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From Author Sherri Shackleford – THE CATTLEMAN MEETS HIS MATCH –
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If John Elder hadn’t been so furious with his mutinous crew of cattle hands, he might have noticed the woman dangling above his head sooner.
Except nothing had gone right since his arrival in the bustling cow town of Fool’s End. Night had long since fallen by the time he’d discovered his four missing cowhands. Drunk. In a brothel. He’d fired them on the spot.
As John had circled behind the row of connected buildings, mud from a chilly autumn rain sucked at his boots and slowed his pace. Walking the alley at night wasn’t the wisest choice, but he didn’t have much time. He’d discovered the men’s horses—his horses—at the livery earlier. He was taking back his property before his crew sobered up.
He kept the same rules as his father and his grandfather before him—no gambling, drinking or sporting women until the job was finished.
Moonlight glinted off broken bottles and the stench of sour mash whiskey burned his nostrils. Propped open with a dented brass spittoon, the saloon’s rear door released a dense cloud of cigar smoke. John skirted the hazy shaft of light with a grunt. He’d wasted half the day. For nothing.
A scuffle sounded behind him and he pivoted with his fists raised. Only inky darkness met his searching gaze. John dropped his arms. A man couldn’t be too careful in this corrupt town.
The space behind the buildings wasn’t as much an alley as an afterthought of the hastily constructed cow town. Dreamers and schemers had built Fool’s End from one hundred people to five hundred practically overnight. The pains of rapid expansion had ravaged the city’s grid work. Hope and despair fought a never-ending battle in the red soil, leaving behind an odd carnage. Buffalo hunters, cattle hands and fortune seekers had sprouted opportunity and corruption in equal measures.
A raucous piano ditty spilled from the nearest open saloon door and John’s head throbbed in time with the grating tune. If any one of his six older brothers could see him now, he’d never live it down. Halfway from Paris, Texas, to his final destination of Cimarron Springs, Kansas, and he was spitting distance from failure. Again.
Sure, there’d been times in the past when his optimism had outpaced his good sense. But not this time.
John snorted at the irony. He shouldn’t have let his temper get the better of him. Firing the men left him with only a cantankerous chuck wagon cook named Pops who was older than dirt and just as talkative, and eight hundred head of longhorn cattle he couldn’t drive to Cimarron Springs alone. A small herd by most standards, but too large for two men alone.
It was imperative he reach the Kansas border or forfeit his dreams of starting his own cattle ranch. Fearful of Texas fever, a disease spread by longhorns to other livestock, the state was steadily moving the quarantine line farther west. He’d gambled the line would hold. Farmers and ranchers were filling the state, and their vote was bound to sway the legislature. Which gave John two weeks to cross into Kansas before the vote to close the borders took place.
Time enough for finding a new crew. But not much time.
The faint scuffing grew louder. Pausing, he glanced left and right, then lifted his chin and caught the first blow on his upturned cheek.
“Out of my way,” a feminine voice called down.
The heel of her sturdy boot knocked him sideways. Staggering upright, John clutched his battered shoulder. A slender form dangled from a knotted bed sheet above his head.
His jaw dropped.
The girl craned her neck toward the ground, her face an alabaster oval against the darkness. A blur of pale petticoats covered by a dark skirt met his astonished gaze.
Her gaze snapped upward and her red hair shimmered in the moonlight like a wild, exotic halo. “Let out more rope. I’m still six feet from the ground,” she hissed.
Her voice was mature. John craned his neck. The harder he looked, the more he realized this was a woman, not a girl. Her body twisted and his heart lurched.
He thrust out his arms and her flailing leg grazed his right hand. “Ouch.”
Scooting aside, he reached with his left hand and she smacked that one too. “Take it easy!”
Retreating a safe distance, he assessed the situation. Either this was a dangerous prank or the woman was involved in something nefarious. He didn’t care. He wasn’t getting involved. No way. No how. Right now he had more problems than time.
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