Read an Excerpt
The cold north wind slashed across Rusty's face like a sharp slap, as he pulled his sheepskin jacket closer and marched to the ranch house as though the devil himself were chasing him. Rusty drew breath. He wondered why Deke had sent word to come to the house. Must be something important to have pulled him off post hole digging, Rusty pondered as he dusted his boots off before entering the house. His hands felt numb and he could barely turn the knob.
Warmth invaded him as he opened the door, the flickering firelight invited him in. Home sweet home, he smiled as he let the warmth seep slowly through him. He moved deliberately toward the welcoming fire and saw his brother standing resolutely at the big window, staring out. Noticing the tense stance, the vague greeting, and the silence in the room, Rusty knew there was something wrong. He took his hat off and smoothed his thick russet hair back, then replaced his hat.
"Deke, something wrong?" Rusty watched his brother closely as he shrugged out of his jacket and thrust his hands out toward the welcome warmth of the fireplace.
"'Fraid so, bro." Deke rocked on his boots, not bothering to turn around and look at his younger brother.
Rusty rubbed his hands together, noting the tingle running through them. He knew better than to warm up too fast. That kind of tingle could last for hours. He backed away and let the warmth seep through him, slowly. He ached from sitting the saddle so long, and his muscles had been stretched to the limit using that post hole digger this morning, but he wouldn't complain. He was doing what he loved. Not many men could say that. He had an idea Dekedidn't want hear about how he felt at the moment, either. Something was on his Deke's mind and he instinctively knew he wasn't going to like it from the scowl lining his brother's face.
"Well come on bro, spit it out, I gotta get that post hole digger back to town before noon."
Deke turned slowly to eye his brother, his expression grim and Rusty knew it was bad news of some sort. Deke wasn't usually this slow at coming to the point.
Then Rusty spotted the letter laying on the coffee table, as though it had been read a time or two, the way the paper curled at the edges. Oh God, someone died. For one fleeting second he thought about his brother Jake, who was the Sheriff over at Peaceful. But surely, not Jake! He was too young and stubborn to die. He thought of his aging father, but knew there would be no letter because his father lived here on the ranch. Then who died? Uncle Dan? No, he wouldn't believe it.
"Your remember George O'Leary?"
Rusty let out a long held breath, the relief he felt warmed him, then he tossed the name around in his head and nodded.
"He's the one that took your mama to the hospital the night you were born." Deke informed him.
A grim line formed on Rusty's face, a night he wish he could have changed a million times over. "Yeah."
"You may not appreciate him much, Rusty, but if he hadn't have..."
"Yeah, I know the story Deke." Rusty couldn't hide his frustration from his brother, he knew him too well. But darn it, he'd have given his own life, to save his mother's, if he'd had a choice.
Deke frowned at him again. "Maybe you do, and maybe, just maybe you should hear it again."
"I don't need to." Rusty turned away from Deke, his words slurred with emotion. "I know it by heart."
Deke shook his head.
"If he hadn't taken mother to the hospital when he did, I might not have been here either. If her time hadn't been so early and I hadn't been so healthy, I wouldn't have made it. Dad's always felt indebted to the man because of that night. Why, I'll never know. It took the only woman he ever loved away from him. It was snowing cats and dogs and Dad was nearly five hundred miles away. There's no way he could have been there on time."
Rusty bit his lip, thinking of the vibrant woman that died that night so he could be born. It was a sore spot. He didn't want to think about that night ... the night his mother died. Nor the guilt for living he carried with him every day.
"So? What about him?"
The words were said on a long sad note as though this hit Deke close to home. Rusty eyed Deke with renewed interest. They hadn't even seen the O'Leary's in several years, so how could this make Deke so sad? It wasn't like they'd been best of friends and kept in touch.
"I'm sorry." He knew he didn't sound it. But just the mention of his mother had him on the defense. All his life he fought the guilt. It should have been him that died. Then he wouldn't have had to witness the loneliness growing in his father year after year.
"Me too. He was a good man."
Cal Travers entered the room, his eyes going from one to the other, his expression grim. Obviously he had been the one to read and reread the letter, Rusty surmised.
"You may not want to hear this Rusty, but I owed the man so much. Not just for that night. He saved my butt a couple of times too. Never once did he ask for a favor. Never once."
Cal said watching Rusty's reactions.
Rusty felt an unease spread across his shoulders, tighten his muscles. Something wasn't right here. He could feel it in his bones, taste it in his mouth, hear it in the silence. "I didn't know him very well, Dad. I mean I was kinda young at the time."
Deke cleared his throat. "Yeah, well, he sure knew you. But, we got a bigger problem than that."
Rusty spread his legs apart, as though physically bracing himself for some bad news. It had to be really bad for Deke to be so serious, his oldest brother was usually full of fun.
"Look, I'm real sorry about the fella. I guess he meant more to you and dad than I realized, but I gotta get back to diggin' holes, bro. Life does goes on, you know. And we gotta ranch to run."
"It does, but you don't."
The finality of that statement hit Rusty like a blow to an empty stomach. It must be some problem to stop him from finishing the post holes. And the longer it took Deke to spit it out, the more tense, Rusty grew. Deke always was slow about coming to the point. Rusty did his best to be patient. He owed Deke that much. Whatever it was, it had to be a doozie!
Rusty turned to look directly at Deke.
The question hung in the air.
"No, there's something else..."
He knew there would be, but he wanted to stall, knowing from Deke's expression and his dad's reluctance to say much more, this wasn't going to be good news. Somehow this affected him, and he still didn't see the light.
"I gotta feeling you're doing your best not to tell me something. Why don't you spit it out and let's get it over with," Rusty said going into the kitchen for a cup of hot coffee. Coming back to his brother's side he peered over the rim of his cup at him. Deke's serious expression hadn't changed. Cal's furrowed brows hadn't relaxed. Something definitely was up.
"Alright, you're right of course."
Surely it couldn't be that bad, could it?
Deke kept rocking on his heels. Rusty watched, fascinated to see his oldest brother so uncomfortable, but disturbed by his frown more than anything.
"Jimmy, Mr. O'Leary's son became a dentist out in Arizona."
Rusty sighed with relief, obviously Deke just needed to talk about this with someone and he was elected. That was okay. He'd listened many times.
Deke firmed his lips and continued. "George's daughter Hannah has been gone for a while, but she's back and just laid him to rest. Jimmy can't leave his practice, so she's alone, to run the ranch. And Hannah can't handle that spread without some help. I'm sending you to help her."
Somehow this news didn't sound so bad. Rusty had helped many neighbors through the years. But the expression on Deke's face told him there was more to come. Rusty waited, knowing his brother was about to spit it out and not sure if he wanted to hear the rest, because by now he knew he wasn't going to like what Deke was about to say.
Uneasiness blew through the house like a norther in mid winter.
"Help her?" Rusty's brow shot up, wondering what was about to happen here. The eerie feeling didn't go away.
He could feel the tension growing in his gut.
"You aren't going to like what I've got to say, Rusty. But we've got to hash it out. So listen up, till I'm done, then you can have your say."
Rusty nodded. He'd taken orders from Deke most of his life and this time wouldn't be any different. If there was some kind of a problem, he'd just have to deal with it like a man. Being the youngest, meant he had to reinforce his manhood to his brothers many times.
"Jimmy sent a letter telling us all about his father, how hard he worked, how much he loved the place. It's their home, their inheritance from the old man. The only thing he had to leave them. He said they both owed Hannah. She practically put Jimmy through school single handedly. He said Hannah is trying to make a go of the place now, but she needs help. It seems George had a gambling problem no one knew about, until he died. Hannah is doing everything in her power to hang on to this place. But when she talked to the lawyers she was taken aback to find out the old man was in debt up to his eyeballs. She found out the ranch was mortgaged. He put the ranch up as collateral for his personal loans. These are loans that weren't paid back. Hannah has been struggling to hang on, but the bank won't lend her any more money, on just her name."
"So, what's the problem? Just loan her some money." Rusty shrugged as though the matter were settled. He moved to get his hat.
"Can't do that"
Rusty hesitated. He didn't say anything, just glanced over his shoulder at his brother.
"In the first place, she wouldn't accept it, that way. She's got too much pride. Besides, we're pretty well mortgaged as it is with that irrigation system and new baler. Anyway, we can help. The bank said if she had collateral they'd loan her the money."
"Don't tell me, she doesn't have a dime."
"Basically, as far as the bank is concerned, that's it in a nutshell. What money she made went to putting her brother through dental school." Deke turned his gaze on him now. He looked ready to do battle with him. Something Rusty wasn't accustomed to. He loved all this brothers and doing battle with any of them was like cutting off his own hand. "I've already written her," Deke said staring at his brother.
"And just exactly what did you say?" Rusty came up to face Deke.
It was Cal's turn to answer and he strode up almost between them "You've got the collateral, Rusty."
"If you're talking about what I think you are talking about, back off, Dad. That's all I have. That breeding stock is all I have for a future. I've busted my butt raising them, nurturing them. And now you just want me to hand them over to some ... stranger? I can't believe this!" Rusty began rocking on the heel of his boots now. But with another thought he added. "Besides, if she won't take your money, what makes you think she'll take my collateral?"
"She won't, but you're gonna convince her to." He looked long and hard at his brother now. Then shot a glance at his dad who hung his head. For a moment Deke looked unsure of what he was about to say, then he plunged onward. "The way I see it, there's only one way to make this whole thing work."
Rusty saw his father look upward and knew this was what he had been waiting to hear from the moment he walked in the door ... this was the real catch to it all.
"If you married her, you'd have an interest in the ranch yourself, it'd be half yours. You'd see that loan was paid one way or another. If I know you, and I do!"
"By God, you've gone nuts! Marry a complete stranger. That's just about the most crazy thing I've ever heard you say, Deke. And my breeding stock, too? Are you out of your mind?" Rusty took his hat off now and threw it on the couch. He ran a hand through his hair, rustling it. "You're talking about my life--my future! And not only that, you want me to throw it down the drain for a complete stranger."
"Oh for pete's sake, get a grip. You wouldn't have to make a big production out of the wedding. Just get it done legal. And you'd be helping her, and fulfilling a family obligation at the same time."
"My obligation you mean!"
"Well, what's so damned hard to understand, Rusty? We've lived all our lives by our family code. The code of a true cowboy."
"Oh no, you aren't really going to throw that at me, are you?" Rusty blustered. "The code of the West and all that malarky."
"We help our neighbors. Dad taught us that and Dad was obligated to this man, even though it seems you don't feel any at the moment. And this is one you are going to take care of personally. You've been mooning over Jennifer long enough. It's time you woke up, grew up."
"You've asked a lot of things, but this takes the cake, Deke. It's my stock you are talking about, not to mention my name she'll be using. What if she screws up?"
"Then you'll have to stick around long enough to make sure she doesn't."
"I can't believe you'd ask it of me. I don't owe her anything. This is crazy. Get somebody else." He started toward the door again, but his dad's tempered voice stopped him. It was tte kind of calm that blows in just before a tornado hits. Rusty recognized the signs.
"I depended on my men to help me in a crisis. George was there, every time. When Martha's time came and I was away on business, George dropped his own problems and was there. He stayed with her till I could get there. He drove what must have been a 100 miles an hour to get her to the hospital, in knee deep snow. And the man barely knew how to drive much less in snow. He carried her in himself. He stayed with her as long as they'd let him. And he was the first to see your ugly mug make it into this world. Not only that. He was the one that helped me let go of the memories later ... and get on with my life afterwards." Cal's voice almost broke, but he turned away for a second, then back to Rusty. "He'd been through it himself and knew what it took. He told me I had four good reasons to go on with life, don't mess it up, he said. He was a real friend Rusty, in every sense of the word. People like that don't grow on trees. I never had a better friend than that..."
"I've heard the story, dad." Rusty's voice lowered a little, with respect. "And I can appreciate the fact that you feel obligated, but this crosses the line of what you ask of a man, dad. This is going too far!"
"I know it's a lot to ask, son." Cal's voice broke again, and he almost turned away, but not before Rusty spotted the unshed tear in his father's eyes.
Dammit! Rusty wanted to run, because when his father got emotional, he knew he'd do almost anything for the man. He loved him so.
Then glancing at his youngest son Cal smiled sadly. "But she would have asked..."
Rusty hung his head. They were using the most bothersome trick of all ... emotions. Rusty couldn't fight emotions. Not with his family, he cared too much!
"Besides, you can get this annulled in six months to a year and no one will be the wiser. Once the loan is secured, and she's making regular payments, you can walk away from it. If you want to..."
"If I'd want to?" Rusty frowned again. "Why should I marry her? Give me one good reason?"
Deke nodded. "Because marrying her will make you part owner of that land. And I know you. You fight for what's yours. You always have. You'll make a go of it. And you'll be getting something out of the bargain too. Look, I wouldn't ask you to do this without you getting something from the bargain. This way, you both win."
After a moment Rusty looked at them both. "Does she know about this grand plan?"
"Yes, she's as reluctant as you, but it seems her brother has made her see the wisdom of it."
"So why me? Why not Jake?"
"Jake's got a full time job in Peaceful now, he can't uproot and go. I owe him that much, we all do. You know as well as I he's already sacrificed more than his fair share. I can't ask it of him. Clint's on vacation with Abby as you well know, and very much married now. So I certainly can't ask it of him. I've got all I can handle right here with my own brood. And Dad's sure in no shape to handle it. He's pretty upset about the whole thing. He feels he should do something. But you are the only one that can help. So you're elected." Deke declared as though the matter were settled.
"Aw, for crying out loud Deke. This isn't our business. This isn't the dark ages anymore either. Marrying a complete stranger, that's crazy. Why do we have to get involved with everyone's problems." He knew even before he argued the point that he would do it, but everything within him propelled him to defend his prize breeding stock to the end, not to mention his own freedom.
"Because that's how we are, Rusty. We're Travers. We stand up for what we believe, take care of our own. Look, we're obligated to the man. And that includes you. It's more your place than any to take care of it. Now I don't want to argue the point with you Rusty. It's a family obligation. Understood?"
"No, it's not understood."
Then seeing his father's frown, he backed off a little.
"I don't even know the man, or his daughter. I didn't know him. I don't owe him anything. Mama died that night. Despite what he might have done for her, she died." Rusty's voice took on an unwelcome emotion.
Cal nodded sadly. "No one's aware of that more than me."
Rusty glanced at his dad and saw the sadness, it matched the hole in his own heart.
Deke turned cold blue eyes on his brother that made Rusty feel guilty and ashamed he had reproached him. "You don't owe him? Just your life..."
Deke let that statement hang in mid air for a second, then continued to explain.
"Face it Rusty, you are a Travers, and Travers live up to their obligations, like it or not. Maybe it is a little old fashioned. Maybe it's stupid. But we do what has to be done. It's one tradition that we will honor, if I have anything to do with it. Dad told him if he ever needed anything to call on him. The man never asked for anything. Not when his boy took off for college leaving him shorthanded or when his debts nearly took him under. He managed, alone, without help. Look boy, quit nursing this hurt for Jennifer. Get your nose out of the ground, pick yourself up and take care of what needs taking care of."
"Is this another 'get over Jennifer' routine'?" Rusty scoffed.
"Everything doesn't center around you and your ex-girlfriend Rusty."
Rusty hung his head. He'd over nursed his feelings for Jennifer. It was over a long time ago, he just hadn't faced it. But he certainly didn't want another female clouding his life. In fact, the less he had to do with females the better.
Married! Even if it was just on paper, married was married and he didn't want any part of it! He glanced at them both, frowned and said very slowly ... "Mom's death has been my cross to bear..."
"It wasn't your fault son," Cal jumped to console him.
Rusty stared into his father's weathered face and suddenly smiled. "Maybe, but maybe this will help ease that strange pain a man lives with when his mother dies giving birth. Okay ... dad, I'll do it for her ... and me ... and you!"
Married! Was that the best Jimmy could come up with? The one time she depended on him to make a decision and look where it got her--married! And to some red-necked cowboy she'd never even met.
Who in his right mind would ask such a thing of his sister, after she'd supported him through dental college? After all she'd been through, she didn't deserve being auctioned off to the first available cowboy in the state of Texas.
All she needed to save this place she loved so dearly was money. She'd always made it before. But the thought of going back to Vegas was no longer an option. Her days as a showgirl were over, she refused to wear the outlandish outfits they insisted on, and she'd quit her job without notice. She'd never work in Vegas again, Vic had told her...
She looked down at herself and giggled. No one would suspect under all her ugly barren clothing that she had ever been a showgirl. She deliberately dressed in baggy overalls and flannel shirts to disguise what lay beneath. She didn't want the hands getting the wrong idea. She didn't want any man getting the wrong idea. She had enough wrong ideas to last a lifetime. No man would capture her heart again so easily. No man would drool over her sparsely clad body again, if she could help it. She didn't need that. All she needed was this land!
She glanced about the cattle dotted pasture and smiled, if she could only keep it, her dreams would be complete.
A shiver ran through her as the north wind whispered a lonely song in her ear.
If her father had only put the money away that she'd sent home for the past five years, she wouldn't be needing it now. But he hadn't. He squandered it away in gambling debts. At least Jimmy had made it through dental college and was happily married in Phoenix now. She didn't have to worry about anyone but herself--and keeping this ranch. Her mother was buried on this land, and she'd be damned if anyone would take it from her. It was all she had left of the memory and no one was taking it, no one.
Wild remnants of chestnut hair threatened to fall across her face, and she shoved it back under the floppy hat she'd found in the barn. It probably belonged to her father. Wearing it made her feel just a little closer to the man that she had loved so fiercely. She'd known he liked to have a drink after a long day, and poker was his passion. She simply hadn't known how much he liked it.
Her mind wandered to the Travers family. She couldn't place all of them, had only met a few of them once a long time ago. Why Jimmy insisted that this Rusty Travers was the answer to all her problems, she didn't know. Jimmy didn't know them anymore than she did.
She sighed, edging her horse away from a prairie dog hole, she smiled. "Dagger you must be getting old, you didn't even see that hole, did you boy? Looks like your roaming days are about over."
She petted the sleek coat of her favorite horse and smiled a contented smile. "If Rusty Travers can get me a loan, then I can stay here. And I guess even marriage isn't too high a price to pay. As long as it's in name only."
The horse neighed at her words.
"The cowboy doesn't know what he's in for. I'll make him think--married!"
She giggled and galloped home.