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Cowgirl Up by Ali Spooner



Chapter One



The heat shimmered off the south Texas asphalt in waves as Coal Bryan drove through the sparse plains, the air-conditioner in her ancient truck struggling to cool the air. She could feel a droplet of sweat slide down the center of her back before it soaked into the green tank top she was wearing. Reflective aviator glasses covered her eyes, protecting them from the glare of the sun as she drove to her destination. It was barely seven in the morning, and the temperature had already risen into the nineties. Just like being back in Afghanistan, she thought as she focused on the road ahead. Even the large desert hares that would normally dart out in front of traffic were lethargic from the heat, and remained deep in their underground burrows.




Melissa Conway, owner of the MC2, fanned herself as she stood on the front porch of her ranch home talking with Stan Watson, her ranch foreman.


“Damn this heat is brutal,” she said as she wiped the back of her neck.


“The weatherman claims we’ll get some relief later this week when that tropical depression moves inland.”


“I just hope we don’t melt off the face of the earth before then,” she said with a forced smile.


Stan looked up at her and returned her smile. “The only good thing about this heat is it’s helping the hay to dry more quickly.”


“We have six fields cut, is that correct?”


“Yes, ma’am, we’ll start baling and loading later this morning.”


Melissa was pleased with his answer. “We are going to need a good supply of hay for this winter, if this heat is indicative of how our weather is going to fluctuate. Hell at this rate, we might even see snow.”


Stan shook his head. “I’ve lived here forty years and haven’t seen a flake of snow, but I reckon hell could be freezing over.”


A bright flash of sun against chrome pulled their attention down the drive where a beat-up dusty old Chevy was making its way toward them. “I reckon that’s our new ranch hand,” Stan said. “A fellow named Coal Bryan is joining us today.”


“Right now with the hay coming in and a fresh herd of stock to train, we can use all the help we can get,” Melissa said.


“This Bryan fellow comes very highly recommended by several top ranchers for his skill with horses. Part Indian, and works some kind of horse charm magic according to a foreman up near Dallas.”


 “That should be interesting to see.”


Melissa was the widow of Mitch Conway, and was doing her absolute best at maintaining the MC2 ranch after his untimely death. Mitch was serving in the Texas Reserves when his unit deployed for a tour in Afghanistan. He was two weeks short of rotating back home when he was killed in action. That was nearly a year ago, and she still felt the pain of her loss every day. Mitch had loved the ranch, and she would do anything within her power to keep the ranch profitable and in good repair.





Coal pulled the truck up beneath a small tree, which offered the only shade in the yard, and turned off the engine. She rolled down her windows, and took a deep breath as she slipped a hat on and stepped out of her truck. She was a friendly sort, but meeting new people, especially new employers always made her feel anxious.


She slipped a work shirt over her shoulders and buttoned it as she walked toward the two figures standing on the porch, watching her carefully.


Stan looked at Melissa when Coal began walking toward them with a look of confusion. “Someone you know?”


Melissa looked at him and shrugged her shoulders. “Your guess is as good as mine.”


They both watched in silence as a young woman in her late twenties approached them, her coal-black hair tucked behind her ears.


“Good morning,” she said as she stopped at the porch.


“Morning, is there something we can help you with?” Stan asked.


“I’m looking for Mr. Watson, the foreman,” she said. “My name is Coal Bryan and I’m here to start to work.”


“You’re Coal Bryan?”


“Yes, sir.”


Stan looked at Melissa with a look of pure terror. They both had assumed their new ranch hand and horse trainer was male. Neither of them expected the woman who stood before them.


She had seen that confused look before, and more than once was turned away by prospective employers when they learned she was female. “Are you Mr. Watson?”


“Yes, yes, I am,” Stan said as he stepped down off the porch and offered his hand. “This is Mrs. Conway,” he said to introduce Melissa. “She owns the MC2.”


“I’m pleased to meet you both.”


Stan stared at her for what must have seemed an eternity.


“As I said earlier, I’m here to start to work.”


He shook his head to clear the cobwebs forming in his mind, looked at her, and then to Melissa, still in disbelief that his new hand was female.


“You have to excuse Stan, we were expecting you to be a man,” Melissa said.


“I’ve my mama to thank for giving me such a name,” she said. “I get that reaction often, but I assure you I can pull my weight just like any other hand.”


“Well, you’ve come just in time to help with haying, and in the next few weeks we have twenty head to green break.” Stan finally managed to speak.


“That sounds great to me,” Coal said.


“Um, why don’t you get your gear, and I’ll take you to meet the rest of the crew,” Stan said.


“Thank you, sir,” she said and walked back to her truck.


Stan turned to Melissa with panic in his eyes. “What can I do? I can’t put a woman in the bunkhouse with that crew?”


“Relax, she can sleep up here in the house, if that’s all you’re worried about. Don’t discount her just because she’s female. There’s a feel of toughness with her that I think might just surprise you.”


Stan shook his head, totally believing the foreman up in Dallas had duped him. He secretly vowed to exact his revenge the next time he saw him in person.


Coal returned carrying a small suitcase.


“Let me have that and I’ll show you the room you will be using later. Have you had breakfast?”


“Yes, ma’am,” Coal said as she reluctantly handed Melissa her meager belongings. “I don’t need to be housed any differently just because I’m female. I’ve lived in more than one bunkhouse,” she said.


“I’ll give you a chance to prove your worth as a ranch hand, but I will not have you living with the likes of these men,” Stan said.


“Anything you say then, boss,” she said.


“You can cook and eat with the boys, but I prefer you bathe and sleep in the house.”


“Very well,” she said as she turned to follow him to the bunkhouse.


Melissa watched the graceful movement of the young woman as she followed a suddenly bewildered Stan toward a small building.




Stan opened the door, and Coal saw a group of five men seated around a table finishing the last of their breakfast. They were mostly big surly men, ranging in age from early twenties to late forties. “This is Coal Bryan, our new hand,” Stan said, turning to her.


“You’ve got to be kidding, right, boss?” one of the men said. “You expect us to work with a woman?”


The rest of the group broke out in laughter at the prospect. “I just hope and pray you men can keep up with her skills, and not embarrass the MC2,” Stan said, which immediately brought silence to the group.


“She can sleep in my bunk,” the youngest of the bunch said with a grin.


“No, Gene, she will not. I have asked the boss to let her use a back room in the house. I wouldn’t expose her to the likes of you at night, even though she insisted she could handle living with you lot.”


 “Introduce yourselves, and I’ll meet you out at the truck in five,” Stan said and left the room.


A moment of silence hung in the room until the oldest man stepped forward and offered her his hand. “Harley Boone,” he said. “Don’t mind this mouthy bunch. They’re a good working crew, and they mean well.”


“Thanks, Harley, I will work as hard as I can,” she said.


The other four men followed Harley’s lead and introduced themselves. “I hope you can cook better than the rest of us,” Gene said.


“I’m actually a fairly lousy cook, so I’ll probably fit right in,” she said to a round of laughter.


“Let’s go, boys, the daylight’s wasting,” Harley said.



Melissa took the small bag and carried it into the house into a small bedroom just off the kitchen. She poured herself another cup of coffee and watched as the hands loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck to head out to the hay fields. “Good luck and God bless you,” she said aloud as Coal scrambled up behind them on the truck.



When they arrived at the first field, Stan assigned each of them to a task. The youngest of the crew, she, Gene, and Lucas, would load, and haul the finished bales.


“You wanna stack or load?”


“I’ll load,” she said. It was the harder of the two jobs, but she needed to prove right away that she could carry her weight.


“Whatever suits you,” Lucas said as he hopped back onto the truck.


Harley would run the baler, while another man drove the truck and one more drove the tractor pulling the rake. Stan would be cutting a nearby field, and would leave Harley in charge. “I don’t reckon I have to remind you to watch out for rattlers. It’s so damned hot they’ll curl up in any shade they can find.”



They watched as Harley took off behind the rake and the baler began sending out sixty-pound bales of hay. When he was half a row ahead of them, the truck pulled in behind him. Gene and Coal took turns lifting the bales up to Lucas.


Two hours later the first load was full, and they drove back to the barn to lift the bales into the loft for stacking and storing. She and Gene climbed up to the loft and took the bales off the electric winch that lifted them off the truck. The heat was even more stifling inside the loft, so Gene pulled off his shirt to reveal his well-developed and nicely tanned upper body. She pulled off her work shirt revealing an army green tank top. When they finished the load, she tossed the shirt over her shoulder as they rode back out to begin another load.


Harley watched her closely, as did Stan, for any signs of trouble. Both were impressed by her speed and strength. The group worked without complaint until Melissa arrived in her truck to bring them lunch.


She stepped out of the truck and used the tailgate as a table as she laid out a platter of sandwiches, chips, bottles of water, and a pitcher of sweet tea. She had also baked a cake for them, and smiled as each one filed through to make a plate of food. Coal was not shy about her food. She took two sandwiches, a large pile of chips, a bottle of cold water, and sat down on a bale of hay among the crew.


Stan watched as she began to eat, and then turned with a smile toward Melissa. “So far so good,” he said as he fixed his plate.


Melissa sat down with them for lunch and listened to the chatter as they talked about the upcoming weekend, Texas football, and, of course, the weather. She looked beyond Stan as he talked and saw the bare, dark skin of Coal’s left shoulder blade as she reached for a drink. Her eyes rested on a familiar tattoo, and she couldn’t help but smile.


When all the sandwiches and cake were gone, Melissa packed up the supplies and was about to leave when Stan walked over.


“Did you see her left shoulder?” she asked.


“Yeah, I did, but I don’t think the boys recognize what it is just yet.”


“I don’t think you have to worry much about her,” Melissa said before driving away.


Lucas stretched when they reached the truck, ready to return to work.


“We can swap out, and you can stack if you get tired,” Lucas said to Coal.


“I’m good, unless you need a rest,” she said to him, and then shot him a wink.


“Okay, smartass, load away,” he said and hopped back up on the truck.


 Gene smiled at her as they began loading the bales onto the truck in the brutal afternoon heat. “You’re all right for a girl,” he said with a grin.


“I’m so glad you approve,” she said to him.


When the sun finally began to sink to the horizon, Harley pulled his tractor to a halt and watched as the last of the bales were loaded onto the truck. Coal and Gene had loaded all day, and he decided to give them a break from the heat. “You two get supper duty while we unload this truck,” he instructed them.


Gene felt as if his arms would fall off, but he did not voice a complaint in front of Coal, who still appeared strong enough to go on for hours.



“I hope you know how to cook smothered cubed steak,” he said.


“I do, and I can show you how it’s done too,” she said as they went into the kitchen.


They washed their hands and arms, then began preparing the meal.


She prepared the frying pan as Gene coated the meat in seasoned flour as she instructed. They would also have rice and gravy, corn, and fry bread to go with the meal. She began frying the meat and asked Gene to slice and chill several tomatoes for the meal. As she cooked, she walked Gene through mixing corn meal, and demonstrated making fry bread for him. The meal was nearly finished when the rest of the crew entered the bunkhouse.


“Damn, something smells good,” Harley said. “Anything I can do to help?”


“Get cleaned up, then you can boil some rice and set the table,” she said.


“Yes, ma’am,” Harley said with a grin and left the room.


“Is there anything the rest of us can do?” Lucas asked.


“Nope, we don’t need too many cooks in the kitchen,” Coal said.


“Do we have time to shower then?”


“We should be ready to eat in twenty minutes,” she said.


Harley returned and boiled a large pot of rice, then set the table. She handed him a platter of cubed steak and asked him to place it on the table, then bring her the carton of milk to make the gravy. The rest of the crew came in and took seats around the table, their mouths watering, as they smelled the meal being prepared.


“Finally, someone who can make gravy,” Harley said as she poured up a bowl of the milk gravy to go with the rice and steaks.


Lucas poured them all glasses of tea, and they all sat around the table filled with food. “This looks like a real meal,” Harley said. “Thank you Coal and Gene.”


“Coal did most of it,” Gene said with a bashful smile.


“You’ll know how to cook it next time,” she said.


“Dig in, boys,” Harley said.


They were just about finished with the meal when Melissa knocked on the door and stepped inside carrying another cake she had baked earlier. “Something smells delicious,” she said as she walked to the table.


“It was delicious,” Lucas said. “May I fix you a plate?”


Melissa fixed her eyes on the food on the table and knew immediately who had cooked the meal. “You know, I wouldn’t mind a bite, and all this looks delicious,” she said as Gene got up and offered her his seat.


“Coal and Gene cooked us a fabulous meal,” Harley said. “We haven’t eaten this good since the last time you cooked for us,” he told Melissa.


“This is very good,” Melissa said as she took a bite.


Coal finished her meal and stood to begin clearing off the table.


“You cooked we clean,” Lucas said, “so have a seat and relax for a little bit.”


“You have a deal, but I hope one of you guys can cook eggs,” she said. “Mine always turn out like rubber.”


“Harley is the breakfast wizard around here,” Gene said. “He makes one mean killer omelet.”


“That sounds really good.”


“Breakfast is at seven, so don’t be late or these hounds will have eaten it all,” Harley said. “Are you a coffee drinker?”


“Unless I can get it straight through an IV,” she said.


“It’s strong, but it’ll get you moving in the mornings.”


“In more than one way,” Gene said with a chuckle.


Melissa finished her meal and turned to her. “Are you ready to see your room and get a shower?”


“Yes, ma’am, if it’s not inconvenient for you.”


“No, not at all,” Melissa answered.


“I’ll see you boys in the morning then.”


“Thanks for a great meal, Coal.”


“You’re most welcome.”


They left the men to chatter amongst themselves as they walked up to the farmhouse.


“She’s a damned good worker,” Coal heard before they closed the door.



“You appear to be fitting in quite well with the boys,” Melissa said.


“A good meal goes a long way with hungry men.”


“It’s not just that. Stan told me that you worked as hard or harder as the rest of them all day in this heat.”


“I’m used to the heat and hard work, ma’am.”


Melissa waited to see if she would elaborate on her comment, but she remained silent as she gave her a tour of the house. Melissa opened a bedroom door, and Coal found her bag sitting at the end of the bed.


“The bathroom is there,” she said. “Make yourself at home, and let me know if you need anything.”


“Thank you, Mrs. Conway.”


“Please just call me Melissa.”


“Yes, ma’am.”



Coal watched her walk from the room, then picked up her suitcase and laid it open on the bed. She took out the few items of clothing that she had and tucked them away in a small dresser. She left out a pair of shorts and another tank top of army issue and went in search of a hot shower. She showered, dressed, and then slipped on a worn pair of tennis shoes. She reached into the outer pocket of her suitcase, pulled out a small wooden object, and left the house.


Melissa heard the shower start as she walked into the living room to watch some television. She was deep into a program when she heard the back door open and close.



The moon was full and lit the yard as she walked over to the corral, where twenty or so horses were milling around, and climbed the fence. She lifted a wooden flute to her mouth and began to play. Several heads popped up from the curious horses to study her when they heard the music, and they slowly began to move closer to her.


Melissa had left a window cracked for some fresh air, and a haunting melody floated across the yard from the corral to soothe her senses. The music was refreshing and relaxing. Melissa found herself pulled toward it. She glanced out the window and saw Coal sitting on the top rail of the corral as the horses crowded around her. She listened for a half hour, and when she could no longer hold her eyes open, she walked to her room and climbed into the bed. She could still hear the faint sound of the flute as she drifted off to sleep.


Coal looked over the stock as she played and was very pleased with the confirmation of the horses. Strongly built, they would make excellent pleasure or working stock. She didn’t mind the labor of haying or fence work, but really looked forward to training the young horses. She preferred to use the techniques developed by her ancestors with Apache bloodlines to train horses. She was pleased to see a large lake behind the barn; it would work into her plans perfectly. She was sure the rest of the hands would train the young horses using traditional domination methods to break the spirit of the horse, but hopefully she would be able to train a large portion of them.


A beautiful black stallion caught her attention as he eyed her curiously. He was solid black except for a white star on his forehead, and if not for the star and the bright moonlight, he would have been almost invisible, moving like a shadow in the night.


Her body reminded her that she was exhausted from a long day in the heat, and it didn’t appear there was a break in the weather on the horizon. She climbed down and walked to the house, entering the back door and slipping quietly into her room. The cool sheets felt wonderful against her skin, and she was asleep seconds after her head hit the pillow.


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