At the corner of the fence, she stopped to rest and enjoy the early morning quiet. Here the eastern fence line turned to separate the north edge of her property from the BLM parcel. This corner of her property was at the top of a mountain and provided panoramic views in every direction. A good place to be at sunrise or sunset.
Down the hill, a herd of deer grazed. As if choreographed, they all snapped their heads up and looked toward the hilltop. Had Oscar spooked them?
The sound of hoofbeats soon told her otherwise.
“Oscar, come!” she called.
Oscar abandoned his play and rushed to her side, his ears forward.
This couldn’t be good. She never ran into other people up here. And after yesterday’s confrontation, she couldn’t slow her racing heart. Why hadn’t she strapped on her pistol before she left the cabin?
A sweaty buckskin gelding topped the hill, then halted.
She stood her ground as the cowboy dismounted and made a thorough visual examination of her.
Freckles. The first thing he’d see would be her freckles, since she never bothered with makeup except for trips to town. Add to that her big messy ponytail, and it was amazing the guy was taking a second look. And a third? Well, he wasn’t exactly looking at her face, now was he? Warm from her hike up the hill, she’d unzipped her jacket, exposing the only curves on her body—her breasts. The tall stranger was all but ogling them.
Not in the least appreciative of his silent admiration, she tugged her jacket closed.
With a small cough, he cleared his throat. “Howdy, neighbor. I’m Cleve. You must be Miss Day.”
Another Texan. She’d taken her own inventory as the rider stepped down. Clean shaven, light skin, short dark hair and nearly black eyes. He wore a red flannel shirt with a blue t-shirt under, tucked cowboy-style into his Wranglers. Around his waist he sported a plain leather belt and everyday buckle, not a shiny gold-and-silver number like the guy she’d met yesterday. Brown boots, and the straw cowboy hat he’d removed when he introduced himself.
It was hard not to meet his wide, open smile with one of her own. Too hard, in fact. “Hi. Kiersten.” A tiny gold hoop hung from his left ear, odd on a cowboy, but nothing blame-worthy. And definitely fine to look at. If she’d been interested in looking at men anymore.
He took her hand in his and shook it with big, friendly strokes. When he was finished, he settled his hat back atop his head and looked around.
“Some view up here.”
She nodded. “See that peak over there, the darker one? It’s in Utah. My Grandpa said it’s about a hundred and fifty miles away.”
Cleve whistled, then behind her. “You walk up here?”
She grinned at how winded he was from riding horseback up the mountain. “I walked the fence line, checking for snow damage. I’ll be hanging it back up in the next few days.”
“What kinda fence is that?” He pointed toward the wire net laying flat and running parallel to an army of steel posts marching straight as an arrow into the horizon.
Most cattlemen marked the edge of their property with two or three simple strands of barbed wire, rather than the four-foot net fencing sheep ranchers used. “It’s a fence to keep my nuisance sheep in, and your fat cows out, since the law says I’m responsible for both.” She probably sounded nasty, but it was an accurate summary. The sheep ranchers had always been treated unfairly by Colorado lawmakers who represented the more wealthy cattle ranchers.
He rubbed his chin with the back of his fingers. “I meant, why’s it layin down?”
“Seven feet of snow on a hillside tends to make a mess of a fence, come spring. Used to come up here and find this part of the fence crumpled up way down there.” She pointed at a stand of Aspens about twenty feet down the hill. “Might find several steel posts bent over flat. One of the other old-timers came up with the idea of unhooking the wire from the posts in the fall. Keeps the snow from leaning on it for months on end, and the elk from getting tangled in it.”
“Pretty good idea, then.”
“You’ll find I’m not stupid, in spite of what your boss might think.”
“Ah…Boss?” He scratched the back of his hair, tipping the front of his hat a little.
“Yeah, Charles. The world’s last remaining male chauvinist pig. Boss Hogg, in a Cadillac truck, instead of his trademark white convertible. Give him my regards.”
Her middle fingers raised in another rebellious salute.
His eyebrows lifted. “Doesn’t sound like he put his best foot forward.”
“Just let him know that next time, his foot better have a bullet-proof boot on, cause I’ll be comin out with my twelve gauge. Oh yeah, and let him know I thought over his offer.”
Cleve’s eyes lit with interest. “And?”
“You’re probably shy about giving your boss the bird, even though it’s a message, so just tell him, ‘Not everybody can be bought, Jackass, and there are a million five reasons why,’ okay?”
His eyes widened. “Ah. Wasn’t too persuasive, then?”
“Definitely not a ‘people person’, that Chaz. I thought his lawyers were bad. You must be his new, what, manager? Ranch foreman?”
Big fingers rubbed over his chin. “Somethin like that.”
Why was the guy so confused? Maybe the thin air was starving his brain of oxygen. Seemed nice enough. Too bad he got hooked up with such a peckerwood. “Well, it’s been nice meeting you, Cleve. Good luck with Boss. Is there a Mrs. Hogg, I mean Howell?”
He grinned. “Not yet.”
“I’d say his chances keep getting thinner as his waist gets thicker, and women get more crazy ideas in their heads about equal opportunities, all that Women’s Lip nonsense.” The mere thought of Chaz’s asinine ideals had sent her hands to her hips again. Damn. “I need to get back and do something domestic around the house now.”
With a wave over her shoulder, she started back down the hill.
“Wait!” Cleve followed down the hill on his side of the fence. “You want some help when you put up this part-time fence?”
The idea of working with the cattlemen hadn’t crossed her mind. She’d be damned if she’d ever take help from Chaz, but Cleve seemed friendly. And cute. Shaking off cute, she shrugged. “Sure.”
“Wanta do it tomorrow? Same time?”
“I’ve, um, got a…date.” And why did she say that? Why should she want him to think she had a date? “How ‘bout Sunday?”
“Sunday it is,” he answered with a smile.
Damn fine smile he had. George Strait fine.
As she walked away, she called back, “Don’t forget your gloves!”
Criminy. She stopped again.
“You startin at the top, or bottom?”
“Top. If we get to the bottom, I’ll feed you lunch.”