Blanco County, Texas
After only a few hours of sleep, Jessi Rose Clayton was roughly awakened by her father. "Jessi Rose, wake up! Stampede!"
It was one of the most dreaded words in cattle ranching, and Jessi didn't need to hear it twice. Jumping out of bed while her father went off to rouse the others, the dark-skinned woman threw off her nightgown and pulled on her shirt, denims, and boots. Only then did she hear the storm. Outside the wind howled and the rain pelted the roof so hard it could've been rocks falling instead. The answering roll of thunder echoed ominously as Jessi ran down the hall to grab her slicker and hat from the peg by the door. She slammed the hat down on top of her short cropped hair and tied the strings tight.
Out on the porch, the wind blew with such tremendous force, it momentarily robbed her of her breath. Someone was calling her name. Peering through the downpour she spied Jeter Lewis, one of the ranch hands. He was mounted and holding the reins of her horse, Snake Eyes. Racing to join him, she mounted quickly, then galloped off fast in Jeter's wake. The wet wind whipped at her fiercely. It was coming down so hard and the night was so black she couldn't see her horse's head.
She could hear the cows off in the distance, though. Steers didn't like storms, and this one looked to be one of the worst of the season. A flash of lightning momentarily turned the rain-filled night into an eerie day, giving her just the briefest glimpse of the fast-riding hands, the cows, and the chaos. The din of screaming steers, men shouting, and guns shooting competed with the noises of thestorm. Jessi raced Snake Eyes up and down the edges of the fray, yelling and firing her pistol in the air. She and the others had to keep the herd from spreading out. She looked around for her father. He and Jeter were riding hard to the front of the line in an effort to turn the 500 storm-maddened steers back toward the open range and away from the house. If it stopped raining, the herd would eventually settle down, but if the storm didn't pass quickly, they could be in for a long night. As she continued her ride, yelling and shooting, she hoped her nine-year-old nephew, Jotham, hadn't decided to join in. A stampede was no place for a child.
Just then a particularly bright flash of lightning showed her father, Dexter, falling from his horse. "No!" she screamed, as she watched him disappear into the blackness of the stampeding herd. Fearing for his life, she spurred Snake Eyes forward, plunging into the lightning lit chaos of riders and fast-moving longhorns to get to his side. Thunder shook the ground and the flashes of lightning again turned night into day. She screamed for help from the hands as she rode but doubted anyone could hear her over the din.
When she finally reached the place where she thought he'd gone down, her years in the saddle showed in how quickly she dismounted. The downpour and the darkness made it difficult to spot him at first, but seconds later she was dragging him free of the stampede and kneeling in the mud by his side. Cold fear mixed with the cold rain, as she gently raised his head and pillowed him against her body. "Pa?"
A flash of lightning showed her that his eyes were closed. "Pa!"
She shook him gently. "Pa!"
"Jessi Rose?" His once booming voice could barely be heard.
She leaned down, trying to shelter him from the rain and to hear him. "I'm here, Pa. Are you okay, anything broken?"
"Damn coward bastards shot me in the back."
Her eyes widened. "What? Who?"
"One of Darcy's men. Clem Davis. Saw him over my shoulder in the lightning flash just as he was aiming."
She quickly scanned the night, but saw no one. "Hold on, Pa! We'll get the doc!"
"Too late," he whispered. He grabbed hold of Jessi's arm with all the strength he had remaining and said fiercely, "Don't give in. Don't let that bastard Darcy take the land."
Her fears rising, she vowed, "I won't, Pa." He was talking like he was going to die.
Frantically she looked around. He needed help. "Just hold on."
She and her father were now on the outskirts of the herd. Gunshots pierced the air as the expertly riding hands increased their efforts to end the stampede. As the rain continued to pour down, she screamed for someone to go for the doc.
The funeral was held the next day. Dexter Clayton was laid to rest deep in the soil of his own land. Only a few people came by to pay their respects, the others were too afraid. Reed Darcy's terror-filled campaign to take over all the land in their small comer of the county had resulted in burnings, beatings, and the deaths of anyone who stood in his way. He wanted to sell the land to the railroad just to feed his own greed.
The day after the funeral, Jessi rode the forty minutes into the small Black township of Vale. Filled with anger and grief over her father's murder, she ignored the curious looks of the folks who watched and whispered behind their hands about her as she passed. She raised her chin defiantly in response to the women who crossed the street rather than share the planked walk. Jessi's past association with the deadly outlaw known as Calico Bob made her a pariah here in the township. The citizens didn't care for her any more than she cared for them.
When she entered the sheriff's small office, the lawman Casper Hatcher, seated at his desk, looked up warily. "Afternoon, Jessi, what can I do for you?"
"Cap, I want an investigation into my father's death."
The aging and graying Hatcher went back to his paperwork. "Nothing to investigate."
"What do you mean, nothing to investigate? He was murdered...