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       Ryan's Hand, p.18

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Cara knew Jeth spoke the truth. It was all as clear to her now as the straight nose on his hard, handsome face. There had been something basically self-serving in the foreman’s character, an opportunistic streak that she had dimly suspected. But what really hurt was to know that Jeth thought Jim could have succeeded. That was why he had kept her busy the evening Jim was fired. That was why he had taken her out on the range all the next day, had sent her to Alpine to shop and sightsee the day after.

  Another thought struck her. Jeth had never been jealous of Jim at all! He had only been fearful that his foreman would gain an inside track on her affections, a possibility that might have cost him half of his beloved La Tierra.

  Her fists still balled, Cara wanted to strike at the ruthless face that she loved with all of her heart and soul. “You didn’t have to pretend that you wanted me to have some new clothes, Mr. Langston, in order to prevent Jim from seeing me after you fired him. I wouldn’t have turned over Ryan’s share of the ranch to him, no matter how much you’d like to believe otherwise.” Tears stung her eyes. “I don’t feel like showing you the library tonight. If you will excuse me—”

  She was halfway to the door when Jeth’s words stopped her. “I sent you to Alpine because it was your birthday.”

  Cara was sure her feelings were expressed in the tensing of her shoulders, the halting of her footsteps. Because she knew her face would betray her, she did not turn around. “How did you know?”

  “I know everything about you, Miss Martin. The detective, remember?”

  “Oh, yes.” All he needed to know of her, he was saying, could be reduced to a few pages in a file folder.

  The rancher had come up behind her. “Turn around, Miss Martin.” When she did, he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes. “Are those for Jim?”

  Let him think so, she thought. “I feel responsible. If I hadn’t been here, then this wouldn’t have happened.”

  “Many things would not have happened if you had not been here, Miss Martin. Believe me, Jim is a minor casualty.”

  The tears dried in Cara’s eyes. She understood what he was implying. He hated her very presence on La Tierra. Well, he needn’t worry that she would impose herself on him in the future. She would stay completely out of his way. He would not set eyes on her again, not if she could help it. On the day her promise to Ryan was fulfilled, she would quietly disappear. He wouldn’t even know what had happened to her, nor would he care, for on that day the papers would arrive releasing her claim to the ranch, and he would be free to marry.

  “I dislike you intensely, Mr. Langston,” Cara said bitterly. At the moment, it was the truth.

  “I am aware of that, Miss Martin. It’s such a shame.”

  Without a word, she turned and left him standing in the middle of the paneled room, a tall, forceful figure who gazed after her long after she was gone.

  As winter approached, the shorter days made it more difficult for Cara to avoid the owner of La Tierra Conquistada. Twilight came early and fell fast, halting the ranch activities that kept Jeth out of the house. Having no assigned duties and finding solace in work, Cara volunteered her now-coveted services where they were needed. She helped Homer in the stables and Leon in the Feedtrough, ignoring Jeth when he happened to appear unexpectedly. For convenience, she had to bring Lady back to the smaller stable for the winter, where Jeth’s bay was stalled, and resigned herself to the anguish she felt when their paths crossed there.

  Still, because he was essentially a man of routine, she was able to chart his comings and goings with some accuracy, and the two of them rarely met. For Cara, the long hours before bedtime were the hardest to fill. Occasionally she watched television with Fiona in the housekeeper’s suite of rooms off the kitchen. In her own room she studied Spanish, which she was now able to speak with increasing fluency. She wrote her once-a-week letter to Harold St. Clair and read the best sellers and classics she got from the traveling bookmobile that stopped at the ranch every Tuesday.

  Cara looked forward to the arrival of the bookmobile each week. She had become friendly with Honoria Sanchez, the gentle Mexican woman who was its driver. Honoria was also a librarian, and Cara enjoyed their professional chats.

  Thanksgiving came and went and La Tierra began to gear itself for the Christmas holidays.

  “They won’t be nearly as exciting as in years past,” Fiona grumbled in the kitchen one morning. “Señor Ryan is gone and El Patrón will spend the holidays in Dallas.”

  With the Jeffers, Cara conjectured, and why not? They must be like family to him, and with this the first Christmas without Ryan…Sympathy for Jeth lay in her heart for days before she found the nerve to go to his study one evening after dinner.

  He had expected Fiona, as was evident by the surprised lift of his brows, the unblinking stare with which he regarded her entrance into his sanctuary. “Why, Miss Martin—” He spoke ironically. “To what do I owe the unexpected pleasure of this visit?” He rose languidly from the wingback chair to greet her, but not before his posture had suggested to Cara that he had been deeply sunk in his thoughts, his gaze lost in the fire that burned brightly in the limestone fireplace.

  Cara’s hands fidgeted at her sides. “Uh, Mr. Langston, I—I would like to discuss with you your plans for Christmas. Or rather, that is…my plans for Christmas.”

  “Sit down, Miss Martin,” Jeth invited, indicating the other chair next to the fireplace. “You have plans for Christmas? I had thought you would be staying here.”

  “Yes, well, you see, that’s what I want to talk to you about.” She was acutely embarrassed. She had to moisten her lips to go on, a gesture that brought the lids half down over Jeth’s eyes. “Fiona has told me that ordinarily when…Ryan was alive, you stayed home for Christmas and that the ranch hosted many festivities and parties. This year I understand that you are going to Dallas to be with your…fiancée’s family—”

  “My fiancée?” Jeth raised up in his chair, his expression instantly alert. “Who told you about my fiancée?”

  So it is true, Cara thought, a hand squeezing her heart. “I read of your engagement in the Dallas Morning News,” she answered, amazed to hear the steadiness of her voice. How is it possible that the dead can speak? “I’m afraid you’re leaving because of me, that you’d be entertaining if I weren’t here. If I go away for several weeks, your normal holiday activities won’t have to be interrupted. Mr. Langston—” Cara raised an imploring hand when she saw Jeth about to interrupt. “I would like to do this for Ryan’s sake. I can’t bear for his brother to have to go somewhere else to spend Christmas because of me.”

  “Where will you go?” Jeth asked noncommittally.

  “I have several places,” she answered swiftly. “That doesn’t have to be a concern of yours.”

  “Miss Martin,” Jeth said on a sigh, “I happen to know that you have nowhere to go. You have no money to get there even if you did, unless, of course, you use Ryan’s money, which you won’t do, not if I have learned anything about you. I appreciate your consideration for my feelings, but you can be assured that I would not allow you to run me out of my home. I prefer to be in Dallas this year for Christmas. There are too many memories here of…what should have been.”

  He had turned his dark head away from her to resume his contemplation of the fire. It was a sign of dismissal, Cara knew, and she ought to get up and go. But his last remark held her sadly enthralled, like the hum of music when the final notes are played. The two of them were what should have been, she was thinking—not lovers, perhaps, but at least the best of friends. They had so many experiences in common. They had both been deprived of their parents at a sensitive time in their lives. They had each known the loss of worked-for dreams, deferred forever because of family obligations. And they had loved and lost in common a fine human being. Yet here they were, each sailing alone in his own ship on a sea of grief when they might have made the journey together, for a year at least.

  Cara got up to go, and Je
th rose also. “Very well, Mr. Langston.” She held out her hand politely. “If I do not see you before you leave, I hope your holidays will be pleasant.”

  His firm hand closed around hers. “When did you read of my engagement, Miss Martin?”

  “Sometime last summer, Mr. Langston.”

  “I see. Happy holidays to you, too, Miss Martin.”

  Cara withdrew her hand and walked quickly from the room.

  Chapter Twelve

  Jeth was gone from La Tierra until the middle of an icy January. Somehow Cara got through Christmas Day, the ultimate emotional moment coming when she opened Jeth’s gift to her. A week earlier, a tall Christmas tree had been erected before the window next to the Steinway, and she and Fiona had decorated it with the hallowed ornaments that had adorned La Tierra’s Christmas trees for a century. But on Christmas morning, she and the housekeeper made their way to the headquarters building where another tree shone cozily in the window and around which La Tierra’s resident cowhands gathered for the traditional opening of their presents.

  Before Jeth’s departure for Dallas, Cara had boldly slipped her present to him into his leather valise, which had been lying open on his bed. It was the foot-long piece of oak that she and Ryan had found their last day on the beach. She’d sent the piece away to be trimmed and set with the gemlike bits of bottle glass into the brand of La Tierra Conquistada.

  She’d not expected to be remembered by the rancher, and so on Christmas morning when Leon, playing Santa Claus, handed her the small, exquisitely wrapped package with her name written in bold black ink on the white envelope tucked beneath the ribbon, her heart had all but stopped. She extracted the envelope first. Inside was a simple note: “I trust you will wear this with your seagull as a symbol of another land you have conquered. Merry Christmas.” It was signed with the single initial, J. The gift had been a small gold drop in the design of a prairie falcon, exquisitely made. Cara had pressed the trinket to her breast and reread the brief note dozens of times.

  She was not aware that the owner of La Tierra was home until she saw the big gray Continental parked in the garage. Her pulse rate quickened as she ran the rest of the distance to the house. Thank heavens he was home! She had just come from the bunkhouse where she had been summoned by the new foreman to look at Leon, who had taken to his bed with a high fever. Cara diagnosed a severe case of influenza and told the foreman to call a doctor.

  When she entered the back door, frozen to the marrow in her jean jacket, she expected to find Jeth sitting at the table with the housekeeper, visiting over coffee. Neither was in the kitchen and Cara, knowing that Fiona had not been well either, felt a sense of alarm. “Fiona!” she called sharply.

  “Out here!” came the familiar voice, and Cara ran to the passage off the kitchen that led to the housekeeper’s quarters. Jeth was carrying Fiona down the hall as if she weighed no more than a doll. “Call a doctor!” he ordered over his shoulder. “She’s burning up with fever.”

  “One is on the way,” Cara said. “Leon is sick, too.”

  An influenza epidemic swept through the ranks of La Tierra’s personnel as icy winds tore across the bleak plains, sending gray tumbleweeds scuttling over the unimpeded distances like uprooted ghosts. Jeth agreed with Cara’s suggestion to house the sick men in Ryan’s room to prevent the virus from spreading to the skeleton crew remaining in the bunkhouse. The entire household staff succumbed to the rampant virus, which left the caring and feeding of the dozen sick men in Ryan’s room to her. Also, of her own volition, she helped Toby in the Feedtrough to cook meals for the rest of the crew who now had the added burden of herding as many cattle as they could find into the deep draws for protection against freezing temperatures. They were especially worried about the cows, swollen now with their unborn calves to be delivered in early spring.

  “Get away from me, child,” Leon attempted to dissuade Cara when she came near to minister to him. “I don’t want you gettin’ what I got.”

  “Hush, Leon,” Cara told him gently, “and eat some of this soup for me.”

  Cara and Jeth reached the same conclusion about the housekeeper and cook three days after the pair had taken to their sickbeds. Raking fingers distractedly through his dark hair, the gray eyes flinty with worry, Jeth admitted, “I’ll have hell to pay for this when they’re well, but I’m calling an ambulance to take them to the hospital in Alpine. They’re too old to fight this by themselves, and I’m not taking a chance of losing them. They’re all I have.”

  Cara stared wordlessly at him, fear clutching at her throat, and Jeth saw something in her eyes that made him reach out suddenly and clasp the back of her neck, giving it a gentle shake. “Hey, now, don’t look like that. They’ll be okay, little girl. Just see that you don’t get sick, too. Understand?”

  She nodded, and Jeth released her as suddenly as he had touched her. Pulling on gloves, positioning the black Stetson, he said abruptly, “I’ll be out on the north range if anybody needs me. Call that ambulance, will you, and don’t listen to any protests from those two.”

  The epidemic lasted three weeks. Cara’s days were filled with washing and changing sheets, trooping up and down stairs with meals, fruit juices, and aspirin, interspersed with countless trips across the ranch yard to help Toby feed the tired cowhands three meals a day.

  In the evening, though, fresh and relaxed from a fragrant bath and wearing one of the many soft wool dresses whose colors highlighted her beauty, Cara met Jeth in his study. They sat across from each other before a blazing fire and sipped their drinks while the January winds howled and fretted outside, seeking entrance into their haven of warmth and safety. Above them over the mantel, prominently displayed, was her Christmas present to Jeth, the glow of the pavé setting bringing Ryan into the room. They had thanked each other simply for their gifts, and Cara never removed the gold chain that held the prairie falcon.

  They talked of many subjects, and Cara discovered Jeth to be a wonderful conversationalist, his dry humor sometimes making her double over her glass of wine in a gale of laughter. She listened, fascinated, to his stories about the ranch and Texas and was surprised to learn that his knowledge of music equaled Ryan’s.

  They dined late, going into the kitchen to serve their plates from the reheated supper that Cara had brought from the Feedtrough earlier. Their meals were eaten in the small dining alcove, accompanied by a newly opened bottle of wine over which they lingered until it was gone. Then together they cleared away the table and washed the dishes.

  Cara began to play the Steinway for Jeth when they were into the second frenzied week of fighting the epidemic and the freezing temperatures. She was standing before a window in the living room looking out at the storm-blackened night. Jeth had not yet come down, or so she thought, until she felt his hands on her shoulders. “Relax,” he said on a husky note as she stiffened. “These delicate shoulders have been carrying too many burdens lately.” Slowly he began to massage her tense neck muscles until she was drowning in a delicious, euphoric bliss. Bending his dark head close to her ear, he whispered, “After dinner, play for us, Cara. We both need it.”

  And so, with Jeth comfortable with cigar and snifter of brandy in the chair where he had heard her play “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” Cara played for them the music that had once been her life. Now their evenings ended with the chords of the Steinway trembling throughout the house. Afterward, Jeth would lead her to the foot of the stairs to say good night before returning to his study. It was always a slightly tense moment that neither prolonged. They seemed to share a tacit understanding about the folly of climbing the stairs together.

  Jeth drove her several times to the hospital to visit Fiona and Leon, whose return to health could be measured by the degree of their indignation at having to remain until fully recovered. Driving back with Jeth on the last visit before their release, Cara was tensely aware of every movement from the man at her side. She was certain that, given the right provocation, she might burst apart insi
de. February was a week gone. She wanted desperately to clutch the days and hold them fast, for each one gone brought her closer to the last. The ranch was beginning to return to normal. The men had been released from the converted sick ward, and the household staff had returned. Already Jeth was busy making arrangements for the spring roundup.

  “Why so glum?” Jeth asked. “Fiona and Leon are going to be home in a few days.” Home. He made it sound like a place they shared, would always share. A sob rose in her throat, and she blinked back the unshed tears and looked out across the moonlit landscape that stretched to infinity. She sensed Jeth turning to her in puzzled inquiry. “Cara?” One of the strong hands left the steering wheel and covered hers in an inquiring squeeze. “What’s wrong? And don’t say nothing,” he told her firmly, before she did.

  “Just a little tired, I guess,” she answered.

  “And…homesick?”

  In the darkness, she smiled ironically to herself. “Yes, you could say that, too.”

  There was a small disappointed silence from Jeth. Cara could feel it. Then he said, in a voice that was suddenly hard, “Forget about going back to Boston before the estate is settled, Cara. I want you here where I can keep an eye on you. I couldn’t let you go anywhere where you might be prevailed upon to change your mind about selling to me.”

  Cara straightened in her seat and withdrew her hand. “You mean you still think I would?” She could hardly keep the appalled tremor out of her voice.

  “Miss Martin, you are an enigma to me. You are the only woman I have ever met whose motives I cannot figure out. How do I know these last weeks have not been a ruse to get me to trust you, to let you leave without signing the papers so that when you are out of my…jurisdiction, you could run to the highest bidder? You’ve had plenty, you know, buyers who have tried to see you, who have called and written. They have all been intercepted and given…discouraging replies. Harold St. Clair’s letters have been passed on to you intact, but none of the others. No one gets my land but me, Miss Martin. I am the only one bidding.”

 
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