Chapter OneMother Nature was in an impish mood. While Texas shivered under cloudy skies and a cold north wind, the plains of eastern Montana enjoyed temperatures in the mid-sixties, thanks to a chinook wind that blew its warmth over the high prairie.
In this big and empty land that had once been the domain of the mighty Sioux, today over a million acres of it fell within the boundaries of the Calder Cattle Company, better known throughout the west as the Triple C. Quint Echohawk's roots were sunk deep in its soil. His mother was the daughter of the family patriarch, Chase Benteen Calder, and his late father had been a quarter Sioux.
Quint had inherited his father's smoke-gray eyes, his high, prominent cheekbones and glistening black hair. But there was much of the Calder side in him as well, visible in the granite jaw, the deep set of his eyes, and the muscled width of his shoulders and chest.
As a boy growing up on the Triple C, he'd been dubbed "little man" by the ranch hands. "Little" no longer described his six-two frame, but at twenty-seven, he had made the full transition into manhood.
With the afternoon sun warm on his back, Quint climbed the steps of the Homestead that had long been the residence of the Calder clan. The towering two-story structure was grand in scale, making it visible for miles like a massive white ship anchored in an ocean of grass.
Thanksgiving had barely passed, but already the big house was decked in holiday dress-a Christmas wreath on the door and a garland twined around its tall pillars. In the bright light of day, its multitude of twinkling lights was invisible, but they were there just the same.
Quint paused at the top of the steps and swung back to survey the ranch yard with its sprawl of buildings. To an outsider, the Triple C headquarters would have resembled a small country town. In many respects it was.
In addition to the usual assortment of barns and sheds associated with the ranching business, there was a commissary stocked with a variety of essential supplies that ran the gamut from foodstuffs and work clothes to hardware and vehicle parts. A few years back an addition had been added to provide space for video rentals and the ranch post office. Other buildings housed a first-aid dispensary, a welding shop, and an elementary school. Besides the old cook shack that served as a restaurant of sorts, there were nearly a dozen houses that provided homes for married ranch hands and their families.
Considering the nearest large town was some two hundred miles distant and the ranch itself covered as much ground as some eastern states, the Triple C had become self-sufficient out of necessity. And the Calder family controlled every inch of it.
That knowledge was at the back of Quint's mind as he idly ran his glance over the large cluster of buildings. If his mother had her way, he would play a major part in the ranching operation, though both knew the reins of the Triple C would eventually pass to her brother's son, Trey. Quint had no problem with that, convinced that it was a role Trey had been born to fill. Still Quint regarded his own future as far from settled. As always, that was something Quint kept to himself.
Hearing the click of the door latch behind him, Quint turned as his mother stepped into view. Cathleen Calder Echohawk-known by all as simply Cat-was a slim, petite woman with green eyes and black hair that showed few strands of gray. Her smile was quick and wide, indicative of a personality that was both vibrant and volatile.
"I thought that was you standing out here," she declared. "You'd better come in. Jessy's looking for you. I got the impression there's a problem of some sort." She continued talking as he crossed to the door. "I hope it's nothing serious, not when we're supposed to leave for England in the morning for Laura's wedding. It would be horrible if the mother of the bride can't be there."
"At least Jessy was present at the first ceremony," Quint reminded her, a glint of teasing humor in his gray eyes.
"Now you sound like your grandfather," Cat chided with affection, stepping aside as he came through the door into the entryway. "He still doesn't see why Laura is having two weddings-one here and one in Britain. But the trip to England would have been much too hard on him at his age, and it simply wasn't practical for Sebastian's family and friends to fly over here."
"I know." Quint nodded. "Where's Jessy? In the den?"
"Yes," she confirmed, then placed a detaining hand on his arm. "I'm glad you decided not to make the trip. The idea of leaving your grandfather here by himself bothers me."
"Don't worry. There'll be plenty of people keeping an eye on him besides me."
"Of course there will." She cast a glance in the direction of the den. "You'd better go see what Jessy wants."
The Homestead's large den was still considered the heart of the Triple C despite the construction of a separate ranch office several years back. It was on one of its walls that the old hand-drawn map of the ranch was hung, outlining its far-flung boundaries and identifying its various landmarks and watercourses on paper that had yellowed over time.
It was in the den as well where the impressive set of horns from a longhorn steer was mounted above the mantel of the massive stone fireplace. The same steer that had led the first cattle drive from Texas to the newly established Triple C Ranch in Montana. It was a room of history and heritage that never failed to make its imprint on Quint. This afternoon was no exception.
The fresh scent of pine emanated from the greenery that adorned the mantel. A cheery fire blazed in the old stone fireplace, casting its glow into the room and adding a welcome warmth for his grandfather's old bones.
As usual, his grandfather, Chase Benteen Calder, sat behind the oversized desk, his once vigorous body now gray-haired and stoop-shouldered, with age lines creasing his rawboned face. The accumulation of years had left the mark on his body, but his mind remained as sharp as ever, and full of a lifetime of ranching knowledge on this northern plain.
Currently, his grandfather's attention was centered on his daughter-in-law, Jessy Calder, who, under Chase's able tutelage, had been running the Triple C for the last twenty-odd years since her husband's death. Jessy sat on a corner of the desk, her boy-slim body angled toward Chase. She swiveled to face the doorway when she heard Quint's footsteps.
"We were just talking about you, Quint." In a single, fluid motion, Jessy straightened up from the desk.
"Mom said you wanted to see me." Quint swept off his hat and walked the rest of the way into the room, dividing his curious glance between the two of them. But there was little that could be read from their expressions. "What's up?"
"That's what we want you to find out," Jessy stated. "How soon can you be packed?"
Quint halted in surprise. "To go where?"
"Texas. We've been leaving messages at the Cee Bar for the last week, but none of our calls were returned. Today I asked the sheriff down there to check it out. I got off the phone with him just a few minutes ago. There was no one at the ranch-and no one had been there for at least a week, as near as his men could tell."
Quint frowned. "I thought you hired somebody from the outside to manage the operation at the Cee Bar."
Jessy released a half-irritated sigh and nodded. "Sam Evans, by name. We hired him about a year and a half ago."
"Have you had any problems with him before now?" Quint asked, following his first thought.
"Not with Sam," Jessy replied without any hesitation. "Although the last few months he has complained that all his hired help kept walking out on him after only a few days' work." Her shoulders moved in a vague shrug of confusion. "I don't know. Maybe he got tired of doing all the work by himself and quit without bothering to notify us."
There was something in the inflection of her voice that told Quint she didn't totally believe that. "You think that would be out of character for him, don't you?" he guessed.
Jessy's innate sense of practicality surfaced. "It doesn't matter what I think. The fact remains he's gone-bag and baggage, according to the sheriff," she added. "We need you to fly down there and take charge of the ranch until we can hire someone else."
"If that's what you want, I can be packed and ready in an hour," Quint stated, then cocked his head at a puzzled and inquiring angle. "But why me? We all know there are any number of men here at the Triple C who have more ranching experience than I do."
The question was directed at Jessy, but it was Chase who answered, "Back in June, Max Rutledge offered to buy the Cee Bar. I turned him down flat. Shortly after that, Evans started having trouble keeping help. It could be just a coincidence. But my gut tells me it isn't."
Max Rutledge. Quint knew the name well. He had met Max's son and heir, Boone Rutledge, during Boone's very brief engagement to Quint's cousin Laura, but he knew Max mostly by reputation. And it was a ruthless one.
The Texan was reportedly worth millions, thanks to his vast petroleum and banking investments. And numbered among his many holdings was the Rutledge family ranch, which just happened to border the Cee Bar.
Quint understood that it was a troubleshooter they wanted more than someone with ranching skills. In that he was uniquely qualified, considering that until a few months ago, he'd been an ATF agent for the Treasury Department. And it was that background in law enforcement they wanted.
"I'll have the twin-engine fueled and waiting for you," Jessy said and reached for the phone.
Winter pressed an early darkness over the Texas landscape. The cold front had passed on through the area, taking the clouds with it and leaving a bright glitter of stars in the evening sky.
The headlight beams on Quint's rental car illuminated the two-lane highway in front of him. At this hour there was little traffic on it, and nearly all of it headed in the opposite direction. As he rounded a bend in the road, Quint noticed a cluster of lights in the near distance that looked to be a mixture of streetlamps and partially lit buildings. According to the directions Jessy had given him, he was to pass through the small town of Loury, Texas, before he reached the Cee Bar.
Within minutes, the city limit sign loomed along the shoulder and Quint reduced the car's speed to match the posted number. The two-lane road cut straight through the center of town. Block buildings, some with brick facades and others with modern awnings, marked the town's business district. Most of the buildings stood empty, a few of them with optimistic FOR LEASE signs displayed in their dusty storefront windows.
In all there weren't more than a half dozen vehicles parked along the street, and a majority of those were in front of a well-lit building on the corner. A large sign above its long windows aptly identified the place as the Corner Cafi. In big, bold letters painted on the glass, it advertised HOME-COOKED MEALS.
Knowing that it was unlikely there would be anything edible at the ranch, Quint decided to grab something to eat now and save himself a trip back to town. He found an empty parking slot in front of an adjacent building and pulled into it.
There were only five other customers in the restaurant when Quint walked in. Out of habit born of his previous training, he let his glance touch each of them, automatically committing their faces to memory. An elderly couple sat in a side booth, sharing a sandwich, while a rear table was occupied by three men dressed in cowboy hats, pearl-snapped shirts, and faded jeans. Two of them were hunched over their coffee both noting his arrival with idle glances, while the third was busy making short work of a cream pie.
All the stools along the short counter were empty except for the one on the far end. A girl in a waitress' apron was perched on it, an opened textbook on the counter in front of her along with a spiral notebook.
Quint opted for one of the tables closer to the front of the cafi, pulling out a chair that gave him a view of both the door and his fellow customers. As Quint took his seat, the waitress threw him a distracted glance, reluctantly pushed the book back a notch, and slid sideways off the stool, giving Quint a glimpse of her long hair, fastened together at the nape of her neck with a tortoiseshell clasp. Under the glow of the fluorescent lights, it was the same shiny color of a new penny. He didn't see anything to change his opinion when she approached his table, an attractive girl, on the young side, not over seventeen.
She placed a glass of water on the table and looked him in the eye, studying him with the idle curiosity of a local toward a stranger in town. For the first time Quint noticed the unusual light brown color of her eyes, neither hazel nor golden, but a startling tan.
"Would you like some coffee while you're looking over the menu?" There was an automatic quality to the question that came from frequent usage.
"I'll take coffee and tonight's special."
"You mean the meat loaf?" She gave him a look that clearly questioned his judgment. "Bad choice. You can't pour enough ketchup on Tub's meat loaf to make it taste good." There wasn't a trace of malice or derision in her statement. On the contrary, it came across as a good-natured warning.
Quint couldn't help smiling. "What would you suggest then?"
She responded with a wide-lipped smile of her own. "The safest thing is a hamburger and fries."
"I'll be right back with your coffee," she said, and moved away from the table.
When she returned, Quint used the opportunity to ask some questions and pick up any information he could about the Cee Bar. "Are there any job openings around here?"
"Guy Chalmers is looking for somebody to pump gas on the weekends." Even as she answered, her gaze was making an assessing study of him, exhibiting a maturity that went beyond seventeen. "But I don't imagine you'd be interested in that kind of work."
"Not really. What about the Cee Bar? Somebody mentioned they were hiring."
"You're a cowboy then." Something flickered in her expression that resembled disappointment.
"Is that bad?" Quint countered, amused and curious at her reaction.
"No. You just didn't strike me as one," the girl admitted while a skimming glance took new note of the hat, jeans, and cowboy boots he wore. "After all, half the people in Texas wear boots and hats, but they aren't all cowboys."
Before Quint had a chance to respond, one of the men in back lifted his cup in the air and called, "Hey, Dallas, how about some more coffee?"
"Be right there," she promised, and let her glance ricochet off
Quint as she retreated to the counter area.