Blog

Free Fiction on the 14th: Finding Henderson’s Ranch

The Ides of Matt:
A free short story,
every month from the 14th-20th.

You can buy it here if you want to own it OR just scroll down to read it for free:

FINDING HENDERSON’S RANCH
by M.L. Buchman
-a Henderson’s Ranch romance story-

Mac Henderson started out no more of a ranch owner than he did a Navy SEAL. Adrift on the post-college tide of the ’70s, with no direction planned, he headed west to surf. But fate had other plans for him—beneath Montana’s Big Sky.

A broken starter motor during Cheyenne Frontier Days led him to witness Ama’s traditional dance for her tribe. Since that moment, for twenty years, she has believed in his dream, inspired him, and given him a son (Mark Henderson).

It was only when Mac retired that she found her own dream.  Her reward? Finding Henderson’s Ranch.

1

Mac Henderson didn’t know whether to hate himself or the Top 40 station coming out of Cheyenne. In Wyoming it was that or country, so the choice of what to listen to wasn’t hard. But the songs were insidious. How was it possible that he knew every word to sing along with John Travolta’s You’re the One That I Want? Mac did have to fake the high notes which perhaps implied he wasn’t a complete “Lost Cause” his mother always accused him of. She said it with a smile, but still, it stung.

More importantly, how did Travolta get up there? Maybe it was those tight pants.

Wyoming. Could he get more different than Ohio? He’d left the lush greens of Oberlin right after graduation. Kissed Penny goodbye—nothing serious so no heartache—and headed west.

“Surfing?” She was an overachiever type and was joining the Peace Corps, headed for Africa with her honors degree in psychology.

“Sure. Get me some sun and surf.”

“And surfer babes?” Penny didn’t sound even a little hurt, which meant their time together had been less meaningful than he’d thought. Chump!

“Sure, why not? What else am I supposed to do with a degree in French Literature?” He suspected that the defensive tone hadn’t served him well.

“Have you ever surfed?”

“Now’s my big chance.”

“That’s a pretty directionless choice, Mac.” She’d shaken her head sadly, her Farrah Fawcett blonde curls wafting about her face. She was as fun as she was trendy and cute. They’d only been together for the last couple months of senior year though, now that he thought about it, she’d always given him the feeling that she was slumming a bit and mostly marking time.

He’d never been one for high goals. His dad had been a professor of French Lit at Loyola until he’d stroked out (in two ways) in a coed’s arms at forty-eight. Mac had decided to follow in his footsteps, for reasons passing anyone’s understanding—including his own. Even more disillusioning, he’d generally had better luck with the French Lit than the coeds. Penny had been the exception, not the rule. But even if he applied for the Peace Corps now, they’d be all out of sync. Not that he wanted to.

Wanted to.

For four years everyone—the entire college experience—had gone on and on about how they could all be anything they “wanted to.” But for the life of him he couldn’t figure out what that might be for him.

Travolta’s “Oo-oo-oo” croon with perky blonde Newton-John gave way to ABBA’s Take a Chance on Me.

The job recruiters had taken one look at his long hair, his mastery of Middle French literature, and his liberal arts school attitude, then looked the other way. No chance on him. Oo-oo-oo! Surfing was still the best bet he’d heard in a while. He’d delayed with some buddies who had a cabin on Lake Michigan—to work on building up some swimmer muscles, or maybe to have one last collegiate-style beer blast—and a week with his mom in Chicago. But it reached late July and he was missing summer in the surf. That had finally gotten him heading west again.

He pulled off in Cheyenne to study his road atlas as he chowed down on a Burger King Double Whopper and fries. Straight west or time to turn south? Holding west for Salt Lake could be a thing, not that he wanted to hang there, but it would be something to see. Or cut down to Denver then climb the Rockies. His Mazda pickup had been making some funny noises lately, so maybe the Rockies wasn’t the best idea. Of course breaking down in the vast emptiness of Wyoming…

Turning the key, Rocky Mountain High blared out of the radio. Must be a Top Ten of the Past thing, but he’d take it as an omen. Denver it was. The randomness of his directionless life lived on.

Then he twisted the ignition the rest of the way and got that nasty ratcheting sound he’d heard lately. Except this time the engine didn’t start. Again. No luck.

A cowboy, complete with boots and a big old hat, strolling by with his own burger bag, stopped and listened. “Yep! You got a cooked starter solenoid. Jason there can fix you up.” He hooked a thumb at a service station across the street. “Need a push?”

Ten minutes later he was officially stuck in Cheyenne, Wyoming while they waited for parts. “Have it for you in the morning.”

“C’mon, kid.” Jason couldn’t be more than a couple years older. “See how real people live.” And he’d followed the cowboy back to his truck which was big enough he could have parked his Mazda in the back of it…if the starter had worked.

2

Ama reluctantly followed her mother into the dance ring at Indian Village. The circle of white teepees had been erected for Cheyenne Frontier Days, just as it had for the last eighty years. Ten days every year that were the bane of her existence. Even private, tribal powwows boasted more RVs than teepees these days, but the truth didn’t mix well with the stereotypes in people’s heads. And RVs definitely weren’t as photogenic as the line of white teepees on the Cheyenne prairie.

There were cowboys and farmers in the crowd, but there were far more tourists whose beer bellies conflicted badly with the newer, tighter fashions. Some women gave in to the mid-summer’s heat with strapless tops, but many still had jackets so that they could wear their shoulder pads. The crowd sat or stood five deep between the circle of teepees and the grassy dance field.

Come for the show. Come see the redskin girl dance a blessing to the day—an importance you will never understand. After me, watch my cousin the hoop dancer. A great tradition tracing all of the way back to Tony White Cloud performing it in the Lucille Ball movie Valley of the Sun. Yes, come see the least authentic powwow dance you can imagine, up next.

Yet Ama knew better than to ever say or show such a thing. She was the good daughter. The youngest lead dancer since Great-grandmother Swooping Bird. Her mother’s scowl and her father’s disdain were for her brother, never for Ama. Like the water that was her name, she flowed around problems, always quiet and level.

Watch me dance. I know every step perfectly. Not the modern ones, but the way that has been handed down directly by Great-grandmother from her great-grandmother. Leave this world for a moment and see how we tread the Great Plains when they still belonged to the Cheyenne, Crow, and Pawnee.

She let her vision unfocus as she found the rhythm of the drums and her feet hit the soil in traditionally short, hard steps. But it wasn’t the shaking of the drums that called to her in the dance, it was the tahpeno—the cedar courtship flute. She’d never been able to resist its call and she could feel it capture her arms and let her float.

See the flight of the tiniest hummingbird greet the opening of the morning flowers in my fingers. Follow the robin and the dove in my hands. See the great eagle soar in my arms high above the family ranch. And watch the swallow swoop and play at dusk in how I float.

The tourists didn’t matter.

The other dancers faded aside.

It was just the flute’s call, the cycle of this day’s bird-flight, and her dance.

In this moment, for this one precious instant, it felt as if she balanced between two worlds. Her life as a paralegal for a divorce lawyer had nothing to do with this dance, except when she was immersed in it, then it was the whole rest of her life that lost meaning.

As the swallow returned to her evening nest and the dance came to a close, the path of her feet—still stomping to the unceasing, unceasing rhythm of the drums—led her close to the crowd.

As Henry Morning Crow’s flute ended the day with the first call of the mista—the great horned owl, the spirit of the night, hoo-h’Hoo hoo hoo—Ama came back into her own body. She planted her feet with the last beat of the drum and looked once more through her own eyes rather than the birds’.

The crowd’s roar of approval and applause was, as ever, a harsh shock. She could never grow used to it. It was from the wrong world: not herself or the dance, not her tribe. Instead it battered at her, hard and forceful.

A man stood directly in front of where her dance had led her. A man acting like no other in the crowd. He did not applaud; he did not even appear to breathe.

His looks didn’t blend into the crowd either. He was her age and lean with strong shoulders; the sort of man who would never need shoulder pads. His collar-long hair, as dark as her own, framed his fair face. It was a good face, a strong one. His eyes were steel gray and seemed to see past the costume and the dancer. She knew her looks were a throwback to Swooping Bird, who had often been declared the most beautiful Cheyenne of her generation. But he didn’t seem to see that either.

Men always saw her dancing or her beauty. Her parents saw the good girl. Her tribe viewed her as the granddaughter of a great Peace Chief and the great-granddaughter of a still celebrated dancer.

It was as if this man could see her as no one except the mirror ever had. As herself.

3

Mac lay on his longboard, letting the swells roll beneath him. The chilly Pacific Ocean was actually pacific for a change. The waves had settled an hour ago and he was content to simply lie in the sun and wait as he was lifted and lowered by their lazy rhythm. This had become his favorite part of surfing. He could stand up and ride a wave now, but he doubted he’d ever be good.

“There they are again,” Ama spoke lazily from the board beside him. She wasn’t any better at surfing than he was, but at least she was far better looking while doing it. Also, her dancer’s grace always looked so elegant that her lack of skill mattered far less than his own clumsy efforts. Her hair, a straight slash to her waist, now lay over the back of her wetsuit like a soft blanket. Her suit was the same sky blue as the deer hide dress she’d worn at the Frontier Days dance. Out of the wetsuit when ashore, the pure white bikini she favored highlighted her dark skin—and completely scrambled his hormones. She’d taken to wearing dark sunglasses which only added to her mystery.

He was still unsure why she’d joined him for the drive to California. She hadn’t volunteered her reasons and he’d been afraid to ask. For two months he’d had the most astonishing lover of his life in their little beach shack. They weren’t broke, not yet, but this couldn’t last and that troubled him. Unlike Penny, he’d be majorly bummed when Ama Dances Like Water left to return to her tribe. She’d given no hint of such a plan, but it worried him anyway.

September had seen the summer surfers retreat except on the weekends. Only the hardcore beach bums still remained afloat under the mid-October sun.

Ama didn’t speak often, so when she did, he always paid attention. He followed the direction of her gaze.

Coronado Beach was no longer hazed by the heat as it had been since their arrival, but it was no less bright beneath the midday sun.

Mac propped his chin on his hands and squinted against the glare.

Navy SEALs. Only twenty remained in the group of men in green. There had been at least a hundred the first time they ran on the beach a month ago. They never ran where it was easy, down by the waves. Instead, they were always up on the dry beach where the heat burned and every step slipped and dragged in the deep sand. They sang as they ran. Four trainers ran with them. He’d seen the trainers haranguing their every step as their numbers dwindled—the sharp clang of a bell marking another grunt “ringing out” and quitting because he couldn’t make the grade.

Today was different. Today the trainers sang with the running recruits. A team. Those who remained were becoming a team. In perfect unison, immensely fit, and dependent on one another.

He lay his head once more on his hands and contemplated the woman stretched beside him, rising and falling on the swells of the Pacific Ocean.

What would it take to make Ama not flow away from him? To not dismiss him with an easy shrug as Penny had. That struck him as being of desperate importance. Perhaps the first such thing in his entire life.

Had she pointed out the SEAL team for a reason? He had to think about that.

 

4

Ama could only stare at Mac in surprise.

He had transformed past recognition without changing at all. Not a caterpillar turned into a butterfly, but rather a man transformed into a Man.

He was so much stronger now than even the surfing had made him; the physical power of his embrace utterly breathtaking in many ways.

But his eyes still saw her with Eagle’s vision and he heard her with Coyote’s sharp ears. Being with Mac had made her feel closer to her tribe and her heritage than she ever had back in Wyoming. He’d insisted that she return to the next Cheyenne Frontier Days to dance, and he’d been right. It was an important glimpse of her culture that she’d nearly lost all sight of in San Diego.

Over this year, his gentleness had faded, except towards her. In that he was as unvarying as the Great Spirit itself.

Living on the inside of his world, she could see how different he had become to the outside world. Mac had pulled on a shroud of power like a dancer who pulled the skin of Buffalo over his head and transformed into the beast.

All in white, Mac’s uniform shone as brightly as the sun. And like a piece ripped from the sun itself, the golden SEAL trident shone fresh and new upon his left breast.

Other graduates of the year-long course were surrounded by their families or wives.

She found herself reluctant to walk up to Mac. He was so transformed that she half wondered if she still belonged in his world. Her dance had led her to stand in front of him. But had his dance of becoming a Navy SEAL led him toward her?

He often joked that he didn’t believe in such things as something guiding her steps, but she’d had no other way to explain it. He did say often that “he wasn’t complaining about the results.”

And now?

He strode up to her, so tall and beautiful in his rugged way.

Then, without hesitation, not looking to see who of his new SEAL brothers were watching, he went down on bent knee before her. The silence rushed outward through the celebrating SEALs faster than a wave breaking on a reef until all attention was focused upon them.

“Now, am I finally worthy of you?” His words were so soft.

“Since the day my dance led me to you.” And she must be worthy of him for he had come to her and that was all that mattered. For though he often said that he would be less of a man without her, she knew that she would also be less of a woman without her Mac.

 

5

Mac lay face down and wondered if he’d ever breathe again. The heat drove into his body a thousand times hotter than any mere splash of the San Diego sunshine. Hotter even than Ama could still make his blood race after thirteen years together.

Why was it now, when they were ten thousand miles away that he could think of nothing but his wife and twelve-year old son? Ama had given him the gift of a son. It focused his thoughts. Even lying face down in the burning sand, so desperate that he wanted to give up or wither away, he knew one thing was true. Only by serving with honor and completing the mission could he face them. They were his strength and he needed to be theirs.

The dust of the Iraqi soil clogged every pore. Fifty kilometers behind Saddam’s lines, his four-SEAL squad lay unmoving, covered in the sand, waiting out the midday heat.

Elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard were patrolling the area. A full platoon—ten times their number—and a pair of tanks. A T-72’s treads had missed their hiding position by less than five feet, but if they’d so much as flinched, they’d have been gunned down before they could even raise a weapon. So they’d waited—and been lucky.

The Guard and their tanks weren’t the real target. The targets were the Scud missiles they guarded. The ones that Saddam was firing at Israel and Saudi Arabia. The start of Operation Desert Storm was delayed for a week while Special Ops hunted and killed the Scud sites. The ones along the Jordanian border to the west and aimed at Israel were being hunted by Delta and SAS, but his SEAL team had been lucky enough to draw the short straw on the wasteland between Kuwait and Nasiriyah in the southeast corner of the country.

Lying low through the day, they’d gathered valuable intel, including talk of the three other sites hidden in the area. It was finally falling dusk. Come full dark, they’d pull back and pinpoint those other three—calling in simultaneous airstrikes against all four launchers.

This one—

Barty grunted.

Al’ama!” A mild epithet by Arabic’s typically pornographic curse standards. A Republican Guard, stepping off the path to piss, had stumbled on Barty Hughes—literally.

The guard struggled to keep his sidearm steady while grabbing for his rapidly sagging pants. He had Barty square in his sights. The hammer was already on the move.

Mac emerged from his hiding place just a step to the guard’s other side. No other RGs nearby at the moment, but that wouldn’t last.

He came up out of the sand with his KA-BAR knife already out of its leg sheath. Before the guard could react, Mac had rammed seven inches of steel upward through the guard’s chin. With a twist, he sliced his brain’s connection to the rest of his nervous system.

Just like the Vietnam vets who trained him had promised, the man’s body shut down all at once without a single sound. His other teammates emerged from the sand.

He dragged the corpse—with the knife still in place to minimize blood flow onto the sand—back out of sight behind a thorn bush.

“Make a hole.”

The other three scrabbled quickly in the sand. When it was a foot deep, he twisted the corpse around and flopped it in, yanking free his blade.

He watched while they covered it back up. It wouldn’t hide him for long, but it didn’t have to. By midnight, this site would be blasted to smithereens.

Night had fallen with a desert’s abruptness and they faded away.

“Thanks, bro.” Barty slapped him on the shoulder as they moved out.

It was the first real action either of them had seen. The ’80s had been more about training and humanitarian missions. This whole Desert Shield / Desert Storm thing was new even to a SEAL with a decade in the teams.

“You get my back next time.” But he couldn’t find it in him to thump Barty back as they jogged off into the dark to find and pinpoint the next site.

He’d signed up for this and trained for it, but he’d never killed a man before. He’d seen death. Almost died himself during the disaster which was Desert One—the US’ attempt to free the hostages from Iran in 1980 had ended in a fiery disaster. But he’d never dealt it before.

The next time he touched Ama, would he feel the mark on his hand? Would she?

Maybe.

But for the first time he finally understood just how fast a man’s life could end. His own life as well. But he had a wife and a son.

As they ran through the darkness, he knew he was at a fork in the path. A decision. Did killing one man count as his lifetime quota and, if so, that would lead him back to…where? To their small house in San Diego? To surfing and bobbing on the waves without a purpose?

No. He wouldn’t allow the death of an enemy to change the path of his life. He now understood what Ama had once said, that life’s changes must come from the good, not the bad. Let the Good be our guide.

Ama had changed more than his life, she’d changed his world. And she’d given him a son who had had changed his heart.

He thumped his fist against Barty’s shoulder as they ran side-by-side. Barty wasn’t the only one who was thankful to be alive. Mac would stay in the SEALs. He would fight to keep his family safe despite the danger.

At least until he found the next fork in the path formed from joy, not death.

 

6

Ama rode behind her beloved men. She had grown up riding horses, a skill she had almost forgotten but her body had remembered as easily as any dance. The two of them rode miserably, yet acted as if falling off would be the greatest possible wound to their manly pride. She was careful to reserve her smile for when they were looking the other way.

How had her life led her to riding across this lush prairie ranch while listening to her husband’s and son’s hearty voices, loudly reassuring themselves of their competence? How had her life led to any of the places it had?

She had followed a young boy with mystical eyes to San Diego against her parents’ wishes. They had lived together on the beach as well as overseas when his assignments allowed. The nights apart she had slept curled around the phone, praying that each time it rang, it would be his voice on the other end of the line and not his commander’s. For twenty years her prayers had been answered.

For twenty years she had worn the warrior’s face each time he left—assured and proud. Each time he returned, she’d worn the wife’s—thankful to the Maheo Sky Chief or any other power that might be listening for his safe return. And she had done her very best to hide her tears from Mark on all the nights between.

She looked at the open prairie beneath the vast blue sky. They were safe now, in this instant: her husband returned from war and her son not yet gone. This ranch had been another family’s dream, and it was clear that they had struggled before they left. It would take a lot of work to bring the ranch back to life. But she’d never feared hard work and a SEAL knew of no other kind. It could be a home. Perhaps the one she’d always dreamed of.

Mac’s dream had come complete the day he retired. His entire team had stood down together—those who had retired before twenty years had come to the celebration on the beach at Coronado. They had raised a glass to those who had fallen. The SEALs all agreed they’d been fortunate that so few of their teammates had died, but she had felt battered anew by each name that was called in that toast.

Later in the party, after her nerves had finally calmed down, Mac had taken her hand. Just as he had twenty years before, he’d gone down on one knee before all his SEAL brothers. There had been laughter among the team at the memory.

She had waited to see what he would ask this time.

“You have dreamed my dream long enough, my love. I think I found a way to help dream your dream now.”

So she and Mark, who had come to the retirement party on a school break from West Point, had followed him here to this ranch nestled close against the feet of the towering Front Range.

Up to Wyoming. Past Cheyenne where she’d returned every summer to see family and to dance. North of Yellowstone and into the heart of Montana where the grasslands were alive with the yellow and purple of summer flowers.

She patted her horse on the neck and watched her two men riding beneath the shimmering blue sky. They were so excited with dreams of building a new home here, even if neither one had much of an idea about what that meant. Neither of them had ever lived in the country. She was shocked that they had yet to fall off their horses—though there had been many close calls.

But this was a dream she understood.

Mac had passed that certainty, that perfect clarity of self on to his son. A senior at West Point, he stood as tall and handsome as his father. His dark hair short for the training, had run long through the sunlit years of his teens—just as his father’s had when Ama had first seen him. Mark’s skin was closer to her tone than Mac’s; his face so handsome he could have been one of the Cheyenne. Except for the eyes. He had his father’s blue-gray eyes—soft when he was happy and like cold steel when angered.

They’d ridden deep into the ranch on horses borrowed from a neighboring cattle rancher. At a river that wound through the miles of Montana pastureland, she had taught them how to fish. They had planned on two days, yet stayed for a week, living off what they caught. She had snared a rabbit, pleased that she remembered the tricks to skin it and cook it over a campfire—lessons learned from her father so long ago.

Now they were returning. Across the rolling hills, they had climbed the high bluff that sheltered the main ranch buildings. A mile down the dirt road, the cattle ranch where their horses belonged could just be seen. The horses were anxious for their stables, but Mac and Mark were finally confident enough in the saddle to at least keep them from running off. That still didn’t mean they knew anything about ranch life.

“Put up a new barn there,” Mac pointed to a swale in the land that would be wet in autumn’s rainfall, “and you could start a nice herd of cattle.”

But it would be a fine place for a swimming hole with only a little work. Besides, cattle were smelly, rude, and not very rewarding to the rancher. She’d seen many of her father’s friends broken by a bad season, a runaway disease, even rustlers.

“Sure,” Mark had agreed with his father. “And build a bunkhouse for the hands up here on the bluff so they get a nice view. Treat your team well and they’ll treat you well.”

This place where the harsh north winds would run chill across the Canadian Plains and slam straight into them all winter.

There was a reason that the old ranch house down below had been built on the south side of the bluff. Ten years abandoned, it still stood square and strong with a long porch wrapping around three sides. Thirty miles to the nearest town, it had not been plagued by vandals and the weather had claimed only two windows.

Halfway between their perch on the bluff and the big house were several copses of Ponderosa pines. Sheltered from the north, their view was to the southeast, not of the ranch, but rather the neighbor’s land that seemed to roll to the horizon. It had made the view of the mountains once over the bluff a surprise and a gift.

A few weathered cabins still huddled among the pines. A little clearing, a little fixing, and guests could come there. Their future happy voices seemed to catch on the breeze that washed over the tall grass much as the waves had when she would watch Mac just to see what he would do next.

The old horse barn and the ranch manager’s house still stood strong as well.

She had lived so much of her life alone. First, with a tribe she had felt curiously disconnected from. Later, separated during tour after tour from the one man who had ever made her heart soar like the dance. And finally, after her son had gone to West Point to become the man his father was, she’d been completely alone. The last three years had been a time of holding her heart closed and waiting.

Well, that was done and she wouldn’t miss it. Her heart could open now and soar like an eagle. She stretched her fingers out and let them feel the breeze trickling between them.

There would be people here, and laughter. She could already see them: riding horses, fishing in the streams, and eating good camp fare at the long wooden table they’d discovered still standing in the ranch house dining room. Mac could lead hunting parties or teach shooting on a range (over the other side of the rise so that guests didn’t have to hear it). People would come here to escape, to discover happiness. It could work.

This Montana ranch wouldn’t be just some step woven into the old, she decided. It would be a whole new dance.

7

Mac kept an eye on Ama as they rode down the hill, past the big house, and along the dirt driveway.

He tried to read what she was thinking about the place. The verdict looked hopeful, but she’d always been hard to read. He was fairly sure he had it right, because when she was feeling deepest was when she was quietest. And she’d barely said a word since they’d left the high bluff lookout.

Even back at the retirement party, he’d been watching for her reaction but been unable to read it. Barty and his dad had approached Mac with an idea.

What to do after retirement had worried at him. A SEAL knew how to fight. A SEAL knew that nothing could stop him once he had a mission. Except, in retiring, Mac no longer had a mission.

“Thanks again for saving my boy’s life,” Bart Sr. had handed him a fresh beer.

“Served twenty years on the same team, seemed like the right thing to do,” Mac had earned a laugh from them both.

Bart Sr. had been a Marine in Vietnam and understood. Barty had saved Mac’s life a time or two as well over the years—though not so graphically. That’s just how it worked on the teams.

“Got a place up in Montana,” Bart had told him, while looking off into the distance over Coronado Beach and the Pacific. “Twenty thousand acres of the prettiest land you’ve ever laid eyes on. Former owners moved on a decade ago and I grabbed it. Needs tending.”

Mac could only shake his head. “I saved some. Ama’s good with money and I sent home all I could, but we can’t afford a ranch.”

“Not talking about selling it to you. If you’d like, it’s yours and your kin’s for as long as you tend it. When you’re done, I’ll buy it back for the cost of improvements. No risk. Go up there and take the family. Once you give it a good look over, I know you’ll love it. All yours if you want it. Did I mention that I’m right grateful you saved my son’s life?”

“Might have,” Mac had agreed as he had looked over at Ama standing with a few of the other SEALs. People were drawn to her, but “social” wasn’t how he ever thought of her. Ama and city life had never made sense. Not in Cheyenne. Not in San Diego. Not outside the Marine Corps base in Böblingen, Germany.

There were images, moments, that had pulled him through the worst of Hell Week when half the remaining hopefuls had rung out and quit because they couldn’t hack it. Grown men, tough soldiers, had openly wept at their failure. But each time he’d had to dig deep, there were certain memories that had let him find the resolve to stick out the training or to survive when by all rights he should have died in some foreign hole.

He always remembered her lost in the dance—the tall beauty in sky-blue deer hide dress and boots. And he always remembered her floating out on that surfboard when the waves were too quiet to ride but too peaceful to leave. She belonged somewhere she could find that peace.

Bart’s description had sounded completely on the mark. So completely that Mac had asked him to arrange one other favor. Once he’d asked, Bart had slapped him on the back as if they’d been comrades in the same war instead of thirty years apart on opposite sides of the world.

But now, here in Montana, it was only Ama’s opinion that mattered and, as ever, she kept her thoughts carefully to herself.

His family rode three abreast down the ranch’s drive. Looking ahead, he saw that the broken arch of the ranch sign had been replaced while they’d been camped back along the river. New and hopefully carved just as he’d asked of Bart. Mac truly hoped that he’d made the right decision in asking his favor.

The cattle rancher’s daughter—a blonde sprite who couldn’t be more than ten—galloped across the field toward them as if riding was more natural than breathing. She reached them just as they arrived beneath the sign, its message facing out toward the world.

“Would you like a picture? Pa said he thought you might like a picture.” She flourished a Polaroid camera at them. “Saw you up on the bluff looking around and I guessed when you’d get down here. Guessed dead right.” She was breathless with her own success.

Ama’s nod was all Mac needed. He had no photo of her dancing. Nor of her long body in a sleek wetsuit afloat on the Pacific Ocean. But this time he would. His whole family at once, gathered under the arch of the repaired ranch sign.

Julie, that was the sprite’s name, got them all lined up on their horses, then backed her own horse up without touching the reins as she peered through the finder.

“Whoa,” she called softly and the horse whoaed. Maybe he’d have to hire her to give him lessons. Ama, of course, rode a horse even more elegantly than she’d ridden those long ago waves.

Julie snapped it and the square print churned out the front slot.

“Take another,” he called to her.

She eyed him over the camera.

“Dollar apiece,” he offered.

“Two for five dollars. I’m saving up for an entry in the junior rodeo at the fair.” Not greedy, just ambitious. Something a SEAL always appreciated.

He couldn’t help smiling and nodded for her to fire away.

She did, then walked the horse back up to him, flapping a photo in each hand as they developed while the camera dangled around her neck. He solemnly fished out a five and traded it for the two photos.

“Don’t tell my dad,” Julie folded the bill very small then tucked it deep into a jeans pocket. She grabbed her reins, spun about, and galloped off with her long blonde hair floating behind her.

Mac handed one of the photos to Mark. “Your copy, son. This is family. Keep it close.” Mark’s nod said that he understood, or thought he did. For now it was enough, he’d learn the rest when luck and love found him.

“Say, Dad,” Mark had raised his sunglasses to inspect the photo as it developed. “It’s a cool sign, but…”

Mac glanced at the photo he still held as Ama rode forward enough to look back and see the sign itself.

“Looks good to me, Mark. Let’s see what your mom thinks.”

If Ama had been quiet before, she’d now gone so perfectly still that she might as well be hypnotized by the arcing sign of new wood.

“It spells Henderson’s Ranch,” Mark continued, just a little bit oblivious to what was really going on. “Which is great. And I think you and Mom will love it here. But shouldn’t it be plural with the apostrophe after the s, not before?”

But Mac was still waiting for Ama’s final reaction.

She slowly lowered her eyes to look at him.

Just like that long ago day at the end of her dance. She had looked at him and a smile had slowly bloomed to life across her lovely features. Love at first sight was far too slow a word for her effect on him.

Until now, she had always lived his life. And it had been a good one.

Now he expected that he would be even more content living hers.

“It’s her dream now, son. Her ranch. I can only hope you find a woman who makes you feel like I’m feeling right now.”

Then he managed to nudge the horse forward until he could kiss his wife. They’d make a home together under the brilliant blue arch of Montana’s Big Sky.

Copyright © 2018 by M.L. Buchman
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2018 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

You can buy it here if you want to own it:

 

RECENT “IDES OF MATT” STORIES

Free Fiction on the 14th: Twice the Heat

The Ides of Matt:
A free short story,
every month from the 14th-20th.

Did you miss it? Sign up for my newsletter by clicking the button at the right to never miss another.

You can buy this story here if you want to own it:

 

RECENT “IDES OF MATT” STORIES

Release Day: Let’s go to Italy with love

-a Love Abroad B&B romance-

Welcome to the Cinque Terre, the jewel of the Italian Coast. In shades of warm gold, apricot, and peach, these remote stone villages face the Mediterranean. Their narrow cobbled streets are car-free. Instead they’re filled with soft sunlight and hope.

Erica Barnett always dreamed of visiting Italy. But she never planned to arrive alone and devastated. Putting her life back together ranks as a distant second to the priority of fixing her heart.

Ridley Claremont III, wealthy son of a Californian vintner and his trophy wife, discovers the shallowness of his life when his parents are killed in a car wreck. Seeking forgetfulness on a motorcycle driving the European backroads, he stumbles into the tiny cliffside town of Corniglia. Vibrant life greets him around every corner: food and flowers, gelato and friendship. And the wine, most especially the wine.

A man who never faced himself and a woman who finally has, meet in the only place they can. Along the Via dell’Amore, the Path of Love, in Cinque Terre, Italy.


If you missed book #1…

It’s never too late to tramp the paths of England through the gentle Cotswolds hills and medieval towns while falling in love.

Special for Writers: Do you have the Write Stuff?

Limited Time Bundle. Awesome resources for writers.
Exclusively at StoryBundle

In addition to my own fabulous, plain-English guide to Estate Planning, I’m joined by a whole flock of exceptionally skilled authors sharing some of their best tips. It’s all here: Inspiration, Writing, Marketing, Motivation, Business and Estates–all in one neat pack. I’ve known most of these authors for years and am still humbled to be among them.

This is a limited time bundle. Click here to grab it before it goes away!