~ One Two Oh ~
by A.C. Henley

Warning: Lesbians, sex, and angry bulls.

This was my entry to the Academy of Bards Challenge #19, it had to be written within the rules of the challenge. There was a list of possible personal ads to choose from and the story had to be written around the ad. The ad I chose is represented in the bold type at the beginning of the story.

Good or bad things to say? Send me mail at henleyac@yahoo.com. Want to read more by me? Join the group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/henleyac/.


It was obviously a joke by one of the remaining ranch hands, and as soon as Rose found out which of the five had placed the ad she was going to personally and literally kick his ass off the 120 Mile Ranch. She stared down at the paper with the red-circled personal ad and read it once again.

Cowgirl to teach riding, roping and wrangling.
Branding experience a plus.

Contact Rose Grant, personally, at the 120mi Ranch

Rose tossed the paper down on the kitchen table and got up to get herself another cup of coffee. She looked out the kitchen window, she had already been up for hours milking cows, feeding chickens, gassing up trucks and tractors and feeding the workhorses. The sky was just now beginning to lighten in the east as the sun made its way up, bringing another day to the ranch. She sighed and walked back to the table where the Grant's Pass Daily News laid folded. Rose picked up the paper again and tapped it against the Formica tabletop. The kitchen's door opened and in walked Champ Broody, her Ranch foreman "Have you seen this?" She asked tossing the paper at Champ.

Champ fumbled with the paper then held it out at arms length so he could focus on the small writing. "Old man Finch is looking for a tractor, his '53 Ferguson must have finally crapped out." He said barely holding the chuckle that threatened to bubble up as his eyes raked over the circled ad that was the obvious cause of Rose's mood.

Rose growled as she stood and reached across the table jerking the paper from Champ's hands, "To hell with Ricky Finch and his Ferguson! I want to know who placed this ad!" She roughly tapped the middle of the red circle causing the paper to tear slightly.

Champ gently took the paper back and once again extended his arm as he took in a deep breath, "Ah. Well it certainly seems like a personal ad, doesn't it? Did you get to drinking and called up the paper in one of those reflective 'I don't want to be alone on a desolate Wyoming ranch forever' moments?" Champ asked with a fatherly tone and raised eyebrow.

"I did not!" Rose said defensively and grabbed the paper back. She wadded up the six- page report on the local coming and goings and threw it in the trash bin next to the refrigerator. "I don't need anyone for anything other than to help me run this ranch, and I'm about to be another hand short as soon as I find out who placed that ad!" She stomped out of the kitchen and down the hall where she entered the office and slammed the door.

Champ walked to the coffee pot and poured himself a half a cup of the dark brew that Rose was so fond of, and then he went to the fridge and filled the rest of the cup with milk. He sat down at the table and smiled to himself. It was going to be quite the week at the One Two Oh.

He remembered the day about six months back when Rose showed up. He had called the girl to inform her that her father had passed away. The old man, Forrest Grant, had gone quietly on a summer night, one year to the day of his wife Vera's passing. Rose had come back for her mother's funeral and had been so ill treated by her father that she had vowed to not return until she had to put the old man in the grave. What Rose hadn't expected was to inherit the seventy-seven thousand acre ranch. After the first three months of trying to manage the historic range of cattle, sheep, and horses she had confided in Champ that she was sure it was her father's ultimate punishment for not being what he wanted in his only child. He looked over at the trash bin and smiled, one of the boys had gotten up to some mischief, he made a mental note to tell 'em to lay low for a week or two.

Rose sat behind the huge oak desk that was her father's long time command center. In the six months that she had been back at the ranch she had hardly changed a thing in the office. There was a part of her that was still the fourteen-year-old girl who was terrified of Forrest Grant. That girl would never move a thing that belonged to her over-bearing father.

Rose turned the big leather chair around to face the window. The sky was turning from black to blue and the sun had just peeked up over the edge of the Cottonwood Valley. She wondered to herself if she was doing the right thing, trying to run the huge ranch that had been in her family for four generations. She had left the day after she had turned fourteen; her father caught her kissing Charlotte 'Critter' Johnson behind the stables. Forrest Grant had been disappointed in his daughter since the day she was born, and had held it against the girl her entire life for not being the son he had so desperately wanted to carry on his name. Rose was a midlife baby, born to parents in their early forties, a joy to her mother and a curse to her father.

He had found her with her hands under Critter's shirt and her lips locked tight to the slightly older girl's mouth. He had chased her back to the house, swinging his belt at her the entire way, landing several good licks before her mother had stepped between them and put an end to the beating. But not even her mother could stop her father from putting his daughter out of the house. Forrest Grant had made it clear that he would have no queers under his roof and that he was sure that Rose would find the fires of hell to be more accommodating than his house.

Rose walked toward town that summer evening making it several miles before her mother had intercepted her. Vera Grant took Rose to the Grant's Pass bus station, and there she put her daughter on a bus to Connecticut, where she would stay with Vera's sister Louise.

Rose remembered her mother's wet cheeks and teary eyes as she put her on the bus. Her mother promised to smooth things over with her father and that she would soon be welcomed back on the ranch. Rose spent the next six years with her aunt, waiting for the call to come home. She finally gave up and entered university where she studied international business, she graduated magna cum laude and had sent the invitations to her mother and father to attend her graduation. The invitation came back stamped Return to Sender. Rose didn't make it back to the ranch until her mother had died. Her father had refused to let Rose set foot on his property and had publicly berated her at the graveside service. Rose left Wyoming even more despondent than when she had arrived. When the call came that her father had died she was ashamed to feel relief rather than grief. What was even more surprising was the fact that her father had willed the entire ranch to her. Now she wondered if Forrest Grant was laughing at her from his grave high on Saw Tooth Bluff.

A light knock came to the office door, "Yeah?" She asked softly as Champ's gray head poked in.

"You ready to get at it?" Champ asked.

"I suppose." Rose stood and grabbed her hat and coat from the old metal hat rack on her way out of the office.

"Come on then, lets go play cowboy!" Champ draped his long arm over Rose's shoulder, "I know you've had a rough time of it, Rose, but I know you're going to be a great rancher some day, greater than your father."

"I appreciate your loyalty, Champ, but if things don't turn around soon I'm afraid I'm going to have to sell." Rose said with a sigh. "We're twenty hands short. I don't know how we're going to manage to move the herd to Merry Gulch, and then there's the bulls who all need a check up before wintering and breeding, I just don't know how six of us are going to pull it off." They exited the big house and crossed the wide plank porch and down the steps to come to a stand still on the gravel drive that spread between the house and one of seventeen corrals. "What the hell is going on?" Rose asked as she took in the several worn pickup trucks and horse trailers that were parked along the corral fence. There were some horses saddled up with their riders standing by them, reins in hand. Only one thing bound the scene together and that was the blatant fact that all the people gathered in front of her were women. "I'm gonna kill the asshole who placed that ad." Rose said in a low hiss.

Champ scratched his chin as he took in the dozen and a half women waiting in the gray morning light. "This could be a blessing." His eyes scanned the women and landed on a short blonde sitting on the corral's fence, her black Stetson held in one hand as the other ruffled through her short locks trying to brush out the inevitable hat head. "Well I'll be a goat's daddy." He said softly.

"How could every lesbian in a five hundred mile radius showing up on my door step be a blessing?" Rose said turning back to the house and stomping up onto the porch, "I'm going back to bed."

Champ caught her by the arm, "You're the one who just said that we were down by twenty hands, and here on the door step is about exactly what we need."

Rose rolled her eyes and glanced at the waiting women, "The ad wasn't for a job, Champ." She blushed as she recalled the reason the women were waiting.

Champ chuckled, "Well who knows, maybe your Princess Charming is among them, but in the mean time we could sure use the help. I know a few of those gals, and they're good workers."

"So you want me to do what? Offer them all jobs and have them chasing me all over seventy-seven thousand acres?" Rose asked in a whisper. "I'm not looking for a relationship, Champ, I'm perfectly happy living single without drama."

Champ held his tongue, but he and the boys had another thought on that matter. "We could at least offer the jobs. We'll bring the bulls in for their check up, that'll weed out the posers."

Rose considered her options. More than half the ranch staff had walked off when she took over, unwilling to work for a woman, not to even mention a lesbian. Her own ranching skills were limited to what her father would allow her to learn and that education had ended abruptly when she was fourteen. In the last month she had become a better horsewoman, but she certainly was not at a caliber that she wished. The extra hands would mean an easier time for everyone. "Okay." She nodded to herself as she made the decision and strode to the edge of the porch where she let loose a loud whistle to get the gathered group's attention. "Listen up!"

Eighteen expectant faces turned toward her and several of the women closed in on the porch. Rose pushed her white hat back on her head and took a deep breath. "I know you all came out here expecting to have a shot at something laid out in that ad, and I'm here to tell you that it was a joke played on me by some of my hands." There was a long disappointed groan from the crowd which oddly made Rose feel fuzzy knowing that some of the women were truly let down. She held up her hands to quiet the group down, "Okay, having said that, it has been pointed out to me that some of you might like to apply for a position as a hand here on the One Two Oh. I'm offering good pay for a good days work, room and board included." Rose reached back behind her and dragged Champ forward by the front of his shirt, "Mr. Broody is my lead man and he'll be happy to take all your information." She pushed the older man toward the now excited crowd and then made her way to the stable.

Charlotte Johnson watched Rose talk from her perch on top of the corral fence. She had been slightly surprised by the turnout the ad had caused and was expecting to have to fight a few of the women for a good opportunity at Rose Grant, the most eligible lesbian in all of Wyoming. She inwardly groaned when she heard that Rose had not placed the ad but quickly brightened at the prospect to work on the famous One Two Oh. She wouldn't have a problem telling her current employer to go to hell in order to take a position as a ranch hand for Rose.

She slid from the fence and pushed through the crowd to come to a stop in front of old Champ Broody. She smiled crookedly as the man looked her up and down. "I can start tomorrow."

Champ pretended to consider the information but eventually broke into a wide grin as he reached his hand out, "I'd be honored to work beside Dale Johnson's kid. We'll hammer out the details tomorrow. Be ready to ride when you get here."

Charlotte shook Champ's hand with a nod of understanding. She looked at the retreating form of Rose and even though she wanted to chase after the woman she decided it was better to wait, she wasn't sure how she would be received. Tomorrow would be soon enough to find out.

The next day came way too quick for Rose. Already more than half the women who had gathered the day before for a chance at her had accepted employment on the ranch and were settled into the bunkhouses. It was just before dawn and there was a lot of activity happening outside the big ranch house as cowboys and now cowgirls were getting ready to round up the bulls, each of which would be getting a complete check up for the winter. It would prove to be a difficult day at best and would send the weak of heart packing immediately.

This would be the first time Rose would be participating completely in the event, her father had never permitted her to even get close to the pens when she was a kid, it wasn't 'women's work'. She stood in front the old oval mirror in her bedroom. She had on one of her worn blue denim work shirts, blue jeans, and black leather shotgun chaps. Her black hair was braided in a single braid down her back and tied off on the top and bottom to keep it secured. She pulled on her sheepskin lined denim jacket and grabbed her hat on the way out of her bedroom. Champ met her at the bottom of the stairs.

"Ready to get dirty?"

Rose swallowed hard, "As ready as I'll ever be." They exited the house together but Rose soon found herself alone as Champ went quickly down the steps and up to a short blonde woman standing beside a handsome black stallion who seemed much too large a horse for the small woman.

"That little joke kind of backfired, huh?"

Rose looked to her left where the last of the original ranch hands stood looking very contrite. "I don't know about that, we needed some help on the ranch, and you guys certainly helped bring it here."

"Yeah, a bunch of dykes." One of them muttered.

Rose straightened to her full height as she pulled her leather gloves from her back pocket, "Whom exactly did you think you were going to get with that ad, a bunch of twenty-something boys?"

"We didn't think you'd hire the lot!" Another protested.

"That was not my idea, you have your fearless leader to thank for that." She pulled her gloves on. "Now as I understand it, we have quite the day ahead of us. I hope a bunch of girls don't show you all up." She stepped off the porch and strode to where Champ was chatting with the blonde. As she got closer something started to seem familiar about the woman and as she slowed and came to a stop it hit her like an avalanche. "Critter?"

Charlotte smiled up at Rose, "Yeah, hi Rose." She said quietly, barely able to stay still as her toes curled in her boots. She hadn't realized she would be so nervous meeting Rose again after such a long time.

Rose was speechless. She was torn between being elated and angry. She settled on angry and turned and walked to her horse that was saddled and waiting for her. She easily pulled herself up and rode toward the bullpens.

"Well that went brilliantly." Charlotte said sadly.

"I don't know what's wrong with that girl." Champ said under his breath then looked at the distraught woman beside him. "I don't know what burr is under her saddle, Critter."

"It's alright, she's got a right to be mad." Charlotte placed her hat on her head and pulled herself up onto the back of her horse. "Come on old man, we have some bulls to wrangle."

Rose made it to the pens ahead of the group. She took the time to prepare herself to come face to face with Critter Johnson once again. She tried to figure out exactly why she was so angry. "She could have found out where I went and tried to contact me, but nothing? not even a peep!" Rose could hear the clop of horses approaching and looked up at the lightening sky, "Why me? Why now?" She asked no one in particular but was answered by Champ's gruff voice next to her.

"Cause its time to put the past away, that girl did you no harm." Champ said looking over his shoulder at the quickly approaching bunch of riders.

Rose's shoulders slumped, "I don't want to talk about this now. Just get me through today, will you?" She asked Champ.

Champ nodded and rode away from her to give orders.

Rose fell in along with the rest of the hands to listen to Champ's directions and plans for the day. Some of the activities sounded down right nasty to her, but she'd decided months prior that if she was going to run the ranch she would be a hands-on owner, it was the only way to be sure things were done right.

By midday, she was thoroughly exhausted and disgusted. Not to mention sore from using muscles that had been long dormant. She had inspected, squeezed, patted, picked, prodded, and been stepped on by several bulls in a day's time.

She was leaning against one of the pen's many fences when all hell broke lose as a massive bull jumped the chutes shorter fence and started charging every thing in sight. The ranch hands were scattered everywhere in a panic, and Rose soon found herself looking straight into the dark eyes of one angry bull who had a bone to pick with every two legged thing in his sight. She could hear Champ's voice calling out commands to her, but the roar of her heartbeat in her ears muffled everything. She tried to climb up the fence behind her but her foot slipped and she landed with a thump on her rear on the cold Wyoming prairie. Her sudden yelp must have been the last thing the bull wanted to hear because he snorted twice and charged directly at her. Rose regained her footing and reached for the top bar of the fence, the ground shook under her feet as the bull got closer, she pulled with all her might to get her sore body up and over the fence. She let out another yelp as she found herself in a strong grip being hauled up and over the metal fence just before the bull slammed into it, sending herself and her rescuer flying off the top and onto the ground.

"Are you alright?"

Rose looked to her left where Critter sat rubbing her left upper arm. She took a quick inventory of herself, "I seem to be fine." She answered a little short and cringed at the sound of her own voice. She suddenly felt like an ass. "Sorry. Thanks for pulling me out of that." She nodded to where the angry bull was still strutting and head butting the fence. "Are you okay?"

Critter stood gingerly still rubbing her arm, "Nothing so wrong that some aspirin and hot bath won't fix. She walked over to Rose and extended her good arm down.

Rose sighed and took hold of Critter's hand and let herself be helped up. Champ and about half a dozen of the ranch hands ran over to them, their excited chatter gave her time to settle her rapidly beating heart.

"Damn it, Rose! I told you no daydreaming around these big boys." Champ said as he turned her to and fro looking for injuries, "You're lucky Critter was close by."

"Sorry." Rose said, as the truth of the moment and what could have happened came flooding into her mind.

Champ tsked and clapped her on the shoulder softly, "Well the good news is he was the last one." He looked around at the men and women who had gathered, "You all did a good job today, as far as I'm concerned everyone is hired on, but don't expect this to get any easier, if you don't think you can handle it there's no shame in saying so." He looked around the loose circle and smiled as they all met his stare with confident steady gazes of their own. "Alright then, let's get these big guys down to winter pasture." He chuckled at the combined whooped of the ranch hands but quickly scowled at Rose and Critter who were limping away toward their horses. "Hold it right there Butch and Sundance."

Rose moaned as Champ used her and Critter's old nicknames from their younger days. She stopped her forward motion and turned around to level a hard glare at her lead man.

"Oh save the bullshit stare for these youngsters, the two of you are going back to the house. There are plenty of us to get these bulls to pasture. I want you to have Cook give you both the once over." He nodded as if to finalize his command and then turned away making his way back to his own horse.

Rose turned and looked at Critter, "I guess we've been dismissed."

Critter shrugged, "Fine with me, I'm so done with this shit today that I'll be a March hare." She turned and finished the short walk to her horse. He seemed extra tall at the moment and she had to psych herself up to get the will to pull herself up into the saddle.

"You could've gotten yourself a shorter horse." Rose said settling in her own saddle with a soft groan as her muscles began to stiffen.

"And give up speed?" Critter smiled rakishly as she nudged the stallion with her boot heels and took off at a quick gallop across the prairie.

Rose nudged her paint mare after the stallion and had almost caught up with the black beast when Critter urged the stallion at a full out gallop that left Rose and her mare in a cloud of dust. Rose pouted and let her horse slow to a meandering walk the rest of the way to the stables. She settled into her saddle as best as she could and enjoyed the ride home. She could see Critter walking her stallion along the corral fence, cooling the animal off before stabling him for the night. Rose walked her mare into the stable and slid off onto the ground. It was starting to get colder and the sun had started to set behind the ridge to the west causing a sharp shadow to fall over the main compound.

Rose pulled the saddle from the mare's back and placed it on her tack rack, the bridle soon fallowed along with the tight woven saddle pad. She guided the horse into her stall and began the process of brushing down and settling her horse.

"What's her name?"

Rose looked over the mare's back at Critter who was just now taking the saddle off the tall stallion. "I haven't named her yet." She admitted with a shrug.

"How long has she had you for?" Critter asked as she guided her own horse into the stall next to where Rose was working.

Rose chuckled at Critter's phrasing of the question, "She's had me for about four months."

"Then it's getting on time the two of you were formally introduced." Critter whispered something into her stallion's ear before leaving the stall to come around the wall that separated the two stalls. She gently ran her hand up the side of the mare, looking up just for an instant as she came to the mare's back and winked at Rose before running her hand up the mare's neck to give a gentle scratch behind a pointed ear.

All Rose could think of was how lucky her horse was to have Critter's hands rubbing along her flesh. She blushed and looked down at her hands that held two brushes that were grooming gentle arcs in the horse's hair. She chanced a glance up at Critter who was talking to the mare who seemingly bobbed her head up and down at something Critter had asked.

"Well, I guess it's up to me to introduce you two then." Critter said with a broad smile as the mare pressed its nose into Critter's chest. "Rose, this here's Maxine."

Rose raised a single dark eyebrow at Critter, "Maxine?"

"Yep, and she prefers Maxine, so if you will please refrain from calling her Max, she would be most appreciative." Critter said with a wide smile.

"I'll remember that." Rose said as she moved her brushing up to the mare's neck, "Glad to meet you, Maxine. Sorry for the delay in introductions." Maxine's head bounced up and down and she whinnied showing her clean white teeth. "My apologies."

Critter smiled and nodded satisfied that she had accomplished her task of uniting rider and horse on more than a human and beast of burden relationship. She quietly walked back to the stall where her horse Loki waited patiently for his pampering. She was meticulous whiles brushing and cleaning the big stallion's coat from the tip of his nose to the bottom of his hooves. She heard Rose close Maxine's stall and looked up to see Rose leaning against the stall's wall where she was finishing up Loki's brush down.

"I'm sorry about this morning, I just never imagined running into you again, and then all I could think about was that you didn't try to contact me all those years ago, what happened?" Rose asked softly. It had taken a great deal of fortitude to ask the question.

Critter draped a quilted blanket over Loki's back and secured it. "I didn't have time to ask your mom where you went since your father fired my mom and dad almost as soon as you walked off the ranch. We ended up in Montana and just two months after that my folks were killed transporting some horses to Texas."

Rose felt her heart hammer hard in her chest, no wonder Critter hadn't tried to pursue her. "Gosh, I'm sorry Charlotte."

Critter shrugged, "Nothing to be sorry about, you didn't run em off the road."

Rose could have countered that she was the cause they were on the road to begin with but was grateful that Critter seemed unwilling to place that blame on her. "Still, it answers a lot of questions about why my letters came back undeliverable." She started to put pieces together in her head of those events. "My father was an asshole."

Critter cocked her head to the side as she waited for Rose to exit the stall so she could close the gate, "You won't get an argument out of me on that." She swung the wood gate closed and latched it. "I guess we should get Cook's once over before Champ gets back here."

They both walked limply to the kitchen where the elderly cook, Mrs. Maple, gave them the once over and berated their foolish antics unbefitting of two young ladies and sent Rose upstairs to get cleaned up and Critter back to her bunk house to do the same. She issued a final warning that supper was served at six, and whether or not they were present really didn't matter to her. When Critter asked if that was an invitation to supper with Rose at the main house the matronly woman had simply repeated 'Six O'clock.'

Critter went back to the bunkhouse, where she grabbed a quick shower and put on clean clothes. As she was getting ready to go, some of her comrades started questioning her. Critter explained that she was simply going to have dinner with Rose and nothing more. She found herself surrounded by a dozen or so cowhands eagerly listening as she told them her and Rose's story. By the end of the telling there wasn't a dry eye in the bunkhouse and they all wished her good luck as they walked her out the door and pushed her in the direction of the main house.

Rose stripped and sank into a hot tub, groaning as the water wrapped heat around her abused body. "What the hell am I thinking?" She asked the ceiling as she let her head rest against the edge of the old claw foot tub. "I'm going to kill myself playing cowgirl." Her eyes drifted shut as the water soothed away her pain. It only seemed like seconds had passed when a rapid knock came to the bathroom door and Mrs. Maple's commanding voice announced "Supper in five minutes."

Rose then noticed the tepid temperature of the bath water and realized that she must have fallen asleep. She hauled herself out of the tub, pulling the plug on her way up. She groaned as she made the first few steps to reach her towel, and dried herself and quickly dressed, but even with rushing she was the last seated at the small table in the kitchen. "Sorry," she said softly as she sat down gingerly.

"You've held everyone up." Mrs. Maple grumbled, "Lucky for you this wonderful young woman wouldn't start without you." The cook grabbed Rose's plate from in front of her and started filling it with food.

Rose looked across the table at Critter, "thanks for waiting."

"It's your house and your food, I just figured we could wait for you since you make it possible." Critter smiled.

Mrs. Maple scoffed, "You'd still be waiting to eat if she was in charge of cooking it!"

Rose blushed, "She's right, I'm only good at cooking breakfast." Rose said as she accepted her plate back from Mrs. Maple and gave the plate of roast and vegetables an appreciative sniff.

"So at least you'll never starve." Critter said handing her plate to Mrs. Maple.

"She needs to find a nice girl who can cook for her." Mrs. Maple said handing the plate back to Critter full of steaming pot roast. "Now she has many to choose from right here on the ranch."

Rose blushed again. When she'd arrived to take over the ranch, she had been expecting to face a staff full of bigots like her father, but soon found a very friendly and accepting group of people, that's to say those who remained of the ranch's staff after all the haters packed up and left. "Perhaps I can have you interview perspective suitors, Mrs. Maple."

The cook let out a sharp laugh, and then said, "I'd do a fine job of it, you would get the best of the lot for sure."

Critter frowned at her plate, she wondered if she would even be in the running as possible mate for the ranch owner.

"How about I start with this one here." Mrs. Maple said pointing her fork at Critter.

Rose shifted in her chair as she took a bit of roast off her fork and chewed it. She wondered if Critter would allow Mrs. Maple to question her.

Critter shrugged and speared a few pieces of carrot onto her fork, "I've got nothing to hide, but I want to make it clear, I didn't come here for a job. I thought I was answering a personal ad and I was disappointed that it wasn't legit."

Rose didn't know what to say. She hadn't even considered trying to find a girlfriend in the wilds of Wyoming, but now that she was literally surrounded by available lesbians and she couldn't think of any reason not to have someone to share her life with.

"Well then, should I proceed?" Mrs. Maple asked Rose with a twinkle in her brown eyes.

Rose swallowed the bite of food in her mouth and took a drink of her water before speaking. "It's fine with me." She tried not to be too excited to hear what Critter had to say, so she went back to her food.

"Very well then." Mrs. Maple took a couple bites of food, as she thought about her line of questioning. She finally set her fork down on the side of her plate and excused herself from the table for a moment.

"Are you sure you want to subject yourself to this?" Rose asked Critter.

Critter brought her green eyes up to look into Rose's clear blue eyes, "I came here to see if maybe we had a chance at something Rose, so if I need to get past Mrs. Maple to have that chance then I'll answer a million questions."

Rose's mouth hung half open. She was grateful that Mrs. Maple chose that moment to return to the table with pen and paper tablet in hand.

"Sorry, I just wanted to be able to keep track of the pros and cons." Mrs. Maple took two bites of roast and drank a bit of her coffee. "Now then." She looked at Critter, "Do you have any savings?"

"Holy cow, Mrs. Maple, what kind of question is that?" Rose asked shocked. There were just some things not asked in polite company.

Mrs. Maple waved Rose off and looked expectantly at Critter.

Critter blushed and dipped her head, "It's okay Rose, and it's a good question. I have about forty-one thousand in savings, I know it should be more at this point in life, but its been hard lately keeping work with all the big family owned places selling out to corporate machines."

Mrs. Maple placed her hand over Critter's and patted it, "Isn't that the truth, dear. I was worried that this one over here" she pointed at Rose, "wasn't going to take over this place and I would be out of job. I've been here for thirty-seven years, I wouldn't even know where to begin again."

"I would have taken care of you, Mrs. Maple. We're like family." Rose said seriously, she had thought about selling the ranch, but something deep inside her knew it would have been devastating, not just to the people who worked the ranch, but it felt like selling off a bit of her soul.

"You're a good girl, Rose Grant. Your father was a fool." Mrs. Maple said before turning back to Critter. "That's a respectable amount of money, Charlotte. Your folks would be proud." She scribbled a few notes on her note pad then looked back up at her interviewee. "What are your long term plans?"

Critter looked across the table at Rose, "I'd like to settle down, have a home and a family."

"Ooh, that's a good answer." Mrs. Maple made some more notes. "Now, what is your idea of a romantic evening?"

Critter still held Rose's gaze, "Quiet time, walks, just sitting. I like simple things."

"So do I." Rose said softly. She felt a pleasant buzz travel up her spine at the thought of spending some time with Critter.

"You stay quiet over there." Mrs. Maple admonished Rose with a level glare.

"Sorry." Rose said but she couldn't help the small smile that appeared as she looked at Critter.

Mrs. Maple smiled also. She knew she didn't need to look further than Charlotte Johnson, but it wasn't going to stop her from asking a few more questions. "Charlotte, are you a good girl?"

Critter looked at Mrs. Maple, "I'm not sure what you mean?"

"I mean, are you a good girl, have you practiced unsafe?"

"Mrs. Maple!" Rose shouted with a slap of her hand to the tabletop.

Critter was a bright red.

"Now calm down." Mrs. Maple urged Rose, "You need to know if your perspective mate is at risk of giving you some nasty disease."

Critter cleared her throat, "Although I am not a virgin, I can say that I've never partook in risky sexual behavior. I'd be happy to get a blood test."

"That's an excellent idea." Mrs. Maple said with a toothy smile, "Rose should get one also, that way we're all above board. Don't you agree, Rose?"

Rose could only sit in stunned silence. Somewhere the evening had gone terribly wrong. She stood up from the table mumbled her excuses and walked out the kitchen door, grabbing her jacket on the way.

"Oh dear." Mrs. Maple said suddenly worried her bit of fun had gone too far.

"It's okay, Mrs. Maple, I'll go check on her." Critter wiped her mouth on her napkin and left the table, following after Rose through the back door. She had to break into a light jog to catch up with Rose, whose longer legs carried her along much more quickly than Critter's. She caught up with Rose just as she reached the corner of the stable. "Slow down will you, sheesh your legs were always longer than mine."

Rose slowed and then came to a stop resting her back against the stable's exterior wall. "I'm sorry she did that, Critter."

"She didn't mean any harm, it was a fair question of a possible suitor."

"Are you? I mean, after all this time can you still be interested in me?" Rose asked, her breath coming out in foggy wisps in the cold November air.

Critter scratched the back of her own neck and she looked at the surrounding area. "Do you know what happened the last time we were in this particular spot?" She took a few small steps forward getting very close to Rose. "I was against the stable like you are now, and your hands were?" She placed her hands on Rose's hips smiling as Rose took a shaky breath, "?well they were someplace a tad more intimate than this." She squeezed Rose's sides for emphasis, "And your beautiful lips were?" She found herself cut off as Rose demonstrated exactly where her lips were the last time they were alone.

Rose felt possessed as she spun Critter around and pressed her against the stable wall. She worked her hands up under Critter's shirt, moaning as she found the swell of Critter's breast. She broke the kiss and looked into Critter's half closed eyes. "I've dreamed of doing this for twelve years." She gently squeezed the soft flesh under her palms her cool skin warming against Critter's breast. She leaned forward again and pressed her lips softly against Critter's mouth.

Critter arched her back to press her breast more fully into Rose's hands as Rose's tongue danced across her lips sending luscious shivers down her spine to settle heavily between her legs. She opened her lips and accepted Rose's soft tongue into her mouth. She gathered Rose's shirt in her fist and pulled and pushed until she had one of Rose's thighs pressed against her sex. She let out a long moan into Rose's mouth as the taller woman pressed forward. She broke away from the kiss and clutched Rose close to her as a desperate rhythm developed between them.

Rose shifted slightly so she was against Critter's hip. Her forehead rested against the rough wood planking of the stable as their breath clouded the cold air. They hardly made a noise, no words were exchanged as first Critter stilled rigidly against her, holding her breath for a long moment while Rose continued her dance against Critter's hip for just a few more hard thrusts and let out a long breath as she found her release. Critter's breathing returned to her slowly as Rose backed away just a bit to look into Critter's eyes.

"That was unexpected." Critter whispered letting her head fall forward against Rose's chest.

Rose placed her hand on the back of Critter's head, her fingers played in the short blonde locks, "and unexpected is probably the best word. Are you okay?" She felt Critter's head nod against her, "We can't stand here all night." Rose said as the chill of the evening started to creep in around them.

"Can I? would you?" Critter found it hard to ask for the only thing she wanted since laying eyes on Rose the day before.

"Come on." Rose stepped away taking Critter's hand in her own, she wrapped her fingers around Critter's palm. "You'll stay with me tonight."

"What will Mrs. Maple say?" Critter asked wrapping her free hand around Rose's arm as they walked back to the main house.

"I don't care what she says." Rose smiled to herself as Critter's head fell against her shoulder. "She started it anyway." They quietly entered the house through the front door and made it up the stairs without incident and tipped- toed across the old wood floor, a floorboard squeaked under her left foot and she cringed, "Fuck me." This of course sent her partner in crime into a fit of giggles and Rose into a series of hushing noises as she tried to quiet Critter down. Then Mrs. Maple's voice came up the stairwell.

"Rose? Is that you?"

Rose stomped her feet and pumped her fist in the air as a stream of obscenities flew from her lips. She walked to the banister and looked over the edge down into the foyer and smiled a little too friendly at Mrs. Maple below. Critter continued her soft uncontrolled giggles. "Yes, Mrs. Maple, I'm just going to bed."

Mrs. Maple looked up at her with a distressed gaze, "I'm certainly sorry for?"

Rose waved her hand over the banister, "Don't worry about it, I was being silly." Rose nearly yelped and actually jumped a bit as Critter's hand caressed her backside. She regained her composure and quickly said her goodnight to Mrs. Maple, "I'll see you in the morning, and sleep well, Mrs. Maple."

"Good night to you too, Rose, I had one of the boys lay in some extra wood up there for you, it's suppose to be cold this evening. I wish you a peaceful night." Mrs. Maple said and then turned and disappeared out of sight.

Rose stepped away from the banister and pinned Critter with a serious glare. "You almost got us caught."

Critter smiled crookedly and said, "What would it have mattered, if you haven't noticed, we're adults."

A smile slowly crept onto Rose's lips, "Oh I noticed." She grabbed up Critter's hand and pulled her into her bedroom, shutting the door behind them and then pinning one feisty blonde cowgirl against it, "I very much want to explore this adult body you've grown into." Rose said as she leaned forward and kissed Critter's neck while she shucked off her coat.

Critter struggled out of her own coat, dropping it to the floor. She helped Rose free her arms from her jacket and then pushed Rose backwards to the bed where they landed with a squeak and squawk of old bed springs protesting the sudden weight. Critter broke into another fit of giggles, "Please tell me that Mrs. Maple lives in one of the other ranch houses."

Rose bounced up and down on the bed causing the springs to sing their song, "What would it matter? We're both adults." She said as she rolled Critter off to one side of her to land softly on the down mattress, the box springs sang out again.

"No wonder we never made out up here when we were kids." Critter's green eyes glowed softly in the warm light that the small fireplace produced.

Rose reached out and brushed some shaggy bangs away from Critter's face, "Can you imagine what my father would have done? He probably would have beaten me to a pulp for desecrating his house."

"I wish he would have been different." Critter said draping her arm over Rose's hip. "You didn't deserve any of the shit he put you through, and your mom?"

"She did the best she could, I don't blame her. He would have done more than whip me with that belt of his if she hadn't stepped between us that day." Rose said cuddling closer to Critter. "Let's not talk about that anymore. We're here now." She hooked her fingers in the waistband of Critter's jeans. "How about you get out of these clothes and I'll get you something more comfortable." She rolled off the bed and began pulling off her own clothes as she stumbled to the dresser. She tossed her shirt onto a nearby chair and pushed her jeans down her legs. She pulled her boots and jeans off one leg at a time as she pulled out the top dresser drawer. Rose rummaged around until she found two soft t-shirts. She hooked her toes of one foot in the top of a sock and pulled it down, and then repeated the operation on the other sock. She heard soft laughter come from behind her and spun around to scowl at Critter who was still lounging fully clothed on the bed. "And what may I ask do you find so funny?"

Critter let her laughter wind down and simply smiled at Rose, "If this is how you get undressed all the time, I want to secure front row seats for life."

Rose blushed and rolled her eyes, she turned back around and shucked off her bra, "Well I'm at least ready for bed." She pulled one of the t-shirts over her head and turned around once again and tossed the other t-shirt at Critter who snagged it out of the air.

Critter stood and walked toward Rose. She slowly unbuttoned her shirt as she approached. Critter's smile had turned from humorous to seductive as she opened her shirt to reveal a bare chest. She unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, letting them hang open and loose around her slim hips. She came to a stop in front of Rose and took one of her hands in her own. "I am no where near ready for bed." Critter said as she placed Rose's hand on her stomach then pushed it down into her open jeans, gasping as Rose pushed her palm against her, letting one finger to slip into her wet sex.

"Oh." Rose said softly as she felt the proof of Critter's arousal.

Critter's eyes drifted closed as she dropped her shirt from her shoulders. She felt Rose's other hand work to push her jeans off her hips, and they slid down her legs and pooled around her ankles.

Rose pulled her hand away from Critter's mound and pushed her back to the bed where she pulled Critter's boots, socks, and jeans off, creating a messy pile of clothes at the foot of the bed. She stood up straight and pulled her newly donned t-shirt over her head and pushed her panties off. Now she was as naked as Critter and was eager to feel her flesh against the blonde's. "Lay back." She commanded softly.

Critter did as asked and was plunged into bliss as Rose covered her with her long frame. "Christ in a hand basket." She exclaimed wrapping her arms around Rose's back.

Rose sighed as she settled against Critter. It was simply the most exquisite feeling she could remember, "Not to heavy?"

"No. Wonderfully perfect." Critter's right foot stroked up the side and then the back of Rose's calf. "I love your legs. They're so long and strong."

Rose smiled and slipped one of her thighs between Critter's legs. "You like 'em huh?"

Critter moaned, "I like your hands, too." Critter hinted as to what she desired.

Rose smiled as she shifted a little and brought her hand to where it had been just moments before. She hid her face against Critter's neck and placed a kiss there as her fingers gently parted Critter's folds and slid easily across slick flesh. "You're so wet."

"Inside, Rose, please? inside."

Rose complied and eased one long finger inside Critter.

"This is going to be another quick one." Critter said between gasps as she moved with Rose's ministrations.

"Let it come." Rose said softly before kissing Critter's slightly opened lips.

Critter shuttered and stiffened under her. "Oh gosh, Rose."

Rose smiled and kissed Critter softly. "You're beautiful when you come." She gently removed her hand from between Critter's soft folds.

Critter jumped as Rose brushed across her clit, "Easy."

Rose smiled, "Sorry."

"No you're not." Critter said with her own smile as she took a shaky deep breath and scrubbed her fingers through her hair. "I can't believe we finally got to do this!" She exclaimed before tumbling Rose off her and peppering every inch of flesh available to her with soft wet kisses. She gently reached between Rose's legs and let her fingers dance in the dark curls she found there. "I've dreamt of this for so long." She let her hand finally drift lower as she bent to take the nearest nipple into her mouth.

Rose moaned long as Critter's fingers finally slipped into her wetness. She clutched at Critter's back with one hand and tangled her fingers into Critter's short hair with the other. She pressed Critter's head closer to her breast and had to take in a sharp breath as Critter gently bit down on her nipple as she slipped inside her at the same time. Critter seemed to instinctively know what she wanted, which turned out to be a good thing as she seemed to have lost the ability to talk.

Rose kept her breathing as even as possible as she let the pleasure build, until she found herself shaking uncontrollably and falling over the edge, coming in a soft cry.

"I got you." Critter said gathering Rose close to her. "I'm not letting you go this time, ever."

"Better not." Rose said as she regained some of her composure. She cuddled up to Critter and felt warm and safe as she drifted off to sleep.

Mrs. Maple bustled about the kitchen at four am. She was trying to get breakfast ready for Rose before the woman set out for her morning chores. What she wasn't expecting was the two sets of footsteps coming down the stairs accompanied by two different giggles. Mrs. Maple's first thought was that she hadn't cooked enough breakfast for two, she was so accustomed to just cooking for Rose. She scrambled to retrieve more of everything from the refrigerator as Rose and critter stumbled into the kitchen in a fit of laughter that ended abruptly as they were caught in the steely gaze of Mrs. Maple, "You should give an old woman the courtesy of telling her you have a guest for breakfast."

Critter cringed at Mrs. Maple tone of voice, "I apologize, Mrs. Maple, we didn't mean to cause you any trouble." She said with what she hoped was a conciliatory smile.

"You don't need to apologize, Charlotte." Mrs. Maple said with a wave of her hand and then looked directly at Rose, "It's this one here's fault."

"I'm sorry Mrs. Maple. I'll do better next time." Rose said with her head bowed.

"I should think so. Now sit your butts down, the morning won't wait on you." Mrs. Maple smiled sweetly and then turned back to her work. She had just began to break eggs into the hot skillet when the back screen door creaked open, followed by the heavier wooden door swinging inward allowing Champ to enter the warm kitchen. She frowned as she cracked another two eggs, "Is anyone else coming to breakfast?"

Rose looked between Critter and Champ, "I don't think so Mrs. Maple, is there anything I can do to help with breakfast?"

"No, no. I've got it, although it would be easier if I could get an accurate head count ahead of time." Mrs. Maple groused as she set about cooking one more portion.

Champ hung his coat on the back of a kitchen chair and settled into it. He then looked at the two women sitting beside each other with a raised eyebrow that caused simultaneous blushes to rise on their cheeks. It was amazing how much information one could gather with a mere look. "We need to separate the heifers and get the old ladies to cover."

Rose nodded in understanding.

"How many head?" Critter asked.

"We have ninety with first calves, I want to get them fed up for the winter. The old ladies will go to the Merry Gulch, followed by the main herd. It would be best to get them all out there before winter drops in."

Critter nodded, "How many in the main herd?"

"Nine thousand." Rose said with pride. They were not the largest ranch in operation, but they had a high quality heard.

"I don't remember there being that many when we were kids." Critter said.

Rose smiled as she explained, "Champ pointed out that we could expand if we were to invest in the grasslands along the Tanner Branch River."

Champ nodded, "Your father was against the expansion, not wanting to hire the extra hands it would take to manage the bigger herd."

"That man?" Mrs. Maple tsked from her place at the stove.

"Stubborn was what he was. But that's the past. We can set that aside now and move forward." Champ said not wanting to speak any further about his former boss. "So, Critter, do you feel like you can handle teaching Rose how to drive?"

Critter looked at her lover with narrow eyes. "I dunno she's sure green in the saddle."

Rose frowned, "I've been getting as much practice as possible, I feel like my ass is going to fall off."

Champ chuckled, "You're just about ready then to be initiated into the brother and sisterhood of cowpokes."

Critter couldn't believe how normal the situation felt. She had great respect for Champ Broody. He had been a close friend of her mom and dad's, and had gone through great measures to keep in contact with her after their deaths. Mrs. Maple had been the Grant's cook since before she was born. The 120 Mile Ranch had been the only home she had known until she was fifteen, then everything had come crashing down. After Rose left the ranch, her parents were fired and left the ranch, as well, and then their tragic death when she was just seventeen. Now here she was, back on the One-Two-Oh, sitting at a breakfast table with Rose, and talking amicably about ranching. She was finally home.


Critter looked at Rose and smiled. "Hey."

"You kind of left us for a moment there." Rose said taking Critter's hand in her own.

"I was just reminiscing." Critter said.

"Well it's time to wake up and eat breakfast." Mrs. Maple announced setting a bounty of food on the table.

After a hearty breakfast filled with laughter and good food, Critter returned to the bunkhouse to get ready for the day. The women she shared the bunkhouse with were up milling about, most in various states of undress. She weaved her way through the women toward her bunk and locker. And then it started, at first it was just one set of hands clapping, but then it continued to build until the entire bunkhouse was applauding her. She blushed hard as they pressed in around her slapping her on the back and tousling her hair. She took it all in stride as her comrades continued their good nature ribbing.

"Okay, okay, everyone quite down!" A voice boomed from within the crowd and the women slowly complied. "We want to hear all the details!" The group erupted in a burst of agreement.

Critter raised her hands and hushed those around her, and after they were all quiet she smiled at them as said. "I do not kiss and tell. So you'll all just have to use your imagination!"

There was a collective moan of disappointment. "I will say this though?" She waited for them all to fall quiet once again, "?Mrs. Maple cooks a mean breakfast!" She found herself being tackled by several cowgirls, who took it upon themselves to tickle her until she threatened to pee on them if they didn't stop their commotion. Her friends relented and the bunkhouse returned to the morning routine of getting ready for a day on the ranch.

Critter stripped out of her clothes from the day before and headed to the shower. It was going to be a busy day. In actuality, it was Critter's favorite time to be on a ranch. She liked the excitement and the challenge. Soon winter would be upon them and the work would be mundane. She could still hardly believe her good fortune to be working again at the 120 Mile Ranch.

Rose couldn't think of a time that she had ever been so cold, sore, and blissfully happy in her life. It took three weeks to get all the cattle sorted and driven to the Merry Gulch. The northern ridge and western rise of the gulch would keep the heard safe from most of the winter storms that would soon be dumping snow and ice. She watched in satisfaction as the last of the heard was driven into the gulch. Critter was bringing up the rear while whistling and waving a coiled length of rope in short arcs in the air to encourage a few stragglers along.

Champ rode up beside Rose and tipped his hat, "That's the last of 'em, all that's left to do is feed them and bust open the watering holes when they freeze."

"I'll work on a schedule." Rose said absently as Critter passed them giving Rose a wink and smile.

Champ watched the interaction between the two women with a smile of his own. "So you don't need any drama, huh? You two have been awfully friendly this last month, Mrs. Maple says that the Critter has been at breakfast every morning since that first time. Is this a serious situation?"

Rose looked annoyed, "We're just getting to know each other again."

Champ nodded, "Do you love her?"

Rose looked at the object of their discussion as she rode toward them. "I don't have an answer for that question yet."

Champ watched Rose's face transform from weary to joyous in a matter of seconds as Critter came to a stop to Rose's right. Champ figured that even though Rose couldn't answer his question with words, she answered it with the pure look of love toward Critter. He would have to share his observations with Mrs. Maple over evening coffee.

Critter pushed her Stetson back on her head and looked over her shoulder at the milling herd behind her, "That's that." She said before tuning back in her saddle to look at Rose. "How about we go into town and have dinner as a celebration?"

"Like a real date?" Rose asked excited about the idea.

"Sure. We'll dress up and everything. I'll pick you up at six." Critter said with a smile.

Rose thought about going on a date. It would be nice to be off the ranch for a bit. There didn't seem to be a soul on the place that didn't know about her and Critter and it was becoming more and more claustrophobic as the days passed. "Okay, let's do it." She nodded, "I'll be ready at six."

Critter was about at her wits end. She had made it back to the bunkhouse after stabling her horse for the evening only to discover that she had no suitable clothing for an evening out with Rose. The entire house came to her rescue with various donations, the only problem was that she was much shorter than most of the other women and most of the clothes simply made her look like a little kid playing dress-up. She looked at herself in one of the old framed floor mirrors that dotted the bunkhouse, "I look twelve." She threw her hands up in the air. The black trousers were cuffed at least four times, the white western cut shirt's sleeves were rolled into thick cuffs, and the borrowed silver bolo hung down past her waist. "I'm not going." Critter said and sulked off to her bunk where she laid down and curled up.

Brenda Marx, the recently elected bunkhouse leader, walked over and sat on the edge of Critter's bunk. She placed her hand on Critter's back and rubbed small circles. "Come on, little bit, Rose will be waiting for you." Critter's head shook back and forth and Brenda thought she heard a sniffle. Brenda gave Critter's back a little pat before standing and moving to the concerned group of women waiting near by. She thought for a moment before reaching out and pulling the nearest cowgirl to her by her shirt front. "I want you to go find Mrs. Maple, tell her what's going on and that we need her help." She received a solid nod and a sloppy salute before the woman ran to do her bidding. She addressed the rest of the waiting group. "Just every one else calm down and let's see if Mrs. Maple can help." There were mumbles of agreement as the group broke apart and drifted off to other distractions as they all waited for the wise ranch matriarch to arrive.

Mrs. Maple looked at the young woman who was rattling off some story about Charlotte, Rose, a date, and much too large clothes. She tried to process all the information as the girl finally stood silent looking expectantly at her. She held up a finger in the air, "Just a moment, I need to think."

Mrs. Maple walked the long screened porch where she had been folding linens out of the dryer. She gathered that Charlotte had a date with Rose - dinner in the city - and she had no proper clothing, but that the girls had tried to help remedy the situation. The help provided was inadequate and now Charlotte had made a rash decision not to keep the date with Rose. Mrs. Maple turned toward the cowgirl waiting on the porch, "Let's go." She pulled her sweater a bit closer as she followed the cowgirl across the ranch's main yard to the row of bunkhouses that served as home for the many hardworking ranch hands.

She had only been to a bunkhouse on the occasion that one of the men were ill and needed lunch delivered, and she always had dreaded those trips. Entering a bunkhouse full of men was always unpleasant, the smell and the mess were constants. Mrs. Maple found herself pleasantly surprised as she walked through the door of the women's bunkhouse. It was well lit, smelled fresh and clean, and was even comfortable arranged. They had found some rag rugs to cover most of the plank flooring, and there were several women working amicably in the kitchen area preparing the evening meal. Although Mrs. Maple cooked lunch for the entire ranch population, the hands were left to their own devices for breakfast and dinner.

Mrs. Maple was led to Charlotte's bunk where she found Charlotte curled up on her side sniffling. "Is this anyway for a hardened cowgirl to act?" She asked loudly placing her hands on her hips.

Critter rolled over and looked at Mrs. Maple, "I don't even have decent clothes to wear, how can Rose possibly want me?"

"Nonsense. Now get up and come with me, I think I have just the thing for you to wear." Mrs. Maple bent and grabbed Charlotte's arm and pulled her up from the bed.

"I don't want to hurt you feelings, Mrs. Maple, but I don't think you could possibly have anything I could borrow." Critter said looking pointedly at the older woman's round figure.

Mrs. Maple stopped in her stride, "Well there's no reason to be rude, Charlotte. If you don't want my help that's fine with me." She dropped Charlotte's hand and kept walking toward the door only to be stopped by a hand on her shoulder.

"Wait! I'm sorry. I do want your help, but I don't think there's enough time for me to get ready," Critter said sadly.

Mrs. Maple looked at her watch, "We have nearly half an hour, that should be plenty of time, but you have to come with me now. Do you trust me?"

Critter nodded her head quickly, "I trust you completely."

"Good. Now come on." Mrs. Maple once again picked up Charlotte's hand and marched her across the ranch compound.

Critter soon found herself ushered into Mrs. Maple's small cottage that sat just behind the big ranch house. She was dragged up the stairs and commanded to strip out of her clothes as Mrs. Maple disappeared into a closet.

Mrs. Maple perused a row of well-kept suits hanging in see-through bags. She picked a light-gray wool suit cut in the western style that was popular forty years prior, but with the way old fashions were now once again being worn, the suit would look thoroughly modern. She exited the closet, "I think this will do." She laid the suit bag out on the bed.

Critter had just finished taking off the last of the donated clothes from her house mates as Mrs. Maple crossed to a chest of drawers and pulled out a white shirt wrapped in plastic. Critter stood in her underwear and socks, nervously shifting from one foot to the next as Mrs. Maple unwrapped the shirt and shook it out.

"Here put this on first." Mrs. Maple instructed handing the shirt to Charlotte. She then went to the bed and unzipped the suit bag.

Critter pulled the crisp white shirt on finding it nearly a perfect fit. The sleeves were just a smidge too long, but would probably look fine once the cuffs were closed. A pair of gray wool pants was handed to her next. She pulled them on and was pleased to find their length to be spot on. She hooked and zipped them closed after neatly tucking her shirt away. She turned and looked at herself in the mirror.

Mrs. Maple smiled, "Your just about exactly the same size as my Bob."

Critter smiled at Mrs. Maple's reflection in the mirror as she adjusted her shirt and the waistband of the pants. Mrs. Maple took each of her sleeves and affixed small silver cufflinks in each cuff. Critter raised one of her wrists up to look at the square silver links, it was engraved with the number 120.

"Bob had those made after being on the ranch for ten years. I always thought they were handsome." Mrs. Maple said as she held up the suit jacket and helped Charlotte into it. "There, that's a good fit, and the gray lets the green of your eyes shine bright. Just a couple more things and you'll be all set."

Critter adjusted the suit jacket on her shoulders and experimentally buttoned it closed. That was when she noticed how tailored the suit actually was. It did not hang on her like a man's suit at all. In fact it looked like it had been cut just for her. "Mrs. Maple? Bob wouldn't have been short for Roberta was it?" She asked as she examined her reflection in the mirror. She turned to find Mrs. Maple exiting the closet with a pair of boots in one hand a white cowboy hat it the other.

Mrs. Maple smiled and shook her head up and down a little. "We met in high school, it was love at first sight." She handed Charlotte the boots and watched as the girl sat on the edge of the bed and pulled them on, and adjusting the suits pant legs over the tops of each boot.

Critter stood and stomped her feet into each black boot. She then looked up at Mrs. Maple, "I had no idea."

Mrs. Maple smiled and blushed, "Well it's not like your generation discovered lesbianism, dear." She went to the chest of drawers and opened a box on top. She pulled a thin black ribbon out of the box and approached a now blushing Charlotte Johnson. "Lift your chin."

Critter stood still while Mrs. Maple tied a neat a neat bow around her collar. She was then spun back toward the mirror as Mrs. Maple place the white hat on her head.

"There. A cowgirl any woman would want to be seen with in public." Mrs. Maple said stepping back to take in her handy work.

Critter smiled at her reflection. "Thank you, Mrs. Maple, it's perfect." She quickly turned and gathered the older woman in a tight hug.

"Now, now. Don't go wrinkling my hard work." Mrs. Maple scolded softly before pushing Charlotte away, "You need to get going, Rose is waiting for you."

Critter leaned closer to Mrs. Maple and placed a quick kiss on the older woman's cheek before silently turning, and then bounding down the stairs and out the front door.

Mrs. Maple sat down on the edge of the bed with her hand to her cheek where Charlotte had kissed her. She smiled to herself and sighed, she decided she would get some of the girls to help her carry some of Bob's things over to the bunkhouse for Charlotte to have, at least that way someone would be getting some good use out of them. The decision made her happy and she set about to make it happen.

Critter made it to the front porch of the main ranch house after a brief detour to retrieve her wallet and truck keys. She made sure her tie and jacket were straight before pulling the cord to the doorbell. She stepped away from the door as it was quickly opened, revealing Rose on the other side of the screened storm door. "Six o'clock." She said softly with a smile.

"Right on time." Said Rose with a smile pushing through the screen door and pulling the heavy solid door closed behind her. She looked Critter up and down and smiled, "Wow, you clean up nice."

Critter smiled as she took in Rose's navy blue dress that came mid calf on her long legs, and sleeves that just reached her elbows. The collar was distinctly Mandarin with a gold braided closure. The little braided buttons continued down the front of the dress to just before the hem. Rose carried an embroidered shawl draped over one arm. "I can say the same for you. Definitely wow." She smiled.

Rose pulled a set of car keys out of her purse and dangled them in front of Critter, "We'll take my car. God only knows what's on the seat of that jalopy of yours."

"It's a work truck, what do you expect?" Critter retorted taking Rose's hand in her own.

"Tonight I expect soft seats and a heated interior." Rose said steering them toward the garage. "And I expect you to drive." She tossed the keys at Critter who snagged them expertly from the air.

Critter watched as Rose got into the passenger side of the black BMW parked in the garage. She smiled to herself, "I can drive this, no problem." She opened the driver's side door and got in behind the wheel. As her hands landed on the leather covered steering wheel, she let out a long whistle and then said, "Nice."

"Glad you approve." Rose said, "Now on to town, I want dinner."

The fourteen-mile car ride to Grant's Pass was quick with simple conversation and soft touches. Critter couldn't get over how wonderful and empowered she felt. She had dated and been with other women in her life, but she had never felt more complete. She pulled up in front of a very non-descript building just off the town square.

Rose peered out the window at the building. "Um, Critter? This appears to be no place."

Critter laughed then said, "Oh, it's someplace. Come on, I guarantee you're going to love it." She exited the car and walked around to the passenger side to offer her hand to Rose.

Rose smirked as she took Critter's hand and stood. "My aren't we butch tonight."

Critter smiled. "All just part of the total Critter Johnson dating service, ma'am," she said, closing the car door and guiding Rose to the solid brown door that sat in the middle of the building. She pulled the door open and ushered Rose inside.

Rose knew she must have gasped as she covered her mouth. They had just stepped into a very well appointed restaurant. "I didn't expect this."

"Best kept secret in Grant's Pass." Critter said as she pulled Rose up to the Maitre d's podium. She smiled at the man, "Hey, Steve."


Rose watched as Critter was literally accosted by Steve. She stifled a giggle as Critter was inspected from head to toe.

"I never imagined you could be cleaned up to the point of preciousness." Steve said running his finger's through Critter's hair to order it to his satisfaction. He looked over Critter's shoulder at the tall dark haired woman smiling lovingly at his friend. "And who is this lovely creature?" Steve let Critter go and stepped in front of Rose.

"This is Rose Grant." Critter introduced.

"The Rose Grant?" Steve asked wide-eyed.

"The one and only." Critter said coming to stand next to Rose.

Steve extended his hand toward Rose, "I'm honored to meet you, and welcome to my place."

Rose accepted Steve's hand and shook it. "Why haven't I ever heard of this place?" She asked looking past Steve into the dining room. There were few empty tables and she could hear a small band playing somewhere out of her sight.

Steve took her hand and pulled her through the opening that led to the dining room proper, "Well let's just say that the locals don't appreciate eating in the same restaurant with Sally and Suzie making googly eyes at each other. So my partner and I started this little place." Steve waved a hand to indicate the dining room.

Rose nodded her understanding as they weaved in and out of the tables. She tried not to openly stare at the other patrons, but found herself recognizing quite a few couples. "I had no idea."

"Well we are the only confirmed gay friendly eatery in a hundred mile radius. We also have the best food in Northern Wyoming and draw quite the crowd of gourmet food lovers." Steve said stopping at a secluded table. "Here you go ladies, I'll send your server right over."

Rose took her seat and continued to look over the patrons, "Oh my God! That's Phillip Macy." She pointed past Critter's shoulder, "He was such a hater when we were kids."

Critter twisted just a bit to get a look at the man who had tormented so many kids when they were all younger. "Huh, well you know what they say about those that protest the loudest." She said turning back around, "Enough staring at the gay wildlife. We're here for a romantic dinner." Critter accepted a menu from the newly arrived waiter.

"Point taken." Rose set about the task of settling in for a nice evening with Critter, to heck with the rest of the world.

The dinner was perfect, and Rose had never felt more comfortable sharing a meal with a lover. The car ride back to the ranch was filled with laughter and reminiscing. Rose played with the short hairs at the back of Critter's neck making occasional trips to outline a well-formed ear.

"If you don't stop that, we're going to crash." Critter said with a grin.

"You better not, I have plans when we get home." Rose said seductively.

"Home?" Critter asked.

"Isn't it? I mean you are planning to stay? with?" Rose pulled her hand away from Critter's neck and retreated away to sit close to her car door where she stared out at the dark landscape passing by.

Critter sighed as she pulled onto the main road of the One Two Oh. She pulled the car in front of the house and stopped. She turned the car off and pulled the keys from the ignition. "Rose."

"It's alright, I just thought?" Rose couldn't finish putting words to her thoughts afraid it would make it true. She opened her car door and exited the car.

Critter cursed under her breath, this was not how the evening was supposed to end. She quickly got out of the car and hurried to catch up with Rose, meeting her on the porch. "Rose, wait."

Rose was afraid to look at Critter, tears had already started to fall down her cheeks, but she stopped and stared at the big wooden door. She waited for Critter to have her say.

Critter reached her hand out and placed it softly on Rose's back. "I didn't mean to upset you. It's just that when you said home, it hit me that I really want this to be it for me. I want this to be my home, our home." She took a deep breath, "I'm in love with you Rose Grant. Deeply, madly, honestly in love."

Rose's tears suddenly turned from sorrow to joy as she heard Critter's declaration. She quickly turned around and gathered Critter in a crushing hug, "And I'm in love with you Charlotte Johnson. Deeply, madly, and honestly in love with you." She leaned down and sealed her statement with a slow kiss.

Critter melted into Rose. She felt her heart open up; it was the most exquisite feeling in the entire world.

Rose pulled away to look down into Critter's tear stained face. "So, are you coming up?"

A smile spread to Critter's face. "Only if I don't ever have to leave."

Rose wrapped her hand in Critter's and turned toward the door. "Well the ad did require you to teach me how to rope, I don't think we've covered that - or branding either, for that matter. And I'm not a quick learner, so I suppose you better move your stuff in here so we can practice all the time."

Critter laughed, "I'll get my stuff in the morning. I wouldn't want to shirk on my responsibilities."

Rose pulled Critter through the front door and then kicked it closed behind her, dragging Critter up the stairs.

In the kitchen, Champ Broody and Mrs. Maple sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee. They listened in silence as the two sets of footsteps walked across the floor and into the room right above the kitchen. They both rolled their eyes as the squawk and squeak of old box springs sang out.

"Do they do anything else?" Champ asked looking up at the ceiling.

Mrs. Maple blushed, "They're young and in love, it hasn't occurred to them to do anything else. Now you owe me a hundred dollars, Mr. Broody."

Champ smiled as he reached for his wallet. "I should know better than to dare you to do something, Bobbi always warned me that you never backed down, and you never lost."

Mrs. Maple counted the five twenties that Champ handed her, already thinking of how she would spend the money at the general store in Grant's Pass. "You should've listened to her. I told you that ad would work."

Champ stood and crossed to the coffee pot where he refilled his cup. The bedsprings sang above once again and giggles filtered down through the floorboards. "Money well spent." He said as he went back to the table.

The old friends ignored the sounds coming from above them as they continued their conversation. It was a perfect evening for friends? and lovers.


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