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By SUSAN PAGE DAVIS
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2012 Susan Page Davis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRocking P Ranch near Brady, Texas, May 1884
Cattle herded easier than cowboys any day. Alex Bright often wondered why he'd agreed to be foreman on the Rocking P, when riding fence and busting broncs was so much easier.
"It ain't right," Leo Eagleton insisted. "You gotta tell the boss, Alex."
"Tell him what?" Alex asked. "You know he's not changing his mind on this."
"Well, we don't have to take it." Nevada Hatch, Alex's righthand man on the ranch, looked as angry as Leo. "Mr. Porter used to let us run our own herds on the range. If he's going to take that away from us, he's got to raise our wages. That's all."
"He won't," Leo said.
"I'm thinking of looking for work at another ranch," Joe Moore, the wrangler, said as he untied the cinch on his saddle. "We hardly get enough pay here as it is, but if we can't run our own brands—"
"We oughta strike," Nevada said.
Alex stared at him. "Strike?"
"Sure. They did it last year, in the panhandle."
"Yeah, but ..." Alex shook his head. "That'd be shooting your horse out from under you. This ranch is a good place to work."
"Was," Nevada conceded. "Lately it's not so great."
"That's right," Leo said. "Mr. Porter won't give me time to fix the roof on the cabin. Sela complains about it all the time. Drip, drip, drip—she nags just like the leaky roof when it rains."
The other men laughed, and Joe said, "At least it ain't rained for a while."
"Yeah, be thankful for that," Alex told him. But he knew Leo spoke the truth, and it bothered him. In the last year, the ranch's owner had paid out less and less for maintenance on the buildings. He hadn't given the men who stayed on over the winter the Christmas "extra" he'd always handed out in the past—a few dollars and some new clothes, usually. The lack of a celebration and gifts hadn't sat well with the men.
One of the older men, Harry Jensen, had been on the Rocking P a lot longer than Alex had. "You know, our wages haven't been raised in ten years," he said.
"Prices have gone up, though," Joe said.
Alex let out a deep breath. He was going to have to talk to Mr. Porter, no getting around it. This new edict about the men's herds was the last straw. Being able to brand a few mavericks and sell off a few beeves of their own each year meant a lot to the men, especially married men like Leo.
A couple of the other hands ambled over. Usually when they rode in for the night, the boys couldn't wait to get inside for supper, but this time they lingered as if waiting for him to say more.
"You know Porter's got enough land for every one of us to run a dozen head of so," Nevada said.
"Yeah, but he claims all the mavericks on his range belong to him, and he might have a point," Alex said.
"Then he should up our wages." Harry looked around at the others, and a murmur of agreement supported him.
"But we're starting spring roundup tomorrow," Alex said.
"Exactly." Nevada's bushy eyebrows drew together. "We hit him when it will hurt the most."
Joe spat tobacco juice in the grass. "If we refuse to round up his stock, Porter won't have a herd to sell this spring."
Harry nodded. "I say we strike."
"Hold on," Alex said. "What makes you think Mr. Porter wouldn't go and hire a new crew?"
"We'd have to get the men on the other ranches in on it," Nevada said. "Tell them what we're doing."
"I bet they'd want to strike too," Joe said.
"If not, at least we could tell them not to let any of their men hire on with Porter. I bet they'd do that to back us up." Nevada looked around at the others.
"That didn't work so well in the panhandle," Alex reminded them, hefting his saddle against his hip to carry it into the barn. "They had five ranches striking, but the owners still found more workers and refused to hire back the men who struck. We'd probably do ourselves out of our jobs if we tried it."
"You know we can't live on thirty dollars a month without our maverick herds," Nevada said.
"Yeah, some ranches are paying forty now," Leo put in.
Harry nodded. "That's right, and now Porter's claiming our herds for himself. We own those cattle, even if he doesn't let us keep any from now on."
"Yeah, we should be able to sell them and keep the money," Harry said. "We've been doing it for years."
Alex looked around at them. Mr. Porter had treated him fairly—some might say more than fairly. Alex had been on the Rocking P for seven years now, and Porter had bypassed older men when he promoted Alex to foreman last year. That called for a certain amount of loyalty.
He'd always admired Porter for the way he ran his vast spread. Letting the men keep a few mavericks was standard procedure and allowed the boss to keep wages low. He'd also provided cabins for three of the married men and allowed them to bring their families to live on the ranch.
But lately, the boss was slipping. Alex could see it, and the men could see it. He'd tried to talk to Mr. Porter a couple of times, when it seemed like maintenance was being neglected, and when the supplies for the men's cook had lacked several items the men enjoyed. Mr. Porter had answered him more gruffly than usual—even a bit angrily. Alex had let it go, thinking they'd talk again later, when he caught the boss in a better mood. Surely they could work this out.
And another thing—he'd heard Porter's daughter was coming home soon. If Maggie Porter weren't in the mix, Alex might not have hesitated. The men were right—the boss no longer treated them fairly. But if he sided with them, would he lose his job—and his only chance to make a good impression on Maggie Porter?
He turned to face the men again. "All right, listen to me. I have to go in tonight and settle the details of the roundup with the boss. I'll mention your complaints."
"Grievances," Nevada said quickly. "We're not complainers, Alex. We're hardworking men with grievances."
Alex gritted his teeth. "All right. I'll bring it up."
* * *
Maggie Porter stepped down from the stagecoach in Brady, Texas, scanning the small crowd of onlookers eagerly. Her gaze lit on Shep Rooney, a cowhand who had been with her father's ranch as long as she could remember. She swallowed her disappointment and made her way to him.
"Afternoon, Miss Maggie. Good to have you home."
"Where's Papa?" She looked around once more, on the chance he'd stepped into the stage line's office out of the hot sun for a moment.
"He's out to the ranch." Shep's smile for her was the same as it had always been, but his hair had gone mostly gray, and his beard was streaked with white. "You got a trunk?"
"I'll have the stage people put it in the wagon." He spoke to the station agent then came back to her side, limping as he walked. "Your pa woulda liked to have come, but the boys are all out on the roundup, and they'll start the drive in a few days. Lot going on at the ranch."
She nodded and walked to the wagon with him, wondering why Shep wasn't with the other cowboys. The team of bays in harness looked familiar, and she paused to pat their noses. "Is Duchess waiting for me too?"
Shep smiled. "Yup, she can't wait to see you. I see Alex take her out now and then to keep her in shape for you."
Alex. Maggie guarded her expression. She'd have thought her girlish crush would have passed by now, but even the mention of him still brought on a flutter or two. He was the best-looking cowboy she'd ever seen, and not that much older than she was. When she'd left at eighteen with her mother, she'd kept her memories of Alex Bright as a secret treasure she could take out and gaze at now and then, the way she did the Mexican silver dollar her father had given her on her tenth birthday. The memory of Alex was another pleasant keepsake.
Shep fussed with the horses and got her luggage loaded. They started out, and he kept the team trotting steadily. Maggie plied him with questions about the ranch.
"How's the roundup going?"
"The boys just went out yesterday. They'll be at it three or four more days at least. Then they start the drive."
Shep smiled. "You still want to be a cowgirl?"
Maggie smiled. When she was younger, her father had taken her out to the spring roundup for a day. She'd looked forward to it every year, as soon as Christmas had passed. She'd vowed she could ride and rope as well as a cowboy and begged her father to let her stay out with him and the men. He'd always brought her home in the evening, though.
"I don't think I'll ever stop loving the roundup and watching the men start off on the drive. But I've developed a few other interests now, Shep."
"Yeah? Like what?"
She didn't answer right away. During most of her absence she'd attended her mother, whose long illness had worn Maggie down. Seeing her mother fail and die at the sanatorium had taken something out of her that she didn't think she'd ever regain. That's why Papa had sent her to San Francisco after the funeral. Seven months with her cousin Iris had started the healing process. How could anyone stay melancholy around Iris? The young woman lived a life of constant activity.
"Iris helped me learn to love art," she said. "And music, and ... and lots of things."
"Well now," Shep said. "We don't get much of that on the ranch, and that's for sure."
Almost Maggie regretted not going away to a finishing school like Sarah Bradley and some of the other girls from ranches did. She'd gone to the sanatorium with Mama instead and led a gentle life for a year and half, followed by the whirl with Iris. Perhaps that was education enough. She needed some time at home now; the ranch would complete her restoration.
"How come you're not out on the roundup, Shep?"
He nodded toward his left leg. "It's this bum knee. Did something to it last summer. I can't take more'n half an hour in the saddle these days. But so far, your pa's found plenty for me to do." Shep's face sobered. "Gotta admit, some days I wonder if he'll keep me on."
"Why wouldn't he? You're good at so many things."
"Well, thanks, Miss Maggie. But things aren't the same at the ranch. I putter around and clean out the barn and corrals and mend harness. I drive into town for supplies. But I wonder how long your pa will pay me if I can't get back in the saddle."
His words troubled Maggie. Surely her father would take care of an employee who had served him faithfully for many years.
"I hope they do all right on the drive this year," Shep said.
"Why wouldn't they? It's only to Fort Worth now, not all the way to Kansas. A couple of weeks on the trail. That should be a picnic for Alex and the other men."
Shep shook his head. "They aren't happy, and when people get mad, things can go wrong."
"What do you mean?" Maggie asked. "Has something happened?"
Shep smiled at her, but he seemed to have lost his good humor. "You papa told us we can't run our little herds anymore, or claim mavericks. The boys are angry about that."
"Are you mad too? You have a maverick herd, don't you?"
"I had a dozen steers I hoped to send on the drive this year. But it looks like that won't happen now. There's other things too."
"What other things? Papa's always been a good boss. Everyone says the Rocking P is a good place to work."
"Well, the boys feel different now."
They were almost home, and Maggie would have to save that to think about later. She'd ask Papa about it, because on the surface, it didn't seem fair. She sat on the edge of the wagon seat, holding her hat down with one hand and bracing herself with the other. She couldn't wait to get her working hat on again. This flimsy thing she'd bought at a milliner's shop in San Francisco was all feathers and net—no match for the Texas wind. She ought to have anchored it with an extra hatpin.
As Shep guided the team over the crest of the last rise, she caught her breath. Rocking P land stretched out as far as she could see. She'd longed for the people who loved her—Papa and Dolores, mostly, but she'd also craved this place. This was home. She'd often thought the "P" in Rocking P should stand for "peace," not "Porter."
Maggie reached up and pulled out her long hatpin and whipped the hat off.
Shep looked over in surprise.
She smiled. "Can't stand this thing any longer." She turned around and opened the valise that sat in the wagon bed behind her. She tucked the hat in and dropped the hatpin after it. Reaching up, she loosened her bun and shook out her long hair. She'd missed feeling the Texas wind blow through it, lifting the strands and ruffling her locks.
"Now you look like little Maggie," Shep said. "Guess you'll be out galloping Duchess in the morning."
"I sure will."
He drove into the yard and drew up before the ranch house. Maggie jumped down without waiting for his help. The door flew open as she ran toward it, and she tumbled into Dolores's arms.
"Miss Maggie, we missed you so much!"
Dolores, a cowpuncher's widow, had taken care of the Porter family since Maggie was about five years old—when her mother became too ill to do all the cooking and cleaning herself. Dolores had always been there for Maggie, entrenched in the kitchen but always ready to listen to a girl's woes.
When Mama grew more and more frail, Dolores helped Maggie in ways she'd never realized until now. She'd kept her busy and taught her to think of others. She'd trained Maggie to help keep the house neat and clean, and to cook a passable meal if need be. She'd had the "girl talks" with Maggie that most girls had with their mothers. She'd made Maggie's birthday cakes and dried her tears. And when the time came for Mama to go away in a last, desperate effort to regain her strength, Dolores packed for both Mama and Maggie and helped the girl find the grit that helped her through those last agonizing months with Mama.
As she pulled away from Dolores's embrace, Maggie found her cheeks were wet with tears. She wiped them away quickly.
"Thank you. I've missed you, too."
Across the big parlor, the door to her father's office opened. He stepped toward her, smiling.
Maggie ran to him and hugged him.
"There, now," he said. "Welcome back, sugar."
She clung to him for a moment, knowing things had changed. She'd been home only a few weeks after Mama died, and they hadn't really settled into a routine then. But now she was home for good. Without Mama, they'd have to muddle their way into a new family pattern. She'd never be his little girl again. What was her role now?
She pushed away from him. "Papa, you're so thin! Hasn't Dolores been feeding you?"
He chuckled. "You have to ask? You know her cooking. No, I'm just ... a little off my feed, I guess."
Shep came through, carrying her valise. "I'll put this in your room, Miss Maggie, and I'll get one of the boys to help me with the trunk later."
To her surprise, Papa didn't jump in with an offer to help.
An hour later, Maggie and her father ate together at the table to one side of the big parlor. She could hear muted voices from the kitchen and decided that Shep was eating out there with Dolores.
"I was sorry to hear about Shep's injury," she said.
"You and me both."
"It must have happened before—before the funeral, but I didn't realize it then."
"We were both pretty well distracted in September."
Her father didn't seem to be eating much, but Maggie didn't mention it.
"So the other men are out on roundup."
"Yes. I expect they'll bring the first cut in tonight, and Alex will come in to tell me how things look. I hope we'll have a good herd to send to Fort Worth."
"Are you going out to the roundup?" she asked.
"I don't think so. The boys can handle it."
Maggie's disappointment struck hard. She'd hoped they could ride out to the range together and join the fun for a day.
She shook her head and reached for the milk pitcher. Everyone seemed too sober. Maybe it was just that the men were gone, and the whole ranch seemed too quiet. Then too, Maggie had only been home once since her mother left—for those three weeks at the time of Mama's funeral. Maybe she just wasn't used to the house without Mama.
"How are the Herreras doing?"
"Good, so far as I know. I haven't seen Juan for a month or so." That wasn't unusual during the busy seasons, with the houses on the large ranches several miles apart. But Carlotta, Señor Herrera's daughter, was Maggie's girlhood friend.
Excerpted from COWGIRL TRAIL by SUSAN PAGE DAVIS Copyright © 2012 by Susan Page Davis. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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