The Cattleman’s Unsuitable Wife
Montana Territory, Spring 1883
Woodrow Baldwin glared up at the words burned into the wooden beam above him.
Wells Cattle Company.
God, the sight of that name sickened him.
The beam hung over the entrance to one of the largest ranches in the territory of Montana. And here he was, looking down the lane that led to the main house. From the outside in, just like always.
Thanks to that no-good, womanizing father of his.
Sutton Wells owned the WCC and paid Woodrow to keep his sorry ass out of sight. Paid right handsome, too. Month after month, year after year. For most of Woodrow’s pathetic life.
Well, that was going to change. Woodrow had gotten real tired of being kicked aside, like shit off his father’s boots. He had as much right to the Wells’ empire as Trey did.
Woodrow’s lip curled at the thought of his older half-brother. The son Sutton loved best.
His belly tightened with hate for both of them. He delved into a shirt pocket, found a match and lit himself a quirley to get through it. While blowing out the flame, he caught sight of a rider heading toward him.
He tensed. Strange time for callers. The sun had almost set for the day. The rider wouldn’t be out this way if he didn’t intend to turn into the lane leading toward the Wells’ home.
Sure enough, seeing Woodrow, the man reined in. Woodrow took his time exhaling and decided the rider wasn’t one of his father’s cowboys. He dressed different, wore a flat-brimmed hat, rode a mangy-looking roan.
“Howdy,” Woodrow said, relaxing.
The stranger inclined his head. “This where Sutton Wells lives?”
A faint accent laced the low-spoken query, and Woodrow wondered where the rider was from.
“Yep,” he said.
“Is he home?”
Woodrow’s glance swung to the square window in the distance, on the far left side of the house. A light shone through the glass, which glowed brighter the darker the night got.
Sutton’s office. The only room Woodrow had ever been in. The old man had refused to let him step foot anywhere else inside that big house of his.
“He’s there,” Woodrow said, nursing another round of resentment.
“You have business with him?” the stranger asked.
“So do I.”
Woodrow regarded the man, noted how his skin seemed a tad darker than most folks ’round these parts.
“What kind of business?” he demanded.
For a long moment, the stranger didn’t respond. Then, he straightened, squared his shoulders and jerked his chin up.
“I’m his son,” he said.
Stunned, Woodrow stared.
“But I don’t think he knows I am,” the rider added.
“What the hell are you talkin’ about, mister? How come he don’t know you’re his son?”
“That’s one of the things I intend to ask him. I only found out myself a short time ago.”
Even in the dusk, Woodrow could see the flare of the man’s nostrils, the fury–or was it pain?–that shimmered from him, like heat off simmering tar.
Another son for Sutton Wells.
Well, well, well. Now wasn’t that just too rich?
Seemed the old man had a hard time keeping his pants up around the ladies. Which got Woodrow to wondering just how many other little Wells bastards were out there, populating God’s green earth.
Suddenly, the ludicrousness of it all hit him. He threw back his head and guffawed.
“Why are you laughing?” the stranger demanded, his fist clenched on the reins.
Took Woodrow a spell before he could catch his breath. Once he managed it, he leaned from the saddle and extended his hand.
“Name’s Woodrow Baldwin,” he said through his merriment. “The old man is my father, too.”
The dark shape didn’t move.
“That’s not funny,” the stranger snapped.
“It’s the truth.” Woodrow kept his arm outstretched. “Reckon I’m entitled to know your name, bein’s we’re brothers and all.”
“That’s right. You and me.”
The stranger appeared to struggle with incredulity. Finally, he muttered an oath and reached out; their hands met and clasped.
“Mikolas Vasco,” he said.
“Mikolas.” Woodrow tested the unusual word on his tongue and drew back. Since his quirley had burned down to his fingers, he took a last puff and tossed the stub aside. “Glad to meet you, Mikolas. Smoke?”
Woodrow rooted inside his shirt pocket again and withdrew two cigarettes. Lighting one, he handed it over and lit the second for himself.
Both drew in long drags. Questions buzzed in Woodrow’s head, curiosity about his new-found sibling’s past, his intentions for the future, for the meeting ahead with the man whose parentage they shared.
But Woodrow figured there’d be plenty of time to ask questions later. For now, they just needed to get used to the idea they ran the same blood in their veins. At least, half of it.
They smoked in silence, and in the passing minutes, he sensed the tension growing in Mikolas. Curiosity got the best of Woodrow, after all. He squinted an eye through the veil of smoke.
“You plan on letting ol’ Sutton know you’re alive and kicking?” he asked.
“Something like that, yes.”
They both turned and studied the imposing shape of the house silhouetted on the horizon. And the light burning in that window on the far left.
“You’re going to talk to him, too?” Mikolas asked.
Woodrow intended to talk all right. Whatever it took to get Sutton Wells to listen.
“Yep,” he said.
“Then why are you sitting out here, on the road?” Mikolas asked.
“Just waiting until it’s dark, that’s all.”
“Easier that way.”
Impatience flitted through Woodrow at the stream of questions.
“It just is, that’s all,” he snapped.
Over the years, he’d learned the hard way what it took to get Sutton Wells to listen to him. He’d learned, too, the depth of the shame, the contempt, the man felt at having Woodrow for a son.
“How old are you?” Woodrow demanded.
“Twenty-five?” He drew back in surprise. “Hell, so am I.”
Mikolas grunted in disgust. “He must’ve had a good time, using our mothers for his own pleasure.”
Woodrow’s mama had told him how Sutton’s wife had died, a couple years after Trey was born. Sutton had never remarried, but after his wife’s death, the tomcat had gone prowling, adding kittens to his litter. Woodrow figured he and Mikolas were the same age, but Woodrow had more experience. And that put him in charge.
“Listen up, Mikolas. It’s dark now, and that’s the best way to ride up to the house. When no one can see us.”
“I don’t care if anyone sees us.”
“You would if one of his damned outfit starts shootin’ at us. Or the old man throws us out himself.”
Mikolas appeared taken aback. “He wouldn’t do that. We’re his sons. His family.”
“Family don’t have nothin’ to do with it. I’m tellin’ you, he’ll throw us out.” Woodrow knew it firsthand, and he had the scars to prove it. “That’s why we’re going up there my way. Let me do the talking, y’hear?”
“I don’t need you–.”
“The hell you don’t. The old man never took well to havin’ me as his son, and he sure as hell won’t take to havin’ you for one, either.”
“No? But Trey is different, isn’t he?” Mikolas said, a sneer creeping into his voice.
“Now you’re gettin’ it.” Hate gurgled again, a jealousy so thick and rampant Woodrow near choked from it. “Trey has always been different.”
Everyone knew the Wells Cattle Company would be Trey’s one day. Sutton Wells’ firstborn son. Groomed to hold the reins to the family empire.
A family of two.
One father. One son.
Well, that was going to change. And time was a-wastin’.
“Let’s go,” Woodrow ordered, throwing the last of his cigarette into the weeds. His hand grasped the butt of the Colt slung to his hips. “And keep your mouth shut, y’hear? I’ll let you know when you can talk.”
This time, Mikolas didn’t argue. Woodrow nudged his mount through the darkness, a slow, steady pace down the road toward that window with the glowing light.
Farther away on the ranch grounds, the indecipherable sound of laughter and voices drifted from a low-lying structure. The WCC bunkhouse. The cowboys would be turning in soon, in readiness for a dawn rising. They wouldn’t be out to notice anything out of the ordinary, and Woodrow dismissed them.
He channeled his concentration on that office window instead. Gesturing to Mikolas, he pulled up beside bushes growing down the length of the house. The shadows were deeper here. Black as pitch. They dismounted and tied the leathers to branches.
Somewhere, a coyote howled, but a quick check revealed no one about. Woodrow kept his hand on his weapon, but he felt no fear. No apprehension. He knew what to do. What to expect.
Their boot soles scraped softly on the wooden porch. Woodrow withdrew his Colt from his holster with one hand, noiselessly turned the front door knob with the other. He didn’t bother knocking, and he heard the quickening of Mikolas’s breathing behind him. Clearly, the man had never broken into someone’s house before.
Woodrow smirked and stole inside. He heard the gentle click from Mikolas pulling the door carefully closed behind them. Woodrow turned to the left, toward the light spilling out of Sutton Wells’ office and onto the thick, crimson floral rug.
The old man sat at his big, polished desk, his head bent over a rectangular-shaped ledger. He made notations with a pencil, his work absorbing him so deeply he had no idea two of his sons were standing there. Watching him.
Mounted on the wall, a set of longhorns took prominence, their wide breadth a symbol of Sutton’s fortune. Nearby, a huge map depicting the boundaries of the Wells Cattle Company within the territory of Montana. On another wall, in neat rows, framed pictures hung from their wires. Photographs of prized bulls and fine-blooded horses. Some with a young boy, staring into the camera. And still more of him all grown-up.
Trey. It was always Trey.
Woodrow’s jealousy burned, and his glance slid back to Sutton. The man tended to wear his hair long, just past the collar of his shirt, the sides swept back. The strands glinted thick and golden in the lamp light.
As thick and golden as Woodrow’s.
Mama always said he had hair just like his daddy. Funny how they each tended to wear it the same way, too. Past the collar of their shirt and swept back at the sides.
Woodrow gritted his teeth.
“Sorry to interrupt you, Pop,” he said in a tone slathered with mockery.
Sutton’s head jerked up. Slowly, he set down his pencil, straightened in his chair.
“Don’t call me that,” he said.
“Tsk, tsk.” The words shouldn’t have stung, but they did. Damn him. “Is that any way to talk to your own flesh and blood?” he taunted.
Sutton’s glance dropped to the Colt pointed at him. He stood carefully. Lifted his glance again. “What do you want, Woodrow?”
A plethora of things he wanted, needed, jumped onto his tongue. But he swallowed them all down.
“There’s someone here you ought to meet,” he said.
Mikolas took the cue. Stepped forward. Sutton’s glance swung toward him.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“My name is Mikolas Vasco.”
“That supposed to mean something to me?”
Mikolas flinched, and Woodrow couldn’t help feeling sorry for him some. No one knew better than Woodrow Baldwin how much Sutton’s rejection hurt, and now Mikolas was getting a taste of it, too.
“He’s your son, damn you,” Woodrow snarled before Mikolas could speak. “One more of your bastards.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Doesn’t matter if you do, it’s the truth!” Woodrow yelled.
“Enough, Woodrow!” Mikolas barked the command. He braced his feet, clenched his fists, and faced the man who’d fathered him square. “My mother’s name was–.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass who she was,” Sutton spat. He leaned forward, planted his broad hands on the desktop, and speared Woodrow with a look so scathing, iron would’ve curled. “Just like I don’t care about yours.”
Woodrow’s grip tightened on the revolver. His sweet mama was the only person who’d ever loved him, really loved him, and God, he was a hair-trigger away from pumping Sutton Wells full of lead.
“Get out,” Sutton said. His cold gaze jumped between them. “Both of you. Or I’ll have you strung up from the rafters so fast your teeth will sing.”
“You’re a heartless–,” Mikolas grated.
His gaze swung toward him. “Go to hell.”
Mikolas hissed in a breath, pivoted and strode toward the open doorway. “When you go first.”
“Mikolas, damn it, get back here,” Woodrow ordered.
But Mikolas kept going. Out of the office, into the hall, and through the front door, giving it a good slam when he did.
Woodrow gritted his teeth. Blackmail would’ve been a helluva lot easier if this yellow-spined brother of his hadn’t left.
“What do you want from me?” Sutton snarled.
“Everything I can squeeze out of you, old man.”
“You’re not getting a dime more.”
“Double. I want the money doubled.”
“Or I go to Trey. I’ll tell him everything. I swear it.”
Sutton trembled. From fury? From fear? His hand moved.
Or did it?
Woodrow couldn’t tell for sure.
“Leave Trey out of this,” Sutton said, his voice a deep, rasping rumble. “We agreed.”
“Double the money, Pop.”
“I’ll kill you for this.”
Suddenly, the desk drawer jerked open, Sutton’s hand whipped inside, and Woodrow did the only thing he could. The one thing he’d dreamed of, fantasized about, and ached to do most all his life.
He pulled the Colt’s trigger.