The first book in the Whispering Mountain series, 2006
Travis McMurray watched storm clouds roll in from the north as he pushed his horse into a gallop and headed toward the Guadalupe River and his family's land just beyond. The sky darkened around him from dusty blue to gray, mirroring his mood. Here, in these rolling hills, lay the only place he had ever felt he belonged. Here also lay memories he would spend a lifetime trying to forget.
His powerful mount danced at the edge of the muddy riverbank while Travis looked for the exact place to cross. He ignored his tired muscles, tugged his hat low, and rushed into the water that separated Whispering Mountain Ranch from the world.
He could smell it now, feel it on his skin and in his heart. Home.
A faint flicker of sunlight blinked off the hills, welcoming him back. The river swirled. He leaned low over the horse's neck, calming the animal with words as they fought the current toward the far shore. A stand of brush hid the only place where a horse could climb the steep bank beyond. His father had planted the bushy trees almost thirty years ago. Now, only Travis and his two brothers, Teagen and Tobin, knew the secret entrance to the ranch.
Travis smiled. One of a hundred secrets, he thought. His father had planned well. Whispering Mountain stood like a fortress in the middle of a wide-open Texas.
He reached the far bank and slipped behind the cedar that grew almost as tall as live oaks. If enemies followed him, they'd think they'd blinked and he'd simply disappeared, horse and all. Travis moved along the shadowy cave- like path, half green with cedar, half black with rock. He slid from his mount and led the horse as they climbed. When he saw sky a few minutes later, Travis inhaled deeply. He'd made it back in one piece, and those wanting him dead would have to wait another day.
After almost two years he was finally home. He swung onto the saddle and raced toward the ranch house, suddenly hungry to see his family.
He'd fought one too many battles across the rapidly changing landscape of a newborn nation. He needed to be home where nothing changed. He wanted to sleep without having to listen for trouble approaching. He longed to relax and remember who he'd been before he wore a badge. Travis had heard one too many outlaws promise revenge lately. Maybe if he took some time off, their threats would stop echoing in his mind.
His sister, Sage, watched from the back porch as he neared. He spotted her a moment before she recognized him. The McMurray boys all had their father's wide shoulders and height, but Sage was small, even as a woman. If she'd been a colt, he would have named her Wildfire. The fact that all her brothers were older and bigger never frightened her for a moment. When she was younger, she'd often-stood before the three of them and threatened to take them all on in a fight.
Now she jumped over the railing and ran toward him, her long braid flying behind her. Though dressed in trousers and shirt, no one would mistake her for a boy.
As she ran at full speed to him, Travis lowered from his horse in time to catch her and swing her around as he'd always done. They were both laughing when they hugged.
Travis had been ten when she was born. They'd lost their father the March before. Four months later their mother died. Neighbors said their mother, Autumn McMurray, never recovered from the birth of Sage, but the boys saw the light go out of her eyes when she learned of her husband's death. Autumn stayed alive long enough to give Sage life, and then she joined her husband, Andrew, in death.
As he always did, Travis looked for a hint of his mother in Sage's face. But she had blue eyes, not brown, and hair streaked with sunshine, not dark and earthy. Their mother's Apache blood reflected in him alone, not Sage or his brothers. 'You filled out.' He sat her down. 'In several places.'
'It was bound to happen.' Sage laughed. 'You've been gone so long I could have had a batch of kids by now.'
He shook his head. 'No. With those clothes, I'm guessing you're still an old maid.'
'Eighteen is hardly an old maid, and what else would I be comfortable in? I had to wear my brothers' hand- me-downs most of my life.' She looped her arm in his and they moved toward the house. 'Besides, I plan on changing the 'old maid' part soon.'
'Got the unfortunate prey in sight?' He tugged at her braid thinking it didn't matter how old she thought she was, she'd always be his kid sister. 'Maybe I could wing him for you so he couldn't run so fast.'
When she made a face, he added, 'Just a flesh wound, nothing serious. Some men think better after they've lost a little blood.'
Travis wasn't surprised when she tried to trip him.
'I don't know who yet,' she admitted. 'But the annual spring dance is tomorrow night at Elmo Anderson's barn. Teagen and Tobin don't even listen when I talk about it, but now you're here, you can take me. It'll give me a chance to look at the quality of the pickings.' She hugged his arm. 'I'm so glad you're here. I was down to begging Martha to escort me.'
Travis laughed. The old housekeeper wouldn't budge from this place if a herd of buffalo crossed McMurray land.
'Now, you're elected,' Sage said simply, as if he'd solved a problem.
Travis groaned. He had no doubt Sage would have her pick of the single men once she set her mind to marriage, but the thought of going to a barn dance made him wish he'd checked the dates before asking for a month's leave from the Texas Rangers. One annual barn dance shouldn't have been hard to miss; after all, Sage had mentioned it in her last two letters. He mumbled an oath at his lack of planning.
Sage slapped at his arm. 'Stop that. One of my brothers has to take me off this property, or I'll never marry. I'll end up like the three of you, single forever. Tobin won't even consider going with me. He might have to talk to someone not related to him. And Teagen gave his standard answer that he didn't have time for such nonsense.'
As always, Travis felt her pain, even now when most of it was worry over nothing. 'All right, if I can get the smell of the trail off me by tomorrow, I'll take you, but don't expect me to dance.' Except for a few people, he'd never found the townsfolk particularly friendly.
'You're not going to believe how the town around Elmo's trading post has grown up. We've got a lean-to that a traveling blacksmith uses, a barn and corral for folks passing through, and there's talk of framing out a church this summer. A stage line may come through before long, and when that happens we'll need a hotel and some place for folks to eat. We'll have a regular town.'
Travis shook his head. 'I'm not interested in being part of any town. I'll go to the dance and just hang out in the shadows and make sure you're all right until it's time to leave.'
'Oh, wonderful.' Sage stepped on the porch. 'Then everyone will say, there's poor Spinster McMurray and one of her skulking brothers.' From the second step of the porch she stood eye level with him and pointed at his nose. 'One dance, so I won't have to worry about being a wildflower.'
'It's wallflower, kid, and that you'll never be.' He grinned. 'We should have never taught you to talk. I