Pride Goeth

By Penny

 

 

***Warning: Includes a romance for a major character***

 

1

 

“Riders coming.” 

 

On a working ranch in the isolation of the Arizona desert, those words stop you.  You drop the hammer, wagon wheel, hoe, paintbrush, lasso.  You drop the front legs of your chair and push your hat out of your eyes.  You thumb the thong off your holstered pistol and make sure your rifle is close.  Your head swivels without thought to the front gate and your eyes scan the desert, squinting through the shimmers of heat and dust devils. If the shapes are familiar you pick up the hammer, wagon wheel, lasso.  You pull the brim of your hat over your eyes and tilt your chair back against the wall. 

 

If the shapes riding toward you out of the dust and the heat and the haze are unfamiliar, bulky unknowns on horse and a covered wagon, you keep your hand on your pistol and edge toward the gate.  This land allows only one mistake; it pays to play a cautious hand.

 

“Riders coming.”

 

John Cannon stood inside the compound of the High Chaparral and watched as riders entered the gate.  They appeared to be a family.  The youngest son wasn’t fully-grown, sporting a sparse beard just beginning to come in at his chin and upper lip. The older son wore a black mustache and an expression as lifeless as any cow in the Cannon herd.  His shoulders looked powerful as a steer. The driver of the wagon was squarely built, bearded and bulky. He smiled widely but it stopped before reaching his eyes.

 

“Good morning. Welcome to High Chaparral. I’m John Cannon.”  The older son looked him up and down, and John began a silent count.  I don’t like the looks of you, and you’ve got exactly 10 seconds before I run you off my place.

 

At the count of 7, the father spoke in a hearty voice. “Why that’s mighty friendly of you, Stretch.  Me and the boys are feeling a little dry and could use a light and a drink.”

 

“The name’s John Cannon.  There’s a trough and a well you’re welcome to use, but first I’d like your name and to know what you’re doing on High Chaparral land.”

 

The man looked at his two sons; they snickered together at some private joke. “Why, we’re settlers, John Cannon.  Headed for California. We’re just passing through on our way.”

 

Big John Cannon planted his feet and stared at the strangers. “I asked for your name.”

 

Leaning against the bunkhouse and watching closely, Blue Cannon studied details of the three visitors. He could sense his father’s unease, and he’d noticed the wagon bouncing lightly as it pulled through the gate. The outside was clean, no bundles, sacks or boxes tied in place, no extra baggage attached to the undercarriage.  Mano, you notice that wagon? Any mover’s wagon I ever seen was loaded down for bear.  That one don’t look right to me.”

 

Buck Cannon’s face was stony and his eyes hard as he watched the men at the gate.  “No, Blue Boy, it don’t look right a-tall. I bet there ain’t enough in that wagon to get them from here to Sonora, let alone California.”

 

Manolito Montoya leaned against a porch support, idly chewing on a piece of straw. “If they are settling land, where are the women?  They cannot pioneer without wives, without children.”  He watched for a moment longer. “This smells very bad to me, Compadres.”    

 

The driver of the wagon dismounted and approached John, hand extended.  “Apologies, friend, we’re off on the wrong foot.  Name’s Scott Wade.  These are my boys, Bull and Jake.” The two men shook hands as he continued. “I’d like to water our horses, maybe lay in some supplies. I hear there’s a horse doctor here, that mare needs looked at.” 

 

Buck folded his arms and frowned.  “Old John will let those snakes in, sure enough. Let ‘em water up, stock up, give ‘em the damn keys to the ranchero before he’s done. Blue, ain’t no way for you to git a look inside that wagon, is there?” 

 

Blue glanced at his uncle, shook his head, face sullen. “There ain’t no cover. Unless they leave it I can’t get to it.”

 

Manolito tossed the straw to the ground and rested a hand on his pistol.  Amigos, sometimes snakes crawl away, sometimes they build a den. For now we watch.”

 

 Rebecca Coulter, the Chaparral contract veterinarian, exited from the depths of the barn. After the darkness inside the sunshine was dazzling and she held up an arm to shield her eyes as they adjusted to the glare.  She could see the outline of the wagon and riders at the gate, but not clearly.

 

Wade stopped mid-sentence when he noticed the young vet.  John, seeing his gaze, looked over his shoulder  That’s the veterinarian you wanted.  Becca!” 

 

Scott Wade smiled again, hard and cold. He spread his arms wide in a welcoming gesture. “Oh, I know who that is.” He began to walk toward the barn. “Rebecca, my sweet Rebecca,” he called. To John’s amazement as he reached the girl he enveloped her in a bear hug and kissed her loudly.

 

“Hold on, Blue Boy.” Buck gripped his nephew’s arm and held him back. Blue fought to rush to the barn, his hands balled into fists. Mano held his other side.

 

“Let me go, Buck.” His voice was low, determined, teeth clenched. “I’m going over there.”  He wrestled his arm out of his uncle’s grasp.

 

“No you ain’t, Blue. Take a look.  Appears he knows her.”  At the barn Rebecca had extricated herself from Wade’s embrace and was performing introductions to John Cannon.  She looked surprised but not uneasy, certainly not like someone who had been attacked.  Buck exchanged glances with Mano.  Whatddaya make of that?” 

 

“Apparently they are acquaintances. But I think these hombres should be careful. I would not be so quick to embrace La Veterinaria.” He rubbed the scar on his stomach absently and shrugged. “If they are known to her perhaps we are being overly cautious, eh Amigo? Big John does not seem concerned.”

 

“Big John ain’t concerned ‘bout a lot of things.”  He began to relax as the group moved to the water trough. John continued in conversation with the visitors as they began watering their horses and the vet examined the animals. “Looks like they’s gonna tend to business and move along. Could be they came to see our little horse doc.”

 

Blue snorted in disgust and Manolito looked from him to his uncle. A wicked smile spread across his sharp features.  Laughing, he tapped the older Cannon on the forearm. “So tell me, Buck, is it true that Blue discovered you and our lovely horse doctor in the very act?”

 

He glared at Mano, annoyed. His brother’s fancy pants dinner party went south when Little Sis went overboard tasting Pilar’s recipes – heavy on the wine and bourbon. Pili’s idea of before-dinner drinks had tasted good to Buck, smooth as silk with a wallop like a bucking bronc. He tried riding to the rescue when the drunken vet fell underneath the table. He still wasn’t sure just how he’d managed to make a very bad situation worse; his head was hurting pretty good when John did most of the yelling. He wasn’t clear on details, but the upshot was, Blue discovered the two of them asleep on the same pile of hay the following morning. A morning that included a hangover so spectacular he could still feel it somewhere back of his eyeballs. The subject was a sore one between nephew and uncle, and Buck had taken considerable ribbing over the whole incident from the other hands. “There weren’t no act, Mano and you know it. What there was, was sleepin’ off enough of your wife’s hard liquor to kill a horse.”

 

Manolito’s face registered shock. “Now that is strange, Compadre. That is not at all the story I have heard from the bunkhouse. Blue, perhaps you can provide me with a first hand account of the tale?”

 

Blue spun on a heel and stalked off. Manolito gave Buck an amused smile. “It appears the youngest Cannon is still out of sorts, Amigo. Since your brother is also annoyed with you, at least your life is consistent.”

 

Buck looked ready to chew nails. “Mano, there is days I think you should be spendin’ more time in church and less out of doors. Com-pad-ray.”  He adjusted his hat and stalked after Blue.

 

Buck entered the relative coolness of the barn, glad to be out of the sun. Blue was cleaning out a stall, biting the inside of his lip, swinging the pitchfork steadily back and forth without stopping to acknowledge the other man’s presence. Buck leaned against the rail and watched. They’s days I wish he was a young’un again, problems was simpler. We ain’t never had nothing stand between us, but I got to face it, he ain’t my little Blue Button no more. He ain’t looking at playin’ house, neither.  Gal like Sis, man is looking at a wife and family.  Buck scrubbed a hand across his face. Mebbe I was stupid, but I never gave no thought to him beingrowed enough to not need me.

 

“Blue Boy, you tryin’ to drown in your own sweat?”

 

Blue stopped, leaned on the handle. His shirt was dark with sweat, hair damp and plastered to his head. “Am I bothering you, Buck?”

 

“Never bothered me watchin’ another man work. Why?”

 

“Cause you always said, don’t interfere with something that ain’t bothering you none.” Blue turned his back and kept working.

 

“Blue, you been touchy as a rattlesnake and jist ‘bout as poison mean. You gonna stand there with yore big ugly face hangin’ out and tell me you think I’d back shoot you?  I am your blooded uncle, Blue Boy, I spent most of my life raisin’ you and I never aimed to raise you stupid. But if you think I’d back shoot you with that little Becca gal, then I reckon you is jist plain donkey stupid.” Blue stopped working, stood still and listened. Buck removed his hat, smacked his leg with it in frustration. Ain’t anything more hard headed than a man thinks he’s in love and Lord knows he’s stubborn enough to start with.Mebbe you think you’re bein’ tough. But you ain’t, Blue. You’re jist miserable.”

 

Blue threw the pitchfork across the stall; it clattered against the rails, bounced against the straw and dirt on the ground. He stalked to the corner and sat on a hay bale, head propped in his hands. He was the picture of misery and frustration. “Leave me alone, Buck.”

 

Buck entered the stall and sat with his nephew, draping an arm across his shoulders, shaking him slightly.  Cain’t do it, Blue Button. Not ‘til we make this right.”

 

Blue sighed and raised his head. “You ain’t gonna leave me alone, are you?”

 

“No, Blue, I surely ain’t.”

 

“I ain’t mad at you, Uncle Buck. I mean, I was to start with, but I know you’re right.”

 

Iffen you ain’t mad at me, what’s wrong with you? You ain’t fit to be around.”

 

Blue chewed his lip, glanced at his uncle and shook his head. “It’s Becca.” He rubbed his face, looked at the toes of his boots. “I guess I need some help.”

 

John Cannon sat at his desk, going over ledgers, orders, and herd counts.  He sighed with irritation and looked out the window.  Paperwork was his least favorite part of running a ranch, but it had to be done.  He turned wearily back to the work as a knock sounded on the door. The interruption was a relief. “Come in.”

 

Rebecca Coulter entered.  “They just pulled out. You wanted to see me? “ 

 

John crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “This Scott Wade bunch. They’re friends of yours from home? How well do you know them?”

 

Rebecca looked out the window and frowned. “Well enough. I knew Scott’s wife, but I never thought much of him.” Star was a good woman, kept him on a leash as long as she was alive. “She died three years ago, some folks thought maybe he helped it along.” She turned to Big John. “Problem is, I can’t put a handle on anything specific. He’s never done anything illegal I knew of.  Never had much.” She shrugged. “He drinks too much and talks too loud. Assumes too much. I don’t like him.“

 

John tilted his head and sighed. “Well now, Becca, that sounds like lots of people I could name. Is there something you’re not telling me?”

 

She bit her lip. He never misses a chance to put a hand on me. I never cut if off because of Star, but she’s dead and the next time he’s going to need help feeding himself.  “He’s not a man I’d turn my back on, but I can’t say why.” She shook her head. “They’re passing through, probably harmless. I’d lock up the silver just to be safe.”

 

John nodded. “I told them they could camp on Chaparral land for a couple of days. Think I’ll send Buck out this afternoon to check on them. I expect I’ll want to be sure they move along.”

 

She nodded in agreement and turned to leave, turning back at the door. “John? Tell Buck to be careful.”

 

John barked a short, hard laugh. “Not that you’d know it to look at him, but my brother is always careful. Otherwise he’d have been dead a dozen times over.” He turned back to his paperwork as Rebecca left the room. The day hasn’t come that Buck can’t handle three sorry-assed movers. He made a mental note to send his brother out and dismissed the problem from his mind.

 

You can tell a lot about people by the condition of their campsite. Working cowboys are worse than maiden aunts about a camp; bedding is rolled, trash is cleaned, firewood stacked in precise bundles. Often the worst offender in personal habits will keep the cleanest camp.

 

The campsite was a likely place, high enough on a pass to be tucked into trees and next to a stream of water. It was defensible, with a rock wall at the back. The covered wagon was pulled close in to the rock face, next to a bend in the stream.  Sacks and boxes from inside the wagon were piled haphazardly. Food scraps, half-gnawed bones littered the ground, dirty dishes surrounded the burned out campfire, and firewood was piled in rough stacks. Sleeping blankets were bundled in misshapen lumps.

 

One of the lumps stirred as Scott Wade prodded it with a toe. “Get your ass up, Bull. We got plans to make.” He poured cold coffee as both sons stretched and yawned.  “Jake, you got those guns ready?”  The younger son pulled a tarp from a wooden box. Older model handguns and rifles were thrown in a heap. Rust, dirt, and pits showed on the barrels and stocks.

 

Bull cracked knuckles on a massive hand. “We meetin those redskins today? I’m gettin’ tired of this place.”

 

“You can get untired. Those horses we’re trading for ain’t getting us rich.” Wade tossed the dregs of his coffee on the ground. “But I got a plan. Did you see the ranch that little Coulter girl fell into?  Looks like pure money to me.  All I got to figure out is, how to liberate it.”

 

The sound of hooves and a shouted greeting sent the men scrambling for their guns.  “Hullo the camp.” A squarely built figure on horseback waited just outside range. “Got any coffee?”

 

Jake Wade spoke to his father in a low voice. “I can hit him from here, Pa.” He began to level his gun on the visitor.

 

Wade slapped his hand down and away, answering in a similar low tone. “Don’t be an idiot. We don’t know who that is or what he wants. Both of you, put on your best stupid expression and let me do the talking. Get those guns out of sight but keep them handy.” He turned to face the visitor and waved. “Howdy stranger. We got cold coffee and a cold fire, but you’re welcome to both.”

 

Buck Cannon urged his horse closer to the camp, then dismounted and entered. He kicked camp debris away from the side of the cold campfire and knelt on one knee. “Nice little campsite you got here.” He eyed the site, taking in the disorder and trash. “Planning on staying long?” He picked up the coffee pot, swished the contents, poured a cup.

 

Wade laughed heartily. “Well, stranger, I reckon that all depends. Seems to me this is a mighty rich land, for the right person. Could be we might be staying for a while. It all depends on what the good Lord provides.” He watched Buck closely.

 

Buck kept his eyes on Wade and his sons as he lifted the metal cup to his lips. He drank, grimaced, and deliberately poured the coffee on the ground “That comes as close to panther piss as I believe I’ve ever tasted.” He stood slowly. “Well, Mister, this may be rich land, but it’s also Cannon land, and if I was you, I wouldn’t be stoppin’. That is, if I wanted to keep my hide all in one piece.”

 

Wade’s eyes were hard and flat and the heartiness had left his voice. “Like I said, that all depends on what the good Lord provides. A good Christian doesn’t question the workings of God.”

 

Buck took a step toward him, hand resting lightly on his pistol. “Maybe so, Mr. Wade. But I ain’t exactly a good Christian.” His gun sprang to life, quicker than thought, quicker than the eye could follow. It was pointed straight for Wade’s heart. “I’d drop that gun, son. Unless you want me to blow a hole as wide as a barn door in your Daddy’s chest.” His voice was calm; he might have been discussing the weather.

 

Jake and Bull were caught with their pistols half drawn. Wade’s voice was tight as he gestured slowly to them. “Do what he says.”

 

Buck disarmed all three men and turned to leave. “I’ll leave your guns about a mile down the trail. I’ll be back in two days, Mr. Wade. I think the outlook for your health would be better if you were off High Chaparral land by then.”

 

In the dark of night on a ranch many things are possible. Coyotes cross the fence line that separates tame from wild. Mice scurry across the barn floor to raid stores of grain. Cowboys in need withdraw hidden bottles, quietly gather around secluded bunkhouse tables, and discuss matters of deep importance.

 

Buck took another swig from the bottle of whiskey and passed it to Joe. “Blue Boy, they’s lots of theories ‘bout  handlin women. Near as I kin tell, none of ‘em works.”

 

Joe Butler drank deeply, wiped his mouth, and nodded. “So let me get this straight. She’s been here a year. With you. Am I missing something?”  He handed the bottle to Blue, who drank again and eyed his companions owlishly.

 

Buck patted Joe’s arm companionably. “Thas right, Joe, thas right. The problem is, there ain’t no action goin’ on, you get me?”

 

Manolito laughed delightedly and sipped from the bottle. Compadre, wooing a woman is a delicate thing. She must know your heart weeps with joy when you look at her. So first you must look at her, not the toes of your boots, verdad?” He clapped the young Cannon on his shoulder heartily. “When you look at her, amigo, tell her she is the sun and moon to you, the most beautiful woman in the world and you cannot live without her.”

 

Blue hiccoughed softly. “That worked for you with Becca, did it Mano?”

 

Chuckling, Mano raised his hands to quiet the chorus of laughs and hoots. Claro que si, Blue, you are right.  Pretty words are not always effective.  To prompt my Pilar into a kiss, I only held her hands and asked her to be my wife.” He reached across the table to tap Joe Butler playfully. “Joe was probably spying; he can verify my tactics were extremely successful.  Now, Blue.  Since we know this worked for me,

I think you should take Rebecca's hands in yours, mi amigo.  Look deeply into her eyes. Then tell her you want to marry Pilar.”  When the guffaws died down, Mano shook his head and spoke again, more softly.  “Ah, Blue. If you know what you want, why do you push it away with both hands?” He passed the bottle to Joe.

 

Joe drank, shook his head, handed the bottle off to Buck. “Blue, you think you might grow a pair, or you gonna keep mooning around like a lovesick cow? If you don’t kiss that girl, I will.”

 

Buck draped an arm across Blue’s shoulders and patted his cheek affectionately.  “Blue, I know you is mule stubborn and prideful, but it ain’t buying you much fun, now is it?  God gave you two feet, might be you should give some thought to takin’ a step.”

 

Blue drained the last of the bottle, swayed slightly, pointing a finger randomly around the table. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, sat blinking.  Manolito touched his shoulder with one finger and pushed lightly.  The younger man toppled off his seat into a heap on the floor. Mano looked at his companions and smiled. “Li de di de di de di”, he sang as he rose and headed for the door. “Compadres, it has been a most enjoyable evening. My heart breaks as I now must leave you so that I may enjoy the many pleasures of married life.” He removed his hat and bowed slightly. “ I will carry your greetings to my lovely Pilar.”

 

Buck glanced at Joe, who held out his hands and shook his head. “Don’t look at me, that kid’s a lot heavier than he looks.”  He pushed himself from the table and followed Mano out the door rapidly.

 

Buck grinned at his nephew, snoring quietly on the floor. Well, Blue Boy, looks like you can still count on yore Uncle Buck. He hefted Blue to his shoulder, wrestled him into a free bunk and removed his boots. He smoothed the hair back from his forehead and looked into his face. Yore my boy, Blue. Reckon you always will be, one way or the other. Though it beats me how you can have my blood flowin’ through yore veins and be so slow on the giddy up. Grinning and shaking his head, he leaned to kiss the boy lightly on the forehead. Buck collapsed into a bunk and was snoring loudly within five minutes.

 

 

2

 

Mornings bring dawn with the promise of new beginnings. Brave matters discussed at midnight must now be applied in the light of day.  Morning is a time to make sense of the ideas spoken from the depths of a half-empty whiskey bottle.

 

Blue Cannon walked toward the corral where Rebecca was saddling her horse. His head hurt, soaking it in the water barrel hadn’t helped. As he reached the edge of the barn, he saw Joe, Buck, and Mano waiting in the shadows. They were waving, grinning, urging him toward the corral. Just what I wanted. An audience. He stopped and waved them off. “Go away!”

 

They continued to urge him toward his goal. Buck called in a low whisper, “Go get her, Blue Boy!”

 

He waved frantically one last time. Git!” They waved back happily. Story of my life, I can’t get five minute’s peace. Angry, frustrated, he ignored them and continued to the corral, fuming. Gotta think what they said to do. Mano had good ideas if I can just remember.

 

Becca looked up as he entered and smiled.  “Morning, Blue. I’m headed up to Big Pond today, you want to go with me?”

 

Looking at her standing in front of him, he was struck by what a small, tough package she was. Her brown hair was cut short for practicality; it hung below her collar and curled around her face in wisps where it escaped from her hat. Brown eyes, face and hands tanned from work in the sun, she went about her work with a single mindedness that was soothing to watch. She was familiar, comforting, and he felt the frustration and tension drain out of him as he agreed to spend the day with her.  Being with her even makes my head feel better.  They chatted comfortably about the day’s work as he caught and saddled Soapy. He was feeling pleased with himself as Becca walked to the far corner of the corral.  All seemed right until Buck’s head popped around the corner and hissed at him like a snake. “Blue. Go on. You ain’t there to talk about vet work.”

 

Blue looked at Becca and scuffed his boots in the dirt. Dammit, Mano said to stop looking at my boot toes. His face felt hot, he opened his mouth but words wouldn’t come out so he swallowed hard. Here goes nothing. “Uh, Becca?  Did I ever tell you, your hair looks just like moonshine?  And, uh, when I look at you I could die?” Sounded different when Mano said it.

 

Rebecca stopped her work and stared at him. “My hair? Moonshine?” She was frowning slightly. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Uh, maybe I meant your face looks like the sun?” Blue could hear rustling sounds from the side of the barn, faint murmurs of choked and muffled laughter. He glared over his shoulder at the barn siding.  If you jackasses can do better get yourself out here and say it.  He looked at Becca, put his hands in his pockets, took them out again. “Never mind, it was something Mano said.”

 

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t put much stock in anything Mano said.”

 

He took a deep breath, stepped closer, took her hand, stood looking at her for a moment. “Do you remember the first time we met?” She smiled and nodded. “I remember your hair was longer, you had a blue ribbon tied in it.  You were wearing a blue dress.  I walked into that classroom, didn’t know a soul. You were clear across the room, I looked at you and thought if there was anyone I wanted to know, it was you.”

 

She smiled up at him and he felt tight in his chest. It was those smiles that made her dazzle in his eyes.  “You asked me if you were in the right place, you thought you were lost.”

 

He shook his head. “I wasn’t lost, I had to talk to you. That was the only thing I could think of.” He laughed. “I never told you that, did I?” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed it, touched her hair with his other hand. “Your hair’s short now but it’s just as pretty. When I look at you now I feel the same, like I have to walk across what’s between us and be with you.” 

 

She spread her fingers across his cheek, brushed them across his lips.  “There’s a reason I came to High Chaparral, Blue, it doesn’t have much to do with treating cows and horses.”

 

He pulled her closer, lowered his mouth to hers.

 

“BLUE!”

 

Blue whipped his head around at his father’s voice. Big John was striding purposefully toward the corral.  Blue cursed, colorful working cowboy phrases strung one after the other, then caught himself and looked at Becca in frustration. “I swear I don’t plan it this way.”

 

She was grinning widely. “Tell him you’re going with me today. Just you and me. Not even Big John can yell clear to Big Pond.”

 

A Chiricahua rider presents a different silhouette to an alert sentry. The differences are subtle but distinct. No hat or boots, long sleek hair.  Blanket without a saddle. The outline is cleaner and less bulky. He may appear out of nowhere and disappear again just as quickly. If he is seen approaching the ranch, it is because he chooses to be seen, not because of the skill of the watcher.

 

“Apache!” 

 

John Cannon eyed the front gate uneasily as the Indian entered the compound. “What do you make of this, Mano?”

 

“He is carrying a war lance. We must listen and speak carefully.”  He stepped forward, conversed briefly with the brave, spoke to John and Buck without turning his head. “He comes from Cochise to retrieve the horses that were stolen from them.”

 

Buck’s face was grave. “Horses? We ain’t got no Injun horses.”

 

Manolito held up a hand to silence his friend as the warrior continued to talk. “He says three white men traded with them for guns, very bad, old guns. After trading, the Comancheros stole horses from the Apache. Cochise believes these are High Chaparral men, since they came from here yesterday.” He listened, shook his head, and looked at John. “Cochise has respect for you as an honest man. He asks you to return the stolen horses.”

 

Buck muttered darkly. “That Wade bunch. I knew we should’ve run ‘em off the place. They’s bad news on horseback.”

 

Mano, tell him these are not my men, we don’t have their horses.”

 

Mano spoke, and listened to the guttural speech. “He says it does not matter. The horses must be returned. They will hunt down the three white men and kill them, then take back the horses.”  

 

The Apache brave stabbed the war lance into the dirt at their feet, wheeled his pony and rode through the gate, melting into the desert like smoke. The lance quivered in the air, feathers and ribbons fluttering in the breeze. The three men continued to stare, straining to see some hint of the rider in the landscape.

 

“Rider coming.”

 

John looked up at the sentry, shading his eyes. “Apache again?”

 

Reno shook his head. “No, Boss. Looks like one of ours.” 

 

Buck stepped toward the gate, shading his eyes, pointing. “There, John.” The rider came at full tilt, pushing the horse into a hard gallop. “Hells bells, it’s Becca.”

 

She was shouting as she entered the compound, dismounting before her horse barely halted. Her clothes were dirty; a smear of blood marked her forehead. “Wade took Blue, John! Jumped us just outside the ranch. Said you’ve got twenty-four hours to deliver ten-thousand dollars or they’ll kill him.” Her eyes were wild

 

Buck pushed his way past his brother as Victoria ran from the porch to her husband’s side. “John? We cannot count the cost, they have Blue.” There were tears in her eyes as she turned to Rebecca. “You know these men. Can they be trusted?”

 

Buck grabbed Becca’s shoulders, shook her once, hard. “Did they hurt my boy?” His face was hard, anguished.

 

She put her hands on his wrists, shook her head. “He’s okay, Buck. They tied him up, didn’t hurt him.” She looked at Victoria and John. “Wade thinks you’ve got that much money here at the ranch.”

 

Big John put an arm around Victoria and drew her close. “It would take weeks to come up with that much money. By then the Apaches will have killed them all.” Becca looked confused and he quickly explained. “Buck, get Sam and Joe. Mano, you’re going with us. We’ve got to get to them before Cochise’s party does.”

 

John strode purposefully for the corral, Buck and Manolito beside him. Becca followed and John turned back. “Where do you think you’re going? Get in the house and let Victoria take a look at your head.”

 

Rebecca never stopped. “I’m going with you. I know Wade. I can help. I’ll take you right where they jumped us.”

 

John turned to face her. “I said no and I don’t have time to argue. You aren’t going.“ He pointed to Victoria. “Now get in the house.”

 

Becca took two steps toward him. “I said I’m going with you, John Cannon.” She wiped a forearm across her face, leaving a smear of blood and dirt.  “People come to High Chaparral and see money, power, land, cattle.  They see what this place can give them or what they can take from it.  I came here and saw Blue.  That’s all, not your fine house or pretty horses.  Just Blue. That’s all High Chaparral is to me.” She took a deep breath then walked even closer to Big John, tilting her head to look him in the face.  “I can ride and shoot as well as any man in this outfit and you know it. Maybe you don’t know the only way I’m staying behind is if you tie me up and leave me.”

 

 The tall man and the tiny woman stared at each other, jaws clenched, hands on hips, neither moving. The afternoon air was quiet enough to carry sound clearly, the creaking of the windmill could be heard as they stood, matching eye for eye, not speaking. John’s eyes glittered and Becca’s were hard flat coals.

 

Big John raised an eyebrow and nodded once. “Saddle a fresh horse.”

 

The landscape of the desert looks featureless. Hard rock, sand, mesquite, cactus. The passage of a rider leaves little sign on the barren ground. There are no twigs to break on full, leafy branches. No muddy creek bank to receive the imprint of a hoof.  The sun, wind, and sand seem to swallow those who cross it, erasing all signs of passage. I am the great devourer, the desert says. I was here before you. I will be here after.

 

Those who cross leave a trail for those with the wit and wisdom to follow it. Horsehair catches on scrub and cactus spine. Mesquite and chaparral bend and break, leaving a pattern behind to decipher. Hooves and wheels disturb the dirt and rock of the ground. If the merciless wind cooperates, if the tracker is savvy in the ways of the desert, if the trail does not grow cold, if the hunted are lazy or unaware, a man may follow a trail through the wildest and roughest Arizona landscape.

 

Manolito and Buck cast about in a widening circle.  They had led the riders this far and lost the trail, all tracks and signs of passage ending abruptly. Leaving their horses with the group, they walked carefully, increasing their search area with each pass, studying the ground and landscape intently. Mano knelt, peering closely at a bush.

 

“You got something Mano?” Buck was sweating heavily as he jogged to join his friend. Manolito shook his head and Buck removed his hat, rubbing his eyes as his shoulders sagged. “I keep thinkin’, what if this is the time?  I pulled him outa all kinds of scrapes, one after the other. What if this is the time I cain’t get it done?” He dropped his hand and stared into the distance, his eyes bleak.

 

Mano placed a hand on his shoulder. “Buck, mi Amigo, calma. We will find them.” He looked over his shoulder, dusted his hands and stood. “The trail has disappeared, si? So we must be smarter than these comancheros. I know we are not bad men, compadre, but let us pretend for a moment. If we were bad men, which way would we go from this place, eh?” 

 

Buck stood, replacing his hat, turning a circle, surveying the options. “They been headed South-East. If they keep to that, they’ll likely turn up along Galena Springs.” He glared around him. “It’s a crap shoot, Amigo. We kin high tail it for Galena, hope we pick up the trail. If we guess wrong, Blue Boy’s gonna pay a mighty high price.”

 

Mano nodded, his face serious. Si, mi Amigo. We can continue searching here, but every minute we spend they are taking Blue further away.” He shook his head. “My heart tells me to ride, muchacho. But this is not my heart, it is Blue. You decide.”

 

Buck stared southward; the lines in his face etched deep, muscles in his jaw line twitching. He looked back at the High Chaparral riders, his brother waiting at the front of the group. Where are you, Blue Boy? “We’re burning daylight, Mano. Let’s ride.”

 

There are areas in the great Southwest where rocks break out of sand like immense sailing ships, rock and dirt a distinct red color that is unlike any other. The rock was formed eons ago from a great inland sea, mud and silt piled the bodies of dead and dying creatures one on top of the other in layers. The red rock shows those layers still, ribbons of varying texture and hue stacked each upon the other, every layer representing a hundred or so years of silt compressing into hard, packed rock.

 

Red rock country is harsh and beautiful, the land a jigsaw puzzle of mesa, canyon, trail, and arroyo. Small springs and sinks provide water for game with little ground cover. Only the massive rock formations, rust red as dried blood.

 

The Chaparral riders halted at the entrance to a rock canyon.  Wisps of smoke trailed from behind the red rock face.  Buck shifted his horse, laid a hand on his brother’s arm and pointed silently at the smoke.  John nodded sharply.  “I can go in ahead, careful-like, John, see if I can scout them out.  Could be they’ve got no watch posted. If it’s Wade, might be I can pick a few off, better our odds of taking them. ”

 

“I don’t like it, Buck. If they’re watching there’s a good chance they either start shooting or wind up with you and Blue both hostage.  You know as well as I do, if shooting starts, Blue’s the first one to die. “

 

“Well then, how you want to play this, Big John?  They got Blue in there, we just gonna stand here jawing all day waiting while they cut him up for fish bait? Mano, what you think, you and me sneak in there, spring Blue loose?” 

 

Manolito studied the entrance into the rocks, worry etched on his face.  “Amigo, if you go in, I will follow you.  But I think it is not a good chance.  This is a blind canyon and the walls are very steep, there is little cover for an approach.  We will be seen as soon as we enter.”  He moved his horse closer to Buck and looked closely at the two brothers. “If we enter it will be for a fight to the death.”

 

Buck’s face was a hard mask as he pulled his rifle and dismounted. “They’ve got my boy. I’m going after him.”

 

John left his horse and stood in front of his brother, blocking his way. “Dammit Buck, there has to be a way to resolve this without a bloodbath.” Mano left his saddle and crossed the hard red rock, standing closely by the two men.

 

“Wait.”  Rebecca left her horse and walked from the group of hands, a saddlebag slung over one shoulder. “I know Scott Wade, if I walk in there unarmed, he won’t hurt me.” She stripped off her gun belt as she talked and handed it to Manolito. “I’ll keep him talking until I can get Blue out.”

 

Big John answered firmly in a tone that left no room for argument. “Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous, and they’ll have both of you. I won’t allow it.”

 

Buck touched his brother’s arm. “John, you got a better idea? Seems to me we’re getting nowhere fast.” He turned to the young vet, frowning. “So, Sis. You figure you gonna waltz into that camp with no guns, sit and talk a spell, then you and Blue gonna waltz back out again?” 

 

Becca shifted the saddlebag on her shoulder; it was growing heavy and the afternoon was hot.  She pushed back her hat and nodded. “Something like that.”

 

Scott Wade looked around the camp and reflected on a days worth of good work. His eyes fell on the heir to the High Chaparral, bound and gagged by the wagon.  With the ransom letter delivered it was only a matter of time before the money was in their hands and they were on their way out of the territory, ten thousand dollars richer.  And if not, well, he had left better men in his path.  Killing this one wouldn’t make a dent in his conscience.

 

Wade filled a cup with water from a canteen and took it to their captive. Kneeling to look him eye to eye, he loosened the gag and offered him a drink. Hesitating, suspicious at first, Blue gave in to his thirst and drank.  Wade filled the cup again and gave him a second drink.  The young Cannon eyed him through bright blue eyes. “Thank you.” He bit the inside of his lip. “You know my Pa and Uncle Buck will come looking for me. They won’t ever give up, even if I’m dead.  It’d be easier on you if you just let me go now.”  Wade could see the certainty of truth in his eyes. 

 

Wade smiled happily at the young man.  On another man it would have been a pleasant smile, but on Wade it was chilling.  The smile never reached his eyes. “Here’s the thing, son. I agree with you. I figure your Pa values your skin pretty highly, since you’re his only begotten son. I made him a very fair offer.  All he has to do is bring me ten thousand by tomorrow morning, and he gets you back, safe and sound.  It’s a simple business transaction.”

 

Blue’s mouth worked in surprise, he doubted there was that much money to be had in Tucson, let alone raised that quickly. He swallowed the dry lump that formed in his throat and looked steadily at Wade.  “And if he doesn’t?”

 

Wade drew his gun, cocked the hammer, and placed the barrel against Blue’s forehead. His expression never changed, he continued to smile. “Why it’s real simple.  Then I kill you.”

 

Blue looked into the hard, flat eyes of Scott Wade, knowing with certainty he looked at his own death.  This man would kill him without a moment’s guilt, with no more thought than another man would swat a fly. He thought of the things he had yet to do, of Becca and the Cannon children that were to come after him. A wave of sadness, then fear coursed through him, but he pushed it away. Maybe you can kill me, but you can’t take who I am.  Blue had no way of knowing, but his face bore an uncanny resemblance to Buck’s as he faced his captor.  His voice was flat and calm as he answered, “Kill me if you want, but if you do, you’re a dead man.  They’ll never stop until they find you and kill you.  Either way, pay or not, they’ll never stop.”

 

“Pa, we got company.” Wade holstered the gun, replaced the gag, and turned to watch as a small, unarmed figure walked into the camp, hands held out to each side. He walked to her with open arms and enveloped her in a bear hug.  “Rebecca, my sweet Rebecca.”  He kissed her loudly and hugged her again. “How lovely to see you again.  Did you bring me the ransom money?” He reached for the saddlebag slung over her shoulder.

 

She pulled the bag playfully out of his reach, shaking a finger at him. “No Scott, I came to keep you company while you wait.  But I did bring you a present.” She reached into the bag and brought out a large bottle of whiskey.  Waiting’s dry work.”  She slipped an arm around his waist and urged him toward the campfire.  “Let’s crack this bottle and make the waiting easier.”

 

Time is a funny thing. In the confines of a bawdyhouse or saloon, a man barely notices the passage of time; hours spent in sport move swiftly by. Drinks are bought, games of chance are played, money passes from hand to hand. Lies are told, girls are kissed, pleasures taken. Without notice, a night’s worth of hours passes and the glare of the morning sun announces a new day. 

 

Change the setting. Change the circumstance. Subtract pleasure, comfort, security. Add anxiety, threat, uncertainty. Minutes crawl in a tortuous pace fit for a doddering ancient. A man can hear his heartbeat, count his breaths, feel the spit collect inside his mouth as the seconds pile slowly one on top of the other.

 

Buck left the shade of the rock face and walked to the entrance of the canyon. He retrieved a canteen, shook it, drank, and replaced it on his horse. He walked back to the rock face, scratched his nose, adjusted his hat, sat, then rose again. “How long you figure it’s been, John-boy? Couple hours?”

 

John was resting in the shade, hat pulled over his eyes. He didn’t move or look up as he answered. “You’ve got a watch, Buck. You might look at it instead of ask me every five minutes.”

 

Buck pushed his hat back on his head and rubbed his forehead. “You’re right, I know it, but I was thinkin’, mebbe I’d better go on in there and check, how’d we know she’s okay?” He paced back and forth. “How long was we gonna wait?”

 

John pushed his hat up and eyed his brother. “You know as well as I do, Buck. We’re waiting until dark. We don’t go in until then. I don’t like it any better than you do, but this is the best chance we’ve got to end this without shooting. We’re staying put and giving her a chance.”

 

Buck nodded. “Yeah, Big John, you’re right. Mano, how long you think it’s been?”

 

Manolito spoke from underneath his hat. Amigo, por favor. The stomping of your boots is enough to wake the dead. Take pity on me and seat yourself, si?”

 

“Right, amigo, right.”  He settled himself in the shade of the rock, pulling his hat over his eyes and folding his arms. He sat still for perhaps three minutes, then got to his feet and stalked to the entrance of the canyon and back again.  Sighing, Manolito rose and joined him.

 

Blue watched as the men drank, Rebecca keeping pace with them. Their mood passed quickly to rousing good spirits. Becca left the laughing group and came to him, kneeling to remove the gag and offer him water, casting glances over her shoulder at the men.  “You all right?”

 

He drank it, never taking his eyes off her.  “Not as good as you are. Seem friendly with that bunch.”

 

“No more than I have to be to get you out of here.  Drink some more.” She looked worriedly over her shoulder again.

 

Ain’t water just a little tame for you, the way you been downing that whiskey?”

 

She turned to glare at him, hissing, “Keep your voice down.  I’m trying to get your sorry ass out of here without getting it shot full of lead.”

 

“You hug every man you run across?  You’re drunk, and cussin, for all I know you act like this any time I ain’t around, and another thing…”

 

Becca would never know what the other thing was, because she abruptly pulled the gag back around Blue’s mouth.  She leaned over until her nose was almost touching his.  Blue could smell whiskey on her breath as she jabbed him in the shoulder with her finger. “You listen to me, Blue Cannon.  I came into this hellhole to get you out of here.  I’m trying to do it without getting anyone killed.  But so help me, if you say one more word, someone is going to get killed, and it’s going to be you.”  She stood up and walked back to the campfire.

 

Hours later it was dusk, and the last of the men passed out.  Rebecca, a bit unsteady on her feet, walked back to Blue and cut him loose, helping him to stand. “I can manage,” he bit the words off.

 

“Fine.” She led the way out of the campsite, through the entrance of the canyon, and into Buck’s waiting arms. Somewhere in the midst of the ecstatic reunion, Big John dispatched Sam and several hands back in to retrieve Wade and his two sons.

 

Celebrations were dampened when Sam reappeared quickly. “Boss, there’s only two of them. Looks like the old man gave us the slip.”

 

John nodded. “All right, we’ll take what we can get. Mount up, let’s head for home.”

 

Buck and John rode on either side of Becca.  Buck especially seemed to have a protective attitude toward her.  Blue followed behind, silently fuming. Might know, Buck would pick tonight to decide to take her side.  Probably figures he’s got another drinking buddy. Surprised she can sit her saddle the way she was pouring it down. Betcha Uncle Buck would sing a different tune if he’d seen her carrying on with that bunch back there.

 

Abruptly Becca turned her horse sharply off the trail and cut behind a boulder.  John followed her and called out sharply, “Buck, get over here.”  Blue could hear retching sounds, followed by the low murmur of Buck’s voice.

 

He looked at Mano and made a disgusted sound.  “She’s pretty drunk, ain’t she?”

 

Manolito looked at him with something like pity in his eyes.  “Is that what you think, Amigo?  That she is sick because of the whiskey?”

 

“Well, yeah, I saw her down enough of it tonight. No wonder she’s puking her guts out.”

 

Mano’s face tightened as he turned to face his younger friend squarely. He spoke in a slightly exaggerated manner; Blue could tell he was irritated. “Very elegant language, Blue. Except she is not drunk.  Her bottle was watered down; there was only enough whiskey to color the water. The Senorita is ill because of the hours she spent in the company of human filth. Why do you suppose she would choose to do such a thing, Compadre? Why put herself in the company of men so disgusting they make her physically ill?”  Mano looked toward the boulder.  The sounds of illness had stopped but Buck’s voice could still be heard. “Amigo, I have been blessed in my life to find a woman who is the sun and moon to me, a woman with the heart of a tiger.  Her soul is tied to mine with cords of gold that can never be broken.  For this, I am a lucky and happy man.”  Manolito shook his head and looked into the distance. “Do not let your pride rob you of what you know you want, Compadre.”

 

John returned from behind the boulder and Manolito questioned him. “The Senorita, John?”

 

“She’s fine, Buck’s taking care of her. She’s a tough one, I’ll say that for her.”

 

“Maybe I should check on her, Pa.Manolito’s words had stung, so had his father’s. Don’t think Pa ever once called me tough.  He was immediately ashamed of the thought.

 

Buck ran water from the canteen over his handkerchief and mopped the back of the girl’s neck. “It’s okay, Sis. It’ll be over in a minute.” He put an arm around her shoulders. “You did real good back there, Becca. Real good. C’mon, let’s stand up.” He pulled the girl to her feet and felt her shaking, turned her to face him. He began to wipe her streaming eyes and red nose, sighing. Just once I’d like to look at this little gal when she wouldn’t scare the cows. “Here, drink some water.” He watched as she drank, then wiped her mouth, feeling a wave of admiration and affection wash over him. He smiled at her, drawing her to him in a bear hug. “I’m real proud of you, Sis. If that nephew of mine don’t do right by you, I reckon mebbe I’ll have to bust his head for him.” He felt her shake, with laughter this time, and drew back from her to look at her face. “That’s better. That’s my girl.”

 

The sound of a rifle being cocked carried loud on the quiet night air and they both froze. “Well, isn’t this a cozy little scene?” Scott Wade motioned with the gun. “Rebecca, you come on over here to me.”

 

Her muscles had gone rigid under Buck’s hands. “I think I’ll stay where I am, Scott. There’s nothing over there I’ve got any interest in.” Buck slowly began to move his hand toward his pistol. Becca shifted slightly, attempting to conceal the movement of his arm. “What’re you doing here?”

 

Wade brought the rifle level with Buck’s eyes. “I’d stop that if I were you. I’ve got no problem with pulling this trigger; so if you don’t want to become intimately acquainted with my bullet, send her over here. Now.”

 

Buck tightened his grip on the girl, but she pushed him away. “No, Buck. He means it.” She walked to Wade and pointed back to Buck. “Leave him alone, Scott.”  Wade grabbed her by one hand, pulled her close and slid an arm around her waist.

 

“Mr. Wade, I’m not smart enough to know when to give up, so I can promise you we’ll be meetin’ again. Sis here better be in exactly the same condition she’s in right now. You got me?”

 

Wade chuckled. “Maybe. Maybe not. Might be I’ve got plans for her. Seems to me I ought to take advantage of what the good Lord provides.” He looked down at the girl and smiled. “Like I told you, a good Christian doesn’t question the workings of God.”

 

Buck’s face was hard as stone. “Best you remember, Wade. I ain’t a good Christian.” Buck was still staring him in the eye as the stock of the rifle caught him on the right temple.

 

Following a trail in the desert by day is difficult. Tracking by night is almost impossible, and Manolito had lost a second set of eyes. Buck had recovered well enough to ride, but his vision was blurred and he staggered when he walked. By rights he should have been in bed, but he would not be left behind. “I let the skunk take her. I ain’t stoppin’ until we get her back.”

 

Blue pictured Becca first with Wade, then with the Apache. He spurred his horse forward. “Mano, I’m riding ahead, maybe I’ll pick up something.”

 

Calma, Amigo, no. You must stay behind me, if you go ahead you only make it harder to read the signs.” Manolito looked up tiredly, put a hand on Blue’s leg. “We will find her, Blue. I promise you.” He smiled, tapped with a fist. “But you must wait, compadre. Then when we find her, you will have a chance to put my excellent advice to use, si?”

 

3

 

Scott Wade rode through the night, making camp at early morning in a narrow canyon. The steep walls offered shelter, with smaller rock formations at the entrance and each side. He tied his captive, tightening the rawhide thongs binding Rebecca’s hands to the base of a small tree. Putting a hand to her chin, he turned her face from side to side, looking at her appraisingly. “Too bad you lost me the Cannon money, but I figure you can make up for it, one way or the other.” He smiled when she didn’t answer. “You always figured you were a little too good for me, didn’t you, Rebecca? Guess we’ll find out just how good you are.”

 

Becca bent one leg and shifted slightly. “I never though you were a stupid man, Scott. You’ve got some kind of plan. What is it?”

 

He patted her cheek, just a touch harder than necessary. “Still mouthy, aren’t you?  All right, I figure if the Cannon’s won’t pay to get their pet back, your folks will. If I know your family, they’ll pay a higher price than Big John Cannon. Could be you did me a favor when you turned that boy loose.”

 

She looked him in the eye and shook her head. “You’re not as smart as I thought if you plan to tangle with Pop. Besides, you stole horses from Cochise, and he’s sent a war party out after you. You’re running out of time.”

 

He threw back his head and laughed. “Those horses are long gone, already traded them, and the Apache think we came from Chaparral. They’ll be looking to hit the ranch, not me.”

 

Becca leaned forward, her hands straining against the leather ties, a tight smile on her face. “You’re a smart man, all right, Wade. But you don’t know everything. You don’t know Cochise sent a rider to High Chaparral to ask for the stolen horses and get the real story from John Cannon. And you don’t know Cochise believed him, because Cochise knows a Cannon never lies.” 

 

Wade stood, looking up at the walls of the rock surrounding their camp. He turned back to her and raised a hand, threatening to strike. “You’re lying.”

 

The girl never flinched. “Something else you don’t know, Scott. I never lie, either.”

 

Blue pushed his horse on, praying he had made the right decision. “You see anything, Uncle Buck?” He swiveled in the saddle, looking forward and back rapidly. The early morning sun was warm on the back of his neck. If we miss her at least maybe Mano and the others will pick up the trail. I couldn’t keep waiting, I had to do something.

 

“Nothing yet, Blue Boy. Lots of canyons and cuts here abouts.” Buck was steadier on his feet this morning, studying the ground for tracks.

 

Big John had joined Buck, riding ahead with Blue, making a guess where the trail would lead. In the dead of night, with Becca gone and no trail to follow, it seemed like the only course of action. Now, hours later in the cold light of day, every choice looked bad.

 

“Maybe we came the wrong way, Pa. What if Mano’s found the right trail by now?”

 

John rode close to Blue, worry etched on his rugged features. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “I know. But we’ve got to check every canyon to be sure. We’ll find her.” He shifted in his saddle and stared into the distance. “Dead or alive, Blue, we’ll find her.”

 

Blue looked at his father, mouth working. Dead or alive. I didn’t want to say it, but she could die. We’ve got to find her.

 

Scott Wade began packing up the camp, glancing frequently at the surrounding rock walls of the canyon as he worked, filling a saddlebag that he slung over the back of his horse. As he turned aside, a heavy ‘thunk’ whipped his head around. An arrow had appeared in the saddlebag. He grabbed the rifle from the sling and ran for the cover of the large rocks as bullets began to sing.

 

Becca flattened herself to the ground. “Wade! Cut me loose!” She tried to make herself as small as possible against the flying bullets. “I can shoot, cut me loose and give me a gun.”

 

Wade’s voice was cheerful as it called from behind the boulders. “Sorry, sweet Rebecca. You’re on your own.”

 

Blue spun his head as the first gunshot echoed. “There!” He spurred his horse, racing toward the sounds, whipping the animal in his frantic urgency for more speed. He was dimly aware of John and Buck following behind him as he skidded to a stop at the entrance to a narrow canyon, kicking out of the stirrups and dismounting with a bounce. He raced to the entrance, drawing his pistol, peering cautiously over the cover of rocks and brush.

 

John and Buck joined him, panting with exertion. John pushed his shoulder. “Keep an eye out, there’s Apache in those rocks.” He pointed at the face of the canyon walls where the outline of Indian warriors could be seen.

 

Buck leaned against the rocks and pointed into the canyon. “There she is, John.” He rested his head on his hands wearily. “Ain’t no way to get to her.”

 

Blue smacked Buck on the shoulder. “She’s tied in the open, if you cover me, I can cut through those rocks and get to her.” He started around the boulder.

 

John grabbed him by the back of his vest and hauled him back. “Hold on, Boy. It’s solid bullets out there. You aren’t going anywhere.”

 

Blue wrestled himself free from his father’s grip. Gunshots continued to roar from both sides, the bullets pinging as they hit rocks. He yelled to be heard over the noise. “It’s Becca. I ain’t leaving her down there.” He spun to confront his uncle. “If it was me, you’d figure a way.”

 

“Blue Boy, you cain’t go in there, ain’t nothin’ we can do to help her. We’re pinned down here.”  Buck put a hand to Blue’s cheek, the lines in his face were deep and he looked ill. “Listen to me, Blue. I know. I know how you feel. But we’ll be buryin’ both of you if you go after her.”

 

Blue sagged against the boulder and looked down into the ravine. Rebecca was struggling, hands tied behind her back, tethered to a small tree. Bullets whistled around her and she slammed to the ground as one flew by her head. She jerked her head up and continued to work her hands, trying desperately to free herself. Buck’s right. Pa’s right. No one could get down there and survive.  In misery, he called to her.  Becca!”

 

In the noise and confusion she couldn’t have heard him. It was only chance that her desperate eyes found him across the canyon floor.  She stared directly at him; eyes locked with his, and she answered him. “Blue!”

 

He spun to find Buck blocking his path, shaking his head, silently mouthing the word, no. Defeated, shoulders drooped, Blue nodded and turned slightly away. Buck looked back at Becca and was caught flat-footed as his nephew connected full on the chin with a round house right cross. Buck went down in a heap as Blue charged past.

 

Big John scrambled after him, yelling. “Blue! Get back here!” Buck managed to pull himself up to a standing position on the rocks, motioning him back.

 

On his way to Becca, running, kicking up dust and stones, Blue flashed a grin back at his father and uncle. “Sorry, Pa. It’s so noisy I can’t hear you.”

 

John and Buck looked at each other, mouths hanging open. “Hell, Buck, we’d better try to cover that fool.”

 

Blue ran from rock to rock, brush to shrub, staying to whatever small cover he could find. Bullets whined past him as he worked his way closer to Becca.  The last six feet were wide open, no brush or cover. He pulled his knife from its sheath, crouching behind the last rock, then sprang from cover and rolled on one shoulder to her. “Hang on, get ready to run,” he yelled. Her eyes were wide as she stretched her arms out behind her. He sliced through the rawhide strips binding her hands in one motion and shoved the knife back. Without stopping, he scooped her to her feet and they ran for a large group of boulders.

 

Bullets tore the dust around them into small fountains as he pounded to the rocks. Half carrying, half dragging her, running full tilt, they reached shelter and dove flat for the ground.  He wrapped his arms around her as they rolled in a tangle, coming to rest at the base, Blue on top of Becca, protecting her from the gunfire. Out of breath, arms wrapped around each other, faces inches apart, Blue looked at her. Her eyes were enormous; tears spilled out the sides and left traces through the dust on her cheeks. He touched her face, her hair, yelling harshly. “Don’t you ever leave me again, you hear me?” He kissed her, softly at first, then harder as she returned his with increasing intensity. She ran her hands across his head, tugging at his hair, then down his back. Blue could feel her nails digging through his shirt, leaving marks. She arched her back, shifted her hips, pressing against him, and twined her legs around his, their boot heels catching.

 

Bullets were still ricocheting off the rock face, rifles thundering. Blue took a deep breath and shook his head slightly to clear it.  He grinned widely, looking at Rebecca, whose smile matched his. “Guess I should’ve done that a long time ago.”  He lowered his mouth to hers again, hungry for more.

 

The silence after the peppering gunfire pulled Blue back to his senses. He pushed himself up from Rebecca’s arms, drawing his pistol, wary. “Shooting’s stopped. Keep back, I’m taking a look.” He peered around the side of the rocks, careful to keep his head low. The canyon was deserted, no sign of Wade, Apache, or Chaparral men. He checked the canyon walls, nothing. They might have been alone. He chewed his lip. Now what? A noise behind him spun him around.

 

Wade held Becca by the waist, pistol to her head. “Looks like your folks took care of the Apache for me, now you two are going to take care of the rest. Rebecca’s my ticket out of here.” He shook her. “She’s going to help me get my boys free, too. Now drop that gun and we’ll walk out of here.”

 

Blue felt a cold chill go through him. If I let him take her, she’s dead. He clenched his jaw. “No. Turn her loose or I’ll kill you.”

 

Wade smiled, and Blue saw the movement in his arm as he began to swing the pistol forward. Without conscious thought, he took two steps, swinging his pistol up in a smooth motion and firing. A small, black hole appeared in the center of Wade’s forehead, blood spattering on Becca’s face.

 

She ran to Blue as Wade crumpled to the ground. He caught her in his arms, buried his face in her hair, kissed her again and again. He took her face in his hands, wiping away the dirt and blood. “I love you, Becca. I’m stubborn and hot-headed, and I can’t say what I mean half the time, but today I thought I might never get the chance to tell you. I love you.” He kissed her again.

 

She looked up at him, running her fingers over his face and lips, brushing back his thick blonde hair. Her eyes were shining. “Oh, Blue. You’re no more stubborn than I am. I’ve waited so long to tell you…”

 

“BLUE!”  Big John’s voice rang out loud and clear as he and Buck rounded the corner of rocks.

 

Blue bit his lip and sighed, then turned to his father. “Pa? Buck?

 

Buck was grinning widely at the couple. “Yeah, Blue Boy?”

 

Blue hesitated for a second, took a deep breath. “I’m really sorry, but I’m a little busy right now, so uh, well…” He looked back at Becca, who was smiling up at him. He nodded, then smiled back at the two men. “Go to hell.”

 

Big John and Buck began to smile as Blue took Becca in his arms and kissed her.

 

-The End-

 

(the author gratefully acknowledges the characters and contributions of Jan Lucas)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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