Elizabeth Lowell



Diana Saxton drove into the Rocking M's dusty ranch yard and shut off the car's engine. The first thing she saw was a cowboy as big as a barn door standing on the front porch. Unconsciously her hands clenched on the wheel, betraying her instant unease in the presence of men in general and big, well-built men in particular.

The ranch house's front door opened and closed. When another equally big, hard-looking man in boots and jeans came out of the house and began walking toward Diana, carrying a geologist's hammer. Over toward the corral, a third cowboy was climbing onto a horse. The man was so big that he made the horse look like a kid's pony.

My God, Diana thought, don't they have any normal-size men out here? Crowding that thought came another. / can't spend a summer close to these men!

But then, I won't have to. I'll be at the September Canyon site.

Someone called out from the house. Diana recognized Carla MacKenzie's voice and let out a soundless sigh of relief as the first big man turned immediately and went back inside at the sound of his name. Luke MacKenzie, Carla's husband.

As a bit of Diana's uneasiness faded, she recognized the second man. Cash McQueen, Carla's half brother. He was coming toward Diana, slipping the hammer into a loop on his leather belt as he walked. Hastily she got out of her car. She had learned in the past few years not to show her distrust of men, especially big men, yet she still couldn't force herself to be close to any man in a confined space, particularly a car.

Before Cash got to Diana, another call from the house stopped him. He waved to her, said something she couldn't understand and went back into the ranch house.

A sudden burst of activity outside the corral caught Diana's attention. A horse had its head down between its forelegs, its back was steeply arched and its body was uncoiling like a released spring. A few spectacular bucks later, the horse's beefy rider lost his grip on the saddle. He hit the ground, rolled to his hands and knees and came up onto his feet with a lunge. He grabbed the bridle close to the bit and began beating the horse with a heavy quirt. The horse screamed and tried to escape but was helpless against the cruel grip on the bridle.

Without stopping to think, Diana started toward the terrified horse, yelling at the man to stop. Before she had taken three steps, a man in a light blue shirt vaulted the corral fence and landed like a cat, running toward the brutal cowboy, gaining speed with every stride. The running man was smaller and unarmed, hardly a fair match against the huge, beefy man wielding a whip.

Behind Diana, the ranch house door slammed and men came running. Another man ran out of the barn, saw what was happening and yelled, "Careful, ramrod! Baker's quirt has lead shot in it!"

Baker wheeled to face Tennessee Blackthorn, the Rocking M's ramrod. Baker flipped the quirt over in his hand, wielding the thick leather stock as a club rather than using the whip end against Ten. When his thick arm lifted, Diana screamed and men shouted. Only Ten was silent. He closed the last few feet between himself and Baker as the lead-weighted quirt came smashing down.

Ten didn't flail with his fists or duck away from the blow. The edge of his left hand connected with Baker's wrist. The quirt went spinning up and away, flying end over end through the air. Simultaneously the ramrod's right fist delivered a short, chopping blow to Baker's heart. Ten pivoted, slammed an elbow into Baker's diaphragm and sent another chopping blow to his neck as the big man bent over, folding up, all fight gone. Before the quirt even hit the ground, Baker was stretched out full length facedown in the dirt, unmoving.

Torn between disbelief and shock, Diana came to a stop, staring at the Rocking M's ramrod. She shook her head, trying to understand how a man who was six inches shorter and sixty pounds lighter than his adversary had begun and ended a fight before the bigger man could land a blow. As though at a distance she heard Cash and Luke go by her, moving more slowly now.

"Nice work, Ten," Luke said.

"Amen," said Cash. Then, to Luke, "Remind me never to pick a fight with your ramrod. Somebody taught that boy how to play hardball."

Ten said nothing, for he was more interested in calming the frightened horse than in talking about the brief fight. "Easy, girl. Easy now. No one's going to hurt you. Easy… easy.''

As he spoke, he approached the sweating, trembling mare. When he saw streaks of blood mixed with the horse's lather, he swore, but the soothing tone of his voice never changed despite the scalding nature of his words. Slowly he closed his hands around the reins and began checking over the mare.

As Ten's hands moved over the animal, it began to calm down. Not once did the ramrod look toward the motionless Baker. Ten knew precisely how much damage he had done to the brutal cowboy; what Ten wanted to know was how badly the horse had been hurt.

Cash sat on his heels next to Baker and checked for a visible injuries. There was nothing obvious. After a few moments Cash stood and said, "Out cold, but still breathing."

Luke grunted. "Any permanent damage?"

"Not that I can see."

"He won't be swinging a quirt for a while," Ten said without looking up from the mare. "Not with his right hand, anyway. I broke his wrist.''

"Too bad it wasn't his neck," Luke said. "You warned him last week about beating a horse." Luke turned to Cosy, who had yelled the warning about the quirt to Ten. "Bring the truck around. You're on garbage detail tonight."

"Where to?" asked Cosy.

"West Fork."

"Forty miles out and forty miles back, damn near all of it on dirt roads," Cosy grumbled. "In the old days we'd have dumped his carcass on the ranch boundary and let him walk to town."

"Not on the Rocking M," Luke said, stretching lazily. "My great-granddaddy Case MacKenzie once killed a man for beating a horse."

Slowly Diana retreated, walking backward for a few steps before turning and moving quickly toward her car. Though she was a student of human history- Anasazi history, to be precise-she wasn't accustomed to having her history lessons served to her raw. She didn't like having it pointed out that the veneer of civilization was quite thin, even in modern times, and it was especially thin in men.

/ shouldn't be shocked. I know better than most women what men are like underneath their shirts and ties, shaving lotions and smiles. Savages and outlaws. All of them. Outlaws who use their strength against those who are weaker.

A vivid picture came to Diana's mind-the man called Ten coming over the fence, attacking the big cowboy, reducing the larger man to unconsciousness with a few violent blows. She shuddered.

"Diana? What happened?"

She looked up and saw Carla standing on the front porch, holding a tiny baby in her arms,

"One of the men was beating a horse," Diana said.

"Baker." Carla's mouth flattened from its usual generous curve. "Ten warned him."

"He did more than that. He beat him unconscious."

"Ten? That doesn't sound like him. I've never seen him lose his temper."

"Is he your ramrod?"

Carla nodded. "Yes, he's the Rocking M's foreman."

"Light blue shirt, black hair, small?"

"Small?" she asked, surprised. "I don't think of Ten as small."

"He's a lot smaller than Baker."

"Oh, well, even Luke and Cash are smaller than Baker. But Ten's at least six feet tall. A bit more, I think." Carla stood on tiptoe and looked out toward the corral. "Is he all right?"

"His wrist is broken."

"Ten's hurt? Oh my God, I've got to-"

"Not Ten," Diana interrupted quickly. "Baker is the one with a broken wrist."

"Oh." Relief changed Carla's face from strained to pretty. "Then Ten will take care of it. He's had medic training." She looked closely at Diana. "You're pale. Are you all right?"

Diana closed her eyes. "I'm fine. It was a long drive out and the road was rough. Now I know why. I was going back in time as well as miles."

Laughing, shaking her head, Carla shifted the sleeping baby and held out her hand to Diana. "Come in and have some coffee. French roast, Colombian beans, with just enough Java beans blended in to give the coffee finesse as well as strength."

Diana's eyelids snapped open. The dark blue of her eyes was vivid against her still-pale face. "I'm hallucinating. They didn't have French roast in the Old West, did they?"

"I don't know, but this isn't the Old West."

"You could have fooled me," Diana said, thinking about outlaws and brawls and a man with the lethal quickness of a cat. But despite her thoughts, she allowed Carla to lead her across the porch and into the cool ranch house. "Your ramrod would have made one hell of an outlaw."

"In the old days, a lot of good men were outlaws. They had no choice. There wasn't any law to be inside of." Carla laughed at the expression on Diana's face. "But don't worry. The bad old days are gone. Look in our side yard. There's a satellite dish out there sucking up all kinds of exotic signals from space. We have television, a VCR, radios, CD players, personal computers, a dishwasher, microwave, washer-dryer-the whole tortilla."

"And cowboys swinging quirts full of lead shot," Diana muttered.

"Is that what Baker did?"

Diana nodded.

"My God. No wonder Ten lost his temper."