Belize Survivor, part 38

Within two weeks, Max and Alexis were offered a job on a ranch in an adjacent county, about twenty miles away. The three-hundred-acre ranch was owned by Owen Marshall, a wealthy shipbuilder, and he was looking for someone to manage his beef operation and oversee his breeding program. The big house on the southern end of the property was for the shipbuilder's family on their infrequent visits. The two-bedroom overseer's quarters suited Max and Alexis perfectly, and with Max's background in farming and ranch management, Owen considered himself lucky to have found them. The three Quarter horses available to Alexis turned out to be an extra bonus.

"Sure, you can ride her whenever you want," Owen explained. "Dana, my foreman, and the other boys usually just whistle up the cattle, but it helps to have one of the horses saddled and ready to round up any stragglers. There are two other riding horses, but the others are still wild. Have you ridden a lot?"

"Since I was twelve," said Alexis. "I took lessons from an instructor, English style. Then I rode western on the neighbors' horses every summer until I went to college. So for me, this will be a real treat."

Through the months that followed Max and Alexis learned the routines of the ranch, as well as the care and feeding of the animals. Workmen were involved in the construction of a new barn, as well as assorted repairs on the bulldozer, tractor, and other vehicles. The breeding bulls had to be kept separate from the cows and calves, and young steers were on a special feed-lot so they could be fattened for sale just before winter. When the calves were old enough to be separated from their mothers, they would be appraised as breeding stock, or sold with the steers on the meat market.

It was almost sunset and the bare branches of the trees made intricate patterns against the cloudless October sky. Alexis stood next to the corral and watched the horses. Their coats shone from the vigorous brushing. "So how about it?" Dana said, as he walked up behind her. "Are you gonna ride one of these here critters, or just treat them like pampered children?"

"I'd love to ride Storm."

"Yeah, she's a great little horse. Real peppy. My favorite filly. You wanna to get on her and help us round 'em up?"

"Right now?" Alexis asked in delight. "I'd love to. Which tack should I use?"

"Well, you'll have to ‘rein’ her since she's always been a cattle horse. But it don't matter much which saddle you're using." He smiled. "Unless you reckon on ropin' some cows, in which case you'd be shit outta luck without a horn." He laughed and smacked the top rail with his gloved hand. "I'll tell you what. You bring her on over to this here hitching post outside the corral. I'll fetch the tack from the barn."

With delight, Alexis haltered the young horse and brought her out through the gate. She stood stroking her velvety muzzle while Dana brought the tack, and within a few minutes, the filly was saddled and ready to go. He gave her a boost and Alexis walked the horse into the pasture.

First, she trotted the filly and found that riding had lost none of its magic. The field smelled like fresh rain, tangy manure, and autumn leaves. On the far side of a low ridge, the horse saw two straggling cows and their calves. Alexis had never rounded up cattle before, but Storm took the initiative and she decided to let the filly do what she did best. The horse cut behind the stragglers and got them headed toward the barn. As one cow turned back a second time, the horse angled sharply again and brought her back into position. With virtually no effort on Alexis' part, the cows and calves were soon in the barn with the rest of the herd.

Too soon to stop, Alexis turned the horse around and sped back to ride some more. The evening light began to dim as she rode Storm to the farthest end of the pasture and nudged her into a canter, gradually going faster into a full-on gallop. Thrilling to the sound of pounding hooves, she laughed aloud, but the wind carried the sound away. Her thighs hugged the saddle, and rider and horse ran as one.

"Where the hell have you been?" asked Max angrily, drumming his fingers on the table as she came in the door of the overseer’s house. "I've been waiting here for almost ten minutes. Dinner isn't even cooked, let alone sitting on the table."
Alexis took off her denim jacket and hung it over the back of the chair. She washed her hands at the sink, and grabbed her apron. "I'm sorry, Max. Dana asked me if I wanted to round up the cattle so I took a spin on Storm to help out."

"Yeah, well the cattle have been in the barn for over a half an hour. What were you doing after that?"

"I...I rode around in the pasture afterward. It was so great to ride again. Then I had to put away the gear and give the horse a quick once-over with the brush. Really, I'm sorry about the dinner. Let me get it for you right away."

"Well, you sure have some screwed-up priorities. You take better care of those horses than you do of me. I work my guts out on this ranch all day long and then I don't even have a decent meal. Not that you know how to cook anyway."

"I thought you liked my cooking."

"Oh yeah. You're great with salad and mashed potatoes and boiled squash," he said sarcastically. "What are we having tonight?"

"I made brown rice with vegetables and some corn bread. You like that, don't you?"

"Okay," he said, winding down a little. "But next time, be sure and have my meals ready on time."

"I will," she said softly, shaking her head as she turned on the stove.

Some days it was still good between the two of them, times when laughter could be heard inside the little farmhouse in the evening hours after the day's work was done. They would touch in the old way, lie in front of the fireplace, and make love on the floor. During those times he was the old Max: the seeker, the spiritual traveler, the man she'd fallen in love with, the man she'd married. They would talk about the future and raising a family and suddenly all of Alexis' fears disappeared. She snuggled in his arms, breathing a sigh of contentment, wondering why she'd been concerned in the first place. Other days he hardly spoke to her at all, totally preoccupied with the objectives of the day. When he did speak he was critical and demanding, seemingly unsatisfied with whatever she did do, and whatever she didn't do.

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