Sweat trickled beneath her wide-brimmed felt hat as Emma Thackery squinted down the barrel of her rifle. There was a taste of power in her mouth, of dust and sweat. Her tongue ran along her scarred upper lip, a defect she had borne since birth.
“Don’t kill it.” Her ten-year-old nephew clutched her arm, sniffling. “Please.”
She hesitated a moment longer, the plea in Chad’s voice cutting deep. There had been a time when she would have cried, too, but hardship changed people: when they had to survive, it hurt too much to consider the pain of every jackrabbit. Even her sister Jemima understood that, with all her irrational notions. Some things just had to be done.
Emma jerked as the butt of the rifle rammed her shoulder. The shot echoed through the sloping ravine, frightening hundreds of sparrows out of the tree tops. As their throaty rasp wheeled on the heels of the rifle shot, the flock spiraled into the clear Texas sky.
Out of habit, Emma chambered a new shell, but the jackrabbit lay still. Chad’s fingers slipped from her elbow.
“We’ll have us a fine stew tonight.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Emma shoved her hat back. “You will be.”
While they climbed down the ravine and found the rabbit, Chad was stubbornly silent. Emma dangled the rabbit by the hind legs, marveling at the size.
“Your ma will be proud of us.” She handed him the rifle and slung the rabbit over her shoulder, trying to catch his eye. “People got to eat, Chad.”
His blue eyes blinked, and then flicked away. “I don’t care.”
“You’re the man in the family. Someday, you’ll need to hunt and fight Comanches.” She gazed up at the sky, feeling older than her twenty-eight years. “That’s a man’s job.”
Chad was silent as she led the way toward home. Because the rugged terrain impeded their progress, it took them almost an hour to hike back to the ranch. When they plodded into the yard, Emma glimpsed a flash of movement from the garden, on the south side of the log house.
She groaned as Chad handed her the rifle and darted toward the makeshift fence of branches and barbed wire, screeching like a Comanche.
“Fergy, you get out of there!” He waved his arms as the one-eyed dog barked and blundered through her carefully planted rows, trying to wriggle under the fence.
She forced herself to ignore the dog as she moved toward the other side of the house, where two mounds of laundry still waited in wooden barrels. A young woman with thick blond hair piled high on her head straightened up and waved.
Emma frowned. “You should be done by now.”
“Go change your dress,” Jem said. “The sheriff’s out back fixing that fence post.”
Considering how Fergy made a nuisance of himself with strangers, Emma could guess who had put the dog in the garden. “You’re the biggest flirt I ever seen.” She glared at her sister and leaned the rifle against the side of the house. “You know it as well as I do.”
Jem continued hanging clothes on the wash line for the sun to dry. She wore no hat, yet her face was pink from more than the sun. “Lay off, will you? He’s doing us a favor.” She tip-toed, peering over the dripping laundry with a pout.
“You’re a married woman.”
“I ain’t married no more.”
“A widow woman’s just about as married after her husband dies as before,” Emma said, tossing the rabbit off to the side as she stooped to help her sister. When her long brown braid smacked against the barrel, she flipped it aside, frustrated. “Besides, you got a kid to think of.”
Jem hissed softly. “That’s what I’m doing! I aim to catch us a man: I’m sick of these two-bit hands you keeping hiring.”
“All that swishing and winking won’t catch you a steady man.”
“Well, maybe my standards aren’t as high as some people’s.” Jem chucked a shirt at her.
Emma caught the shirt with one hand, rolling her eyes. “That’s the truth.”
“I wish you’d lay off.”
“With Pa and Jack gone, I’m head of this family. Not you.”
Jem said nothing, hidden behind a large quilt. It was the first time in months that they had mentioned the men. It had happened so fast: Jack at the Alamo and Pa a few months later in a Comanche raid. The long days that followed, the months of near starvation, had left little time for tearful sentiment. Jem finally answered, her voice barely a whisper. “They’ve been dead so long, sometimes I plumb forget what it was like, being taken care of. We need us a man, and Chad needs a pa: I ain’t no help around here.”
Emma sighed at the honest confession. Still, she could not blame her sister entirely. Jem had been married at sixteen and widowed at twenty-two, not much of a life for a young woman with her fanciful notions. “I guess you’d leave if you ever got the chance, wouldn’t you?”
“Sure would.” Jem’s voice regained some of its fervor. “I don’t know what you see in this place. It ain’t nothing but a graveyard.”
Emma winced, even though she had heard that declaration many times before. Before she could answer, a deep voice hollered behind the barn. A man on a painted appaloosa pony rode around the side yard, two Walker-Colts sticking out of his belt and a recently polished Winchester out of the saddle bags. He tipped his black hat.
“Afternoon, ladies.” He rubbed his sunburned nose, then rested one arm on the saddle horn. He was a large man, raw boned and weathered, with black hair and a firm mouth concealed beneath a drooping mustache.
Emma dried her hands on her brown shirt. “Howdy, Sheriff. Much obliged about that there fence post.”
“It weren’t nothing, Ma’am.” The sheriff of Cactus Branch was no longer young, his face cragged and pitted form grueling weeks on the trail. Only his eyes betrayed the energy that still
lurked within, eyes that now focused on her with a startling intensity.
Jem stepped out from behind the laundry, giggling. “Why, Rand McLaughen, how can we ever thank you?” Her eyes fluttered spastically.
Emma’s lips whitened. “Won’t you come sit a spell?” she asked with a forced smile.
Sheriff McLaughen looked strangely cornered. His gaze flicked from one sister to the other. “Wish I could, but I, uh, actually stopped by to have a chat with your foreman. He about?”
“Afraid not. He’s out rounding up the herd with Jimmy Dawson.”
“Reckon I’ll ride out there.” He tipped his hat and jerked the reigns. “Be seeing you.”
As he left the yard at a slow trot, Emma raised her eye brows. “Using his name like that is downright flirtatious!”
“You’re just jealous,” Jem said, hands on her hips. “You’re jealous because I know how to catch a man’s eye, and you can’t catch nothing but a stinky old jackrabbit.”
“You’re plumb too scared to ask a man to come calling. If you want him bad enough, you got to tell him. A man is as blind as a horny toad in a blizzard.”
“I won’t be acting like no hussy, Jemima Rose!”
Her sister snorted. “No wonder you ain’t married. No fellow wants a cactus for a bride!” She flounced toward the house and slammed the door behind her.
The accusation stung like the lash of a whip. Emma stood for a long time, the warm wind tugging at the threadbare fabric of her split riding skirt. Soft footsteps scuffled the brittle grass behind her.
“It ain’t true. What she said.” Chad stopped alongside her, blond hair ruffling in the wind.
Emma glanced down at her hands, observing the rough calluses and scarred knuckles from clearing land and herding cows. Her fingers rose to caress the scar on her lip as years of rejection flooded back. “No, she was right.”
“Ain’t so! You know Ma--”
“It’s okay, Chad.” She cast him a grateful smile. “Why don’t you have Bill skin that rabbit for us, hm? I’m sure he’s in the bunk house.”
“He still drunk?”
“If he is, throw a bucket of water on him.” She began to move away, but paused. “Don’t worry none about me: I reckon I’ll just walk for a spell.”
She knew exactly where she would go, a mile or two north of the ranch where she went when she needed to think. There, the fertile soil favored wildflowers and tall grasses, more than the rest of the rocky terrain that covered most of the Hill Country. Something about all that beauty helped her forget the harsh realities of carving out a home in this wild territory. Why, people were even talking about making Texas a state! Somehow, she could hardly imagine taming Texas enough to fit it into the Union: Texans liked their freedom, and they liked it wild.
She emerged from the maple thicket, the blue-covered hills sprawled before her. Blue bonnets bobbed on long green stems as she waded through the tall grasses, gathering flowers to inhale the sweet fragrance.
She had a sensation of being watched, and turned to see a rider silhouetted on a rocky hill west of her. The sun hung low on the pale orange horizon, blazing a wild red. The horse and rider descended the jagged hill and moved toward her, their movements rhythmic and unified. As Sheriff McLaughen drew near, he dismounted. “Sure is pretty, ain’t it?”
Emma nodded. “Find him?”
He shook his head and removed his hat to brush it off with short, even strokes.
Emma tossed the flowers to the wind and watched the petals float to the ground. She drew in a long breath and met his gaze, wondering if there were a delicate way to put what she wanted to say. “You know, a widow woman needs a man around to help her and her young’uns.”
He blinked and shifted his weight. “That so? You think you sister’ll remarry then?” The wind ruffled his mustache in a way that made him look mighty handsome. The man must have been nearing forty, but right then he looked younger.
“Sure, if some fellow were to ask.” Emma inhaled deeply. “Maybe you should join us for dinner tonight. Jem would be right pleased.”
He twirled his hat in his hands. “I reckon I could do that.”
When a smile twitched beneath his drooping whiskers, Emma sniffed. Sheriff
McLaughen was a man of subtle expression: hard to read, but not so hard as most people thought. She saw right through him; the man was plumb too pleased with their conversation. She wondered if he would fetch the preacher that very evening, or have the decency to wait a week.
He cleared his throat. “How did you ever manage to run this ranch on your own?”
“Oh, the good Lord provides, Sheriff.” The past two years had been difficult, but she had been determined to keep the land God had given them, the land her pa had loved so much, the land he had fought Indians for and died on. She could still see his body peppered with Comanche arrows, his blood mingling with the land itself. Pa had Texas written on his heart. Pa was Texas.
“I reckon it took some love, too: this is a hard land, Sheriff, but she takes care of her own.” She looked at him at last, startled to find him watching her. “This place is sort of like my Promised Land.”
His eyes glittered beneath their shaggy eyebrows. He looked away first, slapping the reigns against the palm of his hand. “It takes a determined woman to survive in these parts. I reckon you’re a mighty strong lady, Ma’am.”
Emma shifted uneasily. Somehow she had never thought of herself as strong. She only did what had to be done. He cleared his throat again, making her wonder if it was a nervous habit.
“I wish these here flowers would bloom year round.”
She laughed at the abrupt change of subject. “I reckon even the flowers have their time.”
“People do, too.” He directed that half smile at her. When she caught herself watching more intently that was necessary, she averted her gaze.
“Ma’am, supposing a man wanted to come visiting with intentions?”
She stiffened, but forced herself to think of Chad and Jem--and of the ranch. Some things just had to be done. “I reckon you’d better speak with Chad: he’s the man of the house.” She squared her shoulders. “I should be heading back now. Dinner’s at seven.”
She turned and drifted away. The loneliness clawed at her insides, as she reminded herself that a man would never entertain thoughts of sparking with an old maid like her. She was happy for Jem, but there were moments when she envied her pretty sister more than she cared to admit.
She stopped at the head of the rise, looking out over the stony cliffs that boarded the Sabinal River, surrounded by vibrant green maple thickets, junipers, and waving fields of blue bonnets. Something about this land lived inside her, wild and strange. She inhaled the Texas air, tingling with emotions. She had never loved a man, and reckoned she never would. But she had something that Jem would never have: she was head over heels in love with Texas. She figured if Texas were the only one to ever come courting, then she could live with that.
The sky had darkened by the time she arrived back at the ranch. The sheriff reclined on the front porch with Chad, hands locked behind his head. As she approached, Chad jumped up with his hands on his hips.
“Aunt Emma, I’m ashamed of you!”
He must have been more sore about that blasted jackrabbit that she had first suspected. Emma’s emotions began to stretch dangerously as she moved into the light. “How come?”
“Didn’t your ma never teach you anything?” Chad clucked like a crotchety old rooster, thumbs looped in his suspenders. As he stood crowing at her, he rocked back on his heels.
“Come now,” Sheriff McLaughen said, his mustache twitching like a patch of prairie grass in a wind storm. The moonlight cast dark shadows across his face, enhancing the jutting angles. “Go easy on your aunt. She hasn’t had the experience with courting that you have.”
Emma felt the heat flood her face. “What in tarnation are you two talking about?”
“This here man comes courting,” Chad said,” and you don’t so much as wash behind your ears!” He shook his head and stepped off the porch and toward the barn, with Fergy loping behind. “Women, Fergy, are plumb irritating!”
Emma’s lips pressed into a firm line. Chad could be the orneriest child this side of San Antonio. When he was sore, he had a way of making everyone else suffer, too. Sheriff McLaughen stood up and chucked his hat on the step as he moved to stand next to her. His legs sprawled apart as if he were settling in for a showdown. Considering he had already asked her blessing to court Jemima, she opened her mouth to ask what all the fuss was about.
“You’re sister’s a fine woman, Ma’am,” he said.
She smothered a curt reply, humiliated. It chaffed her pride, being constantly reminded about her sister’s unusual beauty. She crossed her arms, one foot tapping.
“But not for me.” His mustache twitched furiously. “Ma’am, I’m of a mind to court you.”
Emma’s mouth worked around her tongue, but no words would form. The front door banged slightly. Jem’s muffled laughter drifted from inside the house.
“Land’s sake, can’t you see the man is sweet on you? Kiss the poor man and feed him!”
“You mind your own business and shut that door!” Emma nearly choked on the words. For some reason, she trembled all over. She clutched her hands together, trying to still them.
“You going to let me come calling?” The sheriff’s voice was strangely hesitant. It was sobering, coming from the gruff lawman who spent his time gunning down outlaws, cattle rustlers and renegade Indians. Men like him defined Texas, made the land what it was and dreamed of the heritage it could leave behind. This soft-spoken bundle of nerves was a side of Texas she had not seen before.
Perhaps Sheriff McLaughen was harder to read than she had thought. She crossed her arms and looked away, realizing she had been set up: no doubt Fergy had even played a part! “Sheriff, it seems I’ve been bushwhacked.” She mumbled the words so low he stooped to hear them.
“I reckon not.” Emma peered up into his broad face. His eyes, dark and warm in the moonlight, sent a shiver right through her. All at once she realized how much she enjoyed his looking at her. It stirred her just about as much as watching the tumbleweed blow across the flatlands at night, beneath a wild Comanche moon.
She smiled to herself. In fact, it probably felt better.