There was no getting around it, Luke did not like Britney Logan. He was old-fashioned, and it was his opinion that a cattle drive was no place for females. He didn’t care if she was the daughter of the largest and wealthiest cattle ranch in the state. That’s what his gut told him and he was sticking to it.
Wrangling is hard work—men’s work. A big part is the camaraderie among the cowboys sitting around the campfire at night, drinking beer and telling a few raunchy jokes. Now they’d been warned by the boss to be gentlemen, all because of her.
Luke left his desk job in the city to pursue a more organic lifestyle away from electronics and gadgetry. That’s what he loved about being a wrangler on a ranch in Wyoming, no cell phones were allowed on their bi-annual cattle drive to and from the summer high country. And even though he’d only just met her, and knew next to nothing about her, he was cocksure that Brit would sneak hers along anyway and be chatting with friends atop her very tall and handsome Appaloosa gelding, Big Whiskey. Fortunately cell phones didn’t work well in the mountains, so maybe they’d be spared the tiresome and vulgar Tongue-Out-Selfies that must be promptly uploaded to Facebook or Instagram.
They’d probably have to wait on her in the mornings while she carefully applied makeup, turning her face to the left, then to the right and pursing her purple-glossed lips into a sensual pout as she admired her reflection in the small compact mirror. Luke imagined her inside the tent lying back on her goose-down-filled designer sleeping bag, wasting another ten minutes of valuable time with legs in the air, twisting and wriggling herself into skin tight Levi’s to wear tucked inside ankle-high, lace-up hiking boots, socks expertly cuffed at the top. Of course, these were all Luke’s intuitions and he was sticking to them. This is how young women were in the city, and he assumed they were all alike.
Britney wore her long brown, thick-as-honey hair tied back in a low ponytail, topped off with a weather-stained velvet Stetson cowboy hat. She wore no makeup. Chapstick at the ready in a pocket of her forest green flannel shirt. No lipgloss. Her Levi’s were indeed fitted to an athletic figure, but far from skin tight. She wore jeans for functionality, not to showcase her derrière. They were just wide enough from the knee to fit over the shaft of her pricey RIOS of MERCEDES buffalo hide boots, nicely stacked at the front and tapering slightly longer down to the heel, while still showing the detailed stitching on the toe and instep. For Britney, “the look” was not about making the cover of Cowgirl Magazine and its fashion statements, it was just how clothing was worn on a working cattle ranch.
Luke liked women to be feminine, like his mom. Not soft and doughy, exactly, but at least not look like a hardened strap of rawhide. She probably does dopey stuff like hot yoga to get in that kind of shape, he assumed—when in truth, her strength and tone were achieved via good old-fashioned hard work.
For the next two weeks, Brit’s job as swing rider was to ride close along each side of the herd, keep them together and be on the lookout for any animals that might try to break away. Reluctantly, Luke had to admit she was better at it than any of the wranglers, himself included. She was also up before any of the men tending to the horses, checking their hooves and deftly removing any stones or packed mud she found with the hoof pick she carried in her saddlebags, along with chaps and spurs if needed.
Still, “Girls should stay home and play piano and bake cookies,” he proclaimed to his buddies during lunch break. “And what’s up with that 14-inch Bowie knife she wears on her belt?” They hooted and guffawed until the trail boss clapped and whistled, signaling it was time to get back in the saddle. The subject of their hoots and guffaws had already been in hers and was two miles up the trail.
Around the campfire at night, Britney could kid around and out-belch the best of them but stopped short at the ribald jokes, rather, excusing herself to go check the horses, then come back to the fire for warmth while braiding leather strips into a primitive lasso until lights out. She was crafting the noose in case they ran across any wild Mustangs. Unlike the prohibitions on federal land, the wild horses were hers for the taking since her family owned much of the land they roamed on. She enjoyed the challenge of taming and training them, and a pretty one could fetch a handsome price at auction.
On day seven of the cattle drive, they ran out of meat. “Where’s the beef?,” they all asked the camp cook. “Don’t blame me! Boss said he loaded two cases of T-bones in the wagon and I believed him.”
Mr. French, the camp cook, had been employed by High Valley Ranch for the past 17 years. He was married with grown children, and about as trustworthy and reliable as a man can be. He was not assigned to work the cattle drive because he was a great chef, more to keep the discipline and act as chaperone. This was, after all, the first time a woman was allowed on the drive. And not just any woman—the boss’s daughter. He laid down a strict two-beer limit after supper, no foul language, and in their bags by eleven.
The group was sombre as they contemplated another week on the trail with no steaks. None of them came prepared for hunting, having only a can of bear spray each, and one Smith & Wesson big-bore revolver that would vaporize small game like rabbits. Very reliable and highly effective against large dangerous animals like the grizzly or wolf they could encounter in the high country, but no good at all for solving their immediate dilemma—a cattle drive with no beef.
On the way to the high elevation grazing area, they would have to pass through a large forest of white-bark pine trees, which produce nuts that are central to grizzly bear diets. Just last spring, they’d lost two young heifers to a bear that left only skeletal remains to view on the way back down the mountain. Only the ear tags identified the sad and tragic demise of numbers 99 and 248.
The golden glow of sunset shone on Britney’s tanned, heart-shaped face. Luke approached and thought he smelled a delicate perfume. Naw, couldn’t be. She’s too much of a tomboy for that, he thought. She was poised and handled herself well, and possessed a refreshingly non-self-important maturity beyond that of her peers. And yet she was friendly and approachable. Luke didn’t want to admit it, but he was beginning to admire Britney. And though not exactly beautiful, she was dang pretty.
“Bummer about the beef,” he said.
She was brushing the horses and meticulously picking out the burrs from their tails—a good two hours of work after a supper of beans and cornbread. Glancing over her shoulder at him but staying focused on her task, she answered, “Yeah. By the way, I overheard your conversation with Tom and Clay. You never know how a long Bowie knife might come in handy out here. And . . . I’m not a girl—I’ll be 18 next month.” She wasn’t angry, just schooling him with the facts.
The following evening after twelve hours of hard riding, the temperature dropped and became unseasonably cold and windy. With everyone huddled around the campfire with their beans, bread-and-butter pickles, biscuits and coffee, the horses began to shuffle and snort, so Britney went to investigate. Grizzly? Mr. French had sole possession of the bear gun. The wranglers assumed the approaching storm with its thunder and lightening was to blame and paid the horses no mind. No one paid Brit any mind either. By now, they’d all come to realize that she was more than capable of taking care of herself. A few minutes later she reappeared out of the darkness, carrying a huge rattlesnake by the neck, conspicuously missing its head.
“STEAK!!!” she exclaimed triumphantly, holding the snake high. Cheers and applause were lavished on Brit so loudly that she had to cover her ears before making a hyper-dramatic sweeping bow and curtsy. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said with feigned humility, which just made the men roar louder. Naturally reserved with her expressions, laughter and a big smile revealed even white teeth, and just about the sexiest dimples you ever saw. Dang, if she wasn’t a natural beauty!
He’d assumed his intuitions were always right, until one day they weren’t. There was no getting around it, Luke was in love with Britney Logan.