Alias Smith and Jones

meets

The High Chaparral

By Carol Broyles

Hannibal Heyes pulled the brim of his black hat lower on his forehead, shielding his eyes further from the desert sun that relentlessly baked the sand, rocks, cactus, scrub pine - and two unlucky travelers.

Heyes winced as he shifted against the rock at his back, which had provided some small measure of shelter from the wind while they waited for night. The movement sent pain shooting through his leg, and he gritted his teeth until it subsided.

It had been two days since the little band of outlaws had come across Heyes and Kid Curry in the desert. Heyes had learned it was never wise to initiate a gunfight when the odds were 8 to 2 against you. And by the time the group made their less-than-friendly intentions clear, it was too late to do much about it.

The little money they carried Heyes easily relinquished, but they'd taken their horses and weapons too, laughing at how lucky the two Americans were because they were leaving them with their boots.

Heyes objected that they should be reasonable - pointing out the band could leave behind one horse and still make a profit. And that was when the leader - a fat, bearded Mexican - pulled out his pistol and shot Heyes in the leg.

As Heyes grimaced in agony, he saw The Kid's fingers twitch, starting to go for the weapon that was no longer on his hip - instead slung over the saddle horn of another outlaw.

It was just as well, the logical part of Heyes' mind interjected. The Kid could be hot-blooded and would likely have gotten himself killed. So stripped of his weapon, Curry watched helpless with rage and frustration as the outlaw leader continued to point his gun casually at Heyes.

"Do you still think I am being unreasonable?'' he had asked. And stripped of his own best weapon - his ability to talk himself out of almost any situation - Heyes was forced to stand silent.

Silent as the outlaw leader laughed.

Silent as he poured half the contents of their precious canteen into the parched sand before throwing it at their feet.

And silent as they took both horses and rode away.

That had been two days and a lifetime ago as Curry helped him walk, the pain growing with every step. They'd done most of their traveling at night, sleeping during the hottest part of the day.

But even dead with exhaustion, the pain hadn't let Heyes sleep this day. And he'd had a lot of time to think. It was clear they'd never make it out of the desert at the painfully slow pace he was forcing Curry to keep.

Even worse, Heyes thought as he gingerly massaged his thigh, which was wrapped in a makeshift bandage, the wound was hot to the touch and he could feel his strength fading.

The only chance Curry had was alone. But how could he convince the other man to leave him? Heyes' brows knit as he sought to compose a suitable lie.

"You ready to go, partner?'' Kid asked easily, hiding his concern as he looked down at the other man. He'd made a short, unsuccessful foray in search of food or water, coming up empty on both counts. They still had almost half a canteen of water and were drinking it sparingly.

"I'm not going, Kid,'' Heyes announced quietly, glancing up to see the battle light spark in The Kid's blue eyes.

"What kind of talk is that?'' Curry asked, squatting down beside his partner.

"Kid, be reasonable,'' Heyes implored, using his own calmest and most reasonable voice. "You can walk out of here much faster without me, then send someone back for me.''

"What about water?'' Kid asked, but Heyes could tell he already had his own answers.

"I'm just going to lie here conserving my strength. I can go without water easily for the short time it will take you to get back,'' Heyes lied.

Curry shook his head.

"Nope. I know you better than anybody in the world, Heyes. I can tell when you're lying. And you're lying now - trying to get me to leave you. Now, you're ... coming ... with ... me...''

Curry reached to help lift him up then stopped in shock at the feel of a knifeblade at his throat - the one Heyes always kept in his pocket or his boot.

Heyes' eyes, resolute, met Curry's unreadable gaze.

"You'd kill me?'' Kid asked in disbelief.

"If it saves you from a useless, lingering death on this desert - yes, I would,'' Heyes said, meeting his gaze squarely.

Slowly Curry tilted his head back, leaving more of his throat exposed. A seemingly dangerous gesture, rendered utterly safe by the sheer certainty that Heyes would sooner cut his own throat than Curry's

An option Curry took away in the next moment as he wrapped both hands around his partner's gloved one and wrenched the knife from his grasp. It took surprisingly little strength, and Kid felt cold fear gnaw at his belly as he glimpsed the pain reflected in Heyes' fever-bright eyes.

"Stubbornness has always been your one fault. It may get you killed someday,'' Heyes warned.

"Yeah, I'm stubborn.'' Curry's voice, ever soft-spoken, was hard as flint. "I'm stubborn enough to walk out of this desert. And I'm stubborn enough to carry you every step of the way if I have to. I'll tie you to me when we sleep so you can't slip away. And together we'll make it out of this damned desert or we'll both die trying. But either way, we are leaving ... now.''

Heyes didn't resist as Curry helped him to his feet. Partners in life. Partners in death, Heyes reflected grimly. *But not if he could help it,* Heyes thought as he glanced sidewise at The Kid's profile. Leaning heavily on his partner, he limped painfully toward the next horizon.

Sand and rock gave way under Curry's boots as they made their way down a small embankment, almost causing both of them to fall. Curry recovered, and they made it safely to the bottom, putting them on level, if still rocky, terrain.

"You all right, partner?'' Curry asked, and Heyes mumbled something he took as an assent. They continued walking, and Curry snugged Heyes' arm tighter around his shoulder to shift more of his partner's weight onto himself.

Heyes wasn't doing well. Not well at all. But Heyes knew Curry wouldn't go on without him. So to keep Curry moving, Heyes walked. And would keep walking. As long as he was able.

It had been a long night and morning. As the blazing sun neared its apex, Curry guided them toward a stand of scrub pine and cactus, which might provide some scant shade as they slept through the hottest part of the day, waiting for the comparative cool of evening to start again.

Curry eased Heyes onto the ground, and they both drank sparingly from the canteen. Reluctantly, Curry unfastened the leather strap from the container.

"Kid, don't,'' Heyes said, his tone a mixture of exhaustion and defeat. "I'm not going anywhere.''

Liar, Curry's mind supplied. He shook his head regretfully.

In all the years they'd known each other, Heyes had never lied to him. But he knew every nuance of his partner's tone and expressions. He'd listened to him cajole, exaggerate, stretch the truth and tell lies so outrageous that Curry sometimes wondered where he got the gall - all for good reason as Heyes' silver tongue kept them out of trouble, out of jail, and, frequently, alive.

No, Heyes had never lied to him before. But these were unusual circumstances, and Curry knew with complete certainty Heyes was lying now.

"Sorry, partner,'' Kid said, reaching down. He'd given the matter some thought while they'd walked and discarded the idea of tethering them together. Curry was so tired he might not awaken if Heyes untied them. And tying Heyes hands in front of him was no good because he could still use them to lever himself up after Curry was asleep. Much as he hated it, the only option left was tying Heyes' hands behind him, which Curry did now, as loosely as he could safely get by with.

His only consolation was that as tired as Heyes looked - semiconscious, in fact - he likely wouldn't feel the discomfort for long.

Curry was right about that. Heyes had hoped to convince Curry to leave him untied. Sheer will would make him remain conscious until Curry fell asleep, then he could disappear, freeing The Kid of his obligation to him. Logic told him his own chances were slim to none. The Kid's alone were much higher but growing less with each passing day.

Heyes flexed his wrists against the bonds, testing them to see if The Kid's compassion had made him tie them a fraction too loose - enough that he could wriggle free with sufficient time. They weren't.

With that option closed to him, Heyes succumbed to the threatening darkness, sleeping the sleep of the dead punctuated by only his fevered dreams.

The sun beat down on Curry as he walked, staggering slightly under his load. Heyes hadn't regained consciousness the next morning, and Curry had half-carried, half-dragged him ever since. Occasionally he'd been able to rouse him enough to take a swallow of water, but that was gone now, leaving only the empty canteen slapping uselessly against his thigh.

Curry usually didn't mind admitting when Heyes was right - the man almost always was. He'd almost surely been right this time too. That Curry's stubbornness would mean a death sentence for both of them. But that *almost* was a risk Curry was willing to take. How much farther to a town now? Four days? Five? With no more water Curry doubted he could make it that far, even without the dead weight of the other man. But stubbornness did have its advantages.

Resolutely Curry put one foot in front of the other and kept walking.

"Blue! Hold up!'' Manolito pointed off into the desert, and Blue squinted to see what was out there. A man? This far out with no horse? It wasn't likely, but he and Manolito spurred their horses toward the movement.

Although hoarse, Curry forced his parched throat to yell as loudly as he could, while waving his hat in the air to signal the riders. Praise God, they'd seen him and had turned their mounts his way.

"Help's coming, partner,'' Curry said, looking down at the man on the ground. He hoped he could hear.

"Madre de Dios,'' Manolito breathed, jumping off his horse. He tossed Curry his canteen, who took three quick gulps before propping Heyes up to force some down his throat. Delirious, Heyes murmured in protest but drank the water.

"Blue, throw me your canteen, then ride back to the ranch for the wagon,'' Manolito instructed the younger man. He didn't have to tell him to hurry, for Blue had already wheeled his mount and was gone in a haze of sand and dust.

"Welcome to the High Chaparral, senor,'' Manolito greeted Kid, kneeling down with him beside Heyes. "I am Manolito Montoya.''

"It's a pleasure to meet you,'' Kid said with feeling. He took the other canteen Manolito offered him and drank deeply.

The ride to the High Chaparral ranch was mercifully short, and Curry could have actually enjoyed it for the sheer joy of being off his feet if he hadn't been so worried about Heyes.

Blue had made it back with the wagon in record time, assuring Curry he'd sent a hand galloping to town for the doctor, and Curry tried to tell himself everything would be put to rights now.

But with the agonizing hardships of their journey relieved, freeing his mind from thoughts beyond pure survival, worry now had free rein, and it hit him like a punch in the gut.

He couldn't imagine Heyes' steady presence not beside him, with his quick wit and sly humor. They'd saved each others' lives how many times? And Heyes was the one man in the world Kid trusted completely. Their loyalty to each other was absolute.

*Stop torturing yourself,* Curry ordered himself, trying to inject some of Heyes' logic into the situation. But the worries were still gnawing at him as the wagon rolled to a stop in front of the ranch's main house.

Victoria was out the door even before Blue brought the wagon to a halt.

"Oh, Manolito,'' she mourned, smoothing Heyes' damp hair back from his brow to feel the fever. "He's so young.''

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Manolito's lips quirked in a smile. The man was probably five years older than she, but Victoria - little older than her stepson, Blue - had a way of mothering anyone in her care.

Victoria became suddenly brisk.

"Mano, Blue, carry him to the first bedroom upstairs. Be careful of his leg,'' she instructed as Blue applied the brake and jumped down from the wagon's seat.

With most of her attention on the wounded man, Victoria still found time to give Kid a thorough scrutiny, her coal-black eyes full of sympathy.

"Please come inside Mr. ...''

"Jones,'' Curry supplied automatically.

"...Mr. Jones. The doctor will be here soon. And we'll get you cleaned up and fed. Are you hurt?''

"No, ma'am,'' Curry replied. "Just take care of my partner.''

Despite her youth, Kid was impressed with the efficient way she took charge. Manolito and another ranch hand carried Heyes to a bed upstairs. And Blue was dispatched to the kitchen for bandages and water. After Heyes was installed in the bed, Victoria disappeared, reappearing almost immediately with a tray bearing a bowl of stew and plate of bread for Curry and broth for Heyes.

"Eat,'' she ordered Kid, gesturing toward a small table and chair by the bed. "We'll wait to clean his wound until the doctor comes.''

"He'll need his strength,'' Victoria added softly, drawing Kid's gaze to the bowl of broth, and Curry nodded in understanding.

"Mano, you'll have to raise him up so I can feed him,'' Victoria requested, and her brother complied.

Victoria brought a spoonful of broth to his mouth, but Heyes, still fighting fevered nightmares, resisted. Kid stood to help, but Victoria waved him back.

"Shush, shush,'' she soothed. "Blue, hand me that cloth.''

Victoria smoothed the cool cloth over Heyes' burning forehead, and he relaxed almost immediately. Still crooning to him, she again brought the broth to his lips, and this time he swallowed. Spoonful by spoonful she fed him, until the bowl was empty when the doctor arrived.

Heyes squinted against the sunlight as he opened his eyes, slowly taking in his surroundings. The sunshine streaming through the curtained window wasn't the blinding glare of the desert but still seemed overbright with his head pounding so, making him blink several times.

The headache itself was almost a relief. For so long he'd been aware of nothing but the agony in his leg. It was still there, to be sure, throbbing dully but insistently. But the fact that a simple headache was now competing for his attention was a very good sign.

Curry was asleep on a couch against the wall, but he awakened instinctively when Heyes' eyes fell on him.

He'd cleaned up and shaved since they'd gotten to wherever they were, Heyes noticed as The Kid stood and came over to the bed. Someone had cleaned him up too, but he couldn't remember it.

"Hey, partner,'' Kid greeted, sitting down gingerly on the edge of the bed.

Heyes swallowed with difficulty, but The Kid was one step ahead of him, pouring a glass of water and tilting it so he could drink. Moving his head made him dizzy, and the headache flared with a renewed vengeance, but the water tasted so good.

"How long have we been here?'' Heyes asked.

"Three days,'' Curry replied simply, and Heyes digested this.

"How long out there?'' Heyes asked.

"Six,'' Kid said. Heyes thought back but couldn't remember more than three of them - and the last one was sketchy at best. He did remember their last conversation.

"Thanks,'' Heyes said. The word was simple but heartfelt, and The Kid nodded.

"Are you hungry?'' Curry asked, changing the subject.

"You mother hennin' me, Kid?'' Heyes asked with a flash of his old grin.

"No-oo,'' Kid drew the word out. "That's Victoria's job.''

"Who's Victoria?'' Heyes asked.

"She's the angel whose been taking care of you. You've just been too sick to appreciate it,'' Curry answered.

"Is she pretty?''

"Beautiful. Unfortunately, she's got a big husband. But I'm telling you, Heyes, it's enough to tempt a saint.''

"And you're no saint.''

Curry's exaggerated expression of shock and dismay was so funny Heyes had to chuckle, then winced at the way the movement made his head pound harder.

The half-open door swung wide.

"Mr. Jones, it is almost dinnertime. Do you think...'' Victoria paused in midword as she took in the exchange.

"Joshua - Mr. Smith, you are awake.'' Victoria smiled with pleasure. She set down the pile of clothing she'd been carrying and crossed to the bed, laying her fingertips lightly on his forehead, assuring herself all traces of the fever were gone.

"How are you feeling?'' she asked with concern.

"Better. I hear you're to be thanked for that,'' Heyes answered.

"Nonsense. The doctor did all the work. And you can thank your friend. I think he is a very determined man. But wait - I must tell my husband the good news.''

Victoria went to the doorway.

"John, Blue, come quickly. Our guest is awake.''

Heyes found Curry's description of Big John Cannon to be apt. He certainly wouldn't want to tangle with him.

Victoria went to fetch him a tray while the introductions were made. John and Blue and another man. A Mexican. Maybe her brother? Heyes was having trouble remembering.

"Glad to have you back among the living, son,'' John Cannon told him. Heyes' reply was interrupted as Victoria bustled back in with a dinner tray for him.

"You must eat now. You need to build your strength back up,'' Victoria admonished.

"Yes, ma'am. Kid tells me you're quite a cook,'' Heyes answered.

Curry stiffened imperceptibly and looked at John. He'd caught the slip and was giving him a long, assessing look.

"Why do you call him Kid?'' Victoria asked innocently as she put the tray down on the bedside table.

"Just a nickname,'' Heyes answered after a moment.

"Do you have any nicknames, Mr. Smith?'' John asked gruffly, putting a bit of emphasis on the last word.

"No, sir.'' Heyes swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.

"Blue.'' John Cannon gestured his son inside with a jerk of his head, and he and Curry went out into the hallway to talk.

"Young man, I've got some hard questions for you. And I need some straight answers,'' John began.

"I'll do my best,'' Curry said levelly.

"I've liked you since I first saw you. I don't know many men who would have done what you did to save your friend. And I admire your grit. But I've got to know the kind of men I've brought under my roof. It's not just me. I've got a responsibility to everyone on this ranch.''

Curry nodded slowly.

"If you're who I think you are, you're wanted men with a price on your heads. And that usually leads to violence. Now I'm asking you flat out - are you Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes?''

"Yes, sir, we are. But if you know anything about us, you know we've never killed anyone. And we're sure not going to shoot anyone in your family. I understand your feelings. And if you want us gone, we'll go. But I'm asking you for just a couple of days. Give him that long to get some strength back before I have to move him.''

"Do I have your word that if someone recognizes you and the sheriff comes you won't use your guns against me or my family to get away?'' John asked.

"Yes, sir, you do,'' Curry answered, looking the man straight in the eye.

"Then you're welcome here for as long as you want to stay.'' John's serious tone lightened. "If Victoria lets you, of course. I'll tell you one thing, there's no way she's letting that man out of bed in two days - let alone off this ranch.'' John gestured toward the bedroom, where Heyes was fighting a losing battle to be allowed to feed himself.

Curry grinned. "Mr. Cannon. You're probably right.''

John slapped him on the back.

"Young fellow, let's go see how they're making out.''

The two stood in the doorway. Blue looked up and grinned.

"He's feeling better,'' Blue said.

Heyes stopped eating and studied John, his brows knit with apprehension. That alone was testament to just how weak and tired his partner was, Curry reflected. He'd seen the man smile unconcernedly even with a gun barrel shoved to his face. The fact he was letting his emotions show so easily now - along with the slip earlier with Kid's name - reflected Heyes' condition better than the brave front he was putting on.

"You eat up, son,'' John said heartily, and Heyes relaxed.

"Yes, sir,'' Heyes said.

"Eat!'' Victoria ordered. And they all laughed.

"Kid.''

"Hmmm,'' Curry answered, not bothering to look up or even open his eyes, which were shielded from the late afternoon sun by the hat that covered his face as he half-sat, half-reclined on the front porch.

He and Heyes had been at the High Chaparral two weeks now, and Curry - somewhat foolishly, he thought in retrospect - had volunteered to help with the ranch work out of gratitude, boredom and a desire to help pay for their keep.

Heyes was obviously unable to help in that endeavor, but Victoria had finally allowed him out of bed, and he spent much of his time sitting on the porch braiding harness to keep his hands and mind occupied. That's what Heyes was doing now as Curry - granted a brief respite from riding herd to instead pitch hay - dozed beside him on the bench.

"Kid,'' Heyes repeated, still calmly but a little louder. "Isn't that your horse?'' Heyes asked rhetorically.

He had The Kid's full attention now. Curry sat up, pushing his hat back to take a good look. It was indeed his horse, and riding him was the fat Mexican robber who had shot Heyes and left them to die a slow, wretched death.

Curry started to stand but was stayed by Heyes' arm across his chest.

"Mind telling me what you're planning to do, partner?'' Heyes asked.

"Get my gun back, for a start,'' Kid answered. The Mexican bandit had two of his men with him, and Curry was sure one of them was wearing his specially balanced pistol.

"Diego!'' Manolito, who was out in the yard near the corral, greeted them. The three dismounted, and their leader clapped Manolito warmly on the back. Their conversation continued, but Curry and Heyes, from their position on the porch, couldn't hear any more of it.

"Do you think if you ask them nicely they'll just give us back what they stole?'' Think, Kid. Be reasonable,'' Heyes urged.

"I don't remember our being *reasonable* working too well on that bunch,'' Curry shot back, then immediately regretted it.

But Heyes wasn't offended.

"You know, you're right,'' Heyes said suddenly, then shot Curry a wolfish grin. "Let's go take our things back.''

Heyes reached for a support post to help pull himself up.

"Wait,'' Curry said. "We can't.''

Heyes looked at him questioningly. "Why not?''

"Because,'' Curry said slowly and reluctantly. "I promised John Cannon we wouldn't do anything to put his family in danger while we're here.''

Heyes leaned back against the bench, his dark eyes scowling.

"And starting a gunfight...'' Heyes began.

"...would break our promise to him,'' Curry finished.

They sat silently, watching Manolito and the three outlaws converse.

"There's only three of them. I *know* we could take them,'' Curry ground out in frustration.

Heyes was silent, thinking.

"There's only three of them,'' he echoed, sitting up straighter.

"Yeah, I know. I just said that,'' Curry replied, not sure where Heyes was heading.

"The question is - where are the other five? And how do these three know Mr. Montoya?''

"I gather from our conversations that Manolito has led a somewhat - checkered - life,'' Curry answered.

"The kind of life where he might encounter men such as our fat, bearded acquaintance - but not necessarily be friends,'' Heyes reasoned. He was talking faster, and Curry's mind leapt down the path Heyes was leading him.

"So maybe they're not friends,'' Curry said.

"He's certainly making a point not to bring them into the house,'' Heyes pointed out.

"And keep his hand near his gunbelt,'' Curry added.

"That brings us to that troubling question again - where are the other five?'' Heyes asked.

It didn't take long for either of them to hit upon the answer.

"Where's Victoria?'' Curry asked urgently.

"Kitchen.''

"Move!''

Once inside, Curry ran for the kitchen while Heyes bolted the door behind them and closed the window shutters. Fortunately the house was built like a fortress. Given sufficient firepower they could hold off any attack indefinitely - if Diego's men hadn't already made it into the house.

Curry crashed through the kitchen door, startling Victoria so badly that she dropped an earthenware crock with a resounding crash.

"What...?'' she began.

"Close the windows,'' Kid interrupted, the urgent tone in his voice cutting off all argument. There was a door leading outside from the kitchen, and Curry slammed the bolt home seconds before it rattled from the outside.

"Where are the keys to the gun cabinet?'' Curry asked as he propelled Victoria ahead of him into the living room, but the ever-resourceful Heyes had already broken it open and was carrying two extra pistols, several rifles and boxes of ammunition to one of the front windows.

They could already hear gunshots outside as Manolito and Travis, the ranch hand with him, had rolled for cover and begun firing.

"You OK?'' Curry shouted as Heyes threw open one of the shuttered windows and began a steady fire.

"Never better!'' Heyes yelled back. And Curry grabbed a load of weapons and headed for the back of the house.

"Get down!'' Heyes told Victoria, but she ignored him, choosing a rifle from the cabinet.

"Senor, this is *my* house,'' she reminded him, then began firing out another window.

Outside, sheltered behind a water trough and now taking fire from both sides as Manolito peppered away at him from behind the corral fence and more bullets came from the house, Diego cursed liberally under his breath. This was supposed to be so easy. He and his men had watched the ranch, deliberately waiting until almost all the men were on the range and one of the few left was his former associate, Montoya.

Diego figured he could ride in with a show of friendship, catch Manolito off his guard, then make short work of abducting Victoria, Manolito's sister.

Diego knew the woman's father, Don Sebastian Montoya, would pay a king's ransom to have Victoria returned safely, as would her husband, John Cannon.

But Manolito was ever suspicious, and something had tipped off the two cowboys on the porch. Still, there were eight of them, and only four to defend the ranch. But it wasn't going at all as Diego had planned.

His dark eyes narrowed angrily as another near miss sent chunks of wood flying from the trough. One splinter struck his face, and he pulled it out, slick with blood. Diego had planned to merely wound Manolito - owing to their long years of friendship - but he decided he would enjoy killing the other man instead.

"Hold up!'' Buck Cannon raised his gloved hand in the air as he reined his mount to a halt. He looked back at his brother, John. "Do you hear that?''

Faintly the sound of gunfire echoed in the distance. The vast countryside could play havoc with noises, but Buck was sure the sounds came from the direction of the ranch house.

John Cannon's eyes narrowed, his craggy features reflecting both worry and anger. The outlaw Curry had given his word he and his partner would cause no trouble - and John had even insisted on loaning them gunbelts, pointing out how dangerous things still were in their part of the territory. John thought he was a good judge of a man's character, but if he'd made a mistake about these two and Victoria paid for it, he'd kill them himself, whatever it took.

"Blue!'' he thundered, and his son was at his side. "Get as many men as you can,'' John ordered.

Then he and Buck were riding hell-for-leather back to the house.

Diego thought covetously of all the pesos and American dollars his plan should have wrought. Instead he could see the body of one of his fallen comrades, and the others were fleeing like rabbits as riders bore down on the ranch, guns blazing.

Another of the bandits, deciding on flight vs. his impending capture, broke for his horse but was shot far short of his goal and fell to the ground, grasping his injured leg.

At this point Diego decided discretion to be the better part of valor - he had never subscribed to the credo death before dishonor anyway - and began sidling toward the barn, keeping low to avoid the hail of bullets.

Diego was almost to the entrance when the barrel of a pistol buried itself in the back of his neck.

"Leaving so soon, amigo?'' Manolito asked. He was bleeding where a bullet had grazed his arm, and his black eyes glittered with controlled fury.

"I suppose not, hermano.'' Diego knew when he was beaten. "But you will give my regards to your sister, no?''

Everything went black as Manolito's fist made contact with Diego's chin.

"Sure you boys won't change your minds and stay?'' John Cannon asked, one arm wrapped loosely around Victoria's waist as they stood in front of the house.

Curry and Heyes, already mounted, exchanged a look and grinned.

"We appreciate the offer, Mr. Cannon,'' Heyes said, his eyes twinkling. "But I don't think ranch work agrees with my partner too well.''

"Don't believe a word he says,'' Curry interrupted. "He just wants to get out of here before you make him stop shelling peas for Victoria and do some real work.''

Curry's tone turned serious.

"We appreciate everything you've done for us.''

"No, son. It's we who owe you.'' John held Victoria a little closer. "Don't forget you've always got a place here if you want one.''

"Thank you, sir,'' Curry said, reaching down to grasp Cannon's arm.

"Vaya con Dios, Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones. Don't let him walk too much on that leg,'' Victoria instructed.

"Yes, ma'am,'' Curry replied.

"Yes, Mother,'' Heyes answered cheekily.

"Oh, you are impossible. Go!'' Victoria said in mock exasperation. And with one last tip of their hats they wheeled their mounts and were gone, kicking up dust along the drive as they urged their horses into a trot.

The sun, no longer their enemy, was shining brightly. And it was time to move on.

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