Kansas, early November 1866 Near the V Bar D Ranch, between the towns of Purgatory and Redemption Bluff Clay Denton lowered the small spyglass and leaned his forearm onto the saddle horn. The most unsettling sensation that he’d done all this before sent a shiver crawling up his spine. He shook off the feeling and resumed his contemplation of the large house nestled into the shelter of a sprawling valley. It looked just as he remembered the spread when it had been in Texas, though perhaps the barn was larger, and he didn’t exactly recall the west wing of the house. A glance over his shoulder made him blink and look away. He allowed a tight smile to tug at his mouth. No worries he would be seen silhouetted along the ridgeline. Or that sunlight might glint off the spying glass. Anyone looking along the ridge would be blinded by the massive red disk sinking into the distant horizon. He returned to his scrutiny of the ranch below. A woman, young if her carriage and the lightness to her steps was any indication, emerged from the house and crossed the barren, dusty yard to the large barn. Clay’s breath shortened as her features came into focus through the glass. Her knew that face, knew the shade of her hair, could even imagine what her voice sounded. He lowered the telescope, collapsing it between gloved hands. He’d found the right place. Deep in thought, he secured the glass in his saddle bag. His horse shifted under him as he lifted the reins and pointed the gelding in the opposite direction of the small town he had passed on his way through. The thick-coated, black and white dog dozing under the gelding scrambled clear of the horse’s hooves with a grumbling, half-growl, then fell into a ground-covering trot alongside the horse. Though his first instincts were to charge down to the ranch, guns blazing, he couldn’t do that. Not yet, anyway. More mundane and domestic priorities had to take precedence for a little while. Securing a room in town had to be the most immediate concern on his agenda. Second was getting a long, hot bath, and a shave and a haircut. Hopefully the town had something that resembled a restaurant. Then, he’d check out the saloon. If he was lucky, there might even be a good poker game. Or maybe he’d try bucking the tiger, though he never did like the odds in faro. First thing in the morning, he’d have a message delivered to the V Bar D. His path off the ridge and toward the small town of Redemption Bluff took him through a deep, dry arroyo. A few scrub trees, mainly cottonwood, stubbornly clung to the slopping walls. Sagebrush dotted the dry riverbed. It had been some time since this arroyo last flooded, though from the washouts visible along the walls, Clay didn’t want to be trapped in the gulley. He’d bet a few double eagles the arroyo turned into a raging, roiling death-trap in a heavy rainstorm. The dog broke into a lope, making a line for one of the larger sagebrush plants. Before the dog could bolt after the jackrabbit flushed from the shade, Clay barked a single word. “No.” The huffing sigh and the look shot over the dog’s shoulder reeked of disappointment at not being allowed to chase the now vanished prey. Clay shook his head in amusement. He was losing it if he was reading that much into the dog’s actions. “I’ll buy you a steak when we get to town. That work for you, Princess?” Princess wagged his tail. Clay still wondered how he got so stupid as to take a supposed high dollar, alleged blue-blooded dog claimed to be the best damn herding dog in the Scottish Highlands as payment on a bet another poker player couldn’t cover. The worst part was the dog’s blasted name. Princess. What fool named a male dog “Princess?” And what sort of fool talked to the dog as if he understood? Princess froze, the sweeping wag of his plumed tail halting. An unnerving silence descended, lifting the hair on the back of Clay’s neck. He looked down to the statue still dog. Even though his hackles were lifted, revealing gleaming white teeth, not a sound broke from the dog. Princess’s state of high alert thrummed along Clay’s nerves. The dog tilted his head slightly up at Clay, hackles lifting further. He hadn’t spent the past year with the dog and not gained a certain amount of trust in the dog’s hearing, sense of smell, and uncanny intuition of danger to discount the warnings now. Clay held his gloved hand out to Princess, a silent order to hold. The dog crouched but didn’t drop to his belly, waiting. Clay tugged his carbine from its saddle holster, levered a round into the chamber, then signaled for the dog to go. Princess took off as if he had been shot from the Spencer. Clay pressed his knees into the gelding and followed the dog through the turns of the dry arroyo. Princess disappeared around a tight turn. The immediate, hoarse screams from a male echoed in the walls. “Get it off me!” The frantic pleas reached Clay before he arrived. “Shoot it! Kill it!” One swift glance sank his stomach. Princess ravaged the forearm of one man, while the man’s thrashing made it impossible for his partner to draw a bead on the twisting, snarling dog. A woman huddled against a crumbling wall of the arroyo, hair loose, tangled, and falling over her bare shoulders. Clay jacked the hammer on the Spencer and squeezed the trigger. The shot sent the derby skittering off the man not occupied with Princess. “Drop the gun,” Clay barked, at the same time levering the Spencer again and thumbing the hammer back. “Drop the gun or the next one is through your skull.” Derby pointed his revolver at the ground, extended it to arm’s length, and let it drop. A small dust cloud rose from the dry riverbed. Princess’s gnaw bone continued screaming, dancing, and futilely shaking his arm. “Kick it toward me.” Clay waited until the former derby wearer kicked the gun across the ground. He nudged his horse forward, so the animal stood over the weapon. He finally issued a short, shrill whistle. Princess immediately released his punishing bite. The dog scampered out of range of a poorly aimed kick from Gnaw-bone and surprised Clay by backing up until he stood defensively between the woman and her attackers. His lip curled back in a loud, rumbling growl that started deep in his chest. “I’m gonna kill that damn dog,” Gnaw-bone muttered, his uninjured hand moving toward the gun holstered on his hip. “You move your hand any closer to that lead pusher, mister, and you won’t even clear leather before your brains’ll decorate that wall behind you.” Gnaw-bone glared, his upper lip twisting in a snarl remarkably similar to Princess’s but lacking the wherewithal to back it up. Clay gestured with the muzzle of the Spencer for Gnaw-bone to join Derby. He waited until the two miscreants stood side by side. “Why don’t one of you fine, upstanding gentlemen tell me what you were doing with the lady?” “Lady?” Derby snorted. “That ain’t no lady.” “Seeing as how I’m the one pointing a carbine at you two, she’s a lady if I say she is.” Clay let his gaze dart to the lady in question. She seemed to have shrunk even further, letting Princess hide her from view. “Where I come from, ladies aren’t treated like that.” “Why don’t you go back to where you come from? This ain’t none of your business.” Derby was definitely the more talkative of the two. Clay lifted his shoulder in a shrug. “Just can’t do that, either. It sticks real tight in my craw, a lady being mistreated, so I’m making this my business.” “You’re makin’ a mistake, mister.” Derby’s voice lowered with the unspoken threat. “When Vanek hears about this—” “That name supposed to mean something to me?” He couldn’t believe his luck. The name meant a lot to him, but he wasn’t about to let either of those two know that. “It will.” Gnaw-bone finally spoke up. “Vanek runs this county. You done crossed the wrong man.” “I’ll take my chances.” Some things didn’t change. “I don’t think either of you is Vanek, and if he knows about this and condones it, maybe he needs to be crossed.” A choked off whimper came from the woman doing her best to hide even further behind Princess. Clay’s gaze drifted down to the two, pausing on their worn boots. “Just to even the odds, though, you two can walk back to wherever you came from.” Derby and Gnaw-bone exchanged a glance, then Derby asked, “What about our horses?” “What about them?” He gave the two animals a dismissive glance. “You makin’ us walk back must mean you’re gonna take ’em.” Derby’s mouth twisted with an ugly smile. “Those two nags?” Clay shook his head. “They certainly aren’t worth stealing, much less hanging for. They’re not much more than crowbait. I’ll take them into the closest town, and you can pick them up at the livery. Now, start walking.” Derby and Gnaw-bone hadn’t gone more than five feet when another thought occurred to Clay. He nudged his knees into his horse and the gelding moved forward, cutting off their retreat. “I changed my mind, gentlemen. Boots and britches off.” The color drained from Derby’s face while it flooded Gnaw-bone’s features. “I ain’t walking three miles through that scrub without my boots.” “You can walk, or you can crawl.” Clay pointed the rifle at Gnaw-bone’s left foot. “Your choice.” Both men sat and tugged their boots off, though Gnaw-bone was hampered by his profusely bleeding arm. When they stood, Clay said, “Now your britches.” If looks could kill, Clay figured he would already be lying face down. Still, the two tugged off their trousers. Gnaw-bone wore a filthy, stained union suit under his pants. Derby seemed to prefer to allow things to air out more often. One last time, Clay nudged the muzzle of the Spencer in their direction. “Start walking, gentlemen.” Once he was certain the duo was out of earshot and not making their way back to attempt an ambush, Clay allowed himself to huff out a long, steadying breath. This certainly put a wrinkle in things. Still, if he played it right, he could probably do what he came to this God-forsaken corner of Kansas to accomplish. It was going to come down to how he played his cards.