Tex by Liz Isaacson

CHAPTERONE

Tex Young drove past the sign welcoming him to Coral Canyon about the same time he realized another song hadn’t come up on the radio. He glanced over to his son, who reminded him more of a man than a teenager.

Bryce was seventeen now, with only one more year of high school before he’d be unleashed on the world as an adult. His son met his eye and hastily reached for his phone. “Sorry. I was thinking about something.”

Tex thought it was probably someone, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t quite know how, and living in a permanent place wasn’t going to be the only brand new thing Tex would have to learn how to do this summer.

He’d always had Bryce with him in the summers, and he’d loved taking his son around to various cities in the US as he traveled with Country Quad, the family band he’d founded and led for the past fifteen years.

He smiled at his son and said, “Maybe something that isn’t country.”

“Are you insane?” Bryce asked with a chuckle. “There is no music other than country that’s worth listening to.” The twangs of guitar came through the speakers, and Tex did love a good guitar. He’d been playing since he was four years old, and he never felt quite as at-home as he did on a front porch with an instrument in his hands.

Even better was when Bryce sat next to him and sang the songs Tex had written over the years. Otis, one of his brothers in the band, wrote a lot of music and lyrics for the family band, and Tex admired his brother’s gift.

Tex shifted in his seat, a question on his mind. He reached to turn down the radio, which also drew Bryce’s attention. “You sure you want to stay here for senior year?” he asked.

Bryce looked away, out his passenger window. The boy had been growing facial hair for over a year, and he hadn’t shaved since the last day of school, over a week now. Tex and Bryce had been living in Boise, and they’d spent the past few weeks packing everything after Tex sold his house. Now, all they owned rode in the truck or the trailer currently attached to the hitch behind them.

“Yeah, Dad,” he said.

“You never have told me why,” Tex said as gently as he could. “Your mother’s had you for years.”

“Only because you traveled so much,” Bryce said. “I came over to your place on every break when you were home.”

“Yeah.” Tex had traveled three hundred days a year, and while he maintained a residence in Boise, he’d sold that house and rented one in Coral Canyon, Wyoming. He glanced around at the town, noting all the changes. “Wow, look at this medical center.”

He’d brought Bryce to his hometown before, most recently when one of his brothers, Mav, had gotten married a few months ago. They’d also come when his father had announced he was going to sell the family ranch. Tex had eight brothers, but none of them had felt a deep love for Wyoming land, and no one had wanted the ranch a decade ago, Tex included.

They’d all converged to help Daddy pack, clean, and move out of the farmhouse and into a more sensible place in the middle of town. He and Mama lived with men and women their own age now, without any yardwork, animals to be fed three times a day, or howling winds and snowstorms to navigate to the barn.

Tex actually missed the cowboy life, and he wanted to get back to it. The house he’d rented sat on the other side of town from the ranch where he’d grown up, and he suddenly decided to drive by the farmhouse he’d known so well.

“How are you feeling? Need to use the bathroom? Can we drive by the farmhouse?”

“Sure,” Bryce said. “I’m good.”

Tex watched the new developments pass by the window, and he saw several unfamiliar restaurants along this extension of Main Street. “Looks like some great new places to eat,” he said. “Even since April.”

“Let’s try ‘em all,” Bryce said, referring to a summer he and Tex had spent together a few years ago, where they’d tried as many new restaurants as they could, in as many towns and cities as possible.

“Deal,” Tex said with a smile. He passed the road that led back to the high school, then City Hall, then the library. Tex couldn’t remember the last book he’d read, and he wondered if he should make a list of things he wanted to try this summer.

Readingwould go on it. Getting back to his cowboy roots would too. Writing a new song, getting and riding a new horse, and hiking would definitely be on it.

“Maybe we should make a summer list,” he said, glancing over to his son. “Things we haven’t done in a while we want to do, or things around Coral Canyon we can’t do anywhere else.”

“Like the balloon festival,”

“Yeah,” Tex said, grinning. “Like that.”

“Grandpa said there’s a police dog academy here,” Bryce said. “And they do tours.”

“We’ll look it up when we get to the house.” Tex made another turn, and the road led past a couple of office buildings and then the residential part of Coral Canyon opened up. The houses along these streets sat fairly close together, and the farther they got from the historic Main Street, the more land surrounded the houses.

“Did you like growing up out here?” Bryce asked.

“Yeah,” Tex said, sighing. “We had a pond right on the property. We could ride our bikes anywhere. Dad let us go fishing every Sunday after church.” He grinned at his son. “It was an easy, slow life.”

He had liked it, and the tender part of his heart longed for that life again. He’d stepped back from Country Quad to do exactly that, hadn’t he? Relax more. Travel less. Find a community to belong to.

He had, and his chest swelled with another breath, which he blew out slowly. “It was a good life.” He looked at his son again. “What happened in Boise to make you want to leave everything you’ve known and come do your senior year here?”

His dad had always shot straight with him, and Tex wasn’t doing his son any favors by not making him talk. He’d stayed in touch with his son over the years, but Tex wouldn’t label himself a good father.

He could talk to his son, and he’d given his advice, but he hadn’t been involved in the day-to-day parenting the way his ex-wife had. He knew that had been a major source of annoyance to Corrie, the woman he’d been married to for only two years before that marriage had dissolved.

He was actually looking forward to this summer and this year and all of this time off. While he still had an album to make for his record label, he would finally be able to dedicate time and energy to Bryce, and they’d talked about this year a lot already on the drive here from Boise.

“Mom’s…she’s been saying some things.”

Tex kept his gaze out the windshield. “What kind of things?”

“Lots of stuff,” he said. “When she said she had put her whole life on hold to have me and she couldn’t wait to do what she wanted, I got pretty mad at her. There was…sort of a…blow up.”

Tex didn’t know what to say. He was always the brother who observed and listened before he spoke. His chest stormed and his stomach turned inside out. “She loves you,” he said.

“She told me she hated being a mom,” Bryce said. “That’s when I called you.”

Tex whipped his attention to Bryce, suddenly all of his listening skills gone. “She did not say that.”

“She said she wished she’d never had kids.” Bryce kept his gaze out the window. “It’s fine. I don’t believe her, and I know she’s been stressed.”

“About what?” Tex demanded, trying to keep his grip on the steering wheel loose and his temper in check. He wasn’t the Young brother who went from zero to annoyed in one second. “All the money I send her for the two of you? Her summers off from teaching? That perfect, two-story house that looks like it came out of a storybook?”

Bryce said nothing, and Tex stewed in his anger. Corrie had no right to make Bryce feel like he was unwanted.

“Bud,” he said, exhaling all of his irritation from his body. “I’m sorry. I know she didn’t mean any of those things.”

“Yeah, I know too,” he said. “But since I moved in with you, and we always have the summers, I just figured, why not senior year too?”

“Jenny’s why not senior year too,” Tex said, sliding his man-son a look out of the corner of his eye. “You’re still talking to her, right?”

“Yeah,” Bryce said with a sigh. “We talk.”

“You goin’ with her?”

“I don’t know what that means, Dad,” he teased.

“It means she’s your girlfriend.” Tex gave him a full look. “Your mother told me about the Sweethearts dance and the prom, and then the other prom….”

“Yeah, well, she lives in Boise, and I live here now.”

Tex made another turn, this time not looking at his son. “Once we have a real chance, we’ll look around and buy something. I’m going to stay here for a while.” The right side of the road didn’t have any houses, and the places out here were spaced far apart.

“Whenever,” Bryce said. “We can put it on our summer list.”

“I used to go with the girl who lived next door to me,” Tex said, infusing a smile into his voice.

“You’ve told me, Dad,” Bryce said dryly.

“See? You know what goin’ with someone means.”

Bryce scoffed—or maybe laughed—and shook his head. “All right, Pops.”

Tex laughed too, saying, “It’s right up here.”

“You sure?” Bryce asked. “I’ve been here before, and it didn’t look like this.”

Tex frowned out the window too, because his son was right. The land sat in shades of yellow and brown. The fence that ran around the pasture that bordered the road looked like it could collapse if a two-ounce bird swooped down and landed on it.

“Maybe no one lives here,” he mused. He didn’t know who his father had sold the ranch to, and it had been ten years anyway. The property could’ve changed hands more than once by now.

The pasture gave way to the house and lawn, but it too looked abandoned. No one lived here, that was for sure.

“Look,” Bryce said. “There’s a sign. Is the house for sale?”

Tex’s heart jumped right up into his throat. If this house and ranch was up for sale, he wanted to buy it. “Is it?” He slowed the truck he’d owned for years and turned into the gravel driveway. Weeds and grass grew through the rocks, along with some pretty pink wildflowers Tex had long forgotten the name of.

He brought the vehicle to a stop long before the end of the driveway, which would take him all the way to the back steps. His mother would throw a fit if she saw the state of the front porch she’d once loved and tended to.

Tex could remember trimming this lawn behind a push mower, and he knew how to fix fences, tend to horses and cattle, and paint houses. His father had made his boys do scads of chores as they grew up, and he’d pitched in plenty.

He must be so disappointed in us, Tex thought as he looked at the house. Half of the brothers had passed on inheriting the ranch because of the band. Blaze and Jem were still heavily entrenched in the rodeo, and the twins had barely been out of the house when Daddy had decided he was too old and too weak to keep up the two-hundred-acre ranch.

“Dad,” Bryce said, and Tex blinked his eyes to get himself to stop looking at the peeling paint and the faded front door. He hadn’t even noticed his son getting out of the truck. Bryce stood on the lawn—the crispy, brown grass—and waved at Tex to come over.

He heaved a sigh and got out of the truck, the heat of the day punching him in the lungs. It wasn’t usually hot in the mountains, but the whole country was experiencing a heat wave this week.

“What is it?” he asked.

“There’s an auction on this property,” Bryce said. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Tex arrived and looked at the sign, but the type was way too small to hold his attention for long. He’d always had such a short attention span, and he forced himself to read the big, blocky, black letters.

The property would be sold as-is to the highest bidder. The auction would be at the library at ten a.m. in the morning, and Tex’s only thought was that he’d better be there.

“We should go,” Bryce said. “You have money, right, Dad?”

“Yeah,” Tex said. Country Quad had done well on tour last year, but they’d postponed their next album, and he had to split everything with the other band members and the staff. Touring wasn’t cheap, and the record label only paid for so much.

This was a cash auction, and Tex wondered how much it would go for. In Coral Canyon, Wyoming? A town of maybe ten thousand? After a rush of growth? With other houses sitting empty?

“Let’s look at the market,” Tex said.

“I want to sit on the porch where you kissed Nina,” Bryce said, chuckling as he jogged across the grass.

“That was eons ago,” Tex called after his son. He returned his attention to his phone, and he started looking up the real estate market in Coral Canyon. The town had enjoyed a boom a few years ago, but the growth had stalled, and Tex didn’t see anything out of his price range.

A broken-down, abandoned ranch further from town? No one would want this place, and Tex suddenly did. He could call Otis, Luke, and Trace and find out if they’d like to go in on the ranch with him. Well, maybe Luke and Trace.

The band was taking a break this summer, as his brothers were trying to figure out if they wanted to rebrand Country Quad into Country Trio—or some other name—and continue making music, or if anyone else was ready to do something different with his life.

Tex knew Otis didn’t want to keep traveling. He’d been talking to a woman pretty seriously over a dating app, and he’d gone to Florida to meet her. Tex was expecting a text announcing his brother’s engagement any moment now.

Luke and Trace had stayed in Nashville for now, but they were taking time off. Tex could text them both about chipping in for the ranch and get them out here to Wyoming by next weekend.

Cash only, streamed through his head. Tex had always had enough for his needs, to send to Corrie and Bryce, and to enjoy himself without thinking too hard about how he’d pay for his next meal.

“You can’t be on this property,” a woman said, and Tex looked up from his phone. The sunlight glinted off his front windshield, momentarily blinding him. The woman’s voice tickled something familiar inside him, but he couldn’t quite place it.

“This is private property,” she said. “We don’t need any land sharks coming into our town.” She marched on toward him, her long legs clad in jeans despite the heat. She wore a blue and white striped tank top and cowgirl boots on her feet. Her limbs were long, and she ate up the distance between them in a few last strides.

Tex knew then exactly who she was. Fireworks popped inside him, burning his lungs and rendering his voice mute.

Abigail Ingalls put one hand on her hip and gestured toward the porch. “Do you mind getting him off the porch?”

“Sure,” Tex said, the word catching in his throat. He whistled through his teeth, something he’d always done to call his son and get him to come back to him. He’d been doing it since the boy could crawl, and it worked now too. Tex could barely look away from Abby, but in the brief moment he did, he saw Bryce coming down the steps and toward him.

“Sorry, Abby,” he said, reaching up to tip his cowboy hat at her. He was suddenly so glad he always wore it, because it hid his graying hair, something he’d become more and more self-conscious about in the past couple of years.

The woman folded her arms now. “Do I know you?”

Bryce jogged up, and Tex indicated the truck. “We should go.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said, but he simply looked at Tex and then Abby. Abby looked back and forth between the two of them, her gaze finally landing on Tex, her eyebrows cocked high as she obviously waited for him to explain.

“You should know me,” he said. “I took you to plenty of drive-in movies. A dance or two. I think I even told my son here about how I used to sneak into your barn so we could sneak a kiss.” He grinned at Abby, but a horrified expression filled her face instead of the fun, flirty vibe Tex had been trying for.