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Coming To America: Dear Lady
Garret Steele gripped the saddle with his thighs and held on to the horn with his left hand as the buckskin gelding beneath him set its front legs, then darted in the opposite direction in pursuit of the wily calf. The heifer was as range wild as any Garret had seen, but he and old Buck had been herding cows together for many years. They weren't about to be outsmarted by beef on the hoof.
Ten minutes later he had the calf roped, hog-tied, and ready for branding.
While Jake Whitaker, his hired hand, brought the hot iron from the fire, Garret removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he reached for his canteen. Tipping back his head, he took a long swallow, washing down the dust.
Man alive, it was hot for May. He hoped they weren't in for a long, dry summer. The cattle had wintered well, and Garret was looking forward to turning a nice profit come fall. But a drought could quickly change the face of things.
'Always somethin',' he muttered as he screwed the cap back on the canteen.
The stench of singed hair and flesh reached his nostrils, reminding him of the work still to be done before sundown. Tugging his hat low on his forehead with one hand, he stepped into the saddle. As soon as Jake freed the newly branded calf_--still bleating its complaint--Garret dragged his lariat into a large coil against his thigh, then turned Buck toward the herd.
A sense of satisfaction swelled in Garret's chest as his gaze swept the range. Satisfaction was what he always felt when he looked at what he'd accomplished in the past eighteen years. He'd been nothing but a scrawny kid, still wet behind the ears, when he'd come to Montana, when he'd first laid eyes on this stretch of land and known he wanted to call it home.
He'd seen plenty of hard times while he'd built his herd from a few head to its present size. And he'd seen plenty of changes come to Montana, too. The railroad crawling across the plains and through the mountain passes. The coming of barbed wire. The town of New Prospects, popping up ten miles to the south of the Steele ranch, seemingly overnight.
Yeah, things were different, but this was where he belonged. It was his home.
He reined in, twisting in the saddle to watch the approach of his daughter. Janie's wild strawberry blond hair waved behind her like a banner, and her dress was bunched up around her thighs as she raced her pony toward him.
Wouldn't Muriel have a fit if she could see Janie now?
His teeth clenched as he shoved away thoughts of his dead wife.
Sliding her small bay mare to a halt, Janie said, 'I finished the dishes and my lessons, Pa. Can I help now?'
He grinned even as he shook his head. 'You know how I feel about you bein' out here while we're branding. This is no place for a little girl.'
'I'm not so little I can't help.'
He recognized the stubborn set of her jaw. And what she said was true. Janie had taken care of many of the household chores since long before her mother passed away. She'd even learned to cook, at least well enough to keep the two of them from starving. But that didn't mean she belonged in the middle of a herd of cattle at branding time. It was too dangerous, and Garret would never risk harm to his daughter. Not ever.
'Sorry, Janie. You know the rules.'
She scowled, her bottom lip protruding in an artful pout. 'It's not fair.'
He was unmoved by her theatrics. 'Things rarely are.'
'Can't I just--'
'Nope.' He jerked his head toward the ranch house. 'You get on back. I'll be finished in about an hour.'
Janie hesitated only a moment, then, with a deep sigh of the oppressed, turned her pony toward the house and rode slowly away. His daughter would probably never know how hard it was for Garret to refuse anything she asked. He'd try to rope her the moon if she wanted it.
With a shake of his head, he nudged Buck with his heels and set off to rope the last of the calves instead.
Two hours later father and daughter sat down at the rough-hewn table in the log house they called home. Janie said the blessing over the steaks that had been fried with onions and potatoes, and Garret added his own 'Amen' to hers when she was finished.
'I got another letter from England today,' Janie said as she cut her meat, 'but it took longer'n usual getting here. Lady Elizabeth must already be married to Lord Altberry by now. I hope she'll write again soon and tell me about the wedding and the house where she's living.'
Garret listened to the excitement in her voice, while feeling residual anger stirring to life. He hated it when Janie talked about England and the Wellingtons. He hated the way she fantasized about traveling abroad someday, and he blamed his deceased wife for putting the notion in Janie's head to begin with. It was Muriel who had encouraged their daughter--only six years old at the time--to write to the earl, an old friend of Garret's father-in-law. It was Muriel who had encouraged the continuing correspondence between Janie and the earl's daughter, and Muriel who had suggested Janie might one day go to England to visit Lady Elizabeth, perhaps to become her companion. It was Muriel who had dreamed of Janie marrying an English lord, like those eastern society women they'd read about in the newspaper.