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The little town, Hollister, wasn't much bigger than Medicine Ridge, Montana, where John Callister and his brother Gil had a huge ranch. But they'd decided that it wasn't wise to confine their whole livelihood to one area. They needed to branch out a little, maybe try something different. On the main ranch, they ran a purebred bull and breeding operation with state-of-the-art science. John and Gil had decided to try something new here in Hollister, Montana; a ranch which would deal specifically in young purebred sale bulls, using the latest technology to breed for specific traits like low calving weight, lean conformation, and high weight gain ratio, among others. In addition, they were going to try new growth programs that combined specific organic grasses with mixed protein and grains to improve their production.
In the depressed economy, tailor-made beef cattle would cater to the discerning organic beef consumer. Gil and John didn't run beef cattle, but their champion bulls were bred to appeal to ranchers who did. It was a highly competitive field, especially with production costs going sky-high. Cattlemen could no longer depend on random breeding programs left up to nature. These days, progeny resulted from tailored genetics. It was a high-tech sort of agriculture. Gil and John had pioneered some of the newer computer-based programs that yielded high on profits coupled with less wasteful producer strategies.
For example, Gil had heard about a program that used methane gas from cattle waste to produce energy to run ranch equipment. The initial expense for the hardware had been high, but it was already producing results. Much of the electricity used to light the barns and power the ranch equipment was due to the new technology. Any surplus energy could be sold back to the electric company. The brothers had also installed solar panels to heat water in the main house and run hydraulic equipment in the breeding barn and the stockyard. One of the larger agricultural magazines had featured an article about their latest innovations. Gil's photo, and that of his daughters and his new wife had graced the pages of the trade publication. John had been at a cattle show and missed the photo shoot. He didn't mind. He'd never been one to court publicity. Nor was Gil. But they wouldn't miss a chance to advertise their genetically superior cattle.
John usually traveled to show the cattle. But he was getting tired of spending his life on the road. Now that Gil had married Kasie, the brothers' former secretary, and the small girls from Gil's first marriage, Bess and Jenny, were in school, John was feeling lonelier than ever, and more restless. Not that he'd had a yen for Kasie, but Gil's remarriage made him aware of the passing of time. He wasn't getting any younger; he was in his thirties. The traveling was beginning to wear on him. Although he dated infrequently, he'd never found a woman he wanted to keep. He was also feeling like a fifth wheel at the family ranch.
So he'd volunteered to come up to Hollister to rebuild this small, dilapidated cattle ranch that he and Gil had purchased and see if an injection of capital and new blood stock and high-tech innovation could bring it from bankruptcy to a higher status in the world of purebred cattle.
The house, which John had only seen from aerial photos, was a wreck. No maintenance had been done on it for years by its elderly owner. He'd had to let most of his full-time cowboys go when the market fell, and he wasn't able to keep up with the demands of the job with the part-timers he retained. Fences got broken, cattle escaped, the well went dry, the barn burned down and, finally, the owner decided to cut his losses. He'd offered the ranch for sale, as-is, and the Callister brothers had bought it from him. The old man had gone back East to live with a daughter.
Now John had a firsthand look at the monumental task facing him. He'd have to hire new cowboys, build a barn as well as a stable, spend a few thousand making the house livable, sink a well, restring the fences, buy equipment, set up the methane-based power production plant He groaned at the thought of it. The ranch in Medicine Ridge was state-of-the-art. This was medieval, by comparison. It was going to take longer than a month or two. This was a job that would take many months. And all that work had to be done before any cattle could be brought onto the place. What had seemed like a pleasant hobby in the beginning now looked like it would become a career.
There were two horses in a corral with a lean-to for protection from the weather, all that remained of the old man's Appaloosas. The remuda, or string of working ranch horses, had been sold off long ago. The remaining part-time cowboys told John that they'd brought their own mounts with them to work, while there was still a herd of cattle on the place. But the old man had sold off all his stock and let the part-timers go before he sold the ranch. Lucky, John thought, that he'd been able to track them down and offer them full-time jobs again. They were eager for the work. The men all lived within a radius of a few miles. If John had to wait on replacing the ranch's horses, the men could bring their own to work temporarily while John restocked the place.
He planned to rebuild and restock quickly. Something would have to be done about a barn. A place for newborn calves and sick cattle was his first priority. That, and the house. He was sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, heating water on a camp stove for shaving and bathing in the creek. Thank God, he thought, that it was spring and not winter. Food was purchased in the town's only café, where he had two meals a day. He ate sandwiches for lunch, purchased from a cooler in the convenience store/gas station at the edge of town. It was rough living for a man who was used to five-star hotels and the best food money could buy. But it was his choice, he reminded himself.
He drove into town in a mid-level priced pickup truck. No use advertising that he was wealthy. Prices would skyrocket, since he wasn't on friendly terms with anyone here. He'd only met the cowboys. The people in town didn't even know his name yet.
The obvious place to start, he reasoned, was the feed store. It sold ranch supplies including tack. The owner might know where he could find a reputable builder.
He pulled up at the front door and strode in. The place was dusty and not well-kept. There seemed to be only one employee, a slight girl with short, wavy dark hair and a pert figure, wearing a knit pullover with worn jeans and boots.
She was sorting bridles but she looked up when he approached. Like many old-time cowboys, he was sporting boots with spurs that jingled when he walked. He was also wearing an old Colt .45 in a holster slung low on his hip under the open denim shirt he was wearing with jeans and a black T-shirt. It was wild country, this part of Montana, and he wasn't going out on the range without some way of protecting himself from potential predators.
The girl stared at him in an odd, fixed way. He didn't realize that he had the looks that would have been expected in a motion picture star. His blond hair, under the wide-brimmed cowboy hat, had a sheen like gold, and his handsome face was very attractive. He had the tall, elegant body of a rider, lean and fit and muscular without exaggerated lines.
"What the hell are you doing?" came a gruff, angry voice from the back. "I told you to go bring in those new sacks of feed before the rain ruins them, not play with the tack! Get your lazy butt moving, girl!"
The girl flushed, looking frightened. "Yes, sir," she said at once, and jumped up to do what he'd told her to.
John didn't like the way the man spoke to her. She was very young, probably still in her teens. No man should speak that way to a child.
He approached the man with a deadpan expression, only his blue eyes sparkling with temper.
The man, overweight and half-bald, older than John, turned as he approached. "Something I can do for you?"
he asked in a bored tone, as if he didn't care whether he got the business or not.
"You the owner?" John asked him.
The man glared. "The manager. Tarleton. Bill Tarleton."
John tilted his hat back. "I need to find someone who can build a barn."
The manager's eyebrows arched. His eyes slid over John's worn jeans and boots and inexpensive clothing. He laughed. His expression was an insult. "You own a ranch around here?" he asked in disbelief.
John fought back his temper. "My boss does," he said, in an impulsive moment. "He's hiring. He just bought the Bradbury place out on Chambers Road."
"That old place?" Tarleton made a face. "Hell, it's a wreck! Bradbury just sat on his butt and let the place go to hell. Nobody understood why. He had some good cattle years ago, cattlemen came from as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas to buy his stock."
"He got old," John said.
"I guess. A barn, you say." He pursed his lips. "Well, Jackson Hewett has a construction business. He builds houses. Fancy houses, some of them. I reckon he could build a barn. He lives just outside town, over by the old train station. He's in the local telephone directory."
"I'm obliged," John said.
"Your boss he'll be needing feed and tack, I guess?" Tarleton added.
"If I don't have it on hand, I can order it."
"I'll keep that in mind. I need something right now, thougha good tool kit."
"Sassy!" he yelled. "The man wants a tool kit! Bring one of the boxes from that new line we started stocking!"
"Yes, sir!" There was the sound of scrambling boots.
"She ain't much help," the manager grumbled. "Misses work sometimes. Got a mother with cancer and a little sister, six, that the mother adopted. I guess she'll end up alone, just her and the kid."
"Does the mother get government help?" John asked, curious.
"Not much," Tarleton scoffed. "They say she never did much except sit with sick folk, even before she got the cancer. Sassy's bringing in the only money they got. The old man took off years ago with another woman. Just left. At least they got a house. Ain't much of one, but it's a roof over their heads. The mother got it in the divorce settlement."
John felt a pang when he noticed the girl tugging a heavy toolbox. She looked as if she was barely able to lift a bridle.
"Here, I'll take that," John said, trying to sound nonchalant. He took it from her hands and set it on the counter, popping it open. His eyebrows lifted as he examined the tools. "Nice."
"Expensive, too, but it's worth it," Tarleton told him.
"Boss wants to set up an account in his own name, but I'll pay cash for this," John said, pulling out his wallet. "He gave me pocket money for essentials."
Tarleton's eyes got bigger as John started peeling off twenty-dollar bills. "Okay. What name do I put on the account?"
"Callister," John told him without batting an eyelash. "Gil Callister."
"Hey, I've heard of him," Tartleton said at once, giving John a bad moment. "He's got a huge ranch down in Medicine Ridge."
"That's the one," John said. "Ever seen him?"
"Who, me?" The older man laughed. "I don't run in those circles, no, sir. We're just country folk here, not millionaires."
John felt a little less worried. It would be to his advantage if the locals didn't know who he really was. Not yet, anyway. Since he was having to give up cattle shows for the foreseeable future, there wasn't much chance that his face would be gracing any trade papers. It might be nice, he pondered, to be accepted as an ordinary man for once. His wealth seemed to draw opportunists, especially feminine ones. He could enjoy playing the part of a cowboy for a change.
"No problem with opening an account here, then, if we put some money down first as a credit?" John asked.
"No problem at all." Tarleton grinned. "I'll start that account right now. You tell Mr. Callister anything he needs, I can get for him!"
"I'll tell him."
"And your name ?" the manager asked.
"John," he replied. "John Taggert."
Taggert was his middle name. His maternal grandfather, a pioneer in South Dakota, had that name.
"Taggert." The manager shook his head. "Never heard that one."
John smiled. "It's not famous."
The girl was still standing beside the counter. John handed her the bills to pay for the toolbox. She worked the cash register and counted out his change.
"Thanks," John said, smiling at her.
She smiled back at him, shyly. Her green eyes were warm and soft. "You're welcome."
"Get back to work," Tarleton told her.
"Yes, sir." She turned and went back to the bags on the loading platform.
John frowned. "Isn't she too slight to be hefting bags that size?"
"It goes with the job," Tarleton said defensively. "I had a strong teenage boy working for me, but his parents moved to Billings and he had to go along. She was all I could get. She swore she could do the job. So I'm letting her."
"I guess she's stronger than she looks," John remarked, but he didn't like it.
Tarleton nodded absently. He was putting Gil Callister's name in his ledger.
"I'll be back," John told him as he picked up the toolbox.
Tarleton nodded again.
John glanced at the girl, who was straining over a heavy bag, and walked out of the store with a scowl on his face.
He paused. He didn't know why. He glanced back into the store and saw the manager standing on the loading platform, watching the girl lift the feed sacks. It wasn't the look a manager should be giving an employee. John's eyes narrowed. He was going to do something about that.
One of the older cowboys, Chad Dean by name, was waiting for him at the house when he brought in the toolbox.
"Say, that's a nice one," he told the other man. "Your boss must be stinking rich."
"He is," John mused. "Pays good, too."
The cowboy chuckled. "That would be nice, getting a paycheck that I could feed my kids on. I couldn't move my family to another town without giving up land that belonged to my grandfather, so I toughed it out. It's been rough, what with food prices and gas going through the roof."
"You'll get your regular check plus travel expenses," John told him. "We'll pay for the gas if we have to send you anywhere to pick up things."
"That's damned considerate."