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One night rodeo, p.31
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       One Night Rodeo, p.31

         Part #4 of Blacktop Cowboys series by Lorelei James
 

  you’ve done out of necessity. And since we’ve come clean with you, Celia, come clean with us.”

  Shit. “About?”

  “How much longer you would’ve been able to stay on the road,” Hank said.

  “Not all season,” she confessed. “That’s why Kyle and I arranged to meet in Vegas during the expo. We talked about traveling together this season.”

  “As husband and wife?” Abe asked sharply.

  Celia looked Abe in the eye and lied. “Yes. Kyle and I had a change in our relationship a while back. We kept it under wraps for our own reasons. Then everything changed, practically overnight. So if we weren’t here running this ranch together, we’d be on the road together.”

  “Fair enough.” Hank stood.

  “We probably better get. I’m on diaper duty so Janie can try to rest up.”

  She followed him back into the foyer. “So what do you do with Tyler while mama’s sleeping?”

  Abe grinned. “Try to get him to sleep so I can nap too. Between calving season and havin’ a new baby, I’m exhausted.”

  “That’s what Josh says. Kyle’s checking Josh’s herd so he can get a few hours of shut-eye. His wife has been sick, so he’s been on diaper duty too.”

  “Mighty neighborly of Kyle to help out.”

  “Josh’s gone above and beyond for us, so it’s the least we could do.”

  Hank handed her a thick manila envelope. “Here’s everything you’ll need. We already put the money in your account. Next year there will be another deposit for the same amount. Then we’ll reevaluate.”

  Like a quarter of a million dollars over the next year wasn’t enough.

  “Thanks. I’d say something more poignant but I’m stunned. Seriously stunned.”

  “Take care, sis.” Then they were gone.

  Celia went into the office and sat at the desk. She spread the papers out.

  She’d gone from having forty-one dollars and twelve cents in her checking account to having one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. She looked at the balance but it didn’t feel like it was real money.

  And until they were through with calving it wasn’t like she could spend any of it anyway.

  As long as she was by the computer, she transferred the information on the last few births from her notebook to the spreadsheet. She checked her e-mail.

  But her gaze kept flicking to the papers on the desk.

  Hadn’t we promised each other no secrets?

  Yes. But this was different. Hank and Abe weren’t telling their spouses either, so it was more of a business decision. Still, guilt ate at her. She shoved the papers into the envelope and hid them in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Kyle had just finished helping Josh fix a section of corral nearly leveled by an angry cow, when he saw Abe Lawson’s truck coming down the hill from his house.

  He should’ve been happy that Celia’s brother was making an effort to keep in contact with her. But for some reason, Abe’s visit when Kyle wasn’t around pissed him off. He knew it was stupid and petty, but he couldn’t help his resentment.

  His resentment increased when he had to hear from Josh, for the one millionth time, how freakin’ lucky he was to have Celia to show him the ranching ropes. Like he was a total dumb ass. Maybe he hadn’t been born to this lifestyle, but he’d been around it for years. And some of the stuff ranchers considered secret knowledge was just plain common sense. He didn’t appreciate being made to feel like the resident idiot.

  When has your wife ever treated you like the resident idiot?

  Never.

  Wife. Right. That was just another issue weighing on him. He wasn’t responsible for the chapel’s licensing issues, but he was responsible for not telling her about the legal glitch when he’d discovered it. Confessing his reasons—hoping she’d fall in love with him for real—seemed like a lame excuse to keep her around as his ranch hand.

  It’s more like you’re her ranch hand.

  He’d been feeling that way for the better part of a week. Always looking to Celia for direction before performing a task. Always asking her questions before doing anything so he didn’t fuck it up.

  Bottom line? Kyle needed to man up. He needed to be the master of his domain. He needed to figure out some of this shit on his own and not rely on her. ’Cause sure as hell, when she found out they weren’t really husband and wife? She’d be long gone. One thing that hadn’t changed about Celia—when she was upset, she ran.

  As a kid she’d run off into the woods or by the creek.

  As a teenager she’d raced off on her horse.

  Now she just hopped in her truck and left.

  Kyle remembered the night she’d run to him, a week after she’d broken up with Breck. In that moment he’d wanted to be the one man she always ran to. The one man she could count on. And he’d set out to become just that man.

  “Kyle?”

  He looked at Josh. “Sorry. What did you say?”

  “I just asked if Celia had a brand preference for tubes.”

  Kyle frowned. “What do you mean?”

  “Ever had to tube-feed a calf? It happens when the calf is too weak to suck. Shove a tube into the esophagus and force-feed it until it can suck on its own. Some folks like stiffer tubes, some like the softer type.”

  “She hasn’t mentioned a preference and we haven’t needed them so far. Why?”

  “I know Marshall bought the stiffer kind. That’s what I use. I figured if Celia liked the softer ones, I’d swap her. Ronna bought the wrong kind.” Josh shook his head. “That’s why I don’t send her to the ranch supply store.”

  “Everyone makes mistakes.”

  “Bet Celia never buys the wrong damn thing,” Josh grumbled.

  No, but I probably would. Not that Kyle would admit it to Josh or anyone else. “Why don’t you return it to the store?”

  “No refunds or exchanges.”

  “Not even for unopened merchandise?”

  “Nope.”

  “That sucks. Guess I’d shop somewhere else, especially if you’ve been a good customer. I’d also point out to the store manager that you can probably buy the same stuff online, but cheaper. And if they wanted to keep you as a customer, they’d relax their policies.”

  Josh gave him an odd look.

  “What?”

  “For a second, you reminded me of Marshall.”

  Kyle didn’t know how to take that. He shrugged. “I don’t tolerate that kinda bullshit.” He stepped back and squinted at the corral. “Anything else you need a hand with before I take off?”

  “Nah. Thanks for helping today. I appreciate it.”

  “You’ve helped us plenty, so I’m happy to return the favor.”

  Rather than dragging his piss-poor mood inside, he grabbed his gloves and headed for the woodshed. Chopping wood cleared his mind, worked his body, and was one thing he didn’t need to ask direction on.

  Celia honked as she cut through the pasture on the ATV to do a round of cattle checks.

  As soon as he’d chopped a few days’ worth of fuel, he stoked the wood burner. He climbed in the tractor and stacked three straw bales next to the gate where the heifers were penned. Then he scooped and packed more snow along the north side as an additional windbreak. By the time he finished it was full-on dark. He was starved and exhausted, but his night wasn’t close to over.

  Kyle didn’t bother to shower. He’d be back out in the elements covered in manure and birth fluid before too long. He hung up his outerwear and settled in front of the TV with a beer and a box of Triscuits.

  Celia returned a little more than an hour later. She wasn’t her usual chatty self, so Kyle should’ve suspected something was up. The cupboard door slammed. The refrigerator door slammed.

  Yep, something was definitely up with her.

  She stood in front of the TV. “So we’re not having supper tonight?”

  “Why you askin’ me?”


  “Because we’re supposed to share the household stuff. I thought maybe since you were inside first you would’ve started supper.”

  Maybe since she’d been inside since after breakfast she could’ve planned supper. Not that he could say that to her. Kyle held out the box of crackers. “I’ll share my supper with you.”

  She glared at him. “Funny.”

  “Suit yourself.”

  “When was the last time you cooked supper?” she demanded.

  “I don’t remember.” Kyle swigged his beer. “But I imagine you do. And I imagine you intend to remind me too.”

  That comment earned him a half growl. Then she stomped away from the TV.

  Good.

  He heard her rattling pans in the kitchen. Any other day he’d have followed her, trying to coax her into a better mood by acting in the annoyingly charming manner she couldn’t resist. Tonight he let her stew. He didn’t budge when he caught a whiff of eggs and toast. Not even when his stomach growled.

  After she ate, Celia sat in the recliner, but she wasn’t watching TV. She had a couple notebooks open, switching back and forth to write in them.

  “What are you doin’?”

  “Composing love letters,” she muttered. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

  “I don’t know. That’s why I asked.”

  She tapped the pen on the notebook. “I’m recopying my notes while they’re still fresh in my mind. Then I’ll put them in the spreadsheet on the computer.”

  So she’d been on the computer all damn day. He drained the last of his beer. “I saw Abe’s truck drive past Josh’s place.”

  “He and Hank stopped by.”

  “Both of them? What did they want?”

  Celia continued scribbling in her notebook. “Nothin’ really. They had to go to Rawlins on a diaper run and checked to see how we were doin’ during calving.”

  Right. So they didn’t need to talk to him? Just Celia? Because obviously he didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

  “Why?” she asked.

  “No reason. Just thought it was odd you didn’t mention that both your brothers showed up.”

  “So I have to report everything to you now?”

  Kyle’s eyes narrowed on her. That was a little defensive.

  “It wasn’t a big thing,” she insisted. “And they didn’t stay long.”

  “I’m not sorry I missed them. I’m sure they would’ve gotten a huge kick out of asking me specific questions just to see if I knew the proper rancher answer. So, yeah, sorry I missed that fun time.”

  Her mouth dropped open. “What has gotten into you?”

  “Nothin’.” He stood. “Forget it. I’ll deal with the livestock tonight. If you don’t think I’ll fuck it up too badly.”

  “I don’t think that,” she said softly. “You don’t have to do it all yourself. We’re a team.”

  “I want to do it all myself. It’s your chance to get some rest. Take it. ’Cause I guarantee I’ll be dog-tired and worthless for most of tomorrow. But like that’s different from any other day around here.”

  Celia didn’t say a word as he dressed in his outerwear.

  Just as Kyle opened the door, Celia said, “Wait.”

  He paused.

  “I don’t know what Josh, or my brothers, or anyone else has said to you to make you feel this way. I’ve been as supportive as I know how to be. And I’ve never tried to make you feel inadequate, because I know exactly how it feels when it’s been done to me. It’s not my fault you don’t have experience with this, Kyle.”

  When Kyle turned around to apologize for being a dick, she’d already walked away.

  His first five births went like clockwork. Easy delivery. Mama cleaned the calf immediately. The baby wobbled upright and began to suck. So he’d gotten a little cocky. He could do this. He’d even dozed off for half an hour.

  Invigorated by his nap, he slipped into the cold, moonless night. The near stillness of the air at night was a welcome change from the harsh winter winds slapping him in the face earlier in the day. He ducked into the heifer pen and saw one cow off in the corner away from the feed. As he got closer he noticed one side of her belly stuck out farther than the other. He snagged one of the ropes draped over the fence posts, fashioned a loop, and dropped it over her neck, all the while patting her and speaking to her in the soothing, encouraging tone he’d learned from Celia.

  She lumbered along without protest. Didn’t kick up a fuss when he locked her down in the birthing equipment. She was straining to expel the calf, and if her lethargy was an indication, she’d probably been at it for a while.

  Why hadn’t you noticed it?

  Ignoring the gnawing feeling of guilt, he hobbled her back legs. Pinned her tail out of the way. He’d slipped on a glove and checked the position of the calf. It appeared to be right side up.

  So he’d gone to the next step, trying to deliver the calf. He’d attached the chains below the calf’s dewclaws and had pulled the front legs free far enough out of the birth canal to see the head. Twice he’d gotten close; twice the calf had slid back inside.

  Kyle’s body was bathed in sweat. He was out of breath. One person pulling a calf was a helluva lot of work. But every time he stopped to rest, he lost ground. So he didn’t stop.

  His pride had kept him from running up to the house to wake Celia for help. He justified his decision by telling himself he needed to know how to handle this stuff on his own. And the only way to do that was by immersing himself in it.

  And talk about immersed. This was one messy birth.

  Three hours passed without any progress. He was exhausted. His muscles ached. And because he was tired and suffering from muscle and eyestrain, he didn’t notice that the chains had caused damage to the heifer’s birth canal until blood began pouring out of her back end. Kyle was forced to admit this type of birth was out of his level of experience. His hands were so slimy with fluid, blood, and shit that his cell phone slipped out of his hand three times before he got a decent enough grasp to call Fletch.

  Luckily Fletch was close by. He didn’t offer advice besides to hang tight. He also didn’t ask if Celia was around helping. He probably assumed she’d be by Kyle’s side, being as she was the one with experience, not him.

  That was when Kyle understood the gravity of his mistake.

  Half an hour later the barn door slammed open and Kyle glanced over to see Fletch stomping his feet. He carried a medical bag, official in his role as August Fletcher, DVM. But Kyle’s anxiety was high, knowing his friend would see firsthand how he’d fucked up.

  Kyle noticed the dark crescents beneath Fletch’s eyes and saw that several days’ growth of whiskers dotted his windburned face.

  Fletch pulled off the wool hat and shoved it in his pocket, shaking loose his long hair. “Show me whatcha got.”

  “Back here.”

  He stopped at the back end of the cow and used a penlight flashlight. Then he pulled on a rubber glove and inserted his arm; his harsh breathing echoed as he maneuvered his arm around inside the too-still heifer. After ditching the bloody glove, he stepped around to peer at the cow’s face. “Son of a bitch.”

  “What?”

  “There’s no saving her. She’ll be dead within the hour.”

  “What about the calf?”

  “It’s been dead a while. Give me the rundown on what happened.”

  Kyle talked quickly, but tried to relay every minute detail until Fletch held up his hand.

  He glanced around the barn. “Where’s Celia?”

  “Sleeping. She’s had a long day so I’ve been dealing with the night issues.”

  “So she didn’t assist with this at all?”

  Kyle’s cheeks burned with shame and he shook his head.

 
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