As soon as James Owen heard the Spanish priest’s final amen, he stepped back from the makeshift altar in the Colorado meadow and made his legs carry him to the edge of the forest. Behind him he knew Ma, Pa, and the rest of the family and guests were crowding around to congratulate the bride and groom. The bride was Ellen Bates—who’d been his fiancée. And the groom was his brother, Carl.
His own brother…
When his stomach had emptied itself over the pine needles and columbines, he straightened up, chest heaving, and gripped a sapling until the quivering left his legs. He yanked his high, stiff collar loose and threw it on the ground, wiped his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, then threw a quick glance behind him.
Carl now sat down on the chair his brothers had used to bring him to the meadow. The bridegroom’s gunshot wound was bleeding; a crimson stain spread across the hip of his trousers. Ellen fussed around, pointing at his brothers, Rulon and Clay. She shooed off the other cowboys, who seemed eager to put her on their shoulders for a shiveree. Ma was looking toward James, her forehead furrowed with worry. She took two steps toward him, then stopped. He cleared his throat and spat, straightened his muscled shoulders, and took the path that led through the forest to the ranch headquarters.
He heard Ma call out, “James!” then “Rod, go see—”
“Leave Pa out of it,” James grunted so low that she couldn’t possibly hear him, and kept moving. He stamped through the trees, pounding his fist into his open hand and wishing it was Carl’s face. He approached a holding pen, where a wild horse wheeled and snorted, upset by the young man’s noise.
James swore at his brother for getting injured. When he gets well— He pressed his lips tightly together, as though to restrain his vengeful thoughts.
The black horse watched every move James made, its wary eyes following him as he approached. It snorted, sniffed the air, then whirled around to track his progress along the fence line. James looked at the beast that Carl had caught as the Owen men returned from Texas with a herd of cattle and a crew of cowboys. When a gang of ruffians had kidnapped two young ladies, the Owen crew had confronted them in a gun battle. Carl had been sorely wounded.
A harsh sound escaped James’s throat. It wasn’t quite a laugh. He took Miss Ellen. I’ll take the mustang.
James stalked into the shed, snatched a rope from where it hung on a peg pounded into the wall, and stalked out again. Entering the enclosure, he leaned against the gate and built a loop in his rope. Let’s see if the Texan’s roping trick works. He looked up.
The black snorted and moved off as far as it could get in the pen. James stepped toward the horse, holding the rope behind him. He crowded the animal to one side of the corral, then flipped the loop up from the ground and around the horse’s neck.
Gripping the rope with one hand, he ran to the horse, grabbed a handful of mane, and hauled himself up. The horse tried to shake him off, but he got his right leg over its back just as the animal reared on its hind legs, bellowing. James stayed on, clamping his knees against the rough hair and bending low over the neck.
You’re not so easily rid of me.
The black met the ground stiff legged, screaming, and James felt his stomach crowding his throat. He swallowed hard, digging his boots into the barrel of the animal as it whipped up its heels, tucking its head toward the earth. Then the two of them were airborne, and James braced for the shock of landing against the black’s spine. His teeth jarred together, then again and again and again as, pitching, bucking, whirling, the beast tried to get James’s weight off its back.
“Blasted devil horse,” he muttered as he came down hard, a little off center, and grabbed for a new fistful of the stiff black mane hairs. But the horse was in the air again—head and heels together, back arched—and James lost his grasp on the mane and the rope. Flying off, he landed on his left shoulder in the center of the ring.
“You fool, you’re like to be killed!”
James shook his head to clear away his father’s strident voice, looked for the horse, then rolled clear when it dove at him with stiff front legs. Rising from the dust, he ran after the animal, grabbing for the trailing rope with his left hand as he kneaded his sore shoulder with his right.
“Don’t you know when you’ve had enough?” yelled his father as he opened the gate. “Get out of there, you—”
But James had the rope in his hands and wrapped it around his left arm. Then he dug in his heels to bring the horse under control.
“You’re crazy,” Roderick Owen shouted, shutting the gate and lending his weight to the end of the lariat whipping free behind his son.
“Get off my rope!”
“You’re double dumb crazy.” Rod held on, hauling backward.
“Get off! You’re cutting my arm!”
Rod let go of the rope, and James was jerked forward, scrambling to keep his feet under him. Suddenly the animal quit fighting, its head drooping. It stood against the fence, quivering, its slick black sides heaving as it filled its lungs.
James flipped the noose off the animal’s neck and dropped it in the dust, to the accompaniment of catcalls from a line of spectators along the fence. Doubled over, hands on his knees, his gasping matched the horse’s. When he finally got his breath, he spat the grit from his mouth, surveyed the men peering through the fence, and waved his arms at them.
“This ain’t a free show,” he yelled. “Y’all get away from here!”
The crowd broke up, each man muttering his displeasure as he drifted back toward the meadow. James watched them go as he kneaded his shoulder again. He turned on his father.
“Why’d you butt in on my business?”
“You were next to getting killed, trying to ride that outlaw horse.”
“I’m not talking about the horse. I’m talking about Miss Ellen. And Miss Jessica! You forced me to leave her behind in the Shenandoah and hatched a scheme to marry Miss Ellen to me. You got her pa to agree for a few sacks of provisions and a wagon!” James spat on the ground.
“It wasn’t quite like that.”
James ignored his father’s response as his words rushed on. “You dragged me across the country, preaching duty every day. I obeyed you. I put off Miss Jessica to court Miss Ellen. I did my duty, Pa, and I even grew fond of her. I looked forward to settling down, having a little house, raising up young—”
“Stop it!” Rod’s eyes narrowed. He squinted at his son’s left sleeve, watching a line of blood seep through the fabric. “You’re hurt, boy.”
James glanced at the sleeve, then shook his arm, wincing as pain lanced through the shoulder. He looked up, glaring. “Carl had no claim to Ellen, yet you let him take her from me. Did you think I wouldn’t mind?”
Rod Owen’s face resembled a limestone outcrop bristling with fire blackened buffalo grass stubble. His voice came out in a whisper. “It was Ellen’s choice, James. She loves Carl.”
“No!” James sucked in a ragged breath. “She wouldn’t gainsay her pa’s pledge.”
“James, there’s no telling what’s in the mind of a woman. Maybe Miss Ellen didn’t cotton to the idea of being traded for a wagon. I thought it was a good deal for both her and her folks. Somehow she didn’t come to care for you.”
“That didn’t matter to me!” James shouted.
“She came to love your brother, and when he saved her life, that was good enough for her pa.” Rod shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “Set your mind to keeping peace, now, and we’ll get back to ranching.”
The young man’s breathing tore at his throat, and pain seared through his belly. “Peace?” He looked square at his father, then fury rose up and he jabbed the man’s chest with his forefinger. “My pride and my affection for that girl is stomped into the ground, and now you call for peace?” He swore, his voice venomous, and his finger jabbed harder.
Rod knocked down James’s hand. His voice was quiet, yet rumbled around the corral when he spoke. “Keep your place, son.”
James reared back, gathered himself, then spat on the ground. “There is no place for me here.”
Silence stretched like silver cobwebs between the peeled logs surrounding the two men. Even the horse was quiet. A bushy tailed squirrel rushed up a nearby pine tree, found a limb, and held its breath. Suddenly it chattered, scolding the frozen humans, then flicked its tail as it scuttled away up the tree trunk.
“Once you leave go of that anger, your place will be as large as your brother’s. We got a big job of work ahead, son. Now settle down and let’s get back to the party.”
James stood still, his head thrown back. He was silent.
Rod scowled. “I’ve preached peace amongst my sons as long as I’ve had them. It makes the work go smoother.” He rubbed his beard. “I need you here, James, but if you can’t keep…” His voice trailed off to silence.
James squinted at his father.
Rod pulled in a breath and held it a long time before he let it go. His words came out soft as a breeze down the mountain. “Son, I reckon you’re too prideful and angry right now to keep peace. Until you get free of that, the best thing is for you to light a shuck for someplace else.”
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