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Back in the Saddle Chapter 1

 Chapter One


Cameron Bohannon knelt on the floor of her bedroom while she filled the final box with picture albums. Her rapidly graying hair fell into her eyes, and when she brushed it back with a hand, one of the books fell open to a picture of two young women walking hand in hand down a beach of sugar-white sand. Cam’s heart ached as memories of that day filled her mind, and she choked back the well of tears pooling in her eyes.


“That was our first vacation together, Sheila,” she said to the empty apartment. She struggled to imitate the smile she’d worn that day. “Definitely one of our best times together,” she whispered while she trailed her fingers across the images in the photograph. “What I wouldn’t give to be back there now.”


Blaring music from the apartment above brought her back to reality. She gently closed the album and placed the lid on the box.


Cam picked up the last box, locked the door behind her, and slid the key into the mail slot. After loading the last of her belongings, she closed the tailgate on her truck. She leaned against the bed of the truck and took a final look at her apartment.


“Where will life take me now?” she asked. With a deep sigh, she opened the door and climbed in behind the wheel. She had sold most of her meager furnishings and donated the rest to charity. Cam was determined to make a complete fresh start.


For years, she’d seldom seen the small one-bedroom apartment she rented, and admitted she was one of the few people known to be able to kill a cactus. It wasn’t that she had a brown thumb; she was just gone for such long stretches even a cactus couldn’t survive the neglect. For the last ten years, she had served as a veterinarian for a national rodeo corporation, and now at fifty, she was determined to find a spot to settle down and plant her roots. She hoped to find a place to open a small practice and enjoy sleeping under the same roof for more than a few nights at a time. It will be nice to have a home again.


Cam reached for her sunglasses to curb the glare from the early morning sun and turned her truck south.


Earlier in the month, she’d received a call from Tom Cone, a fellow vet who planned to retire and move to South Florida with his wife. Cam had agreed to meet with him, and her first stop when she reached her destination would be his office. While she drove, her mind wandered back to the last fifteen years. Her long-term lover, Sheila, had died in a car crash while on her way home from work, sending Cam’s life spiraling into chaos. Overwhelmed with grief, Cam had tried to drown her pain with alcohol. She’d convinced herself life without Sheila was worthless. Cam would have successfully wasted her life away if not for Harley Boone.


Harley, a cowboy at a local ranch and a frequent participant in the rodeo circuit, easily recognized the signs of the alcoholic funk she’d fallen into and called her out on her behavior. With his constant encouragement, and a lot of tears, Cam had realized the mistake she was making. Hurting herself this way would not bring Sheila back, and she would most certainly not approve of Cam’s behavior. Harley’s friendship and guidance had helped her find her way again, and with his recommendation, she’d landed a job as the rodeo vet. The constant travel kept her mind busy, and over time, her heart began to heal.


Now, Harley was coming to her rescue again. He had recommended her to the retiring vet in hopes of her taking over the practice. Harley worked for the MC2, one of the large ranches in the area Dr. Cone served. After she met with Cone, she planned to track Harley down. She hadn’t seen her friend in a couple of years and looked forward to reuniting with him. The thought left her wearing a grin.



Cam had two final stops to make before she left town. Getting flowers was the first. Cam pulled her truck into the lot of a small flower shop and entered to pick up a dozen yellow roses. They were Sheila’s favorite. Whenever she had brought them home, she would ask Cam to sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” to her. The memory brought a smile to her face but renewed the ache in her heart.


The clerk behind the counter greeted her with a warm smile. “I was wondering if you’d be in today. It’s so beautiful outside.”


“That it is.” Cam made her selection and went to the counter to pay for her purchase.


“See you next time, Doc.”


“Have a great day.” Cam left the store. Her next stop was the cemetery to visit Sheila’s gravesite. Whenever Cam was in town, she placed fresh flowers on Sheila’s grave. Her boots had worn a path to the small gravesite, and she smiled when she saw the roses already in bloom on the bush she’d planted. Yellow, of course. She knelt and placed the fresh-cut roses at the base of the headstone. Her fingertips floated across the carving in the stone with a lover’s caress. The early spring sun had warmed the marble and sent a ray of warmth through her fingertips.


“I wanted to stop by before leaving town to check on you one more time. I won’t be but an hour away, and I’ll still bring you flowers when your rosebush is no longer in bloom. I miss you terribly, and there’s not a day goes by that I don’t reminisce about our life together. I wouldn’t change anything, except for having you here with me now on earth.


“Do you remember me telling you about Harley, and how he kicked my ass back into shape after your accident? He was the one who suggested Dr. Cone contact me about taking over his practice.” She let out a soft laugh. “Just when I need him most, Harley pops back into my life.”


Cam’s voice was quivering and she couldn’t hold back the tears that silently trailed down her cheeks. “I guess I’ll go for now, before I become a total blithering idiot. I love you more today than ever. I’ll be seeing you soon, my darling.”


She stood and caressed the headstone, brushing away the dust before she returned to her truck. Leaving Sheila was the hardest part of starting over, but Cam was certain she would approve of her actions. She climbed into her truck and pulled slowly out of the cemetery, anxious to start the next chapter of her life.


Before she reached the gate that would lead her to the highway, a battered pickup truck pulled into the drive. Cam smiled when she recognized the driver and brought her truck to a halt.


The truck rolled to a stop beside her, a young man at the wheel. “Hey, Doc Bo.”


“Good morning, Tim. How are you?”


“I’m doing good, ma’am.” He looked at the boxes in the bed of her truck. “Are you leaving town?”


“I’m going to be taking over a practice about an hour away.”


He nodded and a blush rose to his face. “I reckon I should’ve called to ask your permission, but I bought a rosebush I thought I’d plant across from yours.”


“Is it yellow?”


“Yes, it is. Her favorite, right?”


“She loved yellow roses.”


Clearly, Tim could see the look of pain cross her face. “I wish I could take that day back.” His voice was full of emotion.


“That day is long gone, Tim, and you have suffered enough. Sheila wouldn’t have wanted that. She’ll love the roses that bush will bear for her.”


He nodded, unable to speak.


“Take care of yourself and enjoy your family. Thanks for visiting and caring for the roses.”


“It’s the least I can do. Good luck, Doc, and don’t be a stranger. Drop by anytime you come to town.”


“I will, Tim. Take care.”


He put his truck in gear, and Cam watched him drive away in her rear-view mirror. She pulled away when he stopped at the grave.



Tim Jernigan had been a sixteen-year-old, brand-new driver driving home from football practice when one of Texas’s freak rainstorms blew up. The accident report stated his car hit a slick spot and because of his inexperience behind the wheel, he overcorrected when his car began to hydroplane and he lost control, spinning headlong into Sheila’s oncoming car. She had died instantly in the impact and he walked away without a scratch. What the report couldn’t know was the scars he bore from the emotional trauma the accident brought about.


When notified about the accident, Cam had wanted to hate the kid who had taken her lover, her life, from her. But when she met Tim, she saw his guilt and pain. After the funeral, she took him in her arms and cried with him until no more tears would flow. They sat on a nearby bench and talked while they watched the staff fill the grave and place fresh sod on the raw earth.


Cam remembered the final words she spoke to him that day before she left. “Don’t let Sheila’s death ruin your life. Make something good of yourself. She would want to see you grow old with dozens of grandkids around you.”


Several years passed before she saw Tim again, but she did talk with his mother frequently after the accident to see how he was coping. His mom told her that for several months, he was deeply depressed, but one day after he had taken roses out to Sheila’s grave, something in him changed, and she noticed him starting to heal. On many occasions when she visited Sheila, Cam found evidence of fresh-cut roses that had withered and she knew Tim continued to visit.


Seeing him today made her feel better about leaving town. She felt a sense of comfort, knowing Tim would still be around to watch over Sheila’s roses, and now Sheila would have even more to enjoy.


A smile grew on her face when she thought of the successful trauma surgeon Tim had become and the lives he touched every day. Cam pulled onto the highway, her gray-streaked hair billowing around her face while the wind blew through the cab of her truck.


Time to move on, she thought as the miles drifted away behind her.



Stormy tilted her hat back and watched as Coal and Shadow, her equine partner, raced off to the left, chasing a steer that had broken away from the group they were herding into the cattle pens. Bo and Dolly, the pups Coal had given Gene and Mary Leah for Christmas and who were now six months old, raced after her. They were growing quickly and were turning into smart cattle dogs, learning to herd and assist the ranch hands in moving cattle from field to field. This morning, the crew was rounding up steers to be loaded onto the truck to take them to the feed pens. The first truck would be arriving soon, and they would collect a second group after lunch.


“Get him, cowgirl,” Stormy hollered after Coal.


Coal raised her hand in acknowledgment while Shadow thundered after the steer. Stormy knew Coal had been secretly hoping a steer would break free so she and Shadow could take a quick run. Herding cattle was part of their duties, but Coal had never passed on a chance to race at top speed to chase down an errant animal. She obviously loved riding Shadow at a full-out run, and he loved running, so it was a win-win situation for them both.


Gene and Stormy watched them race away. “Such a show-off,” Gene hollered with a chuckle.


“You’re just mad because she beat you to the punch,” Stormy teased.


“Yeah, she did, but that’s nothing new. You gotta get up early to get ahead of Coal.”


“You got that right. She really loves riding that horse.”


“They were made for each other.” His face broadened with a grin. “Here we go,” he cried when another steer broke ranks. “I got this one.” He took off after it, leaving Stormy laughing in his wake.



 Melissa Conway returned to the MC2 from grocery shopping, and when she walked back into her house, the phone was ringing. She placed the bags on the floor and raced for it.




“Mrs. Conway, this is Roger Tucker in Billings. I was told you might have a few ranch hands I could hire for a two-week cattle drive.”


Melissa grinned at the news. Gene, Coal, and Stormy would die if she turned down this opportunity. “I may indeed. What do you have in mind?”


“I’m looking for three more cowboys to move a herd up the mountain pastures in the next few weeks. I’ve lost a few hands to retirement or relocation and I haven’t been able to find decent replacements yet. I’ve got to get the herd up to better grass.”


“When would you need them?”


Tucker chuckled. “Yesterday, but I’ll take them whenever they can get here.”


“Would you consider a cowboy and two cowgirls?”


“I’ve heard you have two of the best cowgirls ever, so yes, ma’am, I’d love to have them. My foreman is my daughter Nancy, and she’d probably love some female companions for a change.”


“Let me get your number and I’ll talk to the crew at lunch and call you back. I can almost guarantee you’ll have your cowhands, though. Just don’t get any ideas of trying to steal them from me. They’re a great crew.”


“I wouldn’t dream of it. Although I also hear they’re great at rodeo events.”


“We took top cowboy last year,” she said with pride.


“That may make it even tougher to let them go. We have a rodeo coming up soon in these parts.”


“Well maybe we’ll have to look into entering a few events. I’ll talk to you later.”


“Thanks, ma’am.”


Melissa hung up and returned to the truck for the rest of the groceries. She heard a whistle and turned to see the herd of steers entering the pens. It was turning out to be a great early spring. With the steers off to the feedlot, she could afford to send Gene and the girls off for a few weeks without taking away from the ranch. Harley and the others could keep up with the rest of the work with little problem. She couldn’t wipe the smile off her face when she thought of how excited they would be at the news.



“That’s the last of them, boss,” Harley told Stan, the ranch foreman, when he closed the gate to the pens. “After we get these loaded we’ll go back for the next load.”


“The truck should be here shortly after we eat,” Stan told them. “Tend to your horses and get ready for lunch. Melissa’s cooked up a nice roast and biscuits for you bunch.”


“That sounds great. I’m starving,” Gene declared.


“When aren’t you starving?” Stormy asked.


“I would say when I’m asleep, but I even dream of food.”


Harley shook his head. “When I was your age, food was the last thing I dreamed of.”


Gene blushed profusely. “I dream of other things too.”


“Yeah, I bet. When is Susan coming down for a visit?” Coal asked.


“I don’t know yet. Soon, I hope.”


“It would be great to see her again and show her our part of the world,” Coal told him.


Gene couldn’t help but grin. “It’ll be a huge difference from Montana, that’s for sure.”


Susan had been their tour guide when they were in Montana for Christmas. She and Gene had been inseparable. Harley could tell how excited Gene was when their relationship continued after they all returned to Texas. Gene was thrilled when she agreed to come for a visit before summer arrived.



Melissa was just finishing setting the food on the table when the crew entered the bunkhouse. “Get cleaned up and back in here before the food gets cold.”


When everyone settled around the table and the crew was busy filling their plates, she looked at Harley and winked. She smiled at his cocked head and curious glance.


“I got a call this morning that may be of interest to some of you,” she announced.


“Did I finally win the lottery?” Harley asked.


“No, nothing quite that exciting. I got a call from a rancher in Montana who needs some cowboys to go on a cattle drive to take a herd up into the mountains.”


The room fell silent, accentuating the clank of Gene’s fork falling onto his plate. “Please dear Lord, tell me you told him yes,” he said.


“Well, no.” She grinned when his face fell. “I told him I’d have to talk to you and the girls first.”


His smile returned instantly. “All right!”


“He needs a crew of three for about two weeks. That’s including the travel time to get you there since I know you want to take your own horses.”


“Oh hell yeah,” Gene cried. “Where in Montana?”


“Billings. He also told me there was a rodeo coming up soon, so maybe you could do some events after the drive is over.”


Gene’s grin grew even wider.


She turned to her two cowgirls. “I would assume you two need to talk this over with your other halves?”


“Yes, but I don’t think either of them will have an issue with us going. It’s every cowboy’s dream to go on a cattle drive,” Coal said, unable to restrain her grin.


Harley chuckled. “They aren’t quite the romantic adventure you think. Sleeping on the hard, frozen ground, bathing in freezing-cold water, and not having Melissa’s cooking to fill your belly. Still, it’s an experience you all should have at least once.” He grinned at his young friends. “You won’t be disappointed.”


“I take it you’ve been on a drive before,” Coal stated.


“More than I care to remember. You’ll spend a lot of time in the saddle riding from daylight to sundown. Then you get to set up camp for the night.”


Unbelievably, Gene’s grin grew wider.


“Can you survive without us for a few weeks?” Stormy asked Stan.


“It couldn’t come at a better time. Once we get these steers loaded, we’ll slow down a bit until the hay season starts. I can work on getting some colts for y’all to train when you get back.”


Melissa’s grin was almost as big as Gene’s. “So it looks like it will happen. I’ll call him back this afternoon after you two make your calls.”


“A real live cattle drive,” Gene remarked as he picked up his fork, then took a bite of roast. “This food is fantastic, by the way, boss.”


“Eat up, you may be looking at a lot of beans in your future,” Melissa warned.


“That’s it, I’m not going if I have to sleep beside him if he’s eating beans,” Stormy groaned, and the room broke out in laughter.


“I think you and Coal will have your own tent,” Melissa replied.


“I’m probably not much better than Gene with beans, though.” Coal chuckled.


“Hey, so do we need to buy gear? Sleeping bags and such?” Stormy asked.


“I think you’ll want your own sleeping bags, and you definitely need some warmer clothes,” Melissa replied. “I’ll ask about other supplies when I call him back.”


“We’ll need to go to town to do some shopping when we get done today,” Gene stated. “When will we need to leave?”


Melissa paused. “If Harley will take the cowboy Cadillac in for an oil change and servicing, you could leave tomorrow or the next day. It’ll take a few days to get there pulling a trailer.”


“This is going to be so much fun.” Gene squirmed in his seat like a school kid. “I can’t wait to get started.”


“I’d also recommend you ask him about firearms since you’ll be traveling up the mountains. There will be plenty of hungry wildlife looking for an easy meal,” Harley said.


Melissa grinned. “I’ll do that. Is there anything else I need to ask?”


“See if he recommends other items he doesn’t provide.”



Gene wolfed down the rest of his meal, barely tasting his food. He was eager to finish work so they could drive into town for supplies for their trip. He, Coal, and Stormy would ride out and start bringing in the rest of the steers while Stan, Harley, and Lucas loaded the truck that would be arriving soon. When he finished, Gene stood and walked out to the barn to saddle the horses.


He heard Lucas rushing to catch up with him as he left the house. “Man, I am so jealous of you guys for getting to go on a cattle drive.”


“Yeah, but once that baby boy arrives, you will have forgotten about missing out on this trip.”


Gene knew Lucas and his girlfriend, Lisa, were expecting a baby in the next few weeks, and nothing could pull him away from the birth of his son.


“I know you’re right.”


“I just hope one thing, Lucas.”


“What’s that?”


“I just hope that boy comes out looking like his pretty mama and not his daddy.”


Lucas grinned and slapped Gene on his shoulder. “Come on, smart-ass, let’s get these horses saddled.”



After they finished their meals, Coal and Stormy put in calls to Del and Mary Leah to discuss the impending trip.


“Hey, baby, is everything okay?” Mary Leah asked when she answered. “You don’t often call me during the day.”


Coal smiled at the concern in her lover’s voice. “Yeah, darling, it is. I have something I want to talk about with you now, because I have to give Melissa an answer this afternoon.”


“That sounds intriguing. What’s my sister up to now?”


“She got a call from a rancher up in Montana this morning looking to hire three ranch hands for a cattle drive, and she’s asked Gene, Stormy, and I to go.”


“They still have real cattle drives?”


“Yes, dear, they do. The rancher wants a large herd moved up into the mountain pastures for the spring grazing. We’d be gone about two weeks, maybe a bit longer, and I didn’t want to say yes without talking it over with you first.”


“That’s so sweet of you, but you know I can’t deny you this opportunity. I’ll miss the hell out of you, but maybe Del and I can mourn our losses together.”


Coal chuckled. “Are you positive?”


“Positive I’m going to miss you? Heck yeah.”


“No, silly, that you don’t mind me going.”


“Yes, I’m sure the three of you will have a grand adventure. Just be sure to pack a camera.”


“I’ll take lots of photographs for you. That’s a promise.”


“You have a deal, then, my love.”


“I may not be back from town before you get home. We’re going into town for supplies so we can get going in the morning.”


“Wow, that soon?”


“Sooner we leave, the sooner we get back.” Coal was finding it hard to conceal her excitement.


“I’ll have to stock up on plenty of kisses tonight to last me two weeks.”


“I’m positive that can be arranged. Do you need anything from town?”


“Not that I’m aware of, but thanks for asking. Would you like to meet for dinner somewhere?”


“That sounds like a great idea. Do you want to call Del to see if they want to join us?”


“No, tonight I’m going to be greedy. I want you all to myself.”


“Oh really?” Coal purred. “In that case, I’ll call when we head to town and we can make arrangements. Bye for now, love you.”


“Love you too. Be safe.”



When Coal stepped out of the main house, Stormy was ending her call with Del, and judging by her smile, she’d also gotten the go-ahead for the trip. Melissa emerged from the bunkhouse just as Coal and Stormy met up in the middle of the yard with a high five.


“I take it you both are going? Like I had any real doubt. Get a move on so you can get your shopping done and get packed. I’ll map out a route for y’all to take with you for your trip. I’ll also call Mr. Tucker back to let him know y’all will be on the way tomorrow, and to see if there are other supplies you need.”


“Thanks, boss. You heard the lady, Coal, let’s get a move on.”


“I’m right behind you. Thanks for this opportunity, Melissa. It sounds like it’ll be hard work but also a great deal of fun.”


“I hope you can say that by the time you make it back.”


Coal turned and jogged to catch up with Stormy. Gene and Lucas were bringing the horses out of the barn, and Shadow’s ears perked when he saw her.


“I hope you’re ready for a big adventure, my friend,” she told Shadow while she stroked his neck. “You know, we might want to consider taking along blankets for our horses. They don’t have a winter coat like the stock up there.”


“That’s not a bad idea,” Harley said when he joined them. “Better get y’all some thermal underwear too. It’s going to be wicked cold at night. Be sure to get the heaviest-weight sleeping bags you can find. There’s nothing more miserable than trying to sleep on cold, hard ground.”


They turned their attention to the driveway as a diesel engine rumbled. The cattle truck was just pulling into the drive as they mounted their horses to bring in the next group of steers.


“Let’s do this,” Gene called out and took off at a canter, racing ahead of the group with the pups running beside him.



When they reached the pasture, the group discussed the supplies they would need for the trip.


“I’m taking my rifle, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a few sidearms.” Gene patted the scabbard holding his hunting rifle.


“I’ve got that covered. I have two .9 millimeters with shoulder harnesses,” Coal replied.


“Sleeping bags, thermals, horse blankets, canteens, and maybe some dried food items like jerky or trail mix would be good to have as well.”


“Well aren’t you the regular Boy Scout,” Stormy teased.


“Not really, I’ve just done a bit of hunting is all.”


“Are you always going to blush when I tease you?”


He grinned. “Probably so. It’s all part of my boyish charm.”


Coal chuckled at their banter. “Do I have to listen to this 24/7 for the next two weeks?”


“Probably so,” they answered in unison and cracked up laughing.


Behind them, the truck beeped as it backed into the loading chute. It wouldn’t take them near the amount of time to load the steers as it would for them to herd the next group to the pens.


“We better get a move on.” Coal raced ahead to open the gate to the pasture where the steers were grazing.


“You heard the lady.” Gene took off after Coal.


“That ain’t no lady,” Stormy shouted, urging her horse into a canter.



Back at the pens, the loading went smoothly as Melissa expected, and within half an hour, the loaded truck was pulling away. Melissa looked across the pasture at the dust stirred up by the herd of steers and knew the last group was on the way.


She watched Lucas walking into the barn for his horse, then turned to Harley. “Do you mind taking the truck in for service once we’re done here?”


“No, ma’am, not at all.”


She was getting ready to say something else when a shot rang out, and chaos ensued.


“What the hell?” Melissa cried. They shared a look of panic and then raced toward the gate to the pastures.


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