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Authors: Linda Warren

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BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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“No, son. He came wanting to lease the land and I said yes. He wrote me a check, like he did four times a year. Then he just stopped.”

“Tripp, please be careful,” Leona begged.

“I will, Mom. Good night.”

♦ ♦ ♦

T
RIPP LAY ACROSS HIS BED
and felt the weight of the years bearing down upon him. The weight of letting his parents down—letting Patrick down. Patrick had looked up to him and in return Tripp had coveted Patrick’s girlfriend. He’d denied that a lot of times, but it was the truth.

That night of the party when she’d moved her body against his, he’d wanted her in the worst way. He let the thought run through his mind. It was the first time he’d done that. Usually he wouldn’t even admit it to himself. But he was having to face a lot of hard truths today.

And they hurt like hell.

Earl had beaten up his father and Tripp hadn’t been here to help. The guilt suddenly became heavy, so heavy he had trouble breathing. There was nothing he could do now but try and make things right—try to make amends.

As he drifted into sleep, he saw Camila’s flashing dark eyes.

And felt the softness of her body.

♦ ♦ ♦

S
UNDAY MORNING
, T
RIPP WINCED
and groaned as he moved, but after soaking in a hot tub of water, his body felt much better. Looking in the mirror, he did a double take. With a black eye, a blue and swollen jaw, and a cut that was already healing, he definitely looked like he’d lost the fight.

After breakfast, he called the sheriff, Wyatt Carson, and told him what was happening. He met him in town then they drove out to the Boggs ranch.

Tripp had known Wyatt all his life. They were the same age and had gone to school together until Wyatt’s family had moved to Austin. Wyatt had become a police officer in Austin; his wife was an officer, too. She’d been killed in the line of duty and Wyatt had brought his small daughter home. He’d run for sheriff and had been elected three years ago. He now lived fifteen minutes away in Horseshoe, the county seat.

“Let me handle this,” Wyatt said as they drove into Earl’s yard.

The yard of the large Boggs home was well kept, as were the pastures. Obviously Earl took better care of his mother’s place. Tripp noticed a diesel truck parked with two other trucks.

He and Wyatt got out. The front door opened and Earl and three of his sons walked onto the porch. Otis was the oldest, a couple of years older than Tripp, and probably the meanest, having spent some time in jail. But Thelma had always managed to get him out. Lewis, the middle son, was his age and had always resented Tripp because he’d been popular in school. Wallis was the youngest, Patrick’s age. There had been a fourth son, Roger, who’d been killed a couple of years ago.

“I’d like to talk to you, Earl,” Wyatt said.

“What’d you bring the rodeo man for?”

“Because this is about Daniels land.”

“I lease it, period. Enough said.” Earl turned away.

“Not so fast.” Wyatt halted him. “Mr. Daniels doesn’t have a contract with you. Do you have copies of receipts where you paid him?”

“Hell, Wyatt. This is Bramble. All I need is my word.”

“This ain’t 1960, Earl,” Wyatt told him. “And a lot more than your word is required.”

“Like hell,” Earl replied, and spat.

“Yeah. Like hell.” Wyatt stood his ground.

“C’mon, Wyatt, I was born and raised here like you. I ain’t trying to cheat nobody.”

Wyatt rubbed his jaw. “Well, Earl, this is how it is. You show me receipts and the cattle stay. No receipts, the cattle have to go. That’s the law and I’m here to enforce it.”

“You listening to that rodeo man, ain’t you?”

Wyatt glanced at Tripp. “You mean Tripp?”

“Ain’t nobody else standing there.”

Otis spit tobacco juice onto the ground. “You run into a tree, rodeo man?”

“I ran into a yellow-bellied coward.”

Otis’s face turned red in anger. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“Enough,” Wyatt intervened. “I take it you don’t have any receipts, Earl?”

“Sure as hell don’t.”

“Then I’ll give you and your boys until Tuesday to get the cattle off. I’m sure Tripp doesn’t have a problem with that.”

Tripp shook his head.

Earl’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits.

“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be,” Wyatt said. “I’ll check in on Tuesday to make sure the job is done. If there’s any meanness going on, I’ll come looking for you Earl. Prison is not a place you want to spend your old age.” Wyatt turned his gaze to the sons. “Otis, tell your brothers what it’s like in jail, then give it a lot of thought before you do anything stupid.”

Wyatt turned, but Tripp wasn’t through.

“Next time you ambush me, I’ll be ready, and if I can ever prove that one of you hit my father, this town won’t be big enough for all of us.”

He followed Wyatt to the car.

“You just couldn’t let it go, could you?”

“No.” Tripp buckled his seat belt. “This isn’t over, Wyatt.”

“I know, dammit. A range war is just what I need in Bramble.”

“I didn’t start it.”

“Just watch your back.”

“Thanks, Wyatt.”

When Tripp reached Lady Luck, he went into the house and got his rifle and shotgun out of the gun cabinet. He made sure they were in working order and clean, then he put them back. Until this was over, he’d better be prepared.

♦ ♦ ♦

C
AMILA SPENT
T
UESDAY
making soap. By mid-afternoon her arms ached from handling the big stainless steel pots and large quantities of lard and olive oil. She poured the soap into the wood molds and covered them.

Jilly had a basketball game tonight and the coach was going over their game plan, so Camila didn’t have to pick up Jilly until five. She poured a cup of coffee and sat down in the coffee shop.

“Would you like a
kolache?
” Millie asked.

“No, thanks. It’s very quiet today.” Few people were out and the streets were almost empty.

“I was thinking that—”

Before Millie could finish, the door burst open and Jilly flew in. Camila’s heart fell to the pit of her stomach. Something had to be wrong for Jilly to be here instead of practice.

Camila jumped to her feet. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Cameron Boggs said his father beat up Tripp and Tripp’s in bad shape. I gotta go see how he is. Mr. and Mrs. Daniels might need my help. I gotta go.”

Camila was dumbstruck. She didn’t know what to say. She glanced at Millie and Millie shrugged.

Camila caught Jilly’s arm. “Baby, calm down.”

“I can’t, Mama. They said he’s hurt bad.”

Camila’s stomach tightened and she wondered how badly Tripp was hurt—and why. “Are you sure, Jilly? It could just be kids bragging.”

Jilly drew in a breath. “Tripp got mad cause Earl wasn’t paying any lease money to Mr. Daniels and Tripp told Earl to move his cows. Cameron said his dad showed the big rodeo star who’s the boss. I’m going home to get my bicycle then I’m going to Lady Luck.”

“Wait a minute.” Camila grabbed her, not sure how to explain this. “Remember what happened the last time?”

“I don’t care. I’m going.” That stubborn chin jutted out.

“Jilly…”

“Mama, please, don’t tell me not to go.”

It was on the tip of Camila’s tongue, but she could see how upset her daughter was. Nothing was going to stop Jilly, but at least Camila could be there to protect her.

“Okay. I’ll drive you.”

She couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth. She’d avoided Lady Luck for thirteen years. But now, for her daughter, she’d have to go back.

She was dreading every second.

Chapter Seven

Tripp checked the pastures on Tuesday and the cattle were still there. There weren’t any signs that the Boggses had even been on the property. Wyatt had called and said he was coming out to the ranch, so Tripp went to the gun cabinet and took out a rifle.

“I’m going with you.”

Tripp turned to face his father, the rifle in his hand. “No, you’re not. Wyatt will be here any minute and we’ll take care of things.”

“Why do you need a gun?” Fear flashed in his father’s tired eyes and Tripp felt a moment of anger at what the years had done to a man he’d thought of as stronger and bolder than John Wayne.

He patted his shoulder. “Dad, relax. I’ll handle this.”

“Earl’s mean, son, and he got even meaner when his son was killed. Don’t know what happened to him, but he ain’t the same.”

Tripp had heard the news even in Mesquite. Earl’s third son, Roger, had been working on a truck and the jack had slipped, causing the truck to fall on him. He’d died instantly at the age of thirty-two.

“I know what it’s like to lose a son and I…”

Tripp took a breath, the anger turning to empathy. Now he knew why his dad was afraid. “You’re not losing me. I’m just trying to get this ranch back into shape and I’m not letting Earl take advantage of you or me.” He moved toward the kitchen. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Son, don’t go,” Grif shouted after him, but he didn’t stop. He had to do this.

In the kitchen, Morris removed his apron. “I better go with you.”

Tripp sighed. “I’ve just had this conversation with Dad, and you’re not going either. Stay here and keep Dad calm. I’m going to saddle the horses.”

Years of neglecting his parents tore at him and he tightened the cinch a little too tight. The horse moved in protest and he gently rubbed her neck. “Sorry, girl.” Now he was taking his frustration out on the best quarter horse he’d ever ridden.

That wasn’t the only thing that was eating away at him. He couldn’t get Camila’s hurt expression and those sad eyes out of his head. He had to find a way to see her again and try to explain.

“That’s a mighty good-looking horse,” Wyatt said, walking up and eyeing the red-chestnut mare.

“This is Cayenne.” Tripp stroked the white stripe on the horse’s face. “I named her that because she’s the color of cayenne pepper and has a hot temperament, but she’s the best quarter horse I’ve owned. She can turn on a dime and she’s doesn’t tire easily. I call her Cay.” Tripp pulled the reins of another horse and she moved forward. “This is Daisy. I believe she’s docile enough for you.”

“Hey. I grew up riding—just like you.”

“Yeah, but when was the last time you were on a horse?”

“Not for a while,” Wyatt replied, swinging into the saddle with a groan.

Tripp opened the gate then mounted Cay and they rode into the pasture.

“Have you seen any activity today?” Wyatt asked.

“No. I’ve laid low like you asked me to.”

“Good. Maybe we can resolve this peacefully.”

They galloped to a ridge where they could look out on a valley with tall weeds and overgrown bushes and mesquite. Cattle munched on the grass beneath the weeds. To the south, riders were approached—seven, Tripp counted. His pulse quickened and he felt as if he were at his first rodeo, in a chute atop a horse meaner than the devil, waiting for the gate to open. Except this was no rodeo.

The riders didn’t come to confront them—they began to herd the cattle south, toward Boggs land.

“I can’t believe this,” Tripp said.

“Me, neither,” Wyatt added. “This seems too easy.”

Earl cantered toward them, pulling up short beside Wyatt. “I’m moving the cattle like you asked me to.”

“Thanks, Earl. I appreciate the cooperation.”

Earl’s eyes swung to Tripp, and he spit chewing tobacco on the ground. “Just stay out of my way.”

Tripp nodded. “No problem.”

Earl jerked the reins and galloped back to the herd.

Tripp and Wyatt turned toward the ranch.

“This doesn’t feel right,” Tripp said.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Earl knows he’s in the wrong. It’s just hard for him to admit that.”

“Yeah, Wyatt.” Tripp laughed. “That’s why you’re the sheriff—you can straddle the fence with a straight face. Me, I’m going to wait and see.”

“Just be careful.”

♦ ♦ ♦

C
AMILA DROVE INTO
the circular drive with a knot in her stomach. Lady Luck was just as Jilly had said—run-down. Years ago, it had been a showplace, a two-story colonial with white pillars, and Camila had felt privileged that Patrick wanted her to visit his home. She’d been too young to realize, or maybe she hadn’t wanted to, why Patrick had brought her here when his parents had been out. Patrick had been her friend, though; she’d trusted him.

That was then, this was now and she had to concentrate on her daughter. It had taken a while to get to the ranch because they’d had to go home and get Button, Jilly had insisted the Danielses would want to see her. Camila was at the end of her patience.

She turned to Jilly. “Go inside and see how Tripp is. Ten minutes and I want you out of there. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Jilly hung her head.

“And understand we’re invading these people’s privacy so be polite and—” she touched Jilly’s cheek, unable to withstand that sad expression “—just be you.”

“Okay, Mama.” Jilly opened the door. “Button and me will be right back.”

Jilly went inside and in a second she came running out, screaming, “Mama, Mama, Mama!”

Camila jumped out, her heart beating like a rhythm of a bongo drum, loud and hard. She met Jilly on the other side of the car.

“Come quick,” Jilly shouted and charged back in the house.

Camila ran after her and followed her into the den area. She stopped for a moment to take in the scene. Mr. Daniels held a shotgun and Morris and Mrs. Daniels were trying to take it away from him. They struggled back and forth to no avail.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

They paused in the struggle and looked at her.

Mr. Daniels frowned. “Who the hell are you?”

“Camila Walker.”

His frown deepened. “Get out of my house.”

She walked forward, trying not to let his tone get to her. “Not until you give me the gun.”

“You can’t tell me what to do, missy. My boy needs help and I’m gonna help him.”

Camila glanced at Morris for an explanation. “Tripp and Wyatt went to see if the Boggses were moving their cattle off our land. Wyatt left a while ago, but Tripp hasn’t come to the house.”

“Something’s wrong. I know it. Now get out of my way.” Mr. Daniels tried to move, but Leona and Morris wouldn’t let go of his arms.

“Let me go,” Mr. Daniels shouted.

“Stubborn old fool,” Leona shouted back. “What can you do? You can barely walk.”

“I can fire this damn gun.”

“Everyone calm down,” Camila said. “I’ll go to the barn and see if I can find Tripp.”

“Not without me, missy.”

Morris groaned and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

She didn’t know how to handle this, but she was sure Mr. Daniels was serious. “You can go with me and I’ll carry the gun.”

“Now you’re talking, missy.”

“For heaven’s sakes, Grif.” Leona threw up her hands and sank onto the sofa. Jilly went to her.

Camila took the gun from Grif without a problem. “Ready?” she asked.

“You might have to give me your arm,” Grif said, and he appeared shaky.

“See.” Leona pointed a finger at him. “Let Camila go find Tripp, you pigheaded mule.”

“Shut up, Leona.” Grif clutched Camila’s elbow and they made their way to the kitchen.

“Jilly, stay with Mrs. Daniels.” She wasn’t sure what was going on, but she wanted Jilly where she was safe.

“Mama…” The plaintive cry shook her and she wondered how she’d gotten herself into this situation.

“I’ll be fine. Just stay here with Mrs. Daniels.”

As they passed Morris, she whispered, “Call Wyatt and get him back here.”

“Gotcha. I’ll be right behind you.”

They slowly made their way out the back door and moved toward the barn and corrals. The gun felt heavy and awkward in her hand. She’d never fired a gun in her life and she was hoping she wouldn’t have to today.

“This doesn’t change a thing, missy.” Grif let out a long, ragged breath.

She knew exactly what he was talking about—the fact that he didn’t believe Jilly was Patrick’s.

“I don’t expect it to.”

Stubborn old mule. Ornery cuss. Ungrateful bastard.
The phrases burned her throat and she swallowed them back, concentrating on her task.

Where was Tripp?

♦ ♦ ♦

T
RIPP TURNED FROM PLACING
his saddle on the rack and came to a complete stop. Otis, Lewis and Wallis stood in the opening to the barn.

“You didn’t think it was over, now did you, rodeo man?” Otis snickered.

“No, Otis, but I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to try something today.”

Lewis took a couple of steps into the barn. “This time we’re gonna teach you a lesson you won’t forget.”

“You haven’t got enough brain power to teach me anything.” His rifle lay on a bale of hay and Tripp inched toward it.

Wallis laughed. “Don’t worry about the brains, cowboy. You better worry about the muscle.”

“Three against one. Is that supposed to be a fair fight?”

“Who cares about fair?” Otis said. “We’re Boggses and our grandma pretty much owns this town. We do what we want.”

“Well you’d better kill me this time because I will be filing charges.”

“You heard him, boys.” Otis made a dive for him with Lewis and Wallis right behind. Tripp drove a fist into Otis’s beer belly and he went down moaning. Lewis and Wallis hammered away at Tripp and he struggled to reach his rifle.

That was his only chance.

♦ ♦ ♦

T
HE COOL AND BREEZY
afternoon wind rattled the limbs of an old cottonwood tree by the barn. Wispy white clouds with dark underbellies rolled across a dull blue sky. Clear signs a thunderstorm was brewing. But an eerie silence echoed through the oaks and mesquite, interrupted only by the wind and the caw of a crow. It was a typical winter afternoon in Texas, but there was nothing typical about this day.

As they neared the barn door, grunting shuffling noises shattered the silence. Camila paused at the sight in front of her and fear zigzagged up her spine. A fight—the Boggses against Tripp. They had him down on the ground. Lewis locked an arm around his neck and Wallis was trying to drive a fist into Tripp’s stomach, but Tripp kept kicking out with his feet. Otis sat a few feet away with a dazed look.

Mr. Daniels trembled on her arm. “Use the gun, missy,” he said in a low voice. “They’ll kill him.”

Use the gun.

Her insides quivered but her hands were steady as she raised the shotgun and aimed it above their heads. It was up to her to stop this—to save Tripp. Her nerves buzzed, but she wouldn’t give in to the fear. Without a second thought, she pulled the trigger and the butt of gun slammed against her shoulder and knocked her backward, but she stayed on her feet, keeping the shotgun pointed at the men. Her shoulder stung and it was going to hurt like hell tomorrow. She couldn’t think about that now, as all four men stared at her.

Wallis and Lewis still held Tripp down.

“Let him go,” she yelled, the feel of the gun giving her an awesome sense of power.

“C’mon, Camila, you’re not gonna use that thing.” Wallis smirked at her, not loosening his grip on Tripp.

She stared him straight in the eye, something she hadn’t done in thirteen years. “Try me, Wallis. Just try me.” She stepped closer, the gun pointed at Wallis’s chest. “Move away from him.” The thought of pulling the trigger again and feeling the kick of the gun wasn’t something she really wanted to do. But she wasn’t backing down. The fear that flashed in Wallis’s eyes was worth a sore shoulder any day.

Wallis and Lewis slowly let go of Tripp and he rolled to his feet.

“You all right, son?” Grif asked.

“Yeah.” Tripp reached for his rifle.

“You boys better leave and never come back,” Grif warned. “It’s easy to push around an old man and it takes a coward to ambush a man you know you can’t beat in a fair fight.”

“Old man—”

“Careful what you say, Otis,” Tripp advised. “Unless you want to die here today. I’m not feeling too hospitable right now.” He laid his rifle down. “On second thought we’re going to do this the fair way—the way a man would do it.” He stepped away from the gun. “One man at a time. Who’s first?”

Wallis grinned, moving forward.

“What the hell…” Earl stood in the entrance. “I’ve been looking for you boys. What the hell are you doing here?”

“Taking care of business,” Otis answered.

“Yeah, Earl. Your boys figured if they punched my lights out one more time, I might learn my lesson.”

Earl stomped over to Otis and slapped him across the face. He staggered backward into Lewis. “You stupid idiot,” Earl yelled. “I told you to leave the rodeo man alone.”

Otis rubbed his face. “But you didn’t mean that. He can’t tell us what to do.”

“No, but your grandma sure can,” Earl told him. “She’s threatening to cut off all our expenses if we’re involved in another ruckus. Is that what you want, to be without money?”

Otis hung his head. “No, sir.”

“Then get your asses back home before I really lose my temper. And stay away from the Danielses.”

They picked up their hats from the dirt floor and slowly made their way to their horses.

Grif trembled beside Camila—or was it her? She wasn’t sure. Her hands were numb from holding the gun, but for the life of her she couldn’t let it go.

Tripp took it out of her hands, his fingers brushing against hers. A warm electric current shot up her arm and their eyes met. They both felt it—the attraction that was always there between them. Forbidden, cursed attraction. “Take Dad to the house, please. I need to talk to Earl.”

That soothing drawl relaxed her and she nodded, unable to speak.

“We’d showed ’em, son, didn’t we?”

BOOK: The Cowboy's Return
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