Stone Cold CowboyBy: Jennifer Ryan
Sadie crested the rolling hill and spotted her target: her missing horses and a herd of cattle that didn’t belong to her reckless brother. She didn’t waste a hope he was saving them from some predator. Not with two of his miscreant cohorts right beside him pushing the mooing and bawling animals farther along the valley. Leave it to her brother to make trouble with no regard for the consequences. If he got caught rustling cattle, he’d expect her to get him out of it. She’d been saving his butt since he hit a rebellious stage at thirteen that turned into his way of life, escalating from pranks to petty theft and drug dealing. What happened to the sweet boy who loved to swing the highest at the playground? The one who cried at their mother’s funeral and brushed his hand over Sadie’s hair that same night while they cried themselves to sleep on their mother’s side of the bed? At twenty-one Connor had changed from a sensitive boy into nothing short of a hoodlum numbed by drugs, with no regard for anyone else. One day she feared he’d end up in jail for the rest of his life . . . or dead.
If whoever owned those cattle didn’t kill him, she might.
A soft pat on the neck and a nudge with her heels sent her horse Sugar down the hill in a trot. Sadie loved to ride, but chasing after her brother took the pleasure right out of it. The cold wind, scented with pine, grass, and rain from the storm last night that had left the ground muddy, whipped her hair out behind her and burned her cheeks. Her lips dried and cracked in the bitter cold.
Her horse’s fast approach startled several cattle. They broke off from the herd and scattered. She rode straight up the middle and split the herd in two, hoping to discourage the animals from following the rider up front and the two flanking them. Her brother spotted her and reined his horse around to meet hers. She pulled up short and stopped beside him, glaring at his ruddy face, red from the cold. His intense gaze collided with hers. His pupils were the size of saucers. High. Irritated he’d been caught, he narrowed his eyes on her.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Her lips drew into a grim line. “Saving your ass from making another mistake.”
“Get out of here before you get hurt.” Connor scanned the area, avoiding looking at the two guys with him, who closed in on them. “You have to go now.”
Sadie sighed out her frustration. The cows had stopped walking down the valley and milled around them, chomping at the new grass just beginning to grow after the last of the snow melted. The cold temps remained even as spring pushed in to take winter’s place. She stared at the poor, tired animals. Her brother and his buddies had pushed them hard and brought them a long way. One steer turned, and she caught a glimpse of the brand on his hide.
She sucked in a surprised breath. “These are Kendrick cattle. Are you crazy? Those guys will hunt you down and beat the living shit out of you. If Rory comes after you, you’ll wish you were never born.”
She’d gone to school with Colt Kendrick, but didn’t really know him. The last time she saw him, he’d been sitting around a table with his two older brothers at the bar. She’d gone to drag her brother home after the bartender called to let her know Connor was playing pool and looking for a fight. He’d nearly gotten one when he stumbled into Colt and dumped beer down his front. Sadie stepped in just in time, blocking her brother from the punch Colt threw and almost landed straight in her face, until Rory grasped his brother’s wrist and stopped his swing inches from her nose. When her brother tried to go after Colt, she’d tried to hold him off, but he got around her. Rory grabbed Connor by the shirt and held him off the ground in front of him like he didn’t weigh more than a puppy. He’d looked her brother in the eyes and shook him hard to get his attention. He didn’t speak. Didn’t have to. The ominous look in his eyes made her brother quake in his boots. Rory set her brother down with a thud, and Connor ran for the door. Sadie chased after him, but not before she turned back and caught the feral look in Rory’s eyes. The same kind of look she’d seen weeks earlier when she plowed into Rory’s big, solid body in the feed store. The man was hard and unyielding, physically and mentally. You did not go up against a Kendrick, and especially him. Her stupid brother got off free and clear that time.
Connor scratched at a scab on his chin. “If you keep your fucking mouth shut and get lost, they’ll never know.”
“You don’t think they’re going to know an entire herd of cattle is missing? You’ve lost your mind, little brother.”
He puffed out his thin chest, his bony shoulders going back. “I’m not little. I can take care of myself,” he whined like the child he acted like most of the time.
“You have yet to prove that in any capacity. If it weren’t for me, you’d have been locked up in juvy at fourteen. All these years later, you’re not proving to be any smarter than that punk kid who cried and begged me to save him. You promised me on our mother’s grave you’d do better, you’d quit drinking and doing drugs. But you didn’t keep that promise to me, or her.”