Beneath a clear sky, the Montana plains rolled to the far horizon in an undulating sea of grass. This great, sprawling rangeland was broken by lonely buttes and wandering ravines. It was a huge, almost empty, always challenging land. Its vastness made the small man smaller and the big man king.
Where once the shaggy-maned buffalo had grazed, a herd of six hundred red-coated Hereford cattle was gathered in a pocket of the plains. Held in place by an encircling group of riders, they bawled their discontent. Into this milling confusion, cowboys working in pairs walked their horses into the herd to slowly and methodically cut out the crippled cattle -- dry cows, the cows with poor spring calves, and the odd steer that had escaped the previous autumn's roundup.
Webb Calder pointed the nose of his claybank stud at the cow to be separated from the herd, then sat deep and easy in the saddle to let the horse do its work. The stallion was the color of the yellow mountain cat from which it took its name, Cougar. The instant the cow was isolated, the claybank frustrated its every attempt to rejoin the herd -- getting low, coming around on a dime, and springing forward with the swiftness of a cat.
To the big-boned man in the saddle, the rangy stallion was a source of pride. He'd picked the horse out of a range-wild group of yearlings and earmarked it for his personal remuda. The breaking and training he'd done himself, turning the animal into the best cow horse on the spread. It was never something Webb Calder bragged about, and any compliment was met with the casually indifferent reply, "The claybank is good."
He had a philosophy that if you were the best, you didn't have to tell anybody -- and if you weren't, then you'd damned well better keep your mouth shut. He lived by it, and expected the others around him to live by it, too.
When he and the yellow horse had the cow separated from the herd, the cowboys moved in from the flanks to push the animal over the lip of the ground's pocket to where the cut of injured or inferior cattle were being held. Two more riders took his place to work the herd.
Riding back to the gather, Webb was joined by Nate Moore, who had worked the cut with him. The lank, weather-beaten rider was one of a small corps of cowboys who had their roots dug as deep into this Montana range as Webb Calder had. Yet, some invisible quality stamped Webb Calder as the cattle owner.
For this was Calder land as far to the south as the eye could see, and beyond. All the livestock, except strays from the bordering small ranches to the north, carried the Triple C brand of the Calder Cattle Company. It was the heritage left by the first Calder who pulled up stakes in Texas and drove his herd north in 1878 to find free grass. That ancestor, Chase Benteen Calder, had carved out an empire that was measured in square miles numbering nearly six hundred. He'd held it against warring bands of renegade Indians, homesteaders, and jealously ambitious neighboring ranchers. He'd paid for it with Calder blood, nourished it with his sweat and the bones of drought-stricken cattle, and buried the Calder dead under the Montana grass.
Of the score of cowboys who had made the drive with Chase Benteen Calder, most had drifted, but a few had stayed to build a new life in this raw land. These men formed the nucleus of the group of forerunners to Nate Moore, Virg Haskell's wife, Ruth, Slim Trumbo, Ike Willis, and a handful of others, born and raised on the Calder ranch, like Webb. Their loyalty was a deep-seeded thing, ingrained into their souls as surely as if they carried the Triple C brand.
This thread of continuity ran through each generation, tying them together. The old ones eventually gave way to young blood, bringing change without ever changing.
Cresting the rise of the untamed plain, Webb reined in his horse. Satisfaction ran easy through him as he surveyed the scene before him, the teamwork of all the riders working the herd with efficient, well-oiled precision. He liked it best when he could get out among them. Although he was there out of necessity, since his decision determined which was the poorer stock to be culled from this herd, the sheer pleasure of the work made him take part in the actual cutting of the cattle.
The pressures and responsibilities were enormous and endless for the man who owned a ranch as vast as this. New salesmen or cattle buyers often commented on its size, and Webb was fond of quipping dryly, "It takes a big chunk of ground to fit under a Calder sky." He didn't know how it ranked against other big ranches in the country, whether it was first, second, third, or far down on the list. If anyone asked him, he couldn't have answered and he didn't care enough to check. His only interests lay in making it prosper and keeping it intact for his son.
The responsibilities were heavy, but so was the power he wielded. Webb Calder believed himself to be a fair man. There were some who would say he was exacting. And still others would claim that he ruled with an iron hand. Resentment born out of envy and jealousy made him the object of hatred from a silent few. As far as Webb Calder was concerned, he had never raised his hand against a man without cause. When he acted, it was swift and with purpose. Indecision could eventually spell disaster for an outfit the size of the Triple C.
It was one of the things he'd tried to teach his son, Chase Calder, named after their Texan ancestor. There was more to running a ranch than keeping books, raising cattle, and going to the bank. But how do you teach a man to be a leader, to handle men?
Before Chase had taken his first step, Webb had set the baby boy on a saddle atop an old bellmare and wrapped the tiny fists around the saddle horn to take him on his first ride. By the time Chase was two, he was given the reins. When he was five, he went on his first roundup, tied to the saddle so he wouldn't fall off if he fell asleep.
Horses and cattle were part of living. Those things Chase learned by osmosis, unconsciously absorbing the knowledge into his system until it was second nature.
But it was the subtleties of command that Webb wanted him to learn. From the time the boy had understood his first sentence, Webb had tried to drum these things into his head, shaping and molding Chase to take over the ranch someday. He'd warned Chase that as his son, he would have to work longer, be smarter, and fight rougher than any man-jack out there. No favor would ever be granted him by Webb -- no concession would ever be made because Chase was a Calder. There would be no special privileges because he was the rancher's son. In fact, the reverse would be true. In his teens, Chase had the hardest jobs, the rankest horses, and the longest hours of any man on the place. Any problems were his to solve. If there was trouble, he had to be man enough to fight his way out of it, either with his fists or his wits. Chase couldn't come to his father and expect help. Webb pushed him as hard as he dared without breaking the boy's spirit.
Even as Webb Calder watched the two dozen horsemen at work, he unconsciously and instinctively kept an eye on his son. Chase was taller than the average cowboy, wide in the shoulders and solid in the chest, yet youthfully lean and supple with a rider's looseness about him. The sun had burned a layer of tan over hard and angular Calder features. Dark-haired and dark-eyed, he seemed older than twenty-two -- except when he smiled. Then he seemed careless and guileless. His son was still an unknown quantity to Webb. Maybe some might think he demanded too much, but he was firmly convinced it was the tough things that were good for a man.
The horse beside the claybank blew out a relaxed snort, making Webb shift his glance to Nate Moore. He was building a smoke and licked the paper with a stingy tongue. Without looking up, he spoke. "He's a good boy." He guessed the object of Webb's thoughts.
"Lil would be proud of him." Webb uttered his late wife's name and broke a silence that had lasted more than twenty years since her death. Time had erased the grief of his loss. Now the memory of her was another tradition.
It was something an outsider couldn't understand -- this lack of expression the true Western man showed when he lost a comrade or a loved one -- the failure to reveal keen sorrow. What a man felt was kept inside. The face an outsider saw looked cold and unemotional. Yet beneath the hard exteriors of these men, there was all the delicate sensitivity of a woman, hidden from view. Revealing it displayed weakness. This was a land where only the strong survived.
"Yes, she would," Nate spoke with the cigarette in his mouth and squinted his eyes at the pungent smoke curling from it. The expression deepened the sun-creased lines splaying from the corners of his eyes. Without turning his head, his attention shifted to the young cowboy, Buck Haskell, riding on the same side of the herd where Chase was. For apparently no reason, Buck had spun his sorrel horse to face the opposite direction and spurred it toward a slight gap between riders, reaching an invisible point the instant a cow attempted to break from the herd. Respect glinted in the older cowhand's eyes. "That Buckie has more cow sense than some cowboys three times his age," Nate declared. "And how he loves those rank broncs. The more contrary they are, the better he likes 'em."
Webb's mouth tightened. "Yeah, and he's always got his rope down. I've never caught him at it, but I know he does."
"Hell!" Nate chuckled. "Every young cowboy is going to sneak off and rope something now and then."
Webb conceded that with a lift of his heavy brows. "Buck is a likable boy, but I worry about that wild streak in him."
With curly blond hair, blue eyes, and a perpetual grin, Buck was Virg and Ruth Haskell's son, born two days before Chase. When Webb's wife, Lillian, didn't have enough milk to breast-feed Chase, Ruth had taken over as wetnurse. A year and a half later, after Lil had died, Ruth cooked and kept house for Webb. So Buck and Chase had been raised practically as brother...