JAKE

Late summer in the Colorado foothills isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but it’s my favorite time of the year. Months of hot sun sucks the moisture from the ground and the air. The green of spring is long gone and in the hills the rivers run slow and shallow. You can feel the first hints of fall in the cool breeze coming off the mountain. The sun sinks earlier and the twilights linger.

First time I drove into Denver, I thought it looked like Kabul. Or what Kabul would have looked like if people hadn’t torn down and burned every tree around for miles for fuel and shelter. The way the mountains curved around the city, the blue sky, and desert air that sucked the moisture right from your skin. A lot fewer IEDs and explosive Toyota Corollas, though.

When I pull through the gate to the Bar H ranch, it’s the softest part of the day, Pink clouds hang over the mountains to the West, and in the East, the blue sky shifts to black. My headlights picked their way carefully through the dusk. Last time I was up here was for the interview, and that was in broad daylight.

Two border collies run alongside the truck, barking an alarm and greeting at the same time. A tall, dark-haired man sitting on the top rail of the post and rail fence lining the driveway watches me pull up. A kid, arm in an elaborate cast that connects to his hip, sits next to him. A fat-tired pony cart, miniature horse standing patiently between the bars, holds another kid. They’re a carbon copy of the first but with a leg in a cast from hip to hoof. They look like brother and sister, maybe twins, but they’re at the age where it’s hard to tell.

Not sure where to park, I pull my beat-up F150 to stop in front what I assume is my new boss. I lean across the bench seat and roll down the passenger’s side window. “Hey, I’m Jake Kearny. I’m looking for Ethan Jennings.”

“You the new guy?” the kid in the cart asks. Definitely a girl. She looks about twelve, her wild red hair in a rough ponytail, flannel shirt tied around her waist and jeans cut off at the one knee to make room for the cast. A pair of crutches is wedged against her side.  

“Yeah. New intern. I’m here to help with the bees.”

She scowls. “Those are mine and Poll’s bees.”

The man next to her gives her a level look. “You and tweedle-dumber up to building a fence right now?”

“No,” she huffs.

“You want a bear to destroy the hives?”

She exhales a soul-deep sigh. “No.”

“Okay then.” He eases himself off the top rail, stretching his back when he hits the ground. As he walks to the truck, I notice a slight limp. “I’m Ethan.”

“Nice to meet you. Where should I park my truck?”

He points towards a patch of bare ground in front of free-standing garage that looks big enough for a fleet of cars. “There’s good.”

After I park, I assure the dogs I am no threat and tell them all how good they were. They are good dogs, I’m sure, but I’m really just buying time to check out the new boss. Tall, broad-shouldered, dark haired, with a short beard showing some salt and pepper, he is the best looking guy I’ve seen in awhile. I like the fit of his jeans and the worn down leather of his boots.

When he shakes my hand, I have to look up to make eye contact. I like that. I like the gray in his beard and the laugh lines around his eyes. Oh, boy. I lick my dry lips, a habit my mother has been trying to break me of my whole life, and I’m sure I see his eyes flick down to my mouth. After eighteen months on a NATO military base that was eighty-five percent male, I know that look in any language. Whether he knows it or not, he’s interested. I’m not sure what if anything to do about it. I’m not sure about a lot of things right now.

He gives me smile as he pulls his hand away.

The girl shakes my hand over the pony’s head. “I’m Cassie. Cassie Harrington,” she adds. Ranch owner’s daughter. Good to know. “That’s my brother, Pollux. But you can call him Poll. Everyone does.”

“And who’s this fine looking guy?” I scratch the mini horse behind his ears.

“Teeny. He’s twelve. Like me and Poll.”

“Nice.”

Cassie sizes me up from her perch. I can feel Ethan doing the same thing. I wonder what they see in me. How much of my life shows in my face. “So you’re here for the bees?” she asks.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, they’re mine and Poll’s. We’re supposed to take care of them. But, well,” she shrugs and taps on her cast. “So we’re just going to supervise, okay?”

“That will be great. I look forward to getting started.”

A woman’s voice calls the twins in from across the yard. Cassie settles into the seat of the small cart. “Gotta go. Homework.” With a clack of the reins the little horse takes off faster than I’d expected. Poll runs to a tiny four-wheeled vehicle, revs the motor, and guns it. Cassie pushes Teeny into a faster canter and they race off across the pasture.

Ethan shakes his head as he watches the ATV skid around a sandy corner.

“I was going to ask what happened,” I say. “But I think I can figure out the basics.”

“If one of the Terror Twins jumped off a bridge, the other would find a higher bridge to jump off of. I think this time there was a skateboard, a ramp, and a chicken coop involved. I didn’t ask.”

“Cassie reminds me of my little sister. She’s a rafting guide now.”

“Cassie’s a pistol,” Ethan agrees. “Boss man says he gave you the run down. Let’s get you settled. Are you staying up here?” He walks over the truck, his limp more pronounced. I like the view.

“No. I have a place in closer to town.” I’m beginning to regret that.

“As long as you can get here without a problem, that’s fine. Lot of the guys do. There’s not much nightlife up here, I know.”

“Not really my thing.” My only nightlife involves studying and worrying about the future. “I’m staying in town because I’ll still have to get into school every now and then. Touch base with my adviser.”

“Oh, okay. Well if you need to stay up, there’s places in the bunkhouse.”

“Great.” We walk in silence across the long yard. It’s almost full dark now. A horse whinnies in the distance and there’s the scent of cow barn on the wind. “I can’t wait to ride up at see the rest of this place. It’s gorgeous.” I really wanted a closer look at the grazing situation. The main reasons I’d been hired me was to help improve the AUMs on the land, see if they can’t support more stock. High country range management is my specialty, for better or worse. Helping the kids with the beehives was supposed to be secondary, though I guess the twins’ injuries had bumped that up in priority. They did need a fence as soon as possible. The bears are fattening up for winter and they love honey.

I’m so busy trying to remember what Harrison had said about the grazing capacity of their pasture, I don’t notice Ethan stopping. He puts a hand out to keep me from knocking him over. “Look,” he says. “Don’t let the twins’ behavior fool you. This is a working ranch and it can be dangerous. I don’t put up with reckless behavior, anything that endangers my workers or the stock. Just stick to the bees and we’ll be good. Okay?”

“Um, okay.” I don’t know what happened to bring that on, but I guess that answers the does-he doesn’t-he like me question. Too bad, it would have been something to look forward to.

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