Then both Brandt and Tell looked at him.
“Forcing me to do cattle checks with you? Is this your way of makin’ me feel included in the family business?”
“Yep.” Brandt grinned. “Won’t it be fun? All of us bein’ snowed in together?”
“You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Nope. And watch the F-bombs, little bro. Little pitchers have big ears and all that.”
“Where are the boys?”
“Watching a DVD in the family room. Jessie’s not feelin’ well so she’s lying down upstairs.”
“Jessie is here too?”
“Wouldn’t be fun if she and the boys were snowed in at home and I was snowed in here.”
Dalton sat on the recliner. “You guys planned this?”
“Not the snow, but we figured we could take advantage of it. Spend time together when none of us can hop in our trucks and drive away.”
“Besides, don’t you remember when we were kids how much fun it was havin’ a couple of snow days?” Tell asked. “We gotta take these opportunities when they come. Who knows if they’ll ever come again.”
Any anger Dalton might’ve had about his brothers’ manipulation…disappeared. He flopped back in the recliner. “I remember that one snowstorm; I must’ve been eight or so. Luke taught us how to play poker. Guess we didn’t understand that strip poker is something you’re supposed to play with girls, not your brothers.”
Brandt grinned. “Was that the time you had to run outside in your underwear and make snow angels?”
“Yes and the snow was hip deep. Luke and his stupid effed up games. More like truth or dare than poker.” Dalton looked at Tell. “Didn’t you have to eat something weird?”
“A raw egg mixed with a can of sardines.” Tell shuddered. “Nastiest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. It tasted a whole lot worse comin’ up two hours later than it did goin’ down.”
“I didn’t know you barfed,” Brandt said.
“Like I was gonna confess that,” Tell shot back. “Luke would’ve made me eat another batch because he would’ve claimed it didn’t count.”
“No lie. After I lost the final poker hand, he made me do one-handed pushups until I collapsed.” A few seconds of silence passed. Then Brandt said, “Why’d we let Luke boss us around like that? He never let anyone else be in charge.”
“Because Luke always had the best ideas. And his ideas were usually fun. Plus, he included all of us. He was always like that—from the time Dalton was old enough to toddle along.” Tell stared into his coffee cup. “Even when Luke was in his early twenties and out tearing it up with his buddies, he still made time for us.”
“Might sound stupid, but Luke was more a father to me than Casper ever was,” Dalton said softly. “I ain’t sayin’ Luke was perfect, although as time passes I think we tend to overlook the faults of the dead.” That wouldn’t ever happen with Casper’s memory; Dalton could guarantee it. “Along with teaching us all the ranching shit Dad didn’t know or wouldn’t pass on to us, Luke made sure we had fun. We never would’ve gone huntin’, fishing or camping if not for him.”
The conversation had taken a turn toward melancholy and Dalton wondered what Brandt was thinking. Had to be a Catch-22 for him; he wouldn’t have the life with Jessie and his kids if Luke was still alive. So when Brandt opened his mouth to speak, Dalton braced himself.
“I reckon Luke would expect us to stick together and take advantage of this time to have some fun.” He leaned over and lightly punched Tell in the arm. “Since you’re the most fun lovin’ of the three of us, and I’m the oldest, I’m makin’ that your job. Bein’ the ambassador of fun.”
“Ambassador.” Tell snorted. “I expect you both to salute me from now on.”
Dalton and Brandt flipped him off at the same time.
“Nice, guys. Real nice.”
Brandt turned off the TV. “Let’s get the cattle check done.”
They traversed the shitty roads to feed cattle. Luckily the herd was in a pasture between Brandt’s and Tell’s places, so they didn’t have to venture far into the blowing snow and frigid conditions to roll out bales of hay. Since the feed truck would’ve gotten stuck in the snow banks, they had to fill buckets with cake by hand and then scatter it close to the line of hay.
For as cold as the outside temperature was, by the time they’d finished checking and feeding three hours later, Dalton was soaked with sweat.
Back at Tell’s house he showered and called Rory. “Hey, sugarplum, how you doin’? You hunkered down all nice and toasty in your cabin?”
“No. My power went out first thing this morning so I’m at mom and Gavin’s. Are you sitting in your living room watching endless hours of Universal Poker Tour?”
“Actually, I’m snowed in at Tell and Georgia’s with Brandt and Jessie and all their kids. And dogs.”
“Really? How’d that happen?”
“I was suckered into it, but it’s all good. Really good. Might sound stupid but now I remember why I liked to hang out with them. Not just because they’re my brothers but they’re genuinely good guys. I feel like I’ve got my family back.”
He stretched out on the air mattress. “Wish you were here.”
“Me too. I hope it clears up by tomorrow. I’m scheduled to hit the road for some work stuff.”
He frowned. “How come I didn’t know that?”
“Sorry. It’s a last-minute thing.”
That sucked. “How long will you be gone?”
“Four days. Possibly more.” Rory sighed. “And I’ve been warned by the office the cell phone service is spotty at best.”
“No cell phone reception in Wyoming? I’m shocked.”
“I wanted to warn you if you don’t hear from me not to worry that I’ve been eaten by bears.”
“I appreciate you letting me know.” He dropped his voice to a growl. “The only one who’s allowed to eat you is me.”
The door swung open and all three of his nephews jumped on him. Whoa. The little buggers could bounce pretty high on an air mattress.
“Uncle Dalton, come on, you promised.”
“I gotta go. Please call me while you still have phone service, okay? Wyatt, dude, this is not the WWE.”
Rory laughed. “Have fun, you deserve play time.”
“I will. Bye.” Dalton clicked the phone off and tossed it aside. “All right boys, you asked for it.”
But he let them dog pile him anyway.
Later that night, Dalton, Brandt and Tell were sitting at the dining room table, drinking beer and playing dice. Jessie and Georgia were in the den watching an Iron Chef marathon, the boys were in bed and the dogs were snoozing by the door.
It seemed like old times, but better than old times.
Brandt said, “You’re wearing a goofy grin, Dalton. We ain’t playin’ poker so that’s not your bluffing face.”
“I’m just thinkin’ this is fun.”
“You glad we gotcha snowed in with us?” Tell asked.
“Yeah, I am.” The only way it would be better was if Rory was here.
Tell got up from the table.
Dalton looked at Brandt. “Was it something I said?”
“Nah. He probably had to take a leak. We’ve been hard on the beer tonight.”
“No lie. I don’t drink like I used to.”
“None of us do.”
“But we’re gonna change that tonight,” Tell said, plopping a bottle of booze in the middle of the table along with three lowball glasses.
“Holy shit. That’s high-end Redbreast whiskey,” Dalton said.
“That’s like over a hundred bucks a bottle.”
“Figured we deserved a few belts of the best Irish.” Tell looked at Dalton. “After all the years you dealt with the worst sort of Irish belts.”
Then Brandt said, “Jesus, Tell, really?”
“What? Too soon?”
Dalton started laughing.
His brothers looked at him like he’d lost his marbles, so he managed to stop laughing, but his grin stayed in place. “No, Tell, it’s not too soon. In fact, this shit has been doggin’ me for a long damn time. I’m more than ready to kick it in the ass and give it a final send off.”
“Let’s crack the seal then and give that motherfucking shit a sendoff we’ll all remember.” Brandt grinned. “Or maybe we won’t remember.”
Tell twisted the cap and sniffed the bottle. “Aye, it smells like the peat bogs of me youth. I can almost taste the salty brine of the ocean and see the heather blowing in the meadow breeze, me laddies.”
“Dude, that’s the best ‘frosted Lucky Charms they’re magically delicious’ impression I’ve ever heard.”
“Fuck off, Dalton.”
“Gimme a whiff of that.” He waved the bottle under his nose. “Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff.”
Dalton passed out the glasses. “Pour it, ’cause you gotta let it breathe for little bit.”
“Half an hour.”
“Bullshite,” Brandt growled. “Pour the bloody stuff. And I’m talkin’ more than a wee dram, boy-o.”
Tell’s mouth dropped open. “Brandt is speaking in tongues. It’s a miracle.”
“Hallelujah and pass the whiskey,” Dalton said.
“What about letting it rest?”
Dalton grinned. “Total bull. You still don’t know when I’m bluffing, do ya?”
Tell filled the glasses only to the quarter mark. He raised his glass. “To snow days.”