The farmhouse sat nestled in a square of trees before the bluff of rocks. Someone really wanted a wind break. Considering the ice in the air, Chelsea understood. She’d had trouble opening the hotel door that morning.
She passed the binoculars to Keegan so she could open the back door for Bentley. The huge mutt studied her for a moment with his bright blue eyes before snuffling off to pee.
While Bentley explored the area, Chelsea hopped up on the hood of the car. “Any sign of it?”
“Not yet, but our waitress said this thing mutilated a few horses out here.” Keegan signed. “She also said it was huge.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “You want backup.”
Keegan glanced at her. “If this is as big as the waitress said, we need backup.”
Chelsea sighed. “And how far away is the Blind Bronco?”
A fucking haunt. God, I hate other hunters.
Keegan rolled his eyes. “A day away.”
“This is such a bad idea.” Still she whistled. “C’mon, Bentley.” The dog emerged from the grass, trotting, tongue out. As soon as she opened the door, he clamored in without being told.
Chelsea huffed and sighed her way to the driver’s seat. Keegan’s amused exasperation wrinkled his mouth in an almost smile. He shook his head as he joined in the car. “Are you going to be difficult about this?”
She rolled her eyes. “We could take care of this ourselves.”
“You, me, and Bentley? Take out a seven-foot monster that mutilates horses and cattle?”
“Leave my dog out of this,” she growled, hands gripping the steering well.
Keegan sighed. “So, you and me vers—”
“Fuck it. I’m in the car, right?”
He shut his mouth quickly, before he huffed a breath and answered. “Yeah, you are. But what’s with the attitude?”
“Oh my god, Keegan… I don’t like this option, but it’s the right one, so it’s what we’re doing. Let me sulk and bitch a little, let me fucking vent.”
He rubbed at his long nose. “Will you learn their names this time?”
“Yes.” She gripped the steering wheel, knuckles white. “I’m—” She sucked in a deep breath. “I’m okay.”
“No, you’re not.” He smirked at her, drawing a laugh. “But you’re getting there. Just remember, we need help. Play nice.”
“Right.” She pulled out, turning back on to the prairie. The brown hill dotted black with cattle went on forever as dark clouds raced overhead. Black and gold as far as the eye could see.
They stopped at sunset, a small motel, complete with vending machine and a stained bathtub. While Keegan settled them in, Chelsea took Bentley for a walk. She carried the leash in her pocket, just in case, but Bentley never strayed farther than the tennis ball she threw.
The red and black sky called to her. She tossed the ball, taking pictures while Bentley ran after the ball until it grew dark.
They woke before the sun. After fighting with the northern wind for supremacy over their hotel door, they picked up breakfast from the vending machine and hit the road. They were still six hours from the trailer that housed the haunt.
The only security for the Blind Bronco sat outside with a smile, warming his hands over a fire. The wiry old man, with this wrinkled face and enormous cowboy hat, never raised his voice, but everybody stepped lightly around Beau Chang.
He tipped his hat to them. “You know you can bring your dog in?”
Chelsea blinked, taken aback. “Thanks.”
She all but ran to the car and pocketed Bentley’s leash. He followed eagerly, head up. Beau whistled and Bentley hurried over, tail sailing through the air.
Gnarled hands scratched at soft ears. Beau beamed. “Oh, look at this brute.” He rose to his feet, laughing. Bentley nearly came up to his waist.
Chelsea grinned. “C’mon, boy.” The big mutt rushed inside the immaculate bar. Florence, the Bronco’s owner, didn’t tolerate messes or fights. Chelsea waited for an explosion despite Beau’s permission.
The golden-haired girl behind the bar smiled though and pulled a treat out of her apron. “Who’s this now?”
Chelsea sauntered over. “Bentley. Hey, Florence.”
The girl studied her for a moment. “…Chelsea, right?”
“Yeah. And this is—”
Florence’s nose scrunched up, and she squealed, “Keeeeeegan!”
“Hey, Flo.” He waved and settled in beside Chelsea. “Anybody looking for a job?”
She shrugged and tossed a second treat at Bentley. “Nobody’s made a point of telling me. You need some help?”
Chelsea nodded. “There is something big eviscerating livestock.”
Florence’s face fell. “Not again.”
“Again?” Keegan sat up straighter. “Beer us, please. Something local.”
Florence pulled out two bottles and two glasses. “These things show up every twenty years or so. Which means Granddad can give you some advice and help, but this is not a two- or three-person job. It’s gonna take a team and some organizing.”
Chelsea and Keegan winced at the same time. Their employer had paid them well, but not well enough to finance a project this big.
The bartender eyed them. “Don’t worry about it. This is what family is for.”
A trill of unease settled in Chelsea’s stomach. “Family?”
Florence grinned. “Yup, I’m a fourth-generation hunter. We’ve been out here, hunting, since before there was a here.” She leaned over the bar. “Grand!”
Beau poked his head in the trailer. “What’s up?”
He pushed his hat onto his head. “Again?”
“I’ll start making calls.”
“Thanks.” Florence settled back behind the bar. “Now, you two started this hunt, but—”
Keegan waved a hand. “We appreciate the help and are more than willing to follow someone else.”
“Good. And about the bounty. We’re only asking for 10% to cover gas.”
Chelsea nodded to Keegan. She was okay with that.
He held out his hand with a nod, but Florence seemed taken aback. “You aren’t going to bargain.”
Grabbing her glass, Chelsea scratched at Bentley’s ears. “If we don’t kill this thing, we don’t get paid at all. Your price was acceptable, and better than we deserve, really. Much lower than I would have asked. So why cheat you? You must be asking for a little more than cost. Seems more than fair to us. I almost felt bad accepting.”
Florence’s mouth dropped open a moment before peals of laughter left her lips. “Oh, you are too funny.” She wiped at her eyes and tossed Bentley another treat. “And I love your dog. This is going to be a fun hunt!”
The phone rang, and Florence pulled out a pad and pen, voice bubbling “Hello, the Blind Bronco. Oh hi, hun. Yes, we are putting a team together.”
Chelsea turned away, trying to ignore the acid in her stomach. This was turning into a bigger deal than she wanted.
Keegan leaned over. “She’s not yet eighteen. No flirting.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I wasn’t flirting.”
He chuckled and took a drink. Annoyed with him, she watched Bentley wander from person to person. He got smiles and pets and successfully begged for food. After the fourth person gave up a little bit of their dinner, Chelsea went over and thoroughly shamed him. Bentley’s tail wagged the whole time, no matter how he held a paw over his head.
The laughter and smiles followed them back to Keegan. For the first time in months, Chelsea felt at home in a hunter’s bar.
Keep the Adventure going!
Any donations would be appreciated!