Jennings wasn't in his usual spot across the street as they returned from the church, but Rory didn't really notice, since he was more concerned about Shannon's somber expression. After seeing Deirdre, David and the boys off, Rory took his wife's arm to assist her onto boardwalk before the General Store. He opened the door for her and followed her inside, throwing the bolt on the door as she moved slowly toward the stairs.
He could tell that she was still upset as a result of Everett's comments at the church, and held out his hand toward her. "Shannon, it was a lie. I didn't marry you just to get my hands on the store."
"If you say so, Rory," she replied in a defeated tone, her hand on the newel post, her gaze focused on the wood under her hand.
"Dammit, woman, I already had the store," he reminded her. "I didn't have to marry you to get it." He closed the distance between them. "I married you because I wanted to. Because I-"
Shannon still hadn't looked at him. "Let's not start our marriage off with a lie, Rory," she said. "What's done is done, and there's no going back. We'll just have to make do the best we can, won't we?" Lifting her skirt, she continued up the stairs.
Rory followed, wanting to see her reaction when she entered the rooms - hoping that it would rekindle the light in her green eyes.
Shannon got to the top of the stairs and stopped in the entry, gasping at what she found. Moving slowly, she ran a hand along the polished wood of a table and chairs that she'd thought never to see there again. And between the windows was the buffet table her father had made when she had been ten.
She whirled to look at Rory, saying, "I don't understand. How did you ever-"
"Do you remember when you sent Michael and Benjamin out to invite your friends to the wedding?" Rory asked.
"Of course, I do."
"I pulled him aside before he left and asked him if he remembered who you sold your things to," Rory informed her. "Then I asked him to find out if they'd be willing to sell them back. That's where they disappeared to after the ceremony, to see that the job was finished before you and I came back here."
She looked at him, running her fingers over the wood. "Oh, Rory," she sighed. Then flying across the room, she threw her arms around his neck before his soft grunt of pain reminded her of his injuries. "Oh. I'm sorry," she said, stepping back. "Did I hurt you?"
"No," he assured her, pulling her close again. "No, Mrs. Manion. Not enough that you need to worry, anyway. Besides, I think I can stand a bit of pain - as long as you're here to give me such excellent care."
"Thank you for doing all of this," she said, stretching out her hand to indicate the furnishings.
"I know it's not everything, but whatever we can't replace, I'll buy new. And you haven't seen the bedroom yet," he reminded her, smiling as she slipped out of his arms to move in that direction.
"Oh, Rory," she sighed again as she entered the room and saw the four poster bed she had loathed having to sell. "I can't believe Mrs. Hopkins agreed to sell it back."
"Michael said that the moment she heard what I was willing to buy it, she agreed that you should have it back," he told her, following her into the room to place his hands on her shoulders. "I could see this morning how much it troubled you, having to sell all of your things. I hoped it would make you happy."
"Oh, it has," she assured him. " How can I ever thank you?" she asked, sliding her arms carefully around his neck.
The light was back in her eyes. Not as bright as before, Rory thought, but he'd change that. Somehow.
"I can think of a few ways," he said with a devilish smile.
"I was right. You *are* a devil. But I suppose I've sold my soul and there's no hope for me."
"None whatsoever," he agreed, finding the tiny buttons at the top of her collar and slipping them free one by one as he kissed her creamy skin with its spattering of freckles. "And I've no intention of ever letting you - or that lovely soul of yours- go," he promised as his lips found hers . . .
I hope this letter finds you well. No doubt Jim O'Brien has informed you that I've sold my share of the powder mill to David and invested my portion in a new venture - and a new life here in Colorado.
I've become a shopkeeper, if you can believe that - I have half interest in a General Store. We are expecting the first delivery of goods from Denver any day now, and then we will be able to fully open the doors for paying customers.
I should also tell you that I've taken another wife. While a part of my heart will always belong to Rachel, I realized that I was not the kind of man who could remain alone for the remainder of my life. Her name is Shannon, and her father was Michael Quinn of County Mayo. Shane took her to immediately, and she adores him as well. Her son, Michael, is young Ben's age and they have become fast friends since their first meeting a month ago; they are almost inseparable.
I am amazed when I realize that it has only been a month since my arrival here. It feels like very much longer, as though I have finally come home at last, if you can understand that. I am content here - happier than I ever dreamed I could be outside of my dear Ireland.
I would ask again, Eamon, if you would not at least consider moving here to Cuttersville. The West is crying for doctors, and the local physician is getting on in years and needs a younger man to take over his practice when he can no longer function. I should not tell you this, for Deirdre would not like it, but she is with child. And while I know she trusts Dr. Walsh, I also know that she would much prefer your calm and capable hands to guide her through this time.
Be well, and I remain, as always, your friend,
Rory dusted the letter and shook it out, allowing it to dry before carefully folding it and placing it into the envelope and addressing it. He smiled as he heard Benjamin and Michael trying to paint the counter beyond the curtained doorway, and called out to his stepson. "Michael!"
"Yes, Pa?" the boy said, putting the paintbrush down and entering the storeroom.
The storeroom had changed much since the first time Rory had seen it. The crates were gone, now neatly stacked in the alleyway outside, and to one side of the room sat a desk. It was there that Rory was seated.
"I want you to take this letter to post for me, if you would," he told Michael. "And see if there's a telegram waiting for me as well."
Michael took the envelope and frowned at the name. "E-a-mon?" he asked, misreading the name.
"Eamon," Rory said, correcting the boy's pronunciation. "An old friend. He's a doctor back in Philadelphia. Ask Ben about him," he suggested as he walked back to the doorway with Michael. "And don't be late for supper."
"We'll be back before you know it," Michael said. "Come on, Ben. Race you!"
Shannon came downstairs, Shane on her hip. "Where were the boys off to?" she asked, letting him take Shane from her.
"Running an errand for me," he explained, touching her cheek, glad to see roses in them again. She had filled out a bit with food again in the larder, and Rory hadn't been at all surprised to find that she was a wonderful cook.
"Supper's nearly on the table," she reminded him.
"They won't be long," he told her, moving toward the doors to look out onto the street. Jennings hadn't been at his post since the wedding, but Rory knew that he was still waiting somewhere, watching for the opportunity to shoot him in the back as he had Peter Carson.
Shannon followed him to the edge of the walk to look down the street with him. "You're worrying about the shipment, aren't you?" she asked.
"It should have been here yesterday," he told her. "If it doesn't make it through this time, I'll go to Denver myself and bring it back." Seeing his wife's uncertainty, Rory put an arm around her. "I doubt it will be necessary. I'm sure this shipment will get here, tomorrow at the latest." He nodded as Mrs. Harper passed by, telling her, "Evening to you, Mrs. Harper."
"Good evening, Mr. Manion. Mrs. Manion," the older woman said, smiling. "My, the little one has grown so much in the last month. He'll be out running around with his brother before you know it."
"Like as not, Mrs. Harper," Rory agreed.
Mrs. Harper peered behind them into the store. "Still no delivery?" she asked, folding her gloved hands over her ample girth.
"I'm afraid not. But we'll have the stock by the end of the week," Rory promised. "Including that red gingham that you specifically asked for."
She was pleased that he remembered her request. "I must go now. My daughter will expect me to help her put supper on the table."
Rory nodded at the woman and when she was safely out of hearing distance, Shannon sighed. "The woman has no need of red gingham for a dress," she commented. "She's a big as a barn."
"Now, now, lass," Rory admonished gently. "She's simply a harmless old widow with nothing better to do than pry into other people's business. If that daughter of hers would marry and give her some grandchildren, that would settle her a bit, I'm thinking."
"Would you want to marry Prudence Harper, with a mother like hers?" Shannon asked.
"Heavens, no," Rory said, smiling. "Although, Prudence does have lovely brown eyes," he teased, accepting her jab in his ribs as Michael and Ben ran back toward them.
Michael was waving something in his hand, his other holding his hat on his head. "Mr. Davis said he was about a to bring it over," he told Rory, handing the paper to him.
Rory handed Shane back to Shannon, then took the telegram and opened it.
Watching him, Shannon asked, "What does it say?"
"Oh, no," he said, shaking his head as he handed it to her. "The road between here and Denver was covered by a rockslide. They'll have to bring the delivery around the long way - and that will cost a great deal more money."
"What are you gonna do, Pa?" Michael asked.
Rory looked at the letter once more, then folded it and put it into his pocket. "There's only one thing that I can do. Go to Denver and pick up the stock myself."
"Rory -" Shannon began, only to pause when she realized that her husband was 'focused' again. Knowing there would be no reasoning with him, she simply changed the subject, saying, "Come inside, boys, and wash your hands. I'll have supper on the table in a few minutes. Here, Michael, take your brother and see that he's washed up as well." Then glancing once more at Rory, she tugged on his sleeve and said gently, "Supper."
He nodded distractedly and followed her upstairs.
"It's nearly a week there and back the long way, Rory," Shannon told him later, after the boys were in their beds. "And you don't know the way."
"I'll find someone who does," he told her, watching as she paced the storage room. "Shannon, there's no other choice. I'll ride out tomorrow - see if David can spare a couple of men to go with me. Or else I'll hire someone in Denver to help get the wagon back here. But I'm not going to let Everett win."
"Then I'm going with you," Shannon decided, meeting his blue gaze steadily when he lifted it from the desk before him. "I know the way to Denver."
"And what about the boys?" he asked.
"I'm sure David and Deirdre would be more than willing to let them stay at the ranch while we're gone. Can you honestly say that you wouldn't worry if you had to leave us here alone?"
Rory sighed, pushing his chair back from the desk as she came around it. "No. I can't. That's the main reason I haven't gone before now. And I knew you'd never agree to stay at the ranch while I was gone -" He gave her a questioning look and sighed when she shook her head in agreement. "Very well. We'll both go. Can you be ready to leave tomorrow morning?"
"I think so."
"You're a good woman, Shannon Manion. You're sure you won't mind having to sleep on the ground for a few nights?"
She slipped into his lap. "It's not me I'm worried about on that score - it's *your* old back. Do you think it can take the punishment?" she teased.
Rory captured her mouth with his, his hand sliding beneath
her robe to cup her breast through the thin fabric of her nightdress.
"If it wasn't for the fact that Michael and Ben are likely
still awake," he said to her, "I'd show you how much
my *old* back can take, woman, and take you right here on this
Shannon eyed the desk thoughtfully and then looked at Rory again. "I'll go make sure the boys are asleep," she offered as she stood up.
"And I'll double check the front doors," he told her as he gave her a playful slap on her bottom and then stole another kiss at the bottom of the stairs as they parted.
Shannon giggled and he put a finger to her lips to quiet her. Then she nodded and continued up to quietly open the door to what had once been Michael's solitary room. Both he and Ben were sound asleep, and didn't even stir when she laid another blanket over them. Shane was asleep as well in his little bed in the corner of the room, so she went back downstairs, pushing the curtain aside to enter the store room.
Rory was just putting a ledger from the desk onto a nearby stand. He turned down the lamp and held out his arms for her to come into them. Picking her up, he lifted her onto the edge of the desk as his lips covered hers yet again . . .
While David couldn't spare any men to accompany them, he did give them provisions from the ranch stores and extra ammunition for the guns that he insisted they take with them.
"I know you don't like the idea of having to use it, Rory, but you have to realize that Everett will do whatever it takes to stop you," he warned. "That gun might be the only thing that keeps the two of you alive. Besides, if you run into trouble on the road and are delayed, you can always shoot a rabbit to eat. You won't go hungry."
"We'll take care of the children," Deirdre assured them. "You just worry about coming home safe."
"We will," Rory said. Then seeing the worried look in Michael's eyes, he said firmly, "We will. We'll be back in a little over a week. You behave yourself while we're gone. Mind your Aunt Deirdre and Uncle David."
"And look after your brother."
Michael nodded and gave his mother a quick hug.
"I love you," she told him, then did the same with Shane before handing him over to Deirdre. The child reached for her, but she took his hand and shook her head gently, saying, "Stay with Aunt Deirdre, Shane, darling. I'll be back before you know it."
Rory gave his young son a kiss, then ruffled Ben's hair as he turned to help Shannon onto her horse and then mounted his own. "We'll be back," he told them.
"Good luck," David called after them.
"God go with you," Deirdre added as Michael ran to the fence, watching them until they disappeared over the hill.
Ben followed more sedately, standing just behind and to one side of his cousin.
"They'll be back," Ben told Michael. "If Uncle Rory says he'll be back, then he'll be back."
A couple of days later, the boys were watching David and his men as they branded some new calves. Their attention, however, was diverted when one of the men pointed to someone riding toward them.
"Someone's coming, Mr. Clement," he said.
David stood watching the rider and recognized him about the time that Michael said, "It's Mr. Everett."
"So it is," David agreed, moving several steps away from the boys and his men as Everett reined his horse to a stop. "Mr. Everett," he said, greeting his visitor.
"Clement," Everett said, his gaze finding Michael. "I noticed that the General Store has been closed for the last several days. I needed to speak with Mr. Manion -"
"Rory's gone out of town for a few days," David explained. "On business."
"I see. Did he go to Denver?"
"He didn't say," David told him.
"I suppose I'll just have to wait until he gets back, then. But since I'm here, I'd like to renew my offer for your ranch, Mr. Clement."
"It told you, it's not for sale. Now, if you'll excuse us, we have to get back to this branding."
"Still having problems with someone stealing your livestock?" Everett questioned.
"Yes. We lost ten head last week and another five before that. I've sent word to the territorial marshal - and the to the Governor as well, asking for some help in catching whoever's responsible."
"Good luck in finding them. Oh, I suppose congratulations are in order, aren't they?"
David was on alert as he glanced toward Ben. "What are you talking about?" he asked Everett.
"I heard in town that your wife's going to have a baby."
David looked at Ben, whose eyes were suddenly wide with shock and anger at hearing the news for the first time.
"Ben - " David said, reaching for the boy as he pulled away. "Benjamin!" he called, making another attempt to breach the gap between him and his stepson.
Ben threw off his hand, ran to his horse and rode away.
"I'll go after him, Uncle David," Michael offered, giving Everett an angry look as he left.
"I'm so sorry," Everett said in a voice dripping with insincerity. "I hope I didn't say anything out of turn. I thought the boy knew that his mother was going to have your child."
David slapped his work gloves against his leg, barely restraining his temper. "Get off my land, Everett," he ordered. "And if you're seen here again, my men will have orders to do whatever is necessary to remove you - even if that means shooting you."
As if to back up David's threat, several of the men lifted their guns in Everett's direction. Realizing that he was outnumbered and outgunned, their unwelcome visitor turned his horse and rode away.
"Jessup!" Clement called, watching the retreating man.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Clement?"
"I meant what I said. And I want the guard doubled on the herd again."
David grabbed the reins of his horse from the wagon and got into the saddle, saying, "I'll be at the house if I'm needed."
Michael caught up with Ben by the lake and reached over, grabbing the reins and pulling Ben's horse to a stop. "Didn't you hear me calling you?" he asked.
"I heard you," Ben said, wiping his eyes with his shirt cuff. "I didn't want to stop. I wanted to just keep riding until I was back in Philadelphia."
"Well, you're going the wrong way," Michael pointed out with an easy grin, trying to tease his friend out of his mood. Pointing back the way they'd come, he said, "Philadelphia is that way."
"Doesn't matter," Ben sighed, kicking out of his saddle and jumping to the ground. "I couldn't get there anyway."
Michael slid from his horse to join Ben on the grass. Plucking a blade, he put it between his teeth. "I don't understand why you're so upset," he confessed.
"Didn't you hear Mr. Everett? My mother's going to have a baby. *His* baby."
"It'll still be your brother or sister - even more than Shane is my brother."
"You're right. You *don't* understand."
"I like your pa," Michael told him. "He's nice, and he doesn't yell or hit you." When Ben remained silent, Michael sighed and said, "You know what?"
"I don't think the problem is with your stepfather. I think you're the one with the problem, Ben," Michael said, standing up and going to the edge of the lake. "You don't understand how lucky you are."
Ben still didn't look at him as he said, "Don't you see? This baby will be his. But I'm not his, and I won't be important anymore. Not to him, and not to Mother."
"I don't think that's true. Look at me -"
"I'm *tired* of looking at you!" Ben yelled, standing up. "No one understands! They haven't been through it, and they can't!" Pushing Michael into the water, he ran for his horse and rode away again.
Michael stood up in the shallow water and hit at it with his
hand. "Stupid kid!" he yelled. "You're *still*
going the wrong way for Philadelphia!"
Michael walked to the bank and stood there, watching as Ben's horse disappeared in the distance, knowing that he'd never be able to catch him. Going to his own horse, he climbed up into the saddle and turned it toward the house at a full gallop . . .
Deirdre and David were on the porch when he rode up, and Deirdre ran out to him, asking, "What happened? Where's Benjamin?"
"He rode north after he pushed me into the lake," Michael told them. "He's pretty upset."
As David helped Michael from his horse, he said, "I know he is, Michael. Go change into some dry clothes and you can show me where the two of you parted company."
Deirdre looked ready to collapse at any minute as she turned to her husband and said, "David, he's got to be all right."
"I'll find him, my love," David promised. "Go see if Michael needs any help while I water his horse."
Michael looked at Shane as he passed en route to the room he and his brother were sharing during their visit. Seeing him, Michael thought about his parents, wondering where they were and if they were all right.
Deirdre came in with a towel for him. "Do you need any help?" she asked.
"No, I can manage," he told her. "Aunt Deirdre, he'll be okay. He's just a little confused right now."
"I know, Michael; I know. At times, he's so much like his Uncle Rory was as a child, wanting to lash out at the entire world for whatever injustices he feels have been visited on him. It took Rory a long time to realize that he couldn't change the world to suit himself - that he was the one who had to change."
Michael nodded thoughtfully as he grabbed a dry shirt from his case and slipped it over his head.
As they rode toward the lake, Michael told David, "Ben's upset because of the baby."
"I know. Deirdre and I decided not to tell him yet because we knew he'd be upset. What I don't understand is why he feels that way."
"He thinks you won't care about him anymore."
"What?" David asked as he reined in his mount to look at the boy.
"Because this baby will be yours, but Ben's just your stepson," Michael explained.
"Damn fool notion," David spat as he set the horse back into motion. "I couldn't love Ben anymore than if he was my own son. Surely he knows that by now?"
When they reached the lake, Michael pointed toward the direction that Ben had ridden, saying, "He went straight out that way."
"Where does it lead?" David asked.
"Indian Bluff," Michael told him. "If he stays on the trail, he'll end up there."
"I want you to find Jessup and have him send some men in this direction, okay? And then go back to the house and stay with Shane and your Aunt Deirdre."
"Okay," he said as he watched David ride after Ben. Then turning his own horse, he rode back to where the men had been working on the branding.
Though the ground became strewn with more rocks and less grass the further David traveled, he could see by the fresh impressions that a horse had come this way on the road ahead of him. He thought about calling out, but knew that if Ben were in earshot, he'd only ride harder to elude discovery.
It was only finding the boy's horse grazing near a ravine that changed his mind. Getting down from his own horse, David picked up the other horse's reins, inspecting the animal for injury. It appeared sound.
"Benjamin!" he yelled, moving closer to the edge of the chasm.
He looked over it and felt himself go pale. About twenty feet below him was a ledge of rock barely four feet wide, and Ben was lying on that ledge, his left arm turned under him at an awkward angle.
"Ben!" he yelled again. "Dear God, let him be all right," he said. "Ben! Can you hear me?"
The boy slowly opened his eyes. "S-sir?" he said weakly as he tried to move.
"Don't move!" David yelled, saying a prayer of thanks. "You might fall again. Are you hurt? Can you move your arm?"
Ben tired, but cried out in pain. "It hurts!"
"Lie still, then. I'll get you up. It'll be all right, Ben," he said, continuing to talk as he went to back to his horse to retrieve a rope.
Tightening the cinch of the saddle, he tied the rope to the saddle horn and tied a loop in the end before he dropped it over the edge of the cliff, directly above the ledge where Ben had fallen.
"Ben? Can you grab the rope?"
Ben lifted his good arm, but the rope was out of reach. "I can't," he called back. "Maybe if I stand up -"
"No!" David said. "Don't move! If you've injured your head, you could become dizzy and fall. I'll come down to you," he decided, hoping that the horse would stay where he was and not move closer to the edge.
He didn't notice the pain in his bad leg as he lowered himself down to the ledge hand over hand, hooking his good leg around the rope. All he could think about was getting to Ben's side and making sure that he was okay.
"Thank God, you're alive," he said, slowly pulling the boy up into a sitting position and giving him a hug. "Let me look at your arm." Examining it, he knew immediately that it was probably broken. "Your mother's very worried, Ben," he said, looking at the abrasion on Ben's forehead. "Does your head hurt?"
"A little. I'm sorry," Ben said. "I don't know why you bothered to come after me. You don't need me around - not with the new baby and all."
"Nonsense. You're our son. I don't want anything to happen to you," David said, keeping the boy close to his side on the narrow ledge. "I love you."
"But you hated my father."
The accusation struck David like a slap across the face. "No, I never hated Caleb Staunton," he denied. "Yes, I was jealous of him, because I loved your mother, too. But I never hated him. I owe him a very large debt for saving my life, as well as your Uncle Rory's, that day at the cost of his own. And I'd like to have a chance to repay that debt by being a father to you, if you'll give me a chance."
"Mr. Clement!" a voice called loudly.
"Down here, Jessup!" David called out upon hearing his foreman's voice. Looking up, he saw Jessup's weathered face appear over the edge. "Ben's arm is broken. Can you pull us up?" he yelled.
"Right away, Mr. Clement!" Jessup called back as David pulled the loop of the rope around the two of them. "This might hurt a little, Ben," he warned.
Ben looked up at him and nodded, his expression thoughtful.
Everett was waiting for Jennings when the hired gun rode back into town. "Where have you been?" he asked the gunman. Before Jennings could answer, however, Everett shook his head and said, "Never mind. Are you aware that Manion left town a few days ago?"
"I knew the General Store was locked - I just figured they were spending some time out at Clement's ranch."
"I think he's gone to Denver to pick up his order," Everett said.
"I'll leave right away," Jennings said.
Everett sighed. "He's probably already in Denver," he said. "Just make sure he doesn't get back. And hire some more men. I want Clement's ranch, even if it means taking some of his men out. We can't keep a lid on this much longer."
"I'm on it, Mr. Everett," Jennings said, and walked away.
To Be Continued---