Ten Years Ago
They was about to hang his brother.
Harry’s stomach roiled with nausea. From the alley next to the saloon, he watched the Ranger, Sam Colter, march Frank up the gallows steps. Watched the hangman put a noose around his brother’s neck and ask if he had any last words. Watched, helpless to do a damn thing about it.
It weren’t Frank’s doin’ that Colter’s wife and kids had died in that fire. They’d only wanted to have a bit of fun with the woman, make a little money, that was all. They hadn’t wanted to see her and those girls die. That was never the plan.
Fool woman. If only she’d waited. Her father would have paid the ransom. A bank president could afford it. Instead, she’d broken loose. Thrown that lamp at his head, trying to kill him and killed herself instead.
The fire had been fierce. It moved so fast like the house was made from kindling. He rubbed the puckering skin on his arm, feeling the sting of the flames all over again as his flesh charred. He couldn’t have saved them, not and gotten himself out in time. Harry clenched his fists. It wasn’t his fault. And it wasn’t Frank’s either. It wasn’t. She was to blame. Frank shouldn’t have to die for something she’d done to herself.
He had to stop this from happening. He had to save Frank.
Harry shifted away from the gloom of the alley and his brother looked at him from the gallows; met him square in the eye and shook his head. He didn’t want Harry to die too, trying to save him. He’d always been like that. Always looked out for him. Even when it could have saved his own life, he hadn’t given his little brother up. Swallowing hard, Harry slid back into the shadows, his heart pounding.
Time slowed as the hangman stepped up to the lever and gave it a sharp pull. His brother dropped through the trap door, kicking and struggling, his neck not broke clean. Fear strangled Harry, like he was on the end of the rope, trying to breathe, trying to live. Hot tears tracked down his cheeks and bile rose into his throat as his brother’s face turned purple and then his eyes bulged out, legs thrashing wildly at the air.
This weren’t right. None of it was. Damn Colter. Damn him to hell.
The bile in his throat burned all the way to his stomach. He barely got himself hid behind a pile of old beer barrels before he threw his guts up into the mud. Minutes later, shaking and sweating, Harry wiped the vile stuff from his chin. Fury and grief gripped him, making his chest hurt. His brother was gone. Dead. And Sam Colter was to blame for it.
He forced himself to look at Frank’s body, spinning almost lazily now from the end of the rope. He never wanted to forget what had happened today. He wanted to hold onto the icy hatred settling over him like armor–let it protect him and keep the awful feeling of helplessness away. He wanted revenge.
“I’ll get even for you Frank,” he vowed quietly. “Colter will pay for what he done today. He’ll pay for hangin’ you.”
Cassandra ‘Cassie’ O’Malley pulled her little black buggy through the gates of the Circle M ranch, past the bunkhouse and the ice house into the yard in front of the main house. Cassie loved the way Catherine and Duncan had laid out their spread. Putting the house at the back of the property, away from the dust and dirt of the horse operation. Surrounded by Ponderosa pine trees, it blended in with the landscape. She wished her house was the same way. As it was, in the middle of the property, she or Bridget had to dust everyday just to keep it livable.
By Cassie’s calculations, Catherine could give birth at any minute. She and Duncan were expecting Cassie and her family for their regular overnight visit and church the next day. They waited on the wide porch that wound around the entire house. Their son, ten year old Ian, waited by the hitching rail to tether her horse like a pint-sized gentleman.
“Ian!” RJ, Cassie’s son, hailed his friend and jumped off before the small conveyance came to a stop, much to Cassie’s exasperation.
Ian, who had his father Duncan’s blue eyes and dark hair, grabbed the reins Cassie tossed his way and knotted them around the hitching rail, then slapped his friend on the back, much as their fathers used to do. “RJ, good to see you. Let’s go look at our new colt.”
Lizzie and Mary McKenzie, were not to be out done by their big brother and ran down the porch steps, their red hair bouncing. They shouted, “Sarah!” in unison.
“Sarah Jane O’Malley! You will not jump off this buggy.” Cassie admonished and grabbed the little girl, who was a miniature image of herself, before she jumped and got hurt.
Duncan stepped through the flurry of activity, always a sea of calm and took Sarah Jane in his large hands. “Here you go, baby,” he said as he settled her on the ground and she took off running to her friends, without so much as a by-your -leave. Then he turned and offered his hand to Cassie.
“Thank you, Duncan. She forgets she’s only two. Thinks she can do everything RJ does,” said Cassie.
Cassie put her palms on Duncan’s shoulders and let him lift her down. Even though he was just a friend, it was nice to feel such corded muscles beneath her fingers and strong hands on her waist. It was nice to remember she was still a woman. Though not so nice to remember how lonely she was most days.
“Come on in, Cassie, before Cat has a fit,” Duncan urged.
The lady in question waddled down the steps as quickly as her bulk would take her. Catherine “Cat” McKenzie was due to give birth to their fourth child at any time. Cassie adored her friend, truly loved her but at times like this she was envious of her. Though Michael seemed happy with just RJ they’d always wanted more children. She’d been pregnant with Sarah when he died almost three years ago and would love to hold another sweet young babe of her own in her arms again. If Michael hadn’t died she might have had another baby. She guessed she’d have to settle for holding Catherine’s from now on.
“Cassie! I’m so glad you’re here. I swear I’m going to have this child tonight, I hope you brought extra work clothes,” said Catherine, delicately wiping the sweat from her lip and brow. She was a little short of breath as she hurried her friend as best she could up the steps and into the house.
Cassie liked the house Cat and Duncan built. It was two stories as most were these days, but it was larger than most. Duncan wanted lots of kids and made sure to have room for them. Four of the five bedrooms were upstairs. She wished her bedrooms were as big. Even the guest room on the first floor was larger than Cassie’s master bedroom at home.
“You know I always pack extra when I come. The kids never stay clean and I don’t want them in their good clothes until we all head to church on Sunday.” Cassie looked at her friend. “It looks like we may miss church this week. But we’re good to stay. Are you all right? I think you should go put your feet up.”
Cassie placed her arm around Catherine’s waist, feeling her slight tremor. She guided her to the sofa. “Now, you sit there and let me go make you some nice chamomile tea. How does that sound?” Cassie turned to Duncan. “Sit here with your wife and don’t let her get up. Why didn’t you send someone for me sooner? The babe has dropped and I think we may have a little one soon, maybe tonight.”
Duncan’s face paled. He was always nervous when Catherine was about to give birth. You’d think after three, the fourth would be no problem, but it was always the same. And at that point, he forgot he was responsible for putting the babe there in the first place.
“Duncan, pull yourself together and get that footstool over here for her feet. Goodness Cat,” Cassie admonished. “You haven’t been keeping your feet up like I told you to. Your ankles look swollen to twice the size of normal.”
Cassie rushed to the kitchen to start the kettle to boil. She started to pump the water when she heard a deep, baritone voice coming from the back door.
“Would you like some help with that?” he said.
Cassie dropped it into the sink, spilling the small amount of water the kettle had already collected. “Don’t sneak up on a person like that.” It wasn’t fear she felt at seeing this mysterious, handsome stranger but instant attraction.
The man in the doorway didn’t wear a hat and had obviously been washing up on the back porch. His damp brandy brown hair glistened in the kitchen light. When he got closer, she looked up, way up, into amazing emerald green eyes.
She’d like to say the sudden jump in her heart rate was from surprise, but she’d never been good at lying to herself. No, she knew the quivering spin of a sudden jolt of attraction when it hit her, even if it had been quite a while.
“Sam Colter, ma’am. Sorry to have startled you.” He held a fresh washed hand out to her.
His large warm hand enveloped hers. A shock of awareness ran up her arm and straight to her stomach. Butterflies fluttered about in her tummy, just from his touch. A tingle she hadn’t felt in years passed between them. “Cassie O’Malley.”
“I’ve been hearing your praises, Mrs. O’Malley. Since I arrived yesterday, Catherine has been doing nothing but talk about you.”
Cassie felt the heat creep up her neck. “I’m sorry I can’t say the same, Mr. Colter.”
“No problem. I wasn’t expected, or I’m sure Cat would have been regaling you about my charms.” He leaned over conspiratorially and whispered. “I think Catherine fancies herself a matchmaker. If she weren’t indisposed she’d have you and I to tea and not vice versa.”
Cassie laughed. “That she does. You’re not the first man she has thrown at me. Sorry about that.”
He chuckled, a rich sound that traveled up her spine and settled in her chest. “I don’t know if I should be flattered or insulted.”
“Flattered, Mr. Colter. There have not been that many and only the good ones get through Catherine. She’s fiercely protective of me.”
“Please, call me Sam. I’m going to be here for a few days and Mr. Colter makes me think of my father.” He ambled to the stove and stoked the embers for her before setting the burner plate back in place.
Smiling, Cassie said, “I know what you mean. Call me Cassie. Mrs. O’Malley is my mother-in-law.”
“I understand you are widowed. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m a widower myself and I know it’s not easy.”
“Thank you and no, it’s not. I don’t know what I would have done without my kids. I think they kept me sane.”
“What about you, Sam? Do you have children?”
She watched as pain crossed his face. “No. They were murdered with my wife.”
“Oh, Sam, I’m so sorry.” She set the kettle on the stove to boil.
“Thank you. So,” he changed the subject. “Are you here to help Catherine with this baby?”
“Well, it looks like I might be, but I normally come on Saturday night and we all go to church together. It gives us and our kids some time together. Being as spread out in the valley as we tend to be, it’s easier to just make it an overnight visit. What are you doing in these parts?”
“Passing through and looking for work.”
Really. Looking for work. He’d be in the valley for a while and she might see him again. The thought pleased her. “Would you like to sit while I wait for the kettle to boil? I see there’s a pot of coffee on the stove. It may still be warm, if you’d like some.”
“Thank you, I would.”
Cassie poured them both a cup and they sat at the kitchen table. “What kind of work do you do, Sam?”
“I do just about anything. I was a Texas Ranger, but am…retired. So now I do whatever comes along.”
“Have you done much ranch work? I have a fair-sized spread.”
“I had a little ranch of my own before my family died.”
Cassie watched his eyes take on a faraway look. The one you get when you’re seeing the past. She knew that look only too well, having faced it in her own mirror too many times to count.
Acting on an impulse and listening to her gut, she asked, “Would you be willing to ramrod my ranch for me? I can’t pay a lot right now, but it includes room, board and ten dollars a month.”
“Cassie, are you sure you want to offer me a job? You don’t know me from Adam.”
“I know you’re Catherine and Duncan’s friend. I know you’re a former Texas Ranger and that you had your own ranch. You’re a widower and you like kids. That last part I’m assuming but I think it’s true nonetheless. And that’s more than I know about anyone else that might apply for the job.” She sipped her coffee, the hot brew burning her throat as she swallowed it too fast.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Yes to what?” asked Duncan from the doorway.
Cassie looked up and smiled at the big man who was her friend and her best friend’s husband. “I’ve asked Sam to come to work for me.”
“Well. That was fast. I was going to suggest it at dinner. Of course, I hadn’t expected you two to meet in the kitchen.”
“So, Cassie wasn’t the only surprise you had in store for me tonight,” said Sam.
“Duncan!” Catherine yelled from the parlor. “Duncan!”
All three of them jumped up and ran to the parlor. Cat was standing, a puddle at her feet, holding her swollen belly, clearly in pain.
“I knew it. Cat, why didn’t you send someone for me sooner? You’ve been in labor all day haven’t you? I swear. Did you even tell Duncan? You didn’t, did you?”
“Please don’t yell at me Cassie.” Catherine stretched as best she could, pushing her hand into her lower back to relieve some of the pain. She let out a small sigh. “I’ve had other things on my mind and Duncan couldn’t do anything anyway, and neither can you. Besides, you’re here now and,” Cat panted with pain, “that’s…owww…what counts.”
Cassie took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Cat. I don’t mean to yell. I’m just worried about you.” She turned to Duncan, “Please take your stubborn wife upstairs and help her out of those clothes. Sam, if you could keep track of the children for a bit it’d be much appreciated. The little ones are going to be curious and want to come in, but that’s not best. Not just yet. Hold them off and out of my way. I’d be beholden.”
He chuckled. “Not a problem. I think there’s some new kittens in the barn. That should keep them occupied for a while, then dinner and bed. They’ll be fine.”
“Thanks. If you need help with the girls, RJ and Ian are both very good with them.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. Go on now. Get. Catherine needs you.”
Sam followed Cassie back to the kitchen. He took the boiling water from the stove, filled the basin for her. She loaded up a basket full of fresh towels, then set the basin on top of the towels in the basket. It wouldn’t hurt if they got a little wet. They were going to get much wetter before the day was done.
“Thank you, kindly.”
“Need help carrying this upstairs?”
She smiled, but shook her head and declined. “You just handle the children.” She turned her back and headed up the stairs toward her friend’s moans and cries. This baby was coming soon.