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"She's gone, Trey."
Trey Wells didn't acknowledge the quiet voice behind him, but kept his stare pinned on the crowd beyond the office window. The scores of men, women and children, dressed in somber black, gathered on his front lawn.
They'd come to pay their respects to his murdered father. Except the paying respects part was over, and only socializing remained. Sutton Wells's funeral had drawn folks from all over the territory. Once the shock of his death had dissipated, after their frenzied ruminating had ended, well, hell, they stayed to eat, drink and have a blaring good time.
It was different for them, he supposed. They hadn't lost the only family they had left. They hadn't been robbed of their best friend. Sutton Wells was Trey's business partner, too. Co-owner of the mighty Wells Cattle Company.
A thousand times Trey asked himself who would want him dead. And why?
A thousand times, Trey vowed to find answersand revenge.
A hand clasped his shoulder in a gentle but firm command for his attention. Trey shut down his morose thoughts and turned.
As foreman for the WCC, only Nubby Thomas would understand the depth of Trey's grief. He'd cowboyed with Trey's father in Texas, back in the forties when they were both between hay and grass in their years.
"She's gone," Nubby repeated. He spoke with his usual patience, but concern showed in his sun-browned face.
Trey frowned. "Who?"
"Allethaire. Ricky saw her leavin' the ranch a few minutes ago."
Trey recalled how she'd argued with him again, and sudden irritation nipped along his nerve endings. In her snit, she'd left without telling him goodbye. Damn it, she should've given him the courtesyand today, of all days. God knew she would've expected the same from him if the situation was reversedand so would her father.
"Not like Paris to just up and leave like that without" Trey began.
"He didn't go with her."
Trey shot a glance back to the front lawn and found Paris Gibson at the refreshment table talking to Gregory Carlton, a cattleman whose spread bordered the WCC's.
"Reckon he doesn't know she's gone," Nubby added.
Trey's frown deepened. Paris knew as much about his daughter as a father could. Trey had never met a father more loving. Or more protective.
"What do you mean he doesn't know she's gone?" Trey demanded. "She rode out here with him after the services."
"She didn't take their rig. Took one of our horses instead. Gave Ricky a story about wanting to go for a pleasure ride and that you'd be meeting her after a spell. But the way she took off, well, Ricky figured it wasn't no pleasure ride, like she said." Nubby hesitated. "He asked me to let you know."
Trey's mind worked through the news. Allethaire was an expert horsewoman. She'd ridden the ranch numerous times and enjoyed it when she did. It wouldn't be unusual for her to get the urge to ride.
But on the day of his father's funeral?
And why would she lie about Trey meeting up with her?
"Any idea where she went?" he asked.
"Apparently she didn't say, but she was headed east."
The words circled in his head. Allethaire Gibson was one of the finest women he'd had the pleasure to meet. Gracious and refined, beautiful and educated. Yet despite her considerable and obvious attributes, Trey had thought long and hard before asking her to marry him. She was as fragile as spun glass some days. Compared to other women he knew, she was sorely ill-suited to ranch life, too. Had he ever seen her break out in a sweat? Get dirt under her nails? Heft a basket of wet laundry onto her hip?
In the end, it'd been the hydro-electric plant her father wanted to build on Wells rangeland that convinced Trey the marriage was a necessary endeavor. An arrangement destined to ensure a much-needed source of power for Montanaand growth for ranchers and farmers. The plant would seduce the Great Northern Railway, too, whose tracks would be invaluable for shipping crops and livestock to eastern markets.
Trey hoped the love for Allethaire would come later.
As time went on, though, he wasn't sure it ever would.
Her pampered life as Paris Gibson's daughter taught her to think of herself first and leave the consequences for later. She was prone to tender feelings and quick tears. In the brief period Trey had known her, he'd been victim once or twice to her theatrics.
Seemed she'd made him a victim again.
He slid a tight breath through his teeth. If she didn't return soon, he'd have to go after her, before she got herself good and lost. Montana Territory was a far cry from Minneapolis, where she'd been born and raised. She was accustomed to orderly streets and familiar landmarks. Out in the Montana wilds, she'd lose her sense of direction in no time.
"She's wanting you to give up the ranch, isn't she?" Nubby asked.
The old cowboy had been witness to Allethaire's innuendos a time or two. Her thinly veiled tantrums that came more often of late.
"Yes," Trey said.
Thinking of how she'd brought it up again, during the funeral luncheon, he turned back toward the window. In the distance, snow clung to the crests of the Bear Tooth Mountains like giant dollops of thick cream. But at the foothills, miles of rich grass stretched and swayed as far as the eye could see.
All of it, Wells rangeland.
Part of him expected to see her riding in, looking apologetic for leaving without telling him and ready to smother him with kisses for the indiscretion.
The other part knew he wouldn't. She'd want him to come for her instead. Say all the right things to soften her up. Give her the promise she craved.
A promise he couldn't make.
Nubby stepped to the window, too, and for a moment they stood, shoulder to shoulder. Both of them staring through the glass panes.
Commiseration threaded Nubby's silence. Understanding. Trey soaked it in, like balm on wounded skin.
"She thinks you can run the place without me."
He lifted the crystal glass he held, then remembered he'd already drank the whiskey. He didn't bother going for more. "She said with Dad gone, there's no real reason for me to stay in Montana."
A small, choking sound escaped Nubby. The disagreement he declined to voice.
"She wants me to partner with Paris. Take over his business interests when he retires." Trey didn't normally blather on, but now the words spilled from his throat, like marbles from a jar.
"Can't see you wearing a fancy Hereford suit to work every day, Trey."
It wasn't in him. He was a cattleman, not an industrialist. The thought of crowded streets, tall brick buildings crammed onto city blocks and a sky dirtied from smoke belched from factory chimneys chilled him. Living by a clock every day, playing society games, watching his hands grow soft from a lack of hard, sweat-making workhell, Allethaire may as well drop him into a pine box and bury him.
"Then again, won't be easy for a woman like her to live out here," Nubby went on. "She's never been bred for it."
Something Trey and his father had discussed often. But Sutton had dismissed Trey's concerns, claiming a woman like Allethaire brought too much into the marriage to worry about something as trivial as her getting used to life on the WCC. What woman wouldn't, eventually?
Trey had disagreed with his logic then, just as he did now.
"She doesn't want to learn." Trey sighed heavily at her self-centered contrariness. "I told her I wanted to cancel the engagement to give ourselves more time to think it through before we have a wedding."
"Sorry to hear that, Trey."
Trey's mouth quirked. Nubby wanted to mean the words, but deep down, he didn't.
"Reckon she's acting like she is because she's just scared from the trouble we've been having," Nubby ventured. "She probably needs time to sort through it."
Trey's father's death meant trouble, all right. So did the WCC cattle which had turned up missing. And then there were the men who'd argued with Sutton .
Trey had heard them right here in the office three nights ago, after he'd gone to bed. He'd frowned over it at the time, but hadn't intruded.
If only he had.
Hours later, he found his father dead, and Trey's gut churned with the certainty the strangers were responsible. The police were doing what they could, but Trey wanted justice, even if he had to ride with the posse himself to get it.
"If she's scared, she shouldn't have ridden off the ranch alone," he said. "Doesn't make sense why she's been gone so long."
Nothing did anymore.
Whatever her reasons for leaving, a demanding urgency built inside Trey, driven by the sudden and somber possibility whoever murdered Sutton Wells might very well strike at Allethairea twisted means of kicking Trey when he was already down.
"I'm going after her." He turned and set his glass down on the desk.
"Want me to go with you?" Nubby asked.
His foreman was still dressed in his Sunday best suit. He'd slicked his close-cropped gray hair with oil, shaved his cheeks smooth of its usual bristle. Trey could count on one hand the number of times the cowboy gussied himself up.
Damned unfortunate Trey's father's funeral had to be one of those times.
Nubby had been like a brother to Sutton. A friendship they shared most of their adult years. Trey could trust him with anything, including standing in for him with that crowd of funeral guests out on the front lawn.
"No," he said finally. "Stay here and take care of things. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Nubby was all he had left now. There was no one else.
Except for Allethaire. Maybe not even then, but if he didn't find her soon, he could lose her, too.
"I don't care about the agreement you make with him, Papa," Zurina Vasco said firmly, her feet braced against the wagon's rough ride to keep from toppling out of the seat. "I care only about the sheep. And so should you."
"Of course, I care about the sheep, 'Rina. You think I forget? When they are all I have left?"
His words prickled against her heart. He didn't mean them. Not really. It was just that he grieved deeply over losing her mother to the pneumonia only last month. He'd lost her brother, Mikolas, too, the very same day, from the shocking confession Mama made shortly before she died. Sometimes Zurina feared he could think of nothing else but his suffering.
Did he think she hadn't suffered, too?
She waited a moment for the hurt to pass.
"No, Papa," she said quietly. "You still have me."
But he didn't seem to hear. His face, browned by his Basque heritage and tinted deeper by the sun, showed his worry. "If he finds us, he might not let us use the valley again. And then what would we do? Where would we go?"
"A risk, yes." Even so, she shrugged at its insignificance. "But only a small one and not worth fretting over."
Trey Wells owned a sinful amount of land. They could camp for days near the river, give the sheep the precious water they needed and neither he nor his despicable father would ever know.
Zurina kept her beliefs to herself. She refused to speak Sutton Wells's name, even though Papa had a grudging respect for his son.
"I gave him my word, 'Rina. Stay in Sun River Valley. Trey Wells knows he can trust Gabirel Vasco" Papa thumped his chest with a work-roughened fist"so he gives us the grass, the water, for our sheep. And because I give my word, there is no trouble."
"Except the grass is too dry, and there is not enough water anymore." She slipped her arm though his and squeezed, softening her argument. She had, after all, convinced him to leave, hadn't she? "When the rain comes, then we'll go back to the valley."
The promise had been what finally convinced Papa to load up their sheep wagon and move their flock closer to Sun River. He'd given in only because he knew she was right. They had no other choice.
"Bah. The rain. Maybe it never comes." His mouth turned into a dejected frown beneath his thick, dark moustache.
She patted his hand. "Yes, it will, Papa."
Yet her gaze lifted to the sky in search of the gray clouds that would signal impending moisture. She found none. Not even a wisp. Only a deep and perfect azure that seemed to go on forever.
Unexpected unease fluttered in her belly. The rain had to come. If it didn't, the sheep wouldn't thrive, and then they'd produce a coarser wool, not the silky fleece which would fetch a higher price at market.
Papa took great pride in his flock, which bore the prized Merino bloodline known for their fine, thick coats. Only a few more weeks, and then finally, Zurina could have the house she had long dreamed of. Papa had promised. The house that would give her the respect she craved.
If only Mama could have the house, too.
Sadness tore into Zurina's heart, but she resisted its pain. Mama was gone, and Mikolas was, too. Not dead, but gone, and she had no idea where. She only had Papa, and she would take care of him as he deserved.
"Maybe it will not hurt to stay here," her father muttered in resignation. "Maybe he will not see."
His dark head angled, as if he searched into the distance, somewhere past Sun River and onto land where Zurina had never been, seeking assurance that they were doing the right thing.
That they would be safe.
Their rig rolled to a slow halt, and she realized he was afraid of Trey Wells.
Her lip curled.
Though Papa had spoken of him often enough, Zurina had never met the man, but she chafed against his power. The unfairness of it. She cursed his ability to strike fear into her father who thought of him first and the flocks second. She despised both Wells men, and every cattleman like them, whose arrogance and erroneous beliefs denied the sheepmen their rights to use the land and its water for the same reasons they claimed them for themselves.
"I don't care if he sees us, Papa." She tossed her head with a haughty sniff. "He doesn't control us. We owe him nothing."
Her father grunted and swung out of the wagon seat, down onto the ground. For a moment, he didn't move, as if he waited for his tired muscles to loosen. "He has been generous with us, 'Rina."
"So you say." Her father's weariness tugged at her. The years of sheepherding that had begun to seep into his bones. Or maybe it was the grief from losing Mama that clawed at him, making him hurt.
She resisted his logic, driven from the agreement he'd honored for so many months. She forced a consoling smile onto her lips.
"Then he shouldn't mind if we aren't in the valley tonight, eh?" she added sweetly.