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Stillwater Springs Ranch
The weathered wooden sign above the gate dangled from its posts by three links of rusty chain. The words, hand-carved by Josiah Creed himself more than 150 years earlier, and then burned in deeper still with the edge of an old branding iron, were faded now, hardly legible.
Logan Creed, half inside his secondhand Dodge pickup—"previously owned," the dealer had called it—and half outside, with one booted foot on the running board, swore under his breath.
Startled, the bedraggled dog he'd picked up at a rest stop outside of Kalispell that morning gave a soft, fretful whine, low in his throat. Little wonder the poor critter was skittish; he'd clearly been from one end of lost-animal hell to the other.
"Sorry, ol' fella," Logan muttered, his throat constricted with a tangle of emotions, sharp as barbed wire. He'd known the family ranch—a legacy shared equally with his two younger brothers, Dylan and Tyler—would be in sad shape. The whole spread had been neglected for years, after all…ever since they'd had that falling out after their dad's funeral. He and Dylan and Tyler had gone their stubborn, separate ways.
The dog forgave him readily, that being the way of dogs, and seemed sympathetic, sitting there on the other side of the gearshift, his brown eyes almost liquid as he regarded his rescuer.
Logan grinned, settled himself back into the driver's seat. "If I were half the man you think I am," he told the mutt, "I'd be a candidate for sainthood."
The idea of any Creed being canonized made him chuckle.
The dog responded with a cheerful yip, as if offering to put in a good word with whoever made decisions like that.
"You'll need a name," Logan said. "Damned if I can think of one right off the top of my head, though." He turned in the seat, facing forward, cataloging the fallen fences and disintegrating junk, and sighed again. "We've got our work cut out for us. Best get started, I guess."
The sign bumped the truck's roof as Logan drove beneath it, and the rungs of the nineteenth-century cattle guard under the tires all but rattled his teeth.
Weeds choked the long, winding driveway, but the ruts were still there, anyway, made by the first vehicles to travel that road—wagons. Mentally, Logan added several tons of gravel to the list of necessities.
There were three houses on various parts of the property and, because he was the eldest of the current Creed generation, the biggest one belonged to him. Some inheritance, he thought. He'd be lucky if the place was fit to inhabit.
"Good thing I've got a sleeping bag and camping gear," he told the dog, leaning forward a little in the seat as they jostled up the grassy rise, peering grimly through the windshield. "You okay with sleeping under the stars if the roof's gone, boy?"
The dog's eyes said he was game for anything, as long as the two of them stuck together. He'd had enough of being alone, scrounging for food and shelter when the weather turned bad.
Logan told himself to buck up and reached across to pat the animal's matted head. No telling what color the mutt was, under all that dirt and sorry luck. As for the mix of breed, he was probably part Lab, part setter and part a whole slew of other things. His ribs showed and a piece of his left ear was missing. Yep, he'd been nobody's dog for too long.
When he'd pulled into the rest stop to stretch his legs after the long drive from Las Vegas, he hadn't counted on picking up a four-legged hitchhiker, but when the dog slunk out of the bushes as he stepped down from the truck, Logan couldn't ignore him. There was nobody else around, and if there had ever been a tag and collar, they were long gone.
Logan had known he was that dog's last hope, and since he'd been in a similar position himself a time or two, he hadn't been able to turn his back. He'd hoisted the critter into the pickup, and they'd shared a fast-food breakfast in the next town. The dog had horked his chow up, in short order, and looked so remorseful afterward that Logan hadn't minded stopping at a car wash to scour out the rig.
Now, several hours later, as he steeled himself to lay eyes on the ranch house for the first time in a lot of eventful years, Logan was glad of the company, though the conversations were distinctly one-sided.
They finally crested the last hill, and Logan saw the barn first—still standing, but leaning distinctly to one side. He forced himself to swing his gaze to the house, and his spirits rose a little. Part of the roof was sagging, but the rambling one-story log structure, originally a one-room cabin smaller than most garden sheds, had managed to endure. None of the three stone chimneys had crumbled, and the front windows still had glass in them, the old-fashioned kind with a greenish cast to it and little bubbles here and there.
Home, Logan thought, with a mixture of determination and pure sorrow. Such as it was, Stillwater Springs Ranch was home.
It was probably too much to hope that the plumbing still worked, he decided, but he'd called ahead and had the lights and the telephone service turned on, anyhow. His sidekick was in sore need of a bath, and hiking back and forth to the springs for water would be taking the whole back-to-basics thing too far. His luxurious Vegas lifestyle hadn't prepared him for roughing it.
"Sidekick," Logan mused, as he climbed out of the truck. "Suppose you go by that for a while?"
Apparently overjoyed, Sidekick leaped across the gearshift and the console into the seat Logan had just vacated. Logan chuckled and lifted him gently to the ground. Soon as he got the chance, he'd take the animal to a vet for a checkup and some shots. There might be a microchip implanted somewhere under his hide, identifying him as someone's lost pet, but Logan doubted it.
Most likely, Sidekick had been dumped, if he'd ever belonged to anybody in the first place.
The dog did some sniffing around, then lifted his leg against an old wagon wheel half-submerged in the ground. As Logan approached the house, with its drooping front porch, Sidekick trotted eagerly after him.
Any sensible person, Logan reflected ruefully, would bulldoze the once imposing shack to the ground and start over. But then, he wasn't a sensible person—he had two failed marriages, a career in rodeo and a lot of heartache to prove it.
He shouldered open the front door, causing the hinges to squeal, and, after another deep breath, stepped over the threshold. The place was filthy, of course, littered with newspapers, beer cans and God knew what else, but the plank floors had held, and the big natural-rock fireplace looked as sturdy as if it had just been mortared together.
Standing in the middle of the ancestral pile—and pile was definitely the word—Logan wondered, not for the first time, if there weren't as many rocks in his head as there were in that fireplace. Ever since he'd tracked down his distant cousins, the McKettricks, six months back, and visited the Triple M, down in northern Arizona, questions about the state of this ranch, and what was left of his family, had throbbed in the back of his mind like a giant bruise.
And that bruise had a name. Guilt.
He crossed the large room, sat down on the high ledge fronting the fireplace and sighed, his shoulders slackening a little under his plain white T-shirt. He shoved a hand through his dark hair and smiled sadly when Sidekick came and laid his muzzle on his knee.
"Some people," Logan told Sidekick, "just can't get enough of trouble and aggravation. And I, old buddy, am one of those people."
Ranches in Montana, in whatever degree of disrepair, were golden on the real estate market. Especially if they had a rip-roaring history, like this one did. Movie stars liked to buy them for astronomical prices, put in tennis courts and soundstages and square-acre swimming pools. He and Dylan and Tyler could split a fortune if they sold the place. Cut the emotional losses and run.
Just about the last thing Logan needed, though, besides a dog and that old truck he'd bought because it would fit in in a place like Stillwater Springs, Montana, was more money. He had a shitload of that, thanks to the do-it-yourself legal services Web site he'd set up fresh out of law school and recently sold for a mega-chunk of change, and so far, all that dough had caused him nothing but grief.
But there was a deeper reason he couldn't sell.
As run-down as the ranch was, seven or eight generations of Creeds had lived and died, loved and hated, cussed and prayed within its boundaries. Folks had gotten themselves born in the houses, run hell-bent for the closing bell through whatever years they'd been allotted and been laid to rest in the cemetery out beyond the apple orchard.
Logan just couldn't leave them behind, any more than he'd been able to get into his truck back there at the rest stop and pull out without Sidekick.
They were his, that horde of cussed, unruly ghosts.
So was their reputation for chronic hell-raising.
Seeing the Triple M, something had shifted in Logan. He'd decided to stop running, plant his feet and put down roots so deep the tips might just pop up someplace in China. The Creed legacy wasn't like the McKettrick one, though, there was no denying that.
The McKettricks had stayed together, the line unbroken all the way back to old Angus, the patriarch.
The Creeds had splintered.
The McKettrick name was synonymous with honor, integrity and grit.
The Creed name, on the other hand, meant tragedy, bad luck and misery.
Logan had come back to take a stand, turn things around. Build something new and durable and good, from the ground up. His own children, if he was ever fortunate enough to have any, would bear the Creed name proudly, and so would his nieces and nephews. Not that he had any of those, either—Dylan and Tyler, as far as he knew, were still following the rodeo, at least part of the time, chasing the kind of women a man didn't want to impregnate, and brawling in redneck bars.
He had no illusions that it would be easy, changing the course the Creeds had taken, but at the brass-tacks level, wasn't it a matter of making a choice, a decision, and sticking by it, no matter what?
Dylan wasn't going to do any such thing, and neither was Tyler, and there wasn't anybody else who gave a damn.
Which meant Logan was elected, by a one-vote landslide.
He stood and headed for the kitchen, which was in worse shape by half than the living room, but when he turned the faucet in the sink, good Montana well water flowed out of it, murky at first, then clear as light.
Cheered, Logan scouted up an old mixing bowl in a cupboard, washed it out and filled it with water for Sidekick, then set it on the grimy linoleum floor. The dog lapped loudly, and then belched like a cowboy after chugging a pint of beer.
They prowled through the rooms, dog and man, Logan making mental notes as they went. Once he'd bought out the local Home Depot and hired about a hundred carpenters and a plumber or two, they'd be good to go.
Briana didn't get to the cemetery until late afternoon, and once she arrived, she wondered why she'd come at all, just like she always did. While her sons, Alec, eight, and Josh, ten, ran between the teetering headstones and rotting wooden markers, she spread the picnic blanket on a soft piece of ground and got out the juice and sandwiches. Her old dog, Wanda, a portly black Lab, watched placidly as the boys raced through the last blazing sunlight of that warm June day.
"I don't even know any of the people buried here," Briana told Wanda. "So why do I break my back pulling weeds and planting flowers for a bunch of dead strangers?"
Wanda regarded her patiently.
For the past two years, since the night her now-ex husband, Vance, after a lengthy argument, had abandoned her, along with the boys and Wanda, in front of the Stillwater Springs Wal-Mart store, Briana had been busy surviving.
At the time, she'd thought Vance would circle the block a few times in their asthmatic old van, letting off steam, then come back for them. Instead, he'd left town. By the time he'd shown up again, three months later, magnanimously ready to let bygones be bygones, Briana had filed for a DIY divorce, found a place to live and landed a job at the tribal casino, serving free sodas and coffee for tips. At first, the few dollars she'd earned in an eight-hour shift had barely put food on the table, but she'd worked her way up to clerking in the players' club, then dealing blackjack. Finally, she'd become a floor supervisor, making change and paying out the occasional jackpot.
Floor supervisors made a decent wage. They also had health benefits, sick leave and paid vacations.
She'd made it on her own, something Vance had had her convinced she couldn't do.
Soon after they'd all moved into the house across the creek, Alec and Josh had come across the cemetery in their wanderings, and she'd come to check the place out, make sure it was safe for them to play there. Briana was big on safe places, though they'd proved pretty elusive so far. At thirty, she was still looking for one.
Nothing could have prepared her, she supposed, for the effect the first sight of that forgotten country graveyard had had on her. Lonely, overgrown with weeds, strung from end to end with the detritus of a thousand teenage beer-and-reefer parties, the place had somehow welcomed her, too.
Ever since, tending to the abandoned cemetery had been her mission. She and the boys had cleaned up the grounds, scythed the grass and then mowed it, planted flowers and straightened markers. The work parties always ended with the boys playing tag to run off their excess energy, then a picnic supper.
She hadn't expected today to be different from any of the ones that had gone before it, which only went to show that she still had the capacity to be surprised.
A lean, shaggy-haired man in jeans, boots and a T-shirt came strolling out of the woods, a reddish-brown dog at his side, and stopped in his tracks when he saw Briana.
She felt an odd little frisson of alarm—and something else less easily defined—at the first glimpse of him.