Just who is...
THE LAST TRUE COWBOY

by Kathleen Eagle

Avon Paperback

Women and horses are K.C. Houston's favorite kind of folks, but when he shows up at the High Horse Ranch to train mustangs and meets Sally Weslin and her two beautiful granddaughters, he figures it's going to be a long, hot Wyoming summer.

Publishers Weekly says:  "Readers who liked The Horse Whisperer will love this contemporary boots-and-saddle romance."

Rendezvous calls it "A wonderfully powerful and moving story that is impossible to put down. . .A cut above the rest."

Romantic Times:  "Let magical storyteller Kathleen Eagle immerse you in the dreams and loves of some very special characters. THE LAST TRUE COWBOY showcases Ms. Eagle's lyrical, captivating style of writing."

Booklist:  "Readers will enjoy Eagle's romantic tale about long-postponed passion and long-kept family secrets."


NOTE:  No part of this material may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior permission of the copyright owner.

 

CHAPTER ONE

       From the beginning, it was the woman.

       The rest of the High Horse setup wasn't anything K.C. Houston hadn't seen along the monochromatic trail of ranches he'd worked for from Montana to Texas. "Prettiest ranch in Wyoming," the owner had told him. Maybe it was, but meadows were meadows and mountains were mountains. It was the woman standing next to the rail fence that drew his fancy directly. Women often did, but this one hit him hard, right from the beginning.

       He turned the radio off and rolled the window down as he slowed his pickup. A chilly spring breeze slid into his shirt. He'd been headed for the house, but the woman was closer and far more compelling. He thought about calling out to her, asking for directions he didn't need just to get her to turn his way, but he didn't. He just watched. She stood motionless, while the wind made a fluttering flag of her burnished brown hair and a loosely pegged tent of her white shirt. Her intensity captured him completely.

       His pickup purred as he let it crawl over the gravel road. He felt like a crude tourist walking in on a pilgrim saying her prayers. Let me distract you, he thought. Turn this way and let me pull you down to earth. But she simply stared, as if something on one of the snow-capped mountain peaks were calling to her, claiming every receptor in her body. Whatever it was, she was lonesome for it. She was yearning for it, leaning toward it like a flower in a window. Whatever it was, there was some rash and equally lonesome part of him that envied it.

       He dismissed the thought of speaking to her. Had she turned, had she even moved he would have taken it as a cue, and he would have stepped up to the plate. But she didn't. She was inaccessible, like a painting he'd seen once and filed in the unfailing scrapbook of his memory. A mystifying feature in an otherwise familiar landscape, she was out of this world, beyond his reach. That fact alone made his palms itch.

       Her image lingered in his mind as he drove on, once again heading for the house. He knew she wasn't his prospective boss's wife. He remembered something about a sister, but he'd funneled the family talk in one ear and out the other. What K.C. knew for sure about the man he had come to Wyoming to work for was that he, too, loved horses. Women, no, at least not the way K.C. loved women. Horses, definitely. It was K.C.'s business to recognize the symptoms. He earned his living off other people's horse fever, and Ross Weslin had the fever about as bad as it could get. But a wife was doubtful. If he had one, she was an unhappy woman.

       In fact, if the woman at the fence was Mrs. Weslin, K.C. knew right then and there that he was bound to get himself fired before the summer was over. He could overlook a lot of things, but not an unhappy woman. Not for a whole damn summer. Women and horses were K.C.'s favorite kind of folks. He had superb instincts about both. Give him five minutes with a sullen woman or a skittish filly and he'd know exactly what she needed. He also had good instincts about fulfilling those needs, and he had turned his instincts into an art form. It wasn't the kind of art a person could hang on the wall, but K.C. liked to think that making a gentle-hearted creature happy, even temporarily, required an artist's touch.

       But he had come to Wyoming for Weslin's horses, not his women. He only got paid for working his fine magic with horses, and his pockets, like his gas tank, were flirting with E. He was beginning to wonder where the Weslins kept their horses. Empty acres of spring green pasture flanked the road, which followed the course of Quicksilver Creek. K.C. spotted a coal-black Angus bull using the trunk of scrawny poplar tree as a scratching post, but he wasn't seeing much activity around the outbuildings and split-rail corrals. And he'd yet to see a horse except on the sign above the gatepost. He was still looking as he drove across the narrow bridge that spanned the swollen creek and headed toward a copse of crabapples and old cottonwoods.

       It was a man's house, a massive structure that stood amid the trees like a bird with its wings outstretched, too heavy to fly. Two single-story annexes, faced with a layer of gray river rock topped with one of tan fieldstone, flanked the main portion of the house, where a second story of pine logs rose above the stone. Red bluffs faced the creek on the east, and the mountains rose to the west. K.C. liked the way the house fit right into its surroundings like craggy leavings from some prehistoric geological upheaval. Someday he'd have himself a house. Maybe not as big, but it would have that natural look.

       A rock path, already tufted with spring grass, led him to the steps of the huge stone-pillared front porch. The front door creaked, and a slim, blond, sleepy-eyed woman poked her head out. Her scowl melted when K.C. pushed his hat back with a forefinger and smiled.

       "Afternoon, ma'am. I'm looking for Ross Weslin."

       "Ross is . . ." She gave him a quick, skeptical once-over. "Why?"

       "He asked me to come to work for him. The name's K.C. Houston." None of this appeared to be ringing any bells with her, but her interest in his message was clearly secondary. She liked his looks. Most women did. "I train horses."

       The bemused look in her eyes didn't change. She stepped onto the slate porch, her shapely legs and small feet bared under the trim black-and-white Sunday dress she'd obviously been napping in. He figured she must have been curled up somewhere when he'd come knocking on the door, and he pictured her smooth, pale legs folded up to her breast, her dress just covering her bottom.

       He raised his brow as he glanced over his shoulder at the gravel driveway. "The sign about four miles up the road says 'High Horse Ranch.' Did I take the wrong fork somewhere?"
       "No, this is the Weslin place. Ross's . . ."

       Something about the way she tipped her head quizzically struck a familiar chord, and K.C. realized that it was her resemblance to Weslin. Younger sister, he figured. He'd spent little time with the man, but Ross Weslin was curiously memorable. Quiet to start with, but once they'd got to talking, K.C. had found him to be sociable enough, agreeable, pretty high-minded in the way he looked at things. Even passionate, although that was a word K.C. would have been happier tagging on this female Weslin.

       She was blinking up at him and putting her question to him cautiously. "When was it he hired you?"

       "Well, you know, he's inquired a couple of times about when I might be available, but I've been pretty busy. We met up at a cuttin' competition last summer. He said he was still interested, and I said I'd try to get to him in the spring. I called about a month back, maybe two. Guess I wasn't too specific about a date."

       "But he told you to come?"

       "Yes, ma'am, he surely did."

       She shook her head. "I can't imagine why."

       Didn't surprise him too much. The way K.C. remembered it, Weslin liked to keep people guessing. He'd offered a deal, then sweetened it a little, then hinted that there might be a few added benefits if a guy liked the setup once he got started and felt like staying on. K.C. generally preferred a simple, straightforward, cash-on-the-barrelhead arrangement, for which he willingly guaranteed results. He'd had one too many "sweet deals" fall through on him. He had a knack for dealing with horses. Dealing in horses was another matter.

       Dealing in horses meant dealing with guys who were out to make a buck, which meant business, which meant there was bound to be a hitch somewhere. K.C. had run into too many hitches lately. He could see them coming, too, but he kept telling himself, This one's different. I can make this one work out.

       Not today, though. Today he needed a job. Forget the women, Houston; you're here to see a man about some horses. And he wasn't looking for any "deal of a lifetime." His usual fee would do him just fine.

       Weslin had been eager to get him there, as though his horses were on some kind of a timetable. Special horses, he'd said. Remarkable horses, a page out of history. K.C. had felt a stirring of real interest in the horses, but at the time he'd been a little uncomfortable with the man's bright-eyed eagerness. His own circumstances were more than uncomfortable just now, though. He needed a job. He was on the fly, and he needed a place to light.

       "Mustangs, he said, and he swore up and down they were worth my time." He flashed a lazy smile. "Which don't come cheap."

       "No, I'm sure it doesn't." The blonde folded her arms and eyed him steadily, winding up for her comeback. "Ross died three days ago. We buried him this morning."

       Died? "The hell."

       "Ross was my brother."

       "I'm real sorry, ma'am. He couldn'ta been more than . . ." Rather than guess, K.C. shook his head. The news put a crimp in his plans, but his own inconvenience didn't compare to the considerable bother of being dead. "Accident?"

       "Carelessness," the pretty woman said with a sigh. "But everybody's careless sometimes, in one way or another."

       "That's a fact."

       She had a sweet smile, but it was too coy. "I'm sorry you wasted a trip. How far have you come?"

       "A ways." The miles were easily shrugged off. "There's always another job. A brother's something else. I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am."

       "Thank you."

       He stepped back, courteously touching his hat brim. "Sorry for the intrusion, too."

       "Maybe . . . I don't know exactly what we're going to do now, but maybe we could find something for you to do, at least for a few weeks."

       "I'm not a hired hand, ma'am. I'm a horse trainer."

       "Oh. I guess we don't need you, then. I have no idea what Ross could have been thinking." She arched a delicate eyebrow, her tone cooling. "But it probably had very little to do with mustangs."

       Whatever she was getting at was family business, not his, but he felt honor-bound to offer what testimonial he could.

       "I didn't know him very well, but he seemed like a good hand. He didn't hog the floor, had an easy laugh, ready to buy a round when his turn came, keen eye for good horse flesh. We'da gotten along just fine." He ended on a nod, started for the porch steps, then stopped, thinking, Well, what the hell. "You mind my askin', you got a sister?"

       She offered that coy smile again. "Why? Do I look like I'm already taken?"

       "No." Which was why he figured she probably was. "Ross mentioned sisters." He gave a perfunctory shrug. "I just wondered about his family is all. He was a nice guy. My condolences to . . . everybody."

       "Thank you. I'll tell my sister."

       He would have told her himself when he drove past the fence if she'd been there. But she was gone.
       She persisted in his thoughts, which was probably why he did the impossible in a place where there weren't many ways to go astray. He took the wrong road. Didn't even notice right away. He was looking at the green countryside and thinking how choice those sawbuck rail fences looked running alongside the gravel road, about how the woman had looked and what she might have been looking for and thinking about.

       Then he noticed the horses in the side-view mirror. The big buckskin in the lead seemed to be chasing him down, like a guy trying to catch up to give him something he'd left behind. He pulled over, kicked the parking break on and hopped out to get a good look.

       They were wild. There was nothing driving them, nothing hindering them. They ran just to run. They'd never been bridled, and no man had dampened their spirits. They had that thing most cherished, most coveted, most feared and most abused by most men. Real freedom. And they were utterly beautiful.

       Their pure, faultless motion stirred him, drew him in, just as he'd been drawn to the intense stillness of the woman by the fence. With the woman, it was weighty and heartfelt, wanting and wishing. With the horses, there was never any waiting, never any need to want. They ran in his blood. The pounding of their hooves penetrated the pounding of his pulse. They were six moving as one, muscles rippling, manes flowing like ribbons, tails waving like flags unfurled, like freedom. They saw him there, of course, and it struck him that they were putting on a show for him, mustangs on parade. As they passed him, they angled away from the fence, toward the green hills.

       Scarcely a quarter of a mile away, the buckskin suddenly called out to his brothers and skidded to a halt. K.C. couldn't see what it was—a rattler, maybe a badger or just the unexpected flash of an aluminum can. Whatever it was, they were suddenly talking up a storm, kicking up a cloud of dust. Beginning with the buckskin, they reversed their direction and galloped straight for the fence. One by one they sailed over the rails and darted across the gravel road, all but the last two. A big sorrel and a small black-and-white paint refused the jump. Instead they followed the fence line again, retracing their steps, and for an instant K.C. was flanked by wild horses, four across the road, two inside the fence, whinnying on both sides.

       He was mesmerized. For a time he simply watched, amazed that they permitted him this proximity. Then he came to his senses, turned his pickup around and followed them, allowing them to set the pace. He wanted to see what they would do, wanted to warn off any oncoming vehicle, wanted to . . . just wanted to stay with them a little while. They were wild, but they hung together, looked out for each other. And they had come to him.

       They led him back to the T, where he'd turned south. There the two inside the fence called to the other four. The buckskin led the way, back across the road in front of the pickup. Now they followed the fence line—two on one side, four on the other—heading west, toward the ranch and the mountains beyond.

       Damn, if Weslin's wild horses hadn't turned K.C. around. Had he been a superstitious man, he might have thought they were trying to tell him something.

       Hell of a long way to drive for nothing, cowboy. Maybe that was the message. He laughed out loud. Didn't take too much horse sense to figure that one out.

       But when he reached the blacktop, he turned north. He decided to spend the night in the little hole-in-the-hills town of Quicksilver rather than head south. He owed himself a night on the town.

© Kathleen Eagle

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