Rocky Mountain Angel

Six Pack Ranch - 4


Vivian Arend

Chapter One

Neither of them blinked.

Dust motes hovered in the sun streaming through the open barn door. Gabe Coleman leaned back on a wall and took a deep breath. The heavy scent of farm animals filled his nostrils. Familiar as it was pungent, the aroma that had been a part of his entire thirty-one years calmed his nerves.

The conversation was going about as well as he’d expected, but damn if he’d give up yet. He resisted muttering stubborn jackass and scrambled for a new tack. “Look, I showed you the receipts for the past year. Expenses went up, our projected revenues are still far less than they need to be.”

The face before him remained motionless. Shit. Definitely not working.

Another idea struck. “I read an article in the Calgary Herald last week. Rancher down by Pincher Creek was ready to go bankrupt…”

Gabe trailed off. Suggesting their section of the Coleman ranch was getting closer to that same situation was not the way to make his father listen to reason.

Three feet across from him, broad nostrils twitched for a second then the ancient donkey reached down to grab a mouthful of grain before turning his back on Gabe.

Even the animals seemed tired of listening to him try to come up with a way to save their lives.

He pushed himself up and headed toward the tack room. If nothing else, the ranch itself provided a million distractions. The reality of working the land sucked—enough damn property to make a man look rich, and not enough money coming in to keep putting food on the table throughout the year.

Giving up wasn’t an option, but hell if he knew what was at this point.

The saddle had barely landed on Hurricane’s back before his mother’s voice carried from the house side of the yard.

“You got any spare time today?”

Gabe tossed her a smile even as he wondered why she hadn’t made her request to his father. “Was going to go check the creek and fence lines, but there’s no rush. You need a hand with something?”

She nodded. “I want to plant the garden this week and need more room. Can you turn over another few rows?”

Shit. Now he knew why she’d waited until Ben had headed into town after breakfast. “Ma, you already have enough garden you can barely keep up. You sure you want more to deal with?”

Dana Coleman looked her age that day, but the determined jut of her chin warned him he’d be breaking sod before long. They came by stubbornness honestly in their family, from both his parents’ sides.

“Every bit we grow is less we buy, Gabriel. And I figured a little extra wouldn’t go amiss—there are always people who want fresh produce.”

They stared at each other for a minute. Gabe hated the entire situation with a red-hot passion. He had ideas he thought could improve their circumstances, but beyond ideas were only half-started and hidden projects, none of which were going to bail them out of trouble. Using the donkey to practice talking about finances was supposed to make talking to his family easier, but hell if he wanted his ma to be the one worrying. “You can’t save the ranch by growing more carrots.”

“Well, I can’t save it sitting and complaining that the cost of feed keeps going up either, can I?” She snapped her mouth shut and glanced out over the fields as Gabe hid his surprise. She never, ever complained about the way Ben ran things, and the small slip stunned him.

Dana shook her head then made deliberate eye contact. “I ain’t saying another word, and neither will you. About me growing things to sell, you understand?”

Argue with her when she used that tone of voice? Hell no. He laughed inside. Well out of his teens, and still under his mama’s control. At least he understood her reasoning. “I’ll figure out a way to make things work. I promise.”

She sighed. “You’ll do your best, just like we all will, but there’re no guarantees, Gabriel. Ranching’s a dirty, hard and often thankless task. Something’s got to give, and this time it might be us.”

The lack of bitterness as she spoke burned like crazy. She wasn’t talking about giving up on a childish dream or a last-minute whim. This was their share of the Coleman ranch they were oh-so-casually discussing, land that had been in the extended family for three generations. Thirty years ago four sons had split the inherited spread, and now it looked as if Ben and Dana were going to be the first to fall short of making a go of it.

His ma forced a smile, the lines around the corners of her eyes softening her expression. “If you break the ground before Raphael gets home from school, he can spend the next few days adding manure with a wheelbarrow and the rototiller. I wouldn’t have interrupted you except Ben’s put him on restriction from using the tractor and harrows.”

Thinking about his younger brother’s most recent escapade made him chuckle. “Rafe didn’t hurt anything.”

“The tractor’s not a car to drive on the highway, even if he took back roads. Your father was right to give him hell.”

That Ben was right to give Rafe hell this time was unspoken. Would remain unspoken between the two of them, and the thought was enough to wash away Gabe’s amusement at his brother using the ranch tractor to get to his friend’s house.

It was enough. All his held-back longings made him nod more briskly than usual before turning away. He hauled off the saddle and let his horse loose in the corral outside the main barn. Methodically he completed his mother’s request, watching a little more of his day slip away. A little more of his life.

By the time he had Hurricane prepped again and thrown himself into the saddle, hightailing out the gate felt more like the start of a race than his usual even-paced ritual for confronting his endless chores.

The spring air on his face was a blend of cool and warm, clean dirt and green growing things mixed with rotting compost, and the remnants of last year’s bales. The musty scents mingled with the fresh for a second before the breeze stole them both away, and he tipped his hat to block the sun from his eyes. Hurricane knew the route as well as he did and after turning toward the creek, he let him set the pace.

He’d been dragging his heels for nearly two years. Things hadn’t gone to shit around the ranch overnight, and they weren’t about to lose everything tomorrow, but the most frustrating thing was he’d seen this coming. Had tried to plan for a future that would be brighter for all of them, but between Ben’s stubborn refusal to share any of the decision making and the poor weather conditions last season, things were coming to a head.

The challenge he’d had with his cousin Daniel to stir up and shake up his life seemed a million miles away at times. Yet, if he really thought it through, that wasn’t true. The good-natured poke in the butt had inspired the one positive thing he’d managed to accomplish over the past year—he’d built a house of his own. It wasn’t fancy, but it was his, free and clear, and a place to be independent.

His mother had fussed when he’d announced he was going to build a cabin, Ben had scoffed, and his then-seventeen-year-old brother had eyed him with understanding and helped every chance he got. If the original Coleman brothers could start with log shanties, Gabe figured he wasn’t too bad off. He’d called in a few favours from the rest of the Coleman cousins, and at the end of the day he had a log cabin tucked up near the dividing line between the Angel Coleman land and the Whiskey Creek side of the family.

With four Coleman families all still ranching in the area, the locals had gone to town giving them interesting nicknames.

The creek was running higher than usual, and he stopped to clear away debris from the hoses they used to pull water for the watering tanks. The Alberta sunshine seemed determined to do its damnedest to cheer him up. How could he stay down when he was surrounded by wide-open spaces and the mad sound of June birdsong? The contented lowing of cattle carried from somewhere over the nearby ridge. Calves at their mamas’ heels made noise that added to the familiarity of the day.

This land was his home and the idea it could be taken away killed him.

He worked for a little longer before the sounds from the other side of the hill changed to complaining. Restless fear. Something had spooked the beasts, and this location was remote enough the trouble was bound to be a predator. Just what they didn’t need—a coyote or a cougar coming to grab a snack. Gabe scrambled up the creek bed and grabbed his shotgun off the saddle, topping the crest of the hill to see the lay of the land.

The cattle were disturbed all right, but from someone driving where they had no right. A long trail of dust rose as some idiot sped down the private connector road between the main highway and the secondary road that led past their land. His stomach turned as the truck shimmied on the loose gravel. Stupid fool obviously didn’t realize how dangerous it was to drive at those speeds on the easily moveable road crush. Gabe returned his gun to its place and mounted, turning Hurricane toward the herd to settle them once the trespasser was gone.

The truck wasn’t the only thing out of place. Gabe gazed in dismay as he realized a horse in full gallop raced just ahead of the vehicle, trapped in the narrow ditch between the road and the seemingly endless barbed-wire fence to the side.

Another irresponsible fool—only this time it wouldn’t just be the rider who broke their neck in an accident, but the horse as well. Gabe kicked Hurricane in the flanks and set a course to intersect with the trespassers.