The Cowboy
By: Gabriella Balcom

Travis Montgomery waited until his daughter Jena and sons Clint and Houston were occupied in the front room with their families before sneaking out of his bedroom and quietly making his way to the back of the house. They thought he was lying down, and he didn't want them to know any different. He stopped for a minute, listening to their chatter before easing out the back door, and cringed at the soft click as it closed.

It had been years since they'd all been together at the same time, but this year everyone had come home for Travis' birthday.

He'd spoken of going riding, but Jena had argued vehemently against it. Although he understood her concern–he was eighty-six years old today, after all, and still reeling from the loss of Charity, his beloved wife–the range had been calling to him. He really wanted to see it before his health deteriorated to the point that he couldn't.

Travis' bones ached as he bent to set down his boots. He winced as he slid his feet into them.

"Can't be rid of this blasted arthritis, can I?" he muttered.

After hobbling into the stable, he saddled his stallion, Rustler's Dream, and with quivering arms hauled himself onto the horse's back.

The slow trot he guided Rustler's Dream into was sheer bliss, reminding him of the peace he'd always found in the saddle.

As he rode, Travis thought about the past. His parents had been farmers, but he'd dreamed of raising horses. Everyone had said he'd never make it as a cowboy, but he'd plugged right along, his sweet, supportive Charity at his side. They'd been able to generate a steady income by raising cattle and excellent cutting horses. They'd never become wealthy, but that never mattered to either of them.

He had to admit his two-year foray into bronc- and bull-riding hadn't been his best decision, even though he'd excelled at it. Dreaming of glory and championship buckles, he'd chased it with all he was worth, following the rodeo circuit from place to place. He'd only given it up to allay the unmistakeable fear he'd seen in Charity's eyes after he'd been gored by an particularly nasty bull. She'd known the reality of rodeo life better than him from the very start, because her oldest brother had died after being thrown and stomped. Even so, she hadn't made any demands after Travis' surgery. He hadn't been able to bear the thought of putting her through hell with his own possible death, though. They'd also had two children by then, and he'd known how much they needed him.

Leaving the rodeo behind hadn't bothered him as much as he'd expected, and the rest was history.

Travis urged Rustler into a canter, then a full-out gallop, exulting in his sense of freedom. Wind whipped past him and he felt young again. So very young.

He reached his favorite spot, high on a cliff overlooking the valley and ranch. Laboriously, he slid from Rustler's back, feeling all his years when his knees wobbled beneath the sudden weight. He had to hold onto the pommel of the saddle and lean on his equine friend until he could stand without falling.

"Good boy," he murmured, gently caressing the horse's head. "Such a good, faithful boy."

Rustler nickered, touching the man's face with his muzzle.

Travis regretted not riding out here long before now, knowing the stallion would've enjoyed it. He'd gotten up there in years, too, but his eyes reflected the same joy his rider had felt.

It didn't take Travis long to find a spot on the ground in the shade of a tree, just like he used to when he was out on a drive or searching for livestock on their several-hundred-acre ranch. Looking up, he marveled at the clear sky overhead. He didn't think he'd ever seen the stars so bright. And when had he last feasted his starved eyes on them or breathed the crisp night air? Months? It was with a sense of shock he realized it had been years.

After lying down, he put his blanketroll under his head. He inhaled the smell of the earth, the scents of flowers wafting to him through the air, and listened as the wind rustled through the leaves on the trees.

Travis closed his eyes, pictured his beautiful Charity beside him, and sighed. She seemed so clear, so vivid–almost as if he could reach out and touch her. Within minutes, the old cowboy joined his beloved.

The End

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