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Some days, Carina Lockett despaired of finding decent help.
Today was one of those days.
She eyed the ranch hand sleeping in the shadows of the chuck wagon with disgust. If she hadn't been looking for him, she would've missed him, half-hidden there behind a pile of bedrolls. His intent, no doubt. To let the rest of the C Bar C outfit return to work after the noon meal while he stayed back and took a leisurely snooze.
"Tsk, tsk," Woollie said from his saddle beside her.
"He's not used to hard work, is he? Guess he's plumb wore out from having to do some."
Her foreman, Woollie Morgan, was the closest thing she had to a father since her own was killed almost a dozen years ago. He knew as well as she did spring roundup on her ranch required every man to pull his weight. No exceptions.
"I should fire him, the lazy bastard."
Woollie squinted into the sun, and all traces of his mockery faded. "You've already fired two men this week. We're short as it is."
She made a sound of impatience. It hadn't been easy scraping up a few good men to add to the Lockett payroll, the extra hands she needed for this year's roundup. Every rancher in these parts hired additional cowboys, too, to do the same thing she was doing—gathering up the stray cattle from the range for branding before the herds went on the market.
Which made ranch hand pickings scarce. She paid the ones she took on as much as she could. A fair wage, for sure. And she expected each man to earn it.
"Give him another chance, Carina," Woollie said.
"Reckon he could've done worse."
As much as it pained her, she didn't have a choice. She'd have to keep the worthless lout, but she refused totolerate his laziness.
She dismounted. Her boot soles crunched dirt as she strode toward the chuck wagon. She flung one bedroll away from the heap, another and then another, until she exposed Orlin Fahey sprawled full in front of her. His hat covered his face, his hands clasped over his potbelly, and he was so blazes deep in his nap, he didn't even realize she was there.
She toed him hard in the ribs. "Get up, Orlin."
He jerked, whipped his hat from his face and sat bolt upright. "What the—?"
Carina knew she made an imposing figure standing over him with her feet spread and her hands on her hips. Her riding skirt and cotton blouse reminded him she was a woman, but it was the holster strapped to her hips that reminded him she was the boss.
"Now hold on, Miss Lockett." He scrambled to get to his feet, blinking fast to clear the sleep from his focus. He pushed his hat back onto his head and attempted to throw some charm into an uneasy grin. "No need to get yourself in a dither, is there? Might be I shouldn't have fallen asleep, but there ain't been no harm done, has there?"
Dither? Carina Lockett had been called many things in the time since she owned the C Bar C, but a dithering female wasn't one of them.
"I'm not paying you to sleep off your dinner," she said in a cold voice. "But now that you have, you'll feel up to a few hours of cutting wood after you finished the day's work. Sourdough's supply is running low. If you refuse, you're welcome to leave." Hope built in her that he would.
"But don't forget you're riding C Bar C horses out here. You're eating C Bar C grub. It's a long walk back to town." She dropped a condescending glance to the flesh his shirt had trouble holding in above his trousers. "And that belly of yours will get to feeling mighty empty along the way."
He muttered something unintelligible, but the distinct sound of an oath came through.
She knew the reason for the curse. Had seen it often enough to know it was coming. "Are you having trouble taking orders from a woman, Orlin?"
His face reddened, and the resentment shimmered from him like heat off hot tar. "I'll follow your orders all right, Miss Lockett," he said finally, pushing the words through his teeth. "That wood'll get cut tonight, like you said."
"I'm glad we agree on the matter." The tension in her eased. "Now, go on. Get to work."
He darted a glance toward Sourdough on his left, Woollie on his right. Two of his own gender, witness to his demoralization by a female younger than himself.
But he said nothing more. Giving Carina a curt nod, he spun on his heel and headed toward the branding fire.
She watched him go. Rebellion didn't flare up often in the Lockett ranks; when it did, she had to fight to keep it from running wild. Like a bronco that needed busting, Orlin Fahey needed to be tamed. For now, at least, she'd succeeded.
"He's about as worthless as a pail of spit, ain't he?" Woollie commented.
"Yes," she said and strode back to her mount.
"He had the scoldin" comin', for sure," Sourdough said.
Flour from the biscuits he'd become known for powdered his apron, but his hands were clean as he handed her a piece of brown paper holding apple slices, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Just the way she liked them.
"Thank you." She took the treat. Every outfit had a troublemaker, it seemed, but loyal and hardworking men like Woollie and Sourdough made up for them. She was grateful for their devotion to the C Bar C. To her. They were her family, and she was their boss, a relationship that had grown to suit them all.
Woollie's gaze slid from Orlin toward the herd milling on the horizon. "Jesse says the morning's gather was good. Almost a hundred head."
Carina's thoughts shifted with his. Taking care of Orlin Fahey's sloth was one detail on a long list she had each day. Now that he'd been dealt with, she dismissed him from her mind.
"Let's take a look." She climbed onto her Appaloosa mare, took the reins in her free hand, and headed out with him.
It was one of her favorite things to do. Watch the size of her herd grow every day. Cows always strayed over the open range when they grazed, and since the roundup was held on C Bar C land, most of the stock the men found was hers. More beef on the hoof meant more money in the bank, and God knew she needed every dime.
They rode past the crude rope corral holding what remained of the remuda. The cutting ponies were gone, chosen by riders already hard at work singling out C Bar C calves and steers for branding. As she drew closer to the milling herd, Carina's gaze skimmed over the men working it, some of them her own, others from neighboring ranches to claim their strays.
She halted on a low rise to watch them, and her attention snagged on a cowboy who rode hard after a steer trying to break loose from the herd. He guided his pony with his knees while he spun his lariat in midair. He drew closer, threw the hemp over the animal's horns and pulled the loop tight. Riding almost parallel, he slapped his rope against the escaping animal's flanks, then expertly angled his horse and flipped the steer into a bone-jarring somersault.
Horse and rider skidded to a stop. The stunned steer lay still on the ground. The cowboy freed him from the rope; the steer heaved to his feet and headed back to the herd with all signs of defiance gone.
Woollie grunted his approval at the cowboy's skill. "He's good."
"Who is he?" she asked, her gaze still on him while she chewed an apple slice. He relooped his rope into neat coils, getting himself ready for the next steer who tried to best him. His Stetson shadowed his features, but Carina was certain she would've remembered him if they'd met.
"A drifter who rode in this morning. Name's Penn McClure."
"Tell me he's C Bar C."
"He is." A smile appeared through the graying curly beard that had given Woollie his nickname. He looked pleased with himself. "I figured we could use him as short as we were."
She nodded. The drifter's expertise, his strength and speed, made him a valuable asset to her outfit. He could likely do twice the work of someone like Orlin Fahey, and she was lucky to have him on the payroll.
Her gaze lifted from McClure to linger over the day herd again. By the end of the afternoon, calves separated from their mothers would be reunited. Cattle, some doctored, some dehorned, would be sorted into groups according to brand. Riders would be stationed throughout to keep them together before they were trailed back to their home ranges.
Carina took it all in as the bellows of the cattle and bawling calves surrounded her. Dust hung in the air, already hot from the sun and acrid with the scent of burned hide from the branding irons. Men shouted above the ruckus. They worked hard and sweated harder, and Carina reveled in the whole event.
This was Callie Mae's heritage, even more than her own. From the time the C Bar C bore Carina's name on the deed, she'd worked tirelessly to grow the operation into something her daughter would be proud to own someday. The roundup promised to be a success and brought Carina another year closer to seeing it done.
"She should be here with you," Woollie said. Carina refused to look at him. It was uncanny how he could read her thoughts as if she'd scrawled them on paper. Most times, she didn't mind he knew her so well. But other times, like now, she did.
"She's only ten, Woollie," Carina said. "Not yet."
"As I recall, you were that age when your pa brought you out here."
His swift reminder stung. The truth in it, too. "Yes." Being a part of the Lockett roundup had been as natural to her as breathing. An integral part of her childhood. Her life, her soul.
But Callie Mae was different. "She's the second C in your brand." Woollie squinted an eye over the herd. "You're the first. It's up to you to make sure she's as much a part of this ranch as you are. Reckon you can't start her too young."
Rebellion stirred within Carina. He felt she coddled Callie Mae too much, she knew. Most times he had enough sense not to say so.
"You telling me how to raise my child, Woollie?" she asked coolly.
A moment passed. "No, ma'am." "Funny. I thought you were." "Guess you thought wrong then." He gathered up the reins. The tight set to his mouth revealed he understood who was boss between them and that he'd crossed the line. "I'll go down and check on Jesse. He's looking mighty busy over there by the fire."
Her irritation stayed after he left. The tallyman could handle the job of keeping track of the branded and castrated cattle just fine without Woollie's help, but Woollie needed the excuse. Callie Mae tended to be a sore spot between them. And more often of late than ever.
It didn't matter if he had a different opinion about how she should bring up her daughter. Carina didn't have a husband, so Callie Mae didn't have a father. Not in the usual sense, anyway. Grandpa was the only man Callie Mae could claim in her life, but he was getting on in years, doted on her far too much and didn't really count.
No, Carina was the sole parent in the family, and she made the decisions. She put bread on the table and a whole lot more besides. Callie Mae would grow up to be a fine ranchwoman some day. A cattle queen like herself. By then, the C Bar C would be one of the finest ranches in the state of Texas.
A few more days, when the roundup was over, she'd finally head home. Suddenly, the time she'd have to wait to see her daughter seemed liked forever, and an unexpected yearning budded inside Carina, one that warred with her devotion to her ranch. A wish for a simpler life that would keep her at the homestead more often.
To be a mother, all the time. Not just when she could.
Troubled, she finished the last of her apple, hardly aware of the cinnamon-sugar taste the fruit left on her tongue. Time. There was always precious little of it when she had a ranch to run, men to feed, a payroll to meet.
A daughter to raise.
Carina squared her shoulders. Motherhood was only a small part of her responsibilities. One day, Callie Mae would understand why Carina had to be gone so much. When her daughter carried the weight of the C Bar C on her shoulders, she'd tell her children the same thing. She'd have no choice. It was a sacrifice she'd have to make for their future.
The Lockett legacy.
Once again, Carina's gaze swept the vast Texas range. Pride swelled through her.
And this big, noisy herd would make it happen.