Trouble Always Knocks Twice (by Star)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,200


Jarrod stopped in front of the door bearing Judge Elroy Parker’s shingle and hesitated a moment before turning the knob. Maybelle looked a bit dishevled from her night camping out with Billy Joe and the boys, but yet there was something different about her. Something had transpired during the night. As a caterpillar metamorphosizes into a beautiful butterfly, Maybelle seemed to make the transistion from a rebellious teenager into a distinguished young lady. Her brown hair which had been stylishly drawn back the preceding evening, now hung halfway down in strands around her face. Her lovely red gown was now soiled and dulled in color, but she radiated a self confidence and purpose that had been lacking just a few days before. Even through the dirt smeared on her weary face, Jarrod couldn’t help but notice what an attractive woman she really was.

Giving her a reassuring smile, he swung the door wide and motioned for her to go ahead and step inside. The white-haired judge sat at his desk fingering one of his recently acquired cigars. He looked up when he heard the familiar creak of the hinges and drew a startled breath when he saw Maybelle standing before him. Rescuing him from his speechlessness, Jarrod broke the silence.

“Judge Parker, I would like to introduce to you Miss Maybelle Williams. I don’t believe the two of you have met before.”

“Well, not formally anyway. How do you do, young lady?”

The judge stood up from his desk and extending his arm across the cluttered top, grasped Maybelle’s hand in a warm greeting.

“I won’t play games with you, judge. I’ve felt better.”

“Here, have a seat, Miss Williams. You look exhausted.”

The elderly gentleman hustled around the desk in record time and offered a chair to his trailworn guest.

“Thanks judge,” the young woman graciously accepted the renowned gentleman’s hospitality, and then turning to Jarrod asked, “Well counselor, what’s next? Am I going to jail or back to the ranch with you?”

“I’d like to have you accompany me back to the ranch….if that’s okay with you, judge.”

By this time, Jarrod had helped himself to one of the cigars on Judge Parker’s desk and with a twinkle in his eye removed the King Richard’s from his lips long enough to add, “I’m sure you don’t mind if I enjoy one of my cigars.”

The judge offered a defeated grimace as he bid farewell to the lovely box of premium tobacco stogies that would soon depart his possession.

“I must say, Jarrod, as much as I was looking forward to these, this is one bet I don’t mind losing. Now, where were we? I don’t know the circumstances of your being here, Miss Williams, but I don’t think I would have the heart to lock you back up in that jail cell. I will extend your release into the custody of Mr. Barkley here, but before you leave my office today, we need to discuss a few things. Let’s start from the beginning. Jarrod has already told me that the two of you met up with Mr. Gaines outside of town. I guess I’m wondering where Billy Joe is right now and how he feels about your return here to Stockton?”

“I didn’t tell Billy Joe nothin’. After he went to sleep last night, I just sort’ve slipped away.”

“Do you suppose he’ll come looking for you?”

“He may and he may not. It was my choice to leave and Billy knows that it’ll be risky for him to be hangin’ around here too long.”

“Well, I don’t figure I’m willing to bet a box of my favorite cigars on those odds. Jarrod, you need to be on your guard at all times. Your whole family could be in a dangerous position.”

“You’re I right about that, judge, but I figure we Barkleys are fairly adept at taking care of ourselves. So if you’ll excuse us, I think that Miss Williams here would like to get back to the house so she can freshen up.”

Judge Parker gave his nod of approval to the two young people seated before him. Jarrod had believed in Maybelle all along even though the older man had bet that he would live to regret the decision. The judge had had many offenders stand before his bench during his long career and figured that one was pretty much like the next. Those who habitually broke the law were generally cut from the same mold. They took whatever they could get and people and values meant nothing to them. He knew that individuals choosing this lifestyle rarely reformed into decent, productive, honest citizens. Getting something for nothing was far too easy for these people, and to change they needed to sincerely want to improve themselves and be contributors to society. The problem was usually that these felons didn’t have enough self respect to want to better themselves. They were driven by greed and lacked any kind of compassion for others. He wondered what had befallen this young girl during her brief stay with the Barkleys that would cause such an obvious improvement in her attitude. Her hostile and abusive language during her imprisonment in Stockton’s jail, had confirmed in his mind that there was no hope for reform. Now here she sat before him, docile and ready to adhere to whatever instruction was given.

The judge’s thoughts turned to Jarrod. How much he liked and respected this young attorney. Jarrod truly had a gift with people. His charm alone could persuade the toughest juries to change a verdict from guilty to innocent, but Jarrod didn’t use his talent in an unscrupulous manner. His concerns were for justice and the rights of individual. He had proved that time and time again both in and outside of the courtroom. If he could tame this wildcat into such a pleasant young lady in a matter of days….

Judge Parker’s thoughts trailed off and then abruptly he straightened his back and addressed the tough little lady once more.

“So tell me, Miss Williams. What made you decide to come back?”

“Well I guess it’s ‘cause of the Barkleys mostly, but also I’m realizin’ that I can’t run forever. I still love Billy Joe, but I need somethin’ more.”

Maybelle paused and with confidence glanced over in Jarrod’s direction,

“Maybe that ‘somethin’ is right here in Stockton, judge.”

“Would you ever turn Billy Joe in if you got the chance? You know it would be better for him in the long run.”

“No sir, it wouldn’t and that ain’t the way I was raised. Me and Billy Joe go back far enough that he’s like family to me. I don’t mean that I like what he’s doin’, but I would never double-cross him.”

Judge Parker’s light blue eyes met with Maybelle’s dark brown ones. He had heard it said that the eyes were the window to the soul, and now he felt as if he was looking deep inside this girl friend of the notorious outlaw, Billy Joe Gaines. Even this young woman who had been on her own since the tender age of thirteen had her own code of ethics. As misdirected as it seemed, she displayed the virtues of loyalty, love and devotion. He now knew that she would not try to improve her positon by betraying a friend or person she loved.

With a nod and a fleeting smile, the judge pushed his chair back from the desk. Placing his palms on the arm rests for support, the elderly arbitrator of justice stood to bid the attorney and his client farewell.

“Good luck to you Jarrod….Miss Williams.”

He gripped Jarrod’s smooth, uncalloused hand and Maybelle’s smaller one.

“I’ll have Fred check in with you on a regular basis until after the trial.”

“Thank you, judge. Come along, young lady. Let’s get you home to some supper and a hot bath.”

Lightly touching Maybelle’s shoulder, Jarrod ushered her out to his rig waiting outside. Hitching her skirt, she allowed the lawyer to take her hand and help her up into the seat beside him. With a slap of the reins and a horse’s snort, the buggy lurched forward and soon Stockton was just a speck in the distance behind them.

*****

“Mother! Audra! We’re home!”

“Did I hear someone say ‘we’ ?”

Nick’s mpossib voice nearly raised the roof as he stepped into the foyer from the den.

“Nick! I wasn’t expecting you home at this hour of the day.”

“Well I wasn’t expectin’ to be, either. Coco threw a shoe so I figured I’d work on some of this ‘year end’ stuff until Yankee gets a chance to fix his feet up. Maybelle, I’m glad you’re back. We were all a little worried.”

“Thank you, Mr. Barkley. It’s good to be back. Now I think I’ll go up to my room and slip into something more comfortable.”

As Maybelle climbed the steps that led to the upper level of the grand house, she couldn’t help musing over the difference in Nick’s reaction from a few days ago when she first arrived. During their initial introduction he had been angry and volatile. She never had him figured to be the sentimental type, but yet he had just expressed his concern and happiness at her return. What a different type of a family this had turned out to be. In the past, affluent people had often looked at her as if she was dirt. Nobody from the ‘proper side of town’ had ever even given her a fair chance. As a result, she never felt too bad when Billy Joe would help himself to a share of their wealth, be it in a bank vault, on a train or in someone’s pocket. She knew some changes were taking place. Maybelle could now begin to feel remorse for a life that had started out in the wrong direction. She wanted to make amends and start over afresh. For the first time in her entire life, she wanted to put all that corruption behind her and live by honest means. Entering the door of her room, she made a near miss on a collision with Victoria and Audra.

“Maybelle, you’re back!”

Audra’s excitement was flattering to the amending young girl, even though she didn’t want to let on.

“Yeah, I figured I need to try and make some changes sooner or later. Guess now is as good as later.”

Victoria stepped forward and gently pulled the brunette into an embrace.

“I’m so happy to hear you say that, dear. Audra and I just finished tidying up your room. Why don’t you try and get some rest before lunch is served.”

Maybelle nodded her thanks and upon entering the room sank comfortably down onto the double bed. Her clothes she had worn upon her arrival to the Barkleys had been laundered and were now neatly hanging. Audra had also left some dresses for her; she would wear one of those. Looking down at the sullied red gown, she gave a sigh of disappointment. She hoped that the soiled fabric would come clean again. All those years of rough living with Billy Joe and feeling like an alley cat most of the time. No home, no roots, no hope of ever settling down. Sure she had loved the adventure and excitement of being an outlaw’s girlfriend, but she knew that that kind of a life would inevitably be a short lived one. If she didn’t end up dead from a bullet or a rope, she would more than likely end her days in solitude and prison.

Maybelle gazed around the beautiful room. She loved the luxorious living at the Barkley ranch but knew that sooner or later she would have to leave. They certainly wouldn’t be expecting her to stay mpossibilit. Depending on the outcome at her trial, she would need to have some plans for supporting herself. She had never furthered her education outside of grade school, so she would need to resign herself to a more humble way of living. When she was with Billy Joe they had always had money, fine hotel rooms and fancy dinners but there was always the need to press on. They could never stay in one place for very long. Billy Joe was as sly as a mposs and an expert at evading the law, but she knew that eventually his luck was sure to run out. Her short visit with the Barkleys had shown her what it was like to live in an honest, civilized manner and to have the peace of mind that came with it. The company of good people was comforting to her. She wanted that comfort to become a part of her world. Until a week and a half ago, her world knew nothing but violence and hate. As the sun each day had risen and set, she had felt less and less of an attachment to her outlaw boyfriend. He had been the center of her world for such a long time, but now he was slowly fading out of the picture. She knew that in her heart she would always love him, but had no desire to spend the rest of her days trying to laugh in the face of justice.

*****

When Maybelle arose the following morning, she reached for her jeans, red plaid shirt and denim jacket. She and Audra had discussed the possibility of tagging along with Nick and Heath today. The ranch work was usually kept to a minimum during the week between Christmas and New Year. Most of the work could be handled by the two brothers so that the ranch hands could have the holidays off to be with family. Audra was already dressed when Maybelle entered the hall.

“Good morning, Maybelle,”

Audra greeted her friend sleepily. It was still quite early according to the blonde’s standards.

“Mornin’, Audra.”

The early morning sun was filtering through the windows of the kitchen as Silas hustled out into the dining room to make preparations for the seven o’clock breakfast. Heath was just coming in from the corrals through the back door.

“Howdy, ladies.”

“Good morning, Heath,” the two girls crowed in unison.

“Well seein’ is believin’. I don’t ever remember Audra being up this early before. I figured last night that come this mornin’ the two of you would completely forget about your offerin’ to help me and Nick around the ranch today.”

“We were just heading out to the barn to join you.”

“I just came in to get Nick a cup of coffee. It’s kinda damp out there today. I would love the honor of escortin’ you two lovely ladies back out with me.”

Heath walked over to the stove and picked up the coffee pot with his gloved hand. The cowhide covering helped, but the rule of thumb for coffee drinking at the Barkeys was it had to be hot and strong. He poured the steaming beverage into a tall, tin cup.

“You been up long, Heath?” Maybelle inquired.

“About an hour or so.”

The cowboy paused to pour a second cup for himself. Filling it a little too high, he set the cup down on the counter and lowered his lips to suck some of the brew from around the rim. He stopped short and wiped his mouth off with his glove.

“Boy Howdy! That stuff is HOT! Audra, is Jarrod up yet?”

“Yes, Heath, and Mother too. They were in Mother’s room making plans for the New Years Eve dance.”

“That’s right. We’re all goin’ to the dance in town tomorrow night. You dance Maybelle? If you do, how ‘bout savin’ one for me.”

“Sure, I can do that. Audra, does that brother of your’s dance? Jarrod, I mean.”

“If you ask me he’s got two left feet. Better stay clear if you plan on walkin’ the next day.”

Heath couldn’t help placing a friendly jab in the lawyer’s direction.

“Don’t listen to Heath, Maybelle. Jarrod dances like a dream.”

“Maybe I’ll get a chance to find out for myself…”

Her words were cut off as Nick burst through the kitchen door.

“Heath! I thought you were bringin’ that out to the barn. It’s colder than an ice queen’s kiss out there this mornin’.”

“I was I’ ready to come out with it now, big brother. Just tellin’ Maybelle here what a great dancer Jarrod is if she don’t mind I’ her feet stomped on.”

“No need to bother now, Heath, I might as well drink it here.”

Nick tossed his hat on the small wooden table and picked up the cup Heath had already poured for him. Bringing the cup to his lips, he downed a big gulp before realizing how warm the beverage really was. Hastily setting down the steaming mug, he grabbed an empty glass. Running for the sink, he pumped it full of water with all his might. Finally, when the burning in his throat had subsided, he turned to address his brother.

“How in blazes did you get it this hot? You’d think it would melt the pot!”

“If you had just asked, Nick, I would have been more than happy to tell you. Say, Nick. When have you ever been kissed by an ice queen?”

“Well, I kissed Margie Hellerman at the Wilson’s Christmas party. That’s just about the same thing, ain’t it?”

“If you were able to get a kiss outta her, Nick, I’d say you’re doin’ better than most. Pretty she is, but friendly she ain’t.”

Just then Victoria entered the kitchen from the dining area.

“Oh, I’m glad to see you two boys are still here. Let’s all go in and have some breakfast together before you take off for the morning. Audra, are you and Maybelle still planning on going along with Nick and Heath?”

“Yes, Mother. That’s why we’re up and dressed.”

The group in the kitchen assembled themselves at the breakfast table and were soon joined by Jarrod who stooped to place a kiss on Victoria’s cheek on the way in.

“So what are everyone’s plans for today?”, the dark haired lawyer inquired.

“Maybelle and I are going to be helping the boys with the ranch chores since most of the hands are still away,” a beaming Audra chimed in.

“So what chores do you two have planned for our guest and little sister? Will they be mending fences and roping cows?”

Jarrod’s eyes danced with merriment as he smiled at the two women seated at the opposite end of the table.

“Heath and me figured on lettin’ Maybelle finish breakin’ in that new stallion we’ve got mpossibi off by itself,” Nick offered with a twinkle in his eye. “Actually Jarrod, they’re just goin’ to be ridin’ along while we check up on some of the herds.”

“That’s good to know. I hadn’t planned on taking her to trial in a full body cast.”

Maybelle smiled sheepishly, remembering all the trouble she had caused trying to ride that wild horse. It was only last week but now seemed like an eternity had passed.

“How ‘bout you, counselor? What are your plans for the day?”

“Well young lady, it just so happens that I have a meeting in town with the judge and prosecuting attorney to discuss your case. Things are looking really good for you right now, Maybelle. Just keep up the good work.”

“Guess I’m lucky to have me such a smart lawyer.”

“Yeah, he’s smart all right,” chided Nick. “Smart enough to schedule his meetings during a time that we’re short handed around here.”

“That, brother Nick, is because you’re so efficient I don’t figure you need my help. Now, Audra and Maybelle, you stay close to these two perfectly efficient gentlman all day, you hear? It’s not safe for you girls to be galavanting around the countryside alone.”

“Don’t worry, Jarrod. We’ll be keeping a close eye on them,” Heath assured him.

“Good! Then I know they will be in good hands. Now if you will excuse me, I need to be heading in to town now.”

“Good-bye, Jarrod, and have a good day,” Victoria added.

*****

Thirty minutes after breakfast had ended, four horses loped out of the corral gates. The sun was breaking through the clouds giving promise for a beautiful day. Conversation was sporadic at first as the riders took in the fresh, crisp fragrance of the morning air and enjoyed the stillness of a sleeping world. They would spend the morning tallying cows and then break for a picnic lunch. Nick wanted to show Maybelle what he considered to be the lovliest spot on the ranch. They would spend the noon hour there. The morning waned and soon it was time to head for Oak Springs.

“Hey cowboy, how far is it to this ‘heaven on earth’ you keep tellin’ me about?”

“It’s not too terribly far. When our father picked a place to build the house, he wanted it to be close by, but not so close as to spoil the land. I think that once we get there you’ll see what I mean.”

Nick spurred Coco into a gallop with Maybelle following hot on his heels. Heath watched the two riders pull away and didn’t want to be left behind.

“What do you say, sis,” he said, looking over at Audra, “do we give ‘em a run for their money?”

“You bet we do!”

Heath dug his heels into Charger and with a burst of speed the bay stallion pinned his ears to the wind. Audra kept up the pace on Mischief and before long the four were riding together again as a group. As they crested the top of a hill, Nick pulled up his mount. Coming to a stop, Maybelle gazed at the pristine beauty surrounding her. Nick had I been telling the truth when he had described this as one of the prettiest places on God’s green earth.

The four rode down to the grove of oak trees which were growing near a small lake. Audra and Maybelle had packed a lunch of cold beef sandwiches, fruit and nuts. Nick had slipped in a bottle of red wine unbeknownst to the others. Reclining in the meadow grass, the young people set about quenching their mpossib appetites. Jarrod had had opportunity to get acquainted with Maybelle one on one, and so had Audra, but up until now Nick and Heath only knew her in a group setting. This was their chance to really get to know their young house guest.

“So Maybelle, what do you think?”

Nick gestered at the scenery around him.

“This is prettier than anythin’ I read about in books. Do you come here often?”

“Not often enough. Sometimes the family will take a day off and then we all come here to spend the day. Occasionally Heath and I get to stop when we’re out workin’ this part of the ranch.”

“I remember one time when Billy Joe and me camped out at a place almost as pretty, but that was farther north.”

Nick’s facial expression told of the discomfort he was feeling at the mention of Billy Joe. He had warmed up to Maybelle considerably, but felt great contempt for the boy outlaw. Audra sensed the awkwardness of the situation and quickly tried to change the subject.

“Seeing how tomorrow is New Year’s Eve, does anybody have a resolution? How about you Maybelle? What are your mpossibili going to be?”

“You might say I’ve already made mine. My decision in comin’ back and all. I’m goin’ to try and forget my past and work on the present each day at a time. How ‘bout you, cowboy?”

“Well,” pondered Nick, “I’m going to say that this year I don’t intend to throw away as much of my money in card games.”

“You going to quit playin’ poker, Nick?”

Heath couldn’t believe what his ears were hearing.

“Now wait a minute, let me rephrase that. What I meant to say was I’m plannin’ on winnin’ more hands at the card table in town.”

“How about you, Heath, what are your’s going to be?”

Audra was having fun with this.

“I haven’t really given it too much thought, sis, but now that you’ve mentioned it, there are a few things that I would like to work on.”

“Such as….”

“Well, it would be kinda nice not I’ into so much trouble all the time. You know, all the fights and stuff like that. Maybe try and stay outta jail for the year.”

“Jail?,” exclaimed Maybelle, “When have you ever been to jail, cowboy?”

Heath felt his face beginning to flush until Audra came to his rescue.

“Maybelle, maybe you should ask him about the time he and Nick were both thrown in jail for getting involved in a barroom fight. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they dragged the president of the United States along with them.”

Maybelle looked at the two brothers in awe.

“You don’t mean our President Grant, do you?”

“That would be the one,” boasted Nick, “but if I recall correctly, it was Sam who threw the first punch.”

“That’s right,” confirmed Heath, “he did throw the first punch. Hell of a time, wasn’t it?”

“Maybe you can start by keeping yourself out of trouble at the dance tomorrow night,” teased Audra.

“Why should I worry about my resolutions tomorrow night, it’ll still be the old year? My resolutions shouldn’t have to begin ‘til the first of the new year.”

“Well you need to practice. Besides, you don’t want to start out the New Year all beat up, do you?”

“She’s got a good point, Heath,” said Nick trying not to smile, “seems to me you always somehow manage to wind up on the losin’ end.”

“The losin’ end? Now Nick, how can you possibly say that?”

“I guess I’m just rememberin’ all the concussions and trips to Doc Merar.”

“If I get clobbered, it’s usually ‘cause you’ve decided to pick a fight with five men and I either have to jump in or watch you get your head split.”

“Okay Heath, I guess I’ll have to go along with the fact that if it wasn’t you getting beat over the head, it would probably be me. Thanks for always being there for me, little brother.”

“It’s always makes a guy feel good to know how much he’s being appreciated. Thanks, Nick.”

Heath’s blue eyes sparkled with the fun he was having with his older brother, and turning to Audra he added,

“You win, sis, I’ll try and stay outta trouble at the dance tomorrow night.”

Both Audra and Maybelle had been smiling and trying not to giggle while the brothers joked. Heath noticed how much more attractive Maybelle was when she allowed herself to break free of the tough veneer. He pictured her all dolled up for the New Year’s Eve dance and decided that he wanted to be one of the first names on her dance card. Needing to continue with the day, the picnicers reluctantly packed up their belongings and untethered their mounts.

*****

Victoria and her three sons sat down in the parlor enjoying an evening night cap while they waited for Maybelle and Audra. The men were spit and slickered from head to toe in their suits and ties. Their mother wore a light pink satin dress with a string of pearls clasped loosely around her throat.

“I wonder what in the devil’s takin’ them so long,” griped Nick as he paced to the foot of the stairs and back.

“Just relax and take it easy, Nick, we’ll get there in plenty of time,” Heath advised. “Here, let me pour you another drink.”

Grumbling, the lanky cowboy accepted the drink and walking over to the fireplace, leaned one elbow against the mantel. A few minutes later Audra and Maybelle stood before them ready for an evening in town. Audra wore her green taffeta and Maybelle was adorned in the red dress she had I from Jarrod for Christmas. With a little soap and lots of patience, Silas had the crimson gown looking as good as new. The dress was as pretty and fresh as it was the day Jarrod had placed it under the Christas tree.

“Audra, Maybelle, you both look gorgeous,” Jarrod complimented.

“Ain’t that the truth!”, supported Heath. “Come on, Nick, let’s go get the buggy.”

The two cowboys drove the double benched surrey around to the front of the house. It was a tight fit, but everyone managed to squeeze in. Audra sat in front with Nick and Heath, leaving Victoria, Maybelle and Jarrod in the rear. It didn’t matter that the night air was brisk, the passengers seated in the surrey were plenty cozy. Jarrod reached under the seat for a woolen blanket and pulled it up over the laps of Maybelle and his mother. Maybelle smiled shyly and allowed him to tuck the edges in around her.

An hour later, the six party goers pulled up in front of the large building which served as a town hall. There was already a large accumulation of buggys and horses parked around the perimeter of the building. Pulling firmly on the reins, Heath brought the horses to a halt. The men climbed down first and helped the ladies gracefully step to the ground.

As the family entered the brightly lit building, a dozen young heads turned to gawk in the direction of Audra and Maybelle. It wasn’t long before the men were lined up, hoping to have their names placed on the dance cards of these two ravishing women. Victoria and Jarrod stood in observation as Maybelle was whirled around the room by Bobby Strong, a tall, green-eyed redhead.

“She sure has come a long way, Jarrod. Just a week ago she would have dared anyone here to knock off that chip she’d been shouldering so long.”

“Yes, Mother, I must admit that I am very pleased with the progress that’s being made, but….

“But you’re still concerned with the fact that Billy Joe is on the loose and may possibly be back.”

“That has I been a concern of mine ever since I brought her back to the ranch.”

“If and when that time arrives, I’m sure you will handle the situation with your usual craft and expertise.”

Victoria’s words telegraphed the faith that she had in her oldest son as she placed a reassuring hand on his forearm. Jarrod downed the last of his punch and turned to face his mother.

“Well, I’m not sure how honed my skills are when it comes to convincing lovesick young outlaws that their girl would be better off without them, but I thank you for your vote of confidence. Now, lovely lady, would you do me the honor of the next dance?”

“It would be my pleasure.”

Offering her his elbow, Jarrod escorted Victoria out onto the dance floor. The last waltz had just ended, and the crowd applauded as the musicians started into their next number. Having excused herself from Bobby, Maybelle watched wistfully from the sidelines as Jarrod and Victoria waltzed around the room. It was her intent to make herself available in hopes that the lawyer would invite her to be his partner. Instead, that honor had been bestowed upon his mother.

“How ‘bout that dance you promised me?”

Heath’s unexpected presence caught her off guard. She looked up into his blue eyes and nodded her consent. During her last couple of days on the ranch, Maybelle had begun to develop some close bonds with the three younger Barkley siblings. Yesterday’s ride and picnic only seemed to compound those feelings of comraderie. Most of her teenage years had been spent with Billy Joe and there was little room for other friends. Billy Joe and his men were the only companions that Maybelle had had for a long time now.

Heath had always been sweet. Even when Nick had initially expressed his distaste at her presence, Heath had never said a word against her. She remembered how he had smiled at her after he and Nick quit struggling with the Christmas tree during her first few minutes in the Barkley home. Sure, he was a bit standoffish after learning who she was, but as she had made her progressive adjustments adapting to family life, he was quick to show his acceptance of her. Maybelle thought that he would make some lucky girl a wonderful husband, but as for her, she had her sights set on Jarrod.

“You’re not going to make me carry you out there?”

“Oh, sorry Heath. Guess my mind just wandered off there for a minute.”

Heath was a good dancer despite the ribbings he usually got from Nick. With his strong lead and left arm secured around Maybelle’s waist, the young girl didn’t feel uncomfortable about not knowing all the steps. Still her thoughts were with Jarrod. Lost in a world of make believe, the music only seemed to add to the enchantment of the evening. Again, Heath’s drawl broke through the barrier of her thoughts.

“You seem awfully quiet this evening. Everythin’ all right?”

“Everything’s fine, Heath.”

She hesitated a moment as she glanced at Jarrod conversing with a group of elegantly clad gentleman, and then added,

“Audra said your brother was a good dancer, but he sure don’t seem to be doing too much of that this evenin’. I saw him with your mother and that was about it.”

“I guess that’s one of the differences between Jarrod and Nick. Nick sees something he wants and goes after it. Jarrod likes to take his time.”

“Who was the girl who came callin’ the day before Christmas? Has Jarrod been takin’ his time with her?”

“You mean Gracie?”

“I don’t recall hearin’ her name, but she sure was makin’ eyes at Jarrod.”

“I think that was probably Gracie Miller. Jarrods been seein’ her on and off for the past year.”

“Then they ain’t engaged?”

“Not that I’m aware of. As near as I can tell they’re more friends than anything.”

“What is it that Jarrod usually finds attractive in a girl?”

“Well, for one thing, I don’t think he likes to have to answer a lot of questions. Now are we going to dance or gossip about my brother.”

Heath added some humor to his tone, but Maybelle had made it perfectly clear where her interests lay. When the waltz was ended, he politely excused himself and headed over to find Nick and the punch bowl.

While Maybelle and Heath had been dancing, Stockton’s select group of eligible bachelorettes were huddled together enjoying their own private party. These elite females came from some of the area’s finest and wealthiest families. Most of them were the daughters of public officials and they refused to mingle with those whom they deemed inferior to themselves. Audra would have been unanimously welcomed into their small circle, but chose to remain on the outside. As cider ferments into vinegar, their useless prattle would inevitably turn into sour gossip. On this particular New Year’s Eve, their jabs and insults were aimed at Maybelle and the Barkleys.

“Who’s that girl dancing with Heath Barkley?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve never seen her in town before.”

“Will you look at her dress – isn’t the color just awful on her?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s the girl that Jarrod Barkley is defending for the Woman’s League,” informed Leona Parker. “I overheard Jarrod discussing her case with my Uncle Elroy when I went to meet him for lunch the other day.”

“You mean the one that’s been running around with that ruffian outlaw?”

“That’s her, alright. Heath sure seems to be smitten with her.”

“She can have him. If you ask me, they’re two of a kind.”

“Like they say, water seeks it’s own level. I guess the same would be true for the two of them.”

“Well as far as I’m concerned,” added Margie Hellerman, “she can have all of Heath she wants, just as long as she keeps her hooks out of Nick. He and I kissed at the Wilson’s party. I pretended not to be interested, but I think he’s the one I want.”

“If you ask me, I think it’s indecent having a single woman like that living under the same roof with three bachelors. I’m surprised Victoria allows it. Just think, Margie, the only thing mpossibil Nick’s bed and that woman’s is one thin wall.”

“That’s true, Margie. I’ve been upstairs in the Barkley’s home before. Nick’s room is located right next to the guest room.”

By this time Margie Hellerman was seeing red.

“In that case, I think it best if I nip this thing right in the bud. Excuse me, ladies, I have some business to attend to.”

With a deceptively casual air and participating in bits of chat along the way, Margie worked her way over to the refreshment table where Maybelle stood with Audra. While helping herself to a cup of punch, she tried to evesdrop on the conversation beside her. It was no use. The chatter of many voices all blended together made listening next to impossible. Sashaying over to the two, Margie decided to approach the subject from an alternate angle.

“Hello, Audra.”

“Hello, Margie,” responded a puzzled Audra. Why was this girl being so unusually friendly?

“I don’t believe I’ve made the acquaintance of your friend.”

“This is Maybelle Williams. Maybelle, this is Margie Hellerman. Maybelle’s been staying at the ranch.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Maybelle responded.

She extended her arm for a handshake, but Margie just stood and looked at her.

“You must be the one that Jarrod’s defending.”

“That’s me, alright,” answered Maybelle, dropping her arm, “I sure hope he’s as good as everyone keeps tellin’ me. I sure don’t cotton to spendin’ the rest of my life in prison.”

“I’m not one to be beating around the bush, Maybelle, so let me get right to the point. Some of us don’t find it fitting for the likes of you to be staying with the Barkleys, so lets try and get a few things straight.”

Both Maybelle and Audra were dumbfounded as they stared at Margie. Audra had known this woman to be bold, but could hardly believe that she would go to this length to express an opinion.

“Rule number one. You’re nothing but white trash and trash has no business associating with decent folks.”

Margie took her fan and waved it in Maybelle’s face for emphasis.

“Now, I want to give you some advice to go along with that rule. If I ever hear….”

Her words were cut off by her opponent’s sharp retort.

“If I was you, I wouldn’t be givin’ me no advice.”

Maybelle took a step in Margie’s direction and stood facing her head on.

“Maybelle! Margie…”

Audra tried to intervene but was too late. She had barely managed to say the first word when Margie let loose with the cup of champaigned punch that she held in her hand. Maybelle looked down at the dark stain covering her beloved dress. This was the dress given to her by Jarrod, the man with whom she had become deeply infatuated. Her nostrils flared and eyes flashing, Maybelle lit into Marige with all ten fingernails. Nobility shrieked in a vain attempt to shield her face from Maybelle’s erect claws. The crowd cleared the immediate area as the two women scratched and kicked. Maybelle slapped Margie hard and was moving in for another strike when she felt someone grab her arms from behind.

“Come on, Maybelle, we’re going outside until you cool off a bit.”

Heath hustled the struggling girl out into the cool night air. Back inside the building, Nick restrained Margie. Jarrod was soon to arrive on the scene.

“Audra, can you tell me what happened?”

“I don’t know,” stammered Audra, “I just don’t know what got into her.”

“Got into who, Audra?”

“Into Margie. Maybelle and I were just standing here talking, and the next thing we knew Margie was here saying all kinds of horrible things to Maybelle.”

“What kind of horrible things did Margie say?”

“She called Maybelle trash and said she had no business being out at the ranch….”

“And what else?”

“It all happened so fast. Maybelle stood up to her and Margie threw punch on Maybelle’s dress.”

“Is that what started the fight?”

“Yes, I tried to say something to prevent things from going any further but it was too late. Before I could stop her, Maybelle was on the attack.”

Jarrod turned to address a panting Margie, fire blazing from his blue eyes.

“Margie, if you come anywhere near my client again, I will go to Judge Parker and have him slap a restraining order on you. Do you understand me?”

“You just keep that little witch out of my way, Jarrod Barkley,” a breathless Margie spat back.

“Now you just hold on there, Margie,” Nick interrupted, “it sounds to me like you asked for every one of those scratches Maybelle gave you.”

“I wouldn’t ask her for a newspaper to swat a fly. Now get your hands off me! I’m going home!”

Nick released his grip and watched as an angry Margie stormed back over to her hen pack. Victoria approached the scene and suggested that the family depart immediately.

“I think that would be a wise decision,” agreed Jarrod, “Nick, would you please bring the buggy around to the front.”

Victoria and Audra collected their belongings and everyone gathered outside. Heath had managed to get Maybelle calmed down to the point where she was no longer threatening to kill Margie. As Jarrod approached, Maybelle hung her head in shame. She wasn’t sorry for her assault on Margie, but she knew her actions had dishonored the man she so much wanted to please. Silently she waited for his reprimand, but instead she felt his gentle touch brushing her face. Placing his index finger under her chin, he lifted her head so that their eyes could meet.

“Maybelle, I’m sorry.”

Questioning him with her eyes, Jarrod continued,

“Audra told me what happened and I’m not going to place the blame on you. I will say that in the future I would hope that you try and practice some self control, but what she said to you was wrong. You have value, Maybelle, and I don’t ever want you to think otherwise.”

“I know I have value, counselor. Billy Joe made sure of that. That’s why I got so riled when she started callin’ me trash.”

“Come on, let’s go home. We can’t have you welcoming in the New Year wearing a soiled dress.”

*****

New Year’s day was a typical holiday on the Barkley ranch. Silas was given the day off to spend with friends. Victoria prepared a traditional turkey dinner for the family complete with all the trimmings. After everyone had eaten their fill, the family retired to the gun room for pool, cards or chat. As the family filed in through the double doors, Jarrod slipped an arm around his mother’s shoulders.

“That was an exquisite dinner, Mother. How about letting the men folk here take care of clean up?”

“What? Do I hear you volunteering me for a job without my say so?”

Nick turned around and offered his older brother a look of jovial indignation.

“I think clean up can wait until tomorrow,” Victoria offered. “Maybe if Audra and Maybelle have nothing better to do they can volunteer.”

“I’d be more than happy to help in the kitchen, Mrs. Barkley. What do you say, Audra? Are we a team?”

“Of course we are,” the blonde girl smiled at her brunette companion.

“It’s all settled then,” concluded Jarrod. “Brother Nick, you won’t be on dish detail after all.”

“That’s good news,” jested Heath. “Last time Nick did the dishes I kept finding leftovers stuck on the ‘clean’ plates.”

“Well, Heath, since my dishwashing doesn’t seem to pass your inspection, maybe I’ll just have to hand that little chore over to you next time Mother or Silas want the day off.”

“That’s quite all right, Nick. I have a feelin’ I’ll be mendin’ fences that day.”

“So now you’re telepathic as well?”

“Let’s just say that I’m well seasoned and leave it at that.”

Nick gave his younger brother a friendly cuff and the two were soon involved in a competitive game of pool. Heath was up to shoot first and with a winning streak that even amazed himself, ran the table before Nick knew what hit him. Everyone in the room jumped when the quietest member of the family let out a victory whoop that would send a reb running for high ground. Nick’s jaw dropped. He couldn’t believe some people’s luck.

“Now hold on there, Heath, aren’t you even going to give me a chance here?”

“It ain’t so bad, Nick. It’s not like we had a bet goin’ and the loser gets to do the dishes.”

“You wanna bet? I’ll take you up on it, boy. Double or nothin’!”

“If that’s the way you want it, Nick. It’s your shirt sleeves that will be I’ wet.”

“Only if you throw water on me when I come in to laugh at you.”

The bet was on. The whole family gathered around the table to watch as the two younger sons battled it out on the felt covered table. First Nick and then Heath. Each brother gave the game his utmost concentration. It seemed as if neither could get ahead. Finally just the eight ball was left on the table. With a shot of expertise, Heath sent it sailing to it’s final resting place in the right corner pocket. Triumphantly he turned to gloat at his crestfallen brother.

“Better get those sleeves rolled up Nick. That’s a clean shirt you’re wearin’.”

Whatever it was that Nick was mumbling, it was just as well that nobody could make out the words.

“If you all don’t mind, I think I’ll be headin’ for bed,” Maybelle ventured.

“That sounds like a good idea, dear. Anybody else ready to turn in?”, Victoria responded.

Jarrod and Audra murmered their agreement. Turning to address Nick, Heath slapped his brother on the shoulder,

“I tell you what, big brother. You’re credit is good with me. I’ll help you with those dishes tonight and tomorrow we can place another bet.”

“Boys,” Victoria groaned under her breath, “this could go on from now to eternity.”

“Sounds good to me, Heath, but first let’s go out to the barn and check on old Betsy’s leg wound. The doc told me to change the dressin’ twice a day. I forgot to do it earlier.”

“Hold up a second, Nick.”

Heath reached for his gunbelt which lay on the marble table just inside the foyer.

“Since when does it take a six shooter to doctor old Betsy….unless your plannin’ on puttin’ her out of her misery,” Nick jested.

“You know me, Nick,” replied Heath sporting a grin, “Guess I just feel naked without it.”

The two cowboys headed for the stable before getting ready to tackle the mountain of pots and pans that lay before them while the others ascended the wide staircase. Final good nights were said as each person entered the door to their bedroom. Maybelle was just turning up the lamp on her night stand when a hand clamped over her mouth.

“Promise you won’t scream and I’ll take my hand away.”

Billy Joe’s raspy voice sent shivers running up and down her spine. She nodded her head and he loosened his grip.

“So you thought you’d give me the slip. Why Maybelle? Ain’t I always been good to you?”

“It ain’t that Billy. I guess I was just tired is all.”

“Tired of what? Tired of me?”

“Not tired of you, Billy. Just tired of runnin’ all the time. Tired of livin’ like a rattle snake when the heat was on. Tired of having no real place to call home, and….

“Didn’t I always make it up to you?”

“And tired of taking what rightfully belongs to others.”

“Boy have they done a number on you. What kinda pap has that fancy lawyer been feedin’ you, anyway? Or maybe you just got the hots for him.”

“That’s plain foolishness, Billy Joe, I’d just be wastin’ my time. What would a respectable man like Mr. Barkley be wantin’ with the likes of me anyway?”

“Well what is it, then? You ain’t the same girl that I’ve been ridin’ with for the past five years. Tell me. I wanna know.”

“I guess maybe I’m just startin’ to like myself, Billy Joe. I wish you could too.”

“I like myself just fine.”

“You know that ain’t true. Nobody can treat others the way you do and feel good about himself.”

“I’ve chosen the life I want for myself, Maybelle, and it suits me just fine. I only wish you could be there to share it with me. Oh well. I guess I can find myself another gal easy enough.”

Maybelle’s cheeks flushed with anger. Had he always taken his relationship with her so lightly? Was she someone that could easily be traded in for another? She knew now, with zero doubt, that she had made a wise choice.

“We have shared some good times, Billy Joe, and I will always love you, but this is where we say good-bye. I just can’t be part of your gang any longer. Now I know the difference between right and wrong and I won’t make no more excuses for my behavior. I only hope that some day you will come to terms with your own conscience. It’s so much better waking up each day with a clean slate. Good-bye, Billy.”

With tears in her eyes, she turned her face away from him. A dejected Billy Joe Gaines exited the door of Maybelle’s bedroom and mpossibil made his way down the dimly lit staircase. His feelings of anger were mixed with the passion that he once held for this precocious young rebel. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to run or try and hunt down that trouble causing lawyer man and put a bullet through him. The sound of the front door opening took him by surprise. There were two young men staring straight at him. The light haired one was wearing a gun.

Tossed about in an emotional sea of hate, fury and hopelessness, the young outlaw went for his Colt. The shots cracked loudly as Heath’s gun cleared leather and the bullets flew. Clutching his chest, Billy Joe staggered and then toppled down the remaining steps. Heath and Nick ran to the side of the boy outlaw. Upstairs, bedroom doors flew open as gunfire alerted the family to the happenings below.

“Billy Joe!”

Maybelle gasped and started for the staircase. A firm grip on her arm forced her to hesitate.

“Maybelle, wait! Don’t go down there,” Jarrods voice commanded.

Jerking herself free from his hold and tears streaming down her face, the distraught young woman joined the trio in the foyer. The two cowboys stepped back from the limp, yet still live form of the young outlaw. Maybelle stooped down and gently cradled his head in her lap.

“Don’t die, Billy Joe, please don’t die.”

“It’s….it’s too late, Maybelle.”

His breathing was ragged and his words came out in short stutters. Sobbing softly, she drew her face down to his. Mustering all his strength, he reached up and ran his fingers through her thick brown hair.

“I…I’m glad for you, May….Maybelle. Don’t…..don’t feel sad for me. It….it was my own choice.”

Uttering his last words, Billy Joe Gaines closed his eyes and gave up the ghost. Ready to offer words of comfort to the grieving girl, Victoria and Jarrod were standing close by. Jarrod took her by the arm and gently helped her up.

“It’s over, Maybelle. You heard Billy Joe. He made his choice. The only thing for you to do now is to go forward.”

Still searching for answers, she looked past Jarrod to Heath.

“I’m sorry, Maybelle,” the blonde cowboy apologized, “but he forced me to draw on him.”

“I don’t blame you. Billy Joe lived by the gun and I always knew that some day he would die by it.”

Victoria put her arm around Maybelle’s shoulders and escorted the weeping young lass back to her room. Audra, who was still standing at the top of the stairs, trailed along behind, hoping for an opportunity to give Maybelle some reassurance and understanding. Down in the foyer, the three brothers mpossib stood by quietly discussing the preceding event.

“I always heard that Billy Joe Gaines was one of the fastest guns around and a dead shot. Rightfully speaking, I should be the one lyin’ on that floor right now.”

Heath was only just now replacing his gun to it’s holster.

“He probably was a bit paniced at the sight of the two of us,” Nick offered. “When a man over reacts, sometimes his aim ain’t too good.”

“No, I don’t think so,” mused Jarrod. “I think without Maybelle, he figured life was no longer worth living.”

“That could be, Jarrod. How do you suppose this will affect her case,” Nick probed.

“I don’t know, Nick. Off hand I would say it could only help her. I will speak with Judge Parker tomorrow and request that charges be dropped and she become a ward of the court. Now, why don’t you two boys get him moved out to the barn for the night. We will have to make some decisions before delivering him to the sheriff in the morning.”

Jarrod turned toward his study. His paternal instincts were already kicking into gear. Justice had found it’s mark, but it cost plenty for someone that he now cared for very deeply.

Jarrod looked up from his desk as the door the library slowly opened. Victoria stepped inside and walking over to his chair, laid her hand on his shoulder. Turning to face his mother, Jarrods eyes reflected the fatigue he was feeling.

“How’s Maybelle?”

“She’s asleep. I think she is reconciled to the fact that what happened was inevitable. Billy Joe went through life making all the wrong decisions, and now she’s trying to make the right ones for a change.”

“She must’ve still had some very strong feelings for him.”

“A person doesn’t just stop caring about someone they’ve been close to. She was with Billy a long time, and to even sever that tie was a big step for her. In a way, I feel that what happened here tonight was a way of finalizing that decision. Now she will have no reason to ever go back to her old life.”

“I know that, Mother, and I would have been fooling myself to think that there would have ever been a chance that maybe I could have tried to help Billy as well. He was young, but he was also a cold blooded killer. Even if he had turned himself in and wanted to change, I doubt that I could have so much as saved him from the gallows.”

“All the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlies’ are behind us now, son. It’s too late to change any of that, so let’s go forward. What happens from here?”

“Well, we will have to turn Billy Joe over to Fred in the morning. It will be up to him and the judge to decide where he goes from there. I imagine that Maybelle would like for him to have a decent burial. I will try and arrange that if at all possible.”

“What about the reward money? As I recall, there was a five thousand dollar reward on the capture of Billy Joe Gaines.”

“I’m sure that Heath would agree that the money should be set aside in a trust fund for Maybelle. I’ll make the arrangements for that as well.”

“You’re tired, Jarrod, why don’t you come to bed.”

“I guess there’s nothing here on my desk that can’t wait until morning. Come along, lovely lady, I’ll escort you to your room.”

*****

The following morning Jarrod, Nick and Heath left for town immediately after breakfast. Maybelle and Audra were still sleeping, but Victoria was up to see them off. Jarrod rode along on Jingo while his brothers drove the buckboard. Once arriving in Stockton the three went their I ways. While Nick and Heath went on to Fred’s to deal with the dreary formalities, Jarrod wanted to meet with Judge Parker.

“Jarrod! What brings you here so early in the morning?”

“I need to talk with you, Judge,” Jarrod said as he made himself comfortable in one of the high backed leather chairs furnishing the judge’s office.

“Okay. What do you want to talk about?”

“I’ve got some new information that may help you reach a decision regarding Maybelle Williams.”

“All right, Jarrod, I’m listening.”

“Billy Joe Gaines was shot and killed in my home last night.”

“My, that is a piece of news! How did it happen?”

“I haven’t personally had the chance to get all the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ from Maybelle yet, but my mother talked with her quite a bit last night after the incident took place. It seems that somehow Billy Joe broke into the house and was up in Maybelle’s room waiting for her. She told him that she didn’t want to go and basically broke it off with him. On his way out, he came face to face with my two brothers.”

“They shot him?”

“Heath did. Billy Joe drew first and didn’t leave him much of a choice.”

“Well, that solves one of California’s outlaw problems. The bankers and stage companies around here were getting awfully tired of handing over their cash to Billy Joe and his boys, not to mention several lives that he took in the process.”

“Yes, Judge, that does solve one of the problems but still leaves us with the issue of Maybelle. Like I was telling you in the prosecutor’s office last week, she’s I made some very positive changes. You saw that for yourself that day she and I were here in your office. What do you say, Judge? We’ve already established that the stolen goods were found in a hotel room reserved in the name of Billy Joe Gaines. If we go ahead and take this to court, I’m sure a jury will find her innocent. Now, how about saving us all the trouble and expense of a trial, and declaring her a ward of the court? I’m not sure that going through the trauma of a trial would be the best thing for Maybelle right now.”

“Okay, Jarrod, you win. I will have my secretary draw up the necessary papers.”

“Thank you, Judge, I truly believe you are making a wise decision. Now, can we talk about Billy Joe?”

“What’s there to talk about? You’ve already told me that he’s dead.”

“That’s true, Judge, but I would like your permission for the rights to the body. I haven’t spoken with Maybelle yet, but I’m sure she would want him to have a decent burial.”

“All right, I can go along with that as well. The federal marshals will just be burying him anyway. What I need you to do is have Doc Merar issue a certificate of death. That should be all the proof they require.”

“Thanks again, Judge. I’ll be in touch.”

Jarrod left Judge Parker’s office and briskly walked down the street to the sheriff’s office. Nick and Heath were there wrapping things up. It was decided that a portion of the reward money would be used in the young outlaw’s final expenses and the rest would be issued to Maybelle.

“You understand that the banks and railroads aren’t turning the reward directly over to Billy Joe’s girlfriend, don’t you?”

Fred was concerned that the institutions offering the reward may not relish the idea of paying the money to a person who was more or less an accomplice to the man who had stolen from them in the first place.

“Let me reiterate, Fred. The money is actually going to Heath; what he does with it after that is his business.”

Fred nodded his consent.

“Good enough, Jarrod. I’ll leave the body with the undertaker. You can come for him when you’re ready.”

When Jarrod arrived home, he found Maybelle and Audra out in the barn playing with some of Lady’s puppies. Lady was a Border Collie who had found her way to the ranch that fall. The Barkleys didn’t have a dog at the time and decided to keep her. A few weeks later, one dog had turned into eight. The puppies had now opened their eyes and were curiously wanting to explore the indoor world around them.

“Hello, Audra….Maybelle.”

“Hello, Jarrod.”

“Howdy, Counselor.”

Jarrod pulled a folder out of his saddlebags and leaving Jingo for one of the stable hands to put away, he walked over to where his sister and client were seated.

“Maybelle, I need to have a word with you. Do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure, Counselor, what’ve you got on your mind?”

“What do you say we go inside and chat in the library.”

“Whatever you say, Counselor, you’re the boss.”

With a small grin, the brunette girl stood and handed her pup to the blonde one.

“Take care of him for me, Audra. I’ll be back just as soon as I’m through talkin’ with your brother, here.”

The two proceeded over to the house and entered in through the front door. Jarrod ushered Maybelle into the library and offered her a chair. After taking a seat himself, Jarrod got straight to the point.

“Well, young lady, I have some very good news for you. I just came from a meeting with the judge and we decided that sending you to jail wouldn’t serve any useful purpose. He agreed to make you a ward of the court which basically means you’re acquitted.”

“I….I just don’t know what to say. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“You’re very welcome, Maybelle, and now we need to talk about your future.”

“My future?”

“Yes. What type of work would you like to do?”

“I don’t rightly know. I never had no job before. Billy Joe always took care of me. Any suggestions, counselor?”

“All a job is, Maybelle, is a responsibility. Now, I’m sure that even when you were with Billy Joe, you had some mpossibilityes.”

“I used to tend camp when we were campin’ out, and would take care of the horses and such.”

“Okay, that’s a start. Now let’s try and figure out what kind of work you would enjoy and for what kind of job you would be best suited.”

“Actually, what I was hopin’ for, was to some day be a lawyer’s wife. I’ve taken a real shine to you, counselor. Is there any chance that you might feel the same way?”

Jarrod was speechless as he tried to compose his thoughts for an appropriate response. Maybelle’s forthrightness had thrown him off guard. He had been aware of her obvious attraction to him, but shrugged it off as more of a flight of fancy. He cared for her as well, but on a paternal level. As a man, he did find her to be an extremely attractive woman, but knew that the two of them could never be a couple. In the first place, his code of ethics as an attorney would not allow this to happen. She was a minor and placed in his care. For him to pursue a romantic interest would be considered exceedingly unprofessional. Then there were the differences in age, cultural background and education. Yes, he could be her friend and mentor, but the buck would have to stop there.

“Maybelle,” Jarrod started, thinking his words out carefully, “I find you to be very attractive and I am truly flattered, but I think we both know that this would be an mpossibility. I take my profession quite seriously, and it would be very unprofessional for me to be anything but an advisor and friend to you. I will help you get established in your new life and we will be keeping in close touch, but we can never be lovers.”

Blue eyes met brown as Jarrod earnestly and honestly bared his soul to his client. Reaching across the desk, he reached for her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

“I guess I’ve known all along that you were way outta my reach, counselor, but I’m glad to have you as my friend.”

“I’m glad too, Maybelle, and I’m proud to call you my friend. Now, let’s get back to business here. Where were we?”

Out in the barnyard, Heath and Nick had returned home with the buckboard. Heath was unhitching and Nick was brushing down Coco, when they heard a horse loping into the stable area.

“Wonder who that is?”, Heath asked out of force of habit.

“Why it’s Bobby Strong,” answered Nick, peering out the stable door. “Now what do you suppose he wants?”

“Why don’t you ask him.”

“I think I’ll do that,” replied Nick matter-of-factly. “Howdy there, Bobby. What brings you here?”

“Oh, hello, Nick. I just rode out to take a look at that new plow of yours.”

“Now why would you want to do that, Bobby? I just bought that plow from your father at the general store. Couldn’t you have looked at it then?”

“Well, I….uhhh….he sold it before I had the chance. That’s it!”

Frowning in a state of pure puzzlement, Nick looked over at Heath, who shrugged, and then turned his head back to Bobby.

“Go ahead, Bobby, help yourself. It’s right over there against that wall.”

Bobby walked over and gave it a quick once over and then turned back to Nick.

“Thanks, Nick. Why that plow has a right fine paint job, don’t it.”

“Yes, I guess you could say that. Anything else on your mind, Bobby?”

“Well, I hadn’t seen you for awhile and figured maybe I would come on over for some friendly chat.”

“What do you mean, Bobby? We just saw you at the dance a few nights ago.”

Heath had finished hanging up the harness and now stood beside his brother.

“Oh, I guess you did. Somehow it seemed longer.”

“All right, Bobby, would you quit beatin’ around the bush. Why’d you really stop by? Now, I know it wasn’t to borrow a cup of sugar!”

“Well, actually I guess I came by in hopes to call on Miss Maybelle. That is unless one of you two already has your claim staked.”

“I don’t know, Nick. Have you laid claim to our house guest?”

“Not me, Heath. How ‘bout you?”

“Well, I tried, Nick, and got turned down. Guess that means she’s fair game. What do you say, Bobby. How ‘bout comin’ inside for a drink? I think I remember Mother makin’ some fresh lemonade this mornin’.”

Heath gave Nick a quick wink and the two of them escorted their guest into the house.

***The End***

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