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Open Range Hearts

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The first thing Nicole notices as they approach their destination is the stunning view of the mountains in the background. They rise high into the sky beyond the speckle of buildings and never ending landscape of green and brown fields.

“You get used to the view eventually, but that first sight, oh, she's magical.” Doc's rough voice cuts into her reverie.

Nicole's not so sure she'll be getting used to the splendor of the view ever, but she just gives a small nod.

The truck bounces along the dirt road, making noises Nicole can only describe as rickety. She's honestly surprised they made it here without breaking down or a wheel falling off.

They pass under a wrought iron archway onto the property, a circle in the middle of the arch containing an intricate looking E and R, the bottom of the first letter linking through the loop at the top of the second.

Earp Ranch.

Her soon to be place of employment for the foreseeable future. She hopes anyway.

For whatever reason, she made a good enough impression on Doc over the course of a night drinking and playing cards in town that he offered her a vacant ranch hand position.

Which she gladly accepted, because anything was better than the state of limbo that comes from being between jobs.

And it's not like Nicole can't do the work in her sleep. She's a farmers daughter through and through, no stranger to horses and cattle and everything that comes with it.

They finally come to a stop in front of what Nicole assumes is the owner's house. It's the biggest building on the property that actually looks habitable, so she thinks it's a good guess.

She hops out of the truck, walking to the open bed to grab her rucksack. There's a long trail of dust snaking it's way back out the way they came down the road, but it's slowly evaporating.

She hears a throat clear and turns to find Doc looking at her with that gaze she thinks might be scrutinizing, but it also might just be how his face looks a lot of the time.

He jerks a thumb towards the house. “That's the owner's house, obviously. That way,” he points past her, off to the right of the home, “is where the bunk house, dining hall, and cabins are.” Then he gestures to the left of the house at the large barn. “This here is what we call the 'main barn', because, well, it's the main barn.”

He gives her a rueful smile that brings out a bit of his dimples, and Nicole knows he's trying to make her feel comfortable. She appreciates the effort.

“I figure we can let you get set up in your cabin before I introduce you to -”

“Please tell me you brought back the good shit Doc.”

The voice is loud, and Nicole turns her gaze to the long wrap-around porch attached to the house.

The girl is pretty, that much is certainly true. She also looks vaguely annoyed and is leveling Doc with a look and arched eyebrow that says she expects a certain answer.

“Ah hell Wynonna, that the best you can give as a greeting?”

In lieu of a verbal response the girl, Wynonna, just puts her hands on her hips and waits.

Doc sighs, relenting. “Yes, I brought back the good shit. And more than one kind.” He waves his hand towards Nicole.

Wynonna blinks in surprise for a moment when she realizes Doc did not arrive alone, but she recovers quickly enough, making long quick strides down the front steps towards Nicole.

She sticks out a hand that Nicole shakes, noting a strong, sure grip. She knows hers is likewise.

“I'm assuming Doc hired you to be the new ranch hand. Either that or he's looking to spice up our next Friday night.”

Nicole's brow furrows, not quite understanding if Wynonna is implying what she thinks she is.

A wide grin breaks across Wynonna's face at the look. “I'm kidding. Well, I'm trying to kid anyway, it appears I haven't had enough alcohol to actually be funny yet.”

Nicole can't help the small smile that comes to her lips.

Wynonna seems kind of...eccentric. Nicole can work with eccentric. She's also pretty used to ribald humor, having worked on farms and ranches since her teenaged years.

“Well, luckily you were right on your first assumption, because if it was the second, it probably wouldn't work out as fun for Doc as he thinks it would.”

Wynonna tilts her head a fraction, and Nicole finds herself holding her breath, waiting to see if she understands; waiting to see if it's a problem.

A wicked smile takes over her lips, and she looks back to Doc, pointing at Nicole. “I like this one, she rolls with my subpar jokes. Let's keep her.”

Nicole lets out a slow breath.

“Please tell me you're not terrorizing the new ranch hand already Wynonna. It'd be nice if you didn't drive her away in less than 24 hours.”

Nicole looks over Wynonna's shoulder to the porch.

And just like that, she feels like she's holding her breath again.

If Nicole absently thought Wynonna was pretty upon first sight, she doesn't know what to describe the girl she's looking at as.

Whatever it is makes Nicole's heart stutter in her chest for a moment.

Nicole frowns at the reaction. Most inconvenient.

“Waaaaaave,” Wynonna whines, “why are you always trying to ruin my fun?”

The girl rolls her eyes as she walks forward to introduce herself.

“Waverly Earp.” She extends a hand, and Nicole takes it, aware that her shake is softer than it was for Wynonna.

Waverly drops her gaze down, looking at their joined hands for just a moment before her eyes dart back up. They seem a little bit wider than before, but Nicole figures she's imagining things.

“Nicole. Nicole Haught.”

Wynonna laughs. “Your last name is pronounced 'hot'? Oh my god, you just get better and better.”

Waverly shoots Wynonna a look that clearly says 'please shut the fuck up' before turing back to Nicole.

There's the tiniest hint of pink to her cheeks now, and the color darkens just a bit when Waverly realizes they're still holding hands.

She pulls away and Nicole misses the contact immediately.

“Please excuse my sister, she's an acquired taste.”

Nicole smiles warmly. “No worries, nothing I can't handle.”

Wynonna smacks Waverly in the arm. “See? Nothing she can't handle.”

Waverly gives her another unimpressed look before smiling at Nicole.

“Glad to hear it. And welcome aboard, look forward to working with you.”

She turns her full attention to Wynonna. “I'm heading out to meet Champ, not sure if I'll be back tonight. Don't wait up.”

Wynonna gives a funny looking thumbs up sign at her sister, who nods once more at Nicole before walking away.


Nicole's not sure she heard the word Wynonna muttered correctly, but one look at her face tells her she definitely did.

Her eyes trail Waverly until she disappears around the side of the barn, before returning to Nicole.

“Well, I'll let Doc show you to your cabin so you can get settled.” She starts to walk away before turning back, “and get some sleep Haught-stuff, we're going to see what you're made of tomorrow.” A rueful grin later and she's back up the steps and heading into the house.

Nicole startles a bit when she hears Doc chuckle. She almost forgot he was here. “Well, you met the Earp sisters, and you're still standing here, so I'd say that's a pretty good first day.”

Nicole would have to agree, it was a pretty good first day indeed.


Tendrils of steam climb from the tin mug of coffee Nicole sips on while taking in the view of the mountains.

It's something Nicole can see herself doing each morning. If she's going to have to get up at the crack ass of dawn almost every day, it might as well come with a view.

She just finished breakfast in the ranch hand communal kitchen/dinning building, getting introduced to all the other workers. They seem like a nice enough lot.

There's Fish and Levi, who seem to be around Nicole's age, who bunk together in one cabin; Nedley, who comes across as the old timer who's seen it all (and doesn't have a whole lot to say about it); Shorty, a congenial middle-aged man who immediately makes Nicole feel at ease; and finally there's Dolls, who Doc introduced rather shortly, stating he does some stuff 'here and there'.

It earned Doc a pointed look from Dolls over his coffee mug.

Doc merely grinned back at him unapologetically.

“You survived your first group breakfast, that's a good sign.” Wynonna's voice interrupts the memory.

“Indeed I did. It takes a lot more than that to scare me off.”

Wynonna makes a small humming noise, leaning against the porch rail on the side of the steps opposite Nicole.

Her eyes sweep across the horizon of mountains for a moment before she turns and reaches out to take Nicole's coffee mug. She gives it a sniff before taking a sip.

Nicole's eyes narrow, her mouth opening to tell Wynonna how insulting it is she thinks she'd drink on the job, especially on her first day.

“Girl scout.” Wynonna hands the mug back with a smirk on her face.

Nicole closes her mouth again at her words. That was...unexpected. Although after last night, maybe it shouldn't be.

She shrugs. “I was a girl scout at one time, and a damn good one at that.”

Wynonna's smirk grows into a sarcastic grin. “I'll bet.”

“Also, it's 6:00 in the morning.” Nicole points out.

Wynonna rolls her eyes. “Good lord Haught, all the more reason for needing a drink.” She slaps her hands against her thighs, pushing off the railing.

“Alright, let's see what you're made of. We've got a herd of cattle that needs branding.”

Nicole swallows the dregs of her coffee slowly, trying to cover her distaste. Sure, she's done plenty of branding in her life, but finds it rather barbaric if she's perfectly honest.

She must not hide her feelings well because Wynonna gives her an understanding smile.

“We use a special freezing method for branding. It removes hair in the shape of the pattern, rather than burning it into their skin. I never cared for the hot iron method, but Waverly, oh man, it used to make her cry as a kid. It was a top priority when we took over to find a better way.”

Nicole feels a smile spread across her lips. “That's refreshing to hear.”

She ducks back into the kitchen quickly to dispose of her mug, and when she returns, Wynonna turns on her heel immediately, heading for the barn.

“Do try to keep up, Haught, lots of work to do.”

Nicole tugs her stetson down a bit to hide her grin as she follows.

She likes it here.


It's been a long first full day, and Nicole is feeling the exhaustion set in.

She'll never let it outwardly show, and certainly not to her boss, but the time off in between jobs has her a little less in shape than she used to be. That'll change soon enough though.

Ranch life is pretty much 24/7, and with springtime calving season about to start, Nicole knows her ass will be whipped back into shape in no time.

She looks forward to it.

She and Wynonna finish their horseback ride along the perimeter of the pasture closest to the barn, where all the pregnant Heifers are being kept until they give birth, and head back towards the main barn.

Tomorrow night will be Nicole's night to stay up, riding around the pasture and keeping an eye out for any Heifers that might be in labor.

It's a job she's familiar with, and one that no one ever really relishes, because it involves cold and lack of sleep, but Wynonna rotates all of her ranch hands during the calving season so no one ever gets the short end of the stick.

They turn their horses over to Fish to unsaddle and groom before heading out of the barn, stumbling to a stop at the ruckus going on in front of the homestead.

Doc and Dolls are rolling around on the ground, yelling profanities and insults at one another.

Nedley's trying to break it up, but he just ends up with Doc's boot to his face, his stetson falling into the dirt as his backside hits the ground.

“Hey! Break it up assholes!” Wynonna yells, striding over to try and get a handle on the situation.

Shorty puts a hand on her shoulder to stop her before she can jump into the fray.

“Don't bother, they've been going at each other all day. You'll get yourself hurt if you try to break it up.” He spits on the ground, eyeing the rolling ball of fisticuffs that is still Doc and Dolls. “Let 'em get it out of their system.”

Nicole is so absorbed in watching the shit show unfolding in front of her she doesn't even notice the younger Earp sister come out of the house.

She nearly has a heart attack when the shotgun blast goes off. Judging by how high everyone else jumps and the looks on their faces, they're in similar positions.

Doc and Dolls whip their heads around to the source of the sound, eyes wide.

“If you don't break this up right now, I will bring the pain, do you hear me?” Waverly's face says she is not messing around.

Nicole actually has a visceral reaction to the sight of a pissed off Waverly brandishing a shotgun, but she frantically tries to tamp it down right away.

“Doc, get in the house so I can look at that split lip. Dolls, go with Shorty, let him take care of that nick on your ear.” Waverly commands.

When everyone just continues to stare at her, she pumps the shotgun again in warning. “NOW!”

Everyone scrambles after that, happy to get away from Waverly's wrath.

Nicole, slides her hands into her back pockets, waiting casually to see if Wynonna needs anything else from her.

She's helping Doc up form the ground, and he jerks his head in her direction when he notices her waiting.

Wynonna looks over. “Oh, yeah. We're good for today Haught. Get some sleep. Don't worry about coming 'round for work till a little later tomorrow since you'll be doing an overnight.” She heads into the house with Doc in tow without waiting for a response.

Nicole slides her eyes to Waverly, who seems to have just noticed her standing there.

“That was some show. Remind me to never get on your bad side.” Nicole gives her a smile that's been described as 'easy and charming' more than once in her life.

A light pink color stains Waverly's cheeks, her eye widening a bit. “I am so sorry you had to see that, and on your first full day. God, you must think we're a bunch of heathens.”

Nicole chuckles. “Hardly. I've spent my life around ranches, I've seen far worse, trust me.” As an after thought she adds “But never something quite as badass as what you just did”

The flush on Waverly's cheeks darkens a bit more as her eyes flit away. They come back after a moment, and a small smile takes over her mouth. “Well thank you. I think.”

Her smile grows a bit more, and Nicole's heart trips over itself.

“I better go see how Doc is doing.”

Nicole nods, taking a step backwards. “You have yourself a good night Waverly.”

“You too Nicole.”

Nicole spins on her heel and walks away then, before she can make a fool out of herself with her reaction to hearing Waverly say her name.

She tells herself, again, how very, very, bad it is to develop a crush on the boss.

She makes the decision to nip it in the bud now and only see Waverly when she has to.

That should be simple enough when working, eating and sleeping on a ranch together, right?


The night is cloudless, and the stars are absolutely breathtaking with the lack of light pollution on the ranch.

Not that Nicole has a lot of time to enjoy them, but she sneaks a minute to look skyward when she can.

The rest of the time is split between slowly riding her horse through the pasture over and over, keeping an eye out for any heifers displaying the characteristics of labor, and trying not to freeze her ass off.

She's got her chin tucked down into the collar of her shirt and jacket, her stetson pulled low, and a lot of layers on, but the early spring night is permeating its way through everything.

Every once in awhile she stands in the saddle, trying to get better blood circulation, in the foolish hopes it will bring a little more warmth to her body.

Her eyes sweep the pasture again as she does another pass through, and she's just about ready to spend another couple minutes looking at the stars, when she notices the heifer in the far corner of the fencing.

The cow is showing signs of distress, but that can happen for short periods of time, eventually coming to nothing.

Nicole rides closer, narrowing her eyes to get a better feel for the situation.

Normal protocol is to watch for thirty minutes to see if it's just a false alarm. It only takes Nicole twenty minutes to realize something is wrong.

“Come on girl.” She mutters as she tries to slowly corral the cow towards the barn.

It's a slow ten minutes, filled with gentle pleading and riding her horse behind the cow at a snail's pace to keep her moving.

When they finally reach the barn Nicole shuts the gate on the pen, and quickly walks to the walkie talkie radio setup.

“Hey Fish and Levi, you guys copy?” She waits a minute, before trying again.

About thirty seconds after her second transmission she gets a static response before Levi's sleepy voice come across. “Yeah Haught, we're here. One of the ladies go into labor?”

“I think so, but she's not acting right about it. I don't have a good feeling.”

“Okay, we'll be there in just a few, hang tight.”

Nicole switches the radio off and heads back to the pen.

It's only a few minutes later that Fish and a still half-asleep Levi come ambling into the barn.

They're the experts when it comes to animal care, so Nicole defers to them immediately, assisting with whatever they need.

The labor is slow going. Fish and Levi's face are serious and grim throughout the ordeal, which tells Nicole her initial assessment is most likely right.

When the calf is finally born, shaky legs and slime covered, it's clear the mother won't last much longer.

Levi puts a gentle hand on Fish's shoulder, murmuring something quietly to him. Watching the moment play out, Nicole thinks she knows why they share a cabin. She's curious if anyone else is aware, but it's none of her business, and certainly not the time for it.

Levi leaves the barn then, for what Nicole is not sure, and she waits for Fish's next directions.

“Can you come hold her head up a bit? I'm going to get the little one set in her own pen.” He asks, and Nicole is happy to comply.

The cow is lying down now, which is something they almost never do, so Nicole knows it will be over soon.

She eases herself down in the bed of hay, ignoring the dampness that seeps into her jeans, and gently moves a knee underneath the cows head.

She can hear Levi coming back through the barn, and when he rounds the corner he's not alone.

Waverly climbs over the gate into the pen and drops down next to Nicole, reaching a hand out to run it along the cow's neck.

“Hey pretty girl, heard you're not feeling well.”

Waverly's face is grim, so Nicole knows she's aware of how the situation will ultimately end. That part is at least a relief. She'd hate for Waverly to have false hope.

Waverly peeks up at Nicole, giving her a small smile and 'Hey' before returning her full attention to the cow.

They sit in amiable silence, with Waverly occasionally murmuring gentle words to the animal, as Fish does what needs to be done around them.

Once it's over, Fish softly tells them they can go, that there's nothing more to be done.

Waverly's voice breaks when she tells him thank you, and she's out of the pen and the barn in an instant.

Nicole follows her route to make sure she's okay, and she finds her just outside the main doors, arms wrapped around herself in the chilly night.

Her eyes hold unshed tears, and Nicole's heart aches for her.

“Hey.” She says softly, careful not to startle Waverly. She places a gentle hand on her arm, hoping it conveys comfort.

Waverly looks down immediately at her hand, and Nicole is afraid she's overstepped a boundary, so she quickly pulls it back to her side.

She searches Waverly's face for any sign of anger, but instead she sees only sorrow.

It's then that the tears come in earnest, and before Nicole knows what is happening, Waverly is stepping into her personal space, Nicole's arms coming up to wrap around her without conscious thought.

She stays silent as Waverly cries into the front of her jacket, rubbing her hands softly up and down her back in an effort to sooth.

After a few minutes Waverly seems cried out, and she steps back out of Nicole's arms, wiping at the tear tracks on her cheeks.

“I'm sorry. God that's so embarrassing. You would think being in this line of work I wouldn't be affected like that. I'm such an idiot.”

Nicole shakes her head softly. “No, I think it's amazing you care so much. Don't ever change that.”

Waverly's lips curl into the smallest smile, and Nicole can feel her heart flip in her chest.

How long they stand there with their gazes locked, Nicole can't be sure, but eventually Wynonna's voice breaks the moment.

“Hey baby girl.” She steps up next to Waverly, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and kissing the side of her head. “I made some tea. Why don't you go have some and try to relax? I'll be in soon.”

Waverly nods, pausing to give a little wave. “Night Nicole.”

Nicole just nods, words escaping her in the moment.

Luckily, Wynonna is too pre-occupied with watching Waverly walk into the house to notice anything strange in Nicole's behavior.

By the time Wynonna levels her gaze at her, Nicole has herself composed again.

“Follow me.” Wynonna clips out, wasting no time walking into the barn.

Nicole feels nervous. A cow died on her first night watch. It's not something she had any control over, but still, not the best way to start things.

Wynonna strides over to the old, dusty desk the walkie-talkie radio equipment sits on, opening the bottom drawer and pulling a bottle out.

She pulls the top off and takes a generous swig before handing the bottle to Nicole.

Nicole shakes her head. “I'm still on night watch.”

Wynonna waves a hand dismissively. “Nah, I got Dolls up, he's going to finish up the night for you.”

That seems awfully nice of Dolls, Nicole thinks, unless it's because she's being let go. An ache starts in the pit of her stomach at the thought.

When Wynonna shoves the bottle towards her again, the contents sloshing noisily, Nicole grabs it and takes a gulp.

The liquor burns on the way down, but it's welcome.

Wynonna eyes her carefully, and Nicole waits silently for whatever is to come.

“Rough first night Haught.”

Nicole just nods.

“Fish said you handled it real well. And I can't thank you enough for being there for Waverly. She has such a hard time when things like this happen, and the guys aren't always the most sensitive about it.”

Nicole blinks in surprise. Wynonna is thanking her?

A sarcastic looking grin takes over Wynonna's face. “What, did you think you were getting fired?”

“I-” Nicole cuts off, not sure how to answer. “Maybe?”

“Oh hardly Haught-Stuff. I like you. Waverly likes you.”

A warmth that has nothing to do with the alcohol spreads through Nicole.

“So you'd have to do a lot worse than actually performing your job well to get fired, my friend.”

“Okay.” Nicole responds simply, relief sweeping through her as she takes another swing from the bottle.

“Just because I like you doesn't mean you can drink all my booze, jerk.” Wynonna winks at her before taking the bottle back. “I'm going to take this little lady to bed. You should get some sleep too. Plenty to do in the morning.” She heads out of the barn, leaving Nicole by herself.

Nicole stands rooted to the spot for another minute.

She has the strangest feeling that coming to the Earp Ranch might just be one of the best things that's ever happened to her.

She shakes her head at herself and her own absurd thoughts before finally heading off to bed.