BEGOTTEN SON

By Sheryl Clay

 

A FINE MESS

I

Lightning had knocked out the windmill for the well in the south section. It happened, sometimes, that the storms that tore through the southern Arizona sky in late summer and early fall did some significant damage, with flash floods or range fires destroying property in their wakes. And, less occasionally, animals or even men. And even when no serious damage followed, which was more usually the case, there could still be plenty of nuisance associated with all that thunder and lightning. Most of the time, though, the desert's "rainy season" brought only that, much needed water and, as long as it remained confined to the high country, a pretty spectacular show. It was generally just bad luck when something truly destructive happened.

The events, themselves, could be quite awe-inspiring entertainment. In all of the places he had lived in his life, John Cannon, owner of one of Arizona's largest and most profitable cattle ranches, the High Chaparral, had never seen anything to compare with those great storms. Bolts the size of tree trunks spitting down from obsidian clouds, attenuating branches spreading out across the entire horizon, casting their momentary but brilliant light on the otherwise dusky sky. Thunder that automatically made one think of God. Standing on the porch of his ranch house, gazing out at the Rincon or Santa Rita mountains, Cannon had spent many an afternoon absorbed in those stunning displays as they danced over the vaulting ranges to his left and right. It was enough to move even so prosaic an individual as he to fits of poetry. He felt at once small and insignificant, and uplifted and vast to share a universe with such obvious evidence of power and grandeur. Inspired, even. Right up until the moment it spooked his horses or stampeded his cattle or burned down his line shacks. Or toppled his windmills. Then all that majesty just became a damned nuisance, and a cause for expense, generating a waste of manpower and materials better spent more productively on other things. John Cannon was a builder of empires. This constant fixing of things just irritated him.

This latest disaster was a case in point. Round up was only a few weeks away, and after that, the long dusty drive to Yuma, provided his contracts ever arrived from the federal prison there, and Cannon had much he wanted done before then. None of his plans had included taking time out to repair a badly damaged windmill. Nonetheless, a critical piece of equipment was disabled. It had been a particularly dry summer up until then, and the storm that had wrecked the havoc had brought with it precious little rain. His cattle needed the water pumped from that well, so John Cannon had little choice but to drop whatever else he was doing, and gather his ranch hands and go fix it.

His initial evaluation found the damage both less extensive than he had expected, and more problematic. On the positive side, the mechanics of the thing, the iron turbine wheel and the gear box, appeared undamaged, and the windshaft that connected to the pump crank had not been bent. Cannon's relief was large, for serious damage to any of those mechanisms would mean costly and time consuming repairs, and the continued disability of the well for longer than he could afford to be without it. On the other hand, at least a third of the blades on the wheel were broken, and the tower itself was badly burned and half knocked to the ground. It would take a considerable amount of work to right and repair it when there were so many other things he wanted to do. They could be three or four days at it, anyway, considering the amount of time it would take to get out there with all the necessary supplies. Still, there was nothing else to do, and soonest begun soonest mended.

For ranch foreman, Sam Butler and the other hands Cannon had assigned to the repairs, the prospect was somewhat less distressing. Certainly Butler, as well as anyone, realized the seriousness of any of the range wells being disabled. And, as foreman of the High Chaparral, no one knew better than he the amount of other critical work that needed to be done. And it was not as if driving nails in the hot sun was fun, exactly. Still, the job was different from driving cattle or stringing fences or posting guard, and the difference alone lent something of a festival atmosphere to the project. It had taken them almost half a day to arrive with the lumber and nails and various tools they needed loaded into two wagons, but no one really complained, and there was as much laughter as hammering to punctuate the air as the men erected a temporary scaffolding around the damaged mill tower, pulled it upright back onto its sunken post supports and began shoring it up.

And perhaps as much because of their high spirits as anything, the work went quickly and well. Four men, Butler, Reno, Pedro and Cannon's son Blue scrambled over the scaffolding like monkeys, swinging their hammers, while Sam's younger brother, Joe, assisted John's younger brother, Buck, planing new blades to replace the damaged ones. And John, himself, managed somehow to be everywhere at once.

"That looks about it, Boss," Sam said, dropping to the ground after his assent to the platform at the top of the tower. He had just finished placing the pulley boxes that would run the tackle needed to raise the heavy turbine. "She's as secure as she'll ever be. You want to try to raise that turbine today or leave it till tomorrow?"

"We've still got plenty of daylight," Cannon grumped. But he clapped the man on the shoulder. "Good work, Sam. Went up even faster than I'd hoped. Blue!" he bellowed on the end of his compliment. "Don't leave that hammer on the ground like that, boy! Put it back in the tool box. How many times do I have to tell you, your tools are as important as your weapons, we can't survive out here without either one!"

"I just put it down for a minute, Pa," his son protested. At twenty-one, Blue was well past the age where he appreciated his father's correction, and the fact that Cannon seemed to find constant need often put a strain between them.

"Well, don't put it down for a minute on the ground! If you're done with it, walk over here and put it in the tool box. If you're not done with it, put it in your belt. It's not that hard to do things right, you know. You're gonna forget it out here, and lose it, and then it will be some other excuse."

Blue scowled. But he picked the hammer up and tossed it into the tool box.

"Lay it in there, don't throw it!" Cannon barked. "You'll chip the other tools. How many times to I have to say it? All right, Sam," he switched back to his previous conversation. "Let's get that hoisting started."

Sam nodded. "Pedro! Reno! You boys get aloft!" he hollered. The two nodded, and began to scramble up fifteen odd feet of scaffold.

"It is so high up here, amigo," Pedro complained, half seriously, as he found his perch, "it makes me dizzy."

"Yeah, well, just be glad we ain't doin’ this on the home 'mill, then," Sam bellowed back up at him. The windmill on the ranch compound, itself, being nearly half again as high, and the turbine, when completely fitted with its wind blades, much wider and more unwieldy.

There had been some discussion, earlier in the day, about whether to mount the wind blades onto the wheel before lifting or to mount the wheel first, and then attach the blades from the scaffolding. Sam had done it both ways, in the past. So has John. Sam favored of lifting the wheel first and attaching the blades from the scaffold; his contention being that the added weight and wind resistance of the fully assembled turbine made it much more difficult, and dangerous, to hoist and mount. John was in favor of assembling the blades on the ground and hoisting the mechanism whole. It was faster, that way, than trying to bolt blades into the iron wheel while it was upright, and it was no more dangerous, he argued, than having men scrambling about on a narrow platform high above the ground. If they took enough care, and anchored the ropes right, they'd be fine.

They did it John's way.

"Blue," Sam called. When the boy looked up, he gestured him over. "C'mere, give me a hand with these tie-ropes."

Blue glared in the direction of his father, but John wasn't paying attention. He walked over to join Sam by the turbine lying at the foot of the windmill tower.

Even when he thought about it later, Sam wasn't really sure why he'd singled the kid out to assist him; after all, both his brother and Buck were just standing around idle, waiting for the moment they'd be needed on the tackle. Both were more knowledgeable about the job at hand. Partly, Sam supposed, it was because, in his own opinion, Blue needed more experience with those tasks around a ranch demanding more thought and skill than making adobe or chopping wood; experience his father was often reluctant to allow him. And partly it was just that Sam couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the kid, sometimes. Not that Blue didn't make his fair share of mistakes, and not that he couldn't be prone to sulks and fits of temper when his father got to riding him particularly hard. But it was tough, being the only son of a man like John Cannon, and Sam sometimes felt a need to give the boy a little of the encouragement and instruction he never really seemed to get from his father. He showed him how to tie the hoisting tackle in such a way as to give the wheel the most lift and clearance when it reached the pulley on top of the tower, and still give the maximum stability. Then he attached the guy-lines to the lower half, handing those ropes to Buck and Joe. It would be up to them to stabilize the wheel as he and Blue hoisted. He gave a cursory check to Blue's knots, nodded, and handed him his line.

"You be sure you keep that rope clear, boy," John admonished. "Don't let it get tangled up in those blades, it could snap one of 'em off."

"I know, Pa," Blue replied, a little tightly.

"You just pay attention!"

Sam sighed. "You ready?" he asked with a faint smile of encouragement.

Blue nodded.

"All right, on a count o' three… one, two…" and slowly the big turbine began to lift off the ground and into the air. It was surprisingly heavy, much heavier than it looked. But then, the wheel was iron, and the blades were cut from solid cedar planks, that hardwood being most favored despite the expense because it stood up best in the weather. "Look alive, up there," Sam called to the men at the top of the scaffold.

"We're ready, Sam," Reno called back down. "Just don't drop it."

"You just make sure them ropes don't fall out of them pulley tracks!"

They did, though, inevitably ; and it took several minutes to clear them, and get them rolling, again.

"You doin' okay?" Sam grunted at Blue softly. His own arms were aching with the effort of holding the heavy wheel steady while the men above them straightened the tackle out, and the wind was gusting erratically, making that turbine worse than a green horse to control.

"Yeah, fine," Blue replied, his own voice equally strained with the effort.

"Joe, steady that damn thing, can ya?"

"I'm trying," the younger Butler replied. "There's a good breeze blowin'."

"Yeah, I know," Sam said. "How we doin', Boss…"

"Good, good. Bring it a little more to the right, if you can…"

They were relying on Cannon to guide their progress, since none of the men, intent on their own tasks, could really step back far enough to see where the wheel actually was. It would become even more critical in a few minutes when they tried to hoist the hub so that it centered in front of the single shaft it would mount onto.

The wind kicked the turbine, dragging Joe a little bit off his feet. Sam glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, and grit his teeth, not happy, but unable to do much about it. He just hoped the breeze died a little before the men at the top needed to do their part of this.

And as inevitably as the ropes jumped the pulley tracks, Blue's line got on the wrong side of the wooden blades as he pulled. He tried to jerk them free as he hoisted, swinging the wheel to one side with the motion.

"Blue boy, whatchu doin'," Buck complained, as he struggled to straighten it out. "Doan make it swing like that."

"The rope's caught in the blades…"

"Never mind that," Sam said from his side.

"But Pa said…"

"I'd rather have to replace a blade or two up there than bring this whole thing down on our heads," Butler snapped. Then he took a deep breath. "Just take it steady," he said more calmly. "You got it, now?"

Blue nodded. But he was still worried about his rope. He knew his father would get after him if he broke one of those blades; John Cannon would find any excuse at all to single his son out for criticism, this Blue knew only too well. Despite Sam's direction to the contrary, he tugged the rope, again, harder this time, hoping to jerk it loose.

The turbine wobbled awkwardly.

"Blue!"

But it was already too late. The wheel tilted and crashed into the tower, snapping one of the blades.

"Look out!!" Sam yelled as the heavy board fell earthward. He wasn't fast enough, though, and it caught him right across his head and shoulder blades knocking him to the ground.

"Sam!" shouted Joe.

"Grab the rope!" Sam cried, trying to curl himself into a sitting position, ignoring the shooting pains running up and down his arm. He managed to get to his knees. Joe grabbed the rope.

But, panicked now, Blue had already let go of his side. "Sam!"

"Blue boy, doan let go!!" Buck dove for Blue's line. He and Joe between them were able to arrest the descent but not halt it. The turbine fell, swinging wide and wildly, and caught Sam across back, knocking him flat, again.

"Ufff."

"Sam!"

The turbine crashed to the ground, edge on, missing Sam's prone form, this time, by a bare few inches. Two more blades snapped off in its shuddering halt. Then it fell over.

"Sam-boy, you okay?"

"Sam." It was John Cannon.

"I'm okay, I'm all right…" Sam insisted as his brother helped him into a sitting position. "I just got smashed a little…" He rubbed the shoulder, which hurt far worse than his back.

"Sam…" He looked up to see Blue on his knees before him. The kid's face was white. "Sam, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to let go… " he choked.

For a split second, Sam wanted to yell at him, to tell him that he'd told him not to jerk on that rope, just to pull steady. But the boy was so obviously upset, there didn't seem much point in adding to his misery. Besides, Sam figured there was no irreparable damage done, he was really, okay, though that shoulder was gonna pain him some for a while. And next time, Blue would sure as hell pay attention and hang onto that rope.

Anyway, he really didn't feel quite up to yelling at anyone, right at that moment. "I'm all right, son," he said quietly.

"I'm sorry, it was my fault. I didn't mean to… Are you really okay?"

"Yeah, I know. It's all right. I'm okay." And he rubbed his shoulder to remind himself that he was going to insist upon that. When he looked up, again, Blue was gone.

Blue, himself, had been surprised to find himself suddenly dragged up into the air. He turned and found himself looking right into his father's angry eyes.

"What the hell were you doin', boy!?"

The ferocity of Cannon's attack made even the ranch hands wince, and his son fairly cringed.

"I'm sorry, Pa, I was only tryin' to…"

"Of all the stupid, careless… I don't care what you thought you were trying to do. What you did has cost us another day, maybe more! We've got to haul out more lumber, re-cut those blades, now…"

"I didn't mean to…" Blue protested. "The ropes got all tangled, and you said…"

"Never mind what you thought I said. I told you not to let them tangle in the first place. Once they did, you don't risk tearin' the whole thing down… Which you would have realized if you would just use your head once in a while! And why the hell did you let go of that rope? Sam could have been killed!" Cannon's voice shook with the enormity of it.

"Pa, I…"

"When are you gonna grow up and learn that actions have consequences! Start thinking and acting like a man!"

Behind them, Joe helped Sam to his feet.

"It was an accident, Mr. Cannon," Sam said. "I'm all right. Blue didn't mean any harm, he was just…"

Cannon turned and glared at him. "You keep out of this! There are far too many accidents around here, they risk both men and equipment, and I won't have it! If you'd been paying attention, yourself, we might have avoided this." Although he did not expand upon what else Sam might have done to change things.

Butler's expression hardened, but he said nothing. It was Sam's personal opinion that much of the disaster could have been avoided if they'd raised the wheel without the blades attached, like he'd wanted, and if Cannon had been able to refrain for nagging Blue and making him nervous. But he kept those thoughts to himself. John turned back to his son.

"And as for you…"

"Big John, take it easy," Buck Cannon cut his brother off. "Yellin' won't change nothin'. Sam be all right, and we kin fix that turbine. Ain't no permanent harm done."

Cannon turned to glare at him, too. Then, cognizant of the faces around him, watching, he made an effort to get control of his anger. He turned back to Blue.

"You go back to the ranch," he barked. "Go on!" he insisted when the boy started to protest. "I don't want to have to look at you for a while."

Blue stared in shock, his mortification shifting to pain, and then to anger as the others looked on in embarrassed silence. Then he spun and ran for his horse, jerking the reins free from where they were tied to the wagon and spurring the animal away without looking back.

John turned back to his men, who were looking everywhere but at Blue's retreating figure. He took a deep breath.

"Is that wheel bent?" he asked nodding at the turbine still lying on the ground.

"Uh, no Boss," answered Pedro, who, with Reno, had descended when the excitement started. "Only some of the blades are broken."

"All right. We may as well all go back. There's nothing more we can do here, today, and we'll have to bring more cedar planks out in the morning, anyway, to replace those blades. You men get to packing up."

They dispersed, needing no further encouragement. All except Sam, who continued to stand facing Cannon.

"Well, this is a fine mess," John grumbled. Then he looked a little more closely at Sam. "Are you really all right? You need a doctor to have a look at you?" he asked him.

"I'm all right, Boss. Just bruised some."

"That was close, Sam," John sighed. "Too close."

John's hands were trembling a little, and not just with rage. Sam could see that the man was truly shaken by the near miss. He pursed his lips, torn between his own awareness of just how close a call it had been, his gratitude at his boss's concern, and his belief that Blue might not be entirely to blame for what had happened.

"The boy didn't mean any harm, Mr. Cannon," he ventured. "He was just trying to do like you told him."

"Well, he obviously wasn't trying hard enough. That boy has got to learn to use his head, Sam. 'I thoughts' and 'I meant tos' just aren't good enough. Not out here."

It wasn't that Sam disagreed. He didn't. John Cannon was exactly right, as far as his evaluation of the situation went. It occurred to Sam, though, that his boss might be missing the point, where his son was concerned. Not that it was any of his business, of course, and he sincerely doubted that Cannon would appreciate any interference from him. On the other hand, since he’d been the one who got hurt by it, he supposed maybe that earned him a right to an opinion.

"Maybe he tries too hard."

John narrowed his eyes at the other man. "And what's that supposed to mean?" he asked coolly.

Sam immediately regretted bringing it up. But since he had started, he figured he might as well finish.

"Nothin', really," he said. "It's just that… well, Boss, sometimes I think maybe Blue just wants so bad to please you that it just messes him all up and he makes stupid mistakes. He doesn't mean to. He's a good kid, Mr. Cannon. He just needs a chance to learn."

Cannon's face set stonily. "That's none of your concern, Sam," he said. "Blue is my son. Not yours."

Sam took a slow breath before answering. "Yes, sir, well, I guess I'd better get to helping the boys pack up. If you'll excuse me." Cannon hesitated, then nodded.

"If you're sure you're up to it." He watched Sam walk away, aware that something important had been said, or not said, or said badly, but he was not entirely sure what it was.

To say that the trip home was uneventful was to miss the tension they all obviously felt over the close call, and the confrontation between the senior Cannon and his son. John went off to the house without a word as soon as they arrived back at the ranch. Buck went off to find Blue. Sam looked at the wagon load of tools and equipment, and sighed. His head ached fiercely and the hurt in his shoulder had radiated up the back of his neck on the ride home, and down his spine to meet with the throb there. And there were sharp arrows of pain running up and down his arm. He was beginning to wonder if something might not have cracked or broken, after all.

"Sam, why don't you go sit down," Joe said, coming up behind him. "We can take care of unloadin' this gear."

"Yeah, Sam, go on," Reno echoed. "You go take it easy for a while, we can handle this."

Sam hesitated, but only for a moment. "Thanks, boys, " he said. He meant it for all of them, but looked at his brother. "See if you can't rustle up the lumber we're gonna need for tomorrow, too, will ya? The sooner we can get goin' in the mornin', the better, I think." Joe nodded.

Supper came and went in the same pall of silence, nobody particularly wanting to discuss what had happened. And Sam was finding that "taking it easy" wasn’t much more comfortable than remaining on his feet. The men could all sense his discomfort, and it only exacerbated their own unease. It was Buck Cannon who suggested the poker game to lighten the gloom. Buck had deserted the oppressive atmosphere that had beset his own dinner as soon as he finished eating. Blue had not appeared at table, and further investigation had found him to be not in his room, although his horse was in the corral so he had to be around the place, somewhere. Worried about the boy's state of mind, Buck had hoped to find him in the bunkhouse.

"No, he ain't here," Sam told him. "I ain't seen him since we got home."

Buck sighed. As was frequently the case between his nephew and his brother, Buck was torn about what had happened that day. On the one hand, he understood his brother's anger, on the other, Buck sometimes wondered if John didn't bring it all on himself, ragging on the boy the way he did, making him nervous or worse, defiant. He couldn't deny that his nephew's unthought actions had cost them considerably in time and material, and had come very damn close to causing his good friend, Sam Butler, some permanent hurt, or worse. Blue had to learn to use his own head, to think before he acted, there was no doubt about that. John had been justified in laying into him, Buck just wished his brother didn't find it so necessary to make his chastisements so personal. The kid had screwed up, sure, but it wasn't as if he was intentionally negligent or anything. He made a mistake, that's all, a bad one, but still just a mistake, brought on, in part, by his father's directions, though John wasn't likely to see it that way. And once again, there he was, Buck Cannon, helplessly caught in the middle. He frowned, looking more closely at Butler.

"Sam-boy, how you doin'? You lookin' a little gray. You git Vaquero to have a look at that shoulder?"

"I'm hurtin', Buck-o," Sam admitted. "I feel like I've been stomped. Vaquero don't think anything's broken, though. I'll be all right in a few days."

Buck nodded. Then he removed a whiskey bottle from under his coat and handed it over.

"Well, you jist have yo'sel' a bite or two o' this here red-eye whiskey, amigo, and see if it don't ease the ache a mite."

Butler laughed in gratitude. Big John Cannon didn't hold with whiskey in the bunkhouse, and although Sam kept a bottle there, with John's knowledge, for medicinal purposes, the supply was limited. Whatever drink they had for recreational purposes was usually provided by Buck - a practice Cannon also knew about and turned a blind eye to as long as it didn't get out of hand or interfere with the work. But Sam had already figured out that his supply on hand was not going to be enough to see him through the next few nights, and, as he had told Buck, he was sure hurting.

"Buck, you're a true friend," he said, taking the bottle from him.

Buck just nodded. "Sam - whadaya say we get us a little card game goin'? I think we could all use a little cheerin' up."

The poker game did help lift the bunkhouse spirits, though Sam, himself, folded early. The throb in his shoulder and back was too distracting despite the whiskey, and he was most uncomfortable sitting in one position for too long.

"You all right, Sam?" his brother asked, as he scraped back his chair and climbed to his feet.

"Yeah, I'm okay, Joe," Sam replied. "I'm just gonna get some air, see if I can't stretch out some of this soreness."

Joe nodded and turned back to his cards. Sam gave them a quick glance over his brother's shoulder as he headed out the door; poor Joe wasn't having a particularly good night, and by the look of his hand, it wasn't getting any better. Sam chuckled as he stepped out into the night.

It was beautiful, the kind of clean, clear freshness that one only found after a hot day in the desert. The moon was up, nearly full, making the landscape glow with an almost surreal light. Sam stretched cautiously, working the kinks out. There was no place in particular he wanted to go, and it wasn't as if the small ranch compound offered a lot of places for strolling. But it was nice out there under the stars, all the same.

It took him a moment to see the huddled form sitting on the ground in an empty stall at the far end of the corral. And it took him a moment longer to recognize that dark lump as Blue. Sam thought about it for a moment before he walked down there. It was none of his business how John Cannon raised his son, and Cannon had made that abundantly clear to him that afternoon. For the most part, he even understood; it was tough, unforgiving country, a man couldn't afford to make too many mistakes. And he knew Cannon wanted his boy to grow up tough enough for the land, tough enough to survive on it, to love it, to fight for it like his father did. Sam understood that. That accident would be costly, and had been very nearly tragic. And since he, himself, was on the receiving end of the consequences, he could not entirely fault his boss's reaction.

Nonetheless, Sam still felt that Blue had panicked, in part, simply out of fear of displeasing his father. And with good reason, perhaps. There were too many moments, in Sam's opinion, when John laid all over the boy unnecessarily for some small error when a simple explanation might have done just as well, moments when Sam had to bite back the protest that clambered on his tongue. There had to be a better way to do it. It was a little like breaking horses, he supposed. You could hobble them and rub their noses in the dust until they were beaten, and you could produce a tractable, even useful, animal that way. But never one that was any pleasure. And never one you could really trust.

It was none of his business. Blue wasn't his son. But those were moments when Sam longed to intervene on Blue's behalf, or at least to try to explain the boy what his father was trying to accomplish. To give him some kind word. That's all he really needed, Sam sometimes thought. A little word of encouragement, the knowledge that he had done well, that his father was proud of him. Sam knew it was true, Blue did do well, most of the time. He worked damned hard, and he adored his father like he'd hung the very moon. And, Sam suspected, John Cannon, himself, harbored a deep, if rarely expressed pride in the boy. It was just too bad his boss's feelings usually manifested themselves in gruff demands and criticism. If Blue made mistakes it was as much out of his eagerness to please his father as any youthful malingering. He just needed to relax, not take it quite so seriously, was all. Not that Cannon was ever likely to let him do that.

Sam sighed, having already decided to walk down there and make sure the kid was okay, but still wrestling a little with the propriety of interfering where he had no place. John Cannon's words to him on the subject, that afternoon, had stung.

He pushed off from the bunkhouse doorway and walked down to the corral. Blue didn't even look up as the other man stopped inside the stall and leaned back against a saddle rail. He just sat there with his hands dangling between his knees, his hat string sticking out of the corner of his mouth. Looking down at his boot tops. Now that he was there, Sam didn't know quite what to say to the kid.

"Pretty night…"

Blue grunted.

"'Course it won't be if you get yourself bit in the ass by something, sitting on the ground like that…" Sam continued, laughing so that Blue would understand it wasn't a criticism. Blue spit out the hat string.

"Like anybody'd care if I did," he mumbled. Sam understood that the boy was just feeling sorry for himself.

"I'd care," he protested. "I've got enough work to do around here, without havin' to bury you on top of it…" he bantered. Blue finally laughed.

"You really okay, Sam?" he asked shyly. "I'm awful sorry about what happened."

"Yeah, I know you are," said Sam. "Don't worry about it. Just next time, don't let go of the rope, okay?"

Blue nodded sheepishly. He didn't get up, though. Sam wondered if he ought not better just let him be. It didn't seem right, though, to leave the kid alone when he was so obviously hurting, and there was no closer member of his family around. What he ought to do, Sam supposed, was go back up to the bunkhouse and shake Buck loose from his card game. There had always been a special bond between the boy and his uncle. Buck would know what to say to him. He didn't leave, though. After a moment, Blue leaned back against the corral fence.

"What does he want from me, Sam, huh? Ain't nothin' I ever do pleases him. I mean, I know I really screwed up today, and I'm sorry, I really am. It ain't just today, though." It wasn't a question that wanted an answer, even if the foreman had one, which he didn't. "Sometimes I wonder what the hell I'm even doin' here. It ain't like I'm doin' any good."

Sam looked down at the boy. "You do all right," he said kindly.

"Yeah, well, you're probably the only person around here who thinks so," Blue complained. He reached up and pulled a splinter off the fence, twisted it idly. Sam sighed. There was just nothing he could say that was going make this boy feel better. Blue didn't need these words from him. He didn't really need them from Buck, either. And, unfortunately, he probably wasn't ever going to get them from the one person he needed to hear them from.

"Pa laid into you pretty good, this afternoon, too," Blue continued, as if it had just dawned on him. He turned so he could look up at the other man. His hat slid off with the motion, leaving his head bare, and somehow, suddenly, more childlike and innocent, in the moonlight. He ignored it. "And it wasn't even your fault, you didn't do nothing to deserve it. How come you put up with it, Sam? You don't have to stay here."

"I like it here," Butler replied, laughing softly. And it was the truth. Big John Cannon might be a tough man, at times, but he was generally fair to his men, never asking of them anything he wasn't prepared to do himself. As far as Sam was concerned, the High Chaparral was one of the best outfits he had ever worked for. And in Butler's opinion, Big John's bark was mostly worse than his bite, anyway. For a hired man, at least. For his son, it might be a different matter. "Your pa was just real shook up, Blue. It's just his way to react like that. Ya see, the way I figger it, " he continued thoughtfully, "your pa's kinda like a force o' nature, like a thunderstorm or somethin'. When he gets to blowin', sometimes it's better just to hunker down and let him blow himself out. I don't reckon he means half o' what he says, when he gets like that."

"It ain't that easy," Blue said. And Butler knew he was right. It was one thing for him, a hired man, to decide not to take his boss's verbal abuse too seriously. And Cannon, for all his bluster, usually managed not to go too far with Sam. The two men knew and understood each other very well, and John knew just how far he could push the other before he was risking his foreman's walking off the place. He knew exactly how much Sam would tolerate, and he was careful never to overstep it. Sam also knew just how much his boss really trusted him, and relied on him. For his part, Sam Butler valued that trust almost more than anything else he could think of.

It was just too bad that John Cannon didn't feel the same need to exercise such care with his boy. It wasn't something Sam felt he could say, though.

"Hey, Sam?" Blue asked, after a moment. His voice was hesitant, barely audible.

"Yeah?"

"Can I ask you somethin' personal?"

Sam looked down at him, again. "Yeah, you kin ask…" he agreed, his tone still bantering. Blue bowed his head.

"Did your pa love you?"

The question startled him. For a moment, Sam just stared in silence. He didn't quite no how to answer.

"Well, I'd like to think so, Blue," he said, finally. "I was just a kid when he died."

Which he knew the boy knew. He wondered if Blue would ask about Ben Lynch, the man who had raised him and then thrown him out for marrying the wrong woman. He wondered what he'd say if he did. But he didn't.

"He never said?" Blue asked instead.

Sam thought about it. "I don't remember, really," he replied, realizing, suddenly, that it was the truth. And that it hurt, a little, someplace inside him. "I was pretty young."

Blue nodded. "My pa's never said it. Not once in my whole life."

This was no longer just self-pity. Sam could have handled that. But Blue wasn't whining. He sounded so… sad. Forlorn, almost. Sam didn't know what to say. He even doubted it was true. Oh, sure, since the boy had become a man, Cannon had probably never actually said the words; men generally didn't, to one another. Sam doubted he had ever spoken them, himself, to another man, not to a friend, not even to his own brother, not in a long, long while. Didn’t mean he didn’t feel it, though, inside. But surely John had said it when Blue had been a child. Sam considered running to get Buck, letting him deal with this; this was way beyond some young kid just wallowing in wrongs done him.

"I reckon he does, though," he said, squirming a little on the words. "And you know your Uncle Buck does."

"Uncle Buck," Blue agreed, the tightness in his voice leaving for a moment. "Pa don't treat him any better than he treats me," he added, bitter again. "And he's his own brother."

There was some truth to that, although, as good a friend as the man was, Sam had to admit that Buck often deserved the ire he drew from Big John. And when all was said and done, John Cannon was a lot harder on himself than he was on anyone else. And maybe, in the end, that's what allowed the rest of them to tolerate it. It was hard to explain that to this boy, though.

"I'm his son, Sam," Blue protested at the injustice. "Uncle Buck's his brother; we're kin, his only kin, practically. It's like we don't mean nothin' to him at all…"

Blue said nothing more, but after a moment, Sam heard a soft, strangled noise, and he realized he was crying. He let his hand drop until it rested on the top of the boy's head, and then he stepped away. He met Buck coming out of the bunkhouse, the card game apparently finished.

"Hey, Sam-boy, where you been? We been lookin' for ya? Game's over!"

Sam gestured with a thumb. "Down there with Blue. You might want to go have a talk with him, Buck, he's pretty upset about what happened this afternoon."

"He still mad about the way Big John laid into him?" Buck tsked.

"He's past mad, Buck-o," Sam sighed. "I think his heart's plumb broke. I think maybe Big John hurt him pretty bad, this time. I didn't much know what to do for him."

Buck shook his head, his eyes narrowing angrily, now. "I'll tell you, Sam, my brother kin be awful hard on that boy, sometimes," he said. "Not that Blue didn't mess up purty bad this afternoon, I ain't sayin' Big John be altogether wrong 'bout that. But Blue-boy, he tries awful hard, he do, Sam, but he still got a lot o' learnin' to do, inna lotta ways. Big John doan always remember that. An' he oughta, a father oughta be more patient, Sam. Ought'n he?"

Sam looked down at the ground, the whole situation suddenly boiling up in him unexpectedly. "I couldn't say, Buck," he said. "The only child I ever had was taken away from me by her mother before she was really even talkin' good. And now I've got nothin' but a grave to show for her, or her mother. But I know one thing," he continued, surprised by his own sudden bitterness, "if I'm ever lucky enough to have another chance at a family, no son of mine is ever gonna cry himself to sleep at night wonderin' whether or not I love him."

Buck closed his eyes in pain. "Yeah, Sam," he sighed. Then he reached over and clasped the other man on the arm. "I'll go see if I can ease the boy any," he sighed. "Thank you, Sam."

Butler just nodded. He paused for a moment in the doorway of the bunkhouse, and could hear Buck, faintly, cajoling his nephew off the ground. Then he went inside. Joe was lying on his bunk, looking like he had not come out on the high side of the evening's card game, after all. Sam's expression softened a little, looking at him, Blue's words about family still rattling around in his head. Joe looked over at him, and glared sourly.

"What?"

Sam smiled and shrugged. "Nothin'," he sighed. He found his own bunk and turned in.

II

John Cannon looked down the dusty Tucson street with a strange mixture of satisfaction and discontent. He could see signs that the town was growing daily, new business establishments springing up with the tenacity and abundance of mesquite on the desert, and this evidence of prosperity triggered a sense of almost personal pride at being part of it. His personal stake in Arizona Territory bearing itself out. His own life was far less positive, however, and the knowledge irritated like a thorn under his skin.

His son had apparently taken him at his word, for a change, and he had not seen the boy since he'd sent him home from the south section the day before. Buck had gotten the men up early to finish that windmill, taking Blue with him, John assumed, and leavings Sam Butler behind in the bunkhouse. Although the foreman still maintained that he was no more than badly bruised, he was too lame for work, and John, himself, insisted the man take a few days off to let himself heal. John was disappointed, though, that Buck had left before he'd gotten a chance to talk to Blue. Now that he'd had a chance to cool off, he regretted his angry outburst. Not that Blue hadn't deserved it, his carelessness had cost them time and money, both of which were in short supply, and had nearly had serious consequences for a good man, and a good friend. The reality of that still made John's stomach tighten. But he wished, now, that he had not gone after the boy quite so harshly. Maybe it was true that his own directions to his son might have confused him a little. Not that he didn't still believe that Blue had to learn to use his own judgment where it was appropriate, if he was ever going to grow up to survive in that harsh and ever changing country. But maybe he really was just trying too hard to please. Sam had suggested the same thing, and John was also more than a little embarrassed about his treatment of him, too.

Cannon sighed. Not that he would ever admit it to anyone else, except his wife, maybe, but it bothered him, sometimes, this unfortunate tendency he had to lash out, thoughtlessly, whenever he was upset. He knew he did it to everyone, to Buck, to Sam and the men, and most especially to Blue. Only his wife, Victoria, escaped the full force of his wrath. With the others he rarely hesitated, even when he knew that a reasonable explanation or at worst, a stern warning, might be more appropriate. Especially with his only son. It was just that so much was at stake, and security, in that rugged wilderness he was trying to tame into a home, was so tenuous. And there was only himself to hold it all together; in his hands lay ever rope, string, thread and piece of wire that bound the whole place. He planned so exactly, with so much care. He had to. Life ran that close to the edge out there. One misstep could mean disaster for all of them. But he couldn't plan for everything, and when things went wrong he felt as if he was losing control of the very fabric of their existence. He needed his brother, his son, even his men, to be a vigilant as he was. He just didn't know how to make them see that. Still, he knew he had lashed out more viciously than was necessary, or right, despite the seriousness of Blue's actions, and he knew it was not the first time. He was going to drive the boy away, permanently, if he wasn't careful. The boy's mother, Anna Lee, had warned him of that, once. A small, secret pain buried in his heart stirred and pinched at the memory at his late first wife's words. And had not Victoria, who loved Blue like her own, also warned him of the same thing?

He heard footsteps beside him and looked up as his brother-in-law approached.

"Well?"

"Wiley says he can have it all together in an hour," Manolito Montoya said. "In the mean time, perhaps you would like to join me at the cantina?"

It was Manolito's opinion that Big John could probably use a drink. They had all been shaken by Sam's accident, and he also knew that Blue's absence at dinner and then again at breakfast had irritated his brother-in-law. Manolito had made it his business to stay far out of the middle of these family difficulties, but Buck had told him what had happened. And he could sympathize with all parties involved. He also knew, well enough, that John Cannon's irritability tended to filter down on all of them, regardless of whose sympathies lay with whom.

Manolito Montoya was also well acquainted with the difficult relationship that could exist between fathers and sons. His own father, Don Sebastian Montoya, was one of the most trying men Manolito had ever met, as dearly and deeply as he loved the man. The "Lion of Sonora" was one of the wealthiest and most powerful hacendados in all of Mexico, a status that made him accustomed to getting his own way. Unfortunately for both of them, his adored only son wanted none of the things his father wanted. It made for considerable tension between them. It was also most of the reason Manolito chose to live with his sister and her husband on the High Chaparral. And, in all honesty, his relationship with his father had gotten better since he had done so. Maybe they ought to send Blue to live with Don Sebastian. It was a novel thought. And not one that was likely to meet with much enthusiasm. John Cannon had a very positive notions about where his son belonged, which was a large part of the problem in Manolito's opinion, though Blue, he suspected, had not really started to question his place in all of this, yet. He would though, it was coming, Manolito could feel it.

However. One crisis at a time. At the moment, he would be happy if he could get his brother-in-law to relax a little and have a drink with him. He would be doing them all a favor.

But John was not in a drinking state of mind. "You go on ahead," he said. "I want to head over to the Post Office. I'm still waiting for that letter from Thomaston in Yuma. I want to go check on it while I'm here."

Manolito sighed. Some men you just couldn't make relax, no matter how hard you tried. Still, he had given it an honest effort, and he saw no reason to deny himself a nice cold cerveza and a little flirtation while he was waiting for the store manager to finish filling their order. If his brother-in-law could not see the obvious rewards in such activity, it was not his fault.

His musing was interrupted suddenly by a low form barreling down the sidewalk, crashing into his thighs.

"¡Espera, niño! ¡Cálmate! ¿Más lento, eh?" he gasped, stumbling backwards as the small boy at his knees thumped unceremoniously onto his backside on the sidewalk. "Be more careful, muchacho. Are you all right?" Manolito crouched down, and pulled the child to his feet.

"I'm okay, Mr. Montoya," the boy said, obviously struggling not to cry. He was a pretty child, with pale blond hair and bright eyes that seemed almost colorless, blue-tinted, like the sky reflected on water. He couldn't have been more than six or seven. He looked at Manolito, his lip trembling, but his expression game.

"And where are you off to in such a hurry, Master Pauly, and all by yourself?"

"I ain't by myself, Mr. Montoya," the boy said. "I'm jist runnin' an errand for Mr. Mike at the saloon."

Manolito did not even try to untangle the logic in that. "And what is this errand?"

The boy looked at him seriously. "I'm ta git him a pouch o' ter' bacca and makin's an' a bottle o' laud'm for Miss Sally's headaches."

Manolito tsked at the propriety of giving so young a child such a task, but there wasn't much he could do about it. It wasn't his child, and it wasn't his errand. He slipped a hand into his pocket.

"Here. This is our secret, 'eh? Once you have finished your errand for Mr. Mike, you may also buy for yourself a nickel's worth of candy." He slipped a coin into the little boy's dirty hand.

The child's eyes got huge at this boon. "Gee, thanks!" He grinned, his smile gaping with several milk teeth missing, and one front tooth only part of the way in. Manolito almost laughed at the comical expression it gave him. "Thanks, Mr. Montoya!" the boy reiterated, and he darted away before Manolito might change his mind.

"And walk!" Manolito shouted after him, shaking his head and laughing. He stood up to find John staring down the sidewalk. The man looked stunned. Manolito frowned.

"John? Amigo?" He touched his friend's arm when he got no response. John turned abruptly.

"Huh?"

"Are you all right, hombre? You look like you have seen a ghost."

Cannon turned an looked back down the sidewalk. "Mano, who's child is that?"

Manolito shrugged. "He is the small son of one of the hostesses at the saloon. A new girl. Why?"

"That's how he knows you?"

At this Manolito got a little defensive. "He hangs about the saloon during the day, yes," he said. "It cannot be much of a life for a child, I know. But such is the truth of it."

"And his mother is new in town you said. I don't suppose you know where she hails from…""As a matter of fact, I believe she comes from someplace in Kansas, I do not remember where, exactly."

John considered this. "Has Buck been to town since she got here? Has he seen this boy?"

"He may have… I could not say for sure." Not that Buck Cannon was likely to pay more than passing attention to a lone child when his focus was on women and drink, which John Cannon, of all people, should know. And why should it even matter? "John. What is this all about?"

Cannon did not answer him right away. He could hardly believe, himself, what he was thinking. When he finally spoke, he did so slowly, as if trying the words out first, before he said them out loud.

"Mano, I'm not quite sure how to put this," he began, "but that child is a Cannon. I'm certain of it. He's the spitting image of Blue at that age. They couldn't look more alike if they were brothers." He looked at the other man. "And I can assure you he isn't mine. I'm also sure that he's not Blue-boy's." Which left only one candidate."Ay yi yi," Manolito sighed. But now that John had brought it to his attention, he, too, could see the resemblance. "You are sure, hombre?"

"Well, no, I'm not positive, I suppose…" John hedged. "But the resemblance is uncanny. And Buck was in Kansas at what would have been about the right time." He shook his head slowly. "You said don't know if Buck has seen this boy. What about his mother, though? I assume she would have been around." Not, he supposed, that it meant anything, even if Buck had. John suspected one saloon girl was pretty much like another to his brother, and over the distance of seven or eight years, it was just as likely Buck would not remember any one girl in particular.

"Frankly, I was not really paying that much attention," Manolito admitted. John did not pursue it. He pondered what Manolito had told him, and then appeared to come to some decision.

"Mano, I think maybe I will go have that drink with you, after all," he said. "I want to have a look at this woman."

Manolito just nodded and gestured him toward the saloon.

It was quiet, inside, as they stepped through the swinging doors of the Chaparral's favorite Tucson "watering hole," and around the low barrier wall into the saloon proper. It was still too early in the afternoon for much of a drinking crowd. The bartender was busy wiping down a few glasses in anticipation of the evening's trade, and two or three hostesses sat at one of the tables gossiping amongst themselves. There was one man at the bar whom John recognized as the foreman from the Rocking L, Jake Ludden's spread, but other than that, they had the place pretty much to themselves. He glanced at Manolito as they bellied up to the bar.

"The red haired girl, the one wearing the green dress," Manolito whispered. John stole a look. The woman Manolito had pointed out was attractive enough, if you liked the type, probably in her mid to late twenties, lush and rounded and conventionally pretty, though a little hard looking to John's eye. But pretty much the kind of woman his brother found attractive, especially as she must have looked several years earlier. He turned back as the bartender approached them.

"Afternoon, Mr. Cannon," he said. "Manolito. What can I get for you?"

"Mike. How are you? Just a beer for me, thanks," said John. "Mano?""Sí, the same for me, por favor," Manolito concurred. "Gracias."

John glanced at the women's table again, to see if the girl Manolito had pointed out had reacted to the mention of the Cannon name. And sure enough, there she was looking at him. She held his eye for a beat, and he wondered if she might come over to them, but she only looked away, again. And now that he had seen her, John wasn't sure what it was he actually wanted to do. It wasn't as if he could tell much, just looking at her, and he certainly didn't want to confront her, not there in the middle of a public saloon. Besides, there was still a remote possibility that she might be in Tucson for reasons entirely innocent of Buck Cannon or the High Chaparral. Or that he was making this whole thing up, and neither she nor the child had any connection to his brother.

He was saved from further speculation by the clatter of small boot heels on the board floor.

"Here's yer 'bacca, Mr. Mike!" Pauly shouted as he burst into the saloon. "Howdy, agin, Mr. Montoya!" The child handed over the tobacco, and gestured for Manolito to lean down. "I got me a nickel’s worth o' suckers, Mr. Montoya. It kin be our secret, like you said."

Confronted again, with the child, John felt any hope that he might have harbored that this boy had nothing to do with his brother, or his family, vanish. The child was truly the image of his own son at the same age, with the same bright eyes, the same sunny, guileless expression. He was Blue right down to the way he had walked across the floor. This little Pauly was not very much younger than Blue had been when John left for the war, and John Cannon had spent many a long hour stamping his own child’s features onto his memory before he had gone. He had not known how long it would be before he saw his son again, or even if he would see him. Those memories had gotten him through some terrible times.

Looking down at this small boy brought all of that back to him, suddenly. He knew he was not mistaken. The child caught him staring, and looked back at him, curiously.

"Pauly."

John looked up to see the woman in question on her feet, now.

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Come on over here. Mike, I'm gonna take him upstairs and give him his lunch, now. It's dead slow in here, anyway."

"Awright, Maddie, suit yerself," the bartender agreed. It was no particular concern of his, one way or the other. The girl wasn't an employee, she just plied her trade out of the saloon. The establishment could not afford to have regular hostesses on the payroll, but many girls worked freelance, anyway. It was a good arrangement for both parties, the presence of the women drawing men into the saloon, and the saloon, itself, providing a relatively safe and clean environment for the girls to work in. The kid, though, well, Mike wasn't especially happy about that, but as long as his mother paid her rent on the room she used above the saloon, and as long as the boy didn't get into any trouble, he supposed it was really none of his business.

"New girl?" Manolito asked, as the woman and child disappeared up the stairs. "I do not remember seeing her in here before."

Mike gave him a funny look. "She was in here the last time you was, Mano," he said. "O' course I don't reckon yer likely to remember much o' that night…" he added with a grin. "Not you nor Buck Cannon, neither. Yer brother sure can put on a powerful thirst, Mr. Cannon."

"Yes…" Cannon drawled.

"Her name's Maddie Turcott," Mike went on. "Says she's come down from up Kansas way. Got into town a couple o' weeks ago."

"That child… what's he doing here? Does he belong to her?"

"So she claims," Mike said, with some disapproval. "Can't see why she don't find some family to take care o' him, though, like most o' them girls do when they find themsel's in circumstances. Ain't good for a little kid like that to be hangin' 'round saloons all-a time. Ain't exactly great for business, neither, though I don't mind so much durin' the day when things're slow. I doan let him in here at night, though, that wunt be proper. He's a nice enough little kid, all things considered. Got a nice manner on him."

Cannon nodded. "Can't be much of a life of a child," he echoed Manolito's earlier comment.

"I wouldn't guess so," Mike agreed, losing interest in the conversation. He went back to polishing his glasses.

John drained his beer, and then gestured Manolito back out onto the sidewalk.

"Well, I'm certain, now. That child is a Cannon, I'm sure of it. And you saw the way that woman looked at us when she heard the Cannon name." He sighed heavily. "I suppose I should have expected something like this to happen one of these days, knowing Buck's habits." Then he looked at his brother-in-law as if remembering that Manolito was, if anything, an even more enthusiastic rogue than his brother. Manolito just looked back, innocently, and shrugged. John blew out a breath.

"Look, Mano, I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say anything about this until I figure out what to say to Buck." Who, John supposed, would have to be told, in any case. And definitely before the next time he rode into town; John did not want to risk his brother's stumbling on the truth unprepared. Whatever this woman was doing in Tucson with his brother's bastard child, if that's what the boy was, and John did not see how he could be anything else, it wasn't likely to prove good news to the Cannons. They needed to be ready for whatever she might be planning. And anyway, if the boy was Buck's, he supposed his brother had a right to know.

"Of course," Manolito agreed readily. There was no way he wanted to be the one to break that bit of news, anyway. "What will you do, amigo?"

John just shook his head. "I wish I knew. Tell Buck, I suppose. As soon as I can figure out how."

III

Buck Cannon looked up with satisfaction at the windmill turbine turning smoothly against the blue sky over his head. He reached over and clasped the man beside him across the shoulders.

"Joe, tha' sure do be a purty sight," he sighed happily. Joe Butler looked up, and nodded.

"It sure is, Buck. Especially after yesterday."

"Yeah, well, le's jist hope some storm doan come along an' blow it down, agin," Buck replied. "I surely doan wanna be havin' to fix this damn thing one more time. And tha's the truth." He patted Butler companionably, and withdrew his arm. "Why'nchu boys take yersel's a little break, afore we pack this mess up," he suggested. Joe wasn't about to argue with him. It was hot and he was tired. He was in no hurry to start packing.

Buck had brought the boys back that morning, to finish the job they'd left the day before. Not Sam Butler, though. John had agreed with Buck on that; Sam was off the duty roster for at least a week whether he liked it or not. But Buck had brought Joe back, and Reno and Pedro, and a couple of other men. And he brought Blue, too, figuring that it might be a good idea to keep the boy and his father out of each other's paths for a day or two. They had arrived at the site late morning, and by mid afternoon had the new wind blades cut and shaped, and bolted into place and the turbine remounted. The day was dead still, so in spite of the previous day's mishaps, Buck had ordered the turbine hoisted fully assembled. The effort, though certainly strenuous and exacting, had gone uneventfully enough. And now they were once again in possession of a functioning windmill on the Chaparral south section, drawing water into the holding pond for the thirsty herd. And even with the men indulging in a little celebratory break before they started packing up again, they'd be home in time for supper. All in all, a highly successful day.

Buck's rationale in postponing the return trip was only partly to give the others a chance to rest a bit. He had something else he wanted to take care of before they arrived back at the High Chaparral, something he suspected only he was going to be able to deal with. He needed to do something about his nephew's continuing sulks.

Part of Blue's mood stemmed from the reactions to the other men, and Buck's decisions regarding that, Buck understood that. The previous day's accident had them all a little spooked about raising that turbine, Joe in particular, and Buck had decided to keep Blue off the lines, this time. The move probably wasn't adding anything to the boy's self confidence, but Buck knew he had the other men, and the job, to worry about, too. Blue-boy would just have to get over it. But mostly, Buck suspected the Blue was still feeling considerably wronged by his father. And Buck, being the kind of man he was, could understand that, too. Nonetheless, he also believed his nephew’s continuing sour disposition to be self-indulgent, and more to the point, something his brother was not going to tolerate for long. If Blue kept it up, he was only going to make matters worse. He walked over to where the boy was sitting, alone, leaning back against the windmill tower.

"Blue-boy, you gonna build a house under that black cloud yer carryin' around wit' you and live in it? Come on, now. Cheer up. Yestaday's over. We got this windmill goin' agin, jist fine, things is all right, now. Ain't no use in you sittin' around actin' like some gloomy ol' woman."

Blue shrugged. "I dunno, Uncle Buck…Buck dropped down onto the ground beside him. "You doan know what?"

"I don't know if I even oughta be here. I don't know what Pa expects from me, but whatever it is, I got a feeling I ain't never gonna live up to it. Ever."

Buck sighed. "Now Blue, we already been through all that. What did I tell you last night. I know yer Pa's a hard man, but he's that way becuz he has to be hard. He's jist doing the best he can. I ain't saying I always agree with his methods, I doan. Sometimes I think he's a whole lot meaner than he has to be, to all of us. An' mostly to hisself. I do understand what yer feeling, Blue-boy. But you got to stop looking at what Big John does, and start thinkin' about why he does it, or you ain't never gonna understand him."

"I know, Uncle Buck, I know what you said. It's just…"

"Jist what? Come on, Blue-boy, spit it out."

"It's just that sometimes I feel like the only thing I ever say to him is 'I'm sorry,'" Blue blurted. "Like I'm always apologizing for somethin'. Even when I know he's not even really mad at me, even when I know he forgives me. He still makes me feel like I ought to be to blame. Uncle Buck, I just don't know if I can go through my whole life bein' sorry."

Buck nodded glumly. The problem was, the boy had a point. He just didn't know what to do about it.

"Your pa don't mean it, though, Blue. Bein' critical-like, that's jist his way. An I doan like it neither, when he gets to hollerin'. Sometimes I git mad, and sometimes my feelin's get hurt, too. But I've knowed yer pa for a whole lot longer that you have, Blue-boy, an' I think mebbe I unnerstan him a little bit better. All-a his life, since we weren't much mor'n boys, oursel's, Big John, he been responsible for folks. Had folks relyin' on him. Our Pa, yer granddaddy, he died when yer Pa were about yer age, leavin' me and yer grandma in his care, like. It was a lot for him to hafta take on, all by hisself. You think about that. An' bein' responsible, well, I giss that meant havin' to be in control all-a time, least-ways, tha's what it meant to Big John. Iffn he let his guard down, even jist oncet, well, mebbe he figgers somethin' might happen that would let us all down. An' he's got so much more at stake out here, Blue-boy, mor'n he ever did before. An' you his only son. I think, sometimes, he's so mean cuz he's just plain scared." Blue looked up, sharply, in surprise.

"Oh, I don't mean scared, yella-scared, or he wouldn't be here," Buck went on. "It ain’t like he's afraid of the Indians, or the comancheros. Though he'd be a fool not to be, a little bit, and your pa ain't no fool. I mean scared like he ain't gonna be able to do everything that needs to be done to keep this place going, to make it a success-like. He thinks he needs all o' us to be just like him, or it ain't gonna work. And when we ain't, well, it jist scares him. Cuz he knows he only jist one man. He gits riled cuz he don't know what else to do." He reached over and put his arm around the boy's shoulders.

"But he don't mean it as personal as it sounds, Blue-boy. An' he mostly gits over it, iffn you give him a chance."

Blue reached over and tugged thoughtfully at a tuft of grass. "Sam said kinda the same thing, last night," he ventured. "He said Pa was kinda like a thunderstorm, and sometimes the best thing to do was just hunker down and let him blow himself out when he gets like that."

Buck looked a little surprised. Then he grinned. "Sam said that? Well, I'll tell you, Blue-boy, that Sam Butler, he's a pretty smart fella. An' I sometimes think he's got yer pa figgered out better'n any of us. 'Ceptin' maybe Victoria."

"He wasn't mad at me, either," said Blue. "I mean, not really. An' what I did got him hurt pretty bad. It cudda killed him."

"Yeah, it cudda. So next time you'll be more mindful. Sam knows that."

"So how come Pa don't know it?"

Buck sighed. "Aw, he knows it, Blue. It ain't so easy, bein' a Pa, you know. It ain't like bein' an uncle, or a friend. Sam an' me, well, we jist wanna see you git growed up and learn all them things you gotta learn to survive out here. Yer pa's got a lot more at stake, like I said. Uncles and frien's well, we jist love you. Yer pa's got the whole future wrapped up in you. That's a lot harder."

Blue looked at his uncle curiously. "So how come you never got married and had any kids, Uncle Buck?"

"Me?"

"Yeah. I'm serious, I think you'd make a great pa."

Buck flustered in embarrassment. "Aw, Blue-boy, I could never find a woman who could put up wit' me fo' more than a week o’ two at a time. I giss I jist ain't the marryin' type."

"You never wanted to? Never even once?"

"Well, sho’. I thought about it. There bin gals, one or two, made me think about it real serious. An' yeah, I giss I've thought it might be nice to have a couple o' kids o' my own. But it jist wasn't meant to be, Blue-boy, and that's all there is to it. Anyway, I got you, yer as close to bein' my own as anyone's likely to git."

Blue colored slightly and looked away in embarrassment. "I guess I'd kinda like it if you did, though," he murmured. "It'd be nice to have some little cousins around the place."

Buck grinned, seeing that the boy's mood had finally shifted. "Well, I'll take that under ad-visement, Blue-boy. You feelin' a little better, now?"

Blue shrugged. "I guess so."

"Good. Then let's get to loadin' this gear, and headin' fo' home. I wanta beat the dinner bell." He climbed to his feet. "Joe? Come on, boys, break's over, let's git that wagon loaded. I doan know about the rest o' you, but I'm gittin' hungry fo' my supper!"

Behind him, Blue climbed to his feet, dusted off his britches and went to help.

 

LIKE LIGHTNING

I

You could tell a lot about a place, Madeline Turcott had always felt, by the way it looked early in the morning. In some of the places she had lived in her life, morning had seemed like another world, a myth, surreal and deadly quiet, rarely peopled. Like a ghost town, almost. Those had been night places, districts of towns that did not begin to see activity before two o'clock in the afternoon, and where life did not really start much before ten or stop before four or five in the morning. On those occasions when she was awake early in such places, the ghostly silence had been a little unnerving. Those had been "professional" places, serious for the ones who took it seriously, where the ferocious had lain in wait for the unwary. Bright, glittering seductive places, dangerous places. Places of the sharp and the shark, of the shill, and of the hapless mark. Places of predator and prey. She had worked such places and done well in them. And come very close to being eaten, once or twice.

Other places she had lived had been much different, mornings had been a mad bustle of activity and noise seemed to rise with the rising sun. Places like that radiated a prosperity that Maddie Turcott had had no part in. Their nights had been dark and secretive, and rather seamy, filled with cramped rooms and bad smells, of groping and grunting and little in the way of return. There was always work in such places, as there would always be work for one such as Madeline, but the work was merely service, covert and reeking of sin. Maddie did not stay long in places such as that.

And then there were the in-between places, where night was lively and profitable but the morning, too, echoed of commerce and growth. Maddie liked these places best. Here, the day-lit streets held discourse in direct proportion to the nights activities. They were places of balance. She liked the way the day reflected the night, where morning men would roll up their sleeves and toil for their own betterment as hard as they had played the night before. There was something right, and almost wholesome about it, even thought her own activities never varied much. There was a kind of innocence about it, nonetheless, a guileless hopefulness that tomorrow would be better than yesterday, that the future would outshine the past. She enjoyed rubbing elbows with that naïve optimism, contributing, she told herself, her part. Such places were not as profitable as the night places, but she had had her share of successes in them, and they had a cleaner feel to them, somehow. They also tended to be a damn sight safer.

As she pushed back the curtain, slightly soiled but not yet totally grimy, and looked down into the morning street below her, Maddie considered that Tucson might just be one of those middle places. Although it was only a couple of hours past sunrise, already the streets were alive with people, drovers in town to load supplies bound for the local ranches; shopkeepers banging doors and awnings open, sweeping out; a few housewives beating the rush to their daily market. Not a riot of activity, but something bright and hopeful, nonetheless. She could hear movement under the floorboards, too; somebody downstairs was putting up coffee for the morning trade. Not Mike, she knew, since he had closed the night before, but one of the part-time bar dogs, getting ready for the boys who would be in for breakfast before their long rides home, again. There was noise in the hall outside her door, too, the stomp of boot heels, and the almost festive jingle of spurs, as the previous evening's overnight patrons left their "boughten lady-friends." Maddie had almost forgotten what it was like to wake with a man beside her. She never let men stay all night, not any more, no matter how much money they offered. After all, she had the child to consider.

Turning away from the window, she looked back into the tiny room. It wasn't much, but it wasn't bad, really, cleaner than many in which she had been forced to stay. Even if that cheap bastard who owned the place did charge her too damned much for it. There was a good iron bed, and a small bureau besides the row of hooks on the wall to hang clothes on, and even a little alcove in the wall. It was a one time window dormer, boarded up, and just large enough to hold a small cot. Mike, who really wasn't such a bad sort, for a bartender, had even managed to find her a battered screen to pull around it, shutting it off from the rest of the room. It was that, really, as much as anything, that made the room worth the price, that little space that separated the boy from everything else. Mike didn't give her much trouble about him, either, once he'd gotten comfortable with the idea that the child would be no inconvenience. A lot weren't so accommodating. And it was getting harder, too, as the boy grew.

It was that as much as anything that had brought her to Tucson. Maddie had done the best she could, but the child was getting bigger, now, too big to tuck into some corner and expect to remain asleep while she conducted her business. Although he never asked questions, Maddie was beginning to suspect that there were nights when he was not exactly sleeping as he lay there on the other side of the screen. She wondered what he made of the sounds he heard. It was getting long past the time when she could continue to live this kind of life with him. The clientele was going to start getting antsy about it, too, sooner or later. Or worse, the more degenerate might become amused enough by the prospect to try to involve the boy.

The boy. How many years, now, had he been there? Years of always considering his well-being along with her own? More than the years since his birth, even, it sometimes seemed, although she knew that was just fanciful on her part. She knew she should find some family to look after him, should have done so a long time ago. She couldn't quite bring herself to do it, though. She knew that such children were often treated as little more than slaves, and she had made a promise that she wouldn't abandon him. There were other ways to bring her dissolute existence to an end and acquire something better. And there were other responsible parties.

She knew who his father was. She had always known that, had never forgotten his name. Buck Cannon. Handsome, even charming in his own way, kind of sweet. A big spender; all the girls had liked him. Cannon had spoken in exuberant, overblown terms about the opportunities that would befall him, as men like him did, though he had hardly a penny to his name that he didn’t win each night at the gaming tables. He’d been nothing more than a drifter, if the truth be known. It had been Dodge City, Kansas, then; dangerous Dodge, city of the Earps and Bat Masterson. She had given Buck her professional best, they all had, had laughed and encouraged and not believed a word he said. And, in fact, she had thought little about him in the ensuing years, despite the reality of the boy. But as things got harder, and money got short, she started to think about him, again.

It was not until that cattle agent from Santa Fe came in, though, with the herds from deep Southwest, that she had heard the name spoken out loud, again, and idle speculation began to form itself into a plan. The buyer had been pretty exuberant, himself, as he was bound to make a good profit on the cows he was dealing. The herd was prime stock, he had told her, much of it from the Cannon place outside of Tucson, excellent beef, always fetched top prices. She had pressed and learned the rancher’s name was John Cannon, spread called the High Chaparral after some weedy bush that grew in the desert. A family operation, Cannon and a brother and a son. Brother’s name was Buck Cannon. The lot of them must be worth a pretty penny.

Maddie had been in Abilene, Kansas, at the time. Back in the one state she had sworn never to return to, for reasons she did not like to dwell upon that had nothing to do with Buck. It had all started in Kansas, though, so it was fitting that it was from Kansas that she would begin her pursuit of this half formed, half dreamed goal of hers. She formulated her plan and put it into action, used the last of her savings to put herself and the boy onto the stage, and headed for Tucson.

Exactly what she was planning, she was not yet sure, not down to the last details. She knew only that Buck Cannon had a responsibility, and that he apparently had the funds to meet it, and that she needed to make a change her life. After all, she had sacrificed years, already, of her own livelihood for the child's well-being. She was owed something. And the child, himself, deserved something better than a cot in the corner of a whore's boudoir. Even she knew that. But exactly how to go about it, that was something she needed time to think about some more, or at least so she had felt until a few days previous.

Hearing John Cannon's name spoken out loud in the saloon had been a shock, though she knew she should have expected it, just as she had expected Buck Cannon to come in some night. Buck had come, of course, as she had known he would; after all, she had made it a point to find the one saloon he was most likely to frequent. He had not remembered her, which she had counted on, had picked some other girl because she had been careful to stay out of his reach. But she'd watched him, as he moved through the whiskey and the girls, obviously a well liked regular. He had gotten older, but so had all of them. He had not changed, much, though.

But the brother… in truth, Maddie had hardly believed in his existence, despite the cattle buyer's story, John Cannon, and his fortune, had seemed a little like a myth to her. But there he was, solid and real and formidable. She told herself it was just coincidence, he didn't even know her. But he had looked at her with eyes that knew. And then when the child had come into the saloon, he had looked at them both, and understood even more than she had suspected. In a way, he had forced her hand. He would tell his brother, of course, and she couldn't give them time to concoct some counter measure between them. There was nothing else she could do, now, but face the task head on. Confront Buck Cannon in front of as many witnesses as she could find, and demand that right be done.

And she couldn't wait until Buck might venture into town again. She couldn't allow the Cannons to gain the momentum.

A soft thump of bare feet on hardwood brought her out of her reverie, and in spite of the seriousness of her thoughts, she smiled.

"Mornin' mama," Pauly Turcott mumbled, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

"Mornin' yourself. I though you were gonna sleep till noontime."

The child padded over beside her at the window. He had to climb up on the trunk to see out, but he moved the curtain aside and leaned out on the open sill.

"It's a pretty morning, too," said Maddie.

"Uh huh," the boy answered sleepily. Maddie put an arm around his shoulders.

"Do you like it here, Pauly? You like Tucson?"

The boy looked up at her curiously. She had never asked his opinion on the places they lived before.

"It's okay," he ventured uncertainly, not sure what answer she was looking for, and hesitant to commit himself.

"I like it," Maddie said. "I think it's a pretty town. And there's so much going on here. What would you say if we stayed here, huh? Would you like that?"

"You mean forever?" The boy was a little incredulous at the idea. They had never stayed anyplace long, that he could remember. The concept of 'staying' was almost something outside his comprehension, except in the abstract.

"Maybe," Maddie agreed. "Would you like that?"

"I guess…"

"If we stayed," she cajoled him, " maybe you could go to school. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

The child's eyes got bright, at this. School was something he did want. He had known other boys in other town, who went to school. Mysteries were gotten there. Wonderful things from wonderful books with amazing pictures. He could read, a little bit. Maddie had taught him his letters and how to spell out simple words and sentences. But he only had his one primer, and he knew there was so much more to learn, more books, and ciphering, and spelling. Magical things.

"Yes'm. I wanta go to school," he answered carefully, so as not to jinx the possibility. "I giss I'd like to stay here, iffn I can do that."

Maddie looked down at him, thoughtfully, disappointed at his lack of enthusiasm. She knew going to school was his one real dream. She'd expected him to be thrilled. What a strange little creature his was, really. She wondered, again, how much he already understood.

"Well, we'll see, then," she said. "Right now, I want you to go wash your hands and face and get yer clothes on. We're going for a drive this morning."

At this, the child's face finally lit up. It wasn't often that he was officially allowed to leave the confines of the few streets that bordered wherever it was Maddie had chosen to house them. And a drive wasn't just going someplace for the sake of getting there, it was an adventure.

"Where?" he demanded. "Is Mr. Mike takin' us?" 'Drives' were different from journeys. Journeys meant changing locales, living someplace else, they meant leaving what few friends and familiar surroundings he had to sit for long uncomfortable hours and days in some smelly conveyance. But drives were for pleasure, just for the sake of having them. And, most usually, when they took drives, it was some man friend of his mother's who took them. Since they had been in Tucson such a short time, the only man-friend his mother seemed to have was Mr. Mike down in the saloon. Pauly simply made the logical assumption.

Maddie looked at him in surprise. Then she burst out laughing.

"No, goose. Just you an' me. I rented us a buck board wagon at the livery stable." The she tweaked him lightly on the ear. "I do know how to drive a team, you know."

Pauly looked dumbfounded at the extravagance. On the other hand, he was not about to look askance at such good fortune. "Where're we goin', then?" he demanded.

"That's a surprise," said Maddie. "You jist go git yerself washed up and git yer britches on, pronto."

"Awww…" A serious-natured child, himself, Pauly didn't usually tease her, but he sensed the playfulness in her mood. "Tell me. C'mon." He threw his arms around her neck. "Please…? I'll love you forever, iffn you'll tell me." He planted a wet kiss on her cheek as if to entice her with this prospect.

Maddie laughed again. "You'll love me forever, anyway, sweet-talker," she bantered back. She kissed him and held him close for a moment. "It's a long way, I'll tell you that much. An' you'll have to sit still and be real good and not plague me."

"I promise!" the boy insisted. "Why'ncha tell me?"

Maddie hesitated. In truth, the light-heartedness she displayed was more for the child's sake than because she actually felt it. Sure, it was always fun to surprise him, she seemed to do it so rarely, but she also had some slight reservations about what she was about to do. She was not a timid woman, usually, especially where her own fortunes were concerned, and she had been involved in some pretty tricky schemes before. But this one suddenly seemed riskier then she previously believed, and she was starting to have doubts about involving the boy, directly. She didn't know why, really, but all of the sudden she was filled with foreboding. She shook the mood off angrily. Such thoughts were silly and superstitious and a pure waste of energy. Too much was at stake, for one thing. And for another, this time, she was actually in the right. She reached over and brushed the hair on his forehead out of his eyes.

"We're goin' to see yer Pa."

Pauly pulled back and looked up at her warily. "Yer teasin'," he accused her. "You don't know where my Pa lives, you already tol' me."

"I didn't," Maddie agreed. "But I do, now. I found out, and now we're gonna go see him. That's why we came to Tucson, he lives around these parts."

Pauly continued to eye her. "Fer real?"

"For real." She kissed his forehead. "Now go git ready, I ain't foolin', now. Go."

Pauly climbed down from the trunk and padded over to the wash stand. Maddie sat down on the trunk where he had been kneeling, and continued to watch the street. Activity was picking up, and she knew the morning was wasting. Still, she refrained from hurrying him any faster as she watched him begin his methodical ablutions out of the corner of her eye. She had dressed carefully, that morning, herself, in clothes both simple and respectable, and had laid out the boy's best trousers and shirt for him. She didn't mind looking poor, that could only work to her advantage in this thing, but would certainly not do going to the Cannons dressed like trash.

Going to the Cannons. Maddie had committed herself, now, by telling the boy. She knew that. There was no going back. Not that she couldn't still change her mind, if she wanted, he was just a little boy, after all. He did not dictate to her. But he would know, and she would never again be able to deflect his inquiries with protestations of ignorance. She would never be able to escape the solemn accusation in those clear pale washed blue eyes.

For an instant, Maddie felt a flash of anger. Who was he, anyway, this child who had hung around her neck like a guilty conscience for so long now. Just a child, a moment's miscalculation. An impulse. And now forever her burden, without whom she could not take a step, nor make one spontaneous act. The anger left almost as quickly as it came, though. Done was done, as she had told herself countless times, before. There was no use in sitting around feeling sorry for herself. It was high time that she used the situation to her own advantage, for a change. There was no reason why Mr. Buck Cannon should have things all his way, have everything in life just handed to him. It was high time he was forced to pay. Him and that cold-eyed brother.

She turned fully into the room and watched Pauly button his shirt and then drag a bristle brush over his wheat-colored hair. He wasn't such a bad little kid, really, remarkably self-sufficient. Obedient, too, most of the time. And sharp as a tack. And if Maddie suspected that he might be a little bit too clever for his own good, at least he wasn't sly or mean-spirited about it. Buck Cannon might even take a liking to him. Hell, maybe this whole scheme would prove easier than she thought.

"You all ready, then?" she asked as the boy stopped before her to be inspected. Yes, he was a charming little thing. This might just prove a simple matter, after all.

"Yes'm, I'm ready."

Such a strange, self-contained little man, she thought as she reached out for his hand, and climbed to her feet. Not for the first time, she wondered who he really was. But it was getting late, and they still had a long drive ahead of them. It was past time they got going, if they were going to go.

"Well, then," she sighed. And without another word, she lead him toward the door.

II

It had been less than a week since he had gone into town and found Pauly Turcott and his mother, but for John, the days had passed like an eternity. He had said nothing, yet, to Buck. A man who flattered himself on his direct and decisive approach to problems, his inability to sit his brother down and lay out his suspicions for him ate at John in more ways than one. In part, he just didn't know what to say to Buck, how to start, even: "Hey little brother do you know a gal named Maddie Turcott well I ran into her in town the other day with a little boy who looked a lot like he might have been yours what do you think?" It seemed presumptuous, at the very least. He had no proof, after all, except for the boy's looks, and his own knowledge of his brother's habits. And then there was the rest of the family to consider; how was Victoria likely to feel, knowing that her brother-in-law had an illegitimate child, or his own son, for that matter. Not that Blue was a complete innocent, he knew where babies came from. And he knew all about his uncle's predilections, might even admire them in a backhanded sort of way. But an actual flesh-and-blood child gotten in such a manner... Well, John just didn't know how to deal with that. His own possible relationship to the child he did not consider much, at all.

Still, he knew he had to tell his brother, and soon, before Buck decided it was time to venture into town, himself. It would be unfair to let his brother be taken completely by surprise. And more to the point, John felt a need to be party to whatever decisions were finally made about the situation. After all, this was a family matter, one that had impact on all of them. He wished there was someone he could discuss it with. The only other person who knew, though, was Manolito, and as much as he loved his brother-in-law, John doubted the younger man's ability to really see all of the complications.

At least it seemed to be the only thing he needed to worry about, the rest of his life was running rather smoothly. Although the letter from Thomaston at the federal prison in Yuma had yet to arrive with the bid on the contract for prison beef, John knew it would, and he knew what it contained; the price far better than John had anticipated. And Sam was finally on the mend. It had only taken a couple of nights for John to realize that his foreman wasn't sleeping much, and he had recommended, and then insisted upon, a judicious use of the laudanum Doc Plant had left for them, to ease Sam's pain and allow him to rest. A few nights sleep had done a world of good, and the man was confident he would be back in the saddle soon. He would have been back in the saddle already, had John not insisted that he continue to take it easy.

And Blue had finally shaken himself out of his sulks. Although no further discussion had passed between father and son regarding the accident, the tension between them had settled into an uneasy peace that John felt assured would relax itself further as time went on. He supposed he had Buck to thank for most of that. His brother always did have a way with Blue. It made him a little envious sometimes. In any case, he vowed to himself that he would make more of an effort, do what he could to control his own temper where the boy was concerned. The boy. If his suspicions were correct, Blue would no longer be the child in the family. The idea gave John Cannon pause.

No, the only thing, it seemed, that he had to continue to worry about at that moment was what to say to his brother. He was still in this state of turmoil when a rifle shot, and a call from the roof, told him that someone was approaching the ranch. Victoria beat him out the door. And Sam, never one to be completely idle, had been doing some fine mending of a piece of harness in the shade at the side of the house; he too came around to see who the visitor was, and was standing in the yard as John came out of the house.

"Who's that, Pa?" Blue asked, coming up beside Sam.

"It looks like a woman," Victoria said as her husband came up to her side. "She is no one I know, though. Were you expecting someone, my husband?"

He certainly was not. Especially not this woman, and the buckboard was close enough, now, for him to see who it was. At least she was dressed respectably, he thought, as his heart dropped into his stomach. At least she hadn't driven out there in her dance hall clothes. When he thought about it later, John couldn't decide if in had been good luck or bad luck that his brother was on the place that day, and not out with the work crew, stringing fences, or with the herd. But Buck was there, and coming out of the bunkhouse as the buckboard drew to a stop. The woman did not look at John, or any of his family gathered around him. She squinted a moment as Buck Cannon approached, and nodded to herself, as if confirming some suspicion.

"Say howdy to yer pa, Pauly. That's him, there. Mr. Buck Cannon. That's yer father."

The boy looked first at John, whom he remembered seeing days earlier in Manolito's company. But his mother had directed his attention at this other man, so he turned his head dutifully and looked. The man in question seemed imposing to such a small boy, dressed as he was, all in black. A little sinister, even. Not at all friendly. But his ma had said this was his father.

"Howdy, Pa," the boy said.

Only John Cannon looked uncomfortable. The others were too shocked. It was Sam, predictably, who gathered his wits first, eyeing the collection of men who had abandoned their appointed duties to come see what was going on.

"All right, you men, this ain't a garden party, and even if it was, nobody'd invite you, so get on back to work, now. All o' ya." And he followed them down toward the corral to make sure his order was obeyed. Whatever was going on, and Sam had heard enough to know he did not want to get in the middle of it, the Cannons didn't need a bunch of nosy ranch hands hanging around watching.

Victoria looked at her husband for denial of the announcement, any sign that this woman did not belong there, that her words were spoken out of turn. The look John gave her made her heart sink.

"Pa?" asked Blue softly.

"You hold your tongue, boy," John murmured back.

For his part, Buck Cannon just gaped in silence. Maddie Turcott's words meant nothing to him, he did not know her, he had no idea what she was talking about. He looked at the child who had spoken so politely, even though his words had made no sense. Cute little thing, really… And slowly it began to sink in that the boy, at least, looked vaguely familiar, though he could not place exactly how. He made no move to return the greeting, or even to approach the buckboard. He just stood there, like something planted, and stared.

John took the first step. "Miss Turcott," he said, approaching the rig. "I'm John Cannon. How may we help you."

Maddie turned a cold eye on the elder Cannon. "I know who you are, Mr. Cannon. I knew who you were when you came into that saloon a few days ago. And you knew who I was, or at any rate, who this boy belongs to. I could see that much in your eyes."

John nodded slowly. There was no sense denying it, but he wasn't going to flat out admit anything, just yet, either. "What do you want?" he asked.

"Just what's right," said Maddie.

Victoria came forward then. "John, perhaps we should go inside and sit down where we can all be more comfortable?"

Cannon nodded. He doubted any of them were going to be comfortable, but at least they'd be out of sight of the curious eyes that lingered on them in spite of Sam's orders that the men all get back to work.

"Miss Turcott? Would you care to step down and join us inside the house for some refreshment? We can talk about this in there."

He held out a hand graciously to help her down from the wagon seat, and she took it, stepping out of the rig with ease. On the other side, Pauly scrambled down onto the ground, and stopped. Buck stood only a foot or so away from him, and the boy stared up into the man's face curiously.

"You got a name, there, youngster?" Buck asked.

"Yes, sir," the child piped politely. "I'm Pauly. Ma says yer my pa. Are ya?"

Buck wasn't quite sure how to answer that, but it was beginning to register on him who the child reminded him of. He felt his stomach turn over, and he looked back at the others.

"Pauly, you come on over here," Maddie Turcott called. The boy hesitated a moment, then trotted after her.

Buck walked up to his brother, "John. Did you know about this?"

Cannon sighed. "Yes and no, it's a long story."

"John…"

But Cannon put him off. "Miss Turcott, I think it might be better to keep this conversation among the adults? I'm not sure it's really appropriate for a child…" he hesitated, looking around quickly. "Blue, why don't you show the boy around the ranch? Take him down to the corral, and show him the horses. I'm sure he'd like that." Killing two birds with one stone, as John Cannon wasn't all that happy about having his own son involved in what was likely to be a fairly sordid little discussion.

Blue wasn't pleased to be excluded, but his father's tone brooked no argument, and he sensed an undercurrent of seriousness to the whole situation that unnerved him a little.

"Sure Pa," he agreed reluctantly. He looked down at the child. "Come on."

The boy looked to Maddie. "Go ahead, Pauly," she said. "Go have a look at the horses, if you want."

Pauly nodded, and if he did not look eager, particularly, he was at least willing enough to be distracted.

Blue guided the child down past the beginnings of the new barn, and around the ranch windmill. As the boy seemed curious, he stopped to let him look.

"Your name's Pauly, right?" he asked. "I'm Blue."

Pauly looked up at him in innocent curiosity. "Do you know my pa?"

Blue didn't know what to say. The idea that this child might belong to his Uncle Buck and that woman… well, Blue knew his Uncle Buck, and had no illusions about his uncle’s chosen forms of recreation. But that Buck might actually be the father of this child was something that was going to take some getting used to, if it was true. On the other hand, if it was true, that meant Pauly must be his cousin. The thought tickled him, suddenly.

"Buck is my uncle," he said, not quite answering the boy's question. "He's my father's brother."

Pauly nodded, already distracted. "I know what that is," he pointed upward. That's a windmill. I seen pictures o' windmills in my picture book. Dutch people got 'em. They use 'em to make flour for bread."

Blue looked surprised. "Well, this one is used to pump water for the house and the corrals," he said. "Come on," he held out his hand, "you want to go see the horses?"

There were only a few horses, riding stock for the household mostly, in the main corral. But to the boy, the half a dozen saddle horses there, munching hay, were a whole herd. He climbed up in the bottom rail of the gate and looked over.

"Wow," he breathed. "How many horses do you got?"

"Oh, I don't know," Blue answered him. He didn't, for sure. Each man on the place had three horses assigned to him as his regular mounts, plus there were the extra remuda horses for when the hard work of cattle drive or round up required more frequent changes of mount. Some of the men had their own, personal horses, too, and each of the family had a favorite saddle horse to call his own. Plus the breeding stock, and right now, the overstock out on the range to be sold; he guessed well over two hundred head. Plus the wild mustangs that roamed the Chaparral range, Blue didn’t know what their last tally might be. Pauly looked at him in disbelief when Blue told him.

"See that one?" Blue said, pointing. "That kinda buttermilk colored one, there? That's my horse."

Pauly strained up to see, and Blue put an arm around the child's back to hold him more steady. "What's his name?"

"Soapy."

Pauly burst into giggles. "That's silly!"

Blue laughed with him. "Yeah, I guess it is kinda silly, isn't it," he agreed.

"How come you named him that?"

Blue shrugged. "I dunno. I guess maybe because he's kinda soapy colored. Uncle Buck's horse is named Rebel." Then realizing that particular line of discussion might draw inquiry Blue wasn't ready to field, he tried to divert the boy, "What would you name your horse, if you had one?"

"Lightning," the child answered positively. Blue grinned.

A shot from the roof startled them, making Pauly jump and almost fall from the corral gate. Blue caught him and eased him down safely onto the ground again.

"Is that Indians?" he asked, eyes huge. Blue strained to gaze out into the desert. Then a shout of riders coming told him it wasn't Apache, even before his eyes focused on two lone riders; the view from the roof being so much clearer than from down below.

"Nope, just some of the men coming back from night herd, I guess," he said, taking the boy's hand again. "Looks like Joe and Mano. You want to go down and met 'em?"

They walked down toward the gate, Pauly trotting happily at Blue's side, as Manolito and Joe Butler rode through the gate. Joe drew rein first, surprised to see the child with Blue.

"Look's like the boss's got kin visitin'," he said to Manolito. That child was certainly a Cannon, anyway, there wasn't much mistaking that. He was surprised, though, that they had not heard anything about it down at the bunkhouse. It was unlikely, after all, that family would just drop in with absolutely no word. Not many people just "happened by" that out-of-the-way region. And he wasn't aware of any Cannon relatives other than Buck. Not that his foreknowledge would be a requirement, necessarily.

Beside him, Manolito sucked in a breath. "In a manner of speaking, I suppose, sí," he agreed.

"Hi, Mr. Montoya!" Pauly shouted, as Manolito dismounted. Beside him, Joe gave them both a curious look.

"You know the kid?" asked Joe.

Manolito nodded. "We are acquainted," he replied.

"Hey, Joe!" It was Sam, down by the corral. Joe looked from Manolito to his brother, to the child, and back to his brother. Then he touched his heels to his mount and trotted toward the corral, trusting Sam to be more forthcoming with what he knew, if he knew anything at all, than Manolito was likely to be.

"Hola, Master Pauly," said Manolito as Blue and the boy walked up. "And what brings you to High Chaparral?"

"My ma," the boy answered cheerfully. "She done brung me to meet my pa. I ain't really met him much, yet, though." He added, looking a little crestfallen. "Mama's inside that big house with him.""Sí, I was afraid of that," Manolito mumbled. He looked at Blue, found him looking puzzled, then turned back to the child.

"That's a real nice horse you got, Mr. Montoya," Pauly said, eyeing the pretty palomino.

Manolito made a quick decision. He had no particular interest in going up to the house, at just that moment. Whatever was going on in there, it was likely to be both emotionally wringing, and embarrassing, and neither prospect appealed to him much. He’d find out, soon enough, what was going on in there.

"He is a fine horse, is he not? His name is Mácadu. Would you like to ride him?"

Pauly's eyes got huge. "Kin I?"

"You most certainly may." Manolito grabbed the boy around the waist with no further discussion, and lofted him into the saddle. "Here. You hold onto the saddle horn, there." He placed the child’s hands over the protruding pommel.

The boy grinned his toothless smile. Blue moved in closer.

"You knew about this?"

Manolito sighed. "It is a long story, amigo," he said. "They are all up at the house?"

"Pa and Uncle Buck, yeah," Blue said. "And Victoria. And the boy's ma. Mano, is she really, I mean, is this kid really…"

Manolito held up a hand. "Later, 'ey?" he gestured with his thumb at the boy. Then he started walking slowly. Mácadu took a few careful steps, unused to the cargo he was carrying and a little uncertain as to what was actually going to be expected of him. Pauly just gasped in delicious fright. "Hold on, niño," Manolito told him. He turned back to Blue.

"I do not know, amigo, what the truth of it is. But I know that your father suspected it when he first saw Pauly Turcott in Tucson a few days ago. Aye, chihuahua," he groaned.

For his part, Blue just looked bemused. He looked toward the corral, where Sam and Joe stood talking, Sam obviously filling his brother in on what had transpired. Joe looked a little stunned. Blue turned and looked toward the closed doors of the house, wondering what discussion was going on behind them. He looked back at the child clinging happily to Manolito's saddle. What if this boy really was his Uncle Buck's son, he wondered. What was going to happen to him, now? What was going to happen to all of them?

Inside the house, John gestured Maddie toward a chair. She sat herself primly on the edge of the seat as the others gathered almost semi-circle around her: John, himself, on the sofa, with Victoria beside him, and Buck taking up position beside the fireplace. John looked from the woman to his brother; Buck looked more confused that upset by the circumstances. He just stared at the stranger with a puzzled look on his face.

John cleared his throat. "Miss Turcott? Perhaps you'd like to tell us what this is all about?"

Maddie shot him a look. "It's about a little boy growin' up without a pa to provide for him," she said. "Growin' up in poverty while his pa lives in this fine house." She nodded generally at the room, then turned to Buck. "You don't even remember, do you?" she asked him harshly.

Buck flustered. "Wall, to tell you the truth, ma'am," he admitted, "no. I don't eg-zactly remember…"

"Kansas. Eight years ago, now. In Dodge City."

Buck nodded. "Yeah, I were in Kansas, then," he agreed. "John, you remember. I spent 'bout six months in Dodge, around then." He looked at his brother for help, for some kind of affirmation that might help him understand what was actually going on.

"I remember, Buck," John said quietly, unsure to what extent he ought to be encouraging this woman's claim, but unable to outright lie.

Buck nodded again, feeling a little more secure. "I do remember Dodge City," he repeated. "But I cain't say I recollect you, eg-zactly, ma'am."

Maddie just snorted. "I guess that shouldn't surprise me," she said.

"I mean, I do remember a little gal," Buck continued quickly, looking back at his brother. "John, I do remember that. Lemme see… Lizzie, yeah, that was her name, Lizzie Dickerson. I did spend some time in her company. I kinda liked that little gal, now that I'm thinkin' on it…" He looked wistful, suddenly, though it was obvious that he had not thought about Lizzie Dickerson, or perhaps any other woman, individually, in some time.

Beside John, Victoria exhaled sharply. "Oh, Buck," she sighed, the disapproval heavy in her voice. Maddie gave her a calculating look, then turned back to Buck.

"I knew Lizzie," she said. "We were all together in those days. And, yeah, I remember you with her. You were with a lot of us," she added. "I ain't surprised you cain't remember us all." She eyed Buck a moment longer. "She's dead, you know. Lizzie. She killed herself five or six years ago."

Buck frowned and swallowed hard. "No, ma'am, no," he said. "I din't know that."

John decided it was time to step in. "What is it you want from us, exactly, Miss Turcott?" he asked. "Why have you come here?"

Maddie turned cold eyes on him. "I want what's right done by me and the boy, Mr. Cannon. That's all I want. That child is your brother's son."

"Right done how? You mean, you want me to marry you?" Buck blurted. He almost sounded frightened.

Maddie hadn't really considered the possibility of marriage, up until Buck spoke the word. She had come there expecting to demand money from the Cannons, perhaps a substantial amount, not legitimacy. But that had been before she's seen that fine house, or gotten a look at John Cannon's own genteel wife. Maybe it wouldn't be such a disagreeable alternative, opting in for such a life. It would sure be a lot softer than the life she had been leading, and in most of the important aspects, not that much different. She might even get to like respectability. She pondered a moment before answering, then eyed Buck speculatively.

"I ain't such a bad bargain as all o' that, you know," she replied. "You liked me well enough, once. And there is your boy to consider."

"Miss Turcott," John interrupted before Buck got a chance to answer her. It was even worse than he had feared. He had expected this woman to come to them looking for money, was even prepared to negotiate, provided she agreed to go away and leave them alone. But this was unacceptable. "Just what makes you so sure you even have such a claim on my brother? Surely he's not the only man you've known in your… career."

Maddie looked at him. "I don't see that it's any business of yours, Mr. Cannon, how many men I have known," she emphasized the word to let him know she understood exactly what he was getting at. "That boy's only got one pa. Or are you really doubtful o’ who that might be?"

John did not reply. He knew that particular challenge had been a weak one. There were too many tell tale signs in the boy's face, and he knew it. He could tell by the woman's tone that she knew it, too.

And so did Buck, apparently. "That little boy, John, well, he do look a lot like…" he began, then he stopped. It had finally dawned on him who the child reminded him of, but he wasn't quite sure how to say it, now, without upsetting Victoria. His sister-in-law was looking at him with something between horror and awe. "…well, John, he look a lot like a Cannon oughta," he finished lamely.

Maddie Turcott, however, hadn't managed as long as she had in life without knowing how to read a situation, and she read the one she was presently in well enough to know better than to push it. The seed had been planted. It was enough for now.

"Anyway, I ain't sayin' one way or the other about marriage, right now," she said. "There's plenty o' time to talk about that, later."

"Then, what do you want, ma’am?" Buck asked.

"I want that boy to not have to live in some room over no saloon," she told him. "I want a respectable place for him and me. An' I want him provided for decent, too. He's needin' new clothes and shoes, he ain’t gonna stop growin’ for a while yet. Some decent toys, like other boys his age got. We deserve better than what we got to live on, that’s for damn sure. I reckon you owe us that much."

It had been the right tack, she could see that in John’s troubled expression, playing on the child’s need. But Cannon was not quite ready to give in.

"But why take so long in coming to us?" he asked, still searching for some flaw in her claim that he could use to control the situation. "Why wait till now? That child must be six or seven years old by now."

"He turned seven this past May," Maddie agreed. "But I only just learned where Buck was livin' a few months ago. Cattle buyer told me about you Cannons. I didn't have no idea where he went, once he left Dodge. Soon as I found out, I packed us up and come lookin’."

The truth of that statement rang clearly enough for even John to hear it. "I take it, then, that you're planning to stay in Tucson?" he asked. The prospect gave him a sinking feeling.

"For the moment, I am," Maddie agreed, a trifle smugly. "I like it here."

John frowned, but Buck just looked troubled.

"Ma'am," he began, "I ain't sayin' you ain't deservin', I ain't sayin' that. But the truth is, I jist doan have the means to provide much fo' you an' the boy. I mean, I ain't got much in the way o' cash money…"

Maddie looked skeptical. "It don't seem like that to me," she said. "Seems to me like you got a pretty nice place, here."

"Miss Turcott, this ranch doesn't belong to my brother," said John. "The High Chaparral is mine."

"And I suppose now you're gonna try to tell me that yer brother is just works here?" Maddie countered, her voice dripping with contempt. "That he's just a ranch hand for you, right?"

Buck shot John a look, not quite sure how he was going to answer that. John, for his part, just looked uncomfortable. But Maddie neither expected an answer, nor particularly wanted one.

"That boy's lived his whole little life in want, without a father's protection," she continued, hotly, turning to Buck, again.

"Ma'am, I din't even know the little fella existed!" Buck protested. "How kin you blame me fo' not protectin' him? How could I o' hepped him, iffn I din't even know?"

"Did you ever think to inquire?" Maddie tossed back at him, unimpressed. "Did it ever even occur to you to think he might?"

Buck looked shocked by the question. Not only had it not occurred to him to inquire, it had not even occurred to him that is should have occurred to him. Maddie Turcott was a saloon girl, a sporting woman, not some decent female about whom he needed to have some conscience. Except that, obviously, even saloon girls might bear one's children. And there certainly was the reality of that little boy. The realization threw Buck's whole sense of proportion in the world askew.

Again, it was John who commanded the situation. "Miss Turcott," he began, "you're going to have to give my family and me a little time to discuss what's the best thing to do here. This has all been a little sudden, after all."

Maddie scowled. "How much time?' she demanded, sensing that she was losing the initiative.

"Oh, not long," John assured her. "But we need a chance to talk about this in private. Now," he held up a hand to ward off any further protest, "in the mean time, as a show of good faith toward you and the boy, I propose to give you a letter of credit for any of the several boarding houses in Tucson, toward rooms and your meals for the two of you. That will at least allow you to move him out of that saloon, for the time being. I think that's fair, don't you agree?"

Whether she did or not, Maddie realized that it was the best she was going to get, for the moment. The more she thought about it, the more she considered that she did not want to settle for some quick pay-off. And if she wanted more, it was going to take some time. On the other hand, the really profitable schemes always took patience to develop and she had more at stake, here, than she had even realized, herself. Buck Cannon was going to prove the weak spot in the Cannon defenses, she could see that, but she was going to have to give some thought as to the best way to play him, away from that brother of his. For the moment, she was going to have to settle for what John Cannon was comfortable giving, at least until she made up her mind what she really wanted, herself. And in the mean time, it wasn't going to further her cause to antagonize Cannon any more than she had already. At least his offer would get her out of that miserable little room. She dropped her eyes demurely.

"It seems fair to me, Mr. Cannon," she agreed. Then she cocked her head up at him. "For now."

It took John only a moment to draw up the letter of credit. As there was nothing more to say after that, Maddie got up as primly as she had sat down and walked out the door without looking back to see if she was being followed. They all filed out after her, onto the porch.

The scene in the yard struck John with an unnerving reality. There was Manolito, back from night herd, with the giggling little boy sitting up on his horse, while Blue stood on the ground beside him, laughing. Most of the hands had halted even the pretense of work, and if they were not exactly hovering, they were watching the scene with very speculative eyes turned toward the emerging Cannon household. Even Sam and Joe where standing idle by the corral, tight in some private conversation. They, too, looked up as John came out into the sunlight. Any hope, however remote, that he was going to be able to keep this situation within his immediate family dissipated as he looked around. Not that it had been much of a hope, anyway.

Maddie moved off the porch into the yard, and then stopped uncertainly, as if unsure what to do, or how to react to the sight of Pauly surrounded by all those strangers. Buck stepped passed her and walked deliberately up to Manolito and the horse. Both Blue and Manolito looked at him, but neither said a word. Buck looked up at the child for a moment. He hesitated, then smiled a little and reached up.

"Hey there, youngster," he said gently. "You ready to git down from there?"

Pauly looked at him seriously, then nodded. "Yes, sir," he said politely, and leaned down into Buck's arms. Buck pulled the boy free from the saddle, and then held him close for a moment, suddenly overcome with feelings he did not quite understand.

"You like that horse, there?" he asked, a little inanely, as much to have something to say as for any other reason.

"Yes, sir," Pauly answered, his voice cool but his eyes shining..

"He sure be a nice horse, a good ol' fella," Buck agreed. He held the child uncertainly a moment longer. Then he put him down on the ground, took his hand, and lead him to where Maddie had already mounted the buckboard. Buck slipped his hands beneath Pauly's arms and lifted him up onto the seat beside her.

"You be a good boy for yer ma, now," he said. "You do like she says and doan give her no trouble. Hear?"

Pauly nodded. Buck looked over at Maddie.

"We'll be talkin'," he said.

Maddie hesitated, then nodded. Buck turned, even before she slapped the reins over the horses' backs, and headed back toward the house. Victoria stopped him as he stepped onto the porch.

"Buck?" she called softly, putting a hand on his arm. "Is it true? What that woman claims, is that little boy…?" she stopped, not quite sure how to finish the sentence.

Buck did not look at her. "I reckon," he replied, almost inaudibly. "I reckon it could be true." He looked over at his brother, who was watching Maddie Turcott drive through the front gate. "I wanna talk to you," he said flatly, and he disappeared into the house.

Victoria turned to her husband.

"Victoria, let me talk to him," said John. "Alone. Please? This isn't going to be simple."

"But John," she protested, "that little boy…"

"I know," he replied. "Please. Let me deal with this." Then he kissed her briefly and followed his brother into the house.

III

"That's sumpthin' about Buck, huh, Joe?" Reno asked when he found Joe Butler sitting alone in the dark outside the bunkhouse, later that night.

There was hardly a social group alive that enjoyed a good gossip more than a bunkhouse crew, unless it was the army. And the High Chaparral bunkhouse was no exception to that. The possibility of Buck Cannon's sudden elevation into the ranks of fatherhood had sent shock waves vibrating through the ranch hands, and set tongues wagging as the rest of the men drifted back in from the range. Though to their credit, they did try to be discrete about it. After all, such idle speculation on such a topic was not very manly, in their own estimations, and perhaps, more to the point, it hit just a little bit too close to home for comfort. There was a strong flavor of "there, but for some damned good luck, go I" mixed in with all the titillation. Being that they were not a group inclined toward introspection, on the whole, such self examination was a little awkward. Still, nearly every man among them could not help considering, at least to himself, the ways in which his own personal excursions into recreation and release could have had similar results, which might, like Buck's, suddenly land on the doorstep. It was very sobering.

Some, the more sentimental among them, did think deeply about it, though, and some, the ones who longed for hearth and family, at least some day, were, perhaps, not entirely put off by the idea. Though it was hard to admit that to all but the closest of friends.

Joe looked up. He couldn't decide, for a moment, if Reno's intrusion was welcome or not. He had come outside to escape just that sort of speculation, preferring to be alone with his thoughts. Buck's sudden circumstances had been a real shock; he had been stunned almost to speechlessness, in fact, when Sam had told him what he knew and what he suspected. Joe still wasn't sure he had really absorbed it. And whether he like to admit it or not, the whole situation had gotten him thinking about things he hadn't given much thought to, before. Although he did not put himself in Buck's league, and certainly not in Manolito's, Joe considered himself a normal, healthy man in his prime, and he had perfectly healthy appetites that he was not at all shy about indulging when circumstances permitted. And he was well aware that such… activities… could have consequences. It was just that his idea of consequences tended more toward avoiding disease than, well, Buck's predicament. Reno looked pretty troubled, though, and Joe wasn't really all that happy with his own thoughts, anyway. Besides, the man was his friend, probably his closest, after his brother, and maybe Pedro. They had ridden together for a long time.

"Yeah," he agreed. "It sure is."

Reno relaxed against the roof pole that supported the covering over the bunkhouse dining area. "You think that woman's tellin' the truth?"

Joe had wondered about that himself. He couldn't deny the shock of recognition he'd felt, though, when he'd first seen that little boy following Blue around the ranch earlier.

"I reckon," he admitted. "Kid sure did look a lot like a Cannon."

"Yeah," Reno sighed, as if relieved to hear his own thoughts confirmed. "And… well, you know Buck…"

Joe chuckled, in spite of himself. "Yeah…"

"He was kinda cute, though. The kid…" Reno ventured.

There was a wistfulness in the man's voice that made Joe look at him, thoughtfully. But that was the real catch, he supposed; the kid was cute, he was, well, real, not just an idea to be talked about and speculated over. Joe had no particular sympathy for the woman involved. Sam hadn’t known for sure, himself, but Manolito had confirmed that the child’s mother was some saloon girl Buck had known in Kansas. As far as Joe was concerned, she did what she did of her own free will, knowing the risks, and those risks where her own responsibility. The kid was a different thing, though. Joe Butler had kind of a soft spot for kids. He had loved his little niece almost as much as her father had, and had been nearly as heartbroken as Sam when Trini Butler had taken the child and run away. And in some secret part of himself, he wondered what it might be like to settle down and start a family, himself, if he was ever lucky enough to meet the right woman and had an opportunity to have any kids of his own.

The reality of the child made all the difference, there was just no getting around it. Joe had watched that little boy laughing and playing with Blue and Manolito, and he had seen the resemblance to the Cannon family as well as anyone had. And watching him had made him smile. Buck's son. A flesh and blood child was a hard thing to just shrug off as just an unfortunate consequence, unless a man was especially hard-hearted, and Joe Butler was not.

"Whatdaya think Buck'll do?"

Joe shook his head. "I dunno," he said.

For several minutes after that, Reno said nothing more. And Joe, himself, had nothing more to add.

"Hey, Joe?" Reno finally broke the silence.

"What?"

"You ever think about it?" Reno asked the question hesitantly, almost shyly. Joe just looked at him. "I mean, you know… if anybody…" the other man prodded.

Joe did know. "No," he replied tersely. Which had been pretty much the truth, up to that moment. Then he blew out a breath. "I'm sure thinkin' about it now, though."

"Yeah," Reno sighed. "Me, too." He was silent, again, for a few moments, before he spoke. "So…" he continued. "You think there are any…" He hesitated and did not complete the thought.

Joe looked at him sharply. "Not that I know about," he almost growled. He paused, then cocked his head at the other man. "What about you?"

"Nobody I know about," Reno agreed, though not quite as aggressively as Joe. He sighed a little. "What would you do?" he asked, almost conspiratorially. "I mean, if you were sure. Really sure."

It was not a question Joe particularly wanted to answer, although he supposed it really was the one question foremost in all of their thoughts, that night. What would any of them do? Marry the woman? Run like hell? He shook his head helplessly, and did not reply.

Reno looked away. "I been thinkin' about it," he admitted softly. "I ain't so sure I'd mind that much."

Joe smiled. He wasn't all that surprised, really. Of all of them, sweet-souled Reno was perhaps the gentlest, and the one most likely to see the romance of the situation. He probably would marry the girl, even if she was just some saloon hostess or denizen of the dance halls. He'd probably make a pretty good match of it, too. He was like that. And what the hell, why not, if it was what he wanted? Joe had known men, before, who had married women who had spent some portion of their lives earning livings less than honestly, and had been no more happy or unhappy than anyone else. Some of them had made damn good matches. And as for a child, well, now that Joe thought about it, it occurred to him that Reno would probably make a pretty good father.

Reno flustered a little, embarrassed by his admission. "You know," he laughed, suddenly, "I'll tell ya, I gotta wonder what Mano's up to right about now…"

Joe laughed with him, grateful for some relief in the seriousness of the conversation. "Yeah, that's for sure… "

"I mean, if we're thinkin' about it, ya gotta wonder what he's doin'…"

"He is thinking, hombres," a familiar voice said behind them. "About the same thing we all are thinking, no?"

They looked up to find Manolito standing behind them, across the table. He leaned forward, putting a foot up on the bench and resting his arm against his thigh.

"It is thought provoking, this situation with our friend."

The other two had the good grace to look embarrassed, although Manolito wasn't particularly disturbed. Such speculation was inevitable, he understood that. He smiled and shrugged.

Joe leaned his arm on the table. "Okay," he said, emboldened by the other man's casual air. "So what about you, then."

Manolito sighed. "I have the same uncertainties you do, amigo," he admitted. "On the other hand," he continued, "as a man of my… inclinations, I have learned to be somewhat scrupulous. And I am not so hard to find, should anyone believe they had some claim on me, eh?"

He had a point there.

"So what would you do? I mean, if you were really sure." Joe persisted, really wanting to know, now.

"Yeah, Mano. Would you marry the girl and give the kid a name?"

Manolito gestured noncommittally with both hands. "¿Quién sabe? Who knows, amigo. It would depend, perhaps, on certain things. A child, though…" he frowned suddenly, thoughtfully. "That is a different matter. A child has certain rights, I think. To protection. To a life without want. Regardless of the circumstances of its birth." He looked at the others seriously. "And the man who gives that child his life has a certain obligation, I believe, once he has been made aware of the situation."

He really meant it, they could see that. And the certainty in his voice made them ashamed for their own moral wrestlings, though they did not exactly know why.

A shaft of light fell over them, as the bunkhouse door opened and Sam came out. They could see by the look on his face that he knew what they'd been discussing, and his expression was also enough to discourage any of them from speculating about what Sam, himself, might think or do. For them, the existence, or not, of a possible offspring was just so much idle conjecture until proven otherwise. For Sam, though, it was more than that; he had had a child, once. And lost her. No one was about to tread on that.

Sam put a hand on Manolito's shoulder. "It's gettin' late," he said. He did know what they'd been talking about so seriously, and although Sam really couldn't blame them, he also was not about to let the Cannons' personal affairs interfere with the running of the ranch. There was work to be done in the morning that required the full attentions of alert and well rested men. Besides, he figured it was about time to end the gossiping, at least temporarily. "I think maybe it's time we called it a night."

It was Joe who stood up first. "Right, Sam. I'm pretty beat, anyway." He looked at Reno, who hesitated, then nodded and followed. Sam watched the two disappear, then smiled over at Manolito.

"How's Buck?"

Manolito snorted. "Still in shock, I think. He is not very happy with John, right now. Or me, I'm afraid."

"How come?"

"For not telling him. You see, we have suspected the truth for several days, since John and I last went to Tucson. John saw the boy, there, and thought it might be something like this. I think he did not know how to tell Buck, but neither of us thought it would happen this way…"

"Yeah…" Sam sighed. He shook his head. There just wasn't anything he could add to that. "Well, I'm gonna turn in. I'll see ya in the mornin', Mano."

"Buenas noches, amigo," Manolito agreed.

The trip from Tucson to the High Chaparral and back again could be made in one day. The Chaparral hands made it often enough, when the need was urgent, though they preferred an overnight stay when they could manage it. Such a trip in a single day was a long one, though, and especially grueling for a woman with a young child. By the time she returned the buckboard to the livery stable in town Maddie Turcott was almost numb with exhaustion and Pauly had already dozed off on the wagon seat. Darkness had fallen while they completed their return trip and the streets were unlit where Maddie guided the stumbling child back to the saloon.

"Watch yer step, honey," she said as she lifted him over a drunk passed out on the rickety stairs leading up to the second story from the alley outside. It was an awful entranceway, but still preferred over parading her bedraggled self and the road-grimed child through the saloon proper. There were men in the hallway outside her room, but the evening was still fairly early so nobody bothered her much. They were still sober enough to be polite, mostly.

Maddie struggled with the balky lock, then pushed the door open and led the child into the dark room. She lit the one kerosene lamp, then shut the door behind them, leaving the child standing half dazed in the middle of the floor.

"Kin you git yer own things off and wash up for bed, or do you need me to help you?

"I kin do it," Pauly replied sleepily.

Maddie left him to it, and went the window, as she had that morning. An eternity ago. The lights from the saloon windows below cast a faint yellow light onto the sidewalk and stretched eerie shadows along the street. She could see men hurrying toward the saloon front, losing sight of them again before they reached the swinging double doors. Laughter rattled up through the floor boards beneath her feet, male and female, and the off key tinkle of the tinny saloon piano. The "day crowd" was already beginning to give over to the night as the wranglers and drovers from the surrounding ranches left for their journeys homeward to be replaced by others on their days off, in town for a little fun, or the more serious denizens of the night, the professional and semi-professional drinkers and gamblers.

Maddie rubbed the back of her neck wearily. She was tired and sore from the bone jarring buckboard and her arms ached from hours of fighting that cold-jawed team. She longed for a shot of whiskey, herself and then to crawl into bed, alone. For sleep and a little peace. She had been up since early morning, last thing she wanted to do was change out of her traveling clothes into her working costume and descend to the revelry below. She needed the money, though. There was the week's rent to pay, and even if Mike never charged her much for whatever meals she put together for herself and the boy in the saloon's inadequate kitchen, still, the food wasn't free. Somebody had to pay for it, and the only income she had, at that moment, was the tips she got providing men with a little company, or what she made filling their beds for a little while. Or rather, allowing them to fill hers, for a price. Sure, there were other ways to separate the rubes from their money, all sorts of cons and schemes, but those methods usually required the assistance of a partner, and there was no one in Tucson she trusted enough for that, yet.

She probably shouldn't have trusted the partners she had already had. Nothing but trouble seemed to come from that quarter. Those Cannons just had to come through with an alternative, some real money. Enough to finally get her out of "the life," and into something a little more secure, before it killed her. And maybe into another kind of life all together. The more she thought about the possibility of marriage to Buck Cannon, the more she could see the advantages of the scheme. It couldn't be that hard, really, not so much different than what she was doing already, except that she'd only have to please one man. And it would be nice, living in that great house with all those fine things. Besides, she was starting to get a little long in the tooth for her current occupation, nearly thirty years old. It wouldn’t be much longer that she would continue to attract the younger, and mostly gentler and better looking, kind of men. Before too many more years went by, she knew she would be passed over for the fresher stock, relegated, herself to the rougher sort, older, uglier, more hardened. More vicious. The men the younger, popular girls didn’t want to deal with. She had to do something before that happened. And marriage to Buck Cannon seemed like as good an option as any, and maybe better than most. Besides, Pauly was his child, after all, he had an obligation, as far as that went. It was a long shot, though, and she knew it. It was all going to depend on Buck, too; she'd already figured out that she'd get nothing out of that brother. She knew his kind.

She heard the bedsprings creak behind her, and turned to find Pauly lying in the big iron bed.

"Kin I sleep in yer bed tonight, Mama?" he sighed, nestling down against the pillow. Maddie pursed her lips. She did not mind, normally, and often let him fall asleep there until she needed it, moving him to his cot once he had dropped off. It was easier than fighting with him, and it didn't really bother her. Tonight, though, it seemed like just one more demand upon her, one more intrusion on what little privacy she could claim for herself. She was about to order him back to his own bed, but he looked so small and fragile lying there that she just did not have the heart to banish him. Smiling surrender she crossed over beside him, and sat down on the edge of the mattress.

"I suppose so, but only till ya fall asleep. Then I'm movin' ya back to yer own bed." She brushed a damp lock off his forehead. "What about yer prayers, huh?"

The child forced his half lidded eyes open and started to sit up. Maddie put a hand against his chest and eased him back down again. "You kin say 'em lyin' down tonight," she said. "God won't mind this once."

Pauly looked a little skeptical, but he was too tired to argue for the sake of ritual. He nodded, and folded his hands over his chest.

"Now I lay me…" he began softly as Maddie continued to stroke his brow. "…an' God bless my ma, an' Mr. Mike at the saloon, an'…" he hesitated a moment, then concluded "…an' God bless my pa. I doan hafta say 'God bless my pa wherever he might be' any more, do I, mama, cuz now we know where he is."

The child's eyes shown a little as he said it, and Maddie felt a shiver run down her spine, as if someone had walked over her grave. She shook the feeling away firmly. She had started on this course, there was nothing to do, now, but finish it. It would only help her cause if the boy found the idea attractive. Pauly could be a very winning little boy, when he wanted to be.

"That's right, sweetie," she agreed mildly. "You go on to sleep, now."

But Pauly was not quite ready to surrender. "Read me a story?"

"Oh, Pauly, not tonight…"

"Please…" he pleaded. "Just one. Then I'll go right to sleep, I promise."

Maddie sighed. But she also knew enough to realize that the quickest way to resolve the issue was to comply. "Which story do you want, then? But only one!"

"The Blue Boy," he piped immediately, naming his favorite nursery rhyme in the one story book he owned. He knew "Little Boy Blue" by heart; he asked for it regularly and it was the first sets of words and sentences Maddie had taught him to read. But tonight he looked up in the middle of the request, and eyed Maddie curiously. "There was a Blue-boy where we was t'day," he said, suddenly struck with wonder at the idea. "That were his name. Blue."

Maddie nodded. "Yes. I know."

"Are we goin' back?" he prodded. "I liked it there, Mama."

"I reckon we will," Maddie agreed softly.

"I liked him," Pauly continued, yawning. "That man what's my pa."

Maddie didn't answer him. She did not know quite what to say. "Dontcha want that story?"

Pauly nodded, drifting already. Maddie didn't need a book.

"Little boy blue, come blow your horn…" she began. He was asleep before she finished reciting the four simple lines. Maddie didn't get up right away, though. For a moment she just sat there, watching him sleep. The raucous revelry on the floor beneath her faded as she listened to him breathe. It occurred to her, suddenly, that she could no longer remember a time when he had not been there, even though he was only seven and a few months old. And in that moment, neither could she imagine the future. Only the moment she was in. She felt, if not at peace, exactly, then protected in her isolation.

The feeling didn't last long. A pounding on the door shook her out of her reverie. She bounded to her feet and hurried to the door before the noise woke the boy, again.

"Who is it?"

"It's Dorrie. Open up. You got a caller."

"Who is it? Is he with ya?"

"Naw, he's down in the saloon. Asked for ya special, though…"She sounded a little surprised. Maddie opened the door and let her into the room. The girl who called herself Dorrie was very pretty, and very young. Popular with the clientele, and a little cocky because of it. Maddie had been a lot like her, once.

"Keep yer voice down," she said to the younger woman. "I don't wanna wake the kid."

Dorrie looked over at the sleeping form on the bed. "Cute," she said. "Must be a lotta trouble, though, havin' a kid under foot."

"No worse than havin' a man there," Maddie replied, "and at least a kid I kin spank if he gits rambunctious. So who's this lookin' for me?"

"Dunno, he wouldn't tell me his name. Said he wanted to surprise ya. He's nobody I ever seen before, though, I kin tell ya that. I'd remember him."

"Why," Maddie snorted, "he that good lookin'?"

"He ain't bad," Dorrie replied professionally. "Weren't that though. I dunno, he just had this air about him. Kinda dangerous-like, in a nice sorta way."

It sounded like a contradiction, but Maddie knew it wasn't, nor was Dorrie being naïve. Maddie knew plenty men just like the one the other woman had just described. She sighed heavily.

Dorrie gave her dusty clothes a look of appraisal. "You ain't workin' tonight?"

Maddie shrugged. "I was thinkin' about skippin'," she admitted. "I'm pretty beat. But I suppose I may as well, if he asked for me special. I could use the money." She pushed at her hair. "Do me a favor and go amuse him for a few minutes while I git myself ready, wudja? Tell him I'll be down in a bit."

Dorrie shrugged. It was nothing to her whether or not Maddie Turcott chose to turn down trade. She'd keep the man entertained, and quite happily. He looked like he had money, there might be a tip in it for her. She might even convince him that he’d like her better than Maddie, even if the other woman did finally make it down stairs. Most men couldn't tell the difference between one woman and another, anyway, as far as she could see.

Maddie waited for her to leave, then closed the door and leaned against it with a sigh. She was deeply tired, right down to her bones, and there was nothing she wanted more than to crawl into bed beside Pauly and go to sleep. But the man had asked for her by name, and she was new in town. She had yet to build up any kind of regular trade, and regulars were where a girl really made her money. Especially if she could get some lonely cowpoke to fall in love and spend all his wages on her. She couldn't afford to turn this one away.

It didn't take her long to wash and change and put her hair up. She paused a moment to look at the sleeping child one more time, then headed into the hall, locking the door behind her. She was half way down the stairs when she saw him. True to her word, Dorrie was sitting in the stranger's lap, laughing and drinking his whiskey. Maddie felt her stomach drop. For a moment, she considered turning around and going back up to her room. Neither Dorrie nor the stranger had seen her. But he knew where she was, it would only be a matter of time before he ran her to ground. Better to go now, and find out what he wanted. It wouldn't do to have him think she was afraid of him. She took a deep breath and walked the rest of the way down the stairs.

"Blake…" she said, coming up behind him. The couple looked up from their embrace. For a moment there was silence, then the man smiled and spoke.

"Maddie, darlin'," he drawled. Maddie didn't say anything.

Dorrie looked from one to the other and, sensing something beyond the usual business transaction brewing, slipped out of the man's lap. Curious, though, she did not leave.

"What're you doin' in Tucson, Blake?" Maddie asked.

Blake McDermott leaned back in his chair. At first glance, he wasn't much to look at, neither especially handsome nor particularly ugly. His sandy hair and hazel eyes created something of a beige affect, and although his features where not unpleasant to look at, neither was there anything especially noteworthy about him. Only a small scar over his right eye lent any interest to his face, and when he was not smiling, he looked almost bookish. When he smiled, though, his face took on the sudden dangerousness that Dorrie had commented on to Maddie earlier. Maddie was well familiar with it.

"How long's it been now, darlin'?" he asked, not answering her question. "Three years, I'd guess."

"About that," Maddie agreed. "So, what are you doin' here?"

"Why, I come to see you, darlin'. Old time sake, and all that. You look good, Mad. Besides, I figure we got some catchin' up to do. Lots to talk about."

Maddie hesitated, then she glanced at Dorrie, who was still watching them curiously. She gestured the other girl to her side.

"Dor, let me use your room for a little while, okay?"

"Aw, now Maddie…"

"Just for a little while. We're only gonna talk, we won't mess the sheets up. I can't bring him back to mine, the kid's asleep and I don't wanna wake him."

Dorrie thought a moment, then shrugged. "Awright, half an hour and don't make a mess out o' anything." She handed Maddie her key.

"Thanks Dor, you're a peach," Maddie said, taking it. She turned to McDermott. "Awright, Blake. Whycha come on upstairs where we can talk in private."

McDermott scraped his chair back from the table and climbed to his feet. "Suits me," he said. Then he looked over at Dorrie. "Don't get busy, beautiful. I reckon I'll be back." He flipped enough money onto the table to pay for his whiskey with a generous tip left over. Dorrie picked up the coins and smiled back at him invitingly. Without another word, McDermott turned and followed Maddie up to Dorrie's room.

"Nice digs, " he commented as she let him into the room and lit the lamp.

"It's Dorrie's room," Maddie replied. "I expect you'll be seein' more of it before the night's out."

McDermott laughed. "What'sa matter. Ain't I good enough for your room?"

"Pauly's asleep. I don't want to wake him. What do you want, Blake?"

"A friendlier welcome, for starters," he said, reaching for her. "Ain't you even got a kiss for an old friend?" He pulled her close and pressed his mouth over hers. Maddie neither resisted nor cooperated with the embrace, and after a moment he let her go. "So, you still got the kid with ya."

"I still got him. You ain't answered my question."

McDermott looked around. There was a single chair in the room. He pulled it away from the wall and sat down. "I've missed you, Maddie. Is that so surprisin'? " Maddie just snorted, and McDermott grinned. "And… I seem to remember some unfinished business between us."

Maddie stiffened. "Any business we had together was finished a long time ago."

"I don't think so," McDermott replied. "Seems to me we still got a little matter outstanding.

"I got no idea what your talkin' about." Maddie twisted to move past him and he grabbed her arm.

"I think you do," he disagreed. "Seems to me I remember a little matter of fifteen hundred dollars we lost because o' you."

Maddie jerked her arm free. "Don't be a fool, Blake. We had a scheme and it went bad. It happens. We took a chance on that money and it fell through. It's that simple."

"Maybe," McDermott agreed. " 'Cept it was me that spent eighteen months behind bars because of it. And I always wondered how come that was. What really happened to tip that rube off to us." He looked up at her hard, "I was surprised, when I got out and found you took off. I wasn't so surprised to find my last five hundred dollars gone with ya, though."

"Our last five hundred dollars," Maddie reminded him, seemly unperturbed by his tone. "Half that money was mine."

"Then you've got my two hundred and fifty dollars?" McDermott countered sarcastically. "You've been savin' it for me, all this time?"

"I had to live, Blake. What did you expect me to do?"

"I expected you to take the money and run," he said. "Looks like I was right."

He was more right than he knew, actually, as Maddie had used most of what was left of that money to bring herself and Pauly to Tucson.

"We had to eat," she said.

McDermott put his feet up on the bed and rocked the chair back. "I never noticed you had any trouble makin' money, Maddie, darlin'," he sneered.

But Maddie refused to be baited. She still didn't know what he was there for, but she knew Blake McDermott well enough to know that he would not have followed her all the way to Tucson for a lousy two hundred and fifty dollars. She had to keep her temper until she found out what he was really up to.

"I ain't as young as I used to be, Blake," she said mildly. "And it ain't so easy now, with the boy around."

"The boy," he replied, with derision. "How come you ain't found nobody to take him off yer hands, yet?"

"That's none of yer business."

"Maybe not." McDermott got to his feet again. "But what is my business is that two hundred and fifty bucks you owe me."

It was Maddie's turn for scorn. "Don't play me for a fool, Blake. I'm a lot o' things and I don't make no apology for 'em, but I've never been a fool. You didn't follow me all the way to Arizona for that kind o' chicken feed. What do you really want?"

"Maybe I did, and maybe I didn't." He reached over and ran a finger across her cheek. "We were a good team, you an' me. We had a good thing, together."

Maddie pulled away from him. "I'm done with that. I'm through pulling cons."

"Are ya? Somehow I find that a little hard to believe. A little disappointin', too. Ya see, I need money, Maddie. I'm stone cold broke."

Maddie eyed him warily. "You were throwin' it around pretty free downstairs a minute ago," she reminded him.

"My last dollar," McDermott assured her. "So what do I do, now, Maddie, huh? I think maybe you owe me just a little bit of that two hundred and fifty dollars. To tide me over until I can get somethin' goin'."

"Blake, I ain't got but seven dollars to my name, and there's the rent to pay."

"How much is the rent?"

"Two dollars a week," Maddie told him. She regretted the admission immediately.

"Gimme five, then. Like I said, you kin always make more. Even at your age."

Maddie hesitated. She could refuse, of course. But she knew Blake McDermott, and she knew he would make things pretty unpleasant if he decided to cause trouble.

"All right. Come over to my room. But this is it. I give you five dollars, and you go away and leave me alone," she agreed.

"For tonight, anyway," McDermott agreed, grinning. "Tonight I got other plans."

Maddie led him across the hallway to her door. She stopped a moment before unlocking it. "You wait out here in the hall. I mean it, Blake. The kid's sleepin'."

He did not seem inclined to press the point. She unlocked the door, and crossed over to her dresser, which she could just see by the light coming in through the open doorway.

"Mama?"

Maddie sighed. "Go back to sleep, Pauly. I'm just gettin' somethin' I forgot. I'll be up in a few minutes."

"I heard a voice, Mama. A man's voice."

"That was just a friend o' mine. Now go to sleep."

Maddie retrieved five of her precious dollars, and brought them back out to McDermott, who was leaning against the door jamb as she came out of the room.

"Mama…" he laughed. "How sweet. Ain't you told that boy the truth, yet?"

At that, Maddie pulled up sharply. She pushed McDermott out into the hallway, and closed the door behind her. "You never mind about what I've told him," she hissed. "You just stay out o' me and him."

McDermott laughed again. "Awright, Maddie, don't git yer knickers in a twist. What do I care what you tell him. The kid ain't nothin' to me." He held out his hand, and she gave him the five dollars. He closed his fingers around them, and her hand, squeezing hard. "And don't you ever shove me like that, again, ever. You hear me?"

Maddie tried to free her hand, but he only tightened his grip. Tears came to her eyes, with the pain, but she continued to glare up into his face defiantly. He grinned and let her go. He slipped the money into his pants pocket, then lifted his hand under her chin.

"I've missed you, Maddie. I really have," he said, "You're still a looker. And you've got sand. You always did have." He tipped her mouth up to his, again. This time she returned the kiss. But she still eyed him warily as soon as he let her go. "It'll be a pleasure to do business with you, again."

"How long you fixin' to stay here?" she asked, frowning.

McDermott shrugged. "Well, I don't know, now. 'S nice town. I kinda like it, to tell the truth. It's lively. I might just decide to settle down, here." He laughed at the expression on her face. "I ain't exactly made up my mind, yet. But at any rate, I'll be around long enough to collect the money you owe me."

"I ain't got it, Blake. How many times to I have to say it?"

"Oh, I ain't worried about that. I'll except terms. With interest, o' course. Maybe we can work somethin' out."

"Blake, I toldja…"

"An' I told you…" he replied, suddenly dangerous. He took her face in his hand, again, pinching it with just enough pressure to make her understand he meant business. "I don't like bein' double-crossed, Maddie." He kissed her hard, then pushed her away. "You just remember that."

"You'll get your money. It's gonna take me some time, though."

McDermott shrugged, all mildness again. "I ain't goin' nowhere. Like I said, I'm gittin' to like this town." He leaned close. "Jist don't make me wait too long." He touched the brim of his hat to her, laughing. "We'll be talkin' again, Maddie, darlin'. And thank you for the advance." And with that, he turned and disappeared down the hallway.

Maddie waited until he was out of sight down the stairs before she went back into her room and locked the door behind her. Pauly was sound asleep, again. Lighting the lamp, she turned the wick down until only a faint glow illuminated the room. She knew she ought to move the child to his own cot, but she made no effort to do so. Sinking down weakly onto the edge of the mattress, she stared down at the sleeping child. In none of her calculations has she figured on anyone she knew turning up from her old life back in Kansas, certainly not Blake McDermott. And certainly not for a lousy couple of hundred dollars. Whatever Blake wanted, he was after more than that, and his presence was going to make things more complicated. Maybe a lot more complicated. If he guessed the reason she had come to Tucson, he would be trouble, indeed. Blake McDermott knew far too much about too many things.

Pauly stirred, making small restless noises in his sleep. Maddie leaned over and stroked the damp hair from his forehead. Then she kissed his cheek, and lay her own against it. McDermott's words still rang in her ears, but it was not the veiled threat or the demand for money that troubled her. She was used to that sort of thing from him, and took it seriously because she knew he meant it, but it did not frighten her. It was something else he said, something that he might not, yet, even realize was important. He would though, if he stayed around long enough, and Maddie didn't want to think about how badly that might interfere with her plans, if he decided to act upon the knowledge in any way. The truth, he had asked her, innocently. Had she not yet told the boy the truth.

Maddie kissed Pauly, again, then got up and walked back to the dresser. In the top drawer, beneath her few changes of undergarments, was a box that held most of her most personal possessions. What was left of the money, now that she had appeased Blake McDermott for the moment, some cheap pieces of jewelry. A few other things. She reached in a drew out a book. A Bible. A strange thing for a whore to have, maybe. She often thought so, herself. She sat back down on the bed and ran her fingers over the cracked leather of the binding. Finally, she opened the book and took out a single folded piece of paper, slightly yellowed but not yet exactly old. She unfolded it and pressed it smooth. It was a newspaper clipping, an obituary. Two simple lines that she had submitted to the editor, herself, stating that Elizabeth Anne Dickerson was dead. What the clipping did not tell was the way in which the twenty-two year old saloon hostess had opened her veins while sitting in a tub of lukewarm water. It did not tell how her closest friend, Madeline Turcott, had thrown up all over the floor, upon finding her there, with her head flung back against the copper tub rim and her mouth open, her eyes staring glassily at nothing at all. Nor did it tell about the fourteen month old baby in the crib against, wailing with hunger. It did not tell any of those things, but maybe it didn't need to.

Maddie refolded the clipping, and stuck it in the back of the Bible. The book was Lizzie's, too. Maddie had often teased her, sometimes cruelly, about it, jealous, perhaps, of the young woman's faith in spite of their circumstances. After all, what kind of hypocrisy was it, for a whore to carry a Bible? Did she see herself as some kind of Mary Magdeline waiting for her savior? She was just a lousy sinner, worse, maybe, than most. Decent folks would say so. But Lizzie had clung to her Book, her last gift from a disapproving mother, and after she died it was the one thing that Maddie had kept to remember her by.

She opened to the fly leaf, and glanced at Lizzie's name there, in full flowing copperplate, written by some hand other than the owner's. Then she let the Bible fall open to the center, the only section that Maddie ever regularly perused. Lizzie's name was there, too, under the section entitled "Family Registry," about half way down the page following her parents and grandparents, and an older brother long dead. The hand, here, was cramped and unsophisticated. As unsophisticated, perhaps, as the girl had been. Elizabeth Anne, and beside it, in parentheses, read "Buck Cannon." And beside that, under a column headed "Born," the name "Paul Michael," Pauly, and a date, a year, two months and a day prior to the day his mother had taken her own life. Lizzie Dickerson, not Madeline Turcott. For in fact Pauly was Elizabeth Dickerson's natural born son, Lizzie's and Buck Cannon's, left to Maddie Turcott to foster after his mother's death. That was what Blake McDermott had meant about the truth.

Lizzie had love Buck with the kind of blind, consuming passion that simply could not see he was just a drifter with a big story and a kind, but inconstant heart. Nor could she see that she was not the kind of woman men married, even if Buck had been the marrying kind. No whore with the sense God gave her allowed herself to fall in love, Maddie had reminded her, but sense had never been Lizzie's Dickerson’s strong suit. She had fallen hard. Every time Buck turned to another woman, it had torn the fabric of the poor girl's heart. She had loved him to the point where she had stopped taking precautions, and when nothing came of that, had teetered on the brink of despair. Then Buck left, leaving nothing behind but his stories. And a short month later, Lizzie discovered that her calculated risk had taken effect after all, but too late, for she lost her nerve even if she had known where to find him. She never recovered, though, not from Buck's desertion, nor from the birth of her child. In her weaker moments, she had begged Maddie to promise to care for her baby, should anything happen to her. Maddie, sensing no reason for alarm, had agreed in order to calm her. She never expected to be required to make good on that vow. And yet, when the time came, even her unsentimental heart would not allow her to do otherwise. What irony that she was now contemplating the very ends that Lizzie had longed for so badly for very different reasons, had died for, and using exactly the same lever that Lizzie had hoped to use.

Lizzie had been sure Buck Cannon was her son's father, and Maddie, knowing what she did, had no reason to doubt her. Having seen the Cannon family up close, she was now even more convinced of it. But she was playing a dangerous game. Buck Cannon owed something to the upbringing of his child, Maddie truly believed that. But her own grounds were less secure in demanding it of him, and demanding something for herself as well. She knew she'd be in serious difficulty if the truth were ever found out. She needed the money Buck could provide for herself and the boy. And even more, she was beginning to want the life she might finagle out of this situation, if she managed to play her cards right. It was imperative that the real truth remained a secret.

Blake McDermott knew the truth, he had been there when Lizzie's baby had been born, and there when Lizzie died. He had been surprised that Maddie had taken the child rather than shunt it off to die in some foundling home, but since the presence of the boy had never seriously interfered with their business partnership, nor the occasional sex he demanded of her when he was in the mood, he had simply shrugged it off. Now he was in Tucson, the sole possessor, besides herself, of this knowledge. And if he did not yet know how easily he could bring her down, it wouldn't take him long to figure it out. Maddie knew him, she knew he would not hesitate to press any advantage, if he thought there might be something in it for him. Or he might just let the truth slip inadvertently, or out of pure meanness. The results would be the same. She had to get him out of Tucson, and the only way she could see to do that, short of killing him, was to find a way to get him his money.

She tossed the Bible onto the bed. For years now, she had been struggling. And now when she might have actually found a way out, here was Blake McDermott of all people, poised to ruin everything. Her whole plan could be blown clean away with just a word from him, and he didn't even know it. Maddie looked down at Pauly, sleeping so peacefully. Her whole life.

 

A CERTAIN OBLIGATION

I

"John, I jist cain't git over it. I cain't believe you never said nothin' to me…"

John Cannon looked at his brother, and sighed. It was just the three of them sitting at the breakfast table the next morning: brother, father and son. Manolito had departed as soon as he'd finished eating, ostensibly for the bunkhouse to give the men a hand getting ready for the day, but John suspected he only wanted to escape the same discussion that had gone on well into the previous night. Victoria had disappeared, too, into the kitchen, leaving the Cannon men alone to finish their coffee, and wait for Joe Butler to come and tell them everything was ready. Buck would be taking a work crew out to finish stringing fences on the north range. Although finish was something of a misnomer; with all the miles of Chaparral range to enclose, John sometimes thought they could string fence for the rest of his natural life and never really finish. When he wasn't being annoyed by the sheer magnitude of the effort, the idea pleased him mightily. At that moment, though, there was more on his mind than stringing fences. And there was certainly more on his brother's.

"Buck, I tried to explain it to you last night. I didn't know what to tell you. Or how to. I wasn't even sure, myself. Not really." He and Buck had been over it all, through alternating currents of bewilderment and angry accusation, and stunned silence, late into the night. There had been little sleep for anyone and they were all tired. "What would have had me do?"

Buck Cannon looked a little helpless. "I know, brother John, I know that," he said. "I know whatchu tol' me. An' I 'spect you be right. It were jist kinda o' a shock, is all…"

"For all of us," John agreed. "And you're right, Buck. I should have told you. I should have found a way, somehow. If I'd had any idea that woman would do anything like just show up here, I would have, no matter how crazy it sounded. You shouldn't have had to find out this way."

Buck screwed up his face in troubled thought. "John, I tell ya. I been thinkin' on it all night, nearly. An' I jist doan remember no girl name o' Maddie Turcott. Not in Kansas nor anyplace else."

John rolled his eyes a little. With Buck's habits, he wondered how his brother remembered any of them. Or why he even expected to. Then he looked up from his coffee to see Blue watching them both, curiously.

"Don't you have something to do?" he growled. It was bad enough this sordid little escapade had to be dealt with at all without having to involve his son in it, too. John realized Blue was not some innocent in need of protection, nor did he want him to be. Still, this was a little more education that John Cannon really felt comfortable providing the boy. "I thought you were on your way out to help Manolito and the others."

Blue's eyes went cold as he looked at his father. Then he dropped them. "All right, Pa," he muttered, pushing away from the table. "I'm goin'. I can see I ain't wanted around here, anyway."

John opened his mouth to deliver some angry retort, and then he caught himself, remembering his promise to himself to try to be a little more patient.

"Blue," he said. The boy stopped in mid-stride and looked back at him. "Blue, Sam's feeling a lot better, but he's still not up to a full day's work, no matter what he thinks. Until he is, boy, I'm really gonna need your help. Even more than I usually do."

For a moment, Blue looked a little wary, almost stunned by his father's words. Then a hint of a smile touched the corner of his mouth.

"Sure, Pa. I'll go check and see how the men are comin' along. They oughta be about ready by now, anyway." He squared his shoulders and stood up just a little taller as he walked out of the room.

"That were nice, John," Buck said as they watched him walk away. "You made him feel real good about hisself, sayin' a thing like that."

"It's nothing but the truth," John replied. "As long as Sam is still more or less out of commission, I'm going to need you and him both all the more." He eyed his brother thoughtfully for a moment. "What you said about not remembering that woman. Do you think she might be lying? Or mistaken, anyway? Given the kind of life she's led…"

He didn't finish, but he didn't need to. Buck shook his head. "I dunno, John. I been thinkin' about that, too. Truth is, I keep thinkin' she might be, 'cept for that little boy. John… he do look a lot like one o' us, and there be no denying that."

John just nodded.

"An'," Buck continued, a little sheepishly, "it could be my memory's a little faulty about it. I mean, I giss mebbe I wunt necessarily always remember. It were a long time ago."

John heard a pot clang in the kitchen and wondered if Victoria had been listening. Someone else he wanted to protect from this whole unpleasant business.

"What do you propose to do?" he asked. Buck shook his head.

"I doan rightly know, yit, Big John. I doan know what I kin do…"

John sighed. "I suppose it's going to be all on me, in any case," he said. "I don’t have to tell you that I don’t like being put in this position, do I?"

"John, this ain't yer problem," Buck replied. "I got mysel' into this, it be up to me to get mysel' out o' it."

"What affects this family is my business, Buck. And so is whatever affects this ranch," John said tersely. "Whatever this woman wants, you can bet that money will be at the bottom of it. And I seem to be the only one around here at the moment who has any of that, unless you've got some little nest egg stashed away that I don't know about.

"Besides," he continued, as his brother's expression got stormy, "there's Blue to think about. He's not a child, I know, but still. And Victoria. This is going to prove mighty embarrassing for her, if it gets around town."

Buck winced, his anger deflating. "I giss I din't really think about that, John."

"I guess you didn't," his brother agreed, rather pompously.

Buck turned away. "Still, we oughta do sumpthin'… it doan seem right, that little fella growin' up in want an' all."

John agreed. "I wasn't proposing that we let him. I agree that there is a certain obligation, here, if the boy really is your child."

"So what are you suggestin'?"

"That perhaps, if we offer this woman a reasonable sum of money, and make her understand that there will be no more, she might be willing to be content with it. I won't be held up for blackmail, Buck. But we should do something, yes."

Buck shook his head. "I jist doan know, John. I giss I need to think on it some more. It do seem a might cold to jist hand over a, as you say, reasonable sum o’ money and a fare-you-well. But we oughta do somethin', John…" He looked up, his eyes shining a little bit at the wonder of it. "He is my son."

John felt a unwelcome sense of hostile intrusion portending with his brother's words.

"Well, you do think on it," he said flatly. "You'll have a nice hot day in the sun to do it in. And I'll think on it, too. We'll talk about it some more when you get back tonight." He turned toward the door. "Where the hell is Joe? Those men should have been ready to ride fifteen minutes ago."

Buck took his cue and pushed his chair back from the table. "I'll go on out there an' rustle 'em up," he said, glad for any excuse to escape the conversation. "You have a nice day with them ledgers, brother John. I'll see you tonight."

Buck snapped his hat up off the back of his chair and headed for the door. His brother was right about one thing, the day was fixing to be a scorcher. Blue met him coming out onto the porch.

"I was just comin' to get you, Uncle Buck," he said. "The men are all ready."

Buck smiled at the touch of pride in the boy's voice.

"Wall, tha's great, Blue-boy. I reckon we all ready to go, then."

"Uncle Buck?"

"Yeah?"

"Uncle Buck, can I ask you somethin'?"

Buck had not heard the shy question in the boy's tone, initially, but he heard it, now. He stopped and looked at him. "Sho' Blue-boy, Whatchu want ta know?"

"Well, it's just… " The younger man glanced away in embarrassment, "…well, what are you gonna do? About that woman and that little boy?"

Buck pursed his lips and looked down in the direction of the other men gathered down by the corral, waiting. It was hardly the time nor the place for this conversation, even were Buck ready to have it, which he wasn't. He was still wrestling with the cold logic of his brother's position, and he needed time to think.

"I doan rightly know yit, Blue-boy. Yer Pa and me, we still gotta talk some 'bout that."

"But the boy… I mean, is he really your son?" Then as if to avoid being put off by his uncle, Blue concluded, "I ain’t a kid, anymore, Uncle Buck. You don’t have to protect me."

Buck sighed. "I know you ain't, Blue. But the truth is, I doan rightly know about that, neither. I reckon he probably is, though," he replied, honestly.

"So, are you gonna marry her?"

Buck frowned at him. "Huh?"

"His ma, I mean," Blue explained himself, blushing.

Buck laughed nervously. "Aw, Blue-boy, I doan…" then he caught himself. As much as Buck joked about giving his nephew an education, and as much as he probably had already exposed the boy to more than his father might have approved, there was a limit to how far the uncle was comfortable going, especially when the "lesson" was starting to prove a little embarrassing for Buck, himself. "Blue-boy, they's some things you doan fully unnerstan' yit. A woman like that… wall, you know they's some kinds o' wimmin, not the decent kind but the other kin'…"

"I know, Uncle Buck…"

"It's jist that them kin's o' wimmin, wall, it's like it's they job to be frien'ly!" Buck struggled helplessly. "An' some o' them is nice enough little gals, it true, but, wall, Blue, they git paid to make a man comfo'table and git him to fo'git his troubles for a little while."

"Uncle Buck, I know," Blue interrupted him. "I understand what you're sayin'. I know…" he continued more softly, "I know about those kinds of women."

Buck looked at his nephew with just a little bit of alarm. Sure, the boy spent enough time around saloons with the other men to pick up that the hostesses weren't necessarily there just to serve drinks and make conversation. But something in his nephew's voice made him wonder, suddenly, if any of that knowledge might just spring from personal experience. While Blue was usually in Tucson in his own, or John's, company, it wasn't always the case. And Buck suddenly realized, for all that they tended to treat him like one sometimes, Blue really was no longer a little boy. He pushed that rather uncomfortable thought aside for further contemplation at some other time. Years from now, maybe.

"It's jist that they ain't the kin' o wimmin a man marries, Blue-boy, is all I'm sayin'. Not regular, anyway."

Blue looked away. He did understand what his uncle was telling him. He knew that any of the bunkhouse gang would tell him exactly the same thing, probably with a lot less delicacy, and that Manolito, even his father, would also agree. He knew that there was a difference between decent women and "sporting women," the one held in absolute esteem, to be honored and respected and never violated, not even with words, and the other available, generally, for men's pleasures. Society might frown, but society accepted the situation on the justification that it kept certain kinds of men away from the decent women who might otherwise be in danger from their untoward attentions. That did not, however, mean that society accepted the women who provided such service. Blue suspected that, while his father might dislike the current situation, and even might disapprove, on some level, of the behaviors that had brought his uncle to this pass, John Cannon was not particularly shocked by any of it

Personally, though, Blue found the whole business a little disturbing. He was well aware the ways in which men entertained a certain kind of women who in turn encouraged them to do so for their own monetary gain. And he was at an age where a part of him very much wished he had more nerve and opportunity, himself, to partake in such activities. But there was a part of him that didn't like it very much, that found his uncle's, and even Manolito's, behaviors a little off-putting, the part of him that longed for a gentler and more romantic kind of encounter. A wife, children, love. The idea that the two worlds could overlap was hard for him to adjust to. Blue was also brought up to believe that a man married the mother of his children, and if he had the bad judgment or bad luck to get a child on her before he married, well, he damn well better rectify that situation, and the sooner the better.

"Blue-boy, the boys is waitin'," Buck reminded, aware that they were being watched from the corral.

"What about Pauly?" Blue asked.

It was the child's name that brought Buck up short, more than the question. "Whatchu mean?"

"I mean, what about the little boy? Your son? What's gonna happen to him?"

Buck sighed in exasperation. He didn't seem to be having much luck getting through to his nephew that the situation was a lot more complicated that the younger man might realize.

"Blue-boy, I know you mean well, but this just ain't no business o' yourn. I tol' you already, I need to be thinkin' on it, and talkin' to yer Pa. We'll think o' sum'thin'. I jist doan now what, yit. Now come on, daylight's wastin', and you doan want yer Pa out here wunnerin' how come we ain't aw-ready long gone, do ya?"

Blue didn't. "All right, Uncle Buck. I didn't mean to interfere where I got no business." He looked down at his boot tops. "I kinda liked him, though."

The older man felt a sudden rush of affection at Blue's words, both for the young man beside him, and for the child in Tucson he did not even know, who had dropped so abruptly into his life.

"I liked him too, Blue-boy," he said, throwing an arm around the other's shoulders. "Now, come on! We got us a fence to string."

Back inside the house, John Cannon was feeling far more somber than his brother and his son. Sipping the last of his coffee, he pondered the events of the past twenty-four hours with a sense of foreboding. What he had told his brother was the absolute truth, as far as it went; if Madeline Turcott's little boy really was Buck's child, and the evidence certainly seemed to point in that direction, then John Cannon, as family patriarch, was duty bound, if not exactly happy, to see that the right thing was done about it. John had never shied away from a responsibility in his life, he was not about to start now, even if the responsibility was really his brother's.

He did not have to like it, though.

It wasn't that John felt the child was in any way undeserving; on the contrary, he believed very strongly that the Cannons had a honest obligation to provide something toward the boy's future, since it seemed likely he was Buck's. But John hadn't gotten the age he had, or reached his current level of success, without learning a thing or two about reading human intentions, and there was something about Maddie Turcott that set all the warning bells ringing in his head. He had told Buck he wouldn't be held hostage to blackmail, and he meant it. It wasn't physical blackmail that he feared, however. John knew his brother, and he had seen a spark in Buck's eye when he talked about the child. Buck was beginning to get warm to the idea that he might have his a son of his own, and while John could understand, in theory, why that would appeal to the man, and really couldn't fault him for it, in practice it could create a hell of a difficult situation. He was not at all sure that Maddie Turcott was going to be content with what he decided was a reasonable sum to discharge the circumstances, and he was worried about his brother's vulnerability to her demands as time went on.

Even putting the concerns about emotional blackmail aside, there was also the whole issue of public scandal to consider. As long as that woman and her child remained in Tucson, tongues were going to wag. And although John, himself, was not particularly sensitive to public sentiment, neither did he care to become a laughing stock. And more to the point, there were Victoria's sensibilities to be considered, and he was very aware of the effect a public scandal might have on his wife. Her, he would protect at all costs.

As if she had read his thoughts, Victoria, emerged from the kitchen.

"John?"

He turned, startled, to find her at his elbow. "Victoria," he said, smiling warmly, in spite of his troubled thoughts. "I didn't hear you come in." The smile was genuine; it was a rare occurrence when the presence of his beautiful and deeply loved wife could not draw one.

"I did not mean to surprise you," she replied, returning the smile. "Would you like some more coffee?"

He held up his cup. "A little, gracias."

"Will you be staying at home today, my husband?"

John paused before answering. "Well, I do need to spend a little time with the ranch books," he admitted, "but I think I may ride into Tucson a little later. I have business to see to in town."

He had only just made the decision, actually, although he hoped his voice didn't betray him. But looking up at his lovely wife made him all the more certain that he needed to get to the bottom of this Maddie Turcott affair as soon as possible, and find out what she really wanted.

Victoria frowned. "Will you be seeing that woman?"

She tired to hide it, he knew, but the distaste in her voice was clear. It was all that John needed to convince him that the whole issue needed to be resolved before it had a chance to imbed itself any further into his family's life.

"Perhaps," he admitted, unwilling, just yet, to let her in to his real thoughts, especially while they remained so unresolved in his own mind.

Victoria pondered him thoughtfully. "This child, John," she began. "You do believe that he is Buck’s son." There wasn’t so much a question in her voice, as the beginning of another statement. They had been all over this the night before, he knew Victoria knew what he believed.

"It would seem so," he sighed into his coffee.

"What are we going to do?"

"I don't really know, yet, Victoria," he told her honestly. "Buck and I will need to talk about it some more. This is really his responsibility, though I'm certainly willing to assist him in any way I can. But in any case, it's nothing you need to worry your pretty head about."

"Well, of course I am worried about it," Victoria replied pertly, planting her hands on her hips. "John, that poor little niño, if he is really you’re brother’s child, than we must do something for him. What kind of life must he have, with such a mother, who works all night in saloons and probably sleeps all day when he is awake and in need of her? And they cannot have very much money for the things a growing child will need…"

John sighed. It never ceased to amaze him, the degree to which he could underestimate this woman he had married.

"Now, Victoria," he tried to deflect her. "Miss Turcott seems to have managed pretty well by the boy up to now, from what I could see. He didn't look neglected in any way, on the contrary, he seemed very healthy and well behaved to me."

"Well, I am sure she had done her best under the circumstances," Victoria conceded. She was not about to give up entirely however. "But those circumstances must also be much less than ideal. And it will only become harder as the boy grows up. Or do you disagree, my husband?" There was a challenge in that last statement that John was not about to engage.

"No, of course I don't disagree, exactly…"

"Then we must do something, John. We cannot just sit by and let that child grow up in such poverty, and under such influences."

"Yes, of course we should do something," John replied, exasperated. "Victoria, I already said we would. It's just that Buck and I need a chance to hammer out the details."

"What kinds of details?"

"I don't really know, yet. A sum of money, I suppose, toward the boy's upkeep. Maybe a trust fund, I don't know. Whatever seems reasonable, provided I can afford it. Heaven knows Buck can't."

"But what about the kind of life to which the boy is exposed, John? How can we let him grow up living the way he does? A reasonable sum of money, as you put it, will not alleviate that."

"Well, what do you propose?" John demanded, past patience. "What do you want Buck to do? Marry the woman? Bring her back here to Chaparral?"

Victoria's face fell a little. John, too, looked chagrined, knowing his voice had been raising steadily.

"No, John. I did not mean that, precisely," Victoria replied, looking troubled now. "I do not know exactly what I meant. Unless, of course," she added gallantly, "that is what Buck wishes."

John could see that she was fully prepared to make the best of that outcome, if, in fact, his brother did decide to do exactly as he had suggested. Perish the thought. He smiled in apology.

"Well, I wouldn't worry too much about him doing that," he assured her. "Even my knot-headed brother has that much sense. Victoria, I shouldn't have raised my voice to you. I’m sorry. I didn't mean to do that, and I apologize for it. But Victoria, this is all just a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface. And the truth is, it's really not any of your business. It's not any of mine, either, when you come right down to it, except to the extent that I may need to underwrite it. This is Buck's problem, and it's Buck's responsibility. It's his decision, whatever happens."

"I know that, John," Victoria sighed. "It's just…"

But John cut her off, getting to his feet. "Victoria, if there is a more tenderhearted woman in all of Arizona, or in all of Mexico, either, for that matter, I would be very surprised to find out about it," he said, putting his arms around her and pulling her close. "I know you're worried about the welfare of that boy. And I'm also sure that Buck and I, between us, can come up with some acceptable solution. But in the mean time, I have the books to see to, and I really do need to go into town today. Madeline Turcott aside, I've got to see my banker, and I'm still waiting for those beef contracts from the federal prison in Yuma." He kissed her soundly. "Will you trust me? And trust Buck to make the best decision?"

Victoria didn't look happy, but she knew her husband well enough to recognize the end of a conversation. "Of course, John."

John kissed her again, and let her go. "I'll be in the study for an hour or so, if you need me for anything," he told her. "And just give me list of anything you need me to pick up for you in town."

Once in his study, though, John found it impossible to concentrate on the most recent backlog of ledger entries. Victoria's face, etched with distress, floated before him, as did his son's curious and mildly shocked one. Nor could he put the gentle wonder in his brother's eyes out of his mind. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that Madeline Turcott was going to become a continuous source of aggravation if he did not take matters into his own hands, and soon. Despite his assurances to his wife to the contrary, he had no particular confidence that his brother would do the sensible thing. Just the opposite, really. He had seen that dreamy expression in Buck's eyes before, and it always meant trouble. Buck could convince himself that the most inappropriate response was good and reasonable, if that became his inclination. He might, if he actually decided it was the right thing to do, even flat out marry the gal! John wouldn't put it past him. And such a thing was completely unacceptable. While he considered himself anything but a snob, John's tolerance did not extend as far as welcoming a known prostitute as his sister-in-law, and he certainly was not about to allow his wife and son to be put through that sort of embarrassment. And even if Buck did show the sense not to go quite as far as marriage, he still might do something equally embarrassing, if left to his own devices.

No, the only course that he could see was to get to Miss Turcott before Buck had a chance to think about it for too much longer, and get her and her little boy out of Tucson. If the woman just disappeared, Buck need never know why. He would be disappointed, certainly, about the boy, but he'd get distracted soon enough and forget all about it. Buck would be out until after dark with the fence-line crew, giving John plenty of time to take care of things in Tucson. And he figured, with Sam still out of commission, he could keep Buck busy legitimately for long enough for the woman to pack her bags and get herself and her boy out of town.

He looked back at his ledgers, only this time it was with an eye not toward balancing he current entries, but toward determining how much he could afford to part with, and what it was likely to take to convince Miss Madeline Turcott to go.

II

Maddie slept late that morning. It was not a luxury she was often allowed. Although Pauly understood, in theory, that she worked late each night and couldn’t be up with him at dawn, as he might prefer, in practice, she didn’t like to leave the boy unattended for long periods. She had learned to get her sleep in cat-naps, when the saloon wasn’t busy or when Pauly was otherwise occupied. To sleep in on a morning was pure heaven, as far as she was concerned.

Pauly, exhausted from the previous day’s journey, slept until after nine o’clock, leaving Maddie in peace to wake to the feel of sunshine on her skin, and the filtered sounds of activity drifting up from the street below. In those vague, sleep-misted moments before she became fully awake, she nearly forgot where she was, forgot the dirty towns and the dirty men, the schemes, the dangers, the poverty. The child and all that his presence meant to her life. She almost convinced herself that she was still in her mother’s home in Kentucky, and that the smell of stale beer and bad coffee drifting up from below was really her mother cooking breakfast. She stretched sleepily, sighing with the sheer contentment of it.

The illusion didn’t last long. Pauly, awake now, had been watching for movement.

"Mornin’, mama," he chirped, bouncing onto her bed.

"Ufff- go away," Maddie groaned, pulling the sheet up over her head. Then she rolled over and looked at him. "You git yerself dressed, already?"

"Yes’m."

"Then git a penny outa my bag and go on down the street and git yerself a sweet roll," she told him. "Go on, now."

He didn’t take much convincing. He was hungry, and a sweet roll was a special treat. He didn’t wait around for the boon to be revoked.

"Yes, ma’am, mama, thank you," he agreed, bouncing off the bed again. In a moment he had secured his coin and disappeared out the door.

Maddie sighed and hugged her pillow. She closed her eyes, but it was no use, the morning had begun and she could not recapture the sense of sleepy security she’d had upon waking. Surrendering to harsh reality, she stretched again, and sat up. And immediately regretted it; every muscle in her back and bottom ached from the jarring miles she’d spent on the road the day before. That, if nothing else, banished whatever feelings of contentment might have been left over from her dreams and reminded her of the difficult course still before her. She still had the Cannons to deal with, and perhaps of more immediate concern, she had Blake McDermott in her life, again.

Blake McDermott. Lord, he had been an unwelcome surprise. How he had managed to find her, she could not imagine. The last time she had seen him had been in Dodge, and she had left shortly after he had been arrested. Nobody, as far as she knew, knew where she’d gone, and she’d certainly left a long enough trail of cow towns between her and that city to lose even the most determined pursuer. Nobody except the stage agents knew she’d come to Arizona. There seemed little point in speculating about it though. He had found her, and he could easily ruin everything, if she wasn’t careful. She needed time to work this Cannon deal, and time was the one thing McDermott’s being in Tucson might deny her. And then there was the child, himself. Blake might just tell him the truth, he was mean enough, and stupid enough. She would have to be careful to keep Pauly away from him.

A shout from the street startled her, and for a moment she considered that she might as well just get up. But the child was occupied for the time being, he wouldn’t stray too far, she knew, and until he clambered back up there, looking for her attention, it was just too peaceful lying there, listening passively to the sounds of the day outside. If she ever did get Buck Cannon to marry her, she thought, she was going to have to get a nanny or something for that boy, so she could sleep in every morning. Sighing more with frustration than contentment, she lay back down on the bed and pulled the sheet back up over her, and closed her eyes, again.

It was rising on noon when John Cannon stepped up onto the sidewalk outside the saloon, and looked down at Pauly Turcott’s blond head bent over a small handful of marbles. The boy was sitting on the boards outside the saloon door, playing idly. Once again, John was shocked by the child’s likeness to Blue. He hesitated for a moment, considering what he was about to do. There was even less doubt now, as he looked at the boy, than there had ever been that this was his brother’s son. A Cannon. Someone of his own blood. What he was about to do would condemn this innocent child to a life of hardship, at the very least, and one that could easily end up in a life outside the law. Victoria had been right about that. The influences under which Pauly would come to manhood would be anything but the kind that created honest and upright citizens. What right did he have, really, to do what he was about to do?

On the other hand, if he encouraged this relationship, he knew that he would never be out from under its constant demands. And his family would never be free of the scandal, as long as Maddie Turcott stayed in town. It was unfortunate that this child had to be the loser, but there didn’t seem to be anything more he could do about that, than to offer his mother enough money to set herself up decently somewhere else, if she chose. Some little business, maybe, something that could support her and the boy. Other women did it. It was really out of his hands. He took another step, and the boy looked up.

"Howdy, Mr. Cannon."

John was surprised that the child remembered who he was. After all, he had only seen him twice, and spent no time in his company. "Hello, there," he replied.

"You here to see my ma?"

Again, John was shaken by the boy’s perspicacity. "Yes," he fumbled, "yes, I am, is she inside?"

"Yes, sir, I reckon. You want me to git her?"

"No," replied John. "I can find her. You go on and play. And be careful with those marbles,’ he added, somewhat inanely. "Somebody could fall on them, if they roll out onto the sidewalk."

Pauly looked at him quizzically, then nodded, as if he was used to adults saying inane things. "Yes, sir,’ he answered, politely, "I know," and he went back to his game.

John pushed through the swinging doors to the saloon and stepped inside. There was a pretty good lunch crowd, and several of the hostesses where moving among the tables.

"’Afternoon, Mr. Cannon," Mike called from behind the bar. "What can I get for you?"

"Hello, Mike," said John. "Actually, I was looking for someone. One of your hostesses."

Mike looked at him oddly. "Any one in particular?" he asked. Of all of his clientele, John Cannon was the last person he’d expect to have anything to do with a saloon girl. On the other hand, Mike was not a man to be surprised by much, and he had made a good living out of minding his own business.

"Yes, actually," John replied, realizing suddenly how it must look to the other man. Still, he had come too far to stop, now. "I was looking for Miss Turcott."

Mike looked around. "I guess she ain’t down, yet," he said. "Least, I don’t see her. You can go on up, though, last door on the left."

John nodded his thanks and went to the stairs, feeling very awkward. He couldn’t help wondering, as he mounted them, how many times his brother and his brother-in-law, and even his ranch hands, may have climbed those same stairs with a different purpose in mind. And thinking about that made him to hope that no one he knew was watching. He had to fight himself not to look back down into the saloon proper to see.

He found Maddie’s door easily enough, and knocked on it.

"Who is it?"

"Miss Turcott? It’s John Cannon. I’d like to have a word with you, if I could."

There was no answer, but he could hear movement on the other side of the door, and after a moment it opened. The woman stood in the doorway, her hair slightly disheveled, still, from sleep, or some other activity he did not care to contemplate. She had pulled a dressing gown around her, but he could tell that she had little on underneath.

"What do you want?" she asked him, warily.

"I’d like to talk to you," he said. "In private. May I?" He gestured toward the interior of the room. She appeared to be alone in it, at least.

Maddie smirked a little as she nodded. "By all means," she replied, stepping aside to let him enter.

John didn’t know what he had expected, so he didn’t know why he should be surprised. The room was very small, and quite untidy, the bed unmade, with woman’s trinkets and undergarments strewn more or less at random over what furniture there was. It smelled of stale perfume and the musk of human occupancy. He found it cloying… and disturbingly arousing.

"Would you care to sit down?" Maddie asked, her voice husky. John looked at her in alarm, and saw that she was laughing at him; she had obviously recognized his particular state of discomfort.

"No, thank you," he said, looking away, again. This time, his eyes fell on the shabby screen in the corner of the room, and the small cot behind it. The child’s bed, he supposed. Of course he would live in the middle of all of this. Where else? And again, John felt a stab of guilt at the purpose of his mission.

"So what is it you want to talk to me about, Mr. Cannon?"

John took a breath. "Miss Turcott, I have an offer to make you. And I advise you to consider it carefully, because it’s the only one I’m going to make. I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that your presence here in Tucson is going to prove very embarrassing for my family. In fact, I’m sure you’ve been counting on that. Now, I don’t deny that my brother may have some responsibility toward you, if, in fact, that child out there is really his…" He paused to allow Maddie to comment. She did not, she did not react at all. John pursed his lips. "You’re a pretty cool customer, Miss Turcott. And I’m guessing you’re a pretty smart woman, too. So I know you’ll believe me when I tell you this. I’m going to offer you a substantial sum of money for your trouble, but that offer comes with certain conditions…"

Maddie looked at him curiously. "How substantial?"

"Two thousand dollars," John replied.

Maddie shrugged noncommittally. "And the conditions?"

"That you and the child leave Tucson. As soon as possible. You can go anywhere you’d like, as long as it’s away from here. I’ll even buy your tickets, over and above the two thousand dollars. But I want you out of town, and preferably out of Arizona Territory. This is the only offer I’m prepared to make, and there will be no more money after this. I trust you understand that."

"I understand that you’re trying to buy me off," said Maddie.

"Under the circumstances," replied John, "I would think you’d be grateful."

Maddie thought about that for a moment. "That boy is your brother’s son, you know," she reminded him, finally, though there was no particular challenge in her voice.

"Perhaps," John agreed. "So you say, though I think you’d have a difficult time proving that. However, I’m willing to concede the possibility, and it’s because of that possibility that I’m willing to offer you anything at all. Two thousand dollars is not a small sum of money, Miss Turcott," he added, somewhat pompously. "If you invest it wisely, it could give you and the boy a decent start in a different kind of life." He glanced around the room, again, his distaste obvious.

"We live the kind of life we can afford to live, Mr. Cannon," Maddie replied acidly. She took a deep breath. "What if I refuse?" she continued.

John nodded, having expected that question. "This is the only offer I’m prepared to make, as I told you. You would be wise to believe that. If you refuse, there will be nothing else. I want you out of Tucson, Miss Turcott. And you want money. It’s as simple as that."

Maddie didn’t answer him. Taking her silence for acquiescence, John reached into his vest pocket and drew out a small bundle of greenbacks. "There’s five hundred dollars, here," he said. "As a show of good faith. The rest of the money you get when you get on the stage. Now, there’s one that leaves for Yuma in three days time. And another that leaves later the same day for El Paso, if you’d rather go in the other direction. You’ve got your choice. I’ll be back at that time, to buy your tickets and give you the rest of your money." He held out the packet. "I trust we have an agreement?"

Maddie just looked at him. Then she sighed and took the money. She looked at it curiously, and smiled.

"You know," she said, "I could take this money, and still refuse to leave. You’ve got no witnesses to say you ever gave it to me."

"I would not recommend you do that," John replied darkly. "I’m not a good man to cross, Miss Turcott. What I’ve offered you is fair. I suggest you accept it. I can promise you that you won’t like the alternative, if you decide try anything underhanded."

Maddie looked back at the packet, contemplating it for a moment longer, and then she tossed it onto the bureau. She didn’t say anything to John, but he accepted her gesture as one of agreement.

"Good," he said. "I’ll be back in three days time, as I said, with the rest of the money and to see you on your way." He turned toward the still open door. "Good day, Miss Turcott."

Maddie watched him go. As soon as she heard his heels on the stairs, she dropped down onto the bed and sighed. Her knees were shaking, which surprised her. She wasn’t usually so easily spooked. But there was something about that man that chilled her right to the bone. His veiled threat had been honest, too, she knew that. She glanced at the packet of greenbacks on the bureau. A fair amount of money, all by itself. It might take her six months on her back to make even half of that. Perhaps she should take it, and the fifteen hundred additional, go ahead and cut her losses and run. Two thousand dollars was a very substantial sum, as Cannon had said. And more to the point, if he was there offering her money to leave, it was damned unlikely that she was ever going to get his brother to marry her. She’d been stupid to think she might have had a chance. Buck Cannon was apparently too much of a coward to do his own dirty work, he left it to that cold eyed, cold voiced brother of his to do it for him. On the other hand, what did it really matter? Her original plan had only been to jack some money out of the Cannons and she had been successful in that. It had proved a lot easier than most of her gigs, too. This other was just her big ideas getting the better of her, nothing more.

And it did solve another problem. If she took the money and ran, she could probably get out of town before Blake McDermott found out she was even missing. Two thousand dollars could take her a long way. Maybe even all the way to Canada. There was gold up there, she’d heard, even more plentiful than the gold in California. And gold camps were always good places for a smart woman to make a little money. Might be a just what she needed to make a fresh start.

It was Pauly’s voice, drifting up from the boardwalk below, though, that decided her. She could hear him calling good-bye to Cannon as he left. She did not hear Cannon reply; she guessed such niceties were beneath such a man. Standing up again, she picked up the bills, and tossed them into the top drawer of the bureau. Then she went to the window and called Pauly inside.

About the same time John, in Tucson, was handing Maddie Turcott the banded stack of twenty dollar greenbacks, Buck Cannon, up on the eastern end of the Chaparral north range, was wiping the sweat out of his eyes, and trying to stare down the half strung distance of fence line. His brother had been right about one thing, he had one hell of a hot sun to do his thinking under. What thinking he could do, that was. He felt like his brains were cooking. It had to be a hundred and ten, out there, at least.

The fence was going up smoothly enough. There wasn't much to it, really; dig a ditch, set a pole in it, string a piece of barbed wire across it, and nail the sucker down. True, one needed to pay attention, the wire was razor sharp and in that sun, fiery to handle. A wrong move could get a man torn up pretty badly. But the task required far more brute strength than brain power, so any gray cells left unboiled that he was able to muster, Buck was free to use contemplating his brand new status as somebody's father. And the more he thought about it, the more convince he became about what he wanted to do.

It had taken a while for the initial shock to wear off, though Buck knew he might have excepted it, someday. His devil-may-care attitude when it came to whiskey and women meant that he had been less than fastidious about many of his encounters over the years. He supposed it was a wonder that there weren't a whole army of little Buck Cannons out there somewhere. The thought gave him enough pause to actually be a little scary. He pushed it away. One problem at a time, of that nature, was plenty for him. He had enough trouble, already.

The existence of the child was something that made sense to him, as embarrassing as it might be to admit that. But as hard as he tried, he really could not remember Madeline Turcott. Not that it meant anything conclusive, he knew that. Those years after the war before he and John were reunited, and his brother had sold him on the dream of a cattle ranch in Arizona, were still something of a blur to him. They'd been desperate years, then, when he, like so many of his compatriots, had simply run from one moment to the next, run from the war, from the memories, from the loneliness. From himself. And run, far too often, into the bottoms of too many whiskey bottles, and the arms of too many women, trying to forget.

Still, he did remember Dodge City, and he very clearly remembered one woman in it. Lizzie Dickerson. She'd been a sweet little thing, delicate, almost innocent in a lot of ways. And much too soft for her profession, if she wanted to survive. On the other hand, she was very much the kind of woman some cow driver was likely to find, coming through town, take a fancy to, and marry, despite the way she made her living. Such things did happen, more often than most people probably realized. Had he been more stable, himself, at the time, Buck might even have done it, he had taken that much to the girl. But he'd been just a drifter then, less that that, even, with no prospects and little more in his pocket than a bout of day labor or a lucky hand at cards might win him. Certainly no kind of catch for any woman. Not even a whore. It troubled him that she had taken her own life. He wondered what had driven her to do it. Lizzie had always seemed so bright and happy to him, like a little bird. And it dawned on him, remembering, that for a while she had made him happy, too. It was two bad, how things had turned out. If, of course, that Maddie Turcott wasn't just lying.

The most troubling thing for Buck, though, was that fact that if he could remember Lizzie Dickerson so clearly, then why not Maddie Turcott. She was certainly a pretty woman, the kind he might remember, even if he had encountered her years ago. Of course, Lizzie hadn't been the only woman he had enjoyed in Dodge. And there was no denying that that boy of Maddie's looked so much like a Cannon it was almost uncanny. Pauly Turcott had to belong to him, either that or to John, and the likelihood of that being the case was so remote it almost made Buck smile to think of it. And in any case, John had been no where near Dodge during the right time, or Buck would have known about it. No, there was little doubt that the boy was his.

By the strictest rules of propriety, Buck supposed he probably ought to marry the woman. After all, it was what one did with the mother of one’s child. Blue had certainly considered it the appropriate response, though Buck imagined John sure wouldn’t be too happy about it. Not that it mattered, Buck was not ready to go to that extreme. He had told Blue that Maddie wasn’t the kind of woman men married, but it was more than that. It wasn’t just Maddie Turcott’s profession that made Buck balk. Had she been someone he otherwise wanted, he might have just said the devil with it and married her anyway, his brother's opinions be damned. There was something else about the woman that Buck just did not trust. She might be attractive, but there was something so deeply cold and cynical about her that it made his skin crawl. It was enough to make him wondered how much whiskey it had actually taken to get him warmed up enough to get her with child in the first place. Though, apparently he had, that much was certain. The question, now, was what to do about it.

He knew what John would say, of course. His brother would recommend paying out some equitable sum, and calling it square, as if some piece of livestock had strayed and done damage. It wasn’t that John was hard-hearted, but Buck knew his brother, and he knew that John would consider monetary remuneration as sufficient compensation and would simply not see that there might be more to it than that. And in all fairness to John, in those first few hours of shock, Buck had been ready to agree with him. He was no longer so sure, though.

He looked down the fence line to where his nephew was stringing wire with Joe Butler. Blue hadn’t been much older than Pauly was now when the war had broken out, and Buck had separated from his brother’s family. He had lost more years of Blue’s growing up than he liked to count, years when the boy moved from being a child onto the brink of manhood. And his memories of those earlier years, before the war, when Blue had dogged his heels like a pet puppy, tugged at him painfully. He missed them, so, those easy, happy times when they had all been young and full of hope, and Blue had looked to his Uncle Buck like a hero. Years gone now, and so much time wasted.

And Pauly Turcott was his own boy! Buck Cannon wasn’t just somebody’s "Uncle Buck" anymore, he was a father! And he had already lost so many years of the boy’s life. No matter what John’s opinion might be on the subject, and no matter his own distaste for Maddie Turcott, Pauly was his child, and nothing was going to change that. Buck didn’t know much, but the more he thought about it, the greater became his conviction that he must get to know his son, have some influence in the boy’s upbringing. He couldn’t lose this chance. Never in his life had he felt a thing so strongly.

Watching Joe and Blue, he came to a decision. "Hey Joe!" he shouted. "Joe Butler!"

Joe looked up and wiped the sweat off his neck with his bandanna. He wasn’t particularly happy with Buck Cannon at that moment, if the truth were known. It was hotter than blazes in that sun, and running fence was about the worst work a man could do in any weather, as far as Joe was concerned. He was sweaty and tired, and the day was nowhere near over, yet. And Buck had been worse than useless, woolgathering most of the time away, too distracted to even issue useful orders, let alone help in any more material way. If that fence stood for more than half an hour once the herd encountered it, it would only be because men like Joe Butler were conscientious, and knew what they were doing, in Joe’s opinion.

"Yeah, Buck," he all but growled. "Whadaya want?"

If Buck even heard the annoyance in Joe’s voice, though, he simply ignored it. "Joe, you think you kin ramrod this operation fo’ a while? I gotta run me a erran’."

If possible, Joe’s expression only got more sour. "What kinda errand?"

"Yeah, Uncle Buck," Blue piped in. "Where ya goin’?"

"I gotta go into Tucson fo’ sumpthin’," Buck said.

"You gonna go see Miss Turcott about Pauly?"

Buck scowled at his nephew, and did not answer immediately. "I dunno, Blue-boy, yeah, mebbe," he hedged finally. "Might be tha’s where I’m goin’."

Joe looked from one Cannon to the other, then back at Buck, again. His annoyance tempered gradually in the face of the other man’s troubled expression. Sure Buck was distracted, but then, thinking about it, Joe figured he had good reason to be.

"Yeah, Buck, sure," he conceded. "Go on. We can managed here."

"Thank you, Joe," Buck sighed, clapping the other man on the back, his voice so full of gratitude that Joe finally dismissed all the bad things he’d been thinking. Buck nodded and walked away toward his horse. Looking after him, Blue opened his mouth to call out, only to have Joe whack him in the arm, hard. He looked, and Joe shook his head.

"But…" Blue sputtered.

"Never mind him," Joe said. "Leave it alone. Come on, now, we’ve got work to do. This damned devil wire ain’t gonna string itself." He looked up at the sky. "Looks like it’s starting to cloud over, at least. Get us out o’ this miserable sun. So long as it don’t start rainin’ til we git home."

III

It was only luck that Buck and John missed each other coming from and going to Tucson. Buck picked up the road from the north range less than ten minutes after John had already passed the intersection heading for home. So when he rode up to that Tucson saloon, Buck had no idea that his brother had already been there. Pauly was nowhere in sight as he walked up to the swinging doors, a fact that disappointed Buck more than he’d expected. He pushed through and walked around the low shield wall to find the interior very nearly deserted, lunch being well over, and the late afternoon crowd yet to arrive.

"Hey, Buck!" called Mike, from behind the bar. "Busy day for the Cannons, huh?"

"Howdy, Mike. Whatchu talkin’ about?"

But Mike didn’t get a chance to answer.

"Jesus Christmas."

Buck turned to see Maddie standing about midway to the bottom of the stairs. Still reeling from her discussion with John, Buck Cannon was the last person she expected, or wanted, to see.

"What the hell are you doin’ here, now? You come to make me a better offer? Or you just here to make sure I take yer brother’s?"

"Hey!" Mike snapped. "You watch that kinda language in here, awright?"

Maddie glared, but she bit her tongue. Until she decided for sure what she was going to do, she couldn’t afford to lose the bartender’s good will.

"Sorry, Mike," she said, coming the rest of the way down the stairs. "Well?" she challenged Buck.

Buck just looked at her blankly. "Ma’am, I don’t rightly know whatchu mean. Take my brother’s what?"

"Aw, knock it off. I ain’t a fool, ya know, whatever you an’ that brother o’ yours seem to think."

"Miss Turcott, ma’am," Buck flustered, "I doan got the slightest idea whatchu talkin’ about. I never thought you was no fool. "

Now it was Maddie’s turn to stare. "You really don’t know, do you?"

"No ma’am. Know what? I do wish you’d speak plain, ma’am."

Maddie considered carefully before answering. If John Cannon had really come on his errand without his brother’s knowledge, then that could very well change everything. This ball might not be over, by a long shot.

"What I’m talkin’ about," she said, "is that not an hour ago yer brother walked into my room, plain as you’re standin’ there, and he offered me two thousand dollars to leave town and take Pauly with me."

For a moment, Buck just looked at her blankly. Then slowly, his expression settled into grim comprehension.

"John done that?" he asked.

"He did."

"Two thousand dollas?"

Maddie nodded. "For my trouble, he said. Said if I invested it well, it would give us a fresh start, someplace other than Tucson. He was real particular about that." She snorted sourly as she said the words. "Gave me five hundred on account, the other fifteen hundred to come when he saw us on that stage outta town. You’re welcome to have a look at the money, if you don’t believe me."

"No, ma’am. I believe you," Buck replied. It was exactly the kind of thing John would do, going behind his back. "My brother jist fo’got to let me in on the plan befo’ he come see you, is all." He looked at her as the shock dissipated, to be replaced by cold anger. "Whatchu fixin’ to do?"

Maddie decided to take a chance on a version of the truth. "I was figgerin’ to take it," she said. "I thought the offer was comin’ from you, an’ since I figgered you didn’t care about havin’ nothing to do with me nor the boy, I didn’t know what else to do." She shrugged. "Two thousand dollars is a lot o’ money. That boy deserves somethin’ at least."

Buck didn’t react visibly until Maddie’s suggestion that he might not want anything to do with his son.

"Damnation take that man!" he cursed angrily. "Jist who do he think he is decidin’ this thing fo’ me? No, I din’t send him into town to offer you money, and yes, as a matter o’ fact, I do care to have somethin’ to do with my boy. I do. Alla this time I been studyin’ on what’s the best thing to do, by my-own-sel’, and here’s my own brother tryin’ to back-shoot me!"

Maddie took a step back under the force of Buck’s sudden outburst, and he noticed enough to try to gain control of his anger.

"Ma’am," he said more gently. "I doan want you an’ Pauly to leave town. In fact, I’d be much obliged if you would stay here, fo’ a while innyway, iffn you would. I wunt blame you none iffn you decided to leave, bein’ as how my brother done insulted you this way, but I would appreciate it iffn you all would think on that some mo’ befo’ you do. You see, ma’am, I really do care ‘bout what happens to that little boy. I do, ma’am."

"Stay for what, might I ask?" Maddie pushed him, sensing the upper hand. "Like I said, two thousand dollars is a lot of money. I don’t see that you’ve got anything more to offer me."

"Now, you doan know that, Miss Maddie," Buck protested, although he, himself, could not imagine what more than John’s two thousand dollars he might entice her with. After all, as she had said, it was a lot of money. "I might jist have somethin’ else to offer." He hesitated before continuing. "But you see, ma’am, it’s like this. I doan even hardly know that boy, and he’s my own son an’ all. An’, well, ma’am, I’d like to do that. Git to know him some. I’d like to have that chanct. Iffn it’s all right wit’ you."

Maddie went from pleasure to dismay in the time it took Buck to finish his sentence. The very idea that he might be willing to consider "something else" she could only take as extremely promising. And he was so obviously angry with his brother’s peremptory actions that she might just be able to swing his sympathies her way, if she was careful, and clever, about it. She might just win herself a new name and a new place, after all, the idea wasn’t completely farfetched, perhaps. But she had not taken into account the idea that Buck might actually want his own relationship with the child.

"Get to know him?"

"Why yes, ma’am," Buck replied earnestly. "You know, spend some time wit’ him, take him places. Show him things. They’s lotsa things a boy needs his pa to show him. Things a pa does wit’ his boy…"

"You wanna visit him, regular, then?" Maddie asked, wondering if there was some way she could leverage this interest.

"Wall, ma’am, I was kinda thinkin’ mebbe I might bring him out to the Chaparral fo’ a visit," he said. In fact, Buck had only just thought of it. But even as the words left his mouth, he knew it was what he wanted to do, more than anything.

Maddie, however, wasn’t so sure. Buck’s interest was completely outside her calculations. In her experience, men might be made to feel guilty, and more often could be encouraged to avoid public scandal, but they did not, as a rule, have much interest in the reality of small children. Not on a personal level. She had never considered the idea that Buck might be an exception, though she could see from his expression that he was certainly sincere enough.

"What about your brother?" she edged for time to think. "He figgers I’m gettin’ ready to leave town. I don’t see how he’s gonna be too happy if you show up home with the boy in tow."

"Oh, doanchu worry none about Big John," Buck replied coldly. "I got me a few thousand things I wanna say to him ‘bout all this, you kin rest a-ssured o' that."

Maddie hardly heard him. She was already running the possibilities through her head, and she was beginning to see certain advantages. Although Buck did not yet seem ready to entertain the idea of a more familiar relationship with her, herself, it could only be to her benefit if he developed such a relationship with the boy. If he could be encouraged to form an attachment there, it was only a short step, wasn’t it, from the "son" to the "mother?" And getting Pauly out of Tucson had certain attractions, too. For one thing, it kept the boy away from the possibility of some chance meeting with Blake McDermott, who still might intentionally or inadvertently tell him the truth about his real mother. For that matter, having Pauly on the High Chaparral might lessen the chances of Buck and Blake running into each other, too. Which might not be a bad idea, either, now that she thought about it. And it would certainly be a relief to surrender that constant burden of responsibility. Still, she hedged.

"I don’t know, Buck, to be honest. He’s still such a little thing. And he ain’t been away from me much, before. I don’t know how he’d take to it."

"Aw, he’ll be fine, Miss Maddie, ma’am," Buck replied enthusiastically. "Why they’s lotsa things fo’ a boy to do on a workin’ cattle ranch. He’ll have a real good time, lotsa fresh air and exercise an’ all…"

Maddie considered that. "Well, I suppose it would be kinda nice to have him out from under foot for a while," she agreed. "Yeah, I don’t see why you shouldn’t have some of the bother. Sure, take him. Why not. Be a nice change, after all these years."

"Sure, it would be, ma’am."

She looked up at Buck warily. "What about that five hundred dollars your brother already gave me? You’ll be wantin’ that back, I suppose."

Buck shook his head. "No ma’am, you keep that. Git the boy some things he’s gonna need, an’ all. An’ you oughta be usin’ that letter o’ credit Big John give you to get some rooms besides in this here saloon, too, ma’am." He added generously. "You oughta git outta this place…"

Maddie smiled, finally. "Why, that’s right generous, Buck. When would you want to come collect the boy?"

"Well, I could take him right now, ma’am… Or better, how about tomarra? Give me a chanct to set things straight wit’ my brother fust."

Even seeing his eagerness, the suggestion surprised her. "Oh, tomorrow’s too soon, Buck, you know that. There’s things I’ve gotta buy him, and I’ve gotta get him all packed… Say two days from now?"

Buck look crestfallen at the delay, but he could only concede her point, after all. "Yes, ma’am, you right. You do got things to do fo’ the boy. I din’t think o’ that. Two days from today, then. That will be fine." He hesitated. "Kin I see him, though? Jist fo’ a minute?"

But Maddie was not about to let anything spoil this new development. She had no idea how Pauly was going to react, and she wanted a chance to prepare him first. Besides, it wouldn’t hurt to keep Buck waiting, and wanting, a little.

"He’s having a nap." Of course, Pauly hadn’t taken an afternoon nap in years, he was upstairs playing in their room, but there was no way Buck would know that.

"Why sho’ ma’am. I din’t think," he replied innocently. "Wall, then, I giss I’ll jist be gittin’ along then." He started to back away. "I’ll see you in two days. An’ doan chu worry none about Big John, ma’am, I’ll take care o’ him…"

And he was gone, leaving Maddie standing in the middle of the saloon floor, trying to take in what had actually happened. After a moment she turned, and headed back up the stairs, leaving Mike behind to wipe down his glasses, alone, in anticipation of the evening’s trade.

"John!!! John Cannon!!! John, I wanta talk to you! Right now!"

Buck’s anger reverberated throughout the house as he stormed through the front door, bellowing. It brought Victoria out of the kitchen where she had been putting the final preparations on dinner, it brought Blue down from his bedroom. It brought Manolito in from the yard. His entire family stood agape and stared at him as he thundered into the living room.

Well, almost his entire family. The one person he did not rout, immediately, was the object of his wrath. John had been anticipating his brother’s anger since Blue had come home with the news that Buck had gone into town to see Maddie Turcott, and he had retreated to his office to await his brother's return. He spent most of that time trying to figure out what he was going to say to him. And in truth, John had begun thinking about what, if anything, he was going to say to his brother, almost from the moment he’d left that Tucson saloon. He been so troubled, in fact, that he’d completely forgotten to check the post office for his contracts before he’d left town, and he was still so disturbed that the oversight had not yet occurred to him.

John Cannon was not a man to second guess his decisions. He’d lived a long life, already, with very few real regrets. But he’d had an entire hot, dusty ride home to think about what he had done, and even before he’d left sight of town he’d begun to regret his interference. If Madeline Turcott decided to take him up on his offer, he might be depriving Buck of the only son he’d ever have. And he’d all but condemned an innocent child to a life of desperation. His brother’s child. His actions had been selfish and underhanded, and possibly a little cruel. What he had done, more than anything else, was betray his brother’s trust, and that realization ate at him miserably.

He could renege on the offer, of course, except that to do so, now, would make them all even more vulnerable to whatever Maddie Turcott had originally had up her sleeve. He had played them right into her hands. More than once, on the trip home, he’d almost turned around, except for this fact, and the fact that he really didn’t know what he could say to the woman that would make any sense. He hoped she would change her mind and decide not to take his offer, after all. It was the only way he could see out of the mess he had gotten himself and his brother into, with his interference.

If the woman chose to take his money, on the other hand, he didn’t see that there was anything else he could do but go through with it. Or tell Buck what he had done, and let him decide for himself what to do about it. Of course, all that had been before he’d known that Buck was already on his way to Tucson. John didn’t know whether that made him feel better or worse. So he sat in his office and waited for his brother to come home again. Waited to face him.

"John!!"

Victoria met him first. "Buck, what is it?" she asked, stunned by her brother-in-law’s behavior. "Why are you shouting?"

Buck wheeled on her. "What it is, Victoria, is that that husband o’ yourn done offered Miss Madeline Turcott two thousand dolla’s to take my boy an’ git outa Tucson!" he shouted. "You ‘splain to me how he could do a thing like that!" He didn’t wait for her to reply. "Now, where is he?!"

"I’m right here, Buck," said John, quietly, coming out of his study. He stopped at the foot of the stairs.

"John?" asked Victoria, uncertainly. "Is it true? What Buck is saying?"

He nodded at no one in particular. "Yes. I’m afraid it is."

"Oh, John, why?"

Buck did not wait for him to answer Victoria’s question.

"Of all the low-down, dirty, rotten, back-stabbin’… John how could you? How could you…" he charged his brother, and for a moment, both Blue and Manolito were genuinely afraid that he was going to attack him.

"Buck, amigo," Manolito moved in quickly, grabbing the other man’s arm. "Calm yourself, hombre."

"I won’t!" Buck shouted, jerking his arm free. "John, you done some pretty cold and heartless things in yo’ life, but …"

"Buck…"

"…ta go behin’ my back an’ try an’ deprive me…"

"Buck."

"…o’ my own child… to offer his mother money to leave town and take him away from me without so much as askin’ me iffn I had anythin’ to say about it…"

"Buck!!"

For an instant, John’s shout stopped his brother’s tirade. Buck glared at him with something akin to hatred. "That were wrong, John. That were the wrongest thing you ever done," he concluded, a little more quietly.

"I know," John replied. "Buck, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say to you. I shouldn’t have done it. I’m just very, very sorry."

Buck wasn’t sure what he expected, exactly, but it certainly wasn’t the abject apology in his brother’s voice. It stopped him cold.

"You are?"

"Yes, Buck, I am. You have every right to be angry. I had no business."

"But…" Buck wasn’t quite sure how to react. "But why, John? What was you thinkin’?"

John Cannon just shook his head. "I don’t really know. I thought I was thinking about the family, about saving them embarrassment. About what would be best for all of us. I don’t know, maybe I was only thinking about my own inconvenience. And for the last couple of hours," he sighed, "I’ve been trying to think of a way out of it."

"Wall, you doan need to worry about that, no mo’, brother John," Buck said, still a little baffled. "I done took care o’ that."

"You’ve talked to her, then?"

"Yeah, John. I talked to her. I tol’ her she could keep that five hunnered dolla’s you already give her." He eyed his brother, waiting for a protest, but John only nodded. "An’ I also," he continued, "asked her an’ the boy not to leave town like you wanted."

"What did she say?"

"She’s stayin’. At least fo’ a while."

Cannon nodded. "I’m glad, Buck. As a matter of fact, I’m relieved."

"An’ John?," Buck wasn’t quite finished. "You might as well know, I aim to bring Pauly out to the Chaparral fo’ a little visit."

John paused a beat. "Oh. I see."

"I trust you doan got no problem wit’ that? I mean, Chaparral still be my home too, doan it?"

"No… yes… I mean, no, I don’t have a problem," John stumbled. "Of course the High Chaparral is your home, Buck. How, um… how long to you expect the boy to be staying with us?"

Buck shrugged. "I doan rightly know. Two-three weeks I giss. Mebbe a little longer, we ain't really talked about that. Long enough fo’ us to git to know one another. After all, he do be my boy, an’ all. An’ I am his pa."

"Yes, yes of course," John replied quickly, not quite sure how to respond to this new development, but recognizing that events had already slipped out of his grasp.

It was Victoria who asked the obvious question. "But what about his mother, Buck?"

Buck turned to her. "Miss Maddie? What about her?"

"Well… will she not mind being separated from her little boy? She does not object to your bringing him all the way out here on his own?"

At that, Buck grinned. "Why, heck no, Victoria," he almost laughed. "Why, she’ll be glad to git the boy out from unner foot fo’ a while. Least, tha’s what she tol’ me."

"When’s he comin’, Uncle Buck?" Blue asked, his voice edged with excitement.

"The day afta tomarra, Blue-boy," Buck replied happily. "You wanta come wit’ me when I go ta git him?"

"Sure!"

"Two days…" murmured John.

"Oh, Buck…" said Victoria. "But there is so much to do! We must prepare a bedroom for him, and… what sorts of things does he like to eat, do you know?" Victoria went off enumerating the various preparations she foresaw.

"Now… just a minute…" John interrupted, suddenly feeling a little left out of all the decision making. Buck turned to him.

"Sumpthin’ wrong, Big John?" he asked, with just the tiniest bit of threat still in his voice. John sighed and shook his head, surrendering.

"No, nothing wrong," he replied. "I was just going to ask if it might be possible to adjourn all this planning to the dinner table. I don’t know about anyone else, but I could eat a horse."

"What John?" Victoria asked, looking a little blank. Then his question registered. "Why, yes, of course. Everything is ready, shall we sit down?" And she took Buck’s arm, and launched right back into their discussion.

Beside them, Manolito just shook his head. "Aye, yi, yi… this should prove a very different kind of experience…" he commented to no one in particular. Then he caught his brother-in-law’s scowl, and had to stop himself from laughing out loud.

It wasn’t until after dinner that John was able to find a moment alone with his brother.

"Buck," he began, tentatively, having followed him out onto the porch.

"Big John, I still ain’t so sure we’s on speakin’ terms, jist yit, you an’ me," Buck said, without looking at him. "I still ain’t too happy ‘bout whatchu done."

"No, I reckon you’ve got every right not to be," John agreed.

Buck did look at him, then. "You know, John," he sighed. "I doan quite know how to handle it, you bein’ so a-pol-o-getic an’ all. Ain’t like you. I ain’t had no practice at it."

John chuckled. "Well, I’d like to think I’m man enough to admit when I’ve been wrong."

"And you was sure wrong, Big John," Buck reiterated. "You was powerful wrong."

"Yes, I was," his brother agreed mildly. "I admit it."

Buck gave him a jaundiced look, then, finding him no longer a satisfying target for his ire, smiled grudgingly. John smiled back.

"You think you’ll be able to forgive me?"

"Wall, they sure ain’t much use in stayin’ mad at chu, iffn you gonna act like this," Buck grumbled. John laughed. "I s’pose weren’t no permanent harm done. Yeah, I reckon I fo’give you."

"Thank you, brother Buck," said John, meaning it. He looked up at the night sky. There were clouds, but the cover was patchy, breaking up, and he could see stars twinkling through it. It hadn’t rained and that troubled him, but he was glad enough there hadn’t been another lightning storm. There was thunder rumbling in the distance, but at least for the moment it appeared that any impending tempest was holding itself at bay. "Buck, about the boy coming here…"

"You got a problem with that, brother John?"

John looked at him quickly. "No, Buck. Your son is welcome here. I mean that. That’s not what I was trying to say. It’s not the boy… Buck, I do have a problem, though. And that’s with the mother. I don’t like that woman. And I don’t trust her. She’s going to be trouble for us, I can just feel it."

Buck nodded. "I don’t trust her much, neither, John," he agreed. "But I reckon that’s gonna be my problem to deal with."

"And I should stop meddling in your business," John sighed.

"Sumpthin’ like that," Buck agreed, without rancor. "Leastways, the next time you get a hankerin’ to interfere, I’d a-preciate it, iffn you’d talk it over with me first. I doan like surprises."

John laughed. "It’s a deal," he agreed, clapping his brother on the back.

"Wall, John," said Buck, "’less you got sumpthin’ else you wanta talk about, I think I’ll mosey on down to the bunkhouse. I wanta see how my frien’, Sam Butler, is feelin’ tonight. I got a favor to ask him," he added, almost as an afterthought, "iffn he’s feelin’ up to it."

"No, nothing else. Goodnight, Buck," John replied. "I’ll see you in the morning, then."

"G’night, John," said Buck and he walked away toward the bunkhouse as his brother watched him thoughtfully. John did not go back into the house until he had disappeared.

SMALL WONDER

I

John didn't exactly forbid Manolito to accompany Buck and Blue into Tucson; he neither would, nor actually could, do such a thing. He did, however, ask him to stay home as Buck prepared for the trip, and he made it clear that the request was something very important to him. He knew that Manolito rarely missed the opportunity for a trip into town.

"I just want this whole thing to go smoothly and quickly, that's all," he argued. "I want them to get into town, get the boy, and get back home again, with no detours and no distractions."

"Compadre…" Manolito protested, looking wounded. "Surely you do not believe that I would in any way encourage such detours or distractions as you fear? I am hurt, John, I am, truly."

"Now, Mano," John flustered, "I didn't mean to imply that you would do anything intentionally, of course not. But when you and my brother get together, things just have a habit of happening, even if nobody plans it, even if you're not even in the same place when they do, and I just don't want to find my son and that child stranded in the middle of some Tucson street while you two alley cats try to get yourselves out of whatever sort of mess you've gotten into!"

By the time he had finished, John managed to work himself up pretty well over the whole business, and Manolito could no longer contain his mirth at his brother-in-law's distress.

"Amigo, calma," he sputtered, laughing. "John, I have no intention of accompanying Buck and Blue into Tucson this morning."

"You don't?" asked John, a little sheepishly.

"No," Manolito insisted, still chuckling. "Of course not. And not because of any bad influence I might inadvertently exercise over your brother." He reached over and clapped the other man on the back affectionately. "You underestimate me, John. This task, this journey, this is something for your brother to do. And his nephew with him, that is appropriate. But this is a family matter. It is something they should undertake alone together… like a pilgrimage, no?"

John wasn't exactly sure about the pilgrimage part, but he did have the good grace to recognize that he had, in fact, underestimated the other man. What Manolito had realized from the beginning, and what John was now realizing, himself, was that he was still very uneasy about this whole affair. Buck's son, there on the Chaparral with them… as sorry as he was for what he had tried to do, John still had a hard time accepting the idea that the child was going to part of his family, was family already in the strictest sense of the word. He wasn't about to renege on his brother, but the whole thing did upset his sense of proportion in the world.

"I'm sorry, Mano," he sighed. "I guess this whole thing just has me a little bit tense."

Manolito nodded. "It does all of us, I think," he agreed. "We are all a little on edge. It is I who am sorry, I should not have made a joke about it."

Any further exchange of apologies was interrupted, though, as Buck and Blue came out of the house, followed by Victoria.

"Now, Buck, you will remember to stop at Mr. Clarkson's store and buy some fruit for the ride home? It is a long way for such a little boy and he will be hungry. But no candy, you do not want him to spoil his supper."

"Victoria, honey, I do love you, I do. You are my very favorite sister-in-law, but will you please quitcher fussin'?" Buck sighed, exasperated. Victoria had been filling him with such good advice since breakfast. "I done made this trip a hunnerd times if I done made it oncet."

"Yes, but never in the company of a small child," Victoria insisted, undaunted. "He is not as strong as you and Blue. And the sun is very not today."

"Now, I know that, Victoria. Tha's why we brung all that extra water, an' the sunshade. An' doan chu fret that pretty head o' yourn, I will remember to stop at Wiley's an' git some good things fo' the boy to eat on the way home."

"But no candy," Victoria reminded him.

"Aw, now, Victoria, mebbe jist a little candy. Boys like candy. But doan worry, I woan let him spoil his supper."

John didn't know whether to be amused or troubled by his brother's mood. Buck was buoyant to the point of giddiness over this visit. And even his own wife could talk of little else. Victoria seemed to have banished any consideration over who this child was or the circumstances under which he had come into the world, so excited was she to have him under her roof. And that disturbed John more than just a little. It troubled him personally, because it was just one more reminder of the depth of his wife's desire for a child of her own, a child he had so far been unable to give her. And it troubled him because he sensed already that his brother's ideas about child rearing weren't likely to mesh very well with Victoria's, and he saw a potential for conflict, there, that he didn't really know how to avoid.

"John, you want fo' us to pick up anythin' in Tucson fo' you while we there?" Buck asked as he climbed into the buckboard beside his nephew.

"No, just go get that boy and come home, safe," said John.

"Oh, doanchu worry 'bout that, none, big brother," Buck laughed. He raised his arms to slap the horses, when John stopped him.

"Buck wait, now that I'm thinking of it, there is something you could do, if you get a chance. It will only take a moment, but if you can stop by the post office, would you see if that stuff from Thomaston at the federal prison has arrived?"

"Will do, Big John!" Buck shook the reins. "Gee-yup they-ah. Yah!" he shouted and the rig jerked away and headed out the gate as the rest of his family stood by looking on.

Maddie had Pauly dressed and waiting on the side walk when Buck drove the rig up in front of the saloon.

"There he be, Blue-boy," he said to his nephew, his voice reflecting a sudden uncertainty. As high has he had been on the whole idea of having this child with him on the High Chaparral, the reality of this small boy being his son was still something that Buck found he had a hard time absorbing. The idea tended to panic him a little, to tell the truth.

Nor was he the only one experiencing a little panic at that moment, though for different reasons. Or perhaps panic was too strong a word, but it was with a definite sense of foreboding that Maddie Turcott watched the buckboard draw to a halt. She crouched down beside Pauly and fussed with the collar on his new shirt.

"Now, you be a good boy and mind yer pa, like I tol' you, you hear me?"

"Yes, ma'am," Pauly replied, fidgeting under her ministrations.

He had been resistant to the whole idea of this visit, far more so than Maddie had anticipated. Or, more exactly, he had been hesitant to go without Maddie. She realized, afterward, that she should have anticipated that. After all, she and the child had never been separated for more than a couple of days at a time in all of his life, and the idea of being away for some undefined length of time was bound to be daunting to him. Maddie did what she could to reassure him.

"You remember what we talked about, now. This is yer pa, and it's important that you git to know him, an' that he gits to know you."

"Yes, ma'am, I remember," Pauly agreed. He sounded less than convinced, however, as he glanced over his shoulder at the man in black garb descending from the buckboard. He felt his chest tighten for an instant, and wished he could just throw himself into Maddie's arms and beg her not to make him go. He sensed, however, that she would not welcome such a display, and he also understood that this trip was very important to her, although he did not truly comprehend the reasons. He did not want to disappoint her, though. Besides, he had also spotted Blue, climbing down from the buckboard, and that made him feel a little better. The younger man who was supposed to be his cousin was much less intimidating. Nonetheless, Pauly was still only a little boy.

"Can't you come too, mama?" he whispered. "I wish you was comin' too."

But Maddie was firm. "We done talked about that, too," she reminded him. "I can't come this time."

"But soon?"

"Soon, I hope so. That will all depend on you and yer pa, though. Iffn he likes you enough, then maybe he'll let me come, too. You got to work real hard on that, all right? Now, hush." She stood up as Buck came up onto the sidewalk. "Buck…"

"Miss Turcott, ma'am…" Buck touched his hat awkwardly.

"Mr. Cannon," Maddie nodded at Blue.

"Ma'am," Blue mumbled, looking everywhere but at the scene before him.

Buck crouched down on the sidewalk. "Hey, there, Pauly," he said, smiling eye-level to the child as he squatted before him. "You remember me?"

"Yes, sir, Pa," Pauly replied politely, remembering what Maddie had said, and knowing he had to make a good impression. Buck laughed and grinned up at Blue.

"See, Blue-boy, he remembers." He turned back to the boy. "You look real nice, there, pardner, I like them boots."

"Yes, sir, Mama got 'em for me. They're bran' new. She said I gotta remember to allus wear 'em on account o' there's snakes in the desert an' all."

Buck frowned, at once pleased by the boy's survival knowledge, and disappointed that Maddie had already told him things he wanted to be able to teach the boy himself. He stood up again, and faced Maddie, as if seeing her for the first time.

"Is that there his bag, ma'am?" he asked cautiously, suddenly in a hurry to be gone. He pointed to the small case at Maddie's feet.

She looked down. "Yeah… yes, it is," she replied. And in fact, everything in the case was brand new; she had spent a portion of the money John Cannon had given her on new clothes for the boy. Maddie was determined that Pauly make a good impression on the Cannons. He was her ambassador, in a way, she knew, and it wouldn't do to have him looking like some ragamuffin in clothes that were worn and didn't fit right.

"I guess this be it, then," Buck agreed, reaching down for the handle. "You all set there, boy?"

Pauly hesitated, looked to Maddie for a last minute reprieve. She knelt beside him to head off any protest.

"You have a good visit," she said. "It's a big beautiful ranch, you remember, and you'll even have yer own bedroom and all. Them Cannons got a lot o' money, so you have a good time. There'll be cows and horses, and all kinds o' things like that."

"An' you'll be comin' later?" Pauly prodded.

"I'll see you soon," Maddie did not commit herself. She hugged him, fighting unexpected tears, then stood up again, and watched silently as Buck loaded the bag, and then the boy, into the rig.

"Miss Maddie," Buck touch his hat, again, to take his leave. We all'll be seein' ya in a couple o' weeks, I giss…"

"You be good to that boy, Buck Cannon," Maddie warned with a vehemence that surprised her.

It surprised Buck, too. "Oh, I will, ma'am, you kin rest easy 'bout that. Well, good afternoon, ma'am. I'll be in touch." And he climbed into the buckboard and shook the reins at the horses. "Gen’l’men? We got us a stop to make at the Post Office fo’ Big John, an’ then it’s on fo’ home!"

As the rig moved away, Pauly turned and looked back at the one adult in his life he had ever really counted on, the one person he knew would always be there. There was fear in his eyes as he watched her recede. And Maddie was filled with a sudden terrible sense that this might be her last sight of him. She wanted to shout, to call the rig back.

"Now, ain't that touchin'."

Maddie spun around to find Blake McDermott standing in the doorway of the saloon. She batted the tears out of her eyes and glared at him.

"What are you doin' here, Blake?"

"Why, I just come by to see you, darlin'," McDermott drawled. "I ain't seen you in a few days, now."

"So. I'm hear. You seen me. Now, go away."

McDermott ignored the sarcasm. He looked off in the direction the rig had disappeared. "You finally find somebody to take that kid off your hands for ya?"

"That ain't none o' yer business."

"Or," McDermott continued, unimpressed, "is that somethin' else I just witnessed. Like mebbe a little boy goin' off to meet his kin folk fo' the first time. His real kin folk, that is…"

Maddie looked up sharply. "What do you know about it?" she demanded.

McDermott laughed. "Aw, come on, now, Maddie. Since when did you ever know me for a fool? There's talk all over this town about a certain Buck Cannon found hissel' the proud, though I hear unexpected, father of a bastard boy. Buck Cannon. 'Course, I never knew him, myself, that was before my time, but I sure do remember our Lizzie pinin' over somebody named Buck Cannon what got that baby on her. She was plumb loco over him. Ain't he the reason she finally did herself in?"

"You hush about all o' that!"

"Yep, I figgered," McDermott sighed. "You done found the father o' that boy you been cartin' around wit' you all these years." He leered at her evilly. "It's jist that, somehow I don't figger you're jist turnin' the boy over to them Cannons, like here, I done took care o' him fo' you, an' now he's yourn. Are ya, Maddie? Because I also learned that them Cannons are pretty well off, at least by local standards. Pretty well off by any standards, I'd say. And since I know you as well as I do, Maddie Turcott, I'd have to guess you got yersel' some kind o' scheme up your sleeve. I jist can't quite figger out what it is, yit."

Maddie turned away and tried to push past him back into the saloon. "What I may or may not be doin' ain't none o' your business, Blake McDermott," she said hotly. "There ain't nothin' between us any more."

"There's still that matter o' a little bit o' cash between us…"

Maddie just glared at him.

"An' mebbe I ain't exactly content to let it lie with that," he continued. "Seein' as how you're in business, agin. Because whatever you're up to, Maddie, I'm pretty sure o' one thing. I'm pretty sure you ain't told them Cannons who that boy's real ma was. Whatever this scheme is, it depends on them thinkin' that boy's yourn, don't it?"

It had been a shot in the dark, in a way, but it had not been entirely blind. McDermott had learned enough to know that John Cannon was not one to be swayed by public opinion for long, not if it stood in the way of something he wanted, or something he felt was right. So blackmail, alone, couldn't be Maddie's only plan. He hadn't figured out exactly what she was up to, yet, or what lever she was using, but if she was playing some high flown moral angle the scheme would hinge upon the Cannons' accepting her as the boy's natural mother. The sudden drain of blood from his former partner's face only confirmed what he had already suspected.

"What's the matter, Maddie? Cat got yer tongue? It ain't like you to have nothin' to say…"

"If you want yer money, Blake, I've got it. With interest, if you want that, too." Maddie had not planned to turn over any of the cash John Cannon had given her to Blake McDermott. She had other plans for that. She knew Blake, thought, and worse, Blake knew the truth. Nor would he hesitate to use it, if only out of spite. She had to content him, divert him. Ideally, get him out of town, if that was at all possible. And the only way she knew to do that, short of killing him outright, was to pay him off and hope he'd just leave.

It wasn't going to be that easy, though. McDermott pretended to think.

"Why, that's really sportin' o' you, Maddie, darlin'. But then, you always was a sportin’ woman." He laughed nastily at his own joke. "I think I will jist avail mysel' o' that. Like you say, with interest." He leaned closer to her, taking her arm so that she couldn't escape. "But I'm afraid it ain't gonna be enough. Because you see? I have figgered out enough to know that you're fixin' to relieve them Cannons of a nice bit o' their money, even though I ain't sure, yet, exactly how you gonna do it. An' I think I might just like to have me a piece o' that action. Doan worry, I won't be greedy. I only want half. Fifty-fifty, jist like in the ol' days." He tipped her chin up with a finger. "The way I figger it, you owe me, Maddie. After all, I'm the one who went to jail for that last scam."

Maddie tried one last attempt at bravado. "An' if I say no?" she asked, jerking her face away from his hand. "I ain't fixin' to take no more partners, Blake. I work alone from now on."

McDermott just shook his head. "Well, now, that would be too bad, Maddie, it really would. Because I'm guessin' them Cannons just might be interested in doin' a little investigating, if somebody was to hint to them that there might be more to the story o' who that little Pauly's real folks might be. Don't you think so? I'm guessin' they wouldn't like it very much if they learned who you really was."

Maddie sagged a little, and let out a slow breath. She hated it when she was right about things like this, but at least she'd been prepared for it. McDermott's threat was a complication, but not wholly unexpected. Maddie was a smart woman, and too experienced to be easily frightened. She was certainly smart enough to recognize when she was in a corner she couldn't get out of, and she couldn't get out of this one, for sure. Not, at least, without more planning, and she would need time to think about that. The important thing, now, was to keep McDermott quiet. And if she couldn't get him out of town, the only way to do that was to give him a stake in silence. At least until she could think of something else.

"All right. You win, Blake," she sighed. "I guess I was a fool to think I could put one past you."

McDermott grinned, and Maddie made mental note how easy it was to appeal to the man's vanity. She had always known that, of course. It was the way she had controlled him, in the past. Blake was a bully, and he could be as mean and unpredictable as a rattlesnake when he wanted to be, but he wasn't actually evil. He wasn't smart enough for that.

"You're right, I am working a scheme, but it's risky and it's gonna take some time. It all depends on Buck Cannon's acceptance of the kid. That's why I sent him out there to the High Chaparral. I ain't worked out all the details, but I'm willin' to cut you in, fifty-fifty, if that's what you want, for the price o' yer silence. Since that's about all you got to contribute to this operation."

"How much time?" McDermott asked, not very worried. The best cons, with the best pay-offs, usually took months of cultivation.

'I don't know yet," Maddie said. "A few weeks, a month. Maybe a little more."

McDermott nodded. "You're a smart gal, I always said that, Maddie," he said. "You always was the brains behind our operation, and I've got no shame in sayin' so." He took her face in his hand, again. "An' maybe we kin be friends, again, too, since we gonna be partners." He leaned down and kissed her. "What do you say?"

"I say you kin have as much friendship as you kin pay for," Maddie replied flatly. "Same as everyone else."

McDermott laughed.

II

Whatever fears Pauly may have entertained before leaving Tucson, they were fairly well erased by the time the trip was complete. Cousin Blue proved far more knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the surrounding desert than Maddie had been, and kept him entertained naming the various cacti and small desert animals until the Chaparral water tower loomed into view.

"Well, we's home, Pauly," Buck boomed. "The High Chaparral! Finest cattle ranch in all o' Arizona! You gonna like it heah..."

"Is this yer ranch, Pa?" the Pauly asked. "Mama didn't think it was yours."

Buck hesitated, still thrown by the moniker. Being somebody's "Pa" was definitely going to take some getting used to. "It belongs to my brother, actually," he said. "John Cannon, you met him when you was here befo'. But we all o' us live here. He be yer Uncle John, I giss." Another strange thought. "And that makes Blue-boy, here, yer cousin."

"That's right, Pauly," Blue agreed.

The child turned his own blue eyes on Blue, and beamed. And although Blue did have to admit that the circumstances surrounding the child's relationship made him a little uncomfortable, the reality of Pauly's existence kind of tickled him. He had told Buck before that he liked the little kid, and the hero worship so apparent in the boy's eyes warmed him.

The welcoming committee was standing out in the yard as they drove in.

"Howdy, Uncle John," the child piped cheerfully. John winced, but managed to say hello, anyway.

"Pauly, welcome back," Victoria called, coming forward to help the boy down from the buckboard. Leave it to Victoria to smooth over any lingering awkwardness. "I am so glad you have come to visit with us for a little while. I bet you are hungry after your long drive. Do you like apple pie? I have made a big one for desert, just for you."

Buck hesitated as Pauly clambered out of the buckboard, and Blue pulled Pauly's single, small bag out of the back. He saw Sam standing nearby with Joe and a couple of the other men, and walked over to them.

"Sam, was you able to do like I asked you?" Buck whispered. Butler grinned.

"You just come on down to the corral after supper, Buck," he replied.

"You done did it, then," Buck grinned with relief. Then his expression sobered. "But you sure you got a good one? Genn'l and well broke? This boy ain't never rid nothin' but the back of a wagon in his whole life, I doan wan him ta git hurt or nuthin'."

"Stop worryin', Buck-o. Joe and I rode over to old McInerney's place, this afternoon, and got his old kid-pony. Little critter's packed around three o' McInerney's own youngsters and a least a couple of his grandkids. He's a little long in the tooth, but as gentle as a pet dog."

The favor Buck has asked of Sam the night he'd told them all that Pauly was coming was to find a pony for the boy on one of the neighboring spreads. As a working cattle ranch with no small children on it, the High Chaparral had no suitable animal. And Sam, apparently, had been successful.

"Joe even rode him around a little, just to be sure," the foreman added, to quell his friend's fears.

"Yeah," Joe agreed, laughing. "He was fine, except my feet kept draggin' on the ground. He's real broke, though. You got nuthin' to worry about there."

"There is one small problem, though," Sam said.

Buck bristled. "What do you mean, they's a problem?"

"Now take it easy, it ain't nothin' serious, it's just that McInerney didn't have the pony saddle any more. Said he sold it a couple o' months ago. So we don't really have a saddle that fits him. I found one in the tack room that's got a tree just about narrow enough if we use a couple o' blankets under it, but it's really too long for that pony's back. You'll want to see if you can pick up one that fits from Carney's the next time you're in Tucson. I wouldn't let the boy ride far like that."

"Wall, yeah, we'll git him a saddle, sure," Buck effused. "Something real nice, hand tooled an' all. Mebbe wit' some silver on it, he'll like that. Anyway, he woan be ridin' outside o' the corral fo' a while, yit. He gotta learn how, first."

"Buck?" It was John calling from the porch.

"You boys 'scuse me? I'll see you afta dinner."

He hurried away as the Butlers exchanged amused glances. "Whoda thought it?" Sam chuckled, as they wandered off to find their own grub.

Inside the house, Blue had set Pauly's bag down, and the boy was staring around the living room in obvious awe. Buck remembered that the child had not been inside on his previous visit.

"You like this house, Pauly?" he asked, almost eagerly.

"Yes, sir," the boy replied, his eyes round. "It sure is big."

"It sure be," Buck laughed. "Blue-boy, whyn't you take yer cousin upstairs and show him his room afo' dinner."

"Sure, Uncle Buck," Blue agreed, reaching for Pauly's bag, again. "Come on Pauly."

"Blue, there is fresh water in the basin, perhaps Pauly would like to wash his hands and face after his long trip," Victoria added.

"Yes, ma'am," Blue said with a grin.

They watched as the two cousins retreated up the stairs. Then John blew out a breath.

"Buck, are you really sure this is such a good idea?" he asked. Buck frowned at him.

"Wall, sho' it be a good idea, John. Why you askin'?"

Cannon shook his head. "I suppose it's still just a little strange, that's all. This 'Uncle John' and 'Cousin Blue'…"

"But you are his uncle," Victoria piped in, before Buck could say anything. "And Blue is his cousin. What else should he call you? And I am his Aunt Victoria."

"Yes…" John sighed. The clattering on the stairs effectively ended the conversation. Blue, at least, seemed to have adjusted to his sudden cousinhood. Both of them were laughing as they hit the landing.

"Hands clean?" Victoria asked. Pauly held them out for inspection.

"Very good, Pauly," Victoria praised.

"Yes, ma'am, I warshed both the fronts and backs of 'em, just like my ma always says to."

"Well, then, since we are all ready, perhaps you would like to sit down?"

She placed the child next to Buck. He was just tall enough to reach the table without a cushion. Buck sat down beside him, and tucked a napkin fussily under the boy's chin. Then he reached across the table and forked a large steak onto Pauly's plate.

"There you go, Pauly-boy, that be a good High Chaparral steak, there, good Chaparral beef growed right here on our own range. You eat that all up, now, it'll he’p you grow up strong," he effused. The child eyed the huge piece of meat warily.

"Oh, Buck," said Victoria. "I think, perhaps, that might be a little bit more than one child can eat, all by himself? And perhaps he would like some help cutting it? The knife is very sharp."

Buck looked at her blankly, then looked back at Pauly's plate. "Mebbe you right, Victoria. Pauly, that piece o' meat too big fo' you? You want I should cut it in half?" The child just nodded. Buck lopped the steak in half and dropped the rejected portion back on the platter. "You want I should cut it up fo' you, too?"

"I kin cut it mysel'" Pauly assured him, looking relieved that he was not going to be expected to eat the entire thing. Buck beamed.

"You see, Victoria? He be a reg'lar little man, he doan need no he’p cuttin' his meat up."

Victoria nodded. "Would you like some mashed potatoes, Pauly?"

"Yes, please, ma'am," said Pauly. She started to hand over the bowl, but Buck grabbed in from her.

"I'll git it fo' him, Victoria," he said. Victoria just looked at her brother-in-law, but kept whatever comment was sitting on her tongue to herself.

"You have very nice manners, Pauly," she said, instead. "You are certainly a very polite young hombre."

"Yes, ma'am, thank you," he replied. "My ma done taught me ta allus be polite, she says poor in money don't hafta mean poor in manners, and that some rich folks got manners ain't fit fo' a barn."

John smirked, and Blue and Manolito each studied their plates with renewed fascination. Victoria glanced over at Buck, who had stabbed himself a piece of bread and who was using it to sop up the juices from the meat on his plate.

"Yes," she sighed, to the tittering of the other men. Buck, oblivious, continued eating. "So, Pauly," she changed the subject. "What kinds of things do you like to do? Are there any games you like to play, especially?"

Pauly screwed up his face in thought. "No ma'am. I don't play games much. Mostly, I guess I just like 'splorin', especially when we just hit a new town. I like it when things are new, it's like an adventure, like in a story book.

"My ma learned me my letters, too," Pauly continued, sensing that his accomplishments had won some degree of favor. "I know all o' 'em, an' I kin read some, too. I brung my book so's I kin practice while I'm visitin'. Mama says, if we stay in Tucson, mebbe I kin go ta school."

The child's mention of his mother for the third time in less than fifteen minutes was starting to make the rest of the company uncomfortable, not the least of whom was Buck Cannon.

"Oh, they's plenny o' time to worry 'bout school an' such," he said. "You doan hafta bother about all o' that right now. You jist eat up you supper an' then I got a sue-prise fo' you."

As Buck anticipated, the hint was sufficiently distracting.

"What!" the child demanded.

"Neva min'. You jist eat up, then we'll go see."

Buck's promise made further attempts at conversation useless. The rest of the meal was spent with Pauly alternately wolfing his food, and teasing Buck for clues. He would not even pause for desert, though the pie Victoria had promised had tempted him earlier.

"May I be 'scused fo' my surprise, now, ma'am?" he asked, obviously having a difficult time remaining seated. Victoria smiled to hide a small twinge of disappointment.

"Of course you may, Pauly. Perhaps we could all go see this surprise?"

They all walked down to the corral together. And Sam and Joe, watching from over their own dinners, wandered over to observe the success of their errand. The corral was empty, except for the new arrival standing at the further side, a medium sized black and white paint pony nosing a small mound of hay. It was fat and slightly swaybacked with age, twenty or twenty-five if it was a day, but it had a pretty face and even from where he stood Buck could see that the animal was as placid and docile a creature as Sam had promised, an old campaigner in the area of small children.

"Ya done good, Sam-boy," Buck whispered as the foreman came up beside him.

"I told ya," Sam agreed. "Nuthin' to worry about."

Buck turned to Pauly on his other side. "So whatchu think of him? You like him?"

The boy nodded. "Yes, sir, he's real pretty." He did not show anywhere near the degree of enthusiasm Buck had expected, however. For a moment, Buck's disappointment was keen. Then it dawned on him that Pauly might not understand.

"Well, he be yourn. Whatchu gonna name him?"

For a beat, the boy said nothing. "Honest?" he asked, not believing his ears.

"Honest," Buck replied, with a grin.

"Mine? I never had no pony… Kin I go pet him?"

"You sure kin," Buck beamed, "an' tomorra I'm gonna teach you how to ride him…" He reached for the latch on the corral gate, but Pauly was already through the rails and racing across the open space.

"Doan run at him, you'll spook him!" Buck shouted, for a moment truly afraid. But the pony merely lifted its head and watched the child approaching. This was something it understood; this small being, while perhaps not personally familiar, was still something within the animal's scope of experience. It had done this a thousand times. Turning back to the hay, it resumed munching as Pauly stumbled to a stop and began patting it tentatively. Buck just grinned.

"What did I tell ya," Sam said, but it was obvious the other man had been holding his breath, too.

Buck reached for the corral gate, again, this time swinging it wide.

"Hey, Buck…"

He turned to find the foreman with his hand extended. There were a couple of carrots in it.

"I figured you might have forgotten these," Sam said, smiling warmly, now. He winked as Buck relieved him of the vegetables.

"Thanks, Sam," said Buck, his voice strangely hoarse. He walked into the corral to join the boy.

"Is he really mine, Pa?" Pauly asked as Buck crouched down beside him.

"Yes, sir, he really is," said Buck. He ran a hand down the pony's neck while the animal ignored them, and continued eating. He put an arm around Pauly's waist "So whatchu gonna call him?"

"’Lightning’," the child replied certainly. "I bet he's just as fast as Lightning, ain't he, Pa?"

"Oh, sure he be," Buck agreed with a small laugh. "Here. Le's give him one o' these here carrots, see iffn he likes it." He nudged a carrot under the pony's nose and the animal took it readily. Pauly laughed. "Here." Buck snapped the second carrot in half. "Now hold it right out on the palm o' yer hand, doan curl up yer fingers none. Hold it flat. Ol' Lightenin', here, he doan know the difference. We don't want him thinkin' yo' fingers is somethin' to eat. There…"

The pony nosed the boy's hand, and delicately lipped the carrot into his mouth. Pauly squealed.

"Now give him the rest o' it…"

Pauly did as he was directed, then stroked the pony's nose happily. He leaned over and kissed him, and Buck laughed.

"Now you jist gotta remember, Pauly. Horses and ponies, they doan see things the same way people do, and they git spooked easy. Now ol' Lightenin', here, he's real smart, but some horses ain't as smart an' experienced as him, so you gotta be real careful aroun' 'em. That means no runnin' or talkin' loud, all right? You gotta be real quiet and careful."

"Yes, sir, Pa," the boy said, agreed, still stroking the pony's nose. "I can't believe he's really mine, I can't believe you really give him to me." He turned to Buck, suddenly, and threw his arms around his neck. "Thank you, Pa, he's the best present I ever got! Thank you! I love you, Pa…"

Buck just wrapped his arms around the child. For a moment he was too overcome to say anything. He just pressed his face against the boy's hair, and breathed deep of the sweet, clean smell. The he relaxed his grip slightly, and kissed the top of the child's head. "I love you, too, Pauly," he husked, hugging him hard again. "I love you, too, boy."

Pauly relaxed in his arms, turning back, again, to look at the pony contentedly. "I glad we found you, Pa," he sighed. "Everythin's gonna be okay, now. We'll be happy now." And he let his head fall down on Buck's shoulder.

"That's right, Pauly," Buck agreed, although his voice was a little more hesitant, this time. "Everythin's gonna be okay, now."

"Ain’t he jist sumpthin’?" Buck beamed a little later, after they had finally gotten Pauly into bed. The poor kid had been so exhausted, he’d fallen asleep almost upon contact with the pillow. The household adults had adjourned to the living room for a nightcap, and to give themselves a chance to absorb the sudden reality of the small child within their midst.

Sitting beside the fireplace, Blue and Manolito exchanged amused glances. "Sí, hombre," Manolito agreed, finding no ready quip with which to tease his friend. "Cómo se dice… es buen niño, de veras!" He looked helplessly at his sister for the proper words.

"He is a very polite and well mannered little niño," Victoria agreed. "A pleasure to have around."

"He sure be, Victoria. He be jist the politest little fella. An’ smart, too! You shudda seed how quick he was to pick up on how to act aroun’ that there pony, how he ain’t supposed to run nor talk loud, once I ‘splained it to him. I din’t have to tell him more’n once, neither. He got it right off." Buck sat down on the sofa and propped his feet up on the coffee table. Then he caught Victoria frowning, and put his feet back on the floor again. "I think I’ll jist start to teach him to ride fust thing in the mornin’. He’ll like that. You wanna he’p out, Blue-boy?"

It was John who reminded them that, Pauly or no, the High Chaparral was still a working cattle ranch, with a herd to deliver in six weeks time, a fact clearly stated on the contracts Buck had picked up in Tucson that day.

"Oh, now, Buck," he began, "I’d planned on having you and Blue come with me, tomorrow, to look over the herd in the south section. We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to get Thomaston’s seven hundred head of beef to him by the delivery date. And thank you, by the way, for picking up those contracts while you were in town today. That’s a real weight off my mind…"

"Why, sho’ John, you welcome" Buck replied. "Inny time, I’m glad to he’p. But John… about my goin’ out wit’ you tomorrow…"

"I need you with me, Buck. Surely you understand that."

The younger Cannon brother looked at once pleased at this evidence of his brother’s reliance upon him, and disgruntled by what it was going to do to his plans.

"Wall, John, sho’ I know that, but John, the boy jist got here. I was figgerin’ to spend some time wit’ him…"

"I’m sure he’ll be fine with Victoria to watch him."

"An’ they’s Sam Butler," Buck persisted, "he kin go wit’ you an’ Blue-boy tomorrow. He be feelin' a lot better, now, that shoulder doan pain him at all no mo'."

"Yes, he told me the same thing," John agreed. "I’m sending him and Manolito with Quint and Bud Curry tomorrow to take a preliminary tally of the herd down in Gila Flats. And when we’re all done with that, there’s still a lot of fence left to string. I wish I could afford to give you a little vacation, Buck, but I can’t right now. I need every hand."

Buck scowled, obviously feeling badly used.

"Buck," Victoria began gently, hoping to head the impending argument off before it got a chance to get started. "Perhaps it is better this way. It will give Pauly a little time to become accustomed to the ranch at his own pace, to become comfortable with his new surroundings." She smiled winningly. "I’m sure this is all very strange to him. He might like a few days to explore a little, before he has too much more excitement."

"There, you see?" John said, smiling gratefully at his wife. "Victoria’s right. You don’t want to rush the boy. And you’ll be with him in the evenings."

Buck still didn’t look very happy. "It’s jist… wall, I jist want the boy to have hissel’ a good time, here, tha’s all."

"Oh, Buck," Victoria said warmly, taking her brother-in-law’s arm. "I’m sure Pauly will be very happy here. I think he is already very pleased with his new pony."

"Yeah, he is, ain’t he?" Buck grinned. "Didju see that little face jist light right up when I tol’ him that pony were his?"

"We just need to give him a little time to get used to things," Victoria concluded. But at this, Buck frowned.

"You keep sayin’ that, Victoria, but I ain’t sure what you meanin’. Git used to what things?"

Victoria hesitated, glancing at her husband for support. But John looked as much in the dark as Buck did. "Well, life the way it is on a ranch," she said. "I am sure it is much different, here, from what he is used to. And… I could not help but notice that he mentioned his mother several times tonight. I am only concerned that he may become a little homesick at first…"

Buck did not let her continue. "Oh, that!" he laughed. "Aw, Victoria, you doan gotta worry none about that. O’ course the boy woan be homesick. Why, the High Chaparral, it’s gonna be just like home to him, you’ll see. He woan have nothin’ to be homesick about. Innyway, I’m his Pa, ain’t I an’ I’m right here…"

Victoria sighed. This time, when she glanced over at her husband, she found John frowning. "Yes, of course, Buck," she agreed, sensing that it would be pointless to continue to argue.

Buck nodded, considering the issue resolved. "Now, iffn you all would es-cuse me," he said, "I think they jist might be a little card game goin’ on down at the bunkhouse."

"Now, Buck," John protested, "we’ve got a early morning."

"I know that, Big John,: his brother replied. "I ain’t gonna play but maybe a hand or two, jist fo’ the practice. Besides, somebody gotta make sure them knot-head ranch hands o’ yourn doan stay up all night. Mano, amigo…" he turned to his friend. "Was you plannin’ on joinin’ me?"

Manolito, in fact, had been planning to pass. He, for one, took his brother-in-law’s threat of an early morning seriously, and besides, he was broke. But one look at the troubled expression on his sister’s face changed his mind. He sometimes thought he knew that face better than he knew his own, and he knew the signs of another long discussion getting ready to start. Which he chose to avoid at all costs.

"Whither thou goest, amigo," he laughed at Buck. "Lead, and I will follow."

Victoria watched them go. She turned to look up at her husband. "John?"

But Cannon had gotten pretty good at reading his wife's expression , himself. "Victoria," he replied, smiling down at her, and also cutting off further analysis of his brother’s attitudes, at least for the moment. "It’s late. I'm sure everything will work out fine, and I think it's time we called it a night. Don't you?" He put his arm around her shoulders, and looked over at his son. "Blue?"

"Huh?" he started, shaken from his own thoughts? "Yeah, Pa, I know. Early mornin’. I’m comin’." And he climbed to his feet and followed them up the stairs.

It was his newfound cousin, Blue, actually, who took charge of getting Pauly started on his riding lessons the next evening, while Buck finished up a few things with John. It had been decided that the lessons were to take place after dinner in the big corral at the bottom of the compound, after the day's work, and the day's heat, was over. That's were Buck found them all, the next evening. As Victoria had predicted, Pauly spent most of the day, while the men were gone, quietly investigating the ranch environs under her watchful eye, or Violeta’s, or Vaquero’s or one of the other men left behind to guard the ranch and see to the chores. The boy had spent a good part of the day in the corral with his pony, where Reno had shown him how to groom and tend the little animal. When the moment finally arrived, he was eager to ride. Blue, and Reno with him, had the boy inside trotting in circles as Buck came up and leaned against the gate.

"Kick him, kick him hard!"

Pauly thumped his heels against the pinto’s sides as his cousin commanded, and the little animal moved off into a placid jog. The moment he did so, Pauly screeched and started to slip from his back. The pony stopped automatically.

"Pauly, you can’t holler like that," Blue said, jogging, himself, over to the boy’s side. "You’ll spook him. Here," he settled the boy more securely on the pony’s back and shortened his reins a little. "Like I told you. Hang on his mane with this hand, and use the reins in that one to turn him where you want to go. Now, when he starts trottin’, you gotta squeeze tight with your legs to hang on. You think you can do that?"

"Uh huh," the boy, undaunted, nodded vigorously.

Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that Blue had the child riding bareback. That hadn’t started out to be the plan, but the saddle Sam thought might fit didn’t, not even with a couple of saddle blankets beneath it. It slipped, and they had not been able to tighten the cinch right, either. Sam finally suggested they just dispense with it all together, and Blue, concerned that the saddle might really slip off, agreed. And Pauly had taken gamely enough to the idea of riding "Indian style," though it was a lot harder than hanging on to a saddle.

"You ain’t scared, are ya?" Blue asked.

"Uh uh, I ain’t scared," Pauly said. He wasn’t, either, just a little nervous and uncertain, Blue could see that. After all he’d never ridden a horse before.

Blue looked down at him and grinned. The strangeness of this small relative was beginning to wear off, and Blue was finding that he rather liked being "Cousin Blue." He liked it a lot, in fact. He liked the thought that maybe he might have some impact on this little life, and that maybe the boy might someday have a special kind of relationship with the boy, not unlike the relationship he had with his Uncle Buck. That kind of a closeness. It gave him a warm feeling inside whenever Pauly looked up at him with eyes filled with something akin to worship. He wondered if he had ever looked at Buck that way. He suspected he had. He reached over and ruffled the boy’s hair.

"Okay, now, don’t shriek or anything, just hang on, and use those reins to make him go where you want him to. Just like I showed you. Make him listen to you."

Blue stepped back and clucked to the pony, who once again started off at a slow jog. This time Pauly stayed quiet, and hung on. He didn’t seem to be doing much steering, but he wasn’t falling off, either. And anyway, the little paint didn’t need much direction, there in the safety corral. Things might be different out in the open, but that wouldn't happen for a while, yet.

"Look at him go," Reno said, coming up beside Blue.

"He’s doin’ pretty good, ain’t he?" Blue agreed, proudly.

"He sure is. The kid’s a natural." Reno looked over at the younger man speculatively. "So how’s it feel to be ‘Cousin Blue’?"

Blue shrugged. "Okay. Pretty good, actually. He’s a pretty great little kid." He paused, then added, "Sure was a surprise, though."

"Yeah," Reno agreed. It’s still kinda weird, Buck havin’ a kid an’ all."

The pony had stopped trotting, though Pauly still seemed secure enough in his seat. The two men walked over.

"You gettin’ tired?" Blue asked, rubbing Pauly’s back.

"No, sir," the child replied, but Blue could see that he was.

"Well," he said, "let’s give it one more try, and then I think we’ll call it quits for the night. You can ride again tomorrow. We don’t ol’ Lightenin’ here to get all worn out, do we?"

Pauly shook his head, his eyes getting round with concern. "No sir, we sure don’t."

Blue laughed. "All right, you ready to give it one more try?"

It was at that moment that Buck came down from the house and leaned up against the corral rail to watch the lesson. He took his position beside Sam Butler, who was already there, watching.

"Hey, Buck-o." Sam said.

"Sam…" Buck greeted, without taking his eyes off the three inside the corral. He wasn't particularly happy with what he was seeing. "Sam, they got that boy ridin' bareback! That ain't right, he's gonna hurt hisself! I though you tol' me we had a saddle fit that pony!"

"Yeah, I thought we might, but the truth is, it don't fit very well, Buck," Sam replied, calmly. "It kept slippin'. I told Blue he'd be better off lettin' the boy ride bareback. It's a lot safer than havin' his saddle slide out from under him."

"But Sam!"

Butler laughed and slapped his friend on the back. "Relax, Buck! He'll be fine. You tryin' to tell me you weren't gallopin' all over hell and creation bareback at his age?"

Buck nodded. "Wall, sure I was, Sam, but I growed up ridin' the backs o' horses and ponies. Weren't nuthin' fo' me. Pauly, he ain't never had a chanct afor' this."

"Yeah, I can see your point there, Buck, but well, look at him. He's doin' great!" Sam replied, pointing at the activity in the ring. Reno had chirruped the pony into an easy lope, and Pauly was clinging with hand and legs, awkwardly, but he was staying on. He showed no fear, either, on the contrary, he was grinning happily.

Watching him Buck started to grin, too. "Yeah, Sam. Look at him. Why, that boy's a natch'rl. Ain't he jist got him a good seat! That's my boy!"

Sam continued to chuckle at the other man's enthusiasm. "Yeah, he looks pretty good out there. It's the best way for him to learn, really," he added professionally. "Give him a good, strong leg."

A crunch on the gravel behind them made them turn to find John and Victoria walking arm and arm to join them.

"So how's Chaparral's newest cow hand comin' along?" John asked cheerfully as they stopped by the corral gate.

"He's comin' along jist great, John, look at 'im. Purty soon we’ll have him out there punchin' cattle, workin' them cows like he been doin' it all his life."

John laughed, but Victoria, now, spotted Pauly's lack of riding equipment. "Oh, John! That pony is not wearing a saddle! John, that cannot be a safe way for so small a child to ride!"

"Oh, he be fine, Victoria," Buck answered before John could open his mouth. "Jist look at him out there. Bareback be the bes' way fo' him to learn to ride, it give him a good strong leg," he added, echoing Sam enthusiastically, to the other man's amusement.

Victoria was not the least bit convinced of her brother-in-law's evaluation of the situation, though. "John?" she implored.

"No, Buck's right, Victoria," John backed up his brother. "It is the best way for him to learn. It's the way I learned, and Buck did. And Blue. He looks pretty good out there," he added, looking over his brother's head at Sam.

The foreman nodded. "Well, I better get back to what I was doin'. I got a few things to finish up before bed, tonight." He touched his hat. "Ma'am."

"Good night, Sam," said John.

Sam reached over than slapped a hand on Buck's shoulder. "We be seein' you later, Buck-o?"

"You kin betcher life on that, Sam-boy!" Buck laughed. "When was the last time I missed one o' yore card games!"

Victoria glowered as the two men laughed, then she turned her attention back to the ring. The pony had stopped, lesson over.

"Come on, pardner," Blue laughed. "You did great for your first time. You’ll make a hand before you know it, ain’t that right, Reno?"

"Sure is," Reno agreed. "I was just thinkin’ that in a couple o’ days he’ll be able to take over my spot on night herd." He winked over at Blue. "Looks like we got an audience. Go on, I’ll take care o’ the pony."

"Thanks," said Blue, reaching down for the boy, as Reno took the pony’s reins. Pauly was really to big, and too heavy, to carry around like a baby, but Blue felt a strange thrill of possessiveness warm through him as the child twined his arms around his neck. He carried him over to the corral rail, anyway.

"Hi Pa! Hi Uncle John! Hi Aunt Victoria!" the child piped.

"Hey there, Pauly!" Buck called back. "What? You all done wit’ yer lesson, aw-ready? Why I jist got down here!"

"Hey, Pa," said Blue to his own father as he put the boy down. "He's doin' great, ain't he? Yeah, Uncle Buck, I didn’t think it was a good idea to push him too hard, his first time, an’ all. But he’s catchin’ on real quick."

"He has a very good teacher," Victoria said, and Blue blushed.

"He look jist like a real cow hand," Buck agreed, beaming, as Pauly climbed up on the corral fence.

"He is certainly as dirty as one," Victoria agreed, though she was laughing, now. "I think it is time for a bath for Master Pauly, do you not agree?"

Pauly didn't particularly, but Buck did. "Victoria's right, there, Pauly. You look like a chunk o' adobe, all dusty like you are." He reached over the rail to take the child. "I think a bath is jist what the doctor ordered, Mr. Pauly. Jist like you A'nt Victoria says." And he swung the boy up onto his shoulder, and started toward the house.

John Cannon watched his brother's retreating figure with deep amusement. "You know, it's a good thing you're teaching him to ride," he said to his son. "That boy stays here long, he's gonna forget how to use those legs of his for walking."

Buck already had Vaquero heating water when they got back to the house, and it wasn't long after that Pauly was tucked into his bed, skin still pink from the scrubbing Buck had insisted on giving him.

"Kin I read a story before I go to sleep?" he asked, stifling a yawn.

"You want me to read you a story?" Buck asked back. "Why sho' I kin do that. We gotta have us a story book or two aroun' here someplace, I'll ask Blue-boy."

"I kin read it," Pauly answered. "I know how. My ma learned me. I got a story book o' my own." He reached for the thin and tattered book he had packed with him from Tucson, and all the way from Kansas. He ran his fingers over the spine before opening it. "My mama give it to me."

"I would very much enjoy hearing you read," Victoria said, coming into the room from behind them. She laid a small pile of clean clothes on the top of the dresser.

"Sho', Pauly, I'd like to hear you read, too," Buck agreed.

The child opened the book, or rather, let it fall open to his favorite place.

"Little boy blue, come blow your horn…" he began slowly, using his finger to mark his place under the words, even though he already knew them by heart. "… he's under the haycock, fast asleep."

"That was very good, Pauly," said Victoria, appreciatively, but her eyes were troubled as she spoke.

Victoria had been pondering how best to occupy the boy while the men where gone during the day, since it appeared that task was going to fall to her. She knew he would get restless once he had gotten past his first fascination with exploring. And Pauly’s own words a dinner the night before had told her something very important about the boy. Seeing the way he had held his little book only confirmed it; the child was hungry to learn, regardless of Buck’s insistence that there was no need to bother about it. Besides, it would be something she could do for him, herself; it would not be difficult at all. Buck would surely understand that.

"That sho' were good readin’, Pauly," Buck agreed. "An' now I think it be time you was fast asleep, too. I see them little peepers closing…"

He put his hand playfully over the boy's eyes and Pauly giggled.

"Dontcha wanta hear my prayers?" he asked. "Mama allus hears my prayer before I go ta sleep…"

Buck looked taken aback at the suggestion, then nodded.

"Why, sho', I giss so…"

"Certainly we would like to hear your prayers, Pauly," Victoria said.

The boy popped out of bed and knelt beside Buck. Although God hadn't seemed to mind much when he'd said his prayers lying down, he didn't want to push his luck, not with so much at stake. He folded his hands and dutifully ran through his "God-blesses." Then he looked up at Buck and smiled shyly. And, please God, he added silently, make my pa like me enough to let mama come and stay so we kin all be happy…

Buck reached over and stroked the child's head gently, overcome with the solemnity of the moment. It has been years since he'd listened to a child's prayers, since the last time Blue had been young enough to want to kneel and say them. His throat closed over, making him choke a little on the "Amen" he added to the end of Pauly's recitation.

His duty done, Pauly climbed into bed again and scooted down under his bed clothes. Buck pulled the coverlet up under his chin. He leaned down and kissed him, then lay his cheek for a moment against the boy's. "You sleep tight, little Pauly. You sleep tight and remember how much yer Pa loves you."

Pauly's eyes had already closed, and his breathing settled into the beginnings of sleep as Victoria blew out the lamp. The two adults exited the room, Victoria leaving the door ajar slightly, in case the boy cried out in his sleep.

"What a good little niño he is," Victoria sighed as they headed down the stairs.

"He sure be sumpthin’ special, ain’t he, Victoria," Buck effused in agreement. "My little man."

"Yes, Buck, he is very special," Victoria agreed. "Buck, may I speak to you about something?"

Buck stopped on the landing and frowned. "Why sho', Victoria. What about."

"About Pauly. About his education." She held up a hand to stop Buck from speaking until she could finish. "Buck, I know you think it is too soon to worry about school, but he is already seven years old, which is past the age that most children begin, and he is obviously very bright. He wants to learn, Buck. You can see that he enjoys it. I do not mean to suggest that he needs to spend his whole day studying, but he needs more than just one thin book from which to read the same stories over and over. He needs more books, and he needs to learn arithmetic and the history of his country."

Buck smiled, but he shook his head. "Victoria, you jist frettin’ yo’sel’ for no good reason. The boy be fine. He be a real pleasure, in fact."

"Of course he is, Buck," Victoria replied. "He is a wonderful little niño. But there is so much he needs to learn. I know there is no school near enough to High Chaparral for him to attend, but I could teach him, here, myself. We have plenty of time during the day. It would be no trouble at all. I could ask John to order some books for him in Tucson…"

Buck chuckled at his sister-in-law's entreaty. "Aw, Victoria. I know the boy needs his schoolin', sho' I know that. But he jist got here, Victoria. We got lotsa time to think about things like that. Thank you, though, thank you all-a same fo' offerin'. That's right nice o' you, truly." He looked toward the door, and then back toward the woman. "Now, iffn you'll es-cuse me, ma’am?"

"But Buck," Victoria called him back. "Buck, I am only thinking about Pauly’s welfare. I just want what is best for him. Besides, he must have some occupation while you and John and Blue are away with the herds, and with all your other tasks. I could do it, Buck. I know you are very busy, and he will here alone all day…"

At this, Buck glowered impatiently. "Victoria, now look. I know you mean well, and all, honey, and I know you like the boy. I appreciate that, I do. I’m right glad fo’ it. But, wall, Pauly, his welfare be my responsibility, nobody else’s. I ain’t so busy as all o’ that. Though I am glad fo’ your interest. An’ I appreciate you lookin’ out fo’ him, durin’ the day when I got to be off with Big John. But you ain’t got no call to fret your pretty head, so you jist doan worry. Pauly be my son, Victoria, not yourn. It’s fo’ me to decide what’s best for him. Now, iffn you'll es-cuse me, ma’am, the boys is expectin' me."

He trotted the rest of the way down the stairs and out the front door. For a moment, Victoria’s face puckered slightly. Buck’s words had hurt a little bit. She had only been trying to help, after all, it had not been necessary for him to be so possessive. She took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. It did not matter that Pauly Turcott was not her son. He was a wonderful little boy, and he deserved a chance for better than what he had been given. And, after all, it was with her that he would be spending the better part of his days. They would just have to see.

It wasn't uncommon for John Cannon to have a little trouble sleeping. And lately, he had much on his mind. As he stood out under the night sky, he could hear the faint sounds of the desert around him, a wolf in the distance, a night owl querying. Small creatures, the hunters and the hunted, scuttling through the night. It was very late, probably closer to morning. John had left his wife contented in their bed, and all around him, the ranch was silent. Even the bunkhouse card game had broken up hours earlier, and the men were all asleep. It occurred to him that he was probably the only white man awake within thirty or forty miles, except for the ones standing night guard, two new men Sam Butler had hired just before his accident. Sam was all right. If that bruised shoulder was giving him any trouble, he refuse to admit it. The man’s obstinate stoicism made John smile. It also made him think how very lucky he was, having such a man as his foreman. It was a relief to have him back out and about his work.

There were other worries, however. The southern Arizona rainy season wasn't turning out to be very rainy, despite the thunder and lightning that repeatedly punctuated the night. The lack of water that promised for the later season churned at Cannon's mind. Of course, it was still early, the rains might still come. But if they came late, there was a much higher chance that they would bring with them significant flooding, which could be a worse disaster than no rain at all. And if they did not come, this would be the second year of drought in a row, and even the High Chaparral's legendary wells might not be enough to keep the place in water for all the stock. It might be that he would seriously need to consider reducing the herds. He hated the idea, he had spent so many years building them up, but it would not do to have animals dying of thirst, either. Not only was it bad business, and a loss of profit, it was brutally inhumane. As he paced the floor of the living room, John made a mental note to talk the matter over with Buck and Sam in the morning. Buck could be a little flighty, sometimes it was true, but his younger brother knew cattle and land as well as anyone, and Sam had grown up in the territory and understood it, perhaps better than any of them. Although the final decision would be his, John valued the opinions and expertise of both men.

There was more on his mind than the possibility of drought, though. There was more going on that was going to affect his family. John Cannon frankly did not know how to feel about this little bastard son his brother was growing so fond of. He liked the boy, he genuinely did. The child was bright, well mannered and strong, a credit to any family. Had there been an easy, uncomplicated way to do it, John guessed he wouldn't even object to keeping the boy on the ranch, raising him as one of them. But there was still Maddie Turcott out there, as much as Buck kept trying to ignore that fact. Nothing about this situation was going to prove easy or uncomplicated. Still, the more John thought about it, the less he liked the idea of sending the boy back.

Sighing, he went back into the house, and headed up the stairs toward his bed, though he had no real illusion that sleep awaited him. Hesitating at his own door, he paused, then walked passed it. The door to Pauly's room was ajar. John pushed it open gently, letting a beam from the kerosene lamp in the hallway fall across the bed. The child was sleeping soundly, his bed clothes partially kicked away. John considered him a moment, then walked into the room.

How long had it been, he wondered, since he had stood over a child’s bed and looked down in just this manner? How long since it had been his own son, sleeping as this boy slept, since John Cannon had paused, just standing and watching, planning a little, maybe and wondering about the future? But mostly just standing there, watching a child breathe. And was it this that really troubled him so much about Pauly's presence among them, how much he reminded John of Blue? How deeply that stirred a hurt in him, remembering?

What had happened? They had been so close, once, he and his boy. They had shared things, talked. And there had been nothing Blue had wanted more than to be like his father. When had it all changed, what had driven this seeming wedge of communication between them? Had it been the war, and its inevitable separation, coming at so critical a time in Blue's development? Had it been John's absence as his son had stepped onto the threshold of manhood? But no, there had been years after the war when they had still been close, still been friends, father and son. Had it been the coming to Arizona, with all its worries and dangers and distractions? The death of the boy's mother, John's remarriage, all of the shocks? John thought not, honestly. The separation, he felt, had begun before that.

Perhaps it had been some moment, unrecognized by either of them, in between. John did not know. He only knew that he missed that time. As he stared down at this little child who looked so much like his own boy, this tender stranger who had been dropped so unlooked-for into their midst's, he wanted nothing more than to pick him up, cradle him in his arms, feel that small weight so in need of protection, breathe in his moist child sweetness. And he knew it was not Pauly he wanted to hold so close; John Cannon ached for his own child, profoundly.

Swallowing a sudden tightness in his throat, he straightened the bed clothes over the boy's body, and left the room.

III

"And so, Pauly," Victoria said, the next morning, as she began to clear away the breakfast dishes. "What are your plans for the day?"

The men had already left the table for their day’s occupations, leaving Victoria alone with the boy. Pauly looked up from his plate and eyed her quizzically. In the short time he had been on the High Chaparral, it had already occurred to him that life on this ranch was much different from life he had experienced in other places. His young mind could not quite articulate the differences, but had it been able to, he might have attributed them to a sense of purpose the like of which was wholly unfamiliar to him. In his experience, people did things more or less at random, as the mood struck them, ate, slept, drank. Went places. Actions and activities had no particular aim outside the immediate satisfaction of some urge. His ma, certainly, did not appear to him to have acted in accordance to any long term goals, ever, as she went about her day. At least, so it seemed to him, although he was also wise enough to understand that he was just a child and the ways of adults might not always be apparent to him. But, at any rate, he had seen no evidence of it in Maddie Turcott’s usual routine, and certainly not in the activities of any of the men or women with whom she associated.

The adults on the High Chaparral were much different creatures. Everything, there, it seemed, was done for some reason. As he had explored the ranch, the day before, he had been struck by the orderliness, the organization, by the sheer sense of purpose it all seemed to represent. The men he had encountered had all been bent on the completion of some preordained task, the immediate value of which had been quite lost on him. They were very nice men, too, friendly and willing to answer his questions. Pauly had gotten the feeling that they had enjoyed it, explaining themselves to him. As if his inquisitiveness made the task more important, somehow. They had even explained things he had not asked about. It had been very interesting, and he found himself liking them, especially the one called Reno who had showed him how to take care of his pony. He liked Reno, and he liked his cousin, Blue. He was glad it was them who were teaching him how to ride ‘Lightning.’ He loved his pa, of course, and the man had been very nice to him, but Buck Cannon also made him a little nervous. His ma had made this one man seem so important, and Pauly did not really understand why he should be so special. He was afraid of doing the wrong thing.

His pa had explained, before he’d left that day and the day before, that he had to "go out to the herd," that he had work to do in preparation for something called "round up." Pauly had not understood, but he had been grateful, none the less, that his father had considered it important enough to tell him. Maddie didn’t usually bother to give him detailed explanations. He did understand that it meant his father would not be able to spend the day with him, which had been a disappointment, but not a terribly keen one. Pauly was used to be left on his own. "His" grown-ups rarely had a lot of time to share with him, and he was comfortable fending for himself. He usually spent his days exploring alone while his ma slept; his nights, too, sometimes, when Maddie was working. Solitude did not trouble him.

This pervasive sense of purpose did leave him curious, however, and a little out of his depth. He did not quite know how to answer Victoria’s question. Nobody he knew ever had "plans."

"What would you like to do today?" she asked, again. "Is there anything special?"

He shook his head. "No, ma’am."

"Well," she said, "I have something I would like to do. Would you like to help me? It is something I have wanted to do since I first came to High Chaparral, but I have not had the time to do it. If you would help me, perhaps we could get it finished today. Would you like to do that?"

Pauly nodded. "Yes, ma’am. Sure."

"Good," Victoria said with a smile. "Come with me, please."

She took him out to the summer kitchen attached to the side of the house. Beside it was a large storage shed that held everything from the Chaparral "wine cellar" to the hides used for mending harness and iron strips and rods for forging into tools. The evening before, Victoria had had Blue and Manolito drag two large crates into the open sided preparation area. The boxes contained a wealth of odds and ends, mostly pots and pans and crockery she had brought with her from Mexico as John Cannon’s bride. Although she had unpacked, immediately, the delicate "Blue Willow" china and the equipment she had needed for daily meals, these boxes remained unopened, awaiting the time she would have to unpack them. It had looked like they might remain that way forever, until Victoria had the brainstorm to let Pauly inventory the contents for her.

She understood, of course, that he was probably too young to do a really thorough job of it, but that did not matter. It would be nice to know, generally, how many plates and cups and kettles might be tucked away inside those boxes. Many of the things had been put there by her mother, over the years, in anticipation of Victoria’s eventual marriage; a marriage the woman did not live to see. Victoria wasn’t even sure what was in there. It would be good to get it all out, and put away. But she didn’t really need any of those things to complete her daily chores, so if the job was left partially undone, or if there were errors in the counting, it was of no particular importance. She was really more concerned about keeping the boy occupied. What she had told Buck was nothing but the truth, although he had not wanted to hear it. She knew that a bright child like Pauly would get bored soon enough with investigating the limited confines of the ranch compound, and Victoria well understood the dangers of idleness. After all, she had watched her brother growing up. Though, in truth she was less concerned about the boy getting into mischief, for he was much better disciplined than she ever remembered Manolito and his little friends being at that age. She was more concerned about him simply becoming discontented.

"Do you know how to count, Pauly?" she asked

"Yes’m. I kin count to a hunnert, almost." He frowned. "I fergit some, though, when I git to more’n fifty. It gits harder, then."

Victoria laughed. "Oh, you will not need to count so high as that," she assured him. She turned back the lid on one of the boxes. "What I need you to do, if you would, is to take all these dishes and things out of this straw, and put them in stacks, together, by size and by item." She unpacked a couple of plates and mugs to show him what she meant. "And when you are finished, I will need you to count each group of items, and tell me how many there are. Then I can write it down, and I will know how many of each we have. After they are all washed, we can put them away. Do you think you can do that?"

Pauly nodded, frankly intrigued by this idea of having so many things one needed to count them and write the number down. He could inventory his entire worth, his and Maddie’s together, probably, right in his head. This exercise might prove interesting. Besides, he was very curious to see what was in those boxes. "Yes, ma’am," he assured her.

"Very good, Pauly," said Victoria. "And thank you." And she left him to it.

He was almost half way through when it dawned on Victoria that he was doing a much better job than she had anticipated. He was thorough and exact, taking the time, each time he finished a pile, to trot into the house to report the number. And he was careful to update her, if he found additional pieces of a size already catalogued. She was very impressed, actually. She was also troubled, remembering her conversation with Buck the evening before. The child had a bright and wonderful mind, and was obviously hungry to use it.

"You are doing a very good job, Pauly," she praised him as he brought her his latest findings. "I think you like to learn how to do new things, no?"

He frowned at the turn of phrase, but nodded. "Yes, ma’am. I like learnin’ things."

"And I already know how much you like to read," Victoria ventured. "I’m sure I could find some more books for you, if you would like that."

He would. "Wit’ pictures in ‘em?" he asked eagerly.

"Yes, I think so," Victoria laughed, wondering to herself if Blue might have some old picture books around someplace. "I will ask your cousin. I think, perhaps, he may have some." She hesitated briefly, aware that she was acting somewhat contrary to the opinion Buck had already expressed. And yet, the boy seemed so eager. Perhaps Buck simply did not understand that for such a child school would not be a burden.

"Do you like arithmetic, Pauly? You are very good at counting. Would you like to learn how to add and subtract?"

Pauly nodded. "I kin do it already, a little bit," he told her. " ‘Cept I sometimes fergit an’ hafta count on my fingers. My ma says that ain’t the right way ta do it, and I gotta rememborize the answers. It’s awful hard, though. I don’t like it as much as readin’."

Victoria felt tears prick behind her eyes, a little, as she looked down into Pauly’s small face. This wonderful little boy, who wanted so much to learn and so few opportunities. There was just so much that he should have, that he would never be able to experience given the circumstances of his life. It just was not fair. If only he could stay at Chaparral, for always. There was so much they could do for him, there. So much they could give to him.

"If you would like," she said cautiously, "perhaps I could help you. I would like to teach you, Pauly, if you would like that." She knew Buck might not like it. But she would deal with the father, later; what was important, here, was the child.

Pauly just nodded. "Yes, ma’am, thank you," he agreed solemnly. "That would be fine. When I git home, Mama said I kin go to school in Tucson. I’d really like to go to school, reg’lar. Mama said it would be all right. Iffn we stay here in Tucson…"

Victoria winced, both at the reminder that Madeline Turcott still loomed as a large question mark in the boy’s, and indeed all of their, futures, and that Pauly was not destine to stay with them forever. She pushed the thought away.

"Then we shall see what books we have," she told him. "Come now, let us finish our task. I have something else for you to do, if you like, when we have finished this."

Blue sat at the side of the house on a bench pushed up against the wall, the remains of his lunch beside him. He was watching his little cousin. The child was busily gathering chips from the wood block and piling them in a little wicker basket. His industry and absorption had his older cousin so engrossed that Blue did not hear his father until John had already come to a halt beside him. Startling guiltily, he started to climb to his feet.

"No, finish your lunch," John said, gesturing to him. Blue relaxed, a little warily. John looked over at the child.

"What's he up to?"

"Victoria's got him doin' some chores around the house, or somethin'," Blue replied, with a shrug. He chuckled softly. "You know, Pa, I've been watchin’ him for a couple o’ hours, now, while I was doin’ my own chores. First Victoria had him sorting out them dishes so she could put ‘em away, and then she had him doin’ some other thing. And now he's pickin' up wood chips for the stove, I guess." He gestured at the boy crouched by the wood block. "He’s been doin’ one thing or another since breakfast. And he ain't even slowed down, once. He just keeps goin' and goin', as soon as he's finished one thing, he's looking to do another. Where does he get the energy?"

John laughed outright. "You were exactly the same way, when you were his age," he said. Then he looked down at the bench his son was sitting on. "Mind if I join you?"

Blue reached for the remains of his meal, gathering up the debris and moving it out of his father's way. He had half expected a read-out for lally-gagging around when he should have been working, or at least to be told to go get on with his chores; the mildness of his father's mood had him baffled, and not a little curious.

"I was like that?" he asked as John sat down beside him.

"You certainly were. You were inexhaustible. Your mother and I would watch you in absolute wonder, sometimes, asking ourselves that very same question."

Blue smiled shyly, the idea of his parents watching him as he watched had Pauly leaving him with a strange, almost surreal feeling. "I don't remember that," he said.

John nodded, smiling with him. "You used to follow me all round the place, as I recall. Beggin' me to let you help with the chores. You couldn't get enough of them."

Blue snorted in disbelief. "So," he asked slyly, "how old was I before I smartened up?"

John roared. Still intent on his tasks, Pauly ignored them.

"You did a pretty good job o' work, for such a little mite," John said, still chuckling. "You learned fast, and you worked hard." He paused a beat, then added quietly. "You still do."

Blue looked at his father in shock. He didn't know what to say, was almost afraid to make any response at all lest his father retract the compliment. But John just sighed as if nothing unusual had passed between them.

"You remember how, on Sunday's sometimes, if we got the chores done early, you and I would go fishin'? Just the two of us? This was before the war, and sometimes your Uncle Buck would come with us, too, if he was around. I don't know if you'll remember, you weren't much older than Pauly, there." John sighed suddenly. "It was along time ago."

Blue nodded slowly, his eyes filling a little at the memory. "Yeah," he replied huskily. "I do remember that. I remember Ma used to cook up whatever we brought home, except we hardly ever caught anything. It never seemed to matter, though."

"Those were some good times, before the war," John agreed. "We had some good times, after, too. Planning the future." He hesitated, then, as if he wanted to say something more, but had somehow lost the courage. His son continued to watch Pauly rummaging around in the wood pile for a moment or two longer, saying nothing.

Blue had never admitted it to anyone, but he did remember those times, and he missed them profoundly, those simple days, and the easy relationship he'd had with his father. War had come to destroyed that, and even before war, the politics that had driven a wedge between John Cannon and his brother had rocked forever the innocent sympathy that had lain between father and son. Buck left the family circle to follow his loyalty to the Secessionists, breaking his young nephew's heart. And John had refused to speak of it, shutting himself off from his only son's need.

Then the father, himself, had gone to war, leaving the boy to become a man without him. Blue remembered all of it. His father returning, hardened, somehow, different than he had been. Even his mother had not been able to get inside that horny armor. Or maybe it had been he, himself, who had changed, no longer a little boy, no longer able to look at his father and see a hero instead of just a man. The eventual reconciliation with Buck, and the journey to Arizona had made things worse, Blue sometimes thought, rather than better. It had brought his mother's death, so many changes. As much as he loved this new land, and this new life, there were times when he wished they could all go back, again, to a place when things were simpler. He just did not know how.

And now, here was John Cannon, his mood a strange one, echoing some of the things that Blue had kept hidden in his heart for so long. He didn't know how to feel about it.

"So… you think maybe one o' these Sundays," Blue began, finally, hesitantly, "maybe we could take Pauly fishin'? Up in the mountains? I know a couple o' good streams up there. Just you an' me, an' Uncle Buck if he wants to?"

John didn't answer right away. He paused, as if the moment was too fragile and might shatter if a voice entered into it. Then he nodded. "Yeah, I think that's a real possibility," he agreed hoarsely. "I think we could do that. I… I'd like to."

"Me, too," Blue whispered.

The moment didn't shatter. Father and son glanced at each other shyly, almost like sweethearts, but neither dared venture another word. Then John put his hands on his knees and heaved himself to his feet.

"And speaking of chores," he said, "I seem to remember having some."

Blue stood up beside him. "I was wonderin' when you were gonna get around to that," he replied, but there was no hostility in the comment. Together they headed down toward the corral.

Manolito was coming up from the bunkhouse from his own lunch with the men as father and son left their bench by the house. Blue had not been the only one watching Pauly Turcott that morning; Manolito, too, had watched the boy, and been amused by his industry. There were other things, though, that did not amuse the man, so much. Things that frankly were beginning to get him a little worried.

He walked across the yard and stopped by the wood block.

"Hola, niño," he said. Pauly looked up at him. "What are you doing there, so busily." He crouched down beside the boy, and looked into the basket.

"I’m gittin’ wood fo’ the stove," Pauly replied, matter-of-factly. Manolito nodded.

"I see. Tinder, yes… to start the fire, that is what these little pieces will be used for. And kindling, these larger pieces, until the fire is hot enough to put a log on it."

Pauly looked at him curiously, as if he had not really considered the purpose behind his task. "I’m he’pin’ Aunt Victoria," he said.

"Yes," Manolito sighed. "Tía Victoria… It is a difficult job, gathering wood, no? 'Mucho trabajo, poco dinero'."

Pauly just frowned at him and Manolito laughed. "Chiquito, I think if you are going to live so close to Mexico, then we must teach you to speak a little Spanish."

Pauly nodded. "Yes, sir," he agreed. Manolito shook his head. Then he reached over and ruffled the boy’s hair.

"Well, you keep on working, here," he said, standing. "You are doing a very good job. Bueno."

He walked into the kitchen to find his sister there, looking decidedly less than glamorous with her hair tied up in a kerchief and an old apron wrapped around her waist. She was up to the elbows in soapy water, washing the dishes Pauly had unpacked.

"Ah, my beautiful sister. There is no such flower in all of Arizona territory, nor in all of Mexico, either, as you, the exquisite Señora Victoria Velásquez de Soto Cannon de Montoya. You are like a jewel, a star that shines in the glittering night sky." He sighed, kissing his fingers to her to punctuate the compliment.

Victoria made a face, half smiling, not sure if she wanted to laugh, or throw a dish at him. "Manolo, have you no sweetheart in Tucson to bother that you must waste such words on a mere sister?"

It was Manolito’s turn to laugh. "Victoria, I always have a sweetheart in Tucson to, as you say, bother. And such words are never," he lifted her soapy hand to his lips, "wasted upon my sister."

Victoria pulled her hand away, but she was smiling in earnest, now. "What is it that you want, Manolo?"

"Me? I want nothing. Only, it is so much cooler inside the house than it is outside in the sun."

"Oh?" Victoria quipped, not quite believing him. "Very well." She handed him a towel. "While you are here being cool, you may also dry." She expected him to make some excuse and beat a hasty retreat, so she was startled when he took the towel, and then took a wet dish from her hands.

Manolito was in a quandary, if only his sister knew it. He had noticed the attachment she was forming for Buck Cannon’s little son, could not help but see it, really, and it frankly worried him. He had no problem with the child, himself, in fact he liked him very much. Pauly Turcott was very sweet, bright and personable, well behaved and well mannered. All of the things one wished to see in a child. One would never guess that he had been raised by such a mother as his, spending his days hanging about saloons in the company of who knew what sort of people. It was not the child, himself, who worried him. Manolito’s concerns were all for his sister.

Manolito knew how Victoria felt about children. From the time she had been little more than a girl, herself, she had loved them, had doted upon the niños at their father’s hacienda, the offspring of the families who lived and worked on Rancho Montoya. She had even tried to mother him and his companions. And he knew how much she longed for children of her own. He saw it in her eyes whenever she watched mothers walking with their youngsters on the streets of Tucson, he saw it whenever she asked him to take her to the chapel where she could offer up her special prayers. Her longing broke his heart, and yet there was nothing he could do to help her. There were no children. He did not understand the cause. Manolito knew that the marriage between his sister and John Cannon had begun as a loveless political arrangement, but he also knew that it had not stayed so. He had seen the undisguised passion with which his brother-in-law looked at her, and he had seen those looks returned. And yet, for all their great love, he was beginning to fear that the match would prove barren. It was such a tragedy.

Manolito also realized that his sister was transferring her desire for her own child onto Pauly Turcott, and the knowledge troubled him. It troubled him because Pauly Turcott already had a mother, however inappropriate John Cannon’s family might find her. Buck might be the boy’s father, Manolito had no real doubt about that, but unless Buck married Madeline Turcott, the child would be going back to her, eventually. And Manolito did not hold much expectation for any marriages. So Pauly would be leaving the High Chaparral, possibly soon. Manolito was very worried about what that was going to do to his sister.

"Victoria, where did all of these things come from," he asked, stacking plates as his sister handed them over. "I have never seen dishes such as these at High Chaparral."

"They were in those crates that you and Blue brought out from the storage shed last night," she told him. "I had Pauly unpack them for me."

Manolito nodded. "He is a very nice little boy."

"Oh, Manolito, he is a wonderful child," Victoria replied. "He is so willing and helpful. And so intelligent. He would be a pleasure for anyone to raise."

"Yes," Manolito agreed. "It is a pity he cannot stay."

Victoria’s face fell, and she turned away.

"Victoria…"

She did not answer.

"Victoria?"

"Yes, Manolito?"

Manolito sighed. Frankly, he was not really sure how to broach this subject with his sister. He only felt that he must try. "Pauly must go back to his mother eventually. You know that."

"Must he?" she demanded, suddenly angry. "Why, Manolo? Why must we send him back to live among drunkards and prostitutes. Oh, I know very well the kind of life he will have. It is not fair, Manolito. We can offer him so much more, here."

It was even worse than he had feared. "But would you wish deprive him of his mother?" he pressed. "Such a child? You would separate him from his mamá? What would you say to him, if you were to do such a thing? What would he think of you?"

Victoria looked away again, her jaw set belligerently, but Manolito could see that her lip was trembling. He sighed.

"I know how much you wish for a child…" he continued. At his words, Victoria’s head came up proudly.

"I do not see how that is any concern of yours."

"Victoria. Querida, it concerns me because you are my only sister, and I love you very much," he said gently. "And I do not wish to see you hurt."

This was not the usual teasing manner he used with her when he wanted to make a point. There was so much honest emotion in his voice that Victoria surrendered, her shoulders slumping a little. She glanced up at him, then closed her eyes. A tear squeezed out of one corner and trickled down her cheek. With no one else but her brother could she let such anguish show. Certainly not with her husband, who suspected her disappointment and blamed himself. But Manolito was right, her grief at her continued childlessness was acute. She took a deep breath, and tried to control her trembling. Manolito reached over with a corner of the towel in his hand and dried her tears.

"Muchacha, forgive me. I am sorry. I did not mean to cause you pain."

"It is not you who brings this pain, Manolo," Victoria replied. "And what you say is nothing but the truth." She smiled up at him. "Sometimes I look at him and I cannot help but imagine... John says he looks very much as Blue did when he was a little boy."

"Yes," Manolito agreed. "He has told me so, also."

"And I wonder…" She took a deep breath. "Buck has a fine son."

Manolito closed his eyes a moment. "Yes, he does. But querida, you must remember. That son also has a mother."

Victoria nodded. "I know. And I know that he will go home to her, eventually. You are right. But while he is here, I intend to enjoy the pleasure of having him with us." She smiled at her brother bravely, but he could still see the pain in her eyes.

"Is there anything I can do?" he asked, knowing there wasn’t.

Victoria looked wistful a moment. "Sí, Manolo. You could say a prayer for me," she replied. "If you happen to think of it."

Manolito laughed to keep the tears at bay. He put his arms around her, and pulled her close. "Ah, Victoria. What prayers I have are yours, muchacha. Every one of them." He kissed her forehead and let her go.

Victoria smiled up at him, no longer merely being brave. "You should not take this so seriously. I am not unhappy. I have a wonderful husband whom I love as much as woman can love a man, and who I know loves me. And I have a fine son in his son. If I also have some disappointments, well, life is full of them, and they need not be disappointments forever. As for Pauly, he is Buck’s son, and even if he must go back to his mother, sometime, I am sure he will still visit us, again, many, many times." She leaned up and kissed his cheek. "But thank you for caring, my brother. I think no woman could be as lucky as I am, to be loved so much."

The nicest time of day on an Arizona cattle ranch came undoubtedly in the evening, when the air was cooling off, and the men, tired from their long days and contented with full bellies, settled down to welcome the relative serenity of the night. It was a peaceful time, when a song, perhaps, something gentle and plaintive, might drift upon the air up from the bunkhouse, and the industriousness of the day loosened it belt and put its collective feet up. The dangers, though they still existed, could be relegated to those assigned to guard the compound. It was a time to relax, to dream, and to remember what it was they were all working so hard for.

"Ain’t that jist the purtiest sky you ever seed?" Buck Cannon asked his small son as the two sat outside the ranch house together on a wide seat, side by side, watching the sunset. The evening sky was streaked with purple and pink, with touches of vibrant reds around the edges of the clouds that hung over the mountains. The vaulting peaks provided a framing in the distance, and stately saguaros peopled the foreground. "Jist the purtiest."

"It sure is, Pa," said Pauly Turcott beside him.

"You know, Pauly," said Buck, "High Chaparral range goes purty much all-a way up to that sunset."

"Really?"

"Purty near. You climb up on that there water tower, you kin see it most o’ the way to Mexico."

Pauly turned and looked up at him, disbelieving.

"Yer foolin’ me," he accused, laughing.

Buck laughed back. "Wall, mebbe a little bit. But you sure can see a long way. An’ all o’ it be the High Chaparral. Tha's what we all workin' so hard fo'. Workin' and protectin'. See that Joe Butler down by the gate? He be on guard tonight, make sure nothin' doan get in. An' we got a man on the roof, too, jist so you kin feel safe."

"I feel safe, Pa," Pauly said, never having considered that there might be any danger.

Buck put his arm around him and hugged the boy into his side. "Ain't nothin' gonna happen to you, doan you worry. It be plenty safe here. Used to be we hadta put more guards on, had a man at the back gate, too, but we doan gotta do that no mo' since Big John made a agreement with the A-pach. Been purty quite around here, lately, in fact." He leaned down and kissed the top of Pauly's head. "I been thinkin'. I think, mebbe, inna couple o’ days, I’ll take you out wit’ me, show you the herd. Whatchu think. You like that?"

"Yes, sir! Kin I ride Lightning?"

"Wall, naw, I figger to take you up wit’ me on ol’ Rebel," Buck replied. "You doan wanna be ridin’ that pony outside the corral till we kin git him a saddle what fits right. It be too dangerous fo’ ridin’ bareback, they’s too many things in the desert even ol’ Lightenin’ might spook at. Too chancy, that. But I’d still like you to see the herd, an’ all the range an’ all. The whole dang thing, all o’ it. It be just the grandest place you ever knowd, Pauly, and that’s the truth."

The pride in Buck’s voice was obvious as he spoke. It was a magnificent place, this High Chaparral, and he realized, as he looked at it all, how much he had come to love this bold, terrible, wonderful land. But he also had to admit, as he sat there with his newfound son beside him, that looking at it troubled him some, too. All of this magnificence, after all, belonged to his brother, and would some day belong to Blue and Blue’s children after him. Buck would be welcome there until the day he died, the High Chaparral was his home, as much as it was anyone’s. But it wasn’t his ranch. It was not a thing he could pass down to his son.

It had never really bothered him before. Buck, for all his carefree insouciance, knew himself very well, and he knew that at heart he was nothing but a drifter, moving always toward the next thing, a better thing hopefully, but anyway, something different. Too much so to ever set down permanent roots. He had said as much to John, once. He stayed on Chaparral because the love of his family held him there, but owning it, owning things, had never been more than a passing fancy of his. He shunned that kind of responsibility. The only good reason for a man to own things, as far as he could see, would be to pass them down to posterity, and Buck had never had any posterity to worry about.

All that was different, now. Now, he had a reason to want something to continue. He pulled Pauly up onto his lap, kissed the top of the boy’s head, again, then laid his cheek against it. His boy, his son. There was so much Buck wanted to give him. He just didn’t know how. He had no practice thinking in terms of the future. Should he strike out on his own, get himself a little spread, maybe one of the smaller ranches that abutted the Chaparral land? Set himself up on it, maybe run a few head of cattle? Make someplace for him and his boy? It would be awful hard, alone, though. And as much as he tried to forget about it, there was another person in Pauly’s life, one who, perhaps, had more claim on him, separate from the High Chaparral and anything his father might plan. There was still his mother, and Buck just did not know what to do about that. He knew he was going to have to think of something, though, and he couldn’t put it off forever.

He knew one answer would be to marry the woman. It would certainly solve a lot of the immediate problems. And she was a fine looking gal, when you came right down to it. Nothing wrong with her in that department. He could marry, and they could all live together somewhere, maybe on that little spread. A family. He could keep his boy with him always, then. But even as he considered the possibility, Buck rejected the idea, just as he had rejected it every other time he thought it. He could not see himself married to Maddie Turcott, even her physical attributes did not draw him. The very idea turned him cold. Now, maybe if Pauly’s mother had been someone like Lizzie Dickerson, maybe her Buck could see hitching himself to. But Lizzie was dead, Maddie had told him. And it was Maddie Turcott who was his boy’s ma. There was nothing he could do about that.

But he didn’t have to worry about that just yet. Madeline Turcott and all the worries she would represent were for the future. Right now, he had just his boy with him, and he was going to concentrate on that. Pauly stirred in his arms, yawning.

"Hey there, Mr. Pauly, you gittin’ tired? You had yersel’ a busy day. Victoria tol’ me how you he’ped her out wit’ her chores all day. Said you did a nice job o’ work, too. Worked real hard."

"Yes, sir," the boy sighed.

"You like her, dontcha? Yer A’nt Victoria."

"Uh-huh…" Pauly replied. "She’s real nice. She’s gonna fin’ some books fer me ta read."

That surprised Buck, a little. "She is, huh? You like books, Pauly?"

"Yes, sir. I like ‘em a lot."

Buck considered that. He himself had not been able to get away from school books fast enough at Pauly’s age, but well, if the boy wanted books, then he would have them. "Wall, then, we’ll see about gittin’ you some. We’ll git you all the books you want."

"Pa?" the boy yawned, again.

"Yeah, Pauly?"

"When’s mama comin’?"

Buck felt his stomach lurch, and for a moment, the landscape swam around him. He had not expected this, that the boy would ask this question. That he would make this request. "Comin’ here? You mean, to the High Chaparral?"

"Uh huh."

Buck swallowed hard. "Wall, I doan rightly know, Pauly. I ain’t really thought about that. Why you askin’?"

Pauly leaned back in Buck’s arms and looked up at him warily. "I thought when you…" he stopped himself, almost instinctively, as if afraid, suddenly, to reveal too much. "I jist thought she would come…"

Buck took a deep breath and attempted to gather his wits. "Wall, I giss mebbe she could do that sometime," he waffled, unsure how else to answer him. "Sure, we could think on that. But we got us a lot o’ things to do. You wanna do all them things we talked about, dontcha, Pauly."

The child didn’t answer right away. Then he nodded. "Sure, Pa," he said, laying his head back down on Buck’s shoulder.

"An’ right now I think the thing we best do is git you ta bed," Buck said, standing up with the boy in his arms. This unexpected new development had shocked him, he didn’t want to think about it right now. The boy was tired, naturally he would be pining for something more familiar. That was all it was. He forget all about it in the morning, after a good night’s rest.

But Pauly didn’t go to sleep at once when Buck tucked him into bed and left him, tired as he was. He needed to think. His Pa had not told him when his mother might be coming. And Maddie had told him she would come. But, he remembered, too, that she could only come if his Pa decided to like him enough. He remembered her saying that, very distinctly. Everything hinged on it, he could see that, now. Only if his Pa liked him enough would Maddie be allowed to come join them. And obviously, Buck hadn’t gotten there, yet. He did not yet care about him that much. So Pauly knew, even as sleep overtook him, that he was going to have to try even harder to be the kind of boy his Pa would like. And then his Pa would care about him enough, and his Ma could come, and they would all be together. They would be like a family. Like in his story book.

 

THE BRINK

I

Despite the diversion of Pauly Turcott around the place, the business of the High Chaparral still went on. Even with the well restored in the south section, water was becoming in a real concern, and John needed to move yet another part of the herd to fresh grazing. There was a man in Tubac he wanted to see about buying the overstock horses, and there was the monthly payroll to pick up in Tucson. As usual, too much to do, and not enough time or manpower to do it, but John Cannon was sure he would somehow make it all happen, anyway. He always did. Somehow.

It was already late in the day when he walked through the living room of the ranch house, followed by his foreman, and dropped into a chair at the dinning room table. The two men had been out most of the afternoon, inspecting the water-hole situation. The news was not particularly good, but John felt he had at least a temporary way out of their difficulties. Sam took off his hat and sat down beside him as John unrolled the range map.

"Here, then," John said, smoothing out the roll of heavy paper. "If we move those animals from the Flats on up to Conejo Springs there should be plenty of water for them. You said Pedro confirmed that?"

"Yes, sir, both he and Joe rode out there this morning. Said those springs were running sweet and pure."

"Good. That's something, anyway. I'll tell you, Sam, this lack of rain is starting to get me worried. For all the thunder and lightning we've been having, you'd think we might get just a little water with it."

"Yes, sir, I know what you mean," Sam agreed. "And this is supposed to be the rainy season. At this rate we're gonna have a mighty dry winter… "Though," he added, almost hopefully, "I think we might get some rain tomorrow. Smells like it, anyway."

John Cannon laughed. "Smells like, ‘ey? Sam, you’re worse than an Apache." But he meant it as a compliment. And he knew what the other man meant. The air did feel a little bit like there might be rain tomorrow.

Footsteps tapped the tile floor behind them, and both men turned to see Victoria come into the room from the kitchen.

"John. I thought I heard your voice. I held dinner for you… Hello, Sam," Victoria said warmly. "Oh, you both look so tired, let me get you some coffee. Sam, have you eaten, yet?"

"Ah, no, ma'am," Butler replied. "Not yet, but I'll get somethin' later, down the bunkhouse."

"You will do nothing of the kind. There is plenty of food in the kitchen. I can fix a plate for each of you, and you can eat while you are discussing your business."

"Oh, you don't need to bother about me, Mrs. Cannon," Sam protested.

"It is no bother, Sam," replied Victoria. "I insist."

John laughed. "Sam, you oughta know by now that there no sense in arguing when a woman's decided she wants to feed you," he teased. Sam grinned back at him.

"I reckon you're right about that, Boss," he agreed. Then he smiled up at Victoria. "Thank you, ma'am. I'd be much obliged."

It took her only a few moments to reappear with the promised meal, and a fresh pot of hot coffee. The men had barely resumed their discussion when they were interrupted, once again, this time by wild childish laughter as Buck burst into the house with Pauly riding on his shoulders.

"Whoa!!" he shouted, skidding to a breathless stop on the carpet. Sam raised an eyebrow at John, and grinned.

"Well, howdy, gen'l'men," Buck boomed. "Say howdy, there, Caballero Pauly!"

"Howdy!" the child piped.

"Howdy, yourself," John answered. "Buck, don't you think it was time that boy was in bed? It's getting late."

"It is past time," Victoria agreed, tightly, coming back out of the kitchen. "And he has not even had his supper. Buck, where were you?"

But Buck was unperturbed. "Oh, don't you worry none about us, Victoria," he said. "We got us a bite down to the bunkhouse. Roasted us a little piece o' beef on a stick. And then we snuck us a couple o' them honey cakes from Vaquero."

"Buck that is certainly not an acceptable meal for a growing boy," Victoria protested. "He needs milk, and a vegetable… And I think the bunkhouse is hardly the proper place for a child."

Buck still wasn't paying much attention. He swung Pauly down off his shoulders into his arms like a baby, and kissed him, nuzzling his neck until the boy squealed. "But we like it down at the bunkhouse, don't we, Pauly!" he laughed.

"Yes, sir!"

Buck dropped the boy onto his feet on the floor. "But the lady sez it's bedtime, then I giss it be bedtime," he admitted. "Come on! Ah race ya!" And the two tore toward the stairs, laughing, and nearly upset a lamp.

"Oops," Buck whooped as he righted the teetering object. They disappeared around the landing.

Watching them, Sam laughed. "I'll tell ya, Boss, I'm not sure which one o' them is more in need of a nurse-maid," he said.

John chuckled with him. "I think you may have a point, there, Sam."

Victoria was less than amused, however. "John, how can you? Your brother treats that little boy like he was a wild wolf cub, and you just laugh!"

"Oh, now, Victoria," John replied. "I don't see how it's doing any real harm. Buck is just getting to know the boy a little, is all. They're just having a little fun together."

She was not going to be appeased. "Well, you may not see the harm in it," she huffed, "but I do. Buck is turning that child into a wild animal." She turned abruptly and flounced back into the kitchen.

John exchanged a look with Sam, and blew out a breath. "Yes," he changed the subject abruptly. "Well, where were we?"

"I'll take a crew down to the Flats in the morning, Boss, and start movin' that herd."

"No, not you, Sam," John countered, surprising his foreman. "You have Joe take care of the herd. I need you to go into Tucson, tomorrow. I've got to go to Tubac; I think I've got a buyer for those overstock horses."

"Good," said Sam. "If we can get those horses off the range, it sure will help the water situation."

"My thinking exactly. Not to mention the additional cash the sale will generate, which would be very welcome right about now," John said, smiling a little now. "As soon as we've got the herd moved, you boys can start roundin' them up, provided I can work things out with this fellow in Tubac."

"You plannin' on sellin' 'em wild?"

"That's the plan," Cannon agreed. "We don't really have the time to even take the kinks out of 'em, let alone really break them. We'll sell them right off the range. It's a loss, I know a wild horse won't bring as much as even one that's green broke, but I just can't take the time for it, now, and we need that water for the cattle."

It made perfect sense to Sam.

"However," John continued, "I expect to be gone for a couple of days and that means I'm going to need you to ride into Tucson tomorrow and pick up the payroll. Unless, of course," he added mischievously, "you think the men would be willing to do without it…"

Sam laughed. "No, sir, I don't reckon they'd be very happy about that," he said.

John nodded. He seemed to hesitate, and Sam looked at him curiously. "You can take Buck with you," he said, "if you think you'll be needing the company," he said.

Sam thought he understood the other man’s hesitancy. Ordinarily, for a lone man to be carrying as much money as the Chaparral payroll was a little risky, and ordinarily Sam would be happy to have Buck along, for the companionship as much as anything else. But with Maddie Turcott still waiting in Tucson, Sam also understood that John would very much like to keep Buck out of town for a while. And since the man seemed pretty much taken up with amusing his newfound son, he had shown little interest in making the trip, himself. He would go if Sam asked him, of course, and John was not about to ask Sam not to. But Sam Butler hadn't worked for John Cannon for as long as he had without learning how to read his boss pretty well. He understood John's dilemma.

"I'll be all right on my own, Mr. Cannon," he said. "Unless you think I oughta take him with me. Buck seems like he's got enough to keep him busy here."

John tried very hard not to look relieved. "No, if you think you'll be all right by yourself," he agreed, "there's no reason to bother Buck, then…"

There wasn't much else to do to finish up their business for the night, and a few minutes later, Sam bid his boss goodnight and headed down for his bunk. John glanced toward at the kitchen where Victoria had disappeared. There was a storm brewing there between his wife and his brother over this little boy, that he was feeling a little helpless to intercept. He knew it was coming, though, as clearly as Sam Butler thought he smelled rain. He just didn’t know what to do about it. He sighed and got up from the table. He still an hour or so’s work left before he could seek his own bed. He went into his office and closed the door.

It took Maddie a week to admit to herself how much she missed Pauly. It wasn’t that she didn’t acknowledge her affection for him; she readily admitted she was fond of the boy. Why else would she still be looking after him, like she was. But for so many years she had considered him a burden, too, a responsibility almost too great for one person to bear alone, she had expected nothing but relief having him out of her way for a while.

And for a little while, that had been the case. For the first few days after Buck Cannon had driven away with Pauly beside him, Maddie felt as if a great weight had been lifted from her back, and the absence of responsibility had left her almost giddy. She’d stayed up all night, worked into the small hours of the morning knowing she could sleep all the next day if she wanted. She ate when and what she pleased, drank as much and as often, with no thought for the small face that would turn to her curiously, nor the eyes that did not judge exactly, but neither would they go away. For the first time in years, she was again responsible only for herself, and to herself. The experience had been heady. For a few days.

Once the novelty wore off, however, Maddie discovered something unexpected. She discovered that she actually yearned the boy, missed him climbing into her bed to wake her in the morning, always much too early, missed looking around and seeing his self-contained little self playing or just watching. Missed his simply being there. There were times when she would find herself looking up and thinking that she had not seen him in hours, had not given him his lunch or his supper, had no idea where he might be, and panic would overwhelm her until she remembered that he was on High Chaparral with his father. She would relax, then, but always with a sense of residual longing, as if something were still not quite right. It was a troubling, and wholly unlooked for, feeling.

What was perhaps even more surprising was the way in which Maddie began to see herself, with Pauly away. The child had been a part of her life for so long that she had not realized the extent to which his presence had become part of her. She had never really thought, before, about the way having him with her set her apart. With Pauly around, she wasn’t just a whore and a two-bit con, she was somebody’s "mother." Another life depended upon her. And although there were those who might questions her reasons, or even her sanity, no one ever questioned the relationship itself. There were some of the girls who even envied it, girls she had met who had given up children of their own. Girls who had told her, themselves, that wished they’d made other decisions, wished they’d had the courage to keep their own children. Having Pauly made her a little bit special, in an odd sort of way.

And the clients treated her differently, too, once they knew about the child’s existence. She realized that, now. It put her a little bit above the others. And Pauly was always a ready excuse; she could turn down a drink, or a man, or an activity if she chose, on no other grounds than the fact that there was the boy to think about, sound asleep in her room. Even the most persistent and obnoxious client would usually back down in the face of that. Motherhood, it seemed, had some strange and powerful sort of sacredness, even in a whore. Maddie had not realized the extent to which Pauly’s existence protected her until he was no longer there to offer a hindrance. Without him, she had no excuses, other than of her own inclinations.

Without Pauly, Maddie was no longer special. She was just a saloon hostess, like all the others, a little on the old and trail worn side, at that. And without him, she no longer had a good reason to govern herself. There was no reason not to drink every night until she passed out, no reason to keep herself clear from the drugs and the gambling, from entertaining even the most disreputable men, from every kind of self abuse and method of self destruction so common to her lot. There was nothing to stop her. Except herself. It seemed like it should have been a small thing. It wasn’t.

But most of all, Maddie just missed him, more than she ever thought she could. Pauly was truly her son, it didn’t matter who had physically given birth to him. She’d had the care of him since he was less than two. And she loved him, she knew that, now, just as much as if she had given birth to him. He wasn’t just a responsibility, not just a fondness and a sense of duty to a promise made five years earlier to a suicidal girl. He was her boy, and she was his mama. That’s all there was to it. She wanted him back. She was also starting to feel a little strange about the looks she was getting from people in town. She was used enough to townfolk, especially the women, looking down their noses at her, but this was different. Now there was curiosity mixed in with their scorn, titillation with the hostility when they pointed and gestured. She felt like some kind of freak. And more than once she had heard the name of Buck Cannon whispered behind cupped hands as she walked past. She didn’t like it.

Still, she probably would have been willing to let things go on a while longer had not Blake McDermott forced her hand. Blake had been making a habit of coming in, once a night, starting the evening Pauly had left for High Chaparral. At first he had not stayed long. He’d pestered her for a little folding money, which she’d felt obligated to give him, had a few drinks, maybe gone upstairs for half an hour with Dorrie or one of the other girls, then left with the promise that he’d see her tomorrow. But as one week stretched into two, Maddie could see he was getting restless. He was staying longer, and he was getting louder about it, noisily asking after "her son," asking how the boy was getting on with his new kin. And he’d been pressing her, too, for more and more money. None of the other girls thought much of it, they all assumed she’d found some regular client, who, if a little obnoxious and as likely to go off with one of the other girls as he was with her, was still someone Maddie felt inclined to indulge. Perhaps they thought she was in love with him, in much the same way indulgent Lizzie had once been in love with Buck Cannon. But Maddie believed that Mike at the bar suspected something was not entirely right about Blake McDermott’s constant presence. And that worried her a lot. She knew Mike was friendly with all of the Cannon men, and she didn’t need him casting his suspicions in the wrong direction.

It wasn’t until two weeks and a little more had passed, though, that things finally came to a head. It was late, nearly closing for the saloon, and Maddie had not secured herself a man for the night. She had mixed feelings about it. She wasn’t much in the mood for working, but sleeping alone meant a loss of income she could ill afford now that she was dividing her profits with Blake. On the positive side, though, McDermott hadn’t been in that night, nor the night before, and she was beginning to think that maybe he had finally lost interest, or found a better, more lucrative, scheme to plunder. She had almost started to let herself hope when he came into the saloon looking for her. She had already retired, alone, for the night, so she didn’t hear him. She didn’t even know he was there until he barged into her room, mean drunk, demanding justice.

Maddie had changed out of her hostess costume and had washed the rouge and powder from her face, but she had not yet gotten into bed when McDermott stormed into her room.

"Where is it?" he demanded, slamming the door behind him.

"Where’s what? Blake, get out of here. It’s three in the morning. I’m going to bed."

"Where’s the money Cannon’s been givin’ ya?"

"The Cannons ain’t given me a cent since that five hundred dollars they gave me before Pauly went to visit. I told you."

"An’ you expect me to believe that?"

"I don’t much care what you believe," Maddie said, turning away from him disdainfully. It was a mistake. McDermott grabbed her arm and spun her around viciously.

"Bitch," he hissed through his teeth. "Don’t lie to me. I know when I’m bein’ cheated…"

"Blake, you’re drunk…" Maddie said, struggling to get free of him. "I ain’t lyin’, why the hell would I lie? You think I’d still be pointin’ my knees at the ceilin’ for the likes o’ every cowpoke with a two dollar bulge in his britches if them Cannons where givin’ me money? Don’t act as stupid as you look."

He slapped her, but not very hard. Then he let her go. "It’s been a month, now. How much longer is this scheme o’ yours supposed to take?"

"It’s hardly been two and a half weeks. Not even three. And I don’t know how long it’s gonna take. I told you that, too. It all depends on Buck Cannon gettin’ to like that boy. If he likes him enough, he’ll get to like me enough…"

She knew she’d made a mistake as soon as the words were out of her mouth. McDermott know nothing about her real plans, for a very good reason. He thought the deal was simply one of extortion. "Like you enough for what?" he asked, his voice dangerously quiet.

She thought fast. "Like me enough to trust me," she replied, "if you’d shut up and let me finish. If he don’t trust me, there’s no way he’s gonna turn over any kind o’ money for that boy. I’m not talkin’ about a pay off, Blake. I’m talking about income. About a regular sum o’ money, once a month, every month, just like the payroll. A thing like that’s gonna take time to put together. If I just wanted to blackmail ‘em, I’d o’ been long gone already."

Her explanation was just plausible enough to make him hesitate. But Blake McDermott had also seen the color leave Maddie’s face for a moment. And he didn’t think that was just late hours and dim light. He reached over and pinched her face in his hand.

"You’d best not be lyin’ to me, girl," he whispered. "Because if you are, well, I think the first thing that’s gonna happen is that them Cannons are gonna find themselves the possessors of a little bit o’ interestin’ intelligence. Just the kind o’ thing that may make them think real hard about maybe puttin’ you behin’ bars. Except there may not be nothin’ left to lock up, once I get through with you…"

"Blake, for God's sake. Let go, you’re hurting me."

"Though maybe I will leave a little bit o’ you alive enough to jail up, after all. Time you learned what it feels like, day after day with nothin’ but rock walls to look at, an’ col’ beans to eat. Men dyin’ all aroun’ ya of small pox and what-have-you, ya don’t even know what diseases. Wonderin’ whether or not yer gonna be next. I didn’t much like takin’ the fall for your last screw up, Maddie. I didn’t appreciate yer runnin’ an’ leavin’ me flat."

"Blake…"

He pushed her back toward the bed. "An’ you been actin’ awful high an’ mighty lately, too. Yer too good fo’ yer ol’ partner now, is that it?"

"Get out of here, Blake, I mean it…"

"We’ll just see about that…" He pushed her hard, and she fell backwards across the mattress.

She supposed what happened next could have been called rape, if she was inclined to call it anything. She wasn’t. In the first place, such things had happened often enough to her that she had almost learned to disregard them, as long as she was not too badly hurt. And McDermott was too drunk to do her very much damage. It was all over in a couple of minutes. He left after that, after issuing her another warning. She supposed it was that, more than the money, he had really come for.

But the threat had been real enough, and Maddie was not such a fool that she didn’t take it seriously. She shifted her weight on the bed to search for any significant injury, and finding herself whole and relatively unharmed, she sat up and surveyed her surroundings. Blake McDermott was getting restless, and that was going to make him dangerous. There was nothing she had that could be used to appease him, further. It was time to reel Buck Cannon in. It was probably too early, but there wasn’t much choice. Blake was about ready to blow the whole scheme skyward, and there was nothing she could do, as long as she remained vulnerable to him. She had to see Buck alone, and then she had to find a way to convince him to marry her. What happened after that didn't matter. Even if Blake came out with the whole story, the Cannons would have to protect her, if only for the sake of their own reputations. Buck might set her aside, have the marriage annulled or divorce her, but she didn’t think he’d do it. After all, there was only so much public humiliation a man could stand. She figured she could convince him to make the best of it, once the deed was done. Hell, he might even get to like it. How hard would it be to appease him, he was just a man, after all. And she knew pretty much all there was to know about them.

But she had to get him to do it, first, which meant seeing him alone, on her own ground, away from both the boy and that brother of his. It would only work against her to go back to the Chaparral, now; any advantage she had there was purely on the basis of surprise. She’d played that card already. And there was no weakness in John Cannon that she could exploit, she was already sure of that. Buck, though, she felt she could manipulate, if she could only find a way to lure him into town on his own. She would throw herself on his mercy, make him feel like a hero. Beguile him, somehow. And get him in front of a Justice of the Peace before his brother knew anything about it. If only she could find some way to bring him to her.

She stood up and opened the bureau drawer that held her box of personal possessions. She pushed Lizzie’s Bible to one side and took out a smaller box of writing paper. She’d had the stuff for years, she wrote very few letters now that her mother was dead, and the paper was already starting to curl and yellow on the edges. Ink and a pen she’d have to borrow from Mike; she could still hear him rummaging around in the saloon below. And then she’d have to find a way to get the note to Buck Cannon. She’d worry about that later though. The first thing to do was write it in such a way that he would come, alone, aware of the urgency, but not suspicious enough to bring his brother with him.

She couldn't meet him in that miserable room, though. Once Pauly was gone, she'd not bothered about finding other accommodations, despite John Cannon's letter of credit. The room at the saloon was convenient, and she didn't spend that much time in it, after all. But it wouldn’t do to meet Buck there; it was too obviously a whore’s room and she wanted someplace that looked much more respectable. And someplace a lot less accessible to the likes of Blake McDermott. And if Buck Cannon could not be convinced to marry her, she also knew she was just going to cut her losses, take the boy, and run. McDermott was getting far too bold for her liking and he was too damned unpredictable.

But most of all, she wanted the boy back. He’d been gone plenty long enough for Buck to decide whether or not he was going to like him enough to consider making them all a family. It was high time he came home. Grabbing her dressing gown, Maddie headed for the door to go find Mike. She had a letter that needed writing.

II

"Sam, are you sure you don't mind making this trip alone," John asked the next morning as the two men mounted up for their separate journeys. Cannon was having second thoughts about leaving his foreman unsupported with nearly a thousand dollars in his possession. While it had seemed like the best course of action the evening before, in the cold light of morning, the plan seemed unnecessarily risky. Even if Buck didn't go, maybe he should have Sam wait until Manolito returned from the herd. It would mean an extra day in town, they wouldn't be able to leave in time to return that night, but perhaps it would be better.

Sam, on the other hand, wasn't concerned. If he rode steadily, he could be in Tucson by lunch-time, pick up the payroll, get himself something to eat, run a few other errands that needed attending and still be back at the High Chaparral before it got fully dark. He told his boss as much.

"Well, if your sure," John replied, convinced by the confidence in the other man's voice as much as anything.

The two men actually shared the road for some time before they parted company, one to the north and one to the south.

"I'll see you tomorrow night, then," John said, as he reined his horse toward Tubac. "I expect my business there should be concluded by then."

"Good luck, Boss. See you tomorrow…" said Sam.

Sam's initial plans went off without a hitch. He made good time to Tucson, concluded his business at the bank, and got most of his other errands taken care of by the time he was hungry enough to go looking for lunch. Even with an hour or two in the saloon to give his horse a chance to rest up fully for the trip home, he'd be back before nightfall. But as was often the case with the most carefully laid plans, his went awry right after he finished eating. That’s when that rain he’d been sensing since the day before finally decided to let loose. The sky had been clouding up all morning, but Sam had not been too concerned, initially. He expected the worst of the storm to stay up in the mountains, as they usually did, with maybe a shower reaching Tucson, but nothing serious. He was wrong. No sooner had he put down his knife than a crack of thunder split the air and the sky opened up above them, emptying a torrent onto the dusty Tucson street.

"Aw, hell," he groaned. Sam Butler was not a man to be afraid of the rain, and he had his slicker bound up in the bedroll at the back of his saddle, where it always was. On the other hand, this was more than just a little weather. What the sky was pouring out looked more like a second Deluge. And Sam had no particular interest in getting drowned if he didn't have to.

"Gonna be a wet ride back to the High Chaparral, Sam," Mike echoed his thoughts as he came to clear the man's place. "Or do ya think ya might like to stay and have yourself a whiskey, instead?" He laughed as he said it, and Butler grinned.

"I guess I might as well wait it out," he agreed. "Shouldn't last more than an hour. But make it a beer, wudja Mike? I got a long ride." And he didn't need the effects of whiskey blurring his judgment given the cargo he was carrying in the saddle bags stashed under his chair. He didn't expect trouble, but there was no point in taking chances.

Trouble came, anyway, though nothing Sam could have anticipated. Maddie was sitting by herself in the back of the saloon when the storm started. She had seen Sam come in, but had not recognized him, and did not make the connection to the High Chaparral until Mike had spoken. She had been up most of the night composing and recopying her letter to Buck, and she knew that this might be her best chance to get it delivered, if she could convince this cowpoke to carry it. He looked half-way intelligent, anyway, and at least part way honest. If he agreed to take the letter, he probably wouldn't read it, or lose it. And in any case, she didn't figure she had much other choice. It took her only a moment to retrieve it from her room.

Sam had moved up to the bar to keep Mike company in the otherwise deserted saloon.

"Hello there," Maddie said, coming up to his elbow.

Sam turned and looked down. He had seen the woman in the corner of the saloon when he'd come in, but had paid her little attention, not having the time to spend on entertainment However, since the weather had changed all that, neither could he see much point in being unfriendly. He was still leaving as soon as the rain let up, but there was no reason why he couldn't pass the time with a little pleasant conversation. The girl beside him was attractive enough, a little trail worn, maybe, but then, weren't they all, when you came right down to it.

"Well, hello, ma'am," he said, touching his hat gallantly. "Can I get you somethin'?"

Maddie was half tempted to string him along for a little while. He wasn't half bad looking for a cowboy, now that she had a chance to get a little closer look at him, and he had a nice manner about him. She needed him, though, and some instinct told her that he wouldn't appreciate being toyed with.

"I heard Mike say you were from High Chaparral," she began.

Sam nodded, taking the query for the usual introductory pleasantries. "That's right, ma'am. Name's Sam Butler. I'm foreman on the Chaparral."

"My name's Maddie Turcott," said Maddie. "I expect you've probably heard of me."

The admission rocked Sam back a little, but not badly. After all, he knew the woman worked somewhere in town. And now that he got a good look at her, he did recognize her, although she looked very different in that scant costume and feathers than the woman who had driven out to the Chaparral a few weeks earlier. He narrowed his eyes a little, though, suspecting, now, that the encounter was far from chance.

"Yes, ma'am. I have heard o' you. And I recognize you, now, too. I saw you when you came out to the ranch."

"You don't approve of what I'm doing, do you," Maddie said. The words surprised her as soon as her mouth uttered them. What was it to her what this cowpoke thought about what she was or was not doing? And how absurd was it that a woman like her should care what any man thought of her. Yet, oddly, she felt a challenge in this one that she couldn't quite figure out.

Sam raised an eyebrow, surprised, too. "Ma'am, I don't rightly know what it is you're doin'," he said honestly. "And even if I did, it ain't my place to approve or disapprove. I expect that's between you and the Cannons."

Maddie's anger deflated abruptly. "Touché, Mr. Butler." She smiled up at him; it was more like a grimace. "You still willin' to by me that drink?"

Sam eyed her warily. "Mike?"

"A whiskey, Mike," said Maddie. She looked at Sam, again, this time almost shyly. "How is he? Pauly? Is he behavin' himself an' all?"

Something in her voice softened Sam. "He's fine, ma'am. He seems real happy," he replied. Then he smiled a little bit, himself. "He's a real nice little boy."

"Yeah," Maddie agreed, picking her glass up from the bar. "He is." She tossed the whiskey back with one snap of the wrist, the way a man would. "Look," she continued, "I didn't come over here just to talk, I reckon you've figured that. I wanted to ask you to do me a favor."

Sam nodded, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

"I need to get a letter to Buck. Now, I could take it out there, myself, but I imagine John Cannon wouldn't really like that. So, I was wondering if you'd be willin' to deliver it for me."

Sam didn't like the idea much. On the other hand, Maddie was no fool, and the veiled threat to go back out the Chaparral, herself, if need be, wasn't lost on him. Big John wouldn't thank him much for letting that happen, if it was in his power to prevent it.

Apparently, he thought about it a little bit too long, though. "Look, never mind, forget I asked," said Maddie. "I may as well just take it, myself."

"No, it's all right," Sam replied quickly. "I'll take it." It was Maddie's turn to hesitate. She looked up at him oddly. Sam frowned. "What?"

She shook her head. "Nothin'. I was just wonderin' if I ought to ask you to buy me another drink. I guess that wouldn't be a very good idea, though." She smiled, then, and held out the envelope to him. He took it. "Thank you," she said. Then she turned and walked out of the room, disappearing up the stairs onto the floor above.

Sam stared after her, bemused. There were layers there, to that woman, that disturbed him on many levels. But he could certainly see the attraction, and it wasn't just in her face. There was danger, there, too, he could feel it. Whatever else she was, Madeline Turcott was going to be something to reckon with. He looked down at the letter, suddenly feeling not very good for his friend, Buck.

"Rain's stopped, Sam," said Mike.

Sam looked over at the bartender, who's familiar inscrutable expression said he was not about to get involved. He turned and looked toward the window behind him. Mike was right, the rain had stopped.

"Yeah. I guess I better get goin’." He flipped a coin onto the bar to pay for his meal and the drinks. "See ya next time, Mike."

"So long, Sam," the bartender said.

"Manolito. Amigo. Kin I ask you a personal question?"

Manolito Montoya drew his horse down to a walk and looked over at his friend. Buck Cannon’s face was knotted with thought, and Manolito did not think he was fretting about the herd they were supposed to be moving. There just wasn’t that much to worry about, there. Joe Butler was up riding point, Manolito could see his blue shirt in the distance, with the men and the cattle spread out behind him in remarkably orderly fashion. The trail up from the Flats to Conejo Springs was not especially arduous, and the stock they were driving had made the trip so many times that it was Manolito’s opinion they could probably have gotten there by themselves, were the animals not so fundamentally stupid.

He glanced up over his head. The sky was overcast, and had been getting darker as the day advanced. And the wind was picking up. He could hear thunder in the distance. It looked like they’d be in for a storm later, as they moved up into the hills, and probably a big one, a real chaparrón. The kind of storm the gringos called a "gullywasher." Such a storm, if it came, might cause them some problems, especially if the arroyos flash flooded. But at that moment there was no cause for alarm, the sky was calm, only cloudy, providing some welcome relief to the usually brutal Arizona sun. Manolito doubted his friend’s distress had anything to do with the weather."Ay… sí, I am probably going to regret this," he laughed, "but, of course, compadre. Certainly you may ask me anything."

If Buck heard the friendly sarcasm in the other man’s voice, he did not react to it.

"Jist, you know, man to man…"

Manolito nodded. "Yes, hombre. What is troubling you?"

Buck still seemed to hesitate. "Wall… it be about Pauly."

Manolito had already guessed that. In the couple of weeks he had been on Chaparral, Buck’s small son had made his mark on all of them, but no one so much as his own father. And Manolito knew the boy’s future was on everyone’s mind.

"Yes," he prodded gently. "What about him?"

"He sure be a fine boy, Mano, the kinda boy make any man proud to be his pa.""Sí, he is a fine boy…"

"An’ he be real happy here, Mano. You know that…"

Manolito conceded with a nod.

"Wall, Mano… the truth be, I jist doan know what to do about him."

The other man sighed. It didn’t take genius to know where this was going, although he honestly did not know what he could do to help his friend. "Do what about him, amigo?"

Buck’s face worked in distress. "I ain’t too happy about the idea o’ sendin’ him back to Tucson, Mano, an’ tha’s the long an’ short o’ it," he blurted. "I ain’t happy about sendin’ him back to that life."

"But what choice do you have, hombre? Tucson is where his mother is."

Buck turned in the saddle and faced his friend squarely. "Wall, tha’s jist it, Mano. How come I doan got a choice? Who says I doan? Mebbe I do, mebbe I ought to have a choice. I mean, the boy do be my own son, ain’t nobody denyin’ that. Why shunt he live here wit’ us, right here on the High Chaparral?"

For a moment, Manolito wondered if the man was in cahoots with his sister. But no, he was sure they had come to their separate conclusions individually, however alike those conclusion might be. Unfortunately, he had little to offer Buck that he had not already said to Victoria. The obstacle to their desire remained the same.

"And what do you propose to do about his mother?" he asked "Since we are talking ‘hombre a hombre’. Do you plan to marry her?"

Buck laughed uncomfortably. "Wall…no, Mano, I weren’t plannin’ to do nothin’ like that, eg-zactly," he replied, shaking his head. "Marry her… no. Though I could marry her, iffn I wanted, ain’t nobody kin tell me I cain’t."

Manolito had not thought so. He knew his friend’s bluster for the bravado it was. "But surely she would object to parting with the boy?" he continued.

Buck was ready for him, though. "Now, I doan know about that," he replied. "Mebbe she would, and mebbe she wunt. Mebbe it wunt trouble her, none, a-tall. I mean, it cain’t be so easy fo’ her, raisin’ the boy all by her lonesome, an’ he sho’ got to interfere wit’ her conductin’ her business an’ all… Mebbe she’d be happy to know he was livin’ someplace nice, like the High Chaparral."

It was a possibility, Manolito had to admit it. Perhaps even a distinct one. He knew it was by far the more regular thing for women like Maddie Turcott to place any unplanned consequences of their profession with neighboring some family to be raised, or even to out right give them away, pretty much as soon as they were weaned.

"You may be right, amigo," he conceded.

"Sho’ I may be right. An’ it wunt be like she wunt never see him, agin, or nuthin’, we’d be goin’ into Tucson now an’ then, an’ all. Could be she’d be right glad to be shed o’ the responsibility."

Buck looked so eager for confirmation that it almost broke Manolito’s heart. Somewhere deep inside, though, some fundamental instinct where women were concerned made him doubt his friend's hopes. After all, Maddie Turcott had not given the boy away, she had kept him with her all those years. What would compel her to give him up, now? He found it far more likely that she would insist on the child’s return, and then use Buck’s obvious attachment to continue, and increase, her demands on the family. Which, he supposed, had been his brother-in-law’s fear, all along.

"And if she does not, amigo? What then?"

Buck scowled and turned away. Manolito sighed. He understood his friend’s problem, and sympathized with his pain. There just didn’t seem to be much of anything any of them could do about it.

The two men continued to ride on in silence. The ground was rising steadily beneath their horses’ feet; it had been doing so for some time, now. And the air temperature had dropped, significantly, too, in the past few minutes. Manolito considered that they ought to be paying a little more attention to what was going on around them. The cattle were starting to toss heads and low restlessly, sensing the change. If the storm broke, it would probably do so suddenly. He was about to say as much when Buck turned on him, a little bit like that storm he was anticipating.

"Aw-right, then, Mr. High Almighty Wise Man. What do you think I ought to do?"

Manolito pulled back, startled by the other man’s burst of vehemence. "Hey, compadre…" he cautioned, raising a hand as if as much to defend himself as calm his friend.

"I’m serious, Mano, I’m askin’," Buck insisted, a little more calmly. "I mean, we ain’t so different, you an me, right?"

Manolito gestured, but said nothing, not quite ready to commit himself to whatever path Buck was on.

"We both of us like the ladies… you mebbe even a little more’n me, come right down to it."

Manolito laughed at that. "Well, I cannot deny it, hombre," he agreed. "Es verdad…"

"So what would you do? Iffn it was you instead o’ me?"

Manolito nodded slowly. That was the question, he supposed. He looked out at the mountains before them, for a moment, and then back at his friend.

"Hombre, I do not know. And that is the truth of it."

It was the truth of it, he didn’t. What he had told the bunkhouse boys earlier, back when all of this had first come to light, had been true enough. Manolito believed, fundamentally, that any man who was responsible for getting a child out of wedlock was also responsible for seeing to it that the child was provided for and did not live in want. It was the way he had been brought up, the tacit understanding that had been instilled in him almost from the time he had been old enough to need to know it. For all that he might reject his father’s hidalgo lifestyle, Manolito still respected to rigid code of honor that surrounded that life. It was a code that afforded considerable license to a young, unmarried man, but it was also a privilege that required certain accountabilities should such license have unfortunate consequences. He had never really questioned it. He was sure he father had not. In fact, although they had never discussed it, Manolito sometimes wondered if some, at least, of those "cousins of cousins" he father had supported while he, himself, had been a boy, and continued to shelter and occasionally bail out of difficulties now that they all were grown up, might not, in reality, be some of his own half-siblings. It was not a question one asked, especially not of Don Sebastian Montoya. But he wondered, sometimes, all the same. It certainly was not out of the realm of possibility.

And it was much the way Manolito had believed he would act, himself, when he had thought about it at all. Given, of course, that the mother was not someone he would actually marry, either out of moral obligation or personal desire. That would be a different thing, altogether. But given that, a gentleman saw to it that the woman involved was kept from poverty, and that any child was clothed, fed and otherwise provided for until he or she was able to fend for his or herself. If the child was a son, perhaps, as he got older, it might be appropriate to become more directly involved, to provide him with guidance, an education, a start in life; if a daughter, to see that she was sufficiently dowered to attract a decent marriage. Nor was it out of the question that he might become more intimately involved, enjoy such children as a "favorite uncle" might, indulging as well as providing. Manolito had considered, was he ever presented with such a situation, that this might be his response. He had been brought up to believe it was appropriate and right. It was what he expected of himself in this regard.

He had not spent much time dwelling on the possibility, though. Heirs, should he ever have them, would come from within the confines of marriage, mothered by a woman he would love with all his heart. He would never settle for less that that, whatever his father’s maneuvering. Other "consequences" would simply be an unfortunate by-product of a young man enjoying his youth, a responsibility, certainly, even a pleasure, perhaps, but of a different kind, all together, from the family he supposed he would have someday. So he had always thought he believed. He was not so sure any longer. Buck Cannon’s love for his young son had touched him more deeply than he cared to admit. And it also had made him think. As his friend had pointed out, in many ways, they were not so very different. Not different at all.

Beside him, Buck finally broke the silence. "It ain’t no kind o’ life, Mano," he said quietly. "What we all would be sendin’ him back to. No kind o’ life at all. You know that."

Manolito nodded. He did know that. And it mattered. He knew that, too.

"What will you do, compadre?" he asked.

Buck shook his head. Then he lifted his rein hand and touched his horse into a trot. It was no kind of life, and Buck knew he would have to do something about that. His mind had not yet settled on its plan, that was all. Although his heart had, perhaps, been made up from the moment he had lifted the boy from the back of Manolito’s gelding.

A vicious crack of thunder shattered the air, cutting off any further discussion. The cattle around them began to bunch and call nervously, and even their trail-wise horses bucked and shied a little at the sound. All further speculation was forfeited to the immediate tasks at hand. In a matter of moments, the sky went from gray to ominous black, and a bolt of lightning lanced the sky before them.

"Whoa!" Buck called as his horse reared under him. "Heads up, boys! Watch them cattle! They gonna stampede, we ain’t careful! We got us a hell of a thunderstorm comin’!"

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the sky opened up over their heads and poured down upon them.

"¡Aye, chihuahua! ¡Es un dilúvio!" Manolito shouted as he kicked his own mount after the herd.

III

The thunder woke him, but it was the lightning that frightened him. There had been thunder and lightning on and off in the distance all day, especially up in the hills where Pauly knew his father and Manolito had gone with the herd, but it was already after dark by the time the storm finally decided to let loose on the High Chaparral home compound. Pauly threw back his bed covers and slid to the floor. He had to climb on a chest to see out the window, but even then, it did him little good. The room in which he slept was at the back of the house, and he could not see the corral from there.

Pauly was not afraid for himself. Back home in Kansas, and in a lot of the other places he and Maddie had been in his short life, he had seem some pretty fearsome storms, even a tornado, once, from a distance. He was used to thunder and lightning. But animals, he knew, were often spooked by rough weather, and horses, especially, he believed, did not like storms. He remembered, once, one of his mother's man friends pointing out a whole herd of horses that had been stampeded by thunder. He didn't want that to happen to his new pony.

Going back to his bed, Pauly took his pants and shirt from the chair beside it and pulled them on, buttoning carefully, but leaving the shirttail hanging. He carried his boots though, so as not to alert the household with his heel taps on the tile floor. He was an expert as sneaking out unobserved. He often went exploring while his mother worked, until he figured out that towns at night had to interest small boys, and he stopped bothering.

His door was ajar, Aunt Victoria always left it that way in case he needed anyone in the night, and he slipped through the space with hardly a need to open it further. He paused for a moment to be sure no one was about, but the house was quite. Uncle John, he knew, was away, and Aunt Victoria had probably retired already. She went to bed earlier than any woman he had ever known, certainly much earlier than Maddie ever did. His pa had probably not yet come in for the night. Pauly was down the stairs and out the front door without a sound. He paused on the porch to pull his boots on. Then he took stock of his surroundings. He could see a guard at the front gate, and heard another man shuffling on the roof. There was no one on the tower at the back gate, however; not, his pa had told him, since his Uncle John had made a treaty with the neighboring Apache. Still, he knew if anyone saw him, they would call someone to take him back to bed, and he just had to check on Lightning first. So he waited until the man at the front gate began to walk away, checking the perimeter, and the man on the roof moved to the other side. He dashed across the yard, and slipped through the corral rails.

Lightning was loose inside, his white markings almost iridescent in the dark night. Pauly knew that the men used lariats to catch their horses, but the pony walked right over to him, looking for treats. He wished he'd thought to bring a carrot or something. The animal did not seem the least upset by the storm. The rain had already stopped, although there was still thunder, and still flashes of lightning over the mountains, but the pony seemed to suffer nothing worse than a wet coat. He blew hot breath into Pauly's face, and nuzzled his pockets.

Still, Pauly wasn't taking any chances. "Come on, boy, come on," he urged, walking toward the stalls. The pony followed placidly. Pauly took the halter and slipped it over the pony's head, the way Blue had shown him, and checked that the lead shank was fastened to the staple on the wall. Then he got a bit of sacking and began rubbing him down, as much of him as he could reach, at least.

The effort tired him a little. And the air, still chilly from the rain, made him wish he had worn his jacket. He went into one of the adjoining empty stalls and found an old saddle blanket. It was a little damp, but it was warm enough when he sat down in the straw beside his pony and wrapped it around himself. He only meant to rest a little and warm up, just long enough to make sure Lightning was really comfortable before he went back to the house. He would only sit for a moment or two. It was nice, being out there in the stall, inhaling the sweet pungency of damp horse and damp hay. Comfortable and friendly. He closed his eyes and let his body curl up under the blanket. Just for a moment.

Beside him, the placid old pony snorted into the straw and relaxed on three legs as both animal and boy drifted off to sleep.

It was later than he'd hoped when Sam finally got back to the ranch, but his trip home had been nonetheless uneventful. He had followed the storm as it headed south, but had somehow managed to keep from catching up with the rain. The ground below him was wet, though, so something had fallen there. He could hear Buck's voice coming from the bunkhouse, as he trotted past it; it sounded like they had a card game going on in there. Maddie Turcott's letter weighed heavily in Sam's pocket as he rode into the corral and dismounted. He was sure it wasn't good news, and he was troubled, both for Buck, who was his friend, and for the child, of whom he had become rather fond. Still, there wasn't much he could do, except deliver the message. Sam pulled his rifle out of the saddle scabbard, then hooked a stirrup over the horn so he could loosen the cinch. His fingers worked blindly from a lifetime of experience, needing no light, which was a good thing, because the night was as black as the inside of a pocket. He pulled the saddle off, and turned to throw it over the rail behind him. And stopped. In the darkness, he could just barely make out the shadow of the bundle under the saddle blanket in the pony stall next to him, but he had no doubt what, or rather who, it was. He chuckled softly, the warm rush of sudden affection nearly bringing tears to his eyes. He finished tending his mount, then turned him loose to forage in the corral, and went into the other stall.

The pony nickered as Sam patted its rump. Pauly was sleeping in a pile of straw with that deep trusting abandon of which only a small child is capable, so sure that the world poses no serious threat. Sam was half tempted to leave him there, he looked so peaceful. He had spent more than one night, himself, asleep in the barn when he had been not much older. Still he knew the boy would be missed, eventually, and he didn't suppose Mrs. Cannon needed the worry. He crouched down and drew the saddle blanket back.

"Hey, pard," he called, shaking the boy gently.

Pauly stirred on the edges of wakefulness. "Hi, Sam…" he murmured.

"What're you doin' out here, huh?" Sam asked as he arranged the child's limbs so that he could get him into a sitting position.

"Storm…" the boy mumbled sleepily. "Wanna see… pony…"

Sam nodded as he pulled him up and steadied him. "Oh, your pony's fine. He won't mind the storm. His name's Lightenin', ain't it?"

"Uh huh…" Pauly agreed to the logic, there, and rubbed his eyes.

"Awright, c'mere, then. Put your arms around my neck."

The child complied, and Sam stood with a grunt, lifting him in his arms. As he did, Pauly's head fell forward onto his shoulder. Sam reached over the stall rail to grab his saddle bags with the payroll, and carried both the child and the bags out of the corral.

For a moment, he considered rousting Buck from his card game, then he dismissed the idea. Chances were good the other man wasn't any too sober by that time of the night, anyway, and Sam could just as easily carry the boy back up to the house, himself, now that he had him. He had to deliver the money, anyway. It took Victoria several minutes to answer his knock; he guessed she must have been sleeping.

"Lose somebody, Mrs. Cannon?" he chuckled when she finally opened the door.

Victoria blinked, and looked at him blankly, then her eyes opened wide as the bundle in Sam's arms registered on her sleep fogged brain.

"Oh, Sam!" She reached up, flustered, pulling bits of straw from the boy's hair. "Where was he?"

"Down the corral. He was asleep in the pony stall. I guess he just got a little worried about him, what with the storm and all."

Victoria looked more distraught than Sam had expected her to be. "I never even heard him get up… anything could have happened!"

"Oh, I wouldn't fret, ma'am," he tried to reassure her. "I reckon there isn't a kid alive hasn't snuck out at night at least once to go sleep with his pony. There's no harm done."

"Please," said Victoria, "bring him inside. Let me get Buck to take him."

Sam walked through the doorway into the dimly lit living room. "Uh, Buck's still down the bunkhouse, Mrs. Cannon," he said, wondering if perhaps he should have retrieved the other man, after all, instead of bringing the child back up to the house on his own. "I heard him down there when I rode in."

At his words, Victoria's expression turned stony. "Oh," she said, the chill in her voice a clear indication of her opinion about that. Yup, though Sam, he should have gone and gotten Buck, first. Well, there was nothing he could do about it, now. He shifted Pauly in his arms; the kid was starting to get heavy.

Victoria noticed, and her expression cleared a little. "Oh, Sam, forgive me. Please. Will you take him up to his room? If it is no trouble? I am not sure I can carry him, he is such a big boy."

"No trouble at all, ma'am," Sam assured her. "Be glad to. Oh, and here ma'am," he gestured with his right arm, "here's the money for the payroll."

Victoria took the saddle bags off his arm. "I'll just put this in John's office," she said, with a worried look at the sleeping boy. "Please, if you would take him upstairs…"

He head up the stairs, Victoria following momentarily behind him. and laid Pauly down in his bed.

"There you go, pardner," he chuckled as the child fretted irritably at being moved. He pulled Pauly's boots off, and his pants, while Victoria removed his shirt, leaving him in only his underwear for sleeping. Sam smiled as Victoria drew the comforter up over him.

"He's a good little kid, ma'am," he said. "I'm sure he didn't mean any harm."

"Yes, I am sure that is true, Sam," Victoria sighed. "And you are right, he is a very good little boy.

"Sam…" she continued as they started back down the stairs. "When you get back to the bunkhouse, would you tell Buck that I would like to see him, por favor? Tell him that I am waiting?"

Sam winced, but he nodded, touching the brim of his hat politely.

"I'll sure tell him, ma'am," he said. "Good night, Mrs. Cannon."

"Buenas noches, Sam. And thank you," Victoria replied as he retreated out the door.

As he had suspected, there was, indeed, a card game in full swing when he got down to the bunkhouse.

"Sam-boy! You back aw-ready? Pull up a chair! Deal in my good fre'n Sam Butler, boys…" Buck was effervescent, which meant he was either drunk or winning. Or both. Sam gestured to him.

"C'mere a minute, Buck," he said. "I gotta talk to you about somethin'. It's kinda important."

For a moment, Buck looked like he might refuse. Something in Sam's expression changed his mind, though, and he laid his cards face down on the table. "I'll be right back, boys. You jist hold tight, and doan nobody look at them cards, ya he-ah?

"Wha'sa matter, Sam. Wha's so all fired important that it couldn't wait till I finished my game?" He followed the other man out of the bunkhouse.

Butler hesitated. "Well, Buck, Mrs. Cannon asked if you could come up to the house. Seems Pauly snuck out tonight - I found him…" he added quickly when Buck started. "He was just down in the corral. He said he went down to check on his pony on account o' the storm, and he musta fallen asleep in the hay."

Buck laughed with relief. "Asleep in the hay. Jist like that Little Boy Blue in his story book. Hey, Sam, we got us a Blue-boy an' a Little Boy Blue, now!"

"That's right, Buck-o," Sam said, smiling. He still looked uncomfortable, though. "I think it upset Mrs. Cannon, some, though. She asked if you'd come up to the house right away."

Buck tried to shake it off. "Wimmin. They's always getting upset over things that doan matter. The boy's all right, ain't he?"

"Yeah. Yeah, he's fine, Buck."

"Well, then. He was jist havin' hissel' a little ad-venture, is all. Nothin' to get all riled up about."

"I reckon you're right," Sam agreed. But he wasn't going to be put off that easily. "Mrs. Cannon sounded like she really wanted to talk to you, though."

"Well, all right, Sam," Buck relented, sounding put out. "I'll go on up soon as the game's over."

"She told me to tell you she was waitin' for ya, Buck. She, uh, kinda made a point of tellin' me that." Sam insisted, feeling very much caught in the middle. "She was pretty worried about that boy."

Buck glowered. Then he shrugged. "It weren't that good a hand, anyway," he said. "You might as well go sit in fo' me, Sam, iffn you want. I'll go see what Victoria's so worked up about."

Sam hesitated, then fished in the inside pocket of his buckskin shirt. "There's this, too," he said, handing Buck the envelope. "I ran into Maddie Turcott while I was in town. She asked me to give this to you."

If possible, Buck's expression only got darker as he took the envelope from Sam. "You jist full o' good news, tonight, ain'tcha?" he grumbled. "'S'a good thing my mother ain't still alive, you be telling me she was lookin' fo' me, too." He looked down at the envelope. "What she want."

"She didn't say, Buck," replied Sam, unoffended. He knew the complaint was just bravado, and that the idea of a missive from Maddie Turcott had upset the other man, probably with good reason. "I'll see ya in the mornin'."

"Yeah, Sam," Buck agreed, his mind elsewhere.

Sam hesitated a moment longer, the turned into the bunkhouse. The game was breaking up anyway, which was just as well. Suddenly he was feeling very tired.

Buck looked down at the envelope again, then stuck it in his pocket and headed up for the ranch house. As Sam had promised, his sister-in-law was waiting.

"Evenin' Victoria. Sam said you wanted to see me 'bout somethin'?"

"I do," Victoria agreed, tightly. "Where were you tonight?"

Buck looked at her blankly. "Huh? I was jist down to the bunkhouse. We was havin' a little game o' cards, like usual. Why?"

"And you are aware that your son went out in the middle of the night, tonight?"

Buck grinned at that. "Yeah, Sam tol' me. Little rascal. But he didn't mean no harm, Sam said he was jist checkin' if his pony be all right, and I giss he fell asleep down there. Ain't nothin' to fuss about, Victoria, boys is always sneakin' out at night fo' stuff like that."

But Victoria was not about to be placated. "Yes, Sam did find him asleep in the corral, and he was good enough to bring him back to the house and put him to bed. And you were not here to receive him, as a father should be, you were down at the bunkhouse, playing cards and drinking."

"Now, Victoria…"

"Don't you 'now, Victoria' me, Señor Cannon," Victoria snapped, her fear suddenly bubbling forth in anger. "It is a very lucky thing that Sam found him. Anything could have happened to him, something could have bitten him in the night, he could have caught his death of cold sleeping on that wet ground… But you were too busy with your bunkhouse, too interested in your cards and your whiskey to pay attention to the whereabouts of your own son."

Buck was starting to get angry, himself. "Now, look here, Victoria," he sputtered, "I doan remember being answerable to you as to my comin's and goin's. You my brother's wife, and you know that I love you and respect you, you know that. But they ain't no call fo' you to get riled up like this about where I been an’ all. I doan suppose it be any o’ your business how I spen’ my time when I ain’t workin’. An’ anyway, there ain't no harm done, the boy's fine, he was jist havin' hisself an adventure, like boys will. Besides, it ain't like he was left all by hisself, you was up here wit' him."

"Yes," Victoria retorted acidly. "But I am not his mother. He is not my son, he is yours, as you have so lately reminded me. He is your son and your responsibility. And you let him run wild, he eats whenever and whatever he chooses, spoiling his supper, he goes to bed when it pleases him, no matter how late the hour, with no regular bedtime… He is a wonderful little boy, Buck, but what sort of an example do you set for him, letting him do whatever he pleases…"

"Eg-zample? What do you mean, what kind o’ eg-zample…"

"You know exactly what I mean, Buck Cannon, you with your cards, and smelling of whiskey, just like the men his mother entertains in that saloon!"

Victoria was so upset that she was almost in tears. Buck just looked at her in wordless astonishment. Part of him was deeply offended to be taken to task so. But the letter from Maddie Turcott pressed against him, and the threat of what it might contain made him stop and think. Some of what Victoria was saying had sunk in a little, too. It was true, he did have responsibilities, now. And although he still was not particularly upset about Pauly sneaking out of the house to go sleep with his pony, maybe Victoria did have a point about the irregular habits. Anna Lee, he remembered, had always been strict with Blue about meals and bedtimes. For that matter, his own ma had been pretty rigid on that score. Maybe it was all right for an uncle to break the rules, now and then, as he always had allowed himself to do when Blue was a boy, but maybe something more was expected from a father. A father was expected to create rules, too, and enforce them. It was right and natural. And maybe it wasn't so good for the boy to have his pa around with whiskey on his breath, Victoria might have a point there, too. His sister-in-law’s comment about Maddie’s "gentlemen friends" had been a harsh one.

"Maybe you right…" he mumbled.

Victoria halted her tirade to look at him. "What?"

"I said maybe you right, Victoria. Maybe now that I got the boy to look after, maybe I do need to change some things about mysel'. Maybe I need to be a differen' kind o' person, iffn I'm gonna be a Pa…" He put his hand over the pocket in which Maddie Turcott's letter lay waiting and shuddered slightly.

Not expecting such remorseful agreement, Victoria softened. "Oh, Buck, I did not mean to say that you are a bad person… it is just that Pauly is so young and impressionable."

"An' I know how much you care about him, Victoria, I know you love him jist like a ma would. An' you are 'zactly right." He put his hands on her shoulders, half embracing her, half moving her out of the way. "Iffn you'll es-cuse me, ma’am, I think I'll jist go look in on the boy fo' a minute befo' I go to bed. G'night, Victoria."

"Buenas noches," Victoria said for the second time that night. She watched her brother-in-law ascend the stairs, aware that she had won some kind of victory, but unsure exactly what it was.

Buck pushed Pauly’s door open gently and went inside. The boy was sleeping peacefully, spread-eagle on the bed, with one arm thrown over his face and the other dangling over the side of the bed. He had kicked most of his bed clothes onto the floor.

Buck felt his stomach tighten as he looked down at the sleeping form. How small the child looked, and how fragile. The world was such a deadly, dangerous place, how could he ever raise up such innocence to be tough enough to survive in it? He was suddenly gripped with a terror of what might have happened if the boy had wandered off the ranch compound in the dark and gotten lost out there in the desert. Victoria had been absolutely right. He had been a fool to think that it was enough to simply provide presents and affection, to be just a companion, concerned only with the boy’s pleasures. Pauly needed to be taught about the dangers of life, forced to understand, if necessary. For the first time, Buck Cannon understood his brother's often harsh treatment with Blue. Let him hate me, he thought, but let him live. He actually had to restrain himself from waking the boy up and cataloguing those dangers for him, to try to make him understand. The love and fear that swept over him in that moment was almost overwhelming.

Pauly's cheeks were flushed with sleep, and Buck feared that Victoria might have been right about the risks of his lying so long on the cold ground, too. But a hand to the boy's forehead confirmed that there was no fever. Buck tucked his arms and legs back into bed, and straightened the bed clothes over him. Then he pulled over a side chair close beside the bed and sat down.

It was some minutes more, though, before he could bring himself to open Maddie's letter. Once he did, he found the things it did not say more frightening than the what was actually written there. The letter, itself, was actually quite bland a missive:

"Dear Buck," it began. "Since it has been near three weeks since Pauly went off to visit you, and I ain’t heard anything from neither him or you, I would like it if you would meet me in town to talk about Pauly’s and my future. I am planning to do like you said and take some rooms in the boarding house in Meyers Street near the dry goods store. Please come to see me any afternoon as soon as you can. Sincerely yours, Maddie Turcott."

The letter was businesslike to the point of being icy, which should have been reassuring. There was no heartfelt mother's demand, here, for the return of her child, nor even a question about his well-being. But the very coldness of it filled Buck with foreboding. He would see her, though. And very soon. He would make it a point to go into town just for that purpose. He, too, wanted to discuss the future, Pauly's future. He had plans of his own that were probably not Maddie Turcott's plans. As he sat and watched his sleeping child, Buck Cannon knew that it wasn't going to be enough for him to provide monetary wherewithal, and see the boy on occasional visits to the ranch. He wanted a direct hand in Pauly's upbringing, he wanted control over the influences in his boy's life. He wanted to raise him up to be somebody, to have something worth having. Buck Cannon wanted his son, and he wanted him for always. He wanted him there on the High Chaparral, on that wide, harsh and majestic land with his loving family all around him. He did not want him growing up in cramped rooms on some commercial street or worse, exposed to the influences that a mother like Maddie Turcott was likely to give him. Pauly was his son, his son! The idea overwhelmed him with emotion. His chance to put something good into the world.

Buck sat for a long time, as tears fell slowly and unremarked down his cheeks. Then finally, as impending dawn began to pink the horizon, he got up to find some coffee and begin his day.

 

NINE POINTS OF THE LAW

I

You unnerstan' what I'm sayin', dontcha?" Buck asked the next morning as he and his son walked hand and hand down to the corral. He had confronted the boy with his previous night's escapade after breakfast. Although confront was probably too strong a word. "Now, I ain't eg-zactly mad atcha or nothin', you know that…"

"Yes, sir, Pa," Pauly replied.

It was true, Buck wasn't angry; after all, the boy had not done anything wrong out of malice, or rank disobedience. However, his need to impress upon his son the seriousness of the consequences his actions might have brought was even more urgent than it had been the night before. He'd had hours to dwell upon the dangers Pauly might have faced had he accidentally strayed of the compound, and even in the calm of the morning light the idea frankly terrified him. But how to go about impressing the child? He wasn't sure he was doing a very good job of it.

"It jist be that… here, Pauly. You listenin' to me?" Buck stooped and lifted the boy up to sit on the corral rail. Pauly's little pinto was happily munching hay on the other side of the fence.

"Yes, sir, Pa. I'm listenin'."

"Wall, what I'm tryin' to tell ya is that it be dangerous to be wanderin' aroun' out here at night inna dark. You cain't know what might happen. You cudda stepped on sumpthin' or got drug off by some renegade A-pach or jist wandered off out inna the desert… you kin get lost real easy out there, Pauly. 'Specially at night. You jist cain't do that no mo', you unnerstan'?"

The boy nodded solemnly. He was not quite sure how to respond to this sudden turn of seriousness on Buck's part. In all the time he'd been on High Chaparral, his father had tended more toward encouraging his antics than controlling them, or had turned a blind eye to them, altogether. He didn't know what to make of his mood, now. It was true that Buck did not seem angry, although he was certainly disapproving, and that itself was confusing. Pauly would have understood anger. When Maddie took exception to some action of his, she usually did so loudly, even to the point of whipping him, if she was annoyed enough. Buck's awkward attempt at reasoning with him was a little baffling.

"An' you kinda skeered yer A'nt Victoria, too," Buck continued, pressing his point. "She were real shook up when Sam brung you back up to the house on account o' how she din't even know you'd snuck out. Iffn anythin'd a-happened to ya, nobody mighta even knowd you was gone. That sure upset her, she even hollered at me!" He grinned at that, trying to soften the image, and Pauly smiled back tentatively. "Now, you doan wanna be upsettin' yer A'nt Victoria, do ya?"

This was something Pauly understood better. He was often doing things that upset Maddie, though he did not always fathom the reasons. But he truly did not want to hurt anyone through his activities.

"I'm sorry, Pa," he said.

Buck slipped an arm around his waist. "Aw, now, Pauly, ain't no need for you to be feelin' bad or nuthin'. I know you din't mean no harm. An' no harm done, neither. You was just havin' a ad-venture, like boys will, I know that. Jist so long as you unnerstan' you cain't do it no mo', tha's all."

Pauly nodded. "I won't, Pa."

"That's a good boy," Buck said, relieved that it had all proved so easy. Nor did the boy seem upset with him, or seem to love him any less for his chastisement, which, Buck suddenly realized, was something that had worried him more than he knew. "You promise?"

"I promise," the boy replied.

Buck turned him so that they could both look into the corral together. The pony stood below them, nosing the ground for tidbits. "An' see?" he said. "Ol' Lightenin', he be jist fine. That ol' storm din't bother him one bit."

"Uh, huh. Pa?" Pauly turned to look back at his father.

"Yeah, Pauly?"

"When am I gonna be goin' back home, agin?"

He'd been thinking about it for some time, now. Since that evening several days back when he'd asked Buck when Maddie would be coming out to the ranch, and Buck had put him off. As time went on, Pauly had finally come to the conclusion that Maddie wasn't ever going to come live with them on the High Chaparral. The realization was a sore disappointment to the boy, but there didn't seem to be anything more he could do about it. He reckoned his pa liked him about as much as he was going to, and yet there was still no sign that he was going to ask Maddie to come out and live with them. Pauly could only assume that Buck was just never going to like him that much, and that was all there was to it.

It made him feel awfully bad. He liked it on the High Chaparral, he liked all the people there, and his pony, and the whole place. And he liked having a pa, finally, like other boys did. He didn't want to have to leave, and more to the point, he felt that he had failed, somehow, and had let his mother down in doing so. But if that was the case, and he was beginning to become resigned to that possibility, then he was also getting about ready to go home, again. He liked the ranch, and he hoped they would let him visit again, especially his pa, but he missed his mother too much to stay there any longer without her. He missed talking to her and hearing her stories. He missed smelling her perfume and having her arms around him as he dropped off to sleep, and seeing her face, both annoyed and happy, when he woke her up in the morning. He guessed he just plain missed everything about her. He'd tried his best, but now he wanted to go home.

The question took Buck totally by surprise. "Home again? Why you askin' that? Ain'tchu happy here at High Chaparral?" he stammered. "Ain't you havin' a good time here? I tol' you I weren't mad at you, nuthin' like it…" He wondered if his scolding the boy had upset him more than it seemed; Pauly could be so serious, sometimes, Buck had a hard time knowing what he was really thinking.

"Sure, Pa, I like it here a lot."

"Well, High Chaparral be yer home, doan it feel like home to ya? Doan you like havin' yer own bedroom, an' a pony an' all these folks aroun' you what love you…"

Pauly nodded. "Yes, sir… it's just…"

"What?"

"It's just my ma. Iffn she ain't gonna come here, then I reckon I oughta be goin' home ta her, now."

Buck faltered a little as lifted him down from the fence. He tried to gather his wits, find something to say to respond to his son. For Pauly to ask just this question, just now… "Wall… I giss unnerstan' how you might be wantin' ta see her, agin, sure," he agreed, purposely misunderstanding. "'S only natcheral, I reckon. An' we kin sure de-scuss it. But right now, Pauly-boy, I got to be goin', so le's git you on up to you A'nt Victoria. That sun gits any higher in the sky, I ain't gonna git half done what I need to do t'day."

Buck held out his hand to the boy, and after a moment's hesitation, Pauly took it. He was upset, though, by Buck's response. He didn't really understand it. If Maddie wasn't going to come out there, then why shouldn't he go home? Why wouldn't Buck just tell him?

Buck had been up most of the night thinking about the same thing, but Pauly's father had come to a much different conclusion. He was more sure than ever that Pauly needed to stay on High Chaparral, that he belonged there. And Buck was determined to find a way to keep him. He had formulated something of a plan, too, if Maddie Turcott was only inclined to be reasonable. After all, why the boy shouldn't live at the ranch; there was more room there, more people to watch out for him. They could just provide so much more for him than Maddie could, in town. There were certainly more advantages to keeping him at the Chaparral than having him grow up unsupervised in some saloon or boarding house. And there were advantages to Maddie, too, for she would no longer be burdened with the constant care of him. He would no longer interfere with her life or her work. And it wouldn't be like Buck was taking him away from her, exactly. Nothing like that. She would still be able to see him, whenever they went into town. He'd suggested the same thing to Manolito, the previous day, and the more he thought about it, the more sense it made. He couldn't imagine, really, how Maddie could possibly object to it.

He had not anticipated the child's wanting, himself, to return to Tucson, though. Pauly had been having such a good time, and seemed so happy, that Buck had simply assumed he'd jump at the chance to stay. It never even occurred to him that he might not want to. However, Buck was also sure there was a perfectly logical explanation. Naturally a child that age would miss his mother and want to see her again; he knew, now, that he should have expected it. And if Maddie was willing to be agreeable, there was no reason why he should not. Buck just needed to explain it to her, and then explain it to Pauly. The boy could stay on Chaparral with his family, and visit Maddie whenever it was convenient. How could either of them object?

But Buck needed to come to some arrangement with Maddie, first, and he needed to do it immediately. That very day. Now that he had decided on a course of action, he found he could not wait. He would go into Tucson, find Maddie wherever she was living now, and get it all straightened out. Just as soon as he settled the boy safely in the house.

"There you are," Victoria said, as they entered the living room. "Did you have a nice walk down to the corral?"

"Yes, ma'am," Pauly said, eyeing her cautiously, remembering what had been said about his actions the night before having upset her. But Victoria did not seem angry with him, just the opposite.

"I am very glad you did. It is such a pretty morning, is it not?" She looked up at Buck, and smiled.

"Victoria, iffn you'd do me the favor o' watchin' Pauly, I got me some things I need to be doin'."

Victoria looked surprised. After all, she'd been watching Pauly every day since he'd arrived at the ranch. "Of course, Buck. Are you going to join Manolito with the herd again today?"

"No, ma'am, not today. I got me some things to see to in town, t'day."

At that, Pauly looked up at him anxiously, startled by the admission after their recent conversation. Victoria just frowned. She knew her husband had been trying to keep his brother out of Tucson, but with John still gone in Tubac, there didn't seem to be much she could do to stop him. She put her arm around Pauly's shoulders protectively, as if to guard him from some unseen hurt.

"Thank you, Victoria," Buck said. "Little man… Ah'll see you later." And he was gone.

Victoria sighed. Then she looked down at Pauly, and was surprised to see the child nearly in tears.

"Oh, Pauly, do not look so sad. Buck will be back this evening. You know that he always has something he must do during the day. We will find something to occupy us. Here. Blue found some picture books for you. Would you like to see them?"

She led him to the sofa, but the boy was no where near as pleased about the books as she had expected. "Pauly. What is wrong? Do you not like the books your cousin has chosen?"

Under any other circumstances, he would have been ecstatic. There were three books on the table, old ones with their covers worn, but books he had never seen before. One of them was quite thick with the promise of pictures and stories he had never heard. But he was too distracted about what might be happening around him to muster much enthusiasm.

"They're real nice books, ma'am," he said quietly.

Victoria reached over and put an arm around him, pulling him close. She could see that he was troubled about something, though she did not know what. Perhaps Buck had been a little harsh with him, over his evening's escapade, and she felt a sudden stab of guilt that she might have instigated a scolding.

"Come sit here beside me, and tell me why you are feeling so sad. Did your father speak to you about leaving the house last night?"

"Yes'm."

"You must not feel too badly about that. You did not know that it was a dangerous thing to do. No one is angry with you. We just want you to be safe is all," Victoria tried to console him.

But Pauly only shrugged. "Ain't that…" he murmured.

"Then what is it? Come, now tell me." She drew him up until he was sitting beside her. "What is making you so unhappy today?"

Pauly looked down at his boot tops. "It's just… well, I want to go home, now."

"Home?" Victoria repeated, her voice suddenly small.

"Back to my mama. But my pa won't say so."

Victoria took her time in answering, though she was not as surprised by the admission as Buck had been. In her heart, she had to admit that she had even been waiting for it. Of course he wanted to go home to his mother. He was such a little boy… her brother had been right.

"You miss her very much," she said, exhaling slowly. She ran her hand over the top of his head.

"Yes'm," Pauly admitted, glancing up at her. "I was hopin' maybe she might come to live here, too, iffn my pa liked me enough. But I doan think she's ever comin'. I doan think he's ever gonna like me that much." It was the first time he had actually admitted his hopes to a grown-up, but his Aunt Victoria seemed to so genuinely want him to be happy. And he felt like he had to express his disappointment to someone, or he would burst.

Victoria had to fight to keep the tears from her voice. "Oh, Pauly. Your father loves you very much. I think he loves you more than he has ever loved anyone."

Pauly nodded, but she could see by the look in his eyes that he didn't believe it. Or that all of Buck's love still wasn't going to be enough to set this little boy's world right.

"Do you like it here, Pauly?" she asked.

"Yes'm. It's real nice here."

"You would never want for anything here, you know. Your father and your Uncle John would see to that. It is better than living over a saloon, no?"

"Yes'm, it sure is," Pauly agreed. He looked up at her. "My mama would like it here, too, I know she would. She likes nice things. I wish she could come here to live."

Victoria sighed. "Oh, Pauly. It is complicated about your mother," she tried to explain, knowing she couldn't. "Too complicated for you or I to understand. It must be for her and your father to come to some arrangement, I think."

Pauly looked curious at that. "What kinda… arrangement?" he stumbled over the word, though he knew what it meant. But Victoria knew better than to try to elaborate.

"That must be for them to decide. Here, would you like me to read you a story?" She picked a book up from the table, the thickest of them. "I am sure there must be one in here that you have not heard."

But Pauly only shook his head, crestfallen again, and slid from the sofa. "I don't think so, right now, ma'am. If I kin be excused? I reckon I'd like to go outside, now."

There didn't seem to be much point in forcing him to stay. "Of course," she agreed gently, and watched him walk away toward the kitchen and the back door.

"I guess I've been kinda waitin' for that to happen," a voice said behind her. She turned abruptly to see Blue standing on the stairs, leaning down against the half wall of the stair well. He looked a little wistful as he smiled at her.

"You were listening?" Victoria asked him.

He came the rest of the way down the staircase. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I didn't want to interrupt."

"No, it is all right," Victoria replied, glad for someone with whom to share her worries. "Oh, Blue. What are we going to do? He misses his mother."

Blue sat down beside her on the sofa. "Yeah, I kinda figured he would, sooner or later."

"You did?"

She sounded so surprised by it that he looked over at her and shrugged sheepishly.

"Well, sure, ma'am," he said. "She's his mother."

Yes, thought Victoria. That certainly summed up the problem.

Blue leaned forward and picked up the book Victoria had used to try to entice Pauly into a story. "My ma used to read to me from this book when I was about Pauly's age."

Victoria smiled sadly. "And I know how much you miss her, still," she agreed, beginning to see the connection.

Blue looked over at her. "It's no reflection on you, ma'am," he said quickly. "I mean… " he hesitated now, shyly, "I know how much my pa loves you, and I'm happy for it. I think you're probably the best thing that cudda happened to him, since my ma died."

"You do?" His admission surprised her, a little. Although the inevitable hostility that had existed between herself and John Cannon's son had disappeared, to be replaced by what she felt was genuine affection on both sides, Blue had never really expressed such sentiments to her before. Not in words, anyway. And his words, now, touched her.

Blue smiled at her. "Sure. Besides, you're about the only one who can keep Pa in line."

Victoria smiled, but her expression saddened, again, as Blue looked back at the book in his hand. "But it is not the same as having your real mother with you," she sighed.

"No ma'am, it's not," Blue agreed honestly. "Nobody can replace somebody's mother. I mean, it ain't like puttin' a new wheel on a wagon…" He caught himself, immediately, realizing that the words had sounded more harsh than he intended. "I mean… well, your ma's dead, ma'am. What if Don Sebastian got married, again. Would that woman replace your mother? Your real mother?"

Victoria had never really thought about it that way before. And for the first time, she understood how Blue must feel about all of it, about her sudden marriage to his father, before his mother was even cold in the ground. How she could never replace Anna Lee in his heart. How she never should have expected to. Victoria had adored her own mother, a gentle, aristocratic beauty with a serene faith in God, a deep love of her husband and children, and a backbone of pure tempered steel. She had been devastated when the woman died. Victoria had never seriously thought about how she might feel if Don Sebastian should choose to remarry, but the idea was certainly not out of the question. Her father was a gracious, handsome and very affluent man. It dawned on her that she probably wouldn't like if very much, if he did take another wife.

"No," she replied firmly, in response to his question. "She would not."

Blue nodded. "That don't mean a stepmother can't be somebody you love, too," he said. "It's just different."

For a moment, Victoria couldn't speak. "Oh, Blue…" she said finally, reaching over and taking his hand.

"I guess it's something I never really said to you…" he told her, closing his fingers around hers.

"You did not need to," she assured him.

"I should have, though. You've been real good to all of us, Victoria. Maybe especially to me. I know it hasn't been that easy."

"That is because I love all of you…" she replied, her voice choking a little.

Blue just looked down at their clasped hands and said nothing. Then his eyes wandered back to the book, and Victoria, seeing it, sighed.

"Pauly ain't ever gonna stop lovin' his ma, Victoria," Blue said. "And his ma ain't dead. She's still alive, right there in Tucson and he's never gonna stop wantin' to be with her."

"But Blue, how can we let him go back there? To the life he will have?" Victoria demanded. Blue just shook his head. "Your Uncle Buck, he is Pauly's father. Does he not have the right to see to the way his son is raised?"

Blue just looked at her a moment. "Well, and Maddie Turcott's his mother. Maybe Buck oughta just marry her." He smiled at the look of distaste Victoria was unable to suppress in time. "Oh, I know," he sighed. "I ain't that naïve. But it sure would make things a lot simpler. Look, Victoria," he continued. "I don't know what the right answer is. I sure don't want to send him away, I mean, I kinda like the little guy. I like havin' him around here. I've even been kinda thinkin' that maybe I could someday be to him the way Uncle Buck is to me. I want him to stay here. And I know how much Uncle Buck loves him. But how can we keep him here if his ma wants him back, and he wants to go with her? It just ain't right."

She nodded, defeated. "I wish I knew, Blue. Manolito said the same thing to me. But it is so hard. It is so unfair, this choice that is no real choice at all."

Victoria knew, in her heart, though, that Blue was right, as Manolito had been right. Even if they somehow managed to keep Pauly with them, he would never get over missing his mother. It would be too cruel. But perhaps it did not have to be all or nothing. Victoria was sure that Buck was going, today, to talk to Pauly's mother. For all the many reasons why Buck might want to go into Tucson, she was sure that was the one. Perhaps they could come to some agreement, perhaps Pauly could stay with them part of the time, at least. It would be better than nothing. She looked over at John's son, her son, too, in most of the ways that really counted, and smiled.

Blue smiled back at her wistfully, then turned toward the direction where Pauly had disappeared. "I reckon my chores can wait an hour or so," he said. "Maybe I can cheer him up a little."

"Oh, Blue, would you try?"

He didn't answer her. But before he got to his feet, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. Then he leveraged himself off the sofa and went to follow his cousin out the door. Victoria watched him go, thinking how like his father he was, although he did not know it. And how much little Pauly was going to be like him someday.

II

Madeline Turcott was not a woman who expected to be taken by surprise. She did not like it, and she did not deal well with it. So when Buck arrived at the door to the new set of rooms she had taken on Meyers Street, catching her up to her elbows in her unpacking and completely off guard, she was not very happy about it. It wasn't, she told herself, that she hadn’t wanted him there. After all, it was she who had invited, no demanded, that he come. True, some part of her had been sure he would not answer her, that she was going to have to hire a hack and drive back out to the High Chaparral, again, to confront him. But even that part of her that believed he would come had not expected him to do it so quickly. Hell, she'd only just sent that letter, she'd figured it would be at least a couple of days before that cowboy, Butler, even remembered to give it to him. She had plenty of time to get herself settled in her new place, and plan her strategy, or so she had thought.

Nonetheless, there he was, bright as new penny, hat in his hand calling her Miss Maddie, ma'am, like she was some kind of Sunday school teacher. And her there with her oldest dress on and her hair tied up in a rag to keep the dust out of it, hot and tired from carting her meager belongings, hers and the boy's, across town and then up a flight of stairs all by herself. She nearly slammed the door in his face.

"Buck… what the…" she caught herself before she uttered some profanity. "What are you doing here? I didn't expect you."

Buck looked at her blankly. "Wall, it were you asked me to come, ma'am. Sam give me your letter last night. You said Meyers Street…"

Maddie nodded, trying to regain her composure. "Yeah, well, you're right I did. That's right. I just didn't expect you to come so soon."

"Do this be a bad time, ma'am?" Buck asked, at a loss.

It was, but Maddie guessed it wasn't going to serve her cause any to let him think so. She was upset, though, that he had found her like that, looking like a rag picker, like some field hand, all sweaty and half undone. In her mind, she had planned this encounter so carefully. From the moment Sam Butler had left the saloon she had been preparing for this moment. She'd left, practically on Butler's heels, to secure these rooms one of the other girls had told her about, in a decent enough part of town to meet with the Cannons' approval, and yet with a landlady not too particular about the social standing of her boarders as long as the rent was paid on time. And if Mrs. Olin wondered why the Cannons' were footing her bills when Maddie handed her Big John's letter of credit, she didn't bother to ask.

Maddie had started packing her belongings immediately; not that there was much to pack. And as she packed, she plotted. She would wear her hair low, she decided, a simple chignon on the back of her neck, and no ornaments in it, except maybe a ribbon. Something demure and tasteful, at any rate. She would wear such and such dress, pretty and charming, yet conservative, showing maybe enough bosom to be provocative, without being to blatantly seductive. Though maybe she'd wear a bit of lace or something there, anyway; it wouldn't do to remind the man too much of the life she led. She wanted to leave him with a much different impression, of someone more demure and refined. Someone… wifely. Maybe she would offer him tea. The larger of the two rooms boasted a single kerosene burner that would work for just such an occasion, though she couldn't really cook on it, and her meals she would take with the other boarders in the dining room, courtesy of John Cannon's note. And she would be sure that the room was tidy and fresh when Buck got there, in contrast to the cramped quarters his brother had seen. Though in truth her new residence was hardly a half step above the one she'd left, still both rooms had large windows that fronted on Meyers Street, letting in plenty of sunshine and fresh air. They could be made to seem pretty and genteel, in a "down at heels" sort of way. The rooms of a young woman down on her luck rather than the rooms of a whore. Maddie hadn't spent as much time as she had around men without understanding the kinds of things that put them at a disadvantage, or the kinds of things that could be trusted to touch their hearts. Men like Buck Cannon, anyway. She had planned it all so carefully, as she'd trudged through the streets that morning. Down to the last detail. She was used to play-acting, and was good at it. This would be a breeze. Then Buck has shown up before his cue and ruined everything.

He wasn't the first bad turn she'd had that day, either. Blake McDermott had already managed to spoil whatever anticipatory mood her plotting might have otherwise engendered by following her from the saloon, demanding to know where she'd got the money. When she told him about the letter of credit, he hadn't believed her. She hadn't wanted to show him, and then when she finally did, she'd half expected him to tear it up on her. He didn't, though. He just eyed it narrowly, then handed it back to her, looking bemused. She had no idea what puzzled him about it, it was a simple enough document and she knew he could read. His mood was surprisingly subdued, though, for Blake, annoying rather than menacing. He offered her the usual threats about the consequences lying and cheating him, but his heart hadn't been in it, she could tell. And then he'd left her, without much argument. She wondered, briefly, if he was feeling a little contrite about attacking her, and then she dismissed the notion as absurd. More likely he'd just drunk too much the night before, and had not yet recovered enough from his hangover to offer her serious aggravation. He'd be back, that much was certain. His mood made her a little nervous, though. She liked it better when she was a little bit afraid of him. Then, at least, she knew what to expect.

And now here was Buck, standing in her doorway, looking at her like she had mud on her face or something, which she probably did, she was sweating so badly in all that dust. She could have killed him. On the other hand, perhaps she could use the situation to her advantage, after all, if Buck really believed he was putting her out. The other thing she knew about men, be they sweethearts or scoundrels, was that nothing disarranged them more than intruding upon some womanly ritual - like dusting or mopping up. And Buck certainly did look out of his depth, standing there. Well, it wouldn't be the first time she was forced to play the hand she'd been dealt.

For his part, Buck was a little unnerved by what he had found. He'd expected to find Maddie in frills and feathers as she had been on his last trip to town, with her eyes painted like any saloon girl. Or at least he'd expected the hard faced woman dressed in chintz who had descended upon the High Chaparral weeks earlier with her accusations and her demands. But this creature before him was something much different, softer, somehow in her old clothes with her hair tied up in rags, looking smudged and tired and harried and… vulnerable. She looked like any young woman wrestling with the impossible task of keeping a home clean in the face of a dry, dusty desert. She looked, well, touching, really; a little like Victoria did, when she was going about her housekeeping. Not what he had expected at all.

Nor did he know how to broach his subject, now that he was there. He'd practiced his whole way into town, the arguments he would use, the reasoning. Enumerating the advantages for his horse's ears. He'd almost had himself convinced that it would be easy, that there was no way on Earth Maddie could object to the logic and the convenience. Yet, now that he was standing there, Buck felt himself faltering. After all, this wasn't a monster he was looking at, this was just a woman, a helpless creature, somebody's mother. What right did he have to come in and interfere with that? For a instant, he doubted the justness of what he was about to propose.

He banished the uncertainty forcefully. Nothing was going to keep him from his boy. Nothing. Pauly's place was on the High Chaparral, growing up at his father's side, learning the ways of the land, the ways of a man. It was his purpose to make Maddie see that. But how to begin?

Maddie took a step backwards. "Well, come in, I guess. It's kind of a mess in here. I've been unpacking."

"I am sorry, ma'am," Buck apologized, flustering. "I could come back anuther time…"

"No, no," she replied, leading him into the room. "You're here, now. You might as well stay. I'm glad you came so quick, really." And, she supposed, his eagerness to see her could be taken as a good sign. At least he wasn't ignoring her. She lifted an armload of petticoats and other garments from the room's one overstuffed chair and tossed them onto the bed. "Here, sit down. Can I get you some tea?" She had the makings, had picked them up that morning. There was no sense letting it all go to waste. There was plenty of water in the pitcher, too, though she'd meant that for washing. But it was fresh enough.

"Tea, ma'am?" Buck asked, sitting gingerly on the edge of the chair. "Wall, yeah, sure, I giss some tea would be fine. Thank you, ma'am."

He looked at the jumble of woman's things piled around him, feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the surroundings as Maddie lit the kerosene burner and put a kettle on to boil. It wasn't that Buck was unfamiliar with such trappings, a bit too much the opposite, as his current circumstances could attest. But rarely was he privileged to scrutinize such intimate disarray with the light of the sun pouring in through the windows. He had to struggle not to squirm with the foreignness of it.

Maddie turned to him as she continued fussing. "How's Pauly?"

She had hoped to make the question sound matter-of-fact, but her voice caught in her throat, choking her as she said it, and she had to fight as sudden prick of tears. She cursed herself, silently, for being such a sentimental fool at so crucial a moment. She could not give Buck the upper hand.

But if Buck noticed, it wasn't obvious. "Oh, he be fine, ma'am," he replied enthusiastically. "He be wonderful, in fact. He's havin' hissel' a real good time out on the High Chaparral. We done give him his own pony and my nephew be teachin' him to ride…"

Maddie turned back to her kettle. "That's nice," she said. "I'm glad he's having a nice visit." She had gotten command of her voice, this time, but she couldn't command the sudden tightening in the pit of her stomach at the thought that Pauly might be having such a good time that he'd forgotten all about her. She wondered, again, if she had done the right thing, letting him go. Would he ever adjust to the life he would have with her, again? Not that it would matter if she could just convince Buck that the sensible thing to do was to marry her. She just had to.

"Aw, he cudn't be happier, ma'am," Buck reiterated. "An' eveybody likes him. Everybody. Why even the ranch hands like him…"

Maddie said nothing to that, just handed him his tea in a china cup. It was old, the cup, but it wasn't chipped or anything. She had a whole set of four of them. They'd belonged to her grandmother, and she was very proud of them. They were practically the only quality things she owned.

Buck looked down at the brown liquid suspiciously.

"I ain't got any milk or sugar for it," Maddie said, a little defensively.

"Oh, tha's all right, ma'am, it's fine jist like this." He took a sip, and wrinkled his nose, but he swallowed. "Tha's very good. Much obliged to you." He hesitated a moment, then returned the cup to the saucer in his hand. There was no place to set it down. He took a deep breath. "You wanted to talk to me, ma'am? About Pauly?"

Maddie nodded, mustering her resources. "That's right. I did." She sat down on the edge of the bed - it was the only other place in the room to sit - and looked down at the cup in her hands. She didn't wanted it any more than Buck did, had only served it to play out some pretentious charade. Now that she finally had Buck there she wasn't quite sure how to begin with him. She had planned the staging for this seduction, but not the substance. And her carefully laid enticements seemed a little ludicrous under the circumstances. She set the cup down on the bed table and reached up to pull the rag from her hair. It was making her head itch.

"I wanted to talk to you about Pauly's future," she said. "An' mine, too, of course. I think it's time we had an understandin' between us about some things."

Buck nodded. "Yes, ma'am, tha's good because I was wantin' to de-scuss them things, too," he replied. "I been doin' a lot o' thinkin'."

Buck wasn't exactly thinking too clearly at that particular moment, though. When Maddie pulled the rag from her hair, she had freed a handful of red curls to tumble about her face, giving her a tender, almost poignant expression, and the act itself had been unselfconscious to the point artlessness, making his breath catch against his will. She was a very pretty woman, was Madeline Turcott, he had to admit that, and for a moment there was such an undercurrent of guileless sensuality to the whole setting that Buck suddenly understood how he might have once been attracted to her. It was a little disconcerting, on top of everything else.

"I been thinkin' about what would be the best thing…" he plunged on. Now that the subject had been broached, he wanted to get it out as quickly as possible, "…fo' the boy like you said, and fo' you too, ma'am," he added quickly. After all, he wanted her to see his plan as an advantage to her, too. "About the future, an all that…"

Maddie just looked at him, not helping him any. Better, she thought, to wait and see what his ideas were, before she started putting on the pressure. She wanted to be sure of her ground. She nodded for him to go on with what he was saying.

"Wall, it's like this, ma'am," Buck stumbled on earnestly, still unsure exactly how to present his case. "The High Chaparral, it be a real nice place, a real fine ranch. Wall, you know that, you seen it. An', it be true it ain't my ranch, it belong to my brother, but wall, it still be a fine place, ma'am. An' it ain't like I got nothin' to offer o' my own…" Though he had precious little of his own to offer his son as an inheritance, High Chaparral or no, and he knew it. He wasn't even sure why he was taking this particular approach, unless it was to prove to her that he could make the boy happy, provide obvious advantages. He looked down at the cooling cup of tea in his hands and tried to rally his thoughts.

For her part, Maddie had even less idea than Buck why he was touting the benefits of life on the High Chaparral, or why he was practically apologizing for not owning it himself. Unless he was trying to convince her that it would be worth sharing that life. Which couldn't be possible, of course, she had hardly done more than suggest the thing, back when she had confronted him at the ranch, and he'd been unquestionably resistant.

"I'm sure it's a real fine ranch," she prodded, wondering where he was going. "An' your brother don't seem like the miserly type to begrudge his family. I reckon the High Chaparral would be a real nice place to live."

"Oh, you right about that, ma'am!" Buck agreed. "Why Big John, he can be down right generous when it's family concerned. Like a regular Santa Claus." He eyed her warily. Could it be possible that she has already guessed his meaning, and really had no objection? That she wouldn't mind at all if Pauly stayed with him permanently on the High Chaparral? "They's lotsa room out there, too, ma'am, not like… " he hesitated, not wanting to offend her, now. "Wall, not like here in town. An' I been thinkin', too, ma'am, that it ain't right fo' that boy to grow up without all o' his family aroun' him. A boy, wall, he need his family. Boys do, ma'am…"

Maddie nodded, not quite believing her ears. It had to be true, then, he was getting ready to propose to her! Why else would he be telling her these things? Why else would she need to concern herself about that ranch, or his family? And with no suggestion from her, no pressure, no subtle threat of scandal! She could hardly contain her excitement. To be away from all of this, to live in a fine house, to have pretty, expensive things to wear, to never have to worry about bills, or the next scheme, and to never have to roll over for any man, again, but one. It was impossible. And yet it seemed to be really happening. Perhaps it had worked, then, sending the boy out to stay with him. It was all she could do not to preen.

"Oh, I agree with you, Buck," she replied. "I reckon you're right about that. I reckon it has been hard on the boy, with just me, an' all…"

Buck beamed. She agreed with him! She was willing. It was going to be that easy. Maybe she wasn't such a bad sort of woman, after all, he thought, kindly. Of course, her couldn't let her think that he had no ambitions for his son, that he wasn't willing to work to provide the boy with some kind of inheritance.

"On a-other han'," he continued, "it might be that I might just strike out on my own, too, set up my own place. Run a few cows on it. Somethin' the boy could have fo' hissel' mebbe, when he got to be a man…"

"Whatever you want to do, Buck," she told him, sweetly. "That would be all right with me." What did it matter to her, after all. She would be out of this miserable life she was living. And maybe it would be better not to be living under the heels of that fancy-pants Mrs. Big John Cannon, at that. That one looked like she could be trouble.

"An' o' course, we'd see to the boy's schoolin', an' all," Buck remembered Victoria's insistence on that score, and guessed, now, that it probably was important. "We wouldn't be neglectful o' that…"

Maddie nodded, again, this time a little impatiently. The child would be fine, why did he keep harping on it. Why didn't he just get down to it and ask her and cut the suspense.

"An'… o' course, he kin still visit wit' you whenever we come into town…"

Maddie started to nod again, not actually hearing him. And then his words registered, and she stopped cold. And stared. "Visit with me?"

Buck frowned. "Wall sho', ma'am. Iffn you'll be staying here in Tucson, I doan see no reason why he cudnt. I figgered you would, ma'am. Stay, I mean. I reckon the boy would want you to…" Of course, if she had figured on leaving, that would be all right, too, as far as Buck was concerned. Pauly might be disappointed, but they'd make up for it. And it would sure uncomplicate matters.

It still took a moment for his meaning to register. And then it did, hitting Maddie in the stomach like a large, cold rock. "What are you talkin' about!" she demanded. "Why should Pauly need to visit me? He don't need to visit me, I'll be right there with him."

Now it was Buck's turn to gape. "Wit' him, ma'am? I'm afraid I doan git yer meanin', eg-zactly…"

"With him an' you on the High Chaparral. You're askin' me to marry you, ain't you?"

Buck snorted. He didn't really mean to, even in his confusion, he realized it was cruel. And he choked it back as soon as it was out of his throat, but not before that barking sound emerged derisively.

"Oh, no, ma'am. Marry you, no. I weren't askin' you that. No, ma'am. I weren't fixin' to git married…" he shook his head, trying to swallow a smile that was more shock at her misunderstanding him, than any kind of amusement.

She saw the smile as a taunt, anyway. Anger flashed in her, driving words from her mouth. "You son-of-a-bitch… how dare you!" she hissed "Leadin' me on like that , teasin' me… just so's you could have yer fun. I got a right, Buck Cannon! Yer that boy's father and ain't nobody kin deny it! I got a right!"

Any tender sentiments Buck might have been harboring toward the woman evaporated. "I ain't denyin' nuthin', Miss Madeline," he replied coolly. "I knowd it for a true fact I'm Pauly's pa. An' I want him to live wit' me on the High Chaparral, an' grow up there with good folks around him what can provide for him good. I plan for him to do jist that."

He meant it, she could see that. Anger drained suddenly, to be replaced by cold horror. "You can't do that," she said. "You mean to take him away from me…"

"No, ma'am, it don't got to be that way. Like I said, he can visit wit' you inny time we all be in town, iffn you want. You bein' his ma an' all, it only right. But I aim for him to live with us out on the High Chaparral, like I said. I apologize, ma'am, if you mistook my meanin'," he added, trying to be more kind. "I din't mean for you to do that. It would be best, though, ma'am, fo' the boy. Sho'ly you can see that. An' fo' you, too, ma'am, bein' as how you can go 'bout yo' work wit'out worryin' about him, an' all. It would be a convenience…"

"No," said Maddie, flatly. "I won't let you. You bring him back, this minute, Buck Cannon. You ride right back to that High Chaparral, and you bring him back here! You hear me?"

"I hear you jist fine, ma'am. I hear you very clear. But I cain't do that."

"You can, you will! You got no right!"

Buck looked solemn. "I reckon I do, ma'am," he said. "I reckon a court o' law might say I do. Bein' as how I do be his pa. An' bein' as how I kin provide better fo' him then he would have growin' up aroun' some saloon." He hadn't really thought about legal action. He supposed he had hoped it wouldn't be necessary. But it didn't seem possible to him that a judge could do any differently than allow Pauly to stay with him. He was the boy's father, he freely admitted that, and so did Maddie. And it was obvious the child would be so much better off with him.

Maddie just stared at him in shock. There were tears running down her face, now. She hated herself for the weakness, but she couldn't help it. If he took the case to court, she had no doubt that any judge would do just as Buck threatened. Not only was she a whore, there was still that business in Kansas, if anyone bothered to ask the Dodge City marshal's office about her. Even if they didn't find out the truth about Pauly's real mother.

Buck got to his feet, more unsettled by her tears than he wanted to admit. "Ma'am, please doan take on, now. I'm sorry, iffn you doan agree wit' the advantage, an' all, but you think on it, you'll see I'm right, it do be the best thing. Thank you fo' the tea, Miss Maddie, but I got to be goin' now." He set the cup on the bureau and turned toward the door. Maddie jumped to her feet as he reached it.

"You bring him back here, Buck Cannon!" she shrieked as he headed out into the hall and down the stairs. "You bring him back here!"

"I'm sorry, ma'am. I cain't do that," he replied without turning around. Maddie followed him out onto the sidewalk, and screamed, again, as she watched him mount his horse. He didn't even look at her, this time. He just turned his horse's head south, and touched his heels to the animal's sides. In a moment he was out of sight. Maddie looked around, and found several people on the street eyeing her curiously. She turned and rushed back inside.

"Now, what was that all about?"

Maddie scrubbed the tears from her eyes to see Blake standing in front of her. She wondered how long he had been, and what he had overheard.

"Ain't none o' yer business, Blake McDermott!" she snapped, trying hard not to burst into tears, again. He was going to do it, Buck was really going to do it. He meant what he said, she had heard that in his voice. He was going to keep Pauly out there on his brother's ranch, and there was nothing she could do about it. She never should have let the boy go, she should have listened to her own reservations, and not let her greed get in the way. Unless she could find someone to help her, she had lost the boy, maybe forever. "Cain't you jist leave me the hell alone?!"

He took a step toward her. "No, I guess I can't, Maddie," he replied. "After all, we're partners, remember? An' partners got to look out fo' one another, don't they? Ya see, I figgered you was up to somethin', movin' into this new place all o' the sudden, puttin' on airs. I knew somethin' was goin' on when I seen you this mornin'. So I figgered I might as well jist watch an' see what happened. And I seen who came in here, jist now. That's Mr. Buck Cannon, I said to mysel' as I watched him walk into this here fancy boardin' house where Maddie Turcott's livin' now, so high. Now, ain't that interestin'? What, I wonder, I said to mysel', would Mr. Buck Cannon be doin' here?"

"I tol' you, that ain't none o' yer business."

"I think it is. I think it's very much my business. I think his bein' here got somethin' to do with that scheme you been so closed mouthed about. An' I got a half interest in that scheme, you remember. Anything I got a half interest in, I reckon that sure is my business." He took her arm, gently. "Come over here, sit down, you're all twisted up 'bout somethin'. What he say to you?"

Maddie tried to jerk her arm away. "Nothin'. We was just talkin' about the boy."

"It's gone bad, ain't it? Ain't it?" McDermott demanded, closing his fingers hard. "You done messed up another one, ain'tcha, Maddie? Another scheme gone bad, I ain't gonna get my fifty percent of, is that what yer sayin'?"

She turned her head away.

"You dumb bitch," McDermott said under his breath. "Well, yer gonna pay for it this time, Maddie. I ain't gonna lose out twice. You owe me, woman."

At that, Maddie turned back, hatred blazing in her eyes. "It's you who're the dumb one, Blake McDermott. There never was no scheme you was gonna get any half of. Half o' nuthin' was what you was gonna get all along."

McDermott narrowed his eyes. "What're you sayin'?" he demanded quietly, his voice dripping threat. He twisted her arm a little, now, sending shooting pains to her shoulder.

"Yer hurtin' me…"

"Ain't nothin' to what I'm gonna do if yer lyin' to me, again, Maddie Turcott. Now, what's this yer yammerin' about no scheme?"

Maddie knew she had gone too far, hinted at too much, to go back, now. He'd beat the truth out of her, now, if he had to. He might even kill her. She had always suspected he had that in him. And what did it matter, after all, if he knew the truth now? It was all ruined. Everything, her whole life. All her plans. The boy was gone, Buck Cannon was going to take him away from her, and she was powerless to stop him. She suddenly realized that nothing else mattered. And she, herself, had allowed it to happen. That was the worst of it. She had no one to blame but herself.

"Just what I'm sayin'. There weren't no scheme, not the kind you thought. I sent that boy out to High Chaparral cuz I wanted Buck Cannon to git to like him, and now he's gonna keep him. He's takin' him away from me."

McDermott frowned, letting her arm go in his confusion. "What for?"

"Cuz he wants him. He's his pa, an' he wants him. That's all. Ain't nuthin' I can do."

But McDermott didn't care about the child, or who he lived with. He still couldn't figure out what Maddie was really talking about. "But why'd ya send him out there, if it wasn't to get money out o' Cannon? Why'd ya do it, if there wasn't no scheme? Yer lyin' to me, again, ain'tcha?"

Maddie just looked up at him, tears streaming down her face. "I sent him out there because I wanted Buck Cannon to marry me!" she replied. "An' now it's all ruined." She dug in the pocket of her dress for a handkerchief, unable to control herself any longer.

McDermott just stared. "Marry you?" he asked, incredulously.

Maddie nodded into her handkerchief and did not answer.

McDermott stared at her for a moment longer, his expression gaping with amazement. And then he threw back his head and laughed.

III

Billy Blue Cannon was troubled. In the weeks Pauly had been there, he had come to love his little cousin very much. He looked forward to the nightly riding lessons, to the boy's tagging after him, asking him questions… even searching his childhood belonging for suitable books and toys to share with him had been an act of pleasure. Nothing would make him happier than to have the boy stay with them on the High Chaparral forever. The thought of sending him back to Tucson was a painful one. And yet, how could they do anything else? Pauly's mother was in Tucson, not on Chaparral, and since Buck seemed determined not to marry the woman there seemed little hope that Pauly would do anything but return to her, eventually. Probably sooner rather than later, too, judging by the boy's mood.

Blue had been very neglectful of his chores that day, spending most of it trying to cheer his young cousin out of his fugue. And Pauly had perked up eventually, following him around as Blue tried to do at least the minimum to keep himself out of serious trouble when his own father came home. But a pall of sadness had hung over the boy, that Blue could not miss. It tugged at his heart, because he thought he understood exactly how his cousin felt.

Blue had never gotten over losing his mother. It had been more than two years since Anna Lee's death, good years, mostly, healing years, years during which Blue had grown from a youth on the brink of manhood to a man. And what he had told Victoria earlier that day had been true, he had come to love his stepmother very much, and to appreciate Victoria's relationship with his father. In many ways, his new maturity made him realize that Victoria might even be better suited for John than Anna Lee had been; she was certainly better suited for the life they were leading out there in the hostile Arizona wilderness. And Victoria's gentle but persistent attempts to win over Blue, himself, had proved resoundingly successful. She was as much a part of his family, and his life, as anyone had ever been. But she wasn't his mother, and never could be. It wasn't her fault, and it was no reflection on her worthiness, or on his affection for her. It wasn't the same thing, though. Even as time passed, and the first staggering pain of loss had dissipated, Blue knew grief was never far from him. On each anniversary of his mother's death it came back, again, in full force, unlooked-for, unexpected, paralyzing him until he realized what day it was, and pushed himself beyond it. He wondered, sometimes, if his father suffered these moments, too, or if Victoria had been able to banish that ghost of grief from John's soul forever. It was not something they talked about, ever, but Blue suspected his father was still haunted, now and then. He could see it in John Cannon's eyes, sometimes, and recognized it for what it was.

Anna Lee's death left a hole in Blue heart that would never be filled, a permanent sadness. And Blue, understanding, saw the same sadness in Pauly Turcott, that vague sort of pining longing that didn't know whether or not it even had the energy to cry. And Pauly's mother wasn't dead. She was only thirty-five miles away, perhaps waiting for his return. Blue suspected that's where his uncle had been all day, though he could not guess what might have transpired. Buck could be unpredictable, sometimes. It could be that he might even come around to the idea of marrying Maddie Turcott, if for no other reason than to keep the boy with them on the ranch. Blue rather doubted it, though. More likely they would come to some sort of arrangement to let the boy visit now and then in return for some exchange of money, and Pauly would go home. The thought made him sad. But he also understood how much it meant to Pauly, and he wanted very much to do what was right by the boy. Besides, he figured Pauly would be back again, many times over the following years, for extended visits. Blue didn't expect his uncle would allow himself to be separated from his son permanently.

It bothered, Blue, a little, that Buck was not home, yet, though. John had arrived from Tubac over an hour ago, full of good news that an agreement had been reached for sale of the overstocked horses, and with plans to begin the horse round up as soon as they finished moving all the various Chaparral herds. His father had not been happy to hear that Buck had gone into Tucson, though nobody ventured to suggest out loud that it was Maddie Turcott he'd gone to see. They'd merely sat down to a late supper, and then Victoria had put Pauly to bed. Blue and Manolito kept the conversation to the ranch and the herds and the horse deal, not wanting to speculate on Buck's activities. John had seemed willing enough to go along. It seemed his father was no more interested in pondering the possible outcomes of Buck's mission than the rest of them.

But it was getting late, it was after dark, already, Pauly was sound asleep, and still there was no sign of Buck. Of course, Blue reasoned as he wandered out onto the porch to wait, in all likelihood the man had just decided to spend the night in town, and would return in the morning. It would not be like Buck, after all, to waste a perfectly good evening at the saloon when he had the opportunity. Blue knew he was wasting his own time fretting. Nonetheless, it worried him, not knowing what was going on. He wished Buck would just come home and relieve the suspense.

It was one of the new men at the front gate who fired the warning shot. Blue recognized the tell-tale high-headed canter of his uncle's horse, Rebel, before he actually got Buck's face into focus. But it appeared that Buck had decided to come home that night after all.

"Pa! It's Buck," he called, walking out into the yard to greet the man. "Hi, Uncle Buck. I was beginnin' to think you weren't gonna bother comin' home tonight."

Blue caught the horse's head as Buck swung to the ground. "Hi, Blue-boy, yeah, I decided not to stay in town, I got somethin' I be needin' to talk over wit' yer pa. He git back from Tubac, yit?"

"He did," John said, coming up behind them. "And it was a very successful trip, I might add. We've got ourselves a deal for those overstock horses as soon as we can get them rounded up and delivered."

Buck nodded. "Tha's good, John. Tha's good news. I got me some news, too. Somethin' I'm needin' to talk to you about. Blue-boy, kin you take care o' my horse? You doan mind doin' that fo' you ol' uncle, now, do you?"

He didn't really want to. Blue looked around for one of the ranch hands, anyone who might be wandering by with nothing to do, but the yard was deserted except for the family, and the guards.

"Thank you, Blue-boy, I'm obliged," Buck continued, not waiting for his nephew to respond.

"What is it, Buck," Victoria asked as the man put his hand on his brother's shoulder to guide him back into the house, leaving Blue no choice but to take the big bay gelding down to the corral. Scowling in frustration, Blue tugged the animal along as quickly as he could.

Buck didn't wait long, once he got inside the house. "John, I been to Tucson… wall, I giss you already know that," he began, pacing toward the fireplace. John nodded, taking a seat in the chair. As Manolito found his own seat, Victoria volunteered to make fresh coffee, and disappeared for the kitchen. "An' wall, I been to see Pauly's ma, Miss Turcott, while I was there," Buck continued. "I reckon you done already figgered that out, too."

"Sit down, Buck," John gestured toward the sofa. "Rest yourself, and we'll talk. You've had a long ride." Buck did look exhausted, though more from emotional turmoil, his brother suspected, than from any long hours in the saddle. Buck hesitated, then dropped in a heap on the sofa and looked at his brother.

"Now, what's on your mind?" John asked.

"I giss they ain't no sense in beatin' 'round the bush, brother John. This here's the long an' short o' it. I want you to he'p me do whateve' needs to git done in order fo' me to keep my boy. I done decided to keep him here on Chaparral, John. This be where he belongs, and this be where I want him."

John wasn't particularly surprised. He had been anticipating this decision, really, almost from the moment Pauly Turcott had arrived. And he couldn't really fault his brother for it. But it would be complicated. And John Cannon was not a man to rush into anything, especially when it might involve a legal battle. "You've talked this over with his mother, I presume?"

"Yeah, John, we done talked about it…"

"And she is willing to let him stay here with us?" It was Victoria asking the question, arriving with a tray of coffees in her hands. There was such a hopeful lilt in her voice as she asked, John turned to look up at her. "She has no objection?"

Buck glowered darkly. "Wall, no, Victoria, I cain't say she be willin' eg-zactly. No. Fact is, she doan like the idea too much, a-tall, right now. But that cain't be he'ped. John," he turned back to his brother, "that boy, he be-long here! He be one o' us."

"Buck…" John sighed. He could hear the desperation, and the longing, in his brother's voice, and he knew there would be no talking him out of this. And, frankly, John wasn't quite sure how he felt, himself. He'd become deeply fond of his young nephew and was himself becoming increasingly reluctant to send the boy back to a life of hardship, and probably crime, in the custody of his saloon hostess mother. He, too, he realized, would like to keep the child with them, if it could the thing could be accomplished with a reasonable lack of fuss. "What do you have in mind?"

Buck had spent most of the ride home thinking about just that. What did he have in mind? He had wrestled with his options as his horse had trotted homeward, and had even stopped, for a time, by a little pool he knew of up in the rocks, to examine his intentions. "I ain't sure, eg-zactly," he admitted. "But I reckon, iffn a judge said Pauly oughta live wit' us, then I giss they wunt be much Miss Maddie could say aginst it. I reckon she'd have to git used to the idea."

John pondered that a moment before answering. "You want to sue the court for legal custody," he said finally.

"Tha's right, Big John. I reckon tha's what you call it."

"But what about his mother, Buck?" asked Victoria. "If she objects to Pauly staying with us, will she not try to stop you?"

"I reckon," Buck agreed. "But I doan see how she kin. Inny judge gotta see we be better able to provide fo' the boy."

"No, Victoria's right, Buck. A custody battle is bound to become ugly, if Miss Turcott puts up any kind of a fight. Wouldn't it be better just to wait her out? After all, the boy's here with us, now. It's not as if she can take him away anywhere. Why not just wait a while, and see if she becomes more reasonable after she's had a little time to think about it?"

"We can't do that!" They all turned to see Blue standing in the doorway. "You're talkin' about takin' Pauly away from his ma, aren't ya? That… that's kidnapping!"

"Blue…" John began. But Buck interrupted him.

"No, Blue-boy, we ain't talkin' 'bout takin' nobody away from nobody. We just talkin' a-bout havin' Pauly live here on High Chaparral fo' permanent. Wit' us."

"It's the same thing," Blue replied, coming the rest of the way into the room. He'd hurried through untacking and feeding his uncle's horse as quickly as he'd been able, and had walked in just in time to learn Buck's tentative plans. And those plans shocked him, a little. He didn't know what he'd actually expected, but somehow, he hadn't expected this.

"Blue, I think it's a little more complicated than that," John tried to intervene.

"It ain't right, Uncle Buck," Blue ignored his father. "An' you know it ain't."

The part of Buck that still had reservations got angry in self defense. "Wha's wrong wit' you, Blue-boy? I though you liked yer little cousin. Doan you wan' him to stay here wit' us? Doan you want him to have a better life? I know you unnerstan' what kind o' woman Maddie Turcott be. You gotta unnerstan' what she live like. How come you so eager to send him back to that?"

"I do like him," Blue protested, more confused by his conflicting emotions, than upset with his uncle's accusations. "I don't want him to have to go back. I just don't see what else we can do, that's all. He misses her, Uncle Buck. He misses her awful. Maddie Turcott's Pauly's ma, whatever else she is. You can't just ask him to pretend like she never existed."

They all heard the pain in Blue's voice, and they all knew it wasn't just pain for Pauly's sake. John looked up at Victoria, to see if she had understood his son's allusion, and if that knowledge had hurt her. He knew, as they all did, that Blue still harbored a deep grief over the loss of Anna Lee, that no amount of time or gentle care had been able to erase. And he knew how his wife felt about that. But, to his surprise, Victoria was smiling warmly. She went to her stepson's side, and touched his arm.

"Blue… it is all right," she comforted. Then she turned back to the room. "Buck, Blue does not mean to be disrespectful, and he does not mean to hurt you or anyone… But Buck… he is right. What I mean is, I do not wish to send Pauly away, either, but it is true that he misses his mother. He misses her very much. It is so sad to see him. I do not want him to grow up in need, or to have the kind of life such a mother would give him. But she is his mother, Buck. There must be some way… some way, perhaps, that we can share him? Surely some arrangement can be made where he can stay with us part of the time, and still live with his mother, also. He is such a little boy. He needs his mother's love."

"Wall, he needs his pa's love, too," Buck retorted angrily. "An' I got me plenny o' love to give him. I got all the love that boy'll ever need!"

"Buck, settle down…"

"No, John, I woan settle down. I wan' to do this, an' I wan' to do it legal. I doan wan' nobody sayin' I done took that boy away from his ma. I wan' a judge to decide it, so nobody kin take it back. Iffn you woan he'p me, well then I giss I'll jist have to find some way ta do it mysel'… An' if all-a the rest o' you doan wan' him here, then I giss I kin find us someplace else to live!"

"Aw, now, Buck, will you just hold your horses a minute!" John almost shouted, losing his temper a bit at his brother's obstinacy. "I never said I wouldn't help you!"

"Compadres! Calma!" It was Manolito, finally who interjected a voice of reason into the argument, although he had tried to stay out of it up to that point. The whole issue seemed to have taken on a life of its own, somehow, and he wasn't sure it was his place, really, to express an opinion. But obviously things were deteriorating to the point were a non-partisan moderator was needed. And these people were his family, after all. "Keep your voices down, hombres. You will wake the boy, no?"

The others all looked a little abashed.

"It is, perhaps, none of my business," Manolito continued, diplomatically. "But if I might make a suggestion? Buck wishes to put the matter before a judge, sí? Perhaps it would be best, then, to first see what a lawyer has to say about the situation? Before any final decisions are made?"

John smiled at him gratefully. The suggestion was a god-send; not only would it provide them with real options upon which to base a decision, it would buy some time to give Buck a chance to settle down, and all of them to think things through a bit.

"Thank you, Mano," he said. "I think that's an excellent idea. Buck?" he turned to his brother. "What do you say? I've got to go into town in the next day or two, anyway, to see Jarvis about having the contracts drawn up for the horse deal. I can speak to him about it, see what his recommendations might be for the best way for us to proceed." Adam Jarvis having been John's lawyer practically since he'd first come to Tucson.

Buck hesitated, then nodded. "Aw-right, John. I'll go with you."

"No, Buck…" John held up his hand quickly to stop the protest he knew was coming. "Buck, listen to me. I think, until we know what all the options are, that it would be better if you stayed out of Tucson, and out of Miss Turcott's path. Just until we've got the situation in hand, and know what we're going to do about it."

"Big John…"

"Will you just trust me, Buck? Please?" John almost pleaded. Buck just looked at him, not agreeing, but not arguing either. John took his silence as acceptance, though. "And we'll hold any final decision in abeyance until we can gather all the facts?"

"I done aw-ready made my de-cision, John," Buck replied stonily. "But I got no objection to yer talkin' to Jarvis an' gittin' the facts. I giss."

John knew his brother well enough to know that was the best he was going to get. "Thank you, Buck," he sighed.

Buck looked from one face to the other as the various members of his family looked back at him. He blew out a breath. "Iffn you all will ex-cuse me, I think its time I done turned in. I'm wore right down to a nub. G'night, then."

"Buenas noches, Buck," Victoria replied. The others murmured goodnights along with her as Buck walked up the stairs to his bedroom.

John turned to his son, next. It was obvious that Blue was still struggling with conflicting feelings, and conflicting loyalties. John expected him to be the next to put forth an argument. But Blue surprised him, simply excusing himself, like Buck, for bed. Once he was gone, John turned to Victoria.

"Oh, John," she sighed, putting her arms around his waist. "I wish I knew what to do. I do not know how we can send him back to live with such a mother, in such a place, and yet, I do not know how we can keep him here with us, either. It is so hard, John."

He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. "It is hard," he agreed. "But I think, for now, you're brother has the right idea," he smiled over at Manolito. "Let's see what Adam has to say, before we make an final decisions." Though he understood that Buck wasn't bluffing, or blustering, when he insisted the decision had already been made. There was no false bravado in his brother's attitude. And in his heart, John was having a difficult time disagreeing with him. "Come on," he said. "I think it's high time we called it a night, too." He glance back at his brother-in-law. "Mano?"

"I think I may go down and see if anyone is still awake in the bunkhouse," Manolito replied. He was tired, too, but he was also troubled, fearful of the pain he believed he saw coming for these people whom he loved. Whatever the outcome, he sensed that thins might get very ugly before they were through. This decision would not be an easy one, least of all for the one most effected, who did not even get a vote. "Who knows, there may still be a card game going on. Perhaps I can win back some of the money I have lost this week already."

He grinned, and John, still feeling warm with gratitude, grinned back at him.

"Good night, then," he said.

John rode into Tucson two days later to see to his contracts and fulfill his promise to Buck. It hadn't been easy, either, trying to explain the whole situation to his lawyer. John had forgotten how sordid the whole situation might sound until he watched the distaste play over the other man's face as he sat across the desk from him, listening professionally. When he finished, attorney Adam Jarvis sighed.

"Well, John, I can certainly understand your dilemma. Of course, it will be up to the judge to decide, ultimately, you know that. The law doesn't like just snatching children away from a natural parent, even such a one as this. In spite of what the Cannon family may be able to provide for the boy."

He steepled his fingers and looked at his client. Jarvis had served as the Cannons' legal representative for some time, now, though most of his business for the High Chaparral had had been confined to land and water rights and contract law. This current problem was something new to him, one he had frankly never expected to come up against, especially from this client. Nor did he have much experience in this realm. And, in truth, he wasn't all together sure how he felt about it. Not that he had much doubt about Cannon's story, he knew Buck Cannon's habits as well as the next man, better, probably, since it had been him who had occasional cause to speak quietly to some irate saloon keeper or another after Buck had been to town on one of his sprees. If this woman had claimed Buck as the father of her child, and neither Buck Cannon nor his brother were denying it, then it was probably the case. What bothered Jarvis was not so much the legality of what the Cannons' were proposing as the propriety of it. Blood or not, he could not imagine that any child gotten on some saloon girl was going to represent the kind of breeding a Cannon would want to acknowledge. In Jarvis's opinion, if Buck Cannon wanted progeny, then he ought to settle down, marry some respectable woman and get himself some heirs in the regular fashion. However, no one had asked him for that sort of opinion. What he had been asked was to provide a recommendation regarding the legalities involved in making Buck Cannon the custodian of his illegitimate son.

Across the desk from him, John Cannon looked thoughtful. His mixed emotions hadn't been alleviated any in the two days that had passed, and the usually loquacious Buck had been almost monosyllabic with grim determination. Nor was the rest of his family in much better shape. Blue had spent that last couple of day in a sullen funk, and Victoria was almost beside herself fretting. John could almost wish that he had never set eyes on his brother's child, except for the fact that he didn't feel that way at all. In fact, he had gotten very fond of his brother's son, and wanted what was best for him. And, as much as it troubled him to admit it, he was beginning to believe his brother's way might be the only one. Pauly was a Cannon, there was no doubt of that. He deserved better that whatever life an acknowledged prostitute would be able to give him.

"My brother is also the natural parent," he reminded Jarvis.

"Yes, so you said. And the mother has acknowledged him as such," Jarvis conceded.

"Publicly," John agreed. "In front of my wife and son and most of my ranch hands. Why? Do you expect the courts to give us any trouble?"

Jarvis didn't particularly. The Cannons were well known and influential in the community, and there did seem little doubt about Buck's claims to paternity. The mother was obviously unsuitable, and her demands on the Cannons might even be construed as extortionist, if presented in the proper light. And while it was true that Buck Cannon, taken on his own merits, didn't have any too glowing a reputation, himself, besides owning little property in his own right, it was not just Buck the judge would be looking at. The child would be raised on the High Chaparral, one of the wealthiest properties in Southern Arizona, under the watchful eye of John Cannon, himself, and his extremely appropriate and well connected wife. No, Adam Jarvis saw no particular cause for alarm, if this was really what his client wanted. But he was a prudent man, and respectful of the vagaries of the courts.

"Well, John, in all honesty, the situation is a little complicated because your brother never actually married the woman. However, since the mother has publicly declared him as the father, and since Buck doesn't deny it, I don't see any real obstacle to asserting your brother's rights. Our first step would be to get Buck named as the boy's legal guardian, on the basis that he is the child's natural father. He'll have to be willing to take financial responsibility for him, but you've already indicated that this won't be a problem. Now, things could end there, if you want. It's not uncommon, in situations where a mother might not have the resources to properly take care of a child, for the court to appoint a guardian to oversee the upbringing. The mother would still technically have custody, and the boy would reside with her, but your brother would have legal control. He'd make all the decision; education, religion, where and how the child lives…"

John pursed his lips. "I believe my brother would be looking for full legal custody," he said. "I'm assuming that's not out of the question?""Not out of the question at all," Jarvis assured him. "Once guardianship has been appointed, your brother can then petition the courts to formally adopt the boy, assuming that he wants to give him his name. There shouldn't be any problem, there, either. If it's what he wants, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion, once guardianship has been established."

Jarvis sighed. "You're sure you want to go through with this, John?" he asked. "I can't promise to keep this whole thing quiet, though I will do my best. But your family is likely to come in for a bit of scandal, at least until the town gossips find something else to talk about."

Public opinion, however, was no longer one of John Cannon's larger considerations. Whatever his initial concerns, they'd been on behalf of a wife he wanted to protect from embarrassment and he could just imagine what she would say about such worries now. Whatever decision was finally made, it wouldn't be public opinion that decided it. Let them gossip if they wanted to, they were gossiping already, anyway.

"Well, I'll need to talk it over with my family first," he said. "We're just trying to get the facts, right now. Find out what our options are. But," he concluded honestly, "I think my brother is pretty set on this course of action. I expect this is what he'll want to do."

Jarvis nodded. "Of course, legal custody is one thing. Physical possession another thing all together. The courts can award custody to the father and still decide to leave a child with the mother, especially one this young. Of course, her occupation will go against her, there, but she might change her ways enough to appease a judge. It's happened. Where's the boy, now?"

"With us. On High Chaparral."

"Good. I recommend you keep him there. Possession is often nine points of the law in these cases, anyway. The mother would have to petition the courts for his return, and even then, if the child is established where he is, well provided for and happy…" He raised his hands. Cannon got the picture.

"What about the mother," Jarvis went on. "Do you expect much trouble from her?" Not that a simple saloon girl would be able to afford a lengthy court battle if she decided to fight back, but sometimes these girls made friends in high places. "Anyone of influence likely to come to her aid?"

"No one that I'm aware of," John replied, feeling some distaste at the whole idea of battling for possession of this child, but not knowing what else to do about it. "I understand that she's only been in town a couple of months."

Jarvis nodded, but made a note to find out anyway. It never hurt to be careful. Especially when it was billable time.

"I don't suppose you'd be willing to just pay this gal off, and see if you couldn't entice her to leave town," he suggested, as he scratched a note on his pad. "Things would go a lot faster and smoother if she left the child behind of her own free will." He expected John to be indignant at the suggestion, and was surprised when the other man admitted he had already tired.

"I offered her two thousand dollars to leave town with the boy when she first approached us," John said. "She refused me then, I can't see that she's likely to take the money now, and leave without him."

"Perhaps not," Jarvis agreed, though he still thought it might be worth a shot. It was amazing, he knew, how opinions could change in the face of the inevitable. "She's pretty attached to the kid, then?"

That was the crux of it, really, John knew, the thing that bothered him about all of this. He did not relish wrenching a child away from his mother, even a mother like this one, no matter how good the intentions or how much better for the boy it might be in the long run. Had the woman been willing to give the boy up, that would have been one thing. But this… His own son's words on that subject still stung him. And yet, how could they, in good conscience, let him go back to that life? Buck was certainly determined, and John didn't like to think what his brother might do if thwarted in this. And perhaps more to the point, John Cannon really didn't want to let the boy go.

"I think she might be," he replied. "When Buck told her what he intended, I don't think she was very happy about it. If she could find a way to do it, she might put up a fight."

Jarvis sighed. This whole business might have been a lot simpler if they had been able to surprise the mother with a law suit, taken her unawares. But since Buck had already told her what he was up to, Jarvis guessed he was just going to have to work with it.

"It would probably be a good idea to try and dig up whatever background on her we can," he suggested, "while you and your family are making your final decision. A woman like that probably has some kind of criminal record that could go against her in a custody suit. You say she came here from someplace up in Kansas?"

"Yes, Dodge City," John said, wincing slightly. "That's where my brother knew her, at any rate."

"Good. In that case, with your permission, I'd like to contact the marshal's office, see what they can tell us about this Miss Madeline Turcott."

"Whatever you think is best," said John. He stood up and extended his hand. "Thank you, Adam. And thank you for keeping this as quiet as you can."

Adam Jarvis bid John Cannon good afternoon, and watched him walk out. He sucked his cheek, thoughtfully for a moment, then sat down to compose a telegram to the Dodge City, Kansas, marshal's office.

When he got home, John explained the options, simply and succinctly, and privately, to Buck. His brother's mind had not been changed in the interim, of course. And nothing Jarvis had offered dissuaded him, either; just the opposite, really. John had expected as much. There was little left to do, then, but wait for the lawyer's findings, and then begin whatever proceeding were necessary to pursue the issue in court.

And to tell the boy, of course. Though, surprisingly, when John suggested they wait, first, and see what Jarvis came up with, Buck, otherwise so adamant, agreed without argument.

THE WISDOM OF SOLOMON

I

"Gentlemen. Please come in."

It had been less that a week since John Cannon had sat in Adam Jarvis' office and put his brother's wishes before the man, and he was surprised to get the summons from his lawyer so soon. The courier had arrived at the ranch that morning, even before they'd finished breakfast, with a message that he and his brother should get in touch as soon as possible. Jarvis had apparently turned something up that he felt was important, but the lawyer's expression was inscrutable as they entered the office.

"Adam?" John prodded. "You've learned something?"

Jarvis nodded. "Yes, John, I have. That's why I asked you and your brother to come." He leaned back in his chair. "I've heard from the marshal in Dodge. I thought you might be interested in what I found."

"Adam, spare us the lawyering," Cannon grumbled impatiently. "Let's have it."

Jarvis just smiled, unoffended. "Sorry. Old habits die hard. Anyway, Marshal Garritt did, in fact, remember your Miss Turcott. In fact, it seems that Madeline Turcott has quite a reputation for herself as a con artist in addition to her more regular occupations. He remembers her particularly, a few years back, in some scheme to defraud some poor rube of his entire life savings. The scheme went sour, but Turcott got away. Garritt had a warrant out to bring her in for questioning, but he never pursued it. He got the partner, in any case, and the rube got most of his money back, so it didn't seem worth his time to go trailin' after one whore. Or at any rate, that's how he tells it. He figured the partner was the more guilty party, anyway. Got eighteen months. He's been out of jail for three or four months, now, as a matter of fact."

"She was a suspect? No conviction, though," said John. "Will that be enough to convince the judge?"

"Oh, I imagine," Jarvis agreed. "Especially since she seems to have skipped town in the face of that warrant. It might take a little time to put the case together, all of the paperwork is years old by now, but I'm sure we could come up with something convincing if we had to. Not that I ever thought there would be a problem, I told you that, John. It just pays to be sure. You never know what a judge might do."

Jarvis leaned forward and steepled his fingers. "As it turns out, however, I don't expect any of that will be necessary."

This time it was Buck's turn to protest. "Jist whatchu talkin' about, Mr. Lawyer? I ain't as savvy as my brother, here, when it comes to lawyerin', so you best jist speak out good an' plain what you mean."

"Take it easy, Buck," John murmured.

But Jarvis did not seem too perturbed. "What I mean, Mr. Cannon," he said, "is that Marshal Garritt remembered something else about Madeline Turcott. Now, normally the personal affairs of the town's underbelly are only interesting to an officer of the law if they might have some bearing on the subject's likelihood to break it. But it this case, Garritt remembered because the whole story seemed so unusual to him. Newsy, you know. He couldn't remember the exact details, though, so he put me in touch with the local doctor, a fellow name o' Smith. And this is what Doc Smith remembers.

"It seems there was a child born to one of the girls down in the red light district of Dodge around seven years ago, Smith says he remembers the incident very well. A healthy baby boy. Except that the way Smith remembers it, the mother wasn't Madeline Turcott, though she was there at the time. The mother was some gal named Elizabeth Dickerson. In fact, Smith says this Madeline Turcott, whom he also remembers very well, never had a baby at all that he recalls, at least not within the necessary time frame that she was in Dodge City."

Buck started and John shot him a warning look. Jarvis held up a hand to ward off any questions.

"Hang on, there's more," he said. "Now one of the reasons Smith remembers all this so particularly, is that Dickerson insisted on keeping the baby, herself, instead of putting him out with some family like most of these girls do. Seemed a little unusual, but he didn't put much stock in her managing it for long. She didn't either, apparently. Smith said she never really got back her strength after the baby, and that the birth also seemed to have touched her wits, some. A little over a year later, she killed herself. Smith wrote out the death certificate, too. It all sticks out in his mind, though, he says, because this Maddie Turcott insisted on paying for the funeral, instead of seeing her go to a pauper's grave in the local boot hill, and because she insisted on taking over care of the baby, herself. Smith thought it was mighty strange that a woman like Turcott would be willing to burden herself with somebody else's child, especially one as young as that, but since there wasn't a foundling home convenient, and since it wasn't likely that anyone else was going to be standing in line to claim a whore's child, he didn't put up any protest. Took the responsibility off his shoulders, as far as he was concerned."

Buck just stared, open mouthed. John looked from Jarvis to his brother and back again, his face slack with shock at what the lawyer's words meant.

"You tellin' me that Maddie ain't Pauly's ma?" Buck choked, finally.

"That's what I'm saying. Not his natural mother, anyway; and since she never formally adopted him, she's got no more legal claim to him than you Cannons do. Less, is the way I expect the judge to see it. Now none of this proves who the boy's father is, one way or the other, but Buck's claim seems substantial enough, and Smith is willing to sign an affidavit supporting what he has already written to me. So if you still want to pursue this, I can't see how any judge is likely to deny you."

But Buck had already drifted somewhere else. "Lizzie Dickerson…" he sighed. "Oh, the boy be mine, Mr. Lawyer. Rest assured o' that. Mine and Lizzie's. Poor li'l Lizzie…" he nodded sadly, then came back into focus. "So what's next, Mr. Lawyer? How do we, how you say it, pro-ceed?"

Jarvis looked at John. "Well, given these new facts, my first recommendation would be to confront the woman with what we know. This will be so much easier and so much less embarrassing, publicly, if it does not come to a trial. Faced with the fact that we know the truth about her relationship to the boy, I can't see how Miss Turcott can do anything else but relinquish any claim she thinks she has, either on the boy or on you Cannons. Especially if you are also willing to let her know that you will pursue charges of extortion should she be foolish enough to stay around here and raise a fuss. The best thing would be to get her to leave town, all together. If she's not here to protest any action, Buck's appointment as guardian, and the eventual adoption, will just be a matter of form."

John scowled at the man. All of this time, and all of this trouble and that woman wasn't even the boy's mother! He felt an anger harden in him. Any concern he might have had about taking the boy away evaporated. Had the woman one ounce of decency, she would have told them the truth from the beginning, but it was obvious that she had only been using the child to leverage her own monetary gain, and make fools of them into the bargain. Extortion, Jarvis had called it, and that's exactly what it was. He looked at his brother.

"Buck?"

Buck Cannon nodded, though it was apparent he was still in shock. "You go git her, Mr. Lawyer. You bring that Mad-o-line Turcott right here to you office, right now. I got me a few things I want to say to her."

Jarvis looked at John, who nodded, also.

"I'll send someone to go find her," he said, getting up slowly. "I don't imagine she's far, either at the saloon or in her rooms." He left the office.

Buck slumped in his chair. "Po' Lizzie… po' little gal…"

John looked at his brother in surprise, both at the subject of his lament, and at the level of emotion in his voice.

"I liked that little gal, John, I did like her," Buck went on, sorrowfully. "She be the mother o' my boy, an' she be dead. She done took her own life, and I won't never know why, now. I shudda done sumpthin' fo' her John. I shudda hepped her. Ain't right fo' her to a-died like that…"

"Buck, there was no way you could have known…"

"Wall, mebbe I shudda ax'd, John. Mebbe, like Maddie said befo', I shudda en-quired."

John didn't quite know what to say. "That's all water under the bridge, now, Buck. The past is done, there's nothing you can do to change it. You've got the boy to think about now. You think on him."

"Tha's right, John," Buck said, sitting up straight in the chair again. "I got my boy to think about. An' I'm gonna make it up to him. That woman, she lied to me, John, she lied when she tol' me she was his ma, she lied when she took my boy an' run all over the country wit' him, puttin' him in who knows what kind o' danger, exposin' him to her schemes and all-a time knowin'. He ain't had no real home or no real folks… but tha's gonna change, now." He nodded coldly. "Tha's sho'ly gonna change."

It had been seven days, three hours and several minutes since Buck Cannon had sat in her rooms and told her that he was keeping Pauly, but Maddie Turcott had stopped noting the passage of time. She has spent those days and hours alternating between angry determination to thwart the man, and an almost physically paralyzing awareness that there was nothing she could really do.

At first, she had merely been frantic. Blake McDermott's laughter had not touched her. What did she care what a man like McDermott thought of her, or of the chances a man like Buck Cannon might marry a girl like her? Marrying Buck had been a scheme, nothing more, like so many. She wasn't in love with him, she wasn't Lizzie Dickerson to pine away to death over a man. She'd been looking for a way out of her life, that was all, and Buck Cannon had seemed like a fair alternative. She'd earned it, in her own eyes. After all, she was raising the man's son, so what if she hadn't physically given birth to him. And Buck wouldn't have gotten such a bad bargain, either, if he had only agreed. She'd have been a good wife to him, she knew how to keep a man happy. It would have been a good deal all the way around. So she had told herself, and so she continued to believe. But Buck had not agreed, the scheme had not worked out, they didn't, sometimes. It had never really mattered much before. But this one had gone wrong in a way Maddie could never have predicted, even worse than the time the law got after her, and Blake had gone to jail. Her boy had been taken from her, this time, and she didn't know how to get him back.

Her boy. She wondered at what point she had begun to think of Pauly as her son, not Lizzie's. Her own boy. Lost, now. And Lizzie, what would she say about all of this? Though Maddie suspected Lizzie would be pleased with the way things had turned out, if she was anyplace where the doings of the living might be known to her. Not pleased about Maddie's loss, she'd never been that cruel. Too much the opposite, in Maddie's opinion. But Lizzie would be thrilled with the idea that Buck, whom she had loved past reason, was now in possession of the child they'd made between them, never mind that it was Maddie who had sacrificed for him all those years. Never mind that it was Maddie's heart that was broken. Lizzie Dickerson had been her dearest, closest friend, more like a sister, maybe even the only person Maddie had ever loved, besides the boy, but Lizzie would never have understood that taking care of Pauly had become more than just a burdensome favor performed to fulfill the dying wish of a friend. And how could Maddie blame her? She had not known it, herself, until it was too late.

For the first few days she had fought the inevitable with frenetic energy, though most of the battle had raged contained within herself, impotently planning and plotting. There was no one to whom she could turn. She had no friends, certainly no one with any influence, in Tucson. She'd thought, briefly, about confiding in Mike, but the bartender, she knew, was tight with the Cannons, and he'd been giving her a decidedly cold shoulder for a couple of weeks, now. There was no one who could help her fight a family as powerful as the Cannons. Of course, they had enemies too, those Cannons did, as did all men who came upon their power through superhuman effort and ruthless determination. She did not know how to use that though, how to cultivate those enemies. Nor was there time. Whatever happened, she was going to have to go it alone.

She considered having the boy kidnapped. But such an enterprise cost money, a lot of it, and would require the hiring of men she neither knew or trusted. A pointless waste of expense, anyway, even if she could find it, since she couldn't imagine how anyone would be able to breach that Cannon stronghold. The place was fenced and guarded like a fort. No one would get inside uninvited. Her only hope might be to throw herself on Buck's mercy, beg him to understand, to reconsider, to let her have the boy back. She had no pride left, nothing else mattered.

Ironically, the one supporter she did have was Blake McDermott, if Blake's bullying threats and vicious sarcasm could be considered support. He was still hanging around her, even though she'd told him the gig was up. Under any other circumstances, his behavior would have been intolerable, but he was the only person she knew who understood all the facts, the only one she could even talk to about it. And she found herself grateful for that one person, even if it was him. He surprised her, too. Rather than being the one to spill the beans to Buck Cannon about Pauly's real lineage, it was Blake who insisted everything possible be done to ensure the Cannon's never found out about Maddie and the boy and Lizzie Dickerson. He wasn't doing it for her, of course. And he wasn't doing it for the boy, Blake could not care less where Pauly lived, or if he even lived at all. But Blake was convinced that something might still be salvaged from the debacle, some money pried loose from the Cannons to keep scandal at bay, and Maddie was not about to disabuse him of the notion. At least he was someone who understood the complexities of the circumstance. He had an interest in it, even if it was just to serve his own needs. Even when he got drunk and frustrated and slapped her around for her stupidity in letting it all go to hell, she found she didn't mind much. He was right, after all. In a way, Blake McDermott was like a kind of penance.

He wasn't going to be much in the way of material help, though. After that first rush of hopefulness, Maddie had finally admitted that to herself. It was Blake who had nixed the kidnapping scheme as too much work and too much risk, and even the possibility of ransom couldn't motivate him. He was after easier money. It might also have been that he just knew her too well, and suspected she'd grab the boy and run the minute she got her hands on him. Which, of course, she would. It was then that the deadening despair began to settle over her, not grief, but a kind of frantic resignation that wrung hands and wept, awaiting the final disaster. She had never acted like that before, she had become like some other person. She did not know herself.

It was almost a relief when the runner from Jarvis' office showed up at her door and asked if she might please come down to his office and have a talk.

"Them Cannons send you?" she asked the young man standing in her doorway. He looked uncomfortable, whether because of his surroundings or his mission she could not tell. He just shrugged.

"I'll go with you," said Blake, who was in her room at the time.

"You'll stay," she said sharply. She knew he wasn't coming to protect her. He wanted to hear what was going to be said, that was all. "If there's anything to be saved from this, it won't happen if them Cannons find out about you, too."

McDermott nodded at the logic, perfectly content with the excuse to remain in the room and drink the bottle of whiskey he'd brought with him. Maddie picked her shawl up off the bed.

"I'll come."

She knew as soon as she entered the office that they knew all about her. But instead of increasing her panic, the knowledge brought a sudden, unexpected calm. There was nothing left to lose, now, truly. Nothing to be salvaged. There was no need to grovel. Begging wouldn't help. She would no longer have to act a part, she could say exactly what she was thinking. Exactly what she meant. It no longer made a difference. The realization was strangely liberating.

"Miss Turcott?" said Jarvis. "Won't you sit down?"

She looked at him a moment before answering. She looked down at John Cannon watching her coolly, at Buck, his face twisted with some rage.

"I'll stand." It put them at a disadvantage, and she knew it. They'd have to crane their necks, now, to look up at her, or stand, themselves. And whatever else she was to them, she was still a woman and sitting in her presence would make them uncomfortable. She felt a small thrill of triumph, rather like a steer must feel who got a good gouge in just before it was slaughtered.

Jarvis just leaned back in his chair, unimpressed by the theatrics. "I gather you know why we've asked you here?"

She cocked an eyebrow at him, and didn't answer. She'd spent enough time in front of the law to know not to give anything away. After all, there was still an outside possibility they'd only found out about the con that went bad, in Dodge, and about Blake McDermott. They might not have it all.

Jarvis, too, was seasoned enough to recognize the maneuvering of a recalcitrant perpetrator. But he was in no particular mood to joust. "My clients, here, would like you to leave town, Miss Turcott," he said. "And I think it would be in your best interest to do so, the sooner the better."

Maddie shrugged. "Yes, sir. I reckon they would."

"We've had a telegram. From Dodge."

Again, Maddie merely nodded. She found herself tingling, a little, with impatience. She still wasn't absolutely positive what they knew. If only this lawyer would get to the point.

"From Marshal Garritt…"

So, they knew about the con, at least. But that was nothing.

"And also from Doctor Smith."

They knew, then. They had all of it. She managed, somehow, to keep that awareness out of her face. She shrugged, again, and said nothing.

"You don't remember Doctor Smith?" Jarvis prodded, beginning to get frustrated.

Maddie smiled bitterly. "Oh, I remember him. He was nice enough. Clean and decent. No strange habits. A good tipper." There was no doubt what she was implying. The three men squirmed.

It was Buck who gave the game away, his patience finally strained past endurance.

"That doctor, he done tol' us the truth, Miss Mad-o-line Turcott," he shouted, leaping to his feet. "He tol' us the truth about Pauly's ma. She ain't you, is she? An' doan you try to lie, doan you. We aw-ready know!"

"Buck! Sit down!" John barked.

"I woan, brother John. I wan' to hear it right from her own mouth. I liked that little gal, John, I tol' you. I cared about her. An' this Miss Turcott, here, she lied to us! Din't you? You ain't my boy's real ma. You got no right to him, no right!"

Maddie had already had a long time to consider her answer to this question. "If you're askin' if I'm the one what bore him, then the answer is no. I didn't. But I am the one what's been takin' care o' him all these years. I'm the one he says 'mama' to, the one who reads his stories an' hears his prayers at night. Been doin' it for almost all o' his life, for six whole years, now. So, what does that make me?"

"It make you a liar!" Buck replied. "It were Lizzie Dickerson bore my boy, not you! An' you lied, you lied to me, you lied to him…"

"Buck, will you please settle down? There's nothing to be accomplished that way…" John was pleading, now.

Jarvis tried to regain control of the interview, if he'd ever really had it. "A court of law, Miss Turcott…"

"A court o' law ain't gonna put no thought into it at all, Mr. Jarvis. You are Mr. Jarvis? Never was gonna. I ain't a fool. You done wasted yer time, bothering them Dodge City folks. Judge's gonna take one look at me, and one look at these nice, respectable Mr. Cannons and he's jist gonna shrug his shoulders. There never was gonna be any other decision. It won't matter a bit what I sacrificed for that boy, or how much I've loved him all these years..." Her voice finally broke, a little. She couldn't help it. "You men make me sick, with yer high and mighty, self righteous…"

"That will be quite enough, Miss Turcott!" Jarvis snapped.

"You shut up!" Maddie shouted, her hard won self control finally cracking. "You done brought me down here to ask me questions, well, you kin just shut up an' listen to the answers, then. All o' you!" She wheeled back to confront Buck, her eyes focusing on only him as he stood there facing her like a pugilist in a boxing ring.

"An' you, especially, Mr. Buck Cannon. You listen real good. Cuz you're right. It was Lizzie Dickerson bore your son. Little Lizzie who loved you like nothin' else in the world mattered. Poor, stupid, weak, lovin', gentle Lizzie who though if she could give you a child you might just decide to stay with her. Sweet Lizzie who's poor, fool heart jist shattered to pieces the night she finally realized you weren't coming back. But it was too late then, she was already carryin'. Your boy. Pauly. Paul Michael.

"An' where were you, Mr. Buck Cannon? Was it you who stood by her bed and watched the pains take her, the night Pauly came, was it you who held her hands and wiped the sweat off her, and stuck the rag in her teeth when the pains got too bad so she wouldn't scream loud enough to bother the clients in the other room? Was it you who took that baby when he was still all bloody from her, and washed him and wrapped him up in a blanket to keep him warm? Was it you who paid the doctor, who wouldn't do nothin' fo' charity, not even deliver a baby he coont o' been positive wasn't even his own, since he was a regular?

"No, I don't reckon it was, was it, Buck Cannon."

"Are you quite finished Miss Turcott?" Jarvis tried to interrupt.

Maddie ignored him. "An' who was it found poor Lizzie hardly a year later, her heart still broke and a baby to care for, her who could barely take care o' herself, who never got over lovin' you an' you leavin' even if she was just a whore like me an' had no business lovin' any man, the stupid little fool? Who was it found her with her wrists cut in a tub a water, and yer precious little boy howlin' in his crib? Was it you who took care o' things with that same Doctor Smith, only this time you din't have to pay him money, he was willin' to take it out in trade, it was only a death certificate, after all. Was it you saw to it Lizzie had a decent buryin', din't just go into some ditch somewhere?"

Her voice got quiet, now, whether it was because she was getting hoarse from shouting or because she was too choked from emotion to continue as she was, the men in the room could not be sure. They didn't try to interrupt her, again, though.

"I did that, Buck Cannon. Me. I made sure she had a proper funeral, with a real coffin and flowers an' a preacher to read over her cuz I knew that's what she'da wanted. I did, I paid for it. Because I was there, an' you was nowhere. An' I took that baby, who was hungry, an' cold, an' alone, and I took care o' him, instead o' lettin' him die in some orphan home like that doctor wanted. Cleaned up after him when he was sick. Sat up nights with him when somethin' scared him, never mind the way I had to work to keep food on the table an' a roof over his head. For six years, most o' his life, I kept him with me, and took care o' him and loved him. Not a dollar went into my pocket weren't three that went into that boy's mouth or onto his back. An' maybe it weren't the kind o' life you Cannons' think was good an' proper, but it was a sight better life than he was gettin' outta you, those six years. Because jist where were you when he needed you, huh, Buck Cannon? He'da had to depend on you, he'd be dead.

"So don't you be tellin' me I ain't his ma. Don't you be tellin' me I got no right. How dare you!"

"Miss Turcott…" Jarvis said, quietly, now, a little stunned by her outburst.

"I loved her, Buck Cannon. I loved Lizzie Dickerson like she was my own blood, like she was my own sister. An' you took her away from me, with your hard, careless heart. An' I love that boy. I love him. An' now yer fixin' to take him away from me, too, an' there ain't nothin' I can do about it." She wasn't sobbing, but there were tears running freely down her face, now. She took a deep breath and turned her attention to John.

"Do what yer gonna. All the same, I believe I'll be stayin' in town, for a while," she almost hissed at him.

It was Jarvis who bristled. "I warn you, Miss Turcott. There is also a little matter of extortion threatened against my client and his brother…"

Maddie turned and gave his such a look of pure venom that he stopped in mid speech.

"Adam," John said. "I don't think that will be necessary." He turned to Maddie. "Miss Turcott…"

But Maddie ignored him. She turned back to Buck. "You do what you want. Ain't no way I kin stop you. But you jist remember somethin'. My curse is on you, Buck Cannon. There is such a thing as retribution. I don't reckon I believe in no kind o' God. But I believe in that. It's wrong, what yer doin'. An' yer gonna have to live with it."

Before any of them could utter another word, she turned and walked out.

It took a moment before the three men exhaled, almost as one body. It was Jarvis who spoke first.

"We can still get her to leave, John," he said. "There still is the issue of extortion…"

John looked at the man distastefully. "I don't think she'll try to stop this," he replied. "She just needed to say her piece."

Jarvis snorted, either unaware of, or unconcerned about the elder Cannon's sudden look of repugnance. "Well, she certainly did that," he agreed. "I've never seen such a display."

"Yes…" said John thoughtfully. He turned to his brother. Buck look stunned. "Buck?"

The other man looked at him blankly a moment, then sank slowly back into his chair. "I din't know, John," he said quietly. "I din't know it were like that for Lizzie."

John sighed. "And the boy, Buck? We'll proceed with the guardianship, Adam," he said to his lawyer. After what they had just endured, there was nothing he wanted more than to get this whole thing over with as quickly as possible. "Buck? You agree? You want Adam to go ahead and file the papers?"

Buck seemed to come into focus suddenly. He looked at his brother, then at Jarvis. "Yeah, John, yeah. You go ahead Mr. Lawyer. You file whatever papers you need to." The force had gone out of his voice, though.

John nodded to Jarvis, then reached over and clasped his brother on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's go down to the saloon, I'll buy you a drink."

But Buck looked at him oddly. "Thank you all-a same, John, but I reckon I'd like to be gittin' home now. Mebbe some other time…"

If John Cannon was surprised, he didn't show it. "Some other time then." And he got to his feet, and bit the lawyer goodbye.

II

"You mean… you're sayin' that Miss Turcott, she… " Blue Cannon gaped at his father in shock as he followed him into the house. John and Buck had ridden in from Tucson looking a lot like one of the thunderheads that had plagued the skyline for weeks. Buck strode wordlessly across the floor and dropped into a chair by the fireplace, with John and Blue right behind him.

"John, I think I'll have that drink, now," he growled, letting his head fall into his hands. John Cannon needed a drink, too. Probably more than one. There was only sherry in the liquor cabinet in the living room, but it would be enough to settle his own nerves, and at least take the edge off Buck's. His brother, no doubt, would find his own way to the whiskey in due time. He filled two cut crystal glasses with the dark liquid and handed one to Buck.

"John? John what happened?" asked Victoria, coming to her husband's side. "What did the lawyer say?"

Cannon looked from his wife to his brother, to his son, and back again. Manolito, too, had joined them, coming into the room with Victoria as soon as they'd arrived. The whole family was there. John took a deep breath, and then he told them. Everything Adam Jarvis had said about Maddie's criminal past, and about Lizzie Dickerson, although he omitted most of the details from the confrontation with Madeline Turcott that had followed. Buck just stared at his sherry.

"You're sayin' she ain't Pauly's ma?" Blue finished the thought he had begun, walking into the room.

"That's what I'm saying, boy," John agreed. "That's what Jarvis found out from his contacts in Dodge City." He sipped him drink before continuing. "She lied to us when she told us that. Pauly's natural mother killed herself in Dodge six years ago. Madeline Turcott has no more legal right than we do… than Buck does. Less. In any case, Jarvis seems convinced the judge will see things our way. Maddie Turcott simply has no claim on the boy."

"She raised him…" Blue ventured, obviously upset. Everyone looked at him, except for his uncle. "I mean… she's the one been takin' care of him since he was a baby, an all. That's gotta count for somethin'…"

Buck belted back his sherry. The shock that had silenced him in the face of Maddie Turcott's tirade had worn off on the ride home, and his anger had returned in full force, fueled perhaps not a little bit by the humiliation brought on by the truth in her allegations. If anything, though, he had returned home more determined than when he had left.

"Yeah, boy, she raised him," he said. "She took him in when his real ma died and she saw to it he din't starve and die, and that do be a good thing. And I reckon mebbe I owe her sumpthin' for doin' that." He lifted his eyes from the empty glass and stared forward at no one in particular, his eyes red-rimmed and haunted. "But she lied, too, Blue-boy. She lied and tol' me she was his real ma, even when I coon't remember her one bit, instead o' tellin' me the truth, instead o' tellin' me who his real ma were, and about what happened. An' she din't do it for no good reason 'cept meanness and to git money outta yer pa and me. Ex-torshun, that lawyer fella called it. And it be a crime, a bad one. Not fo' the fust time, neither, she'd still be wanted in Kansas fo' the same thing, too, iffn anybody wanted to bother with the likes o' her. " He choked a little and handed his glass toward John. "She lied to me about my boy… about Lizzie…"

John filled the glass and handed it back.

"John?" Victoria almost whimpered. "What should we do?"

"Well, what we've planned to do all along," John replied, a little surprised by the question. "Jarvis is preparing the paperwork to appoint Buck as Pauly's legal guardian as we speak. It will go before the judge at the first opportunity. Adoption, after that, should be a matter of course. Naturally, we can't let a woman like that have any more contact with the boy. She's not even his real mother."

"But John," Victoria said. "Pauly… How will we ever tell him?"

"My sister is right, John," said Manolito. "Maddie Turcott is the only mother the child has ever known. The truth is bound to be a shock to him."

John pursed his lips and frowned. In all the turmoil, he had forgotten the fact that the child, himself, would need to be told.

"How can we tell him that his real ma is dead and that makes it all right for us to take him away from the woman who raised him?" Blue demanded, as much confused by his own feelings as by the turn of events. "How can we do that?"

"Blue!" John said sharply. "We didn't create this situation, but it's the situation we have, and we just have to do the best we can with it. If Miss Turcott had really cared about that boy, she would have told him herself. She would have told us the truth from the beginning instead of using the boy as a means to extort money from us. You aren't seriously suggesting that we leave this child in the care of a known criminal, are you?"

Blue dropped his eyes. "No, sir. It's just that…"

"It jist be what, Blue-boy?" Buck asked darkly. Blue did not reply.

Again, it was Manolito who offered the voice of reason. "Blue has a point, however," he said gently. "Such a thing will not be easy for the boy to understand. Perhaps it would even be better to wait to tell him. The child is still young. Perhaps it would be better for him to learn the truth when he is old enough to understand it."

"He be old enough to unnerstan'," said Buck. "An' it'll be me who got to tell him. It's me who's his pa, it be my responsibility. I doan wan' that boy thinkin' I'm takin' him away from his real ma. Maddie Turcott ain't his ma. Pauly's real ma be dead, an' tha's a truth he got a right to know."

"No!!"

They looked up, almost as one person, to see Pauly standing on the landing, staring back at them, his face white with horror.

"Oh, Pauly…" Victoria cried, moving toward the stairs. But Buck was already on his feet.

"Yer lyin'!" Pauly shouted back at him. "Yer lyin'!!" He turned and bolted down the hallway and out of sight.

"Boy, wait!" he called, heading after him. "Pauly!"

Victoria started to follow, but John caught her arm and pulled her back as Buck pushed past them both and headed up the stairs after his son.

"Let him go, Victoria," John said, drawing his wife close. "Let Buck handle this. It's his place to talk to the boy."

Victoria did not fight him. She moved into her husband's arms, just watching the place where her brother-in-law had disappeared.

"He loves her, Pa," Blue said softly. "Maddie Turcott's the only ma he's ever known. He ain't gonna understand…"

John ignored him. He looked at Manolito.

"This is not good, amigo," the other man sighed. "It should not have happened this way."

Buck caught up with Pauly just inside the door to his bedroom. The child evaded his grasp, though, and threw himself onto the bed, pulling the pillow over his head.

"Pauly. Pauly, listen," Buck pleaded, sitting down on the edge of the mattress beside him. "Please listen to me. I din't wan'chu to find out like this, I din't. But it's the truth, Pauly. Yer ma… the woman you been thinkin' all this time is yer ma, well, she ain't Pauly. I'm sorry, I'm sorry right down to the bottom o' my heart, but it be the truth, boy."

"It ain't! I don't believe you!" The boy's sobs were muffled by the pillow, but Buck could hear the heartache in them. " Yer jist sayin' that! It ain't true!"

"Pauly… Now, come on out from unner that there pilla. I'm yer pa, boy. I love you. I wun't lie to you 'bout sumpthin' like this …"

Pauly unburied his head and rolled his head around to glare at Buck. "You would! You would lie. Yer jist sayin' it so's you don't have to let me go home. I know yer jist meanin' to keep me here…"

"But you like it here! O' course I want you to stay here. Doan you wanna stay here?"

"I wanna go home!"

"Pauly, listen to me, please! This be yer home now. The High Chaparral. Listen to me." Buck reached for the hysterical child, but Pauly fought against the embrace, kicking wildly and pressing his hands over his ears.

"I won't, I won't listen… I want my mama, I wanna go home."

"Pauly, I done tol' you. Maddie Turcott, she ain't yer ma, boy. Yer mama's name were Lizzie Dickerson. An' she be dead, son. I'm sorry…"

"She ain't. She ain't who you said. My ma's in Tucson an' I wanna go back there. I wanna go home…" He was sobbing so hard, now, the words where barely audible above the choking. "I wanna go home. Please Pa, please… Please let me go home. Please let me go home to my mama…"

Buck pulled the child against his chest and hugged him hard.

"Aw, Pauly, doan cry, please doan cry no mo'," he begged, nearly sobbing himself. "Doan cry…" He rocked the boy gently in his arms, crooning until Pauly's sobs subsided a little. Then, as the boy began to relax, exhausted, Buck loosened his grip and let him rest back against one arm. He took off his neck scarf and mopped at Pauly's tear stained face. "Blow yer nose, now, come on. Blow." The child blew. Buck let him lie back against the pillow. "It be all right, now. Everythin's gonna be all right, now. You jist wait an' see."

Pauly took a deep shuttering breath. "Are you gonna let me go home, now, Pa?" he asked hoarsely. "I miss her, Pa. I miss her so awful. Please? Please Pa?" The last word was little more than I whimper. "I want my mamma…"

Buck looked down into the face of his little son, and saw the agony there, and for a moment it was as if someone had reached out and grasped his heart in their fist and squeezed. He could hardly breathe.

"We'll talk some more about that in the mornin', awright?" he replied. "You jist go to sleep, now. I know all this be a shock, but you got to be brave, boy. You'll come to unnerstan' it. I promise. Aw-right, now?"

Pauly eyed him warily, his eyes now dead and flat with something in them that was terribly akin to hatred. He said nothing. Buck leaned down and kissed him, then pressed his cheek against the child's forehead. "Jist you go ta sleep and we'll figger out what the right thing to do be." He sat back and brushed the hair off his son's face. Then he got up and left the room. He needed to do something to escape the angry accusation in those eyes.

 

He was sitting in the dark on the porch, later, when John found him, just staring up at the stars, a half empty bottle of red-eye whiskey held tight between his knees. He'd been thinking, or trying to, for how long he did not know. He'd wrestled with his angel, was still wrestling, and he was afraid that he was losing. He didn't know if it was the pain in his son's voice that had done it, or the look in the boys eyes, but something was stripping Buck of the courage of his convictions and he didn't know how to get it back. He didn't know if he should even try. What good would it do to keep Pauly with him if his son was only going to curse him for it for the rest of his life? Nor could he escape the truth in Maddie's accusations; they battered him like a relentless tide. He had walked away from Dodge City without so much as a backwards glance, never giving Lizzie or any of the people he had left behind a second thought, and Maddie had stayed to pick up the pieces, to become the most important thing in his son's life. He thought he was doing right, wanting Pauly to grow up on the High Chaparral, but he was beginning to question that, now. What he was doing was hurting the one person in the world he never wanted to cause pain. As hard as it was to consider, maybe he had to find another way.

"Buck?" John shook him out of this thoughts. "Mind if I join you?"

"I doan mind none, John," his brother answered. "You wan a drink o' this whiskey?"

John pulled over one of the split log chairs and sat down. "No, no. Thank you." He paused, searching for words. "Is Pauly asleep?"

Buck nodded. "Yeah. I reckon he be asleep, now."

John sighed. "Buck, I'm sorry. I'm sorry he had to find out that way."

"Yeah, John. I'm sorry, too," his brother agreed. There was no conviction in his voice though. There was almost no emotion at all.

"Buck…" John tried, again. But the other man held up his hand to stop whatever it was his brother was going to say.

"John, I been thinkin'," he said. "I been sittin' out here, lookin' up at them stars, and thinkin' harder than I ever done thought about nothin' in my whole life. I been thinkin' so hard my po' brain be sore from it. And John?" his voice broke a little as he continued. "I jist doan know…"

"You don't know what?" John asked him cautiously.

"I doan know iffn we be doin' right, doin' this thing."

He wasn't surprised, exactly, he knew the child's outrage had upset his brother deeply. It had upset all of them. But Buck's admission troubled him, on more levels than one.

"Buck, I think maybe I know how you feel," he began gently. "The boy's upset, and understandably so. This news had to have been quite a shock to him. He shouldn't have had to find out about his mother that way."

"No, John, it ain't that, eg-zactly," Buck interrupted him. "At any rate, it mostly ain't. Pauly, well, he ain't upset on account o' Lizzie Dickerson bein' dead, an' all. He doan care nothin' about that, John, he doan even believe she's really his ma. Lizzie Dickerson, why, that's jist a name, to him. As far as he's concerned, his ma is Maddie Turcott, and they ain't nothin' we all kin say or do to make him see different."

John sighed. He supposed they should have expected that, especially under the circumstances. He harrumphed thoughtfully, trying to come up with a logical response. He didn't really have one.

But Buck wasn't finished. "John? I been thinkin', and I think mebbe Blue-boy be right. Maddie Turcott, well, she be the only ma that boy has ever knowed. An' I know she loves him, I know that… them things she said this afte'noon, John. Wall, she ain't all wrong. She done raised him when there weren't nobody else, an' I reckon she done tried her best by him, too, whatever else she mighta done wit' her life. An' mebbe tha's all that really matters. Least ways, I think mebbe it be all that matters to him. An' alls that boy kin see, now, is that we all are fixin' to take him away from her. An' I doan know, innymo', if we be doin' right."

"But Buck," John said. He truly appreciated his brother's dilemma, he just didn't know how to help him out of it. "What are the alternatives? To send him back to Maddie Turcott is to condemn him to a life of poverty, and very likely to a life on the wrong side of the law. You've said as much yourself. Nothing's changed that."

Buck nodded. "Yeah, Big John, I know that."

"Even if we give her money to help raise him, there's no guarantee that's what she'll use it for. He's a very bright little boy, Buck, but even the best will succumb to a life of lawlessness, if that's all they ever know. Is that what you want for him?"

"John, you know it ain't."

"Yes, I do know. And I also know that it would be wrong to condemn him to such a life. He's a Cannon, Buck, he deserves better."

Buck just looked at him a moment. "That ain't the way you felt about it a few weeks ago when you was willin' to give Maddie Turcott money to git outta town an' take the boy wit' her."

John accepted the accusation. "I know that, Buck. And I was wrong. I was only thinking about my pride, I wasn't thinking about your rights, or the good of the child. But that's what I'm thinking about, now."

Buck nodded helplessly. "I know, John, I know. It be what I been thinkin' on so hard, too, the good o' the chile. 'Cept I doan rightly know what's for the good o' that chile, right now. I been thinkin' and thinkin' about all them, as you say, al-ter-nay-tives, and about wha's best fo' that boy. But I doan know, John. You din't have to look down into that little face an' see how bad he was hurtin'. You din't have to face the fact that that there boy done figgered out we ain't never gonna let him see his ma no mo', and that it doan really matter whether or not she's the one what birthed him. As far as he concerned, that's his ma, and we all is takin' him away from her. You din't have to see that, John."

"Buck…"

"Now, I know I ain't so good in the thinkin' de-partment… Leastways, it ain't my best thing…"

John smiled, he couldn't help it. "You do all right," he said gently. "You do just fine."

Buck turned and looked up at the stars. "He misses her, John. An' his heart is jist about broke clean through because o' it. I love that boy, more'n anythin' I ever loved befo'. I never even knowed it were possible to love a thing this much. An' mebbe, mebbe it's like what the Good Book says. Mebbe the one what loves him the most got to be the one what's got to give him up, fo' his own sake. I jist doan know. But I do know this. Iffn we do this thing, iffn I do this thing, we gonna tear that boy all to pieces. We jist gonna tear him right in half."

John Cannon just didn't know what to say. The agony in his brother's voice ripped at his heart, and yet he had no answer for him. No really useful answer, anyway. He reached over, hesitantly, and gripped Buck by the shoulder. Buck put his hand up over John's and squeezed hard.

"Buck," John tried one more time. "The boy will grow up, and he'll come to understand. He'll get over it."

But Buck knew better. He just shook his head sadly. "No he won't, John."

John chose his next words carefully. "When I first went to speak to him, Adam Jarvis explained several things to me. About the way it works, with these kinds of cases. And one of the… alternatives… he told me about might be to have you appointed Pauly's legal guardian, but allow his mother… Maddie Turcott… residential custody. He would live with her, but you would maintain full legal control."

Buck turned toward his brother, watching him intensely.

"Now, I didn't pursue it because I didn't think that was the way you wanted to go. And there are risks, Buck, big ones. We could set up a trust fund for Pauly's upkeep. You would control the purse strings, make all the decisions regarding his education, his religious upbringing if that matters to you, decisions regarding where and how he lives, and Miss Turcott will be required to abide by them. But it's hard to enforce, Buck," he warned his brother. "We couldn't be watching over him every minute. And we could demand a periodic accounting, but there's no real way we can make her do what we say. And, more to the point, if she decided to take the boy and run, it might be hard to find her, again. It's a big country."

Buck nodded, taking in all of the things his brother said. But for the first time since he'd sat down, John saw something that looked a little like hope in his brother's eyes. He couldn't decide if it was a good thing, or not.

"Mebbe, though, John," Buck said quietly. "Mebbe, jist… wall, if Maddie had a choice, mebbe she would be willin' enough to live decent. Mebbe if we all could hep her out a little, settin' up some little place, a shop or a boardin' house or sumpthin'. She might do it. An' then Pauly wouldn't be growin' up so bad, and I could see him regular, and he could still come out an' visit…"

John didn't believe it for a minute, and he wondered how a man as savvy and experienced as his brother could be so naïve about some of the most basic things when it came to human nature. Maddie Turcott lived the life she did because she wanted to. John felt very sure of that. And he did not like this particular alternative, much. However, he was not about to undermine the relief he saw in Buck's eyes, certainly not since he had been the one to put it there. There was still time to talk about such things. Perhaps, once the boy had settled down, Buck might feel a little bit better about the course they were on.

"We can talk about all that in the morning, Buck," he said. "We've got plenty of time to decide."

"Sure, John," Buck agreed. "But in the mean time, I think I'd like you to call off that lawyer fella. While I'm decidin'."

John nodded. "If that's what you want to do," he replied mildly. "Adam's going to have those contracts ready for me in the next few days, so I'll be seeing him, then, anyway. I'll take care of it, then."

"Thank you, John."

John got to his feet. "Now, why don't you call it a night and go to bed. It's been a long day for all of us. And we've still got us some horses to find in the morning."

"I will John," buck agreed. "In a little while. I think I wanna sit out here a look at them stars, some, fo' a little while longer. They sure do be purty things, don't they? So bright and jist full o' promise."

John smiled down on him warmly. "That they are, Buck." He clasped his shoulder on last time, and then turned toward the house. "Good night, then."

"G'night, brother John."

It was after midnight when Pauly rolled out of bed and pulled his pants and shirt on. He'd slept for a little while, he'd been too exhausted by the shock not to. But after a couple of hours he'd awakened, again, sick with fear and haunted by some dream he could not quite remember. He lay in the silent stillness for a long time, listening to the night sounds outside his window and trying to understand.

He simply could not fathom why they would do it. He had trusted these people, his pa, his aunt and uncle, his cousin and Manolito. He had tried his best to please them and to make them like him. He had done so on the half held promise that his mother would be allowed to join him out there on the ranch if he did, and because it was something he also wanted, that they all might live together and be happy. He had never, ever expected them to hold him prisoner. To keep him from his mother, to never let him go home again. He did not understand what he had done wrong to make them hate him so much that they would want to punish him that way. It was so terrible. The only thing he knew for sure is that he had to get away, he had to get home, and if he was going to, he was going to have to take matters into his own hands.

Still, it took him some time to decide what to do about it, and even after he had decided, it took him a little while longer to work up the courage. But he was so worried about his ma. He had been gone so long now, he knew she would be upset. He had to get to her, so she would know everything was going to be all right. He wondered if Buck had already told her they weren't going to let him go home, and his stomach felt sick at the though of how that would hurt her. Maddie could be harsh with him, sometimes, her moods could be mercurial, but he knew his mother and he had no doubt that she loved him very much. She would be devastated if she thought he wouldn't be coming back. Fear for her anguish tormented him.

His mother. Buck was lying, of course, about that dead woman being his real ma. If it was true, Maddie would have told him. It was just something his pa had made up to make it seem all right, keeping there. But he was lying, Pauly knew he was lying. He had probably lied about everything, even about loving him. The boy had never felt so betrayed.

Even still, it was hard for him to make the final move to action. He was a long way from Tucson, he knew that, and he was just a little boy. Growing up as he had, with very little to shelter him from life's harsh reality, he had a very keen sense of his own capabilities, and he knew that the thing he needed to do now might well be beyond him. He had to try, though. He didn't know what else to do. So he got up and got dressed, and carried his boots out onto the landing, with only the vaguest idea of what he was about to do. He knew he could get out of the house without waking anyone, he'd proven that before. And he knew he could get down to the corral without being seen, too, if he was careful. If he could get away from the ranch safely it would be morning before anyone realized he was gone. He wouldn't be missed until breakfast, and he might even be able to make it most of the way to Tucson by then.

But getting off the ranch without being seen might prove easier said than done. Pauly hurried down the stairs and out the front door, stopping in the shadows on the porch to put his boots on and take stock of his situation. There was still no guard at the back gate since his uncle's separate peace with the Chiricahua, and that was the way he would have to make his escape. It would be risky, though, far riskier than just sneaking down to the corral. Peace with the Apache or no, there were still guards. He could probably avoid the man at the front gate when he left to walk the perimeter, but the guard on the roof would prove more difficult. He could be spotted as he rode way. And he was only going to get one chance to do this, he knew that. If they caught him, they would start locking him in at night, just as Maddie did when she caught him roaming around the towns they'd stayed in.

The moon was waning, and the light it cast on the Chaparral compound was dim and shadowy. Pauly knew about shadows, he'd used them before in his nightly explorations in town. If he stayed within them, he might go undetected. As before, he waited until the guard at the gate left to make his rounds, then he dashed across the compound into the corral. He crouched down low and waited to see if there was some outcry. When none came, he stood up again and tried to make out the silhouette on the roof. It looked a little bit like Reno there, and Pauly felt a sudden stab of guilt. Reno was his friend who helped with his riding lessons and had taught him all about how to care for his pony. He'd probably be getting the man into trouble with his Uncle John if he got away all right. Sighing, he turned and darted toward the stalls.

Taking the pony would make it harder to get off the ranch without being seen, but he knew he couldn't to walk all the way to Tucson, so he would have to try. At least tacking up wouldn't be a problem. Putting on the pony's bridle by himself was one of the first things Blue and Reno had taught him, and there was no saddle to be concerned about. Buck had never gotten around to getting one that fit, and Pauly had become as proficient as a brave at riding bareback since coming to the Chaparral.

The pony must have heard him coming, because the little animal was awake and nickering softly as Pauly came up to his side.

"Shhh, boy, we gotta be quiet," Pauly cautioned as he took the bridle down from its peg. He slipped it over the animal's head, and buckled the throat-latch loosely as his cousin had shown him. Then he backed the pony out of his stall. It dawned on him, as he did, that he probably should have stopped at the kitchen for some food to pack along with him. After all, it was going to be a long ride, he might want some apples at least, to munch on. It was too late to risk going back, but he could take water, there were several canteens hanging on one of the stall posts. He found one that was almost full and stuck his head through the strap, slinging it across his back like a quiver. Then he lead the pony up to the corral gate and opened it slowly, its well oiled hinges swinging silent. He lead the pony through.

The waning moon cast weird shadows along the ground. Pauly looked up and could just barely make out Reno's outline against the night sky. The man at the gate had returned, but he was almost invisible in the near darkness. If he stayed in the shadows, Pauly knew he would be just as hard to see, though the pony's white markings might give them away if he wasn't careful. He waited patiently up against the corral until the guard walked away, again. And Reno's eyes were high on the desert horizon, straining the distant darkness. Pauly knew if he was going to make a move, it had to be now. He led the pony quickly to the back gate, which swung open just as silently as had the one on the corral, and out into the desert. He took care to latch it, again, behind him. An open gate would be detected in no time. Then, grabbing Lightning’s mane the way his cousin had shown him, he sprang up onto the pony's back and kicked him into a trot.

He only got a few yards, though, before he stopped and looked behind him. He could see the outline of the main house and the bunkhouse, and in his mind's eye he could see the occupants sleeping inside them. He had been happy there, for a time. He had liked these people. And part of him, a pretty big part, didn't want to go. Despite the way they had lied and betrayed him, he sensed, now that he was about to leave, that they may not have really meant to do him harm. Maybe they truly believed they were doing the best thing for him. They just didn't understand. The desert stretched before him, dark, vast and forbidding, and he almost turned the pony back. He knew he couldn't do it, though. Whatever his pa and his pa's family thought they were doing, or why, they were wrong. They were going to take him away from his mother if they could, and he just couldn't let that happen. He had to get home to her before they found out he was gone and could stop him. Maybe, once he did, maybe his ma could talk to them and make them understand how much he needed to stay with her. And maybe they would forgive him, and let him visit the High Chaparral, again. With one last look back, he turned the pony's head toward the desert and clapped him in the sides.

The desert looked eerie in the dim light. Even as Pauly's eyes adjusted to the darkness, the shadows created unrecognizable landscapes around him. The saguaro cast dark shapes onto the ground, the fuzzy cholla reached out with sinister arms. It was impossible to see where the ground might be level and where it might dip and twist into dangerous gullies and ditches. Nothing looked familiar. For all that he had been looking at the desert for weeks and thought he knew it, in fact, Pauly had not been off the ranch compound except for three times, two coming and one going, and all those by the front gate. He tried to find what he thought should be the road to Tucson, but he really didn't know where he was going. Still, he was a bright little boy, and he had the natural sense of direction common to one who had traveled almost constantly from infancy. He knew if he circled wide around the ranch toward the direction of the front gate, he'd have to hit the Tucson road eventually.

It was proving a lot harder to control the little pony outside the confines of the main corral, though. Pauly had become a fair horseman for so young a boy in the weeks he'd been riding every day, but there was a vast difference between jogging and loping around the confines of a limited enclosure, and guiding the animal across the uncertainties of the unfamiliar and shadow filled terrain. And Lightning, though generally well broke and tractable, was proving to have a mind of his own now that he did not have the corral rails around him. He did not like that open desert and he was not the least bit interested in where his young master thought he wanted to go. He wanted the recognizable surroundings of his stall and corral, and Pauly had to struggle to keep his seat as the pony tried to turn back toward the Chaparral, again and again. He fought to keep the little animal going in the direction he hoped was toward the Tucson road, but it was proving a losing battle. Once he'd gotten Lightning past the point where he was trying to turn back, the pony then started turning in the direction of the mountains. There was rumbling over those mountains, too, thunder, and an occasional bolt of lightning that lit up the distant sky. The desert rainy season, late in finally arriving seemed determined to stay for a while. If rain came that night, he could be in real trouble.

Pauly was starting to become a little afraid. He'd been trotting for some time, and not only had he not struck the road, yet, he also realized that he had no idea where he even was. His father's warning about the ease with which he might get lost in the desert at night came back to him, suddenly, and he was gripped by fear. He knew there were predators out there, Buck had told him. Wolves he'd heard howling at night. Snakes, Apache. And perhaps other monsters in those sinister shadows that his father didn't even know about. He pulled the pony's head around erratically and scanned the sky for something that looked like the Big Dipper, the pointer to the North Star. He wished he'd paid more attention when Buck had tried to point it out to him. He knew Tucson was north, if he could just get himself going in the right direction. He would even have turned back, gone back to the Chaparral and tried some other way to change his father's mind, if only he knew the way. But he was hopelessly disoriented, and he was also getting very tired. The ground had been rising steadily beneath his pony's feet, and the animal was fighting him, now, at every turn, still going, for the most part, wherever it wanted. Even the canteen full of water was proving a liability as it banged into his spine at every jogging step, forcing him to stop, finally, and take it off. Aware of the dangers of being lost in the desert without water, he would not throw it down, but carried it in his hand. Doing so impeded his grip on Lightning’s mane, but it seemed the lessor of evils.

Still, everything probably would have turned out all right, had it not been for the owl. The pony, as it happened, knew where it was going, even if Pauly didn't. It was going home; thwarted from returning to its stall on the High Chaparral, the little animal was returning to its former home, back on McInerney's ranch, from whence Sam Butler had brought it. And although the impending storm was spooking the boy, the pony was not particularly troubled by it. Had Pauly understood enough to give the animal its head, they would have landed safely, if not exactly where Pauly wanted, then at least someplace with grown-ups to take care of him and see him safe.

The winged predator came out of nowhere. It had been sitting on some saguaro, scanning the ground for prey. Some jackrabbit or ground squirrel that had the misfortune to make itself known, perhaps having come out to investigate the oddity of a boy and his pony passing by at that time of night. It would have been hard enough for Pauly to react well under the best of circumstances, and he was far from his best. He was exhausted and already panicked. He'd spent far more time on horseback than he had previously at one stretch, and his legs and seat were aching from the effort of keeping his balance on the pony's back. And his grip on the canteen strap meant he wasn't holding as tight to Lightning’s mane as he should have. So he could not have been less secure when the bird burst across the pony's nose on wings so silent they didn't even hear it until it was already upon them.

Pauly screamed, and so did the pony. It was to the boy's credit, and to that of his teachers, that he did not immediately lose his seat. Squeezing with both legs, he did managed to stay on as his mount bolted, but he had lost his hold on the reins and could neither steer, or slow the animal down. He dropped the canteen and grabbed mane in both hands. And then Lightning stumbled. It might have been a gopher hole, it might have been nothing more than depression in the ground, but something caught the pony's foreleg, stopping their forward progression with a sickening crack. The animal went to its knees, and Pauly went flying. He hit the ground, bounced and then tumbled forward a few feet down a short decline. He stopped rolling when his head hit hard on a rock pushed up against a small mesquite bush at the bottom of shallow gully.

For a moment everything went black. And then consciousness returned, and Pauly tried to take stock of his surroundings. His body felt awkward, but he wasn't in any pain, except for the throbbing where his head and the rock had connected. He couldn’t move, though, his body seemed like dead weight for some reason. Which was okay, he didn't really want to go anywhere, anyway, he wasn't that uncomfortable, lying under that bush. He was so tired. Tired of riding, tired of running. Tired of being lost and afraid. He would just sleep, now, and he'd try to find the Tucson road in the morning, when it was light, again, and he could see. He knew, now, he'd been foolish to try to manage at night. He just hoped Lightning would stay nearby. Or maybe he'd just ride back to the High Chaparral, and convince his father, somehow, that he had to go home to his mother if she wasn't going to come out to the ranch. He'd understand, now, Pauly was sure of it. If he just explained. That was all. He would rest first, that was the most important thing. Just rest. Sleep. He was so very, very tired.

And cold, he wished he had a blanket. That was his last thought, as consciousness left him, again, that and the recognition that the thunder was getting louder and if really did rain he was going to get awfully wet.

No one on the High Chaparral had spent a comfortable night, and no one was going to be spending an untroubled morning, but John knew he had do what he could to get life back to some semblance of normality. He had promised his brother to call off Jarvis, at least temporarily, and he still intended to do that, provided Buck didn't change his mind about backing off his claim. But such action was still days ahead of him, and such decisions could very well change once they all had a chance to settle down.

In the mean time, though, he had a herd of wild horses to catch. And there had been rain, more than likely, in the mountains the night before, the thunder and lightning had been fierce. If there was flooding, that horse heard might have scattered. It the flooding had been bad enough, some of them might have drown. It happened before. John was beginning to wish that the belated rainy season would hurry up and get done, now. Water could be a mixed blessing in the desert, too much almost as big a disaster as too little. He wanted to bring those mustangs in as soon as he could.

They were just finishing their morning coffee when Sam came through the door with the announcement that the men were all saddled and waiting for them.

John nodded. "Thank you, Sam. We'll be out in a minute."

"Yes, sir." Sam turned to go.

"John?" They all looked up as Victoria came to the top of the stairs, sounding frightened. "John, have you seen Pauly? He is not in his room…"

John looked at Buck, who turned white, but shook his head.

"I ain't seem him," said Buck. "I figgered he was still asleep. I din't want to trouble him this mornin'."

They turned to Sam. "I ain't seen him, neither," the foreman said, worry thick in his voice. "He hasn't been down to the bunkhouse this mornin'."

"Oh, John," Victoria whimpered. "Where could he be? He was so upset, last night…"

"Now I'm sure he's around the place somewhere. He's probably just hiding on us, trying to fool us or something. You know how boys are," Cannon tried to be reasonable. "You go check all the bedrooms, and look everywhere. He's so small he could be hiding anyplace. Buck and I will have a look around down here."

"I'll get the boys to look around outside," said Sam. "He'll turn up."

"John?"

"Just calm down and go look. He's got to be around here," Cannon said.

They looked everywhere, but the boy was nowhere to be found. The men had all regrouped in the kitchen when Sam came back in, followed by Manolito. There was no mistaking the concern on both men's faces.

"Boss, the pony's gone."

Manolito put a hand on Buck's shoulder as the men came together. "There are clear tracks leading out the back gate," he murmured.

John scowled. "Who was on guard duty last night?" he demanded.

"Reno and that new man, Sawyer. But they didn't see him, I already checked. There wasn't much of a moon last night and two men can't be lookin' everywhere, Mr. Cannon," Sam defended his men. "And they'd be watchin' the desert for anyone sneaking in, they might miss a small boy on a little pony sneaking out. Especially one a clever as that one."

Cannon blew out a breath. "Well, we don't have time to worry about that, now. He can't have gone far. Let's go find him and bring him home."

"John, what is it, did you find him?" It was Victoria. There was no use lying to her, John knew. He gestured to the others to go ahead and he would catch up with them.

"It looks like he snuck out on us," he told his wife. "Sam says the pony gone. Mano found tracks out the back gate. Don't worry. We'll find him quick enough. He can't have gotten far."

"Oh, John, all alone in the desert at night!" she cried. "I'm going with you."

"No," said John. "Victoria, somebody has to stay here. In case he comes back on his own." He put his hands on her arms and pulled her to him. "Don't worry, we'll find him." He kissed her forehead, then hurried off to join the others.

Manolito had been right. The trail was easy to follow, at least in the beginning. And it lead them generally toward the mountains. After a little while, though, their trail began to blur. It had rained, though not hard, where they were heading.

"Trail's gettin' harder to follow," Sam stated the obvious. "Rain's wiped out a lot of the tracks."

"Where in the world is he going?" John asked, bewildered.

"I think, perhaps, he may not know, himself, hombre," Manolito replied. "He would not have known the way to Tucson, if it is Maddie Turcott he seeks. He has only come that way a time or two, and that in a wagon during daylight."

"But why didn't that pony just circle around and come home, again," John persisted, knowing that such an animal, without a strong hand on the rein, would seek its own stable as a matter of course. It was Sam who figured it out.

"Maybe it did," he said. "McInerney's place is in this direction. Could be that's where that pony's headin'."

It made sense. After all, the little animal had spent most of its life on McInerney's ranch, and only a few short weeks on Chaparral.

"Good thinking, Sam," said John. "Send a couple of boys ahead to check, will you? We'll stay on the trail, here, in case he stopped somewhere." He did not say what he was really thinking, but if that pony had made it all the way to McInerney's, somebody would have sent a rider to them. The chance that the child had met some mishap along the way was greater than John Cannon wanted to admit.

Sam turned in the saddle to direct a couple of the men on to McInerney's, and that's when he saw the flash of white in the distance, farther west of them. He squinted, and the white focused itself into a black and white space in the desert.

"Mr. Cannon, look!" He pointed. They looked. Buck touched his spurs to his mount's flank, and John just managed to stop him from galloping away.

"Don't rush him, Buck. We don't want to spook him."

But the little animal wasn't going anywhere. As they approached they could see its right foreleg had a funny bend to it. Sam swung down from his saddle. No one else had the courage.

"Leg's broken," he confirmed, running a hand over the animal gently. "Musta taken a fall."

"Where's the boy?" Buck asked hollowly, dropping to the ground. The others could not see, from the height of their saddles, but Sam could.

"Aw, no…" he murmured as Buck came up beside him. He gestured vaguely at the small form lying at the bottom of the shallow gully, half concealed by a low bush. There was no movement.

Buck said nothing as he pushed passed the other man. Behind them, brother and nephew also dismounted. Blue made a move to follow, but John stopped him with a hand.

"Let him go, boy," he said softly. Then he slipped his arm around Blue's shoulder and drew him a little closer.

Pauly was lying on his stomach, his head pillowed on a rock. As Buck rolled him into his lap, he could see blood, and a livid swelling on the boy's temple. His clothing was wet and he was icy cold to the touch.

"Pauly, dear God, you cain't be dead, you cain't," he husked. "Open your eyes. Please. Jes for a minute. Please, God…"

The child moaned, against all hope. Buck felt his heart soar.

"Oh, thank you, good Lord…" he whispered. "He's alive!" he shouted. "He's still alive!"

Above the wash, the watchers let go of collective breaths. John hugged Blue to him.

"How bad is he?" he asked, offering up a silent prayer that the rain the previous evening had remained light, or the child would probably have drown in that ditch. Without waiting for an answer, turned to his men.

"Joe, ride back to Chaparral and bring a wagon. Have Victoria put plenty of pillows and blankets into it." Joe Butler almost dropped his horse onto its side, he reined the animal around so hard, and hit him with his spurs. "Pedro," continued John, "head for town and bring the doctor."

Down in the gully, Buck was completing his examination. The child was dead white, almost ghostly. His lips were blue. But he was breathing, though shallowly. "He's bad, John. He's awful bad." And even as he spoke, Pauly moaned, again. His eyelids fluttered, and even from where they stood above, John and the others could see the boy's arms moving slightly.

"Mama?"

"Hush, hush now," Buck admonished, leaning his face close to the child. "You jist be still now. We gittin' a wagon, and a doctor. I'm gonna take you home, now."

"Want Mama…"

"We'll git yer mama, jest as soon as we git back to Chaparral. Doan you fret, now, jist be still and doan worry. You jist be all right, tha's all I ask. You be all right an' I'll do innythin'… you kin go back to live wit' yer ma iffn tha's what you want, you kin… I promise you Pauly. Jis’ be aw-right…"

But he could feel the child slipping away.

"Pauly!"

Abruptly, the boy opened his eyes. "Hi, Pa," he said, smiling slightly.

"Hi there, Pauly," Buck choked.

Pauly sighed. The slowly, his smile faded and his body went limp and still in Buck's arms.

"No!!!" The cry tore from Buck like something ripped out by the roots from his heart. "Noooo…" He clutched the still form to his breast.

Above them, the others watched in horror.

"Pa?" whispered Blue.

"It's over," John said. "Dear God."

"He can't be dead, Pa."

"He is, son…"

"No…" Blue shook his head in helpless disbelief. "No."

Reaching behind Blue, Sam took the reins from both of them as John wrapped his other arm around his son and pulled him against his chest.

Down in the gully, Buck Cannon threw his head back and bellowed his agony at the sky.

"Noooooooo!!!"

III

" 'Hear, O Lord, when I cry with my voice: have mercy also upon me, and answer me. When Thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek. Hide not Thy face far from me; put not Thy servant away in anger: Thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation. When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up. Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies. Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me, and such as breathe out cruelty. I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Expect the Lord: do manfully, and let thy heart take courage, and wait thou for the Lord.' "

John Cannon closed the Bible in his hands and looked down at the wooden box lying in the grave at his feet. He had spent hours searching for the proper scripture; it had taken him some time, and much reading, to find something that said what he had suddenly, desperately, wanted to say over this child laid to rest below him. Hours while his wife and his brother had washed the small still form and dressed him in clean clothing, hours while Sam Butler had seen to it that a grave was dug and a coffin made. Hours while Madeline Turcott was fetched from town.

John knew that he or Buck should properly have been the ones to go and get her, and break the news. Blood or no, she was the only mother the boy had known, and John understood that she had loved him. But Buck would not be separated from his child, even in his death, and had insisted, to the point of violence, on helping with the laying out. John had been frankly afraid to leave him. Nor did he want to leave Victoria, who was nearly prostrate, herself. And he had little wish to face the woman. Manolito could have gone, John supposed, but Manolito’s only concern was for his sister. He would not willingly leave her side. And sending Blue was out of the question. In the end, it was Sam who volunteered to make the drive.

John stooped and picked up a handful of sandy soil. He still wasn’t entirely sure of the appropriateness of his choice to read from the Twenty-Seventh Psalm. He’d always found the Psalms a little whiny and self-pitying, himself, had never really liked them on those occasions when he’d been required to sit and listen. But the words "do manfully and let thy heart take courage" had leapt out at him from the page, saying everything there was to say about that little boy. He could read no further, once he had found those words.

He tossed the soil into the hole, heard it scatter along the pine wood. "No one ever did more manfully than you, Pauly. No one ever showed more courage. You’ve gone on to a better place, now, a place we can’t follow. Not yet. And we who are left behind should be glad you’ve found peace. But we’ll miss you, boy…" His voice broke a little and he took a deep breath.

Joe had returned to the gully with the wagon, and Victoria, in record time, but too late, of course, to do any more good than giving the body a dignified return to the High Chaparral. Telling his wife the truth had been one of the hardest things John Cannon had ever had to do, but she had dealt with it well, initially, her concerns all for Buck. She hadn't broken down until they'd gotten back to the ranch. The doctor Pedro had been sent to fetch arrived shortly thereafter. He'd left a sedative for Victoria, and one for Buck if he could be encouraged to take it. And then, despite the fact that the outcome was already decided, he'd examined the boy, anyway. The child's back had broken, Doc Plant said, probably upon impact with the ground. Had he lived, he would have been paralyzed from the waist down. Exactly what killed him, the doctor could not be sure, possibly the blow on the head, possibly exposure to the desert cold after the rainstorm. But Plant was fairly certain the child had not suffered in fear or pain. He probably had not even regained consciousness until Buck aroused him, just before he died.

John looked up at those around him. His men were standing clustered behind Sam and Joe Butler, and not a few, the Butlers included, were batting irritably at eyes that refused to stay dry. Victoria was crying softly in her brother’s arms. Blue stood an arm’s length away from them, looking stunned, and a few feet beyond him, opposite John at the grave, stood Buck. The man’s face was impassive with grief. John looked back at the Book in his hands, as if wondering how it had gotten there. He glanced around, helplessly, for someplace to set it down. Then a hand touched his, and Sam took it from him. Not looking at the other man, John stepped away, toward his brother.

"Buck…"

But Buck had something else he needed to attend to. "Es-cuse me a minute, John…" he said, moving away from him.

Across the grave, away from all the other mourners, Madeline Turcott stood alone. She wore a black dress and a hat with a thick black veil over her face, the same clothes she'd worn to Lizzie Dickerson's funeral six years earlier. She looked and felt so out of place there, standing in the company of these strangers who were burying the only thing in her life she’d ever loved. She felt no grief, she felt nothing, only a hollow deadness as she stared down at the box in that dirt hole. She’d felt nothing from the moment Sam Butler has stood in her doorway, hat in hand, and told her the news. It was too unreal, that Pauly might be in there, her mind could not accept it. She only knew that the child was gone, and that she would never see him again. Her last memory of him would always be of that little face looking back in fear as he had driven off with Buck Cannon, all those weeks before. It did not seem possible, somehow. Her only thought, as she had climbed out of Sam’s buckboard, back on the High Chaparral, was that they had already closed the coffin, and she was never going to have another chance to see him. She said as much to John Cannon as he had come up to greet her. They were the only words to any of them that she has spoken.

Standing in Adam Jarvis' office and finally telling Buck exactly what she thought had proved cathartic for Maddie. She left possessed of a steely determination to defeat the Cannons, somehow. Gone was the helplessness and the weeping resignation. She would not leave Tucson. The Cannons had enemies, men who had lost to them in land rights, or water, or been bested in cattle deals with which they could not compete. She knew these men existed; she would find them. They would help her. Or she would simply lie and wait. The boy was no longer an infant, they couldn't lock him away on that ranch forever. Eventually he would come to town. And that's when she would make her move. She would get her boy back, one way or the other.

And as for Buck Cannon, well, she'd find a way to make him pay for what he was doing. There were always men who could be hired to do any kind of job. She had gone back to her rooms so full of fury and resolve that even Blake McDermott had not questioned her about the meeting. Not right away, anyway.

She had not expected the boy to act on his own, no one had. And yet, when Sam finally told her, she found that she was not surprised. It was as if something outside her control or consideration had decided the final fate of things.

"Miss Turcott? Miss Maddie, ma’am?"

Maddie looked up to see Buck Cannon standing before her.

"Ma’am? Be there innythin’ I kin do for you?"

Maddie stared at him in disdain. "I think you’ve done enough. Don’t you?" She looked back down into the open grave. "Well, you got what you wanted, Buck Cannon. You’ve got him all to yerself, now, here on yer High Chaparral..."

"Maddie, you know this ain’t the way I wanted it…"

"Well, it’s the way you got it," she replied simply. There was no anger in her voice, no emotion at all. "I wish you joy of him."

Buck swallowed hard. "He loved you, ma’am. He loved you a awful lot. I though you’d want to know that."

"I knew it," Maddie replied. She took something out of her pocket and held it out to him. It was Lizzie’s Bible. "You might as well have this," she said. "It belonged to his ma. I got no more need of it."

Buck looked down at the book she handed him. "What will you do now, ma’am?" he asked hoarsely.

Maddie looked at him like he had just crawled out from under a rock. Then she snorted bitterly and turned away from him. "I’ll take that ride back into town, now, Mr. Cannon," she said, loud enough for the others to hear her. John looked startled.

"Well, yes, but I thought…" Even as he began to invite her into the house for some refreshment, he knew that the gesture was inappropriate, and that Madeline Turcott would only scorn him for it. Perhaps deservedly. "Yes, of course," he concluded lamely. He looked around, feeling suddenly helpless.

"I’ll see to it, Boss," Sam said, rescuing him.

John nodded. He looked for his brother, but Buck was no longer paying attention. He had walked to the edge of the grave, paused, and then tossed something into it. John could not see what. He walked away wordlessly toward the house. John watched after him, then he looked over to where his wife had separated herself from her brother. He went to her and took her in his arms. Then he reached over and pulled his son to him, too, and hugged the both of them with all his strength, as if holding them might protect them from some similar fate.

Behind them, Sam Butler looked at Madeline Turcott, standing there waiting to be driven back to town, and then at the still open grave. He looked at his brother, and the other men standing behind him.

"Well, boys, I guess that grave needs fillin’," he said, hoping there was more authority in his voice than he felt. Whether there was or not, Joe nodded.

"We’ll take care of it, Sam."

Sam looked back at Maddie. "Ma’am?"

Maddie looked up at him and nodded. Sam took her arm to guide her over the rough ground, and she did not resist him. As he settled her in the buckboard, again, she thought about Buck’s words. What would she do now? she wondered. It hardly seemed to matter, but she knew in a few days, a week, a month, it would. She still had to eat. Maybe go back to Kansas, she still had friends there. Though that prospect brought little joy. Or maybe head further west to California, as far west as one could go. Or maybe to Canada, as she'd previously considered, up to the gold fields. Of course, there was still Blake McDermott to deal with, but somehow any threat there seemed insignificant, now that the boy was gone. Blake might even prove a blessing in disguise, if he was still willing to take her on as a partner. Why not, she had nothing left to lose

The boy was gone. She shook her head helplessly, wondering how long it would take before that pain became real to her, and how badly it would hurt when it finally did.

"All set, ma’am?" Sam asked politely. She nodded to him, and he slapped the reins across the team. The buckboard jerked, and then headed out under the High Chaparral gate. Maddie Turcott didn’t look back.

Joe Butler watched as the rig left the Chaparral compound, and then he turned to watch his boss lead his family back toward the house. He blew out a breath, and looked at the others.

"Pedro, Reno, grab a couple o’ them shovels," he ordered. He grabbed one himself, and walked over to the grave. Looking in, he could see what it was Buck had tossed in there; it looked like a book lying on its binding between the coffin and the dirt wall of the grave. A Bible, he guessed; it was black, like a holy book, and it had fallen open to one of those family registry pages that Bibles often had. He couldn’t read the writing, though. For a moment he considered climbing down into the grave and retrieving it. Then he stood up straight, again. He bit his shovel into the mound of dirt, and let a shovel full fall on top of the coffin with a shattering thud.

It was five days before John even tried to put the ranch back to onto any kind of a schedule, again. He wished he could wait longer, but the High Chaparral was a working ranch, with stock to care for and obligations to fulfill. At least some of them had to put their feelings behind them and get back to business. The ranch wasn't going to wait.

Not Buck, though. Buck was unapproachable, had been since the funeral, spent almost all of his time out in the small cemetery at the edge of the compound, or out riding alone on the range. Though he, himself, believed that work would be the best curative for his brother's grief, John did not know how to talk to him. Buck had walled himself off, repelling every inquiry into his well being, every attempt to offer comfort. John was at a loss. He remembered that his own grief, at Anna Lee's death, had also refused to be comforted, but what Buck was going through seemed so much worse. Nor could he imagine how he might feel if something ever happened to Blue, when he tried to think about it, his mind refused to go there. For the first time in his life, John wished he had someone to talk to about that dangerous foreign country called emotion. It was to Sam Butler that he finally expressed his helplessness.

"I've buried a wife, Sam," he said, as the two men stood on the porch watching Buck standing by himself in the tiny cemetery. "A woman I loved more than life itself. I know that pain. But this…" he nodded toward his brother in the distance, still standing over the grave, "to lose his son, to bury his child…" He turned and looked at Blue, and shuddered visibility. He turned back in Buck's direction. "I can't even imagine what he's going through."

Sam paused before answering, in part because he wasn't quite sure what John Cannon wanted of him, and in part because he did, himself, understand Buck's pain. He had good reason. Reasons that still hurt, some.

"I've buried both, Mr. Cannon," he said mildly. "I've got some idea."

John frowned at him a moment, and then, remembering that Sam had buried both wife and daughter, nodded slowly. "Yes…" he sighed. Then he took a deep breath. "Are the men ready?"

"Yeah, we’re all set, Boss… Boss?"

John looked back at him.

"Why don’t you let me and the boys take care o’ roundin’ up them horses? We can handle it, there’s no need for you to come along…"

John started to protest, and then he saw the direction his foreman was looking and the concern etched on the other man's face. He followed the gaze back toward Buck, still standing alone at the graveside. And he knew the other was right, that there were more important places for him to be, right now. No matter how resistant he might be, he had to find a way through to his brother. "Thank you, Sam," he said quietly. Then he looked back. "Sam?"

"Yeah, Boss?"

"Take Blue with you, would you? He… needs the distraction."

Sam smiled faintly. "Sure, Mr. Cannon."

John had already looked passed the other man, his eyes settling on his son standing, idle and heartbroken, leaning against the porch pillar. "Look out for him, Sam," he said, his voice breaking a little.

Sam Butler didn’t answer right away. Then he reached over and put a hand on the other man’s shoulder, a show of affection he did not often demonstrate with John Cannon.

"It'll be all right, Boss. Just give it a little time," he said gently.

Cannon just nodded. "I know," he said.

Sam dropped his hand and John moved away from him, walking slowly toward the cemetery. When he reached Buck, the other man didn't even look up.

"Ain't you got some mustangs to round up?" he asked, still looking down at the mound of fresh earth already being covered with tough desert weeds.

"I think Sam can handle it," said John.

"I doan need no nursemaid…"

John smiled. "That's good. I don't aim to become one."

And in spite of himself, Buck smiled back. He glanced up at his brother, then away again.

"Buck…" John started, trying to find the words past his brother's pain. "Come on back to the house, now, would you? I know… I know how torn up inside you're feeling…"

But grief seemed to have finally worn the resistance out of Buck. He just looked defeated, now. "I just cain't he'p thinkin', John," he said. "How things cudda been different. If I'da done different than I did. I doan know if I kin ever forgive mysel', John, and that be the truth o' it."

John Cannon nodded. "I know. But Buck… we couldn't have known. None of us expected this…"

Buck did not answer.

"We can only just try to remember him, Buck," John continued, still trying. "The way he was. What he brought to us all…"

Buck looked up at him. "Yeah, John," he replied quietly. "An' he brung a lot, din't he."

"Yes, he did. He brought a lot of love, and he brought a lot of wisdom. He taught us how important we are to each other. How important family is. I don't know that any of us will ever be the same, again. And Buck, I regret, more deeply that I can ever tell you, the way things turned out. But I can't regret having had the chance to know him. He was a wonderful boy, your son."

Tears were coursing down Buck's cheeks, now. "Thank you, John. Thank you for that…"

John Cannon reached over, tentatively, and closed his hand around the back of his brother's neck, drawing him close. "Come on inside, now," he murmured. "Victoria will be worried, you spending so much time out here like this. She needs us, too…"

Buck nodded, leaning into his brother's side as he walked, as if he could not quite support himself. And John, leading him back toward the house, gladly took his weight.

From the porch where he was still standing, Sam Butler watched until his boss drew even with Buck, saw some words he could not hear pass between them. He saw John Cannon reach out for his brother, guide him toward the house. Sam nodded to himself, then walked over to Blue.

"Come on, son," he said, slapping the younger man lightly on the arm. "We got us some wild horses to catch." He walked away, not looking back to see if he was being followed.

For a moment, Blue did not move. He looked back to where his father and uncle were moving together from the edge of the compound. Then he pushed himself away from the pillar and followed Sam.

THE END