Sweat gathered between Sam Callahan’s shoulder blades and ran down his back, making him twitch. Taking off his hat, he wiped his forehead with his arm and plopped the hat back on his head. It was hot as hell and he was so hungry each time he swallowed his belly felt as if his throat had been cut.
In the distance, he saw a cluster of buildings. “Looks like there’s a small town up ahead, Thunderbolt.” Leaning forward he patted the stallion’s muscular neck. “What say we call it a day?”
Thunderbolt snorted and pawed at the ground.
“My thoughts exactly,” Sam chuckled and kneed the animal into a brisk canter.
Tonight he’d finally get to sleep on a soft bed instead of the hard earth. As soon as he got Thunderbolt situated he’d find a hotel, get cleaned up, and venture out for some food.
Sam rode into town, his senses on high alert. During his Texas Ranger days, he’d been trained not to let his guard down, but the tinkling of a piano and the boisterous laughter coming from inside the saloon he’d just passed sounded friendly enough, so he relaxed a bit.
On the opposite side of the street, female laughter caught his attention. Looking up he saw several women in various stages of undress waving from the top balcony of a bawdy house.
One of the women brazenly tugged down her bodice and leaned over the wooden balcony. Sam fingered the brim of his hat in appreciation. It’d been a long time since he’d feasted on a pair of ample tits and slipped his cock inside a hot, wet pussy.
“Come on, Thunderbolt. Let’s go find you a nice stall and get you settled in for the night.”
A short time later, Sam left the livery with his tattered bedroll and worn saddlebag. He took a slow walk to the nearest hotel and went inside. He strode up to the desk and dropped his only possessions on the floor. “I’d like a room for the night.”
“You’re in luck, stranger. We got one vacant room left.” The clerk slid the register across the counter for Sam to sign.
Sam scrawled his signature and placed some coins on the counter. “Is there a bathhouse around here?”
“There’s one behind the hotel.” The clerk handed him the key to his room. “I’ll get Josh to fill the tub while you unpack.”
Sam rubbed his jaw. He sure could use a shave.
The clerk must have read his mind. “There’s also razors and shaving cream back there too so feel free to help yourself. Oh, and if you’re lookin’ for a good meal, my woman makes a mean steak with all the fixin’s.”
Sam held up the key. “Much obliged.”
He climbed the stairs to his room. Once inside, he rummaged through his bag and pulled out a clean pair of pants and a shirt. Locking the door behind him, he headed for the bathhouse. He shaved quickly and closed his eyes when he sank into the water.
The Rangers were like brothers. They looked out for each other and had each other’s backs, but this one situation had been different. Sam caught one of his comrades attempting to violate a young Indian woman against her will. He could have minded his own business, but Sam wasn’t wired that way and it didn’t matter if it was one of his comrades doing the dirty deed.
“Hey mister, want me to clean your dirty clothes for ya?”
Sam slowly opened one eye then the other. The small boy peeking around the doorjamb wore a wide smile. He had big brown eyes set in a face smeared with dirt.
“You must be Joshua.”
The boy nodded.
“Make sure you do a good job and I’ll leave you a tip.”
“Yes, sir.” The youngster quickly gathered Sam’s clothing in his skinny arms and raced from the room.
Sam chuckled then ducked beneath the water to rinse off. He came up sputtering and rose from the tub. His belly growled, reminding him that all he had eaten for the past day was a few pieces of jerky.
Dressed in clean clothes and feeling much better than he had in a while, he went back to the hotel and entered the dining room. A thick steak smothered with onions and a side of potatoes satisfied his hunger. He paid the bill and made his way to the saloon.
He pushed open the batwing doors and looked around. Every table in the joint was occupied with men either playing cards or diddling with the woman sitting on their lap.
Sam sauntered up to the bar and ordered a beer. He took a long swallow then lazily scanned the crowd. When he spotted several working girls huddled in a corner blatantly giving him the once over, he winked. They giggled and fluttered their eyelashes at him, but then an older woman approached them. She propped both hands on her curvy hips and they scattered like crows.
The woman turned around and eyed him up and down. Smiling, she paid no attention to the whistles and catcalls from the patrons she passed by. Sam noticed the exaggerated sway of her hips. She was a woman experienced in giving pleasure and his cock stirred. He could almost imagine those red pouty lips wrapped around his cock.
“Welcome to the Crooked Horseshoe, handsome.” She crossed both arms beneath her bosom pushing the ample mounds of her breasts higher above the straining neckline. “I must say you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Sam finished off his beer and set the empty glass down on the bar. “And why is that?”
“You’re a distraction. My girls won’t bring in any money standin’ around tradin’ smiles with you instead of mingling with the other men.”
“Well now, it wouldn’t be gentlemanly of me if I didn’t respond, now would it?”
“I suppose not.” She placed a hand on his arm. “I’m Sadie.”
“The name’s Sam Callahan.” His gaze dropped to the creamy skin of her chest bared by the flouncy, off-the-shoulder black dress.
“What’s your pleasure, handsome?” She moved her hand upward, stopping when she reached his bicep. His muscles bunched in response. “You sure are a big one, Sam Callahan.” She moved closer so her breasts pressed against his chest. “How about you and me go upstairs for some playtime?”
“Aw honey, that’s a mighty fine offer, but I must admit I’m a bit tired. Perhaps some other time?”
She poked out her bottom lip. “You don’t know what yer missin’.”
Sam admired her deep cleavage. He hadn’t bedded a woman in a long time. It sure was tempting, but he ordered another beer and simply smiled at her.
“Yer new around here, aren’t ya?”
Brows drawn, Sam turned and came up against a short, barrel-chested man holding an open bottle of whiskey. He arched a questioning brow. Suddenly he was bone tired. Sam caught the bartender’s exaggerated eye roll. “You could say that,” he replied.
“What’s yer name?”
“Flint, will you please stop buggin’ the customers.” Sadie elbowed her way past Flint and sidled up to Sam. “Couldn’t you stay for just a few more days?”
“So you are just passin’ through then?” Flint butted in.
Temper frayed, Sadie whirled around. She pointed a finger in Flint’s face. “One of these days yer gonna get shot for pokin’ yer nose where it don’t belong, and I hope I’m around to see it. You know damn well you ain’t gonna get that ramrod job, so stop harassing everybody. Eleanor Talbot can’t stand the sight of you. Neither can I, so get lost.”
Muttering a curse, Flint stomped to the end of the bar. Every so often Sam caught him shooting disparaging glances his way.
“What a pain in the ass.”
“What ramrod job is he talking about?”
“The Circle C Ranch needs a ramrod, and Flint’s been goin’ out of his mind tryin’ to get the job. He used to work for the owner.” Sadie took a moment to check her appearance in the mirror behind the bar. “When the owner passed away, he left his daughter in charge. Flint managed to convince most of the men to quit instead of taking orders from a woman. He figured on catchin’ Eleanor at a weak moment and she’d offer him the job. Needless to say, his plan backfired. I could’ve told him it would and saved him the embarrassment.” She laughed. “Jessup Talbot’s daughter Eleanor is a firecracker. She took on the job herself even though only three of her father’s most trusted men hung around.”
“So he’s afraid I’ll apply for the job?”
“It’s not only you. He pesters every stranger that comes in here. See, he’s had his eye on Eleanor’s niece, Louise, for a long time, but she shot him down so he’s switched his attentions to Eleanor. If he could get her to agree to marry him he’ll own the ranch, lock, stock, and barrel. Poor sucker doesn’t have a chance in hell and he knows it. He just won’t accept it.”
“Well, someone should tell him I don’t plan on staying, so he’s welcome to the job,” Sam replied firmly. He finished his beer. “Night, Sadie.”
“Night,” she sighed. “I’m sure gonna miss ya, Sam Callahan.”
Flint stood at the end of the bar seething long after Sam had left. That ramrod job belonged to him. Out of all the men Jessup had employed over the years, he’d been the one who had stayed the longest.
And that daughter of his was the most stubborn woman he’d ever met. She dared to place an ad in the local paper instead of coming to him first. Now every man in town would know the job was up for grabs.
The hairs on the back of his neck bristled. Brent Fulton showed no sign that he was the friendly sort. He appeared to be a loner and everyone kept their distance, that is, all but Flint. He had made the mistake of simply wishing the man a good morning and got a rifle jabbed into his groin. The man was as ornery as a goat.
“Flint, come here, I want to talk to you.”
“You ain’t gonna shove that rifle in my balls again, are ya?”
Brent didn’t bat an eye. “Not today.”
Flint grabbed the bottle of whiskey and sat down.
“The whore’s right. You better watch who you’re picking a fight with or you’ll get your head blown off.”
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“That man you were badgering is one dangerous son-of-a-bitch.”
Interest sparked. Curious, Flint leaned forward. “You know him?”
“Yeah, I know him good.” Brent downed the last of his whiskey then began to rummage through each pocket of his worn vest. “Damn, I know I put those cigars somewhere.”
“Just what does that mean?” Flint asked impatiently.
“Goddamn, where are my cigars?”
Flint felt like punching the guy in the throat. He didn’t have the patience for all this bullshit. “They’re in yer pocket,” he snapped. “Now how do you know Sam?”
“Sam and me go a long way back. We used to be Texas Rangers together,” Brent finally answered and lit a cigar. “I give you fair warning. Don’t mess with him.”
“Why, is he a friend of yours?”
Brent snorted. “He used to be, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect him. He’s quick with a gun. Take my advice and listen to the whore. Stop flapping your gums about that ramrod job before you piss someone off.”
Brent was talking down to him and Flint didn’t like it. He was good with a gun too. He eyed Brent’s busted nose and scar running down Brent’s face. “He do that to ya?”
Brent’s expression turned dark and menacing. “Mention that again and I will blow your balls off. As for Sam, I have my own plans.”
“You plannin’ on killin’ him?”
“What I plan on doing is none of your business. I’m just warning you to stay away from him.”
Flint shook his head. “I can’t. It ain’t right havin’ a woman in charge.” He poked himself in the chest. “Out of the goodness of my heart I offered to take on the job and she turned me down flat.”
At Brent’s careless shrug, Flint continued. “Don’t ya see? Eleanor Talbot is a mighty handsome woman who now owns a ranch that’s worth a lot of money. A woman ain’t savvy enough to own anything of value. She needs a man to handle the tough stuff.”
“And you want to make sure Sam doesn’t butt in.”
Flint leaned forward. “I want that job and I’ll do just about anything to get it.”
Brent smirked. “Then maybe we both can help each other get what we want.”
Lou Talbot knelt in front of the plain wooden marker bearing the names of her beloved grandparents. Grandma had been a lively soul. She wasn’t one of those timid women who kept quiet. She’d given Grandpa a good tongue lashing whenever he’d deserved it.
Lou smiled. Most of the time she suspected her Grandpa would deliberately rattle Grandma just to hear her squawk. One thing for sure, they’d never gone to bed angry. It had been apparent that they loved each other dearly.
Grandpa had run the Circle C ranch with an iron hand but he’d been fair and paid his hired hands a decent wage. They’d had two daughters, Eleanor and Caroline. Caroline had been Lou’s mother.
She looked at the other marker which bore the names of her parents. She couldn’t remember anything about them. Lou was only three years old when they perished in a fire.
“It’s a beautiful day today, Grandpa. The sun is shining and the birds are making quite a racket.” She swallowed a sob and swiped away the lone tear rolling down her cheek. “You’ve been gone for almost two years and I still feel the pain of your loss. Aunt Eleanor is her usual feisty self, but sometimes I can hear her crying in the middle of the night. We both miss you so much.”
Lou idly plucked at the weeds overtaking the grass while she voiced her thoughts. “We’re so much alike. We got into another spat today during breakfast. You know, the one about me acting more like a tomboy instead of a lady? I know she’s right, but I don’t want to give up the things I love. Things like riding sidesaddle and speaking my mind.” She giggled. “The other day I found auntie’s secret stash of cigars and tried one when she wasn’t home. If she knew, she’d have a fit. She insists I start wearing dresses. She even tied me into one of those frilly corsets. I swear I looked like a stuffed sausage.”
That day had been a disaster. She’d felt trapped and began to jump around the room, begging her aunt to get her out of the hideous thing.
With a sigh, Lou brushed the dirt from her hands and stood up. “I’ll stop by tomorrow, Grandpa, and don’t you worry. The Circle C will remain in the family. That blowhard Flint is not coming back here and there’s no way Corbin Maxwell is getting his hands on the ranch. Auntie Eleanor and I will make sure of that.”
Shading her eyes, Lou looked up at the cloudless blue sky. “I think it’s going to be another hot day, Bonnie Jean,” she said to her beloved pet horse munching on a patch of grass. “It’s best we get our ride in early before the sun gets too high in the sky.” She jumped onto the mare’s back. “Let’s pretend we’re racing Grandpa across the field. He used to like that.”
As soon as they cleared the barn, she bent forward and urged the powerful animal beneath her into a gallop. BJ immediately took the lead. Lou murmured words of praise and encouragement as she hung on tightly to the reins. She needed this outing to clear her head of some rather worrisome thoughts. She had to stop acting like a spoiled child. She loved her aunt dearly and fully intended to rectify the situation once she came back from her ride.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, Sam settled his debt, saddled Thunderbolt, and left town. The excitement he normally felt when he continued with his travels just wasn’t there anymore.
Sam guided his horse toward the narrow winding stream and dismounted. His knee cracked, making him wince. While his horse drank greedily, he carefully knelt at the water’s edge and splashed his face. After filling his canteen, he sat back and thought about his fellow rangers. They were good men. They shared a common bond. They regarded each other as brothers—all except for Brent Fulton. The man had always thought highly of himself and made sure they all knew it.
The incident that had caused him to leave the rangers was as clear as when it happened two years ago.
The Rangers had been sent to escort a group of Indian women and children to a reservation. The day had been hot and long. Despite the hours in the saddle, that night Sam had difficulty falling asleep and had decided to take a walk around the camp, hoping it would tire him out.
All of a sudden a high-pitched cry broke the calming night sounds and he broke into a run. It came from the area where the women and children had bedded down. A whimper came from one of the tents and he barged inside. There he found Brent buck-ass naked on top of one of the younger squaws. Rage coursed through him as he saw Brent claw at her clothes.
He grabbed Brent’s arm and yanked him to his feet. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he shouted. Pissed, he shoved Brent from the tent while the man struggled to pull up his pants.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” Brent repeated incredulously while fastening his pants and buttoning his shirt. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Sam saw Brent’s fist coming and ducked. He drove his fist into Brent’s mid-section and when Brent bent forward, he swung upward. The loud crack echoed and soon blood was spurting everywhere.
Eliciting a rebel yell, Brent lashed out with his knife and sliced Sam’s knee. Sam went down hard. Falling on top of him, Brent raised the knife. Sam would never forget the hatred in the man’s eyes he saw that day.
He wouldn’t be here today if the rest of the troop hadn’t arrived when they did.
Sam made his way toward Thunderbolt. “Come on, old boy, let’s get a move on.” He swung into the saddle and they were on their way.
Seconds later, a horse galloped past him at breakneck speed. He could hear the young man riding it shout words of encouragement. Such foolish recklessness could get both animal and rider killed.
He urged Thunderbolt into a gallop. It wasn’t long before he caught up with the other rider.
“Slow down, you little cuss, before I beat your ass.”
The nasty glare he got caught him off guard. With a smirk, the rider urged the animal forward, and off they went.
Before Sam knew it he was left behind. “Dammit.” No one had ever dared to disobey his command.
He caught up to them and leaned sideways. “You’re going to break your fool neck, not to mention cripple the animal if it steps in a hole.” Sam took control of the reins and soon both horses were side by side.
“Give me back those reins, damn you!” the rider yelled.
“Not on your sweet life,” Sam shot back. The little upstart made another attempt to grab the reins and succeeded, but not for long. Sam took control again and this time tightened his grip.
A tug of war ensued. The rider looked puny, but had the strength of a bull.
“Stop it!” Sam shouted with the highest authority.
The rider immediately let the reins drop. Sam tried his best not to grin. He wasn’t the type to resort to shouting, but there had been times when a calm voice just didn’t cut it. He took a deep breath. This young man needed a thorough tongue lashing, not to mention a thrashing.
“You should be horsewhipped for pushing that animal so damn hard.” He took his eyes off the young lad for a mere second to see what lay ahead.
The next thing he knew the reins were yanked out of his hands and the little upstart held up a quirt.
“What the…? If you know what’s good for you, you better put that thing down.”
“Mister, I don’t take orders from you or anyone else. I’m very capable of taking care of myself. I’m a damn good shot, and I know this land like the back of my hand.”
“I never did like a showoff.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” A razor-sharp sting landed on the back of his hand. “That’ll teach you.”
“Jesus,” he hissed. The brat had hit him.
Livid, he lunged forward and slapped the quirt out of the lad’s hand. Sam snarled. “Hit me again with that quirt and I’ll be the one doing the teaching, on your ass. Got it?” To his surprise, the lad’s bottom lip began to quiver and he swore he saw a tear slide down one cheek.
For the love of all that’s holy, if he cried at the drop of a hat he’d never make it out on his own, that is, if he was out on his own.
“We need to have a little chat before we part ways.”
Sam ignored the belligerent tone and guided both horses toward a cluster of trees. He dismounted and went over to the palomino. “You can dismount. I don’t bite,” he said to the rider, while stroking the horse’s muzzle.
Still perched on the palomino, the rider deliberately looked the other way. “I don’t see the reason.”
Sam raised both eyes toward the heavens. “Look kid, my temper’s just about hanging by a thin thread. Do as I say…now.”
“Fine, if it’ll get you out of my hair.”
One slim leg swung high in the air. Sam took a tentative step back before he got a boot in the mouth.
With both feet on the ground, the young man barely reached his chest. “You know, for such a tiny thing you sure have a big mouth.” He propped his hands on his hips. “But that’s neither here nor there. I want to know why you were pushing that horse so damn hard.” Shit, he was downright furious. A horse was a necessity out here. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”