HUNTER’S MOON

 

A PRETTY GOOD DAY

I

He smelled the cat before he actually saw it.

It had been a pretty good morning for Joe Butler, tracking strays among the rocks above Adobe Canyon. The younger of a pair of brothers who made up the backbone of the High Chaparral crew, Butler was a top cow hand, highly skilled and experienced, well liked and well respected among the other men. He had been part of the High Chaparral from its very beginnings, he and his brother and the half a dozen or so hands that Chaparral owner Big John Cannon had hired upon first arriving in Arizona territory. It was good work, hard but satisfying. And his situation on the High Chaparral was as close to ideal as work was likely to get, with his own older brother foreman and John Cannon an exacting but fair and, underneath all his bluster, generous-hearted boss. As he drew his horse down to a walk, it dawned on Joe Butler that, in all of his thirty-something years, he had found few places he appreciated being quite so much as where he was on the High Chaparral. There were days when he simply could not imagine being anywhere else. In truth, the Chaparral had become more than just a place of employment to him, it was home.

Squinting into the sun, his dark eyes scanned the immediate landscape for the tell tale signs of the wayward. It was not a task he minded, particularly, rounding up those wandering babies and driving them back to rejoin the herd. Or, in this case, back to the round up camp for a brand and an ear crop. Hunting strays was relatively undemanding work most of the time, neither as dusty nor as tiring as trailing cattle. And it sure beat the thunder out of branding and castrating calves, which was what he could have been doing. The morning had dawned sweet, the air bright and cool above the canyon, and although it was getting hotter as the day progressed, there was a light breeze blowing up from the canyon floor, carrying with it the fragrant perfume of desert blossoms as they opened to the sun. Even the ringing of his mount's shod feet against the rocks was soothing, and Joe Butler was feeling pretty pleased about life. Reno, another of the Chaparral's original crew who had ridden out with him earlier, had already returned to camp with their first catch of five strays, leaving Joe to search the canyon. It was actually kind of nice, being out there all alone.

Drawing up a moment, Joe pulled off his hat and ruffled a gloved hand through his dark curls as he gazed down into the canyon. He had seen buzzards down there earlier that morning, and had ignored them, buzzards being a fairly permanent part of the landscape. But now that he the rounded the trail and saw the birds swooping, and smelled that putrid stench of rotting flesh, he figured it might be a good idea to go down and investigate. He parked his hat securely on his brow, again, and turned his horse toward the trail that led down into the cut. He found the half eaten carcass of a young cow a short distance beyond the trail head. Two or three years old, probably, from what he could tell. And it looked like it had been a healthy and well formed animal, too, judging by the remains. He knew his sudden rush of anger was irrational, the cat that had killed this cow had only been acting according to its nature. But he was angry, anyway, at the death, at the loss to the herd. The waste. Cougars were the bane of the cow man's existence, one of them, anyway, along with wolves and rustlers and Apache. And Joe Butler, his pretty good morning spoiled, now, was determined to put an end to this particular cat's marauding. He pulled his rifle out of its boot, and nudged his horse down the trail.

He found the spoor a little farther on. He knew he was close, too, possibly even close to the animal's very den; his big sorrel was prancing nervously, ears pinned and fighting him. He reined down to a slow walk. And then he smelled it, that acrid, musky pungency. The next events remained a blur to him, they happened so quickly. His horse reared, nearly unseating him, and he heard the frightened bellow of the calf. He saw a flash of tawny, heard the scream. He lifted his rifle and fired, even as the creature sprang. His horse whinnied unhappily as the cougar rolled over at the side of the trail, but Joe held him steady, his rifle still trained on the fallen cat. The animal lay still, though, dead; it had been a good shot. A few yards away, a little calf struggled onto its feet, the cat's intended victim. Joe nudged his horse upwind, and dismounted to have a look.

The baby was very young and very badly injured. A little bull calf, he saw. The cougar had caught it in the side before falling to Butler's marksmanship. It was really too young to survive long without its mother, even had it not been injured; Joe guessed the mother had been the cat's first victim, that carcass lying further up the ravine. He caught the calf without much trouble. It was too torn up to move very fast.

"Easy, little fella," he murmured, crouching down and hooking an arm around the baby to hold it steady. The calf's flank and left hindquarter were badly lacerated, its haunches bleeding heavily. It was going to require some major doctoring, and even then its chances of survival were slim. Joe knew what he had to do. He stood up and stepped back a few paces. Then he drew his revolver. The calf shook, its legs barely holding, turned, and looked up at him with sad brown eyes. Joe took aim. The calf blinked.

"Aw… hell."

It was foolish. Pointless. A waste of energy and time. In some ways, even cruel, when he thought about it. The little creature was too small, too weak and too wounded. The right thing, the humane thing, to do was to put it out of its misery. He knew that. He just couldn't bring himself do it. For all of his hardy practicality there was a deep vein of tender compassion in Joe Butler that sometimes got the best of his good judgment. And this was going to be one of those times. He re-holstered his revolver, and stared down at the little orphan for a moment. It just stared back at him, mournfully. Shaking his head, he went back to his horse.

Like most of his compatriots, Joe carried with him, besides his kit and guns and bedroll, certain odds and ends chosen with the survival of both himself, and the stock for which his was responsible, in mind. Bandages, a clean rag, creosote and screw worm ointment. A sharp pen-knife. Twine. He got out those things he would need to bind the calf's wounds enough to get it back to the round up camp, and set to work. He'd need to sew the animal up, too, eventually, but he'd need a hand with that. Right now, his main concern was stanching the blood enough to keep the baby alive for another hour. Once that was accomplished, he lifted the calf up over his saddle, and mounted behind it. And sighed. At best, he was going to take a considerable amount of ribbing for being such a sentimental fool, he just knew it. At worst, his brother would have a few choice things to say about the waste of time over an animal so obviously doomed. But it had been such a pretty morning. And he had been in such a good mood.

Joe could see the white canopy of the chuck wagon as he rounded the trail coming down from the mountain, with the chuck box open in the back of it, piled with utensils awaiting the next meal. Beyond the wagon in the near distance was the herd, Reno now holding them, and between the herd and the camp, the men of the High Chaparral on the branding grounds. Because this was spring round up, they were handling mostly very young calves, many of them not even weaned, yet. In some ways, this was an easier round up than the fall, when the stock tended to be older and more cantankerous. On the other hand, these little babies were usually accompanied by their understandably nervous mothers, who weren't too happy to be separated from their offspring even for the short time it took to accomplish the necessary tasks. It wasn't uncommon for a man not watchful to become the victim of some cow taking exception to the proceedings against her little one. It paid to be on the look out for trouble. But things looked calm and completely under control to Joe as he trotted down onto the flats. Which was pretty much what he expected from a crew as experienced as this one was.

The Chaparral favored a method of branding that was sometimes referred to as the "California" style. It involved using two men on horseback to catch and hold a calf, one with a rope around the head and a second to catch its feet, stringing the animal out between them. It was an efficient method, allowing for the quick subduing of the little creatures, and was perhaps somewhat safer than a single mounted roper, requiring fewer men on the ground. With the animal held secure between two riders, one man alone could then throw and hold a calf, with another to brand it, and castrate it if necessary.

At the moment that he rode down to the flats, Joe could see that his brother had Pedro working the head rope, the man's tidy underhand "catch" being a neat and useful throw in the confined space of the branding area. Sam, himself, was "heeling," with John Cannon's brother, Buck, at the branding fires, rotating irons for Manolito Montoya, Big John's brother-in-law. And John's son, Blue, the unlucky kid, was down in the dust wresting with the strung out calves, holding them steady for Manolito's ministrations. Dirty, miserable work, that; Joe didn't envy the boy. They were all there, though, all of the regular crew. That fact made the one noticeable absence all the more noticeable; for Big John Cannon was not among them, having left for the ranch the evening before to begin discussions concerning that season's contracts with the army new procurement officer from Fort Bowie.

Joe touched his spurs to his horse's sides, and trotted the rest of the way in. He had to admit, now that the moment of truth had arrived, that he was feeling a little embarrassed. His brother, he knew, would have the men worked into an efficient rhythm. Sam would not likely be too overjoyed at the prospect of stopping to sew up some half dead already dogie. Joe gave a mental shrug of resignation. Let it be Sam's decision, then.

For his part, Sam Butler had been watching for his brother. The High Chaparral foreman had heard the rifle shot up on the mountain. He'd heard the cat scream, too, and at first he thought the object slung across the front of Joe's saddle was the carcass of the dead cougar; the cats were bountied animals, after all and he fully expected Joe to bring it back with him to collect the reward. Then he saw he was mistaken.

"What the…"

They had just shaken loose a calf from their ropes, and while Pedro rode out to catch the next candidate and drag it back to the fires, Sam dismounted and walked over to Joe's horse. "You get that cat?" he asked, coming up on Joe's off side. He ran an expert hand over the calf's flank, taking in the blood soaked bandages.

"Yeah, it's up on the trail. Somebody'll have to go back for it…"

Sam nodded and walked around the other side. He looked at the calf's face, then looked up at his brother. "Joe, this animal's barely weaned…"

"Yeah, I know…"

"And it's hurt pretty bad…"

"I know that…"

Sam just looked up at him, his expression exasperated. The other men had gathered around to see what was going on. They looked between the calf and the Butlers. Joe didn't quite squirm, and he didn't exactly look belligerent.

"Joe…"

"So, you shoot it, then…" Joe said. Sam looked around, feeling the eyes of the others on him. At that moment, the baby nosed out and grabbed Sam's neck scarf, sucking on it.

"Hey!" Sam jumped back, pulling his scarf free. The calf bawled and the men laughed.

"I thought it deserved a chance, at least," said Joe, half apologetically. Sam just shook his head. Then he relented and smiled as he looked up at his younger brother.

"You always were a sucker for hurt things," he sighed, kindly. He reached up, getting his arms around the calf. "All right, little baby. Let's have a look at ya."

They found a patch of grass to lay the calf down on. Its wounds were even worse than Joe had thought, once he had an opportunity to wash some of the blood out of them, and he found himself beginning to regret his soft-heartedness. Still, he had started on this course, there was nothing he could do now but finish it. Sam held the calf while Joe sewed it up, a needle and sutures being among the other things that an experienced cow hand often carried. One never knew when a beast, or a man, might need some stitching. When they were finished, Sam set the baby on its feet. The calf stood unsteadily for a moment. Then it wobbled, folded its legs underneath itself, and lay down in the dirt, its nose stretched out before it, exhausted by its ordeal. Sam pursed his lips.

"Go put it under them bushes, get it out of the way," he said. "It'll probably be dead before nightfall."

"Yeah, probably," Joe agreed, feeling a little foolish, now. He gathered the calf up in his arms and moved it as directed.

"Blue!" called Sam. "Mount up and head on up that trail, bring that cougar back. No sense wastin' a perfectly good bounty."

"You got it, Sam!" the boy answered, happy for any excuse to get out of what he was doing. Joe Butler had no doubt who was going to get to replace the kid in the dust.

II

It was one of the prettiest mornings John Cannon had seen in a while, the air clear and still a little cool, the sky cloudless and brilliant. A day full of promise. Cannon looked around himself, at the immediate environs of his High Chaparral, contented that each thing in his view was working efficiently and according to its intended purpose: animals, equipment and men. And each thing upon which his eyes rested belonged to him, John Cannon; his domain, his little empire. He knew there were men of his acquaintance who faulted him for that feeling, who called him despot, and other names not so polite. But he also knew there were many others who understood, and even admired what he had built there. Not that other men's opinions were of any great importance to him. This was his world, a world of his own making, for himself and for his son after him and his son's sons, and all the Cannons to come. And for his brother, too, and whatever family Buck Cannon might someday generate, Big John did not forget that. This had been John Cannon's dream, in one form or another, since the first moment he had held the tiny squalling bundle he and his late wife had named William, after John's father, and whom they called, with amused but abiding affection, "Billy Blue." And if he still had, deep in his heart, some small, continuing ache of regret that Anna Lee had not lived to see this wonderful land become not just a dream but a reality, murdered as she had been at the hands of the Apache early in their stay, it was a grief he had long since learned to master. This land had taken his son's mother, but it had also given back so much - including the woman to whom Cannon was now married, and whom he loved like life itself. To the extent that John believed in an Almighty who acted upon the dreams of men, he could not help but believe that his own dreams must have met with some divine approval. Especially on a morning like this.

He looked around, again, taking mental inventory. Most of his crews were out with the herds, it was round up, and by far the busiest time on a working cattle ranch. But there were other projects, too, going on within the immediate confines of the ranch compound. The bunkhouse had been more or less rebuilt, the old structure shored up, and expanded to accommodate the growing number of hands the Chaparral now needed, and to provide a greater measure of comfort for the men. There were more corrals being built, as well, two in progress and at least one more for which Cannon had future plans. And the foundation for the barn he had wanted since first laying eyes on the property was finally being laid out by the main horse corral. Without a doubt it was a sight to give a man pleasure.

There was a small dark cloud in all of this golden sunshine, though, although Cannon tried not to worry too much provided it didn't get any worse. A spread the size of the High Chaparral needed a large number of reliable, trustworthy men to run it, and Cannon was finding it increasingly difficult to get the kind of men he needed, and to keep them. Lately, keeping them was becoming a serious concern. Big John had always had a problem getting enough good men. In fact, those first few he had hired upon his arrival in Tucson, had turned out to be the best of the lot. He had had his doubts about them, admittedly, when Buck had first ridden in with that crew of drunken louts, but those men had gone on to become his most trusted, Reno, Pedro, Ira Beane, and especially the Butler brothers. Perhaps it was because they, too, had had a stake in the success of the ranch from the beginning, helping to build it up from a Apache and desperado plagued hell-hole into what it had become. Whatever the reason, they had stayed through the years to form the bedrock of the Chaparral crew. There had been other good men, too, who had come and stayed a while and though most had eventually gone. Some had been lost to raids, or fear of raids. Some he had just lost to other interests, or the wanderlust that compelled some men.

The problem, though, was usually one of getting men to come out in the first place, and less so of keeping them once they came. Because it was so far out from what passed for civilization, the Chaparral continued to be a target for renegade Apaches and comancheros. Any man signing on to work cattle also signed on, tacitly, to fight. It was not always an attractive proposition, despite the fact that Sam Butler was a well respected crew boss, despite the premium wages and better than average accommodations that Cannon provided. It was something he had been dealing with for a long time. But lately, another factor had entered into the mix that not only provided an attractive alternative to men who might otherwise consider the Chaparral as a likely situation, it was starting to draw hands away who had already signed on. Gold fever had taken its hold on the area, with results that might rapidly become disastrous for all other enterprises requiring able bodied men.

The rumored report of gold was a frequent enough occurrence up in the Santa Rita mountains and the surrounding environs; occasionally gold actually had been found there. Gold fever was something the High Chaparral, and all of the area cattle ranches, continually battled. It was difficult enough to attract willing hands to the hard and often dangerous, but steady, work of cattle ranching when rumors of easy money were always there to tempt them away. But never had the draw seemed so strong as it had become recently. Cannon was not just having a difficult time attracting new men, he was having a harder time keeping the ones he already had. Three men had left the ranch for the gold fields in the last week, and Cannon could see signs of discontent among some of the others. With luck, though, the return of his core crew from the round up would help stabilize the situation. If nothing else, Cannon was looking forward to his brother Buck's return, and to getting the Butlers back. Sam's leadership, and both brothers practical conservatism and long history with the ranch would provided a steadying influence. Or so he hoped.

Worry about his crew could not depress him too deeply, however. After all, he had been short handed before, and it was simply too fine a morning. Besides, he had finalized a very lucrative agreement with Fort Bowie at dinner the evening before. The best deal yet, in all the years he had been dealing with the army, and one with the potential to become a long term commitment. It was enough to remove the sting of almost any competing concern. And the young army officer sent to negotiate with him had proved to be a truly unexpected pleasure. As Cannon contemplated his good fortune, he heard footsteps behind him. He turned to find Captain John Lawrence coming out of the house. Lawrence was a young man for his position, West Point educated, Eastern establishment reared. And quite handsome, as Cannon's wife, Victoria, had pointed out to him, teasing. Big John had found the man an interesting house guest, a satisfying conversationalist, and to his great surprise, in general a pleasure to be around. Lacking much of what Cannon had come to think of as typical military narrow-mindedness, Lawrence held many thought provoking theories and opinions concerning Arizona territory, statehood, the Indian situation, relations with Mexico, all things that tended to consume Cannon's interest. To their mutual delight, the two men found themselves of like minds more often than not.

"Good morning, John," Lawrence said, coming up beside him. The two men had drifted quickly and easily onto a first name basis the night before.

"Jack…" Cannon smiled warmly. "I trust you slept well?"

"Like an innocent child," Lawrence said, laughing easily. He took a deep breath. "What a magnificent place this is. I've got to hand it to you, you've certainly created an oasis of efficiency and refinement out here in this wilderness."

Cannon laughed. "Well, I can't take any credit for the refinement part," he admitted. "That's Victoria's doing. I'm just a rough-around-the-edges cattle rancher. She's the one with the gentle upbringing."

"Yes," Lawrence replied. "You mentioned that she's the daughter of Don Sebastian Montoya of Sonora. I've been thinking that it might not be a bad idea for me to pay a visit to Señor Montoya one of these days. Kind of a courtesy call, from my country to his."

Cannon nodded hesitantly. "If you do, you might want to let me write you a letter of introduction, just to be sure the old Lion doesn't misunderstand your intentions. He can be a little wary. Better yet, I'll ask my wife to do it."

Lawrence grinned. "I was hoping you might suggest it," he admitted. Cannon laughed, again. Lawrence looked around him. "Quiet around here, isn't it."

Cannon nodded. "Usually there's more activity than this, but most of my men are out with the herds right now. We're just finishing up our spring round up. In fact, I'm expecting most of them back tomorrow or the next day."

Lawrence nodded. "I guess I've got a lot to learn about the way of life around here," he admitted humbly. "All of this is rather new to a boy from New York City. Tell me something. What's all this I hear about gold up in the Santa Ritas?"

"Well, there probably is some up there," Cannon admitted. "You hear of strikes now and then. And there are a couple of permanent mining camps up there, big corporations. There's a big silver mine north of Tucson, too, the Silver King. Up north of the Gila River. And countless hopefuls scratching around. I suppose there will always be men who will try to find an easy fortune that way."

Lawrence looked at him curiously. "I take it from your tone that you don't approve."

Cannon shrugged sheepishly. "Well, our currency is based on the gold standard, and money is what makes the world work. The gold has to be gotten out of the ground somehow, I suppose. But no, I guess I don't really approve of men dropping their commitments to run off to the mountains chasing pipe dreams. And I don't like at all the type of people it tends to attract. Gamblers and prostitutes and crooked politicians”

Lawrence smiled. "Gold fever can be good for business, though," he reminded Cannon. "The more fools you've got chasing dreams, the more shovels and picks and hammers, and even beef, you're likely to sell. The more hotels and mercantile establishments and banks will be needed."

"And saloons and dance houses and opium dens. And the more jails you need. No," Cannon argued, "This land will be great because of what men do with it, put into it. Not because of what they dig out of it, and certainly not because of any commerce generated by an influx of idiots and those prepared to take advantage of them."

Lawrence laughed good-naturedly. "So you've never been bitten by the bug?"

"Never," Cannon replied honestly. "Though," he admitted, "my brother has been known to succumb to the fever periodically."

Cannon looked down toward the buck house. It really was awfully quiet, he suddenly realized. Although it was true that the majority of his hands were out with the cattle, there was still a short list of tasks that should have started some time ago. The two men assigned to work on that barn foundation, for instance, should have already been out there. And there they were, coming out of the bunk house, Charley Ryan and Jack O'Malley, not yet having started on their day's labors. They had not been on the crew long, if Cannon remembered correctly. It was none too soon for Sam Butler to return; damn place just fell apart without the foreman watching over things. Cannon watched, expecting the men to hurry to their tasks, maybe even with enough decency to look sheepish. Instead, they walked across the yard from the bunkhouse toward him, looking oddly determined.

"Mr. Cannon?" It was O'Malley. "Can we have a word with you?"

Cannon looked over at Lawrence. "Can it wait?" he asked. He really wanted to demand an explanation for their tardiness, but he was hesitant to do so in front of the captain. Lawrence took a gracious step backwards.

"I was just going back inside, anyway, John. I thought I heard Mrs. Cannon putting coffee on when I came out here. And I need to be getting back soon."

Cannon nodded and looked back at the two hands. They shuffled nervously. "Well? I hope you're here to explain why the two of you are so late getting started on that barn. You should have been out here an hour ago."

"Actually, Mr. Cannon," said O'Malley, "me and Charley just wanted to tell you we was leavin'."

"What? Why?"

"We thought we might try our hands up in them gold fields, Mr. Cannon. I know you don't approve, but we know that others of the boys have gone there and we want to have our turn. We made up our minds and we're goin'. You kin send whatever we're due to the general delivery in town. And we're much obliged to you."

Cannon sighed. His inclination was to lay into them, even though he knew it was pointless. "You know you're being damn fools," he said, trying to rein in his temper. "Even if there is gold up there, what makes you think you'll find any? I've never known a man yet to make his fortune chasing gold."

"Still, we aim to try," said O'Malley.

"You leave here and that's the end of it," said Cannon angrily. "I don't take back men who have deserted me without good reason. You'll be out of a job, this gold don't pan out for you. I won't take you back." Even as he said it, though, he wondered if it was a smart posture to take. Skilled hands, even knot-heads like these, were getting very hard to find. Still, he needed to know he could rely on the men he hired not to pack up and leave him flat at the first opportunity. He was better off short-handed, and knowing it, than with men like these.

Ryan looked cowed by the threat, but O'Malley was adamant. "It's our choice, Mr. Cannon," he said. "You got no right to keep us."

"I've got no interest in keeping you," he said, "if that's the way you feel. Good luck to you, then. You'll need it." He turned his back on them, so he would not give them the satisfaction of having him watch them walk away. Lawrence was waiting on the porch.

"Trouble?" he asked. Cannon told him. Lawrence pursed his lips. "I hope this isn't going to leave you too short handed," he said, commiserating.

"See what I mean about fools?" Cannon sighed. "Damn gold. It's disruptive and dangerous. But no, I'm not in serious trouble, yet," he assured the other man. "Though I don't like the trend I'm seeing." And perhaps he was not being all together truthful with Lawrence, either. This last loss was going to put a severe hole in his available workforce. Especially now. Once the branding was finished, the cattle would all need to be moved to new grazing, and Cannon needed every available man.

Lawrence looked thoughtful. "I don't want to sound like an alarmist," he said cautiously, "but this sort of thing isn't going to affect your ability to deliver on those contracts, is it?"

Cannon looked at him sharply. The other man just looked back, without accusation, but clearly considering the implications despite their burgeoning friendship. Well, Cannon couldn't blame him for that. The man had a job to do.

"No," he answered. "It will not."

Lawrence hesitated. Then he nodded. "Shall we, then?" he gestured toward the house. "Unfortunately, I really do have to leave soon."

John Cannon nodded and guided his guest into the house. But the nagging doubt he had managed to mask from Captain Jack Lawrence was not going to leave him alone. He was becoming all the more anxious now, for the return of Buck and the Butlers before things got totally out of hand.

III

Not only was Joe's injured calf not dead by nightfall, it was standing up and bawling pathetically. Throughout the course of the day, each individual hand had stolen away from his work surreptitiously to feed it a few handfuls of grass pulled up on the sly, or bring it a hat-full of water. And Joe, feeling responsible, had been the most guilty of the lot.

"Big, tough cowboys," Sam groaned, trying to pretend he was disgusted. "You men are a disgrace to the profession."

"Aw, now Sam," said Buck Cannon, throwing a companionable arm around the foreman's shoulders. "I distinctly remember seein' you… yes, you Sam Butler, bringin' that li'l baby a cool drink o' water. So don't you go pickin' on nobody."

Butler just grinned and shrugged.

"What're we gonna do with it, Sam?" asked Blue. They would be breaking up camp in the morning, their work finally done. The last bunch of now-branded calves would be driven back into the main herd, along with their mothers, and the men would be heading gratefully home to the ranch.

"That po' li'l thing won't never survive in the herd, Sam," said Buck. "It just be too little and too hurt."

"Well, then, I guess we got no choice but to bring it back to the ranch with us, do we?" Sam replied. The calf pushed its nose against his hand and he smiled, scratching it absently behind the ears. "Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm ready for some grub. You men have been feedin' this calf all afternoon, but I ain't had a bite to eat since lunch time." He got no argument from the hungry hands.

Supper was the same fare as lunch had been, and every meal for many days and nights before that; fat-back and frijoles, and sourdough bread baked in the dutch oven from the back of the chuck wagon. Not much for variety, but it was filling, and the men were hungry. Then later, supper over, with pans and plates scrubbed clean and stowed, the Chaparral hands finally relaxed, their bellies full and contented.

"Good haul, Sam," Joe said as he poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot by the fire and settled comfortably back against a rock.

"Yeah, it was, Joe," his brother agreed. "We tallied near sixty calves."

It was a very good haul for Adobe Canyon, that herd being one of the smaller run on the High Chaparral range. Those cows had done nothing but breed, it seemed. Big John would be pleased. It had been a pretty good round up, all in all, but no one regretted that it was finally over. It being their last night in camp, most of the men were thinking only of soft beds and the roof that would be over them tomorrow. After so long sleeping rough, the prospect made them a little giddy.

"Hey, Sam," called Buck, a glitter of mischief in his voice. Although the senior member of the present company, John Cannon's younger brother was perhaps the man most likely among them to stage a practical joke, or weave some extraordinary yarn for their entertainment. It was one of the things that endeared him to them. "We done so good, mebbe we oughta stay out here anuther week or two, git us anuther fo'ty-fifty head. Way these cows is breedin', we oughta have that many more to purty soon now."

"Hey, now. That's a great idea, Buck," Sam agreed, sniggering. "Whadaya say, boys?" The men groaned.

" 'Cep, I doan think we all got to stay," Buck continued. "them calves is so plentiful, and we got us such good vaqueros, I think mebbe Blue Boy an' Mano, an' mebbe Pedro kin handle it. The rest o' us kin go home to them nice soft bunks."

"I think you're right, Buck," Sam agreed, feigning seriousness. The suggestion was greeted by general laughter, and a sputtering protest from Pedro.

"No, no, Buck," Manolito Montoya disagreed from the other side of the campfire. The only son of one of Mexico's premiere land owners and political forces, and also John Cannon's brother-in-law, Montoya had the face of an aristocrat, and the high spirited, fun loving temperament of a unrepentant rake. And, when the spirit moved him, the soul of a poet. Manolito, himself, was no mean practical joker. "It is not necessary for Pedro and I to stay. Blue, here, is the best vaquero among us, I am sure he could handle this alone."

"Yeah, that's right, Mano," said Sam, playing along as the other men laughed.

"Now, hold on a dog-gone minute," Blue complained. The men only laughed harder. Buck reached over and cuffed his nephew affectionately, and the boy grinned.

Joe leaned back against his rock and stared up at the night sky. The black velvet canopy was pristine and cloudless, sparkling with stars and a round, full moon. He sighed wistfully, his expression soft and a little dreamy.

"Sure is pretty out here, though," he said. "You know, if it weren't for the work, this wouldn’t be such a bad way to live."

The men hooted.

"Aye, Joe," laughed Manolito, "it has all the comforts of home, no? All you could want of beans and bacon and bad coffee. Hot sun all day and this nice hard ground to sleep on."

"What's wrong with my coffee?" Pedro demanded.

"Hey, Sam. Joe likes it out here so much, maybe we should leave him out here…" suggested Reno.

"Yeah, Sam," teased Buck. "Kinda like a permanent maverick camp. He wunt even have to round up them strays. He kin jist sorta adopt 'em." Buck thumbed in the direction of the bushes, where the injured calf, tethered now, was sleeping.

Sam laughed out loud. "That's right. We don't watch him, he's likely to have every lost little dogie on the place followin' him around." He grinned at his brother. "Mother Butler…"

Joe threw his hat at him. "Aw, knock it off," he grumbled, half in earnest. "Whatcha pickin' on me for."

"You're my kid brother," Sam replied affably, and tossing his hat back. "I can't pick on you, who can I pick on?"

"Now, doan you believe that, Joe-boy," Buck said, suddenly changing sides. "Big John, he use that same excuse all the time, but I ain't buyin' it."

"Yeah, but you deserve the abuse, Buck," quipped Sam.

Everyone laughed at that, Joe included. He picked up his hat from were Sam had tossed it. He wasn't really angry, he knew his brother's raillery was meant in fun. He didn't particularly mind it. The odd truth was, there was rarely serious contention between the Butlers. Oh, they might brawl a little, especially when they got into the whiskey, but that was just friendly fighting. And Sam could be as exacting as John Cannon when it came to the ranch, Joe was not exempt from his brother's demands in that regard. That was work, he understood that. But the two did not often disagree about anything important and almost never did they do so publicly. There were those, in fact, who contended that the Butler brothers only had one opinion between them, and in truth it did often seem that way. They were remarkably of one mind on most issues. But more to the point, when they did disagree, it was their practice to take the problem someplace private and argue it out until they came to some resolution. It was a habit formed early, placed upon them by the necessity of their parents untimely deaths. Taken in by strangers, alone in the midst of somebody else's family, they had learned the value of presenting, always, a united front. And if Joe allowed himself to be swayed more often by his brother's arguments, it was because he trusted Sam's reasonable wisdom. Though decisions, in truth, went often enough his way. Joe, too, could be persuasive.

It had been like that since they were children, when, orphaned at a young age, they had been taken in by a local cattle magnate named Ben Lynch to be raised together with Lynch's own three sons. They had been good enough years, as those things went, until Sam had fallen in love with a Mexican girl and married her against Lynch's wishes. Whatever came later, whatever division and subsequent tragedy Sam Butler's marriage had caused, though, Lynch had done the best he could by the boys while they were growing up, treating them fairly and even kindly. Loving them, even, in his own way. But there had always been a subtle line of demarcation between the Butlers and Lynch's natural born sons, and the Butler boys had understood, ultimately, that they had only each other in the whole world. Any serious breech between them would leave them truly alone. Such a realization had created a habit of agreement. To contemplate a serious falling out had just been too terrifying, especially, perhaps, for young Joe. And this habit of childhood had remained as they grew older. True, their circles had broadened, and the fear of abandonment had lessened as they became more able to fend for themselves. Still, they tended to look first to each other for affirmation and support. Accord between them gave them a certain balance, and a kind of strength, a security that they went out of their ways to preserve. Those who knew them tended to envy them for it.

Besides, Joe Butler was not the only butt of his brother's wit, that evening. More amused than otherwise, Buck Cannon let Sam's comment go. He leaned back and looked up at the sky. "Little Joe, he be right, tho'. It sure do be a purty evenin'."

"See?" Joe bantered back at Sam.

"Hey, us little brothers gotta stick together," Buck said. "Jist look at that moon." He reached over and knocked Blue's hat brim down playfully. "A blue moon for a Blue Boy."

Blue straightened his hat out, pushing a lock of shaggy blond hair out of his blue eyes as he did so. "Whyda they call it a blue moon, anyway," he asked, genuinely curious. "It ain't blue."

Buck leaned forward, happy to instruct. "It ain't the color, Blue Boy," he said. "I don't rightly know why they call it 'blue', but a blue moon is a special one. You know how every month got only jist one o' each phase o' the moon, one new moon, one first quarter, one last quarter, one full, and so on?" Blue nodded. "Well, every once in a while, for no explainable reason, a month come along got two full moons in it."

"I think it has something to do with the rotation of the Earth, Buck," said Manolito, helpfully. The men sniggered, and Buck frowned.

"Doan innerupt. Anyway, Blue Boy, tha's what a blue moon be, a full moon what comes twice in the same month. An' tha's why they say once in a blue moon when they mean a long time - cuz it's so rare-like."

"Huh," said Blue, pleased to have been informed.

"They's lotsa names for the moon," Buck continued, warming to his subject.

"Like the harvest moon," said Blue. "I know about that one, that's the yella moon that comes in the fall."

"Tha's right, Blue Boy," agreed Buck, delighted in his pupil. "Tha's what they call it when it shines yella. Sometimes, tho', it shines white, and then they call it a hunter's moon, cuz it's so big and bright and so low on the horizon it jist light up every thin' jist like daylight."

"That's a good trackin' moon," said Joe, who, besides being a top hand, was generally acknowledged one of the better trackers among them, after Manolito.

Buck looked pained. "Tha's what I jist said. Tha's why they call it a hunter's moon."

Manolito leaned forward, holding his coffee cup before him. He stared into the fire, now, speaking slowly, almost longingly, to no one in particular. "You know, hombres," he began, "I have heard it said that such a moon is also the moon of the waking dreamer. It is the moon that lights the way for the man who seeks the elusive, the wonder that is just out of reach." He looked up, his glance taking in all of his companions. "The impossible quest, amigos, no?"

The men all looked thoughtful at this.

"I done heard that, too," Buck agreed softly. One could almost hear the other men sigh in agreement.

Sam stretched and got to his feet, breaking the mood. "Speakin' of chasin' dreams," he said, "we still got a long day ahead of us, tomorrow. We ain't quite done with this round up, yet. Reno, you and Pedro take first watch on the herd."

"You got it, Sam," said Reno. First watch being a choice picket; once their two hours were up, they'd be free to sleep the rest of the night through with no interruptions, provided there were no emergencies to deal with.

"Well, g'night, then, gen'lmen," Buck said, climbing to his feet as well. "Sweet dreams, now."

"G'night, Buck" "G'night, Sam, Blue…" the men gradually stood and found their bed rolls. Sam looked down at his brother, who had not moved from the fire.

"You gonna turn in, Joe?"

The younger Butler nodded absently. "In a bit, Sam."

Sam frowned at the sudden distance in his brother's voice. He wondered if they had maybe ridden him a little too hard over that fool calf. Joe didn't look angry though, just lost in thought. Well, Sam guessed he was entitled.

"G'night, then."

"'Night, Sam."

Joe continued to watch the flames dance and die, long after his brother and the other men had gone off to bed. It was odd, troubling, the feeling that had suddenly overtaken him at Manolito's words, as if the other man, in speaking them, had invoked some strange magic. But he found himself oddly restless, any desire for sleep gone. It was as if Manolito had suddenly stirred up in him some hunger he had not known he had harbored, for some aspiration he did not know he had. It was just the moonlight, probably. He sat for a long time, though, staring into the fire, after the others had gone quiet. Listening to the night noises, and the sound of Reno, in the distance, singing to the herd.

It took them a while to break down the camp in the morning, and drive the last of the newly branded stock back where they belonged. And then there was Joe's injured orphan to contend with .

"Whatdaya think Big John's gonna say when he sees that calf, Sam," Reno asked. The foreman had thrown the baby across his own saddle, taking tacit responsibility for the decision to bring it home with them.

"Oh, I reckon he'll be laughin' too hard at you bunch o' sentimental fools to say much of anything," Sam replied.

Big John didn't laugh, exactly. He was standing at the gate as the men rode in. He eyed the bundle on Sam's saddle warily.

"What happened there?"

"Cougar jumped it," said Sam. "Got torn up pretty bad."

"Sam…" John began cautiously. He lifted the calf's head, looked into its infant eyes. There was little chance it would live, and Butler should have known that. He should have mercifully put the animal down, not brought it home like a house pet.

"I know, Mr. Cannon," Butler sighed. Then he grinned. "Looks like you got a bunch of soft hearts on this crew, Boss. Soft heads, too," he added, looking over at his brother. Big John chuckled softly.

"All right, you may as well turn it loose in the corral. I doubt it will survive, though."

"I don't know, Boss," Sam argued amiably. "Little fella seems pretty determined not to quit this life, just yet. I didn't figure it would live this long."

Cannon nodded at the logic, sort of, behind that. "You get that cat?"

Sam nodded. "Yeah, the skin's back there in the wagon." Their having skinned it back at the camp and wrapped the pelt in a piece of canvas. There had certainly been no need to bring the entire carcass back.

"Well, at least you haven't lost your minds completely," Big John replied with a grin, touched by his men's tender-heartedness, in spite of himself. But the man looked troubled, beneath his amusement, and Sam Butler had known Big John long enough to guess it wasn't some torn up little dogie that his ranch hands wanted to nurse-maid that had put the man out of countenance.

"Somethin' the matter, Boss?" he asked as Cannon got his arms under the calf and lifted it down from the saddle. He dismounted and offered to take the animal back, but Big John had already started down toward the corral with it. Sam grabbed his horse's reins and followed.

"It's this damned gold fever, Sam," Cannon sighed. "Two more men quit yesterday while you were still out at the round up camp."

Sam Butler scowled. "Aw, hell," said the foreman. "Who? You want me to run 'em down and talk to 'em when we get into Tucson?" Then he gave his boss a sly look. "You are gonna give us that time off you promised, aren't you, Mr. Cannon? Now that the round up's over?"

Despite his worries, Cannon laughed out loud. He set the calf down in the open corral and watched it totter away into the shade of the horse stalls at the far side. "You'll get your time off, Sam, don't you worry," he assured the man. "And it was Ryan and O'Malley who left, to answer your question, but don't you bother about those two. They don't want to work here, we don't need 'em. Better off without 'em here spreading their discontent."

"If you say so, Boss," Sam replied, sounding a little like he wasn't quite convinced. The losses were getting to be serious, and he honestly thought he should at least try to bring those men back.

But Cannon was adamant. "I do say so," he insisted. "I have no use for men I can't trust to be there when I need them." He smiled, then. "It's good to have you home, Sam. Maybe things will finally get back to normal around here."

FEVER

I

The round up crew were all waiting outside the Tucson Post Office for Joe to collect his bounty on the cat. They had big plans for that money, which Joe had agreed to share collectively, most of which involved some combination of intoxication and certain other "i" words. They only had two days, though, in which to enjoy their freedom; a stern disappointment for all of them. Sam had lobbied for more time, as it was traditional to give the round up crew several days in town to decompress after the gruelling work and rough living of the branding grounds. Cannon had been apologetic, but unswayable. He was sincerely sorry, and they had certainly earned a longer break, but another man had caught gold fever the evening they had returned from the round up and had disappeared into the night. The High Chaparral was now dangerously short handed. It was getting passed just an issue of being able to get the work done, the issue was getting to be one of being able to defend the place. He just could not afford to be without them. Even the two days he had granted were a risk to the ranch, but Cannon also knew his men needed some relief or he would have a wholesale riot. But two days in town was his limit. Sam had been disappointed, but he understood, and although the men grumbled, their lack of serious protest told him that they understood, too. The Apache watched the High Chaparral like it was a religion, and they could count as well as anyone else. The moment they believed they had an advantage in men and weapons, they would be all over the ranch. It was that simple. There would be other days in town, but only if the High Chaparral survived for all of them.

However, they did have two days, at least, of carefree self-indulgence, and they planned to suck the fullness of pleasure out of both of them. Starting with cashing in Joe's bounty, and then spending every penny of it.

"Joe-boy! How much you git!" Buck called as the younger Butler exited into the street looking very pleased with himself.

"Fifty dollars, Buck!" he shouted back, waving a fist full of greenbacks. He peeled off a bill and handed it to Blue.

"Five dollars? What's this for?"

"That's for ridin' back up into that canyon and bringin' that dead cat back," Joe said graciously. "And for not givin' me a hard time over that fool calf…" Blue having been the only one not to tease the man unmercifully, realizing, as the boy did, that he probably would have done the same thing in Joe's place. The others laughed and groaned and slapped both men on the back.

"Come on," said Buck. "Les go find us some beer!"

"On the cat?" asked Reno.

"Fo' starters," Buck agreed. "Les go!"

To their surprise, their favorite watering hole was filled to the seams. Tucson had upwards to a dozen or more drinking establishments at any given moment, so it was rare that any one place would carry so much trade. Each saloon tended to have its regular crowd, and possibly a few strangers, but the Chaparral crew found that, once inside, they could barely move.

"Looks like Hannibal's doin' a fair piece o' business," Buck understated blandly as they pushed through the swinging doors.

"You can say that again," Sam agreed, "I wonder what's goin' on?"

There wasn't a table to be had, and men stood three and four deep at the bar. Girls roamed from cluster to table, staying in no place long, the demand for their attentions being so much greater than their numbers could bear. There would be at least one good fight before the evening was out, Buck would be willing to bet the bounty on that.

"Barkeep. Hey, barkeep!" he shouted trying to be heard above the din. "Gimme a bottle o' red-eye whiskey, an'…" he counted quickly, "…six glasses." He glanced at his nephew standing beside him. "An' a sarsaparilla."

"Aw, Uncle Buck…" Blue protested. Buck hesitated, then relented.

"A beer, then. But you stay outta that whiskey, Blue Boy, yer Pa finds out I let you be drinkin' this red-eye, won't neither one of us live long enough to regret it."

But Blue was content to get his beer. If he could actually get it. The bartender shot Buck a jaundiced scowl. "You'll have to wait your turn like everyone else, mister," he growled. Buck wasn't inclined to fight with the man. But he did note that he was a stranger.

"Where's Mike?" he asked after the regular bartender. The man behind the counter shrugged.

"Up in the diggin's like everyone else, more'n likely. Same as the rest of the world. Everybody who ain't in here, that is."

Buck looked at Sam. "At this rate they might as well jist move the whole blamed Territory up into them Santa Ritas," he commented. "The High Chaparral and Tucson, too." Then he caught sight of a familiar face. He reached out and pulled a slender, blond-haired girl toward him.

"Cissy, darlin'!" he cried, kissing her hard.

"How ya been, Buck," the girl replied, her voice heavy with a false heartiness. In truth, she looked exhausted and a little bedraggled.

"Honey, wha's goin' on aroun' here? Fo' wha's all the hoop-la?"

"Ain't you heard, Buck? Big strike up in the placers."

"Well, yeah, I heard that, but I hear that all-a time. Mostly it's just fellas gassin'. Wha's so differen' about this one?"

"I dunno, Buck, but I hear this one's for real. Couple of jack-ass prospectors hit it big up in the mountains, and now every dirt scratcher in the Territory's in here talkin' tall and drinkin' like I never seen before. I hear some of the other saloons in town is even more lively that this one, if you can believe it."

"You mean that, darlin'?"

"Would I lie to you, Buck?"

"You might," Buck agreed, kissing her again, then letting her go. "Sam, you hear that?"

"I heard it, Buck-o," the Chaparral foreman agreed. He did not sound overly impressed with the intelligence. He was far more interested in the status of his whiskey. "That barkeep got our drinks, yet?"

Buck turned back to the bar. "Hey, bartender! Where's my whiskey!"

"Keep your shirt on, I'm gettin' it," the harried man barked. He handed Buck an unopened, and unlabeled, bottle and six glasses that might have been clean once upon a time. Buck didn't bother to complain. He handed the bottle and the glasses back to the Chaparral men behind him. "An' a cold cerveza for my nephew, here," he reminded.

"Yeah, yeah." The bartender drew off a glass of beer and handed it over the milling heads, spilling about a third of it onto the patrons at the bar in front of Buck. Nobody seemed to notice, so intent were they on whatever they were discussing.

"Hey, Sam," said Joe Butler as his brother reached to relieve Buck of his burdens. "Look who's here, it's Charley Ryan and Jack O'Malley." Two of the most recent deserters from the Chaparral crew. Sam turned, nearly dropping the bottle.

"Sam-boy, easy," said Buck, grabbing the bottle from him "Go ginnel wi' that. It took me long enough to git it, I don't wanna have to try to git another afo' we even get the cork outta that one… What you gawpin' at?" He looked were Sam was looking. "So Jack and Charley's here," he said, his voice suddenly heavy with speculation. "Huh." He seemed to think for a moment, then come to some decision. "Come on, boys, les go over, say howdy."

"Now, Big John said to leave 'em be, Buck," Sam reminded the other man, though his tone implied that he still wasn't all that happy with his boss's thinking. After all, it was these two men's desertion that had cut short his own holiday, and he might, once he got some of that whiskey inside him, want to go discuss that matter with them, himself. But at that moment he was still sober, and feeling discreet. But Buck wasn't interested in haranguing the men over their leaving his brother's ranch. He was on the trail of more important information.

"Hey, Charley. Jack-o," he called, finding the only empty chair in the place and dragging it along with him. "How you boys been?"

Curious now, the others followed. Besides, Buck still had their bottle of whiskey. With no place to sit, they lined themselves up against the wall, each with his glass in hand. Sam retrieved the bottle, pulled the cork out with his teeth, poured, and passed it down the line. At the end of the row, Blue sipped his beer.

Buck dropped his chair between the two former ranch hands and held up his glass for Sam to fill it. "So what you boys been doin' since I seen you last?" he asked expansively. The ex-employees looked uncomfortable.

"Now, Buck," said Charley Ryan, "about us leavin'…"

But Buck just waved the man's concerns away. "Oh, I ain't here to talk about that," he assured them. "I know you boys had a right to do whatever you thought it was would best suit you, I knowed that, truly. I'm just here to chin some with a couple o' familiar faces, is all. Boy, this place is sure crowded tonight. I cain't remember the last time I seed so many strangers. Make a man thirsty just lookin' at all these hombres. Sam, gimme that bottle." He held his hand up, and Butler relinquished the whiskey reluctantly, unsure exactly what Buck was up to. Buck filled the empty glasses on the table, including Ryan's and O'Malley's, then set the bottle down. "What's this I hear about a big strike up in them Santa Ritas?"

Behind him, the Butler brothers exchanged a look.

"Here we go, again," Joe sighed. Buck Cannon's fascination with easy riches was well known to all of them. And it looked like he was about to catch the fever, again. Sam just shook his head.

"Es verdad, muchachos, " agreed Manolito beside them. "Once Buck gets into his head that this time gold might really be up there…" he gestured with his hand like a little bird flying away. The men laughed. Then he pointed at the bottle, and nodded to Sam urgently. The elder Butler swooped and retrieved the whiskey, and they passed it around again. Blue was less than amused, though, with the thought of his uncle off treasure hunting.

"Aw, you can't let him," he protested. "Sam, talk to him. Uncle Buck goes off prospectin' again, after so many men have already quit the ranch, Big John'll have a stroke."

"So you talk to him," Sam countered, chuckling. "You're his nephew."

"He won't listen to me."

"And what makes you think he'll listen any better to me?" asked Sam. "The only thing your Uncle Buck can't resist more'n whiskey and women is the smell o' gold, Blue, you know that." And he grinned at the boy, not yet overly concerned. Buck was still just talking after all. Weaving dreams. It wasn't anything serious, yet. Besides, Sam Butler was so pleased to be in town after so many days in the heat and dust, and the whiskey was starting to make him so pleasantly mellow, that even his animosity toward the former ranch hands was beginning to dissipate. He felt damn good, actually. And he was curious, now, to see what Buck was planning. He reached for the bottle, filled his glass again, and passed the last of the whiskey to Joe.

At the table, Buck was oblivious to the speculations of the men, or his nephew's worries. He was too intent on what Jack O'Malley had started to tell him.

"It's an honest to God bonanza, Buck," said O'Malley. "A couple of Mexican gambusinos up in the placers done struck it big. Somebody said they took out near a thousand dollars the first week they was up there."

"And you seen this?" prodded Buck. "You done talked to them yo'self?"

"Not to them, no," admitted O'Malley, "but I talked to a guy who knows the guy who bought their claim from 'em."

It was a fairly common practice among prospectors, instead of working their own claims, to take out just enough gold to prove its worth, if they could, and then sell the claim to the highest bidder. Barroom trading of mining claims could become as fierce as any day on the floor of Wall Street. The custom also tended to inspire such perfidious practices as "salting" mines, and many was the man who had been broken because he had staked his entire life savings on some empty rock hole with its walls plastered with gold shot. It paid to be careful, and for all of Buck Cannon's reputation for impetuousness when it came to his personal fortunes, the man was not stupid.

"So what you doin' here?" he prodded, fishing for more solid information. "How come you ain't up there, gittin' your share of the color?"

"Ain't got no grubstake, Buck," said Ryan. "Can’t find no one to stake us, no how."

"Ain't enough suckers to go around, I guess," Sam laughed softly behind them. The others chuckled with him. But Buck Cannon was not about to let an absence of financial backers discourage him.

"Aw, now, boys, they's got to be a way, iffn they's as much gold up there as you all say there is. Somebody's got to be forward thinkin' enough to stake you. You jist ain't tryin' hard enough. All these good ol' boys in here…"

Ryan and O'Malley both knew better than to try Buck, himself, as an investor. Though their tenure on the High Chaparral had been short, they had been around long enough to understand that John Cannon's younger brother was generally flat broke. And the odds of the elder Cannon's staking a prospecting gig were nonexistent. Nevertheless, they could see the gold fever already burning in the other man's eyes; that proclivity, too, being pretty well established around the ranch and town. And they trusted Buck's abilities to make things happen when he was determined. Placer mining could be accomplished with a single man and a single pan, but the better paying claims were multiple man operations. A man needed help. If they helped him now, Buck might just be persuaded to take them along for the ride.

"Ain't nothin' goin' on here but a lot o' noise, Buck," Ryan told him. "These boys in here's just gassin' They're as broke as we are. What I hear, the real money, and the real action, is down to Foster's." Foster's Saloon on Meyer and Mesilla streets being one of Tucson's many such establishments. "They got some pretty good games goin' there too, I hear." Poker being another one of Buck Cannon's cardinal weaknesses.

"So why ain't you boys at Foster's then?"

"Goin' there tonight," said O'Malley. Buck nodded. He looked up at Sam and the others, then back at the now empty bottle sitting on the table in front of him. He came to a decision.

"Come on, boys," he said, getting suddenly to his feet. "I wanta secure us some lodgin's and then I wanta get me a shave and a haircut and a nice hot bath. I still got a powerful lot o' brandin' grounds to soak off."

And with that, he headed for the door, not looking to see if the others were following him. Sam gave a longing last look toward the empty bottle, and then looked over at the bar at the far end of the room. It was still three deep with customers, and Buck's deserted chair had already been commandeered and carted away. He turned to his brother.

"What the hell," the younger Butler shrugged, reading his brother's expression, if not exactly his mind. "It's too crowded in here, anyway."

"Your brother is right, Sam," agreed Manolito. "Besides, we will be much more attractive to the ladies smooth shaven and free of desert dust, no?"

It was hard to argue the logic in that. Sam looked around again, Reno and Pedro having separated from the rest of the group some time earlier. He saw them, still jockeying for position at the bar. Reno appeared to be in earnest conversation with one of the hostesses.

"Pedro, Reno," he called to them. Pedro looked up. "Vámanos. We're leavin'."

"¿Por qué?" Pedro asked.

"Ven aquí," Sam told him, not wanting to have to shout over the crowd. But Pedro shook his head, loath to give up the choice spot against the bar he had managed to secure.

"No, you come here," he answered. Sam figured he couldn't blame him. He leaned across a couple of backs to get closer to the other man.

"We're gonna find some place to stay tonight, and then go wash off some of this desert. You boys can come or stay."

Pedro nodded. He turned and leaned over to Reno. There was some discussion Sam could not hear, and then he leaned back.

"Uh, we will stay," he said. "Reno thinks perhaps he will fall in love in a few momentos, if he is lucky."

Sam laughed. "Suit yourselves. I think Buck's plannin' on meetin' tonight at Foster's place, if you don't get a better offer." He clapped Pedro on the shoulder and left, seriously doubting that any of those overworked bar girls in there would have the time to fall in love with Reno, or anybody else, for more than a couple of minutes at a stretch, anyway.

By the time he got out onto the sidewalk, the others were already railing at Buck.

"Uncle Buck you just can't go off prospectin' again," Blue pleaded. "Pa'll have a fit! Tell him, Joe."

"That's right, Buck," echoed Joe. "You know how Big John feels about all this gold fever. He wasn't too happy the last time you went off prospectin'. Or the time before that, or the time before that…"

Sam laughed and Buck glared at him. "Blue Boy, don't you worry none about your Pa. I kin handle ol' Big John," he told his nephew. "An' as fo' you Mr. Butler, the younger," he turned to Joe, throwing an arm over the other man's shoulders, "just cuz you like chasin' around in the dust after them little dogies so much don't mean that others o' us don't have differen' desires. But I woan hold it aginst you, I'll remember you anyways when I strike it rich up in them gold diggin's."

Joe laughed. But it was true, in a way, that the lure of gold have never affected either Butler brother, particularly. It was not so much that they loved working cattle, though that was their chosen profession and they took considerable pride in doing it well. It was just that sure, steady work appealed more to their somewhat conservative natures. Gold was too much a pipe dream to take very seriously.

"Come on," said Buck. "Les go see about them hot baths."

They almost made it, too. Five minutes earlier or later and the course of the following weeks might have been so much different. But fate must have had other plans because they had just rounded the corner at Pennington onto Main when Joe stopped dead in his tracks, and stared across the street. Buck stopped abruptly behind him.

"Joe. What you stoppin' fo' so sudden? I verra near tripped right over you." He looked across the street where Joe was looking, but he could see nothing out of place. Just the usual buildings, including the newly remodeled Cosmopolitan Hotel there on the corner, and the usual people in the street. There were a couple of men on the opposite sidewalk, and a woman. But nothing to explain the look of shock on Joe Butler's face. The man looked a little bit like he'd just seen a ghost.

Joe offered no answers. It was almost as if he had not even heard. He merely gestured vaguely and started across the street with no explanation. Buck stared after him for a moment, then turned to Sam, astonished. The elder Butler was staring, too, but there was recognition as well as shock on the other man's face. Sam definitely did not look happy.

"Aw… hell," he growled. Buck gaped at him, then turned back to see what Joe was doing. It looked like he had stopped that woman opposite. He didn't seem to be talking to her, though, just staring.

"Sam, wha's goin' on? What's wrong wi' Joe?" Buck demanded, looking back and forth between Sam and the scene across the street. "You boys know that woman?"

Sam nodded slowly, letting out a breath. "Yeah, Buck. We know her."

"But who is she? How come Joe be in such an all of a sudden fuddle-like?"

"She's trouble, Buck," Sam mumbled. "Nothin' but real bad trouble." He turned back to the others. "She's just somebody we knew back a long time ago," he sighed. "It's a long story. Come on. I'm startin' to want that bath."

When Joe Butler first spotted her, he had automatically assumed she must have been somebody else. After all, he had been seeing Janine Bonney in the face of every dark-haired woman he had encountered for ten years. Then he looked again, and realized it really was her, and suddenly the Tucson street tilted and his stomach dropped clean down into his boots. He had imagined that moment for years, but now that it had finally happened, he was totally unprepared for it. Shocked almost past reaction, he did not even remember crossing the street.

The woman looked as stunned to see him as he was to see her. "Joe? Joe Butler?"

"Hello, Janine."

She had changed in the ten years since he had last seen her. There were lines, now, around her dark eyes, that hadn't been there, and a touch of gray in her black hair. She was fuller of figure now, too, softer, more rounded. And there was something else, something he couldn't quite put his finger on. But she was still beautiful in that pale, fine boned, almost aristocratic manner that had first stopped him dead ten years earlier and had never quite left his memory, despite all that had passed. The love of his life, he supposed, inasmuch as no woman since had been able to command his heart the way she had. Before she had thrown him over for another man.

"How are you, Joe? I didn't know you lived here in Tucson."

So she hadn't come to Tucson because of him. He didn't know whether that made him feel better or worse. "I'm only in town for a couple of days," he told her, numbly. "Sam and me, we work cattle on a spread about thirty miles south of here. The High Chaparral."

She nodded. "Yes, I've heard of it," she said. "So you and your brother are still ridin' together."

"Yeah," he said, still eyeing her warily. "Sam's foreman there."

"That's nice. Nice for you. It's good to hear that you boys finally settled down some."

"What are you doing in Tucson?" He asked the question more curtly that he intended, dreading the answer, but needing to know the truth. The woman smiled faintly. It was more like a grimace.

"Owen's purchased an interest in a gold mine up in the Santa Rita mountains," she said. "It was his idea to come here."

She was still with him, then. That question was answered. Owen Carmichael. It had been ten years since Carmichael had stepped in and taken the place Joe had staked out as his own, and Joe had never forgotten. He let himself look at the woman's left hand, and saw the thing he had not let himself see, before, the gold band around her third finger.

"Owen's here with you?"

"Yes, yes he is," she said quickly. "The boys aren't though, they're with Owen's folks in California… we have two sons, Jesse's four and Hal is just past seven."

It was probably more detail than he really needed, reeling as he already was from the shock of seeing her again. And he couldn't help but count out the months and years in his head, even though he knew there were too many. She knew what he was doing and turned away, embarrassed.

"And what about you?" she asked, after a moment. "You never married?"

Joe's eyes narrowed coldly. "No," he replied, his voice flat.

"Janine!!"

He hadn't heard the voice in years, but he still knew it, even though it was courser than he remembered, as if the years had rasped it rough. Owen Carmichael was calling for his wife from the balcony above in the hotel. He must be doing well, if he could afford to stay at the Cosmopolitan. But then, that had been the problem from the beginning. Janine Bonney Carmichael seemed to go a little pale.

"I have to go," she said quickly.

"Jeannie, wait." He was not ready to let her go, yet. Not even if it meant having to meet up with Owen Carmichael, even if it meant acknowledging the man's right. But Janine was adamant.

"Joe, please. I have to go," she said urgently. Then she reached out and touched him. It was a light touch, just a little squeeze on the arm. "I'm sorry." And she was gone, leaving him staring after the empty place in the doorway where she had disappeared. Almost as if she had never been there.

"Hey, Sam?"

Sam Butler leaned back in the brass tub and let the bath boy pour in more hot water. It felt beyond good to be lying there, letting weeks of desert dust steam out of his pours and equal weeks of hard work seep from his tired muscles. He was still having no real luck relaxing, though. He rolled his head and looked at Manolito, soaking in his own tub a few feet away. The man looked curious, though not yet insistently so. Luckily for Sam, Buck Cannon had been too wrapped up in his own concerns to worry over much about Joe Butler's strange behavior. The man had bathed quickly and left them, hot on the trail of information, leaving Sam with what peace he could find with his thoughts. Manolito Montoya, on the other hand, was not so easily distracted.

"Yeah, Mano," Sam sighed, knowing evasion was probably useless, and that the only way he could avoid this discussion would be to get out of the tub, put his clothes back on and leave. That was far too much effort. Besides, Manolito was his friend, maybe it would ease his troubled mind to talk.

"This woman," said Manolito. "You said she is someone you knew a long time ago. You and Joe."

"Yeah," Sam admitted. "Joe better than me."

"Yes, I had already guessed that," Manolito said with a wry smile. Sam smiled back, in spite of himself. "She worries you, amigo. Or your brother does."

"Yeah."

Manolito just looked at him a moment. "Forgive me if it is none of my business," he persisted gently. Sam sighed.

"Her name's Janine Bonney," he said. "Or it was, anyway. It's probably Carmichael, now. That's what it was aimin' to be, the last time I saw her. Her father owned a stage station out Yuma way." He hesitated, now, considering the words before he spoke them, as if the wrong choice might prove exceedingly painful. "After Joe and I left San Felipe, years ago, we rode out that way for a while."

Sam did not tell the other man that this had been after his own young wife had deserted him, taking with her their only child, and that the madness of grief and division from the family who had raised him had driven him out of San Felipe. Joe had gone along with him, then, for no other reason, Sam often suspected, than fraternal love and loyalty, leaving what roots he had ever possessed behind. And Sam had let him, encouraged the breech with Ben Lynch's family, a breech that really only needed to be Sam's. He had sometimes felt a little guilty about Joe for that reason.

But that was neither here nor there to the present story and anyway, Manolito already knew most of it.

"And you met this woman there?" Manolito asked, bringing him back to the present. "This girl, then, I presume?"

"Yeah. Joe fell pretty hard for her."

"But it was not reciprocated?"

Sam surprised him. "Well, it seemed to be," he said. "For a while anyway. It seemed like what she wanted, same as him. She married somebody else, though."

"This man Carmichael? You had mentioned that name," Manolito added when Sam looked confused.

"Yeah. He came through from California, one day, on the stage, and decided to stay on for a while. Never did know exactly what he did for a living, but he seemed to have a lot of money, dressed well. You know the type. I guess she figured he was a better bet than some kid drifter."

Manolito sighed. "Poor Joe."

"Yeah," Sam agreed.

The blow had nearly destroyed his brother, and Sam, still reeling from his own situation, had not been able to help him much. They had hit the road, again, both of them trying, perhaps, to outrun their individual pain. And they had kept right on running, more or less, right up until the time John Cannon had offered them a place on the High Chaparral. Sam sometimes wondered how their lives might have been different, had Janine Bonney actually married Joe. Would his brother have settled down into quiet respectability, abandoned their life on the questionable edges of the law? And what about him? Would he had stayed on, too, maybe met someone, himself, finally divorced Trinidad for desertion which was something he had never done, married again, raised a family? Would he and Joe have even continued together the way they always had, or would they have split up, gone their separate ways. He would never know. He supposed it didn't really matter.

"So, this Mrs. Carmichael, what do you think she is doing here in Tucson?" Manolito asked, shaking him out of his reverie.

Sam stood up, then, his lean, muscular body sheeting water as he rose. He turned and looked at Manolito. "I got no idea, amigo. I just hope she ain't stayin' long." He climbed the rest of the way out of the tub, and reached for the towel held out by the bath boy.

II

Janine Bonney Carmichael had not always been afraid. She could distinctly remember a time in her life relatively free of fear, when the worst thing she had had to concern her had been her father's occasional drunken bouts, or the threat of raids by the Yuma or Mojave Indians, or the periodic flooding on the Colorado River that might limit her mobility or less frequently threaten her home. The loud men who had frequented her father's company had made her uncomfortable, but they had not frightened her. Not really. She had often been wary during those years of her growing up, but she had never truly been afraid. She knew that, now. Now that she knew the difference.

There had been many moments, days, weeks, when fear had been the farthest thing from her mind. Days when spring had been beautiful and full of promise, when interesting travelers had passed through her father's stage station on the Yuma road, travelers going to California to seek their fortunes, travelers returning from that golden land. They had been stories to strike magic in a young girl's heart, and to stir some discontent there, but even her father's noisy threats while she dreamed of her future had not caused her to fear.

And then there had been that long spring and summer when she had been only a few months short of her coming of age, when even the Indians and her father's temper could not raise a reaction. A boy had come to the town, with his friends and his brother, and he had awakened in her a depth of feeling that only comes once in a woman's life; that first time childish romanticism merges with adult passion. She had loved him with the kind of reckless abandonment that ignores all other considerations, and dismisses all fears. He had been beautiful, with his black curls and liquid eyes, and a little bit wild, and she had been beautiful and hungry for experience, and they had both been so young, and so alive, and so desperate to love and be loved. True, there had been moments when passion reached a point where it might have brought with it dire consequences, but those consequences had never manifested. For six wonderful, idyllic months, from April through September, she had felt nothing but the heady happiness of first love. Six months with absolutely no fear in them, they had been that extraordinary. Six months in a whole lifetime.

It had not been until the fall had begun to turn that Janine Bonney had taken a step back to look with more rational eyes at her circumstances. It might have been a change in the air or in the quality of light in the desert that came with the shift in the season, or it might have been a natural pause in the frenzy of feeling. It might have been that the boy had asked her to marry, and in so doing had grounded the fantasy, making it permanent and real. But whatever the cause, the effect had been as if a picture, previously blurred, had suddenly come into focus, causing her to look more closely at it. And wonder what her life was to become.

The boy was very poor, a drifter, owning little except his horse and his saddle and the clothes on his back, and the skills that allowed him to keep body and soul together. And there was conflict amid their passion, for her father hated the boy, and threatened her about him. And while she could defy her father with few qualms, there were further complications, for the boy's older brother did not like her particularly, either, and distrusted their love affair. The boy, as devoted to that heart-bruised and brooding soul as he had been to her, was often troubled by it. And then there were the friends, the companions, an untrustworthy lot. Jelks. The others. She did not know what the boy did when he was not with her, but she suspected that his occupations where not always honest. When she allowed herself to acknowledge it, she knew that she dreaded someday he would not return. And fear entered back into her life, again.

It was the stranger's arrival from California, though, that had finally set matters into motion. He was a strong man, older. Established. He had made his interest in her plain, and had promised to show her a world beyond the town and the river and the stage station. With him, she would no longer have to live on the stories of others. By Christmas, she had begun to honestly contrast the life she would have with the man from California and the life she would have with her beautiful boy. A practical girl, beneath the dreamer, she would not allow the issue of love to enter into the question. In the terms of her future, she believed love was beside the point. She knew poverty well enough to know she did not care for it. And she knew, with the boy, poverty would be her lot. There was a world to see, and she was determined to know it. For several months she managed to hide her misgivings from the boy, but by the time the spring had turned the land again, she had made her decision. She chose the Californian, though for years after she still thought about the boy.

As Janine Bonney Carmichael hurried back into the hotel, she remembered those days when she had been in love and not afraid. She was afraid, now. She had been afraid for so long that the condition seemed almost normal, though things had not started out that way. She had married Owen Carmichael on the first of April. Joe Butler had left town by then, heart-broken and angry. He had left only with his brother and the man, Jelks; the others of their companions either staying behind or going elsewhere. He had not waited to see her give herself to another man. The first year of her marriage to Carmichael had even been happy, filled with excitement, with so much to see and do. They had traveled. Owen had taken her back to California, where his parents lived on a prosperous ranch in some comfort. If she regretted the love affair she had left behind, that first year of her marriage, it was only in passing. And when she found herself pregnant with Owen's first child, she had not believed herself more pleased.

Janine Bonney had been a beautiful girl, with raven black hair and dark eyes and fine, delicate features. She was still a good looking woman. Men had always looked at her; they still did. And she had always accepted their admiration without thinking very much about it, the sort of vanity that takes itself for granted. Taking it for granted, she had been unprepared for Owen's reaction a few months after she had announced her pregnancy, when he accused her of betraying him with another man, and beat her almost senseless. That was only the beginning. The beatings had gone like that until the time that little Hal, Henry after Owen's father, had been born, looking so much like Owen that her husband's fears were temporarily assuaged. The respite lasted six months. After Jesse was born there wasn't even a break in the beatings. And Owen's temper no longer seemed to be triggered only by jealousy or drink. Anything could set him off, a late meal, the wrong colored shirt laid out for him in the morning. Any little thing he interpreted as carelessness or lack of attention to his needs would draw his fists or his cane or more terrible weapons. Janine's fear became her constant companion.

Surprisingly, Owen Carmichael never turned his violence upon his sons. In fact, he seemed to love his boys past all reason, indulging them, coddling them, bending to their every whim and demand. As they grew older, and their mother tried to control them, Carmichael encouraged their rebellion. When young Hal punched his mother in the stomach at the age of six, and his father laughed, Janine had simply surrendered. There was no use fighting back, or even acknowledging that her situation was horrendous. She was growing past the point where she could even still recognize fear as being a state different from others, as fear required some moment of security for contrast. She became like an animal, that only reacts. She had even lost the ability to cry in pain or unhappiness, or to weep for her lost dreams. She had long ago put the beautiful boy who had made love to her on the banks of the Colorado River out of her mind.

Seeing Joe Butler standing before her on that hotel sidewalk had been an unbelievable shock. It was not so much that she had never expected to see him again, although she hadn't. It had been so long since she had allowed herself to even remember his existence that for a moment she did not know who he was. He was no longer a beautiful boy, malleable and easily wounded. He was a man, a stranger to her, hard and strong and solid, with lines in his face and an attitude that said he had found a place in the world and had landed. Only his eyes had reflected the hurt boy she had left behind. Her first impulse had been to run away from him. But she had spoken, and he had spoken and then Owen had called her from the hotel room above.

Seeing Joe again, she remembered. And remembering, she recognized that she was afraid, because she recalled that she had once not been. She almost cowered as she walked into the hotel room.

"Where the hell have you been?"

Owen Carmichael was a big man, who had once been exceedingly handsome, hard-muscled and square like a boxer. Drink and hard living had coarsened him somewhat, but he was still good looking despite the softened middle and the now heavy jowl. And he could be charming when it suited him. Men tended to like him, and women found him attractive. But then, he rarely showed the same face to the world that he showed to his wife. And, in fact, even he could not really explain his own behavior toward her, except that his father had looked down on her, had been sorely disappointed, in fact, with his choice, and his own fortunes had taken a down turn after his marriage. Janine was extravagant, and she was careless. And how could he help but notice the men who constantly trailed after her. It was more than any man could be expected to endure. It was his constant burden, this need to correct her, especially after his sons had been born. To find some method of finally getting through to her. Had she not been the mother of his beloved boys he probably would have divorced her. But his sons needed a mother, and they needed an example of how a proper woman should act, obedient and submissive, as his own mother was. He was determined that they would have that example, even if it meant he had to kill her to produce it.

"I asked you a question!"

"I… I was just outside. On the sidewalk."

"What were you hangin' around out there for?"

"I was just getting some air."

"There's air in here. Who were you talking to?" Carmichael demanded. "I heard a man's voice."

An hour earlier, such a question would have turned her to jelly, wrung from her some strangled version of the truth. But seeing Joe had reminded her the difference between fear and not fear, and it had gotten her remembering who she was, lifting her from that animal state of mere reaction. With that acknowledgment of fear came the edges of identify, and with that, the desire for something beyond self-preservation.

"I don't know," she lied bravely. "Some shop-keeper. He was just being polite."

Carmichael slapped her. But he also believed her. There was not reason why he should not. "How many times do I have to tell you that I don't want you talkin' to men you don't know?"

Oh, but I do know him, Owen, Janine thought, holding the secret to her like something precious. Once I knew him in all the ways a woman can know a man. "It was just some clerk. He was only saying good afternoon. I hardly said a word to him, Owen."

Carmichael grabbed her face, pinching it between his thumb and fingers. "Don't you dare talk back to me," he hissed at her. "I told you to keep shut around strangers and I expect you to do it. Do you hear me? What the hell do I have to do to get you to obey me? Just one simple thing like that?"

He threw her backwards, and she sprawled onto the bed. For a moment, he just stared down at her, his pupils dilating. He reached for his belt. Janine really did become afraid then, knowing that he if decided he wanted her, he would beat her badly afterward. And he might want her, it had been a long time. But the moment passed safely.

"You stay in this room. Do you hear me?" he growled. Then he walked out.

She rolled over onto her side, and tucked a pillow against her belly, curling around it. For the first time in years, Janine Bonney Carmichael began to cry.

III

It is said of some men that they carry their hearts on their sleeves, but Joe Butler carried his heart in his eyes. So black that in some kinds of light the pupils were not even visible in them, they were eyes that could at one moment narrow in ferocity and the next gaze wide and soft in undisguised wonder, or sparkle with irrepressible glee. Eyes that could take him from deadly seriousness to boyish charm in less time than it took to blink them. His brother had occasionally commented that one could always tell what Joe was thinking by the look in his eyes, regardless of what the rest of his face was doing. Of course, Sam also said that was what made his brother such a lousy poker player.

When he first stepped into Foster's saloon that night, it was Joe Butler's eyes that reflected the turmoil caused by his afternoon's encounter, belying his swagger as he sauntered up to the table where Buck Cannon was holding court at the back of the room. That Janine Bonney was there in Tucson, after all those years, was almost more than he could get his thoughts around. Already that brief conversation on the hotel boardwalk seemed like something he had dreamed once. Except for the tight, hollow feeling it had left in the middle of his chest it might never have happened. And he was resolved to put it out of his mind. She was a married woman, still together with the man she had chosen instead of him. That said something, and Joe knew it was in his best interest to pay attention to the message. And a whiskey or two, or three, would certainly help in that regard.

The saloon was even more crowded than their usual place had been that afternoon. Joe recognized most of the Chaparral gang sitting or standing around Buck's table, plus a couple of strangers he did not know. Luckily for his pride, his friends were all too distracted, or too drunk, to notice his distress, and the strangers paid him no attention at all. The only person he was going to have to worry about was his brother. Sooner or later.

"Hey, Joe!" It was Reno who first saw him, having, himself, joined the party late. Reno had finally given up his romantic pursuits to join the others. As Sam had predicted, the harassed bar girls had been too busy to give him more than a few minutes of their time.

"Joe-boy!" Buck echoed. "Glad you could join us, pull up a chair iffn you kin find one! Have yoursel' a drink o' whiskey! Bottle's aroun' here somewhere."

Buck's natural boisterousness had reached the point of near frenzy, and even in his own state of preoccupation Joe knew what that implied. The man had found his pigeon, or thought he had, and was getting ready to move in for the kill. In spite of himself, Joe smiled. Since a seat was not to be found, he took up position behind Buck and grabbed an empty glass, not bothering to inquire if it had had a previous owner. Then he reached for the community bottle, only to find his brother's hand already on it.

Sam had not been watching for Joe to show up, exactly, but there was no denying his concern. And he was not too drunk to understand the tension he saw in his younger brother's eyes as he walked up to the table; he had spent most of a lifetime reading them. What he did not know was what to do about it. Joe was not likely to welcome his interference. And yet Sam did not feel right letting it go without at least acknowledging that he, too, had recognized Janine Bonney. That he recognized what having her here was going to mean to his brother. And for an instant when Joe's eyes met his, the full extent of the younger man's pain showed through and Sam sighed softly. Then Joe looked away. Sam let go of the bottle.

The rest of their party was oblivious, Buck most particularly.

"Joe Butler, meet Mr. Melvin Metzer," the man boomed. "Mr. Metzer's jist down from them placer mines, he got quite a lot to tell us. Tell Joe what you jist been tellin' me, Melvin."

The stranger Buck had captured was somewhere in his middle to late forties, and looked a lot like an Eastern dandy who had fallen on hard times. The suit he wore had been expensive once, but was now threadbare, and he looked like he hadn't had a decent shave, or a decent meal, in some time. He was making substantial inroads into Buck's whiskey, though, with Buck actively encouraging him. Metzer leaned back so he could look up at the younger Butler.

"Lotta gold up there, I can tell you that," Metzer said vaguely. "Lotta gold. Ain't a day goes by some lucky man ain't findin' his fortune." He reached out and took the nearly empty bottle away from Joe, then leaned back onto the table and filled his glass.

"Melvin and me, we been havin' oursel's a little de-scushin about this minin' claim o' his. It be a good claim, too, ain't that right Melvin. Po' Melvin, though, his health be just to poorly to 'llow him to work it hisself. Ain't that true Melvin."

Metzer nodded. "That's gospel," he said. "This ol' back jist won't hold."

Across the table, Sam rolled his eyes, and exchanged a grin with Manolito beside him. Buck just nodded happily. Then he picked up the now empty bottle and scowled at it.

"Sam, be a good frien' and go git us anuther bottle o' whiskey, wudja? You boys done drunk this one all up."

Sam glowered. He did not particularly appreciate being used as Buck's errand boy, and he was loath to surrender his chair, which he knew was not likely to be empty when he got back. On the other hand, it might give him an opportunity to get his brother to one side for a moment, and he still wanted to know what was going on there. He scraped his chair back out from under the table and got to his feet.

"Come on, Joe," he grabbed the other man, propelling him away before he could protest. Joe let himself be steered toward the bar. But now that Sam had him away from the others, he didn't know quite what to say to him. "I wasn't sure you were gonna show up," he commented, rather lamely. When Joe didn't respond he gave up and took the direct approach. "That was Janine Bonney, this afternoon, wasn't it?"

Joe would not meet his eyes. "Leave it alone, Sam," he said, his tone just the slightest bit threatening. Sam looked at him hard. Then the bartender tapped him on the arm, and he turned to give the man his order. When he turned back to his brother, Joe seemed subdued.

"Yeah, it was her," he admitted.

"What's she doing in Tucson," Sam asked as nonchalantly as he could manage, turning to take the bottle from the bartender so he wouldn't have to keep looking at Joe.

"I guess Owen Carmichael's got himself a minin' claim up in the Santa Ritas."

Sam looked back at him. "So she's still with him, then."

Joe nodded. "She's still with him," he agreed flatly.

Sam considered this, not sure whether to find it good news or bad. "Joe," he began cautiously.

"Let it be, Sam," Joe reiterated, but this time even the hint of a threat was gone. Sam hesitated, wanting to say more but not knowing what. Finally, he just nodded.

Joe looked back into the room, exhaling. He had been unaware that he had been holding his breath. "So," he said, changing the subject. "I figgered Buck'd have his claim all staked by now."

"Not yet, but he's closin' in on it," Sam laughed, allowing the subject to change with some relief. "We got a little pot goin' on how long it's gonna take him You want in?"

Joe laughed with him. "You bet I do."

Sam clapped him on the back and they headed toward Buck's table, again. By some miracle, the boys had managed to hold his chair empty for him. He almost felt honored by their thoughtfulness. Buck, he noticed as he sat down, was just about ready for the kill.

"So, Melvin. Jist how much you want fo' that minin' claim?" Metzer named a figure. Buck groaned. "That much? Now, Melvin, ain't no way I kin afford that much. But how about this. You stake me, an' I'll go work that claim for you. We'll split the earnin's. Whadda you say?"

Metzer shook his head sadly. "I don't aim to stay in these parts, Buck," he said. "You see, I've got a sick mother back East I gotta go home and take care of. I'm gonna need that money right away."

Manolito leaned over to Sam. "Pay up, hombre," he whispered. Sam gave him a jaundiced look.

"No way. You said a sick aunt, not a sick mother."

"Aunt, mother, it is the same, amigo. What is the difference?"

"The difference is my five dollars," said Sam. Side bets on Buck's wheelings and dealings were running about three to one.

Behind them, Joe laughed. Metzer looked up at him slyly. The he turned back to Buck.

"But surely, Mr. Cannon. With all these fine friends, someone here must be willing to go in with you on such a sure thing. Two or three men pooling their resources…"

"Here it comes," Manolito predicted, sotto voce. But Buck surprised them.

"Aw, these boys, they's jist regular working cowboys, Melvin. They don't unnerstan' the finer points o' makin' their fortunes, nor the goodly profits to be had. You take Joe Butler, here, why Joe, he likes cows…"

"Uh, that's right, Mr. Metzer," Joe deadpanned, grateful for the distraction and happy to play along. Buck's finagling was good theater, if nothing else. The others laughed.

"But I'll tell you what," said Buck breezily. "They's no need fo' us to settle this all right now. We got all night, doan we? Whatda you say we have us a little frien'ly game o' cards. Just to pass the time. Be relaxin' doan you agree?" Metzer looked uneasy, suddenly, but he was hemmed in by Chaparral hands. He could not escape without making a point of it. "Mano," continued Buck, "han' me that deck there."

"Like a lamb to the slaughter," Mano sighed softly with genuine admiration. He handed over the playing cards.

"Who's in, boys?"

As the rest of the men settled in to play, or watch as Buck set up his quarry, Joe poured himself another drink. The whiskey and the company was finally beginning to distance him from his troubles, as only friends and drink could, and he was even starting to feel grateful for his brother's concern. What the hell, there had been other women in the last ten years, there would be other women in the future. He wasn't Manolito, but he wasn't exactly a monk, either. And then there was Tom Killian's younger sister, maybe it was about time he got around to doing something about that, too. The past was the past. It was behind him. Out of his life.

Or so he thought.

"Any o' you boys here named Butler?" It was one of the saloon hostesses coming up to the table. Sam looked up from his cards.

"Yeah," he said. "Which one of us do you want?"

The girl looked at a piece of paper she was holding. "Joe," she said.

"That's me," said Joe taking the paper from her quickly. Every face turned to him for a moment as he looked at the missive with narrowing eyes. He crumbled it, and shoved it into his pocket. The he turned to leave. Sam reached out and caught his arm, but Joe shook him loose without a word.

"Amigo," said Manolito compassionately as they watched Joe's retreating back. "Let him go. You cannot live your brother's life for him." Neither man doubted who that note had been from.

"I ain't trying to live his life for him, Mano," Sam replied. "But this is different."

Manolito only laughed. "It is never different, compadre," he assured the other man. "Believe me, I know of whereof I speak." Then he got more serious, understanding Sam's concerns. "Your brother can look out for himself."

Sam sighed. He didn’t look convinced, exactly, but he turned back to the card game. There wasn't much else he could do.

Buck just barely acknowledged the departure. "Where's Joe goin'?" he asked, frowning vaguely at the now empty doorway into the street.

"¿Quién sabe?" replied Manolito with a shrug.

"Are you gonna play that hand, Mr. Cannon?" Metzer asked. Buck turned back to the table.

"Jist gimme a minute," he said fanning the cards open before his face. "I'll take two."

Her note had told him to meet her out on the military plaza, several blocks from the center of town. The plaza was the site of the old army encampment, before Camp Lowell had been moved beyond the city limits. It's drilling grounds were still used on occasion for local fiestas; the feast of San Agustín, the patron saint of Tucson, was held there every August. The tree lined street flanking the officers' row was one of the most pleasant settings in the otherwise dust-filled and sunbaked city.

As she waited in the leaf-filtered moon light, Janine wondered what it was, exactly, that had brought her to this pass. She knew that seeing Joe Butler, again, had triggered something in her, like a catalyst. She was an intelligent woman, she recognized that the sudden reality of her former lover had made her own situation clear in a way she had been afraid to acknowledge before. But she did not know what had given her the nerve to act upon that understanding. She had not actually planned this step she had taken, hardly even recognized it as a step. Lying there on the bed in her hotel room, Janine had cried herself out, and then slept for a while, fully expecting that she would do as her husband commanded. As she had always done. But when she awoke, hours later, she was filled with some strange and unfamiliar determination. Her final goal was still elusive, her immediate intentions vague. She knew only that she must defy her husband in this one small thing, leave the room, go out. Find some boy willing to carry a message and ask Joe to meet her. There was nothing truly illicit in her mind, she only wanted to look at him, again, perhaps speak a word with him. Prove to herself that he was real, and not some phantom of her imagination. And then she would return to her hotel room, and resume her life. Or so she supposed. Her thoughts would take her no farther.

Out there in the middle of the deserted plaza, however, the actuality of what she was doing became frighteningly real. As she sat in the quiet, away from the bustle and noises of the town, she wondered what she could have been thinking. There she was, alone in the semi-darkness of the moonlit Arizona night, waiting for a man she had not seen in ten years. One she had not even dare think about in almost that many. A man who had loved her once, a man she had wanted with an almost consuming passion. A man she had hurt profoundly, she knew that. There was no reason to think he would come, that he would want any part of her, even if the boy she had recruited to carry her missive could find him amongst the dozen or so saloons and gambling houses, the countless cribs and brothels of which Tucson boasted. He could be anywhere in the city, supposing that her messenger hadn't just taken her dollar and disappeared into the night. She had already been waiting, it seemed like hours. And even if the boy did find him, it was absurd to think that Joe would come, after what she had done to him. She wasn't even sure, now, that she really did want to see him. A part of her wanted to leave, return to her hotel, pretend that she had never acted on this dangerous fantasy. She did not want to face the questions she felt sure Joe would ask. Besides, if Owen came back unexpectedly and found her gone, she could not even begin to contemplate what her husband might do to her. Yet, how could she leave, without at least explaining? Joe might even already be on his way to her. Agitated beyond endurance, she began to pace aimlessly.

He found her beside an old stone fountain that was no longer used. For a moment, they just stared at each other, dumbfounded to be in those circumstances. Janine finally cleared her throat.

"He found you, then. The boy?"

Joe nodded. "He found me," he said, narrowing his eyes at her. "Are you all right?" He had no clear idea why she had sent for him, and while part of him did not care about the reason, as long as she had, a larger part of him was still wary.

Janine frowned thoughtfully before answering. "Yes," she said. "I'm fine."

"What are you doin' way out here?" Joe asked. "This town ain't exactly safe to wander around in at night. Especially for a woman. You shouldn't be out here alone."

She looked puzzled. Those dangers had never occurred to her, they seemed so small compared to the risk she was taking, compared to the rest of her life.

"But I'm not alone," she replied inanely.

"What do you want, Jeannie?"

She looked at him hard, then, her eyes suddenly focusing. He was standing before her, his thumbs hooked in his gun belt, looking steadily at her. He didn't look angry, exactly, but there was none of the softness she remembered in him. He looked like a man awaiting an explanation, and it dawned on her that she didn't really have one for him. On the other hand, she had gotten very good at thinking on her feet.

"I was so surprised to see you, this afternoon, after all these years. I'm afraid I was a little abrupt. I just felt badly about it. I wanted to apologize." She smiled at him, then. "You look good, Joe. It's good to see you."

He did not smile back, and he did not return the compliment. But his expression softened, just a little, and some of the wariness left his eyes. She knew she had touched him.

"How's your brother?" she continued conversationally. "You said this afternoon that you were working together at some cattle ranch?"

"Yeah," Joe answered. "Yeah, we are. Sam's fine."

"That's good, I'm glad," she said. And with that, their conversation reached an impasse. Joe looked down at the ground.

For his part, Joe Butler was neither as calm, nor in as much control as his outward demeanor implied. His legs had more or less stopped shaking, but his stomach was still tied in knots, and his palms were still sweating. He was sure she must be able to hear his heart pound. She was still so beautiful standing there in the moonlight, exactly as he remembered. He wanted to reach out for her, pull her to him. He forced himself to stand riveted in his place. What he ought to do, he knew, was guide her back to her hotel, and put and end to whatever was happening before it had a chance to get started. While he still could. Go back to his card game and forget all about her.

"Does Owen know you're out here alone?" he asked. Janine took a sharp breath.

"No, no he doesn't. Owen is out for the evening, with his cronies. I don't expect him back before morning." It dawned on her, as she said it, that she might have given him the wrong impression. Janine's eyes got hard, suddenly. "I'm not in the habit of meeting men alone in dark places, you know. This is the first time I've done this. I just wanted to see you. Because it's you."

He believed her. The admission told him more than he really wanted to know about the situation, but there it was. And something in her voice made him look a little closer. His experience with women in trouble was not vast, but he could see the strain in her face, now, the fear she was trying to hide. And something else that was only partly masked by the moonlight, a darkening of the skin on her cheek that he did not think was just a shadow. He took a step closer.

"Jeannie, is everything all right? Are you all right with Owen? He's okay to you? The way he treats you?"

She turned her head away, unable to hide the tears that sprang into her eyes. "No. Not really," she admitted. "Oh, Owen is a good enough provider, I suppose. I've always had a roof over my head, though it's not exactly the way he told me it would be. But…" she hesitated, afraid to admit the truth, even though it was probably the real reason she had brought him out there. "He's not a very nice man, Joe."

Her words turned to stone in the pit of his stomach. "What do you mean, he's not a nice man?" He took another step toward her, closing his hand gently around her arm. "Has he been hurtin' you?"

It might have been his touch, or his tone, or the actual question, but the reality of what she was doing came rushing in to her, then, and she jerked away from him.

"Joe, I'm sorry. I have to get back," she mumbled. "I've already stayed out here longer that I should have."

"Jeannie…"

"No, please, Joe, let me go. It's all right, I'm fine, really. Everything's fine. But I want to get back in case Owen gets home early. He doesn't really like it when I'm out by myself. He worries about me." The lie tripped easily off her tongue, but then it was a lie she had been telling everyone, including herself, for so long now. It didn't really matter, Joe didn't believe her anyway. "I just wanted to see you for a moment. We really didn't get much of a chance to talk this afternoon."

He didn't point out to her that they hadn't had much of an opportunity to talk that night, either. He doubted he had been there fifteen minutes, they could not have exchanged more than a few dozen words, and most of those meaningless.

"Jeannie, wait. If you're in some kind of trouble, I want you to tell me." When she shook her head, he persisted. "At least let me walk you back to your hotel. It really ain't safe out here, I mean that."

But the idea that her husband might return from his night's activities early had taken hold of her. Whatever punishment might befall her if he had would only increase inconceivably if Joe accompanied her and Owen saw him.

"Please don't, Joe. I'll be all right. I just need to get back, now. Honest." She hesitated a moment, everything she was feeling standing naked in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Joe. I'm so very sorry…"

And she turned and ran. He did not even have the chance to ask her for which thing she was apologizing, leaving him standing there after dragging him away from his evening, or leaving him broken-hearted all those years ago. He wondered if she knew herself. But she had disappeared, for the second time in less than twelve hours, into the darkness, leaving him to stare at the place where her shadow had gone.

 

ALL THAT GLITTERS

I

"Buck, I can't believe you would do this to me."

Buck Cannon had returned from Tucson a very happy man. He had not only come home with his mining claim, it hadn't cost his a penny to obtain it. It had been a very stimulating and profitable poker game. Although Melvin Metzer had not proved to be quite the patsy Buck had originally sized him up to be, still, he fell eventually, betting the claim in desperation, and what with the money Buck had also won off Sam and Manolito and the handful of other men who had stayed the game to the end, his endeavors at Foster's saloon had left him enough ahead to stake himself for a month, longer if he was frugal and didn't drink too much. Plenty of time to put his claim on a paying basis. Maybe even to strike it really rich. Still rolling on his successes, it took him a moment to actually hear what his brother's said. Not that it mattered, even after the words finally registered, Buck still had no idea what John was talking about.

"Do what to you? Big John, you ain't makin' any sense."

"This mining claim…"

"Yeah," Buck beamed. "I just done tol' you. I won it fair and square in a poker game. It's a good claim too, John, everybody says so. Look, brother, I ain't askin you fo' money or nothing… why I won me enough to keep me fo' a month o' more."

"Yes, that's exactly my point…"

But Buck still wasn't getting it. "John, I jist doan unnerstan' you."

John Cannon rubbed his hand over his face. His brother had spoken the truth; he did not understand. John was beginning to despair that he ever would.

The steady exodus of ranch hands had finally stopped, but John was not convinced that it was really over, he still saw too many signs of discontent in too many faces. Sam's return from the round up had certainly helped stabilize the situation. So had the fear of God that John Cannon had laid upon the remaining men, threatening to fire and never take back any man who so much as mentioned the existence of gold in the Santa Rita mountains within his hearing. It had seemed to cow them sufficiently, but Cannon knew that the next man who screwed up his nerve enough to leave the Chaparral in search of El Dorado could very well start the whole damn thing all over again. And if he lost as much as one more man, his forces would be diminished to the point where he would no longer be able to run his ranch. Oh, they could take measures, they could consolidate the herds, although that put considerable strain on the grazing lands. They could put aside the less critical tasks, for now. John Cannon was no stranger to labor shortages, they'd been short handed before. He knew what to do. They would survive provided the situation didn't get any worse, and that Sam was able to hire more men to replace the deserters. But merely surviving was not the point. Not after all the years of struggle.

"Buck, you know I've already lost a critical number of men to this gold fever," he began. Nor was Buck entirely oblivious.

"Well, yeah, John, I do know that," he admitted. "I know we's short-handed, right now. But Sam, he be workin' hard to find men. Sam's a good foreman, he'll git more."

"Sam is an excellent foreman," John agreed. "I couldn't ask for better. But even he can't conjure men out of the air. I need you here, Buck."

The other man looked troubled. "Well, John, I guess I do see your point. But that's a good claim, John. I don't git to workin' it, somebody's liable to jump it, you know how it is…"

"Buck…"

"But I'll tell you what, I doan wanta leave you in the lurch, neither, big brother. I kin wait a week 'fo' I head out. I kin do that, be glad to. Sam oughta be able to replace them men by then." It seemed like a fair and reasonable compromise. In fact, Buck was feeling rather please with himself about it, so much so that his brother's answer completely threw him.

"No, Buck."

Buck just looked at him blankly. "Whatchu mean, no? You mean a week ain't enough time fo' Sam to hire them replacements?"

"I mean that you can't go off prospecting. Not this time."

The younger Cannon narrowed his eyes. "Now wait a minute, Big John…"

"No, you wait, Buck. For once will you just listen and try to understand? You know how I feel about the men who have been deserting this ranch for the gold fields, you know how I feel about the whole subject. It's a fool's dream Buck. If a thousand men go up to those mountains, maybe one will find enough gold to consider himself lucky. If ten more find enough to make expenses, it will have been a good strike. The rest will come home broke and broken. Especially going after placer gold, for God's sake. Whatever color might have been up there once was played out years ago. And even if there is gold, it's so deep in the ground that only a fully outfitted mining company could get it out - certainly not a lot of poor idiots with tin pans and hand shovels."

It was not an idle argument. Knowing his brother's proclivity, John Cannon had made it a point to do some reading on the subject. "Placer gold" was that ore found close to the surface that the action of the local ground water had worried loose. Over the centuries, as it washed down from the mountains, the heavy ore collected in any catch pocket or crevasse, creating deposits strewn along creek beds or buried in the muddy banks of streams. Most of the Colorado and California gold rushes formed from this type of deposit, usually discovered by accident by men who where actually doing something else at the time. Placer gold was as seductive as it was elusive. The very term came from the Spanish verb: "to please." And placer gold, like so many easy pleasures, was notorious for playing out quickly.

There had been a few substantial strikes in the years following the war, in Arizona and down into Sonora. But it was John Cannon's informed opinion that whatever gold was there had been all worked out years earlier. Oh, certainly, a little bit remained, enough to keep the dreamers dreaming and the scoundrels feeding off them. Enough to seduce men like his brother away from their responsibilities. But he also felt it was more than likely most of the recent "strikes" were manufactured. He said as much to Buck when his brother insisted that his particular claim was good.

"Have you been up there? How do you know it hasn't been salted. Buck, the only people making money in those mountains are the ones selling phony claims to the hopeful fools down in Tucson."

It was then that Buck started to get mad. "Are you callin' me a fool, big brother?"

But John was not about to fall into that trap. "No, I'm not calling you a fool," he argued, although in truth he did sometimes wonder about his brother. "What I'm trying to say is that there are men, and plenty of them, who make a living out of creating bogus strikes and then selling those claims to the unsuspecting."

Buck looked pained. "Now, John. I know that. I wunt born yes'taday you know. But that just ain't the case, nohow, with this claim o' mine."

"How do you know that?"

"I know that because Melvin Metzer ain't that kind o' person," said Buck. When John rolled his eyes, he went on quickly, before his brother could interrupt him. "An' besides. I done tol' you. I didn't pay nothin' fo' this claim. I won it in a poker game. So even if it is what you want to be callin' bogus, it won't cost me nothin' to find out. I got nothin' to lose by tryin'."

"But I do. Don' t you see that?"

Buck just looked puzzled again. "No, John. I do not."

"You really don't, do you? Buck, if you go off prospecting, what are the other men going to think? What sort of example are you going to be setting?"

"Eg-zample? Big John, what are you talkin' about. I ain't no school marm, an' I surely ain't no preacher. What do it matter what kind o' eg-zample I set? And what do all this have to do with my goin' prospectin'? Ain't no law agin it. An' it ain't no sin, neither, far as I know."

"And what about your responsibilities here?"

"I done tol' you I'm willin' to wait a little while until you kin replace some o' them hands. What more do you want?"

"Buck, men have been deserting this ranch for the Santa Rita mountains for weeks, you know that. Now, I think Sam and I between us have managed to stem the tide, but it's a fragile situation. What happens if these men get the idea that you, my own brother, feel comfortable just throwing over the traces and leaving to go prospecting whenever you feel like it? I won't be able to keep a man on the place."

Buck actually laughed. "Oh, John, you know that ain't true. Ain't nobody gonna leave the High Chaparral because o' anything I do. I been prospectin' before, nobody minded."

"Yes, and lost your shirt into the bargain, and for nothing," growled John. "I would have figured you'd learned, by now. And I never stopped you, before, because I figured you had a right to do what you wanted, even if I thought it was a waste of time and energy, as long as it wasn't hurting anything. But this time it's different. The situation is much more volatile. I can't take the risk. Buck, I'm sorry, but I just can't let you go."

Buck stared at him, dumbfounded. " 'Scuse me, John, I think I musta misheard you or sumpthin. I thought you jist said you cain't let me go."

"That's exactly what I said. You heard me fine."

Buck scowled, not at all happy with the tenor the conversation had taken. "Cain't let me. Now tha's innerestin'. Tha's an innerestin' way o' puttin' it. Cain't let me. 'Cept, I wasn't aware that I was askin' fo' permission."

"Buck, will you at least try to understand the situation here?" John fairly shouted with exasperation. "I simply cannot have one more man leave for the gold fields. Not even you. Especially not you. And as for asking permission, you do work here, you know…"

"Work here. Oh, yeah, I know that, Big John. I work very hard, too. Very damn hard, and fo' not much mo' than my keep, neither."

"Now, Buck, I have never begrudged you anything," Cannon said defensively. "I'm as generous as I can afford to be. But you're not just a hired hand, here, you're my brother. You have an obligation to show some seriousness about this ranch."

Buck looked at him in shock. "Obligation? Seriousness? Are you sayin' you doan think I'm serious about the High Chaparral?" he sputtered. "Well, mebbe I ain't as serious as you, big brother. Mebbe I don't quite think this ranch is wife and mother and God Almighty. But then, it ain't my ranch. I just work here."

"Buck, I never said that. I never meant it that way."

"Well, now, jist what did you mean, John? Are you tryin' to tell me this is my ranch?"

"It's your home, Buck."

"My home. Yeah, it's my home, it's Sam Butler's home, too, lessn he decide to go someplace else, being as how he work here, too. An' its a nice home, too, John, you do right proud by us. It's a right nice place to live. It's just that mebbe that ain't enough for some men to have a nice place to live an' work, but nothin' to call they own."

Now it was John's turn to be puzzled. "Buck, what the hell are you talkin' about? What does that have to do with whether or not you're going prospecting?"

"Well, mebbe it jist have everythin' to do with whether o' not I'm goin' prospectin'" said Buck, with a sudden look of wonder on his face. "Mebbe it does. An' I am goin' prospectin', big brother, make no mistake about that. Because mebbe it's my one chance to get somethin' o' my own, by my own sel' that weren't give to me by my big brother, in exchange for a job o' work about which I ain't serious enough. Iffn it be in his power to be generous."

"Buck, you're just twisting my words around!"

"Mebbe so, John. An' mebbe I jist finally hearin' 'em fo' the first time. But it doan matter. It doan matter, cuz I am goin' prospectin'. In fact, I'm goin' right now."

And he spun and headed for the door.

"Buck, stop!"

He stopped.

"I meant what I said, Buck. I can't let you go this time. Not for this."

Buck turned around. "Are you orderin' me not to go, Big John?" he asked, sounding dangerous.

"I'm asking you not to go, Buck. For the sake of the ranch. For my sake."

Had he asked in that way a little earlier, the request might have worked. But Buck was too far gone, now, to hear the real need in his brother's voice. He just shook his head belligerently.

"Well, I'm sorry, Big John, I'm real heart sorry. But I cain't do that. Fo' my own sake." And he turned toward the door, again.

"Then, yes," countered John. "I am ordering you. I can't risk your starting some stampede out of here. I sorry Buck. But the men do need your good example, even if you can't see that."

Buck turned around, again, slowly. " An' iffn I chose not to obey that order?"

John knew he had just backed himself into the corner he had been trying to avoid. But there was no help for it, now. Besides, this was his ranch at stake, his life's blood. If his brother could not see that, and honor it, then there was nothing else he could do.

"I've told every man who left here to chase gold that he could keep right on chasin' it," he said. "There's no coming back."

For a moment, Buck hesitated. "You're throwin' me off the ranch?"

"I'm not doing anything to you, Buck," John replied. "It's your decision."

"Jist like that. I go off to work my claim, I doan come back, is that what you tryin' to say?"

"Everyone plays by the same rules, here. Even you, little brother."

Buck looked at his brother for a moment longer. And for a moment, there almost seemed to be tears standing in the younger man's eyes. Then he squared his shoulders. "Then I jist better strike it rich, I giss," he almost snarled. And he turned and strode out the door toward the corral. John stared after him in helpless frustration.

"You didn't mean that, didja Pa? About Uncle Buck not bein' able to come back?"

Big John spun around and saw his son standing on the stairs behind him. "How long have you been standing there, eavesdropping?"

Blue shrugged and came the rest of the way down the stairs. " I didn't really have to eavesdrop," he said mildly. "I could pretty much hear you both up in my room." He glanced toward the door his uncle had just stormed out of. Then he looked back at his father, who was trying very hard to look stern.

"Blue, your Uncle Buck has got to learn, once and for all, that there is something bigger a stake around here than his personal desires. His going off like this could very well start every other man itchin' for gold to screw up his nerve and follow. In spite of everything Sam and I have tried to do to convince them to stay. And that could spell disaster for this ranch. Do you understand that?"

He did, actually. "We tried to tell him how mad you were gonna be," Blue sighed. "He wouldn't listen, though."

John Cannon looked at his son with gratitude. He had not expected support from that quarter. Blue usually sided with his uncle whenever the two men came to differences; the boy and John's brother were extremely close. "Yes, well, when your Uncle Buck takes a notion, there's no reasoning with him," he commiserated.

Blue nodded. "You want I should try to talk to him, again?"

Cannon clasped the boy on the shoulder. "No, let him go. I doubt he'll listen to anyone, the mood he's in, right now. But thank you."

Blue looked up at his father. "So then you didn't mean it about not lettin' him come back?" he asked, hopefully.

John Cannon gave his son a hard look. "I've meant it with every other man I've said it to over the past few weeks, why should your Uncle Buck be any different?"

"Because he ain't just one of the men. He's your brother, Pa."

Cannon nodded. "All the more reason he shouldn't be running out on me, now."

Blue looked distressed. "I know that, but…"

"Blue, I have to know who I can rely on and who I can't," John said, holding up a hand to ward off the protest. "You don't see Sam or Joe running off to the gold fields. Or Manolito. It's high time your uncle accepted his importance to the scheme of things around here, and started acting accordingly. He can't just pick up and go whenever the mood strikes him."

At this sight of his son's crestfallen face, though, Cannon relented a little. "Anyway, it won't hurt him any to have him hanging out there on his own for a while. Maybe it will make him appreciate what he's really got here."

"Then he can come back," Blue prodded.

Big John scowled. "Well… If he was willing to admit that he's dead wrong in what he's doing. If I could be sure I was finally going to get some responsible behavior out of him…"

Blue looked back toward the door. "Maybe you oughta let me talk to him, Pa. You know how he can git. He's pretty riled."

"So am I," said Cannon, tersely. "And with better reason. No, you leave him be. This will be a good lesson for him." And he turned and walked into his office, closing the door.

Blue sighed and wondered. Then he walked to the front door. Leaning against the door post, he watched his uncle saddle up and ride off the compound. But he didn't try to stop him. For once, he felt his father was right, and that Buck was acting irresponsibly leaving at a time like that. He wondered, though, if he would ever see the man, again, and that worry left a tightness in his throat that made it hard to swallow. Buck was very angry, and very determined, he could see that. And gold fever and anger were a powerful combination. He just hoped Buck would get over his hurt feelings. He sighed again, and wandered back into the house.

It was probably a testimony to Joe Butler's natural efficiency and long years of experience that things didn't get any worse than they did. The work got done, after a fashion, though not with the speed or thoroughness that Sam had come to expect from his brother. And there was no missing Joe's preoccupation. Sam wasn't used to having to ask more than once to have a task completed, nor was he used to having to check up on the work, later. And he certainly wasn't used to having to put the finishing touches on something done acceptably, but hardly up to Joe's, or Sam's, usual standards. It was very annoying.

Of course, such minor slippage should not have been totally unexpected, nor was it; Sam realized that, too. Although Joe had been stubbornly silent about the message that had pulled him away from Foster's saloon so abruptly, it didn't take genius to figure out who had sent it. It stood to reason, Sam supposed, that his brother would be a little distracted afterwards. For a little while, anyway. He was willing to ignore some lack of attention to detail, so long as nothing was seriously neglected, and so long as Mr. Cannon didn't find out. It was the same as he would have done for any other man who had proven himself to the extent that Joe had, and who had a justifiable reason for being out of sorts.

Sam was a pretty good foreman, that way. Exacting when he needed to be, even uncompromising when it was appropriate, he also knew that there were times when even a good man wasn't himself, for one reason or another, and that sometimes the right thing to do was just let the problem work itself out, provided it didn't take too long, or cause any real trouble. He knew when it was best to look the other way if frayed tempers erupted into a fist fight, or when a man needed to brood himself out of some snit, as long as the problem solved itself in good order. He would act the same way with Reno or Pedro or any of the more trusted men. He just wasn't used to needing to, with Joe, and he had to admit that the need, now, was troubling.

Nonetheless, things were what they were, and Sam wasn't quite sure what else to do about them. For the moment, he had decided to do nothing, trusting Joe to sort it out. One of the reasons their working relationship worked as well as it did was that Sam genuinely respected his brother and tried hard to avoid the temptation to throw his weight around just because he could. He was even willing to cut a wide berth around his brother's sour disposition, and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the normally mellow and easy going younger Butler was suffering from a severely displaced attitude. Just a few days earlier, Joe had nearly taken Reno's head off over some trifle, and Sam had almost decided to say something to him, then. Reno, however, had seemed willing enough to let it go, and Sam felt he could do no less than the target of his brother's ire. He suspected that all of the old timers, the men who knew his brother best, had figured out that Joe had himself in a twist over something, even if they had no idea what it was all about. It happened, now and then, to everyone, and most of the men just coped with it until the storm blew itself out.

Except that the storm wasn't passing, it was getting worse. It didn't help any that they were down so many men. All together, they were short nearly a third of the crew that Cannon liked on hand in the spring and fall when things were busiest And Sam had had little luck hiring any more. Everyone was tired, carrying extra work, and fretting under the strain. And with Buck not there to help, the bulk of the burden fell squarely on Sam's shoulders. Not that he completely blamed the other man. He knew the younger Cannon chafed in Big John's rather substantial shadow. Sam often suspected that Buck's hi-jinks were as much a desperate attempt to accomplish something as noteworthy as his brother as they were attempts to strike it rich. Buck's timing, however, left a lot to be desired and it brought home to Sam all the more how much he had always relied on Joe's being there to back him up, to pick up the slack, now that Joe wasn't doing those things with his usual quiet, almost instinctual, efficiency.

It also didn't help any that Sam had a hard time working up a lot of sympathy for the cause of his brother's problem. Not that he didn't have a considerable amount of respect for "woman trouble." Sam knew that being in love was serious business for men who spent most of their lives isolated with only the rough and ill-bred company of other men. He did not belittle it, or underestimate its importance. It wasn't that. It was this particular woman, and this particular trouble that tried Sam's patience. He had never liked Janine Bonney much, had found her demanding and silly, and perhaps even a little light, even ten years ago. Not, he was willing to admit, that his own state at the time would have made him the best judge of the circumstances. Still, she had strung his brother along for almost a year before dropping him like a bad habit for another man, and it was not something Sam felt inclined to forgive her. Joe ought to have more sense than to get mixed up with whatever she was up to, now, and her still married to Carmichael and all. If it occurred to Sam that he might have done the same thing, had his own circumstances worked out for himself less tragically, he chose to ignore it.

Mostly, though, Sam just felt helpless, and perhaps a little bit betrayed. And his helplessness made him angry; it was not a feeling he was at all used to. Although it was not something they verbalized, he loved his kid brother, and it tore him up to see Joe so twisted up inside. He sensed there wasn't much he could do about it, and his very nature rebelled against that. Since they had been children he had pretty much always been able to reason with Joe, and to get him to see reason. But this time, his brother didn't look like he was going to be inclined to be reasonable, and Sam wasn't even sure how to approach him, he was that distant, and that thorny. So he did nothing, and waited and hoped that hard work and thirty-five miles of distance between the High Chaparral and Tucson would work the thorn loose. Though doing so was not doing any great things for his own disposition, and that was a fact. He was getting pretty short tempered, himself, with all the strain. In the mean time, there seemed to be nothing for it but to keep an eye out, and cover for Joe as much as possible, even though he knew the men had begun to notice and that the newer ones had started to gripe. That was the situation for well over a week, and it might have continued for even longer before things finally blew, if it had not been for Mrs. Cannon's driving harness.

Next to care of the stock, itself, repair and maintenance of the tack was the single most important responsibility on a working ranch. Without proper gear, in well ordered and well cared for condition, nothing could be accomplished. And perhaps more to the point, a man's well being, and even his life, might depend on the condition of the equipment he rode in or drove with. A frayed cinch, a worn stirrup leather, a splitting rein, they could all spell disaster. Besides, leaving tack in that condition was just plain sloppy, and it was not something that John Cannon nor his foreman were willing to tolerate. There were even a limited number of men on the ranch that Sam would trust with so important a responsibility; himself, his brother. Pedro. But that was pretty much it. Therefore, when Big John brought to Sam's attention the disreputable state of Mrs. Cannon's driving harness, and Sam found himself unable to attend to it himself because of the demands of the additional duties he had assumed since Buck's departure, it just followed that he would delegate the job to his brother. It made perfect sense. If Sam couldn't do it himself, the next best person to take care of the problem was Joe. Always had been. After all, this wasn't just some spare saddle that needed re-rigging. This was Mrs. Cannon. So when Sam found the half mended tangle of cruppers and traces and breeching straps in a pile on the table outside the tack room, and Joe nowhere in sight, he finally erupted. But he finished mending the harness first.

Joe was lying on his bunk when Sam found him, half asleep even though it was still only afternoon. The truth was, he had been dozing off rather frequently at inopportune times, lately. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that he wasn't sleeping very well at night. During the day when there was plenty of work demanding his attention he could almost forget, even though he knew his entire attention was not where it should be, and that he had been falling off some, there. Still, he was mostly all right, right up until the moment his head hit the pillow, and then his brain spun out of control. As much as he tried to tell himself that it was none of his business, that Janine Bonney was nothing more than a character from his past, that anyway she was married and completely inaccessible, he couldn't get his last conversation with her out of his mind.

He had followed her back to the hotel that night, after all, keeping his distance so that she would not see him, just to be sure she was safe. He had watched her enter the hotel, and then had lost her, not knowing if her husband was waiting there for her or not. He was sure Carmichael was mistreating her. He was also sure that was why she had sent that note to him, that she meant to tell him, was trying to tell him, was trying to find a way ask for his help. In all honesty, Joe was a little bit disgusted with himself. At his age, and he was acting like a love sick school boy, hoping to play some knight-in-armor for a woman who had already rejected him years before. His work was suffering, and his temper was pretty foul, too, he knew that. He didn't want anyone near him, not even his friends. He had jumped all over Reno for some reason he couldn't even remember; he still felt bad about that. It wasn't like him, and he didn't know what to do about it.

He knew he was putting his brother in a tough position, too. One of the difficulties with being blood kin to the crew boss was that the men were always looking for signs of preferential treatment. It was something the Butlers had dealt with for most of their adult lives. In many ways, Sam had to be harder on Joe, expect more because of their relationship, than he would another man. Joe understood that. It even made him a little bit proud, that he had always been able to take it, to meet Sam's expectations, never giving him serious cause for complaint or the other men fuel for their belly-aching. He knew he had his brother's trust and respect. In an odd way, the challenge created an atmosphere of equality between them that made it possible for them to work together the way they did. Joe also knew that he had not exactly been holding up his end of things, lately, and he suspected Sam had been covering for him. He knew his brother was taking a risk doing so, and that neither one of them was going to be able to get away with it much longer, but he just could not stop thinking about Janine and wondering if she was all right. And remembering… the smell of the grass along the Colorado as they had lain upon it, her mouth under his, the way her body had yielded beneath him. Things he had not thought about in so long… memories that would not leave him in peace. He had loved her so much, once. He knew he was going to have to find a way to see her. Just to be sure. Such was his state when his brother found him.

Sam tossed the now mended harness onto the table with a loud enough clatter to make Joe turn and look. Sam had calmed down, a little, finishing the task, and was more frustrated, now, than angry, but he knew he could no longer put this confrontation off. Joe's expression was blank for a moment, as he looked at him, annoyed at the intrusion. Then he recognized the mass of leather on the table and he sat up, horrified.

"I finished it," Sam said tersely.

"Sam, I…"

"Save it. Will you pull yourself together, now?"

"I'm sorry," said Joe, his voice carrying just a touch of defensiveness. "It won't happen, again."

Sam narrowed his eyes at him and noticed how gray the other man looked. Whatever was troubling him, it was nothing like Joe to goldbrick in bed during the middle of the day. "What's the matter? You not feelin' well?"

Joe shrugged. " I guess not," he admitted. Sam blew out a breath.

"Joe, we gotta to talk about this."

"Look, I said I was sorry…" his brother replied, the defensiveness almost bordering on belligerence, this time. "There's nothin' to talk about."

"Now, don't you go all stubborn on me," Sam warned him, sitting down on top of the table. "And there damn well is somethin' to talk about. Joe, I've been cleanin' up after you, and finishin' up after you, for more'n week now. Closer to two. And it's gotta stop. It's gotta stop right now."

Joe dropped his eyes. "I've had a lot on my mind," he said.

"I noticed," Sam told him. "So have the men." Joe looked back up at him. "The old timers've figured out there's somethin' eatin' you, and so far they've been willing to cut you some slack. But everyone's noticed and they've also noticed that I've been lettin' you get pretty much away with it. I was hopin' you'd have worked yourself out of this, by now. But the new men have started grumblin' about playin' favorites, and you know what that's gonna do to discipline and morale, Joe, you've always understood that. Besides, if it gets back to Big John, we're liable to both lose our jobs."

"I'll quit before I let it come to that," said Joe.

"Oh, come off it, Joe, you know that's no answer," Sam snapped, his anger finally starting to show through. "No reasonable answer, anyway."

"Look, I told you. It won't happen again," Joe insisted, his jaw setting stubbornly.

Sam grimaced in frustration. "Let it go, Joe," he said, cutting to the heart of the matter, finally. "It's been over for years. She married somebody else."

"It ain't none o' your concern, Sam," Joe replied, refusing to meet his eyes.

"It is when it starts affecting this ranch," Sam snapped. "It is when it's you," he added, more gently.

Joe looked down at his hands. He knew his brother was upset about more than just the work, and his concern did find its way through Joe's defenses. He found himself wanting to confide, to share his burden, suddenly. "She ain't happy," he ventured.

"Maybe not," Sam replied reasonably. "But that's none of your business."

"I think maybe he's beatin' her."

Sam pulled back a little. "She tell you that?"

Joe shook his head. "Not exactly. It's more like what she wouldn't tell me. And her face was all bruised. I don't think she knew I saw it."

"That's rough, Joe," Sam said, exhaling slowly. The sentiment was honest, there was no challenge in it. Sam Butler had no use for wife beaters. "I mean that. But it ain't your affair."

"I can't just walk away, Sam."

"What do you figger on doin' about it, then?" But Joe only shrugged. Sam tried the logical approach. "Look, Joe. If he's mistreatin' her, then she should go to the law. You got no part in this. It ain't your place."

"She's afraid of him, Sam. I don't think she'll do that," Joe said with such certainty that it made his brother angry, again. "Anyway, the law ain't likely to do much."

"Joe, that woman threw you over ten years ago. She made her choice, she married Owen Carmichael. If she made a bad decision, that's not your fault. This whole thing's just twisting you up inside all over again. Let go of it."

Joe lifted his head enough to look down at his brother as he sat there below him. "It ain't that easy to just forget," he said quietly. Sam met his brother's eyes as he sat there on his bunk, looking hurt and angry.

"I know," he said, understanding, perhaps better than anyone, what Joe was really going through. But Sam could not afford to be too soft. Too much was as stake, emotionally, as well as practically. "It still doesn't change anything." He paused for a moment. "Are you gonna leave it alone, now?"

Joe looked away again. "I don't know," he replied. "I guess it depends."

"Depends on what?"

Joe's eyes went hard. "Sam, you gotta let me handle this in my own way," he warned.

"And what way is that gonna be?"

"I don't know, yet," Joe admitted. "I ain't got that far in my thinkin'."

Sam stood up. "Well, get there," he said flatly, temper flaring at his brother's stubbornness and at the whole impossible situation. "and do it soon. Because things can't continue the way they been, that's for sure. And so far, lettin' you handle this your own way is just headin' us both for trouble. I gotta be honest, Joe, I don't see a whole lot o' good options if you won't let this thing go."

And with that, he left the bunk house, deeply dissatisfied with the way things had gone. However much he might sympathize, and worry, Sam knew Joe had to get his mind back on his own business, and soon, before things came to a point where there really were no more options. That had not been an idle threat. Sam did not want to contemplate what might have to happen if his brother did not pull himself together, but he knew he would do what was necessary, if it finally came to that. He knew Joe knew it, too. He just did not know how to reach him. And he could not imagine who could, if he couldn't.

Joe sat on his bunk for a moment longer. He knew Sam was right, in his own way. Even justified. And he also knew, if it finally came down to it, that his brother would fire him if he had to, or put Joe in a position where he would have to leave of his own accord. He had understood that not-so-veiled warning, although he hoped that such a final step would require far more serious provocation than a neglected piece of harness. What worried Joe was that he might be forced to supply that provocation, and he knew Sam was aware of that possibility, too. And he knew they were both dreading the day something like this might come between them.

The truth was, Joe just didn't know what to do. He didn't know what was the right of it. On the one hand, he wanted to do as his brother demanded, forget it, surrender to Sam's wisdom and acknowledged authority and just let the whole thing go. In many ways, it would be so much easier. Safer. On the other hand, his brother's high-handedness made him furious. He slid off the bunk to the floor and picked up the newly mended harness Sam had left lying on the table. For an instant, even his brother's willingness to risk his own position by covering for him seemed like an insult. Confused and frustrated, he hurled the harness against the wall. Then, anger spent almost as quickly as it had flared, he pick it up again, and straightened out the tangled mess of leather. He left to put the harness back where it belonged, no closer to a decision than he had been, except to know that whatever he finally decided, this was his to do, and Sam was just gonna have to understand that.

It was just an accident that Big John happened to be coming across the yard with Manolito at the moment Sam came striding out of the bunk house, face like a thunderhead, and that they were both still there when, a few moments later, Joe also emerged with a handful of harness and headed toward the tack room. John Cannon did not normally miss much. And he had not missed the fact that something was going on between the Butlers, that Joe had been acting very distracted, and just a tiny bit lax, lately, and that neither one of their tempers was particularly sweet. He did not know what the problem was, but he sensed it might be serious. The idea deeply troubled him. In all the years he had known the Butlers, in all the years they had worked for, and with, him, he had never seen them like this. The brothers worked together like a well oiled machine, with rarely even a cross word between them. Whatever was going on now, it wasn't minor.

"What's with those two?" he asked his brother-in-law. "Something's wrong, there, I can see it."

Manolito shrugged. "¿Quién sabe?" he sighed, unwilling to betray the confidence. John looked at him sternly, sensing secret knowledge, and Manolito relented, just a little. "Some trouble from their past, I think," he said. "Something personal."

The news was not particularly welcome. Big John relied on the Butler brothers with almost as much confidence as he relied upon himself. And he needed them, now, more than ever. He needed to feel that at least one thing in his life was constant and reliable. So much of it had already gone to hell.

John Cannon had not really meant to drive his brother off. Besides needing Buck's help desperately, John missed the man, and despite his assurances to his son to the contrary, he was not at all confident that Buck would come home, again. And he didn't even have the satisfaction of seeing his own dire predictions come true. Although they were still uncomfortably short-handed, and although Sam had so far had no luck in hiring new men, there had been no mass exodus following Buck's departure, no seas parted, nobody else left. John couldn't decide if that made him feel better or worse after having made such a stink about it. Had he not been so pig-headed about having his own way, his brother might have gotten bored digging in the dirt and come home by now. It made him just want to kick himself with frustration. And now adding on top of that whatever this was going on between the Butlers, well it was almost more than a man could bear. John could only hope that two his top hands could get to the bottom of whatever their problem was and fix it before it got any worse; before he was forced to take some action that he sincerely did not want to take.

"Let them alone, John" said Manolito gently, as if reading his brother-in-law's mind. "Give them a little room. They are good men, they'll work it out."

John sighed. Well, at any rate, his wife wasn't mad at him about anything at the moment. John Cannon supposed he could be grateful for that, at least.

II

It was possible to get from the High Chaparral to Tucson and back again in the space of one night; the town was only thirty five miles away. The distance could be traversed on horseback in a couple of hours if one's horse was strong and fast. And there was no particular "law" against going into town at night. Once a man had finished his day's work, and his horse and his gear were all cared for, his time was pretty much his own, as long as he wasn't on night herd, or guard duty. If he wanted to go into town, there was no one to actually stop him, although the practice was frowned upon, and Sam would have strongly discouraged it in anyone who made it a habit. It just wasn't a problem; men tended not to bother. For one thing, it was impractical. With four or five hours spent in traveling the distance both ways, that did not leave much of an evening for whatever pursuits might have brought a man to town in the first place. And it left no time for sleep. And while John Cannon did not quite dictate the activities of his men during their off hours, he owned every minute of their working day, or night, and he expected a man to be alert, sober, and well rested. Not being those things could draw a degree of ire that a man only had to face once to discourage a second offense. A second offense got him fired.

So mostly the men just hung around the bunk house when they weren't working, playing cards or "yarnin'," reading, if a man was bookish, though most of the cowpunchers were not, or just relaxing, listening to Reno play his guitar. And if, as very occasionally happened, somebody did decide to brave the trip into town, and Sam knew about it, he was inclined to look the other way, at least the first time. Sam understood that just about the only thing that would drive a man back into the saddle after a hard day's work was some woman, and "woman trouble" of that kind usually cured itself, given a little time. Either a man that seriously in love was going to marry his sweetheart, and leave the ranch anyway for his own place or to pursue some employment more conducive to marital bliss, or more likely he'd gotten himself hung up in some unrequited tangle with one of the local "soiled doves;" a situation the woman herself would likely put an end to pretty quickly. Besides, Sam also had a tendency to work a man extra hard the next day, who had spent the night out tomcatting, just to drive home the importance of a good night's sleep. As a practice, that generally proved as convincing as any chewing out. However, as long as a man was in the saddle at sun-up and ready to work, and as long as he was willing to put up with the ribaldry of the other men, and as long as he was willing to risk Apaches and prairie dog holes and other dangers lurking for a lone man in the dark, there was no rule that expressly forbade him. So Joe Butler did not actually have to sneak into town. He did so to avoid his brother.

Joe had tried, quite sincerely, to put Janine Carmichael out of his mind. Once his initial anger had subsided, he recognized the logic in Sam's words, and had really tried to get his attention back on his job. He just couldn't do it. He couldn't stop thinking about her, and worrying about the things at which she had hinted. He was sure she was in danger from the man she had married. As sure as he was of anything he had ever been in his life. As sure as he was that he still loved her, and had probably never stopped, and that he had to see her again, and, if she would let him, help her. And it couldn't wait. He had time coming, John Cannon had promised them a few days off to make up for the curtailed round-up holiday once the herds had all been moved to fresh grazing and water. But Joe knew it might be a couple of weeks before that happened, and he couldn't wait that long.

If he told Sam what he was doing, Joe knew his brother could not actually stop him. But there would have been a long, and probably heated, discussion of the situation, first, and Joe just wasn't up to that. He wasn't up to the looks, or the worried silence. He wasn't up to any of the things that would make him feel ripped between loyalty to his brother and the things he felt he needed to do. He wasn't much up to the questions he knew he was going to get from the other men, either, if his trip became public knowledge. So he waited until the other hands had all bedded down for the night, and then slipped out, quietly, saddled his horse and headed for Tucson.

Joe's big sorrel was strong and well broke, but it wasn't the fastest horse on the High Chaparral, having been bred more for the short bursts of speed needed for cutting and driving cattle than high speed endurance riding, so he didn't make the best possible time getting into town. And it wasn't until he got there that he acknowledged to himself that he didn't actually have a way to reach Janine Carmichael. Oh, he knew the hotel where she and her husband were staying, but he didn't know what room she was in, and he couldn't very well go pounding on doors until he found her. Certainly not at that hour. He guessed he could probably cajole, or bribe, the man at the reception desk into carrying up a message, but such a public request was bound to be talked about, the middle of the night being an unlikely time to be visiting for any legitimate purpose. Joe did not want any hint of scandal upsetting what might already be a dangerous situation. He expected Carmichael was out partaking of the local saloons, but there was really no guarantee of that, either. It was a pretty significant obstacle, actually; he needed to keep his visit a secret, he just wasn't sure how.

As it turned out, the problem solved itself. Had he read it in a book, somewhere, or if someone had told him the story, he would have accused the author of some not very creative yarning, but the truth was, as he paced nervously outside the hotel proper trying to come up with a plan, Janine, herself, came out onto the balcony wrapped in a dressing gown, too restless to sleep in the heat. A quick hiss of her name was all that was needed to get her attention.

"Joe. My God, what are you doing here? Has something happened?"

Butler shook his head. "I need to talk to you."

Even as he said it, he realized how ridiculous the entire thing looked. What was he doing there, in the middle of the night, already exhausted from a long day and a long ride?

"Joe, you're crazy. You're out of your mind," she said. He tended to agree with her. "What if Owen sees you?" He wondered about that, too.

"Is he up there?"

She shook her head. "No, he's out. But Joe…"

"Are you all right?"

Their half whispered conversation up to the second story balcony was bound to attract attention, an eventuality that Janine wanted to avoid as much as Joe. "Stay there," she said. "I'm coming down."

"Jeannie…"

But she had already disappeared back into her room. She came down onto the sidewalk a few moments later. She had dressed hastily, he could see, just thrown on the dress she had probably been wearing that afternoon, and her black hair was still loose about her shoulders. She looked like something otherworldly in the faint glow from the hotel lights. Joe felt his breath catch as she stepped out of the shadows.

"Joe, what are you doing here?"

It was a valid question. It dawned on him that she might not be too pleased at his sudden company, unannounced and in the middle of the night. He had come because he was afraid about the hints she had dropped concerning the state of her marriage, also because the feelings he still harbored after all these years would not be denied. But he had only his own interpretation of those bare hints to go on, and he had no reason to believe she might return those old feelings.

"I was worried about ya," he said.

She just smiled incredulously. The truth was, Janine Bonney Carmichael was completely stunned by his presence, was both captivated by and appalled at the risk he had taken, the risk to both of them, in coming. The gesture overwhelmed her. She never expected him to do such a thing, never believed that any man would, for her. She reached over and closed her hand about his arm. "We can't stay here, someone's bound to see us…"

Joe nodded. "Come on down the street a ways," he said. "There's a park down by the brewery. Won't be anybody there at night, like this."

The brewery park was at the far end of Pennington Street, only a few blocks from the hotel, down by the bull ring. There was a beer garden and pavilion there that were often a bustle of activity, but it was all quiet and deserted, now. Joe drew Janine back into the shadows where they would not be seen by anyone passing by on the street.

"Are you all right?"

"Yes. I'm fine," she insisted. But she knew what he was really asking. She should have remembered. One did not just drop idle hints to Joe Butler. Even when he pressed for them, even if those hints were true, not unless one wanted action. "I'm glad you came Joe, but this is crazy. It's dangerous. Do you have any idea what Owen would do to us?"

"He's hurtin' you, isn't he, Jeannie?"

She looked away. "Yes," she said simply, not sure what else to say to him at that point. "Owen hurts me. He beats me, if that's what your askin'."

"Why?"

Janine snorted. It was a harsh sound. "Why? I have no idea why. I've asked myself that question a thousand times, it seems like. Men like my husband don't need reasons, Joe. They just need some excuse, is all. And they get very good at making up excuses."

Her words made his shudder. "How long has it been goin' on?"

Janine shrugged. "Oh, for years, now. Since before Hal was born. I've gotten used to it."

"Nobody gets used to it," Joe insisted. "It ain't right. You can't stay with him, Jeannie." He hesitated. "Ya gotta let me help you."

"Oh, Joe," she smiled up at him with genuine affection. "There's nothing you can do." There were noises in the distance coming toward them, and she drew closer to him, pressing into the shadows. "There's nothing anyone can do. Don't you see?"

"No," he said. "I don't see."

"Joe, it's dangerous for you to even be near me, as long as Owen is still in town. You don't know the kind of man he is."

But Joe disagreed. "I know his type. I ain't leavin' you here to him, Jeannie."

His vehemence, and his certainty, frightened her. "Joe, please," she pleaded softly, reaching up and resting a hand on his chest. "Please. For my sake. Don't make any trouble."

Yet, despite her protest, and despite her very real fear, Janine Carmichael found the circumstances more than a little intoxicating. Joe was so close to her, now, that she would only have to shift her weight slightly to bring her mouth to his, and she remembered that first time he had kissed her, so many years ago. They had been so young, then, and life had seemed so simple. They were different people, now, no longer half-wild children oblivious to consequences, and yet, having him there, so solid and real, made her feel safe for the first time in more years than she could remember. Almost willing to abandon consequences, again, as she had been willing once before. And hopeful, she suddenly realized, that there might actually be a way out of this horror that had defined her life.

"Thank you for coming," she husked. "Joe. Thank you for caring."

She was standing so close that he could smell the faint musk of skin and perfume rising in the warm night air. The scent made him a little dizzy. He didn't know what to say to her, how to tell her that he did care, he had always cared, had never stopped caring once in ten years. That he was ready to risk anything for her. He didn't know how to say it so that she would understand and believe him. And then her lips parted slightly as she stood there looking up at him, lips full and moist and nearly black in the almost moonless night, and there was nothing for it but to kiss her, to pull her body, already so painfully close, against him and close his mouth down over hers. She went stiff with shock in his arms, but only for an instant, and then she yielded, relaxing against him, her lips parting under the pressure of his own. For one long, wild moment he was transported back ten years, to a time when their passion for each other had ruled every waking moment, when the only worry, the only obstacle, had been their fear of her father finding them out. It was Janine who broke the embrace.

"Joe, this is crazy."

He knew she was probably right. It didn't matter. He lifted her hair back with one hand, running his thumb over the bruise he could not see but knew must still be there, if only in fading outline. The simple truth was he still loved her. And he could not leave her in the clutches of this man any longer. Not now.

"I have to go," she sighed. "Owen can come back at any moment. He's been keeping very irregular hours lately." She leaned up, then, slipping her arms around his neck and kissing him, this time. "Joe, I don't want to go back, but I have to. Please understand that. Owen would kill us both if he saw us like this." She hesitated, as if considering something. "He's worried about his mine," she said finally, coming to some decision. "He thinks his partners, the men he hired to work the claim for him, are cheating him. He's going up there to check on them. Probably next week. I expect him to be gone for a while."

Joe just nodded. It wasn't exactly an invitation, not overtly. But for what other reason would she be telling him this? She wouldn't let him speak, though, lifting her mouth, again, to be kissed. This time it was a long while before they parted.

"Please take me back."

He wondered at the words, wondered if she had intended the double meaning. But he only nodded. He knew she was right about one thing, that a man like Carmichael would not hesitate at carnage if he found his wife in the arms of another man. And he also knew that it was much later than it should have been, if he was going to make it back to the Chaparral in time to join the herd in the morning. He was going to be late, and there would be hell to pay for it. That worry rang only distantly, though, still overshadowed by the soft feminine roundness leaning in his arms, strange, and yet utterly familiar. He would deal with his brother, and Big John Cannon if it came to that, when the time came. Right now, this woman was his only consideration. And she was right, he had to get her back to her hotel before he husband showed up.

"If that's what you want," he answered her softly. Then he put his arm around her shoulders and kissed her lightly on the top of the head. And led her back down the narrow street toward the Cosmopolitan. There would be other nights, he was beginning to feel certain.

One of the drawbacks to leaving the High Chaparral in a fit of righteous indignation, Buck Cannon concluded, was the fact that he had left without taking anything with him except his horse and his saddle and the clothes on his back. And of course, his mining claim and his poker winnings, which were still in his saddle bags. The change of clothes didn't worry him, particularly, he didn't bother too much with that, anyway. But he had hoped to borrow from the Chaparral storeroom some of his necessary equipment, like a couple of picks and shovels and one or two of Victoria's cooking pans. Little things that nobody on the Chaparral was likely to miss for a few weeks but would save him the necessity of having to spend his winnings on them. And he had also thought he might take some food along, too, maybe a ham out of the smoke house, and a couple of briskets. They had plenty in there, the smoke house was full to brimming, he'd have been doing his brother a favor cleaning out some of that stuff. Maybe some beans and some coffee. He hadn't stopped long enough to take any of those things, though, and he doubted, under the circumstances, that John would have let him, anyway. So he was just going to have to spend some of his own money. Such was the price of righteousness.

He hadn’t been particularly worried about it, though. He still had plenty of cash left from his poker game, and a miner's needs were few. It would be easy enough to pick up the things he wanted, maybe even buy himself a donkey to haul it all so he wouldn't have to pack in onto the back of his horse. Like a real prospector. But first to get his supplies.

"Eight dollars fo' a shovel! Four-fifty for a tin pan?? That ain't nothin' but robbery, plain and simple! You oughta be throwed in jail for chargin' prices like these!"

"That's what we're gettin' for this stuff these days, Buck," replied the proprietor of the Chaparral's favored general store. "And the rest of these supplies you're wantin', well, I'll warn you, they're gonna cost a pretty penny. But if you don't like these prices you can try someplace else. There're three more stores in town carry goods like these. But I assure you, you won't do any better than this. It's this gold fever. It's got the whole town crazy." He did not seem too heartbroken over the fact.

Buck chewed on that intelligence. His supplies were priced three or four times what they normally would be, three or four times what he had figured on paying. This was going to take a sizable bite out of his ready cash.

"So what you need this stuff for, anyway," the proprietor asked him, laughing. "You fixin' on headin' up to them Santa Ritas?"

"Yeah, I figgered I'd go up, try my hand," Buck replied grumpily. "I hear they's fortunes to be made. W'a's so funny about that?"

"Oh, nothin's funny, Buck. I just wondered why you didn't take most of this stuff from the High Chaparral, is all. Your brother must have more shovels out there than he knows what to do with. Coulda saved yourself some money."

Buck scowled. "Yeah, well, iffn I'da knowed you was gonna rob me blind, I woulda. But what Big John has is Big John's," he growled. "This here's my particular endeavor. But I'm surprised you ain't gone up to them diggin's, yourself. You's real good at highway robbery."

The proprietor was not offended. He merely laughed. "I'm making my fortune right where I am," he replied. "With the profit I make on these minin' supplies, I'll be able to retire, and that without leavin' the comforts of a roof over my head and a nice, soft mattress. And if you think these prices are bad, you should see what they're gettin' for this stuff up in the minin' camp."

"Yeah," Buck grumped as he handed over the money.

In spite of the fact that he had now spent a substantial piece of his grubstake, Buck was still buoyant, still confident that he would make back what he had spent and thousands more, besides. And in the mean time, he could spend a little time in town and see if he couldn't sweeten his pot o' ready a little with a couple of poker games. He had been willing to give Big John a week, no reason why he couldn't give that same week to himself.

He stayed in town for almost two. Buck did not do as well at poker as he had hoped; in fact, he had lost pretty much everything, except his mine, on the first day. Even after nearly two weeks he had only just replaced what he had lost. He was pretty broke, but on the other hand, he'd been broker. He still had his supplies and he still had his claim, but for all his hiatus in town had gotten him, he might as well have gone straight up to the mountains. He had just about decided to do exactly that when Charley Ryan and Jack O'Malley found him.

"Why howdy, boys!" Buck called as he settled down for some recreational drinking to celebrate his departure. "It's good to see you. Come on have a drink wit' me. Uncle Buck is buyin'."

"Hey, Buck…" they greeted him, closing around.

Buck picked up his bottle and led them to a table. "So what you boys doin' in town? I figgered you'd a got your grubstake, by now, and be up in them mountains findin' yer fortune."

"Well, Buck, to tell the truth," began O'Malley, "we just got back from the diggin's, we did have us a little claim staked. But it didn't turn into nothin'. We done run outa money and we wasn't makin' any more. So, we come back to town to see if could get us another grubstake."

The truth was, neither O'Malley nor Ryan were very good at thinking on their own. The small grubstake they had been able to put together had run out quickly, and the claim they had staked had turned out to be just a lot of wet dirt and dirty water. There is a certain type of man who needed guidance and supervision, a leader to manage him. Such men could be hard workers, and effective, but they did not have the personalities to function efficiently without direction. Such men were Charley Ryan and John O'Malley, and to their credit, they recognized this. They had not given up hope, though, that their fortunes lay up in the gold fields. But if they were going to get it, they were going to need someone to take them to it. And to Charley and Jack, Buck Cannon still looked like that man.

"But what about you, Buck?" O'Malley continued. "What about that claim you won? You figgerin' on workin' it?"

"I am, boys, jist as soon as I kin get my supplies loaded."

"That's a good claim you got."

"I believe it is," Buck agreed, "An' don't you boys go lookin' greedy, I got no intention o' sellin'."

"Oh we ain't lookin' to buy your claim, Buck," O'Malley assured him.

"Look, Buck," Ryan chimed in. "Why'n ya take us with you? We can he'p you work it.

Buck scowled. He had not planned on taking partners, the supplies he had would really only support one man. Nor had he planned on sharing whatever strike he made with anyone.

"But Buck," Ryan argued, when he said as much. "You know a claim works more efficient if you got more'n one man. An' I heard that Metzer say he been usin' a long tom up there. That takes two men, at least, an' three would be better."

He had a point. A "long tom" was a combination sluice and rocker, the invention of men who found panning for gold too slow and unproductive. With a hopper at one end to hold the dirt and a longish trough lined with ridges to sluice it down, it could process far more soil in a shorter period than hand panning. Set at an angle, the hopper could be filled with promising earth, and water, and as the wet dirt flowed down the trough, the heavier gold ore would sink to the bottom and get caught in the ridges, much the way placer gold was deposited in nature. It did require more than one man to work it, though. Metzer had mentioned the existence of such an apparatus, but Buck had not planned on using it.

"Yeah, well, Charley, I know ol' Melvin said they's a long tom up there, but I was figgerin' on just pannin', mysel'."

"Now, Buck, that would just be plumb wasteful. You know that sluice kin work more dirt than any three or four men pannin'. What if you missed somethin'?"

"Yeah, well, tha's true, Charley…" Buck hesitated.

"With us along to he'p you…"

"Why'n you boys jist go stake ya'own claim?"

But Buck was considering their offer, anyway, for a number of reasons. In the first place, what they said was quite true. Although the romantic illusion was of the lone prospector striking it big, such a singular enterprise was not very practical in actual fact. It was much more effective, and in many ways safer, for a man to have a couple of trusted partners to help with his claim. It certainly made the backbreaking work of placer mining go a little more smoothly, and it also meant that there would be extra hands and weapons available if there was any trouble from claim jumpers and the like. And there was often trouble.

Besides, it was just friendlier.

Buck Cannon was a gregarious soul, at heart. He liked having people around him, and lately he'd been feeling a little bit lonely. Separating himself from the High Chaparral had done more than just cut him off from a few free supplies, it had cut him off from his friends and family. It was beginning to hit home to him that he might never be able to go back, again. Big John had been awfully mad at him for leaving, and had sounded terribly, coldly serious when he had issued that final ultimatum. And even had he not been, Buck could not see himself crawling back and begging forgiveness when he was not in the wrong. He had his own life to lead, and it was high time Mr. High and Mighty recognized that fact. Still, a couple of partners might ease the loneliness as well as the work load, and might bring him to his fortune that much faster. At the very least it would give him somebody to talk to.

"I cain't afford to pay you boys nothin'. If you come along, it'll have to be fo' your grub an' a percentage o' anything we find. Say fifteen percent?"

"Each?" asked O'Malley hopefully.

"Between ya," Buck replied flatly.

They took it. Buck poured another round of whiskeys to seal the deal, while he ran some mental calculations around how much more he was going to have to spend to support two more mouths on his limited stock of supplies. What little cash he still had was rapidly disappearing. Deep down inside, though, he was not disappointed. They drank to their future success until the bartender finally threw them out, and then they took a bottle back to the rooms the other two men had rented. It wasn't until the wee hours of the morning that Buck Cannon finally headed back to his own.

It was an accident that he and Joe Butler crossed paths; the boarding house where Buck was staying was in a completely different street from the Cosmopolitan Hotel. And he was not even positive it was Joe when he saw him. The truth was, Buck had managed to get a little drunker than even he usually got, that evening, and he had somehow taken a wrong turn someplace. By the time he realized where he was, he was already well down Main Street. Because he had been thinking about the ranch, and about John Cannon's reaction when he came home rich as Midas, it was natural, when he saw the big blaze-faced sorrel horse standing in the middle of the street, and the blue-shirted man atop him, that his first thought had been Joe Butler. A second look, though, had him asking himself what the devil Joe Butler would be doing in town.

And in fact the encounter was an accident in more ways than one, for Joe had left Janine at the hotel some time earlier and had gone back to collect his horse from the livery stable. He had intended to leave immediately, since the stable was toward the south of town, and south was the direction he needed to be going. To go back to the hotel one last time was to go considerably out of his way, and he was already late leaving. He went back anyway, but only for a moment, only to look one last time at the mud brick and clapboard edifice and wonder if she was already sleeping. He reined his horse away just as Buck stopped in the shadows to stare at him.

Buck had not expected to see anyone from the High Chaparral, so it took him a moment to register who it might have been who looked so familiar. It was actually the horse he recognized first. By the time his alcohol fuzzed brain made the full connection, Joe had already cantered nearly out of sight.

"Hey! Joe! Joe Butler!"

But the man was out of ear shot. And Buck was beginning to think he might have been mistaken. After all, there were plenty of blazed face sorrels around. And plenty of men wore blue cambric. There was no reason to assume a Chaparral man had been sitting there in the middle of the street there. Buck was afraid to admit to himself how much he had wanted to see someone from the ranch. He didn't want to admit the depth of his fear that he had pushed his brother too far, this time, and that he really couldn't go home, again. It was easy to ignore that worry when the gold fever was upon him, but there in the darkened street, with his head swimming, those little fears became great. John Cannon was all the family he had, his own brother, his blood kin, he and Blue Boy. And there was Manolito, and Victoria. Even Sam and the boys. They were his family, and he could not imagine going through the rest of his life without them. Subconsciously, he supposed he had been hoping that John would send someone to collect him, to talk him into coming home, or come himself as he had done so many times in the past when Buck had left in anger. So it was natural enough, when he saw a red horse with a white face and a man who looked something like Joe Butler, that he would make that connection. But John would not have sent Joe into town. If he sent anyone, he would have sent Manolito, or Blue Boy. So he must have been mistaken, the man must have been somebody else. Joe Butler had no reason to be there.

Buck staggered a little against the door post of the nearest store and struggled to get his bearings. It didn't matter that the man was no one he knew, that nobody from the High Chaparral had come looking for him. He was going to strike it rich up in those placers, and then they would all see. That would show them, it would show his big brother that he, too, was a force to be reckoned with. Then it would be Big John coming to him, for a change. Buck squared his shoulders. His head had cleared a little, he knew where he was. He took a left off Main Street and went to find his own bed.

For his part, Joe Butler never even saw him.

III

Sam was more worried than angry when he first woke up and noticed that his brother was missing. Or at any rate, that Joe wasn't in his bunk. He didn't start to get angry until he checked outside and found that Joe's horse was also missing. Still, he held out some vague hope that Joe might have gotten restless and joined the men on night herd, that he would be out there waiting for them when they rode out to begin the long day of moving the cattle to fresh water and grass. That hope was dashed as soon as he rode into the camp and met Manolito.

"Where's your brother?" the other man asked, counting heads quickly.

Sam knew then that Joe had not joined the night herd. That's when he started to get really mad. The only saving grace was the fact that John Cannon had not yet joined them; he would be riding out a little later in the morning. So Cannon did not know that Joe was missing, though it wouldn't take long until everybody else did. But provided his brother returned from Tucson within the next hour, and Sam could not imagine where else he might be, Cannon might never have to know that the younger Butler was not where he was supposed to be. One thing was dead certain, though, this had to stop. He was going to have to lay it out for his brother, once and for all.

"Aye, this is not good, hombre," Manolito sighed, when Sam told the other man his suspicions.

"Yeah, tell me about it," Sam growled. "He gets back here, I'm gonna have such a piece o' his hide…" His only hope, now, was that Joe would have the presence of mind to come straight out to the herd, and not go back to the ranch first. He knew where they were going to be, after all. And it was the only possible way he might miss John Cannon.

"It is that woman?" Manolito prodded sympathetically.

"I expect so," Sam replied. "I just hope he gets out here before Big John does."

Manolito considered this. "Are you sure he will be coming back, amigo?" he asked gently. Joe's behavior was so uncharacteristic that even Manolito was beginning to think this was not just the average woman trouble here.

But the idea that his brother might leave permanently, without warning, without even saying goodbye, was not something Sam Butler wanted to contemplate.

"He'd better," he said. "All right. Let's get these cows movin'. We got a lot o' ground to cover before quittin' time."

Because of the shortage of hands, John Cannon had ordered the herds consolidated. Such a move meant that they could technically tend more animals with fewer men, since they were no longer spread out on several ranges. However, the larger herds more quickly exhausted the already heavily grazed vegas, and they needed to be moved to fresh grass and water. And moving a large herd short handed could be very tricky. It didn't help any, either, that the animals were feeling especially frisky on that particular morning. It wasn't long before Sam Butler had his hands too full to worry about his brother's whereabouts.

But at least one of Sam's hopes materialized; Joe had his wits enough about him to ride straight out to the herd, not bothering to stop at the ranch first. It meant he would arrive with no breakfast as well as no sleep, but, if he was lucky, he might get away with nothing more serious than a chewing out before he was set to work. He didn't kid himself that the atmosphere would be pleasant, or that he would be readily forgiven. But he might be able to avoid getting himself fired, if he was lucky, and nobody but Sam had questioned his absence.

He wasn't quite that lucky. About the time Joe caught sight of the herd in the distance, John Cannon had rounded the bend in the road coming from the ranch and saw the man ahead of him, cutting straight across the desert. Joe was riding hard, and since Cannon had just come from the ranch, himself, he knew that Joe could not have; he would have seen him leaving. Nor had Cannon seen the man ride out with the rest of the drovers, earlier that morning. Moreover, the road Joe was on was not the one from the High Chaparral. It was the road from Tucson. So unless Sam had sent him out on some early errand, which was possible, he supposed, but unlikely from that direction, Joe Butler had spent the night someplace other than the High Chaparral, and he was very damned late returning. Cannon glanced over at his son, riding beside him.

"Ain't that Joe?" the boy asked, curious, but not yet seeing anything out of the ordinary.

"Yup," replied John tersely. He kicked his horse.

Sam saw Joe before anyone else with the herd did. "Mano, take over here," he told his friend, gesturing toward Joe's approaching figure. "I'll be back." Montoya just nodded.

"Where the hell have you been!" Sam bellowed as he galloped up to his brother. The two men drew rein face to face. Sam looked more angry that even Joe had expected.

"Now, look Sam, I…"

"No, you look, pal. You look and you listen good." Sam glanced around wildly. He had no particular interest in being overheard, or otherwise observed, by a bunch of curious cowhands. Whatever public action he might be forced to take, he had a few thousand things he wanted to say to his brother first, in private. "C'mere!"

"Sam…" Joe trotted after him toward a small stand of trees beside a little pool of water. Under other circumstances, he might have found the setting pretty. But these weren't other circumstances. He swung down from the saddle and faced his furious older brother.

"Sam…"

"Save it," snapped Sam. "You just shut up and listen. What the hell do you think you're doing, Joe? You went to Tucson last night, didn’t you?"

Joe pulled up smartly under his brother's assault. "Yeah, I went to Tucson. And I'm sorry I'm late."

"Well, that ain't good enough. This has gone far enough, Joe. Too far. You're riskin' both our jobs and for what? Some woman who threw you over ten years ago. You're just damn lucky Big John ain't up here with the herd, yet."

"I never asked you to cover for me," Joe answered hotly, his contrition replaced by his own anger, now. Whatever he decided to do about Janine Bonney, that was his affair as far as he could see. His brother could order him off the ranch if he wanted to, but he had no business passing judgment. "If you wanna fire me, do it."

Sam glared at him. "You're just throwin' it all away. Everything we've got here. Do you want to go back to the life we had before Big John hired us on here? Runnin' with some bunch like old man Keough's, livin' any way we can? That life was hell, Joe, and you know it. And she ain't worth it."

"That ain't none o' your business."

"Joe, Janine Bonney walked out on you a long time ago! She used you up and then she married somebody else she thought was worth more money. Anybody coulda seen what was happenin', and if you weren't so jack-ass stubborn, you'da seen it yourself!" he shouted. "She's in trouble now, so she's lookin' for you to help her, but she won't stick, I'm tellin' ya."

"It ain't like that at all," Joe yelled back at him. "You don't know a thing about it! I went to her! She never asked me! You never did understand how it was between her and me. You never would accept it."

"You get involved, you're just gonna get chewed up and spit out, all over again. I know her kind, Joe, she'll leave you as soon as somethin' better comes along, just like before."

"Yeah, well guess you oughta know all about that! You're such an expert on women stayin'!"

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Joe wished he could retract them. But he was hurting, and he was so very tired. And, for the split second it took to speak, the only thing he wanted was to hurt somebody back, again, just as badly. His mouth did the cruelest thing it knew how. And as soon as it was done, he turned away, ashamed.

Sam went pale, first with shock and then with blind rage. He reached out, grabbing the back of Joe's shirt. "You son-of-a-bitch," he hissed through clenched teeth.

But Joe turned around swinging, and got in the first punch. Their horses scattered as Sam reeled backwards from the blow. It probably saved Joe a broken skull, but he only got a moment's advantage as Sam found his balance and came after him, again. He hit his brother so hard that Joe almost lost consciousness for an instant. It might have been better if he had. He staggered, then shook his head and found his footing. And plowed back into Sam.

It might not have mattered to them even if they had known it, so consumed were they by their anger and hurt feelings, but the brothers had an unexpected audience. Big John Cannon drew rein on the top of the rise and looked down to where his two top hands were brawling in the dust below. Blue came to a stop beside him.

"That's… that's Sam and Joe!" the boy sputtered, kicking his horse to ride down to stop them. But John reached out and caught the palomino's rein.

"Let 'em be, boy," he said quietly.

"But…"

"I said, leave 'em," John reiterated. "There's been somethin' brewin' between those two for some time, now. I'm not sure what it's all about, but whatever it is, it's somethin' they have to work out for themselves. And we need to let 'em."

"Like that?" Blue pointed to the two men struggling in the dirt. John nodded.

"If it's come to that, yes," he said. He watched as the Butlers continued to pummel each other, and sighed. He supposed he really ought to ride down there and stop this, find out where the hell Joe had been and what the hell he thought he was doing. But the truth was, Big John really hoped this would finish it, and that, whatever the problem was, the air would clear, now, and things would get back to normal. He so desperately needed them to get back to normal. "Whatever this is all about, Blue," he tried to explain, "I suspect it has something to do with wherever it was Joe spent the night, and why he turned up so late this morning. I also suspect Sam may be feeling a little helpless about his ability to effect whatever sort of mess Joe's gotten himself into. And maybe Joe's feeling a little edgy about it, too. This may be the only way they can work through that."

Blue wasn't buying it. "But Sam and Joe, they're brothers, Pa," he protested, "They shouldn't oughta… there's got to be another way…" He struggled, unable to express the way he felt about that relationship, what it meant to him who had never experienced it first hand. But Cannon understood.

"Yes, they're brothers, boy," he said. "And when one brother is in trouble, well, it causes a lot of pain for both of them. But it's not always easy to know what to do. How to give help, or ask for it. Sometimes, Blue… sometimes the love between brothers runs so deep that the only way they can get at it is to beat the daylights out of each other. Especially when one brother is bent on some course that the other feels is gonna get him a lot of hurt, somehow. I know it may not make much sense, but that's the truth of it."

"Like you and Uncle Buck," said Blue. Cannon looked at his son in surprise at his insight.

"Well," he drawled, "it's been some time since your Uncle Buck and I have come to that." Actually, the Cannon brothers had never really come the point of an all out slugfest, no matter how angry they ever got at one another. John Cannon had never let things go that far. Not that he hadn't ever been sorely tempted. And not that Buck hadn't taken his share of shots, trying to provoke a physical fight. But John had always turned away from it, never let himself indulge his brother's desire for physical solutions to emotional problems. He had always held that reason was the only proper course for settling such differences and that, as the elder, it was his place to enforce that, relying on words, which, after all, were his forte, in the hopes that Buck would eventually come around. He wondered, now, as he watched the Butlers struggling in the dirt before him, if he had been absolutely right in that assumption. If perhaps his attitude might not have been a little condescending, a little unfair. At least down there in the dust men were equals. There was a certain implied respect. The thought troubled him greatly. "Could be we're due," he sighed. "Come on," he said as he reined his horse away. "They'll finish this up pretty soon, I expect. And I don't imagine they'll do each other any permanent damage."

Blue shot the brothers one last look, then gave in followed his father.

The fight had pretty much wound itself out, anyway. Both the Butlers were powerful men, it did not take them long to subdue each other, or their anger. Sam dealt Joe one final blow, and the younger man, already exhausted by his night's activities, fell to the ground. Sam swayed for a moment, then sank to his knees, bending over and hugging his middle, retching. When he straightened up again, he probed his jaw gingerly.

"Lord, Joe. You really meant that."

Joe lay on his back in the dust. "I meant one or two of 'em," he admitted hoarsely. His ears were ringing and he felt sick to his stomach. He considered the possibility that he might not ever want to move from under that tree. "You meant it, too," he continued, watching the breeze flipping leaves above his head.

"I meant that first punch," Sam agreed, sitting back in the dirt. "That was a hard thing you said, brother."

Joe nodded slowly. "I know it. I'm sorry, Sam. I shouldn't have said it. It was… I… I'm sorry."

There was so much remorse in his voice that any last vestiges of anger Sam may have harbored evaporated. "Yeah, I'm sorry, too," he said softly. "You all right?"

Joe took a shaky breath and rolled onto his side. "Yeah," he replied, sitting up slowly. He held his head for a moment. "I think so. You?"

"Yeah," Sam said. "I think so." He got up and walked over to where Joe was sitting. "Hell, Joe, I don't think we've fought like that since we were kids." The younger man looked up, and Sam dropped a hand down to him. Joe grabbed his arm, and let his brother pull him to his feet. Then he swayed violently, and Sam grabbed him with both hands to steady him.

"Have you had any sleep at all?"

Joe shook his head. Sam frowned and let him go, as much to see if he could stand on his own as for any other reason.

"All right," he sighed. "You go on back to the ranch." He held up a hand to ward off Joe's protest. "Now don't you be givin' me a hard time. You're in no condition to work, and that herd is pretty feisty. If we have trouble with them, you'll probably just get yourself killed, and maybe the rest of us into the bargain, the shape you’re in." His voice was kind though, and there was no rebuke in it, now. "Go on home and get some sleep. I'll think of somethin' to tell Big John."

Joe nodded. "What about your face?"

Sam cracked a grin. "I'll think o' somethin' to tell him about that, too," he replied. "You okay to ride?"

"Yeah," said Joe. He didn't move, though. "I ain't gonna quit this, Sam," he said honestly. "I won't let it interfere with the job again, this is the last time I put you in this position. I promise you that, at least. But I ain't givin' up. I can't." He looked away, unable to meet his brother's eyes. "I've got some time comin', once we finish movin' the herd. I expect I'll be goin' into town. Owen Carmichael'll be up at the mines by then. I gotta go to her. I gotta know." He turned back, then, his expression tortured, but determined. "It's just somethin' I gotta do, Sam."

But his brother only nodded. "Yeah. I reckon you do." He sighed and then looked around. "Where'd them horses get to?" he demanded. "And where's my hat?"

THE STRINGS OF THE HEART

I

One of the particular attractions about the claim that Buck had won from Melvin Metzer, besides its rumored richness, of course, was the existence of a fully equipped cabin on the site complete with an iron cook stove. Or at any rate, that was one of the selling points Metzer had emphasized when he still thought Buck might actually pay him cash money for it. Since many claims on the placers, Buck knew from past experience, offered nothing but rock slope to sleep on, or at best a cleared and leveled tent site, the promise of a roof and a cook stove were very welcome, particularly to a man who had just been banished from his own home. Since he expected to spend some considerable time there if the claim proved as rich as he had been led to believe, Buck was especially glad of the accommodations.

He was even more glad, in anticipation, as he and his partners neared the camp. The trip up had been arduous. Though no extraordinary distance by line of sight, the small town that had sprung up around the placers was on the opposite slope from Tucson, which meant a tough climb up and then down the other side for the overburdened horses, and the single burro that Jack O'Malley had managed to borrow from someone. The trip took them two days and a night and a good piece of the second evening under one of the hottest suns Arizona had to offer. It occurred to Buck, as they rounded the last bend in the road down the far side of the mountain, that he could have made the trip in half the time if he had been able to come directly from the High Chaparral, even at that snail's pace. The camp was some miles south of his brother's ranch, but much closer than it was to Tucson. On a galloping horse, he probably could have made it in a couple of hours, even with the climb. He knew a few short cuts across the desert, he wouldn't have been tied to the road. All the good that did him, now.

It was dark by the time they finally reached Buck's claim. He had elected not to stop in the town, first, such as it was. It was more of a tent city than anything that usually passed under that definition, but Buck did not bypass it out of any sense of superiority. On the contrary, he knew that mining towns, even the most primitive and lowly, offered many of the diversions he appreciated most, namely whiskey, women and cards. And he was sure his "partners" felt the same way, so sure, in fact, that he resolved to avoid temptation at least until they'd gotten their gear stowed and had a good look at the effort before them. The others weren't quite so happy with this plan.

"C'mon Buck, we're thirsty," Ryan protested when Buck gave them the news.

"Have a drink o' water, we done brought plenny," Buck replied unsympathetically. "You boys gotta get one thing straight right from the beginnin'. You are here to work. Now I like drinkin' and card playin' well as the next man, you know that. But we got us a job to do, here, iffn we gonna make our fortunes, and all that socializin' comes afterwards. That gold ain't gonna just jump outta that crick bed by its ownself, you know. I trust we unnerstan' one another?"

"Hell, Buck, you sound jist like Big John," O'Malley grumbled.

The statement shocked him. But not as much as did the "cabin" when they finally drew close enough to make it out in the dark.

"What in tarnation? Why we got line shacks on the Chaparral look more invitin' then that! An' in a sight better condition… this damn thing's about ready to fall down. Lord Almighty, will you look at that."

It was hard to know if Buck was getting ready to laugh or cry. The cabin was a sorry sight, no question about it. It was little more than a lean-to, one room and the roof sagging badly. Buck walked up to it warily. The door was off its hinges, so he pushed it aside, and stepped into the darkened doorway.

"Charley, light one o' them lanterns and bring it here," he said. Ryan did as he was asked. Buck lifted the light high, and shined it around the single room. The walls were raw planks, gappy and half rotted, with the wall joists showing bare. There was a table, but no chairs, and a broken bedstead. A rag was nailed over the single window, but it was torn, and Buck could see from the flapping tatters that there was no glass behind it.

"What a dump!" said O'Malley, looking past Buck's shoulder.

"Jack-boy, you sure right about that," Buck agreed. "Wheeooo, and it stinks! Smells like some kinda animal's been livin' in here."

No sooner were the words out of his mouth when a low, threatening noise startled them from the still dark farther corner. The men backed out quickly.

"I ain't sleepin' in there," said Ryan as he stumbled into the dirt door yard.

"Yeah." Buck handed the lantern to Ryan and drew his revolver. "Whatta you boys think that be?"

"Cougar mebbe?" O'Malley ventured.

"Sounds more like a bear," Ryan said.

"Might be a cougar," mused Buck. "Don't smell like no cougar, though. Ain't no bear 'round here, that I know of."

Their speculation was cut short by a burst of harsh laughter. O'Malley stepped backwards, bumping hard against Buck.

"What the hell…? Ain't no animal I ever heard makes a sound like that…"

"'Cept one," countered Buck. "Hey. You in there. Come on out now. We ain't gonna hurt you. Whatchu doin' in there?"

"You mean it's a person?" asked Ryan, incredulously. Buck just nodded.

"Come on out, whoever you be…"

The creature, when it stepped into the light the lantern cast, might have been a bear, despite Buck's assurances to the contrary. It was something over six feet in height, huge in girth and hairy. Its eyes were very blue, however, almost startlingly so, and it wore the tattered rags of what might have once been a suit of clothing. It looked at Buck and grinned.

"It is a man," said Ryan.

"It might be some kind o' man," Buck agreed. "I giss it be human. Howdy, amigo. You gotta name?"

The creature just looked at him.

"You come on outta that cabin," Buck said. "You don't belong in there. This here be my claim, and my cabin, so you jist mosey on out to wherever it is you belong."

The creature laughed, but made no move to leave.

"Whatcha gonna do, Buck," asked O'Malley. "He's too damn big to shift by force, and he doan seem ta wanna leave by hisself. You can't shoot him…"

"Don't be too sure o' that," Buck grumbled. He waved the revolver. "Come on. Git, scram… You doan belong here…"

"Don't mind ol' Eights," a voice said behind them. Buck spun around, his revolver high. A second stranger stood in the circle of pale light. This one was somewhat cleaner and slightly better dressed, but he was equally as huge as their friend in the cabin doorway.

"Damnation, man," Buck cursed. "Doan be sneakin' up on a fella like that. I near shot you."

From the doorway, the man the other had referred to as "Eights" howled.

"S'all right, Eights, you jist calm down now," the stranger said. "Name's Farquarson, Elisha Farquarson," he continued to Buck, extending his hand. "Folks call me Lish. I run the general store 'round here. Saw you gents comin' up the road and I figgered you might find this little reception committee. Y'all have business in these parts?"

"As a matter o' fact…" Buck replied, "we do. Iffn that's any o' your business."

Farquarson eyed the revolver still high in Buck's hand. "Now, no need to git riled. We jist like to keep on eye on things round here. Just bein' neighborly and all. Min' if I ask you why you tryin' to shift ol' Eights, there?"

"This here's my claim," said Buck. "An' I ain't aimin' to take on no boarders."

Farquarson grinned. "You buy this claim from Metzer?" he asked, the amusement clear in his voice. Buck scowled.

"I won it from him," he replied, "in a poker game."

Farquarson chuckled. "Well tha's all right, then." Still standing in the cabin doorway, Eights howled, again. "'S'all right, I tol' ya. Jist calm down."

"What's wrong wit' him?" Buck asked. "An' how come you call him 'Eights'?"

"Everyone calls him that. Crazy Eights, like the kids' game. On account o' he's mad as a hatter. Doc says it's from too many years o' usin' mercury in his pan to gather his gold dust. I don't know nuthin' about that. Truth is, Eights weren't never too powerful in the mind. All's I know is he got the palsy real bad, and he don't remember so good. An' he kin git kinda ornery, so you all might wanta be a little bit careful. But mostly he's no trouble."

"What's he doin' here?"

"He lives here," said Farquarson. "Least ways, he used to. Still thinks he does, sometimes. He built this cabin, some time back."

The statement set Buck back a little. Metzer had told him that he, himself, had staked this claim and built this cabin.

"Nothin' to that," said Farquarson when Buck told him as much. "I sold this claim to Metzer myself when Eights here got too addled to mess with it. 'S'a good claim though," he added as an afterthought, not wanting to discourage them. "There's gold here. Jist bad luck."

"Lish," said Eights from the doorway, as if he had suddenly recognized the other man. "Howdy Lish!" He sounded delighted.

"Tha's right, it's me, Lish. Come on outta there."

The giant descended from the doorway. Now that they could see him better in the lantern light, Buck could see the palsy Farquarson had spoken of. The man's hands and shoulders shook spasmodically.

"He won't hurt nothin'. Not on purpose, anyway. Jist doan startle him. Eights, say howdy to Mr…."

"Cannon," said Buck. "Buck Cannon. An' this here's Charley Ryan, and Jack O'Malley."

"Howdy," said Eights.

"Please to meet ya," said Farquarson. "Go on now, Eights, git on back to the store. I'll be along presently." He watched the other man amble away. "Poor ol' sot. He's always been dumb as a bag o' rocks, but it don't seem fair that a man has to be stupid and loco. Tha's jist too much affliction for one body."

"He a friend o' yours?" asked Buck, realizing, now, that the other was more pathetic that truly dangerous. "You seem mighty solicitous of him."

"You might say so," replied Farquarson with a sigh. "He's my brother. Truth is, I feel some guilty where Eights is concerned. We was partners, you know, years back. But I got tired o' prospectin', wanted to branch out on my own. So I went an' started my store, and left him to his own resources. Iffn I'da stayed with him, he'ped him, he might not o' gotten so much affliction." The man took a deep breath. "He might come around some, but he won't hurt you none. Just send him back to Lish's, he'll go on likely enough."

"Hey, Buck!" It was O'Malley, who, bored with the conversation, had gone exploring. "Whatdaya suppose this is?" He tipped something away from the wall of the cabin. It looked like a narrow feed trough about eight feet long and half rotted out. A piece of it broke loose in O'Malley's hand and he had to jump to keep it from falling. He leaned it back against the wall, again.

"Yeah, Eights used that long tom for a while," Farquarson said. "But he preferred pannin'. Never could get the hang o' usin' it. Never could keep a partner, after I left him, neither."

Buck didn't bother to tell the man that Metzer had assured him all the equipment on the claim was in good condition. And he didn't even ask about the phantom cook stove. But Farquarson seemed to guess, anyway.

"I hope you weren't fixin' to use that…" he said. "But if you're needin' any equipment, I got everythin' you might want. I assay your gold, too, down to the store."

"So you don't do no prospectin'?"

"Like I said, I got bored with it. Wanted to do somethin' different. I'm perfectly happy to let you boys grub in the dirt, I git my fair share."

Buck thought for a moment. "Wall, I done brung most everythin' we gonna need," he said. "But mebbe I would like another pan, since they's three o' us and I only brought two wit' me."

"Got some of the finest," Farquarson said, "Good tempered steel pans with wire reinforced rims, specially designed with the prospector in mind. Twelve dollars each."

"Twelve dollars!" Buck exploded. That was three times what he had paid in Tucson, and that had been highway robbery. "Why I could buy a whole set o' cook pots for twelve dollars and a satchel to carry 'em in!"

Farquarson only laughed. "Not up here you couldn't. Up here, a cook pot'll cost you twenty."

Buck calculated quickly. Twelve dollars was almost what he drew in a month and a half, when Big John could afford to pay him. And it would take a sizable bite out of what was left of his grubstake. He didn't even want to ask the price of a pick or a shovel.

"Then, I giss we'll just make do with what we brung with us," he said. "Thank you very much, all the same."

"Suit yourself," Farquarson replied with a good-humored shrug. "Now, I gotta be gettin' back to my store, but you all kin find me easy enough if you need anythin'. Everyone knows where Lish's is."

Buck watched the man walk away down the same path is addled brother had taken. Once Farquarson had disappeared, he turned to the others.

"Awright, let's git this gear unloaded and stowed in the cabin."

"I ain't sleepin' in there," Ryan protested. "I done tol' you already."

"Ain't none o' us sleepin' in there. Leastways, not until we git it aired out some. But it still be the safest place fo' the supplies. So let's git to it. I wanna get unpacked so we kin git us some supper, and then some shut-eye. We got a long day tomorra."

"Ain't we goin' to town?"

"Not tonight," was all Buck would say. He didn't even want to contemplate how much they might be charging, up there, for a drink of whiskey. For a moment, both Ryan and O'Malley looked like they might rebel. But Buck's cohorts were followers, not leaders, and they were still afraid that Buck might cut them loose without the possibility of their fifteen percent of his yet to be discovered gold. Grumbling, but otherwise acquiescent, they did as they were told. Buck built a cook fire and tried not to think about what it was he had gotten himself into.

Neither Metzer nor Farquarson had lied to them, though, there really was gold on the claim. They struck pay-dirt a few days, later. Panning gold was a singular occupation. Once a promising spot was located, the prospector created for himself a small pool to one side of his stream, where the water would lie quiet, but still be refreshed by the running creek. He then filled his pan with dirt and gravel from his chosen location, and immersed it in the pool, swirling the contents with a finger to break up the big clumps and dissolve them. The pan was tipped to drain off the muddy water and let in fresh, washing away the lightest sand and debris. Large stones were then picked off. Then the pan, still under water, was turned vigorously, and tipped from side to side, to allow the gold to settle to the bottom. Once the prospector was satisfied with that, he lifted the heavy pan full of wet dirt and water out of the pool, and tipped it to allow the contents to drain away, all the while tapping the bottom to settle whatever gold there might be. The process continued until only the heaviest sand, and still heavier gold particles were left in the crease between the side of the pan and the bottom. Then, because of the difficulty in further washing away the last sand without risking loosing the gold with it, the final contents were dried in the sun, and the sand blown away, leaving only what gold there might be. A prospector putting in a full day on a good claim might average about three cents a pan, or six dollars a day, washing a ton to a ton and a half of earth to do it. It was painstaking and back-breaking work crouched for hours over a pool of ice cold water. On the other hand, the impetus to do so was great.

Lish Farquarson's crazy brother had become something of a fixture on the claim, after the first day or so, wandering up to his old haunts to watch the activity. After the first time or two trying to shoo him away, Buck gave up and let him hang around. He was harmless enough, remembered enough about panning not to get in the way or do any damage, and was even willing enough to help out with some of the heavier or more unpleasant chores. Though certainly no wit, the man was capable of basic conversation, and although he needed watching, he could take direction. It wasn't long before Buck put him to work, and not long before he began to develop an genuine affection for the poor soul. Farquarson had warned that his brother could be aggressive, but Buck had seen no sign outside of the occasional burst of frustrated temper; certainly nothing more violent than he, himself, might express. In his own way, old Crazy Eights wasn't half bad company.

Since he was loath to spend twelve dollars on a third pan, Buck put Ryan to work cleaning out and organizing the cabin, and to seeing what he might find on hand to mend the long tom, while he and O'Malley set to work with the pans. Buck was no stranger to hard work, and driving cattle was no job for a weakling. But hours squatting hunched over on the ground was still vastly different from hours spent sitting upright in a saddle. For all that the latter was bone jarring and wearying, the near fetal position of panning had every muscle in Buck's arms and shoulders screaming for relief and it wasn't too long before his back started to tell him that this wasn't the smartest idea he'd ever had. The discomfort drove him to frequent breaks, which he used to help Ryan. So, when the moment finally arrived, it was O'Malley who actually struck gold. The man was so excited he couldn't even scream properly. He just sat down in the dirt and pointed at his pan, gasping.

"What chu got, Jack-o?" Buck asked, rushing up to the man. "What chu find there?"

"Go, go, go…" O'Malley babbled, holding out the pan. Beneath the layer of cloudy water Buck could see the bright yellow twinkle.

"Now, calm down," Buck said cautiously. He took the pan, and fished out the largest of the pieces, one somewhat smaller than the tip of his little finger. He rolled it carefully between his thumb and his forefinger, then put it in his mouth and bit down. The soft material gave under his teeth.

"Don't swallow it," breathed O'Malley. Buck picked the tiny nugget off his tongue.

"It's gold," he pronounced. And then he hooted. "Eureka!! Jack-boy, you done it! You done found gold!!" The men howled and Ryan danced a jig on the hillside. Eights grabbed Buck in both arms and swung him around in a circle, laughing wildly.

"Eights, now put me down! Now, you boys settle down, Jack-o, git up outta that water. We don't wanta be kickin' away one bit o' this color." Buck picked out the nuggets he could see and put them into a small leather pouch he was carrying, then poured the contents of the pan onto a flat rock to dry. "Charley, take this here pan, let Jack rest a bit. Now, be careful boys, and look lively. We are on our ways to makin' our fortunes!"

"It's gold, Buck!" Eights giggled.

"That's right, Eights, it's gold! We done struck it rich!"

"This's a good claim…"

Buck smiled at the addled man, wondering how much he remembered about working that claim himself, how he might be feeling, now, watching other men get rich on what had once been his property. But Eights was only grinning at him happily.

"Yeah, it is, son. It be a real good claim," said Buck, clapping him on the back.

They continued diligently until it was too dark to see, and although no one else panned up nuggets the size of O'Malley's first find, they gathered enough bits of dust to make a small but noticeable bulge in the bottom of Buck's pouch.

"You boys done pretty well," Farquarson told them later that evening when they took their find to him to be weighed. "Almost seventeen dollars. Sixteen dollars and eighty-five cents to be exact."

Buck was disappointed. He had been hoping for more.

"No, you done a little better than average," Farquarson told him. "We only gettin' twelve dollars an ounce for placer gold, and you got a little bit less than an ounce and a half here. Not too bad."

"It's gold, Lish!" said Eights, hanging on Buck's shoulder. Farquarson smiled at his brother.

"It sure is, Eights. Always said there was gold up there…"

It wasn't a fortune, but for somebody who only made eight dollars a month, when he got paid at all, sixteen dollars in one day was still a lot of money, and Buck wasn't about to complain. Even subtracting Ryan and O'Malley's dollar and twenty six cents each still left him fourteen dollars and change; almost two months wages. In a month he would be… well, not rich, maybe, but certainly better off that he ever had been. In a year… but Buck stopped trying to calculate.

"Doan you worry none, boys," he assured his even more disappointed partners. "There's plenny more where that came from. Mr. Farquarson, I think mebbe I'll take one o' them twelve dolla pans o' yours," Buck said. After all, if they could make sixteen dollars a day with two men panning, how much more could they make with three? It depleted most of his part of the first day's take, but it was well worth the investment, in his mind. They had already discovered the long tom too rotted out to repair, and it would take at least seventy-five dollars to replace it. There were none to be had on the mountain at that moment and Buck would have to ship one in, or go get it, himself, in Tubac, if he wanted to increase his production that much. He was not in a position to do so, at that moment, but he could see the day coming when he would. And in the mean time, he figured he could afford another twelve dollar all steal miners pan with the wire reinforced rim. "An' do you think you might direct me toward the nearest saloon? We got us some celebratin' to do!"

Farquarson laughed. "Well, we got us a number o' those, but I would personally recommend Gold Pan's"

"Good enough! So where might this Gold Pan place be at?"

"Oh, Gold Pan's not a place, exactly, Mr. Cannon, she's a person," Farquarson corrected him with a chuckle. "Ol' Goldie kinda looks after the 'ladies' 'round here, if you take my meanin'. They call her Gold Pan cuz so many of the gents here a-mined her." He cackled obscenely. "She runs a saloon and chop house down the street. You can't miss it."

Buck wasn't offended. "She sounds like my kinda gal. Come on, boys," he called to his partners. "Let go! We off to Gold Pan's."

Like most of the other establishments in town, Gold Pan's restaurant and saloon was little more than a tent-walled structure with a plank roof and false front, and a hand painted sign over the door that said "Restaurant" to the left and "Saloon" to the right. In fact, its wooden appointments made it one of the more luxurious; most of the town was nothing but canvas. Buck led his cohorts into the side labeled "saloon." It was packed to the seams inside; to Buck a good sign. He could see card games going, and hear prospectors and would be prospectors boasting and haggling. He could even hear the tinny racket of a cheap piano. At the far side he saw a blonde woman rather past her prime in bright red silk and black beads who he took to be the proprietress herself; other girls wandered amongst the crowd. Buck took a deep breath, and sauntered into the crowd.

By the end of his evening, Buck was happily sated, and both Ryan and O'Malley had disappeared with a couple of Gold Pan's girls - on credit for the next days take, Buck assumed, since neither one had a cent besides their seven and a half percent of sixteen eighty five. And most of the money Buck had with him was also gone, gold strike and grubstake, but for once he wasn't worried. There was plenty more where that came from. By the end of the next day he would have another sixteen dollars, or maybe even more, with three men panning. Life was finally looking up for him. If he had any disappointment at all, it was only that he had no one with whom to share his good fortune. No one who mattered anyway. Like Sam or Mano. Or Blue. Or even his brother. Although it bothered him to admit it, as he stood belly to the bar amid a sea of strangers, he found himself missing them all badly. But no matter, he pushed it out of his mind. He had his new friends and partners, and he was going to make a lot of money. A lot of money.

"Good news, John," Manolito Montoya said, swinging down from his horse in front of the ranch house hitching post. "Your contracts were all signed and ready." He smiled warmly at his brother-in-law, hoping the announcement might cheer him. The man so desperately needed cheering up. He pulled the leather document pouch out of his saddle bag and handed it over. "I brought your copies back."

John took the pouch with gratitude. "Thank you, Mano," he sighed. "It's a relief to have this finally settled, at least."

In spite of his personal enjoyment of Fort Bowie's young procurement officer, Cannon had not been at all secure about the final outcome of their negotiations. Although he knew that Lawrence was not the final word, his recommendation would carry a lot of weight with the camp's commander. And he knew that the Lawrence had been concerned about the ranch hand situation, and Cannon's ability to meet the proposed contract. He also knew the Lawrence, for all his inexperience, possessed a very well developed ability to separate business from pleasure. Had John been unsuccessful in assuring him that the labor shortage was well under control, he would not have had the man's blessing, despite his personal feelings. It was a quality Cannon admired and respected; it was also one he had worried about. Apparently though, even in spite of his own misgivings he had made a convincing case, for here was his signed contract, and for a much larger herd than he had ever delivered to the army before, Fort Bowie having been recently designated to act for all four Eastern Arizona posts: Apache, Thomas, Grant, and itself. Fifteen hundred head at eighteen dollars a head, to be delivered in three months time. A gross profit of twenty seven thousand dollars; even after expenses, a goodly net. And for once, according to Sam's tallies, he would actually have the beef on the hoof on his own range, there would be no last minute scramble to make up the numbers, no hunt to find a few more strays, no negotiating with the smaller neighboring ranches to fill out his own herd. That was one problem that was no longer pressing.

And although there was still some carefulness between them, like a wound that was healing but was still sore, the Butlers seemed to have patched up the worst of their differences. That trouble, too, appeared to be over with, whatever it had been all about. Moreover, Sam had finally been able to hire some men, enough to bring them almost up to strength, again. Apparently things up in the gold diggings were proving to somewhat less attractive, at least to the "fair weather prospector." The Chaparral was humming along smoothly, once more. Life was almost perfect. So why, then, wasn't he more happy about it?

"Uh, Mano… I don't suppose you saw Buck in town, by any chance?"

Manolito smiled sadly. "I did ask," he admitted. "But it seems he has left for the placers. Over a week ago, I believe."

"Oh," John replied, trying to pretend that it didn't matter. "Yes, well, I'd better go file this paperwork…"

So he did go, then. John tried not to admit to himself how much he had been hoping that Buck might just sulk in town for a week or two, and then make his way back to the ranch. Though for the life of him, he did not know why he expected it. Buck had never come back on his own, any of the times he had left the ranch in anger. It had always taken someone to bring him back, usually John swallowing his pride and seeking him out, cajoling him home, again. There was no reason to expect this time to be any different. Less reason, actually, since there was the added lure of easy riches drawing Buck away. He turned to go back into the house.

Manolito just looked at his brother-in-law thoughtfully. "Amigo?" John turned to look at him. "Perhaps I might take a little ride up into the mountains, 'eh. I have always had a curiosity about those mining towns. I have heard that the whiskey and the women there are even more amazing than they are at the Kansas rail heads at the end of the cattle drive." He grinned winningly. "And, if I just happened to see your brother…"

John smiled, genuinely touched by the not-so-subtle offer. But he shook his head. "Thank you, Mano, but no. Buck has made his choice."

"Do you really mean that, John?" Manolito asked gently.

"I think, this time, I have to mean it," Cannon replied, wondering even as he said it if he was telling the truth. Yet, he could not forever accept his brother's tantrums, his freewheeling bursts of irresponsibility. He had to draw a line somewhere. "But thank you. I mean that." He turned and walked back into the house. Victoria was waiting for him in the doorway.

"Are those the contracts you've been waiting for, John?" she asked him, suspecting they were, and feeling exceedingly grateful to her brother for bringing them. Her husband had been in such a state, waiting.

"Yes, they are, finally," John agreed.

"I am so glad," said Victoria. "I know you have been worried."

"I never could keep a secret from you," John replied, leaning down to kiss her.

"I know it is a burden, running so large a ranch as this. It is so much work for just one man."

"Well, it's hardly just one man," John contradicted gently. "There's Sam, he takes care of most of the day-to-day worries. I don't know what I'd do without him, frankly. Or Joe, for that matter," he added, realizing how much the recent trouble there had brought that very fact home to him. "And then there's Blue, and your brother…"

"And yours?"

Well, there it was. He had almost been expecting this. "Now, Victoria, don't start…"

"Oh, John, why don't you go to him?"

"Victoria…"

"Or if you won't go, at least let Manolito go and tell him he can come home again. That you did not mean for him to go forever."

"Victoria, I explained myself very well to Buck when he left, and he chose to go, anyway. It was his decision."

"And did you really mean for him never to return? Never to come home again?"

John sighed. "I don't want it this way, no," he said. "But Victoria, I have to have some kind of rules around here, or the men will run rough shod all over this ranch, leaving and coming…"

"We are not talking about the men, John. We are talking about your brother."

"And he, of all people, should have understood my reasons. If he doesn't respect the rules, how can I expect anyone else to. The men look to him to see what they should take seriously, even if he doesn't understand that. His going could have caused half the men I had left to pack up and go, too. I explained that to you. I explained it to Buck, too, for all that it mattered to him."

"And did they go, too?" Victoria challenged.

"That's not the point."

"I disagree, my husband. I think it is exactly the point. You made an error in judgment and it bothers your pride that you were wrong, even if being right meant a terrible risk to your ranch. Do not think that I do not understand that. I think it just hurts your pride that your brother saw the truth more clearly than you and would not allow you to bully him!"

John stared at her in open-mouthed astonishment. "Victoria, you simply do not understand the problem here."

"Then explain it to me," she replied pertly, her hands on her hips. "Explain to me why this time is different from any other time that Buck has gone away. John, you know how he is…"

"It's different, this time," he retorted, "because this time I asked him to stay, because I needed him to be here, to help me. I asked him to stay, for my sake, if for no other reason, and he wouldn't do it."

He had not realized the truth of his statement until the words were out of his mouth, but there it was. All of it. He had asked Buck. Certainly, he had ordered him, but first he had asked him. Begged him, almost. And Buck had refused him. And that hurt him more than he knew how to say.

Victoria sighed. "And because your feelings are hurt, you are going to allow yourself to be separated from your brother, forever," she said, not relenting. "Because he will not come home, John. I believe this, and in your heart, so do you. He will never come home unless you go to him. Your brother will be out of your life, and your son's life, and my life. And even if you do not miss him, I do. I miss him very much." And with that, she turned and went up the stairs to their bedroom.

John wiped his hand over his face in frustration. He just couldn't win, it seemed. He finally had his signed contracts, about which he had been worried, and the Butlers and the other men were finally getting back to normal around the ranch, about which he had been very worried, and now, just as things were finally starting to settle down, his wife decided to be mad at him, and that was the one thing he had been congratulating himself he didn't need to worry about! For all the headway he was making, he might as well give up.

He walked into his office and filed his copies of the signed contracts where they belonged. He had a pile of paperwork to take care of, that he had been neglecting during his labor crisis, and the confirmation of his agreement with the army, as welcome as it was, had now nearly doubled his workload. But even as he sat down and opened his ledgers, he couldn't do anything more than stare at them. Had his wife been right? Was it just pride and hurt feelings? Had he been trying to bully Buck? And had Buck been right in refusing to be bullied, even though John believed he had asked from a basis of real, justifiable threat? And perhaps most importantly, was it that what was really bothering him - that he had asked, as a brother, and been flatly refused? One thing he was pretty sure of, though. He was pretty sure Victoria was right when she said Buck was not going to come back on his own. John Cannon was going to have to decide pretty soon if he was going to put pride and hurt feelings, or whatever they were, to one side and go find him, or resign himself to a life without his only blood kin, besides his son, in it.

He swallowed the aching lump in his throat and picked up a pencil. He still had a ranch to run. He looked down at the clean, new sheet of ledger paper waiting for him to enter this latest victory. He didn't write anything down, though.

Owen Carmichael was not a man who expected life to be fair, but he did expect a certain degree of ordered certitude about the way events played out, even if they were not going to do so in his favor. Lately, however, it seemed he could depend neither on a rational explanation of outcomes nor on his ability to have the least effect upon them. In fact he was starting to feel down right helpless, and that was not a thing to put him in any kind of reasonable temper. He was worried about his mine, his wife had been correct when she had told Joe that, but that wasn't the only thing he was worried about.

It all started with the mine, though, or more precisely, with the reasons he had gotten involved with this scheme in the first place, come to Tucson, which was pretty much at the bottom of his list of places to live, and found himself in his present untenable circumstances. If the truth be known, his problems had really started before the mine, with the continuing decline of his personal fortunes over the previous ten years and with the responsibility of having sons for whom to provide a future. Perhaps it had started with the gradual failure of his father's ranch; inevitable, he supposed, since the man was far to old to run it and Owen certainly had no interest in doing so. There was enough there to support the old man, and Owen's mother, and it was a nice retreat for the grandsons when Owen needed them out of his hair, but there would be no inheritance to speak of, and even the eventual sale of the property would do little to provide for the heir, and nothing at all for the grandsons. To make matters worse, it seemed that every endeavor Carmichael had put his hand to recently had turned to dust. It was not like him. Although no one really knew it, Owen was getting very close to looking at the face of financial ruin. The idea infuriated him.

News of the gold strike in the Santa Rita mountains had seemed like a god-send, reaching him while he had been in Yuma trying to interest his father-in-law in some entirely different investment proposition. He'd been wondering why he even bothered, his wife's father was far too backward and uneducated to grasp the finer points of making money, when a traveler coming in had brought the news. At first, it had seemed like a fantasy, wishful thinking on the part of some fool, too good to be taken seriously, and Carmichael, no fool, had bided his time and waited for more proof before he took his chance. When he did finally decide to act, though, he chose to invest in the less predictable placers rather than in the more secure stock of some mining company, believing that the returns had a potential for being much greater, and more importantly, much more swift in the acquisition. Owen Carmichael was dangerously near going broke.

The plan seemed almost fool-proof. He would purchase his claim outright, and maintain the full ownership. And then he would hire men to work it for him; nominally "partners" because they worked for a percentage, not for wages, but he still thought of them as his employees. And then he would just sit back and collect his piece of the proceeds. When he had taken all he wanted out of the claim, or at least established it's worth solidly enough to sell it at a good profit, he would do so. And maybe buy another. Or invest in some other enterprise just as lucrative, he had not made up his mind.

It didn't seem to be working out the way he had planned it, though.

Carmichael had used what was left of his working capital to purchase two very promising claims, but the return, so far, had been unrewarding. They were not only not getting rich, they were barely making expenses. His "partners" swore that the gold was just not as plentiful as Owen had been led to believe, but Carmichael had convinced himself they were lying to him. He had no proof, though, that they were cheating him, and there was not much he could do without it. The only way to get that was to up to the diggings and see for himself what was really going on. It was not a pleasant prospect. The camp, he knew, was primitive, and he would be forced to spend several weeks, perhaps, living rough until he could get the mess straightened out. But he acknowledged the necessity, and, indeed, admitted to a certain perverse pleasure in the fact that the enterprise was going to require his personal attention if it was going to pay. He had already made the arrangements to join up with a mule train heading for the mountains to bring merchandise and supplies up to the camp. In fact, they would be leaving in the morning, and that threw one more complication into his already complicated life.

The trip to the mining camps necessitated Owen Carmichael leaving his wife alone and unwatched for some unknown period of time. This would be trouble enough under normal circumstances, since the woman was lazy and tended to get very lax without proper supervision, but lately Carmichael had received certain intelligence to make him believe that the circumstances were far from anything he had come to think of as normal. Only a few hours earlier, one of his occasional drinking cronies had informed him that Janine had been seen abroad on the street several nights before.

At first, Carmichael had simply not believed the man. The discipline he had meted out to his wife over the years had surely conditioned the woman never to even contemplate such an action, let alone actually do it. But persistent questioning, and a not so subtle threat of bodily harm, still had the man sticking to his story; not only did he swear that he had seen Janine walking down Pennington Street after midnight one night a little over a week earlier, he thought there had been a man in her company. He couldn't be positive about the man, it was a dark night and it might have been someone just passing her in the street, but he was sure about Janine Carmichael. He recognized her from the times he had seen her in the hotel dining room; she was such a handsome woman he had taken particular note.

As sure as he had been, earlier, that the man was lying, Carmichael was now equally convinced that he was telling the truth. The bitch had been on that street corner, and there had been a man, he was sure of that, too. Now that he thought about it, she had been acting very strange lately, though he had been too preoccupied to take much note of it, up till then. For her to pull a stunt like this just when things were already so mixed up for him, just when he had to leave her alone and he had no choice in that, he had to see to his investment, was simply insufferable. But it was also one problem he knew he could fix. And fix her he would, he would fix her so that she wouldn't even contemplate leaving that damned hotel room while he was gone, let alone go catting around town at night. He would leave he so that she wouldn't even be able. And when he found out who the man was, he would kill him.

Janine was sitting out on her hotel room balcony when Owen found her. She had been spending a lot of time out there since the night Joe had found her there, enjoying what cool breeze the shaded porch had to offer, watching the people in the street below. Remembering. She could just barely see the entrance to the brewery park as she gazed across Main Street; there in the distance, a small patch of green amid the unfinished brown and plastered white adobe. Looking at it brought back the feeling of strong arms around her, a hot, insistent mouth over hers. But mostly, when she remembered, she daydreamed about the boy, letting her thoughts take her backwards. When she thought about Joe Butler, which had been almost constantly since that night, she thought more about that boy than she did the man who had held her those few nights earlier, remembering every moment of their love, every word, every caress he had given her. It was safer, somehow, to dwell upon the past .

Joe Butler, the man, she had a much harder time getting her mind around. In a way, he was simply too real, too immediate to her present situation, and that reality overwhelmed her. And in a way, he was too unreal, a phantom embrace, a voice, a shadow in the dark. Something she must have dreamed one night. What she had risked was still almost outside her comprehension. That she would risk it again she knew, and knowing both thrilled and terrified her. She simply chose not to think about it too much. It was so much safer to think about the boy he had been, and of their time together all those years ago.

Yet, somewhere in some corner of her consciousness, Janine knew that Owen would be leaving, soon, for his mines, and she knew that Joe would come to her, then. She has seen it in those eyes that had changed so little since that day she had broken his heart. Eyes that reflected both his vulnerability and his determination. He would come, and with his coming, bring, perhaps some hope of escape, some mad dash for freedom. Where and how were unimportant to her. She was sure that some future would present itself, somehow. San Francisco, maybe. She had always loved California. They could settle down on some ranch in the valley, although she would rather live in the city, since cattle ranching seemed to be what Joe was doing now. But they could be happy and prosperous, she was sure of that, with a nice house, and gardens and lots of land…

But Janine held only the idea of escape, the dream of it, the actual mechanics remained elusive, some amorphous concept of heroics and rescue, and the feeling of strong arms around her and a strong, hard kiss. She would have to trust to Joe Butler for the details, confident that he would be able to provide them. Such was her state when Owen came back into the hotel room.

He did not come storming in, venting his fury. He came in quietly, almost stealthily, slinking up to her unawares. He crept up to her slowly, the rug on the floor masking his footsteps, and then out the French doors until he was almost behind her. He waited until she began to sense him, started to turn, and then he grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to her feet.

"Bitch!" he hissed in her ear as he pulled her back into the room. He flung her onto the floor.

"Owen,,," She choked his name rather than called him.

"You little slut. You thought I wouldn't find out, didn't you!" Carmichael swung his foot, catching her in the thigh. He went after her, then, as she tried to crawl out of reach, grabbing her arm and lifting her back onto her feet. "But they saw you, the whole fucking town saw you…" He slapped her.

"Owen, please…"

"Shut up!' he snarled, hitting her across the mouth. "Who is he?" He hit her again, knocking her into a dresser. A lamp crashed to the floor. He jerked her up again and smashed his fist into the side of her face. "Who is he?"

"Please… Owen, please don't…"

Carmichael shook his head. "You've been steppin' out on me, haven't you?" he demanded.

"No…"

"Don't lie to me, bitch, you were seen! I've got witnesses. How many times, huh? How many men have fucked you since we pulled into this town?" He flung her across the room, again, this time knocking over a chair and a table. Pain shot through her ribs and she could taste blood in her mouth. She tried to crawl behind the overturned table top, seeking what little protection it had to offer. Her mind was almost blank with terror. That she and Joe had somehow been found out played on the edges of her understanding, but the facts would not quite connect. So she said nothing in her own defense, neither to deny, nor to admit and beg forgiveness. She just cowered behind the table and waited. That silence might have been the only thing that saved her life.

That and the knock on the door that quickly turned into pounding. Owen strode up to where she was lying and dragged her to her feet, again, holding her by the front of her dress.

"You lie to me, and I'll kill you."

She just whimpered and shook her head helplessly. He hit her in the face, and then hit her, again. The pounding on the door became more insistent. Owen glared at the offending space.

"Mr. Carmichael? It's Mitchell, Mr. Carmichael, from the desk. Is everything all right in there?"

Carmichael threw her down. Aiming one final kick at her belly, he walked over to the door and cracked it open as his wife, behind him, curled into a ball on the floor. The hotel proprietor was standing out in the hallway.

"I heard a crash," he said hesitantly. "Is everything all right?"

"Fine," replied Carmichael with studied calm. "Everything's fine. My wife just knocked over a lamp, by accident. I'll pay to replace it."

The man nodded. "Of course, Mr. Carmichael. If you'll just let me come in and clean it up…"

"I'll clean it up," Carmichael said, wedging his foot against the door so that the other man could not open it. "My wife's not dressed."

The proprietor just looked at him. Carmichael could see the knowledge in the other man's eyes, and the conflict, the wanting to interfere for the sake of the reputation of his establishment if nothing else, and the not wanting to get involved.

"This is a nice, respectable hotel, Mr. Carmichael," the man said, with more courage than Owen would have given him credit for. "We don't want no trouble, here."

Carmichael could have killed him. On the one hand, it would take so little to choke the life out of the little worm, or at least banish him with a hard shove and a slamming door; on the other, Owen knew this was just the sort of man who would go running for the law next. And although he had no doubt that he could talk his way around that, it was only his wife he was chastising after all, it might take some time before all the facts could be heard, and he couldn't afford to miss that morning departure. He knew that mule train wouldn't wait, and there was no way he was going into that Apache infested wasteland alone.

"No trouble, Mr. Mitchell," he said. "You have my word on it."

The little man went away placated. Owen closed the door and went back to his wife. Janine was lying on the floor, still curled up behind the table. He kicked her, and when she did not react except to curl up tighter, he kicked her again. Then he reached down and wound his fingers into her by the hair, dragging her to her feet, and throwing her onto the bed. He knelt down beside her, one knee on her chest, and closed his fingers around her throat.

"No trouble, and no more noise," he sighed, squeezing slowly. Janine struggled weakly as she choked. "I don't know what you've been up to, slut," he murmured, almost lovingly. "And I ain't got the time, and this ain't the place to find out. This hotel is just too crowded with noisy-Josés for a proper discussion. Now, I've got to be leavin' tomorrow, there ain't nothing I can do about that. But so help me, if I find out you've so much as stepped outside this hotel room while I'm gone, I will take you out into that desert, far away from all this interference and I will find me a nice stout tree to tie you to, and then we'll see about what's what… do you understand me?"

She tried to nod, but his grip on her throat had all but cut off her breathing. She could feel her windpipe crushing, feel his knee collapsing her chest, but there was little pain as her consciousness faded. For a moment, she almost wished he would just go ahead and kill her and be done with it. Instead, he let her go. Pain shot through her as she gasped to draw air into her lungs.

"You just remember what I said." Owen stared down at her, as if contemplating some further action. Then he reached for the clasp on his pants. "And maybe we'll just leave you with a little somethin' so you won't be in such a hurry to go sniffin' around other men…"

At some point, Janine lost consciousness. When she came to, again, he was gone. For his part, Carmichael had made his connection with his mule train, satisfied that his wife was sufficiently cowed to obey him. He'd have no more trouble with her, he was sure. And whoever that man was, he'd attend to him later. First things first, after all, and the first order of business was business. The other would wait.

II

Joe Butler did as he had promised. Until the herds were all moved to new grazing, until life on the ranch had settled back down to its normal routine, he gave the High Chaparral one hundred and ten percent of his attention. Work got done with the expected level of efficiency and then some, as if to atone for the trouble he had caused. And if he was not quite his old, easy going self again, if he was still somewhat distracted around the other men, at least he made a sincere effort to be pleasant and cooperative. There were moments when he even forgot his troubled heart. However, as soon as the herds had been moved, Joe did the other thing he had promised. He took the time John Cannon had allowed him, and he headed into town. He went alone, not waiting for the other men to organize a party. And when the others pressed him for an explanation of his haste, it was Sam who came to his rescue and deflected his interrogators.

He did not actually plan to do anything besides talk to her. Oh, he knew how he felt, and he knew what he wanted, and he very well knew that actual events might likely play themselves to a conclusion far beyond talk. But his actual plans didn't stretch past getting Janine away from that husband whom she should never have married in the first place. And after that, he didn't really know. Make a life with her somehow, although he had a hard time imagining the details, and the mechanics and the wherewithal escaped him completely. It wasn't something he figured on worrying about, just yet. The future would be there, they would deal with it together. The first order of business was to get her away from that man who was hurting her, before he did something really bad.

To his credit, Joe thought for a long time before he actually went up to the Cosmopolitan. Somehow, he understood that he was about to take some irreversible step, that whatever happened, whatever the outcome, if he went to her, now, things would never be quite the same for him. He would never be able to pretend that his life was simple and uncomplicated; it would never be so, again. Whatever might have gone before them, whatever dreadful events might be going on, now, Janine Carmichael was still a married woman, and neither man's law nor God's looked well on the action he was now considering. So he sat in the saloon, alone, and drank his beer and weighted the risks and considered his options. And finally determined that he really didn't have any.

He found her room easily enough. There was no one at the reception desk to question him, and the guest book was open on the counter. He just looked up Owen's name, it was that simple. Her door opened slowly to his knock. She was standing there, dressed in a satin wrap, her black hair loose about her shoulders. A darkening bruise spread across her pale cheek. Her lip was cut and her right eye was swollen. Joe’s eyes narrowed as he took it in, but he said nothing. After a moment, she stepped aside and gestured him into the room.

"You probably shouldn’t have come, Joe," she said softly, closing the door behind her and leaning back against it.

In the days since her husband's departure, Janine had been anticipating and almost dreading this moment. It hadn't been the worst beating she had received at the hands of Owen Carmichael, far from it. In fact, in the couple of days since Owen's departure, most of the stiffness had left her sides, and although her chest still hurt some and her hair, where he had pulled it, she could move almost normally. The arrival of the hotel proprietor had curtailed what might have become something much worse. Even what had happened afterwards was not something new or unexpected. This time, however, there was a difference, because for the first time since they were married, Janine Carmichael believed that the punishment she had received from her husband had been deserved this time. She had done those things of which he had accused her, more or less, she had left the hotel at night, in the company of another man, and although they had not physically consummated their new-found relationship, they had shared a kiss with the passion of lovers. And she has invited him to come to her, again.

She had known Joe would come. She had known since that moment in the pavilion when she had told him Owen was leaving for the mine, that he would take that as a call to action. She had intended him to, at the time. But she had already lost the first battle, and now she was terrified to continue. She had thought to ride the juggernaut and escape; instead she had found herself cast before its wheels. And she was beginning to doubt that the hero she had chosen to rescue her could really pull her free of it.

Seeing him standing there, for the first time in full light since that brief encounter on the hotel sidewalk, Janine Bonney Carmichael saw Joe Butler for what he really was. A man, not a hero; a good man and determined. But just a man. A working cowboy, a local ranch hand, with no particular resources other than force of his own will. She had been wrong to get him involved in this, to drag him into such a hopeless situation. To lead him to believe there was something he could do about it. She wasn't even sure she wanted him to, anymore. The dangers she knew suddenly seemed so much less frightening than the dangers that waited for her in a world with no friends and no influence, a world with a husband who would kill her for trying to escape him if he could. The only thing she could do, now, was to make Joe see the reasonableness of her decision. To make him go away.

Joe wasn’t going to be put off that easily. "He do that to you?"

"Don’t, Joe," she pleaded, shaking her head. Then she smiled at him slightly. "What happened to you?" She gestured at the fading bruises on his own face.

Joe pulled his hat off, fiddled with the brim. "Nothin’. My brother and I had a little disagreement."

"Over me," Janine concluded. She didn’t wait for confirmation. "Sam never did like me much, Joe."

Joe tossed his hat into a chair. "It wasn’t that."

"Oh, I think it was," she replied mildly. "I think he never really understood. Or approved. And he never forgave me." She dropped her eyes. "Have you?"

Joe hesitated a moment. "I reckon," he answered her. "Yeah, Jeannie, I reckon I forgave you along time ago." He said it as if he was realizing the truth of it for the first time, but she could still hear the pain in his voice.

"What was I supposed to do, Joe?" she demanded, walking away from him. "You boys couldn’t even put a roof over your own heads. Runnin’ with those… desperadoes. That Jelks. And your brother half crazy, himself, because his own wife had left him? I didn’t know from one minute to the next when you were going to come back, or if you were going to come back at all. Or wind up behind bars somewhere. Or dead. What was there for me, Joe? If I had stayed."

"You didn’t give me much of a chance to show you," he retorted. But he knew she was right. Those days had been wild, and not a little desperate. It was not something he liked to remember, when he and his brother had ridden on whichever side of the law was most convenient to survival at the moment. "I ain’t blamin’ you any," he sighed.

Janine looked away.

"Why do you stay with him, Jeannie?" Joe asked softly. "Why do you let him do this to you?" She just shrugged and said nothing. "Is it because of your boys?"

"Yes," she agreed. "Partly."

Joe hesitated before he asked the real question. "Do you love him?"

"I never loved him, Joe," she replied softly. "You have to believe that. I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn't spend the rest of my life trapped in some stage station in Yuma. I thought he could give me the life I wanted, and I was wrong. But I never loved him."

Joe took a step toward her. "Janine…" She ducked away.

"What choice do I have, Joe? Just answer me that. Owen is my husband, and there's not much I can do about it. If I left, he'd just come after me, and believe me, things would go a lot worse for me then."

"You can divorce him. He's more'n given you grounds." Physical cruelty being one of the few causes a woman could use to extricate herself from an unhappy union, if she could prove that her life was endangered, and if she could find a sympathetic judge.

"It takes money to get a divorce and I don’t have a penny of my own. And the law doesn’t exactly support wives in these situations, you know that. I might not get it, if Owen fought me. He'd probably kill me if I even tried. And even if I did win, I’d lose my sons. I’d never get custody of them. You know that, too. Besides, how would I live? What would I do?"

"So you just stay? For how long? Until he finally does kill you?"

"It’s impossible, don't you see that? Can't you understand? I'm afraid, Joe!"

"Jeannie…"

"Joe, you shouldn't even be here. If Owen ever found out, I don't even want to think about what he might do. To both of us."

"Then why'd you make such a point of tellin' me when he was leavin', if you didn't want me to come?" Joe demanded.

Janine turned away. "I don't know."

Joe grabbed her arm to stop her retreat and Janine caught her breath. Her eyes went wide with fear and she cowered away from him. All the blood drained out of Joe’s face as he realized why. Knowing what she had done, how she had reacted, Janine dropped her eyes in shame.

"Aw, no Jeannie…" Joe drew her close. Reaching out, he touched her hair, then ran his hand lightly over her battered face. For a moment he just looked at her, his eyes almost liquid with the pain he felt for her sake. Then he tipped her mouth up to his own. He kissed her, very softly at first, then more insistently, pulling her against him with his other arm. She resisted only for an instant, then melted against him, surrendering to his urgency. After a moment, he released her.

"Oh, Joe. I’ve thought about you, you know. Every day since I first saw you down there on that sidewalk, I've been remembering. I wanted you to come. I was just so afraid," she whispered. "I was so young, Joe. I made so many mistakes."

"Shush…" he hushed her, resting his mouth against her hair. "It’ll be all right."

"You don't know him. You don't know what he's done to me. What he's capable of…"

"Shhhh…"

He turned her face up to his and they kissed again, deeply, sensually. Bodies remembered past desire, and responded, as they clung together. It was Janine who broke the embrace this time. She looked up at him sadly.

"I love you, Jeannie," he said. "I never stopped loving you."

She touched his mouth with her fingertips.

"I’m not that girl anymore, Joe," she said, her voice full of tears. "I’m not the girl you fell in love with ten years ago." He started to protest, but she stopped him gently. "There’s something you need to understand," she said. "Something I need to show you."

She stepped out of the circle of his arms and turned her back to him. Joe stood watching stonily as she untied the belt of her wrap, and slipped it off her shoulders. He caught his breath in shock. Janine’s entire back, from her shoulders to her waist was a crisscross of angry welts and scars, some newer, some that looked like they had been there for a long time. There was almost no spot where undamaged flesh showed. Joe only knew of one thing that made marks like that. His stomach heaved, and he felt a sudden white hot rush of anger that left him dizzy. He struggled for control.

Janine lifted the robe, again, and pulled it closed around her. She stood there, still facing away from him, hugging herself, her body shaking with silent sobs. Joe stepped up behind her and turned her gently. He took her face in both hands and kissed her with his whole heart in it and she kissed him back with every ounce of need her body had. Then he picked her up and carried her to bed.

She was dozing on his chest, later, when he made his decision, although he had probably really made the decision subconsciously before he had even walked into the room, maybe before he'd left for Tucson. But there, lying in bed with her hair spread over him, and the sun coming in through the window, the only thing he could think was that Owen might return, even though he wasn't expected, and that he had to get the both out of there. Soon. Reality was setting in very quickly, now that passion was spent. There was only one thing he could do. He would not leave her there, not after what she had showed him, and there was no place else he could afford to bring her. No place else she would be safe. He kissed her forehead and she opened her eyes and smiled at him.

"Hey, sleepyhead…"

She leaned up and kissed him, then nuzzled against his neck. "I’d almost forgotten this," she sighed contentedly.

Joe rolled up onto his side, and looked down at her. "Jeannie…" he began.

She smiled up at him so lovingly that it stopped him cold for a moment.

"You know, I've ever let anyone else call me that," she said softly. "You're the only one. I've missed hearing you say it."

It took a moment for him to find his voice, again. "I’m taking you back to the Chaparral with me," he said, finally, in a tone that would brook no argument. She tried to give him one, anyway, although there was little conviction in her voice.

"Joe, I can’t leave. Owen will kill us both."

"He’ll kill you anyway, eventually," Joe said tightly. "I know Mr. Cannon will offer you shelter once he understands. I can’t leave you here." When she didn’t argue further, he kissed her, again. "Will you let me take care of you, now?" She hesitated, then nodded, surrendering.

"Will you take me to California?" she asked. "I want to get my sons. I can't let Owen take them from me, Joe. He's turning them into monsters, just like him."

Joe frowned. It would be difficult, but on the other hand, he could hardly deny her. They were her children, it was natural that she would want them. And he wanted her to have whatever she wanted. "Let's get you outta here, first," he said, not promising anything. "Then we'll see. All right? We'll try."

She nodded bleakly.

"It’s gettin’ late," Joe said. "Why don’t you get dressed."

"I need my boys, Joe."

"I know."

"Promise me? It's so beautiful there. It's so green and rich and wonderful. I know you'll like it."

He just kissed her.

"What's gonna happen to me, Joe?" she asked.

Joe pursed his lips and sighed. "Just get dressed, now. We'll worry about that once we've got you outta here."

She relented, then, and sat up, letting the sheet fall around her. Joe smiled. "You’re still beautiful, Jeannie," he said, taking in the scars and the bruises and the effects of the years and of childbirth and not caring. "You’re still the girl I fell in love with."

 

III

It was getting dark by the time Joe returned to the Chaparral with Janine beside him. It had been easy enough to find a horse for her at the livery stable, but she did not ride well, so the going was slow. Any lightness of spirit, or any fear, she might have harbored about escaping her husband had dissolved into simple exhaustion by the time they arrived. Sam came out to meet them as they rode in.

"Joe," he began darkly, his shock at this brother's audacity clear in his voice. It was one thing to get tangled up with this married woman in the first place, it was another thing altogether to bring her back to the Cannons. Then he caught sight of Janine's bruised face in the dying light of dusk, and looked up at his brother, again.

"That ain't the worst of it," Joe said simply. Sam hesitated, then he nodded. He turned, hearing Cannon on the porch, then turned back to the woman and reached up to lift her down from the saddle.

"Janine…" he greeted her mildly. She only nodded. Then he turned with her to face John Cannon as Joe swung himself to the ground. "Mr. Cannon, this is Mrs. Janine Carmichael. She's, uh, an old friend of the family."

If he had ever needed an illustration of the concept of solidarity, John Cannon knew he would find none better than the one before him. Whatever this was all about, whoever this woman was, and Cannon could see from her battered face that it must be quite a story, he suspected she had a lot to do with whatever had been going on with Joe Butler recently. And he also suspected that Sam did not particularly approve. Nonetheless, there he was, presenting a united, and impenetrable front with his brother. For a moment, Big John sincerely envied them that. But there were more important issues to get to the bottom of.

"Mrs. Carmichael," he began cautiously. Beside him, his wife gasped. Victoria had just come out of the house, followed by Blue and Manolito, and had just registered the condition of Janine Carmichael's face.

"Oh, you poor thing," she cried, pushing past John and reaching for the other woman. "Please. Come into the house." She shot her husband a look that almost dared him to contradict her, but Cannon was not about to take a stand one way or the other until her knew what the hell was going on. He waited until the women had disappeared inside.

"I hope you've got a good explanation for whatever this is all about."

It was Sam, characteristically, who began to speak. "Mr. Cannon…"

Joe stopped him with a hand. "Mr. Cannon, this was all my doin'," he said. "Sam didn't have any part in this. He didn't know I was bringin' her back here. I didn't know, for sure, until this afternoon."

Cannon just looked at him a moment. He couldn't help but notice the confidence in the man's voice. Whatever was going on, Joe Butler was very sure he had the right of it, apparently. John also could not help but notice that they were attracting attention; several of the other hands had drifted out of the bunk house when Joe had ridden in with this strange woman, and they were now milling around in obvious curiosity. They were well out of earshot as long as John kept his voice down, but there was no guarantee of that. And he wasn't interested in an audience in any case.

"Come inside," he directed, and led the party in. The reprieve lasted only until he got them into the living room. "All right. Let's have it."

Joe took his hat off, fidgeting a little with the brim, finally showing his nervousness. But his voice was firm enough as he answered his boss. "Mr. Cannon, Janine Bonney… Janine Carmichael is somebody I know from a long time ago. She's only just recently come to Tucson, and well, you saw for yourself, Boss, her husband's been treatin' her pretty bad…" He stopped, gathering his thoughts. Cannon, who had already surmised that much, told him to go on. "I just couldn't leave her there, Boss," Joe concluded.

John glanced at Sam, but the other man's expression remained inscrutable. He looked at his brother-in-law and son, but they, too, only looked disturbed and curious. "Joe, I appreciate your sentiments on the matter…" he started. "But it is hardly your place, and it's certainly not mine…"

"We won't stay but one night, Mr. Cannon," Joe interrupted him. Cannon scowled, not at all happy with the position he was being put in. On the one hand, it went against his nature and his sense of justice to deny any woman in such obvious need. But he really didn't need this trouble and he certainly did not want to encourage Joe Butler in it. He did not get a chance to comment further, however.

"John?" It was Victoria, on the stairs. When he turned to her, he found her looking gray with shock. "John, this woman, she must be allowed to stay with us for as long as she wishes." This was not Victoria's usual gentle cajoling, this was not a request, it was a demand. Cannon could not decide if he was more surprised at her tone or her expression.

"Victoria…"

"John, I am serious." She came the rest of the way down the stairs, then, reaching the bottom, leaned back against the supporting half wall as if the effort of descending had proved too great a strain. "That poor creature will be allowed to stay at the High Chaparral, and we will give her shelter and protection, or I will take her to my father and ask him to protect us, and John if you refuse this I swear I will never return to the High Chaparral! I swear it!"

John Cannon was utterly shocked. Tears were streaming down his wife's face, and she was shaking on the verge of hysteria. "Victoria, Victoria, calm down and tell me what's the matter," he pleaded. She just shook her head.

"If only you could see her, my husband, as I have, just now. Oh, John, it is so terrible… Diós mio, that men should do such things…"

Cannon swallowed hard. He saw something in his wife's eyes that he had never seen before, and it frightened him a little. It looked an awful lot like hatred. He put his hands on her shoulders to calm her.

"Victoria, yes, of course she can stay here, if that's what you want. At least until we can get to the bottom of all of this and figure out what's best to be done."

She looked up at him, reassured by the certainty in his voice as much as by the words. "Thank you, John."

"Now go on back up to her, go on, now," he prodded her gently. "Make her comfortable, put her in one of the guest rooms if you like. I'll be up in a little while."

He waited until she was gone, then he turned back to the Butlers, again. "What the hell is going in here?" he demanded. "What's been done to that woman that's got my wife so upset?"

"She's been horsewhipped, Mr. Cannon," Joe Butler replied flatly. "Bad. Probably more than once." Beside him, Sam sucked in a breath.

"Madre de Diós," Manolito echoed his sister. Blue made a small helpless noise.

John Cannon just went pale with shock. He had seen the backs of men who had been horsewhipped, former slaves who had drifted into his command during the war. The sight had made him sick to his stomach. That such brutality had been perpetrated upon this woman, and by her own husband, almost defied comprehension. He exhaled slowly.

"He'd a-killed her, if I'd a-left her there," Joe concluded. "We didn't have any place else to go."

Cannon nodded slowly. "I see," he said. More than anything else, he needed time to think, time to absorb what he had been told. "All right. Let's let it be for tonight. Mrs. Cannon will take care of her, for the time being. It's late and we're all tired. We'll discuss this further in the morning."

Cannon walked with them back out onto the porch. "Sam, would you wait a minute?" he said abruptly, almost as an afterthought. "I’d like to go over tomorrow’s schedule."

Sam glanced at his brother. "Sure, Mr. Cannon," he said. Joe nodded, and started back to the bunkhouse. Cannon waited until he was out of earshot.

"Sam, just how deeply involved is he in all of this?" He had not missed the younger Butler's use of the word "we."

Sam had already figured there was no reason to go over the schedule. "My brother’s been in over his head about Janine Bonney for ten years," he said. "They were suppose to marry."

"What happened?"

Sam shrugged. "She married somebody else. A man with more money, better prospects. Same old story. Joe and I were pretty much just driftin’ back in those days. I suppose you can’t really blame her…"

"But you do," said John.

Sam looked off in the direction his brother had disappeared. "I don’t think Joe ever really got over it," he said, not answering Cannon’s question.

The other man pursed his lips thoughtfully. "And now?"

Sam continued to gaze toward the bunkhouse. "He’s involved enough to know she’s been horsewhipped," he said. "Somehow, I don’t think he came by that from word o’ mouth." He glanced over at Cannon. Big John just sighed.

"I gather she's what these last few weeks have been all about?" he asked.

Sam looked abashed. "You noticed, huh?"

Cannon smiled humorlessly. "I don't usually miss too much, Sam," he said.

"No, sir, I guess not," Butler nodded, deciding not to worry about what all of that meant, now. He looked back to where his brother had disappeared. "Yeah, she's the reason. Pretty much."

"He did the right thing, Sam, bringing her here," John said, although he made the admission reluctantly. He could hardly condone what he had been told; on the other hand, this was likely to cause trouble he really didn't want.

Sam looked grateful. "Thank you for thinking so, sir." He hadn't missed the reluctance in Cannon's voice, and understood it for what it was.

"I don’t usually approve of coming between a man and his wife, but what was done to that woman…" John shook his head, still unable to completely grasp that act of violence. He blew out a breath. "I’m also thinking," he continued, "that Victoria might not have a bad idea. About Mexico, I mean. A small vacation to Rancho Montoya might be a good thing, until… Mrs. Carmichael can figure out what she's going to do, now. She’s still this Carmichael’s wife, and the man obviously has violent tendencies where she's concerned. It might be hard to protect her, as long as she remains here in Arizona."

Sam nodded. "I’d have no objection to sending her to Mexico," he said blandly.

"You don’t like this woman much, do you, Sam?"

The man looked a little surprised at his boss’s question. "I like her fine, Mr. Cannon," he told him, though even as he said it, he knew it wasn't strictly true. "I don’t like what she did to my brother. And I don’t much like what’s goin’ on now." He shook his head helplessly. "Oh, I don’t blame him any for bringing her here, you’re right. He couldn’t leave her to Carmichael. But I sure hate to see him get all chewed up, again." He sighed. "Though I suppose it’s really none of my business. At his age, he don’t need me nursemaidin’ him…"

John chuckled softly. "Oh, you’ll never stop wantin’ to do that, Sam," he said. "No matter how old they get. He’ll be your little brother till the day you die, and there’s nothin’ you can do about it. You’ll never stop wantin’ to look out for him. Take care of him. Protect him… And he’ll hate you for it…" he paused a beat. "And love you for it."

Sam felt a sudden tightness in his throat, making it difficult to answer. "Yeah…" he rasped. Then he looked over at Cannon and smiled faintly, understanding that it wasn’t only the Butlers that were the subjects of that statement.

"I’m going to ask Mrs. Cannon to write to her father," Big John went on.

Sam raised an eyebrow. "I don’t know how old Don Sebastian is gonna feel about harboring a runaway wife…"

"I don’t expect he’ll like it very much at all," Cannon agreed. "On the other hand, I don’t expect he’ll refuse, either. I’m going to send Victoria down there with her, at least for a few days. Probably Manolito, too. You and Joe can take them down."

Sam looked at his boss in admiration. Sending Victoria would guarantee that the old Lion would at least put up with the situation. Montoya never could deny his daughter much. "Maybe I better stay here, Mr. Cannon. We can send Pedro, instead," he replied. "Owen Carmichael’s not likely to be any too pleased when he finds out about our interference. He's bound to come around askin' questions. Might be better if I was here when he does." And, he thought but did not add, Joe didn’t really need him down there, looking over his shoulder.

Cannon understood, though. He had the same worry about Carmichael, and he wasn't oblivious about Joe. "Well, I’ll leave that up to you," he said. "You do what you think is best." He looked off toward the bunkhouse. "You think your brother will come back?"

Sam was silent for a moment before answering. "For his sake, I almost hope he has a reason not to," he sighed, following Cannon's eyes. "But, yeah, I think he’ll be back."

John nodded. "We’ll figure this out, Sam," he said. "Just keep him from doin' anything foolish in the mean time."

Sam snorted. "And just how do you do that, Boss?"

Big John looked startled. Then he barked a laugh and slapped his foreman on the back. "I don’t know. But if you figure that one out, you be sure to let me in on it."

Sam laughed with him. "Good night, Mr. Cannon…"

"Good night, Sam."

It was sometimes surprising to those who had never experienced it, how men who lived in such close proximity to one another could maintain such an illusion of personal privacy. So sensitive did they become to each others moods that a man with a need to could retreat to some corner, or into his bunk, and lower invisible walls around himself and those walls would be fairly successful at keeping out most intrusion, even in a crowded bunkhouse. It wasn’t just a question of courtesy. It was the only way they remained sane.

But even invisible walls weren’t enough, that night, for Joe Butler. After a few moments lying silent on his bunk, he got up and wandered outside. He could still smell the faint remnants of dinner as he sat down at the table by the outdoor fireplace and put his head in his hands. That was where his brother eventually found him.

Sam sat down on the bench a foot or so away, with his back to the table. He said nothing, just sat there, looking out into the corral. That injured calf they'd brought home from the round up was still in there, he noticed. With everything else that had been going on, he'd forgotten all about it. He could just see the shadow of it, against the rails. He glanced at his brother out of the corner of his eye, but held his peace, waiting.

"Look," said Joe finally, "I know you think I’m bein' a damn fool,".

Sam looked down at his hands for a moment before answering. "I think you never got over bein’ in love with Janine Bonney," he said. "And I think you’re gonna get your heart all torn up, again. But I think you did the right thing, bringin’ her here. My God, Joe…"

"I didn’t know what else to do," Joe said, tonelessly.

Sam hesitated. "Is it as bad as Mrs. Cannon said?" he asked quietly.

Joe let out a shaky breath. "Honest, Sam, I’ve never seen anythin’ so awful…"

Sam sighed. "I don’t expect Carmichael’s gonna be too happy about your runnin' off with his wife, though," he observed, matter-of-factly.

"It’s not your problem, Sam," said Joe. "I don’t want you mixed up in this."

"Yeah, well I listen about as good as you do, so you may as well save your breath about that."

Joe looked up finally. He knew his brother was referring to his own intervention when Sam had determined to return to San Felipe to avenge the death of his daughter, and against his brother's wishes he had followed with Big John and most of the Chaparral crew. "That was different, Sam. That was your life at stake."

"And I ain’t so sure this isn’t your life at stake, Joe," Sam insisted. "Owen Carmichael’s got no compunction against horsewhippin’ his wife, I can’t see he’s gonna have much against shootin’ her lover. There’s some might even call him justified."

Put that baldly, there wasn’t much Joe could say. He turned away.

"Anyway," Sam concluded. "I’m already mixed up in it. She's here. And you're my brother, Joe."

The younger Butler dropped his head into his hands, but offered no argument. Nor did he make any move to leave. Sam sighed.

"You remember that big old Thoroughbred saddle horse Ben Lynch owned for a while?" he said, apparently changing the subject. Joe turned his head to look at him.

"Yeah…" he replied, obviously puzzled.

"Biggest damn horse I ever saw," said Sam. "What was he, seventeen hands, anyway. Maybe more?"

"Maybe," Joe agreed, still not quite following the non sequitur. "Whatever he was, it was a hell of a long way to the ground."

Sam chuckled. "Yeah, and you sure bought a first class ticket for that trip," he laughed. "I can still remember the day you tried to ride him."

Joe smiled a little, in spite of himself, at the memory.

"You were such a little kid. But you just led him up to that big stone fence behind the house, and climbed right up on him. No saddle, no bridle. And that ol’ horse sure didn’t want no parts o’ you. Just took one look around, then humped his back and dropped his head and bang, there you were on the ground."

Joe chuckled with him. "I remember that."

"You picked yourself right back up, though. And you got right back up on him. And every time you did, that horse bumped you right off, again. He musta thrown you half a dozen times before he got tired of it and walked away."

Joe shook his head. "Didn’t have much sense, then, either, did I."

"You know," said Sam, "I was never so relieved as when that ol' horse finally gave up on you and got out o' your reach. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I was scared to death you were gonna get hurt or killed or somethin’. But you were just so damned determined. I don’t know… didn’t seem right, somehow, tryin’ to stop you. I didn’t feel like I had any right to." He paused and Joe looked away, embarrassed, now that he was finally starting to see the connection.

"I didn’t know whether I wanted to tell you to stop bein’ such a damn fool and to give it up before somethin’ really bad happened," Sam continued evenly. "Or to try and tell you how much I admired you for it. Respected you. You had a hell of a lot more guts that I did." He exhaled slowly. "I’m feelin’ a lot like that now."

Joe didn’t move. His breathing didn’t even change. But Sam could see the tears tracking down his brother’s face in the moonlight.

"I ain’t a kid anymore, Sam."

"No. You’re not," Sam agreed. "But you’re still my kid brother. You're always gonna be that, Joe."

Joe said nothing, he was unable to speak. Sam looked out south, across the desert.

"Mr. Cannon thinks it might be a good idea to send her to Mexico," he said. "Get her out of Carmichael's reach for a while. I think he's right." He hesitated. "I think maybe you oughta both go."

Joe took a slow breath. "She wants to go to California. Her kids are there."

Sam nodded. "Mexico'd be safer for the time being," he said. "Big John's gonna ask Mrs. Cannon to write to her father. Don Sebastian's more than capable of protecting her down there."

"And I'm not," said Joe bitterly.

"Not unless you got the same kinda personal army ol' Don Sebastian has," Sam argued. "Use your head, Joe. The whole Chaparral crew couldn't watch out every minute. You'd have even less chance if he found you alone in California. Just what do you think's gonna happen to you and her if Carmichael gets the jump on you?"

Joe pursed his lips. "Let me talk to her," he said, after a moment.

Sam nodded. "Don't talk too long." He hesitated. Then he reached over and caught his brother behind the head, shaking him gently. "We'll work this out, somehow," he said. Joe just nodded wordlessly. Sam stood up.

"I'm gonna turn in," he said. Joe nodded again, but still said nothing. Sam hesitated a moment longer, but there was nothing left for him to say. He turned and went back into the bunk house.

AS FAR AS A MAN CAN GO

I

Joe didn't know whether to be pleased or disappointed at the ease with which Janine agreed to the suggestion of Mexico.

"Victoria… Mrs. Cannon mentioned it to me," she said demurely as they walked along the flower beds Victoria had planted on the Eastern side of the house. "I suppose it makes sense, really. I'd be safer there from Owen than I would be in California. At least until I can figure out what to do. I want my boys, Joe, but they're well enough off where they are, for now. Owen would never do anything to harm them. He never has."

She did not touch him as they walked, not even to take his arm. In fact, Janine had seemed singularly cool toward him since their arrival at the High Chaparral. She was friendly enough, but she would allow no physical contact, not even when they contrived to be alone. Joe thought he understood. He knew that one was never really alone on a place like the High Chaparral. The ranch compound was like a small, populous island in the middle of a sea of hostile wilderness. Wherever they went there was always someone, a hand hurrying to some chore, or one of the family. Even if there was not, they could be interrupted at any moment. As a man who lived with a dozen or more other men in an open bunkhouse, there was no place Joe could take her that was entirely free of the risk of intrusion. And she was, he also understood, still a married woman. While fear, and he hoped, the demands of her heart, might have allowed what had happened back in her hotel room, propriety asserted itself, again, as soon as she entered the civilized, and rather proper, confines of Victoria Cannon's household. He did not blame her for it; on the contrary, he admired and respected her attitude. Honored it, even though it was frustrating the hell out of him. Just as he admired her willingness to be reasonable where her own well being was concerned on the subject of going to Mexico. Sam had been right, it was the safest course and the most sensible thing to do. It was just that somewhere deep down in his heart of hearts, Joe had wanted her to protest, to put up a fight, to demand that he carry her away to California, even though he had no idea, yet, how he would support her there. It was ridiculous, he knew, and he was much too old for such nonsense. Still…

"You'll come with me?" Janine asked, and the small tremor in her voice warmed him and banished any small misgivings that might have been nagging at him.

"Of course I'm comin', " he assured. "Try and keep me away. Pedro and me, and Manolito, we'll be takin' you and Mrs. Cannon down, soon as she gets it square with Don Sebastian."

She smiled at him, then. "Joe, I don't know what to say, how to thank you for all of this. I don't know what I would have done. You were right, Owen would have killed me, eventually. I was just so afraid… It was all so horrible…" Her voice caught and Joe reached out to draw her close. This time, she did not pull away from him.

"It's all right now," he soothed. "You're safe. Owen can't get to you here. And you'll be even safer once we get you to Rancho Montoya."

"Oh, Joe," she sighed, the fragile wall of propriety collapsing as she leaned against his chest. He let his mouth rest against the top of her head.

"Shhh, it's all right." He hesitated, then added, "I love you, Jeannie. I'm gonna take care of you, now."

But the words sounded odd to his ears in that setting, different from the way they had sounded in her hotel room in Tucson. Janine looked up, and smiled a little, but he could see by the look in her eyes that they sounded different to her, too. She leaned up, though, and kissed his mouth. It was a quick gesture, soft and closed lipped, more tender than passionate, but it helped relieve some of the foreboding he suddenly felt. Then she moved away from him, once again establishing that respectable distance between them.

"What a beautiful place this is," she sighed, moving to a safer subject. "I never realized a place like this could exist in all this wilderness. Mr. Cannon has done an amazing job, here."

Joe smiled, feeling a pride that was almost possessive. "He has, we all have. Big John and Buck and Mano. And Sam. Me and the boys. It took a lot work, and it was pretty dangerous, too, a lot of the time, but it was worth it to build a place like the High Chaparral. You shudda seen it when we first came here."

Janine looked up at him through her eyelashes. "Do you ever think about owning your own place? A ranch like the High Chaparral?"

He could see it in her eyes, then, even though he willed himself not to. He had seen it too many times, in the past. Not disdain, exactly, for the life he led, but impatience with it, and a vague sort of confusion, as if she could not quite see how she might fit into it, there being no readily obvious role in which she could envision herself.

"Sure," he said. "I've thought about it."

And he had, especially recently, thought about setting up on his own little spread, running some cattle on it. Maybe even going in on someplace with his brother. It took money, though, even to establish a small ranch, and money was something of which Joe Butler had a fairly short supply. Cow driving didn't exactly offer premium wages, even with John Cannon paying higher than average for good, proven men, and Joe had saved little, seeing no particular need. Even if he had, he knew Janine was not envisioning some little place with a couple of hundred head on it. Suddenly, he could not quite picture her as a working rancher's wife, isolated out in the desert, somewhere, burdened with one hundred percent of the care and maintenance of a husband and family and several additional hands. He was sure , if she saw herself out there, at all, it would be more on the lines of Mrs. Cannon, supervising the running of a large and intricate household. The problem was, Joe wasn't sure he could picture himself as John Cannon, even if he had the means. He was not afraid of hard work, but he did not know if he had Cannon's ambition. Or his capacity for ruthlessness when circumstances necessitated. And yet, what else could he do, keep a store someplace? The idea was totally foreign to him, he had never really done anything besides the work he was doing now, and knew best. He had never wanted to. Looking down into Janine's probing eyes, he felt something start to slip away from him. The feeling gave him almost physical pain.

"We got plenty o' time to talk about that," he said, gesturing her back toward the front of the house with a respectful palm against her back. "We got more important things to worry about, right now.

Janine nodded serenely and let him guide her back. Her expression was thoughtful, though.

Across the yard, down by the bunk house, Sam Butler looked down at his coffee cup, his heart heavy despite his own resolution that Janine Carmichael was his brother's affair and that Joe's choices were none of his business to interfere with. He was resolved to stick to that understanding, resolved to support Joe as best he could, but it was hard to see what he thought he was seeing, and just sit by. Sam had watched the pair walking demurely among the flower beds from a distance, had seen the kiss, although he had not meant to, and he knew that the stolen intimacy should have made him feel better about the whole thing. It didn't, though. It only filled him with a sense of foreboding. He had also seen Janine Carmichael looking with too sharp eyes at the richness of the High Chaparral. And he knew she was drawing comparisons.

"¿Qué pasa, amigo?"

The question startled him out of his reverie, and he looked up to see Manolito standing beside him.

"Nothin' much, amigo," he replied. He was glad, suddenly for the interruption from his gloomy thoughts. Or at least for the company, since Manolito, too, had turned his attention toward the house. The other man took a seat beside him.

"It is terrible," Manolito said, after a moment, "what was done to that woman."

"Yeah."

"I just do not understand a man who could do such things."

Neither did Sam. In all the time he had been married, in those few short years that he and Trinidad had lived together and had their daughter, it had never once occurred to him to lift his hand to her, even when things were at their worst. And they got pretty bad, too, the trouble between Trini's father and Ben Lynch creating some moments of very serious tension, not only in their own home, but also within the community. Still, he had rarely even raised his voice to his wife, and would never have struck her, or their little girl. He had no comprehension of what drove a man like Carmichael to do the things he had done.

"She has suffered much," Manolito continued. "In a way, it almost makes me feel a little guilty."

Sam frowned at him. "Guilty… about what?"

Manolito shrugged. "I do not really know how to explain it," he said. "It is not that I dislike Señora Carmichael. She is a beautiful woman, and it is hard for me to really dislike any beautiful woman, 'eh?" He grinned, then, and Sam smiled with him, although it was clear from his expression that he was still puzzled. "But there is something about her…" Manolito went on, "well, let's just say that it takes one to know one, but I am afraid I do not always find her entirely sincere. There is something that is always on the outside, even of the most innocent question. Something almost…cómo se dice? Some small thing that always steps back to assess and measure. I'm not even sure she realizes it."

Leave it to Mano, thought Sam, to put his finger right on it, where a woman was concerned. "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean," he agreed, almost relieved to have someone else echo his own deepest misgivings.

"I suppose it is something she has had to learn, living as she has," Manolito continued charitably.

"No," replied Sam. "She's pretty much always been like that."

Manolito quirked an eyebrow. "You're brother. He loves her very much."

Sam sighed. "Yeah, Mano, he does."

"And that worries you."

Sam looked up at him. "It worries me some, yeah."

"Because you do not trust that she returns his feelings, even after all he has risked for her."

Sam didn't know whether to resent the accuracy with which his friend drove right into his deepest fears, or to be grateful for it. "Mano, I tell you. I just don't know what to think. But I do know this much. This is Joe's decision. And the only thing I can do is let him make it."

Manolito just nodded gently. "Sí, hombre," he sighed. "It worries me, too."

Sam turned to look at Joe, again, alone now, walking back toward the bunk house. He had spoken no less that the truth. He did not know what to think about this whole situation with his brother and this woman. Manolito had been right, the whole thing just troubled him, and he did not think it had anything to do with the fact that she was a married woman. His sensibilities weren't that tender. But despite the fact that Janine was there with him, now, and despite some evidence of real feeling between them, he just didn't feel like things were going to end up well for Joe. He supposed he was being too much influenced by the past, and that it might make him a little unfair in his judgment, but he had seen such evidence before, and it has brought nothing but pain for his brother. Of course, ten years was a long time, and he knew nothing about the way Janine Bonney Carmichael might have changed in the years between Yuma and the High Chaparral. For better or for worse, though, there was one thing that Sam had decided. Whatever the outcome, Joe had a right to follow his own heart, no matter what his brother might think about it. Sam could do nothing less than honor Joe' choice and stand by him. It didn't stop him from worrying, though.

He let his eyes follow Joe as the other man walked into the bunk house. Sam tossed the dregs of his coffee, now cold, onto the ground. He had work to do, and Mr. Cannon was going to be looking for him. With little more than a nod and a glance at Manolito, he got up and walked on up to the house.

Victoria did not exactly write to her father asking him if he would be kind enough to offer shelter and protection to Janine Carmichael. She wrote to him telling him she was coming down for a visit, and that she was bringing a woman friend with her who was in difficulties and needed of a place to stay for a while. In a way that is only possible between daughters and fathers, she was entirely respectful, but she also made it clear that she expected Don Sebastian to offer Mrs. Carmichael his hospitality for her sake, and she gave him absolutely no room for argument. She offered few specific details as to the means of Janine's escape from Tucson, but she did tell her father about the treatment the other woman had received at the hands of her husband, and she made it very clear to him how very deeply distressed she was about it all.

Don Sebastian could be a very hard man and sometimes even a ruthless one, but he was not cruel. He did not even like to see his horses beaten. He had never raised a hand to either of his children, not even to his son during his most wayward and rebellious adolescence And if he had not exactly prevented the padres and schoolmasters from doing so, neither did he directly order such punishment. In truth, he had indulged his children shamelessly and joyously, and his wife, before her death, he had treated with the essence of genteel courtesy. Anything else would not only have been abhorrent to him, it would have been a sign of singularly base breeding. Carmichael's actions would repulse him, Victoria knew, however reluctant he might be to actually harbor the man's victim. And Don Sebastian would be equally upset that Victoria had been exposed to such brutality. Nonetheless, in the way that daughters knew fathers, she also knew that he would still be loath to get involved, and would look for any way to dodge her supplication without actually coming right out and refusing her. So she decided to save him that distress and simply not give him the opportunity.

Her letter was sent by rider, but Victoria told John that she did not want to wait for an answer before her party started on its way to Rancho Montoya. In the first place, Owen Carmichael was bound to find out what had happened sooner or later, and the sooner his wife was safely ensconced across the border at her father's rancho, the better everyone at the High Chaparral was going to feel about it. And, on the off chance that Don Sebastian actually did outright refuse her entreaty on Mrs. Carmichael's behalf, she reasoned, it would be better if they were already on the road and unable to receive his message until he could give it to her in person. Which, she felt confident, he would not actually do. After all, he was hardly going to turn his only daughter away from his door. And once they were all arrived at the rancho, Victoria felt certain she could bring her father around. John Cannon was also quite sure of it, and not for the first time was glad that his wife's gentle gender would not permit her to enter into politics. Or regretful of that fact, depending upon how one looked at it.

Always an honest woman, particularly with herself, Victoria Cannon had to admit that her haste to be on the road was not only due to her concerns for Janine Carmichael's safety. There was no question that she had been deeply shocked by Janine's condition, and saddened by her plight. And there was no denying that the other woman was deeply terrified of her husband. She had protested, almost violently, when Victoria had offered to go back to Tucson with a couple of the men to retrieve some of her things. Janine had nothing more with her than she had been able to hastily pack into two saddlebags, yet it was as if she had used every ounce of her available courage leaving, and even the thought that someone else might return to that empty hotel room to collect her belongings was more than she could bear. Knowing what she did, Victoria could hardly begrudge her the items that she passed over to make up for the necessities Janine was missing. It wasn't that.

Nonetheless, in the few days that the woman had been sheltering at the High Chaparral, Victoria realized that there was something about Janine Carmichael that made her a little bit uncomfortable. It was not as if she disliked the her, exactly; on the contrary, Victoria did like her and enjoyed having another woman's company around that rancho full of men. And it was almost pathetic how grateful the woman was for the protection the Cannons had provided. She could not say often enough how wonderful the they all were to offer to help her. Nor could she seem to say often enough what a beautiful place the High Chaparral was, how grand the house or magnificent the holdings. Perhaps it was just the fact that those compliments seemed always directed at her husband that bothered Victoria, or if they were not, they were predicated on the certainty that Victoria was so very lucky in her particular marital circumstances. Which was hardly an unexpected sentiment from a woman in Janine's place, but Victoria couldn't help wondering if she was being envied for the gentleness of her husband's behavior toward her, or for the richness of his personal property. And although Janine was not exactly flirtatious when she spoke to John, there was also something annoyingly propitiatory about her behavior when she was in his company. Victoria supposed she might just be a little jealous, herself, and that might be what was hitting the false cord with her. On the other hand, John was little more than distantly polite with the woman, and Victoria also knew that her husband was still less than thrilled with the whole situation.

She might have passed it off as her own imagination had it not been for Manolito. It was no news to Victoria that her brother could rarely resist practicing his charms on any woman, if only out of habit, especially one as beautiful as Mrs. Carmichael. The woman's distress and vulnerability should only have added to her allure. And yet, Manolito, though courteously attentive when need be, seemed uncharacteristically eager to avoid Janine's company whenever he could politely do so. And as much as she hated to admit it, Victoria knew Manolito's instincts were excellent where women were concerned. If he found Mrs. Carmichael troubling, then there had to be something to it, Victoria felt sure of that.

And then there was the whole issue of Joe Butler. Victoria was honest enough to admit that the slightly seamy undertones of that situation bothered her a little bit. Not that she blamed anybody, exactly. She was not a child, and she understood that the demands of the heart could not always be denied, especially under such extraordinary circumstances. Still, she was the product of a strict and very proper Catholic upbringing, and she could not help but wish that Mrs. Carmichael, if she had to come to her attention at all, had done so through some other means.

But more to the point, Victoria was worried about Joe, she was worried about his emotional involvement with this woman. Although she did not know him quite as well as she did his brother, their paths having less opportunity to cross and Joe being more naturally reticent, she though of him, as indeed she did all of the men who had been with the ranch from the beginning, as a member of the Chaparral's extended family. Her concern for him went beyond any possible violation of propriety. Despite his practical nature and study self-reliance, Joe Butler had always seemed to Victoria just a little bit, well, not naïve, exactly, but possessed of an open-hearted guilelessness that was at once entirely winning and something one tended to want to protect. Mrs. Carmichael had told her about the love they had shared years ago when they had been little more than children, and she had even been honest about the mistakes she had made. And there was no doubt in Victoria's mind that Joe still loved Janine Carmichael; his devotion radiated in his eyes on the couple of occasions he had come up to the house to ask after her. And Victoria, passing on his messages, was just as sure that Janine Carmichael did not love him, at least not in the same way, at the same level of intensity. Grateful, yes, caring, maybe. She seemed genuinely happy to receive evidence of Joe's concern. But not, Victoria was sure, in love. Joe Butler was a good man, one of the best Victoria had ever known, but he was neither wealthy nor particularly influential outside of his own small circle. And these were things, she sensed, that were more important to Mrs. Carmichael than they ought to be, if she was planning to make her life with someone like him. Victoria was deeply afraid that Joe was going to get very hurt before circumstances fully resolved themselves, and her natural protectiveness for one of her "family" left her feeling more than a little distressed.

And then there was the very real possibility of threat from Owen Carmichael, who was confirmed a very violent man. Yes, the sooner Janine Bonney Carmichael was gone from the High Chaparral and safely ensconced on her father's rancho, the happier Victoria Montoya Cannon was going to be.

Buck Cannon was not getting rich in any kind of a hurry. In fact, it occurred to him as he sat at a warped table inside Gold Pan's saloon, that he wasn't getting rich at all. In the weeks since he'd left the High Chaparral, he'd made more money playing poker than he had from his mining claim, and he could have done that from the comfort of a Tucson hotel room, without ruining his back and his knees and shoulders into the bargain. Every inch of his body was killing him, it seemed. His back, in particular, hurt him so badly that he almost couldn't sleep at night, no matter how tired he was. He was plenty tired, too; crouching for eight or more hours over a pan full of dirt and water was more exhausting than the most strenuous cattle drive he had ever been on. He wondered how some of those old timers managed, who did it every day of their lives.

He also wondered what was different, this time. It wasn't as if Buck was a stranger to prospecting, he had done it before, and for longer stretches, without this terrible weariness that kept coming over him, now. Sure, he wasn't as young as he used to be, but he wasn't that old, either. And he was still pretty tough, as tough as a man could be who spent his life doing hard manual labor. This was something beyond physical strain, though there was plenty of that, too, as his lower back kept reminding him. That wonderful rush of adventure that usually accompanied his gold mining escapades was just not there, this time. This time, it was just damned hard work and little reward to show for it, no excitement of the hunt, no buoyant and boisterous nights drinking and carousing, no tall tales and camaraderie among the other hopefuls and camp followers. In fact, Buck couldn't remember when he had last felt more lonely, or discouraged, or had less fun.

In a way, it almost would have been better if there hadn't been any gold on his claim at all. Had there been nothing, he might have maintained his bright hopefulness for a while longer, and the sting of defeat would not be sitting quite so sourly on him, now. There was gold on the claim, though. For the first time in his life, he had actually found it. Gold. A little bit. In fact, the claim was averaging about a dollar and a half a day, which made his percentage about thirty seven dollars a month; not bad for a man who usually got paid eight. Or so he had told himself, at the beginning, when disappointment first followed hard on the heels of his realization that he probably wasn't going to become a millionaire any time soon. A dollar and a half a day was all right. Except that it was costing him almost twice that much, a day, on average, to live.

The high cost of living in a mining camp was no particular surprise to Buck, although things did seem a little worse to him than he remembered. A meal that cost two dollars in Tucson cost him seven or eight, in the camp, and it was common to see a couple of dollars charged for a two bit glass of whiskey. And the girls at Gold Pan's didn't give so much as a howdy away for nothing. To make matters worse, Buck found that sleeping for too many nights on the hard plank floor of his cabin after a long day hunched over his pan was far harder on him than sleeping on the ground after any day in the saddle had ever been. For the life of him, he did not know why it should be so, but the pain in his lower back drove him into camp every three or four nights, or so, to spend another three dollars for a cot in a tent off the back of Gold Pan's. If it hadn't been for the poker, he would have been wiped out before the end of the first week.

Poker kept him solvent, more or less, but it didn't exactly fulfill his dreams. Still, he had forced himself into a state of guarded hopefulness, anyway, and had been fairly successful at maintaining it, right up until that morning, when he'd walked up to his claim from his night in town, and had found his partners missing. At first he'd thought they'd just walked down into town to have breakfast, though he couldn't imagine how he had missed them. Either that, or they'd taken a morning stroll along the stream while they were waiting for him to show up. Then he noticed that their horses were missing, along with O'Malley's borrowed mule, and that's when Buck knew he'd been deserted.

He supposed he should have expected it. Gold mining was back-breaking work, as he already knew, and if Buck, himself, was finding it hard to justify the effort with the scant return, his partners were effectively killing themselves for about two bits a day apiece. They had been far better off working for Big John, a point that had occurred to them by the end of the first week. Buck knew this for a fact because both had been very energetic in lodging their complaints against their small percentage. Of course, it wasn't as if the men's disappearance was really going to impact production, that much. Once they had realized Buck wasn't going to increase their piece of the take, neither Ryan nor O'Malley had spent much time actually working the claim, anyway. Still, even if they had not been much real help, they had been some kind of company, an illusion of fraternity. Now that they were gone without so much as a good-bye, Buck just felt betrayed and abandoned. He spent a couple of hours working the claim alone, telling himself that it was just as well, it was fifty more cents a day he could keep for himself, but it was too discouraging and his back just hurt him too much to continue. He headed down to Gold Pan's well before noon. He didn't have enough cash to get really drunk, and he needed to keep something aside to get into a game, later, but at least there were a few people around, some semblance of company.

Gold Pan, herself, met him at the door.

"You're lookin' a little low, Buck, you feelin' awright?"

"Oh, howdy, Goldie," he sighed. "You right, I guess I am feelin' a little po'ly, today. You might say that." He found himself a table and sat down.

"Well, that's what you git for eatin' down to Lloyd's, 'stead o' my good grub here. You eat in that slop house, you gotta expect a belly-ache. Serves you right."

Buck smiled, knowing she didn't mean the criticism unkindly. It was just her back-handed way of showing concern. He liked Gold Pan, even if she was as tight-fisted with money as she was loose in her other habits. Goldie could not be mistaken for a beautiful woman, even if a man was stone drunk and blind, but she was brash and funny, with a ribald sense of humor she was not shy about displaying and a singular ability to view the world, and human nature as it really was. Buck found her very good company. Gold Pan did not expect a whole lot out of life, and was therefore rarely plagued with the bitterness of disappointment. And, for some odd reason, she had taken a particular shine to Buck, and had appointed herself as guardian of his well being and best interests. Buck, at that low moment, was grateful enough for her concern.

"Aw, Goldie, the prices you charge, I cain't afo'd to eat in your est-ablishment, but mebbe now an' then on a Sunday o' somethin'. Anyway, it ain't my stomach botherin' me. It's just that Jack and Charley, they done took off, musta been sometime last night. They was gone when I got up to the claim this mo'nin', them and they hosses and that jack-ass o' O'Malley's. They didn't even say good-bye."

Gold Pan nodded. She had been expecting as much, having recognized the symptoms. And what could these men expect, really? Who in their right mind was going to stay around and perform that kind of slave labor for the few pennies their shares might glean? The real prospectors, those jack-ass boys who made it their lives, well Goldie had always figured it was more the idea of the search that drove them than the reality of finding gold. They probably didn't even want to find it, since finding would end the looking, and then what would they do with their lives. But these boys from town, they were a different story. They really expected to get rich, and the work wore them down pretty quickly. She told Buck as much.

"They steal anythin' from you?" she asked.

"No they didn't steal nothin'," Buck replied. "You mean to tell me you knew they was goin'? An' you didn't say nothin' to me about it?"

"I din't exactly know," she corrected him. "But it don't surprise me, neither. I could see it in 'em. They wasn't stayers, Buck-o, you shudda seen that. They just din't have it in 'em to do this kinda work, for pennies." And in Gold Pan's opinion, she wasn't so sure Buck Cannon had it in him, either. It was just taking him longer than most to figure it out.

Buck scowled at what was left of his whiskey. "Yeah, Goldie, I reckon you be right about that. Sure is lonesome up there all by mysel', though. Jack and Charley, they wu'nt much he'p, but at least they was some kind o' company."

Gold Pan sighed, torn between irritation at the self-pity in Buck's voice, and genuine feeling for his pain. "Why'ncha go home, Buck?" she told him gently. "Give this fool thing up. An' if you don't want ta do that" she added, seeing his look, "at least, go home for a little while. Visit with your kin, pick up a little sumpin' to freshen your stake. Eat some decent food. Sleep in a real bed. You'll feel a lot better."

Buck looked away. "Naw, I reckon I'll be stayin' here," he said.

The woman frowned down at him, suspecting something he wasn't saying. Her expression shifted as she thought, and then she nodded, coming to some decision.

"Well, then, you jist sit here, Buck," she said. "What you need is some o' my good stew and some corn bread."

"Now, Goldie, I done tol' you I cain't afo'd you prices…"

She leaned closer to him. "You like my stew, dontcha, Buck?"

"Well, yeah, I like yo' stew. S'good stew, you make a fine one," he replied, meaning it. Gold Pan was a damn good cook, actually.

She leaned closer still. "Then this time it's on the house, but don't you go tellin' nobody, you hear me?"

Buck looked up at her in astonishment. Gold Pan's reputation was almost apocryphal up there in the diggings; she never gave anything away for free. There were those who claimed that if a man caught a cold in her place, she'd charge him for it. Though they weren't always polite enough to call it a cold. He just nodded, though, suddenly feeling very hungry. And Goldie did make a very nice beef stew.

"Much obliged, Goldie," he sighed. "That's right nice o' you to offer."

"I'll be right back," she said. "An' you think on what I said about goin' home, Buck."

Home, he thought as he watched her walk away. He looked back down at his now empty whiskey glass. She had told him to go home, as if it would be as easy as getting on his horse and going there. But Gold Pan couldn't know that what used to be home for Buck Cannon was no longer an option open to him. Jack and Charley's desertion had finally made him face up to that. It wasn't that he missed them, personally; hell, he hadn't really even liked them that much, when you came right down to it. But now that they were gone, Buck felt his loneliness just that much more strongly. He missed his family. He missed his nephew, whom he loved like he was his own son, he missed Sam and the boys who were his bosom companions. He even missed that scoundrel Manolito, maybe even more than he missed the others. Victoria. He missed the sun coming in through his window in the morning, and the smell of Victoria's coffee wafting up the stairs before breakfast. The bunk house card games, and the conversations, and the practical jokes. Reno's guitar picking. Even the work, the long hours in the saddle, the smell of leather and cattle and sweat. He missed it all, more than he ever thought he could. But most of all, he missed his brother. For most of his life, John had been there; those few years when they had been divided, when political loyalties and war had separated them, had been a hard, untethered existence for Buck. He had hardly recognized himself, for much of them, and when John had finally caught up with him, and asked him to join his dream of a place in Arizona, well, Buck hadn't needed much convincing. And every time, there after, that they had fallen out, and Buck had left in a temper, it had been with the secret assurance that John would come and get him, eventually. He always had. John Cannon was there, like a bastion against the world, his ground rope and his safety net. And, as much as he sometimes hated to admit it, his inspiration.

But this time, John wasn't going to come get him. He wasn't going to bring him home. It was different, this time. This time, it wasn't Buck Cannon having a tantrum and his brother telling him he could go find something better if he wasn't happy, this time his brother had asked him to stay, almost begged him. And then ordered him. And he had refused. He had left anyway. He could not expect to be forgiven for that. What he had told Gold Pan was true, he would be staying in the diggings, but not because he still believed he was going to strike it rich there. He had no where else to go. The home he knew did not exist for him, anymore. He could stay in the mining camp, or maybe head off to Texas or back to Kansas where he still might have some old friends. Places he could find work, driving somebody else's cattle. But never again on the High Chaparral. He was going to have to decide something pretty soon, too. He knew that. He couldn't live on poker winnings, forever.

It wasn't pride that kept him from going back and begging his brother's forgiveness. Oh, pride was part of it, he supposed, but if Buck had had any sense that he might have been successful, he'd have found some excuse to go back, to try to patch things up. He was afraid. Deep down inside him, he just wasn't sure he would be welcomed, that John wouldn't just tell him that he had made his decision, and now he had to live with it. John Cannon could be a cold and ruthless man, Buck had seen it all of his life. And his brother had been deeply angered, Buck knew that, too. And when John Cannon made up his mind about something, he tended not to change it. There was no guarantee that he would be the least bit willing to let bygones be bygones. As long as he did not outright ask to come back, Buck could pretend that the option might remain for someday, but to go and ask and be turned away at the door was too terrible to contemplate, to final an act to risk. So he wouldn't risk it. Home would remain an option he would chose not to exercise, possibly for the rest of his life.

Buck swallowed the lump in his throat and hastily swiped at his eyes as Gold Pan returned with his dinner. It smelled wonderful, the first comfort he had felt in a long time.

"Aw, Goldie, that do look appetizin'…" The savory aroma did manage to banish his forlornness, at least for a little while. Buck tucked his napkin up under his chin and picked up a spoon. Beside him, Gold Pan, whose real name was actually Mary Bakerson, from Boston, Massachusetts, smiled sadly and walked away, again.

Victoria's party was starting out much later in the day for their journey to Sonora than John Cannon would have liked, but there didn't seem to be much he could do about it. Women, he supposed, would dally over the most inconsequential trivia, when travel was involved. What to take, what not to take, as if Don Sebastian could not have provided for their every whim and then some. In any case, they appeared to be finally ready. Bags stood in piles on the porch, and Cannon could not help but wonder what all his wife was packing to Mexico. Mrs. Carmichael, at any rate, had very little of her own, so all that luggage could not have been hers. He watched as Manolito drove the rig over, and Joe and Pedro led their horses up beside him.

"So where is my sister and the lovely Mrs. Carmichael?"

John looked from Manolito to the house. It was true that the bags were all there, but the passengers still seemed to be missing. He sighed.

"Let me go see if I can rustle them up. Sam," he turned to his foreman, "you boys get that baggage loaded, will you?"

Sam nodded. "Sure thing, Mr. Cannon."

It was a tough moment for Sam. What he had told John Cannon when his boss had asked was true, for his brother's sake he hoped Joe found good reason to stay in Mexico, and later go on to California or wherever it was Janine Bonney finally landed. But hoping so, and even meaning it, didn't make the reality any easier. This might be the last time he would see his brother for quite a good while, the brother who had been by his side, with very few interruptions of any length, for most of his life. There were suddenly things he wanted to say, that he didn't know how to, and would not have the opportunity, now, even if he did, not with all those other people milling around. He swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and leaned down to grasp the handle of Victoria's big trunk. It shifted before he could get a good grip, and he looked up to see Joe on the other handle. For a moment, the two brothers just looked at each other, all the words neither of them knew how to say passing between them in that glance. Then Sam smiled a little and nodded, and they lifted as one person and heaved the trunk into the back of the buckboard.

They heard scraping on the porch and turned as Big John came out with Victoria on his arm, and Janine following behind them, hanging back a little as they came through the door.

"What's the problem?" Cannon whispered as he led Victoria past the men and stopped beside the buck board.

"I think she is just a little frightened, John," his wife replied gently. "It is a big step she is taking, leaving her husband like this. Even such as one as hers. I think she is afraid for her future."

"I'd think she'd have more cause to be afraid if she stayed with him," John replied, wondering for the umpteenth time how he had managed to let himself get dragged into the middle of all of this.

Back with the luggage, Sam and Joe exchanged a glance. Then Joe turned to where Janine was still standing in the door way, looking suddenly very uncertain.

"Go on," said Sam. "I'll finish this." Joe hesitated, but only for an instant. "Pedro!" Sam called as his brother walked away, "Ven aquí. Gimme a hand with this stuff."

Janine looked up as Joe stopped in front of her, and smiled shyly.

"What's the matter?"

"I don't know, Joe… I just don't know if I'm doing the right thing. If you brought me back to Tucson, now, Owen would never have to know about any of this…"

"If I brought you back to Tucson, now, Owen would kill you. You've said so yourself."

"I know I said that. It's just… I don't know what's going to happen to me, Joe. I've never been alone before."

"And you ain't alone now." He took her by both arms. "Everything's gonna be all right."

She looked at him solemnly. "Promise?"

Joe nodded. "I promise." And in that moment, he even believed it. "Come on," he said. "They're all a-waitin' on ya." He guided her gently with an arm across her shoulders over to the buckboard. She hesitated for a moment, leaning into his side, and then let him lift her up onto the back seat.

"Mrs. Carmichael…" Manolito nodded.

On the other side of the rig, John prepared to do the same with Victoria. She was not quite through with him, though.

"Give my best to your father…" he said, hoping to hurry her along.

Victoria nodded. "I will John… John?"

"What?" He tried not to sound exasperated.

"About Buck, John… Now, don't look at me like that, you know I am right. Please… promise me that you will at least think about what I have said? Go to him, John. He won't come home unless you do, you know that. And he needs to come home. You know that you want him to very badly, my husband."

John Cannon make a face. And then he nodded. "You're right, as usual, wife." He smiled, then. "All right, if it will make you happy, as soon as I know you're all safely at your father's ranch, I'll take a ride up to that mining camp and see if I can find him. And I'll ask him to come home, again. Mind you, there's no guarantee he'll do it," he added hastily, watching her expression brighten. "That brother of mine has a mind of his own, and he's shown no sign up to now of wanting to come back."

"Oh, John, I know he does. He is just waiting for you to ask him. Thank you, my husband…" and she kissed him soundly. Still shaking his head, Cannon lifted her up beside her brother.

"Now, Mano, you don't have to kill this team doing it, but don't waste any time getting to Rancho Montoya. I'll feel a lot better about all of this when I know you're all off the road."

"Don't worry, John," assured Manolito. "We will be safely to my father in no time."

"Joe, you keep an eye on him," Cannon continued as Joe and Pedro both swung up onto their horses. "No detours."

Joe touched the brim of his hat and grinned. "Don't you worry, Boss."

"Joe keep an eye on me!" Manolito sputtered, to the general laughter of the others. Joe smiled down at Janine, and then gave a quick, backward glance toward Sam. His brother nodded. He turned his horse toward the gate and Manolito clucked up the team.

As they left, John walked over to stand beside his foreman.

"You know, Sam, I wish I could feel better about all of this…"

Sam nodded. "Yeah. Me, too."

"Well," sighed John, "done is done. They'll be safely in Sonora in a couple of days, and then we've got nothing to do but wait and see if your friend Carmichael decides to do anything about it." And then he would, Cannon told himself, keep his promise to his wife and go see if he could find that damned fool brother of his and bring him home, if he had to tie him up and drag him. He glanced over at Sam, and watched him watching the dust of the buckboard disappearing in the distance.

"Come on. We've got work to do," he said, clapping the other man on the shoulder. "I've been meaning to talk to you about that herd down in the south range. Now's as good a time as any."

Sam nodded and followed him back toward the house.

It had taken Owen Carmichael close to a week to convince himself that his partners really were not stealing from him, and that things were really as bad as they had said. At first, he had simply not believed it, and then he had been too afraid to. Everything he had in the world was tied up in those mines, and if they were really as played out as they seemed to be, he was ruined, plain and simple. He had only one option open to him, and that was to sell the claims. Ordinarily, such a choice would not have bothered him, he had no emotional attachment to his investments. He had no ego tied up in gold mining beyond the goal of making money. The problem was not parting with his claims, per se, it was with the timing. It was just not a good economic climate in which to be forced to sell. The first mad rush to the placers was dying down, as word got back to the surrounding towns about the true lack of success there. The market for gold mines was starting to dry up, and unless he was very clever, Carmichael was unlikely to make back even what he had spent on them, let alone make a profit.

He briefly considered salting the claims to make them appear more enticing, and had not actually rejected the possibility, but he was hesitant to try it unless all other options came up dry. His reluctance had nothing to do with the basic dishonesty of the practice. His concerns were entirely practical. Salting a placer mine was just a lot harder to do than salting a dug one. Gold was an extremely soft and malleable metal. Making some pinched out glory hole look like the mother lode was as simple as loading a few of dollars worth of gold dust into a shot gun and blasting the walls with it. The more gold you invested in the "salt," the richer the claim could be made to look, but relatively speaking, the investment was still minimal. Salting a placer, with no rock walls to smear gold shot against, was a much more difficult and costly proposition. And it required an initial outlay of gold dust and nuggets that Carmichael was loath to part with, on the off chance that he could convince some sucker to buy the claim for more than the gold he invested was worth.

Owen Carmichael had come to the mountains not a very happy man, and it looked like he was destined to leave them a dangerously frustrated, and nearly paupered, one. So his mood was already pretty black when he walked into Gold Pan's saloon that afternoon, and saw Buck Cannon sitting alone at a table in the corner, concentrating on his free bowl of stew. He took a table near Buck only because it was empty; although the afternoon was still early, the saloon was already starting to fill up. As had become more and more the case of late, the would-be gold hounds of the Santa Ritas were giving up on their hopeless tasks earlier and earlier in the day, preferring the relative cool of the saloons in camp to the hot, dirty diggings. After all, they, like Buck, had figured out they had just as good a chance to make some money playing poker or faro, and it was a lot easier on body and soul. Owen Carmichael did not know Buck. He had seen him around the mining town in the previous week, but neither man had made much of an impression on the other. To Carmichael, Buck Cannon was just another ne’er-do-well would-be prospector. He had no idea how important a role the other man was about to play in the central tragedy of his own life as he pulled out a chair, and sat down.

Owen Carmichael had a lot to worry about, and only part of his trouble stemmed from his failing investments. His financial woes were only a distraction from the real trouble eating at his mind. As much as he tried to tell himself that, as a responsible businessman, his money was the more important consideration, he could not stop dwelling upon the insult of his wife's audacity. And more precisely, he could not stop thinking about the man involved, who he might be, who could have tempted his wife to take such a step as to deceive him. His mind churned on what they might have said, planned, done together. What they might be doing, now. On the one hand, he was sure that he had cowed her sufficiently to ensure that she could be left unsupervised, that he had been perfectly right and justified leaving her alone while he tended to business. Yet, the longer he was away, the more convinced he became that this man, whoever he was, might get through to her, again. After all, she was a very weak and stupid woman. And a conniving, deceitful one, too. He almost hoped she was, at that moment, cavorting in some bed of sin with her as yet undiscovered lover. It would give him all the justification he needed take his revenge against them, ride back into Tucson and shoot them both in the act. The idea actually gave him some small rush of pleasure. No one would blame him for it, after all. Any man with sense would applaud him.

Owen Carmichael liked company in his misery, and he had not been shy about expressing his worries out loud, especially after the reality of his financial failure had finally hit home. That he should have to suffer the indignity of a wayward wife on top of economic ruin seemed more than any one man should have to bear. Far from playing the cuckold, Carmichael seemed to revel in describing his troubles, and what he was going to do when he found out who had been tampering with his wife. The men he had taken into his confidence all agreed he had only one course of action. It was not just his right, it was his duty. After all, what if every female got into her head that she could do as she pleased, despite her husband, come and go at will, take any man she wanted into her bed? It could happen to any one of them, women being what they were, a fact that Carmichael did not tire of pointing out to his equally ruined, and now equally worried, compatriots. He had an obligation to set an example.

Buck Cannon was not unaware of Carmichael's murderous thoughts, the man was vocal enough about them. He had no way of knowing the extent to which he was about to become intimately involved, though. He was just eating his free stew and feeling sorry, waiting for a few of his acquaintances to come. As other people he knew filtering in, he gestured them to his table.

"Howdy, boys," he called to them generally as they sauntered over. "You done give up fo' the day?"

"Looks like you beat us to that idea, Buck," said one man known only as Choy to the others, not because he was oriental, but because he looked rather like a cholla cactus, short, and brown and covered with spiny hair that looked like it would stick if touched. "You figgerin' on a card game tonight?"

"I thought a little cards might pass the time, yeah."

"Aw… Hell, here comes that crazy…"

Buck looked up. It was about that time of the afternoon when Lish Farquarson’s addled brother liked to amble over to the saloon from his brother's store. Gold Pan didn't really like it, but she tolerated him because a number of her customers found him amusing. And it had become a well known fact that Eights Farquarson had taken a shine to Buck Cannon and spent a lot of time up on Cannon's claim, and that Buck Cannon had set himself up as something of a protector for the mentally fragile Eights. It was no surprise, then, that it was Buck's table Eights sought.

"Well, howdy there, Eights, where you been all day?"

"Lish's… Lish's store. Howdy Buck." Eights pulled out a chair and sat down. "I been he'ping Lish wit' his stock."

"Why tha's great Eights. One o' you fellas git my frien' Eights, here, a sarsaparilla, wudja?" asked Buck. "I'm plumb broke."

"Hey, Buck, ain't you struck it rich yit?" The question came from a man named Brady, who was sitting at Owen Carmichael's table.

"Rich as you, Brady," replied Buck, who didn't like the man much.

"Buck, why do you encourage this crazy…" It was Choy, wagging a thumb at Eights, as if the man could not understand him. Which Choy probably believed. But Buck knew better.

"Why Eights, here, is my friend, ain't that right, Eights," he replied, putting a hand out on the man's shoulder, and eyeing Choy hard. "An' my frien's is always welcome to sit at my table."

"That's right, Buck," agreed Eights, nodding happily, and glaring at Choy. "We good frien's, you an' me."

"Buck, you pullin' out like everybody else around here? Or you still holdin' out hope for that sorry stream o' piss-water you call a claim…"

Although they might yarn, or outright lie, back in Tucson, up there in the placers there were few secrets; everyone knew who was going bust and who was doing all right. Very few of the men up there were doing all right, and many had already pulled out and headed back for Tucson. Buck Cannon just glowered over the question. "How come everybody 'round here keeps trying to git me ta go home, all of a sudden. Don't you boy's enjoy my company no mo'?"

"Mebbe you oughta do like ol' Ralph Comstock, Buck," someone offered, laughing. "He ain't givin' up neither. I hear he got himself a dowsin' stick to he'p him - sez with a name like his, he cain't he'p but strike it rich… wunt be natural otherwise…"

But Buck was listening to the chatter around him with only half an ear. It was the company he sought, not the seriousness of the conversation. He knew most of it for what it really was, the banter of deeply discouraged men, most of whom had spent every penny they had to be there and who had no place else to go, trying to bolster up their courage for one more night.

And at the table beside him, Owen Carmichael was paying even less attention.

"So, when you goin' back to Tucson?" Brady asked him. Carmichael scowled.

"Next day or so," he replied. "Got business to take care of."

"You goin' after that fella's been sniffin' round your wife?"

Carmichael's just looked at him. He was beginning to wish he had been less quick to bring men like Brady into his confidence. It wasn't that he minded the other men knowing how he had been wronged, in fact he basked in their righteous indignation. But Carmichael knew that such news traveled faster than he might like, and he didn't want the bastard who was tampering with his wife to catch wind and get away before he could get his hands on him.

"I'll get him, all right," he promised. "Just as soon as I find out who he is. And then I'll put an end to his interfering with other men's women. Permanently."

Brady looked down at his beer. "Kinda drastic, ain't it?" he asked mildly.

Carmichael glowered darkly. "Not in my book. A man steals a horse or rustles cattle, he hangs for it. Right? No questions asked. The way I see it, this ain't no different. Let him get away with it once, he'll be after your woman, next time."

Brady, a bachelor, was unimpressed, but there were enough murmurs of agreement and encouragement from the faces around him to tell Carmichael that he had hit a common nerve. Plenty of those faces looked twisted with the thought of what might be going on in their own homes while they were up there in the mountains seeking, and losing, their fortunes.

Brady just shrugged. "Providin' she'll tell ya who he is."

"Oh, she'll tell me." He was absolutely sure of that. He should have beaten it out of her properly before he left, would have, had he not been interrupted. But there was plenty of time for that.

"If she's still there," offered a new voice.

Carmichael turned and found Lish Farquarson standing over his shoulder. He didn't remember telling Farquarson any of his story, and he realized it was spreading even faster than he thought. There was no time to waste, that was for sure. He would leave for Tucson in the morning. He glared at Farquarson. He didn't like the storekeeper much. The feeling was mutual.

"She'll be there."

"Oh, I don't know, Carmichael, you up here and her all the way down in Tucson, seems like the perfect opportunity for her to skedaddle. 'Specially if she hears about the state o' your finances… maybe she got lucky with some rich rancher, hereabouts, we got us a few, I'm told. I was you, I might be a little worried."

Carmichael came half way out of his chair. "You know somethin', pal, you better spill it. Pronto," he threatened. "Otherwise, you shut the hell up."

Farquarson backed up a step, but otherwise showed no particular fear. "Oh, I don't know anything. Just speculatin'. Just passin' the time."

"Well, don't," Carmichael said, lowering himself slowly. "A mouth like that could run you straight into a coffin, you ought to watch it more careful. And as for my wife… she be there when I get back, and she'll talk, believe me." He said it just loud enough to generate a few more approving murmurs.

At his own table, Buck Cannon frowned. He did not really know Carmichael's story, though he had heard a few things, as had everyone else. And he certainly didn't approve of a woman running loose on her husband. On the other hand, it didn't take genius to see that Carmichael was a miserable bastard who probably treated any wife of his very poorly. He didn't suppose he could blame the woman much if she did take off. In any case, it was none of his business, and anyway, he had more immediate considerations at his own table to occupy him; Eights had come to his feet at the apparent threat to his brother, and was looking dangerous. Buck grabbed him.

"Now, Eights, you jist siddown, boy. Them two, they's jist funnin'. Ain't no harm meant nor done." He pulled gently on the other man's arm. Eights sat down slowly.

"That man. I doan like him, Buck."

"I doan like him, neither," said Buck, "but they ain't no law agin runnin' you mouth. An' your brother, he sorta askin' fo' it." He looked up at Farquarson, who had just walked over. "What you wanta go an' rile him like that fo'?"

Farquarson put his hand on his brother's shoulder. "Buck's right, Eights. You just sit down and drink you sarsaparilla. Ain't nobody gettin' into nothin'." He looked at Buck. "I dunno, really. I guess he's just such an easy target, I couldn't resist."

"You gonna git yersel' shot, you keep it up," Buck grumbled. Farquarson just laughed. "Well, pull up a chair seein' as how yer here," Buck concluded, shaking his head.

"So what happened to them partners of yours," Farquarson asked, pulling up a chair and sitting down. "Hey, Goldie, get me a whiskey, wudja, honey? An' another one for Buck, here."

"Damned if I know, Lish, and tha's the truth of it," Buck replied as Gold Pan set the whiskeys down in front of them. "Obliged." He raised the glass in salute. Farquarson shrugged. Buck took a sip before continuing. "I got back up to my claim this mornin' they was gone. Them and the jack-ass."

"Didn't you tell me they used to work for your brother out on the High Chaparral?" asked Farquarson. "You figger they went back there? I guess mebee drivin' cattle might be easier than diggin' in the mud all day."

"They did, an' I doubt it," Buck replied. "Not if they got the sense to value they hides. Ol' Big John was very clear he don't ever want ta see any man back who left the Chaparral to go chasing gold. He feels powerful strong about that, too, lemme tell you."

"I take it your brother don't approve of prospectin'?"

"Big John don't know everythin'," Buck grumbled sourly, not exactly answering the question.

"Hey, Buck." It was Brady. "John Cannon got a thing aginst gold miners in general, or jist ones who used to work fo' him."

"Wha's a matter, Brady?" Farquarson baited. "You thinkin' on givin' up this glamorous occupation to go chase cows?"

"I might be," Brady admitted.

"That Sam Butler's foreman out ta your brother's place, ain't he, Buck?" asked Choy. "I hear he's a pretty tough hombre to work under."

Buck smiled, in spite of himself. "Yeah, Sam's foreman o' the Chaparral," he replied, his voice full of pride, "an' yeah, he can be pretty tough if you be a slacker or a troublemaker. He ain't too tolerant o' men like that. Sam works hard, and he expects the men to work hard just like him. But if you be a good, hard workin' hand, you cain't ask fo' a better crew boss. I reckon our Sam Butler's about the best they is…"

The name of Sam Butler jumped out at Owen Carmichael like an insult. Butler. He knew that name well, although he never expected to hear it, again. Sam Butler, and that brother of his. Joe. It had been years, nearly ten of them, since he had last heard the name of Butler, or seen one of them. Ten years since he had taken Joe Butler up like a challenge and beaten his supposed prior claim. A raw boy without a cent to his name and fewer prospects, there had almost been no contest. And once the boy had left Yuma station, Owen had never expected to see him, again. Yet, here was his brother turning up again, foreman of some local cattle ranching operation. And Carmichael just bet Joe Butler was still riding with him, working with him in the same place, or someplace near by. It might help to explain a few things. In fact, it probably explained a hell of a lot. An icy rage settled over him as leaned back in his chair.

"'Scuse me, did I just hear you say that someone named Sam Butler works somewhere around here?"

Buck looked over at him, puzzled by his interest but not yet alarmed by it. "Yeah, I said that. Sam Butler's ranch foreman fo' my brother on the High Chaparral, south o' Tucson. Why, you know him from somewhere?"

Carmichael shrugged and got to his feet slowly. "Could be I might," he replied evenly, walking over to Buck's table. "He wouldn't happen to have a brother, would he? Name o' Joseph, I believe?"

Buck nodded. "Yeah, Joe. Joe Butler. He works fo' us, too. Both them Butlers do. They's good men, damn good hands. Good frien's, too. Howda you know 'em?"

Carmichael leaned across the table into Buck's face. "I know 'em cuz that son-of-a-bitch Joe Butler's the one's been dallyin' with my wife," he shouted. "He's the one, boys! I shudda known it. Butler used to sniff around her back when I first met her, 'for I drove him off. Thought I'd gotten rid o' him, but I guess I was wrong! But now I know who it is I'm goin' after! Who's with me?"

Buck just stared at him in astonishment. "Now, wait jist a doggone minit, mister, you got yer facts all wrong. Joe Butler ain't courtin' no regular sweetheart I know of, 'specially not nobody's wife..." But even as he said it, Buck remembered Joe's odd behavior in Tucson, and that strange woman on the sidewalk. He remembered snatches of whispered conversation overheard between Sam and Manolito, and he remembered the man that night in Tucson who he had thought was Joe and then decided wasn't.

"It's him! I know it. Who's with me, boys?" Carmichael shouted, again. There were a number of excited murmurs from the crowd of bored and restless men.

"Now, hold on!" Buck shouted back. "Jist what're you fixin' on doin'?"

"You shut up!" Carmichael snarled, reaching across the table and grabbing the front of Buck's shirt. Surprised and off balance, there was nothing Buck could do as Carmichael dragged him half to his feet and over the top if the table. "You bloody son-of-a-bitch! Why, I oughta shoot you jist for knowin' him! You been aidin' and abettin'…"

Buck never got a chance to regain his footing. Beside him, something roared, and the table was shoved nearly out from under him. A gun exploded, but Buck couldn't determine who had fired the shot, or at whom. He didn't feel any pain, so he didn't think he had been the target. He tried to right himself. He heard a strangled cry, like that of an animal, and someone shout "Lije!" which completely baffled him.

"It was self-defense!" cried Carmichael. "You all saw. He was comin' right at me, I didn't have no choice!"

Buck finally stood up and looked down. Elisha Farquarson sat on the floor beside him with the limp form of his brother cradled in his lap.

"He wasn't armed," Farquarson nearly sobbed. "He didn't carry a gun, I wouldn't ever let him. You shot down an unarmed man in cold blood, you bastard! Lije…"

Buck crouched down. "Is he…" Farquarson just nodded. "Lije?" asked Buck, still not taking it all in.

"Elijah," said Farquarson. "That was his Christian name. Oh, poor Lije, poor Eights…"

"What happened?" Buck asked softly.

"He was tryin' to help you. That Carmichael grabbed you, and he just went after him. Carmichael just drew on him and shot. He didn't have to… Everybody around here knew Eights didn't carry no gun."

Buck got to his feet, slowly. Carmichael was already half way out the door. "Stop him!" Buck shouted. But nobody moved.

"It was self defense, and you can't prove it wasn't," Carmichael said tightly, waving his gun in the air. The whites of his eyes were showing wildly and his breath was coming in short gasps, now. "Damn fool crazy, somebody shudda shot him a long time ago, before he hurt somebody. Come on, boys. I've still got me a job to do. Leave the crazy. I'm gonna go have a word with this man's been foolin' with my wife, and then I'm gonna do to him what I just done to this loco. An' anybody else who gets in my way! A man's got a right to protect his interests! Who knows where this High Chaparral's at?"

They probably went more to get out of the present circumstances than out of any real sense of support for Carmichael's cause, but nearly half a dozen men followed Owen out the door. "Chaparral's off the Nogales road," somebody offered. "Ways north o' here…"

Buck only hesitated for a moment, his thoughts whirling into some semblance of sense as he made his decision. He crouched again.

"Somebody's gotta go for the law, Buck," sobbed Farquarson. "He was my brother. He was all I had."

Buck closed his arm around the man's shoulders, hugging him tightly. "I'll go, Lish. We'll git him. But, I gotta do somethin' else, first. I gotta go back to the High Chaparral, I gotta warn my brother."

It was that simple. Whatever edict John Cannon may have laid down, whatever pride Buck might have normally had to swallow in order to return there, all of that was negated. If Carmichael got to the Chaparral with John unsuspecting, blood would flow before that party of cutthroats could be subdued, and some of it was bound to be his brother's. Buck had seen murder in Owen Carmichael's eyes, murder, and a madness born of rage and of the desperation that comes from already having killed a man in cold blood. John had to be warned. Buck had no fear that his brother could defend his life and his home against Carmichael if he knew what was coming, but he had to be told. And Buck was the only one who could get the message to him in time. There were short cuts through the desert that Buck knew and Carmichael didn't. If he left right away, he could get back there before Carmichael's "war party" arrived. He could stand at his brother's side when Carmichael got there. And maybe, once it was all over, somebody might explain to him what it was all about.

Elisha Farquarson just nodded. Buck got to his feet again. The saloon was silent; those men who had not gone with Carmichael were still standing stunned around Farquarson and his fallen brother. Buck just pushed through them wordless and ran for his horse.

II

Buck rode as if all the fiends in hell were after him, and in a sense, they were. He had the benefit of knowing the terrain, as much of the land he was crossing abutted Chaparral range, but even taking advantage of the short cuts he knew, he still could not be sure how much of an advantage he would really be giving his brother over Carmichael. A couple of hours, if he was lucky. Enough time to arm and barricade, though. Enough time for John Cannon to prepare.

The desert passed like a blur under his horse's feet. Buck saw little of his surroundings, trusting his mount to chose the safest route over the broken ground. His only concern, and his singular goal, was the High Chaparral, and he did not begin to truly focus until he saw the wind mill of the compound water tower in the near distance. He didn't slow down until he was through the gate.

"Riders comin'!!" It was Blue, on the watch tower at the rear of the compound, who saw him coming though the back gate. "Pa! It's Uncle Buck!"

John ran out of the house with Sam right behind him, just as Buck pulled his lathered horse to a stop.

"Buck! You're home…" John simply could not believe it. He was almost too stunned to feel anything, neither joy nor confusion. He hardly even registered his brother's agitated state. Buck almost threw himself off his horse.

"Big John, we got trouble," he gasped. "There's some fella was up in the placers… John, this ain't gonna make much sense, but you gotta listen, this fella's riding hard fo' Chaparral, right now, with a party o' armed men with him, and he's lookin' fo' blood. I don't know if I can 'splain it, but he's got hissel' some story 'bout our Joe Butler runnin' off with his wife. Now, I know that sounds crazy…"

John did not let him finish. "Carmichael…" he spat at Sam.

"Sounds like it," Sam agreed. "How long ago did he leave?"

Buck looked bewildered. "You mean, you know somethin' about it? Big John, wha's goin' on? Wha's this all about? You mean our Joe did run off with this Carmichael's wife?"

John sighed. "Buck, it's just too complicated to explain right now, but yes, Joe is with Mrs. Carmichael. She's somebody the Butlers knew a long time ago. This man Carmichael has been mistreating her badly. Joe brought her here for her protection." Which was at least most of the truth. The rest he would have to try to explain later. "About where do you figger Carmichael, now?"

"Wall, I 'spect he's ridin' up the Nogales road. I came over the desert, I left right after he did, so I figger we got a couple o' hours fo' he gits here."

John just looked sick. "Victoria's on the Nogales road…"

"I'll go get the boys mounted up, Mr. Cannon," said Sam. But John held up a hand.

"Wait a minute, Sam. Buck, how long ago did Carmichael leave?"

"I doan know, John, an hour an' a half, mebbe two hours. I took a couple of short cuts I know, so I'm pretty well ahead o' him, anyway. But I doan unnerstan'. Wha's Victoria doin' on the Nogales road?"

"She and Mano are taking Mrs. Carmichael to Rancho Montoya. We thought she'd be safer there. And Joe is with them. They left over an hour ago. If Carmichael's already been on the road a couple of hours, comin' this way…"

"He'll reach Mrs. Cannon before we can…" Sam did the math in his head. He gave Cannon a quick look, and John nodded, gesturing him away. Sam bolted toward the bunk house.

Buck looked horrified as the reality of the situation began to sink in. "Tha's bad, John… tha's real bad."

"Buck. Just how far will this Carmichael go?"

"I reckon he'll go about as far as a man, kin, brother. He already done killed an unarmed man in col' blood. I'm gonna need me a fresh horse…"

"Buck…" John reached out, suddenly, and caught the other man by the arm as he started to turn away. "Thank you. Thank you for coming home…"

For a moment, the two men just looked at each other, as Sam and the others rode up. Sam had John's horse saddled, and had shifted Buck's tack onto a fresh mount. Buck just nodded once, not trusting his voice, then reached over and closed his hand around John's arm.

"Les ride, big brother," he croaked. "Time's a-wastin'…"

He grabbed the reins from Sam and swung up into the saddle. Then he turned to see John mounted beside him, with Blue Boy, and Sam and the boys all waiting.

"Les ride," he repeated, and spurred his horse out the gate.

Victoria's party had been on the road a little less than two hours, but Janine was already looking wan and jarred from the heat and the rough road. Joe nudged his horse up beside the buckboard, at once wanting to slow Manolito down to make the ride less bumpy for the women, and wanting to hurry him up to make better time. He didn't like being out there in the open, so exposed and unprotected. Even though he knew the likelihood was slim that Carmichael had even missed his wife, yet, let alone surmised who she was with and were she was going, and even though he still agreed that this trip to Mexico was the smartest move under the circumstances, he would be very glad to see the inside of Don Sebastian's high iron gates and the strong walls of his hacienda. He did not worry about the reception they were likely to get, that was Mrs. Cannon's responsibility and he trusted her to be able to manage that. He had already figured out her strategy in leaving before her father had had an opportunity to answer her letter, and he also knew what Victoria Cannon could be like when she was determined. Joe figured Don Sebastian didn't stand a chance at complaint. So he figured they'd be safe, and welcome enough, once they got there. Nor did he wonder, much, about the future. His immediate concern was putting as much distance between Janine and her husband as possible. And it didn't ease his mind any that, at least for the moment, they were heading toward the Santa Ritas, and Owen Carmichael, rather than away from him.

He did not know if it was a knowledge of that geography, as well, that was making Janine so tense, or if it was just the whole business of flight, but there was no missing the woman's uneasiness. Joe felt a sudden irrational urge to sweep her out of the back of the buckboard and onto his saddle and to gallop off with her. He pushed that thought away, and sat back to scan the horizon. The road ahead seemed clear enough. They'd be three days on the road to Rancho Montoya, maybe a little more given their late start. It wasn't going to do anybody any good to start getting jumpy already.

Victoria, too, is seemed, was picking up on the state of Janine's nerves. She turned around in the front seat and smiled encouragingly.

"I think you will like it at my father's hacienda, Mrs. Carmichael," she said. "It is very beautiful there, the plaza so open and airy and filled with beautiful flowers. And my father has a very nice piano. It belonged to my mother. Do you play?"

Janine just shook her head. "No. I never got the chance to learn."

"Oh," said Victoria, looking a little crestfallen that her attempt at cheer had been less that entirely successful. "Still, it is very restful to walk among the gardens. I love to do that, when I go home for a visit. It is so peaceful."

Janine just looked at her a little oddly, as if she was not quite taking it all in.

"Es verdad," added Manolito, helpfully. "And my father's cook is the most skilled in all of Sonora. The food at his table is magnífica…"

"I'm sure it's very nice," Janine finally said politely. "But… well are you sure your father won't mind me coming to him like this? I mean, under these circumstances."

"My father will be delighted," Victoria replied firmly, reaching over and patting Janine's hand. "I am sure you will find him a most gracious host."

Manolito glanced over at her, cocking an eyebrow, and when his sister glared at him, he almost laughed. Still, he supposed Victoria would prove right, in the end. She usually was, when it came to Don Sebastian. Besides, the old Lion had no mean eye for a pretty face, and Manolito guessed that once his father got over his initial disgruntlement, he would be reconciled easily enough to the inevitable. Had it not been for Manolito's genuine concern for Joe's feelings in all of this, he might have enjoyed giving his father a little friendly competition, just for the practice.

Manolito glanced up at Joe, riding beside them, and sighed, wondering how his friend was going to manage the next few weeks. And what the future held for him. He didn't get much time to speculate, however. Pedro has stopped on the road ahead, and was peering into the distance.

"Joe. Mira," he called. "Riders."

Joe kicked his horse up beside Pedro as Manolito drew the team to a halt.

"Apache?" asked Manolito.

Joe shook his head. "No, looks like white men, to me. Apache don't stick to the road like that. They're comin' fast, though. Real fast. Pedro, how many you make them out to be?"

The other man squinted as the dust cloud drew closer. "Seis… siete…" he muttered, counting. "Six or seven, I think," he translated. "It is hard to tell with the dust."

"Where are they going in such a hurry, 'eh?" Manolito mused. "Are they being chased by someone?"

But Pedro shook his head. "I do not think so, amigo."

"Maybe we oughta get off the road," said Joe. He didn't like this, whoever these men were. It wouldn't hurt to get out of sight until they had galloped past. He looked back at the buckboard. Victoria had come to attention in the front seat beside her brother, and behind her in back, Janine had blanched white with fear.

Manolito wasn't about to argue. "I think you are right, hombre," he said. "That many riders coming so fast can be doing so for no small reason. It is simply a matter of courtesy that we should get out of their way, sí? There is some cover, up ahead." He chirruped to the team and shook the reins at them.

All three men were concerned about the identity of the approaching riders, but only Joe was truly alarmed. It had not escaped him that the riders were coming from the exact direction Owen Carmichael would be coming, had he been bearing down on them from the mines. It was pretty far-fetched, he knew. The possibility was remote that Carmichael would have any knowledge at all of what they were doing. These men might be dangerous enough without being a maddened husband, though, comancheros, or worse. Or they might be no more sinister than some bunch of rowdy cowhands having themselves a little horse race on the open road. Nonetheless, the sixth sense that had been nagging him since their departure was now ringing alarm bells wildly in his head, and he would be glad to reach that cover Manolito had mentioned and get the rig and the women out of sight.

"Joe, who are those men?" It was Janine. He smiled down at her.

"I don't know. Nobody, probably. Just some fellas havin' a race," hoping his voice sounded more convincing than he felt.

"I am sure there is no cause for alarm, Señora," Manolito agreed. "As Joe has said, a horse race. We will pull off the road up ahead a short distance, and let them pass." As he said it, he steered the buckboard toward wide defile bearing off to their left, protected by a high rock wall that would shield them from the road.

But Janine had been watching closely, now, and she wasn't going to be put off. What she recognized as the riders drew closer filled her with terror.

"That's Owen! Joe, oh my God, it's Owen!" She jumped to her feet in the back of the buckboard, grabbing Manolito's shoulder with one hand to steady herself, and pointing wildly with the other. The force of her weight thrown against his back almost caused Manolito to drop the reins, and the animals, sensing his sudden loss of control, skewed on the road.

"¡Señora, calma!" he barked. "Please. Sit down and calm yourself." He struggled to get the horses straightened out and under control again. "I am sure you mistaken."

"I'm not, it's Owen. I'm sure," Janine insisted, more crouching than sitting back down on the seat. "I know it."

Victoria looked toward the approaching riders, then at Joe Butler.

"Joe? Is it?" she asked.

"I can't say for sure, Mrs. Cannon," he admitted, straining to make out some familiar feature, "I ain't seen Owen Carmichael in ten years. But if he was a-comin', he'd be comin' that way."

"It's is, it's him. I swear it… Oh, God…" Janine made a move to jump out of the buckboard, but the jouncing vehicle proved too unsteady a platform as she clung to the back of the seat.

"Mrs. Carmichael, please seat down," said Victoria firmly, forcing herself to remain calm. "Manolito, can you take us off the road here?"

It was too late. A single shot split the air, and Manolito twisted to one side, crying out and dropping the reins.

"Manolo!" Victoria grabbed her brother, and then, managing to keep her head, she grabbed the reins and held the team from bolting. Another shot rang out, and then another; Victoria could hear bullets singing past her head. She jerked the team in the direction of the rocks, slapping them hard with the reins as Joe and Pedro swung out their rifles and returned fire. The rig careened wildly as soon as they left the road, bouncing down the wash until a wheel stuck an it came to a halt.

"Go, go!" Manolito shouted. "Get into the rocks!"

"How bad are you hit, amigo?" demanded Pedro as he pulled his horse to a stop by the buckboard to cover them.

"I'll live, I think," Manolito replied as his sister helped him down. "It is my arm, only. But I am afraid I will not be of much use with a gun." He cradled his limp right arm as Victoria guided him up into the cover of the low rocks on the far side of the draw. Janine already cowered under cover, her fear naked in her face. Victoria tore off a strip of her petticoat and bound her brother's arm as Joe and Pedro threw themselves from their horses. The animals bolted, as did the team, the buckboard, now less the weight of the occupants, suddenly jerking free. So whatever else might happen to them, they were now effectively stranded. Victoria settled Manolito back into the rocks as comfortably as she could, and took his revolver. She nodded to Joe, her expression fearful, but determined. Joe just nodded back. He held out his own revolver to Janine, but she shook her head and crouched deeper into the underbrush. With only a quick second glance at Victoria, Joe reholstered the weapon and went to join Pedro behind another rock. He offered no words of encouragement because he didn't have any. Their situation was bad, whoever those men where. And if it was Carmichael, things were worse than desperate. Six or seven armed men, if Pedro's count was right, of unknown strength and determination, against three men and two women, all lightly armed and one of the men incapacitated. Joe did not give them much for their chances, unless they got very lucky. So he said nothing, just took his place next to Pedro and waited for their attackers to figure out where they had gone.

Owen Carmichael had been so surprised to find his wife on the road, heading directly toward him as innocently as if she was out for a Sunday drive, that at first he simply did not know how to react. He had almost convinced himself that he must be mistaken when she stood up in the back of that buckboard and pointed. There was no mistaking her, then.

"God damn!" he shouted, though none of the men galloping around him could actually hear him. It was too far to get off a shot and hope to hit anything, but the distance was closing fast. Carmichael tried to make out who was sitting in the rig with her. There was another woman, he was pretty sure, and a man driving. And two outriders. They obviously weren't expecting trouble. Certainly they wouldn't be expecting him. One of those men he was sure must be Joe Butler, though he couldn't be sure which one. He'd not seen Butler in ten years, and then he'd just been a raw boy. Carmichael remembered dark hair, but not much else, and since the two outriders were hatted, that didn't help him much. The rig's driver was dark-haired, he could see that much, and even if it wasn't Butler, it hardly mattered. It was the only way he could stop them. He jerked his rifle out, and raised it, letting his reins hang loose against his horse's neck as he took aim. At that distance, and at a full gallop, any shot that connected to anything would be lucky, but Carmichael was proud of his marksmanship, and anyway, he could not pass the chance. He was no longer really thinking rationally, he was barely thinking at all. Only instinct, and the overwhelming need for vengeance, drove him. He pulled the trigger. Almost miraculously, the driver of the buckboard pitched forward and the rig careened across the road. The next shots he fired skimmed harmless through the air, though, and he watched in frustration as the woman in the front seat grabbed the fallen reins and steered the buckboard off the road into a wash and out of sight. As the rig and its occupants disappeared, Carmichael raised his hand over his head to halt his companions and reined his horse to a stop.

"What the hell you shootin' at that buckboard for!" shouted Brady as he pulled to a stop beside him. "I think you hit somebody!"

"Damn right I hit somebody! My wife is in that rig!" Carmichael shouted back. "Who the hell would've guessed we'd meet up all the way out here in the middle of nowhere." It was beginning to occur to him that this made his task a lot simpler.

"That Mex woman?" Brady asked. Apparently his eyesight was better than Carmichael's, who had not made out that the other women in the buckboard was Mexican.

"The one in the back," he said. "I don't know who the rest of those people are. I don't care, neither."

"John Cannon's got a Mex wife," said one of the other men, the one who had earlier claimed knowledge of the High Chaparral. "Could be that Mex gal is her. Cannon ain't gonna be too happy somethin' happens to her…"

"That ain't no concern o' mine," Carmichael said. Then, seeing the uneasy expressions on his compatriots' faces, he amended the statement. "We'll take care the Mex woman don't get hurt," he said. "And I want my wife alive, I got other plans for her. But I'll bet my last penny one o' those men with her is Joe Butler, and he's a dead man, as far as I'm concerned. I ain't sure which one he is, neither, so that means all of 'em. I don't plan on wastin' a lot o' time findin' out. Any man tampers with another man's wife ain't fit to live, and neither is any man who helps him."

"That one you shot is a Mexican, too," said Brady. "And unless I miss my guess, I know who he is. He's done his own fair share o' tamperin'."

"Enough yammerin'," said Carmichael. "With two women and a wounded man they ain't gone far into that draw. Git up in them rocks, we'll be right over the top of 'em. Let's go flush 'em out."

Joe looked down the length of the wash, and then over at Pedro, who was scanning the rocks above them. Their position was very poor, about as bad as it could be, too low and too blind, and too undergunned. Joe thought for a moment about the value of trying to move them to a higher vantage, and then rejected it. Not with two women, and one of them scared out of her wits and unpredictable, and one man wounded. Despite his arguments to the contrary, Manolito was looking a lot like shock was setting in. Their situation was about as grim as any Joe had ever been in, and he had no illusions concerning the deadliness of Carmichael's intent. Sam had been right about that, any man with that kind of brutality in him wasn't going to hesitate about killing, not if he could convince himself he was justified. And Joe didn't think Carmichael would care too much who got caught in the cross-fire. He pressed his fist against him mouth in angry frustration. It was bad enough him being out there, but he had chosen this course for his own reasons, understanding the risks he was taking. But Pedro and Manolito, and worse, Mrs. Cannon… He rocked back on his heels to look up where Pedro was staring.

"This is not good, amigo," the other man sighed.

"Hey, Pedro," Joe said, after a moment.

"¿Sí?

"Look, amigo. I'm sorry about all o' this."

Pedro frowned. "Sorry about what?"

"About gettin' you into this mess. You and Mano and Mrs. Cannon. This ain't your problem, you shouldn't oughta be here, any o' you. Especially not Mrs. Cannon."

Pedro glanced quickly at the others and smiled. "Señora Victoria, she is one tough woman, Joe," he said. "And as good a shot as any man. She will be all right. And as for me and Mano… Well, I cannot speak for Mano, but…" he shrugged and clapped Joe lightly on the shoulder.

Embarrassed, Joe turned to look back at the landscape. "Where da ya figger 'em to be?"

Pedro followed his gaze. "If it was me choosing," he replied, "Up there in those rocks. It is the best position for them, and the worst for us."

As if to confirm his assessment, a rain of bullets suddenly showered down on them from above. Joe pressed himself close to the ground behind the rock, and then, as soon as there was a pause in the volley, returned fire in the direction from which it had come. He was practically shooting blind, he could see no one, and nothing to identify an enemy but the smoke from their guns.

"Watch your ammunition," he hissed at Pedro. "How many rounds you got?"

"What is in my guns," replied the other man, "plus maybe two or three reloads for my pistol."

"Not enough," Joe said, knowing he was in no better shape, and that Victoria would have even less, with only Manolito's gun belt. He glanced back at them. Victoria smiled and nodded, and Manolito gave him a thumbs up with his good arm. Janine was pressed further back in the rocks, out of danger, and no one seemed any worse hurt than they had been before the shooting started. Joe was worried about Manolito, though. For all his pluck, the man looked very pale.

Another volley of bullets assaulted them, and then another, eliminating all thought except survival. Joe and Pedro returned fire as best they could, but Carmichael's men were too well hidden in the rocks above them, for them to have much effect. On the other hand, neither was Carmichael doing much damage; it seemed they were only wasting each other's bullets.

And then there was a lull in the firing.

"Butler!" Carmichael's voice rang through the draw.

"Don't answer," whispered Pedro. "You will only tell him where you are."

Joe nodded.

"I know you're down there, Butler! I just want you, and my wife. Come out, and the others can go free."

Joe stiffened.

"No." It was Victoria. Joe turned to look at her.

"Look, Mrs. Cannon…"

"No. I forbid it. I will not let you sacrifice yourself. Besides," she added reasonably, "we have no reason to believe this Mr. Carmichael would keep his word. You might risk yourself for nothing."

"I'm the one who got you into this mess, Mrs. Cannon…"

"She is right, amigo," Pedro argued gently. "This Carmichael. I would not trust him."

Another volley of bullets punctuated Pedro's evaluation. Victoria raised Manolito's pistol and returned fire carefully, trying to find targets in the smoke. She knew she had very little ammunition left, and did not want to waste any of it. When the firing stopped, she found that Janine had crawled up beside her. She turned back to look at her brother, and found him pale and sweating, and nearly unconscious.

"He's lost a lot of blood," said Janine. She hesitated, then blurted, "look, maybe I should just go back with Owen. I never should have done this, it was wrong and stupid. I knew I could never get away from him."

"He will only kill you," Victoria replied. "He may kill all of us."

"Jeannie, listen to Mrs. Cannon," Joe whispered. "We'll figger somethin' out. You just hold tight and stay put."

"Janine!!" Carmichael shouted. Pedro tried to follow the sound of his voice.

"Above us, to the left, I think," he said.

Joe nodded. "He's movin' around up there, so we can't get a bead on him."

"Owen!" Janine called.

"Jeannie," Joe hissed back at her. He made a move toward her, but another volley drove him back into the rocks. When he lifted his head, again, he saw Janine struggling with Victoria. Then he watched, helpless, as she broke free and bolted out into the open in the bottom of the wash. She fell to her knees.

"Owen, please stop this! I just want it to stop! I'll come home with you, I know I shouldn't have left. I was wrong, I'm sorry. Let's just go home, now. Please!"

"You come up here!" Carmichael demanded.

Joe made a move to go after her, but Pedro caught his arm.

"Wait, amigo," he whispered. "The others. They are leaving."

Joe frowned at him. "Whada ya mean, they're leaving?"

"They are gone. Only two, I think, returned fire that last time."

"So, maybe they just ain't shootin'," Joe said. He turned back to Janine, but she was already well out of reach, moving up the side of the draw toward Carmichael's voice. To go after her, now, meant certain death; Carmichael, or any of his cronies would shoot him before he covered ten feet.

Pedro raised his rifle and sighted down the barrel in the direction Carmichael's voice has last come. "No good," he sighed. "Señora Carmichael, she is in the way."

It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. Carmichael was not where Pedro has last thought him. He had moved again. Stepping out from a bush almost behind Janine, he grabbed her by the hair.

"Bitch!!" he shrieked, shaking her and dragging her forward. "You filthy slut!" He twisted his hand in her hair, forcing her to her knees in the dirt in front of him, still using her body, and the rocks, as a shield. Neither Joe nor Pedro dared risk a shot.

"If I could get up into those rocks…" Pedro considered, looking for an advantage, "I could get a clean shot, maybe."

"Be careful," was all Joe said.

"Butler!" Carmichael shouted, cocking his repeater with one hand. He waved the rifle around in front of him. "Drop your guns and come out in the open where I can see you. Do it, or she's dead! I'll kill her, right now." He shifted the rifle so that it pointed down at Janine.

"Joe…" whispered Victoria.

"Don't you worry none, ma'am," Joe replied evenly. "It'll be all right, now. It's me he really wants."

"Butler!"

"I'm comin'!" Joe shouted back. He stood slowly, leaving his rifle on the ground beside Pedro. "Just let her go, now…" He unholstered his revolver and tossed it aside.

Carmichael stepped back further under cover, dragging Janine along with him. He shifted the rifle back to Joe. "Step on out of there. Out in the open where I can see you."

"Let Jeannie go. You can have me if you want me."

"Now!!"

Joe stepped out from behind the rock, out into the open, as his friends watched in horror, unable to shoot without the risk of hitting him, or Janine, at that angle. Which Joe had understood before he had exposed himself to Carmichael.

"Let her go, Owen."

Carmichael let go of Janine and snapped the rifle up, aiming directly at Joe. "I'll see you in hell, you son-of-a-bitch!"

For several moments following, time seemed to run in slow motion, or perhaps on a different plain all together. When asked, later, neither Victoria nor Pedro could say exactly what had happened. They knew there had been an explosion of gunfire. And when the echo had died down, there was Joe, still standing and Janine, still on her knees, curled up around something she appeared to be holding against her. Carmichael was sprawled out on the ground, the middle of his body from his thighs to his chest a welter of crimson. He was still moving, moaning softly, but it was obvious that he wouldn't be for long. Janine straightened up slowly and let the object she was clutching fall to the ground. It was Carmichael's revolver. Joe realized, as he stood there in shock, that the man's holster was empty. While he and Carmichael had been so intent on each other, in those final moments, somehow Janine must have managed to draw it, and fire, catching her husband point blank above the pelvic bone with a .44 slug.

It took yet another moment or two for Joe to register that the danger was over. By the time he reached her, Janine had already crawled to her husband's side, and was cradling his body against her own.

"Oh, God… what have I done… Owen…"

Joe could barely hear her, her cries were so soft. He tried to lift her away from the bloody mess that had once been her husband, but she jerked away from him, curling closer to Carmichael's now still form, leaving Joe to stand there in stunned silence.

Pedro had been right, it seemed, though. Carmichael's cohorts had all left, and the reason made itself clear in that moment. Even as Janine had been pulling the trigger, John Cannon and his brother were pounding toward them, with Sam and the others behind. John, himself, had ridden into the wash in enough time to witness the final act.

"John!" Victoria threw herself into her husband's arms as he dismounted. He hugged her tight, as Buck and Pedro hurried to Manolito's side. "Oh, John, how did you know to come?"

"Buck rode down from the placers to warn us," Cannon replied, his voice shaking a little. "We came as fast as we could. Not fast enough, though…"

"Oh, but it's all right, now," Victoria sighed as she turned to beam a smile in Buck's direction, then whimpered as she watched the two men helping her brother to his feet.

"Is he okay?" asked John.

"Yeah, John, he be all right," Buck replied. "He got a bit of a flesh wound, the bullet went clean in an' out. But he's lost some blood, and he's gonna need some tendin'. We'd best get him back to the ranch soon as we kin."

"Reno caught your buckboard about a mile down the road," John told Victoria. "Buck, Pedro, go put him in the rig, make him as comfortable as you can." He looked back at his wife. "Let's go home."

As they spoke, Sam walked over to stand beside Joe. He said nothing as they looked down at Owen Carmichael's ravaged body, with Owen Carmichael's wife still crumpled over it. He just reached over and grasped his brother by the shoulder, and then reached a little further, and closed his hand around the back of Joe's neck. Joe grabbed his brother's arm and leaned heavily, the sudden ebb of adrenaline leaving him weak. He closed his eyes as Victoria came to Janine's side and pulled her away from the body.

"Come, now," she said gently. "It is over. It's time to go home."

III

Janine Bonney Carmichael's trial in the death of her husband, Owen Carmichael, was not a long one. The jury listened patiently to two full days of testimony: Buck Cannon's recitation of the events at Gold Pan's Saloon and Owen Carmichael's state of mind as he left that establishment, Elisha Farquarson's heartbroken account of his brother's murder. They heard Pedro, and Manolito Montoya, his arms still in a sling as they gave their testimony. And John Cannon's accounts of the events he had witnessed on the Nogales road. They listened to Cannon explain the reasons for Mrs. Carmichael's presence at the High Chaparral, and the reasons for her flight to Mexico, the abuse she had suffered and the fear she had for her own safety. John Cannon's word carried considerable weight among the jurors, but it was Cannon's opinion that it was his wife's horrified and rather explicit testimony as to the exact nature of Mrs. Carmichael's injuries suffered at the hands of her husband that unnerved even the most hardened man among them.

When Joe Butler took the stand he was entirely prepared to tell the truth, and nothing but, had anyone asked the real questions. He was not going to lie about his involvement with Mrs. Carmichael, and he answered those questions put to him plainly and directly, as was his way. No one asked the real questions, though. No one seemed particularly interested in precisely how Janine Bonney Carmichael had come to be at the High Chaparral in the first place, or the reasons behind the reasons why. By the time Janine, herself, took the stand, it had already been established that not only had she suffered horrendously at the hands of a husband more fiend than man, that same husband had already murdered, and was quite prepared to do so, again. They also knew that John Cannon had some particular interest in the case, had put up Mrs. Carmichael's bail, and that she had been secluded at the High Chaparral pending the trial. And if Joe Butler was more involved than anyone was actually saying, well, Butler was Cannon's man, and there seemed to be reasons enough to find their verdict without delving too deeply in a direction that might prove embarrassing to one of Tucson's leading citizens, and financial bastions. The fact remained that Owen Carmichael, after murdering a mentally disabled man, known to be unarmed, in cold blood, had gone forth to corner a party of two women and three lightly armed men with over half a dozen well armed attackers. The death of Owen Carmichael was deemed self defense, and Janine Bonney Carmichael was summarily acquitted with the good conscience of all involved on the jury.

"Thank God, John," Victoria said as they walked out of the courthouse at the end of the trial. "I was so worried."

Cannon put his arm around her. "It was self defense, Victoria. Carmichael attacked them. The jury knew that. They returned the only possible verdict." Though he knew, too, that juries often saw things differently than the people more directly involved, and he, too, was relieved in the way things had worked out.

"What about the men who were with him?"

John shrugged. "They'll be tried as accessories to assault with intent to kill, I imagine. If anyone can find them. I doubt much effort will be made in that direction, though, to tell you the truth. And in any case, our involvement in this is over."

They turned to watch as Janine came down the steps of the courthouse. She looked wan and tired, and more stunned by the events than relieved by the verdict. Joe Butler came forward as she reached the bottom step. Neither John nor Victoria could hear what they said to one another, but after a brief hesitation, Janine leaned forward and put her head against his chest. Joe put an arm around her shoulder protectively and guided her out of the crowd.

"Do you still want to take that visit to your father?" Cannon asked.

Victoria let her eyes follow Janine and Joe. "He has invited us," she sighed. She looked at the faces of the crowd, who were also staring after the couple. Many expressions were unsympathetic, despite the verdict. Or maybe because of it. And many looked down right angry. "I think it would be best. For a little while. People do not always understand, John. I think it would be best to give them a little time to forget all this. Don't you agree?"

"I do," John replied, having seen the looks, too. He put his arm around her. "And then I suppose Mrs. Carmichael will want to go to California to collect her children." He watched as Joe led the woman away. Then he saw Sam Butler separate himself from the crowd and walk over to the couple. Words were exchanged, though he could not hear them, and then the trio walked together to where the Chaparral rigs and horses were waiting.

"Let's go home, Mrs. Cannon," sighed John, kissing the top of her head.

As previously planned, Joe and Pedro escorted the women to Mexico, together with Manolito, who was still recovering from his gunshot arm, and who could use a little vacation. John did not ask Sam, this time, if he thought his brother would return, but he rather suspected the younger Butler, if given the option, probably would not. He felt a pang at the thought of losing him. He imagined Sam probably felt worse. Though, of course, everything depended on the woman, and John did not know what to think on that account.

But things had turned out, in general, so much better than he had expected that he was inclined to be philosophical. Mostly, he had patched things up with his own brother, and that, to him, was the most important thing. He was so pleased, in fact, that he had resigned himself to support Buck in whatever decision he made, even if it meant losing him back to the gold fields. After all, his brother had proven him wrong about that; he had struck gold up there.

But Buck just looked sheepish when John asked him when he was going back.

"Wall, to tell you the truth, Big John, I done sold that claim the last time I was in Tucson," he admitted.

John was truly shocked. "Sold it? But I thought you struck it rich up there. You said you found gold, that you'd already taken out quite a bit of money."

"Yeah, John, it's true I did find gold up there," said Buck. "And I did take out a fair piece o' change, a lot more'n I make down here drivin' cattle, I kin tell you that. But you know, John, it's hard work, pannin' gold outta them placers. An' it costs a lot to live up there. Them store clerks and saloon keepers, John, why they's nothin' but a bunch o' bandits. Truth is, John, I'm more broker, now than I was befo' I went up there, and I don't think my back will ever be the same agin. I jist ain't sure it's wo'th it. An', well, it got kinda lonely up there, too, with all them strangers. Truth is, I kinda got to missin' you all down here."

John just smiled. "Well, I sorry things didn't work out the way you wanted, and I won't say I told you so, because you did find gold up there, and I didn't think you would. But I'm glad you sold that claim. I'm glad your going stay on the High Chaparral. I need you here, Buck."

"Right, fo' my good eg-zample," the other man said with a grin. But John looked thoughtful.

"No, Buck. For your company. For your support. You're my brother, Buck. That's why I need you here."

For a moment, neither man knew what to say, or how to really express what they were feeling. A rifle shot from the roof saved them the necessity.

"Riders comin'!!"

John looked up to see a buck board coming, surrounded by three horsemen. There was only one figure in the rig, the driver. A woman.

"Victoria's back," he said, and she was much back much sooner than he had expected. Cannon had figured on being without his wife for a least another week, maybe longer. He was not sure whether to be pleased or worried that she had returned so soon. And he couldn't help but notice that one of the men in her escort was undoubtedly Joe Butler. He walked forward as the buck board came through the gate and Victoria drew the horses to a halt.

"Oh, John, it's so good to be home," she sighed as her husband lifted her out of the wagon. She hugged his neck and kissed him soundly.

"Not that I'm complaining, mind you," said John when she turned him loose, again, "but you're home sooner than I expected."

Victoria looked a little wistful. "I was ready to come home. And so were the others, I think."

John glanced over her head to where Joe had ridden his horse into the corral to unsaddle.

"Mrs. Carmichael?" he asked.

"A friend of my father's offered to take her back to California with him, so that she could retrieve her children from their grandparents," she said, following his gaze. "I believe he also offered her a place to stay on his hacienda." She sighed, John though a little sadly. "It's better this way, John. She would not have made him happy."

John realized, suddenly, that he was not particularly surprised by this outcome. Nor was he surprised by the protectiveness in his wife's voice. Victoria always had taken a bit of a proprietary interest in the well being of those men who had been with the High Chaparral from the beginning. Like family.

"I thought you liked Mrs. Carmichael," he said mildly.

Victoria shrugged. "I think she is a good person, at heart. And I feel very sorry for what she has suffered. No woman should have to experience the things she has. But…" she looked back toward Joe, again, "this is his life, John. And I am not sure she is the right woman to share it. I think she is not ungrateful for all he risked for her sake, but he deserves much more than gratitude."

John smiled sadly at her wisdom, and her acumen. He put his arm around her shoulders. "Come inside," he said gently. "You must be exhausted.

Sam, too, had heard the announcement of riders coming, and had seen the buckboard coming through the gate. He had counted the outriders just as quickly as John had, and he, too, didn't know quite how to feel, finding his brother among them. He left the saddle he was mending and walked down toward the corral. He met Joe coming out. The two men just looked at each other for a moment.

"I'm not sure whether I should be happy to see you, or not," Sam finally said.

Joe shrugged. "Jeannie's gone to California. To get her kids," he said. Sam waited, knowing there had to be more to the story. "There was a fella, a friend of Don Sebastian's," continued Joe, "stayin' at Rancho Montoya. He owns some big hacienda in California. He offered Jeannie a place to stay there. You know. Till she can get on her feet, again. I suppose I cudda gone with her, but…" he looked down at the ground. "Well, I could see that fella was interested. And… I could see the way that was goin'…"

It had been worse than that, actually, though Joe did not tell his brother so. Janine Carmichael had stayed at Rancho Montoya as a guest of Don Sebastian's, in his grand hacienda, lavishly courted and attended both by Don Sebastian, as host, and by his friend, Don Miguel Garcia de Monterey. Joe, together with Pedro, had been relegated to quarters with the other Montoya vaqueros, as they usually were. The contrast had been insurmountable. It was not even that Janine had turned away from him, as such. She had been as attentive and affectionate as time and circumstances permitted, but they didn't permit much, and it began to feel to Joe that there was probably more guilt and gratitude behind her gestures than any deeper feeling. Opportunities to be together became fewer and farther between, and the distance between what she was being tacitly offered and what Joe Butler could give her became more and more apparent. Love might be blind about some things, but Joe wasn't stupid. And he had been there before, with her, for exactly the same reasons. Joe also came to suspect that, fair or not, Janine blamed him a little for what had happened, for the way events had played themselves out on the Nogales road. Carmichael's death put a wall between them that he would never be able to tear down.

At first, the pain of this repeated loss had been wretched, and then, one morning, it was gone, leaving calm resignation, like a throb; aching but manageable. A wound, raw, but clean, that would heal cleanly. When the time came to decide, it had proven surprisingly easy to return with Mrs. Cannon and leave Janine Bonney to whatever circumstances life would provide her. Nor had Janine done much to dissuade him. Which, had he doubted his decision, confirmed everything he needed to know. He shook his head, sadly.

"I figgered Mexico was about as far as I oughta go. I guess you can say ya told me so…"

Sam sighed. He reached over and clasped his brother on the shoulder. "I'm sorry, Joe," he said, meaning it.

But Joe shook his head. "No, it's all right," he said. Then he looked up, his expression tinged with wonder. "You know, it's finally all right." Sam smiled a little, and nodded.

"Well, in that case," he replied with some attempt at lightness, hoping his voice did not sound as choked as it felt, "I am glad to see you. We've got a hell of a lot of work to do getting that herd together for Fort Bowie. Drive starts in less than a week. I'm really gonna need your help."

Joe smiled sheepishly. The he frowned, suddenly, looking back into the corral. "Hey, what ever happened to that hurt calf?"

"Huh?" asked Sam. "Oh, that. We took that back to the herd some time ago. Looked like it was gonna make it on its own okay. Hey. Ya hungry? We got some supper on."

"Starved," Joe said with a grin.

Sam clapped him on the back. "Come on," and they walked back to the bunkhouse together.

THE END