The Texan

Ken Casper

the texan ken casper ebookPrice: $2.99

A year after her divorce, Marcie Browder decides to go home to the family ranch in West Texas. Maybe she can start over there. Or maybe not. Within days she has a confrontation with her father, threatens to kill him, then find him on a remote corner of the sprawling ranch, the handsome new foreman, Tucker McGee, standing over his dead body. He’s been murdered and McGee is hiding something. Marcie soon discovers nothing is as it appears to be. Not even the past. Or the people who were intimate parts of her life.

Reviews…

“Super story. It was a real…mystery with twists and turns and surprises. I couldn’t guess whodunit. Intertwined in all this confusion and danger is a provocative story of love, choices, and surprises. Two thumbs up!” BLJ, Rendezvous

This edition published by
AWritersWork.com
2010

This edition published by  AWritersWork.com © K. Casper, 2000 

First Published by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd, Toronto, Canada 

PROLOGUE

MARCIE BROWDER WAS sitting on the patio, rubbing saddle soap into a brown leather bridle, when her father came charging up the driveway in his pickup, a white cloud of dust billowing violently behind him. It was obvious from the way he skidded to a stop and jumped out of the vehicle that he was both drunk and steaming mad.

He stomped over to where his wife knelt, loosening soil beneath a line of rosebushes. “You overdrew the damned checking account.”

Wiping her hands on her worn canvas apron, Carlinda climbed slowly to her feet and brushed back an unruly hank of graying hair with her wrist. She didn’t bother to make eye contact with her husband.

“No, Mason,” she said as if talking to a querulous child. “I didn’t overdraw the account. You did. I purchased groceries. You bought booze.”

“You did it to embarrass me,” he snarled.

“You don’t need any assistance from me for that, Mason. You do it very well all by yourself.”

She was studying the flower bed, so she didn’t see it coming— the arm jerking up. He struck her across the jaw, sending her staggering into the rosebushes.

Marcie was instantly on her feet. She’d seen her parents fight in the past, listened to them bicker and snipe at each other for years. But physical violence went beyond the pale of tolerance. She’d felt the sting of the hand and the impact of the fist. More lasting was the pain of humiliation. She’d struck the word victim from her vocabulary.

“Stop!” Marcie shouted as she ran toward them.

The peremptory command stunned her father. He froze in midaction.

Marcie planted herself squarely between her parents. “Back off!”

Mason’s florid features tightened into crimson rage. Jaw clenched, bloodshot eyes blazing with scorn, he balled his meaty hands into white-knuckled fists.

Marcie slipped to one side, her gaze fixed on his, drawing his attention away from her mother. “I’m warning you, Dad,” she yelled at him. “Back off. Now!”

Her brother abandoned the girlfriend he’d been trying to help mount an old mare, and dashed over just as Mason made a move toward Marcie. But Dustin ignored his sister and the reeking, sweat-stained hulk of his father. He concentrated on his dazed mother, lifting her with gentle hands and soothing words from the needle-sharp tangle. Pulling a handkerchief out of his back pocket, he dabbed at the bright red droplets of blood dotting her arm where thorns had punctured.

Sudden awareness of how smoothly his daughter had distracted him from his real target infuriated Mason even further.

“Why, you little—”

Fist raised, he lunged at Marcie, an animal growl gurgling from his throat. Deftly, she sidestepped him. He staggered forward, tripped and landed on his hands and knees. Marcie stood over him, just beyond arm’s reach.

“I’m warning you, Dad,” she vowed. “If you ever lay a hand on Mom or try to take a swing at me again, I swear to God I’ll kill you. Do you understand me? I’ll kill you!”

Behind his father, Dustin wrapped his arms protectively around his mother. Over her shoulder, he said quietly but with convincing firmness, “Dad, I think you’d better get out of here.”

Mason made no sign he heard his son. Breathing heavily, he clambered to his feet and took his time brushing off his pants. The thin line of his mouth held the unmistakable threat of renewed violence. He straightened, advanced one step, glared menacingly at Marcie, then looked away as if frightened by what he saw in her eyes. He wobbled stiff-backed to his truck, got in and drove off, leaving them all in a cloud of acrid dust.

When Marcie turned back toward her mother, she saw Tucker McGee on the other side of the split-rail fence. He sat astride his pinto mare, staring at her.

CHAPTER ONE 

FOLLOWING THE DUNE BUGGY’S tracks, Marcie Browder had the eerie, nape-tingling sensation that someone, something, was watching her. She reined in her horse at the barbed-wire fence that used to separate the Lazy B from the Green Valley ranch, and scanned the area. In the long shadows of the afternoon, the craggy hills beyond the fence line looked secretive and forbidding. Her eye caught ground movement, but it was so fast, so distant, she wasn’t even sure she’d seen it. Was it man or beast?

She sighed. Maybe she wasn’t the only nervous rancher scouting around. Missing cattle had everyone alert, unsettled. A disappearing parent didn’t help.

Marcie had known her father to rush off half-drunk before, and this certainly wasn’t the first time Mason Browder had stayed out all night. His behavior, however, was becoming worse. He’d struck Carlinda and tried to hit Marcie, then he’d nearly started a fistfight with Dustin at the Beer Bucket Saloon a few hours later. Not that arguing with her brother was unusual, either. Father and son were too damn much alike to get along. But the old man’s charging off in Dustin’s stupid dune buggy worried her. He’d never done that before.

She had to find him and try to repair the damage she’d done yesterday. Maybe if she could get him to talk, she would understand why he’d allowed himself to degenerate into an abusive, alcoholic-bully, and why he’d built a chasm between them that had grown wider and deeper with time.

From hunting with him years ago, she knew better than to concentrate on the exact spot where she thought she’d seen the fleeting movement. Expanding her view to take in the whole hillside, she spied a break in the fence a hundred-and-fifty yards down the line.

She urged Sparkle to a slow walk. The breach, she realized upon getting to it, wasn’t the result of ordinary deterioration. The shiny ends of freshly sheared barbed wire glistened in the bright sunlight. Someone had intentionally cut the fence and folded it back. Who? And were they still around?

Experience in tracking animals had taught her to examine the surrounding ground. There were hoof-prints as well as the marks of a wheeled vehicle crossing the line. The dune buggy? What would her father be doing up here?

She ignored the quiver of apprehension that suddenly coiled down her spine. Keeping her mare in an easy jog, she advanced through a narrow ravine toward the sun-bathed hills across the vale. The cool springtime breeze that met her whispered something, but the message took a moment to register. Cattle. She could smell the mild pungency of cattle. She paused and listened.

For several months now, someone had been rustling small numbers of their livestock. If this was where they were being kept, she should be able to hear them. Yet the gentle wind brought no sound but its own as it wafted through stunted oaks and salt cedar. The tremor of danger grew stronger in her. Despite it, she moved on.

The ravine was a short one that acted like a gate to a depressed valley. Jagged, rocky peaks surrounded it like the rim of a chipped, cracked bowl. Pausing, she looked down. There, beside a muddy water hole, a man was inspecting a dune buggy, or rather, rifling through it. Even from this distance, she knew the man was Tucker McGee. Her father had hired him as their new foreman two weeks ago. Marcie had met him the previous Saturday when she’d come home to the ranch from Houston. Lean and hard, he exuded a raw strength that, even now, disquieted her, making her feel slightly self-conscious, not in control.

She nudged the horse into a careful walk down the sloping trail. From the way Tucker’s body tightened and he squared his shoulders, she knew he’d heard her. She thought she saw him slip something into the hip pocket of his snug jeans as he straightened to face her. He put space between his scuff-booted feet as he watched her advance. The arrogant stance irritated her.

“I wish you hadn’t come,” he told her by way of greeting.

“I have every right to be here, Mr. McGee,” she informed him. The slanting sun burnished the bronze features below the rim of his western hat. “This is Browder land, after all. But what are you doing here? I didn’t think we were working this section.”

“I’m not disputing your right to be here, Ms. Browder,” McGee said, ignoring her question. “I’m just sorry you chose now to exercise it.”

The words were spoken politely enough, but she saw wariness in his sea-green eyes. He was hiding something. “I see you’ve found the buggy. Where’s my father?”

She dismounted and walked toward him, but when she started to approach the vehicle, he stepped in front of her and put out his arm. She looked down at the rolled-back sleeve, at the sinewy muscles of his forearm and its fine sheen of curly dark hair.

“Get out of my way,” she ordered, placing a hand on his wrist to brush past him. His flesh was firm, his pulse thick and measured, and she could feel the heat emanating from the closeness of his brawny torso. For a moment, her heart raced.

“Wait.” He shifted slightly, giving her a view of the off-road vehicle. Beside it lay Mason Browder.

Her face grew hot in spite of the chill that suddenly infused her bones. Whether it was at the sight of her father sprawled on the damp ground, or the warmth of this man’s solid arm, or the unexpected tenderness of his voice so close to her ear, she wasn’t sure.

“I didn’t want you to see him like this,” Tucker said.

She almost laughed. She’d seen her father spread-eagled on his back before—on his bed and occasionally on a floor. Dead drunk. It had taken years for her to suppress the disgust and revulsion, the shame and anger, his behavior provoked. But the emotions were still there, festering. The most powerful one was an overwhelming feeling that she was somehow responsible for what he had become. Her love had not been accepted—she’d been inadequate, a disappointment.

She stared at the still form on the ground.

“He’s dead,” McGee said softly.

At first the words made no sense, had no meaning. She glanced up at the tall man, aware of his sun-tanned complexion, the cleft in his chin, the hint of lines bracketing his full mouth. But they made little impression, until she looked once again at his eyes. The sadness in them jolted her.

“Dead?” she finally whispered, only vaguely aware when Tucker lowered his arm.

Later, no doubt, she’d experience all the normal reactions associated with death—sorrow, loss, regret. Right now she felt numb disbelief and a detached curiosity about why the man who had given her life had come here to die. She moved toward him.

“Don’t,” McGee said, not loudly, but with authority.

“Why the hell not?” she flared, her voice shaky. “He’s my father.”

She could see the breeze rippling the shiny shoots of new grass. Why couldn’t she feel it?

“There’s nothing you can do for him now,” McGee said gently. “He’s long gone. Best not to mess up the scene of the crime any more than it already is.”

“Crime?” She looked again at the figure a few feet away. Only then did she see it—the dark brown stain in the middle of the burgundy-and-gray western shirt. “What happened?”

“He’s been shot. I’m sure he died instantly, if that’s any consolation.”

She inhaled and exhaled deeply and slowly. She didn’t like the man her father had become, hadn’t had reason to for a long time. More recently she’d even come to fear him. But she’d never wished him ill. She wouldn’t want him to have suffered. Physical pain could never compensate for or erase the mental anguish he’d caused. Nothing could. Yet, for no perceptible reason, she thought of how, long ago, he’d held her on his knee, read her bedtime stories and told her she was the prettiest little girl in all of Texas. No. She wouldn’t have wanted him to suffer.

“Have you called anyone?” Marcie managed to inquire, her words thick.

“Not yet.”

She wanted to ask him why not, but didn’t trust her voice. McGee said he’d gotten here a few minutes ago. Was he the flitting shadow she’d observed? Why had he been going through the dune buggy?

She marched over to her horse, reached into the saddlebag and removed her cellular phone. There was no use calling 911. This wasn’t a life-or-death situation. Not anymore. Death had already won. She punched in a longer set of digits. Her father’d had enough run-ins with the law that even after eight years of being away she remembered the number of the sheriff’s office by heart.

She made her report concise and businesslike, answered a few questions, then broke the connection. Immediately, she hit an automatic dial button. Her mother answered on the second ring.

“Hello . . . hello?”

“Mom . . . I found Dad.”

Carlinda heaved an audible, long-suffering sigh. “Where is he this time? In a bar or a ditch?” When Marcie didn’t reply, Carlinda added anxiously, “He is all right, isn’t he?”

Marcie’s stomach knotted, and she hesitated.

“What’s wrong, honey?” her mother asked more softly. “Did he finally land in jail this time?” Then another moment’s pause. “You didn’t . . . find him with someone?”

“No,” Marcie answered, relieved she could at least spare her mother the indignity of learning her husband was shacked up with some bimbo again.

“Is he hurt? Did he have an accident? How bad is it?”

“Mom . . . I’ll tell you when I get back.”

“Don’t play games with me, Marcie,” her mother snapped. “Tell me what’s happened.”

“It’s not good news, Mom. I’m afraid . . . Mom, Dad’s dead.” There was total silence at the other end. Marcie tried to imagine what her mother was feeling at that moment. Was she numb, too? Marcie didn’t doubt there would be pain and sorrow. But after nearly twenty-eight years of putting up with Mason Brow- der’s moods, his abuse, his infidelity, irresponsibility and chronic alcoholism, maybe there was also an awareness of the inevitable and a sense of relief.

When Carlinda finally spoke, it was a simple quiet, “Oh.” Then a moment later, a fragile, “What happened?”

“He was shot, Mom. Somebody killed him.”

“My God!” Carlinda cried, her voice tremulous. Then a new anxiety. “Marcie, are you all right? Where are you?”

“Up at the bowl on the Green Valley place. Mr. McGee is here with me. I’ve called the sheriff.”

“Green Valley? What was he doing there?” “I don’t know.”

“Who did it, Marcie? Who killed him?”

“I don’t know that, either, Mom.”

“But . . .” Carlinda began, and let the word trail off. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

“Be careful,” her mother warned.

“I will. Mom, are you all right?”

“Just hurry home. I need to know you’re safe.”

Clicking the phone closed, Marcie placed it back in her saddlebag and, leading her bay mare, followed Tucker to a jumble of boulders where he’d left his horse. They could sit and wait for the sheriff there in the slanting evening shade. A justice of the peace would be coming with him to formally declare the rancher and one- time politician dead. Spring County, like most Texas counties, didn’t have a medical examiner or a coroner. JPs proclaimed people officially deceased and decided if circumstances warranted further investigation.

Marcie sat on a coarse limestone shelf. The last of winter’s chill was seeping out of its depths. She welcomed the bracing coolness. Tucker leaned against a boulder a few yards away, facing her, his long legs stretched out straight, his arms folded across his chest.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Marcie reminded him. “What are you doing here?”

“I got a call from Fletcher Doggitt, the foreman over on the Prudhomme ranch.”

“I know who he is,” she said impatiently.

“They lost fifty more head the night before last. I thought I might find a trail.”

“You were looking for their cattle on our ranch? Are you accusing us of stealing Prudhomme livestock?”

“I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” Tucker responded easily. “But someone has been corralling cattle here.”

He was right, of course. She could see tracks and cow patties everywhere. The lingering odors indicated they had been here very recently, too.

“What are you doing up here?” he asked pointedly.

I don’t have to answer him, she told herself. He’s not my father or my husband. He works for us. But the nearness of her father’s corpse somehow compelled her to keep talking.

“I was looking for Dad. He didn’t come home last night.”

“Word around the ranch is, that wasn’t unusual. What made you come looking for him this time?”

Needle points of irritation stiffened her spine. Just because he’d witnessed her confrontation with her father, he’d concluded she wasn’t concerned about him, that she didn’t care. She resented his assumption. With all Mason’s faults and failings, all the disap- pointments, she’d never completely lost affection for him. Of course, he’d never know that now. She took a deep breath.

“He had some sort of argument with my brother at the Beer Bucket Saloon yesterday afternoon—” after I threatened to kill him, she reminded herself “—and stormed off in Dustin’s dune buggy. He generally has . . . had no trouble driving his pickup drunk, and he didn’t always come straight home. But when he didn’t show up at the house by this afternoon, I got worried he might have had an accident. As far as I know, he’s never even ridden in Dusty’s contraption before, much less driven it.”

“Then why did he take it this time?”

Pure pigheadedness, she was tempted to say. “He told Dusty the truck was almost out of gas, and he didn’t want to stop and fill up.”

“But why come here? And what was so important that it couldn’t wait?”

The questions had been gnawing at her, too. She shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Dad didn’t always make a whole lot of sense, especially when he was drinking.”

“Which, from what I hear, was most of the time,” Tucker added.

“I don’t think you have any right to condemn,” she erupted, surprising herself at the sudden urge to defend the man whose behavior she’d come to despise. “You didn’t know him. Besides, he was your employer. That should be enough to warrant at least a semblance of respect.” She expelled a chestful of air. “Anyway, he’s dead. What he did doesn’t make any difference now.”

He gazed at her, his eyes never wavering. “Doesn’t it?”

“What’s done is done,” she declared angrily. “It’s over.” He’s dead and the last thing I said to him wasn’t that I love him but that I’d kill him. “What’s yet to be settled is his murder. I don’t care what you or anyone else thought of my father, Mr. McGee. No one had the right to take his life. Someone murdered him. I’m going to find out who. Justice won’t bring him back, but—”

Her words were interrupted by the fluttering drone of a Texas Ranger helicopter overhead. The sheriff had arrived.

Leaving the horses to nibble fresh green sprouts among the boulders, they moved back to the clearing. The chopper landed on a flat spot a hundred feet on the other side of the dune buggy. Tucker watched Marcie raise a slender arm to hold her western hat against the whirlwind of dust that rushed at them. The blast rippled her plum-colored shirt, outlining the generosity of perfectly shaped breasts. Discretion dictated that he be circumspect, but the male in him refused to look away. He’d experienced the same physical tug toward her on their first meeting and remembered all too clearly the tantalizing sensation of her hand slipping into his in greeting.

He tried to gauge her mental state. From what the ranch hands had told him about Mason Browder, the dead man had long since abdicated any right to his family’s affection, but Tucker wondered about his daughter’s tearless calm. Was she as cool as she seemed?

He replayed in his mind the scene she’d had with her father the day before. At the time, Tucker had had no doubt about the intensity or sincerity of her reaction, but he also hadn’t taken the death threat literally. Should he have? Marcie Browder wouldn’t have been the first woman to oppose violence with deadly force.

Maintaining his objectivity about this woman, with her light- brown hair and enchanting blue eyes, wasn’t going to be easy. She was hanging tough now. No tears. No wringing of hands. No faltering speech. But she didn’t fool him. He’d glimpsed, in the firm set of her mouth and unfocused stare, a deeply scarred sensitivity beneath her hard shell, detected the vulnerability she didn’t want him to see. The emptiness she was feeling right now probably shocked her.

Death, he could have told her, always brought surprises, even when it was expected as a result of advanced age or long illness. But sudden, violent death robbed loved ones of even that preparation time.

Unbidden, he pictured Beth and little Ruth. His throat tightened. He didn’t want to think of the family he’d lost. Not now. Not here. They filled his nights with an ache that could never be relieved. He couldn’t let it torture his days as well. Keep busy, active, he scolded himself. Think other thoughts. 

Two men emerged from the Jet Ranger’s cabin and ran, hunched over, toward them. The older man, white haired, in loose- fitting jeans and khaki shirt with the six-pointed sheriffs star pinned on the left breast pocket, came to them. The younger man, middle-aged, balding and toting a camera and videocam, went directly to the body.

Tucker got through the introductions and preliminary report without any indication that Sheriff Kraus recognized him. That didn’t mean he didn’t, of course. Tucker had been warned that the soft-spoken gentleman was more savvy than he looked, and as up- to-date on technology as the county’s budget allowed. Not that Coyote Springs had much call for sophisticated criminal investigative techniques. Drunken cowboys on Saturday night were still the town’s biggest menace. There hadn’t been a murder in the county in nearly six years. Until now.

“How’d you find him up here?”

“I was riding around, checking things out. I’ve been on the job only a couple of weeks and twenty-five sections is a lot of territory to cover. This was my first trip into an area I hadn’t seen yet.”

“Did you touch the body?” Kraus asked in a West Texas drawl.

Tucker shook his head. “His neck, to be sure he wasn’t still alive, though it was pretty obvious he was dead.”

“How about anything else?”

Tucker thought about when he first heard Marcie approaching. Had she seen him going through the buggy? After verifying there was no pulse, he’d put his leather gloves back on, so there wouldn’t be any fingerprints, but it wouldn’t do any good to have her contradicting him, or for him to give her doubts about himself.

“I checked the buggy,” Tucker admitted. “I wondered if the gun might still be here.”

“Why?” Kraus’s gray eyes bore into him.

Tucker scratched the sandpaper stubble on his chin. “I know this might sound a little goofy, Sheriff, but I wondered if he might have killed himself, figured maybe the gun had flown out of his hand when he fired. Seems pretty dumb, I guess. Don’t imagine too many people shoot themselves through the heart.”

Tucker could tell the lawman was trying to decide if he was giving him a con job. “A few do,” the old man commented as he regarded the body sprawled out by the side of the dune buggy. He looked back at Tucker. “Did you find a gun?”

“No, but I was here only a couple of minutes before Ms. Browder showed up.”

Tucker used his peripheral vision to observe her. Had she seen him slip the piece of paper in his pocket? If so, she wasn’t saying anything.

The sheriff ambled away to confer with the JP, who’d finished videotaping the scene. The police pilot had joined him, and they were stretching out a black plastic bag beside the corpse. While Marcie backed away, Tucker edged as close as he could to hear their conversation. He got only bits and pieces. “. . . dead some time . . . rigor dissipating . . . one shot . . . not self-inflicted . . .” Nothing Tucker hadn’t already figured out for himself. “Make sure you take plenty of pictures of the buggy and all the footprints around here. People and horses,” Kraus concluded. “Some of them have to belong to the killer, unless he was an angel of death who could hover above the ground.”

Tucker watched Browder’s mortal remains being zipped into the body bag. He’d seen it all before, helped package friends, enemies and the scattered parts of both. It still brought a metallic taste to his mouth.

The sheriff came over to Marcie. “I’m afraid we don’t have room to take you with us. If you want to wait, I can send the chopper back for you.”

“Don’t bother,” she said. “By the time it drops you off, returns here and takes me home, I can be there on Sparkle.”

“You’re probably right. I just thought you might not feel like riding under the circumstances.”

“Under the circumstances,” she repeated, “I think I’d rather ride than wait.”

The sheriff nodded.

“What happens now?”

“We’ll be taking your daddy to the hospital morgue. They’ll probably do an autopsy tonight. I might be able to give you preliminary results in the morning.”

“Is there any doubt?”

“Not at the moment. But looks can be deceiving. I’ll go out to your place and inform your ma as soon as I get back.”

“I’ve already called her,” Marcie told him.

The sheriff nodded. “I’ll just stop by and offer my condolences, then.”

Tucker knew the lawman would have preferred breaking the news himself. First impressions at the announcement of misfortune could be revealing. Which raised a question. Did the sheriff suspect Carlinda Browder of involvement in her husband’s death? There are two rules when investigating death by violence. Find out who profits. Then look to the people closest to the victim. Very often you’re looking at the same person. So who would profit by Brow- der’s death?

Tucker stood beside Marcie as the helicopter lifted off, again swathing them in a blast of blade wash. He glanced over at the young woman as she untied her mare. Beneath the black hat, her long chestnut hair was gathered loosely with a blue ribbon. Involuntarily, he wondered what that fine silk would feel like slipping through his fingers. An emptiness gnawed at his insides, a hunger he had no right to satisfy.

The sun had sunk low enough in the sky now that evening’s gloaming was spreading across the basin. He untied the thick flannel shirt rolled up on the back of his saddle and handed it to her.

“I’m perfectly fine,” she insisted.

“You’re not dressed for a ten-degree drop in temperature. You’ve also had a shock that would be enough to give anyone the shivers. Rattling your bones with cold won’t help.”

She bit her lip, and he sensed she wanted to argue with him. Then suddenly there was a hint of a smile. “Thanks,” she said as he held the shirt for her to slip into.

Tucker let Marcie ride ahead of him, content for her to set the pace. Her posture, erect, almost stiff, told him she was either unaware of or indifferent to his being there.

She was still in shock, maybe even denial. The full impact of her father’s death probably hadn’t hit her yet. A part of him wanted to soothe her, to hold her in his arms and tell her everything was going to be all right, that she had done her best, done what she had to do, that the time for recriminations was over. Tucker McGee understood too well the pain and anguish on the terrible sojourn in the shadow of death. The problem was that he didn’t know how to relieve them.

How much did she know about what was going on? About him? What would her reaction be when she found out?

He’d have to stay close to Marcie and her family without giving himself away. His position as foreman should furnish him the cover he needed, provided the new widow didn’t decide to terminate his services.

By the time they arrived at the ranch house, it would be nearly dark, even at the quick lope Marcie was setting. The prospect of riding under the stars had a certain romantic appeal, but it was also difficult and dangerous on a moonless night over unfamiliar ground. Riding against time as they were didn’t give them an opportunity to talk, to exchange ideas and get to know each other.

When they reached the knoll overlooking the ranch house, she stopped, and he moved up beside her. He should say something, reassure her she wasn’t alone. But he didn’t know any adequate words. In the face of death, he ruminated, all of us are alone.

She glanced over at him as if expecting him to speak; then, before he had a chance, nudged her horse into an easy walk down the long slope toward the sprawling stone-and-stucco house. Her mother stood on the brick patio by the back door.

They reined in at the barnyard and dismounted. Carlinda Browder looked tiny in the glaring floodlights as she ran a hand nervously through unruly brown hair, streaked generously with gray. Tucker noted the grim set of her mouth and the blurred bruise along her jaw. Her posture was straight, almost stern, her dark-blue eyes clear and dry as she held her arms out to Marcie.

Tucker called to a new ranch hand who was coiling a hose by the barn, and told him to take the horses, unsaddle them, feed and water them, then clean the saddles before hanging them on their usual racks in the tack room.

“Heard Mr. Browder got shot,” Jim Bob said in an undertone as he grabbed the split leather reins.

So word of how the big man died was already public knowledge.

“Just take care of the horses,” Tucker instructed the young man, and marched to the house. Carlinda looked at him askance as he slipped, uninvited, into the kitchen. Did you kill him? her glance seemed to question.

“Where’s Dusty?” Marcie asked her mother.

“He went into town this afternoon to see Calhoun. There was a billing problem on one of the feed deliveries this week. I expected him back by now. He probably stopped by the Beer Bucket as usual.” Carlinda’s expression was one of resignation.

“Or he went over to spend some time with Lula,” Marcie suggested.

Tucker suppressed a smirk. Dustin and his girlfriend, Lula Crosby, were practically inseparable. No wonder. Her spandex pants and clinging sweaters didn’t leave much to the imagination. The girl’s blatant sexuality, however, had stirred no interest in Tucker. The feminine charm of the young woman across the room leaning against the counter in rumpled jeans and his oversized flannel shirt intrigued him in a way that was far more compelling.

Just then, they heard the low timbre of a sports car outside. The two women said nothing as they stood in the middle of the room.

Dustin Browder came through the doorway. His face was gray with shock.