Texas Tall - Janet Dailey


The first November chill had painted the Rimrock Ranch with a golden brush. From the glint of sunrise on the high escarpment to the sweep of yellow grass across the plain, from the fading willows along the creek to the bursts of saffron, where the cottonwoods grew, the land was the color of Spanish gold—the gold that, legend whispered, lay hidden in a canyon on the border of the ranch.

By day, flocks of migrating birds swept southward. Meadowlarks settled on the pastures and brightened the air with their calls. Ducks, geese, and sandhill cranes traced elegant V formations across the autumn sky. By night the stars were diamond sharp, the harvest moon ripe and mellow above the horizon.

A man with an easy mind would have savored the season’s rich beauty. But Will Tyler’s mind was far from easy. Wherever he looked, what he saw was not so much beauty as trouble.

The grass was weak, still recovering from the summer drought and the raging wildfire that had charred the lower pastures. Even if the winter turned out to be mild, would there be enough to feed the calves and breeding stock he needed to sustain the ranch? Or, with finances strained to the breaking point, would he be forced to buy more hay at a cutthroat price for the cattle he’d kept after selling off most of his herd?

Will had counted on the auction of Sky Fletcher’s superbly trained colts to shore up the ranch’s funds. But the drought-impoverished Texas ranchers, who would have scrambled to buy the lot, were, like Will, too cash-strapped to pay. Only a few young horses had been sold, and those at cut-rate prices.

Worries gnawed at Will as he drove his twelve-year-old daughter, Erin, home to the ranch for the weekend. While school was in session, the girl lived in Blanco Springs with her mother, Will’s ex-wife, Tori. But her weekends and summers were Will’s. These days Erin, who loved the ranch, was the only bright spot in his life.

Will drove his pickup carefully, with the headlights on high beam. It was late, almost eleven, and the narrow, two-lane road from town was unfenced here, with a meager shoulder and steep barrow pits on either side. Deer, coyotes, even cattle and horses, had been known to wander onto the asphalt at night and cause serious accidents. He would’ve brought Erin home before dark, but she’d gone to a friend’s house for a birthday party. She’d phoned him when it was over and he’d picked her up there.

Erin had turned on the pickup’s radio. The local country music station added a twanging underbeat to the thrum of the truck’s engine.

“So what’s new with you?” Will asked, breaking the relaxed silence between them. “Anything happening at school? Got a boyfriend yet?”

The boyfriend question was an ongoing joke between them. At two months shy of thirteen, Erin was more interested in horses than in boys. And Will would’ve run off any boy who got within a dozen yards of his daughter.

“Not yet. But Mom might have one. She’s got a date tonight.”

A knot jerked tight in the pit of Will’s stomach. He and Tori had been divorced for eight years, but some part of him still claimed her. The marriage may have been a disaster, but they’d made Erin together—the best thing they’d ever done.

“You don’t say?” He feigned a casualness he didn’t feel. “Who’s the lucky man?”

“His name’s Drew Middleton. He’s the new principal at the high school.”

The knot pulled tighter. “What’s he like?”

“He’s okay. Seems nice enough.”

“Think it’s serious?”

“Maybe. Mom hasn’t dated anybody in a long time.”

“Uh-huh.” Will swallowed hard. If Tori had found a man she wanted to date, that was her business. She deserved to be happy. But damn it all, he didn’t have to like it.

With Erin at the ranch, Tori would have the house to herself for two nights. The thought of what could be going on there was enough to make Will grind his teeth. Drew Middleton. The name tasted like sawdust in his mouth. He’d never met the man, but he already wanted to punch him.

Will had paid scant attention to the radio, but when the signal for an emergency news bulletin came on, it caught his attention. “Turn that up,” he told Erin.

The voice came through a crackle of static: “The sheriff ’s office is asking for your help in tracking down a man who held up the convenience store in Blanco Springs, took cash, and shot a clerk. The