The first November chill had painted the Rimrock Ranch with a golden brush. From the glint of sunrise on the high escarpment to the sweep of yellow grass across the plain, from the fading willows along the creek to the bursts of saffron, where the cottonwoods grew, the land was the color of Spanish gold — the gold that, legend whispered, lay hidden in a canyon on the border of the ranch.
By day, flocks of migrating birds swept southward. Meadowlarks settled on the pastures and brightened the air with their calls. Ducks, geese, and sand-hill cranes traced elegant V formations across the autumn sky. By night the stars were diamond sharp, the harvest moon ripe and mellow above the horizon.
A man with an easy mind would have savored the season's rich beauty. But Will Tyler's mind was far from easy. Wherever he looked, what he saw was not so much beauty as trouble.
The grass was weak, still recovering from the summer drought and the raging wildfire that had charred the lower pastures. Even if the winter turned out to be mild, would there be enough to feed the calves and breeding stock he needed to sustain the ranch? Or, with finances strained to the breaking point, would he be forced to buy more hay at a cutthroat price for the cattle he'd kept after selling off most of his herd?
Will had counted on the auction of Sky Fletcher's superbly trained colts to shore up the ranch's funds. But the drought-impoverished Texas ranchers, who would have scrambled to buy the lot, were, like Will, too cash-strapped to pay. Only a few young horses had been sold, and those at cut-rate prices.
Worries gnawed at Will as he drove his twelve-year-old daughter, Erin, home to the ranch for the weekend. While school was in session, the girl lived in Blanco Springs with her mother, Will's ex-wife, Tori. But her weekends and summers were Will's. These days Erin, who loved the ranch, was the only bright spot in his life.
Will drove his pickup carefully, with the headlights on high beam. It was late, almost eleven, and the narrow, two-lane road from town was unfenced here, with a meager shoulder and steep barrow pits on either side. Deer, coyotes, even cattle and horses, had been known to wander onto the asphalt at night and cause serious accidents. He would've brought Erin home before dark, but she'd gone to a friend's house for a birthday party. She'd phoned him when it was over and he'd picked her up there.
Erin had turned on the pickup's radio. The local country music station added a twanging underbeat to the thrum of the truck's engine.
"So what's new with you?" Will asked, breaking the relaxed silence between them. "Anything happening at school? Got a boyfriend yet?"
The boyfriend question was an ongoing joke between them. At two months shy of thirteen, Erin was more interested in horses than in boys. And Will would've run off any boy who got within a dozen yards of his daughter.
"Not yet. But Mom might have one. She's got a date tonight."
A knot jerked tight in the pit of Will's stomach. He and Tori had been divorced for eight years, but some part of him still claimed her. The marriage may have been a disaster, but they'd made Erin together — the best thing they'd ever done.
"You don't say?" He feigned a casualness he didn't feel. "Who's the lucky man?"
"His name's Drew Middleton. He's the new principal at the high school."
The knot pulled tighter. "What's he like?"
"He's okay. Seems nice enough."
"Think it's serious?"
"Maybe. Mom hasn't dated anybody in a long time."
"Uh-huh." Will swallowed hard. If Tori had found a man she wanted to date, that was her business. She deserved to be happy. But damn it all, he didn't have to like it.
With Erin at the ranch, Tori would have the house to herself for two nights. The thought of what could be going on there was enough to make Will grind his teeth. Drew Middleton. The name tasted like sawdust in his mouth. He'd never met the man, but he already wanted to punch him.
Will had paid scant attention to the radio, but when the signal for an emergency news bulletin came on, it caught his attention. "Turn that up," he told Erin.
The voice came through a crackle of static: "The sheriff 's office is asking for your help in tracking down a man who held up the convenience store in Blanco Springs, took cash, and shot a clerk. The suspect fled on a motorcycle going north. He's described as a white male in his thirties, wearing a black leather jacket and a black motorcycle helmet. He is armed and dangerous. If you see him, call nine-one-one."
"Hey!" Erin exclaimed as the music came back on. "What if that guy's out here, on this road? What would we do if we saw him?"
"I'd keep driving and let you make the call," Will said. "Somebody like that, with a gun, I wouldn't take a chance on playing hero, especially with you along."
"But what if —" Her words ended in a yelp as the pickup's right front wheel slammed into something solid and stopped dead. Only her seat belt kept her from flying into the dashboard.
Will switched off the key, cursing under his breath. He wasn't sure what he'd hit. It hadn't felt like an animal, but just in case, he pulled his loaded .38 Smith and Wesson revolver from under the driver's seat. If he'd struck some unlucky creature, he'd want to put it out of its misery — or defend himself if it had any fight left.
He found a flashlight in the console. "Stay put," he told Erin as he opened his door. "Whatever happens, don't get out."
Climbing to the ground, he closed the door behind him and turned on the flashlight. The night air was chilly through his denim jacket, the full moon veiled by drifting clouds. The distant wail of a coyote echoed across the sage flats as Will walked around to the passenger side of the truck.
The pickup had come to rest at a cockeyed angle, probably blown a tire, which he'd need to change. In the beam of the flashlight, he could see what he'd hit. It was the engine block for some kind of vehicle, most likely fallen off the back of a flatbed because the fool driver hadn't bothered to tie it down. Heavy and solid, its edges were sharp enough to puncture a tire, which was just what had happened. If he hadn't been distracted by the announcement on the radio, he might have seen it in time to stop.
Erin rolled down the window. "What is it?" she asked. "Is it an animal?"
"No, just a big, nasty chunk of metal. But I'll have to change the tire."
"Can I help? I can hold the light for you."
"No, just stay put. I'll be fine."
He'd stuck the .38 in his belt and was walking around to get the spare and the jack when he saw it — a single headlight approaching fast down the long, straight road from the direction of town, maybe half a mile away. It looked like a motorcycle, sounded like one, too.
Will turned off the flashlight and laid it on the ground. One hand drew the weapon out of his belt. "Close the window, lock the doors, and get down," he ordered Erin. He caught the flash of her frightened eyes as she obeyed. He'd probably scared her for nothing, but he couldn't take any chances.
The motorcycle was slowing down. Maybe the rider was just some Good Samaritan wanting to help. But Will couldn't lay odds on that. He might be safer inside the truck, but that could expose Erin to more danger. Right now, his daughter's safety was the only thing that mattered.
A few yards ahead of the truck, the motorcycle pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. The rider swung off his machine. He wore a black leather jacket with a dark helmet, the visor pulled down to obscure his face. His right hand held a small pistol with the look of a cheap Saturday-night special. He had to be the robber. Will waited in the shadows, gripping the .38, as the man approached and spoke.
"What the hell happened here? We were supposed to meet down by the crossroad." His whiny-pitched voice sounded vaguely Eastern, and strangely familiar. "Never mind, I got the package on the bike. Show me the money, and we're good."
Will stepped into the moonlight, his pistol leveled at the man's chest. "Hands where I can see them, mister. Now, nice and slow, drop your weapon. Then kick it over here toward me."
"Shit, you're not —" The motorcyclist froze in surprise. He dropped the gun on the ground. As he kicked it toward Will, his hand flashed. Suddenly there was a knife in it. As his arm flexed for the throw, Will pulled the trigger. The .38 roared, striking the man squarely in the chest. He toppled backward, dead by the time he hit the ground.
Will stared down at the bleeding body, cursing out loud. He'd never meant to kill the stupid jackass, but he'd had little choice, especially with Erin to protect.
"Daddy?" Erin had rolled down the window partway. Her voice sounded thin and scared. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, honey. Close the window and stay in the truck. Don't try to look. I'll come around." Leaving the body where it lay, he circled behind the truck to the driver's side. Once inside, he reached across the console and gathered his daughter in his arms. She clung to him, trembling.
Will felt shaken, too, when he thought about what he'd just done. His younger brother, Beau, who'd been an army sniper in Iraq, had never revealed how many kills he'd made. But for Will, this was a first. He'd never taken a human life before. Now, even though he'd killed a criminal in self-defense, the thought sickened him.
Erin pulled away as he released her. She'd be all right, Will told himself. She was strong, like Tori. "You need to call the sheriff, Daddy," she said.
"I know. But first I'm going to call your mother."
Will reached for the cell phone in his pocket. As an afterthought, he climbed out of the truck again and closed the door. His conversation with Tori could easily get emotional. It might be better not to have Erin listening.
His legs felt unsteady. Leaning against the side of the cab, he scrolled to Tori's number and pressed the call button. The phone rang, once, then again. Maybe she'd turned it off, the better to enjoy her new boyfriend. But no, it wouldn't be like Tori to do that, not even on a date. She had clients who needed her. More important, she had a daughter.
Will was waiting for his ex-wife's voice message to come on when she picked up. "Will?" He could sense her tension. "What is it? Is Erin all right?"
"Erin's fine," Will said. "But I need you to come and get her. There was an ... incident on the way to the ranch. The truck's stuck on the road with a blown tire, and I can't leave."
"An incident, you say? What happened, Will? What are you not telling me?"
"I'll explain later. Erin said you had a date. Hell, bring him along if you want. I don't care. Whatever you're doing, just drop it and get here. Now."
"I'm on my way. Tell Erin I'm coming." She ended the call without saying goodbye.
Will waited a couple of minutes, then called 911. The night dispatcher who answered his call was a woman whose voice he recognized.
"Carly, this is Will Tyler," he said. "Tell the sheriff he can stop looking for that convenience store robber on the motorcycle. I just shot him."
"Is he dead?"
"As a doornail. I need somebody to come, pronto."
"Where are you?" There was an odd note to her voice.
"About ten miles out of town, on the road to my ranch. My pickup's got a blown tire."
"I hear you. Stay in your truck and don't touch anything. Somebody will be right there."
She hesitated, as if weighing her next words. "There's something you need to know, Will. Whoever you shot, it wasn't the robber. That man was picked up a few minutes ago, headed for the freeway on his motorcycle. The cash was on him, along with the gun and some cigarettes he took. They're bringing him in now."
* * *
"I can drive you if you want, Tori." Drew Middleton straightened his tie. Tall and slender, with hazel eyes and light brown hair, he was appealing enough to make Tori wonder if there was a chance for something real between them.
"Not a good idea." She dropped the cell phone back in her purse and reached for the door latch of Drew's Honda Accord. "You've never met my ex, but I can guarantee you that tonight wouldn't be the best time."
"Is everything all right?"
"Erin's all right, evidently. Whatever else is going on, that's Will's problem."
"Hang on. I can at least open your door and walk you to the porch."
Tori waited while he climbed out of the car and came around to the passenger side. Drew had taken her to a seafood dinner and a show in Lubbock. They'd made it back to her driveway for a few minutes of pleasurable front-seat necking. Just as she'd begun to wonder whether she should invite him in, her phone had rung.
Stiletto heels clicking, she strode up the front walk and turned for a quick kiss on the porch. "Gotta go," she said. "Thanks for a very nice evening."
"I'll call you, okay?"
"Sure." She let herself in and raced to grab her fleece-lined ranch jacket out of the hall closet. No time to change out of her dressy black sheath. If Erin needed her, she would get there as fast as she could.
Minutes later, she was in her station wagon, roaring down Main Street, past the Shop Mart, the drugstore, and the Blue Coyote bar, on her way out of town.
* * *
Standing outside the pickup, Will gazed down the road at the distant headlights. He hoped to hell it was Tori. He wanted Erin gone before the law showed up. The girl had witnessed next to nothing, and she didn't need to be upset by the ugliness of a crime scene investigation. If the sheriff needed to question her, he could do it tomorrow, at home.
The dispatcher had warned him against touching anything. But Will had taken the liberty of dragging an old blanket out of the truck's backseat and laying it over the dead man's corpse. If he'd just contaminated the evidence, too bad. He didn't need Erin seeing the body, or Tori, either.
He'd thought about phoning Beau, or even Sky, at the ranch, then changed his mind. His brothers had enough on their plates without his adding to the pile. This was his own mess. He would clean it up by himself.
But one question continued to chew on him. If the bastard he'd killed wasn't the robber, who the devil was he?
The headlights were coming closer — a low vehicle going like a bat out of hell. That would be Tori, all right. The truck's hazard lights were blinking. She should be able to see them. But just to make sure, he turned on the flashlight and waved it. Seconds later, the station wagon screeched to a gravel-spitting halt behind the truck.
Tori piled out of the driver's side. Under her open canvas coat, Will could see that she was dressed to kill — tight black dress, dangling earrings, honey-blond hair flowing loose, the way he'd always liked it. And she was wearing those high heels that made her long legs look extra sexy.
All for another man.
But he couldn't let that get to him now. What mattered was that she'd come as soon as she could.
"What's going on? Where's Erin?" Her gaze surveyed the tilted truck. At least, from the driver's side of the cab, she couldn't see the body.
"We hit something and punctured a tire. Erin can tell you more in the car." He opened the driver's-side door of the truck and swung his daughter to the ground. "Just get her out of here, Tori. You can take her to the ranch or home with you. I want her gone by the time the sheriff gets here."
"I'll take her home." Tori caught sight of the motorcycle parked ahead of the truck. "Whose bike is that? Why's the sheriff coming?"
"I'd just gotten out of the truck when that motorcycle pulled up. The man had a pistol and a knife. I had to shoot him."
"Thank God you had a gun." Wide-eyed, Tori clutched her daughter close. After taking a moment to compose herself, she spoke. "Are you in trouble, Will? Do you need me to stay as your lawyer?"
"I'll be fine. There's no way it could've been anything but self-defense." Will glanced down the road and saw the flicker of approaching red lights. "Just take Erin and go. She doesn't need to be part of this. I'll call you later."
Tori needed no more urging. She raced with Erin to her car, backed away from the truck and turned for home. Will stood watching her taillights as she drove past the oncoming sheriff's vehicle and the ambulance. No one tried to stop her.
Moments later, Blanco County sheriff Abner Sweeney pulled up in his tan SUV. A deputy rode beside him in the passenger seat. The ambulance parked behind him.
Sweeney, a short, pugnacious redhead whose manner had become even cockier since winning the recent election, climbed out of the vehicle. Trailed by his deputy, he stalked up to where Will stood.
"So where's the body, Tyler?" he demanded.