Twenty years have passed since the detonation of two nuclear electromagnetic pulse bombs in the atmosphere caused the survivors of the terrorist attack - all those living in the former United States of America - to revert to primitive living in a land that no longer has electricity or functioning gas-powered or diesel-powered vehicles. But life goes on.
Spencer Decker has set out on an extended ride from the Clearwater Mountains toward the extreme southern pastures of the Decker Ranch. His intentions are to check on outlaw activity in the area of the abandoned town of Cobalt.
Cobalt had been a small but thriving community before the bomb turned ordinary life into a downhill log flume ride. The last time he had checked Cobalt, the town had been abandoned. He had concluded even back then that the collection of buildings with its large natural spring would make a splendid place for outlaws to congregate.
After two days of hard riding Spencer enters familiar terrain that tells him that he is nearing his destination. The grulla stud under him is an endurance horse with a gait that covers land with amazing speed.
Being naturally cautious, Spencer has made it a point to remain off all roads and trails. Instead, he has traveled cross-country. He always pauses on the backside of every elevated slope so that just his head shows above the grade. From that position, he can carefully glass the terrain ahead of him without being seen.
When he arrives within about thirty miles of Cobalt, he observes a rider leading a lame horse. The animal is limping on its left front leg.
After watching the rider for a while, he decides that it is a well-armed woman dressed in the manner of a man. Manufactured cloth had mostly disappeared within a matter of just a few years following the first bomb. Without electricity, there had been no commercial manufacturing process remaining to supply cotton fabric. There had been insufficient distribution to move anything but food across the crippled nation. Pack trains and freight wagons are currently being used slowly to move food. The only bulk food delivery now comes out of Canada.
The woman with the lame horse wears long-fringed doeskins that are nearly white in color. Whoever tanned her hides knew exactly what he was doing.
From a distance, the woman looks young - perhaps in her mid-twenties. When she removes her wide-brimmed sombrero, black hair tumbles out to hang past her shoulders. At first Spencer believes that she is Latino, but there is something about her that is more foreign than someone from just south of the Mexican border.
Spencer spends significant time studying the woman and the area along the route she is traveling. This is the first person he has encountered during his ride, and the sudden appearance of another human being gives him cause for concern.
Her presence poses unanswered questions. Why would a woman travel by herself? For a female to travel alone in a wilderness area is to invite her own destruction.
Following that thought, he decides that there simply has to be someone else traveling with her. Women simply do not travel by themselves in wild country. There is an assured chance of a message being delivered by rifle shot if she has a guardian, and he, Spencer, is incautious during his approach.
The woman nurses the lame mare along, as though the animal is more than just a saddle horse. After watching the progress of the pair for a long time, Spencer is certain that there is nobody traveling with her or watching her but himself. The more he studies her, the more interested in her he becomes.
Even when walking beside the lame horse, the woman has a saucy manner of moving. Her stride reminds him of the girls at Graftonís. It has been a long time since he has gone to the saloon to test the mouth of the newest young whore in service. At the first thought of Graftonís, his erection begins to form.
The way the woman below moves indicates that she is not an epitome of blandness. Perhaps if he joins her he will again know the carnal pleasure in a womanís company. How great it would be to again experience the Holy Grail of oral satisfaction! Something like that would be too much to hope for, so he sets his thoughts aside as he suspiciously studies the terrain around the woman. If Spencer is anything, he is cautious. Several narrow escapes have made him that way. When he became the law of the Decker range, the process of killing outlaws hardened him.
Spencerís mind constantly returns to the thought that he has denied himself the pleasure of a womanís company for far too long. After he studies her through his field glasses for a final time, he feels a greater stirring in his loins than he has felt for a very long time. Watching the movements of the woman has turned him into an erotic vagrant.
He has avoided Graftonís in the recent past. Spencer has also avoided the attentions of the young women at the home ranch as casually as a duck abandons its old feathers.
The fact that he has known all of the young Decker ranch women since birth may have had something to do with his inattention to them. Because of his long association with the women at the home ranch, there is a general lack of intrigue where they are concerned.
When a final search of the area around the woman and her lame horse is complete, Spencer begins moving down the slope of the hogback ridge while holding the stud to a walk. Intentionally, he pursues a zigzag course so that he takes advantage of all available cover.
As he watches the woman, he clings to an adolescent thought that involves the sexual conquest of a girl from another ranch. He draws his saddle gun and carries it in the crook of his left arm, so he is prepared for any surprises he might encounter at the bottom of the slope. He can feel his man-meat where it lies pressed against the saddle. By now, the beast has assumed the rigidity of a second saddle horn. He feels his adrenaline level elevate as he watches her struggle along while she talks to the injured animal. When he is within less than fifty feet of her, he suddenly feels as tongue-tied as a young child. Over the last few minutes, he has developed the personality of a sponge cake. While he watches the woman his mind begins to wonder. Are you loved by someone? Are you cared for?
Spencer has just endured two weeks of isolation from normal awareness. He has been drifting across an eighty-thousand-acre ranch alone, while searching for squatters and outlaws. The few nomads that normally test ranch security seem to have migrated out of the area. The crisp mountain air speaks of an early winter.
Nearly a week ago, he came upon one of his own range riders well north of ranch headquarters. The man had conveyed the rumor of rustlers working the area near Cobalt.
Spencerís normal growth-sector performance is as the troubleshooter for his familyís range. His continual cast across the home range had been boring until he came upon Randy Stiles and his rumor. Trouble is as much a part of Spencerís life as breathing, so he immediately headed for the Cobalt area.
Because he is the ranchís top hand, he is expected to solve mysteries concerning any outlaw threat to livestock. If there are outlaws near Cobalt, he will either deal with them himself, or recruit men from the home ranch to help him resolve the issue.
With his days of loneliness dwindling to a precious few, he approaches the woman from the timbered slope behind her. When he emerges from the trees, she is again feeling the animalís foreleg. As he eases out of the timber, his horse snorts. In a flash, the woman whirls while dropping to a knee. A pistol materializes in her hand as though by magic. Her draw had been so fluid that the pistol just seemed to appear aimed steadily in his direction.
Spencer lowers his rifle barrel to cover her as he calls out, "Hello, lady. I see you have the problem of a lame horse. May I be of assistance?"
"Where the hell did you come from?" she snarls. "I havenít seen anyone in this area but me in more than six months."
"Well," Spencer announces, "you wonít be able to make that comment again. I hope my appearance doesnít annoy you."
"Iíve been wearing down boot leather," she offers with laser-like focus, "trying to get my favorite horse home. A casual fishing trip has turned into a chore. I canít find anything broken. She just seems to have sprained something."
"Are you gonna shoot, or am I?" Spencer asks. "Or shall we both put our guns away before one of us accidentally pulls a trigger?"
"Suits me," the woman answers, "Iíd hate to have to bury you all by myself."
"Donít give it a second thought," Spencer responds as he swings down out of the saddle. He does a prolonged deep squat to stretch the muscles in his back and legs. When he straightens again, he approaches the small, dark, sultry-looking woman.
Up close, she appears to be a slat-thin, lovely, wild-looking female entertainment empire. Sheís about five foot two with average-looking breasts above a very narrow waist. Her manner of dress disguises her figure well. Most of the curves beneath her doeskin are left to his imagination. Watching her walk had dramatically outlined most of her erotic details for him. Women who walk the way she does have been populating the earth with babies for centuries.
Her eyes are a limpid blue. She wears skin that seems perpetually tanned all over. He speculates on the all-over-ness. Up close she does not appear Latino. Her skin is more olive in color and flawless. Her hair is as black as a ravenís wing. Her nose has a slight aquiline feature. After watching her for over an hour, he decided that she was probably going to be a hot female with a spicy Spanish name.
Suddenly it dawns on him. He has seen people of her race before. About a year ago, a band of Gypsies had camped near the ranch headquarters. They were secretive people who remained apart from the general ranch population. One morning the sentries reported that the band had moved on during the night. Dawn revealed that they had taken about fifteen ranch horses with them when they departed.
Just short of two days later, the ranch posse came upon the horses grazing unattended during a driving rainstorm. The Gypsies had abandoned the stolen animals before separating into about fifteen individual groups.
The rain had been so torrential that it had very nearly obliterated the tracks of the entire herd. The posse had stumbled onto the rustled animals almost by accident. The absence of a sufficient trail to follow made tracking the dispersed rustlers virtually impossible. The posse had returned to the ranch with the stolen horses, but without the nomadic thieves. Thereafter, no Gypsy band was permitted to remain overnight anywhere on ranch property.
The womanís accent is not Spanish, and yet it is a sound that he enjoys hearing. There is something about her demeanor that is entirely exhilarating. She is not as beautiful as some of the single women at the home ranch, but she would win any sexual desirability contest. Something about her rings a giant gong in his head. She has a quality that gives off sexual sparks the way nylon creates static electricity. He cannot get the thought out of his mind that she is probably a very talented belly dancer.
Spencer looks at her. Although he is not married, he immediately sponsors the thought that if he does anything with this exotic creature, it will be as though he is discreetly cheating on the unmarried young women at the home ranch. This woman is so erotic that even speaking with her is a volatile form of sexual expression.
While he watches her, his mind clings to the notion that he is about to be involved in a romantic liaison a long distance from home. If that isnít cheating on all the young unattached women at Decker Ranch, then why does he feel the way he does?
Spencer squats beside the horseís lame leg. He runs his hands up and down the limb. There is no telltale ridge that would proclaim a break. There is also no swelling. He lifts the injured leg to look at the underside of the hoof. There is a dime-sized pebble imbedded in the soft tissue of the hoof. The stone rests partially under the inside edge of the shoe.
Spencer takes out his knife and pries the rock from its cavity. The horse snorts and jerks its leg when the rock comes free. Spencer looks further, but the entire rock seems to have evacuated the hollow. No part of the stone remains in the indentation.
"It appears to be just a stone bruise," he tells the saucy-looking woman. "Youíll need to watch the area for evidence of an abscess, but I donít think one will occur."
He hopes that the absorbing look she gives him is total gratitude to the point that she will be willing to charm his socks off along with all the rest of his clothes. If this woman was employed at Graftonís, none of the other women would be working. She is not necessarily gorgeous, but she has an intensity of motivational charm that sets her apart from every other woman he has ever seen.
As soon as Spencer saw her up close, he wanted to throw her to the ground and mount her. The idea of sexual congress with this darling of the woodlands is completely overpowering.
The features of her face renew his attention. Her unusual eyes, coupled to her wide, full lips, are so compelling that he canít tear his eyes away from them.
"So itís going to be like that, is it?" she whispers. "You are such a naughty man to think of me in that fashion. I should slap your face for what youíre thinking."
"But you havenít," Spencer mutters as his sense of shyness evaporates. "What does your absence of aggression say about our situation?"
She ignores his comment. Instead she begins to lead the horse as before. The animal no longer limps.
"Shall we ride for a while?" Spencer suggests. "We need to see how the absence of the stone affects her gait."
"I didnít catch your name," the woman offers in a low voice. She speaks as though someone might be listening.
"I didnít throw it," Spencer announces, "but itís Spencer Decker. Whatís yours?"
"Domino Barton," her lovely mouth responds. Spencer takes great pleasure in watching her lips move.
"Youíre going to have to stop that," Domino insists as she returns her attention to the horse. "How long do you think I can allow you near me with you making love to my mouth every time I say something?"
"I didnít think it was that obvious," Spencer answers as his erection grows more uncomfortable by the second.
"Do you intend to stop at my place for something to eat?" she asks. "Or will you push on from here?"
"If Iím invited, then Iíll stop for whatever youíre offering," he answers.
He watches a sparkling smile form on her face as she turns her head away to gaze into the forest. Up ahead, a band of elk move from left to right through the glade the riders are navigating. Her horse shows no trace of the former limp.