The small town they arrived in was populated by the bus station which doubled as the post office, a market with a produce stand out front, two wood taverns on opposing ends of the street, and a two-story building with boards covering the windows. An empty, dusty, two-lane, paved road ran down the middle. If there was more to it than that, Austen could not tell from her side of the bus. A blend of white and dark clouds slowly passed overhead, exposing her eyes to an unfiltered sun and casting shadows across the town. She stepped off the platform for the last time and stretched her shoulders back, taking in a deep breath of clear Wyoming air. And coughed.
Unsure of who or where her ride was, Austen walked over to the station and took a seat just outside the door. Sloppy notes detailing the ranch rested on her lap for review. She was scheduled to meet a man named James Thwaite; a date and time were given. Nothing else. Eyes focused on the crumpled sheet of paper, her ears shifted back, catching the conversation between the two men inside.
“Now who‘re you pickin’ up this late in the evening, Jim?”
“Not exactly sure, some kid from the city.”
“Really? How do you think they’ll take to the big open air out here?” The postmaster’s smirk oozed through his question.
“Want to place a bet on it? Let’s see, today is Sunday so she missed the day of rest, hmm... I’ll give it another week before I’m back here dropping her off. Well? Care to wager something different?”
The postmaster’s response was lost to her. With rapid action she began to think up options of how to handle such an embarrassing and offensive situation. She could go back to the bus and pretend she’d heard nothing as he exited the building, or she could stand her ground and allow the men to stew in their blunder. Each was quickly weighed against the other. On one hand she could prove to herself and him that they were wrong in their assumptions, a silent battle only she knew existed; or she could take this man to task by outwardly competing against his doubts, affording him a front row seat to his own bet’s defeat.
Without further thought Austen jumped out of the seat and maneuvered herself so as the cowboy—and he was certainly the classic picture of such—crossed the station’s threshold she appeared to be on her way through the same door. Austen took one large stride up to the man, extended her hand to him and, as she returned his strong grip in their handshake, said with a determination she fiercely lacked, “Mr. Thwaite, I am Austen St. John and I expect to remain the entire length of my scheduled stay with the Wild Cat Ranch. If you choose to bet against it, I believe you will be disappointed. However, it is too late to recant your wager of one week, so I must take you up on it.”
Peeking her head into the small room beyond the cowboy named Thwaite, she directed her next comment to the postmaster. “Now I didn’t quite make out what your guess was, sir, so for your sake I’ll allow you to restate or change it. What will you have?”
The postmaster stumbled through his words, cornered and unsure. “I’m sure, ma’am, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I said I would see old Jim here by Wednesday.” He quickly bowed to Austen, gathered his things, and shuffled out of sight into the back room.
She smiled. “Well, Mr. Thwaite, are we on? His three days and your seven against my ninety.”
The man stared blank-faced at his spirited adversary. Although he towered over her in height and frame, he shifted uncomfortably in his boots. Tipping his hat to her, James Thwaite took a deep breath before saying, “Well ma’am, I gather you heard something I wasn’t meaning for you to hear. I apologize, but since you seem game, let us have it. I find it a bit unfair on your side, but a bet is a bet and there is no taking it back now.”
“And how might it be unfair for me, Mr. Thwaite?”
“Because I’m your new boss. Now grab your gear and let’s get on the road. We still have some miles ahead of us before we reach the ranch and I’m not looking to lose any more sleep than I already will from this trip.”
Under her breath came a very clear, “Shit,” as the middle-aged man walked away toward his truck. She may have started out ahead in this game, but he had scored the final point. This man had all the power to make her first week at the ranch a miserable experience and was now equipped with the motivation to do so. Perhaps the first option would have been better than to tempt a cowboy’s pride.