Hannah Anston
by
Ann Evetts

I

"Hey Wind! Got a minute?" Josh Tucker hailed his coworker with a smile that Wind found more than slightly suspicious. The fact Joshís younger brother, Walt, had the same look on his face made it even more questionable. In the year the two had been at High Chaparral Ranch, they had made no secret of the fact they werenít too fond of the Pawnee half-breed. Not that the fact bothered Wind much. Heíd been working for John Cannon for nearly three years, and would probably still be there long after the Tuckers moved on.

"Whatís on your mind?" Wind didnít stop working. Whatever the two wanted, it didnít take precedence over getting the job done. Wind was currently peeling cedar logs for new fence posts. Walt and Josh had just returned from a trip into Tucson.

"Ya know all them pranks we pulled on you when we first came?" Josh asked, a little nervously. Wind just nodded. The pranks had been a childish nuisance, and had usually backfired. After a week, Sam Butler, the foreman, had put an end to them. "Well, thereís sorta one you didnít hear about. Nobody here did."

"So?"

"SoÖ" Walt drew a deep breath. "We never got around to stopping this one."

"And?" Wind prompted. He knew he wasnít going to like it, whatever it was. He just knew it.

"Thereís this gal," Walt said. "From New York. Sheís coming here to meet you."

"Why would some girl from New York being coming all this way to meet me?" Wind demanded.

"Cause she thinks sheís your fiancťe, and sheís coming out to get hitched."

"WHAT?" Wind set aside the adz. He didnít think having a sharp item in his hand was going to be a good idea "Mind telling me why sheíd have such a notion?"

"Cause weíve been writingí to her for near a year, usingí your name, sorta," Josh admitted.

"And we sorta proposed for ya."

"You sorta proposed for me," Wind struggled with his temper. Before, the pranks had just targeted him. This time, theyíd dragged an innocent female into the mess.

"We didnít think sheíd be that desperate!" Josh defended the deed. "To marry up with some breed cowhand she ainít never even seen a picture of? We thought sheíd have a mite more sense."

"And just when is this female due to arrive?"

"This weekend."

The punch Wind landed on Joshís face sent the 21 year old sprawling backwards to land at the approaching feet of Sam and Big John. Without pausing for breath, Wind had starting hammering on Walt, as well.

"Whatís going on here?" John demanded, helping a dazed Josh to his feet as Sam moved to separate Wind and Walt. "Wind! Simmer down!"

"Ask the two matchmakers!" Wind shook off Samís restraining hand. "This time, they most likely cost some poor spinster her lifeís savings, just in the interest of embarrassing me!"

"Someone is gonna explain this, right?" Sam looked at all three. Both Walt and Josh were bigger than Wind, but Wind was faster, and angrier, and they hadnít expected his fists. Wind glared at the two, and they hung their heads.

"John? Is something wrong?" Victoria Cannon, Johnís wife, came around the corner of the building with her brother, Manolito Montoya, and Johnís brother, Buck. "Wind, have you been fighting?"

"Not exactly, Mrs. Cannon," Wind shook his head. "More like teaching these two knotheads a lesson."

"A lesson about what?" John demanded. "Somebody better start talking, and I mean right now!"

Walt looked at Josh. Josh looked at Walt. Then they both looked at Wind, who snorted in disgust.

"Seems Walt and Josh here thought it might be fun to write to some gal back east Ö on my behalf," Wind explained. "They even went ahead and proposed to her. Sheís arriving in Tucson at the end of the week. Probably spent every dime she has, trying to reach a man sheís never met, who wasnít even aware sheís alive."

Johnís face got sober. Sam, Buck and Manolito stared at the Tuckers. Victoriaís big brown eyes were filled with concern.

"The poor young woman! She will no doubt be expecting you to meet her at the stage, Wind. She will be hurt and embarrassed if no one is there," Victoria surmised. Her concern, even as Windís, was the unknown young lady whoíd been lied to.

"Just how long has this been going on?" John demanded.

"The writing? Near a year, Mr. Cannon," Walt admitted. "We sent an ad to a newspaper in New York through the mail. There werenít many replies, since we said right off that Wind was a breed. Hannah Ö thatís her name, Hannah Grace Anson Öshe was the only one to keep writing."

"What exactly did you say in this ad, hombre?" Manolito asked.

"We got a copy of it, still. I donít rightly recall the wording."

"Do you have her letters?" Victoria inquired.

"Maíam?"

"The letters Miss Anson thought she was writing to Wind. Did you keep them?" Victoria spoke slowly and clearly, as she might to a slow child. It was not a good sign to those who knew her.

"Yes maíam. They smelt so pretty, we figured itíd be a shame to just get rid of them," Josh nodded.

"Go and get them, please. And the copy of the advertisement. The letters are addressed to Wind, and are therefore his property," she instructed. "Manolito, you will go with Josh to retrieve the letters. Buck, you will escort Walt to the living room, where we shall discuss what is to be done about Miss Anson."

"For starters, we are going to tell her the truth," Wind stated. "And when I say Ďweí, that means both Tuckers will be right there to face her."

"In public? On the street?" Walt paled.

"Maybe not in public, but you will be there," John nodded. "Letís take this inside. Sam, get Pedro to finish up these logs, then get them out to Joe."

"Yes sir," Sam nodded.

II

It was decided Victoria and John would meet Hannah Anson at the stage and escort her to a private sitting room at the hotel, where Wind and the Tuckers would be waiting. That way, any feelings the lady in question might show would be private, and not subject to town scrutiny. Wind was willing to do most of the talking. The situation was none of Windís doing, but he would not allow the Tuckers to publicly humiliate the stranger. Walt made the mistake of grumbling about the amount of concern being shown for some shag-toothed spinster woman no one knew. When Manolito helped him up after Windís fist crashed into his face again, Victoria coldly pointed out he was lucky.

"If this is handled properly, Miss Anson may just decide against taking the matter to the law," Victoria informed him.

"The law?"

"What youíve done is basically fraud," John nodded. "I think the money for her return fare can come from the two of you, even if I have to hold back wages to pay for it. That also might help keep her from going to the law."

"Thatís if she wants to go back where she came from," Buck said. "She may have reasons not to. In which case, I think we can come up with a sum that might take her near anywhere sheíd be wanting to go."

Josh paled at that thought, but said nothing. Wind was standing too close to him and Walt and Manolito and Buck didnít seem all that interested in keeping him from beating the tar out of either brother.

"If youíll excuse me, Mrs. Cannon. Mr. Cannon," Wind had the small packet of letters in his hand. "I have some reading to catch up on."

" Go ahead, Wind," John nodded.

"Is there a picture?" Victoria asked.

"We didnít send her none, and didnít ask for none, either," Walt shook his head. "Told her looks didnít matter none."

"Thatís one of the few smart things Iíve ever heard out of you, Walt," Wind commented. "Once I read the letters, Mrs. Cannon, Iíll tell you what I can about her. I doubt either of these two paid much attention to most of what she had to say."

Wind took the packet, which included a copy of the original advertisement, up on the roof of the ranch house, where he could be assured of at least some privacy. The advertisement was written in Joshís heavy script:

Half Pawnee ranch hand desirous of correspondence with lady, 17 to 23,

For possible long-term relationship. No picture needed. Respond to W. Tucker, box 90, Tucson, Arizona Territory

Short and to the point, if a bit stiff. Not what Wind would have written. He made a face. He never would have even thought to place an ad. He opened the first letter.

Mr. Tucker;

I read your advertisement in the local weekly. I must say, two things surprise me. That youíd be so honest right at the start, admitting you are only half white, and that youíd choose a city like Albany in which to place such an ad. While I realize Albany is considered somewhat progressive, old habits die hard, and mail-order brides are looked on with something akin to pity. Unless, of course, you engage the services of one of the local matchmaking services. Silly, expensive things.

My name is Hannah Grace Anson, and, although I am currently only 16 years of age, I hope you will not mind me responding to you. If nothing else, I would like to learn more about the Arizona Territory and the Pawnee. My mother use to cherish learning, and there isnít much information available to me on either of those topics.

Sincerely,

Miss H.G.Anson

The first letter told Wind that Hannah had a sense of humor, her age, and that she had probably lost her mother at least a few years prior. She was educated. The paper was of good stock, smelled of pine and roses, and the handwriting was neat.

Hello, Mr. Tucker!

It really was very pleasant, receiving your letter. I had been feeling a bit out of sorts, but reading how you chose Albany quickly lifted my spirits. A dart and a map! How wonderfully simple and totally arbitrary! James, my motherís cousin, would scold you for foolishness. Then again, James has no sense of adventure or fun.

I am sorry to hear you donít remember much about your mother, or her people. It must be hard, not having that connection sometimes. I do remember both of my parents. Although Father died when I was eight, and Mother, when I was ten. There are times I still miss them terribly. Iíve lived with Cousin James and his wife since Mother died, and often have the care of their three children, since both James and Lucinda are very busy people. James is a merchant, and Lucinda is one of the leaders of the Ladies Aide Society. I still havenít figured out whom they are supposedly aiding.

I will be 17 in January, on the 20th. Itís not that far awayÖ 

So, she was an orphan, like he was. But she had stayed with family, while he had soon struck out on his own. Family, it seemed, was important to her.

Subsequent letters showed that while family was indeed important, she really didnít consider James, Lucinda and their children to be hers. She was there because thereíd been no one else. She didnít much care for either adult, and the children were growing up to be just like their parents. He learned a little about her few friends: Janice and Julienne VanAlstyne and Lorilei Rittner. And about some of the people she had to deal with because they were friends of James and Lucinda, including one man named Conrad T. Mead. More often, Hannah referred to him as Ďthat maní.

Dear Wind

No, I donít believe I could imagine riding slowly along behind a herd of bellowing cows for days on end. Iíd be forced to guess it would be very boring most of the time, not to mention noisy, smelly, and dirty. Iím glad to hear the drive went so well for you all, though. Tell me more about the people you work with, and those you work for. It sounds to me your Mrs. Cannon is the type of lady Lucinda would have everyone think she is, although few do.

That man was here again last night. Three evenings in one week! Youíd think his mother couldnít cook a decent meal, the way he angles for invitations here. Lucinda keeps hinting I should be nicer to him, get to know him better. I would rather gag on something. Lucinda also thinks I donít have a clue what she and James are up to, tossing me and that man together so much. Because of Motherís will, they canít marry me off before I am 18, unless itís my choice. After that, I am free of them totally. But they think they can narrow my choices to their handpicked candidates. They are the ones who donít have a clue. They see only what they want to see, and in my case, that is a mousy little girl without a brain in her head who is completely biddable to their desires. Are they ever in for a surprise some day! They donít even know I signed up to take the teacherís Exam. I donít really want to be a teacher, but it would mean being independent, and being able to tell them to take their room and board (and their three little piggies) and cram it all down their own throats.

That sounds harsh and bitter, doesnít it? They are family, and they did keep me out of the orphanage, but I just canít help but wish they hadnít bothered.

I wish youíd send a picture. Saying youíre 5í8", with black hair and brown eyes doesnít really help. I am 5í even, with reddish brown hair and gray eyes, and a figure which is referred to as Ďamply endowedí or Ďbuilt for having babiesí. Lucinda, of course, makes snide little comments about it. From her, itís pathetic. Even after 3 children, sheís about 96 pounds soaking wet, as flat on top as a well-planed board, and all sharp angles. Maybe thatís why she and James have separate beds, because sheíd poke him constantly at night.

It snowed for the first time this season yesterday. About 2 inches fell here in town, but I understand the hill areas got nearly a foot. The ice on the ponds is almost thick enough to skate on. Some schoolboy tried to cross the river on the ice, and fell in. I feel sorry for his parents. Here we are, heading into the holiday seasons, and they will do so without their eldest son. He was 14. James said they were lucky to even recover the body.

While that is probably true, did he have to say it in front of the boyís family after mass?

I suppose I should go check on Timothy. He hasnít been feeling well lately, and Lucinda, of course, is out on one of her Ďerrands of mercyí.

Your Friend

Hannah

Wind didnít think she sounded very bitter at all. She had a wry sense of humor that sometimes could be very cutting. She didnít tolerate fools gladly, which made Wind wonder what sheíd do to Josh and Walt when she found out what theyíd done.

Dear Wind,

What a wonderful holiday surprise your last letter was. I agree, I think we would get along quite well together. We seem to have a good deal in common, and neither of us expects a great deal from life, other than what we put into it. I have spent the entire weekend thinking about it, and I have decided I would be very honored to be your wife. Once I turn 17, James cannot forbid me my choices, because all heíll have left to control is my inheritance. I think if I leave Albany in early April, I will not have much trouble with weather, and I should reach Tucson by June. Once I have the plans firmly in place, I will let you know. And donít worry about the price of the stage trip. Mother left me a small amount of money that James has no control over. It should cover the entire trip nicely.

Yours,

Hannah

The last letter was dated the forth of April, three days before Hannah was due to leave Albany for Tucson. By stage, it would take her 6 weeks.

Dear Wind

As I rather expected, James wasnít happy when I finally told him I was leaving, and planning to marry a man I had never actually met. He went as far as to tell me heíd promised me to that man, He was speechless when I informed him he would just have to unpromise, since I wouldnít marry that man if he were the last one on the face of the earth. To prevent James from interfering with my leaving, I have already moved out. I can happily spend the last three days in this hotel room near the departure point for the westbound stage. Janice, Julienne and Lorilei will be coming to have dinner with me tomorrow night. I find they are the only people I will miss here.

As I donít expect to hear from you again until I stand facing you in Tucson, I suppose this will be our last letter. You will know me that day by my parasol, of all things. Iím quite proud of it, since I refurbished it myself. It is a lovely rose color, trimmed with cream lace and embroidered with cream roses.

Until we are together,

Yours,

Hannah

Two days later, Wind went looking for Victoria as she worked in her small gardening area. As usual, his face didnít give away much, if any, of what he was thinking or feeling.

"You have read the letters?" Victoria asked, reaching for a watering can.

"Yes maíam," Wind nodded. "I was right about the Tuckers not paying much attention to what she had to say. If they had, theyíd have known better than to propose. Theyíd also be thinking up ways to vanish before she finds out the truth."

"What have you learned?"

"Whatever happens, she wonít go back to New York," Wind set aside his rifle, and began helping Victoria. "Sheís been living with her motherís cousin since she was ten, taking care of his kids for no pay. He thinks heís doing her a favor. He is also trying to marry her off to a man she despises She just turned 17. She has a sense of humor I think was wasted on Josh and Walt. She took the Teacherís Exam, and passed it, but hasnít applied for a license. She doesnít want to teach, she just wants to be free of her cousin James. She loves to read, sew, garden, cook and ride. Likes learning new things. Isnít afraid of hard work, and ainít real squeamish, either."

"If she sent no picture, how will we know her when she arrives?" Victoria asked.

"Sheís five foot even, with reddish brown hair and gray eyes, and sheíll be carrying a rose colored parasol with cream colored roses embroidered on it," Wind informed her. "I should be glad sheís practical. She didnít agree to marry me because she thought she was in love. She felt weíd suit, because we have so much in common, and enjoy our correspondence," He made a face. "Be kinda nice to know just what she thinks we have in common. I did like reading her letters, though. Sheís smart and friendly and hopeful about futures. Now sheís already on the road, thereís no way to reach her and tell her not to come. Iíd really like to take Josh and Walt apart at the seams over this one, Mrs. Cannon. Theyíve known since January that she was coming out here! "

"You arenít the only one who feels that way, Wind. And I am sure Miss Anson will have a deal to say to them on the matter when she arrives," Victoria nodded. "Have you thought of what you will say to her?"

"Iím going to tell her the truth, Mrs. Cannon. I have no idea what the Tuckers wrote to her, and other than a few clues here and there, she doesnít really go into it," he shrugged. "She knows I work here, she knows Iím half Pawnee, and that my mother died when I was young. She knows a bit about you, and most of the men. She thinks I have a last name to give her, and a place for us to live, even though I plan to stay on here at the Chaparral."

"They must have said fairly nice things, if she is willing to make such a long trip."

"Nice, sure. But how close to the truth? Sheís gonna be disappointed enough as is." Wind sighed. "Tell you something though, Mrs. Cannon. From reading her letters, Miss Hannah Grace Anson is someone Iíd probably enjoy knowing."

"If she decides to stay in Tucson, you could get to know her," Victoria suggested.

"Mrs. Cannon, would you want to stay around, if you were in Hannahís place?" Wind challenged. Then he shook his head. "Sheíll probably be on the next stage out of town, as soon as sheís finished ripping strips out of Josh and Waltís hides."

"Weíll see." Victoria smiled. "She may decide it will take quite some time to adequately punish those two."

"You sure you didnít read any of her letters, Mrs. Cannon?" Wind chuckled. "She may at that!"

III

Saturday, John and Victoria left the three young men at the hotel and strolled down the street to the stage station just after the stage arrived. There were not many passengers, so Victoria really didnít need the sight of the rose parasol to tell her which was Hannah. She nudged John, and nodded towards a young lady in dark rose traveling suit, who was organizing her luggage on the boardwalk.

"Sheís not quite what theyíre expecting, I think," Victoria smiled slightly. Hannah may have been Ďamply endowedí, but she was well proportioned, graceful, and confident. It made for a very pretty young lady.

"She isnít what any of us were expecting," John agreed. "Shall we?"

"Hannah? Miss Hannah Anson?" Victoria drew the girlís attention, smiling as Hannah turned. A bit of the light in her wide gray eyes dimmed when she realized there was no third person, but she smiled back at Victoria.

"Iím Hannah. You would be Mr. And Mrs. Cannon, wouldnít you?" Hannah held out her hand to Victoria.

"Yes, chica. I am Victoria Cannon, and this is my husband, John. We are sorry Wind is not here to greet you personally, but something has come up." Victoria looked to John, not really sure how to proceed.

"Nothingís wrong, I hope?" Worry flashed in Hannahís eyes, and Victoria realized you could read much of the girlís emotions there.

"Not exactly," John shook his head. "Is this all thatís yours?" He indicated the small pile of luggage Hannah stood next to: a pair of steamer trunks and a trio of large carpetbags.

"Yes sir. I couldnít see much sense in bringing some of the silly party gowns Lucinda made me get. One bag there is nothing but books, though." Hannah nodded. "The blue one."

"Weíll send someone over to fetch the trunks and that bag in a bit," John grabbed the other two carpetbags. "Wind is joining us for supper at the hotel."

"He hasnít changed his mind, has he, Mrs. Cannon?" Hannah asked almost timidly.

"Why would you think that?" Victoria inquired.

"Because I canít think of any other reason he wouldnít meet me at the stage," Hannah confided. "Heíd hate telling me out in public heíd changed his mind, and that I shouldnít have come."

Victoria and John exchanged looks over Hannahís head. While what Hannah had said was true of Wind, it was not true of the actual authors of the letters, It made both John and Victoria wonder, as Wind did, what exactly Josh and Walt had been telling Hannah.

"Unless heís hurt," Hannah continued, biting her lip. "He isnít, is he?"

"No, Windís just fine," John assured her. "He just had something to keep an eye on for a while, so he asked us to bring you along to the hotel."

"Oh, thatís fine then," Hannah smiled, relaxing. "Iím really looking forward to meeting him. I guess Iím curious to see how much he actually resembles the image I have in my mind."

Victoria wondered if Hannah would even be able to pick Wind out from the three young men who waited. While both Tuckers were taller, all three had black hair, and Wind and Walt both had brown eyes.

Wind, Walt and Josh were waiting in the hotelís private dinning room, usually reserved for Cattlemen Association Meetings and wedding parties. Josh and Walt paced nervously. Wind sat calmly, not moving until the two ladies entered. Then he stood easily, with no sign of any emotion.

"Hello Wind! Iím so glad to finally meet you!" Hannah shocked them all, walking right past Josh and Walt as if they didnít exist, and holding out her hands to Wind, smiling up at him.

Wind took the offered hands, and could only look down at the bright smile and merry eyes facing him. Waltís jaw had dropped, and his mouth still hung open. Josh made a strange sound in the back of his throat.

"Welcome to Tucson, Hannah Grace Anson," Wind finally managed to say. He led her to a seat at one of the tables, "I know youíve been sitting a good spell, but there are a few things that have to be said here and now, and youíd best be sitting down when you hear them."

"There is something wrong, isnít there?" Hannahís eyes dimmed, and her voice got soft, as she searched Windís face. He nodded slowly. "Oh dear,"

"Hannah, my name is Wind, and I am half Pawnee," Wind sat down next to her. "But my last name is not Tucker. In fact, I donít have a last name."

"Is that all?" Hannah demanded. "Last names just tell who your family is or was. Lots of people chose their own last names."

"That isnít all, Hannah," Wind shook his head. "I didnít write those letters you got. Not one of them. In fact, I didnít even know about them, or the advertisement, until Monday." He motioned to Josh and Walt "Meet Josh and Walt Tucker, the two who set the whole thing up, and concocted the letters between them."

"Hi Hannah," Josh tried to smile. Walt looked miserable,

"Donít you call me by my given name, you childish little brat!" Hannah snapped, rising to her feet. "You mean to tell me, all the letters, the entire past year of my life, as been one lie after another? And for what?"

"We did our best to write what we figured Wind would say!" Walt protested. "Not that he says much."

"And why?"

"We thought...that is, Josh thought, it be right funny for some gal to show up in town claiming to be Windís woman," Walt tried to blame his older brother.

"Youíre the one that did all the writing!" Josh protested.

"It was your idea!"

"Was not!"

"ENOUGH!" Hannahís eyes were dark gray now, and there was no doubt she was angry.

"They will reimburse you for the fare out, Miss Anson," John stated, arms folded as he leaned against the wall. "AND pay for your ticket anywhere you want to go from here."

"Iím not sure Iíd want them knowing where I was going, and I certainly donít want or need their money," Hannah replied. She took a deep breath. "I suddenly find myself totally worn out. You will all excuse me if I donít stay for dinner." She moved out of the room almost blindly, closing the door behind her.

"I really should feed you two each otherís livers," Wind glared at Walt and Josh.

"Do you think she will be alright John?" Victoria asked worriedly.

"Weíll make sure they send a supper tray up to her room, and weíll see if sheíll talk to us in the morning," John promised. "Josh, Walt, you two will ride back to the ranch tonight. Wind, after we eat, you and I will go over and fetch the rest of Hannahís things." Wind just nodded. His mind was on the pale visage of the young woman whoíd refused to let them see her embarrassment.

"John, we could still invite her to stay with us a while, couldnít we?" Victoriaís question caught both her husband and Wind off guard. "She seems like such a nice girl. I would so like to get to know her, and I think Wind would, as well."

"Invite away," John nodded. "Just donít get your hopes up, Victoria. That little gal had a bad experience with us, and she may not be very forgiving."

"The bad part of it all was with Josh and Walt, not the three of us," Victoria maintained. "I will ask her at breakfast."

Alone in her room, Hannah had removed her coat and hat, and sat down to have a good cry. Strangely enough, the tears that had threatened in the dinning room didnít come. Instead, Hannah found herself wondering why, if Walt and Josh Tucker had written the letters, had she known the real Wind on sight? Any one of the three could have been a half-breed, based on looks alone. Yet she had hardly even noticed the Tuckers when sheíd entered the room. Her entire awareness had centered on Wind.

When the tray was delivered to her room, Hannah smiled. Victoria Cannon was as kind and thoughtful as sheíd been told. And as pretty. Seeing her simple elegance would make Lucinda turn funny shades of purple with envy. Maybe sheíd just stay around Tucson for a while. See if her initial reaction to the real Wind was a foreshadow of something special, or just based on what sheíd been expecting from the letters.

She wasnít expecting the knock on the door in the morning, but it didnít really surprise her, either. What did surprise her was the person standing there. Sheíd half expected Victoria, come to check up on her. Instead, it was Wind, a single wild bloom in hand.

"I was wondering if youíd come down to breakfast," he handed her the flower. "The Tuckers wonít be there. Mr. Cannon sent them back to the ranch last night."

"Tuckers or no, I think Iíd like that," Hannah smiled. She fetched her purse, put the flower in water, locked the door, and took his arm for the walk downstairs. "Can I ask a few questions?"

"Sure, I guess."

"How old are you, really?"

"Almost 24." Wind informed her. "And I do remember my mother. I was ten when she died."

"Do you still miss her?"

"Sometimes. But her life was hard, so maybe sheís better off now."

John and Victoria were waiting for them outside of the main dining room. Hannah saw her trunks by the front desk.

"Iíll have to see if someone can take them up for me later," Hannah decided. "Good morning, Mrs. Cannon, Mr. Cannon."

"Good morning, Miss Anson." John nodded

"Good morning, Miss Anson," Victoria smiled. "Did you rest well?"

"Yes maíam, thank you. And thank you for sending up the tray last night. I was hungrier than I thought" Hannah smiled back.

"You had come a long way, Chiquita," Victoria noted as they entered the dining room. There were few people within, and one or two stared as Hannah walked by, holding Windís arm. Sheíd expected that, and keep smiling pleasantly, but basically ignored them. Wind, she noticed, stiffened slightly.

"As to taking your trunks up," John began, after they were seated. "We had another thought. Youíve come this far. Why not stay awhile?"

"I had already thought I might, sir," Hannah admitted. "Tucson is quite different from Albany."

"We would love it, if you would come stay at the ranch with us," Victoria invited. Hannah glanced at Wind. He was watching her, but his face was unreadable.

"I couldnít imposeÖ" Hannah began.

"You wouldnít be," John assured her.

"The truth is, I get lonely for female conversation," Victoria admitted.

"On one condition," Hannah decided. "Please donít call me ĎMiss Ansoní! It reminds me of when my teachers got mad at me in class for something."

"After breakfast, then, Wind and I will load the wagon, and you two ladies can go do some shopping," John announced. "Weíll be on our way by ten."

IV

Hannah found Victoriaís company charming, especially after so many years of Lucinda and her children. They were examining a bolt of cloth Hannah had spotted when two other ladies began loudly whispering to the woman at the counter.

"Strolled in on his arm, bold as you please!" One reported. "As if he werenít a breed!"

"I wouldnít let no daughter of mine take up with a dirty breed!" the second growled. Victoria looked at Hannah. Hannah looked almost amused, except for the glint in her gray eyes.

"I am glad, Mrs. Cannon, that my mother had the good sense to see to my education and my Christian upbringing before she died," the young woman announced, loudly enough to be heard. "This way, I am not hemmed in with the ridiculous notion that I am any better than anyone else, just because my ancestors are European. Isnít it sad that so many people judge others by race, creed, or name? Whatís really important is honesty, work ethic, kindness, and loyalty." She smiled brightly at the ladies who were now staring at her. "Oh, good morning, ladies! Such a lovely day, is it not? Maíam, I would like five yards of this blue material, and three of that rose, and three more of the muslin there, thank you."

"You have a nasty streak, Hannah Anson!" Victoria was chuckling when they left the store, "But you handled that well."

"Thank you, Mrs. Cannon. I just hate it when otherwise fine people start judging others for things beyond their control." Hannah admitted. "And since I refuse to hide, I think they had just better get use to seeing me walking about town on Windís arm, donít you?"

"You like him, then?"

"I donít see any reason not to, do you? For one thing, he is rather handsome." Hannah winked. "And he has all of his own teeth and hair, which can NOT be said for the groom my cousin had decided on for me!"

"Your cousin had arranged a marriage for you?"

"He was trying to. I might have let him, only I have no respect for his choice, and a woman shouldnít be forced to spend her life with someone she cannot respect, let alone like, should she?"

Hannah rode in the buckboard with Victoria, while John and Wind rode at either side. Hannahís eyes darted everywhere, drinking in the scenery, as sparse as some found it.

"Do you ride, Hannah?" John asked.

"Not in years, Mr. Cannon. I use to love it, but when Mama diedÖ" Hannah sighed. "Lucinda announced it wasnít ladylike to go tearing off in a saddle. And city living doesnít lend itself to the habit much, in any case."

"You didnít live in the city when your parents where alive?" Wind asked.

"No, just outside of it. My father was a Ďgentleman farmerí. He had a regular job in town five days a week, with the city commissionerís office. But we had a nice-sized place, with a cow, and chickens, and a large garden, and horses and goats and sheep." Hannah explained. "When Mama died, James sold it all off. Got a lot less than the stock was worth, because he was just interested in getting rid of it all. Sold the land for development. Thereís an entire new little village there now."

"Weíll have to see about getting you back in the saddle," John decided. "Best way to see this land is on a horse."

"Well now!" Buck saw them coming in, and tapped Manolitoís shoulder. "I reckon thatís Miss Hannah Grace Anson. Ainít very tall, is she?"

"No, she is not. But what a smile!" Manolito was smiling as they went to meet the buckboard. "Welcome home, Victoria! And this would be Senorita Anson?"

"Si. Hannah, this is my brother, Manolito Montoya," Victoria allowed Manolito to lift her down. "And Johnís brother, Buck Cannon."

"Welcome to the Chaparral, Miss Anson," Buck was about to help Hannah to the ground, but Wind reached her first. Manolito winked at John. "Hope your trip wasnít too bad."

"It wasnít, thank you," Hannah smiled. "I was too interested in seeing everything to think about getting sick, or any such foolishness."

"Buck, Mano. You two help us with Hannahís things," John instructed.

"Come, Hannah. I will show you your room, and then we will have some tea." Victoria took Hannahís arm, and led her inside.

"That is a very pretty senorita, amigo," Manolito commented to Wind, as they lifted one of Hannahís trunks from the buckboard.

"You have a way of stating the obvious, Mano. Letís get this inside." Wind said.

"She took it OK then?" Buck asked John.

"I think it would be safer to say she adjusted well," John corrected. "Although I get the feeling she isnít too happy with the Tucker brothers. They may still be in for a nasty surprise from her."

"Rightly so! Rightly so!" Buck agreed. "Them two ainít got the brains of a day old calf sometimes! She sure is a cute little thing, ainít she? You reckon Windís gonna want her to stay, anyhow?"

"He might. She might. Victoria does!" John chuckled. "I gather Hannah rather neatly routed Mrs. Sinclaire and Widow Janson at the General Store this morning. If any female has what it takes to make a politically incorrect marriage work, itís Hannah, I think!"

"You have a lovely home, Mrs. Cannon," Hannah commented later. "So bright and airy! There isnít so much use of pastels in Albany, unless the home is woman-dominated."

"The lighter colors here help reflect the summer sun, Hannah," Victoria explained. "Otherwise, it would become much to hot inside to bear."

"You bought honey this morning. Donít you keep your own bees?" Hannah asked.

"No one here knows how," Victoria replied. "Do you?"

"Oh yes! My bees were one of the few things James let me keep after Mama died," Hannah nodded. "I loved helping Mama with the bees, and the goats, and the rest!" She made a face. "If Lucinda couldnít buy it at a store, she didnít think it was worth having! She couldnít sew a straight hem if her life depended on it, and she has been known to burn water."

"If Lucinda is so Ö challenged, how is it you are not?"

"Because Mama started me off right, and Eileen and Maggie made sure I didnít give it all up," Hannah explained. "Eileen was our cook, until last year, and Maggie is the maid. Actually, she and I did most of the housework. Lucinda didnít want to ruin her manicure." She sighed. "Iím sorry. I shouldnít speak so. James and Lucinda did give me a home. And I suppose itís really not her fault she is the way she is. Her father still spoils her, and sheís been married for ten years!"

"Some people will tell you that I am spoiled, as well," Victoria said lightly.

"And I would disagree! You do your own housework, and cooking, and such, Mrs. Cannon. Lucinda never has," Hannah shook her head. "I think maybe thatís why sheís never happy. Nothing has ever come from her own hands. Even her children are being raised by nannies and tutors. James and Lucinda give them things. My parents, before they died, gave me time and love."

"Your parents sound very wise," Victoria smiled. Hannah beamed back.

"I like her, John. I think she would be good for Wind, and I hope she stays," Victoria told her husband that night, as she sat brushing her long black hair before bed. "She is very level-headed for her age, and so full of energy!"

"Looks like sheís got Buck and Mano wrapped around her little finger already, as well," John grinned, thinking about the way Hannah had teased and joked with the two at dinner. "But itís all up to Hannah and Wind now, Victoria. Weíre just gonna sit back, and see what happens."

"Yes John."

When Victoria descended the stairs the next morning, she could smell fresh coffee, fresher bread, and hear the sounds of Hannah singing in the kitchen.

"My goodness! You are up early!" Victoria smiled as she entered the kitchen. Hannah was just taking the bread from the oven.

"Hope you donít mind, Mrs. Cannon," the girl set the bread on the countertop, closed the oven door, and checked on something else. "I woke up around 4:30 with more energy then I knew what to do with, so I came down here. Coffeeís ready, and thereís water for tea, and breakfast will be done in about five minutes."

"In that case, I had better go in and set the table," Victoria laughed. "And no, Chiquita, I do not mind."

"Good morning, Victoria!" Buck bounded down the stairs, followed closely by Manolito. John was already at the door, speaking to Sam about the dayís work. "Something sure smells good!"

"It does. Hannah is cooking breakfast." Victoria nodded.

"I think I will just go helpÖ" Manolito began. Hannah entered, carrying the coffee and tea tray.

"Thank you, Manolito, but I have it all covered," she smiled. "Sit down, and have your coffee."

After the breakfast things were cleared, washed and put away, John told Hannah to meet him at the corral for a riding lesson.

"I canít wear this skirt," Hannah looked down at the plain, straight gray of her dress. "Be out in five minutes, Mr. Cannon!" She hurried upstairs.

When she came down again, Victoria burst out laughing. Hannah just grinned. Dressed in sturdy boots, Leviís, and a long shirt that hung down over her hips, her hair braided, she looked like a tomboy of about twelve, instead of a young lady of seventeen.

"Lucinda did not know about this outfit, I think!" Victoria guessed. "Go on, Chiquita! My husband is waiting!"

"Then itís alright?" Hannah flushed. "I was worried you wouldnít approve, but I donít have a riding skirt, not until I can make one from that rose material I picked up yesterday."

"The men will not see anything they should not, and that is the only concern. Have fun!" Victoria shooed her from the house.

John and Wind were waiting. John was watching Wind saddle a gentle little pinto. Both glanced her way as she joined them, then turned to face her when they realized she was wearing pants.

"Smart," John nodded.

"You bring those with you?" Wind asked, tightening the girth straps one more time.

"Well, one never knows what type of a job is going to need doing," Hannah shrugged, petting the horse. "Besides, if I left them behind, and Lucinda found them, she probably would have burnt them, then sent James to drag me back by my hair. I left enough back there that might give her the vapors as it is!"

"Iíll leave you two to the riding lessons," John stated. "Iíll be back to check up on you in a while, but I have to make sure my brother is doing something constructive this morning!"

"OK, up you go," Wind helped Hannah into the saddle, and adjusted the stirrups. "How did you get James and Lucinda to let you leave, anyhow? I read the letters you wrote. James seems to have his heart set on you marrying that Mead fella."

"Wind, donít you dare spoil a wonderful day by mentioning the name of that man!" Hannah chided lightly. "Although you are right. The truth is, I waited until I was 17, then just announced I was coming out here to marry my own choice. There wasnít anything James could do about it."

"And how much do they know about your choice?"

"Not a thing. Itís none of their business," Hannah settled herself in the saddle. "I suppose I have to keep it to a walk?"

"For now," he nodded. "Letís see what you do and donít remember."

Hannah was rusty, and she knew it. Still, by the end of the hour, after listening to Windís commands, and his encouragement, she was pleased. She might be stiff and a bit sore at first, but she had not forgotten.

"Tomorrow, weíll actually ride," Wind announced. "You donít need the corral, Hannah. Iím not even sure you need someone as gentle as old Cody there."

"I guess seven years of not riding couldnít erase eight years of sitting in a saddle," Hannah grinned, sliding to the ground.

"Take it easy for a few days, anyhow," John ordered. "Just so you can get used to it again."

"Yes sir! Now, if you will excuse me. I need to see to Cody, and then get cleaned up to help Mrs. Cannon with lunch." Hannah led the pinto towards the stable area.

"Victoria is glad sheís here," John commented to Wind.

"Mrs. Cannon isnít the only one," Wind admitted. "Excuse me. Iíll give her a hand with Cody, before I see what Sam wants me to get done today."

V

By the end of the week, Hannah had settled into a routine. She Ďhelpedí with Victoriaís work, and some of the outside chores, as well. She had her rides with Wind, or John and Victoria, or Manolito or Buck, although Cody had been switched for a more spirited little black mare named Misha. She kept her journal up to date in the evenings, and sat watching the stars come out. Sheíd met the ranch hands, and knew them by name and face. It was if sheíd been there for years, instead of one week.

"If you donít look closely, a person might think there wasnít much out here," she commented to Wind on their morning ride. They had stopped at a small spring to rest and water the horses. Hannah was tracing the petals of a small yellow bloom with one finger.

"Same anywhere," Wind shrugged. "If you donít look, youíre bound to miss something." He leaned against a boulder, watching her. "You donít plan on going back to Albany, do you?"

"I hadnít. Now, I donít know. I suppose I wonít, if I can find a job in Tucson," she replied. "I could always teach, or work at one of the stores."

"As long as you donít even think about the saloon," Wind warned. "Mrs. Cannon might decide to burn the place down, and drag you out by your ear."

"Canít let that happen. Buck and Mano would never forgive me!" Hannah laughed, shifting slightly.

What happened next, happened so fast, she wasnít sure until it was all over that it had happened at all. Her movement must have disturbed a rattlesnake neither of them had seen, and it struck. She felt the fire in her arm, heard the sharp crack from Windís rifle, and saw the dead snake seemingly all at one time.

"Oh dear," she bit her lip, cradling her injured arm with her good hand. "This isnít good, is it?"

"No, but it doesnít have to be fatal," Wind knelt by her, pulling his knife. "Letís get the jacket off. Iíll have to rip your shirt sleeve."

"Itís an old shirt," Hannah knew she had to keep calm, no matter what happened. "Nice shot."

"Not nice enough," he muttered, using the material from her ripped shirtsleeve to form a tourniquet. He cleaned off a small branch, and stuck it between her teeth. "Bite down on this. I need to cut into the bite."

Hannah stopped thinking about things at that point. Her arm was on fire, her head was spinning, and the day suddenly got a lot brighter, at least to her eyes. She closed them against the sunshine, then hid her face against Windís shoulder.

"Hang on, Hannah," Wind got her onto his horse, them mounted behind her, grabbing Mishaís reins to lead her. "Just hang on."

Joe Butler was on guard duty, and saw them riding in.

"Pedro! Get Mrs. Cannon!" he ordered loudly. "Looks like Hannahís hurt!" He was there to take Hannah from Windís arms, for as long as it took Wind to dismount. "What happened?"

"Rattlesnake," Wind took Hannah back, and headed for the house, where Victoria was coming to meet them. "I donít know how bad. She can answer me, but sheís complaining her arm burns and her head is spinning."

"And itís too bright," Hannah mumbled. "Could I have a wet washcloth, Mrs. Cannon?"

"Take her up to her room, Wind," Victoria ordered, her eyes full of concern. "Joe! Send someone in for Doctor Matthews!"

When John and Buck rode back in that night, Doctor Matthews was just leaving. Wind was chopping wood behind the kitchen, looking like heíd rather be punching something. Victoria met the men at the door.

"What happened?" John demanded.

"Hannah. She was bitten by a snake," Victoria explained. "Doctor Matthews says she will be fine in a few days, though. Wind was with her, and took care of the bite right away. He is mad at himself, I think. Hannah is embarrassed for making such a mistake, as she puts it. They were at the spring, and she did not look under the rocks before sitting down."

"So thatís why heís attacking that wood pile," John sighed. "Hannah is going to be fine? Does he know that?"

"I havenít been out to speak to him yet," Victoria said. "I have just gotten Hannah settled for the night."

"Iíll go," Buck offered. "You look beat, Victoria. I can handle Wind, and his thick skull." Wind was piling the wood when Buck joined him.

"Doc Matthews says Hannahís going to be just fine," Buck announced.

"It shouldnít have happened at all," Wind stated, not pausing in his work, and not looking at Buck.

"Lotís of things shouldnít happen," Buck shrugged. "They do, all the same. I hear Hannahís embarrassed she got herself into such a fix."

"Hannahís not use to this area. I should have been more careful." Wind said.

"I wouldnít suggest you let her know you feel that way," Buck warned. "Seems to me, Hannahís the type to bounce things off thick skulls for being foolish."

"I was supposed to be watching out for her, Buck."

"Sheís old enough to be watching out for herself, most of the time. She got out here on her own, didnít she?" Buck countered. "She donít blame you for what happened, so I suggest you quit it." He knew Wind enough to leave it at that, turning and going to the house to clean up for dinner.

Windís next visitor was not so smart.

"Me aní Walt go through all them letters, convincing Hannah to come on out here, and you let her get bit by a snake!" Joshís tone was accusing.

"Go away, Josh," Wind warned.

"If you donít want her, fine! In fact, Walt and me been talking about which one of us wrote the most letters. Thing is, ainít no cause for letting somethingÖ"Josh got no further before Windís fist smashed into his face. Joshís nose spurted bright red blood.

"Josh, go get cleaned up," John ordered, stepping out of the shadows. "Wind, come inside. Hannah has been asking for you."

"Yes sir." Wind followed John inside.

"Go on up," John pointed to the stairs. "She needs to sleep, but she wonít settle yet."

Hannah was restless, tossing a bit on her pillows when Wind entered. Her face was paler than usual, her eyes dropping, and her hair spread out behind her on the pillows.

"You should be resting," Wind said softly, standing just inside the door.

"And you shouldnít be blaming yourself for my mistakes," she countered. He opened his mouth to say something, but she lifted her good hand. "No, we are not going to argue about it. Itís done and over with, and Iíll be fine in a few days. Thatís all that really matters, isnít it?"

"I reckon so," Wind nodded.

"And when I can ride again, youíre going to help me convince Mrs. Cannon Iíll be fine living in Tucson on my own," Hannah continued. "Because I simply cannot continue on as a long term guest here. It isnít fair to the Cannons."

"Not to mention, youíd have a better chance of finding a husband in town," Wind forced himself to say.

"Would I? I doubt it. Besides, Iím not looking," Hannah shrugged, her eyes fluttering closed. Wind wasnít sure if he actually heard "Iíve found you", before she had drifted off to sleep. He closed the door quietly behind him.

Victoria met him at the foot of the stairs.

"Do not even try to convince me to allow Hannah to move to town," Victoria warned.

"I know better, Mrs. Cannon," Wind grinned slightly. "But Hannah does have a point. She canít stay as a guest, she has too much pride. Besides, I have the feeling if her cousin finds out she is, there may be trouble."

"She does more than her share of workÖ" Victoria began, as John joined them.

"She does, doesnít she?" John agreed. "And Victoria enjoys having a female to talk to. So, if itís a job she wants, we could offer her one right here."

"But not until she is better," Victoria decided. "Then, she and I will talk about it. Is she sleeping yet?"

"Yes maíam," Wind nodded.

"Finally! She is as stubborn as most of the men I am surrounded by!" Victoria stated. At that, Wind bid them good night, and headed for the bunkhouse.

"Howís she doing, Wind?" Joe asked, as he entered. Josh was nursing his battered nose in a corner, and glared at Wind.

"Sleeping. Sheíll be fine in a few days," Wind told Joe, setting his rifle on his bunk, and sitting down.

"Thatís fine. Sheís a sweet lass, she is" Sean, the blacksmith, smiled. "Always ready to give a hand where she can." He looked a little surprised when Wind reached under his bunk and pulled out a board. Nailed to it was a snakeskin. "That the beast what bit Hannah?"

"Sheís going to be fine, so she deserves something to mark the occasion," Wind shrugged, also taking out a small jar of oil, which he worked into the skin slowly. "She needs a real hat for riding, in any case. Those little scraps of lace sheís got just donít get the job done."

"I saw a real nice little fawn colored ladyís hat in the window at Widow Harrisí," Pedro informed him.

"I can just see Wind walking into Widow Harrisís," Joe snorted.

"Most females wouldnít cotton to wearing a snakeskin on their hat." Walt warned.

"Since when is Hannah like most females?"

"Good point," Sam grinned. "Walt, you got night watch. Better get to it."

VI

Two days later, Wind was again summoned to Hannahís room. She was sitting up this time, and, although she was still paler than he liked seeing, she was not nearly as white has she had been.

"Here," she held out a bundle of letters, neatly tied with a wide blue ribbon. "Mrs. Cannon and I got to talking, and we thought maybe youíd like to see what those two knotheads wrote to me. That way, you can tell me all the places they were wrong."

"Does it matter?" Wind took the bundle, and sat down next to the bed.

"Does to me. I would have thought it would to you, as well" Hannah shrugged slightly. "You already told me about your mother, and her people, and being a slave, and running away twice. None of that is in the letters."

Wind opened the first letter. Waltís handwriting was dark and messy.

"For one, I write neater," he commented. "And I spell better. Started learning when I was slave to that rancher. Mrs. Cannon and Mano loan me books, too. Including some of the books Mrs. Cannon uses when she teaches."

"Thatís a relief. I use to get headaches trying to read those sometimes," Hannah laughed. "What do you like to read?"

"Almost anything I can get my hands on. Except the romances Mrs. Cannon sometimes buys in town," he admitted.

"I have a bag full of books, and not one dime store romance in the lot!" She assured him. "Any time you want to borrow one, just ask."

Since most of the letters were about life on the ranch, there really wasnít too much Wind had to correct. It took about an hour to go through all the letters, then Wind excused himself to get back to work.

Hannah was able to get out of bed by the end of the forth day, and walk down the stairs. Victoria would not allow her to do much, but she did allow Hannah to take a basket of mending out onto the veranda. She was happily sewing when Josh came around the corner of the house.

Among the men of the Chaparral, only the Tucker brothers were not allowed to call her Hannah. ĎMiss Hannahí, but not just Hannah. When they did, she glared at them with ice in her eyes until they turned beat red. John had called it right when heíd told Buck that Hannah had not forgiven, and the Tuckers had not heard the end of it.

"Youíre looking mighty fine today, Miss Hannah," Josh stopped near her. "Glad to see you up and around again. No thanks to that breed."

"Actually, Wind is the reason I am still around, in more ways than one, Josh Tucker, and youíd best keep it in mind when speaking to me," Hannah stated sternly. "Kindly move. Youíre blocking my light."

"Now, donít get like that! Werenít it me aní Walt what sent the letters?" Josh whined.

"And you did a fine job of writing down what you thought Wind might say to my questions," Hannah nodded. "Iíve talked it over with Mrs. Cannon, and we felt it was only fair to let Wind read what he supposedly wrote. The fact remains, what you did was wrong, and itís only by grace that I am not some penny-poor spinster who would have been stranded here by your little joke, with or without the involvement of the Cannons. Now go away. I donít find your company very pleasant."

"Thatís cause you ainít giving me no chance!" Josh sat down next to her. "I can be real..."

That was as far as he got before Hannah jabbed him in the shoulder with the long darning needle in her hand. He yelped and jumped, and she kicked his knee.

"Donít you dare come around me, trying to make nice and be friends, or anything else!" She warned, as Manolito came to investigate the yell. "You and your brother are a pair of juvenile, fraudulent, lying, smelly little boys who need baths with lye soap, and a few years in a classroom, learning how not to mangle the English language! Keep your distance, or I might just be tempted to find the two of you some womenÖ. Diseased whores, most likely!"

"I think, Josh, that you should go about your business," Manolito suggested. His voice was light, but his dark eyes held a strong warning. "The senorita obviously does not care for your company." Josh went off, muttering. "You are alright, Hannah?"

"Yes, thank you, Manolito," Hannah sighed. "I canít believe those two! Thinking Iíd forgive them, just because I happen to like it here, and I am getting along with Wind so well."

"Too well for their taste, Chiquita," Manolito grinned. "They are very jealous."

"I get the feeling itís not the first time," Hannah raised an eyebrow.

"Hardly. Wind is a hard worker, and he is well liked here. Now, while Josh and Walt are not exactly lazyÖ" Manolito shrugged. "They are too fond of pranks, those two."

"Oh really?" a wicked gleam came into Hannahís eyes.

"I know that look, senorita! There will be none of that!" Manolito warned, laughing. "Come, it is almost time for dinner."

Victoria and John broached the subject of Hannah working for them that same evening.

"There are a number of chores you took over, Hannah," John commented, almost idly, over dinner. "Would you care to keep on doing them?"

"Does that mean I donít have to take it easy anymore?" Hannah asked hopefully.

"You will take it slowly until Doctor Matthews says you are well," Victoria announced firmly. "John is asking if you might be willing to stay here at the Chaparral, as a paid employee."

Hannah looked from one to the other. They both looked completely serious.

"Just doing the chores Iíve been doing? They arenít all that much." Hannah looked doubtful.

"You are better at math than John or myself, so you could help with the books," Victoria suggested. "Especially the house accounts. And just having another female close by would be important to me. And you could help me teach, when I am asked to cover for one of the teachers here about."

"Youíre also not afraid to help around outside as the need comes," John added. "Pedro tells me youíre real good with a sick horse, and that you did most of the work with that orphan calf last week. Not having to tie up one of the men for jobs like that makes it easier all around."

"If youíre sureÖ" Hannah hesitated, but they both nodded. "Then yes! I would like it very much!"

"Good! Iíll let you and Victoria work out all the details later," John smiled.

VII

"I really should write to Lorilei and the VanAlstyne girls," Hannah sighed one afternoon as she and Victoria sat enjoying the afternoon. "I promised them I would, and it has been weeks."

"Those are your friends?" Victoria asked.

"Yes maíam. Lorilei, Janice and I were in class together. Julienne was a year ahead of us," Hannah nodded. "There really is so much to tell them."

"If you write them tonight, Buck is going into town tomorrow to collect our mail," Victoria said. "That will work well."

Hannah sent off her letters, and forgot about them. There was just so much else to occupy her time.

"I have had an idea, Hannah," Victoria announced one morning, when Hannah had been at the Chaparral about a month. "The old cottage needs quite a bit of workÖ"

"I did rather notice that," Hannah nodded. "But it could be such a nice little place."

"Are you willing to put the work into it?" Victoria asked her. "I will help, but it will be your project, and it will be your home when it is done. And, of course, you will have to do your regular work first each day."

"I can handle it, Mrs. Cannon!" Hannahís eyes shone. "I could start today! First, the whole place needs to be cleaned out, and Iíll have to make a list of what I will needÖ curtains, pots, dishes, things like that."

"Do not forget, the day after tomorrow, we are going into town," Victoria smiled at the girlís enthusiasm.

"Oh, I wonít!" Hannah promised, grabbing the basket of laundry. "Better get to work! Thank you, Mrs. Cannon!"

"She wonít be able to do all the repairs herself," John commented. "The roof, for example. And thereís a hole in the back wall."

"Wind can help with those things," Victoria said innocently. "Oh, and Manolito and Buck will probably help. I would suggest the Tuckers, but Hannah seems to want as little to do with them as possible. Mano told me Josh tried to get close to her, not long after the snake. Hannah convinced him to keep his distance. With a darning needle."

"I heard about that. Hannah can be quite convincing, when she wants to be," John said dryly. "Iíll tell Pedro to start mixing some adobe up tomorrow."

"Thank you, John." Victoria kissed his cheek. "You are a good man, my husband."

"And you, wife, are a hopeless romantic," John smiled, hugging her briefly. "Now, I have work to do."

VIII

June moved into July. The Fourth found most of them in town for the annual celebrations. Hannah wore the rose riding skirt sheíd made, and rode Misha in, instead of sitting in the surrey with Victoria and John. On her head was the fawn hat with the snakeskin band.

"You, Mano and Pedro are in the race, Sam is going to box, and Joe and Ira are going to rope. In fact, all the men are entered in something. Whatís left for me?" Hannah asked Wind lightly as they entered town.

"You get to cheer us on," he told her. "And help Mrs. Cannon bandage up all the cuts and scrapes."

"Oh, that will be fun!" She snorted. "I did that last week, when Buck and Joe came back from town after their little Ďpartyí at the saloon!"

"I heard that, missy!" Buck rode up along side her.

"Well, I wasnít being quiet about it," Hannah shrugged. "Then again, neither were either of you, when I was patching you both up. Buck, Iíve been meaning to ask you. Please leave the singing to Reno. He has a better voice."

"Ha ha! You wait, missy. Iíll get you for that," Buck promised lightly.

"You might, but itís going to take you a while!" Hannah laughed. She loved her new life. For the most part, the men of the Chaparral were like big brothers or doting uncles to her. They teased her, and she teased them right back. And Joe was teaching her how to shoot, although neither Victoria nor Wind knew it yet.

"Give it up while you still can, Buck," Wind warned. "Her mind is sharper."

Tucson was crowded. Women wore bright colors and flowers, men swaggered around, and talked of the competitions they planned to win. Hannah stayed close to Wind and the Cannons, and just took it all in.

Right before the race, Hannah tied a rose scarf to Windís arm.

"For good luck," she smiled.

"You like stirring things up, donít you?" Wind asked. "Thereís a whole bevy of Town Ladies giving you dirty looks right now."

"Let them!" She tossed her head. "If I donít let blood kin dictate to me, why should I let a bunch of misguided strangers do it?"

"Because youíve chosen to live here," he replied gently.

"That does not mean I am going to let anyone else do my thinking for me," she shook her head. "Now, go win that race! Manolitoís been too smug about it by far this last week."

Hannah went to stand with Victoria, John, Buck and Sam, to watch the start and end of the race. Riders were lining up at the starting line. Wind was not the only rider wearing a ladyís favor, she noted.

"I didnít know Josh was riding," Sam frowned slightly.

"He thinks he can beat Wind," Hannah announced. "Wind and I both doubt he plans a fair race. Wind will still leave him eating dust."

"Iíve seen Josh ride. Wind wonít be the only one feeding him dust," Buck chuckled.

"Whereís Walt?" John asked.

"With Joe and Reno to keep him out of trouble," Hannah laughed. "He wonít be helping his brother this time!"

"Hello, Victoria," one of the ladies whoíd been frowning at Hannah now approached.

"Hello, Emma!" Victoria smiled. "What a fine day! And such a good turn out!"

"Yes, it is, isnít it?" Emma Doughty nodded. "And who is your new young friend?"

"Hannah, this is Mrs. Emma Doughty," Victoria introduced her. "Emma, this is Miss Hannah Anson, from Albany, New York. She is working at the Chaparral now."

"Such a young, pretty, unmarried woman, out at the Chaparral?" Emma murmured.

"I will age, and I plan on marrying eventually, Mrs. Doughty," Hannah smiled slightly. "I like being at the Chaparral. Itís so different from New York."

"What ever brought you so far west alone, child?"

"Oh, this and that," Hannah shrugged.

"And your parentsÖ":

"My parents are dead, Mrs. Doughty. I think Father would have liked it here, though," Hannah turned her attention back to the racers. "Theyíre about to start!"

Nothing was said for several minutes, as the racers started off, and disappeared around a corner.

"Hannah, it was noted that you seem ratherÖ. closeÖ to that boy, Wind," Emma began hesitantly.

"Mrs. Doughty, Wind is a man, not a boy," Hannah cut her off firmly, but with an easy tone. "And I do happen to like him. If there are people who have a problem with that, because he is half Pawnee, then thereís nothing I can do about it. But they do not lead my life, nor do they dictate the way I do. Disliking someone because of his or her ethnic background is not only silly, itís very unchristian."

"Heís aÖ. a bastard," Emma whispered, eyes wide.

"Are you saying he should be punished for the sins of his father? Really, Mrs. Doughty. You donít look like a narrow minded soul," Hannah frowned. "He had nothing to do with the circumstances of his birth." She turned away. "Oh! Here they come! And Wind and Manolito are in the lead!"

Wind leaned low on his horse, and crossed the finish line barely a nose before Manoís Mackadoo. Hannah began cheering, ignoring the looks she received from the ladies.

"Really, VictoriaÖ" Emma murmured.

"Really, Emma. I think Hannahís answer was very honest," Victoria stated. Then, she, too, was cheering Windís win, and laughingly consoling Manoís second-place standing.

When the dancing started later that evening, Hannah found herself with no shortage of potential partners. Even men she had never met were crowding around her. Wind was not with them, having gone with Pedro to take care of something for Sam. That was a bit disappointing. She chose Reno instead.

"Hannah, you promise me something," the young ranch hand requested. "You be real careful who you dance with tonight."

"Reno, you arenít telling me not to dance with Wind, are you?" She demanded.

"HellÖsorry, heck no, Hannah!" Reno shook his head. "Some of these fellas, though. They see you with Wind, they get ideas."

"They can think what they like," Hannah snorted. "They try acting on it, and someone will have to sweep up the pieces!"

"Thatís our gal!" Reno laughed. "If you need help, just whistle. Youíll have every Chaparral hand at your side in a heartbeat!"

Hannah avoided much of the trouble simply by dancing with the Chaparral men, bar the Tucker brothers.

"Come dance with me, honey," someone grabbed her hand, pulling her away from Iraís side after a reel. The man was about Buckís age, stank of beer and sweat, and looked as if he had no concept of what a razor was for.

"Sorry, my dance card is full," Hannah tried to pull away, but he had a strong grip. Especially for a drunk. "If you donít let go of meÖ."

"If you donít let go of her, Iím going to be right upset with you, Seth," Buck drawled, one arm wrapping around Hannahís waist.

"Aní why should you get all the pretty ones, Buck?" Seth demanded. "Canít get next to Pearlita, since Carlos and Mano are both here. That Gwennie, sheís gone and draped herself all over the ButlersÖ."

"Are you calling me a whore, you flea-bitten excuse of a male?" Hannah demanded, her voice a low hiss that went unheard by most of the people around them. Wind was just coming up behind her.

"Who else is gonna hang all over some dirty breed?" Seth leered.

"I donít hang on any dirty breed, you drunken, shrunken little rat," Hannah informed him. "I spend my time with someone I admire, regardless of his religion, ethnic background, or social standing. You see, my parents expected me to be a good Christian and make my friends by their hearts, not their skin or bank account. So, shove off, you withered old hypocrite! Itís a toss up which smells worse, your breath or your body!" She gave him a good push, and he tottered back, eyes blinking in confusion, to land on his butt among the dancers. Hannah turned to see Wind looking at her. "What?"

"Do you want to dance?" Wind held out one hand, as the music for a waltz began. Hannah went from storm clouds to sunshine in an instant.

"I thought youíd never ask!" She accepted his hand, and they twirled off passed Buck, and right by Joe, who was just stepping over Seth.

"What she do to Seth?" Joe asked, jerking his thumb at the man who was crawling away between couples.

"Refused to dance with him, called him a few names, told him he stinks Ė which he do- and pushed him on his butt," Buck replied. "Feisty little thing, she is!"

"Have you been getting a lot of that?" Wind asked, as they danced.

"A lot of what? Oh, you mean hassles like that silly drunk?" Hannah shook her head. "No. A few comments made so I could hear them, but thatís it. I ignore it."

"It will just get worse, if you and I keep spending time together," he warned.

"If there are people who have nothing better to do with their time than gossip and bad talk others, I canít help it, Wind. I will not let their type dictate what I do with my life." Hannahís voice was stern. "And I know perfectly well you donít allow them to dictate the way you live your life, either."

"I grew up with it," he pointed out.

"And I spent seven years of my life putting up with James and Lucinda. This lot are angels compared to Lucinda in a snit, or James when heís on the losing end of a deal." She replied. "People are slow to change, but the best way to show them theyíre wrong, is to live the proof right in front of their faces."

"You are something, Hannah Grace Anson," he smiled slightly.

"I am so glad youíre finally noticing that fact, Wind!"

IX

"Hannah, you got a telegram here!" Joe announced, about two weeks after the celebration. He was standing in the opened door of the cottage, which now looked completely different than anyone but Vaquero ever recalled seeing it. New glass graced the large windows, framed by red shutters outside and pale cream curtains inside. The adobe gleamed with fresh whitewash. Potted plants filled the top of the low wall that surrounded the little porch area.

"A telegram?" Hannah came out, her bright hair covered by a blue bandana. "Well, at least it canít be from James or Lucinda. They donít know where I am, just that I am west of the Mississippi." She took the sealed paper and opened it. The light in her eyes darkened almost at once.

"Bad news, sugar?"

"Itís from Julienne. Her father found the letter I wrote, and took it to James. He and that man are coming here, to drag me back east." She bit her lower lip. "Iíd better go talk to Mrs. Cannon."

"Donít worry, Hannah. We arenít going to let anyone force you into something you donít want," Joe told her. She managed to smile.

"Thanks Joe. Excuse me. I think Mrs. Cannon is out back."

While Hannah went off in search of Victoria, Joe went looking for Sam and Buck. Wind, he knew, was off with John and Mano, checking on some horses they planned to round up and start breaking before the fall drive to Kansas City.

"Weíre getting company," he announced, finding his brother and Buck by the corral. "James Williams and that Mead fella Hannah doesnít even like to talk about."

"Hannah know?" Buck asked.

"She got a telegram from one of her friends, warning her," Joe nodded. "What are we gonna do about it?"

"We? What have we got to do with it?" Sam demanded.

"You arenít going to stand there and tell me youíd let them railroad her back east, and probably into marrying Mead?" Joe looked at him.

"No, we ainít." Buck said. "Not that I think anybody could railroad Hannah! First, we see what Big John has to say on the matter."

"Hannah, for all the fact sheís more grown up than some twice her age, is still only seventeen, and Williams is her guardian," Sam pointed out. "Until she turns eighteen, or gets married. And I donít see where Windís in too much of a hurry to get hitched."

"Who says they have to know she ainít married yet?" Buck asked suggestively.

"Now Buck, you know neither one of them is gonna lie about that!" Sam shook his head. "That telegram gives us some time, so why donít we wait and see what the boss and Hannah have to say?"


"Pa took letter to James. James and Mead on way to Tucson. Be prepared for August 16. Julienne"


"Eighteen little words, and theyíre scaring me to death, Mrs. Cannon," Hannah sighed, as Victoria read the telegram. "He hasnít the right to force me to go back. Iíve read Mommaís Will. I even have a copy. He was to give me a home until I was 17, married, or chose to leave, and oversee the estate until I was 18. Iím 17 now, and I wonít go back. But James can get nasty, and make a big scene."

"Do not worry, Chiquita. This is Tucson, not Albany, and he is unknown here," Victoria pointed out. "We will talk to my husband when he comes home. I think it might be wise to file a copy of your motherís Will with our lawyer in town. It will give us legal ground to stand on."

"I knew you could make it seem better, Mrs. Cannon!" Hannah smiled in relief. "If it was just James coming, I wouldnít be so fussed. He gets nasty, but Iím use to that. I rarely tolerate it, but I am use to it. But that man turns my stomach to even think on! Dealing with him face to face again has me in knots."

"It is not as if you will be alone, Hannah," Victoria promised. "Now, it is time to get supper started. Are you ready to learn how to make something new?"

"Always!"

John, when he heard what was going on, was as calm about it as Victoria. Especially when he read Margaret Ansonís Will.

"Tomorrow is the fifteenth. Weíll go into town, give a copy of this to Zeke, and wait for Mr. Williams and Mr. Mead to arrive," he stated, holding the Will. "They wonít have a leg to stand on, Hannah. You have a job, a roof over your head, and food on the table. You donít owe anyone any money. You havenít been in any trouble since you got here."

"I guess finding out they were on their way just spooked me, Mr. Cannon," Hannah said, also much calmer than she had been. Right now, she was seated on the couch with Victoria. Wind stood behind them, cradling his rifle. Buck straddled a straight-backed chair, and Mano and Sam perched on opposite ends of the big desk.

"I thought nothing spooked you, Hannah Grace," Wind commented.

"Very little. Conrad T. Mead is one of the few," Hannah admitted. "Only a fool is never afraid. Iíd like to think I am not a fool, Wind."

"You arenít."

"Sam, you and Mano get the round up of those horses started first thing in the morning." John instructed. "By next week, Williams and Mead will be on their way back to Albany, without Hannah. Wind, I assume youíre going to want to go into town with us?"

"Yes sir," Wind nodded.

"Me aní Joe would kinda like to go too, big brother," Buck announced. John just nodded.

"And that being settled, I bid you all good night," Hannah stood. "I get to sleep in my own place tonight, and first I need to set some things out for morning."

"Iíll walk you over," Wind offered. She smiled as she took his arm and they left.

"Reckon theyíll be hitched before the yearís out?" Buck grinned.

"That is one bet, amigo, I will not take against you!" Manolito chucked.

It was raining when the stage arrived in Tucson on the 16th. Wind and Buck watched it pull in from the shelter of a porch across the street.

"Thatís them," Wind nodded to two men who stepped out first. One had reddish hair, and wore conservative clothing. The second was a beefy-looking man in dark blue, carrying a walking stick.

"He is an ugly fella, ainít he?" Buck commented. "Letís go tell John and the rest." They walked over to the hotel only a few steps ahead of James and Mead, and headed straight for the private dinning room where Wind had first met Hannah.

"Theyíre here, then?" John looked up from the newspaper he was reading.

"Yup. Mead donít look none too happy," Buck nodded. John folded the paper, and set it aside.

"That man never looks happy, Buck. I think itís against his religion," Hannah stated. She wore one of the dresses she had made for herself since arriving in Arizona. The simple cut and pale rose material suited her nicely.

X

"Weíd like two rooms," James informed the desk clerk. Toby turned the register around for them to sign it, and reached for two keys behind him. "Do you have a young lady staying here? She arrived about two months ago."

"Nobody stays here that long," Toby shook his head. "More than a week, they move on over to the boarding house. Got a message here for you, Mr. Williams." He handed James the folded paper.

"Who knows weíre here, Williams?" Mead demanded.

"Hannah, apparently," James read the note. "Where is this private dinning room?"

"There," Toby jerked his thumb towards the door.

"These rooms are on the third floor," Mead noticed, looking at the key tags.

"Yes sir," Toby nodded.

"You have nothing better?"

"You want two rooms, you take what you get," Toby shrugged. "We have ladies staying here. I donít put strangers on the same floor with ladies." He turned away, and went back to his work.

"Letís just go find out how Hannah found out we were coming, and tell her the arrangements weíve made," James requested. "I certainly donít wish to stay in this god-forsaken little hole any longer than we have to."

Joe opened the door when they knocked. Mead glared, and James looked confused.

"Who the hell are all these people, Hannah?" Mead demanded.

"Who do you think you are, to be asking me such a question, Mr. Mead?" Hannah hoped she sounded better than she felt. "James. A pity youíve wasted your time coming all this way."

"HannahÖ" James began.

"Sit down, James. He will, whether I ask him to or not," Hannah waved a hand at Mead, who was already taking a seat. "This is Mr. John Cannon, and his wife, Victoria. They are my employers. The gentleman in black is Buck Cannon, the one who let you in is Joe Butler, and this is Wind." She briefly touched Windís arm as he stood next to her seat. Just that little gesture gave her strength. "You really shouldnít read other peopleís mail, James. Not only is it a bad habit, itís against the law."

"This is a private family affairÖ" Mead began, his face red, and his voice rough.

"Not quite," John disagreed. "Since you arenít family, Mr. Mead."

"The young lady is my fiancťe!"

"Itís not nice to lie," Wind stated calmly. "Hannah came here to marry me, and you both know it."

"Excuse me?" James looked at him. "YOU? Youíre nothingÖ"

"Watch your mouth, James," Hannah warned, her eyes going cold and stormy. "I told you before I left Albany, any arrangement you made with that man, you would just have to unmake."

"Hannah, you are being unreasonable!" James rose to his feet. "Youíve been promised to Conrad Mead since you were fourteen, and you damn well know it!"

"I would wonder why a man in his late thirties would want so young and unwilling a bride?" Victoria raised one eyebrow. "And, by the terms of Margaret Ansonís Will, you did not have the authority to promise Hannah to anyone, Mr. Williams."

"Just what would you know about my cousinís Will?" James demanded.

"Weíve read it," John stated simply. "My lawyer has a copy of it. Hannah is seventeen, has a job, a home, and a man of her choosing, and thereís not a thing you can do about it, Mr. Williams. And you both know it, so coming here was really a waste of your time."

"I am Hannahís guardian until she is eighteenÖ"James blustered.

"No, youíre the executor of her inheritance until she is eighteen," John shook his head slowly. "I told you. We read the Will. Itís very clear on a number of things. A few Hannah missed, because of her age and unfamiliarity with legal terms, but she understands it all now."

"All of it?" James paled.

"All of it," Hannah nodded. "So we pretty much figured out whatís happened to most of the money. I donít care, James. All I want from you is to be left alone to live my own life."

"Thatís not going to happen," Mead announced. "And I will hear no more foolishness on the subject, Hannah. You and I are getting married tomorrow, by special license, and taking the next stage back to Albany."

"You will rot in hell before I marry you," Hannah informed him.

"You forget, Mead. She came here to marry me," Wind added. "A woman canít be married to two men at one time"

"You arenít married yet!"

"Are you sure about that?"

The two faced off in a stare down. Meadís face was florid, and his anger almost tangible. Wind was calm, almost detached.

When the walking cane came up, Wind wasnít the only one ready for it. He blocked it with the butt of his rifle, and Joe yanked it completely from Meadís grasp.

"I wouldnít try that again, Mead," Wind warned softly. "Because you arenít man enough to handle what youíd get."

"I think this has gone far enough!" Victoria stated. "Mr. Williams, you should be glad Hannah has no wish to press charges against you. Just go home! Come, Hannah." She rose with all the grace of a queen, and Hannah went to her side. At the door, the younger woman stopped.

"James isnít the only one I decided not to press charges against," she looked straight at Mead. "Conviction or not, the newspapers would have quite a day of it, if a prominent businessman were even charged with attempting to rape a 13 year old girl." She turned and left the room.

"Lying little bitch!" Mead snorted. "As if anyone would believe a runaway tramp like that!"

"Watch your mouth, Mead," Buck ordered. "Last fella tried calling Hannah a whore landed on his ass. Course, he was drunk. But this time, itíd be me doing the shoving, and not her."

"Sheís a lying little thief!" Mead insisted. "Sheís stolen from me, from James here, and from Jamesí wife!"

"Youíre a sore loser, Mead," John shook his head. "Wind, Buck, Joe, letís go. I donít like the company any more than my wife did."

"Sheís a whore! A tramp, like her mother! Always flaunting." Mead was really working himself up now. Wind had enough. One fist caught Mead in the chin, and the big man crumpled.

"I suggest you get him out of town, Williams," John told James. "Before he makes anymore comments like that within the hearing of Chaparral hands. Hannah has a lot of friends here, and we wonít tolerate her being bad mouthed." He left, followed by Wind, Joe, and Buck.

"Fast, compadre," Buck added in parting. "Wind ainít prone to losing his temperÖbut I am."

"Thatís why you donít like him. He tried raping you," Windís words were blunt and to the point, but his words were soft. He and Hannah were sitting on the porch of the cottage the next evening.

"Heís sick," Hannah stated flatly. "He use to come around after my father died, trying to get my mother to step out with him. Momma wasnít interested. Not in him. There was a man, not long before she got sick. His name was Tom Nichols, and he was very nice. But his job took him down to Virginia, and by the time he got back to Albany, Momma was dying. That man tried claiming Momma and Tom. ÖWell, even if they had, that wouldnít make her a whore! They were talking about getting married!"

"Which made Mead angry."

"Very! Then Momma died, and Tom moved to Virginia, and I went to live with James. I was thirteen, and had just come in from school. That man was in the parlor, but James and Lucinda werenít home. He knew who I was. He said the daughter of a whore is a whore herself, and heíd teach me right." Hannah shivered. "Maggie saved me that day. She came running when I screamed, and threatened him with the fire poker. Told him if she ever caught him near me again, sheíd go to the police. He knew she would. Sheís got four brothers. Oneís a priest, and three are police officers. He started hinting to James about marrying me two weeks later. I worked very hard to stay away from him for four years."

"Some twisted form of revenge because your mother had the good sense not to marry him," Wind decided. Hannah nodded, her eyes still clouded. "Donít worry, Hannah. I wonít let him hurt you."

"I know." She managed to smile. "Itís just thinking of that day. It makes my skin crawl!"

"Itís getting late," Wind stood, then leaned down and kissed her forehead. "Get some sleep."

"Good night, Wind."

"Good night, Hannah."

XI

Hannah and Victoria were hanging the wash two days later when visitors arrived at the ranch. Hannahís eyes went dark at the sight of James and Mead riding in.

"Those two again?" Victoria frowned. "Vaquero!"

"Senora?" Vaquero hurried over.

"Tell the other men to stand by. We have some unwelcome visitors." Victoria instructed.

"Si Senora Cannon!" He hurried off again.

"Why wonít they just go away?" Hannah demanded crossly. "If I had a gun, Iíd shoot James in the foot. Iíd shoot that man in the head."

"His head is too hard for the bullet, Chiquita," Victoria shook her head.

"Youíd rather do menial labor than marry me?" Mead demanded. Hannah refused to answer him. She refused to even acknowledge his presence. She also refused to look at James.

"You got business here, mister?" Sam demanded.

"Our business is none of your concern," Mead said arrogantly.

"I reckon youíre wrong there," Sam disagreed. "Since Iím the foreman here, and youíre trying to harass the bossís wife and one of our workers. Youíd be better off leaving now, before thereís trouble."

"If Hannah doesnít give up this foolishness, and come home where she belongs, there will be nothing but trouble!" James announced harshly. He didnít look well.

"How much do you owe him, James?" Hannahís eyes narrowed. "How much did you try selling me for?" James had the grace to turn red. "That answers that question." She went back to hanging the laundry.

"Hannah Grace, you be reasonable! I raised youÖ."

"You did no such thing!" Hannah hissed. "Maggie and Eileen took over where Momma left off, and I have spent seven years of my life raising your children. Lucinda made sure I was Ďproperí, so I wouldnít be an embarrassment. All you did was sell off my home and property without even asking! Even the roof over our heads wasnít by your hand, it was Mr. Quintal, Lucindaís father. I donít owe you a damn thing, James Robert Williams, and I owe him even less! Now get out of my life!"

"And get off Chaparral land, Mr. Williams. You and your Ďfriendí are not welcome here," Victoria added. "You have five minutes to be out of sight. Then Sam, they can be shot for trespassing."

"Yes maíam," Sam nodded. Vaquero, Ira and Walt all stood close by. Vaquero held a rifle, and the other two held their hands on their holsters.

"You wouldnít dare!" Mead sneered.

"Try me, Senor." Victoria stared him down. "Please, do try me."

James finally managed to convince Mead that arguing with men holding loaded weapons wasnít a wise idea. They left.

 

"Miss Hannah?" Walt stopped by the cottage later. "Just wanted to make sure you was alright. That Mead fellaÖ"

"Is evil," Hannah spat. "Iím fine, Walt, thank you for asking. I just wish theyíd go home and leave me be."

"Gotta admire the manís persistence."

"No, I donít. He wants me because my mother turned him down. What does that tell you about him?" Hannah sighed. "Iíd rather not talk about him, Walt."

"Sorry," Walt sat down next to her. "We could talk about what youíre gonna do now."

"Right now, I am going to mend this shirt for Buck, and darn a few pair of socks," she held up a black shirt.

"I mean, with your life. A gal like you, you should get marriedÖ"

"I plan on it, Walt. But before you go off on your brotherís tangent, donít bother." Hannah said. "I already have the groom picked out. Itís just taking longer than planned, since we have to go through the courting properly."

"You mean to hook up with Wind after all?"

"I do."

"Oh well," Walt sighed. "Canít blame a fella for trying."

"I wonít blame you for trying," she amended. "Josh wasnít so tactful, nor was he so graceful in defeat."

"Losing to Wind has been getting to be a habit since we came here, Miss Hannah," Walt laughed. "I figure it ainít gonna do me any good to rail against it now."

"Probably not," she agreed.

"You have a nice evening, Miss Hannah." He rose to leave her.

Josh was waiting by the corral for him.

"Well?"

"Sheís stuck on the breed. He donít deserve her." Waltís benign expression changed, hardening into one of discontent.

"Then weíll fix them both, wonít we? And get paid for it," Josh said. "Meadís cash is good. And we can pull it off without a backward look."

"Tomorrow night?"

"Tomorrow night."

 

Sam was fixing a saddle strap when the Tuckers approached him the next morning.

"Hey Sam, got a minute?" Josh asked.

"Whatís on your mind?" Sam looked at them.

"We talked it over, and we reckon itís time for us to move on," Josh stated. "Miss Hannah ainít likely to forgive and forget what we done, even if it does look like sheís gonna marry Wind. Makes us kinda uncomfortable, seeing it all, too."

"Manís gotta do what he feels best," Sam nodded. He actually wouldnít be sorry to see them go. They did their work, but they never quite fit in with the rest. "Come up to the house, and weíll get Mr. Cannon to pay what youíve got coming. When did you figure to leave?"

"As soon as we get paid. We figure weíll go on into Tucson today, and get an early start tomorrow. Kinda tired of looking at a bunch of cows, anyhow."

"Canít say Iím sorry to see those two go," John commented to Sam, after the Tuckers rode out. "And I know Iím not the only one."

"Iím just hoping we have seen the last of them, boss," Sam sighed. "I got a bad feeling."

"Keep an eye on Wind, then. Stands to reason they might try something," John frowned.

XII

Hannah blew out the lamp on her kitchen table, then padded barefoot over to close the window. She had no time to scream when something was thrown over her head, and she was swept off her feet.

"Hey Joe, where are Josh and Walt going this late?" Ira asked, stepping into the bunkhouse. He had just come back from watching one of the herds.

"Josh and Walt?" Joe frowned. "They left this morning. Packed up and quit."

"I just saw them ride out, Joe," Ira stated. "Josh has a mighty big bundle on his horse, too."

"Maybe they forgot something." Reno shrugged. Wind headed for the door.

"Maybe what they forgot wasnít thereís to take," Joe followed Wind. The rest of the men followed quickly. "Pedro, go tell Sam and the boss! Ira, Reno, get the horses."

It was Wind and Victoria who realized Hannah hadnít come out to investigate the commotion. Wind tore through the cottage looking for her.

"They took Hannah," he reported tersely. "Are Williams and Mead still in town?"

"They left on the morning stage," Manolito said. "But I am thinking they did not go far. Ira says Josh and Walt headed away from Tucson."

"Weíll find her, Victoria," John promised, seeing his wifeís face. "Wind, Buck, Mano, Joe, and Reno. Letís go!"

 

Hannahís arms hurt, and the gag Walt had stuffed in her mouth when they transferred her from Joshís horse to the waiting buckboard was making her sick. She wasnít frightened, since sheíd been told where they were going. She was angry. James and Mead were waiting to pay the Tuckers for kidnapping her. Mead planned on leaving her no option about marrying him.

"We got company, Josh." Walt warned. Hannah, even muffled under a blanket, could hear the sound of horses getting closer. She also heard Johnís gruff voice ordering them to stop.

"Let me do the talking," Josh hissed. "And you, Mrs. Mead, behave yourself back there! We have to start shooting, and that bastard breed gets the first bullet!"

"Thought you two were heading out yesterday?" John demanded. The early dawn was just starting to paint the sky pink.

"We got hired to do some hauling for this fella passing through Tucson, Mr. Cannon," Josh lied.

"And you havenít been anywhere near the ranch?"

"No sir! Something wrong?"

"Whereís Hannah?" Wind demanded.

"She missing? Maybe she went off with that white man," Walt suggested. Hannah had managed to get her feet out from under the blanket, and she now kicked as hard as she could in his general direction. The back of the buckboard seat splintered, and she felt the cuts and scrapes, but she also had the satisfaction of hearing Walt yelp as he was knocked forward, and fell behind the horses.

Reno grabbed the bridle of the closest horse, to keep them from bolting when Walt fell. He couldnít keep either from kicking, and Walt caught both back hooves right in his gut. Josh and Joe moved to yank him clear. Wind and Manolito pulled away the blanket.

"Hannah, stop squirming!" Wind ordered, reaching for her feet, caught in the break of the seat. He got her free of that, then cut the ropes that held her hands behind her back, and the gag.

"These two addle-witted, evil-spirited, thick skulledÖ" Hannah was sputtering when she sat up, ignoring the pain in her feet and ankles. "Iíll kill them both! Then Iím going to make Lucinda a widow, and end the Mead line!" She attacked the back of Joshís head with her hands clawed. Wind had to pull her onto his horse to stop her. "Let me go! Iím going to rip his throat out!"

"Settle down!" Wind held her firmly. "Iím more worried about your feet than his throat."

"Youíre bleeding pretty heavy there, missy," Buck rode up next to them, and carefully wrapped Hannahís feet in bandanas. "Weíd best have Victoria look at these feet."

"They had the nerve to take me out of my own home!"

"And they will face the judge for it," John promised. "And so will Williams and Mead, for hiring them."

"Thatís if Walt lives that long," Joe commented. Walt was now stretched out in the wagon, moaning and bloody.

"Let him die!" Hannah growled.

"We didnít hurt you none!" Josh, his face white, protested. "Youíre a runaway! We was hired to get you home!"

"You were hired to sell me into slavery! Slavery to a twisted, perverted madman!"

"Josh, where were you supposed to meet Williams and Mead?" John demanded.

"The old mission," Josh admitted.

"Wind, take Hannah home. Joe, you drive the buckboard. Weíll leave these two, and pick up the marshal on the way," John ordered.

"Reno, take her home," Wind transferred Hannah to Renoís horse. "Iím going with Mr. Cannon."

"Bring back Jamesís heart," Hannah requested. "Or what passes for such!"

"I donít gut humans," Wind kissed her. "Behave for Reno."

XIII

"They should be here by now," James was scowling at the rising sun. "The sooner weíre out of Arizona, the better!"

"Good things come to those who wait," Mead quoted. He was certain his plans were finally coming together. When he finally took Hannah, his revenge on Margaret would be final. Then, all that would be left was to finish off James Williamsí financial ruin.

"What if she and that breed Ö"

"They havenít. You heard those two cowhands. The breed has a sense of honor," Mead snorted. "A trait I am not constrained by. Before this day is out, Hannah will be begging me to marry her. I just might. Or, I might just sell her to the first brothel we come to."

"Sheís only 17!" James protested.

"Sheís the daughter of a whore, and a whore herself. Why should I want a whore to get my money when Iím gone?"

"Hannah doesnít want your money, Mead," Windís quiet voice caught them both off guard. "And sheís no whore. Then again, neither was Margaret. They just shared the good common sense to want nothing to do with an arrogant son of a bitch like you."

"I wouldnít," the marshal warned James when he would have run. "Itís all over, boys. Josh couldnít sing fast enough, when Walt died."

"What are you talking about?" James demanded. "No one was supposed to get hurt!"

"Except Hannah, hey gringo?" Manolito raised an eyebrow. "She is not some timid child, Senor Williams. She fights like a tiger. And Walt met the back of two horse hooves at close range, because of that."

Wind was half expecting the derringer in Meadís sleeve. He wasnít expecting it to be aimed at James, though. Margaretís cousin crumbled to the ground. A look of shocked disbelief on his face, even as four guns sounded out, filling Mead with holes.

"Guess thatís the end of it," Buck looked at the two dead men. "Donít look like

Williams figured Mead would turn on him."

"Hannah always said James was a fool," Wind commented.

"Letís go home," John said. "The women will be waiting."

Hannah was on the couch in the cottageís living room, her feet bandaged to just above the ankles. Victoria was just bringing her a cup of tea when the men rode in. She called to John from the cottage door, and he and Wind joined them.

"Itís over," Wind announced, going to Hannah. "Mead killed James, we killed Mead. How bad are your feet?"

"Not that bad. My blood just wanted to show off," Hannah made a face.

"Bad enough!" Victoria corrected. "She is to stay off of them for at least week! I took more splinters out of them than I have taken out of all the men combined in a year!"

"I reckon we can keep her off them for a week," Wind nodded. "Not much longer, though."

"Maybe not that long!" Hannah sniffed.

"Mrs. Cannon says one week, itíll be one week," Wind told her. "Or Iíll tell Buck to come serenade you!"

"Gee thanks!" She made a face. Victoria motioned to John, and they left the two sitting there.

"By Christmas, I think," Victoria informed her husband.

"Like Mano, I am not about to bet against a sure thing!" John grinned.

THE END