Bad Boy Rancher

By: Karen Rock
CHAPTER ONE

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JESSE.” Justin Cade raised a beer to his reflection then gulped half of the microbrew. He scrunched his face at the citrus tang, forcing down the rest.

“Bah!” He scraped his tongue with his teeth. “How’d you drink this fancy stuff? Fruit and beer? Might as well be a wine cooler.” He crumpled the can in his palm and chucked it at his bathroom’s wastebasket. “Here’s to us turning twenty-six. Or me, anyway.”

He frowned at his identical twin’s face, shrouded by Justin’s dark beard and mustache. A purple bruise from a barn brawl circled his left eye. Black stitches closed a jagged gash on his cheek caused by this week’s dirt-bike crash. Despite the camouflage, Jesse still peeped through. “You should be here, dude.”

Yellow-green eyes, surrounded by a ring of brown, blazed back at Justin. He bared his teeth, stomped from the cubicle-size space then flung himself into the single foldout chair in his cabin’s combination kitchen-living-dining area. It faced an antenna-topped TV perched on empty feed crates from his family’s cattle ranch. A crammed gun cabinet, a wobbly card table and a sagging couch comprised the rest of his furnishings.

Mismatched sheets obscured the front windows and the dark night behind them. An ancient coffeemaker moaned as it dribbled thick, black brew into a glass pot. The bitter smell mixed with the woodstove’s aromatic hickory logs, a melancholy scent that reminded him of times spent chopping stacks with his brother, each refusing to quit until their pile topped the other’s in height.

A one-eyed kitten he’d fished from a storm ditch leaped onto his lap and purred louder than a combine engine. Since he planned on dropping her by the barn, he hadn’t named the scraggly black-and-white thing. No sense keeping her. He barely cared for himself, let alone a kitten that weighed less than a tissue.

His work-rough fingers stroked the quivering fur ball, rising as her back arched and her miniature tail flicked in contentment. “Don’t get used to this,” he grumbled, scratching behind her ears. She rubbed her whiskered face against his hand and purred louder.

He flicked on the TV, peeled off the chair then sauntered to the kitchen counter. Furball wove in and out of his legs. The peppy Monday-night football announcers grated on his ears. He grabbed his ringed mug from the sink and filled it with coffee. Time to clear his head. After herding cattle this morning, he’d dropped back into bed, fallen into an uneasy sleep, then woke even more exhausted. Too bad he hadn’t slept right through.

He eyed the loaded rifle over his front door.

Sometimes he wanted to stop the world and hop off it for a while. That idea was particularly appealing today.

Steam curled from the coffee’s dark surface as he raised it to his mouth. At the last minute, his stomach churned and he chucked it, mug and all, into the sink. A satisfying crash exploded. He grabbed a six-pack and a carton of milk from the fridge, freshened Furball’s bowl, then dropped onto the couch and popped the top off a Miller.

The hell with sober. He wasn’t going anywhere. Least of all to Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro or any of the seven summits he and his twin had vowed they’d scale before turning thirty. Before Jesse’s opiate addiction. Before he wound up murdered over it.

Justin took a long drink then flopped on his back. His boots dangled over the couch’s arm. A purring Furball sprang onto his stomach and needled her claws through his worn T-shirt, pricking the skin beneath. Drawing blood, he’d bet.

Not that he cared about injury.

He welcomed it.

Jesse’s passing had muted all feeling except pain. Pain reminded Justin that he still lived. It also reminded him that he should be six feet under—not Jesse. The woodstove’s flickering light gleamed on his shotgun’s barrel.

Jesse was the better twin. He’d dreamed while Justin made trouble. The fact that death took Jesse, who’d never hurt anyone besides himself, and left a reckless, sullen cuss like Justin behind proved the universe had no plan—or if it did, it sucked.

The kitten’s delicate pink tongue appeared in a wide yawn. She closed her eyes as Justin scratched beneath her chin. His gaze traveled to Jesse’s globe, covered with color-coded pushpins. Green represented places they’d been, yellow for places they’d hoped to see and red places they’d intended on scaling. Conquering. Their chance to view the world from above, riding it astride while it spun.

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