Warren Adler
Jackson Hole - Uneasy Eden

Jackson Hole - Uneasy Eden

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The author tells the truth about the impact of "new" people on a mountain resort.

THE PROMISE

Steadman could hear the tires crackling over the gravel as it cut in from Spring Gulch Road and moved west toward the Circle Bar S ranch house. Thirty years ago, he had sited the house on high ground overlooking the Snake River so that, through the west-facing windows, they could see the jagged peaks of the Tetons, glimmering silvery in the morning light. From the east windows they could see the forest of lodgepoles that gave them the feel of complete privacy. Farther east, beyond the lodgepoles, had been the pastures for cattle.

Now what was that boy’s name again? he asked himself as he waited, wondering why he had even consented to see him. Steadman had received offers to buy the ranch before, but he had turned them all down. Actually, it wasn’t a working ranch any longer, not since Amy had died and he had sold off his herd.

Without Amy, gone two years now, ranching made no sense anymore. They had been partners in the working aspect of the ranch, a cow and calf operation that made just enough to keep them going from year to year. All in all, it was a hard but happy life, and they both loved it.

They had been married for fifty years and had no children; their family was the ranch hands, and their children were the calves that they helped birth and baby each year, worrying about their health just like any loving parents would. Life was rhythmical and predictable, almost, depending on the weather. The ranching way of life suited them, and if there were hardships, they got through them with cheerful resolve.

Steadman had grown up on the ranch. His father had bought it from the original homesteaders, and when he brought Amy here from Casper—where he had met her at a rodeo—she fell in love with it, every rock and tree, every piece of dirt and sage, every cow and calf and horse. Most of all, she loved the ever-hovering mountains, never tiring of the play of light that made them look different from moment to moment, day or night.

They had designed their bedroom and placed their bed so that the first thing they saw in the morning, when the weather was clear, of course, was the jagged peaks of the range. It was like a morning light show and never failed to thrill them.

“There they are,” Amy would say, her first words when she opened her eyes from sleep. “Means we’re still alive, Aubrey.”

Not having children was a bitter disappointment for both of them. But the power of their love for each other weathered that storm, just as it weathered whatever blows destiny dealt them. But they did believe that life balanced out and that they were lucky to have the gift of this piece of earth in Jackson Hole. They felt certain that they lived in the most beautiful and magical valley on the planet.

The problem was, as Steadman saw it now, that this beautiful fifty-mile-long and twelve-mile-wide valley that stretched from Yellowstone to the Hoback had been discovered by the world. In his mind, the world meant “trespassers”, aliens who had no appreciation for the glory and sanctity of this place and whose only motive was material gain.

The evidence was all around him. Land that once had sold for $50 to $100 an acre now was running into the thousands. Commerce had arrived in the form of stockbrokers, chain stores, fast-food operators, fancy restaurants. Big houses were mushrooming everywhere. Whereas he and Amy once knew everybody in Jackson Hole, he was seeing more and more strange faces. Change appeared to be accelerating quite rapidly.

Not that life in the valley had ever been totally static. There had always been dude ranches attracting folks who craved a Western experience, and the old moneyed families had bought up large tracts for their own recreation, but there remained a sense that the land was sacred, not to be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism. It was different now. The tourists and the developers had invaded the land, and the operative word was “profit.” Steadman and the other old locals used another word to describe what was happening. Greed!

“Don’t let them do it to the Circle Bar S, Aubrey,” Amy whispered with her dying breath. If the situation were reversed, he would have asked her to pledge to the same wish.

“No way, my love,” Steadman vowed. “No way.”

Many of his ranching friends were selling out to the developers. Selling out was the only sensible way that they could liquidate and provide for their heirs. It was a sorry situation.

Inevitably, he knew, he would have to sell the ranch before he died. Dying without heirs would put the land at risk; it might be auctioned off to the highest bidder to do with as they wished, without restraint. Steadman was determined to pass it on to someone who would respect it, create a home here and not develop it as a subdivision. In Steadman’s mind, subdividing would be destroying its integrity. To him, money was very low on his list of priorities. Besides, he had promised Amy.

Since Amy died—even during her funeral—he had been turning down offers for the ranch on what was almost a weekly basis. Most of them came from real-estate people. He could almost smell the stench of greed before they turned onto the ranch road. They would bring their big smiles and sincere looks, promising the moon, not realizing that he was sizing them up at first glance and rejecting whatever baloney they were selling outright. He hardly listened to their blatant pitches and promises of riches, although he showed them the same hospitality that Amy would have provided to anyone who crossed their threshold.

What annoyed him most was his own loss of trust. Once, he had trusted people. Locals had always lived by the ethic of honesty and straight-talk. People said what they believed to be the truth. A man’s word was sacrosanct, and a hand-shake was more binding than words on paper. Steadman believed that knowing how it once had been gave him a special insight into people and their real motives.

Yet he had never given up hope that one day someone would arrive to whom he could safely turn over the stewardship of his land, someone who would revere and respect its character, someone who would make it his home and not a profit center.

But when someone came with an offer and a basketful of promises, he was always wary and on his guard. He imagined he could sense who would be likely to put another nail in the valley’s coffin. So far, a steady stream of that kind had beat a path to his door. He considered them the enemy, the people who were hell-bent on ruining his beloved valley by chopping it into pieces, devouring it like vultures over carrion.

“Thanks for seeing me,” the man said. Steadman took him for early fifties, lean, athletic, strong chin, blue-eyes, steel gray hair, serious. No big smile, which was a plus.

“Care for a drink?” Steadman asked. He had set out a pitcher of iced tea, lemon and mugs.

“That iced tea would be fine,” the man said. His name, Steadman remembered, was Everett Carter. He was from New York, he had told him on the telephone. Saw his ranch from the air. Liked the setting. Any chance of talking business?

Steadman had liked his voice and his straightforward approach. Why not? He had already said “no” in his mind. Besides, without Amy, life was lonely and people to talk to were rare. Sometimes he was so lonely he would not have turned down a dialogue with the devil.

Steadman poured the man a mug of iced tea and pointed to a chair across from his own. Carter took the mug, sipped, then looked around him, his glance settling on the view of the Tetons.

“Great view,” he said, putting Steadman on his guard. He was particularly wary of compliments. This one, however, came without a smile. Steadman merely nodded acknowledgment.

“What do you do in New York?” Steadman asked.

“Investment banker,” Carter replied.

“Made a lot of money in the last few years?”

“That I did,” Carter said. “Not ashamed of it, either. My father drove a delivery truck for a bakery. Never made much. I guess I figured I evened things out for him.”

“You say you’re lookin’ for land?”

“Not just land. I’m looking for home. I’m planning on leaving New York.”

“For good?”

“Why not?” Carter said, drinking another deep draught of his iced tea. “Been through here as a kid. I’ve always dreamed of a home here.”

“Want to run cows, be a cowboy?”

“Sorry. No interest. I’m not coming here to do business, Mr. Steadman. Besides, I don’t want the hassle.”

“It’s a hassle. More so these days. Hard going.”

“What I’m looking for is a spread near the river with lots of land, a great view, a place for the kids to come. Maybe keep some horses.”

“Got kids, have you?”

“Two. They’re grown. One in college. One getting married. I want a place for my grandkids to appreciate and enjoy. Teach them the values of the West. Maybe I’m jumping the gun but that’s what I’d like to happen.”

“We never had kids,” Steadman said, sipping his iced tea. He was sizing up the man, his opinion wavering, but he was not rejecting the man outright.

“Where’d you get the idea I want to sell out?” Steadman asked.

“I told you. I just took a shot,” Carter said. “I believe in going after things face to face. If you’re not interested, then I’ll just be getting on. There’s no harm in asking.”

“You learned that in the investment banking business?”

“I learned that in life, Mr. Steadman. You want something. You go for it.”

“No real-estate people in the bushes?”

“I like to deal direct.”

Steadman continued to size up the man. He admitted to liking the man’s look. His attitude, too.

“What would you do with this land?”

“Do?” Carter frowned and cocked his head. He seemed confused. Steadman refused to explain himself, watching Carter as he framed an answer. “I told you, Mr. Steadman. I’m looking for a home. That’s it.”

“You retiring?”

“Hell no. But I have left the firm. I’ve got lots of interests. And today we hook up with computers and faxes. You can be anywhere.”

“Still want to make more money?”

“I’m in the keeper stage. I just want to keep what I got. Live here and keep what I made.”

“Got plenty, do you?”

“A lot more than I need. As we say in the trade, I’ve hit my number.”

“What number was it?” Aubrey asked.

“More than enough,” Carter said, smiling for the first time.

Steadman shrugged, but didn’t pry any further. A man who knew when he had enough was a smart man, he thought, warming to Carter.

“This valley is a way of life for most of us been here a long spell. Was a time we couldn’t get green vegetables but once a week. Had one movie screen. Knew everybody in town.” Now I’m talking like one of those old damned fools, Steadman thought, stopping himself. Amy would have shut him up fast.

“Must have been wonderful living here in the old days,” Carter said.

“It sure was,” Steadman agreed, forcing himself to crowd out the memories. The fact was that all his waking thoughts lately were about the past. He grew silent for a long moment, his eyes wandering to the mountains. Still here after a 100 million years, he thought. Saw a lot of us come and go. One day he’d go, too. Problem was he didn’t know when. Nobody could predict when their time was over.

Suddenly he thought of the future as an affliction. What would he do without this land? Probably rent a small place in town and head for the desert in Arizona or Utah. Winters in Jackson were rough on old bones.

He might do some traveling. See the world he had missed during those years of ranching. After all, by any standard, the sale of the ranch would bring more than enough to live on for the rest of his life. He and Amy hardly ever traveled. Once they had taken a package tour of France and Germany. Another time they went to Mexico. They had derived some mild enjoyment on the tours but couldn’t wait to get home.

“So you just took a shot?” Steadman asked.

“It’s the way I operate,” Carter replied.

Steadman rubbed his chin, still sizing up the man, but fast reaching a conclusion as to the man’s motives and character.

“The point is, Mr. Steadman, are you in a selling mood or not?”

“Could be,” Steadman said, “With Amy gone  . . . my wife. She died two years ago. Without her . . . well, I just sold off the herd. Too hard for a man of seventy-five.” Steadman became pensive, then looked into Carter’s eyes. “To the right man, I might be willing to sell out.”

“So my shot found its mark,” Carter said, chuckling amiably. “Goes to show. You don’t ask. You don’t get the order. Apparently then, you’ll entertain an offer.”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“I need a rock solid unbreakable promise that this land stays intact. No development. No chopping it. It stays the Circle Bar S, just like it sits now. Get my drift?”

“Why would I want to chop it up?” Carter asked.

“Money.”

“I told you about that. I hit my number. I don’t need any more money. As for the name, its got history and character. Why change it?” He leveled his eyes directly into Steadman’s. “I’m prepared to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

“Yes I can, Carter. It’s your promise I need more than the money.”

“I get the picture. No development. I’ll put it in writing if you want.”

Aubrey had given that matter lots of thought. Could he trust a piece of paper? Contracts were made to be broke. Deed restrictions could be ignored. Legal challenges launched. The valley was getting too damned litigious, another sign of a society going to pot. Smart lawyers could do anything nowadays.

Integrity was what he was looking for. There was another dimension to this, Aubrey knew. He had been brought up to believe in the sanctity of property rights. It was a valley tradition that a man had a right to do what he wished with his property as long as he was sensitive to his neighbour’s rights and needs. The standard was fairness and common sense, which was embedded more in a man’s character than in the rule of law.

“If it was just the money, it would be easy,” Steadman said.

“I know what you’re thinking, Mr. Steadman,” Carter said. He took a deep sip of his iced tea, and Steadman refilled his mug from the pitcher. “You think I’m one of those sharp guys from New York on the prowl for a deal that stacks the deck for himself. And you don’t know me from Adam. You don’t know my history or my reputation. Hell, to you, I’m just a fellow that dropped from the sky.”

“You got that right, Carter,” Steadman said. The man had indeed read his thoughts.

“There’s no way I can reassure you. As I said, I’d be glad to put it in writing, but I’ll bet you don’t trust that either. You’re going to have to lead with your gut here, Mr. Steadman. You’re going to have to judge me by instinct. Oh, I’ll give you more than a fair price. You know that. I’ll pay a premium for this spot and you know that, too. And the reason I’ll pay a premium is because this a fabulous place for me and my family to put down stakes, call home. Just me and my family. Hell, I’ll probably be joining up with the folks, like yourself, who want to keep unchecked development out of the valley.”

“A good speech, Carter,” Steadman said. “But it’ll still be a gamble on my part.”

“Yes it will,” Carter agreed.

“You’re probably thinking I’m a damned fool. Take the money and run, you’re probably thinking.”

“Not at all. I can plainly see that money is not the issue here. What I’m thinking is how I can assure you that I intend no development, that I’d be buying this place for me and my family. I’ll be glad to provide you with any references you might want, anything that might hep mold your judgment of me. It’s your call.”

Steadman contemplated the man’s face and bearing, looking for the answer to that question. He poured more iced tea and took a light sip.

“Afraid so, Carter.”

“But I won’t make my offer until you give me a firm commitment as to your intent. Fair enough?”

“Fair enough,” Steadman agreed.

Carter slapped his thigh, rose and put his iced-tea mug on the table beside Steadman.

“I’m staying at the Spring Creek Resort for a few days. You think it over and you decide. All I can say is that I give you my solemn promise that I’ll meet your conditions whether you want it in writing or you’ll take my word for it. Believe me, I understand how important such a commitment is to you, and I’m prepared to honor it.”

Steadman stood up, and the men shook hands. He imagined he could sense the man’s integrity through the touch of his flesh. Then the man turned, went back to his car, and drove through the trees. Steadman could hear the fading sound of the tires crackling away on the gravel.

He stepped off the porch and walked along the river dike for awhile, then headed back through the lodgepoles into the pastureland. Lack of irrigation had killed the grass. Now the sage was taking over, getting back its rights to the land. The sage, after all, was there first and was returning to its rightful habitat.

Steadman walked along the gravel road, then headed north beside the now-empty irrigation ditches that fed the grass and the cows along which he and Amy and the hands had pushed the cattle to new growth, then up to the mountains for grazing. It was a good life, and it was over.

As he walked along the barbed-wire fences that still marked the bounds of the ranch, he thought about the man. Was this the person who would fulfill the promise he had made to Amy? He had liked the way the man put it: ‘I hit my number.’ It suggested to him that man’s greed was finite, that the thirst for more finally could be tamed and harnessed.

“Is this the right man to turn the land over to?” he asked aloud as he headed back to the barren loneliness of the ranch house, hoping that, somehow, his plea would reach Amy and she would respond with some sign.

The walk, which he once could do in minutes, took far longer than it ever had before, and when he reached the porch again he was winded and tired and had shooting pains in his thighs and back. Old age was arriving, and there was no mistaking its onset. It was time, he decided. The old way of life was dead.

That night, he continued to wrestle with the problem. He always had prided himself on his judgment of other men’s motives. Wyoming people, he believed, had a sixth sense about people. Was this the man? He wished Amy were here to help him make this decision. She always was better at judging people. She could tell the good from the bad, the innocent from the guilty, the selfless from the greedy.

He hardly slept, and when he awoke he was more tired than he was before he went to bed. After a light breakfast, which he ate without appetite, he called Spring Creek Resort and the clerk put him through to Carter’s room. In a voice still hoarse with sleep, Carter answered and the two set up an appointment for another meeting in mid-morning.

Carter hadn’t asked whether Steadman had made his decision. The fact of his call, Steadman thought, was enough of a clue as to where he was heading.

“I didn’t think I’d pass muster,” Carter said, arriving on Steadman’s porch a couple of hours after his call.

“Why would you think that?” Steadman asked.

“Investment banker from New York who had made a pile of dough.” Carter said. “It sends off a message of acquisitive greed.”

“Yes it does,” Steadman agreed.

“Well, here we are again. Eyeball to eyeball. What’s it going to be?”

“Do I have your word on what we discussed?” Steadman asked.

“You have that, Mr. Steadman. Upon my honor. You can take it to the bank.”

“No subdividing. The land stays intact. The name stays.”

“Agreed. On all three.”

Carter held out his hand and Steadman took it. Both grips were strong as if the strength somehow was the measure of the promise. Steadman was relieved. The ritual of the handshake made him feel secure. He sensed he had struck a good and honest bargain in both Amy’s name and his own.

“No second thoughts, Mr. Steadman?”

“None. Except that it will take me a month or two to clear out.”

“No need to rush.” Carter said, pausing for a moment, then chuckling. “We haven’t discussed price.”

“Just make it fair,” Steadman said, certain that Carter had researched the comparables and knew the land’s true value. He was far less interested in the money than in the fulfillment of Amy’s wish.

“Will $3 million hack it?” Carter asked.

Steadman was stunned. The best offer he had gotten was $1.5 million. What in the world was he going to do with all that money? He considered it a cruel irony that all those years of hard-scrabble suffering to make ends meet should end in an embarrassment of riches for which he had no need.

If Amy was alive, he wondered, what would she have said? She was the one who ran the books for the ranch, and the very most they had ever had in the bank was $50,000 and that was only for a month or two after a cattle sale. It was far too late for money. He supposed that he would wind up giving most of it away to charity.

“That’ll do fine,” Steadman replied, feeling the constriction in his throat.

Carter nodded, and they shook hands again.

“And remember your promise,” Steadman said.

“Done,” Carter said.

Lawyers wrapped up the financial details, and Steadman arranged for an auction of various possessions that he would not need, keeping only those items that had sentimental value or were essential to the new life he planned for himself. He could not bear to attend the auction. Carter had told him to sell whatever he wanted.

The day he left the ranch for good was a day for tears. He felt hollow and deeply unhappy. With him went all the memories of the old life—Amy, his parents, the cows, the branding, the ranch hands and cowboys, his pets, all his history, days upon days of a good life lived. He could barely see the road through his tears.

By the time he had arranged to leave, it was November and he headed for the desert and bought himself a condominium in Phoenix, where he spent the winter. He hated it, made few friends and missed his beloved valley. In the spring, he went to Australia and New Zealand, then toured China. It was only mildly interesting to him.

Then he booked a world cruise on the QE II, which he hated, feeling out of place and unable to connect with people. He did not like the confinement of the boat, and even though he had booked a large stateroom, by his standards it was small and he felt claustrophobic. The fact was that he missed Jackson Hole.

Above all, he concluded that he was not a social person and had no skill in small talk. He essentially was a rancher and a cowboy, used to long silences and wide open spaces under the big sky. He felt as if he was marking time waiting for the grim reaper to reach his patch.

After two years of what he considered aimless wandering, he came back to the valley. Up to then, it would have been too painful to visit the Circle Bar S and see how Carter was faring. Memories were too fresh. But time somehow had reduced the prospect of pain, and his first act on flying into the Jackson airport was to rent a car.

Low clouds hung over the valley, and he couldn’t see the old ranch from the air. The only familiar sight was the peak of the Grand, pushing out of the mist below as the plane punched though the clouds.

He planned to visit the ranch, ride around, see some of the old-timers and contemplate the idea of coming back to the valley, renting a place in town and spending his days in his old haunts telling stories of the past to those who were still alive.

The Circle Bar S, being north of town, was only a ten-minute drive from the airport, and with great anticipation and excitement, he drove south, then turned in toward the river, heading up beside the western edge of the airport.

He could not believe what met his gaze. Stone structures with metal lettering proclaiming “Circle Bar S Estates” were on both sides of the old ranch entrance that had been landscaped with spruce and aspen trees. The old road had been widened and paved with asphalt, and new roads crisscrossed the old pastures. A few bulldozers and backhoes were at work cutting into what had become full-blown sage meadows.

He felt a hollowness begin in the pit of his stomach and a cold sweat break out on his back, chilling him. How could this be? he asked himself. Stunned and confused, he drove the rented car to a spot near a man working a backhoe.

He got out of the car. His knees shook and his legs felt like jelly.

“What’s happening here?” he asked the man operating the backhoe.

“Digging a foundation,” the man said.

“Carter’s house?” he managed to ask, foolishly clinging to that possibility.

“Hell no. Carter lives by the river,” the man said, pointing to the stand of lodgepoles in the general direction of where his and Amy’s house had stood.

“This a house for one of his kids?” Steadman asked.

“Where you been? He’s got eighty going up. Lots sold out like hot cakes. Some are even turning over. Carter’s made himself one big pile.”

Steadman felt a thump in his chest and his breath came hard and shallow. He turned away from the man on the machine and, with effort, headed toward his car. He couldn’t believe it. The man had promised and Steadman had believed in the promise.

He sat in the car for a long time. Somehow the knowledge had sapped his strength, and he needed to rest. He closed his eyes and felt tears stream down his cheeks.

“I’m so sorry, Amy. I’m so sorry,” he repeated to himself over and over again.

After awhile, he felt strong enough to drive and he followed the old road to where his house once stood. He felt an incipient rage stirring inside him. He had been so confident that he knew men and their motives. How could he have made such a mistake?

Riding along the path of the old road, he passed through the familiar forest of lodgepoles, then into a long circling driveway to a log house of immense proportions. His old house was gone. Around the new house was lawn and, close by, a putting green complete with sand trap. In the distance, he could see another golf-hole flag fluttering in the breeze.

With what inner strength he could muster, he tamped down his rage, although he could not control his shaking legs as he walked up to the front door of the house and rang the buzzer. He knew that there was no way to reverse the process, but, for his own self-respect, he decided, he needed to confront Carter.

A young woman answered the door.

“Can I help you?”

“I would like to see Mr. Carter,” Steadman said.

“He’s in his study. He doesn’t like to be disturbed. Is there anything I can do? I’m the housekeeper. Mrs. Carter is off on a shopping trip to New York.”

“I’m afraid my business is with Mr. Carter,” Steadman said, hearing the reediness in his voice.

“I really don’t think. . . .”

“He’ll see me.”

The woman eyed him up and down with what he imagined was contempt. What business did this old fart have with Mr. Carter, she was probably thinking. She had closed the front door and he stood awkwardly waiting for it to open again.

When it did, Carter, dressed in plaid cowboy shirt, tight jeans, a belt with a large silver buckle, snakeskin cowboy boots and a fringed vest, stood in the doorway. He was smiling, and his hand was outstretched. Despite his rage, Steadman had no time to think and took the man’s hand, remembering the last time he had taken it. Now it felt cold and clammy to his touch.

“Mr. Steadman. So good to see you. Come on in.”

Steadman was not prepared for the hospitable welcome. He followed Carter into the house, a massive log structure filled with Western antiques, Western paintings mostly of cowboys pushing cattle, braving storms, slogging through mud, sitting around campfires. Others were images of painted Indian faces.

There were many pieces of log furniture and, on the walls, hung Indian artifacts. Sculptures large and small of wildlife and cowboys on horses adorned various spaces throughout the areas that he passed.

Steadman followed Carter into his large study, dominated by a massive carved desk and heavy leather chairs. Behind the desk was a huge painted landscape of a mountain setting.

“Drink?”

“No, thanks,” Steadman said.

“Take a chair, Mr. Steadman. Make yourself at home.”

Home? Steadman thought. He was appalled by the idea. Carter went behind his desk, lifted his fancy cowboy boots on its surface and clasped his hands behind his head.

“So what do you think?” Carter asked, still smiling, after a long silence.

“About what?” Steadman asked.

“The house, Mr. Steadman. Built in record time. Catch all that Western art work? Would you like a tour?”

“No, thanks, Carter.”

“You back for a visit? Heard you had a place in the desert.”

“I think you owe me an explanation.”

“I do? For what?”

“You promised. We shook hands on it.”

Carter scratched his chin and looked at Steadman.

“Conditions changed, Steadman. Opportunities arose. The county was changing the rules. I had no choice but to act before the door closed on the possibility. Just business, Steadman. Hell, you came out smelling like a rose.”

“But you promised. We shook on it. I made it clear. I never would have sold you the place—you said you would never subdivide. . . .”

“I told you. An opportunity came up. I’ve got eighty lots in my master plan. People are gobbling them up. Really, Steadman, what kind of a dumb businessman would I be if I didn’t seize the opportunity?”

“You said you hit your number,” Steadman said. “You’d made enough money.”

“Hell, can’t be too thin or too rich,” Carter chuckled.

Steadman felt the bile rise in his chest. His tongue felt dry and his anger made it impossible for him to respond. Instead, he just sat there, staring at Carter, his fancy boots on the carved desk.

“It was a condition of the sale,” Steadman said finally, but his voice had weakened and he felt faint.

“You OK, Steadman?” Carter asked. “You look pale.”

“And you, Carter? Are you OK? Don’t you feel anything?”

“Me? What should I feel? We did business. And business is business. The trick in business is to recognize opportunity. I saw it from the beginning. I gave you double what the other bastards offered. You came out pretty good. Three mil on the barrelhead. Not bad for an old duffer with a few years left. You could have a ball. No heirs. You could spend it all. You should have no gripes, Steadman.”

“You cheated me, Carter,” Steadman said, his voice still reedy. He felt weak, defeated, defeated by age, defeated by greed.

Carter scowled, lifted his feet off the desk and stood up.

“I think this little meeting is over, Steadman. Your problem is you let emotion and sentimentality get in the way of your business sense. Hell, Steadman, this place is hot. It’s discovered. The big money is rolling in. Money talks and bullshit walks. There’s a feeding frenzy for land going on in this valley. Fortunes will be made. You old-timers were here all along. How come you didn’t see it?”

With effort, Steadman stood up. Carter was probably right. Greed was too powerful to be opposed. The bad guys had won. The valley that he and Amy had lived in was over. Aubrey Steadman was over. He followed Carter out to the door, which Carter opened. Steadman started to walk outside. He was tired and wasn’t sure he would make it to the car. Then he turned and faced Steadman, standing there in his fancy Western duds.

“You’ll never be a true Westerner, Carter. All the cowboy clothes and pictures and Indian stuff and wildlife paintings and your big fancy log cabin won’t make you a Westerner. Not a real one. You don’t have what it takes inside.”

Carter slammed the door, and Steadman walked unsteadily to his car. He wondered where he had found the strength to say the things he had just said.

Sitting behind the wheel waiting for his equilibrium to return, he looked up toward the mountain peaks of the Tetons.

“You’re still beautiful,” he thought. “I’m ashamed of what you have to put up with, watching us poor dumb mortals down here.”

He turned on the ignition and headed back down the old ranch road, knowing he would never return.

 
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