Rancher's GirlJeanne Harrell
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AN EXCERPT FROM RANCHER'S CHRISTMAS
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To Jane Austen for all her advice and wisdom.
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The sky was as dark and blustery as Lily’s mind. She knew there had to be more to life than this. A strange place was calling her, just as the wind picked up dust to blow in her eyes. Wiping them with a tissue brought tears as well as dirt. Her old car climbed laboriously up and down the noisy streets, looking for the sign that would show her the way out. So many people were walking along the sidewalks -- bustling, talking and laughing. The Chinese bakery with its unique smells beckoned to her one more time.
Mist from the harbor crept over her. She shivered and buttoned her jacket. Inhaling that fresh ocean smell, she would miss the port with all its diversions and familiarity. There was no place in the world like this one, but her needs were greater than the City could accommodate. A little peace was needed and it wouldn’t be found here. Not now… It was time to try something new. She would need a different reason to come back here.
Would a change of scene do it? Repair that hole in her heart and rearrange her senses? She was leaving a place she loved for the unknown. At that moment, Lily felt like she had kicked herself out of Paradise.
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The hot Nevada air was as dry as a bone. From her window, the low hills, in the not so far away distance, fronted the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountain range. A hawk glided within view, tracking a motionless hare hiding in the sagebrush. Coyotes made their presence known only by sound. Old and getting older described the building where Lily found herself. There was dry rot around the door, the plumbing was questionable, paint was peeling off the walls and she was thrilled to be here.
At least her room was a good size. The room at her last job felt like a broom closet. Room space was always tight and last person hired got the crappy room. Apparently, that was a universal law in school management. It was her first year at Naples Elementary School and she had just landed a job here. Naples was a small community in an historic western area south of Carson City, Nevada. The town was advertised to be the oldest community in Nevada with the oldest bar, the oldest this and the oldest that. The downtown area was ringed with spacious ranches and huge homes leading up the jagged road to Lake Tahoe. You just couldn’t beat it for all out landscape beauty. Hers had been quite a rapid move from San Francisco but when she had decided to act, she did. Coming to Naples had been her dad’s idea. He had lived there for a while as a child and had wonderful memories of the area. She was hoping there were still a few people in town who might remember her family.
Lily smiled again at the four students facing her. She had a limited number because of their learning difficulties. Arturo, Jesse, Sara and Cole were all five years old and as cute as cute could be. They sat watching her and couldn’t be more cooperative. Lily knew from classroom experience that all her students cooperating at the same time was a rare event, so she decided to bring out the poetry while she could. After reading a book about horses to her students, one of them, Jesse, became quite animated.
“Do you know that my daddy has bunches of horses on our ranch? They are black and brown and white and copper and….” Jesse brightened as he continued describing their horses. “My daddy lets me ride all the time. We go down by the stream and fish sometimes.”
Lily thought Jesse was adorable. He had on a bright red Western shirt and jeans with a belt buckle that had a “J” on it. His clear blue eyes looked right through her with the intensity of his feelings. A mop of blonde hair that stuck out in lots of places would occasionally fall in his face and he would automatically push it back. It was a never-ending struggle: Jesse and that hair.
“Yeah, Jesse has all these horses and we go and ride sometimes,” said Arturo. He did his work slowly but steadily, which was beginning to endear him to Lily.
“Jesse’s dad takes us all up to his ranch sometimes. I ride the black horse named Scout when I’m up there. My mommy thinks Jesse’s dad is just the greatest. She said he’s cute too!” added Sara with Cole nodding his head. They were twins with attention deficit problems making it difficult for Lily to keep them focused on the task at hand.
It was obvious they were all about to burst with more comments about Jesse’s ranch and horse stories, so she decided to get going with her lesson plan before it fell apart.
“Jesse, tell me one thing you remember about our story today,” asked Lily.
Jesse thought about that for a minute before answering.
“Well, the wild horse wanted to be free and so he knocked down the gate.”
“Very good! Arturo, what is one thing you remember?”
“Hmm…um. I think the little girl got mad at him or something.”
“Okay, that’s pretty close. Let’s take a look at that page to see what she did.” Lily went on with her lesson to elicit more responses from the children. The twins would blurt answers out of turn, while Arturo would raise his hand.
Next Lily took out one of her poems. She was a poet at heart who loved writing down abstract notions that came into her head. This poem was about a horse that she had seen riding through a field by her house at dusk. The horse had taken her breath away with his speed and sense of purpose. Where in the world was he going? She read the lines telling of the orange and red evening sky, and the sounds the horse made as he g
alloped as fast he could. The children listened spellbound with an occasional “oo” and “ah” spilling out.
“That’s really cool, Miss Cable,” said Cole. “Could we do that too?”
“That is exactly what I want you to do, Cole. Everyone take a piece of paper from your desks and I will help you write a special poem.”
For the next thirty minutes, Lily helped the children write a poem about a horse. Jesse knitted his brow, licked the tip of his pencil and wrote what he was thinking, obviously deep in thought. Arturo broke his pencil and took his time looking for the separate parts that fell under his desk. Sara gazed absent-mindedly out the window. Cole was more industrious and kept writing while Lily instructed, although he had to tell her what he was doing every other minute.
In time, they all had a few lines written. After reading their poems aloud, Lily asked them to draw some kind of picture on their papers below their poems that took them the rest of the school time. The bell rang before they had finished putting away all papers, crayons, markers and pencils.
“We’ll finish this Monday, everyone. Have a nice weekend!” Lily laughed as the noisy children all bumped into each other trying to put things away and get out the door as fast as they could.
With a big smile, Jesse ran up to her desk.
“Would you like to ride my horse sometime, Miss Cable?” He had fallen into Arturo picking up his Iron Man backpack and was nursing a bruised knee. The mop of hair fell in his face again. Could he be any cuter? Lily looked longingly at his little heart-shaped face. She remembered something and then pushed the thought away.
“I would like that very much, Jesse. How nice of you to ask me. But maybe you should ask your dad first. Don’t you think you should do that?”
“Ask me what?” said a deep voice from the classroom door.
That couldn’t have been one of her students. Lily looked up from Jesse to his dad. She blinked. Wow! Lily stared without realizing it. Jesse’s dad was probably over six feet tall with sandy-colored hair about the color of Jesse’s. It fell in his face in a very attractive way and he brushed it back out of habit. Blue eyes? She felt she was drowning in those gorgeous deep blue eyes. Could he be any more attractive? He wore a black Western shirt and jeans while holding on to his black cowboy hat. His cowboy boots told a story of years and work. Lily’s mind was in a muddle all of a sudden, as she tried to think of something, anything, to say. She swallowed and stood up.
He crossed the room in three strides and put out his hand to shake hers. At their first touch, some kind of spark went through her.
“How do you do, Miss Cable? I’m Jesse’s father, Sandy Johnson. Nice to meet you. I hope you’re not keeping Jesse after school.” He smiled and rubbed his hand on his jeans.
“Please call me Lily and we were just discussing horses and your ranch.”
Lily managed to get out from under the scrutiny of his blue-eyed stare. And what was wrong with her hand? It felt like she had stuck her finger in a light socket. Her mouth went dry just looking at him. She squared her shoulders, licked her lips and gave him a professional ‘teacher meeting the parent’ look. At least, she hoped that was what she was doing.
Sandy looked her over too. What was he thinking? The look on his face reminded her of a contented cat licking his paws after a nice saucer of milk.
She felt her cheeks warming.
“What was he saying about the ranch?”
“Daddy, I want Miss Cable to come ride horses on Saturday. Could she do that, huh? What do you think, Daddy? Please?” Jesse took his dad’s hand and grinned up at him.
“I think that can be arranged if Miss Cable is up for it,” Sandy smiled. Lily quit blushing and decided this flirting would come to an end. He was, after all, the parent of one of her students, albeit a very attractive one.
“Thanks very much, but I have a mountain of paperwork to do this weekend. Maybe another weekend.”
“Miss Cable, don’t you want to see my horse?” pouted Jesse. He looked so crushed that Lily started to backtrack. His lower lip jutted out and he looked like he might cry. Jesse was a special student and she didn’t want to crush his enthusiasm. Yet, this father was a bit too much to take.
She had heard stories in the teachers’ lounge about him. How he was a widower and considered the catch of the county. Lily was new in town, probably out of her league and off men anyway. The last thing she wanted right now was some sort of romantic entanglement. One this century was enough. Why tempt fate?
She smiled at Jesse but reluctantly shook her head. She nervously pushed a few strands of hair from her face and Sandy smiled again. He exhaled a slow breath and looked down at his son.
“Miss Cable is busy this weekend, Jesse. Maybe we can try again some other time. What do you think about that?”
She thought Sandy looked as eager for her to turn down the request as she was. Maybe he wasn’t interested either. Just as well.
“Thanks, Mr. Johnson.” She cupped Jesse’s face. “Jesse, can we do it another time?”
“Oh, okay, but Daddy’s horse is about to have a baby. It will be excitin’!”
Jesse’s innocent expression just about did Lily in. She felt defeated by a five year old and the sweet, smiling dad. They turned and walked out of the classroom together, Sandy holding his son’s hand. What a nice father. Why isn’t he remarried? There must be a hundred women in the town and another hundred in the surrounding areas who would snap him up in a heartbeat. Just as well. Not interested.
Sandy turned to look back at her. Beautiful woman. Shoulder-length black hair that fell around her face in soft waves. She wore a straight black skirt and ruffled blouse that hugged her figure and gave him ideas. Why in the world isn’t she married? No ring, he checked. Never mind. She probably has half the guys in the state pursuing her and he wouldn’t be one of them. Not interested.
The Johnson Ranch was five miles out of town on a sprawling one thousand acres. The flat land rolled on and on with occasional sagebrush bushes and pinion pine dotting the landscape. Cattle roamed slowly and quietly while coyotes trilled in the distance. The hills rose up to meet the sky with one stroke of God’s paintbrush. One thousand acres was not really enough to do all the grazing Sandy had wanted to do for the past few years and he was discussing it with his ranch foreman, Jason Bates.
“Look, Jason, didn’t Weatherby say he would sell me those five hundred acres? What’s the hold-up?” Sandy’s voice rose. “This transaction was supposed to have gone through months ago.”
“His son has put a stop to everything and old man Weatherby is in no condition to do anything. After that cow kicked him in the head, he really is in a fog. Finances are beyond him, so Kyle took over.”
Sandy wanted those five hundred acres. The Johnson Ranch was well known and had been in existence since the 1800s. His ancestors had come out West on a wagon train, stopped right here and hadn’t moved since. Sandy was a fifth generation Nevadan. The cattle bred at the Johnson Ranch were unique, expensive and sold all over the world.
Sandy and Jason sat astride their huge Palomino horses, as comfortably as sitting in rocking chairs on a front porch. A ringtone jingled from Sandy’s cell phone. His horse snorted and flicked his tail at some offending flies. Jason took out his logbook to make the day’s entries.
“Johnson.” Sandy listened for several minutes. Jason looked up questioningly.
“That’s real nice of you, Amy, but I don’t think I can make the dance… No, I can dance, but I’m doing the cowboy poetry gathering first and then I think I’ll just want to take Jesse home. He’ll be pooped after the day’s excitement.” He listened a few more minutes and then rolled his eyes at Jason.
“Yeah, sure. No, I don’t think so. I just can’t, Amy. Maybe some other time.” Sandy ended the call and shook his head. “That gal won’t take no for an answer. She calls me every other day with some invitation or another. A person would think she’d give up after a while.” Sandy
’s brow knit tightly and he shifted the reins. “Damn…”
Jason got down off his horse to fix the halter. “At least you’ve got a woman who likes you. I just got turned down flat.” He straightened out the saddle blanket, put one foot in the stirrup and got back on his horse.
“Who turned you down? I thought every woman in town was after you,” teased Sandy. “Aren’t you one of those charming cowboys that all the women find irresistible?”
“Some teacher at the elementary school. New gal from California named Lily Cable. Know her?”
Sandy’s pale eyes darkened.
“Sure, she’s Jesse’s teacher. He adores her. What did she say?” Sandy leaned in for his answer a little more eagerly than he’d intended.
“I met her at the sweet shop downtown where she works part-time. I guess she makes pretty good chocolate fudge or something. Anyway, I bought some fudge, we were talking and then I asked her out.” Jason paused and took out his cell phone. He started to dial in a number.
“And, nothing,” he grimaced. “She just said she couldn’t or maybe she wouldn’t and that was that. Pretty much left me standing there with chocolate on my face. Half the gals in town were standing around pretending not to notice. Not fun.” Jason spit on the ground and wiped his hands on his jeans.
“That doesn’t happen much to you, does it?”
“She’s from California. ‘Nuff said. They’re just a bunch of fruits and nuts, like everyone says.”
Sandy laughed. “You’re just pissed off she turned you down. No need to criticize her and the whole state of California too.”
“Well, okay, sure… but how come a woman that pretty isn’t hooked up with some guy?” Jason spit again and leaned forward in his saddle.