The Civil War is over, but the battles continue.
Callum Latimer returned from the war to a life he didn’t want and with inner battle scars he can’t heal.
Banner Payne clutched desperately to the remaining shreds of the life she’d known, but she is losing her grip.
Brought together by bad luck and cruel twists of fate, Callum and Banner forge a partnership they hope will keep them afloat even as neighboring Texas ranchers go under and their land is snapped up by opportunists.
Fate smiles on them and Callum and Banner find the missing pieces of themselves in each other.
Healing begins as their hearts are awakened. Now they must remain strong in their determination to forge a more peaceful existence and not be poisoned by the bitterness of a country still divided.
At the crest of the hill, Callum Latimer sat astride his favorite horse and surveyed the land that he’d called his home since the day he was born. In the distance, he could see a ribbon of brown, which was the road that led to neighboring spreads and, eventually, to the nearest spot of civilization, Piney Ridge, Texas. But as far as the eye could see was Latimer land.
Before the war, he’d experienced great pride and pleasure from the gently rolling countryside around him. Now the sight filled him with emptiness. The land had become an anvil around his already sagging spirit, pulling him further down into a morass of loneliness and desolation.
Removing his hat, he dragged his fingers through his damp, black hair and let the breeze comb through it. He crossed his wrists on the saddle horn and felt his shoulders slump as the weight of responsibility pressed down on him. For a few minutes, he allowed the sweet, buoyant memories of riding the range with his two laughing, joshing brothers wind through his mind. Maxwell, tall and strong as an oak, and Harrison, with his ready smile and infectious laugh.
The land was supposed to pass from his father to Maxwell, the oldest, with Callum and Harrison working alongside Max. It had always been the plan and Callum had been fine with it – more than fine. He hadn’t seen himself as a leader. Not like Max, who had marched through life with shoulders thrown back and confidence radiating from him. Born to rule, Max had never followed anyone, except for Seth, the patriarch.
Callum had been happy to take orders from his brother and father. Let them worry about the price of cattle and hard winters. He had preferred to ruminate about how long Lilah Farley would hold out before she would let him up her skirt or if it were true that one of the dancing girls at the Two Jacks Saloon had stripped down to her altogether for his cousin Eller after he’d won big in a poker game.
The yesterdays faded like cannon fire smoke. Max and Harry were gone; killed fighting a war that had been lost, along with just about everything that made life bearable. Callum had discovered that he did have leadership qualities, moving up the ranks in the Cavalry until he was marshalling troops and murdering with the best of them.
The morose melancholy that had become his constant companion since he’d returned home from the war enveloped him in its cold, clammy grip. In all his twenty-seven years, he’d never known loneliness until the war and he’d foolishly thought he’d escape it once he was on Latimer land again. It didn’t even feel like home anymore. It was more like a prison without bars or shackles. He didn’t want to be there, but he couldn’t leave.
The only things Seth Latimer had left to cling to after the War for Southern Independence were his land and his middle son. If Callum’s father had died as his mother had during the war years, Callum would have taken off. He wasn’t sure what he would have done, but he knew for damn sure he wouldn’t have stayed here where he could see the ghost of his brothers’ smiles and hear the echo of their laughter on the wind. He hated working the land without them. He did so out of respect for his father and the memory of his mother. Lacy Latimer had loved this place, even though it seemed to Callum that she’d never been entirely happy. There had always been a wistfulness about her – a yearning for something else. Something more.
As for his father . . . well, Seth Latimer held on to the cattle ranch with both red-knuckled fists and determination etched on his craggy face. Callum had been back home about six months when Seth had fallen from his horse during a stampede. His hip and shoulder had been crushed. More than a year later, Seth still could barely walk, even with the assistance of canes. He’d never sit a horse again. That was for damned sure.
Cursing under his breath, Callum closed his eyes against the glare of the afternoon sunlight and the bleakness that was his life. If he could get a decent night’s sleep, it would help. But he usually only slept a few hours before nightmares shook him awake and refused to allow his mind to settle enough so that he could fall asleep again. So, he walked the floors or sat on the porch and watched the stars with bloodshot eyes. Last night he’d taken to drink and today his head felt like it was stuffed with a bale of hay. His plan had been to get drunk enough to pass out, but the liquor had only stoked the embers of his discontent.
He rocked his wide-brimmed hat back onto his head. The distant sound of a horse and wagon reached him and he opened his eyes to see a brown puff of dust on the road below. Squinting, he examined the crudely constructed vehicle drawn by a milky white horse. It took him a few seconds before he realized who was driving the wagon.
Why in the hell was she headed for his house?
Instinctively, he reined his Palomino around and clucked her into a gallop down the hill and across the pasture land, weaving around cattle and stands of trees. Butter stretched out her legs and neck as she raced home. The horse was lathered and so was Callum by the time the house came into view.
Seth Latimer sat in one of the over-sized rockers on the porch, one big hand stroking his favorite hound’s head. His thick, gnarled walking canes lay at his feet. “Where’s the fire?” he called out to Callum as he dismounted.
“Where’s Mary?” Callum asked, peering through the open doorway into the house. It was early afternoon and too soon for Mary Killdeer to have already left his father alone to fend for himself. She usually came out onto the porch when she heard approaching riders.
“Why? Did something happen?” He tensed, wondering if Ki Echohawk, Mary’s husband, or their sons, all of whom worked on the Latimer ranch, had run into some trouble.
“I’m tired of having her here,” his pa snapped. “She was going to burn some more fatback and fry some of that dry bread of hers and I told her I’d rather eat cow dung.”
“Pa . . .” Callum bit back the curses he wanted to aim at his stubborn father. “You can’t do for yourself and Mary is—”
“In my way most of the time,” Seth grumbled. “Mary Killdeer is a good woman. She’s raised three fine sons that I’m proud to have working on this ranch, but for the life of me, I don’t know how those boys eat that slop of hers. And how in the hell does Ki stomach it?”
“They’re used to it, I reckon.” Callum concentrated on loosening the saddle billets to make Butter more comfortable. He was tired of this same argument and he was sure Mary was sick of it, too. Callum was well aware that the only reason Mary hadn’t already quit on him was because she knew he had no one else to depend on to help with his surly father.
“What you doing riding back here like your tail’s on fire? I thought you were digging another well today.”
“I am. I was. You’ll never guess who’s heading this way. Settle now, Butter,” he murmured, patting her flank. He dropped the reins, letting the big mare graze.
“Who?” Seth tilted back his hat and sent a stream of tobacco juice past the porch railing. “Eller Hawkins? That lazy, good-for-nothing—”
“No,” Callum said, slicing off yet another tirade about his cousin, who was supposed to be working on the ranch, but barely broke a sweat and rarely did a full day’s work. “Otis Payne’s daughter. Banner.”
Seth coughed, almost choking on this tobacco chew, and his filmy green eyes watered. “She’s got no business on this land,” he wheezed out.
Callum walked up the steps to the porch and turned to stare toward the horizon. “Hope it’s not bad news. Maybe something to do with her brother. There she is.” He nodded at the dot in the distance.
“That Hollis is touched in the head.”
“Don’t say that in front of her.” Callum tossed a scowl over his shoulder at his father, feeling the bite of that comment. Banner’s surviving brother had been broken by the war – not physically, but mentally. He couldn’t escape the conflict and mayhem. Callum could empathize because he had a devil of a time stopping the scenes from playing over and over in his head, too.
“That whole Payne clan ain’t worth shooting.” Seth curled his upper lip for better effect. “Be a waste of good bullets. Best to cut their throats and let them—”
“Pa, ease up.” Callum set his back teeth. “Let’s hear what the girl has to say before you draw and quarter her.” He was relieved when his father fell back in the chair with a disgusted grunt.
As long as he could remember, the Paynes were the family everyone in these parts shunned. His pa made noise about Otis Payne stealing cattle from him, but the bad blood between him and Otis went farther back than that – years before Callum was born. The Paynes had a good piece of land and had usually turned out a healthy herd of cattle, but they were a slovenly lot. The children had always looked unkempt. That probably had to do with them not having a mother to look after them. Alva had died when Banner was just a babe.
The war had taken two of her brothers, leaving only Hollis. Otis had died six months before the war ended. Callum had heard that Banner was running the Payne ranch, but he didn’t believe it. He figured Hollis was trying to be the boss and his cowhands were taking advantage of him. Stealing him blind, probably. That’s what he’d heard from Eller and from folks in town.
Leaning a shoulder against the porch post, Callum watched the horse and wagon make its way toward the house. Behind him, the hound growled. “No, Rowdy,” he commanded and the growl faded to whine.
The sun burned his eyes, making it difficult to discern any details of the Payne’s girl’s face. She reined the sway-backed horse in the shade of the house and Callum could finally see her bonnet and pretty dress. After she wrapped the reins around the brake, she turned toward him and a smile curved her pink lips as her gaze met his boldly, confidently.
Callum shifted his weight from one boot to the other as a bolt of awareness shot through him. Damn, she’d grown into a beauty, he thought, taking in her reddish brown hair and heart-shaped face. And those eyes – dark gold. The eyes of a tiger.
“’Afternoon to you, Misters Latimer.” Her voice had a husky quality, as pleasing as aged whiskey. “I bet you’re surprised to see me.”
“I don’t like surprises,” Seth said.
She swallowed and her smile faltered for a moment. Directing her full attention to Callum, she took in a breath that lifted her breasts and the white ruffles covering them. “Your herd looks profitable. Good, sound stock.”
“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Callum said, wondering what was going on under that blue bonnet. She was up to something – but what? “How’s the Payne herd?”
Her smile vanished and she shrugged. “Not what it should be. I’m missing some. It’s been a bad year for calves, but a good year for coyotes, wolves, and rustlers.”
“Your pappy stole cattle from me,” Seth said, repeating an oft-spouted accusation.
Banner’s gaze whipped to the older man’s frowning visage and Callum could almost feel her fighting back scalding words.
“Sir, my father is dead and can no longer defend himself.” She squared her shoulders. “And I’m not here to fight old battles. I have new ones to address. I’ll come right the point as I know you have work to attend to – as have I. Northerners are sniffing around our place and several have offered to buy me out.”
“Damn Yankees,” Seth groused and Rowdy growled as if in agreement.
Banner gave a sniff of contempt. “Of course, they want to pay half of what it’s worth.” She looked off into the distance and it seemed that a shadow passed over her face. “Looks like I’m going to have to sell. I don’t want the Yankees to prosper from what my family bled and died for, so I’m here to offer it to you.” Her gaze swept to Callum again. “I’ll sell it to you. All I ask is that you let Hollis stay on.”
Her matter-of-fact tone and the desperation underlying it ambushed him. He never expected her to offer his family anything of value. Callum looked at his father, who was slack-jawed. He cleared his throat. “You’d stay on with Hollis?”
“With . . ?” She shook her head. “No. I’d go into town and find work. The ranch is more than I can handle.”
“Guess your brother is lazy as the day is long and no help to you,” Seth said in his growly way of talking.
Aggravation pinched her features. “My brother is the only ranch hand I can depend on. For your information, he is by no means lazy. If I had five more men just like him, I wouldn’t be here.”
Callum stared hard at her. Maybe she was running the ranch instead of Hollis. “How many hands you got working your herd?”
She didn’t answer him right away, and from her pained expression, he knew he’d finally found the quicksand she’d been trying to avoid.
“I’m down to two, not counting Hollis,” she said in a near whisper.
“Two!” Seth sputtered.
“What happened to the others?” Callum asked. Granted, the Payne spread was half the size of the Latimer Ranch, but three men wouldn’t be able to work a decent herd of longhorns.
“We had to let them go. We didn’t have money to pay them.” She jutted out her chin in a defiant gesture.
“What did you do with the money you got from last year’s herd?” Would she confess the truth? Or was she deaf and blind to what was going on under her nose?
She sat straighter and didn’t bat an eye when she answered, “We were robbed.”
“You saying that you didn’t get a fair price at market?” Seth asked.
Before she could reply, Callum stepped down off the porch and rested a hand on the swayback nag. He knew she wasn’t talking about market prices. “Who made off with your money?”
“I don’t know.” Her lips trembled slightly before she gathered them into a tight bud. “On the way back from market, my men were jumped. They said the robbers wore handkerchiefs across the lower part of their faces.”
Callum glanced back at his father and exchanged a knowing nod. Yep. That was a lie told by the very men who took off with her money. And she probably knew it, too. She just couldn’t admit it.
“Everybody’s got their troubles,” Seth said, giving her no quarter. “You ain’t special.”
“I never said I was!” Her eyes blazed, but then just as quickly, she looked away and gathered in a breath. “I’m not asking for favors. I’m here to sell you my land. I was thinking that a fair price would be—”
“We don’t have money to buy land,” Callum cut her off. “What money we have will go toward the necessities like feed and wages.” He watched the hope die in her eyes and gave a shrug. “Our Confederate money is as worthless as yours. We’re building our bankroll slowly, like every other Rebel rancher in these parts.”
“That’s right, girl. Get on back home. We got nothing for you here.”
“There’s no way we can strike a deal?” she asked, keeping her attention on Callum and ignoring his father. “You can pay me a little at a time. The Payne ranch land is coveted, what with Mossy Springs running through it. And while the house isn’t much, the barn and stables are water-tight.”
“No means no, girl,” Seth said before sending an arc of tobacco juice over the porch railing in her direction. “Nothing you got is of any interest to us.”
Callum ran a hand down the horse’s flank, wishing his father would stow his bitterness for a few minutes so he could think. Mossy Springs would be a prize. Water was scarce on the Latimer ranch. Wells had to be dug and water hauled to troughs. Their cow ponds went shallow by high summer and that’s why he’d been digging a well all day. A natural water source would be a real blessing.
Banner gathered the reins in her small hands. That’s when Callum saw the scratches on them and the dark bruise on the inside of her wrist. Glancing up, he noticed the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and tanned cheeks. This girl had been working the ranch – and working hard. Had to be near impossible for her. If she were like every other female in these parts, she’d been taught how to clean and cook—
Suddenly, a memory floated to him of a church picnic where pies had been auctioned off to raise money for new hymnals. Eller had bought Banner Payne’s strawberry pie and had shared it with him. It had been the sweetest, tastiest . . . his mouth watered just thinking about it.
“I’ll come by tomorrow morning to take a look at your place,” Callum said.
Startled, her golden brown eyes widened. “I-I . . . tomorrow? Very well.”
“I can’t buy it,” he said, not wanting to give her false hope. “But maybe I can figure out something to help you.”
Her lips softened and the hint of a smile teased one corner of her mouth, making a dimple appear in her cheek. “Thank you.”
“You’re going over there for what?” Seth asked, clearly aggravated.
Callum stepped back and touched his fingers to his hat brim. “I’ll be around shortly after sunup, if that’s okay.”
“Yes. Fine. Good day.” She flicked the reins and set the wagon in motion.
“What in the hell are you thinking?” Seth groused, temper rising like red flags in his cheeks.
Callum watched the wagon bump along the land, secretly amused by Banner Payne’s quick getaway. High-tailin’ it before he could change his mind.
“You hear me?” Seth demanded. “I asked you a question, son.”
Callum swung around to him. “I’m thinking that Mossy Springs would serve us better than it would some Yankee carpetbaggers looking to steal good cattle land. Our biggest drawback is our lack of a good water source.” He jabbed a finger at the departing wagon. “She could solve that problem for us.”
“And what are you going to give her in return? We don’t have money to spend on land and you damn well know it!”
“Won’t hurt to take a look at her place. I haven’t set foot on Payne land since I was a boy.”
“Big waste of your time, if you ask me.”
“My time to waste,” Callum murmured as he gathered Butter’s reins and led her toward the barn. Yep, that pie had been larruping. That girl could cook. And he’d liked the way she hadn’t backed down when his father had growled at her. She had spunk. A risky plan began to form in his mind. A crazy plan. But, hell, times were crazy and she just might go for it. If she did, a couple of his biggest headaches would be eased. Considerably eased.
As he walked to the stables, he reached out automatically and his fingers drifted down over the carved letters in the facing and sadness bled into him.
The three brothers – now down to just him.
Trudging to the wall where he kept tools, he removed a shovel from its hook. He still had a well to dig and the spade he’d been using needed a finer edge put on it. Still had some daylight left, so he might actually get done before night. He turned and a memory of Max guffawing as he watched Callum trying to teach Harrison how to dance flooded his mind. He could almost hear the laughter . . .
“Goddamn it,” he bit out, his anger spiking as he squeezed his eyes shut to block out the memory. “Damn it to hell and back!” But, what good did it do to cuss and slam your fists into whatever or whoever happened to be near? Just busted up your knuckles and sometimes landed you in jail for the night. Didn’t make the pain go away or bring back his brothers. Goddamn war. Southern Independence, hell! All that blood and destruction, for what? Graves and broken spirits. Hollowed out people wandering the south, full of despair and hatred.
Just like him. Empty, except for the never-ending, gut-twisting sorrow of having his whole life blown to bits. All he had were pieces of it. Useless, lifeless shards of a world that used to be filled with gaiety and love. His brothers. His mother. His joys in life. All gone.
Leaving the stables, he paused in the wide entrance and his gaze was drawn inexorably to the carved names, sending his mind back to the day they’d etched those letters into the wood to show how tall each stood. Growing boys. Ornery, grinning, guffawing, tussling boys.
Emotion thickened in his throat and he jerked his gaze away from the names and that tenderfoot time when none of them had heard the boom of a cannon or the screams of dying men. With grim resolve, he faced the life he had now. A life that was as hollow as he felt.
The sun had just cleared the horizon when the Payne house and barn came into Callum’s view. She was right. The house was a sorry sight with a sagging roof, sagging front steps, and a front door hanging on by one hinge. Callum thought she’d be waiting for him, probably out on the porch, but she was nowhere in sight as he reined Butter under an old spreading elm tree. Hens fluttered and squawked. Several ducked under the house.
“Miss Payne?” Callum sat astride his horse and waited. He surveyed the place, listening for sounds of human life, but heard and saw nothing. A movement out by the barn drew his attention. A stoop-shouldered man with corn silk hair emerged from the dark interior and stepped out into a pool of sunlight. Three black-and-white herding dogs circled him, yipping for his attention. “Hey there, Hollis. Is your sis around here?”
“She told me you were coming, but I didn’t believe it.” Hollis crossed the dirt yard with long, lanky strides, shooing the dogs in his path. “Why would Cal Latimer lower himself to ride his fine Palomino horse onto Payne land, I asked her. Sure, it would be neighborly and all, but the Latimers have never been good neighbors. More like they spit on us if we get too close to them.” The speech was delivered matter-of-factly and without rancor.
“Times change.” Callum held the man’s gaze, refusing to let him spark his ire. “And I’ve never spit on a Payne in my whole damned life.”
Hollis squinted hard at Callum, and then bobbed his hunched shoulders. Life had stamped lines on his lean face, making him look more like forty than thirty. “She’s coming. She got cow kicked yesterday and she’s moving slow this morning.”
“Cow kicked? Is she—?” Then he spied her. She came limping around the corner of the house, one arm cradling a basket against her hip and the other waving over her head at him.
“Good morning! I was gathering eggs.” The dogs switched their allegiance to her. She patted the hounds’ heads with her free hand.
“Are you okay?” He swung out of the saddle. Stupid question, he thought, noting the pinch of pain at the corners of her eyes and mouth. He’d been kicked a hundred times or more by ornery cows and it never was okay. “Where’d it get you?”
Her gaze flashed to her brother in an instant of irritation. “In the side.” She attempted a light-hearted laugh. “Serves me right. I know better than to stand too near the business end of a cow that’s flailing around trying to free herself from a mudhole.”
“You break anything?”
“No, no.” She smiled and gave a careless wave. “It’s nothing. Won’t you come in for a cup of coffee?”
He studied her another moment, ensnared by her mettle, before he came back to his purpose. “Thanks, but I don’t have the time. I mainly wanted to have a look at your place.”
“Oh.” She looked a little crestfallen.
He wasn’t here to trade howdy-dos with her, so he turned toward Hollis. “Could you saddle up and show me around? Maybe take me to look at your herd?”
“I can do that,” Banner said. “Just give me a minute to—”
“No, don’t trouble yourself.” He realized he’d spoken too quickly by her frown of exasperation. “You probably need to take it easy today,” he added, attempting to smooth her ruffled feathers. It didn’t work. If anything, her scowl deepened. He shrugged. Let her get riled at him. Might be the first time, but it sure as shootin’ wouldn’t be the last.
“I can ride,” she insisted.
“Hollis said you’re sore.”
“Hollis should let me speak for myself.”
“Yeah, yeah, I ain’t much for standing around jawing when there’s work to be done and livestock to feed. Come on.” Hollis motioned to him. “My horse is in the barn already saddled. I was getting ready to ride out anyways.” He held up a hand when Banner started to say something. “We’ll be back soon. Have breakfast ready, why don’t you?”
Eyeing first her brother and then Callum, she finally puffed out a breath, turned on her boot heels, and limped to the house. Callum watched her take the three porch steps slowly, gingerly, and shook his head at her stubborn pride.
“She’s got a goose egg bump on her thigh turning all kinds of colors,” Hollis said. “Nothing’s broken, though. She’ll mend. She’s tough.” He was already walking back to the barn.
Callum swung back up into the saddle. Maybe he was crazy to think that this stubborn slip of a girl would be able to spend any time under the same roof with his cantankerous bear of a father without one or the other doing bodily harm. Instead of solving problems, he could be stirring up a hornet’s nest, but he had to do something, even if it was wrong.
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