"A feisty heroine and a hero eager to make everything right. What more could a reader want?"Leigh Greenwood, USA Today bestselling author of To Love and to Cherish
First in a historical Western series set in the sweeping 1885 Arizona Territory, Maria is in for the fight of her life keeping a greedy corporate conglomerate off her land and drifter cowboy Chet out of her heart.
Caught between a greedy corporation and a desperate love of the land, Maria Porterfield barely has time to mourn her father's death. If her family is to survive, it'll be up to her to take chargebut she can't do it alone. When a mysterious drifter rides into town, the handsome cowboy seems like an answer to her prayers. But Chet isn't interested in settling down, no matter how tempting the offer...
Chet made his way West looking for a fresh startthe last thing he wants is to get involved in someone else's fight. But something about Maria awakens a powerful need to protect the fierce beauty at all costs. He never thought he'd find love, but as danger presses in, he may find there's more beyond the next horizon than just another long and dusty trail.
Where the Trail Ends Series:
Last Chance Cowboys: The Drifter (Book 1)
Last Chance Cowboys: The Lawman (Book 2)
Last Chance Cowboys: The Outlaw (Book 3)
Last Chance Cowboys: The Rancher (Book 4)
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Arizona Territory, June 1882
Chet Hunter tugged on his horse's reins as he paused on a flat mesa and studied the terrain below. His dog, Cracker, glanced up at him. Their journey had already taken them hundreds of miles from Florida, traveling across territory that was a far cry from the tropics they'd left behind. He eased a speck of the never-ending dust from his eye with the knuckles of one hand and surveyed his surroundings.
Below was a river, a cluster of trees-most likely cottonwoods-some scrubby mesquite, and miles of open grassland as far as he could see. The river was low, but that was the only clear evidence of the drought that had followed him from West Texas and into the semi-arid landscape of New Mexico and Arizona. For days, he'd picked his way through open range that had been overgrazed until the grass he'd been told could grow as high as seven feet was little more than stubble. He'd crossed dried-up creek beds and rivers with waters that barely reached his boot tips. The scene below looked about as close to paradise as he ever thought he'd see in this part of the country.
Maybe it was one of those mirages he'd heard about. From what he'd always figured, Arizona Territory was desert and rock with cactus plants tall as any man providing the only hints of green...and the only relief from the unrelenting sun that scorched the land from morning to evening. But here the white light of the noonday sun made the land stretch out flat, and the mountains in the distance jutted up from a purplish-blue haze. Beyond the river, he saw what looked like hundreds-no, more like thousands of cattle grazing. The herd stretched out for miles, and that could mean the work he needed to shore up his savings and eventually get him to California-not to mention the chance of a decent meal.
And if he couldn't find a likely ranch before sundown, the area below the mesa looked like it might be as good a place as any to set up camp. For one thing, he could bathe in the river that had more flow than any he'd seen in a while. It would feel mighty good to wash off the layers of dust and sweaty grime that clung to his clothes and skin. Cracker could take a bath as well and cool off some. But as he zigzagged his way along the terraces that led down to the valley and to what, from above, had seemed to be open land in all directions, he realized that the way to the river was blocked. Barbed-wire fencing stretched on as far as the eye could see with signs warning that the land was property of the Tipton Brothers Cattle and Land Company and there was to be No Trespassing.
"Come along, Cracker," he murmured, although the instruction was not necessary. The brown-and-white collie, her fur matted with dirt and debris, had an instinct for knowing what Chet might need, especially now that the two of them had traveled halfway across the country with pretty much just each other for company. In a lot of ways, Chet felt as if he and the dog had melded into a single being. Cracker picked her way over the rutted path that ran parallel to the fence-a fence that appeared to stretch on all the way to the horizon.
Nope. No free range here.
He rode along the fence, studying the land on the other side. Now that he was level with the grass, he saw that it too was stunted and parched, but that was to be expected, given the heat and obvious lack of rain. At least here there was grass-not like the barren landscape he'd left behind in Texas. On the Tipton side of the barbed-wire barrier, he spotted some skeleton remains of steers left to rot, their bones bleached by the sun. Cracker saw them too and pressed her nose between the strands of wire, then let out a yelp.
"This way, Crack," Chet said as he turned his horse away from the fencing. By contrast, the land where he was riding showed signs of new growth in spite of the drought. Of course, he also had not seen any cattle on this side of the fence. But he figured that if the fence marked a boundary for the Tipton Brothers Company, then outside the fence must be land owned by some independent rancher or farmer-land that Tipton's owners had not yet swallowed up. Chet crossed a running creek and climbed back up to higher ground. As he followed the mesa, he spotted another herd-much smaller than the first-in the distance, grazing on open land. There had to be a ranch somewhere around-maybe two or three smaller places. Plenty enough work to be had for a drifter who knew his way around a herd.
* * *
Maria Porterfield had had almost no sleep and the last thing she needed was a confrontation with the ranch foreman. But like it or not, Roger Turnbull was striding toward her, and every muscle in his body told her he was not happy.
"Cyrus Cardwell said you went to the bank asking for a loan, Maria."
She took another sip of her coffee and gazed out at the horizon that marked the boundaries of the Clear Springs Ranch. "And just why would Mr. Cardwell be discussing my family's personal business with you, Roger?" Behind him, she saw a trio of hired hands who worked for her family pretending not to listen. She acknowledged them with a wave, which made Roger wheel around to face them.
"Go check on the horses," he ordered. "I'll be along directly."
When the men pushed themselves from the corral fence and sauntered away, Roger turned back to Maria. "I am trying to do my job."
"I fail to understand how the financial affairs of this ranch are part of your job."
"Maybe that was true before your father died and your brother took off, instead of staying and running this place like a man should. But things are different now. What do you expect?"
"I expect you to trust that I know what I'm doing."
Roger removed his hat and looked down at her with a glint in his eyes that told her he was about to try to sweet-talk her into seeing things his way. If she lived to be a hundred, she would never understand why men thought women couldn't see straight through such tactics.
"Now, Maria, everybody here knows that you are as good as any man when it comes to certain things, but-"
"My father taught me and my brother everything we needed to know to take over the running of this ranch, Roger. Jess isn't here, so it falls to me."
"But I am here, and with all you've got to worry about, taking care of your mama and sister and young Trey, letting me run the business end of things is exactly what your pa-"
She took a step closer to him, her chin jutted out in anger. "Do not presume to think you know what my father would want, Roger. You've made it clear you know nothing about him. He would not want to sell out to the Tiptons-as you have repeatedly urged me to do since the day he died."
Roger's eyes narrowed. "Well, if you keep borrowing money you can't repay, you won't have to sell, Maria. You'll lose this place for sure and not have a dime to show for it."
The fact that he had a point just infuriated her more. A big part of what kept her awake at night was worrying that she might make a mistake. Asking for a loan from the bank was just one example. "We need that money to see us through until we take the herd to market," she said.
"Face facts, Maria. The men haven't been paid in a couple of weeks, and I haven't taken anything for the last month."
"They have food and a roof over their heads, and are free to move on and seek work elsewhere-as are you," she blustered. "I understand the Tipton brothers are hiring."
The minute the words left her mouth, she knew she had gone too far. Roger Turnbull was a good man-a man her father had trusted. On top of that, she was well aware that he had feelings for her. She might not return those feelings, but she had certainly relied on Roger a good deal since her father's death. Perhaps too much. "Roger, I didn't mean-"
He slowly put on his hat and stepped away. "Guess if that's the way you feel, then I'm wasting my time staying. I'll be out of your hair in an hour." He turned and walked away.
"Roger, no." Panic filled her chest as she watched him just keep on walking. But she knew from experience that trying to argue further would do no good when his pride was stung. Maria turned away, frustrated. Now she was really in trouble. She was short of money and short of help. Maybe asking for the bank loan hadn't been a mistake, but losing Roger-and any of the hands who might defect with him-surely was.
She took a deep breath and let her eyes roam over the land-her family's land that stretched as far as she could see and beyond. She needed to get away from her own crushing worries for a time; she needed to ride.
She slapped her father's battered hat over her long braid and whistled for his favorite horse, Macho. Once the animal was saddled, she mounted and rode slowly out of the yard. But when she reached open land, she urged Macho to a full gallop, relishing the hot, dry air that stroked her face and the wild freedom of knowing that she could ride like this for an hour or more and still be on Porterfield land.
Roger, his cronies, even her own brother might desert her and her family, but with or without them, she would find a way.
* * *
The sun was low on the horizon and streaking the sky with purples and oranges by the time Chet spotted a small house, a few rough but well-maintained outbuildings, and a thin stream of smoke from a cooking fire rising up toward the sky. The house-built in the Spanish style-was a low, rambling single-story structure with a tiled roof, adobe walls, and trees shading the courtyard that marked the entrance. In addition to the cluster of outbuildings, he noticed some fenced pastures. But this was fencing that was intended to divide the land into areas for dedicated use. It was fencing intended to keep animals in, not people out. He saw several dozen beef cattle grazing in the largest area and a smaller group of dairy cows in another. Beyond the house, he could see trees and a stream that was probably an offshoot of the river he'd seen on the Tipton property.
He watched as a couple of men rode slowly up the dirt road and on past the house, where they dismounted and unsaddled their horses before turning them loose in the corral. If he had to guess, these men were coming off the trail, where they'd probably spent twelve to fifteen hours circling the herd along with hands from other small ranches. Others would take the night shift. Suddenly, a third horse and rider galloped into the yard, stopping near the house. The rider slid down from the saddle and tossed the reins to a kid, then walked determinedly across the courtyard, headed for the house. He figured the rider was a woman by the way she moved and her size, although she was dressed like a man-trousers tucked into boots, a vest worn over a long-sleeved shirt, and a hat. She disappeared inside the house. Chet waited to see what might happen next, and a few minutes later, he heard the clang of a bell and several men emerged from a bunkhouse and ambled across the yard.
"Chow time," he said, and Cracker started down the almost nonexistent trail. Chet gave a whistle and the dog returned. "Not for us," Chet corrected. "Not yet." He leaned one elbow on the horn of his saddle and kept watching the activity below. He was dead tired and the thought of a home-cooked meal and maybe a chance to wash up had him staring so hard that his vision blurred, and once again he wondered if maybe the whole business was nothing more than some mirage. But he had heard the clang of the dinner bell, he saw the men making their way over to the courtyard, and he could practically smell the stew a short, squat woman was serving up. He was down to his last tin of beans-which he had saved for times when there were no jackrabbits or friendly prospectors. He needed a bath, a decent meal, and work-work that paid.
He'd left Florida in a hurry, but he'd been pretty sure that he could make it to Texas in time to hire on as an extra hand for the calving and branding season. Only, by the time he reached West Texas, he'd had to face facts. No one was hiring. The grasslands there were barren and the cattle that hadn't been moved farther west were scrawny and underfed. So he had pushed on. Somebody had told him about a big cattle company in Arizona that might be hiring-clearly the Tipton Brothers-so he'd kept on riding. Tomorrow he would see if he could find their offices. Based on the fencing and No Trespassing signs, he doubted the men who owned Tipton Brothers would be the sympathetic sort. But work was work, and given a chance, Chet could outwork the best cowhand anywhere.
Cracker barked, ran in a circle around Chet and his horse, and barked again. "Okay, Crack, let's go see if those folks will give us supper and maybe let us camp out in their barn for the night. If nothing else, they'll be able to give us directions." Chet straightened in the saddle and clicked his tongue to urge the horse forward.
* * *
"Rider coming, Miss Maria."
Maria stepped into the courtyard and followed ten-year-old Javier's pointing finger to the eastern horizon, where a lone rider sat motionless at the top of a rise before he slowly started down the trail, a mangy-looking dog leading the way. After the day she'd had, the last thing she needed was more trouble. But the man was taking his time, which could be a good thing. If he'd been riding hard, she would have steeled herself for yet another bit of bad news-and frankly, she had had about all the bad news she could take. She shaded her eyes even though her back was to the setting sun. The dog was probably a good sign. A man up to no good was unlikely to travel with a dog.
Just another cowboy, she decided. Probably from Texas, no doubt looking for work or a handout-maybe both. "Fix him a plate, Juanita, and send Javier to give him the food, give the dog a bone, and take his horse to the corral while he eats."
"You can't be feeding them all, Maria," the housekeeper who had worked for their family from the day Maria's parents arrived in the territory huffed. "Word will get out and you'll-"
"You know that Papa would never turn any of them away-not as long as he had something to share." This man was hardly the first to come to the Clear Springs Ranch, and he would not be the last. Times were hard, especially for those men who had worked the herds in Texas.
"Well, your papa is not here, mi hija, and-you'll not like me saying it-with that no-good brother of yours taking off for the city just when he's most needed and leaving you to try to run this place on your own..."
Maria kept her eyes on the rider, all the while trying to figure out why this one seemed different. She heard Juanita's tirade, agreed with some of it, and dismissed the rest. Certainly her brother, Jess, had stunned them all when he'd left for a life in the city after their father's death just six months earlier, but so far they had managed. "I'm hardly alone, Juanita."
"Oh, forgive me. I forgot that you have your mother, who has not been right in the head since your papa died. And then there's Master Trey, who always has his nose stuck in some book and doesn't know the first thing about running a ranch. And let's not forget Miss Amanda, who from the day she turned sixteen can't seem to pass a looking glass without stopping to stare at herself for..."
Maria smiled at the housekeeper, who was like a second mother to them all. "Yes, and besides Mama and my sister and at least one brother, there's you and Eduardo and-"
Juanita threw up her hands in a gesture of surrender. "Then we are going to need more stew if you insist on feedin' every stray that comes by. Rico," she shouted to her elder son who was leaning on the corral talking to two cowhands just back from riding the herd. "Make yourself useful for once and help me in the kitchen."
Maria turned her attention back to the rider, who was close enough now for her to see his features. He was tall in spite of the fact that his shoulders slumped with weariness. He-and the horse and dog-was covered in dust. His clothing was stained with sweat. He wore a soft-crowned, wide-brimmed hat different from the stiffer Stetsons preferred by Roger and the other hands. His hair skimmed the collar of his shirt-or what would have been the collar had the shirt had one. He wore dark trousers, chaps, and boots without spurs. His horse was a mare, larger than the quarter horses most ranch hands rode. The way the dog pranced around them made Maria smile. It was as if the dog refused to be defeated no matter how hungry or tired it might be. But as the rider came closer, the thing that caught her attention above anything else was that this cowboy did not have the traditional rope and lariat so common to men who worked cattle. This cowboy had a whip-coiled like a large snake-around the horn of his saddle.
Horse and rider ambled up to the filigreed iron fence leading into the courtyard. The man kept his eyes, which were shaded by the brim of his hat, on her. He did not appear to be in a hurry-or maybe the approach was calculated to keep her from running away. Did he think she was some skittish colt in need of taming? That was certainly how Roger and probably at least half the hands still working the ranch saw her. And it was certainly the way the other ranchers at the association meeting had treated her.
"Evening, ma'am." He removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair to push it back from his face. His hair was thick and straight and black as her father's favorite quarter horse. His face was mostly covered by stubble, and his exposed forearms were brown like leather, the same as most men who worked outdoors for long hours...but there was a difference. There was a golden cast to his tanned complexion that made her think of sunshine. He was definitely not from this part of the country, and for the first time since Juanita's son had spotted him, Maria had doubts. Perhaps he had friends waiting. Gangs were not uncommon in the territory. And if word had spread that Roger had left... There hadn't been trouble in a while, but these were desperate times.
"Evenin'," she replied as she met his gaze and offered the knuckles of one hand for the dog to sniff. She was glad to see Juanita's husband, Eduardo, coming across the yard, and she knew Juanita was probably positioned just inside the kitchen door, her hand fairly twitching to grab the Parker twin-barrel shotgun they kept nearby. "Can I help you?"
"Well, yes, ma'am. I'm hoping you and the mister can spare a bite to eat for me and my horse and ol' Cracker there." He nodded toward the dog. "I could also use directions to the Tipton Brothers Cattle and Land Company."
All Maria's senses went on instant alert. Was this a trick? Was Roger testing her? Had he sent this man?
"You work for Tipton Brothers, amigo?" Eduardo scowled up at the stranger.
"Not yet. I'm just looking for work and heard they might be hiring." He gave Eduardo his full attention, apparently trying to decide if Juanita's husband was the owner of the ranch. "Truth is, I'd just as soon work on a spread like this one."
He spoke softly with a definite drawing out of his words-from the South if she had to guess. Could be another Texan, but his accent was different from the Texas men she'd met. This man's voice lacked the roughness. There was a gentleness to him-and yet by the look of him, he could handle himself in a fight. "We aren't hiring at the moment," she said. "Eduardo can show you where to rest your horse, and Javier will bring you out some supper and something for your dog."
"I'm most grateful, ma'am. Thank you." He replaced his hat as he turned his horse to follow Eduardo.
"Where are you from?" Maria asked, unable to contain her curiosity a minute longer.
Eduardo let out a long, low whistle. "You are a long way from home, amigo."
Maria stood rooted to the spot as the two men started across the yard. Florida? Did the man know the first thing about herding and branding and such-even if she were of a mind to hire him? And what the devil was he doing so far from home?
As she headed into the kitchen, Juanita released the shotgun's dual hammers and put the weapon back in the corner before going to the stove to dish up a bowl of stew. "I suppose you want me to give him some biscuits and a slice of that apple pie as well?"
"That would be nice."
"Do you plan on letting him stay? You're shorthanded now, I know, but even so..."
Maria was aware of Ricardo, now seated at the table chopping onions and listening intently to whatever she might say so he could carry the news back to the other hands. "I don't know, Nita. Like I said before, I'm not doing anything that Papa wouldn't do by feeding him."
"You are not your father, Maria."
"Have Javier take the man his food, all right?" Maria sat down in the nearest chair and rested her elbows on her knees. What would her father do? Would he give the man work? Probably. But she knew nothing about him.
You get a sense of people, Maria, her father had once told her. You need to listen to that and act accordingly.
She closed her eyes and thought about the man...and realized there had been no introductions. He had assumed she was married-that business about "you and the mister." She had liked the way he spoke-his voice deep, a little hoarse, probably from the dust of his journey, and yet soft-spoken in a way that let her know he was feeling his way and not taking anything for granted. She had also been impressed with the way he had shown respect to Eduardo. Roger would have dismissed the older man as not worth his time. This man was nothing like Roger. She was sure of that.
Juanita paused at the kitchen door, her weathered hands still cradling the bowl of stew, on top of which she'd stacked a biscuit and a saucer with a slab of pie. She looked back, one eyebrow arched.
"Now that Roger and... There's room in the bunkhouse. Have Javier tell the man he can stay the night but needs to be on his way at first light."
Juanita shooed Javier out of the way and started walking toward the bunkhouse carrying the steaming bowl. "I'll tell him," she announced. "Somebody needs to get a good, long look at this drifter." But by the way she trudged along, shaking her head the entire time, Maria had no doubt that the housekeeper had already made up her mind.
Maria glanced at Ricardo, who was watching his mother as well. "Well, Papa would have let him stay," she said defensively.
"Yes, Miss Maria." Ricardo returned to chopping onions, keeping whatever he might be thinking to himself, as usual.