Read an Excerpt
June 1877, Rattlesnake Ridge, Nevada
Eleanor Ferguson held up a hand to shield her eyes from the glaring sunlight as she watched the approach of Sterling Hayden. He cantered his horse down her long drive, and she pasted on a deferential smile as she waited to greet him. His once-monthly visits had evolved into weekly visits, and she feared they would soon turn into daily visits. She said a silent prayer that today’s visit would be a short one.
As she awaited his arrival, she took deep, calming breaths and focused on her ranch, the Broken Pine. The corrals near the barn were in need of shoring up, and the barn’s roof would be lucky to make it through another winter. However, she saw past all the work to the long, golden grass blowing in the breeze, the rolling hills leading to the mountains in the distance that remained snowcapped in mid-June. The distant fields with her cattle scattered over them. She nodded her head in satisfaction as she focused again on the man nearing her ranch house.
Eleanor swiped a hand down her serviceable brown calico dress and patted at her brown hair with red highlights, ensuring it was tied back in a tidy knot. Clasping her hands at her waist, she fought the urge to fidget as the large man dismounted his black and white pinto horse. He tied the reins to the hitching post, swaggered toward Eleanor, and tipped his hat in her direction. A large man, his presence would have overwhelmed her had she not been standing on the top step of her porch. “Mr. Hayden,” she murmured. “How thoughtful of you to visit us today.”
His chest puffed out, and he clasped his hands at his Sunday-best burgundy waistcoat. “I’ve always considered myself thoughtful. And generous.” He waited for her agreement, frowning when her smile appeared as an attempt to conceal a grimace. He reached into his waistcoat, extracting a slip of paper. “I was disturbed to read this in the Rattlesnake Ridge Recorder. I spoke with Samuel Langhorne, but he insisted you had published it.” He shook the paper at her as he spoke.
“I assume you are referring to my desire for a competent ranch hand?” Eleanor asked with a raised eyebrow. “As you can see, my need for more help is evident.” She held her palms up as though in supplication of aid and then crossed them over her waist again. “It should come as no surprise to you that I am in need of workers.”
“Workers?” he sputtered at the plural form of the word, scratching at his thick brown hair with gray at the temples, pushing his hat nearly off. “I’ve told you, dear Mrs. Ferguson. If you are in need of aid, I am only too happy to help you.”
She flushed and looked down as though in a demure manner. “And I thank you for your solicitousness. However, as you know, running a ranch is a full-time endeavor, and I need my own men.” She smiled in an attempt to soften the forcefulness of her words. “It gives me tremendous comfort to know I have such an excellent neighbor who I can call on, should the need arise.”
Sterling’s chest puffed out again at her praise, and he focused on the buildings near the ranch house. The peeling paint on the barn. The patchwork-shingled barn roof. The chicken coop fence on the verge of collapse. “If you don’t mind me saying, Mrs. Ferguson, you need a man around here who knows about the running of a ranch. It’s too much for a woman to attempt to tackle.”
She nodded again. “I shall consider your counsel.”
He beamed at her before tugging her hand to his, raising it and kissing it. “I look forward to our next visit.” He slammed his hat back in place before sauntering to his dozing horse.
As she watched him ride away, her shoulders relaxed, and she let out a deep breath. “How much of it did you hear, Zachariah?” she asked.
A deep chuckle sounded from inside the house. “All of it. Puffed-up buffoon.” Zachariah O’Neill stepped outside, allowing the screen door to slam shut behind him. He stood at nearly six feet tall and half a foot taller than Eleanor, with broad shoulders and a penetrating gaze. Few called him friend, but those who did knew him to be loyal and trustworthy.
“I fear he’ll persist until he gets what he wants,” she whispered, shuddering.
“You aren’t marrying him,” Zachariah snapped. “I’ll marry you before that happens.” He fought a grimace, and then they grinned at each other before they burst out laughing.
“Oh, Zachariah, you are good medicine.” She laughed as she looped her hand through his arm. “I can’t imagine us married. We’re too much like brother and sister.”
He winked at her. “Let’s hope we find a way to foil that man. He’s too intent on you.” His gaze sharpened on the retreating form of Sterling Hayden. “I could always shoot him.”
She rolled her eyes. “You aren’t shooting anyone, especially not him.” She shuddered again. “I couldn’t run this ranch without you. And I couldn’t handle any more scandal.” Her eyes shadowed for a moment before she focused on her friend and foreman.
“Well, I’ll tell you what needs to be shot.” He lost any levity as he glared toward the hills and mountains. “Another calf was found dead this morning.”
“What?” Eleanor gasped as she gripped his arm. “We can’t continue to lose cattle, Zachariah.”
He jerked his head in agreement. “Seems the wolves we killed last month weren’t the correct pack. Or another pack moved into their territory.”
She rubbed at her forehead. “That makes eight so far this summer,” she said. “If cattle prices remain low like last year …” She shook her head with frustration as she looked out at her ranchland.
Zachariah squeezed her arm and smiled at her. “You’re smart and resourceful, Eleanor. You won’t lose this ranch.” His smile turned cunning as he looked at her. “If the townsfolk only knew that you were the brains behind the ranch …” He chuckled.
“They have a hard-enough time understanding how a widow has been able to hold on for two years after her husband was shot dead playing a hand of cards at the saloon.” She took a deep breath and closed her eyes, fighting a wave of bitterness as she thought about her husband, Alan, who had valued gambling more than his family or the ranch.
Zachariah shrugged. “Few understood you ran the ranch from the moment Alan obtained it. That you had the foresight to secure the water rights to your land. That you insisted on maintaining the timber rights.”
She smiled at her friend, and some of her tension eased with his words. “We’ll find a way, even if I have to cut some of our trees to sell to Mr. Winthrop. I had hoped to save that resource for my boys, but it’s more important to have a ranch to give them. Besides, I’d rather deal with Mr. Winthrop than with Mr. Hayden.” Jacob Winthrop was the founder of the nearby town, Rattlesnake Ridge, and the local timber baron. A successful businessman, he was known to be fair to his business partners. He was also the mayor of the thriving town.
She looked down the drive as another rider approached. “That’s not Mr. Hayden returning,” she murmured.
Zachariah squinted and shook his head as he studied the unfamiliar rider and horse. “And it’s not one of his employees. I wonder who it could be?”
* * *
Lance Gallagher surveyed the land around him and the approaching ranch buildings as he neared the couple standing on the porch. He noted the dilapidated state of the structures, although they appeared to have been built soundly. He nodded with approval as little couldn’t be fixed with hard work, a hammer, and a bucketful of nails. He took a deep breath of the fresh air with a hint of the distant pine forest and slowed his horse from a trot to a walk. The brilliant blue sky overhead with a few puffy white clouds, the soft breeze ruffling his horse’s mane, and the birds chirping as they swooped overhead filled him with momentary peace.
Lance dismounted his horse, patted him on his neck, while murmuring his approval of his hard work, and tied the reins to a post. After a moment, he approached the wary couple waiting him on the front porch. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Ferguson,” he said as he doffed his hat, revealing thick blond hair. He frowned as the woman stiffened, and the man bit back a chuckle. After a moment, he cleared his throat and said, “I’m Lance Gallagher, and I’ve come to talk with you about the ranch hand position.”
The tall, self-possessed, black-haired man moved away from the poker-faced woman with her guarded blue-eyed gaze. “I’m Zachariah O’Neill, the foreman of the Broken Pine Ranch. Mrs. Ferguson is the owner.”
Lance nodded his head in a deferential manner. “I beg your pardon, ma’am. I’m new to these parts, and I was unaware that you owned the ranch.”
Her gaze narrowed as she saw his discomfort. “Does that mean you’ll find it difficult to work for a woman?”
He flashed a smile, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. “No, ma’am. It’s as I said. I meant no disrespect. I imagine you’re as capable as anyone in the running of your spread.” He looked over the acres with the cattle in the distance. “I’ve met many women in my travels who’ve had to run the farm or ranch after their men died in the War.”
He saw her eyes cloud, but she failed to respond to his subtle probing comment.
Zachariah crossed his arms over his strong chest. “Why do you think we should take you on?”
Lance shrugged and scratched at a patch of skin behind his ear. “Well, for starters, if you don’t get that barn roof fixed in the next few months, you won’t have a place to shelter your horses or milk cows during the winter. The paddocks need attention, and the chicken coop looks as though a strong wind would shatter it to the ground. I imagine you’d not relish searching through the grass for eggs each morning.” He met Zachariah’s challenging stare. “It’s nothing that time, sweat, and nails won’t fix.”
“The last man who wanted the job was concerned about painting the barn and ranch house,” Eleanor said in a quiet voice. She met Lance’s amused stare.
“What good is paint when the building’s about to fall to the ground like a pile of matchsticks?” Lance shook his head as he looked over the property. “No, painting should wait,” he murmured. His breath caught as a young black-haired boy emerged into the nearby paddock leading a fidgety palomino. “Easy,” Lance said as he moved to the paddock with sure, strong strides.
He ducked through the fencing and approached the horse, now snorting and tossing its head. Lance made gentle clicks and spoke soothing words in a low tone. He held his hand out and waited for the horse to calm before he touched the horse’s muzzle. “Go, son,” he ordered. He heard the youngster scamper from the paddock as Lance continued to murmur his praise of the horse. After a moment, the horse gave a snort and relaxed. Scratching behind its ear, Lance laughed as it bumped his head against his chest.
“Seems you know your way around horses, too,” Zachariah said. He leaned against the paddock railing with his arms slung over the top. The young boy stood beside him, the woman’s arm wrapped over the boy’s shoulder as she stood on the other side of the boy.
“I spent some time in the cavalry. And on a horse ranch,” he said.
The woman let out a breathy sigh. “I’m thankful you did. Simon knows better than to approach the horses, and he’s never to go near Spirit.”
Lance scratched the horse again. “Spirit. A fitting name.” He looked at the chastened boy standing beside the woman who he presumed was his mother. “A boy must learn how to work with horses from a young age.”
Simon brightened at the words, only remaining on the other side of the paddock fencing by his mother’s firm grip. “See, Mama?” he said with youthful enthusiasm. “I told you I knew what I was doing!”
Lance gave a final pat to the horse and left him to wander to his water trough. “No, the problem is you didn’t know what you were doing, and you need to learn. Much longer in there with that horse and there’s every chance you would have been trampled.”
Simon paled. “Like Mr. Bailey, one of the town drunks,” he whispered. “His horse smashed him up good.”
Eleanor looked at Lance with barely veiled frustration. “And I suppose you believe you could teach him how to care for a horse? How to never be in danger around a horse?”
Lance climbed over the paddock railing and shook his head. “No, ma’am. I can’t promise you to always keep the boy safe. But I can help so he has less chance of coming to harm.” He watched as the man called Zachariah shared a long look with Mrs. Ferguson.
“Fine,” she whispered. “Although you’ll have two boys following you around. My son, Simon”—she patted the black-haired boy’s shoulder—“and my eldest son, Peter.”
“Although you better not spend all your time with Mr. Gallagher,” Zachariah said as he ruffled Simon’s hair. “I’ll still want to spend time with you.”
“No one could replace you, Uncle Zachariah,” Simon proclaimed loyally. He gazed at the horse with a deep longing.
“Let him be, boy. Tomorrow will be time to begin,” Lance said. When Zachariah motioned for Lance to follow him, he nodded to Mrs. Ferguson.
They walked past the barn to a nearby bunkhouse with sagging roof. Zachariah kicked on the door a few times for it to open.
“This might be my first project,” Lance muttered as he looked around the clean, but dilapidated space.
Zachariah smiled. “As long as there’s no storm tonight, it shouldn’t fall down over your head while you sleep.”
Lance glanced around at the four cots with rolled-up mattresses on them and poked his head into a small kitchen. “Am I the only one here?”
Zachariah nodded. “We have a few men in the higher pastures during the summer. We’d hoped to make it through summer without needing more help. But, as you can see, we need it, or the place will fall down around our ears. I can’t do all the repairs that need to be done.”
Lance scratched behind his ear again. “I had thought I’d work with horses or be with the herd.”
“Work is work.” Zachariah stood at his imposing height and waited for Lance to nod. “No need for you to cook for yourself. You’ll join the family for dinner each night. The water pump is by the barn, and a creek’s not too far away if you want a soak.” He rubbed at his forehead. “Washday is Tuesday.”
At the gentle knock, Lance looked to the door. “Mrs. Ferguson,” he said deferentially and then reached for the overloaded basket she carried. “Thank you.”
“That should help you settle in,” she said as she took a deep breath after carrying the heavy basket from the house.
He looked at the hamper filled with blankets, sheets, and towels. “Thank you, ma’am.” He watched as the foreman and Mrs. Ferguson left, talking softly as they walked toward the ranch house.
After Lance made his bed, he walked outside and returned to his horse. He led Amaretto into the barn and into a stall. “I know, boy,” he said when his horse snuffled as though in displeasure. “I’ll clean it out properly for you tomorrow, and you’ll live like a prince.” Amaretto tossed his head as though he understood and snorted once before calming. Lance curried him, whistling the entire time.
When he finished, he wandered around the barn, finding a room with bins filled with oats, a tack room, and another room filled with odds and ends. Soon, he’d found a bag full of nails, lumber, and a hammer. He strapped on a tool belt and hefted a few pieces of lumber over one shoulder. When he arrived at the bunkhouse, he fought a smile at the presence of two boys poking through the basket on the floor.
“You mess up my bed, you make it,” he said. He chuckled as they jumped at his voice. “I’m Lance,” he said with a smile as they stared at him with wonder. “The new ranch hand.”
“I’m Peter,” the taller boy said as he angled himself in front of his brother. He had brown hair and hazel eyes.
“Nice to meet you, Peter. I already met your brother, Simon.” He winked at the boy grinning at him from around his brother’s shoulder. “Did you come to help me?”
Peter shrugged. “We ain’t allowed to do much.”
Lance frowned. “You’re young men. You need to learn to work hard. And to speak properly.” He looked at Peter pointedly, and the boy flushed. “Will you grab the bag of nails I left in the supply room in the barn? And then I’ll need your help in here.” He watched as the brothers raced to the barn and sighed as he imagined them fighting over the bag and scattering the nails over the barn floor. He shook his head and set the lumber on the floor.
While waiting for the boys to return, he studied the ceiling that dipped in the middle. The beam in the center of the roof appeared to sag, and he walked outside to see if anything was on the roof. He shook his head in confusion to find nothing there.
He turned when he heard the patter of little feet running toward him. “Mr. Lance! Mr. Lance!” Simon hollered. He held up the bag of nails, clutching the top closed so none flew out with his mad dash from the barn and his brother.
“What did you do to your brother?” Lance asked as he bit back a smile at the exuberant boy’s antics.
Simon flushed and tried to look innocent. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You’re the young’un. Peter should have come back with the bag of nails.” He fought another smile as pride, embarrassment, and satisfaction flit across Simon’s face.
“I outsmarted him!” Simon said with a triumphant grin as he thrust the bag of nails at Lance.
Lance looked to the barn as Peter ran after his brother, his pursuit foiled when he saw Simon next to Lance. “I won’t be around to protect you forever, lad,” Lance whispered to Simon as he swallowed a laugh at the sight of Peter. The right side of Peter’s body was covered in horse dung and hay.
“Boy, let’s get you washed up. I might like horses, but I don’t want my bunkhouse stinking of them,” Lance called out to Peter. He led Peter to the water pump and helped him wash off the majority of the muck. “Go inside and change. I’ll wait for you before I start my project.” He watched as a sodden Peter dashed away.
“I was in a pile of cow manure last week,” Simon said with a bright smile. “Isn’t that what brothers do?”
Lance laughed and ruffled Simon’s hair. “Now, Simon, why would my roof sag in the middle if there’s nothing on it?”
“There’s nothing on it now. But last winter we had us a bad storm. And half a tree landed on it.” He pointed to the remnant of a pine tree a short distance away and reenacted the large limb crashing onto the roof. Simon’s blue eyes gleamed with mischief. “The men inside screamed like babies and refused to go back inside. Said the home was posseed.” He paused and shook his head. “Possessed.” He nodded in triumph. “No men want to stay in that bunkhouse now.”
Lance shook his head in confusion. “You have men working in the high country this summer.”
“They’ll only work in summer when they can sleep outside with cattle for company. Won’t be here in winter. Won’t do the work that needs to be done in the slow season. They think the ranch is cursed ’cause it’s run by a woman …”
“Simon, enough chattering,” Peter said as he rejoined them.
Lance frowned at the abrupt interruption of Simon’s story. “That was quick.”
Peter puffed out his chest. “I know how to sneak in and out of the house without Mama seeing me. Otherwise, she’d still be scolding me.”
“Well, come along,” he said to his young helpers.
Soon, he was standing on a chair, with his arms over his head as he pushed up against the sagging beam. Peter and Simon pushed one of the timbers in place as they followed his instructions. “Good work, lads,” he said as he hopped down from the chair.
“It’s crooked,” Simon said as he tilted his head to the side to stare at the support timber that stood at an angle.
Lance smiled. “It is now, but it won’t be for long. I need you to hold it steady at its base while I tap it into place up above.” Soon the first support timber was in position, and the ceiling didn’t sag quite as much.
Lance pointed to an area farther into the room. “Let’s put one more up there. Then I’ll know it won’t come crashing down on me in the middle of the night.”
Simon looked at him with surprise. “Aren’t you afraid of it being possessed?”
“No,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve seen enough in the real world to know my true enemy is man.” He attempted a smile and then continued to shore up the roof with his two helpers.
When the boys left to clean up for supper, Lance wandered past the barn and walked a short way up the hill. The soft early evening breeze ruffled his hair, and he stared at the gently rolling hills that led to beautiful snowcapped peaks in the distance. He bowed his head as he attempted to relax and to allow the peace of the moment to fill him. After a few more minutes, he returned to the barn and washed up for dinner.
He arrived at the ranch house a half hour later after changing into his only clean shirt. When Simon answered the door, he relaxed. “Hello, Simon.”
“You’re here!” Simon called out. “He’s here, Mama!” Simon ran away and then looked over his shoulder as though expecting Lance to follow him. When Lance entered the house and shut the door behind him, Simon raced toward a room at the back of the house. At the entrance, there was a staircase to the upstairs and two doorways off the hallway. He peered into the room to the right and saw a formal dining room with dark furniture that looked as though it hadn’t been used in years. The larger living room to the right had a settee, a rocking chair, a comfortable wingback chair and a spinning wheel set by a fireplace. The wallpapered walls were covered in a subtle floral pattern with a cream-colored background. He followed Simon down the hallway into the back of the house with a large kitchen with room for a table. A back door led to the outside, and he saw a fenced kitchen garden through the windows.
“I’m sorry if I’m late,” Lance murmured as he saw platters of food on the table.
“It’s my fault,” Eleanor said. “I never told you that dinner is at six.” She glanced at the clock that chimed the half hour.
Zachariah entered and nodded at Lance. “I thought I’d have to find that old bell to call you in to dinner.”
“I … I wandered the ranch some and lost track of time.” Lance ran a self-conscious hand over his clean shirt.
“Well, we’re all together now. That’s what matters,” Eleanor said as she cast a grateful glance at her cook who gave a disgruntled harrumph. “This is Mrs. Wagner, and she’s been with us since the boys were born. I couldn’t run the ranch without her.”
“It’s nice to meet you, ma’am,” Lance said.
Mrs. Wagner watched him impassively, her steely blue eyes giving him the impression that he had been found lacking. She was a plump woman, with beefy arms and strong hands who appeared to rule her kitchen with ease.
Lance waited for everyone to sit and took the one vacant chair. When they were seated, he helped himself to a generous portion of the pot roast, vegetables, and potato. A basket of bread and a crock of butter were passed around, too.
“You had the boys working with you this afternoon,” Zachariah said as he studied Lance. Eleanor sat at the head of the table with her boys on either side of her while Lance sat beside Simon, and Zachariah was across from him and next to Peter. Mrs. Wagner sat at the other end of the table, nearest to the stove, and she hopped up and down frequently to return to the kitchen for more food or to stir something on the stovetop.
Lance speared a roasted carrot with his fork and nodded. “Yes, and they were good helpers. It would have been impossible for me to shore up the bunkhouse roof alone, and I imagine you are too busy to concern yourself with such a trivial task.”
Zachariah remained silent as the two men stared at each other for a long moment. “Remember they are boys.”
Lance frowned at the warning he heard in Zachariah’s tone. “Yes, they are. And they need to learn basic tasks. It does them no good to not know one end of a hammer from the other or to act recklessly around a horse.” He gave Simon’s shoulder a pat to take away any sting from his words. “Now is the time for them to learn.”
Eleanor cleared her throat, and Zachariah lowered his gaze, focusing on his food. “We are appreciative for the work you will do for us, Mr. Gallagher. However, do not allow my boys to become an unnecessary distraction.”
“But, Mama,” Simon protested as he looked at his mother beseechingly. His black hair was wet from his recent predinner wash, and he wore a clean, light blue shirt that enhanced the color of his eyes. He bit his lip at his mother’s stern glower.
“I assure you, ma’am, I will let them know when they have become a distraction.” Lance looked down at Simon and winked, earning a grin from the young boy.