Matthew Halls heard the blast of the gunshot only a nanosecond before he felt the bullet disturb the air above his head. So it was a belated and pointless action when he dived to the hard earth where he had already been crouching before the discharge. Even as the adrenaline rushed through his veins and his heart thudded against his ribs, he discovered miserably that the lens of his SLR was now crushed to kingdom come, slammed as it had been with the full force of his body weight. He supposed he was more preoccupied with his ruined lens than he ought to be, given that he had nearly just died. But escaping his death only aided him the opportunity to be furious with his attacker instead.
He heard the thuds of a thousand hooves as the horses charged at him and felt their vibration in the earth even after they came to a sudden stop mere feet away. “That was the warning shot. Get up and identify yourself before I decide something worse for your trespassing.”
It was the girl. The cowgirl to be exact.When he had left his friend’s family ranch after breakfast, he hardly expected to find such a fascinating subject. Having come down to Lainie’s Creek, Texas for only a week’s visit with his friend, Matthew had wasted no time before setting out to explore the surrounding area of rare hilly tops, vast prairie land, and sparse forestation, prepared for some serious landscape photography. But the rustic charm of the region was such, engrossed in his work, he had soon found himself lost with not a body in sight to guide him back to a familiar path. And, of course, his cell phone had decided to lose network at that precise time.
So he had walked on with purpose and eventually found his path blocked by a line of fences that went beyond his visual range, clearly there to mark the boundaries of a private territory. And like any intelligent man, he had walked along the fences, knowing he ought to come across the entrance to the estate sooner or later, hoping to find someone then who would help him back to his friend’s ranch.
However, before he had gotten far, his attention was drawn to the collective sounds of people, horses, and cattle. He could tell that the group was gathered just beyond the copse of green that blocked his view and, as luck would have it, there happened to be a couple of loose stumps in the fence he could swing around to pass through. There was no reason not to go in if he wanted to get help when it was so plainly looking him in the face. So he had “trespassed”, as the cowgirl now put it, and walked through the trees to find an impressive group of horsemen and their animals not beyond 200 yards’ distance, guiding the cattle to graze in loose formation over the land.
A photographer first and a lost man second, he had immediately drawn out his camera to capture this scene of diligence and deliberation. He had taken a number of pictures that he liked, concentrating first on the general group activity and then on some medium-range vantages of individual cowboys. That was when he saw her.
She was in the center of the action, a shotgun strapped to her torso, its barrel poking up behind her back like it had a personality of its own. She swiveled her Palomino left and right, a look of sheer determination and exhilaration on her face as she drove the cows firmly but patiently.
HE was not really a sexist man generally, but her skill on the horse and with the cattle belied her gender, but as he toggled his zoom to a nearer perspective, he could confirm that she was definitely female, if the swells under her shirt had anything to say about it. There was also the wisp of blond lock escaping from beneath the brim of her Stetson, where the rest of her hair was obviously tucked in. She was beautiful, rustic yet elegant, and there was a regal quality to her air as she sat high atop her horse.
Intrigued, he had taken quite a number of pictures of her and was reviewing them on the digital interface of his camera when the gunshot had rang the air and nearly taken him out. Now, furious, he got up and turned defiantly towards his attacker, beautiful or not. “Are you crazy? You give a verbal warning first when dealing with trespassers, not just shoot at them! What do I look like, a deer?”
His question drew a laugh from the youngest member of the clan, a boy who could be no more than in his mid-teens and who obviously had not yet learnt to demonstrate the somber stance perfected by the rest of his party. But the woman he had been so fascinated with just five minutes ago was not amused.
“You’re on our land.”
“Yeah, I figured that when you shot at me, but I don’t particularly appreciate your manner of communication.” He was not enjoying having to look up at his opponent. A tall man at six-feet-two, he usually was the one being looked up at. He was gaining newfound appreciation for lower vantage points when working with his subjects. He was also becoming acutely aware that, though they were not hundreds of horses but only four, the horsemen – and horsewoman – looked formidable from their perches. Yet he refused to be shot at and take it lying down.
But standing up for himself seemed to be creating no effect on the woman who, though did not appear the oldest, had clearly chosen to take the lead in this situation. “You have yet to identify yourself and state why you’re here.”
“I’m a guest at the McKenna Ranch. I was out on a stroll and got lost. I reached your fence and was walking along when I heard you people and came over for help. I certainly didn’t know that it is hunting season on humans.”
“He sounds from Far East,” drawled one of the older men like an aside as though Matthew was not present or was unable to hear him. In fact, he and the guy beside him looked like they were twins, probably no more than Matthew’s age.
“New York. I’m from New York. Land of the civilized.”
His words immediately drew glares and all four horses shifted on their legs under the intensity radiating from their riders. “Well, we hear that you folks in the great NYC shoot people aplenty. In parks, in streets, in schools.”
“And yet I’ve lived there for twenty-eight years, unscathed and un-shot at.”
“Relax, you wuss,” drawled the second twin, looking down at Matthew with unrestrained contempt. “Elaina, here, wasn’t aiming to hit you. You’d know if she had.”
So her name’s Elaina, is it? Pretty. Still Matthew did not like to see the smirks on each of their faces, least of all on Cowgirl Elaina’s – even if she did have very sexy lips, a droopy kind of shape with lots of crinkles in them and deep curves on top. But that did not entitle her to be smug. “Well, you made me break my lens nevertheless,” he yelled, shaking his camera at them, frustrated that he was getting nowhere. “And I’m not hearing that you’re sorry.”
“Were you taking pictures?” she said sharply, her eyes narrowed into slits. She seemed to have noticed the camera hanging from its strap around his neck for the first time.
“I’m always taking pictures! It’s what I do, I’m a freelance photographer!”
“Freelance photographer,” she repeated slowly, as though gliding the words on her tongue and getting the feel of them. “You trespass onto our land and take pictures of us and want us to be sorry? I say we call it even, Mr. –”
“Mr. Halls Matthew?”
She was deliberately being obtuse. “No, Matthew Halls,” he rearranged for his attacker through clenched teeth.
“Right. Well, Mr. Matthew Halls, I say we call it even, seeing as how we were both takings shots. Let’s say I’m a freelance gun shooter.”
Her companions guffawed. Just what he needed, a smart-ass woman on a horse taking a mickey out of him. And the day was getting hotter as the sun rose higher in the sky. “Fine. I’ll just turn around and get over the fence there now, if you’ll be kind enough to let me go with only a warning shot.”
“Now just wait a minute,” she stopped him as he turned to leave. “I suppose we can help you get back to the McKennas’. They’re friends of ours and it would look mighty amiss if we didn’t take their guest back after we shot at him,” she contemplated aloud to her companions, who all assented with subtle nods. Except in case of their youngest member whose smile towards Matthew was positively warm.
“Well, how kind of you, Ma’am,” Matthew replied, imitating her drawl and taking an exaggerated bow. “Will the wonders of your southern hospitality never cease?”
“Yes, they may. So don’t push your luck.” And with that, she haughtily turned her horse and unceremoniously dismissed him as she rode away, kicking her horse into a quick gallop.
Matthew did not know whether to admire her equestrianism or balk at his easy dismissal as he watched her. But the first twin was speaking to him.
“Can you ride?”
“What? Ride? Never been on a horse in my life,” replied Matthew, eyeing the nearest beast now warily.
“Don’t worry. You can ride with me,” volunteered the teenage cowboy and Matthew noticed that the boy’s voice had not reached its final post-pubescent octave. “I’m Jonathan Corey but you can call me Jonny. These here are my brothers, Haden and Tyler. Elaina’s our sister.”
Matthew shook the boy’s outstretched hand and replied the twin’s salutes with nods of acknowledgment, before focusing on the matter at hand. “So how are we going to do this?”
Tyler, the second twin, got down from his horse and came over to where Matthew was standing beside Jonny and his horse. “Here, let me help. You hold on tight now to Jonny’s hand over there and put your foot in that tread down here and swing your leg over the horse’s behind to get on the saddle, see? Don’t worry, you won’t fall. I’m here to give you the boost.”
But he did fall. Twice. Flat on his backside. But with some struggle and as few grunts as possible he finally managed to fit into the saddle with Jonny, holding the cantle to keep steady. To the other’s credit, they did not laugh. He supposed without Elaina present, her brothers felt free to drop their pretense of hostility. A theory that was proven further correct as they rode back to the McKennas’ ranch, conversing freely and building up a quick camaraderie.
They talked about how the Corey and McKenna families had been friends for four generations since the time the McKennas had moved to Lainie’s Creek. By the time the McKennas arrived, the Coreys had been long settled in the region and had helped the newer family integrate into the local community.
So they eventually came to the topic of how Matthew was related to the McKennas. The Coreys seemed very interested to learn that he had arrived with Brooke McKenna, the McKenna’s only child, who just happened to have returned after a five years’ absence during which she had been pursuing her career as a model in New York. The knowing look the brothers exchanged did not go unnoticed by him but for some reason he did not feel inclined to correct them about his friendship with Brooke. He had once heard that the people of the country lived on a diet of gossip and who was he to deprive them of it.
Instead he brought up the topic of their sister, in which he really was interested. “So about Elaina – is she always so high strung?”
Hayden’s head had veered in Matthew’s direction momentarily but he did not deign to respond. Instead when he turned his eyes back on the road, Tyler, whom Matthew had already taken to be the moderator among the siblings, replied.
“She’s very attached to the land, our Elaina,” explained he. “Papa hadn’t agreed to her working on the ranch at first once she finished high school. Used to say the work wasn’t becoming of a lady and Papa sure wanted Elaina to be a lady. Her grades were always better than any of ours and Papa demanded that she go to college. But she used to steal off to help the hands and never signed up for college. She eventually got him to agree on letting her work on the ranch fulltime. She feels she’s earned the right to the land more than any man.”
“And she’s trigger happy,” muttered Matthew and Jonny laughed since he accidentally spoke right into the boy’s ear. Matthew could tell that Hayden had his ears perked so he decided not pursue the subject further.
But as he thought of his broken lens, he could only think of her with gloom and foreboding. Cowgirl Elaina – well, it seemed that she was a cowgirl through and through. And more than a little Texan with her gun at the ready. He should remember to stay away from her in the future or at least try not to spook her if they did come across each other again.
Read Chapter 2