A COWBOY FOR ALL SEASONS
Four generations of Dempseys have struggled to turn the Dos Estrellas ranch into a successful cattle operation. Gabe Dempsey vows to keep the dream alive, even if he has to share ownership with two half-brothers, who are virtual strangers. They are also pressuring him to sellwhich will happen over his dead body. Luckily, Reese McGraw is the trustee of his father's estate, and she's on Gabe's side. For now.
Reese is happy to support Gabe in his fight to keep the ranchbut is her support a conflict of interest? His brothers seem to think so. Gabe and Reese's growing feelings for each other are a problem, too. But maybe it's one that will be solved by the magic of Christmas!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
What the small brown mare lacked in size, she more than made up for in muscle and determination. Lowering her head, she put all her weight into her forequarters and plowed up the mountainside. With each powerful step, dirt and small rocks exploded from beneath her hooves, tumbling downward like a miniature landslide.
Gabriel Dempsey rode the mare hard to the top of the rise. Once there, they stopped to rest, both of them breathing hard, their legs trembling. Despite her exertion, the mare would keep going if he asked. She wasn't just young and strong. The blood from generations of wild mustangs ran in her veins, infusing her with a spirit and unbreakable will unmatched by any other breed of horse.
No, it was Gabe who couldn't go on. He was spent. Utterly and completely exhausted. Not from the trail ride, but from the emotional events of the past four days.
Exactly seventeen months and twenty-three days after the doctor's initial prognosis, cancer had taken his father's life.
Today, the family had memorialized him in a service that had brought out half the town of Mustang Valley, along with a hundred other mourners from all over Arizona. Tomorrow Gabe and his family would spread August Dempsey's ashes in the flower garden behind the house.
His father would spend eternity where he, Gabe's grandfather and great-grandfather had lived and toiled their entire lives, on the three-thousand-acre Dos Estrellas Ranch.
Shading his eyes against the glaring afternoon sun, Gabe stared at the ranch nestled in the valley below. From this distance, the house, barns and outbuildings appeared deceptively small, like a painting hanging on a wall. Adding to the illusion were horses in the back pastures and sixteen hundred head of cattle dotting the extensive grazing lands beyond the pastures.
Grief suddenly gripped Gabe's chest like a giant metal vise, colder than the November wind ripping across the rise from the slopes of the nearby McDowell Mountains.
He sat straight in the saddle, refusing to succumb to emotion or show the slightest sign of weakness. Even out here, where there wasn't another living soul for two miles in any direction. The battle facing him at home promised to be a difficult one. This was only the beginning.
Among all the mourners gathered at the ranch to pay their final respects to one of Mustang Valley's greatest citizens were two strangers. Gabe's half brothers. August Dempsey's legitimate sons. Rumor had it, they'd come to claim their share of the Dos Estrellas Ranch, left to them by the father they barely knew. Gabe would know for sure tomorrow afternoon at the reading of the will.
If they did inherit, he intended to fight them tooth and nail, regardless if he had a legal right to the ranch or not. He was the son who'd worked side by side with their father for over two decades. The son who was proud of his heritage and treasured it. Who loved the ranch with the same fervor and devotion as any Dempsey before him. He hadn't left as a kid and never returned.
Giving the mare a nudge, Gabe followed the narrow deer trail south as it alternately dipped, climbed and snaked. Not far below him, a line of barbed wire fencing ran parallel to the trail.
The fence separated Dos Estrellas from its nearest neighbor and longtime cattle-ranching rival, the Small Change, though small was a misnomer. The ranch was twice the size of Dos Estrellas and these days, owner Theo McGraw ran close to thirty-five hundred head of fat, sassy cattle.
Cancer was a greedy disease and had taken more than Gabe's father. Astronomical medical bills continued to pour in daily, many of which weren't covered by health insurance. With no choice, Gabe and his mother had sold off what they could, depleting Dos Estrellas's resources. It wasn't enough, and the wolves continued to prowl outside their door. Gabe and his half brothers might well wind up fighting over a pile of scraps.
The trail abruptly veered west. Gabe and the mare dropped down into the mouth of a ravine thick with creosote, sage and cacti. Last month's heavy rains had resulted in abundant desert foliage that had survived the recent cold snap and remained a vibrant green.
At the bottom of the ravine, the mare halted. Lifting her head, she smelled the air, her ears pricked forward.
"What do you see, Bonita?"
Gabe had been raised around horses and trusted their instincts, especially those of a mustang born in the wild. Something was amiss.
He sat still and listened, his eyes scanning the uneven horizon. Coyotes and bobcats regularly traveled this ravine, along with the occasional mountain lion. None were an immediate threat. Desert predators usually avoided humans. The mare's survival instincts, however, were powerful, and she might attempt to flee.
She didn't, which Gabe found interesting. Whatever lurked in the bush clearly wasn't a predator. What, then
A sharp, shrill screech pierced the air followed by a faint cry of distress. Pausing long enough to choose the best course, he set off in the direction of the sounds, taking the steep trail at a brisk trot, the fastest he dare go without endangering himself or Bonita.
At the top of the rise, his heart stopped cold. The entire back half of a horse was submerged in a sinkhole, nearly up to the saddle horn. The horse's head and front legs stuck out of the narrow opening at a painful and impossible angle, almost as if he were standing up. Covered with mud and wide-eyed with fright, the horse flailed helplessly.
On the ground in front of the horse, beyond the reach of the sinkhole, a woman attempted to free him by jerking on the reins and calling out encouragements. Both woman and horse were clearly done in from the struggle. Without help, the horse would eventually die. Every moment counted.
Gabe dug his boot heels into Bonita's sides. The mare didn't hesitate and carried them down the steep slope. More than once she nearly lost her footing, slipping and sliding over the rocky terrain. At the bottom, Gabe tugged hard on the reins, slowing Bonita and bringing her under control.
"Are you okay?" he called to the woman, covering the remaining distance at a lope.
"I need help." She spared him the briefest of glances, paused for a fraction of a second, then went right back to pulling on the reins.
Gabe's brain registered two things simultaneously. First, there was no way in hell she was ever going to save that horse by herself. Maybe no one could. Second, he'd seen the woman a mere four hours earlier at the funeral. She'd sat in the rear pew of the crowded church next to her father, Theo McGraw, Gabe's father's rival.
"Hang on." Gabe jumped off Bonita and, leading the mare, approached Reese McGraw. "Got yourself in a fix here."
"I missed the hole. It was covered with twigs and dead leaves."
Sinkholes weren't uncommon in the desert, especially after heavy rains, though they were generally larger. This particular hazard was deceptively small, measuring three and a half feet at its widest point, and easy to miss.
"It happens," he said matter-of-factly.
"Can you help me get him out?"
She swallowed, and Gabe noticed the dried streaks on her cheeks. Had she been crying or was the cold wind responsible for her tears?
"Are you hurt?"
"No." She shook her head, and a hank of shoulder-length strawberry blond hair loosened from its clip. As if sensing his gaze, she said, "I lost my hat when I bailed off."
"We'll find it later." The hat didn't matter. He was simply trying to calm her. She'd need all her strength for the ordeal ahead, along with her concentration.
She continued tugging on the reins, which the confused horse fought, jerking his big head to the side rather than using the added momentum to hoist himself out of the hole.
"Take it easy," Gabe said.
"I can't. If I do, he'll sink deeper."
"No, he won't. Trust me." Gabe put up a restraining hand. "Hold steady, but don't pull. Not yet. Wait until I tell you to."
"What are you going to do?" Worry filled her eyes.
Gabe hadn't noticed their vibrant green color before. Then again, he generally avoided Reese. "Well, if we can't drag him out, I'll ride for help."
Neither of them voiced aloud what they were doubtless thinking; there may not be time for that. Who knew the depth of the hole? One wrong move, and the horse's own weight could drag him under the mud.
Gabe decided he'd seen enough death for one week. If it was at all humanly possible, he would save this horse.
"Focus on keeping his head up," he told Reese.
Gabe lined up Bonita next to her. The mare obediently stood quiet. Next, he removed the coil of rope from his saddlebag and fastened one end to a metal ring on the right side of his saddle. Letting out rope a foot at a time, he neared the panicked horse.
"Easy now, partner," he cooed. "That's right."
Sides heaving and nostrils flaring, the big paint stared at Gabe. Perhaps his imagination was working overtime, but he swore the horse understood he was trying to help.
He continued talking to the paint as he pondered how best to fasten the rope. Simply around the head wouldn't provide enough leverage. They'd strangle the horse before they rescued him. No way could he feed the rope beneath the horse's chest and behind his front legs, which would be ideal. He'd likely injure his hand in the process.
Gabe decided to run the rope through the girth on either side of the saddle. A tricky operation. One miscalculation and the results could end in disaster. For the horse and Gabe.
"Here goes nothing."
Thankfully, the horse remained quiet while Gabe circled him and attached the rope to both sides, looping it behind the saddle horn for added resistance. It was the best he could do under the circumstances. By the time he finished, sweat had gathered on his forehead and soaked the inside of his shirt.
He removed his cowboy hat and combed his fingers through his damp hair.
"You holding up?" he asked Reese.
Right. She looked ready to drop. He gave her credit, though. She wasn't a quitter.
"Then, let's get this horse out."
He patted Bonita's rump. She'd done well so far. What came next would be the real test.
Glancing over his shoulder, he inspected his handiwork one last time. The big paint cooperated by not moving. That, or he was past the point of fighting.
Gabe stood at Bonita's head and gripped the side of her bridle above the bit. The rope stretched taut from both sides of her saddle to both sides of the paint's.
"Good girl." He rubbed her soft nose. "You can do it."
Bonita nuzzled his hands, not the least bit concerned.
He peered over her back at Reese. "You ready?"
"Yes." She didn't look it. Her hands shook and her face was alarmingly pale.
"Your job is to keep that horse's head up. Bonita and I will do the rest. You understand?"
"Any sign of trouble, you let go. I mean it. Don't put any of us in danger." She nodded.
"All right then. On the count of three. One, two, three." He clucked to Bonita and yanked on her bridle.
Muscles straining, hide quivering, the mare took one step forward, then a second.
Gabe glanced back at the paint. He'd yet to move, other than stretching his head and neck out as far as they would go.
"Come on, boy. Now or never."
They could only do so much. It was entirely up to the horse. If he didn't haul himself out of the sinkhole and onto solid ground, he would die right where he was.
Bonita didn't quit and, once again, Gabe admired the little mare he'd handpicked from his friend Cara's herd of rehabilitated wild mustangs.
"He's doing it!" Reese hollered.
Gabe looked. True enough, the horse had found the will to save itself. With tremendous effort, he dug his front hooves into the ground and, with the aid of the primitive pulley, climbed out of the deep mud.
"Don't quit on us now." Gabe wasn't sure who he was talking to. The horse or Bonita or Reese. Did it really matter?
With a final mighty groan, the horse heaved himself out, landing with a grunt on his belly. Gabe let go of Bonita and rushed to the paint, afraid the unsteady horse would slide back into the hole.
One rope in each hand, he pulled with every ounce of his strength. It wasn't enough.
"Help me," he said to Reese.
In a flash, she was there.
"Grab the saddle."
She did, and by some miracle, they dragged the horse two feet before they gave out. The ground beneath the heavy horse held. He lay there, his back legs suspended over the hole and dripping mud, his breathing coming in great gusts.
"Give him a few minutes," Gabe said, flexing his cramped and aching fingers. "Then we'll get him up."
"Okay." Reese stood bent at the waist, her hands braced on her knees.
Gabe, too, rested. How long had this taken? Thirty minutes? An hour? He wasn't sure. Except that, for whatever time it took, he hadn't once thought of his father's death.
"My God, Gabe, you did it! You saved him."
The next instant, Reese slammed into him, her arms circling his neck. He automatically steadied them both by holding on to her.
"Thank you," she said, clinging to him, her face buried in his coat.
He stared at the top of her head, momentarily stunned. He'd touched Reese just one other time in their entire lives. They'd been in high school, at their senior prom. He'd cradled her while she cried and begged him not to tell anyone she was pregnant.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A heartwarming story about hard times, family loyalty, and finding the support, and love, at the unexpected places. I enjoyed the story. The characters are likeable, real with flaws like all of us, but charming and interesting people. The brothers are faced with a hard task, after their father left the ranch for them to deal with, all together. They haven't had a relationship with each other, and the tension is palpable in the house. The brothers, and the ranch, are facing hard times, with financial difficulties after the long illness of their father, and other hardship, unexpected situations they suddenly face. Just about everything that can go wrong, does. But despite the difficulties, they slowly come together, take responsibility seriously, and work together towards the same goal, instead of fighting against each other. At the same time as Gabe tries to work with his brothers, mourn for his father, and trying to understand his last will, take care of his mother, and run the ranch, he goes and develops feelings for the one person he shouldn't. Reese is not only the trustee of the will, but the daughter of Gabe's dad's worst rival. But the connection between them is undeniable, noticeable, and kind of cute. The stolen kisses are burning in their mind, and the feelings get all tangled up. What I liked most about the story was the way they fought to get out of the trouble, they took their responsibility, and stood behind their actions. Nothing was easy, everything came with a price, and very few things went the way they wanted, a lot like real life. The story has spunk, the strength of the characters comes forward, and love always wins. Looking forward to more in the series! ~ Four Spoons