Novels by Jack Caldwell


Pemberely Ranch

 

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(Excerpt from Chapter 1:)

Rosings, Texas
September, 1870

A lone figure sat astride a tall, black Arabian under a single oak tree atop a ridge. It was a hot day, and in the early afternoon sun, the shade was welcomed by horse and rider alike, standing as still as a statue. He was a tall man in a white shirt with dark trousers and black boots, his unbuttoned vest flapping in the slight breeze, a tan, wide-brimmed, ten-gallon hat pulled low over his brow. Before him stretched a sea of prairie, dotted with hundreds of cattle, lowing and grazing. They were not alone; a handful of wranglers carefully moved their cowponies around the vast herd, keeping an eye out for trouble. The movement of the horses disturbed the man's mount, and he reached down to gently stroke its neck.

"Whoa there, Caesar, rest easy," William Darcy cooed. "We'll just stay here under the shade for now. Enjoy the cool." The stallion nodded his head in apparent agreement and bent to take a few nibbles of grass. The man's attention returned to the scene before him, his bright blue eyes taking in every detail.

A flash of moving white caught his attention. He turned away from his perusal of the herd and twisted in the saddle. There! Across the ridge of hills was a rider, moving fast. Darcy narrowed his eyes in concentration. The horse was a brown-and-white paint, and none of his riders had such a horse. A stranger -- on his land! Caesar began to prance in place, feeling his master's tension through the reins.

The rider seemed to be alone, and while Darcy had left his gun belt and Colt revolver at the house, he did have a rifle holstered to his saddle. "What say we go check that out, boy?" The horse agreed, and they loped down the hill.

Darcy moved at an angle to the stranger, holding Caesar back until necessary. The intruder was at a full gallop, flying across the crest. Darcy lost sight of the paint as he reached the valley between the hills, and he allowed Caesar his head. The stallion dug in and moved quickly up the rise, and Darcy saw with confidence that he was in the proper position to cut off the paint. Caesar spotted his quarry and headed toward the other horse, waiting for direction from his master.

As they grew closer, Darcy could see that the rider and paint moved in perfect harmony. The horse was rather small, but so was the rider. A boy? Darcy thought, before noticing the wild, curly hair flying on either side of the rider's hat. As Darcy pulled to a halt, blocking the paint's progress, a shock of realization coursed through him. That's no boy -- that's a girl! A girl in men's clothing!

He pulled his hand away from his rifle, and unarmed, raised his palm in an unmistakable sign. "Hold on, miss!"

The surprised girl came to a halt a few feet away, dust swirling in the breeze. She had on a red-and-white gingham shirt and dungarees, boots firmly in the stirrups. She wore a wide-brimmed floppy hat, shading her face, but even at that distance, he could see her blazing eyes.

"What do you want?"

Her voice was lower than Darcy expected from so short a person -- she could not be more than five feet two inches -- but it was not unpleasant to his ears, though it was Northern and unfriendly. Darcy was not used to answering demands from anyone in the last four years, and he wasn't going to change for some strange female.

"Who are you?" he demanded. "This is private property. Who gave you leave to ride across Pemberley?"

"Private?" It was clear he surprised her. "All this? I thought this was open range."

"Not hardly. Everything this side of the Long Branch belongs to Pemberley Ranch." He considered her. "You're not from around here, are you?"

The girl raised her chin. "We are now. Our place is across the river. My father owns the farm there."

Darcy relaxed a bit. "The old Thompson place?" She answered with a nod. "You're one of Tom Bennet's daughters? I was told he had a herd of them." Almost immediately he recognized how his choice of words could be considered an insult, but it was too late.

The girl's voice was ice cold. "Tom Bennet is indeed my father, sir, and I thank you for your kind observations about my family. Now, if you'll pardon me." She pulled her reins to return from whence she came, only to be halted by Darcy's words.

"I'll escort you back to the ford, miss, if you don't mind."

She looked over her shoulder at him. "I do mind. You've made it clear that I'm not welcomed here, and I can see myself home. Good day." To her increased irritation, Darcy fell in beside her. "I see there was no cause for me to voice my preference!"

"The ground is uneven here, and as it's unfamiliar to you, you might meet with misfortune."

"So -- I cannot ride my horse, is that what you mean?"

Darcy snapped back, "I truly don't wish to offend, miss, but you're being mighty stubborn! Your pony might fall into some gopher hole and break his leg and have to be put down. Now, I call that a tall price to pay for your pride!"

The girl said nothing, she only lowered her head. But Darcy could see the color rise on her cheek as she bit her lip. The two rode in silence for some time along the ridgeline before turning right and making their way down to the river. The trees grew more plentiful and thick next to the riverbank. Darcy tried to come up with some conversation, but the girl's studied avoidance of his glance stilled his tongue. After a few more minutes, they reached a shallow ford across the Long Branch.

"Well, here we are -- Thompson Crossing. Your daddy's farm's on the other side. I reckon this is how you crossed over?"

The girl's sarcastic side reasserted itself. "It is. Thank you so much for assuring I didn't cause Turner any injury. I am forever grateful!"

Darcy blinked. "Turner? Your horse's name is Turner?"

A grin stole across her face. "It is, sir."

"Strange. Most girls name their ponies Star or Brownie or Buster."

Her grin turned into a mocking smile. "But I'm not like most girls, as I'm sure you've discovered." With that, she spurred the paint across the ford, splashing water everywhere, leaving a bemused Darcy behind. He shook his head before turning Caesar back toward the Pemberley ranch house. It was only then he realized that he had neglected to introduce himself.

No harm done, he thought. It's not likely we'll meet up again. 

 

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