah staring at the boy, he revved up his bike, saying, “Hey, we’d better skedaddle before their husbands get here.” He shot forward, causing the boy’s head to snap back as the child quickly grabbed the man around his waist. The other rider also took off at high speed, performing a wheelie in the soft dirt.
“Wow, I haven’t had an invitation like that in a while,” Shelly said, laughing nervously. “I was a little concerned at first, until I remembered this.” She pulled her hand out of her jacket pocket, the bear spray canister clutched tightly in her fist. She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Homesteader? Is that guy delusional? People don’t homestead in this day and age, do they?”
“I don’t think so,” Savannah agreed.
As the two women continued heading toward where they’d parked the truck and trailer rig, Savannah asked, “Who do you suppose that little boy is? Do you think he belongs to one of those guys?”
Shelly shook her head. “I don’t know. I wondered about that. Didn’t seem like the type of fellows who should be entrusted with a young boy, even if one of them is the father…know what I mean?”
Savannah nodded. “The boy didn’t seem to be having much fun.”
“I noticed that,” Shelly agreed. “He looked a little frightened. But I can tell you, Savannah, some of this county’s children are in frightening situations—even with their own parents or stepparents—and there seems to be no way out for them until they grow up and start making their own decisions.” She shook her head slowly. “Some never make it out.”
“Good God, you mean they…?”
Shelly sighed deeply. “Too many of them become conditioned and they carry the ignorance forward. They don’t know anything but violence, abuse, welfare, and disrespect.”
Savannah lowered her brow. “It sounds like you’ve witnessed some heartbreaking stuff. Is this through the course of your teaching?”
Shelly turned to face Savannah, who followed behind her on a narrow stretch of trail. She rested her hand on her horse’s hindquarters. “Yeah, we get all kinds at our school. It’s actually a good mix of students, but some are certainly in what I would call substandard situations.”
When the trail widened, Savannah caught up to Shelly. “So what about the girls in the photography program; what kind of challenges do they face?”
“Like the boys, they don’t have much positive parental involvement for a variety of reason. Two of the girls live with people other than their own family and one is pretty much the caretaker in her family. She’s the oldest of eight children. Her parents are strung out on drugs or alcohol most of the time and your tax dollars support their habit.” She turned to Savannah. “Your little girl is so lucky to have you, Dr. Mike, and extended family members who love her and know how to take care of her. Not every child is so fortunate.” Shelly paused, then continued, “One little girl, Marissa, seems to have had nothing but misfortune her whole life. She’s crippled. She lives in what seems to be a rather unstable foster situation.” She shook her head as if to remove negative thoughts, and smiled at Savannah. “Marissa is one of the sweetest beings you’ll ever want to meet, yet life has dealt her such a wicked hand. She’s bright. She has the biggest heart and a dazzling smile…how that little thing overcomes all the crap she’s had to endure is beyond me.”
“Gosh, what’s her affliction?”
“She was either born with a deformity or…” she grimaced “…something happened to her when she was very young and she didn’t get the proper medical care. I believe it’s correctable, but so far no one has been interested in getting her any help.” She bit her lower lip and looked at Savannah. “For the life of me, I don’t know how Marissa ended up with this family—how the Cottons finagled their way into the foster system. Some of the children Mavis Cotton cares for…” Shelly chuckled. “…I should say,
care for…may be her own.” She thought for a moment, then said, “Actually, I’m not even sure she’s in the system, but I’m certain she’s getting money for these children, otherwise I doubt very much if she and her deadbeat husband would have them in their home.”