“Well, yeah. But do they all act like assholes?”
“More than you’d think. It would explain his overreaction to getting cut from the football team if he saw it as a slight to his manhood. Setting fire to the garage was likely in retaliation for disappointing his father, who played on a varsity team. This is all hypothetical, of course.”
“Of course.” Ryan sighed. “I didn’t expect to have to deal with relationship drama when I agreed to start up a group home.”
“You don’t have to deal with it. It’s up to his counselor and me.”
“I don’t like you dealing with it, either.”
She could see him thinking up ways to remove her from the situation and she wouldn’t allow it. He had to trust her to do her job despite any slight missteps.
“Ace and Colin deal with the boys directly. My job is to provide guidance,” she reminded him. “Don’t forget that they’re here because they have redeemable qualities. They deserve a second chance.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” He bounced to his feet. “Speaking of second chances… Come on. Handy needs a map of the new fields they’ll be fencing. Grab a warm jacket and wear sturdy boots. Nothing with heels. We’re going up in the helicopter.”
While that sounded like a whole lot more fun than reviewing her research, they’d agreed to maintain their distance outside of the bedroom and she had to question why her presence was required. “Why me?”
“I need someone to take notes.”
When she examined his motives, she could find nothing ulterior. She was the least busy person on staff at the moment. Orphan numbers were dwindling and no new babies had been added in recent days. While happy they remained with their mothers, the end of a chore she enjoyed was clearly in sight and there had been no talk of her being given another.
“I don’t know anything about mapping,” she said.
“There’s no exam. All you have to do is write down the numbers I give you.”
Which sounded easy enough.
They took one of the ranch’s half-ton trucks to the small county airport nearby, where she’d made her initial arrival in Grand for her interview two months ago. It was the middle of May, and with the temperature a balmy seventy-three degrees, the warm jacket seemed overkill.
Ryan towed the Bell 206L LongRanger light helicopter out of one of the hangars. It seated seven, but the passenger seats folded to make room for long loads.
“It doubles as an air ambulance in emergencies,” he’d told her when he’d flown her to Billings after her interview. “Technically, it belongs to the Endeavour’s search and rescue operations, which fall under Dan’s umbrella. I have to book it through him before I take it up.”
She waited in the passenger seat while he performed a series of safety checks, then found out how cold May could get as soon as they entered the sky and Ryan circled above the airstrip. Her stomach swirled as the helicopter tipped to its side on the turn, but her half-eaten lunch remained where it belonged. When she looked through the window, she saw the Endeavour Ranch below them and the rooftops of Grand in the distance.
After a few minutes the cabin began to warm up. They wore headsets with microphones to combat the noise of the blades and she adjusted her headset so it fit more comfortably over her ears.
“How many acres of land does the ranch own?” she asked, mostly to take her mind off her stomach, so she wasn’t prepared for the answer.
“A hundred and fifteen thousand. That’s roughly one hundred and eighty square miles. We’re not the largest operation Montana has to offer, not yet, but we’re far from the smallest.”
“A hundred and eighty square miles…” She tried to wrap her brain around that. It wasn’t as big as all of Chicago, but it was close. “What does someone do with that much land?”
“I can’t speak for other outfits, but the Endeavour raises beef, alfalfa, and a variety of grains,” Ryan said. He tapped the notebook on her lap. “Montana is mostly open range, which is why ranchers brand their livestock. We’re only planning to fence the parcels of land we want to keep cattle away from, in case you’re worried about how much mapping we’ll do today. We won’t do the whole ranch.”
The wild vastness of Montana beyond the Endeavour became more apparent from the sky. Badlands and plains stretched forever in all directions, cut in pieces by long stretches of the Tongue and the Yellowstone rivers. Grand sat on the junction where the two glittering ribbons of water connected. Mountains in the distance appeared a lot closer than they did from the ground.
They circled the ranch for several hours, with Ryan firing information at her while she scribbled it all down as best she could.
“Let’s take a closer look at the badlands,” he said through the headset when they were done.
Badlands were mini deserts that formed after vegetation was destroyed, either through overgrazing or wildfire. Water runoff and wind caused erosion, cutting soft bedrock into beautiful standing sculptures with names such as toadstools, castles, cathedrals, and balancing rocks.
“Amazing,” Elizabeth breathed, wide-eyed. She’d never seen anything like it. “What are those?” She pointed to a few moving bumps on the side of a hill.
“Bighorn sheep. You’ll spot elk here sometimes, too. And deer, the occasional coyote, maybe some antelope.” He paused, fiddled with one of the instruments in front of him, then cast a quick glance her way. “But there aren’t any bears in the area right now. I usually do a quick flyover of the ranch every few weeks and that’s one of the things I check for, especially when the men are working in the fields, to make sure. No one likes to lose cattle, let alone a hand. I’m definitely not about to lose one of the kids, no matter how big a pain in the ass Jonas might be. I agreed to take on a group home for boys because I used to be Jonas. Except for the potentially gay part, of course.”