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"You're an insult to the Travers name, Colt Wesson." Colt watched his cousin's hand flex then reach for the gun in his well-worn holster. "A low-down burr in the crotch of your pappy's pants."
He figured Cyrus wouldn't actually shoot him any more than Colt would draw his knife from the sheath slung across his back and slice his cousin's tongue in half.
Still, the threat deserved a response, so he reached over his shoulder and fingered the hilt of the long Arkansas Toothpick.
The last hot breath of summer settled upon the ranch. Dust covered everything from the rotting boards of the front porch to a saddle dangling over the corral fence. Even the flies spinning about manure piles seemed coated with it.
In the twelve years since he'd walked away from his boyhood home, nothing had changed. Colt glanced about the run-down buildings that made up the Broken Brand. Today, just as they had throughout his childhood, derelict-looking relatives lounged on the bunkhouse porch rolling and smoking cigarettes. They yawned, stretched and ignored the chores that would make the ranch a fit place to live.
"Pappy Travers ain't even moldering yet and you're lighting out again." Cyrus took a long step forward and glared up into Colt's face. "T'ain't right for you to cast aside family obligation."
He hadn't cast aside family obligation. If he had, he'd have brought the law with him to oust out this gang of thieves. Seeing his pappy properly buried was the only thing that had brought him home that and the old ladies.
"You take the job of head outlaw," Colt told his cousin, returning the glare. "I don't want it."
Great-aunt Tillie was sitting in the buckboard only a few feet from where the two cousins faced off. "Colt never was the outlaw you are," she called now. "It's you your Uncle Travers would pick to lead the family."
"Poor little Colt was such a good boy, not a bit like his daddy," his grandmother's voice twittered, birdlike, from her perch beside Aunt Tillie on the wagon bench.
"All due respect, Old Aunties," Cyrus said to them. "Colt Wesson's got a blood obligation to lead us in crime. It's been so since Grandpappy Travers's day."
Colt Wesson had cut his baby teeth on the bitter taste of blood obligation. He'd have accepted that obligation if it hadn't involved robbing innocent folks of what they had worked hard to earn.
"My only obligation is to take Aunt Tillie and my grandmother away from here."
Hot wind blew a hank of hair into his eyes. He turned, then lifted his foot to step onto the buckboard.
A hand grabbed his collar, dragging him backward. From the corner of his vision he saw uncles and cousins leap off the porch and run toward the brewing fight.
Colt reached behind him, grabbed Cyrus's collar then bent over at the waist. His cousin flipped, landing in the dirt with a grunt.
Quicker than Colt could step away, Cyrus tripped him with a boot hook to the back of the knee.
He and his cousin rolled about in the dirt, toward the barn then the house. They exchanged a mouthful of cusswords before they each felt the crack of a cane on their backsides.
Aunt Tillie, having climbed down from her seat on the wagon, stood over them, poking the stick that she had never really needed for walking, in Cyrus's belly, then Colt's.
The two men broke apart, sitting on their rumps in the dirt like shamefaced children. Great-aunt Tillie had always been the peacemaker between brothers and cousins. Although she was now elderly, and they were grown men, it didn't make a difference.
"Cyrus," she said with a frown, "you will apologize to your cousin."
"Shouldn't have jumped you from behind," he mumbled. "Still doesn't change the fact that you ought to snatch a bride and bring her home, just the way it's always been done. Time you took your rightful place and made your pappy proud for once."
The last thing he intended to do was make the man who had named him after firearms proud.
Colt stood up warily. Cyrus did the same. They might have gone at each other again had Aunt Tillie's cane not been swinging.
"Colt," Great-aunt Tillie said, "you will apologize to your cousin for throwing him on the ground."
"I'm sorry for that, Cyrus." He wasn't, not a bit. His cousin would have been insulted had he reacted peacefully. But since Aunt Tillie set great store by a handshake, he stuck out his fist. "Just so you know, if the day comes that I do take a wife, I won't need to kidnap her and I won't bring her here."
"Colty, dear," his grandmother said with a chuckle and a smile, "a lady does want a bit of romance. I was all aflutter when Grandpappy Travers tossed me across his saddle."
The real story was that she nearly shot him through the heart. But Colt wouldn't point that out to Grannie Rose, since she was fairly glowing with the inaccurate memory.
To his knowledge, the only woman to come willingly to the Broken Brand had been Great-aunt Tillie. She'd charged the ranch in the dead of night with a six-shooter blazing, intending to bring her sister home. The trouble was, by then Rose had fallen in love with Grandpappy.
Great-aunt Tillie had stayed on ever since, watching over Rose and teaching each new generation of children to read. For an ignorant outlaw gang, the Traverses were well-read.
"Come on." He took his trim, straight-backed great-aunt by the elbow. "It's time to go."
"It was time fifty-six years ago," she stated with a glare at the assembled Traverses. "Whichever one of you that takes over better make sure the children don't run wild. Make them learn their letters."
Colt lifted Aunt Tillie onto the buckboard seat even though she could have climbed up on her own. Seventy-six years looked easy on her.
He climbed up after her, picked up the reins then clicked to the horses.
He drove a slow circle about the yard while Aunt Tillie scowled at one and all and Grannie Rose blew kisses.
Colt hoped he was doing the right thing by taking the women from the only home they had known for most of their lives, but, damn it the place was barely fit for pigs.
"You'll rue the day, Colt Wesson!" he heard Cyrus call out behind him. "A man can't set aside his kin!"
Holly Jane Munroe sat at a lace-covered table and stared out the window of her shop, The Sweet Treat. Balancing a knife in her fingers, she whirled a curlicue on the top of the cake she was frosting without even having to look at it.
She sighed and wished that Billy Folsom wasn't standing in front of the bank, staring back at her. He twirled his hat in his fingers, brushed a strand of curly hair from his forehead then tugged the tips of his heavy black mustache.
With an inhalation big enough to be noticeable from across the road, he stepped off the boardwalk. The poor fellow looked nervous; clearly buying a sweet treat was not the first thought on his mind.
There was nothing to be done about it, then, but to hurry behind the counter, setting row upon row of cookies, chocolates and pies between them.
And smileshe owed her swain that much, since he likely didn't want to be ringing the tinkling bell over her front door any more than she wanted him to be.
"Good afternoon, Billy." She hoped the smile would conceal her feeling that the sooner he was gone the better.
Billy was handsome he was young. At twenty-one years old he was only two years her junior. The Folsoms had sent far worse her way over the past few months.
"Miss Holly Jane," he stated with a nod of his head. He wiped his damp brow with his sleeve. "I've come to Well, that is, I'm here to"
Billy crushed his hat in both of his fists. He inhaled a huge lungful of air.
"Will you marry me, Holly Jane?"
"I'm sorry, Billy, but no." It was hard to miss the relief that darted across his expression. "Please tell your grandfather that I have no intention of marrying anyone. Besides, what do you expect Lettie Coulter would have to say about that?"
Lettie and Billy had been sweet on each other since fourth grade.
"Thank you for the turndown, Holly Jane." He crammed his mangled hat on his head, grinning. "Pa's going to be put out some again."
"Take this with you." Holly Jane handed him the cake she had just frosted. "That might sweeten him up some."
"Might, but only for a while." Billy stretched across the counter and kissed her cheek. "Be careful, Holly Jane. I spotted a Broadhower two blocks away."
"I'll be safe enough. You might want to go out my back door, though."
Billy glanced out the front window then hurried out the back door.
Holly Jane watched him trot down the path that passed through the oak grove behind the shop. With fall a week old, the leaves had begun to show some color. This evening, she hoped the walk home would be pretty enough to wipe her mind clean of troubles.
And thinking of trouble, it had been avoided by only seconds. The instant that she closed the back door on Billy, Henry Broadhower stormed in, red-faced and breathing hard.
"Good day, Henry." Henry was close to thirty years old and already beginning to lose his hair. His round belly rose and fell with his breathing. "I said no to Billy, if that's what's got you riled."
"Would have got me riled, but looks like you've got some common sense, for a frilly girl."
She smiled at him because it was the easiest way to deal with the man. "What's wrong with a frilly girl? Sugar and spice makes for a more pleasant town, don't you whink."
"Having no Folsoms in it would make it a better place."
"Say what you came to, Henry," she said with a sigh. In her opinion the town would be better off without a Folsom or a Broadhower to spread animosity. Their feud had caused tension for as long as she could remember.
"I'd be pleased if you'd become my wife, Miss Holly Jane."
"I'm sorry, Henry, but no." Even a frilly girl set her hopes higher than marrying to settle a feud.
When the color began to rise in his face once more, she plucked a cake from the case, apples and cream by heavens, and set it in his hands.
"Give your family my regards," she said, walking to the front door. Henry passed through it, slump-shouldered and grumbling.
Mercy me! She plucked a square of chocolate from a display dish and popped it in her mouth. It melted over her tongue, sweet and smooth.
If the day presented one more proposal, she wouldn't make a single dollar.
"My word, isn't this a lovely town?" Sitting beside Colt on the buggy bench, Aunt Tillie patted his knee. "I believe this will be the home I've dreamed of all my life. See how the trees are begging to turn for the fall. I truly missed trees back at the Broken Brand."
His great-aunt was right. The green hill country of Texas looked like heaven compared to the desolate badlands of Nebraska.
"Friendship Springs," Grannie Rose read the sign announcing the name of the town. "I reckon it's full of friendly folks, don't you?"
Many of them would be friendly, but Colt knew that there was a feud dividing two of the old-time families and he was landing himself right in the middle of it.
"Hell, Grannie Rose," he said, "we'll be happy as three butterflies in a meadow."
"Colt Travers, what have I told you about that language?" Aunt Tillie swatted his hand where the reins lay lightly in his fingers.
"Don't use it." He winked at her and earned a frown, but it wasn't genuine. His great-aunt had doted on him from the moment he bawled his first lungful of air.
He'd try and be more careful with his language, but he'd worked the railroad for eleven years, dealing with rough men and stubborn locomotives, and his manners had turned coarse. The only thing guaranteed to bring on foul language quicker than a Travers relative was a damn, stubborn steam engine fighting his efforts to repair it.
Today, all that was behind him. He'd bought himself a ranch, sight unseen, just outside Friendship Springs. The seller had been a stranger who had become a friend over dinner and a beer. He never doubted the old man when he said the ranch looked like it had slipped through a hole in paradise and landed in Texas. It would provide wide green pastures for his horses and a snug home for the old ladies.
He wouldn't let the fact that his ranch was bordered by the two feuding familiesthe Folsoms to the west and the Broadhowers to the southbother him. He'd grown up with trouble most of his life.
"Lordy, will you look at that?" Aunt Tillie exclaimed, pointing toward Town Square.
Town Square was not a square but a circle with a clear bubbling spring at its center. It looked to be a gathering place, since it had benches and flowerpots all about. Pleasant-looking stores surrounded the square. He'd make sure to bring Grannie Rose and Aunt Tillie back here for some shopping and visiting with friendly folks. That's not something they had done in the past, being shut away at the Broken Brand most of their lives.
"There's a shop that says The Sweet Treat," Grannie Rose exclaimed, nearly trembling with excitement. "It's been an age since I had a sweet treat that I didn't make for myself and a dozen others."
"Past time you did, then, Grannie," Colt answered. A sweet treat sounded just the thing before he settled the women into the hotel for the evening. They could set off for the ranch in the morning, fresh and rested.
Had it only been him traveling, he'd have been settled at the ranch weeks ago, but the old women had required a gentler pace.
Three doors down from the sweet shop he drew the buggy horses up sharp when a rolling ruckus broke out in front of them.
Two men lunged at each other, poking with balled-up fists and kicking at each other's tender spot. Neither of the fools knew how to fight. They were just as likely to drown in the spring as to do the other in.
"Hand me my cane, Colt," Aunt Tillie ordered after the men careened into a flowerpot and sent the orange mums flying.
"Let them be. It's none of our concern Besides the fools will give it up before anyone's taken hard damage."
One man got the better of his enemy and pinned him to the ground. The fellow on top balled his fist, aimed for the grounded man's nose. Too bad for him that the combatant on the bottom turned his head. The balled fist slammed into dirt as hard as a rock.
A holler of pain shot about Friendship Spring's spring.
"Ain't no yellow-bellied, low-moraled Folsom going to wed Holly Jane," one of them shouted.
"Any Broadhower puts a ring on her finger's going to feel my bullet in his back!"
Colt grunted in disgust. With talk of a gun, things had taken a dangerous turn. Any rattlehead could kill from a distance.
Now, with the mention of Miss Holly Jane, things had suddenly become his business.
The only reason William Munroe had sold him the ranch was to keep his granddaughter from falling prey to the feud between the families. Had he left the land to the spinster, she would have become a pawn in the Folsoms' and the Broadhowers' lust for her property.
Through that prime ground flowed the river that fed water to the Folsom spread on the west and the Broadhower spread on the south.
Whoever controlled the water controlled their enemy.
Apparently, old William Munroe had been rightly worried about his granddaughter.