John Morgan’s heartbeat drummed in his ears. Keeping a tight rein on himself so he wouldn’t shout with elation, he looked down and watched the sunlight sparkle off the tiny yellow nuggets resting so unassumingly in his hand. Never had he seen anything quite so deadly wrapped in such a pretty package.
He’d been looking for it, for so long. Father never believed there was gold in this country, but he knew better. Too bad he couldn’t have the satisfaction of saying ‘I told you so’ to the old man, but he was long gone now, not that it mattered. Only the gold mattered. The bright, glittering stones were the answer to everything.
Looking around again to be sure he was alone, he calmly carved his mark in a tree, so he’d know where to return. Yes, the gold was the answer to all his dreams; all he had to do was get the land where it rested. Not an easy task, for he knew he stood on the Evans’ property. But the gold had always called to him and now that he knew where it was, he could answer. It didn’t matter how; he would get this land and his gold.
Flames licked through the canvas wagon cover. Great billows of black smoke to escaped through the top. Horses whinnied. Men shouted. Cattle bawled. The scene was utter chaos.
Catherine Evans shouted orders, turning as a big black stallion charged into the fray. The large man on his back countermanded her orders and barked out his own.
Nudging her own stallion, Wildfire, with her knees, she intercepted them. “This is my ranch and my men. I give the orders here. Where the hell have you been? You’re a week late.”
“I came when I could.” Duncan turned to join the men.
“No, you stay.” She whipped around to face the men beating at the fire on the wagon. “Forget the wagon. It’s lost. Get those cows. Now.”
After the men scattered she rounded on Duncan. “When you could, isn’t a good enough answer. This is a working ranch. I have to be able to depend on every man here. And if I can’t, then I don’t want them. I don’t even know why Dad sent for you anyway. We don’t need a gunslinger.”
“James has his reasons for asking me to come. As for gunslinger, the need has yet to be seen.”
She disregarded his response. “You know about field dressings and I’ve got a man missing and probably hurt. Zeke was driving one of these supply wagons. I could use your help.”
She galloped to the other side of the camp, riding around debris thrown from the supply wagon. Burlap sacks once full of coffee and beans littered the ground beside empty flour and sugar sacks. Tinned food lay bent, smashed under cattle and horse hooves. Ignoring the destruction, she went straight to an overturned supply wagon.
Duncan reined in beside her. “The whole place looks like a battlefield.”
“It is a battlefield and if you’re here to help, then do it.”
“I don’t see anyone.”
She stopped rifling through loose pieces of debris and cocked her head toward the wagon. “Did you hear that?”
There was a weak and distant groan. Catherine saw a muddied, work worn black boot sticking out from underneath.
“It must have upended during the stampede. Zeke was driving. We have to get him out.” She let out a shrill whistle and Wildfire came running to her side. “Good boy.”
She freed her lasso from the saddlehorn, dallying up the front wagon wheel. Duncan did the same to the rear wheel.
“Let’s flip the wagon over. When I holler, you have that horse of yours pull.” She made sure both ropes were tight.
“Now! Pull. You too, Wildfire, come on boy.” The wagon came slowly up and over onto its wheels, wood creaking as it bounced on its axles but it held together in one piece.
She ran around the wagon to the man on the ground, checked for bullet wounds and found none. The wound on his head bled profusely, as they are want to do, but didn’t appear too deep. Running her hands over him, she found his right leg broken. “Zeke, are you all right? Zeke, can you hear me?”
She looked up at Duncan. “It’s broken. It’ll need to be set before we can move him. I can’t do this on my own. I don’t have the strength to set the leg properly. Will you help?”
“Sure. I need two straight pieces of wood and something to bind them.” He took his knife and cut Zeke’s pant leg open to see how badly the leg was injured. She could see the bone hadn’t broken the skin and there was no bleeding, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. He could stabilize it enough to get the man to a real doctor.
Catherine returned with a couple of loose boards she’d ripped from the wagon as Duncan started to cut off Zeke’s boot. He hesitated when Zeke moaned, clearly in agony.
“Miss Catherine, is that you? What happened?” He was in obvious pain, but still lucid.
She smiled at him and gently brushed the hair back out of his eyes. “I was about to ask you the same thing. You’ve got a broken leg and I know it hurts, but before we set it tell me what you remember. All I heard was the cattle rushin’. By the time I got out of the timber, it was all over.”
Zeke closed his eyes. “It happened so fast. Roy Walker and his men rode in. Next thing I hear gunshots. I tried to control the team but the wagon got pounded by the cows and tipped…I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened after that.” He closed his eyes then opened them wide. “The team! Where’s Abel and Bessie?”
She shook her head, “Don’t worry, they’re fine.”
Zeke nodded then looked at Duncan. “Who’s this? A new ranch hand? Replacing me already?” He tried to smile, but winced in pain instead.
She patted his hand. “Don’t be silly Zeke, you know you’re irreplaceable. Besides, I can’t let your Sarah and little Jacob go, so I guess you have to stay too. This is Duncan McKenzie.”
“Mr. McKenzie, any friend of James Evans’ is a friend o’ mine.” Zeke lifted his hand. “But if you continue cuttin’ on my boot, I’m goin’ to kick you with my other leg. They’re the only boots I got.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’ve got to get this boot off so I can set your leg and if you kick me I’ll have to knock you out.”
“No way.” Zeke ripped his hand from Duncan’s and tried to rise, but Duncan held him down.
Catherine grabbed Zeke’s hand and gently held it. “Don’t worry. I’m gonna buy you the best boots in Creede. I’ll make Gordon send all the way to Chicago if I have to. I’ll even make sure that Jacob has a pair to match his Daddy’s.”
Zeke stopped struggling and relaxed. “The best, huh?”
“The best. I promise,”
“Catherine’s promised and I’m a witness. Let’s set your leg and get you home.”
“Can you hold him down while I set it?”
She took a deep breath and nodded.
Duncan turned to Zeke and said calmly, “This is going to hurt like hell, but I’ve got to do it. I’ll be as quick as I can. Yell, if you want.”
“Here, bite down on this, it’ll help.” Catherine handed him the leather sheath from her knife.
“Just get it done.” Zeke closed his eyes, put the leather between his teeth and locked his jaw.
“Wait a minute. You’ll need something to bind it.” She pulled her shirt from her pants and tore two strips from the bottom. She laid the cloth next to the boards within Duncan’s reach.
“All right, hold him still.” Duncan pulled hard with both hands to set the bones back into place, while Catherine put all her weight on Zeke’s shoulders to hold him down. Placing one board on either side of the leg, he tied them tight with the strips of cloth from her shirt.
Zeke had not uttered a sound. He’d fainted.
When her concentration was on Zeke and his broken leg, she was fine. Now that it was over, she could let go. She sat back and trembled.
Duncan leaned forward and touched her shoulder. “You all right? You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine.” She grasped her knees to her chest and rested her chin on them.
“I couldn’t have done it alone. Thanks for that.”
She hated to admit that she needed help. Especially, his help, but she was glad he’d come when he did. He extended his hand to her.
“Thanks.” Taking a deep breath, she got to her feet and dusted herself off. She was not the vulnerable girl she’d been. She was a woman. A woman determined to make her way in a man’s world. One little stampede wasn’t going to change that. “We’ll have to make a litter to take him back to the ranch. Even though the supply wagon didn’t break anything when we flipped it back on its wheels, Wildfire doesn’t take to pulling a wagon.”
“Jake can pull the wagon. Tie Wildfire to the back and I’ll drive while you take care of Zeke. Fair enough?”
He harnessed Jake to the wagon and Catherine gathered all the blankets and other soft stuffs to pad it. Together they managed to load Zeke.
As they pulled into the ranch yard several hours later, Catherine’s father, James, slammed out of the house followed by a very pregnant, young blond woman and a little boy.
“Did you find him?” James called as the buckboard pulled to a halt. “Did you find Zeke?”
“We found him. He’s got a broken leg but he’ll be good as new in a few weeks,” Catherine said as she jumped to the ground. “He’s going to need some tender lovin’ care, Sarah.”
Sarah ran to the end of the wagon and clamored up despite her bulk. “Zeke, honey, are you okay?” She knelt beside him, grazed his cheek with her knuckle, while tears rolled in streams down her cheeks.
Tenderly, Zeke wiped the tears from her face. “Here now, we’ll have none of that. I’m going to be fine.”
“Papa! Up!” demanded Jacob.
Duncan set the brake and went around to the back to help lift Zeke from the wagon bed. Instead a curly haired blond boy confronted him, pulling on his pant leg.
“Up Mister. Pease.” Jacob held his arms up for Duncan to lift him.
Duncan didn’t want to lift the sweet child. He didn’t want to hold this tiny body in his arms for even a moment, but it looked like he had no choice. Catherine, the only one near enough to do it, just stood there with her hands on her hips, and a grin on her face, waiting.
This small child was not going to defeat him. He’d faced desperate men, men willing to kill to save themselves from Duncan McKenzie, bounty hunter. None of them frightened him as much as this one little boy, who couldn’t be more than two or three. All Duncan had to do was bend down and lift the child, but his knees shook and he could feel himself quiver inside.
“Oh for goodness sake, Duncan, just lift him up so he can see his Papa is all right.” Catherine knew. He didn’t know how she knew, but she did. His only real weakness…children.
Getting a grip on himself, he bent and hoisted the anxious little boy up and over the wagon’s gate. He was light as a feather, so tiny…so innocent.
Catherine was beside him. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”
He didn’t miss the laughter in her sparkling silver gaze or the smile formed by her perfect rosebud lips. Without answering he stalked toward the house and the front door.
Duncan closed the door behind him and took a deep breath. He could still smell the fresh bread that Alice baked that morning. He glanced around the foyer, glad to see it hadn’t changed. Directly in front of him stairs led to the second floor and the bedrooms. Down the hall to the right of the stairway were James’ study and a storeroom. The formal parlor, which still looked like it hadn’t been used, was to his left. The Queen Anne chairs and overstuffed divan looked as new as when he’d helped James haul them in.
Beyond the parlor was the formal dining room. A massive oak table and chairs dominated it, in stark contrast to the lace curtains covering the windows. They hadn’t used when he’d lived there, preferring instead the comfort of the kitchen.
Duncan shook the memories from his head, turned and started for the storeroom where he heard James muttering expletives.
“Dagnabit,” James said, “I’ve got a canvas stretcher here I got for just such an emergency, if I could just get it out from behind these steamer trunks.”
“Here, let me help.” Duncan quickly moved the trunks and freed the stretcher.
“Good to see you, Son. You’ve come at the perfect time.”
“To help with this maybe,” he said, lifting the stretcher and following James out. “But not soon enough to keep this incident from happening or keep your daughter from jumping down my back for being late.”
“Things happen for a reason, Son. You’ve got to find the reason.”
“From what Zeke said, the reason is named Roy Walker.”
“He’s only part of it.” James walked out the front doors and over to the wagon. “Sarah, let’s get you down so we can get your husband out of there.” James lifted the pregnant woman easily. He looked good to Duncan. He was still as tall as Duncan’s own six feet four inches and had remained fit and strong despite his advancing age and the graying of his brown hair and mustache.
“Catherine, you and Sarah take Jacob here and make sure the way into the house is clear.”
James ruffled the lad’s hair then lifted him from the wagon. “You go help your Ma and make sure to pick up all your toys, okay?”
“Yup, Big Jim. I pick up toys.” The youngster ran off as fast as his chubby legs would carry him toward the small house across the yard. Catherine followed with Sarah, who still weeped and moved much slower now she knew her husband was all right.
He watched Catherine settled her arm around Sarah’s shoulders and calm her. “Come on now. If you don’t settle down, Doc’s going to have to deliver that baby instead of check on Zeke’s leg.”
Sarah laughed and wiped her tears away. “You’re right and Doc would not be a happy man. I’m not due for another couple of weeks.”
When they lifted Zeke onto the stretcher and off the wagon, he let out a groan. Duncan knew he tried to keep it in, but a broken leg is a painful thing. “Catherine, do you have any laudanum? Zeke could use some until the doc gets here.”
“Sure thing. Be right back.”
Before they entered the Zeke’s house, James said to him, “Don’t worry about a thing. We take care of our own here on the JC. You and Sarah have a home here as long as you want it.”
“Thanks, Mr. Evans. I really appreciate knowing that. I didn’t know how I’d provide for them while I’m laid up.” Zeke raised his head from the stretcher. “I’m really sorry about this, Mr. Evans.”
“Pshaw. Think nothing of it. None of this was your fault. I’m just glad you weren’t hurt worse.”
Zeke nodded and laid his head back down. They got him settled him on the bed and walked out of the house, leaving him to Sarah’s tender ministrations.
At the front door James turned to Duncan. “I’ve sent for the doctor and after you get cleaned up I’d like for you to come to my study. We’ve got some talking to do.”
That sounded ominous to Duncan, but he nodded. “Where do I clean up?”
“In your room. I’ve had it cleaned for you.”
“I can stay in the bunkhouse with the rest of the men?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re family. You’ll have your old room.” James stopped, his hand hovered above the doorknob. “This is your home, Duncan. Always has been and always will be.”
Something in the dark recesses of Duncan’s heart was moved by James’ declaration. Home. How long since he’d been any place he could call home? Ten years. There had never been anywhere else for him but here. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
Duncan drove the wagon the short distance to the barn where he unhitched Jake and untied Wildfire, fed and watered them. He flung his saddlebags over his shoulder and headed to the house. When he finally opened the door to his room, he stared in wonder. Nothing had changed. Everything was exactly as he had left it ten years ago.
The massive bed that James had ordered special so he could stretch out his six foot four inch frame without hanging off the ends still had the same quilt on it. James’ wife Elizabeth had made that quilt for Duncan when he’d first come to live with them twenty years ago. He’d been thirteen, orphaned and big for his age. None of that mattered to Elizabeth who saw only a boy who had saved her husband’s life and now needed a home and family. He ran his hand over the quilt enjoying its comforting softness.
The bedside night table and washstand were both made of dark walnut that matched the bed, as did the wardrobe and chest of drawers. They had marble tops, a luxury Elizabeth had insisted on saying they would last forever. It appeared she was right. On the washstand were a porcelain pitcher and basin, his favorite sandalwood soap, two washcloths and a hand towel. The nightstand held a small pitcher of water, a glass, a kerosene lamp and an ashtray for his cheroots. At this point Duncan wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to find the wardrobe full of his clothes. He was almost afraid to look, but it turned out to be empty. Empty and stale, just like his life had been for the last ten years.
Putting aside his nostalgia, he quickly emptied his saddlebags, washed his hands and face, and donned a clean shirt before walking downstairs to see James.
Catherine met him in the hall. “Dad always said you’d be back. He made sure your room was ready for you.”
“And you? Did you know I’d be back?” he asked softly.
“No. I didn’t care one way or the other.” She turned on her heel and opened the door to her room. “But I hoped,” he heard her say under her breath as the door shut.