This is Paige's fault. She did it deliberately, you know. She sent me a copy of Talion, and of course I had to watch it. Sigh. I'll need to watch it again before I do much with this, but still...(Why do I need to watch it again? Uhhhh, because I was watching him ride, and mount and dismount - he was an adequate horseman, btw - and okay, I was looking at his butt, satisfied, now?). Sigh. Watched it again. Now noticing continuity glitches. I should never watch westerns. I could ignore the Sleister bit and the modern saddles. The first time through, I could even ignore the saddling problems. I don't blame him for dropping the saddle, they weigh up to sixty pounds. However, I did start noticing that the little black horse (sometimes a gelding...or maybe always, winter coat, and only noticed in one scene) wore a flank cinch, but whenever he was saddling or unsaddling, there were no flank straps at all. Sigh. How hard is it to handle one extra buckle and strap? I know, I'm probably the only person who ever noticed or even cares, but it's a horseperson thing. Oh, and I need to watch it at least once more and hope that the wonderful Mr. Lansing doesn't distract me yet again (no, I'm not telling you what attracted my attention this time, but it wasn't his butt). Surprise! This manages to tie a whole bunch of stories together (at least in my universe) including Dave Fenner, Jack Curtis, and the like... and if necessary, I can tie any other of Mr. Lansing's characters into it. Heh. Aren't big families wonderful?

As always, the characters of William Talion/Tyler/...(you know), Brianna Quince, Brian Quince, and Jo Hi Quince do not belong to me. I receive no monetary gain from this, and I sincerely thank the creators and owners for their genius in creating the characters, and bless them for their forbearance in not suing me over the use of their intellectual property. And most of all, I thank the memory of the wonderful actor, Robert Lansing, who brought the main character to life.


Starting Over


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How could he stay? What would he do, work as a clerk in her father's store and wait for someone else to show up to try and kill him? Not likely. He'd be bored to death, and he'd be beholden. He'd drift, first, taking odd jobs to survive rather than be beholden to anyone. He'd seen her hurt, though, and also realized that it was best he go. This way, no one would come to disrupt their lives again. He wondered if his hand would ever heal to the point of actually being able to use it again? If not, he probably wouldn't last long at all; at least, not with his own name.

He rode through the night, wanting to put some distance between the trading post and him, just in case Ike Slant had any more friends around. When the sun came up, he started to drift a bit from weariness, and he stopped watching so carefully what was going on around him.

Dolly stepped on a rock and it turned under her, throwing him off balance. He grabbed for the horn of his saddle, only to bite back the cry of agony as his injured hand shot blinding pain all the way up his arm and into his head. He managed to stay aboard only because Dolly, well-trained partner that she was, shifted under him to keep him in the saddle and came to a stop. He doubled over, injured right hand pressed tightly to his chest, gasping through the anguish. It took several minutes before he was able to regain control. He wiped the pain-tears from his face and, still breathing shakily, sat up and nudged his horse back into a walk. Obviously, he needed to find somewhere safe to hole up for a bit, at least until his hand healed a little more. He forced aside the thought that he could have very easily stayed with the Quinces. There was simply no future there. Besides, Bri deserved a whole man, not a cripple.

Finally taking a deep, steady breath, he started looking for someplace that would provide a good camp spot, with grazing for Dolly and water. He'd rest for a few days, hoping his hand would stop hurting before much longer; it had already been most of two months since he was injured.

His hand ached almost unbearably as he unsaddled his horse and set up camp. Taking out the hobbles, he fastened them around Dolly's front legs, then pulled her bridle and turned her loose. She'd stay near, but would be free to graze and drink her fill from the little creek without him having to watch her constantly.

Giving his horse a good brushing, he patted her rump and headed under the scrub oaks to begin setting up his own camp. He cleared a space for his fire ring just far enough from the trees not to have to worry about sparks catching them on fire. He dug a small hole in the sandy dirt, mounding the loosened soil around the edge of the ring. Satisfied, he spread out his bedroll and then wandered through the grove of scrub oak to find deadfalls and broken branches he could use for the fire. He also found some rabbit sign. It was probably jack, but he had a pot he could stew it in, if he could catch one, that is. He set a snare in a likely looking spot and continued gathering firewood.

Taking both his coffeepot and the cookpot down to the creek, he filled them both and took them back to his camp, where he proceeded to build a fire. When it was burning to his satisfaction, he poured some grounds into the coffeepot and set it to boil. While he waited, he gingerly unwrapped his injured hand. He noticed it was swollen, but the hole through it had closed. It was hard to move his fingers, though, and it was warm and extremely painful. He shook his head, wondering what was wrong with it. It should be nearly healed, but it hurt as much now (if not more) than when it had first happened. He grimaced as he forced his fingers to flex.

Shaking his head, wondering why it was swollen when it looked healed, he carefully rewrapped it and cradled it to his chest while he waited for his coffee to cook.

He heard a high-pitched squeal as some hapless rabbit got caught in his snare. Standing, he took his boot knife and went to gather up his dinner. It was a good-sized jackrabbit, but he decided to boil it anyway. He had some dehydrated onions and celery, along with salt and pepper. It all went into the pot and he watched contentedly as he waited patiently for the impromptu stew to cook.

After dinner, he covered the leftovers and placed them in the stream, after building a cooling pond - a rocky hollow where the stewpot could set and be chilled by the flowing water, but not let the pot be overturned or washed downstream.

Satisfied with his job, he went the few yards back to his camp and stretched out, still cradling his injured right hand against his chest. Although it was broad daylight, he soon fell asleep.

Some time in the day, the infection in his hand caused a fever and with no one to help him, he suffered helplessly through the day, the night and the following day.

"What do you think you're doing, Bri?" He frowned at his daughter, watching as she hitched the team up to the wagon.

She didn't even look at him. "I'm going after him."

He sighed in exasperation. "What for, girl? He's just a bounty hunter."

That stopped her, and she turned to glare at her father. "He saved our lives. All our lives. The sheriff couldn't have. You said yourself that the sheriff's worthless and a coward. Talion came back and took care of Slant. I'm sorry his friend died, but he's still hurt, himself. You saw how swollen his hand is. He needs our help."

"You're not going after some bounty hunter, Bri," her father began; ready to forbid her helping the man who had saved all their lives.

"Then you'll have to stop me." Bri finished fastening the traces and gathered the lines, making sure they were smooth through the terrets back to the box. Gathering up her skirt, she stepped up on the wheel hub and then into the seat.

"Can I come, Bri?" Jo Hi called from the porch.

She looked down at her little brother and smiled. "If you like," she invited. She noticed that her father seemed about to protest, but then scowled and shook his head.

"Move over. I'll drive," Mr. Quince demanded, clambering up beside her. She smiled as she handed him the lines.

"Thank you," she said softly.

He shook his head, but the knowledge of what Slant had planned for his girl, well, he owed Talion. Besides, Jo Hi liked him enough to share jellybeans with him right off, so he couldn't be too awful bad. And he had saved them all.

They followed the road in the direction Talion had ridden. Quince wondered if there was any possibility of catching up. He'd had more than a full day's head start, already. He figured he'd be willing to travel all day today and half of tomorrow. If they didn't catch up to him, then it wasn't meant to be. Of course, if Bri was right and his hand was infected, they might just find his body, instead. That concept didn't set right with him, somehow. Despite his dislike of bounty hunters, he owed this one. If they found him, they'd render aid, get the doc to come tend to him if need be, and see to it he had a safe place to sleep until he was healed. Then he could go back on his way. It was only fair, and the least they could do after what he'd done for them.

He glanced over at his daughter, who was searching every clump of scrub for a little black horse and her rider. He shook his head. "He ain't gonna stay, Bri."

"He could," she disagreed. Jo Hi nodded his agreement with her.

"I hope he does. I like him."

"How's he gonna make a living with a bum hand, tell me that?"

"He'll manage."

Quince snorted. "You think he could clerk in a store? Maybe become a bartender? Oh, I know, a gambler." He shook his head derisively. "He's a killer, that's all he is, Bri. Put him out of your mind, girl. He'll never be more than what he is, a killer."

"He's more than that. He cares about people. He cared enough to go after Slant even hurt, like he is."

"He did it for the money, Bri! It's what he does. He's no better than the men he goes after, as far as I'm concerned."

"Seems to me he left before claiming the twenty-five hundred dollars on Slant."

Her father had nothing to say to that.

"He's a crippled gunfighter, how's he going to make a living, huh? That's why he left, you know. He figured he couldn't take care of himself, let alone you."

Bri looked at him in surprise. "Do you really think so?" She thought about what he'd said, how his gun had killed his wife and son, and Benny Wallace. She frowned, wondering.

Quince snorted again. "Of course I do. I saw the way he looked at you, Bri. You could do so much better than him. What do you see in that killer, anyway?"

She smiled softly and looked back into the brush, hoping for just a moment to see his camp. "He's not like the other men around. He's... he's strong, but he's gentle, and he cares about people. You yourself said that Jo Hi, here, don't take to strangers like he did to him."

"Jo Hi's just a little boy," Quince protested.

"I like him. He's nice," Jo Hi piped up. "I asked him why he didn't want to stay, an' he said it wasn't because he wanted to leave, but that he had to."

"Why would he have to?" Bri asked, concerned.

Her father sighed. He knew perfectly well. Talion was a proud man. He couldn't stay here, not crippled like he was. How could he make a living for himself, let alone a family? The idea of Bri and that killer... then he remembered Slant, and that was far worse. And what was to keep someone else from coming and calling him out? He was torn between what he'd always believed and what he'd observed. Talion was an honest man, and an honorable one. Besides, Bri was in love with him.

"He's crippled. How can he make a living for himself, let alone a family?" he asked aloud.

Bri frowned. "Surely there's something else he could do, couldn't he?"

"Bri, can you see him working for me in the store, or tending bar? He's too proud for that. The only thing he knows how to do is hunt down men."

Jo Hi piped up, "Why can't he be the sheriff? You said the one we got's no good, so why couldn't Mr. Talion do it, instead?"

"With a crippled gun hand, Jo Hi?"

"Welllll," the little boy scowled. "He don't got to fast-draw as the sheriff, does he? He could use a rifle or a scatter-gun, couldn't he?"

The two adults both turned to look at him. "From out of the mouth of babes," Quince muttered, meeting the hopeful look in his daughter's eyes. She smiled and nodded.

Turning his attention to the road, he clucked to the horses and slapped the lines to encourage the team to move a bit faster as he began searching for their quarry.

It was late afternoon when Jo Hi stood on the seat and pointed. "Ain't that his horse?" Quince drew the team to a halt and peered in the direction the boy pointed.

"Could be. Let's go take a look." Bri stood up as well, shading her eyes and staring at the animal, about a hundred yards off the road.

With a slap of the lines, the team was urged forward and turned towards the clump of trees the distant horse was grazing by. Sure enough, it was Talion's little black mare, contentedly grazing. She lifted her head as they approached and whickered to the team. Scanning the area, Quince pointed to the trees. "He'll be camped there. Seems to me I recall that there's a little creek and a spring, there." He guided his team towards the trees, with Dolly following along behind, her hobbles hardly slowing her down.

The fire was long out and they were only slightly surprised to find him in his bedroll, sweating and shivering at the same time. His right hand was so swollen that it was looking bruised and almost black. Bri's breath hitched in her throat, wondering if gangrene had set in. Her father pulled the team to a halt and handed the lines to Jo Hi, who held them, keeping the horses in place until the tie weight could be placed out. Bri leaped from the box and hurried over to the unconscious man.

"What do we do?" she asked her father, worry in her voice as well as demeanor.

"Hold on. First off, get the fire going. Jo Hi, empty out the coffee pot and fetch some fresh water. Wash it good in the stream, boy."

"Yessir," his children chorused and hurried to their tasks.

Quince checked Talion for the fever he was sure he had and was unsurprised to find him hot to the touch. Carefully, he lifted the injured hand and removed the too-tight dressing. It looked bad, but he'd seen worse. You didn't survive as long as he had out here without some modicum of medical knowledge. From the looks of it, the outside had healed before the inside. On a horse, it caused proud flesh, but on a man, it could cause gangrene or even death. He was going to have to reopen the wound to allow the pus to drain. He shook his head. With this fever, there wasn't a lot of time to waste. He spotted Talion's boot knife by the fire ring, next to where Bri was getting the fire going. Jo Hi came back, lugging the full coffee pot and set it by his sister to heat once the fire was burning properly. Quince left the injured man momentarily to check out the knife. It had a long, thin blade, perfect for skinning, and for the type of surgery he was going to have to do. Luckily, Talion was unconscious and hopefully wouldn't feel a thing, or remember it if he did.

"Boil the water, Bri, and heat that knife blade in the fire until it's good and hot."

"Yes, sir," she replied, adding a bit more kindling to the burgeoning fire, slowly building it up to full strength. While she worked on her tasks, Jo Hi took up watch by the injured man, watching worriedly.

Quince went through Talion's meager belongings and was somewhat surprised to note that the man didn't carry any whisky with him. Shaking his head, he went to the wagon and got the bottle he kept in the toolbox under the seat. When he turned back, he could have laughed. Jo Hi sat by Talion, with Dolly looking over his shoulder, seemingly just as concerned as the boy. Shaking his head, he took the bottle of whisky back over to use to clean the wound he planned on making.

"You want the knife now, or after the water's boiled?"

"Now, Bri. Is the water even close to hot, yet?"

She shook her head. "Not really, just bath-warm, is all. Probably another ten, fifteen minutes."

"That'll be fine. It's going to take some time to drain that abscess. Got that knife?"

"Just a minute, almost." She passed the blade through the fire until it was starting to glow from the absorbed heat. "Here it is," she held it carefully out to her father, who looked at it and nodded his approval. Pulling the cork from the whiskey, he rinsed the hot blade, the alcohol bursting into flame from the heat. Cool, now, he took up Talion's swollen hand and looked at it. Deciding the best place to cut would be the barely healed scar where the bullet had originally gone through, he winced as he delicately slid the narrow blade through the new scar, eased it past the still healing bones, and out the other side. The release of pressure caused the pus to spurt out like milk from a cow late for milking. It was thick and darkly yellow, nearly brown in some parts. Talion let out a moan, but Quince held the injured hand and applied pressure from the wrist, forcing all the poison out the newly opened flesh. Once most of the swelling drained away onto the ground, stinking mightily, he gently massaged the fingers, forcing more of the viscous poison from the hand. Both of his children watched in horrified fascination, never having seen so much pus before. Not even the year of the pigeon fever when so many of the horses had to have the lumps lanced to drain.

"How bad is it?" Bri asked softly, her face wrinkled up in concern and sympathy.

"Bad, but it's not gangrene, yet. We'll have to keep it open, though, so it can keep draining and heal from the inside out." Quince was finally satisfied that the wound had drained as much as it was going to, and took the bottle of whisky and poured it into the newly opened flesh. Talion moaned again and tried to pull his injured hand away, but there was no strength in it.

With the hot water, he carefully bathed the entire hand, being as gentle as he could. From the toolbox, he had Jo Hi bring him the small muslin bag of white cloths, which he boiled in the water and then carefully rebandaged the wounds. Finished, he gently placed Talion's hand back on his chest. Laying his fingers against the still unconscious man's forehead, he frowned.

"He's got a bad fever. Hope we're not too late."

"What can we do to help?" Bri asked.

He looked at his daughter and realized that what needed to be done would probably make her care even more for the bounty hunter. "Bathe his face and chest with cool water, sometimes it can help bring down a fever. If you can find it, get some willow bark and we'll make him some willow tea. That sometimes helps with a fever, too."

Bri nodded and took the now empty coffee pot down to the creek to refill it. As she filled the pot, she spotted the speckled enamelware pot that still held the leftover stew he'd made the day before. Opening the container, she realized it was still good and thought how clever it was to have put it in the cold water to preserve it. With the coffeepot now full of water, she picked up the cookpot by the bail and carried them both back to the camp.

"I found this in the water, it's still good," she announced, placing the pot of food to heat by the fire. Quince looked at it and realized that Talion hadn't eaten much, as most of the parts of the rabbit were quite readily identifiable.

"He was sick when he made this. I'm kinda surprised he managed as well as he did," he said. "He sure didn't eat much." He shook his head. "There ought to be some willow down by the creek. You take Jo Hi with you and bring back some. I'll keep watch on Talion."

"Yes, sir," Bri replied and, taking her little brother's hand, headed to gather enough willow bark to made some strong tea for when their patient awoke.

He felt like his hand was on fire. At the same time, he was shivering uncontrollably. He felt something cold and wet wiping his face and throat and tried to move away from it.

"Easy, there," a gruff voice he recognized murmured softly. He struggled to open his eyes, confused as he looked around and discovered that he was still in the camp he'd set up.

"Wha," he coughed, trying to clear his throat, "What are you doing here?" he rasped out.

Quince shook his head. "My girl insisted you needed help, so we came after you. Found you yesterday afternoon. You've still got a bad fever, but your hand's better."

Talion frowned and lifted his hand to see the fresh, clean white bandage on it, and the stain of draining pus as well. "What happened?" he asked, confused.

"The outside closed up, but the inside wasn't healed at all. It trapped everything inside and it got infected. I had to cut it back open to let it drain. Your fever's down a bit, but not nearly enough. I brewed some willow-bark tea. If you think you're up to it, you need to drink some."

"Yeah, I'm up to it." It was a struggle, but he managed to sit up on his own, without assistance. He kept his injured hand close to his chest, using his good hand to help him up and then cradling the injured hand with his good one, his face a mask of pain.

Quince sighed. Stubborn fool, he thought, but then realized that the man knew how he felt about him, and it was probably killing him, knowing that he needed any help. Biting his tongue, he turned and simply poured a cup of the willow-bark tea. He held it out to the injured man, who looked at him uncertainly and then took the cup with his good hand. Taking a sip, he grimaced at the bitter taste, but then drank it all down quickly, shuddering at the flavor.

"You said you found me yesterday?" he asked softly, as he waited for the tea to take effect.

"Yes. Bri and Jo Hi are down by the creek, fishin' for crayfish. We ate up your stew last night."

Talion nodded. "Glad it didn't go to waste."

"Oh, it didn't." Quince grinned. His children had eagerly eaten it, thoroughly enjoying the taste, much to his surprise. It had been pretty darned good, for trail cooking. A few minutes later, he tried to keep Talion from getting up, until the man murmured something about needing to relieve himself, at which time Quince helped him to his feet. Once he'd asked the direction Bri and Jo Hi had gone, he worked his way in the opposite direction.

When he returned, he was pale and panting from exhaustion. Shaking his head, Quince helped him lie back down. "Drink some more of this willow-bark tea and we'll eat some dinner when Bri and Jo Hi get back, and then we're going to head back home."

"Thank you for coming to check on me," Talion began, only to be cut off.

"You're coming with us." Seeing him about to protest, he scowled at him. "You didn't claim your bounty. I'll send off the information and the next stage through should have your money. By then, you might just be healthy enough to go where and do what you want."

Talion looked away. "I don't need the reward," he muttered angrily.

"No? How much money you got on you, hmmm?"

"Almost five hundred."

"And how long do you think that will last?" He shook his head, wondering how this man had lived so long with such an outlook.

"I'll be all right."

Quince snorted. "Sure, you will." He didn't understand the man's attitude. He was a bounty hunter, why didn't he want the bounty? He'd certainly earned it. "Why wouldn't you want twenty-five hundred dollars?"

Talion looked him in the eye and he saw a raw, gaping wound shining out from the man's soul. It gave him pause.

"It was personal."

"How personal?"

The younger man looked away. "He murdered my wife and son. After..." he choked on the words and shook his head, his body trembling. "I had to, is all," he finished softly.

Quince realized what wasn't said and paled, knowing how close his own daughter had been to a similar fate. "I'm sorry,"

Talion continued to look into the distance. "So am I."

Before things could get any more uncomfortable, Bri and Jo Hi came back, carrying Talion's cookpot filled nearly to overflowing with some good-sized crayfish. Bri, seeing their patient was awake, smiled.

"How are you feeling?" she asked softly.

"Better, I think." He couldn't help but smile at her.

Quince watched them and realized that Talion was as nervous as any other young man who had tried courting his daughter. He wondered at that. The man had been married and had had a son, but he was as shy about speaking to Bri as any young buck. It gave him pause. Thinking back, he realized that Talion had always been polite, even after being shown to be a bounty hunter. He'd never shown anything but respect to him and everyone else he met, and that gave him something more to consider. It might just be that he was wrong, maybe not about bounty hunters in general, but this one in particular.

"I see you got a good mess of crayfish there, Bri. Why don't you get 'em on to boil?"

"All right, Dad,"

Quince watched Talion watch his daughter, with concern. He was having a hard time figuring the man out. He'd always believed that bounty hunters were as much killers as the men they hunted, but this man didn't quite fit what he believed. It left him confused, and that annoyed him.

Bri was concerned with how little Talion ate. She could tell by the flushed skin and perspiration that he still had a bad fever and put his lack of appetite down to that. After supper, while Bri cleaned up, her father helped Talion up and into the wagon for the trip back to their outpost. Despite the rough trail, he was soon sleeping, or unconscious.

Although it was early afternoon and they were a full day's ride from the store, Quince wanted to get home. He kept the horses at a trot, Talion's little mare tied to the tailgate of the wagon following along.

It was a long, hot, tiring trip. Jo Hi curled up in the back near Talion and slept, come late afternoon. Bri alternated between sitting up on the box with her dad and sitting with Talion, applying cool compresses to his fevered brow. Despite his earlier lucidity, the man still had a bad fever, and there was no way to know for certain whether or not he'd survive.

When dark came, they kept going. It was nearly midnight when they got home. Talion was only semi-conscious, at best, and it took both Quince and Bri to get him into the building and up the stairs to a room.

"Bri, wake up Jo Hi and send him to bed, then if you'd take care of the horses, I'll get him settled."

"All right, Dad." She cast a concerned look at the feverish Talion and hurried out to do as she'd been told.

Quince shook his head and began to strip his guest, starting with his boots and finally getting him out of his clothes and under the blankets. Realizing that with his fever, the extra warmth of blankets was only defeating the purpose, he pulled the blankets to the foot of the bed and left him covered with just a sheet. He checked the injured hand, removing the bandages and replacing them with fresh ones. It was still oozing pus, but at least it was open and draining.

Deciding that there wasn't much more he could do, for now, he headed for his own room to get some sleep, hoping that Talion would live through the night. Debating for a moment, he shook his head and changed his mind, fetching a basin of cool water and returning to the feverish man to try and cool him.

Quince looked up when Bri came in. "The horses are tended and Jo Hi is in bed, sound asleep." She looked at their patient. "How's he doing?"

He shook his head. "Not well. Fever's pretty high." He soaked a rag and replaced the warm one he took from Talion's brow. "You go on to bed, Bri. I'll tend to him."

"All right, Dad. If you need anything, just call."

"I will."

He dozed off and on through the remainder of the night, alternating snatches of sleep with tending to the feverish bounty hunter. Shortly before dawn, Talion became delirious and started talking in his sleep. The noise apparently woke Bri, who came in to check on them.

"No. Nooooooo!" Talion cried out in his fevered state, his grief and anguish apparent. "Katieeeeeee!" The agony in his voice caused his audience to flinch in sympathy, he was so obviously hurt by the memories. "Please, God, no. Bill! Katie! NO!" He sobbed, delirious and still unconscious.

Both Quince and his daughter exchanged grief-laden looks, feeling only sympathy for the man reliving what had to be something horrendous. Bri, biting her lower lip, took over bathing the fever-sweat from Talion's face and chest. His head rolled from side to side in his distress, and his breathing became harsh and labored.

"Katie," he moaned, his voice breaking. He turned onto his side and curled into a fetal position, his injured hand cradled to his chest. He sobbed out his grief and pain, totally unaware.

Quince looked at his daughter, unsurprised to find tears on her cheeks. "Katie and Bill must have been his wife and son, the ones Ike Slant and the Beetson brothers killed." Bri nodded, gently mopping the perspiration from the unconscious Talion.

After several minutes, Talion's breathing eased and he turned onto his back, again. His expression still showed his pain. Sighing gustily, his expression changed to one of wonder, "Bri," he breathed softly, a brief smile on his lips. "'m sorry, can't put you in danger, 'n I can't protect you. I was whole and couldn't save Katie or my boy. Sorry, 'm so sorry, Bri. So beautiful. Beautiful Bri."

Quince looked at Talion in consternation. He'd left to protect his daughter? He looked at Bri and could see that she cared a great deal for this man. The knowledge that he'd left in order to protect her said a lot about him, it also explained why he hadn't wanted to come back, even if it meant he died out there all alone. He shook his head.

"You love him, girl?"

"Yes, Dad."

Quince sighed and nodded. "He can't keep goin' by Talion. Every killer in the country will come lookin' for him, crippled or not."

"I know, Dad. Maybe we can go back east somewhere; someplace no one knows about him, where he'll be safe."

Her father barked out a laugh at that. "I still can't see him clerking in a store."

"No, I suppose not. What about the sheriff's job Jo Hi suggested?"

He pursed his lips, considering the idea. "Well, he introduced himself as Bill Tyler, I suppose he could go back to that. It's not like there's any to gainsay him, after all."

Bri nodded and smoothed the sweat-soaked hair back from Talion's face.

"Beautiful Bri," Talion murmured, turning into her touch, as though he knew whose hand stroked his cheek. She smiled, casting a glance at her father, who shook his head, smiling his amusement.

"I guess I better get used to having him around. But if he ever hurts you," he added in warning.

"He won't, Dad." She turned back to the man she loved, smiling softly. "The only time he came close was when he left." She wrung out a rag and again gently bathed his face and chest, trying to cool his fevered body. She hadn't seen many men with their shirts off, but he was different, almost like an Indian with his lack of chest hair. She wanted to touch him, but with her father right there, she didn't dare. Besides, she wanted him aware when, and if, she ever got to explore his form.

Quince watched his daughter and recognized the expression on her face as one her mother got whenever she wanted... he stood up and cleared his throat, gaining her attention. "I'm goin' down to make some coffee. You need anything, just holler."

She smiled her gratitude, "I will, thanks, Dad." He nodded and turned away, closing his eyes briefly as he remembered her mother and could understand all too well how Talion must have felt at the loss of his family.

They fought for three days, trying to break the fever. Quince remembered that to draw out poison from a wound, you soaked the injury in hot water with Epsom salts. He also discovered a second reaction to soaking Talion's injured hand in hot water. He made sure that he was the only one to take care of that particular treatment, carefully managing the basin to soak the wounded hand and the chamberpot for the side effects.

Quince looked at the way he slept. He realized from the way Talion cradled his hand that the limb was likely to wither if they didn't do something to keep him from being overly protective of it. He called Bri to help him.

"I need you to hold him down so's I can spread out his fingers to keep his hand from withering."

"All right, how do you want me to hold him?"

He took a deep breath and explained. "We need to put him on his right side, with his arm straight out, then I need you to lie beside him, on his arm, so's he can't pull away, and keep him from thrashing around too much."

She looked at her father in surprise. She knew how uncomfortable he was about her feelings about this man, yet he was instructing her to lie beside him and hold him? She bit her lip to keep from smiling and simply nodded. It took them both to get him into position, and then she carefully stretched out beside him. Her father guided her into place, with her waist atop his right arm, which placed his head at her bosom. She was surprised when he told her to hug the unconscious man, but she willingly did as instructed, closing her eyes and reveling in the feel of the man she'd fallen in love with lying beside her, even if he was unconscious.

She had to hold him tight as, even unconscious, he struggled to keep his injured hand from being forced open and tied to the brace her father had made for it, tying each finger to a separate piece, splaying the hand to keep it from withering.

When he was finally finished, and Talion had stopped whimpering in his pain, he took a long look at his daughter and the way she was holding her injured lover. He shook his head, still wondering what it was about this man that had captured his daughter's heart when no one else could. Seeing them together like this, he thought they made a nice couple, if he was honest and objective about it. And the look on Bri's face, her eyes closed as she held him... well, that just clinched it. Quietly, he rose and slipped from the room, leaving them together. He might as well get used to it, his girl was in love and if she was anything like her mother, and he had always noted how much like her mother she was, nothing was going to change her mind.

He went outside and began to help Jo Hi with his chores.

When she realized that her father had gone and left her lying beside Talion, she was at first surprised, then she realized that it was her father's way of giving his approval and permission. Smiling, she began to run her fingers through his hair and stroking his face, marveling at the softness of his week-old whiskers. Chewing on her lower lip, she allowed herself to run her hand down his naked shoulder and across his back, the skin was warm, and she realized that his fever was down, if not yet broken. They'd learned a lot about him, just from listening to his delirious ramblings. About his late wife and son, about his late partner, Patrick Garrett, Jr., and even something about someone named Francis, who was apparently dead, too. She wondered about that, it was like he'd been talking to their ghosts, sometimes. He'd been shocked and upset about Francis, and she wondered who he might have been. Maybe after he recovered, she'd get up the courage to ask him.

She sighed and relaxed, feeling the warm, solid body beside her. She loved the smooth feel of his skin beneath her hand and the softness of his hair. She was tempted to explore beneath the sheet, but didn't quite dare. Still, she was comfortable and didn't even notice when she fell asleep.

Katie? No, Katie was gone. Who, then? The soft, warm bosom his face was cradled against smelled of vanilla and liniment. He frowned then, wondering, pulled away slightly and opened his eyes.

"Bri?" he asked softly, in surprise. His voice was too low to waken her, though, but his movement caused her arms to tighten about him, drawing his head back to her bosom. He closed his eyes, smiling at the touch, but then drew back again. He wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten here. The last thing he remembered was being out on the trail, snaring a jackrabbit, cooking it, eating a bit, and lying down to rest. How had he ended up back at the Quince's, and how long had he been here? His right hand ached, and he realized he couldn't move his fingers. He brought his left hand to his face and he realized with shock that his beard felt about a week old. He gasped in surprise and, finally, Bri stirred and opened her eyes to look at him and smile.

She smiled into his beautiful blue eyes and languorously sat up, freeing his injured hand. He stared at the odd framework that forced his fingers to splay out, but quickly understood the purpose. Turning his gaze back to Bri, he couldn't help but return her smile.

"How are you feeling, Bill?" she asked.

"I'm a little confused. I thought I'd left?"

He didn't remember. Her smile faded a bit as she nodded. "You did, but we went after you."


She shook her head. "We brought you back here because you were too sick to leave. You've had a bad fever. We weren't sure you were going to make it," she admitted, looking at him in concern. "Dad said that you would have died if we hadn't gone after you."

"Your father came after me?" Knowing how Quince felt about bounty hunters, that was a surprise.

She nodded, smiling. "Yes." Feeling bold, she leaned close and kissed him, lightly holding him to her. She was thrilled when he kissed her back and his good hand reached around her to hold her to him.

Reluctantly, they drew apart. They gazed into one another's eyes, searching for and finding what they sought. His breath hitched as he stroked her cheek, his expression of wonder making her smile. Then he frowned and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, but nothing's really changed. I can't stay." His anguish showed in his voice as well as on his face.

"Yes, you can. You're William Tyler, and Dad thinks you should be the sheriff, here."

He couldn't help himself, he laughed. It was a painful sound, with no humor in it. "Sheriff? How could I be a sheriff? I can't hardly hold a gun, let alone draw one fast enough to do any good." He shook his head. "It'll take me months to get even halfway accurate shooting with my left hand," he added.

"Jo Hi figured that out,"

"Jo Hi? He's what, eight? What's his idea?" There was a touch of hysteria and mockery in his tone.

"Shotgun. The sheriff doesn't have to be a fast draw, he's got the law on his side."

He shook his head and frowned. That was definitely not what he'd expected. He shook his head again, "I've never fired a shotgun in my life," he muttered. He looked at her and his heart lurched, seeing her expression. He could tell that she felt for him what he felt for her, and it frightened him. Even changing his name again couldn't guarantee that someone wouldn't recognize him and come after her. At the same time, the warm feel of her body next to his was almost overwhelming. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, her warm scent filled his senses and he wanted her so badly... "Please, Bri, you don't understand,"

"About Katie and Bill? About Pat? About how you hate killing?" He frowned, not understanding. She shook her head. "Bill, you've had a bad fever since before we found you. You talked a lot, and explained some things." She smiled and stroked his cheek, "Dad understands and I guess he's given us his blessing."

"How do you figure that?"

"Because when he splinted your hand a bit ago, he had me hold you so that you couldn't pull away, then he left us here, together like this."

Knowing how Quince felt about bounty hunters, he couldn't quite believe that, and his expression showed his skepticism.

"It's all right, Bill," she repeated, reclining and drawing him against her again. He closed his eyes and relaxed against her, unable to resist. So soft, and the way her hands felt, running through his hair. He sighed and melted against her, soon falling asleep.

He'd awakened. She knew he doubted the possibilities of being able to stay, but she thought he might be at least willing to listen, and maybe try. She was perfectly aware of his reasonable fears and agreed with his assessment of the danger. So, she was going to find a way to circumvent the problem, whether it involved changing his name or going somewhere he wasn't known, it wouldn't matter, just so long as they were together. Once he was deeply asleep, she sighed and eased away from him, pleased at the small sound of dismay he made as she did so.

"Shhh, it's all right, Bill. I'm not going far, my love." She stroked his cheek, smiling when he turned his face into her touch. With a light kiss to his forehead, she straightened up and moved away, leaving him to rest and hopefully recover.

Quince was a bit surprised to come in and find his daughter in the kitchen, cooking. Looking over her shoulder he smiled. Tal...Tyler must have woken up. Otherwise, he couldn't see why Bri would be cutting up a chicken for stewing.

"How is he?"

She jumped a bit, turning towards him, an enormous smile on her face. "He woke up for a few minutes." Her eyes got a dreamy look to them, and then she refocused on her father. "He doesn't remember anything except catching and cooking the rabbit."

He nodded. That was normal and even to be expected. "He was pretty sick, Bri. I'd have been more surprised if he did remember anything." He watched her and noted that she couldn't seem to stop smiling. "What'd he say about staying?"

"He's scared, Dad. He doesn't want to put us in danger, because of what he's done in the past." She shook her head. "You'd think with the new century and all, that things would be different, but they aren't."

Quince laughed. "Girl, as long as people are people, nothing will ever really change." He shook his head and, still chuckling, left her to her cooking and headed upstairs to check on their patient.

He watched him sleep, for a while. He could tell that the fever had eased, by the way the man sprawled in his sleep. He shook his head and realized that he no longer wondered what his daughter saw in this man. Maybe it was hearing him grieve for his lost wife and son, or the young bounty hunter who had died, but he suspected that it mostly had to do with the way he, even in his delirium, had spoken of his love for Bri. Of course, his reasoning behind why he left was pretty impressive, too.

He watched Tal...Tyler shift and realized the man was about to wake up. In preparation, he poured a glass of water from the pitcher on the washstand. Thinking about it, he wondered why each room still had a washstand, pitcher, and basin, when they had indoor plumbing? Finding the thought amusing, he smiled.

Bill took a deep breath and stretched slowly, wincing slightly at the pain and discomfort of his injured hand. Opening his eyes, he wasn't at all surprised to see Mr. Quince standing beside the bed and watching him. He met the older man's eyes, waiting and wondering what he would say.

"You be good to Bri, that's all I ask."

He was surprised, his eyes widened and then he nodded. "I'll do my best, sir."

Quince nodded. "We'll do what we can to make sure no one finds out who you were. We figured that if you're Bill Tyler, maybe nobody'll figure out who you used to be." He frowned when Bill looked away and tried to hide his smile. It made him wonder, but not too much. "The doctor's due to come by in a couple more weeks. I did what I could for your hand."

Bill looked at the injured member and nodded. "I can see that. Thank you." He looked up at the older man and asked, "Mind tellin' me why you took me in? I know how you feel about bounty hunters."

Quince sighed. "Only reason I can think of is that Bri was gonna go after you no matter what. She knew your hand was bad." He shook his head. "I admit I wasn't too keen on the idea, but when that girl takes a notion," he smiled at the younger man, knowing good and well what he was in for, "Well, she's a lot like her mother, and knows how to get what she wants." A lesser man might have been given pause by that knowledge. Bill impressed him by simply smiling and nodding.

"She gave me a little indication of that when I woke up a bit ago," he agreed. He was still concerned about their safety, but also knew that they'd deal with it, whatever happened. He coughed, and Quince abruptly remembered the water he'd poured for him.

"Oh, you need this." He held out the glass and received a grateful smile in return as Bill sat up and took the glass from him.

"Thanks." He drank the cool water down, only then realizing how thirsty he'd been. When offered more, he nodded, finally drinking four glasses before his thirst was quenched. He smiled his gratitude when Quince took the glass from him. He eased back down against the pillow and sighed.

Quince looked at him and smiled. "Bri's fixin' up some chicken and dumplin's, so I hope you're up to eating."

Bill smiled. "Not especially, but I'll do my best." His eyes drifted closed, but instead of falling back to sleep, he spoke. "By the way, where are my clothes?"

"Bri washed them and they're in the chiffarobe."

"Thanks. I guess I'll get dressed and come down, then." Although, with clean clothes, what he'd really like was a bath. Maybe later.

Quince smiled. "Jo Hi's been asking about you. He's out brushing your horse, just now."

Bill smiled. "I'm sure Dolly's enjoying every minute of it."

"That she is." He shook his head, realizing that Bill was about to doze off again. "I'll let you rest, then. If you need anything, just holler."

"Thank you," Bill murmured softly just before drifting off to sleep.

Quince smiled softly and shook his head. Bill sure didn't seem like any kind of killer he'd ever seen before. Of course, he was hurt; but, thinking back on it, he hadn't seemed much like any of the killer's he'd seen or heard of. Shaking his head, still trying to puzzle out the contradictions, he turned and left.

Bri looked up at him, an expectant expression on her face, as he came down the stairs and into the kitchen. He sighed softly and shook his head. "He's still got a bit of a fever, but it's come down considerable. He woke up long enough to drink some water, which is probably a good thing," he reported. He was rewarded with her relieved smile.

"That's great, Dad," she said very softly and turned back to her meal preparations. He lifted his head and sniffed. Fresh biscuits, too, she was really going all out. But then, she was in love. Smiling, he shook his head and headed back outside to check on Jo Hi and take one last walk around before going in for the evening.

They had to wake him for supper, and despite his best intentions, he was still too weak to manage the stairs. If he hadn't still had a fever, he might have been frustrated, instead, he barely managed to eat half of what was served him. Afterwards, he fell back into a feverish sleep.

Bri sat with him through the night, bathing his face and chest again. When he began to shiver with chills, she covered him with thick, heavy blankets. He began to sweat heavily and finally, the fever ran its course and broke.

Tired, Bri carefully stretched out beside him and when he turned to her in his sleep, she held him to her, sleeping contentedly.

When Quince checked on their patient, first thing in the morning, he shook his head at finding his daughter cradled in the arms of the bounty hunter. He was pleased to note, however, that she was atop the covers, while he was beneath. That was a blessing, he decided.

He softly closed the door as he left to get Jo Hi up to start his chores while he started the coffee. He was pleased at how cheerful his son always was.

"Pa, is Mr. Tal-Tyler gonna stay with us from now on?" He was too young to be able to school the hopefulness from his expression.

His father regarded him solemnly. "Do you want him to, Jo Hi?"

The little boy smiled. "Yes, sir. I like him. He's nice."

Quince nodded. His son had never taken to anyone as he had taken to the bounty hunter, even to offering him some of his precious jellybeans that first night. "I reckon he is, son. Maybe."

Jo Hi frowned up at him, "You think him and Bri's gonna get married?"

That made him pause. He thought about it for just a moment, before replying. "I hope so, son. I surely do."

Jo Hi nodded, solemnly. "He sure likes her a lot. Likes us, too, I s'pose." He looked out the window for a moment, noticing the first lightening of the sky with the coming dawn. "Sure hope he stays."

"Why?" He couldn't help asking. What was it about that man that so attracted his son?

Jo Hi glanced quickly up at him, then away. "He don't treat me like a kid, even though I am. He talks to me like I'm growed, not like the other fellas who come through."

And that explained it. Talion had lost his own son. He probably couldn't help but treat Jo Hi as he would have his own boy. He smiled down at his son, finally understanding. "He did, eh?"

Jo Hi nodded, smiling up at his father. "Yep. Listened to me, too." His fingers unconsciously rubbed at his belt buckle, the one Talion had given him. "Think he might teach me to shoot?"

"I hope not, son," Quince replied earnestly.

Jo Hi nodded again. "I best get to my chores." He headed out.

"You do that and I'll fix us some breakfast."

The little boy paused at the door, looking back. "Bri's sleepin' with Mr. Tyler?"

"Well, she's sleepin' in his room, but they ain't exactly together. She tended him through his fever last night and fell asleep."

Jo Hi nodded and smiled. "Hope he stays," he said again and went out to do his morning chores.

Quince stared at the closed door, thinking. Shaking his head in wonder, he softly said, "So do I."

For just an instant, at that moment between sleep and awake, he thought of Katie, but immediately remembered that Katie was gone, as was their son. Then his memory returned and he smiled. Bri. She was soft and warm, lying in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder. He opened his eyes to the darkness of the bedroom, and noticed that the first faint pink blush of dawn was coming through the window, heralding another crisp, clear, winter day. He wondered how much longer it would be before spring came and just how hot did it get, here?

He shifted carefully, so he could watch her as she slept. He eased away and sat up a bit, his head resting on his left hand as he watched her. She was beautiful; her dark hair was carefully braided and he wondered what it would be like to run his fingers through it. Katie had been fair-haired, with blue eyes like his own. Bri was darker, but just as beautiful. If he was honest, she was more comely than Katie had been, but she was also a great deal younger. He smiled as she shifted in her sleep, seeking to snuggle closer to his warmth. With his splinted hand, he gently touched his fingertips to her cheek and his smile broadened as she turned her face into his touch.

She awoke slowly, with a slight shiver, and wondered why it was so cold? Then she realized she was atop the covers, rather than under them. Her eyes drifted open and she looked up to find Bill lying beside her, head resting on his fist, watching her. She bit her lower lip in consternation and he smiled.

"Good morning," his deep voice softly rumbled, sending chills up and down her spine that bore no relation to the temperature.

"Good morning," she replied, just as softly. She stretched and saw the appreciation in his eyes and couldn't help but smile possessively at him. Daringly, she shifted up a bit and kissed him, pleased when he kissed her back; surprised when he pushed her onto her back and leaned over her, kissing her more deeply. Her breath caught in excitement and her arms went around him, the feel of his smooth skin like finely tanned suede under her hands.

When he withdrew, both of them were breathing hard and their eyes caught and held one another's. There were questions both asked with their gaze, and answers.

"Stay with me," she softly begged, stroking his bearded cheek.

"Yes." His eyes closed in submission. Smiling in triumph, she pulled him back down and kissed him, hard.

When he withdrew again, his breathing harsh, she reluctantly rose. "I'd better see to my chores," she said, gazing longingly at him. He nodded his permission to leave him and she quietly left, closing the door behind her.

He lay back in the bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering at his foolishness.

Quince looked up in surprise as his daughter came down the stairs and into the kitchen. She looked like the cat that had gotten the cream. She saw him checking the coffee and smiled.

"Good morning, Dad."

"Good morning, Bri." He almost asked if she'd slept well.

"Bill's fever has broken."

He nodded. That was good, and probably explained why she was looking so smug. "Jo Hi's out doin' his chores and the coffee's almost ready." He stepped away from the stove. "Is," he paused and then continued "Is Bill awake?"

Her smile was like the sunrise. "Yes. He's awake and lucid." She was also blushing, which probably meant that he was quite conscious of what had happened to him. He watched her, waiting for her to continue. Her blush deepened and she didn't meet his eyes as she continued. "I asked him to stay with me." She glanced quickly to gage his thoughts and then continued. "He said 'yes'."

He stared at her in shock. It simply wasn't done, a lady asking a man to.... "What exactly did you ask him?"

She wouldn't meet his eyes again. "Just to stay with me, is all."

He sighed. Well, it wasn't quite as if she'd asked him to marry her, but it was close. Hopefully, he'd take the hint and ask her. Soon. He nodded. "The doctor may be through here today or tomorrow. He's due any time, now. I'll get him to check Bill's hand and we can go on from there, depending on what he says."

Bri smiled shyly and he recognized the expression as the one her mother used to give him when she knew she was going to get something she really wanted. He hoped for all their sakes she was right.

While Bri took over in the kitchen, he headed upstairs to see if Bill needed anything. He was unsurprised to find him sitting up and waiting for him. Wordlessly, Quince checked him for fever, pleased to discover that Bri was correct and that it had broken. Bill was pale and weak, still, but with the fever gone, already starting to recover. He noticed Bill's discomfort and realized immediately what was needed.

"You remember where the bathroom is?"

"Yes. You said my clothes are in the chifforobe?"


Bill nodded and waited for his host to leave, before leaving his bed. "Uh, any chance I can get a bath?" He was still wearing the stench from his fever and didn't really want to put clean clothes on his dirty body.

Quince laughed. "Yep. You remember how to use the water heater?"

"I think so. Push the button and light the oil?"

"That's right, but I think it's probably already heating. Just shut it off when you're through. There's plenty of towels on the shelf in there."

"Thank you." He waited until he heard his host's footsteps going down the stairs and then got out of bed, gathered his clean clothes from the chifforobe, and made his way quickly to the bathroom.

Quince was right and the water was already hot. He filled the tub and stepped in, easing into the hot water, amazed at the technology that was involved. The oil-fueled water heater with the running water was amazing. For that matter, indoor plumbing was still a novelty. Quince was obviously very progressive. He enjoyed every minute of his bath, washing his hair and then just soaking for a bit, his injured hand in the warm liquid. He nearly dozed off, despite having so recently awakened. Finally, he stood and pulled the cork from the drain and continued to marvel at the ingeniousness of the entire setup. Toweling himself dry, he then dressed, struggling with the buttons one-handed.

Finally presentable, albeit barefoot, he carefully hung his towel to dry and left the bathroom, wondering where his kit was so he could shave. He returned to the bedroom and found his saddlebags hanging in the chifforobe. He shouldn't have been surprised. He got his shaving kit and returned to the bathroom. He nearly needed scissors to trim his beard before shaving, but managed to scrape the whiskers off with no damage to his skin, even left handed. Of course, he'd been having to use his left hand for that particular chore for a couple of months, now, and had gotten quite adept at it. Too bad he couldn't handle a gun as well, left-handed.

Padding silently down the stairs in his bare feet, he watched the domesticity of the Quinces as they worked on getting breakfast on the table. Jo Hi came in, lugging a bucket of milk from their cow and was the first to spot him.

"Mr. Bill! You're better!" The little boy nearly dumped the bucket in his excitement. Bill took two long strides across the kitchen to grab the bucket from the boy before he could completely lose control.

"Easy, there, Jo Hi," he said, almost laughing. He turned with the bucket, looking for a place to set it, only to have Quince take it from him with a grin.

"Jo Hi, did you gather the eggs?"

The boy's demeanor wilted. "Not yet, Pa."

"Then you'd best get to it, son."

Head down, the little boy turned to go back outside. "Yes, sir." The door closed softly behind the glum child.

Bill smiled softly. "Rooster torment him?"

"Something awful," Bri agreed, smiling.

Bill nodded, remembering how scared he'd been of the roosters at home when he was that age. Some of the roosters had seemed as big as he was, and they were all mean. He thought that maybe he'd take over that particular chore for the boy, providing he didn't get any gainsay from the boy's father.

"Anything I can do to help?" Bill asked, feeling useless and trying to fight down the feeling.

Bri smiled at him. "You could strain the milk for me and set it to separate in the ice box." He nodded, grateful to have something to do. Quince had frowned at Bri pushing one of her least favorite chores onto their injured guest, but decided to let it go, for now. He simply got the colander, cheesecloth, and separating basin out for Bill, who quickly took care of the milk. He was impressed, considering the man had to do everything with his left hand.

"You've done this before," Quince commented.

Bill looked at him and smiled. "I grew up on a farm," he explained. "It's not exactly something you forget, if you know what I mean."

Quince chuckled. "No, I suppose not." He pondered for a bit, glancing at his daughter, then forged ahead. "Mind tellin' me how you ended up in the bounty hunting business?"

Bill froze for a moment, then carefully and deliberately finished straining the milk and put it in the icebox. Then he took the bucket, colander, and cheesecloth to the sink and washed them. His jaws were flexing, his lips pressed in a thin line, debating whether to tell them, or not.

Finally, when the cheesecloth was hung to dry, he pulled out a chair to the kitchen table and looked down at his hands, the left one still strong, the right tied to the frame to keep the fingers from curling in and withering. Bri set a cup of coffee before him and he smiled up at her in gratitude. He could see she was at least as curious as her father was.

"I was about twelve when my pa let me strap on his old forty-four. Seems I was pretty good with my hands. I started practicing, and got to be pretty fair with it. My folks thought it was foolishness, but it was something I was good at. I'd use that gun for hunting, mostly. Got so's I could plug a cottontail on the run." He wasn't looking at them, so he didn't see that Quince found that information to be rather impressive. "When I was fifteen, they gave me a reason to use that talent on people." He looked away from them, gazing out the window.

"What happened?" Bri asked softly after a minute's silence. Bill looked at them and they could both see the pain deep in the blue eyes.

He took a deep breath and began speaking again. "I grew up on a farm. Me and my brother and sister. Francis has always been a farmer. It's the thing he does best, making things grow. Rebecca is good with cooking and sewing. Me, I was good with my hands, I could fix the farm tools." He looked away from the concern he could see on their faces and focused his gaze back on his cup of coffee. "About once a month, my folks would head into town for the weekend. They'd go in either late Friday or early Saturday and come back Sunday afternoon. They'd get any supplies we might need and have some time to themselves."

Quince thought that sounded like an excellent idea and wished it had been possible for him and his wife. Although they'd managed just fine, even with their children there. He waited patiently for Bill to continue. He didn't have long to wait.

"They always got home before dark. Always." He looked up, his eyes haunted. "I was fifteen, and they were late. It was nearly dark, and there was no sign or word from them. I saddled up my horse and went towards town to look for them. I thought that maybe a wheel had broken, or come loose, or something. Francis, being older, told me not to concern myself, that they were just running late." He shook his head. "I knew something was wrong." He looked back at his cup and took a desperate sip, trying to control the emotions even after so long a time.

"What happened?" Quince asked very softly, fighting the desire to reach out and try to comfort the younger man.

Bill sighed, "I found them. About three-quarters of the way to town. They'd both been shot and the wagon and team were gone." He didn't react to the gasps of horror from his audience. "I got off my horse and ran to them. They were both still alive, and I jumped back on my horse and whipped him all the way into town. I went straight to the doctor's house and ran up the steps and pounded on his door." He smiled a bit grimly, "I guess I was pretty excited, but finally he understood and ran to get his bag and jumped in his buggy to go after them. He told me to get the sheriff, and I did. Then we all went back to my folks." His attention was back on his cooling coffee, gently turning the cup in his hands.

"Did they make it?" Quince asked, noticing that Bri was gnawing on her lower lip and that she had her hands clasped so tightly together that the knuckles were white.

Bill looked up at him, the haunted look still in his eyes. "They both lived, but my pa never walked again. One of the bullets broke his back. By the time we got them home and the doctor was finished patching them up, it was late, and the sheriff told me to go to bed and that he'd look for our wagon in the morning." There was such bitterness in his tone that Quince winced. He could understand how Bill must have felt.

"What did you do?"

Bill smiled grimly. "I tracked our wagon in the dark. They'd run the horses near to death, trying to get as far away as fast as they could. I finally caught up to them about dawn." He looked unseeingly into the past. "I was coming off my horse when they opened fire. Killed Buster right out from under me. I took shelter behind him and challenged them to a gunfight. They laughed." His eyes came back into focus and he looked steel-eyed at Quince. "There were three of them. I managed to get my gear off of old Buster and loaded it in the wagon, along with the three bodies and headed back to town. I wasn't in much of a hurry, 'cause the horses were still so tired, so it took me two days to get back. Sheriff met me just outside of town. He wasn't happy with me, until he heard they shot my horse out from under me. Then he kind of cooled down. Turned out the three men had wanted posters out on them and about a week later, he came out to the farm and I had to sign for the money."

"What'd your folks think about that?" Quince asked softly. A fifteen-year-old boy had no business having to fight like that. No wonder he'd become a killer... only he was beginning to understand the difference between a killer like Ike Slant and a hunter of evil men like William Talion.

"Mother was upset, but Pa just looked at me and said that it looked like I'd found my career." He stood up then and took his cup to the sink and rinsed it out. "As soon as school was out, he told me it was time for me to go out and make my own way." There was no inflection to the words.

Quince was shocked. A fifteen-year-old, sixteen-year-old at best, when he'd left home, this man had been hunting men for his entire life. Yet, he'd tried once to change professions - if only Slant hadn't forced him back. Of course, if he hadn't, then Bill wouldn't have ever come here and Bri would never have met him.

"Are your folks still alive?" Bri asked guilelessly.

Bill looked at her, surprised. He shook his head in his confusion. "They were the last I heard, but it's been more than a year."

Quince was surprised. "You keep in touch with them?"

Bill looked at him and quickly looked away. "Not really, but my brother and sister write, once in a while. Why?"

"Why not your folks?" She didn't understand. The man had saved his parents' lives, yet they sent him away and didn't want him around?

"Pa's never forgiven me for not letting him die. He'd rather that than be crippled." He looked down at his own injured hand and finally could understand his father's bitterness.

"How old were your bother and sister when it happened?" Quince pressed.

"Francis was eighteen and Rebecca was twelve."

Just then, the door banged open and a bedraggled and bleeding Jo Hi stumbled in, his basket of eggs clutched to his middle. His father looked at him in shock. "Boy, what happened to you?"

The child looked up, a beleaguered expression on his face. "That big red rooster," he mumbled, fighting back tears. "He come at me when I was gatherin' the eggs an' it was after I scattered their feed, he still come at me." The child sniffled, trying hard not to cry; after all, he was a big boy, near a man grown; at least in his own eyes, and men didn't cry for nothin'. Not even when it hurt.

Quince, his eyes squinting in commiseration with his son, took the eggs from him, while Bill crouched down beside him and gently tilted the boy's head so he could get a good look at the gash over his eye. "Looks bad, Quince." He looked up at the older man, wondering what he'd do.

Crouching down beside them, Quince examined his son's major injury, while Bill checked out the boy's hands and arms, finding several more gouges, some from the rooster's beak, others from his spurs. He exchanged a look with the boy's father and received a slight nod. Bill stood up and headed up the stairs for his socks and boots.

By the time he'd managed to wrestle his footwear on one-handed and gotten back downstairs, Jo Hi's injuries were cleaned and bandaged. Quince looked up at him when he paused next to them.

"I was thinking, maybe he might want his revenge?" Bill wasn't certain that would be agreeable with his host, but sometimes....

Quince frowned, then looked at his son, still struggling not to cry from the fear and pain. Deciding, he nodded. "Go with Mr. Tyler, Jo Hi," he instructed.

The child looked up, curious, and saw the serious looks on the two men's faces. Taking a deep breath to bolster his courage, he stood up straight and looked Bill in the eyes. "What we gonna do, Mr. Tyler?"

Bri suddenly interrupted them. "Can't it wait until after breakfast?"

The two men stopped and looked at each other. Bill shrugged, and Quince fought back a smile. "I reckon it can wait that long, how about you, Jo Hi?"

"What is it we got to do?" the boy asked.

"Take care of your rooster problem, Jo Hi," Bill answered when it became apparent that no one else would.

Jo Hi frowned, "Take care of it, how?" There was fear in his eyes, but courage, as well.

Bill exchanged an understanding look with Quince and smiled gently. "It will wait until later, Jo Hi. Come on, get up to the table and eat your breakfast."

"Bill's right, son, it can wait until later." He turned to help his daughter bring the platters of food out to the dining room, where everyone sat down to eat.

Distracted and wondering what they had planned for him, Jo Hi quickly forgot about his ordeal with the vicious rooster and joined in with the others, conversing over breakfast. Quince realized that Bill listened to the boy just as he would a man, and didn't talk down to him, but with respect. The more he allowed himself to get to know this man, the more he approved of him.

Breakfast was a quiet affair, each person deep in their own thoughts about various and sundry things. Quince noticed how his daughter looked at the man she was in love with, and the almost shy smiles the man returned. He hid his amusement but was finding himself agreeable to the two of them together. The better he got to know him, the more he approved. He was definitely interested in how Bill was going to help Jo Hi with his rooster problem. It would be different if they had more than one rooster, but that Rhode Island Red had come all the way from Back East.

Sitting over a last cup of coffee, Bill regarded Jo Hi. Finishing, he sat back and took a deep breath. "You about through there, Jo Hi?"

Looking reluctantly around the table, the boy nodded. "I reckon so, Mr. Bill." His brow furrowed in worry, he asked, "What we gonna do?"

"We're going to take care of your rooster problem." He stood up and with a wink to Quince and Bri, he headed for the door, Jo Hi reluctantly following him.

"He looks like he's going to the gallows," Quince murmured to his daughter as he helped her clear the table.

"For him, it might as well be. I admit that rooster has scared me a time or two. There's no knowing what he's going to do. Sometimes, he just attacks when you're feeding them."

Her father looked at her in surprise. "You never said anything."

She shrugged. "What's the point? He's the only rooster we have, and you sent all the way back east to get him."

Her father scowled and looked towards the door through which his son had just gone, concerned for his son and wondering if they'd be having fried chicken for supper that night?

"What we gonna do, Mr. Bill?" Jo Hi's fear colored his speech.

"I'm going to teach you how to handle that rooster."

Jo Hi swallowed hard against his fear. It wouldn't do for Mr. Tyler to see him so afraid of a darned rooster. "H-handle him?"

Bill hid his smile. Oh, how he'd remembered his family's Rhode Island Red rooster. The brute had left more than one scar on him when he was a boy. It wasn't until it went for Becca, that anything had been done. He still remembered how good that monstrous bird had tasted. They arrived at the chicken pen and he looked around. There were a dozen mix-breed hens and the one, enormous red rooster, strutting around and looking for a fight. He spotted the extremely long spurs and nodded to himself. Without taking his eyes from the bird, he spoke softly to the boy. "Go get me a pair of wire cutters, Jo Hi. And some alum, while you're at it."

"Yes, sir." The boy ran off to do as he was told, grateful to not have to again approach his nemesis. A few minutes later, he returned, a heavy pair of fence-cutters in one fist, and a small jar of alum in the other. He was panting a bit as he offered his prizes to Bill.

"Thank you, Jo Hi." He took the pliers and slipped them into his pocket while placing the jar of alum on the top of the fencepost. "Now, we need to catch old Mr. Rooster, there."

"We do?"

"Yep. I'll show you how, all right?" He waited long enough for the boy to swallow hard and nod. Then he opened the gate and entered the pen, the child close behind him.

The rooster eyed them in annoyance. He didn't want these creatures in his domain. With an annoyed cackle, he rushed towards them. Jo Hi hid behind the man, peering fearfully around him at the enraged rooster. Bill simply timed his attack for when the bird's beak opened to strike, and reached down and snagged the large bird by the neck. With an enraged squawk, the rooster brought his feet up to try and spur his opponent, but Bill was ready for him and blocked his feet before they could strike him. Shifting his grip, he let go of the bird's neck and dangled the protesting creature from his good hand.

Jo Hi looked on in admiration, pleased to see his tormentor on the other side of the fence. "What now, Mr. Bill?"

"Well," Bill was a little puzzled, himself. He had the rooster where he wanted him, but with only one usable hand, he was at a loss of how to do this. "Do you think you could hold him for me?" Seeing the terror in the boy's eyes, he added, "I'll show you how to hold him, so he can't hurt you."

Taking a deep, shaky breath, Jo Hi nodded. Bill showed him how to hold the rooster by the feet. By this time, the blood had rushed to the bird's head and he was hanging quietly and not struggling. The boy struggled to hold him up, but the bird was nearly too heavy for him. Pulling the wire cutters from his pocket, he carefully caught the large, viciously sharp spur between the jaws and squeezed hard, snapping the spur off even with the bird's leg. The animal shrieked and tried to struggle, but Jo Hi hung on, despite the blood flowing over his hand. A moment later, the second spur had been likewise removed and Bill was pouring the powdered alum over the wounds, which quickly stopped bleeding. When he was satisfied, he smiled at the boy and nodded.

"Let him go."

"Let him go?"

"Yep. Just lay him on the ground, real gentle-like, and let him go."

Gnawing at his lip, Jo Hi did as he was told. The rooster just lay there for a long minute or two before finally struggling to his feet and giving boy and man a gimlet eye before strutting away.

"Now, Jo Hi, I want you to go up to him and catch him by the neck for me."

"He'll bite me!"

"Stand up straight and walk right up to him, now. Go on, boy."

Terrified, Jo Hi did as he was told. Forcing his shoulders back and unconsciously making himself as tall as he could, he diffidently approached the rooster, which watched him uncertainly. When the bird didn't attack him immediately, Jo Hi's courage rose and he reached out and grabbed the bird by the neck, as he'd seen Bill do. The rooster pulled back with a startled squawk, but quickly quieted when it realized that the boy had a good hold on him. The next squawk that came out was a low-pitched cry for mercy, and Jo Hi knew it. With an enormous grin, he looked at Bill, who was grinning back at him.

"I don't think you'll have much trouble with him after this. If you do, just remember to stand up to him and grab him before he grabs you. With his spurs removed, he won't be nearly so tough."

Jo Hi nodded and released the rooster, turned his back on it and walked proudly back to his hero, who ruffled his hair and smiled at him. Together, they exited the chicken pen and latched it securely behind them. Side by side, they returned to the house.

Bill let Jo Hi go before him, the conquering hero returning from battle. He was smiling as he followed him in, fighting back the laughter as the boy told of holding his tormenter while its spurs were removed.

Quince was a bit surprised, but accepted the return of the wire cutters and alum with no more than a raised eyebrow. Bill softly spoke, so he didn't take anything from the boy's tale.

"There was no need to kill it, I think that Jo Hi shouldn't have any more trouble with Mr. Rooster. We just took his spurs, and I showed him how to catch it by the neck, which now makes it give right in."

Quince shook his head in admiration. "I was wondering if we were going to be having fried chicken tonight."

Bill shook his head. "It wasn't necessary. Besides, you've only got the one rooster, so you need him."

"Not as much as I need my boy," Quince countered, then winced, remembering that this man had lost his son, but Bill didn't react to his words.

"He's a good boy," was his only reply.

The day passed quietly. The few local residents didn't say anything when they came in for their supplies or a drink or two. They were polite and friendly as usual. They all knew who he was, but not a one of them cared - they well knew what would have happened had Slant won: they'd have been slaves to the evil man; it was much better to be owing the bounty hunter, as it would have been one of their wives or daughters next, once Slant was finished with Bri. The men politely asked 'Mr. Tyler' how he was doing? He would answer them diffidently, still not quite sure of them, but he was soon put at his ease when one of Bri's friends stopped in for some supplies and thanked him profusely for getting rid of the vermin of Ike Slant and his kind. By the end of the day, he was beginning to feel that maybe, just maybe, he could settle down here and make a new life for himself... and Bri.

The next three days passed as quietly. Jo Hi, flushed from his victory over the rooster, was no longer afraid of gathering eggs, and the rooster now gave the boy a wide berth, afraid now, instead of instilling fear.

Late in the afternoon of the third day, a dusty buggy pulled into the compound. Quince, upon seeing it, smiled broadly and hurried out to meet the driver. He spoke animatedly to their visitor, calling to Jo Hi to take care of the man's horse. He continued chattering until the weary man came inside. Bri looked up and smiled. Looking at Bill, she said softly "The doctor's here," and hurried from behind the counter to greet him.

Bill, also behind the counter and stocking the shelves for something to do, stood up and took a look at the man. He was about Quince's age, strong and fit, and looking utterly exhausted. He reached back and took a bottle of sour mash and poured the man a drink, sliding it across the bar towards him as he stepped up.

"Bless you," the tired man grunted as he took a sip. His eyes opened in surprise at the quality of the drink. Most places he went served little more than 'injun whiskey', watered down and fortified with gunpowder. He knew that Quince didn't do that, but this was no rotgut, but fine Kentucky bourbon. He looked at Quince in surprise, wondering when he'd started carrying such excellent whiskey.

Quince was grinning and nodding. "Yep. Civilization's reached Tillamook." He gestured to the man behind the bar. "Got a customer for you, Doc. Bill Tyler, here."

The doctor turned his attention to the bartender and asked, "And just what seems to be the problem?"

Instead of replying, he lifted his injured hand. The doctor scowled in puzzlement and set his drink down, unfinished. He reached into his coat pocket and removed a pair of spectacles and put them on. Then he gently took hold of the splinted hand and took a look. His mouth formed a slight frown, but not one of annoyance. "Interesting, why'd you splay the fingers out like this, Mr. Quince?"

"To keep it from withering. It was trying to curl up, so I figured if I tied it open, then it might not wither."

"Ingenious." He looked at his patient, who was watching him closely. "Still hurt much?"

"Every time I bang it on something," he admitted.

The doctor nodded and began untying the splint, releasing the hand to re-form as it would. Bill couldn't repress the hiss of pain as his fingers, released from bondage, contracted. The doctor gently removed the bandage and took a look at the wounds. He said nothing about the obvious cause, simply examined the damage and nodded. Glancing up at the two men, he smiled. "Whoever did this did an excellent job. The infection has cleared up quite well, notice that the drainage is clear?" His audience nodded. "It's now healing very nicely." He gently felt of the bones that had been broken, frowning for a moment at one bump that shouldn't have been there, but it was solid, now, and knit together, despite not having been properly set. Considering the number of tiny bones in the human hand, he didn't think it would cause too many problems until the man was older and the rheumatism set in. He gently palpated the hand, pleased at the automatic contractions of the muscles and tendons. Smiling, he looked up at the owner of the hand. "How's it feeling?"

"Better than it was. Still real tender, though."

The doctor nodded. "That's to be expected. One of the bones, here," he indicated the one he meant, it was quiet obvious when you looked for it, "Has healed a bit crooked, but shouldn't cause you much trouble, although, as you get older, it's likely to ache like mad in the wintertime."

"Will I be able to use it normally?"

The doctor shrugged. "Possibly." He turned to Quince. "You have a cow, don't you?"

"Yes," Quince frowned, wondering what in the world a cow had to do with a gunfighter's gunhand.

The doctor smiled and turned back to his patient. "I suggest you take over milking the cow. Take it slow, at first, you don't want to damage the tendons and ligaments, but milking the cow is the perfect therapy for your hand. It will help you regain the mobility and strength you lost when you were injured."

Bill nodded, understanding. "Thank you, doctor. What do I owe you?"

The doctor smiled as he picked up his glass and downed the rest of his drink. "Another glass of this, a hot meal, and a clean bed, and we'll call it even."

Bill looked at Quince, who was smiling and nodding. "Done," the proprietor agreed, shaking the doctor's hand. "Give him the whole bottle, Bill." Turning to his daughter, who had been looking on with shining eyes, he continued, "You got supper started, Bri?"

"Yes, sir," she replied, smiling happily and hurrying from the room to continue her preparations.

It wasn't hard getting up early; the problem came when he actually tried to milk the cow. Despite being well warmed beforehand, his fingers just didn't want to close tightly enough to actually be effective in drawing the milk from the patient old Jersey cow. He didn't give up, though. He kept trying, and day-by-day, his strength increased, as did the mobility of his fingers. It would still give him grief any time he'd bump his hand, but even that was easing as the time passed. After several months, his dexterity had returned nearly to normal, and his hand-strength was greater than it had been before.

He'd continued to practice using a gun with his left hand, and as his right regained strength, he began to practice with it, as well. He was always careful to do his practice either late at night, or to take a ride out away from the way-station, so as to not worry Quince.

His courtship of Bri was going very well. They'd take long walks, talking about what he should do, whether he'd be any good as a lawman, or not. He honestly didn't want to have to depend on his gun for survival, any more, as it might draw unwanted attention to who he used to be.

He was strong and fit, again, and had dug the garden patch for spring planting. Quince thought he was crazy, trying to grow things in the desert, but he knew about fertilizing and water, and the vegetables he'd put in had greened up the space he'd tilled up for them and, providing they didn't have too many summer hail storms, promised a decent crop of vegetables, come fall.

It was a quiet afternoon in early summer when the stage pulled in, one day, with a letter addressed to William Talion. Quince looked at it curiously, noting that it had been two other places, first, and that it had originated in Ohio. He frowned, wondering what it could possibly contain. He thanked the stage driver, fed the passengers, and watched them as they pulled away, two hours later.

When Bill came in that evening, after having been out all day, he scowled at him.

"What's wrong?"

"You got a letter." Quince slid the missive down the bar to him. Frowning, Bill lifted it and looked at the postmark. Quince frowned as Bill turned pale.

"Something wrong?"

"I don't know. It's from my sister." Taking out his boot knife, he carefully slit the envelope open and removed the several pages of paper within. Quince could see that there was a lot of writing, and watched curiously as Bill read it. If anything, the younger man became even more pale. His breathing became somewhat ragged, and he looked towards the door, biting his lower lip.

"What's wrong?"

"My brother's dead." There was no inflection in the voice, which was barely above a whisper.

Quince frowned again. "What happened?"

Bill turned his haunted blue eyes to the older man. "Stupid accident. He and his wife were coming back after a weekend in town and the axle broke, spooking the horses. They were thrown from the wagon and killed. My sister wants me to come home and take over the farm."

Quince looked worried. "What did your folks say?"

He looked away. "Nothing. My sister is the one asking me to come back." He shook his head in confusion and grief. "I - I'm not quite sure what to do," he admitted, looking at Quince for suggestions.

"What'll happen if you don't go back?"

He shrugged. "Nothing, just now, but come September, the crops need to be brought in, the cattle sorted and the culls sold." He rubbed his face with one hand, hard. "I-I don't quite know what to do."

Quince was taken aback. Bill had always seemed very sure of himself, no matter what. It was obvious that the news of his brother's death had shaken him badly. "I'm sorry," he softly offered, unsure what else to say.

Bill shook his head. "I need to go back. See them, at least." He was frowning.

Quince nodded. "I reckon you do, at that." He glanced towards the kitchen, where Bri was fixing supper. "You gonna take Bri with you?"

He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, swallowing hard as his heart and breathing accelerated. "I'd like to, but it ain't exactly proper, us not being married, yet." He looked at Quince, the question in his eyes.

Yet. They'd talked about it enough. Bill had refused all of Bri's overtures in that regard, saying that they had to be married before he'd lie with her. She'd complained, but her father had only supported her beau in that respect, and his measure of the ex-bounty hunter had gone up. Bill had insisted that they didn't know each other well enough to be married, yet, and Quince had suspected that until he was able to support her on his own, the man wouldn't marry her, or do anything to compromise her reputation.

"I'm the justice of the peace. We can take care of that in no time at all, if you want."

Bill nodded. "I'd like that, but I don't want to just drag her away from home, like this. It may be that I won't be able to come back." He looked at the man who'd taken his brother's place in his life, who offered advice (even when unsolicited) and support throughout this trying time. Now, he was at a loss and asking again for help. Licking his lower lip, he dropped his head down, peering up through lowered brows at his soon-to-be father-in-law. "I, uh, don't suppose you and Jo Hi would care to come with us?" It was a mad idea, and he knew it. Quince had made himself a good life, here. What need had he to go back east? Everything he had built was here. He had land, a business, and his son. Would he be willing to leave all that to keep his daughter near?

Quince understood what he was asking. He had several people he could trust to handle his business while he was gone, and he knew that any one of a half a dozen people would be more than happy to buy him out. "I'll have to think about it. It'll be at least a week before everything can be settled and you'll be able to go. Let me think on it for a few days?"

Sighing in relief, Bill nodded. "All right. Thank you."

Two days later, an itinerant preacher came through, and Quince quickly took advantage of that fact. The wedding was rather impromptu, but Bri had her mother's white lace wedding dress, which had needed no alterations in order to fit her, and this way, Quince could actually walk his daughter down the aisle and give her away.

The night before the wedding, the men all got together to give the groom a final sendoff, while the women held a quieter party for Bri. Bill had been polite enough, but refused to overindulge in drink, explaining that he wanted to remember his wedding day, not go through it either hung over, or in a drunken stupor. Quince admired his restraint, but saw to it that everyone else had a full glass at all times.

Bri was a bit embarrassed. All the married women within a twenty-mile radius had come. They were all considerably older than she was, and insisted on giving her advice.

"You're lucky you already know how to cook, Bri," One woman who was only a few years older than she was said, "I had a horrible time with my Josh, because I didn't know how to cook."

"Betsy, you still don't know how to cook!" another voice hooted.

A middle-aged woman, who was about the age her mother would have been, leaned close to give her some 'very important' advice. "When he comes to you, you'll have to do your duty by him, so just lie still until he's taken his pleasure. It's going to be hard on you, him being such a big man, and all, but not as bad as my Tom." She grunted at the thought of her exceptionally large husband.

"Oh, yes," another one sighed. "It's hard, sometimes. They come in all hot and sweaty and all they want is to crush you beneath them." She sighed and shook her head.

The other women all joined in, telling stories of the 'unpleasant' duties of being a wife, followed by tales of childbirth and the pain involved. If she hadn't loved Bill so much, she'd have been tempted to run away.

"Bri?" Mary Drew said softly, having followed her to the kitchen for more coffee.

"Yes?" Bri lifted worried eyes to the other woman. Mary had a 'reputation', having been a saloon girl before meeting and marrying her husband.

"It's not always as bad as they make it out to be. Sometimes," she had a dreamy expression on her face, "I'm not sure what happens, but it's like...well, like nothing else. A fire runs through you, and then it's like being struck by lightning." She blushed, "I just wish it happened more often than it does."

Bri looked at her, a hopeful expression on her face. "Really? Why don't they know about that?" She gestured towards the other room where the rest of the women sat, chattering.

Mary shrugged. "No idea. Maybe they've never felt it, but it's wonderful, Bri. And since your Bill was married before, maybe he'll be extra-gentle with you."

Bri smiled and nodded. "I hope you're right. The way they're all talking, I was thinking of maybe running away, they make it sound so awful." Mary gave her a hug, and she gratefully returned the embrace.

"It'll be fine, Bri. You'll see. He loves you like crazy. That makes a difference."

Bri smiled and nodded. Picking up the pot of coffee, the two women rejoined the rest of their group, where the older women continued to tell all their horror stories about marriage.

When she finally got to bed that night, she didn't sleep at all well.

Bill had spoken to the preacher just before the ceremony, and although he didn't seem happy, he agreed to Bill's request to only use their first names. He stood quietly, waiting. Everyone in the area had come to see Bri get hitched, and he was just a trifle nervous about it.

The room grew silent as Quince and his daughter appeared at the door. Bill's breath caught in awe at the vision of his bride. The once-white lace had turned to ivory with age, but it was still beautiful. He and Katie hadn't had a formal wedding, just a justice of the peace, so he was nearly overwhelmed at the beauty approaching him.

Quince couldn't keep the expression of pride from his face, everyone was looking at Bri admiringly, and her hand in the crook of his arm was steady. He'd seen the joy on her face earlier, when he helped her put on her veil. She was deeply in love with her soon-to-be husband, and his only wish was that they have a long and happy life together.

He handed his daughter over to her groom, who had a dazed expression on his face and eyes only for Bri. The ceremony was soon over and, as they were announced by the preacher as man and wife, the gathered crowd cheered for them.

Quince opened up the bar and soon the reception was in full swing. When he'd married Bri's mother, they'd been given a shiveree, but that seemed inappropriate, for his girl. As the party grew more boisterous, he suggested they slip upstairs and make sure to bolt their door. Embarrassed, the couple slipped away and up to his room.

Bill lifted her in his arms and carried her across the threshold of his room. Setting her gently back on her feet, he turned and bolted the door, as he'd been instructed. When he turned back to her, she was looking up at him shyly.

He smiled softly and approached her, "Have I told you how beautiful you look?"

She bit her lower lip and shook her head, watching him, uncertainly. He approached and gently cradled her face in his hands, kissing her lightly. "Did I remember to tell you how much I love you?" he asked.

She smiled and wrapped her arms around him. "Not since this morning," she replied. "Have I told you how much I love you?"

"Not since this morning," he countered, and kissed her again.

She was excited by his touch. His warm hands on her face sent shivers up and down her body. She knew (according to the ladies the night before) what was coming, and she was half-terrified and half-excited. She was finally going to be able to touch him, and he would touch her.

He carefully worked the buttons free on her dress. She stood quietly as he slipped the heavy lace garment from her shoulders and she stepped out of it, leaving her chemise and petticoats on. She turned to find him carefully hanging the dress and when he turned, she raised her head high and began working on the buttons to his shirt and helping him off with it. His warm, honey-colored skin was so soft and smooth beneath her hands. She stepped close and lay her cheek against his chest and relaxed into his embrace. She could hear his heart pounding beneath her cheek and she wondered if he was as frightened as she was?

His hands lightly ran up and down her back as he buried his face in her luxurious hair. Taking a deep breath, he stepped back from her. With a gentle smile, he grasped her hands in his and backed up to sit on the edge of the bed, drawing her down beside him.

Her hands roamed across his bare skin, sending tendrils of fire along his veins even as he shivered at her touch. He closed his eyes and just felt. When she stopped, he frowned and looked at her. She'd stood up and was removing her chemise and petticoats, and bloomers. His breath caught at the sight of her bare skin and then he flushed and his heart started pounding wildly.

She was gnawing on her lip, wondering if he liked what he saw, but the look of amazement on his face vied with desire and she stopped worrying and smiled. She reached for his trousers and he took the hint and stood to remove them, toeing off his boots, first, then stripping down to bare skin.

He was well endowed, not that she had any means of comparison, but his interest was quite obvious. Looking at him questioningly, she lightly ran her hands over him, Smiling as he shivered. As his hands returned the caress, she understood. Taking her by the hand, he drew her to the bed, lifted the covers, and they climbed in together.

She was uncertain what to expect, as she only had the other women's stories to base her expectations on. His hands were gentle as he caressed her body, and she found the touch exciting and arousing.

He'd been surprised when she completely disrobed for him. Katie had always worn at least a nightgown. The memory was fleeting, as he didn't want to waste his time remembering the past, except for the things that his first wife had taught him about what brought a woman pleasure. He'd learned those lessons well, and he practiced them on his bride.

Every one of the women at her party had spoken of being crushed by their husbands. She expected it, as well as pain, but instead, there was a moment of discomfort, and then, while not quite pleasurable, it certainly couldn't be called painful or unpleasant. When he finished, he moved onto his side and pulled her close, cradling her in his arms. His hands gently probed and stroked, bringing her comfort and pleasure. More daring, now, she lightly ran her hands over his body, as well, and was fascinated as he again became aroused.

Neither of them was particularly vocal in their lovemaking, but their consideration for one another was quite obvious. As he touched her, he'd murmur questions as to whether she liked the way he was touching her. As his hands became more familiar, she abruptly jumped, his touch having ignited the reaction. She immediately remembered Mary's description and realized that what he was doing could very well lead to the sensation Mary had told her about. As he again hovered over her, she shifted, trying to make that same contact again. He seemed to understand her desire, and this time, there was no discomfort, no pain, only a shuddery excitement that had her moving in counterpoint to him, and clinging tightly to him as they reached some sort of completion that left them both panting and exhausted.

She wondered what those other women had been talking about? This was wonderful!

He lay panting and exhausted beside her, holding her close as he caught his breath. He knew he'd pleased her, simply from the small cry that had escaped her as she abruptly clung to him. He gently smoothed her hair from her face, lightly kissing her. Katie had never been this easy to please, and had been much more demanding. He reasoned that was due to her having been so much more experienced than he was. Now, the role with his new wife was reversed. He now had the experience, and he hoped that he could continue to bring her pleasure in their marriage bed.

"Are you all right?" his voice softly rumbled in concern.

"Oh, yes. I never imagined anything like this."

He held her closer to him, the softness of her skin against his inflaming him again, but he was too tired to react. Instead, he pressed her back into a supine position and rested his head between her breasts, with one arm slung across her body. Her arms encircled him, with one hand gently stroking his shoulder, while the other finger-combed his hair. Soon, they were both sound asleep.

It was late by the time Quince finally got their guests to leave. He quietly locked up and checked on Jo Hi before he headed for his room. The boy was sleeping soundly in his bed and he smiled and kissed his son's forehead. He had to pass Bill and Bri's room, and silently hoped that the man had been gentle with his girl, and then realized that Bri was no longer his, but her husband's. He sighed and thought about Bill's invitation to go back east with them. He was tempted, but didn't know if that would be good for Bri. Too tired to think any more, he undressed and tumbled into bed, deciding it could wait until later to worry about.

He woke, as usual, well before dawn. The soft, warm woman beside him reminded him that he was married, and still had to decide on whether to go back home, or not. He hadn't discussed it with Bri, yet, somewhat afraid that she might change her mind about marrying him. He felt only a little guilty about that small deception, but still hoped that she'd not be too upset. He'd let her help decide whether to go back to Ohio, or not.

He shifted carefully, so as not to wake her, and watched her sleep. She was smiling in her sleep, one arm across his body, and snuggled deeply beneath the covers. He smiled as he watched her, the slow, steady rise-and-fall of her chest as she breathed, the soft tendrils of hair that he gently pushed back from her face; the clear brown eyes that met his as they fluttered open.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you," he murmured softly. She stretched beside him, her body against his, making him almost gasp at the touch, then she smiled and reached for him, drawing him to her.

"I'm not," she murmured, kissing him. Their hands groped one another, teasing and arousing, and soon they were quietly sporting in their marriage bed, much to his delight as he realized that he'd learned his 'lessons' well. She was just as pleased with his ministrations and totally unable to keep her hands off of him.

When next they awoke, it was nearly daylight. They washed in the basin, rather than going down the hall to the bathroom, and he insisted on bathing her, which allowed him to continue touching her. She reciprocated, and they had to fight the urge to go back to bed. Fortunately, they both had enough self-control not to.

Dressed for the day, they quietly made their way downstairs, where Bri began cleaning up after the night before, while Bill headed outside to do the morning chores. He suspected that Jo Hi had been up inordinately late, and therefore deserved to be allowed to sleep in.

The morning was clear and the fresh breeze brought the scent of mesquite to his attention. Smiling contentedly, he sauntered across the compound to the barn, where he began with feeding the horses and cow, then he fed the chickens, collected the eggs, with the rooster taking one look at him and keeping out of his way. With the egg basket set safely aside, he went back into the barn to milk the cow, enjoying the strength that had returned to his injured hand. With the morning chores complete, he took the eggs and milk into the kitchen, where he strained and set the milk to cool and separate; after which, he joined Bri in cleaning up the mess left from the night before. There was coffee boiling on the stove, and by the time it was ready to drink, the downstairs had been cleaned up.

While Bri began breakfast, Bill went back out to the barn to clean the stalls and deposit the manure in the midden in the chicken pen. Quince had been very upset when he'd moved the manure heap to the pen, until Bill explained that the chickens would eat the maggots and any other bugs that got into it, thus keeping down the flies. So far this summer, it had been a welcome respite from the usual number of annoying insects.

Bri was somewhat surprised that Bill finished shoveling out the barn before either her father or brother awoke. Fortunately, she'd decided on biscuits and gravy for breakfast, and it would keep quite well in the warming oven. When Bill returned and had washed up, they sat together over breakfast, smiling and holding hands as they shared a plate, laughing and teasing as they fed one another. When Quince finally came down the stairs, they were sitting quietly, Bri in Bill's lap, kissing and holding each other.

Seeing them together like that, he felt relieved. Obviously, they had survived their first night together, and from the way they were acting, Bri was a happy newlywed. He was smiling when they spotted him.

Seeing her father, Bri tensed and started to stand up, but Bill's arms tightened around her as he looked at his father-in-law, a possessive expression on his face. Seeing the smile, he returned it, and turned the restraining hold on his wife into a hug and a kiss, still watching the older man, who continued to grin and simply nodded his approval. Bri immediately stopped trying to stand, in order to return the kiss, her arms going around his neck and one hand ruffling through his hair.

Releasing her, Bill smiled and allowed her to stand. Turning to Quince, he softly said, "Good morning."

"Yes, it is," Quince agreed, giving his son-in-law a knowing smile. Bill blushed a bit and looked at his wife, a contented smile gracing his lips.

Bri dished up a plate of biscuits and gravy for her father and set it before him, while Bill poured and handed him a cup of coffee. Sitting down at the table, he looked at his meal, he realized what was going to happen when they left. He'd be forced to do his own cooking for his son and him. He frowned. He began eating, while Bill went upstairs to get Jo Hi up for the day. It had never occurred to him that the boy would still be sleeping. Glancing around, he realized that the morning chores had been done, by Bill no doubt.

When the man and boy came down the stairs, he looked at them and realized how fond the two of them were of each other. Bill had never usurped his place as Jo Hi's father, but he'd slid into a position that could easily have been an older brother. He nodded to himself, and shifted in his seat, leaning back and taking a sip of coffee.

"You tell Bri yet?" he asked.

Bill stiffened. "No, sir. I haven't." He regarded the older man, wondering what he was going to do.

Quince nodded. "I think we'll all go with you, if that's all right with you?"

"Go where?" Bri asked, frowning and looking from her father to her husband.

"I, uh, got a letter from my sister. My brother and his wife were killed in an accident and she's asked me to come home and help out."

Her jaw dropped open and she sat abruptly. "You - you mean, go to Ohio?"

He nodded, looking worriedly at her.

"For good?"

"I don't know, yet."

She looked at her father, who gave nothing away by his expression. "When?"

"It'll take at least two weeks to get someone settled in to handle the station while I'm gone, but then we can go. Take the stage to the railroad, and then the train east."

"All of us?"

Quince nodded. "Unless you say you don't want your brother and me?"

She looked to her new husband for his feelings in the matter; after all, he was in charge of her, now. He smiled, an expression of relief on his face. She read his eyes and realized he'd asked her father to go with them. Her concerned frown reversed into a pleased smile.

"Of course I want you!" She laughed and quickly threw her arms around her father and gave him a hug, followed immediately with an even stronger hug and a passionate kiss to her husband.

Jo Hi looked up from his breakfast and asked. "Where's Ohio?"

The neighbors pretty much stayed away for the next week, giving the newlyweds a chance to get to know one another. Come the next Saturday, however, things went back to normal, with folks coming in to buy supplies and stop to talk a while. Bill was up on a ladder, fetching something down for Quince, when Bri came in and saw him. Oblivious to the fact she had an audience, she stepped up behind him and ran her hands up his legs. He glanced down at her with a grin, which she returned. She remained close, so that his body brushed against hers as he stepped down from the ladder. The men in the room watched in surprise, while the women's jaws dropped in absolute shock.

Setting the box on the counter, Bill gave his bride a quick kiss, and ran his hand down her back. The ladies were mortified by this obviously sexual act, while the men watched in wonder as Bri responded by wrapping her arms around her husband. The only customer present who didn't seem scandalized, was Mary Drew, who simply smiled and touched her husband's arm, causing him to turn and get a look at the younger couple. He blushed and then looked long and hard at his own wife, who gazed up at him with a knowing smile.

Reading her expression, he hurried through the rest of their shopping and after paying Quince, the couple headed home, whipping the horses into a spanking trot in their hurry.

Quince had become immune to the couple's frequent shows of affection, and had even overcome his horror at their frequently taking a 'nap' in the middle of the day. They were young and in love, and he hoped it lasted a lifetime for them.

He was a bit disappointed that the Drews had left so soon. Usually, they'd spend the day at the outpost, but they'd left in a hurry, right after... oh. Realization brought a broad grin to his face and he hummed softly under his breath as he moved around, gathering supplies for his customers.

He'd made his decision. The Drews were an honest, hard-working couple. They ran a few cows about ten miles north of the outpost, and Quince decided to ask them about running his business and taking care of his stock and property until he returned. And if necessary, he felt he could trust them to buy him out, even if it took them several years.

He gave Jo Hi the note asking them to come and talk to him and, proudly riding Bill's Dolly, left for the all-day trip out to the Drews' house and back.

It was late afternoon by the time the exhausted little boy returned, with Mr. Drew's promise to come in within the next day or two to talk to him.

Bill was wrestling a keg of beer up from the cellar for the bar when it happened. Three men had come into the outpost and ordered drinks. Bri acted as server, while her father worked behind the bar.

Bri set their drinks on the table and the oldest of the men grabbed her around the waist and tried to pull her into his lap, laughing and trying to kiss her. Her father yelled at him to let her go, but he was ignored. Then Bill was there, silent and deadly, and the man froze, releasing the struggling young woman.

Hearing her cry out, he'd reacted instantly. He had just reached the kitchen and simply set the keg down and reached for his revolver where it hung on the coat peg. He moved swiftly and silently and no one even noticed his presence until he made it known by pulling back the hammer to cock the revolver.

The stranger felt the gentle pressure of a gun barrel in his ear and heard the hammer drawn back. He took a quick breath as his whole body stiffened, and the girl wriggled away and ran to the old man behind the bar. His friends stiffened as well, hands hovering over their own guns. The sound of a shotgun being cocked caused the strangers to abort their reach for their guns.

The voice was a low, dangerous purr in the ear not plugged by the gun barrel. "I tend to take exception to people manhandling my wife."

"S-sorry, mister, I was just funnin' with her!" Sweat had broken out and was beading on his forehead.

"Naw, you were putting your hands where they didn't belong, and she called for help. Lucky for you, I'm a forgiving man." His brow furrowed as he looked at the stranger, and then his gaze turned to the other two. He couldn't help the grin that graced his angry features. "Bri, fetch me some of that clothesline cord, would you, please?"

Quince looked surprised. "You think that's necessary, Bill?"

He nodded, the amusement still on his face. "Yep." He cast a quick glance to the older man. "I've been keeping up with the posters that come in, and these three are on them."

Quince scowled. "Then what do you want the rope for?"

Bill frowned in confusion, "To tie them up until we can send for the sheriff, of course."

Final proof. Bill was no killer. If he didn't have to kill, he didn't. Quince grinned and nodded. "We can put them in the cellar."

Bill shook his head. "It's too cold down there. I'll put them in the tack room in the barn." He shrugged at his three prisoners. "Sorry we don't have a jail, but trust me, the tack room's a lot warmer than the cellar."

Bri returned with a coil of clothesline. He smiled at her, and she shyly returned the gesture. "Do you want to hold the gun, or tie them up?" Bill asked softly. Her eyes widened in fear as she looked from his gun to the man who had grabbed her. Gnawing on her lower lip, she set the cord on the table and moved over beside her husband and took over the gun. Her hands shook slightly, and he gave her a quick hug and kissed her cheek to reassure her.

He didn't waste any movement, with Bri and Quince covering them, he quickly had their guns removed from their holsters and their hands tied behind their backs. He then lightly ran his hands over each man, finding that each man carried a boot knife, as well as a pocketknife, and the one who'd manhandled Bri had a derringer up his sleeve, and another one in a holster on his belt, in the back. Quince blinked in surprise at the arsenal the three men had on them.

"Why tie their hands behind them?" Bri asked.

"So they can't hit anyone, and if they do try anything, it'll be easier to trip them up, and with no hands to break their fall, they'd go face-first, either into a wall, or the ground...whatever there is before them." He smiled at his bride, his concern still apparent in his blue eyes, as he gently took his revolver back from her. "Gentlemen? This way, please."

The three grumbled, but complied. They'd been caught flat-footed and so cleverly gotten the drop on, that the trio didn't put up any kind of a fight, simply rising to their feet and being escorted out to the barn.

"You ain't gonna leave us tied up, are you?" one of the younger men asked.

"'Fraid so. I can't take a chance on you gettin' loose and hurting my family, none. 'Course, if you hadn't grabbed my wife like that, I might not have ever recognized you." He didn't mention that that was highly unlikely, but it sounded good.

"You move like a Injun," the oldest one muttered.

"Thank you. I make it a point of moving quiet-like."


"So's I can sneak up on men like yourselves, of course."

"Who the hell are you?" the oldest one demanded.

"Just the fellow who got the drop on the three of you, is all." He pushed them down onto the floor of the tack room and then emptied out anything they could use to cut with, before closing and barricading the door from the outside. "I'll be back in the morning."

"Wait! What if we need to go?"

He paused a moment, thinking. "I suggest you think dry thoughts." Smiling slightly, he turned and left the barn, closing and bolting the door behind him, just in case. Even if they managed to get out of the tack room, the only way out of the barn was through the hayloft, fifteen feet above.

Quince looked up at him when he came back. "I'll go telegraph the sheriff, see if he can come and get 'em in the next day or two." He shook his head in awe. "I looked at the flyers and found 'em. You're right, there's posters on all three of them."

Bill smiled, "Well, I have made my living by knowing who's on the flyers. Old habits die hard, I reckon. Don't be surprised if the sheriff insists we bring them to him; but if he does, tell him to have the money for them waiting." Quince frowned for a moment, then nodded. "I'll tell him. What name do you want to use?"

Bill hesitated only a moment, then, "Talion. He doesn't have to know anything else, does he?" It was obvious that he wanted to separate them from that part of his former life. Quince nodded his understanding, appreciative of the gesture.

"No, he doesn't." He smiled at his son-in-law. Taking a deep breath, he exhaled it and started closing up. "I don't figure on any more customers tonight. Let's turn in."

The response from the Sheriff was expected. Quince muttered angrily about the worthlessness of the man, but Bill just shook his head and asked to borrow the wagon to transport his prisoners. Quince readily agreed, not wanting the responsibility of the care of the three men any longer than absolutely necessary. While Quince stood watch uneasily, his shotgun cocked and ready, Bill took the men one at a time to use the facilities and got them some food and coffee. It was going to be a long trip, and once he was on his way, with his prisoners in the back of the wagon, he gave them one bit of advice.

"The bounty is dead or alive, so if you want to keep breathing, I suggest you make this as easy on me as you can."

"Who the hell are you, mister?" one of the men asked.

"Name's Talion."

He had to struggle to keep from smiling at the gasps. "I, uh, I heard you was killed?" one finally said.

"Nah. That was someone else."

The daylong trip was remarkably quiet.

Not surprisingly, the sheriff had failed to arrange payment and he was forced to spend the night. He would have in any case, but it annoyed him to be gone longer than he absolutely had to be. He desperately missed his wife and her family. He was surprised by just how much it hurt to be away from them. He spent a miserably lonely night at the hotel, not even going over to the saloon for a drink. He could hardly wait to get home.

Home. Where was home, anyway? Was it at Quince's? Back in Ohio? Where did he belong? He frowned, considering. After a time, he decided that if Bri was with him, he could be at home just about anywhere. He was concerned, however, with the idea of if he decided to stay on his family's farm, and Quince returned to his place, here, how that would affect his wife. He sighed, realizing that he couldn't exactly control any of this, just now.

He spent a very unrestful night, between worrying about what would happen when he got back home and missing his wife and wondering what the future held for him.

It was late the following morning before the sheriff had his money ready. He was sure the only reason he got paid at all was because he'd sat himself down in the sheriff's office to wait. He sat staring at the man until he couldn't stand it any more and got off his duff to do his job. As he counted the bills, he softly suggested the man take a bit more interest in his job. "I spotted at least four wanted men in the saloon, last night," he murmured, looking up at the man from beneath lowered brows, his pale blue eyes stabbing him in accusation.


"Just a thought." He stuffed the money in his pocket and turned to leave. The sheriff warily watched him as he stepped into the borrowed wagon and clucked to the team.

He kept the team at an easy, ground-eating trot, not too fast, but hopefully fast enough that he'd get home before midnight. He sighed and shook his head, wondering what the sheriff had been thinking, letting so many wanted men run loose in his town.

He kept an eye out for trouble, but fortunately, his reputation served him well and his trip was uneventful.

The Drews arrived while Bill was gone. Quince explained what was going on, how they were all heading back east because of a family emergency. When he told them that he might not be coming back any time soon, Mr. Drew asked if he was thinking of selling out. There was only curiosity in the question.

"Would you be interested, if I was to sell?"

Drew frowned, thinking about it. He knew that the outpost brought in good money, and the work was no harder than what he did with his cows and little garden. He'd seen Quince's garden out back, near an acre, planted in corn, peas, beans, and squash. It looked a whole lot better than his own meager attempts at growing things. If he were to run the outpost for Quince... "How much would you want for it? You got a lot of land around here, Quince. I can't see you giving it up all that easily."

"Well, I'm thinkin' about it. Sort of depends on how bad-off Bill's folks' farm is." He shrugged. "I'm just tryin' to think of all the contingencies, is all."

"Well, I'll be glad to watch over the outpost for you, until you decide." He remembered well his first three years out here, how Quince had kept him and his family alive, giving them food and supplies to keep them going and not charging exorbitant prices when he might have, and that most merchants he'd known would have.

"Thank you. Will your Mary have any trouble with it?"

"Well, the cows are out on the range, and I won't have much to do with them until fall, now. You ought to know what's what by then, won't you?"

Quince nodded. "I sure hope so. Bill said that they start harvest in September, and it's mid-June, now, so I sure hope to know by then."

"Well, Mary and me, we'll do our best by you. You know that."

"Thanks, Ed, I know you will." The two men smiled and shook hands on it.

By keeping the team at a trot, he managed to pull into the outpost at about ten that night. The team was tired, but so was he. He was surprised when Quince came out to help him.

"I figured you'd be asleep by now," he said softly as he dropped the trace chains and led the team away from the wagon.

"Figured I'd best wait up for you. The Drews will be comin' in day after tomorrow to take care of things here while we go back east. I've telegraphed an order in for supplies, so Ed's gonna drive us to the train, pick up the supplies, and come back here. We won't have to stop in town, if you don't want to."

"Thanks. I'd just as soon avoid the sheriff, if you don't mind."

"Why's that?"

"There were four men in the saloon he had posters on." He looked at his companion, "He was playing cards with them."

Quince took a deep breath and blew it out, hard, shaking his head. "I'd like to say it surprises me, but it don't."

"You say we can bypass him?"

"Yeah. We'll go south and meet up with the railroad about a hundred miles from here. It'll be faster than taking the stage."

Bill paused and smiled, "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Bill rode his little mare, trading off with the other men, occasionally, to avoid any of them getting too stiff and sore. Quince was pretty sure that Bill didn't expect to come back. He'd take a look and decide for himself what he'd do. It would also give him a chance to see just how well his son-in-law could take care of Bri.

Ed Drew was a big, bluff man, easygoing and pleasant. He kept Jo Hi entertained with card tricks as they sat around the campfire that night. Bill watched in fascination and asked how he did the tricks. Ed gladly showed him how to manipulate the cards, and Bill tried some of the easier tricks, and realized it was somewhat harder than it looked. He determined to get himself a deck of cards and practice until he was as good as Drew was.

Bri got to sleep in the wagon, and Jo Hi got the seat, while the men bedded down on the ground. Bri looked at her husband longingly, but understood his discomfort. They were all surprised when Bill prepared to keep watch through the night.

Seeing the questions in their eyes, he shrugged. "Habit. I generally try and keep watch, at least part of the night."

"You think there's anything to worry about?"

"We're on a main trail, so probably not, but old habits...."

"Well, then, wake me when it's my turn to keep watch," Drew grunted as he settled down for some sleep.

"Then you wake me when it's my turn," Quince added, following Drew's example.

Bill shook his head and settled back to watch.

Thankfully, the three-day journey was uneventful. Pulling into the large town where they'd catch the train, Bill felt a nervous flutter in his gut. He hadn't been home in nearly twenty years, and he was just a tad anxious, wondering what his folks would say... or if they'd even speak to him. At least he had money in his pockets. He still had the twenty-five hundred from Slant, as well as the eleven hundred he'd gotten for the three who'd come into the outpost. He even had most of the five hundred he'd had when they hauled his unconscious carcass back and saved his life. In total, he had nearly four thousand dollars. While the others took care of the team and Dolly at the livery stable, he walked over to the train station to purchase their passage back to Ohio. He was pleased to see they'd only have to make one change in Kansas City. He also purchased freight to take Dolly. She'd been with him too long for him not to continue to take care of her and make sure she was well cared for.

From the train station, he headed over and met the others and helped carry their gear over to the hotel. Their train wouldn't be leaving for another two days. Quince started to protest when Bill insisted on paying for everyone, but a glare from those pale blue eyes froze his vocal chords. He was surprised by how different the man was away from the outpost. He grumbled softly to himself, but realized that in Bill's business, he had to be careful and in control, so he let it slide.

Carrying their bags, Bill entered the room he and his wife would share. He set the two carpetbags down on the floor at the foot of the bed and sighed. He was hot, dusty, and trail-weary. He'd also missed being able to sleep and cuddle with his wife. She smiled at him as she closed the door behind them and turned the key in the lock. His eyebrows went up in surprise as she set the key on the bureau and stalked him. When she was close, she slid her arms around him and they just stood for several minutes, reveling in the ability to touch each other again.

"There's a bathroom at the end of the hall," he murmured softly, relishing the solid feel of her against him.

"With indoor plumbing like we have?"


"Let's go."

They got clean clothes, towels, and toiletries from their bags and headed down the hall. There was a real porcelain bathtub, quite large enough for them both, and they took their time bathing one another, among other things. Dressed once more, they went back to their rooms and hung their towels on pegs to dry. Bri's still wet hair was quickly combed and braided. Her once shoulder length hair was now mid-way down her back, simply because Bill liked it long. It was more work, but he liked to help her with it, brushing and combing it for her and even braiding it, on occasion.

A knock on their door some time later found them dozing in each other's arms atop the bed. Rising, Bill opened the door to find Jo Hi looking anxiously up at him.

"Pa says it's time for supper. You and Bri gonna come down?"

"Sure, Jo Hi. Come on in while we get our shoes on." The boy looked on curiously as he pulled on his boots and then helped Bri with her shoe buttons. With his hand on the boy's shoulder, the trio made their way downstairs to join the others.

Quince had timed it right, ordering and paying for them all before Bill could arrive and insist on paying. Realizing what his father-in-law had done, he just shook his head and returned the older man's grin.

They ate quietly, discussing their travel plans and Quince told Drew about the supplies they'd be picking up in the morning for him to take back with him to the outpost. He also wrote down his recipe for the beer he sold at the bar. He'd started a batch just the week before, so he'd be fine for a while, at least.

After supper, Quince and Drew headed over to the saloon for a drink, with an admonishment to Jo Hi to get himself to bed. The boy was reluctant, until he realized that Bill and Bri were going upstairs with him. He frowned. "You're goin' to bed now, too?"

Lips twitching with the grin he was trying to control, Bill simply nodded his reply.

Bri bit her lower lip, and blushed. "It's been a long trip, Jo Hi." The boy thought about it for a moment and nodded uncertainly. "Maybe you should go over to the saloon with Pa and Mr. Drew."

"Not hardly, Jo Hi," Bill countered. "Ladies don't go into saloons."

The boy didn't understand, but nodded his acceptance. "All right." In his next breath, he asked, "Why not?"

"It's not a place for nice ladies like your sister, or for young men like yourself, Jo Hi. It's pretty much just for grown men."

"So, why ain't you goin' with them?"

Bill shook his head and answered honestly. "Because I'd rather hug and kiss my wife than drink with the other men."

Jo Hi's eyes widened in surprise. "OH!"

His face split in a grin, the boy ran the rest of the way up the stairs and into the room he shared with his father.

Bill and Bri chuckled and continued on to their own room, just down the hall.

Door locked behind them, they wasted no time in getting ready for bed. The hotel room boasted a fancy four-poster bed, complete with canopy, featherbed, and heavy blankets. The strangeness didn't matter, as long as they had one another to concentrate on.

They took their time, sporting together alternating with snatches of sleep and conversation. Eventually, they simply slept, limbs intertwined.

Bill did awaken briefly, when Quince and Drew returned some time later. From the sounds of it, both men had enjoyed themselves at the saloon. Satisfied that there was no danger, Bill allowed himself to hug his wife once, before drifting back to sleep.

Come morning, Bill was the first one to wake and he lay abed, quietly watching his wife sleep. When she finally opened her eyes, it was to see him smiling down at her. Returning the smile as she stretched, pressing against him, she laughed when he reacted predictably.

An hour later, they made their way down to the dining room and were sitting together, holding hands and talking over their morning coffee while they waited for the others to appear.

"It may be a while. They didn't come in until late, and neither of them was feeling any pain," he warned her, then chuckled as Jo Hi appeared in the doorway, looking a little lost.

"Pa's still asleep. He sure does snore loud when he ain't at home," Jo Hi announced as he joined them.

Exchanging knowing looks, Bill and Bri chuckled. "I'm sure it's just the strangeness of the place, Jo Hi," Bill reassured. "While we wait, why don't we go ahead and order breakfast for us?"

Jo Hi nodded, still excited by the great adventure he was on.

They allowed him to choose his own breakfast and were unsurprised that he chose pancakes. They ate quietly, discussing how to pass the time for another day and a half, before their train left. Bill figured on helping Drew load up the supplies for the outpost that morning, if the man ever woke up, that is. Bri laughed and then covered her mouth as her father and Drew finally appeared at the doorway, looking much the worse for wear.

Neither man wanted anything but coffee, and they both winced in pain every time Jo Hi spoke. Bill offered to pick up and load the supplies for Drew, but the two older men insisted on doing their share of the work. Bri promised to stay with Jo Hi and try to keep him entertained. Bill suggested she do a bit of shopping for him. He asked her to see if the general store carried any books, so he'd have something to read on the train. He also requested a couple of packs of cards to practice the sleight of hand tricks Drew had shown him. With a smile and a kiss, she promised to see what she could do. He handed her a twenty-dollar bill to cover anything she might find, and told her that if she needed more money, she knew where to find him.

Bill ended up doing most of the work, despite the best intentions of his companions. They simply were in no condition to do much more than moan through their hangovers.

It was noon by the time the wagon was loaded and ready to head back to the outpost. Drew thanked him for his help and then again promised to take care of Quince's place, water the garden, and run his business. Shaking hands all around, the big man clambered up onto the box and clucked to the horses to move them out.

Bill followed Quince back to the hotel, looking forward to a hot bath and his wife's company.

She'd spent the day with her brother, looking through the stores. They marveled at the huge variety and quantity of goods available. She'd been careful in her choices, choosing three books for her husband that she thought he might find interesting. There was one she got for herself. She'd read a few passages and wondered if she could talk Bill into reading it to her some night. It wasn't terribly long, but it was a beautiful and poetic piece. The soft red suede that covered it reminded her of the touch of his skin against hers. It was expensive, but she thought that it could be something that they could enjoy together. She took it out again, opening it randomly and read a verse.

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou Beside me singing in the wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

She shivered and wished it were evening and she and Bill were ensconced in their room for the night.

Jo Hi was thrilled with the toys she'd gotten him. One, called a yo-yo, looked like so much fun that she got one for herself. At the moment, however, her brother was examining his new bag of marbles. There were some beautiful ones, she thought. One was a deep, almost purple, blue, which was her favorite. Jo Hi, on the other hand, much preferred the cat's eyes, to the pureies. She thought that they were all pretty, though. His prize, though, was a shooter, a steelie; he kept that one in his hand, learning the feel of it, and would no-doubt be practicing with it every chance he got. She hadn't been sure what to get for her father, but knew that he secretly liked dime novels, so she'd gotten him a couple. They'd be almost a week on the train, what with the day-long layover in Kansas City. She was getting excited, knowing that it was a big city, and she looked forward to seeing so much of the world.

Bill found her in their room, sitting on the bed and looking at her purchases. Jo Hi, seeing him back, immediately ran out to find his father and show off his new toys. He smiled at the boy as he removed his hat and put it on the bureau.

"I see you enjoyed your excursion. Find anything interesting?"

Bri nodded, suddenly shy, wondering what he'd think of her choices. "I found you some books." She showed him. One was Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Bill read the dust jacket and smiled.

"Looks good. What else did you get?" He sat beside her, keeping the book in his hand as he watched her unpack the other books. He nodded at the other two novels, and smiled at the penny-dreadfuls she'd gotten for her father, and laughed at the toys she'd gotten for her brother. Finally, though, she couldn't put it off any more, and brought out the final, and most expensive of her purchases. "It was three dollars, but...." She held it out to him. He looked at the fine red suede cover and read the title. Frowning, he opened it up and read the introduction. He turned to the beginning, only a little surprised to find it was poetry, but nothing he'd ever heard of.

"Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight: And Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

"Dreaming when Dawn's Left Hand was in the Sky I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup Before Life's Liquor in its Cup be dry."

He paused, and leafed through the book, reading a stanza here and there and wondered why it had caught her interest, so.

"Would you read it to me? Tonight?" Her voice was little more than a whisper.

He blushed with understanding. Lifting his gaze to hers, he saw her concern that she might have displeased him. "I'd love to read it to you. Perhaps this evening, after supper?"

She smiled widely and nodded, shivering in anticipation. "Yes, please."

Bill laughed and gave her a hug. "I'm looking forward to it."

Quince tried not to show his pleasure at the reading material his daughter had chosen for him, but he quickly realized that the others knew his secret, and he grinned and thanked them.

After supper, Quince and Jo Hi settled into the sitting room next to the lobby, the father to read, and the son to practice with his marbles. Bill sent Bri up to their room, while he sat out on the verandah for a short while, smoking a cigar and savoring a glass of brandy, and thinking.

"What's troubling you, Bill?" Quince asked from behind him.

He turned just his head to see the older man. "Wondering why I'm going to Ohio."

"Because you're needed. Your folks need you, so you're going."

Bill shook his head. "I don't know. It's been more'n fifteen years, and every one of Francis's letters told me that Pa still hadn't forgiven me."

Quince accepted the offered cigar and lit it. "You ever think that maybe your brother didn't want you to come back?"

Bill frowned. "Why?"

"Maybe he was a mite jealous of you?"

"For what?"

Quince stared at his son-in-law, wondering. "What were you going to do, if what happened hadn't happened?"

Bill looked into the distance. "I wanted to go to college," he spoke softly, forcing Quince to lean closer to hear him.


Bill nodded. "Notre Dame. Or maybe Harvard." He blinked a couple of times, fast, and looked down. "But that didn't happen."

"What did you want to study? Law?"

Bill shrugged. "Maybe. Or medicine. I was good in school, but not much good on the farm." He shrugged again. "It was a long time ago and it didn't happen. Maybe, if we have children, one of them might make it."

"I'd like that."

They finished their cigars in an amiable silence. Bill finished first, and smiled at his companion. "Good night."

"Good night, Bill." He paused a moment. "Children, eh?"

Bill blushed in embarrassment. "I like children."

"I know. The way you are with Jo Hi shows it." He looked at his son-in-law. "I'd like a lot of grandchildren, actually."

Blurting it out before he lost his nerve, he announced, "Bri bought a book of poetry."

Quince stared, then burst into laughter. "Then I think I can expect plenty of grandchildren." Seeing Bill's mortification, he clapped him on the shoulder. "Her mother loved poetry, too." He looked wistfully into the night. "But her mother was too delicate. Bri's a lot sturdier than her mother was."

Bill felt a moment of relief. "You still miss her."

Quince's smile was sad. "Every minute of every day." He looked up at Bill. "Do you still think about your first wife?"

Bill looked into the distance, himself. "Not when I'm with Bri, but sometimes. When I do, I make myself think about Bri, instead."

Quince nodded. "And Jo Hi reminds you of your own boy."

He shook his head. "No. Jo Hi's a lot older than my son was. Little Bill was only three." He could smile. "You have a great boy, there."

"You'll have another of your own, one of these days." Quince looked back towards the hotel. "But if you don't get yourself up to your wife, you're going to find yourself sleeping on the floor."

Bill chuckled. "I doubt that, but I promised to read her poetry to her, tonight." He headed for the door. "Good night."

"Good night," he paused for just a moment, then continued. "Son."

Bill's breath caught at the term, and then he dropped his chin to his chest and smiled.

Bri was waiting for him, already in bed. The lamp was set on the bedside table, lit and waiting for him. The book lay on his pillow, and she was undressed and under the covers, waiting for him. She smiled at him. They'd now been married long enough that she was no longer shy around him. He quickly undressed and slid into the bed beside her, giving her a quick kiss.

"So, where were we?"

"You were going to read to me."

"I remember. I think I already read the first couple of verses, but I'll go ahead and start over."

Fortunately, it wasn't a very long book, so he thought he'd read it all to her, his rich voice set up harmonic vibrations in her body where she lay beside him, her head on his shoulder, her arm stretched across his body.

"...And David's Lips are lock't, but in divine High piping Pelevi, with Wine! Wine! Wine! Red Wine! -- the Nightingale cries to the Rose That yellow Cheek of hers to'incarnadine.

"Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring The Winter Garment of Repentance fling: The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly -- and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing.

"And look -- a thousand Blossoms with the Day Woke -- and a thousand scatter'd into Clay: And this first Summer Month that brings the Rose Shall take Jamshyd and Kaikobad away."

Her hand began to stroke the smooth skin of his chest and stomach. His breath caught and he stopped reading. She kissed his shoulder, and he carefully set the book aside and turned towards her, wrapping his arms around her.


She slid up his body to kiss him, and his question about whether to continue reading was answered when she reached across him to blow out the lamp.

Bill had gotten them sleeping berths on the train, since they had so far to go. He and Quince would play cards, to while away the time, or sit and read. Bri had some knitting she'd brought to keep herself entertained; Jo Hi, fortunately, had his toys, and his father or Bill would read to him, as well. When they reached their layover in Kansas City, they had a full day before they would catch the train that would take them to Ohio. They checked into a hotel near the railroad station, and Bill took Dolly out for some exercise. She'd been locked in a boxcar for three days, and although she'd had room to move about and plenty of food and water, she'd become quite bored. She was too well trained and dependable to do anything untoward, but she let him know that she needed to run, so, while the others looked around the city, he headed out of town to take Dolly for the exercise she so desperately needed.

Upon his return, he made arrangements for her care at the stable at the railyard. He'd see to her loading the next day, himself. He also did his own grooming and examined the hay they had, not wanting her to possibly colic on too sudden a change in feed. Satisfied with the good grass hay they had, he gave her a good grooming before meeting the others at the hotel.

Stopping at the desk, he signed the registration book and was given his and Bri's room number. He went up the stairs and knocked. She immediately opened the door and stepped back for him to enter.

"We have our own bathroom!"

"Good. I want a bath and fresh clothes."

She smiled, "I'll come with you and wash your back." She caught her lower lip between her teeth and peered up at him coquettishly. His rumbling chuckle and arm encircling her was just the answer she wanted. Hopefully, her father and brother weren't in a hurry to see the sights.

They all met up a couple of hours later and began to wander through the city. It was a busy and prosperous place, and Bri and Jo Hi marveled at the shear number of people they saw. They ate at a restaurant and perused the shops. Bill watched his companions closely, and on occasion, would note an item with plans on coming back later to purchase it for them. Jo Hi was, naturally, the most awed by the enormous quantity of every kind of thing. When Bill gave him a whole quarter for the candy story, Quince shook his head.

"You're gonna spoil that boy."

Bill smiled. "Nah. I bet he spends a nickel and keeps the rest for later." He was close. Jo Hi spent seven cents, and shared his bounty with them. Laughing, the four continued wandering around, nibbling on their peppermint sticks.

They had supper at another real restaurant, where the steaks were enormous, and the side dishes novel. Afterwards, they wandered around some more, finally returning to the hotel just as it was getting dark.

After breakfast, they still had four hours before their train would be ready for boarding. Bill slipped off by himself to purchase a few things with which to surprise them. One of the items he got for Jo Hi was something completely new to him. Along with some paper and pencils, he bought two boxes of Crayolas and a small lap desk. He figured they could share the lap desk, and that the drawing materials could help keep Jo Hi entertained when they wanted him to sit quietly. It had been a long journey, and the boy was starting to have trouble avoiding boredom. Using a pencil, he quickly sketched a portrait of Dolly, followed by several sheets with sketches of meadows, mountains, and forests. Satisfied that Jo Hi would be kept quietly busy for at least a little while, he gathered his packages and headed for the train.

Seeing his parcels, Quince shook his head, smiling. "What did you get now?" he asked, curiously.

"Oh, just some things to help keep Jo Hi occupied, I hope." The boy looked at the packages, chewing on his lower lip to try and figure out what they could contain.

"What sort of things?" Quince asked, concerned by how much money Bill was spending on this trip. He'd checked, and the train for the four of them plus his horse was over a hundred dollars, and with meals and hotels, he figured this trip was costing a small fortune. Bill was just too generous, was all. He determined to find a way of repaying him for his generosity, and then realized, looking at him, that he'd only offend him, if he did. "So, what did you get?"

He smiled and motioned them to board the train. Once they were settled in their berths, they met in the accompanying private compartment and settled into their seats, just as the train started moving. Still carrying his parcel, Bill smiled at the avid expression on Jo Hi's face.

"I saw something new, so I got them." He pulled out the bright yellow and green package and handed it to Jo Hi.

"What is it?"

"They're called Crayolas. They're for coloring pictures." He pulled out the sheaf of papers he'd drawn on and handed them to the boy. "You can color them, if you like, or I have some blank paper for you to draw your own pictures."

Quince looked curiously at the pictures and smiled. "You've got some talent there, Bill. I recognized your Dolly right off."

"And that's the outpost, Dad," Bri added, turning the picture for him to see.

Bill shrugged. "It's not much, but I thought it might help pass the time." He was surprised when Jo Hi sprawled on the floor to color, while Bri took the lap desk and some blank paper and the pencils to draw, leaving the men to their books.

The afternoon passed quietly, each engrossed in their own pursuits; dozing occasionally, with an occasional quiet conversation to punctuate the quiet.

When they paused for an hour the following afternoon while the engine took on water for the boiler and coal for the firebox, Bill left them just long enough to send a telegram to his sister, to let her know when they'd be arriving in Dayton. It was a day's journey from the farm, but he hoped she'd be there to meet them. If not, he'd either hire a buggy, or purchase one. Dolly was as good a driving horse as she was for riding.

Their last night on the train, he couldn't sleep. Bri lay snuggled against him and he contented himself with nuzzling through her hair, taking comfort in her presence beside him. He hadn't been sleeping well this entire trip, but he'd always managed to snatch an hour or two each night and probably another one or two during the day. But in the morning, they'd be pulling into Dayton, and they'd be just one last day away from his parent's farm.

He'd had his doubts before, about coming back, but he kept pushing the fears away, forcing his concentration onto his companions and, in particular, his wife. Without her, he'd never have come. She gave him the strength and stability to believe he could do this. At least in the daylight, it worked; but at night, when she slept beside him, and he had time alone with just his thoughts, the fears came back. He still vividly remembered his father's anger with him, blaming him for being crippled, even though Bill had only gone for help, without moving him. That hadn't mattered. He lifted his right hand and flexed the fingers. He'd been lucky, he knew. Feeling Bri shift beside him, he smiled. Very lucky indeed. Turning towards her, he lifted his free hand and began to gently stroke her body, not trying to awaken her, but simply to relish the softness of her, trying to lose himself in her, instead of inside his head.

She murmured in her sleep, stretching against him, pressing herself closer and shifting more tightly against him. He closed his eyes, thrilling to the sensation of her body against his. He shifted so he could hold her more snugly. Her soft warmth soothed him and finally, he began to doze, as thoughts of anything other than his beautiful wife were pushed aside.

It was midmorning when the train pulled into the station in Dayton. Bill was amazed at how much the city had grown and changed since he'd last been there. He left his companions in the care of Quince and made his way back to the boxcar that Dolly was in. When they came to a stop, the door was opened from outside and a ramp was positioned in the opening. He led her, already saddled and bridled, down the ramp and then over to the nearest hitching post. One of the new-fangled automobiles went by, rattling and clanking and smoking, causing Dolly to snort and pull back with fright. Bill spoke soothingly to her, pleased when she settled right down, unlike several other horses nearby. He watched the machine curiously, never having actually seen one, before. As it passed him, he wrinkled up his nose at the stench of the exhaust.

Meeting with the others at the end of the platform, he looked around, seeking anyone who might be there to meet them. His heart was beating at an accelerated pace, nervous. Even if she came, he wasn't sure he'd recognize her. After all, she'd only been thirteen when he left. She was a woman grown, now, and thirty-one years old.


The voice was tentative, but he recognized it, and he turned, smiling. "Becca."

She stared at him. He'd grown into a handsome, self-possessed man, whose demeanor spoke of strength and capability. Their eyes met, searching one another's face for signs of the children they remembered. His smile reassured her and she flung herself into his arms, hugging him tightly.

He returned the embrace, lifting her from her feet and spinning around, laughing. Setting her breathlessly back on her feet, he stepped back, still holding her by the arms, to get another look at her. "You've grown up to be a beautiful woman, 'Becca."

She blushed with pleasure. "Thank you. You've turned into quite a handsome man, yourself."

Bill shook his head, grinning. Releasing her, he turned and held his hand out. Bri smiled shyly and took it, stepping forward. Smiling reassuringly at his wife, he brought her to his side and turned back to his puzzled sister. "'Becca, I'd like to introduce my wife, Brianna. Bri, this is my sister, Rebecca."

"It's nice to meet you, Rebecca." Bri held out her hand, which Rebecca took, turning shy, herself.

"My pleasure," Rebecca murmured, staring openly at her sister-in-law, noting her youth and beauty.

"And this is my father-in-law, Brian Quince, and my brother-in-law, Jo Hi."

If his wife had been a surprise, the others were even more of one. She cast a puzzled glance at her brother, who seemed perfectly calm. She took a breath and opened her mouth to ask, then quickly changed her mind, realizing just in time that this wasn't the right time or place to ask about his previous wife and son, whom she recalled their other brother telling her had been killed.

"I've got the carriage," she blurted out instead. Fortunately, it was big enough for them all. She was surprised by the small amount of luggage they had brought with them, and puzzled by the horse Bill had obviously brought with him.

Bill grinned. "Good. Did you want to go back today, or in the morning?"

"I got in last night and stayed at the Inn. I thought we could stay another night and go back in the morning. I told Mother."

Bill's smile vanished and he turned serious. He nodded solemnly. "What'd she say?"

His sister smiled, "She said it was about time someone had the brains to send for you to come home. She said not to tell Pa, though." She chewed on her lower lip as she watched how he took that bit of information. He simply nodded and sighed.

"About what I expected." His voice showed no emotion and Rebecca felt bad for telling him.

"We need you, Bill. We're about to lose the farm."

He looked at her in shock. "What? How?"

She shook her head and shrugged. "I don't know. I wish I did. Francis took out a loan from the bank a couple of years ago, when there was a drought. I know he's been making regular payments, and I have all the receipts, but the bank's about to foreclose, and none of us can figure out what went wrong." She gazed up at her brother and there was fear in her eyes. "I've been praying you'd come in time."

Bill's frown turned to a scowl. He glanced at his father-in-law, who was politely pretending not to be listening. "Sir, do you think you could help me look through the papers and maybe figure out what went wrong?"

Quince smiled. "Be happy to."

"Thank you." Bill turned back to his sister. "Well, let's head to the Inn. I need to get Dolly to the livery and taken care of. If you'll wait a few minutes, I'll be right back."

"Of course," his sister said, smiling nervously at his relatives, wondering what she'd have to say to them that wouldn't be considered inappropriate.

Bill leaned down and gave his wife a quick kiss and hug, and then he led his horse away, leaving them behind, wondering what on earth to say to one another.

Rebecca searched for something to say, when a toddler ran up to them.

"Mama, Mama!" the little boy called, reaching up to her. Smiling, Rebecca scooped up her son and when she noticed the expressions on their faces, blushed.

"This is my son, Davy. Davy, this is your Aunt Brianna." She paused, uncertain how to address the others.

"It's just Bri," she corrected gently, then smiled at the little boy. "Hello, Davy. This is my dad, and my little brother, Jo Hi."

Davy squirmed around in his mother's arms to get a look at the older boy. Wriggling hard, his mother set him down and he looked at Jo Hi. "Hello!" Even though Jo Hi was several years older than he was, Davy immediately took him as a friend.

Jo Hi glanced at his father for permission, and when Quince nodded to him, he grinned and turned back to the smaller boy. "Hey. Want to see my steelie?" In moments, the two boys were down in the dirt, playing with Jo Hi's marbles. The adults watched the boys, relieved at not having to make conversation.

When Bill got back, he looked down at the little boy who was playing with Jo Hi. Lifting just his eyes to his sister's, he saw her blush. Tilting his head slightly to one side, he silently asked the question.

"This is my son, Davy."

Bill smiled and crouched down by the boys. Jo Hi looked up at him and grinned. "Hey, Mr. Bill. This is Davy. We're playing marbles."

Bill's smile softened as the toddler looked up at him with enormous blue eyes. "How do you do, Davy?"

The toddler, a bright little boy, quickly put together the information he had and asked, "Are you my uncle?"

"Yes, I am." Davy stood up and offered his hand. Bill gently shook hands, his fingers engulfing the child's hand in its grip. He looked up at his sister, a question in his eyes. She sighed and looked away.


"His father left us just before Francis was killed. There's just the two of us, now."

Bill stiffened in anger. He couldn't understand anyone just up and leaving his wife and child. "It'll be all right, 'Becca."

She looked at him, the hope again in her eyes. "I know."

Quince cleared his throat. "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm gettin' too old to be standin' around all afternoon. My stomach's knockin' on my backbone, wonderin' if my throat's been cut."

Bill chuckled and stood. "Come on, boys. You heard the man. It's time for dinner." Even though it was still nearly an hour until noon, they gathered their luggage and followed Rebecca and her son to the Inn, checked in, and then headed to the dining room to eat.

In farm country, the largest meal of the day is called dinner, usually served in the early afternoon, with a lighter supper eaten later in the evening. Quince and Bri mostly watched and listened, trying to pick up on nuances as the brother and sister talked.

"I'm glad you came, Bill. Francis shared all your letters with me. I... I heard about Katie and, and... I'm sorry." Her voice dropped nearly to a whisper.

Bill looked into the distance, sadness shrouded his face for a moment, until Bri reached over and covered his hand with hers. His vision cleared and he turned his hand over to grasp hers. His gaze focused on her and he smiled, the moment of pain banished with her love.

Turning back to his sister, he smiled, just a tinge of sadness still in his eyes. "It's all right, 'Becca. Sometimes, thinks just happen. I'm sorry it did, but it's worked out for the best." He turned his eyes to his wife, and his expression softened as he squeezed her hand and they exchanged a loving look.

Seeing how much they loved each other, Rebecca relaxed and determined to get along with her sister-in-law. She was pleased to see the devotion on her face when she looked at her husband, and she envied them. Seeing how Bill looked at his wife, she realized that her husband had never looked at her like that. She sighed and smiled ruefully and found Mr. Quince regarding her with an expression that matched what she was feeling. She smiled at him and he smiled back.

After they finished eating, Bill excused himself from his wife and her family and took a walk with his sister, finding out whatever he could about the current difficulties.

"He still blames me, doesn't he."

She sighed. "I don't know. I don't think he ever really blamed you for what happened. I think he just resented the fact that you saved his life but no one could save the use of his legs." She looked into the distance, "He's become bitter. Nothing is ever right, never good. Mother has said she'd leave him, if she didn't still love him so much, but he makes it so hard, sometimes."

Bill nodded. He brought his hands up, rubbing at the scar on his right hand with the fingers of his left and examining the mark and the small ridge where the one bone hadn't healed quite straight. "I can understand how he feels." He glanced over at her without turning his head. "I got hurt a while back." He shook his head and chuckled dryly. "Hell, I nearly died from the infection."

Her breath caught at the thought of losing both of her brothers. "But you're all right now, aren't you?" She looked him over critically, searching for signs of an injury. She finally noticed the way he was massaging his right hand and stopped, turning towards him. When he paused beside her, she stared at his hands and saw the scar. With shaking fingers, she reached out and took his damaged hand in hers and looked at it closely.

"This? This nearly killed you?" She turned the hand over and saw the matching scar on his palm and shivered. "But you're all right, now, aren't you?" She looked up at him, searching his face for reassurance.

"I'm fine, 'Becca. Although, if it hadn't been for Bri, it would probably have been a whole different story."

"Is that why you married her?" She nearly bit her tongue, realizing how that sounded.

"No. I married her because we fell in love. It's a long story, 'Becca, and I don't feel like telling it just now."

"I'm sorry."

"It's all right. It's been a long trip, and I'm still not sure I've done the right thing in coming back, but Quince convinced me it was the right thing to do."

"Why did you bring them all with you?"

"Because I didn't want Bri to miss them, or for them to miss her. This way, they get to see a bit of the country, and they won't miss each other, being so far apart."

"You care a lot about them, don't you."

"Yes." He glanced at her and smiled. "Quince didn't much like me, at first, but I suspect that's probably true of most fathers about their daughters." He shrugged a bit diffidently. "Of course, it doesn't help much that he disapproved rather strongly of my means of making a living."

Rebecca looked away at that. "I'm not sure that I approve, either."

He nodded. "I was good at it, though. And I always gave them the option of going in alive. More times than not, though, they chose the alternative." He wasn't defensive, merely pointing out the facts.

"And now?"

He shrugged. "Don't know. My hand's as healed as it's going to get and I can actually use it again. I'm nearly as fast as I was before. Maybe with more practice, I'll be just as good as I was before."

She heard it in his voice, so she asked, "But?"

He grinned, glancing at her. They'd always been close, growing up. It seemed that despite eighteen years apart, they still had that connection. "But, I don't know that I want to do that any more. I tried, with Katie, to quit, but Slant came after me and took his revenge out on her and my son." His voice caught for a moment, nearly cracking with the still painful emotions it called up. "Quince and Jo Hi think I should run for sheriff, but I don't know if I want to do that. It's not far from hunting bounty, but there's a lot more responsibility involved." He took a deep breath. "I don't think we'll stay here."

Rebecca nodded, understanding his concerns. "Pa's been really down since Francis and Molly died. It's like he's given up. Ma and I do our best, but there just isn't any way we can run the farm the way it should be. Luckily, Francis had already done the spring planting, and the weather has been good, with just the right amount of rain. The first of the corn is coming ripe, and the wheat is looking really good. In another month, the timothy will be ready to harvest, but if we don't stop the bank...well, it won't matter, much."

"How soon?"

"Next week."

They walked on in silence as Bill began to feel anticipation, wanting to find out what had gone so terribly wrong that his parent's farm could be lost.

Bill drove the carriage. He was glad he'd decided to tie Dolly on behind when the rain began. He was also grateful that the carriage was covered. He kept the horses at a moderate trot, stopping every hour for a few minutes rest, or at the top of every hill to allow the horses to blow. Quince sat beside him on the driver's seat, while the ladies sat in the rear with the two boys, who were getting along very well, and despite the age difference, were becoming fast friends.

They'd brought a picnic lunch with them, packed for them at the Inn, and at noon, they pulled off the road to eat it. The rain, while not heavy, continued, so Bill simply got out and tied the horses, letting them rest in their traces, but not unhitching them or allowing them to graze, as he normally would have.

As soon as they were finished eating, and it was a silent meal, they continued their journey. It was late afternoon when they arrived at the farm, and Bill pulled through the farmyard and around to the barn.

He looked around, pleased to see that it was much as he'd remembered it. The enormous house that his grandfather had built looked just as he remembered it, as did the main barn. The carriage house was new, however, as were the nearby paddocks. Taking a deep breath, he climbed down and helped his wife and sister out.

"I'll take care of the horses, if you'll help everyone get settled?"

Rebecca nodded. "The carriage can be backed in." She untied Dolly's lead rope and tied her to the hitching ring. Bill nodded and climbed back up into the seat. With a gentle tug on the lines, the team backed obediently and he guided the carriage backwards to the carriage house, the door of which had already been open and waiting. Halting the team, he set the brake and jumped down and began to release the team from the doubletree. He ground drove the team back towards the barn and was a bit surprised to find Jo Hi waiting for him, with the door open and holding Dolly, having taken her in out of the rain.

"Thank you, Jo Hi, but you could have gone in with the others." He could see the boy was shivering a bit from the cold and damp, not that it was truly all that cold, but with the wind, it sucked the warmth from a body.

"I know, but I thought I could help." His smile was a bit uncertain.

Bill smiled at the boy. "I thank you, then. The help is most appreciated."

The boy smiled and closed the door behind them, blocking the wind. Bill showed him where the brushes were kept, and the boy started grooming the soaking Dolly, while Bill unharnessed the team and groomed them. When the horses were dry and settled into stalls with full buckets of water and mangers filled with fragrant hay, Bill began to clean and dry the harness. Jo Hi stood and watched for a few minutes, and then began working the buckles loose and taking the harnesses apart to help. After the leather was as dry as they could make it, Bill hung the parts to finish drying. He sighed, wishing he could spend more time in the barn and put off the confrontation with his parents just a bit longer, but he'd never been a coward, so he patted Jo Hi on the shoulder and thanked him for his assistance, and then led the way to the mudroom door. They shook off as much of the wet as they could on the porch before entering, and they took off and left their wet boots and coats in the mudroom before entering the kitchen. The heat felt wonderful and the smell of baking bread tickled their noses and made their mouths water.

Jo Hi looked around, curiously. The kitchen was at least twice the size of the one at home. They both looked up as Rebecca came through the swinging door.

"I put you in Francis's old room, Bill. I thought it would be all right if Jo Hi shared Davy's room with him, his father said that was all right with him." She smiled at the boy, who grinned back at her. Sharing a room with Davy meant that if they were quiet, they could play as long as they wanted to, without disturbing the adults.

Bill nodded. "Thank you, 'Becca." He waited, wondering if she'd informed their parents of his arrival, yet. His sister glanced over her shoulder and bit her lower lip. "Mother's waiting in the parlor for you. Mr. Quince and Bri are keeping her company." She grinned mischievously, "Actually, they're talking about you." From her expression and tone of voice, Bill relaxed, realizing that it was all right - at least for the moment.

It was one of the biggest houses either of them had ever seen. Once they'd shed their coats and wet boots at the door, they were led to the formal parlor, where a woman several years older than Quince sat, gazing out the window, which faced the barn. She glanced over at them only when her daughter stopped in front of her.

"Mother, this is Mr. Quince and Bill's wife, Bri - Brianna."

The older woman turned her attention to them, her dark eyes seeming to look through them to examine their souls. "Welcome to my home," she said, softly.

"Thank you, ma'am," Quince spoke for himself and his daughter.

"Whose child was that outside?"

"That was my son, Jo Hi."

She looked at the man and his daughter, who was at least ten years older than her brother. "I see. He's a good boy." It was an observation. She'd seen them come in and had watched them, pleased when the boy had insisted on staying out and helping with the horses. She was unimpressed with the little black horse the boy held, but wouldn't pass judgment on it until she'd seen it either under saddle or in harness. She remembered her son and his affinity for his animals. For him to have kept the animal and shipped her here from wherever out west he'd landed told her volumes about the unprepossessing animal.

"Yes, he is," Quince agreed.

"Please, be seated. Rebecca, there's coffee on the stove, would you please prepare a tray for our guests?"

"Yes, Mother." She smiled at them and slipped quietly from the room.

"So, you're William's wife." She looked Bri over with a critical eye. She was a good-looking young woman. Probably a dozen years her son's junior. Young enough to still have children, yet old enough to be settled and steady. The girl met her gaze steadily, neither afraid nor challenging.

"Yes, ma'am." Bri wondered at the woman. She could see nothing of Bill in her. Her hair was darker than his, and her eyes were brown, as were her own. She realized, suddenly, that Bill's mother was part Indian, just as she was.

"How long have you been married?"

"Just about two months, now."

That was a surprise. She'd been under the impression he'd been married longer than that. Apparently, her question showed, when the girl spoke again.

"Bill's first wife and son were murdered by a villain named Ike Slant and his gang, just over a year ago. The older woman's breath caught at her words and she looked at her in consternation. "He was chasing Slant and his gang when we met."

She looked back out the window. "He killed them, no doubt."

"Actually, his partner killed Slant. Then he killed the cowardly back shooter who killed his partner."

Her head inclined as she took a sudden deep breath, almost a gasp, but not quite. "You'll have to tell me all about it, sometime." She looked to the doorway, where Rebecca stood with a tray with a silver coffee service. She motioned for her to come in and serve.

Bill's mother's gaze kept wandering to the window, watching for her son. Quince and his daughter exchanged knowing looks every time her attention wavered. Although the woman tried hard to hide it, she was anxiously awaiting the sight of her son. When she stiffened and stopped talking, Rebecca glanced out the window to see her brother heading for the house. With a smile of apology, she got up to go and greet him.

Bill and Jo Hi smiled at her. "Jo Hi, if you go up that set of stairs, right there, you'll find Davy in the second room on the left. He's waiting for you."

With a quick glance at Bill for permission, the boy hurried up the stairs. Rebecca turned her attention to her brother, who was standing tensely, waiting for her to tell him how their mother was taking his return.

"She's been watching out the window of the parlor for you since we arrived. She's trying to be very aloof, but the cracks are showing. I think Bri and her father know. She's being real polite. You remember."

He did. He relaxed just a bit. Taking a deep breath, he kissed her on the cheek and then headed for the parlor.

He stood in the doorway. She stared at him. Unlike his brother, he bore a very strong resemblance to his father. Francis had had brown eyes, like she did, but Bill had gotten the striking blue eyes of his father. Her breath caught; he was so different from the gangly teen-aged boy who'd left in tears so long ago. He met her gaze with a challenge and she was glad. This was no groveling supplicant returning as a prodigal, begging for a place - this was a man, self-assured and comfortable with who and what he was; she couldn't have been more proud of him.

He entered the room and crossed to sit beside his wife without saying a word. Once he was seated and had stolen a sip of coffee from her cup, exchanging a smile with the girl, he turned his attention to her.


"William. Thank you for coming."

His gaze flickered. "It wasn't my idea. Mr. Quince convinced me to come." He wasn't giving an inch. If she wanted him there, she had to say so.

She nodded. "I'm glad you listened to him."

"Rebecca was saying something about the bank?"

She nearly crumpled. Her perfect posture slumped and her face became instantly haggard. "I don't know what happened. Francis was making payments. I just don't understand."

Quince spoke up. "Your daughter indicated you had receipts for the payments you've made?"

"Yes, that's right. Rebecca?"

"Yes, mother, I'll get everything." She got up and left the room, returning moments later with a stack of papers. She handed them to Bill, who glanced through the stack, frowning. Looking at Quince, he stood up.

"Would you mind helping me go through all this? It's been a while since I did any arithmetic. We can use the dining room table."

Quince rose as well. "Be glad to." He looked over at Bill's mother. "I have an outpost out west, so I've been keeping books for years. I'm sure that between us, we can figure it all out for you."

She straightened back up. "Thank you both." She watched as the two men left the room. Finally, she turned her attention back to Bri. "You make him happy."

It hadn't been a question, just a statement.

"We make each other happy," she corrected.

The older woman smiled wistfully. "He looks like his father." Her eyes went back in time, remembering. "Is he gentle, like his father was?"

Bri frowned, wondering. Was? "He's very gentle," she agreed.

"I miss his touch, you know." She focused again on her daughter-in-law. Seeing her confusion, she explained, "We haven't been together since he was hurt."

Bri gaped in shock. "Why not?"

The older woman looked confused, "Why? What's the point?"

Bri remembered the night Bill had returned from dropping off the three men with the sheriff. She'd been so anxious for his return, she'd practically pounced on him the moment he was through their bedroom door. She'd discovered some very interesting things that night, and her husband had thoroughly enjoyed it. She licked her lips and glanced around, glad that Rebecca had left the room, as well; what she and her mother-in-law were about to discuss was personal in the extreme and would have been too embarrassing to have an audience to. "Well...."

They went through everything three times. Each time, they came to the same conclusion. Finally, Bill threw his pencil onto the table, and scowled. "How can it be going into foreclosure? He's paid the principal back almost four times over."

"The loan is two years old, and even at five percent interest, he's paid it back more than three times. I think this banker fellow," he looked down at one of the signatures, "Twitchell, is a thief."

Bill nodded. "I need to go into town and talk to him." He looked out at the still drizzly skies. "It's too late today, but first thing in the morning. Care to join me?"

Quince nodded. "I'd be more than willing to come as your witness. Just in case."

Bill grinned. "Thanks."

The two men walked into the bank and looked around. Bill stepped up to question one of the tellers, asking for Mr. Twitchell, and was informed that he was over at the courthouse, getting an eviction order for some property he was foreclosing on. Bill thanked the man and turned, a grim expression on his face. With Quince at his side, they hurried over to the courthouse.

Twitchell was standing before the court with his papers of foreclosure, confidently showing his just cause. He didn't even flinch when the door opened and two strangers entered.

"So, you see, your honor, everything is in proper order. If you'll just sign...."

"Excuse me, your honor?"

The judge, a man of about his father's age, whom Bill suddenly recognized as the man who had been sheriff back when he'd killed his first man, looked up, frowning at the interruption.

"Yes? Do you have something to do with this case?" He'd known the family being foreclosed on since he was a boy, and well remembered them.

"Yes, your honor. I have receipts, signed by Mr. Twitchell, showing payment. In fact, they show an abundant overpayment, if you must know."

The judge sat up in interest. "Oh? Show me."

Bill stalked up to the bench and handed over the bookkeeping he and Quince had worked on the night before. "You'll notice that every single receipt is signed by not only Mr. Twitchell, but also By a John Fenner."

The judge went through the receipts. Then he looked at the books and matched each receipt with an entry. Scowling, he looked over his glasses at the banker. "I recognize your signature, Twitchell. What the devil are you trying to pull, here? There are more than enough receipts here to have paid that debt several times over." He dug through the papers and found the letters Twitchell had sent demanding payment - one demand for every one of the past twelve payments... the payments that went far beyond the payment of the original debt.

Twitchell blustered and huffed, "Those are forgeries!" The judge narrowed his eyes at the banker and looked more closely at the receipts. Glancing over at his Bailiff, he said, "Go get Fenner, would you, Jake?"

"Yes, sir." The bailiff glared at the banker and hurried from the room. There was a cold and bitter silence as they waited. Bill and Quince calmly sat down to wait for Fenner, while the judge stared daggers at Twitchell, and that unworthy stood and fidgeted and began to sweat.

When the bailiff returned with Fenner, the judge motioned him up. "Are these your signatures?"

Fenner looked at the receipts and nodded. "Yes, sir. All of them. Mr. Twitchell had me countersign them every time Francis came in. Francis insisted on a countersignature." He glanced over at his boss, and added, "He didn't trust Mr. Twitchell."

The judge frowned. He looked at the impromptu ledger and scowled. "Mr. Twitchell, I'm going to deny your request for foreclosure and eviction. In fact, I'm going to order you placed under arrest for fraud." He looked up over his glasses again. "I suggest you get yourself a lawyer, sir. From the looks of things, you owe considerably more money to this client than they ever borrowed from your bank."

Twitchell paled as the bailiff approached him. "You - you can't be serious! You're going to take the word of this - this stranger over me?"

"Stranger?" The judge smiled, having finally recognized the man the boy had become. "Bill's no stranger. He's related to this family."

Twitchell scowled, glaring at Bill. "Who the hell are you?"

"Name's Talion." He didn't offer his hand.

"Who? How are you related to them?"

"Augustine's maiden name was Talion," the judge explained, then motioned to the bailiff. "Take him out of here, Jake."

"Yes, sir!" Twitchell didn't bother to struggle, but kept looking back at the men he didn't know.

Once Twitchell was gone, the judge leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Welcome home, Bill. You couldn't have timed it better."

"'Becca sent for me several months ago. Just arrived yesterday afternoon. Oh, sorry, Judge Rawlings, this is my father-in-law, Brian Quince."

Rawlings looked over the stranger and nodded. Smiling, he stood up and leaned over the bench to shake his hand. "It's a pleasure, Mr. Quince."

"Good to meet you, your honor."

John Fenner shifted, wondering what was going to happen to him, what with his employer being arrested. He kept casting glances at Bill, and when the blue eyes skewered him, he froze, smiling nervously.

"Did you know what was going on, Johnny?"

"I didn't, Bill. I swear. I know that Twitchy wasn't real honest, but I never thought he'd do anything like this."

Bill nodded and smiled, remembering Fenner from their days in school. "Seems Francis may not have been book or money smart, but he knew who not to trust."

Quince frowned, "I wonder - you think your brother's death might not have been an accident?" Seeing three shocked looks turned on him, he shrugged. "Just asking. Seeing as how surprised he looked on seeing those receipts, I just wondered."

Bill paled and his heart and breathing accelerated. He looked at Fenner and Rawlings. "When did my sister's husband leave?"

"Two days after Francis and Emily died." Rawlings replied, frowning. "He left town a week ago."

"What's he look like?"

"Ask Rebecca," Fenner replied. At Bill's look, he blushed. "They had a picture taken when Davy was born."

Bill looked down at the floor, thinking. Then, without lifting his head, he scowled at the other three men. "I think I need to find my brother-in-law."

Quince watched in awe as his son-in-law's entire demeanor changed from the gentle considerate man who had married his daughter, to the hunter. He'd seen his anger when defending them against the three men who'd started to manhandle Bri, but this was different. This was cold fury with no fear involved. This was a Puma on the hunt. He took a long look at the photograph Rebecca had and was soon saddling his horse. He barely spoke to anyone. He'd been silent and brooding all the way back to the farm, and he hadn't bothered t unsaddle or unbridle his horse. Quince realized what the man was planning, but wondered if he dared offer to join him.


He froze, his eyes closing and his breath escaped in a rush as he turned to his wife. "Francis and his wife may have been murdered. Did you know that they had a daughter? She was twelve. She's missing, and no one thought to either look for her or tell me about her."

Bri nodded. "Rebecca told me. She looked for her, but there was no sign of her anywhere. They figured she went into the river and was washed downstream." She could see the grim expression in his clenched jaw and narrowed eyes. She realized he expected her to try and stop him. "I just wanted a kiss before you go, and to tell you to be careful and make sure you come back to me."

His jaw dropped open in surprise. Bri took advantage and stepped close and kissed him before he could react. His arms came up and held her tightly. He shuddered as he released her. "I love you, Bri."

She smiled and raised her chin. "I know, and I love you, too. You just remember to come home safe, no matter what, you hear me?"

"Yes, ma'am." He smiled and kissed her again and then quickly left before he could change his mind.

He was gone for three weeks. He finally tracked his errant brother-in-law to Dayton, of all places, and found him in a bar, drunk. He pretended to be friends with him and soon got the whole sordid story from him. To his horror, the man had taken his niece, as well as killing her parents. It hadn't worked out as he'd planned, however, as the girl was in a fugue state brought on by the shock of her parents' deaths. The man had a buggy and had left the girl at his hotel. He went and got the girl, who looked at him and began to cry. He held her close until she was able to speak, and when she'd given him the confirmation he needed, he gathered up his drunken brother-in-law and his horse and buggy and headed back home.

His niece, even though she had never met him, had known who he was. She clung to him all the way back. They paused in town just long enough to drop off their captive with an explanation. The officer on duty gladly threw the still drunken man in a cell.

Once they filed their charges and signed the complaint against him, Bill took his niece home.

It was well after midnight when they arrived. Sally stared in wonder at the darkened house, hardly believing she was home. Bill untied Dolly from the back of the buggy and put her in her stall, then he unhitched the buggy horse and put him in the barn, as well. When he came out, Sally was still sitting in the buggy, staring at the house.


She looked at him, blinking as she came back to herself. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and let him lift her from the buggy to the ground. She held tightly to his hand as they approached the house. Once inside, he quietly told her to go take a bath and go to bed. He followed her to her room and made sure she was all right, and then he started to make his way to his room.


He turned. "Yes, Mother?"

She looked at the light from Sally's room. "Is she..."

"She's fine, mother. Still in a bit of a fugue, having watched her uncle murder her parents, but other than that, she's all right. He didn't hurt her."

"Thank God."

He stood, waiting to see if there was anything else.

"Your father would like to speak to you."

He'd been without sleep for nearly three days, and he was exhausted. He really wasn't up to confronting his father and his disapproval at the moment, but he sighed and dropped his chin to his chest. "Yes, Mother."

He'd been a large man, once. Not quite as tall as Bill, but broader. Over the years, he'd shrunken with the lack of activity. Bill had gotten his clear, blue eyes from his father, as well as his general appearance, although his slenderness had come from his mother, his broad shoulders were definitely from his father.

Taking a deep breath to gather his courage, he was amazed that the mere thought of confronting his father could still terrify him; he entered his father's bedroom.

The old man looked up at his son. The only son he had left, his only chance for continuing the line, since Francis had only produced one spindly daughter. He looked Bill up and down, like he was looking at a horse for purchase.

Bill was somewhat surprised to realize that he wasn't afraid of the old man any more. He almost smiled, but didn't. He did, however, allow his posture to relax a bit.

"Your sister says she sent for you." Whatever else had happened to him, his voice was still strong.

"Yes, sir."

"I'm surprised you came."

He was a grown man, and he decided on complete honesty. If his father sent him away, then it was meant to be. "My father-in-law talked me into it."

He grunted, a bit surprised at his son's forthrightness. He looked his son in the eye and was pleased to have his gaze met, head on. He nodded. "Thank you. Mr. Quince told me what you found. You saved us, you know."

Bill nodded and waited.

"Well, I'm glad you came back."

"Yes, sir." Bill nodded. It was like dealing with some of the sheriffs he'd met over the years. The ones who'd fallen into the job, the ones with no training and who had been grateful for the bounty hunter to come in and help them clean up their towns. The places where they hailed the conquering hero, then tried to get him to leave before he could embarrass their precious new respectability.

"Are you going to stay?"

That was a surprise. "I hadn't planned on it. I figured I'd stay on until after harvest, but hadn't made any plans beyond that."



"You're the only son I have left. You've got a young wife, you can raise a family. You have to admit that this is a good place to raise a child."

"I can raise my family back at Quince's, too."

His father snorted. "You're no shopkeeper."

"No. I'm a killer. I kill people for a living."

That stopped his father for a moment and he had the grace to look abashed. "I'm sorry."

"So am I, Pa. But I'm exactly what you made me. It doesn't mean I like it, only that I've accepted who and what I am. Don't worry, I never soiled your precious family name. I used mother's maiden name." He caught the shock on his father's face and realized he'd landed a blow to the old man. He stood and waited.

His father wouldn't meet his eyes. "I was wrong, Bill. Please stay, or at least, think about it? Please?"

Please. He'd said please. Twice.

"I'll think about it. I'm too tired to think right now, Pa. I haven't had anything to eat but hardtack, jerky and coffee in three days, and the amount of sleep I've had can be counted in minutes. I'm going to go to bed and I'll talk to you after I wake up and have something to eat, all right?"

His father nodded. "All right. Thank you for considering it." He paused and Bill thought he was finished and started to turn away. "Did you find Sally?"

"Yes. She's all right, physically, but she saw her uncle murder her parents. She's had a shock, and it's going to take time for her to recover."

"Bless you for that, son."

Bill's eyes closed involuntarily at the word. When his father had sent him away, he'd told him he only had one son, Francis. Now, Francis was dead and he was welcome. He was too exhausted to consider anything beyond sleep, but he determined to think about it, later.

He slipped silently into his room. In the faint moonlight that reflected into the room, he could see Bri, sleeping. Sighing in relief, he started to strip, but then realized he really wanted a bath, first. His parents had installed two bathrooms on the second floor, as well as two on the first, and even one up on the third. Hearing his mother talking to his niece in one, he availed himself of the other, bathing quickly to avoid falling asleep in the deliciously warm and soothing water. Wrapped in a towel, he made his way back to bed, somewhat surprised to realize that his mother was still ensconced in the other bathroom with his niece. Shrugging to himself, too tired to actually be able to formulate any ideas, he slipped into his room, deposited his dirty clothes in the hamper in the corner, hung his wet towel on a peg, and slid into bed beside his wife.



"Hmmmm, welcome home." She reached for him and snuggled into his embrace, laying her head on his shoulder and sighing contentedly.

The tensions of the past three weeks, and the last three days in particular, disappeared as he wrapped his arms around his wife and nuzzled into her hair, reveling in the warmth and scent of her, which he had missed so very much while he was gone. Within moments, he was asleep.

She dreamed he had returned. Feeling warm and protected in his arms, she struggled to remain sleeping just a bit longer, in order to prolong the pleasant dream. When she realized that she wasn't dreaming and that she was, in fact, cradled against his chest, his arms snugly wrapped around her, she had to struggle to keep from giggling. She realized his breathing was heavier than usual, but she put it down to his being tired. She rubbed her cheek against his breastbone, delighting in the feel of his skin against hers. She'd missed him so much, and he'd simply snuck into bed beside her without waking her to let her know he was home. She frowned and pulled away to look at him. There was just enough light from the still not quite risen sun for her to see him. She gasped to see how drawn and haggard he looked, almost as bad as when they'd found him, injured and unconscious. She looked at him, seeking any sign of injury and, finding none, sighed in satisfaction. She shifted onto her back, smiling in pleasure as he followed her and made a soft, plaintive sound as he pillowed his head against her breast. Content, she held him against her and ran her fingers through his hair until she fell back to sleep.

When she awoke a short time later, she sighed, feeling his weight settled solidly against her. Finally, however, she forced herself to ease away from him and get up, leaving him bereft and seeking her in his exhausted sleep. She took her pillow and repositioned it against him, grinning when he grabbed onto it as though it was her, and buried his face into it. Tucking the covers up around his shoulders, she then dressed and, carrying her shoes, slipped out of the room and paused in the bathroom long enough to do her morning ablutions and put her shoes on, before going downstairs.

She was used to getting up early, but Bill's family didn't seem to get started until mid-morning. Her father, who had been up since dawn, had put on a pot of coffee, and gone out to tend to the livestock, with Jo Hi to help him.

Bri began putting together the ingredients for biscuits, smiling to herself as she thought of her husband safely in their bed upstairs. She was still smiling when Jo Hi came in and set the basket of eggs he'd collected on the table.

"'Mornin' Bri," he greeted her.

"Good morning, Jo Hi. Bill came home last night."

"I figured. Saw Dolly in the barn. Did someone come with him? There's a strange buggy and horse out there."

"I've no idea. I know it must have been very late when he came in. He's still sleeping. He looks real tired."

Jo Hi nodded his agreement. "Just gonna let him sleep until he wakes up on his own?"

"Yes. I may go and sit with him after a bit, but I think he really needs to rest. I wish I knew what had happened, though. He's not hurt or anything, just tired."

"He found me and brought me home."

Jo Hi and Bri turned, startled by the voice of the strange girl who was standing in the kitchen doorway. "Are you Uncle Bill's wife?"

"Yes. I'm Bri - Brianna. This is my brother, Jo Hi."

"I'm Sally." Satisfied, the girl came into the kitchen. "Can I help?"

"You could candle those eggs. Every now and then, Jo Hi will find a clutch some hen's setting, and bring them in. I've learned to candle them before using any. If you find growing ones, I'll have him go put them back in the brood box, with that little hen who's always setting?"

Sally smiled. "That's Lil. She's a banty hen. She's the best hen there is. My - my Pa got her when she was just a tiny little chick, so he na-named her Lil."

Bri paused in what she was doing and came to put her arms around the girl, who clung to her and began to cry.

"It's all right, Sally. You just go ahead and cry, baby." She looked up as her father entered, having heard the last bit. He nodded to her silently and took Jo Hi by the hand and led him back outside to start on grooming Bill's horse and the strange gelding he'd brought in.

"Come and sit down and tell me all about it." Sally gratefully allowed herself to be pushed into a chair and when Bri sat next to her, began to tell her of all that had befallen her and her family since she'd last been home, some six months earlier.

Bri held her and cried with her.

When Bill finally awoke, Bri was lying beside him. He stirred, nuzzling at her breasts, his hand gently stroking her side. She stretched against him, her hands running through his hair and massaging his scalp. He sighed contentedly, wondering how long he'd slept. Dragging his eyes back open, he glanced around and realized that it had to be late afternoon. Somehow, he doubted he'd slept the clock around, so he must have slept about fourteen hours. He took in a deep breath, letting it out in a slow yawn. Bri's eyes opened to see him awake and watching her. She smiled.

"You finally woke up." She reached for him, pulling his face to hers for a kiss. "I missed you so much."

Their lips met, still sleepy, but hungry, as well.

"I missed you, too. I had a hard time getting any sleep while I was gone, but I slept just fine, since I got home."

They smiled at one another, lips meeting and then exploring, hands touching intimately, arousing.

Panting, Bri held him off for a moment and catching her breath, spoke. "By the by, my cycle is more than two weeks late, now, and I've started to feel a bit ill in the mornings, when I first wake up."

He froze for a moment, staring at her. "You're - a baby?" There was no missing the pleased surprise in his voice. She nodded, watching him closely for his reaction. His hand ran down her body to her still flat belly and gently rubbed.

"A baby." The wonder and reverence in his voice almost made her giggle, but she managed to stop herself and simply nodded again.

"Yes. A baby." She squealed in surprise when he suddenly embraced her, kissing her madly, his lips first crushing hers, and then trailing wildly across her face and down her throat, his hands touching her everywhere they could reach, making her groan in pleasure.

The knock at their door a short time later startled them apart, breathing heavily. "Yes?" Bri called out, recovering first.

"Are you coming to supper?" Jo Hi's voice asked.

"Be right down."

"All right. I'll tell them." The clomp of the boy's boots clattered away. The couple ruefully looked at each other and, chuckling, climbed out of bed and began to dress to go down to eat.

"We're going to have a baby," Bill murmured softly as he hugged her just before they opened the door to go downstairs.

Bill frowned when he realized that, once again, his father wasn't at the dinner table with them. He whispered the question to Bri, who indicated she'd yet to meet him.

"Mother, why isn't Pa eating with us?"

"He doesn't like pity."

"Who said anything about pity? He's still the head of this family, isn't he?" His gaze narrowed at her and Bri and her father recognized his annoyance.

His mother pretended not to notice. "He takes his meals in his room, whenever we have guests."

Bill stood up and, with his lips compressed in annoyance, stalked to the room off the kitchen where his father now slept. He tapped once and didn't wait for acknowledgment, simply entering.

Now that he wasn't so exhausted, he could see just how much his father had shrunk over the years. He still had that indominitible look in his eyes that had cowed his younger son throughout his life. Gazing at the old man now, he realized just how much like him he'd become. Hopefully without quite as much pride, he thought.


"Come and eat with us."


"You heard me. You're still the head of this family. I want you to act like it."

"You're telling me what to do?"

Bill frowned, recognizing the stubborn twist to his father's mouth. "Pa, Mother said you don't like people and won't eat with the family, even. You were never a coward, I didn't think." He kept his voice gentle, he thought, but he saw that the words stung his still-proud father.

"Get the chair."

"Yes, sir."

Bill helped when instructed or when he saw how he could assist, but otherwise allowed his father the dignity of doing as much as he was able. He was pleased to note that other than having to hold the chair steady for him, the old man was able to not only get himself into it, but to propel it without assistance, except for getting the doors.

Their entrance was met with silence, until Rebecca shook herself and stood up. "Pa, I'm so glad you decided to join us! I'll set your place for you." She scurried from the room to get another place setting.

With a grunt, the old man pushed himself up to the table at the end opposite his wife, who gazed at him with a cold, unreadable expression on her face.

"Pa," Bill began, "I'd like you to meet my wife, Brianna. Bri, this is my father."

Bri stood and approached the intimidating old man, extending her hand to him. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."

He looked up at the young woman his son had married and nodded. Taking her hand in his, he shook it gently and smiled. "The pleasure is all mine, daughter-in-law." He glanced at the other strangers at his table.

Bill took the hint and introduced his wife's father and brother.

"How come you got a chair with wheels?" Jo Hi asked, looking curiously at the contrivance.

"My back was broken some years ago, so now I can't walk."

The boy frowned. "How do you go outside?"

"I don't. Well, not without help."

Jo Hi frowned. "Why don't you make them build a ramp so's you can?"

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then, "I never thought of that, before."

Jo Hi nodded. "I bet my pa and Mr. Bill could build you one."

Bill's father looked at his son, a question in his eyes.

Catching a nod from Quince, Bill nodded. "I reckon we could maybe do that, if you want?"

"I'd like that."

Despite his mother's disapproval, his father seemed to enjoy sharing the meal with them. He was polite and interested in the relatives his son had brought with him. He and Quince found they had a great deal in common and, after supper, went out on the verandah to have a cigar and snifter of brandy, while Bill took care of the children and Bri and Rebecca cleaned up.

His mother retired to her room upstairs and sulked.

Bill was sitting in the swing chair on the verandah when Bri came outside. Smiling, she sat beside him. His arm immediately encircled her shoulders and she leaned against him, her head resting on his shoulder. They watched the two boys playing marbles in the yard, content to be together in silence. A few minutes later, Rebecca came out and leaned against the railing, facing them. It was pretty obvious that she'd been crying.


She shook her head and swiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. "I can't believe he killed them. Did he say why?"

"Money. He figured that Pa would leave the farm to Francis and he'd be left out. But with Francis gone, then he'd have a chance to inherit, if only through Davy." Bill looked into the distance. "Of course, no one bothered to tell him about me."

"I'm surprised he didn't recognize you."

"Why would he? Francis looked more like Mother, whereas I look like Pa."

"What am I going to tell Davy?"

"Nothing. He's small. I think there won't be any problem getting you a divorce from him. With any luck, you'll find someone else and Davy will never remember his father."

Rebecca shook her head. "I don't know. I'll have to wait and see."

"Well, John, at the bank refused to lie for Twitchell, even if it meant his job. You might try talking to him. Seems I recall he had a fancy for you when we were in school, but Francis and Pa put him off."

"John? John Fenner?"

"Yep." Bill grinned as the light came back to his sister's eyes. "By the way, you're going to be an aunt again."

Bri smiled contentedly as her sister-in-law squealed in delight and asked her when she was due.

"Well, I'm not positive, but I think it'll be either late winter, or early spring." Bill's arm tightened around her.

"We need to tell your father, too."

"Tell me what?"

Bill looked past Quince to his father. "We're expecting." He saw the excitement in his father's eyes as he looked at Bri.

"Congratulations, Daughter-in-law."

Bri smiled, looking into her father's face for his reaction. There was a moment of panic, followed by pleasure. "That's wonderful, Bri!"

Bill kissed his wife's temple and tightened his arm about her. "Of course it's early, yet, but we figure it's due in maybe February or March."

"I hope it's a boy," Bill's father said, almost like a demand. Bill frowned.

"As long as it's healthy and Bri is all right, I won't care what it is."

Quince chuckled. "Best if you have both girl's and boy's names picked out, just in case."

The couple nodded. "Another question is, do we go back to Tillamook?" Bill asked softly. He saw his father stiffen and about to protest, and he glared at him in warning; to his surprise, the old man subsided without speaking, but his expression was thunderous.

Quince puffed on his cigar for a moment, contemplating. "Well, you know, it's right pretty country around here, too." He looked at his daughter. "Where do you want to live, Bri?"

"Wherever Bill wants, Dad."

Quince nodded and pursed his lips, thinking. "I've got the outpost, and I know that Drew would be more than happy to buy me out, but what could I do around here?"

"You could buy out old Jacobsen, down in town. He's wanting to retire, but can't find anyone to pay his price. Not that he's asking too much, but just because no one has the money to purchase his inventory."

"Oh?" Quince turned to his host. "You have any idea how much he's asking for it?"

"A lot. Ten thousand, but that includes five hundred acres he uses to grow his own corn and beans. He gets his wheat flour from Kansas, I think. And, he owns the livery, as well. He wants to just take it easy and none of his sons wants the responsibility of running the business."

Quince frowned. Five hundred acres was just a bit more than three-quarters of a section. And he'd looked around this farm and recognized the quality of the land for growing. There was plenty of water available, barring severe drought.

"Ten thousand, eh?" He thought about his own four sections in Tillamook, twenty-five hundred acres versus five hundred. But this was good farmland, and the price included two businesses, not just one. It would do to check out. "I just may have to go and talk to this Mr. Jacobsen." He saw the relief in Bill's eyes and knew what he'd probably do. He felt a warm feeling spreading through his chest from his heart out at the realization that his son-in-law thought enough of him (as well as Bri) to want to live near him. If he could swing it, he'd sell his place in Tillamook and buy out Jacobsen. His boy would then be able to go to a real school, and have a decent inheritance, as well.

The trial was quick and the result nearly a foregone conclusion. The reason Francis and Molly had been killed was to destroy their receipts. Unfortunately, the only receipt they'd had was for the new Holstein bull they'd just purchased, not the receipts from the bank.

No one from the farm attended the double hanging.

6 MARCH 1904

He awoke to find his wife moaning in pain. Her swollen belly had forced her to stay in bed much of the preceding month. He watched her, frowning and realized she was in labor. He slid out of their bed and pulled on his britches and without bothering with a shirt or shoes, went to wake his sister and mother. Sally was dispatched to fetch the doctor and the Quinces, in town. Thankfully, Fairborn was only ten miles away and Sally had the surrey hitched up and on the move within fifteen minutes of being awakened.

Bill fretted and made coffee and wished he were allowed to be with his wife. He heard her cry out several times and his mother admonishing her to be quiet. Finally, after an hour and a half, and knowing that the doctor would be there at any moment, he pushed his way into the bedroom and chased his mother out.

"You don't belong in here!"

"Mother, get out. I'll take care of my own wife."

She gaped at him, wondering if he'd gone mad. "Men do not deliver babies."

"Mother, I delivered my own son five years ago, I think I remember what to do. Besides, you're shouting at my wife and upsetting her. I think it's much more important to calm her than to browbeat her; so if you'll just get out...."

With a huff of fury, the older woman left them. Bill exchanged a worried smile with his sister, who shook her head, marveling that he had the nerve. Turning to Bri, he slid onto the bed and lifted her against his chest with his arms wrapped around her.

"The doctor will be here soon, Bri. Now, just keep breathing, all right?"

The warm security of his embrace reassured her and she relaxed. "Lord, I never thought anything could hurt so much," she murmured to him as he brushed his lips against her sweaty temple. "Did you really deliver your son?"

"Yes. There was no doctor or midwives near, so I had no choice. We'd planned on going into town within a few days, but the baby had other ideas." He felt her muscles tense as another contraction began. "Easy, easy," he murmured, encouraging her to grip his forearms and work through the pain. "That's it. That's it, love. Easy." His soft, rumbling voice vibrated through her body and seemed to calm the contractions. She panted, wondering how long it would go on.

When the doctor arrived a few minutes later, he looked in surprise to find the husband in attendance, but seeing how well things were going, decided to allow him to remain; particularly once he saw for himself how well he did his job of calming and comforting his wife.

Four hours later, the squeal of new life filled the house. Quince and Jo Hi, who had arrived shortly after the doctor, looked up and over at Bill's parents, who were both looking towards the stairs, expectantly. It was another half an hour before the doctor came down with the announcement.

"It's a healthy little girl," he said, pleased with the ease of the delivery. He wondered if perhaps fathers shouldn't be allowed to participate in the births of their children more often. Bill had been one of the finest midwives he'd ever worked with, much to his amusement. "They've named her Martha."

Quince was pleased. A granddaughter for his girl. He nodded. "How soon can we see them?"

"Well, they're resting, just now. I'd leave them alone for an hour or so. Give the mother a chance to recover a bit, but after that, I see no harm in visitors. Just keep an eye on her. She had a rough time this past month, so she's going to tire easily, still. But she's strong and healthy and I expect her to be back to her old self in a couple of weeks." He shook hands with the grandfathers and took his leave.

Bill's father scowled. Another granddaughter. He sighed. Maybe next time.

8 September 1905

"It's a girl...."

Bill's father was again disappointed, but Bill was thrilled. He was good with his baby, and had been good with his niece and nephew, as well. Rebecca was remarried, now, to John Fenner, and living in Fairborn with him, her son and a new daughter of their own. Maybe next time.

4 July 1906

They'd planned on going to town for the annual celebration, but the baby had other ideas. Early in the morning, Bill had awakened to find his wife sweating and moaning. Having been through this before, he got up and sent his niece for the doctor, while he began the process of preparation for the new arrival. This time, however, the baby was in too big a hurry to wait for the doctor and insisted on coming less than an hour after labor began. Bill managed to both comfort his wife and deliver his newest child. He was a bit out of breath as he prepared to tie off the umbilical cord. He gazed in pleased surprise as he gazed at his newest child.

"It's a boy, Bri. We have a son."

"Good. Now your father can stop griping all the time." She was still breathing hard, but smiling as she watched her husband tie off the umbilical cord and cut it. Then he gently cleaned the squalling infant and handed him to her to hold and nurse while he finished cleaning up.

"Oh, Bill, he's beautiful."

Bill paused in his gathering of the bloody sheets and afterbirth to smile at his wife. "Is it still all right to name him after my brother?"

She looked at him with shining eyes. "Of course it is. Do you want to call him Francis, or Frank, though?"

"Frank." He watched her as she nursed their son, his heart swelling with the love he felt for his family. "Do you mind if we go back to using my father's name?" He'd continued to identify himself as Talion, at times, whenever he was called on to help out the local law, but now they were talking about making him the chief of police, since the old chief was getting on in years. He didn't want to attract the kind of attention that name would bring to the job. By going back to his original name, he hoped to prevent trouble.

"Of course not. Talion, Tyler, it never made me any mind. I've no problem with Savage, either." She kissed the crown of her son's little head, "Welcome home, Frank Savage."

She and her husband smiled at one another with satisfaction.

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