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Pecos County, Texas, 1881
Jedediah McCarrick was dead.
Heath rode carefully around the body sprawled at the bottom of the draw, gentling Apache with a quiet word. The horse was right to be scared. Jed hadn't been dead more than a few days, and the scent of decay was overwhelming.
An accident. That was the way it looked, anyhow. Half Jed's skull was bashed in, and his legs stuck out at strange angles. The rocks were sharp around here, and plentiful.
But Jed was a damn good rider. You had to be, in the Pecos, so far from civilization. The old man had been on his way home, just as his letter had said. He would have let go the cowboys he'd hired for the drive once it was finished, and he didn't trust many people. He would have risked riding alone rather than let some stranger get close to his hard-earned money.
That was his mistake.
Heath dismounted and scanned the horizon. Jed's horse was gone, so there was no way to be sure exactly how it had happened. Maybe something had spooked the animal: a rattler, a rabbit, a gust of wind. Heath couldn't smell anything but the stink of rot, no trace of another human who might have been around when Jed died. Any hoofprints or tracks had been blown away. If some drifter or outlaw had helped Jed to his grave and taken his horse, he was long gone.
I should have been with him, Heath thought. But Jed hadn't wanted him along.
The old man hadn't acted like the others when he found out, when Heath was stupid enough to forget all the hard lessons he'd learned. Jed wasn't easily scared. He hadn't yelled or run away or tried to shoot him. He'd pretended it didn't matter, that Heath was still like a son to him.
But Heath had known Jed was lying. He knew what he saw in the old man's eyes. Jed had understood that Heath would never hurt him, but he was still human. The only reason he'd kept so calm and reasonable was that he needed Heath at the ranch to keep Sean in check. He'd been willing to use Heath's secret for his own ends—until Sean was no longer a problem and he could run Heath off like the animal he was.
Heath laughed. It was almost funny that Jed was more worried about his nephew than a man who wasn't even human. The devil knew why Heath had stayed on. He supposed that three years of friendship, of letting himself trust the man who'd saved his life, had held him at Dog Creek. That and his contempt for Sean. He'd owed Jed, and he had meant to pay off the debt. But Heath had been ready to ride out as soon as Jed returned and could deal with Sean himself. That would have been the end of it.
He just hadn't expected this kind of end.
Apache snorted and tossed his head. "Easy, boy," Heath murmured, and knelt beside the body. He touched the bloody depression beneath Jed's thinning hair. The old man had probably died quickly. No sign of knife or gunshot wounds.
Closing his nostrils against the stench, Heath patted Jed's waist and pockets. Nothing. If he'd brought the money back with him, he would have carried it in the saddlebags. Everything he'd received for the sale of fifty percent of Dog Creek's beeves, driven north to Kansas and the rail lines.
Before he'd left, before Heath had made his big mistake, Jed had expected to make a good profit. Enough to buy better stock, make Dog Creek grow into a concern that could compete with Blackwater on its own terms. No more risky investments that brought Dog Creek to the brink of ruin. No more wild ideas. No more foolish dreams.
And no more free money for the worthless peacock of a nephew who thought he could bend Jed around his saddle horn like a twist of rope.
Heath's lips curled away from his teeth. Sean had been Jed's one weakness. It had taken the old man a long time to realize Sean didn't care for anyone but himself. If Jed had lived, he would finally have shown his nephew that he wasn't going to be led around by the nose anymore.
But Jed had waited too long. Once everyone found out the old man was dead and Sean got his hands on Dog Creek, he would sell it to the Blackwells. All Jed's hard years of work gone for nothing.
The wind shifted, momentarily clearing away the stench and the raw feelings Heath couldn't seem to kill. He caught a whiff of a new scent. Old leather and horse sweat, not Apache's. He sucked in a deep breath and followed the smell to the base of the stony hillside that rose up from one side of the draw.
The saddlebags had been thrown far enough back under the rocky overhang that an ordinary man might never have found them. Heath crouched and dragged them into the light. They were full to bursting. He didn't have to open the flaps to know what they contained.
Someone had put the saddlebags here. An outlaw would have taken them just like he would have taken Jed's horse. Had Jed seen someone he didn't know, gotten nervous and decided to hide the bags before he died?
Heath stood up, a knot in his belly. Maybe Jed's death had still been an accident, and the old man had lived just long enough to try to keep the money out of the hands of any stranger who might run across him.
But there'd been another accident some years back, a trail boss who'd gotten his neck broken when Heath—who'd been using his own name then—was there to see it. Only, no one else had. And someone had figured out that he wasn't who he claimed to be, a simple cowhand looking for work wherever he could get it.
Heath had never before been taken by the law despite all his years outside it. There'd been a jail cell and the endless wait for a trial, his fate settled before he ever stood in front of a judge. But they hadn't reckoned on a prisoner who was stronger and faster than any normal man. After he broke out, they'd added another crime to his tally.
Heath tilted his face toward the sky and closed his eyes. If he'd been a normal man, he might have done the right thing and ridden to Heywood for the marshal. No one else in this part of West Texas knew what he could become. The money was still here. There was no reason for anyone to think he'd killed Jed. Even if someone remembered that other death hundreds of miles from the Pecos, no one had recognized him in three years, or made any connection between "Holden Renshaw" and Heath Renier.
But if there was a chance, even one in a million, that someone could put those facts together…
Not even a loup-garou could hang more than once. Heath had been ready to die plenty of times, even when the wolf inside him kept on fighting to keep him alive. But he could never go back to that cell, those bars, the man-made hell that left him alone in his human body, trapped by memories and feelings he'd outrun for so long. Remembering that the one man he'd let himself trust in nearly ten years had been just like the rest.
Apache nickered, feeling Heath's anxiety. Heath calmed himself down and opened one of the saddlebags. A heavy bag of coins was neatly packed inside. Heath didn't touch it. The other pouch held more coins. And something else. A bundle of small folded sheets, bound together with a bit of frayed ribbon, and a roll of leather tied up with a cord.
Thick paper crackled as Heath unrolled the leather. There were three sheets inside, dense with writing. He smoothed out the first across his knees.
Reading had never been one of his best skills, but he knew what he was holding. As he picked his way down the paper, the knot in his belly squeezed so he could hardly breathe.
The will left almost everything to him. The ranch, the proceeds from the sale—and money Heath hadn't known Jed possessed, locked away in a bank in Kansas City. Money that made Jed a wealthy man.
Maybe Jed had been hiding that money from Sean, or from people he owed. Heath didn't know what had been going on in Jed's mind. He sure as hell hadn't known about any will giving him Dog Creek.
Not that it mattered now. Someone had drawn a dark line all the way across it from corner to corner and blacked out the signature at the bottom of the page.
Hands shaking like a boy in his first gunfight, Heath unrolled the other two sheets. The second was a will leaving everything to Sean, dated two years ago. It, too, was crossed out.
The third will wasn't signed or dated. The name at the top meant nothing to him.
He picked up the smaller bundle of papers and lifted it to his nose. It smelled like Jed. And someone he'd never met.
Heath untied the ribbon, and one of the folded sheets fell into the dirt. The letter had been sent from Ohio. The paper was browned, the edges bent as if someone had read it over and over again.
When Heath was finished with it, he put it back with the other letters, rolled up the second and third wills in their leather sheath and set it on the ground. His heart was rattling around in his chest like brush tossed by the wind. He missed his first try at striking a spark; the second time he got it right, and nursed the tiny flame until it was just big enough to burn a sheet of paper. He watched the first will catch and smolder until there was nothing left of it but ash.
The leather sheath rolled sideways in the wind, and Heath picked it up. He was beginning to lose whatever sense he had left. Burning the will didn't solve his problem. Jed hadn't been much good with accounts and paperwork, but Heath couldn't be sure that the ones he had were the only copies. The last unsigned will and what it contained could make it look as if Heath had a motive to kill his boss before Jed finished it. Before Jed went through with the crazy thing he'd planned.
But it didn't make any difference if there were other copies of the will somewhere. Jed's decision made it easier for Heath to be sure of his own. The old man had lied to Heath in more ways than one. Even if Heath hadn't revealed himself, Jed would have ruined everything by bringing a woman to Dog Creek.
Any debt Heath had to the old man had been paid with hard work and loyalty. The woman Jed had planned to marry meant nothing to Heath, and he didn't owe anything to most of the hands, who'd never much liked him anyway. Maurice was too good a cook not to find a place at some other outfit.
He would feel a little bad about leaving Joey, but he had some money he could give the boy before he lit out.
That was his last obligation. Sean could claim the ranch and sell it to the Blackwells, will or no will, and Heath wouldn't try to stop him.
He pushed the sheath and the bundle of letters back inside Jed's saddlebags, carried them over the hill and stripped out of his clothes. The Change was complete in a painless instant. The world came sharply into focus, every scent, every sound crisp as a December morning. He'd know if any human came within ten miles of the place.
Shaking out his fur, Heath picked out a likely spot and set about the task at hand. When the hole was wide and deep enough, he seized the saddlebags in his jaws and dropped them in. He covered the hole, scraping at the dirt with his powerful hind legs. Only when he was finished did he Change again and look over his work.
It was good. The ground was already rough, and a few tossed pebbles made the spot look just like everything else around it. No human would be able to find it.
Heath put on his clothes, secured his gun belt and returned to Apache, who sniffed at him and snorted. Heath mounted and urged the gelding out of the draw. The money could have been useful, but he didn't want anything else from Jed. The old man could lie easy knowing he would keep something of what he'd earned.
A jackrabbit burst from the cover of a dead mesquite and bounded away. A cottontop cried from the brush. Heath felt the wide-open land all around him, beckoning.
One last trip to the house, and he would shake the dust of the Pecos off his boots forever.
"Adi s, Jed," he said, touching the brim of his hat.
For the first time in three years, Jedediah McCarrick didn't answer.
Someone s comin to Dog Creek.
Sean could still hear Jed's voice as he guided Ulysses down the steep slope of the draw. "She'll be makin' things different here" the old man had said. "With her and the money I got from the sale, I'm goin' to make Dog Creek what it ought to be. No more debt, Sean. No more money wasted on your gamblin' and them bad ideas you talked me into."
Only it hadn't quite gone as Jed had planned. The coyotes and buzzards had done such a good job that Jed was already unrecognizable. Only his clothes and his gold tooth would identify him now.
Sean kept his distance and began looking for the saddlebags. He searched under every rock and bush, scraped at every rough spot in the dirt, circled the area in every direction until he knew he had to stop if he wanted to get back before the sun rose.
Cursing, Sean gripped the carved ivory handle of his gun and wished he had something to shoot. For the dozenth time he went over the encounter in his mind, searching for a clue, a hint of what Jed had been thinking when he'd hidden his money.
The old man had surprised Sean when he'd sent the letter asking his nephew to meet him at the western border of the ranch. Jed had made sure to arrive on the very day he'd promised. He'd planned it all carefully, just so he could give Sean the news.
Sean closed his eyes and leaned over the saddle horn. The first words had been a shock. He'd always had what he wanted from the old man before. The allowance, the education back East…everything but the life he deserved. The life Jed owed him. The life he could have when he sold Dog Creek to the Blackwells.