Rory brought the wagon to a stop before the general store and helped Shannon down as Michael leapt out. "Thanks for dinner, Mr. Manion," he said politely.
"You're most welcome, lad," Rory said. "Thank you for inviting Benjamin to go fishing with you tomorrow. He's at a bit of a lose end, being new and all."
Shannon looked at Rory. "I still wish you hadn't driven us back," she said. "After what Mr. Clement told us about what happened to him this afternoon, I hate to think about you riding back alone."
"Is that an admission that you're worried about me, Mrs. Carson?" he asked.
"Not at all. But if something happens to you, then I won't be able to keep the store, will I?" she asked.
In spite of her remark, Rory could see the truth in her green eyes. Mindful that they were standing on the street in full moonlight and were visible from several windows, he took her hand and squeezed it instead of giving her a proper kiss.
"Don't be worrying about me," Rory assured her. "David gave me a rifle to keep with me and I'll be watching for anyone laying in wait. If Ireland couldn't kill me, I don't think Jennings can do it, either. I'll see you tomorrow morning."
She nodded and went up the step onto the boardwalk, where Michael was waiting for her to unlock the door into the store. The moment it was unlocked, the boy entered the store and headed for the stairs to the second floor living quarters.
"Good night, Rory," Shannon said softly as Rory got
back into the carriage.
Rory smiled at her. "Good night, Shannon." Releasing the brake, he clicked at the horses, turning them toward the livery stable to pick up his own horse.
The next morning, Deirdre waved her son and Rory off to town. Rory was bound for the telegraph office to wire for funds to purchase stock for the store, and Benjamin was going fishing with Michael and his friends.
She turned back into the house and smiled at Shane, sitting and playing with his blocks so contently. "You're such a good baby," she told him as David came down the stairs. "What are you doing out of bed?" she asked her husband.
"I have work to do," he told her, taking a cup of coffee from her. "I'm supposed to meet with Jessup this morning."
"At least there was no rustling last night."
"I didn't expect there would be," David said, pulling on his boots. "Everett's not stupid. He'll give it a little time - wait for me to let my guard down." He winced, and glanced quickly at Deirdre, as if trying to see if she'd noticed.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said, picking up his coat from the chair where he had laid it. He winced again.
"It's your arm, isn't it?"
"I'm fine, Deirdre," he insisted. "It's just - aching a bit this morning, that's all."
"Let me look at it."
Sighing, David put the coat down again and unbuttoned his shirt, pulling his left arm free of the sleeve.
"It's red," she told him worriedly. "It's infected. You'd best see a doctor as soon as possible."
"I'll try to get in and see him this afternoon," he promised, giving her hand a kiss before releasing it to get dressed again. "Will you be all right here alone this morning?"
"I'll have Shane here for company," she reminded him. "And it will give me a chance to get some things done without you men underfoot creating trouble and making more work for me to do. Now go on with you."
He gave her another, longer kiss. "I'll be home around noon," he assured her.
Deirdre waved him off, then turned back to look at Shane. "I'll have to tell him soon, won't I?" she asked the child, knowing he couldn't possibly answer.
Placing a hand on her stomach, she sighed, wondering what David would say when he found out that she was going to have another baby. He would be delighted, she was sure - but what about Benjamin? It was because of him that she was hesitating about telling everyone her news. She wasn't at all certain that her first-born child was going to be happy to hear about her second.
Michael was waiting on the porch of the general store with several of his friends when Rory and Benjamin arrived. "Hi, Benjamin. Hello, Mr. Manion," he said, greeting them.
"Are you ready to go fishing?" one of the boys asked.
"Michael, where's your mother?" Rory asked as they boys started moving off, asking Benjamin questions about Philadelphia.
"In the back of the store."
"Thank you. Have fun."
"We will. Don't worry. I'll look after him."
"I know you will," Rory told him. "You're a good lad, Michael."
The boy smiled and took off to catch up with the others.
Rory watched them for a moment, wondering if he had ever felt so carefree as a youth. He couldn't recall it, if he had. His youth had been a long, hard struggle just to survive, first in the teeth of the British invasion of his homeland, and then in the famine.
With a sigh, he turned into the store, waiting a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light before continuing to the curtained doorway. "Shannon?" he said softly, tapping on the wall beside the door.
"Come in," she said.
The room was stacked with empty crates pushed to one side, with several stacked to form a makeshift desk. Shannon was sitting on one of the crates, studying a ledger. She was wearing a different gown today, not the ill-fitting black skirt and white blouse of the day before. This one made her look younger, he thought. And her hair was down, held back again with a bow the color of eyes.
"What's this?" he asked.
"I thought you'd want a look at the store books," she told him.
"I'll do it later," he said. "Right now, I have to send a telegram for the funds. And then I have to talk to Mr. Everett."
Shannon looked worried. "Must you?"
"I have to open an account for the store," he reminded her. "Unless you intend to do the banking out of Denver."
"Could we? I don't trust him, Rory."
He placed his hands on her shoulders, looking down into her green eyes. "It would be best to have the money here. Unless Everett robs his own bank, we'll be fine."
She stood there, looking up at him, and he felt himself starting to lean toward her again, as he had the previous evening.
"I'd best be about my business, then," he said, but didn't move. "Oh, Shannon," he sighed, and suddenly he was kissing her again, and this time she returned the kiss measure for measure, tossing her head back as his lips moved down across the expanse of skin above the top of her dress. Her hands fell on his back, sliding ever downward . . .
Michael's voice brought them apart, dousing their ardor like a bucket of ice water.
Shannon smoothed her hair as she called, "Yes?"
"I'm getting my other fishing pole for Ben," he said, pushing the curtain aside. Seeing Rory running a hand through his dark hair and the red on his mother's cheeks, he asked, "You okay, Ma?"
"Yes, I'm fine, Michael," she assured her son. "Have fun."
"I will. Bye, Mr. Manion."
Rory waved, unwilling to trust his voice not to reveal his frustration. When the boy was gone, he said, "Shannon - "
She pulled the edges of her shawl closer. "It's my fault; I knew I was tempting fate. It won't happen again," she promised as she disappeared through the curtain.
Rory heard her climbing the stairs and forced his breathing back to normal. He took a moment to glance at the ledger, and then left the store.
He sent a telegram to his bank in Philadelphia, asking for a draft to be sent to him there in Cuttersville for deposit in the local bank. Then he went to the bank, where Henry Everett's greeting was undoubtedly on the reserved side.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Manion?"
"I thought you'd like to know that I've wired for a bank draft which I intend to deposit in this bank."
"Always glad to have a new depositor," Everett told him. "Your brother-in-law already has an account with us - "
"This won't only be for my personal account," Rory informed him. "I intend to deposit the larger share of it into whatever account you're holding for the Carson-Manion General Store," he announced loudly enough for the others in the bank to overhear.
"I hate to see such an discerning businessman take on a losing proposition, Mr. Manion. That store has been losing money since before Peter Carson's tragic death."
"At the hands of a person - or persons - unknown?" Rory questioned pointedly. "I'll take my chances. I have an idea that with a bit of luck, things will turn around."
"Luck's a very scarce commodity around here, Mr. Manion," Everett said warningly.
"Then it's a good thing I'm an Irishman, isn't it, Mr. Everett?" Rory said as he put on his hat. "We carry our luck with us. Good day, to you sir." Pausing at the door, he added, "Oh, and if you see fit not to take my money, I'm sure that I can find a bank in Denver that will. And I've no doubt my brother-in-law will agree."
Everett went to a clerk. "Finley, find Jennings for me. Tell him I need to see him now."
"Ye-yes, sir, Mr. Everett."
When Rory returned to the shop, Shannon had changed back into her dark skirt and white, high-necked blouse of the previous day and put her hair up, as well.
"It doesn't make any difference," he told her.
"What do you mean?"
"Doesn't matter what you wear. You're still a beautiful woman."
Shannon continued dusting of the empty shelves, ignoring his compliment as well as the look in his eyes. "Did you see Mr. Everett?" she asked him.
"I did. He wasn't very happy. Did you start the list of the inventory we'll be needing?"
She went to the counter and held a piece of paper out to him, saying, "Just about everything."
He looked over the list, nodding. "Have you considered selling fresh vegetables to the townsfolk?" he asked. "Contracting with some of the local farmers to buy enough to sell?"
"No," she admitted. "I haven't. Do you really think they would sell?"
"Even if they don't, it would be food for yourself and Michael, wouldn't it?" He folded the list. "I'll get a telegram sent off to your supplier this afternoon."
"Ordering it isn't enough," she warned. "Do you really think that Everett's going to let anything get here from Denver that might keep this store open?"
"I'll handle it," he assured her. "Now, make me a list of farmers in the area who might be willing to sell some potatoes and onions and the like."
"Do you want to make a go of this, Shannon?" he asked.
She looked at him as he picked up another sheet of paper and a pencil.
"Write," he ordered.
Rory was just leaving the telegraph office for the second time when he saw David riding into town. "I didn't expect to see you today," he said, watching David grimace as he dismounted.
"Deirdre thought I should have my arm looked it. She's afraid it's becoming infected."
"So it's the doctor you're after then," Rory said, nodded toward the office across the street and leading the way. "Apparently, he's not in," he said moments later as they found the note taped to the door informing them that Dr. Walsh would return when he was finished making his rounds.
"Why don't we have that drink while I wait?" David suggested. "Unless you're too busy?"
"No, I think I can take a few minutes. I just placed an order for new stock."
"Did the bank draft arrive yet?"
"No. But they sent a telegram to Everett confirming it and asking him to open a line of credit until it does."
David smiled as they entered the saloon. "I'll bet that didn't sit too well with him."
"No, it didn't. But after I explained that unless he was willing to do business with me, he'd lose not only my account, but yours as well -"
They went to the bar. "Whiskey," Rory told the bartender, who gave him a long look before turning to get a glass and bottle.
"And what'll you have?" he asked David.
"Whiskey, I think," David decided. "There hasn't been any trouble?"
"Not yet. But it's just a matter of time. Shannon seems to think that Everett isn't going to let a delivery for the store through from Denver - that he'll find some way to stop it."
"She could be right."
"Which is why I've arranged with the shipping company in Denver not to pay until they deliver."
"Wise move," David agreed.
The swinging doors of the saloon squeaked open and closed as someone else entered. Neither man took much notice until they heard Jennings' voice say, "I warned you, Irish."
Rory and David turned slowly to find the gunman standing there, legs apart, hands at his side.
"Warned me?" Rory asked.
"That the next time I saw you, I wouldn't be so generous."
"I'm still unarmed, Mr. Jennings. And I doubt you'd kill an unarmed man with all these witnesses."
"Someone give him a gun," Jennings said. "Unless you're too yellow to fight."
"Oh, I'll fight - but not with a gun," Rory said as he removed his coat and clenched his fists.
David tried to pull him aside, saying, "Rory, you don't have to -"
"I think I do. It's time this bully was taken down a peg or two."
Jennings gave him a crooked smile. "You want to fight?" he asked as he pulled off his gun belt and handed it to another man. "Here I am," he said, stepping closer.
Before Rory could move, he heard the sound of a shotgun barrel clicking into place. Looking up, he saw that the bartender was holding the weapon so that it would hit both him and Jennings if it went off.
"Outside, gentlemen," the man told them. "I don't think Mr. Everett would want the place torn up."
The moment they were outside, Jennings threw a punch at Rory's jaw, striking him easily. Rory's knees buckled slightly, but he caught himself before he went down and returned the blow with equal intensity.
Michael and Benjamin, who had become just 'Ben' to his new friends, were returning from their fishing trip when they heard yelling and ran toward the sound. Finding a group of men gathered, the two boys struggled to see what was going on.
Finally, they squeezed through and stopped, wide-eyed, as they saw Rory and Jennings fighting in the street. Both men's faces were bloodied and their clothes were in tatters. The boys looked at each other, and then quickly looked up as a hand fell on each shoulder.
David was standing there. "What are you two doing here?" he asked.
"We heard yelling," Ben said. "Aren't you going to help Uncle Rory?" he asked, frowning as Jennings landed another punch into Rory's stomach.
"This is between the two of them," David told his stepson, causing his frown to deepen.
Shannon heard the ruckus and frowned as she came out to sweep the walkway, wondering who was fighting. She noticed David Clements in the crowd and looked for Rory, but didn't see him. Moving down the steps, she closed in on the knot of people, pushing her way through just as Rory sent Jennings back down. And this time, the gunman didn't get up immediately.
David slipped Rory's arm across his shoulders and turned toward the store - only to be confronted by Shannon, hands on her hips.
"Help me get him to the store," David told her.
She slipped under Rory's other arm as the boys ran ahead of them. Behind them, they heard Sheriff Prescott finally arrive as someone threw a bucket of water over Jennings to wake him up.
"You just had to do it, didn't you?" she said to Rory as they entered the store and took him into the back. "Michael, bring my medical supplies. Benjamin, you go with him and bring some water, please. And you, Rory Manion, sit right there," she ordered, placing him on an upended crate. "What in God's name did you think you were doing out there?" she asked. "What did you hope to prove? That you're still a young man? You're not."
"I beat him, didn't I?" he said, wincing as he placed a hand to his ribs.
"And nearly got yourself killed in the process. All you've done is make things worse, not better. Jennings will be out for blood now, because you've shamed him before the town."
Michael returned with the wooden box containing iodine and bandages and Ben was right behind with the water.
"Hold still," Shannon ordered her patient. "I've no doubt you've got a couple of bruised, if not broken, ribs. Did you happen to notice if Dr. Walsh was about?" she asked David and the boys as they stayed out of her way.
"No. He's making his rounds," David told her.
"Well, as soon as he's back, you'll have to let him look at you." She bathed his scraped and bruised knuckles, as well. "You're no better than one of the boys. You've got less sense, certainly. Jennings is a killer; he could have killed you - and he still might."
"As long as I refuse to carry a gun, he won't shoot me."
Shannon looked at the boys. "Why don't you two go outside, okay?" she suggested.
"Are you going to be okay, Uncle Rory?" Ben asked.
"I'll be fine, lad," he promised, keeping a hand to his ribs. The feeling was finally starting to return in his body, and he was regretting his impulsive actions.
David turned the boys toward the door. "Get your horse, Benjamin. We'll be going home before long."
"Couldn't he stay the night here with us?" Michael asked as they left the room.
"Not carrying a gun didn't keep Peter from getting killed," Shannon reminded Rory once they were alone.
"Ow," he muttered as she dabbed alcohol onto his cut face.
"Stop being such a baby," she told him.
He brought a hand up to grasp her wrist and looked at her. "You're right, Shannon," he admitted. "I should have thought before I acted. But what's done is done."
"I suppose so," she said, brushing the hair from his face and finding another bruise on his forehead. "You're a mess, Rory Manion. And damned lucky to be alive."
"Are you disappointed?" he asked, managing somehow to remind her of Michael the one time he'd gotten into a fist fight.
"I was just hoping you weren't the type of man who thinks that the solution to every problem is his fists."
"I'm not. But sometimes a man *has* to fight for what he believes in, even if he knows he'll lose - or else he's not a man at all."
Shannon took a length of bandage from the box. "I'll wrap this around your chest until the doctor gets back - it might ease some of the pain."
"You're very good at this."
"A side effect of having taken care of my father through his drunken bouts," she told him. Seeing him look at her again, she added, "And yes, I could smell the whiskey."
"I had one drink," he told her. "Not even a full one, at that."
"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Rory."
"But I want to. I'm not like your father, Shannon. I don't make a habit of going out and getting drunk and getting into street brawls. I can't remember the last time I did something like that. But I can assure you," he said, trying not to take a deep breath, "it will be the last time, if I can help it."
Everett shook his head as Lily from the saloon patched up Jennings' injuries.
"Sorry, Mr. Everett," Jennings said. "The Irishman's stronger than he looks."
"Next time, use your gun. That's what I pay you for."
"He was unarmed. And there were witnesses."
"Well, then, you'll just have to do what you best, won't you?" Everett asked.
Jennings picked up his gun and rolled the cylinder on the bed. "It'll be a pleasure."
Dr. Walsh was nearly sixty, with snow white hair and movements that were slower than molasses. In the back room of the general store, he examined Rory's injuries, confirming Shannon's fears about broken ribs.
"I wouldn't ride a horse for a few days, Mr. Manion. Not unless you want to puncture a lung."
"What about a wagon?" David asked.
"If you keep him as still as possible and he doesn't travel back and forth."
"Then I'll stay in town," Rory decided.
"What about Deirdre?" David asked. "And Shane?"
"Deirdre can look after him; she's done it before. Right now, there's more need for me here."
David removed his jacket and shirt so that the doctor could examine his arm. "And where will you stay?" he inquired.
"I'll get a room at the hotel," Rory said, putting a hand to his chest again as Shannon wrapped him up again.
"I wouldn't suggest your staying by yourself, Mr. Manion," Dr. Walsh told him. "You've likely got a concussion. Someone should stay close by to check on you every few hours."
"The minute I leave town, Jennings and Everett will come after Shannon and the boy because of my folly," Rory declared.
Shannon placed a hand on his bare shoulder, and he looked up at her. "It'll be all right, Rory," she promised. "We'll talk about it later."
David flinched as Dr. Walsh probed the wound on his shoulder. "It's not infected, but I'll give you some sulfa powder for it," he told him. "Come by my office before you leave town."
"Thank you, Doctor."
The old man began returning things to his black bag, then pulled out a brown bottle. "I'll leave some laudanum for you, Mr. Manion, in case the pain gets too bad."
"Thank you," Rory said, taking the bottle from him though he had no intention of using it.
As the doctor picked up his bag, he said, "I wish you both luck. I've seen what Henry Everett can do. It's not pretty. I'm an old man, but if there's anything I can do to help - "
"Thank you," Shannon said. "I'll walk you out."
"What shall I tell Deirdre?" David asked Rory.
"Tell her the truth. I've kept nothing from her before; I won't start now. If she's worried about me, she can come in to see me and bring Shane."
"Shannon's agreed to let Michael spend the night at the ranch tonight - perhaps she shouldn't have -"
"He'll be safer there if something does happen," Rory decided. "David, if it does -"
"I'll see that Michael and Shane are both taken care of."
"But nothing will happen. You're too stubborn to let it."
Shannon returned from seeing David and the boys off to find Rory trying to put his tattered, blood stained shirt back on.
"And just what do you think you're doing?" she asked.
"Getting dressed," he told her. "I don't think they'll be likely to rent me a room if I go in there without a shirt - such as it is."
"You're not going anywhere, Rory Manion," she declared, deftly pulling the shirt from his hands and tossing it away. "And the only place this is going is into the rag bin. Michael's bed is empty. You can stay there." She put his arm over her shoulder to help him to his feet.
"Shannon, anyone who was watching saw Michael leave with David and Benjamin. I won't risk your reputation -"
"To hell with my reputation," she said as they slowly climbed the stairs. "I'm playing nurse maid tonight. If anyone doubts that, they can confirm it with Dr. Walsh."
"And if they choose not to?" he asked, taking note of the sparse furnishing in the rooms. "If they choose to think the worst?"
She lowered him onto Michael's narrow bed before kneeling to remove his boots. "That's their problem. Not mine." Putting his boots beside the bed, she threw the covers back and said, "In you go."
To exhausted to argue further, Rory laid down and let her tuck him in.
New paragraph: "I'm going down to bolt the front doors and turn out the lamps," she informed him. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
Rory nodded as she left, trying to get comfortable in the narrow bed with its thin mattress. As soon as possible, he was going to do something about it, he decided as his eyes began to close. Painfully, he realized that Shannon was right - he was too old to go about getting into fistfights with men years his junior.
Shannon threw the bolt on the front doors, then double checked the back door that led to the alleyway. Carrying the oil lamp, she climbed the stairs once more, pausing in the sitting room, trying not to see how shabby and bare it looked. She'd sold much of the furniture over the last year to pay for what little stock and food she'd been able to get.
There were only a few things remaining. The chair with a double heart etched into the back that her father had made with his own two hands and the rocking chair by the fire were the only two pieces she had absolutely refused to part with. Picking up the chair and the book in the seat, she carried them into Michael's room and placed it within reach of the bed.
Rory was asleep, and she placed a hand on his chest to make sure of his breathing before sitting down. Was he the man her father might have been but for the drink, she wondered, opening her book. It was a well-worn and oft-read copy of Mrs. Browning's sonnets, taken in trade by her father for a dining room table, and it was his last gift to her. It would keep her company as she sat up all night by Rory's side, awakening him at the two hour intervals Dr. Walsh had suggested to make sure he was well.
To Be Continued---