Triple M Ranch, Arizona Territory
There was no place to run to, no place to hide.
Jeb McKettrick, always careening recklessly from the core of his being to the circumference and back again, was caught between the bunkhouse wall and the manure pile, with all the rage of a woman scorned bearing down on him in redheaded, whip-wielding, chicken-scattering fury.
Chloe Wakefield had found him, as surely as the needle of a compass finds due north, and chased him all the way from Indian Rock. Pretty much kept up, too, even though he'd been on a fast horse.
He was dead meat.
The buggy she drove might have been a chariot, drawn by the four horses of the Apocalypse, instead of a battered conveyance and a single lathered and huffing nag, both hastily procured at the livery stable in town. For the length of a heartbeat, Jeb actually believed she meant to run him down, grind him into a pulp under the wheels of that spindly, black-bonneted rig. For all his reckless love of life, he could not help but conclude that there would have been a certain mercy in oblivion. At least then he wouldn't have had to deal with the problem.
Clearly, he was not to be spared.
After a minute or two, his stepmother's chickens settled down a little, though, and went back to their ground-pecking and feather-shuffling. Maybe that was a good omen.
The only rooster in evidence, Jeb scrambled for his trademark grin, his one talisman, found a shaky semblance of it, and stuck it to his mouth. He put his hands out from his sides and made himself the picture of innocent affability, though on the inside, he was a tangle of contradictory emotions -- sweet terror, bitter amusement, and anger, too, because, dammit, he was right, and she was wrong. And because he had never guessed, before that day, that among his many secret and interchangeable selves lurked a yellow-bellied chicken heart.
"Chloe," he said, making a plea of the word, as well as a smooth reprimand. A red hen tapped briefly at the toe of his right boot; he ankled it aside impatiently.
Standing up in the buggy now, drawing back on the reins with powerful, delicate hands, Chloe fixed him in a sapphire glare. "Don't you 'Chloe' me, Jeb McKettrick!" she commanded. "You're a liar and a cheat and three kinds of devil -- you've all but ruined my reputation and my life, you sorry excuse for a man, and I have half a mind to whip the hide off you right here and now!"
He rolled his shoulders once, within his brown corduroy jacket, pushed his hat to the back of his head. He had no defense, other than his charm and good looks, which did not seem to be having any noticeable effect. "May I suggest," he countered, with an ease that was wholly false, "that you consult the other half?"
She set the brake lever, snatched up the buggy whip, and clambered down; all of this happened so quickly that the separate motions seemed to tumble into one continuous whole. Her auburn hair, falling from its pins and combs, blazed like fire around her face, which was flushed with outrage, and she advanced. "Scoundrel!" she spat. "Rounder! Do you have any idea what I've been through because of you?"
"Chloe," he said again, with hopeless goodwill.
She took his measure with her eyes and plainly found him wanting, but she was a little calmer, it seemed to him. Or maybe she was merely winded by the mad rush from town. By some perverse twist of fate, he'd just come out of the Bloody Basin Saloon when she stepped down from the afternoon stage, and he'd been as surprised to see Chloe Wakefield as she'd been to see him. He'd made up his mind to face her, try to make peace, but when he'd registered the look of shock and indignation on her face, he'd panicked instead, mounted up, and ridden back to the ranch like a mouse bolting for a hole in the wall.
"If there was any justice in this world, you would have sprouted horns and cloven hooves by now," she burst out. Pink spots pulsed beneath her flawless cheekbones, and her lovely bosom rose and fell with the rapid, shallow rhythm of her breath.
He waited. It was that or dive into the manure pile and try to bury himself.
"Did you think I wouldn't find you someday?" she asked, and though her eyes were still snapping with conviction, her tone was softer than before. Was she settling down? He couldn't rightly guess, and didn't want to err on the side of optimism, which was his natural inclination.
"I guess it never occurred to me that you'd come looking," he replied, in all truth. He'd fled to Tombstone, stung by the discovery that half his father's life had been a lie, and therefore much of his own as well, and facing the probable loss of what he held most dear in all the world -- the Triple M. By decree of the almighty Angus McKettrick, the ranch would go to the first of his three sons to marry and provide the old man with a grandchild, a contest his eldest brother Rafe had all but won by getting hitched to Emmeline. And now Kade was married, too, and still in the running.
His own prospects had seemed worse than dismal at the time -- who'd have thought they could get worse?
Back then, Jeb's plan had been to carouse his troubles away, bedding as many dancing girls as possible, playing as much poker as he could, and consuming copious amounts of whiskey. Instead, he'd encountered the lively Miss Wakefield right out of the chute, and things had promptly gotten out of hand. Oh, yes, from the moment he'd collided with Chloe in front of a mercantile in Tombstone, chaos had been the order of the day.
Hell, he'd have been better off at the OK Corral, siding with the Clantons and McLaurys against Doc Holliday and the Earps. At least then he'd have had a fighting chance.
Was that the glimmer of tears he saw in her eyes? Please, God, anything but that. For all of it, he'd rather be flayed alive than see her cry.
"You and I are married," she said. She held up her left hand, his ring glinting in the crisp sunshine of that October afternoon. Fresh color flared in her face. "Or did that slip your mind?"
He took off his hat, put it on again, this time with the brim drawn down, to cast a shadow over his face. He'd been over this same terrain a dozen times, walking the landscape of his own conscience, raising all the unflattering arguments that could be made against him, and shooting each one down like a tin can tossed against the crisp autumn sky. And none of that had prepared him for this single, inevitable confrontation.
The manure pile was beginning to look downright inviting.
"Our getting married was a mistake," he said, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone of voice. For a moment, he was back in Tombstone, a happy bridegroom of less than an hour, with a honeymoon ahead of him, being stopped in the street by a stranger, presented with irrefutable proof that he'd just been crowned king of fools. "It should never have happened in the first place."
He saw her stiffen at his words, then commence building up a head of steam again. "At last," she said. "Something we can agree on. I should never have given you the time of day!"
"Go back to Tombstone, Chloe," he said flatly.
"I can't," she retorted, with an indignant little huff of a sigh. "Thanks to you, and that scene you made in the Broken Stirrup Saloon, I lost my teaching job. I'm a poor moral influence, according to the president of the school board. That's why I followed you out here -- to tell you that you've ruined my life!"
"I might have overreacted a little, back there at the Broken Stirrup, I mean," he allowed, but grudgingly. There was more of the old man in him, he guessed, than he liked to think. He felt Angus McKettrick's pride and stubbornness right there, behind his heart, jostling for standing room next to the coward. Furious with himself for letting Chloe get him on the run in the first place -- so many people in town had seen him run for his horse and bolt that he'd probably never live it down. And that wasn't counting the spectacle he'd made in front of his brothers just minutes before, riding up in a frenzy and yammering at Rafe and Kade to hide him -- God knew what they'd told her, when she'd stopped to speak to them. He took a step toward her, gratified when she took a corresponding step back. "Anyway, we settled all this before I left Tombstone. Far as I'm concerned, you got what you had coming."
She had the lid-rattling look of a kettle coming to a high boil; he thought the top of her head was fixing to blow right off and braced himself for a steam burn. "You did most of the talking, if you'll remember," she accused. "You never gave me a chance to explain!"
He wrenched the buggy whip out of her right hand and hurled it aside. If she went after it, she'd find herself up to her pretty little nose in horse shit, literally as well as figuratively. "Once I saw your wedding picture, Miss Wakefield, and the man you were standing beside in that daguerreotype didn't happen to be me, no further explanations were required!"
Her eyes widened, as though he'd struck her, and her mouth tightened. She took back the scant inches of sod she'd given up moments before, standing toe-to-toe and nose to nose with him. "Please stop trying to portray yourself as the injured party," she snapped. "You didn't mean any of the things you said when we were courting, and you damn well know it, you -- you -- "
Guilt foamed up inside him, like the head on a mug of just-drawn beer, but he blew it aside. His jaw clamped down so hard that it hurt, and the challenge hissed through his teeth. "Yes?" he prompted.
She was utterly defiant, a petticoat-Texan, holding the Alamo all on her own. "You used me," she repeated. "You wanted a wife and a baby, so you could get this ranch!"
He indulged in an insolent shrug, though he was surprised that she knew about his father's unreasonable demand. "You seemed willing enough to me."
That was when she drew back her hand and slapped him hard enough to loosen his teeth. Rage sang through him, so pure and so intense that it was almost pleasurable. He gripped her wrists, to forestall another attack, though there wasn't much he could do about her feet. He'd be lucky if she didn't haul off and kick him in the shins with one of those pointy-toed shoes she was wearing.
"You bastard!" she breathed. "You unconscionable wretch!"
He tightened his grasp, taking care not to hurt her. "Is that what you came all this way to say?" he shot back. "Well, now you've said it. Get in your hired buggy, Chloe, and go home to your husband!"
She struggled to free herself, sputtering, too angry to speak coherently. He saw the intention to splinter his bones brewing in her eyes, clear as clouds gathering on a dark horizon, and sidestepped it, still holding her wrists.
Her eyes shimmered with tears, and she made no attempt to hide them. "I would dearly love to kill you right now," she informed him, and he knew she meant it. "Jack Barrett is not my husband -- you are!"
"What the devil is going on here?"
At the intrusion of an all-too-familiar voice, Jeb turned his head, as did Chloe, and saw his pa standing a few feet away, hoary thumbs hooked under his belt. Angus McKettrick was a big man, well over six feet tall, rugged as the Texas plains that had spawned him, and just then, he looked stern enough to have stepped right out of the pages of the Old Testament.
Riled and chagrined, both at the same time, Jeb let go of Chloe with a flinging motion of his hands, not at all sure she wouldn't take advantage of the distraction to kick him where it would hurt most, which sure as hell wasn't his shins. He knew he ought to answer his father's terse if perfectly sensible question, but he couldn't think of a single sane explanation. When he and Chloe were together, they either fought like wildcats or made love like monkeys, and there didn't seem to be much middle ground between the two extremes.
Chloe visibly smoothed her disgruntled countenance, favored the meddlesome old coot with a wistful smile, and put out a hand, stepping toward Angus as cordially as if they'd met at a garden party instead of out behind the bunkhouse, next to the manure pile, surrounded by chickens. "How do you do?" she said brightly. "My name is Chloe McKettrick. I'm Jeb's wife."
Angus looked baffled for a moment, but then a beatific smile spread across his face. He took the hand she offered and squeezed it warmly. "Well, now," the big man said, "my youngest here has been claiming he'd taken himself a bride, but I confess I was doubtful, since I never saw any sign of you." After tossing Jeb a look that would sear the hide off a bear, he beamed at Chloe. "I'm Angus McKettrick, the head of this outfit. Come on inside. The family will be pleased to make your acquaintance at long last."
Jeb tried to intercede. "Pa -- " Sure, he'd let his father and brothers believe he was married, mostly to nettle them, to shake Kade's and Rafe's confidence a little, since they'd been so all-fired sure that one or the other of them would win control of the Triple M, leaving him out in the cold, but it had all been so much smoke and bullshit. Chloe was another man's wife, whatever her protests to the contrary, and that was the stark reality. "Pa, listen to me, I -- she -- "
Angus pointed a work-gnarled index finger in his direction. "Not another word," he warned, all glower, grit, and gravel.
Jeb seethed with indignation, but at the moment it didn't seem prudent to state his case. Besides, it meant saying straight out that he'd been bamboozled but good, and such an admission would have stuck in his throat like a wadded-up sock.
A regular ladies' man, Angus crooked his elbow at Chloe, and she swept right around and linked her arm with his, leaving Jeb behind as surely as if he'd turned invisible. The two of them strolled off in the direction of the house, and neither one so much as flinched when Jeb threw back his head, about to split open in frustration, and gave a Rebel yell fit to rend the heavens.
It sure scared the chickens, though.
Copyright © 2004 by Linda Lael Miller