“I didn’t want to do it this way, but you wouldn’t listen to me.” Josh looked up through the leaves turned from green to a mottled gray color by the coating of dust. He loved the summer, but wouldn’t mind a good rain to wash everything back to its normal color. He had been away from this little town so long, he was eager to have everything as it was when he left, as it was in his favorite memories. The colors should be vibrant, the friends laughing and the girl in his arms.
She wasn’t in his arms, however. She was in fact in a tree.
“And for that you chased me up a tree?”
SueNell was no longer a girl, but his heart would always see her so—laughing, happy, and his. He hated to see that resentful, wary, weary look in her wide brown eyes and vowed to change it to a contented peaceful smile as soon as he possibly could. “And if you’ll let me say so, I think you’re the prettiest apple I ever did see.”
“An apple with long brown hair and wearing a calico dress?” SueNell had to laugh with him, finally.
“It’s a beautiful summer’s day, the sky is blue, the clouds are puffy white, and even a coyote couldn’t feel mean on a day like today, but there you were, scowling at me, and in church no less. I had to do something.” The big man only had to look up an inch or two in order to look her in the eye, so he was careful when he waved his hand around. His smile made quite a crack in his impressive black beard, but the twinkle in his gray eyes reflected his inner good humor.
“But to chase me up a tree?”
“It was your choice to try to hide from me up there.”
“I always forget how tall you are. With most men, this strategy would have worked. Now, go away so I can climb down.”
“You’re welcome to keep going up, but if you want to come down, you’re going to have to talk to me first.”
“I’m not climbing any higher than this. You leave.”
“But why? Josh, you’ve got to realize by now that I don’t want anything more to do with you.”
“But you haven’t told me why. That’s all I want. Well, truth be told, that’s not what I want at all. What I want is what we had before you ran off and married that idiot Marlow.”
“I didn’t run off. You did.” Her words were terse, but Josh could hear layers of sadness and resentment in them. She had been laughing, but no longer. Maybe they were making progress.
“Is joining the army and doing my duty ‘running off’ in your book? I don’t think so. It sure wasn’t in mine.”
“You didn’t even tell me.”
That admission brought them another step closer. “I couldn’t. We both know how that would have gone. You crying, begging me not to go again. We’d done it how many times? You knew I needed to go. I had to serve my country.”
“And look for Stanley.”
“Let’s leave my uncle out of this. He’s old news.” Josh ducked his head and rubbed at his beard with his thumb and forefinger. “The real point is I did send you a letter after I got to Stockton. If you never got it, you still should have known what I was doing and trusted me that I was coming back for you.”
“I don’t want to discuss this while I’m sitting in a tree.” She looked down at him, a half-puzzled look on her face.
“But you will discuss it with me? I’ve been in town for a week and you’ve run from me at every turn. You should have known it wouldn’t work.” He had started badly, accosting her in the street with some misguided assumption that since she was a widow, she would be as eager as he was to repair their damaged relationship. After that fiasco, he had appeared at her house, hat in hand, ready for a serious discussion. Both times, she had fled without a word. Asking around town, he had learned little. Most people still blamed him for the hard times that had overtaken her. “If you’ll promise to have dinner with me, I’ll let you climb down. In fact, I’ll even help you down.” He put his hands on her waist, but held her firmly there.
“Well? What are you waiting for?”
“Your word. I need to hear you say you’ll talk to me.” He spoke slowly, as he usually did, and he let his voice go as deep as nature wanted. At most times, he tried to make his voice sound not so profoundly in the bass regions of the scale. It frightened people and made them defensive, so he worked to put them at their ease. A man his size had to think of such things if he wanted to call himself a gentleman. This time, however, he allowed the words to come out in the voice she should remember, from his days as a brash young man, proud of his stature and willing to take any advantage it gave him.
She seemed to respond. Her eyes softened and her lips twitched. It had been she who first warned him that a higher tone might help him get along in the world. “All right. We can talk.”
He tightened his hands on her waist and lifted her down. “Careful. You almost let a smile out. Keep them all corralled now or I’ll think you’re thawing toward me. See there? At least half a smile right there.”
She pursed her lips together and gave him a mock scowl. “You had me treed like a raccoon. The situation was too ludicrous to pass up. One has to take the smiles where one finds them.”
He nodded and turned back toward the path, gesturing for her to precede him. “You always did have such a nice way of talking. Smooth like. Like saying, ‘One has to’ instead of ‘you.’ I always did love that about you. Loved everything about you, really.”
“Josh, I’m not going to be seen in public with you if you go on like that.”
“How about in private then?” His intimate tone made his meaning clear, though he counted on her knowing he was only kidding. He would never really be so disrespectful in public or private.
“Josh!” She was turning serious again. “I have a reputation in this town and I don’t want to lose it.”
Josh straightened up and offered her his arm in a very proper fashion. “Sorry, SuzyQ. I would never do anything to hurt your good name. You should know that.”
“And you should call me Mrs. Marlow. I was a married woman.”
“I’ve never called you anything but SuzyQ or SueNell and I’m not going to start now.” They had arrived back at the church yard to see a single wagon left under the trees, its driver leaned back in the seat, his hat pulled down over his eyes. “Hob’s waiting for you, so I’ll keep this short. The only reason I want to talk about the past is to clear it away to make room for the future. You think on that. I’ll be around to pick you up tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow night?” SueNell’s brother, suddenly sitting up and looking down at them from the wagon, addressed first his sister, then his friend. “What’s tomorrow night? You two going to elope?”
“I wish,” Josh shot back. “But for now, it’s just dinner.”
SueNell jerked her arm away from Josh. “And you would do well to remember that!”
It wasn’t as he had planned, but it was a start. Among the many things he had learned as an army scout, patience might prove to be the most valuable, he mused as he walked back to his hotel.
SueNell turned away from the hallway mirror again, scolding herself for primping excessively. She was a grown woman, seeing a gentleman whom she used to know. That was all. She would make herself presentable as she always did, but she would not fuss.
“You look mighty nice, SueNell,” Hob said cheerfully. “But you’re not wearing your hair the way he likes it.” He and Lefty, the oldest cowboy on the place, were finishing one quick cup of coffee before heading back out to the barn to finish up work for the day.
“How would you know how he likes it?” She paced back into the kitchen and moved a pot from one eye on the stovetop to another.
Lefty piped up in his gravelly tone, “Most men like a female’s hair down around her shoulders. Just stands to reason.”
Hob tried unsuccessfully to hide his grin. “I remember how he liked it. I was a kid, but it made a big impression on me, him courting you and all. Why not doll up for him, at least a little?”
“Why? To fulfill some sort of childhood fantasy you had? I tried to give you a father to replace the one we lost. It didn’t work out very well, did it?” SueNell demanded.
Lefty gave a snort of agreement, but kept any comments to himself.
“There’s no comparing Marlow to Josh. If Marlow had been the man he ought to have been, we wouldn’t need Josh now,” Hob asserted.
“You surely can’t be saying you want me to try to provide yet another father figure for you!” SueNell looked at her little brother incredulously. “You’re a grown man, caring for the ranch quite well.”
Hob laughed with her. “It’s not only me who needs him. It’s you who’s been a widow over a year. And I know you loved him once. Maybe never really stopped loving him.”
“That’s none of your business,” she retorted.
“It feels like my business. You’ve always looked out for me. It’s time I started looking out for you. If you hadn’t been saddled with a little brother to provide for, you never would have married Marlow, so I feel responsible for that whole disaster of a marriage. Now that he’s gone, I’d like to make things right.”
“That’s not up to you. What’s brought all this up, anyway?” she queried testily. “All this trouble with the coyotes? We can handle them.”
Lefty made an encouraging gesture with his fist to cheer her on. “You tell him, missy! We don’t need no help protecting this ranch!”
“It’s not coyotes, SueNell. They don’t kill like this. You should know that, Lefty. This is the work of some outlaw or another, living in the wild and supplying himself with beef from our herd. We do need help smoking him out of hiding and running him off. The ranch is too big, too spread out for me to search by myself.”
“What am I? A doorstop?” Lefty growled irritably.
“We have plenty of hands to help you,” SueNell agreed, but silently she did consider the issue. Lefty was getting on in years. She had no wish to see him tramping around the ranch looking for trouble. He might just find it.
“Not any with the experience to deal with something like this,” Hob countered. “Josh was in the army, and a scout at that. He can handle himself. Between the two of us, we’ll set things to rights. And somebody’s got to keep an eye on the rest of the hands and run the ranch. That’ll keep you plenty busy, Lefty.”
“Well, then maybe you’d like it if I was getting out and running this here ranch, since ain’t nobody listening to a word I say no-how.” Lefty stood to face Hob. The older man was so short and bandy-legged from years of riding horses that he had to crane his neck to challenge Hob.
“You’re the best ramrod in the county, Lefty. Nobody doubts that. I know you don’t want Josh’s help, but I’m not risking the hands I have when there’s a man with recent military experience ready to pitch in. He’s coming and there’s an end to it. Is this really a hill you want to fight for?” There was a long silence while the two men stood toe to toe. SueNell knew Hob could dismiss Lefty’s opinions without any explanation or even acknowledgement, but her brother would never consider such a disrespectful course of action.
Finally, Lefty gave another snort and turned to the door, muttering as he went. “Best ramrod? If I’m so blamed good, how come nobody never…”
“Seems like a lot of fuss over just some old coyotes,” SueNell observed cautiously.
“Coyotes who know how to use dynamite?”
“Avalanches happen, Hob. It’s perfectly natural.”
“In the winter freezes and spring thaws, yes. Not in the dead of summer like this. SueNell, I try not to worry you, but you have to understand where things are headed. If we can’t stop these livestock losses and keep the roads open to all the pastureland and fields, we won’t make it another season.”
“We can take in borders. Sell off some of the western acreage. It’s not as dire as all that.”
Hob lifted his face to the ceiling and took a deep breath. “I’m not going to argue with you, SueNell. It’s almost time for Josh to come to get you. Just, please, be nice to him, or this could get awfully awkward awfully fast.”
“What do you mean by that?” SueNell would have pursued the matter, but just then she heard a knock at the door. Pushing down a little puff of excitement that tried to rise in her throat at the thought of Josh standing at the door waiting for her, she smoothed her hair down. Realizing what she had done, she ran her hand back up her head, hoping to make herself look less polished and not as if she had been primping all afternoon.
“I’ll get it,” Hob replied and stepped past her into the wide entrance hallway. “Come on in, Josh. I’ll take your bag upstairs. You’ll have to bunk in with me unless you want to sleep out in the bunkhouse.”
“Bunk? Sleep? Wait just a minute here!” SueNell began heatedly.
“I thought since he was already coming out here, he might as well bring his gear and just stay. He’s still taking you into town to have your supper and talk.” Hob grinned at her apologetically as he passed her on his way up the stairs, Josh’s saddle bags and bedroll slung over his shoulder.
“It was his idea for me to stay out here. I can find my own place to stay if you really don’t want me,” Josh told her, holding the door open, but not yet crossing the threshold.
“But the hotel is all booked up from those two stage coaches that came in today. One’s a day early and the other’s a day late, so it’s more than old Saul can handle. All the passengers are stacked up in there like cordwood,” Hob objected as he returned empty-handed. “And we’ve got plenty of room. I put your gear in the first room on the right at the top of the stairs.”
Josh took a step back toward his horse. “I can camp out for a few days. I’ve slept outdoors more than indoors over the past few years.”
It was that admission that broke SueNell’s resolve. “Then you’ve had enough of it, I’m sure. You can stay until the hotel has an empty room for you.”
“That’s settled then. You two go on and have a good time. It’s poker night out at the bunkhouse and I aim to win back most of the wages I just paid the boys.” Hob gave them a cocky grin and strode out the door.
Hat in hand, Josh opened the door for SueNell from the outside and held it while she joined him on the wide covered porch. He handed her into a neat little buggy that had obviously been polished recently. “I know Saul didn’t get this buggy looking so neat,” SueNell commented once they were on their way. “Has he hired a new man?”
“I did it before I came to get you. I’ve been ready for an hour and couldn’t stand still while I waited.” Josh looked her in the eye when he said this, not a trace of embarrassment in his admission. “This is more like how I pictured it when I dreamed of coming home. You and me in a gleaming little buggy, riding out for an evening, maybe to a dance or just around the town to watch the stars come out.”
“Josh, please, I don’t know what more I can say. I’ve told you, I’m sorry that I was rude the first day you got back to town, but you must admit, it was a strange shock to see you coming at me like that.”
“I know, and I’m sorry. I should never have just come up to you like that, but I couldn’t help taking you in my arms like I used to. I thought you would feel like I do, like we’ve been given a second chance. Everybody I asked told me that you were more than over Marlow. Not hard to believe, knowing what kind of a man he was.”
“Please don’t speak ill of the dead,” SueNell whispered strangely. She still felt guilty for not missing her first husband. As horrid as he had been, she still felt a bit ashamed that her first reaction to his death had been relief.
“I don’t want to talk about him at all,” Josh replied. “I just wanted to let you know that I didn’t mean any disrespect that first day.”
SueNell sighed, knowing she owed him an apology, too. “And I shouldn’t have run upstairs when you came to the house to apologize. I should have heard you out. I just couldn’t take it all in. And I didn’t want to waste your time. You made it pretty clear what you intended, and I’m just not… interested in that kind of thing anymore. Once was enough.”
“I thought we weren’t going to talk about him.”
“I didn’t mention Ted.”
“What else could ‘once was enough’ mean, except that you judge all husbands by him? I wouldn’t be like him, SueNell. I guarantee it.” He pulled up in front of the restaurant and set the brake on the buggy.
She had been so intent on their conversation that she had not noticed they had arrived in town. She instinctively put out her hand so that he could help her down, but he placed a light kiss on her fingers first before picking her up and setting her gently down on the boardwalk in front of the best establishment Martin, Texas had to offer.
SueNell tried to think of something to say while the waiter seated them in the front of the restaurant near the windows. Eventually, she blurted out, “They must be glad to have your custom. They’ve seated us right near the front windows so that everyone passing by can see.”
“I guess I have made a bit of a name for myself, at least in these parts. I was just doing my duty and I got some lucky breaks.” He asked SueNell what she preferred for dinner and then placed their order with the waiter.
“Catching the train robbers who dared loot the federal gold shipment was quite an accomplishment, Josh. When the newspapers printed your name in the headlines, I was ever so proud to say I knew you.”
“Then why are you treating me like I have leprosy now?”
SueNell took a sip of her water before replying. “I’ve said I’m sorry, Josh. Can’t you see how hard this is for me? You’ve told me that you want…”
Josh finished her sentence for her when she trailed off. “That I want to take up where we left off, SueNell. I intend to take this second chance and make the most of it this time.”
“That’s it exactly. I hate to disappoint you, Josh. I have no wish to see you sad.”
“Then don’t make me sad. Say you’ll walk out with me. That’s not too much to ask.”
“You don’t understand. It is too much to ask because I know that I can’t give you what you really want. It’s time for you to settle down, have a family of your own. You deserve that happiness, but not with me. It tears me up inside to have to tell you all this face to face.”
“If you didn’t still care about me, it wouldn’t hurt you so to turn me down. The very fact that it’s hard for you to disappoint me means you shouldn’t disappoint me.”
“There are a lot of men I wouldn’t want to wound, but I could never marry them either, Josh.”
“I know that. You’re so soft-hearted you don’t want anybody to be hurt, but you loved me once. I know you did. I loved you, too, and still do. So it’s not a case of you not wanting to hurt just anybody’s feelings. It’s me we’re talking about here. There was a time when you and I planned our whole lives together. What about those plans?”
“You can still have it all, just like we dreamed of, Josh. In fact, I hope you do. That’s why…”
“Wait, SueNell, is this about kids?”
“I had a husband. After three years of marriage, there are no children. I doubt it will ever happen for me, Josh.”
“You know that doesn’t matter to me. There are plenty of kids that need good homes, if it comes to that.” He took her hand and looked earnestly into her eyes. “I’ve never loved anyone but you. Those first two years I was in the army, your letters were all that kept me going. Then I heard your folks had been killed; I wrote you and offered to get leave and come home to marry you, but my letters just kept coming back. Why was that? Why wouldn’t you even read my letters?”
“What was the use? You were gone and I thought you couldn’t help. I needed to keep the ranch going and raise my brother. I needed a man right then.”
“And Ted was postmaster, wasn’t he?”
“How did you know?”
“Word gets around. I asked around when I got back and more than one person was very happy to tell me that Ted bragged about keeping my letters from you.”
She blushed furiously. “I thought we agreed not to speak ill of the dead.”
Josh squeezed her hand one last time before the waiter brought their steaks. “I just want you to know that I heard what happened. He pretty much tricked you into marrying him by telling you I wasn’t coming back and couldn’t help. I could have helped you by sending you money so you could hire hands to tend the ranch until my hitch was up. I would have, too. You have to believe that.”
SueNell nodded sadly. “I do believe that. I admit it. I was foolish to marry Ted.”
“And I was foolish not to marry you before I left, but you were so young, and I was so stubborn. I thought I knew best. Wouldn’t listen to anybody about anything. Your father, good man that he was, tried to reason with me, but I just wouldn’t be told.”
They had both been so young. She had been, what? Seventeen when he had left? And he couldn’t have been more than twenty. Only seven years had passed, but it felt like so much more. “He always admired you. My mother did, too.”
“So why won’t you give me a second chance now? Why not put the past behind us and start again? Not many people get this kind of new deal to start over with. We shouldn’t waste it.”
SueNell, trying to look casual, took another bite of her steak. It was tender and flavorful, but she couldn’t enjoy it as it deserved. She was too caught up in their conversation, though she did her best not to let it show. “I’ve moved on with my life, Josh. I’m not the romantic girl you left all those years ago. I’ve learned that there’s more to life than poetry and sunsets. I’ve got the ranch and my brother to run it. That’s enough for me.”
“That’s all you want out of life? What happens if Hob ever wants to start a family?”
SueNell’s eyes grew wide. “Hob? He’s only a… I mean, he’s much too young.”
“Plenty of men younger than Hob have a wife and a couple of kids. It’s going to happen to him, too, someday. Then what will you do?”
“I’ll… I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” She was suddenly feeling extremely defensive and trapped. Always seeing her brother as a boy, she was suddenly confronting the fact that had up till then escaped her notice. Hob would someday want to marry. Technically speaking, the ranch was his, but of course he would let her live there as long as she wanted. As for Hob’s future, she simply couldn’t think about that right now. “For the present, we’ve enough trouble to deal with.”
Josh gave her a long, searching look before seeming to come to some sort of decision. “The coyotes. Yes, Hob wrote to me about them. I thought we’d gotten as far as establishing that your losses are not the work of coyotes. They don’t kill that way. And they definitely don’t clean up after themselves like Hob has been describing to me.”
“How long has he been writing to you, Josh?”
“He never stopped. We were pretty close when I left and he wrote me right along, even after your folks died. I’d get back from a long patrol and have his letters to look forward to. I never told him what I had written in my letters to you or how hurt I was that you didn’t seem to want to read them, so I guess he never realized what was really going on. He’d just tell me all about you and what you were doing like it was the most natural thing in the world.”
“I… I had no idea.”
“So I’ve known what was happening to you all these years. I feel like nothing’s changed between us and now that you’re free again.”
“No, Josh. Please don’t. I think I’ve made it clear that I have no intention of marrying again.” She folded her napkin in a rather final way and started to rise. “It’s getting late. I’d like to go home now, if you don’t mind.”
Josh jumped up and helped her with her chair. “I do mind, but I’ll take you home. This isn’t over, you know. You need my help to catch the rustlers.”
“I don’t see what one situation has to do with the other. If we indeed have a problem larger than just a few rogue coyotes, it’s a matter for the sheriff.”
“He’s only one man and has a whole town to tend to. Hob is brave and smart, but he’ll never find whoever’s behind your troubles. Not by himself.”
“And you will?”
“On one condition.”
“If we did need your help, which I’m still not convinced of, only a cad would place conditions on helping a friend out of such a predicament.”
“A cad? You do say the darnedest things. Maybe I am a cad, but your brother agrees with me and had no objections when I told him the bargain I intended to strike with you. I’ll help him drive off whatever troublemakers there are on the Horsehead if you’ll agree to let me come calling.”
He ignored her spluttering as he picked her up and placed her lightly on the seat of the buggy. “Josh! How can you even think of… it’s absurd!”
“It’s your choice. I’ll hang around and get the lay of the land while you make up your mind. Until then, we can just enjoy the evening. Going to be lots of stars out tonight. No moon to speak of and not a cloud in the sky.” He sounded like he hadn’t a care in the world.
SueNell couldn’t understand his casual attitude. “But Hob thinks if we don’t stop the losses and the accidents, the ranch will go under. Surely you’ll help us.”
Josh lifted the reins to signal the horse and he took off at a brisk trot. “Easy there, boy. This horse is an eager one. Always wants to run everywhere then gives out halfway unless I hold him back. There, that’s better.” Josh waited several minutes before commenting. “I thought you were of the opinion that the problems on the ranch were caused by coyotes. Hob can handle them by himself. And if it’s just accidents, well, he can be more careful. He won’t need me to help him with that.”
SueNell scowled briefly. “You’ve got me coming and going, don’t you?”
“That was the plan.”
“All right. You can come calling. You’ll be living on the ranch anyway, so I can’t exactly stop you now, can I? It’s not going to get you anywhere, mind. I’m only doing it so you’ll help Hob until he sees that there really is no serious problem on the Horsehead.”
“I’ll take my chances with the courting and with the rustlers,” Josh replied cheerfully.