Mom's The Word
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Then, when the vegetation became greener and Hayley spotted a frolicking white-faced cow and calf, she reminded herself how alone she’d been in Tombstone. “There’s 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 she’d 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 didn’t feed the Santa Cruz River as she’d hoped.
A crushing disappointment descended as Hayley stopped her rig in the clearing also indicated on the crude map. So her grandfather hadn’t been panning for gold. What riches had enticed him to come to this desolate place year after year—and to keep it such a secret?
She pulled the trailer beneath the shade of a huge mesquite. Maybe this wasn’t 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 O’Dell 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 claim’s 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, she’d have time to gather a bit of wood and build a campfire. The trailer’s utilities ran on butane, but she wanted to save that for when inclement weather drove her inside. She hadn’t passed a convenience store or gas station, in the past thirty miles. Twenty of those miles had been unpaved road. Yes, she’d do well to save her store-bought resources and live off the land for as long as possible.
One indulgence she’d bought—a portable radio. And she’d 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 didn’t feel half so alone.
As she built a fire, hammered pegs to hold the trailer’s awning and dragged out the two lawn chairs that had belonged to Gramps, Hayley paused a moment to appreciate a truly glorious sunset.Life wasn’t 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 horse’s 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 didn’t consider this site totally safe; in the pickup’s 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. She’d 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 he’d 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 hadn’t 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 she’d meet one of the unsavory types her first night out.
“Who the hell are you?” a rough voice asked. “This is private property. I’ll 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 I’ve got a loaded gun backing up my right to be here. I suggest you hightail it back wherever you came from.”
“You’ve 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 didn’t 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-man’s-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 stranger’s head. If she didn’t 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 stranger’s 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 hadn’t 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 ground—with his head resting on something soft. Good, since his head hurt like hell.
What the devil had happened? It’d been years since he’d 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 he’d 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 death’s beautiful eyes narrowed warily. Jake noticed they weren’t blue as he’d thought at first but almost lavender—unless it was a trick of the light created by a fading sun.
“What’s 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 I’d been the kind of guy you thought I was—the kind who needed killing—you’d be in a heap of trouble about now, lady.”
She scrambled backward, still on her knees. “I wasn’t trying to kill you. I’ll have you know I generally hit what I aim for.”
Jake touched his bloody head. “I’ll 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 didn’t know the shot would sever a dead limb on that big old mesquite.”
Jacob now understood why he couldn’t hear so well. It’d 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 hadn’t 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 don’t have a wife.”
The woman obviously wasn’t 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 woman’s campfire. Yet he could clearly see what she had in mind. In two long strides he beat her to the weapon. “Oh, no, you don’t. I’m 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. “I’m Jacob—Jake—Cooper from the Triple C ranch. I admit this spring is on Bureau of Land Management property, but it’s 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, it’s 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 don’t think so, Mr. Cooper.” She crossed her arms. “I’ve recorded a legal claim to prospect here. My claim starts at that pile of rocks—at the sign declaring it the Blue Cameo Mine. This plot of ground is mine from now until next July.”
“Sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”
“Hayley. Hayley Ryan. Feel free to check with the county recorder and the state BLM office. You’ll 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. You’re claim-jumping. A man by the name of Ben O’Dell filed on this site—and the Triple C has an agreement with Ben. He promised to notify us when he’s finished prospecting, and we’re going to the recording office with him when he releases the mineral rights. Then we’ll buy this twenty acres, plus the hundred that adjoins it.”
“Did my grandfath…uh…Ben…did 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 gentlemen’s 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 didn’t tell anyone. My claim is good, Mr. Cooper.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Well, I hope you’ll pardon me if I ride into Tombstone to see if you’re telling the truth.”
“Be my guest.” Hayley waved him off. “Don’t let me keep you. It’s been a long day. I’d like to eat my evening meal in peace, if you don’t mind, Mr. Cooper.”
“It’s Jake, or Jacob, please.”
“Jacob, then,” she said sweetly, extending a hand. “And, if you don’t mind, I’ll 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 I’ll 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.
“I’m offering you the Triple C’s hospitality, woman.”
“My name is Hayley,” she said pointedly as he’d 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, hadn’t you better take off?” Hayley delivered the advice through a dazzling smile.
Jake pinched the bridge of his nose. Stubborn didn’t 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. He’d 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 he’d come. If she didn’t run out of lead for that scattergun, she ought to be safe enough by herself—for one night.
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 don’t you let me finish here? Go wash up. Your mother saved you a plate in the oven. You know Nell won’t admit to worrying, but she still frets and peeks down the road when she thinks I’m not looking.”
“Yeah, well, I’d 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 son’s close-cropped sideburns.
“In more ways than one, I’m afraid.” Jake left nothing out as he replayed his encounter with Hayley Ryan at Ben O’Dell’s claim.
“Well, hell!” Wade exclaimed. His chin sagged to his chest by the time Jake finished his story. “I feel bad about Ben. Would’ve attended his funeral if I’d known about it. Your brother subscribes to all those damned papers—Tombstone, Nogales, Tubac. Wonder how he missed O’Dell’s obituary?”
“You’ll have to ask him. Perhaps Eden lined the bird cage with it.” Jake grinned. His brother was sappy in love with his wife. He’d do anything for her. But Dillon really had a hard time liking Eden’s beloved parrot. Coronado talked a blue streak to everyone who walked into the couple’s house—but 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. “What’s to tell? She’s 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.”
“That’s not what I meant. Ben led me to believe he’d kept this claim a secret.”
“Hayley Ryan alleges she’s Ben’s granddaughter. But he never mentioned any kin to me. I wonder if she’s 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 I’d drive to Tombstone tomorrow and snoop a little.”
“Let Mom and me go,” Wade said. “We’ll drive on to Tucson. Nell’s been badgering me to go before roundup starts. She heard about a new pottery-supply store.”
“Fine by me. I’d 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 wouldn’t 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.”
“It’s a waste of breath trying to scare her off. I brought up wolves, coyotes and mentioned illegals coming through. Didn’t 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 haven’t 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 who’d like to become Mrs. Jacob Cooper.”
“You’re forgetting Hayley Ryan took a potshot at me, Dad.” Jake didn’t tell his father, however, that she’d 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 she’d smelled good. Very, very good. Jake recalled enjoying the faint scent of apple blossoms when he’d 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.
“Can’t recall the old guy saying. I don’t know if he just needed to escape town life for a month or so every summer, or if he actually found ore.”
“You’d think it’d 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, I’m a cattleman through and through. I don’t 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 didn’t 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 Jake’s clash with Hayley Ryan. “Well,” Nell declared as she gently sponged her son’s 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 Ben’s spring, it cut our work by half,” Wade reminded his wife. “Not only that, we’re 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 wasn’t closed by a long shot.
Jake knew that look. “Mom, don’t you be doing anything dumb. You and Dad are going to Tombstone tomorrow to check out the Ryan woman’s story. I’m counting strays that may have drifted up around Pena Blanca Lake. I’ll keep tabs on her when I head out in the morning.”
“You’d better spy on her from a distance,” his mother said as she rubbed antibacterial cream across Jake’s 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 didn’t see the limb. I peg her as a stubborn female, not a criminal.”
“Jacob Cooper.” Nell wagged a finger. “Now, mind you, I’m not condoning what she did. But I hope you’re not one to be calling her stubborn simply because she’s a woman. If it were a man protecting his claim, you’d give him his due.”
“Now, Mama, I give women their due. What I was trying to say is that Hayley Ryan isn’t all that dangerous.”
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