The grass ocean rippled gold under a strong summer sun. The dirt track that cut a straight line through the heart of it was a small portion of the mile upon mile of private roads that crisscrossed the ranching empire of the Calder Cattle Company, better known in Montana as the Triple C.
It was a land that could be bountiful or brutal, a land that bent to no man's will, a land that weeded out the weak and faint of heart, tolerating only the strong.
No one knew that better than Chase Benteen Calder, the current patriarch of the Triple C and a direct descendant of the first Calder, his namesake, who had laid claim to nearly six hundred square miles of this grassland. Its size was never something Chase Calder bragged about; the way he looked at it, when you were the biggest, everybody already knew it, and if they didn't, they would soon be told. And the knowledge would carry more weight if he wasn't the one doing the telling.
To a few, the enormity of the Triple C was a thing of rancor. The events of recent weeks were proof of that. The freshness of that memory accounted for the hint of grimness in his expression as Chase drove the ranch pickup along the hard-packed road, a rooster tail of dust pluming behind it. But the past wasn't something Chase allowed his mind to dwell on. Running an operation this size required a man's full attention. Even the smallest detail had a way of getting big if ignored. This land and a long life had taught him that if nothing else.
Which was likely why his sharp eyes spotted the sagging wire caused by a tilting fence post. Chase braked the truck to a stop, but not before the pickup clattered over a metal cattle guard. He shifted into reverse, backed up to the cattle guard, stopped, and switched off the engine.
The full force of the sun's rays beat down on him as Chase stepped out of the truck, older and heavier but still a rugged and powerfully built man.
The sixty-plus years he carried had taken some of the spring from his step, added a heavy dose of gray to his hair, and grooved deeper creases into the sun-leathered skin around his eyes and mouth, giving a crustiness to his face, but it hadn't diminished the mark of authority stamped on his raw-boned features.
Reaching back inside the truck, Chase grabbed a pair of tough leather work gloves off the seat and headed toward the section of the sagging fence six posts from the road. Never once did it occur to Chase to send one of the ranch hands back to fix the problem. With distances being what they were on the Triple C, that was the quickest way of turning a fifteen-minute job into a two-hour one.
With each stride he took, the brittle, sun-cured grass crackled under foot. Its stalks were short and curly, matting close to the ground — native buffalo grass, drought-tolerant and highly nutritious, the kind of feed that put weight on cattle and was a mainstay of the Triple C's century of success.
The minute his gloved hands closed around the post in question, it dipped drunkenly under the pressure. The three spaced strands of tightly strung barbed wire were clearly the only thing keeping it upright at all. Chase kicked away the matted grass at the base and saw that the wood had rotted at ground level.
This was one fence repair that wouldn't be a fifteen-minute fix. Chase glanced toward the pickup parked on the road. There was a time when he would have carried steel fence posts and a roll of wire along with other sundry items piled in the truck bed. But on this occasion, there was only a toolbox.
Chase didn't waste time with regret for the lack of a spare post. Instead he ran an inspecting glance along the rest of the fence, following its steady march over the rolling grassland until it thinned into a single line. In that one, cursory observation, he noticed three more places where the fence curved out of its straight line. If three could be spotted with the naked eye, there were undoubtedly more. It didn't surprise him. Fence mending was one of those never-ending jobs every rancher faced.
When he turned to retrace his steps to the pickup, he caught the distant drone of another vehicle. Automatically Chase scanned the narrow road in both directions without finding a vehicle in sight. But one was approaching, of that he had no doubt.
It was the huge sweep of sky that gave the illusion of flatness to the land beneath it. In reality the terrain was riven with coulees and shallow hollows, all of them hidden from view with the same ease that an ocean conceals its swales and troughs.
By the time Chase reached his truck, another ranch pickup had roared into view, coming from the west. Chase waited by the cab door, watching as the other vehicle slowed perceptibly then rolled to a stop behind Chase's pickup. The trailing dust cloud swept forward, briefly enveloping both vehicles before settling to a low fog.
Squinting against the sting of dust particles, Chase recognized the short, squatly built man behind the wheel as Stumpy Niles, a contemporary of his and the father of Chase's daughter-in-law. Chase lifted a hand in greeting and headed toward the truck.
Stumpy promptly rolled down the driver's side window and stuck his head out. "What's the problem, Chase?"
"Have you got a spare fence post in your truck? We have a wooden one that's rotted through."
"Got it handled." Stumpy scrambled out of the truck and moved toward the tailgate with short, choppy strides. "Can't say I'm surprised. Just about all them old wood posts have started rottin'. It's gonna be one long, endless job replacin' 'em."
And expensive, too, Chase thought to himself, and pitched in to help the shorter man haul the steel post as well as a posthole jobber out of the truck's rear bed. "I don't see where we have much choice. It's got to be done."
"I know." Already sweating profusely in the hot summer sun, Stumpy paused to drag a handkerchief from his pocket and mop the perspiration from his round, red face. "It ain't gonna be an easy job. The ground's as hard as granite. It's been nearly forty years since we've had such a dry spring. I'll bet we didn't get much more than an inch of moisture in all the South Branch section."
"It wasn't much better anywhere else on the ranch." Like Stumpy, Chase was remembering the last prolonged dry spell the ranch had endured.
Stumpy was one of the cadre of ranch hands who, like Chase, had been born on the Triple C. All were descended from cowhands who had trailed that original herd of longhorn cattle north, then stayed on to work for the first Calder. That kind of deep-seated loyalty was a throwback to the old days when a cowboy rode for the brand, right or wrong, through times of plenty and times of lean. To an outsider, this born-and-bred core of riders gave an almost feudal quality to the Triple C.
Chase shortened his stride to walk alongside Stumpy as the pair tracked through the grass to the sagging post. "Headed for The Homestead, were you?" Stumpy guessed, referring to the towering, two-story structure that was the Calder family home, erected on the site of the ranch's original homestead.
Chase nodded. "But only long enough to clean up before I head into Blue Moon. I'm supposed to meet Ty and Jessy for supper as soon as they're through at the clinic."
"The clinic." Stumpy stopped short. "Jessy's all right, isn't she?"
"She's fine." Smiling, Chase understood Stumpy's fatherly concern. "Ty was the one in for a checkup."
Stumpy shook his head at himself and continued toward the rotted post. "It's them twins she's fixin' to have. It's got me as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockin' chairs. There's no history of twins bein' born in either side of our family. Or at least none that Judy and me know about," he said, referring to his wife.
"It's a first for the Calder side, too." Chase looked on while Stumpy set about digging a hole with the jobber. "Although I can't speak for the O'Rourke half."
The comment was an oblique reference to his late wife Maggie O'Rourke. Even now, so many years after her death, he rarely mentioned her by name and only among the family. This belief that grief was a private thing was one of many codes of the Old West that continued to hold sway in the modern West, especially in Triple C country.
"Twins," Stumpy murmured to himself, then grunted from the impact of the twin blades stabbing into the hard dry ground. He scissored the handles together to pick up the first scoop of soil, then reversed the procedure to dump it to one side. "Look at that," he complained. "The top two inches is nothin' but powder. It's dry, I tell you. Dry." It was a simple observation that was quickly forgotten as he reverted to his original topic. "According to that ultrasound thing the doctor did, it's gonna be boys."
That was news to Chase. "I understood the doctor was only positive about one."
"Mark my words, they'll be boys," Stumpy declared with certainty, then chuckled. "If they take after their mother, she's gonna have her hands full. They'll be a pair of hell-raisers, I'll wager — into everything the minute you turn your back. Why, from the first minute Jessy started crawlin', she was out the door and into the horse pens. She dealt her mama fits. If you ask me, it's only right that she gets back some of her own." He glanced at Chase and winked. "It's for sure you won't be complaining anymore about The Homestead bein' too quiet since Cat got married and moved out. By the way, how's the little man doin' since ... things quieted down?"
The thwarted kidnapping of his five-year-old grandson Quint was another topic to be avoided from now on. But Chase knew it had left him three times as wary of those outside the Calder circle. After all, not only had the security of his home been breached, but Calder blood had been spilled as well.
"Kids are pretty resilient. Quint is doing fine."
"Glad to hear it."
"With any luck, Ty will finally be able to throw away that sling today and start using his arm again."
The twin spades of the jobber whacked into the hole. Stumpy rotated the handles back and forth to carve out another chunk of hard soil. After it was removed, Stumpy took a look and decreed, "That should be deep enough." He laid the jobber aside and took the steel fence post from Chase. "I thought the doctors originally told Ty he'd have to have that arm in a sling for six weeks. That bullet he took totally shattered his shoulder. Them surgeons had to rebuild the joint from scratch."
"True, but Ty figures four weeks is long enough. We'll see if he manages to convince the doctor of that."
Stumpy grinned. "He's probably hopin' he'll persuade Doc to split the difference and let him take it off in another week."
"That reminds me." Stumpy paused in his securing of the post. "I ran into Amy Trumbo at noon. She tells me that O'Rourke's bein' released from the hospital today. Is that true?"
"Yeah, Cat went to get him. She should have him home before dark."
Chase remembered much too vividly that moment when he realized one of the kidnappers had shot his son. He saw again, in his mind, the brilliant red of all that blood, the desperate struggle to stop the bleeding and the gut-tearing mixture of rage and fear he'd felt.
But his son Ty hadn't been the only one to suffer at the hands of the kidnapping duo; Culley O'Rourke, his late wife's brother, had also been shot — in his case, multiple times.
Stumpy wagged his head in amazement. "I still don't know how in hell O'Rourke survived."
"He's got more lives than a barn cat." Chase couldn't honestly say whether he was happy about it or not. There had never been any love lost between the two men. At the same time, he knew that O'Rourke lived only for Cat, Chase's daughter and O'Rourke's niece. Maybe it was Cat's uncanny resemblance to Maggie. And maybe it was just plain love. Whatever the case, O'Rourke was devoted to her. And like it or not, Chase had O'Rourke to thank for his part in getting young Quint back, unharmed.
"I guess O'Rourke will be stayin' at the Circle Six with Cat and Logan." Stumpy scooped dirt around the post with his boot and tamped it down.
"That's Cat's plan anyway. But you know what a lone wolf O'Rourke is," Chase said. "My guess is that it'll only be a matter of days before he's back on the Shamrock."
"Is he strong enough to look after himself?"
"Probably not, but that means Cat will burn up the road, running between Circle Six and Shamrock, making sure he's all right and has plenty of food on hand." Noting that Stumpy had the job well in hand, Chase took his leave. "I'd better get moving before Ty and Jessy wonder what happened to me."
As he took a step away, Stumpy called him back, "Say, I've been meanin' to tell you, Chase — do you remember that young bull Ty sold to Parker from Wyoming last year? The one he wanted for his kid's 4-H project."
"What about it?"
"He walked away with the grand championship at the Denver stock show."
"Where'd you hear that?" Chase frowned.
"From Ballard. He hit the southern show circuit this past winter, hirin' out to ride in cuttin' horse competitions and doin' some jackpot ropin' on the side. That's how he happened to be in Denver. He saw a good-lookin' bull with the Triple C tag and started askin' questions." Stumpy's grin widened. "It was grand champion, imagine that. And that bull was one of our culls — a good'n, but not the quality of the ones we kept." With a wave of his hand, he added, "You need to tell Ty about it. As proud as he is of the herd of registered stock we've put together, he'll get a kick out of it."
"I'll tell him," Chase promised.
The high drone of a jet engine whined through the air, invading the stillness of wind and grass. Automatically Chase lifted his head and scanned the tall sky. Stumpy did the same as Chase and caught the metallic flash of sunlight on a wing.
"Looks like Dyson's private jet." Stumpy almost spat the name. "Coal tonnage must be down, and he's comin' to crack some whips. You notice he's makin' his approach over pristine range and not the carnage of his strip mines."
"I noticed." But Chase carefully didn't comment further.
"That's one family I'm glad we've seen the back of."
Chase couldn't have agreed more, but he didn't say so. Ty's marriage to Dyson's daughter Tara had been relatively brief. Looking back, Chase knew he had never truly approved of that spoiled beauty becoming Ty's wife, although Maggie had. To him, there had always been a cunning quality to Tara's intelligence, a quickness to manipulate and scheme to get what she wanted. Thankfully Tara was part of the past, another subject to be put aside, but not forgotten.
Yet any thought of Tara and that troubled time always aroused a sore point. Chase had yet to obtain title to those ten thousand acres of government land within the Triple C boundaries. The memory of that hardened the set of his jaw, a visible expression of his deepening resolve.
Without another word to Stumpy, Chase walked back to the ranch pickup, climbed in, and took off in the direction of The Homestead.
A cluster of old buildings crowded close to the shoulder of the two-lane highway that raced past them. A roadside sign to the south of them, its face pockmarked with bullet holes, identified the unincorporated town of Blue Moon. Long gone was the grain elevator that had once punctuated the horizon. It had been bulldozed to the ground years ago — as had the dilapidated structures that once occupied the back streets. In their place were a few modern brick buildings, a scattering of new houses, and a trailer court to house the employees of Dy-Corp's nearby strip-mining operation.
These were the changes Chase always noticed when he drove into Blue Moon, like the fresh coat of paint on the exterior of Sally's place. The combination restaurant and bar had long been the sole watering hole for the surrounding area. In his youth, the site had been the home of a roadhouse complete with whiskey, women, and gambling. Prior to that, it had been a general store and saloon, established by the town's first settler, Fat Frank Fitzsimmons.