I’ve had a number of people email me and request a story centering on Shey
Cutter. Well, this is it . . . sort
of. Rest assured there is lots and
lots of Joe (my favorite Cartwright!) plus the thing that works best in these
and Shey together. If anything,
Shey just gets center stage in a few more scenes than normal and I delve a
little deeper into what makes him tick. As
always, thanks to Karen F. for being my second pair of eyes.
No wonder what I’m working on (fanfic or straight fiction) you make an
invaluable critique partner!
you’re new to my Bonanza fanfic, the stories are best read in sequence as
events and characters continue from story to story.
The correct reading order is:
Restitution; A Penny for Your
Problems; Defending Miss David; Betrayal; Chaos; Ringgold; Encounter at Oxbow;
Kinship; Threshold; Miss David Returns; Southwest of Nevada; Witch Wind;
my characters (with the exception of the obvious “guest stars” and of course
Shey). No profit is being made from
this story and no infringement is intended on Bonanza
Ventures, David Dortort, NBC Television, or any other holder of Bonanza
copyrights. Comments are welcome at
By Kate (CMT)
With a sidelong glance for his friend, Shey Cutter adjusted the cinch on his saddle. Bright sunlight puddled in the barn where he readied his gray gelding. It was still early enough in the afternoon for him to squeeze in a final check of the lowlands around Sable Creek before calling it a day. A surprisingly cold and wet October had left conditions ripe for mud bogs and flooding, trapping more than a few stray head of cattle in quagmires. Relief arrived in the form of unseasonably warm weather only yesterday, but it would take days for those areas prone to flooding to dry completely.
Scraping his bangs from his eyes, Shey settled his black hat more comfortably on his head. He’d only been half listening to Joe Cartwright rattle on about the big outdoor shindig his father was holding to introduce the editor of the town newspaper. He generally enjoyed any excuse for a party, but . . . “I’m all for having a good time, Cartwright, but this ain’t gonna be some highbrow uppity affair is it? I hear tell they’re importin’ stuffed shirts and tea-social-old-maids as far away as Kansas City for that rededication thing. Don’t rightly see what all the fuss is about. It’s jest a newspaper.”
Joe laughed. “Shey, the Virginia City Herald isn’t just any newspaper. Least ways, it won’t be once Malcolm Dean Rocherty takes over as editor. He ran some of the largest papers in the east. Adam says anything he touches turns to gold. Guess that’s why the International House is filling up with all those out-of-town businessmen and politicians. They all want to meet him.”
“You mean they all wanna get their name in print, maybe a picture of them shakin’ hands with the big man himself. What kind of moneybags lunkhead has a name like Malcolm Dean Rocherty anyway? Sounds like he should be runnin’ for governor or bottom-dealin’ cards at the stud table on a riverboat. I bet he’s as trustworthy as an eel-stripe horse tryin’ to pass itself off as a zebra dun.”
“You’re just naturally cynical Cutter, you know that?”
“Damn right. Keeps me alive.” With a shake of his head, Shey led his horse from the barn. Joe trailed at his side, walking comfortably. That at least made him feel better. Just a week ago, Joe had been laid up with a damaged leg, the result of an accident when Cochise reared unexpectedly. The situation, bad as it was, might have been a lot worse if Shey hadn’t found him and gotten him back to the Ponderosa.
Or if Roper Crane had killed him, Shey thought sourly. His stomach knotted. It still grated on his nerves to think he’d been duped by Crane. Worse, that his stubbornness and refusal to see facts had almost cost his best friend his life. He hadn’t really understood what Joe’s friendship had meant to him until that moment, when he’d teetered on the brink of having it snatched away. Scowling, he tried to concentrate on anything but the memory of Joe shivering and in pain, sitting mute while Shey had crudely stitched his leg. “How’s Adam know Mister-Big-City-College-Boy anyway?”
Joe chuckled. “Dean really is common folk, Shey. I’ve met him. And Adam went to school with him.”
“Big surprise there.”
“Hey, you’re not going to pass up a chance at a party, are you?”
“Hell, no.” Shey collected his reins and swung into the saddle. For a moment he sat staring down on Joe, noting the bright glint of his smile, the luminous light in his black-lashed green eyes. There was no question Joe was fully recovered, yet the memory of that long ride back to the Ponderosa after Roper had tried to kill him, still haunted Shey. Maybe he was just getting old, tangled up in responsibility and relationships. Growing up he’d never had time for friends, at least none who mattered. And certainly none who would have risked their own lives for his, as Joe had done time and time again. Sometimes he wondered what kept a person like Joe Cartwright--a naturally likable, all-around decent human being--friends with a pigheaded upstart like him. He blew out a sigh. “Who else is gonna be there, Joseph?”
“Who do you think—practically the whole town.” Joe’s eyes danced, a sure sign he was enjoying Shey’s restlessness. “Dean and his wife Rose, are the guests of honor, along with Rose’s sister, Elizabeth. She came along to help Rose get settled while Dean organizes things at the paper. They bought that big white house at the end of town. You remember—the one Henry Boone lived in before his father took that banking job in St. Louis.”
“Bug-Eyed Boone?” Shey’s brow drew in a crease. “You mean that timid little runt you and Kyle Gordon used to pal around with?”
“He wore glasses, Shey.”
“It had nothing to do with his glasses. The kid was just plain weird, Cartwright. My Pa caught him creepin’ ‘round the back of the saloon once, tryin’ to get a peek at the gals, if’n you know what I mean.”
“Like you never did?”
Shey grinned. “I never got caught.”
Joe waved the comment aside. “Just answer the question, Romeo. You gonna be there tonight?”
“Yeah, Cartwright, I’ll be there. You’ve only been yammerin’ on about it for the last week. Jest don’t go gettin’ riled if’n I avoid the haughty folk. Dean and his kin I can handle, but hanger-ons and social-climbing wives give me the willies. ”
“Okay, Boss. I’ll keep you clear of the starched shirts.” Joe grinned broadly. “See you tonight.” He slapped his hand against the gelding’s rear as it bolted away. A party wouldn’t be a party without Shey Cutter, and despite his friend’s grousing about not wanting to rub elbows with Virginia City’s elite, he was part of that group whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not. As the second largest landholder in all of Nevada there would be a number of “social climbers” eager to go out of their way to meet him tonight. It would be interesting to see how he handled that, the one time town troublemaker courted by the champagne and lobster set.
Joe walked up the path from the barn to Shey’s house where’d he’d tethered Cochise earlier. The massive two-story colonial home Lincoln Cutter had built loomed majestically over spreading fields and pastures, no longer appearing out of place now that Joe had grown accustomed to the strange sight. Lincoln had lived most of his life in the east, carrying his love of Philadelphia architecture to the raw west when he’d settled just outside Virginia City. Joe remembered him as a kindly dignified man with an up-front manner. His son had inherited his to-the-point attitude minus the polish he’d possessed to soften prickly edges. When Lincoln’s wife left him early on, Chance and Shey had grown up as wild as the land around them. Despite Shey’s cocky restlessness, Joe was certain Lincoln would have been proud of the man Shey became. He sometimes still marveled how drastically his own feelings had changed toward his one-time rival. It was a shame they’d wasted so much of their youth at each other’s throats.
As he swung up on Cochise, Joe wondered what Callie Garrett would have thought if she’d met Shey a few short years ago. His friend’s on-again/off-again girlfriend had finally grown tired of waiting for Shey to propose. She’d laid down an ultimatum and when Shey had balked, refusing to be cornered, she’d started seeing other men. Afterward Shey had been moody and irritable, but like anything that crossed his path, he’d swept the whole affair under the rug after a few days and started cozying up to some of the girls in Sam’s saloon.
Secretly Joe had been rooting for Callie. He’d always held a soft spot for her, and he couldn’t help looking forward to the day his brash friend fell victim to the pangs of true love. Shey took perverse delight in ribbing Joe about his deep-rooted feelings for Lorna David, the woman who still controlled his heart. It was only fair play he be given the same opportunity to torment Shey.
Joe’s lips lifted in a smile. There would be plenty of pretty girls at the party tonight and Shey was one of the city’s most eligible bachelors. Maybe, just maybe he’d get the chance to do a little meddling of his own.
Shey let his gray pick its way down a trail to the lowlands surrounding Sable Creek. The weather was warm and pleasant, but a few short days ago the area had been subjected to torrential rains. Shey had lost a few head of cattle and feared they’d become bogged in mud holes around the creek. He had just enough time to do a thorough inspection of the area before heading back to prepare for the big Cartwright shindig honoring Dean Rocherty.
“Easy Reno,” Shey mumbled to the gray when it grew fidgety on the uneven ground. Pockets of mud left the terrain bogged down and rutted where water and heavy soil had combined to form quagmires. The ground was spongy and soft, saturated with rain. Shey was almost to Sable Creek when he spotted a buggy stuck dead center in a thick quagmire of mud. A woman stood on the floorboards, red-gold hair tumbled around her as she talked to the horse, trying to urge it forward.
With a smirk for her predicament, Shey ambled his gray down the path. “Trouble, Miss?” His voice came out a little too snide. Noting the immaculate cut of her clothing, he couldn’t help feeling smug about her dilemma. She was obviously one of the social-climbers who’d arrived in town, hoping to cling to the coattails of Malcolm Dean Rocherty. Drawing Reno to a halt, Shey cocked his hat back on his head. “Looks like you’ve got yerself in a right spot.”
The woman shot him an annoyed glance. Blue-green eyes flashed beneath a luxurious fringe of hair the color of toasted honey. “I didn’t think the bog would be so deep. Any horse in the east would have crossed it without blinking an eye. I don’t know why this mare is being so stubborn.”
“In the east, huh?” Shey raised a brow. Leave it to a highbrow uppity skirt to look down her nose at western stock. “Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that horse. It’s jest the driver who’s a bit green.”
A flush of color rushed to the woman’s cheeks. “I’m perfectly capable of handling any horse created, Mister . . . .”
“Cutter.” He doffed his hat. “It’s my land you’re crossin’ . . . or tryin’ to,” he amended with a grin. “We got hit pretty hard with heavy rains the last few days. Any fool knows these lowlands bog down with mud after two days of wet weather. If’n I were you, I’d back that mare out the way you came.”
“Well you’re not me,” the woman snapped. She seemed perturbed he’d had the gall to challenge her. Tugging down her short jacket, she straightened her immaculate clothing.
Shey had to admit she was a looker with all that cinnamon-colored hair and trim waist. He thought about climbing down and helping her, but that would involve getting his boots muddy, and hell, she obviously thought she could handle the fool horse by herself anyway. Who was he to second guess some silk-stocking, bee-in-her-bonnet blueblood?
He drew his leg up, languidly hooking it over the saddle horn as he watched her snap the reins. “You keep eggin’ that mare on, you best sit down ‘fore you take a tumble. Sooner or later she’s gonna bolt.”
“I don’t think so.” The woman gave another firm snap of the reins. “Giddup.”
“I might be inclined to help if you jest ask.” Shey’s lips curled in an enticing grin. “Nice-like that is.”
Her glance was withering. “I don’t need your help, Mr. Cutter.”
“That so? Well, I can’t leave you stuck here till sundown, and at the rate you’re goin’ I’ll be old and gray ‘fore you get that buggy outta there.” Shey swung down from the saddle and took two steps forward. “Hope you appreciate the fact I’m muddying my boots. I can’t rightly abide prim eastern women who oughta know better than to venture outta their perfumed tea parlors.”
“Perfumed tea--” The woman choked off the words in bristling indignation. Smoldering venom and dragon-fire flashed through her blue-green eyes. “You arrogant, insufferable toad! How dare you insinuate--”
Shey jabbed a finger at the horse. “You best stop caterwaulin’ and pay attention to that mare. All your hissin’ and spittin’ is makin’ her fidgety.” Even as he spoke, the mare tried to extradite her forelegs from the mud, but the woman was too incensed to pay attention.
“I know perfectly well what I’m doing,” she spat, whirling to face him. Enraged, she stepped to the edge of the running board, her features pinched and flushed. “I don’t need the interference of some long-haired rube cowboy--” The mare gave a sudden lurch and the woman reeled sideways from the carriage.
Shey reacted instinctively, darting forward. As the mare bolted from the mud, wrenching the buggy behind it, Shey blundered into the quagmire and caught the woman in his arms. He felt the impact of her weight settle nicely against him, all soft curves and shapely angles. Her arm was around his neck, her mouth parted in a shocked “O” of surprise. In the passing of a heartbeat the expression in her eyes went from enraged to embarrassed, then back to enraged. A wash of bright color seeped into her cheeks. “Put me down, Mr. Cutter.”
Shey wasn’t so sure he wanted to comply. Uppity and all, there was something a tad enchanting about her. He wasn’t above holding her longer, tantalized by the close press of her flesh to his. He could feel the rounded swell of one breast lodged against his chest, a sensation that had him thinking with the wrong part of his anatomy. Proper women generally didn’t want anything to do with him. It was a novel experience to have such a prim thing pressed up against him. He grinned. “Guess you should have listened to me about that mare.”
She was growing agitated. “Put me down.”
“You sure about that?” Shey’s grin grew pointed and brash. “You got your arm wrapped around my neck awful tight. Seems to me like you’re the one hanging on.”
“How dare you!” Naked anger flashed through her eyes. She started to squirm, using her hand to push away from him. “I will not be manhandled like some, some . . . farm animal . . . by a backwoods, countrified . . . hillbilly!”
“Hillbilly?” Shey’s mouth thinned on the word, his own anger spiking. He was usually the one to slyly prod, remaining cool while others grew reckless, but even he had a breaking point. Something about people--especially women--who thought they were better than others just naturally rubbed him the wrong way. “You want down? Let me oblige you--” Shey opened his arms, unceremoniously dumping the woman rear-end first into the mud. She landed with a loud plop, a small geyser spraying up to splatter Shey’s pants. He didn’t mind at all. It was well worth a little dirt to see the look on her face, a combination of raw shock and seething indignation.
Mud sucked at her heavy skirt, saturating the expensive material in jagged brown stains, waist-deep in the rear. It left large dollops clinging to her face, chest and hair. Her arms, braced behind her and supporting her back, were sunk to the elbows.
Looking at her, Shey felt his anger drain. He laughed out loud, unable to recall when he’d seen a more deserving sight. “Sure hope you got a good laundress.”
“You pig!” She lobbed a handful of mud at him, but he danced cat-quick out of the way.
“Hey, quit that. That ain’t no way for a lady to talk. Or act.” He stretched out his hand. “I ain’t above helpin’ you up.”
“Stay away from me.” Defiantly, she clambered to her feet, trying to shake aside the larger clumps of mud clinging to her skin and clothing. Her hair hung in her eyes, the curling ends wilted and dripping with mud. A few steps away, the mare waited docilely, unaware it had been the catalyst of the whole humiliating predicament.
Shey watched as the woman tried to climb into the buggy, her saturated skirt weighting her steps, making movement difficult. He knew she would likely scratch his eyes out given the chance, but he found the whole thing comical. “Don’t be such a prima donna. Sheath your claws and let me help you.”
“If you so much as breathe in my direction, Mr. Cutter, I won’t be responsible for my actions.” She settled into the seat, obviously trying to regain an air of dignity, and collected the reins. Shey had to admire the way she sat with her back ramrod straight, all highbrow and uppity, despite the mud dripping from her clothing. He kind of regretted he hadn’t kissed her when he had her in his arms, just because he’d never kissed an eastern-bred woman before. Deciding she couldn’t hate him any worse than she already did, he took two quick steps to the side of the buggy, slid his hand behind her head, and slanted his mouth over hers.
He had one quick impression of warmth and sweet-honey, of crackling passion and wine-red heat before she wrenched away. Her open palm connected with his cheek, snapping his head to the side. With a grin, Shey stepped back from the buggy. “You kiss better than you hiss-and-spit, Miss . . . ?”
Fire flamed in her eyes. “I wouldn’t lower myself to give you my name, Mr. Cutter. If there’s any justice in the world, we’ll never see each other again.”
Shey smiled faintly, watching as she collected the reins and sent the buggy determinedly on its way. Eastern-bred and blueblooded. She had to be one of the social-climbing, status-seekers who’d come to see three-name-whatshizhuzzat splash his photo all over the Virginia City Herald. That meant she’d probably be at the Ponderosa tonight for Ben Cartwright’s big shindig.
Shey whistled softly for his gelding as he walked back toward the gray.
It might just be worth rubbing elbows with all those hobb-knobbers after all.
Joe adjusted his string tie then stepped back to survey his handiwork in the mirror. Crisp white shirt, black tie, and gray pants. It felt good to get out of work clothes, to unwind, and know there was nothing to do except enjoy himself tonight. Autumn parties weren’t as frequent as those held during spring and summer, and they were rarely held outdoors. He knew Hoss and Hop-Sing had spent much of the day stringing lanterns outside, so that even when the sun set and darkness crept in, guests could continue to enjoy themselves as long as the weather remained pleasant. The warm temperatures over the last two days had felt like a touch of spring, keenly welcomed after such a dismal October.
His leg wasn’t quite healed after the incident with Roper Crane, but he felt relatively certain it wouldn’t hinder dancing, not when there promised to be so many pretty girls present. As he clambered noisily down the steps Joe wondered if Callie Garrett would come, and whether Shey would be magnanimous enough to dance with his one-time girlfriend. Worse, would Callie arrive on the arm of Cliff Thompson, the man who’d been sparking her since Shey had bowed out of the picture?
“Hey, Joe . . . give me a hand here.” Hoss waved him toward the dining room, where he was gathering chairs two at a time, hooking one on each arm. “Pa wants these outside on the porch.” Grinning, he smacked his lips together. “Sure is gonna be a hoopla, little brother. I can’t remember the last time we had such a prime party.”
“You just can’t wait to taste that pig Hop-Sing has been roasting all day,” Joe countered. He took one chair to Hoss’s two, carrying it carefully through the front door, mindful not to muss his well-groomed clothing. Outside Ben was directing hands at arranging long tables destined for food and socializing, away from the barn. Checkered tablecloths fluttered in a light breeze and lanterns dangled between poles strung with colorful streamers. Someone had even tied batches of green ribbon to each end of the main hitching post.
Joe set his chair next to Hoss’s. “Where’s Adam?”
“He rode into town to meet Dean, his Missus and Miss Elizabeth. Hey, that reminds me--” Hoss snapped his fingers. “Jed Brooks said he saw your old pal, um . . . what’s his name . . . ” Hoss cupped his hands over his eyes mimicking glasses. “You know . . . the Boone kid.”
“Henry? Henry Boone?” Joe shook his head, stunned. “He moved to St. Louis six years ago when his father took that banking job.”
“Yeah, I know. Well apparently he’s back visiting or sumthin’. I told Jed to let him know about the shindig tonight. Figured you’d wanna see him, since you, he and Kyle Gordon were pretty close.” Hoss slapped Joe on the back. “There’s plenty of roast pig for all of us.”
Joe chuckled as his brother moved away. The last thing he was thinking about was pig. Even so, he paused, taking a moment to savor the heady smell. The whole yard was bathed in the odor of hickory-smoked pork and brown sugar. No wonder Hoss was practically salivating.
As he walked inside to grab another chair, Joe thought how good it would be to see Henry Boone again. His friend had always been on the quiet side, a bit overly studious, destined to follow his bookish father into banking, but they’d had some good times--he, Henry and Kyle. Joe still palled around with Kyle, his closest friend from childhood, but their encounters had grown less frequent as his friendship with Shey took center stage. Despite Joe’s insistence that Shey had changed, Kyle remained uncomfortable around him. Joe hated that bit of awkwardness, wishing they could get along. Adam had even commented on it, telling him he was excluding old-standing friends in favor of Shey.
“Then I guess I’ll have to get new friends,” Joe had snapped heatedly. “People who aren’t afraid to admit that someone can change. Who are willing to give second chances.”
Adam had looked disgusted. “Shey Cutter’s blinded you to everything,” he insisted. “If it goes against Cutter or the Circle C you won’t even give it the light of day--or anyone else the light of day, for that matter. You’re like a wolf with that rooster, Joe. Let anyone say anything a bit off color about your cocky friend and you grow fangs.”
He’d gotten hot under the collar, ready to butt heads with Adam, but his father had intervened. What had started as a frank discussion had quickly degenerated into an ugly argument. Joe had half-expected Adam to instruct him to keep Shey away from tonight’s party, but his father had cleared his throat, politely asking if he’d been sure to invite Shey.
With a grin for the remembered look on Adam’s face, Joe carried another chair outside. His father had always been the diplomat, smoothing the way between them when Joe’s friendship with Shey pushed them to opposite corners. They’d gotten past Lorna David, but Adam just couldn’t silence his instinctive distrust of the one-time town bully.
And that was just too damn bad
in Joe’s book. Because like it or
not, Shey Cutter was around to stay.
The party was in full swing when Adam arrived with Malcolm Dean Rocherty, his wife Rose, and her sister Elizabeth Stengler. Joe didn’t even know half of the people who crowded into the yard. There were businessmen in smartly tailored vests and jackets; regal-looking women with sweeping up-dos and flowing gowns. Joe felt a little out of place in his crisp white shirt, thinking belatedly of the Sunday best blue suit he’d considered wearing. It was too late now. Besides, most of the ranch hands were in shirtsleeves, including Hoss and Lucas Flint, Shey’s soon-to-be new foreman. He’d yet to see a sign of his brash friend, but the evening was still young. Playing dutiful host, Joe made his way to Dean and his group, pausing to cordially greet the newspaper editor and the two women. Dean was instantly thronged by men who’d come from as far away as San Francisco to meet him.
Stepping aside, Adam grinned at Joe. “It’s like this whereever he goes. I think Rose gets tired of it."
Joe arched a brow, surprised. “She doesn’t like all of the attention?”
“After a while I guess it gets old.” Adam crossed his arms over his chest, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Joe, watching as well-to-do men and women eagerly waited for their chance to meet Dean.
Joe thought he was somewhat unimposing, a plain-faced man, with thinning brown hair and light blue eyes. Yet it was apparent when he spoke, people hung on his every word, his voice velvety and smooth, like good bourbon. His wife was small, a little on the plump side, with a bun of black hair. She conducted herself in a refined manner, graciously greeting the many town women and visiting gentry who clustered around her.
Her sister Elizabeth was another matter--too haughty for Joe’s taste, with blue-green eyes and cinnamon-colored hair, pinned tonight in a bounty of dangling curls. She wore a snug fitting green gown trimmed in black, an outfit that made the most of her trim waist, bountiful curves and smoky coloring. There was no question she was a looker, but her demeanor was icy. Joe had met her for the first time over dinner the previous evening, and had come away with a distinctly unfavorable opinion. Close to Adam’s age, she’d been widowed six years, her former husband a Baltimore-based shipping tycoon. From what little Adam had told them, Joe knew the man had been a good twenty years her elder and had died of consumption. Elizabeth herself was opinionated, curt and cold, a combination that left little room for complimentary impressions. Even now Joe could see a few eager men had been turned aside by a cutting glance from her cold aqua eyes.
He was about to say something to Adam when he caught a glimpse of Callie Garrett. Joe’s whole face lit up. “Callie!” He was at her side in a few steps, giving her a quick peck on the cheek in greeting. His expression dimmed slightly when he got a good look at her date. The smile stayed on his face but it wasn’t as bright. “How are you doing, Cliff?”
Cliff Thompson nodded and shook the hand Joe offered. “Nice party, Joe. I hear fiddle music’s goin’ be starting soon.”
“Then I’m going to need some punch.” Callie smiled sweetly at her date. “Cliff, would you mind?”
As he moved away to do her bidding, she looked back at Joe. “Don’t say it.”
He tried to act affronted but failed. “What?”
“Joe Cartwright, you are one shade too transparent. Cliff cares about me.” She hooked her hand through his arm. Together they walked away from the knot of people gathered around Dean and his wife. Couples and small groups streamed past them, laughing, chatting gaily. The clang of horseshoes came from the distance, and the smell of roast pig mingled with baked apple pie and fresh cider, hung heavily on the air. Callie’s head was bowed, her chestnut hair tumbled around her face. Joe had the feeling if he could see her expression, there’d be misery in her eyes.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “But Cliff’s different. He’s passionate about things.”
Joe mused that quietly for a minute, content to walk companionably at her side. “Shey’s one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in my life.”
“Maybe about most things, but you’ve never kissed him.”
Joe chuckled. “We’re close, Callie, but we’re not that close.”
She raised her head. “I care about him, Joe. I think I might even still love him, but he’s got his heart shut off and I can’t live like that. I can’t wait around for the day when he realizes that not every woman is going to run off with some two-bit gambler. He thinks any woman he gets seriously involved with is going to desert him just like his Ma deserted his Pa.”
“I know that, Callie.”
“Well he’s an idiot, and I’m tired of waiting around for him. Besides . . .” She sniffled, raising her nose in the air. Joe couldn’t tell if she was hurt or annoyed. “ . . . he sure hasn’t been sitting around mooning because I’m with Cliff. Lily Krenshaw told me he’s cozied up to nearly every saloon girl at the Silver Dollar.”
“Aw, Callie, you should know better than to listen to Lily. She lives to spread gossip, most of it invented in her head.”
She stopped walking, turning to face him directly. “Are you telling me it isn’t true?”
Joe swallowed, put on the spot. Shey had been doing his fair share of philandering, a little too much even for Joe, but he didn’t want to get caught between his friend and the girl Shey had once professed to love. If he even could love, which was a valid point on Callie’s part.
Joe had recently encountered a surprisingly compassionate side to Shey he hadn’t known existed. When he’d been trapped near Blue Rock, his leg sliced open and bleeding, Shey had done more than give physical aid. He’d fussed over Joe, even cradling him close when the near-lethal combination of cold, wind, rain, and pain had threatened to topple him into oblivion. He’d needed that closeness and compassion, never expecting to find it buried in his crass friend. If Callie would only be patient, instead of trying to push Shey into marriage before he was ready, maybe she’d find what she needed too.
Joe cleared his throat, shuffling his feet. “Uh, Callie . . .”
“Here you are, Callie.” Thankfully Cliff Thompson chose that moment to return with a glass of punch. He passed it to his date, smiling down at her, clearly unaware she’d been discussing the man she really loved. Joe almost felt bad for Thompson being compared to Shey, a larger-than-life person he’d never measure up to.
“You two enjoy yourselves. I gotta go see to the other guests.” He flashed a quick smile, anxious to be away before Callie could corner him again. Somewhere in the background, fiddles and strings had struck up a lively tune. The group around Dean Rocherty was slowly dispersing. Joe rounded the corner of the bunkhouse and ran smack into a group of old friends seated at one of the tables, Kyle Gordon among them.
“Hey, Joe!” Kyle flagged him over, clearly enjoying himself. While the punch was clean, the cider was spiked. All five men at the table had mugs of the whiskey-laced brew in their hands. In addition to Kyle, Joe saw Jim Greer, Able Harrison, Thad Dunkin, and Curtis Connelly, all friends he’d grown up with. Someone pushed a fresh mug into his hand.
Grinning, he slid into a seat at the picnic bench, joining their fun. “This looks like a group up to no good.”
Thad Dunkin took a swig of cider. “Ah, we were jest ribbin’ Kyle about that crush he had on Miss Beckinwade. You remember her, Joe? She used to teach us reading and ‘rithmatic our last year in the schoolhouse.”
Joe chuckled as the memory came back. Kyle had had it bad for the schoolmarm, picking her wildflowers, bringing her apples, even trying to write love poetry. “I remember he used to get all tongue-tied whenever she called on him. Remember?” The rest of the group was guffawing now, Kyle included. “He could barely spit out her name. Y-yes, M-M-Miss Bec-Becki-Beckinwade.” Joe did a passable imitation of a love-struck teenager trying to answer a question. All six men were in stitches, howling over the episode, made funnier by remembered companionship and a healthy dose of alcohol.
“You gotta admit,” Kyle interjected. “She was kind of a looker.”
“Kyle, she had a nose like a horse,” Able Harrison shot back.
“Yeah but she had all that blonde hair.”
“It was brown.”
“Like mud,” Jim Greer inserted.
“Really old, ugly mud,” Curtis Connelly added and the group busted into another round of laughter.
“There ain’t no such thing as ugly mud,” Kyle countered when they’d quieted somewhat.
“So you think mud is pretty?” Thad shook his head. “Joe, tell him he’s been pushing cattle too long. No wonder he got all doe-eyed around that schoolmarm.”
“How’s the cider, Cartwright?” a new voice asked.
Joe would have known the slightly snide inflection of his cavalier friend’s voice anywhere. He spun in his seat, a grin breaking across his face. “Glad you finally made it, Shey. Sit down and have a drink with us.”
Shey cocked his head, looking at the other men at the table. He’d dressed a cut above ranch clothes tonight, wearing black pants, a tan shirt and black vest. He’d even added a black string tie to match his hat, and his blond hair was neatly combed, if considered a trifle too long by polite society. His stance reflected inbred cockiness, an arrogance that wasn’t lost on the rest of Joe’s friends. “Maybe I’ll jest go find my pal, Adam,” he said with a pointed grin for Joe.
“Shut up, Boss, and sit down. I’ll get you a cider.”
Joe moved away before anyone could protest. He returned a moment later with a full mug, only then aware of the change that had fallen over the group. Shey still stood, closer now, but as irritatingly cocky as ever. The rest of the group had quieted, Thad and Curtis making a half-hearted attempt at mumbled conversation, all of them looking anywhere but at Shey. Abruptly understanding what had happened, Joe felt a prickly surge of anger.
“Here, Shey.” He passed his friend the mug. It rankled him to realize Shey was making a point of exuding rattlesnake arrogance, but more to realize why. He snatched his own mug from the table, trying to silence his rising temper. So Kyle and his friends still saw Shey as the town bully? It was time they got over it. He was quickly growing tired of old animosities and people who harbored them. “We were just talking about Miss Beckinwade,” he said a little too tightly. “You remember her, Shey?”
“Sure do.” Shey took a swallow of cider, never taking his eyes from the group. “I remember Gordon pined for her right fierce. Wrote her some love poetry, my brother Chance and I found mighty amusin’.”
Joe closed his eyes. “Shey, don’t do this.”
“I remember we sorta left it lyin’ where she could find it. After we snatched it from Gordon, that is.”
Kyle’s head was lowered, his hand clenched tightly around his mug. The levity of only moments before had turned into something ugly and somber. “You mean after you and Chance beat it out of me.”
Joe’s stomach knotted. “Let’s forget this, huh?”
“What’s the matter, Cartwright?” Shey’s eyes slid to the side. “My brand of reminiscin’ not rightly up your alley? Guess it feels like the wolf jest entered the rabbit den.”
“More like the snake,” Thad muttered.
Shey looked at the other man, his smile barbed. “I seem to recall you and yer friends catchin’ me behind the schoolhouse after I left that love note for Miss Beckinwade to find. Made a right fool out of Gordon, and you cracked two of my ribs for it.”
Thad’s glance smoldered with fire. “I ain’t the only one who was there, Cutter.” His eyes flashed to Joe’s face . . . daring, challenging. “Joe was too. He threw you more punches than all of us combined.”
Joe held his breath, uncertain if he wanted to rattle Thad or throttle Shey. Mixing old friends and new was like mixing oil and vinegar. Shey Cutter just naturally brought out the worst in people and there was nothing Joe could do about it. If tonight’s party ended in a fistfight his father would skin him alive, and Adam . . .
He swallowed. Hell, he didn’t even want to think what Adam would do if Shey ruined his painstakingly planned gala.
Shey titled his glass, taking a long moment to look inside. By biding his time, Joe knew he was sliding into foulmouthed bully mode. “You know--Thaddeus,” Shey smiled pointedly at the other man. “I don’t hold none of that against Joe. See, the difference between you and Cartwright is you’re still a piss-for-brains lunkhead--”
“Shey, I will kill you if you ruin this party,” Joe muttered from the corner of his mouth.
“--but--and this is your only redeeming feature, coon’s ass-end and all--” Shey took a swallow of cider and slammed the mug on the table. “You got a right fine taste in friends. Least ways one of them anyway, so I guess you ain’t that bad.” Grinning brashly, he slung his arm around Joe’s neck. At the table, Thad Dunkin blinked, trying to decide if he’d been insulted or complimented.
Still hanging on Joe, Shey laughed. “Did you really think I was gonna ruin your fancy shindig, Joseph?”
Relieved, Joe blew out a pent up breath and hung his head. “I should just kill you anyway.”
“You’d miss me too much, Cartwright.” Shey gave a backhanded wave to the group at the table. “See ya, gents. I gotta borrow my pal, Joe.” Still grinning, he steered Joe away from the bunkhouse.
Relaxing enough to appreciate how his frustratingly cavalier friend had diffused the situation, Joe laughed. At the corral fence, Shey released him and pulled himself onto the top rail. His smile thinned to an amused glimmer. “I really kinda mess things up with your other friends, huh?”
“Shey, don’t be an idiot.”
“You know it’s true.”
“I don’t care if it is. Kyle, Thad and the others, they’re great guys, but . . .”
Shey arched a brow. “Yeah?”
Joe shrugged. Climbing onto the fence beside Shey, he rested his cider against his thigh. “It’s not the same. Let’s just forget it, huh? We didn’t come here to discuss Miss Beckinwade or Kyle’s crush on her. Why don’t we go find a couple of single gals and enjoy the night?”
“You’re reprehensible, Cartwright. Always got yer mind on one thing.” The grin came back, a little wider this time. He nodded into the distance. “Saw Callie with Cliff Thompson when I rode up. Never noticed before, but the man’s got a face like a weasel, pinched and stuffy. Looks like he drug out his Sunday best, got himself all pleated and perfumed like some big city dandy. Callie don’t like that sort.”
Joe laughed. “What sort does she like, Boss?”
Shey scowled. “You’re tryin’ me, Cartwright.”
“Ah, there you are!” Ben Cartwright materialized from the crowed, heading toward them, a broad smile on his face. “Shey, Mr. Rocherty and his wife wanted to meet you.”
Shey climbed down off the fence, doing his best to look presentable for Ben. Joe knew he didn’t want to meet the newspaper editor, but such obligations went hand-in-hand with being the second largest landholder in Nevada. Joe followed on his heels as Ben cleared the way to a small group of people. Introductions were made and Shey responded graciously, as much for Ben's sake as Adam’s, who stood nearby. Rocherty made a few comments about the Circle C and Shey responded dutifully if a bit blandly.
Joe was just getting ready to steer him off in the direction of some food--Shey behaving himself for more than a few minutes was tempting fate--when Rocherty looked behind him. “Elizabeth, I’d like you to meet the other rancher, Mr. Cartwright told us about--Mr. Shey Cutter, owner of the Circle C.” As he spoke, Rocherty guided a regal red-haired woman to the forefront of the crowd. “My sister-in-law, Mrs. Elizabeth Stengler of Baltimore, Mr. Cutter.”
For once in his life Shey appeared caught off guard. Momentary surprise flickered through his gold-flecked eyes and he grinned. “We’ve met.”
Rocherty looked startled. He rounded on his sister-in-law. “Elizabeth?”
Her smile was tart, a trace of vinegar in her eyes. “This is the buffoon I told you about, Dean. The one who so graciously helped me into the mud.”
“I didn’t realize you were married,” Shey inserted languidly.
“Widowed, Mr. Cutter, and that hardly makes a difference.”
“This is reprehensible,” Dean sputtered. He seemed at a loss over how to proceed. “To think a man could behave so crudely and be embraced as a friend. Adam . . . Ben . . . this man made a mockery of my sister-in-law.”
“Ah, don’t go gettin’ so riled,” Shey said, clearly disgusted. “She ain’t the first woman ever dropped on her keister for behavin’ like some hoity-toity know-it-all. If’n she listened to me in the first place, that mare wouldna bolted.”
Uncertain what all the commotion was about, Adam forced a placating smile. “Dean, I don’t know what happened, but I can assure you it was probably the result of a misunderstanding. Shey Cutter is one of the leading citizens of Virginia City and a close friend of my brother--”
“Joseph, why don’t you and Shey get something to eat,” Ben suggested with a meaningful jerk of his head.
“Right, Pa.” Joe snagged his friend by the shirtsleeve, hauling him away before Shey could cause more damage. His cocky friend tipped his hat to Elizabeth even as he was pulled along in Joe’s grip.
“Did you hear that?” he asked. “Your brother callin’ me one of the leading citizens of Virginia City. I bet ‘ole Adam’s wishin’ he had a bar of soap to wash his mouth out after that one.”
“Shey, what did you do that woman?” Joe whispered fiercely.
“Nuthin’ much.” Shey tugged free of his hold. Together they walked toward the rear of the house where Hop Sing and Hoss had set up the spit for the pig roast. “She got her buggy bogged down near Sable Creek, and didn’t wanna take any advice about how to get outta there. I let her struggle for a while . . . she mouthed off at me . . . the fool mare bolted like I knew it would, and--”
“--she fell in the mud?”
Shey stopped walking. “What kind of gent would I be if I let a woman like that fall in the mud?”
“You caught her?” Joe asked, more than a little surprised.
“Damn right I did. Then I dumped her on her hind end.” Shey grinned and started walking again.
Joe hesitated, torn between disbelief and amusement. When Shey glanced over his shoulder and cocked an eyebrow, Joe burst out laughing. He sprinted to catch up, hobbling a little on his bad leg. “You didn’t really?”
“I did. The prim thing was all high and mighty, mouthin’ on about eastern this and blueblooded that. Hell, Joe, she called me a hillbilly.”
Joe clamped a hand on his friend’s shoulder, physically having to hold himself up, he was laughing so hard. “A hillbilly? Oooooh, that’s priceless!”
“Stop howlin’, Cartwright. It ain’t that funny.” Shey grinned in concession. “All right, maybe a tad. When she finally got back in the buggy, all mussed and drippin’ with mud, I sorta kissed her.”
Joe stopped laughing. Instantly. “You what?”
“I figured it was the only chance I’d ever have, kissin’ a right upstandin’ woman like that. You know--all high falutin’ manners and tea socials. So I jest sorta reached in there and planted one on her.”
“Let me guess.” Joe straightened. “She cracked you across the face?”
“No, Cartwright, she crawled into bed with me. What the hell do you think she did?” He started walking again. “Damn, I’m hungry. That pig smells good.”
Joe hurried to catch up. “So how was it? The kiss I mean?”
Shey shot him a glance from the corner of his eye. “Right nice. You should give it a try sometime. Ooops!--forgot--you already got yerself a prim eastern bluebell. If memory serves right, you done a hell of a lot more than kiss. Can we eat now?”
Too used to his friend’s off color remarks to be angry, Joe shook his head in amused resignation. “Okay, Shey. We can eat now.”
Joe yawned and crawled from bed. He’d overslept by a good two hours, but Ben had granted everyone the luxury after the party went so late last night. There was a slight buzzing in his head, a reminder he probably should have stopped drinking sometime before the last few ciders.
It had turned out to be an enjoyable evening with dancing, laughing and horseshoe playing. He and Shey had beaten Kyle Gordon and Thad Dunkin five games out of seven, then lost the next three to Ben and Lucas Flint. Afterward he and Shey had found a number of willing ladies to dance with and they’d spent the remainder of the evening away from the more subdued groups who hovered around Dean Rocherty and his wife. Joe wasn’t sure when the party finally ended, he just knew that even after the last guest had left, he, Shey and Hoss had sat around on the front porch, joking and talking until after midnight.
Joe was sorry Henry Boone hadn’t shown up, but he was beginning to think that Jed Brooks had been mistaken about whom he’d seen in town. If Henry were around, he surely would have come looking for Joe.
Bleary-eyed he went through the motions of washing and dressing, wincing at the tenderness in his bad leg. The wound had yet to heal completely and he’d obviously overdone things last night. Still, it had been worth the fun, even if it left him feeling stiff and battered this morning. Limping slightly, he meandered downstairs to the welcome smell of coffee and bacon. His father and brothers, already at the breakfast table, looked as low-keyed and tired as he felt. Giving in to another yawn, Joe dropped into a chair at the table and reached for the coffeepot. “This looks like a lively group.”
“You ain’t exactly doin’ cartwheels yourself, little brother.” Hoss propped an elbow on the table and dropped his chin in his hand. “I must be getting old or sumethin’. I’m durn near too tired to eat.”
“Hoss.” Ben arched a brow at the offending elbow and it was quickly removed. His attention shifted to Joe. “You’re limping, Joseph. Is your leg bothering you?”
“It’s okay, Pa. A little too much dancing, I guess.” Joe swallowed a mouthful of coffee, pleased to note it lessened the annoying buzzing in his head, if not the ache in his leg. Buttery light streamed through the window onto the table, a little too bright, but pleasantly warm. He made a mental note not to let Hoss spike the cider in the future. His large brother had a higher tolerance for alcohol than most and tended to overlook that when lacing whiskey.
Rubbing his eyes, Joe looked at Adam. His oldest brother, unlike the rest of them, appeared marginally awake. No doubt he’d remained with Dean’s group throughout the evening, wholly refined, sipping punch with an occasional cider to offset the boredom. Then again, Adam, thrived on intellectual discussions and probably found Dean’s company a refreshing change of pace. “So what did Dean think of the party?” he asked. “After all that preparation, I hope it measured up.”
Hunched over his plate, Adam nodded. He speared a forkful of pan-fired potatoes and followed them with a gulp of black coffee. “It gave him a good chance to meet everyone . . . really introduce him to the town. I think he was surprised we went to so much trouble.”
Joe chuckled. “I was just grateful for the party. Any excuse works, you know.”
Ben looked at his youngest son. “You and Shey had a good time.”
“Shey and I always have a good time.” Feeling a little better, Joe heaped eggs, potatoes and bacon onto his plate. Still hot, steam rose from the food and warmed his face. The day was starting to shape up, now that last night’s fog was clearing from his head. “Did you see Callie Garrett with Cliff Thompson? That’s a mismatch if I ever saw one.”
Hoss raised his head, startled. “Cliff’s a good guy,” he volunteered.
“Better than Cutter,” Adam mumbled. “At least Cliff won’t dump Callie in the mud.”
Remembering Shey’s story of the previous night, Joe laughed. He was suddenly feeling too good to be annoyed by Adam’s attempted dig at Shey. “Hey, did you know Mrs. Stengler actually called Shey a hillbilly?”
Hoss guffawed. “Oh, Lordy, that’s plum! I wish I could’ve seen the look on that rooster’s face.”
Adam scowled. “He didn’t make a very favorable impression on her.”
“I guess not, getting dumped in the mud and all.”
Hoss and Joe burst out laughing. Seated at the head of the table, Ben looked quietly between the two. “You think that’s funny, Joseph?”
Joe straightened. With effort, he bit silent his laughter and shook his head. “No, Sir.” Of course it was funny. It was damn funny knowing Shey as he did, but he figured it probably wasn’t the wisest move to point out the humor to his father. Across from him, Hoss looked away, pursing his lips to swallow back laughter. Ben shot him a glare and he sobered quickly.
“Boys.” Ben drew a breath for patience. “I don’t think the lady in question found the situation very amusing. Fortunately both she and Mr. Rocherty were dignified enough not to cause a scene last night. I think it would be wise, however, and certainly appreciated, if Shey apologized.”
Joe blinked. “Why are you looking at me, Pa?”
“He’s your friend,” Adam inserted.
“Which is why I know he isn’t going to apologize. And which is exactly why I’m not going to ask him about it.”
Ben gathered his coffee cup and leaned back in his chair. “You can ride over this morning after breakfast, Joseph.”
“--or you can stay here and help clean up last night’s mess. And then start on those repairs to the barn roof you should have done last week.”
Joe huffed out a sigh. “Pa, that ain’t fair. That’s blackmail.”
Ben grinned pleasantly. “Yes, I know.”
Scowling, Joe went back to his breakfast. The appeal had vanished, even the sun soaking through the window wasn't as pleasant anymore. If everyone was so riled over a little thing like mud, imagine the reaction if anyone learned Shey had brazenly kissed Mrs. Stengler. She’d obviously kept that bit of information to herself, or it would have come out by now.
Resigned to doing his part, Joe nodded. At least it was better than working on the barn.
Shey heaved a breath and flung the last sack of grain into his wagon. He remembered a time a few short years ago when a late-night party meant he would have slept through most of the morning. His father would have ranted about his laziness, but even lectures had rolled off his back with little effect in those days. Now it was different. The Circle C was his, and he was responsible for seeing everything ran efficiently and on time. That meant if he couldn’t pull men off a brush job for a run to the general store, it was up to him to see that it got done.
Still feeling the effects of over indulging last night, Shey braced his arm against the wagon and hung his head. Hoss Cartwright must have been the one who spiked the cider. Had to be, the way his skull was clanging this morning. He dragged a hand through his longish hair, settling his hat more comfortably on his head. The brim felt like a steel band, growing tighter and tighter with every passing second. He remembered palling with Joe, dancing with half a dozen girls and kissing Lily Krenshaw behind the Cartwright barn, but he didn’t remember riding home.
“Last time I ever touch cider Hoss Cartwright had his hands in,” he mumbled. Dragging himself back into the store, Shey made his way to the counter. His boots clunked against the plank boards, raising a raucous in his ears. Wincing at the noise, he ground his teeth together and tried to concentrate. The jarring wagon ride into town hadn’t helped his already jangled nerves, and lugging and loading supplies had set his stomach churning. “You got my list, Sally?” he asked the petite blonde behind the counter. “I’ll sign off and be on my way.”
She flashed him a smile, entirely too chipper and pert. Probably sipped punch all night and batted them blue eyes at Hoss. There was no true commitment between them, but Sally Linden and Hoss Cartwright routinely spent social gatherings at each other’s side. Shey vaguely recalled her cheering Hoss on when he and Joe had teamed against Hoss and Kyle Gordon in horseshoes.
“Here you go.” Sally passed him a sheet of paper. He rubbed his eyes when the letters crammed together. “You look a little off, Shey,” she observed sweetly.
He shot her a glance, but the brimstone in his expression had no effect on her genuinely agreeable manner. Just like Hoss, he thought sourly. No wonder they’re so blasted suited fer each other. Probably take a cattle stampede to rile either one of them into flinchin’. “Just not awake yet,” he muttered.
Sally was still smiling. “I saw Callie at the Cartwright party last night. She looked awfully pretty.”
“Didn’t you think so?”
When his eyes flashed to her face this time, her smile faltered. “Didn’t notice,” Shey snapped. He signed off on the paper and passed it back to her. “Tell your pa that should hold me for a spell, ‘cept that back order of wire. I’ll check with him next week and see if he’s got any word on it.”
Sally’s head bobbed up and down in quick agreement. “I didn’t mean anything by it Shey,” she offered hurriedly when he started to turn away. “It’s just Callie’s a friend, and everyone in town was under the impression the two of you were on the path to getting wed.”
“A hillbilly like him?”
Shey turned at the intrusion of the icy cool voice, surprised to see Elizabeth Stengler in the general store. She stood just inside the doorway looking entirely too refined and cultured in a formfitting blue gown trimmed with extravagant whorls of navy lace. Her hair was pinned at the back of her head, twisted into a fashionable upsweep beneath a small blue hat.
Shey leaned into the counter. “Well, if it ain’t the lady who don’t know how to handle mares. Liz, ain’t it?”
Behind the counter, Sally gave a small gasp. Shey chuckled and flecked a finger against his hat. “Mizus Stengler,” he corrected, striding past her.
Outside the sunlight struck his eyes, wedging a knife in his head. He moved to the buckboard, lacking his usual light-footed agility and began to unfurl the tarp he’d attached to cover his supplies. He heard footsteps behind him and glanced over his shoulder to find Elizabeth Stengler standing at the edge of the boardwalk. “You’re becomin’ like a reccurrin’ dream . . . or maybe a nightmare.” He flashed a thin smile, all he could manage with his head pounding the way it was. “Don’t let me interfere with your shoppin’ none. I know we don’t got all those fine silks and fancy do-dads you got back east, but us hillbillies get by.”
The hint of a smile flitted around Elizabeth’s lips. “I’ve only met one hillbilly in Virginia City, Mr. Cutter.”
“Then you should know us backwoods folk ain’t formal. Call me Shey.”
“I can think of a dozen other things I’d like to call you.”
Tugging down the tarp, Shey gave a low whistle. “You can spar with the best of ‘em, huh? Must have kept yer husband walkin’ circles ‘round you day and night.” He threaded the tie downs through the rear of the wagon. “Jest so you know, I’ve got a way of changin’ people’s opinions about me.”
“Like Joe Cartwright?”
“Ah, so you know about me and pal Joseph?” Folding his arms across his chest, Shey leaned back against the wagon and angled his head to gaze up at her. He had to admit she made a mighty fine sight standing on the boardwalk, looking more refined than any woman had the right. She was pure siren to tempt a man’s soul, leading conquests willingly astray with one sultry glance of her aquamarine eyes. Whereas Callie had turned his head with her youthfulness and vigor, this woman was like fine crystal and scented silk rolled into one. Shey had the feeling that given the chance, he’d find something passionate and surprisingly feral tucked beneath that overly correct, icy exterior.
“I got an earful last night about you and Joe Cartwright,” she explained patiently. “About your past together, and how you went from town bully to respected landowner.”
Shey snorted. “There ain’t no respect involved. It’s called tolerance. All these right-proper business folk and town merchants know which side their bread's buttered on. Next to Ponderosa money, it’s the Circle C keeps Virginia City afloat. I ain’t down-playing anyone else, jest sayin’ I know why people shake my hand, then mutter behind my back.”
“I think you’re doing yourself a disservice.” Elizabeth stepped from the boardwalk onto the street, pausing at his side to survey the tarp-covered wagon. She smelled of rosewater and lavender and some exotic scent he couldn’t quite place. “Most people spoke very highly of you last night, Mr. Cutter.”
She met his eyes. “Shey.”
The concession made him feel slightly less defensive. He supposed it was understandable a woman accustomed to society galas and eastern tearooms would naturally take objection to his rough-around-the edges manner. He certainly hadn’t been on his best behavior yesterday. “I probably shouldn’t have dropped you in the mud,” he conceded.
She raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “Is that all you’re going to apologize for?”
He thought a moment then grinned. “You want me to apologize for kissin’ you?” Instantly, his streak of impulsive brashness returned. “Sorry, no can do. I was kinda hopin’ for second shot at that one.” He shifted to face her, the grin inching upward into something crooked and devilish. “’Course yer brother-in-law would get all squawky about it, and you’d likely haul off and hit me again. I ain’t overly fond of gettin’ my face cracked.”
Her smile surprised him. “Maybe you wouldn’t.” She held out her hand. “Good day, Mr. Cutter.”
Caught off guard, Shey groped for something to say. Had she really just insinuated what he thought she’d insinuated? Bewildered, he closed his fingers over hers, felt the warm heat of her hand through her delicate blue glove. She smiled thinly then collected her skirts and turned away, stepping back onto the boardwalk and into the general store.
Shey stood gaping stupidly. Of course she hadn’t meant he should try to kiss her again. She was just toying with him like fancy, bored women sometimes liked to do. Eastern fillies had a way all their own. Hadn’t he tried to warn Joe time and again about that she-witch Lorna David? This one was no different, probably worse. Most likely she was hoping he’d do something stupid and forward so she could make a fool of him for it. Well . . . she was going to have one hell of a long wait.
Collecting the reins to the buckboard, Shey climbed into the seat. “Giddup,” he told the workhorse. The wagon lurched forward on its long trek back to the Circle C. Distracted, Shey cast a parting glance over his shoulder. Elizabeth Stengler was nowhere in sight, but a thin man with a thatch of strawberry hair and glasses stood where his wagon had been.
Shey narrowed his eyes, squinting. From a distance he couldn’t be sure, but the man looked a little like Joe’s old friend, Henry Boone.
When he looked again, the man was gone.
“She did what?” Joe was sure he’d heard wrong. He watched as Shey wrestled a sack of grain off the rear of the wagon, heaved it over his shoulder, and carted it into the barn. Too stunned to follow, he loitered at the buckboard, replaying the impossible conversation he’d just had with his cocksure friend. He’d come hoping to maneuver Shey into a spot where he could diplomatically suggest an apology to Elizabeth Stengler was in order. Now, not only had he discovered his friend had already apologized, but that the supposedly “affronted woman” had responded with a forward suggestion of her own. He never would have guessed a proper society matron like Elizabeth Stengler had it in her.
“I’m tellin’ you, Cartwright,” Shey’s voice drifted from the interior of the barn. “She wants me to kiss her again.” He returned swiping a sleeve across his brow, grown sticky with sweat in the burgeoning heat of late morning. He flashed Joe a blinding smile. “My guess is all that hillbilly charm jest got to her.”
Joe wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh or scoff. “Shey, you’re no more a hillbilly than I’m a riverboat gambler.” He leaned back against the corral fence, watching as his friend manhandled another sack of grain onto his shoulder. Scowling, he pulled a tie-down free of the tarp and fiddled with the end. “I guess she could just be lonely. Adam says she’s been widowed six years, and her husband was a lot older. Maybe there wasn’t a lot of romance in her marriage to begin with.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of heat,” Shey shouted back.
Joe paced into the barn, trailing the tie-down against his leg. “That attitude right there,” he poked a finger at Shey, “is why no sensible woman of refinement is gonna hook up with you. There’s a difference between romance and rolling around in the hay.”
Shey heaved the sack of grain into the corner where a sizeable pile had already formed. “Cartwright, I can’t believe you walked in here empty handed. I got a wagonload full of grain out there and no hands around to help.” He gave another shove, manhandling the oversized sack onto the top of a pile stacked chest-deep.
With a sigh, Joe pulled off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. “What I wanna know is how come I’m always the one helping you?”
Shey sent him a cocky smile. “’Cause you jest can’t resist my natural charm. And gettin’ back to what we were talkin’ about, I know the difference between romance and lust--lessen you’re talkin’ to Callie, that is.”
Outside, Joe heaved a sack of grain onto his shoulder. “What does that mean?”
“Like she ain’t told you?”
“Told me what?”
Shey scowled. “Come on, Cartwright . . . I know she’s been talkin’ to her girlfriends and a few others in town, sayin’ how I ain’t got a passionate bone in my body.”
Joe dropped the sack back onto the wagon. “That’s not what she said, Shey.”
“Okay, then suppose you tell me what she did, ‘cause I know she talked to you.” Shey leaned against the buckboard, propping his arm on the side, his expression a mixture of challenge and seriousness.
Joe felt like he’d just stepped into the mud bog at Sable Creek. His loyalty was to Shey, not Callie, but he still felt trapped in the center. Any discussion about Shey and his inability to commit to women was bound to end badly. Sooner or later that conversation would boomerang back to Lincoln and Patricia Cutter and their failed marriage. Joe could see the determination rising in Shey’s gold-flecked brown eyes and knew he was headed in that direction himself. Trying to stave off the inevitable he held up a hand. “What’s it matter? I thought you were through with Callie anyway?”
“Damn straight I am.” The answer came rapid-fire and lightning quick. “If she wants to fawn all over rat-faced Cliff Thompson, let her. He’s got more wind than a bull in green corn time.”
“Is that why you were kissing Louise Morton behind the barn last night?”
“Shows how much you know. It was Lily Krenshaw.”
“Her too. And from what I hear, one or three others.”
“What of it?” Shey turned back to the buckboard, violently wrenching a sack from the top. Rather than heave it over his shoulder he dropped it at his feet. “You sayin’ I’m getting too reckless, Cartwright? Not proper enough fer you?”
With effort, Joe bit back a retort. It was obvious Shey was spoiling for a fight, but he couldn’t figure out why. Between his growing philandering and an attitude that pushed the limits lately even for him, something was gnawing at him. If Joe had a guess, he’d say that something had to do with Callie Garrett and her new relationship with Cliff Thompson. Trying to stay calm, he wet his lips. “I’m saying you’ve been going to a lot of trouble lately to make sure everyone in town knows you’ve still got what it takes to be resident bully.”
Shey’s lips thinned in a sinister smile. “What’s the matter, Cartwright? You’d rather pal with Kyle, Thad, and their gang? Nice, safe friends who toe the line and keep their noses clean? Maybe yer brother’s right about me. Maybe I jest ain’t no good.”
Joe’s temper cracked. “You’re being stupid. And Adam never said that.”
“Close enough.” Shey heaved the sack over his shoulder and stalked into the barn.
Fuming, Joe sprinted behind him. He didn’t understand how a harmless conversation about Elizabeth Stengler could degenerate into ugly observations about Shey’s less than savory attitude. Last night they’d been closer than ever, joking, enjoying the party. Now they were one step shy of physical violence. “Shey.” Joe shoved his friend in the middle of the back, forcing him to drop the sack and spin around.
“Lay off, Cartwright!”
“Not ‘till you face facts. For weeks you’ve been tromping around with a burr under your saddle. If you’ve got a problem with Callie seeing another man why don’t you do something about it? She’s still here. She hasn’t left town.”
“I told you I’m done with that gal. Ain’t no way to hitch a swan and a coyote. Keep yer Ponderosa nose outta it.” He moved to pick up the sack, but Joe’s own temper had boiled over and was beyond repair. Gripping Shey’s shoulder, he wheeled him around and shoved backward. Hard.
There was something almost satisfying in the look on his friend’s face when he blundered into the nearest stall. For a moment the anger surging between them was painfully familiar. If Joe had stopped to ponder it he might have sickened at the sensation, but he was beyond caring. Shey’s arrogance was part of his character, something he’d learned to accept, but this bitterness went beyond willfulness and conceit. It was downright ugly.
Anger flared in Shey’s eyes, but surprisingly he held his temper. “I ain’t gonna tell you again, Cartwright.” A finger jabbed in Joe’s direction. “You’ve had yer say, now get outta here. Scamper back to yer Pa and brothers, and Kyle and Thad while you’re at it. I ain’t got no use for you no more.”
“Like you ain’t got no use for Callie? You are one mule-headed, cantankerous sorry son-of-a-bitch, you know that, Cutter?” He stooped and swept up his jacket, anger, hurt and betrayal tangling together. Scamper back to . . . Kyle and Thad while you’re at it. I ain’t got no use for you no more. The words cut through him like barbed steel, bullet-cold and forge-hot combined. Acid churned in his stomach until his anger spiked corrosive and sharp. “It’s a good thing Callie got out while she could, because you’re right--she would have left you eventually. You’d drive anyone away. Must be what your Pa did to your Ma.”
He didn’t know where the venom came from, only that it spewed like some ugly wound. He and Shey had butted heads before, even traded blows since their lopsided friendship began, but this was different. Joe turned from the barn, feeling like a line had been drawn . . . that he’d been the one to initiate it, crudely severing the unlikely connection they’d once shared.
Before he’d taken two steps into the light, Shey plowed into him, driving him into the ground. He grunted at the impact, rolling quickly to the side, but wasn’t swift enough to stop the snap of Shey’s fist against his cheek. His head rang with the echoing crack of the blow. Recovering, Joe gripped his friend by the shoulders, wedged his good leg between them and catapulted Shey over his head. He scrambled to his feet, spitting mad and ready to pummel the source of his frustration. He took a swing at Shey and sent him reeling a second time. The problem was they were too closely matched. Every blow he landed on Shey was landed in return.
Three minutes into the fight, Joe stood breathing heavily, his bad leg throbbing with pain. Shey plowed into him, thrusting him back against the corral fence. Somehow he mis-stepped and his leg buckled under him. Shey’s weight carried him forward and the full force of his boot heel slammed into Joe’s thigh. Joe felt flesh give as blood gushed to the surface, sticky and hot. He clamped his teeth together, biting down hard. Both hands instinctively went to his leg, curling the wounded limb close to his chest. He shifted away from the fence, somehow managed to wedge his shoulder against the wheel of the buckboard.
“Cartwright, what’s wrong?” Shey clawed his way to his feet, his brusque tone underscored by a thread of concern. Disheveled, covered in dirt, he braced one hand on the fence. His knuckles were scraped and raw, and an ugly bruise rose under the fringe of his long bangs.
“Nothing.” Grimacing, Joe pulled himself upright. He hobbled a moment, testing his leg, painfully aware of the blood soaking his pants.
“Nuthin’, hell, you’re bleedin’. Let me help--” Shey took a step forward.
“Don’t bother.” Bitterness bled through in Joe’s voice. He didn’t understand how his friend could shift gears so quickly when his own anger was still bone-raw. Worse was the ugly sting of betrayal, something that cut far deeper than stubbornly locking horns. “You ain’t got no use for me, remember?”
“Shit, Joe, quit being such a cantankerous ass and let me help you. You need to tie off that wound ‘fore you ride back to the Ponderosa”
“I can handle it myself.” He limped to the entrance of the barn and retrieved his jacket, then stooped to pick up his hat, knocked off in the fight. Through it all, Shey watched with narrowed eyes, his expression a hostile mix of agitation and concern.
Grim-faced, Joe walked to Cochise and gathered her reins. It took every ounce of strength he had to mount, his leg dripping blood and pinging with fire, but he was determined not to ask Shey for help. The reopened wound brought back unwanted memories of six short days ago when he’d been near senseless with cold and fever, and Shey had been the one to pull him through.
“All right, Cartwright, that’s enough.” Irritated, Shey snagged the reins, forcefully holding him in place. “You’re the one actin’ horns and rattles now. Climb down off that mare ‘fore you keel over. Ain’t no way you’re gonna ride back to the Ponderosa with that bum leg.”
“You know what, Shey? It’s just too damn exhausting being your friend. I can manage fine on my own.” He pulled hard on Cochise, wrenching the reins free. The mare lurched forward, bolting into the wind, kicking clumps of dirt in her wake. The jar of movement sent a hot lance of pain shooting up Joe’s leg. For a moment he almost expected Shey to follow. For a moment he thought the effort might patch the rift in their friendship.
But the tear was too big this time, the damage too deep. All ugliness and anger aside, what he’d said was true. Staying friends with Shey was a continually exhausting effort, one he was no longer certain he wanted to undertake. If he wasn’t defending Shey to his family or someone else, he was constantly navigating the quicksilver nuances of Shey’s off-the-cuff personality. There was a lot of giving on his part of the friendship, but not an equal amount of taking. He was growing tired of being the one to always make allowances and excuses. Sure they’d had some laughs together, but how long could two people on opposite ends of the spectrum really remain friends? Especially when one steadfastly refused to yield.
Unwilling to give his arrogant friend a second’s more thought, Joe bent low over Cochise and rode for home.
Shey slammed the front door behind him and stalked into the living room. He wanted to hit something. Not just once or twice, but pummel it into pulpy oblivion. Preferably something that reminded him of his rocks-for-brain friend, Joe Cartwright. Instead he poured himself a glass of brandy and paced in front of the fireplace.
The idiot was probably lying halfway between here and the Ponderosa by now, toppled from his horse, busted leg streaming blood. “Well, hell, he deserves it,” Shey muttered. “He shoulda listened to me. Dang fool shoulda let me help him.” He gulped a mouthful of brandy, irritated when it kicked the semi-hangover he’d started on that morning up another notch. Coupled with the pummeling he’d taken from Joe, he felt as battered as a tin can.
He paused in front of a mirror, taking a moment to study the damage to his face. One ugly bruise at the corner of his left brow, a split lip and a few scrapes. A far sight better than a bum leg streaming blood. Shey swore.
He hadn’t wanted to get into that fight. As riled as Joe had made him, he’d held his temper as long as he could. He’d just spent an agonizing night a week ago patching Joe together. The last thing he’d wanted to do was be responsible for taking him apart. The problem with Cartwright was once he got his dander up, he didn’t want to let go. He reminded Shey of an old bulldog his brother had when they were kids. Chance said it was friendly as pie most of the time, unless you crossed it, then it turned meaner then spit.
Joe was like that. Joe had always been like that. Even when they were kids he could spin his emotions on a dime. Shey wasn’t really sure what had aggravated him so much about Joe when they were younger. Maybe it was just all that upstanding Cartwright conscience. He’d surely lacked for it as a kid; hadn’t cared if he’d find it as an adult. But somewhere he’d dug it out underneath the arrogance and conceit, surprised it had even existed. Somewhere along the line his father had drummed something worthwhile into his head.
Disgusted, Shey slumped into the sofa, shoving his brandy aside. How had he let a simple conversation plummet into an argument that ended up with him hurting Joe? No excuse. He should be shot for getting into such a moronic fistfight with his best friend, especially when he knew that friend was still recovering from a bad wound. They’d traded some blows--bad enough--but that busted up leg was another matter. He felt sick inside just thinking about it. It wasn’t like he had other friends lined up at his door, and even if he did, none of them would compare to Cartwright. Joe took a lot of guff from him, even more from others for standing by him.
Truth be told, he’d just been in a lousy, piss-poor mood over Callie. He had been ever since she’d laid down that stupid ultimatum and he’d called her on it. He’d gone out of his way to prove he didn’t need her, snuggling up to any woman willing enough to fall into his arms. He’d even picked up some of his old patterns of destructive behavior, flaunting his recklessness for the whole town to see. Too proud to admit that he might be jealous of Callie’s relationship with Cliff Thompson, he’d directed his anger at Joe--the one person who’d stood by him even when he’d been at his worst.
“Shit.” Despondent, Shey hung his head, cradling it between his hands. Maybe he did have a problem with commitment where women were concerned. Joe hadn’t grown up with a mother, but at least he’d had the comfort of knowing she’d loved Ben. His own mother was different, with a past as black as the night was long. His father should have known better than to marry a half-Sioux dancer from a medicine show. There was no changing a woman like that.
She’d given him her blood. Maybe there was no changing him either.
Shey jerked upright at the sound of a knock on the front door. It was getting close to noon, and most of the hands would be breaking for lunch soon. They’d stay in the pastures, at the chuckwagons rather than return to the bunkhouse. The knock meant a visitor or--
Shey lurched to his feet. Maybe Joe had come back.
Sprinting from the room, he raced into the foyer, his heart hammering in his chest. It was stupid to get so worked up over one impossible friendship, but he couldn’t help himself. Joe had either come to his senses, or he was seriously hurt. Near frantic, Shey wrenched opened the door. “Cartwr--” The name died on his tongue as surprise gave way to mild interest. “Miz Stengler?”
She tilted her head. “What happened to Liz?”
Confused, Shey looked behind her. “What are you doin’ here? You didn’t see Joe Cartwright a minute ago did you?”
“No, Mr. Cutter, I didn’t. And I’m here because I’d like to talk with you.” She waited. Longer than anyone in polite society would expect to be kept waiting. “May I come in?”
“Huh?” Snapping back to the present, Shey realized he should do something remotely host-like. “Oh, yeah.” He held open the door. “Come on in.” Even as she stepped inside, he craned his neck for one last look, hoping against hope to see Joe riding back. With a sigh of resignation for the vacant landscape, Shey shut the door and led his guest into the living room.
Joe wasn’t sure how he made it back to the Ponderosa. He was sweating with exertion and no small amount of pain when he saw the house rise in the distance. His father’s horse was out front, a sure sign he’d never make it to his bedroom where he could clean up unhindered. There would be questions, concern, and the inevitable “Joseph, what happened to your leg?” Resigned to the situation, he left Cochise tethered out front, slid awkwardly to the ground and limped into the house. He wasn’t sure what hurt worse--his leg, his pride, or what little was left of his friendship with Shey.
The Great Room was deserted, giving him a momentary glimmer of hope. If he could just get cleaned up, take care of his leg before anyone was the wiser, he could avoid a host of unwelcome questions. Walking quietly, he headed for the stairs.
“Joseph?” Ben’s voice drifted from the study.
Joe came to a halt. Unable to relax, he stood with his back turned, hands balled into fists. “Pa, I’m just going upstairs.”
“Did you see Shey?”
“Yeah. Everything’s taken care of. He apologized to Mrs. Stengler.” He started forward again, anxious to be away. He could feel blood dripping down his leg, felt momentarily light-headed as the long ride caught up with him. He still had his share of work to do, something he was going to have to pull off if he wanted to pretend he was fine.
“Wait a minute, Joe.” The tread of Ben’s boots against the floorboards stopped him at the bottom of the steps. A second later he felt his father's hand settle on his shoulder. “That’s a little too easy, isn’t it? I expected you to say Shey--” He stopped suddenly, catching sight of the dark stain on Joe’s thigh. “Joseph!” The hand on Joe’s shoulder tightened in alarm. “What happened to your leg? Sit down--”
“Pa, I’m fine.” His voice came out entirely too clipped. He tried to shift into weary mode, not dreadfully hard to do, considering he was exhausted. “It was just an accident. I . . . I stopped to clear some brush on the way back from Shey’s place, and uh . . . fell on some rock.” Agitated by the lie, Joe jerked away and raked a hand through his hair. He hated lying, especially to his father. It made him feel worse than before, but the truth was something he couldn’t discuss. Not now. “It’s not that bad, Pa. I just wanna go clean up.”
Ben hesitated. “Joe, maybe Doc Martin should take a look. If that wound gets infected again--”
“Look, I said I’m all right!” Anger came through this time, a crackling surge that had him tightening his hands on the banister. As quickly as it struck, it left him feeling drained and remorseful. He bowed his head, his breath catching in his throat. “I’m sorry, Pa. It was a long ride. I’m tired.”
Ben nodded. He moved his hand behind Joe’s neck, rubbing affectionately, trying to ease the stiffness lodged there. “I suppose you banged up your face when you fell too?” When no answer was forthcoming, he heaved out a sigh. “Go clean up, Little Joe. If you feel up to it later, you can help me with the books. Looks like you got yourself out of that barn repair job after all.”
Joe’s eyes slid to the side, green and heavily lashed. “Pa, I can still--”
“I don’t want you on the roof,” Ben interrupted firmly. He gave a handclap to Joe’s back. “Now go take care of that leg. Have you forgotten the rededication ceremony at the International House is tomorrow night? You need to be in shape for that if you plan to attend.”
Joe nodded. Yesterday he would have looked forward to another excuse for nightly entertainment, but everything felt different now. Shey wouldn’t be attending anything so upper-end, but they’d talked about meeting at the saloon afterwards. Forcing a wan smile for his father, Joe trudged up the steps. He could probably bow out of the rededication ceremony for the Virginia City Herald. He had the perfect excuse with his leg banged up the way it was, and dinner at the International House with businessmen and politicians for company wasn’t exactly his idea of a fun night. Still, if he skipped the event, his father would fuss over him and likely dig deeper, wanting to know how he’d messed up his leg so badly.
Once in his bedroom Joe eased himself into a chair. Most of the blood had dried on his pants, but he could still feel sticky rivulets leaking from the wound. It hurt more than he wanted to admit . . . more than he’d ever admit to Shey Cutter. Closing his eyes, he leaned back against the chair, taking a moment to simply rest. It seemed impossible the man who’d comforted him the first time he’d been hurt, was the same man responsible for hurting him now. He knew that sooner or later the truth would have to come out about their fight. When that happened, Adam would be at the head of the line to point out the certain collapse of their glaringly skewed friendship.
Sighing, Joe bowed his forehead into his hand. Why did everything with Shey have to be so blasted difficult? Joe knew he was partially to blame for what had happened, maybe even mostly to blame. He’d said some horribly spiteful things, but every barbed comment had been prompted by Shey’s blunt dismissal. Scamper back to Kyle and Thad while you’re at it. I ain’t got no use for you no more.
A few short years ago he would have been only too glad to boot Shey Cutter from his life--permanently. Why did it hurt so damn much now? Waffling between anger and the stinging bite of betrayal, Joe reached for the water pitcher on his nightstand and began the painful task of tending his leg.
“I ain’t the best company right now,” Shey said as he trailed his guest into the living room. Hell, he wasn’t the best company on most days, but felt closer to brimstone and acid since his fight with Joe. Callie would have stayed clear and Joe would have tried to lighten his mood. But hotheaded-impulsive-as-sin Joe was the whole reason he felt like skinning a bearcat. Preferably one as highly ticked off and unstable as he was, with an ornery cuss for a friend.
Scowling, Shey snatched up his glass of brandy and walked to a marble-topped table holding the decanter. “Offer you a drink?”
“No, thank you.” Elizabeth Stengler perched on the davenport, looking entirely at ease in the ornately furnished room. Like the architectural lines of the house itself, Lincoln Cutter had copied the upscale drawing rooms of his beloved Philadelphia when he’d come west. Shey had considered replacing the lavish furnishings numerous times, but had never quite gotten around to it. Some hidden part of him knew it was the memory of his deceased father holding him back.
“Your house is very . . . surprising,” Elizabeth commented with a glance for the room. “After meeting you the other day, I would have expected something more . . .” Her lips stretched in an engaging smile. “ . . . rustic.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.” Shey knocked off the brandy and poured himself another glass. He wasn’t in the mood to fence, less to pretend civility. Dean Rocherty’s sister-in-law might be a looker, but she was also irritating as hell. “What do you want, Liz?”
Elizabeth tugged off her gloves, showing no affront at his crude familiarity. She ignored the question altogether. “What happened to your face?”
“Nosy, ain’t you?” Shey left the decanter and his glass, slumping into the nearest chair. He didn’t want to get drunk, but he didn’t feel like trading questions either. With effort he shut his hostility down and fell back on his customary impertinence. “Now, I know you didn’t ride all the way out here to worry yer pretty head about a bruise or two I got in a scuffle. My guess is you came lookin’ for another kiss.”
“You really are stuck on yourself, aren’t you Shey?” Surprisingly, she didn’t seem the least offended by his comment. Her lips lifted in a half smile. “You’re not exactly far from the truth.”
That caught him off guard. “Huh?”
Standing, Elizabeth paced to the window, her exquisite blue gown swaying gently with the movement of her hips. “I wouldn’t want you to become openly enamored of yourself, but I admit to finding your bluntness a refreshing change of pace.” Slanting a glance over her shoulder she waited for her statement to sink in. “We didn’t meet on the best of terms, but I’m willing to overlook the incident at Sable Creek.”
Unable to follow the inane conversation, Shey shook his head. “You ain’t makin’ sense.”
“It’s simple.” Elizabeth turned to face him. “I’m expected to attend the rededication ceremony of the Herald tomorrow night. It’s being held at the International House.”
“I know all about it.”
“Well, then you know it’s not exactly an event one would choose to attend alone. Particularly if one happens to be an unattached woman and a stranger to Virginia City. The evening would be considerably more . . . tolerable . . . if I attended with an escort. All those businessmen and politicians . . .” The hint of a smile flitted around her lips again. “I’d rather not spend all night turning away advances.”
Shey chuckled. “And you got the gall to say I’m stuck on myself?” Locking his hands behind his head, he reclined, crossing his feet at the ankles. “Sorry. I don’t do snitty dinners. All that kow towin’, handshakin’ and elbow rubbin’ grates on my nerves.”
“You’re the second largest landholder in Nevada, Shey. You belong at that ceremony.”
He snorted. “Like a skunk belongs at a quiltin’ bee. Why don’t you jest take Adam Cartwright? Ain’t he a friend of yer brother-in-law, Mister Three Name?”
“I told you . . .” She moved to the chair next to his, sitting on the edge. “You’re different.” Reaching forward, she touched his arm, her aquamarine eyes lively and direct. “I’m tired of the same posturing stuffed shirts, town after town. Adam’s a dear friend, but he’s a gentleman, Shey. I’m not sure I want a gentleman.” She leaned forward, unintentionally giving him an eyeful of flawless cleavage.
Okay, maybe intentionally, he amended. His mouth was suddenly dry. Saloon girls he could handle, Callie he could handle, but a sophisticated woman nearly ten years older--hell, if he wasn’t careful, he’d end up like Cartwright and his snooty femme fatale.
He hated highbrow uppity affairs, but damn, she looked good and she was all but falling into his lap. How bad could one night be?
Deciding to test the waters, he dropped a hand behind her neck and pulled her forward. She came willingly, silken eagerness and seductive heat. Their lips met then his mouth was over hers, tasting summer and spice, the cool satin of proper refinement. Her elegant breeding melted in a heartbeat. Shey dragged her to her feet, deepening the kiss, feeling the awakening edge of restless passion. Her arms went around his neck, holding fast, her body arching deliciously into his.
Some rational part of his mind told him he needed to have his head examined, that no proper woman behaved so wantonly. But the part of him that was tired from his fight with Joe, that wanted to forget and selfishly indulge, simply didn’t care. She was here and she was willing. And despite some stolen kisses and heated caresses with his ever-changing girl-of-the-moment, he hadn’t actually been with a woman since--hell, he couldn’t remember. And he’d never been with Callie.
The thought sobered him. Callie wasn’t the kind of girl you carted off to the bedroom. Callie was the kind who stole your heart for a lifetime. He wouldn’t even consider pawing her. She probably lined floppy ragdolls on her bed and wore cotton nightgowns, never perfumed lingerie.
“Liz . . .” Shey drew back. “Maybe this ain’t such a good idea.”
But why the hell not? Callie was off making doe-eyes at weasel-boy Cliff Thompson, probably batting her eyes and oozing sweet innocence. She’d laid down an ultimatum--marriage or else. Maybe she wasn’t as girlishly virginal as he thought. The memory of that stiflingly unfair ultimatum trampled over his conscience until there was little left.
“Do you want me to leave?” Elizabeth asked. Her lashes dipped low over her eyes, her face upturned to his, full lips parted and moist. Shey was painfully aware of a growing tightness in his pants. He cupped the creamy column of her neck, tilting her head back. She was rich, probably powerful. Was it any wonder she played so recklessly? He slipped his hand into her hair, tugging the pins free, feeling the cascade of cinnamon silk tumble about her shoulders.
“No,” he said hoarsely. Fisting his hand in her hair, he closed his mouth over hers. Hunger and heat pushed him forward. With a muffled groan, Shey folded her back onto the couch, arm and knee braced on the edge as he towered above her. He deepened the kiss, felt her yield to the probe of his tongue, her hands knotting in his long hair. It wasn't the place to make love, but then she wasn’t exactly the woman he wanted in his arms.
Lowering his head, he nuzzled her ear. “I do have a bedroom, you know.”
Her fingers found the buttons on his shirt. “Then maybe you should take me there.”
Joe tried to keep to himself busy for the remainder of the day and most of the next. Hoss and Adam made inquiries about his leg when he limped down to dinner but he was able to deflect them by turning the discussion to the rededication ceremony the next night.
When the evening arrived, Joe’s leg actually felt worse than it had the day before. He knew if he stayed behind, Ben would call off his plans to attend, an unacceptable outcome in his opinion. His father generally enjoyed refined dinner parties and had been looking forward to the event for sometime. In addition, he was slated to officially introduce Dean Rocherty prior to dinner.
Moving stiffly, Joe dressed in his fitted blue suit and black dress boots. A pristine white shirt, ink-black string tie and velvety black hat with studded silver band completed his attire. Fancy dress, Hoss called it, yet his brother was just as “duded up” in a camel-colored jacket and burgundy vest shot through with gold thread. Adam and Ben wore gray and navy respectively, each man looking immaculately tailored and fit. Adam left early to meet Dean and his party, while Hoss, Joe and Ben followed later.
The event was invitation only, but that didn’t stop a number of curiosity seekers from lingering outside the International House. Men and women alike gawked through the windows, watching as fashionably dressed guests mingled indoors. Trays of fluted champagne glasses and piping hot hors d'oeuvres were circulated by an expanded wait-staff in the lobby. A step away, the main dining area sported circular tables set for groups of six. White linens, blush china and crystal stemware gleamed in the bronzed glow of candle and lantern light.
Dean Rocherty, his wife, and Adam were already in the lobby by the time Joe, Ben and Hoss arrived. After a brief greeting and a moment or two of idle conversation, Joe grabbed a glass of champagne and wandered over to the staircase leading to the guestrooms. The ride to town had aggravated his leg, settling a bothersome ache into the still-healing wound. Needing to take his weight off it, he sat on the third step from the bottom, stretching his leg out in front of him. Not exactly proper etiquette but he didn’t feel like explaining himself. Nearby a heavyset man in a dark green suit cast him a disapproving glance before returning to his conversation with three others.
Okay, definitely not proper etiquette. He thought about getting up and realized it would be harder than sitting down. He didn’t want to embarrass his father or brothers, but damn, his leg was hurting and standing on it for the next half-hour or so until dinner was served was out of the question. He should have known what the ride into town would do.
“Hey, Joe.” Hoss wandered over to his side. His brother pursed his lips, looking a little askance at his unusual choice of seating. There were a few chairs in the lobby lined against the walls, but they were generally reserved for women and the elderly. “You okay, little brother?”
“Never better.” Joe smiled tightly and took a sip of his champagne. He was beginning to think he shouldn’t have come. He didn’t feel much like socializing with his leg pinging the way it was, and the incident with Shey still fresh in his mind. Maybe he could bow out early and slip over to the saloon.
“I guess Shey ain’t comin’ tonight,” Hoss commented, leaning against the banister.
From the corner of his eye Joe became aware of Ben frowning in his direction, a sure sign his father found his bold casualness inappropriate. He knew his father had no idea how badly his leg was hurting and likely thought he was simply being impertinent. Maybe he really should try to get to his feet, dust himself off and look presentable. He grunted something unintelligible to Hoss and tried to calculate how difficult it would be to stand.
“Well, I’ll be,” Hoss muttered. “Lookee there.”
Gripping the banister, readying to pull himself up, Joe raised his head. A number of men in the room had paused to look at the front door where Elizabeth Stengler entered with her escort. Dressed in a cranberry gown with plunging neckline and delicate silver thread, she commanded the attention of almost everyone in the room. But it was the man at her side that made Joe tense unexpectedly.
The last person he expected to see at a lavish, invitation-only dinner party was Shey Cutter. Yet there he was at Elizabeth’s side, obviously her escort for the evening. Joe couldn’t remember ever seeing Shey dressed so impeccably--black pants and tailored coat with a fitted crimson vest, white shirt, and charcoal string tie. He even had his good black hat, the one with the hammered gold band, offset by diamond-shaped chips of onyx. His long bangs all but concealed the bruise above his left eye, but his lip was split and puffy.
Hoss chuckled. “Hey, Joe, did you know he was gonna be here? Looks like he tangled with a polecat. Even so, can’t rightly recall when I saw a struttin’ rooster transform so smartly into a peacock.”
Joe bit down on his lip. Shey glanced in his direction and he felt heat flood his face. Between his father’s disapproval of his unorthodox choice of seat and Shey’s unexpected appearance, he felt abruptly pigeonholed. Before he could move, Shey excused himself from Elizabeth and headed his way.
“Ain’t you the pretty peacock, busted lip and all,” Hoss cracked when he drew abreast. “My, my, my!” Making an elaborate show of looking him over, Hoss stepped back and swept him from head to toe. “Surely this ain’t the same loudmouthed ruffian who pals around with my little brother?”
“Don’t rightly know.” Shey sent him a flippant grin before his eyes sidled warily to Joe. “Cartwright. How’s your leg?”
Joe gave a curt nod, quickly swallowing a mouthful of champagne so he wouldn’t have to answer.
“What are you doing with Miss Elizabeth?” Hoss asked.
“She invited me, mud bog and all.” Shey took his hat off and swept a brisk hand through his hair. “Look, Joe, I need to talk to you--”
For the first time Hoss seemed to realize something was wrong. His eyes shifted between the two, noting tension that hadn’t been there just moments before. “Hey, fellas, something wrong?”
“Nuthin’ yer idiot brother can’t fix.” Scowling, Shey looked at his friend. “Ain’t rightly the best place to be sittin’, Joseph. You’re gonna have all these uppity folk waggin’ their tongues, sayin’ you must be insolent sittin’ there like that. Probably think I rubbed off on you.”
Joe shot him a black look. “Let’s hope not,” he said bluntly. Then realizing Hoss was unaware of the friction between them and how he’d really gotten hurt, he cleared his throat. “It’s easier than standing . . . since I, um . . . messed up my leg falling on that ledge of rock.” Awkward, he looked down at his hands. “Maybe you should go find your date,” he mumbled.
“Joseph.” Ben appeared from the crowd, clearly more than a little agitated. Lowering his voice, he leaned in close. “This isn’t a barn dance. Is there a reason you’re sitting there like that?”
“No, Sir.” Hanging onto the railing, Joe pulled himself upright. He grimaced, leaning into the banister for support. Blood drained rapidly from his face as pain flared the length of his leg. At last Ben and Hoss seemed to realize what was wrong.
“Your leg,” Ben said with sudden understanding. “Of all the confounded--” Concerned, he slid a hand beneath his son’s arm. “You need some air.”
“I got him, Mr. Cartwright.” Before Joe could object, Shey had taken Ben’s place, holding onto him, steering him purposefully toward the door.
“Let go.” Joe tried to pull away but Shey kept a firm, restraining grip on his arm
“No can do, Cartwright. Stop fussin’ before you make a scene and ruin Dean’s swank to-do.”
Irritated, Joe clamped his mouth shut and let himself be steered through the throng of party-goers clustered in the lobby and the group of onlookers at the main doors. Once outside, Shey pulled him away from the crowd, butting him back against the building.
“Now, Joseph, you and I are gonna have a talk.” Standing directly in front of him, Shey leaned forward and planted his hand against the clapboard siding, effectively blocking his path.
Joe grew immediately defensive. “I don’t have anything to say to you, Shey.”
“Ah, quit bein’ such an infernal snit, Cartwright. I’m tryin’ to apologize. You think I wanted to mess up your leg?”
Joe looked away. He wasn’t sure what he thought, only that his leg was hammering with pain and it was steadily growing worse. His knee felt like it wanted to fold beneath him, too sore to hold his weight. Any other time he would have been tempted to lean into Shey for support, but that was out of the question now. He’d found a fresh chunk torn from the wound when he’d cleaned it yesterday, adding to the damage already done. It seemed impossible he’d spent an evening dancing and playing horseshoes just two nights ago. It also seemed impossible he could be this angry and hurt at his closest friend. Especially over something so stupid. I ain’t got no use for you no more.
Even now the sting of that remark was painfully fresh. “Maybe you should go find Elizabeth,” Joe muttered.
Shey looked at him intently. All trace of flippancy was gone from his eyes. “Joe . . .” He lowered his arm and took a short step backward, the aggressiveness fading from his posture. “You gotta know I’d never hurt you intentionally.”
“Yeah, sure.” Joe’s eyes flashed to his face. Hostility tangled with the pain streaking through his leg, making him bite off words in anger. “But you did. You don’t even get it, do you? It’s not this--” He motioned to his leg. “It’s that damn cocky arrogance you use to push people away. I’m tired of being one of those people, Shey. I ain’t just some yokel on the street. I thought I was your friend, but you were damn clear about not having any use for me anymore.”
“Oh, hell. Is that what this is about?” Shey shook his head, disgusted. “Cartwright, you oughta know better than to put stock into what I say when I’m riled. You don’t see me demandin’ you take back that crack about my Ma and Pa, do you?”
Joe flushed. He knew he owed Shey an apology for that one. Rightly so. He was the one who’d kept digging and prodding until he’d pushed Shey over the edge into a fistfight. But it all came back to Shey’s attitude lately, the way he dismissed others so casually. Even the one person who was supposed to be his closest friend.
Joe shouldered past him. “I’m going back inside. Do what you want.” He heard Shey swear softly, but didn’t bother turning around. Sweat trickled down the side of his face and he swiped it away. The pain was starting to sour his stomach, make him feel light-headed and fatigued. He thought about bowing out for the remainder of the evening, collecting Cochise and riding home, but was afraid he’d never make it on a horse.
It was crowded inside the lobby, difficult to move without bumping shoulders. Feeling oddly claustrophobic, Joe squeezed near a window thankful for the thin draft of air trickling inside. His face felt flushed and hot, his palms sticky with sweat. Hoss and Ben found him a few minutes later and he managed a shaky smile. “I’m fine, Pa,” he assured when his father openly studied him. “I guess the ride was a little too much.”
Ben gave a jerk of his head toward the dining area. “Go sit down, Joe.”
Surprised, Joe glanced through an adjoining archway into the empty room with its linen-covered tables. “Wouldn’t that be rude?”
“I don’t care if it is. You obviously shouldn’t be on your feet.” The hint of a smile touched his lips as he raised his head to glance through the crowd. “Why don’t you get Shey to sit with you? I know he won’t mind doing anything that flouts convention.”
“I don’t need a babysitter, Pa.”
Ben glanced at him sharply, startled by the acid in his voice. “Joseph?”
Realizing he’d blundered, Joe shook his head tiredly. “Shey’s with Elizabeth Stengler. Apparently his apology was more charming than anyone could have guessed. He’s her date for the night.”
Hoss chuckled. “Still can’t figure that one out. It’s sorta like pairing a polecat with a swan. Hey, look . . . the dining area’s open after all.” Hoss pointed the way and Joe realized the wait-staff had begun to seat guests for dinner. Slowly the throng moved from the lobby into the main room, directed around tables for six. Hovering near the window until the crowd thinned, Joe was one of the last seated. He found himself at a table just off the main archway, seated with Hoss, Ben, Adam, and much to his dismay, Elizabeth Stengler and Shey Cutter.
Shey flashed him a grin across the table. “Ain’t this a cozy group.”
Because he didn’t want to get into an argument in front of his family, Joe did his best to pretend there was nothing wrong between them. Fortunately there were a handful of speeches given before dinner, so Joe didn’t have to do much except sit and listen. He stretched his leg out to the side, finding it less painful if he didn’t bend it. The mayor spoke first, followed by a number of leading businessmen who gave glowing statements of what Malcolm Dean Rocherty and his wise direction would do for the Virginia City Herald. Ben was given the honor of introducing Dean, and after a short speech by the man of the hour, dinner was finally served.
Joe appetite was almost completely gone. It was well past eight o’clock, and he found himself not only tired, but slightly nauseous as well. His leg felt on fire, swollen with heat. When champagne was served, he turned it down and requested cold water.
Ben paused in the middle of slicing a thick steak. “Joe, are you feeling all right?”
“Fine, Pa.” Joe kept his eyes on his plate, absently pushing peas and carrots around with the tines of his fork. Not exactly the proper use for polished silver. More marks off for bad etiquette. Maybe Shey really is rubbing off on me.
Seated beside him, Adam glanced across the table at Shey. “I guess you heard Joe hurt his leg again.” He cut a piece of steak so precisely, it might have been shaved clean with a blade. “Fell when he stopped to clear brush, coming home from your place. Judging by that split lip you got, I thought maybe you fell too.”
“Guess we’re both kind of clumsy,” Shey said quickly.
Joe knew where Adam was headed with the conversation. He also knew his father and brothers had likely figured out he’d lied when he’d told them how he’d been hurt. Between the tension at the table, the telltale bruises he and Shey shared, and his own silent disregard of his one-time friend, there was little need for guesswork. The only one who seemed unaffected was Elizabeth Stengler.
“That’s the nice thing about clumsiness,” Ben commented. His eyes swept between Joe and Shey. “There’s no real damage done, and mistakes can easily be repaired.”
Joe frowned. He knew what his father was attempting to do, but surliness made him difficult. “Not if it’s chronic,” he snapped. “Some people are just naturally clumsy. Nothing you do is ever gonna change them.”
“So why try?” Shey shot back. “Seems pretty damn pointless to me.”
Ben heaved a sigh. From beneath his brows, he exchanged a look with Adam and Hoss. Both had been watching the exchange with a stupefied kind of interest as if unable to believe what they were hearing. Joe had expected Adam to jump on the bandwagon, but his brother actually seemed disappointed to find him at odds with Shey.
“If I may make an observation,” Elizabeth Stengler inserted smoothly. The only one of their party, who wasn’t put out by the hostile undercurrents circulating their table, she seemed entirely at ease. She smiled politely to have their attention. “It’s been an interesting few days in Virginia City . . . especially meeting some of the more . . . colorful of your residents.” Her lips tipped upward as she glanced at Shey. Reaching for his hand where it rested on the table, she twined her fingers with his. “The gala the other evening in honor of my brother-in-law is a prime example. So nicely done, Mr. Cartwright.”
“We were happy to oblige,” Ben said courteously.
She smiled. “I’m afraid when you’ve traveled as widely as Dean and I have, visiting all manner of cities on the journey here, entertainment can become, well . . .” She tilted her head, searching for the right word. “ . . . commonplace after awhile. I think that’s why I enjoyed your party so much . . . something other than the usual stuffy affairs like tonight.”
Shey gave a small snort at the observation. “I woulda thought you’d like all this fancy refinement, Liz.”
Adam nearly choked on his champagne. “Liz?”
Elizabeth lowered her eyes, biting away an embarrassed smile. “I’m afraid Shey has a way of cutting to the chase. No one’s ever called me ‘Liz’ before.” Her eyes shifted to Ben. “And that’s the kind of refreshing camaraderie I felt at your party, Mr. Cartwright. I remember watching Joe and Shey play horseshoes and thinking they must have been friends forever. People just don’t have that kind of connection unless they’ve shared a lifelong bond.” She looked between the two. “I couldn’t believe my ears when Mrs. Rollinger told me a completely different story about childhood rivals.”
Shey seemed to have missed her point entirely. “You watched us play horseshoes?”
Her lips threatened a smile. “You’ve had my attention ever since you dropped me in that mud bog, Shey. And now if you’ll excuse me.” She pushed back her chair. “It seems that people have started socializing and I really should visit my sister and her husband.” Bending forward, she kissed Shey lightly on the lips. “You’ve been an enchanting date, but if you need to take care of other matters, don’t let me stop you from leaving.”
Shey watched her stroll away. “What the hell did that mean?”
Ben cleared his throat. “Joseph, you don’t look very well. I think you should head home. Hoss can rent a buggy. I don’t want you riding . . . or driving,” he said firmly. “I’ll bring Cochise later.”
Joe started to protest, than thought better of it. His head was swimming, the pain in his leg morphing into something prickly and hot. He had no appetite, had barely touched his food, and didn’t want to think about another few hours of rubbing shoulders with society guests. Beside, leaving would give him an excuse to get away from Shey. He wet his lips. “All right, Pa. If it’s okay with you, I think I’ll walk down to the livery stable now and have Clyde start hitching up a buggy.”
Ben nodded and Joe left as quickly as he was able, collecting his hat and parting without a backward glance for Shey. He was limping badly by the time he reached the livery stable. Ten minutes later a buggy was hitched and ready to go. Joe paid Clyde then climbed into the seat, struggling to keep his eyes open as he waited for Hoss.
Five minutes later he heard the tread of footsteps at the rear of the buggy and felt Hoss hitching his horse to the back. His eyes grew heavy and he left them drift shut. “ ‘Bout time,” he mumbled as Hoss climbed in beside him. The seat gave under his weight, but not nearly with the impact it should have. The vehicle lurched forward and Joe opened his eyes.
“Cutter! What the hell--” Joe wheeled in the seat, looking behind him, but it was Shey’s gray gelding tethered to the rear of the buggy. He made a grab for the reins. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Shey batted his arm aside. “Hoss didn’t wanna leave the party, so I said I’d take you home.” He flashed Joe a toothy smile. “Don’t look so all fired put upon, Cartwright. I ain’t got the plague, jest your bootprints all over my back from being tramped on heel to toe. Trust me, you’ll survive the ride.”
“Fat chance of that. Give me the reins.”
“Ah, ah . . .” Shey made a clucking sound with his tongue. “Ain’t you forgettin’ what yer Pa said? No driving. Jest sit back and be annoyin’ . . . you’re damn good at that.”
Joe ground his teeth together. He thought of forcing Shey to stop. He could go back and get Cochise, blundering home on horseback. Realistically though, he knew the long ride would be too much for him. Worse, he’d enrage Ben if he did anything so stupid. The next time he saw Hoss he was going to have to butt heads with his interfering brother. Shey had probably asked to take Hoss’s place, and congenial meddler that he was Hoss had happily obliged.
Irritated, Joe sat back in the seat and folded his arms over his chest. Beside him, Shey started to whistle. He didn’t know what his friend hoped to accomplish by his stunt, but Joe was determined not to talk to him. He was surprised when Shey made no attempt at talk either. His friend was content to simply drive the buggy, whistling softly as the night closed around them. After a time, Joe’s eyes grew heavy again and he drifted off to sleep.
Sometime later he heard his friend’s voice, and felt a touch on his arm. “Cartwright? Wake up.”
Joe stirred, groggy and disoriented. The ranch house loomed in front of him, yellow light burning invitingly through the lower windows. Something soft cushioned his cheek making him reluctant to move. With a start he realized he’d fallen asleep pillowed against Shey, and that his friend had let him. Incensed, he wrenched away. “Thanks for the ride.” He tried to scramble from the buggy but in his haste to be away, his leg buckled beneath him, toppling him roughly to the ground.
“Damn it, Joe.” Shey clambered after him. “Quit bein’ so confounded difficult.” Hooking a hand under Joe’s arm, he hauled him to his feet. Before Joe could protest, he looped the arm over his shoulders and started walking toward the house. From the corner of his eye, Joe saw his lips thin in annoyance. His long blond hair was splayed over the sleeve of Joe’s blue jacket, and a flush of anger rode high on his cheeks. “I swear if I didn’t care about you so much, I’d crack you a good one.”
Joe balked, unable to believe he’d heard the words. . . . if I didn’t care about you so much . . . Too stunned to speak he let Shey maneuver him into the house and onto the couch.
“There!” Shey stood looking down at him. “Maybe tomorrow you’ll come to yer senses and we’ll talk this thing through without lockin’ horns. In the meantime, I’m callin’ it a night. I’ve had enough of yer piss-poor attitude to last a lifetime.”
Joe watched him tromp from the house, heard the door bang shut behind him. He wanted to be angry but he was too tired, and Shey’s comment about caring left him suddenly confused. Where the hell had that come from?
Tilting his head back, he stared at the ceiling. He thought about going upstairs and undressing but that involved strength he wasn’t sure he had. In a matter of seconds he was asleep.
Muttering beneath his breath, Shey started to untether Reno from the rear of the buggy. He’d met some ornery, stubborn people in his lifetime, but Joe Cartwright took the prize. He had every right to be hot after the comments Joe had made about his parents . . . comments that clearly crossed the line, yet he’d gone out of his way to apologize.
Apologizing to Joe Cartwright, for criminee’s sake!
A few short years ago he would have laughed his head off if anyone had even suggested such a ridiculous thing. But everything was different now. He hated being at odds with his friend. Yeah, he’d been pushing Joe lately, and he probably deserved what he’d got. He’d been pushing everyone, his mood increasingly soured by Callie’s dalliance with Cliff Thompson. Even having a woman like Elizabeth Stengler cuddle up to him beneath the sheets hadn’t taken the sting from his failed relationship. He’d loved Callie . . . sort of. Maybe. As close to love as he could get anyway, and off she’d scampered with a smooth-talking weasel. Just like his Ma.
He started to pull the reins free when he heard gravel crunch behind him. “Don’t even tell me you got up, Cartwright.” He half turned, a flicker of surprise registering when he caught a glimpse of strawberry hair and wire-rimmed glasses. Something heavy thunked against his head and the ground rose up to meet him.
“Joseph?” A gentle hand prodded his shoulder. “Come on, Joe, wake up.”
Blinking, Joe opened his eyes and saw his father staring down at him. Adam was somewhere in the background poking the fire and Hoss was just struggling out of his formal jacket. The shadows in the room had deepened, snuggled into corners where the glow from the fire couldn’t reach. Yawning, Joe sat up on the couch. “Pa . . . what time is it?”
“Half past midnight.” Leaning forward, Ben brushed a stray curl from Joe’s forehead. “You’ll sleep better upstairs. If Shey wants he can use the guest room.”
Joe shook his head. “He went home hours ago. How’d the party turn out?”
Ben exchanged a puzzled glance with his two older sons. None of them seemed very focused on the party after his comment. Ben looked at him closely. “Joe, are you sure about Shey?”
“Of course I’m sure.” He bristled, annoyed by the scrutiny. “He dropped me off a few hours ago, no thanks to Hoss.” He shot his brother a murderous glance, indicating they’d settle later. “Afterwards he went home. Or maybe back to town. Who knows what Shey does these days? For all I know he could be at the Silver Dollar, cozying up to any willing female he can find.”
“I don’t think so.” Adam took a step forward, ignoring the acid in his voice.
“Why not?” Joe threw his hands in the air, disgusted. “What is this--the whole family’s suddenly defending Shey Cutter?”
Hoss had walked to the door and drawn it open. He stood looking outside, his voice carrying back over his shoulder. “Joe, the buggy’s still here, and so is Shey’s horse.”
“What are you talking about?” Irked, he pushed from the couch. His leg flared, protesting the movement, and he bit down to silence the pain. Limping slightly, he hobbled to the door. The sight of the buggy, Reno still tethered placidly to the rear, sent a spike of unease rocketing through his stomach. Wetting his lips, he looked apprehensively at Hoss. “Did you check the guest room? Maybe he decided to stay and I didn’t notice.”
Behind him, he heard a door shut. “He’s not there,” Ben said coming around the corner. He’d obviously already anticipated that possibility.
“I’ll check upstairs,” Adam offered, heading for the steps.
Joe paced outside, suddenly feeling foolish for his earlier anger. The sight of Reno’s empty saddle had him growing fidgety and concerned. He tried to slough off the worry. His friend was probably in the barn, or maybe upstairs. Or knowing Shey, this was just another of his annoying hoaxes. Any moment now he’d come strolling around the corner of the house, laughing his head off over Joe’s mother-hen anxiety.
He walked to the edge of the porch.
“He’s not upstairs,” Adam said, appearing behind him.
In the yard, Hoss trailed around the buggy, inspecting Reno. Halfway to the rear, he stopped suddenly, bending to retrieve something from the ground. In the darkness Joe couldn’t tell what he’d found, but his stomach tightened another notch. Hoss paced to the porch and Joe’s eyes fell to the object in his hand--a black hat with a hammered gold band.
“There’s blood on it,” Hoss said somberly.
Joe bolted for the barn.
“Joseph!” Ben’s anxious shout trailed behind him, but he barely heard.
Each strike of his boot impacting the ground sent pain ricocheting to his hip. He ground his teeth, blind to the discomfort, every thought now focused on his missing friend. Breathing hard, he wrenched open the barn door and barreled inside. “Shey! Shey, are you in here?”
He half expected to hear a languidly voiced “Cartwright?” echo in return, but there was nothing. Just the mustiness of horse and hay, the soft stamp of a restless hoof on straw-littered ground. His father and brothers appeared in the doorway as he turned to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Ben asked.
“I need my gun.”
He started for the door, but drew up short when Ben refused to move. “Something’s happened to Shey. I’m going to look for him.”
“In the dark? With a busted up leg? We’ll report this to the sheriff, Joe. You can look for your friend as soon as it’s light.”
“Pa, that could be too late!” The tightness in his stomach rose to his throat, threatening to strangle him. He felt sick inside, twisted up. If anything happened to Shey after the way he’d treated him . . . “Pa, this doesn’t make sense. There’s lot of people who aren’t fond of Shey, but no one who’d . . .” He trailed off, unable to finish the thought. Blood, Hoss had said. Could it have been a drifter, or maybe a ranch hand with a grudge?”
“The best way you can help him is by not rushing into this blind,” Adam inserted quietly. “A few hours sleep isn’t going to hurt you, especially with that banged up leg. Hoss and I will ride into town and tell Sheriff Coffee what’s happened. We’ll organize a search party, look around in town. Get some sleep and at first light you can be rested and ready to go.”
Joe hesitated. Every instinct told him to saddle Cochise and charge into the night, but the more rational part of him knew Adam was right. The best way he could help Shey was by slowing down and thinking the ugly circumstance through. Who would have done this and why? Reluctantly he nodded, and lowered his head. Ben clapped a hand on his back.
“Come on, Joe.” Ben wrapped an arm around his shoulders and tugged him close. “If you’re going to be any help to Shey, you need some sleep. A few hours anyway.”
Ben steered him in the direction of the house and Joe allowed himself to pulled along. Damn, if he hadn’t behaved so stubbornly, Shey probably would have spent the night and none of this would have happened! Directly or indirectly, part of the fault was his. He only prayed he wasn’t too late to rectify things.
For him, and for Shey.
Shey woke to a horrendous pounding in his skull. He had a vague recollection of being manhandled onto the back of a horse, a memory of waking surrounded by darkness, the ground teetering beneath him, the sky reeling above. There were alarming gaps in his memory. . . holes that refused to be filled no matter how hard he concentrated.
A fog of gray light encompassed him, informing him the night had yielded to dawn. He shifted and found his movement restricted. Belatedly, he realized he was sitting on a dirt floor, his back pressed to a stone wall. Someone had dragged his hands over his head, tying them to a vertical support jutting from the floor. Disoriented by the pain in his skull, it took him a moment to realize he was confined in the basement of his own house.
“If this don’t beat all.” He dragged one leg back, bent at the knee, angling for leverage. Even with his foot under him, an anchor to push upright, there was nowhere to go. Shey sagged back against the dirt floor, feeling the rope bite into his wrists. From the corner of his eye he could see dried blood on his collar, knew more was caked and matted in his long hair. The room seesawed, threatening to upend. He closed his eyes and drew a shaky breath. No question someone had done a number on him.
“I ain’t got the voice to holler fer help, so you might as well show yourself.” It was true--his voice felt hoarse and raw, a raspy thread of what it normally was. Across the room, a tiny rectangular window allowed a pale stream of anemic light into his prison. He’d been in this room countless times, excess space used mostly for storage and unwanted supplies. No one bothered with it. Not his hands, his cook, or even his foreman. If he were missing, no one would think to look in the basement.
“Don’t rightly seem fair,” he observed to the empty room. “A prisoner in my own house.” There were battered crates, fencing materials, sacks of feed that had long ago spoiled. Dust lingered on everything, disturbed here or there by a recent footprint or handprint. The air was damp, a good ten degrees colder than outside. Shey pulled on the rope, shifting unobtrusively as he tested its strength. He was still dressed in his finery, clothes more suited for fashion than warmth. In another few hours, the pain in his head and the cold would combine to form a lethal combination. He figured he didn’t have the luxury of time.
“Well, whoever you are, you went to an awful lot of trouble,” he mused to the empty room. “I ain’t never been overly fond of guessin’ games, but I’d lay money it ain’t coin you’re after.”
“Finally--a somewhat intelligent observation.” The voice came from his left and was followed by the appearance of a short, stocky man with strawberry blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses. It had been six years, but Henry Boone hadn’t changed much. He still had a waxen look to him, his fair skin so cameo-soft he looked almost feminine. The only thing that was different was the gun strapped around his hips, the thick belt ill-fitting and awkward on his small frame.
Shey’s lips curled in a pointed smile. “Well, ain’t you the prodigal son.” Resting his head against the wall, he instinctively fell back on inbred flippancy. “I know I bullied you a time or two, Boone, but I don’t rightly recall doin’ anything that warranted this. Suppose you tell me why you got me trussed up like a Thanksgivin’ turkey?”
Drawing his gun, holding it before him in both hands, Henry Boone stepped in front of him. He looked uneasy and skittish, a green colt ready to bolt to safety at the slightest provocation. The gun trembled in his hands. “Shey C-Cutter.” Even his voice quavered, lurching up an octave when he spoke. “Things are different now, huh? Bet you didn’t expect me to be the one to tie you up like this.”
“You got me there, Boone. I can’t rightly figure why.”
Henry chuckled. He stepped to the side, looking Shey over like he was the trophy in a hunt. “I used to hide here when I was a kid. Your pa used to leave those storm doors on the south side of the house unlocked and I’d slip down here when the other kids were harassing me. You and Chance used to do that a lot, never knowing I hid right under your nose.” A nervous giggle slipped from his lips. “I told Joe about it once. He and Kyle were the best friends I had.”
Shey feigned nonchalance, leisurely crossing his legs at the ankles. “Times change. Joe Cartwright and I are friends now. Why do you think I was taking him home?”
Henry shook his head. “I don’t believe you. Joe was mad. He tried to get away from you. I saw him scramble out of that buggy.”
“He was hurt. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
“You’re lying, but it doesn’t matter anyway. This isn’t about Joe.” Henry’s lips curled in a sneer. “You think I’m dim-witted, but I know all about men like you . . . smooth talkers who take advantage of their looks.” The barrel of the gun bobbed up and down as he waved it in Shey’s face. “Women come easy for you, don’t they? Turn on the charm and they can’t wait to crawl in your bed. Well, Miss Elizabeth is different. You should have left her alone. She deserves better.”
Shey balked, certain he’d heard wrong. “Liz?”
“Bastard!” With a roar, Henry whipped his arm back and cracked the gun across Shey’s face. “Don’t dirty her name like that, you filthy scum!”
Shey crumpled under the impact. Stunned by the unexpected blow, he tried to clear his head. Blood streamed from a deep gash on his cheek, sticky and wet. He could feel it tracking down the side of his face, dripping from his jaw. His ears rang with a clamorous echo, rooting hot pain behind his eyes. Darkness waffled up from the ground and sent the room spinning on the rollicking tail of a kite. The ringing in his ears grew louder, tangling with light-headedness and bone-cold nausea. He pitched to the side, his wrists snapping tight on the rope, as he sucked down a ragged breath.
Incensed, Henry didn’t notice. “I know what you did. I followed her here. Watched from the window when you took her upstairs. A genteel woman like that and you soiled her--treated her like a common whore!” The gun descended again, blundering off the back of his skull, clipping his shoulder. Barely conscious, Shey groaned.
Henry’s hand fisted in his long hair, dragging his head to the side. Shey felt the cold press of metal as the barrel was jammed beneath his chin. “I’d kill you, but you don’t deserve to die so easily. She’s my woman! It was me she fawned over in St. Louis. She chose me from all the other men she could have had, and I followed her here. The others don’t matter . . . you don’t matter. She’s just forgotten how much she loves me.”
Shey ground his teeth together. “Henry . . .”
“Don’t talk to me! You’re going to die, Cutter, but I promise it won’t be clean. Scum like you deserves to suffer.”
There was only darkness,
punishing and engulfing, when Henry hit him again.
Word of Shey’s disappearance had seeped through town by the time Joe arrived shortly after dawn. Hoss and Adam were still with Roy Coffee, finalizing a search party. Joe was surprised by the number of men who volunteered, considering Shey wasn’t at the top of just anyone’s priority list. Still, the Circle C contributed to keeping Virginia City solvent, a fact that had many anxious for the safe return of its owner.
Joe checked his gun a final time before leaving Roy’s office, sliding it smoothly into his holster. The worn leather creaked as he clambered down the steps to grab Cochise’s reins from the hitching rail. His leg felt stiff, but it was usable. Despite the limited amount of sleep he’d had, he felt brazenly awake and alert. The air was cool this morning, seeping beneath the collar of his green jacket, whispering that winter was truly just a short breath away.
“Joe! Joe I need to talk to you.”
Elizabeth Stengler hurried from the hotel, her red-gold hair banner-bright in the gray half-light of early dawn. She was still dressed as she had been last night, but her exquisite cranberry gown looked wilted and slept-in, the hem dragging in the dust as she rushed across the street.
Joe paused with a hand on the hitching rail. Inside Hoss and Adam were finalizing plans with Roy and his deputy. Joe knew a search of the town was already underway but had thus far come up empty. Even the tracks found at the ranch vanished a short distance off the Ponderosa. Joe wasn’t certain where he intended to look first, but itched to be away. The longer he delayed, the greater the odds of harm coming to Shey. Elizabeth Stengler was just one more obstacle on the too-long path to reaching his friend. “Mrs. Stengler. What can I--”
“It’s about Shey,” she interrupted hastily. “I know he’s missing, and I thought that maybe . . .” She swallowed hard, a thread of panic reaching her blue-green eyes. “Joe, this isn’t easy, but there was a man in St. Louis . . . a banker. Dean, Rose and I spent a few nights, and he was so refreshing . . . not a bore like those men who usually chase after me.”
Joe didn’t have time for an off-color confession. Chafing to be away, he pressed his lips together. “Elizabeth what are you saying?”
“I became involved with him, just like I became involved with Shey. I’m afraid it’s a habit of mine . . . finding the man most unlikely. My husband was so traditional, so proper. It’s made me reckless, Joe.” She shook her head, annoyed that she had to explain. “I really did enjoy Shey’s company. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him, but I’m afraid Henry may have followed me from St. Louis. When I returned to my room last night I found a note from him swearing we’d be together for eternity. He said he knew that I’d . . . that I’d slept with Shey, and that the only way to rectify that was by killing him.”
Alarmed, Joe gripped her shoulders. “Have you told Sheriff Coffee this?”
She shook her head.
“Go!--now!” Joe pushed her in the direction of the sheriff’s office. Gripping his saddle horn, he swung onto Cochise’s back. He wheeled the horse around, throwing a backward glance over his shoulder. “Elizabeth! This man . . . what was his name?”
She paused on the boardwalk. “Henry. Henry Boone.”
The bottom fell out of Joe’s world. Jed Brooks had been right after all. Henry Boone had returned to Virginia City, but not with the intent of visiting old friends. With a grim nod, Joe spurred Cochise in the direction of the Circle C.
Shey had been missing for hours now. Joe had never known Henry to be vindictive, but when it came to Shey, he wasn’t willing to take chances. Every stinging remark he’d sent in his friend’s direction battered his conscience with remorse. He’d been stupid, stubborn and childish, too mulish to admit how badly he needed Shey’s friendship . . . wanted his friendship. The thought of Shey in danger was too frightening to contemplate.
Henry had once told him of a secret place he’d had in childhood. A place he used to hide when Shey, Chance and some of the other boys from town bullied him. They’d laughed about it, knowing it was tucked beneath Shey’s nose, in the basement of his own home. Henry could have taken Shey anywhere, but Joe was willing to bet he’d headed for the Circle C . . . back to the place he’d considered safe as a child.
Spurring Cochise to greater speed, Joe leaned low over the saddle. He prayed there was still time to reach Shey, before Henry did something they would both regret.
Shey had a different perspective when he came awake this time. He was still in the basement, arms pulled taut over his head and tied to the beam, but now his ankles were bound as well. A harsh, acrid odor permeated the air, collecting in his throat. It dragged a cough from his lungs, making him wish for a clean draft of oxygen. His head throbbed painfully and there was a dull ringing in his ears.
He shivered, chilled by the press of wet fabric against his skin. Groggily, he realized his clothes were saturated, doused heavily in coal oil. Even his hair was damp. Everything around him--crates, sacks, fencing material--had been soaked in the flammable liquid.
Shey swore. He jerked on the rope securing his hands, but even wet, it remained stubbornly resistant. The coarse hemp bit into his wrists, abrading the skin, refusing to yield. He shot a quick glance around the basement and found it empty. Odds were Henry Boone was lurking nearby . . . under the stairs or near the storm doors. Either way, he’d planned a grisly end for Shey.
“Henry . . . Henry, don’t be a blasted fool. Kidnapping’s one thing, but this’ll be murder. They hang a man for that.” When silence was his only answer, he tugged impatiently at the rope. Just his luck to cross paths with an infatuated, vengeful pup. A simple tussle under the sheets and suddenly he was someone’s prime candidate for a barbecue. It probably served him right cheating on Callie like that, but hell, she’d been cheating on him. He wasn’t the one who’d laid down the “we-get-married-or-else” ultimatum, all the while turning into a rabid wolf because he refused to be collared. It wasn’t like he visited a bordello every other night. Liz Stengler was the first woman he’d been with since . . . well, since he’d been with someone, and that was longer than he could remember. Pre-Callie for certain. He’d half feared parts of his anatomy wouldn’t work--the important ones anyway--but a man had a way of remembering when needed. He’d made damn sure Liz wasn’t going to forget him anytime soon. Too bad his memory of her was a few paltry minutes shy of being torched.
His musing was interrupted by scuffling off to his left. “Henry, I know you’re there. Settin’ fire to my place ain’t gonna change what happened.” He waited, listening for movement, but there was only silence. Sickened by the fumes from the oil, Shey turned his head to the side, breathing deeply. Acid clogged in his throat and he choked. “Damn it, Henry!” His eyes were watering now, the heavy reek of fuel like a vise around his windpipe. “Want me to tell you how I took her upstairs . . . to my bedroom . . . my bed.” His words came garbled, his voice raw.
“Shut up!” Henry Boone blundered clear of the staircase. One hand was balled around a lantern, the other around an unlit match. Both hands were visibly shaking. Shey decided, perhaps foolishly--he’d have to debate the merits of that later if he lived long enough--Boone angry and unbalanced was better than Boone vindictive and plotting.
“Ah . . .” A tired smile pulled at his mouth. “There you are, you weak-kneed lizard. Ain’t no wonder she didn’t want anything to do with a milksop like you.”
“I said shut up!”
“You’re still Bug-Eyed Boone, always gawkin’ at the gals, too timid to do anything.”
Boone’s face mottled with vivid splotches of color. “She loved me . . . in St Louis. She slept with me.”
“She felt sorry for you, sap.”
“That’s not true!” Boone lurched to the side, disappearing behind the stairs. “I’ll show you! I’ll show everyone!”
Shey heard banging and clanking, the hiss of something soft and sibilant. A moment later the heavy stench of sulfur struck his nostrils. “Boone!” There was a loud whoosh of air like a rush of wind trapped in a funnel. A blistering wall of heat struck him in the face. He heard the fire before he saw it . . . crackling, snapping, greedily spreading from corner to corner. Boone’s footsteps pounded up the steps and Shey heard the door slam. Black smoke billowed toward the ceiling, filling his lungs. He pitched forward against his restraints, gagging on the foul odor, struggling to suck down a clean breath. The pains in his skull boomeranged into his neck as the fire crept closer, a spreading ring of flame so hot it scorched his face. A few more feet and he would be engulfed, his saturated clothing going up like kindling.
“Shit!” Shey yanked on the rope, nearly ripping his arms from the sockets. He yelled at the top of his lungs, but the raucous roar of the flame drowned his voice. He could feel heat inside him, a living thing . . . blistering his lungs, scorching the raw tissue of his throat. Blood trickled from his bound wrists, soaking into the white cuffs of his shirt. Water streamed from his eyes. The fire hadn’t even touched him, yet he felt like he was dying, his chest ready to burst. Pressure wedged a toxic knife in his lungs, choking off what little air he had left.
He heard a door bang again, distant this time, from the wrong direction. The fire was closer, near enough that hot embers bounced on the dirt near his ankles. He couldn’t see, blinded by the water in his eyes, the horrible pressure in his chest. The pain was excruciating, a combination of hot liquid and barbed steel. All he could do was choke, certain he was coughing his lungs out. The tang of copper flooded his mouth. He tasted bile and ash, the forge-heat of angry flame. In his delirium he thought he heard footsteps nearby, felt the brush of a hand against his face.
“Shey.” Someone yanked at the rope binding him to the wall; tugged free the tethering restraints on his ankles. “I’ve got you, pal. Lean on me.” He was pulled to his feet, braced upright when he would have fallen. But there was too much smoke, too much fire. All he could do was cough as he was dragged toward the storm cellar steps. He nearly tripped over his own feet, his legs numb and unresponsive. Half conscious, he was pulled into the open air. He heard voices raised in alarm, the frenzied rush of pounding feet.
His legs buckled and he sank to his hands and knees, the grass cool and slippery against his palms. Someone bent over him, placing a steadying hand on his back. “Shey.” Fingers feathered through his long hair, brushing sweat-sticky bangs from his brow. His hacking grew worse, blood, smoke and bile clogging his throat until his lungs wheezed desperately for air. His clothing reeked of soot and sulfur, the astringent bite of coal oil. The combination made his stomach convulse through a series of dry heaves. Choking, he spat blood onto the ground.
“Take it easy.” The voice was low and familiar, spoken near his ear. People rushed past him, shouting for the formation of a bucket brigade. He could hear the roar of flame climbing higher, greedily consuming his home . . . the home his father had painstakingly built. Sickened, he groaned.
Someone was kneeling behind him. An arm tightened across his chest. “Shey, I got you. Shey I’m not going anywhere.”
He leaned gratefully into that warmth; closed his eyes and felt liquid seep from under the fringe of his lashes. His eyes burned as if fever-cracked and red. The gash on his cheek throbbed painfully, oozing a gory crust of blood over his soot-streaked skin. For a moment he simply rested, eyes shut, content in the comforting embrace of the person who held him. His hacking subsided to a flicker and he opened his eyes.
He should have known it was Joe. After all the squabbling and locking horns they’d done, in the end there was nothing stronger than their friendship. He leaned into Joe’s chest, too fatigued to support his own weight. A few feet away, ranch hands and wranglers struggled to save his home. He swallowed hard.
“Ah, damn it, Joe.” His voice was a thin whisper. “That’s my home goin’ up in flame.”
“I know.” Joe’s arm tightened around him, his voice grown murmur soft. “As long as it wasn’t you, Boss.”
Joe’s boot heels struck echoes from the floorboards as he paced from the kitchen into the Great Room. It was only early afternoon but it felt closer to nightfall. His leg was stiff and throbbed painfully whenever he put any significant weight on it. After a tiring search for Shey, he’d put in physically draining hours, struggling to extinguish the fire that had ripped through Shey’s home. Henry Boone had vanished, but the damage he’d done wouldn’t be easily repaired.
Joe stopped in the dining room, his mouth compressing in a frown. Shey was seated in the far corner of the couch, an elbow propped on the arm, chin resting in his hand. He stared vacantly into space, his pale hair still damp from the bath he’d taken. Brushed back from his forehead and wet, it looked two shades darker, a deeper gold like autumn wheat. Joe had given him clean clothes, a near perfect fit since they were practically the same size, Shey having only a marginal advantage in height.
“Hey, Boss.” Joe tried to force levity into his voice. Limping, he walked to the coffee table and perched on the edge facing Shey. With an exaggerated sigh of fatigue, he stretched his bad leg out to the side, letting the other bump up against Shey’s knee. “I think I could sleep for a week. How about you?”
Shey grunted something he didn’t catch. Joe hated the bleak look in his eyes, the downtrodden slump to his posture. The cut on his face had been cleaned, but it was deep, leaving an angry red slash angled across his cheek. Eventually it would heal to a barely-there scar, but for now it was an ugly reminder of what had happened. Given the chance, Joe would have throttled Henry Boone within an inch of his life for having tried to murder Shey.
His sigh this time was genuine. “Shey. I know it seems bad, but--”
“Bad?” Shey shot him a blunt look. “Cartwright, that lily-livered sap tried to make me part of an off-season fireworks display. He burnt my house down. My Pa’s home.”
“I know.” Joe drew an uneven breath. He hated seeing Shey this way. Gloom and his cavalier friend had no business co-existing. At that moment he would have given anything to have his swaggering, bold-as-brass, sometimes-troublemaker friend back again . . . abrasive rough edges and all. “Shey, you didn’t lose the Circle C, just your home--and even it’s not completely destroyed. The fire didn’t touch the east side of the house. My Pa’s already planning to send a crew over to your place tomorrow, to help with the repair work. The structural damage can be fixed. In the meantime, you’ll stay here.”
“Mighty convenient.” Dropping his arm to the sofa, Shey shook his head. “It ain’t like I’m not grateful, Cartwright. You and your family . . .” He lowered his eyes briefly. “Hell, you’ve gone out of yer way, but I can’t run my ranch sittin’ on the Ponderosa.”
“No one said you had to. Do what you need to at the Circle C, and in the evening you know you’ve got a place to come for a bed and a meal. Pa’s kinda giving me a few days off--” He motioned to his leg, grimacing a little as he moved it aside. “He thinks I need to give this some time to heal. Thought I’d shadow you for a while.”
“That so?” Shey’s lips tipped upward in a sly smile. “Who says I wanna whiny ass pup like you taggin’ along? You’re like to get all horns and rattles the splittin’ moment I sour yer mood--which by the way, seems to be Mondays and Sundays and everythin’ in between. You got a streak to try a nun’s patience, you know that Joseph?”
Joe raised a brow. “You ain’t exactly a saint, Cutter.”
“Ah, but I don’t get hotheaded. Just cocky.” His smile thinned, a glimmer of uncertainty entering his eyes. “Are we square, Joe?”
“Yeah.” Joe bowed his head. He inhaled shakily, remembering the gut-twisting fear he’d felt when he’d blundered down the cellar steps and seen Shey bound, surrounded by flame. A few more inches and the fire would have engulfed him.
He swallowed hard. Tortured by smoke inhalation, his lungs rasp and raw, Shey had stumbled along blindly in his grip when he’d dragged his friend from the basement. There had been such an excess of blood on Shey’s face and in his hair, the wound on his cheek bleeding profusely, that even freed from the fire, Joe had feared for his life. Every angry, selfish thought he’d harbored just a few hours before had died a violent death. Kneeling on the grass, one arm wrapped possessively around Shey, all he could think about was how close his friend had come to losing his life. Even now it twisted Joe’s stomach.
“Sorry for being such an ass,” he muttered. “I never meant those things about your Ma and Pa. If . . . if anything had happened to you . . .” His eyes flashed to Shey’s face. “When I dragged you out of that fire--”
“Don’t get sappy, Cartwright.” Shey dropped a hand onto his knee. “I’m jest glad we’re back on speakin’ terms again. You gotta way of growin’ on a person. ‘Sides, there ain’t another soul within fifty miles of Virginia City who’d put up with me the way you do. I’m sort of an acquired taste--like good Kentucky Bourbon.”
“I was thinking more of rot-gut whiskey.”
“You would.” Shey grinned. “Okay, I deserved that. ‘Specially since I whacked up yer leg. I ain’t feelin’ too mighty proud about that one.” The flippancy faded from his expression. Shifting his back into the corner of the couch, he angled to face Joe. “You saved my life, Cartwright. Ain’t the first time, and probably won’t be the last. Ain’t never had no one worry over me before. Time was, if’n I was missin’ nobody woulda thought twice about it. And they sure as hell wouldn’t have gone outta their way to see if’n I was breathin’. You ain’t like any friend I’ve ever had--not that I’ve had all that many.”
“What . . . a highly likeable guy like you?” Joe’s lips curled in amusement. “Don’t worry, Shey. You’re not exactly like any friend I’ve had either. Maybe that’s why we get along so well--” He grinned broadly. “Most of the time.”
Shey chuckled and the awkwardness between them melted completely. Like putting on a comfortable pair of old shoes, they fell into the easy back-and-forth banter comprising so much of their friendship. Joe didn’t realize how much he’d missed those ribbing exchanges, until now. In the past he’d had disagreements with Kyle, Thad and his other friends. They’d patched things up and moved on, but there’d never been a glaringly empty hole, like there had been when Shey’s companionship was missing from his life. It was scary and exhilarating to realize that one person could mean so much to him. Like Adam and Hoss, Shey had become an integral part of his life . . . not a brother born of blood, but more than any friend had ever aspired to be. The long and short of it was, Shey Cutter was simply irreplaceable
“ . . . so you know, Joseph,” Shey was saying, his head tilted to the side, strands of loose hair spilling across his brow. “The whole thing wouldn’t have happened if the woman hadn’t gotten so damn infatuated with me. Not that I blame her, mind.” Sly humor danced through his gold-flecked brown eyes. “I don’t normally kiss and tell, but she ain’t exactly virginal if’n you know what I mean.”
Joe nodded thoughtfully. “She told me about Henry and her relationship with him in St. Louis.” He hedged a moment, oddly uncomfortable. “I know she slept with you, Shey. I guess under all that finery and breeding, she’s really kind of reckless. The problem is, Henry’s in love with her.”
“And damn vindictive about it.” Shey let out an exasperated sigh.
“Well . . . he isn’t stupid enough to come onto the Ponderosa again.” Deciding the couch was more comfortable than the coffee table, Joe shifted onto the sofa, sitting beside his friend. Gripping his bad leg with both hands, he eased it onto the table, gratefully folding back against the cushions. His shoulder bumped up against Shey’s, but neither man made any attempt to move. “Sheriff Coffee has a posse out looking for Henry,” Joe said. “I doubt he’s had much practice eluding the law. He’ll probably be in jail by nightfall.”
Shey snorted. “Jail. The scum tried to burn my house. Hangin’s too good for him.”
“Yeah, Boss, I know.” Yawning, Joe slouched deeper into the sofa. The restless night and physically exhausting morning were slowly catching up with him. Warm, pleasantly comfortable, he hated to think about moving. A few minutes with his eyes closed was what he really needed. He let his weight sag against Shey, completely at ease to be supported by his friend’s shoulder. His eyelids drifted shut. “Don’t even think about moving,” he muttered.
Shey parted with an indulgent chuckle. “Go to sleep, Cartwright. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
It was nearing dinnertime when Callie Garrett finally worked up the nerve to drive her buggy to the Ponderosa. Rumor had it a jealous suitor had taken exception with Elizabeth Stengler’s choice of Shey as her escort for the rededication ceremony, and had tried to burn his house down.
She’d overheard snatches of
conversation all day long . . . “ got
outta there in the nick of time . . . lots of damage, gonna takes weeks to
repair . . . poor Lincoln Cutter must be turning in his grave, knowing his house
coulda been kindling . . . heard Joe Cartwright was the one who pulled Cutter
out . . . Boone soaked Cutter’s
clothes in coal oil ‘fore he set fire to the place . . . could have been real
bad . . . Shey’s already used up most of those nine lives he’s got . . .
The talk had gone on and on, wherever she went. Mercantile, post office, dress shop, bakery; no place was immune to the gossip fanning through Virginia City. There had been more too . . . whispered innuendo about Shey and Mrs. Stengler, but she turned a deaf ear, refusing to listen. She and Shey hadn’t parted on the best of terms, but she longed to see him. To make certain he was unharmed, if nothing else. The sad truth was she still loved him, even though she knew nothing would ever come of it.
He simply had no room for passion in his heart. Lust, yes, but he was terrified of love. Any relationship she had with Shey was destined to be superficial. He was swaggering and reckless, too cavalier for his own good. It was what she loved most about him, yet it was one of the things that kept him from committing to her. He wouldn’t let down his guard long enough to admit that maybe all women weren’t like his mother, that not all marriages were destined to fail. Even when he’d kissed her, there’d been no real emotion on his part. It was as if he’d simply been going through the motions. For all his raw energy, she didn’t think he was capable of basic passion.
And yet her heart was in her throat when she left her buggy standing in front of the Cartwright ranch house and walked slowly toward the door. Word in town was that Shey was staying with the Cartwrights until his own home could be rebuilt. She hated to think of Lincoln Cutter’s beloved Colonial ravaged by fire, but worse was the knowledge that Shey could have been killed. Despite all that had been between them, especially their distance of late, she wouldn’t rest easy until she knew he was safe.
With a breath of resolve, Callie knocked firmly on the door. After a moment she heard footsteps on the other side, and the door was drawn open by Joe.
“Callie.” He seemed surprised to see her. He looked tired, worn, with smudges of shadow under his normally vibrant eyes. His hair was a little ragged, stray chestnut strands curling haphazardly over his collar and brow, adding to the fatigue in his eyes. It was no wonder he looked so disheveled, considering he’d been the one to pull Shey from the fire. Gone was the smooth-talking charmer with the breezy smile, the man who had most of the girls in Virginia City waiting breathlessly for one promising glance of his dark-lashed eyes. This man looked troubled, a step shy of exhaustion. She knew he and Shey were closer than friends, more like brothers. Odds were Joe had spent a string of restless hours fretting over Shey’s safety.
He stepped aside and held the door for her. “Come in.”
She smiled hesitantly, stepping past him. “I hope I’m not interrupting. I know it’s near dinnertime, but I wanted to see Shey.”
As if on cue, her one-time boyfriend rounded the corner looking a little sloppy in blue jeans, boots, and an untucked green workshirt. An angry red gash slanted across one cheek and a yellowing bruise marred the skin above his eye. Callie gave an involuntary gasp at the sight of him, uncertain if she was elated to see him whole, or distressed to see him injured.
“Callie.” Shey came to a dead halt. “What are you doing here?”
Her mouth was suddenly dry. “I . . . I wanted to talk with you.”
“Um, look . . .I’m just gonna go take care of some things upstairs,” Joe interrupted. Clicking the door into place, he stepped around Callie, shooting a leery glance at Shey. “You two have fun chatting. Uh, Callie, you’re welcome to stay for dinner.”
He was gone before she could answer, walking swiftly if somewhat awkwardly toward the staircase. She noted he was limping as he climbed the steps, one leg stiff and cumbersome. Within seconds her attention cycled back to Shey. He hadn’t moved, standing at the corner of the dining room, his expression snagged between irritable and curious. The gash across his cheek looked angry and red, painful, if she thought about it. She wanted to touch him, brush her fingers lightly across his cheek, feel the rugged silk of his long hair. Instead she stood rooted to the spot.
He cleared his throat. “Ain’t you strayed a tad far from yer dandy beau? What’s his name--Tiff Clompson?”
“You know perfectly well what his name is,” Callie said. She felt a sliver of anger at the snide remark and quickly tamped it down. If she expected this to be easy, she should have known better. Shey thrived on playing rattlesnake, something he’d spent most of his life perfecting. “I heard what happened,” she admitted truthfully. I was worried about you, crazy out-of-my-head worried. She swallowed, careful to stay centered and poised. “I wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Yeah, well, you can see I ain’t battered none too fiercely.” Shey tromped past her to the buffet just inside the door. He picked up his gunbelt, looping it onto his shoulder. Before he could retrieve his hat, she laid a hand on his arm, restraining him.
“We should talk,” she said simply.
He sent her an arch look. “I’m all talked out, Cal. You had yer say and I had mine. You wanna walk down the aisle, you need to be with another man. I ain’t never gonna be about marriage.”
“I know that.” The truth hurt. It wasn’t fair to love a man so fiercely and have him adamantly deny the one thing destined to make her the happiest. It would be easy to blame his half-Sioux mother, the woman he rarely spoke about. Even so, Callie knew Shey’s resistance went deeper than that. Impetuous and highly unconventional, Patricia Cutter had given him his wild streak. Her erratic behavior and ultimate desertion had framed his outlook on life, but he’d chosen to make those feelings permanent. “I can still worry about you,” she whispered. She paused, then blundered ahead. “I can still care about you.”
That drew him up short. The cocky poise slithered from his gaze, replaced by a moment of measured thought. He shifted, letting his weight angle nearer. He was standing too close now, the distance between them better suited to intimacy. She kept her eyes lowered, feeling him tower over her, afraid to look for what she might see on his face--disdain, arrogance, or worse, outright rejection.
“I figured you stopped carin’ a long time ago,” he mumbled.
Callie raised her eyes. When he wasn’t being rakish or overly confident, his expression relaxed and sincere, he had a wonderfully interesting face. The kind of precisely handsome features that made women swoon . . . high, chiseled cheekbones and full lips, gifts from his half-breed mother; eyes the golden-brown of aged whiskey and hair like pale sun from his European-descended father. Callie guessed Lincoln Cutter would have cringed to see how long Shey had allowed his hair to grow, but it only enhanced the reckless side of his personality. Certainly no one would ever accuse Shey Cutter of being elegant or genteel.
Confused by his closeness, she started to turn away. He sealed the distance between them in one swift step, his hand raising to cradle the back of her head. His mouth slanted over hers, heat and fire and the scorching rain of desert sun rolled into one. This was no mechanical, going-through-the-motions kiss. His hunger, pulsing and raw, took her breath away. The headstrong wildness, so much a part of him, clamored awake and flowed eagerly into her. He hooked an arm around her waist, dragging her tight against him. Callie gave a small gasp beneath his kiss. He’d never held her like this, kissed her like this. Her head was spinning, undone by the heat of his passion, the crackling summer-lightning of his kiss. She could feel the pulse thrumming in her throat, her heart beating out a breathless tempo.
Shey broke away. He nuzzled her ear, kissed the corner of her lips and trailed open-mouthed kisses across her cheek. His mouth closed over hers again. Callie felt like she was drowning, each influx of sensation hedonistically warm and impossibly blissful. Trembling, she knotted her fingers in his long hair, holding tight as he deepened the kiss. At last he drew back, bowing his brow against hers.
“I missed you, Callie, but I ain’t gonna marry you.”
“I know that.” She didn’t trust her voice, shaky and thread-thin. “And I love you, but I’m not going to wait for you.”
Shey closed his eyes. “Damn shame.”
“You could do something about it.”
“I could.” He trailed a thumb down her cheek. His touch sent something cold and deliciously hot dancing up her spine.
“We’ve never even been . . . together,” she whispered, knowing he would understand the emphasis she placed on the word. She blushed, surprised to find she’d been so bold. She’d dreamed about being in his arms, naked flesh to naked flesh, the silken heat of lovemaking between them. A short time ago that had seemed more fantasy than reality, but it was different now. He’d held her and kissed her like a man kissed a woman he loved.
“I’d never do that to you,” Shey said. “It would be different if we was gonna wed.”
She drew a breath, dared to ask the impossible. “What if I want it?”
“Dang it, Callie, don’t even say that.” Grumbling, Shey pulled back. He paced a short distance away, dragging a hand through his long hair. Conflict lay bare in his eyes, frank emotion tangled with frustration and raw need. “It ain’t like I don’t care about you.” He took her hand, twined her fingers into his palm. “If there was ever someone . . . that I thought maybe . . .” He blew out a breath. “But it ain’t right. And . . . I jest can’t be with you, much as I might wanna, if’n I ain’t gonna marry you. I jest wouldn’t do that to you. Not you.”
“What about Elizabeth Stengler?” She was surprised to find the words came so easily, so heated. “You slept with her, didn’t you Shey?”
He balked. “Is that what this is about?”
“No.” Clarity returned in a single heartbeat. She was being foolish. They’d already laid this groundwork and dragged their emotions through it weeks ago. Maybe there was passion in him after all, but it obviously wasn’t something that could be cultivated into marriage, or even love. The closest he would ever come to those feelings was “caring” and that was for people like Elizabeth Stengler who didn’t want a lifetime, only a night or two.
She was surprised to find she felt remorse rather than anger. A sad smile flitted around her lips. “I’m glad you’re not seriously hurt, Shey. I hope things work out for you. I’m sure I’ll see you around town, from time to time.” Leaning forward, she kissed him lightly on the cheek. “Take care of yourself.”
She brushed past him out the door, her heart pushing into her throat. He made no move to stop her or even call her back, but that wasn’t overly surprising. Taking care of himself was what he did best. With the exception of Joe Cartwright, he kept everyone at a safe distance.
Callie shook her head, smiling ruefully. Tough, swaggering Shey Cutter. All he was really doing was ensuring he'd never be hurt.
Ben paced to the front door, anxious to be away. The sun was already a few hours old, spilled like aged buttermilk across the floorboards. It slanted through the windows, bringing the promise of a crisp autumn day. With breakfast behind him, he’d sent a small crew to town to purchase the necessary materials for shoring up Shey’s damaged home. A larger group had left with Hoss and Adam, headed for the Circle C to help with the repair work. Joe was in the barn saddling up Buck and Cochise, while Shey--
Ben frowned. He wasn’t sure where Shey was. Their guest had been strangely subdued during breakfast, his natural irreverence keyed down a peg or two. He’d traded a few quips with Joe, but on the whole had been content to listen as conversation flowed around him. Once or twice Ben had caught a glimpse of a young Lincoln Cutter in Shey’s eyes. Not that the son was anything like the father, but there was a faint similarity of feature if one looked closely enough. It brought back memories of a strongly independent man who had wanted to tame the west; who foolishly thought he could tame a half-Sioux woman as well through nothing more than love and kindness.
Inside the front door, Ben paused to buckle on his gunbelt. He’d just finished securing the tie-down on his holster when Shey rounded the corner, appearing from the first floor guestroom. One hand gripped his black hat by the crown, the other held the rifle Joe had given him for his birthday last spring. Seeing Ben, he came to an immediate halt.
“Mr. Cartwright. I reckoned you were at the barn with Joe.”
“On my way.” Ben smiled easily. He genuinely liked Shey, despite the unpolished edges to his personality. He wasn’t always the most responsible young man, but he’d come a long way in a relatively short time.
I know the boy’s got it in him to be a fine man, Lincoln Cutter had once told Ben. He’s not really a bad seed, despite all that arrogant recklessness. He just needs to be taken in hand. It’s my fault for letting him grow so wild. He just can’t seem to connect with anyone or anything.
That couldn’t be further from the truth now. Shey was respected, and for the most part responsible. He’d found purpose in keeping the legacy of the Circle C alive, turning his father’s operation into a top grade ranch. And he’d connected with Joe through a unique friendship that defied convention and reason. That alone was enough to keep Ben forever in his debt.
People generally liked Joe with little if any prompting. Naturally charming, he was friendly and agreeable, if sometimes headstrong. Even so, the majority of his friendships were casual. His relationship with Shey went deeper, a bond destined to last a lifetime, built against odds on the shards of a long-standing and forgotten rivalry. Any person who held such a venerated spot in his son’s life, who cared that deeply about Joe, would always be welcomed under Ben’s roof.
He jerked his head toward the door. “Joe should have the horses saddled. You coming?”
“Sure.” One-handed, Shey settled his hat on his head. He took a step forward, but stopped as Ben turned away. “Mr. Cartwright?”
With his hand on the doorknob, Ben looked back at his houseguest. “What is it, Shey?”
“Jest that I, uh . . .” Uneasy, the younger man cleared his throat. “I ain’t rightly said ‘thank you’ for all you’re doin’ . . . lettin’ me stay here . . . sendin’ yer hands to my place. I ain’t sure how I’m ever gonna be able to repay you.”
“I’m not looking for repayment.” Ben turned sideways, wedging a shoulder against the door. “You’ve been an exceptional friend to my son, Shey, but even if you weren’t, I wouldn’t stand by and do nothing after a man’s house was burned. Besides . . .” He grinned and leaned forward, clapping a hand against Shey’s arm. “Do you think I could keep Joe away? I won’t get an ounce of work out of him until he exhausts every avenue to help you first.”
Shey waved the statement aside. “Ah, he’s jest dang stubborn . . . like a coyote grown long in the tooth. I still ain’t figured how he and I are pals, Mr. Cartwright. We sure tangle enough.”
“Maybe that’s what makes your friendship work.” The ghost of an amused smile settled on Ben’s lips. He’d never seen such an off-kilter relationship, yet it obviously worked for his hotheaded, impulsive son and his equally quarrelsome friend. How often had he and Lincoln Cutter lamented the no-sign-of-letting-up animosity between their youngest sons? What a difference a few years made! “Just remember, Shey . . . you’re welcome here for as long as it takes.”
With a grunt, Shey settled the butt of his rifle against the floor. His fingers lingered on the stock, holding the barrel upright. Uncomfortable again, he let his eyes fall to his hand where he absently rubbed his thumb over the site. “I appreciate it, Mr. Cartwright.” He hesitated, something distant and faintly remorseful touching his gold-flecked eyes. His lips tipped upward in a tight smile. “You know . . . sometimes I wish my Pa were around to see what I’ve done with his ranch. I know he wouldn’t be too all fired happy about that fancy house of his gettin’ burned, but I figure he’d be okay with the rest of it. We weren’t rightly on the best of terms when he died. Chance was gone, and he was ramrod sure I was jest a foot away from a jail cell. Probably thought the Circle C would go belly up, and I’d wind up dead or hanged. Bet you never thought that about Joe.”
Ben hedged. “Shey--”
“It’s okay, Mr. Cartwright. My pa and I didn’t have the kind of relationship you got with Joe. Maybe if we did, he wouldn’t have been so disappointed in me when he died.”
“Oh, no, Shey.” Ben pushed away from the door. “I guarantee you your father was never disappointed in you. Concerned for your welfare, maybe even frustrated from time to time, but never disappointed. He knew the kind of man you’d become. You just took longer to figure it out than most.”
“Hey--” Before Shey could answer, the door swung inward and Joe stuck his head through. “What’s going on in here? I’ve got horses saddled and ready to go. Are you two going to stand around jawin’ all day, or are we gonna do some work?”
“Criminee, Cartwright.” Shey cast Ben a conspiratorial wink before refocusing on his friend. “I ain’t in here but a few minutes and you’re already moanin’, impatient as a porcupine playin’ leap frog. I think maybe I should bang up yer other leg too, turn you into a right proper old lady, so you can nag on me all day.”
Joe smiled sharply. “I think maybe I should bang up your mouth, give us all a moment’s peace from that nonstop hot wind of yours.”
Shey chuckled. “Come on, Joseph.” Stepping forward, he looped his arm around Joe’s neck. “I’ll walk you to yer horse. Yer Pa ain’t rightly figured out what he should do about me.”
“That makes two of us.” Despite the quick repartee, there was humor in Joe’s voice. Ben watched the two of them walk from the porch toward the hitching post. A stranger mesh of night and day he’d never encountered. But just as day complemented night, Joe and Shey complemented each other.
“The boy’s done good, Lincoln,” he whispered to the air. He knew his long-ago friend would be proud.
Joe was filthy, covered in soot. Charred ash clung to his pants, shirt and jacket. He’d spent most of the morning hauling chunks of blistered wood from the ravaged shell of Shey’s home. New timbers had been installed at Adam’s direction, acting as temporary braces to shore up the remaining and damaged support beams. Despite the hard work and a gnawing ache in his bad leg, it felt good to be doing something constructive to help Shey.
The first sight of his ruined home had sent his friend’s normally high strung spirits into a tailspin, but Shey had rebounded quickly. He’d worked harder than the rest, tossing off a few colorful curses with each piece of charred wood he discarded. By midday when they broke for lunch, the crew was tired, their faces, hands, and clothing streaked with ash.
Joe took a long swallow from his canteen, swishing the cool liquid around the inside of his mouth. Removing his hat, he dragged his sleeve across his brow, mopping up sweat and soot. Despite the cool autumn temperatures, his shirt and jacket stuck to his back with a mixture of perspiration and grit. Ducking his head, he dribbled water through his hair, shaking off the excess before corking his canteen. He felt liquid trickle down the back of his neck, seeping under his collar.
“Cartwright, what are you dawdlin’ for?” Shey walked past him, carrying an armload full of fire-blackened wood. A few stray pieces slipped from the bottom, onto the grass. He tossed the rest onto a pile, heaped a few yards behind the house. “Yer Pa sent a lunchwagon over. I heard Hoss say it’s down back of the barn. If’n I was you, I’d get over there ‘fore that big brother of yours and all those hands gobble everything up.”
“I ain’t in a hurry, Shey.” Bending, Joe picked up the fallen pieces and tossed them onto the pile. His friend looked as dirty and disheveled as he did, soot blackening his pale hair and clothing. A dark streak was angled over the gash on his cheek, another across his chin. Tugging free his workgloves, Shey looped them through the back of his belt and looked around for a canteen.
Joe offered his.
“Thanks.” Shey took a long swallow before replacing the cork. Removing his hat, he raked a hand through his sweat-sticky hair, settling the hat further back on his head so the brim was angled upward. “Hard to imagine one gutless milksop could cause so much damage.” Blowing out a breath, he stood back and surveyed what was left of his home.
It rose on the hillside, a battered shell with jagged gaping holes where the fire had eaten through the structure. In addition to exterior damage, Joe knew the inside had suffered as well . . . not only from fire, but smoke and water too. Many of the furnishings had to be disposed of, too badly damaged to be cleaned or repaired.
Shey’s eyes slid sideways, settling on Joe. “You ain’t overdoin’ it with that bum leg, are you? We’ve been at this all mornin’.”
“Yeah, I know, Boss.” Joe smiled lightly. “Believe it or not, I do know how to pace myself. How about some food? I’m buying.”
“Sure, why not.” Shey dropped the canteen onto the grass where it settled with a gurgle. They started back up the hillside toward the house. The crew had already vanished, headed down the trail toward the barn and a hot lunch. Deserted, the fire-ravaged house looked strangely hollow and eerie. They were almost to what had once been the back door, when a man stepped swiftly from the shadow of the ruins, blocking their path. Sunlight glinted off the barrel of a six-gun.
“Henry.” Joe tensed, his hand dropping instinctively toward his holstered revolver. He was still wearing his gunbelt, but Shey had removed his sometime ago, looping it over the hitching rail out front.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Joe.” The gun swiveled in his direction, forcing his hand away from his revolver. The Henry Boone he’d been friends with was still evident in the man before him, but there was a coarser edge to him as well. Something hungry and dark lingered in the gaunt shell of Henry’s face. The shy kindness Joe remembered was missing from his eyes, replaced by crude desperation.
Joe lifted both hands away from his gunbelt and wet his lips. “Henry.” He forced a smile, tried to be casual. “Henry, what are you doing?”
“Playin’ possum if’n you ask me,” Shey inserted snidely. His eyes narrowed on Henry, his lips curling upward in arrogant disdain. Unlike Joe who had his hands in the air, he stood with his thumbs hooked into his belt, one hip angled higher than the other, his posture reflecting outright conceit. “You got a right annoyin’ habit of creepin’ up on a man, Boone. Why don’t you jest scamper on back to St. Louis and ogle the girls with those big bug eyes of yours?”
Joe ground his teeth together. “Shey, you’re not helping.”
Henry’s hand trembled on the gun. “I’m going to kill you, Cutter.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know . . . I soiled yer prim eastern filly and all that, treated her like a back alley whore. Guess it don’t matter none she was as keen on gettin’ me under the sheets as I was on gettin’ her there.”
Shey blew out a breath. “You’ve done a piss-poor job of puttin’ a bullet in me so far, Boone. Hell, you couldn’t even burn down my house proper. What makes you think you’re gonna take me out now?”
“Because . . . because, I . . .” Henry pulled back on the hammer.
“Don’t!” Joe lunged in front of Shey, placing himself in the path of the revolver. “Shey’s just trying to rattle you, Henry. You know how he is. Put down the gun and we’ll talk about this.”
“Cartwright, get outta the way,” Shey snapped.
Henry shifted, clearly flustered by Joe’s involvement. Joe could sense his nervousness, sweat-slick and skittish like a panicked horse. Perspiration glistened on his forehead and tracked down the side of his face. He was no match for Shey and they all knew it, but a desperate, frightened man with a gun could be deadlier than a confident one. If someone would only wander back from the barn, it might prove distraction enough for Joe to unarm Henry. As heedless as Shey was, he feared the encounter would spiral quickly into violence. His friend wasn’t known for patience.
“Get outta the way, Cartwright,” Shey ordered again, an edge to his voice.
“Just stand there and be quiet,” Joe shot back over his shoulder. He shifted his attention to Henry. “Henry you have to know this crazy. Mrs. Stengler wouldn’t want you to do this. If you really love her--”
“I’ve got to kill him!”
“Why are you defending him?” Henry screamed. “I don’t care if he is your friend, he . . . he slept with her!”
Shey snorted. “Hate to disappoint you, Boone, but there wasn’t a whole lotta sleepin’ involved.”
Given the opportunity, Joe would have belted him just to shut him up. Leave it to Shey to needle a man who was already unbalanced and dead set on killing him.
The crass insinuation was the last straw for Henry Boone. Reason shriveled from his eyes at the exact moment Hoss rounded the corner of the house, munching contentedly on a piece of fried chicken. Unaware of the conflict, unable to recognize Henry with his back turned, Hoss waved. “Hey, Joe . . . Shey . . . you’re missing lunch. Hop-Sing sent fried chicken and biscuits.”
Caught off guard by the friendly voice, Henry jerked a glance over his shoulder. Joe dove for the gun at the same time Shey tried to shove him out of the way. There was a loud crack as the weapon discharged. Joe felt a streak of fire rip through his side, then Henry was crumbling beneath him and they struck the ground together. Joe drove his fist into Henry’s face, knocking him cold with a single blow. In a matter of seconds, Hoss had reached the scuffle and was trying to pull them apart. “Joe! Joe, you all right?”
He nodded, winded. Each contraction of breath sent a sharp stitch of pain pinging through his side. “Yeah. Get him outta here, huh?” He shoved Henry in Hoss’s direction, then looked around quickly. “Shey?”
His friend was crouched a step away, one hand pressed to his side. Joe could see blood welling between his fingers, a lot more than the wet tackiness staining his own shirt. His heart lurched to his throat. “Did he get you?”
“Just a crease.” With effort, Shey climbed to his feet. “That was a damn fool thing to do, Cartwright. You could’ve gotten yerself killed.” He seemed shaken, even angry. After a moment he calmed, and drew a labored breath. “Creased you too, huh?”
“Yeah.” Wearily, Joe walked to his side. He watched as Hoss dragged Henry away, the smaller man groggy but conscious now. Alerted by the gunshot, the work crew was returning. Joe could hear frenzied footfalls in the distance as men raced from the barn toward the house. He looked aside at Shey, concerned to see the tight strain on his friend’s face. “You sure that wound’s just a crease?”
Shey’s lips thinned in a smile. His face was a little too pale, his lips a little too bloodless. “Okay, so maybe more like a chunk,” he admitted hoarsely. “Either way the dang bullet blundered clean through after it clipped you. Guess I rattled that halfwit too much.”
“It’s a real talent you’ve got there, Boss.” Joe looped an arm around his waist, steering him toward a knee-high stack of fresh timbers positioned at the rear of the house. “Sit down for awhile.” Wincing at the ache in his own side, he eased down beside Shey. Lately all he did was abuse his body, one careless injury after another. At least this one was more bite than blunder, nothing more than the hot sting of a branding poker. Raising his head, he watched Ben and Adam hurry up the hillside, pausing briefly to confer with Hoss.
“Joseph.” Ben’s eyes went from his son to Shey, then back again as he drew abreast. “What happened here?”
“It’s okay, Pa. Things got out of hand with Henry.” Joe looked sideways at his friend. Shey was breathing a little heavy, his lips parted, but color was seeping back into his face. “Henry tried to take a shot at Shey and clipped us both.”
Adam shook his head. “I’ve never seen two people more prone to injury. You might as well take Shey back to the Ponderosa, Joe. I can oversee the repair work here.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Shey insisted. “Maybe I ain’t got no college-bred architectural background like you, Adam, but I ain’t skippin’ out on the repairs to my own house. Give me a minute to patch up my side, and I’ll be back at it.”
Ben frowned. “Shey, I’m not sure that’s wise.”
“Don’t rightly care if it’s dang foolish. It’s jest the way it’s gonna be, Mr. Cartwright.” He smiled to soften the sting. “Now if you wanna tell Joe to sit this one out, that’s different. He’s obligated to listen, you being his Pa and all, but as yer son frequently reminds me--I’m my own boss these days.”
Shey clamped a hand on Joe’s shoulder using it to brace himself as he struggled to his feet. “Come on, Cartwright. Help me to the water trough by the barn, so I can get this thing cleaned up. If’n yer Pa ain’t bootin’ yer tail back to the Ponderosa, I could use the help.”
Joe chuckled. “Right, Boss.” He slipped a hand under Shey’s arm, limping a little as they trudged up the hillside. Between his leg, Shey’s side, and the stitch below his ribs, he figured they needed a month to heal. “You sure that bullet blundered through?”
“Quit worryin’, Cartwright. If’n I had lead in my side, don’t you think I’d know?” Leaning heavily on Joe for support, Shey shook his head. “That Boone sure was a few cards short of a full deck. Can you imagine a man gettin’ so riled over one woman--the venerated Miss D. aside?” He flashed a smile. “Yeah, yeah, I know, Joseph . . . you’re still in love with that snooty filly.”
“She’s not snooty, Shey.” Joe eased him to a sitting position on the edge of the water trough, then stood back, watching as Shey tugged his shirt free of his belt. A few hands wandered by, calling out a greeting, making sure they were both okay. He could see the edge of the lunch wagon jutting out from behind the barn and decided the first order of business after Shey cleaned up was to get some food. At this point his friend probably needed it more than he did.
“You know, this mess with Henry . . .” He watched as Shey unbuttoned his shirt. “Strange as it may sound, some people really do fall in love for eternity. I’m not defending, Henry . . . what he felt for Elizabeth Stengler was obviously something more suffocating, but unless you know what it is to care about someone that deeply--”
Shey held up a hand. “If you’re talkin’ about Lorna David, that’s fine, Joe. If you’re talkin’ about Callie, forget it.”
Surprised, Joe tilted his head. “Are you telling me you do care for her?”
“I ain’t tellin’ you nuthin’.” Shey pulled the shirt away from his side, wincing a little when the blood-soaked fabric stuck to his skin. There was a deep gash an inch or so above his belt, but it was clear the bullet had only gouged him. He inspected it briefly then pulled a blue kerchief from his back pocket and dunked it in the water. “Callie’s happy with Clifford weasel-face.” He scowled, soured by his own bitter disposition. Wringing out the kerchief, he pressed it to his side. “Point is, I ain’t never gonna make that woman happy. The way she should be happy. Cliff can do that for her--marriage, a home, kids.” He looked down at his side, using the wet kerchief to sop up blood. “It’s jest better this way.”
Joe had to strain to hear the last words. If he didn’t know better he’d think Shey really did feel something, that maybe he was just too prideful and stubborn to admit it.
“She doesn’t love Cliff Thompson,” he said quietly. “She loves you, Shey.”
Shey snorted. “Damn stupid on her part. Let’s jest forget this, huh? Talkin’ about women gives me the willies.”
“Okay.” Joe sat down beside him, bracing his arms against the trough. He knew it wasn’t really women who bothered Shey, but commitment. Any hint of pledging faithfulness and his friend grew panicky, ready to bolt like a wild mustang. He looked up at the house. From the front, the damage didn’t seem so bad. “You really don’t like people getting close to you, do you?” he asked.
Shey stopped what he was doing. “Listen, Joe, having you as a friend is about all the commitment I need.” Their eyes met and locked. “If you ain’t figured it out by now, I jest don’t let many people into my life.”
“Yeah. I figured that.” Joe slid a hand on his back. “How ‘bout we get that lunch now?” When Shey nodded and fell into his regular grousing mode, complaining about all the work to do, and what a dang fool idiot Henry had been, Joe felt the world settle on its axis. For a moment it had come close to tipping, spilling him and his friend into a discussion neither was ready to undertake. Even so, the truth was there, plain for examining.
Shey had allowed Joe into his life. He’d left himself exposed to mistakes and failure, willingly embarking on the whirlwind ride that comprised their unique friendship. He’d allowed Joe momentary glimpses of uncertainty, concern and vulnerability, feelings no one else was permitted to see. For a man who shied away from commitment, he’d entangled himself for eternity--
In the life of his friend.
After a few days of gossiping, Virginia City eventually returned to a normal routine. Henry was jailed, awaiting trial, the news of his latest encounter with Shey splashed on the front page of the Virginia City Herald. Malcolm Dean Rocherty and his wife settled into their home and quickly became favorites in town. It took a full week to return Shey’s house to semi-livable condition. Even then many of the furnishings still needed to be replaced, but at least the structure was sound.
Elizabeth Stengler elected to return to Baltimore, but not before bidding Shey a final goodbye. The night before she was to leave, he took her to dinner, then back to the Circle C. “I’m sorry I involved you in this,” she whispered, standing wrapped in his arms. He hadn’t bothered to light any of the lanterns or candles in the living room. The only illumination came from the fireplace, where crackling flames danced among a warm amber glow. Shadows hugged the corners and snuggled at their feet. Elizabeth fingered his collar.
“I never realized that . . . dallying . . . like I did in St. Louis would have made Henry so horribly vindictive.”
“The sap was infatuated with you, Liz.”
She tilted her head, smiling up at him. “I think I’m infatuated with you, Mr. Cutter. If I ever come back this way--”
“--a prime catch like me will probably be taken.” He grinned. “Guess that means we should get our fill of each other tonight.”
Her arms slid around his neck. “What a wonderful idea.”
Shey bent his head and kissed her, content to do what he did best--embrace the moment and avoid the future. It was a plan that had worked well for twenty-three years. Yet as he covered her mouth with his, feeling her arch willingly into his embrace, he had a sudden vivid image of Callie. Of what it had felt like to hold her and kiss her, the bottled heat of true passion crackling between them. We’ve never even been . . . together, she had said.
He hadn’t ever thought of her like that. Well . . . okay, so he had, but he’d mentally kicked himself the moment the distracting thoughts popped into his head. Sure he wanted her . . .every satin inch of her beneath him as they made love, but she was simply too damn good for him. He could keep them both happy in bed, but not if it involved putting a ring on her finger. After a while she’d realize she wanted someone more stable, more considerate, and wander away.
He sobered abruptly, stiffening in Elizabeth’s embrace. Lust he could handle, he’d always been good at that game. He knew what it took to please a woman and to please himself, but Callie wasn’t the kind of woman he could tumble into bed.
“Shey?” Elizabeth drew back. “Are you all right?”
Hell no, he was as confused as they came, snared somewhere between love and lust and all that infernal commitment stuff. Dang, if he was gonna let it get the best of him! “Don’t worry yer pretty head.” He forced a smile, the turn of his lips rakish and smooth. He had all night to drown his confusion, and a willing partner to do it with.
Come sunrise Shey Cutter intended to be good and sated--without the complications of love to weigh him down.
A few days later Joe was chopping wood in front of the house when Shey rode up unannounced. He wedged his boot against the chopping block, using it as leverage to yank free the axe. Before he could put another piece on the block, Shey dismounted and looped his reins over the hitching rail.
“Ain’t you lookin’ spry, Joseph,” he commented with a grin. The cut on his cheek had healed to a thin scar, something that would eventually fade to a barely-there white line. Wandering closer to the woodpile, he cocked an eyebrow. “That leg’s functionin’ a lot better than the last time I saw you.”
“All but healed.” Joe picked up a piece of wood and set it on the block. The sun beat down behind him, warm and brass-bright, but not enough to chase the lingering edge from the air. The unseasonably pleasant weather was over, shouldered aside by autumn. In a few more days it would be November, cold air and colder nights ready to stay. He didn’t see Shey nearly as much during the winter months, severe weather often bogging them down with snowstorms. Joe hated to think of his friend alone in Lincoln Cutter’s big house, especially now that part of it remained empty and stripped from the fire. He swung at the wood, splitting it cleanly in half. “You just out for a ride, Boss?”
“Nah. I came over to invite you to a party. It’s my turn this time.”
“Not hiring a newspaper man, are you?”
“Ain’t likely. Rob’s leavin’ in a few days and I thought I should give him a send-off. Nuthin’ fancy . . . jest some friends, cards and beer at the saloon. I’m buyin’ drinks and dinners Saturday night. Lucas Flint was gonna round up some of yer hands. I figured with you, yer Pa, Adam, Hoss and my crew, that would do Rob proud.” His lips turned in a frown. “Even if the lunkhead is slinkin’ off to get hitched.”
Joe chuckled. “Sounds good.”
Lucas Flint had been working with Rob Falcon, learning the ins-and-outs of the Circle C, in preparation of taking over as ranch foreman. Rob was a few days away from heading to Oregon, marriage and a new life. Joe had a feeling that although Shey wouldn’t admit it, losing his foreman, a semi-friend had him feeling a bit blue. He and Rob had worked well together, and not every man had what it took to mesh with Shey Cutter. Lucas Flint was older and already married with a family. A capable man with a good work ethic, Joe knew he considered himself fortunate to have landed such a high profile, good paying job. He and Shey were still adjusting to each other, learning quirks of personality--of which Shey had many--and work preferences.
Setting his axe aside, Joe mopped a sleeve across his brow. “You wouldn’t want to do a little advance wagering now, would you . . . seeing how you’re planning on cards Saturday night?”
Curious, Shey tilted his head. “What’d you have in mind, Cartwright?”
Joe grinned. The day was half over and most of his work was done. Ben would likely take him to task for leaving the wood unfinished, but he was feeling a little reckless with winter coming on. In a few more weeks darkness would settle earlier, a harbinger of the snows that blew down the mountains from the northwest. With a grin for Shey, he uncuffed his shirtsleeves, rolling them down his forearms. “I’m gonna bet that even with this bum leg, I can ride to town a whole lot faster than you. Beers in the saloon--I’m buyin.”
Shey narrowed his eyes, suspicious. “What’s the occasion?”
“Who said there had to be one?” Walking forward, Joe slung an arm over his shoulder. “Maybe I’m just glad to see you. In a few more weeks it’s gonna be winter. Who knows how often we’ll get together then.”
“You gettin’ sappy on me, Cartwright?”
Joe laughed. “Maybe I am. I guess I’m still feeling a little off balance knowing Boone tried to kill you.”
It was true. After everything that had happened, he still flashed back to Shey as he’d found him in the basement--hands and feet bound, his clothing soaked in coal oil, flames snapping around him. He couldn’t really vocalize what he felt, only knew that his strange, exhausting friendship with Shey was something he wouldn’t trade for the world. If anything had happened to his friend, it would have been like losing Adam or Hoss. Like losing a part of himself.
Maybe someday Shey would realize how much he meant to other people, Callie Garrett included. In the meantime, Joe was thankful to be the one person he allowed such rare closeness.
“Let me guess--” Shey grinned broadly. “You’re jest dang infatuated with me. Can’t say as I blame you. There’s a lot of that goin’ around lately.”
Joe’s smile was barbed. “Infatuated ain’t exactly the word I had in mind, Shey.” He shoved him in the direction of the barn, where he could saddle Cochise. “Harassed maybe. Put upon. Struggling for patience. Wondering how I ever hooked up with a strutting, cocky rooster like you.”
“Joseph.” Shey stopped and pivoted on his heel, spreading his arms wide. “Just think how boring life would be without me.”
Joe grinned. Shey was probably right on that one. From the moment they’d formed their strange off-kilter friendship life had been anything but dull. Given their rough-and-tumble past, he expected their future to be one nonstop adventure after another. Sprinting to catch up, he snagged Shey by the sleeve and spun him toward the barn. “Just give me a moment or two to catch my breath before you blunder headfirst into the next mess.”
“No problem, Cartwright.” Shey’s lips stretched in a dazzling smile. “One thing’s for certain--I ain’t gonna do it without you.”
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