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       Ryan's Hand, p.13

           Leila Meacham
 
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  The days began to grow longer and warmer and, for Cara, flowed into each other as tranquilly as sea swells bringing in the tide. She learned to ride again. True to either his promise or his threat, Jeth provided Cara with a gentle Appaloosa mare, which she liked immediately. “What’s her name?” she asked Bill, who had apparently been tapped to take her out on her first rides to reacclimate her to the saddle.

  “Lady,” Bill answered, giving her a leg up to the saddle. He had softened considerably toward her in the weeks since the roundup began and had even haltingly apologized for the jeep ride across the plains. “That was my idea, and not the boss’s,” he admitted sheepishly, and Cara’s heart had felt ridiculously lighter upon hearing the truth.

  They began to ride every night after supper when her chores were done and while the twilight provided light enough to see. “The boss doesn’t want us out after dark,” Bill admonished her, giving yet another indication to Cara that Bill would rather do just about anything than disobey his boss. Even though the rancher was away from camp during many of their twilight rides, she knew that he must have approved them, or the young cowboy would never have accompanied her.

  Twice the chuckwagon was moved higher into the mountains to be nearer the men who were driving a huge herd of cattle to its summer pastures. Now when Jeth left the camp, he did so by plane, a shining gray Beechcraft Bonanza with the brand of La Tierra painted in yellow on its fuselage.

  One morning when she was out riding alone, she came across Jim Foster searching the brush-choked draws for strays. Thinking he had not seen her, she reined Lady in the opposite direction. “Hello there, Miss Martin!” he called to her, and with a sigh of reluctance, Cara waited for him to ride to her.

  “Don’t rush off,” Jim said when he drew up beside her, his eyes roving in frank appreciation over the golden hair that flowed across her shoulders. It had grown since her last cut, and the sun had begun to streak it with platinum.

  “I really must, I’m afraid,” she said lightly. “It’s nearly time to begin lunch.”

  “You own half of all this—” Impatiently, Jim’s long arm swept the limitless, rolling rangeland. “Why don’t you act like it instead of jumping every time Jeth or Leon pulls your string? You can do anything you damn well please.”

  “Why should you care if my string is pulled?” They had shared only a few words since their last conversation. Was it for her protection or his that the foreman exchanged only brief, impersonal pleasantries with her when she served his plate at mealtimes?

  Shifting in the saddle, Jim answered candidly, “I care because I happen to think you are a gracious, beautiful lady who’s getting pushed around. All I’m doing is reminding you that you don’t have to take it. Use your power to keep Jeth Langston in his place.”

  “Mr. Langston’s place has always been as owner of La Tierra, Jim. I am the usurper here. The problem is not so much what his place is, but mine. As for Leon, he has been the soul of propriety and courtesy toward me. I like him. And I’m enjoying the roundup. No one is abusing me or, as you put it, pulling my string.” She dug her heels into Lady’s sides and gave the foreman an impersonal smile. “Now I really must be off. Leon needs me.”

  As she cantered away, Cara felt a twinge of remorse. Maybe she was allowing Leon’s judgment of the man to cloud hers. After all, Jim Foster had been the first to try to make her feel welcome. He had tried to comfort her the day the calf was shot. He didn’t owe it to her to jeopardize his job by defending her to his boss. Maybe this backdoor friendship was all he could offer her in the light of the circumstances, all he had the courage for.

  Another morning Cara had reined Lady high above where the men were working cattle and was able to watch without being observed how Jim and several other men maneuvered calves to be branded from among the herd in the holding pen. Fascinated, she watched as Jim rode unobtrusively into the milling cattle, then quietly pointed to the animal he wanted. The ears of his cutting horse perked up expectantly, for this was the work he had been trained for. In a few minutes’ fast work, they had the calf edged to the outer rim of the herd, near the corral gate. A man lifted the corral bars, and another cowboy, ready on a roping horse, streaked after the bewildered calf to throw a noose around its neck. Instantly the horse reared against the rope, backing surefootedly until he was practically sitting on his own tail, holding the rope taut until his rider could dismount and finish tying up the animal.

  A soft neigh from the brushy thicket to her left drew Cara’s attention, and she felt Lady tense under the saddle. “Easy girl,” she soothed, and patted the animal’s neck. The nicker came again, this time accompanied by a considerable rustling of the thicket, and Lady backed away nervously as a great black stallion emerged to stand calmly eyeing them across a distance of a few yards. “Take it easy, Lady,” Cara spoke gently. “It’s all right. He just wants to say hello to us. Easy, girl.”

  The stallion was an awe-inspiring sight. Coal black with a full mane and tail, head held with the proud, graceful carriage of a Thoroughbred, he was the kind of horse that raised goose bumps just looking at him. Cara could easily understand how this equine king of the range had been able to outrun the fleetest of La Tierra’s horses, and outwit the most cunning of her men, Jeth Langston. “So you are Devil’s Own,” she breathed softly. Beneath her, Lady’s muscles twitched coquettishly. The mare’s ears perked and her tail swished in outright flirtation.

  “I can certainly see why Jeth Langston would like to get a rope around you,” Cara said to the great horse. “But don’t you ever let him. The likes of you were born to be free. Don’t you ever let him put his brand on your flank. You’d never be the same.”

  Devil’s Own gave a soft responding neigh and moved with a graceful rippling of muscles farther out from the thicket. “You’d better go now,” warned Cara, realizing that the stallion had probably used this as a hiding place to observe the remuda corralled below on the canyon floor. She wondered if the horses were aware of their leader’s presence, if in some kind of equine way he was able to communicate to them that he had not deserted them. “Go on, boy,” Cara urged. “Go on, before the men find you here.”

  Devil’s Own whinnied softly, then turned his beautiful body swiftly, catching the sun full on the sheen of his magnificent, unmarked flanks before he raced toward a mountain slope behind which he was soon out of sight.

  Cara gave herself up to the routine of camp life and found that she loved it. She and Leon came to be a well-oiled machine working together in harmony and respect. Her bathroom anxieties were alleviated by the simple solution of using the time between the completion of her lunch chores and the beginning of the evening meal to bathe. It was then she washed her clothes and hung them to dry on a mesquite tree that had now budded out. No one but she and Leon were ever in camp at that time, and she could take her time washing and drying her hair. By the time the men returned to camp for the evening, she was decked out in a fresh set of clothes, hair brushed and shining, makeup—what little she used, for now her skin was lightly tanned—freshly donned. Sometimes a cowboy, his wit and tongue emboldened by an extra shot of bourbon before dinner, would sniff the air around her and announce, “It shore do smell better ’round here than when Toby was here, Leon!”

  Gradually the roundup crew came to accept her presence in the camp without suspicion or hostility. They began to call her “Miss Cara” and made room for her at the campfire when Jeth was not in camp. They asked Cara to tell them about Boston and the sea, a topic that captivated them, and Cara with amazement learned that most of her audience had never seen a body of water larger than the famous Rio Grande.

  When the roundup was five weeks along, she lay in her sleeping bag one night wide awake and gazed at the brilliant, low-hung stars that now seemed as familiar as old friends. She thought of Jeth, whom she had not seen for a week, and of Devil’s Own, who must miss his favorite mare, now penned up in the remuda. Bill had told her that there had been evidence of the great stallion
following the roundup.

  “Really?” Cara had asked, round-eyed.

  “Yep! And he’d better watch out, too! The boss’ll get a rope around that jasper’s neck yet. No horse gets free space and chow at La Tierra. They all have to earn their keep!”

  “But what about Texas Star?” Cara asked. Bill had told her when she’d first inquired about Ryan’s now thirteen-year-old stallion that the men had orders not to capture the palomino for the remuda.

  “Oh, well…that’s a different story. That was Ryan’s horse, ya know. I figure the boss thinks that as long as Texas roams La Tierra, a part of Ryan does, too.”

  Now as she lay sleepless, watching the stars, she prayed silently, “Please, Lord. Do not let me come to love it here. Do not let me come to care too much for Leon and Fiona and Bill and…Jeth—for La Tierra—so that always, when I’m no longer here, my heart will be…”

  The next evening after supper, Cara told Leon she was going for a ride by herself. “Bill hurt his leg and doesn’t need any extra riding,” she explained. All day she had felt strangely depressed and at loose ends with herself. She needed to be alone.

  The leathery old cook gave her a worried frown. “I don’t much like the idea of ya doin’ that, child. My rheumatism is actin’ up. A storm’s brewin’ and ya don’t wanta be caught out on the high plains on horseback in lightnin’.”

  “I won’t go far. If I see that it’s going to rain, I’ll come in.”

  “You do that, child. I wouldn’t want anythin’ to happen to ya out there. Yore comin’ to mean a lot to me.”

  She smiled at him. “You too,” she said, and went to the corral to saddle Lady.

  Cara had been out less than an hour when dark clouds began to boil up over the mountains. Rain was such a rarity in this country that she couldn’t take Leon’s admonition seriously. But the cook’s rheumatic warning had been correct. In another thirty minutes, lightning began to flash in zigzagged streaks buried deep in the gray clouds that obscured the remaining sunlight. Cara was too far from camp to return to it in the storm, so she looked around for a place where she might shelter until the clouds decided to formulate themselves into a full-fledged storm or simply dissipate into another disappointing promise of rain.

  The elements made up their mind while she was still deciding what to do. The rain, bringing darkness with it, came down in buckets, drenching her and Lady, who protested mildly, having come to trust Cara as having the better sense of the two. This time, however, Cara was at a loss where to find shelter, and the mare was fast losing confidence in her mistress. She was nervous and high-strung, straining at the bit in her mouth, when a voice cut through the darkness, biting it in two. “Miss Martin, is that you?”

  Oh, God, thought Cara, as Jeth Langston, glimmering in a yellow rain slicker, emerged through the pouring rain into her vision. “Yes, I’m here,” she called.

  “Follow me” was the terse order, and Cara, aware that Lady knew a friend when she saw one, allowed the horse her head to follow after the owner of La Tierra Conquistada.

  They found shelter in a cave whose mouth, covered with brush, she and Lady had passed dozens of times in their twilight sorties.

  “Get down,” Jeth ordered when they were in the safety of the cave. His own horse stood patiently, eyeing the duo with the faint suggestion that they were in trouble, while Cara, hair streaming with rain, dismounted to stand in the narrow space between Lady and Jeth Langston. Jeth did not move an inch to accommodate her, and Cara had to look nearly directly up at him from the disadvantage of her height, blinking rain-matted lashes.

  “Of all the damnfool, irresponsible—” The rancher seemed at a loss for adjectives.

  Taking advantage of the momentary lapse, Cara remarked, “I thought you were at the ranch.”

  “Which you interpreted as, while the cat’s away, the mouse can play.”

  “I’m not a mouse.”

  “No. At the moment you look more like a drowned rat. Get out of those clothes.”

  “I will not!”

  “Miss Martin, you have a choice of getting out of those wet clothes yourself, or I will relieve you of them. I’m not going to look. You can use my rain slicker to cover you.” Jeth ignored the look she gave him and pushed her down on one of the large, weather-smoothed rocks that ringed a pit laid with fresh firewood that Cara supposed had been used countless times in just such situations as these. She snapped the slicker around her while Jeth went to work on the fire. Soon bright flames were crackling in the pit, and smoke was spiraling toward an overhead opening in the cave. The horses stood quietly, discerning perhaps, thought Cara huffily, that here was a man who knew how to take charge of things. Beneath the slicker she slipped out of her clothes, then spread them on another rock to dry while Jeth unsaddled the horses. She still had on her bra and panties, which felt cold and cloying beneath the rainwear. Jeth came back to the fire and sat down, shooting a glance at her spread-out clothes. “You don’t have underwear?” he asked in surprise.

  “Yes,” she said through clenched teeth. “I happen to have some on at the moment. Do you mind?”

  “I certainly don’t, but you might. The important thing is for you not to get a chill.”

  “Why?” she asked. “That would put an end to your problem, wouldn’t it—if I caught pneumonia and died?”

  “That would certainly not be in my best interests,” the rancher replied, kneeling down to stoke the fire. “You’re worth more to me alive than dead. I need you alive to sign over Ryan’s share of La Tierra.”

  Cara fell back into the folds of the slicker, abashed. Ryan’s share of La Tierra was all he cared about. She had not been the reason he had braved the storm. She was not the concern of the moment. How could she be so in love with a man whose only interest in her was her signature?

  With a muted cry, Cara stood up.

  “What is it, Miss Martin?” Jeth glanced up at her in alarm. “You look as if you’ve been struck by lightning.”

  Chapter Nine

  Tragically, Cara stared down at the dark head, the high cheek-boned face, the puzzled eyes caught in the flickering glow of the flames—and slowly sank to her seat again.

  “What’s wrong?” Jeth asked.

  “Nothing,” she whispered. “Nothing at all.”

  “Women always say that. They can be drowning in tears, or wringing their hands off, or staring into tomorrow—like you’re doing right now—and still say ‘nothing’ when they’re asked what’s wrong. So what’s wrong?”

  Slowly she answered, “Ryan was on my mind—no, my heart—all day, or so I thought…”

  Jeth turned back to the fire, his expression grave. He finished stoking it, then threw the stick he had used into the pit. Straightening up, he said, “You know how to ruin a good evening, don’t you?” and went to the mouth of the cave to observe the storm.

  Cara watched the tall figure gazing out into the lightning-illumined night, an ache within her so intense that she thought she would die from it. “I love you,” she whispered. “I love you,” the revelation so soft that it was lost in the sound of wind and brush lashing at the mouth of their shelter.

  A bright crack of lightning struck near the cave. “Jeth!” She was on her feet, shaking. “Come away from there! It’s dangerous to stand so close to the opening!”

  Startled, Jeth turned to her, his stature so great that it blocked the light from the storm. His gaze held hers intently for a brief moment before the horses nickered uneasily, and he went to them, speaking low. Cara watched him run a hand along their quivering flanks, heard his deep murmur, and sat down again, consumed with envy.

  “How did you know where to find me?” she asked, almost sullenly, when he had joined her.

  “I saw you from the plane when we were coming in to land. If I hadn’t, the entire roundup crew would have been out looking for you—led by Leon,” Jeth added wryly. “You showed bad judgment in going out on horseback with a storm coming.”

  “You cut it
pretty close yourself. A plane is as susceptible to lightning as someone on horseback. Doesn’t that pilot of yours know when it’s safe to fly?”

  Jeth gave her a long, measuring look. “No, Miss Martin. That isn’t going to work.”

  Perplexed, Cara asked, “What isn’t going to work?”

  “This sudden interest in my safety.”

  Cara sighed. “Can’t you take anything I say at face value?”

  “I’d be a fool to, wouldn’t I? You’re proving the most formidable enemy I’ve ever had to fight.”

  Taken aback, Cara exclaimed, “Me? What have I done now to make you think such a thing?”

  “You’re trying to beat me at my own game, as if you didn’t know, and you’ve very nearly succeeded. I bring you up here, expecting you to last maybe a week before you begged to sign on the dotted line. I expected you to turn tail the first time a scorpion crawled out of your boot, the first time you heard the squeal of a rabbit being eaten alive by a coyote. But you turned the tables on me. You made yourself an asset to the roundup rather than the liability I anticipated. You made yourself indispensable to Leon. You endured without complaint what has sent some cowboys packing their bags. You’ve been cheerful and agreeable when you could have been sullen and bitchy. Oh, Miss Martin”—Jeth shook his head in wonder—“the more I’m around you, the easier it is for me to see how you got to Ryan. The devil himself would have a hard time holding out against you.”

  Speechless, Cara thought sickly, He’s twisted everything! “But why?” she demanded. “What would be the motive for my behavior except to survive the roundup?”

  “To confuse the men’s thinking about you, and in that way to drive a wedge into their loyalty to me—to La Tierra. You knew what they were expecting you to be, so you cleverly set out to present yourself as just the opposite—a dignified lady whose manners and conduct would be beyond reproach. Now the men don’t know quite what to believe about the brave, lovely Miss Cara. They’ve become quite protective of her, as proved a while ago when they all wanted to come looking for the lost lady in the storm. They’re beginning to think of her as the next patrona of La Tierra—of a La Tierra divided, Miss Martin, which I will never allow.”

 
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