Bandera County, Texas
“Lookie there, boys. The lady ain’t got no underwears!”
Pausing just inside the swinging doors, Bailey McShane felt her face turn branding-iron hot. The patrons of the Bullwhip Saloon hooted, sloshing whiskey to toast their fellow cattleman’s jest. Cowboys were notoriously creative when ridiculing sheep, but likening the animals’ fleece to a female’s unmentionables was a new insult, even to Bailey.
She gripped her shotgun tighter and glared at her snickering audience. Her heart was beating faster than it had any right to be, which she considered akin to betrayal. She liked to think she’d never been afraid a day in her life. To feel the dampness of her palms and the roiling in her gut made her as mad at her body as she was at the cowpokes who’d vandalized her fences. She hated feeling weak because she was a woman.
Her foreman would’ve wanted to come to protect her – a constant struggle between them, which irritated her to no end — so rather than telling MacTavish about her property damage, she’d ridden off without him. She’d figured the wire cutters she was hunting would take a Scottish immigrant no more seriously than they took a sheep-raising female.
Tonight would be different, though. Tonight she’d be someone to reckon with. She’d come to the enemy camp to demand the compensation she was due, and she’d be damned before she’d hide behind some man’s britches. In business, as in war, there was no room for a lady.
Hiking her rolled-up blue jeans, Bailey narrowed her eyes beneath her Stetson and stepped with her hound into the smoky squalor of the Bullwhip Saloon.
The main room was unusually crowded for droving season. Bailey darted her gaze past the counter, with its clutter of dirty glasses, whooping gamblers, and spinning dice cage, then scanned the flushed and craggy faces laughing around the tables. The drought had forced most of Bandera’s cattlemen to drive their steers to market early, selling their best beef at prices that amounted to robbery. With time on their hands and boulder-sized chips on their shoulders, cowpokes came to the saloon every night to grouse about the usual: beef, sod busters, barbed wire, and woolies.
But one of these men, Bailey was certain, had done more than grouse. Someone in this nest of rat snakes had committed an act of vandalism that had provoked war in several of Texas’s other drought-stricken counties. She steeled herself against her secret hurt, that one of her neighbors had lashed out at her when she’d done everything in her power to accommodate them through their hardships. She didn’t want bloodshed, but she did want what she deserved: The right to raise her sheep in peace.
“Hey, Bo Peep!” Another cowpoke bellowed, winking lewdly as he grabbed his crotch. “If it’s a ram you came lookin’ fer, I got one over here!”
Boo halted at her side. With a rumbling growl, he turned wolfish yellow eyes on her heckler and bared fangs as long as her thumb. Bailey knew a fleeting sense of satisfaction when her detractor blanched, edging unsteadily toward the safety of the counter.
Tugging a man’s glove from her belt, she dangled it beneath her hound’s twitching nose. “Find the wire cutter, Boo. Find the bastard who has been raiding my wells.”
Boo’s spindly tail wagged in understanding. Snout to the sawdust, he weaved among the lip-locked couples on the dance floor. One of the hurdy-gurdy girls interrupted her kiss long enough to pat Boo’s massive head. Her partner scowled.
“Here now, Miss Bailey,” the barkeep called above the abysmally tuned piano. Balancing a fistful of empty mugs in one hand, he planted the other on his hip. “I told you can’t visit the Bullwhip no more if you’ve come to raise a ruckus.”
Boo paused, sniffing suspiciously at the barkeep’s wooden leg. The old man went rigid, his whiskered, sun-weathered face paling.
“Don’t get your shorts in a knot, Stumpy,” Bailey called as Boo, apparently dissatisfied, snuffled onward to the counter. “I’m paying a neighborly call on a wire cutter. Won’t take but a minute.”
“Neighborly, my ass.” Stumpy muttered something more virulent as Boo inspected each of the boots propped along the counter’s runner. Their owners allowed this examination with a mixture of amusement and polite tolerance. One cowpoke even tossed the hound a piece of beef jerky. But Boo, faithful to his mission, ignored this flagrant bribe.
“If that slobberin’ varmint of yours gnaws another one of my table legs, I’m charging you double. “
“Boo gave up table legs for railroad spikes,” Bailey retorted. “He’s not a puppy anymore.”
“He’s a damned beaver, that’s what he is,” Stumpy grumbled, plunking his mug down on the bar.
Meanwhile, Boo had lost interest in the silver rowels and dusty heels lounging at the counter. Winding his way through the clutter of furniture and humans, he trotted toward the stairwell that led to the second story’s “heifer corral,” where Stumpy’s advertisements bragged “a bull could get his fill.” Bailey didn’t much like the idea of her childhood playmates throwing away their bodies and their dreams, but at least Stumpy fed and clothed them and kept a roof over their heads. It was better treatment than some of the girls had gotten from their fathers — or from the husbands who’d abandoned them.
” ‘Evenin’, Miss Bailey,” Hank Rotterdam greeted, flashing a full-toothed smile as she followed her hound to the table near the stairwell. Hank’s gaze traveled from her breasts to her shotgun, then leisurely roamed back up her cotton workshirt to her breasts. “Trouble back home?”
Bailey glared at her northeastern neighbor. His handsome blonde features were aging in a beefy way, giving him a jowl that looked like a Brahma steer’s.
“I thought you might know more than most, Hank,” she replied, knowing full well the Scandinavian rancher was the biggest anti-woolie campaigner in the county. Eleven years earlier, before the rivalry had started between Hank and her father, she’d practically called the Rotterdam spread her home. Hank’s twin boys had been like pesky younger brothers to her. But the cattleman-sheepherder feud had taken its toll on friendly relations between the Rotterdams and McShanes. Now, with the drought heating tempers to the boiling point, she spent less time extending the olive branch to the twins than she did threatening to use it as a switch on their backsides.
“Now, why would you think I’d know anything, honey?” Hank drawled.
Boo whined. Growing agitated, the hound pawed at the empty chair on Hank’s left side. Bailey’s heart sank to think one of the twins had been involved in the attack on her property. Had relations between her and the Rotterdams soured that badly?
“Jeez, Bailey.” The towheaded youth at Hank’s right squinted one bleary-eye at Boo. “If that dog of yours gets any uglier, we’re gonna have to shoot it to put as out of our misery.”
Bailey ignored the younger Rotterdam twin, Nat – or, rather, Gnat, as she’d privately come to call him. “Don’t you honey me, Hank Rotterdam. Where’s Nick?”
“That’s right. Your lying, no good, cow-chip of a son.”
Hank looked amused. “You sure are a jealous woman, Bailey. Seems a bit unsporting like, you busting in here with your daddy’s scattergun. After all, you can’t blame the boy for sowing his oats elsewhere. You had your chance with Nick.”
“Nick can rut himself to perdition for all I care.”
“That’s the spirit, honey.” Hank winked, much to her irritation. “Why don’t you pull up a chair and sit with me and Nat for a spell?”
“Which bedroom is Nick in?” Bailey persisted grimly, thinking to send Boo upstairs to sniff out her suspicions once and for all.
“Can’t say,” Hank answered jovially. “Tell you what. Me and Nat’ll even buy you a drink. Reckon it’s the least we can do after you rode all the way out to the Bullwhip to find your man . . . er, indisposed.”
Bailey felt her color rising. Pressing her hands to the table, she leaned forward and locked her eyes with Hank’s cagey blue stare.
“And I’ll tell you what, Hank. You and your boys had better come up with $500 for the fences you cut and burned on my spread earlier tonight. Otherwise, I’m pressing felony charges.”
“Felony charges?” Nat roused himself from his beer. “Jeez, Bailey, I’m real sorry ‘bout your fences. But I didn’t have nuthin’ to do with it.”
Bailey didn’t bother to dignify Nat’s lie. She’d found more than one set of horse tracks leading away from the ash pile that had been her fence posts. Nat went wherever Nick did. The Rotterdam twins had always enjoyed making her life miserable. It was their way of showing they cared.
“Fence-cutting is a mean-spirited, cowardly crime,” Hank drawled, lacing his sun-blackened fingers over his ample belly. “I didn’t think Bandera County cattlemen could stoop so low.”
“Yeah.” Nat nodded, blinking hopefully at her. “You want me to ride on over to your spread and keep you safe tonight?”
“What I want,” Bailey ground out, “is Nick’s hide nailed to an outhouse wall.”
“You always did like Nick better ‘n you like me,” Nat grumbled.
“Aw, c’mon, Bailey.” Hank settled back in his chair like a man relishing the entertainment to come. “Why don’t you forget about Nick and marry Nat? They look just the same. Hell, they’ve even got the same equipment, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ll keep that in mind when I’m ready to raise hogs,” Bailey fired back. “And speaking of boars” — she matched the old man, stare for stare — “the devil will be roasting pork tonight if you don’t tell me where Nick is.”
As if on cue, the elder Rotterdam twin reeled butt-first through a bedroom door. Nick barely saved himself from toppling over the gallery’s banister and into the taproom, below, before a hail of clothing was flung after him. Every man in the saloon guffawed to see Nick stripped down to his scarlet long johns.
“Aw, c’mon, honey,” Nick protested drunkenly as the Bullwhip’s prettiest, hottest-tempered whore slammed the door in his face. “Don’t go gettin’ mad. You know I’m good for the extra $15 — “
Nick never finished wheedling. Boo loosed an earsplitting howl and lunged for the stairs.
“What the –?” Nick glanced unsteadily over his shoulder, saw his twin grab for Boo’s collar, and lost a shade or two off his tan. Dropping his hand to his hip, he found no holster and paled even more. He started beating on the door. “Open up! You forgot my gun!”
“Like hell I did, muchacho,” came the muffled reply. “I earned a sight more than your piece tonight.”
More laughter greeted this double entendre as Boo twisted, finally breaking his captor’s hold to charge the stairs. Nick cursed again. Grabbing his boots, he ran for the next bedroom, but his frenzied tagging did little more than rattle the locked door.
“Bailey!” Dashing for another escape route, Nick found that the next room was also occupied and locked. He cursed once more. “Goddammit, Arabella,, call off your dog, or I’ll have it shot!”
“You shoot my dog, and I’ll shoot you, Rotten-damn,” Bailey fired back, incensed that the little weasel had dared to blab her most hideous secret: Her name.
Meanwhile, Boo was galloping through Nick’s discarded clothing, barking with gleeful anticipation at the red-flanneled fanny, fleeing down the hall.
In desperation, Nick leaned back to kick in the last door. It swung open easily, throwing him off balance. Boo leaped, his great jaws gaping. The sound of rending fabric was followed by Nick’s shriek. Bailey caught a glimpse of lily-white buttocks before Nick slammed the door closed again, leaving Boo to snarl in frustration, a scarlet dropseat clenched in his teeth.
The floorboards shook with masculine laughter. Even Nat and Hank roared, slumping in their chairs and wiping tears from their cheeks. Disgusted, Bailey picked up her shotgun and the riding gauntlet.
“Here now, Miss Bailey.” The barkeep hurried to intercept her. “Where d’ya you think you’re going?”
“Upstairs to help my dog,” she said as Boo, rumbling with menace, flopped down on his belly and laid siege to the bedroom.
“Confound it, Bailey, you know upstairs ain’t no place for a lady.”
“You must be confusing me with my mother. Now, step aside.” She pushed past the barkeep. “I’m going after Nick.”
Suddenly the door flew open once more. A tall, lean man, who looked twice as rangy as normal in his jet-black duster, stood on the threshold. Eyes as hot and dark as firelit coals burned into Bailey’s, and she caught her breath, her heart tripping in a traitorous cadence. Zack Rawlins’s bottomless brown eyes, wealth of chestnut hair, and well-muscled limbs had been making her pulse pound ever since she’d turned 13..
“Damnation,” he muttered, “it’s you.”