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Triple R Ranch, Gunpoint, Montana
May 9, 1866
Amberson Hawley Rowan stood at the open door of the big white ranch house and stared miserably down the dusty road. Zig-zag log fences lined the road on either side. Her six month old son, Gerald, rode on her right hip. "Where is Richard, Gerald?" she asked her son. For his sake, she attempted a smile. "Your father should have been home by now."
The baby looked up at her out of big blue eyes and gurgled. He seemed to find her words funny.
Amberson's smile faltered. This son, this sandy-haired, blue-eyed baby, gave her life meaning. Richard Rowan certainly didn't.
After her mother and father had been killed on the trail west, she'd been left alone. Grief had settled over her like a thick gray cloak that muffled everything. Even her thoughts had become muddied and vague. Somehow, in the grayness, she had married Richard, trying to find an anchor to hold her firm through the terrible storm of her grief. To no avail.
In one short year, she'd gone from being the spoiled daughter of a wealthy family to a married woman with a child, solely dependant on her husband. Her life had become sheer drudgery. There were vegetables to grow, men to cook for, a large how to keep clean....
But this baby, this little baby boy had given her something precious. She was his mother, yet she felt as if he had given her life. Why, now she could even get out of bed in the morning.
"You're so sweet," she whispered in his ear. She caught a faint whiff and wrinkled her nose. "And you smell so bad--"
Her words were interrupted by the faint swirl of dust in the distance. "What is this, Gerald?" sheasked. She pointed down the road at the rapidly growing cloud of dust. "Richard is bringing home cattle to start his new herd," she explained to the baby.
The two waited in silence, the woman with the chestnut hair and the child on her hip. Out of the dust cloud galloped a hundred Texas Longhorn cattle: brown, black, red, spotted. They were a sea of colors.
The herd thundered up the road and under the arched wooden sign that read TRIPLE R RANCH. Amberson stepped back onto the porch. Cowboys yelled and swore at the cows; horses whinnied. Gerald waved his arms in excitement. Amberson bit her lip nervously.
Several men rode into the ranch yard, the sides of their lathered mounts heaving.
She squinted through the dust as a cowhand, astride a huge bay gelding, raced over to the corral. He deftly lifted the pole that served as a gate and swung it aside. Expertly, he backed his horse out of the way of the oncoming herd. He wore a distinctive brown-and-white cowhide vest that stretched across his broad shoulders and brown leather chaps on his legs..
He must be new, she thought. She didn't recall seeing him with Richard's men before.
The hundred head of bawling cattle bumped and snorted their way ahead into the corral. When they were all inside, he replaced the pole and whipped off his brown slouch hat, revealing his shaggy dark brown hair. He wiped his forehead with the dirt-covered sleeve of his once pale shirt. His every moment spoke of coiled strength.
For a moment Amberson's eyes followed the man--there was something vaguely unsettling about him--before she swung around to look for Richard.
She caught sight of him, tall in the saddle, his black hair and blue coat setting him apart from the other men, who all wore the patched, dull colored clothing of Montana boys.
She took a breath, dreading to speak with Richard, yet knowing that she must, eventually
Without waiting to talk to him, she hurried into the house and began setting up the meal for the sixteen hungry men who would soon descend on her kitchen. She set the food she had spent hours preparing.
The kitchen was the biggest room in the two-story house. She'd tried to make it look homey, with red-and-white checked curtains at the windows and a vase of purple wild flowers on each of the two long tables lined with benches.
The men straggled into the ranch house, talking and laughing now that their work was done and the cattle were safely corralled. They crowded into the big kitchen where she'd set the tables with beef stew, potatoes and homemade bread. She smiled to herself as she heard their happy exclamations at the sight of their first home cooked meal in two months.
Richard was one of the last men to walk up the porch steps and enter the ranch house. Someone slouched in behind Richard, but it was Richard that Amberson watched warily.
"You're back," she said, at a loss for polite words, here, in front of men.
Richard grunted and reached for Gerald. He lifted the child and nuzzled him. "How you been, my boy? You been good? Papa brought you some cows." His soft murmurings to the baby were distinctly unlike the way he usually spoke to Amberson and she stiffened, tamping down an unwelcome feeling. Jealousy--of her own son.
Richard handed the baby back to her with a snort of contempt. "Baby stinks. Change him. You know better 'n to bring him to me stinkin'."
Amberson clutched Gerald to her, her cheeks heated in humiliation. He found fault in everything she did.
A cowhand pushed past Richard and she flushed anew, realizing he had overheard Richard's unkind words. She caught a glimpse of the surprise in the cowhands green eyes as he moved past.
Suddenly her heart pounded and she stared. It was--she swallowed. No, it couldn't be--!
Richard clapped the large man on the shoulder. The two men were of height, but the stranger's shoulders were broader and he was more strongly built that Richard. "Go ahead, Justin," said Richard, playing the role of genial host. "Help yourself. Plenty of food."
Numb, Amberson watched as Richard and the cowhand sauntered over to a table. She blinked, unable to believe her eyes. It couldn't be. It couldn't!
A sudden urge of anger rose in her breast, an uprising of the righteous rage that she knew he so richly deserved. She took a step toward him, wanting to claw at Justin's face. Her heart thudded so loudly she was surprised no one at the table turned at the sound.
But no one noticed. No one knew.
The baby squirmed on her hip then, and she was reminded of Richard's pretty remark about changing him. "Come, Gerald," she said softly, realizing she could not reveal that she knew Justin, not this way, not here in front of all the cowhands. She knew suddenly that she did not want to see him, or Richard, or anyone. She needed some time--alone--to think.
She fled the room; the laughter and joking of the men rang in her ears.