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As dawn sun painted a rosy stripe along the eastern horizon, Grant McAllister kicked the banked embers of last night’s campfire back to glimmering life. Patiently feeding in bits of dried grass and tinder under the crisscross tower of oak branches he’d constructed over the coals, he watched until the wood smoldered and caught, then stepped aside to fetch the grill that fit over the fire’s framework. Adding water to the battered-tin coffeepot, he placed it on the grill to heat for the morning’s first cup.
Once all was in readiness for coffee and the bacon and eggs he’d cook when his brother Brice arrived, he sat back on one of the wooden stumps that served as stools. With the nearest town miles away and this high ridge reached by isolated ranch roads, only the chatter of birds and the lowing of cattle in the nearby fields broke the silence. Grant closed his eyes, letting the beauty and stillness of the early June morning flood his soul.
His mind filled with images of campfires past. Many built here, on this high plateau sheltered by old-growth cedar and live oaks, where he and brothers, Duncan and Brice, had camped innumerable times while growing up. Later, in dusty bivouacs thousands of miles away, surrounded by his fellow Recon Marines, brothers in all but blood, drinking coffee made on their Jetboils, sharing tall tales and goodies from home.
It had taken a long time to reconcile himself to the anguish and loss, but after eight years in the service and two more living in a high-rise San Antonio condo, working with an organization that matched veterans with jobs, he was back in Whiskey River. The itchy feet that had compelled him to leave right after high school, carried him to various Marine bases across the US and to rocky battlefields halfway around the world, had finally led him home. To McAllister land and the Triple A ranch.
When injuries had forced him out of an active role in the Corps, working with vets had been a way to hang on to some involvement in military life. After spending two years in that role, when Duncan had asked for Grant’s help, he’d decided he might at last be ready to close the book on that phase of his life.
The decision to come back felt right.
The sound of scrabbling rocks and the growl of a distant engine had him opening his eyes. Must be Brice driving up. Better get the coffee going.
By the time his brother’s SUV rounded the last curve and drove across the flat plateau toward his campsite, he was pouring boiling water into the French press, filling the morning air with the rich smell of dark-roast coffee.
He heard the engine die and the slam of car doors—two car doors. Looking up in surprise, he saw his older brother, Duncan, walking toward the fire with Brice.
“Good thing you made a whole press full,” Duncan said as he came over to grasp Grant’s hand and give him their traditional one-armed hug. “I’m thirsty.”
“What’s the bridegroom doing up here?” Grant asked. “Surely Harrison hasn’t thrown you out yet.”
“She’s up early working on the breeding books, then plans to head into town. She’s been doing some tax work for Reba’s Java and Mel Gardiner’s bookstore, and wanted to get them the paperwork to sign before the June fifteenth deadline. So she sent me out for some ‘brother bonding time.’”
Brice rolled his eyes. “Did she really call it that? Women!”
“Careful, now. That’s my darling wife you’re disparaging. She looked so cute saying it with that serious expression of hers; I didn’t have the heart to tease her.”
Grant looked at Brice and both brothers shook their heads. “Completely besotted,” Grant said. “I’d call it nauseating, if Harrison weren’t such a nice girl.”
“Why she ever hooked up with our workaholic brother, I’ll never understand, but otherwise, she’s pretty smart,” Brice agreed.
“Obviously I couldn’t leave my beautiful bride, but why didn’t you camp with Grant last night?” Duncan asked Brice.
“If you weren’t so oblivious to everything beyond your new wife, you’d remember that I had to work undercover. Didn’t finish until too late to join Grant. Besides, I think he wanted a night alone to . . . to ease into being home again. You were . . . okay, weren’t you?”
The anxious looks on both his brothers’ faces told him they were remembering a time not so many years distant, soon after his return from his last deployment and his decision to leave the Marines, when he hadn’t been okay alone, here or anywhere. Recuperating from the injuries suffered on that last patrol, dealing with the grief of losing friends—and the guilt of having survived them—had been a difficult struggle. But he’d won the battle against those demons—mostly. “I’m fine. Meditation, therapy and time—the recipe to heal all wounds. Or at least make them bearable.”
“I’m just glad you’re back,” Duncan said, handing a cup of coffee to Brice before taking one himself. “Now that we’ve recovered the Scott Ranch property and restored the Triple A to its original size, I really am going to need your help. Especially after the town doc confirmed last week that Juan Cortez, whom you may remember had been helping Harrison’s dad run the Scott Ranch, is barred from doing any heavy work permanently.”
“Is he still in a lot of pain?” Brice asked as they settled onto log seats by the fire.
“He says he isn’t, but Harrison’s going to press him to see a pain management specialist in Austin. When that mama cow knocked him around, he apparently aggravated some disc problems he’s had for years. With hay-cutting season upon us, I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t agreed to move back and help, Grant.”
“When your big brother, who’s never asked for assistance with anything, says the only wedding present he wants is for you to help him run the ranch he single-handedly rescued from bankruptcy and has worked sixty hours a week since high school to make profitable again, what else could a brother do?”
“So you gave your boss notice and hoofed it back to Whiskey River,” Brice said.
“Not exactly. I’m still consulting and I’ll handle a few cases. Much of the workload I’ve turned over to my assistant, but he knows he can call me anytime, and I’ll probably go back to San Antonio once a month or so.” At the startled look Duncan gave him, he added, “After I’ve gotten the hay on my section of the ranch cut, of course.”
“Harrison and I are thrilled to have you back on any terms,” Duncan affirmed. “The Triple A’s been McAllister land since great-granddad settled here after the Civil War. Sure, I run it, but it belongs to all of us. It’s our legacy. Shoot, maybe we’ll even convince Brice to give up the law and settle back here.”
“I think the two of you have it well in hand,” Brice said, stretching his legs out toward the fire.
“Too exciting chasing criminals to settle for chasing down stray calves?” Duncan said.
“Naw, he just thinks the ladies prefer a man in a tan Stetson with a ranger star on his chest,” Grant said.
“Speaking of ladies, what did the one you left behind in San Antonio do when you told her you were moving to Whiskey River? Or is she planning to join you?” Brice asked.
“Meredith, in Whiskey River?” Grant laughed at the very image. “Let’s just say that she has about as much love for small-town life as Duncan’s old high school flame, Julie Ann. It was . . . time for that to end.”
“I figured as much, since you didn’t bring her to the wedding,” Duncan said.
“Making commitment noises, was she, bro?” Brice asked.
“And how is that blond honey you’ve been seeing in Austin?” Grant flashed back. “Hankering for a diamond on her finger?”
“Okay, no more talk of women,” Brice said. “Speaking of ‘settling,’ where do you mean to live?”
“There’s plenty of room back at the ranch house,” Duncan said. “You know you’re welcome.”
Brushing off the flake of ash that had landed on his cup, Grant said, “Sure, I’ll just move in with my brother and his new wife. Or maybe not.”
“If you don’t want to do that, I know Harrison would be happy to have you live in the house her dad built at the Scott Ranch.”
Grant shook his head. “Too big for me. I’m used to living in a one-bedroom condo. I don’t need thirty-six hundred square feet.”
“Surely you don’t mean to live in town,” Duncan objected. “That would add on an unnecessary drive, especially in the winter when it will still be dark when morning chores begin.”
“No, I have something different in mind. Remember the little hunting cabin Granddaddy built, over on the land Scott bought? Scott never used it; he built that new house closer to the center of the ranch. I rode over yesterday to look at it. Needs a new roof and some work inside, of course. Since you want me to work the cattle on the eastern side of the Triple A, I’d be right where I need to be.”
Pointing off to the east, Brice said, “The cabin sits on that bluff overlooking that creek where it branches off the Pedernales, near our old favorite swimming hole, right?”
“That’s the one.”
“No one’s done anything to it in decades,” Duncan said. “Are you sure it wouldn’t fall down around your ears?”
“No, the timbers and the rock walls look to be in amazingly good shape. Granddaddy knew how to build a cabin. I can clean it out, add on an extension with two bedrooms and a bathroom, and redo the kitchen. With new insulation, a gas stove insert in the fireplace, solar panels for electricity and a deck built to overlook the river, it should do me fine. I can camp out there while I work on it.”
“With no electricity or running water or—?” Brice began before halting abruptly at Grant’s raised eyebrow. “Never mind. Recon Marine, right? You could camp on a rock and live off dirt.”
“I don’t need a feather mattress and a lighted bathroom mirror so I can apply my scented hair gel,” Grant said, setting down his empty cup.
“Screw you, bro.”
“You can shower and wash clothes back at our place until you’ve got the renovations done,” Duncan said. “Just to be polite, I’ll make sure Harrison is okay with your taking over the cabin. Since technically, it’s on the land her daddy left her.”
“Which she deeded back to you, didn’t she?” Brice asked.
“She’s offered to, saying she wants the Triple A to be legally restored to its original size and name. I thought if it’s alright with the two of you, we’d retitle the whole property, our portion and the Scott portion, with the deed in all our names.”
“Are you sure, Duncan? You probably ought to own it outright, with Harrison, of course. You’re the one who’s held it together all these years, while I was off with the Marines and Brice was busy law-manning.”
“No, Daddy always intended for it to belong to all of us. I don’t think he’d mind me including Harrison.”
“She’s a McAllister now,” Brice said. “All for one and one for all.”
“That’s settled, then. Is that breakfast fixings I see, bro?” Duncan asked.
“Bacon and eggs. After we eat, I thought we’d mount up and you can drive me around, show me which fields are planted to what grasses and which ones need mowing first. I may have grown up on a ranch, but it’s gotten much more scientific and specialized since Daddy had us out cutting native rye grass.”
“I’ll stay for breakfast, then I need to get back to Austin,” Brice said.
“He means he needs to escape before we try to put him to work,” Duncan said.
“I seem to remember that tactic,” Grant agreed. “‘But Daddy, I can’t mow today. I have football practice.’”
“‘Sorry, Daddy, but I’m supposed to run the student council meeting after school,’” Duncan chimed in.
“Careful now, big brothers. I can still whup the both of you.”
“You could try, little brother, but I wouldn’t advise it,” Grant said. “Remember, you being the runt of the litter, we’ve always gone easy on you.”
“Why don’t you stop harassing me and cook the bacon,” Brice said. “Time’s a-wastin’—for getting those chores done.”
“I’m starving too,” Duncan admitted.
“After a night’s hard work, no doubt,” Grant said, and ducked a punch from his brother before walking over to fetch the cast-iron frying pan from his kit and bacon from the cooler. “Only thing you were better at growing up than weaseling out of chores, Brice, was cleaning out the fridge of everything edible.”
“An offensive lineman needs his protein.”
“I’m sure. Pour me another cup, and I’ll get the bacon going.”
Grant took a swallow of the hot, dark brew from the cup Brice handed him and set the bacon sizzling. Listening as Duncan ragged his little brother about the mysterious Austin blonde, Grant smiled.
He hadn’t been sure that moving back was a good idea, but he had to admit, it felt entirely natural to be back up here in this special place with his brothers again, their camaraderie as intact as if they’d last camped here ten days, instead of ten years ago, after his high school graduation. Listening to them hassle each other with the audacity and good humor that came from decades of affection and shared history, he felt a deep connection to them and this place.
He’d been somewhat afraid when he learned Duncan was getting married that the rapport and the closeness the brothers had always shared would be compromised. Duncan showing up this morning, his energy and good humor just as Grant remembered it, reassured him that “the three musketeers,” as they’d called themselves in high school, would continue to ride together.
Although, even if it had affected their relationship, he couldn’t have resented Harrison. His workaholic, serious, driven brother looked happier and more relaxed than Grant had ever seen him.
While forking the bacon onto a plate and deftly cracking eggs into the frying pan, Grant felt a niggle of envy.
Once, while he was still in the Corps, he thought he’d established the same sort of deep bond with a woman. Fortunately, he’d dragged his feet about marrying Kelsey, because her devotion hadn’t lasted through the three deployments he’d pulled. Not that he blamed her—too much—for drifting away. Loving someone who periodically got called to the other side of the world for someone to shoot at didn’t make for an easy relationship.
But having her walk away, and walk away right after he’d been shipped home, injured, grieving and vulnerable, needing her love and support more than he’d ever needed anything, made him skeptical of ever finding a woman who’d stand beside him through the tough times. Stand beside him with the unshakeable loyalty and support his brothers had always given him.
Much as he enjoyed the ladies, relying on family was safer. Even if sometimes his brothers did inspire him with a desire to murder.
“Eggs and bacon are up,” he announced. “There’s some biscuits from town and jalapeño sauce in the grub locker. Grab a plate and come help yourself.”
Soon after, another round of coffee in their mugs and plates full, the brothers sat on the stump seats, watching as the sun rose gold and brilliant into the white sky. Looking around, Grant saw the peace and sense of belonging he felt mirrored in the eyes of his siblings. Of one accord, they raised their coffee mugs.
“So glad to have all of you back,” Duncan said.
“You bet, brothers. All for one and one for all,” Grant toasted.
End of Excerpt