The following excerpt is copyrighted by Adrienne deWolfe
Bandera County, Texas
“Lookie there, boys. The lady ain’t got no underwears!”
Pausing just inside the swinging doors, Bailey McShane felt her face turn branding-iron hot. The patrons of the Bullwhip Saloon hooted, sloshing whiskey to toast their fellow cattleman’s jest. Cowboys were notoriously creative when ridiculing sheep, but likening the animals’ fleece to a female’s unmentionables was a new insult, even to Bailey.
She gripped her shotgun tighter and glared at her snickering audience. Her heart was beating faster than it had any right to be, which she considered akin to betrayal. She liked to think she’d never been afraid a day in her life. To feel the dampness of her palms and the roiling in her gut made her as mad at her body as she was at the cowpokes who’d vandalized her fences. She hated feeling weak because she was a woman.
Her foreman would’ve wanted to come to protect her – a constant struggle between them, which irritated her to no end — so rather than telling MacTavish about her property damage, she’d ridden off without him. She’d figured the wire cutters she was hunting would take a Scottish immigrant no more seriously than they took a sheep-raising female.
Tonight would be different, though. Tonight she’d be someone to reckon with. She’d come to the enemy camp to demand the compensation she was due, and she’d be damned before she’d hide behind some man’s britches. In business, as in war, there was no room for a lady.
Hiking her rolled-up blue jeans, Bailey narrowed her eyes beneath her Stetson and stepped with her hound into the smoky squalor of the Bullwhip Saloon.
The main room was unusually crowded for droving season. Bailey darted her gaze past the counter, with its clutter of dirty glasses, whooping gamblers, and spinning dice cage, then scanned the flushed and craggy faces laughing around the tables. The drought had forced most of Bandera’s cattlemen to drive their steers to market early, selling their best beef at prices that amounted to robbery. With time on their hands and boulder-sized chips on their shoulders, cowpokes came to the saloon every night to grouse about the usual: beef, sod busters, barbed wire, and woolies.
But one of these men, Bailey was certain, had done more than grouse. Someone in this nest of rat snakes had committed an act of vandalism that had provoked war in several of Texas’s other drought-stricken counties. She steeled herself against her secret hurt, that one of her neighbors had lashed out at her when she’d done everything in her power to accommodate them through their hardships. She didn’t want bloodshed, but she did want what she deserved: The right to raise her sheep in peace.
“Hey, Bo Peep!” Another cowpoke bellowed, winking lewdly as he grabbed his crotch. “If it’s a ram you came lookin’ fer, I got one over here!”
Boo halted at her side. With a rumbling growl, he turned wolfish yellow eyes on her heckler and bared fangs as long as her thumb. Bailey knew a fleeting sense of satisfaction when her detractor blanched, edging unsteadily toward the safety of the counter.
Tugging a man’s glove from her belt, she dangled it beneath her hound’s twitching nose. “Find the wire cutter, Boo. Find the bastard who has been raiding my wells.”
Boo’s spindly tail wagged in understanding. Snout to the sawdust, he weaved among the lip-locked couples on the dance floor. One of the hurdy-gurdy girls interrupted her kiss long enough to pat Boo’s massive head. Her partner scowled.
“Here now, Miss Bailey,” the barkeep called above the abysmally tuned piano. Balancing a fistful of empty mugs in one hand, he planted the other on his hip. “I told you can’t visit the Bullwhip no more if you’ve come to raise a ruckus.”
Boo paused, sniffing suspiciously at the barkeep’s wooden leg. The old man went rigid, his whiskered, sun-weathered face paling.
“Don’t get your shorts in a knot, Stumpy,” Bailey called as Boo, apparently dissatisfied, snuffled onward to the counter. “I’m paying a neighborly call on a wire cutter. Won’t take but a minute.”
“Neighborly, my ass.” Stumpy muttered something more virulent as Boo inspected each of the boots propped along the counter’s runner. Their owners allowed this examination with a mixture of amusement and polite tolerance. One cowpoke even tossed the hound a piece of beef jerky. But Boo, faithful to his mission, ignored this flagrant bribe.
“If that slobberin’ varmint of yours gnaws another one of my table legs, I’m charging you double. “
“Boo gave up table legs for railroad spikes,” Bailey retorted. “He’s not a puppy anymore.”
“He’s a damned beaver, that’s what he is,” Stumpy grumbled, plunking his mug down on the bar.
Meanwhile, Boo had lost interest in the silver rowels and dusty heels lounging at the counter. Winding his way through the clutter of furniture and humans, he trotted toward the stairwell that led to the second story’s “heifer corral,” where Stumpy’s advertisements bragged “a bull could get his fill.” Bailey didn’t much like the idea of her childhood playmates throwing away their bodies and their dreams, but at least Stumpy fed and clothed them and kept a roof over their heads. It was better treatment than some of the girls had gotten from their fathers — or from the husbands who’d abandoned them.
” ‘Evenin’, Miss Bailey,” Hank Rotterdam greeted, flashing a full-toothed smile as she followed her hound to the table near the stairwell. Hank’s gaze traveled from her breasts to her shotgun, then leisurely roamed back up her cotton workshirt to her breasts. “Trouble back home?”
(Continued on page 2)