Trifecta Publishing House






Bar G Ranch, Washington Territory—July 1887

     Trace tightened her grip on Dollar’s reins and watched a boy gallop to the far end of the meadow. Three days ago, her riders were bushwhacked and a dozen head of cattle rustled. They’d tracked the stock here and she‘d come to get the Herefords back. While she waited, she unfastened the thongs that tied down the hammers of her pearl-handled Colts. If there was gunplay, she’d be ready for it.
     She glanced sideways at her foreman, Olaf Larson. He’d seen her prepare, so he adjusted his Winchester in its scabbard. The two orphan boys with them copied the foreman’s action. She nodded at the oldest and gestured for him to put his horse next to Olaf’s. On Olaf’s other side, the younger boy, Michael, signaled the three collies to stay in the shadow of his paint gelding.
     Trace looked behind her bay Appaloosa stallion. One of her wolf-dogs stood guard and she trusted him at her back nearly as much as she did Olaf. “Watch,” she ordered in her deepest tone.

                                                                                * * *

     “Prescott!” a boy shouted as he rode across the meadow.
     Zeb Prescott reined his buckskin to a halt and swung his horse toward the youngster. “What’s wrong, Ned?”
     “Some men want to cut the herd. I saw ‘em and told Pa. He sent me to fetch you while he goes to talk to ‘em. Steve will be itchin’ to start a gunfight when he gets there.”
     Zeb rode toward the youngest of the Green boys who had more brains than his older brother. “Ned, go stay with your ma and the other women.”
     “You could use another man,” Ned said. “I’m good with a rifle.”
     “Yes, you are,” Zeb agreed. “Go protect the womenfolk so I don’t have to fret about them.”
     As Zeb intended, that romantic notion obviously appealed to the eleven-year-old. Ned swung his horse to the left and headed in the direction of the one-room cabin a mile north.
     Will Green, Ned’s father, had hired Zeb five years before as a cowhand, when no other rancher would because of the bounty hunters who trailed him after his first gunfight. Zeb hadn’t been in Washington Territory for ten years and hesitated to accompany the Greens when they moved north, but he owed Will, who’d saved his bacon more than once.
      As foreman of the spread, this was his problem to solve.  Zeb spurred his horse into a dead run, galloping toward the meadow where they held the herd for branding and castrating. Winter was on the way and some of the cattle needed to go to the nearest market in Seattle. Otherwise, the stock would die when the heavy snows came.
     They did have some cattle that didn’t bear the Green brand mixed in with the herd, but it paid to be wary. Beef was a luxury in Washington Territory and he didn’t plan to lose a single one.
                                                                                * * *

     Trace watched another man ride toward her. The buckskin was a beaut, with a golden hide and black mane that flew in the breeze. It was familiar, somehow. The rider, a broad-shouldered man with dark yellow hair, stirred up old feelings from her youth. Emotions that should have died, but hadn’t.

                                                                                * * *

      Two men, accompanied by two boys, were at the far southern end of the clearing. Three black and white dogs sat next to one of the horses.
      As Zeb rode toward the strangers, Will Green and his grown sons came to join him. If someone died here today, a blood feud would erupt between the families. [EF1] 
      Something in the way one of the newcomers sat a bay Appaloosa stirred memories. He wasn’t as tall as Zeb, or as big as the blond fellow behind him. A hat shaded the stranger’s face. Black pants were tucked neatly into knee-high boots. He wore a dark shirt and red bandanna that were barely visible under the long, heavy duster. Leather gloves covered his hands.
     Sweat trickled down Zeb’s back. It was warm. He wore only one shirt over his long-handles, chaps over his pants. How did the visitor bear such heavy clothes during the heat of the day?
     But then Zeb glimpsed long black braids, tied with bits of red rags. He knew who the stranger was. “Well, I’ll be hornswoggled,” he said. “Trace Burdette, all grown up?”
     But Trace Burdette didn’t look all grown up. He looked as much like a boy as he had so many years ago.
     “Zebadiah Prescott.” Trace rode the Appaloosa a step closer. “So you found your way home after all this time? Somebody draw you a map?”
     Zeb grinned appreciatively. Trace’s sharp tongue hadn’t changed. Neither had the high cheekbones, angled brows, or wary green eyes. Gold studs glimmered in his ears.
     Trace shifted in the saddle. The stallion stomped. “Was it your plan to steal from me, Zebadiah?”
     “We didn’t steal these cattle. They wandered in on their own.” Zeb pushed back his hat and kept his gaze locked on the other man. “If you’re looking for a fight, go elsewhere, Trace.”
     “You as yellow as your hair now?”
     “Don’t push me.” Zeb spurred his horse closer to Trace’s. “Owe you or not, Burdette, I won’t back down for you or any other man.”
     “You owe me more than you know.” Trace met him, glare for glare. “You’ll pay that debt. I always collect what I’m due. But today I only want my cattle.”
     “Fine. Take them.” Zeb glanced toward the red Herefords that were grazing with the longhorns. “I’m not ready to die today.”
     “Me either.” Trace barely cracked a smile. “Have to sing my death song first.”
      Zeb grinned, appreciating the joke nobody else would catch and eased deeper into his saddle. Suddenly, he spotted the wolf that flanked Trace’s horse. No, it wasn’t a wolf, he thought. It must be part dog, but it showed no signs of attacking until Trace sounded angry a moment ago. It was another of his damned pets.
     “Where did you find those Herefords? Didn’t expect to see any in these parts until today when they joined our herd. I wondered when the owner would show up to claim them.”
     Trace frowned. “If it wasn’t your men, who came on my land? Who shot my riders? Who stole my beef?”
     “Not us. Who’d make trouble between you and the Greens?” While he waited for the answer, Zeb kept his attention on Trace and those damned Colts. “I ramrod this spread. None of my men have been gone longer than they should.”
     “Prescott’s right. He had me send for the marshal when those cows showed up,” Will Green agreed, riding closer. “You don’t know me from Adam’s off ox, Burdette, but I’ve heard that you’re the power in Junction City.”
     “I’m surprised Morgan hasn’t showed up yet.” Zeb signaled Will Green to get out of the line of fire. “He’s still the law, isn’t he?”
     “Yes, but he had to ride to Portage. He planned to be gone a couple days. He hasn’t gotten word or he’d be here.” Trace’s tone was colder than the words. “Morgan gets perturbed when I shoot someone. After all these years, he oughta be over that, but he’s not. Besides, I fork my own broncs. Always have, always will.”
     “That’s certain. You’ve never asked before for help to solve your problems. Who was shot at your place?”
     “Olaf’s brother Lars, for one.” Trace jerked his head toward the burly blond man with the two boys. “Fremont Goodman, my godfather, for another. I haven’t seen Pedro Gomez yet. He’s a good man, loyal as the day is long. Been with me five years. He may be sharing coffee with Saint Peter. If he’s died for my brand, I’ll…”
     Zeb kept his gaze on Trace. “You’ll let sunshine through his killers as if they have glass windows.”
     “Blood works for me.” Trace’s words cut deep. “When I find who bushwhacked my men, I’ll hang the galoots. If they draw on me, I’ll gut-shoot them so they die slow.”
     “If they ride for the Greens, I’ll turn them over to Marshal Morgan. Will that do? What’s it gonna be, Trace? Do you trust me or not?”