The Cowboy’s Best Friend
“So, Ames, you gonna go shooting with me?” Palmer Olson asked, hooking a thumb in the front pocket of his jeans, his eyes shielded from the North Dakota sun by his cowboy hat.
Ames Hanson flashed a quick grin, her mind whirling, already thinking of the race-and-shoot-targets course they’d always used. “We racing?” she asked.
“Of course,” he replied with the corners of his mouth tilted up and a glance at the two four-wheelers he had out and ready.
She needed a head start if she had any hope of beating him. His machine was bigger than hers, although her aim was better. It had been eighteen months since she’d seen her best friend. He might fall for the oldest trick in the book.
She gasped. “Holy smokes! Look at that!” She pointed at the sky behind him. “Is that a bald eagle?”
She chuckled as he turned, falling for her ruse. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Not a bird, either.
As soon as he turned, she spun and raced to the four-wheelers. He already had their rifles on the racks, the ammo strapped down beside them. She jumped on hers, started it, and gunned the motor.
Behind her, she could hear him shouting. Something about not being fair or some such nonsense.
What wasn’t fair was that he had more power under his seat than she did. That’s what wasn’t fair. But it was his ranch, his machines. He’d had the same one since before they graduated from high school eleven years ago. She’d actually had the same one as well. His old machine.
She couldn’t complain. Not every girl was blessed with a best friend whose family owned a thousand-acre ranch in North Dakota. Actually, in all her world travels, she’d never met anyone else with that benefit. Palmer was a one-of-a-kind guy, and she regretted all the time she’d taken their friendship for granted.
He hadn’t caught up to her by the time she hit the bend in the road where it cut behind the corral and angled up between two hundred-acre fields.
The four-wheeler cornered the turn on two wheels. Ames hunkered down, lowering the center of gravity and leaning her body into the turn. The wide blue North Dakota sky soared above her as she came out of the curve, the road straightening and arrowing off into the flat distance. The ATV bounced back down. She pressed the throttle wide open. After a one-second lag time, the motor screamed, and the four-wheeler jumped ahead. Flat rows of flax and a deep green carpet of wheat flew by as she raced up the middle.
Tempted to turn and look to see if Palmer was catching her, she kept her gaze straight ahead. As fast as she was going, a little tilt of the wheel could make her spin out of control. Part of going this fast was knowing what boundaries she could push.
The wind whipped through her hair, and she couldn’t keep the happy smile off her face. LA was great. Hiking in the Himalayas was fabulous, and winning two Olympic gold medals was awesome, but nothing compared to being home.
She heard Palmer before she saw him. He might have a bigger machine, but he was heavier. Actually, now that she thought about it, it looked like he’d gained weight. Not around the middle, but his shoulders were much broader than she remembered. His biceps bigger. She always thought of him as this skinny guy from high school, but as she’d been living her dreams out in the world, he’d been here on the ranch, running it with his brother and sister and obviously doing enough physical labor in the process to add a pile of muscle to his lanky frame.
The screaming of his machine grew louder, and he crept into her peripheral vision. The road was straight, the ground flat, but at the speeds they were going now, it would be foolish for her to turn her head to see how close he was. Focusing on keeping the handlebars steady, she pressed the accelerator with her thumb, ignoring the burning in the side of her hand. The competitor in her couldn’t give up.
He was beside her now on the dirt road. She didn’t have to turn her head to know what his face looked like. He’d be smiling, of course. But there would also be that little furrow between his brows. The one that he always had when they competed. She’d practiced for hundreds of hours to win gold in the biathlon at the Olympics, but there was absolutely no question that Palmer was the main reason she stood on the top podium. His face was the one she saw as the flag was raised and she had her hand over heart as the anthem of her country played. He never gave quarter.
Always having the smaller ATV had caused her to become a better shooter. Flat-out racing had improved her concentration and ability to handle her rifle despite the adrenaline coursing through her body.
What Palmer and she did here on the ranch in the summer wasn’t close to an actual winter Olympic biathlon race where racers skied to each target that they had to aim at and shoot, although she and Palmer did race on skis when she was home in the winter. They didn’t do the shooting the same either. But it didn’t matter. Her competitions with Palmer had given her the grit she needed to win.
Their makeshift shooting range was just ahead. She crouched behind the handlebars, trying to wring out every ounce of aerodynamics she could.
She didn’t give an inch when he locked the tires and fishtailed the rear end, stopping right in front of the range. She slid around to a stop right beside him and was only a second behind him grabbing her rifle and ammo off the rack.
They always shot this one in the prone position, wrists not touching the ground. On a good day, she could load her single-shot, lever-action .22 in 4.3 seconds. Palmer was about two seconds slower.
Drawing herself in, calming her muscles and heart, she steadied her breath. At the Olympics, she was never the fastest skier on the course. This is where she made up her time. She could calm her body, and she never missed a shot, loading her rifle faster and shooting more accurately than anyone else.
She gently squeezed the trigger on the first shot. Fifty meters downrange, in the middle of the green wheat field, her first 4.5 cm target disappeared.
Four more shots downed the other four targets. This wasn’t an Olympic race, and as she rose to her feet and raced to her four-wheeler, she gloated at Palmer, “Ha! Eat dust, Cowboy.”
Hooking her rifle on, she started her four-wheeler and gunned it toward the next makeshift shooting range.
Again, Palmer caught her just before the range, and again, she outshot him, this time from a standing position. The targets were slightly bigger, but it never mattered to her. She could hit anything she could see. The first time.
The road followed the rectangular field, and she took the last corner on two wheels, heading back toward the barn. Halfway between the corner and the barn, she skidded to a stop at the last homemade shooting range. This time, she’d beaten Palmer there, and that almost guaranteed her win.
She kept her concentration, though, as she yanked her rifle out and jumped off the four-wheeler. Palmer skidded to a stop beside her. Close. So close, she thought he was going to hit her, and she committed the cardinal sin: she looked at him.
Normally, in any professional race, she wouldn’t even acknowledge that she had competitors. She raced like she had blinders on.
However, the competitors skied, or a few times, she’d competed in the summer equivalent of a biathlon where the competitors jogged. She’d never had to worry about an overeager competitor hitting her with his ATV.
Palmer didn’t hit her, but the damage was done. It wasn’t that she looked at him, per se. It was more about whathe looked like. His plain white t-shirt clung lovingly to shoulders as wide as cross members on electric wires. His biceps bulged as he grabbed his rifle. His long, jean-clad legs flexed with power and strength as he leapt off the four-wheeler and raced to get in position.
He threw himself on the ground, stretched out, rifle ready. Broad shoulders tapered to a narrow waist, and his boots, worn and scuffed, pointed back toward her. He’d long since lost his cowboy hat, and his hair was only slightly longer than the stubble on his face.
In those two seconds she looked at him, it hit her for the first time in her life. Palmer was rugged. Tough. Handsome.
That thought was what made her stumble.
It was a rogue. There was no way she could think like that. Palmer was her best friend.
She flung herself down on the ground beside him, lifting her rifle. It would take him seven shots to hit the five targets. That meant she had nine seconds on him, since she would hit all of hers, and he’d waste those nine seconds reloading twice more than she would have to.
Frustration rocked through her. She missed maybe five percent of her shots. Maybe. On a day she had the flu. Today, with the sun shining down and her in perfect health, she couldn’t believe it.
It only took her a second to set her jaw and adjust her grip on the rifle. She didn’t miss again, but Palmer must not have either, because he rose when she did, his targets all shot down, and raced to his machine.
They took off together, side by side, and flew wide open the last short distance to the far corral gate, which was always their unofficial finish line.
It wasn’t enough for him to pull completely ahead of her. His body was even with her front tire. So, still holding the throttle wide open, she took her other hand off the handlebars and stretched out over her rifle, leaning forward as far as she could. Her fingertips just passed his handlebars as the gate flew closer.
She yelled, “I’m first, Cowboy!” as they flew by it, her fingertips just inching past him.
He turned at the sound of her voice. His eyes widened at her position. She probably looked like a bird on a death dive, but it didn’t matter, because her fingers had crossed the line before any of his body parts.
She straightened on her ATV and punched her fist in the air. “Yahoo!” she cried.
Whatever little glitch she’d had at the last range was gone, and she turned brilliant eyes to Palmer. His shining blue eyes smiled back at her, even as he shook his head.
They hit the brakes, and their machines fishtailed in different directions, coming to a stop facing each other. How many hundreds of times over the years had they done this together? Maybe thousands since she’d decided in high school she wanted to compete in an Olympic biathlon.
Palmer had never wanted to be anything but a rancher on his grandparents’ spread, but he’d been more than happy to help her get better.
“I won!” she said triumphantly, just in case he’d missed it.
“You did not. I was across the line well before you.”
“Maybe. But my fingers broke the plane first, so that makes me the winner.”
“All I had to do was scratch my nose, and my elbow would have been ahead of your fingers.”
She tossed her hair. “Maybe you should have had an itchy nose, then.”
“Fine. I’ll let you say you won. This time.”
“I win every time.”
“No, you don’t. I beat you once ten years ago, Squeegee.”
Oh, he had to break the nickname out. She slapped her handlebars and crossed her arms over her chest. “That was the summer I had a broken leg and I let you talk me into racing anyway.”
“I talked you into it, because I had a broken leg too.” He lowered his head. “My broken leg was your fault, Squeegee.”
Okay, so that was true. She’d thought bungee jumping from the top barn beam was a good idea, and she’d talked him into doing it with her, doubles. “How was I supposed to know the bungee cords would stretch like that?” After they’d been carted off to the hospital, both of them unable to walk, and after the pain meds had kicked in, he’d dubbed her Squeegee. She thought it was his way of combining Squashed and Bungee, but she wasn’t sure. Sometimes with Palmer, she was better off not knowing.
Anyway, he didn’t use it all the time but usually brought it out sometimes to remind her of her own stupidity. She wasn’t falling for his mind games. “Why did you go along with it? No one made you jump off the top of the roof.”
“Seriously? I was a loyal friend, and now, somehow everything is my fault?”
She tried not to react to the way he said “friend.” She’d almost lost this race because of the inappropriate thoughts she’d been having about her “friend.”
As though he knew she needed a subject change—Palmer could always read her mind—he said, “So, you’re really back for the whole summer?”
“Yep.” She kicked her legs up and propped her cowgirl boots on the handlebars, leaning back on her elbows and lifting her face to the big North Dakota sky. “There’s not a sky in the world that compares to ours.”
She heard him shift, but he didn’t answer. He never seemed to care that she left for long periods of time since they’d graduated from high school. They texted all the time and facetimed weekly—they joked about their Saturday night “facetime date.”
She’d been to the Olympics, to the Himalayas, to all fifty states, and to seventeen different countries. She’d studied abroad, been runner-up in the Miss North Dakota contest, and worked in the corporate world as a marketing exec. All that time, Palmer had been a rock. Stuck on the farm. Content, apparently, with the short North Dakota summers and long, dark, frigid North Dakota winters.
“Working at the C Store?” he asked after a few minutes of them lying with their faces to the sky. That was the nice thing about Palmer. They didn’t need to talk. And it didn’t matter how long she’d been gone; they always picked right back up as best friends and buddies. It was never awkward. She wasn’t even as close to any of her girlfriends as she was to him.
“Yeah.” Her parents owned the only convenience store in Sweet Water. After coaching the junior world biathlon team all winter, she’d applied for and was now on the short list for a plum broadcasting job at a sports channel located in LA. She’d never lived very long anywhere since she’d left Sweet Water, and she was hoping to get that job and put down roots in the city.
“Staying this time?” he asked casually.
She didn’t open her eyes or sit up. They’d talked about it when they were younger but hadn’t had the conversation in a while. The one where he believed she would eventually come back and settle down, and she denied even liking North Dakota, let alone wanting to live here.
“No way.” Her lips turned up in a grin, and she didn’t even open her eyes. She knew what it took to set him off.
Only he didn’t take the bait this time.
The silence between them stretched.
For the first time ever, she was uncomfortable with nothing between them, like if she didn’t have words to anchor him to her, he’d drift off and she’d lose him. So she opened her mouth. “I told you about that job I applied for in LA. You ready to travel to California?”
The sun warmed her face and neck. She felt the heat through her jeans. But she felt the silence of her friend even more.
“Nah,” he finally said. “Thinking I’m gonna get married.”
Her eyes popped open. Her heart thudded to a stop, and her lungs froze.
She called on her Olympic training to keep from jerking up. Instead, she moved slowly, leveling her gaze at him before dropping her boots to the footrests and sitting up. “We text every day, and you didn’t mention you had a girlfriend?”
Why wasn’t she happy for him? Her brain felt scrambled, and she couldn’t dredge up any good feelings at all. Which was weird, because she’d had two girlfriends in the past ten months announce their engagements, and Ames had been over the moon for them. Why wasn’t she happier for Palmer?
He hadn’t propped his feet up, but he was leaning back on his elbows. His thin white t-shirt allowed her to see, quite plainly, that his abs were well-defined. Her heart did that abnormal flip, and a thread of attraction wrapped around it. He lowered his eyes from the sky and looked at her under hooded lashes. “I don’t.”
Her stomach whipped back like she’d been hit in the midsection with a bowling ball. “Oh, my gosh. You’re gay.”
He grinned. Slow and easy, the grin she loved. The one he didn’t use on anyone but her. “You think?”
She ran her eyes over his face, down his broad shoulders and deep chest, down to his waist where his jeans sat low on his hips. Her eyes flew back to his.
Why was she suddenly breathless?
“No, I don’t. I guess we’ve never talked about that, though.” They never talked about relationships. She’d not really had any. One didn’t become an Olympic-caliber athlete by hanging out at bars, trying to pick up a date. Not that she’d even want to date a guy who didn’t have anything else better to do with his time.
She decided to call his bluff. “So you have a boyfriend?” Her words didn’t come out quite as confident and flippant as she wanted them to.
He did the slow grin on her again, and her heart flipped twice. When had Palmer gotten so handsome? And muscular?
“How long’s it been since I’ve been home? Have we started a new tradition in Sweet Water where people just up and get married?”
“It’s been eighteen months since you were here,” he said. Answering her first question, but leaving her second one unanswered.
It had been winter. Palmer would have had a beard, and she probably wouldn’t have seen him in anything less than a flannel shirt and lined vest. Insulated jeans and boots.
And before that, she’d come back for a few quick visits, so it had been years since they’d spent any large amounts of time together. At least five years or more since they’d spent the summer together. And now he goes and ruins it by announcing he was going to get married.
“You’re only twenty-eight.”
“How are you getting married when you don’t have a girlfriend?”
He shrugged again, the movements of his muscles under his t-shirt so fascinating she almost missed his answer.
“Figured you’d help me, Squeegee.”