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Benning, Texas, Spring 1903
"I've been your deputy, working in this office with you for eight years, Sheriff." Jamie leaned against the door frame and managed to roll up his life over the past eight years into a neat bundle. A bundle he no longer wanted to live with.
"I assume you're about to quit," Brace said. "And I don't like it, not one little bit. Unhappy with me? Or the wages? Or just the life of a deputy, in general?"
"None of the choices you've just pulled out of the hat," Jamie returned quickly. "I just don't feel that I'm getting anywhere. I'm a whiz at breaking up fights in the saloons, I'm up to date on all the wanted posters and to tell the truth, I'm sick and tired of standing on the sidelines while you've managed in the past four years to put together a life with the prettiest girl in town, along with you and Sarah adopting her nephew.
"But I'll have to admit, it's been a real education watching you with Sarah and Stephen. Hope I can do as well as you when I get a family of my own."
"I'll have to admit that marriage agrees with me."
"Hope I can say that someday. But for now I've about decided I need to be doing something different with myself."
Brace leaned back in his chair and surveyed his deputy. "To tell the truth, I've been thinking about a proposition I'd like to toss in your direction. See what you think of it."
"Does it include my moving on? Leaving Benning?"
"You don't sound happy about that idea," Brace said. "You haven't put down any roots here, Jamie. You got a problem with living somewhere else?"
"No. But I tend to be a creature of habit." He paused and stood erect, facing the man who had been his mentor and friend. "If you've got something to offer me, let's hear it. I suspect you wouldn't put me on the wrong track, Sheriff."
"Well, to tell the truth, I don't know much myself about the place I'd like to send you. But clear across the state is a piece of property that belongs to my son, Stephen."
"The ranch he inherited from his birth father's family?"
"The very one," Brace said. "There's a man running things on the ranch on a temporary basis, but I'd feel better about the whole thing if I knew more about what was going on behind the letters I get from him. He was the ranch foreman before Stephen's grandfather died three years ago and I've let it go long enough the way it is. The judge ordered us to put a man of my own in place as manager when Sarah and I adopted Stephen legally. It'll give me more control over the ranch, and there'll be a better chance of Stephen taking over a thriving concern when he's old enough."
"Are we talking about me running the ranch?"
"Well, I always did say you catch on quick," Brace said with a chuckle. "Didn't take you long to figure that one out, did it?"
"Let me think about it, Brace. I'll need to know what's expected of me to begin with."
"Just be yourself, get to know the men and make the ranch successful. I'm laying odds you can do that."
"Anything else I should know if I decide to do this?" Jamie felt there was a gap in the information. Something he couldn't put his finger on.
"I've heard that there's a fly in the ointment," Brace admitted. "The daughter of the foreman has been causing some problems among the men. Her daddy is right fond of her, but in one case a couple of the men have come to blows over her, and things are unsettled right now. Sort of a state of armed warfare."
Jamie shook his head. "You're talking about sending me into a full-fledged battle, aren't you?"
"If I didn't think you could handle things, I wouldn't have brought it up or made you an offer. There's a nice, big raise in pay attached, son. Enough to make it worth your while."
"I've kept my nose clean here in Benning, Brace. Learned that dealing with a female is mighty wearing on a man. Especially if it's a woman who already has a string of admirers a mile long and would no doubt like to add another one to her list."
"You can handle it. You've managed to handle yourself pretty well here. Not a woman in sight has complained about you."
"I'm pretty boring these days. Kind of a reformed scamp, Sheriff. I learned a long time ago to behave myself with the ladies."
Brace leaned back in his chair and shot Jamie an inquiring look. "Maybe you really did learn your lesson, son. I haven't pried too much into your past, but I'm sure you've got one worth talking about."
"I'm not much for making a fuss over something I can't erase from my record. I've told you before about my brother and his wife and their two children. They're still in Oklahoma, and we're on good terms," Jamie said. "That's the extent of my family, except for my mother, who lives near Dallas with her sister."
"Well, I've found you to be honest and capable. If you want the job, it's yours."
Three weeks later Jamie arrived at his destination. The ranch looked to be a prosperous one, he decided. He rode up to the sign, hanging over a long lane that obviously led to the house and a series of outbuildings beyond it. The name on the sign was simple: Clark & Sons. It would have to be changed, Jamie thought. The present owner was still related to the Clark family, but Stephen was officially named Caulfield, and as the legal deed holder to the land and buildings on it, even though he was underage — just twelve years old — he deserved to have a say in the name of his property.
Maybe he'd write to Stephen and let him figure out a name; perhaps the boy would want to consult with Brace and Sarah before he made up his mind. On the other hand, it wouldn't hurt to come up with a new sign for the place, something that would reflect a new owner. In the meantime, there were folks to meet and a job to do right here. His horse turned eagerly up the lane and Jamie took note of a smoke house, chicken coop and a large barn. As if the gelding scented hay and oats in his future, he broke into a quick trot.
It had been a long ride from Benning, north of Dallas, but finding the ranch in good condition and catching sight of a herd of healthy-appearing cattle in the verdant pasture beside the lane made Jamie feel he'd come home here near the border between Texas and New Mexico. And with that in mind, he rode up to the house and around it to the back door. A watering trough with a pitcher pump next to it, which would provide fresh water for his horse, drew his attention, and he rode in that direction, past a woodshed whose open door revealed a good supply within.
Removing the bit from his gelding's mouth, he watched as the horse drank deeply, then led him to a nearby hitching rail to tie him firmly in place. A ranch hand came from the barn as Jamie lifted his saddlebags from the animal's back.
"Hi there, mister," the tall, lanky cowhand called out.
"Who you lookin' for?"
"Whoever's in charge," Jamie answered, knowing well that the foreman's name was Hank Powers.
"That would be Hank," the cowhand said. "He's in the house. Can I walk your horse for you?"
"Sure thing. He's had a long morning, and he needs to be cooled before I feed him."
"Yes sir, I can do that. My name's Chet Dawson by the way." He looked Jamie over with apparent interest. "You wouldn't be the new man from Benning, would you?"
"The very one," Jamie said. "Were you expecting me?"
"Yeah, Hank told us you were on your way. Welcome to the ranch."
"Thanks," Jamie answered agreeably, and turned to the house.
The back door opened and a young woman stood on the threshold, looking at him with interest. She stepped back as he approached and he followed her into the kitchen.A man sat at the table, a full plate of food before him, a fork in his hand.
"Mr. Powers?" Jamie asked, removing his hat and standing just inside the doorway.
"That's me, son," the man answered. "But the name is Hank. And you're Jamie, unless I miss my guess." After a moment's pause, he looked up at the young woman beside him.
"This is my daughter, Alexis."
The woman had eyes like none he'd ever seen before, green as grass, with a sparkle built in, Jamie decided. They glittered in the light from the open door as she allowed her gaze to sweep over him. "I understand you've been sheriff for some time, east of here," she said, her voice low, with a tinge of humor touching her words.
"No," Jamie replied honestly. "I've been a deputy, and that's a long way from being a sheriff, ma'am. But I've done the job for eight years."
"Your boss seems to think you qualify for a chance at running this ranch," Hank said, his cool eyes doing a once-over on Jamie, making him feel like a prize pig at the county fair.
"That's what he told me. It was a mighty appealing offer or I wouldn't have left a sure thing in Benning to ride clear across the state to come here."
"Well, welcome," Hank said expansively. "You've just freed me up to handle my own concerns, instead of minding the store here."
"Where do I put my gear?" Jamie asked, feeling a need for coffee and a chair that would receive his tired body. Riding as he had, he'd come to appreciate the comfort of a soft bed and cup of fresh-brewed coffee, neither of which he'd been offered for several days. Sleeping under a tree and drinking the dregs of last night's coffee for his breakfast was a vivid memory as he scented the freshness of the cup delivered to the table before him.
"Just drop your saddlebag on the floor and we'll fix you up with a place to put it once you've had some food," Alexis told him, watching as he pulled the sugar bowl toward him and spooned a heaping teaspoon of sugar into his black coffee.
"No cream?" she asked.
He shook his head as he picked up his cup. "No, this is fine." And fine it was, dark, thick and sweet, tasting of fragrant coffee beans, freshly ground.
Alexis filled a plate from the skillets on the stove, lifting pancakes from one, sausage from another, then positioned it squarely before Jamie. "I hope you're hungry," she said, placing a fork beside his plate.
He looked up at her, noting the cool flash of silver in her green eyes, contrasting with the warmth of full lips that revealed even white teeth as she spoke. Her hair was golden, drawn up at the back of her head, small wispy curls escaping to frame her face. It was no wonder the men were ga-ga over her, he decided. Pretty as a picture, and no doubt more than aware of it. Her features were just short of being considered beautiful, with a small cleft in her chin and a birthmark on her right cheek, just beneath her temple.
Not that either of those defects would put off a determined man, set on seduction. He was no exception to the rule, given his lack of female companionship over the past little while. Longer than that. He'd not been out courting or even walking a young lady home from church or one of the dances held in Benning in months. As he'd promised the sheriff there, he'd kept his hands to himself and not been a hand with the ladies even when the opportunity arose.
For some reason, his energy had gone into his work, women taking a backseat to his job in the sheriff's office. Now he had a whole new set of circumstances staring him in the face, number one being his new job. There wasn't time to be looking at a woman, even one as pretty and appealing as Alexis Powers. But he might just consider the matter. Sometimes a man needed the warmth of a woman and unless he missed his guess, this one was a prime specimen.
He tucked into his plate of food, relishing the light pancakes especially. "Tastes like the pancakes my mama used to make me for breakfast." His approval was apparent, and Alexis offered him two more, balanced on her pancake turner. Jamie nodded his thanks at the offer, and buttered them lavishly, then poured on a generous helping of syrup.
Across the table from him, Hank finished up his own share of the food and leaned back in his chair, as if assessing the young man who'd come to take over the running of the ranch. "What are your plans, Webster?" His query was nicely worded, but his eyes told a different story, flashing fire in Jamie's direction.
"Haven't got any yet," James answered. "I just got here, Hank. Give me a week to settle in and I'll answer your questions."
"Is Brace Caulfield unhappy with my work here? He hasn't given me any grief up until now," Hank said. "I've kept him up to date on everything that goes on."
"He's pleased the ranch is thriving, but he seems to want someone in charge who'll have a vested interest in the ranch. And that's me. I answer directly to Brace, with an eye to presenting a first-class operation to the boy when the time comes for him to take over."
"He's a Clark," Hank said quietly, and yet Jamie caught a hint of bitterness in the words.
"Yeah, he is. And just what do you mean by that?" Jamie asked, on the alert for the man's negative attitude toward Stephen. The boy might have been born a Clark, but Brace and Sarah had given him more than just a new name.
Hank shrugged, a slow movement of his wide shoulders. "Just that old man Clark was pretty much a rascal, and so were the sons. I suspect blood runs true in the family, at least from what I've seen for myself, and I don't look for much in the boy."