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“Old cowboys never die; they just quit horsing around. Or this one: Old cowboys never die; they just smell that way. I had three or four others swirling in my head, all of them dumb, except to the cowboy—or to the cowgirl who loved him. Rehashing stupid quotes about cowboys kept me from focusing on the one true thing, and that was the unexpected passing of my father, Charles Asher.”
It has been fifteen years since Chandler Asher saw home, and it took the death of a father she hadn’t seen and hardly spoke to in those years to force her reluctant return to Big Sky. Being sent away to school during the most formative years of her life has left a hole as big as the Madison Range and a rage hotter than a timber fire, and she carries it with her as she returns to Cameron, Montana to bury her father.
Jed Brooks has been a part of the Asher Ranch since Chandler was a little girl, and it is Jed that Chandler most dreads—and longs—to see. She has loved him all of her life, and as they lay Charles Asher to rest, those feelings of love and longing resurface. Chandler is no longer a child, and Jed is a grown man with a lifetime behind him and little tolerance for the little girl who grew up and never came home.
Amid the splendor of a Western Montana fall, where men are men and cowboys never die, Chandler finds comfort amongst family as she comes to grips with a life she has missed for fifteen years. And when the bitter truth about the father she thought she knew reveals itself, and someone from outside the family threatens to destroy all that Charles Asher has built, Chandler must let go of the past to save a legacy and a family she’s only now come to appreciate.
Old cowboys never die; they just quit horsing around. Or this one: Old cowboys never die; they just smell that way. I had three or four others swirling in my head, all of them dumb, except to the cowboy—or to the cowgirl who loved him. Rehashing stupid quotes about cowboys kept me from focusing on the one true thing, and that was the unexpected passing of my father, Charles Asher.
The Cessna touched down and a gleaming SUV sat at the edge of the tarmac. The tiny airport sat at the base of the Madison Range, and rustic Sphinx Mountain, at its center, carried a dusting of snow already—not unheard of in the middle of September.
A Stetson-hatted man stood next to the vehicle. It was polished up nice, sat high off the ground and was the color of a crisp Montana sky—like the one today, bright blue with puff-cloud accents, big and bold and pompous and unwavering, just as I remembered. I descended the stairs and breathed in clean air, something I was not used to living in New York. The four-wheel-drive was comfort-fitted and well appointed for the drive out to the ranch. The private plane and a little gin during the flight helped steel the one nerve I had left.
I tossed my bag into the back of the car and took the key fob off the man’s dangling finger.
“Good to see you, Ms. Asher. Mr. Brooks was not happy ‘bout this, but I s’pose you already know that.”
Eddie Muenster (hand to God) was foreman at the Culver Ranch, a 1,200-acre spread along highway 287 at the northeast corner of the Asher Ranch. I’d stuck him in the middle of a battle of wills. I was sorry about that, and said so.
“Been a rough year, so this ain’t nothin’.” I tamped down the question of why and how. Just being here was enough. “Safe ride, now,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I won’t see ya till the funeral.”
He leaned in my window, his weathered forearms resting against the door. “Hey, Chandler…I’m real sorry ‘bout your papa.” His blue eyes, crinkled at the corners, were moist with tears. My father earned his loyalty, that was for sure. Mine? Well, that was a story I’d tell another day.
“Me, too.” I rose up and kissed his cheek.
Talking a certain bossy-and-somewhat-immovable-object into being allowed to drive myself out to the ranch, instead of being picked up and chauffeured like a visiting dignitary, took a day and a half and more energy than I had. After explaining my need for some alone time, and being reminded I’d already had fifteen years of it, permission was reluctantly granted.
Tuesday morning, phone to my ear as I sipped coffee at my desk, the New York traffic humming in my ears like white noise, I found myself lost in the timbre of the familiar voice on the other end of the line, his words not penetrating.
I’m so sorry, Chan. He died in his sleep.
As a child, I fell asleep and awoke to that voice, and I always felt safe—even when he was wagging his finger at me for some wrongdoing. I knew that whenever Jed Brooks was around, nothing bad would happen to me. Jed was a lawyer, in addition to my father’s right hand for twenty-five years. He was as deeply involved with my father, the ranch and my family as if he were blood. As far as my father was concerned, he was.
I pulled out of the airport and found the main highway. The dove gray leather interior held the scent of my childhood: sharp, masculine, rugged. I’d been raised in a world where women survived on strength and hubris, two skills I acquired at birth and honed well after I left the ranch. It was a world teeming with wild animals and rugged men who worked the land hard—and loved even harder—a world unconcerned with the needs of little girls.
It took the death of Charles to get me home again after fifteen years away. As his only child, I should have come sooner, should have hopped the first plane out on Tuesday when I got the call. I should have come right away to handle his arrangements, to receive friends, to act as his rightful heir. But I could not. Fifteen years was a lot of trunk space to fill and the sudden news left me too numb to allow any guilt to settle over my dereliction of duty. Guilt, the brazen bitch, would come in her own time.
The ranch was all I knew growing up. Wide-open space, pastures full of horses and cows, and green alfalfa fields that turned golden and grew three feet high some years before the first cutting. A swift tributary of the Madison wound through the property, and summers were spent plowing through chores before being set free to float on her easy current, fly-fish along her banks and daydream into her sparkling depths. It was the annual cattle drive and excursions into wild mustang country that would take Dad away for weeks at a time, leaving me with Maria Villanueva, the only mother I knew. Maria ran the main house, and her husband Ramon ran the ranch as the foreman. With Dad away, they were my family—they and the folks who worked the ranch like it was their own, for a man they loved and respected.
There is a wall, a divider—like those screens ladies of refinement used to undress behind in the old days—that separates those idyllic carefree days from the ones I spent in boarding school in Atlanta, then at Pratt in New York, studying architecture. The change happened suddenly. I didn’t understand it then. I didn’t understand it now. I will say that, thanks to Charles’ inability to care for me once I grew boobs, I developed a thick skin and I learned to expect little from all but myself.
Ninety minutes after pulling out of the airport, I arrived at the south gate of the Asher ranch, with the familiar CA brand in hammered copper above the curved log archway. The road ahead was dirt and hard-packed for the next fourteen miles. The land looked all grown up. The trees were more mature; the alder, pine, birch and box elder maples covered more ground than I remembered. Some were already changing into their fall colors. The narrow trails trod smooth by horses and ATVs looked as familiar as if I’d ridden them a day ago.
The dirt road narrowed and became dark, shaded by the trees that grew along the creek and the hillside to my right. I passed the Asher Stock Ranch and its associated buildings, branding arenas, corrals and pens. A wood-sided double-wide sat on a grassy flat bench where the foreman lived. I passed a small pasture, green and bright, a truck and large horse trailer along the fence. No one around, not even the horses. As I drove on, a log home nestled into the side of a hill came into view. A paddock and training corral sat off to one side; a sturdy wooden play structure dominated a grassy area twenty yards off the other side at the base of the creek. A half-dozen horses grazed on a section of tall grass across the road. Because of the size of the ranch, homes like this were strewn all over the place—residences for ranch managers, foremen, shop and equipment managers, wranglers and the like. Many had families, others were single men who preferred to work seasonally—at least that’s how I remembered it.
The main ranch sat a little left of center on 75,000-acres, where cattle roamed, horses were raised, and alfalfa, clover and barley and feed grasses grew. Montana alfalfa, in particular what we grew on the Asher ranch, was considered the best hay in the world, and with 15,000 acres of irrigated land, the ranch was a major market supplier, here in the U.S. and overseas.
Twelve miles in, I crossed the wooden bridge over the Madison River, which flowed at the base of a 3,000-acre bench on which the main house sat. I drove over dirt road rutted by trucks, farm equipment and a dry summer, traveled between mountains, around mountain lakes, and through stands of pines and Aspen. An entire hillside to my right was still green with Doug Firs, Lodgepoles and Ponderosa Pine. The smell was pungent and fresh. My eyes stung with the barrage of clean air and heady scents.
I climbed one more dirt road and the stately log home of my childhood came into view. It sat against the mountains, high and proud, looking across 3,000 acres of mountains, rangeland, pasture, calving barns, stables, pens and paddocks. Cattle grazed in open fields still rich with golden hay and the dark brown, rust and amber grasses that never failed to mesmerize me. A big barn, stables, riding and training arena and several corrals surrounded the house. Another creek, fed by annual snowpack from the mountain range above the house, flowed along the south side, part of it already dammed up by beavers announcing an early and harsh winter. One of the hands would be along soon to destroy all that hard work; dams caused the creek to dry up downstream, and this creek was essential to not only the wildlife that migrated through, but to our own livestock. Alfalfa fields lay fallow after the last, and best, cutting of the season. Bales sat in lined rows like obedient soldiers, waiting to be picked up and shipped to farms with milk-producing cows, and for our own winter storage. Across a wide dirt road two miles west, the late summer wheat, red-brown in the waning light, swayed lazily on an evening breeze.
The large windows of the house reflected the afternoon sun, and the smaller ones looked dark under the A frames, giving the house its modern yet rustic look—a look that stood the test of seventy-plus Montana winters, and looked no worse for the wear. The wrap-around porch, where I sat as a little girl waiting for my father to return, hit me with a nostalgic sense of warmth and belonging. Looking at it now with an architect’s eye, it was a stunning home. Grass surrounded the house in all directions, and flowers bloomed their last hurrah in barrel planters.
My father made his millions as a horse and cattle rancher, coming up under the tutelage of his father, William Wynthorp Asher, who emigrated from Nottingham, England in 1929. The stories of William’s immigration to Montana were legendary. That a sixteen-year-old boy had come from a cold, wet country to a hot, dry one with nothing but a few seeds and enough money to buy a few horses and a homestead was amazing in its own right. That William had never ranched before was where the legend began. He started with ten acres, which grew over time, added on to by Charles, and at his death, Charles Asher was the largest contiguous landowner in Montana. With two additional ranches acquired by my father over the years, Asher Holdings, LLC owned roughly 117 square miles of Montana beauty.
I pulled up the drive to the south side of the house and sat, frozen to the seat. It had been a long time since I’d been home, and I was no longer the giddy little girl with a crush. Still, I wished I had freshened up a bit, maybe changed out of the skirt, the black sweater and the fawn skin boots and into something a bit more appropriate. Things were simple here at the ranch, and right now I looked, and felt, anything but. I’d wanted to make an impression, an odd thing to think about on the heels of my father’s passing, but I hadn’t seen him in many years. I wanted a look that said I survived, thank-you-very-much.
Jed Brooks started working for Dad when he was 17. I was five, but oh, how I remember him. He was just a teenager then, but patient and kind beyond his years. I would follow him all over the ranch, running to keep up with his long, easy stride as I assaulted his ears with every question and far-fetched story I could think of to keep his attention on me. He’d pretend to ignore me, then spin around, grab me up in his arms and tickle me until I screamed. The noise and my squeals usually brought Dad out to admonish me to leave Jed be. I couldn’t seem to do it. Jed returned every summer, and then he was just there, all the time. I knew he’d gone to college, but at some point, the ranch became his life. Thinking about it, I couldn’t remember a time when Jed wasn’t around.
Jed Brooks was the stuff of dreams, and he’d been in mine—a lot.
As I took a deep breath, the front door opened and out he came. My heart pounded and my palms dampened, and in that moment I was a little girl again—eager to please and fraught with a deep pain I couldn’t put my finger on.
Since leaving home, Jed and I spoke less than a dozen times, mostly on the heels of talking to my father. Those conversations often deteriorated into lectures about not visiting, not calling, and other shortcomings Jed felt the need to point out. A man of few words, it was the unspoken ones that sat with me for days, sending me reeling; angry enough to get on the next plane and give him a piece of my mind, and aroused just enough not to. Regardless, he was never out of my head.
Seeing him in the flesh now was like being struck by lightening. Heavier than I remembered, he was still formidable. His faded Levi’s still fit tight across his hips, and the black waffle-weave Henley showed off a body that looked ranch-worked—hard, broad, confident. At over six feet, he still moved with grace and determination. His dark hair was tousled, his denim blue eyes still shone, and his face was clean-shaven. He was twelve years my senior, and I still felt like a child in his presence.
Something shifted and then settled inside of me. He came out on to the porch, descended the stairs and walked with a purpose to my side of the car. He didn’t look out of place, or nervous, while I was a wreck. I was not a little girl anymore, as my tingling body reminded me. With one more deep breath, I stepped out of the car.
“Jed,” I breathed, tears stinging my eyes. “It’s so good to see