Chapter excerpt by Romance author Leigh Greenwood

 

The Cowboys: Jake

The Cowboys: Jake

Leigh Greenwood

 

Jake Maxwell has lost his Texas cattle ranch to squatters. If he doesn't get his cattle to market, he'll lose them too, but he can't find any cowhands. Isabelle's orphans aren't a good solution, but they're the only one he has. He just has to make sure he doesn't fall in love with Isabelle or become too attached to these homeless boys.

Isabelle Davenport is determined to find homes for eight unwanted orphan boys. When they're caught between an abusive situation and going to jail, she turns to Jake, a man she neither trusts nor respects. She wants warm, loving homes for her eight orphan boys. She thinks Jake's ranch is the perfect situation but he's the wrong man. She agrees to go along on the trail drive to protect the boys. She quickly discovers the rules she learned growing up in Savannah society don't work in Texas.

 

Excerpt:

Texas, April, 1866

Jake Maxwell watched warily as the group of farmers approached the dog trot he called home. With their black clothes, black eyes, and black beards, they sat their mules like so many black crows. Jake didn't know what they wanted, but he was certain he wouldn't like it. His hand automatically moved toward his gun even though he knew he wouldn't use it. They didn't wear guns. Their defense was their numbers and the united front they presented at all times.

Jake had tried unsuccessfully not to hate these men. While he was off fighting the Yankees, they had come in and homesteaded the best spots on his ranch, plowed up his best grazing land to plant fields of corn and potatoes. They cut down the trees that shaded his cattle in summer and sheltered them from the wind in the winter. Far from being thankful Jake had survived the war, they were resentful that he had come back to land his family had occupied for twenty years.

Jake owned only a few hundred acres of the thousands his cattle needed. Before the war no one disputed his claim to this corner of Wilson county. Now a dozen families had laid claim to the heart of his ranch.

The farmers didn't waste any time on civilities. "I'm Noah Landesfarne," one man said. "We got some bills for damages done to our crops by your cattle."

"They ruined every bit of my corn," another said.

"I warned you to put up fences," Jake said. "You can't expect a cow to eat dried grass when it can have tender shoots of corn and wheat instead."

"If anybody should put up fences to protect our fields, it's you," one man said.

"That's a great expense," another said.

Jake didn't say anything. There was nothing he could say. He was the only rancher in the county. He had been outvoted at the only election. Things didn't get any better when the Reconstruction people came in. They were eying his cattle with the same greed as these farmers.

"This is cattle country," Jake said. "You'll never make a go of it farming."

"We each got a bill for damages," Noah said. "You got to pay it, and you got to put up an indemnity against any future damage your cattle."

He handed Jake a piece of paper. The figure written on it made his eyes roll. The other farmers handed him pieces of paper as well. The total was staggering.

"We already talked to the sheriff. You got a month to pay us and come up with the indemnity."

"Who supposed to hold this indemnity?"

"The bank."

The farmers owned the only bank.

"What happens if I can't raise the money?"

"We'll take payment in cows," Noah said. "Three dollars a head. That's all a longhorn is worth in Texas."

They would have been if Jake had been fool enough to sell them for hide and tallow. But they were worth at least ten times that in St. Louis, maybe more in the gold fields of Colorado.

"You realize your claims would eat up most of my herd."

"Then you wouldn't have no more cows getting into our fields."

Jake knew that farmer. He was Rupert Reison. He made no attempt to disguise his dislike. Jake's temper snapped.

"There's no way in hell I'm going to pay you," Jake said, as he tore the pieces of paper into tiny bits and threw them into the wind. "This has been Maxwell land for twenty years. And it's going to stay Maxwell land."

"We got legitimate deeds," Noah said. "The sheriff says you owe us for damages. You can't let your cows run all over the county. If it doesn't stop, we'll take to shooting any cow we see in our fields."

"I'll see you in hell first!" Jake exploded. "Now get off my land before I take to shooting you."

But seeing the farmers leave didn't make him feel any better. The law and time were on their side. They had him and he knew it.

He had to round up his cows and get them to market. But how in hell was he going to do it by himself?

May, 1866

Isabelle Davenport studied the eight orphan boys who rode in the wagon with her. They looked so young and innocent, yet collectively they had been thrown out of thirty-four orphanages, adoptive, or foster homes. Four had been officially adopted but had been returned because their new parents couldn't do anything with them. Two had actually gotten into fights with their foster parents. One had shot a foster brother. All had run away.

She felt sorry for them, but at times they frightened her. She hadn't wanted a guard, but the agency had insisted Mercer Williams accompany them. Now she was relieved. She believed in these boys, but, unfortunately, they didn't like her. They didn't like anyone, even themselves.

This was their last chance. If they failed, three of them would go to prison. Two would go back to the orphanage until they were eighteen. The rest would be turned out to take care of themselves as best they could. Isabelle had only been in Texas one year, but she knew what that meant. They would have to steal to stay alive. If that happened, most of them would be dead before they reached their twentieth birthday.

Using her own time and money, Isabelle had located a newly-established farming community just above the Colorado River in Hill Country willing to take the boys. She hoped that away from towns and the temptation of whiskey, women, and the toughs that always seemed to hang around saloons, they would grow into mature, responsible manhood.

"Where are we stopping tonight?" Alex Sutton asked. The sun was sinking into the horizon. They rode in a wagon. The canvas top had been taken down so they could look at the countryside as well as enjoy the spring breeze.

"There's a cattle ranch a few miles from here," Isabelle said. "I'm hoping the owner will give us hospitality for the night."

"I'd rather camp with Indians."

Alex was the son of an abolitionist from Boston who had died mysteriously during a riot (during at attempt to help some runaway slaves.) Alex hated Texans. Everybody hated Alex.

"Maybe his hands will let you to share their bunkhouse," Isabelle said.

"They ain't likely to have a bunkhouse. Ain't nobody from Texas knows how to live indoors."

Alex was always trying to rile the other boys, constantly letting them know he thought just about anybody was better than a Texan. They mostly ignored him. Alex hated to be ignored.

"Don't know what's worse, Indians, Mexicans, or Texans."

"That's enough, Alex," Isabelle said.

"What's wrong, ma'am?" he asked. "Don't they like the truth."

"Even if it were the truth, it wouldn't be a nice thing to say."

"Oh, I forgot. You're not supposed to make fun of the lower classes. Even the Irish."

Sean O'Ryan punched him.

"Did you see that?" Alex exclaimed.

"Shut up," Mercer Williams, said, "or I'll make you walk."

"I wouldn't move a step. Then you'd have to come back and get me." If Alex were forced to walk, his feet would quickly become cut and bloody from the sharp rocks and cactus.

Mercer Williams disliked the boys. They responded by needling him whenever possible. He'd intended to chain them to the wagon, but Isabelle had talked him into taking their boots instead.

They rounded a cottonwood and willow-lined bend in the creek, and the Lazy-T Ranch came into view. Isabelle found it difficult to conceal her disappointment. The ranch consisted of a dog trot cabin, a building that appeared to be a bunkhouse, and two corrals. Her hopes of being able to sleep in a bed vanished immediately.

She told herself she had no right to expect a bed even if there had been an extra one. But for the first seventeen years of her life she'd been part of Savannah society. No hardship of the past six years could erase that training or her desire for some of the luxuries which were rapidly becoming a distant and taunting memory.

"I'll bet it's got a dirt floor," Alex said, speaking of the bunkhouse.

"It won't make no difference if it's setting in mudhole," Pete Jernigan said. "The beds will be nailed to the wall."

"You won't get to sleep in one," Alex said. "Ain't nobody giving up their bed for a shrimp like you."

"Let him alone," Sean said, his fair, freckled complexion turning slightly red as it always did when he got mad.

"Sure. I never did like playing with worms."

Alex dodged Sean's fist.

"It doesn't look like there's anybody home," Chet Attmore called back from the driver's seat. "Do you want me to see who I can round up?"

"Don't set foot out of that wagon until I say so," Mercer Williams said.

"I'll speak to the owner," Isabelle said.

She disliked approaching strangers. With the end of the war and the beginning of Reconstruction, most Texans had uncertain tempers. Even if she could depend on a welcome from the men, their wives were unfailingly less hospitable. One look at her well-made clothes and her flower-and-ribbon bedecked hat, and they immediately classed her as an uppity society woman.

Isabelle climbed down from the wagon. Except for the occasional jingle of the harness as the horses fought off flies with their tails, silence reigned. The ground between the cabin, bunkhouse, and corrals was flat and bare. There was no well or pump, no flowers, no garden, no sign of a milk cow or chickens. There were no curtains at the window and the yard hadn't been swept. She couldn't see a clothesline, wash pot, or potato mound. There wasn't even a chair in the breezeway that separated the two halves of the cabin.

The place looked deserted.

For a moment she feared that Indians might have wiped out the family. Their raiding and murdering had intensified during the war. So far the Reconstruction government had done nothing to stop them. But she was reassured by some clear prints of boots and shod horses.

She marched up to the porch and knocked on the door of the right half of the cabin. She received no answer. She could hear no movement within. It was the same with the other door.

"Try the bunkhouse," Pete suggested.

"If the boss isn't in, I doubt you'll find his hands in bed," Mercer said.

The bunkhouse was also empty. Isabelle didn't know what to do. They'd been told there was no one else between here and the farmers who'd agreed to take the boys. Besides, it was too late to continue their journey.

Isabelle was tired of riding in a wagon. She was sick of the heat, the dust, and the constant jolting. The tension of the journey was eating at her nerves. She'd tried during the first days of the journey to foster a positive attitude toward each other. She had made no progress. They were too tough and cynical.

And no matter how tough you were, it was hard to know there wasn't anybody who loved you, there wasn't any place you belonged.

She knew because she'd been a orphan herself.

"We'll stop anyway," Isabelle decided. "Whoever lives here has got to come back sometime. Start setting up camp. I expect the owners won't mind if we keep away from the cabin."

The boys waited silently for Mercer to unlock the trunk and give them their boots. Once shod, they moved through chores with silent efficiency. Isabelle had assigned responsibilities and established their routine the first evening. They'd stuck to it every night of the two week journey.

The half breed Comanche, Night Hawk, unharnessed, watered, and picketed the horses out to graze. Alex Sullivan brought water and wood. Matt Haskins and his brother, Will, did the cooking. Sean O'Ryan and Pete Jernigan would clean up. The Attmore boys, Chet and Luke, had no chores because they did all the driving.

Isabelle had tried to encourage conversation during meals, but the boys disliked and distrusted each other. The two sets of brothers paired off. Nine-year-old Peter hung around Sean for the protection the big, over-grown Irish boy could give him. Alex and Night Hawk refused to have anything to do with anybody.

For the most part, the boys kept their distance, their opinions to themselves, and their mouths closed. Isabelle refused to sit through a meal in silence. They would hear the sound of a human voice even if hers was the only one.

"My aunt always said a man should measure himself by pitting himself against life's most difficult problems. She believed America was a perfect place to do it. I imagine she would have thought Texas even better suited to separate the genuine from imitation.

"But my aunt preferred the comforts of Savannah. She believed every woman deserved to be pampered and protected. I hesitate to think what she would have done had she been married to a Texan. But she was fascinated by New Orleans. She was always making plans to visit it. Right before she died she told me--"

Isabelle broke off. The boys weren't listening to her. That wasn't unusual, but they were listening to something.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Somebody comes," Night Hawk said. "White man. Horse wear shoes."

Isabelle could hear the hoofbeats now. He was coming at a fast trot. She got to her feet. From his position some distance off from the boys, she saw Mercer pick up his rifle.

She looked at the faces of the boys. They reflected curiosity, boredom, hostility, even fear. But in each one there was a spark of hope that with every bend in the road, with the appearance of someone new, the situation might change, that life would offer them a chance for happiness.

The rider didn't slow his mount. For a moment, Isabelle was afraid he was going to ride his horse right into the middle of them. He came so close, he looked so angry, several of the boys got to their feet, ready to defend themselves.

"Who the hell are you, and what are you doing on my property!" he thundered from the saddle. He looked huge and intimidating.

"Let me do the talking," Isabelle said.

"If he lets you do any," Chet Attmore muttered.

The man's face seemed to relax when he dismounted. Maybe seeing she was a woman allayed some of his fears. A look of confusion appeared on his face when he saw the boys.

"Good God!" he muttered. He looked around then laughed. "Mother Hubbard as I live and breath. Don't tell me these are all yours because I won't believe it. You're too young and pretty."

He wore threadbare pants that fitted his body nearly as snugly as his skin. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to reveal big strong hands and powerful forearms covered with a mat of dark hair. His open shirt exposed a strong neck and still more hair. His wide-brimmed, flat-topped hat shaded his eyes and obscured his expression. Every inch proclaimed him to be the most dangerous animal on earth, a mature man confident in his power.

Isabelle moved her lips but nothing came out. She was momentarily bereft of speech. She felt like she didn't have the strength to stand on her own two feet. She felt terribly foolish. She didn't know what had happened to her.

Then she realized she was struck dumb by this man. She knew intuitively he was a threat to all that she was. She fought an urge to flee. She told herself she was being absurd. She was only speechless because of surprise. She'd never seen a man quite like him.

By a tremendous effort of will, Isabelle forced her thoughts to what the man had said. While no woman could dislike being called young and pretty, it wasn't proper to say such things in front of the boys. Discipline and respect had to be maintained.

"My name is Isabelle Davenport," she said, trying to sound composed. "These boys are orphans. I'm responsible for delivering them to their new homes."

"Then what are you doing here?" the man asked. "This place doesn't look like an orphanage. It doesn't even look like a cattle ranch, but it is."

Isabelle found it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. She'd never met anyone with the rough, uncontrolled energy of this man.

"I know that," she replied. "I hoped you'd give us permission to stop here for the night. When we didn't find anyone at home, we--"

"Do you always stop anywhere you please?" the man asked, interrupting.

Without waiting for an answer, he moved around the group, scrutinizing each boy like an army captain inspecting his troops. Little Will Haskins moved closer to his brother, but the rest stood their ground. His hat made it impossible for Isabelle to see anything in his eyes, but what she could see of his expression told her he didn't like what he saw.

"What the hell are you going to do with this bunch, starting your own gang of outlaws?" he asked. "It's a good thing your man has a rifle. That one looks like he could cut your heart out then eat it."

He was looking at Night Hawk. The boy returned his look in full measure.

"I'm not married," Isabelle said with what she hoped was her most freezing voice. "Mr. Williams is our guard. These boys have all been placed with farmers who live only a little way from here."

The man stalked over and glared at her, his expression ugly. "Take these boys to your farmers if you want, but I'll warn you right now." He pointed a finger at her. "I'll shoot the first one who touches one of my cows."

She wondered if he would attack her. Mercer didn't move. Chet Attmore stepped forward s though to defend her.

Isabelle decided he was crazy. She didn't know why anyone would want to touch his cows. Longhorns were big, dirty, foul-tempered beasts. She'd just as soon touch a alligator.

"We merely want to rest here for the night before going on in the morning," she said, hoping to defuse his anger. "We'll make sure we leave the place just the way we found it."

"I was hoping you could leave it a little better," he said.

She didn't know what to make of this man. He seemed to be ready to either run them off or make fun of them. She didn't find either attitude appealing.

The hair at his throat continued to nag at the edge of some unnamed feeling deep inside her, but she was beginning to feel more like herself.

"In exchange for your hospitality, you're welcome to eat with us. Our food isn't fancy, but you're welcome to it."

He lost all signs of belligerence. "Ma'am, anything would be fancy compared to what I can fix."

If she had thought to show him how uncouth he was by contrasting her manners with his, she was wasting her time. He picked up an empty plate, served himself from the pot, and sat down. He wasted no time in shoving large quantities of the beans and fried bacon into his mouth.

"You got some coffee?" he managed to asked between mouthfuls.

She had finally managed to break a few of the boys of this revolting habit, and here he was doing exactly the same thing. She started to tell him what she thought of men who served themselves from the pot, who sat down while their hostess remained standing, and who talked with food in their mouths. She didn't because she doubted he would understand what she was talking about.

"I'm not accustomed to serving coffee to a man when I don't know his name," Isabelle said, miffed at his total lack of manners or consideration for her.

"That's a good habit to cultivate, ma'am. It'll save you a heap of trouble in the end."

"Thank you, but your approval isn't necessary. Now if you will be so kind as to tell me you name, I'll introduce you to the boys."

"I don't need an introduction to a passel of scamps I won't see again. But if it'll settle your feathers, I'll tell you my name. Though they should have told you that when you got directions to this place."

"They did, but I expected to hear it from you. Any gentleman would introduce himself."

He stopped chewing long enough to give her a disgusted look. "One of those tea-in-the-parlor and embroidered lace kinds, are you? Don't know what in tarnation you're doing out here. It must be hell on your sensibilities. For all the good it'll do you, my name's Jake Maxwell. I own the Lazy-T, or what of it your damned poaching farmers have left me. You're welcome to stay they night, but I want you out first thing in the morning. I don't aim to give those thieving bastards reason to set foot on the place again."

His sudden profanity-sprinkled anger startled Isabelle.

He sat down his plate and got to his feet. "I guess I'd better pour my own coffee. You seem a mite slow."

Isabelle started, embarrassed. "Sorry, I forgot."

She didn't know why she felt compelled to pour his coffee and hand it to him. Maybe it was the fact that they were using his property without asking. It certainly wasn't because of his polished manners. She thought he was ideally suited to be a rancher. As far as she could tell, his personality exactly suited that of a cow.

"Be careful. It's hot," she said as she handed him his coffee.

"I hope so. That's about all it has to recommend it." He stared at it like he saw a tarantula climbing out of the cup.

"Isn't it usual to taste someone before you disparage its flavor?"

"Not when coffee looks this weak."

She noticed it didn't stop him from drinking it. And handing the cup to her for seconds.

"Thirsty," was all the explanation he offered.

He drank it watching her over the rim of his cup. She could have sworn there was mocking laughter in his eyes.

"It wouldn't be too bad if you'd use more coffee," he said when he finished the second cup. "And next time don't throw away the old grounds until you've used them three or four times."

"I never use ground more than once." Her aunt would have gone without coffee rather than do anything so appalling.

"That's what's wrong. Young grounds don't have any backbone." He tossed the cup on the group next to his plate. "Well, now that I know you're not making off with my priceless antiques, I'll be off."

"You don't sleep here?" she asked.

"I stay at my cow camp. I want to make sure nobody decides to help them wander off during the night. You're welcome to sleep in the cabin. The bed's not much, but it's better than the ground."

"Thank you, but I'll sleep in the wagon."

"You sure? It's a shame to let a bed go to waste."

"I'm sure."

Once again Isabelle was acutely conscious of the muscled forearms, the patch of hair at his throat, the feeling of tightly controlled power. It made her uneasy just to think of sleeping in Jake Maxwell's bed. It was one thing to camp in his ranch yard. It was quite another to allow her body to touch the same sheets that touched him.

"Let one of the boys have it. They can play cards to see who gets it."

"I don't approve of gambling."

"Neither do I, but then all of life's a gamble, isn't it? When you look at it like that, cutting the cards for one night in a bed doesn't see too evil."

Isabelle could think of no reply.

"Goodnight," he said. He mounted up and rode off without another word.

He had hardly disappeared into the darkness when Pete said, "I got some cards."

"They're probably marked," Alex said.

"I think we ought to cut for the highest card," Pete said.

The other boys agreed.

"You shuffle," he said to Isabelle.

"I don't know how. My aunt never allowed cards in the house."

"Really?" Pete said in disbelief. He offered his cards for her inspection, but they were greasy and the edges were soft.

"You cut. It'll soon be time to go to bed."

Night Hawk refused a cut. He scorned the white man's bed, but the others were anxious enough to get it. Pete won.

"You'd probably be more comfortable with a pallet on the floor," Alex said.

"Ignore him," Isabelle said. "The rest of you get to sleep. Tomorrow is an important day. I want you up early so you can bathe, wash your hair, and put on clean clothes. I want you to make a good impression on these people. They're going to be your family for the next several years."

"You mean we're going to be their slave labor," Alex said.

"You must learn to control your tongue," Isabelle said to Alex. "Nobody wants to hear their character or their good intentions cut up from dawn till dusk."

"Nobody has good intentions toward a Yankee orphan boy. You know that."

"Where you were born doesn't determine your character," Isabelle said.

"The hell it doesn't. You're a Southern lady from head to toe. That old cowboy who owns this place is just as bad as the Comanches he's stealing the land from. And any one of these boys can tell you I'm nothing but Yankee scum and won't ever be anything else."

Isabelle would dearly liked to have argued with Alex, but she knew from experience it was pointless. Besides, it was time to go to bed. What happened tomorrow was the important thing, not anything she said tonight.

As Isabelle settled into her bed in the wagon, she found herself thinking about Jake Maxwell. She wondered what a man could do out here by himself. Surely it wasn't possible for one man to take care of thousands of cows. Of course he could have a crew, even a wife and family, somewhere else.

Yet Isabelle was certain Jake was alone. She could sense it. She had been alone for too long to miss the signs. The wariness, the constant shifting of the gaze so as to miss nothing, the loneliness that came from knowing there's nobody who would know or care if you suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth.

She could sense it in each of the boys. It was terrible to see in anyone so young, but she didn't imagine it was any easier for a man.

It certainly hadn't been easy for her.

There was a lingering sense of his presence. Something about him had made a powerful impression on her. He wasn't the least bit like her fiance. Charles had been handsome, charming, and a perfect gentleman. Yet he had never caused her pulses to race or her body to feel weak, her mind to play tricks.

She actually wondered what it would be like to touch Jake's powerful arms. She'd seen power, she'd seen rough, but never a combination like this. It fascinated her. It made her fiance seem almost boyish.

There was nothing boyish about Jake Maxwell.