Kansas State Penitentiary
Leavenworth County, Kansas
December 4, 1878
“You’ve served your time, McAllister. You’re free to go.”
Clay McAllister shivered as the iron gates clanged
shut behind him. The December cold cut to his bones. His cheap prison-issue coat
was too thin for the weather, but it would have to do until he got back to
Back home—if he still had a home.
A lot of could change in three years, Clay knew.
His wife hadn’t written to him once. The only thing he’d received from her were
his own unopened letters, with a terse “Return to Sender” penned on each
envelope. The returned letters had told him, at least, that she was still living
on the ranch. But they answered none of his other questions.
Why was Elise so angry? Didn’t she know what had
happened to him?
What in hell’s name had gone wrong?
The memory of that awful night still darkened
Clay’s dreams. He and his eighteen-year-old brother Buck had driven a thousand
head of longhorn cattle up the trail to Abilene. After selling them for top
dollar, they’d paid off the hired vaqueros and set out for an evening of
celebration. A bath, a good meal and a couple of drinks had been enough for
Clay. With the cash in the hotel safe, he’d retired early to rest up for the
He’d drifted off to sleep with a smile on his
face. The money from the cattle sale—almost $20,000—would pay off the debts on
the ranch and give them a good start for next year. It would also buy the new
furniture Elise had been wanting, as well as clothes and toys for their
two-year-old boy, Toby. They’d been living on the ragged edge of poverty for so
long. What a pleasure it would be to buy nice things for his wife and child.
Sometime after midnight he’d awakened to discover
that Buck’s bed was empty. His brother hadn’t returned to the hotel.
Worried, Clay had dressed and gone out looking for
him. Buck was a strapping lad, able to do a man’s work on the trail. But at
eighteen he had a lot to learn. Abilene was as rough as any cow town on the map,
a place where a young man could get into no end of trouble. As he searched the
saloons and gambling dens and checked the drunks passed out on the boardwalk,
Clay had lashed himself for leaving Buck on his own. If anything had happened to
the boy, he would never forgive himself.
He’d lost track of the time it took to work his
way toward the far end of the street. Here, even at this late hour, the
discreetly shuttered houses swarmed with activity. Half-opened doorways offered
glimpses of seductively clad women. Raucous female laughter and the notes of a
tinny piano drifted through the darkness.
Damn him! Clay didn’t relish the thought of
dragging Buck out of a whorehouse. But he was getting worried—and angry. He’d
raised his kid brother after their parents died, and he’d tried to teach him
decent values. But it appeared that the lessons hadn’t taken. When he found the
young whelp, by heaven, Buck was going to get the tongue lashing of his life!
He was mounting the steps of the first house when
he heard the commotion. Upstairs, in the place across the street, a fight had
broken out. Glass shattered as a chair smashed through a window. Shouts and
screams erupted in the night, accompanied by the sound of crashing furniture and
Thinking only of his brother, Clay plunged across
the street, shoved his way inside and charged up the stairs. By then the whole
place had become a melee of shrieking women and their scrambling customers. In a
lamplit room at the end of the hall he found Buck, half dressed and fighting off
three men. A tired-looking redhead, her makeup smeared, cringed in a corner,
clutching a sheet against her body.
One of the men, a stocky, fellow in a checkered
suit, had drawn a hidden knife. The blade flashed as he made a lunge for Buck.
Reacting instinctively, Clay seized a cast iron boot jack and swung it against
the man’s head. The man sagged to the floor, collapsing without a sound.
Seconds passed before someone realized he wasn’t
A sudden hush fell over the room. Rough hands
seized Clay from behind, holding him fast. Before they dragged him away, Clay
managed to mouth a few words to his brother.
“Get out of here, Buck. Take the cash from the
hotel and ride for all you’re worth. Give the money to Elise and tell her what
happened. I’ll come as soon as I can.”
His trial was speedy. Under different
circumstances Clay might have gone free on the grounds of defending his brother.
But the man he’d struck down was a city councilman, and the town was screaming
for justice. With a verdict of manslaughter, he was sentenced to serve five
years in the state penitentiary. Good behavior had gotten him out in a little
more than three.
Clay had never learned what the fight was about.
And he’d never heard from Buck again.
Now, mounted on an aging buckskin horse that was
all he could afford, Clay headed through swirling snow—south by southwest, along
the empty cattle trails to the high Texas plains he called home.
With luck, he would be there by Christmas.
2009; Harlequin Historicals, ISBN #
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