King's Country (Oil Kings #4) - Marie Johnston

Chapter 1


Bitter wind cut around the collar of my old Carhartt jacket, sending shivers racing down my body. My teeth chattered, but I tucked my chin into my jacket and encouraged Bucket forward. My bay’s full name was ShitBucket, thanks to Pop, but I’d shortened it.

God. Pop. What would life have been like if he’d been able to crawl out of the bottle? What did it say about me that part of me was relieved I didn’t have to endure his need for control and the daily tongue-lashings anymore?

I blinked back tears and squinted into the wind. Bucket’s hooves crunched through old snow into the dried, brittle grass underneath. Daisy, my rescue dog, trotted next to us, her tongue lolling out. The pound had thought she was a mix of Australian shepherd and rottweiler, but I’d only cared that she wanted to herd cattle and, more importantly, that she had been free. That she’d turned out to be a damn fine dog was one of the few good things that had happened to me.

Bucket was another. And I was risking them both in this weather, but the four-wheeler wouldn’t start. Again.

Another gust of wind bit into my skin. It was bringing an early March storm. I couldn’t remember which month was in like a lion, out like a lamb. March? April? Hell, in Montana, it could also be May. But this month had been all lion and I’d had two heifers calve early. One had lost her young.

Stress clenched my jaw. What the hell was I going to do?

I’d been asking myself that for as long as I could remember, but with Pop’s death had come open books to the actual state of the ranch.

It was worse than I’d thought. I couldn’t believe we hadn’t lost everything already. The only reason we hadn’t was because Pop had been so hard to deal with, it’d been easier for businesses to ignore him. They wouldn’t feel the same way about me.

Well . . . maybe a little. But since I didn’t touch alcohol, I also wasn’t fueled by liquid courage that stole all the fucks I had to give about what people said to me.

I had that going for me and it happened to be my biggest weakness right now. The mailbox was already full of notices. We owed for feed, we owed for equipment, and we were overdrawn. Not we. Me. Pop had put everything under Cartwright Cattle and now that he was gone, it had fallen to me, debt and all.

Our cattle weren’t healthy. They routinely got injured because Pop had been too stubborn to move fencing to block bad areas the cows were drawn to, which only led to them getting stuck in mud, breaking a leg, or calving in the toughest spot for a human to reach.

I was missing one now. Dammit, Pop. He’d let the bull in the cow pasture too damn early. I’d talked him into spring calving. We didn’t have enough bodies or resources to keep calves healthy in the cold months, and what we lost in income for lighter calves in the fall, we’d make up for in lower feeding costs and less wear and tear on bodies. Mostly my body, out feeding and tracking down calving cows in bitter temperatures. We could turn calves out to pasture sooner after they were born, saving manpower and feed. April, even early May, would’ve been better to aim for. Sure, sometimes nature had other ideas, but for the most part, cows were less likely to give birth out in the middle of nowhere before impending storms.

Pop had been resistant and last year, after a spat between us, he’d turned out the bull too early. He’d probably thought he’d be around to deal with the fallout—even though he would’ve been in a drunken stupor. But he’d died, and it was only me now.

My phone vibrated against my chest. I should ignore it. It wasn’t like anyone was calling to offer their sympathies for Pop being gone. The only other person who mourned his death was the owner of the liquor store and he’d been a selfish bastard who had fueled Pop’s addiction no matter how often I’d asked him to turn Pop away.

I yanked off a thin glove and pulled my phone out. It was the one luxury I’d managed to squirrel money away for. It wasn’t fancy, but it was smart and I could pay ahead for the data I used. Sometimes I had enough to splurge