The expletive resounded through the elegant law office. Alistair Brooks, the senior partner of the firm of Brooks and Dunn, looked up from the brief he was painstakingly writing by hand at his oak rolltop desk. "What?" he asked.
Jared Dunn threw down the letter he'd received from his grandmother in Fort Worth, Texas, with a flourish of his long, darkly tanned hand. "Damn," he repeated under his breath, and sat brooding, his reading glasses perched on his straight, elegant nose—over eyes that could run the blue spectrum from sky blue all the way to gunmetal gray.
"A case?" Brooks asked absently.
"A letter from home," Jared replied heavily. He sat back in his chair with his long legs crossed, a faint grimace accompanying the action. He favored the right leg a little, because the damage done by the bullet in Terrell was fresh enough to be painful. He'd been carefully checked by his own doctor, the wound rebandaged with directions to leave it alone until it healed. The fever had gone down in the few days he'd been back in New York, and if he felt pain or weakness from the wound, it didn't show in the steely lines of his lean face.
"From Texas?" Brooks echoed. From Texas. He couldn t quite call it home, although it felt that way sometimes. He turned his swivel chair to face his partner across the elegant wood floor of the oak-furnished office, the long, narrow windows letting in light through sheer curtains. "I've been thinking about a move, Alistair. If I leave, Parkins would enjoy taking my place in the firm. He has a good background in criminal law, and he's been in practice long enough to have gained an admirable reputation in legal circles."
Brooks put down his ink pen with a heavy sigh. "It's that land case in New Mexico Territory that's depressed you," he began.
"It's more than that," Jared replied. "I'm tired." He ran a slender hand over his wavy black hair. There were threads of pure silver in it now, at his temples. He knew that new lines had been carved into his face by the pressures of his profession. "I'm tired of working on the wrong side of justice."
Brooks's eyebrows arched disapprovingly.
Jared shook his head. "Don't misunderstand me. I love the practice of law. But I've just dispossessed families that should have had some sort of right to land they'd worked for five years and I feel sick about it. I seem to spend more time working for money than I do working for justice. I don't like it. Cases that satisfied me when I was younger and more ambitious only make me uncomfortable now. I'm disillusioned with my life."
"This sounds as if you're working up to dissolving our partnership," Brooks began.
Jared nodded. "That's just what I'm doing. It's been a good ten years since I began practicing law. I appreciate the boost that you gave my career, and the opportunity to practice in New York City. But I'm restless."
Brooks's dark eyes narrowed. "Would this sudden decision have more to do with that letter you've just read than the case in New Mexico Territory?" he asked shrewdly.
One corner of Jared's thin mouth pulled down. "In fact, it does. My grandmother has taken in a penniless cousin of my stepbrother Andrew's."
"The family lives in Fort Worth, and you support them," Brooks recalled.
Jared nodded. "My grandmother is my late mother's only living relative. She's important to me. Andrew…" He laughed coldly. "Andrew is family, however much I may disapprove of him."
"He's very young yet."
"Serving in the Philippines during the war gave him an exaggerated view of his own importance," Jared remarked. "He struts and postures to impress the ladies. And he spends money as if it were water," he added irritably. "He's been buying hats for the new houseguest, out of my grandmother's housekeeping money. I have a feeling that it was Andrew's idea to take her in."
"And you don't approve."
"I'd like to know whom I'm supporting," Jared replied. "And perhaps I need to become reacquainted with my own roots. I haven't lived in Texas for a long time, but I think I'm homesick for it, Alistair."
"It began when I took that case in Beaumont, representing the Culhanes in the oil field suit." His blue eyes grew thoughtful. "I'd forgotten how it felt to be among Texans. They were West Texans, of course, from El Paso. I spent a little time on the border as a young man. My mother lived in Fort Worth with my stepfather until they died, and my grandmother and Andrew live there now. Although I m partial to West Texas—
—Texas is Texas.
Jared smiled. "Exactly."
Alistair Brooks smoothed the polished wood of his chair. "If you must leave, then I'll certainly consider Ned Parkins to replace you. Not that you can be replaced." He smiled faintly. "I've known very few truly colorful personalities over the years."
"I might be a great deal less colorful if people were more civilized in courtroom trials," Jared replied.
"All the same, New York judges find your mystique fascinating. That often gives us an edge."
"You'll find another, I have no doubt. You're an excellent attorney."
"As you are. Well, make your plans and let me know when you want to go," Alistair said sadly. "I'll try to make your path as easy as I can."
"You've been a good friend as well as a good partner," Jared remarked. "I'll miss the practice."
He remembered those words as he sat in the passenger car of a westbound train a week later. He watched the prairie go slowly by, listened to the rhythmic puffing of the steam engine, watched the smoke and cinders flying past the windows as the click-clack of the metal wheels sang like a serenade.
"What a very barren land," a woman with a British accent remarked to her seat companion.
"Yes, ma'am. But it won't always be. Why, there'll be great cities out here in a few years, just like back East."
"I say, are there red Indians in these parts?"
"All the Indians are on reservations these days," the man said. "Good thing, too, because the Kiowa and Comanche used to raid settlements hereabouts back in the sixties and seventies, and some people got killed in bad, bad ways. And there wasn't only Indians. There were trail drives and cow towns like Dodge City and Ellsworth…
The man's voice droned on unheard as Jared's thoughts went back to the 1880s. It had been a momentous time in the West. It had seen the Earp-Clanton brawl played out to national headlines in Tombstone, Arizona, in the fall of '81. It had seen the last reprisal skirmishes in the Great Plains and Arizona, following the Custer debacle in Montana in '76. It had seen the death of freedom for the Indian tribes of the West and Geronimo's bid for independence—and subsequent capture by General Crook in Arizona. The last of the great cattle drives had played out with the devastating winter of '86, which cost cattlemen over half their herds and all but destroyed ranching.
Simultaneously in 1890 came the frightful massacre of Indian women and children at Wounded Knee and the closing of the frontier. The old cow towns were gone. Gunfighters and frontier sheriffs, feathered war parties intent on scalping and the endless cavalry chase of Indians in search of old ways, all were vanished off the face of the earth.
Civilization was good, Jared reminded himself. Progress was being made to make life simpler, easier, healthier for a new generation of Americans. Social programs for city beautifica-tion and welfare relief, children's rights and women's right and succor for the downtrodden were gaining strength in even the smallest towns. People were trying to make life better for themselves, and that was better than the lawless old days.
But a wildness deep inside the man in the business suit quivered with memories of the smell of gunsmoke, the thick blackness of it stinging his eyes as he faced an adversary and watched townspeople scatter. He'd only been a boy then, in his late teens, fatherless, spoiling for a fight to prove that he was as good as any son of married parents. It certainly hadn't been his poor mother's fault that she was assaulted one dark evening in Dodge City, Kansas, by a man whose face she never saw. She had, after all, done the right thing—she'd kept her child and raised him and loved him, even through a second marriage to a Fort Worth businessman that saddled Jared with a stepbrother he never liked. His mother had died trying to save him from the wild life he was leading.
On her deathbed, as he visited her in Fort Worth—before she followed her beloved husband to the grave with the same cholera that had done him in—she'd gripped Jared's hand tight in her small one and begged him to go back East to school. There was a little money, she said, just enough that she'd earned sewing and selling eggs. It would get him into school, and perhaps he could work for the rest of his tuition. He must promise her this, she begged, so that she would have the hope of his own salvation. For the road he was traveling would surely carry him to eternal damnation.
After the funeral, he'd taken her last words to heart. He'd left his young stepbrother, Andrew, in the care of their grieving grandmother and headed East.
He had a keen, analytical mind. He'd managed a scholarship with it, and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. Then a college friend had helped him find work with a prominent law firm, that of Alistair Brooks, senior and junior. His particular interest had been criminal law, and he'd practiced it with great success over the past ten years, since his graduation from college. But along with his success had come problems, most of them with Andrew at the root. The boy had run wild in his teens; it had been left to his poor grandmother to cope. Jared had helped get him into the army just before the Spanish-American War broke out. Andrew had gone to the Philippines and discovered something he was good at—exaggeration. He made himself out to be a war hero and lived the part. He had a swagger and an arrogance that kept Jared in New York. He rarely went home because Andrew irritated him so. He rued the day his mother had married Daniel Paige and added his young son Andrew to the family.
Andrew had no idea of Jared's past. Grandmother Dunn never spoke of it, or of Jared's parentage. That was a life long ago, in Kansas, and had no bearing on the life Jared had made for himself. For all anyone in Fort Worth knew, Jared was a practicing attorney from New York City who did nothing more dangerous than lifting a pen to documents. He'd been quite fortunate that his infrequent contretemps with angry antagonists over points of law hadn't made their way into the local paper; Jared tended to intimidate curious reporters, and most of his adversaries weren't anxious to admit to their idiocy in pulling a gun on him. There had only been a handful of incidents, quickly forgotten, since he'd put up his gun in the '80s. He was still a dead shot, and he practiced enough with the weapon to retain an edge when he needed one. But he hadn't killed anyone in recent years.
His eyes narrowed as he thought about that wild, early life, and how reckless and thoughtless he'd been. His mother must have worried about his restlessness, the dark side of him that had grown to such proportions before her death. She had no idea who his father was, and she must have wondered about him. Jared had wondered, too, but there was no one in Dodge City who resembled him enough to cast any light on his lineage. Perhaps his father had been a drunken cowboy in town on a trail drive, or a soldier home from the war. It didn't really matter, anyway, he told himself. Except that he'd like to have known.
He looked out the window at the bland expanse of grassland. News of this woman who'd been taken into his family disturbed him. He paid the bills for his grandmother, and, necessarily, Andrew. It would have been politic to ask if he minded another mouth to feed before they dumped this woman in his lap. He knew nothing about her, and he wondered if they did. It had apparently been Andrew's idea to send for her; she was actually a distant cousin of his, which made her no relation at all to Jared.
He remembered so well the wording in his grandmother's letter:
… Andrew feels that she would be so much better off with us than in Galveston, especially since it holds such terrifying memories for her. She would not go back there for all the world, but it appears that her uncle is insisting that she accompany him now that the city is rebuilt and he has work there again. While it has been a year and a half since the tragedy, the poor girl still has a terror of living so close to the sea again. I fear her uncle's insistence has brought back nightmarish memories for her…
He wondered about the remark, about why she should be afraid of going to Galveston. There had been a devastating flood there in September of 1900. Had she been one of the survivors? He recalled that some five thousand souls had died that morning—in only a few minutes' time—as the ocean swallowed up the little town. And didn't he remember that his grandmother had written of Andrew visiting the Texas coast only recently? Connections began forming in his mind. He was willing to bet that this so-called cousin of Andrew's was little more than a new girlfriend upon whom he was fixated. If that was the case, Jared had no intention of supporting her while his stepbrother courted her. She could be sent packing, and the sooner the better.
As the train plodded across the vast plains, he pictured the woman in his mind. Knowing Andrew, she would be pretty and experienced and good at getting her way. She would probably have a heart like a lump of coal and eyes that could count a wad of money from a distance. The more he thought about her the angrier he grew. His grandmother must be getting senile to even allow such a thing. That feisty little woman, who'd moved in with his stepbrother after he left for New York, had never been known for foolish behavior. Andrew must have pulled the wool over her eyes. He wouldn't pull it over Jared's.