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Her heart pounded. Her palms grew moist. She put both hands around the hoe
handle--just in case--and then she stared him in the eye. "And why this
He smiled as if he knew every little thought that was going through her
mind. "I noticed your fences could use some work, your pastures, too.
Seems as though you could use an extra hand. I'm sure a woman living alone
might find it helpful to have a man around."
Her heartbeat escalated. She tightened her hands around the hoe. A woman
could not be too careful. "What makes you think I live alone?"
"You don't wear a wedding ring."
"Lots of people can't afford a ring."
"A man who married a woman who looks like you do would manage to come up
with a ring."
She chose to ignore that, but she did loosen her grip on the hoe handle.
"We don't need any help, and if we did, it wouldn't be you. We don't hire
drifters," she said. For pure spite she added, "And we don't hire
troubadours, actors, or poets."
He smiled in a slow, relaxed way and said, "Well now, if you gave me a
job, I wouldn't be a drifter, would I?"
"No, maybe not, but you'd still be a troubadour, and I've developed a
sudden aversion to those. Now, why don't you go try your charm on someone
else, someone who might be interested or flattered?"
He tilted his head to one side and looked at her oddly. "I wonder," he
drawled, "if it's poetry you hold in such contempt, or is it men?"
He got her with that one, but she wouldn't let him know it. Without a
word, she turned and walked off. Let him come after her. She didn't care
if he ran her down this time.
She did not hear him coming behind her, so after a few minutes she slowed
her gait, but she did not stop. She would walk to the back of the
cornfield. By the time she reached it, he would be gone.
Reed Garrett watched her stomp off, unable to understand her hostility,
yet in spite of it, there was something about her that he admired. Perhaps
it was her open honesty. She did not care for him and she didn't mind
He gathered the reins in his hand. Well, there was always next time.
He guided his horse into a turn, then suddenly glanced back at the woman
and shrugged. Why not? he asked himself, and without understanding what
prompted him to do so, he rode across the field to where she had begun
again to chop weeds.
She looked up in surprise. She was a simple beauty blooming with rustic
health, Reed thought. With a change of clothes, she would be a daughter of
the gods, for she was divinely tall and fair.
"Why are you staring? Have you nothing better to do?"
Reed frowned. She was far too young and far too lovely to be so bitter.
Her behavior--everything about her, really--reached out to him by some
mysterious faculty of suggestion. How odd to have just come upon her and
yet to feel as if he could read her face--and if not that, then most
certainly her voice.
"I was thinking--"
She cut him off. "Go do your thinking someplace else, troubadour."
Reed wondered how such loveliness could be so cold and dour. Well, he
wasn't so hard up for a pretty face or a job that he had to beg for work.
He would, as she suggested, ride on and try someplace else. Any woman who
went to that much trouble to be inhospitable ought to be left alone.
He gave her a brief nod, bringing his fingers up to the brim of his hat.
"Good day to you, then."
He turned and rode back the way he had come, then kicked his horse into a
gallop, leaving the farm and the caustic woman behind. The sun to his
back, he rode westward, heading toward the town of Bluebonnet. The smell
of life was all about him, for the fields and roadside were bursting with
bloom. Little did it matter that it was mostly prickly pear, fire-wheel,
and evening primrose, not to mention the dazzling color of bluebonnets
that stretched as far as the eye could see. This was a flat, dry part of
the world, and he had thought it rather bleak when he'd first encountered
it, but one had only to scratch the surface a bit to see its real beauty.
He thought again of the woman. He didn't even know her name.
Reed passed a few cowhands working cattle. He nodded in their direction.
None of them said anything; they merely watched him.
After riding about a mile or so, Reed crossed a narrow creek. Just as he
reached the other side, he was set upon by four or five wild and rowdy
cowboys looking for a diversion--which, apparently, he was. He recognized
them as the men he'd passed a ways back.
Before he had time to react, one of them roped him and pulled him from his
horse. They dragged him through the water for some distance before turning
toward land. Reed wasn't certain if they intended to drown him or hang him.
Once he felt the earth beneath him again, Reed struggled to his feet. He
saw there were five riders in all. It was obvious which one was the
leader. The sorrel the cowboy rode was tall and a bit thin legged, but
Reed figured it was a good and solid mount with a saddle not quite as fine
as Reed's McLellan, but one any man would be happy to own.
The other three riders lined up abreast of the leader like aides-de-camp.
They didn't concern Reed too much, but the leader certainly was worthy of
concern, with his dark, maliciously ardent eyes. The fifth man held the
rope. He kept the tension tight as he rode up to the water's edge.
"Get his horses," the leader said, and one of the three men rode after
Reed's mount and packhorse. When he caught them, he led them back to where
the others waited.
The leader looked over the roan and the gray. "You steal these horses?"
"I bought them."
"Don't see such fine horseflesh around here too often."
"I didn't buy them here."
"Where'd you get them?"
"You a Yankee?"
"I was too young to fight in that war."
"You from up North?"
The leader glanced at the man holding the rope. "He's a Yankee and these
horses are stolen. Tie him up." He turned his horse and rode off, calling
back to the others to bring along Reed's horses.
Reed fought against the ropes as he watched the cowhands take possession
of everything he owned: his horses, his McLellan saddle, his Colt
revolver, his hunting rifle, a fine Sharps Creedmore that was worth a
When the one holding the rope reached for Reed's hat, it was too much, and
Reed took a swing at him.
That was when the rope tightened about his chest and he was jerked from
his feet. He could feel his body flying across the ground. He clenched his
jaw and tried to shut out the pain as he wondered if they would drag him
behind that horse until he was dead.
A moment later, his head smashed against something hard, and everything in
his world went cold and black.