The Rancher’s Lullaby
by Leigh Duncan

Warm air swaddled Lisa Rose as she stepped from Pickin’ Strings onto the sidewalk. She dropped the heavy key ring into her purse. The unfamiliar weight tugged uncomfortably on her shoulder. At the corner of Park and Parrott, she squinted into a sun so bright it sapped her energy and was slowly washing the color out of her favorite denim skirt. She frowned as her heel sank into the black asphalt when she stepped off the curb. In the month since her arrival in Okeechobee, she hadn’t gotten used to heat that turned pavement into a sticky mess by ten in the morning. She wasn’t sure she ever would. Not that it mattered, she thought with a shrug that sent the beads and chains around her neck jingling. Her stay in south Florida was only temporary. By this time next year, she’d have her act together again. Literally and figuratively. Till then, she supposed there were worse places to rebuild her shattered dreams than in a small town with a tree-lined square. Tugging her boot free, she kept moving forward.

On the other side of the main street, she straightened the pewter cuff at her wrist. She ran her free hand over the thick hair that, in a nod to August’s sweltering heat, she had braided before heading out this morning.

She separated a bright yellow flyer from the stack in her shoulder bag.

“Put me onstage, and I’ll gladly step to the mic, but is this absolutely necessary?” she whispered. As a performer, she’d never cared whether the venue held fifty people or five thousand. But this—oh, how she hated hitting the bricks, shaking down every business in town. It smacked too much of the early days when she’d been so hungry for a chance—any chance—that she’d have sold her soul for a record deal. Back then, she’d gotten a break or two. Peddled her songs to stars who’d performed them at the Grand Ole Opry. But here she was. Thirty-two and on her own again, looking for a different kind of break.

She took a calming breath. There really was no other option. If she expected a good return on her investment when she sold the music store later this year, she had to get Pickin’ Strings on solid financial footing. Which meant drawing customers into the shop. Squaring her shoulders, she assembled the smile she’d worn in front of a thousand different audiences and stepped into The Clock Restaurant.

“Good morning! Table for two?” A perky teen glanced into the space behind Lisa as if she expected another person to materialize out of thin air.

“Just one,” Lisa managed before the arctic blast that poured out of overhead vents hit her face. In an instant, the moisture that clung to her skin evaporated. Goose bumps rose across her bare shoulders. She struggled to keep her smile in place while she cast an envious glance at the hostess’s snug white sweater. Locals carried jackets with them, even when the outside temperatures and humidity hovered near three digits. It was a practice she’d adopt—and soon. She shivered and asked, “Is the manager or owner available?”

“No, ma’am.” The young woman’s helpful expression dimmed. From a bin, she took a single set of silverware wrapped in a paper napkin. She paused, reluctance playing across her smooth features. “Is there a problem?”

“No, not at all. I’m new to the area and wanted to introduce myself.” Lisa relinquished her hold on the flyer. The girl was too young, too unsure of herself to be of any help. “Maybe you’ve seen my shop, Pickin’ Strings. It’s just up the street.”

“Can’t say as I have,” the hostess answered, turning. She hustled past one empty table after another. Finally, she plunked down the silverware at a booth near a set of swinging doors.

Lisa gave the less-than-desirable location a second glance. Across the aisle, a preschooler with dark curls dawdled over pancakes. An older woman seated at the table juggled a baby on one shoulder. Decked in blue from head-to-toe, the infant aimed a toothless grin her way, but Lisa averted her eyes. She brushed her fingers over her own all-too-flat tummy and slid onto her seat, her focus determinedly fixed beyond the window where traffic clogged the main thoroughfare.

“My name’s Genna. I’ll be taking care of you today. Can I get you something to drink, honey?” A waitress slid a plastic-coated menu onto the table.

“Coffee. With cream.” Lisa eyed the faded red uniform. She tugged a flyer from her purse. “If you could show this to the manager, I’d like to put it up in your window.”

The welcoming sparkle faded from Genna’s eyes. “I’d just be wasting your time and mine. Things are kind of dead ’round here till the snowbirds come back in November.” She gestured at the near-empty restaurant. “You might want to hang on to your ads till then.”

Lisa let the hand holding the paper slowly sink to the worn Formica tabletop as her idea of turning a quick profit on her investment took another hit. She’d heard some version of the same story everywhere she’d stopped this week. Though winter residents crowded the sidewalks and shopped the stores from November through March, most businesses barely took in enough to make their payroll during the rest of the year.

Disappointed, but not wanting to let it show, she summoned a cheery, “Well, thanks, anyway,” and pushed the menu aside. Eating out was a luxury she couldn’t afford, not until the music store produced a steady income.

She probably should have chosen a different location, a different town, but she’d taken one look at the empty storefront in the heart of Okeechobee and known it was the right place. She’d seen the stained ceiling tiles and threadbare carpet as a challenge to overcome and plunked down most of her available cash. Her creative juices stirring, she’d rolled up her sleeves and gone to work. But the place was in worse shape than she’d thought, and her savings account had issued a dying gasp as she stripped and painted dingy walls, replaced tired displays with new shelving and created a soundproof room off to one side. To stock the shelves with guitars and fiddles, mandolins and banjos, she’d been forced to borrow against her next royalty check. She’d crossed her fingers, hoping to turn a tidy profit at the grand opening.

She shook her head. Scheduling the event on the same weekend as a nearby rodeo had been her first mistake. She’d sold one—exactly one—inexpensive harmonica during a grand opening that wasn’t very grand. Since then, foot traffic had been abysmal. Which left an ad in the Okeechobee News as the only way to drum up business. She searched the bottom of her purse until she found a pen. Flipping the flyer over, she began sketching. The waitress had refilled her cup and the ad was nearly complete by the time Lisa heard the baby cry. Before she could stop it, her midsection clenched in a familiar way that had nothing to do with downing several cups of acidic coffee on an empty stomach.

“I have to gooooo,” the dark-haired cherub at the table across the aisle insisted.

Glancing up, Lisa spotted the woman in the booth uncapping a baby bottle. Tiny creases in sun-darkened skin deepened as the fussing infant in her arms lunged for it. “Can you hold on a while longer? Just until I give LJ his bottle?” she asked the girl. “I’ll take you as soon as he’s finished.”

“I have to go now, Gramma.” Squirming, the child shifted on her booster seat.

Apologetic blue eyes met Lisa’s inquisitive glance. “Sorry,” the woman mouthed.

“Oh, they don’t bother me,” Lisa lied. She gave herself bonus points for summoning a sympathetic “Looks like they keep you busy.”

Sighing, the grandmother tucked a strand of gray hair behind one ear. “I don’t know what possessed me, offering to bring both of them with me this morning. Guess I forgot what a handful two little ones can be.”

“I have to go-have-to-go-have-to-go.” The little girl clambered down from her seat and darted into the aisle.

“Bree Judd, you come back here this instant!” Panic flared across the grandmother’s face. She tugged the bottle from the baby’s mouth. Feet kicking, the boy sent up a protest.

The kid had a good set of lungs, Lisa thought as angry wails filled the restaurant. She clenched her fists while she fought every tick of the second hand on a clock whose sole purpose was to remind her that she was running out of time.

At the other table, the grandmother popped the bottle back into the baby’s mouth. He instantly quieted. “Gramma” cast an anxious look over her shoulder, but Bree had rounded a corner and disappeared. Her arms weighted with the baby, the woman edged awkwardly toward the end of the bench seat.

“Hold on. I’ll get her.” Lisa slipped out of her booth. She slid the flyer with the ad onto her neighbor’s table. “I’m Lisa Rose,” she said before she took off across the restaurant after the little speedster. The door to the ladies’ room banged against the wall as Bree dashed inside. Lisa caught up and lingered near the sinks while the girl attended to business. Minutes later, a much calmer version of the child emerged from a stall.

“Don’t forget to wash your hands,” Lisa reminded Bree when she started for the door.

The child managed a perfect scowl. “I can’t reach.”

“Do you need help?” Lisa’s heart lurched when dark curls bounced as an elfin face aimed a trusting look her way.

“Mommy lifts me.” Bree retreated to the sink, where she waited to be held up.

“O-kay,” Lisa breathed, regretting the decision to get involved. She shoved her bracelets up her arms and, thankful for the strength that came from years of lugging sound equipment from one venue to another, hefted the headstrong waif to the sink without holding her close. It didn’t matter. Simply lifting the child loosed an old familiar ache that spread through her chest. She’d tried so hard to have a baby, and look what it had gotten her—a busted marriage and an empty womb. Would she ever have a little girl or boy of her own? She blinked aside a stray tear and hummed beneath her breath while Bree washed up.

“Ready to go back now?” she asked, handing the girl a paper towel from the dispenser mounted too high for little arms.

“Uh-huh.” Bree nodded.

Lisa lagged behind while the girl scooted back the way they’d come. By the time she reached their booths again, Bree had climbed back into her seat. “She helped me,” she announced, grabbing a cup with a plastic cover. “She’s nice and she has pretty bracelets.” She drank from the straw.

“Thanks.” A worried frown on the grandmother’s face dissolved. “I’m Doris Judd. I guess you’ve met my granddaughter, Bree. And this little one here—” she nodded at the baby who sucked vigorously on the near-empty bottle “—this one’s the newest member of the Judd family. We call him Little Judd. LJ, for short.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Seeing as Doris’s arms were full, Lisa didn’t bother shaking hands. “I’m Lisa Rose,” she repeated. “I’ve opened a music shop on Parrot. Have you heard of it…Pickin’ Strings?”

“Can’t say as I have, but. ” Doris nudged the flyer with one elbow. “It says here you used to be in the band called ‘Skeeter Creek. Not with them anymore?”

“No.” Lisa let a breath seep between her lips. “I got tired of spending eight months on the road each year. It was time I found someplace to call my own.” There was more to the story, of course, but little ears and complete strangers didn’t need to hear it.

“You were still with them when they played at the Barlowe place last spring?”

Lisa nodded. Usually an appearance like the ranch-warming would have faded into a blur of one-night gigs. By spring, though, her marriage had crashed and burned and, along with it, her hopes for a baby. Suddenly tired of everything about her life, she’d started looking for a place to hang her hat until she got back on her feet again. She’d landed in small-town Okeechobee.

Doris continued. “I was in Atlanta and missed it, but people around here are still talking about that party…and the music.”

Finished with his bottle, LJ’s eyes drifted closed. Doris shifted the baby to her shoulder and patted his back. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to travel the way you have. I’ve lived most of my life on the Circle P Ranch. My late husband, Seth, he managed the place. It’s a job that’s been handed down from father to son for four, going on five, generations.”

“Must be nice to have those kinds of roots.” Lisa gave the woman a smile she didn’t have to fake. Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “People think being up onstage is all glitz and glamour. To be honest, it’s a hard life. But it’s the only one I’ve ever known…until now. I haven’t been here long, but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of waking up in my own bed every day.” Or watching the sunlight filter through the same set of curtains each morning.

Still, waking up alone, doing everything on her own—it took some getting used to. Six months had passed before her bare ring finger felt natural without the thin gold band. The one she’d tossed into the first lake she’d come across after discovering Brad in bed with the band’s backup singer. In another six, waking up alone would feel normal, too.

Something of what she was thinking must have shown on her face, because Doris said, “I’m sorry. I’ve been rude. Won’t you join us?”

“I wish I could. But I need to open the shop in a few minutes.” Despite the difference in their ages, something about Doris told Lisa they could be friends. ” Some other time?”

A suntanned arm nudged the flyer again. “I see you’re holding bluegrass jams on Tuesday nights. That ought to draw a crowd.”

“You think?” Lisa brightened. “I was hoping to attract more customers with these flyers, but.” She let her voice trail off. But business wasn’t exactly booming.

“Tell you what. We have a good-size crew on the Circle P.” At Doris’s shoulder, LJ expelled a healthy burp. “Why don’t you come on out and have supper with us tomorrow? It’ll give you a chance to talk to some of the boys about coming into town Tuesday nights. Supper goes on the table at six sharp.”

More disappointed than she had a right to be, Lisa shook her head. “Sorry, but I don’t close the shop till six.”

“Come for dessert, then. It’s the least I can do to repay you for lassoing this little one and bringing her back to me.” Doris nodded to the child, who pushed bites of pancake through syrup. When Lisa wavered, she said, “You might as well say yes. I won’t take no for an answer.”

Lisa’s standard refusal died at the cheery look in Doris’s blue eyes. What was one evening? She certainly didn’t have anything better to do, and the prospect of making a new friend was too appealing to ignore. Especially since, by the time she closed Pickin’ Strings, freshened up a little and made the half-hour drive to the ranch, the children would certainly have gone to bed.