About the book
But he who dares not grasp the thorn, should never crave the rose...
Losing in one blow both her family and their ranch, Charlene Quinn is finally more determined to live life on her own terms. Her fate takes an unprecedented turn when a mysterious but handsome rancher arrives in town.
Tyler Price moves to Bandera to escape his haunting past. When he discovers a wounded young Comanche in his ranch, he knows he can trust only one person—the stubborn, fierce and independent Charlene Quinn.
With the attackers on the loose, Charlene and Tyler join forces to protect the innocent...until Tyler’s past suddenly creeps into their lives, threatening to destroy them all.
When Charlene is attacked, a realization strikes him as a thunder. The outlaws who keep coming at nights are not only closer but also more familiar than he thinks…
Charlene Quinn glanced around and down from the short ladder she stood upon.
“Hello, Jean. You look excited about something.”
She continued her work, stacking neatly folded men’s shirts on the tall shelf behind the store’s counter. There hadn’t been a customer inside the general mercantile for an hour, but Charlene was seldom idle. If she had nothing to stack, she cleaned. If the store was clean, she worked the books. When customers entered the store, she waited on them, helped them find exactly what they needed, then took their money.
Even now, as Jean Maple, her employer, stood inside the store gazing up at her, she didn’t pause in her work. “Have you heard the news?” Jean asked her. “The old Mill Ranch has been sold.”
“No, I hadn’t heard,” Charlene replied. “I’m not surprised, though. It’s a very nice piece of property.”
She heard Jean huff. “Nice, yes, but the exciting part is the new owner.”
Charlene examined her handiwork, then nodded in satisfaction. Backing her way down the ladder, careful not to step on the hem of her skirt, she reached the wooden floor. Turning, she dusted her hands together, gazing at Jean, who stood watching her with an enigmatic smile.
“So, what is so intriguing about this new owner?” Charlene asked.
“Only that he is by far the best-looking man I have ever seen in my life,” Jean exclaimed, with an almost girlish giggle.
“What am I?” called a voice from the office behind the curtain. “A piece of moldy bacon?”
Jean waved her hands even though the speaker couldn’t see the dismissive gesture. “The best-looking man I have ever seen that I am not married to.”
Charlene didn’t smile as she usually did at the exchange between Jean and her husband, Harold, who worked with the invoices and arranged for new orders to be shipped from the manufacturers in the store’s small office. She cared little for the gleam of anticipation in Jean’s eyes as the older woman still watched her closely.
“I know that look, Jean,” she said, her tone a warning. “You’re about to tell me he’s single, aren’t you?”
“How did you guess that?”
Charlene shook her head, then went to the box on the counter to retrieve more shirts to add to the shelf above. “I am quite familiar with the look in your eyes when hatching your matchmaking plots.”
Jean huffed again, indignant. “There are plenty of eligible men in this town, and you refuse to even look at them. If you are not going to think about catching a husband, then I will.”
“Oh, so you’re going to marry a second husband?” Harold asked from the office. “What a novel idea. I thought it was men who were supposed to marry multiple wives.”
“Harold Maple, mind your own affairs.”
“Charlene, come down that ladder this instant. I refuse to talk to your back.”
Charlene sighed. While she didn’t exactly return down to the floor, she did turn halfway around to gaze down at Jean. “Thank you for worrying about my future, Jean, but I can’t be concerned with meeting new men or getting married. Mother needs me too much.”
Jean set her hands on her ample hips, shaking her head. She pursed her lips in a moue of consternation. “I know your mother needs you. Just know there are others in this town, including myself and Harold.. ”
“Speak for yourself.”
“… who will help in looking after her. You must think of your future, dear. You are such a beautiful girl and would make some lucky man a wonderful wife.”
“Thank you for worrying about us, Jean,” Charlene said, climbing back up the ladder with her bundle of merchandise. “You and Harold have done so much for us already.”
“Aha! At last, I get some credit around here.”
“Harold Maple, for the last time, mind your own business and stop eavesdropping. It’s the height of bad manners.”
“It’s hardly eavesdropping when your voices are so loud.”
Now, Charlene did grin as she piled the neatly folded shirts on the shelf. She loved the two of them, Harold and Jean Maple, who owned the general store, and who gave her employment when she desperately needed it. In return for their generosity and the salary she received, Charlene worked long hours six days a week, to the point that Jean occasionally complained of not having enough to do.
Still, Jean had her two young sons to contend with and often told Charlene how grateful she was for the extra time Charlene’s work provided her to spend with them. At ages ten and twelve, both Matt and Ben kept her busy as they grew older, expanding their horizons and making new friends with the other children around the small town of Bandera, Texas.
Jean picked up the box of shirts and handed them up to Charlene, enabling her to work faster without climbing up and down the ladder. “The new fellow in town is Tyler Price,” Jean commented, giving her a pile of shirts.
“I’m sure he will be dropping by the store. That Mill Ranch is a little run down, habitable, but could use some fixing up.”
“Did I mention he is single?”
“Give it up, Jean,” Harold called. “Our little girl isn’t interested.”
Charlene glanced down to see Jean glowering up at her. “He is quite the catch, missy. And plans to expand the ranch and raise cattle. You could do far worse.”
“Are there any more shirts in that box?” Charlene inquired politely.
In disgust, Jean set the box down on the counter. “It’s time for lunch. Go on home and eat, tell your mother I said hello.”
Charlene climbed back down, offering Jean a small grin as she headed toward the door. “Back in an hour.”
The little bell over the door chimed musically as she went out, gently closing the door behind her. Early summer had arrived in the beautiful hill country of south Texas, along with its rising heat and humidity that tended to last from early April all the way to October. Even though the bright sunlight blasted down on her bare head as Charlene walked down the wooden sidewalk toward home, the heat level hadn’t risen to the point where it was uncomfortable to be outside.
The street bustled with the comings and goings of people getting to their destinations. Some walked, some rode on horseback and some drove in wagons or small buggies. Some waved and called hello as they passed her, and Charlene returned their gestures. Several matrons admonished her for not wearing her sunbonnet outdoors. Charlene promised to put it on immediately.
The small house she shared with her mother stood at the end of the street, a tidy white clapboard structure with blue trim and a tiny yard. They lived rent-free, a charity gift from Harold and Jean Maple, who owned the house.
She opened the gate in the white picket fence and walked up the steps to the porch. Charlene stopped at the top, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath before she turned the knob on the door. It was the same greeting as any other day.
Her mother, Olivia Quinn, sat in her rocking chair near the hearth, staring into the cold ashes. She had wrapped a shawl around her thin frame, her face was gaunt as though starved, her gray and brown hair was hanging in thin wisps to her shoulders. Charlene made certain she ate well, but nothing seemed to put weight on her mother’s skinny body.
Kissing Olivia’s cheek, Charlene asked, “Are you hungry, Mother? I’ll make us some beef and bacon sandwiches. Why are you wearing a shawl? Are you cold?”
Olivia glanced up, a tiny smile creasing her face. “I like it around me, dear. How are things at the store?”
Striding toward the small kitchen, Charlene spoke over her shoulder. “Jean is playing matchmaker again.”
She heard the chair creak as Olivia rose stiffly from it and shambled in Charlene’s wake. Her mother was not old by the years she had lived, yet she had become an aged woman under the weight of terrible, heart-wrenching grief. She hardly left the house, refused to attend church services, and performed only a few basic household chores. Charlene hadn’t the heart to demand more from her mother.
“Some gentleman who bought the Mill place,” Charlene replied, retrieving plates from the cupboard, “and according to Jean, he is Adonis himself.”
Shuffling to the table, Olivia sat down with a sigh. “You should think about getting married, dear.”
“Don’t you start, Mother,” Charlene said, cutting slices from the leftover beef roast and from a loaf of bread. “Jean is like a dog fussing over a bone, she won’t stop.”
“She just wants what is best for you. The Maples have been very kind to us.”
Making the sandwiches, Charlene felt her own grief rise, close to her throatand wondered what might have been if their loved ones hadn’t died. “Then, there won’t be anyone to look after you.”
“I will be all right, dear.”
No, you won’t. You wouldn’t eat if I wasn’t here to supervise. Charlene would never speak that thought aloud to her mother and squashed her grief. “I guess I’m just not ready to be married.”
Charlene set the plates on the table then filled two glasses of cold water from the hand pump at the sink. She handed one to Olivia, then sat down to her own lunch. Olivia nibbled at her meal, tears filling her brown eyes. “I am such a burden,” she whispered.
“Never say that, Mother,” Charlene insisted, her fears for Olivia growing. “I like taking care of you.”
“But you work so hard,” Olivia set her sandwich down and stared at it. “Nearly every day at the store, then you come home and look after the house, the laundry, the cooking. I should help more, but I have no energy for anything.”
“It’s all right,” Charlene replied, gesturing toward her uneaten lunch. “Now, eat. Please.”
Olivia nodded and picked it up to take a small bite. “What else did Jean say about the new member of our community?”
“Not much. Just that he plans to run cattle, and she thought he might stop by the store.”
Olivia nodded. “It is the only general store in the area. The next closest one is in San Antonio.”
“Then I’m sure I’ll be meeting him soon enough,” Charlene said and took another bite of her sandwich. “If Mr. Price is searching for a wife, I bet some other girl in town will catch his interest.”
Olivia smiled. “There are none as pretty as you.”
Charlene waved her hand. “There’s more to a relationship than looks, Mother. One must be interested to qualify, and I, for one, do not have that qualification.”
“Tsk, dear. I really must do something about that attitude of yours.”
“I’m an adult,” Charlene replied crisply, finishing her lunch. “I can have an attitude if I want.”
Picking up her empty plate, she set it in the sink, then drank her water and set the glass beside it. Turning, she found her mother had eaten most of her sandwich and nodded with satisfaction. “Jean mentioned sending an apple pie home with me,” she said. “We can have some for dessert tonight, how does that sound?’
“Very good. Now you run along, and I will clean up.”
“Thank you, Mother.”
Charlene kissed Olivia’s cheek again, and strode out of the kitchen toward the door, knowing she may come home later to clean dishes or may find them just where she left them. It all depended upon how Olivia felt at any given moment. Though Charlene admitted to herself, her mother usually did do what she said she would do.
Remembering to grab her sunbonnet before walking out the door, she donned it and tied the ribbon under her chin. Though she hadn’t used up the full hour the Maples gave her for her lunch, she strode quickly back to the store, ticking off in her mind the tasks she needed to accomplish that afternoon. Toying absently with her thick braid of red hair, Charlene glanced up to see an unusual sight in front of the Apple Tree, the Maples’ general store.
A buckboard wagon, drawn by two mouse-colored mules, stood outside it in the street, a gaggle of women crowded around it. Charlene slowed her pace to watch. “Now what could they be staring at?” she wondered aloud.
“It’s the new feller.”
Charlene half turned to find Sheriff Victor Barker riding his dun gelding up beside her. A tall man with thick, iron-gray hair and a mustache that drooped to his chin, he tipped his hat to her. Then his sharp blue eyes flicked to the crowd. Turning his head, he spat a wad of tobacco on the far side of his horse. “Them gals seem to think he be a good lookin’ feller. Me, I wouldn’t know.”
Charlene scoffed. “Handsome is as handsome does.”
“That do be true, Miss Quinn. How’s your Ma doin’?”
“Well enough, I suppose. She eats, but doesn’t gain an ounce of weight, still has no energy.”
“Grief be an evil creature, young lady, and don’t you forget it. You both have been through a lot.”
“You are very kind, Sheriff. We both appreciate what you, the Maples and other folks in town have done for us.”
“Just being neighborly.”
He tipped his hat again, then nudged his horse down the street at a quiet amble. Charlene walked on, bemused by the crowd waiting outside the Apple Tree. Striding amid them, smiling a little, saying politely, “Excuse me,” from time to time, she made her way through the dozen or so women to the door. They, for the most part, were of her own age at twenty-two, some older, some younger, and not all of them were single.
Ducking her head, she opened the door on the bell’s little jingle, and quickly closed the door behind her. “Jean, did you see –”
Looking up, Charlene stopped dead in her tracks.
Talking to Jean and Harold he turned at the sound of her voice. His looks were beyond striking. Tall with the grace of a hunting cougar, she swallowed hard. Eyes the color of dark storm clouds pierced through her, sleek black hair hung to his shoulders from under a wide-brimmed hat. Broad shoulders beneath his brown coat appeared impossibly strong, his cheekbones high, his nose like a hawk’s.
Taking a step forward, Charlene almost fell down in a swoon.
Tyler immediately swept his hat from his head. Offering the young lady a short bow, he said, “Good afternoon, miss.”
His heart raced. Never before had he seen a girl of such raw beauty, a creature that appeared so delicate, and yet unearthly strong. Large hazel eyes in a heart-shaped face stared into his for a long moment. Her red hair hung in a thick braid over her shoulder to her hip, and he swore her waist was so tiny he could fit both his hands around it.
The girl returned a quick, polite curtsey, then walked toward them. “Um, there’s a –” she began, half turning to point toward the door. Mrs. Maple hustled from behind the counter, beaming, and settled her arm around the girl’s shoulders before she could finish her sentence. “Charlene, I want you to meet someone.”
Guiding the girl toward him, she went on, “This is Mr. Tyler Price, he is new in town. Mr. Price, this is Miss Charlene Quinn, who works for us.”
Tyler gently squeezed the small hand held out to him in formal greeting, his lips quirked upward. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Quinn.”
“Likewise, Mr. Price.”
“Mr. Price recently moved to Bandera,” Mrs. Maple continued brightly, “isn’t that so?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Tyler replied, unable to take his eyes off the girl, despite how rude it was. “I purchased an old ranch by the Medina River.”
Miss Quinn nodded. “The Mill Ranch. Yes, it is a very nice piece of land. Now if you will excuse me, I really should be working. Good day, Mr. Price.”
She offered a brief nod and no smile. He watched her vanish behind the curtain and into the back room, and could not help but admire her grace of movement, the gentle sway of her hips under her skirt. That is one fine looking lady. He turned back to Mr. and Mrs. Maple, and found both eyeing him, Mr. Maple with amusement, Mrs. Maple with calculation.
“Ah,” he said, clearing his throat. “Where were we?”
“You were in the midst of placing your order for supplies,” Mr. Maple said, grinning faintly. “So far I have coffee, beans, salt, sugar, flour. What else?”
Tyler forced himself to redirect his thoughts back to the matter at hand and not on Miss Quinn’s petite backside. “Yes, do you have nails?”
“Yes, sir. Come in ten-pound sacks.”
“One of those and a hammer. The shingles are loose on the ranch house’s roof.”
Continuing down his mental list of everything he needed, Tyler finally felt satisfied that he had everything. Feeling a bit uncomfortable under Mrs. Maple’s scrutiny, he paid for his goods, then took what was immediately available out to his buckboard. Fetching a deep sigh, he noted the women of the town still lingered around the front of the store.
He tried a smile. “Ladies.”
Several giggled, covering their lips with their hands as he stowed his belongings in the wagon. “Mr. Price?”
He turned, finding a young lady in a pink sunbonnet near his elbow, staring up at him as though she gazed at the Lord himself. She stuck out her hand for his shake. “I’m Marsha Taylor. It’s good to meet you.”
He tipped his hat. “The pleasure is all mine, Miss Taylor.”
Though she was pretty, as were most of these women who hoped to attract his attention, he noted not one could hold a candle to Miss Quinn. While she did not appear exactly cold toward him, nor did she appear welcoming, either, he recognized the stunned look in her eyes when she first set them on him.
Tyler knew his looks generated a great deal of comment and admiration from women. Having long since grown a thick skin when it came to that aspect of himself, he did his best to ignore it. He considered it just a part of him, like having two hands and two feet, and only when he was younger did his own handsomeness and women throwing themselves at him go to his head.
However, at times like these when having women crowd around him, staring, did he start to become annoyed. He and Mr. Maple were forced to carry his sacks of goods through a pack of females who did not seem inclined to give way. Finally, Mr. Maple had had enough, to Tyler’s amusement.
“Ladies,” the shopkeeper said, his voice carrying, “now unless you are planning to go inside and buy a trinket or a bolt of cloth from my wife, you are loitering in front of my store. Please move along.”
With disappointed mutters, the small crowd dispersed, smiling at him over their shoulders. They wandered back down the street, talking and laughing among themselves. Tyler shook his head. “Sorry about that.”
“Did you invite them?”
Tyler gazed at the heavyset Mr. Maple with brown hair and silver at his temples and grinned. “No, sir.”
“Then it’s not your fault. Come on, let’s get the rest of your supplies loaded.”
Under Mrs. Maple’s watchful eye, her chestnut hair also lined with tendrils of gray, Tyler carried sacks of his goods over his shoulder to toss into the buckboard. Wishing the delightful Miss Quinn would show herself again, Tyler was not so lucky in that regard. The Maples had informed him she had worked for them for the last year and a half, and they loved her as they would their own daughter.
“There you are, Mr. Price,” Mr. Maple said as they threw the last sack onto the pile.
The other man grinned as they shook hands. “Harold.”
“A right pleasure, Harold. Give my regards to your missus.”
“I will. And to Miss Quinn.”
Tyler climbed into the seat of the buckboard, picked up his reins, and released the hand brake. He eyed Harold sidelong. “Beautiful girl,” he said, his tone neutral.
“Might make a man a good wife,” Harold said, the grin still on his face, his hands in his pockets, “should a man be so inclined.”
“Good to know.”
Tyler touched his fingers to his hat brim in a quick salute. “Harold.”
Whistling through his teeth at the mules, he slapped their rumps with the reins. They started off down the dirt-packed main street at a quick trot, carrying him past the bank, the assayer’s office, the hotel – a huge white sprawling building. Yet, before he reached the end of town, heading toward his new home, a man on a rangy dun gelding blocked his path.
“Whoa,” Tyler called to the mules, reining them in. He recognized the star badge on the man’s leather vest. “Can I help you?”
The sheriff reined the horse around beside his seat, sticking out his hand. “Victor Barker, Mr. Price,” he said as Tyler accepted his hand to shake. “Thought to stop and introduce myself. Care for a beer before you head on back to your place?”
“Only if you’re buying.”
Turning the mule team around in the middle of the street, Tyler followed Sheriff Barker back down the street to the saloon. Reining them in, he jumped down from the buckboard’s high seat and tied the lead mule’s bridle to the post. Following Barker into the dim and cool saloon, he breathed in the odors of sawdust and beer, listening to the piano player pound out a song he didn’t recognize.
“Beer, please,” Barker called out as they crossed the dingy wood flooring.
Leading him to a table, Barker sat down and placed his hat on the stained wood planks. Tyler did the same as the barmaid brought them two foaming beers in tall mugs. The sheriff dropped a few coins into her hand and watched her return to the bar. After taking a long draught of his beer, Barker said, “It be a right hot day, Mr. Price.”
“Tyler. And yes it is. I hear it isn’t even as hot as it will get in these parts.”
“Call me Vic,” Barker went on, nodding his silver head. “Yes, sir, you came to one of the hottest regions in Texas.”
“Good thing I like the heat,” Tyler said, drinking his beer with gulps. “Bandera seems like a nice town. Good ranching community.”
“That it is.” Victor gave him a long look from rather piercing blue eyes. “Where do you hail from, Tyler?”
“Colorado, mostly. Spent a few years in west Texas, El Paso, then decided to move here. The ranch I bought came dirt cheap, as you may have heard.”
“So, you’re looking to settle down? Raise a family?”
Tyler sat back in his chair with a grin. “Are you headed somewhere with this, Vic?”
“Lots of nice girls in Bandera, Tyler,” Victor replied, his tone bland, and sipped his beer.
“Why do I get the idea you’re pointing me toward one or two in particular?”
Victor shrugged, nonchalant. “I ain’t. But I can give you the skinny on a few of our single misses should you be so, well, let’s say, interested.”
“All right.” Tyler leaned his arms on the table. “Let’s us pretend that I am indeed searching for a wife, hypothetical like. So. Tell me about Charlene Quinn.”
Victor nodded and drank his beer. “Very good choice to start with. Lovely girl, comes from a good family. But a terrible shame.”
“What terrible shame?”
“About a year and a half ago, I believe it was,” Victor replied, lowering his voice slightly, his eyes on Tyler’s, “the Quinn family ranch house caught fire. Of Mr. and Mrs. Quinn and their three children, only Mrs. and Miss Quinn survived.”
“Yep.” Victor nodded. “Dan Quinn and their two boys, Dan Junior and Russell, all died. Mrs. Quinn sits in the house at the end of town, moping, while Charlene works her fingers to the bone to support her.”
“What happened to their ranch, their land?”
“Bank took it. Now all the Quinn women have is each other.”
Tyler stared at the wooden wall of the saloon, trying to imagine losing half his family, and it brought back the tearing sense of loss when he thought of Mary. “That is so sad.”
“Yep. Sure is.”
“I met Miss Quinn,” Tyler went on, not looking at Victor out of fear his penetrating gaze might decipher what lay in Tyler’s head. “She seems like a strong lady.”
“That she is,” Victor agreed, setting his empty mug on the table. “Little gal like that, losing her dad and her brothers, making sure her mother don’t want for nothing. The Maples, them that run the general store, they own that house the Quinn's live in, won’t take a dime for rent.”
“That is good of them. They seem like good, kind people.”
“That they are, Tyler, that they are.”
Tyler eyed him over the rim of his mug. “So, if I were interested, hypothetically, in finding a missus, who else can you tell me about?”
Victor pulled his pocket watch from his vest and squinted myopically down at it. “Look at the time, Tyler. We done chatted all my time away. You set right there and finish your beer and have a safe trip back to your place.”
Rising, Victor settled his hat on his head and then patted him on the shoulder as he walked from their table. He strode from the saloon, leaving Tyler to chuckle into his beer. “Now that was a pointed discussion, you old geezer,” he muttered.
Finishing, Tyler stood up and put his hat back on, then headed out into the blinding sunlight after the dim interior of the saloon. Squinting, he untied his mule from the post, then climbed up into the buckboard’s seat. Taking a moment to look toward the Apple Tree store, he caught a rapid glimpse of Miss Quinn helping to load packages into a buggy, and an old woman with a stooped back directing her.
After the goods were loaded, Miss Quinn helped the old woman into the seat, then waved as the buggy, pulled by a gray horse, rolled down the street. Tyler thought he saw her glance toward him, hesitate for a moment, then vanish back inside the store.
Tyler bowed in her direction. “Miss Quinn,” he murmured.
He could not get the image of Charlene Quinn’s face out of his mind. Tyler had met her once, and she was nothing to him. Still, that heart-shaped face, those huge hazel eyes haunted his every waking step. Nor, did he think, his thoughts of her stemmed from two different men dropping very obvious hints about Miss Quinn as a possible wife.
“I’m not interested in getting married,” he said, hammering nails into the shingles on the roof of what was now his home. “I just moved here for heaven’s sake. This house isn’t fit for a bride yet.”
Despite his insistence that he didn’t want or need a wife at the moment, or any desire to put on his courting plumage, Charlene still haunted him. Taking a moment, kneeling on the roof, he gazed out over the Medina River which flowed nearby. He had bought this five-hundred-acre property with the intention of someday marrying and starting a family, hoping to build it into a successful cattle ranch in this beautiful land.
“Do I want to get to know her now?”
Part of him did indeed want to see her again. After all, he merely had to close his eyes to see her again. Yet, this house’s roof leaked, the floors needed work, and he had only bits and pieces of furniture to fill it with. At the moment, his bed was a straw pallet.
Turning his head, he looked over the big barn, the sheds, and the corral which currently held only two horses and two mules. The ranch came with about a hundred head of cattle that had been roaming free and wild over the property since its prior owners had passed on. They needed branding, the young carted off to market, fences fixed and strengthened. The barn needed repairs, a garden planted, and a smokehouse built.
“All this and no one to share it with.”
Tyler, startled by what had just emerged from his own mouth, shook his head. “I don’t need a woman.”
A memory of Mary drifted into his mind – sweet, loving, beautiful Mary. He had been prepared to marry, settle down with Mary as his wife, raise little Tylers and Marys. But it was not to be. He had left his old life far behind and came here in the hopes of starting his life over. Tyler had a ranch now, money in the bank, and a past he wanted to forget.
Tyler chuckled to himself as he tossed the hammer up and down in his hand. “I don’t think she much liked me anyway. She sure didn’t act like the rest of the girls in town.”
And he was smart enough to know that was part of what drew him to Charlene. After that first shock of seeing him, she behaved as though he was just another customer, offering him politeness and no more. While the others fawned over him, she didn’t even come out of the back room. “I like her,” Tyler admitted to himself. “She’s different.”
Dropping the hammer, he ran his hands through his oily hair, slicked with sweat from the merciless heat and humidity. He worked shirtless, sweat trickling in streams down his chest and back. Reaching for a pitcher of water, he drank some of the lukewarm liquid, then poured the rest over his face and head. It failed to cool him by much.
Knowing how easily the humidity can kill a man, he worked for only a few more hours, then picked up his hammer, pitcher and shirt and climbed down the ladder to the ground. He stood in the shade of the house for a moment, relishing the cooler air on his wet flesh, then dropped everything on the front porch, but he picked up his rifle.
Heading to the river for a quick dunking and wash, Tyler kept a sharp watch for rattlesnakes, water moccasins and copperheads, all venomous snakes that lived in this area of Texas. Though he was only a few miles from Bandera, he was a long way from help if he got himself snake bit. Whistling under his breath, he strode amid a grove of young mesquite trees, their sharp thorns reaching for him.
The Medina River flowed smoothly past him, just a few feet under the top of its banks. Though he had not witnessed it for himself, he had been told of the heavy rains earlier in the spring that made the river rise to the point it almost flooded the area. Knowing of a small pool where frogs and turtles liked to linger, as well as the serpents that dined on them, Tyler headed that way, thinking of bathing there.
He stopped dead.
A young Indian boy, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years old, stared at him, half in and half out of the pool. His dark eyes held fear, yet he did not move as Tyler slowly approached, holding his rifle at the ready. The boy watched him warily, yet he did not reach for the long knife at his waist. Glancing around for the boy’s people, Tyler found no one except him.
Like Tyler, his torso was bare save an armband of leather and beadwork, and a long necklace of beads that hung down his chest. His fringed leggings lay in the water, and Tyler observed the unnatural angle of his right one. His leg was broken.
Setting his rifle aside, Tyler held out both hands to the boy, showing his palms and his nonviolent intent. “I’m not gonna hurt you, son,” he said, his voice low. “Can you understand me?”
The boy merely stared at him. No doubt, he recognized Tyler’s unarmed body language but did not speak English. Nor did Tyler speak Comanche. Lowering his body to a squatting position, Tyler edged closer and pointed at the boy’s right leg. “Broken?”
He made a snapping gesture with his hands. The boy nodded. Tyler edged closer, keeping his hands open, then mimed pulling the boy from the water. The kid nodded again. “All right,” he said, stepping to the Indian’s shoulders and put his hands under them. “I’m just gonna pull you from the water.”
The kid wasn’t very big and weighed perhaps a hundred and twenty pounds. Tyler easily dragged him from the pool and rested his back against a big rock. “I don’t know how you got separated from your people,” he said, pointing at the boy’s leg for permission to examine it, received it, “but I bet they are worried about you.”
Pulling his knife from his belt, Tyler cut the deerskin legging from the boy, hearing him hiss with pain. What he saw stopped him cold. He rubbed his face in consternation, gazing at the white bone that stuck up through the Indian’s torn flesh.
“That’s not something I can fix, kid,” he said, glancing at the boy’s face. “I have to get you to a doctor.”
Cutting the rest of the legging off, Tyler then sliced it into strips. Hunting around the edge of the river, he found two stout mesquite branches that were fairly straight and about the same length. Indicating with his hands, the boy was to hold the splints in place, Tyler then tied the wood to his leg with the leather.
“Now that should keep the bone from hurting you too badly while I get you to town.”
As the kid now gazed at him with some semblance of trust, Tyler bent down and picked the kid up in his arms. He paused at his rifle and jerked his chin at it. The Indian picked up the gun and carried it as Tyler strode quickly to the house, trying to avoid scraping the boy on the mesquite thorns. He set the kid down on the porch, took his rifle, and ran into the house for a shirt and blankets.
Returning, now decently covered, he trotted to the corral and haltered the mules. Leading them to the buckboard, he harnessed them, then drove the wagon toward the barn. Old bales of straw, sitting there for countless years, made for a fairly decent cushion against the bumps on the road. He threw the blankets over the straw, then picked the Indian up and placed him gently in the buckboard.
Climbing into the high seat, he turned long enough to send the boy a reassuring wink. “They’ll get you fixed up in no time.”
The boy actually smiled as though having understood him. Tyler whistled at the mules, sending them into a trot down his lane and onto the road that led toward town. Keeping an eye on the kid, he knew that despite the straw bed, the jolts and rocking of the buckboard hurt the Indian terribly. But there was no other option.
Tyler had to get him to town and a doctor.
Early evening had fallen by the time he reached Bandera, piano music and raucous laughter emerging from the saloon. Not knowing where the doctor’s office was or where he lived, Tyler guided the mules toward the saloon to perhaps ask for directions. Until he saw Miss Quinn walking across the packed dirt street. “Miss Quinn!”
She glanced up, instantly recognizing him. “Mr. Price,” she replied as he reined in the mules to a stop beside her. “What might I do for you?”
“Where’s the doctor?”
She frowned, her heart-shaped face and huge hazel eyes inside her bonnet puckering in an endearing fashion as her lips turned downward. “Are you ill, sir? Injured?”
“Not me,” he replied, impatient. “Him.”
Tyler jerked his head over his shoulder at the buckboard. Miss Quinn strode to the wagon and peered inside. Then gasped. Instantly, she hiked her skirts and climbed up to the seat beside him. “My house,” she snapped, pointing. “That way.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tyler slapped the reins on the mules’ rumps to get them going again, urging them into a brisk trot.
“We’ll get him into my house,” Miss Quinn explained, turning to gaze at the boy in the buckboard. “Then, I’ll fetch the doctor without telling him who his patient is.”
Tyler glanced at her. “Why the deceit?”
“He will refuse to treat him in his own office,” she said, “but in my home, he might be persuaded to do so.”
“His leg is shattered,” Tyler said.
Miss Quinn nodded. “I saw it. Poor boy. Where did you find him?”
“On my property, by the river.”
“His people must be looking for him.”
“I’m sure they are.”
As Miss Quinn directed him to her home just on the edge of town, Tyler had to admire her pluck and her ability to take charge, as well as her compassion for an injured human, even if that human was a Comanche. He liked her more as she bossed and bullied him into carrying the boy carefully into her home, making sure he didn’t accidentally bump the boy’s leg into the wall.
An emaciated woman, whom Tyler assumed was Mrs. Quinn, stood up from her rocker as Tyler carried the injured boy inside her house. She gazed on in astonishment, her mouth open, as Miss Quinn followed, pointing down the short hall.
“The room on the right,” Miss Quinn ordered. “He can use my bed.”
As Tyler obeyed the direct command, he heard Mrs. Quinn ask, “What is going on?”
“An injured boy, Mother,” Miss Quinn answered. “I hope you are willing to help him.”
“But he’s a Comanche.”
“I don’t care if he’s a man from the moon,” Miss Quinn snapped. “He needs our help.”
Tyler set the boy on the narrow bed he now knew was in Miss Quinn’s room. It was neatly made and covered in a quilt, with soft pillows for the kid’s head. She stood in the doorway, looking on, then nodded. “I’ll go get the doctor,” she said, gazing up at Tyler. “Will you stay with him?”
Miss Quinn gave him a quick smile, then vanished down the short hall, yet he heard her crisp orders to her mother. “Boil water, and fix him some tea, Mother. I’ll be back with the doctor.”
Tyler heard the door slam on her mother’s protest, “But, Charlene –”
Taking a small chair, Tyler sat down in it, finding the Comanche’s dark eyes on his face. He tried to make gestures with his hands and arms for the kid to not worry, uncertain if he got his message across. Yet, the boy nodded and closed his eyes. Knowing it was a bit too warm to cover the boy with a quilt, Tyler simply rose to pour water from a pitcher into a cup and held it to the kid’s lips.
He drank thirstily. Tyler set the cup aside and found Mrs. Quinn in the doorway, hesitant, fearful, her gaunt face with her too big brown eyes trying to smile. She held out a steaming mug toward Tyler.
“I made him some dandelion root tea,” she said, her voice soft. “It may help.”
Tyler accepted it. “Thank you, Mrs. Quinn. By the way, I am Tyler Price. I fear I don’t know his name, however.”
Mrs. Quinn bobbed her head. “Mr. Price. You are a kind man to bring him here.”
Tyler grinned. “Well, ma’am, it was your daughter who insisted. She was rather forceful.”
“That is my Charlene,” Mrs. Quinn gazed at the young Comanche. “She always insists on doing what is right, no matter the cost.”
Tyler handed the mug to the Indian, indicating he was to drink it. The boy obeyed, sipping the hot liquid until the mug was empty. He slumped back on the pillow, handing the cup back, then closed his eyes. Tyler suspected he hadn’t fallen asleep, though he gave a good imitation of it.
Within a short time, Tyler heard the front door slam, and Miss Quinn’s voice rise. “Mother? Mr. Price?”
Mrs. Quinn scurried down the hall as though caught doing something terrible while Tyler followed. Miss Quinn strode quickly toward them, a short, bespectacled man in a derby hat following behind her. “This way, Dr. McFadden,” Miss Quinn said firmly. “I hope you brought laudanum for the patient.”
“Of course, I did, Miss Quinn,” the doctor replied, with a bit of asperity in his tone. “I always carry it.”
Entering her bedroom, Tyler having backed up against the hallway wall to permit them to pass him, Miss Quinn gestured toward the Indian boy lying on her bed. “Your patient.”
Dr. McFadden entered the room, and stopped, gawping, gasping, as the boy gazed at him with calm dark eyes. “What is the meaning of this?” McFadden spluttered, indignant, outraged. “I will not treat these – Indians.”
Dr. McFadden turned to leave the room. Mr. Price, as though anticipating this, deliberately blocked his exit, gazing down at him from his taller height. “I will pay double your normal rate, sir,” he said, his tone amiable.
“I don’t care about the money,” the little man snapped. “It’s the principle. These people are our enemies.”
“What has this boy ever done to you?” Charlene retorted. “He has harmed no one that you know.”
“But the Comanche have raided farms and ranches for years.”
“Not in the last several,” she replied, her arms across her chest, imperious. “We have peace now, Dr. McFadden. That boy is suffering and needs your help. You will be paid for your services here.”
Charlene stepped toward him, lowering her voice. “You will treat this boy, McFadden, or I will inform your wife of the harlots you dally with every Saturday night.”
The little doctor’s face paled. His jaw dropped. His eyes widened behind his spectacles. “Double the rates you say?”
“Yes, sir,” Tyler replied and chuckled. “I will pay it.”
McFadden straightened his clothes, reasserting his dignity, adjusting his spectacles. He removed his derby and placed it on a nearby table. “Very well then. I will need linen for bandages and hot water, please.”
Dr. McFadden opened his black bag as Olivia went to the other room to fetch the hot water from the stove. Charlene picked out old linen from the cupboard, sitting in a chair to cut it into strips, watching the little man pour a dollop of laudanum into a cup. He glanced at her.
“This might go down better with a little alcohol.”
Charlene nodded. “I have wine in the kitchen. Mr. Price, would you mind fetching it? It’s in the cabinet above the stove.”
Focusing on cutting the cloth and keeping a sharp eye on McFadden, Charlene tried to ignore Mr. Price’s striking good looks, and the power of his masculine personality as he left the room. She told herself that it wasn’t just his attractiveness that drew her toward him. There was simply a magnetism about him, something that pulled one’s attention to him, and once there, one could not look away.
Dr. McFadden examined the boy’s leg, untying the splint that kept the limb steady. He carefully set aside the mesquite branches and tossed the leather wrappings aside. He muttered under his breath, peering closely, but Charlene could not understand what it was he said. Mr. Price returned with the bottle of red wine that Charlene liked to sip sometimes in her evenings, at the same time, her mother returned with the hot water.
The doctor poured wine into the cup with the laudanum, added a small amount of hot water, then encouraged the boy to drink it. The Comanche made a moue of disgust, his nose wrinkled, at the first taste. Charlene observed Mr. Price gesture to him that he should drink it, smiling, and found to her astonishment the Indian obeyed him.
“You are very good with him, Mr. Price,” she said, rolling her strips of linen to make it easier for Dr. McFadden to bind his leg.
Mr. Price poured water into the cup, handing it to the kid to wash the foul taste from his mouth. “I’ve had a little experience in communicating with people who can’t hear or speak,” he explained, setting the now empty cup aside.
“Now we wait for him to get drowsy,” Dr. McFadden said, pulling out his pocket watch for a quick peek. He eyed Charlene sidelong with no little resentment, but she felt no guilt at all for blackmailing him into doing what is right. Though she did feel a great deal of gratitude for Mr. Price offering to pay the doctor’s fee, for she could not.
Her mother fetched a chair from the kitchen to plant in the doorway, and sat down in it, wrapping her shawl closely about her shoulders despite the warmth in the room. “Is there anything more I can do?” she asked, her voice small.
“He will need looking after,” Dr. McFadden replied, peeling back one of the Indian’s closed eyelids. “He must stay here for a time.”
He peered at Olivia over the rim of his spectacles. “Are you up for it, Mrs. Quinn?”
Olivia licked her lips nervously, glancing between Charlene and the doctor. “Yes,” she said, “yes, I think so.”
“I will show you how to dose him with laudanum for his pain,” Dr. McFadden continued, standing and striding to the end of the bed to pick up the boy’s ankle. “Mr. Price? Is that your name? I need your assistance please to set the bone. Take a firm grip on his knee, please.”
Charlene, and even Olivia, stood up to step closer to the action, watching avidly as the doctor prepared to set the Indian’s broken leg. “Miss Quinn,” McFadden ordered, “please go to the other side of the bed and hold him down. He may still feel the pain and thrash about.”
Charlene obediently hurried around the doctor’s back to the far side of the bed and pushed down on the Comanche’s shoulders. Dr. McFadden gazed around at his two assistants. “Ready?”
The boy cried out in pain as the doctor set his broken leg, trying to rise though his eyes remained closed. Charlene kept him pinned easily, despite how strong he was. Within minutes it was over, the Indian relaxing into sleep while the doctor cleaned the wound in his flesh with iodine. Mr. Price then held the mesquite branches steady while Dr. McFadden bound the leg expertly, the bone straight and even beneath his copper skin once more.
Closing his bag and picking up his hat, McFadden stood up. “Mrs. Quinn, give him a spoonful of this laudanum morning and night for his pain.”
He handed her a brown bottle, lowering his face to peer over his spectacles at her. “Slowly decrease the dosage over the next few days. Feed and water him well, and he should recover in a few weeks.”
Her eyes large, Olivia hastily moved the chair out of his path, allowing the doctor to stiffly move out of the room. “I will, thank you, Doctor.”
Charlene thought it prudent to offer her own thanks. “I greatly appreciate this, Dr. McFadden,” she said, following him and her mother down the short hallway.
McFadden half turned to send her another resentful glance, then replaced his derby atop his head. He did not reply and made his way out the door. Mr. Price left in his wake. Standing near the window with the dusk settling over the land, Charlene watched as Mr. Price pulled bills from his pocket and gave much of it to the doctor.
Dr. McFadden nodded curtly to him, accepted the money, then strode quickly down the porch steps as though wanting away from the house as fast as possible. Mr. Price came back in, eyeing Charlene and Olivia almost apologetically. He gave Charlene a rueful grin.
“You sure know how to twist our good doctor into a knot, ma’am.”
Charlene waved her hand, dismissively. “He shouldn’t be dallying with loose women, either, Mr. Price.”
“Charlene!” Olivia gasped, clutching her shawl over her narrow shoulders. “How do you know such things?”
“Never you mind, Mother,” Charlene replied. “Let’s just say I do and leave it at that.”
Plucking Olivia’s hand from her shawl, Charlene held it. “Thank you for being willing to help this boy.”
Olivia shunted her face away and gazed down, a small smile on her lips. “Yes, well, someone needs to care for him, and you work so hard already, dear.”
Charlene glanced at Mr. Price when he cleared his throat. “I want you to have this, Miss Quinn.”
He held out money to her, his dark gray eyes earnest. Charlene shook her head. “We – I, cannot accept that, Mr. Price,” she said, her tone stiff, feeling a mixture of anger and shame that he should regard them as needy. “Thank you.”
“It’s not charity if that’s what you’re worried about,” Mr. Price replied, still holding it out. “I brought the Indian here, he’s my responsibility, and I want to help pay for his keep. That’s all.”
Still, Charlene hesitated. Having the boy under their roof, eating their food, would indeed add to her burdens when she had so many already. The cash would buy the extra food he would be eating when Charlene and Olivia had so little to share.
Tentative, she reached out to accept the money. She held it up to him before pocketing it. “This will be for him, then, Mr. Price, not my mother or I.”
“I ask nothing else, ma’am.”
His wide-brimmed hat in his hands, Mr. Price continued to stand in their living room, gazing down at her as though he wished to say something else. Charlene felt something pass between them, an acknowledgment of a shared experience perhaps, or the beginning of a friendship. The moment vanished, and Mr. Price offered Charlene and Olivia a grave nod.
“Thank you for your kindness in caring for the boy,” he said at last.
“I do appreciate your kindness and willingness to help him.”
“May I return to, uh, visit him, ma’am?”
This time Olivia spoke up. “Of course, you can, young man,” her voice holding a confidence Charlene had not heard in a long time. “Drop by anytime.”
Mr. Price’s lips turned upward, and Charlene suspected his grin wasn’t just because he had received permission to visit. “I’ll be heading back home now.”
He settled his hat on his head and turned toward the open door. “Ladies.”
“Good night, Mr. Price.”
Though she hadn’t informed anyone about the injured Comanche in her bedroom, Charlene discovered half the town knew about it anyway. Leaving her mother to bring the Indian food, water, hot tea and dose him with laudanum, she went to the Apple Tree to work as usual. Walking in the door, she found Jean standing in the middle of the store, her fists on her hips.
“Just what are you about, young lady?” she demanded.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“You know what I’m talking about.” Jean trailed after her as Charlene removed her bonnet and hung it up on a hook in the back room. Harold gave her a sympathetic look and returned to reading his paper. “You took in an injured Comanche.”
“Town tongues are busy, I see,” Charlene replied, tying her apron around her waist.
“I heard about it from three different people in less than an hour,” Jean went on, watching Charlene take a cloth to begin dusting the shelves. “What were you thinking?”
“Why does Christian charity in aiding someone else require thought?” Charlene continued to dust, her back to her employer.
She heard Jean sigh. “How will your mother handle the care he needs?”
Charlene paused to turn and grinned. “You won’t believe it. She was up before me this morning, cooking breakfast and spoon feeding him. He had such an expression of astonishment on his face.”
Jean huffed, her countenance turning thoughtful. “This might be good for Olivia,” she said slowly. “Give her new purpose.”
“I hope so.” Charlene returned to her dusting. “Oh, by the way.” She pulled the money Mr. Price had given her from her dress pocket. “I will need to buy extra food from you. For the Indian.”
Jean eyed it as though she held a snake in her hand. “Where did you get that?”
“Mr. Price. He insisted on paying the boy’s way.”
Accepting the money, Jean counted it. “There’s enough here to feed him for a month. I will collect together what you need and have Harold take it to your house.”
“Thank you for adding to my already busy schedule,” Harold called from the back room.
Jean shook her head as Charlene grinned. “This store is far too small,” she complained. “Now our suppliers are sending wagon loads, and Harold will be occupied unloading them into the back room …–”
“My back aches already.”
“…and I will be ordering more in the office. Which leaves you to wait on the customers, Charlene.”
“Happy to,” Charlene answered, resuming her dusting.
The front door opened, its bell chiming. Two matrons entered, dark blue bonnets on their heads, their gowns also of a dark hue. The Winston sisters. Both were widowed, living together in a house in the center of town, and also the center of all of Bandera’s gossip. They offered Charlene twin stares as she set aside her cloth and approached them with a smile.
“May I help you, ladies?”
Miss Harriet Winston said, “You have a – guest, Miss Quinn?”
Miss Darla Winston nudged her sister with her elbow. “Don’t be rude, Harriet. Yes, Miss Quinn, we would like three yards of that dark green cloth right there, if you don’t mind. And thread to match it. Thank you.”
Charlene took down the requested bolt of cloth and laid it out on the counter to measure it. Jean left the store for the back office, as the widows advanced on the counter. She glanced up at Miss Harriet. “Yes, my mother and I took in an Indian in dire need of medical assistance.”
Miss Harriet gasped. “Is that not a dangerous thing to do? After all, he is a savage.”
“He has a broken leg, Miss Harriet,” Charlene replied, cutting the cloth with scissors. “Hardly dangerous.”
“But what will happen when he is healed? He might turn on you and your helpless mother.”
“I suppose we will worry about that if and when it happens.” Charlene folded the cloth neatly and fetched a spool of matching thread from a drawer. After wrapping the goods in paper, she handed the package to Miss Darla. “May I get you anything else, ladies?”
After taking their coins, she watched with amusement as the matrons left the store, whispering, their heads together. Throughout the day, she endured question after question, townspeople coming in to buy something as an excuse to inquire about the Comanche. She answered them all patiently yet forced her eyes not to roll. “Yes, he has a broken leg. No, he is not dangerous to the community. Yes, I’m sure he will return to his people soon. Yes, it was my Christian duty. Yes, Dr. McFadden was very kind to enlist his aid.”
During a lull in the waves of customers, Harold came in from the storeroom, grinning broadly, his clothes covered in dust. “Your Comanche friend is certainly good for our business. I am almost out of coffee and flour, and I just unloaded a shipment.”
“I almost feared the town would condemn me for it,” Charlene admitted, wiping her hands on her apron, “and shun the store.”
“Nonsense,” Harold snorted. “These folks are basically very kind-hearted. Your broken legged Indian is a novelty, not an excuse for the town to turn on you. You and your mother are highly regarded in Bandera, girl. People understand your kindness.”
He pulled out his pocket watch. “It’s time for your lunch,” he said. “I’ll mind the place.”
“Can you handle it?” Jean called from the back room.
“I was running this place before I met you, woman.”
Grinning, Charlene went to the office to fetch her bonnet and remove her apron. “I’ll be back soon, Jean.”
Jean nodded, scribbling out an order on paper. “Give your mother my love, dear.”
Tying her bonnet’s ribbons under her chin, Charlene opened the front door, dodging a pair of cowboys in tall hats and leather chaps who entered the Apple Tree just as she exited. With her appetite gnawing in her stomach, she walked hurriedly down the sidewalk, her head down, hoping no one else felt the need to stop her and ask nosy questions about the injured Indian.
The savage sun beat down on her head, making her glad she had remembered her bonnet, perspiration already beading on her forehead. Though she had been born and raised in this part of Texas, she still wondered if she would ever get used to its terrible heat. “How can anyone ever get used to it?” she muttered.
Not really paying much attention to what was going on around her, Charlene all but strode headlong into a man who had stopped in front of her. Seeing only his boots and legs from under her bonnet, she lifted her face and stopped before she tripped over him. “Oh, excuse me.”
She recognized him instantly. Harvey Johnson, Bandera’s local drunk, who worked performing odd jobs around the town and spent his money in the saloon. Charlene knew he lived in a tiny shanty when he wasn’t sleeping off a bender in the town’s jail, and she raised a faint smile. “Mr. Johnson.”
She did not receive one in return. Instead, he glared down at her as though he hated the very sight of her, despite that they had quite often exchanged pleasantries. Nor was he currently intoxicated and did not smell of whiskey or beer. A little alarmed when he said nothing and continued to leer at her with rage, Charlene tried again. “Mr. Johnson, how are you?”
“Damn Injun lover,” he snarled, his brown teeth bared in a grimace. “I’ll show you how I am.”
That was when he pulled the knife from behind his back.
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