Arizona Territory,August 12, 1888
HOLT MCKETTRICK hooked a finger under his fancy collar in
a vain effort to loosen it a little. Wedding guests milled
on the wide, grassy stretch of ground alongside the Triple
M ranch house, their finery dappled by shivering patches
of shade from the young oaks thriving there. Two fiddlers
played a mournful rendition of "Lo-rena," and there was a
whole hog roasting in the pit Holt's three half brothers
had dug in the ground and lined with flat rocks from the
creek. The wedding cake, baked by Holt's sisters-in-law,
was the size of a buckboard, and a long table — an
improvised arrangement of planks supported by half a dozen
fifty-gallon barrels — wobbled under the weight of a
week's worth of fancy grub.
The old man and the rest of the McKettrick outfit had
spared no effort or expense to make the gathering
memorable. Holt reckoned he might have enjoyed it as much
as the next fellow — if he hadn't been the bridegroom.
A hand struck his back in jovial greeting, and Holt nearly
spilled his cup of fruit punch, generously laced with
whiskey from his brother Rafe's flask, down the front of
his dandy suit.
"I reckon that's the preacher, yonder," said Holt's
father, Angus McKettrick, nodding toward an approaching
rider splashing across the sun-dazzled creek, driving his
horse hard. "Bout time he showed up. I was beginning to
think we'd have to send somebody out to the mission to
fetch that crippled-up padre."
Holt swallowed, squinted. Heat prickled the back of his
neck. Something stirred in him, a sweet, aching feeling
like he got on hot summer nights, when a high-country
breeze curled around his brain like a voice calling him
back to Texas.
"I reckon," he muttered. Holt wondered where Rafe had
gotten to with that flask, though he didn't look away from
the rider to search the crowd.
The newcomer, his features hidden in the glare of midafter-
noon light, spurred his horse up the creek bank on the
near side, man and mount flinging off diamonds of water as
"Margaret is a fine woman," Angus said. He had a way of
cutting a statement loose without laying any groundwork
"Who?" Holt asked, distracted. The skin between his
shoulder blades itched, and his chest felt wet beneath the
starched cotton of his shirtfront.
"Your bride," Angus answered, with a note of exasperation.
Out of the corner of his eye, Holt saw his father tug at
the knot in his string tie. Like as not, his wife,
Concepcion, had cinched it tight as a corset ribbon.
The rider gained the edge of the yard and dismounted with
the hasty grace of a seasoned cowpuncher, leaving the
reins to dangle. He came straight for Holt. "That ain't
the preacher," Angus remarked unnecessarily, and with
concern. Though he had almost no formal education, the old
man read till his eyes gave out, and when he let his
grammar slip, it meant he was agitated.
Holt glanced toward the house, where Miss Margaret
Tarquin, his bride-to-be, was shut away in an upstairs
bedroom getting herself gussied up for the wedding, then
went to meet the messenger. The fiddle-playing ground to a
shrill halt, and a silence settled over the crowd. Even
the kids and the dogs were quiet.
"I'm lookin' for Holt Cavanagh," the newly arrived young
man announced. His denim trousers were wet with creek
water, and he shivered, despite the shimmering heat of
that August afternoon. "You'd be him, I reckon?"
Holt nodded in brusque acknowledgment. It didn't occur to
him to explain that he'd set aside the name Cavanagh, once
he and the old man had made their blustery peace, and went
by McKettrick these days.
Angus stuck close, bristly brows lowered, and Rafe, Kade
and Jeb, elusive until then, seemed to materialize out of
the rippling mirages haunting the grounds like ghosts.
Holt and his brothers had had their differences in the
three years they'd been acquainted — still did — but blood
was blood. If the rider brought good news, they'd
celebrate. If it was bad, they'd do what they could to
help. And if there was trouble in the offing, they'd wade
right into the fray and ask for the particulars later.
Holt's affection for them, though sometimes grudging, was
in his marrow.
The visitor handed over a slip of paper. "Frank Corrales
told me to give you this. He sent you a telegram, and when
you didn't answer, he figured it didn't go through and
told me to hit the trail. I carried that there letter all
the way from Texas."
A shock of alarm surged through Holt, like venom from an
invisible snake. He hesitated slightly, then snatched the
soggy sheet of brown paper and unfolded it with a snap of
his wrist. He felt his father and brothers move a stride
He took in the words in a glance, absorbed the
implications, and read them again to make sure he had the
right of the situation.
JOHN CAVANAGH ABOUT TO BE DRIVEN OFF HIS LAND.
GABE TO HANG FOR A HORSE THIEF AND A
MURDERER ON THE FIRST OF OCTOBER. COME QUICK.
Holt was still digesting the news when a feminine voice
jarred him out of his stupor, and a slender hand came to
rest on his coat sleeve. "Holt? Is something wrong?"
Holt started slightly, turned his head to look down into
the upturned face of his bride-to-be, resplendent in her
lacy finery and gossamer veil. She was a pretty woman,
with fair hair and expressive blue eyes, a sent-for wife,
imported all the way from Boston. Holt never looked at her
without a stab of guilt; Margaret deserved a man who loved
her, not one who wanted a mother for his young daughter, a
bed companion for himself and not much else.
"I've got to go back to Texas," he said. The words had
been shambling along the far borders of his mind for a
long while, but this was the first time he'd let them come
to the fore, let alone find their way out of his mouth.
Angus cleared his throat, and the whole party started up
again, like it was some sort of signal. Reluctantly, Rafe,
Kade and Jeb moved off, and Angus handed the rider a five-
dollar gold piece, then steered him toward the food table.
One of the ranch hands took care of the exhausted horse.
Margaret's smile faltered a little as she gazed up at
Holt, waiting. "Maybe when I get back..." he began
awkwardly, but then his voice just fell away.
She sighed, shook her head. "I don't believe I want to
wait, Holt," she said. "If that's what you're asking me to
do, I mean."
He touched her face, let his hand fall back to his
side. "I'm sorry," he rasped, and he was, truly, though he
doubted it would count for much in the grand scheme of
things. At his brothers' urging, he'd brought this woman
out from the east, and now here she was, all got up in a
bridal gown, with half the territory in attendance, and
there wasn't going to be a wedding.
"I'll go ahead and marry you anyhow," he said, against his
every instinct, because he was Angus McKettrick's son and
a deal was a deal. But he couldn't make himself sound like
that was what he wanted, and Margaret was no fool. "I've
still got to leave, though, either way."
A tear shimmered on her cheek, but Margaret held her chin
high, shook her head again. "No," she said, with sad
pride. "If you really wanted me for a wife, you'd have
gone ahead with the ceremony, put a ring on my finger so
everybody would know I was taken, maybe even asked me to
"It'll be a hard trip," Holt said. From a verbal
standpoint, he felt like a lame cow, turning in fruitless
circles, trying to find its way out of a narrow place in
the trail. Nonetheless, he kept right on struggling. "Hard
things to attend to, too, once I get there."
She worked up another smile. "Godspeed, Holt McKet-trick,"
she said. Then, to his profound chagrin, she turned to
face the gathering.
All attempts at merriment ceased, and a hush fell. "There
will be no wedding today," Margaret announced, in a clear
voice, while everyone stared back at her in bleak
sympathy. Her spine, Holt noted, with admiration, was
straight as a new fence post. "But there will be a party.
I'm going upstairs right now and change out of this silly
dress, and when I come back down again, I expect to find
every last one of you making merry."
With that, Margaret started for the house. Holt's sisters-
inlaw, Emmeline, Mandy and Chloe, all flung poisonous
glances in his direction and hurried after his retreating
Only Lizzie, Holt's twelve-year-old daughter, had the
temerity to approach him, and her cheeks glowed pink with
"Papa," she demanded, coming to a stop directly in front
of him, "how could you?"
Holt loved his child, though he hadn't known she'd existed
until last year, and except for Margaret herself, Lizzie
was the hardest person in the crowd to face just
then. "I've got business in Texas," he said, because that
was the stark truth and he had nothing else to offer. "It
Lizzie stiffened, blinked her large hazel eyes, and bit
her lower lip. "You're leaving?"
He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder, but she
shrank from him.
"Lizzie," he whispered.
She turned on her heel, fled to her grandfather. Angus put
an arm around the child and glowered at Holt. The old man
looked like Zeus himself, shooting thunderbolts from his
eyes. "Hell," Holt muttered, and started for the barn. His
brothers fell in beside him, their faces hard. Holt
lengthened his stride, but they stuck to his heels like
barn muck. Stubborn cusses, cut from the same itchy cloth
as their pa, every one of them.
"What the hell is going on here?" Rafe snarled. The
firstborn of Angus's three younger sons, Rafe was a bull
of a man, and always the first to demand an accounting. He
and Kade and Jeb formed a semicircle in front of Holt,
barring his way into the barn, where his horse was
stabled, blissfully unaware of the long, arduous ride
Holt might have shoved his way through, if he hadn't
figured that would lead to a fight. He wasn't afraid of
tangling, but a brawl would mean a delay, and the need to
get where he was going made an urgent clench in the pit of
He pulled out the crumpled letter, thrust into his vest
pocket earlier, and shoved it at Kade, who happened to be
the one standing directly in front of him. "See for
yourself," he said.
Kade scanned the page, while Jeb and Rafe peered at it
from either side.
"I'll saddle your horse," Kade said, handing it back. He
was the middle brother, the thoughtful, practical
one. "Best pack yourself some of that wedding grub, too,
for the trail."
"Have a word with Lizzie before you go, Holt," Rafe
interjected. "She doesn't look like she's taking this real
"I could ride along," Jeb put in, with typical eagerness.
The youngest of the brood, he was also the fastest gun,
and hands-down the best rider. Jeb was handy to have
around in a tight place, for those reasons and a few
others, but the plain and simple truth was that Holt
didn't want to have to look out for him. He wasn't fool
enough to say so, though.
He might have grinned, if he hadn't just humiliated a fine
woman and learned that two of the best friends he'd ever
had were in trouble. Jeb had a wife to look after, and a
baby daughter, barely walking. Rafe and Kade were in the
same situation, since all three of their brides had
managed to come a-crop with babies a year ago last
"This is my fight," Holt said. "I'll handle it."
Rafe looked thoughtful. "John Cavanagh. That's the man who
raised you, isn't it?"
Holt nodded, though Rafe's assessment didn't begin to
cover what Cavanagh meant to him. "He's got a spread
outside San Antonio."
"And this Gabe yahoo...?" Jeb fished. "Who's he?"
"We were Rangers together," Holt explained. Gabe Navarro
was a wild man — part Comanche, part Mexican, part devil —
but he was neither a murderer nor a horse thief. Holt had
known him too long and too well ever to believe either
Apparently satisfied, Kade headed into the barn to get
Holt's horse, Traveler, ready.
Rafe and Jeb went to the feast table and commenced
gathering food for the journey. Holt looked for Lizzie and
found her still in Angus's arms, her head resting against
the old man's broad shoulder.