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Chapter One

Colorado Territory

1867

“You sure better look out for thet durn Sommers’ girl, Jace.”

It was the fifth time since coming home that he’d heard the ominous warning and Jace snorted. “I can handle some little girl, Pete.” He found the idea that some little girl had the entire town buffaloed amusing as hell. He was sure and certain his Daddy wouldn’t permit some female to get the best of him, and he sure wouldn’t either!

“She ain’t a normal female, thet one!” The storekeeper mumbled, shaking his head. “She weren’t none too happy ‘bout you comin’ home.”

“I can’t figure out why.” Jace said as he pushed his hat back off his forehead. It was hot as hell, and still a few weeks before July hit. “She hasn’t even met me!” He reminded the other man.

“I don’t really know, but she set up an awful fuss when she heard tell you was comin’ back to care for your Daddy.” Pete looked down at the list of supplies that Jace asked him to fill. “Speakin’ of your Daddy, how the hell is he doin’? It sure don’t seem right not to see him in town no more.”

“He’s still confined to bed, Pete. There’s no sign that he knows anyone. Doc says it won’t be long ‘til we lose him, but you know Daddy. He’s stubborn, and if anyone can buck the odds and prove Doc wrong, it will be my Daddy.”

“I sure hope to tell you he can!”

Pete was a fan of Big Joe Cutter, as were most of the citizens living in Cutter. Joe and his brother Frank founded the town many years ago and held it against the Indians in spite of the odds. They carved out a large acreage for themselves, and ran a huge cattle enterprise. Big Joe and Frank helped out pretty near everyone in the area at some time or another, and people looked up to them. Frank never married, and when he died, he left his share of the large ranch to his nephew, Jace. Now that Big Joe was lying in bed from a massive stroke, Jace was home to take over the daily operation of the Circle C Ranch. He owed that to his Daddy and his Uncle Frank.

“It would be a pleasure to see him up and giving orders.” Jace agreed. He and his Daddy fought tooth and nail for as far back as Jace could remember. It was his Uncle Frank who taught him to ride and use a gun, and it was the one thing that Big Joe and Frank argued most about. Big Joe didn’t like it that Jace made a living with his fast, deadly gun. If Big Joe wasn’t so damned ornery all the time, Jace maintained that he wouldn’t have left home. Big Joe maintained that it was all the hard work that drove his lazy boy away.

“So tell me about the Sommers girl, Pete.” Jace invited, prepared to be amused. How could folks be so buffaloed by one little gal?

“She’s hell on wheels, thet one. She sure ain’t no lady, neither. She cusses worse than any man in this entire town!”

“Why doesn’t someone take her in hand?”

“’Cause no one has a death wish, thet’s why!” With those words Pete made the Sign of the Cross over his body… even though he wasn’t Catholic!

*****

Liberty Sommers was so tired of being angry, and that was a dangerous thing. She was not one bit happy that Jace Cutter was home to take care of his Daddy, and it was time to get rid of him once and for all. She knew the perfect way, too! She’d been watching over the Circle C all day, hoping for a time she could sneak inside the house and see Big Joe again. The housekeeper, that nosy Indian woman who’d been part of the household since before Liberty was born, would never permit her to come inside and see Big Joe; but she was outside working in her garden, and Liberty was good at climbing trees and going in through an open window on the opposite side of the house to get inside. She’d done it several times since Big Joe had his stroke.

She climbed the tree without a bit of trouble and then entered Big Joe’s bedroom by way of the window. Liberty told herself to school her features and not let her emotions get the better of her as she made her way to his bed. It only took her a moment to realize that Big Joe wasn’t any better. She hoped that he was completely unaware of the state of his poor body. She touched his hand and then said, “I had to come and see you, Big Joe, and tell you how much you mean to me. I’m not sure you can hear a thing I say, but I owe you plenty, and I’m going to see to it that Jace pays up for all the worry he’s caused you. If he wasn’t so selfish he would have been here all along, helping you run this ranch! Now that you’re sick, he’s come home to inherit what you built! It’s not fair, Big Joe, and I’m going to send him on his way! I promise before God that I will make sure you get good care. I can’t ever thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I do love you, Joe, and I wish God will hear my prayers and heal you.” Liberty thought she felt his finger move, but decided it was her imagination. His eyes remained unmoving and sightless, and his body did not move. In just a few weeks he’d lost so much weight that she doubted anyone would think him “Big” ever again! Holding back her tears, Liberty leaned down and kissed his cheek. “God be with you, my friend.” Liberty left the room and sneaked down the hallway to an empty bedroom. She would hide there until it was time for phase one of getting rid of Jace Cutter!

*****

Jace was bone-weary tired. Working with his gun was difficult, too, but in a completely different way than running a ranch he hadn’t lived on for eight years. He and his Daddy couldn’t agree on anything and Jace left when he was twenty. He thought he knew everything at that age, and his big mouth got him in plenty of trouble. It was due to that, defending himself from those who took exception to his brash behavior, that earned him his reputation with a gun. He’d worked ranches, and hired on to protect people when range wars erupted. His body was still strong, but some chores on a ranch just plain weren’t easy. All he wanted was a beer, some food, a hot bath, and his bed. But, before that, he needed to go to his Daddy’s room and look in on him. Without Martha, he wouldn’t be able to run the ranch the way he was doing. She took care of Big Joe all day long. Jace got up several times during the night to look in on Big Joe. They were like oil and water, but Jace still loved the man, and wanted to be near him.

“Hey, Daddy. What kind of stupid cattle are you raising on this ranch these days? Ten of them decided it would be a good time to take a walk in the mud pit on the South pasture. Durn fools. You would have been cussing your head off at them if you’d been there to raise hell, Daddy. Of course they fought us every step of the way. They’d rather stand there and bawl than cooperate with us in getting them out! I guess I earned my supper tonight. I threatened the lot of them with a quick death the next time they did something that stupid; told them that we’d have a big ole barbeque and feed the neighbors for miles around if they did it again. Didn’t scare them none but it sure made me feel better.” He sat there, quietly contemplating for a while before saying, “I was such a smartass, Daddy; a kid who knew it all. I just want you to know that I’ve grown up in the last eight years and I regret putting you through all the worry my cocky attitude caused. It’s damn hard to be the boss, and no matter how hard I thought I was working back then, you were working ten times harder than anyone else on this ranch. I appreciate that now, Daddy. I just hope I am half the man and half the boss you’ve always been. You try to sleep now, and I’ll check on you again before I turn in for the night. I’m going to wash off some of this dirt before I go down to the kitchen for some supper. I don’t want to take on Martha tonight. As pooped as I am, she would make spit of me in about two seconds flat!” He laughed, and then left the room.

Jace went down the hall to his bedroom and the same uneasy feeling that used to save his life settled over him. He felt as though he was being watched. He drew his gun and methodically searched every place in the room that was large enough for a man to hide. He found no one, but rather than reassure him, he was even more concerned as the uneasy feeling continued as he washed up and donned clean clothing that wasn’t covered in mud from those damn beef cows. Something just didn’t feel right, and he kept his gun close at all times. His eyes were on the mirror so he could see behind him, too. When he was finished cleaning up, he left the room and the uneasy feeling disappeared.

*****

Liberty sighed in relief when Jace Cutter finally left the bedroom. She would have to remember that his instincts were sharp, and she would need to remain hidden until he was sound asleep before she made her move. And while she waited in the cramped space, she would not permit herself to think about how Jace Cutter looked without his shirt on! She’d seen men without their shirts before, and most of them looked better with their shirts on, she uncharitably decided, but not so Jace Cutter! His chest was simply perfect. His arms were muscular, his shoulders broad, his waist slim, and he looked like a real man was supposed to look. Not that she should be paying attention to that. She was going to scare the man out of his wits, and send him running from the Circle C!

Of course, the space where she was wedged was tight and cramped and she didn’t know how much longer she could remain hidden. It was dark as midnight, and she had to remind herself that the darkness protected her from Jace’s keen eye. Hopefully this was the only night she had to go through with something like this.

*****

“Was anyone here to see Daddy today, Martha?” Jace asked as he entered the kitchen.

“No. No one comes. They do not believe he hears them.”

“And you think he does?” Jace asked as he took the chair at the table she pointed him to.

“My old grandfather fell and hit his head on a rock jutting from the ground. It seemed he was asleep and could not wake, but after a very long time, maybe a month of moons, he sat up and said he heard all of our visits. He told us all of things we said to him. I believe Big Joe will wake one day and speak of things.” It was a long speech for the woman. She silently placed a heaping plate of hot food in front of Jace and poured him a tall glass of milk, which he loved. She sat the milk pitcher in front of him, and then put bread and butter with a dish of jam on the table, too. “You eat, Jace. You need to keep up your strength. I hear you up at night.”

“Do you think we need to hire a nurse for Daddy, Martha? I don’t want to wear you out, either.”

She looked at him for a long time and then turned to leave the room. When she was almost gone, she turned to say, “Yes. It might help him to have someone with him all the time. I must leave him to do the wash and ironing and to cook, and tend my garden. Big Joe needs people; he always has.”

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow, Martha.” Jace promised. It was no secret that Martha loved his Daddy as a woman loves a man. Jace also knew that Martha was the reason his Daddy never remarried after his Mama died.

“You are a good son, Jace. I know Big Joe is proud of you.” She left the kitchen then and he knew she was going to her room for the night and he wouldn’t see her again until she fixed breakfast for them. It was her way. Jace would clean up after himself so that she would find her kitchen spotless in the morning. He owed her that much respect.

He felt better once he’d eaten his fill, and it didn’t take him long to clean up the table and put away the leftovers and wash his dishes. It surely wasn’t the first time he’d done so. He was tired and wanted to go straight to bed, but he had a couple of letters he needed to answer before that happened, and he also needed to record the supplies he bought for the ranch in the ledger of expenses. If his Daddy ever recovered, the first thing he would do was check the bookwork and make sure that every last nail and board was accounted for. He liked to figure out the profit the ranch was making. Jace wasn’t going to disappoint Big Joe. He’d realized his Daddy had the right of it and it was a matter of pride now to attend to the business end of running a ranch in the manner his parent taught him.

Once the letters were written, Jace went outside and breathed in the smell of home. Things seemed fine, and the uneasiness he felt earlier was gone. He went up the steps and straight to his Daddy’s room. Big Joe was lying there just as he had earlier; just as he had since the hired hands carried him inside after the stroke felled him. “Martha fixed a really good supper for me tonight, Daddy. She’s a good woman; I hope you know that. She’s special, and she loves you a lot.” Big Joe’s little finger moved against Jace’s hand. “Daddy, you moved your finger. Can you do it again?” He asked, and waited, but it didn’t happen. “It’s okay if you can’t right now.”

Jace told him of the letters he answered and what he wrote and then he said, “I have to turn in. I wish I knew if you needed or wanted something. I’d get it for you if I could. Daddy, Martha and I talked this evening, and I am going to hire a nurse to come in and help out. I think Martha needs more help than I can give her and keep the ranch going, too. She agreed to it, and I’ll do my best to hire someone you would like. If you can hear me, Daddy…Please try to get better. We all want to keep you with us a lot longer.” He touched Big Joe’s hand and said good night before leaving the room. Big Joe moved his little finger again.

That uneasy feeling gripped Jace once again as he entered his bedroom. He looked around, examining every corner of his room, even under his bed, and he found nothing. His wardrobe was empty of anything but his clothing. There was no one in his room, so why was he so jumpy all of a sudden? There was no way in hell a man could hide in his room without Jace seeing him. Resolutely, he stripped down to his underwear and crawled into bed. His gun was within easy reach, just like it always was. Jace had the ability to sleep soundly but come to a wakeful state in less than a second if a board creaked or a door opened. Within moments he was sleeping soundly and snoring softly. All of a sudden there was a screeching wail and he was sure that they were under Indian attack! He hit the floor, grabbing his gun as he did so, and looked to see who was threatening him.

Jace looked and looked again, but didn’t see a thing that was out of place. He jumped to his feet and ran down the hallway and into his Daddy’s room, determined to protect him. Big Joe’s eyes were wide open, but he said nothing. “I heard something strange, Daddy! For a minute there I thought we were being attacked by Indians. I must’ve been dreaming, ‘cause there isn’t a darn thing out of place in this house! I’m sorry if I scared you by barging in here like a crazy man.” He made sure his father was covered with a blanket, and then he made his way downstairs to check on Martha. Her door was closed, and when he cracked it open he heard her gentle, even breathing that told him she was sleeping peacefully. He went outside and walked around the house, not giving the first damn if the hands saw him in his underclothes. The horses were undisturbed, and the barn was empty of humans. Shaking his head in disgust with himself, Jace returned to the house and to his room.

It took a bit longer to get to sleep this time, but finally Jace closed his eyes and drifted off. Once again there was a blood-curdling scream and the sound was coming from above him!

 


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