Cuttersville, Colorado was a small community about thirty miles south, southeast of Denver, and the first thing Rory noticed as the stage coach came to a rocking halt was that most of the buildings had the same proprietor's name on their signs. "Henry Everett," he read, drawing David's attention to the name.
"Everett's done rather well for himself, apparently," his brother-in-law noted. "When I left the only thing he owned was the bank."
"A banker, is he, then?" Rory commented, taking Shane so that David could help Deirdre from the coach. "From the looks of it, he's used the position to buy up most of the town."
Deirdre took Shane from him again, keeping a hand on her son Benjamin's shoulder as the boy stepped away from the group. "I thought you said we were being met, David?" she asked, her eyes scanning the street for sign of a waiting carriage.
"I sent a telegram to my foreman before we left Philadelphia," David confirmed. "Rory, would you see to our cases while I ask around?"
Rory nodded and turned to receive the cases from the coach driver as they were handed down. "Thank you, sir," Rory told the man, who nodded once before jumping down from the top and heading for the saloon across the street. "Friendly sort, here, aren't they?" Rory commented to Deirdre. Down the street, he noticed a woman sweeping the boardwalk in front of one of the few establishments left that wasn't owned by Everett. She had bright red hair- redder than Rory had seen in some time.
David returned, looking down the street. "Jessup, my ranch foreman, should be here any moment. According to the stage agent, we're a bit early." His expression brightened into a smile as he saw the wagon turn onto the main street of the town. "Ah. There he is now. Jessup," he said as the driver brought the team to a stop. "I was beginning to think you hadn't gotten my telegram."
"Mr. Clement," Jessup said as he got down from the seat. "I wasn't expecting you to come back to Cuttersville so soon." He was a big, burly man with a shock of white hair revealed when he removed his hat, and a mustache that was stained yellow at the bottom. His skin was dark and rough from years of hard work in the sun. There was a wad of chewing tobacco in his cheek, and he habitually spat onto the street as a result.
"I told you I'd return eventually, my good man," David reminded the foreman. "Mr. Jessup, may I present my wife, Deirdre- and our son, Benjamin-"
Jessup tipped his hat. "Miz Clement. Pleased to make your acquaintance." He nodded at Benjamin in greeting. "
"And this my brother-in-law, Rory Manion- and his son, Shane."
"Mr. Manion," Jessup said. "We better get going if we're going to make it back to the ranch before dark," he told David.
"I'll take the horse," he said, pointing to the roan that was tied to the rear of the wagon. "If Mr. Manion and the boy don't mind riding in the back?"
Rory held Shane again as David saw Deirdre up onto the rough wooden seat, then handed him to his aunt before leaping over the side of the wagon and pulling Benjamin in beside him. "No problem, Mr. Jessup," he assured the foreman. "Right Benjamin?"
The boy grinned for the first time since they had left Philadelphia. "Right, Uncle Rory."
As they moved past the General Store, the woman stopped sweeping to watch the wagon pass, and for a moment Rory thought he could see the sloping hills of Ireland in her emerald green eyes. Tapping David on the back, he asked, "Who is that?"
"Shannon Carson. She and her husband own the General Store."
"She's married, then?" Rory asked, and earned a surprised look from his sister. "Just curious, Deirdre," he informed her.
"Not anymore," Jessup said, riding beside David. "Peter Carson died just shy of a year ago."
"Good Lord," David said. "What happened?"
"No one knows for sure," Jessup said, spitting. "He was coming home from the saloon one night. He'd been drinking as usual. Sheriff Prescott figured someone robbed him, stole his poker winnings."
"How terrible," Deirdre said.
"Mr. Everett's been trying to buy her out so she could take that young un back East, but she's refused every offer he's made. Says she was born here and don't plan to leave."
Rory could understand that sentiment. How many times had he refused to leave Ireland with just such words? "She has a child?"
"A son. About young Benjamin's age. Twelve or so. Don't know how she's hanging onto that store. Hasn't gotten a delivery of goods in months."
Jessup shrugged and spat again before he answered David's question. "She doesn't have the money to pay for it."
"Can't she get a loan from the bank?" David asked.
Jessup snorted and spat again. "Everett ain't gonna give her a loan. Not with him wanting to buy the place. Like he has everything else in Cuttersville."
"We noticed that earlier," David confirmed. "Why is he buying up everything?"
"Don't know. All I know is that I'd be expecting him to make an offer for your place. He's already bought up everyone else's in the area." And with that, Jessup kicked his mount in the flanks and moved on ahead of the wagon.
The house was in need of work- and it wasn't nearly as grand as Kent House had been, but Deirdre's eyes lit up when she saw it. "It's lovely, David," she sighed as he lifted her from the wagon.
"I didn't put much work into it when I was here," he warned her. "No reason to, being by myself and all. I hope you won't be disappointed with it."
Rory followed them, carrying Shane in his arms, Benjamin at his side. He stood at the bottom of the steps up to the covered porch that stretched the width of the house and looked out over the softly rolling landscape. It wasn't Ireland. But it was now home.
"Oh, Rory, Benjamin, come and look at this," Deirdre called from inside.
The house was over twice as large as the cottage had been in Ireland, but Rory was struck immediately by the home-like feel of the place. The kitchen and living area took most of the space, with a door leading to one side, and a set of stairs on the wall near it leading to the second floor. It did need work, Rory agreed. But the fireplace looked solid, and there were no cracks in the walls or broken panes of glass for the winds to whistle through.
"I wish I could take credit for having built it," David told them. "It was here when I bought the land. The last owner's wife hated out here, so he decided to sell and go back east. He was building this for her. As I said, I just never took the time."
"It's fine," Deirdre assured him, placing a hand on his arm as Jessup came in carrying the cases.
"Where would you like these, Mr. Clement?"
David grabbed one of the cases before it could fall. "Right here will be fine, Jessup. Thank you."
"I got some supplies in," Jessup told them. "The larder's stocked. And they'll be fresh eggs and milk tomorrow morning."
"Thank you, Jessup," David told him. "We'll go over the books tomorrow morning as well after breakfast."
"I'll be here, Mr. Clement." He nodded at the others. "If there's nothing else I can get you- I'll be going to the bunkhouse."
"I think we can manage," David assured his foreman.
"Nice to meet you, Miz Clement. Benjamin. Mr. Manion."
Once the door was closed, Rory said, "I'd best get Shane put down for the night."
"Of course. You and he can take the bedroom down here," David suggested, picking up Rory's case as he moved to open the door into a small room with an iron bedstead, a chest of drawers and a stand containing a wash basin and pitcher. "There should be some quilts and other things in that chest over there. I don't have a cradle, I'm afraid."
"He can share the bed with me," Rory told him. "It won't be the first time."
David nodded. "I'll just go get Deirdre and Benjamin settled, then. Good night."
Rory laid his sleeping son on the bed and opened the chest that David had indicated to find the promised quilts. Carefully, he placed them between the lad and the edge of the bed, then proceeded to loosen and remove his cuffs and collar. His boots came next, and he found another quilt to pull over himself and Shane. As his eyes closed, he found himself dreaming of Ireland for the first time since his return, and a red haired lass, her green eyes filled with laughter . . .
Rory rode along with David and Jessup the next morning after breakfast as they discussed ranch business. "What happened to the herd I purchased last year?" David asked.
Jessup spat and shook his head. "Rustlers. Been bad this year."
"Hasn't the Sheriff done anything about it?" David asked indignantly.
"Prescott doesn't do anything unless Henry Everett gives his okay. You want my opinion, Mr. Clement?"
"Indeed yes, Jessup. I do."
"I think it's Everett's men that's been stealing your livestock. Figure it's the best way to drive you off the place so you'll sell. He's not gonna like your coming back to Cuttersville."
David's jaw tightened. "Well, we'll just see what his reaction is, won't we?" he said. "Come on, Rory. We're going into town."
They stopped by the house, where Deirdre asked them to pick up a few supplies that she needed while they were out. Benjamin came from the barn, where he'd been playing with a litter of puppies he'd found there while helping his mother gather eggs for breakfast, to watch them ride away.
"Where is Uncle Rory going?" he asked, seeing her on the porch with a broom.
"He and your father are going into town," she explained, starting to sweep the dirt from the boards.
"He's not my father," Benjamin said. "He'll never be my father," he declared. "Never!" and turned to run back into the barn as his mother called his name. He buried his face in the side of a red puppy, then wiped the tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt as he heard the door open, and huddled back into a dark corner, trying to hide. But she saw him.
"Benjamin," she said, kneeling down to pet one of the puppies. "I know it's been difficult for you, child. But David loves you as if you were his own son. He'd do anything for you."
"Then why did he take me away from Philadelphia and my friends there?" the boy asked. "No one asked if I wanted to come here. I don't like cows. They're big and smell bad and-"
Deirdre reached out to smooth her son's blonde hair. "Oh, Benjamin. You'll make new friends. Once school starts-"
"They don't have a school here," he said.
"Yes, they do. Your father-" she saw him open his mouth and continued before he could protest. "Your father told me that it's in the church in town. There will be other boys your age. The woman who runs the General Store- her son. And you both have something in common," she pointed out, and he looked up at her. "Your fathers are dead."
"But he doesn't have a step father," Benjamin said, and Deirdre sighed.
Standing up, she shook her head. "I'll not sit here and drown in self pity- and I'll not let you do it, either, Benjamin Staunton Clement. Come back to the house, now, and you can help me get ready to make some bread."
David and Rory tied their horses before the bank, as David said, "Why don't you go and see about those things that Deirdre needed while I have a word with Henry Everett?"
"If you're sure you don't need my help-" Rory offered.
"I think I can handle him. We'll meet at the saloon for a drink before heading back to the ranch." He went into the building, leaving Rory to turn toward the General Store.
Henry Everett was a rather common looking man, medium build, a bit on the heavy side, with a graying mustache and a fringe of graying black hair around his balding head. His one memorable feature was the gold watch chain that stretched across his brocade vest, indicating that he was successful at what he did. He shook David's hand cordially when he saw the younger man.
"Mr. Clement! How were things in Philadelphia?"
"May we speak privately, Mr. Everett?" David asked, aware of several eyes turned in their direction, obviously curious about what might be said between the two men.
"Of course. You know where my office is." He led David into that office and closed the door. "Now, what can I do for you? Can I assume that you're here to sell your ranch? I heard that you brought your family with you. A wife and a son? I'm sure she's used to a far easier life than she'll get out there-"
"My wife was born in Ireland, Mr. Everett," David informed the banker. "She's used to hardships. The ranch is nowhere near what she was forced to endure there. I came here to inform you that I have no intention of selling that property. And to let you know that I will be doubling the guard on what's left of my herd to prevent anymore cattle rustling."
"I'd heard that someone was stealing your cattle. Have you spoken to the Sheriff about it?"
"I intend to do just that once I leave here," David said. "Now, if we understand each other, Mr. Everett-" David said, rising from the chair in which he'd been sitting.
Everett rose as well. "I believe we understand each other perfectly," he said, his dark eyes glittering with geniality. "I hope you'll keep the bank in mind for your monetary needs- loans, bank drafts."
"Thank you," David said, and led the way back out into the main bank, putting his hat on as he left the building.
Everett's eyes hardened in anger as a tall, rangy man joined him, his hand on the long barreled gun holstered on hip. "I'm afraid Mr. Clements is going to be problem, Jennings. Keep an eye on him."
"Yessir, Mr. Everett," the hired gun said, moving away.
Everett put a hand out, blocking his way. "He's going to the Sheriff. Make sure Prescott doesn't say anything he shouldn't. Then go have your chat with the Widow Carson." He removed the hand and watched as Jennings crossed the street to stand beside the window of the Sheriff's office, listening.
Rory paused in the open doors into the General Store before entering the dark interior. The shelves were nearly bare, he noticed, reaching out to touch a glass jar with only a few pieces of hard candy left inside.
"Something I can do for you?" a woman asked, and Rory turned to find the red haired woman from yesterday standing in the curtain covered doorway that led to the back of the store.
Rory handed her a list. "My sister needs this filled, Mrs. Carson."
She took the list. "I think I've got most of this. You know my name, but we haven't been introduced. You were with David Clements, yesterday evening, weren't you?"
"Yes. I'm his brother-in-law," he said. "Rory Manion."
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Manion," Shannon said, moving through the store, easily locating the items on Deirdre's list on the nearly bare shelves.
"Not much in the way of stock," he commented.
"Difficult to pay for new stock when I'm not making any money."
"Then were are people getting their supplies, if not from you?" Rory asked. "I didn't notice another General Store in town."
"Oh, there is one- on the next street over. Owned by Henry Everett. Just like almost everything else in this place. He wants this building for the store."
"So he's trying to run you out of business," Rory said.
Shannon placed everything on the counter. "You catch on fast, Mr. Manion," she told him.
Suddenly a young boy about Benjamin's age burst into the store from the street, with hair a few shades darker red than his mother's- but he had her eyes. Seeing a stranger there, talking to his mother, he came to a dead stop, staring.
"Mind your manners, Michael," Shannon told the boy. "Don't stare. And no running in the store, either. This is Mr. Manion."
"How do you do, sir?" Michael said.
"I'm fine, thank you," Rory said, smiling. "And you? Where might you be running to in such a hurry, lad?"
"Some of the other boys are goin' fishing," he explained. "I was gonna ask Ma -"
"Go on, Michael. Just be back before suppertime."
"Thanks!" he said, and started to leave again. Then, remembering his manners again, turned and looked at Rory. "It was nice to meet you, sir."
"Nice to meet you. Say, my nephew is about your age- new in the area, perhaps he might go along next time you go fishing?"
"Sure. Never have too many for fishing," Michael said. "What's his name?"
"Benjamin. I'll bring him in next time I come."
Michael tilted his head. "You're Irish, aren't you?"
"Michael!" Shannon said in an admonishing tone.
"He sounds like Grandfather used to," Michael told her.
"It's quite all right, Mrs. Carson," Rory assured her with a twinkle in his eyes. "Yes, I am."
"Hey, Michael!" another boy called from outside. "You comin' or not?"
"Coming!" Michael called back, and was off again.
"Your father was Irish?" Rory asked Shannon.
"Michael Quinn," she told him. "County Mayo."
"I knew some Quinns. Don't recall a Michael."
"He left Ireland as a young man to make his fortune. Would have done better if he hadn't squandered half of what he made on drink," she declared.
"How much do I owe you for this?" he asked as she placed the items into the basket Deirdre had wanted for gathering eggs.
She scanned the order. "Three dollars and- sixty seven cents."
Rory gave her a five dollar piece. "Keep the change."
"I don't need your charity, Mr. Manion," Shannon said, her green eyes flashing with anger as she went to the till and withdrew the proper change.
"It's not charity, lass," he told her in a soft voice. "I know what it's like to have to fight for every cent. Buy the lad something he wants, if you don't want it for yourself."
She slapped the coins onto the counter. "Then they'll stay here, because I-"
"Because you're stubborn?" Rory suggested. "Too stubborn to know when you're almost beat? Look around you, woman. You're standing in a store filled with empty shelves. Why not take Everett's offer and leave Cuttersville for someplace else?"
"Because I was born here," she told him. "If it's any of your business. Which it's not. My father helped settle this area, till the drink took him. He and my husband are both buried at the cemetery beside the church. My husband, God rest his soul, spent most of his life building a good business, and I'll be -" she drew a deep breath, as if trying to rein in her temper, but it was an effort doomed to failure. "I refuse to let someone like Henry Everett take it over without a fight!" She handed him the basket. "Here's your order, Mr. Manion. Now, if you'll excuse me-"
A shadow darkened the doorway, causing Rory to look up at the tall man who stood there, a sneer on his face. "Is there a problem, Miz Carson?" he asked with a drawl. "Cause if this gentleman's bothering you-"
"No, Mr. Jennings, he's not bothering me. He's a customer."
Jennings came in, his hand resting on the butt of his gun as he looked into the basket. "Could've gotten that stuff for less money over at Everett's Emporium," he told Rory.
"I preferred to get it here," Rory told the man.
"Look, Irish,-" Rory bristled at the derogatory way Jennings said the word. "Make things easy on yourself. Give him back his money, Miz Carson so he can go on his way."
Shannon moved toward the till, but Rory's words stopped her. "I'll take my business where I please, and it so happens, that this is where I please to take it, Mr. Jennings. If you have a problem with that-"
Jennings' hand gripped the stock of his gun as he looked Rory up and down. "You're lucky you're not wearing a gun, mister. Next time I might not be so generous." Jennings looked at Shannon. "Mr. Everett asked me to extend his invitation to dinner this evening, Miz Carson."
"She's having dinner with me," Rory announced, and noted Shannon's surprised look.
"Is that right, ma'am?" Jennings asked Shannon.
"Yes," Shannon said, obviously not wanting to create more trouble.
"I'll give Mr. Everett your regrets, then." He pushed past Rory and left the store.
"You didn't have to do that," Shannon said. "He'll just come back after you leave. And I never said I'd have dinner with you-"
"And what if I don't leave?" Rory asked, an idea forming. It was a risk, but wasn't taking risks what made life worthwhile?
"You can't very well stay here all the time, Mr. Manion."
"I could if I was your partner."
Shannon's eyes widened. "My what?"
"Business partner," he clarified. "How much money would it take to get this place on sound footing?" he asked.
To Be Continued---