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"Almost there, Ranger." Angus Ketchum shifted the truck into low gear and glanced across the seat at the German shepherd.
The animal sat patiently in the passenger seat as they bumped across the curving gravel road. Ranger stared out the window, taking it all in without comment. Angus envied the animal's calm. The fresh air and wide-open spaces would be good for the dog and hopefully for a washed-up soldier.
Before his last deployment he'd dreamed of owning or working on a place just like this. He'd loved fishing, hunting and working in the outdoors. Having grown up as a foreman's son, ranching was part of the cowboy he used to be.
Hard work, sweat, cattle and horses were what made his heart sing. He couldn't think of anything he liked better than riding the range; the quiet sounds of nature were all the music he needed.
When his father had retired from ranching at the ripe old age of fifty-five, Angus had been eighteen and on his way to Texas A&M University on a football scholarship. In the back of his mind, he knew he'd eventually come back to ranching when he could afford to buy his own spread.
His lips twisted as he applied the brake with his left foot. He'd joined the Corps of Cadets at A&M, graduated with a degree in engineering and joined the army as a brand-new second lieutenant.
Eight years and four tours to the Middle East later, his world had changed.
Gone was his goal of making a career out of the military and retiring to his own ranch. Gone was the dream of holding a decent job where he could pit his strength and intelligence against any challenge.
When he'd been discharged from the army, he had no idea what he would do, where he would go or how he would survive. Six months of surgery and rehab and he was out on his own.
If not for an old army buddy he'd met on his fourth tour to Afghanistan, he probably would have ended up drowning in a bottle of booze. He didn't feel as if he fit in the "real" world anymore. Things had changed. He had changed.
Chuck Bolton had given Angus's name to his boss with a recommendation to hire him.
Angus had laughed, telling Chuck he was a fool. But his friend had been insistent, and here Angus was, the newest member of Covert Cowboys Inc., for what it was worth.
What good was a broken-down cowboy to a ranch owner in Colorado? Ranching in Texas was hard enough, with drought, disease and rustlers. The hills and mountains of Colorado provided a whole different set of challenges for a cowboy, especially one with a bum leg.
His boss, Hank Derringer, must have seen something in him that he couldn't see himself. He'd hired him on the spot, without putting him through a thorough interview or physical evaluation. He'd gone on Chuck's word and Angus's military record, nothing else. He'd been a damned good soldier until his last tour, when everything had gone to hell. Now that he was out of the army, with no other job offers on his plate, Angus hadn't had any other option but to accept Hank's offer.
Before the warmth of their handshake had faded, Hank had given Angus his first assignment. Drive out to Fool's Fortune, Colorado, and go to work as a ranch hand for Reggie Davis on the Last Chance Ranch.
He'd almost laughed in Hank's face, but the man hadn't cracked a smile or clapped him on the back and told him he was kidding. Hank had given him an HK 40 handgun, a credit card and a pickup he could use as long as he was employed by CCI. All he had to do was to show up the next day for duty at the ranch.
Duty consisted of being undercover as a ranch hand while protecting the family.
Hank hadn't given him much to go on, stating he didn't have much himself. But when a friend of his had called for help, he'd promised to deliver.
His new boss assured him he could handle his mission. Glancing around at the rugged hills and valleys, with the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, Angus wasn't as confident.
From what he'd seen so far since turning off the highway and crossing beneath the arched entrance to the Last Chance Ranch, the place was a large spread. It spanned the lower valleys and high foothills of the Rockiesrocky, rugged and more beautiful than any other place on earth. Angus hoped he could hack the terrain.
After the long drive, he was ready to get out and stretch. Phantom pain still shot through him, but he'd already exceeded the recommended daily allotment of over-the-counter pain meds by noon.
When he topped the next rise, the ranch house came into view. A sprawling log cabin sat in the middle of a field on a gentle knoll, with trees forming a windbreak around the structure. A huge barn stood behind the house, its exterior weathered a dull gray. Fenced paddocks stretched away on all sides, horses in one and a giant Hereford bull in another.
Pulling around the side of the house, he parked next to an old pickup that had seen better days and more paint.
A lanky, gray-haired man emerged from the barn, tugging the collar of his coat up around his ears. He paused and then trudged toward Angus's pickup.
"Stay," Angus told Ranger and climbed down. Careful to plant his good leg on the ground, he held on to the door of the pickup for balance as he got both legs underneath him. What a good impression he'd make if he fell flat on his face before he even shook the hand of the owner.
"Can I help you?" The older man shaded his eyes and stared up at Angus.
Angus stuck out his hand. "Angus Ketchum. I'm here about the ranch hand job."
The old man shook his hand, his eyes narrowing. "You the man Hank sent?"
"Yes, sir. You must be Mr. Davis."
"Nope," the old man replied. "Charles Wayne Reinhardt. Ranch foreman. You can call me CW."
"Is the owner around?"
"Not yet. Actually, I was the one who called Hank. He and I go back to our army days, a couple of decades back. The boss doesn't know you're coming."
Angus dropped the man's hand and stepped back, frowning. "I don't understand."
"Stuff's been happenin' around here. Accidents." CW snorted. "The boss doesn't seem to think there's a pattern. I do. That's why I called Hank. He promised I'd get a ranch hand that could help out with the work but also protect the family."
"Don't you think the owner should have a say?"
CW scraped the hat off his head. "The boss is stubborn. But then, you'll see what I mean soon enough."
"CW, is that our new ranch hand?" A gray-haired woman stood at the top of the steps to the wraparound porch on the log cabin.
"Yeah, Mamma. He's come all the way from Texas."
When Angus turned toward her, she smiled. "Well, come on in. I have a room all fixed up for you."
"You better go on up," CW said. "Jo will get you settled in. When you've dropped your gear, come on out to the barn. I could use a hand."
Angus nodded. "I'll only be a few minutes."
"Not if Jo has anything to do with ya." CW waved. "Go on. She's waiting. And remember, the boss can't know you're here to provide protection."
"Got it." Angus glanced toward his truck. "Do you mind if I let my dog out?"
The older man peered over Angus's shoulders at the dog sitting quietly in the front seat. "Does he chase cows or bark a lot?"
"Not that I know of. If I tell him to stay, he won't go anywhere."
"I guess that would be all right. Not sure how the boss will react, though." CW's brow remained knitted. "I don't have any patience with city dogs. All bark and trouble. Spooks the cattle."
Angus reached into the backseat of the four-door truck and retrieved his duffel bag. Then he snapped his fingers, and Ranger leaped out of the truck to the ground at his feet. When he walked toward the porch, the dog kept pace, glancing up for reassurance. Angus reached down to scratch the dog's head. He'd get him a bowl of water and some food as soon as he got settled.
Careful not to limp any more than he had to, Angus measured every step, wanting to prove himself capable without any preconceived handicaps. As he approached the steps, he was glad for his hard-core therapist, who'd insisted he relearn how to climb. He took the steps one at a time, placing his feet carefully. Ranger walked up with him.
Jo held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Jolene, CW's better half. Everyone calls me Jo." As he shook her hand, she glanced at Ranger. "Not sure how the boss would feel about a dog in the house, but I guess it's better to ask forgiveness than permission, especially when the boss isn't around. Follow me." She led the way into the house.
The door he stepped through led into a large, airy kitchen with a ceramic-tiled floor, massive kitchen table and an oversize stainless-steel gas stove against one wall. Everything was neat and clean and the scent of coffee filled the air.
"I just put a pot of coffee on, if you're interested," Jo said. "You can drop your things in your room and come back through for a mug."
"As good as it smells, I'll wait. I'd like to get a feel for the place before sunset."
Jo led him through an open living room with a cathedral ceiling and an entire wall of windows facing the mountains rising up around them. The sun was on its way toward the peaks and would duck behind soon. Angus wanted to check out the barn and animals before it got too dark.
"This will be your room. We have a bunkhouse, but we haven't had a need for additional ranch hands since I came. Since there's only one of you, it would cost more to refurbish and heat the bunkhouse than to put you up in the big house. That, and with the troubles, CW and I thought it would be best for you to stay here." Jo pushed open a door. The room was spacious with rustic log walls.
Centered on one wall stood a giant four-poster with a thick goose-down comforter spread across it and a quilt folded across the foot.
"I'll get a blanket for the dog to bed down on the floor," Jo offered.
"Thanks, but he has his own dog bed. I'll bring it in later. I promise he'll be no trouble. He's got better house manners than some people I know."
Jo laughed. "Good, because if he has any accidents, you get to clean up after him."
"Yes, ma'am." Angus liked the woman's candor and frankness. He dropped his duffel on the floor.
"The bathroom is across the hallway."
"Thank you, ma'am. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to get outside."
"You bet. Supper is prompt at six o'clock. I'm making ham and beans, so don't be late."
The thought of a home-cooked meal warmed Angus's insides and he smiled. "I'll be there."
Jo gave him a serious look. "I'm glad you're here. The boss can't manage this big place alone. Especially with the troubles."
"What troubles are you having?"
"Accidents. Lots of accidents. A torn girth on a saddle
a loose floorboard in the loft of the barn
a gate hanging off its hinges. Hay bales falling off the stacks."
"Those sound like normal wear and tear on a ranch this size."
"It wasn't until the cut brake line that CW and I started putting two and two together. I'm not superstitious, and I don't believe a whole lot in coincidence." The woman planted her fist on her hip. "I've been here more than half my life. Things just aren't right. That's why CW and I decided it was time to call for some help."
"Fair enough." Although Angus wasn't sure how much help he'd be. "I'm here to do the best I can."
"And God bless you for it." She touched his arm. "I'd hate for anything to happen to the Davises."
Angus left through the kitchen and strode in his somewhat awkward gait toward the barn where CW had disappeared.
Inside, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting from a dingy bulb overhead. He found CW mucking a stall.
"Grab a fork and get to work. I like to have the stalls clean before the boss gets back from the field."
"Does he need help out there?" CW avoided his eyes. "Maybe tomorrow. It's getting late."
Angus found a pitchfork and went to work tossing soiled bedding into a wheelbarrow for transport out behind the barn to the compost heap. The scent of horse manure and hay brought back memories of his youth, the reminder so sharp and poignant it made his belly knot.
With every forkful of straw, his back strained and his leg throbbed, but he pushed on, enjoying the muscle strain and sweat.
Thirty minutes later CW checked on his progress. "I have to make a run to town for grain for the horses and to pick up the young'un. Anything you need?"
"Nothing I can think of except maybe a pair of work gloves." Having been in rehab for several months, his hands didn't have the calluses he needed for the kind of work he was doing. It would take time to build them up again.
He'd worked on strength, lifting weights and resistance training. But real, honest, hard work tasked so many more muscles than he remembered.
"I'll pick up some at the hardware store. When you get finished in here, there's a gate hinge that needs adjusting on the pasture fence, if you have time to get to it. Tools are in the tack room. Help yourself."
CW left, the silence a balm to Angus's soul.
He finished mucking the stalls and spreading fresh straw on the ground. Once he hung up the pitchfork, he headed outside in time to see the sun crest the peaks, the waning light lengthening the shadows from the surrounding hills.
Dragging in a deep breath, he filled his lungs with cool mountain air, the crisp chill making him feel more alive than he had in months.
As he released the air from his lungs, the bellows of livestock filled the air and a small herd of cattle appeared over the rise, a lone horseman riding at the rear, keeping the herd from straying too far to the right or left.
The rider appeared to be angling the cattle toward a holding pen in the corner of the pasture closest to the barn. With the setting sun at the rider's back all Angus could make out was a slender silhouette, guiding the animals home with a calm confidence only years in the saddle would produce.
He wondered how old the boss was or if he was just a small and wiry man. Handling a ranch and cattle required strength and stamina. No wonder he was having trouble and needed a ranch hand to help out.
Pushing aside his doubts about the boss's physical capabilities, when his own were in question, Angus angled toward the pen to see if he could help. He slipped through the wooden rails and waded through the cattle milling around waiting for the gate to open with the promise of being fed on the other side.