Aidan stared up at the scattered clouds slowly drifting across the late afternoon sky, loving the way the rays of the setting sun speared through. Before long, he was getting out his phone and snapping photos, intent on sending a few snapshots to his mother back home in Ireland. Crossing the pond and going to the States to attend university had been an easy decision for him to make but a hard decision for his parents to accept, especially with his being the oldest child and the only son in his family of six. Dublin had a great university in Trinity College, but he’d always had a secret dream to stand right where he was in Big Sky Country, the land of cowboys and horses and ranches and whispers of the old West.
Ever since he had read a children’s book about boys on summer vacation at a ranch riding horses and camping underneath the stars, his interest had been captured and had devoured everything he could find related to the subject in the years since. Few of his friends had understood his fascination with horses and horseback riding; having mostly grown up in small villages outside the big city, they considered working with the animals a chore and couldn’t understand why Aidan would want to do those things. Granted, his mates had had to muck out stalls and all the rest since they were young lads, but he had never been able to make them see why he would have traded places with them. He saw working with horses as more than that, he saw it as a calling — his calling — and he’d researched and planned and saved every cent he’d earned in allowance to make that first trip to camp.
Irish horses like the one he’d ridden that first summer when he’d turned twelve were so different from the wild mustangs he had seen in American movies, and he’d been delighted by the animal’s strength and agility. Jumping the toppled tree that blocked their path during that first trail ride through the woods had been a defining moment in his young life. Kildare, the big beautiful Draught horse he’d been assigned with a mane and tail just a tiny bit darker than his rich brown coat, had seen the tree before Aidan had, and he could have sworn his excitement transferred to the equine. Leaning forward and giving Kildare a gentle nudge with his heel was all it had taken for the two of them to slip through the pack of more cautious kids until they were just behind the lead guide. Matching the lead horse’s speed, the four of them cleared the tree in nearly perfect tandem, and the impact of Kildare’s hooves hitting the packed earth had been just as exhilarating as he’d always imagined.
Next to him, the guide had been genuinely surprised that a first-time camper who had never before been up on a horse had met the obstacle with no hesitation, and had called him a natural. Outwardly, Aidan had accepted the man’s compliment with nothing more than a smile and a nod, but on the inside he’d been thrilled beyond measure. Perfect moments didn’t come along that often in a young boy’s life, and that one couldn’t have been better had Aidan dreamed it up himself.
Quietly as he could, Aidan whickered to his horse MacKinney, and with a gentle touch on the reins turned them both back toward the east and home. Riding the fence lines at dusk to check the borders of the ranch was the one chore he enjoyed the most out of everything he did at the Bar W because he felt most like the cowboys from his childhood storybooks. Second to that was giving the tourists their riding lessons and heading into the forest that bordered the ranch to take them on the hour-long trail ride. The tourists were always surprised to find an Irish horseman working on a ranch in Montana; on those days he put a little extra brogue into his speech to amuse them, and that almost always led to generous tips that he subsequently shared with whichever guide had accompanied him.
Using the skills he’d learned that first summer and honed each vacation thereafter, Aidan guided Mac with the reins resting lightly in his left hand, crossing through the back gate that led to the stables. Visitors from the afternoon trail ride were also returning through the main entrance, and the noise of excited kids reuniting with their anxious parents reminded him he was overdue in catching up with his sisters via email. With a mental note to write them after he sent his mother the photos he’d taken once he got back to his apartment that night, he dismounted and gave Mac a thank-you rub on his left flank. Xena, the Bar W’s newest mare and the first Friesian he’d seen that wasn’t a picture in a book, whinnied a greeting at them from across the paddock where she was getting a rubdown from Siobhan, the other vet student from the University of Montana. Yearning for both the horse and the girl must have had him sighing out loud, considering the not-so-gentle nudge and amused snort from Mac as if to say, No chance there, boyo, so quit your dreaming.
Zipping away his feelings for the prettiest lass he’d ever met — a girl from County Clare he never imagined he’d meet over here in the States, and the very same girl he’d fallen for the moment he’d seen her astride Xena when they’d cleared with ease the last and highest jump in the steeplechase course — into the tiny corner of his heart where he kept his impossible dreams, Aidan leaned against his horse’s side and watched as the sun sank behind the tree-lined mountains in the distance.