Roz Denny.

Mom's The Word





Then, when the vegetation became greener and Hayley spotted a frolicking white-faced cow and calf, she reminded herself how alone shed been in Tombstone. Theres just you and me, kid, she murmured, patting her stomach again.

The trailer bumped when she hit a rocky dip. Hayley bounced on the seat and settled back with a giggle. I hope you like roller coasters, kiddo. The track from here on is a real washboard.

According to the map, she was near the claim. While shed hoped for an oasis of deer grass and cottonwoods, what lay ahead was an occasional mesquite, ironwood and rock. Sheer cliffs of reddish rock. Turning left around a promontory, Hayley saw a cascade of water falling between the two sentinel rocks drawn on the map. The falling water formed a natural spring. But it didnt feed the Santa Cruz River as shed hoped.

A crushing disappointment descended as Hayley stopped her rig in the clearing also indicated on the crude map. So her grandfather hadnt been panning for gold. What riches had enticed him to come to this desolate place year after yearand to keep it such a secret?

She pulled the trailer beneath the shade of a huge mesquite. Maybe this wasnt the place, she thought as she climbed down from the cab.

But a hand-carved wooden sign carefully wedged in a stack of rocks said Blue Cameo Mine. Tears sprang to her eyes and it suddenly seemed absolutely right that she be here. A cameo carved in blue was the only memento she had of her mother. Another legacy stolen by Joe Ryan. Losing the cameo had hurt worse than his selling the Silver Cloud.

Ben ODell had carved his name in the sign. That was how prospectors staked a claim. Hayley could expect to find a similar mound at each of the claims four corners. Twenty acres in all was the limit one person could work.

Night was sneaking up on her. The sun had slipped behind the Sierrita Mountains. Tomorrow would be plenty of time to take stock of the land Hayley planned to call home for at least the next six months. What she needed to do in the remaining daylight was unhitch the pickup and level the trailer. With luck, shed have time to gather a bit of wood and build a campfire. The trailers utilities ran on butane, but she wanted to save that for when inclement weather drove her inside. She hadnt passed a convenience store or gas station, in the past thirty miles. Twenty of those miles had been unpaved road. Yes, shed do well to save her store-bought resources and live off the land for as long as possible.

One indulgence shed boughta portable radio. And shed laid in a good supply of batteries. It had seemed a frivolous purchase at the time, but as she snapped it on and twirled the dial until she found the faint strains of Tejano music coming from across the border, Hayley thanked whatever had prompted her to make the impulsive buy. With music, she didnt feel half so alone.

As she built a fire, hammered pegs to hold the trailers awning and dragged out the two lawn chairs that had belonged to Gramps, Hayley paused a moment to appreciate a truly glorious sunset.

Life wasnt so bad, she decided on a rush of emotion. In fact, things had turned out pretty darned good. The thought ended abruptly. Over a lull in the twangy music, Hayley heard the steady clip-clop, clip-clop of a horses hooves.

Holding her breath, she lowered the music. Yes, a horse and rider were definitely coming closer. The squeak of leather told her the horse was saddled. Gramps had taught her well to listen for and delineate sounds in the wild. And he obviously didnt consider this site totally safe; in the pickups window rack, Ben had left a twelve-gauge, double-barreled shotgun and a well-oiled rifle.

Hayley dashed to the truck and grabbed the shotgun. Shed never shoot a person, but scaring someone, now, that was a different story. No stranger to guns, Hayley counted on being able to run a good bluff. She carefully put the crackling fire between her and the approaching rider.

Unfortunately he came at her out of the west, forcing her to look directly into the brilliant red glow of the sinking sun. Horse and rider rounded an outcrop of granite, appearing as a huge dark shadow. The horse snorted and blew as if hed been ridden hard. The man sat tall and menacing in the saddle. These few facts registered with Hayley as she raised the gun to her shoulder and said in the toughest voice she could muster, Stop right there. Squinting, she saw that the stranger wore a battered Stetson. His shoulders were wide, his legs long, and he looked like he hadnt shaved in a while. Even in modern times, Tombstone attracted its share of saddle tramps; Hayley had heard that the farther south one went, the more likelihood there was of encountering men who made their living rustling cattle or running contraband across the border. Just another show of her bad luck that shed meet one of the unsavory types her first night out.

Who the hell are you? a rough voice asked. This is private property. Ill give you two seconds to pack up and scram off Triple C land.

Hayley had to hand it to the stranger. He ran a fair bluff, too. Scram yourself, cowboy. I have a piece of paper that says this twenty acres belongs to me as long as I work my claim. And Ive got a loaded gun backing up my right to be here. I suggest you hightail it back wherever you came from.

Youve staked a claim? For mining?

Not your business, cowboy. Hayley drew back one shotgun hammer. Instead of withdrawing as she expected, her visitor touched his boot heels to the big gelding and crow-hopped toward her.

Hayley didnt want to shoot, but the closer he got, the bigger he seemed. His sweating horse might as well have been breathing fire. Hayley panicked. She envisioned her life and that of her unborn child ending here in no-mans-land, where the buzzards would pick her bones clean and no living soul would care. Aiming above his head, hoping to make him think she meant business, she fired.

The force of the explosion slammed the stock of the gun against her shoulder and spun her sideways. But not before she saw a limb on the mesquite splinter. A thick limb, about to drop on the strangers head. If she didnt do something, it could strike him dead. Hayley dropped the shotgun and lunged at the bay gelding.

Are you plumb crazy, woman? The rider jerked back on his reins, which was the wrong thing to do. The limb hit him hard and scared his mount, who reared high on his hind legs and bolted, sending his rider flying.

The man landed hard enough to shake the ground.

Oh, no. Oh, no! This was not at all what Hayley had intended. Muttering a prayer, she hurried to the strangers side, fell to her knees and peered anxiously at his face. A great bloody gash spread above his left ear. Hesitantly she slipped her fingers beneath the red bandanna he had tied around his neck, checking for a pulse.

Thank God. Hayley heaved a sigh and pillowed his head on her knees. His pulse beat slow and steady. At least she hadnt killed him.

JACOB COOPER opened his eyes. He felt the world spin, so he shut them again. There was a hollow ringing in his ears. It took Jake several moments to realize he was no longer seated in his saddle but lay horizontally on the groundwith his head resting on something soft. Good, since his head hurt like hell.

What the devil had happened? Itd been years since hed tumbled from a horse. Not since his rodeo days.

All at once Jake remembered the woman with the big eyes and the even bigger gun. Had she shot him? He struggled to sit up and, though woozy, nearly smacked his nose into a face peering at him from close range. Had he met his maker? Was this the angel of death? Somehow hed never expected the angel of death to be so pretty.

So pretty, or so solidly real. It dawned on Jake that his head lay on the lap of a flesh-and-blood woman. He was so deliriously happy to discover he was alive he started to laugh.

His angel of deaths beautiful eyes narrowed warily. Jake noticed they werent blue as hed thought at first but almost lavenderunless it was a trick of the light created by a fading sun.

Whats so funny? the woman demanded, beginning to edge out from beneath his shoulders.

You are, Jake said, planting a hand near her hip so he could lever himself into a sitting position. If Id been the kind of guy you thought I wasthe kind who needed killingyoud be in a heap of trouble about now, lady.

She scrambled backward, still on her knees. I wasnt trying to kill you. Ill have you know I generally hit what I aim for.

Jake touched his bloody head. Ill vouch for that. He climbed shakily to his feet and whistled for his horse, who now stood quietly lapping water from the spring.

I aimed over your head. The sun was in my eyes. I didnt know the shot would sever a dead limb on that big old mesquite.

Jacob now understood why he couldnt hear so well. Itd been the nearness of the shotgun blast. He glanced at the ground, saw the size of the limb and thought it was a miracle he and Mojave hadnt both been killed. The base of the limb was as big around as his thigh, and the front portion looked like a spike. Loggers call limbs like this widow makers, he muttered. Only I dont have a wife.

The woman obviously wasnt anywhere near ready to trust him. While he patted down his horse, checking him for injuries, she stretched out a hand to retrieve her gun.

It was then that Jake noticed how dark it had become. The only light now came from the womans campfire. Yet he could clearly see what she had in mind. In two long strides he beat her to the weapon. Oh, no, you dont. Im not letting you finish the job. As easily as taking a lollipop from a toddler, Jake divested her of her weapon.

How about we start with introductions, he said when she shied away. Im JacobJakeCooper from the Triple C ranch. I admit this spring is on Bureau of Land Management property, but its got water crucial to our cattle. In fact, there are some ten ranchers in the area who need that water. July to October our range land is almost dry. The vaqueros we hire to help with roundup start that pump over there at intervals to feed water through the ditches. Well, its not really a pump, but a set of four flow valves that work off the water pressure when someone turns the wheels and opens the valves. He pointed.

I dont think so, Mr. Cooper. She crossed her arms. Ive recorded a legal claim to prospect here. My claim starts at that pile of rocksat the sign declaring it the Blue Cameo Mine. This plot of ground is mine from now until next July.

Sorry. I didnt catch your name.

Hayley. Hayley Ryan. Feel free to check with the county recorder and the state BLM office. Youll find my paperwork in order and my fees paid.

Jake bent at the waist and scooped up his hat from where it had fallen. He jammed it on his head and then grimaced because it scraped the bloody reminder of his encounter with this woman. I hate to burst your bubble, Hayley Ryan. Youre claim-jumping. A man by the name of Ben ODell filed on this siteand the Triple C has an agreement with Ben. He promised to notify us when hes finished prospecting, and were going to the recording office with him when he releases the mineral rights. Then well buy this twenty acres, plus the hundred that adjoins it.

Did my grandfathuhBendid he put that in writing?

Jake removed his hat again and slapped it against his thigh. I shot the breeze with Ben a lot. We swapped stories and drank coffee or an occasional beer. I suppose you could call what we had a gentlemens agreement. Are you and he related? He never mentioned having a family.

Everyone has a family. Ben passed on recently. That nullifies his claim. If you two had an agreement, he didnt tell anyone. My claim is good, Mr. Cooper.

Jakes eyes narrowed suspiciously. Well, I hope youll pardon me if I ride into Tombstone to see if youre telling the truth.

Be my guest. Hayley waved him off. Dont let me keep you. Its been a long day. Id like to eat my evening meal in peace, if you dont mind, Mr. Cooper.

Its Jake, or Jacob, please.

Jacob, then, she said sweetly, extending a hand. And, if you dont mind, Ill take my shotgun before you go.

Jake let his disgruntled gaze circle the isolated campsite before he silently handed back her gun. Ben never said what he was digging for. It must be something valuable for a pretty lady like you to bury herself in such a desolate place. Are you aware of how far it is to the nearest ranch house?

When she said nothing, only clamped her pointed little jaw tighter, Jake went ahead and filled her in before he swung into the saddle. Your closest neighbor would be the Triple C. Eight miles from here as the crow flies. Closer to twelve if you follow the trail. Our ranch sits practically on the Mexican border.

Again Hayley said nothing. She simply cocked her head.

Dang! It goes against my grain to leave a lady alone among coyotes and wolves. To say nothing of any two-legged varmints who drift past here, or any illegals jumping the border. Say the word and Ill help you hitch up that trailer so you can park closer to civilization.

I just unhitched, Mr. Cooper, er, Jake. Hayley enunciated clearly, as if to a child.

Im offering you the Triple Cs hospitality, woman.

My name is Hayley, she said pointedly as hed done with his earlier. Nice try, but nothing you say is going to frighten me off my claim. You may as well give up. If you have eight miles to travel before sitting down to supper, hadnt you better take off? Hayley delivered the advice through a dazzling smile.

Jake pinched the bridge of his nose. Stubborn didnt begin to describe Hayley Ryan. He could just imagine what his dad and his brother, Dillon, who lived with his wife in a separate house on Triple C land, were going to say when he delivered the news about this squatter. Hed catch hell from his mom and his sister-in-law, Eden, too, for leaving a defenseless woman to fend for herself. Jake was torn between going home to impart the news or sticking close to look after the damn little fool.

A sharp pain sliced through his skull. He changed his mind about calling the woman defenseless. She was one tough cookie.

Touching two fingers curtly to the brim of his hat, he wheeled Mojave and rode off the way hed come. If she didnt run out of lead for that scattergun, she ought to be safe enough by herselffor one night.

CHAPTER TWO

WADE COOPER met his son in the barn where Jake had stopped to rub down and feed Mojave. A Border collie Jake had raised from a pup yapped excitedly.

Sit, Charcoal, ordered Wade, a lean handsome man in his midsixties. Without being asked, he pitched in to help Jake take care of his horse. Expected you back by suppertime. Why dont you let me finish here? Go wash up. Your mother saved you a plate in the oven. You know Nell wont admit to worrying, but she still frets and peeks down the road when she thinks Im not looking.

Yeah, well, Id have been here sooner, but I ran into a snag. Jake removed his Stetson and gingerly touched his swollen temple. It still hurt like hell.

Literally a snag? Wade stepped closer and frowned at the blood matted in his sons close-cropped sideburns.

In more ways than one, Im afraid. Jake left nothing out as he replayed his encounter with Hayley Ryan at Ben ODells claim.

Well, hell! Wade exclaimed. His chin sagged to his chest by the time Jake finished his story. I feel bad about Ben. Wouldve attended his funeral if Id known about it. Your brother subscribes to all those damned papersTombstone, Nogales, Tubac. Wonder how he missed ODells obituary?

Youll have to ask him. Perhaps Eden lined the bird cage with it. Jake grinned. His brother was sappy in love with his wife. Hed do anything for her. But Dillon really had a hard time liking Edens beloved parrot. Coronado talked a blue streak to everyone who walked into the couples housebut reserved special treatment for Dillon, screeching at him and biting him every chance he got.

Quit needling Dillon over that bird. Tell me more about the Ryan woman.

Jake scowled. Whats to tell? Shes no bigger than a flea. One of our stiff Baja winds will blow her and that tomfool toy trailer of hers right off the map.

Thats not what I meant. Ben led me to believe hed kept this claim a secret.

Hayley Ryan alleges shes Bens granddaughter. But he never mentioned any kin to me. I wonder if shes trying to pull a fast one. She told me Ben never said a word about our water deal. And asked me if I had something in writing. I thought Id drive to Tombstone tomorrow and snoop a little.

Let Mom and me go, Wade said. Well drive on to Tucson. Nells been badgering me to go before roundup starts. She heard about a new pottery-supply store.

Fine by me. Id just as soon not drive the pickup over that graveled track between here and Arivaca. Jake hunkered down to pat Charcoal, then let the dog lick his face.

Probably wouldnt hurt if you were to ride back out and check on the woman tomorrow. Someone should warn her about the rattlers nesting back in those rocks. Ben tangled with a couple of big ones.

Its a waste of breath trying to scare her off. I brought up wolves, coyotes and mentioned illegals coming through. Didnt faze her.

Hmm. Then turn on the Cooper charm and see if you can work the same deal with her as we set up with Ben.

Jake snorted and wrinkled his nose.

Wha-at? You think I havent heard Eden and Nell talk about how all the ranchers daughters around here make cow eyes at you? I hear Dillon teasing you about all those single artists in Tubac whod like to become Mrs. Jacob Cooper.

Youre forgetting Hayley Ryan took a potshot at me, Dad. Jake didnt tell his father, however, that shed also cushioned his injured head in her lap. Falling off his horse had been humiliating. But her hands had felt cool against his skin, and shed smelled good. Very, very good. Jake recalled enjoying the faint scent of apple blossoms when hed come to. Thinking about it again made him go a little breathless. He took a step back, threw the brush into a box of supplies and led Mojave into a stall.

What do you suppose Ben hoped to find? Jake asked Wade, to take his mind off the way Hayley Ryan felt and looked and smelled.

Cant recall the old guy saying. I dont know if he just needed to escape town life for a month or so every summer, or if he actually found ore.

Youd think itd have to be more than just an escape to drag a guy out to live in primitive conditions every year for some ten years.

I figured he was halfheartedly hunting silver. A couple of times he talked like the ore was slowly playing out of his mine near Tombstone. But then, Im a cattleman through and through. I dont pretend to know what makes a prospector tick.

There you two are. Nell Cooper poked her head inside the barn. Still slender at fifty-five, she had smooth skin and warm gray eyes, which contributed to the fact that she didnt look much older than her sons, Dillon, thirty-five and Jacob, thirty-two. Goodness, Jacob, what happened to your head? Very much in command of the Triple C in her role as family caretaker, Nell silenced Charcoal and bustled the men toward the house.

She clucked sympathetically as Jake and Wade alternately explained Jakes clash with Hayley Ryan. Well, Nell declared as she gently sponged her sons wound, that woman sounds crazy. I say leave her alone, Jacob. We used to haul water from the ranch out to some troughs your father and his dad constructed from fifty-gallon barrels. I guess we can do that again.

Wade and Jake exchanged a very male rolling of the eyes. After we successfully dickered to use Bens spring, it cut our work by half, Wade reminded his wife. Not only that, were running twice the summer herd now. Jake, Dillon and I can certainly handle one contrary female.

As Nell got out first-aid supplies, she wore a look that said they should heed her advice and that the matter wasnt closed by a long shot.

Jake knew that look. Mom, dont you be doing anything dumb. You and Dad are going to Tombstone tomorrow to check out the Ryan womans story. Im counting strays that may have drifted up around Pena Blanca Lake. Ill keep tabs on her when I head out in the morning.

Youd better spy on her from a distance, his mother said as she rubbed antibacterial cream across Jakes nasty-looking wound. Her aim might be truer next time.

Jake sighed. I told you she was shooting over my head. She stared square into the sun and didnt see the limb. I peg her as a stubborn female, not a criminal.

Jacob Cooper. Nell wagged a finger. Now, mind you, Im not condoning what she did. But I hope youre not one to be calling her stubborn simply because shes a woman. If it were a man protecting his claim, youd give him his due.

Now, Mama, I give women their due. What I was trying to say is that Hayley Ryan isnt all that dangerous.





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