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Beneath a clear sky, the Montana plains rolled to the far horizon in an undulating sea of grass. This great, sprawling rangeland was broken by lonely buttes and wandering ravines. It was a huge, almost empty, always challenging land. Its vastness made the small man smaller and the big man king.
Where once the shaggy-maned buffalo had grazed, a herd of six hundred red-coated Hereford cattle was gathered in a pocket of the plains. Held in place by an encircling group of riders, they bawled their discontent. Into this milling confusion, cowboys working in pairs walked their horses into the herd to slowly and methodically cut out the crippled cattle -- dry cows, the cows with poor spring calves, and the odd steer that had escaped the previous autumn's roundup.
Webb Calder pointed the nose of his claybank stud at the cow to be separated from the herd, then sat deep and easy in the saddle to let the horse do its work. The stallion was the color of the yellow mountain cat from which it took its name, Cougar. The instant the cow was isolated, the claybank frustrated its every attempt to rejoin the herd -- getting low, coming around on a dime, and springing forward with the swiftness of a cat.
To the big-boned man in the saddle, the rangy stallion was a source of pride. He'd picked the horse out of a range-wild group of yearlings and earmarked it for his personal remuda. The breaking and training he'd done himself, turning the animal into the best cow horse on the spread. It was never something Webb Calder bragged about, and any compliment was met with the casually indifferent reply, "The claybank is good."
He had a philosophy that if you were the best, you didn't have to tell anybody -- and if you weren't, then you'd damned well better keep your mouth shut. He lived by it, and expected the others around him to live by it, too.
When he and the yellow horse had the cow separated from the herd, the cowboys moved in from the flanks to push the animal over the lip of the ground's pocket to where the cut of injured or inferior cattle were being held. Two more riders took his place to work the herd.
Riding back to the gather, Webb was joined by Nate Moore, who had worked the cut with him. The lank, weather-beaten rider was one of a small corps of cowboys who had their roots dug as deep into this Montana range as Webb Calder had. Yet, some invisible quality stamped Webb Calder as the cattle owner.
For this was Calder land as far to the south as the eye could see, and beyond. All the livestock, except strays from the bordering small ranches to the north, carried the Triple C brand of the Calder Cattle Company. It was the heritage left by the first Calder who pulled up stakes in Texas and drove his herd north in 1878 to find free grass. That ancestor, Chase Benteen Calder, had carved out an empire that was measured in square miles numbering nearly six hundred. He'd held it against warring bands of renegade Indians, homesteaders, and jealously ambitious neighboring ranchers. He'd paid for it with Calder blood, nourished it with his sweat and the bones of drought-stricken cattle, and buried the Calder dead under the Montana grass.
Of the score of cowboys who had made the drive with Chase Benteen Calder, most had drifted, but a few had stayed to build a new life in this raw land. These men formed the nucleus of the group of forerunners to Nate Moore, Virg Haskell's wife, Ruth, Slim Trumbo, Ike Willis, and a handful of others, born and raised on the Calder ranch, like Webb. Their loyalty was a deep-seeded thing, ingrained into their souls as surely as if they carried the Triple C brand.
This thread of continuity ran through each generation, tying them together. The old ones eventually gave way to young blood, bringing change without ever changing.
Cresting the rise of the untamed plain, Webb reined in his horse. Satisfaction ran easy through him as he surveyed the scene before him, the teamwork of all the riders working the herd with efficient, well-oiled precision. He liked it best when he could get out among them. Although he was there out of necessity, since his decision determined which was the poorer stock to be culled from this herd, the sheer pleasure of the work made him take part in the actual cutting of the cattle.
The pressures and responsibilities were enormous and endless for the man who owned a ranch as vast as this. New salesmen or cattle buyers often commented on its size, and Webb was fond of quipping dryly, "It takes a big chunk of ground to fit under a Calder sky." He didn't know how it ranked against other big ranches in the country, whether it was first, second, third, or far down on the list. If anyone asked him, he couldn't have answered and he didn't care enough to check. His only interests lay in making it prosper and keeping it intact for his son.
The responsibilities were heavy, but so was the power he wielded. Webb Calder believed himself to be a fair man. There were some who would say he was exacting. And still others would claim that he ruled with an iron hand. Resentment born out of envy and jealousy made him the object of hatred from a silent few. As far as Webb Calder was concerned, he had never raised his hand against a man without cause. When he acted, it was swift and with purpose. Indecision could eventually spell disaster for an outfit the size of the Triple C.
It was one of the things he'd tried to teach his son, Chase Calder, named after their Texan ancestor. There was more to running a ranch than keeping books, raising cattle, and going to the bank. But how do you teach a man to be a leader, to handle men?
Before Chase had taken his first step, Webb had set the baby boy on a saddle atop an old bellmare and wrapped the tiny fists around the saddle horn to take him on his first ride. By the time Chase was two, he was given the reins. When he was five, he went on his first roundup, tied to the saddle so he wouldn't fall off if he fell asleep.
Horses and cattle were part of living. Those things Chase learned by osmosis, unconsciously absorbing the knowledge into his system until it was second nature.
But it was the subtleties of command that Webb wanted him to learn. From the time the boy had understood his first sentence, Webb had tried to drum these things into his head, shaping and molding Chase to take over the ranch someday. He'd warned Chase that as his son, he would have to work longer, be smarter, and fight rougher than any man-jack out there. No favor would ever be granted him by Webb -- no concession would ever be made because Chase was a Calder. There would be no special privileges because he was the rancher's son. In fact, the reverse would be true. In his teens, Chase had the hardest jobs, the rankest horses, and the longest hours of any man on the place. Any problems were his to solve. If there was trouble, he had to be man enough to fight his way out of it, either with his fists or his wits. Chase couldn't come to his father and expect help. Webb pushed him as hard as he dared without breaking the boy's spirit.
Even as Webb Calder watched the two dozen horsemen at work, he unconsciously and instinctively kept an eye on his son. Chase was taller than the average cowboy, wide in the shoulders and solid in the chest, yet youthfully lean and supple with a rider's looseness about him. The sun had burned a layer of tan over hard and angular Calder features. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, he seemed older than twenty-two -- except when he smiled. Then he seemed careless and guileless. His son was still an unknown quantity to Webb. Maybe some might think he demanded too much, but he was firmly convinced it was the tough things that were good for a man.
The horse beside the claybank blew out a relaxed snort, making Webb shift his glance to Nate Moore. He was building a smoke and licked the paper with a stingy tongue. Without looking up, he spoke. "He's a good boy." He guessed the object of Webb's thoughts.
"Lil would be proud of him." Webb uttered his late wife's name and broke a silence that had lasted more than twenty years since her death. Time had erased the grief of his loss. Now the memory of her was another tradition.
It was something an outsider couldn't understand -- this lack of expression the true Western man showed when he lost a comrade or a loved one -- the failure to reveal keen sorrow. What a man felt was kept inside. The face an outsider saw looked cold and unemotional. Yet beneath the hard exteriors of these men, there was all the delicate sensitivity of a woman, hidden from view. Revealing it displayed weakness. This was a land where only the strong survived.
"Yes, she would," Nate spoke with the cigarette in his mouth and squinted his eyes at the pungent smoke curling from it. The expression deepened the sun-creased lines splaying from the corners of his eyes. Without turning his head, his attention shifted to the young cowboy, Buck Haskell, riding on the same side of the herd where Chase was. For apparently no reason, Buck had spun his sorrel horse to face the opposite direction and spurred it toward a slight gap between riders, reaching an invisible point the instant a cow attempted to break from the herd. Respect glinted in the older cowhand's eyes. "That Buckie has more cow sense than some cowboys three times his age," Nate declared. "And how he loves those rank broncs. The more contrary they are, the better he likes 'em."
Webb's mouth tightened. "Yeah, and he's always got his rope down. I've never caught him at it, but I know he does."
"Hell!" Nate chuckled. "Every young cowboy is going to sneak off and rope something now and then."
Webb conceded that with a lift of his heavy brows. "Buck is a likable boy, but I worry about that wild streak in him."
With curly blond hair, blue eyes, and a perpetual grin, Buck was Virg and Ruth Haskell's son, born two days before Chase. When Webb's wife, Lillian, didn't have enough milk to breast-feed Chase, Ruth had taken over as wetnurse. A year and a half later, after Lil had died, Ruth cooked and kept house for Webb. So Buck and Chase had been raised practically as brothers. It was natural that Webb took extra interest in Buck.
The hand-rolled cigarette never left Nate's mouth, but he managed to pull the corners into a dry smile. "You're forgettin', Webb. We were wilder than that when we were twenty-two."
He exchanged a wry glance with the cowboy. "Maybe so."
From the broken land to the north, a trio of riders approached the herd's gathering point. Webb centered his gaze on the short, wiry rider a half-stride in the lead. His face lost its expression, becoming heavyboned and hard.
"Who's that with O'Rourke?" He didn't take his eyes from the owner of the small, two-bit spread on a north strip of the Calder boundary.
Nate looked, his eyes narrowing less from the smoke and more from recognition. "His boy. The skinny one must be his girl." He had pulled the warmth from his voice, making it flat.
As he skimmed the pair riding with Angus O'Rourke, Webb inspected first the gangling eighteen-year-old boy with lank black hair sticking out from beneath his hat. The boy kept looking at his father, seeking some form of guidance. The girl was a small slip of a thing, looking more like a young boy than a girl. There was a glimpse of the slick, black sides of her hair beneath the hat, but Webb couldn't tell whether it was cut that short or pushed under the crown. Both the shirt and the Levi's appeared to be cast-offs of her brother's. Both were too large, making her look all the more skinny and shapeless. Except for the heavy fringe of lashes around her green eyes, there was nothing about the set of her features to distinguish her from an immature boy. There were spurs on the heels of her rundown boots, an old and cracked pair of leather gloves on her hands, and an ill-fitting jacket dwarfing her small frame. The sight of her rankled Webb.
"A girl shouldn't be doing a man's work," he muttered and turned his head to thrust his hard gaze at Nate. "You ride down there and tell the men to watch their language. If I hear so much as a 'goddamn' out of them with that girl around, there's going to be hell to pay when she leaves."
Nate pinched the fire off the end of his cigarette, letting the ember fall into the cuff of his denims, where it was crushed dead. The unsmoked portion of the cigarette was tucked away in his pocket as he reined his mount toward the cowboys working the herd.
Webb watched him leave. The modern world may have advanced into the space age with computers and high technology, but there were sections of the West where time had changed very little. Everything was more mechanized, but most of the work was still done on horseback.
The old codes lingered. Women were scarce and treated with respect until they showed they didn't deserve it. A man settled his own problems; he didn't take them to someone else. It wasn't hard to understand when put in perspective. In the case of the Triple C, there was a thirty-five-mile-long driveway before you reached the front porch of the main house. A respectable-sized town of more than a population of one hundred could be a hundred miles away, and more.
The Calder ranch sat on an area of land larger than the state of Rhode Island. With the kind of power that gave Webb Calder, he was virtually his own law, answerable to almost no one but God Almighty. Wisely, he never tried to ride roughshod over anyone else, only now and then letting his authority be felt. He turned a blind eye to the dirt-farming Andersen family trying to eke out a living on a half-section of ground on his east boundary. Webb knew they butchered a steer or two of his each year, but he wouldn't see women and children go hungry. But God help the man who lifted his hand against the Triple C for his own gain.
His gaze narrowed in silent speculation on Angus O'Rourke, who was riding toward him. The man spent too much time dreaming and found too many excuses for why he couldn't succeed. O'Rourke was a weak man, always wanting the easy way. There wasn't any place for that kind in this country. Sooner or later they were weeded out.
The hard, fixed stare from Calder made Angus uncomfortable. How he'd love to ride up and spit in the man's eye. He licked his dry lips nervously, telling himself that the day would come when he wouldn't have to kowtow to the likes of Webb Calder. But the assurance was old and rang hollow in his mind. He'd been a dark, handsome man once, with glib Irish charm, but lines of dissipation were beginning to take away his looks, and people no longer believed in his grandiose plans for the future, having heard too many in the past that came to naught.
"If he asks us anything, what should we say?" The anxiously whispered question came from his son.
Angus didn't turn his head or look around to answer. "Don't say anything. I'll do the talking."
"I told you we should have hazed those thirty head back across the fence last week, Pa," the girl stated calmly.
"And I told you they needed a few more days of good grass, Maggie!" The argument had already been hashed over several times. "Those cows just strayed, that's all. And we're just here to cut out our strays, like we always do."
He reined his horse down to a walk to cross the last few yards to Webb Calder, stopping at a right angle to him. Flashing the man one of his patented smiles, he respectfully touched a finger to the pointed brim of his Stetson.
"Good morning, Mr. Calder." Angus O'Rourke sounded deliberately cheerful and carefree.
"Angus." The stone-faced man with the hard eyes simply nodded in response to the greeting.
Irritation rippled through Angus. He was angry with himself for not calling Calder by his first name, and putting them on equal terms. The man had a way of making him feel worthless and a failure. Hell, he was a rancher, too, the same as Calder...in his mind. But Angus hid his bitterness well.
"It's a fine day, isn't it?" he remarked with a broad, encompassing sweep of the clear sky. "It's mornings like this that make you forget the long winter behind you. 'Me meadowlarks out there singing away. Wildflowers are sprouting up all over, and those little white-faced calves all shiny and new." It was a few seconds before he realized his prattle was making no impression on Webb Calder. Again, Angus checked his angry pride and hid it behind a smile. "You remember my son, Culley, and my daughter, Maggie."
Webb Calder acknowledged the boy's presence with a nod. The black-haired boy paled under the look and mumbled a stiff, "Morning, sir." Then Calder looked at the girl.
"Shouldn't you be in school, Maggie?" It was a question that held disapproval.
Actually, her name wasn't Maggie. It was Mary Frances Elizabeth O'Rourke, the same as that of her mother, who had died four years ago. But having two women in the family with the same name had been too confusing. Somewhere along the line, her father had started calling her Maggie, and it had stuck.
She shrugged a shoulder at the question. "My pa needed me today," she explained.
The truth was she missed more days of school than she attended. In the spring and fall, her father claimed he needed her to help on the ranch. Maggie had grown to realize that he was too lazy to work as long and as hard as he would have to by himself. The ranch was such a shoestring operation that they couldn't afford to hire help, so her father took advantage of her free labor.
During the winter, the tractor was broken down half the time, which meant they didn't have a snow blade to clear the five-mile drive to the road where she could catch the school bus. When her mother was alive, she'd saddled the horses and ridden with Culley and Maggie to the road on those occasions, then met them with the horses when the bus brought them back in the afternoon. But it was always too cold and too much trouble for her father.
Maggie no longer missed going to school. She had outgrown her clothes and had little to wear, except blue jeans and Culley's old shirts. At fifteen, nearly sixteen, she was very conscious of her appearance. She had tried altering some of her mother's clothes to fit her, but the results had been poor at best. None of her classmates had actually ridiculed the way she dressed, but Maggie had seen their looks of pity. With all her pride, that had been enough to prompt her into accepting the excuses her father found for her to stay home.
Her mother had been adamant that both of her children receive an education. It was something Maggie remembered vividly, because it was one of the few issues that the otherwise meek woman wouldn't be swayed from, not by her husband's anger or his winning charm. So Maggie kept her schoolbooks at home and studied on her own, determined not to fail her mother in this, as her father had failed her so often.
The disapproval that was in Webb Calder's look just reinforced her determination to keep studying. Maggie made no excuses for what her father was -- a weak-willed man filled with empty promises and empty dreams. All the money in the world wouldn't make her father into the strong man Webb Calder was. It was a hard and bitter thing to recognize about your own father. And Maggie resented Webb Calder for presenting such a stark example of what her father could never be.
Realizing the conversation was going nowhere, Angus O'Rourke turned his gaze to the herd gathered in the hollow of the plains. His face took on the expression of one reluctant to leave good company but had work to be done.
"Well, I see a Shamrock brand or two in the herd." He collected the reins to back his horse before turning it toward the cattle. "I'll just cut out my few strays and head them back to their own side of the fence."
"I'll have one of my boys help you." Webb started to raise a hand to signal one of his men.
"We can manage," Maggie inserted. They may be poor, but she wasn't short on pride. She'd been taught by her mother never to accept favors unless she could return them someday, and it was ludicrous to think a Calder would ever need a favor from them.
Webb Calder's hand remained poised midway in the air while he looked silently at her father for confirmation that they wanted no help. "The three of us can handle it," her father stated to back up her claim, although he would have readily accepted the offer if she hadn't spoken up.
The hand came down to rest on the saddlehorn. "As you wish, Angus."
As he turned his horse, Angus flashed Maggie a black look and rode toward the herd. She and Culley trailed after him. Feeling the Triple C riders looking at them, Maggie sat straighter in the saddle, conscious of their overall shabby appearance, from their clothes to their ragged saddle blankets.
From the far side of the herd, Chase watched the motley trio of riders approach. Nate Moore had already passed the old man's orders around, so he knew one of the three riders was female. Buck let his horse sidle closer to Chase.
"How do you tell which one's the girl?" Buck's low voice was riddled with biting mockery.
"It must be the small one." Chase let a smile drift across his face. "She's supposed to be the youngest."
"She's young, all right," Buck agreed dryly. "I like my women with a little more age on 'em and more meat on their bones. Crenshaw was telling me this morning that Jake Loman has him a new blonde 'niece' working in his bar."
"That right?" Chase murmured, aware, as everyone was, that Jake's "nieces" were prostitutes. "That man does have a big family, doesn't he?"
Buck grinned. "When this roundup is over, you and me are going to have to check her out. She might know some new tricks of the trade."
"Another week of looking at these cattle, and I'll be satisfied if all the new girl knows is the old tricks," Chase replied and turned his horse to head off an errant cow, succeeding in changing its mind about leaving the herd.
By then, Buck had returned to his former position several yards ahead of Chase. And there was no purpose in trying to resume that particular conversation. The O'Rourke family worked the herd to cut out their strays, while Chase and the other riders kept the cattle loosely bunched.
Copyright © 1981 by Janet Dailey