Her First Christmas Cowboy by Maisey Yates



ITWASAdark and stormy night. The thought made Tala Nelson grin ruefully to herself.

Thoughts like that were a hazard of grading English papers far too late into the night. But she was the teacher, principal and... Well, all faculty at Four Corners Ranch one-room schoolhouse, and that meant she had to stay up late getting work done sometimes.

Especially if she’d spent the earlier part of the night baking lemon squares and watching murder mysteries.

It was chilly outside, the air crisp and cold enough that she wondered if the rain that was falling might turn to snow at some point during the course of the night.

This was her second December in Pyrite Falls, Oregon, and on the ranch, and while she wasn’t the biggest fan of being out in cold weather, she loved being in during cold weather. Wrapped in blankets, with a hot cup of tea, feeling cozy even in the midst of the chill.

Winter made her feel wistful and nostalgic for Christmases she’d never even celebrated. But then, she didn’t have to grow up with the magic of the holidays to have absorbed the feeling. The lights, the songs.

Maybe she should decorate this year.

Her mother might not have approved of holiday celebrations, but her life was her own now, and that meant if she felt like celebrating, she could.

She took the teakettle off of the stove and carried it over to the coffee table, where her cup of tea and all of her papers were sitting, then she poured herself some more hot water.

On her way back to the kitchen, she grabbed another lemon bar. Then she went back and sat down on the floor in front of the coffee table, trying to make sense out of the essay in front of her that made some very... Factually inaccurate claims about Mark Twain.

She sighed.

Sometimes she wondered if the kids—especially the high schoolers—listened in class at all.

When she’d taken the job at the beginning of the last school year, she really hadn’t known what to expect. A massive ranch in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, Four Corners was almost its own town. A couple hundred people worked the ranch and those families lived on or around the property. There was no school close by and a hundred and ten years earlier they’d built the schoolhouse on the grounds to teach all of the kids.

Some kids, it was her understanding, had been there all their lives. Some rotated in and out quickly, their families more transient in nature than the others.

One thing was certain—it wasn’t boring.

And this was...

Well, it was a life. One far away from Kansas and free from her overbearing mother and all of her sisters, who were still so deeply entrenched in their mother’s neuroses and control that they fluttered around her like hens in modest dress, constantly seeking to please her, never putting a foot out of line...

Tala had gone to college.

Her mother had hated that. She’d been naturally suspicious of higher learning, especially for women.

In fairness, her mother was suspicious of everything.

Movies, TV, sugar, food coloring, men, the postal service, books...

The list went on.

But Tala had always felt like it was wrong.

They’d only gone to school for one year that Tala could remember, but it had changed her life. Miss Taylor had been the sweetest, most wonderful woman Tala had ever met. And she’d answered Tala’s questions.

She hadn’t told her that questions led to judgment. She hadn’t made her feel like she was bad or guilty for wanting answers about the world.

Miss Taylor had made Tala certain, at eight years old, that she wanted to be a teacher too.

So she would know things. So she could tell other people.

“And now all this is mine.” She lifted her teacup and waved it around the room.

Maybe her life wasn’t particularly glamorous, but it never had been. It was hers. That was what mattered.

She heard a resounding thump outside and jumped. It was the wind, she reassured herself. Of course it was the wind.

Her little cottage was nestled into the back corner of Sullivan’s Point, which was a horse ranch and farm, one of the four parcels of land that made up the larger ranch. Many of the cabins on the property were rustic, but her place was a cute little cottage with flower boxes on the windows and yellow shutters and she loved it.

And if a tree branch landed in her flowers she would...

Well, she’d be mad.

She stood up and she heard the thump again. She really needed to stop watching murder mysteries this late.

But too bad, she already had.

It was the wind, which could get crazy during storms, and that was all it was.

Except then the next thump was accompanied by a groan.

She looked across the space at her bright blue front door and saw she hadn’t turned the lock. She stood there frozen. Should she jump for the dead bolt?

She would if her feet worked.

But the ranch was full of people who lived and worked here and it was possible someone had gotten displaced during the storm and...

The front door swung wide-open and there was a man standing there. A tall, broad man with a long black coat and black cowboy hat. Hs eyes were dark, glittering in the light, and his jaw was unshaven with dark stubble covering it.

An outlaw.

The man took two steps into the room, then stumbled down onto the floor.