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Authors: Jean Barrett

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Cowboy PI (8 page)

BOOK: Cowboy PI
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There was a mist in the valley where they gathered in the chill dawn.

“It’ll burn off when the sun clears the horizon,” Roark said, studying the sky. “We should have clear weather for our first day.”

Samantha, standing beside him, nodded. She knew he was no more interested in the weather at this moment than she was. He was merely trying to keep her distracted. She silently blessed him for that, and for making no mention of what had happened between them last night…or, what had
almost
happened.

Roark’s effort, however, was a wasted one. Nothing could divert her attention from the longhorns milling restlessly behind the barbed wire barricade that kept them in the valley. Close up like this, they weren’t a sight that encouraged her with their long legs, mottled hides in a variety of colors and patterns, and wicked-looking horns. They seemed to be watching her as unhappily as she eyed them.

“They sense they’re about to be moved out,” Roark explained. “Cattle are resistant to leaving their home range.”

She didn’t blame them. Given a choice, she would have remained here herself.

“They’ll settle down after an hour or two on the trail.”

Samantha seriously doubted that she would accept the situation in a similar fashion. She was certain of it when their horse wrangler rode toward them where they waited. The bony-faced Dick Brewster was leading the two mounts he had cut out of his remuda for their use. One of them was a big, handsome roan, the other a dainty mare. Both were already saddled.

Dick wore his usual carefree grin when he reached them and dismounted. “This here is Dolly,” he introduced Samantha to the mare. “Don’t worry, Sam, she’s as gentle as she looks. She won’t give you any trouble.”

“You ready?” Roark asked her quietly.

The morning air had a sharp bite to it, but Samantha’s hands were perspiring. Nerves, of course. She wore a lady’s low-crowned Stetson tied under her chin. She’d left it hanging down over the single thick braid that swung from the back of her head. But now, catching the brim in her hand, she pulled the hat forward and settled it firmly in place at a jaunty angle. A gesture of determination. She hoped.

“Ready,” she said.

“Want a boost up?”

Shaking her head, Samantha placed her foot in the stirrup, gripped the saddle horn, and swung her leg up and over the mare’s back. To her relief, Dolly accepted her presence without an objection. She prayed that all those detestable lessons of her childhood wouldn’t desert her as she gathered the reins loosely in her hand and tried to act as if she knew what she was doing.

“Looking good,” Roark congratulated her.

She watched him mount his own horse with an ease she could never duplicate. Whatever the accident of his urban birth, his rangy body had been designed by nature for the saddle. And no matter how she felt about cowboys, it was a sight she couldn’t help admiring.

The others had joined them by then, their quarter horses
moving in close so that the riders could receive their orders from the trail boss.

“Here’s the plan,” Shep Thomas instructed them in his somber manner. “Ramona is going on ahead with the chuck wagon. Come midmorning, she’ll be set up and waiting for us with coffee and goodies. But don’t count on coffee stops after this. We won’t have the time for them. It’s just that, this being the first day and all, I figure we’ll be more than ready for a morning break.”

“Ramona know the route?” Cappy Davis asked, his jaws working on a chaw of tobacco.

“I’ve given her a map. She’ll find the way. Dick,” the trail boss continued, turning to the horse wrangler, “you’ll be out front, of course, with the remuda. I’ll ride point. Cappy, you take left flank, and, Alex, you handle right flank. Roark and Samantha will ride drag.”

The young Alex McKenzie, mindful of Samantha’s comfort, expressed his concern. “But that leaves Sam swallowing the dust.”

“I know, but there’s less pressure there for an inexperienced rider trying to keep up.” Shep regarded her solemnly. “You don’t mind riding drag, do you, Sam?”

“Be happy to.”

“Fine. Let’s roll then.”

Shep and Cappy headed for the gates on the other side of the pasture. Dick, with a good-natured wink in Samantha’s direction, trotted after them. Jamming his hat over his unruly curls, Alex saluted her with his own boyish smile of encouragement, wheeled his horse, and rode off to take up his post.

When they were gone, Roark leaned toward her from his saddle. “You don’t have a clue what just happened here, do you?”

“My education at the Walking W didn’t include Cattle Drive 101,” she admitted. “So, if you’d care to translate…”

While the others moved into position, Roark enlightened
her. “Horses not working are too impatient to follow slow cattle, so the remuda is always out in front. Riding point means leading the herd. Flank riders are at the sides to keep the herd from bulging. Drag brings up the rear to discourage strays and keep the herd moving. And swallowing dust—”

“That I’ve already figured out. It’s what you and I are going to be doing back here behind all these cows.”

“Well, two hundred longhorns are going to raise some clouds.” He stood in his stirrups to see over the herd. “Gates are down. You all set?”

“Absolutely,” she lied, clutching the reins.

From the far side of the pasture came Shep Thomas’s shout. “Move ’em on out!”

Someone—Dick Brewster probably, Samantha guessed—raised a yell worthy of the best cattle drive movies. The others took it up, urging the longhorns forward. They poured through the open gates, streaming south along the trail.

The drive was underway.

 

W
ITHIN THE FIRST ARDUOUS HOUR
of the trek, Samantha decided that someone had made a serious mistake. Unlike its aggressive ancestors, this new strain of longhorn had been bred to be docile. Trouble was, the cows didn’t seem to know that. Looking out over a sea of backsides, she was convinced that no beasts could be more stubborn, more stupid or just plain downright ornery.

By now, Samantha had added another word to her growing cattle drive vocabulary.
Cowbrutes.
And that’s exactly what the longhorns were. They were forever challenging their drovers by either making repeated attempts to turn back, straggling from the herd to graze on vegetation no respectable steer would touch, or, for no apparent reason, simply coming to a complete standstill.

She supposed she had no good reason to complain. It was, after all, Roark who so capably dealt with these prob
lems whenever they occurred at the rear of the herd. Samantha wasn’t able to help him, even had she known what to do. She was far too busy amid all the noise, smells and dirt just staying on her horse.

So far she was managing to keep her seat, which Roark was largely responsible for. When he wasn’t dashing off after strays, he stuck close to her side, offering her patient advice.

“Not so tight on the reins. Trust Dolly. She knows what to do.”

And again. “Try to relax. You’re holding yourself so rigid, you’ll be worn out before our first break.”

And finally. “That’s it. You’re getting it. You’ll be a drover yet.”

Samantha doubted that, but he did have an easy faith in her that heartened her, and a lopsided smile that tugged dangerously at her insides.

The sun was well above the horizon when the others dropped back for a brief conference on the progress of the drive.

“Most of ’em is starting to settle down nicely,” Cappy observed, “but we got us a headache with that one there.” The old man spit tobacco juice in the direction of a reddish heifer. “She’s forever up to mischief.”

Shep nodded. “She’s a late calf. Recently weaned by the looks of her and probably too young for the drive. But I couldn’t leave her behind with Morning Star shutting down its operation.”

“Yeah, but chasing after one heifer is taking up too much time and effort we need for the other beeves. What’re we gonna do about her?”

There was a moment of silence while they considered the problem. It ended when Samantha said carelessly, “I’ll be responsible for her.”

The men stared at her in disbelief. Samantha was as surprised as they were. What had possessed her to make such a startling offer? But she knew the answer to that
question. Guilt. Guilt and a feeling of uselessness. They had expected nothing of her. She was simply there because she had to be there, and they had accepted that.

She had accepted it herself. But she was tired of being helpless, of watching them do all the work while she trailed after them on Dolly’s back, of no value to either them or herself.

Shep cleared his throat. “I don’t think—”

“Damn it,” she cut him off, squaring her shoulders with determination. “I can look after one heifer, can’t I?”

“I think we should let her,” Roark said, and there was a note of pride in his voice that warmed Samantha like a comforting glow.

The trail boss shrugged. “All right,” he agreed. “She’s all yours, Sam.”

In the half hour that followed, Samantha had cause to regret the mission for which she had so readily volunteered. How much trouble could one young cow be? she had asked herself. Plenty, she learned as she played hide-and-seek with the heifer around a pile of boulders, chased her out of a deep hollow and freed her from a juniper thicket in which she had trapped herself.

It wasn’t that the animal was mean tempered. She simply had difficulty understanding why she should keep on the move when there were so many fascinating things to investigate. Samantha could sympathize with her reluctance, which was probably why, with a combination of coaxing and scolding, she began to achieve a measure of success with her charge.

“I think Irma is going to be all right,” she reported happily to Roark. “Only one detour since that incident at the creek.”

Roark stared at her. “
Irma?
You’ve gone and called a cow
Irma?

“I got tired of using cuss words.”

“Samantha, drovers don’t make pets of their cattle.”

“What pet? She isn’t a pet. It’s just that she needed a
name and ‘Irma’ seemed to fit. Really, Roark, she does respond better with a name. Well, that and a little patience.”

“Heaven help us, she’s gone and bonded with a beef!”

Let him tease her, Samantha thought. What could it hurt to be fond of a little heifer, particularly when it made her feel less anxious about this drive? And able, for the first time, to appreciate its setting.

Until now she’d been so concerned with staying on her horse and managing the heifer that she hadn’t spared a moment for her surroundings. And they deserved her attention.

The land over which they were traveling was a narrow, lush park located between two long mountain ranges. Maple and oak trees, flaming with autumn colors, rimmed the grassy valley. On the slopes behind them were the forests of quaking aspen, their foliage masses of radiant gold. Higher still were the dark ranks of spruce and fir. And above it all the majestic Colorado peaks under a luminous blue sky.

From time to time, Samantha caught glimpses of wildlife—a red-tailed hawk, elk, even what might have been a bighorn sheep, though it was so far away she couldn’t be sure. But she was certain of the horse she spotted.

There was a high ridge that paralleled their route, sometimes open and in other places wooded with the aspens. The horse was on that ridge, and it wasn’t alone. A rider was on its back.

At first Samantha thought nothing about the distant figure. There was no reason someone shouldn’t be up there. She forgot about him when he vanished into the aspens. But then he emerged on the other side of the grove. After that, though she lost sight of him again and again, he never failed to reappear, always moving abreast of them along the ridge. By then she had the uneasy feeling that the presence of the rider was no coincidence.

After checking on Irma to be sure the heifer was staying
with the herd, Samantha guided her mare over to the side of Roark’s roan. “There’s someone up on that ridge.”

“I know,” he said. “I’ve been aware of him.”

“Am I imagining it, or is he deliberately shadowing us?”

“No, we’re being tracked.”

“But why? Roark, you don’t suppose he’s our visitor at the ranch last night?”

“We don’t know there was any visitor. This could be just someone curious about our drive, maybe a rancher worried about where we’re going.”

“Then why doesn’t he just come down here and ask?”

“Maybe he’s shy.”

She thought Roark was being maddeningly complacent about the whole thing. “Aren’t you at all concerned about him?”

“Yeah, I’m concerned, but it’s public land. He has a right to be up there, and as long as he doesn’t bother us and keeps his distance…”

She supposed Roark was right. Their rider was too far away to be a threat. Unless, that is, he was armed with a high-powered rifle. Damn, she would go and think that. On the other hand, if he wanted to pick one of them off—and remembering all that had happened, she guessed that would be her—he could have done it long ago without his presence ever being detected. Just the same, Samantha wasn’t happy with the idea of being a potential target.

“Do you think we should tell the others?”

“I imagine they already know.”

“So we do nothing about him?”

“We stay vigilant, Samantha. That’s what we do. And I don’t want you out of my sight. That includes no more chasing alone after Irma. If the heifer wanders off somewhere, you call me to help. Otherwise,” he said, looking out over the herd as if the longhorns were his only real interest, “it’s business as usual.”

But Roark proved to be less cavalier about their mystery
rider than Samantha had assumed. She was with him when he spoke to the trail boss during the coffee break a short time later.

“Shep, I suppose you’ve noticed we have company on the ridge.”

“Oh, him. Is he still up there?”

“Last time I looked.”

“He’s not a problem, is he?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, then…”

Samantha could see that the trail boss had his mind strictly on the cattle drive and not on some harmless rider who was keeping his distance. Nor were the others in the outfit interested in anything but swapping stories about their morning’s experiences with the longhorns as they stood around gulping coffee from their mugs.

BOOK: Cowboy PI
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