Excerpt: Cowboys Don't Cry

Excerpt: Cowboys Don't Cry

Book 1: Tanner Brothers Series

Chapter One

Tanner could hear them arguing even as he came along the side of the barn.

“He can’t.”

“Can so.”

“No way.”

“Yessir.”

“No disrespect, Ev,” he heard Bates say earnestly. “Tanner’s the best at breaking broncs in these parts, no two ways about it. But I don’t reckon even he could stay on this one.”

As he rounded the corner, Tanner saw old Everett Warren spit in the dust. “Shows what you know.”

“Yeah. Billy, Warren’s nine year old grandson, swung up on the corral fence. “Tanner can ride anything.”

Tanner grinned a little at the boy’s confidence in him. In fact he hoped Billy was right. If he was, then everything would work out fine when he had to deal with his new boss this afternoon

Bates shook his head. “Not this mare,” he said, nodding at the one whose bridle he held. 

She was the sweetest looking jet black beauty Tanner had ever seen. The upcoming interview faded from his mind at the sight of her. 

“Course he can. Can’t you?” Ev added, when he saw Tanner coming their way. “Ain’t nobody better’n Tanner.” Ev nodded emphatically, chewed and spat again. He looked at Tanner, his pale blue eyes clear and bright. “Show him.”

Tanner cocked his head. “Just like that?”

“You’ve rid your share,” Ev reminded him.

But that had been a while back. He was thirty-four now and occasionally aware after a long day in the saddle of his thrice broken ribs, a shattered ankle, a lumpy collarbone, a shoulder with a permanent tendency toward dislocation, and the two pins still residing in his left knee.

Still, she was a beauty. And there was nothing in the world like pitting your strength and try against so much sheer energy, nothing that could compare with settling down onto a half a ton of twisting, surging animal and feeling as if you had the world by the tail.

Even so Tanner hesitated. He looked with longing at the ebony mare, feeling the weight of his foreman’s responsibilities pressing down on him as he did so.

“What good’s a dead foreman, I’d like to know?” Abigail had scolded last spring when he’d hit the dust, concussed, after being thrown by a frisky bay. “I don’t pay you to break horses or bones!”

“I’m fine,” Tanner had assured her, swallowing the dirt in his mouth and wiping a streak of blood off his lip. “Don’t fuss.”

But Abigail Crumm had loved a good fuss. And when a woman got to be eighty-four, a woman did whatever a woman wanted to do. In this case it was to prevail upon Tanner to stop riding broncs.

“Is that an order?”

Abigail had given a tiny dry laugh. “Of course not. I’m simply asking, Tanner.” She’d slanted him a coy glance, adding in her best quavering old lady voice, “I do so worry about you, you know.”

Tanner had snorted. Abigail had smiled.

He hadn’t ridden the bronc. A bad heart had made Abigail vulnerable and Tanner was damned if he was going to be the death of her. She’d had enough to worry about without him.

But now Abigail was gone.

The slight cold she’d brushed off in February had turned into pneumonia the first week in March.

He’d told her to go to the hospital. He’d told her orange juice and afternoon naps weren’t enough. But Abigail had ignored him.

“You know horses, Tanner, I’ll give you that,” she’d said with as much briskness as she could muster. “You’re a good cattleman, too. A wonderful foreman. But until you can show me a medical degree, I’ll do my own doctoring.”

“Damn it, you’re not going to get well like this!”

“I’ve had a good life, Tanner. I’d rather die with my boots on like my daddy did than molder away in some hospital room.”

She hadn’t. But she hadn’t survived either.

Two weeks ago, almost late because he’d had to ride halfway to Hole-in-the-Wall to fix a fence, Tanner had sat slumped in the back pew at her funeral to listen to Reverend Dailey remind everyone what an inspiration Abigail Crumm had always been.

“She went her own way. At one time or another, she had the cattlemen, the oil men, the sheep men, and the townspeople all mad at her. But there wasn’t a more caring person in the whole of Wyoming than Abigail Crumm. Or,” he added, “a more surprising one.”

At the time Tanner hadn’t realized the full import of that statement.

Now he did.

And in a little less than an hour he’d be meeting the biggest one.

He’d been prepared to have Abigail leave the ranch to one of her causes. The good Lord knew she’d had plenty of ’em — all the way from stray cats to homeless children. And Tanner had figured he could handle that. Being foreman with an absentee landlord was the best of all possible worlds. Besides, who else would she leave it to; Ab had no living relatives. As highly as she thought of her old friend Ev, he didn’t have the stamina to manage a spread this big, and Tanner knew she wouldn’t leave it to him.

In fact he’d made damned sure she didn’t.

“The hell you say,” he’d sputtered when she’d told him she was thinking of naming him her beneficiary. “What would you go and do a stupid thing like that for?”

“I trust you, Tanner. You know the ranch better than anyone.”

“I know what a load of work it is. You ever see a happy rancher, Abby? Course not. They got too many worries to be happy. No thanks. I’m a cowboy, not a rancher. And cowboys don’t stay. We’re free. No strings attached. I came with my saddle. I’ll go with my saddle. That’s the way I like it.”

“You’ve been here four years,” Abigail reminded him.

“And I can leave tomorrow.”

“Do you want to?”

He shrugged, feeling uncomfortable under her speculative blue gaze. “Course not,” he said after a moment. “Not now anyhow. You need me.”

She smiled gently. “Yes.”

“So —” he shrugged “— I’ll hang around awhile. Because I want to. Not because I have to. Don’t you go tyin’ me down.”

Abigail just looked at him for a long moment. Finally she’d nodded. “Whatever you say, Tanner.”

She’d left him a horse trailer and her two best saddle horses. “Portable assets,” she’d called them.

She left the ranch to Maggie MacLeod.

“What the hell’s a Maggie MacLeod?” Tanner had asked.

It sure as hell didn’t sound like stray cats. But Tanner didn’t really care. One cause was as good as another as far as he was concerned, as long as whoever was in charge stayed out of his way and let him do his job.

“Not a committee,” Ev had said. “A woman.”

A woman.  One woman? Tanner frowned. “Just a regular . . . person, you mean?” Not a cause at all?

“Uh-huh.” Ev nodded, grinning.

“What sort of woman?”

“Schoolmarm.”

Tanner couldn’t believe it. Visions of starchy, desiccated old prunes fogged his mind. Heaven knew he’d had his share of them. All those years and all those classrooms had seemed like some particularly enduring form of torture to Tanner. He couldn’t wait to get out.

And now Abby had left the ranch to one? “

Hell and damnation!” He leapt to his feet and stalked around the room.

Ev’s grin vanished and he glanced at Billy, then gave Tanner a reproving look. Tanner didn’t apologize. He was too busy envisioning what a mess a school teacher could make out of the Three Bar C.

“She teaches down in Casper,” Billy volunteered. “Third grade. Like Ms. Farragut.” 

“That’s a hell of a recommendation,” Tanner muttered. Old Battle-Ax Farragut looked like she could freeze a herd of cattle in July, and Tanner knew from what Billy and Ev said that there was only one way to do things as far as she was concerned: Farragut’s way. His jaw tightened.

“You met her then? What’s she like? She live in Casper?” If she had a house and was settled in, that wouldn’t be so bad. She could be a landlady from there. Not quite as good as a cause, but . . . 

Ev shook his head. “Nope. And she ain’t never been on a ranch before. ‘Cept to visit Ab.”

“Ab went and saddled us with a city slicker?”

Ev shrugged. “She seemed nice enough. Real pleasant, I thought. And, of course, Ab liked her.”

“Ab liked more folks than Will Rogers did!”

“Even sour-faced old skunks like you,” Ev said easily. He clapped his hand on Tanner’s shoulder. “Where’s your faith in human nature, boy? Ab wasn’t no fool. If she liked this Maggie well enough to leave her the ranch, well, that’s good enough for me. I reckon she knew what she was doin’.”

Tanner didn’t reckon anything of the sort, but he wasn’t going to win an argument with Ev about it. Anyway, a more cheerful thought had just occurred to Tanner.

“She’ll probably stay in Casper, then,” he said.

But yesterday’s mail had brought a letter from Clyde Bridges, Abigail’s lawyer, which squelched that hope.

Miss Maggie MacLeod was looking forward to seeing the Three Bar C. Not even Ms., Tanner’d noted grimly. Worse and worse.  She’d be coming on Wednesday. Would he please be available to meet with her at four to discuss her move to the ranch?

Move to the ranch?

He’d shut his eyes and tried to imagine the sort of fanatic schoolmarm whom Abigail would’ve appreciated enough to do something as harebrained as this. Then he tried to imagine such a woman living on the Three Bar C. It didn’t bear thinking about.

His only hope was that she’d see it that way, too.

The Three Bar C was not your House and Garden variety ranch. It was damned near a 19th century relic, miles from town in foothills of the Big Horn Mountains.

It was no place for a woman.

Abigail had been born here, of course. She’d never had another home.

Miss Maggie MacLeod had. She wouldn’t belong.

And in less than an hour, Tanner was going to have to convince her of that.

“I dare you,” Ev said now.

Tanner blinked, startled back to the present. “What?”

“To ride her.”

“Maybe he’s got too much sense to risk it,” Bates suggested.

Ev shook his head. “Not Tanner.”

Tanner gave him a baleful look. “Thanks a lot.”

But he reached for the reins. He needed the challenge. He needed the thrill, the physical release that he knew would come from trying to bring chaos under control.

He would do it; and then he would sort out Miss Maggie MacLeod.