by Laina Villeneuve
What Jo Harding loves most about the summer is being able to retreat from annoying humans. Though her friends say she’d be happier with someone sleeping by her side, she insists that all she needs to be happy are her mules, her dog, and a trail into the backcountry. She has absolutely no time to teach the incompetent, if attractive, newcomer.
Daisy Lucero is an eager student from the start. Hired for work in the café, her real dream is to explore the High Sierra wilderness on horseback. While she would love to earn the respect of the handsome woman who inspired her adventure, she may have to settle for pestering her with songs and questions.
In the vast classroom of the California wilderness, each woman finds herself tested. Tests of perseverance for Daisy as she learns to ride, and tests of patience as Jo considers whether life is about more than riding alone.
It doesn’t take either of them long, however, to realize that neither one of them needs a lesson in chemistry.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"My family are not horseback riders. I don’t think either my mom or dad has ever been on a horse, so to have a daughter whose love of horses went beyond the stories and models to play with to actual lessons was, I know, a completely foreign world to them. I remember how terrified I was during those first lessons when there was so much to learn.
The barn became my community. I didn’t fit in at school, but I had my barn friends, and we ran like a wild herd of ponies on weekends and during the long summer days when one of my parents would drop me off at the barn in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon. Once I was part of the herd, I watched newcomers to the barn with interest. I remember one woman who told me that she had ridden a lot as a young girl and then had stopped. She was returning to it as an adult. I swore then that I would always have a horse to ride.
I sold my horse when I went to college, and during school, the only time I rode was summers when I went off to the High Sierras to lead trail rides and work pack trips. Once I got my degree, I got a job teaching English. I got married. I had kids. I understood how that woman drifted away from her time in the saddle. Writing has brought me back to the saddle in a different way. Daisy’s character gave me the opportunity to share that backcountry world through the eyes of a newcomer. Jo gave me a chance to share some of the wisdom I learned from the staff who had much more experience than I did.
Every year, my kids and I watch the Rose Parade. They know I love the horses best and always watch to see if any pack mules are making their way down Colorado Boulevard as they did many years ago. Telling my kids stories about those days in the backcountry made them want to join me on the trail, and planted the seed for this story. I hope you’ll saddle up and see where the story took me. It was such a wonderful trip!"
Pin's Reviews - Cowgirl 101 is a slow-burn romance between two very different personalities set in the beautiful High Sierras of California in summer. The story is well rounded with good conflict, and a lot of interesting information about guided mule trips in the wilderness of High Sierras trails. I was very happy with this book and could easily recommend it.
Betty H. - I really enjoyed Cowgirl 101 by Laina Villeneuve. This book has all the elements of an exceptional modern Western romance with two unique and individual main characters. The setting, of course, is gorgeous. The romance is kind of an enemies-to-lovers tale and definitely a slow-burn romance, but sweet and satisfying. This is the first novel I’ve read by this author, and I’m definitely going to be looking for more of her work. If you love modern-day Western romance with distinctive and engaging characters set in a stunningly beautiful land, then I can recommend this novel for you.
Karen R. - This is a gorgeous book. Everything about it is gorgeous, from the setting to the writing style. Her writing is so readable, so beautiful and lyrical, that it makes the story flow even better. The first half was very slow for me, but I knew that this was a deliberate choice. We needed all that background, all that time to pass, to understand how Daisy and Jo would fit together.
“Hot rats!” Jo Harding hissed, jumping on one foot and shaking the other that she had finally extracted from under Ladybird’s devilish hoof. “You did that on purpose, you empty-headed jackass!”
“Step on her other foot for calling you that, Ladybird!” Gabe Owen’s rich voice startled her all over again.
“Daggummit it, Gabe! I’m mad enough to swallow a horned toad backward! Keep running your mouth and I’ve got a special name for you too!”
“Keep tightening that cinch and you’ll turn that poor mule into a peanut!”
“It’s not that tight,” Jo said as she loosened the girth.
“Not as tight as the jeans she’s got on,” the cowboy joked, tipping his head in the direction of the newbie leading a dirty white horse toward the upper hitching rail.
“Who?” Jo grabbed the next mule’s pack saddle. She had no intention of following Gabe’s line of vision. She’d already paid the price for watching the newcomer trying to catch a horse for the last fifteen minutes. Her irritation had grown with every hesitant step Tight Jeans had taken.
“Zorro, the newbie you’ve had your eye on all morning. Thinking about asking her out?”
“Thinking about chewing her out,” Jo mumbled as she watched the woman loop the lead around and around the rail in front of the employee shed. Gabe’s nickname was apt. Give her a black mask and cape to go with her flat-brimmed, unshaped black hat, and she could go trick-or-treating as Zorro.
“I wondered if she was your type.”
“I wonder if she knows a daggum thing about horses.”
“Looks like she needs help.”
Jo refused to take the bait. She untied Ladybird and said, “I don’t see anyone stopping you.”
“Not true. My girlfriend’s a sheriff. She’s kept a close eye on me ever since she gave me that speeding ticket, and she’s got informants everywhere. No way I could help out someone as hot as that without ending up in trouble.”
“Not my job.” Jo jutted her jaw in the direction of the lower pack dock where she had already sorted the guests’ luggage and sleeping bags, her cook’s kitchen boxes and camping gear like tables, chairs, shovel and ax. They were waiting to be loaded on mules and transported into the backcountry. “I’m one foot out of the yard. I don’t have time to teach Zorro the difference between a horse’s rump and its muzzle.”
“You’ve got wagons of time.” When she frowned at him, he added, “I’ll help you out of the yard.”
“Not my job,” Jo shot over her shoulder as she led Ladybird and Dumbo over to the pack dock across the yard from the sheds and hitching rail where the dude horses were saddled each morning. The day-ride crew of Lodgepole Pine Pack Outfit led up to twenty tourists down to Rainbow Falls three times a day on the “bombproof” dude horses that could be trusted not to spook at unexpected things on the trail. Jo regarded the trip as the Disneyland of the backcountry, with families who wanted a quick thrill and a photo opportunity. Gabe had told her to be grateful for the revenue the two-hour-long rides brought in, but it was difficult since Leo was often forced to staff it with unskilled workers.
Gabe followed her to the shed with a raised wooden platform full of packing gear: boxes and the metal racks that attached them to the mule’s pack saddle, huge leather panniers, ropes to tie down the loads and tarps to protect it all.
Away from the chaos at the Lodge, Jo was able to do her own thing. Out in the mountains, she always worked alone. In the yard, especially if she wanted to get an early start, she’d accept help but only from those who had proven their worth and skill. Gabe ranked at the top of that list. He was every inch a cowboy—and he had several above six feet—along with great upper-body strength from hauling hay bales his whole life. He wore his brown hair and beard short and usually put work before conversation.
“She’s not hard to look at,” he said, catching the straps of the heavy pannier Jo held in place.
“Being good-looking doesn’t get the job done.” Jo waited for him to lift the bag on his side onto the mule, with no expectation of his saying something about her ability to work and be pretty. Jo wore her dark brown hair as short as the men and though she lacked Gabe’s bulk, she was nearly as tall. With her tight sports bras and her preference for working in silence, she was often mistaken for a man. Not that she minded. Jobs typically held by men held much more appeal for her and she was fine being “one of the guys.” She checked the load and made necessary adjustments before she was ready to tie it off.
“But it makes the job more fun!” he said, uncharacteristically chatty. And distracted. She kept catching him glancing up at the day-ride crew.
For that she launched the end of the lash rope over the top of the mule without hollering the customary “Headache!” in warning.
“Hey!” Gabe barked when the long rope made contact.
“Sorry. Thought you were watching.” Jo wasn’t sorry. She had a job to do, and the sooner she got it done, the sooner she’d be in the saddle with only her five mules for company, the way she liked it. Takeisha, the cook, would take her time riding to camp with the guests, but once the equipment was loaded, Jo would travel faster, arriving at camp first to begin the setup. She expected Gabe to be as steady and hard-working as a mule, the highest compliment she could give anyone. Today he was acting as unfocused and as flighty as a hot-blooded horse.
“There are breaks in the day. You know, times that people stop working. Times when it’s nice to sit next to someone easy on the eyes.”
“When I stop, it’s dark. Time to turn in.”
“An even better time to have someone like that in your bedroll.”
“It’s not that easy.” Jo nodded to the pile of gear she wanted put on Dumbo.
“I never said it was easy. But it’s sure as hell not as hard as you make it.”
“Come on. You’re saying you’d hook up with someone from the day-ride crew?”
“Not anymore, but back in the day…”
“Back when you were helping on a trip, not lead packer.”
“You’re a snob. Those girls do a load of work every day.”
“Not Zorro.” Gabe’s nickname suited her better than Tight Jeans. “I haven’t seen her do a bit of work up there.”
“See, you have been watching!” Gabe’s smile made Jo regret her words. “So she has a lot to learn. You could be the one to teach her.”
“And next summer, she’ll be gone, and we’ll have some new hoo haw who doesn’t know…”
“…a ‘daggum thing.’ I heard you. And I know how much you hate flighty people.”
“I don’t have much use for people. Period.”
Gabe slapped his palm on his chest as if to keep his heart in place. “That hurt.”
Jo unclipped the packed mule and led it away from the dock to make room for the next two to be loaded up for their trip to Third Crossing. She tied Skeeter to Blaze and crossed paths with Takeisha on the way back to the dock. This was their second year as a team. Takeisha had been part of the day-ride crew for three years and itched to get into the backcountry. Since the pack station sent couples on travel trips and she was single, she had accepted the norm and stayed on day rides, stuck training greenhorns and seeing the same scenery day after day.
Jo had always been one to challenge the norm, and as Gabe liked to point out, she wasn’t partnered, either. For Jo, dating meant permanence, and in her experience, animals were the only ones she could trust to stick by her side. Takeisha worked hard and didn’t ask a bunch of questions, so Jo pitched the idea of being a team, not a couple, but a matched set of outsiders—her the only queer cowgirl, Takeisha the only black one.
She handed a brown bag to Jo. “Here’s your lunch.”
“Did you get good stock for us?”
“I snagged Mouse for a bell mare, and I made sure we don’t take Bailey and Lumpy.”
Jo took a bite of the apple she’d pulled from her lunch sack. “Sounds good.”
“I’ll stop the group for lunch right after that patch of granite, so you can pass us before the switchbacks.”
“That’ll work. Thanks for lunch.”
While she and Gabe finished packing, she ate her apple and all the Starburst, except for the orange one which she gave to Blaze, and drank her juice box. The sandwich, she folded in half and shoved in her vest pocket to eat on the trail. She accepted Gabe’s offer to string up her five mules while she grabbed her mount.
Mentally, she was already in the saddle, settling into the rocking gait of Tuxedo, the mule she’d be riding for the summer. But the sight ahead literally stopped her in her tracks. “Son of a biscuit eater,” she mumbled under her breath.
Still tied to the hitching rail, Churchill leaned away from Zorro who held the bridle up as if she was trying to picture where to hang a painting on a wall. A wave of heat ran through Jo’s body. She told herself it was the way the woman was holding the bridle all wrong, the bit up between the big white gelding’s ears, the headstall at his muzzle, and the reins hung around her shoulders like a necklace.
Jo told herself that the heat had nothing to do with the jeans so tight they looked painted on. Nothing to do with eyes as blue as High Sierra skies that lifted to meet Jo’s. She was at least a head shorter than Jo and wore a bright smile.
“The bit goes in his mouth,” Jo said thrown off by all those straight white teeth.
“Bit?” The woman studied the tangle in her hands.
“First thing, you’ve got to untie your mount.” Jo stepped forward to undo the mess of knotted rope at the rail. “How do you not know a decent slipknot?”
“I’ve never gotten a horse ready before,” she admitted.
Jo took in her clean new coat and boots and immediately imagined a personal groom bringing a saddled horse to a mounting block. Girls like her spent the summer working on their tan. The deep tan on this one’s skin and the golden highlights on her otherwise dark curls suggested she spent most of her time by the pool. They worried too much about keeping their nails clean to be bothered to tack up a horse for themselves. She took a deep breath, intent on counting to three to calm herself, but the smell of lavender cleared her mind completely. Who smelled like lavender in the midst of a dozen horses?
“I’ve only ridden once,” the woman said, instantly reminding Jo of the trouble this woman was bound to be. “When I was ten, my aunt took me to Hansen Dam. It’s in southern California. My horse went through a bush, and my shirt caught on a branch. The whole back ripped open!”
Too many words and too much stupidity. What was Leo thinking bringing in help that had zero riding experience? It was a nightmare, but not her nightmare. Across the yard, Gabe caught her eye and gave her a thumbs-up. Seeing her mules strung one after the other and starting to bunch up on each other, she decided not to link his gesture to the amount of time she’d talked to the newbie. She handed the lead to Zorro. “Hang tight. I’ve got to get my string out of here. I’ll see if Gabe can give you a hand.”
With that, she buckled into her chaps, slipped on her gloves and swung aboard Tuxedo. He danced underneath her, eager to get moving. She guided him across the yard and took Blaze’s lead from Gabe.
“You two hit it off?”
Jo looped around Gabe, making sure each of her pack mules was in its place, the loads riding evenly. Satisfied, she said, “I don’t know what she’s doing on the employee side of the rail, and I’ll bet she’s long gone before I’m back from this trip. Good luck!”
With that, she pointed Tuxedo toward the wagon trail and gave him his head. “Cody!” she hollered. “Let’s ride!” Her border collie darted out from underneath the loading dock and streaked out in front of her, tail wagging furiously. Jo lifted her hat both in farewell to Gabe and to release the stresses of the morning. Nothing but the mountains, the trail, and a set of mule ears in front of her, she finally relaxed.
Daisy Lucero shut her mouth before something could fly in. Blood pounded in her ears. She was embarrassed, there was that, but there was so much more. She’d convinced Leo to let her try working in the corrals and couldn’t believe she’d seen her the first morning, the cowgirl who had been riding through her dreams since January. Temptation, the coffee shop where she’d worked, was on the Rose Parade route, so naturally she watched every year. She’d never seen anything like the Lodgepole Pine Pack Outfit’s entry. More to the point, she’d never seen anyone like that cowgirl ride down Colorado Boulevard, one hand controlling her mule and the other guiding a whole string of them.
Of course, she hadn’t known they were mules at the time. At home, she pulled up the Rose Parade on TV to hear the telecaster’s brief description of the outfit. The camera operator must have seen what Daisy did because the picture zoomed in close on the cowgirl. It wasn’t to capture another parade participant hamming for the people at home, only the somber cowgirl who didn’t seem to acknowledge the camera or the enormous crowd. She was in her own world on that mule, like she’d been born in the saddle.
Never in her life had Daisy observed such sense of purpose, and she wanted it for herself. Six months and a five-and-a-half-hour drive north later, she was working at the Lodge. She had seen the cowgirl from the parade a few times in the café and the pull she had felt while watching the parade intensified.
She had hoped that working at the corral, she’d be able to share with the woman how she’d inspired this mountain adventure. Boy, had that gone wrong. She frowned at the tangle of leather in her hands certain that she had made a terrible first impression.
“You need some help with that?”
Daisy raised her eyes and matched the deep voice to a giant cowboy wearing a welcomed smile. “I really do, thanks. Heather is busy putting her riders on. The café is dead right now, so Leo said I could see about learning how to work the corrals.”
The cowboy’s shoulders relaxed and he let out a deep breath. “You work in the café?”
Daisy bunched up the tangle of leather in her left hand and held out her right. “I’m Daisy. I’m new this summer. Obviously. I have a lot of experience with coffee but none with horses, and I want to change that. I heard about how the pack station takes people into the mountains on horseback and I had to come.”
“I’m Gabe. I do some of those trips. You know you can pay and go as a guest. Then we do all the work.” He took the bridle from her hands.
“But I want to learn. I want to do this. I want to explore the trails and lead people through this national treasure.”
“You sound like a commercial.”
The look on his face made her bite back what she was about to say about the videos she had watched and how the mountains had called to her. She knew the mountains had something important for her. She didn’t know what it was, only that she had to learn. “I did a little research.” She hoped that sounded better.
Heather, the petite and spunky blond cowgirl leading the day ride, strode over, all business. “Are we ready?”
“I can do this,” Daisy said. Everything about Heather and Gabe said they belonged at the pack station. Seeing their worn jeans and dusty boots, she willed herself not to inspect her feet to see if a layer of dust hid how new all her clothes were. Self-consciously, she wound her curly dark hair tight and looped it into a knot, wishing for a rubber band so she could get her tangled mess into a ponytail or keep it in a braid. Why hadn’t that occurred to her?
Something passed between Gabe and Heather. He finally nodded and like lightning had the bridle on the horse and was directing her to put her left foot in the stirrup and swing aboard. Heather was a beat ahead of her and already directing her horse out in front of the small group of riders. Daisy tried to take in everything the cowgirl said about how to steer and stop.
Suddenly, Heather swung her mount around to a tiny trail. All the other horses, Daisy’s included, fell in behind her. Daisy’s heart raced. She clutched the horn in front of her on the saddle, trying to get used to the rhythm of her horse’s step. Ahead, even though the trail seemed rough, Heather turned in her saddle and was talking to the guests behind her, a family of four who had driven over from the Modesto area and a boisterous couple from Arizona traveling with the woman’s mother. She caught Daisy’s eye and gave a thumbs-up. Shakily, Daisy returned the gesture.
The narrow horse trail met up with a wider pedestrian path, and Daisy sat taller as they passed hikers, partly out of the attention the animals received, and partly because she was afraid that they might inadvertently scare the horses and make hers move faster than she could handle. Her hips and knees had just started to complain about the way they were stretched around the horse when Heather stopped at a hitching rail. Daisy followed her direction to dismount.
“First stop: Rainbow Falls! The lookout is to the right, and there’s a steep staircase to the left that goes down to the bottom. We leave for Lower Falls in fifteen minutes.” To Daisy, she whispered, “Always tell them it’s steep. They’re a bitch coming back up, and slowpokes hold up the ride.” In a matter of minutes, she had tied each horse to the metal bar.
“You’re amazing,” Daisy said.
“I’ve been down this trail so many times, I could do it in my sleep.” The lilt in her voice said she didn’t mind the repetition.
“Could you show me how to do that tie again? I didn’t get it right up at the pack station, and the cowgirl who came to help me seemed mad about it.”
Heather laughed. “That’s Jo. If you’re not doing things her way, pulling your weight, or getting work done fast enough, you’re going to hear about it. The slipknot’s simple. I’ll show you on Peanut and you can do Rip’s.”
Daisy untied the little brown horse Heather pointed to and followed Heather’s steps. She hesitated to say what she was thinking, but Heather seemed patient and understanding. “She kind of scares me.”
“Oh, you’re not alone. I was terrified I’d do something wrong whenever she was in from a trip, but I figured out that as long as I worked my tail off when she was around, she wouldn’t give me a hard time.”
“That sounds exhausting!”
“It is, but she spends most of the summer out in the backcountry, not in the yard yelling at us to get our heinies moving. Plus, as hard as she makes everyone else work, she works even harder. Takeisha told me the only time she sees her stop is when her butt’s in the saddle. Dozer, on the other hand, will tell you a few beers will help get the job done. Watch out for him. He’ll invite you to his cabin for some whiskey and hope you’re interested in more. He used to be a lot worse before Kristine shot him.”
Daisy’s eyes grew wide. “Shot him!”
“Rubber bullet. He was fine.”
“Does Kristine still work here?” Daisy wouldn’t want to aggravate someone who would shoot a person, even if it was with a rubber bullet.
“Nah. She hasn’t been back since that summer. You met Gabe, right?”
“Yes. He helped me with Churchill,” Daisy said.
“Kristine’s his sister. Get him to tell you about her and Gloria sometime. He has some good stories from that summer when they met. Sol’s got some stories, too. He’s the older-than-dirt cowboy with the red suspenders. He can get pretty crabby about things being done right, but don’t let him scare you. He’s really a sweetheart, and he knows absolutely everything about this place. He can teach you a lot, that is unless you decide you hate the corrals and run back to the café.”
“No chance I’ll be running away from the corrals,” Daisy assured her, pretty sure that she could do the slipknot on her own now. “I used my coffee shop experience to convince Leo to let me work for him, but my real goal is to spend as much time in the mountains as I can.”
Though Heather said she’d better teach Daisy more about caring for the horses and dealing with the guests, her expression betrayed her opinion that she wouldn’t last out at the corrals.
In the daylight, she had been certain she would prove Heather wrong, despite the fact that when she got back to the little wooden box that was home for the summer her first thought was how fast she could pack what little she’d brought into her car and split. She had followed Heather’s lead and stacked all her folded shirts and jeans on rough-board shelves, making the wall look like some kind of rustic clothing store. They shared one small dresser, two drawers each, where Daisy tucked away her toiletries and socks and underwear.
Later, lying in bed trying to fall asleep, she lost some of her certainty. Every muscle in her body hurt, and on top of that, she was freezing. She’d already piled her jacket on top of the blankets she’d brought, and she was still shivering. Her bladder doubted that it would allow her to go to sleep without another trip to the bathroom, but that would mean putting on boots and a coat to tromp over to a smaller box that held the toilets and shower.
Cowgirls had one sink and toilet; cowboys had another. Behind the two bathrooms was one shower. The space outside the shower had a wooden pallet to stand on, one small chair and three hooks on the wall. It had taken her a while to figure out how to arrange her clean and dirty clothes without anything getting wet. Not until Heather had expressed surprise when she headed for the shower in her boots did she realize how convenient a pair of flip-flops would be. If she couldn’t find any at the store, she’d be heading back up to Mammoth soon. Her mind stayed busy on how else she was ill-prepared for the summer.
Then there were the noises. A critter skittered around. Heather had warned her that mice and sometimes squirrels usually visited at night to see if there was any food in the cabin. Daisy put her fingers in her ears but still heard a sound like someone being murdered. She froze, waiting to hear it again. Loud thumps, the thundering of hooves pounding in the corral nearby. She missed the thrum of traffic that typically lulled her to sleep. She missed being the person who answered questions about how to make the perfect Frappuccino. Would she be returning to that life at the end of the summer? If she made it through the summer, she heard Heather’s voice in her head.
No. She would not allow her doubts to take over. Remembering the way Heather showed her how to pull the reins across her horse’s neck to steer, she redirected her thoughts. Like she’d told Leo when she called him at his winter home in Bishop to find out what she needed to do to get a job, she needed a direction. She’d been wandering from major to major at the community college, barely passing her classes, with the vague hope that something would ignite a passion within her.
She heard amusement in his voice when he gave her the pack station’s opening date, but the moment she had seen the majestic Minaret Peaks, the first breath of the crisp mountain air, she had known she was closer than she’d ever been to finding for herself the kind of intense focus she’d seen in Jo’s gaze.
“I love that sound,” Takeisha said.
Jo lowered herself into the camp chair next to her cook, stretched her long legs toward the fire and listened to the low ringing of the bell that hung around their bell mare’s neck. “It’ll sound even better in the morning when I find the stock. I always sleep better at Second Crossing when the distance makes running home less appealing to them.”
“I’ll sleep better if you and Cody sleep near the kitchen.”
Cody lifted his head to meet Jo’s hand. “Okay. The trail’s close enough for us to sleep here, one ear tuned in on stock sneaking by and the other on bears trying to sneak into your kitchen.”
The fire snapped and popped, tiny embers flashing briefly before they extinguished. Nightfall came earlier deep in the valley next to the roaring of the San Joaquin River. In their heavy coats, Jo and Takeisha sat close to the cook’s fire, soaking in the warmth. When she and Takeisha turned in, Jo would extinguish this one as well as the one she had built for the guests. Tired from the long ride, both families had already abandoned the fire for their tents.
“How’re you liking the new mule Gabe brought in?”
“Tuxedo?” Jo snorted. “Pretty is as pretty does.”
“Very much so. Granted he’s young, but he has no sense. He made that clear when we drove the stock up from Bishop before the season started. I thought it would be a good chance for him to find a rhythm with the herd.” She shook her head remembering how much she’d struggled with the fine-looking but flighty mule. “He jumps out of his skin at the littlest thing.”
“You’re turning heads on the trail, though. I’ve never seen such a handsome mule.”
“He’s sleek, that’s for sure, but there’s a reason you don’t see thoroughbreds in the backcountry. I bet any mule you get from that cross is going to be hotheaded like its mama. This one sure didn’t get any donkey smarts from his sire. His name fits him perfectly. A tux is hardly practical for the work that needs to be done.”
Jo was enjoying the subtle symphony of the backcountry. For nine months of the year she made her living shoeing horses in Sonoma County, and she missed the sound the wind made rustling the tall trees out here. One of the things she liked best about Takeisha was how they could sit in companionable silence at the end of the day. No sooner had she finished the thought than Takeisha said, “You think the same thing about Daisy, don’t you?”
“Daisy?” Mentally, Jo had been three-quarters of the way to bed.
“The newbie at the corral. I saw the way you were glaring at her when I was loading up our guests. You don’t think she belongs here, do you?”
Jo sat up straight in her camp chair. “Zorro?”
“Tell me you did not call her that to her face.”
“Because you sound like a racist asshole?”
“How is that racist?”
“Labeling a Latina with a Hollywood stereotype? Hmm. Let me see…”
“I wasn’t labeling her,” Jo said defensively. “It was her hat! And Gabe gave her that name.”
“If you’d bothered to learn her name…”
“Waste of time. She’ll be long gone when we get back from this trip. If I hadn’t helped out, poor Churchill would have had a bit between his ears and a headstall in his mouth.”
“You were glaring at her before that.”
“I wasn’t glaring!”
Takeisha’s laugh popped like the fire in front of them. “Call it what you want, but your expression would have scared off most people.”
“Probably wouldn’t have hurt in this case. Leo’s a daggum fool hiring someone who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about horses.”
“If you’d bothered talking to her, you’d know he hired her to work in the café.” The humor in Takeisha’s voice was absent now.
That made more sense to Jo. Cute young waitresses could lure hikers off the Pacific Coast Trail to splurge on burgers and milkshakes. “Then what’s she doing out in the corrals in her Zorro hat?”
“She wants to learn all about our trips.”
“Did you see the pansy-ass padded saddle she picked? Company saddle, I’m sure. One less Leo could be making money on this summer. I bet one trip down to Rainbow Falls gets her saddle sore enough to stay in the café for the rest of the summer.”
“It sounds like you want to scare her off.”
“There’s no way she’s prepared for how demanding this job is. She thinks the horse is doing all the hard work hauling her ass around the backcountry.” Jo’s job placed her in a catch-22. To do what she loved, she needed people who would pay for the privilege of her packing their duffels, tents, and sleeping bags onto mules, but then she had to suffer their company. The hardest part was listening to the complaints of guests who had a vision of effortlessly cruising through the magnificent backcountry. They didn’t think about the hours in the saddle or how they would feel after several nights sleeping on the ground. She’d even heard some pansy-assed morons complaining after she had packed their air mattresses and battery-powered pumps into the mountains. She couldn’t decide what was worse, the whine of their machines or the whine of their unmet expectations.
That was why Jo did her best to avoid the guests for most of the day. She made sure to show up for meals in her hat and boots to give the guests the “authentic cowboy atmosphere” Leo often lectured them about. She would not have lasted a day in Takeisha’s boots, stuck riding with the guests day after day. Takeisha had no escape. “If anything, she’d be angling for your job, wouldn’t she? It could maybe make sense for someone in the café to do it. Course she’d have to cook the food before serving it.”
“There’s an idea! If I taught her how to do backcountry cooking, you might actually have a shot at doing these trips with someone you like.”
“But I like you. You know that.”
“I mean like like,” Takeisha said. “The other teams get to keep each other warm in their bedrolls.”
“Oh no you don’t! I am perfectly happy out here with my mulies. And Cody keeps me plenty warm!” Hearing his name, Cody whined. “Sounds like someone thinks we should head that way. Probably worried about how much sleep he’ll get if he’s expected to keep the food safe.”
Takeisha hmphed next to her. “Obviously you haven’t shared your bedroll before. If you had, you’d be singing a different tune.”
“I sing just fine on my own.”
“C’mon. Don’t you ever want to sing a duet?”
“I do not need to get laid.”
“I’m not talking about sex. I’m saying that people are nice when you give them a chance.”
Jo grunted. She did not understand the energy people invested in relationships that were bound to end. “Earl is nice, and you’ve never given him a chance.”
“He comes out for a weekend trip. Daisy’s here for months.”
“Earl’s into you.”
“And Daisy’s into you.”
Jo cringed. “She’s not into me.”
“For someone who reads animals so well, you don’t read people for shit.”
“It doesn’t matter whether Zorro’s into me or not. No matchmaking.”
“Such a ridiculous name.”
“Daisy, Daisy, Daisy…” Takeisha chanted.
Jo did her best to ignore her. “Bedtime, Cody.” He accompanied Jo to brush her teeth after she’d collected a cup of water they had boiled. She didn’t speak to Takeisha on her return and she crept into her bedroll, shoving tomorrow’s clean shirt and socks to the bottom. She shucked out of her jeans, leaving them like an accordion for morning or in case she needed to pull them on quickly during the night. She unbuttoned her shirt and rolled that and her dirty socks into a ball she tucked into her duffel. It was cold enough that she’d sleep in her long underwear. Finished, she reached out and patted the canvas top to her sleeping roll. Cody circled and plopped down behind her knees.
Jo listened to the lull of the bell, the wind in the trees, the water rushing through the canyon…and Takeisha, still calling softly into the night, “Daisy, Daisy, Daisy.”