The steer’s head swayed in the breeze ever so slightly. Suspended from the ranch entrance crossbeams and dangling from an old, modified headstall, it got their point across, loud and clear.
It might not have been so menacing had the skull been weather-bleached like a Georgia O’Keefe painting, or even if it had been treated as a decorative emblem of the Wild West. But this skull hadn’t been boiled clean or left out in the elements over time. No, the skull hanging from the sign LOST DAUGHTER RANCH Established 1888 held another purpose entirely, and it sure as hell wasn’t decoration. The skull’s purpose wasn’t to attract buyers into the valley. No, the steer cranium swung in the breeze replete with rotting meat and withering eyeballs.
Well, the remains of the eyeballs that the birds hadn’t yet pecked out.
The remnants of the eyes had dried and withered, folding back into the depths of the sockets. Hide remained attached in pieces and strips, but the brains were since devoured or dried up—the elongated jaw stretched into a gruesome and cadaverous grin.
No, that skull didn’t carry any welcome, but rather a stark warning of gore and carnage.
The steer skull offered a declaration of how the West used to be, and the message was simple.
Keep out or be prepared to go down swinging.
The inhabitants further along that ranch road weren’t backing down. In fact, they never backed down. Never had in over 125 years of hard-fought history. Never would, while they controlled and held that singular patch of hard-won ground.
Emory Cross had come home. Reluctantly, perhaps. But there was no doubt she was home, no matter her misgivings on the subject.
She pulled to a stop right before the Lost Daughter Ranch sign, killed the engine, and climbed out of her truck. She stood in front of the crossbeam, hands on hips, staring at the skull swaying in the wind traveling down from the high country.
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Yep, definitely home.
Upon closer inspection, a single bullet hole pierced the frontal bone dead center, and the remnants of the eyes—what hadn’t been pecked away—had shrunken down and shriveled. The nasal cavity declined inward and most of the surrounding hide had fallen away or weathered. The underlying flesh, although exposed for little more than a month’s time, had succumbed to the birds and the elements. The meat no longer remained fresh or red, but rather brown and rotting. Taken all together, the display remained hideous. Ominous. A declaration in no uncertain terms.
Emory found it a wonder that complaints hadn’t risen to a level that demanded the exhibition’s removal from public view.
If such demands had been ventured, she knew how her father would have responded. And so, the skull remained hanging from the ranch gate for all the world to see.
More importantly, to heed.
She stuck her hands into her back pockets and scrutinized the cranium a while longer, turning notions over. If she were of a mind to be truthful, she would admit that there was something about that steer head hanging which felt about right. Justified, even.
It was nine o’clock on Saturday morning in the shallows of January. The tops of the rimrocks blanketed in snow stood guard, their sheer cliffs and drop-offs boasting their original colors proud and distinctive. Long, thin reeds of grass poked through the depressions where the snow whittled out, low. Great drifts stood tall, caught against the wooden fence posts, rendering the strung barbed wire invisible beneath the snow crests and waves.
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Not a cloud marred the surface of all that brilliant, frigid blue. Below, the snow blanketed the land, flattening out the swells and drop-offs and glittering. Glittering like a scattering of a million mica flakes cast to the wind and glistening where they landed. The snow blew in wisps hugging the ground, bearing the imprint of the wind’s currents and patterns. And the day shone blue and the sun blazed bright in that frigid January morning and set the snow to dazzling. The valley sprawled out wide and clear and grand, the same as it ever had. Like back in the day when Hank Cross, her great-great-grandfather, first crossed the valley, sized up the landscape, and filed his legal claim.
And few more claims besides.
What the hell, she thought to herself taking one lingering look at the skull.
She’d come home.
After a day of fence-line riding and making sure that water troughs weren’t frozen solid, the two reunited Crosses wound down as the evening hours took hold. Emory cleared the dinner dishes as her father folded himself down into his chair and pressed the TV remote in one fluid, practiced movement.
“Anything you want to watch?” he called out in the direction of the kitchen.
“No. I don’t care what you put on,” she called back. “When’s the last time you cleaned out some of these cabinets?”
The evidence stared straight at her. Glasses were shoved onto the shelf any which way, and the plates below weren’t arranged according to size, but stacked haphazard, and the cereal bowls listed at an angle. Running her finger along the shelf edges, dust collected there and in the corners. The best plan would be to take all the contents out, wipe down the shelves, rearrange everything, and to start over.
Flipping off the light switch, Emory absorbed the darkened view outside the window—the mountains settling into their nightly velvet sleep while the stars glinted as cold as ice fragments in the clear winter sky. Shades of the darkest midnight blue contrasted with the brightness of the moon blazing high overhead—the snow a pale bluish gray, the skies spangled with stars and the shadows drawn out long and deep. The old outbuildings listed and the stoic rimrocks guarded the ranch’s perimeters the same as they had always done.
The silence perfect, except for the television din which marred the sense of perfection.
“I’m going to go check on Kai and Draco before I get too settled in,” she pulled on her coat that hung by the front door.
“Barn latch needs some work,” her father said, slumped in his chair. “It’s been hitching.”
Emory stepped out into the crisp, cold air, feeling the dark embrace of the ranch at night. The scent of the land and approaching snow drifted in the air.
She stepped off the porch and took a few paces into the yard before stopping. The yard light should have flicked on, but it didn’t.
Just another thing to fix.
The moon provided enough light to navigate, although she could have reached the barn blind—the route ingrained upon her like the lines on her palms. Reaching the barn door, she struggled a bit with the latch that needed tightening and a squirt of WD-40, but it came free after the brief tussle. The door cracked and protested as it swung open wide. Inside, she switched on the fluorescent overhead lights, blinking for a moment as her eyes adjusted. Those banks of lights gave off a harsh greenish glare that drove away any poetic leanings.
Those same lights did their job, enabling her to catch the glimpse of a mouse tail as it scurried back into a hiding place near the hay.
Unconcerned about either lights or mice, Kai dozed in his stall and Draco stood equally at ease and settled in his. Emory checked their water to verify both were full and clean.
Leaving the stalls, her attention snagged on the tack. Over to the side a saddle she hadn’t seen before waited. Ordinary and plain, it hadn’t been used for a very long time. But recently conditioned, it offered the hint of an intention to come back to life.
She’d be certain to ask her father about that castoff—certain she already had an answer she wasn’t quite ready for.
One thing about many that she knew of her father, he didn’t collect or trade saddles for the hell of it.
Switching off the light, she shut the barn door and fumbled with the latch. She’d get to that in the morning. Any musing broke off, right quick.
In the distance, headlights aimed toward the ranch house. Her jaw set out of reflex and eyes narrowed as she watched the headlights aim in her direction…then they went dark. Switched off, in fact. It took a moment to register what she witnessed. She would have sworn she caught a dark glimmer of the moon reflecting off metal.
No lights reappeared.
Tired, her eyes must have been playing tricks after a long, hard day. But she didn’t usually see lights.
Likely it was nothing more than an optical illusion from a bend in the road.
Back inside the ranch house, she wasn’t the only one who felt tired. Her father’s eyes closed at half-mast.
One thing stood out as a given—they needed to hire another ranch hand and soon. Cade’s replacement.
She ruffled her father’s close-cut hair, just the way he liked to do to hers when he could.
“The yard light’s not working,” she said.
“Yeah,” he replied, voice gruff, waking up a bit and smoothing down his hair. “I’ll take a look at it tomorrow morning.”
Emory raised her eyebrows. Yard lights were exceedingly important, and it wasn’t like him not to notice something like that. “I’ve noticed a couple of other things as well. First that we need to get another hand hired. Second—”
Her father raised up his index finger in the air. The code to stop speaking.
She cut off midsentence.
They both listened past the noise of the TV.
With silent, practiced movements, he got up from his chair, spry from necessity. Decisive and muscles taut, he moved against an out wall waiting for the next move.
Emory strained to see through the windows without approaching the glass which would give her interior location away, and her father did the same. Listening. Gauging.
The TV flickered and droned on, the same as always.
He long-legged it toward the kitchen. His steps crossed the linoleum to the back office where the gun cabinet stood. Decisive and unhesitant.
The sound of road ice crunching and snapping under tires carried. Still, no headlights.
“Who is it?” she asked in a whisper.
“Don’t know,” came her father’s whispered reply as the truck crunched to a stop.
“Lance Cross?” a man shouted outside, words ricocheting off the rimrocks and bouncing back.
The Crosses exchanged dark glances. Her father pulled his rifle out from the gun cabinet.
“Who’s asking?” he shouted in return.
One of the porch boards protested underfoot.
Lance Cross glanced at Emory, who pulled out a Winchester 1873 Sporter from that same gun cabinet, checking that it was loaded.
Her father primed his weapon and approached the front door, passing through the kitchen and into the living room. Careful to stand to the side of the unlocked door.
Crouching, Emory ran toward the staircase right as a spray of bullets hit the side of the house. Shots which came from a completely different direction than the truck.
“Don’t shoot!” the man hollered from the direction where the snow-crunching tires passed.
Her father pointed for her to go to the second floor.
As quiet as she could, she bolted up the stairs, taking her position alongside the bathroom window and out of the direct line of fire.
Another shot reverberated. Single this time.
A shadow in the distance ran toward one of the outbuildings for cover. She opened the bottom window and took her aim, but she held her fire.
A voice shouted from the porch.
“Holy cow, Lance! It’s Iver Holstead from the Highland!”
Lance Cross’s eyes narrowed. “What are you driving around without your lights on for?”
“I was afraid you’d start shooting!”
“I ain’t firing!”
The slightest of pauses. “Who is then?”
“Don’t know but you’d better get your ass in here.”
The crack of another shot, and the thud of a body falling.
“Iver?” Lance called out.
“Someone’s taking cover behind the outbuildings,” Emory called out urgently.
“What’s the direction of the fire?” Her father’s voice cut across the distance in return, measured and cool. Dead calm, in fact.
“Hard to say,” Emory didn’t feel near as calm. “Sounded like two directions but I only see the one taking cover and trained on the door. Their angle must be off, wide. Whatever you do, don’t go out there.”
The glint of a gun pointed from around a building…the shadow of a shoulder coming into view.
Not holding her rifle tight enough, Emory squeezed the trigger, the recoil walloped against her shoulder and a body fell, partially visible from her vantage.
“Damn,” she cursed. She’d have a bruise.
“You miss?” her father grilled.
“No, I winged him,” came her reply. “Don’t think killing anybody is a good idea.”
But she might have, all the same.
True enough, that figure picked himself up and darted behind either the old two-story house or one of the sheds nearby, clutching his shoulder and bleeding.
“He ain’t alone,” her father cautioned, rapid steps moving back toward the mudroom’s door.
Again, Emory scanned the outbuildings. No more movement. She changed her position as well, moving over to her father’s bedroom window.
Nothing stirred in that direction.
Instinct drove her back to the bathroom window.
Against the backdrop of snow, a single man ran behind the old corral, toward an awaiting truck. He didn’t hold his shoulder. A different man. Man number two.
The crack of a single shot came from the bottom part of the house and the second figure fell. Then he struggled to his feet and hobble-loped to the truck. He pulled himself inside and drove off.
“Should we let him go?” he shouted up to Emory.
“I guess,” she replied, finding her target. Aiming for the truck, and not the driver, she took one final shot, hopefully marking the tailgate with a bullet hole. Her father had already slipped out the front door to check on the neighbor.
“Call an ambulance,” he barked. “Iver’s alive. Then get some towels or bandages. We need to stop the bleeding.”
“911, what is your emergency?”
“We need an ambulance at the Lost Daughter Ranch outside of Stampede. There’s been a shooting…”
Randi Samuelson-Brown is originally from Golden, Colorado, but now lives in Denver. Her father instilled a passion for Colorado history early on, and she latched on to the more notorious aspects of life in Colorado and the West. She has won multiple awards, including Best Western from Equus Films for “Brand Chaser” in 2023. “Branded Graves” was a Colorado Author’s League finalist in the Thriller Category in 2023.