Rusty Briggs stilled at the crunch of leaves behind him. The fire should keep the coyotes away, but the winter had been harsh. His cows were dropping babies and normally he wouldn’t be out here, but one of his cows that had issues calving was showing signs of giving birth. The last thing he wanted to find in the morning was a dead cow and calf. So he was out here tonight with Lord only knows what keeping him company, sitting by a campfire when he could be snuggled under the covers in his own bed.
The noise sounded closer behind him, making his skin crawl. He wished he had another guy on the ranch to work with him, but his last man had left after he found a bit of gay porn on one of the computers. Hell, it hadn’t even been the rough stuff, just one shot of a naked guy that he’d accidently left open. Then old man Baker had seen him having sex. God, that had been freaking embarrassing. Rusty wondered how many people the old fart had told. No one had really said anything in town, but the reception had chilled a bit in the last few months.
His great-uncle, Devin, didn’t know. At least he didn’t think Devin had any idea, and he hadn’t said anything when they’d seen each other, which honestly wasn’t much. His uncle could just be clueless since the man didn’t get involved in the rumor mill. The townies didn’t outright refuse his money, but there had been fewer invites for him to join other tables at Debbie’s Diner, and a few people had been less than happy to see him a time or two when he happened upon them at the grocery store.
Hell, he wasn’t a whore and didn’t want to stick his junk in every guy that happened to cross his path. There was this one guy who blew through town every once in a while and they got busy. Other than the man who scratched his itch, he stayed to himself. If he could find a very sweet and special man to share his life with, he’d be thrilled. Until then, his hand did just fine.
The sharp snap of a stick off to his right made him shudder. He should say something and scare away the coyote, but part of him wondered if he should just let the damn animal win tonight in the battle to rule the range. It was odd that defeat clawed so harshly at him, making him want to sell the ranch and move to the city. He could get a job working in a store or something else where no one would care that he was gay—hell, they might even celebrate his homosexual status with glee, throwing him a party. He snorted quietly, laughing at his runaway imagination. If he actually came out of the closet, it would be easier if he left Texas and became a city dweller. But when had he ever taken the easy path? If it came to light he was gay, the people of Sweetwater would just have to learn to live with him.
Rusty stood and shouldered his shotgun, wondering if he should have grabbed his rifle instead. The darkness ate away the firelight, leaving him unable to see the creature stalking him. He could take a shot, but it would be wild. Without dropping the gun, Rusty reached down and grabbed his night vision binoculars, lifting them to his eyes. At first, he didn’t see anything, then he made out the large animal crouched about twenty yards away. It wasn’t a coyote but a mountain lion. His spine tingled and sweat popped out on his brow despite the cool temperatures. The wave of fear was tangible, causing goose bumps to break out down his back and up his arms. Mountain lions had been known to show up from time to time in the area, but most of the big cats usually stayed to the south or much farther north and to the west. Next time he had some money, he was investing in a night scope for his rifle, and he damn sure wouldn’t bring his wimpy little shotgun if he spent the night out here again. He needed precision to take down a mountain lion, and this gun wouldn’t give him that.
The big cat could kill him—would kill him with ease. That’s why the damn animal had come so close, it wasn’t just hunting the baby cows, it was after him too, and he had no doubt he’d make the cat a nice little meal.
“Sorry princess, I ain’t dinner.” Rusty set the binoculars down, knowing he couldn’t fire the shotgun without both hands. The cartridge he had in the gun wasn’t big enough to kill the cat, but this piece had a powerful kick and he didn’t want to ruin his shoulder. Rusty knew his aim was off, the pellets spraying wide, but he wasn’t trying to kill the cat this time, just make sure the damned thing didn’t think he was on the menu. He pulled on his ear protection and squeezed the trigger, shoving the second shell into the chamber without hesitation. Rusty tugged off the ear protection and waited for the cat to run at him, but nothing happened. After about twenty seconds, he picked up the binoculars, scanning the area, searching for a sign of the mountain lion. The cat was gone. The mountain lion surely would have killed at least one of his cows, and with money being so tight, he couldn’t afford to lose even one this year. He wasn’t close to being totally broke, but he didn’t like to throw away cash on feeding a hungry cat.
After his heart stopped slamming against his ribs and his breathing was no longer racing like a freight train on an open track, Rusty laid down on the sleeping bag he’d placed by the fire and tried to relax. The mountain lion might come back, but for now she was gone. His mind twisted through the possibilities, and for a few minutes, he thought about getting up and sleeping in his truck, but the idea of trying to get comfortable in the cramped cab made his muscles ache.
At some point he drifted off, but he wasn’t sure for how long. When he woke, the sky was growing pink to the east and a cow was bawling about twenty yards away. This life wasn’t all peaches and rainbows, but he wouldn’t change it for the world, even if it meant he had a tough time finding a mate. Before he headed over to see what was wrong with the cow, he grabbed his thermos of coffee and took a swig of the lukewarm liquid, happy to be on this side of the ground on such a glorious day.
Mornings on the range were the best with the beautiful sunrises. The dawning of a new day made him believe anything was possible. He felt real out here, like he was a part of something more than just a machine pacing along, trying to make it one more day. He chuckled before he took another swig. Nothing like a scare with a mountain lion to make him reassess his life. Living wasn’t a given on the range. He had to be tough to make it out here, and every new dawn was a slice of paradise served up waiting for him to embrace it. He just had to wait long enough to collect enough slices to make something of it, and he was close. One little slice was missing and then everything would be perfect.
Rusty capped his coffee and made his way across the scrubby prairie over to the cow raising hell. He slowed as he moved closer, taking in the situation. From the looks of it, he wouldn’t have to help pull the calf this year. About fifteen feet away, he saw the mama cow throw back her head and push the baby out. He stood away from the pair, happy to see the spindly legged cutie blink at the sunlight creeping over the prairie. To be born on such a wonderful morning must be awesome. The momma moved a bit and started licking her baby, clearing away the mucus. The miracle of birth hit him in the chest and he drew in a slow breath. The economy might take his last dime, and he may not have any friends left, but he couldn’t walk away from this place, not without putting up a fight.
Rusty packed up his equipment before checking on the cows one last time. The day would be warm and the threat of animal attack was minimal, even with the big cat in the area. Only two more cows were left to calve, and he’d never had any issues with those two. Before the sunset tonight, he’d make sure the last two cows were doing fine before he climbed into bed. Now, all he wanted was a fresh cup of hot coffee and some food that was made at home and not out here. That was a lie; he wanted so much more. This was exactly one of those moments he really wanted someone to share his life with. A man waiting at home, or hell, even one who’d slept out here with him would be better than the lonely twist in his gut that left him melancholy and aching for something more. Home with a man to share would be perfect, but for now, he would settle on small slivers of what could be.