Cowboy Take Me Away - By Jane Graves

Chapter 1

Luke Dawson stood alone in the Rainbow Valley cemetery, eyeing the coffin in front of him and feeling not one bit of sorrow. He knew this was a time for tears and prayers, but he hadn’t cried since he was four years old, and he’d stopped saying prayers when he realized nobody on the other end seemed to be listening. As for the man in the coffin, neither tears nor prayers were going to change a thing about where he spent eternity.

Luke heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Father Andrews approaching. He wore the vestments of an Episcopal priest and a solemn expression to match the occasion. When Luke was a teenager, Father Andrews had been new in town, fresh out of seminary and eager to save the world. He’d tried to talk Luke into coming to the youth group at church, and Luke had responded by taking one last drag off his Marlboro, grinding the butt beneath his boot, and telling him to go to hell.

But they were both older now. Painting graffiti on the side of the school building and shoplifting beer from the Pic ’N Go were distant memories for Luke, and the lines etched on Father Andrews’s face said his idealism had dissolved into an outlook that was considerably more realistic. He put a hand on Luke’s arm.

“I’m sorry about your father.”

Luke glanced over his shoulder, seeing nothing but a small scattering of headstones guarded by hundred-year-old red oaks. “It appears you’re the only one.”

“There was no announcement of the service.”

“This is a small town,” Luke said. “People know.”

“When did you last see your father?”

“The day I left Rainbow Valley.”

“You haven’t been back since then?”

“No. Not once.”

“Do you know of any other friends or relatives who may be joining us?”

His father had only a few relatives, but they were so distant Luke hadn’t even bothered to contact them. As for friends, Glenn Dawson didn’t have any. For forty years, he’d been a stain on the fabric of Rainbow Valley, Texas, a spotless tourist town that prided itself on its wholesome image. He’d lived in a run-down house on twenty ragged acres and subsisted on panhandling and disability checks. Luke had never been completely sure of his father’s disability, but he’d managed to con some social worker into believing he couldn’t work. His first stop whenever he received a monthly check had been the liquor store.

And the more he drank, the meaner he got.

“No,” Luke said. “Nobody. Just go ahead and say whatever it is you have to say so we can get this over with.”

Father Andrews opened his Bible and began to read. Luke slipped off his cowboy hat and held it in front of him, more out of respect for Father Andrews than the man in the coffin. Luke just let the priest’s words flow past him, closing his mind to the memories that tried to surface. He only wished they could be buried right along with his father.

Then he heard something behind him. He looked over his shoulder, surprised to see a woman coming up the sidewalk. For a moment he couldn’t place the face, only to have a wave of recognition wash over him.

The last time he’d seen Rita Kaufman, she’d been in charge of the Rainbow Valley Animal Shelter, tossing hay to the horses and manhandling cranky hundred-pound dogs. She looked twenty years older now, even though only eleven years had passed. She leaned on a cane, walking with a slight limp. Her dark hair was more salt than pepper now, and veins stood out sharply on her forearms. But when she finally reached Luke’s side and looked up at him, he was pleased to see blue eyes as steely and determined as ever.

Father Andrews paused, and Luke said, “Mrs. Kaufman. Nice to see you.”

She nodded, then turned to the priest. “Sorry to interrupt, Father. Go on.”

As Father Andrews continued, Luke felt grateful that Mrs. Kaufman had taken the trouble to show up. When he was in high school, she’d given him a job at the shelter when nobody else would hire him. At first she’d been hell to work for, because nobody had ever laid down the law to him like Rita Kaufman. But gradually she’d become the one person in this town he could look up to, and for the first time in his life, he knew what it felt like to have somebody give a damn.

Luke understood there were certain liturgical necessities the priest had to perform,