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Chapter One

Heather watched her younger brother approach the house and she tried to bite down on her temper.  They’d been through so much in the last six months.  First, they lost their Mama to a wasting disease after watching her suffer terribly for nearly a year, and just three weeks ago their Papa was found dead of a bullet wound through the heart.  The Sheriff said there were no clues, but Heather was sure he knew more than he was admitting.  While it was hard on her and their baby sister, it was even harder for her brother.  She knew that and it was the only reason she didn’t reach out to give him a hard shake when he came up on the porch.  “Where have you been, Robert Joseph Lang?  You were supposed to be home from school two hours ago!”

“I had other things to do.”  The fourteen year old boy looked at her belligerently.

“Robbie, you frightened me,” Heather admitted, fighting the tears that suddenly filled her eyes as she realized her anger was fueled by her fear.  Their father was murdered; what if someone decided to murder Robbie, too!

“Don’t get all girly on me, Sis.  I wanted some time for fun for a change.  Me and Taylor and Biggs went fishing is all.  Wasn’t no big deal.”

“It was a big deal to me when I didn’t know if you were alright!  It’s just rude to go off on your own when you know you’re expected somewhere at a certain time.  I don’t want to punish you, but you’ve given me no choice.”

“What are you gonna do, give me a lickin’?” Robbie sneered at his older sister.  He was a lot bigger and stronger than Heather, and they both knew it.  There was no way he was going to bend over and allow her to give him a walloping.

“No, even though you do deserve a good tanning.  Your punishment is to wash and dry the dishes for the next week.”  She knew he would hate the punishment, and he wasn’t long in expressing his displeasure.

“That is girl’s work and I ain’t doin’ it.”

“You most certainly are going to do the dishes.  I figure you will be paying me back the two hours that I worried about you today.  I mean it, Robert Joseph…! When you are expected to be home from school at a certain time, you’d best be home… or else!”

“You ain’t the boss of me!” Robbie raised his voice to her. “I don’t have to do what you say!”

“Yes, you do.  Papa is gone now, and I am the adult here.  If we want to keep this ranch, then we have to pull together.  All you had to do was come home and say, ‘Sis, I want to go fishing for a couple of hours with my friends.  I can understand that.  What I don’t understand, and will not tolerate, is your going off on your own without so much as a word to anyone here.  You didn’t even tell Holly so she could tell me.  And, you left her to walk home alone!”

“She’s not a baby, Sis.  She knows how to get home on her own.”

“Not until we find out who killed Papa,” she said firmly.  “Now hurry up and get your chores done so we can eat supper and then get to your homework.”  Heather turned to walk inside when she noticed a lone rider approaching.  “I wonder who that is?” she said out loud.

“I think you should hand me the rifle and then lock the door, Sis.  We don’t know this man.”

“No!  You go inside with Holly, and keep her safe, Robbie Joe.  I’ll find out who this is and send him on his way.  He’s probably lost.”

“Sis, you’d better let me handle it.  You are too tiny to defend yourself.”  Robbie was suddenly the man of the family, determined to see her safe.  He pushed her on inside the house, and said, “Lock the door, Sis.”

“Is this the Lang spread?” the man asked.

“Yes, sir, it is.  What can I do for you?” Robbie asked, trying to sound older than his fourteen years.  He loved his sisters, and he’d seen the way this man wore his gun.

“I was notified by Attorney Horner in town that my good friend, Abraham Lang, was murdered, leaving three children.  Would you be his son, Robert?” the man asked matter-of-factly.

“Yes, sir, but I sure don’t know you.”

“I apologize for my lack of manners, son.  My name is Gabe Matthews.  I sure hope he mentioned me to you, or this is going to be a shock for all of you…?”

“Yes, sir; I know your name.  Pa worked with you for several years.  Do you still wear a badge?”

“No, Rob, I don’t.  I stopped a bullet a year ago, and decided it was time to remove the badge.  I need to talk to you and your sisters.  Are they both here?” Gabe asked politely.  He’d seen one of them on the porch with Rob until he shoved her inside, showing darn good sense for a kid his age.

“Yes, sir.  Come on inside.”  He tried the door, and was surprised that Heather actually obeyed him and locked the door.  “Sis, you can open up now.  This here is Gabe Matthews.”

“What is it you’ve come here to say, Mr. Matthews?” Heather demanded from behind them.  She had a rifle trained on him, and he hadn’t even heard her sneak up on them!

“Young lady, you need to put that rifle down before it goes off.”  Gabe was angry, and for two cents he would put her over his knee for a good butt dusting… once she lowered the rifle.

“It won’t go off unless I mean for it to go off.  Why would Mr. Horner send you news of Papa’s death?” she demanded, and Gabe could see how angry she was with the lawyer.

“That is what I wish to discuss with you children,” Gabe said quietly; the longer she held that gun on him the angrier he became, and the longer and harder he intended to spank her.

“I am hardly a child, Mr. Matthews.  State your business.”

“Sis, this is Gabe Matthews.  He worked with Pa for years and Pa trusted him.  You need to put the gun down.” Robbie stepped between the gun and her target.

“Robbie!” Heather shrieked.  “Move! He might have been hired to kill Papa!”

“No he wasn’t, Sis!  You’re acting like a darn silly girl! Give me the gun and ask our guest in to supper while I get the chores done.”  He took the gun out of her hands and marched off to the barn, leaving Heather to face Gabe Matthews by herself.

“You can get on your horse, Mr. Matthews, and leave!”

Her rudeness was the final straw as far as Gabe was concerned. He reached for her, knelt on one knee, and put her over his bent knee, and started smacking her rounded posterior.  “I’ve never met a more prickly female than you, little girl!  You need to have some sense pounded into you before you accidentally kill someone in a female temper fit!”  He spanked her a bit harder then.

“You let me go!” Heather yelled angrily.  She hadn’t had a spanking in quite a few years!  Probably since she was Holly’s age!  “Stop it immediately, or I swear I will shoot you dead the first chance I get!” she threatened him, and immediately realized it was a huge mistake when he started spanking faster and harder.  “Owwww!”  She cried out against her will, but it truly hurt.  Her bottom felt as though she’d backed into the cook stove on a cold day!  “Please, stop!”

“Not likely,” he muttered, and then he felt a sharp pain on the top of his head before the world around him went black.

“Heather!  Heather!  He was hurting you!” Holly exclaimed as she dropped the heavy frying pan on the porch.  “I didn’t know what else to do!” She burst into tears, looking at the unconscious man lying on the porch. “Did I kill him?”

Heather scrambled to her feet and then she wrapped her arms around her little sister and hugged her tightly. “It’s okay, honey bee,” she whispered softly, trying to calm Holly.

“What the heck did you do to Mr. Matthews?” Robbie asked as he ran toward them.  “Heather! This is wrong!”

“He was being mean to Heather!” Holly defended her sister.  “He was giving her a licking, and she’s too old for that.  I stopped him with a heavy frying pan.  I used the really big one, even though I could barely carry it out here,” she explained.

“He hit you, Sis?” Robbie demanded, his blue eyes flashing with fire.

“On her backside,” Holly said, providing the information, and unaware that she was embarrassing Heather and putting an even bigger dent in her pride.

“Ohhhh.  For putting a gun to him…?” Robbie guessed.

“And for telling him to leave,” she admitted.  “How do we know that he didn’t kill Papa?”  She defended her actions.

“Sometimes you just have to trust people and take them at their word, Sis,” Robbie said quietly.  “I know you have a terrible time trusting, and with good reason, but this here is Gabe Matthews; he and Pa saved each other’s lives time and time again.  Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt… if he wakes up.  How darn hard did you hit him, Holly?” he asked.

“Plenty hard,” she said, nodding in satisfaction.  “I won’t let no one be mean to my sister!”

Gabe’s head hurt like hell, and old habits die hard.  He’d lain as motionless as possible while trying to figure out where he was and what had happened.  It seems that the third child whacked him over the head to protect the sister he had over his knee; the sister who royally deserved that spanking.  Rob said she had a good reason not to trust, but that did not excuse her utter rudeness.  Gabe was tempted to finish the spanking he started, but not until the headache that was killing him abated somewhat.  He used great effort to push himself up off the floor, surprised when Rob stepped forward to assist him and steady him.

“Let’s get you inside, Mr. Matthews.  Heather can check and see if Holly hurt you bad enough you need stitches.”

“Gabe,” Gabe said.  “Call me Gabe.”  He gratefully sank into a chair at the kitchen table, and then rested his head in his hands.  “Do you have any birch bark?” he asked.

“Heather?”

“Yes.  I’ll fix you some,” she grudgingly offered.  It didn’t seem fair that he could take a drink of birch bark tea for his pain, but her pain was in another place entirely, and there wouldn’t be any relief until time naturally eased the burning sting.

“Little girl, what did you hit me with?” Gabe asked, unaware of how gruff he sounded… until the child started crying and ran to hide behind Heather’s skirts. “It’s okay, honey.  I understand why you did it; you were protecting your sister from a man you didn’t know.”

“You were being mean to Heather,” Holly insisted, peeking out from her hiding place.

“How old are you, honey?” he asked, talking softly.

“Seven,” she replied, then added sorrowfully, “Papa died on my birthday.”

“That’s a terrible thing to happen on your birthday,” Gabe said sincerely.  “I’m awful sorry about your Pa; he was a friend of mine.”

“Really?”

“Yes.  He was a good man; I respected him… a lot.”

“Then why were you whipping Heather?  Papa didn’t never spank her ‘cause she’s all growed up.”

“Holly, would you set four places at the table, please?” Heather asked politely, and then added in a whisper for Holly’s ears alone, “Please stop talking about what happened, honey bee.  It’s over with now, and it was sweet of you to stop it.  Mr. Matthews didn’t realize I was an adult,” she added her own explanation before Holly could persist in her questioning.

“Okay, Sister.  Which plates do you want me to set out; the normal ones or the company ones?”

“You may decide that, honey bee.”

Holly gave her a big smile and promptly decided to climb on a chair to reach the company dishes.  Robbie immediately moved close so that he could take the plates from her small hands.  He waited while she got down off of the chair, and put it back where it belonged, and then he handed her the plates so she could set the table. He remembered that Heather used to do the same for him when he was as little as Holly; back then he thought she was very tall.

“I didn’t fix anything fancy for supper, Mr. Matthews.”

“I’m not a picky eater, and it will be nice to have a home cooked meal for a change.”  Whatever she’d cooked smelled wonderful, and even with the headache plaguing him, he was starving.  Heather sat a cup of tea in front of him, and he said, “Thank you, Heather.”

“I wish I could drink tea for my pain!” she ungraciously stated, and then hurried back to the stove to stir the stew once again.

“You deserved that spanking, and you’re asking for another.  How on earth Abe raised such a hot-tempered child is beyond me!” he growled.

“You can’t spank Sister!  She is growed up!” Holly insisted.

“I’m not here to fuss with you, Holly.”

“Then why are you here, Mr. Matthews?” Heather demanded.  She knew that her face was red as could be, and she was struggling not to lose her temper once again.  She’d never met a ruder man in her entire life!

“I’m here because your Pa named me your guardian,” he informed Heather, only to hear her gasp in outraged surprise.

“Guardian?!  I think not!  I am an adult, and I am perfectly capable of taking care of Robbie and Holly!”

“And who is going to take care of you, little girl?”

“Certainly not you!” she snapped. “We’ll share our stew with you, but then you can be on your way.” She stomped over to the stove once again and picked up the pan and carried it to the table and sat it down a bit too hard, splashing the stew on the tablecloth.  “Damn it!” she swore, something she rarely did.

“Sis, you don’t have to be so rude!” Robbie scolded her.  “Gabe was Pa’s friend, and you’re treating him like he’s Kyle Kramer!”

“Do not mention that man’s name to me, Robert Joseph Lang!  Wash your hands and then come to the table.  You too, Holly!”

“Why are you so mad, Sister?” Holly tearfully asked.

“I’m not mad!” Heather was beyond mad; she was insulted as could be!

“Who says grace?” Gabe asked quietly.  He wanted to get this meal over with so he could pull Heather aside and lay down the law.  He figured it would be best to get it over with as soon as possible.  The lovely redhead might think she was grown, but she couldn’t be a day over sixteen, if she was that, and it was up to him to let her know what her father expected of him.  Abe wanted him to see his girls married to loving men, and he wanted Rob to grow up to be a fine man that people respected.  He figured Gabe was the man to see to it, and Gabe was going to do his best.

“Robbie, would you offer a blessing, please?” Heather asked.  She was too angry to speak to God right now!

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for providing this food, and we ask that you help us find out who killed our Pa.  Also, please help Heather calm down before she busts a gut! Amen,”

Gabe was trying hard not to smile, but Heather didn’t miss a heartbeat before she said, “That was not a suitable blessing, young man!”

“God understands, Sis.  You’re on your high horse, and He is the only one who can settle you down when you get this way.  You’re still treatin’ Gabe like he did something wrong to you, and other than whacking your butt, he hasn’t done anything but come here because he heard about Pa.  I’d like to hear more about Pa’s wishes… if you don’t run the man off with your sharp tongue!”

Heather got to her feet and ran from the kitchen and out the door.  She took off walking, needing to put some space between herself and the house. She was so angry that she felt like smacking Robbie, and that was not the way to set a good example for her siblings.  Still, it was not right that Robbie felt like he could say anything that he wanted to her when she was being cautious.  Gabe Matthews was handsome to look at, but he had the manners of a polecat!  He’d dared to put a hand to her, treating her like a child!  And, how long ago did her father write that will?  Surely he’d made the agreement with his partner when she was much younger…?  She was twenty-one now, and she did not need a guardian,  She would be the guardian for Robbie and Molly, even if she had to refute her father’s will and take Gabe to court to get it settled.  Heather was fuming so much that she didn’t realize how far she’d walked until two men appeared out of nowhere.  She knew at a glance that they were not reputable, and she mentally scolded herself for walking so far!

“Hello, little lady.  Ain’t you a purty one?”  He smiled at her and his teeth were blackened and decayed, making her ill to look at him.  “Ain’t she purty, Gus?” he asked the other man.


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