The Marine Cowboy (1 Night Stand Series)By: Heather Long
With air brakes hissing, the bus rolled to a stop. A.J. grabbed his ruck out of the seat next to him and made his way up the aisle of the Greyhound. The driver gave him a friendly smile and a wave on his way past then the sun hit him as he stepped into the open air. The old depot, about a mile outside Freewill, Wyoming, was surrounded by green grass right up to the edge of the old blacktop two-lane road.
He tilted his head back, drinking in the cool air, warm sunshine, and silence. God bless the silence. No men catching up on what happened on watch. No gunfire. No babble of foreign voices. Nothing to rankle nerves rubbed raw after five years with too few breaks in the blistering heat and desolation of Iraq.
Opening his eyes, he skimmed the mountains in the distance, an uninterrupted vista of lean, green, and free. Three deep breaths of fresh, clean, mountain air and he almost felt like a new man. He hefted the ruck over one shoulder and began to walk. The shape of the town’s exterior sharpened with every step he took.
He pushed the door to the Blue Moon Café open and stepped inside to the jingle of the bell. Bud Gaines glanced up from behind the counter and shot him a wide-welcoming grin. “Well, I’ll be a son of a bitch! Look what the cat dragged in.”
A.J. crossed the room and took the older man’s outstretched hand in a firm grip. “Hey, Bud.”
“Hey there, yourself. Why didn’t you let me know you were coming home?”
The words carried a decade of chastisement. A.J. spent half his youth in trouble with, or being praised by, the café owner, a close friend of his father’s. When his dad passed ten years before, Bud stepped up to the plate and gave A.J. an ear when he needed and left him alone when he didn’t.
“Didn’t want to make a fuss. Is the coffee fresh?” He slid onto a stool and set his bag down next to it.
Bud answered with a baleful expression that said ‘of course’ and filled a fresh mug for him. “On leave?”
“Nope. Home for good.” He glanced around the café. The mid-morning lull was in full effect. His didn’t recognize a dark-haired female sitting in a window booth. She read a book and didn’t even glance up. Definitely a newcomer. All the old-timers gave him a friendly nod or at least met his eye. He turned back to Bud, eyeing him over the rim of his coffee cup.
“There will be fuss as soon as Mattie hears.” Bud may not be that fond of his siblings, but A.J. was one of Mattie’s favorites. He’d worked at the Misbegotten Gaines Ranch all the way through high school and two years into his studies at community college.
Before I talked to a recruiter. Before I left for Parris Island. In the seven years since, he hadn’t been home, not once. But he saw the postcards stuck to Bud’s corkboard on the back wall, all sent by A.J. from his training to deployment.
“Well, hopefully I’ll be home before she gets wind of it. How many horses do I have left?”
There’d been a herd of over a dozen, all trained by him. Two stallions, ten mares, and a two-hundred acre spread staked out by his father that they’d shared until the man’s death. It wasn’t much, but it was home.
Bud wiped the counter and gave him a crooked grin. “Left? Try about fifty head at Jamie’s last count. Brady’s been looking after them. He brings them into MGR when the weather turns, but otherwise, they’re still running on Turner property. You had four new foals this spring.”
A.J. smiled, the unfamiliar stretch to his mouth relaxing him for the first time since he’d signed the discharge papers and accepted his C.O.’s congratulations. He’d believed he needed to start over from scratch. Fifty meant he’d be working from dawn to dusk. Hot, sweating, honest work.
“I’ll give him a call and let him know that I’m home.” He finished the coffee and set the mug down. Bud slid across a keychain with the gold coin that served as a fob. Scooping them up, he rose. “Thanks for everything, Bud.”
“You need a ride?”
“No, sir. I think I’ll walk.” Ten miles wouldn’t take that long and he could use the stretch. He’d taken buses all the way from Dallas after turning down Captain Dexter’s job offer and longed for the familiar sights of the mountains and valleys of home. He appreciated what the man built with Mike’s Place. Helping veterans and their families was honorable work, but A.J. needed to be away from all of it—to be back where he belonged.