A Cowgirl's Christmas

By: CJ Carmichael

CHAPTER ONE


For Callan Carrigan the day started like thousands of others on the Circle C Ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana.

She spent two minutes in the bathroom brushing her teeth. Then she was pulling on a shirt and some jeans, threading her belt as she walked down the stairs, meeting her father, Hawksley, in the kitchen where they grunted “morning” at each other. Side by side they downed a cup of coffee each, while looking out the window to the west. From here they could see most of the outbuildings, painted white with green metal roofs. Beyond them the pastures, the rolling hills, the mountains. Five minutes later, in the mud room, they put on their boots, jackets, and in her case, a red down vest.

The air in the latter half of October was icy, despite the extended sunny period they’d been enjoying. Soon they would be moving the cattle in for the winter. But not today. There were still too many fences needing repairs. Her sister Sage’s wedding, held here at the ranch a little more than a week ago, had put them behind schedule.

Dawn was breaking as Callan strode across the yard with her father. In the soft morning rays, Callan noticed Hawksley’s grey complexion, the stoop in his tall, strong back, the slowness of his gait. These changes, signs of age, had appeared suddenly, starting about a year ago. Until then, her father had seemed invincible, tower of strength, who could work around the clock, when he had to.

Lately, he was struggling to get through a twelve-hour day. The few times Callan suggested slowing down, seeing a doctor, he turned defensive and angry, like a wounded animal biting the hand that wanted to help.

They went about their morning business as usual, and when chores were finished, met back in the house. Callan washed up in the mudroom before padding in sock feet to the large kitchen. Her father stood at the coffee pot, filling the enormous ceramic mug he’d been given when he purchased his last all-wheel-drive SUV. That had been ten years ago. The SUV was still running and the mug was okay, too, though it did have a chip on the handle.

But God forbid she throw it out.

“The men say they need another three days to finish with the fencing,” Hawksley said.

“Should I help them?”

“No. I need you to come with me to test out those three-year-old colts. We’ll take them up to Four Corners and see if they’re ready to work the round-up this year.”

Callan smiled at the prospect of a beautiful October day spent on the back of a young horse. Her father had just offered her the equivalent of a snow day to a grade school student. The views up at Four Corners—where their land bordered on the Sheenans’ at the point where two creeks merged into one—would be beautiful at this time of year with all the autumn colors.

The coffee smelled great. Nothing beat it when you’d already been out working for an hour in the cold. She’d moved in behind her father, expecting him to fill her mug, too, the way he usually did, when his hand unexpectedly started trembling. He dropped the pot to the counter, then used both hands to lean against the granite support, as he gasped for air.

“Dad? What’s happening?”

One second his face was contorted with pain, the next he was frowning at her. “Just a touch of heartburn. I told you last night that cabbage salad was a bad idea.”

She wasn’t satisfied with his answer. “Let’s scratch the ride for today. You need to see a doctor.”

“Like hell I do. Stop nagging.”

He won the argument. He always did. Callan scrambled eggs for breakfast, then packed up ham and cheese sandwiches and a couple of apples. Normally she hated cooking or any sort of food prep. In the old days, their mom, Beverly, had done all the cooking at the Circle C. Callan had only been eight when her mom was killed, helping her husband deal with a heifer in the throes of a difficult birth. After that, Hawksley had hired a housekeeper who cooked meals and kept the place clean. But Nora Stevens’s hours had been cut back drastically the spring Callan finished high school, so now she just came in once every two weeks to do a thorough cleaning.

“We’ve only got the two of us,” Hawksley had reasoned. “You should be able to handle meals from now on.”

Trouble was, Callan worked a full day on the ranch and the meals were an extra, unwanted burden. But she tried not to complain.

Certainly today, with the prospect of a nice, long trail ride, she wasn’t going to.

As she filled up their water bottles, she kept a close eye on her father. He finished his eggs, toast and orange slices for breakfast and drank all his coffee. As he put his dishes into the dishwasher, she had to admit he looked a lot better.

Maybe it had been just a touch of heartburn.

If only Dani were here. Dani, a professor of psychology at the same college Portia attended, had a calm, logical way around her. Maybe she could talk Hawksley into seeing a doctor.

Should Callan give Dani a call? But Hawksley hated when they worried and nagged. And she didn’t want to spoil the beautiful day before them.

It was past nine o’clock by time they’d curried and saddled up the two stud colts. Callan took hers for a few quick turns around the corral before heading out through the open gate. She waited until her father had followed suit, then circled back to close the gate.

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