COUSIN CAROLINE

 

Arizona Territory

I

William Cannon stood outside the swinging doors of his Uncle Buck’s favorite saloon and glared down the dusty street. The mail stage from New Mexico was late; neither a particularly uncommon nor, in and of itself, sinister occurrence, but to the anxious young man, it was intolerable. "Billy Blue" to his friends and family, the twenty-one year son of one of Tucson’s leading cattle families ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair in irritation. But no matter how hard he stared, he could not make the delinquent stage appear. He turned and banged back into the dusk of the nearly deserted barroom. Three men watched him indolently from a table nearby.

"Still no sign of her," the boy groused, dropping into a fourth, empty chair.

The men smiled faintly. "Take it easy, Blue Boy, she’ll git here," drawled the eldest of them, who was the boy’s uncle.

"It shudda been here an hour ago. More’n that. What if somethin’ happened to them?"

Buck Cannon sighed. "Now, Blue Boy, you know that ‘noon stage’ really means, ‘sometime today’. Mebee. They’ll git here."

"But somethin’ cudda…" The boy stood up again, and looked toward the window.

Buck understood his nephew’s fears. Arizona Territory in the eighteen seventies was wild country. Stagecoaches did succumb to Indians or banditos, in spite of all attempts to protect the trade routes. Though, to be honest, the Apache had been quiet enough through the winter, and Buck was not aware of any gangs currently plaguing the post roads. Still…

He pulled at his beer, thoughtfully. Buck Cannon was a big man, physically, though not as big as his brother, Blue’s father, who was Big John Cannon, owner of one of the largest of the Territory’s cattle ranches, the High Chaparral. His face was neither handsome nor ugly, neither youthful nor old, but one of those craggy, ageless countenances some women called "romantic." Whatever that meant. The black garb he characteristically affected only added to that sense of mystery. It also added a certain aura of menace, a quality only partially dispelled by his easy going, loquacious and often mildly inebriated nature. There was an edge to Buck Cannon, and men did not always know how to take him. It tended to make them wary. He like it fine, that way.

But right now, his main concern was calming his older brother’s very agitated heir apparent. The kid was making him nervous. "Blue Boy. Sit down. I’m sure nothin’s happened to them. Now relax." The boy sat.

"Yes, Blue," a new voice ventured. "You look more like a man awaiting his sweetheart than merely his cousin, no?" There was laughter in the voice, but then, there was often laughter in the voice of Manolito Montoya, even when the words, and his mood, were deadly serious. Perhaps especially when the words and his mood were deadly serious. But today, he was laughing in earnest at his young friend’s distress.

"Another round, boys?" the hostess approached them, having noted the almost empty glasses. It was one of the new girls; Buck could not remember her name. Montoya snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her close. Manolito liked women in that cosmopolitan manner of a man who took none of them too seriously. He was a generalist about love; an Epicurean. The only thing that saved him from utter unscrupulousness was his deep sense of personal honor. That, and the fact that he tended to gravitate toward women who did not take him too seriously, either.

"Perhaps we should dispense with the drinks and find some other amusement, ‘eh muchacha?" he quipped. The woman laughed, and cuffed him lightly. "Keep dreamin’ Mano, I got better sense that that," she sallied. The others laughed. Even Blue smiled uncertainly. Buck nodded to the girl and gestured for her to go ahead and bring more beer. She winked at him and disengaged herself from Montoya. She liked the boys from the High Chaparral. They were politer than most, and quieter; better mannered. Generally no trouble more serious that a few high spirits on payday. And they were clean enough, most of them.

Young Montoya pushes a shock of jet-black hair out of his equally black eyes and watched her walk away with idle regret. He had the face of an aristocrat, from a long line of aristocratic Montoyas, the only son of one of the most powerful and influential families in Sonora, Mexico. It was his sister who had brought him into the company of these men, however; Victoria, who was married to Blue’s father, Big John. It had been an arranged marriage, Manolito's father, Don Sebastian’s, wily plan to seal an alliance between the Montoyas and the most promising of the gringo cattle families. But it had worked out well enough, despite. A rocky beginning, perhaps, with Victoria so young, and John so recently widowed, but a genuine affection had eventually grown between the two of them. Even Blue had come to care for the woman who had replaced his beloved mother.

And now there was the boy, fretting in anticipation at the impending arrival of the daughter of the older sister of that beloved mother. If that damn stage would ever show. Blue climbed to his feet again and walked over to the big plate glass window at the front of the saloon.

At the table, the last man smiled slightly and shot Buck a wry look. "Mano’s right," Sam Butler chuckled. "I’ve seen men less jumpy on their weddin’ days."

Butler was the ranch foreman on the High Chaparral. Somewhere on the long side of his middle thirties, he was a man with an quiet manner, and the rugged good looks of one who paid little attention to them; a self effacing individual, self-confident, but without flamboyance. But he was more than just a simple ranch hand - John Cannon could often be heard to refer to Sam Butler as the ‘left arm of the High Chaparral’. He had been with Cannon since the beginning, and he ran the Chaparral crew with unfailing efficiency. Soft spoken, slow to anger, Butler had earned a reputation as a good man to work under. Exacting but fair. Intolerant of troublemakers or slackers, but deeply appreciative of good men and their skills. A worthy reflection, and alter ego, of his boss, John Cannon, and in many ways as much a member of the family as he was an employee of the ranch. And now Sam watched his boss’s boy kindly. He was genuinely fond of Blue, and sometimes felt sorry for him. Big John could be a damned hard man to please, sometimes. Especially for an only son.

Buck nodded sagely at Butler’s assessment. "He is a sight, Sam. He surely be." He lifted his glass, but did not drink from it. "I never met the girl, myself, she’s John’s kin. Anna Lee’s sister’s child. But I know they was tight when they was little. Spent some years growin’ up together, during the War, as I recall. I remember John tellin’ me, onct, about the women and young’uns all livin' together for safety while the men were away. And Blue Boy’s been writin’ to her for years." He looked fondly at the boy hanging anxiously by the plate glass window. "’S been hard on him, Sam, bein’ an only child and all. No brothers or sisters to be with. Nobody his own age." And, he did not add, forced to carry the additional burden of being the focus of all of John Cannon’s hopes and expectations. Not, he thought, that Blue could really be considered a child, anymore. Half the hands on the Chaparral weren’t all that much older. And, at twenty-four, Caroline Madigan was already a grown woman. Still, it would be nice for the kid to have some companionship besides a bunch of old men and vaqueros.

At the window, Blue came alert. "She’s comin’!" But they had already heard the racket of the approaching stage.

The stage depot was across the street from the saloon. Blue darted out the door; the others followed more slowly. There was no point in rushing, Buck knew, as chairs scrapped against the plank floor and the men ambled out onto the wooden sidewalk. He flipped a coin to the bartender. It would take a few minutes, anyway, for the passengers to disembark, and they were right across the street, after all.

They found Blue waiting for them, suddenly all nerves. "I don’t see her, Uncle Buck…"

"Well, boy," the man drawled, "you might have better luck crossin’ the street. She’s probably standing there behind that stage coach wonderin’ were the sam-hill her escort be - no offense, Sam…" He nodded politely at the man. Butler quirked a smile. "Go on over, now. We’s right behind you."

As they spoke, a slender young woman stepped from behind the stagecoach and looked around. She was quite pretty, actually, with golden brown hair the color of clover honey, and a trim silhouette. Or at least she seemed pretty to tired eyes from the distance of fifty or so feet. The plain gray dress and hat she wore only enhanced her hair’s rich color; it also reminded Buck of the reason the girl was there. She was in mourning, her father, her only living parent since her mother had passed a few years back, had died in recent months, leaving her alone and without support. Buck sighed. And wondered again about his brother’s decision not to accompany them. She was John’s kin, after all, and grieving. And except for Blue Boy, there, all of these men sent to retrieve her were strangers. Couldn’t be much comfort to the young thing. It just didn’t seem right to Buck. On the other hand, he did remember that John had not liked the girl’s father, that might explain it.

Still, she had come to Tucson, ostensibly, to visit her late mother’s family on her way to San Francisco to look for employment. John should have been there. But in any case, Buck doubted California was in Caroline Madigan’s immediate future. No matter how Big John might feel about her antecedents, Buck knew his brother, and John Cannon was not likely to countenance a young woman heading off alone to a place like San Francisco - not if she had other options. He wouldn’t be surprised if the girl was there to stay until she found somebody to marry her or something. Not, he thought as he watched her, that that would be such a bad thing. Place could use a little brightening up.

"Is that her, Blue Boy?"

"I don’t know," the boy said, shyly, riveted to the sidewalk. Well, Buck guessed he should have expected that. Blue probably hadn’t seen his cousin since she was in pigtails. He supposed they’d just have to go over there and ask her. The girl turned, then, and spotted them from across the street. Hesitated, and then waved.

"Ay, Blue, is that the young lady?" queried Manolito with undisguised appreciation. "She is beautiful, no? Too bad you are her cousin…"

"And you are her uncle by marriage, Manolito, so mind yer manners," Buck said. The last thing he wanted was Montoya spooking the girl with his enthusiasm before he even got her back to the ranch.

"Buck. You shame me," the man protested.

"Good," said Buck. "Come on, Blue Boy, the lady’s waiting. And that do seem to be her."

Any doubt was dispelled the moment they set boots onto the opposite boardwalk. "Billy?" the girl asked. Blue nodded, and Caroline Madigan threw her arms around her cousin’s neck. Blue stumbled backwards against the assault, and then his arms went around her, and they were both laughing, swinging around in circles. People gaped, some smiling, some with disapproval. The men from the High Chaparral just grinned.

"I can’t believe it’s you," the girl said, holding Blue at arm's length for a better look. "You’ve changed so much!"

"So have you!" agreed Blue. She was as pretty close up as she had seemed from a distance; they could now see warm gray eyes to compliment the honey hair, and her complexion was clear and fair. Buck cleared his throat. Blue turned, and blushed, embarrassed. "Uh, Carrie, this is Uncle Buck…"

Buck held out his hand. "Miss Caroline, it’s my pleasure to meet you. I’m Buck Cannon, John’s brother."

She smiled. "Uncle Buck," she said, taking his hand in both of hers. "It’s so good to meet you finally; Blue’s told me so much about you." She stepped up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. Buck grinned foolishly, flustered by the gesture.

"This here bandito’s Manolito Montoya," he said, laughing. Carrie held out her hand, and Manolito brought it suavely to his lips.

"Señorita Madigan. Bienvenida a Tucson."

Carrie smiled. "Gracias, Señor. Mucho gusto."

Manolito grinned rakishly. "¿Habla español, Señorita? Muy bien…"

The girl shrugged. "Sí, un poco," she admitted with a laugh, gesturing with one hand. "pero no muy bien."

"No, no…" Manolito protested gallantly.

"But I hope to have an opportunity to improve my accent," she concluded in English. Montoya nodded happily, obviously taking that under advisement. Carrie looked back at her uncle, then looked toward Sam, waiting.

"And this here’s Sam Butler," Buck finished the introductions. "Sam’s ranch foreman on the High Chaparral."

Sam touched the brim of his hat respectfully. "Ma’am… My pleasure."

Carrie smiled and held out her hand to him. "Mr. Butler." He took it gingerly, and the girl smiled. "The pleasure is mine." Sam couldn’t help but notice that her eyes were really very pretty, in the afternoon sun.

"How come the stage was so late?" asked Blue.

"We had to stop to fix a wheel," Carrie told him. "I was afraid we’d never get here." She sighed, and Buck took a closer look at her. For all of her bright spirits, and her obvious pleasure at seeing them, she also looked dusty and travel worn. Even an uneventful trip by stage was a long and bone-jarring experience. The poor kid looked plum wore out, he thought. She didn’t exactly look like she was grieving too hard, it was true, but that was all right. But she did look like she could stand to freshen up, have herself a sarsaparilla or something, before they got back onto the road to the High Chaparral. He looked up at the sky. The sun was high, and hot. Not the best time of day to be traveling, anyway. And it would be light for a while into the evening, the spring days were already getting longer. He made a decision.

"Blue Boy, why don’t you and Mano take Miss Caroline over to the hotel for a little refreshment while Sam and me go git the wagon and pick up them supplies yer Pa was looking for?" Blue looked a little confused by the suggestion, but Manolito got it, and smiled, and Carrie looked grateful.

"You’re very perceptive, Uncle, thank you…" she sighed under her breath.

Manolito held out his arm, and Carrie took it. She reached her other hand for Blue. Buck watched until the trio had disappeared around the corner.

"Well, Samuel, shall we retire oursel’s back to the saloon fo’ an hour or so?"

Butler arched an eyebrow at him. "I thought the boss wanted us to pick up supplies," he said, knowing full well what Buck was up to and that there were no supplies to get. Buck grinned.

"Oh, he do, Sam, he do. John wants us to supply oursel’s with a few more beers a’fo’ we head back to the High Chaparral," he nodded down the street, "give that poor slip of a thing a chance to catch her breath a’fo we hit the road agin."

"I never knew you were such a soft touch, Buck," Sam chuckled, following him.

Buck snorted. "Yeah, well just don’t you be tellin’ nobody…"

At this, Sam laughed outright. "What about her things?" he asked.

"Ask Walter at the depot, I’m sure he’ll keep an eye on it, she only got the one trunk." Then he sighed. "Samuel, that’s one right pretty young woman," he said.

Butler nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, Buck," he agreed, after a moment, "that she is."

 

II

John Cannon took his watch out of his pocket and noted that the time was ten minutes later than it had been the last time he had looked at it. Which had been five minutes later than the time before that. If that stage had been even remotely on time, Buck should have been practically back by then. He scanned the horizon, but there was still no sign of the buckboard. So the question, now, was, how late actually were they? And was everything all right? Although stagecoach travel had become somewhat more dependable since the Southern Overland U. S. Mail had reopened the Butterfield line after the war, still, anything could happen, and frequently did. And although there had been talk for years of bringing in the railroad to Tucson, it has yet to become a reality. Land travel was still a precarious, and often dangerous, endeavor. John was not happy with this delay. He would feel a lot better once his men, and his niece, had arrived back on the ranch safely.

Or, more precisely, his discomfiture would take on a different complexion…

John Cannon knew he should have accompanied his brother to Tucson to retrieve his late sister-in-law’s child. If nothing else, common decency dictated it. Or, more correctly, he should have gone alone with perhaps Blue, and one or two men for safety, and left Buck and Manolito, who were strangers to the girl, back at the ranch to mind the store. Instead, he had sent every other viable representative to meet her. It was not right. His brother had not approved of it, and neither, frankly, had his wife. And at that moment, Cannon wished he had been able to screw up the courage to go and meet that stage; then he could have stopped fretting from a distance about the delay. He took out his watch, again. Another five minutes has passed.

Buck Cannon had assumed John’s negligence stemmed from the man’s dislike of his niece’s father, but John Cannon was not so shallow as all that. The truth was, his reluctance to meet that stage had nothing to do with his feelings about Brendan Madigan. True, John had loathed the man. Madigan had been a drunkard and a con man, a semi-professional gambler whose lavish habits, hair-brained schemes, and affinity for whiskey had kept his family on the near edge of poverty - and often on the run - for years. True, the girl, Carrie, had spent much of her youth living with her grandparents, but Anna Lee’s sister, Rose, had suffered, surely. And maybe more than poverty; John had his suspicions that Brendan Madigan had been a mean drunk. He had seen what he believed were tell tale signs in Rose Madigan’s bruised eyes, on more that one occasion when the families had met. But it was not something anyone would talk about, least of all Rose or Anna Lee, and John would not presume to interfere unless he was invited. Once the old man had died, Carrie had gone to live with her parents. John figured she probably hadn’t had an easy time of it, there. But it was not something he held against the girl. No, Cannon’s reluctance sprang from an entirely different source.

When Anna Lee Cannon was killed, during those first few months on the High Chaparral, John had thought he would never recover. He had loved his wife dearly in life, had loved her memory almost beyond reason. When she died, a piece of him died with her, shut him off from all emotional connection, even from his deep love for his only child. And though he had allowed himself to be bullied into a second marriage, at the time it had been purely for political reasons, the signature on a mutual defense pact. A marriage of convenience; no matter that the woman involved was determined not to be convenient, and had, with no discernible encouragement, decided to love him. No matter how much he had come to love Victoria Montoya Cannon after the fact. No matter to what extent she had succeeded in opening his heart, again. But John did not kid himself; he knew in some small part of his consciousness he was still haunted by Anna Lee’s memory. He only had to look into his son’s eyes to see her there. What’s more, he knew Victoria knew it, and had grown resigned to it, even comfortable with sharing him with that piece of his past. John had never grown comfortable. And now a piece of that past was coming to take up residence with him… temporarily, she said, a visit, though he knew the correct thing to do would be to offer her a permanent refuge until she found some man to marry. Victoria would certainly support that cause. But John Cannon was a little bit afraid of his ghosts.

He did not want to face her. He did not want to face her face. Anna Lee and her sister had been alike enough as young women to be mistaken for twins. And the last time he had seen her, Caroline had been shaping up to look just like her mother. John was afraid that the pretty young girl had grown into the twenty-four year old image of his dead wife. The idea terrified him. He did not know how to gage his own reaction, if it turned out to be so in fact. He also suspected Victoria suspected, which is why she had not taxed him too heavily with his neglect. Buck and Manolito would bring the girl home safely, and he would see her for the first time on his own land, in his own place, with his own wife beside him. And he would be all right. If they would only get there. He struggled not to look at his watch again.

III

Caroline Madigan definitely looked better after her brief refreshment, but Sam thought she still looked pretty worn out as she stood waiting on the sidewalk outside the hotel. He drove the buckboard up to her as Buck rode over behind him, leading the other horses. They had already loaded her trunk into the wagon, they were as ready to leave as they’d ever be. Manolito handed the girl up onto the wagon seat, and Sam could feel her trembling as he took her arm to help her in. She smiled gamely enough, though, as she thanked him. Poor kid. Pretty thing, too, Buck had sure been right about that. He smiled back at her warmly.

Watching the scene, Buck had an inspiration. It still bothered him that the girl was surrounded by strangers, however well meaning and happy to see her. "Sam, why don’t you let Blue Boy drive the wagon back to the High Chaparral. Give them cousins a chance to have some talk together, it’s been so long since they’ve seen each other, after all. You kin ride Blue’s horse home."

Sam gave Buck an amused look, but had to admit it probably wasn’t a bad idea. He agreed, affably enough; he’d rather ride than drive, anyway. He handed the reins over to Blue, then mounted the boy’s palomino. Sensing an unfamiliar rider, the gelding pinned his ears and danced a little, annoyed. Butler let him feel just enough of the bit to let him know he was paying attention. Blue pampered that horse, but Sam only liked the boy more for his affection for the animal. Though he wouldn't likely admit that out loud.

"Settle down, you," he murmured, closing his leg against the palomino's side. The gelding settled. As Blue clicked the team on, Sam rode up beside Buck.

"That’s the second time, today, you’ve done somethin’ decent, Buck," he jibed with friendly derision. "This is gettin’ to be a habit."

Buck glowered at him, but it wasn’t serious. In a moment, he was grinning, again.

As the party rode out of Tucson, Carrie was full of questions. The landscape around her was like none she’d ever seen; wide, low expanses of desert nestled among vaulting mountains. She seemed most captivated by the strange-looking cactus, pointing to the slender, reedy ocotillo - the coachwhip cactus with its plumbs of red blossoms on the tip of each branchless stalk; to the stunted cholla; the stately saguaro. The men found themselves almost competing to answer her.

"What are those holes for, in that cactus?" she asked, pointing to a particularly grand specimen of saguaro, with arms twisting both upward and back down toward the ground. It was riddled with small bore holes.

"A kind of bird lives inside the saguaro," said Blue.

"They’s called flickers…" Buck informed her.

"And what’s that, there? That sort of medium sized plant, it looks like a bunch of saucers piled edge to edge and stuck full of ten-penny nails."

It was about the best description Sam had ever heard. "That’s a prickly pear, ma’am," he said. "You’ll want to be extra careful of that. Those thorns can really hurt you…"

And after the cactus, the flowers seemed to fascinate her; it was spring and the desert was in full bloom. She pointed to the tufted heads of the barrel cactus, the brittlebush with its daisy-like yellow flowers covering the small green shrub. And the dense low carpets of color, white, blue and purple, indistinguishable as individual blossoms in the falling dusk and from the distance of the road.

"When we get to the High Chaparral, Señorita," Manolito promised, "I, personally, will bring you on a tour of all the flowers of the desert."

They pointed out the Santa Cruz river in the near distance, noticeable because it was the only place within view where trees grew of any appreciable size. As they topped a ridge, Carrie exclaimed at the panorama below her. She pointed down into the desert. "What’s that whitish building, there?"

Blue pulled up the horses and the men followed her gaze. "That’s the old mission," said Buck.

"You say that like there was only one…" Carrie laughed.

"It's called San Xavier del Bac," Sam told her, pronouncing it ‘ha - vee - yay’. "The church ain't used anymore, but there's still an Indian village down there."

"Apache?" Carrie asked, her eyes getting wide. Sam grinned.

"No ma'am, Papago," he said. "Tohono O'odham. They're peaceful, farmers mostly. They have fiestas down there, once in a while. A lot of folks from town go. The church is suppose to be real pretty inside…"

"It is most beautiful, Señorita," Manolito agreed, "filled with wonderfully colored frescos and holy statues. If you would like, I will take you there."

"I’d like that," Carrie replied. "Thank you…"

"And if you turn your eyes off in that direction, Miss Caroline," Buck said, leaning down to point, "you kin just see the beginnings of the High Chaparral range."

Carrie followed his directions, her eyes glowing with excitement. "How long before we get there?" she asked.

"Oh," Buck cautioned, "it be a ways yit. You just relax and enjoy the view."

As the afternoon drifted into early evening, though, and the sun began to set, the girl’s enthusiasm began to fade under the rigors of the trip. The sky painted purple behind the mountains, and she sighed, leaning against her cousin. "What a magnificent place…"

"You okay?" Blue asked, looking down at her. She nodded sleepily.

"Umm. Just tired." She closed her eyes, and the men riding around her smiled.

It was after dark when Ira Beane hallooed from the roof of the ranch house that riders were coming, and John Cannon looked out across the desert to see a dust cloud forming in the near distance. He watched as it grew more distinct. Although the dusk was obscuring, he thought he could see Blue Boy driving, although he was sure Sam had driven the wagon out. And it looked like Butler was riding Blue’s horse, with Buck and Manolito flanking the wagon on either side. There did not seem to be any signs of trouble, Cannon thought with some relief. Finally, he let his eyes drift to the one member of the party he dreaded meeting. The girl sat on the wagon bench beside her cousin, and she seemed to sway a little, leaning heavily against his shoulder as he drove. John felt a pang. The poor thing must be exhausted; it was a dreadful trip from St. Louis, nearly a month on the road. He had done it. He should have thought. He should have gone into Tucson himself, and taken Victoria with him, spent the night in town with the girl. Headed out in the morning after she had had a bath and a meal or two and a good night’s sleep in a proper bed after almost a month on the road. It was barbaric to take the poor child plunk out of a stage coach and drop her, dusty and tired, into a buckboard wagon to drive more bone-jarring hours home. John felt truly badly, but it was too late now for should-have-done's. Sam was through the gate, looking tired enough himself, and the wagon was right behind him.

John could still not clearly see the girl’s face.

Buck dismounted, and helped the girl out of the wagon. Ranch hands appeared out of nowhere to meet the new arrival, and Sam directed them to the disposal of horses and gear. Two men lifted the single trunk out of the wagon bed, and Sam, getting no direction from Cannon, told them to leave it by the front door of the ranch house, for now. Buck brought the girl forward.

She did not look like Anna Lee. John exhaled slowly; he had not realized he’d been holding his breath. But she did not look like her mother, and she did not look like his late wife. Oh, maybe a hint or two around the eyes, and in her smile, but there was too much of her father in her face for Carrie Madigan to raise any ghosts on the High Chaparral. She was just a pretty young woman. And a very tired one. John Cannon held out his hands.

"Caroline. Welcome to the High Chaparral."

Carrie took his hands, and squeezed them tightly. "Thank you, Uncle John," she said softly. And John, his fears abated, remembered how fond he had always been of the girl, when as a small child in her grandfather’s house she had climbed into his lap to beg stories, or had brought him flowers or colored stones to admire. How she had sometimes made him regret not having had a daughter. He pulled her toward him and folded her into his arms. When he let her go again, he could see everyone around him smiling; Victoria with obvious relief, but even Buck and Manolito, even the men looked as if they’d just started breathing, again. Had everyone been waiting for his reaction? Was he that transparent?

He felt the girl trembling under his hands, clearly near the end of her resources, although she was smiling bravely at Victoria.

"Carrie, this is Victoria, my wife," John introduced.

"Welcome to the High Chaparral," said Victoria. "It is a pleasure to have you with us, finally. Blue has talked of nothing else since we got your letter."

"And you’ve already met Buck and Mano. And Sam. This is Joe Butler, Sam’s brother…"

"Another Mr. Butler, how do you do…" Carrie said, smiling politely.

Sam clapped his brother on the back as the girl extended her hand. "Yeah, Joe here’s the pretty one," he quipped, grinning foolishly. "I’m the smart one…"

Joe made a face at him, but Carrie only laughed.

"That's an interesting division of labor, " she nodded sagely, drawing more laughter. "How very efficient of you…" She smiled up at Sam, then grasped Joe’s hand. "It’s a pleasure to meet you." Both men beamed.

"…and this is Reno, and Pedro…" and so the introductions went. Carrie made polite how-do-you-does, and then sighed and shook her head.

"I’ll never remember everyone."

"John," admonished Victoria gently, "perhaps the men could bring Carrie’s trunk up to the spare bedroom? The poor thing is about to fall down."

"Buck and I can do that, Victoria," offered Manolito gallantly, propelling the older man toward the house. "You are right, Señorita Caroline must be very tired."

John stayed in the yard only long enough to give Sam what orders he needed for morning. It was too long, though. By the time he got back inside, his wife informed him that Carrie had gone up to her room to freshen up a bit, had promptly collapsed onto the bed, and was now sleeping soundly. Victoria did not expect to see her again until morning. Or possibly afternoon. She looked rather pleased about it.

"I’m glad she’s here, John," she said softly, taking her husband’s arm. Cannon placed his hand over hers and looked down into her wise and loving eyes.

"So am I," he agreed, meaning it. He could not even remember, now, what he had been so worried about.

 

Runaway

I

 For the first few days after her arrival, most of the members of the Cannon ranch saw little of Caroline Madigan. The trip had taken its toll, and except for Victoria, who developed an immediate attachment to the girl, and Blue, who already had one and could not quite believe his cousin was really there with him, Carrie had little contact with the rest of the ranch. She saw her uncles, and Manolito, at breakfast, but the men were all busy with other duties and the girl was left pretty much to herself with only Victoria for company. The company was pleasant, and she did need the rest. Nonetheless, Carrie Madigan was an active young woman, and a curious one. It took her until almost the end of the first week to attempt it, but she finally worked up the courage to cajole from her uncle a horse, and an escort for the day.

She cornered him as he was coming in for dinner.

"Caroline," John smiled pleasantly, offering her his arm. She slipped her fingers around his elbow. "How are you enjoying ranch life so far?"

"Well, Uncle, since you ask," she teased him. "I have a boon to ask of you."

John rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling. "Oh, you do?"

"Yes, sir. I was wondering if I might possibly ask you for the loan of a horse. And…" she continued as he frowned, "of my cousin for the day, tomorrow. I haven’t had an opportunity to see very much of the High Chaparral. And I’d like to."

Put that way, he could hardly refuse her. "Oh, I think that could be arranged… I assume you do know how to ride?"

Carrie nodded more seriously. "Grandpop taught me."

John nodded at that. Carrie’s grandfather had taught Anna Lee to ride, too. A wonderful old man, delightful storyteller, and a gifted horseman. John often missed his counsel. And his company.

"I’ll talk to Sam," he said, trusting his foreman to find her something to ride that was steady and well broke. Skilled or not, a strange horse in strange country could easily spell disaster for her, and the girl had not yet been with them a week, the last thing he wanted was for her to break her neck out there. He left it to Victoria to find her something appropriate to wear.

"I don’t know, Victoria," Carrie sighed the next day, as she fingered the fine fabric of the riding habit she had brought with her from St. Louis. "I’m afraid that ten minutes out there in the brush will have this in ribbons…"

Victoria held up her hand. "I have an idea, un momento…" She left, only to return moments later with a garment over her arm. It was in two pieces, a golden brown skirt, split, made of some heavy twill material, with a short, bolero style jacket and wide brimmed hat to match it. The skirt was plain and unadorned, but the jacket was richly trimmed with bits of silver and braid piping. It was lovely.

"Oh, I couldn’t. Victoria, it’s beautiful," Carrie said. The other woman smiled.

"I insist," she replied. "I don’t wear it that often. And yes, it is beautiful, but it is practical, too, no? It is made for riding where it is rough. There are boots, too, that I think will fit you. Please. Besides," she cocked a grin at the girl. "I don’t think we have a side saddle here on the High Chaparral…"

Carrie gaped a moment, turned to look at her own riding clothes, and then burst out laughing. In truth, the costume she had bought in St. Louis was for city riding, and it did require a side saddle. "I see what you mean," she agreed. "That would be a problem." She picked up the split skirt. "Thank you…"

Victoria smiled as she watched the girl, and then frowned sadly at the ornate riding habit she had brought with her. She let her eyes roam over the rest of Carrie’s belongings. The girl had brought little with her and not much of it was appropriate; her wardrobe was at once scant and much too fine for ranch life. She had brought only one other dress besides the mourning gray, and both it and the riding clothes were sophisticated outfits made of rich material. City dresses, when what she really needed were skirts and blouses, or dresses of a much more simple and durable design. But it was the paucity of personal articles that mostly troubled Victoria; what the girl had brought with her barely filled her single trunk.

Her thoughts were interrupted as Carrie stepped from behind the screen.

"Oh, you look lovely, querida," Victoria said with a smile, as the girl fastened the little jacket. "You will certainly turn heads in that. Here. Let me help you put your hair up for riding…"

Sam had chosen a small red paint gelding for her. She found him tacking the animal down by the corral, with Blue, and Manolito, who had invited himself along, already saddled up and waiting. "Ay, Señorita, you are a welcome sight for weary eyes, like a still pool of water and a fine tall shade tree in the desert, no?" said Manolito, grinning.

"Aw, cut it out, Mano," Blue admonished, uncomfortable with his friend’s effluence.

Carrie smiled up at both of them. "And you, sir, are full of the blarney," she answered him, pertly. "Are you sure you’re not really an Irishman in disguise?" Manolito laughed. Carrie turned to Sam, then, and ran a hand lightly over the gelding’s neck. "What’s his name?" she asked.

Sam fastened the bridle’s throat latch, not looking at her. "His name’s Spot, ma’am."

Carrie bubbled laughter. "Well, that’s appropriate," she replied. "I supposed I should have guessed that. Is there anything I should know about him?"

Sam did look at her, this time, surprised by the question. "No, ma’am," he assured her, smiling. "He’s a good, steady animal, knows his job." She nodded, and took the reins from him. He moved to her side in order to help her mount.

"Señorita Carrie. Allow me to assist you." Manolito scrambled to get down off his horse, and almost knocked over Blue, who was also hurrying to dismount.

"I’ll help her, Mano, don’t bother to get off…"

Carrie glanced at Sam conspiratorially from up under her eyelashes and shrugged her shoulders. "Thank you, boys, but I really think I can manage," she said as she swung herself lightly up into the saddle.

Sam swallowed a smile and concentrated on adjusting Carrie’s stirrup leathers. Then he nodded up to her, and stepped back. She shifted her weight slightly in the saddle, and lifted her rein hand. The pony’s ears pricked forward in anticipation, and he dropped his nose. Sam pursed his lips with satisfaction. The paint had just told him that the girl rode well enough handle most anything they were likely to encounter on a leisurely pleasure jaunt No matter what those two young fools got up to, showing off. She’d be all right, and the boss would be happy. And now, his immediate task complete, he had more serious work to attend to. There was stock that needed to be moved higher up the range to fresh water, now that winter had passed from the foot hills. He touched the brim of his hat to all of them, and wished them a pleasant ride.

"Ain’t those Victoria’s clothes?" Blue asked, ingenuously, as they trotted out of the ranch yard. Manolito winced and waved him away from the question, but Carrie only shrugged.

"Yes, she was kind enough to lend them to me. I brought a riding habit from St. Louis, but it’s really not suitable for rough country riding. And it needs a sidesaddle, which Victoria pointed out you don’t have." She smiled. "But this is pretty, isn’t it? Much nicer than anything I could have gotten in Missouri."

"You are a picture of loveliness, Señorita," Manolito agreed.

"I always thought side saddle was kind of a silly way to ride, anyway," Blue said.

Manolito answered before Carrie could. "For a lady to ride side saddle is very elegant, Blue. Very gracious and refined."

"That’s true," Carrie agreed. "It is nice to ride side saddle, sometimes. One feels very… graceful. I used to jump side saddle back on my grandfather’s place, but I think I’d feel a little silly out here in the desert…" She looked at Manolito, and saw him frowning. "Oh, I meant no insult. I didn’t mean to suggest that you’re not refined out here. I just meant…" she struggled unhappily and Manolito came to her rescue.

"Not at all, Señorita Carrie. Please do not trouble yourself, your meaning is clear, and you are quite right. The country here is too rough for fine fabric. But on my father’s hacienda, the ladies often ride sidesaddle. There is a time and a place, no?"

Carrie smiled at him gratefully. But Blue wasn’t paying attention to the niceties; he still chewing on her earlier words. "You can’t jump a horse side saddle," he protested, "you’d kill yourself."

Carrie laughed. "I most certainly can. And did. Often." Blue still looked doubtful and Carrie turned to wink at Manolito. "I guess I’m just going to have to prove it to him, one of these days."

And Manolito laughed along with her.

Once through the main gate, the sightseers turned southwest, toward the mountains. The Chaparral land stretched across a goodly span of them.

"How big is the ranch, anyway?" Carrie asked.

"Even from the top of those hills, Señorita," said Manolito, pointing toward the line of foothills in the near distance, "you would not be able to see the border of it."

"Is the house in the center, then?"

Manolito shook his head. "The ranch house is toward the north, nearer to Tucson. But the Chaparral range runs very nearly to Mexico."

"That large…" Carrie shook her head, amazed. She was a little overwhelmed, actually. In sheer land mass, the High Chaparral was larger than any three or four towns she had recently lived in. Vastly larger than her grandfather’s farm.

"This ranch supports many hundreds of head of cattle and horses, Señorita," Manolito told her. He was enjoying himself immensely, playing the authority for her. "And the hacienda of my father, Don Sebastian, in Mexico is many times larger still.

Carrie turned to Blue. "I had no idea," she said. "I don’t know what I was thinking when I read your letters, but I guess I was imagining something more like Grandpop’s farm."

"The High Chaparral is nothin’ like that," Blue said, remembering that lush green country. "Just miles and miles of dirt and rocks and cactus. There ain’t nothin’ much out here…"

"Es verdad," agreed Manolito. "A working cattle ranch cannot compare with the lights of the city."

To his surprise, Carrie’s expression clouded. "That might not be such a bad thing, Manolito," she said blandly, her voice now cold and flat. Manolito thought he heard pain in it, and he frowned thoughtfully.

Blue gazed out around him. He, also, realized that the stark landscape could not possibly compare favorably to the lush green farms and bustling cities that his cousin was used to. He was not embarrassed for it, exactly, but for the first time he tried to look at it through a stranger’s eyes, and found it somewhat wanting. "It ain’t much to look at…" he concluded.

But to his surprise, his cousin disagreed. "It’s magnificent, Blue," she insisted. "Vast and majestic…" then she laughed again, "…and I want to see all of it!"

Both men hooted good-naturedly at her enthusiasm. "Señorita, I’m not sure even I have seen all of the High Chaparral," said Manolito, "and we most certainly could not do so in a single day. You must choose our objective…"

"Yeah, Carrie. What do you want to see first?"

She thought about it. "Where are all the cattle?"

"Well, Sam and the boys are moving part of the herd…" said Blue, although he did not sound too fascinated by that prospect. It sounded much too much like what he did every other day.

"If the Señorita would be interested…" agreed Manolito, sounding about as enthused as Blue. But Carrie’s face brightened.

"Could we go watch them?"

The two men exchanged pained looks. "We would not want to get in the way… However, if the Señorita desires…" sighed Manolito.

"Watch… right," grumbled Blue. "We’ll be lucky if Sam don’t put us to work…"

But Carrie only grinned happily. "How far away do you think they are?"

"An hour, maybe two," said Blue, scanning the horizon. "Depends on where we find ‘em. Sam ain't going too far out today. They’re movin’ ‘em up to water in those foothills."

Carrie looked at him oddly. "Do you always measure distances in the number of hours it will take to get someplace?" she asked. Blue looked bewildered at the question. "You said hours rather than miles."

"I never really thought about it," he replied, scowling in confusion. Manolito came to his rescue.

"Miles often have little meaning, here, Señorita Carrie," he said. "It is only time that es importante. A mile may be crossed in a few moments, or in a day, depending upon the condition of the land…" he grinned rakishly, suddenly, "or upon the company."

Carrie made a face at him. "In that case, we should use the time wisely. I seem to recall that somebody promised me a tour of all the flowers in the desert…"

Manolito laughed. Standing in his stirrups, he bowed lavishly. "I am yours to command, Señorita."

"So, which way?"

Blue gestured generally to the southwest, and Carrie put heels to the little pinto. The gelding leapt forward into a lope, leaving the two men trotting, astonished, behind. They exchanged a startled look, then Manolito shrugged and gestured helplessly. With a joint shake of the head, they cantered after her.

The ground rose steadily beneath them, and it was not long before they were forced to draw rein down to a trot, and then to a walk as the terrain became increasingly rocky. After a few minutes along the steepening trail, Manolito brought his horse to a stop and dismounted.

"Mano, whatcha doin’? demanded Blue. But the other man merely squatted by the side of the trail for a moment, then lifted something out of the brambles. He walked over to Carrie’s horse and handed her a single, yellow-orange blossom.

"I have promised you flowers, Señorita," he said gallantly, "and I am a man who always keeps his promises to a beautiful woman."

Carrie gave him a smile that said she found that claim a little suspect, but she took the bloom from him graciously. It was lovely, a simple flower, cup shaped with several wide petals.

"It’s beautiful. Thank you. What is it?"

"It is called la dormidera, the desert poppy," said Manolito. "In Mexico, we also call it la copa de oro, the cup of gold. A most charming blossom, no?" He reached up a finger and touched the petals as she held it. "This one I found among the thorns of other plants less pleasing to look at, yet here it survives in all its delicacy." He almost sounded wistful, and Carrie looked down at him, thoughtfully.

"Perhaps it chooses its friends well," she suggested. "To surround oneself with the thorns of others, so that one may survive without growing thorns. It is… a kind of protection against the harsh world around it."

Manolito met her eyes. "It is a wise blossom, perhaps, that does so…"

"Perhaps. And perhaps stronger than one might immediately suspect." Carrie smiled faintly and tucked the stem through a buttonhole on her riding jacket. "Thank you, Manolito. It is really very pretty."

"It suits you," the man said.

Beside them, Blue fidgeted uncomfortably. The scene disturbed him on some level he did not quite understand, although he recognized something at play beyond Manolito’s usual flirtation. Sensing his distress, Carrie held out her hand to him, and he clasped it gratefully, reclaiming his own, although he was not entirely conscious that he was doing so.

"Come," said Manolito simply. "I hear the herd."

He mounted and followed behind the cousins. He, too, had been affected by the exchange, although not for reasons that seemed most obvious. Caroline Madigan was a lovely young woman, and he was hardly immune to it, but there was something deeper, too, that he sensed in the girl, a vulnerability beyond mere feminine frailty. Some experience that belied her youth. He could not put his finger on it, exactly, but it drew him with a compelling fascination.

They continued up the ridge trail until it crested, and they could see the herd below. Blue had regained his good humor and was determined to make his contribution to the horticultural lesson. He pointed down into a dense thicket of scrub oak. "See them bushes? That’s chaparral."

Carrie was delighted. "You mean, there really is such a thing? I thought… well, I don’t know what I thought, really. Only that it was just a name."

The land dropped off much more gradually on that side of the rise, sweeping gently down to the desert. The herd stretched out below them, a vast expanse of slowly moving heads and backs. Carrie stared open-mouthed.

"So many…"

"A few hundred head," said Manolito. "It is not the entire herd, there."

"Look," said Blue. "There’s Sam. And it looks like maybe Joe with him." He pointed to a pair of figures on horseback sitting slightly above the herd.

"Can we go down there?" Carrie asked, excited.

"We don’t want to get in their way," replied Blue, still more concerned about the possibility of being put to work than about any inconvenience they might cause the hands. But Carrie was not deterred.

"Come on," she shouted. "I’ll race you!" Before either man could protest, she kicked the pinto into a gallop.

"¡Caramba!" Manolito shouted, gaping after her.

"She’s crazy!" shouted Blue.

But Manolito was getting into the spirit of it. "Come on, Blue! It is our manhood at stake here…" and he too kicked his horse into a gallop. Blue had no choice but to follow, or be left entirely behind. He slapped his heels into his horse’s flank as his cousin disappeared around a bend in the draw below them.

It was an exhilarating gallop; Carrie had forgotten how long it had been since she had had a good swift ride. The little horse was everything Sam Butler had promised, smart and responsive to her leg, needing only the barest touch of the neck rein to guide him. He leapt a shallow ditch and she laughed out loud. The feel of the wind on her face was euphoric, it had been that long since she had known such freedom. She wished it never had to end. But the slope gradually leveled out onto the floor of the desert, and Carrie knew she should not get too far ahead of her escort. It would be too easy to get lost in the unfamiliar monotony, and the heat of the sun on her back warned her of the dangers there. She drew the gelding down to a trot and looked around. She realized that she had come further than she had intended, and was now somewhat below the herd. She couldn’t see the boys anywhere, but something nearby smelled horrible - musky and putrid, like something dead. It seemed to be coming from deeper in the draw, down by a stand of low bushes. She frowned, puzzled and looked over her shoulder to find Blue or Manolito. One of them might recognize source of the awful odor.

She was unprepared, then, for the explosion of grunting and commotion that burst out from under a mesquite bush, right under her pony’s heels. The gelding screamed and leapt straight into the air. It was only good reflexes that kept Carrie in the saddle. And at that, she lost both stirrups. She grabbed the saddle horn, catching only a glimpse of the largish animal that scuttled between her horse’s hooves before the gelding bolted. It looked a little like a pig, she thought, but she did not have much time to consider it. She had a runaway to get back under control.

Clinging hard with her legs, Carrie managed to pick up one stirrup before the gelding charged into the dense underbrush. Sharp thorns slashed at her, scraping through the thick fabric of her skirt, scratching her legs and stabbing the little horse unmercifully. She did not try to stop his charge - more important, now, was getting out of that thicket before the frenzied animal went totally crazy. Taking the reins in two hands, she scanned her surroundings for a way out.

On the ridge above, Sam Butler sat with his brother, watching the men ahead of them driving calves up through the wash. He was about to send Joe back to the ranch, when Carrie and the runaway horse crashed through his line of vision, and thundered off to his right. For a moment, he was too shocked to move. Then he reacted.

"Goddamn it," he cursed under his breath. "Joe, keep a eye on things here, I’ll be back…" He wheeled his mount, and pounded down the slope after her.

"Better you than me," Joe Butler commented to himself.

Sam reined his horse through the wash; he could see Carrie and the pinto up ahead, but he was too far away to catch them, and the terrain was too rough for him to effectively cut them off. He tried to spot Blue or Manolito, swearing to himself that he’d have both their heads for allowing this to happen. Then, ahead of him, the girl appeared to gain control of her horse. The paint was still crow hopping madly, but now out of the punishing underbrush, he had stopped his head long charge. After a moment, he settled down and started trotting. Carrie leaned forward in the saddle, but she didn’t appear to be hurt. In fact, she seemed to be watching the gelding’s right foreleg, while she worked the bit gently with both hands.

"All right?" Sam called, reining in. Carrie nodded, bringing the horse to a stop.

"I think he’s okay," she told me. "He’s cut, but I don’t think it’s anything serious."

Sam looked startled. "I meant you, Miss Carrie," he said.

"I’m okay," she assured him, with a nervous laugh. "A little shaken. I’m more worried about him," she patted the gelding. "I haven’t even been here a week, yet. Just what I need is to lame one of my uncle’s horses…"

Sam frowned, but watched her trot the animal out. "He looks all right…" he agreed, not quite sure how to respond to the girl’s nonchalance at her own danger. "Are you sure you’re not hurt? That was some pretty fancy ridin’…" he added, meaning it. He’d seen experienced hands who wouldn’t have been able to stop a runaway like that.

"Thank you…" Carrie replied, blushing prettily, and beaming at him. Sam returned the smiled uncertainly, still not quite sure what to make of it all. Or of her.

"Carrie!" It was Blue, with Manolito right behind him, galloping down around the corner toward them. "You okay?"

"I’m fine," she called to them. "What in the world was that?" she asked as they drew to a halt beside her. "I don’t know what spooked him - but it looked kind of like a wild pig! Oh, and it stunk!"

"Ay, that would have been a javelina," said Manolito helpfully.

"What’s a javelina?" She looked from Blue to Manolito.

"It’s kind of like a wild pig," said Sam. Carrie turned to him, and found him smiling. She burst out laughing.

"Are you sure you’re not hurt, Señorita?" Manolito asked with genuine concern.

Carrie leaned over and patted the gelding. "We both appear to have survived intact."

Sam turned to glare at boys. "And where were you two?"

They had the decency to look embarrassed but Carrie came to their rescue. "I’m afraid that was my fault, Mr. Butler," she admitted. "I dared them to a gallop…" Sam looked at her a moment, and suddenly decided that he really didn’t want to know. No one looked the worse for the experience, in any case. The crisis was averted. He shook his head.

"I think maybe we’ve had enough sightseeing for one day," Carrie suggested, taking her cue. She looked at Manolito and Blue Boy. "Gentlemen? Perhaps now might be a good time to head back?"

"That sounds like a good idea," reiterated Sam. He glowered at the other two men, still annoyed. "Do you two think you can get her home in one piece, now? Or should I send Joe with you?" He shook his head again, not waiting for their answer. He touched the brim of his hat. "Ma’am? If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the herd."

"Of course," she answered. "And thank you," she called as he reined his horse away. "What a nice man."

"A prince, our Sam," Manolito agreed sourly, still stung by the foreman’s rebuke.

"Sam’s terrific," Blue agreed, heartily, missing the point. He looked at his cousin worriedly. "You really okay, Carrie?"

Carrie reached over and squeezed his hand. "I’m fine, honest. But I think I’m ready to go home, now…"

"Blue Boy!" Sam called from the ridge above them. "Get Vaquero to give you some ointment to put on that pinto’s cuts. Don’t forget, now."

"I won’t, Sam!" Blue waved and shouted back. Butler nodded and rode out of sight.

Manolito sighed with resignation. "Shall we?" and they turned their horses' heads back toward the ranch.

II

"John?" Victoria Cannon was surprised to find her husband still in the house. It was approaching midday, and she knew that Sam and the men had left hours earlier to take the herd to fresh grazing. Still, she was not about to question the boon of a little time alone with him. She had something she wanted to discuss. "Are you very busy, my husband?"

Cannon looked up from the ledger in front of him. Not only was he very busy, he was also very late. He should have left an hour ago if he was going to meet Buck out on the south range. He was not joining the herd, that day. Two line shacks had suffered damage in windstorms over the winter, and one of the wells needed repairs. He wanted to do a preliminary assessment of the work before talking to Sam about it.

"Well, actually, Victoria, I am," he said. "Was there something you needed?"

Victoria pursed her lips, then continued boldly. "I would like to speak to you about something, John… about your niece."

John Cannon groaned inwardly. He had never been very good at reading the message behind a woman’s expression, and he could not read what he was seeing in Victoria’s troubled eyes. But the last thing he wanted was to get dragged into the middle of some difference of opinion over feminine jurisdiction. Christ, the girl had hardly been there a week, how could she have upset the status quo already. On the other hand, it was deal with it now, or deal with it later, when whatever the problem was may have escalated into something more aggravating. If he heard his wife out, maybe he could put the issue to bed in a hurry.

"What’s she done?"

But Victoria surprised him. "Oh, she has done nothing, John. It is just something that I wish to discuss with you." He probably should have put her off, then, but now he was curious. He gestured her to a chair. "John…" she began cautiously, "has Caroline told you when she plans to depart for San Francisco?"

"Victoria, the girl just got here," John protested. "I can’t just turn around, now, and ask her when she plans to leave…"

"But that is exactly my point, my husband," said Victoria. John waited, and when she did not immediately go on, he gestured a little impatiently. "I… John, please ask her to stay. She is so young…" Victoria continued in a rush. "Little more than a child, really, although, yes, I realize she is a grown woman. But it is wrong for her to go alone to live in a strange city. She is a part of your family, your son’s own cousin. Her place is here with us."

The request was unexpected. Or rather, the request itself was not so much unexpected as was the timing. Victoria was nothing if not kind hearted and he had frankly anticipated these sentiments from his wife. But the girl had only been there a short time and he, himself, had been wrestling with if and how he should broach the subject with her. And here was Victoria taking the bull by the horns with him. He supposed he should have been prepared - Victoria took family very seriously. And it was good to know their thinking on the subject had been moving along the same track.

"Well," he admitted, "I have been giving the idea some thought, to be truthful. Although I wasn’t really sure how you’d feel about it."

"Then you agree that it is not right for her to go alone to San Francisco?"

He did agree, in fact. If there was one thing John Cannon was settled on, and that was that no lone young woman who was kin to him was going to take off for California by herself, not without him at least offering her the option of a home.

"Yes I do," he said. "And I think you’re right. If she wants it, she’s welcome to a home here with us."

"John, tell her so, please, you must ask her, yourself, to stay…" Victoria insisted. Cannon frowned. His wife’s vehemence surprised him, and then he realized that this was more than just family feeling; Victoria was honestly afraid for the girl. "She is proud, John," Victoria went on, more gently. "And she has so little, a few dresses, a few small things packed in a single trunk. No money, no friends to help her…"

"She has us," John reminded her. "Of course she will stay here, if she chooses." He frowned at her, still bemused. "You’re really worried about this, aren’t you? You’re worried about her…"

Victoria looked away a moment. When she looked back, there were tears in her eyes. "I have always had my family, John," she said softly. "My father, to protect me. And then you, my husband. I have always felt… safe…"

John felt at once flattered and distressed. "And Caroline has not always had that benefit, has she…" He leaned back in his chair, thinking. When he started to speak again, it seemed to Victoria that he was talking more to himself than to her. "When the old man died after the end of the War, Anna Lee wanted to bring Carrie to live with us. My late wife…" he glanced at Victoria, then, "was somewhat unfortunate in her relatives. Well, you’ve met her brother…" He scowled, then, remembering Dan Brooks’ "visit" to the High Chaparral. Anna Lee’s stepbrother had turned up, after more than fifteen years’ absence, a wounded, and wanted, man, who then proceeded to repay their hospitality by absconding with the Chaparral payroll. He had threatened Blue’s life, in his attempt to escape with the money, and John had been forced to shoot him.

"Her older sister, Rose, was a good woman," he went on to explain, "but she married badly. Brendan Madigan was nothing but a fast talking con man. A gambler. I imagine you’re right, I imagine the girl probably does have nothing. I doubt Brendan Madigan ever had more than two nickels to rub together for more than two months running. And if he ever did have money, he spent it before it got a chance to get used to the inside of his pocket. There was no question about how I felt about him. And it was no life for a child, especially for a girl on the brink of womanhood. Anna Lee was right, of course. On the move so frequently - on the run, more often than not, although Rose would never admit it. But I, uh…" he looked away again, and Victoria could see shame in his expression. "I didn’t encourage it. In fact, I said no. We were trying to put our own lives back together, after the War…" He looked back at his wife, again. "But I’ve always felt a little guilty about it. I’ve… suspected that it hasn’t been much of a life for her. And I’ve felt somewhat responsible…"

"Then perhaps you now have an opportunity to remedy that situation?" Victoria asked gently.

Cannon tented an eyebrow at her, and then he smiled. "I think you’re right," he agreed affably.

"And you will speak to her? You will offer this home to her?" she smiled sadly, then. "I do not think, John, that she will simply assume she is welcome to stay."

Neither did Cannon, and the realization made him feel very badly, indeed. "We’ll ask her together. Tonight at dinner, if you’d like."

Victoria beamed. "Thank you, my husband."

With that , John stood up. "And now, if you will excuse me, wife, I’ve got to go meet Buck, and I’m already late in starting. His probably given up, by now, and headed into Tucson for the saloon."

But he said the words brightly, as if some burden had been suddenly lifted from him, and Victoria smiled.

Vaquero took the pinto from Carrie as soon as the sightseers returned to the ranch, and Carrie went on up to the house for some doctoring of her own. Blue had already told Victoria about the runaway, and the other woman was waiting for her.

"You are hurt, querida," Victoria fussed, bustling her up to the bedroom. And by now Carrie was perfectly willing to be fussed over. The rush of the adventure had long since left her system, and she was beginning to feel the aches and bruises her exploit had left. The damaged was not extensive, however, a few nasty abrasions, a cactus thorn or two. Carrie let Victoria tend to her hurts, and she did agree to lie down for a little while, but an hour or two later, she was up again, feeling rested, and convinced that what her bruises most needed was walking out. She pulled on her jacket, smiling a moment at the poppy blossom still stuck through the button hole, and went off in search of her cousin.

She found him down at the corral, deep in conversation with Sam and Joe and Reno, the hands having recently returned from the range, themselves. She was too far away to hear the subject matter, but she could see that it was animated, with much pointing and gesturing, although the corral itself was empty, except for the saddle horses tied up under the open shelter at one side. Smiling, Carrie started down toward them.

She took her time, in part because she was still stiff from her bruising, and in part because she liked looking around. The ranch was still very strange to her, and she wanted to experience every aspect, even if it was just admiring the windmill, or the placement of the water towers. When asked, later, she could not say what had made her look down. Perhaps some vague movement, some sixth sense; but look down she did, just in time to see a rock by her boot tips suddenly stretch its legs and start walking.

She did not scream, quite. But she must have made some sound loud enough to be heard the few dozen feet away, because Reno punched Sam in the arm and pointed, and Blue Boy spun around. They all saw her standing there, with her hands pressed over her mouth, gaping down in horror. They ran for the corral gate as one man.

For the second time that day, it was Sam who got to her first. She groped a hand for him, never taking her eyes off the ground. Her fingers clamped tightly around his forearm.

"What is that?" she asked weakly.

"It’s just a tarantula, Miss Carrie," replied Sam, calmly, trying to draw her away from the thing. "It won’t hurt you." She turned and looked at him.

"It’s a spider," she said. It sounded like an accusation.

"Yes, ma’am," Sam agreed. Carrie made a face, and let go of his arm. She looked back at the monster arachnid.

"I’ve seen lap dogs smaller than that."

Sam laughed, in spite of himself. The girl was all right. "Reno, kill that thing!" he ordered. "Get it outta here."

"Wait," Carrie said. She leaned a little closer, eyeing the spider warily. It had stopped moving by then, and just sat there heedlessly in the dirt. "Is it poisonous?"

Sam shrugged. "It’s got a mean bite. It could make you pretty sick," he told her. "But they don’t move very fast."

Carrie nodded and stepped backward, again. She gestured to Reno. "Okay, you can kill it, now."

It was probably the accumulative effects of the day’s excitement, but about that moment her fright left her, and her knees started to buckle. Sam caught her and guided her to a place to sit down.

"Somebody get her some water…"

"What’s all the commotion?"

They turned to see Big John Cannon coming up from behind them, with Buck at his heels. It was Blue who answered.

"Carrie just saw a tarantula, Pa," he said. "It kinda spooked her…"

John gave his niece a look somewhere between sympathy and exasperation. "Well, young lady, it seems you’ve had a busy day. Victoria just told me you had a runaway earlier this afternoon and that Sam, here, had to rescue you."

Carrie, somewhat recovered, glanced up at the foreman out of the corner of her eye and smiled. "Twice, now, it seems," she agreed. Sam tried not to look as pleased as he suddenly felt. Reno, returned from his tasks as executioner, handed Carrie a tin dipper of water. "Thank you," she said.

"Caroline," John began again, sternly, not having missed the flippancy. "This is dangerous country…"

"I’m beginning to realize that, Uncle John," the girl cut him off, looking pained. "The vegetation around here is as hostile as the Indians are supposed to be, this afternoon my horse spooked and bolted at some kind of wild pig, the smell alone of which is terrifying, and I just saw a spider the size of your fist. Dangerous country, I guess…"

John sighed. "You be more careful," he admonished, determined to get at least that much of a warning in.

"I will, Uncle, but tell me…" she cocked her head at him, dimpling.”Is there anything else around here I should know about? I wouldn’t want to get taken by surprise or anything…" She made a face, grinned and the men finally broke up laughing. Buck even pretended to think about it.

"Well, they’s scorpions," he offered, helpfully. "I would definitely be on the look out for scorpions, if I was you.’

"Scorpions," repeated Carrie. "Yes, Victoria’s already warned me about scorpions."

"And rattlesnakes," added Blue.

"Oh, I know about rattlesnakes," Carrie said, a touch sarcastically. "We had our share of those in St. Louis…"

"And cougars, if you was to wander up them mountains," continued Buck. "Coyotes, though they won’t really bother you none. Lessee.. we got gila monsters, coral snakes… And of course, they’s the A-pach…"

"Buck, you’ll scare her to death…" John interjected. But they were all laughing, now.

"Well, at least I’ll know what to look out for," Carrie said with a grin.

"I bet you never seed so many kinds o’ varmints, did you, sweetheart," Buck asked her, almost proudly. At this, Carrie’s expression clouded a little, and her gray eyes got a little bit hard.

"That’s true, Uncle Buck," she said. "The predators in St. Louis weren’t always so… obvious."

John frowned at her words, suspecting something she wasn’t saying behind them. He looked at her thoughtfully. But she was looking down at her jacket. She pulled the wilted poppy from her button hole, and handed it up to Buck.

"On the other hand, Uncle, not everything in the wilderness is hostile…" she said. Buck took the flower from her, looking bemused.

"If you’re quite recovered," said John, changing the subject, "Victoria has announced dinner. Blue, why don’t you take your cousin on up to the house." Blue offered his arm, and John watched the two of them retreat.

"Minx," he muttered under his breath. Then he chuckled. Once the two were completely out of earshot, he turned back to his foreman. "Sam, thank you for looking out for her, today," he sighed.

Butler just shrugged. "It was no problem, Mr. Cannon," he said. "Truth is, by the time I got to her, she already had that runaway pretty much under control. That was some first class ridin’."

Cannon just scowled. "Yes, I’m sure it was," he grumped, but Sam could see the man’s pride in the girl, despite it. He smiled to himself.

Joe Butler moved closer to his brother as they watched the Cannon party walk back to the house. "Looks like Big John’s got his hands full," he observed archly. Sam sniggered. "She’s got a lot of spunk," Joe continued. "Gotta give her that…"

Sam pursed his lips. "Yeah. She’s got some story there, though," he mused, remembering her final words. "Something… I’d bet on it."

Joe snorted and clasped his brother on the shoulder. "Don’t we all," he said. They had a few stories, themselves, from younger, wilder, and not always entirely law-abiding days; most of the men they knew did. It was not something people talked about, but most of the denizens of the frontier had some history that did not bear too close a scrutiny. And anyway, what could that young woman possibly have in her past to get concerned about. She was hardly old enough to have one. "Come on, brother, let’s get some grub…" and they walked together back to the bunk house.

III

…First there was darkness, and then a tunnel, long like a hallway glowing red in the distance. She did not want to walk down it, struggled to resist. But the walls and floors began to undulate around her, like a bowel, pushing her forward. Down toward the redness, toward the source. And then the room came into focus, red carpets and wall paper, heavy damask draperies pulled shut against the night. Shadows flickered, thrown by the soft glow of kerosene lamps hung from walls and suspended over circular deal tables. Clinking: glasses, counters, coins. And a hand about the waist, familiar, fond and frightening, trusted and feared. The father-stranger, comfort so needed, peril so deep that pain had flavor. Smile, do not incite the riot. And another, laughing. A greater danger, but dormant, for the moment unprovoked. A hand draws her down into a chair, whiff of sweat, rot. Sweetness. Draws her down to sit, down into darkness, another room, bed-chair-candle and a door locked and beyond it a scratching. A hand touches cold like cobwebs. A voice, brittle, laughs…

Carrie moaned and shifted in her bed, half awake, half still in the grip of dream. Sweating, although the desert night had turned cool. Unfamiliar sounds floating in through the open window, perhaps, had her edgy, troubling her rest. Unlocking the nightmare held at bay for so long. Drowsing back down, she rolled over against her pillow…

…sighing. Sleep came again in bright colors: reds and yellows; hard glinting lights that were felt and tasted as well as seen. A room filled with figures masked from sight, clambering for attention with silent voices. Sleep came with a tilting like the slick deck of a storm tossed ship, footing uncertain, escape impossible. Unable to stand without clinging to supports that dissolve upon touch; arms holding tight, but not to rescue. Unable to get away. A room without doors or windows, a cave, a lidded basket. A cell. Sleep brought hard laughter with many teeth in it, and cold screams. Red fountains. Hands that petted and then struck. Threats murmured and shouted, hot breath on sore skin. Rank air; grasping. Red bright as an explosion, as if fear had color.

Sleep came struggling to escape from sleep, passed hand to hand and a great weight pressed down on the chest like a stone, like breathing under water. And then floating, floating, running away, running through water, river, ocean, running against a current too strong to overcome. Running without moving and behind her he was gaining… With hot, wet breath on the back of her neck and a hand in her hair yanking backward…

Carrie jerked awake. She sat bolt upright, her heart pounding, mouth dry and pasty. Her entire body shook. The moon, at three quarters full, shown light through her window revealing tangled bedclothes half fallen onto the floor, and pillows askew. She hugged herself, shuddering, the feeling of hot breath on her face still vivid. The nightmare would not let her go.

Sighing and shaking herself, she got up and pulled her dressing gown around her. There was no sense staying were she was, she would not go back to sleep, again, not with that dream still with her. Moving quietly, so as not to wake the family, she slipped down the stairs and out the front door. The night was quiet enough. She could hear the man on the roof - maybe Reno, or Ira, she thought, taking possession of the night by naming her guardian. And in the near distance a coyote complained at the moon. But she did not begrudge the coyote, the night was his territory after all; in a way he was a comfortingly reality. She dared not stray from the porch; once sighted by whoever was on the roof, someone would surely be sent out to collect her. Someone with well meaning questions she did not want to answer. But she was too restless to sit. She paced the length of the house, then stopped at the half wall and leaned against it, staring out at the moonlit desert.

Maybe the dream had come because she has started to feel safe, there. Safe despite the natural dangers that surrounded her, dangers she respected, but did not fear. Her uncle had asked her to stay; he and Victoria at dinner, together. They had made is seem like something they truly wished for, not just an obligation. Blue had been elated. Manolito… Even Uncle Buck. Carrie could not remember the last time she had felt so relieved. So… welcome. A family who wanted her; not one to love and fear, who would pet and then so unexpected strike out. And those other, even more terrible dangers, so far behind her, now. She was finally safe. So she had allowed herself to believe. And that had brought the dream, it must have. It had rarely bothered her when there was truly something for which to be afraid. But maybe it had come because she had finally started to let her guard down, to laugh and mean it, instead of using laughter as a shield. To assume that she was finally in a place were she would not be harmed. Maybe the dream had come to remind her that there was no such thing as safety. Tears wells and spilled down her cheeks and she let them. The night didn’t care, and there was no one else around to require her pride.

"You are up late, chiquita."

Carrie spun around to see Manolito standing behind her.

"I’m sorry, forgive me," he said gently. "I didn’t mean to startle you…" he moved closer, smiling, and then he saw her face reflected in the moonlight, and frowned. "You’re crying…"

"I’m all right, Mano," Carrie said. "I just had a bad dream."

Manolito tsked. "Tell me…" he said, coming up beside her.

Carrie wiped her cheeks. "It’s nothing. I think I just had a little too much excitement today."

"Yes," Manolito agreed. "It is difficult, sometimes, getting used to a strange new place. And the moon can raise ghosts, no? And of course, there is Señor Coyote…"

Carrie laughed. "Oh, I don’t mind Señor Coyote," she said. "It’s kind of nice to know he’s out there. Something to blame for all those weird noises I can’t identify."

Manolito looked down at her kindly. "You are truly afraid?" he asked. "You must not be. Pedro is on the roof, watching, and Joe is at the gate. Nothing can reach you, here. And Manolo is with you. You are perfectly safe."

Carrie smiled at him. "Thank you."

Manolito leaned down on the wall beside her, and gazed out at the desert.

"I am pleased that my brother-in-law has asked you to stay, and that you have agreed," he said. "You are most welcome here."

Carrie blushed. "Thank you, Mano. It’s… a relief, among other things. And it makes me very happy, as well, to be here. “She chuckled ruefully, "Despite my current state of nerves."

Manolito rested his hand lightly in the middle of her back. "It is beautiful, no? This land. Beautiful and wild. But you are right to be wary of the dangers. They are plentiful. The beauty of this place can be deceiving; it is also treacherous. This wilderness is not very…" he struggled for the word, "…civilized? Only the strong survive here for long." He turned and looked at her. "And I think you are strong, Señorita."

Carrie looked thoughtful. "I can’t help thinking," she said, turning back toward the desert night. "At least the dangers, here, are understandable. They belong here, like a part of the natural landscape. One can become familiar with them, know what to expect. Deal with them." She sighed. "Civilization isn’t always so civilized, either."

Manolito turned to her, leaning back against the half wall. He eyed her curiously. "Es verdad," he agreed. He looked wistful for a moment. "You know, Carrie, I sometimes think that is one of the reasons I remain here, on the High Chaparral as a simple vaquero, rather than taking my place at my father’s side. The dangers here are more… honest? When I look over my shoulder, I can expect to see an enemy. In my father’s house, it may as often be a friend." Then he frowned at her. "But surely, you have nothing to fear from political intrigue?"

"No, not political intrigue," Carrie agreed. Manolito opened his mouth to ask her what, then, but she cut him off gently. "Mano, thank you for staying up with me. I feel better, now. I think I can go back to sleep."

He hesitated, and then nodded politely. "Buenas noches, then." He caught her hand and brought it to his lips. "Sleep well."

"Gracias, Manolito, buenas noches."

He watched her go back into the house.  

 

 City Life, Country Life

I

The trip into Tucson was John’s idea. They needed to pick up supplies, anyway, and since the morning Victoria had brought it to his attention, he had begun to notice that his niece did, if fact, have very little in the way of personal possessions. Aside from the gray dress she had worn on her arrival, she appeared to own only a dark blue one of some fabric and design wholly unsuitable for the life they led on the High Chaparral. He did recognize a few of Victoria’s things on her, occasionally, but Carrie was more slightly built than his wife in, well, some significant dimensions, and she was not quite so tall; the clothes rather hung on her. She looked like a ragamuffin, if the truth be known. And John Cannon decided that is simply would not do.

Besides, he was destined to make a tidy profit from his recent negotiations with the army for remounts. He was feeling flush.

"If you ladies would care to get decked out in your finery," he told them at breakfast, "I’d like to propose a trip into town, today."

"John?" Victoria was surprised. Not that the news wasn’t welcome, a trip into Tucson was always a treat. But her husband was not given to spur-of-the-moment decisions.

"Well," said Big John, suddenly a little embarrassed. "There are some things I need to see about… and I thought this would be a good opportunity for Carrie, here, to see the town. She couldn’t have seen much of it, the day she arrived. And to pick up a few odds and ends that she might be needing… Buck, I want you to get a couple of the boys together, too, and follow us in the wagon. There’s a load of feed needs pickin’ up."

"Will do, Big John," Buck, never one to turn down a trip into town for any reason, agreed.

"And I, too, has some business to attend to, in town, Señor Cannon," Manolito informed him. "Perhaps I will accompany you, also."

John nodded thoughtfully. He smiled over at his son. "Well, boy, looks like that leaves you in charge for the day." Blue didn’t know whether to look pleased with the sudden responsibility, or disappointed at being left behind.

Carrie started to speak, but Victoria stopped her with a hand on the wrist.

"How thoughtful, my husband," she beamed at him. "We can be ready within the hour…"

"I’d like to see that," John laughed at her.

Carrie stopped Victoria on the stairs. "I can’t pay for new clothes, Victoria, I haven’t got a penny to my name…"

"You are a member of this family, now," Victoria was firm. "Your Uncle John will take care of everything or he would not have suggested it."

"And never question a man when he offers to take you shopping, right?"

"Exactamente," Victoria laughed.

John had the rig waiting when they came back down. He handed the women in as Buck drove up with the wagon, Joe Butler beside him. Pedro followed on his horse.

John glanced at Sam, who was standing by to see them off, then turned to his son. "All right, Blue, the ranch is yours while we’re gone. Now, you’re in charge," he said, trying to hide a smile at the boy’s eagerness, "and the men all have their orders, so everything should be fine. But if you have any questions or problems, don’t you hesitate to ask Sam, here, for his opinion. And you listen to him. I do. That’s what a good foreman is for."

"Right, Pa," said Blue. "You don't have to worry."

"Sam," Cannon said quietly.

The elder Butler smiled faintly. "We’ll be fine, Boss."

Cannon grinned. He climbed into the rig beside Victoria.

"Buck? You boys ready?"

"Let's go, Big John," his brother cried.

John drew the rig to a halt before the general store in Tucson.

"Buck, you boys go on ahead over to the 'Feed and Grain'," he called to his brother as he set the brake. "And no side trips to the saloon until you’ve got that feed loaded, you hear me?"

"You got it, Big John," Buck replied, happy enough that a side trip to the saloon had not been completely ruled out. John climbed out of the rig to help the women down.

"Mr. Cannon!"

John winced. Then he composed himself and turned to greet his least favorite person in town. Maybe in the Territory. Maybe in the whole world. And knowing John’s sentiments, Buck stopped see what might happen as local hotelier and businessman, Jacob Hannah, boomed up beside his brother.

"Mr. Hannah," John sighed. The man before him was of medium height and rather stocky dimensions, dressed like an Eastern dandy with his florid face crowned by a cocky, if somewhat ridiculous looking, derby hat. Jacob Hannah was nothing if not immensely impressed with himself. He had been in Tucson a little more than six months, the "visible" partner in a trio of investors who had purchased the local hotel and a few other small enterprises in town. The other partners kept themselves happily elsewhere someplace back East. John Cannon couldn't stand him. "If you look up the word ‘philistine’ in the dictionary," he once told Buck, "there’ll be a picture of Jacob Hannah beside it…" Buck didn’t really understand what was so objectionable about the man. Sure he was a dandy, but town folk often were. And he was rich. Of course, Buck rarely had the pleasure of dealing with him. Hannah had no particular use for Buck Cannon. His older brother, however, represented what passed for landed gentry in those parts, and that was something that Jacob Hannah considered particularly useful, indeed. He tried to make himself especially ingratiating whenever the opportunity arose. John considered it a good day in town if he managed to avoid him.

But this was not going to be one of those days.

"In town for little shopping with the ladies?" Hannah beamed. "How nice to see you, on such a beautiful morning!" He looked pointedly at Victoria, standing on the sidewalk, and then at Carrie as John helped her disembark.

Cannon sighed. "Yes, we are," he said. "You, uh, remember my wife, Victoria?"

"Madam? My pleasure…"

"And this is my niece, Miss Caroline Madigan."

Hannah took Carrie’s outstretched hand and bowed deeply over it. "Mademoiselle," he said, pronouncing every syllable long. Carrie glanced at her uncle, and hid a smile.

"Enchanté, monsieur," she said, retrieving her hand.

"Here for a visit to our lovely little city, Miss Madigan?" Hannah asked. "Or might we be so blessed as to consider you a new, permanent resident?" He glanced at John, as much to gage his reaction to the question as out of any kind of politeness.

"Yes, I’m staying with my Aunt and Uncle out on the High Chaparral," Carrie said, not exactly answering the question.

"Of course, of course," Hannah replied, taking her arm. "So, what do you think of our little town, may I ask? Marvelous, isn’t it? And your presence here only graces it further." Carrie smiled blandly. "Are you here alone, Miss Madigan?" He glanced at John, again, who was glowering.

"Well, I’m with my family," Carrie said. Hannah frowned in obvious frustration, and Carrie stopped teasing him. "But yes, I have come to Arizona on my own."

"How wonderful…" he leaned toward her intimately. "Perhaps you will allow me to show you around the city. Quite a gem, I assure you. And our hotel dining room boasts the finest cuisine in the area."

Manolito had had about enough. He stepped up to the pair, "I believe your uncle is waiting, Caroline?" He offered an elbow, and shot Hannah an evil look. "Con permiso…" Carrie took his arm.

"Yes, Hannah, we do have some shopping to attend to," John took his cue.

"By all means," Hannah replied smoothly. "But you must allow me to stand you to lunch at my hotel when you are finished. No, I insist. Miss Madigan is in new in town, and we must make a good impression."

John wondered who "we" were. Actually, the invitation put him in a bit of a quandary. He had planned on lunching at the hotel. They had to eat somewhere, after all, and the only other choice was the saloon, which was no choice at all with the women with him. But he had not banked on Jacob Hannah’s company. Personally, he would rather starve, but he doubted Victoria would agree with him.

"Until then, Miss Madigan? Madam?" Hannah added as something of an afterthought. "Mr. Cannon…" He ignored Manolito entirely. Big John heaved a sigh of relief as the man moved away.

Carrie looked up at Manolito. "What in the world was that…" He grinned and shrugged. She disengaged her arm and went over to join her uncle. Manolito walked over to Buck, who was trying desperately not to laugh.

Victoria leaned toward Carrie conspiratorially. "I think Señor Hannah likes you."

Carrie smiled and nodded. "He’s very charming," she agreed. And then she sighed. "I don’t like charm. I find it disingenuous." She turned to go inside the store. John did a double take, and then he burst out laughing.

Leaning against the wagon, Manolito just shook his head. "Ay, yi yi," he complained laughingly to the other men. "Poor Mr. Hannah. How does one win with such a woman, hey, Buck? It is hopeless, amigo." But it was apparent that he did not really think so. In fact, he looked rather pleased. Buck just shook his head. Beside him, Joe looked from Buck to Manolito, but otherwise kept his thoughts on the subject to himself. Manolito straightened himself up off the wagon, and followed the others into the store. Buck slapped the reins against the team.

"Let’s go git that grain loaded," he said to Joe and Pedro. "All this talk about fine dinin’s made me thirsty."

The general store in Tucson was between shipments of merchandise from California, and had little in the way of women’s ready made garments. But between them, Victoria and Carrie were able to find enough to fill out the girl’s inadequate wardrobe. Manolito made himself useful by carrying packages and offering a general commentary on the selections; apparently he had accompanied them for that sole purpose. He had, after all, he told his sister, made a study of women’s apparel. Once their purchases were secure, they rejoined John at the buckboard where he was supervising the stowing of the other supplies needed by the ranch.

"So, niece, you were successful?" he asked, eyeing the pile of brown paper bundles in Manolito’s arms.

"I think I won’t embarrass you, Uncle," Carrie said with a smile. John, feeling particularly magnanimous, put his arm around her shoulders.

"Never that," he said. His good mood was spoiled a moment later.

"Mr. Cannon! Finished our shopping, are we?" Jacob Hannah bore down on them, grinning widely. John scowled. The man must have been lying in wait for them.

"Yes, I believe we are," he replied.

Hannah turned to Carrie. "And our humble mercantile was able to meet mademoiselle’s needs?"

"I found everything I needed, yes, thank you."

"John!" It was Buck, clumping down the sidewalk, Joe and Pedro on his heels. "We all loaded up, here." Cannon nodded to him.

"Come, Mr. Cannon," said Hannah. "I must insist that you and your family join me at the hotel for your afternoon repast. Please… as my guests." He smiled ingratiatingly at Carrie.

John groaned inwardly. But there didn’t seem to be much for it, they had to eat somewhere before attempting the long trek home.

"Thank you, that’s very kind of you," he replied, resigned. What the hell, it was a free meal.

"John, I think I’ll just join the boys, here, at the saloon…" Buck interjected quickly. While he had nothing, personally, against Jacob Hannah, he had no interest in wasting a perfectly good afternoon in Tucson in some hoity-toity hotel dining room. Not when there was a perfectly good saloon available. Hannah also looked pleased with the prospect of not having the company of Buck Cannon at luncheon. But Carrie wasn’t having it. She shot Hannah an evil look, and slipped her arm through Buck’s.

"But you have to join us, Uncle, I insist," she said. "I’ll be heartbroken if my other favorite uncle isn’t there." Hannah glowered, and Buck looked distressed, but neither man knew quite how to refuse her.

"Don’t you worry about Pedro and me, Buck," said Joe, helpfully, swallowing a smile at his friend’s discomfort. "We can entertain ourselves."

Buck just looked pained. "Oh, I weren't 'zactly worried about you boys…"

"Then it’s settled," Carrie said happily.

John had to admit that Hannah had done a nice job with the old hotel since taking it over six months earlier. There was new carpeting and new wallpaper in the dining room, and all the chandeliers had been taken down and cleaned. Recently, too, by the look of them; keeping crystal clean in that dusty desert was no easy task. There were a few men, strangers mostly, sitting at the bar, but the dining room itself was empty. Apparently the new decor had not done much to increase the dinner trade.

In one corner of the dining room was a small baby grand piano, and a man playing at it.

"That piano has a nice sound," said Carrie.

"Do you play, Carrie?" asked Victoria as John helped her to a seat.

"A little. Not very well," the girl admitted.

"That’s my own instrument," said Hannah. "Had it shipped all the way from San Francisco. Cost me a pretty penny, too, let me tell you. I plan to put it in the parlor of my own place, once I move out of this hotel." He reached for a chair, and collided with Manolito, who was also reaching to help Carrie sit down. The two men glared at each other. Carrie glanced appealingly at Manolito, and he stepped back. He was careful to take a chair beside her, however. Hannah took one on the other side.

John commented politely on the refurbishing, as Hannah gestured to the wine steward. "No expense has been spared, I assure you, Mr. Cannon," he said, putting in the order without consulting anyone as to their preferences. "This growing little town will be a booming metropolis when the railroad finally comes through, and this fine hotel will be a reflection of its future. As one of the premiere land owners in the region, surely you agree." Whatever he felt about the man, personally, Cannon couldn’t fault his business logic. "This dining room, for instance," effused Hannah, "is first rate. I can especially recommend the coq a vin; it is exquisite." He made a circle of his thumb and forefinger and kissed it into the air.

"Wall, I think I’ll just have me some enchiladas and some frijoles," said Buck, tucking his napkin under his chin, "and mebee a couple o’ steaks. And kin I git a glass o' beer," he said to the wine steward who had returned with a bottle and was pouring. "I ain’t much of a wine drinker…"

Hannah glowered at him.

"You might like the coq, Uncle Buck," Carrie suggested wickedly. "It’s just chicken." Manolito snickered and John smiled. "It's probably the only thing available on the menu," Carrie sighed at Manolito, "for all our Mr. Hannah's airs…"

Apparently the wine steward also doubled as the waiter, because Hannah gave him the order for the chicken for everyone, and told him, disdainfully, to bring a beer for Mr. Buck Cannon.

Hannah turned to Victoria, somewhat disconcerted by his inability to impress his guests. "You must try the oysters, Madam. I’ve had them brought in all the way from New Orleans. At my own expense, I might add."

"Better there than the branding pens, hmmm," Carrie whispered to Manolito, sotto voce. He almost choked on a mouthful of wine.

"You are not supposed to know about such things, madam-oye-sell…" he gasped back, pronouncing the word with Hannah’s awful accent. He knew full well she was referring to the cow-driver’s delicacy known as "mountain oysters" - fried calves testicles. Male cattle being castrated at the same time they were branded.

Carrie smiled and rolled her eyes. "Oops…"

"Have you ever been to New Orleans, Miss Madigan," Hannah asked, his tone suggesting that he expected a negative. "I was there in ’69, to look at some investments. It is such a lovely, lovely town."

"Yes, it is, parts of it," agreed Carrie. "I lived there for a while. Before my parents moved to St. Louis."

Hannah looked nonplussed, but only for a moment. "And tell me, what brings you to our little village?"

"My father’s death," said Carrie flatly. Hannah swallowed hard. Across the table, John tried not to burst out laughing at the man’s expression. The hotelier mumbled what might have been flustered condolences. Mercifully, their dinners arrived about that time. Buck even allowed that it was pretty good stewed chicken, though he generally preferred his chicken fried. Hannah did not look especially complimented. John Cannon was almost sorry for the man.

But not quite. The hotelier held forth through the entire meal about his plans for Tucson as if he had purchased the entire town rather than a part interest in one small hotel within it. He advised them that he was looking at a ‘property’ on the outskirts of town - one suitable for the right kind of entertaining, of course, though he assured John that he would be leaving the more rugged enterprise of ranching to men like him. His furnishings, they learned, had all been shipped from England, and the rather gaudy diamond he wore on his left hand had come direct from a renowned Paris jeweler.

"You’ve been to gay Paree?" he asked Carrie holding his hand out for her admiration. She told him she had not. "Ah, then perhaps someone will take you, one day…"

"Perhaps someone will," Manolito agreed. Hannah was beginning to get on his nerves, and not just because of his oily manners. The hotelier had moved so close to Carrie that a little bit closer and he would be sitting in the girl’s lap. Hannah shot him a hostile glare.

Carrie sighed and looked wistfully in the direction of the piano. The man had moved to a gentle waltz.

"Mozart, isn’t it?" she asked Victoria, trying to change the subject.

"Mademoiselle is very knowledgeable," Hannah said, before Victoria got a chance to answer. "Would she care to dance?" He held out a hand.

Manolito leaned forward and draped his arm across the back of Carrie’s chair. "Señorita?"

Carrie glanced from one man to the other, then across the table at her uncle, who was looking rather threatening. He, too, had had about enough.

"Thank you, gentlemen, but I don’t think it would be appropriate…"

"But mademoiselle appreciates fine music? It might interest you to know that I am arranging for a bit of a musical entertainment, a string quartet from Prescott, to perform here in the near future. They are truly inspiring," said Hannah, "a mellifluous cacophony of sound. I would be honored if you will join me, Miss Madigan, as my personal guest. With your uncle’s permission, of course…"

Carrie contrived to look saddened. "Thank you, Mr. Hannah, it’s kind of you to think of me. But I’m afraid I couldn’t accept. I am in mourning…"

"Oh, of course," Hannah blustered, uncomfortable now. "But perhaps another time…" he gestured helplessly, and John saw it as a good time to step in and say their good-byes. He jumped on the opportunity.

"What a horrible little man," Carrie breathed to Manolito as soon as they had escaped onto the relative safety of the sidewalk. Hannah had been waylaid in the bar by his bartender. "I feel like I should go wash my hands…"

Manolito sputtered. "Madam-oye-sell is an excellent judge of character," he agreed. Carrie giggled.

Buck was still struggling with the promised instrumental. "It was a what kinda sound?" he asked. "Wha’d he say?"

Carrie made a face. "Well," she said, glancing over at John, and trying hard to stifle another giggle, "nothing, actually. That sentence didn’t make any sense. ‘Cacophony’ means discordance, like a harsh sound, or a bad noise. ‘Mellifluous’ means harmonious, something pretty, like birdsong. You can’t use the two words together, like that, they sort of cancel each other out." She shook her head. "I think Mr. Hannah’s ego just outstripped his vocabulary."

At which, John roared with laughter. But Buck was not to be put off. He had noticed Hannah’s interest, and he was not about to let it lie.

"Well, it appears that our cousin Caroline has a suitor," he announced brightly, once they had retrieved Joe and Pedro, and the wagon. John glanced at Manolito, who was scowling, then glared over at his brother from across the buckboard. But Buck was oblivious.

"Appearances can be deceiving, Uncle Buck, " Carrie said.

"Now, what do you have against Jacob Hannah," Buck asked her as he handed her up into the rig. "He’s a very wealthy man.."

She shrugged. "So he mentioned. I don’t really know the man, Uncle," she said. Then she grinned down at John, "Though I think I got a pretty good inventory of his possessions." She turned back to Buck, "Mr. Hannah might learn to make himself more agreeable if he spent more time cultivating his person, and less time advertising his purse…"

Buck howled. "Dammit, girl. Remind me never to git on your bad side. Just why’re you so prickly when a man comes courtin’?"

"All right, Buck, watch your language," said John, as he help Victoria into the buckboard. Then he climbed up beside her and took the reins.

"I don’t have a bad side, Uncle Buck," Carrie laughed, apparently unoffended. "I’m always like this."

Buck sighed and climbed into the wagon. He looked over at Joe. "I pity the man…" he said under his breath, although it was obvious that he didn’t. Joe Butler knew better than to offer comment.

II

He knew she had gone to Tucson because one of his contacts in the telegraph office had told him about John Cannon’s telegram to her. He knew Cannon was her uncle because Madigan had railed, often enough, against his brother-in-law. Since she had disappeared within a week of receiving the missive, and she could not have disappeared into thin air, the rest had only been a matter of deduction and elimination. Where else would she go, after all? It had been easy enough, after that, to follow her progress from stage station to stage station, at least far enough to confirm her direction. What did he have left to do after that, but follow?

He knew she was in town because the hotel proprietor had mentioned John Cannon’s niece while the two men shared an early afternoon drink in the hotel taproom. He had seen her, later, at dinner there, in the company of said proprietor. She had been surrounded by what he assumed were her relatives; big, capable looking men. He was careful to keep out of sight. He didn’t want to alarm her until he decided on his plan of action. If she found him in Tucson there was no telling what she might do. He couldn’t be guaranteed that she would run, although from his perspective that would be the best thing. There was stage out of town only went in two directions, on two well traveled roads. Finding her again, once those big men were behind her, would be no problem. He was more afraid that she might confide in Big John Cannon. And from everything he had heard, Cannon was no one with whom he wanted to tangle. The man had a lot of influence in Tucson, not to mention a small personal army of ranch hands. He needed to come up with some other strategy for getting to the girl.

Aaron Stoddard sipped his whiskey and pondered the situation. He almost wondered what he was doing there. After all, Carrie Madigan was just a woman, and there were lots of women. Pretty ones, too. And she was hardly even a woman, really, just some raw girl. Not his type; he liked them duskier, and more robust. Brendan Madigan’s daughter was just some pale, skinny thing, with washed out eyes and a body like a boy, and hair the color of wet sand. Nothing to come across several hundred miles for. There was no sensible reason he should want her. The problem was, he did. All action began with that fact.

From almost the first day she had shown up on her father’s doorstep with the news that the grandfather who had been keeping her had died, Aaron Stoddard had wanted her. It had been a bit of a joke, in a way, the idea of the Madigans as responsible parents; the alcoholic gambler and his already of the verge of become a serious drug addict wife. The girl had been what, then, fifteen, sixteen? She had been a sorry enough specimen, even then. Maybe it was because she had always been so damned unattainable, and not just because her mother had always been standing guard. Despite her increasing dependency on opium and pain preparations of the like, Rose Madigan had managed to keep careful watch over her daughter, and even in the last days of her ‘illness’ her vigilance had never wavered where he daughter was concerned. It was not Rose, though, who forced Stoddard to keep an unwilling arms length. More likely it was the fact that the girl, herself, had so openly despised him that fueled his growing obsession, even then. There were few things Aaron Stoddard could tolerate less than being dismissed.

At first, she had merely amused him. He had seen her as a diversion, a bit of a challenge in his otherwise rather routinely unscrupulous life, and had looked for ways to get under her thorny armor. He had tried charm, to no avail. Then he had tried sympathy, he knew Madigan had a heavy hand when he was drunk, and that this had become his state with increasing regularity, especially after the wife died. But Carrie proved not only un-seducible, the girl had been barely civil. Oh, she was courteous enough, on the face of it. She said nothing overtly that could be construed as disrespect for an elder, nothing to draw her father’s hand. But she had an acid wit, and her idiot of a father rarely understood her intentions. She had missed no opportunity to make Stoddard look like a fool.

Somewhere along the way, the challenge took a dark turn and became something much more sinister, though Stoddard, himself would be hard pressed to say exactly when or why amusement turned into obsession. But, gradually, exerting his influence over the girl became something of a black game to him. Had he been asked directly, Aaron would not have been able to say when he first realized that he wanted Carrie, must have her or go insane. Not wanted in the sense of wanting her emotionally, or even physically, but wanting her in that grim psychological way that some men must possess and control the unattainable, or go out of their minds.

Her very independence mocked him. Nothing touched her, not their deadly, high stakes lifestyle, not her father’s unpredictable affections and random brutality. Not the incredible sums of money won and lost, nor the attendant poverty; not the violence, nor either of her parents individual additions to alcohol and drugs. Not the men whose casual interest plagued her. She would dress in her silks, when the finances allowed it, and come as commanded to watch her father play, or dress in rags, if that was their current condition, with no visible interest her fortunes. She would smile and laugh when laughter seemed called for, but the eyes that watched him were always as cold as flints.

Stoddard had taken to traveling with the Madigans, often supporting them, certainly supporting their habits, though he sometimes wondered why. Killing them slowly in the name of "partner." New Orleans, Cincinnati, Kansas City. And finally St. Louis, again, back to the place they had started. St Louis had been the end of it, too. Rose Madigan had died there; a laudanum overdose that was deemed an accident but that Stoddard suspected may have been a suicide. St. Louis was where Brendan Madigan finally went over the edge. It had only been a matter of time before his liver failed completely. And watching him die, slowly, Aaron Stoddard formulated his plan.

Brendan Madigan had fancied himself a poker player, but in truth, he hadn’t the talent for it; his particular abilities lent themselves better to the high theater of dealing faro, with its elegant trappings, and where the odds tended to favor the house. Poker required nerve, and a subtly for which Brendan Madigan had few personal resources. Madigan owed his partner a lot of money. It had been simple enough to challenge the dissipated fool to a friendly game to end all games and resolve all debt. While she had lived, Rose Madigan had been something of a stabilizing influence in her husband’s life. Her memory, after death, was not as effective. It took little effort for Stoddard to draw Madigan into this final degradation.

They played cards. And at first, the game went as expected, with Madigan losing heavily, but good-naturedly, as if the mounting losses did not matter; drinking more heavily as the evening went on. Before he finally collapsed, however, Stoddard took it upon himself to remind Madigan of his overwhelming debt - a burden that would fall on his only daughter once he died. Which was likely to happen soon, given the man’s habits, he had to admit. He proposed a final hand and one final prize to settle the whole of the debt; the guardianship of Caroline Madigan being the purse Stoddard would demand on the table. Legally put forth in a will, so there would be no question. Madigan went for it. And lost.

It was a complication that the man outlived Caroline’s majority, but not a serious one. True, the orphaned girl was of technical legal age, but such niceties of law had little meaning when it came to destitute young women. No court in the land would deny the claims of an interested party, willing and able to feed, house and clothe her. There were laws against vagrancy and indigence, especially against females who might be led into impropriety by those conditions. So Stoddard had most patiently explained to the bereft girl. He had been Brendan Madigan's closest friend, all the paperwork was in order, he had a will, signed and witnessed all legal, in black and white. They could go before the county, if that was what she wanted, but he had assured the girl it would be a pointless exercise, and that she might as well just plan on moving into his house as his ward as soon as possible.

Of course, bringing her into his house was one thing, keeping her there another, and the damnable thing was, he honestly thought he had won. She had been that good at quelling his suspicions. Sure, she had fought against it at first, but then she had surrendered finally, seeing the helplessness of her position. He had even been a little disappointed. He had expected a more protracted fight.

He did not force himself on her, although he could have. But that was not his intention. Aaron Stoddard was determined to exact his revenge, but that revenge was very specific. He had no intention of degrading the girl through his own actions. The revenge he sought would cause her to degrade herself. Only when she came to him, out of loneliness and desperation, willingly, because he was her only protection, would he have truly won. Only when she brought her own self down would he know that she had toppled from that lofty pedestal she placed herself upon undeservedly. Only then would he know that she could no longer dismiss him. Nor did he keep her confined. She was free to come and go, that was the beauty of it. She truly had no choice. She had nothing, no money, no influence, no friends, no acquaintances, even, outside of his own circle. No one would help her. And it had started to happen. She had begun that delicate process of surrender, demurely acquiescing to a point, no longer always immediately pushing away his advances. It would only be a matter of time, he had been so sure, before she relinquished all resistance. How was he to know that she had been mocking him, that it was all a charade?

He hadn’t counted on the uncle. Or on the girl’s sheer nerve. All the while she was pretending to surrender to his intentions, she had been in contact with Tucson. The moment the telegram arrived, she was gone, with little more than the clothes on her back. He had no idea where she had gotten the money, and although he could find nothing missing, he assumed that she had sold some trinket from the house. And slowly, his rage grew. The little slut had led him on, and then she had stolen from him. She had betrayed him, and left him, and he was determined to get his own back. And when he did, she would find his formerly gentle indulgence was no more. She would pay for his humiliation with her own.

But first he had to get her away from that family and out of Tucson, back to Missouri. And this time, she would not get away.

III

Sam Butler was getting to the point in his life were he was starting to consider himself too old, and frankly, too smart, for "bronco bustin’." There were few things that thrilled him less than the thought of bouncing around atop a thousand pounds of angry, frightened horse flesh, feeling his bones jammed and his spine shoved up between his eyebrows, on any kind of a regular basis. That sort of activity was for younger, stupider men. Not that he hadn’t participated his share in his younger days. It had been exciting, then, validating his masculinity. But by the time he got somewhere solidly into his thirties, it just started to hurt, and his manhood was valid enough to suit him, anyway. Not that he wasn’t still capable, and not the he didn’t work the occasional bronc when necessary, or just to keep his hand in. He could still do justice to the High Chaparral on Rodeo Day. But he preferred to leave the every day breaking of the wild, untried stock to the younger hands and concentrate his own efforts on "finishing" the green broke horses, getting them ready for sale or for ranch work. Like he’d told Big John, once, it wasn’t the falling off, it was the getting up, again, that got tiresome.

He stood at the gate to the largest of several corrals and watched a small herd horses milling around inside it. He was deeply satisfied by the quality of the young stock he saw. John Cannon had been working on an intensive, selective breeding program for some time, with Butler, himself, frequently involved in the selection and management of the breeding stock. It was an exercise of sheer bliss for two men who loved and appreciated fine horses as much as those two did, and it was finally really starting to pay off. Like any good husbandman, Sam knew his charges on sight, and he knew that the majority of these young animals were the offspring of two stallions - one an elegant, mannerly sorrel Big John had cajoled out of his father-in-law somehow, and the other a muscular bay Sam himself had picked out and convinced John to keep entire, for breeding purposes. Personally, he thought the bay’s get the more handsome.

Most of the young animals he was looking at were around three years old. This group had already had the kinks taken out of them over the winter months, had been green broke to saddle, and would now be further evaluated to separate those ready to be "finished" and put to work from those who would be turned back out either because they were still too physically immature for the difficult job of herding cattle or because he or Big John decided some filly was better utilized as a brood mare and would be bred in a year or so. And some would be simply be culled out for sale. The High Chaparral breeding effort was becoming known in the area, and a demand for Chaparral horses had grown in places as far south as Tubac and Nogales, not to mention the army contracts that had been coming in regularly for the last few years. Although cattle was still their main occupation, the High Chaparral was developing a nice little side line in horse flesh. Which suited Sam Butler fine.

He eyeballed the young horses knowledgeably, making mental note of the ones he would recommend keeping and the ones he would suggest Big John put up for sale. Sam knew his boss would expect his recommendations. He wanted to be prepared. Then after he had mentally culled the rejects, he let his eyes roam over the balance, evaluating each horse initially for those he might want to put up for further training now, and those he would turn back out. Tomorrow, once the boss had blessed his choices, he would have the men drive the sale horses back out onto the range until other accommodations could be made for them. The horses they would keep would all get a turn under the saddle, though, even those babies destined to be turned back out for another season or two. No sense in missing an opportunity to remind them of what they had already learned.

Blue was among the hands put to working horses the next morning. Though not quite the possessor, yet, of his father’s expert knowledge, Blue had a natural talent and a deep love of horses that often manifested as a genuine sympathy with animals. He understood them, cherished them, and they worked for him as well as his skills allowed. And those skills were increasing daily. Impetuous in many things, Blue was the picture of patience when working these horses, and he took direction well. Sam Butler found him increasingly useful.

Big John had approved all Sam’s recommendations concerning the sale stock, a vote of confidence that did not go unnoticed, and those animals had been returned to the range in the early hours of the morning. They had also agreed on most of the stock that would be kept for work, and those that would be turned back out again, though John did hold his final decision on a few. He hadn’t made up his mind, and wanted to see them under saddle.

As Sam set the hands to separating the horses upon which they would concentrate that day, John got out of the way and left them to it. He found a spot on the rail, in the only shade available, and just stood there, watching. It was a fascinating process, to anyone so addicted, and Sam didn’t mind the boss’s presence. He was confident in his own abilities and in Cannon’s respect. What surprised him was the niece, Carrie, joining her uncle at the rail. A breaking pen was not always the most pleasant of atmospheres; it was dusty, sweaty, and the language that flew could get pretty foul. Still, there was a bit of a circus air about it, even without the "bucking broncos;" he supposed he couldn’t blame the girl. Ranch life must be pretty boring for her, after the big city. And it was kind of nice, actually, having an attractive female audience for a change. He just hoped the men watched their mouths while she was there.

Big John was as surprised as his foreman at Carrie’s presence. "It’s gonna get pretty dusty down here," he warned her, not sure whether he was happy to see her or not. On the one hand, he couldn’t really expect the hands to maintain proper decorum, given what they were tasked with; on the other, he understood her curiosity, and took a certain amount of pride in her interest.

Carrie smiled up at him. "I’ll be all right," she said. "If it gets too bad, I’ll go back up to the house."

John nodded. Anyway, given the life she’d probably led in her father’s company, he doubted she’d hear anything she hadn’t heard before. And it was rather nice, having her there, standing beside him, asking questions. Giving him the opportunity to explain his choices, his points of view. His plans. She knew enough about the process of training horses to ask intelligent questions, which was surprisingly rewarding. Not that his wife was not absolutely devoted and attentive, and not that he did not love her more than life, but Victoria was not exactly captivated by these details of ranch operation. His niece at least acted like the whole business interested her.

Carrie listened to her uncle with somewhat divided attention, though. She was truly interested, of course, and mentally compared her uncle’s words to things her grandfather had told her on the same subjects as a girl. But she found herself truly fascinated by the process itself, and watched to goings on avidly. She thought how much her grandfather would have enjoyed this, and found herself missing him acutely. And it was not anything like what she had been led to expect. Not that dime novels should ever be considered the expert source on anything, but there were no waving hats, and no plunging horse flesh. Everything done was very careful and controlled; mindful of the fear these young creatures must be feeling. Not at all what she anticipated. She commented as much to her uncle.

"If you wanted to see bucking broncos," Cannon told her, laughing, "you needed to be down here a few weeks ago. We had plenty of broncs, then. These colts have been already been broke to saddle, though. Now’s the time to take more care with them. But if you want broncs, we’ll have them for you at the Fourth of July rodeo…" Her uncle looked so proud and happy that Carrie just smiled.

It was, as promised, dusty, dirty viewing. And as expected, the language did get a little colorful. Cannon winced when one of the hands let fly and apologized to the girl beside him.

"I don’t mind a few rough manners, Uncle John," she replied mildly. "I don’t see that it really matters, if a man’s heart is good. I’ve seen enough of the other."

Cannon looked at her wonderingly. Then he put his arm around her shoulders, with a sad smile, and hugged her into his side. They turned their attentions back to the activity in the corral. At that moment, Sam had Blue up atop a big, raw-boned gray gelding. The horse was clearly terrified, and Carrie smiled as her cousin tried to calm him with words and the steady pressure of his hands and legs. Sam stood by, watching for a moment, then walked over to join them at the rail.

He touched the brim of his hat and smiled. "Miss Carrie…"

"I like him," said John, gesturing into the corral. "He by the bay?"

Sam smiled as proudly as any father and nodded. "Yeah, I like him too," he said. At that moment, the gray horse exploded. "Relax!" Sam shouted. "Get his head up!" But it was too late, Blue had already lost his balance, and a moment later he came flying out of the saddle. The two men waited only long enough to see that he was all right before they burst out laughing. Sam walked into the middle of the corral to confirm that the boy was really okay. They could hear Blue protesting that he’d been caught off guard, as the other man reached down and pulled him to his feet. Sam laughed, again, and cuffed him affectionately. "Go get him, you can’t leave him like that…"

Carrie chuckled.

"Oh, you think it’s funny?" her uncle baited good-naturedly. The girl shrugged.

"He just needed to relax and sit up straight. He was way off balance…"

But John shook his head. "Workin’ these colts isn’t like a pleasant ride in the country on one of your grandfather’s hacks, you know,” he cautioned her.”You never know what to expect out there."

"Oh, I’m sure your right," Carrie agreed quickly, but John could see by the look in her eye that she wasn’t so sure. Thank God, he thought, that she’s a woman, or she’d be out there with them. He knew that look; her grandfather had worn it often enough.

But Carrie just smiled serenely and turned back to watch her cousin. Except that after a while she noticed that it wasn’t Blue she was watching any more. The realization startled her. It was Sam Butler her eyes kept going back to, the way he moved beside the nervous animal, his hands as they stroked and calmed. The confidence in his stance, and his rich, open laughter. It was… mesmerizing, watching him. And then she remembered his kindness and gentleness, his extreme courtesy toward her. His blue eyes smiling at her on those occasions when their eyes met. Her face flushed hot, and she found herself suddenly breathless. Well, now, Carrie Madigan, she thought. Isn’t that interesting… She looked, again, but this time more consideringly. Then she reached over and touched her uncle’s arm.

"I’m going to go back up to the house, Uncle John," she said. "I’m getting a little warm out here…"

Cannon nodded absently. The sun had moved, after all, destroying their nice bit of shade, and the girl did look a little flushed, he thought. And her out there without a parasol….

 

IV

Carrie insisted on helping Victoria with dinner. They were using the "summer kitchen," a partially open-aired structure off the side of the main house. Although the ranch house had a fully equipped indoor kitchen, it was a common practice in the Territory to do most food preparation and cooking out of doors in all but the deepest of winter months. It was safer, as a precaution against fire, and it kept the added heat from the cooking out of the house.

Carrie brought a stoneware jar of water up from the well and placed it on a low table where Victoria was working.

"Oh, Carrie. You don’t have to do that," Victoria protested. "Vaquero takes care of that." She turned to the servant, who had just entered the kitchen, and held out a pan of fresh bread. "Violeta, por favor…" The woman took it, and went back into the house. "Why don’t you just relax, now, and go read your book until dinner is ready. Violeta and I can finish here."

But Carrie was adamant. "Now that you and my uncle have been kind enough to ask me to stay with you, I won’t let you treat me like a guest, Victoria. I want to pull my own weight. Besides," she continued, mischievously, "maybe I’ll marry a rancher, someday. I’ll need to know how to do these things, you know. And you will be my teacher…"

It was hard for Victoria to argue with that. She often felt she could have benefited from such training, herself, instead of the pampered life she had led in her father’s household. She laughed with the girl. "Do you have someone in mind?" she teased.

"No, not yet," Carrie giggled, blushing. "But I have my pick, don’t I? There are certainly enough men around here."

Victoria laughed. But she also eyed the girl a little more thoughtfully, wondering if there was something more she was not saying. There certainly were a lot of men on the High Chaparral, and many of them were quite good looking. And the girl was rather isolated, out there. Victoria wondered if she had developed a crush, to which she was not admitting. And she wondered what her husband might think about that.

And, then of course, her brother seemed to be quite taken with Carrie Madigan, also. But then, one never really knew, with Manolito… And there was Señor Hannah, in town. Although Carrie did not seem particularly impressed with the hotelier. Still, Victoria couldn’t help but wonder if she might have the opportunity to plan a wedding sometime in the future. The romantic in her found the idea very appealing.

Carrie interrupted Victoria’s musing. "Thank you for asking me to stay, Victoria," she said. "You have no idea how happy I am. And what a relief it is."

"Nonsense," replied Victoria. "We are happy to have you here. And it is nice to have another woman to talk to - you are right, there are a lot of men out here. Too many, I sometimes think. Not that they are not all very nice men, but sometimes I long for a woman friend."

Carrie looked thoughtful. "I wasn’t sure Uncle John… would want it," she admitted. Victoria waved this away.

"That was only in the beginning, when he was afraid you would remind him too much of Blue’s mother. He wants you here just as much as I do."

Carrie looked surprised. "Is that what it was," she said. "Oh, I can understand that. I thought it was because, well, because of who my father was. A gambler."

Victoria frowned. "John is not like that," she said firmly. "He would never hold you responsible for who your parents were."

Carrie smiled at that. "I think I’m going to like it here in Arizona even more than I expected," she said. "And I think that roast is finished. Shall I call everyone to dinner?"

Billy Blue leaned back in his chair and smiled at the sunset. He really did smile at it, too, just as if it were some companion of his, toward whom he was feeling especially personable. And in fact, he was feeling extraordinarily pleased with the world. His belly was full, dinner had been everything a hungry, tired young man could hope for, and it was very agreeable to sit there out in front of the ranch house, afterward, with his pretty cousin beside him, like some scion of landed gentry, instead of the working son of a working rancher. For a moment Blue let himself imagine that it was he, rather than his father, who was the lord of the High Chaparral, and that the woman sitting beside him was something else, something more than just his cousin. The thought shocked him so much that he blushed, then shot a surreptitious glance at Carrie to be sure she had not noticed, or somehow derived, his illicit speculation.

The evening had turned cool, and Carrie wore a woven shawl over her shirtwaist; it was one of her Tucson purchases, a brightly colored Mexican print that Victoria had picked out because she said it brought out the color of Carrie’s eyes. She pulled it around her shoulders, now, and gazed absently at the mountains, completely unaware of her cousin’s discomfiture. And then, as if sensing his eyes on her, she turned and smiled. She reached for his hand, then leaned a little toward him until her shoulder rested against his.

"It’s so beautiful here," she sighed.

Blue squeezed her hand happily. Sometimes he felt that he just had to keep looking at her, to really be sure she was really there. Some part of him still could not believe that she was going to stay; that his father had asked her, and she had agreed. It made him feel so good, so proud, to have her beside him. Someone who had been his own special friend for so many years, his own cousin, almost like having a sister, like Victoria and Manolito, only better. Even that afternoon, when she had watched while that fool gray had thrown him, he had been proud of her seeing him as he got back up and got right back on. He wasn’t worried about having been bucked off in the first place. After all, anybody could get thrown by a good bronc, or even a green broke horse, it had happened to Sam, to the men, to his uncle Buck plenty of times. There was no shame in it, as long as you got right back up again. And he had been thrilled to have Carrie there to watch him do it.

"I still can’t believe your really gonna stay here," he said, putting to voice as least some part of what he was feeling.

"I know," Carrie agreed. "I still can’t believe your father asked me.”

Blue frowned. "Why shouldn’t he’ve asked you to stay," he demanded. "We’re your kin, o’ course you belong here…"

Carrie smiled at him, again, but said nothing. She looked back out at the sunset. There was a storm on the mountains, although Buck had told her earlier that it was unlikely it would blow down over the desert at that time of year, and the clouds were doing something she had never seen before. They were low on the mountains, the peaks stretching up above the solid gray bank, and the sunset was shooting wild colors along the tops of them. Below was dark, and above blue sky, separated by mountain tops, and the bright table-top of color.

"I wonder if that’s how the birds see it, when they fly above the clouds," Carrie mused whimsically. Blue looked at her in astonishment. Nobody he knew thought about things like that, or if they did, they did not express it out loud. He thought he was the only one. He didn’t know quite how to respond, and in fact, Carrie didn’t really look like she was expecting an answer. Her eyes had a far away look in them, and she seemed so lonely, suddenly, despite his company. Blue thought he understood why. In the months following his mother’s death, Blue had been sure he would never stop hurting. Even now, when he saw something beautiful, like that sunset, he would catch himself wanted to tell his Ma about it. Anna Lee had always loved the magic of the natural world, its signal beauty. She was the only person with whom he had ever really felt comfortable sharing those feelings. Her absence was a permanent hole in his heart, in spite of his growing fondness for his father’s second wife. And his cousin’s grief was so much fresher.

"Do you miss them awful?" he asked abruptly. Shaken out of her reverie, Carrie looked at him blankly. "Your folks," said Blue, awkward now. "You know, your Pa…" He mumbled this last, wishing he had kept his mouth shut, sure he had just ruined this lovely evening by stirring up her pain. But Carrie merely shrugged.

"Yes, of course, some," she admitted. "I think I probably feel more regrets, than grief, though, if that doesn’t sound too terrible. I never really knew them that well, you know. I was already pretty well grown when Grandpop died and I went to live with them. And they were very busy, and well, they didn’t always keep the same kinds of hours I did." She exhaled softly, and paused before continuing. "To tell the truth, I miss Grandpop more." She grinned, then. "Do you remember when you came to live with us? During the War? Remember how we spent a whole summer just tearin’ around the orchards and the farm, not a care in the world in spite of everything going on around us? Ridin’ and playin’ every day? Remember Grandpop wanted to teach you to jump, but you wouldn’t have any part of it…" Then, seeing his face collapse at what he took as a criticism and she amended. "But you were just a little kid, I don’t know what he expected."

Blue smiled. "I remember you darin’ me to climb up on that old barn roof," he said, "and then us gettin’ stuck up there. Pa was there, I remember how mad he was. I thought he was gonna kill us both."

Carrie laughed. "If we’d had any idea how dangerous it was, we probably would have saved him the trouble. That barn fell down the next winter."

Blue looked suitably impressed at their narrow escape. "I remember how green everything was," he said, “and fishing in the river. And how I went swimming and you wouldn’t."

"Do you remember the hunt morning? With all the officers in their uniforms and the ladies in their silks? And Grandpop let us carry around the stirrup cup?"

"Yeah, I remember that," said Blue. He hadn’t thought about that particular morning in more years than he could imagine, and it suddenly dawned on him that he, too, missed the grandfather he'd lived with for a time. He wished he'd had an opportunity to know him better. "I remember lyin’ out on blankets and looking up at the stars… tryin’ to count them all…" he said longingly. “We get stars like that out here - even better. I don’t get so much time to look at ‘em, though," he added with a sigh.

Carrie leaned back and closed her eyes… " ‘ And when he shall die,’ " she quoted, "‘Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine, That all the world will be in love with night, And pay no worship to the garish day…’ That’s Shakespeare," she glossed, sitting up again, suddenly embarrassed. "It’s from ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I saw it in St. Louis last year…"

"I never saw any Shakespeare," Blue said. "I always wanted to. I’ve read some… But you’ve done a lot of different things," he went on. "You sent me letters from all over. Whenever I got a letter, I never knew where you were gonna ask me to send one back to."

"Yeah, that’s true enough," Carrie agreed, her voice suddenly touched with sarcasm. She hesitated, as if deciding how much to say. "Papa found it politic not to stay too long in any one place," she finally concluded. "Some places less long than others."

Blue frowned at her tone, unsure of how to answer it, then, not knowing what else to do, he ignored it. "I really liked those picture post-cards you sent, of the hotels where you were staying."

"Some of them were nice," Carrie said. "If there was nice dining room, and a ladies’ lounge. Sometimes, if there was someone to play a piano, I would sing."

"You know how to sing?"

"A little,’ she admitted.

"So sing something for me," Blue turned to her eagerly. "Really, I mean it. Come on…"

Carrie laughed. Then she looked thoughtful for a moment, and nodded. She cleared her throat.

“‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’…" she began softly, in a rich alto voice that was surprisingly throaty and full for such a dainty figure:

“‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’,

‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’,

‘A long way from home’,

‘A long way from home’…"

Blue looked wonderingly, and then leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.

“‘Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone’…" Carrie continued to sing, staring out at the mountains, no longer paying attention to her cousin, or to anything but the sad and gentle tune.

The song drifted over the clear night air, and the group of men sitting outside the bunkhouse paused at their evening coffee to listen.

"Aw, that’s pretty," said Reno, almost sighing. It was he, himself, who was usually found serenading around the place; his tenor wasn’t half bad when he was sober. And for that matter, they all took their turn at it, singing the cows to bed; from Sam’s gravelly baritone to Pedro’s rather toneless drawl, each man made his contribution to a peaceful night herd. They were men who appreciated such things, in their own ways. Men who could fall in love to the soft complaint of a minor melody.

"Pretty song…" Sam agreed, with a faint smile. He brought his cup to his lips thoughtfully, listening.

"She’s a right pretty girl," Buck agreed. "And it looks like she’s gonna be around for a while. Big John and Victoria invited her to stay on, th’ other night at dinner. So it don’t look like she’ll be going on to San Francisco, after all."

Sam swallowed a mouthful of coffee. "Good," he said, with more force than he intended. "Young girl like that’s got no business in San Francisco all by herself. She’s got kin, here, to look out for her, this is where she belongs."

Buck smiled at the protectiveness in the foreman’s voice. But he guessed all the men probably felt that way, it was only natural. Innocent young women weren’t exactly thick on the ground out there on the frontier, and it was natural that a man would think of sisters or sweethearts, girls he was remembering. Buck pushed his hat back on his brow.

"Well," he drawled, "I imagine that’s what Big John was thinkin’. That and the fact that I 'spect he just likes havin’ the girl around. She do brighten up the place, considerable. Though between you and me," he continued with a chuckle, "I do believe Miss Carrie Madigan can look after herself, purty much anywhere. You shoulda seed her th’ other afternoon, when Jacob Hannah was tryin’ to court her. Poor man couldn’t gain no ground at all. I never seed a woman so prickly! Ain't that right, Joe? You was there, you seed her."

Joe Butler smiled a little, and shrugged. "Yeah, she sure didn't seem to like him, much," he agreed.

"Well, now, that just strikes me as plain good sense," said Sam, emphatically. He tended to share his boss’s sentiments toward the hotel manager, the few times he’d had occasion to meet the man. The other men laughed.

"Now, whadda you got against Jacob Hannah," Buck objected in mock protest. "He’s a rich man. The girl could do a lot worse."

"I wouldn’t trust Hannah with a blind horse and a three legged dog," Sam replied, eliciting more laughter.

Buck nodded. "Well, it appears that Miss Caroline shares your fine opinion, Mr. Butler," he conceded, sharing the laugh. "But the girl’s got to marry somebody, someday. Be nice for Blue Boy if she choose a local man."

Carrie finished her song.

"Aw, Carrie, that was awful pretty," Blue sighed, not opening his eyes. Carrie smiled wistfully.

"I learned that song in New Orleans," she said. "That’s the only thing I really miss about New Orleans. The music. And the food," she suddenly laughed, remembering Jacob Hannah making a fool of himself with his airs. "The food was wonderful."

Blue sat up. "I’ve never been to New Orleans," he complained. "I’ve never been anywhere interesting."

Carrie leaned forward and kissed his cheek, making him blush. "Ah, Cuz," she sighed, leaning over and putting her head on his shoulder. "You don’t know how lucky you are just to be here, and live in this wonderful country. It’s like watching some strange, wild thing being born. And to have family around you, who love you… I’m so happy your father asked me to stay. Blue, I am so happy to be here. I hope I never see any other place again in my whole life."

Blue didn’t know what to say. But sensing some pain in her that was beyond his ken, he just put his arm around her shoulders, and held her there. The two cousins sat for a long time, watching the sun go down.

The men weren’t the only ones who had overheard Carrie singing. Inside the ranch house, Victoria looked up from the piece of work she was stitching and smiled.

"What a pretty song, John," she said to her husband, who was sitting beside her perusing his new army contract for horses. He was trying to determine how many additional animals he was going to have to round up from the mustang herds, or purchase outright, to add to his own sale stock to meet it. But he interrupted his mental arithmetic long enough to answer his wife in the affirmative, that yes, it was a pretty song.

"Carrie seems very happy here, does she not," continued Victoria. "I am so glad that you asked her to stay, my husband."

Big John nodded without looking up. "She seems to be gettin’ along," he agreed. Then he chuckled to himself. "And it appears she’s got every man on the place half way in love with her, I swear," he added. He had not missed the smiles the girl’s presence wrought, nor the men’s protectiveness, and quick willingness to assist her in any endeavor. It kind of tickled him, in a way.

Victoria laughed. "Well, John, she is very easy to love," she said with genuine affection. Then she looked at him curiously, remembering her earlier conversation with the girl. "Tell me something, John. Suppose Carrie fell in love with one of the High Chaparral men. Would you mind very much?"

At this, Cannon did look up from the contract, surprised. "Why?" he demanded. But he was smiling. "Do you know something, wife?"

Victoria demurred quickly. "No, nothing," she assured him. "But she is a very pretty young woman. She will fall in love with someone, someday. And I do not think she is in love with Señor Hannah…"

Big John rolled his eyes. "Thank God for that," he said emphatically. "But to answer your question," he continued, "I’m not sure I’d have much to say about it one way or the other. Caroline’s a grown woman, she’ll make up her own mind, I’m sure. But no, I don’t suppose I’d have any real objections, provided whoever it was could support her. At least they’re all honest and steady. Same as I’d feel about any man, even that damned Hannah, if that's who she decided she really wanted, God forbid." Victoria winced, but John had already turned back to his contract. "I haven’t given it much thought, to be perfectly frank." And he said, dismissing the subject from his mind.

Victoria turned back to her work, but she couldn’t really concentrate on it any more. Sometimes it baffled her, this Americano tendency to leave young women to their personal preferences regarding husbands and marriage. She couldn’t decide if it was a good thing or not. While it was true that she would not have agreed to her own marriage had John Cannon not also satisfied her inclinations, her husband had been chosen for her for reasons of political importance to her father. And yet she loved him deeply. She wondered, had she been given a completely free choice, if she would have chosen differently. But she could not imagine being married to anyone else.

On the other hand, she had a father whom she loved and trusted, one she believed absolutely would act in her best interests. Carrie had no such father to guide her. So perhaps her husband was right. It was interesting, his attitude about the Chaparral men, though. It was not what she would have expected for a member of his own family. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, she supposed, if the girl had developed an attachment. And it was true that they were all good, honest men, if a little rough around the edges. But Victoria realized that even after all this time, her husband could still surprise her. She smiled to herself and went back to her needlework.

 

Desert Poppy

I

It was hard to say if Aaron Stoddard found Richard Barritt, or if Barritt found Stoddard. Or perhaps it was some serendipitous whim that brought them together in the saloon at just that time of day when it was almost deserted, so that no one could overhear them. In any case, it was no act of fate that had Dick Barritt drunk at a corner table, muttering curses on the Cannons to anyone who would listen. Such was the man’s accustomed activity since Buck Cannon had unceremoniously fired him from the High Chaparral crew for fighting and suspicion of pilfering, just before the previous winter. As far as Barritt was concerned, the Cannons were solely responsible for his current state of destitution, cutting him off at a time when other ranches weren’t hiring, making it impossible for him to get another job. He did not stop to consider, of course, that getting thrown off the High Chaparral was like a death warrant in that part of the Territory. It was not likely he would ever work in the Tucson area, again. And naturally, it would not have occurred to him that, since he was, in fact, guilty of fighting and pilfering, that he had brought his fate upon himself. A man with more sense would have packed his bags and headed north or east, or even west to California where the big spreads were in such need of experienced hands that they asked few questions. But then, common sense had never been one of Dick Barritt’s crowning virtues.

What he lacked in wisdom, though, Barritt more than made up in cunning. In fact, it might have surprised a great many of the men who knew him, not the least of whom was Buck Cannon, to find that he was actually quite an intelligent man. Although he lacked the will and the wherewithal to follow through on his many schemes, Barritt possessed a certain perspicacity about other men’s talents, and might have been formidable had he enjoyed the strength of character. In the hands of the right promoter, he could be down right dangerous. At the moment Aaron Stoddard stepped into the saloon, Barritt was indulging himself in his favorite fantasy: the utter destruction of the Cannon family and the High Chaparral. Included in that fantasy, of course, were the Butler brothers, since Barritt was convinced it was that brown-nosed foreman who had initiated the complaints against him, and that arrogant Montoya kid because Barritt hated wealth and power as a matter of policy, and Montoya’s father possessed a considerable portion of both.

Barritt had a plan. At first blush, it might have seemed preposterous, he knew, but he had heard of similar plots executed successfully up North in Sioux country. He would hire himself some Indians and pay them to wipe out the High Chaparral. There were a number of reasons why he liked the idea. First of all, an Indian attack would never be questioned by the authorities. Anyone who died in one would simply be mourned as an unfortunate casualty of war. And his own renegades-for-hire would be much easier to come by, and far more a sure thing, than trying to stir up trouble with the Apache. Barritt wanted vengeance, but he still planned to live in the Territory. He did not want full scale war. Besides, an Apache warpath was too chancy, and too difficult to direct. He wanted to be sure of his targets. With hired guns, or hired arrows, he could name his victims with some assurance of success: Buck Cannon, certainly, and his brother, Big John Cannon; Sam Butler, and his brother, too, if he could be gotten. Montoya, and the boy, Blue, if it was convenient. Might as well put paid to the whole bloodline. The rest he didn’t care about, they could take their chances. Let their cards fall were they may.

And willing renegades could be come by. He had already made a few discrete inquiries. There were more than enough disenfranchised braves, the casualties of fragmented tribes and an ineffective Reservation system. These were bitter, angry men, with no loyalty but to their own blood lust. He knew where he could find them. And he knew comancheros who could put it all together for him, for the right price. Which he did not have, unfortunately. Still, it made a pretty fantasy, the refining of which occupied most of his time.

Such were his mood and thoughts when Aaron Stoddard took a chair beside him at the table, a bottle of whisky in one hand, and his need in the other.

"It has come to my understanding, friend, that you have a certain acquaintance with a family, hereabouts, with whom I have… business," Stoddard said, sitting down. He raised the bottle, and when Barritt did not react, filled his glass. "My name is Stoddard. Aaron Stoddard."

Barritt eyed him warily, but that was the extent of his reaction. "I heard o’ you," he said quietly. "You the fella been askin’ about the Cannons."

Stoddard frowned. News traveled fast in that burg, apparently. And here he had thought he was being so discrete. That would accelerate his urgency, somewhat; he did not want untimely word getting back to the High Chaparral. Although it also removed any need to play cagey.

"That would be the family," he agreed. When Barritt said nothing, he prodded. "You are acquainted with them?"

Barritt sneered. "I know ‘em. Sons-a-bitches. Damn Buck Cannon threw me off his place on trumped up charges."

It was better than Stoddard had hoped. Not only would the man have a grudge, but, with any luck, he would also know the layout of the ranch. "You’re familiar with the High Chaparral then? With the place itself?"

Barritt just looked at him. "I know it," he agreed.

"And the folks that live there? All of them?"

Barritt shrugged.

"Do you know of a young woman living there with the Cannons?"

At this, Barritt’s cool demeanor creased; he looked perplexed. "You mean the missus? Miz Cannon. Big John’s Mex wife. ’S’ only female on the place that I know of, 'cept the servant."

Stoddard frowned. "No, a young woman. Sandy colored hair, light eyes, about twenty-two or twenty-three. She probably arrived sometime within the past month."

"I ain’t worked since before winter," Barritt growled. "I don’t know no girl."

Stoddard chewed on Barritt’s admission. So, it wasn’t perfect. Still, the man would be familiar with the landscape, that was still an advantage. And there was no doubting his sentiments. "I have an interest in this girl," he said. "Her name is Caroline Madigan. She claims to be John Cannon’s niece. This… young woman worked for me, back in St. Louis. She was one of my girls. I have reason to believe she stole some valuables from me, before she took off." None of it was actually true, of course; on the other hand, Barritt was neither in a position, nor of a disposition, to check the details.

Across the table, Barritt snorted. So Big John Cannon was harboring to his bosom a fugitive from justice, and a tart besides. Now wasn’t that a juicy tidbit.

"Tell the law," he suggested, happily. The public embarrassment might not be exactly the revenge he was seeking, but it would be satisfying, nonetheless.

But Stoddard shook his head. "I would prefer to handle this privately," he said, "if you take my meaning. I have something more… interesting in mind for Miss Madigan. And I may need the assistance of someone familiar with the area…"

Dick Barritt may have been a clumsy fool in some respects, but no one could accuse him of rank stupidity, not where another man’s vulnerability was concerned. He could see that Stoddard had more at stake, here, than he was saying, maybe even more than the man knew, himself. And it didn’t take genius to figure out that Stoddard would pay for what he wanted.

"What do you have in mind?"

Stoddard lifted the bottle again. "Another whiskey, Mr…?"

"Barritt," said Barritt. "Dick Barritt. Sure." Stoddard filled the glass.

"Simply put, Mr. Barritt, I want to take Miss Madigan back to St. Louis. She has certain… obligations to fulfill there. However, since I doubt she will come willingly, I may need some assistance in getting her away from those uncles of hers."

Barritt’s mind turned this over rapidly. "You want her kidnapped, you mean?"

Stoddard winced. "I would like her removed to circumstances under which the situation may be discussed more reasonably," he replied.

Barritt nodded slyly. "Be tough," he demurred. "Them Cannon’s is careful. They don’t never go around alone, not even the men, hardly, and Miz Cannon never travels off the ranch without she has a regular armed escort…" Which was stretching the truth a little, as Victoria sometimes did go into Tucson with only John, or Vaquero, to drive her. But Barritt was beginning to see a way in which Stoddard might be used to further his own ambitions, and pay him for the privilege on top of it. "I ‘spect they’d be the same way about the girl." Stoddard frowned. But he had no reason to doubt Barritt; it all fit in with what he suspected about Cannon from the beginning. "There could be a way, though," Barritt concluded.

"Such as?"

Barritt told him a little bit about his plans. He did not go into particulars, and he did not reveal his desire to destroy the High Chaparral, confident he could add those little details at the last minute. The raid, he told Stoddard would provide a diversion, allowing one or two men to slip inside the house and take the girl without anyone being the wiser. Her abduction would be blamed on the Apache. He made it clear that he knew certain individuals who could and would put such a plan together.

But Stoddard didn’t like it. "Too complicated," he said. "Too much can go wrong. Why not just hit her when she’s abroad with her escort. Some isolated place… she couldn’t have more than a few men with her…"

Barritt pretended to consider it. "You could do that," he agreed. "Never know when she might leave the ranch, though. You’d need a man on the inside. And some boys who could be on the alert all the time." He waited, watching Stoddard absorb this. It was valid enough, after all. "And then, of course, in a close up fight like that the girl might git hurt or kilt, maybe. If you wanted to risk that."

Stoddard didn’t. His plans for Caroline required that she remain among the living, and the whole. He sighed. "How would you manage it?" Barritt told him. Stoddard frowned. It dawned on him that the man had far too many of the details worked out for spur of the moment thinking. On the other hand, he didn’t seem to have much choice. And if Barritt had his own agenda, perhaps it would be so much the better. "What’s this gonna cost me?"

Barritt was ready for that one, too. He named a tentative figure, and when Stoddard nodded, wished he had put it higher.

"All right," Stoddard said. "But I want to make the deal with your contact, myself. I don’t want any misunderstandings, and I don’t want any screw ups."

Barritt was too pleased to be offended. Vengeance might be a dish best served cold, but it was also very tasty. And he was finally going to get his chance to sit down to table.

II

"They’re beautiful, aren’t they?"

Sam Butler turned to find Carrie standing beside him at the gate of the largest of the Chaparral’s horse corrals. She leaned against the rail and nodded at the milling horses.

"Yes, ma’am," Sam agreed. "They are."

"Look at that little bay filly," she continued enthusiastically, pointing, specifically, at a pretty young blood-bay trotting across the corral. "She’s magnificent. See how balanced she is? And she has such a pretty step, a real daisy cutter…"

Sam looked impressed. That filly was the best of the lot in there, and the Chaparral produced some top quality horse flesh. Well formed, with nice appointments: a pretty white blaze and two white socks on her hind feet. "You’ve got a good eye, ma’am."

Carrie made a little moue. "You know, I do wish you’d stop calling me ‘ma’am’," she teased him. "It makes me feel like somebody’s grandmother."

The flippancy startled Sam. He turned to her, uncertain if he had somehow offended, but as soon as he saw her grinning at him, he laughed. "You don’t seem like any grandmother I’ve ever met, Miss Carrie," he said, almost bashfully. Carrie chuckled.

"Well, thank you for that…" she said. “I like horses. My grandfather taught me to ride when I was a little girl. He raised them, among other things." She nodded back toward the filly. "He had some interesting theories about horse training. He used to tell me that you could take the necessary time to break a horse right from the beginning, or you could spend the rest of your days correcting bad habits."

Sam nodded. "He's sure right about that," he agreed. "Sounds like a pretty smart man."

"I lived with him until he died and I went back with my parents." Carrie looked a little wistful. "I still miss him sometimes. And I missed the riding every day. My parents traveled a lot, there wasn’t always an opportunity…"

Sam was silent at this. He had heard rumors among the men about Carrie Madigan’s parents, not that he would hold something like that against the girl. But he didn’t know what to say. "You must have see a lot of interesting places," he said finally, when some kind of reply seemed necessary.

Carrie just looked amused. "About every town east of Abilene where a man could buy an interest in a game of faro," she agreed. Sam looked a little shocked, and she smiled at him. "I don’t hide where I’ve come from, Mr. Butler. Oh, I can stick out my little finger and act tony with the best of them, but the fact is, I’m the penniless orphan of a riverboat gambler. Seems kind of silly to put on airs." Sam smiled with her, touched rather than offended by her confirmation of the rumors he had heard. She was a sweet kid, really.

"Guess we’ve all got somethin’ that makes puttin’ on airs kinda silly," he agreed. "Not that it stops some folks…"

Carrie looked at him curiously. "So, tell me something about yourself, Mr. Butler," she said. "Uncle John tells me you’ve been with the High Chaparral since the very beginning?"

"It’s Sam," he said, automatically. He shrugged. "Not much to tell. Yeah, I’ve been here pretty much since your uncle came to Tucson. We were the first men Big John hired, me and Joe, and Ira and Reno and Pedro. Seems like a long time ago." He chuckled a little, remembering.

"What?"

He looked over at her, then shrugged and pushed his hat back a little on his forehead. "Oh, nothin’ really. Just thinkin’ about your uncle, I guess. He was the damnedest man I ever met. Come to this place, Apache on the one hand, Don Sebastian’s personal army against him on the other. And he took it all on. There was just no fear in him…"

"I wonder…" said Carrie. She smiled up at Sam. "I was a little girl the last time I saw him. I still remember him in his army uniform, he was a captain, I think. He seemed so big… dashing, really. Kind of romantic, like someone out of a story book." She paused thoughtfully. "Sometimes I wonder who he really is inside. He does have a way of making you feel safe, though…"

Sam looked as if he might ask her what she meant by that. And then he just nodded; he figured he knew. "Yeah. Yeah, he does."

Carrie could hear the genuine admiration in his voice. "You like him, don’t you."

"Yes, I do," said Sam. "And I respect him." He said it like he didn’t really respect a lot of men.

As they talked, the filly stopped her antics and turned to watch them. After a moment, she separated from the herd and moved closer, eyeing them warily. Sam glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and smiled faintly.

Carrie saw his smile, and glanced at the filly, herself. "You think she’s figured out we were talking about her?"

Sam grinned a little more broadly, but he didn’t say anything. Aware of the girl's interest, though, he let his hand dangle out over the rail, palm up, to entice the little horse closer. The filly snorted.

Carrie turned her head and looked out at the mountains. "This is an amazing place. I had no idea, in all the time Blue’s been writing about it, how huge it really is. I guess I’ve spent too much time living in cities."

Butler nodded. "Can’t say as I care much for cities, myself," he said. "Nice places to visit, now and then, but I wouldn’t want to live in one.”

"You’ve always lived in the Territory?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Sam replied. "My brother and I grew up in a little border town called San Felipe, southwest of here." He followed her gaze to the distant peaks. "I don’t know, I guess I just belong out here. Life just seems simpler, somehow. It’s hard, but you always know what you’re gettin’." He shook his head, frustrated at his inability to express what he was feeling, what this meant to him. It occurred to him, suddenly, that no one had ever expressed much of an interest, before.

"I think I know what you mean," said Carrie, helping him. "I feel that, too, sometimes. That life out here just seems to make more sense, somehow. That there’s, I don’t know, a certain logic to it, and a purpose."

Sam nodded in grateful surprise.

"Yeah," he said. "The land can catch you out, don’t get me wrong. And it frequently does. But it can be good to you, too, if you respect it. And it will never let you down, as long as you play it square and don't expect things it can't deliver…"

"I’d be perfectly happy if I never saw another city, in my life," Carrie said. "Even to visit." She paused then, and Sam looked over at her. Her expression was strange, suddenly, distant. He wondered at it, feeling some odd wish to understand what had happened to cause such a look.

The filly approached slowly as they talked, extending her nose and blowing against Sam’s gloved hand. He touched her lightly under the chin, and as she stepped closer, he ran his hand up under her throat.

"Hey, Miss Nosy," he said, with a low laugh. Carrie smiled and reached up, rubbing the filly behind the ears.

"No family?" she prodded.

Sam shrugged. "Just Joe. Our folks died when we were still kids."

"And you’ve never married?"

Sam continued to stroke the horse, but his expression sobered, and he did not answer.

"Forgive me," Carrie said quickly. "I’m being too forward. It’s a bad habit."

But Sam shook his head. "No, it’s all right," he assured her. "I, uh… I was married. She’s dead. Both she and my daughter." Both dead by the hand of the son of the man who had raised him, but he did not tell her that.

Carrie let out a small breath. "Oh, Sam, I’m so sorry…" He gestured it away. Carrie contemplated him a moment, sensing some deeper tragedy. It was obvious that he didn’t really want to talk about it, though. She didn’t press it.

"Have you always done this kind of work?" she asked, instead. "Ranching, I mean?"

Again, Sam looked a little sheepish, "Well, no, not exactly. Joe and me had some years were we pretty much just drifted, and well… supported ourselves as best we could, " he said, surprising himself a little at the ease with which he found himself admitting such things to the girl. But she was surprisingly easy to talk to, so straight forward and direct, yet not judgmental in any way. He hadn’t met very many women like that, not decent women, anyway. And it was nice, just standing there with her. Even when she asked questions that hurt some. Even when he didn’t really want to talk about his dead wife or child, or to think about those year after Trinidad had first left him, long before her death at the hands of Ben Lynch’s son, when he and Joe had pretty much run wild, not caring how they survived, or which side of the law they lived on.

It didn’t take genius to figure out that the query had made him uncomfortable, though, and that "as best we could" might not always have been particularly socially acceptable.

"Good, Carrie Elizabeth," Carrie sighed, "why don’t you ask another embarrassing question." She looked so disconcerted that Sam had to laugh. The sudden explosion of mirth spooked the filly, who shook her head and backed away from them with a snort. She gave a little buck, then trotted back to the herd, crow-hopping and snorting around the fringes. Carrie allowed herself to be distracted. "Look at her, she feels good…" She turned to Sam. "Is she broke?"

Sam nodded, grateful for the change in subject. "Green broke," he said. "We’ll probably turn her back out for another year or two, let her grow up a little more," he said. "She’s still too light for range work." And more to the point, Sam wasn’t sure he wanted the little filly for cattle, although she was one of the horses John Cannon was still trying to make up his mind about. Sam found mares unpredictable on the range, especially when they were going into season. He preferred the stability of a gelding for serious work. And since Big John was known to feel the same way, Sam suspected his boss just liked the filly’s looks, and was trying to find a reason to justify keeping her. She was probably destined as a brood mare, would be his guess.

Carrie made a small, considering noise, but said nothing. Sam glanced at her, then seeing the glint in her eyes, turned to her more fully.

"Whoa - no way! Big John would skin us both," he protested, not sure if he should laugh, or high-tail it out of there. The girl’s intention was obvious to him - she wanted to ride that horse. The boss would kill him!

Carrie grinned up at him, impishly. "We could always just not tell him…"

Sam just shook his head, amazed. Her mood was infectious, and it was hard to deny her, but there was no way he was going to let her ride that filly without Big John’s permission. It would be worth his life, and he knew it, if either she or the horse got hurt. On the other hand… she looked so pretty there, smiling up at him, with her eyes full of mischief. And he had watched her on that runaway; he had no real doubt she could handle the little mare…

Gravel crunched behind them, and they both turned; Sam a little guiltily, Carrie smiling in anticipation.

"Uncle John," she beamed as John Cannon came up beside her. "We were just talking about you."

"Oh?" Cannon drawled, looking over her head at his foreman. "What devilment are you contemplating, now?"

"No devilment," Carrie assured him. "We were actually watching that little girl out there. Isn’t she pretty? We were wondering if you’d hang us both from the nearest tree, if you had one, if Sam let me ride her."

Cannon looked at the filly, then gave the other man a hard look. Butler winced. "I most certainly would!" Cannon exploded. "That horse is barely broke!"

Carrie smiled serenely. "Oh, I bet she’s not as green as she thinks she is…"

Cannon frowned at her odd choice of words, then looked back out at the horses with a more exacting eye. That filly was exquisite, he remembered her, now. "And just what makes you think you can ride her?"

Carrie glanced up at him through her lashes. "Because Sam broke her. And I’ve watched him work. I’m sure she’s been well handled."

Butler turned about the color of the red dirt under their feet, and John had to struggle to keep from laughing. He caught the other man’s eye, finally, and Sam shrugged. No help from that quarter, it seemed.

Big John sighed. He’d been afraid of this. On the other hand, he knew the girl probably knew what she was doing. Anna Lee’s father had had his girls aboard even the most high spirited animals as soon as they could reach their feet into stirrups. John expected he had done the same for his granddaughter. And Sam had given him a full account of that runaway, privately. She would probably be all right. At least she’d know how to fall, when she got bucked off, and that ought to put paid to the whole business. Which might not be such a bad thing, after all.

"All right," he said finally. "It’s your neck." Carrie grinned.

"I’ll be back in a couple of minutes," she assured them, and hurried back up to the house. Cannon looked at Sam, again.

"She’ll be all right, Boss," Butler assured him "I’d say so if I thought she couldn’t handle it."

Cannon nodded. "Yeah, I know. And I’m sure she’s ridden some pretty green horses before this." He looked back toward the house. "You know something, Sam? It’s a damn good thing that girl’s got a good heart. If she was evil, she’d be dangerous."

Butler snorted as he lifted a lariat down from its nail on the side of the corral. The same thought had occurred to him. "Yes, sir," he agreed heartily as he ducked through the rails and went to catch the filly.

By the time Carrie had changed clothes and returned, Sam had the horse separated into an empty corral, had her saddled, and was just fastening her bridle. The filly fidgeted irritably, jigging the bit and switching her tail in annoyance. And Sam began to worry. Despite his assurances to Big John, he was a little concerned, both about the girl’s safety, and his own, if anything happened to her. In fact, he was beginning to wish he’d not been so quick to go along with this whole escapade.

Carrie climbed over the rails into the ring. She was dressed, not in the riding skirt she usually wore when she went out on the range with her cousin, but in heavy trousers that looked like a worn out pair of Blue’s old cast-offs, and chaps. The two men exchanged surprised glances, but offered no comment. Carrie walked up to Sam. He finished buckling on the bridle, then slipped his fingers under both sides of the cheek straps.

"Whenever you’re ready," he said.

Carrie nodded. Speaking softly, she stroked the nervous animal until the filly started to relax. Then she put her foot into the stirrup, and swung up easily. The horse startled, and backed up. Sam went with her, not fighting her, but not letting go. He crooned gently, and after a moment, the little filly swiveled her ears forward, and dropped her nose down to him, getting used to the feel of the weight on her back. Sam glanced up at Carrie, who patted the filly on the neck, and nodded to him. He let go and stepped back slowly, careful not to spook the animal.

For a moment, the little horse just stood there, looking surprised at her circumstances. Then she roached her back, and dropped her head to buck. Carrie sat deep and drew up on the reins, forcing the filly’s head up. Then she pressed her forward, tapping her lightly in the flank with her heels. The filly moved away from the pressure of her leg, too baffled, now, to fight. Carrie spoke to her continually until the filly’s ears tipped backward, listening, and she started to relax. Carrie touched her into a trot.

Sam went back to the rail and stood by John. "She’s gonna have me out of a job, Boss," he laughed, as the two men watched the girl and the smoothly trotting filly.

"Oh, I wouldn’t worry about it, Sam," Cannon teased him. "Some man will come along and marry her, and that will be the end of that."

Sam scowled at that and John eyed him curiously. But the other man was not going to give in quite that easily.

"I don’t know, Mr. Cannon," he said. "Maybe, maybe not." John wasn’t sure whether the comment referred to the girl’s marriageability, or the likelihood of Carrie Madigan’s giving up anything she enjoyed doing because of some man’s whim.

"What’s goin’ on?"

The two men turned to find Blue coming up beside them. The boy leaned against the corral rail. "Hey," he answered his own question. "Ain’t that one of them green horses?"

"That it is," admitted John.

Blue looked doubtful. "But… that’s Carrie…"

"Uh huh," said Cannon, exchanging an amused glance with his foreman.

"But…" sputtered Blue, unsure of how to react to what he was seeing, "she a girl!"

The two men roared laughter. "Another true statement," John agreed, slapping his bewildered son on the back. But the truth was, he wasn’t altogether sure how to feel about what he was watching, either.

"Hey, Boss," a new voice called. "You hire a new horse wrangler?"

Cannon turned to his other side, to see Joe Butler walking up, with Ira and Pedro behind him. They were drawing quite a crowd, it seemed.

"Don’t encourage her," he grumped, trying to suppress a smile. Joe wasn’t deceived. He nodded hellos to his brother and Blue and took up a spot on the other side of the rail from John.

"Hey, she’s pretty good," he said, after a moment. Actually, he was impressed. Carrie had the horse doing figure eights at a lope, and the filly was performing neat led changes that she shouldn’t really know how to do, yet, as green as she was.

Big John only grunted. But there was no doubt how the senior Butler felt; he was grinning from ear to ear.

Carrie worked the young animal for about fifteen minutes, then trotted her back to the rail. "She’s wonderful, Uncle John, as smooth as silk," she said, leaning down on the filly’s neck. "I’d love to finish her…" Her glance took in all the men, but her smile was for Sam. He smiled back at her.

Cannon pulled a face. "Oh, I knew that was coming," he protested, but there was little conviction in it. Around him, the men laughed. He turned to Sam.

"It’s okay by me, Boss," the foreman said, still smiling. "One less horse I have to finish…"

Cannon looked back at his niece. "Well, I suppose it will keep you out of trouble, anyway," he sighed. "All right…" Then he cocked a grin at her. "You got a name for her?"

Carrie patted the filly on the neck. "I’m going to call her Poppy," she said, answering her uncle, but smiling at Sam. "Desert Poppy. Because she’s dainty and sweet, and because I think she’s tougher than she knows."

III

"Manolo. Please. You are making me nervous."

Victoria had been watching her brother pace silently across the front porch of the ranch house for the previous ten minutes. Several days had passed since Carrie's "adoption" of little 'Poppy', and she and Blue had gone out for a ride in the desert. John and Buck had gone to Tucson to file the signed army contracts, and the rest of the men were about their own business. The rancho was quiet and it was such a pretty afternoon, Victoria had taken her basket of mending out onto the porch in order to better enjoy it. Manolito’s restlessness was disturbing her serenity. She had finally had enough. "Come here and sit with me a moment. What troubles you, my brother?"

"And what makes you think something troubles me, Victoria?"

She just looked at him. "Because I know you," she said. "And you are like… like a cat with an ache in his stomach, the way you pace and fret." Manolito burst out laughing at this analogy. But Victoria was not going to be put off. "Will you not tell me what is wrong?"

He sighed and shook his head. "It is spring, my sister. That is the only thing that troubles this cat with a belly ache."

"Won’t you sit?" Victoria cajoled him gently.

"I do not think so," he said. Then he leaned down and kissed her cheek to take away the sting of the refusal. He did love his sister dearly, but she could drive a man mad with her worrying, sometimes. And there were some things one simply did not share with a sister. Or anyone, perhaps, until one had resolved one’s own mind.

"I think sitting is the last thing I should do," he told her. "In fact, I think what I will do is ride out and join the herd." It was not his rotation, but he figured he could probably replace Pedro or Joe without much argument from them. He needed to be alone with his own thoughts for a while, away from the scrutiny of his loving but meddlesome sibling, and there were few better places to find the kind of solitude he was seeking than trailing cattle. Except maybe riding night herd. And since the herd was still a couple of hours away from the ranch, it would be nearly nightfall by the time he got there. So he could have his chance at that, too, if he chose.

The day was truly beautiful, the kind of day that could make a man’s heart ache just for the loveliness of it. Even if he was not already aching with a desire with which he did not know how to contend. But that was the secret he had been unable to share with his sister. That he, Manolito Montoya, was in love. And he didn’t know what to do about it. He pondered the absurdity of his circumstances as the desert passed swiftly beneath his horse’s feet.

Love. How many times had he said the word? Even felt it, meant it? Often enough to be even a little embarrassing, perhaps. For him to be in such a quandary was almost amusing, were it not so very deeply distressing. Because he was in love, and this time, it was different. He did not really understand it. Why could he not get Caroline Madigan out of his mind? She was beautiful, yes, but so were many other women. He was not immune to her physical charms, but it was not them that drew him, and he knew it. It was not enough to explain the confusion he was feeling. No, he knew he would feel the same way about Señorita Carrie if she was as ugly as an old crow.

She was like no woman he had ever met before; at once fierce and vulnerable, innocent and wise. Young and old and fleeting and eternal. He could not claim that he understood her, only that he wanted to, more than anything else he could name. She drew him like a moth to fire, he wanted her, he wanted her with him always, he wanted to father her children. He wanted to know what secret she held within her, because he felt a secret there and wanted to share it. Ah, Manolito, he thought to himself, you are far gone, muchacho. If this had been anyone but himself so beset, he would have laughed.

Not that Don Sebastian Montoya was likely to find the situation amusing when he learned how serious his son was. His father was going to be a very large problem, Manolito was sure of that. For him to align himself with a woman who had no wealth, no family, no name, no influence, nothing to bring to the Montoya power base, that would be nothing short of disaster in Don Sebastian’s eyes. And the fact that Carrie was an Americano on top of it would only add to the insult, Manolito knew. His father would probably disown him. If he didn’t have him shot.

Manolito knew Don Sebastian had plans for him, and those plans did not include a penniless gringa wife. And for all of his cavalier attitude, Mano loved his father very much, and although he was not entirely sure he wanted the life Don Sebastian had in mind, he was also not so sure that he did not want it, either. He did not wish to permanently alienate the man. In fact, he would have been happiest not to have alienated him at all, except that there were so many things upon which he and the old Lion simply would never see eye to eye. That, he supposed, was simply inevitable between sons and fathers, and both he and Don Sebastian were ultimately prepared for forgive each other much. He was not sure he could get his father to forgive him this love, though.

Manolito drew rein as the trail crested a ridge, and looked out across the desert below him. He knew he could not really see Sonora from where he sat, but he knew it was out there. It was always out there, calling him. Reminding him. Waiting. His past. Perhaps his future? Or did his future lie with the gringo rancho of John Cannon, on the High Chaparral. It would not be such a bad future. Cannon could be a hard man, and a stern task-master, but he was wise in the ways of the frontier and he was always fair. And, was Manolito married to the man’s niece, perhaps there would be a place for him as something more than a simple vaquero - a partner, even, perhaps. He was already Cannon’s brother-in-law, after all. Or perhaps he would establish his own hacienda in America, though in all honesty he could not see himself grubbing in the dust to raise up a rancho from scratch as had Cannon.

Though, if he was truly honest, Manolito could not see himself setting down permanent roots anywhere but Mexico. Riding for his brother-in-law was one thing. But his heart, his soul, and certainly his political commitments remained firmly south of the border. There were few things that could stir him so much as the dream of a Mexico free from the yoke of foreign oppression. Allies with the powerful American neighbor to the north, but independent, masters of their futures. And perhaps that was where his own future lay, to work for these goals in earnest. To leave his wild youth behind once and for all and take up the mantle of politics. His father could make the necessary contacts for him. He suspected would be good at it. He might even enjoy it. And perhaps he could do some real good for his country. And for his adopted country. He just didn’t know, it had been a long time since he had considered such things with any seriousness.

It was something he could see for himself only with the woman he loved beside him. Of course, Don Sebastian would tell him that he could never be accepted into the Mexican political arena with an American wife; it was out of the question. If such were his ambitions, he must align himself with one of the powerful estancias, or at a minimum with a Mexican family of money and influence. It was one thing for Don Sebastian to marry his daughter off to an Americano cattleman, that was sound economics, but the son of Montoya must marry a woman of equal standing. Nothing else would do. Manolito was sure his father had already chosen the acceptable candidates, and was simply waiting for his wayward son to finally settle down and accept his fate. And in the depths of his heart he supposed he had always been resigned to it, understanding it as a future inevitability, and putting it from his mind.

Except that now things were different. His heart had made another choice, and his father was just going to have to learn to accept it. Perhaps the girl herself could bring the old Lion around. She was beautiful, and his father had always had a soft spot for beautiful women. Manolito came by that honestly enough. And she was educated, well spoken. Refined and gentle, but with a sharp insight that would see through the old man’s nonsense pretty quickly, Manolito was sure. After all, she had seen through him quickly enough. Her upbringing might not have been entirely genteel, Manolito suspected, but that did give her a certain cachet and a hard practicality that could be an advantage to him whatever his chosen future. Surely his father would see that, if he could only be induced to look. And the niece of John Cannon could bring obvious political advantages with the gringo Territorial government at Tucson. Such a beautiful land was this - all of this, he sighed, staring out at the vastness. For him to join with Caroline Madigan was almost a symbol of these two great countries. Don Sebastian would understand that; he had to.

And, just maybe, the old buzzard might just like the girl for herself. She was witty and arch in a way that Don Sebastian tended to appreciate. Manolito was sure she would be able to hold her own with the old man. And she was young enough to provide many grandchildren. Yes, his father would have to come around. And Manolito did not expect any objections from his father-in-law to another marriage within the family.

But what of the girl? Manolito felt that she liked him well enough, and perhaps had feelings that went beyond mere liking, but he wanted no common courtship with her. She was too exceptional. He wanted to do something special to declare his love for her, something no one else would think of. It must be something of substance; not so extravagant as to alarm her, but something that spoke uniquely to her. He wanted to do something that would make her happy, make her feel cherished. He sensed that there had been a distinct lack of such things in her life. One thing he knew for certain, though, was that Caroline Madigan was like no other woman he had ever met. She would not be won by pretty words, she had no use for charm beyond a moment’s amusement. He had watched her disarm the hapless Señor Hannah, himself.

He pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. He did not feel discouraged, exactly, but for the first time in his life he was somewhat at a loss where a woman was concerned. This was too important. Everything must be perfect. He kicked at a stone, and then followed it with his eyes into the underbrush. He smiled Bending down, Manolito picked a small poppy flower and held it up to the sun. Yes, was she not his copa de oro? His cup of gold? She would not be won by headlong rushing, by some over-enthusiastic declaration of love. She required much more gentle handling, and something very special, before she would be likely to allow him to provide the thorns to protect her tender bloom.

He tucked the bud into his button hole, and that’s when he remembered. But of course. The conversation between Blue and Carrie that first morning they had all ridden out together. He already knew that Carrie had an interest in horses; had she not talked Big John out of her own filly to train? And she had expressed to her cousin a pleasure in sidesaddle riding, one she could not indulge on the High Chaparral. That was exactly the answer! He would write to his father in Sonora and have him send a lady’s side-saddle. The most beautiful one he could find. It was the perfect gift, simple, yet unique. It would charm her without words, and was something only he would know to give her. If he sent a letter immediately he could expect delivery in a few short days, a week, ten days at the most if he could impress upon his father the urgency. Without actually telling him what the request was for, of course.

Manolito sprang onto his startled horse. All thoughts of night herding had vanished, he would ride to Tucson post haste and find someone to take the message; he didn’t want anyone on the Chaparral to know. He wheeled his mount and set him off at a gallop. He would have his special gift, and then, once it was happily delivered, then would be the time for him to declare himself to her.

 

 Raid

I

"Riders comin!"

Blue looked up at the announcement, and squinted out toward the desert. "And a wagon!" he added, with a puzzled voice.

John came out of the house, his face a puzzled frown. Behind him came Victoria, and after her Manolito. Manolito was the only one who looked like he knew what was going on.

"Those are my father’s men," said Victoria, worried, now. They were expecting nothing from Rancho Montoya. Something must have happened.

But it was John who first recognized what was lying in the bed of the Rancho Montoya wagon. "What in the world?"

"What is it?" asked Blue. Carrie walked up beside him, and looked.

"Oh, no…" she cried.

Manolito beamed. "It is a side-saddle. For Señorita Madigan." He gestured gallantly. "We could not have such a terrible deficiency on the High Chaparral, so I wrote to my father and asked him to send us one. And here it is." He bowed to Carrie and she shook her head incredulously, not sure what to say or do.

Cannon turned to his brother-in-law. "Manolito, sometimes you do go a little overboard, you know that, don’t you."

But Victoria was amused. "Oh, John, I think it is very charming."

By this time, most of the hands had gathered around to see what was going on. It was Ira who first ventured a look into the wagon.

"What the heck is that contraption?"

"It’s a lady’s side-saddle," said Sam, peering at it curiously. "Anyways, that’s what Mano said it was…" The other men pressed in to see. It did look a little bit like a saddle, except for the peculiar arm-like pommels hanging off one side. And the fact that it only had one stirrup. The men exchanged highly skeptical looks. In reality, the side-saddle was a beautiful example of its kind, the black leather supple and highly polished, the seat and skirts adorned with elegant tapestry inserts. It was a work of art, but to the Chaparral hands it just looked damned peculiar. And maybe a little bit sinister.

"What are we supposed to do with it?" asked Blue.

"You, my young friend," said Manolito, throwing an arm across Blue’s shoulder, "are supposed to do nothing with it. It is for your cousin to ride in. So that she can be displayed in all of her beauty in her fine riding habit from St. Louis, and ride in elegant style."

Carrie raised an eyebrow at him. "Manolito Montoya," she said sternly, "I am not an exhibit. However," she giggled, suddenly, at the sea of curious faces around her, "since you have been so gallant. And so generous… and…" she slipped her arm around Blue’s waist, "since I can see by the look of incredulity on my baby cousin’s face that he still doesn’t believe I can actually ride in this thing… it would be my pleasure to demonstrate the finer points of sidesaddle riding." She exhaled. "If someone would be kind enough to put that on a horse…"

"Not that filly," John said quickly. "She’s way too green for this kind of tom-foolery…"

But Manolito was prepared for that, too. "Señorita? Mácadu is at your service," he said, offering her the use of his own mount.

Carrie looked at her uncle and shrugged helplessly. "Victoria," she asked. "Would you be so kind as to assist me?" Then she sighed, again, and shook her head. "I truly do not believe this." The two women left, giggling, for the house.

When Carrie came back out again, she was wearing the riding habit she’d brought from St. Louis. She did look stunning. Enough so that the men, who had gotten used to seeing her in simple skirts and blouses, stared. Manolito smiled and gallantly offered his arm. In the yard, Mácadu stood in the middle of a crowd of ranch hands, looking rather dejected. The saddling had become something of a group effort, with much discussion and gesturing to help the process along.

"Hey." Joe Butler whacked his brother in the arm.

"Huh?" Sam grunted, turning around. Joe shot an appreciative glance in Carrie’s direction, then looked back at his brother and grinned.

"Pay attention," he ordered, laughing. "We got this thing on right?"

Sam glared at the saddle, mystified. "How the hell should I know," he complained. The saddle was sitting on Mácadu’s back and the cinch was tight, but there were all these extra buckles and straps going off at odd angles that he had no real idea what to do about. And even if it was on right, which Sam rather doubted, the apparatus looked even stranger sitting there perched on top of Manolito’s palomino than it had in the wagon bed, with its flat little cantle turned sideways, and those great curving arms sticking off the near side. "Damn thing looks like somethin’ the Apache might use for torture."

Carrie came up on Manolito’s arm, overhearing Sam’s comment. She grimaced uncomfortably. "Poor Mácadu," she sighed, stroking the gelding. "He looks humiliated."

"Not at all, Caroline," Manolito assured her. "It is an honor to carry such a rider."

"Manolito, this is absurd. I feel like a circus act."

"You look beautiful," he laughed at her, kissing her hand. "¿Eh, hombres? ¿Es verdad?"

Carrie sighed. "I’ll need some help mounting…"

"I am your servant," said Manolito, with a courtly bow. "Allow me." Carrie finally laughed. She reached over and touched Sam on the arm.

"Would you hold his head for me, Sam," she whispered. "This may feel a little strange to him at first…"

"Yeah, sure, be glad to," Sam nodded, happy to have a task. He could see that the girl was embarrassed, and it bothered him greatly. He caught the gelding’s reins close to the bit and held him steady.

"Hold on a minute," Big John interrupted them. "Let me get a look at this." He eyed the saddle warily. He had seen a side saddle before, of course, but this was the first time he had actually had to put one on a horse. He looked at his foreman. "Sam, you boys got that thing on right?"

"I sure hope so, Boss," Sam replied, with feeling.

"They did fine, Uncle John," Carrie told him, her good humor returning. She laughed at his expression. "Now, don’t look so worried, it’s a very secure seat. Really. Look. My right leg goes around here," she touched the farther pommel, "and my left tucks up under this curve," she ran her hand under the arch of the near arm. "I’m actually wedged in there pretty well. It’s very safe, as safe as astride, anyway."

Big John made a face. "All right, let’s see how this is done, then…"

Carrie turned to Manolito and opened her hands in good-natured surrender. He lifted her easily into the saddle. She arranged herself carefully, her left leg in the stirrup, her right leg around the far pommel, and her skirts flowing around her. Mácadu pinned his ears and stomped a foot. Sam spoke to the horse quietly, and Carrie patted him on the shoulder.

"I know, big guy," she commiserated. "People, huh? You never know what they’re gonna do to you next." She caught Sam’s eye and winked at him. "Wish me luck. It’s been a while." Sam let the horse go, and she raised the short riding crop that had accompanied the saddle, tapping the horse on the side. He began walking.

She was a pretty picture. The riding clothes were a bright emerald green - a short jacket lined with tiny buttons and a soft full skirt. The matching hat was tall, and wound with some gauzy stuff that trailed down her back like a mist. Against the dark gold of the palomino’s flank, with her own dark gold hair, she fairly glowed. She looked like nothing most of the Cannon ranch hands had ever seen before.

After a moment’s placid walking, she touched the gelding into a trot, and when he seemed comfortable with that she moved into an easy canter around the space between the house and the corral. Her hair lifted out behind her, and her skirts flowed.

"She sure do look pretty up there, Big John," Buck sighed, watching her.

"Yes, she does," John answered, still not all together comfortable with this little exhibition. But Carrie was getting into the spirit of the thing. She reined horse around easily, then pointed him toward the water trough, taking the low hop to the applause of her spectators. She smiled at them, then turned the horse and cantered out the gate.

"Where’s she goin’?" Sam murmured.

"Caroline!" John called. The last thing he wanted was her gallivanting all over the desert in that fancy saddle. She looked secure enough, granted, but John still wasn’t sure he trusted the thing. Though the Apache would probably be too astonished to bother her. Carrie didn’t ride far, though, before she turned Mácadu back toward the compound. But she wasn’t coming back in the gate.

"She’s… she’s gonna jump the perimeter fence like that," Sam sputtered as soon as he had figured out what she was up to. "She’ll kill herself."

"That girl is out of her mind!" John exclaimed, thinking frantically for some way to stop her without spooking the horse and putting her in greater danger.

"She’s your kin, Big John," Buck reminded him.

"And we all know how much sense ‘my kin’ have usually got," John snapped back.

There was nothing for it but to wait and see, though. They all watched, open mouthed, as she galloped toward the fence, lifted, and then sailed neatly over. Carrie reined down to a trot to the sound of gleeful hooting and hollering. She drew the horse to a stop beside Blue, her face shining as he beamed up at her.

"There," she laughed at her cousin. "Convinced now?"

"I never wudda believed it! Sam, didja see that?"

"Yeah, I saw it, Blue," Sam replied, gaping up at Carrie. He shook his head in disbelief, though whether in wonder at the action itself, or at the girl’s sheer nerve, was unclear, even to him.

Manolito walked over to join them, his expression enraptured. "Querida, you are so beautiful!" he said as he caught his horse’s head.

Carrie laughed. "Muchacho, you are so incorrigible."

But for once, Manolito had been serious. "I speak with absolute sincerity, Señorita. Gentlemen, is it not true? Is she not completely lovely? Sam, Joe? Buck?"

Carrie blushed, and John figured it was a good time to step in.

"You ready to get down from there?" he asked her. "I think we’re all convinced…"

Carrie nodded. "I think so," she said, reaching down for him. John lifted her out of the saddle and set her down on the ground. She turned, impishly, once she was on solid footing, again. "Okay, who’s next?"

The men exchanged looks.

"Not me," said Sam. "That thing scares me." He pointed at the lethal looking projections.

"It probably should," his brother murmured under his breath. Sam burst out laughing, and punched him in the arm.

"Well, I gotta try this…" said Blue. It took him a couple of attempts, and finally a boost from Reno, to get on, with all the men laughing at him, now.

Carrie turned to Manolito.

"You were truly exquisite, Carrie," he said. "And you are very skilled. I am impressed."

"It was very sweet of you, Manolito," she said. "and wholly extravagant. You really shouldn’t have done it."

"To see you so, it was worth it," he said.

"Thank you. It really was very nice," she leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. "But no more exhibitions, all right?"

Manolito looked solemn. "I am sorry if I have offended…"

"Oh, for heaven’s sake, no you haven’t offended. Please… Manolito. I will enjoy riding with you. I’m just not very comfortable being on display, is all." She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow.

"I will remember that," Manolito promised, happy again. "I am glad that my gift has pleased you. Perhaps, after supper, we can take a short ride together, while it is still light?" I have something I wish to ask you, enamorada, he thought but did not say.

But Carrie shook her head. "I can't tonight, Mano. I promised Blue I'd help him sort through some of his mother's things after supper. Another time, though."

"Of course. Another time," Manolito agreed, but he was obviously disappointed. He hid his frustration as best he could, though, smiled, and led her back to the house.

Still standing by the horse, Sam watched the retreating figures, his face a study in conflicting emotions. And Joe, in his turn, watched his brother, thoughtfully. A bemused smile touched his mouth. Then he noticed John Cannon also watching Sam, the older man’s expression inscrutable. The younger Butler sighed.

Joe Butler had known his brother to form very few female attachments, none of them lasting, regardless of the fact that he had been estranged from his wife for years before her death. Oh, he’d tie up with the occasional saloon hostess or dance hall girl, especially after a long cattle drive; he was human, and very much a man. But there was never anything serious. Yet, Joe did not think he was misunderstanding what he was seeing. It figured that Sam would finally fall now, and like this. Not, of course, that he could blame him any. The girl was both very attractive and very smart. But Carrie Madigan was the boss’s niece, and it was also pretty apparent that Manolito had already staked out an interest her. It would be too bad if this was gonna mean trouble.

Then, to his amazement, Joe saw Big John quirk a smile. He walked over to his brother.

"What’re you lookin’ at," Sam grumped.

"You," Joe chuckled. Then his expression got a little more serious. "I’d just hate to see you gettin’ yourself into somethin’ over your head."

Sam glowered. "You mind your own business."

Joe just nodded, with a smirk. "Whatever you say, brother," he laughed. He slapped the other man lightly in the arm, and walked away.

"All right, Blue, get down from there and give that poor creature a break," Big John hollered at his son, who was still perched atop Manolito’s long suffering horse.

"I don’t see what the big deal is," said Blue, sitting there with his leg still slung over the sidesaddle pommel.

Sam looked up at him sourly and snorted. "Yeah, well just wait till you try to get off…"

"Mr. Aaron Stoddard, may I present Mr. Gabriel Palmer."

They were sitting at the only table, in the only chairs, in a one room shack on the outskirts of town. If Stoddard had stepped into the dirt dooryard, he would have been able to see the tops of Tucson’s tallest buildings in the distance, but little else besides desert in all directions. The isolation made him nervous, but to Dick Barritt, the setting was ideal. He was close enough to town to discourage any marauding Indians and still far enough away from anything else to pretty much guarantee his privacy. And the miserable squat didn’t cost him anything.

At that moment, he was rather enjoying himself, playing the great organizer.

Stoddard held out a reluctant hand. "Mr. Palmer."

The truth was, Aaron Stoddard was still not at all sure how he felt about this alleged plan of Dick Barritt’s. Nearly a month had already passed since they had first spoken. It had taken Barritt that long to put the pieces into place, and Stoddard was nervous to the point of insanity. He was almost ready to call the whole thing off and try some direct more assault on the girl; there had to be some way to get to her. He had promised himself to hear Barritt out, but he already didn’t like this Palmer character. That much he knew for sure.

For his part, Gabe Palmer took the hand with equal hesitancy. Palmer had ridden with Barritt on and off for years. It generally happened that when either one of them had a plan or a scheme that looked like it might actually pay off, they went looking for the other; Barritt being in charge of the brain work, and Palmer, with a multitude of shady connections at his disposal, being generally in charge of putting together the resources. And although they had yet to strike it rich with any of their joint endeavors, they were still probably as close to being friends as men of their kind were likely to become. Palmer had seen Barritt put together some pretty wild plans in his day, and he had been party to more than a few of them. But he wasn’t so sure about this current scheme. He sensed too much of Dick Barritt’s personal vendetta the machinations to trust it entirely, and he didn’t trust this Stoddard character at all. Moreover, he wasn’t crazy about the whole idea of kidnapping some young woman away from her rightful kin, didn’t seem wholesome, somehow. On the other hand, Barritt had promised a goodly reward for success, and it was pretty obvious, even to Palmer, that Stoddard could afford to deliver. He supposed he had nothing to lose but a little time for talking to this Missouri gambler.

"Gabe, here, is the ‘connections man’," said Barritt to Stoddard. "It’ll be him what gets us the men and weapons we need."

Stoddard gave him a jaundiced eye, but nodded. "And this gentleman?" He nodded at a fourth man, sitting back in the shadows. The man sat forward.

"I believe I am the results of Mr. Palmer’s ‘connecting’, Señor," he said with a grin. He was obviously Mexican, about thirty years old, and he wore those years rakishly, like a man who had already wagered everything and lost it, and had nothing more to risk. A man who treated whatever life sent him as mere curiosity, good or bad, and who had no particular stake in outcomes, beyond the collecting of his pay. A very dangerous hombre. "I am called García." He said it in such a way as to leave doubt as to whether the name was his own, or a nom-de-guerre. Stoddard suspected the latter.

"May I assume, then, Señor García," said Stoddard, "that it is actually you who will be providing the men and weapons?"

García shrugged. "I know of several Indian braves who may be interested in a little killing for profit," he agreed.

Stoddard scowled. "Killing is not the point here, you remember that," he said. When García did not respond, he continued. "Apache?"

"No, not Apache, Señor. The Apache, they are too unpredictable, no? Too likely to remember their tribal loyalties. These bucks are… variously acquired?"

"Can they be trusted?"

"Not at all," said García. "But to a certain extent, they can be controlled. I think they will be sufficient to the Señor’s needs, as I have been led to understand them."

Stoddard pondered this. "How many?"

"Perhaps a dozen," García said. "To be supplemented by my own comancheros, if necessary."

Stoddard considered this for a moment. He looked at Barritt, without passing judgment one way or the other as to whether or not García met with his approval. For his part, García did not seem to care.

Barritt took a deep breath. "Now the way I figger it," he began, "we put into position under cover o’ dark. The Chaparral’s always got guards posted; usually a man on the roof and one at the gate, and mebbe another walkin’ the perimeter, but they won’t see us so easy if it’s night, and we’re quiet. Then we wait until Cannon has sent his men out for the day, and before the boys on night herd rotate in from their replacements. Just afore mid day, I figger. They’ll be the fewest men on the compound, then, to give us the least resistance." He unrolled a map he had drawn from memory the night before. "There’s a little row o’ hills to the west of the ranch house. The Apache use it to keep an eye on the place, I seen ‘em there mysel’. No reason why we can’t do the same. I’ll wait up there with a couple of men, and while Señor García is launching his attack aginst the ranch, we can slip in the back through this little wash, and pull the girl out without anybody bein’ the wiser." He smiled with relief that he had managed to get it all out. Actually, the plan seemed much simpler and more feasible to him now that he had stated it out loud than it had in the earlier hours of the morning when he had been trying to work out what he was going to say. He waited for Stoddard to comment.

Stoddard just stared at the map. It was all still too complicated to please him, but he had to admit a certain elegance to the plan. If it worked, he could be out of the Territory before anyone figured out that the girl had not been kidnapped by the Apache. If they ever figure it out. And even if they did, there was nothing to point a finger to him. Nothing except the men sitting in that room, anyway, and only Barritt knew where he was from, and how to possibly find him. If he even returned to St. Louis, which he was starting to think might not be the best idea, anyway. There were so many other places he could disappear with the girl. He was beginning to wish that he, like this García, had thought to use an assumed name, though. His need must be clouding his judgment a little. The sooner this was done, the better, if that was the case. He looked at Barritt, thoughtfully. The man did have a certain genius, it was true. Perhaps he might have some use for him, after this was all over. It was that, maybe, or kill him. He’d have to think about it.

He turned to the other men. "Mr. Palmer? Señor García? You’re in agreement with this plan?"

The comanchero leader shrugged. "Es posible," he answered vaguely. "Con suerte."

"I want more than luck," Stoddard said. "I want your assurance that this plan can be executed successfully. And I want an understanding with you," he turned to Barritt. "I know you’ve got some personal agenda, here, and I figure it probably has something to do with those Cannons’ untimely death. I know you got a grudge you're carrying. I don’t care a fig about any of that, but I want that girl out safely. Once you’ve got her, you can burn the place to the ground for all I care, loot it, steal everything not nailed to the floor boards. Kill every man-jack on the place. But I want that girl, alive and unharmed. This attack is and remains a diversionary tactic only, until that time. I want no killin’ that will risk the girl or this operation. Do you understand that?"

Barritt swallowed hard, then nodded. Stoddard looked at García. "And you?"

"This is your dance, Señor," García replied mildly. "You are paying the band. It is your right to choose the music." He leaned forward across the table. "But remember this, too, Señor Stoddard. If the band plays your song, they expect to be paid for it, and handsomely. They get very irritated when that does not happen."

"You’ll get paid," Stoddard replied, unfazed by the not-so-veiled threat. "As soon as that girl is safely in my custody." He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "All right," he said to no one in particular. "When do you propose to put this plan into action? I won’t wait forever."

II

Carrie spent a good part of every day with the horses. She worked the filly regularly, teaching her to respond automatically to leg and rein; forming neat patterns across the sand, figure-eights and serpentines; even jumping her bareback over low obstacles. And Sam, somehow, often managed to be there with her, helping her, providing exercises of particular use to a cow pony, or just hanging around watching. Blue came down to watch, too, and Joe, as well, when he had a free moment. In fact, all of the men usually found an excuse to come down and watch her, if they happened to be around the ranch. Eventually, even Big John came down to see what was going on.

"Caroline, you’re gonna turn that horse into a lap dog," he called to her as he watched his niece putting the filly through a series of alternating side passes down the far rail of the corral.

Carrie waved. "Oh, she’s much better behaved that that, Uncle John."

Cannon chuckled. Then he caught Sam’s eye, and waited while the man walked toward him expectantly. "Sam, are you sure she’s not gettin’ in your way down here?" He was beginning to regret his earlier generosity. He had really expected the girl to lose interest, to tell the truth.

"No, sir, she’s no trouble," the foreman said quietly. He glanced over at Carrie and smiled possessively.

John looked thoughtful. "The men don’t mind?" he asked finally. That was what was really worrying him. Ranch hands were a very particular breed. Some men could get antsy enough with cowpunchers working as wranglers and vice versa, but horse breaking was a man’s job and Carrie Madigan did not fit the job description, for all that she continued to dress in pants to do it. Which might rattle the hands enough, all by itself.

"No one’s said anything to me about it," said Sam in a voice that implied he’d know just how to deal with such complaints if he heard them. Though the fact was, nobody grumbled. Carrie stayed out of the way, and it was obvious that she knew what she was doing. Once they got used to the idea, the men were actually kind of intrigued.

John sighed. "Well, I suppose I have no objections," he said, "as long as it doesn’t cause a problem with morale."

"There are no problems, Boss," said Sam. He sounded a little insulted, and Cannon supposed he couldn’t blame him. After all, he had practically accused the man of not doing his job. When men lived, ate, slept and toiled together in the kind of close proximity they did on a working ranch, it was easy for tempers to flare at the smallest inducement. Keeping the crew in a manageable humor was as much a part of the foreman’s responsibility as was getting the work done. And Sam was damn good at oiling the waters without losing the respect of the men.

Problem was, John Cannon didn’t miss much. And he had not forgotten his wife’s question to him, either. It had gotten him thinking, and paying attention, and he was beginning to have his suspicions that Sam Butler’s instincts might be just a little clouded on this particular matter. He wondered if the man fully realized it, yet.

Far from objecting to Carrie’s presence, Sam had begun to look forward to it, very much. He made excuses to be down at the corral when he knew she would be there. And they had developed a certain easy manner between them, sometimes discussing the horses or the ranch, sometimes just philosophizing. Though it wouldn’t have mattered much to Sam what they talked about.

The truth was, Sam Butler didn’t quite know what to do about Caroline Madigan. He liked her. He liked her a lot. Probably more than was strictly appropriate, although he tried not to think about that. He respected her, he respected her abilities and her good sense. She was sweet and funny, and had an honest practicality that appealed to him immensely. And that daredevil streak she sometimes flashed fascinated him far more than he liked to admit. When she laughed, which was often, he found that he had to laugh with her, and it made him feel a little like a kid, again. And when she was serious, she could be deep and thoughtful in a way he found surprising in one of her years. She had a bright, hard intelligence that challenged his thinking, and often left him a little breathless. And she was very damned easy on the eyes.

But it was more than that, too, and he knew it. There was something in her, some hurt he could sense but could not name, that spoke volumes to an answering hurt within him. A loneliness that had its roots in the betrayal of some fundamental trust. It wasn’t something he liked to try to put words to, or even to acknowledge, outright. Yet he could not deny that something inside him recognized in her a wariness that held back that last little bit of self from the world; like a hand-shy horse that had been hit in the face once too often, yet still yearned to be petted. It wasn’t always that obvious, it wasn’t particularly frequent. But every once in a while, their conversation would take an odd turn and she would go all strange on him, distant and puzzling. Her gray eyes would get flinty and she would drop some small comment that would make his skin creep. And then she would smile, sadly, and perhaps apologize, as if expecting he would understand the reasons. It left him bewildered, and troubled. And he found it almost irresistible.

He told himself she was just a kid. Except that he knew she wasn’t, and he suspected that somewhere inside her, maybe she hadn’t been for many years. She had told him enough about her life to get him thinking so, surmising reasons. And rather than warning him off, as it probably should have, it left him feeling things he hadn’t felt in a very long time, things he already suspected where going to become a problem for him, if he wasn’t careful. Things he had no business even wondering about. Because of who he was. And who she was.

He wanted to understand what had hurt her. He wanted to fix it… He had started wanting a lot of things he could barely bring himself to put thoughts around, let alone allow himself to consider as things he might possibly have… But he just wasn’t gonna think about that.

He found her, several mornings after the sidesaddle exhibition, just trotting the filly around, making fine, tight circles on the neck rein. He stopped for a while, watching her. He had work to do; in fact, the new horses he’d been training had all either been moved to the remuda, or turned back out, so he had no particular reason for being down at the corral at all. But it was so much more pleasant, watching the girl with her little horse moving so prettily. She looked over at him and waved. Against his better judgment he slipped through the rails, then pulled an old saddle blanket off the pole it had been flung over, and waved her into the middle of the ring.

"Let’s sack her a little," he suggested. "Be good for her." ‘Sacking a horse’ being a wrangler’s method of getting a young animal used to the unexpected, and to being touched.

Carrie smiled. "A little lesson in moving objects?" she quirked an eyebrow at him. Then, instead of bracing, she sat deeper and relaxed.

Sam nodded and raised the blanket. The filly shied. He flapped it gently, and she hopped backwards, ears pinned and the whites of her eyes showing. Carrie held her with her legs, crooning and patting her. And so they continued, the both of them laughing as the filly jumped and squirmed to get away from the moving blanket. And then, as her curiosity got the better of her and she started to settle down, Sam slapped her with it, lightly, moving the blanket over her body as Carrie continued to hold her and calm her. The blanket moved back and forth between them, creating a light breeze in the heat, touching Carrie occasionally as it slid over the animal’s back and sides. After a few moments, the filly just stopped and stood still. Sam moved closer, letting the blanket rest over her withers and drape across Carrie’s thigh. She smiled down at him, shyly, and for once he did not look away.

"Carrie…"

Neither one of them saw Big John. "Sam, if you can tear yourself away from all this, I’d like you to ride over to the Circle L. Langley’s got an Appaloosa stud over there he might actually be willing to part with. I’d like you to have a look at him."

Butler spun around, guiltily, dragging the blanket back away from the horse. The filly shied.

"Uncle John," Carrie said. "We didn’t see you…"

Which was pretty obvious to Big John. He smiled benignly.

"How’s she coming along?" he asked, running a hand over the filly’s rump.

"Very well, thank you," Carrie replied, dismounting so that she would not have to look at him. She hoped her heart wasn’t pounding as loudly as it sounded to her ears, but she was sure there was no color left in her face at all. "She’s worked hard today, and she's feeling very pleased with herself. She’s probably ready for a rest."

"I’m sure she is," said John. "Well, don’t let us keep you."

Carrie offered quick good-byes, and then led the filly out of the corral. John watched his foreman’s eyes follow her, and he cleared his throat. Sam was all attention, again.

"Right way, Mr. Cannon. I’ll take care of it," he said, flustered.

"Thank you, Sam," John replied. And as soon as the man was out of earshot, he started laughing softly to himself.

Carrie led the filly into the corral, and began to untack her. Her hands were shaking, and her knees; she could still feel the weight of Sam’s hand on her leg above the blanket. Of how it made her feel, to have him so close, touching her, looking at her the way he had. But what would her uncle think… And then Uncle John, coming up on them so unexpectedly. She blew out a breath and tried to calm her pounding heart. And then she thought of Sam, again, and smiled in spite of her confusion.

"Señorita, you work much too hard."

She spun, startled, and the filly snorted and pinned her ears in fright. Manolito was standing behind her. "Mano. I didn’t see you there." She put a hand out to calm the horse, and herself.

"Forgive me," Manolito said, coming up beside her. "I did not mean to alarm you." He moved closer. "It is difficult to find the opportunity to speak to you, you are always so busy down here with Sam and the horses…" And in truth, it had frustrated him greatly that he had had no chance to speak to her privately. When he had such important things to say.

Unaware of his greater purpose, Carrie just looked surprised. After all, she saw the man practically every day. "I like horses, Manolito; you know that," she said, pulling the cinch strap out of its knot. "I enjoy working with them."

"And by all means you should do what brings you pleasure." He reached over and put his hands over hers as she started to lift the saddle. "Here. Let me help you."

Carrie removed her hands from under his and stepped out of the way. "Thank you."

Manolito threw the saddle over a rail, then moved to the filly’s head. He spoke to her softly in Spanish as he slipped off her bridle, and buckled a halter in its place.

"You should have someone to do this for you," he said, picking up a brush and running it over the filly’s withers.

"I really don’t mind it," Carrie told him, feeling bewildered at his concerns. He turned and smiled at her.

"You are a true treasure," he sighed. Then he nodded at her work worn attire. "You should be dressed in silks, not these dusty men’s things."

Carrie laughed. "I’ve worn silks, Manolito," she told him. "And I will probably wear them, again. But they’re a little impractical for this sort of thing…"

He took a step toward her. "Enamorada… Carrie. Let me provide those silks for you. And jewels, and hair pieces. Let me give you all the beautiful things that you deserve. Fine horses if that is what you desire…"

Carrie frowned at him. "Manolito, what are you talking about?"

"I will be a wealthy man, some day, Caroline," he continued. "Rancho Montoya… My father’s hacienda…

"Mano," she demanded, losing patience now.

"I’m asking you to marry me…" he looked at her helplessly.”Carrie. I love you."

For a moment she just stared at him, open mouthed. And then she let a breath escape, just managed to bite back an "oh, no…" She composed herself carefully.

"Mano, I’m so sorry."

He just looked at her, not understanding.

"I can’t accept. I’m… flattered. I thank you… so much, Mano. But… I can’t. I’m sorry."

"But why?" was all he asked.

"I don’t love you," she said. "I… like you. I like you very much, Manolito. You’re my friend, and I care about you as a friend. I enjoy being with you. You make me laugh. Look, I’m making a hash of this but there’s no easy way to say it. I just can’t marry you. I’m so sorry. But no."

Manolito looked by turns angry, hurt, and then bewildered. And then, slowly, his expression transformed itself into a puzzled frown. He nodded.

"There is someone else." It was not a question, and it wasn’t exactly an accusation. It was a simple statement of fact, one directed more to himself, Carrie thought, than to her.

"Mano, please. Please don’t do this …"

"And I think it is not Señor Hannah…" he concluded as if he did not hear her.

For a moment, he looked terribly, desperately sad. And then he took a deep breath, just as suddenly resigned. He turned, abruptly, and left. Carrie almost cried. Of all the miserable complications to throw into this already complicated situation: Manolito wanted to marry her... On the other hand, he probably proposed to every girl who interested him. It almost made her angry, when she thought about it.

"You haven’t made him very happy," commented a voice behind her. Carrie turned and saw Sam standing there, watching her. She was almost too upset to react to his presence.

"He’ll get over it," she said, harshly, too rattled to control her tone. She closed her eyes, still struggling against tears. "I didn’t mean it that way," she amended softly. "I didn't mean it the way it sounded. I just didn’t… I just had no idea, that’s all." She pulled off her battered hat in frustration and let her hair tumble loose in the sun. Sam caught his breath.

"I, uh, didn’t mean to overhear you," he said, quickly. "I just came to get my horse. By the time I knew what was going on..."

"It’s all right, Sam," she said. She hesitated a moment, then continued, needing to explain herself to this man. "He just took me by surprise. I never even thought… I never realized. I don’t know," she looked back the way Manolito had disappeared. "I suppose I just never took him seriously, he's always so..." She sighed. "He could charm the wind."

"Don’t underestimate him," Butler said, defending his friend. Carrie turned back to look at him. "Mano’s a good man."

"No," she said. "No, I don’t. I know he’s a good man. He’s noble and honorable and kind, and he has a great heart. And great courage. And someday Manolito Montoya will make some woman a fine husband." She grimaced sadly. "But not yet, I think. He thinks he wants this, now, but he’d be bored with it all in six months, Sam. And I don’t want to be anybody's practice round." She looked up at him, her expression a little haunted, now. "I've known a lot of charming men, Sam. My father was a charming man, he could talk you out of heart and soul with that golden tongue of his. My mother..." She looked away. "It's not what I want."

Sam thought he understood. She was wrong, of course. Nobody could deny that Manolito Montoya knew how to pour it on, nor was the man averse to using those skills to his own advantage where women were concerned. But Sam knew his friend, and he knew that Manolito would never intentionally use that charm of his to cause any woman serious hurt. And Sam had heard the other man's tone as he had spoken. He believed he was sincere. Carrie was letting what Sam was beginning to suspect was some bitter experience from her own past color her perception of the man. What had always been Manolito's strongest personal asset to conquest had become a fatal flaw were this girl was concerned.

On the other hand, Sam could not quite bring himself to disabuse her of her misunderstanding. "What do you want, Carrie?" he asked, taking a step closer.

The girl blushed, suddenly shy. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Then, reaching tentatively, she touch her fingertips to the back of his hand. Sam let his fingers close around hers.

The moment was broken by a blood curdling scream. Sam grabbed Carrie’s arm and pulled her close to him. He scanned the horizon.

"Get up to the house."

"What is it?" she whispered, pressing against him in fear.

"Apache. They’ll be here pretty quick, there may not be much time." He pushed her away from him. "Go! Run!"

III

Carrie bolted toward the ranch house as men poured out of all corners, pushing wagons and barrels, anything they could find, attempting to erect some kind of rapid barricade. John met Sam running across the yard.

"Where’s Carrie!" he demanded.

"I sent her up to the house," replied Sam.

Cannon nodded. "What the hell’s goin’ on, Sam? The Apache have been quiet since before winter. We have an agreement …"

"I don’t know, Mr. Cannon. Maybe some sub-chief tryin' to prove himself. You know the Apache, an agreement is only good so long as enough braves are willin' to keep to it… and we got a lot of discontented Apache out there…"

"Maybe," Cannon agreed, staring out through the gate where some of the hands were tipping over a wagon. "But with no warning… No sign of a war path… Hardly any presence at all. Not even a hint. What the hell's brought them down on us now?" He looked back at Sam. "All right, get the men in place. And make that barricade as tight as you can - I don’t know how much time we’ve got…"

The order was not really necessary, but both men felt better for its having been given. Sam put two of the new men on the roof with Reno, and Blue on the barricade with Ira. He dispersed the others along the fence, and put Pedro on the tower.

"Look sharp," he told them. He took his place beside his brother on the barricade.

And then they waited. There was another war cry, and then another, but still no sign of Apache. There was no mad rush of blood-lusting young braves. No sudden strike from the bushes. Neither was any ritual chanting, and no war chief rode out to have a look at them. None of the many things they had been led to expect from Apache warriors. Just hot still air, and the occasional threatening yell. It was nerve wracking. Sam had the men use the time to shore up the weaker places, but John didn’t want them off the line for long. He had no idea what had triggered this particular assault, no idea what their attackers were waiting for. No idea what to expect. So mostly they just stood there, rifles ready. Waiting…

Dick Barritt watched from a hill to the west of the ranch house as the first war cry split the air. He was dressed in Apache garb and war paint, as was Palmer, beside him. It had been deceptively easy to attain the hillock; they had only needed to wait until the guard on the roof was looking elsewhere. It would be far more difficult to reach the next objective, the shallow ravine that ran parallel to the back of the ranch compound. It was from there that they would launch their assault against the house itself, from there that Caroline Madigan would be extracted.

He lifted the field glasses and gazed down below. It was a hive of activity, hands running helter-skelter in what appeared to be no organized fashion. But Barritt knew that every move was orchestrated toward the speedy building of defenses and the arming of the men. The Chaparral crew was expert at these things; they'd had plenty of practice. He also knew that there was a much smaller contingent of defenders than would please John Cannon, as many of the hands were out with the herds. It was exactly as he had expected; it was all going just as he planned. A reduced force meant that Cannon would have most of the men on the barricade, and almost no one to defend the women in the house. It was perfect.

He almost missed Carrie as she darted across the yard toward the house. She was dressed in men’s trousers, which he had not expected, and if not for her hair streaming out behind her, he would have mistaken her for one of the hands. But she fit the description Stoddard had given him, and anyway, he knew it hadn’t been Cannon’s Mexican wife.

"There she goes!"

Beside him, Gabe Palmer grabbed for the glasses. "Lemme see!" Barritt snatched them back. "How the hell am I supposed to grab this girl if I ain't never seen her? How'm I supposed to know what she looks like," Palmer complained.

"Ain’t but two women live on the place, 'ceptin' the servant, and Cannon's wife's a Mex," said Barritt. "You grab th’other one. She just run into the house, just like we expected. So we knows she’s in there."

Palmer scowled, but there wasn’t time to argue as two more men dressed in Indian clothing and war paint joined them. One of them actually was an Indian. The brave was not Apache, though the clothes he wore were.

"They all in place," said the white man, whom Palmer introduced to Barritt as Cooter Smith.

"Where’s García," Barritt demanded. He had expected Palmer’s comanchero cohort, not this stranger.

"He be down there with yer war party," said Smith. "We’s havin’ a little trouble…"

"What kind of trouble," Barritt asked darkly.

"Wall, seems like them comancheros he hired to dress up like A-pach done just figgered out that them Chaparral boys is gonna be shooting real live bullets, and somebody might jist get hurt in this little fracas. Seems they ain’t so sure they like that. They want more money, seems."

Barritt spat. "You tell those miserable cowards that they’ll do what they were hired for, for what they been hired, or they’ll take their pay in led."

Smith just shrugged.

"Who’s this?" Barritt pointed at the brave.

"Name’s Big Paw," Smith said with a sneer, and Barritt could immediately understand why the other man was laughing. The Indian’s hands were startlingly small for a man’s. "Say’s he got the name cuz he’s so strong with a knife an’ a bow. Or maybe it ain’t his hands they’s referring to…" Smith cackled obscenely.

Barritt ignored the innuendo. "Whatcha bring him up here for?"

"That’s th’other problem," said Smith. "Them injuns is just a little bit too eager for this fight. They don’t wanna hear nothing about diversion nor holding back. They’s here to kill white folks, and they aim to do it. Or anyways, that’s what they sayin’. Thought mebee you’d like to speak to this young buck yersel’."

Baritt turned to the Indian. "Now, you listen to me," he said, gesticulating with a pointed finger. "You were hired to follow orders. And those orders say you create a diversion until we git that girl out of there, and then you git in there an kill you as many of them Cannons as you kin. But not until we got the girl. I don’t care who you kill after that, so long as you make damn sure that Buck Cannon is among ‘em. But we got a contract to fulfill or no pay. You want your money, you do as I say. ¿Sabe?"

The brave just stared at him. Barritt looked at Smith. "Do this savage speak English?"

"I speak English," Big Paw said laconically.

"Then I wanna hear you speak some," Barritt barked. "I wanna hear you tell me you understand what I’m sayin’ and that you’ll obey it. Or so help me, Injun, if you screw this up I’ll stretch your sorry hide from one end of this vega to the other and let the desert eat you. Now. Do you understand me?"

The brave waited just long enough to control the moment. "Yes. I understand," he replied, very precisely. Barritt guessed he must have been mission educated somewhere along the line, to speak with such careful diction. Which just went to prove you couldn’t reform no injun, no matter what them mission folks said.

"Git him outta here," he growled at Smith. "You tell García I want those boys o’ his to attack as soon as we’re in position. Give us fifteen minutes. And he’s not to start the serious fightin’ until he knows we got the girl. Keep those ranch hands busy, but don’t risk too much, we don’t know how long this is gonna take, and we don’t want nobody going back up to that house with wounded. Soon as we got her, I’ll signal with this arrow," he waved the shaft in the air. A long black tail was attached to it, like a kite. "He sees this, it’s free for all time. I don’t want a Cannon standin’ when he done. You got that?" Smith nodded. "Then go tell him. And git yer ass back up here so’s we can git oursel’s into position and go over the rest of the plan."

Barritt watched as the two descended the slope, then lifted the field glasses, again.

"What’s goin’ on?" asked Palmer.

"Nothin’. They just waitin’"

Another war cry split the air, bringing the Chaparral crew into momentary alertness. And then, when nothing followed, they relaxed again. Barritt snorted with satisfaction. A few minutes later, Smith returned.

"García says he’s got everything under control. He’s givin’ us fifteen minutes, like you said."

Barritt nodded and waved him closer. "All right. Listen up. Here’s a map of the house. You’ll go down that ravine until you’re parallel with the perimeter fence in back, then make your way across to this outbuilding. It’s a shack leads to the kitchen. They use it for supplies and such. Shouldn’t be nobody there now. From there you can git into the kitchen and then into the main house. Now, the girl might be down in the parlor, but most likely she’ll be hidin’ in one o’ the bedrooms. There’s three men on the roof, I can see ‘em, but there shouldn’t be nobody else in the house ‘cept the missus, and maybe that old Mex, Vaquero. But nobody else, they’ll all be out on the barricade. Cannon’s got too many men out with the herds to leave any inside to protect the women. I don’t care what you do with the Mex, or with Cannon’s wife long as it don’t take no time or make no noise. But don’t hurt that girl. She’s our meal ticket. And don't take nothin', you ain’t got the time for thievin'. Just git in there, git that girl and git out agin. We’ll rendezvous here. I’ll have the horses waitin’ on the other side of this ridge."

"Ain’t you comin’?" asked Smith, surprised. Barritt had seemed so enthusiastic, he’d just expected the other man would want to accompany them. But Barritt shook his head.

"I used to work here, remember?" he said. "Anybody sees you, they’ll figure you for injuns, they see me, they might just recognize me, even dressed like this." It was a hard position to argue, so nobody did. "Any more questions?" There weren’t. "All right. Git goin’ then."

It was dead quiet on the barricade.

"Hey, Sam."

The elder Butler looked over at his brother. Joe wore a puzzled frown as he stared into the desert.

"Yeah?"

"How long we been fightin’ Apache?"

Sam considered the question. "Oh, I dunno," he replied, his voice tinged with sudden amusement. "How old are you?"

Joe let the corner of his mouth curl up, but his eyes remained deadly serious. "This feel right to you?"

Sam looked back out at the desert. As happened often enough between the brothers, Joe had just given voice to the worry that had been nagging at the back of his own mind. "Nope," he said. "It don’t."

"Me neither," said Joe. "I can’t put my finger on it…"

Sam nodded. "Yeah," he said after a moment. Then he straightened up. "Keep your eyes open." He walked away. Joe didn’t even look at him.

Sam found John with Buck and Manolito.

"What is it, Sam?" Big John queried.

"Mr. Cannon, somethin’s not right here," Sam said. "Joe feels it, too."

"You see?" said Manolito. "I am not the only one."

"What are you thinking, Sam," asked John.

"I don’t exactly know," the other man admitted. "But whatever they’re up to, it’s somethin’ different… This isn’t the usual war party."

"I agree," said Manolito.

"Well, you said it yourself, Sam. We don't know who's leading this particular war party, could be some young sub-chief we've never faced before. Maybe they’ve changed tactics."

Manolito answered before Sam could comment. "The Apache take battle very seriously, John," he said. "To them, it is not just a question of tactics. It is like… a religious observance, an offering. It is not something left to the whim of a war chief. This is wrong," he shook his head. "I feel it."

"Mano’s right," agreed Sam, any competitiveness he might have felt toward the man a half hour earlier gone, unimportant.

John Cannon knew better than to ignore the instincts of men as seasoned at fighting Indians as these were. "So what are you suggesting," he demanded.

"I wish I knew what to tell you," Manolito sighed. "But we should be wary. Something outside our understanding may be afoot here."

"All right," Cannon said. "Sam, tell the men to keep their eyes and ears open. Be ready for the unexpected."

He didn’t have a chance to say more. Another war cry split the air, and then Reno fired a single shot from the roof.

"Here they come!!"

"How many?" Cannon bellowed up to him as the others ran back to their places.

"Twenty… ?" He sounded uncertain. Cannon ran for the barricade, straining his eyes to see.

It was different right from the start. There was a sudden rush of warriors, and then a hesitation, the charging braves splitting into two groups while they were still outside the range of rifle shot, firing harmlessly in the direction of the barricade. Then they peeled off to the right and left, back into the desert.

"Sons-a-bitches ‘r’ playin’ with us, Big John," Buck cursed.

"Hold your fire!" John shouted to his men. "Don’t shoot unless they come within range - don’t waste the ammunition!" He turned back to Buck. "What the hell… Did you recognize the leader?"

"I doen recognize none of ‘em," Buck replied in frustration..

"Nor do I," concurred Manolito.

They did not have time to speculate further, as the raiders advanced again.

"Hold your fire!" Cannon shouted again, understanding that what he was asking of his men was nearly the impossible in the tension of battle. They were good men, though, disciplined. They did as commanded. The Apache raiders made another harmless pass.

"What in tarnation they up to?" demanded Buck.

"Here they come again," called Blue Boy. This time, there was no toying. The Indians rode straight in, firing fiercely. The men returned fire shot for shot.

"This is more like it," Buck grumbled, cocking the action on his Winchester and firing with deadly determination. Beside him, John Cannon also fired, but with more studied care. The attackers were still holding back, he could feel it. They were barely approaching the barricade, and none tried to breech it. A few fell to Chaparral bullets, but this was not the kind of all out attack they had witnessed in the past.

He took a moment to look around him, counting heads. There were blessedly few casualties on his side, as well. One of the new men lay still under the lip of the roof. And Ira’s leg was bleeding, but he was still on his feet and firing. No one else appeared particularly harmed. So, whatever these Apache were trying to accomplish, it did not seem to be wholesale slaughter… He felt the zing of a bullet as it whistled past his ear, crouched, and focused his attention back on the shooting.

"What’s goin’ on out there?" Carrie whispered. She stood tensely by the ranch house fireplace, a Colt .44 caliber revolver in her hand. She looked frightened, but so far, in control of herself. Beside her, Victoria also stood with a shot gun. The other woman shook her head. Vaquero, his rifle through the gun port in the front door, heard her as well, despite the whisper. He turned to the women without drawing the rifle in.

"The attack is fierce, Señora, but not so fierce as we have seen it in the past," he directed his answer at Victoria. Like Sam, Joe and Manolito, Vaquero had a wealth of experience fighting both Apache and Mexican banditos. This attack felt strange to him, although neither could he put his finger on exactly why. But the oddness made him uneasy in a way that went beyond mere battle nerves. "Still, it would be much safer for you upstairs in the bedroom with the door and the shutters locked. Please Señorita," he appealed to Carrie, now. The Señora, he knew, was a seasoned survivor of these battles and a reasonably good shot, she would know how to act. But this was the girl’s first Indian raid, and Vaquero was concerned about her reaction should things get really hot. He wanted them both out of the way in the safest place he could think of. But neither seemed inclined to go.

"I’m all right, Vaquero," Carrie told him. "I’d rather see danger coming, if I have to see it at all." Vaquero looked at Victoria, who nodded. He looked back at the girl. She seemed calm enough, anyway, and she held that pistol like she might be familiar with its use.

"You know how to use that, Señorita?" he asked, nodding toward the gun.

Carrie glanced down at it. "I have," she replied simply. Vaquero hesitated a moment longer, then gave up the appeal.

They could hear men on the roof, their boots clomping as they ran from one side to the other. Then they heard a scream and a hard thud. Heard something roll down the porch roof, and they knew a man had probably died in that moment. Who? was etched on all their faces. Carrie went pale, but otherwise did not react. Vaquero turned back to the gun port. But the action outside did not hold his attention for long.

Vaquero had lived at the High Chaparral longer than any of the present occupants, had served her previous owner, and had fought many a battle there. He knew the house and the sounds it made, and he knew that the small crash he had just detected was not the natural effect of the battle. Someone was trying to enter through the back of the house. He strained to listen, then drew his rifle in, and turned, careful not to let his concern show in his face.

"The señoras will please wait here," he said. "I will check the back of the house, now, to be sure we are secure there."

The noise had come from behind the kitchen door. It was their most vulnerable spot, really, because of the cluster of indefensible outbuildings that nested right up against the house, there. Vaquero passed through the kitchen itself and a narrow passageway, into a supply shed behind the house that served as a combination pantry, wine cellar and sometimes ammo dump. Cautious as he was, he never saw his attacker, although he sensed him just before the pistol butt came down on the back of his head. He sank to the dirt floor, motionless.

Back at the front of the house, the women remained unaware of what had happened. They had moved to the door, Victoria taking Vaquero’s place at the right hand gun port, Carrie looking through the open one on the left. She could see the barricade and the melee just beyond it. She saw the men fighting furiously, and struggled to identify them: John and Buck. Blue Boy. Manolito. She saw Joe Butler, and some distance beyond him, Ira Beane, with his neck scarf tied around his pant leg and a dark stain on his trousers below it. Wounded, apparently, but still on his feet. And at the far end of the barricade was Sam. Carrie exhaled in relief. The action was too violent to follow, and Carrie wondered at Vaquero’s words that the fighting was not as fierce as they were used to. And there were men she could not see. She prayed that it was only because they were out of her line of sight, and not that the worst had happened. She glanced over at Victoria. The other woman only smiled grimly, and turned back to the rifle port.

Out on the barricade, Joe Butler drew himself up, bringing the rifle up with him, and fired repeatedly at the onrush until the chamber was empty of ammunition. He saw Apache fall, but could not tell if it had been his gun that had downed them; so rapid was the advance, and so dense the firing on both sides. Not that either party seemed to be having much of an effect on the other. Damned strange, and he did not like strangeness in his fighting. He crouched down to reload.

The impact of the bullet hitting his shoulder sent him flying backward off the wagon barricade. For a moment, he felt nothing, only surprise, and a deep numbness on his left side. Then pain tore through him, nearly blinding him with the shock. He cried out softly, and clutched at the wound with his other hand.

They saw him fall from the house.

"Joe!" Carrie shouted. Victoria reached for her, but not in time. Carrie yanked the door open and bolted across the lot, unmindful of the bullets and arrows that spattered around her. She dropped to her knees beside the fallen man.

Joe groaned up at her, not quite sure he believed his eyes. "Get outta here! It’s not safe …"

"No kidding," Carrie said, pulling his shirt open and lifting it back from his wounded shoulder.

"I’m all right. It’s not serious…" Joe protested.

Carrie shook her head. A man always figured anything that hadn’t killed him outright wasn’t serious, as far as she could tell. "Just lie still," she told him.

Behind her, John Cannon skidded to a crouch. "Caroline! What the hell are you doing out her!"

"He’s hit, left shoulder above the breast," she said matter-of-factly, without turning around. "There’s no exit wound, I think the bullet lodged somewhere beneath his collar bone…" She smiled at Joe reassuringly. He looked white and shocked, lying there in the dirt. "We’ve got to get him inside…"

Cannon was not impressed. "And just what do you know about it?" he demanded.

"My father kept some rough company," Carrie replied flatly. "I’ve seen bullet wounds before…" She had watched a man die screaming while a doctor tried to remove a bullet from his back, once, but she didn’t tell her uncle that. Instead, she unknotted the scarf from around Joe’s neck, folded it, and placed it over the wound. Cannon handed her his own and she used it to bind the makeshift bandage in place. It wasn’t very effective, and Joe was still bleeding, but it was still better than nothing at all.

"Now, get back to the house. Go!" John barked, grabbing her arm, and pulling her away from the prone man. But at that moment, a shower of arrows rained over their heads. Carrie pressed herself against the barricade as John swung up with his rifle and began firing, again.

"I think I’m safer where I am," she shouted. She looked down and found her hand lying on Joe’s Winchester repeater, as it had fallen. Without thinking, she picked it up, and began to reload it, as Cannon crouched back down, his rifle spent.

"You should have thought about that before you ran out here," he hissed, struggling to reload.

Carrie handed him Joe’s rifle. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," she snapped back at him, taking the empty one. Cannon looked at the rifle in his hands blankly. Then he understood what she had done, turned, and started firing, again. Carrie loaded the empty weapon, and waited for her uncle to need it. And so they continued, John firing almost continually while Carrie reloaded for him. And when she wasn’t reloading, she just held Joe’s hand and did what she could to reassure him.

"Oughta we tie him?"

Cooter Smith had managed to drag Vaquero’s body to one side of the supply shed, but he was at a loss as to what to do with him after that.

"You got rope?" asked Palmer. He didn’t, they had not bothered to bring any, believing the girl would be easy enough to secure. And Palmer did not want to take the time to go looking.

"We kin jist shoot him, then," Smith agreed, helpfully, pointing his gun at Vaquero’s still form. Palmer knocked his hand way.

"Don’t be stupid. The noise will spook them women, and mebee bring them men into the house. Can’t you hear ‘em up on the roof? Just leave him. He’ll be out for a while, and this shouldn’t take long. We got plenty of time to grab the girl and git before he comes to agin. Come on…"

They made their ways cautiously through the shed and into the back of the kitchen. Palmer pulled out the map Barritt had given them. He looked around, then pointed to the door that led into the main house. Moving slowly, they slipped through it in to the dining room.

Victoria had been too shocked by Caroline’s mad bolt across the compound to notice anything but the fact that the girl had made it safely, and that John was now with her. She did not hear any of the unusual sounds that were coming from the back of the house. Riveted to the gun port, watching Carrie and her husband and the wounded Joe, she had forgotten, even, that Vaquero had gone back there to secure it. Had Palmer not tripped over the corner of the dining room carpet, she might never have seen her attackers before they struck. She spun around at the sound, and froze at the sight of two Apache standing behind her. It took her a moment to realize that she was under attack, but that realization came at the same moment she recognized her assailants were not Indians, they were white men in disguise. The absurdity of it made her slower than she might normally have been. She did not scream, but struggled wildly, instead, to free the shotgun from the gun port. It was her mistake.

"Stay back! Who are you?"

She had given Palmer too much time to regain his footing. He cleared the distance between the dining room and the door in a couple of quick leaps and struck Victoria down just as she swung the weapon around. He caught her as she sank to the floor, and dragged her away from the door, leaving her in a heap on the carpet.

"Where’s the girl?" he demanded.

"She ain’t down here," the other man replied.

"Check them bedrooms." Cooter nodded. "And don’t take nothin’," Palmer warned, "we ain’t got time and I don’t want ta hafta carry nothin’. Just grab that girl and let’s git."

But the girl was not in the bedrooms, either, Smith looked everywhere. In every closet and chiffonier, under every bed, even in the small floor cabinets in the master bedroom. She was nowhere. Palmer searched just as thoroughly, below, even going back out into the supply shed to see if they had missed her in their hurry to subdue the Mexican. She wasn’t in the kitchen, nor in old man Cannon’s office. Unless she was holed up in some crevasse they couldn’t find, she was not inside the ranch house. That left the roof, which Palmer had no interest in searching, since there were obviously armed men up there, or in one of the other outbuildings. Searching them meant exposing themselves to rifle fire and possible detection, a prospect that interested Palmer even less than the roof. Or maybe Barritt had just been lying or mistaken when he’d said he’d seen the girl. Maybe that’s why he’d been so reluctant to turn over the glasses.

"Hey! That her?"

It was Smith at the front door, staring out the gun port at the action outside. Palmer pushed him out of the way and peered out the narrow slit in the door. Sure enough, there was a female down on the barricade with John Cannon and what looked like a wounded man. She was dressed in trousers, but her long gold-brown hair was a dead give away. And hadn’t Barritt said that their quarry was a light haired girl?

"Shit!" There was nothing else to say. "God dammit." And they couldn’t do anything about it. There was no way they could get to her, there. "Yeah, that’s her, all right."

Palmer was thoroughly disgusted. All that effort, risking their lives, and their quarry wasn’t anywhere they could reach her.

"So whadda we do now?" Smith asked.

"We git the hell outta here’s what," Palmer barked.

"Kain’t we even take the strong box?" Smith pressed, feeling his premium slipping away from him with the illusive girl. "It’s gotta be around here someplace. Maybe the old man’s office?"

Palmer almost said no. But he, too, foresaw a lack of reimbursement for their failed effort, even though failure was no fault of theirs. They deserved something for the risks they'd taken, after all. As he considered this option, he heard a shout go up outside. He went back to the gun port.

"Aw, hell! That damn García’s leavin’! He’s callin’ off the fight! Look at them damn comancheros run. Lousy cowards! Come on, we gotta get outta here. Won’t be no time at all afore Cannon’s up here to check on the missus. And they got wounded to bring in. We ain’t got time to look for no strong box."

Smith wanted to argue, but Palmer didn’t wait to hear it. He just turned and bolted for the back of the house.

Smith and Palmer had not been the only ones to recognize Carrie out on the barricade. García, too, had seen the girl, and it had only taken him a minute to realize that Barritt’s main prize was not going to be attainable. It didn’t take genius to figure out that, with the girl out of reach, so was their reward likely to be. And García was too smart to risk himself and his men for what might turn out to be nothing. So far, his comancheros had escaped more or less unscathed, hanging back, as they did, behind the marauding Indians. But the red men were starting to thin out, and it was only a matter of time before Cannon bullets began finding comancheros. He wasn’t interested in sacrificing his own compatriots to the well armed Chaparral contingent. He whistled sharply through his teeth.

"¡Ándale! ¡Ándale!" he shouted to the few men within earshot. "¡Vámanos! This fiesta is over, muchachos! Let’s go!"

Word spread quickly, and the comancheros, none too keen on the project to begin with, did not need much convincing. It did not take long to sound a general retreat.

On the hill behind the Chaparral, Richard Barritt also saw the rapid disintegration of all his planning. He saw the girl running across the compound even before García did. And he knew it was only a matter of moments before the whole thing fell apart. Then, even as he had the thought, García called his men away, leaving only the blood crazed pseudo- Apache to be picked off by Chaparral bullets. It was over. It had failed. Barritt didn’t even wait for Smith and Palmer. He was almost in tears as he caught his horse and rode away.

IV

Gradually, almost miraculously, the intensity of the assault began to lessen. Buck ran across the yard and dropped down beside John and Carrie.

"They’s leavin’, Big John."

Cannon looked out past the barricade and realized Buck was right. The attackers were retreating, all but a few die-hards who were being picked off by the men.

"Get him into the house, have Vaquero take a look at him," he said, gesturing at Joe’s prostrate form. Buck nodded, then he looked up and waved Sam in. The other man went to his knees beside his brother, his face twisted with concern.

"His left shoulder," Carrie whispered, as she helped the men help Joe sit up.

John Cannon raised up cautiously and stared out across the desert. The Apache were disappearing, except for those who littered the ground before the High Chaparral gate. Then he turned and glared at Carrie as Buck and Sam got Joe onto his feet. "You go with them," he snapped. He stood up completely, then, and gradually, so did the rest of the men. They gathered around him. "You men take a look around," said John, still baffled by the attack, and outraged by his niece’s action. "See how bad the damage is."

There were nods all around, but the general relief was broken when Manolito called from the house. "John!!" he shouted, waving frantically. "Come quickly…" He spoke softly but urgently as Cannon ran up. "It’s Victoria. Someone broke into the house during the raid. She’s all right, I think, but they hit her on the head…." John pushed past him through the front door to find his wife sitting on the couch, Blue beside her. She was holding her head and leaning heavily against her stepson. The boy looked plenty worried. Carrie stood beside them.

"I’m all right," Victoria said. "It was not the Apache. John, it was two white men who attacked me. Who are they? What did they want?"

"I don’t know," said John. "You didn’t recognize either of them?" She shook her head, then moaned softly. "Are you sure you’re all right?" John insisted, dropping to one knee before her and peering up into her face. He tried to move her hand to see the bruise on her scalp.

"I’m fine, just a little dizzy," Victoria assured him.

John turned to his brother-in- law. "Mano, look around. See if anything’s missing. Check the strong box…"

"Big John," Buck called from the staircase, "About Joe Butler, that bullet’s got to come out of there pretty soon, John. It’s wedged in there right bad… I think we be needin’ a doctor…"

Vaquero stood beside him, his own head hastily wrapped in a bit of bandage. He looked dazed and deeply concerned. "This is beyond my skill, Señor Cannon," he said. "He has lost much blood. And… I do not trust myself…" he gestured helplessly at his injured skull.

Carrie pushed past her uncles and ran up the stairs. Sam and Buck had put Joe in Blue’s bedroom, and Sam now stood beside the bed, staring worriedly down his brother. Carrie peeled back Joe's shirt, and pulled back on the wad of cloth she had bound against the wound earlier. He was still bleeding.

"We need to get some more pressure on this, somehow…" she said, probing gently. Semi conscious, now, from pain and shock, the man only groaned.

"Take it easy, Joe," Sam murmured, reaching out a hand for his brother.

"Caroline, you wait a minute!" John stormed in after her. "I want to talk to you. What the hell did you think you were doing out there."

Carrie turned and looked at him. "He was shot. He needed attention," she replied blandly. "What did you expect me to do?"

"I expect you to stay back out of danger…"

"Well, the rest of you were a little preoccupied," Carrie snapped, bristling under what she felt was an unfair rebuke. She glanced back at Joe. "I didn’t want him to bleed to death."

"We men would have taken care of him," Cannon barked back at her. "That battle line was no place for a woman."

Carrie’s back stiffened and her head came up. "And why not? I was in no more danger than the rest of you. Why is his life more expendable than mine?" She nodded at Joe. "Just because he wears trousers? I can wear trousers, too." She slapped the chaps she was still wearing.

John took a step toward her. "You mind your tongue, young woman," he warned her tightly, his voice heavy with barely controlled anger. Carrie caught her breath and took a step backward. She balled her fists slightly, defensively, and all the color drained from her face. John saw, and guessed the reason. So did every other man in the room. His anger ebbed, abruptly, leaving him suddenly speechless. Carrie struggled to get control of herself.

"The main thing we need to mind, right now, is this man’s injuries," she said quietly. Then she focused past her uncle’s shoulder. "Victoria, are you all right?"

John turned to see his wife standing in the doorway behind him. She still looked a little shaky, but basically none the worse for wear. If she’d overheard the confrontation, she didn’t let on. She walked into the room, and looked down at Joe. "We will need fresh bandages," she said. "And alcohol and plenty of hot water."

Cannon took a deep breath. "Send one of the men for the doctor."

In the end, it was Sam who insisted on riding into Tucson. Joe was his brother, after all, and it was a well known fact that town folk did not always like coming out into Chaparral country. Especially when the Apache were on the war path. Sam wanted to make plenty sure that doctor came, even if he had to bring him out hog-tied to the back of a horse. After he left, John asked for a toll of the damages. There was only one Chaparral man dead, the one who had fallen from the roof, and Joe’s appeared to be the only serious injury, otherwise. It could have been much worse. There were a few miscellaneous wounds besides Ira’s arrow in the leg to attend to, however, and John sent Vaquero to the bunk house to see to them; the man said he felt fit enough for that.

Outside, Buck was examining the recovered bodies of the downed raiders; Pedro and Reno had had the foresight to drag them inside the gate.

"They ain’t A-pach, John," said Buck, finally. He sounded like he could not quite believe it. "They ain’t even a war party, not a proper one.

"What are you talking about?" Cannon asked, moving in for a closer look.

"They must be renegades o’ some kind, and in somebody’s pay to be fightin’ together, lessen I miss my guess. These three’re Pima, that one’s Yavapai, I’m pretty sure, and that one looks to be a Mojave buck. These tribes is all natural enemies. And, you know, John, I got a good look at some of them others when they was in close," he said with disgust, "and I swear they was just Mexican comancheros dressed up like Indians."

"I don’t get it," said John. "Why stage a mock Apache attack against the High Chaparral? What were they trying accomplish?"

"A diversion, maybe?" suggested Blue Boy. "Draw our attention away from the house?"

John looked at his son. "But nothing inside is missing," he argued, baffled. "And nothing appears to be missing from the grounds…"

"Well somethin’ musta changed they minds," said Buck. "In any case, they all gone, now, ‘cept for these and they ain’t talkin’. I ‘spect we may never know."

John sighed and nodded. By now evening had fallen, anyway, there was little more they could do in the dark. "All right, you men may as well call it a night."

Sam returned with the doctor a little bit before mid-day the next morning. Joe had passed a difficult night, with Carrie, John and Victoria taking turns sitting up with him, and Vaquero more or less constantly in and out of the room, despite his own injury and Victoria’s insistence that he get some rest. Joe was conscious and lucid, though, when the doctor got there. The bullet had shifted in his shoulder from all the movement, and it was wedged in a way that was going to make removal very difficult. The doctor chose to use the dining room table as an operating theater. John Cannon got a bottle of whisky, and the women boiled plenty of water. Cannon poured Joe a generous shot. And then another. And another. Sam came up to his side.

"Hey, Sam," Joe whispered, his words slurred. The whiskey was working, but no one was deceived that the effects would be long lasting. There was nothing so sobering as pain.

"I’m right here," said Sam, taking his brother’s right hand in his own left. Joe’s fingers clenched so tightly that in a moment, Sam’s hand lost all feeling. "It’s all right," he murmured. "It’s gonna be all right." Joe looked up at him, and Sam could see the fear in his eyes. He draped his right arm across his brother’s chest, both to comfort, and more importantly, to hold him steady once the operation started. Buck took position at Joe’s feet, resting his hands lightly on the man’s ankles in anticipation of the coming need to pin them. And John Cannon took his place beside the doctor, and lay his hand gently against Joe’s side.

Despite the strip of leather the doctor had given him to bite down on, Joe screamed as the probe dug mercilessly into his wound in search of the bullet. There were tears in Sam’s eyes as he held his brother down. It took the considerable strength of all three men to keep him on the table. By the time the doctor had accomplished his task, everyone in the room was pale, and the patient was nearly unconscious. Finally, though, the doctor lifted a pincers with the offending object aloft, then dropped them both into a bowl of water that Carrie was holding.

"Keep him quiet," he said, swabbing the blood out of the wound, and beginning to bandage. "Put him someplace clean and warm. I expect he should recover."

Blue offered to sleep in the bunkhouse, leaving the wounded man his bedroom, and the doctor agreed that keeping Joe in the house was probably a good idea. He left instructions with Vaquero and the women as to keeping the wound clean, and what to do in case of infection, and left.

The news the rest of the men brought back was less encouraging. John has sent them on a thorough search of the surrounding area to see if they could find anything more definitive that might explain the previous day’s attack. It wasn’t until very late in the day, though, that Reno found Barritt’s signal arrow.

"Mr. Cannon? What do you think this is?" he asked, handing it to Big John. "We found in on the ground up behind the house. In those little hills up there. Looks like somebody was up there, maybe watching the house. Couple of somebodies, actually."

Cannon took the arrow, eyeing the long tail of black fabric. The fletching was Apache, anyway. Not that it meant much. Arrows could be stolen, same as anything else. There was no doubt that this one was a signal of some kind.

"I don’t suppose those ‘couple of somebodies’ were Apache?"

Reno shook his head. "I doubt it," he replied. "They was riding shod horses. Looks like three of ‘em. Though we found moccasin tracks leading down to the back of the house."

Big John nodded. "Yeah, well Victoria said the men who attacked her were dressed like Apache, even though she’s sure they were white." He tossed the arrow onto the ground in frustration. "What the hell is going on here?" he demanded. Nobody had an answer for him. At a loss for what else to do, John dismissed the men. It was too late to do much else with the day, anyway.

Sam waited as the others departed. "Mr. Cannon? Would it be all right if I went up and looked in on Joe for a minute?"

John looked at the man sympathetically. "Of course, Sam. Go on in. Spend as much time with him as you want…"

Carrie was in Joe’s room when Sam got there, and was leaning over the bed with something white in her hands. She turned at the sound behind her. "Sam. Come on in, he’s sleeping. I was just checking his bandage."

"How is he?" Sam asked, coming up behind her. He looked down at the sleeping form.

"Restless," Carrie said honestly. "He’s running a fever." She looked over her shoulder and saw the concern etched on his face. "I’m sure he’ll be all right," she said. "Do you want to sit with him for a while?"

Sam shook his head. "No. Let him sleep. It’s the best thing for him." He reached over and touched Joe on the shoulder where there was no bandage. He did not look at Carrie. "Thank you, for what you did out there," he said. "It took a lot of courage."

Carrie shrugged a little. "I don’t know. It didn’t feel very brave. It didn’t feel like anything…" she answered, softly. She paused before she went on. "You know, I remember the War," she said. "I was just a kid, but I was old enough to understand the danger. I remember wounded soldiers lying in my grandfather’s parlor. And I remember hearing the guns… like they were right in the pasture, though I suppose they weren’t really that close. I remember how afraid I was. And then just… moving past the fear…" She considered her next words for a moment before continuing. "I’m afraid of some things. I’m afraid of the dark." She chuckled humorlessly, then looked up at Sam. "I’m afraid of angry men with heavy hands, I know you saw that…"

Sam grimaced sadly, "Yeah…"

"And I’m afraid of those damned spiders…"

Sam smiled.

"But war…" Carrie concluded, "war seems more like some natural event, like a flood or a tornado. I’m afraid, but it’s a different kind of fear. Less personal. I just reacted."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," said Sam. "And it is war, out here. All the time, it never really stops. You don’t think about being afraid, after a while. It’s just there, in the background. Like breathing. Till something happens to remind you." He reached down for his brother, again, this time resting his hand on the top of Joe’s head, like a benediction. He exhaled slowly.

"You’re close," said Carrie. It wasn’t a question.

Sam nodded. "I guess he’s about all I’ve got."

"Who raised you?" Carrie asked. "If you don’t mind my asking."

"A man named Ben Lynch. He has a spread down in that little town I told you about. I guess he did the best he could." He hesitated, thinking, then continued more slowly. "I told you that I’d been married. And that she was dead. Trinidad was Mexican. Lynch didn’t approve of the match. Neither did her father. They drove us apart and she left me… I hadn’t seen her for a long time. Then… Lynch’s son killed both of them - her and my daughter. A man raised with me like a brother."

Carrie made a small noise. "Sometimes I just don’t understand life," she said after a moment. "What’s the point?"

"I went down there to kill him," said Sam, still watching his brother sleeping. "He’d killed my little girl. I told Joe to stay out of it, but he wouldn’t; he brought your uncle down there. He convinced me. Big John. I was ready to walk away, I was ready to leave it. And then Tom killed Trini, and I shot him. I killed him." Carrie glanced up at him sadly, then reached over and slipped her hand into his, saying nothing. "Joe got me through that," said Sam, "though I think I hated him a little bit, for a while, for interfering. For being right.… I don’t know what I would have done without him."

"You loved her very much," Carrie said softly.

"She was my whole life, Carrie," said Sam. "When she left me, when I was sure she was really gone, and I couldn’t find her, I don’t know, something just went numb inside me." He closed his fingers more tightly around hers. "And when she died, that something died with her."

Carrie made a small, soft sound. "Maybe," she whispered. "Or maybe it’s just hiding. Maybe it’s just scared."

Sam drew a shaky breath. "Maybe…"

Carrie leaned, slightly, until her body rested against his, and she turned her head into his shoulder. Sam gripped her hand fiercely, then after a moment, he let go and slipped his arm around her waist, holding her tight against his side. They stood that way for a time, not speaking, watching the sleeping man. Finally, Sam exhaled and let her go. "We should let him rest," he said. "We don’t want to wake him."

They left the room. At the base of the stairs, Carrie stopped, and glanced toward John Cannon’s office. The door was ajar, and she could see light within it. She looked up at Sam.

He nodded. "I can let myself out."

"Good night, Sam."

"Good night."

She reached over and touched him. "I’ll take good care of him," she promised. Then she let her hand trail down his arm until it met his. He grasped it, held it a moment, then let it go. He turned and left.

Carrie knocked on John’s door.

"Come in." He was standing by the window, looking out into the dark desert. He eyed her warily as she walked into the room.

"Uncle John, I want to apologize. For those things I said. I’m sorry."

John hesitated. "That man up there is like a member of my family," he said finally. Carrie could hear how hurt he really was.

She nodded. "I know. And I had no right saying what I did. I was just upset. About everything. I’m so sorry."

John relented. He walked over to her, put his hands on her shoulders. "I know you’re very capable," he said. "And that your life has not exactly been overly sheltered. But you have to understand, Carrie. To those men out there, the way they feel about it, their lives are more expendable than yours. When they see a woman in a dangerous situation, well, it distracts them. They think about saving her, instead of doing what they need to be doing, which is dealing with the enemy. It puts everyone in danger."

Carrie nodded, "I understand that."

John pulled her close and she wrapped her arms around his waist. "You’re apology’s accepted," he said, kissing the top of her head. "You just have to realize that we’ve all grown rather fond of you. I don’t want anything to happen to you, that’s all."

Carrie nodded against his chest. He held her away at arm's length. "You did well out there. You kept your head. And I’m not ungrateful. All right, now?"

"Yes, all right, now," she said. "Good night, Uncle John." She turned to go, but when she got to the door, John called her back.

"Carrie, there’s something else I need to say to you. Something else I want you to understand. No matter how angry I might get, no matter how loud I shout, no one, not me, not anyone in this house will every raise a hand to you. Do you understand that?" Tears sprang into her eyes, and her throat closed tightly, preventing speech. She could only nod at him. "Now go on to bed and get some sleep," John concluded, smiling gently. "You’ve had a pretty eventful last couple of days."

Carrie nodded a last good night and left him. You have no idea how eventful, Uncle, she thought as she headed up to bed.

John was too restless to sleep. He was deep bone tired, but the events of the last two days had his brain wheeling. Once his niece left, he went up and looked in on Joe Butler, himself. Vaquero was sitting with the injured man; he merely nodded wordlessly at his boss. Joe was sleeping restlessly, but at least he was sleeping. John went back down stairs and wandered out onto the porch.

"I figgered you wunt be able to sleep neither," a voice said in the dark. John sat down beside his brother. Buck raised a whiskey bottle. "I brought an extra glass…" He didn’t wait for an answer, but just poured and handed the glass over.

"Thank you," said John.

"Little Joe… he be all right," said Buck.

John nodded. "Yes. He’ll have a good chance if he makes it through the night. The next forty-eight hours will decide it." Infection, shock and blood loss being the greatest threats. He leaned back and looked up at the stars. "I just kept looking down at his face, and seeing yours there. Looking at Sam and feeling what he was feeling." He took a sip of his whiskey. "We risk too many of the people we love, Buck."

Buck grunted. "Life is a risk, Big John," he said after a moment.

"I know that," said John. "I just wish I knew what this one was about." He paused for a moment, then tossed back the rest of his whiskey. "I’d like to know if it’s worth it." He closed his eyes.

 

A Good Man

I

Sam Butler lay on his back on his bunk and stared at a patch of adobe directly above his boot socks. He could see the Santa Cruz river, there, and the San Pedro. Two blotches that looked about right for the Rincon and Santa Rita mountains. And that dark spot, The High Chaparral. Or maybe it was just a cockroach. My world, he thought sourly, a crack pattern on the wall of a dirty bunkhouse.

Although that wasn’t really fair. The bunkhouse was pretty tidy; he was strict about that.

He rolled his head until he could see his brother’s empty bunk still piled with a few of Blue’s belongings, and then at the table where the boy was sitting, playing cards with a couple of the men. Blue just looked so damned happy, despite the terrible events that had brought him there, that Sam smiled with genuine affection. To be that young, again, so sure that life would fix itself, somehow.

Joe would be all right. The first few days had been terrible, frightening; Joe’s condition touch and go as he fought against blood loss and the inevitable infection. Sam had rarely left his brother’s side. Vaquero had gotten him from the bunkhouse, late that first night after the operation, because Joe had taken a dangerous turn for the worst, and there had been moments, that night, when Sam had honestly thought his brother was dying. Moments he would probably never forget. Moments that still left a feeling like a cold stone in the pit of his stomach, whenever he thought about them. For several days after, Sam had done nothing that took him far from the ranch house. And then Joe had begun to rally. His fever broke, he remained conscious for more that a few minutes at a time, he managed to keep a little food down. And Sam let himself relax enough to admit that his brother might not have made it. That Joe was going to live, but that it had not been a foregone conclusion. The emotional battering had left him exhausted.

He rolled onto his back, again, and stared up at the bottom of the bunk above him. Release from constant anxiety was a mixed blessing, he discovered. Now that he no longer had his brother’s condition to distract him, other considerations clambered for his attention. Things less simple and straight forward than life and death.

He did not know exactly when he had begun to realize that it had been Carrie who had been beside him during the entire sick-watch. Nor did he know exactly when he had become aware of how much he needed her to be there, and not just because of the jeopardy his brother’s life was in. But it was probably about that same time he knew beyond a doubt Joe was going to recover that he looked up actually saw her - and realized he was in trouble way over his head.

How the hell he had gotten himself into his present predicament, Sam Butler could not quite fathom. He was certainly old enough to know better. He would have hoped he was wiser. But the truth was, he could no longer deny to himself that he had somehow managed to fall absolutely, irrevocably, flat on his ass in love with a girl who was not only practically young enough to be his daughter, she was his boss’s kin, besides. It was the kind of thing he had pitied other men for doing, from the superior position of a man not so afflicted. Now that it was him wearing that boot, he didn’t know what to do about it. He felt a little bit like he’d been kicked in the head by a mule.

And of course, it wasn’t her youth that was really at issue. Carrie Madigan was a grown woman. And she wasn’t really young enough to be his child, although it was true there were some few years between them. Still, lots of men married women who were a lot younger than they were, especially out there where the female population in general tended to be a little sparse. Was she anyone else, her age might provide fuel for a little good-natured ribbing, but nothing more. It was the fact that Carrie Madigan was a close relative of John Cannon’s and therefore, in Sam Butler’s personal universe, off limits, that was causing him so much distress. A man of rigid honor, Butler had strictly held opinions about the sacredness of the employer/employee relationship. And this violated most of them.

If he pursued this interest, he would have to surrender his connection with the High Chaparral. That much was certain. And although that would be a stern disappointment, there would be enough in the balance if Carrie was with him, had the issue been strictly about keeping the job. It wasn’t really about keeping the job, though. It was about the fact that Samuel Butler worked for John Cannon, now, a man he admired and respected. Liked. That meant certain things to him. It meant that he held certain concepts inviolate. Or it least he had always believed he did. One just did not get involved with the boss’s family. Not like that. Big John trusted him, and Sam felt like he was betraying that trust; it was that simple. And he certainly could not imagine that a man of John Cannon’s standing would countenance his niece’s alliance with a mere ranch hand.

And perhaps more to the point, such an alliance might force Carrie, herself, to sever ties with her family, force her to choose between him and them. And Sam had already been there. He knew what it was like to be married to a woman whose family disapproved of the match; such had been the central tragedy of his life. He didn’t know if he had the strength to go through that, again; he suspected he didn’t.

It just wasn’t right, no matter how he looked at it.

Of course, all that was assuming the girl would even have him, he certainly had no guarantee of that. It was absurd to even think so, he had nothing to offer her, no property, no position, hardly even a bankroll. She was an intelligent and educated young woman, capable of taking a place in society, no matter who her father had been. Others more suitable had already expressed an interest. She had already turned down Manolito, and he would be a wealthy man some day. And there was that Jacob Hannah, in town. Sam liked to think he had detected some interest on her part, but that might just be wishful thinking. She’d been friendly to him, yes, but, then, she was an amiable person. She was friendly with Manolito, too, and she’d said no to him. And yes, she had stood beside him during Joe’s ordeal, and he had felt very close to her, but that could have been just the circumstances. To be refused and still remain on the ranch would be intolerable. He would still have to leave the High Chaparral, lose John Cannon's respect, without even the girl as compensation.

No, he really had no choice. There was nothing he could do but put it firmly behind him. Keep his distance. Get back on a formal footing with the girl and stay there until she married somebody else more suitable. That Hannah, maybe, although the thought made him feel sick. In the mean time, he would find as much to do away from the ranch proper as possible. It wouldn’t be too hard. There was plenty of work to see to along the far reaches of the property. He could keep himself busy. And eventually he would stop thinking about how beautiful her eyes were when she looked up at him. Stop feeling the warmth of her hand in his, the weight of her body as she leaned back against him under his arm while they had watched his little brother sleep. He groaned softly. Around him, the men finished up their card game, and weary, blew out the lights.

For Carrie, the situation was both more and less complicated. There was nothing for her to do. She could not consider a decision unless presented with options, and as bold as she was about some things, in this matter, she would not presume to be the first to speak. Part of that reticence sprang from a sense of propriety, but mostly it was a sense of confusion that made her hold her tongue. Since Joe had been declared officially out of danger, she had seen little of Sam Butler. She was beginning to think she had been mistaken in her belief that he returned her interest. In her insecurity, she berated herself for thinking he ever would. After all, he was a grown man in a position of considerable authority and responsibility. What would he possibly want with some silly girl, so many years his junior? Surely what she had construed as mutual attraction was merely the tactful solicitude of a considerate man for his employer’s young relative, nothing more. Whatever closeness she had felt to him as they had watched over his brother, together, had simply been the product of his vulnerability at the time. Anyone could have comforted him.

She did not no how else to interpret Sam’s recent behavior.

Things had quieted down almost immediately following the attack. Neither her Uncle John, nor his men, had been able to determine the objective, but as soon as enough time had passed to leave Cannon fairly assured it would not be repeated, normal life resumed around the ranch. Work went on, as usual. Joe was healing well. He was still ensconced in Blue’s room, much to his displeasure, but that had been mostly Victoria's doing. Even after his fever had broken and he had declared himself fit to return to the bunk house, Victoria had determined to keep the man quiet in the house for as long as she could enforce it. No one except Joe had protested, probably because Blue, himself insisted he was perfectly happy staying with the men.

Carrie made Joe Butler her special project, as much because she genuinely liked the man and was worried about him as because of whose brother he was. But once Joe was out of immediate danger, Sam no longer came so often to visit him; and when he did, he usually came when Carrie was not around. If he saw her about the place, he avoided close contact. He no longer came down to the corral when she was there. And if she put herself into a position to run into him, he touched his hat cordially and went another way. She was beginning to feel a little foolish. Maybe she had put him off with her boldness, had been too forward in her actions and opinions. Or maybe his interest really had never been there in the first place. Maybe her behavior had clued him to her feelings, causing a gentlemanly retreat before either one of them was embarrassed. She would have been mortified by the idea, did it not already hurt so much.

It wasn’t that she needed a man, or even wanted one in the generic sense of wanting a husband. There were men enough, had that been the case. Jacob Hannah had certainly made known his interest. And Manolito. She wanted Sam Butler for the simple reason that she was in love with him, in the gooey-eyed, schoolgirl way she had always despised. To her credit, she never once gave thought to the fact that he was merely a foreman on her uncle’s ranch. Sam Butler was a good man, and she’d seen enough bad ones in her father’s company to recognize the difference. More to the point, he was the man she wanted. All the good it did her.

Pride would not let her moon in public, for all that she often found herself close to tears. There was plenty to do to keep her busy, and there was still Joe to attend. He was awake when she walked into his room.

"Mornin’, Miss Carrie," he said, nodding politely as she set down her tray of ointments and bandages. "Any idea when you’re gonna let me out of here? Not that I don’t enjoy your nursin’," he teased her, "but I’d like to get back to my own bed."

Carrie smiled back. He was right, really, he was well enough to go back, now. She knew he was getting restless; it must be lonely for him all alone there when he was used to living with so many other men. And she suspected the only reason Blue had not come back to his own room was that her cousin relished living out from under his father’s watchful eye for a while.

"Let’s have a look at this," she said, not committing herself. She peeled back the bandage gently. He looked good, a healthy pink around the wound, no angry red or worse, deadly yellow of blood poisoning. It might still be a while before he was roping calves or digging ditches, but he was certainly fit enough to return to the bunkhouse, if that’s what he wanted to do. "Well, it’s not really my decision, you know," she said, "but I’ll tell my uncle that you seem to be healing up all right. This looks good, there’s no sign of infection and your fever’s completely gone."

"I’d appreciate that, ma’am," Joe said with obvious relief. Carrie began to apply a fresh bandage.

"Has your brother been up to see you?" she asked with studied nonchalance. Joe wasn’t fooled. He could hear the catch in her voice as she asked the question. And he had seen Sam’s eyes follow the girl often enough to guess how he felt. He could also surmise, from the look on in Carrie’s face, how things probably stood between them. And figured he knew why. That damned-fool, idiot brother of his was gonna let his warped sense of propriety lose him this pretty girl who was so obviously in love with him. It was almost criminal.

"No, ma’am, not lately," he told her. She nodded, looking a little sad. He doubted the sentiment was entirely for his sake.

Not that he couldn’t see Sam’s point, theoretically. It was generally asking for trouble for a hand to dally with a member of the family, and many a man, he knew, had been dismissed for developing an alliance with a boss’s daughter. But he also knew there were men who did not let that stop them, and he had seen some happy unions come of it, despite. But more to the point, he sincerely doubted that Big John would have any lasting objection. Oh, he might not be entirely pleased when first presented with the idea, but Joe knew it was common knowledge the high regard John Cannon held for his ranch foreman. And he had seen the man’s smile; he had a feeling Cannon already suspected something, and had taken no action against it. He’d come around, all right, Joe was sure.

Of course, his brother wasn’t likely to see it that way. And even if he could be brought to agree, in theory, it was unlikely he would put it to the test. Joe understood, in a way. Sam had never really recovered from the ostracism he had suffered at the hands of his wife’s family, much less her death at the hands of Ben Lynch’s. Joe knew that. But this was an entirely different situation, if only the stubborn fool would see. Was he fit enough, Joe considered the effectiveness of beating the sense into him, though he supposed it was really none of his business. But she was such a great girl, a real prize. If he thought for a moment he could get her to look at him twice, he might even make a try for her himself. But it was clear to him she had eyes for only one man.

Carrie finished changing the bandage. "Well, Mr. Butler, I’ll hate to be losing my favorite patient," she said, smiling. "Not that I’m in any hurry to get another." She added with more seriousness.

"You know, it ain’t always like this around here," Joe said, as much to keep her company as anything. He really did get pretty lonely in that room all by himself. "We haven’t been attacked by Apache in months, Big John’s got an understanding with them. And they don’t usually hit us but maybe two or three times a year, anymore, anyway."

Carrie laughed. "I know you mean that to be reassuring…" she told him. She also knew that her uncles and the men did not believe any Apache was behind this particular raid; she had heard her uncles talking when they thought she was out of earshot. "The truth is, I really do feel very safe here. That may be hard to believe, I know…"

Joe looked at her curiously. "A lot of folks think the High Chaparral is like livin’ in an armed camp," he said. "We have a tough time gettin’ hands to come out here."

"You came," said Carrie.

Joe laughed. "Yeah, but I was drunk!" Carrie laughed with him. She did not remind him that he had also stayed, through some considerable period of sobriety.

"It is a little like a fortress here, you’re right about that," she agreed. "But I don’t mind it. With all these armed men, watching and guarding, just for my protection? How could I not feel safe?" She looked solemn. "I haven’t always felt that way about men and guns…" She reached down and touched his shoulder. "You rest now…"

Joe caught her hand impulsively. He knew he couldn’t let her go without saying something to her.

"Don’t give up." It was not the most informative statement he could have made. Carrie frowned at him uncertainly. "Don’t give up on him," he clarified.

The girl blushed, understanding him this time. "Joe…"

"Carrie, listen to me. My brother can be a pig-headed fool, sometimes, but I know him. I can see the way he feels. He’s just… well, bein’ Sam, is all." He flustered a little. "When I get on my feet, I’m gonna break his sorry head for him."

Carrie squeezed his hand. "Please don’t," she said softly, "but thank you for wanting to." She let go, both of them suddenly embarrassed.

"Can I get you anything?" she asked, back to formalities. Joe sighed and shook his head.

"No, thank you, I’m fine," he told her. "Just don’t forget to talk to Mr. Cannon." He really wanted out of that bed.

Carrie promised she would see to it right away.

II

"It’s inexcusable. That’s all. You’ve failed. What do you expect from me, forgiveness?"

It had taken Dick Barritt more than a week to screw up the courage to approach Aaron Stoddard. He’d sent the man a message, of course, telling him about the aborted kidnapping attempt, but that was as far as his nerve would take him. Instead, he had holed up in his shack and waited, fully expecting Stoddard to seek him out. When, after a week, Stoddard hadn’t come, Barritt considered that he might be allowed to just slink back into the woodwork and never have to face the consequences of promising more than he delivered. He had almost begun to relax when Gabe Palmer showed up with the news that García was looking for his money, and was none too happy about the delay. For that matter, Palmer wasn’t particularly happy about it, either.

Still, it took a personal visit from García to convince Barritt that he was going to have to go talk to Stoddard. García was no fool, and it was obvious to him that Barritt did not have the money to pay him. There was only one financial resource, and García held Barritt responsible for the contacts, unless, of course, he could come up with the funds, himself. They found Stoddard in his hotel room: Barritt, with Palmer along for moral support, and García, who had insisted on coming along to protect his interests. Barritt did not bother to make an appointment on the theory that the element of surprise might work in their favor. Or that Stoddard might not be there, and he would be off the hook. Stoddard was there, however, and not especially surprised to see them.

"I figured you’d show up."

Barritt tried to explain. And when his efforts fell short, Gabe Palmer tried to explain for him. García just stood in a corner and watched them. He did not consider himself part of this negotiation, although it was proving to be an amusing show.

"This failure is simply inexcusable," reiterated Stoddard. "I don’t know what you expect from me, now. I relied on you, Barritt. Against my better judgment. I didn’t like this plan from the beginning, but you convinced me you could do it. You insisted it would work. And you failed me. You’ve got some hell of a nerve crawling in here, now."

Barritt was perfectly happy to accept Stoddard’s disappointment, but he was not about to accept blame for the failure of his plan.

"It wudda worked!" he insisted. "It was goin’ perfect. Palmer and Smith, they got into the house, just like I said. And we cudda got her, too. How the hell was we supposed to know she’d be out on the barricade fightin’ with the men? No proper woman would do that! It ain’t… it just ain’t lady-like!"

Stoddard snorted. Although he did have to admit that Barritt had a point. Any self-respecting female should have been cowering under the bed during an Indian raid, not loading rifles on a battle line. And, had the girl been where she belonged, he also had to admit that Barritt’s plan might actually have worked, despite his own many misgivings. Had he been inclined to be reasonable, he would have accepted that the failure was unforeseeable, outside Barritt’s control, and certainly not his fault. Stoddard was not inclined to be reasonable.

The problem was, Caroline Madigan was no ordinary female. She had already proved that to him. And her actions could not be considered in the light of what ordinary females might do. No ordinary female would have led him on and then run away from him in the first place. Any ordinary female would have been cowed by her own poverty, and by his threats. But to admit that Barritt was not culpable in this failure was to admit that the girl had outsmarted him, again, and Stoddard simply could not accept that.

"I took you at your word, Mr. Barritt," he growled. "And where is the girl, now?"

"Look, we can still get her," Barritt flustered, less worried about his own money, at that point, than about what García might be planning to do to him if Stoddard didn’t pay. It was pretty obvious that the man was not going to be very understanding. "Cannon’s always lookin’ to hire hands. We can git somebody on the inside, watch when she leaves… Somebody, even, who kin git to be part of her escort, mebee…" Behind him, García laughed.

"I’ve had enough of your plans, Mr. Barritt," Stoddard said, his eyes on the comanchero leader. "I listened to you once, and it got me nowhere. I’m not fool enough to listen to you, again." He turned his back deliberately, walked over to the sideboard and poured himself another drink. "You may show yourselves out."

"Now wait a minute!" Palmer protested before Barritt could stop him. "What about our money?"

"What about my girl, Mr. Palmer?" Stoddard turned back around. "You were contracted to deliver certain goods. I don’t see them. I’m not accustomed to paying for merchandise that has not been delivered."

"That weren’t our fault!" Palmer cried. "We ‘splained all that." Stoddard shrugged.

"And neither is it mine. But it was you who failed to fill your contract. In the law of business, it is your problem to absorb the loss."

Palmer looked angrily at Barritt. Barritt turned his head away.

"Señor?" It was García. His voice was soft, almost tender. Stoddard looked at him. "My men were contracted to provide a diversion. Such was our only task. We have fulfilled our part of the bargain. We would like to be paid for services rendered."

Stoddard shrugged again. "Talk to Barritt. It was him that hired you, not me."

"I am speaking to you, Señor," García replied evenly. "We all understand Señor Barritt’s role in this." He moved closer to Stoddard. "You will leave Tucson, Señor, now that you have failed in your… ¿cómo se dice?… your endeavor? On the next stage perhaps? Or perhaps you will hire a wagon? Or a horse from the livery? But such unfortunate things can happen to a traveler on the roads, Señor. I urge you to be cautious. This is wild country." He smiled with all his teeth showing. "My men become somewhat unpredictable, Señor, when they are not paid. Difficult to influence. I could not guarantee their behavior. Or perhaps you will stay in Tucson? Perhaps you will seek another… plan?"

Aaron Stoddard had not survived as long as he had by being a fool, and he understood that disappointing this García would be damned foolish. Barritt and his cronies he wasn’t worried about, but this comanchero was a different story all together. He contemplated him thoughtfully for a moment, then came to a decision. Besides, he might still have a use for the man. He still wanted that girl.

"You two," he glared at Barritt and Palmer. "Get out. I’ve got nothing more to say to you. Señor García?" he nodded graciously. "Perhaps you would care to stay and have a drink with me?"

John Cannon stood on the porch in front of his ranch house and contemplated his domain. Things were going well, the ranch was running smoothly, the necessary work was getting done. In fact, the men were a little bit ahead of the schedule he had set for them, enough so that he decided to give them a day off. In the first place, they deserved it, they’d been working hard. More importantly, they needed it. Despite the general productiveness, he could feel a lot of tension in the air. No doubt it was a combination of left over anxiety from the still unexplained "Indian" raid, coupled with the aggressive schedule they’d been keeping. Things had settled down; Joe Butler was doing well and would be returning to the bunkhouse, and to light work around the ranch, pretty soon. And enough time had passed since the raid to convince even skeptical Cannon that it would not be repeated. Tempers were tight, though, and it was time to loosen them a little. Usually it was Sam who suggested to John when the men needed a break, but lately Sam’s attitude had been even blacker than anyone else’s. The man could suck all the air out of a room with his moods, these days. Which, to Big John, only drove the point home further. The men needed a day off.

"What’s up, Big John?" Buck asked, coming out of the house to join his brother.

"Buck, find Sam and tell him to give everyone not absolutely essential the day off, tomorrow. Himself included. I think everyone could stand to let off a little steam."

Buck grinned. "Yes, sir, John, I will surely do that. Gladly," he said, not about to question the boon. A day off tomorrow meant Tucson tonight, something to which Buck Cannon always looked forward. John shook his head as he watched him go. No doubt they’d all be too hung over to get out of their beds in the morning, his brother included. But that was the point, after all. In a way, he almost envied them.

"Buck Cannon, it’s about time you dragged your sorry self into town to see me!"

Buck pushed through the swinging doors of the saloon, and stepped into the barroom. And he’d only had to step over two drunks to gain entrance; a slow night. His favorite hostess, Polly, flung her arms around his neck.

"Oh, come give us some cheer, Polly, darlin’. Old Uncle Buck’s missed you bad." He kissed her hard as the rest of his crew filed in around him. "Set ‘em up, Mike!" he called as he let the woman go. "Uncle Buck’s buyin’! Drinks for everybody!"

"All right!" Reno shouted as the men all bellied up to the bar. "Let’s hear it for Uncle Buck!"

There was much laughter and back slapping as the bartender poured out whiskeys and beers. Sam Butler took his glass silently, picked up a bottle, and moved to the far end of the bar. A subtle space formed around him. His expression, alone, was enough to keep his companions away, at least until he‘d gotten some of that whiskey inside him.

"So, where’ve you boys been, Buck?" Polly asked, slipping her arm around his waist. "We’ve missed you."

"Aw Polly, tryin’ to get a day off outta my brother… you’d think we was tryin’ to steal his favorite hoss. And we’ve had some doin’s out at the High Chaparral," Buck said. "’S'been kinda lively…"

"I heard that," Polly agreed. "Heard you boys got raided, again. I also heard that it was kind of a strange one…"

Buck narrowed his eyes a little, wondering who could have told her that. As far as he knew, no one from the Chaparral had been into town since the raid, except Sam to get the doctor, and they hadn’t told the doctor anything. Of course, neither had the doctor asked. But Polly was already distracted. She had noticed Sam glowering alone at the end of the bar.

"What’s wrong with him?"

Buck followed her gaze, and sighed. "Our Mr. Sam Butler’s been in a real sorry state lately, Polly. ‘Bout as friendly as an ol’ bear. Like I was sayin’, we had some trouble out to the ranch…"

"Where’s Joe?" Polly interrupted him, suddenly realizing that the younger Butler brother was missing.

" ‘Swhat I’ve been tryin’ to tell ya," Buck said, kissing her, again. "Iffn you’d jist lissen fo’ a minute. We had us a raid out at the High Chaparral, and little Joe, he took a bullet, got shot up purty bad. Oh, he be all right, now," he assured her quickly, seeing her look of concern. "He be healin’ up fine, though he ain’t quite outta bed jist yit. But it were touch and go, fo’ a little while, I got to be honest. Truth is, Polly, we came mighty close to losin’ our Joe. It still scares me, to think about it."

"Oh, Buck." Polly looked back at the elder Butler. "Poor Sam. That must have shaken him up, plenty. Those brothers are pretty close."

"That they are, Polly. Ol’ Sam, I think he’s still sortin’ hisself out about it. He’ll be all right, tho’. Have a few drinks, maybe a nice li’l fist fight, he’ll feel better."

Polly punched Buck playfully in the arm. "Now don’t you boys go breakin’ up the furniture," she warned him. "I got a day off comin’, myself, and I don’t wanta spend it cleanin’ up after you."

"Hey, Polly!" yelled Reno from the bar. "You gonna let Buck monopolize you all night? C’mere and have a drink with us!"

"My public awaits," she laughed at Buck, knowing that he would not begrudge her company. The night was still young, and if he had a mind for more private entertainment, later, he would let her know soon enough.

Buck wandered over to the bar and bellied up to it between the space Sam had commandeered for himself and the rest of the men. He glanced over at Butler. The man was attacking that bottle of whiskey with ruthless determination, but it didn’t seem to be doing much to lighten his mood. Buck considered that it might take more than a friendly brawl to shake him out from under that black cloud he seemed to have discovered. He sighed, and gestured to the bartender for a drink.

"Here, Buck, try this," Mike said, handing him a slender glass bottle that looked a lot like a soda pop.

"What in tarnation… What’s this Mike, you puttin’ me on sarsaparilla or somethin’ for some reason?"

"Try it. It’s a beer, Buck. All the way from Milwaukee. They’re shippin’ it out, that way, now. We just bought us a couple of cases. It’s been pretty popular… better than the local stuff."

Buck looked skeptical, but far be it from him to turn down something different if alcohol was involved. He took a sip.

"Hey, ‘sgood!" He turned to Sam, took one look at the man’s face, and second thought the gesture. "Hey, Ira, Reno, Pedro. Try this, it’s pretty good stuff…"

So intent was the rest of the crew on their whiskeys and Mike’s new-fangled ‘imported’ beer that nobody noticed the two men drinking alone at table at the back of the saloon.

"Well, look what drug in," Dick Barritt muttered under his breath. Beside him, Gabe Palmer sucked the suds off a beer and looked worried.

"Aw, come on now. We don’t want no trouble."

Barritt snorted sourly. "The only thing we do got is trouble, you ignorant fool," he grumbled. "Sure ain’t got no money, and that Stoddard still hangin’ around, makes me nervous. And García in town, now. I doen like the way he’s been lookin’ at us since he took up with Stoddard, neither." He belted back his whiskey, then poured himself another one. "And there’s the cause of all the trouble, right there, buyin’ drinks like he was Jesus Christ, hisself, or somethin’. Buck Cannon." He spat. "Them Cannons!" he said more loudly.

The noise in the barroom dimmed, and Buck turned around. He leaned back on the bar and looked in Barritt’s direction. "Did I hear somethin’?" he asked no one in particular.

Buck eyed Barritt thoughtfully, He’d had more than his share of trouble with the man, though he had not seen him in several months. Last he’d heard, Barritt had gone up into the Santa Ritas around Christmas to work some placer mine. Probably got rode outta there, too, Buck considered. The man hadn’t worked for the Chaparral for two full months, but in that time he’d managed to nearly destroy the delicate balance of bunkhouse temper. Buck had never met a man so mean just for the sake of meanness. Pretty light with his fingers, too. Buck was actually surprised to see him in the saloon; he knew from Polly and the girls that Barritt was a frequent customer, and a regular at bad-mouthing the High Chaparral, but he never ventured into the saloon when they were in it. Buck looked down at his bottle of beer. It was awfully early in the evening for a fight. He glanced over at Butler. On the other hand, this might be just what the doctor ordered for ol’ Sam, there. Maybe a little later.

"Nope," he said out loud, turning back around, again. He grinned at Mike. "Guess it weren’t nothin’. Just a burra brayin’."

"Now, Buck," Polly admonished softly, coming up beside him. "No fights tonight. We can find better things to do with all that energy."

Buck laughed and put his arm around her.

At the end of the bar, Sam Butler had also noticed Dick Barritt; had noticed him long before anyone else had, in fact. Like Buck, he was surprised to see the man. He didn’t like Barritt, hadn’t liked him from the beginning. He had warned Buck not to hire him, there was just something he had sensed about the man. But they had been desperately short handed, so he’d agreed to try him out, against his better judgment. It had taken him weeks, afterward, to repair the damage done to discipline and morale. He turned back to his whiskey. He had no particular interest in Dick Barritt or what he might be doing there. He had other things on his mind, that were not much more satisfying to dwell upon.

Sam tossed back his whiskey and filled the glass, again. He had no idea how many shots he’d already had. This was no recreational drinking spree, he had one intention and one intention only; to get absolutely, thoroughly, blind, stinking inebriated. And maybe, for a short while, forget his troubled heart. So far, though, not only was he not forgetting his troubles, he wasn’t even numb, yet. And at the rate he was going, he might as well just drink right out of the bottle. The whiskey wasn’t helping any, though. With his particular problem, nothing was likely to help him.

Sam had stuck to his decision, and had resolutely forced plenty of distance between Carrie and himself. It had proved a lot harder to do than he had anticipated. The worst had been the awful look of hurt and confusion in the girl’s eyes when he had purposely rejected her overtures of friendliness. But what could he expect, how could he ask her to understand that he avoided her, not because he didn’t want her friendship, but just the opposite, because his own feelings had gone beyond what was right? That it was tearing him up inside, but he didn’t know what else to do? It was not as if he could actually explain it to her. He was hurting her by his actions, and that only made his own pain worse. And his pain had already been pretty bad, to begin with. He poured another shot, and then gave up and just tipped the half empty bottle against his mouth.

"Them Cannons," Dick Barritt said out loud, again. Palmer pulled at his sleeve to silence him, but Barritt was not in the mood to be silent. "They think they’re so high and mighty, think they’re so smart. But I can tell you a thing or two about them Cannons…"

Buck sighed. It looked like a fight was going to be inevitable. He glanced over at Sam, but the man was intent upon his drinking. And some pretty serious looking drinking it was, too. He looked the other way, saw the boys watching him surreptitiously, waiting for his signal. Waiting for him to tell them what he wanted to do. Looked like it was gonna be up to him to open the ball, then, if it was gonna get opened. As usual. He sighed at Polly apologetically. She simply shrugged, resigned.

"Them Cannons ain’t so pure as they like to make out they be," said Barritt. "Why, out at that High Chaparral, they got themselves their very own St. Louie tart to entertain them. Don’t know why they even bother to come into town at all."

Not even the wind whispered. Buck turned around slowly.

"Mr. Barritt. If it’s a fight you all are lookin’ fo’, I’m sure we can accommodate you, how ever. But I was you, I’d be very careful about what direction I ran my mouth in. We don’t take kindly to talk like that from anybody, not even considerin’ an ignorant, no ‘count piece o’ desert trash like you."

"You don’t scare me, Buck Cannon. ‘Cuz I’m speakin’ the truth and you know it. I know the man, that Aaron Stoddard. He’s right here in Tucson lookin’ for the girl. Got a lot closer that you might think he did, too, you Cannons think you’re so clever. I know. Told me hisself that girl you got out there worked for him. Stole from him, too."

Buck moved a little closer. "Now, I’m warnin’ you nice-like, Mr. Barritt. You best be mindin’ that lyin’ mouth…"

"Ain’t lies." Barritt laughed. It was a bitter sound. "John Cannon’s girl-kin ain’t no better than she should be. Nothin’ but a high toned slut…"

Nobody was looking at Sam, nobody saw him come out of his corner, swiftly and silently, like a bird of prey. He swept past Buck, who had not quite moved in for the strike, and stopped before Barritt’s table. With no sound but a strangled cry, he grabbed the man by his shirt front, lifted him out of his chair, and threw him, face first, into the wall.

"Whee-ooo! Sam-boy!" Buck shouted, a little bit taken by surprised, but none the less pleased by the turn events had taken. This was just the cure he wanted to shake Sam out of his doldrums. And there was certainly no better target than that miserable, lyin’, foul-mouthed bastard as far as he could see. Dick Barritt had coming to him whatever hurt Sam Butler might administer - which might be considerable, given the man’s current mood. He raised a hand to keep the other boys out of the fight. This was Sam’s party. He needed it, after all.

Gabe Palmer threw one punch out of some sense of misguided loyalty. His fist connected with Sam’s face below the left eye, and for an instant the other man looked stunned by it. Then he turned and swung at Palmer, knocking him across three or four tables and dropping him in a heap by the door. Palmer picked himself up slowly. Butler was no longer looking at him, he was watching Barritt peel himself away from the wall. Gabe Palmer didn’t want to be around to witness the outcome, and he sure didn’t want to have anything more, personally, to do with this fight. He had seen murder in Sam Butler’s eyes, even if nobody else had, yet. And since nobody else seemed to be paying any attention to him, he just got up and crept quietly out the door.

Barritt got a couple of punches in before Sam slammed him down onto the floor. And he did manage to kick Sam’s legs out from under him, bringing him down onto the floor with him. But that didn’t slow Sam down any. There was some rage in him that was no longer quite under his control. Weeks of pent-up fear, pain and helpless frustration focused into one white-hot point of fury, all directed at the single man who had said such terrible things about someone who had come to mean so much to him. Dick Barritt’s very life was possibly forfeit, though no one actually realized it, yet.

Ira was the first person to get it.

"Now, Ira, you let Sam do this," Buck said, pulling him back, misunderstanding Ira’s interference. "He gettin’ on just fine all by hisself."

"He’s gonna kill him, Buck!" Ira insisted urgently. "I mean really kill him. Look at him!"

Buck looked again, this time more carefully. Butler had Barritt underneath him, and was punching him repeatedly. "Ira, I think you may be right. Sam!" He moved in quickly. "Sam Butler! That’s enough, Sam. Let him up, now. You done beat him enough. You done good, Sam, now, let him up now."

It took all four of them to pull him off. But once he was on his feet again, Sam calmed down immediately. Buck could feel him shaking, and there were tears running down the man’s battered face, but he no longer made any effort to re-engage in battle. Buck stared down at Barritt, for a moment actually afraid that Sam really had killed the man in his rage. But Barritt groaned, and started moving, though neither well or quickly. Reno grabbed Buck’s arm.

"Buck, the town marshal’s here. He wants to know what the hell is goin’ on. That’s a quote."

Buck exhaled sharply. "Damn!"

 

III

"Sam Butler’s in jail?" John Cannon asked quietly, too shocked to even raise his voice. Buck had roused him from sleep to tell him, the men having returned immediately to the ranch. They stood before him, shuffling their feet uncomfortably, Buck, Ira, Reno and Pedro, looking everywhere but at Big John.

"Yes, sir," Ira muttered. "He got in a fight."

Cannon shook his head. "I can’t believe it." He blew out a breath. "All right, what happened, who started it?" The men contemplated their boot tops. "Come on. Out with it. Buck?"

"Well, Big John, it’s true Sam threw the first punch," the man admitted finally. "But that Dick Barritt started it. He had it comin’, John, by my soul he did."

Well, he might have known. Barritt was a confirmed trouble maker, they’d had their share of problems with that man before. Still… "Started it how?"

"He was runnin’ his mouth, Mr. Cannon," Reno shot out angrily. The intelligence only confused Cannon further. Of all his men, level headed Sam Butler was the least likely to get drawn into a serious fight over words. Sure, he’d throw a few punches, maybe, in a spirit of friendly - or not so friendly - disagreement, but never seriously enough to land himself in jail. It was usually Sam who prevented things from going to those extremes.

"What did Barritt say?" he asked, baffled.

Buck winced. Then he squared his shoulders in resignation. "He was saying things about Caroline, John."

"What kinds of things?" John prodded, his eyes narrowing.

"Bad things. He claimed there’s some man in town, fella name o’ Aaron Stoddard, who says he knew her in St. Louie. He, uh, said this Stoddard’s been looking for her, that she was one o’ his girls… Said Stoddard said she stole from him. Said some other things, too..." The man colored sharply, unwilling to supply any more detail. "We wasn’t too inclined to stop Sam, John, truth is. Till we saw how things was goin’… "

Cannon didn’t really need details, he could imagine what a loud mouth like Barritt might have said. And he was no longer surprised at Sam. "Is Barritt still alive?" he asked, suddenly a little worried. Sam Butler was a big man and powerful. Once aroused, he would be capable of inflicting a considerable amount of damage.

The corner of Buck’s mouth curled up nastily. "Yeah," he snorted. "Barely."

Cannon shook his head. "All right, you men get on out of here. Buck," he turned to his brother, "you take Mano with you and go back into town. Pay Sam’s fines, pay for whatever the damages are. See if you can smooth things over with the marshal. And no more fighting, do you hear me? I don’t care who says what to whom about who. Not until we get to the bottom of this." He sighed as the others dispersed.

John Cannon knew Aaron Stoddard. Or at any rate, he knew of him. Stoddard had been one of Brendan Madigan’s business partners for years, if you could call what those two shady characters did "business." He did not like to think that his niece was somehow mixed up in Stoddard’s operation, and certainly not in the way the Buck had implied. But life could be pretty tough, even in the more civilized places like St. Louis, especially for a young woman alone. And Carrie could have expected little protection from her alcoholic scoundrel of a father, even while he was alive. John shuddered at the thought of what kind of position the girl might have been placed in, with a man like Aaron Stoddard around. And he felt a little bit uncomfortable about his own negligence, there. But before he decided what action to take, he needed to think some more about how he felt about all of this. And he wanted to know the facts. He wanted to hear Sam Butler’s side of the story. And the girl’s. Shaken, he walked into his office. He did not see his niece standing half hidden in the shadows near the top of the stairs.

Carrie had heard everything. The fact that Aaron Stoddard was in town looking for her was only slightly more terrible than the idea that Sam Butler had heard the accusations, the implications about her past associations with the man. Sam had fought, and gone to jail, to defend her reputation against those accusations. And he had suffered, perhaps, for nothing. She felt the blood drain from her head, and dizzy, sank to the floor in the upper hallway. Stoddard was in Tucson, he had followed her to Arizona against all reason. Her stomach heaved, burning the back of her throat. She leaned down until her face touched the cold tile floor. My God, she thought, fighting for breath.

The coolness of the terra-cotta under her cheek brought her around again, and she got quickly to her feet. She could not let Victoria find her collapsed there, nor her uncle, who might come out of his office at any moment. Looking around to be sure no one was near, she darted down the stairs and out the spindle door into the side yard. The moon was waxing, casting an eerie silver pall over the desert. Carrie could see lights burning through the open door of the bunk house. The men, she was sure, were all up talking. About the fight that had cut short their evening, and landed Sam Butler in jail. Talking about the reason, about what they now knew about Caroline Madigan.

She would have to leave, of course. Soon, as soon as possible. It was unthinkable that she should stay and bring shame upon her uncle’s family, upon all he had struggled to build there. If she left, Aaron would follow, that was certain. Once the instigator of all the talk, and the subject, were gone, it would surely die down again. Aaron might catch her, but he might not, if she was clever, if she could get as far as San Francisco, far away from the threat of his influential Missouri friends. And at least he would not longer be in Tucson to sully the hard built Cannon reputation. Nor would she.

If it had not been for Sam, she would have left immediately, taken the filly, maybe, and fled into the desert. Toward Mexico, perhaps, or west to Yuma where she could pick up the California stage. She could sell some of her clothing for travel money, find work along the way. It was stealing, she supposed, since neither the clothes nor the horse actually belonged to her, but she would find a permanent position in California. She would reimburse her uncle for the loss. Carrie choked back a sob, the pain of leaving this place, these people who had offered her shelter, and love, almost too much to bear. It was because of their generosity, and their love, that she had to go, though.

Except that she could not run as long as Sam was in trouble with the law, and her uncle, on her account. She owed it to him to stay and explain. She had to make things right for him with her uncle. And he had a right to hear the truth from her own lips before she left. She would wait until Buck and Manolito brought him back from Tucson, and then tell the truth about Aaron and the truth about her own involvement. Tell her Uncle John. Tell Sam. That would be the worst of it, any vague hope she might have harbored about finally winning him someday dashed on that wretched truth. She sank down onto a bench that was pushed back against the wall of the house, and buried her face in her hands.

"Carrie!"

She felt Blue’s hands on her shoulders, shaking urgently, before she actually registered his voice. She unburied her face and looked down into her cousin’s. He was kneeling in the dirt before her, his expression knotted with concern.

"Oh, Blue…" she leaned forward until her head touched his shoulder, and wrapped her arms around his neck. Disconcerted, Blue hugged her.

"What’s wrong, what’s the matter? How come you’re crying? Why are you outside, here, it’s the middle of the night?" Blue was so astonished, he didn’t know what question to ask first. "Carrie, come on. Tell me what’s the matter…"

"There was a fight…" she sobbed into his shirt collar.

"Yeah, I know. Sam’s in jail," he said, his voice tinged with something between distress and admiration. "The boys been talkin’ about it. They wunt tell me what happened though, wunt say much o’ anything to me. That’s how come I saw you, I was goin’ in to ask Pa what’s goin’ on. What’er you doin’ out here, anyway?"

Carrie sat up straight, at that, and wiped the tears from her eyes. She took a deep breath, and drew Blue up onto the bench beside her.

"Don’t ask your father, Blue," she said. "Don’t talk to him about this. Not right now."

"Why not? What happened?"

"I can’t tell you. I know, and I will tell you, I’ll explain to everyone. I just can’t talk about it right now."

"Carrie…" Blue took her by the shoulders and turned her toward him. He gave her a stern look that reminded her so much of his father, suddenly, that Carrie almost laughed in spite of herself. "What’s goin’ on?"

Carrie took a deep breath. "Blue, I have to leave here."

He just gaped at her. "What!? Why??"

"Please, don’t ask me, now." She touched her fingers to his mouth to silence him. "Do you love me, Cuz?"

"Aw, Carrie, you know I do."

"Then please. Don’t ask me any more questions. And don’t say anything to anyone about this. Please, promise me! I’ll explain everything, I swear, and you’ll understand then. But I have to wait until Uncle Buck and Manolito bring Sam home. It’s important…"

"Carrie…"

"Please, Blue promise me," she pleaded. "Promise you won’t say anything."

"Okay, I promise. I won’t ask you nothin’ and I won’t say nothin’"

"Not to anyone! Especially not to your father or Victoria. Promise that!"

"I said I promise! But Carrie…" there were tears in his voice, now, and tears threatening to spill from the corners of his eyes. "Carrie, you can’t leave. Tell me you don’t mean it."

She finally started to cry again. "Oh, Blue, when you hear what I have to tell you, you’ll understand why. You’ll want me to go…"

"No!"

She just put her arms around him and buried her face against his shoulder. "Don’t ask me, now. Please… just hold me. Please, Blue…"

There was nothing else he could do. Confused, and not a little frightened, he put his arms around her and held her tight while she cried.

It was after dark the next evening before Buck finally got Sam back home. Seeing them enter the house, Blue ducked in through the kitchen, and hid in the shadows behind a wall of the dining room. Whatever was going on, he knew it had something to do with the fight in town. Everyone was whispering about it, not that they would speak openly in front of him. But he couldn’t let Carrie leave, he had to understand what was happening. Staying silent all day, especially around Victoria, whom he suspected was a worried as he, had been the hardest thing he had ever done. But he had promised his cousin. Now, however, he was determined to get to the bottom of it.

He had company in the shadows. Victoria signaled him to be silent. She, too, had heard the whispers. John had proved stonily silent on the subject of Sam’s arrest, however, and Carrie had spent the entire day locked in her room. Victoria knew it all had something to do with this fight of Sam’s in town, and she also knew that no one was likely to volunteer anything. She took Blue’s hand as she pulled him further out of sight.

Sam Butler returned to the High Chaparral, battered but defiant. He stood before Cannon, one eye badly blackened, face bruised, a small trickle of blood still in the corner of his swollen mouth, bareheaded and respectfully silent, but decidedly unrepentant. What he had done, he had done for good reason. He stood firm on that. John sent Buck and Manolito away. He wanted to talk to his foreman alone first.

"Sam," John began slowly, understanding the man’s attitude and half touched by it, in spite of the seriousness of the situation. "Buck has already filled me in on the general outlines of what happened last evening. But I’d still like to hear your version. What the hell is this all about?"

Butler took a breath and nodded. He did not get a chance to say his piece, though.

"I’d like to answer that question, Uncle," said a voice from the upper corridor. Carrie walked down slowly, as the two men turned. "I overheard you talking to Uncle Buck and the men last night."

Cannon pursed his lips. This was not the way he wanted to do this, but the girl was there, and she looked pretty determined. He nodded to Butler. "I’ll speak with you later, Sam."

"I’d like Sam to hear this," Carrie interrupted before the man could leave. Cannon frowned at her. "He was noble enough to defend my honor," she continued, addressing her uncle, but looking at Sam. "I think he has a right to decide if it was worth defending…"

Cannon hesitated, then shrugged and nodded to Butler to stay. Carrie took a deep breath and began. She stood straight, arms at her side, spoke slowly and formally, looking at neither man, directly, but glancing between them as her story required.

"I believe you may have heard of Aaron Stoddard, Uncle John. He was my father’s partner in a number of his… ventures. It is also my opinion that he murdered both my parents, although I could never make that accusation stick in a court of law." Cannon looked surprised, and Carrie smirked sourly. "Oh, he didn’t pull a trigger," she said. "But it might have been kinder if he had.

"I don’t know how much you actually know about my mother’s death," she continued, looking up at John. "But for the last few years of her life, Mother was addicted to opium. Stoddard supplied her. And encouraged her. She died of heart failure brought on by the drug."

Cannon looked solemn. He had not known, only that his sister-in-law had died of a heart attack.

"My father died an alcoholic, of a ruined liver," Carrie continued. "But you know that. Stoddard made sure he was always kept in drink. I don’t know why. I can’t imagine what he possibly had to gain from it.

"My father died owing Stoddard a lot of money. He left nothing, and I had nothing of value that would help in repaying him. What I didn’t know at the time was that my father had…" she took a deep breath, choosing her words carefully now, "that he had… traded on my person to discharge his debt. Maybe Aaron tricked him. I'd like to hope so. But essentially, he had sold me to Aaron Stoddard, to take effect upon the occasion of his own death."

Both men pulled up at this, and Sam sucked in his breath in shock. Carrie looked at neither of them. "It’s funny," she mused, as if to herself. "We fought a great war to end slavery. You put your own life on the line, Uncle John, so that no human being could ever again own another, in this country. And yet my father sold me the same as he would any other piece of property, if he had actually owned any. Figuratively, of course. Officially, Father made Aaron my guardian. Apparently that’s enough. It doesn't seem to matter that the law technically considers me old enough to master my own fate. As long as I have no husband, and no money of my own, he's free to do what he wants with me.

"Aaron Stoddard is a terrible, vicious man, and he’s used to getting his own way. Even while my father was alive, I had a difficult time avoiding his… attentions, especially after Mother died. I knew, as soon as my father was gone, Stoddard would make himself a serious problem for me. That’s why, one of the reasons why, I wrote to you. I felt I would be safe here, until I could make other arrangements. And I thought, once I was out of St. Louis, that Stoddard would be out of my life. He’d forget about me, I wouldn’t be worth the trouble.

Carrie stopped and took a deep breath before continuing. "My father wasn’t even cold in the ground when Stoddard came to, ah…, call in his counter, shall we say? I had to have time. I hadn’t heard from you, yet," she nodded briefly at Cannon, "and I had not had time to make other plans. I had nothing, Uncle John. I'm not even sure I own the clothes I brought with me. I didn't know what else to do. So…" she looked away again, "I played along. I let him understand that I might be willing to comply with his… intentions for me, under the circumstances." She turned to Cannon directly, now. "Uncle, I swear to you that I stand before you an… honest woman," she said grimacing bitterly at the euphemism. "But I cannot tell you that I have done nothing for which to be ashamed. Aaron Stoddard is a powerful man, with powerful friends. He doesn’t like being thwarted, and he doesn’t take no for an answer. I did what I had to, up to a point, in order to convince him that I would offer him no resistance. As soon as I got your letter I left St. Louis with nothing but the clothes on my back, the one trunk I brought with me…" she smirked again, bitterly, "and the most part of my virtue. I sold a valuable piece of my mother's jewelry to get enough money to come. My father had lost it to Aaron years before, so I suppose I did steal it back from him. So, whatever else Aaron Stoddard may be, it is quite possible that I have given him reason to believe himself justified in this pursuit."

She looked back at Cannon, her eyes hard, now, her expression resolved. "I’ll be leaving as soon as I can make the arrangements. I shouldn’t have come here and risked the reputation you’ve built here. I wouldn’t have, if I thought for a moment Aaron would follow me here. Please believe that." Then she swallowed hard, her composure disintegrating as she looked at Sam. "I’m so sorry…"

She turned quickly and hurried back up the stairs.

"Carrie… Carrie!" Sam started toward the stairs after her, then remembered himself and stopped. He glanced quickly at Cannon, but John was staring at the now deserted stairwell. He looked away.

"John." It was Victoria. "John, say something. Stop her. You can’t let her leave."

Cannon turned to his wife. "You heard, then?" She nodded, and put her hand on his arm.

"I was in the next room," she admitted. "John…"

"Pa, you gotta listen to Victoria!" It was Blue, coming into the room from behind her.

"You, too?" John sighed.

He put his hand over his wife’s. "You go on up to her, Victoria," he said quietly. "Go on, now." She hesitated, then started away. "Don’t let her do anything foolish until I get back. I’ll be there in a little while." She nodded, and disappeared up the stairs. "Boy, you go cool your heels someplace. And keep your mouth shut until we can get this straightened out, you hear me?"

Blue nodded, still stunned. "Yes, sir."

Cannon turned to his foreman. "Sam, come take a walk with me for a minute, will you… Please."

He led the other man out the door. They walked wordlessly across the property, stopping almost naturally at the now empty corral. It was Sam who finally broke the silence. "If that miserable bastard wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him myself," he growled tightly. Cannon looked at him.

"Brendan Madigan?" he asked. "You’d have to get in line. For a lot of reasons." He leaned against the top rail of the corral gate and stared out at the darkness. Butler stood stiffly beside him. "Sam…" John ventured, unsure how to start. But Butler’s brain was already running pall mall on its own track.

"Look, I know it’s none of my business," he blurted, suddenly, "but Mrs. Cannon’s right. You… you can’t let her go, Boss." He paused, collecting himself. "She didn’t do anything wrong, Mr. Cannon. Whatever may have happened. She couldn’t have had any choice."

Cannon nodded slowly. "I believe that too, Sam," he agreed. "If there is any blame to be laid, here, a considerable portion of it belongs at my door. I knew what kind of a man Brendan Madigan was, the kind of people he associated with, and I left a vulnerable young girl in his care anyway, even after I knew her mother had died. I don’t want her to leave, now. And I’ll do everything in my power to convince her to stay. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about my niece in these last couple of months, it’s that she’s nothing if not proud. And she’s a grown woman, I can’t force her to stay here against her will." He glanced at the other man standing uncomfortably beside him, and was glad for the dimness of the moonlight that masked the small smile he could not hide. "I’m not so sure this isn’t any of your business, Sam. And I may need some help, giving her a reason."

Butler looked at him sharply, and then turned away just as suddenly, and John was sure the night hid more than a slight coloration in the other man’s face. This time, he really did smile. "I may be old," he chuckled, "but I’m not dead, yet. And I’m not blind."

Butler slumped against the corral gate. "I didn’t plan for this to happen, Mr. Cannon," he said helplessly. John laughed softly.

"No," he agreed, "we never do." He looked down at his hands a moment. "I guess the real question, now, is whether or not anything said in there, tonight, changes anything."

Sam looked over at him, and this time his eyes were hard. "Nothing’s changed," he stated flatly, after a moment. "Not as far as I’m concerned."

Cannon nodded. "I’m glad," he said. "Have you spoken to the girl?"

But Butler looked uncomfortable, again. "No, sir," he replied stiffly. "I didn’t feel I had a right."

John sighed. "Sam," he said gently, "I said this to you once before, and I meant it, then. I’ll say it again and I mean it, now. You’ve been as much a part of this ranch and all that it stands for, as I have, or Buck, or my son, for that matter. You’ve helped build it up with you’re own hands, and you’ve willingly defended it, and the people on it, with your life. When men share that, they go beyond the common definition of employer and employee. You’re a good man, Sam. And a good friend. None better. There’s no question, here, of ‘rights’." He smiled softly. "So, I guess what I’m really trying to say," he continued, "is that if you love her, and the girl is willing, nothing would please me more."

Sam smiled sheepishly and looked away, embarrassed. He glanced back at Cannon out of the corner of his eye. "You already had this all figured out, didn’t you, Boss," he said.

John boomed laughter. "Weeks ago!" he admitted, slapping the other man on the back. "I wondered how long it was gonna take the two of you to come to the same conclusion."

Sam just shook his head, still a little stunned by it all. It was a moment before he spoke, and then it was unclear if he was talking to Cannon, or to himself. "I never thought I could feel like this, again," he said quietly. "It’s like I’ve been given another chance."

John reached out and clasped his shoulder. "Wait here," he said warmly. Sam nodded. John turned and went back into the house.

Carrie was sitting on her bed, looking down at her hands, Victoria beside her rubbing her back. They were quiet, but it was obvious to John as he walked into the room, that the girl had been crying, and was still struggling with strong emotion. But she jumped to her feet as soon as she saw him. She drew herself up tall, and waited. Cannon took a deep breath.

"Caroline, there’s not much I can say," He started, "to take away the shame of what you’ve been through. I could say it doesn’t matter, but that would be a lie and I know it. It matters to you. Telling us what you did, tonight, had to have been very painful. But I want you to know you’re welcome here, for as long as you want to stay. You’ve done nothing to be ashamed of, as far as I’m concerned. If there are guilty parties in this story, you aren’t among them."

She nodded coolly. "Thank you, Uncle John. I know you mean that. But it’s really isn’t possible."

Cannon nodded. "It’s your decision, of course. If you’re determined to go on to San Francisco, however, I would like to be allowed to provide you with the money for the journey, and with letters of introduction there. I can provide at least some measure of protection for you." Carrie nodded again.

"John," Victoria interrupted. He raised his hand.

"But I wish you’d reconsider," he continued, looking only at his niece. "You have a home, here, Carrie, and we want you to stay. I do, and so does Victoria. Blue, Buck, we all do." He smiled faintly. "And then, there’s Sam, of course."

Carrie blushed furiously, but refused to drop her gaze. "Sam Butler is a good man," she said, after a moment, her voice quiet, but her eyes fierce, and a little defiant.

"Yes, he is," John agreed amiably. "And it’s to your credit that you see that." He waited a beat. "If you leave, you’re going to break his heart."

"He’s given me no reason to suppose so…" said Carrie, eyeing him warily.

Cannon smiled. "Sam has… a peculiar sense of honor," he said. "But… we’ve talked about it."

Carrie opened her mouth, and then closed it, hope lighting, and then fleeing her eyes. She shook her head. "I can’t ask that of him, not after what I told him tonight," she said, looking away, finally.

"I wouldn’t be so sure," Cannon told her. She looked up at him again. The helpless hope in her eyes made tears prick behind his own.

"He told you that?"

Cannon nodded. "He’s out by the corral," he said gently, "waiting for you. Why don’t you let him tell you himself."

"And Stoddard?" she asked. "He came all this way looking for me. He’s not going to just go away." She shuddered as she said it and Cannon glowered.

"You let me worry about Aaron Stoddard," he said.

Still, she hesitated, and John was afraid her shame and the fear that went with it might be too much to overcome. There was nothing more he could say, however, to convince her. It was up to her now, to decide whom she was going to trust. Slowly, she nodded.

"Excuse me," she murmured as she slipped past him out of the room.

"Oh, John," Victoria sighed, standing up and going to her husband. He put his arms around her, kissed the top of her head.

"Think we should wait up for them?" he teased. Victoria smiled.

"I never realized that my husband was such a romantic," she sighed. John Cannon laughed out loud.

He was standing down by the corral, just where her uncle had told her he would be. He turned when he heard the crunch of her step on the gravel. She walked toward him slowly, wordlessly, and he waited, equally silent. And, then, just as silently, they fell together. They stood that way for a long time, holding each other. Saying nothing. It was Carrie who finally leaned away, though not completely out of the protective circle of Sam’s arms.

"Sam, please believe me. Nothing happened between Stoddard and me… not... like that…"

Butler hushed her gently, knowing that nothing she could possibly have done was as terrible as it seemed to her, now, or had seemed at the time, in her fear. And he still wanted to have a word or two with the man who had hurt her, the one he could still reach, anyway. But that would have to wait. He touched her lips with the ball of his thumb, pressing them closed, his finger tips resting softly against her cheek.

"I believe you," he said. "Because you tell me it’s the truth. I’ve known men like Aaron Stoddard, Carrie. I know what they’re capable of. And I know what it’s like to be alone and afraid."

She closed her eyes to keep the tears back, but only succeeded in squeezing them down her cheeks. "I don’t deserve you, Sam Butler…"

He took her face in both hands. "You could have stayed with him," he reminded her. "That would have been the easiest thing to do. But it was a coward’s choice, and you’re no coward, Carrie Madigan. You did what you had to, to get away from him."

Carrie shook her head. "But I didn’t get away, Sam. He came after me. I never thought he would. I never meant to bring this on all of you…" She reached up to touch the bruise on the side of his mouth. "Your poor face… "

Sam just smiled. "Oh, I’m all right," he told her. "You should see Barritt." When she didn’t smile in return, he reached up and brushed a loose lock of hair off her forehead and drew her close. "Everything’s gonna be all right. Don’t worry."

"He’s not gonna just go away, Sam. I told Uncle John that…"

Sam let his hands drop to her shoulders, his fingers making a gentle curve around her throat. "You don’t have to be afraid of Aaron Stoddard," he said darkly. "Not any more."

Carrie swallowed. "That’s what Uncle John said. Sam…" she said, her voice shaking, "I think my uncle is planning to go after Aaron. But he doesn’t understand. Aaron Stoddard is a dangerous man, Sam. I know him; don’t underestimate him. He’s evil, he’s like a… spider. I’m not even sure he’s sane. I… I couldn’t bear if something happened…"

But Sam did not seem overly concerned. "A man like Stoddard preys on people who are weaker than he is, Carrie. Women, men like your father. It’s a whole different thing when he’s faced with somebody strong enough to say no to him. I don’t expect he’ll give us much trouble."

Carrie hesitated, then she nodded, and smiled weakly. She reached up and put her hand over Sam’s, turned her head until her mouth rested against his palm. Sam took a deep breath.

"I’ve got no business loving you," he said softly. "I’ve got nothin’ to offer you. I’m just a hand, here…"

She laughed. "You’re a lot more than that," she retorted. "And I’m not such a bargain; I don’t have a penny to my name… not even much of a reputation, it seems. You may not be a rich man, Sam Butler, but at least I know you won’t gamble away the roof from over my head or the clothes off my back. I’ll always know where you are at night." She took a breath before she added: "And you’ll never raise your hand to me in anger. There’s a lot to be said for that."

Sam closed his eyes, unable to answer her. He pulled her against his chest. "I would never hurt you," he said finally.

"I know that," she replied. She leaned back in his arms and looked up into his face. "Besides," she continued, her eyes suddenly merry, "for better or for worse, I’m in love with you. So if you gettin’ ready to propose to me, Mr. Butler, I wish you’d get to it. Or I might just be forced to pop the question, myself."

He gave her a lopsided grin - the best his poor battered face could offer. "If you’ll have me…"

She nodded, "I’ll have you…" and lifted her mouth to his.

It was a while before one of them suggested they had better go back up to the house and make the announcement.

 

A Settling of Accounts

I

Manolito took the news with good grace. They were all waiting in the house, John and Victoria, Manolito, Buck and Blue.

"Amigo," he clasped Sam warmly. "If I had to lose her to someone, I am glad it was you. Be good to her, hey? Or you know to whom you’ll answer…"

Sam smiled. "I will, Mano," he said, gripping the man hard. "Thank you…"

Buck leaned close to his brother, "I don’t mean to bust your brother-in-law’s bubble, Big John," he quipped, "but Manolito never stood a chance. I saw the way is was between those two the first time they laid eyes on each other, that day in Tucson. They was just some kind of connection or something…"

John shushed him.

"Muchacha," Manolito turned to Carrie. "Congratulations. He is a good man."

Carrie smiled, and there were tears in her eyes when she thanked him.

"May I kiss the bride?" Manolito asked.

Sam shrugged affably. "You’d better ask her."

"Oh, Mano…" Carrie leaned up and kissed him lightly on the mouth. John walked on over.

"Sam," he said. He reached for the other man’s hand, then clasped his arm with the other. Overcome with emotion, suddenly, he could not speak. Neither, for that matter, could Butler. The two old friends stood mute and awkward for a moment, then Cannon reached out and pulled his niece against his side. "You picked a good one, girl."

She grinned. "Yes, sir, I did," she agreed, beaming up at her fiancé.

"Congratulations, both of you," said Cannon.

"Thank you, Mr. Cannon," said Sam.

"What’s all the racket? Can’t a fella get any sleep around here?" They turned to find Joe on the stairs, his left arm in a sling, looking amused. He had already figured out what the commotion was all about. "And I didn’t even have to beat the sense into you…" he drawled, throwing his good arm around his brother and hugging him.

"Oh, yeah, like you could," Sam bantered back, fighting a sudden tightness behind his eyes. Joe let him go, and reached for Carrie.

"Thank you," he whispered as he pulled her close.

"For what?"

"For not giving up."

Carrie looked thoughtful. "I’m not sure I’m the one you should be thanking." She leaned up, then, and kissed his cheek.

John sent Vaquero for a bottle of wine. "I wish it was champagne," he said as he poured out glasses and offered a toast. The congratulations went on for some minutes longer. Victoria hugged Sam around the neck and kissed him, embarrassing him thoroughly, and Blue and Carrie spent a long moment just holding each other tight.

"I guess this means you’ll be stayin’," Blue said finally.

Carrie laughed. "I guess that’s what it means," she agreed.

"You and Sam," Blue sighed, shaking his head, happily, as if he could still not believe it.

But after a few minutes, John drew the men to one side. "I don’t mean to break up this party," he said, "but you boys should get some rest. We’ve got some business to take care of tomorrow." He looked cautiously in Carrie’s direction, but she seemed occupied with Victoria. "There’s still a man we need to settle accounts with in Tucson."

Sam’s eyes went suddenly hard. John nodded at the others. "I told them. This is something for the family to deal with, Sam. And we’re all family, now. Joe, I’m sorry," he added to the younger Butler. "But you’re not fit enough for this, just yet."

Joe looked like he might protest.

"I’d be obliged if you’d stay with Carrie, Joe" Sam said. "She’s likely to be a little upset at the idea." Joe hesitated, still not happy, and then he nodded.

But it wasn’t quite the end of the evening, as it turned out.

"Hey, Pa." It was Blue who heard the noise. "The men are all out front."

"Okay, who spilled the beans," laughed Carrie as she caught Sam’s hand and led him outside.

"Vaquero’d be my guess…" Sam suggested, as he followed her out. They were met with a barrage of happy hoots and shouting. Carrie stepped back for a moment and let Sam absorb the rough congratulations of the men with whom he had lived and worked for so long. She turned to find Victoria beside her.

"He is very handsome," the other woman observed with a smile.

Carrie laughed. "Yes, he is," she agreed, sighing.

"Are you happy, Carrie?"

"I never knew it was possible to be this happy," she said. "But I’m afraid, too, Victoria. This isn’t over, yet. I know Uncle John is planning something, Victoria. I know they’re going after Aaron, tomorrow, even though they’re all trying to hide it from me. I’m afraid of what might happen."

At that moment, though, Sam turned to look for her, and Carrie went over to join him, leaving Victoria to think what she would.

In the open doorway, John and Buck also watched the goings on.

"Big John, you sure it’s such a good idea bringin’ him into town with us tomorrow?" Buck asked. "He’s all happy inside, right now, but I saw what he did to Dick Barritt. And he’s still a little bit worked up over things, I reckon."

"That’s exactly why I do want him with us," John said. "Better we have him where we can keep an eye on him. Because you’re right, Buck, he’s gonna start thinking about what this Stoddard has done, and that’s a bitter thing to ask any man to live with." He reached over and patted his brother on the shoulder. "He’ll be all right. I have absolute faith in Sam Butler’s good sense. And it won’t hurt him any to have his friends around, to remind him, either."

Buck just laughed. "So them Butlers is gonna be family…" he sighed.

John smiled. "Oh, they’ve been family," he said. He turned and went back inside.

They were all gathered in the living room when Carrie came to the top of the staircase in the morning. John, at least, looked surprised to see her.

"Caroline…"

She raised her hand to silence him. "Look," she said, coming the rest of the way down the stairs. "I know where you’re going, and I know why. I’m not a child, Uncle John. There are some things you need to know." She took a deep breath. "Aaron Stoddard usually carries a Derringer as well as his revolver. Right coat pocket. And often a knife or a pistol in his boot. He favors the knife, and he can use it both left or right handed…"

John looked a little shaken that she would be privy to such information. She smiled at him ruefully, and shrugged.

"I never should have left you for so long in that situation…" he said. "Caroline. Can you forgive me?"

Carrie glanced passed his shoulder at Sam and smiled more warmly. "I think we’re square." She stepped up to him and put her arms around his neck. "Just please be careful."

"Oh, he’s not gonna try to take us all on…" Cannon tried to reassure her. But Carrie wasn’t having it.

"You’re assuming he’ll be alone. You don’t know that. Aaron has a propensity for attracting… detritus. And he can afford to purchase a certain degree of loyalty. You don't know him, Uncle. I do."

John sighed. "Point taken. We’ll be careful. And we’ll be sure to search him - thank you for that bit of information. It’s important." He let her go and turned to the others. "Men?"

Sam waited behind as the other filed out of the house. "Don’t worry," he said taking her into his arms. "Everything’s gonna be all right."

Carrie nodded against his chest. "Yes, I think so, too," she said. "I’m only worried that Aaron may panic. You come back, Sam Butler, you hear me? I’ve got plans for you."

Sam laughed into her hair, hugging her tightly. "That’s a strong inducement."

She leaned back in his arms and looked up at him. "And when you do, I’ll tell you all of it. About all those years…"

"I don’t need to hear it, Carrie."

"I need to tell it, though," she said. "Oh, Sam, I’ve spent so long, I think, just scared all the time. And it was so much a part of my life I didn’t even know it. For a little while, here, I wasn’t afraid anymore. Really not afraid. I know the difference, now."

Sam pushed her hair back from her face and cupped her cheek in his palm. "You don’t ever have to be afraid like that, again," he said. "Not while I’m around to say something about it." He kissed her hard and let her go.

The others were waiting for him in the yard.

"You know, Mr. Cannon, Carrie’s got a point about Stoddard maybe not being alone," he said as he reined over. "And… well, it may not mean anything, but something Barritt said the other night just won’t leave my mind. It might be worth our while to pay him a little visit, on our way into Tucson."

Cannon thought about this. "You know where he holes up?"

Sam nodded coldly. "I’ve got a pretty good idea. Follow me." He turned his horse out of the compound, the others following.

Carrie stood in the doorway watching them go. "Vaya con Diós, enamorado," she whispered. "Come back. All of you." She heard footsteps, and knew it was Joe behind her, but did not turn.

"They’ll be all right," he said. Carrie nodded. "Big John’s right, you know," Joe continued. "So’s Sam. He’s not gonna try to take them all on."

"Assuming he’s alone," she reiterated. "And even if he is, he only needs to fire once. If he panics. Every single one of those men is somebody I love, Joe," she said softly. "I think I’m starting to run out of courage." Joe put his good arm around her shoulders.

"Come on back inside. I heard Mrs. Cannon up. I think she’s got coffee on…"

II

The shack looked deserted, but Sam brought his mount to a halt before it, anyway. Blue turned to his father.

"Somebody lives here?"

Big John just swung off his horse. He pounded on the door hard enough to shake it loose from its rusted hinges. "Open up, Barritt! We know you’re in there…"

He waited. When nothing happened, he glanced back at the rest of the men, still mounted behind him. Perhaps Sam had gotten the place wrong, or maybe Barritt was still in Tucson. Although Buck had said he’d checked when he’d gone back into town to get Sam, and he’d confirmed that Barritt was not only still among the living, but that he had already left for home. Buck had made it a point to find out. John pounded again, the loosened door rattling loudly. He heard movement within.

Big John was actually a little uneasy about seeing Barritt. The men had been talking about little except the beating Sam had administered, and although Cannon certainly understood the reasons, and could hardly fault the man, it was still a little bit disconcerting for him to imagine level-headed, responsible Sam Butler in an uncontrollable rage. He wasn’t looking forward to seeing the results of that encounter. The door opened slowly, and Dick Barritt looked out into the sunlight. He looked pretty bad, his face swollen, both eyes cut and black. But he was not quite as awful a sight as Big John had feared, and he was on his feet and moving. Apparently, Sam had not been as much as out of his mind as everyone, including Butler, himself, had thought.

Though Barritt clearly thought otherwise.

"You keep him away from me," he hissed through a swollen mouth. John turned and looked at Sam. The man had not so much as shifted his weight in the saddle; he just stared down at Barritt with cold, flat eyes. Cannon turned around, again.

"That will pretty much be up to you, Mr. Barritt," he said evenly. "We just want to talk to you about this Aaron Stoddard. May we come in?"

Since it didn’t seem likely anyone would pay any attention if he said no, Barritt just stepped aside. John entered the shack, and the men dismounted and filed in behind him.

"Please sit down, Mr. Barritt," John said. "We’d like to ask you a few questions about your association with Mr. Stoddard."

"I got nothin’ to say to you," Barritt said, still standing. Sam moved up next to Cannon, as the others spread out around the cabin, looking for whatever they could find. John glanced at Sam out of the corner of his eye.

"I’m sure you’re still feeling a little unwell, Mr. Barritt," he said. "Why don’t you have a seat."

"This is my place," Barritt growled. "You got no business tellin’ me what to do. I don’t gotta say nothin’ to you."

"You know somethin’, Barritt. I know you do," Sam growled. "What did you mean when you said this Stoddard had gotten close…"

"All right, Sam," Cannon cautioned. "Mr. Barritt? You were asked a question."

Barritt just glowered belligerently.

"John?"

Cannon turned to find Manolito beside him, a fist full of arrows in his hand. "I found these in the corner," he handed them to Cannon, "with this wrapped around them." He handed John a piece of black cotton cloth. There appeared to be a strip torn off it. Cannon turned to Barritt.

"These are Apache arrows," he said.

"So? No law against ‘em."

"Where did you get them?"

"Found ‘em. On the ground. Ain’t no shortage of Apache arrows around here, Cannon. You oughta know that."

"I found an arrow like this on my property, not too long ago," John continued evenly. "After a very peculiar Indian raid against my place. That arrow had a tail tied to it, of a fabric that looked an awful lot like this here…" He held up the piece of cotton. "We guessed it was a signal of some kind. What might you know about that, Mr. Barritt?"

Barritt shifted uncomfortably, and looked, not at Cannon, but at Sam. Butler crossed his arms across his chest.

"Start talkin’, Barritt," he said coldly. Dick Barritt finally did sit down in the nearest chair.

He told them everything, more or less. About the planned abduction, the diversionary raid. Stoddard’s hiring him, hiring the others, and although he did not enlighten them as to his own extended agenda, he made clear Stoddard’s purpose of kidnapping Carrie.

"Why you son of a bitch," snarled Sam, lunging for Barritt. John put a hand out to quiet him.

"Save it, Sam," he said.

"Mr. Cannon…"

"I know how you feel, Sam. I feel the same way. But we’ve got bigger fish to fry." Butler hesitated, then nodded. "This Stoddard," Cannon continued, "he’s still in Tucson?"

"Last I heard," said Barritt. "Ain’t my job to watch him."

Cannon ignored the sarcasm. "Is he alone? Or does he have men with him."

Barritt shrugged. "Might be he’s alone," he said sullenly. "Might be he ain’t, though." Sam took a step forward, again, and this time John did nothing, immediately, to hold him back. Barritt eyed him nervously. "I think he mighta took up with that García," he amended, "what ran the raid. I heard García was hangin’ around with him, lately."

John Cannon nodded. "Thank you for your time, Mr. Barritt. I would recommend that, for the time being, you remain where we can find you. In case we need to collaborate your story with Mr. Stoddard’s." He signaled the men out of the shack.

"You think he gonna stay put, John?" asked Buck as they mounted.

"In his condition, I don’t think he’s gonna go too far, Buck, do you?" John replied. "You did a pretty good job on him, Sam, I’ll say that…" he added, nodding at the man riding beside him. Butler didn’t say anything.

Stoddard was in the saloon when the Cannon party found him. It was not his first choice of afternoon haunts, he would have preferred the slightly more genteel atmosphere of the hotel taproom, but he wanted to talk to García and García would have nothing to do with the hotel bar. Stoddard had derived a possible plan to lure Caroline away from the High Chaparral, one that relied upon García getting a few of his men hired on the place. But they needed to hammer out details. The two men were sitting at a table toward the rear when the Cannons came in. A few of García’s men were standing at the bar, drinking; otherwise the saloon was empty.

John recognized Stoddard immediately, even though he had never actually met the man. He knew the type. He walked slowly up to the table, the others fanned out behind him. "Mr. Aaron Stoddard?"

"Yes?"

Behind him, John heard the soft slip against leather of guns being pulled from holsters, and the ticking of hammers being cocked. He could see Buck with his revolver drawn, and Sam beside him, looking dangerous. And he knew that the rest of these men in the bar behind him would be in the same condition. It would only take an instant for the situation to deteriorate into a blood bath.

Cannon looked at the other man sitting beside Stoddard. "You García?"

"Señor?"

"Get out," Cannon said. "You and your men with you. We’d like a word alone with Mr. Stoddard, here. My quarrel is not with you. At the moment…"

García made a show of thinking about it. For a long moment, death hung in the air like a tangible thing. Then he shrugged. He had a pretty good idea who these men were, and he doubted he could get out of an encounter with them without losing a life or two - maybe his own among them. His interests in Stoddard did not extend that far. "¡Hombres!" he called, standing up. "Vámanos."

"García!" Stoddard protested.

García’s men slowly holstered their weapons. John nodded to Buck, who did the same. He did not turn, trusting the others to comply, also.

"Yo lo siento, señor," García sighed. He smiled. "I am sorry. It has been nice doing business with you, but…" he shrugged eloquently, then signaled his men and walked out of the saloon, his cohorts following.

John knew he was taking a chance, driving García and his men out of there. But he trusted that the comanchero's loyalty to Stoddard were fragile enough not to risk his own blood at such close range. He did not expect the man would be back to take them unawares. He also knew that he was letting go one of the orchestrators of the assault on his niece and on his property. Perhaps the one who had shot Joe Butler. But the world was full of Garcías. It always would be, and they would be dealt with in their own turns. Greater was the danger represented by the men who would use them. Like this man before him.

"Who the hell do you think you are to…" Aaron Stoddard sputtered indignantly. His hand dropped slowly from the table. John looked at his brother. Buck grabbed Stoddard under one arm, Manolito grabbed him under the other, and they wrenched the man standing, his arms pinned high. Buck relieved him of his revolver, then found the Derringer, just as Carrie had predicted. Blue found the knife in his boot. They threw the cache of weapons onto the table, and dropped Stoddard back into his chair.

"Mr. Stoddard, we’d like to have a word with you about Caroline Madigan."

"Who are you!" Stoddard demanded, although he was beginning to figure that out.

"My name’s John Cannon," said John. "I’m Caroline’s uncle. This is my brother, Buck, he’s her uncle, too. And this is Manolito Montoya, he’s her uncle by marriage. My son, Blue. He’s her cousin. And this, here, is Sam Butler. Sam is Carrie’s fiancé."

Stoddard pulled up, a little, at that name. It was talk all over Tucson about what this man, Butler, had done to Dick Barritt. He had seen the man, himself, before he’d fled town. Barritt had not been a pretty sight.

"What do you want with me?" he blustered.

"I want you to leave this Territory, Mr. Stoddard," Cannon said. "At the next available opportunity. Sooner than that if it can be arranged. I want you permanently and completely out of my niece’s life. And mine."

"You’ve got no right, Cannon," Stoddard said. "That girl owes me; her father owed me a small fortune. You don’t know her, but she’s not what you think she is. She agreed to come work for me, and I invested a considerable expense on the weight of that promise. She’s a liar and a thief. I’m within my rights to expect my own back. And I aim to get it. I’ll call the law in, if I need to. You’re out of your depth here, Cannon, stay out of this."

John had to give the man credit for sheer bravado; he was out manned and out gunned. And pretty much out smarted. But he didn’t give him much credit for brains. Sam moved in fast, taking what should have been predictable exception to Stoddard’s comments. John almost didn’t catch him in time.

"Take it easy, Sam," Cannon said, gripping the man hard by the shoulder and drawing him back, even as Sam's fingers closed around the front of Stoddard's shirt. He turned back to Stoddard. "You don’t seem to understand, Mr. Stoddard. This man, here, would very much like to kill you. Not only have you threatened the well-being of the woman he loves, but his only brother very nearly lost his life in that bogus Indian raid you launched against my home. Yes," he continued as Stoddard looked uneasy, "we’ve been talking to Mr. Barritt. He’s told us everything we need to know."

"Barritt’s a liar. You can’t prove a thing," Stoddard hissed.

"Oh, I think we can," Cannon disagreed genially. "We have some pretty strong evidence in support of our contention, and, well, Mr. Barritt is sure to testify, if it comes to that. He’s in no condition to go very far away, you see." He glanced up at Sam, again, to drive the point home. "You’re not in Missouri, any more, Mr. Stoddard. This is my country, here." He sighed dramatically. "Now, I’m not about to let Sam do something as foolish as kill you - I don’t want to see him hang. But I’m not opposed to making your life very miserable, and if Sam, here, wants a hand in that, well, I can’t say that I’d be too inclined to stop him. Or any of these other men, for that matter. They all have an interest in this." He paused, giving Stoddard a moment to think about it. "Do we understand each other?"

Stoddard looked cowed, but not defeated. "You haven’t heard the last from me, Cannon…"

"Well, for your sake, Stoddard, I hope I have." He relaxed now, knowing he had won. The rest was just details. "There’s a mail stage leaving at four o’clock this afternoon. I took the liberty of checking at the depot. They assure me it will be leaving on time. I highly recommend that you be on it." He didn’t wait for an answer. "Buck? Perhaps you and Manolito would be good enough to stay here and make sure Mr. Stoddard makes his stage?"

"It would be my pleasure, Big John," said Buck.

"And mine, as well," agreed Manolito.

Cannon picked up Stoddard’s revolver. He popped the cylinder and unloaded it, then dropped it back onto the table.

Sam picked up the Derringer. It was a pretty thing, pearl handle. A nice little weapon for Carrie to have, he thought. He tucked in into his pocket. "Souvenir," he said in answer to Cannon’s puzzled look.

Cannon nodded. He gave one last look to his brother, then he turned, and left the saloon. "I didn’t think he’d give us much trouble," he said to no one in particular, once they were out in the street again.

"No, sir," Sam agreed, in a tone that sounded like he still would have liked the opportunity to beat the man some.

Cannon smiled as he swung up into the saddle. He looked down at Buck, who had followed him out. "You keep an eye on him. Make sure he leaves on that mail stage."

"Will do, Big John, don’t you worry."

Cannon looked at his son. "You ready, boy?"

"Yes, sir, Pa."

He turned to Butler. "Sam?"

Sam continued to look at the saloon door for a moment, then he caught his horse’s bridle and mounted. He looked at Cannon, nodded.

"Come on, then," said John. "We’ve got some worried people waitin’ for us at home."

III

They sat above the swale, two men on horseback, gazing down at the cattle moving by below them. The sea of bodies, and the mellow lowing and murmuring of deep baritone cow voices was tranquilizing; there in the lazy sun, the two could have almost fallen asleep, so complete was their contentment.

John Cannon glanced over at the man beside him. The bruises had finally faded from the other man’s face, the last remnants of their troubles. He looked completely at ease, almost serene; confident. A man wholly at peace with the world. Cannon smiled.

"So, tell me, Sam," he said. "What are your plans?"

Sam Butler turned and smiled. "Well, Boss, we’ve been talkin’," he admitted. "I think we’re gonna wait a bit. It’s not like I’ve got any place, right now, to take her home to… and I’d like to be able to do that…"

Cannon had expected that much. "You have any place in particular in mind?"

Butler shrugged. He’d been scouting, it was true. "I’ve got my eye on a couple of options…" he admitted. "Carrie'd like to stay in these parts. So would I, for that matter."

"I hear the old Cawthorne place is empty and goin’ cheap…" Cannon fished. Sam glanced over at him. The Red Rock was one of the spreads he’d been considering. It needed the most work, of all the places he’d looked at, but he was already familiar with it, having spent some time there back when Buck had been helping the widow Cawthorne. He was confident that the place could be improved; with work, it had real possibilities. And it could be put more or less within his reach.

"That’s one of the places I’ve been thinkin’ about," he agreed, reluctant to reveal too much, just yet.

Cannon grinned at him. "I figured that’s what you and Joe were up to the other day. I saw the two of you ride off in that direction."

Well, John Cannon never did miss much. "Main thing that place needs is a couple more deep wells and some better management," Sam said with more enthusiasm, deciding it was pointless to play cagey.

"I agree," said John. "I always thought it could be a nice little spread, in the right hands. There’s a lot of work in that place, though," he continued. "You’ve talked to Carrie about it?"

"We’ve talked. Carrie’s tough, Mr. Cannon. She’s not afraid of hard work."

Cannon had to smile at the possessiveness in the man’s voice. "No, I don’t expect that girl’s afraid of much of anything."

Sam looked out at the herd. "She is," he replied, flatly. "But nothin’ she has to worry about any more."

John winced. "If that was directed at me, I suppose it was deserved. I never should have left her with Madigan, Sam. I know that."

Butler looked back at him, a little surprised. "It wasn’t…"

"Meaning I’m still harboring a guilty conscience," John sighed. He looked back at the cattle. "I suppose you’ll be takin’ your brother with you," he said, changing the subject. "I don’t know what the Chaparral will be like without a Butler on it."

It was meant as a compliment, and Sam took it as such. "Well, that will be up to him," he said, smiling. "But I can’t promise I won’t make him an offer." His expression softened. "I’d like to have him with me, if he’s willin’ to come."

John nodded. "I can certainly understand that."

"But that’s a long ways off, yet," Sam concluded.

Cannon hesitated, choosing words carefully so as not to offend or embarrass the other man. "I want you to let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you, Sam," he said, finally. He cocked a wry smile at the man, "I’m gonna owe you a weddin’ present, anyway."

Sam laughed. "Well, right now, this job is plenty, Mr. Cannon," he said, "But thank you. I may have cause to call on you."

"The job is yours for as long as you want it, Sam. You know that," Cannon said. "But I mean it about the help." Sam just nodded at him.

John heard a cry of greeting, looked over past Sam’s shoulder, and smiled. Carrie had just crested the hill on her little filly, Vaquero behind her. "Look’s like you’ve got company." He laughed at Butler’s bashful look. "Well, she certainly didn’t ride all the way out here to visit with me!" he assured the man. He waved to Vaquero, who waved back, then reined away, his escort duty done. John took a deep, contented breath as he watched the girl ride closer. "You know, Sam? Sometimes life is very good."

Sam followed his gaze. "Yes, sir," he agreed. Then he laughed softly. "And sometimes it’s even better than that." He touched heels to his horse and trotted out to meet her. John watched them for a moment, then turned and looked down at his herd. He could see his son down there, and his brother. Manolito. Even Joe Butler, fully healed and back in the saddle, again. Yes, life was very good, sometimes, he thought. He looked back over at Sam and Carrie, saw them deep in some earnest conversation. And sometimes, yes, sometimes it was even better than that.

John Cannon laughed for no particular reason. Then he nudged his horse and reined down to follow the cattle.

THE END