The first time I saw him I had been standing on the lower rung of the fence panel at the horse auction. I had just gotten done riding a horse through the sale and was standing beside my dad as he bid on the yearling colt being led around the small arena.
He had been holding the lead rope. I could tell he was talking to the colt. I could see his lips moving. The whites of the animal’s eyes could be seen as it snorted and pawed at the ground. Auctions did that to animals. They raised the adrenaline levels and worked the animals up to the point that they looked like they weren’t worth the trouble of training. Unless you rode them through there was no point in selling here. They were most likely going to a kill buyer anyway. The only reason my dad and I were there that day was to sell a three year old gelding my uncle had entered into the sale. I had agreed to ride him through to try to get a decent buyer to purchase him and my dad wasn’t about to let me go to a sale barn alone.
The man in the arena rubbed his hands up and down the colt’s legs trying to show how nice it handled despite its young age. The auctioneer spoke at a speed that I couldn’t decipher but my dad could as he lifted his hand to once again bid for the colt. I hadn’t even looked at the colt really. The second the guy walked into the arena I had locked my eyes on him and I couldn’t look away.
He was tall, around 6′2" with long legs and wide shoulders. He had the kind of muscle that indicated hard work rather than hours at the gym. His hands were large as they moved over the colt in slow and purposeful movements. He was completely calm and confident as he moved. I didn’t see his eyes because they were down cast and covered by the brim of his beat up Stetson. But I could see his sharp jaw and his full lips that whispered softly to the frightened animal in front of him. All too soon the bidding was over and he led the horse out. I didn’t even see who won. I knew my dad hadn’t as I heard his defeated sigh behind me.
“You bout ready to bud?” My dad asked as I stepped off the rung and onto the sawdusted ground.
“Yeah.” I said with a shrug, “I’m hitting hungry right about now.”
“Well let’s go find you something to eat before you bite anyone.” He said with a smile. My dad knew me too well. When I got hungry, I got mean.
“What sounds good?” He asked. “The sale yard grill is just down the street. They have pretty good burgers. Or we could go to the Silver Spur. They also have good burgers.”
“I’m guessing you want burgers.” I said with a slight chuckle. My dad wasn’t too subtle when he wanted something. His idea of dropping hints was to continuously repeat what he wanted and not offer any other suggestions.
“The grill will be packed.” I said, “We’ll have better luck at the Silver Spur.”
“Right you are little buddy.” My dad grabbed my shoulders and steered me towards the truck. He had a 2002 Dodge diesel with a Cummins motor. It was pretty run down in comparison to the other trucks here but it was also our newest vehicle. We used it strictly for hauling, and because we were at a horse sale we had brought the trailer just in case.
We weren’t rich by any means but we got by. My dad, Grandad, and uncle owned a small ranching business. I wasn’t even sure it would be called a ranch. My dad had 40 acres in the mountains an hour and a half away. He also owned about 50 acres down here in the valley, which is where I lived. My uncle owned 40 more acres in Oklahoma. My Grandad lived with my uncle and his wife. All three of them owned our family brand and they all worked together to produce roping cows and ranch horses.
Everything was born at my uncle’s place. Due to the Oklahoma weather the colts and cows could be born earlier in the year than if they were living here in Colorado. They also had better grass so they would grow better. Once they were weaned, the colts would be brought up to my dad’s place in the mountains where he would work on breaking them to ride. Once they had 20 rides on them they were brought down to me where they were trained to be all around ranch horses and sold. We could get more money for the horses if I rode them. People were more impressed when a horse handled well with a small girl riding them verses a large man. Never mind the fact that I had been riding since I could sit up right. We might as well have used sexism to our advantage.
The cattle would come to me in the valley until they got big enough to start roping off of. Once they were big enough we would rent them out to cowboys who were training their horses to be roping horses. After about a year we could start entering them into rodeos. If a cow showed promise we would send her back to Oklahoma to breed. Occasionally my uncle would keep a colt that he liked or some of the calf crop but not often. We didn’t have a huge operation, and both my dad, my uncle and I all had other jobs (I was also taking online business classes) but it helped pay the bills and keep food on the table.
My dad parked the truck across the street from the diner and we climbed out. I could feel my stomach grumble as we walked in. An older lady in jeans and a plaid button down stood behind the counter holding a coffee pot and chewing gum.
“Sit anywhere you like.” She said in a friendly voice. We looked around. The place was pretty packed but there was a booth in the back that was still available. We made our way down the aisle and to the booth. The waitress followed us. She sat down two mugs of coffee in front of us despite it being the middle of the day. They knew us too well here. We came nearly every weekend. It was the few places within driving distance and it served every meal. “Let me guess. Two bacon cheese burgers with A1 steak sauce, fries and a pickle on the side?” She said pulling out her pad to jot it all down.
“Thank you Marlene.” My dad smiled. He was good looking with grey blue eyes and dirty blond hair. His smile tended to make the waitresses melt a little. It didn’t really matter the age. But Marlene was immune to his charms.
“Mhmm.” She said with a raised eyebrow and her lips pressed together. “I’ll be back in a bit with your water.” She turned and left. My dad looked at me expectantly. I looked right back at him. He always did this when he came down. The second he sat down to eat he would look at me with his bright eyes and wait until I said something. I always had to start to conversation.
“I think Rosebud will be ready to go next week.” I said looking down as I poured the little packets of creamer in my coffee. I liked it black normally, but the coffee here was terrible.
“Which ones do you think we might want to keep this go round?” He asked. We normally kept a mare or two around. We could keep geldings but they sold better and a mare had more uses.
“Lucky for sure.” I said after taking a sip. “Maybe Billy if we have to put Layla down.” I frowned at that. Layla had been one of our best mares but she was getting old and had broken a leg. We would keep her if it wasn’t for the fact that her teeth were getting to the point that she could hardly chew. It made keeping weight on her hard and with the cold Colorado winters the horses needed weight. Before she had broken her leg we had been using her to pony colts off of and herd the cows.
“Maybe we should send her down to Oklahoma to live out the rest of her days.” My dad said with a shrug. He liked putting horses down about as much as he like getting kicked in the teeth. He knew sometimes we had to do it but it didn’t make anything easier. Especially with a horse like Layla, whom we had had since I was three. She had been my first baby sitter. He refused to sell her in a sale because he didn’t want her to be sent down to Mexico with a kill buyer.
“I’m not sure if she’ll make the trip.” I said solemnly. “Maybe we should just call Doc Love and get it over with.” My dad sighed and looked at his coffee.
Marlene appeared again with a tray in one hand. She sat down two glasses of water and our plates. She then waved me over. I scooted further into the booth as she sat down. She grabbed a fry from my plate and began munching on it as she and my dad had a staring contest.
“I’ve got a proposition for you, Roy.” She said finally after taking another fry. I turned my plate so she would have to reach across the whole thing to get any more. It wouldn’t stop her. She always stole fries.
“What’s that Marlene?” My dad asked as he took a bite of his burger. I did the same, happy that I finally had food.
“My nephew just got out of jail,” she said. “He’s been having a hard time and he needs a place to stay. He’s good with horses and I figured you could take him in. Just give him a place to stay and a job to do.”
“What’d he go to jail for?” My dad asked around a bite of hamburger.
“Fighting,” Marlene said. She stole another fry and continued. “Like I said you don’t have to pay him. Just give him a roof and something to eat.”
“Where would I put him?” My dad asked.
“I figured he could work with Kaylee,” she said. “Help give the girl a little break. You work her too much as is.”
My dad just raised his eyebrow and looked at me. I looked away and focused on inhaling my burger. I did work too much. I would get off work at my normal job, go home and ride horses or move cows until after dark, then do school work until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I was either on my feet or in a saddle all the time. I didn’t spend a lot of time with friends. I hung out with my dad more than anyone, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. He hadn’t wanted me to take over the management of the 50 acres in the valley to begin with. My Grandad had been the original overseer of the operation down here anyway but he never rode the horses and never hauled the cows anywhere. We had been losing money on the place for years. When I turned 16 I moved down into the valley because I had been having issues with a teacher at school. My dad and I thought it was best if I left the school I was at. Once I moved down my Grandad uprooted and moved to Oklahoma leaving me with the place. Instead of going away to college like all my friends had, I took classes online and stayed behind to run everything. We were making money on the cows now that I was here. My job was part time and fairly flexible. I could haul the cows to different events all throughout Wyoming, and the four corners area. And I was still getting the education my dad wanted me to get. My dad didn’t like it but the only other option was to pull the cows and horses off the place and let my cousin Joe farm the land. Neither of us wanted that so I didn’t complain about the situation.
“He doesn’t work me too much.” I said with a shrug and took my last bite of burger.
“I’m not saying you can’t handle it dear,” Marlene said. “I’m just saying, having a little extra help might be nice.”
“If Kaylee says she can handle it, then I’m pretty sure she can handle it.” My dad said darkly. He had raised me to be self sufficient and didn’t like it when people questioned my ability.
“Look Roy, he’s a good kid.” Marlene leveled him. “He’s just got a bit of a temper. He’ll be working part time with me but I can’t give him a place to live. My house isn’t big enough. I’m not expecting you to give him anything for free, by all means make him work for it. The ranch he was staying at just let him go. Just give him a shot.”
“Why’d they let him go?”
“He had an altercation with Parker’s son.” Marlene rolled her eyes, “He was working over at the Uncompagre Ranch and you know how Parker’s boy is.”
My dad nodded solemnly. We all knew how Erik Mason was. He was a snob. His dad, Parker Mason, was a pretty good guy. He tried to help when he could. He was one of our best customers. In fact him and my dad were pretty good friends. Knowing Parker he had probably given Marlene’s nephew a few days to try to find a new place. I could understand why he had fired him though. It was easier than dealing with Erik and the guy constantly butting heads.
“What do you think Kaylee?” My dad asked. Ultimately it was my decision. Marlene knew that but she wasn’t going to approach me on the topic and she knew my dad needed to okay it as well. I chewed the inside of my cheek as I thought about it.
“He could stay in the barn.” I said with a shrug, “It’s heated and has a nice room above it. Giving him a chance can’t hurt.” Marlene smiled and hugged me tightly. I grimaced because I hated hugging.
“You won’t be sorry.” She said quickly before she got up from her seat and went to tend the rest of her customers. I was a little surprised someone hadn’t yelled at her for talking to us for so long but I suppose that’s what happened when you worked in a small town. Everyone probably got their own coffee and drinks to start out with.
“You sure about this bud?” My dad asked as he finished off the rest of his coffee
“It can’t hurt.” I said stealing his pickle. “It’s not like you have to pay him. And I can focus more on the horses.”
“You can focus more on school.” He corrected. I grinned at him and took a bite of his pickle. He just smiled back at me.