“Steve, are you serious?” Cassie exclaimed in shock at Steve’s news.
“Yeah! I’ve been raised on a farm. I’ve been around horses all my life and it’s always been a dream of mine to go on a cattle drive.”
“Well you are a space cowboy, why not?” she shrugged with a chuckle.
“You coming with me?”
“This is your dream, Blue Eyes. Not mine. I’ll only be in the way.”
“Nonsense! I’d like your company.”
“Very nice of you to offer but no. I sense you want to be alone on this journey. Get reacquainted with nature. Besides I think Oscar has an assignment for me.”
“Okay, but you’re missing out on an incredible experience.”
“How would you know if you never done this before? Watching cowboy roughing it on television is a little different than actually walking in their boots.”
“You don’t think I can?”
“I know you can, 34. You can do anything you set your mind to. But when you come back be sure to shower first,” she teased with a crinkled nose.
“Very funny. I’ll bring you something from the ranch.”
“No horse manure.”
“How about a horse?”
“You would,” she sighed resignedly. “Now get out of here. You have some packing to do. I’ll see when you get back.”
“Sure you don’t want to change your mind about coming with me?”
“I’m sure. I’ll be thinking of you, though. And Steve…be careful. Don’t play dare devil. I hear those trails can be treacherous for a first-time cowpoke. Don’t get your neck broken or something. I want you back in one piece.”
“I’ll be careful, Mother,” he mocked before leaning forward to give her a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you next week.”
“Take care!” she walked him to the door and waved goodbye as he made his way to his car.
At the TiPi Ranch, Steve met with the owner and head of the cattle drive, Sam Crawford. He had registered under the name of Steve Meadows to pass incognito and avoid getting the preferential treatment on account of his celebrity status. He wished to be one of the guys and looked forward to beginning his journey.
“That guy looks familiar to me,” Cal said to his friend Henry. “What do you think?”
“I think your imagination is running wild,” Henry scoffed. “He’s a regular Joe Schmo who joined this drive to get a little R & R, that’s all.”
“You sure?” queried the suspicious man.
“Why would you think otherwise?”
“My ulcer is acting up,” Cal said rubbing his stomach, “that’s why.”
The friend patted him on the back and picked up his saddle draped over the fence. “Come on, we’ve got to get our gears ready. We’re moving along soon.”
“Yeah, right behind you,” the man drawled without unfastening his eyes from Steve who was finishing his lunch in the shade of a tree with his riding partner.
“I could take to this kind of life,” Steve mused, drawing a cleansing whiff as he basked in the invigorating environment.
“You look like you were born to ride,” he observed with a hint of tease. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
“I was born on a farm so yes, I know how to ride. However I’ve never been on a cattle drive before. Never had the time.”
“I’ve finally made time.”
“Good for you!”
“How about you? Come on these drives often?”
“Once a year. It’s a great way to escape the daily routine and the hustle and bustle of urban life. It can drag you down. I’m an accountant for a global business firm. The pressure is on and it can burn you to a cinch. Before I collapse from exhaustion I break free and run away to the country. I’ve been signing up for those cattle drives every year for the past decade.”
“I might just follow your lead from now on. It does help recharge the batteries.”
The drive resumed shortly after their lunch break. Steve had a chance to show his style when he was asked to bring a mislaid calf back to the herd.
From a distance Cal observed Steve with an evil eye. He cudgelled his brain trying to recall his face. Frustration grew as one attempt failed after the other.
As dusk began to display its array of pink-tinged clouds over the horizon, the team rode to a small ranch whose owner always indulged the bone-weary cowpokes to a complimentary dinner followed by a night’s rest in a comfy soft bed.
“I’m sorry if I don’t stay as your host tonight but I need to be in town with the sheriff to discuss our next move to nail the horse rustlers that have hit half of the ranches in the valley,” the ranch owner explained to Steve and Sam. “Last night they visited my neighbour’s spread and stole twelve prime breed mares.”
“Any clue on the identity of those thieves?” Sam asked.
“None whatsoever. They skilfully cover their tracks.”
“Is it safe to leave the herd unattended?” Steve wondered.
“They’re horse rustlers, they’re not interested in cattle, son. Besides I’ll have some of my men keep their eyes peeled tonight, just in case.” Steve nodded in acknowledgment, though a qualm lingered in the back of his mind. “I‘ve instructed my house servants to cater to your every need tonight. So if you require anything, do not hesitate to ask.”
“Thanks Jay. Your generosity will not go unrewarded.”
“The only reward I need is knowing that you and your group are enjoying yourselves.” He clapped both Sam and Steve in the back and led them inside the modest mansion.
In the midnight hours, Steve awoke with a grumbling stomach. He got out of bed and crept downstairs to the kitchen to feast on some leftovers. As he prepared a platter of cold cuts and cold fried chicken to bring upstairs to his room he heard muffled voices wafting from outside. He edged up closer to the door where he adjusted his infrared lens to make out the identity of the two shadows.
“I think we should just forget it, Sam. Too risky,” Cal said. “I suspect you picked up a Federal agent in your bunch of phonies.”
“Steve, what’s his name?”
“Yeah. Only Meadows is a fake name. I remember him being a character witness for the government in a Federal case. I just can’t recall his real name. I tell you Sam, he’s trouble. We’d better lay low on this drive. There’ll be other occasions.”
“I want that prized mare,” the man sputtered angrily with an unyielding jaw. “I’ve offered to purchase the horse from Jay; offered him triple what the animal is worth. Still that creep wouldn’t sell.”
“You know damn well if you try to sell the mare for a profit they’ll nail for sure. A powerful rancher like Johnson has friends everywhere. He’ll hang you for it. I suspect Johnson might have hired that guy to spy on whoever is hitting the ranches around here. And we both know who that is.”
“Just follow the plan we sketched out and I’ll handle the rest,” Sam grounded between teeth set in anger. “I’m going back inside.” He made a quick sweep of the area to spot any prying eyes before making his way to the back door.
Steve snatched his plate off the counter and made a bionic dash up the stairs to this room. He picked up the phone and dialled the operator to be directed to the sheriff’s office.
“Mister Meadows?” Jay asked, puzzled. “Anything wrong?”
“On the contrary. I believe I’ve found your horse rustlers, at least two of them.”
Jay was flabbergasted at the news that Steve had identified his friend Sam Crawford as the leader of the gang. “It can’t be Sam. I know him well, son. He’s been making these trips every year, stopping by my ranch to bed down and heading back the next day. Never had any trouble while he was around.”
“Then he has a twin ‘cause I’m telling you I saw him talking to one of the men in our group. Their conversation revolved around a prized mare he’s been hankering after.”
“You must be referring to Blue Mist. Yes indeed, she’s worth a pretty penny.”
“Where have you put her?”
“In the first barn. Last stall. She’s a sorrel. I have two men keeping an eye on her at all time.”
“Maybe there should be a third pair of eyes watching from a concealed place, just in case.”
“I’m still having trouble swallowing your story son, but after what happened I won’t take any chances. You watch the barn while me and the sheriff hightail it to the ranch.”
“Will do, sir.”
Thanks to Steve’s intervention Sam Crawford’s plan backfired. Blood was spilled in a shootout but luckily no one was killed. The town doctor was called to treat the three wounded men, including Steve who suffered a bullet wound to the left arm during a wrestling match with Cal.
Sam’s herd was left grazing on Jay’s land while they worked at solving the issue of the ownership of the TiPi Ranch.
As he saddled his mount to return home, Steve was approached by the foreman who led him in the barn where Jay was currycombing his prized mare.
“Steve, my boy! Come over here,” Jay beckoned with a wave of the hand. “I realize I never properly thanked you for helping us catch the rustlers. Many of the ranchers in the area are indebted to you.”
“I happened to be at the right time and the right place,” Steve minimized, though happy to have been recognized for his involvement.
“You know Blue Mist here, don’t you?” he said proudly with a pat on the horse’s neck.
“Sure do. You can understand why these rustlers were after her. She’s a mighty beautiful animal,” he rhapsodized while running his hand over the slender curves.
“What?” Steve exclaimed in shock.
“She’s yours, son. It’s the least I can do for what you’ve done for every rancher in this community.”
“I…I c…I can’t accept. She’s your prized mare.”
“They’ll be others. Please, take her. I was told you had a farm in California?”
“My folks’. I do visit occasionally.”
“I know I can entrust her in your care.” Jay backed the horse from the stall and handed the reins over to Steve. “Take her for a ride to see how you two get along.”
Steve flashed a wide beam of ecstasy before taking the reins and leading the horse outside. Before mounting he paused to admire the shiny coat and strong features, delighting in the fact that he was to take this beauty home.
Steve arranged for the horse to be carried to Ojai where he settled her in the largest stall in the barn. After bedding her down for the night, he went to the house to call Cassie in Washington.
“35, I’m back in Ojai.”
“How was your journey, cowboy?” she teased.
“Rather eventful. I’ll tell you all about it when you get here.”
“Is that an invitation?” she hinted that he had omitted to properly formulate his invite.
“Sorry. Yes it is. Will you come?”
“Steve what’s the matter. You sound like a kid at Christmas.”
“Kinda. I have something I need to show you. I’m real excited about it. Pack a suitcase or two. I’d like you to stay the weekend.”
“Blue Eyes, what are you scheming?” she asked suspiciously.
“Nothing. Really, it’s a surprise. You’re going to like it.”
“All right. I’ll take the first evening flight.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
Steve’s surprise gnawed at Cassie’s conscience all through the flight. She tried reading to get her mind off it but to no avail. She wondered at its nature and whether or not she would end up being caught between a rock and a hard place. ‘He didn’t say it was a surprise for me, just a surprise,” she tried to reasoned with herself to lessen the eagerness mounting within her.
Steve met her at the airport and together they drove back to his parents’ farm. On the way Steve remained tight-lipped about the surprise, much to Cassie’s exasperation.
No sooner had they stepped out of the car that he clasped her hand to pull her to the barn. “There she is! Isn’t she a beauty?” He boasted proudly, eyes shining in admiration for his new acquisition. He opened the gate to take Blue Mist out and allow Cassie to take in all of her splendour.
Cassie stood in utter awe before this magnificent animal. “Steve, where did you get her?” With a gentle hand she raked her fingers through the thick black mane.
“That’s a long story that I promised to relate tonight over a cup of hot chocolate. But in a nut shell she was given to me as a gift.”
“That person must really love you to part with such a magnificent animal.”
“Her name is Blue Mist and she’s my early Christmas present to you.” Cassie stared at Steve in bewilderment. “You need your own horse for when we go riding together.”
“I can’t…I can’t accept her,” Cassie choked with emotions, too numb to feel the horse gentling nuzzling her shoulder.
“Sorry, looks like she’s already adopted you.”
“Steve, this is too much.”
“Believe me, she’s nothing compared to what you’ve given me in the last three years. Your friendship is priceless. Please, take her.”
Cassie broke into a grateful smile and threw herself into Steve’s arms to hug him tight. “Thank you Blue Eyes. You realize you won’t be winning races anymore. Blue Mist here will beat the hooves out of your Lightning.” The horse neighed in agreement. “See, I’ve got a powerful ally.”
“Just my luck. Now I have two stubborn females against me,” Steve lamented, shaking his head in dismay.