Author's Note

I think Kendrick has the best ending of all my stories. won't understand it if you don't read the whole story....and I do believe you'll enjoy it.

Mark K. Lewis

Chapter One—A Tangled Web

     The last 10 miles were horrible. The stagecoach had had to stop and make repairs. Josh Taylor, the driver had said that something had gone wrong with the axle and the leather braces— the latter which were sort of like shock absorbers—and so for those last 10 miles Susan and Polly were bounced and jounced and thrown forward, backwards, sideways, and almost upside down before the stage finally made it into Riverton. As Josh pulled up on the reins outside the station with a loud “Whoooooaa,”
     Polly heaved an audible sigh of relief.
     “Oh. Am I glad THAT’s over!” she said.
     Susan was sore in places that she didn’t know she could be sore. “Yeah. What a trip. And we’ve got a long way to go yet.”
     Lem Clary, the shotgun on the trip, hopped down and opened the door. “Really sorry, ladies, but there just weren’t nothin’ else we could do.” He smiled, but it barely showed through his long, tobacco-stained, walrus mustache. He wore his gray, sweat-stained hat Australian style, which meant the lines of 50 years of hard living showed on his forehead—not to mention every other part of his face. But he’d been with the stage for over 300 miles now, and had been nothing but a gentleman to both ladies, who had been the only two passengers for that leg of the journey.
     Polly, a chubby lady in her mid-to-late 40s with a flowing light blue dress and a flowery hat, disembarked first. Susan, a pretty, brown-eyed brunette of medium height in her mid-20s, followed, and shivered. It was cold, not surprising since it was late November. The sky was overcast and dreary. She looked around and saw a typical Western town, which she would explore later, but her immediate attention was drawn to the three men standing outside the coach.
     Well, four, because Josh, the driver, was there, too, talking to the other three.
     “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but it’s going to be a couple days before we can head out. We jerry-rigged that axle just to get us the last 10 miles and it ain’t gonna hold up much longer. Got two horses that throwed shoes, too, so we gotta find the local blacksmith to make us a couple of those.”
     “I can help with that,” one of the men standing by said.
     “Yeah, well, thanks,” Josh replied. “But bottom line is, we’re stuck here a few days till them re-pairs can be made.”
     “Ohhhww,” Polly said, with frustration. She glanced around the town. “Doesn’t look like the most hospitable place I’ve ever been.” Then she brushed her dress down. “Well, we’ll just have to make the best of it, I suppose.”
     “I’m sorry, ma’am,” Josh said again. “We’ll get back on the trail as soon as we can.”
     Susan frowned, not especially pleased either, but, like Polly, resigned to her fate. She looked more closely at the three men and noticed that two of them were looking at her, and not with disinterest.
     And not unappealingly to her. One of them was dressed in a dark suit—vest, coat, pants, string tie, with a flat-crowned black hat and a white shirt. He had narrow brown eyes, and a neatly trimmed black mustache. Curly black hair showed under the edges of his hat. Probably late 30s-early 40s. Very nice looking gent.
     The other man examining her looked like a typical western cowhand. He was wearing a leather, wool-lined jacket over his dark Western shirt. He had on Levi’s and boots and a gray Stetson. He was younger, maybe about Susan’s age, and seemed to have a perpetual grin on his handsome face. His hair was sandy blonde and his laughing eyes were a striking blue. Both he and the black-haired man were a shade under 6 feet tall.
     The man standing between them was shorter, and older, and looked for all the world like a judge. Dressed also in a dark suit, he had white hair, a white mustache, and a craggy, intelligent face. He spoke first in answer to Josh. “Well, I’m retired now, so I don’t especially have any place to go in a hurry. I’ll be around or probably in the hotel. Let me know when you are ready to go.” His gaze shifted to Susan and Polly. “Ladies, it appears we shall be here awhile. May I show you to the lovely Riverton Hotel? It’s the only place in town to stay.” Susan detected a note of sarcasm in his voice.
     “Thank you,” she responded.
     “Incidentally, my name is Horace Hightower. Recently retired circuit judge.” So he was a judge, Susan thought. “These two gentlemen are Lance Yarbrough”—motioning to the younger blonde cowboy on his left—“and Garret Roman”—the dark-haired man on his right. Both men smiled and touched the brim of their hats.
     Polly, who Susan had learned on the trip, loved the sound of her own voice, spoke up. “I’m Polly Plummer and this is Susan Bedford. We are pleased to meet you all. Will you being going on the stage with us to Blantonville?” Blantonville was the ultimate destination of the stage and Susan and Polly’s final objective as well. It was a few hundred miles north of their present location.
     All three men nodded, Lance and Garret still looking at the younger woman. Garret finally turned away and spoke to Polly. “Yes. I had hoped the stage would leave on time, and I’m sure the judge and Lance feel the same way, but…..” He shrugged. “We must make do.” He looked back at Susan. “May I have the privilege of carrying your bags to the hotel?” A mischievous smile came over his face. “Lance can carry Polly’s.”
     Susan smiled, amused, catching his joke. She saw Lance frown, but Polly apparently didn’t notice. “Oh, what nice gentlemen you are! That would be lovely, wouldn’t it, Susan.”
     “Yes, it would.”
     Lem Clary, the shotgun rider, had unloaded all the bags and set them down next to the two ladies. Susan only had two, a suitcase and smaller travel case, and Garret immediately scooped them up. His eyes met Susan’s and they held for an extra second. Then he said, “This way, Miss Bedford.”
     “Thank you,” and she moved alongside of him and started walking towards the hotel.
     Polly had three huge suitcases and Lance had to put one under his right underarm, and then picked up the other two with his hands. He limped along in that manner, Polly telling him all the way how much she was grateful for his help.
     “Yes, ma’am,” Lance wheezed. “Gl…..Glad to be of service.” Susan glanced back and smiled. Lance gave her a grimaced smile and a wink.
     “I’ll let ye know as soon as the stage is fixed,” Josh called after them, and Polly turned and thanked him.
     The hotel was on the corner of a main street crossing, about a block from the stage station. Garret was talking to Susan as they walked.
     “It’s not a bad hotel. Not what one would find in New York or New Orleans, of course, but for the west, it’s comfortable.”
     “Oh, you’ve been to New York and New Orleans?” Susan asked him.
     “Yes, many times. I’ve only been out west for about five years or so. I came out looking at railroad investments and, well, I’ve liked it so much, I stayed.”
     “I’ve just come from back east as well,” Susan commented.
     “Is that so?” Garret replied. “You must tell me about it.” He looked at her and smiled. “Perhaps over dinner? There are a couple of good restaurants in town.”
     Susan smiled back. “Well, yes, that would be nice, thank you.” She heard Lance grunt behind her, but she wasn’t sure if that was because of the luggage he was carrying or in irritation that Garret had beat him asking her to dinner. Polly was bending his ear, but Susan had a feeling he was listening to the conversation ahead of him.
     “Thank you,” Garret responded courteously. “It is not often some charm and grace comes out west.”
     Susan blushed a bit at that, and said “thank you” in return. “I would like to freshen up and rest a bit if you don’t mind. The last few miles of the trip were horrendous and I feel like I was beaten half to death.”
     “Why, certainly,” Garret said. “It’s only mid-afternoon anyway. Say, about 6?”
     “That would be fine.”
     Garret and Susan went up the steps to the hotel, with Polly and Lance just behind. The judge had already entered and gone to his room. The Riverton Hotel was a two-story, white-framed building, nothing special. Susan had been glancing around as she had been walking to the hotel. There was nothing remarkable about Riverton, either. One main street right through town, perhaps a mile long, with the stage station and livery at one end, and several shops lining both sides of the street. Some of the buildings were boarded up. A cross street, where the hotel stood, with a general store catty-cornered, residential area farther on. Good, Susan thought, spying the general store. I need to pick up a few things. From down the dusty street, she could barely hear a piano tinkling off tune, and then a female voice reaching for a high note and falling far short. “Best to stay away from that end of town,” Garret commented, motioning down the street with his head. “Saloons and brothels.”
     Susan smiled mischievously. “But I might want to work for a couple of days before we leave.  Pick up a few extra dollars.”
     Garret laughed. “Well, I’m sure you could get hired with no trouble. Either place.” And Susan blushed again.
     They entered the hotel and walked up to the registration desk on the left, with stairs just beyond, and a room at the back right with a “Restaurant” sign over the arched, doorless entrance. Susan glanced around and giggled when she saw Lance lumbering in, trying not to gasp for breath, and set Polly’s luggage down with a relieved expression on his face. The two ladies signed in, got rooms on the second floor next to each other, and Susan followed Garret up the stairs.
     Susan had room 1, which was at the very front of the building. She opened the door—it wasn’t locked—and stood aside so Garret could take her baggage into the room. Lance hadn’t quite made it up the stairs.
     Garret put the luggage in the room, and turned to Susan as she entered. She looked around briefly. Bed, dresser with a pitcher of water and bowl on top, and a wardrobe. Two windows, one overlooking the main street, and the other an alley. Again, nothing special, but clean and cozy.
     The dark-haired man smiled, again a very handsome, appealing smile. “Is there anything else I can do for you or get you at the moment?”
     Susan smiled back and shook her head. “No, thank you, you’ve been most kind.” All she wanted now was for him to leave so she could rest.
     And he did just that. He tipped his hat to her and said, “I will be here at 6.”
     “I’ll look forward to it,” Susan responded. And, as he left, she thought, Yes, I do look forward to it

     He took her to Carol’s Diner, which was only half a block from the hotel. A small western restaurant, pretty much what Susan expected in Riverton, which was basically a farming/ranching community. There were a few patrons occupying tables, a couple at the counter. Some of them glanced at Susan when she came in—the men with interest, the women a little snootily—and the waitress showed her and Garret to a table in the back corner. Susan figured the waitress thought they’d like to be as alone as possible. Didn’t bother her in the least. She was intrigued by her companion, and maybe a little in awe, given his travels. Susan had never been out of Alabama before this trip.
     Once they ordered, Garret asked Susan about herself, and seemed to be listening with interest to her answers. “You are from back east?” he asked, kicking off the conversation.
     “Yes,” and she told him her story. “I was working for a law firm in Alabama—an assistant only, but perhaps taking the bar exams in a few years—when I heard that my uncle in Blantonville had died. He has—had—a ranch there. He left it to me.” She made a face and shrugged. “I don’t know if I want the ranch or not. I know nothing about ranching. I’m going to go up there and look. If I like it, I might just stay. If not, I’ll just sell out and pocket the money.” She smiled at that, and Garret did, too.
     “A large ranch?” he asked.
     “55,000 acres,” she replied, and he nodded. Not excessively large, but a nice size.
     He glanced quickly at her hands. “Not…married?” he asked cautiously.
     “No,” she replied. “Never have been. You?”
     He shook his head. “Same. No family?”
     “A brother in California. He has a large ranch there, so he wired me and told me he had no interest in Uncle Bob’s place and that I could have it free and clear. He even sent a notarized statement to that effect.”
     “That was nice of him.”
     “Yes. That’s one appealing part of moving out here. I’d be a lot closer to him.”
     Garret nodded.
     “What about you?” Susan asked. “Tell me about yourself.”
     “Oh, not much to tell,” he said, with what appeared to Susan as being false modesty. “My family comes from England. Owned quite an estate there, then lost it. I was born in New York. I’ve done…this and that.” He smiled coyly. “Mostly investing, and I’ve done well. I like to play, um, with my fingers, too.”
     Susan gave him a puzzled look. He looked down, with an embarrassed smile, and made a motion with his hands like he was dealing cards. She understood then. A gambler. He then looked back at her and grinned. “And I cheat.”
     She laughed. “I hear that can be dangerous.”
     “Why do you think I move around so much?” And she laughed again.
     Garret then glanced up and frowned. Susan followed his eyes and saw Lance and Polly heading towards her and Garret. Lance had a big grin on his face. “Hi, guys,” he said, as the two of them came up. “Mind if we join you?”
     Susan hid a smile in her napkin. It was quite obvious that Garret did mind, but he was too gentlemanly to say so. “No, please sit down,” he replied, with no enthusiasm at all in his voice.
     So Lance took the chair next to Susan, and even scooted it over a little towards her. She could feel his knee touch hers. He was smiling at her, and she noticed the dimples in his cheeks. Darling, she thought, and decided against moving her knee away from his.
     The waitress brought her and Garret’s orders at that moment, and was waiting to take Lance and Polly’s. Lance knew what he wanted, but Polly wanted to look at the menu, of course. So while she was doing that, the cowboy started talking.
     “Rough trip, huh,” he asked Susan.
     “Yeah,” she replied. “I guess Polly told you about it.”
     “Sure did.” He was completely ignoring Garret and Polly, but doing it in a way that Susan found amusing rather than rude. He just had that sort of demeanor. “You come from back east?”
     So between bites, she told him her story. Polly had ordered and was now talking to Garret, who obviously wasn’t terribly interested in what she was saying. He kept glancing over at Susan and Lance, with some daggers in his eyes at the latter. Lance, still smiling his boyish, adorable smile, didn’t notice, and probably wouldn’t have cared if he had.
    She asked him about himself, mainly so that she could eat. He shrugged. “Nothing terribly interesting. Been a cowhand most of my life. Was working cattle down at a small place near here, but it got swallowed up by a bigger outfit and they didn’t need my help. Heard Blantonville was a nice place and needed some hands. Never been up there, so I thought why not?”
     “Why not, indeed?” she responded.
     “Why are you going north, Mr. Roman?” Polly asked him.
     “Railroad’s going in up there, and I want to check into investing in it,” he replied, glancing at Susan.
     She smiled. “Can you work with your fingers up there as well?”
     He grinned back. “Probably.”
     Polly looked blank. “Work with your fingers?” Susan noticed that Lance was giving Garret a rather churlish look.
     “Inside joke,” Garret said, with a wink at Susan.
     The four of them talked on until they finished dinner and then beyond for a good half hour. After Garret got over being disgruntled at Lance cutting in on his date, he proved to be a very interesting conversationalist. Lance kept everyone in stitches; even Garret laughed at some of his stories. Polly tried to cut in occasionally, but nobody was interested in what she had to say, so Susan diverted matters with some question for one of the two men. It was an enjoyable evening.
     When the four of them left the restaurant, as they stood outside, Lance asked Susan, “Hey, would you like to go have a drink? It’s still early. There’s a nice place down the street where ladies can go, too. Not a saloon.”
     Garret cleared his throat rather emphatically. Susan hid a smile again. Lance got the hint. “Oh, uh. Sorry. I forgot.” Then he grinned at Susan and winked.
     She looked at Garret, still smiling. He just shook his head in annoyance. Before he could say anything, Susan responded to Lance, “Thank you, but I’m really tired. I’d like to go back to my room and rest.” Then back to Garret. “Thank you for the dinner, Garret. It was very nice.”
     He graciously nodded his head in a small bow. “The pleasure was all mine. Perhaps we can do it again sometime.” Then he threw an irritable glance at Lance. “Without being interrupted.” Lance just grinned. Garret continued. “I’ll walk you back to the hotel if you don’t mind.”
     “Oh, how wonderful it is to be young!” That from Polly and with a giggle.
     Susan replied to Garret, “No, I don’t mind at all.” Then she looked at Polly. “Are you coming, Polly?”
     She had sense enough to leave well enough alone. “I, uh, I think the general store might still be open. I want to pick up some things. I think I’ll go there.” General stores were never open that late, but it was a good excuse.
     Lance decided he’d pushed far enough, so he said, “Maybe I’ll see you all tomorrow.” Then he winked again at Susan. “Lunch perhaps.”
     She smiled. “Perhaps.” He moved off, and Garret gently took Susan by the arm to guide her to the hotel. She didn’t resist.
     Garret commented wryly, “Our friend Lance has a nervous twitch in his eye, doesn’t he. Makes him wink a lot.” Susan laughed softly.
     As noted, the hotel was only a half-block from the restaurant, so it didn’t take them long to get there. They made some small talk on the way, and Garret walked up the stairs with her to her room.
     She turned to him outside her door. He crowded her a bit and she reached back and found the doorknob. “I had a lovely evening,” she said.
     “Yes,” he responded. “I wish we hadn’t been interrupted.” He moved a little closer.
     “Yes, that was too bad,” Susan replied. She twisted the door handle and pushed the door open. “Well, thank you again. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”
     He gave her a lighthearted grin, understanding the rejection. But it was quite obvious to Susan that he wasn’t put off by it. And she wasn’t trying to put him off. But she wasn’t going to play that night.
     “I hope so,” Garret said. Then, touching the brim of his hat, he said, “Good night.”
     “Night,” Susan responded and entered her room. She shut the door and stood for a moment leaning against it, a small smile on her face.
     This might be an interesting trip to Blantonville after all…

     I rode into town the next day. Tired, dead tired. Almost as tired as my horse, and he was about to drop. Well, he wasn’t my first choice, I had bought him about 400 miles back after the one I was riding broke his leg stepping in a gopher hole. Hated to lose horses that way.
     Anyway, I took the horse to the livery stable. “You can have him,” I told the hostler. “He’s dead anyway.”
     The fellow looked at me, puzzled, then at the horse. It wasn’t a very good horse, so he understood why I probably wouldn’t want him. “’K,” he replied. “You settin’ in Riverton for awhile?”
     I shook my head. “Naw, I’ll just take the stage from here. Let somebody else do the driving for a change. When does the next stage north leave?”
     “Couple of days,” the hostler replied. “Supposed to leave today, but busted an axle comin’ in yestiddy and got to make some repairs.”
     I nodded. “That’s fine. Could use a couple days rest. Thanks.” I turned and walked off.
     “Thankee for the horse,” the hostler called after me. Then he looked distastefully at the animal. “What they is left of ‘im.”
     I didn’t have much stuff, but I took my rifle, one bag with some personal items in it, and a blanket. I was dressed in a warm, fleece-lined coat, red shirt, Levi’s, boots, and gray flat-topped hat. I also wore a gun at my hip. In other words, I looked like ten thousand other men bumming around the west at the moment.
     Since the stagecoach ticket station was right next to the livery, I stopped there and bought a ticket for the next coach out.
     “You got the last one, mister,” the ticket salesman told me. “Well, we might sell one fer somebody to sit on top, but doubt anybody would want to do it in this weather. Stage might leave t’morrow, if’n they get the repairs done. Otherwise, day after.”
     “Thanks.” I took the ticket, shoved it in my pocket, and went and got a room at the hotel. It was cold, getting colder, and I was tired.
     Good combination for a nap.

     Garret and Lance played ping pong with Susan for the next couple of days. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but they certainly made every effort to vie for her time. She ended up spending a little more time with Garret than Lance, but still enjoyed the attention and company of both. And she did enjoy their company. Wasn’t much else to do in Riverton, but still, they were both nice, handsome, charming, and interesting. And she enjoyed the flirting and playing them off against one another, too. It was a fun game, and all three of them seemed to take pleasure in it, though she could tell it irked Garret when she was with Lance and visa-versa. But that was part of the fun—to her.
     The reason she spent more time with Garret is that Lance had volunteered to help with the repairs on the stagecoach. He had done some blacksmith work at some of the ranches he had worked on, and he was good at it. A whole new axle had to be forged, plus some new horseshoes. Even though Riverton had a blacksmith, he was happy to let Lance help him. So since he was busy with that, Susan was with Garret a little more.
     That is, when Garret wasn’t playing with his fingers.
     Garret was apparently doing that the next afternoon. Susan was going to have dinner with him again that night after having had lunch with Lance—a lunch which, of course, Garret interrupted, much to Lance’s irritation. It tickled Susan endlessly. Lance tried to corner her when they walked back to the blacksmith’s shop, but she managed to slip away from him, too.
     “I’ve got some shopping to do,” she told him as she neatly maneuvered his back to a wall instead of getting pinned to it herself. “I’ll see you later. Ta ta.” She waved gaily at him, and he pulled a face, but then shook his head chuckling, and went back to work. After she did her shopping, she was a little bored, so she walked back down to the blacksmith shop to watch Lance work. He had taken his shirt off, and was sheened with sweat from the hard, hot work. And while he was not bulging with muscles, he was strongly built—broad shoulders, lean, firm body, flat waist. He saw her, smiled and waved, but actually didn’t pay much attention to her because he was in the middle of making horseshoes and couldn’t stop. So she meandered on.

     I had arrived that day, eaten lunch—I ate at the hotel restaurant and vowed I wouldn’t do that again—and taken a nice, long nap. When I got up, I went outside to look the town over. I stood outside the hotel for a few moments, looking up and down the street, eyeing Carol’s Diner where I decided to eat a little later on. A pretty woman walked by as I was standing there. We looked at each other, held one another’s eyes for a fraction too long, and then I nodded. She didn’t do anything, just turned and went into the hotel. I pulled a face for a moment, then forgot about it.

     Susan saw the man standing outside the hotel. Tall—taller than Garrett and Lance—blue eyes, 40-ish, blonde hair. Intelligent, was the first word that came to her mind; his eyes told her that. But this fellow was no bookworm. His whole demeanor said “western,” and he appeared quite capable of handling himself. She met his eyes, saw him nod, then she passed on, idly wondering why she hadn’t responded in some way, then forgot about it, too. She was cold, and went and stood in front of the hotel’s downstairs stove to get warm, thinking about dinner with Garret and the fun she could have teasing him. She smiled.

     I went shopping and had a bath. I thought about food, too. But then, I was nearly always thinking about food.

     Susan and Garret ate at Carol’s again that evening. Lance didn’t interrupt this time. The man she had seen standing in front of the hotel was there, too, but neither he nor she made any acknowledgement. Garret walked her back to her room again, but showed absolutely no interest in taking matters any further. Hmph, Susan thought, when back in her room. He could have at least tried. But she smiled….

     I saw the pretty woman—I didn’t know her name—at the diner with the fellow who had “gambler” and “snake” written all over him. She didn’t pay me any mind, and I wasn’t there female chasing anyway. If she was the type who liked gamblers and snakes, then she wasn’t my cup of tea anyway. Hadn’t figured out yet what my type of woman was, but afterwards when I lazily ambled through town walking off my dinner and was hit up by an ugly prostitute with almost no teeth, I learned pretty quick that that certainly wasn’t my type.

     Susan spent much of the next day with Garret and/or Lance. The three of them did an awful lot of talking, laughing, flirting, wooing, and sporting, but the guys struck out. It was great entertainment, and she could tell she had them both a bit frustrated—mainly at the other man. And she was loving every minute of it.
     Yes, this might end up being a verrrrrry interesting and enjoyable trip….

Chapter Two—Outward Bound

     The stage was ready to leave the next day, right after noon. Josh and Lem were going to ride on top again, and there were six passengers—Susan, Polly, Judge Horace Hightower, Garret, Lance, and—a little to her surprise—the intelligent-looking man she had seen outside the hotel and in the diner. She had seen him a couple of other times, just around town, but neither of them acknowledged the other. She had her hands full with Garret and Lance and had no intention of adding a third man to the mix. Not that he had shown any interest in joining the “mix.”
     The weather continued to be cold and gray, but there had been no precipitation yet. “We’re getting’ off to a bit of a late start, folks,” Josh says, “and we ain’t gonna push too much to make up for lost time. But some. We sent a wire on ahead to let ever’body know we was runnin’ late, so if you got any loved ones a-waitin’ on ye, they’ll know.”
     “Oh, good,” Polly said. “My sister might have been worried.”
     “When will we arrive in Blantonville, driver?” the judge asked.
     Josh looked up at the sky, and shook his head dubiously. “If’n the weather holds, pushin’ it, we can make it in four or five days. If’n it don’t…” he just shrugged. Then he said, “Plenty of way stations along the trail so we’ll stop ever’ thirty miles or so, change hosses, have a bite to eat, and sleep at one of ‘em when night comes.” That wasn’t news to anybody, it was the way stagecoaches always operated. Butterfield had done an excellent job providing for its patrons, though there wasn’t much they could—or did—do for the discomfort of the passengers. The roads were still bumpy and irregular and there was no protection over the windows except for leather shades that could be pulled down, so the coach could be hot and dusty in the summer and cold and dusty in the winter. Or maybe wet if it happened to come a good rain.
     Once everyone got inside the stage, Susan, the judge, and Garret sat on one side, facing the direction of travel, and the fourth man, Polly, and Lance on the other. Susan and the man she didn’t know sat across from each other. They still had never spoken to one another. She was thinking more about Garret and Lance, and she finagled it to where neither of them could sit by her. Just to irritate them. She did a good job of it, though neither man tried to show it. Another smile crossed her lips. It had been a long, boring trip so far for Susan, so having fun with Garret and Lance was finally adding some excitement and humor.

     The stage took off. I glanced around—the pretty lady sat across from me. Our eyes met briefly, but there was nothing in hers and she probably saw nothing in mine. The gambler was there, along with a young cowboy, both of whom seemed irritated at something. A chubby lady and older man rounded out the group. I had seen them all around town the past couple of days, but I had seen a lot of people around town. To me, this just happened to be the group that was going on this stage. I’d been on plenty of stagecoaches in my life; this particular collection of people wasn’t special.
     Nobody spoke for the first ten minutes or so; everybody was getting adjusted to the cadence and swinging of the coach. I wasn’t terribly surprised when the chubby lady broke the silence. “Well, we are on our way. I hope we don’t run into any Indians or bandits or anything.” She shivered.
     “No chance of Indians, ma’am,” the older man offered. “Army’s got them tight on reservations now. Can’t promise you about highwaymen, but they’d have to be really desperate to be out in this kind of weather.”
     I was holding the curtain back, looking out the window. I said softly, as if only to myself, “We’re going to run into snow, is what we’re going to run into.”
     “Likely,” the old man said, leaning over and examining the sky as well.
     “Oh?” Polly said, looking at me. “I think all the rest of us know each other, but you are the only stranger here. Can you tell us your name and what you do for a living and why you are on this stage?”
     I glanced over at her, still holding the shade. Then I continued gazing at the weather. “Kendrick. Done lots of things in my life. On this stage because I almost killed the horse I was riding on and thought this would be a better way to travel.” With that, I let go of the shade, leaned my head back and pulled my hat down over my eyes, indicating I was through talking and was going to take a nap.
     It wasn’t quite that easy, though. “A drifting hobo, huh,” the gambler said, with a bit of a sneer.

     Susan glanced at Garret. It was a little out of character for him to be like that, or at least what she had seen of him so far.

     I lifted my hat a moment and looked at him. “Yeah, maybe. But I’m an honest hobo.” And I saw his eyes blaze. Then I shifted my gaze to the pretty lady for a moment. She had a puzzled expression on her face.

     And Susan’s mystification was real. It seemed for all the world to her like Kendrick’s eyes were saying “What in the world do you see in that guy?” Then he lowered his hat back over his eyes. Strange man…

     The gambler wasn’t going to let it go, though. He thought he might have been insulted. “Am I to imply something from that, Mr. Kendrick?”
     I didn’t lift my hat. “Imply anything you want, gambler, just do it talking to somebody else so I can take a snooze.”
     The tension was palpable, but then Chubby Lady broke it with a nervous laugh. “Well, we are glad you are on the stage, Mr. Kendrick. I’m sure we’ll enjoy your company.”
     I said nothing. I wanted a nap. I’m a recreational sleeper. Besides, I didn’t think the feeling would be mutual. I don’t like anybody….

     Susan was watching Kendrick. Kinda rude. I don’t think I like him, but there IS something different about him…She dropped the thought and looked away.
     There was another few moments of silence, then Lance spoke up. “The only highwayman I’m a little concerned about is Charlie Wheeler. He’s operated up in these parts before and I don’t think anything stops him.”
     “Charlie Wheeler! Oh, my!” Polly said. Wheeler was a well-known outlaw. Everybody in the coach—except Susan, who was totally new to the west—knew of him and his reputation. Not only a thief but a killer. Hell on wheels with a gun. “He has a gang of cutthroats, doesn’t he? I sure hope he doesn’t show up.”
     “No chance,” Judge Hightower commented.
     “Why not?” Lance asked. “I know he’s been around here.”
     The judge shook his head. “True. But he’s dead. Ken Ross got him down in Arizona about two months ago.”
     Susan noticed that everybody—but Kendrick—stared at the judge.

     If they didn’t shut up, I’d never get my nap. As the day progressed, I did learn all of their names, though.

     It was Garret who spoke next. “Ross? The Ranger? Musta been lucky, nobody could outdraw Wheeler. I don’t think Earp, or Ben Thompson, or Hickok or any of them could.”
     The judge shook his head again. “From what I heard, Ross beat him to the draw. Wheeler barely cleared leather.”
     “Geez,” Lance said. “They are all falling now, aren’t they. William Bonney, John Wesley Hardin, Jesse James, the Clantons, now Wheeler. All gone now.”
     The judge nodded. “Yes, and high time, too. Civilization is coming to the west. Law and order. And hopefully the day of the gunslinger is almost over.”
     With that comment, everybody looked at Kendrick. He was the only one in the coach who was wearing an obvious gun. Susan had a small pistol in her purse, and it was likely that Garret had a gun on his person somewhere, too. But Kendrick wore his on his hip, tied down, and low. Is he a gunslinger?….

     I had my hat over my eyes, of course, so I didn’t know everybody was looking at me. I sensed it, though. “Bang!” I said loudly, not moving the hat, and Polly jumped three inches off her seat.
     “Don’t do that, Mr. Kendrick,” she said. “Scared me to death.”

     Susan smiled, thinking it was a pretty good joke. Lance and Garret glanced at each other, annoyance written on each of their faces. The judge gave Kendrick a bit of an irritated glance, but that was all.
     Polly then spoke up again. “Well, I’m just glad we have judges like you, Mr. Hightower, and lawmen like Ken Ross to protect us. I feel better knowing that so many of these outlaws are dead or in prison.”
     “I don’t think we’ll have a problem with any of them on this trip, Miss Plummer,” the judge said and smiled at her. Polly smiled back and blushed a bit. Susan watched the two of them, amused, wondering if maybe something was budding there.
     The coach droned on, mostly in silence. The monotony bored everybody so much that there wasn’t much talking. Susan saw Kendrick come out from under his hat a couple hours later….

     I had slept a little, but not much. I glanced back out the window and could see the snow falling now. Susan looked out as well and commented, “It’s snowing now.”
     “Oh, my,” Polly said. “Hard?”
     “Yeah. Pretty hard.”
     “Well, we can continue on in the snow, can’t we?”
     “Depends on how bad it gets,” the judge commented.
     Susan pushed the curtain as close to the window as she could, but the cold draft still came in. Sitting next to a window had its compensations; but in times like this, it could be disadvantageous. But it was cold—freezing—for everybody in the coach. She shivered and commented on how cold it was.
     I was sitting on my blanket, mainly for extra padding. There were a few areas where Butterfield could improve the comfort of their passengers and softer seats would help. But I pulled the blanket out from under me and handed it to Susan. Our eyes met.
     “Thank you,” she said. “But I’d prefer you give it to Polly.”
     “Oh, no, dear,” the older woman replied, though she was looking at the blanket with more than a small amount of desire. “You’re sitting in that drafty window, and I’ve got two warm men surrounding me.” She giggled nervously.
     I looked at the judge and made a motion with my two index fingers, indicating that he and Polly should trade places so that the two women could share the blanket. He nodded. “Miss Plummer, why don’t you and I exchange seats and you ladies can share that nice warm blanket together.”
     “Oh, I couldn’t do that,” and she fussed and hemmed and hawed all the way into the seat beside Susan. It took a little bit of doing in the rocking coach, and at one point she ended up in Lance’s lap to everyone’s amusement but his, but everybody helped and the switch was made. Susan and Polly situated themselves under the blanket, and the former once again expressed her thanks to me, a sentiment echoed by Polly. I made a slight “you’re welcome” gesture and that was all.

     Susan looked at Kendrick for a few moments, but he didn’t seem to notice. Why didn’t he and I move instead of Polly and the judge? It would have been much easier, she’s so heavy. Maybe he doesn’t want to touch me…It irked her a bit. Everything about that man was beginning to irk her. But he did give up his blanket… “You don’t talk very much, do you, Mr. Kendrick,” Susan said. It was a statement, not a question.
     He gave her a wry smile. “I think I’ve already said too much on this journey, Miss Bedford.” Susan couldn’t see Garret well without leaning forward. But she did catch Lance glancing at him, and the cowboy kind of shrugged and pulled a “well, that’s better than nothing” face. Kendrick turned and looked out the window again.

     I didn’t like what I saw.

Chapter Three—Side Trip

     Not much talking for the next hour or so. Susan and Polly both drifted off into a fitful sleep, but when she woke up, Susan realized that the coach had stopped and that Kendrick and Garret were no longer inside.        
     “Why have we stopped?” she asked.
     “Look outside,” Lance said to her.
     She did and gasped. There was a blizzard. She couldn’t see twenty feet outside the cabin. She said to Lance, “But why did we stop?”
     Judge Hightower answered. “We’ve been going in circles the past hour, Miss Bedford. The driver has lost the trail.”
     “But…how it that possible? Isn’t it marked?”
     He shook his head. “There are no fences, no telegraph wires, and when you get this far away from civilization, the road sometimes is no more than a couple of narrow wheel tracks with grass growing up all around them. Easy to see in clear weather; impossible at night and in weather like this.”
     Polly had woken up and was listened. “Oh, my,” was her characteristic response. “What are we going to do?”
     The judge shook his head. “I don’t know. Mr. Kendrick and Mr. Roman are outside right now, talking to the driver and shotgun.”

     Indeed, Garret and I were. “We can’t see the track at all,” Josh was explaining, echoing what the judge had said inside. He had to shout to be heard above the howling of the wind. “We might ride within 100 yards of the next station and never even see it. I think we’re goin’ in the generally right direction, but chances of findin’ that station in this mess…” He shook his head.
     I nodded, my eyes narrow against the blowing snow. “I know where some cover is.”
     “Where?” The other three me looked at me.
     I pointed south. “The Picacho Escarpment is about five, no more than ten miles from here. There’s a stone house there under a large overhang. Some trees and caves, too. Go due south, driver, which shouldn’t be hard since this wind is coming from the north. We’ll hit the wall and I can find the house from there.”
     The Escarpment was a solid, ten-mile long wall of limestone, varying from 200 to 500 feet high. Josh nodded. “I know the Picacho, but I didn’t know there was a house there.”
     "There is. Well, there was 15 years ago. It will protect us from this weather.”
     “You sure you can find the house, gunslinger?” Garret asked.
     “I’ll find it, gambler,” I said, climbing up onto the stage. “I’ll sit on top, driver, help you guys spot the place.”
     “Gonna be cold up there, Mr. Kendrick.”
     “No colder than where you’re sitting, Jehu.” “Jehu” was a popular nickname for stagecoach drivers, after the Biblical king of that name who had a reputation for driving his chariot recklessly.
     “Let’s go then.”

     Garret got back inside the coach and explained where we were going. “Oh, I hope they can find it,” Polly said.
     “I think Mr. Kendrick knows what he’s doing, Miss Plummer,” the judge said.
     She smiled sweetly at him. “Polly, Judge Hightower.”
     He smiled back. “Then it’s Herschel, Mi…um, Polly.”
     Susan caught Lance’s eye. He smiled and winked. She smiled back. I’m not the only female on this trip getting some male attention…Then she looked out the window again. It was frightening; the snow was a solid wall, the wind was howling fiercely, and the coach was dragging. I hope that gunslinger…She frowned…Is he a gunslinger? Well, whatever he is, I hope he can find what he’s looking for…
     Then, in her mind, she saw his eyes. And she wasn’t frightened any more. He’ll find it…She just knew he would…

     Josh Taylor turned the coach with the wind in a near southerly direction. I leaned forward between the two men up front, but could see nothing. I could barely see the front two horses of the four horse team. “We’ll be right on the wall before we see it,” I shouted.
     “Yeah,” Lem hollered back.
     And that’s just about what happened. We saw the sheer cliff wall about 20 yards before we reached it.     
     “Which way?” Josh shouted.
     “Go right. About a half mile.” I was hoping the house was still standing, but if not, there were caves where we could get in out of the wind. If they hadn’t all been confiscated by wild animals.
     But the house was there. Pretty much as I remembered it. Maybe fifty feet by thirty feet, solid wooden front door, shuttered windows. Built up against the wall, to last, and to withstand the weather. And it had apparently done both.
     We weren’t totally out of the wind, but there was a large overhang of rock about 20 feet above us that jutted out about 50 feet. It gave quite a bit of protection. I hopped down onto the ground. “Get the horses into the caves,” I suggested to Josh and Lem. “I’ll get Yarbrough and Roman to help me unload the supplies and get some wood.”
     “Sounds good.”
     We all went to work. The house, which had two rooms, was a bit dusty, but conveniently, Polly found an old broom against a wall and started sweeping. Susan and the judge actually took the supplies into the house, mainly foodstuffs for eating and drinking, plus all the blankets they could find. Lance, Garret, and I gathered as much wood as we could immediately locate, which was quite a bit. Before long we had a nice fire going on the stone floor in the main room of the house. By the time Josh and Lem got the horses situated in a cave, Susan, Polly, and the judge had some coffee brewing and some beans and bacon cooking.
     “Mmmm, sure smells good,” Lance says. “I’m famished.” A sentiment expressed by everyone.
     I squatted close to the fire to thaw out. The snow was still coming down in blizzard proportions and the wind howled through the cracks and crevices of the Picacho. The coffee was ready first and there were enough cups to go around for everybody. The hot coffee felt good inside and helped to warm and cheer everybody up.
     “How long do you think we’ll have to be here?” Polly asked me.
     I shook my head. “Until this weather clears. Could be tonight. Could be three or four days.”
     The food was ready and Susan dished it out to everyone. We all sat around the fire. Garret and Lance, not surprisingly, were sitting on each side of Susan. The judge and Polly were sitting together. Josh and Lem were standing a little behind and I sat opposite Susan. We all ate heartily and in silence for a while, then when the initial hunger had been sated, Lance asked me, “How did you know this house was here?”
     I paused a moment, not looking up. “Because I was born in that room behind you.”
     Everybody stopped eating and stared at me. I figured I might as well tell the story before I got a bevy of questions.
     “Mom died giving birth to me so I never knew her. But dad was determined to make a go of it here. And he did well for awhile. Had some horses, sold them to the army and local ranchers, and kept us in clothes and beans. I helped him once I was old enough, but then, when I was 14, some Indians raided and stole most of our horses. Dad went after them—wouldn’t let me go, for which I’ll never forgive him—but the Indians killed him. Left me pretty much on my own. I drifted, picked up some work here and there, haven’t been back in 15 years.” I paused and put down my plate, the food barely half-eaten. “After my last stop here, just to see it, I never thought I’d come back again.”
     Everybody was silent for a few moments. “What a sad tale,” Polly said finally, and quietly. And even Garret looked somber.
     “Sorry to hear all that, son,” the judge said.
     I glanced at him and smiled softly. “I’m sure I’m not the only one in here with a melancholy tale to tell. Wouldn’t have told you this one if you hadn’t asked.” I shook my head. “It was a long time ago, but this place does bring back some memories.”
     “I imagine.”
     I looked around, changing the subject. “Folks, let’s determine how we’re going to do this. Lance, Garret, let’s build a fire in that other room and let the ladies sleep in there. Us men can sleep in here. Might be a good idea to not build a fire here. Conserve fuel in case we might be here awhile. There’s plenty of wood along the wall, but no sense in going any farther for it than we have to.”
     Josh spoke up. “I think Lem and I should sleep in the cave with the horses. They might be spooked otherwise.”
     I nodded. “Build a fire, if you wish. In fact, I would encourage you to. There might be some coyotes or mountain lions who want to get into the cave, so you fellows being there is a good idea. Building a fire will keep the critters away.”
     Susan looked at Polly. “Polly, I think we can go without a fire, too. Mr. Kendrick’s idea about conserving fuel is probably a good one.”
     Polly seemed as though she didn’t particularly like that idea, but she expressed her agreement. We men tried to talk the two ladies out of it, but Susan and Polly only got more resolute the longer we pressed them. Finally, Lance threw up his hands.
     “Alright, alright, we give in.” Then, under his breath, he muttered, “Stubborn women,” but just loud enough for Susan and Polly to hear.
     “I heard that,” Susan said.
     Lance grinned. “Ears like a bat, too.”
     It was dark outside now, of course, and everyone was tired and ready for bed. Josh and Lem went out to the cave, and the rest of us men spread out our blankets as far from the front door and windows as possible. It wasn’t the most comfortable bed I’d ever slept on, but I was way too tired to complain about it. Inside a minute, I was sound asleep.

     It took Susan a few minutes to fall asleep, once everyone turned in for the night. The wind was whistling a melancholy tune, and strangely, it was peaceful. She thought about the ranch in Blantonville. Do I want to keep it? She wouldn’t know the answer to that until she arrived and saw it, but her first inclination was “no.” I’ve lived all my life in Alabama. All my friends are there. Why move? I could probably sell that ranch for a lot of money, invest it, and be financially comfortable for the rest of my life. She smiled. If I don’t marry a rich farmer…But part of her wanted to keep the ranch. She liked what she had seen of the West so far. It’s…peaceful…serene…and has some awfully handsome men…another smile. She toyed a moment with how she was going to keep playing Garret and Lance against each other. This is fun. Then she frowned as another thought came into her head…
     She shook her head. I feel kind of sorry for him. He seems alone, melancholy. But he’s so…aloof…cold. I don’t like him…
     Do I?
     She fell asleep.

     The weather hadn’t improved the next morning when we all woke up. “Oh, dreary!” Polly commented. “We’re going to have to stay another day.”
     “Maybe not,” the judge commented. “As Mr. Kendrick said, these storms can blow through very quickly.”
     "Or hang on for several days,” Garret quipped.
     “There’s that, too. Let’s hope for the best.”
     Josh and Lem joined us for breakfast. “I don’t think the wind is as bad,” Josh said. “But that snow is still as thick as molasses. We better stay put awhile.”
     Polly sighed. “What are we going to do?”
     I gave Garret a wry grin. “Got a deck, gambler?”
     He grunted. “I’d take you for everything you’ve got, gunslinger.”
     “You’re probably right about that. Never was much at cards.” I made a motion with my hand towards the west. “This overhang goes on for another 500 yards at least. There are several caves, if anyone is of a mind to go exploring.”
     Lance brightened and looked at Susan. “How about it? Do you like to spelunk?”
     “To what?”
     He laughed. “Spelunk. Cave exploring is all it means.”
     She grumbled. “Then why didn’t you just say so.” But she smiled at him. “Sure, sounds fun.” Then, with a mischievous smile, she looked at Garret. “Would you like to go, too?”
     A dry smile came across Garret’s face. “I…think I’ll let you and Lance do that on your own. I’m going to head the other way.”
     “You’ll find a few caves there, too,” I said, “but you’ll be out from under the overhang in about 100 yards.”
     He nodded. “I’ll be ok.”
     I looked at Lance. “Do you have a weapon? It’s not impossible that a lion might have holed up in one of those caves.”
     “I’ve got a pistol in my bag.”
     “Take Lem’s shotgun instead. Better chance of hitting him and doing big time damage.” I asked Lem, “Do you mind?”
      "No. I got a rifle, too, and know how to use it.”
     To Garret, I said, “You armed?”
     He nodded. “In my suitcase. I’ll get it.” I didn’t know what he had, but I felt pretty sure he knew what to do with it.
     “Just be careful in those caves and carry some extra wood and matches for torches,” I said.
     So we all split up for the day. Judge Hightower and Polly stayed in the house most of the time, just talking and enjoying each other’s company. They didn’t seem to notice anything else that was going on. Josh and Lem stayed close to their cave to protect and look after the horses. Susan and Lance went west exploring—and he forgot the shotgun—and Garret went east. I spent a good portion of the morning gathering firewood, and I stacked a huge amount against the front wall of the house.
     The judge and Polly looked at me curiously one time when I walked inside with an armload of wood. I smiled at them. “Don’t worry. I was eight years old before I figured out my name wasn’t ‘Get Wood.’” They laughed…

     The first cave Lance and Susan explored only went back about 50 yards. Lance shone his torch along the walls. “I wonder if there are any Indian pictographs in any of these caves,” he said. Then he winked at Susan and smiled. “Or maybe gold.”
     “Uh, if there were gold here, I imagine the Kendricks would have found it long ago.”
     “Yeah. But this isn’t gold rock anyway. Gold is usually locked up in quartz, which you’ll find in granite, not limestone.” Susan nodded.
     The second cave went back farther, much farther. Lance took Susan’s hand and she almost pulled away, but didn’t. The cave was narrow and gently sloped downward for several hundred yards and had only one tunnel, so there was no way they could get lost. Hopefully. Finally, after walking almost a mile—which was probably only about a half mile inside the Picacho due to all the twists and turns, they came to a large room with an underground river flowing through it.
     “Wow,” Lance said, holding up the torch so that they could see better. “It’s lovely.”
     “Indeed it is,” Susan agreed, her eyes scanning the vast underground chasm.
     There was a vaulted ceiling at least 200 feet high, and some lovely rock formations all through the cavern. Long stalactites and stalagmites rose and descended from the ceiling and floor. The torch, which was the only light in the cavern, of course, danced some eerie shadows across the varied rock formations along the wall. It was exciting, fascinating, and a little frightening all in one.
     Lance walked down to the edge of the underground stream. It was dark, naturally, until he held the torch down to it. Then the water appeared very clear and not very deep. Probably no more than five feet at its deepest. And about fifteen feet across. Susan could see a current, but it was a slow one, moving the water into recesses of the cave that were out of view. Lance kneeled down and felt the water.
     “Mm, warm,” he said. “Underground hot spring.” Then he looked up at Susan and grinned. “Wanna go skinny dipping?”
     “Uh, not today.” She knelt down and felt the water. It was warm. “A bath would be nice, though.”
     Lance was playful, as usual. “Well, I’ll turn my back and you go ahead and get undressed and hop in. I won’t peak. Much.”
     “Uh huh. Think I’ll wait on that one.”
     Lance chuckled. “Well, can’t blame a guy for trying.”
     Suddenly, a gust of wind out of nowhere blew out the torch. Susan gasped and Lance exclaimed, “Yikes!”
     It was totally, completely, absolutely dark. A darkness like Susan had never experienced before. A darkness she could almost feel. A darkness so total that it was…terrifying.
     “Uh, Lance, will you please get that torch relit? Immediately, if not sooner.”
     "Well, look at it this way. You can take your bath now and I couldn’t see a thing for sure.”
     “Lance!” He chuckled. Nothing seemed to disturb him.
     “Um, what would you say if I told you I forgot my matches?”
     “Lance!” And he burst out laughing.
     He was only standing about two feet from her. He touched her and said, “Here hold this while I light a match.”
     Susan groped a moment, but found the handle of the wooden torch. She heaved a sigh of relief when Lance struck a match. She held the end of the torch down where he could get to it….and another gust of wind blew out the match.
     “Maybe we better back up a few feet,” Lance said. He put his arm on Susan’s shoulder, and then his arm went around her shoulder.
     “Are you scared, darling?” he asked her. She could hear the playfulness in his voice.
     “No, not a bit,” Susan replied. Then she decided to get playful. Closing her eyes and remembering the configuration of the tunnel they had walked down, she broke from his grip and quickly dashed about 10 yards back the way they had come. And then went deathly silent.
     “Hey!” Lance said. “Where did you go?”
     She didn’t answer, but she had to put her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing where he could hear her.
     “Susan, this isn’t funny. Where are you? I heard you run off.” Then she heard him sigh. “Women,” he said. He struck a match and held it up. Susan came running at him then, screaming like a banshee. Lance yelled and fell back, and she heard him rolling until he hit the water. She laughed and laughed and laughed.
     “Blast you, woman, I got a good mind to tan your hide.”
     “You’ll have to catch me first.”
     Susan realized now that, even though it was totally dark, all she had to do was follow the wall back the way they had come. There had been no side tunnels so there was no way she could get lost.
     She hoped.
     So, quietly, with one hand always touching the wall, she jogged slowly back up the tunnel. It slanted upwards a bit, which told her she was going in the right direction because the tunnel had descended into the earth as they were moving into it.
     “Susan! Where are you? My matches are wet, I can’t light one!”
     And she laughed again, but not so loud where he could hear her.
     “Ohh, when I find you, woman…”
     She kept up her slow jog and it was barely five minutes before she saw the opening to the tunnel a couple hundred yards ahead. She stopped about 50 feet inside the cave and leaned against the wall, waiting for Lance. Giggling the whole time.
     A couple minutes later, he showed up. Wet from head to toe. Susan broke out laughing. “You’re going to catch your death of cold, Lance,” she said, teasing him. “Not a good day to go swimming with your clothes on.”
     “You…you…you…” he came towards her, pointing his finger at her. When he got to within about six feet of her, he lunged at her, but she was anticipating that and ducked under him. She ran outside.
     “Ooo, it’s windy out here,” she said, still in a teasing tone. “I wouldn’t come out here if I were you.”
     Lance was standing a few feet inside the cave. He had his arms outstretched towards her, his fingers curled. “When I get my hands on you…” Then he couldn’t help himself. He started laughing heartily, too. “You little imp,” he said. “Go get me a towel and some dry clothes. I’ll catch pneumonia like this.”
     She giggled and headed back to the house. The judge and Polly had a fire going. She smiled at them. “Keep that burning,” she told them gaily. “We’re going to need it real bad in a just a minute.” She found Lance’s suitcase, pulled out a change of clothes for him, and jogged back to the cave. He had moved back about 50 yards and his teeth were chattering. His overcoat was soaked as well.
     She felt a little sorry for him, but not much. She tossed him the clothes. “Here. Can I watch?”
     His eyes burned with fire. She laughed and backed off. “I’ll be outside. There’s a fire going in the house so you can get warm there.”
     In a couple of minutes, Lance appeared, carrying his bundle of wet clothes. “Let’s get to that fire,” he said, and took off in a run. Susan laughed again and followed him.
     It took over an hour, and 10 cups of coffee, before Lance felt normal again.

     The snow had stopped falling, and everyone’s spirits were high that night at the prospect of leaving the next day. Garret and Lance once again sat on either side of Susan, the judge and Polly were together, and I sat alone, opposite Susan again. Josh and Lem were standing behind us. For some reason, they felt like they shouldn’t sit with the rest of us.
     Judge Hightower regaled us with some interesting, sometime hair-raising, sometimes hilarious stories of some of his exploits as a circuit judge. “Who’s the most dangerous man you ever put away?” Lem asked him.
     The judge thought for a moment. “Tom McCarty, I suppose.” Everyone gasped. McCarty was a wicked one, indeed. “He broke jail and he and his gang swore they’d get me, but they never did. I think they were too busy chasing money and skirts.”
     “Who’s the best lawman you ever knew?”
     Again, he thought. “I knew Bat Masterson. Never met Earp or Hickok. Met Sam Scott once. He was a dandy. Never knew Ken Ross, he’s a little out of my jurisdiction, but his exploits are legendary down south. He brought in the whole Ramon Garcia gang single-handed, those he didn’t bury.” That got a few wows. Even as far north as we were now, the Garcia gang down in Arizona were known as ruthless, vicious, and brutal murderers. “Fred Lane was another good’un that I knew. Flynn gang shot him full of holes, though.” He shook his head. “That was a loss. Fred was a dear friend.” He went on to tell about other lawmen and outlaws he knew—and didn’t know—until finally Polly’s head began to droop on his shoulder.
     The judge smiled and patted her arm. “I guess I’ve bored everybody and started putting you all to sleep.”
     “Not a boring minute the whole night, Judge,” Garret said.
     “Amen to that,” Lance echoed, and there was a murmur of agreement from everyone.
     Except me. The judge glanced at me thoughtfully. I had been staring into the fire most of the evening, seemingly in my own world. I wasn’t. I had heard every word he said.
     “Let’s go to bed,” the judge said. “Josh is going to roust us up before daybreak so we need some shut-eye before he does.”

     Susan couldn’t sleep. She tossed and turned for probably two hours, thinking mostly about the decision she had upcoming in Blantonville. I’ve never had to make a decision like that before…dad always did that…It hadn’t been too many years previous that her parents had died in a fire that burned down their house. Her mother had been overcome by the smoke, and her dad had tried to carry her out. He didn’t make it…Susan moaned, shuddered, and forced herself to think of something else. She could tell that Polly was deep in dreamland, but she hadn’t been able to sleep at all. She didn’t know why, but she decided to get up. Maybe a walk would help.
     She went outside and walked out from under the overhang, and stood almost knee deep in snow. She looked all around at the wondrous beauty. The countless stars were absolutely magnificent; she had never seen so many. They glittered on the pure, white, virgin snow like diamonds. The sheer loveliness of a world of white, canvassed by a million stars and a bright moon. It was one of the most magnificent sights she had ever seen.
     “Beautiful, isn’t it,” a soft voice behind her said.
     She wasn’t startled and she didn’t turn around It was Garret. He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist. She made no protest, indeed, laid her head back against his left shoulder.
     “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Susan said softly.
     Garret pulled off his gloves and let them drop, and then his hands slowly moved inside Susan’s coat, and back around her waist. His arms felt good and she shivered as a warmth swept through her. She slowly pirouetted, closed her eyes and tilted her head up to him. His lips descended and touched hers, and his hands rubbed slowly up and down her back. She shivered again, smelling his masculine smell and the faint, sensuous odor of the fire on his clothes. His lips were warm, soft, delicious…and kissing hers… Warm…so warm…the first time Susan had been warm in days…
     With a tremendous effort of the will, she broke away from him. Trembling, breathing hard, she ran past him, back into the house, and into her room. She kicked off her boots and climbed under her blanket. Cold.
     But warm…

     The next day dawned without a cloud in the sky. It was still bone-chilling cold, but the sun brightened everyone’s spirits. We loaded everything up, Josh and Lem hitched the horses, and we all boarded the coach in anticipation of leaving. I noticed that Garret worked things to his advantage—that is, he got to sit next to Susan, who was next to the window. But Lance was directly across from her, so they basically had her pinned. I sat next to Garret and the judge and Polly sat together.
     Nobody really felt like talking because the day had come too early. So there was a lot of sleeping until about noon, when Josh pulled up at the XYZ way station, the one we were supposed to have stopped at two night before.
     He set the break and hollered. “Lunch break, folks. Thirty minutes, then off we go. Eat fast.”
     Everybody groaned. These breaks were supposed to be for an hour, but Josh wanted to make up some time. The horses had to be changed, and that might have been the only reason he did stop.
     We made good time that afternoon and halted for the night about 40 miles further on at the Compton Station. It was a low, mud-brick building, with barn and stables. Everybody had a good meal, then bedded down. There was still snow everywhere, but it wasn’t as cold as it had been, largely because the wind wasn’t blowing.
     Garret had said nothing all day to Susan about their little episode the previous evening, and she was glad he didn’t. The flirting continued to be enjoyable. She had no doubt that both men wanted to go a long way beyond flirting, but she wouldn’t have done even what she did the previous evening with Garret if it hadn’t been for a bit of a weak moment because of the beauty of the night and the melancholy of her spirit. Still, she had no regrets. But when he asked her to go for a walk that night after dinner, she politely refused. Lance came up a few minutes later and asked the same thing and got the same answer. She noticed that Kendrick didn’t ask her; didn’t even look at me. But then, she hadn’t taken much notice of him, either. Still, it sort of annoyed her. She was used to men looking at her and paying attention to her, and Kendrick was doing neither.
     Another lovely day dawned the next morning. Josh had everybody up and rolling before the sun rose. There was the usual mumbling and grumbling, but we all knew he was right and that we needed to catch up with the schedule as much as possible. Technically, we should have arrived in Blantonville the next day, but with the delays, the final destination was still at least three, probably four days away.
     Josh stopped for an hour for lunch this time. I wasn’t hungry so I didn’t eat anything. I went for a walk, enjoying the sunshine. It was still cold, but the sun felt marvelous. There was a little stream just beyond the way station with a bridge spanning it. I stopped there and leaned on the railing, looking down as the icy cold water crackled and gushed over a multitude of rocks and boulders. My thoughts drifted…

     Susan had seen Kendrick walking away from the way station. I wonder what’s going through his mind…Curious for some reason, she followed him.

     I heard someone coming and looked up. It was Susan. “Hi,” she said. “Mind if I join you?”
     “Don’t mind a bit.” So she leaned on the rail a few feet from me.
     “Trying to get a little respite from those two wolves who have been tracking you, huh,” I said to her with a slight smile.
     “Yes!” she said, and laughed. “Oh, they are fun. It certainly keeps down the boredom.”
     “I’m sure it does.”
     We went silent a moment, then she asked, just to be making conversation, “Are you married?”
     “Have you ever been?”
     “Yep.” And that was all I said.

     Susan was a bit flustered, but then she realized she might have hit a bit of a sore spot with him. So she said, trying to sound light-hearted, “You don’t talk much, do you.”
     “Nope.” It was the answer she expected, but still it aggravated her. She was about to walk away, but she had one more question.
     “You don’t like Garret Roman, do you.”
     This time, Kendrick glanced at her. He shook his head. “Never have liked rattlesnakes.”
     That angered her even more. “He’s not a rattlesnake,” she said sharply, looking at him. “If anybody is a snake around here, it’s you. You won’t talk, you move as quietly as a ghost, nobody knows anything about you, after your father died when you were 14. If that is really the truth. How do you know Garret Roman? Why should I believe anything you say about him?” Then, because she was getting a little more heated, she barbed, “Maybe there’s a bit of jealousy in you towards Garret? And Lance? I’m not paying any attention to you. Men don’t like that, do you. I can understand why you aren’t married any more.” She turned towards the stream again in a huff. But she didn’t walk away.
     Susan heard Kendrick sigh and say, “Never did have much of a way with women.” After a pause, he said, “I guess I should look at it from your standpoint. A long, boring trip, couple of nice-looking fellows vying for your attention. I reckon it would be fun and maybe I am jealous.” He stood up. “I’m going to head back. You ready to come?”
     Susan shook her head, mollified a little, but not completely. “I’ll stay here a little longer. It would be nice to get away from men for just a few minutes.” And with that, she stared out at the stream below.

     Whether intended or not, I took her last comment as another barb, but I let it slide. “Ok.” I started to head to the station, then stopped, and looked back towards Susan, but not at her. “Incidentally, my wife died ten years ago giving birth to our first child. The baby died, too.” And for some reason that I didn’t understand, I got a little hot, too. “But then, maybe that isn’t the truth, either. Why should you believe anything I say about anybody?”
     I looked at her, but she didn’t look back or say anything. I turned and walked back to the station.

     Susan glanced at him quickly after he had walked away, then frowned. She didn’t know what to think any more. Or who to believe. Or what to feel.

Chapter Four, Part One—Rattlesnakes and Puppy Dogs

     The afternoon ride passed uneventfully. Lance made a lot of jokes, Garret was his usual charming self, Polly and the judge held hands the whole way, and I spent most of my time staring out the window at the passing countryside. If somebody asked me something, I responded courteously enough, but I didn’t volunteer anything. I never really had in my life so this wasn’t much of a change. You grow up largely alone and you don’t have anybody to talk to. So you don’t talk much…

     Susan glanced at Kendrick occasionally, wondering how much of what he had told her was true. Maybe some of it…I can’t see the “Garret is a rattlesnake” thing. That probably IS a bit of jealousy, and…he obviously doesn’t like gamblers. He…Funny thing. I don’t even know his first name. Just…Kendrick…
     There was a brief rest stop in the middle of the afternoon. Susan had one more question she wanted to ask Kendrick, so breaking away from Garret and Lance for a moment, she went over to him. “Can I ask you something else?”
     “Lance. Is he a rattlesnake, too?” She tried to keep the sharpness out of her tone, but it was hard.
     Kendrick looked at her. Susan knew there was a little fire in her eyes, but he just smiled at her softly and shook his head. “Naw. Lance isn’t a rattlesnake. He’s just a little puppy dog.”
     “Well, I’m glad you think kindly about one of them.”
     He continued to smile. “Of course, that depends on what the puppy dog does.”
    Susan was exasperated again. “Ohhhw. You are the most frustrating…what is THAT supposed to mean?”
     He just shrugged, still smiling.
     Susan turned quickly and started to walk away. Then she stopped and looked back. “Mr. Kendrick, can I ask you what your first name is? We don’t even know.”
     Still smiling. “Yes, you do.”
     Susan was thoroughly flustered now. She threw up her hands. “I give up. The man is insane,” she said, mostly to herself, but within his hearing as she turned and walked back to the stagecoach.

     She’s not the first person who’s ever thought that, I mused, then stared after her thoughtfully…

     The next way station had burned down two months previous, so we had to stop that night and make camp in a wide circle of large boulders about 100 yards off the road. The area itself was perhaps 100 yards in circumference, and 30 yards in diameter at its widest. Much of the snow had melted by now, so the area was clear and dry. It was cold, though, so we built a huge fire that reached to every part of the “pit,” as Josh called it.
     “We been stayin’ here ever since the Stockton Station burnt down. They’s workin’ to rebuild it, but won’t have it done fer a few weeks,” Josh told us.
     “Oh, but this is nice,” Polly said. “Camping out. We used to do this when I was a child back in Ohio. What fun.” She giggled.
     I had had plenty of camping out in my life and “fun” wasn’t a word I generally associated with the activity….

     After supper, everybody was sort of milling around, or leaning back against a rock. The fire was kept burning high and hot. Garret came over to Susan as she was putting some things away in her bag and said, “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
     “Sure,” she said.
     "Let’s go over there,” he said, “I’ve got something to show you.” He pointed to a rock at the edge of the big circle, a little behind the rest, and in some shadows.
     They walked over there and Garret sat down and patted the earth next to him. “Sit down and take a look at this.”
     When Susan sat down next to him, he held out to her a small bracelet fashioned as a snake bangle. It had a carved snake’s head and a curving, twisting body that wound around three times. “I found this the other day when I was exploring the caves.”
     Susan took it, her eyes wide. It was golden, and it had little beads of turquoise imbedded down the snake’s back. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” she commented. “Is it really gold and turquoise?”
     “I’m pretty sure it is,” Garret responded. “I know a little bit about Indian folklore up here. This bracelet would have been made for a princess. The snake was to ward off evil spirits and”—here he smiled—“unwanted suitors. I thought it probably fit your current circumstance quite well, so I wanted you to have it.”
     “Oh!” Susan exclaimed, still dazzled by the bracelet. “For me?” She slipped it on her left wrist and it fit perfectly.
     “See?” Garret said. “Made for a princess.”
     “Oh, Garret, thank you!” Impulsively, she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, but he turned his head and met her lips fully with his. She started to pull away, but then decided not to. After all, it was a magnificent bracelet. And another romantic night.
     After a few seconds, it was clear to Susan that Garrett wanted to prolong their current…attachment. A prolongation to which she had no objection whatsoever….

     Near the fire, Lance, who had just returned from a nearby stream where he had been washing up, was warming himself and his ice cold hands. He happened to turn and spot Garret and Susan just as she slipped the bracelet on. A few seconds later, Lance saw two heads come together and stay that way. He watched for a full minute, then grunted indignantly when the two heads didn’t separate. Then Lance turned back to the fire and grinned. Anything he can do, I can do better…at least she’s not totally unwilling…Lance began to plan. He thought for a few moments, then another smile came across his face when an idea started forming…
     Fifteen minutes later, Lance checked again….and the two heads were still together and showing no signs of imminent separation…

     Garret and Susan remained engaged in their amorous entanglement for several more minutes. It fleetingly went through her mind that everybody could see them, but it didn’t bother her enough to want to stop. When they finally broke the kiss, both breathing very hard, Garret asked Susan if she’d like to go behind the rocks.
     “Just for a few minutes. It won’t take long.”
     She knew what he meant, of course, and it was a temptation, but not an overpowering one. She smiled at him and gently pushed him away. “No, Garret… not…yet…”
     He smiled, not pushing it. “Ok, but I’ll imply from the ‘not yet’ that there’s still a possibility.”
     For some reason, some words she had heard very recently leapt into Susan’s mind. “Imply anything you want, gambler…” She frowned momentarily, but caught herself and smiled at him. “We’ll see,” is all she said about that, then followed it up with, “I’m going to bed. Josh will have us up early tomorrow.”
     As she made preparations for sleep. Susan glanced over and saw Kendrick cleaning his gun. He didn’t even look at her, as if she wasn’t even there. It’s an act, I know it is. He saw me and Garret, I’m sure he did…She felt a little smug about it. Then a little angry that Kendrick was ignoring her. Or at least it appeared he was. In a huff, she jerked her blanket down and thought, I hope you shoot your foot off…
     Susan lay awake for awhile after she got under her blankets. She was looking up at the stars again, a soft smile on her lips. She thought about her evening with Garret and was still aglow from their intimacy. Boy, if every rattlesnake could kiss like that, I’d be out hunting them every day…And she giggled to herself. Take THAT, Mr. You Think I Know Your First Name But I Don’t Kendrick…She felt the bracelet around her wrist. How old was it? Hundreds of years, perhaps. Gold. Turquoise. Wow, this thing could be priceless…and he gave it to me…Garret is a very sweet man, he’s no rattlesnake…if he were as bad as Kendrick implied, he would have kept it himself...and with that satisfactory confirmation in her mind, she rolled over onto her side, and prepared to go to sleep.
     But she frowned. Rattlesnakes kept coming into her mind. Kendrick…not Garret…why? She rolled over thinking that would help. It didn’t. Rattlesnakes. Kendrick. Bracelet or not, something was gnawing on the back of her mind. She shook it off. Tomorrow will be better…
     And with that thought, she went to sleep.

     Susan was wrong. I hadn’t seen her and Garret. I had been too busy cleaning my rifle and then my pistol. And even if I had been looking for her, I wouldn’t have seen them because, from where I was sitting, there was a boulder between us. I did think about her a couple of times. I don’t think she likes me very much. But then, I don’t especially like flirtatious women. I smiled. Especially if they aren’t flirting with ME…Then I pulled a wry face. Not that I’ve given her any reason to…Then a frown. She said I was jealous…am I?….
     I think I’m glad I hadn’t seen her and Garret…

     The noon stop was at about 11:15 the next day. Josh was making good time. He decided to give everyone an hour for lunch and rest. Carson’s was the name of this station, and it was nice. A big, log structure, with the necessary barn and stables behind. The dining area could probably seat 30 people, and there was a nice fire blazing in a fireplace. It was cozy and comfortable.
     The owner was a man named Carson, and he had an Indian woman, who looked to be in her mid-20s, as helper and cook. The lady was pretty, but she didn’t talk much. But Susan could tell that she didn’t miss much, either. Garret and Lance sat on each side of her, as they always did, and their company, as usual, was charming, gentlemanly, and humorous. Garret, again, said nothing to Susan about the intimacy between them the night before, and if anybody else saw, they didn’t say anything, either, though Polly did give her a smile and a wink and a shift of eyes towards Garret. But that was all.
     The Indian girl’s name was Sara—obviously given to her by her husband. If he was her husband. Susan was intrigued, so when she finished eating, she helped clear the table and take the dishes back to the kitchen.
     “You don’t need to help,” Sara told her.
     “No, I want to,” Susan said. “It’s cold outside and I’m chilled so I want to stay in. I help you with the dishes.”
     Sara didn’t argue, in fact, she seemed grateful for the assistance. And to have a female to talk to, something that probably didn’t happen very often.
     As they were washing the dishes, Susan, trying not to sound too nosy, asked Sara, “Is Mr. Carson your husband?” It was a legitimate question. He looked about twice her age.
     “Yes. He has been good to me.”
     “How did you…meet him?”
     Sara gave her a wry smile. “As he and his troops were killing everyone in my village.”
     Susan looked horrified.
     Sara sighed. “He was in the U.S. army. It was his duty, I guess. Our braves had been raiding, pillaging, and killing white settlers, so the army got orders to destroy our village. They hit us early one morning. I was seven years old at the time. Sam was a lieutenant and happened to be in charge of the raid. I stood outside my teepee, watching the soldiers killing everyone. Our people were fleeing. Being run down, shot, stabbed, whatever. I just stood there. I didn’t try to flee because I knew it would be useless. Sam came riding up and pointed his pistol at me. I just looked up at him, waiting. For some reason, he didn’t shoot. He looked at me funny, then reached his hand down to me. I took it, and he pulled me up and sat me in front of him. ‘I will finish raising you,’ he said, ‘teach you our ways, and then you will be my wife.’” She gave Susan a wan smile. “And that is what happened.”
     “Tragic, but sweet, too,” Susan replied.
     “Yes.” Then Sara asked abruptly, “Which one of the two men are you going to choose?”
     Not quite understanding, Susan asked for a clarification.
     “The two men you sat between. They obviously both desire you greatly. So you get to choose one. Which one will it be?”
     Susan was amused. “Oh my, you mean I have to choose one of them?”
     “Oh, no, you should get to know both of them. That is what I would do. How else can you tell which one you like best? But then you will have to choose.”
     Susan was having trouble suppressing a laugh, but she couldn’t deny the logic. “That’s true, I suppose.”
     “It is nice to have a choice like that. In my village…before Sam…marriages were arranged. Indeed, I was purchased by a warrior for six horses when I was five years old. I had no say in the matter.” She shrugged. “It was our way. And it worked well enough.”
     Susan pulled a face. “Well, as long as it works.” She didn’t think she would have liked that custom, but if that is what she had grown up with, she figured she wouldn’t have known any better. Sold for six horses? Of course, being from back east, that was…strange…to say the least…
     “So,” Sara said. “Which one will it be for you?”
     Susan smiled playfully and replied, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s such a difficult decision. You choose for me.”
     Sara looked thoughtful. “Hmmm…one is dark, handsome, quieter. The other is full of energy and laughter….” She shook her head. “I cannot choose for you. You must do that yourself.”
     “What about the other man?”
     Sara was puzzled. “What other man?”
     “The man who sat by himself and said nothing to anyone. Kendrick.”
     Sara said, “He does not seem interested in you. Are you interested in him?”
     Susan opened her mouth to reply, but found no words coming forth. Am I? She frowned. Sara continued, “If you are, you must let him know.”
     Sara smiled. “You are not lacking in many feminine charms, Miss Bedford. I suspect you know how.”
     Susan frowned again. Not with him. I’ve already blown it, I suspect, by implying he’s crazy or a liar or both. So she just said, “I guess so.”
     “But if he is the one you want, enjoy the other two first. That is what I would do. No regrets later.”
     Susan smiled at the thought. Well, I certainly enjoyed Garret last night, and I’m not necessarily opposed to enjoying him again…
     Josh called for boarding. Susan gave Sara a hug. “Please come through again,” Sara said. “I will not forget you and I will want to know what you have done.”
     “Ok. I will if I can.”
     She headed for the coach, a bit amused and a bit perplexed. Enjoy them both, huh…The idea had a certain appeal to it. Enjoy them both, then grab Kendrick…
     And then she realized something. A bolt from the blue. That’s the only way to describe it.
     He IS the best of the lot…But how do I know that? What is it about him? He’s so disdainful?…aloof?…arrogant?…Susan couldn’t quite find the right word. She glanced up. He was looking at her. He didn’t smile, he was just…looking at her. Susan kept his gaze, but he turned away.
     I don’t think he’s interested. I don’t think I am, either. I don’t like him, he’s too…mysterious, too closed, too cold…That reasoning satisfied her.
     Then she saw Garret and Lance get into the coach. She smiled. Enjoy them both…why not?…no regrets later…

     The ride that afternoon was uneventful. Garret and Lance managed to get Susan between them, which didn’t bother her in the least. Garret showed her a few card tricks and Lance told a few stories that had everybody laughing. Except Kendrick. He keeps his head buried under his hat…I’ll bet he’s not asleep…he’s listening…he’s jealous, I know he is…Susan smiled smugly…And I’m going to keep him that way…

     Wrong again, lady. I was asleep. I slept for two hours and didn’t hear much of anything. When I woke up, I heard Lance’s tales, and Susan laughing. I didn’t think Lance was funny and I thought Susan’s laugh sounded silly. Jealous…ha…I put my hat back on my head and stared out the window….

     That evening, another way station stop, of course. B&J’s it was called, for Barney and Judy, the husband and wife proprietors. It was a nice place, set among some cottonwood trees with a stream running behind it. Everyone was looking forward to a hot meal and a warm bed.
     The group had been there about 15 minutes, gotten cleaned up in the stream and waited for supper. Before she went inside the station, Lance came up to Susan.
     “Come here a moment, I want to show you something,” he said.
     He had that mischievous look in his eyes, so Susan suspected something was up.
     “What is it?” she asked.
     “No, come on,” he said. “Don’t be so suspicious.”
     Well, that was fair, Susan thought. I can always say no and come back…She glanced around to see if anybody…Kendrick…was watching her leave with Lance. He wasn’t. Susan steamed a bit. He’s so annoying…
     Lance led her to the barn and they went inside. “Um, Lance…” Susan said, getting more cautious by the moment.
     “It’s ok. Please. Just a couple of minutes, then you can go back if you wish.”
     “All right.”
     It was dark inside the barn, except for one small light coming from the loft. Lance went over to the ladder leading up to the loft and started climbing it. “Come on,” he said again, “just have a look.”
     Susan gave him a wary look, but she climbed the ladder and peaked over the edge of the loft. She smiled.
     There was a blanket spread on the hay, with a single candle burning near it. Two cups and a coffee pot. “The coffee should still be hot,” Lance said, “but I’ll have to run down to the kitchen to get our food. Have a seat and I’ll be right back.”
     Susan thought it was sweet, and appreciated the time and effort Lance had put into the idea. I haven’t spent any time alone with him…So she climbed on to the loft. Lance hurried down the ladder and out the barn. Susan sat down, her legs curled under her. She smiled again. A candlelight dinner…how romantic…what was it Sara said?…enjoy them both…well, I’ve definitely enjoyed Garret…A queasy, but warm, exciting feeling came to her stomach. Now Lance? This is nice, so thoughtful…both of them…but do I want to…? Flirting was one thing, and she liked both men, but she began wondering if she was getting in a little too deep. Still…she looked around. The single candlelight was dancing shadows on the wall of the barn….the wind moaned softly outside…a very handsome man was coming…this is incredibly romantic…
     Idly, still thoughtful, she reached over, picked up the coffee pot, and poured herself a cup of coffee. It wasn’t steaming, but it was still warm. The barn was cold, but she hardly felt that.
     She heard the barn door squeak open and shut and then soft footfalls coming in her direction. In a moment, Lance’s head, grin and all, appeared over the edge of the loft. He held out two plates of food. “Here. Let’s eat before it gets cold.”
     Susan took the plates and set them down. “The coffee is still warm,” she said, “so that’s ok.”
     “Good,” Lance replied as he scrambled onto the hay and sat down next to her. The food looked very good—meatloaf, green beans, corn, stewed apples. They had had some good meals on the trip, and this one certainly got Susan’s food glands stirring.
     They started eating. “How did you come up with this nice idea?” Susan asked.
     Lance grinned, chewed, swallowed, took a sip of coffee, then said, “Sort of came to mind when I saw you and Garret last night…” Susan blushed. She figured everybody had seen; Lance was confirming that he, at least, had.
     Then he chuckled. “I thought about interrupting and seeing if I could get a turn.”
     “Ha ha,” Susan responded.
     “I like this idea better anyway.”
     “I do, too,” she replied, and their eyes met and held for several moments. Enjoy them both…Lance’s turn?…Susan was beginning to feel uncomfortable…but…a candlelight dinner…so thoughtful…and he’s so handsome…Lance, how could you DO this?…The impulse was beginning to overpower her. It did overpower her…what harm can it do?….
     Still looking into Lance's eyes, Susan set her plate aside, food about half-eaten. She said, very softly, barely above a whisper, “I don’t want to eat any more.”
     Lance put his plate away as well. His gaze shifted from Susan’s eyes to her lips. “I don’t, either,” he responded, and moved towards her…
     Susan waited, then shivered when Lance’s lips touched hers. He held the back of her head in one hand; she squeezed his soft blonde hair tightly. A long moment…Susan was going over the edge, she knew it, and couldn’t stop it. Slowly, Lance began to lean her back until she was lying prone on the blanket. He continued to kiss her fervently, non-stop, and all Susan could do now was lie there, virtually helpless, trying to rally the will-power to stop him…a will-power that just wasn’t there. She felt herself falling…falling…falling….
     Then something blasted the whole thing apart. Stopped it dead in its tracks. Completely, totally ended the heat, passion, and desire that had overwhelmed Susan’s body and soul.
     The thought froze her like she had been dropped into a vat of liquid nitrogen. Ohhhhw…I HATE that man…Immediately, she grabbed Lance’s shoulders, pushed him away, and sat up.
     “Lance, I’m sorry…but…no, it…it’s just not…that’s enough…” She didn’t know what to say.
     Lance looked at her like she was crazy. “Susan…it was so…I thought you were enjoying…” He stopped.
     Quickly, Susan got up. “I was. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Thank you for…everything. It was…very nice.” And with that, she hurried down the ladder, and ran out of the barn.
     Lance watched her until she was out of sight. Then he sighed and shook his head. “Women. Absolutely no explaining them…”

     A few minutes later, Lance went back into the main room of the station. Everybody was finished eating and sitting around the fire, drinking coffee or whiskey. They all looked up when he came in. He glanced around, searching for Susan, but she wasn’t there.
     “Did Susan come in?” he asked.
     “No,” Polly replied, “we thought she was with you.”
     “Well,” Lance fumbled, “we…had dinner outside…but then she…left. I thought she came in here.”
     “Nope. Haven’t seen her.” That from Garret.
     “Maybe I better go find her,” Lance said, “just in case.” And he left the room.
     Susan had gone to the stream and was sitting under a tree, watching the water slowly drift by, but not seeing it. Garret the rattlesnake…Lance the puppy dog…Kendrick the…insane? How could that happen? Garret is NOT a rattlesnake, Lance is NOT a puppy dog, but Kendrick IS insane…
     So why did I let him stop me?
     Why isn’t he here right now?
     Why did I stop somebody who at least enjoys being with me because of somebody who doesn’t?
     Susan lay her head down against her propped up knees. She didn’t hear Lance come up until he sat down next to her and asked, “Are you ok?”
     She looked up quickly and saw Lance. She smiled weakly. “Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”
     He remained quiet for a few moments, and then said, “Do you…want to talk about it?”
     Susan looked back at the stream. “No. There’s…nothing really to talk about. I just…needed to stop it, Lance, that’s all.” Her eyes found his, and she smiled softly, but looked away again. “I’m…just not sure yet.”
     Lance hesitated. “Is it…Garret? I won’t get in the way if it is.”
     That’s sweet. “No, it’s not Garret. It’s just…” She sighed. It’s just what? It’s just some guy that haunts my mind though he shows no interest in me…”I’m sorry,” is all she concluded.
     He looked at her thoughtfully. “Ok. I don’t want to rush you into anything.” It was a bit abrupt, he thought; it was going so well. Something is bothering her…”Do you…want me to leave you alone?”
     She smiled softly at him again. “If you don’t mind, I would…sort of…like to be by myself for a little while.”
     Lance smiled and nodded, then stood up. “Ok. I’ll be inside if you need anything.”
     Lance left. It was cold, but Susan sat by the stream for awhile longer. Thinking. She was an intelligent lady, level-headed, so it didn’t take her long to shake off the effects of what happened. She smiled to herself. Enjoy them both…then take Kendrick…
     Doesn’t look like I’m going to do ANY of that…