His Favorite Cowgirl
by Leigh Duncan
Hank Judd urged Star forward until palmetto fronds no longer rustled against the big gelding’s front legs. He spotted a grey Brahman in a patch of scrub brush and slapped a lariat against his thigh. “Get on, gal. Get on now.”
Her calf at her side, the cow broke from her hiding place. As the newcomers trotted into the open, cow dogs worked them toward the other intruders Ty and Hank had culled from the herd of prized Andalusians.
“I think that’s the last of ’em.” Hank moved into place beside his friend and owner of the Circle P Ranch. Slowly they drove the Brahmans away from the main herd, while the dogs kept strays from wandering off.
“For now.” Ty Parker removed his Stetson and mopped his head with a blue bandana. Fall or not, temperatures hovered above ninety degrees with the humidity so high a man could practically wring water from the air. “Till the next time Ol’ Man Tompkins’s cows decide the grass is greener on the Parker side of the fence.”
Hank let his gaze sweep over the pasture on the far side of recently repaired barbed wire. The cattle had it right—the Circle P’s grazing land was greener.
“Looks like Tompkins could stand to treat his grass with fertilizer and weed kill, doesn’t it? Those soda apples are takin’ over his place.” Wide patches of leafy green tropicals dotted the neighbor’s acreage. The weeds sported wicked thorns no self-respecting cow would go near, much less eat. Looking for something more appetizing, Tompkins’s cattle regularly pushed their way onto the Circle P land, where they helped themselves to the better-tended grass. And if the Brahmans happened to get impregnated by one of the Circle P’s purebred bulls while they were visiting, so much the better.
Better for Ol’ Man Tompkins, that was. The old rancher only gave lip-service to preserving his herd’s bloodlines. Truth was, every mixed-breed calf put money in his pocket, no matter whose bull sired it. Especially since his Brahmans fetched a lower price at auction than Ty’s sturdy Andalusians whose roots traced back to the first cattle brought to the New World by the conquistadors.
Hank clucked to Star as Ty moved ahead. The two men urged the half-dozen intruders along the trail toward Tompkins’s front gate. The plan called for Hank to deliver the cows to one of the pens near the main house while Ty had a heart-to-heart with the neighbor, who had apparently decided not to do his fair share of fence mending.
“I’m glad you’re here to take over for Colt.” Ty’s voice rose over the jangle of metal from the horses’ bridles, the rustle of grass, the occasional warning growl from one of the dogs.
Hank swigged water from his canteen and stared at the distant horizon where the flat terrain met the sky. He shouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t have been…if he could’ve saved his real estate company in Tallahassee from going belly-up. He swallowed. The hows and whys of his presence on the Circle P were nobody’s business but his own.
The cows stirred dust into the air. It clogged his throat, and he cleared it. Four generations of Parkers had raised cattle in this particular section of South Florida. Judds had worked alongside the owners for just as long. Hank and his brothers had vowed to carry on the family tradition after their father’s death six months before. Each of Seth Judd’s five sons had offered to shoulder the responsibility, but Hank’s oldest brother, Garrett, had been sidelined by his wife’s difficult pregnancy. As the next in line, Colt had taken a leave of absence from his job with the Professional Bull Riders to walk in their father’s bootsteps. After he and the Circle P’s new cook, Emma, had fallen in love, the newly weds had purchased a spread in nearby Indiantown. For the past four months, Colt had spent his spare time overseeing the construction of his own house and outbuildings. His departure had opened the spot for a ranch manager, just when Hank had found himself in need of a job.
“You still think the twins’ll move south sometime this winter?” Saddle leather creaked as Ty shifted toward him.
“Trying to get rid of me already?” Hank switched his reins from one hand to the other. His stay on the Circle P was only temporary. He’d move on just as soon as he got his feet under him again financially. The youngest Judds, twins Randy and Royce, called weekly to remind everyone they were chomping at the bit to take his place. Once they wrapped up their contract in Montana, they’d come home to co-manage the ranch.
“Nah. Just thinking about Noelle. It’ll be hard enough for her to settle in here on the Circle P. Harder still if she has to move again before the school year is out. You all set for her?”
Hank gulped. His ten-year-old was due the day after tomorrow. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess. I sure appreciate your letting her join me here.” His father’s death had forced him to take stock of his life, and one of the things missing from it was a relationship with his only child. If he was ever going to make things right with her, he had to act. So, when his ex asked to send their daughter to boarding school for three months while she accompanied her parents on a round-the-world cruise, he had put his foot down for the first time since the divorce.
“Nope,” he’d declared. “She’s coming to the Circle P with me.” And, thanks to a custody agreement giving Hank a say in his daughter’s education, that had been that. Not that he could’ve afforded his share of the boarding school tuition, even if he’d wanted to.
One of the calves veered away from the rest of the cows. Ty waited till the dogs guided it back to its mama before he picked up the thread of the conversation.
“It’ll be good to have kids running about the ranch for a while. Reminds me of when we were young’uns.”
“Sometimes it seemed like there were more of us than there were cattle.” Hank tugged his hat brim low enough to shade his eyes. As the middle of Seth and Doris Judd’s five sons, he’d grown up on the ranch with Ty. Together with boys and girls from neighboring ranches, and a few townies, they’d played cowboys and Indians in the barn, feasted on watermelons and cantaloupes from the garden, caught fish and even tipped a few cattle when they thought they could get away with it…which they never had.
“Jimmy’s gonna miss Bree when she moves.” Ty ran his fingers through Ranger’s mane. His son and the cook’s daughter had become fast friends but, after six months of on-the-job training under Chef Emma, Ty’s other children—foster sons Chris and Tim—were ready to assume responsibility for the kitchen on a day-today basis. Of course, Emma would still spend one day a week on the ranch, and she’d put in extra time during the winter and spring round-ups. But once she and Colt moved to their own place, Jimmy would lose his closest playmate. “Having another young person around here’ll make it easier on all of us.”
Hank frowned. “I don’t know…. Noelle wasn’t happy about boarding school. If anything, I think she’s even less excited about coming here for the semester.” Or spending time with a father whose involvement in her life had, until recently, been limited to occasional guest appearances.
“Ten’s a hard age for kids. They’re not little anymore. Not teenagers, either. It’ll be good for her to get away from the city. Even if it’s only for three months. She’ll find out for herself what’s important and what’s not.”
It sounded simple when Ty said it, but from the few visits he’d had with Noelle, Hank was pretty sure dealing with the preteen would be a challenge. He gathered his courage along with Star’s reins. “If you don’t mind my asking, how’d you do it with Jimmy? He was—what—five when he came to live with you?”
“Almost six.” Ty shook his head. The boy had been abandoned on the doorstep of the Department of Children and Families where his wife, Sarah, had worked. “We’ve had our moments, believe me. Jimmy didn’t think much of me at first. But then again, neither did Sarah. The three of us, we kinda grew on each other.” With a knowing smile, Ty added, “It’ll be the same for you and Noelle. You’ll see.”
Hank expelled a harsh breath. He wished he had Ty’s confidence. He had busted his tail trying to provide Amy with the big house, the expensive cars, the country-club memberships that she’d thought were her due as the daughter of a millionaire. In the end, it hadn’t done a lick of good. Like the Tompkinses’ cows, his wife had moved on to greener pastures soon after No-elle was born. He’d convinced himself, or let his ex convince him—even now he wasn’t sure which—that a good father sent his child to fancy summer camps, enrolled her in expensive private schools, gave her all the latest toys and gadgets. But the long hours Hank had spent at work meant he was a stranger to his own child. He stifled a laugh at the irony of his current situation. He’d lost the business that had earned him the big house and all the trappings of success, leaving him no choice but to build a relationship with the girl he barely knew.
At the entrance to the Bar X, Ty dismounted. Hinges in need of a good greasing squealed a sharp protest as he pushed open the gate. Hank moved the cattle through, and then held up while Ty swung the gate closed behind him. Before he latched it, the two-way radio Ty wore at his side squawked.
“Yeah,” he said into the mouthpiece. A beat passed. “He did what?” Ty’s voice rose. He tugged Ranger to one side as he reached for the chain securing the gate. “I’ll be right there,” he said at last.
Hank left the dogs to mind the cows while he turned to his friend. Beneath his Stetson, the man’s face had lost its color. “What’s up?”
“I don’t know how he managed to get up there, but Jimmy fell outta the hayloft. Sarah says he’s okay—just had the wind knocked out of him—but she wants me to come home.”
“Go. I got this.” Hank swept his hat from his head and made a shooing motion. “I’ll stop by the house when I get back. Let you know how it went with Ol’ Man Tompkins.”
Ty swung into his saddle. “Never a dull moment when there’s kids around.”
“I understand,” Hank said, though he knew he probably didn’t. He expected he would soon enough. He urged the cows down a weed-choked lane while Ty headed back the way they had come.
Thirty minutes later, Hank called out as he herded the Brahmans into the Tompkinses’ front yard. He held his breath, hoping the crotchety old coot who owned the place wouldn’t shoot him on sight. He had no desire to become the latest casualty of the long-standing feud between the two ranches. A move that wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility if the stories he’d heard at his daddy’s knee were to be believed. For longer than anyone could remember, the Tompkins and Parker families had been at each other’s throats. Legend had it the trouble began when the first owner of the Bar X had tried to dam the Kissimmee River. The move had all but shut off the Circle P’s water supply, and the Judds had stood firmly beside their employers. Only once had there been a chance for a truce, but that hope had died more than twelve years before.
Cautiously, Hank swept the area for signs of life. Except for a cat slinking around the open door to the bunkhouse, nothing moved. Hank took a closer look, frowning at tools littering the ground beside a tractor. Paint peeled from the siding of the once pristine farmhouse. A broken front step, hay spilling from the loft—there were signs of neglect everywhere he looked. He dismounted and headed for the bunkhouse, hoping to find someone to take over the job of tending Tompkinses’ cattle. But a line of empty cots stood before him when he stepped into a room that reeked of mold and mildew. He backed out, closing the door behind him.
With no ranch hands around, Hank crossed to a holding pen. He whistled, and the dogs herded the cows inside. He spotted the empty water trough, and was on his way to find a hose, when a horse trotted out from the darkened barn. The saddle on the silver gelding’s back sent an uncomfortable shimmy through Hank’s chest.
“Mr. Tompkins?” He raised his voice to a shout. “Anybody here?”
The horse wandered over and nudged his shoulder. Hank gathered the reins, which left faint trails in the dust.
“Hey there, buddy. Where’d you come from? Where’s your rider?” He ran a hand down the horse’s neck and across its withers. Relieved when he didn’t find any sign of injury, Hank patted the long jaw. He frowned at the horse’s rapid heartbeat, a sure sign of an animal in distress. “You thirsty?” he asked. Opening the gate to a pen where a mare had been turned out, he led the gelding inside. “I’ll be back to get that saddle off you in a minute,” he said. The horse snorted and trotted to the water trough.
At the entrance to the barn, the odor of stalls left too long without a good mucking stung Hank’s nose. His breath grew shallow. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he spotted pitchforks and shovels in a haphazard stack. His lips thinned. Ty would have his hide if any of the men on the Circle P left equipment lying about, but it didn’t look as if Tompkins cared.
Hank fanned the still air. Continuing to call out, he moved down the center aisle while he peered into each of the stalls. Dust motes danced in the air, but nothing else so much as twitched in answer to his shouts. He’d nearly given up on finding whoever had saddled the horse when a shaft of late afternoon sun broke through a hole in the roof. The light fell on a man’s boot.
“Damn.” Hank tugged his phone from his pocket, dialing before he took the first step. “We need an ambulance at the barn on the Bar X Ranch. Looks like Tompkins took a bad spill.”
Slipping the phone into his pocket, he hustled into the stall. “Mr. Tompkins?”
No response. He tried again. “O—” He stopped himself. The neighbor had been “Ol’ Man Tompkins” for as long as they’d known each other, but surely he’d heard the man’s Christian name. He searched his memory, eventually coming up with the right one. “Paul. Paul Tompkins. Wake up, buddy.”
Praying the old guy wasn’t dead, Hank knelt down. Rheumy blue eyes stared blankly at the ceiling overhead, but the man’s leathery cheeks were warm to the touch. He pressed his fingers against Tompkins’s scrawny neck and found a pulse. A weak one, but there nonetheless. Looking for signs of obvious injuries, he studied the still figure lying on a thin layer of straw. The man’s right leg bent at an unnatural angle, and Hank sucked in air. Broken.
“Don’t try to move, Paul,” he cautioned when the rancher moaned. “Help’s on the way.”
Spit dribbled from the side of Paul’s mouth. His jaw worked. “Gaa-yee.”
“What’s that?” Hank leaned closer.
The slurred word sparked an image of a teenage girl with a coltish figure. “Kelly?” Hank asked.
The old man’s blink told Hank he was on the right track. “Don’t worry,” he said, mustering his most reassuring tone. “You just lie still. I’ll make sure someone gets in touch with her.”
He would do it himself, but he’d long since deleted the number of the woman who had broken his heart. Twelve years later, he wondered if even her grandfather’s fall would be enough to bring Kelly Tompkins home again.