Chapter 11

I woke to find Colt standing in my open doorway.

“You know it’s a really good thing I don’t sleep naked,” I quipped feeling both startled and grumpy.

I’d gone looking for him the previous day after riding but didn’t find him at the shop. Eventually I just headed back to the cabin and spent the remainder of the night alone again. What usually came off as mysterious and attractive was seeping toward down right infuriating this morning. My bedside clock had barely ticked passed six-thirty and only the thinnest bands of morning sunlight poured through the curtains.

“If you really had a problem with me coming in I expect you would lock the door,” he said. Okay fine he had a point.

“What do you want?” I snapped still unwilling to concede friendliness. Colt crossed his arms and leaned against the door almost completely filling the frame, and damn he looked good—despite the still pissy voice in my head that insisted he didn’t. He dawned worn jeans, his regular leather work boots, and a plain white teeshirt. His jaw was clean shaven and even barely after sunrise he looked alert and well rested.

I became instantly aware of the fact that my hair was probably sticking up in every direction and I wore very little besides a thin pink tank-top. In typical fashion, Colt seemed to be aware of my self consciousness and took the opportunity to let his eyes roam over me. I felt my face heat but didn’t drag the covers up to my chin like I wanted to. The corner of his mouth quirked up as his eyes flashed back to mine.

“I’m headed out to the Caldwell’s place down the road a bit. They’ve got a hundred head of new calves that need branded and all the help they can get.” He paused in consideration before adding, “Want to come along?”

I was taken off guard that he offered. But I had also been intrigued from the moment the word branded left his mouth. Still, I was genuinely surprised that he had suggested my help would be appreciated. I knew plenty about horses but next to nothing about cattle. A fact he was well aware of. All the same, curiosity won out and I quickly agreed, “Sure. Yeah I’ll go.”

Colt smiled and threw a pair of heavy tan pants on the comforter in front of me, proving he’d predicted my answer.

“Pick a shirt that’s bleach-able,” he said.

Colt succeeded in quashing my lingering bad temper by knocking on my bathroom door a minute later with a hot mug of coffee. I bit down the complaint I’d been about to make about him wandering into my room without knowing if I was dressed as the scent hit my nose. I spit the last of the toothpaste in the sink, rinsed my mouth, and nearly lunged for the coffee cup.

Milk and sugar too! I sighed and finished threading my belt through the loops in the tan pants with my face partially submerged in the mug.

“Thank you,” I said during a beverage break when I was forced to abandon the cup into his care to get my socks on. Colt was still in my room, watching me literally hop my way into the last articles of clothing. I’d gotten a sports bra on before he came in the room, realizing as an after thought that I’d neglected to close the door before doing so. Maybe I shouldn’t be blaming him for my lack of modesty.

I pulled a ribbed white tank top over my head and snatched the coffee back from Colt’s out stretched hand. He laughed and followed me out of my bedroom into the living area. I drained the cup, unconcerned that I’d managed to scorch half my tongue in the two minutes since he’d first given me the mug. I waved the empty ceramic at him and arched an eyebrow. For the second time, Colt laughed out loud and humored me by refilling the cup as I tugged on boots and tried to force my hair out of my face.

“Oh, I got you something yesterday,” he said.

I turned to look. From the pocket of a canvas jacket hung on the back of a kitchen chair he pulled a camouflage ball cap. He ripped off the price tag and strode across the linoleum to deposit the hat in my hands. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that his surprise gift effectively wiped every trace of grumpiness from me—sneaky boy. I smiled and fed my ponytail through the gap above the velcro closure.

“Thank you!” I said again, pulling the brim down above my eyes as I’d seen him do a couple dozen times now.

He smirked and before I could react, he had taken another step toward me so that I had the wall at my back and over six-foot of male at my front. My breath hitched as my personal space was suddenly halved. Colt blinked and looked like he was about to act again. Then, just as quickly, he stepped back and shrugged into his jacket and poured himself a cup of coffee.

I stood there dumbly for a moment before remembering what I’d been doing.

“Alright, take this,” he said handing me the cup and heading for the front door. “Time to go, and try not to spill that.”

I followed him from the cabin, and for the thirty minute drive to the Caldwell’s I alternated between sneaking sips when the road was smooth and wondering about what he had almost done.

* * * * *

I’ve heard it said that the average American ingests a complete pound of dirt every year. If this is true then the average American rancher must consume just shy of a cubic yard of dirt in his or her lifetime. Enough to fill a short bed pickup with soil deep enough to grow potatoes. During the drive, Colt told me that many of these people were born or willed onto the land they still worked.

The Caldwell’s ranch curled like a sleeping animal at the bottom of a steep draw, breathing in the cold that seeped down the valley’s rocky shoulders every morning, and basking in the late Western-glow of afternoon. That morning, Colt and I pulled up the drive in his flat bed by about seven-thirty.

People were already milling around while children dashed about. I nearly laughed when I saw that the adults clutched yet more mugs of steaming coffee—I found it highly likely that many of those were strictly black. I realized that I knew several people and recognized a couple others. All three of the Bishop boys were there, as was Tuesday from the cafe and a couple familiar faces to which I couldn’t put names.

An old grey truck crept up beside the truck and seemed to park itself. Then a sprout of short brown hair caught my attention as its owner opened the drivers-side door. The boy hopped from the cab of the truck and dashed around to retrieve the last few items he’d been sent to gather. He had to hop because at ten-years-old and about four-and-a-half feet tall, the floorboards of the old Ford were still a respectable distance from the ground. He ran into the maze of heifers and people, stopping once he reached his father at the head of the single occupied cattle chute. The boy handed over two slim iron bars, the ends of which were shaped in welded metal, before running off again. I watched him run as he laughed and feinted at the massive, mooing herd that was collecting within a large corral.

The generational gap was clearly pronounced, ranging from the pink sunburn on a six-year-old’s cheekbones, to the white hair and sun-weathered wrinkles of ancient Mr. Caldwell himself. On an unusually balmy spring morning, at nine-thousand feet of elevation in the Rockies, we sweat and bled in the chutes amidst baying cattle and beside perfect strangers. Alongside about twenty others, I helped to push two hundred head of new calves through the branding chutes.

Several hours later, I swept the sleeve of my shirt across my forehead for maybe the fiftieth time and climbed back out of the cattle chute. The scent of burning hair and flesh mottled the breeze and carried over to where I was bodily forcing a nervous calf down the length of the chute. Someone tossed a plastic water bottle my direction and I chugged gratefully while looking around. Of the twenty or so people working that day, nearly every one of us wore gloves that only covered to the wrist. This would not have been significant except that nearly every one of us was also covered, up to the elbows, in bright green calf-dung.

Surprisingly, very little was actually said. Our system of language and communication consisted of flying ropes, simple gestures, and the patience required to allow each person to perfect their step in the process. Everybody had a job, a task, or some other responsibility that varied according to experience, age, and athleticism. “Old Man Caldwell,” as he was called, proudly assumed the traditional task of stamping the brand. Cows swarmed before the gates of the corral, mooing through the bars to their separated calves. One by one, each calf was pushed through to a holding section, flipped horizontally, branded, and immunized before being righted again to scramble free to find its mother.

Dust churned as sixteen-hundred feet danced upon the ground and the grass in the pasture rolled and bucked in the breeze, as though applauding its people.

Wonderment is usually something that catches you off-guard, and in that moment, I was stunned to realize that I couldn’t tell if the people cared more for their property, or if the land cared for its people. One of the women at the head of the chute stripped off a glove to rub behind the ears of a squirming calf. The fuzzy tan mound gradually relaxed and quit kicking. She smiled at the calf in a way that could only be described as motherly, and set back to work.

I think the land itself carried the greatest responsibility by essentially raising the herd, cradling the young ones, feeding the cows that nurse the calves, and faithfully padding the footfall of hundreds of cattle, horses, and people.

All around me labored the other men, women, and children who traded their time and effort, not for financial compensation, but for a ranch-cooked meal and the opportunity to lend a hand to friends and neighbors. I found the chore both incredibly enjoyable and humbling. Enjoyable because the weather was gorgeous, the people were beyond friendly, and there was something so authentic about branding that I was beginning to feel like less of an outsider at last. The ordeal was humbling because I was repeatedly run-over by hundred-and-twenty-pound calves.

The last calf finally scrambled free and leapt into the larger group to seek its mother. Someone let out a whoop and at least two pairs of filthy hands shook in appreciative accomplishment. I found myself grinning again, torn between slight disappointment that the day was almost over, and relief  because I could barely lift my arms anymore, let alone man-handle more cows.

The herd was pushed back down the road into the large pasture that blanketed the valley floor, and people gradually filtered into the main ranch house. A snapping sound cracked through the air. I turned in time to watch Colt and at least one other man pop the lids from Copenhagen cans before inserting a full pinch of chewing tobacco between their cheek and gums. Few people besides myself bothered to wash their hands. Most just stripped off gloves and wiped their palms against the slightly cleaner back pockets of their jeans. I wanted to grimace, but then it wasn’t anything we hadn’t been inhaling, swallowing, and wading through all day anyway.

Plate upon plate layered the little kitchen table: fluffy mustard potato salad, spicy beef chili that was served on hamburger buns, Lays potato chips, rosy fruit and raw vegetables, green salad, baked beans, and extra meat. And all of this beside a cooler brimming with iced Busch Light beer.

Paper plates were heaped so high they needed to be supported with an open hand from beneath, and the cooler was rapidly emptied of chilled cans.

We moved out onto the back deck where people clustered in groups on picnic tables, lawn chairs, and the ground. Initially there was very little conversation while everyone leveled the first helping of food. As stomachs expanded, however, the death-grips on plastic cutlery loosened, as did the tide of humor about favorite calves, favorite kicks, and favorite mishaps of the season. I nearly laughed baked beans out my nose when someone mentioned how enthusiastically Drew Bishop had pursued a tiny calf hell-bent on evasion. The ease of company, whether they were friends or strangers, lulled me into a contented slump on a corner of the deck. I suspect it’s impossible to labor beside people all day without cutting loose and becoming comfortable around them.

Over the course of the waning afternoon, several families loaded into trucks and headed back down the dirt road. Colt threw me a questioning glance and I grinned to let him know I was game for anything. Someone lit up a bonfire and we wasted the remaining hours of daylight chatting and just lounging beside the fire and on the deck.

The first red tinge of sunset crept into the valley, turning the grass, bare rock, and pines a vibrant palette. Calves suckled from their mothers, new brands already forgotten. Pickup trucks and farm-equipment were still haphazardly parked in the improvised lot where their rust blotches and faded paint spoke of years of work and wear.

I sat back, feeling the rough cut of wood-siding press against my hair and neck, and thought, I get it. Every breath and whisper of the Rockies are echoed through the lives of these people, and given the choice, I wouldn’t leave either.

Colt and I finally drove out as darkness began creeping down the sides of the valley.

“There’s something I forgot to ask you about,” I said eying him carefully.

He looked at me as a means of invitation.

“Did you know Charlie is in love with you?”

His gaze slammed to mine and I saw as he quickly tried to read the expression on my face.

“I don’t care or anything,” I said quickly. “But now I assume you did know.”

He partially relaxed back into the seat again. “Yes, I knew,” he said. “Don’t tell anyone at all about him though. He’d be run out of town if anyone found out he’s gay.”

“How did you find out?” I asked.

Colt laughed softly before saying, “Because he got drunk and tried hitting on me one night. I had to explain to him my door only swings one way. But he’s a damn good man, and it hasn’t gotten in the way.”

I was impressed and surprised by how different his view was compared to most of the town, but he wasn’t done yet, “It makes me a touch uncomfortable now and then, but honestly no harm done.”

He raised his eyebrows and looked back at the road. “If you figured it out, then you’re more observant than most. All the same, I’ll have to talk to him again about more subtlety,” he said, then grinned. “Can’t be losing your new boss can we?”

He dropped me at the front door of the cabin and said he’d be back in an hour. I was on the couch trying to focus on reading instead of a variety of R-rated thoughts that featured Colt when he came through the front door.

I knew immediately that he was in pain by how rigid his shoulders were, and I was halfway off the cushions by the time he said, “Bunny, come here.”

I put an arm under him, “Bucks, what happened?” He winced as he lowered himself to the floor to lay on his stomach.

“Wrenched my back trying to move a sled in the shop,” he said slightly muffled around the carpet, “I’ve got a knotted area back there bigger than my boot. Come see if you can get it out.”

I stood there momentarily dumbfounded. He wanted a massage? I mean I knew anatomy and all but the most I was really qualified to do was open the bottle of pain killers.

“Please,” he said at my delay.

“What should I do?” I asked, conceding mentally that he had really had my willingness at the bare  mention of touching him.

“Just sit on my butt and dig your knuckles in.”

I hesitated again briefly before dropping down to straddle Colt’s hips. I pressed my thumbs into the flesh six inches above the top of his jeans and kneaded in tight circles. Colt groaned and turned his face into the carpet.

I was afraid I’d make it worse but then his muffled voice said, “Push a bit harder.”

Gradually I became more confident and moved up the length of his spine and fanned out over his shoulder blades and ribs. About twenty minutes later my hand were too trued to continue at the pressure and I let them still in the curve of his lower back. Just the ticking clock was audible and the flicker of an eyelid let me know he hadn’t fallen asleep. I took the nails of both hands and ran them gently all over his back through the teeshirt.

Quickly, Colt rolled beneath me and grabbed my knees so that I couldn’t dislodge from his hips. Suddenly I was sitting on top of him, straddling his pelvis from the font with the most intimate parts of our bodies pressed tightly together.  I bit back a moan and focused intently on his face, unsure of what he planned to do. He had flirted before, sure. Even to the extent that I became embarrassed on occasion, but his attentions had never given me the unmistakable impression that he wanted me. That fact was impossible to ignore now that I was practically riding his growing erection. Ice blue eyes pierced me and I felt as though my clothes were being peeled from my skin.

“Don’t stop,” he said and his grip switched to my wrists as he drug my hands down to his chest. “Here,” he placed my hands just below his collarbones, pulling firmly so that I had to lean forward slightly to reach.

I increased the pressure again and after a few minutes, he reached down and then lifted himself slightly to drag the shirt over his head. Then he replaced my palms again.

The feel of his bare chest had me biting the tip of my tongue to keep myself from touching him in complete abandon. Instead, I did as he said and raked my nails over his chest and down the hard plane of his abdomen. I traced the outline of each visible muscle and ran my fingertips over the hollow of his throat. I kneaded on either side of his sternum and ran my nails as lightly as I could over the skin just above his jeans.

Colt’s eyes were closed so I feathered my hands back up his body, over that sharp jaw line, and pushed my nails through his hair. I dared him with sudden boldness to see where he was taking this and reaching for his head had forced me to lean so that I was suspended almost directly over him.

Colt’s eyes snapped open and one huge hand flew and closed life a vice over my forearm, pinning me above him. The suddenness of his movement startled me and a small gasp escaped. His gaze locked on my mouth before shifting back to meet my eyes.

Slowly, without so much as a tremor, Colt lifted his other hand toward my face. My hand that he hadn’t kept a hold of was placed in the center of his chest to support my weight, but I didn’t fight him as he shoved his hand into the hair behind my neck and pulled me down toward his mouth.

I thought he was going to kiss me then, but he’d aimed lower. I gasped again as his lips closed over my throat. He pulled hard against the back of my neck as his tongue moved in hot circles just below my ear. I collapsed my torso against his as he let go of my arm and lifted his other hand to my face. He ran his thumb roughly over my cheek, forcing my head to turn so that could he reach my other ear with gentle bites. I think I whimpered and then he wrapped his arm around the back of my neck and rolled both of us so that he was lying on top of me, pinning my thighs open with his hips.

“Bucks,” I moaned this time as he shifted forward. For a moment the full length of his erection thrust against my core. Finally he pulled back and fixed me with those blue eyes. Then his thumb pushed up at the corner of my lip and he lowered his mouth to mine. The tip of his tongue traced the seam of my lips, taunting and finally seeking a measure of permission. My hand flew to pull his face harder against my own and I parted my mouth. Lust erupted as his tongue invaded, running along the back of my teeth, the insides of my lips and shoved hard against my tongue. Colt kissed like the world would end if he didn’t. Like he may never get to again and I was burning against him, fighting for more even through I could barely breathe.

Colt broke the kiss and stared down at me. With our eyes locked reached down between us to slide the hem of my tank-top up my ribcage. I arched up into his palm and he grinned wickedly.

“I thought your back hurt,” I managed to whisper.

He laughed loudly and didn’t answer but moved down to close his mouth over the bare skin of my stomach. He bit roughly at a spot just below my left breast. I arched up father and didn’t think about his supposed injury or that fact were were rolling around on the living floor again. Colt licked down to my hip bones, leaving a trail that kept burning even after his tongue had passed. He sucked hard at the flesh just above the line of my jeans and I clasped him equally roughly against me.

Colt unsnapped the button of my pants with one quick flick and was reaching for the zipper when my cell phone alarm went off at full volume. After the previous silence the blaring melody scared the hell out of me.

“Shit!” I said. Colt sat back on his heels and stared menacingly at the counter where my phone was sitting as I scrambled up to shut off the noise. Once the sound was muted, I looked back across the living room to watch Colt climb to his feet. I knew the moment was broken even before he straightened his clothes and flipped on the hallway light. I’m sure lust still seeped visibly from every inch of my body but I was back under my own control, and evidently so was he. His gaze lacked the heat and intensity of a moment ago and only my chaffed skin and undone button revealed anything had happened.

He picked up the book I’d been reading off the couch and tossed it lightly through the open door of my room. I heard the soft thump as it landed on the bed before he said, “Goodnight, Adrienne,” and entered his own bedroom and shut the door behind him.

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