Buffalo Valley

Buffalo Valley Page 1
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Buffalo Valley Page 1

Chapter 1

So this was North Dakota. Gazing steadily ahead, Vaughn Kyle barreled down the freeway just outside Grand Forks. Within a few miles, the four lanes had narrowed to two. Dreary, dirt-smudged snow lay piled up along both sides of the highway. Fresh snow had begun to fall, pristine and bright, glinting in the late-afternoon sun.

His parents had retired earlier in the year, leaving Denver, where Vaughn had been born and raised, and returning to the state they’d left long ago. They’d moved north, away from the majestic peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the endlessly boring landscape of the Dakotas. This was supposed to be beautiful? Maybe in summer, he mused, when the fields of grain rippled with the wind, acre after acre. Now, though, in December, in the dead of winter, the beauty of this place escaped him. All that was visible was a winding stretch of black asphalt cutting through flat, monotonous terrain that stretched for miles in every direction.

After seven years as an Airborne Ranger in the U.S. Army’s Second Battalion based in Fort Lewis, Washington, Vaughn was poised to begin the second stage of his working life. He had his discharge papers and he’d recently been hired by Value-X, a mega-retailer with headquarters in Seattle. Value-X was one of America’s most notable success stories. New stores were opening every day all across the United States and Canada.

His course was set for the future, thanks largely to Natalie Nichols. They’d met two years earlier through mutual friends. Natalie was smart, savvy and ambitious; Value-X had recognized her skills and she’d advanced quickly, being promoted to a vice presidency before the age of thirty.

Vaughn had been attracted by her dedication and purpose, and he’d admired her ambition. His own work ethic was strong; as he’d come to realize, that was increasingly rare in this age of quick fixes and no-fault living. Natalie was the one who’d convinced him to leave the army. He was ready. When he’d enlisted after finishing college, he’d done so intending to make the military his career. In the seven years since, he’d learned the advantages and drawbacks of soldiering.

He didn’t mind the regimented life, but the career possibilities weren’t all he’d hoped they would be. What he lacked, as Natalie had pointed out, was opportunity. He was limited in how far he could rise through the ranks or how quickly, while the private sector was wide-open and looking for promising employees like him. He’d been interviewed by three headhunters who recruited candidates for a variety of corporations and in just a few weeks had six job offers.

At first he’d felt there might be a conflict of interest, taking a position with the same company as Natalie. However, she didn’t view it that way; they would be a team, she’d told Vaughn, and with that remarkable persuasive skill of hers had convinced him to come on board. He wouldn’t officially start until after the first of the year, but he was already on assignment.

Value-X was buying property in Buffalo Valley, North Dakota. Since Vaughn was going to be in the vicinity, visiting his parents in nearby Grand Forks, Natalie had asked him to pay the town a visit. It wasn’t uncommon for a community to put up token resistance to the company’s arrival. In most cases, any negative publicity was successfully handled, using a proven strategy that included barraging the local media with stories showing the company’s “human face.” After a recent public-relations disaster in Montana, Natalie was eager to avoid a repeat. She’d asked Vaughn to do a “climate check” in Buffalo Valley, but it was important, she insisted, that he not let anyone know he was now a Value-X employee, not even his parents. Vaughn had reluctantly agreed.

He’d done this because he trusted Natalie’s judgment. And because he was in love with her. They’d talked about marriage, although she seemed hesitant. Her reasons for postponing it were logical, presented in her usual no-nonsense manner. She refused to be “subservient to emotion,” as she called it, and Vaughn was impressed by her clear-cut vision of what she wanted and how to achieve it. They’d get married when the time was right for both of them.

He was eager to have her meet his family. Natalie would be joining him on December twenty-seventh, but he wished she could’ve rearranged her schedule to travel with him.

On this cold Friday afternoon two weeks before Christmas, Vaughn had decided to drive into Buffalo Valley. Because of Hassie Knight, he didn’t need to invent an excuse for his parents. Hassie was the mother of his namesake. She’d lost her only son—his parents’ closest friend—in Vietnam three years before Vaughn was born. Every birthday, until he’d reached the age of twenty-one, Hassie had mailed him a letter with a twenty-five-dollar U.S. Savings Bond.

In all that time, he’d never met her. From first grade on, he’d dutifully sent her a thank-you note for every gift. That was the extent of their contact, but he still felt a genuine fondness for her—and gratitude. Hassie had been the one to start him on a savings program. As a young adult Vaughn had cashed in those savings bonds and begun acquiring a portfolio of stocks that over the years had become a hefty nest egg.

An hour after he left Grand Forks, Vaughn slowed his speed, certain that if he blinked he might miss Buffalo Valley entirely. Value-X could put this place on the map. That was one benefit the company offered small towns. He wasn’t sure what kind of business community existed in Buffalo Valley. He knew about Knight’s Pharmacy of course, because Hassie owned that. Apparently the town was large enough to have its own cemetery, too; Hassie had mailed him a picture of her son’s gravesite years earlier.

Buffalo Valley was directly off the road. You didn’t take an exit the way you would in most places. You just drove off the highway. He slowed, made a right turn where the road sign indicated. The car pitched as it left the pavement and hit ruts in the frozen dirt road. He’d gone at least a hundred feet before the paved road resumed.

He passed a few scattered houses, and as he turned the corner, he discovered, somewhat to his surprise, a main street with businesses lining both sides. There was even a hotel of sorts, called Buffalo Bob’s 3 of a Kind. The bank building, a sprawling brick structure, seemed new and quite extensive. This was amazing. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but nothing like this. Buffalo Valley was a real town, not a cluster of run-down houses and boarded-up stores, like some of the prairie towns his parents had told him about.

Hassie’s store caught his attention next. It was a quaint, old-fashioned pharmacy, with big picture windows and large white lettering. Christmas lights framed the window, flashing alternately red and green. In smaller letters below KNIGHT’S PHARMACY, a soda fountain was advertised. Vaughn hadn’t tasted a real soda made with hand-scooped ice cream and flavored syrup since his childhood.

He parked, climbed out of his rental car and stood on the sidewalk, glancing around. This was a decent-size town, decorated for the holidays with festive displays in nearly every window. A city park could be seen in the distance, and the Buffalo Valley Quilting Company appeared to take up a large portion of the block across the street. He remembered an article about it in the file Natalie had given him.

The cold stung his face and snow swirled around him. Rather than stand there risking frostbite, Vaughn walked into the pharmacy. The bell above the door jingled and he was instantly greeted by a blast of heat that chased the chill from his bones.

“Can I help you?” He couldn’t see who spoke, but the voice sounded young, so he assumed it wasn’t Hassie. The woman or girl, whoever she was, stood behind the raised counter at the back of the store.

“I’m looking for Hassie Knight,” Vaughn called, edging his way down the narrow aisle. This pharmacy apparently carried everything: cosmetics, greeting cards, over-the-counter medicine, gourmet chocolate, toothpaste and tissues—just about anything you might require.

“I’m sorry, Hassie’s out for the day. Can I be of help?”

He supposed he didn’t need to see Hassie, although it would have been nice.

“I’m Carrie Hendrickson.” A petite blonde in a white jacket materialized before him, hand extended. “I’m an intern working with Hassie.”

“Vaughn Kyle,” he said, stretching out his own hand. He liked the way her eyes squarely met his. Her expression held a hint of suspicion, but Vaughn was prepared for that. Natalie had mentioned the North Dakota attitude toward strangers—a wariness that ranged from mild doubt to outright hostility. It was one reason she worried about this proposed building site.

“Hassie and I have never officially met, but she does know me,” he added reassuringly. “I was named after her son.”

“You’re the Vaughn Kyle?” she asked, her voice revealing excitement now. “Did Hassie know you were coming and completely forget? I can’t imagine her doing that.”

“No, no, it was nothing like that. I just happened to be in the area and thought I’d stop by and introduce myself.”

Her suspicion evaporated and was replaced with a wide, welcoming smile. “I’m so pleased to meet you. Hassie will be thrilled.” She gestured to the counter. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? A soft drink?”

“Actually, I wouldn’t mind an old-fashioned soda.”

“They’re Hassie’s specialty, but I’ll do my best.”

“Don’t worry about it.” On second thought, he decided something warm might be preferable. “I’ll have a coffee.”

She led him to the soda fountain and Vaughn sat on a padded stool while Carrie ducked beneath the counter and reappeared on the other side.

“Do you know when Hassie’s due back?” he asked.

“Around six,” Carrie told him, lifting the glass pot and filling his cup. “You need space for cream?” she asked.

He answered with a quick shake of his head. She didn’t cut off the steady stream of weak coffee until it’d reached the very brim of his cup.

The door opened, bells jingling, and a woman dressed in a black leather jacket walked into the store. She had three scarves wrapped around her neck, nearly obscuring her face.

“Hi, Merrily,” Carrie called, then scrambled under the fountain barrier. “I’ll have Bobby’s prescription ready in just a moment.” She hurried to the back of the store. “While you’re waiting, introduce yourself to Vaughn Kyle.”

Merrily glanced toward the counter and waved, and Vaughn raised his mug to her.

“That’s Hassie’s Vaughn Kyle,” Carrie said emphatically. “Vaughn was named after her son,” she added.

“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Merrily walked over to shake his hand. “What are you doing here?” she asked, unwinding the woolen scarves.

Now, that was an interesting question, Vaughn thought. He certainly hadn’t anticipated anyone knowing about him.

“He came to meet Hassie,” Carrie said as she returned with the prescription. She handed Merrily a small white sack. “How’s Bobby feeling?”

“Better, I think. Poor little guy seems prone to ear infections.” She turned to Vaughn with a smile. “Nice meeting you,” she said. She wrapped the mufflers around her face again before she headed out the door.

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