Pride & Prejudice

 

 

Part 1

 

By Jan & Penny

 

Feedback to Jan please at jan_lcs@yahoo.com

 

 

This story continues the sequence of stories from the ‘Ride the New Frontier’ page on the website at www.geocities.com/kathleenpitts . While it is not imperative that you read the stories in order, it is advisable.

 

 

Surround Buck Cannon with saddle tramps, put a glass of red-eye in his hand and a poker game on the table, he seemed like aging, harmless bar-bait.  A casual eye saw the paunchy stomach, stumpy legs and battered hat; he looked as dangerous as the family dog, but corner the tail-wagging pooch and you'd face a snarling wolf.  The jester's face became hard-bitten, brutal fists followed.

 

Readying a supply wagon for a run to town, Buck worked a pry-bar and grunted.  Wheel wobbled last trip to Tucson.  Sure as shootin’ it’ll fall off with A-pach tryin’ to run us down. He worked the bar one-handed, yanking the wheel with the other, snorting, blowing, and spitting in frustration. He balanced the rigging long enough to start the wheel spinning, but the blamed wagon slipped before a full revolution.  Sweat dripped down his face and blurred his vision.  His eyes stung when he swiped them with a forearm, nudging his hat into the dirt. Swearing, Buck groaned, replaced his hat, and stood.  He swung the pry bar back and forth, annoyed with the wagon, the wheel, his hat, the heat, and life in general.

 

Squinting, he eyed his nephew’s backside.  Blue leaned against the corral gate, gazing happily across the compound toward the corral and Rebecca Coulter, the Chaparral contract veterinarian. The girl and Brother John were intensely examining two heifers.  Them beeves look ordinary as spit to me.  Buck tapped the pry-bar on the ground, frowning. 

 

Sighing deeply, Blue leaned his head on his hands, a contented smile on his face.  “Ain’t my little Button wonderful, Uncle Buck?”

 

The older man rubbed his chin fiercely. Looks like any other gal to me. Leastways she wouldn’t scare off the livestock this morning. “Yeah, Blue. She's wonderful. I think so, John thinks so, all the birds and flowers think so.  Hell, even the cows smell better when she walks by.  You want me to, I’ll tie bells to my toes and dance across the corral singin' 'bout how wonderful she is.” He poked his nephew sharply in his butt with the bar.

 

Blue spun to face him. “Hey, what’s the big idea?”

 

Buck tossed the pole to him, growling. “Blue Boy, let’s just say I’m fed-up with bein’ surrounded by too many saints and not enough sinners.  Now, git your ass over here and help me hold up this wagon.”

 

****

The desert jackrabbit knows when a coyote is near.  His little nose twitches, his long ears stand tall.  In a flash, he sprints for lifesaving cover.  The men of the High Chaparral behaved likewise when Victoria Cannon sought their participation to prepare for guests.

 

In a mere three days, the family of Blue’s fiancée would descend upon the ranch.  Victoria aimed for a perfect house; Big John Cannon, his brother Buck and ranch foreman Sam Butler suddenly realized supplies were low and aimed for Tucson. They hitched the wagon, saddled horses and bolted at first light.

 

Before departing in a cloud of dust, John left Blue in charge of the ranch and his own excuses.  “Uh, Victoria, ma’am.  If Pa hadn’t give me so much to do, I’d help you.  But…I…uh…gotta tend to…to…the…” he stammered before making a triumphant guess of “fence at Sandy Creek!”

 

.Slamming the front door, Victoria huffed as the young cowpoke rode away, “Men!  Cowards! All of them.” She scooped her little niece into her arms and marched back to her chair cuddling Lina.  “And Blue is a very poor liar. There is no fence at Sandy Creek.”  

 

Calma, hermanita mia.  Perhaps Blue is going to build one,” Mano offered wryly. He reclined with his head in Pilar’s lap and his stocking feet on the couch, playing with his infant son while his wife idly ran her fingers through his hair.

 

Victoria fixed him with pleading eyes. “Manolo?  I need help to make things nice for the Coulters.”

 

“And I am very happy for you,” he replied, kissing little Manuel and tucking him under an arm.  He glanced up at his wife and murmured, “That feels wonderful, querida.  Could you also peel some grapes and feed them to me?”

 

One eyebrow arched, she inquired, “Shall I chew them for you also, my love?”

 

“Mmm?  No, I can do that.”  Settling further into the folds of her skirt, he closed his eyes. Why is it time alone with her is more scarce than honest men in Tombstone?  Oh, sí. I know two little reasons. “Eh, Victoria?  Perhaps you could you worry without us? We have important business at home.  The children could stay here, entertain you in our absence.”

 

Señora Montoya appraised the gleam in her husband’s eyes and the agitation on her sister-in-law’s face, mouthed “Nice try” at Mano. “Sorry.  I promised to help Victoria clean.”

 

“What?! You?  Querida, you do not clean our house. Victoria, did you know Birdie declared my Pilar a pig and went on strike? Eh?  Doña Pilar felt so guilty, she went to see Padre Ignacio.”  He twirled a strand of her hair around his finger. 

 

“According to my beautiful wife, he told her to conserve energy for bearing and raising children.  Claro que sí, she now has special dispensation from Rome to avoid housework. My dear sister, put her to work and you might as well spit in the archbishop’s chalice.”

 

Pilar gasped, “Mano! That is a terrible thing to say.  The Padre did not want me to be indolent and he certainly would not approve if I went back on my word.”

 

“Oh? And this bothers you suddenly?” he said with a snicker. “Hey, Pili? I have the solution. Send our new house-maid to Victoria, eh? That way, you keep your promise while freeing yourself for our important business.” His wife shot him a dirty look and told him to shush.  “Pili, the joke is too good not to tell. And stop trying to cover my mouth.” Corralling her hand in his, he grinned jauntily.  , Victoria! We indeed have a new house-maid. Pilar did not tell you? Señor Wind.  Es verdad.  He came to our casa, I forget why. Oh, sí, now I remember.  It was to tell me how to breathe correctly.”

 

“Oh, Mano! He’s only trying to help,” Victoria said.  

 

“Right.” Wrong.  “Anyway, he was appalled by our squalor, said the Pawnee find untidiness offensive in a woman. Doña Pilar told him she did not know how to keep house and asked him to demonstrate the Pawnee way.” There should be a sign above our door: Abandon hope all ye who enter.  “He has been demonstrating for a week because she is a slow learner. Dios mio, perhaps Buck and I misjudged him, eh? We thought him a supercilious mucoso when he is actually an outstanding house-maid.”

 

Victoria pursed her lips and scolded, “Manolito, how can you insult a poor orphan? Wind is very talented and wise and you’re just jealous. Jealous and insulting to orphans and too lazy to help make things nice for our guests! I am so ashamed of you.” She blew a piece of hair out of her eyes.  “Get your lazy, jealous feet off my furniture!”

 

He set his lazy, jealous feet on the floor and slipped on his boots as Manuel began squirming. Plopping him in Pilar’s lap, Mano said “Here, for you. When he does that, it means something unpleasant.  Which is properly …” He smiled … “the responsibility of the mother, .” Punctuating with a quick nod, he rose abruptly and added with manufactured regret, “How I wish I could stay, but according to Padre Ignacio, it is the work of men to hunt and gather. Thus, I must hunt for stray cattle and gather them at Chaparral Flats.” He grinned, tipped his hat, kissed his wife, winked at his sister and fled.

 

*****

 

“Ole Blue-hoo-hoo sounds like a whiny Mama’s boy if you ask me”

 

The tiny woman in the wagon glanced sharply at her strapping son. “Nobody asked you, Beau and I don’t want to hear it.  Becca wants to marry this boy.  Until you meet him, keep your opinions to yourself.”  Sarah Coulter pursed her lips and returned her alert brown eyes to the passing desert.

 

The young man snorted and spurred his horse forward. Bob Coulter called Beau a chip off the old block, but these days it was more looks than attitude.  Like his father, he was black-haired and broad-shouldered, with even features and a confident air.  But the older man’s graying black hair framed a wide, pleasant face matching an expansive, pleasant personality. Bob shook the lines lightly, getting a feel for the rented horses, wishing he had a feel for what put the burr under his son’s saddle.  Taking in the sand, cholla, mesquite, and scrub as they rolled southbound out of Tucson, he waved dismissively and ventured, “This has got to be the ugliest place I’ve ever seen. What in the name of all that’s holy do they raise out here? Lizards?”

 

Beau reined next to a ragged saguaro, reaching to a deep pit in the side. As he stretched his hand, a small, spotted bird flew at his head and circled.  He batted at it, relieved when it perched in a low chaparral. Rejoining the wagon and his laughing parents, he nudged his hat with his thumb and shrugged. “Beats me, Pop. They’re growing birds in the cactus. You think they got sand-eating cows?”

 

Any answer was silenced by the sound of an approaching buckboard and outrider. Three men: dusty, hard, wary. The Coulters pulled over to make room. Bob fanned his hat to dispel dust as they passed, and shook his head.  “Sure see some wild ones here.”

 

John Cannon, Sam Butler, and Buck Cannon continued north. Buck peered over his shoulder through the dust of their back trail. “Livery wagon, John. Where you think they’s headed?”

 

Big John spared a short glance over his shoulder and shrugged. “What I think is, Brother Buck, it’s none of our business. I want supplies loaded and us out of town in two hours.” He shot a dark look at his brother. “In one piece and at least half-way sober, do you understand me?”

 

Buck shifted forward heavily on the seat. “I understand you real good, Big John. What you didn’t say is, which half you want sober?”

 

*****

 

Riding into the compound, Blue felt proud.  He’d carried out the duties his pa flung his way, even had time to deliver a few head to the army detail working on the telegraph lines above Sandy Creek.  When he spotted Becca Coulter making her way into the barn, he stopped his horse and watched, a broad smile on his face. Watching her makes my heart nearly stop. Don’t matter where she is or what she does. Just her. Hair as dark and shiny as a fine pair of tobacco-brown boots, eyes the color of a liver-chestnut horse and a womanly figure with curves in all the right places.

 

Victoria wasn’t likely to find him in the barn and being with Becca was the best way imaginable to duck more work. Tying Soapy, he was struck by the unnatural quiet. Pa, Uncle Buck and Sam high-tailed it to town.  Night-herd crew asleep, day men still gone. Victoria hell-bent for leather on making the house perfect for Becca’s folks, maybe Pilar helping her.  Manolito?  Heck, Mano should’ve been with Sam and the boys at Chaparral Flats; Blue hadn’t seen him.  Right then, it was enough that he wasn’t around. Can’t remember when me and her had less of an audience.  Part of him wanted to be a good soldier and go look for Mano; the more determined part wasn’t about to pass up a chance to spark his girl.  Sorry, Pa. Grinning widely, Blue settled his hat squarely on his head and marched for the barn.

 

He swung the door open and closed it behind him, looking quickly around. Half-way down the aisle, Becca busily sorted saddle-blankets into piles; the good, the repairs-needed, those for the burn pile.  Marching left, right, left right, Blue gained speed until he grabbed her from behind, hollering, “Yee-haw!  I gotcha!”  When she turned around, he hoisted her in his arms and spun wildly with her.

 

Her laugh was a joyful, throaty sound; the best laugh he’d heard anywhere.  It got louder when he keeled over into the biggest clutch of blankets.

 

Becca rested her hands on his chest and gazed down at his pink cheeks and those eyes like the springtime sky. “I don’t know about that.  Looks to me like I’ve got you, Blue Boy.”

 

He looked up at her, a wide smile on his face. Yeah, you got me right where I want me. He began pulling hay from her hair. “Why don’t we ride off somewheres before your folks get here?” He kissed her on the tip of her nose and chuckled. “I got better ideas ‘sides meeting them.”

 

“Is that right?  What’s better than meeting my parents?”

 

He took off a glove with his teeth and tossed it aside, traced her lips with his thumb.  “Becca, to tell you the truth, a whole lot of things. Like, see?  These here lips of yours, they’re just as pretty as one of them rosebuds in Victoria’s garden.  I’d a lot rather kiss them than say howdy to your ma and pa.”

 

She ran a hand through his hair said, “You mean like this?” and pressed her mouth against his.

 

He shivered as she trailed her lips across his neck.  “Uh, yeah.  About just like that.”

 

Nibbling at his ear, she whispered, “Yep, I thought so. But you have to meet my family first, hon.”

 

“Hey, not so fast.  That was you kissing me, not me kissing you.” He wrapped his arms around her and rolled her over.  “This is me kissing you.”  To Blue Cannon, her rosebud lips were sweeter than any blossom in any garden in the world.

 

****

 

Between feeding and diapering los niños and preventing mobile Lina from destroying the home of her in-laws, Pilar flicked a dust-rag to satisfy Victoria. 

 

After cleaning, she watched Lina teethe on the dog’s ears and listened to Manuel scream.  He was fed, he was dry. Perhaps he enjoyed hearing himself, but his mother did not.  Pilar considered her pride when he became a famous tenor.  That didn’t help, so she sang to him:

                                    From this valley they say you are going

                                                We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

                                                For they say you are taking the sunshine

                                                That has brightened our path for a while

 

Red River Valley”, lullabies, hymns, sea-shanties; none satisfied Manuel.  Birdie suggested laudanum or belladonna, but Pilar rejected both.  Too bad there is not enough on hand to do me any good.  Mixed with a good slug of bourbon.

 

How is it that Manolo silently withstood Apache torture, but the flesh of his flesh shrieks like a coloratura soprano? Perhaps they should be together more often.  Far out on the range.  What fun, Manuel! You can grow up in a line-shack. Mamí will visit on Sundays.   

 

As she eyed Lina and the puppy, inspiration chimed.  Both seemed content, so she sat beside them and stuck the tip of the dog’s tail in Manuel’s mouth.  He smiled; his big sister patted him on the head, then wrapped her arms around Pilar and nestled close.  Mamí’s two tiny miracles drifted peacefully to sleep, their long, dark lashes kissing their perfect little cheeks.

 

After a sufficiently blissful interlude, she left them with Birdette, made a stealthy escape.  Took a bath, donned fresh clothes, brushed her hair and went to the stable.  Her stallion was serving John’s mares, so Señora Montoya groomed her mare and the colt.  Tired of standing, she sat astride the mare, her thoughts wandering to the mangy mother dog she saw last trip to Tucson; pot-bellied with a double-row of sagging teats, voracious puppies dangling from her.  She felt like she was looking in a mirror. Abjectly, she lay her head against Joya’s elegant neck and closed her eyes.  Breathing the mare’s sweet scent, she dreamt of galloping – alone -- through lush and very quiet meadows.

 

 “Hola, mi soliluna,” Mano cooed, slipping his arms around his wife.

 

“Mmm.  Back so soon from hunting and gathering?”

 

He grinned lazily and kissed her hand.  “¿Y Como no?  Hunting and gathering were only two things that are the province of men.  The others were…let me see…abstract reasoning.  Eh, I regaled myself with that while I hunted for cattle and gathered there were none.”  He slid his hand over her thigh.  “That other one, what was it?” His forehead wrinkled, then he snapped his fingers.  “¡Ay, Chihuahua!  Now I remember.  , fertilization was the inelegant term the padre used.”  He caressed the nape of her neck.  “What does a priest know?” Montoya slid her off the horse and into his arms. “Pili?  Remember when I promised you I would prove every day how I desire you? I have not kept my word, have I?” 

 

 “My love, with two babies…” I hardly noticed… “we have so many responsibilities.” I feel like one giant udder.  What man wants that?  Come to think of it, maybe all of them. 

 

“Mm-hum.  See why I hate responsibility?”  Kissing her face, he crooned, “Except my responsibility to you, querida.  That I like.”  Manolito cocked his head. “You need to feel less a mother, and more a woman.”

 

Far better to be covered in kisses than sour milk – or worse.  “No time like the present, Manito,” she replied sweetly. Her eyes shone with an unmaternal luster.

 

“No niños pequeños out here?” he asked, glancing around hopefully.

 

“Nary a one.”

 

He hoisted her off the ground, whispering, “¡Arriba, mi corazon! ¡Vamanos!  Speedily, he bundled her to the tackroom.

 

Mano arranged blankets and bedrolls on the ground while they caressed, shucking his gun-belt and low-cut boots.  Not for fashion, amigos.  For ease of exit.  And quick to put on; important in the days when jealous husbands and sweethearts required expedience.  Laying her down, he removed her boots and was unbuttoning her blouse in less time than it took other men to disengage from their foot-gear.

 

“So many little buttons, a very exasperating garment.”  When he tugged, one pinged against the window.  He paused.

 

She licked her lips, said in a husky voice, “Go ahead.”

 

“All right.  I can get you a new one, eh?”  A new blouse, new pantalones. Anything in the world.  Did she want a beautiful house at Rancho Montoya?  He’d build it with his bare hands, form bricks with his teeth.  La Madre de Dios, he’d buy Tucson for her.  He had no money, but he’d steal, work in the mines, kill for it.  For her, for this, I would sell my soul. 

 

Much later, she lay on top of him, her head on his shoulder.  He inclined his face toward her, his cheek against her soft hair and wrapped his arms around her tighter. Even as Mano cosseted her, he felt her surround him. “I could stay like this forever, mi soliluna.  Forever.”

 

“Umm, Manito,” she murmured, kissing his throat. “Me too, my love.”

 

 “Pili, with all my heart and every bone in my body, I love you. Why do I make love to you in a tackroom?  You belong in a palace.  I should build you one, querida.”

 

She said softly, “Do you not understand?  Manolo, you are my palace. You.”

 

Montoya glanced down at her warm black eyes and stroked her face, held her close.  He fell asleep to the rhythm of her breathing.

 

****

 

The Coulters wound through cactus and chaparral. Sarah was anxious for any trace of green; instead, she found only forbidding rock and sand. The wagon crested a small rise and headed into a large plain backed by dry, brush-covered peaks. She shaded her eyes and looked across the broad expanse to the rising mountains in front. Rebecca said this was beautiful country. Maybe I can see it.

 

She lowered her gaze from the mountains and searched the valley. Squinting through shimmering sun, she made out a small group of buildings and inhaled sharply.   So tiny and vulnerable against the hostile backdrop, it seemed too fragile to withstand what the land would dish out.  A good wind could blow it away and nothing would miss it. A frown creased her seamless face. Clutching her husband’s arm, she asked softly, “Bob, is that the ranch?”

 

He patted her hand. “It’ll look better when we get there, hon. You’re looking from here to Sunday, makes things hard to take in.”

 

Keeping her grip as the buildings grew closer, she thought they looked better from here to Sunday. The fence and corral rails were sun bleached and weathered, large splinters protruded like random quills. Are those bullet holes? To the left of the entrance stood a ramshackle adobe building, the edges softened where the bricks crumbled back into the sand that made them. Two armed guards framed the front gate, eyeing the family coldly as they drew in.

 

The adobe ranch-house was impressive in size, with a wide veranda, but the third guard on the rooftop unsettled Sarah when he cocked his rifle and shouted “Wagon coming!” as they pulled into the yard. Armed men materialized from all corners, facing them.  She leaned closer to her husband and asked, “Is this a ranch or an army fort?”

 

He smiled at her. “This is Arizona Territory, Sarah, wild and wooly.” He nodded toward a young woman exiting the front door, hair covered with a kerchief.  She wore an apron, carried a cleaning cloth in one hand and broom in the other.  Rushing to the edge of the porch, she appraised them anxiously.  “See? They’re not barbarians. There’s the maid.” Bob Coulter pulled to a stop in front of the house and called out, “Hey, you, girlie! Get the Mister and Missus, tell them they’ve got company.”

 

****

 

The familiar shout of Wagon coming!” woke them with a start.

 

Ayiii, La Madre de Dios,” Mano grumbled, releasing Pilar. He stumbled to his feet, cracked the door and peered out groggily.  “Visitors.  And Victoria.”  Shutting the door quickly, he scrambled for clothing and heard her giggle. He looked over his shoulder and cursed, then turned around.

 

She laughed harder, displaying her outfit. “We have a problem.”

 

“Ah-ha, one a blind man would notice,” he answered, surveying his wife’s shredded clothes. “Those look like a badger chewed them.”

 

“No.  Only you.  You cut them off, remember?” She proffered his trousers, missing every button.  Mano examined them, looked at her quizzically.  “Oh, well.  Now, that was my doing.  You did not object at the time.”

 

“¡Ay, mihijita!” Rubbing his temples, he stared at his wife.  “What happens to my brain when I am with you?  Does it ride to Nogales and get drunk?” He shook his head and snorted.  “Now what, Doña Pilar?  You cannot entertain the bunkhouse by strolling across the yard so…unencumbered. I could run for the house, but my dear sister would not approve.”  He began to pace, muttering.  She leaned back against a saddle and folded her arms across her chest; between futile attempts to stifle laughter, she made the suggestion that he go out the window.  “¡Caramba!” Face twisted in outrage, he planted one hand on his hip and pointed indignantly with the other.  “Manolito Montoya does not escape from windows when he has been with HIS OWN WIFE.  The wife of someone else, . But not my own.”

 

Convulsed, Pilar sunk to the floor; her snickering husband followed and embraced her.  Between her soft skin and the contours of her body, the urgency to see about his sister diminished.  He slid his hand to a favorite spot, smiling wickedly.

 

“Mano?  What about Victoria?”

 

Victoria who?” he mumbled as Pilar jabbed him with her elbow.  “All right, if you insist.”  He heaved to his feet.  “Eh, I just remembered, I have clothes here.”  He extracted a peasant’s white shirt and trousers from an old pack, pulled a straw sombrero from a shelf. Dressing, he swore to check on his sister, and bring Pilar “something pretty to wear, momentito.  Meanwhile…” He kissed her. “Look for buttons, querida.”

 

****

 

Beau Coulter dismounted and hitched his horse to the rail, studying the attractive Mexican woman appreciatively.  Bob flung a stream of words at her as he helped Sarah from the wagon, finishing with, “Stage line got here early, but it’s a dry trip, girlie.  How about getting us a drink?  And some help with this luggage, too.”

 

Victoria Cannon struggled to break through the barrage, finally managing, “Excuse me, you are the Coulters? I am…”

 

Bob steered his wife into the shade of the porch, talking loudly. “That’s right, the Coulters. Rebecca’s parents. Your boss is expecting us, you didn’t say if the Cannons are home or not?  Either way, we need to get settled.” The girl gaped, not comprehending.  Either she didn’t speak decent English or was just stupid.

 

Manolito Montoya pulled the scruffy sombrero’s wide brim past his forehead.  Observing the scene at his sister’s casa, he grimaced as the man’s big voice chafed his ears. A sly grin flickered across his face as he slouched and shuffled toward the veranda.  In a stilted, nasal whine, he addressed the new arrivals, “Perdoname, señors, señora.  My sister, she does not speak so good the Inglés.” Dipping his head differentially, he began unloading trunks and cases from the buckboard. “Can the young señor take the wagon to the barn while I carry your luggage?”  He continued to interrupt Victoria as Beau led the horses away.

 

“Well!” exclaimed Coulter, slapping Mano on the back as they headed to the house.  “I’m glad to see some of you people have learned good old American work ethic.” Turning to his wife, he pointed grandly back to his helper.  “Look at this, Sarah.  Here’s at least one that’s not lazy.”

 

“Oh, no, señor,” the Mexican answered dully, “here at Chaparral, we work very hard for the Patrón.”  He shoved a valise into Victoria’s arms.  “Even the women.”

 

****

 

Taste, smell, sight and hearing sharpen when a man’s in danger.  Distract him with romance and he’s deaf to the squeaking of a barn door and boots scraping across a floor.

 

The long, low whistle made Blue jump as if shot.  Scrambling halfway to his feet, he saw a black-haired, smirking stranger leaning against the wall. There was something familiar about the man, but he couldn’t place it.  Becca yipped happily, “Beau! Hon, it’s my brother, Beau!” She rushed to him and was swept off her feet with a bear-hug.

 

Blue rose, brushed off his clothes and hair as the two gushed. He started tucking his shirttail in, felt slightly ridiculous and stopped, offering his hand. “I’m Blu…uh, William Cannon.” His face and ears flushed hotly.

 

Regarding him with humor, Beau shook his hand. “William? That short for Blue, Sport?” He turned to his sister. “Times sure have changed, Bec.  Never thought I’d find you on the barn floor with some dumb cowpoke.” He laughed as Rebecca hit him in the stomach, then spoke to her. “Pop’s on the warpath and Mom’s bringing up the rear, you’d better get out there.” Nodding at young Cannon, he added, “William and I will be right behind you,” and swatted her departing rump.

 

Blue chewed his lip, looking up at his future brother-in-law. “So, uh, I guess I’m supposed to meet your folks now, huh?”

 

“That’s right, Sport.” He tilted his head and peered closely, grinning widely. “You’ve got some interesting marks on your neck, too. Gonna make a great first impression on ‘em.” Beauregard Coulter was still whistling when he sauntered outside.

 

In his young life Blue Cannon had faced hanging, Apache torture, death by thirst, gunshot wounds and John Cannon’s wrath. He’d met misfortune with bravery and never-say-die guts, but his current unreasoning panic made his guts and the rest of him ready to cut and run.

 

Standing with his mouth open and hand at his neck, his mind raced. I can saddle up and be gone in two minutes.  He shook his head, eyes wide and unseeing. Won’t work, Buck and Mano’d track me down and bring me back. He prodded his neck with his fingertips. Can’t feel anything. Maybe I can cover ‘em. Furiously unknotting the kerchief from his neck, he tied it higher and checked the position with his fingers. Doggonit, I can’t cover what I can’t see.  Sweat dripping from his forehead, he searched frantically for anything with a shine to it.  Blue rifled through the tools stored at the edges of the barn, tossing them over his shoulder.  He stared at them dejectedly then brightened and unsheathed his knife.  Not enough light. As he resumed searching, random tools, pieces of wood, and bits of gear flew like hail.

 

****

 

“Blue? Compadre?”

 

The stocky blond jerked upright, sprinted to his savior and grabbed him by the shirt. “Mano! You gotta help me.”

 

Calma, amigo, calma,” he answered languidly, unwrapping the younger man’s fingers.  It took two minutes to get the story, two seconds to determine there were no offending marks. Slinging an arm around Blue’s shoulders, Manolito propelled him toward the house. “Hombre, you must learn to handle these things. Her people are…” arrogant peasants… “nothing to fear, eh?  Only people, like everyone else.” 

 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  I just don’t want ‘em thinking I’m not good enough for her or something.  Guess I’m kinda nervous about it.”

 

“In romance, you cannot be so agitated. How often am I upset by such things?”

 

“Not real often.”

 

¡Exactamente!  My father-in-law would kill me like that.”  He snapped his fingers.  “Unlike these harmless Coulters, eh?  But am I unnerved by Fernando Hidalgo?  Claro que no, because Pilar adores me; that is what matters, amigo.  It is the same with Rebecca.”  His thoughts drifted to Pilar, clothes provocatively tattered.  A brisk volley of gunfire separated him from his fantasies and brought both men to a sudden stop.

 

“Looks like she adores you so much, she’s using your hat for target practice.” Blue pointed to Casita Montoya.

 

Manito, idiota! She is a dead shot and you are a dead man.  How long was she in the tackroom before she made a break for the house? Lips pressed together, he shook his head.  Es nada, Blue.  She likes hats for target practice, si? They sail well on the air.”

 

Pilar stooped.  Seizing her victim, she tossed it and emptied another cylinder.  Blue watched her lightning reload, then glanced at his friend. “Uh, Mano?  Ain’t that your best hat?”

 

“No, compadre,” he replied casually. ¡Ay caramba! My favorite; with me longer than its assassin.  “Hey, Blue? Do me a little favor.  Es muy importante for me to talk to my sister, but I need to do it alone. Entiendes?  If Victoria is not in the kitchen, send her to me, por favor.”

 

“Yeah, sure.  But how come…”

 

Mas tarde, hombre.  Later.  Can you also occupy Big John?  Not let him know where I am?”  When he finds out I did no work today, he will put me on night-herd for the remainder of my short, unhappy life.

 

“Sure, but…”

 

Mano clasped him on the shoulder enthusiastically.  Muchos gracias. I owe you one. ¡Vamanos!” Waving Blue to the front of the house, he dashed to the kitchen.

 

****

 

Her back to the kitchen door, Victoria brushed a strand of ebony hair from her face, grumbling hotly in Spanish.  She seized the iron stew-pot by the handle, jumped when a gloved hand commandeered it.

 

Cuidado, my dear sister. Por favor, allow me. That is much too heavy for you.  Where would you like it?” Mano asked solicitously.

 

Victoria wheeled, eyes snapping and fists resting on her hips.  “Oooooh! On your head, Manolo,” she whispered tartly.  Affecting beseeching eyes and a puzzled expression, he pointed to himself. “Yes, your head. How dare you leave me trapped with those people?  I am ashamed to be the sister of such a coward.”

 

He shrugged. “Ay, mi hermanita.  No mi culpa.  Was I not ordered to find Blue? Eh?  What was I supposed to do?”

 

She whacked him across the chest.  “Something, Manolo.  You come around wearing these stupid clothes, pretending to be a servant.  You don’t tell those stupid people who I am…”

 

Calma, calma.  I was acquiring information.”

 

“Oh.  Información,” she hissed, “Why do you not tell me this valuable information?  You must be very proud of learning whatever it was you learned, so proud that you deserted me …” 

 

On and on and on she natters.  Yah-tah-tah, yah-tah-tah.  Ay-yi-yi! Victoria, I cannot respond if you do not give me the chance.

 

 “Well?”  

 

Well, what?  La Madre de Dios, which of the thousand questions does she want me to answer?  Ay, pick one, Manito.  “I discovered they believe they can insult my sister with no ill effects.  I would have defended your honor, but Victoria?  You would have slapped me and said I was being rude to your house-guests.  However, it is not my way to let such things pass.”  Maybe they take strolls after dark.  “Shall I kill them now or wait until after dinner?”

 

“Be serious, Manolo.”

 

“Serious?  I am quite serious, my sister.  I hate killing my own relatives, no matter how far removed.  But someone else’s? Mmph!” He shrugged.  “I have often wished Pilar was an orphan.  Blue has met the Coulters and surely wishes them dead.  I can do us all a favor.  You, Blue, me.  By now, probably John.”

 

Victoria exhaled loudly, briefly pinching the bridge of her nose.  When he saw the tears in her eyes, Manolito put his arms around her.  “Shhh. Do you want me to shoot them? Or did you have something else in mind?”

 

Wiping her eyes, she chuckled and stood back, picked up a long spoon and began stirring the pot.  “No, we will be most gracious to them.  They are our guests and the parents of Rebecca.”

 

Mano slouched against the counter.  “All right, I will give them a reprieve.  To do otherwise would only confirm their low opinion of our people.”  He lifted the spoon from her hands and dipped a portion of beans into a bowl before she could rap his knuckles.  Without removing his gloves, he appropriated a tortilla and scooped. “Mmm.  Pretty good.  Better if you stop trying to hit me.”

 

“You could at least wash first,” she commented, scowling.

 

“Be nice.  I have had a very bad day.” This may be my last meal. What is my wife still shooting? There cannot be anything left of my hat.  “You know, everything is not so awful, Victoria.  For example, Rebecca is a considerable improvement over her parents.”

 

“Manolo, you are so cruel sometimes. That girl is pretty and smart, and she loves Blue.  That makes her very special.”  She clasped her hands and frowned.  “But I worry about the influence of her family.  A life here with Blue is not what they wish for her.  They see only the many hardships, not the happiness or the many rewards.”

 

“The same as all mothers and fathers, Victoria.  Papá had something else in mind for you; for me also. Rebecca has the steel in her to walk her own trail. Just as you and I did, as our children will,” he answered gently, the fondness startled from his face by an explosion of rifle-shots.  ¡La Madre de Dios!  What happened, she ran out of rounds for the Colt so she dusted off the Henry?”  Probably so she can drill me at a distance.

 

Victoria giggled. “Oh, Manolo! I wish you had seen those people earlier, when she first started,” she said impishly. “They thought it was Apaches or bandidos and we would all be murdered to death.  They stampeded inside like crazy, wild cattle.”  Pilar cut loose another barrage and Victoria inquired sweetly, “Has something upset her, Mano?  She seemed so happy this morning.”

 

His face fell and he sighed heavily.  Ay-yi-yi. My poor Pili.  You know, she is why I came to you originally. For advice.”  Better make this good, Manito. He slowly shook his head.  “She is…” ready to shoot off my kneecaps  “…so sad.”

 

Concern knitted Victoria’s brow.  Que lastima!  Mande?”

 

Glumly, he replied, “Oh, she feels unattractive since Manuel’s birth. She is so beautiful and for her to feel ugly? It breaks my heart.  If only there was something to help her feel beautiful again…” He shrugged forlornly and choking on his words, said, “Eh, perhaps…the next time I go to town…I can buy her some…trinket…”

 

“Oh, no, Mano.  I have the perfect solution, something very special.” Victoria clasped his hands, her eyes brimming with kindness.  “Pilar has never seen it.  She won’t know it’s from me.  Por favor, my brother.  She must not be sad for another minute.”

 

He squeezed her hands. “You are truly an angel, but are you sure?  The last thing I want is to inconvenience you, mi hermanita.”

 

“Manolo, what inconvenience?  I love Pilar.  Wait here.  I have exactly the right thing.”  Kissing him on the cheek, she flew out of the room and up the stairs. 

 

God, while you are fuming at me, remember when Manolito Montoya had no qualms about stealing from his lovely sister. Lying is an improvement.

 

 The door leading to the dining-room crashed open, interrupting Mano’s evening devotional. Big John Cannon burst into the kitchen, covered in trail grit and irritation. “Manolito, where in thunderation were you today? Sam lost three head to the Apache thanks to you.” He examined his brother-in-law. “And what in tarnation are you doing in those clothes, hiding in the kitchen?”

 

Mano toyed idly with a ladle on the work-table.  He replied innocently, “Hiding, John?  Me? I was helping Victoria.”

 

“Scrounging for a hand-out is more like it.” John swung his arms in exasperation, turned toward the door and back again. “I asked you a question, where were you? The crew at Chaparral Flats was short handed.” He jabbed a finger for emphasis, “Three head, Mano, you irresponsible, untrustworthy, son of a…”

 

“John!” Victoria sailed through the door, holding a frothy bundle of brightly colored flowers, feathers, and netting in her hands. Her expressive face registered shock and vexation. “What are you saying?”

 

Grumbling in frustration, hands working, head lowered, John bit back words and glared at his brother-in-law. “Short handed and had to hear it from Sam instead of Blue. House full of strangers when I get home.” His voice built in volume as he listed each grievance. “Three head gone in an Apache raid, and That Woman,” he pointed in the direction of Casita Montoya, “is wasting enough ammunition to fortify the garrison at Yuma.”

 

Her ammunition to do with as she pleases, brother-in-law.  Eyes deeply sympathetic, Mano laid a hand on John’s arm. “Juano, you have my sincere apology. After I resolve this little problem of the gunfire, I will relieve Joe from night-herd.  All right?” He stepped deftly around Cannon’s glowering bulk, kissed his sister on the cheek and took the fluffy bundle from her. “Gracias, my sister.” Bowing slightly, he examined the gift. Ay-yi-yi, I should know better than to play games with Victoria. This is the ugliest hat in the territory.

 

John pointed at the younger man’s face. “You better hope you’re successful and you’d better show up for night-herd on time.  Tonight and for the next two weeks, or so help me you’re going to take the place of your hat, if I have to do the shooting myself.” He pivoted, shoved the door open and stormed into the living room. His long strides stopped short as he faced a roomful of attentive people. Blue wore his best guileless expression. The Coulter family was wide-eyed, their mouths open like calves bawling in fear.  Rebecca stood next to Buck at the fireplace, attempting to keep a sober expression; giving up, she covered her mouth with a hand, shoulders shaking with repressed laughter.

 

Victoria stared at the kitchen door, imagining the reactions to her overwrought husband when Mano tapped her shoulder. Indicated the festive abomination in his arms, he whispered, “You realize this makes me a condemned man.”

 

“How can that be, my brother?” She turned her face toward his.  “Did you forget to tell me something?  I know you did not lie to me.  Not you.”

 

He rolled his eyes. “Of course not.”  After evaluating his sister’s resolve, he changed his mind.  “All right, I lied.  Pili is a little annoyed at me because I forgot her…somewhere.  I lied because…well…it is embarrassing, eh?”

 

Forgot her?  How on earth could you forget Pilar?”

 

“Believe me, it is not something I will ever do again.  But if you cannot do better than this monstrosity, I will not live long enough to prove it.”

 

She opened her palm, asking pleasantly, “Is this better?”  Diamonds glittered among emeralds in an exquisite gold lavaliere.  “A gift from an old admirer, only taking up room in my jewelry box.  With my blessing, Manolo.”

 

“My favorite sister. Sí, gracias, that will do.”  Pocketing the lavaliere, he hugged her and headed for the door, commenting disdainfully of the new hat,” This she can use for target practice.”     

 

****

 

Saying he needed to make rounds, Blue escaped into the night. He was tired of side-stepping questions, wearing his best clothes, trying to make peace between Cannons and Coulters.  The two fathers spoke politely, but their voices were louder by the minute. It was only a matter of time before Big John blew sky-high. While idly tossing stones from the porch into the yard, he fumed. Becca’s mother can sure twist words; comes at you from one direction, then ten minutes later says it back, but it don’t sound the same. “So, William, you left school after less than a year, without giving the required notice to the Dean. This was after leaving the ranch unexpectedly, I understand. Do you have any plans to finish your education?”

 

He threw another stone into the yard, harder this time, and sat on the tabletop, head in his hands. If the Apache raided a herd, I could ride out tomorrow, stay gone at least three days. Wonder if I could talk ol’ Koso into stealing a couple heifers? Make it look good, stick war lances and arrows everywhere. His head ached and he rubbed his eyes; Koso’s rag-tag band was as dangerous as prairie dogs. Maybe if I paid him first.

 

“Evening, Sport. Hiding from my mother?” Blue jumped from the table, wary. Beau Coulter lounged against the corner of the house, arms crossed, wide smile on his handsome face. “Course, I can’t blame you, she pretty much turned you into mincemeat.” He crossed to the table and leaned against it. “You nervous, William?”

 

Blue stared venomously into the taunting brown eyes.  The Beau Coulters of the world had soft lives as the stellar sons of well-liked, wealthy families. Beau was the rodeo king at the county fair and won the fall turkey shoot so often he donated the bird to the church raffle instead of bringing it home.  In romance he was a short-haul hunter, but a charmer; young ladies within a hundred miles were warned about him, but every one within two hundred miles sought him out. 

 

Blue understood why Becca called him Lord of the Manor. Teeth clenched, he spat, “My name ain’t Sport.”

 

“Yeah, that’s right, you were named for a dog.  Funny how families come up with names. That uncle of yours, Buck? Dogs and deer, you folks run to animals.  Now me, I’m named for Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, friend of my Pop’s. Superintendent at West Point. You probably never heard of him.”

 

Blue’s ears grew hot. “I know who he is. Fort Sumter and First Bull Run. Uncle Buck served under him in the Army of Virginia.”

 

Scratching his chin, Beau nodded languidly. “Your father fought for the North, though. Funny how different families can be. Take yours and mine, Sport.”

 

Blue balled up his fists, growling, “I told you, my name ain’t Sport.”

 

“Whoa, calm down.” Straightening his six-foot, four inches, he dwarfed young Cannon. “Don’t be stupid, Sport.  See, I already don’t like you.  Don’t like your hound-dog name.  Don’t like the hick way you talk.  Don’t like the fact Becca had to save your hide when you got yourself kidnapped. Don’t like hearing from the boys you almost married a dirty Apache squaw.  Don’t like your daddy’s flea-bag ranchero. Bec can do better than a piece of sun-burnt dirt, murdering Indians, bandits, sorry-ass cattle and Mexican low-lifes. She can do a whole lot better than you, Sport.”

 

Like every mother’s son, Blue Cannon occasionally doubted he was his father’s. But when he heard “hound-dog name”, he knew with astounding clarity that he could be every bit as hard and harsh as the man who sired him.  White-hot rage began bubbling deep inside him, festering until his head threatened to explode. Words raced through his mind; for once in his life, exactly the right words at exactly the right time. He jabbed a finger into Beau’s shoulder, his clenched jaw and tight lips mirroring Big John Cannon, his eyes as malevolent as Buck’s.  Little Billy Blue Button was gone and the man who stood in his place aimed to flatten that jackass rodeo king.

 

“Blue? Beau? What kind of evil is going on out here?” Both spun and faced Rebecca, silhouetted against the moonlight just outside the door. Blue choked on his angry words, coughing and spitting. 

 

Recovering first, Beau pounded him on the back, harder than necessary. “Nothing, Bec, just me and Blue swapping lies.”  Young Cannon sputtered and wiped his watering eyes as Beau draped an arm around his shoulders. They smiled gaily, teeth white in the darkness.  Beau’s fingers dug painfully into Blue’s shoulder; Blue gripped and twisted a slab of muscle low on Beau’s back.  

 

Rebecca eyed them suspiciously. “Uh huh. Beau, you’d lie to me just for practice.” She ambled nearer for a closer look at this picture of brotherly love. “Blue, the last time I saw that look on your face, Soapy was standing on your foot.”

 

Blue swallowed hard; Beau’s fingers ground into a nerve and he wasn’t sure how long he could stand up. “No, really, Becca. We’re fine.” He gritted his teeth as she stepped to him and ran a finger down the side of his face. There was a cool breeze on the night air but he was dripping sweat. She held up her wet finger, rubbing it against her thumb, questioning. He offered, “Warm night?”

 

She sighed and jerked her head toward the ranch house door. “General Sarah requests your presence inside, Beau.” As he sauntered toward the house, she pecked Blue on the lips; he would’ve enjoyed it more without the view of Beau drawing a knife-like finger across his throat. When the girl’s back was to him, Blue drew an invisible six-gun and shot him dead.

 

The Coulter siblings inside, he kicked at the ground, scuffing up dirt and rocks. A shadow detached itself from the yard’s darkness. “You mad at the ground or your boots, Blue Boy?”

 

Blue wheeled with a start. I should’ve known.  My whole life I can’t get five minutes to myself. “Uncle Buck, how long you been back there?”

 

“Long enough.” The man in black scratched his head and walked forward, leaning against the table. “Blue, they’s been times in my life I wondered if I’d been better off married, but right now I believe I’m the smartest man in the Cannon family.” He nodded in the direction of the departed Coulters. “You gittin pretty het up over Mr. Beauregard. He looks to me like a fella who’s a lot more ornamental than useful.”

 

Blue laced his fingers through his belt loops.  “Did you hear him? He can’t talk about us like that.”

 

Slinging an affectionate arm around the younger man’s shoulders, his uncle steered him for the bunkhouse. “Nephew of mine, you can git mad, or you can git even. It jist so happens, gittin’ even is a whole lot more fun.”

 

****

 

As he exited the ranch house, Victoria’s excellent breakfast sat uneasily on Buck’s stomach. Between Cannons, Coulters and Montoyas, sneaking away to Tucson for a week or three sounded like roses all the way. Brother John's jaw clenched tight, Victoria's manners more formal by the minute.  Missus Coulter looked at him like he was a squashed bug; no wonder Blue stood in the middle of it all looking like someone stole his best horse and boots.

 

Singing drew his eyes to Hacienda Montoya, where Missy Pilar energetically swept the front veranda.  There’s a job common as dirt, but not how she does it. Weaving the broom in an intricate dance pattern, she spun and wrapped her arms around her unfeeling partner, hips swaying.  Dipping backward, her hair cascaded like an unruly, black waterfall. When Lina threatened to leave the confines of the porch, her mother deftly redirected her.  She nudged the cradle holding Manuel and threw a ball to the puppy without missing a beat.  Better you than me, Don Juan-olito.

 

Shaking his head in amazement, Buck continued across the yard until he spied Joe Butler slouched against the bunkhouse support.  Hide under that hat all you want, it don’t hide where yore lookin’.  "Mornin’, Joe-Boy. Whatcha starin’ at?"

 

"Same as you, Buck. Never thought I'd make it my life's ambition to be a broom, but looking never hurt nobody,” he replied laconically.

 

Buck glowered and retorted, “That all depends on what you're looking at and whether the head bull's around to notice." 

  

Joe made a show of scanning the yard. "Nobody here but you 'n me. I can't vouch for you, but I ain't planning nothing and Señora Montoya sure ain't shopping."

 

"Mebbe so, but I recollect Mano learned you a while back he ain’t all jokes.  You cravin’ more education?"

 

“He ain’t gonna sucker-punch me again, you can make book on that.”  Joe snorted loudly.  “Besides, he ain’t stupid.  He knows every man on this ranch except Mr. Cannon takes a gander.”  He spread his hands out quickly at Buck’s expression. "Simmer down. Not that way. Just appreciating the view."

 

"Uh huh. I gotcha.  Problem is, Mano's apt to get your meanin’, too."

 

Joe pushed his hat back and crossed his arms. "Lay off, Buck. There’s times a man likes seeing something besides your ugly mug,” he said sharply, then sighed. “The scenery’s sure improved around here in the last couple of years.  Mrs. Cannon’s a fine looking lady and Miss Coulter’s pretty as a picture, but Mano’s missus got a way of moving… Damn, she’d catch a man's attention wearing six flour sacks. You ever see her churn butter? You could charge admission and retire, never chase another cow. She goes for the churn now, Mano's gonna have to kill me."

 

"Morning, gents." Beauregard Coulter sauntered from the ranch house, joined them. "What would you be up to?"

 

Buck looked at Joe and shrugged. Wordlessly, Joe jerked a thumb at the Montoya porch.  Leaning against an unoccupied post, Beau let out a long, low whistle. "Nobody told me you provided a floor show after breakfast." He raptly followed every movement. "Who’s the hot tamale?"

 

Folding his arms, Buck spoke sharply. "That is my amigo Manolito Montoya's wife, Beau. You hear me?  Wedded wife.”

 

Looks like she’s pretty happy when he’s not around.  Beau’s eyes clung to the woman.  "Uh huh. Name, Buck? She must have a name."

 

Lips pressed tightly together, he muttered, "Her name be Señora Montoya and that's what you'd best remember." From backbreaking experience, he knew she’d discovered her audience; abandoning the broom, she tried unsuccessfully to pry open a large crate. "Joe, you gonna help Missy?"

 

Joe shook his head. "Nope, she worked me like a muleskinner last time."

 

"Well, it looks like I’m about to teach two grown men how a gentleman acts when a lady needs help," Beau commented. He straightened his hat, adjusted his vest, and strode jauntily toward the veranda.

 

Butler hooted and muttered, "Better him than us.  Right, Buck?"

 

Rubbing his chin, Cannon smirked. "Yep. Boy thinks he's headed for paradise, but he's headed for hell in a bucket.”

 

****

           

What else could I possibly want?  Between a magical night, a glorious morning, two beautiful babies, another certainly on the way, a husband who is more man than any ten and plenty of ammunition left for both the Colt and the Henry, my world is nearly perfect.

 

The lone fly in Pilar Montoya’s ointment was freeing Our Lady of Prompt Succor from her confines.  A present from home, she was carved marble and packed stoutly enough for cut crystal.

 

She dropped the crow-bar, grasped Lina’s chubby arms and spun with her, giggling at her daughter’s joyful squeals.  So pretty with Mano’s deep dimples.  The child danced away as she lifted Manuel from the cradle, intending to quiet him with breakfast.  She looked up at the sound of footsteps and her heart sank.  Not this nincompoop.

 

"Hello, ma'am. Let me apologize for those uneducated, unsophisticated saddle sitters. Unlike them, it pains me to see a woman as lovely and delicate as yourself in need of help." Beau removed his hat and invited himself onto the veranda, continued talking. "Such a pity those ruffians don't recognize a sparkling diamond in the middle of this wasteland." He picked up the crowbar and smiled at her, showing his white, even teeth. "Can I help you, Señora Montoya?"

 

Start by not denigrating my friends.  “How sweet of you.”  And you are whom?  “You must be Rebecca’s precious brother.” Who is too busy mouthing balderdash to make a proper introduction.   “I cannot tell you how delightful it is to meet you,” she said truthfully, fixing him with a bright smile.

 

Bowing low, he grinned wolfishly.  “Beauregard Coulter, at your service.”  As he spun the crowbar in one hand, his veiled gaze washed over her. “"Looks like I’m your knight in shining armor, milady. What mayhem were you trying to create with this?”

 

One presumes the girls love his voice; he certainly does.  The baby mewled and clasped her blouse.  Pilar adjusted her shawl and stood.  “No mayhem, but if you can be careful, I do need this opened,” she answered with a twinkle, patting the crate.

           

Beau watched her hips sway as she stepped to the swing, the rhythm uninterrupted when her daughter grabbed her skirt. He smiled to himself as she fed the baby, back turned and shawl drawn. Prying at the lid of the crate, he made a slow job of it. If your husband matches the rest of these saddle tramps, you must be as bored as I am, sweet thing. “Those kids are almost as pretty as their mother.”

 

Pilar looked at him over her shoulder, raising an eyebrow. “Thank you.  To me, they are exceptional, but every crow thinks her babies are the blackest.”  Turning her head, she stroked Lina’s curls and beamed at the child.  “Since they both favor their handsome papá, perhaps this crow is correct.” 

 

“Well, I can’t speak to that, since I haven’t met him, but this isn’t where I’d expect to see such a” …hot little package… “refined lady. Not much here except cactus and cowboys. Bet your life gets pretty dull.” He nodded at Joe and Buck, watching from the bunkhouse. “Or maybe you like these aw-shucks-ma’am wranglers?”

 

“They have a certain je ne sais quoi.  As does your interesting belt-buckle.  Mmm, trés gauche.  If only you spoke French you would know what I said.  “It must be…” the tackiest thing I have seen in ages… “very special, yes?”

 

He grinned and inflated his chest. “Yes ma’am. It’s for winning all-around high point at the county fair rodeo four years running.”

 

“Quite an accomplishment for you,” Pilar replied pensively.  The infant’s eyes closed; she rose, tucked him tenderly in his cradle.  Turning, she smiled and said in a silvery voice, “We weigh our accomplishments a bit differently, yes?  You see, the men here are not county-fair cowboys.  Their opponents are comancheros, renegade Apaches, bandidos, the unforgiving desert.  This is not an eight-second bull-ride for them. One who prevails?  His prize is his life, not a belt-buckle.” 

 

She was swishing across the veranda when he pried the last nail from the crate, flipped the heavy lid over and skidded it against her boot heel.  She stumbled. “Whoa, ma’am,” he cried happily, catching her and whirling her into the swing.  “Looks like I rescued a damsel in distress.” Smiling down at her, he grasped a long strand of her hair and twined it around a finger. “Even in Arizona, when the cat’s away, the mice will play.” As he played with the glossy strand, Beau cooed, “Your hair’s as soft and black as the nights back home,” and looked at her for acquiescence.  His grin faded; the only eyes he’d seen like those boring into him belonged to coiled rattlesnakes.  Without thinking, he jerked his hands away and stepped back.

 

“Is it a common practice of yours, tripping women who are in a delicate condition?” she inquired in a deadly hiss. “This is what your mother taught you? To dishonor a mother in front of her children, to jeopardize the life of her unborn baby?  This is how you want your sister treated?”  Pilar stood and edged forward with the grace of a stalking lioness.  “You scurvy four-flusher, this is my home.  These are my children.  That is my husband asleep inside.  All of them are very precious to me.  You are not.  You are only alive because a gunshot would wake Manolo and he needs his rest.”


Young Coulter backed away from her slowly, eyes wide, hands held in front of him defensively. “Nothing to get excited about, lady.  Just having a little fun.” He caught a heel on the crate lid and sprawled backwards, scuttling away like a crab.

 

“I would say your fun is over, yes?” Quietly, she continued moving toward him. 

 

As he fought to regain his balance, the breeze caught her vest; sunlight flashed against steel.   Holy Moses, what kind of madhouse is this? His frantic scrambling took him to the edge of the veranda and he toppled off into the dust, came to his feet, and ran for the bunkhouse.

 

Buck Cannon leaned against the bunkhouse wall, shaking with laughter. “Beauregard, I never knowed a floor show meant you’s supposed to get on the floor. Joe boy, could be we learned us a thing or two this morning.”

 

Joe slumped on the bench, smirking.  “Yeah, and this kid just learned grown men know a thing or two about hot tamales.”

 

Glancing back at Hacienda Montoya, Beau dusted the sand from his backside and remarked bitterly, “Guess the girls around here are crazy or they wouldn’t be in this arm-pit.” He settled his hat on his head, gathered the remains of his dignity and headed for the ranch house, guffaws and shouts stinging his ears.

 

“Buck? Joe?” The merry, feminine voice turned both men around.

 

“Missy, you is worse than A-pache for sneakin’. What you want, anyways?” Buck grumbled, amusement in his eyes.  He examined the little hand on his arm and looked into Pilar’s bright, friendly face.

 

“My apologies, but while you are resting, could you help me move my little statue?” she asked in tone that expected compliance.  Winking, she pulled a silver flask from her belt.  “I have good bourbon here to sweeten the deal.”

 

****

           

Pilar looked up from the baby in her lap and giggled softly. Her daughter wore an atrocious bonnet, nightgown and a towel draped around her neck; she clutched her father’s arm and smiled radiantly. “What have we here?” 

 

“Queen Catalina Beatriz,” Manolito explained. “She wanted the king – that is I -- to promenade her before her subjects, which are the three of you.”

 

“Mmm. A very short promenade, my love. Victoria expects us promptly at six.”

 

“Very short.  The queen mainly wanted me to mention to Madame Breaux that she wishes to sleep in this beautiful hat which Tía Victoria gave her.”  They circled the room, then Lina let go of him and crawled next to her mother.

 

Birdie scowled, “Damn hat gonna keep her awake, her.  Look like a pile o’ dead chickens inna flower cart.”

 

“I cannot agree more, but the queen likes it.”  Mano eyed the bonnet disdainfully, wondering how any child of his could have such dubious fashion-sense.

 

Preening before the mirror, he glanced at Pilar’s reflection.  He'd seen hundreds of women don stockings with a leg propped daintily on a chair or bed. Not this one; lying on the bed with a leg stretched in the air she rolled a stocking, secured it with a garter, then repeated the process. Performed while wearing a satiny, beribboned corset, the ritual decreased Mano’s incentive to dine with Cannons, Coulters or Presidente Juarez. 

 

Straightening his scarlet tie, he smoothed the ruffles on his white shirt and noted the charcoal-gray trousers were tighter than they once were. His eyes narrowed as he prodded his midriff. Béarnaise sauce aqui, Béchamel sauce allí.  His ears pricked at Pilar rustling behind him.  “You know, I am beginning to look a little too much like the son of my rather portly father.”

 

She wrapped her arms around his waist, peeking at his reflection.  “Oh, Manito! You were so thin when we first met, you looked tubercular. A pity for such a handsome man.”  Pilar arranged his crimson sash.  “There.  Now if you will help me?”

 

“I would rather remove this confection, but if you insist.” Reluctantly, he fastened the dress and secured the lavaliere around her neck with a nibble. She kissed him and spun, purple velvet whirling. He ran his hands down the green piping of her bodice, tucked a few stray tendrils of her hair in place, cocked his head.  “Pilar? Buck said we had a visitor earlier to our humble home.  One who was ill-manner I believe.”

 

She said more about Beau Coulter than the orange suit he’d unsuccessfully tried to locate earlier. The suit was dismissed with “Hmm. I cannot recall ever seeing it, but it sounds like an unfortunate color for you”; her mildest description of Coulter was “a boorish jackanapes unfit for polite company.” As they walked to Casa Cannon, Mano considered cutting off Beauregard’s cojones and shoving them down his throat, then recalled it would break his promise to Victoria. You owe her, hombre, she talked John out of two weeks of night herd.  Therefore, Manito, find another way to convince him it is unwise to dishonor the family of a Montoya.

 

Beau was oblivious to Mano’s spurious smile and dark glare as they shook hands, occupied instead with Pilar’s décolletage. She was cordial enough that the young man decided he previously over-reacted; he didn’t disguise his interest and placed a hand on her arm.  In front of the husband, when that man is Manolo Montoya? This idiota takes as many chances as I did.   Grasping Beau’s wrist, Mano whispered tersely, “Perdoname, muchacho.  This does not belong there. If you wish to keep it, store it elsewhere.”

 

                         ****

 

Armed with chummy palaver, Buck steered the guests to the living room after dinner. “Uh, Bob, you ever play chest? Now, John, he do enjoy a game of chest.  Whomps a couple of the hands regular.” He grinned and slapped his brother on the shoulder, retreating when he received a glare in return. “Anyways, I was thinkin’, if you knowed how to play, you and John might try a round.”

 

Perplexed, Coulter looked for a steamer trunk or dresser.  When John began organizing pieces on a chess board, he exclaimed with relief, “Yessir! I play and there’s nothing like a game after a good meal. Set ‘em up, Johnny.  Vicky, if I could trouble you for another brandy?  Then let’s see who does the whomping.”

 

John Cannon savored the game of kings like a good steak, considering each move from the standpoint of careful military strategy.  To him, a good player was disciplined, attentive to detail.  When Coulter plunged in with reckless enthusiasm, Cannon wasn’t favorably impressed.  His opponent moved pieces with breakneck speed, sacrificing pawns with no discernable plan, and was impatient with Cannon’s deliberation.  “I thought you were a man of action, Johnny,” he barked after a short wait. “Can’t let the world pass you by.”

 

Scowling, John rubbed his fingers together and made his move. He sat back, beaming with satisfaction. “There you go, Bob. See what you can do with that.”

 

Coulter shot out a hand and slid his piece into place, crying, “Checkmate!” Big John sagged in his chair, staring at the board in astonishment. The pieces rattled as the black-haired man banged the table exuberantly and roared, “Gotta go with your first instinct, Johnny! Works every time! I’ve taken every player worth a tinker’s dam back home, no reason to lose my touch down here.”

 

Buck leaned over his brother’s shoulder and offered, “That’s the quickest I ever seed you lose. Blue? Ain’t that the quickest you ever seed your Pa lose a game of chest?” He laughed and pounded the back of the chair. “Don’t that beat all….”, his voice trailed off in the wake of John’s glare.  Buck backed away slowly, saying “I guess mebbe you didn’t lose all that quick” and joined Blue and Becca at the fireplace.

 

Big John leaned back in his chair, looking at his beaten king.  He raised an eyebrow and smiled amicably at Coulter. “Could you do me a favor, Bob?  Señora Montoya’d like to learn the game and I haven’t had time to teach her.  Seems to me she could stand to learn from a master.”

 

Startled from his quiet conversation with his uncle, Blue looked up and said, “Huh? But she can…ow!” He grabbed his foot and glowered at Buck.

 

The man in black hung an arm around his nephew’s shoulders and spoke with concern, “What’s a matter, Blue Boy? C’mon over here and let me help you.” Propelling the younger man toward the stairwell, he whispered, “Hush up, yore pa’s got a plan.”

 

“His plan don’t mean you got to break my foot.” He nodded toward the living room, where Pilar now sat across from Coulter. “She’ll beat the pants off him.”

 

“He can buy more.”  He nudged his nephew with an elbow.  “You got five dollars? I’m thinkin’ young Beauregard needs a lesson in the fine art of poker playin’.”

 

Blue snorted. “You gonna teach him how to beat you is more like it.”

 

Crossing his arms, the stocky man grimaced.  “Blue Boy, yore uncle don’t always lose and you know that for a fact.  Do you or don’t you have five dollars?”

 

Blue put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “If I did, I’d be better off feeding it to the horses. Besides, you get paid same as me, why’re you always after my money if you don’t always lose?”

 

“Blue, you surely do hurt my feelings. I got responsibilities. Oblitations. My money’s got to go further than yours, you know that.”

 

“That don’t mean it’s got to further on my pay.”

 

“Now, Blue Boy, you got no call to worry.  Mano ‘n’ me got us a plan.”

 

He started to answer when Rebecca walked up and slipped an arm around his waist. “What are you two plotting?”

 

“Hey, Button.  Just Uncle Buck wants him and Mano to skin your brother at poker. Problem is he wants to do it with my money,” he replied with a smile, caressing her shoulder.

 

She chuckled, a naughty sparkle in her eyes.  “Beau could use a skinning.  Heck, I’d pay to see it done. You figure you two can knock him down a peg?”

 

Grinning, Buck answered, “Sis, it’s a lead pipe cinch. You got five dollars?”

 

****

           

Big John Cannon perched with full view of the chess board and Pilar’s performance.  She twirled her hair, moistened her lips and slowly traced the embroidery of her daring neckline, insuring that Coulter’s mind wasn’t on chess.  John struggled to keep his face neutral when she smiled winsomely at Bob, then cut her eyes to him and winked. He generally fought his own battles, but called in the cavalry when necessary.  He’d had enough of Sarah Coulter looking down her nose at his son and his ranch, Bob’s arrogant bonhomie and Beau’s superior attitude. Sometimes, the cavalry’s not just a bunch of men in blue uniforms. He winked back.

 

My opponent has no defense whatsoever.  What a ninny.  As Coulter explained the point of the game, Pilar appeared puzzled.  “Mr. Coulter? This talk of combat is simply lost on me. Could we play for money? It might help me concentrate better.”

 

“Now little lady, maybe you ought to see how you do first,” Bob suggested in a kindly voice.

 

“Perhaps. But I am so easily distracted,” she purred, lashes fluttering.

 

They set the wager at a rich fifty dollars, almost a month’s pay for a ranch-hand.  Bob played as before. Pilar carefully developed her back-row pieces, utilized forcing moves and sham sacrifices until she tentatively declared, “I think that is check, Mr. Coulter.” Get your money on the table, greenhorn.

 

Her robust opponent fell for every other trap. Now this one, crowing, “Check-mate!  Sorry little lady, but there’s no way out.”

 

She removed her king from danger and pounced with an old Sicilian ploy her father favored.  “Oh, my!  Lucky me! Check-mate to you, Mr. Coulter.”  While Bob stared crestfallen at the board, she excused herself.  “I should look in on the children.  Who knows? You may find a way out of that…” when the Pope turns Protestant… “before I come back for my money.” Passing Blue and Rebecca on her way home, Pilar gave a high-sign and sang a few bars of “Buffalo Gals.”                    

 

****

 

Blue sputtered, “What the…?”

 

“Shh, they’ll hear you.” Skirt swirling in the sand, Rebecca pulled him around the corner of the house and toward the light cast by the dining room window.

 

“Becca, for once, they ain’t eyeballing us, so why ain’t we doing something besides looking at them? It don’t make sense for beans.”

 

She giggled and pulled him close, putting a finger softly on his lips. “Honey, remember that play we saw back in St. Louis?  It’s kinda like that.  See, Pop’s staring at the chess board, looking all hang-dog.  I figure Pilar just whomped him. I’m trying to see if Buck and Mano have picked Beau clean yet.”

 

Blue grasped her hand gently and moved it away from his mouth, eyes dancing.  “I gotta admit, it’s lots more fun watching than being watched.  But you’re gonna have to kiss me to shut me up, Button.”

 

“Blue Cannon, that’s the best threat I’ve ever heard.” She rested her hands on his corn-silk hair and pressed soft lips to his.  Curved her body into his, feeling his warmth and the strength of his arms. The kiss grew more urgent, his hands pressing her closer. His scent – leather, soap and honest sweat mingled with the faintest trace of horse and trail dust – combined with the feel of his lips on hers and the taste of him sent her into a spinning tangle of sensations. Dizzy, she took a deep breath.

 

“Oh, Becca,” Blue said hoarsely, hands cupping her face. He kissed her forehead, eyes, and lips gently.  Bringing her to him so tightly her feet almost left the ground, he kissed her lips with an intensity that left both gasping. “Don’t make me wait, Button. Let’s ride into Tucson tonight, wake up the preacher.” He ran his hand through her hair and rested his forehead against hers. “I wasted two years working up my nerve. That’s plenty long enough.”

 

She leaned her head against his chest, felt the solid beat of his heart. Gazing up at him, she gently touched his face. “My Blue. I’ve loved you since the first day I saw you. How could I say anything but yes?” She laughed and shushed him as he tossed his hat and tried for a war whoop. “Unless you want a wedding party save it for later.” He grinned, grabbed her hand, and ran for the corral.

 

They almost made it. Becca was tightening her cinch when Sarah Coulter’s voice rang across the compound. “Rebecca? Rebecca?”

 

Becca’s head sank onto the mare’s flank.  Blue stiffened, then placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing as she said, “I can’t do it to her, Blue.” Tears slid down her cheeks.  “Just a little longer, okay?”

 

He untied his bandanna, dabbed her face. “You waited for me to grow some sense, I got no call to complain.” He jerked his head toward the house. “Go on.” She hugged him, then ran to the house. Sighing ponderously, he slumped and tapped his forehead against the hard leather cantle. “Five minutes more. Five darned minutes, Soapy.” He hit the saddle lightly with a fist and slowly began untacking.

 

****

           

Beauregard Coulter examined his dwindling cash knowing he’d been skunked. A sloppy pile of paper and coins before him, Buck Cannon grinned like a mule eating briars.  Manolito Montoya slumped in his chair, eyes half-closed, tongue probing the inside of his cheek as he studied his hand; he picked up several bills from his neat stack, tossed them into the center of the table.

 

Cannon folded. “Too rich for me, boys.”

 

 “I call and raise you …eh, treinta. Thirty,” Montoya challenged, smirking.

 

“Call,” the younger man responded, slamming his remaining funds into the pot. Addressing the Mexican, he sneered, “Okay, Slick. You gonna sit there all night or show me what you have?”  You cheating son-of-a-bitch.

 

Con permiso, muchacho.”  Another smirk.  Tengo…tres mujeres bonitas …”

 

Coulter’s dander soared.  “In English.  I don’t speak Mex.”

 

“My deepest apologies,” he answered in an overly-polite tone, bowing forward graciously.  “Of course English.”  Unlike me, you speak nothing else.  “Three lovely queens and a nice pair of aces.”

 

Disgusted, Coulter slung his cards down. “All yours, Slick.” He shoved his chair back and leaned on the table, palms flat, glaring at Mano.  “One of these days, I’d like to get you in an honest game, because you know what?  I’d win.”

 

You worthless saca de mierda. “You speak as if this was not an honest game.”

 

“Now did I say that?  Even if I thought you’d cheat your own mother, I’m way too polite to say it.”

 

Mano graced him with a wicked grin and pushed away from the table.  “Amigo, in some places, saying such things to a man could have… unfortunate results.”  He clapped Beau on the back.  “But I cannot win more of your money if you are dead.”  He yawned. “Hey, Buck?  Walk home with me, we can compare wealth.” 

 

The two men strolled and gloated in the chilly moonlight, Buck steering them toward the Montoya stable and paddocks. Mano rested an elbow against a rail as the Jersey ambled toward them, nudging him with her wet nose. “¿Que pasa, hombre? You wish to inspect our fine cow?”

 

Buck chuckled as she rasped his hand with her long tongue. “She’s a fine one, all right. Brother John’s real happy she ain’t a sheep.” He wiped his hand on his shirt and turned, leaning against the fence, boot propped on a lower rail. “I ain’t feeling quite as friendly as ole Bossy here. Least-a-ways, not to Mister Beau-ree-guard Toutant Coulter.”

 

Manolito crossed his arms, regarding his friend. “Compadre, I am shocked at your uncharitable attitude. He is, como se dice? A cow that gives cash?”

 

Buck grinned, “I reckon he was a cash cow tonight. I also reckon the boy’s got a overly import-nate o-pinion of hisself.” He tapped the younger man on the shoulder with a finger. “I got a notion to improve his manners with a harness strap.”

 

Que?”

 

The older man laughed. “Don’t look so anxious, com-pad-re. I ain’t gonna do what yore thinkin’.  Brother John wouldn’t let me.  The harness strap I got in mind already belongs to a horse.” He nodded toward the high-walled pen where Pilar’s stallion dozed contentedly after two weeks among John’s mares. “One particular horse.”

 

****

 

Mornings in the early Arizona spring are jewels in the crown of seasons. The sun’s rays warm closed eyelids and flagstones underfoot, driving the chill of desert night from walls. Doves call faintly from scrub and chaparral as horses stir in the corral. The aroma of good coffee rises from metal cups, filling the air with its richness. On such a morning, even a jackleg twit is tolerable if a man has a plan for him.

 

On the ranch-house porch, Manolito Montoya tilted his chair against the corner wall, pulled his borrowed, brown hat low against the morning sun and had a sip of coffee. After twisting his shoulders to a more comfortable position, he sighed contentedly while Buck Cannon sawed at a mound of hotcakes and stuffed a forkful in his mouth.

 

After a round of zesty chewing followed by an audible gulp, the cowpuncher downed a half glass of milk and asked, “Ain’t you hungry? They’s good, real good.” He held out a wedge, urging the fork forward.

 

Mano peered warily from under his brim, replying precisely. “No, gracias. I have already eaten.”  As his friend poured coffee into a saucer, blew on it and slurped noisily, he added, “And in more genteel company.  Although you and Lina have a similar grasp of table etiquette.”

 

“You’s picky as any old maid. Man runs on a good breakfast.”

 

Drinking delicately from his cup, Montoya replied, “In that case, compadre, you should run farther than any hombre on the rancho.”

 

Buck waved a fork toward the center of the porch. “Company comin’.  Git out the cards.”

 

Beauregard Coulter’s tall frame filled the dining room door as he stretched and gazed into the yard. Ambling toward the two men, he settled his Stetson on his head; light bounced from the engraved sterling silver band.  The young man smiled winningly.   “Morning gents.” He swung the empty chair around, sat and turned to Manolito. “My sister reminded me I’m a poor poker player and a worse loser. Usually I’d argue with her, but in this case she’s got evidence. I owe you an apology, Slick.”

 

More than that, muchacho, and I am about to collect.Es nada. Merely words in the night, forgotten by morning.” Lowering his chair to the floor, he glanced sideways at Buck “My Pilar says the buckle on your belt has a special significance.”

 

“Rodeo prize,” he answered, proudly tilting the flashy buckle up. “All-around high point four years running. Boys back home made it for me.”

 

Buck squinted across the table. “That so? Never seed the like. You ever seed the like, Mano? They give you that big shiny buckle cause you is good with cows, boy?”

 

“Yeah.  Cows, but mostly horses. Never one foaled I couldn’t handle.”

 

Punching Mano’s shoulder, Buck crowed, “He be good with horses! I knowed it! First time I seed him, I said, there goes a man’s good with horses. He got a horsy kinda look, don’t he, amigo?”

 

Si, compadre!  I also knew Beau was a true culo del caballo.  A true master of the horse.”

 

Buck slapped the table, rattling the dishes. “Hey, Mano, ain’t Missy wantin’ to take the carriage out?” He pointed at Beau. “I got a way how you can a-pologize to Missy Pilar, git on her good side.  Whatcha think, Mano?  Since he be good with horses ‘n’ all?”

 

As Beau’s eyes darted from one to the other,  Manolito smiled and said soothingly, “She has such difficulty with the harness, muchacho.” He tapped his chest with a hand and bowed forward slightly. “I would do it, but I am not so good with horses.  Eh, my compadre, Buck? The spirit is willing, but the flesh -- I am sad to say -- is old and weak.” He laughed at the look in Buck’s eye and gestured to Honorado’s paddock. “You see that bay gelding? Gentle as a lamb and the carriage is standing ready. Only a moment’s work, and my wife will be very appreciative.”

 

Beau glanced at the big animal; rump toward them and resting a back foot, he benignly dined on a pad of hay. “I’ll hitch him up and be back before the coffee’s cold.”

 

The strapping young man strutted from the veranda to the paddock under watchful eyes. Joe Butler straightened from stacking bags of grain, wordlessly tapping Pedro. Pedro whistled at Ira, who raised an eyebrow, nodded, and motioned to Reno. Like back alley cats, within seconds every available hand took position in sight of the corral. Joe dropped a sack of grain heavily to the ground and asked Ira, “You got a dollar I can borrow?”

 

Ira considered Beau’s progress carefully. Without taking his eyes off the young man, he dug into a pocket and wordlessly dropped a few coins in Joe’s palm.

 

 “Thanks. Betcha five bucks he runs Pretty Boy out in under five minutes.”

 

Ira shot a skeptical look at Butler. “Ten says you ain’t got five to bet, but okay, you’re on.”

 

Beau grabbed a halter and lead as he entered the gate.  Nodding to the men lounging casually at the rails and flashing a toothy grin, he was the picture of easy confidence.  Pay attention, boys, maybe you’ll learn how it’s done.  Long-legged strides took him quickly to the now-motionless animal; he veered to stay clear of the horse’s back-end. Smirking, he extended a hand and glanced at the watchers. Figured to set me up, didn’t you, boys? Trouble is, Mama Coulter didn’t raise any idiots.

 

He felt the crush of teeth clamping his shoulder as the stallion sounded an angry squeal. “Whoa,” he gasped as his boots left the ground, his surroundings a blur. The horse shook him like a rag doll, flinging him to the ground and striking with both front hooves. Beau dodged frantically, rolling to the side as the horse plunged and screamed, catching the back of his shirt with a hoof.

 

He scrambled desperately and felt his shirt rip as he scrabbled in the dirt. Lunging for freedom, he threw himself under the fence, then realized with horror he was moving backwards into the corral. He wrapped both arms around a post and yelled, “Git! Go away!” The cuff of one leg was imprisoned in the horse’s mouth; he kicked uselessly with the other. Honorado tugged at his pant-leg: eyes hard, ears flattened, bellowing like the devil’s own.

 

Frantic, Beau hooked an arm around the post.  He fumbled at his belt buckle with one hand, managed to skin down to his long-johns, pants peeling like sausage-casings until they caught on his custom-made ostrich-hide boots. Clinging to the post with both hands, he was the unwitting cause of guffaws, knee-slaps and back-pounding.

 

Lungs heaving and throat raw, he kicked at one boot with the other as the horse shook his leg and shrieked, pawing the ground. The big bay gave one final jerk and took the pant leg off with the boot. Beau shucked the other and dove for safety, sitting up and turning to watch. His silver banded Stetson, custom boots, and pants sailed in the air, returning to the dust; the animal fiercely crushed them, squealing and huffing.

 

Beau wiped a shaking hand across his forehead, tried to rise and sank back to the ground, groaning. Nothing broken but I’ll have bruises the size of Texas. He glanced at the money quickly changing hands, at Buck and Mano smiling benevolently, at the horse’s cresty neck and testicles. What possessed me to go blind when those two bastards said “gelding”?

 

“Hey, muchacho, you are not much of a horseman.  My wife rides him bareback.”

 

Beau closed his eyes, wondering how things could be worse, heard Pilar Montoya sing out, “Oh my word! What have you done to my horse?” She muttered about “trash in my paddock” while gathering Beau’s discarded finery.

 

****

 

Against a background of scuffling feet and snickers, Beau imagined the desert opening its maw, swallowing Arizona, the High Chaparral, Cannons and Montoyas. Shadows fell across him; he squinted at his sister kneeling beside him, Blue Cannon silhouetted against the sun. He winced as Becca probed his shoulder.

 

Blue angrily stabbed a finger at his uncle and Manolito, blustering, “It ain’t a bit funny!  What if he’d lost that arm or been killed?  You two baboons think about that?”

 

Mano rolled his eyes and left to retrieve Beau’s clothing, while Buck retorted, “He said he’s good with horses, Blue Boy. I ain’t his ma; mebbe you oughta remember that afore you start yellin’ yore head off ‘cause some donkey-dumb fool gets hisself hurt.”  He removed his hat, whacking it against his thigh in frustration and hollered, “Mebbe you got time to wipe Beau-ree-gaurd’s nose, but I got work to do.”   Slapping his hat on his head, he stomped away.

 

“Yeah, well, he ain’t the only one that’s donkey-dumb!” Blue bellowed after him, then knelt beside Becca and asked, “He okay?”

 

Beau heard her answer, “Depends on your meaning.  Doesn’t need stitches and I can’t feel any breaks.  He’s sure as heck gonna be sore.” She sat on her heels and looked sternly at her brother.  “You beat a three legged dog for finding trouble, and you’re gonna have one heck of a blood blister to show for it. Think you can walk?”

 

“Hell, yes I can walk.  You been working on livestock too long to know an arm from a leg?” he snapped, resisting Blue’s efforts to help him to his feet.  He rose unsteadily but unassisted.  With a snarl, he snatched his mangled garments from Manolito and stumbled across the gully toward the ranch house. Blue slipped an arm across Becca’s shoulders, shook his head as they watched the flash of Beau’s red long johns through the brush. “If he’s your favorite brother, I hope I never meet the rest of them.”

 

Leaning against him, she barked a disgusted laugh. “He’s sure been on his worst behavior since he got here.” She circled an arm around his waist and smiled.  “I promise, the others have more sense and better manners.”  Feeling his hand tighten on her shoulder, she looked at the frown creasing his face and asked, “What is it?”

 

He focused beyond the front gate, shading his eyes. “Whole lot of dust, looks like riders. C’mon.” They trotted across the chaparral-filled wash, Blue shouting at the roof as they reached the porch. “Harris! Riders!”

 

A rifle shot and shout came from the rooftop, flushing Buck from the barn and catapulting John Cannon from the house. Big John called to the roof sentry, “Who is it, Harris?”

 

“Looks like Sam and the boys, Mr. Cannon. Coming in fast.” The day herd shift, middle of the morning, riding hell for leather back to the ranch meant trouble.

 

Sam made a running dismount, speaking before his feet touched the ground. “We got trouble, boss. Forty, maybe fifty Apache, looks like a war party.  Loaded up on hardware and painted. Passed up the herd, headed straight for the ranch.”

 

Buck made room for Manolito beside him, and asked, “You recognize any?”

 

The big foreman shook his head, replied, “Not sure, but one of  ‘em looked like that troublemaker raided up at Cooks Crossing.”

 

Big John nodded and growled, “Nineteen settlers killed. You’re sure about this?” Sam nodded and Cannon stared into the distance, thinking.

 

“Pa, there’s cavalry camped above Sandy Creek.  I took ‘em a couple of my steers yesterday,” Blue remarked quietly, hands on his hips.

 

John considered his son for a moment. “Will they still be there?”

 

“Yeah, Pa, they will.  They’re fixing telegraph lines.”

 

Pushing his hat back and exhaling loudly, Buck argued, “John, that’s twenty-five mile and them blue-bellies don’t know the A-pache is lookin’ to have a party.”

 

“They won’t unless we tell them,” his brother concluded firmly.  He ordered Sam and the men to spread the alarm; they scattered like bird-shot through the compound, shouting to pass the word, crossing the yard with horses, untacking rapidly. Big John turned to Mano, asked abruptly, “You think you can get through?”

 

A wide smile on his face, he answered, “Si, Juano, I know a donkey trail…”

 

“Wait jist a minute.” Buck pushed his hat back and demanded, “Why don’t you  tell me about them donkey-trails so’s I can find ‘em?”

 

¡Ay, compadre! Porque, primero, my wife’s stallion is the fastest horse here.  Segundo, he can handle high water from spring rains in the mountains.  Tercero, I can ride him, you cannot.” As he turned to leave, Buck grabbed his arm.

 

“Now you hold on.  Mo-men-tee-to.  It don’t matter what kinda fancy pads Sis put on that horse’s feet, he ain’t sound.  Run him hard, he’ll go lame, be slow as a burro on them donkey trails.”

 

Hombre, please!  Even on foot I would arrive before you.”

 

“All right, Mano,” John agreed. “Buck, you’re staying here. Get the boys started on the barricades.” Buck turned and clomped for the bunkhouse.

 

Loping to the stable, Manolito passed Birdie rushing to the Cannon house with his children; she pointed to the low brush beyond the compound. Why am I surprised?  Apaches about to attack and my Pilar is making mud pies with her half-Pawnee house- maid. Muttering loudly, he hurriedly saddled his lunatic wife’s vicious horse.

 

Hands protected by heavy gloves, Wind twisted barbed wire around a shrub.  He glanced sideways at Pilar Montoya. Had his skills deserted him?  One minute he was creeping to a flank position with his rifle, the next he was holding a roll of wire and bucket of water. Her sunny voice danced to him, “Lucky for us they charge in a line”.

 

He stared at her with flat, black eyes. “The Apache believe it is honorable to face an enemy in battle,” he explained slowly, as if speaking to a small child.  Smearing mud on the trip-wire, he added, “This is treachery, unworthy of a warrior.” 

 

“Oh, my word! All’s fair in love and war and I do not always play according to Hoyle,” she retorted, then looked toward an explosion of hoofbeats from the compound.    

 

Bristling, Mano shouted, “I am going for the cavalry.  And you, Pilar, are between the Apaches and the ranch! Andele!” Irritation showed in every line of his face as he spun the big bay. “Ahora, Pili!” He pointed dismissively to the booby-trap. “There is no time for cleverness. Go!”

 

Momentito, my love,” she called airily, waving as if shooing flies.

 

 “¡Ay, Chihuahua!  Now!”

 

Vaya con Dios!” Blowing him a kiss, she continued to camouflaging the wire.

 

He spat a curse, yelled, “¡Vamanos!” and was gone.

 

Wind watched Pilar cross to the compound, climb the windmill and settle on the platform. He saw the glint of her long rifle and the smaller twinkle of her rosary. Apaches fear the insane ones. With good reason.  He slipped quietly into the scrub.

 

****

 

Big John Cannon marshaled his troops, shouting orders as ranch hands madly turned the compound into a fortress. “Sam, block the gate, break out rifles and ammunition!” Cannon waylaid Pedro and pointed to the house. “Check every last water barrel, I want them filled to the top.” Pedro set off at a run, John yelling over his shoulder, “And make sure we’ve got buckets, water’s no good without buckets.”  Marching forward, he gestured to the rear gate and barked, “Drag the buckboard, turn it first, you think they’ll come calling at the front door?”

 

Clouds of dust drifted across the yard, pushing grit into eyes, dirt into lungs. Buck worked a small crew, swiftly moving horses from the holding corral to the barn. He pulled halters and bridles from around his neck to catch the frightened animals. “Move these jugheads, boys, A-pache’ll make ‘em look like pincushions.” When he swiped an arm across his sweating forehead, it came away muddy brown. “Steve! Steve-boy!” He squinted at the lookout tower, bellowing at a figure climbing the rigging, “You look sharp, you hear me? Eyes open.”

 

Inside the ranch house Victoria quieted the baby and directed Birdie to push furniture against the wall, clearing space to treat the wounded. She knelt, putting an arm around her tiny niece, looking up when she felt a hand on her shoulder. Sarah Coulter spoke to her firmly, “Point me in the right direction, Mrs. Cannon.”

 

Victoria nodded, “Thank you, come with me.” She walked quickly to the storage closet, took a handful of bandages and said, “We need all of these ready.” Grim-faced, Sarah reached for more. 

 

The activity in the yard was chaos; men running, dragging equipment, tossing boxes of ammunition. Horses reared and snorted, kicking up dust from the powdery ground. Blue pounded to the porch; Becca, just outside the doorway, was strapping on her gunbelt. He shouted, “What in blazes are you doing? Get inside.”

 

She shook her head, answered resolutely, “No. I can shoot and I’m not leaving you.”

 

Blue pointed desperately at the door, yelling to be heard over the mayhem. “Becca, I said get inside and I mean it. This ain't no place for a woman and I can't be looking after you.”

 

Her face set stubbornly, she declared, “Blue Cannon, if you think I'm hiding in the house while you're out here getting yourself killed you can go hatch rooster eggs. If you’re going to get shot, I’ll get shot with you.”

 

Bob Coulter skidded to a stop beside Blue and roared, “Son, it's my fault, I raised her to think for herself. Never could teach her to keep her mouth shut, and I guarantee you're not keeping her out of this mess.” With a grin, he hollered, “Let her fly, boy!  There's worse things than a woman with spirit!” and galloped for the front gate.

 

Blue wiped his forehead and glared, then rolled his eyes. “Okay. Stay with me and keep your head down.” He grabbed Becca’s hand; they darted for the barricade. Standing behind her, Blue put both hands on her shoulders and leaned, speaking low into her ear, “They’ll come barreling in, Becca. You’ll want to shoot like blazes when you see ‘em riding down on you. Don’t. Wait ‘til you get good range. Aim low. That way if you miss the rider you might hit the horse.” He hugged her, his head against hers. I buried one woman here, dear Lord don’t let me bury another. “Keep your head down and stay behind the wagon, you hear me?”

 

She twisted, looking up at him.  Her eyes were enormous, face deadly serious. “I hear you.” Laying her palm tenderly against his chest, she curved her body into his. “I love you, Blue.”

 

Touching her cheek, he felt an almost painfully intense warmth flow through him. A half-smile crept across his face. “I promise you, Becca. Someday I’ll say it when we ain’t in the middle of a gun fight. I love you.” He bent his head and kissed her tenderly.

 

When the frenzied activity calmed, the quiet grated on nerves. All eyes restlessly scanned the desert. Big John fretfully checked his defenses again; finding nothing lacking, he settled against a wagon wheel and waited. He felt movement at his side and glanced at Bob Coulter. The man had grit, he’d give him that. Strapped on twin Colt 45’s without blinking an eye, pitched in to drag barricades, top off water barrels. Not a word of complaint. Or advice, which was just as welcome.

 

Coulter pushed his hat back, said, “Your boys ran this drill like clockwork, Johnny. Apaches raid every week?”

 

“No, not every week. Not since the first year. We made our peace with most, but there’s always a few renegades, want to make a name for themselves in the Nation.” He motioned toward their children. “You raised a remarkable daughter, Bob. I’d be proud to have her as my own.”

 

Coulter smiled, shaking his head. “I trailed her around the ranch after me, never knew if I did right by her or not. After so many boys I didn’t know anything else. She and Beau are the last two.” He looked toward the bunkhouse at Beau. “We lost three sons in the war.  Maybe we held Beau too close after that, but sons are a difficult crop. Daughters grow like flowers, but the boys tend to be weedy.”

 

“Well, Bob, I can’t say about daughters, but I’ve had my share of weeds with Blue,” he agreed, looking over his shoulder at the ranch house, corrals, barn and buildings. “You fight to build something that lasts, something you can be proud of, but the truth is, a man’s family counts for the most in the end.” Gazing at the far horizon, he added affectionately, “I couldn’t ask for a son who tries harder to do right. I’m as proud of him as anything in my life.”

 

“He seems like a fine harvest, a good man.” He studied Blue leaning protectively toward Becca, a hand on her shoulder. “Good for Rebecca, too.” He winked at Cannon. “Guess we’ll see if they make good grandchildren.”

 

“Apache!” The shout range across the stillness of the compound, echoing from the guard tower. “Apache! Must be fifty of ‘em!” Dim hoofbeats sounded, growing steadily louder.

 

Big John gripped his Winchester, staring toward the growing clamor and dust of the advancing riders. He yelled, “Steady on! Hold where you are!” A line of Apache warriors in full battle dress and paint broke through the concealment of brush and cactus; halting, they silently appraised their target. John leaned to his right, spoke low, “You recognize any, Buck?”

 

His brother nodded, face dark. “That big one out front’s Delshay, John. The one been callin’ down the A-pache ghosts, the ancestors.” He pushed his hat back and sighed. “Explains why they’re here. Ancestors supposed to help get their land back.” When the column surged forward, Buck yelled, “Hang on, here they come!”

 

The Indians charged the front gate, whoops circling in the desert air, echoing with the gunshots. The hidden wire snared a tangle of horses, snarling their riders under them as they kicked wildly against the coils. Splinters flew from fence posts and barricades as bullets connected. Blue bit his lip in concentration.  Taking aim at one rider, he squeezed the trigger; the warrior fell. A round blasted by his ear and a second rider flipped from his horse. Glancing sideways, he saw Becca grimly take aim and fire again.

 

Dust boiled into the compound from all directions as three riders charged the fence between the bunkhouse and gate. Joe Butler stood his ground while other men scattered, rifle at his shoulder; he fired calmly, even as two Apache sailed over the fence. Spinning on one foot and swinging the rifle in an arc, he shot and one man tumbled into the dirt, motionless. Joe pivoted, sighted quickly and sent a slug through the second warrior’s heart.

 

Under cover of bullets and brush, Apache archers wrapped their arrows in oil-soaked rags and set them aflame. With deadly precision, they rained fire onto the ranch house roof, the base of the corral, the barn door. John bellowed, “Reno, Pedro! Man the buckets, house first!” On the roof, men frantically tossed water from the fire barrels. John glanced behind him, quickly decided to sprint for the barn, snatching buckets on his way. “Jerry, Reeves, Perez. Water – go, go, go!” The buckets seemed pitifully small against the blaze, like spit against a drought. He chanced a look at the house, saw more flaming arrows.  Fire crept up the barn-door, panicked horses milled and screamed inside; grabbing an axe, Cannon swung at the hinges with huge strokes, felling the door, isolating the flames from the rest of the barn.

 

A third rider jumped the fence and Beau Coulter fired, striking the horse, its rider leaping free as the animal rolled heavily to the ground, kicking in agony. Rifle lost in the fall, the warrior lunged for him, slamming him to the ground with a shoulder. He jabbed a fist at the man's chin, dodging the glint of steel from a knife. Beau gripped the brave's wrist with both hands, fighting with all his strength as the blade crept closer to his throat. The Apache's face was inches away, grunting unknown words, spraying him with hate and spit. He looked into the fierce, black eyes and saw his own death as the cold metal touched his skin.

 

He pushed backwards from the knife; a gunshot thundered in his ears and he felt the man’s iron hand give way as the Apache jerked to the right, head lolling. Red mist and tissue showered Beau’ face. He stared as the Indian dropped to the dirt beside him; half the brave's head was missing, blood flowed freely into a widening pool. Sickened, he shoved himself away from the mangled corpse, looked wildly into Buck Cannon’s darkened face. The man spoke through clenched teeth, biting off the words. "We need yore gun at the fence. Move!" 

 

Staccato booms spat from beneath the windmill’s rotating blades as the small woman worked the trigger of her old Henry rifle.  On her stomach, she sighted through gunsmoke and dust, shooting Indians.  She could hear her father’s soft voice: “Center of mass, Bonbon. One shot, one kill.  I did not raise you to waste ammunition.”  The first flaming arrows flew by; she trued her aim, turned them into sparks and splinters while praying she would again hear her children laugh and feel her husband’s arms around her. 

 

Big John hadn't realized she was there, too many guns and too many Indians, too many fires.  When the arrows shattered, he glanced at the windmill and roared, “Let her rip, girl. Go get ‘em!”

 

Blue squinted through the smoke and dust, firing at moving shadows. His Winchester was empty and he’d switched to his revolver; he fired, the trigger clicking on an empty chamber. Dropping to the ground, he reloaded swiftly and glanced at Becca. Shouting over the noise he asked, “You okay?” Resolutely, she nodded. He hauled her beside him, took her gun and began to reload. She leaned her head against the wagon, closing her eyes. Blue saw she was pale underneath her tanned skin. He handed the revolver to her, caught her by the arm as she started to rise. Shouted, “Becca, I’m telling you one more time; get inside with Victoria!”

 

They heard bullets and arrows thunking into the wagon behind them, Indian war whoops, wounded men screaming. She grinned and shook her head. Mouth close to his ear, she hollered, “I’m staying with you.”

 

Sighing in frustration, Blue pulled her roughly to him and kissed her quickly. They stood, facing the charging Apache. Horses wheeled in the smoke, running forward, feinting, doubling back. Bullets sang from scrub cover, picking a target was impossible. Blue sighted and fired, clipping a chaparral branch. Fired again and saw a horse fall, pinning its rider. From beside him he heard Rebecca’s pistol.  Along the fence-line, men’s voices shouted in time with their guns, and from overhead he heard the Henry’s rapid fire. He shot again, couldn’t see through the dust and smoke, spit sand and fired another. Feeling a round whine past his ear, he whipped his head toward Rebecca.

 

She jerked backwards as if yanked by a rope, pitched sideways and face-down. A dark stain spread from underneath her, the dry ground blotting the moisture. She lay with one arm thrown over her head, revolver tossed just beyond her hand. In the split second before Blue ran to her, it struck him how child-like she looked, small and helpless. He screamed, “Becca!” and scooped her in his arms.  Staring at her blood-soaked blouse, he caressed her face as dark horsemen in blue uniforms formed a line behind the Indians and charged.  Tears stinging his sunburned cheeks, he was blind to the cavalry onslaught and retreating Apaches, deaf to his father’s jubilant yell, “Mano got through!”  Oblivious to all but the girl in his arms, he bowed his head and touched her closed eyelids, delicate and pale as those of a fine china doll. Why does this ranch take everyone I love?

 

****

 

Blue stood in the bedroom doorway, staring at Becca. Her mother jerked drawers open and shoved clothes into a suitcase, insisting loudly that her daughter leave immediately.  When her mother left towing two bags, Rebecca rolled her eyes and said tiredly, “I can always unpack.  Again.”

 

Beau leaned against the windowsill, glaring while Victoria wrapped a clean bandage around the girl’s upper arm.  Smoothing the young woman’s hair, she spoke soothingly, “You’ve lost a lot of blood but it’s a clean wound.”  As she left the room, she touched her step-son’s shoulder. “She will recover quickly, Blue.  You will see.”

 

He went to her, folded her in his arms, breathed in the scent of her. “Don’t ever scare me like that again.”

 

Her voice muffled against his chest she answered, “I didn’t stay behind the wagon, did I?”

 

Before Blue could answer, Beau interrupted, “Don’t tell me you’re blaming yourself.” He pointed at Blue. “It’s his fault, Bec. Not yours.”

 

“Shut up, Beau.  He tried to stop me. I wouldn’t listen.”

 

“Not man enough to control you then.” He shot an angry look at Blue. “Not man enough to marry a white woman, right, Sport?  From what I hear, the best you could do before was that dirty Apache. Name of Moonflower or something.”

 

Jumping to his feet, Blue charged forward, hands balled into fists, spitting words. “Her name was Moonfire and don’t call her a dirty Apache. You don’t know anything about her.”

 

Beau looked from Cannon to his sister and smiled. “He didn’t tell you he almost marched up the aisle with a squaw, did he?”

 

“Blue?  Rebecca rolled herself to the edge of the bed, hurt clouding her eyes. “What’s he talking about?”

 

Running a hand through his hair and biting his lip, he explained, “It was a long time ago, Becca. She was killed in a raid, like today.” He held out his hands pleadingly. “That’s why I wanted you in the house, I didn’t want to lose you.”

 

“Bec, don’t you wonder what else old Sport’s keeping secret?”

 

Rubbing her eyes with one hand, she answered slowly, “So help me, if you don’t shut your mouth, I’ll stitch it so tight you’ll be eating through a rye grass straw.”

 

Beau snorted. “Even half a man would’ve kept you safe.”

 

Blue pivoted to face him, answered hotly, “I’ve had enough of you. She made her own choice.”

 

Shoving Blue’s shoulder for emphasis, Coulter retorted, “You aren’t man enough to control her, and you aren’t man enough to keep her safe.”

 

Face hot and shoving back, Blue hollered, “That’ll change when we’re married. No more line camps and no more gun fights.”

 

Beau smirked, “What’s your plan, Sport?  Have her pump out brats like that witch next door or you gonna teach her how to sew and cook, like that Mex trash your pa married? See, Bec?  His pa can’t get a white woman, either.”

 

Blue’s right hand shot out without thought, connected with a satisfying thud, whipping Coulter backwards across the room. He stepped forward and grabbed the taller man by the shirt, jerking him up and spinning him around with another punch. Dim voices drifted around his ears, dulled by the anger buzzing in his head. Coulter lunged from the floor and slammed his midsection with a fist; the two flew backwards, breaking open the door and tumbling into the hallway.

 

Tossing short, quick jabs at his opponent’s head and chest, Blue rolled down the hallway, tasting blood as his lip split from a punch, blood from his nose with another.  He broke free, regained his feet, shot out a quick left-right, snapping Beau’s head with each blow. He took a punch to the head and slammed against a doorway, righted himself and  ducked one swing, blocking another with his forearm. With a massive uppercut, Blue connected with Beau’s chin, catapulting him over the stairwell.

 

 Beau landed with a crash on a small side table, pieces of wood and china scattering across the floor. Blue vaulted over the divider, leaping on the young man before he could recover, fists flying.

 

Hard blows hammered his hip, spinning Blue around. Victoria brandished a wooden table-leg, peppering the air with rapid Español. She whacked his boots and turned to Beau, screaming, “Animales! Out! Out of my house now!” With that, she clouted young Coulter and chased them to the porch.

 

****

 

Buck Cannon parried, trying to snatch Victoria’s club. Standing between her and the two young men, repeating, “Yes, ma’am. Yes, Victoria,” he attempted again to disarm her. It appeared his nephew’d beat the stuffing out of his future brother-in-law. Blue Boy’s still standing, but Beau-re-garde ain’t gonna win no beauty prizes with the ladies for a while. Looks like Victoria might a broke his leg, too. While continuing to agree with Victoria, he shouted for John and made another grab for the stick. 

 

She jerked it out of reach and shook it at the two young men. “I will not stand for this in my house. Never! Do you understand me?”

 

“What in tarnation is going on here?” Victoria collapsed in her husband’s arms and Buck plucked the weapon from her hands. Demonstrating uncommon sense, Coulter limped into the house just as the cavalry regiment poured into the yard.

 

****

 

In search of John Cannon, Joe Butler had the soldier with the most stripes briskly in tow. Ramrod straight, Lt. Clyde Rawls – “at your service” -- brushed off the small woman’s inquiry about Manolito Montoya.  Without missing cadence, he dismissed her with a firm, “I’ll report to the man in charge.”

 

So much for “at my service.”  Pilar glanced briefly at the other soldiers until she found her mark.  Snatching the rumpled Stetson from her head, she did away with the scarf, and shook her hair loose.  Unbuttoned her blouse as far as she dared, pinched her cheeks and bit her lips.  Weeping copiously, she deftly flung herself at Private Eddy Prince, just seventeen and recovering from his first battle. She cried and pandered; he gulped and talked.

 

“No, m-m-ma’am.  That big arroyo at Sandy Creek, your mister sure didn’t want to cross, but it’s the quickest way. He’d l-l-left the big horse at camp, borrowed a fresh one, but it was smallish-like,” he stammered, eyes wide. She patted his arm, handed him another cup of cool water and smiled encouragingly. “He was ahead of us, smack in the middle of the stream when a wall of water hit him...” Pvt. Prince glanced down and swallowed. “Flash flood. He couldn’t get his horse up the bank.  I’m real sorry. He’s…..”

 

****

 

“Dead?” Victoria sagged against her husband, staring at the Lieutenant. “No, not Manito, he cannot be dead. No, John, it cannot be true.”

 

Blue stepped close to his father and spoke, “Pa? Me an’ Mano both came through a flash flood once before.”  The banks at Sandy Creek are twice as deep and I wasn’t there to pull him out. John shook his head, the tiniest of movements. Mouth working, he turned away from his father and walked quickly toward the barn.

 

Rawls swallowed hard, kept his face impassive. “You have my deepest sympathy, Mrs. Cannon. Your brother was a brave man.” He looked at John Cannon, steadily holding his eyes. “The horse rolled over with him. He was pulled under water, held down by the weight of his horse. There is no doubt on this, he is dead.”

 

Buck stepped forward and spoke tightly, “You listen to me, Mr. Soldier-Man. Mano ain’t so easy to kill.”

 

John put both hands on his wife’s shoulders and spoke gently, “We’d better find Pilar. Victoria, I promise both of you, we’ll find Manolito. We’ll bring him home whether he’s dead or….”

 

****

 

“Alive, Birdie.  My heart would know otherwise.” Pilar hastily filled canteens, stuffed provisions into saddlebags, backed Birdie down with a steely glare, dismissing the tall woman’s protests. “Oh, my word! No, Manolo cannot swim. But Birdie, if he drowned, would I leave his body for the coyotes and javelinas? Absolutely not!” Sweat beading on her face, she insisted, “Mano is alive. Alive, cold, alone and in danger of dying now from hypothermia, wild animals and God knows what else.”

 

Flying through the bedroom, she ransacked armoires and dressers for warm clothes and blankets. “You most certainly are not going with me, Birdie. Just take care of the babies. And stop blocking my way.” The woman stepped aside; Pilar quickly kissed her café au lait cheek, then gave her children a fast peck.  Seizing the gear, she tucked two bottles of good brandy under her arm and dashed to the stable.

 

Weeping honestly this time, she saddled and loaded Macadoo like a pack-mule. Ponying him behind, she rode the black mare briskly for the gate.

 

****

 

Head in hands, Buck slumped on a bench, muttering to himself. “Mano mi amigo, should’a let me go.  What am I supposed to do, compadre? Half the ranch shot to pieces,  Sis drilled by a bullet.” Wiping his nose with a forearm, he continued, voice cracking, “You’s supposed to fetch help, Mano, not get yourself drownded.” He heard a noise and lifted his head, rubbed his forehead fretfully, wetness gleaming underneath his eyes.

 

Blue held Rebel’s reins; the horse was saddled, bedroll secured, saddlebags full, rifle in place. “Uncle Buck, Pilar lit out. I told her there’s Apache around, but she’s saying Mano’s alive and needs blankets.  I couldn’t stop her.”

 

Slapping the bench with his hat, Buck sprang to his feet, spitting his words. “That is the most aggravatin’ female I ever knowed and I’ve knowed plenty.” He grabbed the reins. “Ain’t big enough for her Mano’s probly drownded.  She’s gotta see to it them kids lose their mama on the same day.”  Blue slapped the horse’s rump as Buck galloped out the gate in a cloud of dust, vest flapping in the wind.

 

****

 

Arms around one another, John and Victoria watched the dust cloud left by the departing riders. Fighting fatigue and anguish, Victoria leaned against her husband. “Oh, John. I hope they will find Manolo’s… find him before Pilar and Buck do. She should not have gone; her last memories of him will be so terrible if she arrives first.”

 

He looked down at her tear-stained face and weary eyes, searching for the right words. “Now, Victoria. Wind and Sam are both good trackers. Better than Buck. And your sister-in-law can’t tell one cactus from the next.  If Mano’s out there, the boys’ll be the ones to find him. They’re ten minutes behind, but they’ll make up the distance quick.” Cannon folded her gently into his arms.  Victoria, you need to rest.”

 

She shook her head. “I must tend the wounded, my husband.” An anxious frown creased her forehead. “Especially Rebecca. Her mother and brother will not let her rest. They insist she must leave.”

 

“Is she all right?”

 

She hesitated a moment. “She will recover physically, . But I am so worried about her.  That brother of hers….madre mia!”

 

****

 

Disgusted and cradling her throbbing arm, Rebecca Coulter sat in the shade of the lean-to, gazing at the land she’d come to love. Yesterday’s battle with the Apache was over, but the campaign between Cannons and Coulters escalated to a fever pitch. Her mother and brother insisted she leave Chaparral immediately; she ignored them, unpacking the suitcases they filled with her things.  Victoria was civil until breakfast, then entered the fray with John close behind. Her father was neutral until the Cannons took up arms, then fired his own salvos.

 

Heated voices from the open dining room door drifted to her. “I’m not leaving her here with these barbarians...Madame, this is my home, we are not barbarians...He was gonna marry a dirty Apache…You listen to me, you keep your mouth shut about things you don’t understand…Took him long enough to make up his mind…Cannon, I won’t have you talk to my wife in that tone of voice…John, how can you let these people say such things about your family....My daughter deserves safety at the very least....

 

Safety. Rebecca found safety in dependability.  Growing up, she relied on her parents to keep her safe.  As a grown woman, she depended upon her own fortitude to see her through the rigors of veterinary school and life apart from her family.  During her years at the Chaparral, her heart relied on Blue’s honesty to protect it from hurt.

 

Heck, any girl with a lick of sense sees through roosters like Manolito and Beau, figures pretty words are pretty meaningless.  It’s the Blue Cannons that blind-side you. When they lie, it stings like a snake-bite.  “You’re the only girl I’ve ever loved” my hind leg.   Becca wiped her eyes, wincing at her own stupidity.

 

“Hurts like a branding iron, don’t it?” Blue said, settling beside her.

 

She grimaced. “Sure does.”

 

“Yeah, but it heals up quicker than you think.” Turning toward her, he stroked her hair. “You’ll be good as new in a couple of weeks and your folks’ll calm down. They’re edgy ‘cause they were scared for you. You’re all right and that’s what matters.” She snorted, tension leaping in her shoulders. “What is it, Button?  What’s wrong? You worried about Mano? Becca, don’t you believe he’s dead until they bring him back slung over his saddle. Really, Button, he’ll be back soon talking about how the water was a mile deep.  He’s gonna have some whoppers to tell…”

 

“Yeah, he’ll have some lies.  I guess everybody has lies.” She took a deep breath. “Why didn’t you tell me about Moonfire, Blue?”

 

He ran his fingers through her hair. “Like I said yesterday, it was a long time ago.  I didn’t figure it mattered now.

 

“It mattered enough people around here remember her and it sure matters I got to hear about her from Beau instead of you.”

 

“Oh, c’mon, Becca.  We was talking about Manolito. You think he’s told Pilar about every girl he said he loved?”

 

“Blue, Mano couldn’t remember every girl he said he loved. Besides, I wasn’t planning to marry him.” Becca straightened, frowning at him. “I was planning to marry you and you said I was the only girl you ever loved. Is that true or not?”

 

“Sure, it’s true, Button.”

 

“You were gonna marry Moonfire, but you didn’t love her?  Is that it?”

 

Blue smiled at her, answered, “No, that’s not it.  I loved her, but not like I love you.”

 

From the edge of the bunkhouse, Joe Butler could hear snatches of heated words.  Blue’s voice grew louder by the minute, Becca’s volume matching his. “…No wife of mine is gonna work around a bunch of saddle tramps…What am I supposed to do, sit home and knit…You could ‘a got killed… Not you, that’s for sure…Wife’s supposed to stay home, not chase around half the territory…I’m not Victoria…You sure ain’t…”  Joe ducked inside, motioned quickly to Reno and Pedro. The three settled themselves casually on the porch, listening intently as the battle raged.

 

Rebecca stood at the edge of the summer kitchen, one hand on her hip, injured arm clamped tightly against her chest. Blue paced angrily, swung his arms in frustration and pointed at her, shouting, “If you can’t trust me, then you can ride out the gate and not look back!”

 

Rebecca gasped, her good hand flying to her cheek as if slapped. “I guess I can.” She spun away and was gone.

 

On the bunkhouse porch, Joe mused aloud, “I always thought Blue’d shoot himself in the foot some day. Never figured he’d forget to use a gun.” The three watchers ambled into the bunkhouse, slamming the door on the suddenly quiet compound.

 

****

 

In the barn, the little veterinarian slammed gear into a small trunk. She jerked bottles and jars off a small shelf, tossed the last items into the case. Slapping the lid shut, she sat heavily on top, rested her head in her hands and rubbed her eyes. Ride out the gate. Said that easy as he said I was the only one he’d ever loved. Reckon he’ll tell that to the next one, too. She raised her head at the squeak of the door opening; her boss’s bulk filled the frame.

 

“You don’t seem so anxious to leave.”

 

She rose and walked dully toward him. “I never wanted to leave here, John. Blue…”

 

Cannon put a hand on her shoulder and answered kindly, “Rebecca, my son isn’t perfect, but there’s something I want you to consider. Neither is life. You’ve never been afraid of hard work or hard answers. Life is full of both. Whatever Blue said, I know he loves you.” She started to answer and he stopped her, continuing, “No, you do what you have to do, but I want you to promise me something. Don’t make any decisions once you get home. Give this some time.”

 

Shaking her head, she answered, “I’ve given him nothing but time.” She scrubbed a hand across her face and blew out a breath. “Mama says it shouldn’t be this hard.”

 

“I think your mother is wrong. You have to decide what you want, pick your piece of ground and stand or fall on it.”

 

“I’ve got my pride.”

 

Big John tilted his head and frowned. “Pride won’t buy you much happiness. It only pays for more pride.”

 

****

 

Like Apaches, comancheros, and drunken ranch hands, Blue Cannon knew the place to watch all comings and goings was the small hill just outside the Chaparral compound. On that hill, he ground-tied his horse and rested on his heels, chewing a stalk of sage. The Coulter wagon was loaded, two horses saddled. Bob and Sarah boarded, Beau mounted. Heart pounding, Blue stared at the second horse, riderless. Don’t go, Becca. Please, Button, this don’t make sense for beans. Don’t go, please, Dear Lord, don’t let her go.

 

Victoria’s words came to him as he watched, “Blue, if you love her you must go to her. Ask her to stay.” When he refused and her frustration grew she shouted as she left, “Pride or machismo, one will be the death of every man I know.”

 

When the petite, brown-haired girl exited the house, he got to his feet. He bit his lip as she approached her horse and paused. As she scanned the compound, he realized he’d stopped breathing. She mounted and the party pulled out the gate, taking the Tucson road. Still within sight of the ranch, Rebecca turned her horse and stood in the stirrups, searching the valley from east to west.

 

Blue sprang into the saddle and impatiently urged Soapy down the steep slope. He glanced up as Becca wheeled and rejoined her family. Drooping, he reined his mount, regarding the group as they rounded the bend and disappeared. He turned the horse uphill, slapping its rump with his hat. “Haw!” He returned to the ranch three days later.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…