With the discovery of gold in the Rocky Mountains, prospectors have been coming closer to Wild Lands Ranch. Henry Abbey is determined to protect his family’s land, and the wolves are too. Henry doesn’t know they exist, but they’ve been watching him for a long time and one is closer than he even realizes.
Justus is a young wolf who has been working on the ranch to keep an eye on the humans and make sure they keep their part of the bargain. The plains belong to them, but the forest is the territory of the wolves. He likes Henry and wishes he could tell Henry everything he knows about the wolves and the pact, but it’s forbidden.
The rules begin to change on both sides when miners come into the forest looking for gold. The wolves need help, and the humans need the men off their land. When Justus reveals himself while protecting Henry, they are tied together forever.
Henry Abbey wiped dust and sweat off his brow, then pulled his hat lower over his eyes. With the sun so high in the sky, he was quickly becoming overheated. Only forty more head of cow to bring up from the south and onto his family’s land. He’d be there by sundown, and this would be the last trip he’d make to get new stock until after winter. He was looking forward to a rest after running cattle all over the plains for the past five months.
Two men were driving cattle with him on this trip—Justus, a newly hired hand, and his Uncle David. “I heard something interesting as we were passing through the outpost this morning,” David said, drawing Henry’s attention. Justus rode ahead of them. His horse had fought him every mile they traveled. Henry hadn’t been sure about the hand, but David had insisted they take him along for some reason.
“What’s that?” Henry asked.
David urged his horse to go faster. They still had a lot of miles of flat plains to cover, but getting home quicker would be a blessing for them all. “Some men are claiming they found gold in the mountains. Could be something to the rumors after all.”
Henry gazed at the mountains looming to the west and shook his head. Anyone crazy enough to go up there was welcome to whatever gold he was able to find. “As long as no one comes on our land, I don’t care what they do.”
David laughed. “That’s true. If anyone ever did, I’m sure the wolves would have something to say about it.”
That made Henry laugh too. He’d grown up with wolves living just over the hill from his family’s cluster of houses. The wolves didn’t bother them, and they didn’t go into the woods. Even as a child he’d been forbidden from playing in those trees. It was odd, but his ma said the forest was too dangerous to set foot in, and he knew better than to question his ma. That was before he’d heard the stories of old man Fairchild, who’d disappeared into the woods never to be seen again. It hadn’t just been Fairchild—it had been all the men he’d brought with him. The story had been a frequent tale around school, and since it had happened near Henry’s family’s land, he’d been asked about it a lot. At the time, all he could tell the other kids was he wasn’t allowed to go into the forest west of the ranch. As he’d grown older, he thought that was rather silly, but his parents had been fairly adamant about it. And there was always enough to do on Wild Lands Ranch, so he rarely had time to waste wondering what was going on in the woods that scared people so much.
A few hours later, as they came up to a wide riverbank, they stopped to rest the horses as well as their sore rears. Henry was the first to strip off his shirt, roll up his pant legs, and wade into the cool river. While David was busy checking over his horse for injuries, Justus settled in next to him on the bank.
“Thanks for the rest,” Justus said quietly as he leaned his arms over his knees.
Henry nodded. “It’s fine.” His tone was more gruff than he normally would have used, but something about Justus put him on edge, and it wasn’t only that he seemed far too inexperienced around horses to be a good ranch hand. He also felt like he didn’t belong in the West. Henry had seen his share of desperate men and women heading to California over the years. But Justus didn’t have that same feel. There was just something Henry couldn’t put his finger on. “What kind of experience do you have with ranching?”
Justus leaned his head back and his shiny hair fell over his shoulders. It was longer than most men he knew kept theirs, and Henry didn’t like how much he wanted to touch it. “Some.”
That reply was entirely too vague for Henry’s liking. “What ranches have you worked for?”
Justus turned his head and smiled widely at him. “The river feels nice. I don’t enjoy wearing boots.” He heaved himself back to his feet with a sigh. “I’ll go see if David needs any help.”
Henry glared at him as he left the riverbank. Justus’ non-answers were a definite problem for him, and he knew his father would have never put up with that kind of an attitude from one of his hands. He was determined to talk to David about him as soon as they were alone again. As the oldest male child, Henry would run Wild Lands Ranch one day, and he couldn’t have people he didn’t trust working with him when that time came. That was, of course, assuming Justus even lasted that long. Henry didn’t expect that to happen.
“We’re going to need to take it a bit slower.” David stomped over to Henry, an angry look on his face. “I thought there was something wrong with Thunder. He picked up a stone. I got it out, but we need to let him take his time getting back.”
Henry sighed. He hadn’t wanted another night on the range, particularly when they were so close to the ranch. “I think Justus and I can get them in if you want to follow.”
Uncle David pursed his lips. “That might be easier. Just let your dad and Aunt Lilly know. I don’t want them worrying about me.”