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….