"Have you completely lost your mind, Rory Manion?" Shannon Carson asked upon hearing his question. "I'm not selling you any part of my store."
"Then I'll buy the entire thing," Rory told her, looking around, inspecting the fixtures. "Lock, stock and barrel."
"I won't -"
Rory lifted his eyes to look at her. "Would you rather be forced to sell to Henry Everett?" he asked. "And you will be. With no stock, you'll have no way to meet whatever obligations you might have. Bank loan, perhaps?"
"Everett wouldn't give me a loan," she told him. "I've been using what money my father left-"
"And it's almost gone, I'll wager," Rory surmised, and knew he was right by the look on her face. "Mrs. Carson - Shannon - I'm offering you a way out. I think I can help you turn this around - if you'll give me that chance."
"I don't even *know* you," Shannon said.
"No. But you do know Everett. Now, I'll ask you, which would you prefer - him, or me?"
Shannon looked at him. "My father always said, 'Better the devil you know than the devil you don't.'"
"Wise man, your father," Rory agreed. "But he's wrong in this case. At least with me paying the bills, you and your son will have a roof over your heads and food in your stomachs. When was the last time either of you had a decent meal, hmm?" he asked, and read the answer in those expressive eyes yet again before she looked away. "I thought so. The lad looks as if he could stand a bit more meat on his bones. And you -" His eyes raked her form, noticing that her dress looked to have been taken in recently. "You're no better. I think the both of you could do with some of my sister's cooking."
"I can cook for myself, thank you, Mr. Manion. And I've not given you leave to look at me like that," she told him.
He smiled as he heard a hint of Ireland in that tone. "Fine. But what I'm suggesting is that we discuss this over dinner - and as I've already told your Mr. Jennings that we're dining together, I'd hate to be caught out in a lie, just starting out. Will you and your son come to supper this evening? It will give Michael a chance to meet my nephew Benjamin - and us a chance to discuss business."
"You are a devil, Rory Manion," Shannon sighed. "Very well. We'll have dinner. But I make no promises about the store."
"Fair enough," Rory said, smiling as he held out his hand. "I'll be around for the rest of the day, however- just in case Mr. Jennings comes back."
"He's a dangerous man, Mr. Manion. And he doesn't much care about whether you're armed or not. He's as likely to shoot a man in the back as to face him down."
Rory frowned. "Your husband?"
Shannon nodded. "I'm sure of it. But the Sheriff refused to investigate - said it looked to him like Peter was jumped by a saddle tramp who was in the saloon and saw how much money he'd won playing poker that night. He figured the murderer was probably long gone before the body was cold."
"I'm not surprised that the Sheriff wasn't willing to listen," David said as he entered the story, removing his hat to nod at Shannon. "Mrs. Carson."
"Mr. Clement. Welcome back to Cuttersville."
"Thank you. I was sorry to hear about your husband's death. Do you need anything?"
"Mr. Manion and I were just discussing that," Shannon said.
"Did you speak to the Sheriff, David?" Rory asked.
"For all the good it did me. The man's useless. Just when I thought I might be getting somewhere, he looked up and saw a man standing outside the window and refused to say more than that he'd look into the cattle rustling when he had time."
"Jennings," Rory ventured, looking at Shannon, who nodded.
"Most likely. He's Everett's hired gun," she told David.
"I went by the saloon, Rory, but you weren't there. Did you get Deirdre's list filled?"
"Yes," Rory said, handing him the basket. "It's all there."
"Good. Are you ready to go? I need to talk to Jessup about doubling the guard on the herd-"
"I'll be staying in town for a few more hours, David," Rory told him. "Would you mind telling Deirdre that we'll be having two more for supper tonight?"
David knew that Deirdre might complain about her brother's thoughtlessness in bringing unexpected guests to dinner, but he also knew that she'd make those guests as welcome as possible. "Of course. Why are you staying?"
"I'm going into business with the Widow Carson here," he told his brother-in-law.
"I haven't agreed to any such thing," Shannon pointed out quickly. "We're just going to discuss it."
"At supper," Rory explained.
"What about the ranch?" David asked. "I thought we-"
"I don't think I'm cut out to be a good rancher, David," Rory said. "I wasn't even a good farmer back in Ireland."
"I'll give Deirdre the news, then," David agreed, and tipped his hat to Shannon. "Mrs. Carson."
Rory removed his overcoat once David left and rubbed his hands together. "Okay, where should we start?" he asked.
Everett watched from the bank window as David Clement mounted his horse and rode out of town. Jennings was standing beside the door, having delivered Shannon Carson's answer to his invitation.
"You said it was the Irishman that came to town with Clement?" Everett asked.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Everett. Acted like he owned the place or something. I'll go back once he's gone and talk to her again."
"I don't think he's going anywhere anytime soon, Jennings," Everett said, turning from the window. "Clement just rode out alone."
"So what do you want to do, Mr. Everett?"
Everett pulled a map of the territory out of a desk and unrolled it. He traced a line with his finger from Denver to the south east. Most of the land in that area was marked with red, indicating properties that Everett had purchased through various means- usually including violence and threats. Only one major section was still white - the Clement's ranch. And it was the most important piece in the puzzle.
"Why don't we give Mr. David Clement a proper welcome?" Everett suggested.
Jennings grinned and left the office with his usual swagger.
By riding at a fast gallop, Jennings' managed to circle around until he was perched on a pile of rocks with a clear view of the main road from town to the Clement's Ranch. There, he watched, waiting for the Englishman to appear around the bend.
When he heard the echo of the horse's hooves, he pulled his gun and got into position, the barrel trained on the last curve of the road. David Clement came around the bend and Jennings took aim. One bullet was all it would take - and Clement's widow would gladly sell the ranch to Mr. Everett and return East.
Later, David wouldn't remember what had made him so certain that he was being watched. But seconds before he heard the echoing crack of gunfire and felt the sudden fire in his shoulder, he shifted in the saddle. The animal reared, startled by the loud noise, and David barely managed to keep his seat. Instinct led him to kick the horse in the flanks to send him galloping as his eyes scanned the rocks above him. Grabbing the rifle out of its scabbard, he took aim and fired a shot toward the likeliest place for someone to wait in ambush, then continued through the canyon at full gallop and on to the ranch.
His arm was bleeding badly when he stopped the animal before the house, and his first thought was that he needed to repair the damage before Deirdre could see it and become alarmed. He slid off of the horse and limped to the watering trough, removing his coat and shirt to examine the damage. Using his handkerchief, he soaked it in the cool water and wiped the blood away.
Glancing up, he saw Benjamin's wide eyes on him from the barn. "Hello, there," David said to the boy, rinsing the square of cloth before tying it around his arm. It wasn't bad - more of a flesh wound than anything else.
"You're hurt," Benjamin said, holding a squirming puppy in his arms as he came closer.
"I'll be fine," David assured him. "What have you got there?"
"A puppy. Mr. Jessup says I can keep him for my own."
"That's a very good idea," David agreed. "Have you named him yet?"
"No. Don't know him well enough."
They both heard the screened door close behind Deirdre and turned to find her standing on the porch, wiping her hands on the apron she was wearing.
"There you are, Benjamin! I thought you were going to help me with the bread making?" she asked, moving toward them as David grabbed for his shirt, then gave up as he saw the blood stains on the white linen. "David!" she cried, seeing the makeshift bandage on her arm. "What happened?"
"It's nothing serious, Deirdre," he assured her. "I've had worse in battle; it's just a flesh wound."
She was already untying the handkerchief. "Just the same, I'd still like to see for myself," she told him. "Benjamin, put the puppy down and go get the iodine and some bandages from the kitchen and put them on the table. And get a bowl of clean water from the pump, as well."
The boy nodded, dropping the puppy, and took off. "What happened?" Deirdre asked her husband. "And where's Rory?"
"Taking care of his new business venture," David said, ignoring her first question.
"Business venture?" Deirdre repeated, a furrow appearing between her eyes as it did whenever she was confused.
"I'll explain while you're cleaning my wound," he said. "Better get the basket on the back of the horse - your order is in it."
"I'll get it later," she told him, insisting on helping him up the steps.
"Oh - and we're having company for supper this evening. Rory invited Shannon Carson and her son."
Deirdre's eyes widened in surprise, and David laughed.
Michael was delighted to hear that he and his mother were going out to the Clement's ranch with Mr. Manion for dinner - especially since he hadn't managed to catch one fish all day. Rory rented a carriage from the livery stable, leaving his own horse there to retrieve later. As he pulled up and set the brake, Michael came out of the store, his dark red hair even darker than before, and wearing a white shirt and string tie.
The boy pulled at his collar, and Rory laughed softly. "Feels like it's cutting your throat, doesn't it?" he asked the boy.
"Yeah. I hate getting dressed up."
"Well, it's only for the evening. She wants you to make a good impression, I suppose. Where's your mother?"
"Still fussing over her hair," Michael said, climbing into the back of the carriage as Henry Everett strolled down the sidewalk.
"Hello, Michael," Everett said, pausing.
"Mr. Everett," the boy said, becoming less animated.
Everett stepped from the sidewalk and held out his hand to Rory. "I'm Henry Everett. You're staying with Mr. Clement, aren't you?"
"Yes. He's my brother-in-law. Rory Manion's the name," Rory said, not giving the man his hand as his gaze remained on the doorway behind him.
Everett slowly withdrew his hand. "Planning on staying in Cuttersville long, Mr. Manion?" he asked.
"It's a nice little town," Rory said. "I think I'll be around to awhile yet."
"Well, if you need anything, just let me know."
The door opened and Shannon appeared, wearing a green dress with white lace edging. Her hair, worn up while working in the store, had been released and was held back by two tortoise shell combs woven with green ribbon to match the dress.
Everett tipped his hat in her direction. "Mrs. Carson. You look lovely this evening, if I might say so."
"Good evening, Mr. Everett," Shannon replied coolly, placing her hand in Rory's as he helped her down the step onto the street.
"Have a nice time," Everett said. "And I'd like to speak with you tomorrow about the store, if you have a few minutes."
Rory saw Shannon into the wagon, and then followed her to pick up the reins. "Mrs. Carson's store isn't for sale, Mr. Everett," he said.
"I'm sure that the lady can speak for herself," Everett said. "She's never had a problem doing that before."
"That was before I came along," Rory told him. "She's
found another buyer."
"Mr. Manion-" Shannon said in a voice filled with angry warning.
"Indeed?" Everett said. "And who might that be?"
Rory gave the banker a smile. "Me," he said as he flicked the reins to signal the horses and the carriage moved away, leaving Henry Everett standing there on the street.
Michael laughed, kneeling behind them. "Did you see his face, Ma?" he asked. "I thought he was gonna have a fit!"
Rory couldn't help but smile as well, until he looked over to where Shannon was sitting, her shawl wrapped around her shoulders, arms crossed. "You're angry," he said.
"I haven't agreed to anything yet, Mr. Manion," she reminded him. "Telling Everett that I have is only asking for trouble."
"I think the trouble is already here," Rory pointed out.
"It's true?" Michael questioned, looking at Rory. "You're really going to buy the store from Ma?"
"Yes," Rory answered firmly.
"We haven't decided yet," Shannon pointed out, sitting back on the bench.
Rory winked at Michael, as if to confirm his answer. She'd come around, for the lad's sake, if for no other reason.
"Did Mr. Jessup say that he'd have the men ride a longer watch tonight?" Deirdre asked her husband as he appeared on the stairs, pulling on his coat.
"Yes. I'll probably join them for awhile, I think."
"You should, seeing as how they're your cattle."
He gave her a kiss, surveying the table. "You've outdone yourself. And here you were worried about having forgotten how to cook after all these years of having servants doing for you."
"It's like falling off a log, I suppose," she told him, straightening his collar. "Something you don't forget."
"Where is Benjamin?"
"Outside watching for Rory and his guests," she said as she watched Shane playing with some wooden blocks on the floor near the hearth. She laughed with him when the stack he was making fell over, then added, "Are you sure you're all right, David? Perhaps we should have a doctor look at your arm."
"It's nothing," he said again, flexing his arm to show her that he was fine. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Benjamin's voice called from the porch. "They're here!" he said.
Rory brought the carriage to a stop as Deirdre, who was carrying Shane, joined her son on the porch, followed by David. Rory jumped down and lifted Shannon down as Michael leapt from the back. "This is Shannon Carson and her son, Michael. You know David," he said. "And this is my sister, Deirdre, and Benjamin -"
"How do you do?" Deirdre asked Shannon.
"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Clement."
"Hi," Michael said to Benjamin.
"Hi. I got a puppy in barn. You want to see it?"
Rory took Shane from Deirdre, greeting him with a gentle smile as the boys looked toward the adults. "May we, Mother?" Benjamin asked.
"You've a few minutes 'til supper. Just don't go getting dirty," she called after them as they tore out for the barn.
Shannon touched Shane's hand. "You have two lovely children, Mrs. Clement," she said.
"Oh, Shane's not mine," Deirdre said.
"He's mine," Rory explained, watching Shannon's reaction closely.
"I'm sorry. I hadn't thought you might be-" She looked around. "And is your wife inside?"
"My wife's dead, Mrs. Carson," Rory told her, tightening his hold on Shane as he said the words. "Why don't we go inside?" he suggested, holding his arm out to Shannon.
"Thank you for having us, Mrs. Clement," Shannon said as she sat down on the sofa. "I want to apologize for our being here with so little notice -"
Deirdre laughed. "Please. Call me Deirdre. And I'm quite used to not having any notice with a brother like Rory. He's always taking up causes and bringing someone home who needs a bit of help."
Shane pushed for Rory to release him, and with a kiss on his head, Rory did just that, placing him on the floor.
"Is he indeed?" Shannon asked as she watched the little boy return to a group of wooden blocks near the hearth.
"No reason to go giving away all my secrets, now, Deirdre," Rory chastised good naturedly as Shane picked up a block in his chubby hand and carried it over to Shannon and placed it in her lap. "He likes you. He doesn't take to strangers easily."
Shannon held out her arms and the little boy didn't hesitate as he moved closer for her to lift him into her lap. "He's a lovely child," she said, smoothing his dark brown curls as he smiled up at her.
"Rory, would you go and get the boys while I finish getting supper on the table?" Deirdre asked. Realizing that her brother's eyes were on Shannon and Shane and that he hadn't moved, she touched his arm and said, "Rory? The boys? Once Benjamin gets anywhere near those puppies he loses all track of time. Reminds me a bit of you as lad."
"You weren't around when I was a lad," he teased, grinning as he left the house.
"Your brother, Deirdre - " Shannon began. "He's- quite," she hesitated, searching for the right word that wouldn't offend. "Determined, isn't he?"
"Oh, there's no need to tell me about Rory," Deirdre said. "He's strong-headed and stubborn as a mule when he gets an idea in his head. But he's got a heart as big as Ireland itself."
"I thought so," Shannon agreed. Shane placed a hand to her face to reclaim her attention, and she smiled.
Though supper was simple fare, Rory thought that Deirdre had outdone herself. After the meal, Benjamin and Michael went back out to the barn to play with the pups while the adults had coffee. Rory put Shane to bed, and then he and Shannon went outside for a walk to discuss business as David helped Deirdre clean up the kitchen.
"What do you think of her?" David asked, watching his wife washing a pan.
"She seems nice enough," Deirdre said. "I'm just not sure it's a good idea for Rory to become so involved with another woman -"
"It's been over a year, my love," David reminded her. "It's time Rory moved on - made a new life for himself. Shane needs a mother -"
Deirdre looked at him, her eyes filled with the remembered pain of losing her best friend. "Rachel was your sister, David."
"And Rachel would be the first to agree with me," he told her. "She'd want Rory to be happy. And from what I've seen," he said as he glanced out of the window to where Rory and Shannon were standing beside a fence, talking, "Shannon Carson makes him happy."
"I just worry whether it's Shannon - or the fact that she's part Irish. I had hoped he had managed to put that behind him."
"Rory will never be able to leave Ireland behind, Deirdre - anymore than you can. It's a part of who you are."
"So we're agreed, then," Rory said.
"No, we're *not* agreed," Shannon told him. "I'm still not convinced - "
"Oh, come now, Shannon, what other choice do you have, really? If you just let things go on the way they have been, Everett's going to get his hands on that store the minute you can't pay your taxes or a bill comes due that you can't pay. At least this way, you'll still have a stake in it - a say in what goes on. I'm not asking for the whole lot - just half interest. You've got the experience in running a general store; I've got the money. I think it's a perfect partnership."
Shannon felt herself smile. "Do you know what my father would have called you?"
"A silver-tongued devil."
"Ah, so we're back to the devil again," he said, smiling as well. "Are you willing to take a chance on that silver-tongued devil now that you've gotten to know him a little better?"
"I'm not sure I'd get to know you, Rory Manion, if I knew you for the next fifty years. You've certainly gotten your share of the blarney - I'll give you that." Then holding out her hand to him to seal the arrangement, she said, "Okay. It's a deal. Half interest in the store."
Rory laughed, took her hand to shake it and then retained it, covering it with his other hand as their laugher faded into charged silence. Shannon wasn't sure which of them leaned forward first, but suddenly his lips were on hers and his arms around her, holding her close.
Shannon pulled away, stunned. "Rory -"
"No, I'm the one who should apologize," Rory said, touching her cheek with a hand that was shaking. "I had no right to do such a thing. But you're so lovely - and I've been alone for what seems like such a long time-"
Shannon nodded. "So have I. Even before Peter was killed- we weren't - close. His drinking and gambling - I'd seen it with my father - and didn't want to go through it again."
"Rachel died when Shane was born. Giving me a son was the most important thing in her life - so much so that she was willing to risk her own to do it. I swore I'd never -" He took a deep breath.
It was Shannon's turn to touch his cheek. "You loved her very much, didn't you?"
"I didn't realize how much until it was too late. I've made a lot of mistakes in life, Shannon - done things I'm not proud of -"
"Why don't we finish our walk?" she suggested, covering his lips with her fingers. "We still have a few details to work out."
Rory nodded and pulled her close to his side as they moved away.
From the barn door, Michael and Benjamin watched them, then ducked back inside.
"Looks like your uncle likes my mom," Michael said. "Hey, that would make us cousins, wouldn't it?" he realized. "If they got married, I mean."
"You wouldn't mind if that happened?" Benjamin asked, kneeling to pet the puppies again. "If they got married?"
"Why should I? I like your uncle."
"So do I. But he'd be your stepfather."
"Is that bad?" Michael asked.
"Stepfathers are bad," Benjamin confirmed darkly. "I wish my real father were still alive."
"I'm glad mine's dead," Michael said, his expression distant.
"He was always drunk. And then he and my mom would argue when he came in. I used to hide in the storage closet when they'd start yelling. But I could still hear." He shook himself out of those unhappy memories. "Hey, you want to go fishing tomorrow? I know this really great place where we can catch lots of fish. And even if we don't, it'll still be fun."
"I guess so."
"Let's go ask your mother," Michael said, standing up and heading for the door.
Benjamin rose slowly, giving the pup a final pat on the head before following his new friend back to the house.
To Be Continued---