Monday, December 26, 2011
A working horse and cattle ranch doesn’t stop working just because it’s Christmas. The stock doesn’t care if Santa’s coming; they still need to be fed, the stalls still need to be mucked out, and the million and one tasks that keep the ranch running still need to be done. Therefore, dawn on Christmas morning found Merry on horseback riding toward the upper pastures to make sure the Christmas eve snowfall hadn’t caused any hardship for the herds.
She gripped her mount’s mane and leaned across his neck to speak above the chilly winter wind into his ear. “We’ll take a look at the southwest first, then swing toward the top of the ridge. After we’ve checked on the cattle we can take a break at the line cabin, and I’ll call back to the office.”
Dash snorted to let her know he understood. He carried her himself; he refused to trust her safety to a normal horse. In his shifter form he was powerful and tireless, moreso than her regular mounts. If anything went wrong up here, he’d be right there to help out.
Of course, Merry considered through clenched teeth, riding a shifter did have its drawbacks. Dash wasn’t into bondage, so that meant no saddle or reins. He permitted a blanket to be strapped to his back for her comfort, but she had to hold onto his mane. The saddlebags carrying his clothes were tied just behind her. Since this sort of amounted to a backpack, his stallion’s pride allowed it.
At the first pasture they found the cattle bunched together and blowing steam from their nostrils. They appeared to have weathered the storm just fine. The ridge was clear of cattle. “They probably all headed downslope to get out of the wind,” Merry said, and Dash nodded agreement. “Head for the cabin. I’ll radio Race to haul up a couple of hay bales, just in case. I know he’s just itching to break out the Sno Cat. Kid loves it better than a horse.”
Dash muttered his low opinion of motorized vehicles and headed for the cabin.
At the little one-room line cabin Merry darted inside to fire up the woodstove, while Dash shifted and toweled the sweat and snow off his naked human body. By the time the snug little room had warmed, he was dressed and digging oatmeal and apples out of the saddlebags. “You have some too,” he ordered. “I know you skimped on breakfast.”
“I can eat any time. The cattle don’t always have that option.” Merry lifted the short-wave radio in its insulated case down from the cupboard. Cell phones were dicey out here in the cold, but the radio always got through. While Dash fixed their breakfast she contacted the ranch and reported the herd’s whereabouts and condition. “Race is on his way,” she said after she signed off. “I think he would have run the Sno Cat up here even if I hadn’t called in.”
“Waste of good hay. You know the deer are just gonna eat it.”
“Maybe some elk, too. I wouldn’t mind seeing elk on the range. Give the guests something to look at when we open up again in the spring.”
“What, the unicorn ain’t enough?”
“The unicorn’s retired. Guests with guns and high-powered scopes we don’t need.” Merry made sure to hug him to take the sting out of her order. “Maybe in the summer. We can have a Valentine’s Day in June or something.”
“Or,” Dash suggested with his big horsy grin, “we could have one right now.”
“You need your energy to get back down the mountain.”
“I got energy and then some. We’ll make it.”
“If not,” Merry teased, running her fingers through his thick mane, “maybe Race could give us a ride back on the Sno Cat.”
“You sure know how to wreck a man’s mood, woman.”
“I’m only thinking of you. You’ve been plowing through snow uphill all morning. Those big, strong muscles of yours need a br – ”
Dash jerked his head around, a split second before Merry’s less-keen human ears picked up a noise outside. It was a familiar enough sound, but had no business being here. The sound of hooves clomping through snow, and the snort and mutter of horses.
“You expecting company?” Dash said.
Unicorn hunters flashed through Merry’s mind. She reached for the rifle she always carried with her on her trips into the hills. Dash went unarmed, but only in his human shape. “Don’t shift just yet. Let’s see what we got first.”
She couldn’t see a thing through the heat-fogged windows. Dash slid the door open a crack, then flung it wide. “Well,” he said, amused. “Come say hi to the neighbors.”
Merry peered beyond his brawny shoulder. Her breath caught in her throat.
Only yards from the cabin door, a stocky paint stallion studied them warily, nostrils flared and ears tipped forward. He must have cut their trail, caught Dash’s scent and come to investigate. Merry glimpsed several more horses peeking back at them from the edge of the woods, mares and yearlings in their shaggy winter coats, blowing softly.
Merry clutched at Dash’s arm. “Are they … ?”
“Ain’t my kind,” he murmured back. “They’re the real deal.” He neighed a reassurance to the stallion. “Merry Christmas, cuz. I won’t come after your ladies.” He draped his arm around Merry. “Got my own.”
The paint shook his head while he puzzled over Dash’s semi-equine scent. Abruptly he snorted and whirled. His band galloped after him. They vanished over the rise.
Dash had to close the door; Merry was too stunned to move. Her eyes shown like a child’s on, well, on Christmas morning. “They’re back,” she breathed. “The mustangs. After all these years.”
“Word must’a got out about what a great range we got here. And under a unicorn’s protection and all.” He laughed briefly. “Bet I know where Race’s hay is going.”
“Wild horses on the ridge again. Just like when I was a girl.” She threw her arms around Dash’s neck and hugged him tight. “This is the best Christmas present ever.”
“Second best.” Dash tugged at the buttons on her blouse. “You’re about to get the best. Gotta warm you up again, now that we went and let all the heat out.”
Merry giggled and made no attempt to stop him. “What about breakfast?”
He laid her out on the grizzly skin in front of the woodstove. “It’ll keep.”
Sure enough, it did.