Home > Hope on the Range(6)

Hope on the Range(6)
Author: Cindi Madsen

   “They what?” Wade bellowed into the phone. The stream of profanities that followed made Maddox’s seem mild. He hung up and jammed his phone into the pocket of his Wranglers. “One of the kids thought it’d be funny to release all the horses. We’ve gotta go get them before they make it to the field we just sprayed.”

   Brady’s gut sank. The aphids had been awful this year, so they’d hired a guy to spray first thing this morning. If any of the horses munched on the treated alfalfa, they’d end up severely ill. Maybe worse.

   Jessica was already rushing down the steps, sprinting after Wade as he raced toward the stables.

   Brady pointed a stern finger in Maddox’s face. “You will stand right here next to this corral until I get back, or I’ll call your parole officer and you’ll be in a world more trouble than you already are. You hear me?”

   The kid nodded.

   “I need you to say it. Tell me you understand.”

   “I understand.” Under other circumstances, Brady might lecture Maddox on speaking more respectfully. With time of the essence, he snagged the keys to the four-wheeler and fired up the machine.

   By design, the ranch was out in the middle of nowhere, about ten miles from town. So even if Maddox did attempt to run, at least he wouldn’t get far.

   * * *

   This was hardly Maddox’s first time being shipped off somewhere adults hoped other people could manage him, but it was the first time cowboy hats were involved. Judging from the manure-tinged air, there were actual cows around here, too.

   He’d already spent two hours in the car with one uptight dude, only to be transferred to one with an even bigger stick up his ass.

   Shit, maybe he would rather go to prison.

   The country setting and endless stretches of green made his skin itch. He liked buildings he could duck into. Places to hide and streets and alleys he could zip through on his motorcycle and get away from it all. The cot in the office of the mechanic shop after hours, where he could draw in his sketch pad for a while before crashing out for the night.

   At least he only had another three months before he turned eighteen. Then he could go back to working at his buddy’s auto shop.

   Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement.

   A large, tan horse with a pale mane burst into the corral, its female rider yelling, “Hah!”

   Hooves pounded the ground, flipping up dirt as the pair rounded a red, white, and blue striped barrel. The instant the horse made it around that one, it started for the other barrel. The female rider leaned with the steed, her dark-blond hair streaming from underneath her cream-colored hat. Everything about her screamed country bumpkin, but for some reason, Maddox couldn’t stop watching until she’d made it around that last barrel.

   Is she in this ass-backward program, too?

   She didn’t look like the type who’d been in trouble a day in her life.

   I could change that. It was a stray thought, one he shouldn’t indulge in. Boredom often led to bad decisions, though, and he foresaw a whole lot of boredom in his future.

   Maddox stepped onto the bottom rung of the wooden fence, and the girl seemed to notice him for the first time.

   He gave her a nod, and she glanced around as if he must be nodding at someone else. He choked back a laugh and draped his arms over the top log of the corral. “’Sup?”

   “Um, not much,” she said. “Just training. I don’t recognize you, so I reckon you must be new.”

   Seriously with the thick twang and old-fashioned words? “You reckon right.”

   As she studied him, the corners of her mouth tightened in disdain. While literally sitting atop her high horse, she’d judged him as trouble that quickly. Hardly a new sensation, but for some reason, it grated at him more than usual. Must be a side effect of being trapped in the middle of nowhere.

   “Hey, I have a question for you,” he said.

   The line of her shoulders tensed, her hesitation clear, but she trotted closer. Her face was all wide-eyed innocence, making him think she must work here. Probably led the group in singing “Kumbaya” as everyone stood around the fire and preached about how warm, fuzzy feelings had cured all their problems.

   What a crock of shit.

   She gave him a forced smile. “Shoot.”

   “What exactly does racing around barrels prepare you for? Do you run into a lot of barrels in real life?”

   The plastic smile turned brittle. “I run into things—and people—I like to avoid in real life way too often, that’s for sure. On a horse or on foot, it’s always good to know how to get around them quickly.”

   Touché. He’d underestimated her. Despite her sweet, good-girl exterior, a little sass lay under the surface. Messing with this girl is gonna be fun.

   Since she and her horse remained in place, the sound of hoofbeats threw him off for a moment.

   “Uh-oh,” she said, looking beyond him, and Maddox jumped off the fence in time to see a horse rush between two pickup trucks.

   Then it darted in his direction.

   His heart thundered in his chest, his feet cemented themselves in place, and wouldn’t it be just his luck to be trampled by a horse his first day in the country?

   The dark-brown horse stopped short and eyed Maddox warily. It didn’t have on a saddle, and for reasons he couldn’t exactly explain, he stepped toward it instead of away.

   The horse reared, and Maddox held up his hands. “Hey, it’s okay.” The panicked, cornered animal unlocked something deep inside Maddox. He’d seen that type of fear before. Hell, he’d felt it before, too. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

   “Hold him there. I’ll come over and rope him and then guide him to the stables.” This from a cowboy on horseback—the one who’d gotten after him for swearing but then did plenty of his own. Adults were always so hypocritical. Do what I say, not what I do.

   Maddox glanced at the horse again. About two-thirds of its face was white, making its right, pale-blue eye stand out. He hadn’t even known a horse could have blue eyes. The creature stomped the ground, its long nose swinging one way and the other, clearly wanting to run but afraid and unsure of which direction to go.

   “Don’t worry, big guy. I know what it’s like to feel trapped. If you can get away from this place, I say go for it. I won’t stand in your way.” Maddox pivoted, flattening himself against the corral, and the horse took the opening, galloping past him in a brown-and-white blur.

   The cowboy darted after him on horseback, and Maddox silently cheered for the beautiful creature to get away. While he might prefer the city, there were miles and miles of prairie land here that led to the Rocky Mountains. Enough space to get lost in for sure.

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