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by Gayle 10 months ago in Adventure
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Soft western Romance

Sitting atop the most experienced cowpony her father owned Annie watched in horror as the herd began to stampede. There were easily in excess of a thousand head of longhorn/brahma mix. Annie was set up for evening watch, most of the herd had settled in for the night so this should have been a simple stretch of watch. Out of seemingly nowhere a bolt of lightening cracked, a deafening sound as it split the old ponderosa pine down the middle. The mare had jumped but stayed in place, the cattle began lowing, then raging in full stampede mode, heading in a southern direction, back toward home. But home was already sixty miles away.

Her father’s cowboys were scrambling to mount up. The only way to stop this was to turn the lead cows. Springing into action, Annie's mare stayed ahead of them, she cracked her whip and the outside cows in the lead began to push in against the middle. Lady dug in and Annie cracked the whip again. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Redbone, Jason’s horse was larger, stronger and faster than any of the others on the ranch, Annie smiled.

Jason was riding hard to support the turn, he let out a whoop and cracked his own whip. The lead cows pushed harder east towards the river. “Good call!” Jason yelled. Suddenly they were in the river, Lady had slowed, she began to swim just as Annie saw him. A calf, newly born, about to be trampled by the crazed cows, it would drown.

It bawled as it struggled in the water and Annie saw the lightning bolt mark across the face, starting at the left nostril and zig zagging up to the right ear, it was Tornado’s calf. She hooked the coiled whip onto the saddle horn and reached for it sliding sideways on the saddle she was careful to keep her stirrup where she leaned over. She caught the calf’s head under the chin and lifted it towards herself. It was slipping, unwilling to let it go she clamped her teeth down on its ear and slipped her arm under the front legs pulling it up.

Lady was free swimming now and heading towards shore. Jason appeared beside her just as she pulled the calf over the saddle in front of her. He laughed, “You gonna eat that calf before it gets big enough to slaughter.”

Annie spit the calf’s ear out, and grinned, her sparkling green eyes flashed at him, “Not this one, it is mine now, it is the last of Tornado’s get.” As she said it the calf dropped its head and Jason saw the lightning bolt.

He stared at her. Then the horses found the ground on the other side of the river. Lady made it out, but she was tired and shaking. Jason reached over and grabbed a rein. Slowly they moved away from the cows stumbling out of the water. Under some trees Jason dismounted and reached up for the calf. Annie was glad Jason was so tall and strong, he was just eighteen but had worked the ranch all his life. His father was the foreman and he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps. Jason shook his mop of dark brown hair like a wet dog, but his soft brown eyes sparkled. “Didn’t think there would be anymore from Tornado, and finally a bull calf.”

Jason let out a whoop. Annie called him down. First, we have to keep him alive, he needs warmth and milk.” Jason turned and pointed to the two trees behind him. She nodded and dismounted quickly releasing Lady’s girth strap and letting the saddle slide she then slid the bridle off. Lady moved off to rest, night was coming on fast. Digging in her saddle pack she found her dry bag, a sealed canvas bag, unless it was under water an extended period of time it repelled water with all the tree sap coating it. When it dries it is rock hard, she broke it open and pulled out the flint and kindling. Once the fire was going she pulled the tie from her long golden hair and shook it out to let it dry.

Jason laid the calf in her arms and fed the fire then turned to Redbone who had been standing nearby. He grabbed his lariat and tied it off on the saddle. He then surveyed the cows nearby. Most were spent and not moving fast, Jason spotted one and let the rope fly. Redbone knew his job and pulled back on the cow. She struggled and Jason grabbed the lariat off of Annie’s saddle and roped her back legs, he looped his rope around a tree and tied it off.

With the cow subdued, it took only minutes to milk off a quart for the calf. He used the hood of his raincoat to catch it. Annie held his head up and Jason poked a hole in the rain hood. The calf tried to suckle but Jason expertly guided it into the calf’s throat and it swallowed eagerly. Annie laid it close to the fire and covered it with her blanket. Every saddle carried one.

“I figure between two and three hundred are on this side of the river.” Jason said as he knelt beside Annie.

She smiled “I think dad and the other have the rest settled down for the night. Dad will be here soon I think he saw me go into the river.” Jason grinned. Sure enough, an hour later Annie’s father Wade came across and Annie proudly showed off the calf.

“If he lives up to his father, we will have a good one. I regret selling all those yearlings from last season to the rodeo supplier. After losing Tornado and our herd dropping all heifers, I thought we were out of luck.” Wade said shaking his head at Jason’s retelling of Annie scooping the calf out of the river.

“And what do you want to bet that bull carries her teeth marks till the day he dies?” Jason laughed. Annie made a face but after looking closely she had to admit several marks were deep and might scar over. She shrugged and her father laughed.

“I’ll send Cody and Wayne over in the morning to help you get the herd back across.” Her father said as he mounted up. “I think it best to go down river to where we crossed before, it isn’t far but it is safer. Good call on heading them off Pumpkin, Jason, take care of her.” He stared solemnly at the two of them. “She is more important than the entire herd you know.” He then looked fondly at his only daughter, and she blew him a kiss.

Jason pulled his blanket and wrapped it around Annie’s shoulders. “We can share this you know, as long as you behave.” Annie said teasingly.

Shaking his head Jason declined. “Your pop would have my hide even if we were to behave.” She smiled knowing he was right, but after she thought he was asleep she rolled up against his back to keep them both warmer.

Jason said nothing to Annie about sliding up against him and she began to wonder if was not interested in her after all. Her father sent the two on back toward the ranch while he made sure the others got the herd back together and on track. They had only twenty more miles to the northern pastures, and he would leave six men to summer there and brand calves.

With Redbone leading and the cow and the calf trailing behind the two-day ride would now stretch to three or even four, Annie was fine with that, she was enjoying having Jason all to herself. So many dreams and plans she had made over the years but now she was becoming unsure of his feelings. She watched him all day and later with a heavy heart, he seemed to be more distant than ever, but Annie was too unsure to ask.

That night was warm enough and Annie slept on one side of the fire and Jason on the other. She dozed fitfully and each time she awoke she felt his gaze on her. About midnight Jason got up to tend the fire and to check the animals. Annie sat up and pushed the pot of cold coffee into the edge of the fire. She stared into it trying to build courage to ask Jason what was wrong. He had stayed distant the whole day, cordial when they stopped to eat a bite at midday and give the calf a rest. The cow had apparently lost her calf and welcomed the orphan. With Jason not in a good mood Annie spent time with her calf thinking of names to honor his father.

Sitting cross leg with a cup of coffee in her hand Annie did not hear Jason return, she stared into the fire feeling lost and unsure of her future for the first time ever in her life. He knelt beside her, and when she turned he read the sadness in her eyes, suspecting he was the source of her sadness. His heart could not deal with the turmoil he saw in her eyes. He reached over and traced her jaw, feeling the shiver beneath his fingertips, he knew he had hurt her.

“You’re upset with me. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” His voice was soft and filled with warmth.

Annie watched as he slid his fingers into her golden locks shimmering in the firelight. He settled beside her and knowing he was taking a risk he pulled her into his arms. She clung to him burying her face in his chest. He simply held her knowing she was too young and very much off limits, he would never set her father against himself, and would never give cause to have people question her innocence.

After some time, Annie spoke, “Do you see a future for us or is it all in my mind?” She could hardly believe she had asked that monumental question. If he said no, she was sure her world would crumble.

He drew back slightly and waited until she raised her beautiful emerald eyes to him. “I am nearly nineteen, Annie, you are barely sixteen. I have waited all my life for you, but we have to wait a little longer. I refuse to go up against your father, he has his reasons for refusing to let you date. I have to respect that.”

She knew in her heart he was right what she didn’t realize was how much restraint he was using to keep her at arms-length. She nodded, and sighed. Then whispered, “So if I was eighteen?”

He smiled then, “If you were eighteen . . .” He hesitated then, “When you are eighteen I shall buy you a ring and come to call, and then I will make you promise to never look at another.” She smiled then and snuggled in closer.

“It just seems to too long to bear.” She whispered. He held her until she fell asleep and then laid her down and covered her. Then through sheer willpower he retreated to his own bed roll.

The rest of the journey home was filled with laughter and promise. Annie’s father and several ranch hands joined them the day before they made it home. Annie had resumed her dreams of growing up and marrying Jason, determining that nothing could ever pull them apart. She named her bull calf Whirlwind to honor his father Tornado.

Wade had watched his daughter and Jason grow together and knew the bond was strong, yet he refused to let his only child rush into life. ‘As hard as it is going to be’ Wade thought, ‘I have to make her grow up before I can bless their marriage.’


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