Deirdre stirred the pot stew she had simmering on the stove, listening as David came down the stairs across the room. Without turning around, she told him, "Would you mind calling the boys in to supper, David? I'm just about to put it on the table."
David crossed to stand behind her, his hands around her waist. "How do you do that?" he asked.
"Know who's behind you without turning around?"
"The third riser from the top's a bit loose on the stairs," she explained, smiling as he kissed the side of her neck. "You're heavier than either of the boys When you step on it, it makes a different sound than when they step on it." At last she covered the pot and turned to look at him with concerned eyes. "Are you alright, David? You were so upset when you came in this morning. Poor Mr. Jessup, falling over that cliff to save the herd," she sighed. "You're sure Mr. Kerrigan said that he had no family?"
"None to speak of. I think there was a daughter somewhere back East, but none of the men know where she might be- or if she really exists. Apparently, Jessup was prone to telling tall tales about himself."
"He was still a good man," Deirdre pointed out.
"Yes," David agreed, holding her tightly. "He was." Finally, he released her, saying, "I'll go get the boys."
"Ben's in the barn. Michael's at the fence again," she told him, going to the door with him to look at the fence where Michael was leaning. "He's been there all day, watching. But I'm not sure who he's missing more, his mother or Rory."
"Both, I should hope," David pointed out. "I'll get Ben first, and then convince Michael to come inside for some stew."
Deirdre nodded and watched him cross the porch toward the barn before turning around look at Shane, who was in his customary spot before the hearth. "Time to clean those hands, little man," she told him, holding out her hand for him to take hold of.
* * * *
David entered the barn and paused, allowing his eyes to grow accustomed to the dim light. "Ben?" he called quietly.
A suspicious sniffle reached his ears before the boy called back, "Over here."
Ben, his broken arm still in a splint, was sitting on a bale of hay, his puppy at his feet, which had already grown almost twice its size in just a month.
"There you are," David said, crossing to sit beside him. "What's wrong, Ben?" he asked. "I thought we were past hiding out in the barn."
Since Ben's adventure, he and David seemed to be getting on better than they had before. Ben even seemed glad about the new baby, asking all kinds of questions about it. But this morning, when told about Jessup's death and the attempt to stampede the herd, he had become quiet and withdrawn again, disappearing at the first opportunity into his haven of choice - the barn.
Suddenly, Ben's good arm was around David, his dark blonde head buried against David's chest as he started to cry.
"Ben, please. Tell me what's wrong," David begged, smoothing the child's hair.
"Mr. Jessup," Ben said, hiccupping. "He's dead."
"Yes, he is. And it was a terrible accident-" David agreed, still not certain why Ben was so distraught. He'd barely exchange a half dozen words with the foreman.
"It might have been you, Pa," Ben said, lifting his tear stained face to look up at David. "I don't want to lose you, too! I love you!"
David sighed with relief, tightening his arms around his son. *My son,* he thought to himself, feeling moisture beginning to gather in his own eyes. "And I love you, son," he said, feeling, for the first time, that Ben really accepted his words.
David pulled Ben's face up to look at it. "You're not going to lose me, Ben. Nothing's going to happen to me. The territorial Marshal will be here within a few days, and he'll take care of things."
"You promise?" Ben asked, still hiccupping.
"I promise," David said, smiling. "Now. Why don't you go and wash up for supper while I go and see if I can't pry Michael away from that fence?"
"He really misses Uncle Rory," Ben told him.
"Rory will be home soon," David assured him as they came out of the barn. "Now go on."
David stood there for a moment, watching Ben move toward the house before turning his gaze toward Michael. Silently, he joined the young man at the fence.
"See anything yet?" he asked.
Michael shook his head. "No. They should be home today. That's what the telegram said, isn't it?"
"If everything went as planned, yes," David agreed, slipping an arm around Michael's shoulders. "Your Aunt Deirdre has supper ready."
"I'm not hungry."
"I think you'd best come inside and eat a little, anyway. It's stew. I wouldn't want to have to explain to your parents why you've wasted away to skin and bones. Besides, your brother's lonely for you."
Michael smiled at last and sighed. "Okay. One bowl," he agreed, turning away from the fence after one final glance at the distant horizon.
They got as far as the porch when Michael suddenly turned around and looked again, a huge smile spreading across his face. "They're back!" he announced, and started to run, scrambling over the fence.
"Michael-!" David said, but it was useless. The boy was already out of earshot as he ran to meet the wagon and outrider with it.
Deirdre, Shane, and Ben joined David on the porch. "Is it them?" she asked.
"I think so," David confirmed, bending to pick up Shane. "Your mother and father are home, Shane," he told the baby, pointing toward the wagon. "See?"
"Mama," Shane said, clapping his hand together. "Mama."
Deirdre laughed. "I'd best go set some more places. They'll likely be hungry after their trip."
Rory saw Michael first, racing toward them as fast as his legs would carry him, and shook the reins, speeding the team up to meet him.
"Ma! Pa!" Michael was yelling, tears rolling down his face as he jumped up onto the wagon with them to give them both hugs. "I'm glad you're home."
"Oh, Michael, lad," Rory said, holding the boy tightly. "It's good to be home."
"I missed you," Shannon said, giving her son another hug.
"I missed you, too." Then looking over at the man on the horse, he nodded a greeting. "Hello."
"Hello. You must be Michael," Sean said with a grin.
"Say hello to your Uncle Sean, Michael," Rory said. "And you're right, Sean. This is my other son. Michael."
"Uncle Sean? The one Aunt Deirdre talks about?" Michael asked, looking up at Rory for confirmation.
"The one and the same," Rory confirmed, putting the horses into motion again as Michael sat between him and Shannon. "How's your brother?"
"Shane's fine. I think he's been missing Ma, though."
"And I've missed him," Shannon confirmed, her green eyes on the house, where she could see David holding the little boy.
She could hear him even before Rory brought the wagon to a stop. He was reaching for her, calling, "Mama! Mama!"
As soon as Rory set the brake, Shannon jumped down on her own and went up the step to take the little boy from his uncle.
"Mama!" he said, burying his face in her neck.
"Mama's here, darling," Shannon said. "Oh, Shane. I missed you so much," she said as Rory joined them.
"Hey, there," Rory said softly. "Remember me?"
"Papa," Shane said.
Rory smiled. "Papa. That's right. Oh, Shane," he said as he held out an arm, pulling Michael into the family group as he caught sight of David's surprised expression. Following his brother-in-law's gaze, Rory saw that he was staring at Sean.
"Dear God, Rory. Where on earth ? Sean!" he said, going down the steps to embrace the younger man. "Sean! Deirdre's to be delighted."
"Hello, David. I was in Denver and just decided to tag along with these two. Keep 'em out of trouble," he said, giving Rory and Shannon a conspiratorial smile.
"They probably needed it," David agreed, noticing the look. "Deirdre's in the house. Why don't you go on in?"
Sean nodded, ruffling Ben's hair as he passed. "Hi, Benjamin." Seeing the look on his nephew's face, he apologized, saying, "Sorry. I hear you prefer Ben now."
"Yes, Uncle Sean," Ben said. "Mother's going to be so happy to see you."
"I think I have everything on the table," Deirdre said, coming to the door. Once her gaze took in the group standing there, she stopped at the threshold - speechless.
"Hello, Deirdre," Sean said.
"Oh, Sean," she said, beginning to cry as she touched his face. "Sean," she cried again as she pulled him into her arms. "You've finally come home to us."
"Don't cry, Deirdre," Sean said. "I thought you'd be happy to see me."
"I *am* happy," she insisted. "Can't you tell the difference between happy tears and sad ones?"
"I guess not," Sean admitted.
"Hello, Deirdre," Rory said, reminding her that Sean wasn't the only new arrival.
"Oh, Rory. Shannon," she said as she gave each a hug. "Thank you," she told her older brother. "Thank you for bringing him home."
"It was his decision," Rory told her. Then sniffing at the air, he asked, "Is that some of your stew I smell?"
"Oh, come in," Deirdre said, slipping her arm through Sean's. "I'll have to set another place. Come in. Please."
After dinner, Deirdre was refilling the coffee cups as she asked, "So, Sean, you haven't told us where you're working these days."
Sean grinned as Rory prodded, saying, "Tell them, Sean."
"I'm a surveyor for the railroad," Sean explained. "They're going to be laying a new track from Denver to Pueblo soon."
Rory and Shannon looked at David as the latter went still.
"Denver to Pueblo?" David repeated.
"That's right, David," Rory said. "Right through your land - and Cuttersville."
"Which explains Everett's determination to buy up every square foot of property in the area," David realized. "No wonder he sent his men in here last night to stampede my herd."
"Everett came after you last night?" Rory questioned.
"They nearly killed David," Deirdre said. "And poor Mr. Jessup fell into the canyon when his horse balked."
Seeing the bleak expression on David's face, Rory knew that Jessup hadn't survived. "I'm sorry, David. I know that Jessup had been with you for some time."
"Since I bought the ranch," David confirmed. "I couldn't have done any of it without him. He won't be easy to replace." He patted Deirdre's hand where it lay on the table. "So, was your trip to Denver and back uneventful?"
Rory looked from Shannon, who was holding Shane in her lap, to Sean before he answered. "Not really," he admitted. "We were ambushed last night, as well. If it hadn't been for Sean, we wouldn't be here now. He stopped Jennings from killing the both of us."
Ben came into the house with Michael right behind him. Both boys went to their respective fathers and stood beside them.
"Yes, Ben?" David asked, his arm around the boy's shoulders.
"We've fed and watered Uncle Rory's team, Pa," he said. "Just like you asked us to."
"Good boy. Why don't you and Michael go outside while we finish talking?" he suggested gently.
"Come on, Ben," Michael said. "That means they're talking about stuff they don't want us to know about."
Rory laughed softly, "Such insolence. And from my own son, at that."
Michael simply grinned in response and led Ben from the house.
"Looks as though you and Ben have come to an understanding, David."
"His accident went a long way toward resolving the situation," David agreed. "What are we going to do about Everett? It'll be another two days before the Territorial Marshall can arrive to take charge."
"Rory has a plan, David," Shannon said.
"Of course, he does. Rory always has a plan," Deirdre commented, a twinkle in her eye. "And what is this time, older brother?"
Rory sat forward. "It's possible that Everett thinks he's succeeded in killing me, since Jessup hasn't reported back to him. I need for you to go into town and keep Everett occupied, David. For at least an hour, while Sean, Shannon and I unload the wagon at the General Store."
"If you're seen -" David warned. "Someone might alert Everett. He's got men all through town."
"So we'll know to be careful. But I want everything in the store, ready for us to open the doors tomorrow morning before he finds out we're back." Nodding toward the porch outside, he said, "And I've a job for the lads to do as well."
David left with Ben and Michael ten minutes ahead of Rory, Shannon and Sean. Deirdre saw them off, then turned to look at Shane, who was again playing at the hearth.
"It's just you and me again, Shane," she told him, sitting down nearby. Then lifting a hand to her chest, she crossed herself and began saying a prayer that they would all be safe and that Rory's plan would work.
Cumbie sat on his perch and watched the wagon rolling through the valley. It was Manion, all right. In the dusky light of early evening, Shannon Manion's hair was like a beacon, announcing their presence. He'd give them a few minutes, then follow them on into town and tell the Boss that Jennings had failed to stop the Irishman as ordered. His grin widened, as he considered that maybe Mr. Everett might decide to replace Jennings with someone else. And Alex Cumbie knew just the man for the job.
Once the wagon passed, he made his way down to the valley and recovered his horse from behind some rocks. As he tightened the girth, he felt a gun in his back.
"Who are you?"
"Sean Manion. Rory's my brother," Sean told him, pulling Cumbie's gun from its holster and stuffing it into his own gun belt. "Turn around and put out your hands.
Cumbie frowned as he watched the other man tie his hands together. "You're not gonna just leave me out here?" he asked.
"No. I'm not," Sean told him, signaling his companion to come forward. "Kerrigan, take him back to the ranch and don't let him out of your sight."
"Yes sir, Mr. Manion," Kerrigan said, roughly pushing Cumbie toward the horse. "Up you go, Cumbie."
Sean went to his own horse and mounted, turning its head to follow Rory and Shannon.
"Good luck," Kerrigan called after him.
"They're gonna need it," Cumbie spat. Immediately, Kerrigan's fist connected with his jaw and he staggered.
"Shut up, Cumbie, and get on the horse," Kerrigan ordered.
David dropped the boys off at the edge of town as arranged, then continued to the bank. He wasn't surprised to see a light burning in Everett's office. He was working late, probably expecting Jennings back to report that Rory and Shane were dead. Glancing down the street and finding nothing unusual, he tapped on the glass pane of the window to the office to get Everett's attention.
Everett peered suspiciously through the glass at him. "Yes?"
"I'd like to have a word with you, Mr. Everett," David said.
"The bank is closed, Mr. Clement. Surely whatever you have to say can wait until tomorrow morning?"
"I think you'd like to hear what I have to say tonight, Mr. Everett," David replied evenly. "It's about the ranch."
Everett appeared to consider the words. Then nodding, he said, "I'll unlock the door for you."
David took a deep breath, smiling. So far, so good.
Rory's luck held as the drove the wagon through the streets, turning at last into the alley behind the general store. Setting the brake, he saw Shannon sigh with relief.
Reaching over to place a hand on her, he said, "It'll be over soon. Maybe I should have insisted that you stay at the ranch with Deirdre."
"You wouldn't have wanted to try, Rory Manion," she replied with a challenging smile as Sean joined them.
"Did anyone see us come into town?" Rory asked his brother.
"If they did, no one's setting up the alarm. Ben should be in place soon."
"Best get to work, then," Rory said, unfastening the canvas as Shannon went to unlock the rear door into the storeroom.
Ben wiggled into the shadow of the wood box beside the barber shop and sat there, watching the front of the General Store. From here, he could see the front door of the bank, as well. If anyone headed that direction to warn Mr. Everett, his job was to let his Uncle Rory know about it. He held his breath as the Sheriff passed near his hiding place, making his evening rounds and rattling doorknobs to make sure they were locked.
Ben struggled to see into the dark windows across the street, but the shades were down; to all intents and purposes, the building looked empty. He knew better, however - Uncle Rory, Aunt Shannon, and Uncle Sean would be unloading the wagon.
Looking down the street, he kept an eye on the bank as well, because that's where his own father was, talking to Mr. Everett.
* * * *
"You said you wanted to talk about your ranch, Mr. Clement?" Everett said, opening a box filled with cigars and offering one to David.
"Thank you," David said, taking the cigar. "Yes. I suppose you've heard about what happened last night?"
"Oh, yes. Terrible tragedy. Walter Jessup was a good man. Knew that ranch like the back of his hand. I wouldn't blame you for deciding to sell without him around to help you run it."
"I didn't say that I wanted to sell the ranch," David told him, looking at him through the smoke from the cigar.
"Then why are you here?" Everett asked.
Michael knocked on the door of the Fuller house and waited impatiently for someone to answer. Hearing footsteps, he pulled off his hat just as the door opened.
Nate Fuller was the local blacksmith/livery stable owner, and his son Tim was one of Michael's best friends. The smithy looked at Michael in the dim light from the lamp in his hand and frowned.
"Michael Carson. What are you doing out and about at this hour?"
"It's Michael Manion, now, sir," Michael corrected the man. "And I've got a note from my pa that he wants you to read."
Nate pulled his suspenders over his shoulders and took the letter, opening it and holding it up to the light so he could read it.
Dear neighbor and fellow townsman,
For over a year now, Henry Everett has been buying up most of Cuttersville and terrorizing the town with his hired guns. Somehow, Mr. Everett has discovered that the railroad is building a spur through the city, and he has used the knowledge not to improve Cuttersville for its citizens, but to line his own greedy pockets . . .
"What is it, Nate?" Mrs. Fuller asked, joining them at the door. "Good evening, Michael. Would you like to come in? Tim's already in his bed, but -"
"No, thank you, Ma'am," Michael refused. "I have a lot more people to see this evening." His green eyes moved back to Nate as the man folded the letter and handed it back to him. "Can we count on your support, Mr. Fuller?" he asked.
"Tell your father I'll be there, Michael. And I'll spread the word myself, once I get dressed. There are a lot of people in Cuttersville that won't mind letting Henry Everett know that even though he may own the buildings, he doesn't own the town."
Michael smiled as he said, "Thank you, sir. Good night."
"Be careful," Nate cautioned. "Everett's men are everywhere these days."
The boy nodded and headed down the street as the door closed behind him. As he turned a corner to take a short cut to the next house on his list, he found himself up against a human wall.
"Well, well, what have we here?"
As Michael's eyes fell first on the six gun on the man's hip, he looked up. "Mr. Gardner," he gulped. "Excuse me-"
The gunman's hands fell on Michael's shoulder. "Not so fast. You're Manion's step son, aren't you?"
"Yes, sir," Michael admitted.
"What are you doing in town? I thought your folks were in Denver."
"They are. I just had to deliver a message for -"
"Why don't we go and see Mr. Everett?" Gardner suggested, grabbing Michael's arm.
Michael sent a vicious kick into the man's knee and ran as fast as he could in the direction the general store.
Gardner yelped in pain and loped after Michael, yelling, "Come back you, you little-!"
Ducking down an alleyway, Michael saw the wagon behind the general store and ran in that direction, finding Rory as he came from the store for another load of goods.
"Pa!" the boy said.
Grabbing his son's shoulders, Rory asked, "Michael? What's wrong?"
"Mr. Gardner," Michael explained, pointing. "He's right behind me."
"Sean!" Rory called softly.
The younger man appeared from the store move down the alley, keeping to the shadows where he wouldn't be seen.
Gardner came around the corner and stopped upon seeing the wagon sitting behind the General Store. Moving closer to investigate, he froze as he heard a shotgun being locked into place.
"No further, Mr. Gardner," Rory said from the open door of the storeroom.
Michael stood behind his father, watching as Gardner lifted his hands.
"Get his gun, Sean."
Sean came up behind Gardner, keeping his own gun on the man as he pulled Gardner's silver plated six gun from its holster.
Grinning at Rory, Sean told him, "This keeps up, I'll have me quite a collection." Then prodding Gardner forward with the gun in the man's back, he said, "Inside."
Shannon watched as they tied Gardner up and stuffed him in a corner of the storeroom. She could see that there was murder in the gun man's dark eyes.
Rory turned back to Michael and asked him, "Do you think you can finish your job?"
"No problem. Mr. Fuller said he'd be here. And that he was gonna spread the word, as well."
"That's good to know."
"Be careful," Shannon called after Michael as he left the storeroom and disappeared into the alley once again.
"Let's get this finished," Rory told Sean. "I'm not sure how long David is going to be able to keep Everett busy without arousing his suspicions."
"I'm thinking about buying some more land, actually," David told Everett. "Increasing the size of my range so I can run more cattle."
"I'm sure there are some very fine ranches south of here - toward New Mexico. I could make some inquiries."
"I'm not selling, Everett."
"Then why are you here, Clement?" Everett asked again. "You've been stringing me along since you arrived. I want an answer."
"Because I'm just enough of a gentleman to want to warn you about what's going to happen."
Everett sat back in his chair, cigar in his hand. "And what is going to happen, Mr. Clement?" he inquired.
"In two days, the Territorial Marshall will be arriving. And when he does, I'm going to swear out a warrant for your arrest," David informed the banker.
Everett just laughed softly, studying the end of his cigar. "On what charge?" he asked.
"The murder of Walter Jessup," David informed him. "As well as the attempted murder of three more of my men."
"I was here in town when that happened. I have- any number of people who can testify to the fact that I was at the saloon playing poker at the exact moment that Jessup fell over that cliff."
"They were your men, acting on your orders. That makes it your responsibility."
"Do you have any evidence that my men were there, Clement?" Everett asked. Seeing the look on David's face, Everett's smile widened. "Without evidence, I doubt a judge will grant a warrant."
David rose from his chair and picked up his hat, saying, "We'll see which of us is right in two days, Everett. Have a nice evening."
As Everett unlocked door to let David out of the bank, the banker asked, "Oh, Mr. Clement, weren't your brother-in-law and his wife due back from Denver today?"
"As a matter of fact, yes, they were," David agreed.
"Looks as though they're behind schedule," Everett pointed out, nodding toward the dark General Store. "I hope nothing's happened to them."
David didn't bother to respond to the taunt as he stepped off of the sidewalk.
Everett stood there watching as the rancher got onto the carriage he'd come to town in and drove it down the street, stopping before the barbershop to get down and tighten the harness on the horse.
The sound of a match striking caused Everett to turn in that direction and he found Jackson lighting a cigarette.
"Want me to follow him?" Jackson offered, nodding toward David's carriage.
"No. Once he finds out that his brother-in-law is dead, I don't think he'll be a problem. That wife of his will insist they return to Philadelphia. Any word from Jennings?"
Everett frowned. "He should have been back by now," he realized. "Ride out that way. I need to know that he succeeded."
Jackson nodded, crushing the half-smoked cigarette under his heel as he turned toward his horse.
"And Jackson - tell him not to bother coming back if he failed."
To Be Continued---