Trey had avoided calling on Pete Collins for as long as he could, hoping pressure from the other ranchers would bring him around. Earlier that summer, Colonel Ashwood had questioned Pete about the differences between his version of that day at Deadman’s Point and the testimony of the dead man’s son. Jess had told the family how Collins had hemmed and hawed about maybe being farther away than he’d first thought and how things could look different from a distance. In the end he had retracted his accusations against Trey and apologized profusely to the colonel.
He had yet to apologize to Trey.
But Trey wasn’t after an apology. What he wanted was to assure himself that Pete intended to observe the uneasy peace. There had not been a single incident since the militia had stepped up patrols and Trey wanted to keep things that way.
When he rode under the arches announcing the Collins spread, he saw the rancher talking to two of his hired hands. The three of them were so intent on their conversation, Trey was nearly upon them before they noticed. “Gentlemen,” he said, tipping his fingers to the brim of his hat before dismounting.
“Trey Porterfield, you’re a ways from home.” Pete stepped forward, his hand extended. The two cowboys nodded in his direction before returning to the bunkhouse.
Trey accepted the handshake. As he’d met with the other ranchers, he had become aware that the only rancher who had suffered loss of livestock or damage to property was Pete Collins. That seemed odd to Trey. “I was hoping we might talk, Pete.”
“Well, sure. I reckon that’s overdue, come to think of it. Guess we’ve both been busy. I mean I’m hoping there’s no hard feelings between us, Trey. Your family and mine? Why your brother and me were best friends once upon a time.”
His voice was too loud and his manner too overtly friendly. Trey decided to come to the point. “I’ve called on every cattle man in these parts, Pete, and most have come around to at least agreeing that we need to be of one mind in this business.”
Collins spit a stream of chewing tobacco on the ground and squinted at Trey. “I guess I don’t rightly catch your meaning.”
“Pete, we have got to find a compromise to living side by side with herders. They aren’t going away and neither are we, so let’s work this out once and for all.”
Collins’s smile was at odds with the pure hatred Trey saw in the man’s eyes. “Look, everybody appreciates that you kind of inherited this job of managing the ranch once your sister and her husband took off for California. Truth is, our hearts went out to you. Like throwing you in the water and expecting you to swim.”
Trey returned the man’s tight smile. “Well now, I reckon I learned to swim almost before I could walk. That was something my pa made sure of. And if I understand what you’re trying to say under that pretty wrapping paper; most people around these parts are well aware that I’ve been herdin’ and roundin’ up cows since I was fourteen.”
“No doubt, my boy. But working a ranch and managing a business are different, and….”
Trey slapped Pete on the shoulder to take the edge off his reply. “Who you callin’ ‘boy’? You can’t be but maybe a year older than Jess, which makes neither one of you old enough to be my pa. Although I’ll grant you, Jess does try from time to time.”
All trace of a smile or hint of camaraderie vanished. Pete scowled at him. “What is it you want, Porterfield?”
“I already told you. I want you to sit down with me and the other ranchers and agree to get this thing worked out.”
“And what of the herders? What happens when they slaughter our cattle, cut our fences, poison our wells?”
“Then we deal with that—when it happens.”
“It already has. I lost half a dozen….”
“See now, Pete, that’s the thing. I was talking to the other ranchers and they haven’t lost a single calf or steer. For that matter, neither have I. Only you. How come?”
“Ask your wife,” Pete sneered.
Every muscle in Trey’s body stiffened and he clenched his fists so tight they felt like rocks. “My wife is not part of this discussion, Collins,” he said quietly.
“The hell she isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I get why you chased after her. She’s a real looker with a body that would give any man ideas. But if you’d used your noggin’ to do your thinkin’ instead of your….”
He didn’t finish his thought because Trey smashed his fist into the man’s leering face. The two cowboys came running and grabbed Trey as he stood over Collins.
“Let him go, boys,” Pete said as he staggered to his feet and wiped the blood running from his nose with the back of one hand. He stepped forward so close Trey could smell the onions he’d eaten earlier. “Now you listen to me, Porterfield, your pa ran this territory like he owned it all, but that’s all changed. I’m the one running things now, and I say the herders have to go. You got that?”
“Or what? You and your boys here will burn them out?”
“It’s worked before. Now git off my land.” He stepped back and accepted a bandana from one of his men, pressing it against his swollen nose. The man wasn’t even trying to deny his role in burning down Nell’s house.
Trey paused before climbing into the saddle. “You know, that house and land once belonged to a friend of yours.”
“Yeah, and George Johnson must be rollin’ over in his grave knowin’ his wife sold out to a bunch of herders. They was the ones defiled the place not…whoever set it on fire.”
Trey started to ride away.
“Hey, Porterfield,” one of the hired hands shouted when he had almost reached the arched gate that marked Collins’s land. “Watch yourself out there. It’s comin’ on dark and you never know about snipers and such.”
He heard the other hand howl with laughter as he rode on.
Pete and his men were so sure of themselves they had just pretty much owned up to committing most of the damage done, up to and including taking shots at him and burning down Nell’s house. Trey was also more certain than ever Pete had ordered some of his own stock slaughtered and fences cut to make it look like the work of sheep ranchers. This was no widespread range war. This was a war between Pete Collins and anyone who dared oppose his will.
“You can’t be sure we’re doing the right thing,” she said.
He drew closer to the barbed wire separating them. “It’s impossible to know what’s right. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting you.”
The world is changing, and the West isn’t as wild as it used to be. Trey Porterfield welcomes a new era of law and order—and the influx of settlers coming to the Arizona territory. But not everyone is willing to see the old ways change, and as the cattlemen and the herders take sides, a full-blown range war may be inevitable. There’s only one way Trey can see to bring peace to his feuding neighbors.
Marry the enemy.
Nell Stokes is a young widow fighting just to stay alive. In Trey, she sees a chance to heal old wounds and start over. Love was never in the cards, yet as Trey and Nell fight to unite the feuding land, they’ll discover a passion neither could have expected…and a danger far greater than either has ever known.
About Anna Schmidt
Anna Schmidt is a three-time finalist for the coveted RITA award presented annually by Romance Writers of America (RWA). Her novel A SISTER’S FORGIVENESS gave Anna her fourth finalist honor for the Reviewers’ Choice Awards from Romantic Times magazine. She has won that award twice before. In 2013 she was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by her local Wisconsin chapter of RWA.