Wade McCord left his past behind and wandered westward, looking for a fresh start. A stopover in Wickenberg, AZ brought him face to face with an evil land baron and a beautiful woman who was in mortal danger. Was this McCord’s last chance to find his destiny?
The Last Chance
By D. A. Ratliff
Embers from the small campfire drifted upward toward the pitch-black sky as if the stars were seeking warmth. The crackling of burning wood and a soft whinny from the sleek, muscular stallion tied to a scraggly tree were the only sounds keeping him company. A hush hovered over the desert as if it held its breath, waiting for something to happen.
Lying back on the thick, woolen bedroll, Wade McCord stared at the sparkling points of light overhead. He sensed, as he perceived the desert felt, that any moment something was going to happen. After months of drifting from one small town to another, he craved for something, anything, to happen, but he realized if it did, it would be trouble. There was always trouble.
The stallion pawed at the sandy ground, snorting, seeming to sense his uneasiness. He spoke softly. “Be quiet, Pegasus, tomorrow we’re riding into Wickenburg. I promise I’ll get you some oats, but only if you’re quiet tonight.” Pegasus snorted again but fell silent, and horse and rider fell asleep, waiting for dawn.
As the sun began to peek over the eastern horizon, the cold nose of an impatient horse nudging his cheek awoke him. Stretching his long legs, McCord could feel every pebble and root digging into his back, despite the thick wool pad he laid on. As he pushed himself to his feet, he whispered to the wind, “Tonight…a real bed.”
The campfire had died down, only a few embers glowed among the ashes. He added a couple more pieces of wood from the pile he had gathered the night before and restarted the flame. Grabbing a saddlebag, he rummaged through the sparse supplies he had left, noticing that Pegasus had wandered to the end of his tether, noisily chomping as he grazed on a patch of scrubby grass. He selected a can of beans, hardtack bread, and just enough coffee for a single cup, which would have to do for his own breakfast.
McCord sat cross-legged in front of the fire as he ate, wondering what he was going to find in Wickenburg. The stable hand in the last town he visited told him that the military had finally broken the backs of the Yavapai Indians, putting an end to the raids against the settlers. Talk was that the fertile plain of the Hassayampa River was attracting ranchers and farmers along with the miners who had settled there years before. Lately, he had begun to think about searching for a small plot of land and settling down, but he had yet to find what he wanted. As if he knew what he wanted.
Breakfast consumed, he doused the fire, packed up his meager belongings, and mounted Pegasus. “Come on, boy. Time to join civilization.”
The narrow trail he was following ran along a low rise, meeting up with the main road into Wickenburg, about two miles from where he camped. A weathered wooden sign, sitting crookedly in the sandy soil, had Wickenburg 10 miles burned into it. McCord felt Pegasus tense. The road was wide, and level and he wanted to gallop. With a quick flip of the reins against the horse’s withers, McCord let him.
After running at full gallop for six miles, Pegasus wasn’t winded, but McCord had enough and slowed the big horse down. “Whoa, boy. I don’t want to ride into town as if a posse’s chasing me. We don’t need anyone to think we’re a threat, so try to act dignified.” Pegasus threw his head back and forth, making it clear that he was not happy.
Entering the town limits, McCord marveled at how one western settlement looked like any other. Wickenburg was no exception. A joint stagecoach station and telegraph office sat apart from the business section. Along the packed-dirt main street, he spotted the usual, a hotel, a mercantile, a bank, the sheriff’s office and jail, a barbershop, and a saloon. He headed straight for the saloon.
Dismounting, he led Pegasus to a watering trough where the big horse drank his fill, then McCord wrapped the reins around the hitching post outside of the saloon. With a pat to the stallion’s neck, he grabbed one of the saddlebags slinging it across his left shoulder and climbed the dusty steps to the boardwalk spurs jangling as he walked. Above the swinging doors, a painted wooden sign read The Lucky Strike Saloon.
It was mid-morning, yet several men were already nursing bottles of whiskey, a couple sitting at the polished wooden bar, the rest sitting at tables. In the corner, five men were playing poker, and from their tired faces, it appeared they’d been playing all night. Everyone turned to stare as the rattle of the swinging doors announced his arrival.
The barkeep, a small slight man with mousy brown hair, and round wire-rimmed glasses wiped the counter down in front of him as he sat on a stool. Smiling slightly, the man spoke with a heavy accent. “Welcome stranger, what’ll be?”
“Shot of your best whiskey, none of that rot-gut stuff.”
“My best whiskey cost upfront.”
McCord smiled. “Not a problem,” reaching into his vest pocket he pulled out a silver dollar. “Keep it coming.”
The bartender pulled a bottle from under the counter, and poured a shot glass full, sliding it toward McCord, who downed the shot in one gulp and slid it back for a refill. He had just taken a sip of the second when hands slipped around his arm, and a soft voice whispered in his ear.
“Ooh, I knew this was gonna be my lucky day, and here you are. Not every day a handsome thing like you walks into this saloon.”
McCord turned his head to find a young and pretty blond barmaid grinning broadly. His eyes trailed down her body, enjoying the low-cut white peasant blouse and full calico skirt she was wearing. He smiled back. “Hello, lovely lady.”
“Ooh…and polite, too. I think I’m gonna have to keep you. I’m Jennifer, what’s your name handsome?”
“I’m Wade, and I’m just passing through.”
Jennifer pouted. “Now, don’t go saying that when we’ve just met. I bet I can convince you to stay.”
“Aren’t you a little young to be working in a saloon?”
“I’m older than I look handsome Wade.”
The bartender, who had been stocking beer kegs approached. “Jennie, don’t bother the customers.”
“She’s not a bother,” McCord murmured, tipping his empty shot glass.
The bartender’s eyes blazed. “She’s not for pleasure.”
“Oh…Marik, you ruin everything.” Jennifer spun away, running through a curtained doorway into the back room of the saloon.
McCord threw up his hands. “I’m not looking for companionship, just some whiskey, and a hotel room.”
The bartender sighed, pushing his glasses up on his nose, as he poured another shot, “Promiň …uh…sorry…I forget sometimes. I am Marik Pecha, and I am from Bohemia. I did not mean to be disrespectful, but I raised Jennifer after her parents died in an Indian raid. She was twelve. No one else would take her in because her father was town drunk and her mother worked in saloon. I had just come to Wickenburg, and I fired her mother for her behavior with customers. Then they died. I could not let the child wander the streets. Sometimes people forget she is not her mother. I apologize.”
“No need to apologize. Taking in an orphan is a good thing.” McCord downed his third shot, then stood up. “I need to stable my horse and find a room, suggestions?”
“Livery’s in alley behind sheriff’s office, next to blacksmith shop, the hotel’s two doors down, tell Maddie I sent you. She will take care of you.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.”
McCord stepped out into the bright sun, slipping his black Stetson on, and untied Pegasus’ reins. Leading the horse toward the alley behind the jail, he was not oblivious to the attention he was receiving, realizing that word of a stranger had already spread through the town. Many townsfolk were peering out their shop windows to catch a glimpse of him as he led the black stallion across Main Street.
Dressed all in black, from his leather duster, jacket, shirt, vest, and pants, to black boots adorned with shiny silver spurs, McCord realized he made quite an impression on Wickenburg’s citizens. However, one citizen watching him was curious about something else he imagined. McCord noticed a man that he assumed was the sheriff watching him from the jail window. He had no doubt the sheriff was interested in the Colt pistol, called the Peacemaker, strapped low around his hip, quite interested indeed.
Pegasus whinnied loudly as they neared the livery stable, McCord laughed. “Hey buddy, you excited because you smell hay and oats or is there a sweet little filly in there?” The horse only snorted, and McCord laughed again. “I see, not telling.”
The livery faced the alley along the rear of the shops on Main Street. A blacksmith shop sat at the left of the livery, the smithy hard at work pounding red-hot iron. There were two large barn doors, one leading to the granary and supplies, the other to a large stable. As McCord led Pegasus through the wide stable door, a young groom rushed up.
“Mister, that’s a fine horse. I never seen a horse that big. He must be over 16 hands.”
“Thanks, he’s 17 hands, but don’t give him the big head. He already believes he’s special. I need to stable him for a few days, and he could use a good grooming. He also loves oats, but watch him, he’ll keep begging for them. Careful what you feed him.”
“No problem, mister. I’m Nick, and I’ll take good care of him. What kind of horse is he? I ain’t seen a mane and tail like that before.”
McCord removed the saddlebags. “Pegasus is a Friesian, from the Netherlands. His dam died foaling him, so I took him after a broodmare weaned him, and he’s been with me ever since. He’s three years old and mischievous as a child. I suggest you don’t turn your back on him and don’t try to ride him, he doesn’t like anyone else on him but me.”
Nick began pulling the saddle, blanket, and tack off the stallion. “Love this long mane, and tail, so thick and wavy. What’s his name – Pega – mean?”
McCord hesitated, old memories flooding back, and he shook his head to chase them away. “Pegasus was the name of a winged horse in Greek mythology. My mother used to read that story to me when I was young. When he was just a foal, he could run like the wind, so I named him Pegasus.”
Nick finished removing the tack, and McCord pointed to the saddle. “You got someplace safe to keep the saddle and all this?”
“Yeah, we got a room we keep locked, but we don’t have much problem, being behind the sheriff’s office.”
“Good. I’ll be staying at the hotel, Wade McCord’s the name.” Glancing at the rates posted on the wall, he handed money for a week’s boarding to Nick. “That should keep him in oats for a few days.” He turned to Pegasus, rubbing his nose, “Please behave.”
His first destination after leaving the stables was the hotel, the tallest building on Main Street. The cramped lobby was to the side of a wide three-story foyer and reminded McCord of every hotel he had stayed in since he began his westward trek. Dark wood floors covered in Oriental rugs, red and brown upholstered settees scattered about, hideous red-flowered wallpaper adorning the walls. A redheaded woman, about the bartender’s age, sat behind the front desk. He dropped his saddlebags onto a settee and approached the counter.
“Yeah, who’s asking?”
“Wade McCord, need a room. Marik said you’d take care of me.”
A smile lit up her face. “He did? Well, I’m beholding to him. That crazy woman running that new boarding house is trying to take my business. Me? I think she’s running one of those kindsT of places if you know what I mean. No respecting man would stay there.”
“I wouldn’t have any idea, ma’am. I’m not sure how long I’m gonna be in town, can we plan on a week for now?”
“Of course, just sign here, and you can pay for two days, then we’ll settle up when you leave.”
“Can I arrange for a bath this afternoon?”
“Of course, there’s a bathhouse just out back. Want me to have Pedro start the hot water?
“No, I need to go to the bank and stop by the mercantile first.”
“That’ll be fine. Just let me know when you get back,” Maddie replied as she handed him his room key. “Second floor, room 207.”
Returning to the foyer, McCord noticed the French doors that led to a large dining room, where he planned to have a steak dinner that evening. Climbing two stairs at a time, he found Room 207 only a few steps beyond the staircase. The room was more spacious than he expected, but all he really cared about was the big bed. Throwing his saddlebags on the floor, he flopped onto the feather-filled mattress. As he sank into the softness, he decided the bartender was right. Maddie took care of him.
As much as he wanted to lie on the soft mattress forever, McCord got up and grabbed the small black saddlebag. He pulled a chain with a small key attached from underneath his shirt and unlocked the tiny lock on the bag, withdrawing several bills of US Currency from inside. As he was tucking the money in his vest pocket, he walked to the window, which looked out over Main Street. He could hear the soft tinkle of a player piano, no doubt from the saloon. A couple of horses with riders sauntered down the street, while a deputy sitting on a railing watched everything. As he started to turn away, he heard the clattering of wagon wheels. A quick glance back and he saw a young couple arriving in a supply wagon. They stopped in front of the mercantile. The young man jumped out, tethered the horses, and then helped the woman from the seat. As the couple disappeared into the mercantile, McCord left his room.
The bank was on the other side of the street, next to the barbershop. A two-story building painted a dirty looking white with brown shutters on the windows that flanked the heavy wooden door. Inside, dark stained wood floors contrasted with the walls painted the same dirty white. A private, enclosed office took up half of the rear of the lobby and a bench with two teller windows filled the other half. McCord approached the teller window, where a pale man with thinning hair greeted him.
“What can I do for you, sir?”
McCord laid the small saddlebag on the counter. “I need to keep this in your safe while I’m in town.”
“Certainly, sir, please fill this out, and we’ll be happy to keep this safe, in our safe.” The teller giggled nervously at his attempt at humor.
McCord glanced up, uttering a small laugh. “That’s good.” He filled out the paper, signed it and pushed it under the iron bars of the teller’s cage. “I might need to access this, any problem with that?”
“No sir, just keep this receipt to show when you need your bag.” He pushed a small card toward McCord and pulled the saddlebag through the opening.
McCord turned to leave and nearly ran over a shorter, bald man standing in his path. “Ah, so you are the stranger who just arrived in Wickenburg. I am Richard Halley, and I own this bank.”
“Wade McCord, I’m just passing through.”
“What’s your business in Wickenburg, Mr. McCord?”
“No business, just seeing the sights.”
Halley shifted his weight, a bit uneasily. “Well—you enjoy your stay.”
With a tip of his hat, McCord answered. “I plan on it, nice to meet you.” He stepped around Halley and left the bank, wondering why the banker was so interested in his business.
The mercantile was next on his list. He wanted to get a new shirt and some cotton long johns. The wool ones he had were too hot. The wagon that had been in front of the shop earlier was now across the street at the apothecary. McCord pushed the door open, setting off a bell suspended from the top of the door.
“Eme did you forget…, oh…you’re not Eme.” The confused voice belonged to a man a few inches shorter than McCord. Of medium build, he had a kind face, framed by light-brown hair, thinning a bit on top. The man’s most notable feature was his inquisitive blue eyes.
“Nope, I’m not. Just looking for some shirts and long johns.”
“Oh-oh, upstairs, all the clothes are upstairs.” He turned away, absently gesturing with a wave of his hand toward the back of the store.
McCord climbed to the loft where there were racks and racks of clothes and shelves of shoes. He rummaged around for a bit, selected a couple of shirts, a pair of trousers, a jacket, and a couple of pairs of cotton long johns, then returned to the main floor.
“Find what you needed?”
“I did. You’ve got quite a choice.”
“Got a good supplier from back east. When the rich folks get tired of their clothes, he buys, cleans, and mends them, and sells them. I began doing business with him a few years ago. Now people come all the way from Phoenix to buy clothes.”
“Seems you got a good business going here.” McCord glanced around the large store, noting a dry goods section, cooking utensils, furniture, blankets, tools, seeds, a whole array of items for sale.
“Yeah, it’s a living.” He began to write up McCord’s bill. “You need anything else?”
“Let me look around.” He wandered the shop, not really wanting anything until he spotted a black leather satchel. Picking it up, he ran his fingers across the soft leather.
“Here, I’d like this.” As he waited for the proprietor to add up his bill, he stared at the satchel, thinking that if he kept this up, he was going to need to find a place to settle down. Pegasus was a powerful horse, but he couldn’t carry everything and didn’t want a packhorse to slow him down. He wondered if perhaps he was trying to tell himself just that, that it was time to settle down.
After paying the bill, he then asked the proprietor. “How long have you lived in Wickenburg?”
“Been here ten years, I— I moved here with my sister and her husband.”
He hesitated, a forlorn look crossing his face. “Yes, I do, most days.”
McCord chuckled. “Most days, about all we can ask for. I’m Wade McCord, by the way.”
“Wade, I’m Howard Martin. You in town long?”
“Not sure, for a few days at least,” McCord picked up the satchel now holding his clothing. “See you around.” Martin nodded.
Walking out into the hot sun, McCord realized he was hungry, wondering if the hotel served lunch. He turned toward the hotel when he heard a voice yell, “Get your hands off her.”
A feminine voice cried out. “Chuck, stop.”
Swirling around, he saw a thin young man pulling at the arm of a much larger man, who had his other arm around a small raven-haired woman. His companion grabbed the younger man and threw him into the dirt. “We told you, Mr. Grainger wants to talk to the lovely lady, now git.” He kicked the fallen man in the gut.
“Let me go, Daners. I’m not going anywhere with you.” The woman kicked the man holding her in the shins, causing him to yelp. He raised his hand to strike her but stopped when the barrel of a gun pressed against his temple.
“I don’t think the lady wants to go with you. Release her, or I will shoot you.” He glanced over at the other man. “Don’t make a move or your buddy here dies.” The steely gaze McCord sent his way caused the second man to back off.
“Who are you?”
“Doesn’t matter. Let her go.”
“I think you’re a coward. You ain’t gonna shoot me.”
McCord cocked the gun. “Want to risk it?”
“Daners, let her go, now.” McCord turned toward the voice. It was the sheriff, accompanied by two of his deputies. Daners released the woman and held up his hands. McCord lowered his gun and stepped away.
“Now, Sheriff, Mr. Grainger wanted to have Miss Spencer join him for lunch. We were just escorting her.”
The sheriff glanced at the woman. “Emeline, you are okay?”
“I’m fine Evan, let them go.”
The sheriff didn’t appear to approve, but he nodded. “You two, get out of here.” Daners and his companion mounted their horses, tied next to the wagon, and rode off.
Sheriff Logan went to the woman he called Emeline, gently taking her arm, “You sure you’re alright?” She nodded. “You and Chuck heading back now?”
“Yes, we just came into town for a few things.”
Logan turned to his deputies, “Boys, go get your horses. You’re gonna ride back to the ranch with Miss Spencer.”
Logan offered his hand to help Miss Spencer off the sidewalk, but she turned toward McCord. “I haven’t thanked you, mister, for coming to our aid. I appreciate your help.”
McCord felt as though a cannonball slammed into his chest. Standing before him was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her voice was soft, sultry, and he detected a slight French lilt. Her long, lustrous raven hair gathered in a clasp at the nape of her slender neck. She wore a simple white high-necked blouse and tan riding skirt. She was petite, the top of her head barely reaching his shoulder, and possessed the most incredible dark-green eyes he had ever seen.
He tipped his hat. “Glad to be of assistance, ma’am. Thankful that you and the young man aren’t hurt.”
“So, am I, mister…?”
“McCord, ma’am, Wade McCord.”
She smiled. “I’m Emeline Spencer, nice to meet you, Mr. McCord.”
Before McCord could reply, Logan reached between them and pulled Emeline toward the wagon. “Eme, you need to get home.” He helped her into the wagon, where Chuck sat with reins in hand. “You tell the boys to keep their eyes open.” He patted her arm, “I’ll come out and check on you.”
McCord was experiencing a sensation that he hadn’t felt in an awfully long time. As Emeline squeezed Logan’s hand resting on her arm, McCord felt a pang of jealousy course through his veins. However, as the wagon turned to head toward home once the deputies arrived, Emeline turned and looked his way, a slight smile on her face. His jealousy faded, replaced by desire.
A quiet voice from behind interrupted his thoughts. “Here…”
Howard Martin was standing behind him with the satchel that he had dropped when he ran to help Emeline. McCord took the satchel. “Thanks.”
“That was really brave to stand up to Grainger’s hired guns.”
“Who is this Grainger?”
“He owns the biggest percentage of land on the Hassayampa River plain, and he wants more. He’s been after Eme’s ranch for many years. He…”
Sheriff Logan walked up. “Howard, I need to talk to this man, could you give us a minute?”
Howard sighed. “Yeah, Evan. We’ll talk later Wade.”
McCord nodded, and Howard returned to the mercantile. “I’m heading back to the hotel, Sheriff, walk with me.”
“Who are you?”
“Wade McCord, but what do you really want to ask?”
Logan sucked in a breath. “If I were a guessing man, from the way you look, I’d figure you for a gunslinger or a gambler, but my gut tells me you aren’t either.”
“No, I’m not. Not gonna lie to you, had a few fights along the way, but I didn’t start any of ’em.”
“Just finished them.”
McCord scoffed. “I guess you could say that.” He fell silent, deciding that he just might be able to trust this man. “I’m just a guy who decided to leave everything behind and look for a new life, not an original story I know.” He stopped, leaning against a hitching post. “I’m from Maryland originally, grew up in a wealthy family, attended West Point against my father’s wishes, fought in the war as a very young man, retired from the Army as a colonel before they court-martialed me for disobeying orders. I took offense to a general’s order to wipe out a small group of Indian refugees who had settled near the fort. I refused and moved the group where they would be safe.” He stood up. “That’s it, Sheriff. You know all there is to know about Wade McCord.”
Logan stared at the tall stranger for a moment before he replied. “Somehow, McCord, I don’t think that’s all to know about you but thank you for telling me. We have enough trouble around here without adding more. Enjoy your stay in Wickenburg.”
McCord watched Logan walk away, wondering just how much trouble the town of Wickenburg had. As the image of a raven-hair beauty flooded his thoughts, he decided he needed to stay around to find out.
Water splashed out of the claw-foot tub as McCord surfaced after ducking under the water, rinsing the excess soap from his hair. Collapsing back against the sloped porcelain, he realized how much he missed civilization and its luxuries. He laughed aloud. He had just referred to a remote, small backwoods town as civilization. Perspective certainly changed things.
The door to the private bath creaked. Opening his eyes, he saw Pedro, the hotel handyman, carrying two large buckets. He motioned for Pedro, who he had paid extra to keep bringing hot water, to empty the buckets into the tub. Wanting a long hot soak, McCord sank deeper into the steamy water, feeling the heat penetrate his bones.
Closing his eyes once more, McCord reflected on the morning’s events. There was an undercurrent of fear in Wickenburg, and it seemed to point to the man called Grainger. He’d dealt with men like Grainger before, men who sought out small settlements to consume and control. Grainger was no doubt ruthless, power-hungry, and deadly, and he had Emeline in his sights. The one thing McCord was sure about was that Grainger wasn’t interested only in her land.
As the water cooled, he decided it was time to get out of the tub. Reluctantly, he stepped out and grabbed a towel from stack piled on a dresser. As he dried off, he peered at his reflection in the mirror. Fading scars from the war, fresher scars from more recent skirmishes dotted his torso. A few fine silver hairs peeked through his dark, messy hair and the thick beard he had grown out during his trek. Rubbing the scruffy beard, he decided to pay a visit to the barber. However, tomorrow would be soon enough. This afternoon he wanted to sleep, enjoy a good dinner, and afterward, relax at the saloon. Pedro was washing the clothes he’d been wearing on the trail, so he dressed in the new pants and shirt he’d bought from Howard, fastened his studded black leather gauntlet around his wrist, and returned to his room. He collapsed on the soft bed for an afternoon nap.
Dusk was falling over Wickenburg, as McCord headed downstairs for the steak dinner he had promised himself. As he neared the double doors leading to the dining room, he could hear the clinking of glass and murmuring voices. He walked into the dining room and heard his name called out. Scanning the room, he saw Howard Martin waving him toward a table near the window.
Martin was sitting with a man of medium build, dark-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and an impish grin. “Duncan, this is Wade McCord. He’s one who stood up to Grainger’s men today. Wade, Duncan Stewart, Wickenburg’s doctor, and before you ask, he’s Scottish so he might be hard to understand.”
“Howard, you nickey,” Stewart sniped as he rose from his seat, extending his hand to shake McCord’s hand. “Laddie, very nice to meet you. Howard told me about the incident this afternoon, how you confronted those thugs. Few people in this town, other than the sheriff, seem to have the courage to do that.” He pointed to an empty chair. “Please join us for dinner, Wade.”
“Thanks, I will join you.” McCord and the doctor sat down. “Don’t like bullies, Doc. Especially bullies who pick on a woman and a young kid.”
Doc Stewart sighed. “No one likes bullies, but lately, this town has had to deal with them,” his thick brogue rolling his words. “Ah, here comes Maddie, she’s a good mot.”
McCord looked at Martin. “Mot?”
Martin shrugged. “I don’t know, he says weird Scottish words, calls me a nickey all the time, but won’t tell me what it means.”
Maddie slapped Dr. Stewart on the shoulder. “Duncan, haven’t seen you in a few days, you avoiding me?” Her taunting question caused Stewart to blush, in turn causing Maddie to grin. “What can I get you boy’s to eat? Got a roasted ham, beef stew leftover from lunch, or cookie can whip up some elk steaks or beef steaks for you.”
McCord gave Maddie a sly smile. “I’d had your stew mid-day, and it was delicious. I’d like a big beef steak, not overcooked. I like it on the rarer side, can you do that? And a bottle of good whiskey for the table?”
“That I can.” Maddie turned to Stewart and Martin, who ordered steaks as well, then headed for the kitchen.
More people were arriving, McCord remarked to his companions. “I didn’t expect this place to be so busy.”
Martin answered. “This was a mining town for a long time, then the ranchers and farmers settled because of the valley’s fertile land. Not a lot of families here at first. We only started to see children in the last few years, and only got a schoolmarm about three years ago, when the new sheriff arrived.”
McCord perked up. “Sheriff? You mean Logan?”
“Yes. His wife Laura is a schoolteacher, set up the first school when they arrived. She’s got over twenty students now.”
McCord didn’t comment on the fact that Logan had a wife, but he was surprised at how pleased he was with that news. He decided to ask about the beautiful woman whose image had haunted him all afternoon. “Tell me about Emeline Spencer. Why is this man Grainger and his men harassing her?”
Martin sighed. “Eme’s grandfather, Anton LeMonde, came to Wickenburg nearly twelve years ago from New Orleans, right after the Civil War ended. Like a lot of people, he came during the gold rush. Unlike a lot of the others, he made a strike, a big one. Anton used the gold from the strike to buy a prime stretch of fertile land along the river and started a ranch. Hired some hands, along with a Mexican couple to tend to the house. They rounded up wild horses, broke ’em for sale, grew vegetables, and sold them in town. Things went well for him until Grainger arrived.”
“What’s Grainger’s story?” McCord asked as he poured three shots from the bottle that Maddie brought.
Shrugging, Martin replied. “We don’t know a lot about him, word has it, he came from Texas, Dallas, I think. Evan tried to find out about him but all he learned was that there was some kind of banking trouble, and Grainger left Texas and turned up here.”
Doc Stewart poured himself another shot, downed it, then added. “As soon as he got here, two years ago, right Howard?” Martin nodded, and Stewart continued, “As soon as he got here, he made friends with the mayor, Richard Halley…”
McCord interrupted. “Mayor? Thought he was the banker?”
“He is,” Stewart replied, “and he’s the mayor, won by a landslide after the Stagecoach Station Manager, Bill Mason, dropped out. Mason is well liked. He would have won easily, but something spooked him. Evan tried to get him to say what happened, but he refused. We think Grainger threatened him, but no way to prove it.”
“What kind of trouble did he cause for LeMonde?”
“All sorts of things started happening, horses stolen, crops destroyed. His hired hands were beaten, killed that one…uh…,” Martin struggled for the name.
“Tommy Bonds,” Stewart shook his head in disgust. “They found him on the road leading to the ranch, beaten severely, his throat slit.”
McCord leaned back in his chair. “Sheriff was never able to find out who killed him?”
Stewart shook his head. “No, boy smelled of whiskey when I saw the body. The conclusion was that some leg killed him over a card game. Tommy was in the saloon the night before they found him?”
McCord stared at Stewart. “Leg?”
“Uh, sorry, I forget, means a cheat at sporting.” Stewart’s tone was sheepish.
“The fact is, Wade,” Martin stated, “no one believes that anyone, but Grainger’s thugs killed him as a warning to LeMonde. LeMonde was feisty and stubborn. He wouldn’t sell the one piece of land that Grainger wants most of all.”
“The LeMonde ranch.” McCord’s voice betrayed his disgust.
Martin nodded. “The Last Chance, what Anton called his ranch. He told me his family had disowned him, something about a son-in-law from up east that hated his Cajun ways, turned his only daughter against him. He said he named his ranch The Last Chancebecause he felt it was the last chance that he had to make his granddaughter proud of him.”
“Emeline Spencer.” McCord barely spoke her name.
“Aye, laddie, the lovely Miss Spencer. Anton stayed in touch with his granddaughter after he left New Orleans. Apparently, she could tell something was wrong from his letters. She came to see about him but he died the day before she arrived. He’d written her to tell her he had a will and the deed to the ranch in a lockbox at the bank. She managed to retrieve the documents before Grainger had a chance to get Halley to intercept. Anton had willed everything to Eme and transferred the deed to The Last Chance to her.”
McCord leaned his elbows on the table. “What did Grainger do then?”
Martin scoffed. “Threw a fit, demanded the sheriff evict her, Evan refused and told Grainger the circuit judge would be in town within a week and would ratify the will. Meanwhile, Eme buried her grandfather and moved into the ranch house. When the circuit judge arrived, he affirmed the documents and that Eme was the rightful owner.”
“How did Anton die?”
Stewart shook his head. “He was badly beaten, his throat slit just like Tommy’s. But unlike Tommy, he was found hanging by his hands from a tree outside his house.”
Their conversation ended when Maddie and a helper brought their dinner. McCord concentrated on his steak, savoring every bite. After eating rabbits and other wild animals, he hunted on his trek between towns, a well-cooked meal, and good company gave him a sense of contentment as if he belonged in Wickenburg.
That sense of well-being lasted until a gruff voice interrupted their meal. “Doctor Stewart, Martin, nice to see you.”
McCord looked up to see a tall man with short curly hair, dull blue eyes, and a craggy face staring at him. If a man’s eyes were the gateway to his soul, then McCord realized that the man before him had no soul. His eyes were vacant, haunting, evil.
Stewart reacted first. “Grainger,” but the man’s name was the only word he uttered, the disdain in his voice unmistakable.
Grainger smiled, ignoring Stewart’s tone, and addressed McCord. “So, you must be the man who stood up to my hands this morning. I’d like to thank you for intervening. The boys took my request to have Miss Spencer to join me for lunch a bit too literally.”
Placing his dinner knife on the table with a thud, McCord replied quietly. “Grabbing a defenseless woman by her arms and beating on her young companion seems to be a bit more than literal, seems like assault to me.” His words hung in the air for seconds before Grainger replied.
“You are right, McCord, and I have dealt with them for their behavior. I must say, I could use a man like you. I understand you’re a drifter. If you want a job, just let me know.” Grainger continued to smile, but his eyes resembled ice.
“I might just be passing through, Grainger, but I’m not looking for a job. Certainly, not one like you’re offering.” McCord’s voice was low, raspy, his meaning quite clear to all.
Grainger pursed his lips, his brow furrowing. When he spoke his tone was menacing, “If you change your mind, let me know. Might be a smart move on your part.” He looked around, spotting Mayor Halley arriving. “Well, gentlemen, my dinner companion has arrived.” He looked back at McCord, “I’m certain our paths will cross again.”
As Grainger turned to join Halley at a table across the room, Martin muttered. “I hate that man.”
McCord leaned back in his chair. “Not liking him much myself.”
The three men finished dinner and headed for the saloon. The tinkling from the player piano greeted them as they made their way through the crowd. They found a table, and a comely barmaid hurried over to take their order.
McCord noticed Martin looking around as if he was searching for someone. “Who you looking for, Martin?”
Martin looked embarrassed and didn’t answer, but Stewart responded for him. “Ah, he’s looking for a wee lassie, the pretty little Jennifer.”
Chuckling lightly, McCord grinned. “I met her this afternoon. She is a pretty little thing.”
His shoulders slumping, Martin dropped his head into his hands. “Great, she’s not going to look at me now that you’re in town.”
“Martin, you gotta fight for what you want.” McCord taunted as the barmaid brought their bottle of whiskey and three glasses. She ran her hand along McCord’s arm.
“Anything else I can do for you, handsome.”
McCord blushed slightly. “No, we’re fine.”
She leaned down, providing a clear view of her corseted chest. “Well, you just let me know, and I’ll take care of you.”
Martin sighed. “See, I told you.”
“Howard, let it go. If you’d just talk to the wee lass, you might get somewhere. Now pass that bottle, I’m thirsty.”
As McCord passed the bottle, he motioned for the barmaid to bring them a new pack of cards. “Let’s play some poker, penny limit?”
Stewart laughed. “A friendly game. Not going get rich that way laddie.”
“Don’t care about getting rich, doc, just like to play poker.”
When the barmaid brought the cards, McCord looked around the room and back at her. “Where’s Jennifer?”
She pouted. “So, it’s Jennifer you’re interested in. Sorry to disappoint you, handsome but she’s at the schoolteacher’s house tonight. She’s been studying with her.” Still pouting, the barmaid walked away.
“Sorry, Howard, tried to help.” He and Stewart laughed, as Martin turned crimson.
The three men played late into the night, McCord winning most of the hands. Martin left first, saying he needed to unpack some merchandise that arrived on the stagecoach that day. Stewart said he head for his room above the surgery as soon as he finished his drink, while McCord decided to check on Pegasus before he returned to the hotel. Crossing the street, he ducked down a footpath between two buildings toward the alley as light from the full moon illuminated his way. He was to the alley when he heard a scream coming from his left, away from the livery.
As he ran toward the scream, he could hear muffled sounds, which soon became the voices of two men.
“Bobby, get hold of her. I swear we got us a live one. She’s gonna be fun.”
“Get off of me…,” a female voice cried out, quickly followed by the sound of a hard slap, and ripping cloth. The voice belonged to Jennifer.
“Damn it, Bobby get hold of her legs. Oh, look at them breasts. Now you little slut, I’ve got something to keep you quiet. Open that mouth.”
McCord pulled his gun from its holster and cocked it. “Let her go.”
Before McCord could react, Bobby, the man forcing Jennifer’s legs open dropped her and rushed McCord, knocking him to the ground. The two grappled, rolling on the ground. Bobby was large, inches taller than McCord and about thirty pounds heavier. His girth gave him an advantage, and he managed to land a couple of hard blows to McCord’s jaw and abdomen before the quicker McCord managed to knee the bigger man in the balls and roll him over.
Stretching to reach his gun that Bobby knocked from his hand, McCord grasped the cold metal with his fingertips and pointed the barrel toward the big man now curled up on the ground grabbing his groin. “Don’t move, or I’ll shoot.” He turned to the other man who had Jennifer by the hair pulling her to her feet. “Let her go, or you’re both dead.”
Bobby struggled to his feet, and circled behind his companion, grabbing his arm. “Carl, let’s get out of here.”
Carl pushed Jennifer violently to the ground and yelled at McCord. “You, you’ll pay for this.” The two attackers ran down the alley, disappearing into the darkness.
McCord rushed toward Jennifer, “Hey, you alright?” He helped her roll over, tugging her ripped blouse together to cover her.
Jennifer whispered, “Yeah, I – I’m good… I…”
“Stop right there. You let her go.”
McCord turned to see one of Logan’s deputies standing in the ally, pointing a gun at him.
“Deputy, it’s not what you think…” McCord was trying to explain, but the young deputy was nervous as his hand trembled, gun barrel wavering.
“I said, get away from her, or I’ll shoot you.”
Jennifer pleaded. “Dwayne, stop. Wade saved me. It was Bobby Trane and Carl Emerson, they attacked me.”
“I don’t care. You get away from her.”
Running footsteps echoed through the alley and within seconds, Marik and Doc Stewart appeared. Stewart approached Dwayne. “Lower your weapon, Dwayne. Wade’s a good guy.”
Dwayne nodded and put his gun away, “I’m sorry. When I got here, he was over her, pulling at her clothes.”
Jennifer sniped. “He was being a gentleman and trying to cover me up. You should have listened to me.”
Turning to Wade, Stewart explained. “Marik and I were outside the saloon when we heard the scream. I need to see to Jennifer.”
Marik was already kneeling beside her. Stewart dropped to his knees next to Marik. “Lassie, you poor thing, let me look at you.” He held the lantern he carried up to look at her face, revealing bruises, and cuts to her face and arms. “Oh, those bastards hurt you. Did they…?”
“No, Wade got here before they…,” she began to cry, leaning into Marik ‘s arms.
Stewart stood up. “Marik, let’s get her to my office.” Turning toward McCord, “You too, laddie. You’ve got blood on you. I need to check you out as well.”
They followed Stewart to his office, while Dwayne left to notify Sheriff Logan about what happened. Stewart was still attending to Jennifer when Logan arrived, slightly disheveled as if roused from bed.
Spotting Marik and McCord sitting in the waiting room, the sheriff’s first question was, “Is Jennifer okay?” His face softened when Marik said she was, and he continued. “She just left the house about a half-hour ago.” Obviously distressed, he chewed on his lower lip. “I should have walked her home, but I was tired and laid down for a bit. Laura was supposed to wake me up so I could walk Jennifer home.”
Marik walked over to Logan. “It is all right. Jennifer told me she insisted she could walk home alone. Logan, you live on edge of town. I can almost see your house from here. Jennifer has walked alone at night before. She did not think she was in danger, so do not blame yourself. It is not your fault.”
Logan didn’t seem convinced but turned to McCord. “You make a habit of saving women in distress?”
Shaking his head, McCord answered. “Just glad I was in the right place when I needed to be.”
Still distressed, Logan wearily sat next to McCord. “It could have been worse, over the last few years several barmaids from nearby towns have disappeared, never found ’em. Thank goodness, Jennifer didn’t end up like one of them.”
Marik nodded. “I am very grateful that you saved her from those men.” He shook McCord’s hand.
The door opened to the exam room, and Stewart escorted Jennifer into the waiting room. She was wearing what appeared to be one of the doctor’s shirts. “Jennifer’s going to be hurting for a while, she has some minor cuts and a few serious bruises, but she’ll be fine. I dressed the cuts and checked her over. There are no serious injuries. Marik, I’ll stop by tomorrow around mid-day to see how she’s doing.”
Jennifer spotted McCord and uttering a soft cry, ran to him, giving him a hug, “Thanks, handsome Wade, you saved my life.”
McCord seemed a bit taken back by the hug, awkwardly patting Jennifer on the back. “Just glad I came along at the right time.”
As the door closed behind Marik and Jennifer, Stewart turned to McCord. “In the exam room now.”
Motioning toward the exam table. “Sit up there laddie, let me see where that blood coming from, besides your nose and that cut on your lip.”
Logan had followed them into the exam room. “What happened, McCord?”
As Stewart began to clean his wounds, McCord answered, “I left the doc at the Lucky Strike and headed for the livery to check on my horse. Cut through that narrow gap between the barbershop and the butcher shop, just as I got to the alley, I heard a scream. Those guys were talking about what they were going to do to her, then I heard Jennifer’s voice.”
“How’d you know it was Jennifer?”
“Met her this morning, just after I got here, first stop was the saloon.” Logan nodded, and McCord finished his story. “I pulled my gun, and yelled for them to stop… ouch…”
“Sorry, Wade, I know that probably stung,” Stewart said as he wiped the blood off McCord’s cheek. “Laddie, you’ve got a cut on your jaw. I’m gonna need to trim some of this beard away to look at it.”
“Go ahead, doc, I planned on getting a shave tomorrow. Where was I? Uh, I yelled for them to stop, but that big bastard tackled me before I could get a shot off and started beating on me. I managed to throw him off me and get to my gun. They took off, and your deputy showed up.”
“Dwayne said Jennifer identified the men as Bobby Trane and Carl Emerson. Care to guess who they work for?” Logan’s expression was decidedly unhappy.
McCord grimaced as Stewart began shaving his beard from around his left jawline and the wound. “I don’t have to guess, do I?”
Logan shook his head. “No. You don’t need to ask. I’m gonna get my deputies and go out to Grainger’s ranch and bring ’em in if we can find them. My bet is that they headed out of town, and we’ll never see them again. Be nice if they turned out to be the ones responsible for the disappearance of those other women, but my gut tells me they aren’t.”
“Need help, sheriff?”
“No, McCord…you’ve done your share, you saved Jennifer. We’ll do the rest.” The sheriff tipped his hat and left.
As he cleaned the caked blood from McCord’s face, Stewart chuckled. “When did you get into town?”
McCord sighed. “This morning, it just seems like an eternity.”
“Well, you’ve certainly been at the center of things since you got here.”
“And here I thought I’d get a real bed to sleep in, have a good meal, pick up some provisions, and be on my way.”
“Sometimes things happen because they are supposed to happen. Maybe there’s a reason you are here. Jennifer certainly needed you and so did Emeline today.”
“Doc, I haven’t been needed in a very long time. Don’t have any intention of starting now.”
Stewart turned to a cabinet and was gathering some supplies. “Everyone desires to be needed, Wade.” He turned around. “The wounds not deep enough for stitches, just going to clean with a disinfectant and apply this plaster to cover it. You hurt anywhere else?”
“Just sore from being thrown around by that big thug. Otherwise, I’m fine.”
Doc Stewart placed a small plaster over the wound on his jaw. “Doctor’s orders, I want you to head directly to the hotel and get some sleep, laddie. Stop by the office tomorrow morning, I want to see how you’re feeling.”
Before he returned to the hotel, McCord headed for the livery as he had intended to check on Pegasus. Nick, the stable hand was lying on a cot just inside the door, sound asleep, and didn’t wake as McCord slipped past him to the stall where the big stallion was stabled.
Pegasus bobbed his head, neighing softly as McCord approached. Rubbing the horse’s velvety snout, he whispered to the big horse. “Looks like Nick did a great job of grooming you, you look quite handsome. Obviously, we both look better clean.” The black horse nudged his shoulder. “I hope you’re comfortable. We’re staying a few days longer than I planned. A very pretty woman is in danger, and I don’t want to leave until I know she’s safe. I promise I’ll take you out for a gallop tomorrow.” After scratching Pegasus behind the ears, McCord headed for a much-needed night’s sleep.
McCord awoke, slowly opening his eyes. Lacy curtains framing the window stirred in the early-morning breeze casting patterns of pale light across the room. Last night, he had quickly stripped off his clothes and collapsed into bed, falling asleep at once. Stretching, he savored the feel of the cotton sheets against his bare skin. He never slept in the nude on the trail, and he was enjoying the sensation.
What he wasn’t enjoying was the pain in his right side. He pulled down the covers to find an enormous bruise just above his hipbone, no doubt from the big man, Bobby’s fist. He rolled slightly to his left, covered himself with the sheet and quilt, falling asleep again.
When McCord awoke the second time, bright sunlight flooded his room. He sat up, reaching for his pocket watch lying on the bedside table, surprised to see it was a bit after nine in the morning. Sinking into the feather pillows, he debated on whether to get up or stay in bed all day. Eventually, he convinced himself that he needed coffee and food, and got out of bed, dressing quickly.
As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he spotted Maddie leaving the dining room. “Still serving coffee and breakfast, or is it too late?”
“No, there’s food left on the sideboard, and cookie just made another pot of coffee,” she grinned, “for sleepyheads like you.” She was carrying a newspaper, which she handed to him. “Here. Stagecoach from Tucson brought papers from back east.”
He headed for the sideboard, where he helped himself to biscuits, saltback, and coffee, then sat at a table beside a front window. He was reading the weeks-old news from the St. Louis paper when Doctor Stewart sank into the chair across from him, coffee in hand.
“Good morning, Wade, did you sleep well?”
“Yes, I did, long time since I’ve slept that many hours and in a soft bed.”
“Aye, sleeping in a soft bed is a good thing. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, sore, but nothing I haven’t dealt with before. How’s Jennifer this morning?”
Stewart shook his head. “That little lassie is tough. I think she’s shaken, but you wouldn’t know it. Marik’s done a good job helping her grow up considering the background she had. She’s smart, and she takes a lot of what happens to her in stride.”
“I thought I heard last night that she’s studying with Logan’s wife?”
“You heard right, there was no teacher when she was little, but Marik taught her to read and count. She’s over twenty now and was too embarrassed to go to school, so Laura’s been teaching her at night.”
“The Logan’s seem like good folk.”
“There are a lot of good folks in Wickenburg, Wade. You ought to think about staying.”
McCord didn’t speak while he pondered the doctor’s comment. “Yeah, been thinking about settling somewhere, Doc. Just don’t know if Wickenburg is the place.”
Stewart finished off his coffee. “I can see you’re thinking about it, laddie. You might be surprised if you looked hard enough that this is the place for you.” He stood up. “I need to get back to the surgery. You let me know if you need anything. I’ll take a look at that cut on your face later and change that plaster out.”
McCord finished breakfast while he pondered Stewart’s words. He found himself thinking about staying in Wickenburg but wondered if his desire to stay had anything to do with the lovely Emeline Spencer. Standing up, he put on his hat, deciding he was going to have to find out.
First, McCord visited the barbershop to have his scraggly beard shaved. The barber, Walter, was a small man with round, wire-rimmed glasses, and he liked to talk. Waving McCord into the shop, Walter motioned for him to sit in the barber’s chair.
“Well, now Mr. McCord, oh… in case you’re wondering, I know your name ‘cause Howard told me all about you. First, I’m gonna trim most of this hair off, and then I’ll give you a good shave, but I’ll be careful about that wound. Doc Stewart will get angry if I hurt you worse.”
As he trimmed McCord’s beard, he rattled on about Doc Stewart and Howard. How long they’d been in town, what a good healer Doc Stewart was, how Howard had made a lot of money from the mercantile. He talked about Marik’s arrival, years before, having bought the saloon sight unseen. Then he told McCord about Logan coming from back east where he’d been a policeman but deciding that he wanted to live in the west. Walter said the town was a lot safer after Logan arrived.
Assuming that barbers usually know all the gossip, he decided to ask about Emeline Spencer. “Walter, what do you know about Anton LeMonde and his granddaughter?”
Walter smiled. “Ah. Anton LeMonde, what a head of hair he had, still dark and thick even at his age, only a bit of gray. He was a good man, came in for a shave, and cut about once a month, and he always brought me a cigar. I don’t like cigars, but I smoked it anyway. It was a shame when he died, everyone thinks that Mr. Grainger had him killed, but I don’t know.”
At Walter’s use of mister to refer to Grainger, the only one in town who had called him that, McCord was curious. “You know Grainger well?”
Walter pulled two steaming towels from a covered metal pot sitting on a wood stove, draping them around McCord’s face, careful of his wound. “Mr. Grainger comes in real regular, likes to keep his hair just so, and I shave him a couple of times a week. He tips well. Now relax while I sharpen this razor.”
After listening to the slap of the razor against the leather strop for a couple of minutes, McCord mumbled from under the towel. “What about LeMonde’s granddaughter?”
Walter pulled the towels away from McCord’s face and began to spread lather across his cheeks and chin. “Miss Spencer sure is a beautiful woman. She arrived in town the day after her grandfather died. It was real sad. Mister Grainger offered to buy The Last Chance from her, but she wouldn’t sell, said she’s going to run the ranch the way her grandfather wanted. Now don’t talk, Mr. McCord, I need to concentrate shaving you around that cut.”
McCord waited until Walter finished shaving the left side of his face to ask his next question. “Where’s The Last Chance located?”
“West of town on Main Street, then take the road to the right about a half-mile out of town, the ranch is about a mile down that road.”
“Where’s Grainger’s ranch?”
“About two miles down the main road, past where you to go to Miss Spencer’s place, Mr. Grainger’s ranch is a bit further from the river. Now, when I’m done here, how ’bout a haircut, looks like you could use one.”
“Yeah, a little trim couldn’t hurt.”
Thirty minutes later, McCord stepped onto the boardwalk, clean-shaven and chuckling. Walter, as most barbers did, had become quite frustrated by the cowlicks in his hair. He’d dealt with them all his life, but his messy, spiky hair made barbers crazy. Walter suggested he wear a hat at all times, not like he hadn’t heard that before. He stepped onto the dusty street, put on his Stetson, and headed for the livery.
Pegasus pawed at the ground, throwing up straw. McCord patted his velvety nose, “Told you I was going to take you out, no need to be impatient.”
Nick helped him put the harness and saddle on the big stallion, who continued to display his annoyance. McCord filled his canteen with water from the well outside of the livery, mounted Pegasus, and rode west out of town.
Free from the confines of his stable, Pegasus was at full gallop before they passed the last building at the edge of town. McCord felt his pulse begin to pound. He had ridden toward Emeline Spencer’s ranch on purpose, but he was starting to worry about what he would say if he saw her.
At the pace Pegasus was galloping, they reached the turn leading to The Last Chance quickly. He curbed him to a trot as he turned onto the narrower lane. The stallion whinnied noisily in protest. McCord leaned over, whispering in the horse’s ear. “I know the boy. I’ll let you run as fast as you want on the way back.”
Tall trees, in early spring leaf, lined the lane, parting only where a well-worn path led to the river, McCord suspected. Rounding a bend in the lane, McCord slowed their pace to a leisurely walk. The tree line fanned out around an enormous open field, a fence following the tree line as far as he could see. Over the narrow road, a wooden archway marked the gate, iron letters spelling ‘The Last Chance’ fastened across the top of the arch.
McCord expected the farm to be rustic, but there was nothing rustic about the two-story farmhouse sitting on a small rise. The house had a decidedly New Orleans ambiance. A large veranda wrapped around the front and sides, a balcony along the second floor, ornate black wrought iron enclosing both. He wondered which of the mature pine and oak trees framing the house Granger hanged LeMonde.
A large bunkhouse sat north of the house, an enormous horse barn, cupola capping the roof beside it, and to the south, a smaller barn. From his vantage point, tucked in the tree line, he could see at least two paddocks where several Appaloosas, Paints, and Quarter horses were grazing. The small wagon that Emeline and Chuck had ridden into town was sitting to the side of the house.
At some point, McCord realized he was holding his breath. Even Pegasus seemed to sense that he wanted silence. He wasn’t conscious of how long he stood hidden in the trees, wondering what the lovely Emeline was doing at that moment. He muttered, “You’re being an idiot, McCord. Good way to scare the lady off if she finds you spying on her.”
He tugged on Pegasus’ lead, and they headed toward the main road. Once around the bend, he lightly tapped the big horse’s sides with his spurs. Within seconds, they were racing down the lane.
Back in Wickenburg, he returned Pegasus to his stall and requested Nick give the horse a good rub down along with extra oats. McCord decided it was time for his helping of oats, and he headed for the hotel. Howard and Doc Stewart were already in the dining room having lunch and waved him over.
Stewart pointed to him. “Barely recognized you laddie without that beard.”
McCord sat down, rubbing his chin. “Feels a bit funny to me, been a while since I’ve had a shave.” He peered at their plates. “That looks good.”
Preening, Stewart pointed to his plate. “I gave Maddie me mum’s recipe for pot pie, and once a week, cookie makes them for me. Always a surprise as to what meat he uses, but today it is chicken.”
McCord was looking around for the waitress when Maddie appeared, holding a pot pie and a cup of coffee. Smiling, she placed the food in front of him. “I had a feeling you’d be wanting one of these.”
“Thanks.” McCord dug in, then raising his eyebrow approvingly. “This is good, Stewart.”
Between bites, Martin questioned him. “What have you done this morning besides getting a shave?”
McCord didn’t want to talk about riding to The Last Chance, so he didn’t mention it. “Took my horse out for a run this morning, got almost to Grainger’s ranch, but I turned around.”
Martin mumbled, having taken a large bite of pot pie. “Your horse, that big black one in the livery?” McCord nodded, and he continued. “What kind of horse is he?”
“His name’s Pegasus, and he’s a Friesian.”
Stewart looked surprised. “Those horses are from The Netherlands. How did you end up with one?”
McCord spun his coffee cup on the tabletop, wondering why it seemed so easy to tell the people in this town things he never revealed to anyone. “My father was a horseman, a hobby, but one he took seriously. He brought two Friesians mares from a breeder in The Netherlands, and one was in foal. Unfortunately, she died giving birth to him. I happened to home at the time, and I took a fancy to him. One of the other broodmares suckled him, and when weaned, I bought him from my father.”
“He’s a beauty,” Howard mumbled again, a little gravy dripping from his chin. “I heard that Nick’s been letting kids into the livery to get a peek at him.”
Smiling McCord commented. “He does get his share of attention.” He noticed Stewart watching him. “Doc, what’s on your mind?”
“Nothing, I was just wondering why you rode west from town to exercise your horse. The east road is wider and straighter, the west road narrower and curves quite a bit. Something capture your attention out that way, Wade?”
Leaning back, McCord gazed at the doctor for a few seconds before he answered. “What do you mean?”
Stewart started to speak, but Howard interrupted. “He means you seemed to like Emeline, and she seemed to like you, so he….”
“Howard, I told you not to say that to Wade.”
“Well, he looked like a love-sick puppy when he first saw Emeline, and I told you she looked back at him with the same look. They like each other.”
“You are a nickey, Howard Martin. What do you know about the attraction between two people? You can’t even get up the courage to talk to Jennifer, other than to sputter nonsense like a schoolboy when you’re around her.”
Martin’s chest puffed up a bit, his face reddening as he glared at Stewart. McCord felt sorry for Martin and decided, once again, to reveal more of himself. “Doc, Martin’s right. I won’t deny that Emeline Spencer is very beautiful and quite intriguing.”
“See, I told you, Duncan.” Martin crossed his arms demonstratively.
The doctor smirked at Martin, then addressed McCord’s comment. “Emeline is beautiful, and she’s a fine woman, Wade. You could do worse.”
McCord took a bite of his pot pie before he answered. “Playing matchmaker doesn’t become you, doctor.”
“Aye, laddie, a matchmaker I am not, but we know Emeline, which gives us an advantage. Trust me. She needs you.”
McCord’s expression was dour. “I told you, Doc. I don’t want to be needed.”
“Everyone needs to be needed.” Stewart offered McCord a faint, knowing smile.
McCord gulped coffee and changed the subject. “Howard, I’m gonna stop by later, need to stock up on some ammunition.”
Wide-eyed, Martin sputtered. “You expecting trouble?”
“No, just used a lot of bullets hunting for food the last few weeks, need to replenish my ammo. Don’t worry. I’m not going to start anything.”
“Oh – okay, I’ll fix you up,” Martin answered, relief in his voice.
The three men finished lunch and parted company. McCord took a quick detour to check on Pegasus, then headed for the saloon. He wanted to see how Jennifer was faring. Entering, he touched his hat with his finger in greeting to Marik, who was wiping down a table. He spotted Jennifer sitting with a pretty and pregnant strawberry blond.
Jennifer smiled as he walked over to them. “Hello, handsome Wade, come meet my teacher, Laura Logan.”
Laura Logan gazed warmly with clear blue eyes bright. “We owe you a debt of gratitude for saving Jennifer from those men. As my husband seems to like you, Mr. McCord, I’ll like you as well.”
Tipping his hat to the lovely Mrs. Logan, he answered uncomfortably. “Nothing to thank me for ma’am, glad I happened by in time.” Noticing the math workbooks on the table, he decided it was time to leave them alone. “Don’t let me disturb you. I only wanted to see how Jennifer was today.” He hoped that his surprise at the schoolmarm being in the saloon wasn’t noticeable.
Laura rose. “We’re finished with our lesson. Since planting season’s underway, school is out for the summer. I thought it was better we have our lessons during the day, while we can,” patting her swollen abdomen, grinning. She appeared to sense McCord’s surprise at her presence in the saloon. “I suppose you are surprised to see the town’s schoolteacher in the saloon. I don’t judge people, and Marik runs a very proper establishment. Besides, my husband is the sheriff, so I think I’m safe.” She gathered her things. “Jenny, finish your homework before tomorrow. I’ll see you then — Mr. McCord, nice to meet you. I hope you’ll stay in Wickenburg for a while. Maybe you can come for dinner sometime?”
“Thanks for the invitation, Mrs. Logan, I appreciate it. Nice to meet you as well.”
As Laura left the saloon, Jennifer picked up her papers and linked her arm in McCord’s. “I didn’t have a chance to thank you.” She smiled sweetly at him. “So, thanks.” Rising on her tiptoes, she kissed him on the cheek, then ran a fingertip across his chin. “Um, nice and smooth. Come on. I want you to teach me to play poker.”
“Because I think you can teach me how to be cunning and win without cheating.”
McCord scoffed. “What makes you think I don’t cheat at cards?”
Jennifer grinned impishly. “Because you want people to think you’re just a drifter without a care in the world, but I think underneath you care about people. People who care about people don’t cheat them.”
She spun away from him, going to the bar to retrieve a deck of cards. As McCord followed her to a table in the corner, he thought Doc Stewart was right, Marik had raised her well.
They spent the next three hours playing poker, occasionally only the two of them, sometimes one of the regulars would sit in on a hand. McCord found Jennifer to be a quick study, with a sharp mind. They finished the last hand where she had bluffed McCord and taken the pot, a few pennies.
McCord shuffled the cards. “You certain that you haven’t played before?”
“No, but I’ve watched a lot of poker played in here.” She pointed to a group of miners who had been playing when McCord arrived in town the day before. “Those boys play nearly every day.”
“Tell me, what is it you want to do with your life. You seem interested in learning.”
A pensive look crossed her face. “I don’t want to be known for what my momma did. I want to teach maybe like Mrs. Logan does, or maybe run a hotel like Miss Emeline or Miss Maddie.”
“I thought all young women wanted to marry and have babies.”
She gave McCord a furtive glance. “I – I don’t think any man in this town would want to marry me.”
“You’re not interested in anyone in town, not even a nice shopkeeper?”
Jennifer blushed. “You—you mean— Howard?”
He raised an eyebrow mischievously. “So, you do know he’s smitten with you.”
“You think that…oh…” Jennifer stammered as she took in McCord’s words.
“Yes, I think…,” McCord stopped as Walter the barber ran into the saloon.
“Anyone seen the sheriff, there’s trouble at the bank.”
McCord jumped to his feet. “What kind of trouble, a robbery?”
“No, Grainger and Miss Emeline, they’re having a huge fight.”
That was all McCord heard as he exited the saloon at a dead run, his spurs jangling loudly. As soon as his boots hit the boardwalk, he saw Grainger and two of his thugs surrounding Emeline and the young man who was with her the day before in front of the bank. As he got closer, he could hear Grainger’s words.
“It’s in your best interest to do what I say, Emeline. It would be so much smarter of you to marry me and let me take care of The Lucky Chance. Otherwise, you might find running that ranch a bit difficult.”
Emeline laughed. “Marry you? I’d sooner marry a horse than marry you. I can take care of The Last Chance all by myself.” She tried to push her way past him, but the much larger Grainger grabbed her arm and pulled her close to him.
“You are a little fool, and if you don’t agree to marry me, you won’t have a ranch to tend to for much longer.” His voice was menacing, cold, his knuckles turning white as his grip on her arm tightened.
“Stop, you’re hurting me.”
When Grainger laughed at her plea, Emeline struck him hard across the face with her free hand. Pure rage flared on his face. He drew back his hand, intending on returning the slap when a strong hand grabbed his forearm. The cold barrel of a Colt Peacemaker pressed against his temple.
“Let her go.”
There was no mistaking McCord’s tone. His voice was even, low, raspy, and he was deadly serious. “I said let her go, or you won’t be tending your ranch, Grainger.”
One of Grainger’s two henchmen was restraining Chuck, the young man who had been with Emeline the day before. Throwing Chuck to the ground, the man started to rush McCord. Chuck reacted quickly, throwing his legs out and tripping the man. He wasn’t so lucky with Grainger’s other thug, who drew his weapon and jumped onto the boardwalk, shoving his gun into McCord’s back.
“You let him go, or I’ll kill ya right here.”
McCord spun around, bending Grainger’s arm behind his back, using Grainger’s bulk to knock the other man to the boardwalk. He repositioned the gun to Grainger’s neck. “Now, call your dogs off, and I’ll let you walk away.”
A voice broke through the low murmuring from the gathered crowd. “Grainger, do what he says, or I’ll let him do what he wants.” Sheriff Evan Logan stepped up on the boardwalk. “Eme, do you want me to charge him with assault?”
Emeline was rubbing her arm, a grimace on her face. “I just want him to leave us alone.”
Logan caught McCord’s eye, and with a subtle nod, McCord released Grainger and shoved him away. “I don’t like bullies, you hurt her again, and I’ll kill you.”
Grainger straightened his tan frock coat, his face a mask of rage. “You’ll pay for this.”
McCord glared darkly at Grainger. “I’m waiting.”
Grainger stalked away with his men, heading toward the mining office, while Logan’s deputies disbursed the crowd. McCord stepped off the boardwalk where Emeline was talking to Chuck. She turned as he approached, as though she sensed him.
“I seem to be making a habit of thanking you for protecting me.” She was trembling, but her soft, sultry voice was strong. Looking into her dark-green eyes, McCord felt his heart pounding. He needed to keep her safe.
“Glad to be of service, ma’am.” He looked at Chuck, “You okay?” The young man nodded, and McCord turned back to Emeline, who was rubbing her arm where Grainger had grabbed her. “You should have Doc Stewart look at that.”
“I’m all right. I need to finish my business in the bank, and then Chuck and I can return to the ranch.”
Stewart had arrived. “No, lassie, Wade’s right, I need to look at that arm. Now you and Chuck come with me and let me do my job.” Stewart led them away, McCord watching intently.
McCord realized that Logan was talking to him. “Sorry, …I…”
Logan chuckled. “I know, I’m happily married to a beautiful woman, but Emeline…, well.” He sighed. “You have to realize that you just made an enemy.”
“I might have made him angry.”
“Grainger doesn’t like to be embarrassed.”
“And I don’t like bullies who get away with it.” McCord glared at Logan, “Why didn’t you arrest him?”
“I couldn’t since Emeline wouldn’t press charges. Besides, the criminal judge is on his payroll, would’ve let him go.”
McCord sighed deeply. “This is going to escalate, sheriff, so what do we do about it?”
“We… you joining in the fight?”
“I’m not leaving here until I know she’s… uh… the town’s safe from Grainger.”
Logan shook his head knowingly. “That’s what I thought. Wade, you humiliated him in front of the townsfolk. He’s not going to take that lightly.”
“I know he won’t, but I fear that he won’t take his anger out on me.” McCord took off his hat, running his hand through his hair, “I fear that he’ll go after Emeline to retaliate.”
“I’m gonna send a deputy to the ranch to inform Ramon and Paul what’s gone on here and help keep watch for Grainger’s men.”
“Emeline should stay in town until we see what Grainger’s going to do.”
Scoffing, Logan crossed his arms in front of his chest. “Good luck with that, Wade. Emeline has the same stubborn trait as her grandfather. I doubt she’ll agree to stay in town while we deal with Grainger.”
“We can try.” McCord placed his hat on his head. “Want to go with me to Doc Stewart’s?”
Logan nodded his head, giving McCord a tight grin. “Might as well, I’d like to watch you try to convince her to stay in town.”
As the two men entered Stewart’s surgery, Emeline Spencer’s angry voice greeted them through the exam room’s open door. “Doctor, I am not going to let Grainger win.”
“Eme, you’ve been fortunate that nothing bad has happened since you took over the ranch. Yesterday and today, you were lucky that Wade was nearby, and that you have only suffered a bruise from today. I fear things are going to get worse.”
“Doc’s right, Eme, things are going to get worse.” Logan dropped his voice as he spoke to her.
Emeline was sitting on the exam table, rolling down the left sleeve of her blue blouse. She turned toward the voice, finding Logan and McCord standing in the doorway. “I am well aware that this is going to get worse, but I will not give in to Grainger’s demands. I just won’t.” Despite her defiance, her expression was grim.
McCord stepped into the room. “No one is asking you to give in, Miss Spencer, but the sheriff is right, Grainger’s angry, and there is no telling what his next move will be.”
Emeline started to jump down from the exam table, but McCord intervened and picked her up, putting her on the floor. For a second, she clung to him before pushing him away and murmuring thanks.
“Gentlemen, I appreciate your concern, but I need to get to the bank, and then we need to return to the ranch.” She moved to leave, but McCord stepped in front of her.
“You are in grave danger, and the sheriff and I think you need to stay in town tonight.”
“No, I’m going home.”
Stewart interjected. “You should listen to them, lassie.”
Logan smiled. “You can stay with us. Laura would love to have you.”
“Evan, Laura’s going to give birth any day now. She needs to rest and not bothered with company. I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
McCord felt exasperation building. Just as Logan said, Emeline was not going to listen to reason. He decided to try another tactic, if he could get her to delay, then he and Logan would have time to determine how best to keep her in town until they dealt with Grainger. Her reluctance to release him when he helped her from the exam table told him she was seeking support, or maybe she was looking for something else. No, he wouldn’t think about that.
“Miss Spencer, why don’t you stay in town long enough for Logan to send a deputy along with Chuck to out to check on things, let your people know that Grainger’s men might try something. Once there is security in place, Logan and I will take you home in the morning.”
“I…,” she gazed at McCord, “I don’t like letting him win, and if I don’t go home, Grainger wins.”
“No, if something happens to you, Grainger wins. We are going to keep him from winning and keep you safe.”
Stewart patted Emeline on the shoulder. “Listen to Wade, let Logan make certain you have protection, then you can go home.”
Logan spoke up. “I’m going to send Dwayne and Clyde out to the ranch with Chuck. They’ll tell Ramon, Paul, and Julio what’s happened so they can start keeping watch. Are you certain that you won’t stay with Laura and me?”
“No, besides, if Grainger tries anything, I don’t want Laura anywhere near me.”
Smiling, Logan replied. “Laura wouldn’t be worried, but I understand.” He turned toward Wade. “Would you escort Emeline to the hotel so that she can get a room for the night?”
“My pleasure, Sheriff. Miss Spencer, shall we?” He swept an arm toward the door, and she walked out McCord following.
Emeline insisted on finishing her banking business, and McCord went with her. She spent close to a half-hour with Halley, reading then signing several papers. Waiting near one of the windows looking onto Main Street, McCord was sure he spotted a couple of men who had been nearby when Grainger’s men accosted Emeline the day before. More of his thugs hanging around convinced him that Grainger was planning something. They needed to be ready.
The sun was low in the sky, and McCord wanted Emeline in the hotel and safe before nightfall. She had turned toward the mercantile, but he stopped her.
“If you need anything from Howard’s, we can go there in the morning. It’s almost dark. I need to get you to the hotel.”
Emeline glowered at McCord but agreed, and they walked to the hotel, where McCord requested a room for Emeline as close to his as possible. Maddie, who had already heard about the incident with Grainger, gave her Room 205 next door.
“How ’bout dinner. You need to eat.” McCord pointed to the dining room as they walked toward the stairs.
She smiled. “I am hungry. Let me freshen up, and I’ll join you in the dining room.”
McCord watched her ascend the steps, his heart pounding, being close to Eme was clouding his rationale of why he decided to become involved. He did hate bullies, but he realized he cared for her more. It had been a long time since his blood stirred as it did now.
He entered the dining room, taking a table near an open window. The late spring night was unusually balmy, occasional flashes of lightning and muffled thunder reached his ears. Thoughts about settling down swirled in his head, but he pushed the thoughts away as Emeline arrived. He stood up and held out her chair.
“A hero and gentleman, not a combination that one sees very often in this part of the world, Mr. McCord.”
He pushed her chair under the table, then sat down. “No hero, but my mother would have insisted on my being a gentleman, and please, call me Wade.”
“I want to thank you… Wade, please call me Emeline. I’m sorry that you had to become involved this afternoon. Grainger caught me as I was entering the bank when he was leaving. The smart thing to do was walk away, but my grandfather taught me when I was young, not to run from my troubles.”
“Grainger is more than trouble, Emeline. He’s vicious and will stop at nothing to get what he wants.”
“And what he wants is my land.”
“Not just your land, he wants you.”
“Well, that is not going to happen.” She sighed, “I’m certain that Doctor Stewart or Evan has told you that I arrived the day after my grandfather died. Grainger was already plotting to take the ranch by the time I got here. If it weren’t for Evan, along with Doc Stewart intervening, he would have succeeded. I’m not going to allow him to take what Papere worked so hard to build.”
She gave him a coy smile. “We are Cajun, ‘Papere’ is what I called him, it means grandfather.”
The waitress interrupted to take their order, and when she left, McCord wanted to know more about her grandfather. “What did your grandfather tell you about Grainger? Did you know how serious the situation was when he last contacted you?”
Emeline’s eyes widened slightly, a haunted look crossing her lovely face. “Mr. McCord… Wade, my grandfather’s last letter was disturbing. He was angry, worried, even though he didn’t say it with words, I knew he was in trouble. He mentioned Grainger and told me that he was certain that vile man was behind the troubles he was having.”
“From what I’ve heard, you have Chuck, who I’ve met, and three other hands. The ranch is big, that may not be enough to fend off Grainger’s men.”
“I suppose I could hire mercenaries to protect the ranch, but that’s not the answer either. I want to keep my grandfather’s dream alive. My only choice is to keep going.”
McCord didn’t reply immediately. He took a moment to assess the beautiful woman sitting across from him. She had redone her hair in a French twist, but tendrils had escaped and framed her face in soft curls. Her eyes were the color of emeralds, sparkling in the glow of the burning candles on the table.
Before he could speak, Maddie appeared with their food, two plates of chicken and dumplings, and hot cornbread. They ate for a few moments in silence, both hungrier than they realized, or both hiding behind the meal, so they didn’t have to discuss Grainger.
After a few bites, Emeline put down her fork. “Why are you helping me? Doc Stewart said you just arrived in Wickenburg yesterday, and that you are just passing through. I don’t understand why you got involved.”
He wasn’t certain how to answer her. Would he frighten her if he told her the truth? Telling her he had fallen in love with her would do just that, he decided — not the time to be honest.
“I don’t like bullies. I’ve seen Grainger’s type too many times. Men like Grainger will not stop until they get what they want or until someone stops them. So, I’m going to help the sheriff stop him.”
She picked up her fork and stared at her plate, moving a piece of chicken back and forth in the thick broth. “What makes you think you can stop him? Evan is a good sheriff. He’s not afraid of Grainger, but I don’t believe he can stop him.”
“There’s a difference, Emeline. Evan has the entire town to protect. I can concentrate on you and your ranch.”
They finished their meal, and McCord suggested that they step out onto the boardwalk. The early spring storm was closer, and the lightning was putting on quite a show. He and Emeline had just sat down on the bench in front of the hotel when the clatter of a fast-moving wagon echoed over the thunder. As the wagon sped past, driven by Dwayne, the deputy, Emeline sprang from the bench.
“That’s my wagon.”
Before McCord could react, she had jumped onto the street and was running toward the wagon, which has stopped outside of Doc Stewart’s surgery. He rushed to catch up. When he reached the wagon, Emeline was climbing into the back.
“What’s going on…?” He stopped when he saw two savagely beaten young men lying in the wagon.
Emeline knelt beside the one conscious man. “Paul, what happened?”
The pale young man, his face bloodied, stammered. “We were fixing a broken… fence row in the northwest field w-when six men rode up.” He stopped to spit out blood. “They told us they were gonna… teach you a lesson.”
“Enough, stop talking, chere.” Emeline turned to McCord as her eyes filled with tears.
The Last Chance
Emeline Spencer was pacing, and no amount of cajoling by the sheriff or McCord would convince her to sit. After several more minutes, McCord finally had enough.
“Emeline, sit down, you’re wearing yourself out.” When she glared at him, he walked over to her, grasped her arm, and sat her in a chair. “Now stay put until Doc Stewart comes out of there.” She glared again but didn’t argue and didn’t move.
McCord understood her frustration. It seemed like an eternity since Doc Stewart had rushed out of his office to tend to the injured men, directing McCord and Dwayne to carry Ramon into the exam room, while he helped Paul from the wagon. McCord then sent Dwayne to get Logan, who arrived minutes later.
Emeline, with McCord’s help, had cleaned the cuts on Paul’s face and hands and bandaged them lightly until Stewart could tend to him. Paul now rested on a cot in a room Stewart used for overnight patients.
McCord resisted pacing himself as the minute dragged on. Grainger’s thugs had beaten up two young men who were merely going about doing their jobs. The words Paul repeated angered him. They told us they were gonna teach you a lesson. Grainger went too far. He targeted Emeline through her trusted hands, and McCord was not going to allow him to get away with such vile behavior.
The minutes ticked slowly by until Stewart emerged from the examination room, drying his hands. “Emeline, Ramon has a slight concussion, took a nasty blow to the head, and he’s badly bruised. I don’t suspect he has internal injuries, but I want to watch him overnight. The good news is that he regained consciousness for a few minutes, said to tell you he got in a couple of good punches. I think he’s gonna be fine, but I need to keep an eye on him.” Stewart put his arm around her, “I’m gonna go tend to Paul. You let Wade take you back to the hotel. If Ramon’s better in the morning, they can both return to the ranch.”
“No, I want to stay here with them.”
“Not necessary, lassie, they’ll be fine. I’ll be staying with them all night.”
Logan spoke, “I’m assigning Dwayne to keep watch. Doc’s right about you needing to get some rest.”
“I’m not leaving until you’ve tended to Paul. I need to know he’s all right.”
“Then come with me, and let’s take a look at him.” Stewart stood up, extending his hand to help her to her feet.
As they left the waiting room, McCord turned to Logan. “You think the deputy, Chuck, and the other hand will be enough protection on the ranch.”
“Should be, Julio’s a good shot, and Conchita’s a better shot than her husband, according to Anton. I don’t know. Grainger’s determined to get that ranch, but I think he’ll lay low until he sees how this attack plays out.”
McCord didn’t reply. Logan seemed to sense that McCord was formulating a plan and remained quiet. When McCord did speak, his voice focused and taut. “I have an idea.”
McCord and Logan were speaking quietly when Emeline and Stewart returned to the waiting room. Stewart smiled wanly. “Paul’s fine, just bruised and going to be sore for a while. I don’t believe their attackers meant to kill these boys. According to Paul, Ramon’s injury came when one of the thugs hit him, and he fell, striking his head on a rock.”
Logan shook his head. “Nothing but a message.”
“A message meant for me.” Emeline uttered darkly.
McCord’s voice was firm and reassuring. “We’re going to put an end to this, I promise.”
“Well, laddie, we can’t do anything more tonight, would you please take Emeline to the hotel so she can get some rest.” When Emeline started to protest, Stewart stopped her. “Do what I say, the boys are going to be fine.”
Holding out his arm, McCord smiled slightly. “Doctor’s orders, let’s get you to the hotel.” Emeline slipped her arm in his, and McCord escorted her to the hotel and her room.
At her door, he whispered. “I’m right next door. Don’t worry, Grainger is not going to hurt you.”
Emeline turned to him. “I know.” Before she entered the room, she reached up, touching his cheek. “Thank you.” As the door closed behind her, McCord lingered a moment before retiring to his room.
Early the following morning, McCord was waiting for her in the dining room as they had arranged. After insisting she eat, they had coffee and biscuits, then walked to the surgery.
Doc Stewart was sitting at his desk. He smiled when they entered. “Good news, Ramon is conscious, alert, and fine to go home. He and Paul ate all their breakfast – oatmeal, don’t think either is up to chewing much else.”
“That’s good news, Doctor, thank you so much for all you have done.” Emeline hugged him.
McCord cleared his throat. “Emeline, I’m going to tell Logan you’re ready to return to the ranch. He’s going to go with you.” He hesitated. “Then I’m leaving Wickenburg.”
She uttered a small gasp. “Leaving? What do you mean you’re leaving?”
His face was impassive. “Time for me to go.”
“I – I thought…” Her breathing was rapid and shallow.
He tipped his hat. “Logan will look after you. Good luck.” McCord turned on the heel of his boot and walked out of the surgery toward the sheriff’s office.
Several minutes later, Logan brought the wagon to Stewart’s office, Dwayne, on horseback behind him, holding the reins to Logan’s bay quarter horse. The men helped Ramon and Paul into the wagon. Stewart was helping Emeline into the front of the wagon when McCord riding Pegasus emerged from the alley and galloped east out of town.
She halted, watching the tall rider and his magnificent horse as they disappeared from view. She dropped her head, but not before Stewart noticed a tear trailing down her cheek. He leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Don’t worry, Eme. Everything will be fine.”
Emeline gave the doctor a shaky smile. “I hope you’re right, Duncan.”
Logan glanced at Stewart, giving him a knowing nod as he picked up the reins, “Emeline, let’s get you back to The Last Chance.”
Pegasus was running like the wind down the broad road leading east from Wickenburg. McCord wished he could expend the energy his horse was, anything to forget the look in Emeline’s eyes as he told her he was leaving. Forcing her image from his mind, he kept a lookout for the landmark Logan told him about, which would lead him to his destination.
As Logan drove the wagon under the archway toward the ranch house, a large black-and-white dog came running to greet them. Wagging a shaggy tail, the dog barked at the two horses pulling the wagon, then scampered up the lane ahead of them. Logan parked the wagon next to the bunkhouse, where Julio, Chuck, and Clyde were waiting for them. The men helped Ramon and Paul to their bunks.
Emeline was tucking them in as Conchita appeared with fresh biscuits, honey, and coffee for the injured men. “Thanks, Conchita.” She turned to Ramon and Paul. “Are you certain that you want to stay in the bunkhouse? You are welcome to stay in the house while you recuperate.”
Paul shook his head. “Ma’am, the doc said I could work tomorrow. I feel fine, just sore. Ramon needs a couple more days than me.”
“Si, Señorita Emeline, I can work now.”
“No, you aren’t working now. Both of you eat the biscuits Chita bought and then rest.” She turned to leave, but looked back at them, “Thank you. I am so sorry you got caught in this.”
“Don’t worry, Miss Eme,” Paul’s face was solemn, “we’re here to stay.”
Joining Logan and his deputies outside, Emeline sighed deeply as the shaggy dog ran to her. “Did you miss us, Otis?” She rubbed the big dog’s head, prompting a flurry of tail wagging.
Dwayne handed Logan his horse’s reins. The sheriff told Emeline. “We’re going to head back to town, but we’ll be back to check on you. I don’t think Grainger’s going to try anything like this again. I promise you’ll be fine here.”
Emeline nodded. “We will be fine, thanks for your help, Evan.”
Logan and his deputies mounted their horses and headed back to town. Emeline turned to face Chuck, Julio, and Conchita. “Looks like we’re on our own. I’m going to change clothes, been in these far too long.”
“We take care of horses, senorita,” Julio said as he and Chuck began to unhitch the horses from the wagon. Conchita went back inside the bunkhouse.
Emeline started walking toward the front of the main house, Otis trotting along beside her. As they got closer, Otis began to bark and ran out of sight. A few seconds later, he reappeared, wagging his tail wildly, then disappeared again. As she rounded the corner of the house, she called to the dog. “Otis, what’s gotten into you?”
“Friendly dog, but not much of a watchdog. All he wants to do is play.”
Emeline stopped in her tracks at the deep voice speaking from her veranda. Sitting in one of the rocking chairs was Wade McCord, his long legs stretched out in front of him.
“What… What are you doing here? I – I thought…”
He descended the steps. “I’m sorry, but there wasn’t any other way. Grainger had men in town watching you. We had to make it look like I’d left, and you were unprotected. Logan and I decided we had to be convincing, so I couldn’t tell you. I needed you to have a natural reaction to hearing I was leaving Wickenburg.”
She stared at him for a moment, then exploded. “Oh, you and Evan Logan decided how I needed to behave. You didn’t trust me that I could react the way I needed to or tell me that Grainger was watching me.” She stormed up the stairs. “I’m not a child, and I expect you not to treat me like one.”
Taking two steps at a time, McCord caught up with her, blocking her way to the front door. “I’m very much aware that you are not a child. I said I was sorry, but Grainger’s not going to give up. So, we need to make him come to us and play out his hand so that we can end this.”
He held his breath, she was trembling, and he wanted to pull her into his arms, let her know that he would protect her, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t the right time. He would deal with his emotions after he dealt with Grainger.
Emeline looked into his eyes. Her voice soft when she spoke. “You think you can end this?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then, we end it.”
Emeline slipped around him, into the house without another word. McCord sat back down in the rocker, Otis sitting down next to him. Scratching the dog’s ears, he spoke to him. “Otis, this is going to be interesting.”
The bunkhouse was unlike any McCord had seen before. It was a large, rambling building. One end held two adjoining rooms with a separate doorway, where Julio and Conchita lived. The hands Ramon and Paul slept in a room that held four bunks, and there were two private rooms, one on each side of the dormitory with private entrances. Chuck unlocked the room at the end and handed McCord the key.
Walking in, McCord tossed his saddlebags onto wide bunk bed and looked around. In addition to the bed, there was a chest of drawers, along with a small table and a couple of chairs. “Private entrance, a door that locks, this is the nicest bunkhouse I’ve ever seen.”
Chuck grinned. “Ramon always kidded Mr. Anton that the only reason he stayed was the comfortable bed and Conchita’s cooking. He took good care of us. We miss him.” Then he quickly added, “But Miss Emeline, she’s real good to us, and we’d do anything for her.”
McCord agreed. “She seems like a good person.”
“Sir…” Chuck swallowed. “You came to our rescue twice. I think they would have taken her that first time. Thank you for helping, Grainger’s a bad man, and she needs someone to protect her. I mean, we’d protect her if it cost our lives, but I don’t think any of us can handle Grainger. “
“The sheriff and I can’t fight him alone. We’re going to need all of you.”
“You got us. She was special to Mr. Anton, and she’s special to us.”
“We’ll take care of her. In the meantime, what can I do to help around here? With Paul and Ramon injured, I imagine there are plenty of chores to do.
“Yes, sir, stalls need mucking, and we’re about to harvest some of the winter crops. Potatoes, onions, parsnip, beets, cabbage, and the like are almost ready. We plant different things all year due to the weather. With so many ranchers and miners in the area, plus the hotel, we’ve done pretty good selling vegetables once a week in town. Miss Emeline plans to grow chili plants like the chilies Conchita uses to cook. She thinks they will do well here.”
“What about the horses?”
“Paulie breaks the horses with Julio’s help after we’ve done a roundup. Ramon and I tend to the fields and the plantings along with Miss Eme and Chita’s help. We have all our meals in the main house kitchen. At night, we play cards or tell tall tales.” Chuck laughed. “Ramon tells lots of tales, he’s from Puerto Rico, and he likes to tell stories about pirates.”
McCord was stripping off his jacket and vest, grabbing an old shirt from a saddlebag. He changed, then looked at Chuck. “Come on, let’s go muck some stalls.”
They walked into the large horse barn, and Pegasus whinnied. Chuck approached the big stallion. “That’s some horse, Mr. McCord.”
“Yes, he is, and please, call me Wade.”
“I will, Mr. Wade.”
McCord shook his head. “No, just Wade.”
Chuck smiled and began to ask questions about Pegasus. They spent the next couple of hours cleaning stalls, spreading fresh hay and straw, and getting to know each other. McCord learned that a year after he settled in Wickenburg LeMonde discovered Chuck hiding in a copse of trees, the burned-out hulk of a covered wagon nearby, his parents and older brother dead, victims of an Indian raid. Le Monde buried the dead and gave the young boy a home on The Last Chance. McCord thought about Marik, who had raised Jennifer, then LeMonde, who had taken in Chuck, and realized Stewart was right, there were some good folks in Wickenburg.
In a stall near Pegasus was a small chestnut and white Paint mare, barely fourteen hands high. She had backed into a corner, McCord certain she was keeping an eye on the big stallion in the end stall.
McCord asked, although he already knew the answer. “Who does the little Paint belong to?”
“That’s Bebette, Miss Emeline’s horse. She’s a sweet little thing with a stubborn streak.”
Scoffing, McCord muttered. “Just like her rider.”
After they finished in the barn, Chuck led McCord behind the house through a side iron gate onto a thick lawn. Stone walkways radiated from a small central pond where a life-size, marble sculpture of a woman clad in a flowing Grecian gown stood. A tall wrought iron fence enclosed the garden with a gate leading to a vast field beyond.
McCord whistled. “Now, that’s not something you see every day out here.”
“Mr. Anton never got over leaving New Orleans. He had all this brought out here to give himself a little taste of home, he said.”
The image of a wood and stone house on a ranch in Maryland flashed through McCord’s mind, the grassy paddocks, the enormous stone fireplace where he sat beside his mother when she read to him. He understood the need for reminders of home. He glanced at Chuck. “Anton LeMonde was a complicated man.”
“Complicated and a bit eccentric, but he was a good man.” Chuck took a deep breath and pointed to the gate. “Outside the gate is the field where we grow vegetables, beyond that field is where we grow hay. We’ll walk out there later, and I’ll show you the irrigation system that Mr. Anton installed a few years ago, really increased our yield.”
“Sounds like you enjoy farming, Chuck.”
“Yes, sir, I do; I…” He stopped when the dinner bell sounded. “Come on, Conchita has lunch ready.”
The men entered the house through the small, enclosed back porch, which opened into a large kitchen. Ramon and Paul sat at a substantial wooden table that dominated the center of the room. Julio was placing plates on the table, while Emeline helped Conchita dish out food into bowls. At the sound of the door opening, Emeline turned, and McCord saw her take a small breath, or maybe the breath was his. She wore a white scooped-neck peasant blouse and a full skirt made of gold and brown patterned fabric, a red sash around her waist. Her long dark hair loosely platted, tied with a black satin ribbon, gently framed her face. He thought she was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
McCord walked up to Conchita. “Something smells wonderful, tamales?”
Conchita beamed. “Si, señor, tamales.”
“I love tamales.” He smiled, then glanced at Emeline, who was watching him with amusement.
As Conchita took the tray of tamales to the table, Emeline whispered. “Quite the charmer, aren’t you?”
She gazed at him, but only gave him a sly smile. She handed him a bowl of rice, taking the beans to the table herself.
They ate heartily. Conchita was a superb cook, and she took quite an interest in making certain that McCord had his share of the tamales. Ramon even teased her that he was no longer her favorite, causing both the tiny woman and McCord to blush.
The lunch conversation was light-hearted, but McCord knew that the pall of Grainger hung in the air. He decided it was time to discuss the situation they were facing.
“Everyone, I don’t have to tell you that we have a problem, a big problem with the name Grainger. No doubt Grainger’s thugs are the ones who beat up these two,” pointing to Ramon and Paul. “The sheriff and I agree. We think Grainger is not only interested in acquiring the ranch but is also becoming obsessed with Emeline. That’s why I’m here, to protect Emeline, and why I pretended to leave town this morning. Grainger will find out I’m still around soon enough, but for the moment, we have the element of surprise.”
Paul stopped mid-bite. “You’re certain that Grainger’s going to make trouble?”
McCord nodded. “I’ve known a lot of men like Grainger. Ruthless, power-hungry men, who think they are entitled to whatever they desire,” he glanced at Emeline, “and have no qualms about hurting anyone who gets in the way.”
Julio shuddered. “He is bad man.”
“Yes, he is,” McCord replied and looked at the others. “Boys, he’s not gonna like it, but I need to keep Pegasus out of sight for now. He’s temperamental, doesn’t like anyone but me riding him, so don’t try to take him out of his stall. I’ll exercise him when I can.”
Chuck seemed apprehensive. “What do you need for us to do?”
“Stay alert for anyone approaching the ranch, and I want someone with Emeline all the time.”
“I don’t need a keeper.” Emeline bristled. She rose, starting to clear the dishes until Conchita pushed her back into the chair.
“No, no… Señorita, I do dishes.”
McCord glanced toward Chuck, tilting his head slightly, pleased that the young man understood he wanted to be alone with Emeline. Chuck pushed back from the table, “Julio, let’s get these guys back to the bunkhouse.” As he left, Chuck tugged at Conchita’s sleeve, motioning for her to come with him, leaving Emeline and McCord alone.
Emeline was annoyed. “That was subtle.”
McCord leaned back, clasping his hands behind his head. He would have laughed at Emeline’s comment if the situation hadn’t been so dangerous.
“I must say, no one has ever accused me of being subtle.”
“I don’t need to be followed around like a small child. Grainger won’t come here. He knows he’s not welcome.”
McCord straightened up, resting his elbows on the table. “Don’t make the mistake of underestimating him, Emeline. Grainger may genuinely want this land, but that’s not the only thing he desires. He wants you, and I doubt he’s going to give up until he has you.”
She rose from her chair, walking to the window overlooking the lawn. Leaning against the glass, she folded her arms across her chest. “When I received the letter from Papere, I realized he was having difficulties, but I never expected…”
“Some men are bad, Emeline.”
She uttered a sarcastic laugh. “I am well aware that some men are bad. Tell me, Wade McCord, what kind of man are you?”
He shrugged. “I’m just a man, not always good, but not always bad.”
“Do you think that Grainger will come to the ranch?”
“Yes, I do, and so does Logan, that’s why I’m here.”
Emeline didn’t reply, turning toward the window. McCord waited until she decided to speak.
“If you think I need protection, even here, then all right, I…,” she turned to look at him, “I’ll listen to you.”
“Just make certain that for now that one of us is with you when you’re outside, and I don’t want you going off this ranch without me.”
Emeline walked to the table and began clearing the remaining dishes. “Now we have that settled, would you please let Chita know it’s safe to return?”
McCord rose from the table, grabbed his hat, which was hanging on the chair, and gave her a slight half-grin. “Yes, ma’am.”
The rest of the afternoon passed quietly. Chuck continued to show McCord around the ranch. The small barn held two dairy cows, currently grazing in a field next to the barn with a bull in another fenced field. A noisy chicken coup attached to the rear was home to about twenty chickens and a couple of roosters. They cleaned out the barn and filled the food and water troughs. Once done in the barn, they walked through the garden. Late in the afternoon, Chuck informed McCord that Emeline wanted to talk about her ideas for the garden, and for growing more hay. The two men headed back toward the house.
Emeline was sitting at the kitchen table, drawings of the garden and seed catalogs in front of her. On the stove, a heavy iron kettle was venting steam from under its lid, an appetizing aroma filling the kitchen.
Chuck grabbed a cloth and lifted the lid. “Ummm, you made bean soup for dinner. I love your bean soup.”
Emeline’s smile was warm as she teasingly scolded Chuck. “Put the lid back on. The soup is not ready yet. And before you ask, Conchita is making cornbread after she finishes some mending.” She pointed to the chairs, “Please sit down. Would either of you like a glass of lemonade?”
Both men were hot and said yes quickly, and Emeline poured glasses for all of them. McCord was surprised. “This is cold.”
“Yes, there is a spring just past the stables, the river runs underground for most of its length, and Papere thought the cold river water was feeding the spring. The water stays pure and quite cold all year long.”
“Chuck’s been telling me about your plans for the vegetable garden. I don’t have a lot of experience with gardening, so you two are going to have to teach me. Show me what you want to do.”
Emeline appeared perplexed. “Why would you want to learn to be a farmer? You certainly can’t farm traveling from town to town.”
“No, I can’t, but I might not always be traveling, and maybe I’ll need to know how to grow potatoes one day.”
“All right, here,” she tossed the paper book at him, ” you can start with this seed catalog,”
They had been discussing the garden for about an hour, when they heard Conchita’s excited voice, her words half in English, half in Spanish. McCord and Emeline were both at the kitchen door when an agitated Conchita ran in. “Señorita, Señorita… he is here.”
“Who is here?”
“That… hombre malo, Grainger.”
McCord grasped Conchita’s shoulders, hoping to calm her. “Are you certain?”
“Si, I go upstairs on balcony to mend. I like it there. I saw rider on gray horse coming down lane. He has gray horse. We saw in town once.”
McCord turned to Chuck. “Go out the back and find Julio and see if Paul feels well enough to help. Tell them to get their guns, but to keep out of sight. If Grainger starts threatening her, show yourselves.” Chuck rushed out the door, and McCord turned to Emeline. “Are you okay with talking to him?”
“Yes, I’m not afraid of him.”
“I don’t want him to know I’m here unless it’s necessary. I want you to go out on the porch to talk to him, don’t let him in here. I’m going to be right behind that door with my gun if he tries anything.” McCord headed for the spacious entry hall. He peered out the window, “It’s Grainger, and he’s about half-way up the lane.”
Conchita was still holding a shirt she was mending. McCord took it and handed it to Emeline. “Go out on the porch, act like you’ve been there mending.”
She nodded and started out the door, but McCord grabbed her arm. “Don’t take any chances.”
Emeline slipped out the door and sat down in one of the rockers. Otis, who had been asleep on the veranda, joined her. McCord pulled his gun from its holster, half-cocked it, and held his breath. He knew the bastard would show up but didn’t expect him to come by himself.
Grainger’s gray horse whinnied as they turned onto the path leading to the house. Emeline stood up, walking to the edge of the veranda, the mending clutched in her hand. Grainger dismounted and walked toward her.
“What are you doing here?”
He smiled leeringly. “What, no hello? Aren’t you glad to see me?”
“No, I am not glad to see you and would like you to leave.”
He lazily tied his horse to the hitching post next to the steps. “I’m afraid I don’t choose to leave. I need to talk, and you need to listen.” He placed a foot on the first step. “I have a proposal for you, and I suggest you agree to it.”
McCord tensed. He didn’t like the way Grainger was ogling her, and he didn’t like the bastard getting close to her. He tightened his grip on the Colt and reached for the doorknob. Just as he touched the knob, Conchita appeared next to him, a rifle in her hands.
“Let me go, señor. I will chase that hombre malo away.”
“Wait, I want to hear what he says, then you can chase him away.”
Conchita replied. “Si, señor, I will wait.”
McCord turned his attention back to Emeline, who had taken a step forward. “Don’t come any closer. One yell from me and my hands will come running.”
He paused, one boot still resting on the first step. “Really? You think your hands can protect you?” He laughed loudly. “I don’t think so. Anton was too soft, always taking care of the orphans and the needy. They are no match for my men and me, and from what I hear, that meddlesome bastard that was interfering deserted you. You need to face the situation, my lovely Emeline. I can take care of you, protect you. You need to marry me.”
“Marry you? I think I’ve already told you I’d rather marry a horse than a despicable man like you. I know what you did to my grandfather, and somehow, I’ll make you pay for it.”
Grainger’s mask of pleasantness faded, replaced by hostility. “You are no match for me. I will have what I want. I want this land, and I want you. However, if you don’t agree to my terms, the land I’ll keep, you – once I had my fill of you, maybe I’ll let my men have you.” He stepped up as if he was going to approach her. “You agree to my terms, and I will protect you. You refuse, I cannot guarantee your safety.”
Otis growled, baring his teeth as Grainger got closer to Emeline. Before the dog could strike, Conchita burst through the front door. Her rifle pointed at his head. “Get away from her.”
Grainger laughed again. “You think I’m scared of some Mexican whore?” He took another step.
McCord’s hand was on the doorknob again, but he halted when he heard Paul’s voice. “Get off Miss Emeline’s land, or we will kill you where you stand.”
Grainger looked around to find Paul and Julio approaching from the north side of the house, Chuck, and Ramon from the right, all with rifles pointed at him. He backed down the steps and unhitched his horse. “You may think your men or that mangy dog can help you, but they are all weak. Emeline Spencer, you don’t have much time, and I am so looking forward to my reward.” He hopped on the gray gelding and galloped down the lane.
Once Grainger was far enough away, McCord stepped onto the porch. He grabbed the diminutive Conchita by the shoulders. “You are amazing, that was very brave.” She smiled as Julio rushed to her, embracing his wife, whispering to her in Spanish.
McCord turned to Emeline, shaking his head. “I would’ve loved the opportunity to meet your grandfather, to thank him for giving you such strength. Emeline, Grainger’s going to escalate this, we need to be ready.”
He turned to the others. “We’re going to need to keep watch and stay armed. Grainger will be back with his thugs. Chuck, Julio, ride into town and tell the sheriff about Grainger’s visit.” He added. “Go to the mercantile and get more ammunition, Howard has a lot in stock. We’re going to need it.”
Chuck answered. “Okay, boss.”
“Paul, Ramon, you need to get as much rest as you can, go back to the bunkhouse.”
Conchita spoke. “I will walk them back, señor.”
As Conchita escorted the two injured men toward the bunkhouse, Emeline dropped into a rocker. “Boss?”
McCord sat down in the rocker next to her. “Grainger just threatened you, yet Chuck calling me boss bothers you?”
Her gaze was steady as she replied. “I’m not bothered by Chuck calling you boss. It seems natural for you. I know you were a colonel in the Army, Logan told me. Being in charge seems to suit you.”
“I’m not trying to take over your life and your people. I want to keep you safe.”
Emeline’s breathing was rapid and shallow as she chewed on her lower lip. McCord wondered what she was thinking, was she angry with him, or was there something else. She stood up, turning toward the front door.
“I need to check on the soup. We’ll eat supper when Chuck and Julio return.”
McCord sat, absently rocking while rubbing Otis’ head, for a few minutes after Eme disappeared inside. He knew Grainger wasn’t joking. If Emeline didn’t go to him willingly, he would throw her to those thugs after he had his way with her. He was not going to allow that to happen. He would kill Grainger first. He needed to bleed off some energy and felt he could risk taking Pegasus for a gallop in the fields behind the house. He reached for his hat, then realized it was hanging from a chair in the kitchen. Not wanting to deal with Eme in the mood she was in, he decided he didn’t need the Stetson. He just needed to think.
He met up with Conchita as she was returning to the house and let her know where he was going. Pegasus was impatient, pawing at the straw until he got the saddle onto him. As soon as he hopped onto his back, the stallion started running. Heading down the narrow path leading away from the stables toward the hayfield, he let Pegasus run as fast as he wanted. For McCord, it wasn’t fast enough.
Grainger was right on one point. The hands working on The Last Chance would seem too young to defend the ranch. What Grainger didn’t know was that loyalty was an excellent motivator. Everyone had been loyal to Anton LeMonde and had transferred their loyalty to Emeline. The ranch was their chosen home, and they would defend their ground, even to their deaths. Somehow, he needed to keep all of them safe.
Returning to the stables about forty minutes later, McCord headed for the bunkhouse. He wanted to talk to Paul and Ramon and formulate a plan. He knocked on the dormitory door, and Paul yelled, ‘come in.’
Dropping into a chair, McCord laid out his idea. “We need to keep watch. Grainger’s coming, and he’ll bring a lot of men with him. The Widow’s Walk on top of the stables is it for decoration, or is it real?”
Paul answered. “It’s real, Mr. Anton liked to go up there and look over the ranch and the river, especially at sunset.”
“Paul, I want you and Chuck to alternate standing watch from the tower. Ramon, you, and Julio will keep watch from the balcony on the house. Conchita and I will stay close to Emeline. Is there a cellar?”
“Yes, in the pantry, there’s a door that leads outside of the enclosed lawn, the cellar door is there.”
“Okay, I suspect it will take Grainger until tomorrow to get his crew together, but we need to be ready now. Logan will be sending at least one deputy to help us, maybe two, but I don’t know how many men Grainger will bring.” McCord paused, “If either of you wants to back out, now’s the time, and I wouldn’t blame you, this could get ugly.”
Ramon shook his head. “No Señor Wade, we are not going anywhere. This is our home.”
McCord smiled. “Knew I could count on you, now get some rest. Emeline said we’d have supper when Chuck and Julio return from the town.”
The western sky cast a rosy-orange glow over the ranch by the time Chuck, Julio, and Clyde, the deputy arrived. Chuck unloaded the ammunition he bought, while Clyde found McCord and Conchita at the small barn bringing in the cows. Only one was producing milk, and Conchita started milking the heifer as McCord spoke to Clyde.
“Mr. McCord, the sheriff sent me ’cause I’m the best shot of his deputies. He’s coming out tomorrow to see what’s going on. What do you want me to do?”
“Sheriff says that Conchita’s a fine cook, but I’m not hungry right now.”
“The sheriff is a smart man. She’s a fine cook. While the others eat, I’d like you to keep watch on the lane from the balcony then you can eat, that all right with you?”
Waiting until Conchita finished milking, the two men walked her back to the house. McCord took Clyde upstairs to the balcony, then headed to the kitchen. Emeline was dipping soup into bowls. Three pones of freshly baked cornbread sat on the table, along with a couple of pots of hot coffee.
Dinner was somber. No one was in the mood for small talk. After several quiet moments, McCord decided they might as well talk about what was facing them.
“I spoke to Paul and Ramon earlier about a watch schedule. Chuck and Paul will keep watch from the Widow’s Walk, while Julio and Clyde will keep a lookout from the balcony tonight.”
Conchita frowned. Her voice was sharp as she snapped. “I watch, too.”
McCord smiled. “Yes, you and I are going to stay with Emeline.” Conchita nodded in reply.
Ramon wasn’t happy, his voice indignant. “I can stand watch, señor, my head no longer hurts.”
“Yes, you can. Tomorrow, after you’ve had a bit more rest.”
They finished supper, once more in silence, McCord noting that Emeline had said nothing. She toyed with her food, taking only a few spoonfuls of soup, nibbling on a piece of cornbread. McCord asked Julio to relieve Clyde so that he could eat. Conchita rose to get a bowl of soup ready for him, leaving only Emeline and McCord at the table. Surprisingly, she didn’t move.
He touched her hand. “You alright?”
She wouldn’t look at him, “I’m fine.” She stood up, “I need to help Conchita.” She twirled away from the table and began to pump water into a bucket to rinse the dishes. She then went to the stove to get the bucket of hot water that was resting on the woodstove. As she reached out for the bucket, McCord slipped his arm past her.
“I’ll get this,” he was standing so close he could feel the rise and fall of her body as she breathed. He touched her waist to move her aside and felt her shudder. “It’s going to be okay, Eme, I promise.”
About two in the morning, Wade McCord was sitting in a rocker on the balcony of the main house. He had relieved Clyde a short time before after surprisingly getting a few hours’ sleep. Julio and Conchita were staying in the main house, across the hall from Emeline’s room. The covered balcony stretched across the front of the house, and three sets of French doors opened onto the wide porch. One set of doors led to a guest room, one set opened from the center upstairs hallway, and one from Emeline’s room. He was trying extremely hard not to dwell on how close she was.
The night sky was dark, lightly sprinkled with sparkling stars shining through the moonlight. The desert air turned cooler with the loss of the sun’s warmth. He shifted in the chair, adjusting the Remington rifle that lay across his lap. A creaking sound caused the hair on the back of his neck to bristle, slowly, he turned his head toward the noise. An apparition in white was walking toward him.
“I thought I heard your voice.” Emeline’s voice was as soft as the breeze, and he felt instantly warm.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you.”
“You didn’t. I haven’t gotten much sleep tonight.”
In the moonlight, she resembled a goddess. Her dark hair reflected the sparkle of the starlight, the diaphanous white gown, and robe swirled around her, satin ribbons glimmering in the moon glow. It wasn’t until he noticed she was carrying a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, that he realized she was no goddess but a flesh and blood woman.
“Whisky? It’s getting cooler out here, and I thought it would warm you up.” She sat down in the rocker next to him and poured them both a shot, handing him a glass.
“Just a surprise, you look more like a champagne drinker to me.”
She laughed. and her soft voice sent chills down his spine. “I am my grandfather’s granddaughter, Wade McCord. He taught me a good belt of whiskey could cure anything. However, I do hope you’ll keep my little secret, not certain the good folks of Wickenburg are ready for the real me.”
“I’ll drink to that.” They downed the first shot. Emeline poured another for each of them.
She was quiet. He waited, feeling she had something she wanted to say. She rocked gently for a moment before she spoke.
“I need to apologize to you, I – I’m having a tough time dealing with this situation. I lived most of my life in two worlds. My father, Roger Spencer, came to New Orleans from Boston to manage a shipping company his family purchased, one that competed with Papere’s shipping fleet. One day on the docks, he met my mother, Adelise. It was love at first sight for my mother. He was tall, blond, and blue-eyed, so unlike most of the men in New Orleans. Father says he fell in love with my mother from the precise moment that he saw her.”
“No doubt, she looked like you.”
“Papere always said I look just like her at the same age.”
“You called your father, ‘father,’ quite formal for New Orleans.”
“Um, you are perceptive. My father despised New Orleans from the day he arrived, but his family forced him to stay. He would’ve taken my mother to Boston if his family allowed it, but he was doing too well at the shipping company, and they refused to allow him to return. He did the next best thing and did all he could to raise my brothers and me as proper Bostonians.” She took a sip of whiskey. “He alienated my mother from Papere and Mamere, my grandmother, and kept my brothers, Richard and James, and me from seeing them often. He forbade us to adopt the culture of New Orleans. As I got older, I snuck away and spent as much time with Papere at his office or Mamere at the guesthouse. When I turned eighteen, my father decided I was too difficult to handle and sent me to a finishing school in Paris. I didn’t return until I was twenty-two. By then, my father had forced Papere to sell his shipping company to the Spencer family. All they had was the guest house, which they expanded to a full hotel.”
She paused, took another sip of whiskey, and continued. “The Spencer family paid Papere a great deal of money for the company, so my grandparents were financially sound. My father would never have allowed them to want for anything.”
Emeline rose and stood next to the wrought-iron railing, a soft breeze blowing her robe about her body. “I returned after the war began to discover my father had decided that I was to marry, a pre-arranged marriage to a man I despised — one of my father’s associates, a man twenty years my senior. Even my mother opposed the marriage, and she questioned nothing my father did. I rebelled, moved out of the house, and moved in with my grandparents. I never went home again. My father sent my brothers to Boston to fight in the war, even James, who was too young, but my father insisted they both join the Union Army, even though Louisiana was part of the Confederacy. Richard survived, although injured severely. James was never the same. Something he experienced affected him. Papere and I were hopeful that things would improve, but shortly after the war ended, Mamere became very ill and died within a matter of months. Papere was devastated, his spirit gone.”
She turned to look at him. “I took over the daily operation of the hotel since Papere’s heart was not in it. James came to work with me. He and my father were at each other’s throats, so I gave my brother the chance to escape him. One day I came home from the fish market, and there was an envelope lying on my desk. Papere transferred the deed to the hotel into my name, along with a large sum of cash. He also left a note that said he was going to seek his fame and fortune in the west. He was going to search for gold.”
McCord interjected. “I understand he struck it rich in a gold mine.”
Emeline scoffed. “I thought – I thought he was exaggerating. He sent letters telling me that he had struck it rich, that he had bought a large piece of fertile land, and started a ranch, built a house. He’d always loved horses, and he told me how he had begun to round up wild horses and break them. I didn’t believe him.”
“It’s understandable that you would think that, Emeline.”
“Well, imagine my surprise when I came here, thinking he was lonely, sick, delusional regarding the ‘bad man’ who was after his land and found he’d been telling me the truth after all. He had described the house, the barns, the people, and I didn’t believe him. He had been so despondent when he left. I thought the stories were all in his imagination. Then when I arrived, he was dead, Papere was dead, and I never got to tell him how proud I was of his accomplishments.”
“Why did you stay? You could have sold the ranch to someone besides Grainger, and you’d be back in New Orleans.”
“I couldn’t, when I arrived, all of these people, the ones here on the ranch and in town, they all loved my Papere. They knew and respected him as a man whom I never got to know. I couldn’t abandon them. They depended on him, and now they depend on me, but I can’t fight Grainger alone.”
Emeline sighed deeply. “I’m sorry I’ve been difficult to deal with these past few days. I suppose I can’t believe Grainger can be this vile. I wanted to tell you this because I still don’t understand why you are helping us, but I want you to know that my grandfather would’ve liked you very much. I can’t thank you enough for risking your life to help protect this ranch.”
McCord joined her at the railing. “Eme, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over believing that Anton was embellishing his life. Most people who come to seek their fame and fortune in the west don’t manage to do so.” She was shivering from the cool night air, “Go back to bed, you need to rest. I have a feeling the next few days are going to be difficult.”
“I suppose I should.” She turned to walk away but stopped. “Tell me, Wade McCord, have you found your destiny, your fame and fortune, yet?”
He chuckled. “Time will tell. Now go to bed.”
He sat back down in the rocker after she closed the door behind her, grabbing the whiskey bottle. Not bothering with a glass, he took a big swig. Resting his head against the rocker, he wondered if he had found his destiny in a pair of emerald eyes.
Sunlight was peeking over the horizon when the roosters began crowing, shattering the quiet dawn. McCord walked into the kitchen to find Conchita already cooking breakfast, a pot of coffee sat on the stove. McCord grabbed a cup from the cupboard and poured the hot brew into it.
“Um… smells good.” He whispered to Conchita. “Love fried eggs.”
She blushed. “Bueno, señor, biscuits are in the oven, and I will make gravy when Julio returns from milking cow.”
McCord sauntered to the table where Paul and Ramon were sitting. “Clyde and Chuck on lookout?”
“Yes, sir,” Paul answered, “We’re going to relieve them once we eat so they can have breakfast.”
Julio arrived with a bucket of milk, just as Emeline entered the kitchen. McCord noted that she appeared tired, suspecting she hadn’t slept well. He stood up, “Good morning. She mumbled good morning, and he continued.” Sit down. I’ll get you a cup of coffee.”
“You don’t need to wait on me.”
“Sit,” he pointed to the chair and waited until she sat down. Grabbing another cup and the coffee pot, he returned to the table.
“Thanks,” Emeline murmured as she took the cup from him.
No one spoke, concentrating on their coffee, until Conchita and Julio served platters of eggs, biscuits, and a bowl of chorizo sausage gravy.
Ramon smiled as he spooned gravy over a couple of biscuits. “Señora Conchita, mi favorito.”
As they ate, McCord talked about the day ahead. “Everyone needs to stay close to the house until this is over, and everyone needs to keep your weapons with you. The next time Grainger comes, he’ll come with reinforcements, and he’ll mean business.”
“We’ll be ready, Wade.” Paul’s voice was grave, the others nodding.
When they finished eating, Paul and Ramon headed to the lookout areas, and Julio helped Conchita begin to clean up.
McCord gazed at Emeline. “You need to get some rest.”
“I’m fine, besides today is laundry day. Conchita and I have a lot to do to get ready,” she stood up. “If you have anything you need for us to wash, be sure to bring it to the wash shed.”
“You barely ate anything last night or this morning, at least, eat something.”
She rose, picked up her plate, and headed to the sink. McCord decided that pressing her further wouldn’t help. It would only serve to anger her. He didn’t need her angry with him. He needed her to trust and listen to him.
Standing up, he took his plate to the sink, where Emeline was scraping dishes. “I’m going out to help Chuck with the horses. You stay with Conchita and Julio.” She nodded, gazing at him through eyes filled with worry. He gently squeezed her shoulder. “We’ll get through this, I promise.”
The morning passed uneventfully. McCord and Chuck tended the horses, and at mid-day, they stopped for a quick lunch of leftover bean soup. McCord then joined Paul to move hay from the curing stacks to a wagon for transport to the stable. The afternoon heat was building, and McCord removed his sweat-soaked shirt and continued to pitch hay into the wagon.
“Paul, Wade, I have some cool spring water for you.”
Emeline’s voice drifted toward them. Both men were on the other side of the haystack, and Paul appeared first, grabbing a dipper sticking out of the bucket. Paul drank a couple of dippers full, thanked Emeline, and returned to work.
“I’d like some of that cold water.” McCord was standing behind her.
She turned, and then gasped as she saw he was shirtless, McCord grinned slyly. “Umm, never seen a man without his shirt on before?”
Emeline, her petite frame bringing her eye level with his chest, slowly looked up at him. “Yes, I have, so don’t flatter yourself,” she looked back at his chest, dusted with thick dark hair. “You…” She bit her lower lip and didn’t say anything else, just handed him a dipper. He drank heartily, then gave her the dipper.
“Thanks, appreciate the water.” He locked eyes with her until she pulled away, drifting to his chest again.
She stuttered, “You-you’re w-welcomed,” then turned and hurried toward the house.
McCord and Paul had finished loading the hay wagon when Conchita appeared, “Señor Wade, Señorita Eme asked me to bring you this dry shirt, it belonged to Señor Anton. She believes it will fit you.”
Paul walked up. “She must like you.”
McCord’s head snapped around. “What do you mean?”
“After things settled down, Miss Eme went through her grandfather’s things. Chuck and I were the only ones who could wear his clothing, with a bit of alteration. But that shirt, that was his favorite, and she wouldn’t part with it until now.”
Made of soft white cotton with a muted brown plaid pattern, McCord slipped on the shirt. A little loose in the neck, but otherwise a good fit. As he buttoned the shirt, he wondered about the enigma that was Emeline Spencer. He slung the Remington rifle’s strap over his shoulder, grabbed his soggy shirt, hoping once this was all over, he could discover her secrets.
As they walked toward the house, Paul seemed anxious. “It’s getting late in the afternoon, and you think they’re coming soon, don’t you?”
“What makes you think that?”
“You were looking at the sun’s position. They want us tired after a day’s work. Reflexes won’t be as quick.”
“Sure, you’ve never been in the army, Paul?”
The young man didn’t reply immediately. When he did, there was pain in his voice. “Lived with an Army man, my father, who used to talk about military strategy. He was good at that but a bastard otherwise. His idea of discipline was beatin’ his kids. I left when he beat my younger brother to death, didn’t stay around for his hanging.”
McCord sucked in a breath. “Sorry…,” he paused, “but you are right. I think they’ll be here soon, for just the reasons you said. I need you to make sure that everyone is close to the house, just in case, and tell Chuck what we’re thinking. I’m going to talk to Emeline.”
Paul said yes and took off running to the stable where Chuck was in the Widow’s Walk. McCord headed for the front of the house, where he called up to Julio, who had just replaced Clyde on watch, and told him to be alert.
He stepped onto the veranda where Otis lay asleep, staying out of the sun. The big dog wagged his tail as McCord walked by, then settled down. He walked into the house, which was cool and dark. He looked around at the furniture that Anton had ordered from New Orleans and Paris. Clearly, Anton missed his life in New Orleans and attempted to recreate it on a plain in Arizona, and now his granddaughter was fighting to preserve his dream. McCord was beginning to believe the dream was as worthy of preserving as the people were. Hearing Emeline and Conchita talking in the kitchen, he was at the door’s threshold when he heard the dinner bell. Julio had the bell to warn them. Running to the front window, McCord saw a cloud of dust along the lane.
“Wade, is it them?” Emeline was breathless as she and Conchita joined him.
“Yes, now stay in here.” He touched her face. “Don’t come out.”
McCord stepped onto the veranda spotting Clyde, Ramon, and Paul heading for the defense locations they had determined earlier. The watcher on the balcony, Julio, at the moment, was going to stay in his location. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. Chuck was rushing toward him.
“There’s ten of ’em. I don’t see Grainger’s horse with ’em.”
“Grainger wouldn’t come. He’s letting his thugs do his dirty work. You ready to do this?” Chuck nodded at McCord. “Then let’s do this, time to let these bastards know I haven’t left town.”
Noticing Otis, he opened the door. “Boy, I’m afraid they might decide to hurt you, you need to sit this one out. Get in the house.” He closed the door behind the dog.
As Grainger’s men got closer, McCord recognized the lead rider, Daners, the man who accosted Emeline the day they met. Some of the others he recognized them from Wickenburg.
McCord and Chuck stood at the top of the steps, rifles in hand, as Daners and the others rode up. Daners hopped off his horse, walking to the bottom of the steps.
“Well, well, the hero didn’t leave town, after all. Protecting the lady’s honor, I see.”
“Get off this land.”
“No, can’t do that. I got a document for Miss Emeline to sign. If she don’t, she’ll leave us no choice but to take what we want. “
“Tell Grainger, no deal.”
“Whoa, I never said I was here on behalf of Mr. Grainger. Why he’d never try to force the lovely Emeline into making a deal with him, but I will. Now get the little lady out here so I can get her signature, then we can leave, and I think we’ll take her with us.”
“Not going to happen, now I’ve told you to get off this property.” As McCord spoke, the other men with Daners dismounted, weapons in hand.
Daners moved closer to the steps, a weapon drawn. “I told you to get that woman out here to sign this, or we take this land, and I’ll kill everyone here, starting with you, hero.”
McCord didn’t blink. “No.”
Daners motioned to his men. “Boys, take ‘em!”
As the men raised their weapons, Paul called out. “I wouldn’t do that. We’ve got you covered.”
One of the raiders fired, missing Paul. Clyde was luckier. His shot took the man down. Two other raiders ducked behind their horses not realizing that Julio was on the balcony. McCord heard two shots from above, and both men fell, one shot by Julio and one by Conchita.
Daners had turned to see who had fallen, then spun around firing at McCord. Quicker than Daners, McCord pulled the rifle’s trigger, hitting the man in the shoulder. Another raider raised his weapon, but Ramon tackled him from behind, knocking him out with the butt of his rifle. Chuck fired on another but missed as a bullet grazed his upper right arm. McCord shot Chuck’s attacker and yelled out. “It’s over. Drop your weapons.”
Two of the men jumped on their horses and fled down the lane. The other two, too far away from their mounts, dropped their weapons. McCord rushed down the steps, forcing the two men on the ground at gunpoint.
“Paul, Clyde, tie them up. Ramon, check on the ones that got shot.” He spun around. “Chuck, you okay?”
Chuck was leaning against a post on the veranda, clutching his bloody arm. “I’m fine.”
As McCord walked toward Clyde, he heard Ramon scream, “Señor Wade, look out.”
As he spun toward Ramon’s voice, he heard a loud retort from a rifle, and in that instant, braced for the searing burn of a bullet. Instead, he heard a grunt as Daners’ body jerked, impacted by the shot. McCord looked in the direction of the gunshot to see Emeline standing on the porch, rifle in hand.
Racing up the steps, he took the rifle from her. “You all right?” His voice was ragged.
“He was going to kill you.”
“Thanks to you, he didn’t. Why don’t you tend Chuck’s wound? I need to talk to the deputy.” Emeline nodded and hurried to Chuck.
McCord joined Ramon, who was checking Daners. Ramon shook his head. “He is dead.” Ramon pried a gun from Daners’ hand. “Dios Mio. He grabbed gun dropped by the man I tackled, lo siento.”
“No need to be sorry, we’re lucky Chuck’s wound is minor, and no one else is hurt. Get Conchita and see how badly the other two are hurt.”
McCord headed to Clyde and Paul, who were tying up the two men who had surrendered. “Clyde, didn’t you tell me the sheriff was coming out here?”
“He said he was, don’t know why he’s not here yet.”
“Paul, get the wagon, we’ll put the wounded and the dead on the wagon, then put these two on their horses. You and Clyde can take them to town, Clyde can tell the sheriff what happened.”
At Paul’s use of ‘boss,’ McCord glanced toward the veranda. Emeline was wrapping a bandage around Chuck’s upper arm. She seemed calm, but he wondered how she was going to deal with killing a man.
The shout from Julio startled him. Following Julio’s pointed arm, he saw another cloud of dust moving along the lane. “Grab your weapons and get in position.” Realizing he was still holding Emeline’s rifle, he rushed up the steps.
“Get Chuck inside.”
Chuck shook his head, “No, wound ain’t that bad, I’m staying.”
Emeline took her rifle. “I’m staying, too.”
He glared at her but knew arguing with her would not make a difference. She was staying. He called out to Clyde, who was in a better position to see who was coming. “Clyde, who is it?”
Clyde, standing alongside Paul behind the wagon, rifles resting on the sideboard, didn’t answer immediately. McCord saw him stand up, dropping his weapon, ‘It’s the sheriff.”
Logan was leading a group of six men, Dwayne, another deputy named Jack, two miners McCord recognized from the saloon, Doc Stewart, and surprisingly, Howard Martin. Hopping off his horse, Logan took stock of the scene before him.
“Got here a little late, I see.”
McCord dropped his head, blowing out a deep breath. “Just a bit.”
McCord nodded. “Mostly. Bastards shot Chuck in the arm, but the wound isn’t bad. Doc, we got five wounded men. Two of the bastards are tied up, two got away, and Daners is dead.”
Logan walked over to the body. “So, Grainger sent him to do his dirty work, not surprised you shot him.”
“I didn’t kill him,” he tilted his head toward the veranda. “She did.”
Logan uttered a low whistle, “Emeline killed him?”
“He had the drop on me, and she had a clear shot.”
“She is okay?”
“Don’t know yet.” McCord watched her for a few seconds, as she was helping Chuck into the house. He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll make sure she is.” Shaking off his concern for Emeline, he continued, “Brought the wagon around to load up Daners’ body, and the wounded.”
“We’ll take them back to town. I’m gonna talk to Eme for a minute if that’s okay with you.”
“Sure, but you should know she’s angry at us for letting her think I’d left. She’s already yelled at me.”
Logan grinned. “Won’t bother me a bit, got a wife about to have a baby. She has been a bit cranky lately. I think I can handle Eme.”
Logan disappeared into the house, and McCord walked over Howard, who was helping the doc. He waited until Stewart finished bandaging the shoulder wound on one of the injured men, then slapped Howard on the back. “Didn’t expect to see you out here, thanks for coming to help.”
Howard looked despondent. “I know. No one thinks I can help when it comes to this kind of stuff, but I had to come. It’s Emeline. and I owe her.”
“Yes, owe her or actually, owe Anton. I got into money troubles during the Indian raids a few years ago, lost merchandise to attacks, people not coming into town often. Anton gave me the money to stay afloat. I’d be destitute right now if he hadn’t, so I have to help her. I would, anyway. She’s good people.” Howard paused. “Besides, I… I think you should stay in Wickenburg. She needs you, and the town needs you.”
“So, you were willing to risk your own life for Emeline and me?” McCord squeezed Howard’s shoulder. “You’re a good man, Howard Martin.”
Martin gave McCord a small, crooked smile. “I am pretty brave, aren’t I?”
“Keep telling yourself that. You’ll believe it someday.” McCord grinned mischievously. Wanting to see about Emeline, he started to walk away but added, “Howard, Jennifer believes you’re a good man.”
He bounded up the steps to the house, chuckling at Howard’s reddened face. Inside, he found Emeline sitting on the settee, with Otis beside her and an angry look on her face. Logan perched on the edge of a chair, elbows on his knees, holding his hat.
McCord plopped down in another chair. “So, she yelled at you, too.”
Emeline glared at him. “Watch out, Wade McCord, or you’ll be next.”
Logan snorted. “Good luck, Wade. Emeline and I were just discussing her returning to town with Dr. Stewart, while we keep watch on the farm. You took out a number of Grainger’s people today, and he’s going to be incredibly angry. He’ll try something else.”
“Logan’s right, Eme, you’d be safer in town.”
She stood up, striding to the window, Otis trotting along with her. “None of us will be safe until Grainger is dead. I want this ended.”
“So, do we Emeline, the reason I couldn’t get here any faster is that Grainger sent men into town to start a ruckus to prevent us from helping you. Someone tried to rob the bank. We had fistfights breaking out all over town. One of the idiots took Walter hostage until he managed to get a razor out of his pocket. Took doc fifteen stitches to close the kidnapper’s wound. I’ve got about nine men in lock-up now. Gonna have to build a bigger jail if this keeps up. My point is, we’ve made a big dent in Grainger’s manpower, but I don’t think that’s gonna stop him.”
Emeline whispered. “Nothing’s going to stop him, but a bullet.”
McCord and Logan exchanged glances, and McCord quietly replied. “I think you’re right, but you don’t have to be the one to kill him.”
She turned toward him, cold rage in her eyes. “He killed Parterre, and he tried to kill us. He needs to die.”
Logan sucked in a breath. “We’ll get him together.”
Twilight settled over the ranch. Logan, Stewart, Martin, and all the others except Dwayne had returned to town with the remnants of Grainger’s raiding party. Chuck, although insisting he was fine, had agreed to rest and returned to the bunkhouse. Conchita was preparing a quick supper of beans, rice, and chorizo along with fresh tortillas, Emeline helping her.
McCord walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table, watching Emeline preparing the tortillas. Otis, who had not left her side since the afternoon’s events, wagged his tail at McCord but didn’t leave his post. The sound of the shaggy tail hitting the polished wood floor caused Emeline to turn. His heart skipped a beat when, once more, she drew a shallow breath when she saw him.
“Smells good in here.”
Emeline smiled slightly. “All thanks to the wonderful cooking of Conchita. I’m learning a lot from her.” Conchita giggled but kept cooking.
“Everyone’s back in place keeping a lookout, but I agree with Logan. Grainger won’t try anything tonight, going to take time for him to regroup.”
She finished the tortillas and covered them with a cloth. “But he will try again, and at what cost?” She sat down across from McCord. “Maybe I should let him have the ranch. I don’t want you or anyone hurt because of me.”
“Where’s that defiance from this afternoon? If I remember correctly, you were ready to hunt Grainger down and kill him with your bare hands.”
“Don’t make fun of me.”
McCord dropped his head in his hands for a second, then looked at her. “I’m not, but with what’s happened, your emotions are all over the place. You shot a man this afternoon, Emeline, which will affect you, no matter how much he deserved to die.”
“I know what I did, and I would do it again. You need to believe me. I would do it again.”
“I do believe you, and I know I’d be dead right now if you hadn’t shot Daners. I also think that you are not about to back down and let Grainger win, so no more talk of letting him have the ranch.”
Conchita interrupted. “Señorita, supper is ready.”
Emeline rose, and headed to the cupboard behind McCord to get plates, as she passed by him, he reached out and grasped her hand. “Emeline, thank you for saving my life.”
She cast her eyes downward, her voice trembling as she whispered. “I couldn’t let you die.” Pulling her hand from his, she grabbed the plates and told him to round up the ones who could eat first.
Night fell, and after dinner, everyone settled in their watch positions or tried to get some rest. Emeline had excused herself after dinner, saying she was exhausted and, with Otis tagging along, headed to her room.
At the pre-arranged time, about three in the morning, Julio came down from the balcony and woke McCord, who was asleep on the large settee so that he could take the next watch. As McCord sat down in the rocker on the balcony, his boot knocked against something. Reaching down, he found a whiskey bottle and one glass. As he poured a shot, he smiled.
Everyone was on edge the next morning. They knew that Grainger wasn’t going to give up. It was merely a matter of what he was going to do. McCord ordered everyone to stay close to the house. With the deputies on the balcony and in the Widow’s Walk, they attended to the livestock, after which McCord put Pegasus through a workout. When they returned, McCord took the big stallion directly to a paddock so he could graze. Now that Grainger knew he was still in Wickenburg, no need to keep Pegasus out of sight. Deciding he needed to do something useful, he went looking for Chuck and Paul.
The late morning spring sun was beating down as McCord, along with Paul tilled the small herb and flower garden Emeline wanted near the barn, under Chuck’s direction. Wiping the sweat from his brow, McCord realized his canteen was empty and motioned to Paul he was going for water.
He rounded the rear corner of the main house to the well. He pumped the cold water from the spigot into his canteen, and then splashed water over his head. As he shook off the excess water, he thought he heard the soft whinny of a horse. Returning to the front yard, he spotted Emeline on Bebette, riding down the lane. He yelled for her, but she was too far away to hear him. Anger swelled within him, it was dangerous for her to go anywhere alone, and she had promised she wouldn’t, certainly not after what happened yesterday. He ran for the paddock where Pegasus was grazing, the big horse still wearing his tack from his morning workout. Grabbing the black saddle and blanket lying on the ground next to the fence, McCord threw them over the horse’s back, tightened the straps, and rode off after her.
Bebette was a small horse, but she was fast. By the time Pegasus reached full gallop, the tiny horse and her rider were far ahead of them. McCord decided as long as he could keep her in sight, he would wait to see where Emeline intended to go. It wasn’t long before she turned off the main lane, down the narrow path that led to the river.
The fertile plain was lush due to the Hassayampa River, which flowed underground for most of its length. The river flowed aboveground in the verdant land. Thick groves of trees and dense brush lined the riverbanks, and as he rode deeper into the thick vegetation, a variety of birds flew from the trees. McCord was apprehensive for a moment until he spotted Bebette tied to a tall tree near a widened area in the river Chuck had referred to as the big pond. He slid off Pegasus, wrapped his reins around a nearby tree, and quietly walked toward the riverbank.
Emeline was sitting on a fallen log partly submerged in the river. At first, he couldn’t tell what she was doing until he saw her place her boots on the log. McCord felt his breath rush from his body when he realized she was going swimming. He knew he should let her know he was there, but he couldn’t speak. As she stood up and began to undress, he lost all sense of what he should do. He was too mesmerized to move.
After untying the ribbon holding back her hair, she unbuttoned her shirt, pulling it off and laying it on the log next to a towel. Unfastening her riding skirt, she allowed it to slide from her hips. Clad only in a sheer cotton chemise and knickers, she swiftly removed those garments as well, standing naked with her back to him.
McCord was surprised that Emeline didn’t hear his heart beating wildly in his chest. She was exquisite. Her thick dark hair fell below her pale shoulders, her graceful back tapering to a slender waist and curvy hips. Guilt washed over him. He shouldn’t be spying on her, but he couldn’t look away.
Emeline walked to the water’s edge and gingerly stepped in, wading a few feet into the river. She shuddered from the cold water but dove in headfirst. Breaking through the surface, she swam for several minutes before she stopped and rolled onto her back, floating atop the still water. His ability to breathe abandoned him as he gazed at her lush body.
McCord fought the urge to strip off his clothes and join her. Instead, sensing she was about to end her swim, he walked to the water’s edge and sat down on the log. He waited for her to realize he was there.
After floating in the sun-drenched water for a bit longer, Emeline rolled over and swam a few feet, then stood up, her body halfway out of the river, wringing water from her long hair. Raising her head, she spotted him and uttered a sharp shriek. Instinctively, she covered her breasts with her small hands, barely shielding them from his view.
“Wade, what are you…? How long have you…?”
He picked up the thin cotton chemise, his fingers playing with the tiny buttons along the front. “Long enough.” The corners of his mouth rose slightly as he watched her gasp when she realized he had watched her undress.
“Turn around. I want to get out.”
“Go ahead. I’m not stopping you.” He stretched his long legs out, boots resting at the water’s edge.
McCord stood up, picking up the towel and took a step to the edge of the river, then turned around. He held out the towel and heard the water splash as she exited the river.
She snatched the towel from his hand. “Don’t look.”
Emeline quickly dried off. McCord saw a shapely arm reaching for the kickers. Then a hand appeared in front of him. “May I please have my chemise?” He handed it to her.
“I cannot believe you spied on me.”
He spun around as she was slipping on the chemise, grasping her by her upper arms. “Do you realize how dangerous it is for you to come here alone?”
“I come here all the time. It’s is not dangerous.”
“Not dangerous? Grainger has already sent his men to take your ranch, shooting and threatening to kill everyone, and his men have stalked you. Wandering off by yourself, then taking off your clothes and swimming nude is not safe. Eme, you might be tough and strong, but you’re too small to fight off a man. Any man who lacked control would take advantage of you.” He released her. “Finish getting dressed so we can go back.”
McCord made no effort to turn away as Emeline buttoned her chemise, then put on the rest of her clothes. Walking her to where Bebette was waiting, he picked her up and set her on the horse’s back, then led Bebette toward Pegasus. He mounted the stallion and handed Emeline her horse’s reins.
Before they moved, Emeline spoke, her voice taunting. “You said any man who lacked control would take advantage of me. Are you in control, Wade McCord?”
McCord turned to her, his eyes dark, replying in a raspy voice. “Barely.”
Emeline rode ahead of McCord on the way back to the ranch. When they arrived, she turned Bebette into one of the paddocks and stalked into the house. McCord took Pegasus to a watering trough and then put him in another paddock. As he climbed the steps to the house, Conchita was waiting.
“Señor, she went swimming?”
He nodded, still too angry to talk. Conchita smiled. “She loves to swim at the Big Pond. She told me she can think there. We never worried about her going there alone, but now – now it is too dangerous. You keep her safe, Señor Wade.”
McCord was standing next to the tiny woman. He leaned down, kissing her on the top of the head. “I promise I will.”
“Come, lunch is ready. Everyone needs strength for what is facing us.” Conchita grabbed his hand, and McCord followed her into the kitchen.
Emeline, her damp hair twisted into a bun, appeared as they were finishing lunch. She sat down, filling a tortilla with beans and chorizo without saying a word. This time, McCord didn’t need to tell Chuck he wanted to speak to Eme alone. Quietly, the young man motioned for everyone to leave.
When they were alone, she muttered between bites. “You stay around here long enough, and Chuck’s going to become just like you, very subtle.”
He didn’t reply for a long minute and could tell she was uneasy. Finally, he spoke. “What were you thinking?”
She took a drink of water before she answered. “I was hot, and I wanted to take a swim.”
“It was dangerous. You could…”
“Could have been what, raped, murdered, or spied on? I think spied on might be what happened.”
He slammed his fist down on the table, causing Emeline to flinch. “Do you realize that everyone on this ranch is willing to fight for you? Hell, even Howard came to protect you, and I didn’t think he could shoot. You can’t go doing things like this. We could lose you.”
Emeline diverted her eyes, not looking at him. “I’m sorry. What I did was foolish, and I know it, but I had to get away and think. I’m used to doing what I want, making decisions for myself, but in this situation, I’m not…”
“No one’s trying to make decisions for you.”
She raised her head, her eyes boring into his. “You and Evan haven’t been making decisions for me?”
“Maybe we have, but only to keep you safe, not to take over your life.”
“I told you not to treat me like a child. I’m a grown woman who’s been on her own for a long time.” She was trembling. “I just wish you’d…,”
“What, what do you want?”
“I want you to treat me like…”
McCord’s voice was husky. “A woman?”
Emeline shook her head and stood up. “No, an equal.” As she walked out of the kitchen, she said without looking back. “I think you’re already aware I’m a woman.”
Under Chuck’s tutelage, McCord and Paul finished planting the small garden next to the house. For the rest of the afternoon, the hands attended to the horses, and some minor repair jobs. McCord was repairing a shutter on the first floor of the main house when Logan and Doc Stewart arrived.
Stewart hopped off his horse. “Well, laddie, you seem to be making yourself quite at home here.”
“Doc, what brings you out here?”
“I wanted to look at Chuck’s wound and see how Eme’s doing. Let me look at that cut on your face.” McCord got down from the ladder, turning his injured cheek for the doctor to see, “Looks good, healing quite well.”
“Must have had a good doctor. If you’re looking for Eme, she’s in the house, dusting, I think. Chuck’s in the tack room. I’ll send him inside.”
Stewart was climbing the steps to the veranda when McCord stopped him. “How are the wounded men doing?”
“Lost one today, but I believe the others will survive.”
Logan spoke as the doctor disappeared into the house. “Sent a telegram to the territorial judge requesting a special criminal judge. If they send Smitherson, he’ll just let all these thugs go. Judge Smitherson has been on Grainger’s payroll since the bastard showed up in Wickenburg.”
“Nothing like the Wild West. Walk with me while I get Chuck.” The two men headed toward the stables. “Heard you were a policeman back east, what made you come out here?”
“My parents died when I was young, an older aunt brought me up, but she died about five years ago. I was a copper in New York City when I met a beautiful strawberry blonde who wanted adventure. An old friend was a US Marshal, told me about Wickenburg needing a sheriff, so I applied and got the job.”
Logan sighed deeply. “No regrets, but right now, I’m frustrated. Grainger’s smart. Even though we know he’s behind all this, I still can’t tie him to the attempt to kill you yesterday or to Anton’s death.”
McCord pursed his lips. “He’s not going to give up.”
“No, he isn’t, I’m just worried what he’s gonna do. You and Emeline have sorely tested the man’s ego and greed.”
They reached the stable and found Chuck. McCord told him Stewart was at the house and wanted to check his arm. Before he left, Chuck pointed to his saddle. “Boss, I noticed a seam ripped on your saddle, was about to repair it.”
McCord’s saddle was sitting on a rail in the tack room. He picked it up. “Got some cording in the bunkhouse, I’ll work on it this evening. Thanks, Chuck.”
As Chuck walked out, Logan gave a soft whistle. “Boss? The doc was right, making yourself right at home here, aren’t’ you?
“Don’t start with me, Logan.” McCord didn’t look at the sheriff as he added. “That’s the problem. It’s beginning to feel like home. Let’s go back to the house.”
McCord dropped the black leather saddle off in his quarters, and he and Logan headed for the kitchen, where they found Stewart putting a new bandage on Chuck’s wound. Emeline was pouring coffee. She reached for two more cups when they entered.
Taking the cup of steaming coffee from Emeline, McCord sat down at the table. “How’s he doing, Doc?”
“Fine, bullet just grazed him, left a nasty little gouge, but as long as he keeps it clean, should heal fine.”
Emeline sat down. “Duncan, Evan, can you stay for supper?”
Logan shook his head. “Not tonight, Laura’s been real uncomfortable today. Doc thinks she might be getting close to having the baby. Jennifer’s staying with her and,” Logan smiled, glancing over at McCord. “Howard’s been watching over them since I’ve been so busy. He seems to be getting over his shyness when it comes to Jennifer.”
McCord’s left eyebrow rose slightly. “All Howard needed was some confidence, good for him.”
Stewart chuckled. “Cheeky bugger, who’s playing matchmaker now?” His comment elicited a glare but nothing else from McCord.
They talked about the previous afternoon’s events while finishing their coffee. After taking the last gulp of coffee, Logan stood. “I want to talk to my deputies for a bit before I go. Eme, thanks for the coffee.”
Chuck rose as well. “I’ll relieve Clyde. He could probably use a cup of coffee.” Chuck grabbed a couple of mugs. “I’ll take Dwayne a cup, too.”
Stewart whispered to McCord. “I’d like to talk to Eme alone.”
Standing up, McCord announced. “Going back out to finish fixin’ the shutter. Thanks for the coffee, Emeline.”
Twenty minutes later, Emeline and Stewart walked out onto the porch, where McCord and Logan were talking to the deputies. Stewart slapped Logan on the back. “Let’s get back to town, lad. I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna be delivering a baby soon.” He hugged Emeline. “Don’t forget what I told you, lassie.” She nodded and returned the hug.
As Logan and Stewart rode off, the deputies, Clyde and Dwayne, headed back to their posts, leaving McCord and Emeline alone on the veranda.
McCord was curious about Stewart’s comment. “What did Stewart tell you?”
Emeline held his gaze for a moment. “He told me to watch out for strangers.” She whirled around and disappeared into the house, leaving McCord staring at the closed door.
Night fell, and after a hearty dinner of baked chicken and roasted potatoes, McCord joined Chuck, Paul, and Ramon in a game of poker in the kitchen. Emeline and Conchita were cutting up onions, tomatoes, and peppers, picked that afternoon so that Conchita could make salsa.
McCord folded his cards, and as the others played out the hand, he took time to observe his surroundings. He realized that it had been a long time since he had felt such contentment. Despite the danger they still faced, he felt at peace for the first time in his life. The young men who worked this ranch, Julio, and Conchita, Logan, the doc, Howard – for some reason, he felt more at ease with them than any other people he knew. They were quickly becoming the family he had always wished for but never had.
However, McCord knew that the real reason he felt content was the beautiful woman currently cutting up onions. Tears caused by the strong onions streamed down Emeline’s face, and she was laughing with Conchita about her discomfort. How he loved hearing her laugh even with her eyes reddened. He was staring at her when she glanced toward him, a soft smile on her face. McCord felt his heart swell. Soon, very soon, he had to confront his feelings. He only hoped she felt what he felt.
Emeline and Conchita finished the salsa and bid the poker players a good night. After a couple more hands, McCord sent the guys to bed and took his usual spot on the front parlor settee. He fell asleep thinking about the Cajun beauty asleep upstairs.
A few hours later, he woke with a start, sensing someone was nearby. He reached for his gun and eased off the settee as quietly as he could. From the shaft of moonlight spilling into the entry hall, McCord knew the front door was open. He slipped up and peering out the open door saw Emeline standing on the veranda. She was softly calling for Otis.
He walked out. “What are you doing out here?”
Emeline jumped. “Oh…you scared me.” She took a breath. “Otis got restless, pawing at the door, wanting to go out. I let him out, but he won’t come back.”
The hairs on McCord’s neck bristled. “Which way did he go when you let him out?”
“Toward the bunkhouse and the stable.”
Before McCord could reply, Otis’ angry barking echoed near the stable, then a loud yelp and silence. McCord ran down the steps, yelling at Emeline. “Get back inside.”
Running toward the stables, McCord saw a dark shadow running away, Otis’s limp body lying on the ground. He rushed to the dog, his heart beating wildly. Just as he reached Otis, Emeline screamed behind him.
“Otis…oh my god, Wade. Is he alive?”
McCord dropped to his knees. “Hey, buddy…” Gently he pressed his hand to the dog’s chest, relief flooding him as he realized Otis was still breathing. “He’s alive, just stunned, has some blood on his snout, might have been kicked.”
Emeline was on her knees next to him, her white gown flowing behind her. The wind was picking up, carrying the first rumblings of thunder through the air. “Otis, oh, my… Are you all right?” She buried her head in the dog’s furry neck.
Otis’ tail began to wag slightly, and McCord slipped his arm around Emeline. “I think he’s going to be all right.” Hearing boots pounding the ground behind him, he turned quickly to see Chuck, Ramon, and the two deputies running toward him. Conchita was not far behind them.
Chuck knelt next to Otis. “Boss, what happened?”
“Someone’s out there. Otis must have heard him and wanted outside. Guess he found the intruder. He was barking furiously, then stopped. The guy must have kicked him. Get some lanterns. I saw someone heading behind the stable.”
Clouds were gathering quickly, and faint lighting was beginning to illuminate the sky. McCord was about to pick up Otis to take him in the house when a bright flash lit up the darkness. Within seconds, Julio’s voice rang out. “Fire! Stable’s on fire!”
Emeline screamed. “The horses – we’ve gotta get them out.” She grabbed Conchita, “Stay with Otis.”
McCord and the others were already running for the stable doors when she caught up with them, Chuck and McCord got the doors open and rushed inside, beginning to open stalls and push the frightened horses into the aisle, where Emeline and the deputies were leading them outside. They were working their way to the back of the stable when the fire, which had started in the tack room, broke through the main wall. Flames began to spread quickly, across the center of the stable, blocking passage to the horses in the rear stalls.
McCord grabbed Emeline and pulled her out of the barn. “Stay out here. We’ll get them.”
However, McCord already knew that the stable only had one door on the front and one on the side, and the side door was before the location of the fire. He realized getting through the flames was going to be impossible.
Emeline screamed. “No, Bebette and Pegasus are back there. We have to get them out. Paul? Where’s Paul? Wade, where’s Paul?’ Emeline was crying, fighting against the grip McCord had on her.
Chuck, standing next to McCord, answered his voice breaking. “Paul’s on the Widow’s Walk.”
Emeline tried to break away from McCord as the flames leaped toward the roof of the stable. McCord pulled her tightly to him. “We can’t get to them. I’m sorry.”
She collapsed against him, pleading with him. “No…we have…to save…them.” Her knees went out from under her, and McCord eased her to the ground.
“Eme…” McCord tried to comfort her, but his own heart was breaking. He could hear Pegasus’ whinny, and he couldn’t get to him or Paul and the beautiful little mare. They were going to lose them all.
McCord felt something touch his shoulder. It was Otis, a bit wobbly, but he had come to them. Rubbing the dog’s head, he whispered. “At least, we didn’t lose you.”
The thunderstorm was on them, and McCord felt the first drops of rain strike his shoulders. He needed to get Emeline inside. “Come on. I need to get you into the house.” His heart breaking as she sobbed. “Oh, Emeline…I’m so sorry…” He felt her arms tighten around him just as he heard something else, Pegasus’ whinny, but this time much closer.
Ramon yelled. “Look, señor, look…”
McCord turned to see the most magnificent sight he had ever seen, silhouetted against the orange-yellow flames was the shadow of two horses and a rider. Pulling Emeline from the ground, he swung her around. “They’re all right…”
Paul brought both horses to a halt. Ramon and Chuck got to him first, helping him off Pegasus’ back. Covered with soot, Paul looked at McCord. “That’s some horse you’ve got. I didn’t think we could make it, but he wasn’t staying.”
Emeline grabbed Paul, hugging him tightly. “Thank goodness you’re alive.” She let go of him, and flung her arms around Bebette’s neck, Otis barking and jumping beside her.
McCord walked up to Pegasus. “Hey, boy, I thought I lost you.” The stallion neighed softly, bobbing his head up and down. McCord walked around him, running his hands along the stallion’s sleek body. “You hurt anywhere, big guy?”
Paul finished drinking a dipper of water that Conchita brought him, his voice hoarse from the smoke, “Wade, I managed to get down – from the loft in the back of the barn, t-that big guy had broken out of his stall. He was trying to push Bebette’s stall door open. I opened it, but s-she wouldn’t budge. Pegasus,” he took a breath, “grabbed her mane in his teeth and tugged ’til she came out. I hopped up on his back, and with him nudging the mare all the way, he went straight through the flames. I don’t think we’d have gotten out without him.”
“Paul – I – thanks. He needed you as much as you needed him. Glad you made it.”
Heavy rain began to fall, helping to dampen the fire. Chuck approached McCord, “Looks like the rain may put the fire out.”
“For once, we might have some luck,” looking around, he didn’t see the deputies. “Where are Clyde and Dwayne?”
“They thought they spotted someone in the tree line behind the stable, went chasing after him.”
“Chuck, make certain that no embers caught any of the other buildings on fire. Did we get all the horses out?”
“All of ’em, we got lucky.”
“That we were.” Before he could say anything else, he spotted the deputies coming from the field behind the stable, a man between them.
Clyde pushed the prisoner into the lantern light. “Mr. McCord, one of ’em got away but look who we found? Name’s Rudy.” The man was one of Grainger’s hired thugs, one of the two who fled from the attack the day before.
McCord walked up to him. “Did Grainger tell you to set fire to the stable?”
When Rudy didn’t answer, McCord pulled his gun and stuck the barrel under the man’s chin. “Answer me. If you don’t, I doubt anyone here will care if I kill you. Did Grainger send you?”
Dropping his eyes toward McCord’s gun beneath his chin, he croaked, “Y-yes. Grainger ordered us to set fire to the stable.”
McCord pulled the gun away. “Clyde, get this bastard back to town and let Logan know what’s happened.” The deputies nodded and led Grainger away.
He was watching the last of the flames from the fire flicker out in the heavy rain when an arm slid into his. McCord looked down to see Emeline standing next to him, a poncho over her nightgown. “Dressed for the occasion, I see.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you’re here.”
“You need to go inside. We’ll see to Paul and the horses.” He glanced around for Conchita and motioned for her.
“Take her inside, both of you get into dry clothes.”
“Si, señor. I make coffee and maybe some hot chocolate.”
Emeline resisted. “No. I want to stay out here with you.”
“Not trying to tell you what to do but go inside and take Otis with you. He’s had enough excitement for one day.”
“That’s an understatement.” She looked up at him. “I’ll go inside.”
Two hours later, McCord entered the main house, tired but satisfied that no other fires were going to ignite. Conchita had brought them hot chocolate, followed up by coffee a bit later. He carried the empty coffee pots with him to the kitchen, where he found Conchita making biscuits.
“Don’t you think you need to get some sleep?”
“Señor, I couldn’t sleep. These boys—they will be hungry in the morning, so I am making biscuits and gravy and maybe pancakes. Señorita Eme teach me how to make pancakes.”
“Pancakes sound good to me, but you still need to rest.”
“I will rest when we are safe.” She answered, patting McCord’s hand as he squeezed her shoulder. “I believe Señorita Eme is in the parlor. She refused to go to her room. She is waiting for you.”
McCord slipped into the parlor to find Emeline asleep on the settee, Otis curled up at her feet. Couching next to the dog, he rubbed his ears. “You doing all right, Otis?” Otis licked his face. “I take that as a yes. You’re a good dog. You heard someone out there and tried to tell us.”
“It’s me. You need to go to bed.”
She sat up. “No, I’m fine. I don’t want to go to bed.”
Her voice was drowsy, and McCord sat down next to her, pulling her into his arms. “It’s over, Emeline, and you need to rest.”
“So, do you.”
“I’m all right.”
She pulled away from him. “I-I’m glad you didn’t leave. I don’t think we would survive this without you.”
He leaned toward her, allowing his lips to brush her forehead. “I never intended on leaving, no way I would leave you in Grainger’s grip. Now off to bed, you and Otis.”
“No, I’m sleeping right here, stay with us.”
She shifted position, giving him room to lie down. “Please.”
McCord stretched out on the settee, and Emeline slid beside him, nestling her head against his chest. Otis hopped onto the end of the couch and wormed his way beside McCord’s leg. As he wrapped his arms around Emeline, McCord thought about the name Anton had given the ranch. He wondered if The Last Chance ranch was his chance at love.