The Maverick of Copper Creek

BOOK: The Maverick of Copper Creek
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected]. Thank you for your support of the author's rights.

To my family.

You lift me up.

You make me proud.

 

 

And to Tom, always and forever.

MacKenzie Ranch
Copper Creek, Montana—2005

N
ineteen year old Ash MacKenzie was so cold he could no longer feel his hands or feet. His clothes were frozen to his skin. He was soaked through from the spring blizzard that had sent him and the team of wranglers into the hills, hoping to save the herd trapped there. It was calving season, and every rancher knew that newborns dropped during such a storm had a diminished chance of surviving.

Brady Storm, foreman of the MacKenzie Ranch, dropped an arm around Ash's shoulders as they made their way to the truck for the drive home.

“Your old man is going to be proud of you, Ash. Half the wranglers gave up from exhaustion or cold halfway through the night and had to head to their bunks. I don't know how you're still standing.”

“Believe me, Brady,” the young man said between chattering teeth, “I thought about giving up hours ago. But I've watched Pop push his way through a lot of pain and misery over the years, and I just didn't want to let him down.”

“No doubt about it.” Brady shook his head in admiration. “You're Bear MacKenzie's kid. Nobody but a MacKenzie could take that sort of beating and still be standing.”

High praise indeed. People in this part of Montana referred to Bear MacKenzie's ranch as part of the Scottish Highlands, and Bear himself as a Highland lord, tough enough to command an army of warriors.

“What about you, Brady? You're still here.”

The foreman grinned. “That's different. Your old man pays me a lot of money to do this job. But you…” He shook his head again. “All I'm saying is, you've got what it takes.”

Ash beamed at such rare praise. Now if only his stern father would say the same. He'd tried everything he knew to get his father to notice and appreciate his efforts. By the time he was eight or nine, Ash had learned to tumble out of bed an hour before Bear got up in the morning, just to get a head start on his chores. He often stayed hours later than the wranglers, working in the barn, just to make his father proud. He took on the jobs none of the others wanted to deal with, in order to get his father's attention. So far, all he'd received for his efforts was a litany of complaints about the things that still needed to be done.

He cranked up the heat in the truck and closed his eyes, exhausted beyond belief, but before he could fall asleep, they rounded a curve and caught sight of black smoke billowing in the dawn sky.

“What the…?” Brady swore and floored the gas pedal.

As they came to a screeching halt at the ranch, they leaped out of the truck to find one of the horse barns burned to the ground. Bear, Ash's mom, Willow, and his younger brother, Whit, were standing in the frigid dawn, staring dazedly at the smoke and rubble. In a corral, frightened horses circled and whinnied, spooked by the oppressive smoke and flames.

On the porch, Maddock MacKenzie, Bear's father, sat in the wheelchair he'd been confined to for the past few years, since a ranch accident had left his legs paralyzed. Nearby stood the few remaining wranglers who had stayed behind in the bunkhouse overnight.

Seeing his oldest son, Bear turned on Ash with a snarl of fury. “Where the hell have you been all night?”

“You know where I've been.” Startled by his father's anger, Ash's response was harsher than usual. “Up in the hills with the herd. When Brady spotted those storm clouds, we hightailed it up there to make sure any newborn calves weren't caught in the blizzard.”

“And you left me without enough manpower to put out that fire.”

“How was I supposed to know the shed was going to burn, Pop? I—”

“Look at your mother's hands. All charred and blistered because she had to lead dozens of horses through the fire to safety.”

“Are you all right, Mom?” Ash grabbed his mother's hands. “I'm sorry—”

Bear shoved him backward with such force Ash stumbled and fell. “You leave me here with a woman and a little kid—”

“Little?” Ash picked himself up, eyes hot with fury. “Damn it, Pop, Whit's fourteen—”

“Don't you mouth off to me, boy.” Bear closed his hand into a fist which he stuck in his son's face.

Brady stepped between them. “Bear, neither of us knew about the fire. We were too far away to spot any smoke. But you'd have been proud of Ash last night. He saved dozens of calves from freezing to death. Half the wranglers couldn't take any more of that blinding blizzard, and had to retreat to the cabin. But Ash never stopped. He was still working this morning, even though he's frozen clear through his clothes and boots. Look at him. He's half dead with fatigue. You should be glad your son saved those calves.”

“I should be glad that I've got a dozen calves, while my barn burned? Is that what you're saying, Brady?”

“I'm saying that Ash—”

“I can speak for myself.” Ash stepped around the foreman and stood toe to toe with his father, the famous MacKenzie temper in full fury. “All my life I've done everything I could to please you, Pop. But no matter what I did, you always picked it apart, looking for the flaws. I've worked harder than any wrangler on this spread. But you know what? I'm sick and tired of trying, and then getting put down by you. I'm sick and tired of butting heads with you, Pop. I'll never be good enough for you. I'll never live up to the mighty Highland warrior Bear MacKenzie. Well, guess what? I'm through trying. I've had enough.”

He turned away and stalked toward the ranch house.

Behind him, Bear MacKenzie shouted, “Don't you walk away from me, boy. I'm not through yet.”

“Maybe you're not. But I'm through with you. Through with trying to please you.” Ash climbed the steps of the porch.

His grandfather caught him by the wet, frozen sleeve. “Your pa doesn't mean any of this, laddie. He picks at you because you're the oldest, and he wants the best for you and your brother.”

“The best for me? If this is his best, Mad, I need to get as far away from him as I can before I become just like him.”

“You're already like him, lad.” Maddock, who had always been called Mad by his family and friends, clung to the young man's sleeve. The hint of Scottish burr always present in his speech thickened with emotion. “He just wants his lads to be able to handle every facet of ranching. If you're going to take over this spread one day, you need to know how to do it all.”

“It'll never be enough to please the powerful Bear MacKenzie. I'm done, Mad. Finished. I'm leaving.”

“Just like that? Where will you go, lad?”

“I don't know. I guess I'll just have to figure it out along the way. What I know is this.” Ash snatched his arm free and plucked a parka from a hook just inside the back door. Tugging it on, he turned and headed for his battered pickup truck. Over his shoulder he shouted, “I'm done, Pop. You can find somebody else to be your whipping boy.”

“Ash.” Willow's voice was filled with anguish. “Please don't do this.”

At his mother's plea, he paused and caught her hands in his. “I can't stay. Don't ask me to. I love you, and Pop, and Whit, and Mad, and this ranch.” His voice lowered with passion. “I love it all so much. But it's like you always say about too many grizzly bears in the same cave. If two of them are grown males, that's one too many. We both know it's way past time for me to make my own way, and figure out my own life.”

“What about me?” Standing beside his mother and older brother, Whit's lips quivered. To cover his unmanly tears, his voice was rough with fury. “What am I supposed to do without you?”

“I don't know, Whit.” Ash clamped a hand on his younger brother's shoulder, but the boy shook it off and stepped back out of reach.

“And Brenna?” Willow asked in nearly a whisper.

At the mention of Brenna Crane, Ash flinched as though he'd been whipped. The pain, at the thought of hurting the girl he loved more than his own life, was almost more than he could bear. “Tell her…” With a look of sorrow he realized there were no words. What could he ask his mother to say to a girl who'd lived a life of hardship from the time she'd been born, and refused to give up the hope that things would be better?

Wasn't that one of the reasons he loved her so? Despite all that she'd been through, she had a heart and soul filled to overflowing with goodness. She was sunshine on a bleak day. Laughter that chased away tears. She lifted him up when his edgy relationship with his father got him down.

Most of all, Brenna had learned to trust him. To depend on him, even though she'd been let down so many times in her young life. He knew that she would see his leaving as a betrayal of that trust. But, he reasoned, if he truly loved her, he had no right to ask her to share his uncertain future. She'd already been through so much turmoil, he had no right to burden her with more. Brenna had a better chance here, among people who knew and loved her, than she'd have with him on his journey into uncertainty. Hell, he didn't even know how he'd survive the next day, let alone a lifetime. What kind of man asked a woman to share that kind of misery? Brenna deserved only the best, and right now, he felt like the lowest man on the face of the earth. By cutting all ties swiftly, cleanly, he'd be doing her a favor and freeing her to find someone good, someone deserving of the tender love she was capable of sharing.

Someone good. Someone deserving of her.

Someone else?

It was too painful to contemplate. Since he'd first met Brenna, he'd pictured her in his life forever. He couldn't imagine her with anyone else.

He would contact her, he promised himself. When he could prove to himself and to the world that he was worthy of her. When he had proven to himself that he could provide a way of life that she deserved.

Absorbing a sense of loss that had him sucking in a breath, Ash climbed into his truck, and with his family watching, stunned and silent, he drove away with nothing but the clothes on his back and less than a hundred dollars in his pocket.

He broke a lot of hearts that frigid March day, including his own.

BOOK: The Maverick of Copper Creek
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Solomon's Oak by Jo-Ann Mapson
Reign of Ash by Gail Z. Martin
The Bad Girl by Yolanda Olson
A Toast to Starry Nights by Serra, Mandi Rei
The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez, Gregory Rabassa
Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress
Lineage by Hart, Joe
Paula by Isabel Allende