Colorado Rockies, late July 1851
A giant, blood red moon rose in the blackened sky. The air lay still, warm, and heavy with moisture from an impending storm. Cattle in the stock pen bawled loudly, milling about until dust blanketed them in churning, choking clouds. Yet, as sweltering as the eve was, the hand clasping the revolver shook with an apprehensive chill.
Swathed in shadow, the man dropped the empty liquor bottle and dug into his trouser pocket, extracting a rumpled handkerchief. "It's time for that reckoning, Wainwright!" he snarled as he mopped his sweaty brow. "Time to settle up, you lowlife, lying varmint. Whatever comes of this night, you've only got yourself to blame."
He stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket, checked his revolver one more time, then stepped from the shelter of the barn. Staggering toward the small cabin, he fumbled as he tried once, then twice, before successfully cocking the gun. "Wainwright!" the man croaked out the word, his voice raw and whiskey belligerent. "Get your sorry hide out here. You're not getting my ranch without a fight."
For a long moment, all was quiet. Then an oil lamp flared brightly within the dwelling and the sound of muffled voices spilled from the open windows. Footsteps echoed on the pine plank floors.
The front door swung open. Light streamed out onto the hard-packed dirt to puddle before the little house. A man's tall frame filled the doorway. One hand gripped a rifle. Behind him the form of a woman, heavy with child, moved.
"Who is it, Edmund?" she murmured anxiously. "What does he mean? Was this his ranch?"
"Not now, Mary," her husband growled, never taking his gaze off the disheveled man standing but fifteen feet away. Gently, he pushed her back inside. "Let me handle this."
"It's over, Caldwell!" Edmund Wainwright then cried. "I won your place fair and square. Now, it's mine. Get on with your life, and let me and my family get on with ours."
"It'll never be over!" Jacob Caldwell bellowed back. "We're ruined, me and my wife, and you tell me to get on with my life? Why, you blackhearted, cheating card shark! It won't be over until one of us is dead. Now, come on out. Fight me like a man."
"You're drunk. I won't fight a drunk."
Caldwell's trigger finger jerked convulsively. A shot cracked through the air, the sound echoing down the valley and out to the mountains as the bullet spent itself just shy of the porch. "Come on out, you lily-livered coward, or I'm coming in to get you!"
"Have it your way, then, you whiskey-besotted fool," Edmund Wainwright roared. "If you're so set ---"
A movement at the far edge of the cabin caught Caldwell's eye. He swung toward it, stumbling. Inadvertently, his finger once more squeezed the trigger.
Again, the sound of gunfire exploded in the air. This time, though, it was followed quickly by a child's scream.
Wainwright lunged from the doorway, his rifle clattering onto the porch as it fell from his grasp. "He's shot you," he cried as he ran to where his son now lay crumpled on the ground. "That crazy fool's gone and shot you!"
In stunned disbelief, Jacob Caldwell lurched back. He stared at the sight of his enemy kneeling now to gather up the bleeding child into his arms. Unbidden, a crazy impulse to fire pierced his drunken fog. Do it. You've got nothing to lose. If the boy dies...
Lightning slashed across the sky. A woman's scream tore through the air, the onrushing crack of thunder adding its own spine-chilling emphasis. Caldwell's hand froze in its upward swing.
He stood there for what seemed a lifetime, then shoved the revolver into the back of his trousers. "As I said before, Wainwright," he muttered as he staggered into the blackness from which he'd first appeared. "Whatever comes of this night, you've only got yourself to blame."
Rain began to fall in loud, splattering plops. Caldwell paid them no heed. As he hurried away, though, another cry rose on the wind that had swiftly followed in the wake of the storm. A woman's cry...one that suddenly changed from agonized sorrow to a keening, physical anguish.