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       Ryan's Hand, p.12

           Leila Meacham
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  Now it was obvious they were discussing the calves in the pen, and Cara began to get uneasy. What could be of such interest about them? She watched one of the vaqueros walk cautiously toward the pen, twirling his rope. He threw the noose over the head of one of the calves—her calf—which immediately set up a bawling protest and tugged at the rope.

  “What’s he doing?” Cara demanded of Leon, but he didn’t answer her. Intent on the calf, Leon pursed his lips to whistle. Cara saw the other vaquero raise a rifle to his shoulder. “No!” she screamed, just as Leon’s whistle split the air. The calf turned its head inquiringly in their direction, and in that second a bullet slammed into its white forehead between the dark brown eyes.

  In shock Cara whirled to avoid seeing what happened next and staggered into a pair of arms that held her comfortingly against a rough-vested chest. Jeth, she thought, but the voice she heard bent low to her was that of Jim Foster.

  “Easy now, Miss Martin, no need to carry on so over a little old dogie like that. He’s only good for eating. Come on, now. Let’s walk a bit. Leon can do without you for a few minutes.”

  Trying to shut out of her mind the picture of the young calf crumpling into the dust, surprise still in its eyes as blood spread over its white face, Cara let herself be led away from the campsite. “This is no place for you,” Jim said as they paused behind a small bluff that shielded them from the camp. “Jeth ought to have his head examined for making you come out here.”

  “I should have known why those calves were penned,” Cara said numbly. “It was stupid of me not to realize—”

  “You couldn’t be expected to know they were for butchering,” Jim cut her off. “You just content yourself here for a little while ’cause they’re quartering that little fella right now. No use going back to camp until it’s all over and done with.” He took a package of cigarettes from a shirt pocket. “Want one?”

  Cara shook her head. “No, thank you. I don’t smoke.” She was composed now and was worried about leaving Leon alone with the meal preparations. Besides, Jeth Langston might be wondering where she was. “I really must be getting back,” she said.

  “What you’ll see won’t be pretty, Miss Martin. Give it a few more minutes.”

  Cara shuddered, thinking of the merry-faced man in the white van. Now she understood his purpose in the camp.

  “Here now, you’re cold,” Jim said, coming closer to her to put an arm about her shoulders before she could move away.

  “Jim! Miss Martin!”

  They both whirled guiltily at the sound of Jeth Langston’s voice. Jim’s arm dropped immediately and Cara felt the blood drain from her face. In the growing twilight, Jeth loomed down at them from the rise of land overlooking the ravine where they stood. His eyes, glinting like rapier points, impaled her as he addressed his words to the foreman.

  “Jim, go down to the truck and phone in your cattle count to headquarters. I’d like a word in private with Miss Martin.”

  “Right, boss!” Jim said with alacrity and hurried past Cara without another word, not even to offer an explanation on her behalf to the rancher.

  Chapter Eight

  Cara tried to fight down the immobilizing terror that rooted her to the spot. Jeth was down the incline before she could move, his chaps making harsh leathery sounds as he spanned the distance between them. “Miss Martin, I warned you! I told you that you were to leave my men alone, that if you didn’t—”

  The rest of his reproof never had a chance for delivery. In fear of the fury that deepened the tan of his handsome face, Cara spun away from him, managing only a few steps before an ankle twisted. She heard the startled cry of her name before she went splaying, stomach side down, on the hard, stony ground. A sharp stone cut into the underside of her chin, but she lay oblivious to everything except the spinning carpet that offered to take her away from the demon towering above her. As he lifted her to her feet, she had a blurred glimpse of her blue hair ribbon lying on the ground.

  Weakly, she flailed at him. “Leave me alone!” she sobbed. “Take your hands off me!”

  “I will when you’re calm,” he said, pulling her into his arms and holding her steady against his chest. Spent and dizzy, Cara clung to him, wrapping her arms around his waist.

  “What have you done to yourself?” Jeth asked sorrowfully above her head.

  “No more than you would have done to me,” she said into his chest.

  “Oh, lady—” He sighed. “I was mad as hell, yes, but I wouldn’t have hit you. A good shake was what I had in mind—to make you understand that while you’re on La Tierra soil, you’ll remain faithful to Ryan’s memory. I will not tolerate your making a fool of him—”

  She raised her head to look at him. “I wasn’t making a play for Jim!”

  His mouth hardened. “So you say.”

  “It’s the truth!”

  Suddenly the emotional and physical events of the past half hour overwhelmed her. Her chin and palms throbbed. She wanted desperately to sag against Jeth’s chest again and rest there, but she could not afford such a balm. Her arms dropped from around him. “You are wrong about what you saw, Mr. Langston. I don’t expect you to believe me. But surely you can believe that I would never do anything to hurt Ryan’s memory.”

  Jeth’s embrace loosened. Her small face was very pale, the smooth cheeks smudged with dust and the streak of tears. A thin line of blood had appeared beneath her chin. “Just your being here does that. Now go down and ask Leon to take a look at that chin.”

  Leon had already begun serving the evening meal. “Sorry,” she muttered at his elbow. The cook turned around to find her gazing helplessly at her grazed palms. “I had an accident.”

  Leon took in the abrasions and the dusty apron, the disheveled hair that had been as smooth as polished gold a short while ago. “So I see,” he commented without inflection. “Here’s some clean water.”

  “I’ve not been much help, I’m afraid, Leon. I’m sorry.”

  “No need to be. You’ve been the best help I’ve ever had on a roundup, and tomorrow is another day. Here’s some salve for your hands. Now let me dab a little of this on that cut.”

  Leon was dabbing when Jeth came up under the canopy behind Cara. She felt the rancher’s presence without turning around, and Leon looked from one to the other with a speculative tightening of his eyes. “How about some food, Jeth?” he asked, capping the medicine bottle.

  “Pour me a glass of bourbon first, Leon. And open a bottle of Miss Martin’s wine for her. I’m sure she can use it.”

  “Sure thing,” Leon agreed, going to the van where his employer’s private stock of bourbon was kept. Embarrassed, Cara kept her back to him. It was considerate of him to include her wine. What a fool she had been, running from him like that!

  She finished washing her hands, discovering that the stinging cuts were only surface deep, and dried them on the clean towel that Leon had left her. She would wait until Jeth left before applying the ointment. She did not want him to know about her hands. Tomorrow she would wear makeup to hide the graze under her chin.

  Cara felt Jeth’s eyes follow her as she moved out from under the tarpaulin to clean up a spill on a portion of the long folding table where food was served. She took her time at it and presently Leon returned with the bourbon. With relief she saw Jeth stroll to the campfire around which the men were seated.

  When she returned to her station, she found a cold glass of wine poured and beside it the blue ribbon that had fallen from her hair.

  Cara ate her supper standing up and did not know what to do with herself when all the chores were completed. The men were sitting around the campfire exchanging jokes and yarns, and their rough, raucous laughter drifted to her in the night air. The stars had come out. Behind them were lingering traces of the sunset, which filled her heart with a strange melancholia that made her want to cry. She strolled a little way from the camp, afraid to go too much farther because she had overheard the men talking about ra
ttlesnakes coming out of hibernation now. She remembered the pocket light in her gear, and thought that in the coming nights she would find a place to read to fill the time between the end of her chores and bedtime.

  When Cara returned to the chuckwagon, Leon was waiting for her. “The men are beginnin’ to bed down, Miss Martin,” he said. “The boss give you any idea about where yore to sleep?”

  “Why, no, he hasn’t,” Cara replied. With the busy activities of the day, that question had not occurred to her. “I don’t seem to have a bedroll. Do you have any suggestions about what I should do?”

  The cook studied the young woman’s drawn face in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp. He had insisted she wear, at least for the night, ointment-soaked gauze pads taped to her palms. Now his jaw tightened. “Nobody said anythin’ to you about a bedroll, Miss Martin? That don’t seem quite right to me.”

  “Here’s her sleeping bag, Leon,” said Jeth Langston behind them. He had come up in the darkness, and now stepped into the glow of the light. “Don’t worry so about Miss Martin. Believe me, she is very capable of looking after herself. Follow me, Miss Martin.”

  “Good night, Leon,” Cara said gently to ease his worried frown, and followed Jeth’s tall, striding form to a spot of ground just beyond where several men were already stretched out in their blankets. “You’ll sleep here,” he told her brusquely. “You should be warm enough this close to the fire.”

  “Thank you,” she said stiffly, watching him unroll the long length of gray quilted wool trimmed in yellow. Jeth unzipped the bag and extracted a small pillow in a crisp white case. She had never been so tired in her life; everything inside and out of her ached.

  Without another word to her, Jeth strode away to the truck that served as his office. He never seemed to rest from the duties of his ranch. Cara wondered where he was to sleep.

  The sleeping bag was as warm as an embrace and imbued her with a sense of peace. Just before drifting off to sleep, she discovered a name sewn in yellow just inside the neck opening: Ryan Langston.

  Sometime in the night she was dimly disturbed by something brushing her hands. Immediately afterward a welcome warmth spread through the chilled regions of her upper body, and she sighed gratefully in her sleep, the sound mingling with the cacophony of men’s snores and the nocturnal noises of horses and prairie creatures.

  The next morning before daybreak Cara was awakened by the aroma of coffee trailing beneath her nose. “Wake up, child; coffee’s on,” said Leon, setting a mug beside her head. “Mind you, don’t knock that over.” He was already dressed and in the long white apron he had worn yesterday, only this morning it was reversed. “There’s time to wash ’fore you have to help me with breakfast.”

  Cara struggled out of her sleeping bag. She did not remember having zipped it all the way up under her chin the night before. Her chin! Gingerly she touched it, and winced. Something that sore had to show a bruise, and now all the men would think that their boss had worked her over. Despairing at the thought, she carefully picked up the hot mug in her padded hands and hurried away to her own nature-created dressing area. Bless Leon! He had left her a pan of hot water on one of the flat boulders. Better hope that Jeth Langston did not find out about this preferential treatment. She could not bear for Leon to get in trouble because of her.

  Surreptitiously, Cara searched the campsite for Jeth as she ladled batter out on the hot grill for the pancakes the men would have for breakfast. The aroma was mouth-watering in the cold, bracing air, and she felt hungry for the first time in days. Jeth was nowhere to be seen, and she thought he had already left camp when suddenly the familiar voice ordered behind her, “Turn around, Miss Martin.”

  The tone was low, controlled. She picked up a drying towel to cover her hands before turning to find him very near her, conscious that Leon was deliberately leaving her alone with him on the pretense of going for more water at the windmill.

  The rancher’s gaze probed her chin, but when he made to touch it, Cara drew a sharp breath and stepped back from him. Jeth dropped his hand and eyed her grimly. “You must think the very worst of me.”

  It had been too dark to use a mirror for dressing. In the black hour before dawn, Cara had combed her hair and washed as well as she could, deciding not to worry about the scrape. Now she felt a flush of embarrassment. “Is it very noticeable?” she asked in a whisper.

  “I’m afraid so. Not that it impairs your looks any, if that’s what’s bothering you.”

  “How like you to assume that’s why I’m concerned,” Cara spoke coldly. “Please excuse me. I’m busy.” She turned her back on him, and after an interval of feeling his penetrating stare, she heard him leave.

  In midmorning Jim Foster appeared unexpectedly at her side as she was returning from the windmill carrying a pail of water. No one but she and Leon were in camp, and she greeted the foreman in surprise.

  “That cut under your chin—that come from Jeth?” he asked, taking the pail of water from her.

  “Of course not!” Cara sounded horrified. “I turned my ankle yesterday after you left me and fell right on a sharp rock. Whatever gave you the idea that Mr. Langston hit me?”

  “Because he was so hot at you yesterday when he found us together. I got the impression he suspected us of some hanky-panky and didn’t like it. If I’ve ever seen a man in a jealous rage, he was one—although why, I wouldn’t know. He makes no secret of the way he feels about you.”

  “Well, yes, that’s true,” Cara agreed, as a quick little pain darted between her ribs. “But Mr. Langston would never strike a woman, for whatever reason. Did you explain to him why you were with me?”

  Jim averted his eyes. “It wouldn’t have done any good, Miss Martin—believe me. Jeth believes what he wants to believe, and anything I said would have fallen on deaf ears.”

  You could have tried anyway, thought Cara, glancing at the foreman in a new, critical light. They had reached the long table, where Jim set the pail. “Thank you, Mr. Foster,” she said, her tone cool. She faced him directly. “I believe, however, that we should avoid any kind of contact while we’re out here. I wouldn’t want to jeopardize your job, and I feel certain you wouldn’t want Mr. Langston to suspect me of something that wasn’t true.”

  The tanned, regular-cut features of the foreman slackened in disappointment. “But, Miss Martin—”

  “What are you doin’ back at camp?” Leon demanded, suddenly appearing from behind one of the vans parked close by. The wiry cook regarded the foreman with undisguised dislike. “I’ll bet the boss don’t know yore back here.”

  “So what?” Jim challenged. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I brought a lame horse back to the corral.” He touched his hat brim to Cara. “I’ll say so long for now, Miss Martin. We’ll talk again soon.” He gave Leon a stony glance before stalking away to his horse tied to a corral post.

  As they watched the lanky figure mount, Cara could feel the older man bristling at her side like a porcupine. “You don’t like him, do you?” she stated quietly.

  The cook’s eyes narrowed on the diminishing horseman cantering across the plains. “Don’t trust him,” came the clipped reply. “That lame horse was an excuse to come back here and see you.”

  The cook and she were close in height, and, moved by affection for her bewhiskered new friend, Cara impulsively put an arm around his shoulders. “Leon, you mustn’t get yourself involved in my battles. Like Mr. Langston says, I can take care of myself.”

  Leon spit a short burst of tobacco juice into the dust away from her, a gesture that Cara had come to recognize as a preamble to one of his terse to-the-point statements. “Yore about as capable of takin’ care of yoreself as a lamb in a den of wolves, young lady. Not that you don’t have plenty of grit, mind you. But you ain’t got a smidgin of hardness in you, nothin’ to protect you against either the likes of Jeth or Jim. Somethin’ else I’m thinkin’, too, child—” Another burst of tobacco juice and then Leon’s words
were tumbling over each other in embarrassment. “You ain’t no tramp, neither, and yore not here to harm La Tierra. I ain’t got it all figured out yet, but somehow I see young Ryan’s hand in all of this. If that’s so, knowin’ him like I did, and knowin’ Jeth like I do—and Miss Martin, there ain’t no finer man in the whole world, even though he can be more ornery than a cooped-up bull in a barbed-wire pen—why, I intend to trust the hand that dealt this confusin’ hand of cards.”

  He peered at Cara over his glasses, his eyes on the bluish tinge, which had begun to spread along her jawline. “ ’Course it would rile me if I knew he’d mistreated you, child. Not to excuse him, but he’d be actin’ out of ignorance, you understand, and ’cause he’s hurtin’ so inside.”

  “I know.” Cara smiled in quiet appreciation of his loyalty to Jeth. “But Mr. Langston never laid a hand on me, Leon. It was my own doing.” Cara related her shock about the calf and Jim’s attempt to console her. “I confess I thought he was going to hit me. Mr. Langston was very angry, but he was concerned about Ryan’s memory and how it would look for—for—”

  “For you and Jim Foster to be seen keepin’ company together,” the cook said, concluding the narrative. “I can understand Jeth’s thinkin’.”

  “Me, too,” Cara said. Gently, Cara put a hand to the cook’s whiskery cheek. “Thanks for your vote of confidence, Leon, and you are right about my not hurting La Tierra—or Mr. Langston. That I can promise you.”

  After that conversation with Leon, Cara saw the owner of La Tierra Conquistada only at meals, and often not then. At the end of the day when he rode into camp with the rest of the men, Jeth would frequently make for the truck that kept him in communication with the rest of his empire. On such evenings Leon would take a glass and a bottle of his employer’s bourbon to the truck, then, after an interval, a plate of hot food.

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