Ronch Ranch  — Nightshift publishing

An Excerpt From: Ronch Ranch

Copyright © MARI FREEMAN, 2012
All Rights Reserved, Nightshift Publishing, Inc.

Raymond Ronch looked over his recently acquired reading glasses and sighed heavily. Before he could think further on the implications of the glasses, his mother roared into the room in a blur of red and purple. He’d bought her the infernal scooter to make it easier for her to get around the ranch. Her dementia had gotten worse and she refused to get on the Gator six-wheeler, insisting the vehicle would devour her instantly. He’d had no luck convincing her that Gator was the brand name and not the actual reptilian creature come to life to make a meal of her.

She slammed the contraption into his large mahogany desk. She’d been on the scooter almost constantly for the last twenty-four hours since its arrival. It was all they could do to get her to eat a little and sleep through the night.

“Wahoo! This thing is like a new puppy on a hot wooden deck!”

Ray had no clue what that meant but it lightened his heart for a moment. She yanked the helmet off her head and tossed it aside with no regard for its landing zone. Ray cringed as the thing smashed into a sterling silver picture frame that had been displaying a favorite family photo.

“What’s a matter, Ray-Ray?” His mother grinned bigger than she had been in the now-tattered photo. “You look like a snake took a nap in your jock strap.”

He had to laugh as he shook his head. Today was a good day. She knew his name and was outside moving around. Two days ago, she was quiet and sat alone in a rocker on the porch ’til midnight. He’d let her have her fun while she was up and manic like this. After all, there were six hundred acres on their farm and with a helmet, she was mostly safe. He had seven ranch hands and a little brother to look after her.

“You need a good woman, Ray. Some hot lovin’ would put a hitch right back in your giddy-up.” She blinked and looked at the floor for a moment, and her brows drew together. “I’m sorry. Candy left you? Right?” Her face twisted with the effort to recount memories that should come as natural as the sunrise. “Or is she still here?”

“No, Mom. Candy left a few years back.” And even though his gut clenched, he knew he was better off without the ex-wife. She had never accepted how he wanted to live his life. Ray pulled himself from behind the desk. A change in subject was needed here for the both of them. The accounting jumble would have his attention later. A few hours wouldn’t make a difference in fixing the mess his mom had made of the books over the last few years. His eyes had been crossing for days trying to figure out the tax forms anyway.

His mom was alert and her eyes shining this morning. He kissed her forehead and pushed a stray lock of gray hair off her forehead. He backed the Moped up and turned it around in the office and pointed her to the door. “Let’s go see if we can help Dave. The next group gets here in a couple hours.” He replaced her Spiderman helmet, snapped it tight and took a moment to right the broken picture frame. The four of them, all happy and much younger, peered back at him from the photo. Things had been different then. He and Dave were boys, his father was still alive and his mother as tough and as sharp as a cactus patch. Things had been simple.

His mom steered the little motorbike out of his office, through the living room, back out the still open front double doors. She and the scooter bounded down the front porch steps with little regard for her safety or the house. She looked like a mechanical bucking bull bouncing her way down. Dave rushed over from the big barn.

“Holy shit, Ray. She’s gonna kill herself.” But she was off and had ducked into the round pen just inside the ranch gates.

He shook his head. “I know. But she made the decision for us.” He grinned remembering the conversation with her lawyer. Sex or sudden impact. That’s how I want to go out! she’d said, slamming her own version of a power of attorney on his desk. Don’t let these worrywart boys make my final days sappy and boring. Ain’t my style.

“Got a call from Jed. The bus is early. Should be here in a few minutes.” Dave took his hat off and wiped the sweat from his brow. “I reckon a crazy woman on scooter is exactly what folks are expecting first thing on a Texas dude ranch.” He tucked his shirt into his Wranglers. Dave had been the go-as-you-please of the two brothers. But the death of their father, their mother’s illness and the tax issues had made both the boys the worrywarts Momma had accused them of being.

Ray looked out over the front yard and the welcome area. This ranch had been running since the twenties. John Wayne himself had spent some off time here, staying in the main house before Ray and his little brother were even born. The spread had several barns and two large bunkhouses along with the sprawling main house. When he’d been a kid, they were almost always filled to capacity with guests all season. The economic downturn had hurt them like it had many smaller tourist destinations. But his mom’s creative accounting over the last few years may very well be the end of the Ronch Resort Ranch.

He had no clue how he was going to pay the back taxes if that asshole of a taxman was right. A large crash pulled his attention back to the round pen. His momma had slammed into the fence, overturning the Moped and spilling herself in the dirt.

She hollered at them before they made it to the bottom step. She bounced to her feet, unscathed. “Got it.” She bowed, then righted the bike and was out of the pen in a jiffy, not looking back as she headed up the road to meet the oncoming bus.

“Hell if her body ain’t as strong as any mare we got.” Dave shook his head as he headed to the greeting area. The implication was how much of a shame it was her beautiful mind was going when the rest of her health was almost perfect. Ray took a moment to wish things were different. The ranch, the times, his momma’s mind, all of it was out of his control. He hated things he could not fix. Hated. Nothing made him feel more powerless.

The once-shining green bus stopped and the doors opened with a dry metal creak. A new group of city folk ready for adventure filed out into the Texas heat, looking around, oohing and ahhing over the sight of a working cattle ranch. It was a response he’d seen a few thousand times in his life. Ray inhaled a lungful of air, hoping it would clear his mind. It was time to be the foreman for these folks. Cowboys weren’t melancholy about finances or personal problems.

 ***

 Olivia Vance looked at the huge wooden arch over the ranch entrance and groaned inwardly. Ronch Resort Ranch was spelled out in big white letters with the brand of the Triple R right next to it. “Really? Ronch Ranch? You have to be kidding me.”

Her best friend and cousin rolled her eyes. “No wonder they advertise with the Triple R brand.”

Patricia elbowed Olivia in the arm. “And stop it. We’re here and you promised to take it seriously.”

Yeah. She’d promised all right. Promised to come out the middle of fucking nowhere Texas and pretend to drive cattle. For a whole week. What the hell had she been thinking? “Whatever. We’re here. There had better at least be some hot cowboy ass to check out while my ass is getting sore in a saddle. I may even take a special Wrangler ride.” She wriggled her eyebrows. “I mean the place is called Ronch Ranch.”

Not that she had much at home to be doing. She’d lost her job. Hated her apartment. Hated the weather. Most of her nights were spent with a dirty book and cheap wine. Oh, her mother would be proud.

The bus jerked to a stop and Pat nodded to the window. “How about a whole bunch of hot ranchers?” Olivia craned to look around her cousin and into the circular area in front of a seriously cool looking ranch house. And her cousin was right. Seven of the hottest men she’d dared to fantasize about were lined up. Each in a different colored long-sleeved button down shirt, each in tight jeans that showed off how fine the legs of cowboys get from working in the saddle, and each with a sincere smile on his face.

She’d had all kinds of crazy fantasies about this place and the cowboys since Pat talked her into a dude ranch vacation. Good fantasies. And every one of these men could fill the bill in making real life as good as her imagination. Hell, she’d been so long without a date, they’d all be welcome. At once. She’d had that fantasy too. Maybe not all seven, but two or three would surely make her glad she came. Yeah, buddy.

She then saw a woman on a bright purple motor scooter wearing a Spiderman helmet zoom by and off toward one of the side buildings. “Don’t see that every day.”

“Not in Columbus,” Pat answered as she gathered her purse and sweater. She stood and grinned down on Olivia. “Ready to be a cowgirl?”

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