That ranch was absolutely stunning, especially with the backdrop of the Montana Mountain scenery and rolling foothills rising high above its many acres of pasture land.
The timber frame farmhouse and matching stables dotted the center of the massive property and its wooden perimeter fencing. Rooster’s crowing and chickens balking echoed throughout the surrounding valley.
"O'Neil Ranch" marked the place on an old western-style wooden sign hung high above the entrance to the long, concrete driveway that led to a two-car garage. Horses grazed on the abundant, rich grasses as if they didn't have a care in the world. Ah, but that one horse; that one horse he loved.
Roger's fourteen-year-old son, Patrick, had named him Jack. He was a beautiful two-year-old Palomino Quarter Horse Gelding, standing at fourteen hands high. He'd picked him from a slew of other horses that could have easily been great companions to a young teenager. For Patrick, it was love at first sight.
He'd never ridden a horse before that day. But, he swore to his dad that he would be a fast learner. Jack wasn't entirely broken yet, and Roger was a little hesitant to allow Patrick to ride him unsupervised. As the evening sun began to dip below the cloudless, spring sky, Roger had been watching Patrick sit atop him in the round pen, boots in the stirrup as Jack kicked up dust and dirt, bobbing him up and down while he squeezed his legs tightly against the side of the saddle.
"Come on, son. You can do it," Roger urged him. "Don't let him sense your fear."
"I'm trying, dad!" Patrick responded, pulling back slightly on the reins. "Jack just won't calm down."
"Rub his mane and talk to him." Added Roger. "You have to gain his trust. If you are confident and calm, he will be too."
But, before Patrick could react, Jack began to rear wildly, bucking Patrick in every direction.
"Dad, I can't hold on!" Patrick yelled.
"It's ok, son," Roger reassured him. "Just stay with it."
"I can't, dad!" Continued Patrick, as the strength of Jack's kick thrust him up from the saddle. "I'm losing my grip!"
Patrick tried to maintain his position, but he was no match for the remarkable power of that horse. He lost his glove, and his sweaty palm began to slip from the horn. Before he could say another word, Patrick was flung abruptly to the rear, tumbling down directly on his hip on the dusty ground with a loud thud.
"Damn!" Roger yelled, hurrying to Patrick's side and kneeling on the ground. "You ok, son?"
"Ugh, I think so," he sorely uttered, slowly pushing himself upward and spitting a glob of dirt from his mouth. "I'm pretty sure I'm going to have a fat bruise tomorrow, though. God, that hurt."
"Come on," Roger said, gripping his son by the arm and pulling him to his feet. "You're ok. Just shake it off and get back in the saddle."
"After that?" Patrick asked as he wiped the remaining dirt from his face.
"Especially after that," Roger replied. "You can't let Jack see your fear. If he can sense you're scared, it's going to make him scared, too. That's why he threw you. What you do teaches him what to do. Got it?"
"Fine," Patrick grudgingly agreed, brushing the dirt from his clothes, snatching his glove from the ground and stepping back toward his skittish horse. "Now what?"
"Now, pat him on his side," said Roger. "Let him see the trust in your eyes. Talk to him. You're just a boy with his horse, hanging out together."
As Patrick started rubbing Jack down and talking into his ear, the horse seemed to settle down a bit, as if he could see the change in the boys' demeanor. Patrick did exactly as he was instructed to. Jack's excitement seemed to wain as the jumpiness he had observed before turned to sheer composure. Or, so he'd hoped.
"Now, cowboy up!" Roger told him. "He's your horse. He's not going to ride himself!"
"Ok, Jack," Patrick said, placing his left boot into the stirrup and swinging his right leg over. "Here goes nothing."
The boy snagged the reins and prepared to take him for a spin. But, Roger stopped him, grabbing the lead rope that was hanging from the fence and attaching it to the halter.
"Don't worry about trying to steer yet," he said. He needs to get used to you being up there, first. Just sit tight, and I'll lead him for you."
While Jack followed Roger in circles along the fence, Patrick was pleasantly surprised that he wasn't being thrown to the ground again.
"See, son?" Asked Roger. "He needs to get used to your weight before you try to teach him. Otherwise, it confuses him, and he'll get agitated."
"Where'd you learn all this from?" Patrick asked.
"Your great-grandfather taught me a long time ago," he answered. "I was much younger than you back then. He was a hell of a man, too. Rough as they come, but a straight shooter."
"I wish I could have met him," said Patrick.
"So do I," replied Roger, as he guided Jack back toward the metal farm gate.
"That's about enough for today," he continued. "Jack needs to rest. We'll pick up where we left off tomorrow after we feed the animals."
"Ah, dad, you promise?" Patrick asked, hopping down from Jack's back.
"I promise," Roger told him as he opened the gate to direct the horse to the enclosure. "It's about dinner time, anyhow. Your mother and Emily are probably waiting for us. You head in, and I'll meet you in there once I get your horse settled."
"Yes, Sir," he answered.
Roger escorted Jack back toward the other horses, removing the saddle and the rest of his tack and prepared to carry them back to the barn. As he stood by next to him, Roger began talking to him and lightly brushing the side of his mane.
"It's ok, buddy," he said to Jack. "I know you didn't mean to throw him. But, you're going to have to learn to trust Patrick. He wouldn't do anything to hurt ya. I promise you that."
He looked the horse right in his eye. For a moment, as Jack neighed calmly, it was as if he knew precisely what Roger was telling him.
"If only horses could talk," Roger continued, patting Jack on his side as he pulled a horse treat from his pocket and held it out in his palm. "I wonder what you would say to me."
Roger took a square bale of hay and dropped it to the ground next to the water trough, left Jack to be with the other horses and headed straight for the tack room to put Patrick's stuff away. As he flipped the light off and slammed the barn doors shut, headlights beamed toward him from the end of the extended driveway.
"What the hell?” he thought, placing his gloves into the back pocket of his faded jeans. "We aren't expecting company."
As the strange vehicle moved in closer to the house, Roger walked into the driveway to greet the mystery person. The dark-colored Suburban SUV came grinding to a halt. Suddenly, the door swung open, and there stood a tall, bombshell of a brunette all decked out in a dark pants suit and matching shoes and looking like she'd just walked straight out of a James Bond movie.
"Can I help you?" Roger asked the woman as he continued closer to the vehicle.
The lady glimpsed over at the horses in the barnyard, then back at Roger, giving him the once over.
"Nice life you've made for you and your family out here, Mr. O'Neil," she said with a smile. "This place is beautiful."
"Thanks," Roger replied. "But I'm not buying whatever you're selling, lady. So, why don't you just turn your car around and leave?"
"That any way to greet a stranger?" She asked. "You haven't even heard my proposition yet."
As he impatiently waited for the woman to continue, Roger sidestepped and noticed the government license plate mounted to the front of the vehicle.
"Ok, enough with the games," he said. "Who are you, and how do you know my name?"
"I know enough about you, Mr. O'Neil," she answered. "Ex-Army Ranger, numerous combat tours, decorated. Now you're a family man, prominent lawyer, highly intelligent. Should I go on?"
"You still didn't answer my damn question," he said. "Who in the hell are you?"
"Name's Lacy Brown," the lady replied. "I'm Agent, Lacy Brown of Central Intelligence."
"Uh-huh, I see," Roger said sneeringly as he began marching back to the house, not desiring to have anything to do with the woman. "Well, Agent Brown, it seems they sent you all the way out here for nothing. I trust you can find your way out of here."
"Wait!" she shouted. "Just give me a few minutes of your time. It's all I ask. If you don't like what I have to say, then I'll leave."
Roger turned around hesitantly. He recalled that feeling well. Roger was sure that he didn't want to hear whatever it was that this young agent had to say. But, part of him was curious. Part of him had that fire burning deep in his gut. It was the same fire that he'd felt so many times before in combat. That patriotic button that seemed to turn itself on whenever it felt like it.
He knew there was only one reason that the CIA would ever come all that way to see anybody. Roger had a solid idea of where the conversation was going to go. Still, he wasn't convinced that he wanted to hear it. Once going down that road, would anything ever be the same? After all, he'd promised his family a simple country life.
"You've got five minutes," Roger said to her. "My family is waiting inside. As you can see around you, I'm a very busy guy."
"Thank you, Mr. O'Neil," she said. "Where shall we talk?"
"Let's go over here, by the fence."
Roger accompanied the agent toward the large horse enclosure next to the barn. As he leaned against the wooden fence, the post light gleaming down on them, Roger took a deep breath, letting out a sigh as Patrick's horse, Jack, came wandering near them.
"Know what's so interesting about horses, Agent Brown?” he asked her.
"I can't say I do, Mister O'Neil."
"You have to work to earn their trust," he said. "There is no middle ground. Either they trust you, or they don't."
"I see," she answered.
"Know what happens when they don't trust you?" Roger continued.
"You end up flat on your ass on the ground, looking up at the sky," he told her. "But, when they do trust you, they'd go anywhere and do anything for you."
"I don't see what…" Agent Brown got out of her mouth just before Roger interrupted her.
"I'm the same way," he said. "I would do just about anything for someone that I trust. But, cross me, or my family, and I'd bring hell raining down on that person."
"I see, Mr. O'Neil," the agent said. "I think."
"Call me, Roger," he told her.
"Ok, Roger," she added. "I'll get straight to the point, then. The United States Government is currently in a war of words with certain elements of the Russian Government. The US president has been pressuring the Kremlin to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and placed sanctions on their trade goods. In return, Russia has begun threatening to nuke the West Coast of the United States."
"Yeah," Roger stated. "I've seen the news stories. It's a sad thing, certainly. Nobody wants a nuclear war."
"Exactly," she said.
"What I am not understanding is what that has to do with me," he added.
"There are certain hard-liners within the Kremlin that we believe would fulfill this threat," she said. "They are a bunch of old, pro-communist fascists who'd love nothing more than to rebuild the Soviet Union to its former glory and destroy any nation that stands in their way."
"Again, what does this have to do with me, Agent Brown?"
"Well, simply put, Roger," she said. "We need someone like you on the inside. Someone we can trust to get in and disrupt their plans, permanently. If you know what I'm saying."
"Sounds a lot like you're trying to recruit me, lady."
"In essence, yes, that's exactly what I'm doing," she told him.
Roger began to stroke the side of Jack's head as he leaned over the railing, one boot resting on the bottom board, pausing for a moment to think about what she was saying to him, and everything he and his family had built around them. Not to mention all of the crap that they'd been through over the years. He'd served his country honorably. Roger had nothing left to prove.
However, that burning desire to right wrongs was again smoldering within his soul. That feeling deep inside of Roger had always been there, and, probably always will be. It's what Special Operators are made of. She undoubtedly knew that. There was no other reason she'd come all the way to a ranch in the middle of nowhere, Montana.
"I've done my time," Roger said firmly. "I've given blood, sweat, and tears to this country. I've lost many friends in the process. I have nothing left to give."
"Oh, but I think you do, "she told him. "You aren't the type to back down from a challenge. Are, you, Roger?"
"You know nothing about me, lady!" Roger shouted, trying not to lose his temper. "You don't know what we have given to this nation, only to be shit on!"
“I’ve read your file, Mister O’Neil,” she replied. “I know more about you than you realize. You may get upset thinking about it. But, inside, you're a true-blooded American Operator. Killing the bad guys is in your DNA. You'll only be disappointed at yourself if you don't come full-circle."
"Do not dismiss who and what you are," the agent added. "Your country needs you, Mr. O'Neil."
"Well, I don't need this shit!" He shouted, kicking the side of the fence post with his cowboy boot.
Roger lifted his ball cap to wipe the sweat from his brow. As he stood there, hunched over the wooden fence, he glanced back at the agent with a pondering expression on his face.
"Who's your friend, honey?" Kate asked as she stepped out onto the front porch, their young teenage daughter Emily close behind her and brushing her long brown hair.
Two years younger than Patrick, Emily helped her mom around the house while the boys worked outside.
"Nobody!" he replied. "She was just leaving."
"Well, come inside before your dinner gets cold!" Kate added.
"Be inside in a minute, honey!"
Emily tugged on Kate’s long dress as they withdrew back into the house.
Slipping the hat back onto his head, Roger wasn't quite sure how to respond to Agent Brown. The thought of leaving his family was daunting to him. He swore to them that he would never put them through that ever again. Still, if anything happened, if the US went to war and millions of people died, could he live with the fact that maybe he could have done something about it? Could he fathom a nuclear attack on American soil?
"I know you have some reservations," Agent Brown said. "It's ok. I didn't expect an immediate answer."
He didn't say a single word. He just glared at the agent in frustration. Will Roger ever know peace? Will he ever live the life he's longed to for so long? Would his family forgive him if he left?
"I'll give you forty-eight hours to think it over, Mr. O'Neil," the agent said as she withdrew back to her Chevy Suburban.
"Don't count on it," he said.
"I know where you live," she told him, swinging the vehicle door open. "I'll be in touch."
As the engine cranked up and Agent Brown sped out of view, Roger knew he had much to think about now. It seemed his life was about to change. He shook his head in disbelief as he watched the taillights disappear into the bright, full moon night.
"Why me?” he thought to himself. "Damn it. I really don't fucking need this."
Walking onto the front porch, his head felt like it was going to explode. Roger had no idea what he was going to do. But, whatever it was, he needed to decide fast. War with Russia and so many innocent lives that would inevitably be lost wasn't something Roger wanted to imagine. The clock was now counting down. Tick-tock.