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Brock Kincaid squinted at the slate-gray clouds that had been shifting down from the Crazy Mountains since he'd broken camp that morning, and pulled his sheepskin collar around his neck against the bitter wind. Born and raised in Montana, he found that seven years away hadn't dimmed his ability to smell a blizzard coming from the north. He built a fire and melted snow for the horses. There were two: one he rode; the other carried his bedroll and supplies, as well as gifts carefully chosen for the brothers he hadn't seen since he'd left the Kincaid ranch behind.
Caleb, the oldest, would be there, running the ranch, but Will had been gone when Brock left, having headed out after repeated disagreements with Caleb. Brock had no idea where he was now, just as they hadn't a clue where he'd been or what he'd been doing. For their protection, he'd been careful to hide his identity and his whereabouts.
Cooling the water with a handful of snow and holding the dented pail for his mount to drink, Brock scratched the animal's bony forehead and yawned. Imagining his brother's reaction to his return had kept him awake most of the night, and he'd started out after only a couple hours' sleep.
After the horses were finished, he stowed the pail, then bent and scooped snow to scrub across his tired face. A few more hours and he'd reach Whitehorn, where he could board the animals and get a night's rest before heading to the ranch. He wanted to be alert and prepared before facing Caleb.
With a creak of cold leather, Brock mounted and let the gray pick his way around overgrown scrub and drifted snow. The packhorse whinnied and shook its head, and Brock paused to gather the slack from the lead rope until it calmed. Wolf tracks and bright red blood spattered on the pristine snow several yards to his right told him he didn't want to be around after dark. He drew his .44 Winchester from the scabbard on his saddle and rested it across his thighs. Damn, but a warm bed would feel good tonight. It had been a long time since he'd been comfortable.
A minute later, the crust of snow on the ground crunched beneath the horses' hooves as he nudged his mount forward, the only sound, save the horses' snorts in the bitter air.
He'd cut all ties with his acquaintances of the last few years, transferred funds, changed horses and saddles, bought new clothes and taken a painstakingly slow, roundabout trail to reach Montana. He'd covered his tracks with as much caution as humanly possible.
The only personal possessions he still owned were the pair of carved, ivory-handled .45 Peacemakers in the holsters strapped to his thighs, as much a living part of him as his arms or his legs. They'd saved his life more times than he could count, and leaving them behind would make him more vulnerable than he could afford to be and still live.
Brock blinked against the snow glinting pink and gold from the mountains, and adjusted his hat brim to shade his eyes. By late afternoon, he'd skirted the outlying ranches and made his way toward town. With luck, no one would recognize him, and he'd have time to prepare himself for the only showdown he'd ever had doubts about.
A tinny bell clanged, and the door of the schoolhouse flew open. Brock halted the horses in a stand of bare-branched cottonwoods and watched bundled children charge out the door and down the wooden stairs of the structure, which had been built on the outskirts of White-horn since his departure. The grays, actually black-skinned with white hairs, and chosen for their light coloring against a snowy landscape, stood silent.
A few parents near the building waited with wagons or horses. Brock let his gaze scan the students.
Was his nephew Zeke among the children? Brock did a quick calculation and figured the boy would be eight by now. Was someone from the Kincaid ranch down there to meet the child? Heart chugging nervously, he studied those waiting, but none struck him as familiar. From this distance he couldn't make out brands on the horses.
None of those departing headed for the Kincaid ranch, but several children ran toward town.
Brock observed the willowy, dark-haired woman who locked the schoolhouse door and trudged through the snow toward the main street.
Once the area was clear, he rode out of his secluded spot and followed. Whitehorn looked much the same as it had the last time he'd seen it, false-fronted buildings with signs proclaiming the businesses: the telegraph office, a dressmaking shop, the No Bull Meat Market, the Double Deuce Saloon, Whitehorn News, Watson Hardware, the bank. Big Mike's Music Hall and Opera House was new, as was a structure that looked to be made of oil cans bearing a sign advertising Fish for Sale.
He passed Old Lady Harroun's boarding house and the Centennial Saloon before stopping at the livery. Lionel Briggs, a long-faced fellow, emerged from the warmth of the forge and greeted him. "How long you stayin', mister?"
"I'm not sure," Brock said, keeping his hat pulled low. "I'll pay for tonight. They need feed and rest." He pulled his glove from his numb fingers and reached inside his coat for silver coins.
"I'll treat 'em good. Check their feet?"
Brock nodded and paid him.
The man stared suspiciously, a frown and then recognition registering on his face. "Brock Kincaid! I'll be damned! Thought I recognized that voice."
"I'd be obliged if you didn't mention that you'd seen me," Brock said. "I'd like to get some rest before I visit the ghosts."
"Where ya been all this time?" the man asked. "Some said you was workin' with Bill Cody. Others claimed you'd settled down in New Mexico."
"I saw some of New Mexico," he replied noncommit-tally, pulling down his rifle and unstrapping his gear. "Can I leave my bedroll in a stall?"
"Certain you can."
"Still get a decent meal and room at the Carlton?"
Lionel nodded. "Amos still runs a good place. That hasn't changed. Wife's sickly now, though."
Thanking the livery man, Brock threw his saddlebags over his shoulder. His boots clomped across the boardwalk as he headed for the hotel. He'd reached the wide dock that fronted the hardware store when a couple of laughing
boys wrapped in heavy coats, wool caps and scarves shot out the door and ran into his legs, knocking him sideways. Groping for balance, he dropped his gear and grabbed a wooden post.
"Jonathon! Zeke! Apologize to the gentleman. You weren't even looking where you were going."
A slender, russet-haired young woman without a coat appeared in the doorway, a white apron covering her plain dress and calling attention to her curvy figure.
"Thorry, mithter," the shorter of the two said with an endearing lisp. "We wathn't lookin' where we wath goin'."
The other boy struggled to pick up Brock's cumbersome saddlebags and hand them back to him. "Didn't mean no harm," he said. The wool cap he'd worn tumbled off his head and he turned to grab it, knocking into the smaller boy. Both of them landed on their butts on the icy loading dock.
Chuckling, Brock bent over and plucked both of them up and steadied them on their feet. The youngest one gazed up, dark blue eyes wary of the stranger. A wisp of wavy blond hair escaped his cap. Was this a Kincaid nephew? Brock glanced at the other boy, also fair-haired and blue-eyed.
Then he turned and saw the young woman for the first time.
She was staring at him, her complexion gone pale, a sprinkling of freckles standing out against the pink rising in her cheeks. "Abby?" he asked uncertainly.
A combination of things had driven him away from this town. The constant discord in the Kincaid house was surely part of it. The other partthe bigger partwas the fact that he'd killed this woman's young brother.
She stared at him still, as though not believing what her eyes were telling her. Once his identity registered, her expression quickly changed to one of cool hostility. "Come inside, boys," she said curtly.
"But we didn't get licorith yet," the younger one complained.
"We didn't mean to knock the man down," the other added.
"No harm done," Brock said kindly, stooping to pick up his leather bags. He couldn't help casting another hungry look at the boys, who reminded him so much of him and his brothers at that age.
"One of you Zeke Kincaid?" he asked.
The taller boy's eyes widened. "How'd you know that?"
"Come inside now, boys!" Abby told them sharply. "Are you Zeke? "
The lad nodded, then gave Abby a quick look. Caleb's son. Brock's nephew. Brock looked him over hungrily, all the years away from here seeming so wasted and lonely. Caleb had had more children and Brock had missed their births. Abby must be watching them for Marie.
"Come in immediately," Abby ordered.
"Aw, Ma," the younger boy said unhappily.
Ma? The address hung in the air like the report of a bullet. Brock's gaze shot to Abby's face. Shuttered and distant, her expression revealed only her disdain. "Your son?" he managed to ask past a dry throat.
"That's right. Jonathon is my son. Now excuse us." She nearly pushed the boys inside the store and slammed the door so hard the glass panes rattled and the bell inside clanged.
Her son? But that child was unquestionably a Kincaid. Had Marie died and Caleb married Abby? Had Will come back and married Abby?
Snow had begun falling in earnest, blowing up across the dock and dusting Brock's boots. He wasn't sure how long he stood there in confusion, contemplating the shocking information and the possibilities. Of course, life here had gone on without him; why had he imagined everything would still be the same?
Through the square panes of window glass, he could see that the hardware store held a few customers. What Abby Franklin was doing in there he had no idea, but he didn't want the entire town to know he was here before he'd had a chance to see Caleb, and the stove at the hardware store was the social gathering place on winter afternoons such as this.
Tamping down his questions and his eagerness to see his nephews, he adjusted the heavy bags over his shoulder and hurried through the snow to the hotel.
Abby Watson stared out the window at Brock's tall, long-legged form retreating through the swirling snow. She bit her lip and pressed a shaky hand to her thundering heart. Surely she'd expected that he'd be back one day. He owned a share of Kincaid land, for heaven's sake! Both of his brothers were here, Caleb running the ranch, Will having returned and made his amends a year ago. He now ran the bank.
At the time of Will's return, she'd been forced to think of Brockto wonder where he was and whether or not he, too, would make his way back to Whitehorn and his family home. She'd considered selling the store and leaving before that became a reality, but her roots had grown deep into this land. Her father and brother were dead now, but Jonathon had family here, even though he didn't know it. She owned her father's ranch as well as a thriving business, and she felt good about being a respected citizen.
Caleb couldn't acknowledge Jonathon publicly without shaming Abby, because Abby had married Jedediah Watson, and the older man had accepted the boy as his own. Caleb had seen to it that Zeke and Jonathon spent plenty of time together, though, especially since Jed's death two years ago. Zeke coming home with Jonathon after school every day had begun as much to keep the boys together as to spare Zeke the tension of his unhappy home life, Abby suspected. Now that Zeke's home life had changed for the better, he still came here every day.
Abby glanced back at her handsome, fair-haired son brushing snow from his pants, and a sick feeling curled in her belly. What would happen when Brock learned the truth? Would he even care? He hadn't seemed to in all these years, so she couldn't imagine that he'd suddenly develop a conscience.
She brought her worried gaze back to the window. Men like Brock Kincaid thought only of their prowess with a gun, to the exclusion of family and loved ones. Men like him had no loved ones. And they robbed other people of theirs, as well.
A shiver ran through her body.
"What're you lookin' at out there, Miz Watson?" Harry Talbert, the barber, called from his favorite chair beside the stove. "That snow is gonna come down whether or not you keep an eye on it."
More than seven years ago Brock Kincaid had shot and killed her brother, then ridden out of town without a backward glance.
Now he was back. And about to find out he had a son.
Brock awoke at first light, placed his feet on the frigid floorboards and strode naked to the window. From the second story, he could see much of the frozen, rutted street, the shops with mounds of snow drifted across the boardwalk and against their doors, a few animal tracks leading in and out of the alleyways, and smoke drifting from chimneys.
The brick smokestack at Watson's Hardware belched a steady gray cloud. He'd watched until dark and Abby hadn't left the place. Caleb had come with a team and wagon and taken one of the boys away. If Abby'd left, it had been late, or she'd exited by a rear door, but Brock couldn't imagine why she would bother.
He dressed and continued his vigil at the window. One by one, lamps came on in the businesses below. Merchants arrived and shoveled boardwalks. Shades rose. A man with a key entered the hardware store, a man too young and fit to be Jedediah Watson.
A team and buckboard pulled up alongside the dock that fronted the hardware store, and the driver climbed the stairs and tried the door. He knocked. Lights came on and the door opened to admit the customer.
Sometime later, the rancher came out, followed by the man who'd entered earlier, and together they carried boxes, rolled barrels across the dock and loaded the supplies into the wagon bed.
Abby appeared at the doorway, wearing a white apron. She waved as the rancher pulled away. The young man entered the store behind her and the door closed. She looked as though she belonged there. If the man was her husband, why had he just arrived, when it was apparent she'd been there all night? If she worked there, perhaps she had a room over the store. Brock glanced at the lace curtains at the upper windows.
He could stand here supposing all day, but he had business to see to with his brother, so he packed his bags and left.