Bill Decker was an old hand at ranching. His father had been a rancher as had his grandfather. The family spread, the Circle Bar D, was located just outside Golden, Colorado, and encompassed several thousand acres of good grazing land, but, unfortunately, not much water. In the early days, the cattle grazed on open range and water was never an issue. The old ranchers ran their cattle together in large communal herds only separating out their stock at market time. It worked well for many years, but as time went on more land was purchased, fences were built, and the water was contained within them. Bill's father had solved this problem by buying his water from a close neighbor who had more than needed and the family had been doing just that ever since.
Water was a touchy subject in Colorado these days. The new state's government had established a Water Commission earlier in the year to assign and oversee water rights throughout the state. It had established the pecking order according to first in time, first in right; meaning whoever had controlled the water first, had the first right to it. This allotting of water, of course, was touching off a mad dash by ranchers and speculators to buy up the rights any way they could.
Decker's father used to like to say that Bill was born on a barbed wire fence. Bill grew up feeling the world owed him and he could take what he wanted. When word of the water allotment hit, Decker had tried to get the rights to his neighbor's water through the use of a third and even a fourth party; but his neighbor, Scott Medgar, was a shrewd man with many friends in the newly-formed state senate and he had already petitioned for his rights long before word of the new commission ever reached the public.
However, Bill's underhanded attempts to get the water rights came to his neighbor's attention and created a world of bad feelings between the two ranchers. Medgar was so angry he fenced off all access from Decker's land and refused all monetary offers. Bill had frantically tried to attain water from the other neighbors, but they'd all heard of what he'd tried to pull with Scott and they refused to help him out. Decker was not a well-liked man. Over the years, there had been many times when one or another of them had gotten in Bill's way; and Decker wasn't choosey about how he got what he wanted. This was one of those times. Bill made sure to hire new hands who knew their way around a pistol and how to use their fists. He sent them up to Medgar's fence line to tear it down and make sure it stayed that way.
Scott Medgar was not the sort of man to risk his hands' life against the experienced guns Bill had brought in. He began thinking hard about how much he wanted to neighbor on someone like Bill. His grandpappy had settled the Rocking M Ranch, too, and it was Scott's home. The last thing he wanted to do was to sell out, but he couldn't see any other way out of a violent encounter with Decker. He'd already had a couple of men severely beaten and he was furious. Scott had put out a few feelers to his friends at the Cattleman's Association about possibly selling out but he made real sure that Bill Decker didn't get wind of it. However, Hannibal Heyes did. Medgar's Rocking M Ranch was ideal for his plan to take down Decker.
Heyes knew that the Beaumont job had hurt Decker considerably and he would be vulnerable. The information Heyes had gotten from Sy Sloane had indicated that a large portion of Decker's money had been tied up in Beaumont Mining Corporation stock. When news of the robbery had hit the newspapers, the value of the company shares had plummeted. It had been a very profitable job for the Devil's Hole gang and had the added bonus of delivering a blow to the railroads since it couldn't be determined when the theft had occurred. The mine and Union Pacific were now engaged in an expensive court battle over who was shouldering the loss.
Heyes, using the name Mark Jackson, met Scott Medgar at the Cattleman's Club in Denver to discuss a possible solution to Scott's problem. Kid, Wheat and Preacher were dining a few tables over, wearing their newly purchased suits and sporting fresh shaves and haircuts. They would be keeping an eye on Heyes and watching his back. It was unlikely he'd be recognized here since rustling was not one of his crimes, but Kid was always careful when it came to his partner.
After a pleasant meal, Heyes got down to business. He expressed an interest in the Rocking M. Being an honest man, Scott admitted to Heyes that he was having trouble with a neighbor over the water rights issue. He had no real desire to sell the ranch his Grandpa had homesteaded and when Heyes offered an alternate plan, he listened very carefully. Heyes told Medgar that Bill Decker had tried to ruin a poor widow lady, and that she had powerful friends who wanted him to pay. He assured Scott that payment would be monetary and that his investors wanted to avoid violence at all costs. Heyes offered to lease or purchase Scott's ranch for several months on the condition the water rights went along with the land. Scott hesitated briefly at the idea of being party to this sort of deception, but finally agreed seeing no other way to avoid a range war with Decker short of selling out. As far as Scott was concerned, Decker deserved it.
Scott Medgar had secured all the water rights to the stream that flowed through his property. Under the new Water Commission rules, as the senior appropriator, he was within his rights to use as much of the water as he needed. Years ago, long before the commission was created, Scott's grandfather had elected to build a reservoir on his property to ensure a year-round supply for his stock and for irrigation purposes. He had diverted the original seasonal streambed into a man-made reservoir. Bill Decker's grandfather was thrilled about the reservoir as he had benefited as well from being able to purchase water from the Rocking M on a handshake deal with his good friend and neighbor. Now that Bill had double-crossed Medgar, that deal was off and Medgar had the legal right to fence off the water.
Bill Decker believed with all his heart that he had a God-given right to that water and he would take it if he had to. His men had made forays onto Scott's land harassing the hands, cutting the fencing, and regularly driving in Bill's cattle to water at the reservoir. After several escalating skirmishes, that had ended badly for the Rocking M hands, Bill had sent word to Scott that he would like to strike a deal to buy his land or, at the very least, his water rights. Bill figured that Scott was ripe for the plucking just about now.
He was furious to get a reply from Scott that his land and all rights to the water had just been secured by an investor from Wyoming. Bill was so blind with anger that he tore the note into shreds, screamed every foul word he could think of, and sent the house servants scurrying in all directions. He holed up in his study for almost two days drinking heavily and stewing over the situation. On the evening of the second day, the doors to the study opened and Bill came out with a gleam in his eye. This might just work out for him. He would take the measure of the new owner and then he would take the water by any means necessary.
Decker had recently become affianced with a young lady from Denver. She was a lovely girl twelve years his junior and, at the age of twenty, was ready to make a good match. Alyssa Harcourt's mother had ingrained in her daughter a sense of her proper place in the world and marrying a wealthy rancher was a good start to entering Colorado society. Alyssa enjoyed the attention she got on Bill Decker's arm and she knew that she would live a life of comfort if she played her cards right. It didn't really matter that her heart wasn't involved. Her mama had always told her that she could fall in love with a rich man as easily as a poor one. Unfortunately, Alyssa had never fallen in love at all.
When Bill suggested that they have dinner with the new neighbors, Alyssa was agreeable enough to the idea. She could think of a million things she'd rather do than spend a tiresome evening talking cattle and the price of feed, but feigned delight at the idea. She had assured Bill that she was completely up to the task of acting as his hostess and enthusiastically set about ordering the staff to prepare the meal. This would be her first dinner party at her soon-to-be home.
Precisely at seven p.m. the bell by the door rang loudly, and Alyssa shooed the butler towards the door with an admonishment to show the guests in. Wesley, one of the hands recently drafted as a butler, opened the door and ushered in the new neighbors as Alyssa peeked around the corner of the drawing room doors. A handsome dark-haired man with a beautiful smile came in and was followed by an equally handsome blond-haired, blue-eyed gentleman. The dark-haired man removed his black, silver-studded hat setting it on the portmanteau in the hallway. The blond man also removed his hat at a nudge from the first man and passed it to Wes.
The two outlaws entered the drawing room escorted by Wes. Kid introduced himself as Steven Boswell, new neighbor. He introduced Heyes as his foreman, Cole James. Heyes had generously offered Kid the role of wealthy landowner since he had agreed to allow Heyes to use his half of the gold money. It was Heyes's way of apologizing for the hard labor Kid had endured during the Beaumont robbery. Heyes also thought it might work to their best interests if he were the gunman. Keeping Kid's abilities secret unless needed was an ace-in-the-hole and Heyes was skillful enough with a gun to be convincing.
The two partners had laughed themselves silly last night coming up with their aliases. Kid selected his name from famous Wyoming lawmen since he would be playing the successful rancher. He used a combination of Steve Long and N. K. Boswell; while Heyes had decided that his role of hired gun required a more menacing moniker, and selected rival gang members, Cole Younger and Jesse James.
Alyssa, in her role as hostess, happily swept forward and hooked her arm through the handsome Mr. Boswell's arm and quickly monopolized his attention. Bill handed Heyes a glass of fine scotch and sized him up over drinks. He didn't look so tough, but Bill noted the air of self-assurance as well as the tied-down gun and wondered about the smile that didn't reach the eyes. Decker peppered Heyes with questions about cattle breeding, bloodlines, and feeding strategies. He soon correctly decided that the man was no ranch hand and that made him a problem for Bill. Boswell was obviously bringing in his own muscle and Decker wondered why.
Wesley re-entered the drawing room and announced dinner. The Kid escorted Alyssa to her seat with Decker and Heyes following behind. Alyssa had outdone herself as hostess. There was a delicious consommé to start, a roast of beef, tiny roasted potatoes and baby onions, and greens beans fresh from the ranch garden. The meal was followed by a dessert of raspberries picked that morning by the maid and topped with freshly-whipped cream along with tiny cups of delicious expresso, a strong coffee drink popular in the salons of Paris, Alyssa excitedly informed her guests. Heyes loved it and had several causing the Kid to wonder how late he'd be kept up by his yakking partner.
After dinner, Heyes offered Alyssa his arm and smilingly requested that she show him the ranch. She did not want to relinquish the company of Mr. Boswell, but was too polite to refuse such a charming request. Heyes wanted to give Kid and Decker some time alone. Decker, to his credit, was concerned to see his fiancé on the arm of a gunslinger and watched carefully as she was escorted from the room. Turning to Kid, he said, "Well now, Steven, why don't we have a cigar and talk turkey?" Kid grinned and accepted the fine Cuban cigar that Decker held out and the light that followed. He took a sip of Bill's excellent scotch and waited for him to begin. Kid was enjoying himself tremendously.
"My, what a lovely evening," said Alyssa as they strolled across the yard to the pasture fence. She had no idea how to make conversation with a common gunman and felt flustered in Heyes's company. Mr. Boswell had been thoroughly entertaining and she was wishing for his company. Heyes found himself amused by her confusion and took pity on her. He paused for a moment and gazed down at her with his most winning smile. "Yes, ma'am, it is most certainly lovely; as is the company."
Alyssa found herself smiling back into the lovely brown eyes regarding her with genuine warmth. He had the most beautiful smile. Could he really be a hired killer as Bill had said? "Why, Mr. James, are you flirting with me?" she asked, surprised to find that she liked the idea that he might be.
"Why, yes, ma'am, I believe I am," grinned Heyes. He saw the spark in her eyes and pressed his advantage. "My apologies, Miss Harcourt, I don't mean to offend but your beauty has overwhelmed my good judgment," he said with a small bow of his head.
"You are certainly well-spoken, sir, and clever with your turn of phrase. So tell me, how long have you worked with Mr. Boswell?" asked Alyssa.
"We've worked together for a while now, ma'am," said Heyes.
"Together? Don't you mean you've worked for Mr. Boswell?" said Alyssa now curious.
"Ours is a complicated relationship," said Heyes. He was pleased that she had noticed the deliberate slip. Heyes found Alyssa charming and intelligent; he hoped that when this was all over she think twice about spending her life with a man like Decker.
"I have to say, Mr. James, you are not as all as I imagined," said Alyssa smiling prettily at him.
"And how did you imagine me?" said Heyes returning the smile.
Alyssa flushed at the double entendre. This man was clearly more than he appeared and she found herself intrigued by him. Mr. Boswell had been handsome and sweetly charming. Mr. James was something altogether different. He was charming, too, but in a more outrageous way. Alyssa felt her pulse jump at his attention. This man was unlike anyone she'd ever met before. She knew he was dangerous, Bill had warned her, but she found herself drawn to him. Her good sense told her that she needed to avoid this man or she could seriously jeopardize her future. Claiming exhaustion from the efforts of hosting, Alyssa firmly guided Heyes back to the house.
"That's my offer, Steven, and I do hope you will give it serious consideration," said Bill. Decker had carefully felt Kid out about the ranch and his future plans for it. Kid had told him the tale that Heyes had prepared. He was the second son of an ambitious man who was disappointed in his gambling offspring. Kid's "father" had bought the ranch and banished him to it with a warning that he be successful or risk being disinherited. Decker had asked about Mr. James, but had only gotten a dismissive, "He's not important," from Boswell. Kid nodded at Bill, but his attention shifted to Alyssa and Heyes's arrival. "Cole, Bill has made me a generous offer for the ranch's water rights. We would retain thirty-five shares in exchange for signing over the rest of the shares for a payment of $10,000. What do you think?" asked Kid eagerly.
"I think it's hard to ranch without water," said Heyes sarcastically, "Thirty-five shares won't be enough. Perhaps Mr. Decker would like to re-think his offer."
Decker frowned at Heyes and wondered how much his opinion truly mattered to Boswell. He could see that Boswell was interested, but he also saw the influence that James was exerting over him. Something was odd here. He'd put a friendly face on for now, but he wasn't letting this go.
Later that evening, after their guests had departed, Bill and Alyssa spent a quiet hour on the porch swing comparing notes. Bill told Alyssa that Mr. Boswell was being kept on a short string by his father. Her instincts had told her that Mr. Boswell was a strong-willed man so she was surprised to learn this and wondered what it meant. Decker, in turn, listened closely as Alyssa told him that Mr. James was much more erudite than he appeared. She was of the opinion that his role here was something more than a mere gun hand. Bill was pleased with his fiancee's shrewdness; he had chosen well.