Cord dragged in the garbage can and cleaned up. Finished with that chore, he rearranged the ropes according to type and length. He restacked the saddle blankets.


Gathered the horse’s grooming supplies for a thorough washing. Set all the saddles on the ground and checked for wear and tear he might’ve otherwise missed.


Took him ten minutes to find a clean rag. He kicked over a plastic pail and sat on it while he cleaned Ky’s saddle. The kid needed to climb on a ladder to get on his pony, Plug. But he’d been determined to get on “the cowboy way” so he’d swung his short leg over like an experienced buckaroo the second time he attempted to mount. Cord had been absurdly proud.


After he’d finished wiping the grime off and coated the leather with leather conditioner, he picked up the next saddle. He’d bought this saddle for Marla right after they’d gotten married and she assured him she’d love being a rancher’s wife.


What’d he been thinking, marrying her in the first place? So she’d been pretty. So she’d fawned over him like he was John Wayne reincarnated. She’d lacked a sense of humor, although that wasn’t fair because most folks would say the same about him. She hadn’t been adventurous in bed, nor had she understood his occasional appetite for domination and a bit of kink. Somehow she’d equated those scenarios as a threat to her female independence.


Marla hadn’t been driven to success; she more or less floated along, flitting from one thing to the next. From the get-go she exhibited an aversion to working outdoors, and to working hard, so he didn’t know why he’d ever believed she’d’ve been happy living in Wyoming.


Why had he fallen for her? Hell, why had he imagined himself madly in love with her? Why had it crushed him that she’d left? Because he hadn’t the balls to admit he’d made a mistake and she’d made the first move to rectify it? Had his pride concocted a lie after the fact about his deep, abiding love for her just to keep him infallible in the eyes of his son? The responsible Cord McKay had loved once and would never make the same mistake twice?


That bit of truth sliced him to the bone.


Cord racked his brain to counter that thought. Seemed to be a blank spot where Marla existed in his memory. A bitter, dark hole. If he couldn’t remember the good or the bad times, just a whole lot of nothing, why was he so bitter? Why had he sworn off all women? He’d always chalked up his reasoning to the old adage that one bad apple spoiled the whole barrel, but now he had to admit his line of thinking was seriously fucked up.


The outer door to the barn crashed open. “Cord? You in here?”


“In the tack room. Come on back.”


Kade paused in the doorway holding a six-pack. “Wanna beer?”


“Yeah.” Colt took one, twisted off the top and the metal cap pinged against the garbage can. He sucked down a mouthful. “Thanks.”


“No problem.” Kade flipped over another bucket and sat. “Whatcha doin’?”


“Cleanin’ up. Haven’t been in here since Ky’s been gone. The boy left his mark.”


They drank beer and talked about Ky’s adventures in the big city. Kade adored Ky and his son considered Kade another one of his uncles. The three of them hung out at least once a week, watching “guy” movies, taking in a rodeo, riding horses or target shooting.


“I’ve never seen that saddle before. Whose is it?”


“It was Marla’s.”


Kade picked it up and scrutinized it. “No bullet holes in it so I know you ain’t been usin’ it for target practice.”


“Har har. Forgot I even had the damn thing. Big waste of money. I think I coaxed her onto a horse maybe four times.”


“I don’t wanna be a nosy dick, but you still got it bad for her?”


Cord’s gaze zoomed to Kade’s. “No. Why’d you ask that?”


“Dunno. You ain’t been lookin’ for another woman since the divorce, at least not in this county.”


“Maybe I’m concentratin’ my efforts on the next county over.”


Kade’s whole posture went rigid.


“What?”


“Nothin’.”


“I ain’t lookin’ to get hitched again any time soon.”


“That’s odd, what with your brothers finally takin’ the plunge. Least now any woman you brung home as a bride would have other female family around.”


“Worried about me becomin’ a grouchy ol’ bachelor, cuz?”


“Worried about a lot of my kinfolk, but you’d be damn near the bottom of the list.”


Cord swigged his beer. “Who’s on the top?”


“Colt. Followed by Dag. Then Cam since he’s gettin’ shot at in Iraq. Kane.”


“Why Kane?”


“He’s been influenced by Colt. Neither of our mamas would be happy to learn how they’ve been treatin’ women.”


“That why you moved out?”


“Partially. Mostly because I found myself skatin’ toward that callous attitude. It ain’t right. I don’t wanna go through life with that sense of entitlement. Any woman oughta open her legs for me just ’cause I smiled at her or my last name is McKay. Leads to a bad outlook on all women.”


Cord wondered if that last comment was a shot at him. “When you find a woman you wanna date, I’m sure she’ll appreciate you not bein’ a bitter dickhead only lookin’ for a piece of tail.”


“I am datin’ someone now.”


“Yeah?” Cord didn’t hide his surprise. “How come I haven’t heard about it?”


“Keepin’ a low profile. Don’t wanna mess it up and introduce her to our crazy family before I have to. And I definitely didn’t want her knowin’ what was goin’ on at the Boars Nest.”


“Do I know her?”


Kade shook his head. “She’s from out of state. She and her sister inherited a small family place and she relocated.”


“You ain’t gonna tell me her name?”


“Nope. But I will tell you I ain’t never met anyone like her. Makes me sound totally fuckin’ moon-eyed, but she’s funny and smart, sexy as shit, and she don’t take no shit, neither. There’s somethin’ there worth stickin’ around for.”


“I assume you’re bangin’ her anyway despite your respectin’ women spiel?”


A hangdog look crossed Kade’s face. “No. Ironic, huh? The guy who weeks ago couldn’t talk about nothin’ but gettin’ laid is…not gettin’ any at all. And I’m good with that. What about you?”


Cord thought of hedging, but as long as Kade hadn’t named names, he wouldn’t either. “Actually, I am seein’ someone.”


Kade’s eyes widened like Cord smacked him upside the head with a 2x4. “Get the fuck out. Seriously?”


“No, it ain’t serious. It’s casual,” he lied, mostly to himself. “Probably last until Ky gets back home.”


“I assume you’re bangin’ her?”


Cord grinned. “Every chance I can get.”


Kade chinked his bottle to Cord’s. “’Bout time.”


Another beer loosened Cord’s tongue. “I wanna run somethin’ by you that Dad and I’d been talkin’ about before all this shit happened with Colt.”


“You seen Colt?”


“Nah. Dad’s keepin’ him away from me. You seen him?”


“Nope. Kane and I are doin’ the shit hayin’ along the ditches in the public thoroughfare on either side of the county line so I ain’t seen much of my brother either.


What’ve you and Uncle C been talkin’ about?”


“Keepin’ the part of the herd that’s up on the western edge on summer grazin’ over the winter and through calvin’ season.”


“Why?”


“There’s plenty of feed and water. We need to rest the grazin’ where we’d keep ’em here anyway. I’m sick of drivin’ cattle a hunnerd miles, and back and forth twice a year.


If we don’t lose too many head, we might expand up there with a fulltime operation. If we do have losses, chalk it up to a failed experiment and we know for sure it can only be used as summer grazin’.”


“That’s damn isolated country out there, Cord. No town for sixty miles.” Kade’s eyes registered recognition. “You’re thinkin’ of sendin’ Colt out into the boondocks? As a way to get him to dry out?”


“We’re considerin’ it. Don’t know if he’ll go for it. We can’t force him. Even out in the middle of nowhere he could invite some of his boozin’ friends. Then our experiment wouldn’t matter—either for him or the cattle, ’cause I’ve no doubt the cows wouldn’t do well under his half-assed drunken care.” Cord sighed. “Like I said, nothin’s decided, somethin’ we’re kickin’ around.”


“Keep me in the loop.” Kade eased to his feet.


“Don’t say nothin’ to nobody.”


Kade snorted. “I’m a little short on roommates these days. Do most my talkin’ to the tractor or the cattle.”


“I hear ya there.” Cord followed Kade out to his pickup.


“This sucks sometimes, don’t it?”


“What?”


“Bein’ the oldest next generation McKay son. You. Me. Quinn. Knowin’ that keepin’ the McKay ranch goin’ is on our shoulders. Feelin’ responsible for every damn thing that happens on our place. Bein’ stewards to the land and the cattle and feedin’ the mouths of our family. Makin’ sure everyone and everything is properly tended. Can be a heavy weight, cuz. Can be damn lonely.”


Cord didn’t respond. Kade wasn’t much for philosophizing, but when he did, he was always dead on. Cord was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and listen.

***

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