The windswept Montana plains rolled with empty monotony beneath a freeze-dried sky. Along a fence line that stretched into the far-flung horizon, old snow formed low drifts. A brooming wind had brushed clean the brown carpet of frozen grass that covered the rough-and-tumble roll of the plains and held the thin layer of soil in place.
There was no room in this bleak, rough country for anyone not wise to its ways. To those who understood it, its wealth was given. But those who tried to take it eventually paid a brutal price.
Its primitive beauty lay in the starkness of its landscape. The vast reaches of nothingness seemed to go on forever. Winter came early and stayed late in this lonely land where cattle outnumbered people. The cattle on this particular million-acre stretch of empty range carried the brand of the Triple C, marking them as the property of the Calder Cattle Company.
A lone pickup truck was bouncing over the frozen ruts of the ranch road, just one of some two hundred miles of private roads that interlaced the Triple C Ranch. A vaporous cloud from the engine's exhaust trailed behind the pickup in a gray-white plume. Like the road, the truck seemed to be going nowhere. There was no destination in sight until the truck crested a low rise in the plains and came upon a hollow that nature had scooped into the deceptively flat-appearing terrain.
The camp known as South Branch was located in this large pocket of ground, one of a half-dozen such camps that formed an outlying circle around the nucleus of the ranch, breaking its vastness into manageable districts. The term "camp" was a holdover from the early days when line camps were established to offer crude shelters to cowboys working the range far from the ranch's home buildings.
There was a weathered solidness and permanence to the buildings at South Branch, structures built to last by caring hands. Stumpy Niles, who managed this district of the ranch, lived in the big log home with his wife and three children. A log bunkhouse, a long squatty building set into the hillside, was not far from the barn and calving sheds in the hollow.
The truck stopped by the ranch buildings. Chase Calder stepped from the driver's side and unhurriedly turned up the sheepskin collar of his coat against the keening wind. Like his father and his father's father, the reins of the Triple C Ranch were in his hands. His grip had to be firm enough to curb the unruly, sure enough to direct the operations, and steady enough to ride out the rough patches.
Authority had rested long on his shoulders, and he had learned to carry it well. This land that bore his family's name had left its mark on him, weathering his face to a leather tan, creasing his strong features with hard experience, and narrowing his brown eyes which had to see the potential trouble lurking beyond the far horizon. Chase was on the wrong side of thirty, pushing hard at forty, and all those years had been spent on Calder land. It was ingrained in his soul, the same way his wife, Maggie, was ingrained in his heart.
The slam of the pickup's passenger door sounded loudly. Chase's glance swung idly to the tall, lanky boy coming around the truck to join him, but there was nothing idle about the inspection behind that look. This sixteen-year-old was his son. Ty had been born a Calder, but he hadn't been raised one, something Chase regretted more than the trouble that had driven Maggie and himself apart nearly sixteen years ago.
Those had been long years, a time forever lost to them. Her father's death had aroused too much bitterness and hatred toward anyone carrying the Calder name. He hadn't tried to stop her when she left; and he had made no attempt to find out where she went. There had been no reason to try -- or so he had thought at the time. But he hadn't known of the existence of his son until the fifteen-year-old boy had arrived, claiming him as his father. As much as he loved Maggie, at odd moments he resented that she had never told him about Ty. During their years of separation, Ty had grown to near manhood in a soft environment of southern California.
All this land would be Ty's someday, but precious years of training had been lost. Chase was nagged by the feeling that he had to cram fifteen years of experience into Ty in the shortest period of time possible. The kid had potential. He had try, but he was only greenbroke, like a young horse that wasn't sure about the rider on its back or the bit in its mouth -- or what was expected from it.
With school out of session for spring break, Chase was taking advantage of the time to expose Ty to another facet of the ranch's operation -- the ordeal of spring calving. For the regular cowboys, it was a seven-day-a-week job until the last cow had calved in all the districts of the Triple C Ranch. Since Stumpy Niles was shorthanded, Chase had brought Ty to help out and, at the same time, learn something more about the business.
As he stopped beside him, Ty hunched his shoulders against the bitter March wind rolling off the unbroken plains. In a comradely gesture, Chase threw a hand on his son's shoulder, heavily padded by the thick winter coat.
"You met most of the boys here when you worked the roundup last fall." Chase eyed his son with a hint of pride, not really noticing the strong family resemblance of dark hair and eyes and roughly planed features. It was the glint of determination he saw, and the slightly challenging thrust of Ty's chin.
Ty's memory of the roundup wasn't a pleasant one, so he just nodded at the information and held silent on his opinion of "the boys." They had made his life miserable. The worst horses on the ranch had been put in his string to ride. When "the boys" weren't throwing their hats under his horse, they were hoorahing him for grabbing leather when the horse started bucking or they were slapping his hands with a rope. If he forgot to recheck the saddle cinch before mounting, it was a sure bet one of them had loosened it. They had told him so many wild tales about the tricks to catch a steer that Ty felt if they had told him to shake salt on its tail, he would have been gullible enough to believe them.
They had pulled more practical jokes on him than he cared to remember. The worst had been waking up one morning and finding a rattlesnake coiled on top of his chest. It had been hibernating and the cold made it too sluggish to do anything, but Ty hadn't known that. He had damned near crapped his pants, and all "the boys" had stood around and laughed their sides out.
It was like being the new kid on the block. Of course, Ty never used that phrase around his father. His father had the opinion that city life made a man weak. More than anything else, Ty wanted to prove to his father that he wasn't weak, but he didn't know how much more of this endless hazing he could take. A couple of the old-timers, Nate Moore for one, had told him that all new men went through this, but it seemed to Ty that they were doing an extra job on him.
The hand on his shoulder tightened as his father spoke again. "Stumpy's probably in the calving sheds. Let's go find him and get you settled in."
"Okay." Stirring, Ty reluctantly lifted his gaze to the sheds where there was a suggestion of activity.
A pigtailed girl about ten years old crawled between the railings of a board fence and ambled toward them. A heavy winter coat with patches and mismatched buttons gave bulk to her skinny frame, as did the double layer of jeans tucked inside a pair of run-down and patched boots. A wool scarf tied her cowboy hat on her head, a pair of honey-brown braids poking out the front.
"H'lo, Mr. Calder." She greeted Chase with the proper respect, but it was that of a youngster toward an elder rather than any degree of servility.
"Hello, Jess." A faint smile eased the tautness around his mouth as Chase recognized Stumpy's oldest child.
From the start, Jessy Niles had been a tomboy. Stumpy always claimed it was because, when she was teething, they'd let her chew on a strip of braided rawhide rein. She played with ropes and bridle bits when other girls were playing with dolls. She preferred tagging after her father to helping her mother in the kitchen or looking after her two brothers who followed her in succession.
There was never any little-girl cuteness about her. She'd been like a gangly filly, all arms and legs, and skinny to boot.
She wasn't homely, but her features were too strong -- the cheekbones prominent and the jawline sharply angling. Her coloring was bland, her hair a washed-out brown, and her eyes an ordinary hazel -- except they gleamed with intelligence, always direct, and sometimes piercing.
"I saw you drive up," she announced as she turned to size up Ty. "I told my dad you were here, so he'll probably be out shortly."
Ty bristled faintly under her penetrating stare. Even though he had become used to adults measuring him against his father, it was irritating to have this child slide him under her microscope. He gritted his teeth. He was sick of having to prove himself to everyone he met.
"You haven't met Stumpy's daughter, have you?" Chase realized and made the introductions. "This is Jessy Niles. My son, Ty."
She pushed a gloved hand at him, and Ty grudgingly shook it. "I heard about ya," she stated, and Ty bitterly wondered what that meant. It didn't sit well to think of some pigtailed kid laughing about some of the dumb things he'd done. "We've got a lot of first-calf heifers this year, so we sure could use the help." Jess spoke as if she were in charge. "Do you know anything about calving?"
A response seemed to be expected of him, from both his father and the young girl. Ty knew better than to claim knowledge he didn't possess. "No, but I've helped with a lot of foaling," he answered tersely.
The youngster wasn't impressed. "It's not quite the same. A mare's contractions are a lot more powerful than a cow's, so the birthing doesn't take as long." The information was absently tossed out, as if it were something everyone should know.
"How's it going?" inquired Chase.
"So far, we've only lost one calf," she said with a lift of her shoulders that seemed to indicate it was too soon to make a prognosis. Then a flash of humor brought a sparkle to her eyes. "Three of the boys already told Dad they were quitting at the end of the month and drawing their pay to head south. That's one ahead of this time last year."
Chase chuckled in his throat, fully aware more cowboys threatened to quit during calving season than any other time, although few actually did. His gaze lifted past the girl to watch Stumpy's approach from the calving sheds, his footsteps crunching on the frozen ground.
"Here comes my dad," Jessy said, turning her head.
Stumpy Niles was a squatly built man, needing the nearly two-inch riding heels on his boots to reach the five-foot-seven-inch mark. But what he lacked in size he made up for in skill and stamina. He was always ready to laugh, but at the same time he was serious about his work and responsibility. Like Chase, Stumpy had been born and raised on the ranch; his grandfather had worked for Chase's grandfather, and the tradition was being carried on by succeeding generations. There were several families on the ranch that had never known any other home. No one retired when they grew old; they were simply given easier jobs.
At ten years, Jessy Niles already came to her father's shoulder. There was no resemblance to mark them as father and daughter. She was long-legged and skinny, while he was short and compact. His hair was dark, nearly black; so were his eyes. Energy seemed to be coiled inside him, always just below the surface, while she appeared quiet and contained.
After an exchange of greetings, Stumpy inserted, "We sure can use the help. They couldn't have picked a better time to let kids out of school for spring vacation."
"Nearly everyone's son on the Triple C is being put to work in the calving sheds," Chase remarked. "There's no reason for Ty to be an exception. You just tell him where you want him to go and what you want him to do."
Stumpy looked at Ty. "You might as well take your gear over to the bunkhouse and catch some rest if you can. We work the sheds in two shifts. You'll be on the night crew, so you'll be goin' on duty at five and workin' till six in the morning."
Figures, Ty thought, but he kept the rancor to himself. If there was a rotten job or lousy hours to be had, he always got them. His father had warned him it would be like this until he had proved himself, but Ty had never dreamed this testing would last so long. He was expected to endure the razzing and hazing without complaint, but the frustration was mounting inside him and the pressure from outside was only adding to the strain. More than anything else in this world, he wanted to make his father proud of him, but that day seemed farther away all the time.
"I'll take him to the bunkhouse for you, Dad," Jessy volunteered, "and show him where everything is."
"You do that." Her father smiled and nodded his approval.
"Where's your outfit?" Jessy turned to Ty and gave him another one of her level looks. Although it didn't show, she liked this strong-faced and lanky-muscled boy, even if he thought a rope honda was some kind of motorbike. That was a real shame, him being a Calder and all.
"In the back of the truck." The cold seemed to make him talk through his teeth, or so Jessy thought, not recognizing the irritation that hardened his jaw. "I'll get it."
After Ty had hauled his war bag and bulky bedroll out of the rear bed of the pickup, Jessy started for the chinked-log bunkhouse and glanced around to make sure he was following.
"I'll be back Sunday afternoon to pick you up, Ty," Chase called after his son and saw the bob of the cowboy hat in acknowledgment. He watched the pair walk silently toward the bunkhouse but directed his words to Stumpy. "A lot of people think ranchers leave cows to their own devices to drop their calves out on the range at the mercy of the elements, predators, and birthing complications."
It was an indirect way of saying that was what Ty had thought until Chase had explained differently. That's the way it had been done a hundred years ago, but certainly not now.
"That cow and her calf are too valuable to leave it all up to nature. Eight times out of ten, a cow won't have any trouble, but those two times, it pays to have a two-legged critter around to help out," Stumpy declared, then snorted out a laugh, his breath coming out in a billowing vapor cloud. "Hell, most city folks think all a rancher or a cowboy does is turn a cow loose with a bull, let her calve, and round 'em up in the spring to brand 'em and again in the fall to take them to market. They don't think about the castrating, dehorning, vaccinating, doctoring, and feeding -- not to mention all the grief they give ya in between."
"Yeah, we got an easy life, Stumpy, and don't know ft." His mouth was pulled into a wry line as he continued to watch the pair of youngsters approaching the bunkhouse. "That's quite a girl you've got there. She has her mother's looks, doesn't she?"
It wasn't really a question, since Chase had known Judy Niles almost as long as Stumpy had. She was a genial, sandy-haired woman, a couple inches taller than her husband, and attractive in an average sort of way.
"You should see her in those calving sheds, pulling calves in subzero temperatures." Stumpy puffed up a bit with pride. "The two boys, Ben and Mike, spend more time horsing around than helping. 'Course, they're young yet. But Jessy, she pitches right in there without being asked. As long as she wants to do it, I'm not going to stop her. It's a pity she isn't a boy. She's got the makings of a top hand."
"She'll outgrow this tomboy stage when she discovers boys." Chase winked in amusement.
"Probably," Stumpy agreed and showed a reluctance for that coming day. "I know her mother would like it if she helped more around the house. Speaking of mothers -- " He paused, lifting his head to cast an interested look at Chase. "How's Maggie?"
"The doctor says she's doing fine. Nothing to worry about." A glowing warmth seemed to radiate from the brown depths of his eyes, an inner pride bursting forth.
"It's getting close to her time, isn't it?" Stumpy asked, frowning slightly as he tried to recall.
"The first of May, so she's got a little over two months before the baby is due." But he wasn't as calm or casual about the coming event as he tried to appear. "The senator is flying in with some people he wants me to meet, so I'd better be getting back to The Homestead."
As Ty followed the girl across the threshold into the bunkhouse, he heard the truck starting up and looked over his shoulder to see the pickup reverse to turn onto the single road leading away from the camp. He knew he was completely on his own again. A wary tension strung his senses to a high pitch of alertness as he swung the door shut and turned to face the room.
He was standing in a small common room. A table and a collection of chairs stood in one corner, and a sofa and a couple of armchairs, all showing the scars of cowboys' indifference, occupied the other corner. A converted barrel heater split the room in the middle, its sides glowing almost a cherry-red as it waged a continual combat to keep the cold outside temperatures from invading the bunkhouse. Propped against the back wall, there was a broken chair to to used for kindling in the wood stove. A variety of cartoons, western pictures, and pinup girls were tacked to the walls in a crazy quilt of decoration.
"The bathroom's through that door." Jessy pointed to the right and walked to the barrel heater to warm her hands. "The beds are in there." She indicated the opposite direction with a nod of her hatted head. "You can take your pick of the empty ones."
Ty hefted his duffel bag a little higher to change his grip on it and headed for the open doorway on his left. The sleeping area of the bunkhouse was thinly partitioned into small rooms, furnished with plain wire-and-steel frame beds with a cowboy's bedroll serving as mattress and blanket. The first few beds, the ones closest to the common room and able to benefit from the wood stove's heat, were all occupied, either by possessions or by quilted shapes actually sleeping in the beds. Ty stopped at the first empty bunk he found and tossed his duffel bag and thick bedroll onto the wire frame. Coat hooks were screwed into the wall to hold his hat and coat and the odd piece of clothing or two.
"Did ya find one?" The girl's querying voice searched him out.
"Yeah." He half turned away from the doorway and began shrugging out of his heavy jacket. His thermal underwear and wool shirt were more than adequate in the relative warmth the bunkhouse.
Her footsteps stopped at the doorway. "If you don't fell like layin' down right away, there's coffee in the pot on the hot plate."
"No, thanks." Ty left his hat on but hung up his coat and turned to untie his bedroll and spread it open on the bed.
He caught her out of the corner of his eye, leaning against the doorway, her coat unbuttoned and the scarf loose around her neck. He wished she'd quit watching him with those measuring eyes. It made him uncomfortable. He noticed the cup of steaming coffee in her now-ungloved hand. She lifted it to her wide mouth, blowing to cool it even as she sipped at the hot, thickly black coffee. He still couldn't stomach the strong coffee everyone on the ranch drank with such regularity unless he drowned it in milk.
"You shouldn't be drinking that stuff." He jerked the string tying his bedroll and unrolled the mattresslike quilt pad with its sheets, quilt, and canvas tarp bound inside. "It'll stunt your growth."
"I been drinking coffee since I was six." Scoffing amusement riddled her voice. "I'd hate to think how tall I'd be now if I hadn't." She paused, then added for good measure, "And it hasn't made my hair curly or grown hair on my chest."
After he had the pad and blankets straightened out, Ty set the duffel bag with his clothes and shaving kit at the head of the bed for a pillow. When the girl showed no signs of leaving, he stretched himself out the full length of the bed and set his hat forward on the front of his face.
"I'm going to get some rest," Ty said, in case she hadn't got the message. The hat partially muffled his voice.
"See you tonight," Jessy Niles replied, not finding his behavior in the least rude, and straightened from the doorway to saunter down the hall to the common room.
As the sound of her footsteps retreated, Ty pushed his hat back. Raising his arms, he cupped the back of his head in his hands and stared at the ceiling. There was a rawness in him that was close to pain. He had no one to turn to, no one to whom he could talk out his frustrations. He was too old to go crying to his mother, and since it was his father's respect he so desperately wanted to earn, he couldn't very well go running to him with his troubles. He wanted to work them out on his own, but so far no one was giving him a chance. There were so many things to learn that just when he felt he was grasping the rudiments of one thing, something new was thrown at him, and always the hazing and the handing out of misinformation until he felt like some gullible dimwit.
The return trip to the Homestead, the name given to the house occupied by the head of the Triple C, took the best part of two hours. The sleek twin-engine plane parked by the private airstrip near the buildings of the ranch's headquarters advised Chase that Senator Bulfert had arrived in his absence.
Leaving the truck parked in front of the imposing two-story house, Chase mounted the steps to the wide porch running the length of the south front and crossed to the solid wood double doors. The house had been built decades ago with a craftsman's care and possessed that rare quality of character. Two hundred years from now it would still be standing and, if Chase had his way, a Calder would still be living in it.
When he entered the large open foyer, Chase heard voices coming from the study on his left. Doug Trumbo, one of the ranch hands, was carrying an armload of luggage up the staircase leading from the living room to the second floor and its guest bedrooms.
With a shift in direction, Chase headed for the open doors of the den, where his guests had obviously gathered. Upon entering, his glance first sought out Maggie. She was sitting in a chair near the window, her black hair gleaming in the sunlight and an arm resting on the protruding roundness of her stomach. The sight of her always had the power to stir a hungry response in him while at the same time evoking feelings that were profoundly tender.
Her smile greeted him as Chase walked to her chair, pulling off his gloves and stuffing them in his coat pocket. Even as his attention was divided by the guests in the room, he was reaching to take her small hand in his large one.
"I'm sorry I wasn't on hand when you arrived," Chase apologized and let his gaze travel over his four guests. The ruddy-faced senator and his aide, Wes Govern, he already knew.
"No problem. Made better time than we thought. Had a good tail wind," the quick-talking senator replied. Age was beginning to sag his round cheeks, leaving jowls and pockets under his eyes. "Just arrived a few minutes ago. Wes hasn't had time to pour a round of drinks yet." With a slight turn of his head, he issued a booming directive to his assistant. "Chase drinks whiskey, Wes."
"I remember." The man nodded and added another glass to the liquor tray.
"How have things been? Well, I hope," the senator declared and continued without giving Chase an opportunity to respond. "No more land purchases you need my help with, are there?" he inquired with a conspiratorial wink.
"None." There was a dryness about Chase's eyes at the reference to the purchase of ten thousand acres of land from the government that Bulfert had arranged some years ago. It was the last parcel of previously leased land to come under the Calder title. He now owned all the land that constituted the Triple C Ranch.
"Chase, I want you to meet Eddy Joe Dyson." The politician curved an arm around the shoulders of a slightly built man, the gesture and body language suggesting to Chase that the two were united in their cause, whatever it was.
"Been looking forward to getting the two of you together for quite a while. E.J., meet Chase Calder."
Chase stepped away from Maggie's side to shake hands with the older man, dressed in an expensive navy pinstripe suit, styled in western lines with a yoked front and boot-cut pants. Chase put the man's age somewhere in the middle forties. The man's hand was smooth of any calluses, and his skin didn't have the leathery tan of a cattleman despite the white felt Stetson on his head.
"Welcome to the Triple C, Mr. Dyson." The western clothes were just a facade, but Chase didn't detect any shallowness in the level gaze that returned his silent inspection. If anything, he noted a hint of shrewdness.
"It's my pleasure," the man drawled. "And my friends call me E.J. I'd be pleased if you and your wife did the same." He half turned to invite the second man forward. "This is my business partner, George Stricklin."
Ten years younger, tall, with yellow hair, the man wore gold wire glasses which he removed and slipped precisely into the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Despite his athletic build, there was a studious and silent quality about him. His fingers were long and finely shaped, and Stricklin did no more than nod when he shook hands with Chase.
Dyson spoke again. Angling his head toward Maggie, he inclined it in a courtly gesture. "I must say that I thought our Texas ladies couldn't be matched for beauty, but I've been forced to revise my opinion since meeting your lovely wife."
"I believe I'm much more prejudiced," Chase murmured and glanced backward into Maggie's vibrantly green eyes. Now that the phase of morning sickness had passed, she looked positively radiant. He'd heard it said that women were more beautiful when they were pregnant and had dismissed it. But he was now willing to concede that it might be in the eye of the beholder, because Maggie had never looked more beautiful to him than she did this minute.
"You're from Texas?" Maggie inserted, skillfully directing the conversation away from flattering comments about her. No matter how healthy and happy she felt, there was still that feeling of gaucheness and awkwardness which insisted compliments be turned aside.
"Yes." The slow, twanging drawl in his voice was both smooth and attractive, like oiled leather. "That set of horns above the mantel makes me feel right at home, too," he said, indicating the mounted pair of longhorns on the massive stone fireplace that dominated the room with its size and cheery log fire.
"They belonged to a Texas steer. I guess you could say this ranch was founded on Texas longhorns," Chase admitted and accepted the short glass of whiskey and ice from the senator's aide.
"I remember your father telling me your family came from the Fort Worth area." The senator took a fat cigar from his pocket, then glanced inquiringly at Maggie, who silently nodded her permission. "That's E.J.'s home turf." He felt his pockets for a light, but his assistant produced a lighter before the senator found one. "Something of an entrepreneur, eh, E.J.?"
The relationship between Dyson and his partner had always struck the senator as an unusual one. Once he had described Stricklin as the brains of the company and Dyson as the guts of it. Every act, every move, of the silent Stricklin was deliberately thought out beforehand by that computerlike mind. Logic and reason dictated his decisions. But Dyson acted on instinct and had the guts to gamble on his hunches. It was a curious blend in a partnership, one balancing the other, with Dyson naturally appearing to be the dominant member of the team.
"I do have several business interests," Dyson admitted while eyeing Chase as if he were the source of his next.
"If you're thinking of venturing into the cattle-ranching business, it means investing a lot of money in nondepreciable assets," Chase warned dryly.
There was a quick glance exchanged between the politician and the Texan. "I guess you could say I'm more interested in what's under the ground than what's on top of it. Which is why I asked the senator to introduce me to you. I dabble in oil and natural-gas exploration."
An eyebrow quirked in mild curiosity as Chase let the statement sink in. Taking his time, he set his glass down on the table by Maggie's chair and shed his coat. The flames crackled in the fireplace, filling the brief silence.
"I think you're in the wrong part of Montana," Chase stated finally. "You want to be over in the Badlands, or in the Powder River country."
"Drilling companies are already working those fields," E.J. disagreed. "Now, I don't pretend to be an expert, but I try to hire them. I like to gamble my money on finding new fields, not striking it in old ones and having to fight the big companies."
"Am I to surmise that you're here because you think there is oil to be found on the Triple C?" Chase was vaguely bemused by the idea.
"If you know about the Powder River and the Badlands, then you must know they've made some finds near the base of the Rockies. They're near the western edge of your boundaries," he reminded Chase in a calm and knowing tone. "I could have brought my geologist with me and let him tell you all about rock strata -- and how promising a section of your land looks. It wouldn't mean any more to you than it does to me, and I don't know one from the other. Now, Stricklin, he's gone over all the figures and calculations and says there is more than a good chance of finding oil. So I'm here to see about acquiring those rights."
There was no change in expression to indicate Chase's inner feelings. He looked at Maggie and took a sip of his drink. When his gaze finally returned to the man, it was sharply measuring.
"The subject is certainly open to discussion." He'd hear the man out, but it wasn't a decision he was going to make quickly.
Copyright © 1983 by Janet Dailey