Roberta Tryon wasn't sure what woke her. It wasn't a sound so much as a feeling there was a sound she ought to have heard. Yet the night was still, soundless-so quiet she could hear her father's snoring at the other end of the house. She attempted to go back to sleep. She turned on her left side, but it wasn't long before she shifted to her right. Instead of feeling sleepy, it made her more awake. She couldn't shake the nagging feeling something was wrong.
In frustration, she got out of bed and looked out the window. The night was overcast with clouds hiding the crescent moon. She could barely make out the silhouette of the trees that grew alongside the creek that flowed through their farm, the creek that carried water the ranchers depended on. Some distance away-too far for the sound to carry-water tumbled over the dam her father had built. After the ranchers blew up the first one, her father retaliated by building an even bigger one.
She hated the strain between ranchers and anyone who attempted to farm more than an acre of ground. The ranchers admired someone like Nate Dolan, a handsome young man rich enough to buy the largest ranch in the county, yet filled with such hatred he spent most of his time searching for the man he said was responsible for his brother's death. It was no secret that Nate intended to kill Laveau diViere if he could. Apparently he didn't care that meant he'd hang. Stupid. Idiotic. Typically Texan.
But she didn't want to think about Nate Dolan, the dam, the farm, or the ranchers. She was tired and needed to sleep. She turned back and crawled into bed. She'd hardly adjusted the blankets when her father stuck his head through the doorway.
"There's somebody outside," he whispered.
She threw back the covers and slid her feet into her slippers. "What are they doing?"
"I don't know, but I expect it's one of those fool ranchers nosing around to see what damage he can do. I'm going to put a stop to it. Stay here."
She wanted to go with him, but she'd never used a rifle, shotgun, or pistol. And no Texan who called himself a man paid any attention to a woman.
"Don't light the lamp," her father warned when she followed him to the kitchen. "I don't want them to know I'm on to 'em."
A premonition of danger gripped Roberta. "Don't go." A light flickering through the window warned of something else. "I think they've set fire to the barn."
Muttering a string of curses, her father strapped on a holster carrying a single pistol. Then he grabbed his shotgun from the shelf and stuffed the pockets of his robe with shells. "I'll teach the sons of bitches to try to burn my barn," he swore.
Deaf to all her pleas that he stay in the house, he disappeared through the doorway.
She had never felt so helpless in her life. She had spent her first fourteen years in Virginia, where people didn't blow up dams or consider slinging on a gun an essential part of getting dressed. Shotguns in Virginia were used for birds and squirrels, rifles for deer and wild hogs. Horses pulled wagons. Cows were docile and milked twice a day. Men came home for supper rather than spend their evenings drinking and gambling. Women cooked and cared for their families. They didn't ride horses or use firearms. Even after five years in her new home, Texas was an alien universe.
Two shots in quick succession changed the direction of her thoughts. She rushed to the window, but the cloud cover was so heavy she couldn't see her father or anyone else. After trying a second window without success, she ran to the door and wrenched it open.
The blackness of night closed around her like a blanket thrown over her head. Shouts, occasional gunfire, and the grunts of horses came at her out of the murky shadows. Fear followed quickly on their heels. She heard her father calling the invaders cowards, bastards, scum of the earth. Blasts from his shotgun accompanied his insults. The bark of answering rifles was accompanied by curses that amazed Roberta by their variety and inventiveness.
The fire blazed higher. She could see silhouettes of several hooded figures stoking the flames until they engulfed the whole side of the barn. Others rode their horses through her father's fields, destroying the crops. Her father barreled forward into this melee, a feeble force against so many. She called him to come back but had no expectation he could hear her, or that he would heed her if he did. He thrived on opposition. It didn't matter that he was badly outnumbered. That only made him more determined.
Unable to stand around doing nothing, Roberta went inside and straight for the rifle her father had hung on pegs in the wall. She'd never handled a rifle before, but all she had to do was pull the trigger. Even a useless female could manage that.
Yet after she'd returned to the doorway, she couldn't decide what to do. Even if she could overcome her natural repugnance at the thought of killing anyone, the men at the barn and in the fields were too far away. Shooting at them would mostly likely draw fire in her direction. Still, she couldn't go back in the house. She couldn't just watch, while everything her father had built during the last five years was destroyed.
Deciding to stand alongside him, she headed toward the spot where he'd plunged into a potato field. She was only halfway there when she heard a howl of pain.
"You damned son of a bitch!" someone shouted. "You shot me."
He sounded surprised. Surely he couldn't have thought her father would fire into the air in a futile attempt to scare him off. Not even a Texas cowboy could be that dumb!
There was just enough light for her to see the man take a shot at her father. It missed. The rider cursed and fired another shot that missed.
"Get back doing what you're supposed to do."
The raspy voice-clearly in the habit of giving commands-sounded vaguely familiar. Roberta looked around to see where it had come from, but it was too dark, there were too many people, and everyone was in constant motion. She turned back to find her father running toward the barn. A break in clouds allowed enough light for her to see that several hooded riders had trampled much of the field. She was tempted to shoot the first person she got close to.
A lasso spun out of the darkness and settled over her father. A second lasso pinned his arms to his sides. Keeping her father immobile between them, the riders forced him to watch as they drove his livestock from the barn. Driven by their inherent fear of fire, the mules quickly disappeared into the night, but the pigs milled around senselessly, allowing the hooded figures to make a game of shooting at them. Fortunately, someone opened the gate to their pen, and the survivors of the massacre fled into the night. The squeals of the wounded animals formed a piteous backdrop to the attack. Despite her rage at the brutal shooting of helpless animals, Roberta was relieved when the last wounded pig was put out of its misery. Intent on further destruction, a rider pulled down the chicken coop, sending the squawking hens flapping into the darkness. Her father could do nothing but watch helplessly as five years of work was systematically devastated.
A hooded rider who had watched until now rode up to one of the men holding a lasso. At a signal, both riders let their ropes go slack. At that moment, the late arrival drew his gun and shot her father in the chest. Then he calmly turned and rode away as her father staggered a few steps before slumping to the ground.
For a moment, Roberta's mind went blank. When she next became aware of her surroundings, she was bending over her father, calling his name, begging someone to help get him to a doctor. But there was no one left to hear her.
Ripping a strip from her nightgown, Roberta struggled to stanch the flow of blood, but the bullet had pierced her father's lung. When he tried to speak, he choked on his own blood. She could do nothing but cradle him while, bathed by her tears, he died in her arms.
Driven beyond reason by the horrific events, she reached for the gun in her father's holster. Whirling around at the sound of an approaching horse, she didn't care that the man wasn't wearing a mask, or that he was coming from the direction of town. Blinded by tears and in the grip of helpless rage, she fired in his direction. Certain she had missed, and beyond caring if she had, she flung the gun aside, and covered her father's body with her own.
Roberta didn't know how long she lay there before the shock began to wear off. At first she was aware only of the silence. After the horror of the last minutes, it seemed enormous, unending, as though she was the only person left on earth. Gradually a mixture of sounds penetrated her consciousness. Voices. Hooves. Wagons. Running footsteps. They must have seen the fire from town.
"Grab a bucket," someone shouted. "There's a water tank behind the barn."
Roberta knew there weren't enough buckets and not enough water to put out the fire.
More and more people arrived, all moving around her, shouting instructions, asking questions, wondering who had led the attack and why. The thunder of an explosion in the distance brought the activity to a halt.
"Clear out!" a man shouted. "They just blew up the dam."
Someone took hold of Roberta's shoulder and tried to lift her to her feet, but she clung to her father's body.
"You've got to move," a gentle female voice urged. "People say there's a lot of water behind that dam."
Roberta knew there was no need to panic. A relatively small hole in the middle would achieve the same effect as blowing up the whole dam, and it wouldn't endanger anyone. Still, she allowed herself to be brought to her feet. She was too grief-stricken to pay attention to the arms that enveloped her or to attempt to identify the men who carried her father's body toward the house.
"Lay him in his bed."
Roberta recognized the voice of Boone Riggins, a man who asked her to marry him at least once a month. She had refused his offers, but now his was a friendly face in this night of unbelievable horror. With an anguished cry, she flung herself at him and burst into tears. Even though she couldn't stop crying long enough to put together a coherent sentence, she poured out everything that had happened. When she finally stopped, her body was racked by painful hiccups.
"Here, drink this." The gentle female voice.
Roberta grasped a dipper in two hands, brought it to her mouth, and drank. After she'd drained the dipper, she took a deep, steadying breath. Then, for the first time since she had seen her father fall, she was able to take note of her surroundings. The room was full of people, half of whom she didn't recognize, all facing her, waiting for her response.
"Thank you for taking care of my father. I would never have been able to move him by myself."
"Who did this?"
"Did you recognize anybody?"
Questions were thrown at her from every corner of the room until they sank of their own weight.
"I don't know who did this," she managed to say. "They all wore hoods, but the killing of my father was deliberate. They held him between two ropes and forced him to watch while they tried to destroy everything he'd built. Then a man who seemed to be the leader shot him."
"Who blew a hole in the dam?"
She whipped around to face a middle-aged man standing in the doorway. "Where have you been the last four years?" Roberta cried. "The ranchers have done everything they could to run us out ever since my father built that second dam."
"Threats are one thing, but killing a man..." Sheriff Bryce Kelly entered the house. "I don't know a single rancher in the county who'd do such a thing."
"Well, somebody did it," Roberta said. "Who else would have a reason?"
"It could have been strangers," someone suggested.
"Strangers would have looted the place. Those men didn't take anything."
"What are you going to do now?" the sheriff asked.
Roberta hadn't had time to think about that, but once the question had been asked, she knew the answer. "I'm going to put this farm back together. I'm going to see that the man who killed my father hangs. Then I'm moving back to Virginia."
"You can't run this farm by yourself," the sheriff said.
"You're a woman."
Roberta didn't have the energy to say half the things that sprang to mind. "I'll worry about that after I bury my father."
An awkward silence followed. Roberta was thankful for the concern of the people gathered in the room, but she needed to be alone.
A soot-streaked man came to the door. "The fire's out, but there's not much of the barn left. When we ran out of water, we just threw dirt on it. Worked better than we expected." He moved aside to let the town doctor come in.
"I need a bed," the doctor said to Roberta. "I've got a man out here who's badly wounded."
"Who?" Bryce asked.