Shared by the Cowboys
After breakfast the next morning, I got dressed in the clothes I hadn’t used in years. A plaid rancher’s shirt with pockets over both the left and right breast. Regular jeans, but with my old cowboy boots. They were well-worn and molded to my feet perfectly. There was nothing better than a pair of boots that had been broken in, even after several years.
I topped it off with a brown pinch-front cowboy hat, made with bonded split-grain leather. I admired myself in the bathroom mirror. I definitely looked the part.
When I went downstairs, Mason’s eyes skimmed over my body, but he didn’t comment on the clothes. That was a good sign. It meant I was fitting in.
“Ready to see the rest of the property?”
It was a brisk morning, with the remains of last night’s chill still in the air. But the sun was peeking above the Swan Mountains to the east, and in a few hours it would be a pleasant autumn day.
Wildfire was snorting and stamping his hooves in the pen. Cody was walking out with a coil of rope under his arm. His chaps and duster were covered in dirt.
“Still got a ways to go,” he said as we passed. He tipped his hat to me and added, “Morning, ma’am. You’re lookin’ the part today.”
“Why, thank you.” I nodded at the horse. “Want me to try?”
Cody removed his hat, scratched his blond hair, then put it back on. “Can’t tell if that’s a joke or not.”
“I’m dead serious. I bet I can break him.”
“Not a good idea on your first day on the job,” Mason said.
Cody patted me on the arm. “Trust me, Becca. Do you go by Becca? I’m gonna call you Becca anyway. As I was saying, trust me. I’ve been horse-trading a long time. I got an instinct about how easy or hard a wild horse will be to break. And this sumbitch? It’s gonna be a while before he’s broken. Worth the effort, though. It’ll be a hell of a ride.”
Mason and I went into the barn and readied the horses. “You can ride Cody’s horse. It’s the spotted Appaloosa in the second stall.”
I opened the stall and put on the tackle. “What’s his name?”
Mason chuckled while preparing his own horse. “Don’t get me started. He picked awful names for all the horses. This quarter horse I’m riding is Poptart. And the black Arabian that Blake rides is named Bucket.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Like a five-year-old naming the family dog.”
“You’re not wrong.”
I frowned to myself. “What about Wildfire?”
“What about him?”
“Why’d Cody give him a normal name, instead of something silly like windowsill?”
“I dunno. You’ll have to ask him yourself.” Mason grabbed two walkie-talkies off the wall and handed one to me. “We use these to communicate on the property. Keep it on your belt whenever you’re farther than yelling distance. You know how to shoot?”
I didn’t realize what he meant until he pulled an old revolver off the pegboard wall. “Oh. Um. Dad showed me how to use a shotgun when I was a girl. Been a while, though.”
Mason flicked open the revolver’s chamber, loaded six bullets inside, then clicked it shut. “Best to carry a piece when on the ranch property. I’ve got you covered this time.”
Once the horses were prepared, we mounted up and rode out onto the ranch property. I hadn’t ridden a horse in half a decade, but it was just like riding a bike. Within a minute or two I was bouncing along in a perfect rhythm.
“You’re a good rider,” Mason said as we crested a small hill.
“Told you I was experienced,” I replied. “You can put me to use doing more than just chores around the house.”
Cassidy Ranch’s ten thousand acres were mostly green plains with some rolling hills. Perfect grazing terrain. We passed a couple of small lakes on the way out where the cattle could drink, but there weren’t any animals in sight.
“The western property line is that river,” Mason pointed out. “It’s deep enough that the cattle don’t try to swim across, but we’re building a fence, just in case. Last thing we need is a calf wandering into the current and drowning.”
“Lost profits,” I said.
Mason glanced over at me from his horse. “Sure, but we care about the animals too. We want them to have nice, happy lives.”
No matter what he said, I knew the happiness of the animals was secondary to the ranch’s profits. But I wasn’t going to call him out on it.
We followed the fence by the river for a few minutes until we reached Blake. His black horse—Bucket—was tied up to the fence post. Blake was using a long-handled tool to dig a hole for the next fence post.
“Checkin’ up on me?” he said without looking up.
“Showing Rebecca around the property.”
In a deep voice, Blake asked, “You don’t got anything more important for me to do?”
“We need that fence built.”
“Sick of it,” Blake replied, tossing down his hammer. “Give me something else to do.”
“That fence is your top priority right now,” Mason said. “We need you working on it non-stop. I don’t want you doing anything else until that’s done. You understand me?”
Blake grunted and went back to his work.
When we were out of earshot, Mason said, “I love my brother, but he’s never been easy. He acts like he doesn’t want to be here.”
“Then why is he?” I asked.
“If he doesn’t want to work on the ranch, why’d be come?”
Mason stared off at nothing, swaying slightly in his saddle. “It’s a long story. But he’s got his reasons.” He pointed. “There’s the herd.”
We crested the hill and suddenly there were a hundred black cows spread around a lake. We rode closer, and then Mason dismounted and tied his horse to a sapling. I dismounted and tied Beans up too.
“Watch your step,” Mason warned.
We approached on foot. There was a flurry of moos from the herd, gentle noises that rumbled out of their throats before growing louder. The smell of cow manure was heavy in the air.
Mason walked right up to one cow and scratched it along its spine. After a moment I did the same thing. The cow hair was coarse and thick.
“Balancers are a stubborn breed,” Mason explained. “But their temperament improves if they’re used to you. We try to give ‘em some attention at least once a day.”
I watched as one cow shoved its way forward and rubbed its head against Mason’s arm like a cat. He laughed and scratched its head, and the cow gave a happy little shake. He really wasn’t treating them like they were big bags of money. He acted like he cared.
He’s a hunk, and he’s sweet? Swoon city.
After ten minutes of socializing with the herd, we mounted up again and rode east across the property. The terrain sloped upward into the foothills as we drew closer to the mountainous side of the valley. We reached a fence, which Mason explained was the eastern property line.
We passed through a gate to exit the property, and continued riding upward into a pine forest.
“It’s beautiful,” I said as we rode through the trees. I took a deep breath of the fresh, pine-filled air.
“Beautiful, but dangerous,” Mason explained. “There are bears up in the foothills. Wolves too, since they were reintroduced a few years back. Most don’t come down onto the property. Or so I’m told. Haven’t been here long enough to find out.”
We followed the forest north, then cut back across the fence onto our property. A few minutes later we reached a section of trees that were fenced off by themselves. These trees weren’t spaced out randomly like the pine forest. They were deliberately planted in a grid.
“This is the apple orchard. Two different varieties for cross-pollination. Should be ready to pick next month.” He pointed. “On the other end are the beehives.”
“You cultivate bees?” I asked, surprised.
Mason nodded. “Wouldn’t have gone out of my way, but they were already here when we bought the place. Cody handles all of it. Not my cup of tea.”
“Good to add to a cup of tea, though!” I said.
Mason’s laugh was deep and rich, and his smile brightened his sexy face.
As we drew closer to the ranch, we reached two square fields of crops. “Lentils on the left, field peas on the right. Couple acres of both. Nothing fancy, but enough to fill our pantries. We rotate between them because field peas are a nitrogen-fixing crop, meaning they add nutrients back into the soil.”
“You sound like you know your stuff,” I said.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t. I’m just repeating what the prior owner told me. They’re the ones who planted them before we bought the place. We don’t have any machinery, obviously, so we’ll harvest them by hand. We’ll need your help with these, especially coming up with a re-planting schedule.”
It took me a second to remember that he thought I studied agriculture at school. “Right, I can do that,” I said.
We rode another few minutes before reaching the ranch. “That’s the property. Our little slice of Montana heaven.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “I’m excited to work here for the next three months.”
Mason dismounted by the barn, then reached a hand up to help me down. I took his hand and swung a leg off the horse.
But the motion was strange while holding someone’s hand, and my other boot got caught in the stirrup. I lost my balance and began to fall, and the ground swung up toward me…
I fell into Mason’s strong arms. He held me with ease, holding me against his broad chest. His body felt as hard as a boulder underneath his plaid shirt, and I could smell his aftershave or deodorant. It was tough not to swoon while in his arms. For a few moments we were both too surprised to move.
He smiled down at me. “Careful, now.”
I pulled away and adjusted my hat. “You jinxed me by complimenting my riding earlier. I haven’t fallen off a horse since I was a little girl.”
“You get one free pass,” Mason replied. “I’ll pretend it didn’t happen. Just don’t make it a habit.”
“Don’t plan to.”
He nodded, smiled at me, and then led his horse into the barn.
It’s going to be a fun three months, I thought.
COMING JULY 9