Looks like old enemies can become friends—and more—until Whit Hutton tries to tell Livvy what a woman can and cannot do on a cattle spread.
“What a great ride through cowboy country all wrapped up in a great romance. Davalynn Spencer’s Whit Hutton made me want to climb up on a horse and ride into the sunset.” –C., reviewer
“Davalynn tells the story of faith and hope without preaching to the reader. A nice refreshing change.” –AJS, reviewer
~Book 2 in the Canon City Chronicles collection~
(Revised under new title and cover of the formerly released Branding the Wrangler’s Heart.)
Fremont County, Colorado, 1879
Whit Hutton eyed the rimrock. His buckskin’s ears swiveled toward a deep fissure, nostrils flaring for scent.
No padded foot dislodged loose shale. No yellow eye glinted from the shadows, no tail whipped in the cool predawn. But she was there.
He heeled Oro up the ledge that hugged the cliff face, let the gelding pick his way along the incline at a cautious clip. More bighorn mountain sheep than horse, Oro took them higher while Whit kept his eyes on the rimrock and one hand at the ready.
His father’s Colt lay holstered on his right hip, and a Winchester rested easy in the saddle scabbard. Trouble was, Whit didn’t know what he’d need. If he spotted her from a distance, he’d use the rifle. But if he rode up on its lair, he’d do better with the handgun.
And if the cat got the jump on him, it’d be too late for either one.
The hair on his neck stood. Feline eyes were watching.
Two calf carcasses in as many weeks proved an old lion stalked the herd—one too slow for a swift pronghorn or mule deer. It needed easy pickin’s, and Hubert Baker’s cow-calf operation appeared to be the chosen chuck wagon.
Oro heaved them up and over the edge and Whit reined around for a view of Wilson Creek bottom. The sleeping Bar-HB covered the stream-fed valley and several thousand acres of unseen park, timber ridges, and rocky ravines. Baker, Whit, and the Perkins brothers called it home. Along with three hundred cow-calf pairs.
Lately, so did Baker’s granddaughter, Olivia Hartman.
Whit turned his head toward a distant, rhythmic ping, not surprised that the echo carried so far on the clear air this early. Train barons were fighting for the narrow right-of-way up the Arkansas River canyon, and crews with both the Denver and Rio Grande and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe were racing to lay track through the gorge. Only one railway would fit where sheer granite shot a thousand feet straight up from the river. And that rail owner would benefit mightily from the lucrative Leadville silver strikes.
While rich men pawed the earth and lawyers bandied, ranchers like Hubert Baker were still driving their cattle to mining camps a few at a time or in herds to Pueblo or the Denver railhead. Ten days of dust-eating trail, that one.
He shifted, squeaking the saddle leather in tribute to riding drag. No more, since Baker crippled himself and put Whit in charge. Which meant Buck and Jody Perkins ate dirt on the drives like Whit had when he was an upstart. With no ma or pa of their own, the towheaded Perkins boys were happy enough to get chuck and a bed in the bunkhouse.
At least they hadn’t lit out after easy money laying track for the feuding railroad companies.
The sun broke free, climbed Whit’s back, and jumped into the valley. He looked over his shoulder, dipped his brim against the new light, and turned Oro toward the ranch house and breakfast. The cat had eaten. Now it was his turn.
His stomach snarled and he hoped Baker’s granddaughter had whipped up some of her white gravy. She’d come to the ranch after her grandmother’s death a month previous, and the little gal could fix up biscuits and gravy better than anything Whit had ever tasted. ’Cept his ma’s cooking, of course. Couldn’t beat her potbelly biscuits, as his preacher pa called them.
Guilt snagged a rib as Whit tied Oro at the house rail and walked around back to the washstand. He hadn’t been home in three months, and he suspected his parents and little sister held it against him. But he had responsibilities now. He couldn’t be traipsin’ off to Cañon City whenever he wanted.
His spurs jangled against the kitchen floor and he continued through to the dining room, where the Perkins brothers were already elbow deep in steak and eggs. Baker insisted his hired hands eat at the house since his beloved Ruth passed. The old rancher was lonely. Whit could see it in his eyes when he looked at Livvy, a younger image of her mother, Hannah, Baker’s only child. Whit used to tease the pig-tailed girl at church picnics when her family visited from Denver. But he hadn’t figured on scrawny Olivia Hartman growing up to be such a good cook. And a beauty to boot.
“You wash?” She leveled her blue eyes at him, ready to fire if he gave the wrong answer.
“Yes, ma’am. Right out back at the washstand. Even used soap this time.”
Jody grunted but didn’t stop chewing to comment.
“Hands.” She leaned slightly forward, demanding he lift his calloused fingers to her pretty little nose.
He pulled a wounded look across his face. “You don’t believe me.”
His mouth must have twitched, for she straightened to take the plate back to the kitchen. He jerked his hands out, palms up, and stepped as close as he could and still be the gentleman his parents raised.
Livvy sniffed, and her eyes smiled if her lips didn’t. “Good.” She set the plate on the table to the right of Baker, who sat at the head, and retreated to the kitchen.
Whit watched her disappear through the doorway. Someday he’d be sharing his meals in private with a woman like that.