Combat! Fan Fiction by Mary Wright
An Enigma
An Easy Capture
A Giant of a Man
The Last Straw
No Greater Love
Murphy's Law
Musical Chairs
Sergeant to Sergeant
A Strange Patrol
The Bridge
The Worst and the Best
An All Inclusive Tour
Purple Hearts - Combat! Fan Fiction



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Now and Then

TXMedic & EagleLady

          Kyle patted Cody on the head, gently pushing the big dog out of the doorway.  Grumbling, the dog edged over enough to let the man through then resumed his sprawled position in the sun.  Kyle shook his blond hair out of his eyes and slapped his hat on.  He stopped at the edge of the wooden porch, his hands on the small of his back, stretching as he gazed across the small valley.
          If he lived to be a hundred, he didn't think he'd ever tire of the view.  Directly in front of him lay Sleeping Indian Mountain, to the west lay the broken ridges of the Myriad Peaks, to the east towered Mt. Peavens, named for one of the early explorers.  Between him and the mountains lay a small narrow valley, bisected by a shallow but wide river that had never run dry as long as anyone could remember.  Closer to him were several corrals, holding twenty horses.  The gentlest were held in the closest corral, then the more spirited in the next, and the last corral held his favorites, the feisty ones that took an experienced rider to handle them. 
          Any minute now, Matt, his hired hand, would drive up, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  He would be yawning, scratching, and complaining as he climbed out of his battered pick-up.  Matt's hair was graying, and he was getting stiffer, but he was still the best Kyle'd ever seen at handling horses.  It didn't matter to Matt whether the animal was a biting, kicking outlaw or a docile rocking horse, he loved them all and they apparently loved him right back. 
          A plume of dust announced Matt's arrival in the yard.  Kyle couldn't help grinning as the old man half fell out of the truck without spilling a drop of coffee. Cigarette dangling from his mouth, he scratched his ample belly.  Gnarled fingers snagged the cigarette as he started to yawn.
          "Mornin', boy."  To Matt, Kyle was just a boy, despite his 35 years.
          "Mornin', Matt."  Kyle nodded as he came down the steps.
          "Don't know what this world's comin' to, boy."  Matt shook his head.  "Couple cars of city folks just meandering down the road, gawking.  S'nough to make you crazy."
          "City folks, huh?  Maybe it's our riders comin'."
          "You got somebody comin' this early in the season?"
          "Yup.  Two gals, and three guys."
          "Kinda uneven, ain't it?"
          "They're not together.  The gals are together, a lady and her aunt.  The others are businessmen on one of them 'bonding' things.  Why you'd want to bond with another guy, I ain't figured out.  But they pay good, and that's what matters these days."
          "Where you takin' 'em?"
          "The ladies said they don't care, and the guys want to go down towards the Myries.  It's a two-dayer with a campout."
          "Lucky you.  Need help with the gear?"
          "Nope.  Got it all packed, just need to load it when they get here."
          "Who you takin'?"
          "Daisy for the aunt, Ghost for the niece, Storm, Apple, and Dunny for the guys. I'm riding Gun."
          "Gotcha.  I'll go fetch 'em.  Sammy for the pack?"
          "Yeah, Sammy's fine."
          Matt nodded and slouched off toward the barn, still scratching and yawning.  Kyle dug a smoke out of his shirt pocket and lit it absently, watching twin dust plumes wind their way toward the ranch.  It wasn't much of a working ranch, but he made enough off of trail rides and outfitting hunters to keep the land, at least for a few more years.  Squinting against the swirling smoke, he tilted his face toward the strengthening sun.  He sure hoped the aunt wasn't old and fat.  It would also be nice if the niece wasn't too bad looking.  He could care less about the men.  They said they could ride, but he'd find that out before they left the yard.
          Kyle had just finished his cigarette when the first car pulled into the yard, slowing down in consideration of the flying dust.  It rolled to a gentle stop near the porch.  The driver popped out of the car and turned in a slow circle, looking at the hills.  She was a tiny thing, barely over five feet high, her shoulder-length light brown hair shining in the sun.  She had on well-worn boots, jeans, a T-shirt with an unbuttoned cotton shirt over the top of it, and a battered cowboy hat was perched on the back of her head.  Kyle figured her to be in her late twenties.  Just the right age.
          "What a beautiful place to live!  I'm Lissa and you must be Kyle?"  She grinned.
          "Yeah" Kyle broke off, staring at the passenger as she climbed out.
          Lissa looked at him curiously, then turned to see what he was looking at.  The passenger looked to be in her late forties, slightly over-weight, with short curly hair.  What held Kyle's attention, however, was what she wore.  A blindingly yellow cowboy hat rode atop the curls, clashing with the neon-pink baggy shirt.  Instead of jeans, she wore shimmering green slacks, with palm trees fashioned out of sequins on each front pocket.  Her feet appeared to be bare, and then he realized that she wore sandals with tiny straps.  Trying hard to maintain his composure, Kyle swallowed hard, aware that Matt had stopped in mid-stride to stare at the apparition.
          "Uh, yeah.  I'm Kyle."  He finally said.
          "This is my Aunt Martha."  Lissa giggled at Kyle's expression.
          "Pleased to meet you, Kyle.  Lovely place you have here."  Martha smiled.
          Well aware that he was trying to find a tactful way to deal with her aunt's outfit, Lissa moved around the car toward him. 
          "Which horses are we going to use?  They're all beautiful."
          "Matt is bringing them out."
          "Will you show me, please, which one is mine?"
          "Uh, yeah, sure."
          "Coming, Aunt Martha?"
          "No, dear, you go ahead.  I'll be along in a minute."
          Lissa started toward the horses, chattering a mile a minute.  Casting a why-me? glance to the heavens, Kyle followed her.  He introduced her to Matt, then noticed the second car was about to enter the yard and turned back toward the house, stopping so suddenly that Lissa walked right into him.  Aunt Martha was sitting on the top step, Cody's head in her lap.  That in itself was unusual as Cody was very reserved around strangers, and here he was gazing at the woman in adoration as she scratched his ears.  The second surprise he got was the woman.  She now wore jeans, a pale green T-shirt with a brown cotton shirt over the top, scuffed boots, and a gray cowboy hat lay on the step beside her.  She looked up, found Kyle staring at her with his mouth open, and burst into laughter.
          "I'm sorry, Kyle.  I wanted to see what kind of a person you are.  I'm not really that outrageous."
          Grinning, Kyle strode over and planted a boot on the lower step and leaned an elbow on his knee.
          "Well, Auntie M, what did you do to my dog?"
          "Auntie Em?"  Lissa chuckled.  "That sure doesn't look like Toto."
          "Cody, actually."
          "I'll have you know that I didn't do anything to him.  I sat down and he joined me all by himself."  Martha shrugged.
          "Aunt Martha has that effect on animals.  All animals."  Lissa started up the steps, changing her mind when Cody gathered himself to rise. 
          Shaking his head, Kyle turned to greet the second group of riders.  This bunch drove a Mercedes.  The three men that got out were all dressed in brand new jeans, boots, shirts, denim jackets and hats.  These three could ride?  Well, that remained to be seen.
          "Good morning." The driver said.  "I'm Martin Mull, this is Donald Jameson, and Thomas Anders."
          "'Morning.  I'm Kyle.  This is Lissa and Martha, they will be riding with us."
          The men exchanged glances, then the driver swept his hat off.
          "Please to have you with us, ladies."
          Vaguely uneasy, Kyle turned toward the corrals.
          "If you will all follow me, I'll match you up with your horses."
          He walked down to where Matt had the six horses tied to the rails outside the now empty first corral. 
          "Who wants to go first?"  He asked.
          "Doing what?"  Mull asked.
          "Mount your assigned horse and ride him around the corral so I can decide whether the two of you match."
          "I told you we could ride."
          "Yeah, I know you did.  However, it's my policy to check out each rider before we leave.  You wanna go first?"
          "Alright.  Which one is mine?"
          "The dun.  His name is Dunny."
          Mull turned and reached for the reins to the bay.  Kyle saw Lissa smother a grin as she turned to look at the mountains.
          "That's a bay, Mr. Mull.  This one is a dun."
          "I am aware of that.  I was simply moving that one out of the way."
          Matt snickered, turning it into a cough when Kyle glared at him.
          Mull's climb into the saddle wasn't graceful, but he did make it.  Matt opened the gate and he rode into the corral, moving from a walk to a trot to a jog and back to a walk per Kyle's instructions.  He rode out of the corral and Jameson took his place on the bay, followed by Anders on the paint.
          "Alright, that will work.  Lissa, I've got you on Ghost, the appy."
          Lissa swung lithely to the saddle, rode into the corral and put Ghost through his required paces, then backed him up, and spun him in a tight circle before exiting the corral
          "He's a great horse, Kyle."  She smiled.
          "Auntie M, I've got you on Daisy."
          "Uh, Kyle?"  Matt called softly.
          He turned to see what Matt wanted and his jaw dropped.  Martha was standing at Gun's head, apparently talking to him.  Kyle stared in disbelief as the big steel-gray stallion gently bumped her with his nose, asking to be petted.  That horse was half-wild, and Kyle was the only one who could ride him.  For that matter, Kyle and Matt were the only ones that could touch him without getting bitten or kicked.  Totally oblivious to being watched, Martha reached up and rubbed Gun's forehead and patted his nose.
          "Auntie M?"  Kyle called.
          "Hmm?"  She turned toward him, laughing when Gun almost knocked her hat off nuzzling her.
          "I've got you on Daisy.  She's the roan."
          "Not on this beautiful boy?"
          "No.  I ride Gun."
          "Short for Son of a Gun."  Matt grinned.
          "I told you she has a way with critters."  Lissa said at his side.
          "So I see."
          With a final pat on the neck, Martha left Gun and went to Daisy.  She talked to her for a moment, patted her nose, then swung up into the saddle and performed the required exercises. 
          "She will do nicely, Kyle.  Thank you."  Martha grinned at him.
          Glancing over to be sure Sammy was packed, Kyle did a flying mount into Gun's saddle, easily riding out the crow-hops as he looked over the small group.
          "Everyone ready?"  He asked, receiving five affirmatives.  "Okay.  I lead.  We ride single file unless I say otherwise.  No running your horse, no stopping without letting me know.  Clear?"
          "Yeah, yeah."  Mull said.  "Let's go."

<> <> <>

          Ignoring Matt, who was rolling his eyes, Kyle turned the stallion and headed out of the yard, leading Sammy.  Lissa fell in directly behind him; Martha behind her, then Mull, Anders, and Jameson brought up the rear without talking. 
          "Kyle?"  Lissa called.
          "Does that mountain have a name?"
          "Which one?"  He asked, turning to look back at her.
          "That one."  She pointed to the right.
          "That's called Sleeping Indian.  He's on his back."
          "Yeah, I can see it now."  She said after squinting at the mountain for a moment.
          "Kyle?"  Martha called.
          "Auntie M?"
          "May I ride up beside Lissa?"
          A light touch of her heel brought Daisy up beside Ghost, the two horses touching noses. 
          "Beautiful up here, isn't it?"  Martha asked.
          "Oh, yeah."  Lissa replied, her eyes on Kyle's back.
          Martha laughed at her, shaking her head.  When Kyle glanced back suspiciously, both men looked at him innocently.  Tugging his hat down over his eyes, Kyle turned back around.  After riding for a couple hours, Kyle stopped and turned Gun sideways, looking over the group.
          "Everybody okay?  Anyone want a break?"
          "No."  Mull almost snapped.  "Keep going."
          His eyes darkening with anger at the man's rudeness, Kyle looked at the two women.
          "I'm fine."  She smiled at him.
          "Auntie M?"
          "I'm just fine, dear boy."
          Chuckling, Kyle gigged Gun around and back onto the trail.
          "Grumpy, aren't they?"  Martha leaned close to whisper to Lissa.
          "Maybe they'll get saddle sores."  Lissa grinned at the thought.
          A short time later, they left the trees and started into a wide meadow covered with wild flowers of every color and description.
          "Hey, Kyle!"  Lissa called softly.
          "Can we ride up there with you for awhile?"
          "While we're in the meadow you can."
          Lissa moved up on his left, Martha on his right.  Kyle looked from one to the other, then tugged his hat even further down over his blue-gray eyes.
          "You pull that hat down any further and we'll have to get you a seeing-eye horse."  Martha teased.
          "We don't bite, honest."  Lissa assured him.
          "Sure you don't."  He retorted.
          "It's just that those three give me the creeps."  She told him.
          "They won't bother you."  He said flatly.
          "How do you know that?"  Martha asked curiously.
          "Because I won't let them."
          "Well, that's a good conversation stopper."  Martha glanced over at him.
          "Sorry.  I meant..." He stopped.
          "That's alright."  Martha patted his arm.  "We know what you meant.  So, Kyle, where are we going?"
          "Up to the Myries."
          "The whats?"
          "The Myriad Peaks.  That jumble of rocky peaks up there."  He pointed.
          "How long have you lived here, Kyle?"  Lissa asked.
          "All my life.  Born right there in that ranch house."
          "Where are your parents?"
          "Dead.  They died within a year of each other.  Ma just didn't have the heart to go on after Dad was gone."  He said matter of factly.
          "Do you provide guide service with your guide service?"  Martha asked.
          "Say what?"  Kyle stared at her.
          "You know; Geronimo was born under that tree, Custer's last stand was over there, that sort of thing."
          "Auntie M, this is Colorado.  Geronimo was not in Colorado.  Custer's last stand was in Montana."  He said patiently.
          "I know that, silly.  I meant, will you tell us about the history of the land and the people that lived here?"
          "Why didn't you say that?"
          "She did."  Lissa giggled.  "You'll get used to her."
          "I doubt that."  Kyle shook his head.
          "Well?"  Martha prodded.
          "Okay, I'll give you the nickel tour, ladies.  You're riding in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  There are two theories of how they were formed.  You want the scientific one or the legend?"
          "Oh, the legend, of course."  Martha replied eagerly.
          "That's what I figured."  Kyle tipped his hat back on his head as he grinned at her.  "Back before the gods made man, the earth god and the water god were playing.  They were using the moon as a ball, kicking it back and forth.  The sun god was not happy about that because the moon belonged to him and he liked to have it hanging among the stars where he could see it, not getting dirty rolling around on the ground.  He had warned the younger gods to leave it alone, but as with many young creatures, they did not listen.  When he found them, the moon was rolling to the west with the earth god running after it.  The sun god yelled so loud that it frightened the earth god into a sliding stop.  As his feet slid on the ground, the earth piled up ahead of his feet.  The water god was more timid than the earth god and he began to cry.  The sun god decreed that the land should stay as it was, piled up into uneven mounds and that the water god's tears would remain as the many ponds, lakes and streams found among the mounds.  He also decreed that the moon would remain in the sky with the stars, and should anyone take it again, he would send his fire to the earth and burn everything up.  And that is how the mountains and waters were formed and why the moon always remains in the sky."
          "What a wonderful legend.  Which theory do you believe, Kyle?"  Lissa asked.
          "That one, of course.  There are several Indians among my ancestors."
          "So that makes you part Native American, right?"
          "Yeah, except we call them Indians.  Out here, we don't go in much for 'politcally correct'."  He chuckled.
          "How did the Sleeping Indian come to be?"  Martha asked.
          "He was a Ute, in love with a beautiful Cheyenne girl.  They wanted to marry, but her parents forbid her to see him again.  They made arrangements through sympathetic friends to meet and leave the area together.  They met as arranged at dawn of the time of the Planting Moon.  Unfortunately, her parents found out about it.  They came upon the two lovers as they were kissing.  Angry, her father knocked the Ute to the ground and they dragged her away with them.  Heartbroken, the Ute searched for her for many moons, but could not find her.  He returned to the last place he had seen her and lay down on the ground where she had been sitting, so as to be as near to her as he could.  His friends came and tried to talk him into returning to the village but he refused to leave.  He refused to eat or drink.  He just lay there on the ground, thinking of his lost love.  The gods finally took pity on him and changed him into a mountain so that he could stay there for all eternity." 
          "Isn't that sad?  I love listening to legends.  My people's legends are nowhere near as interesting as yours."  Martha sighed.
          "Who are your people, Auntie M?"  He asked.
          "English for the most part.  Rather boring, actually."  She laughed.
          "So the Ute and Cheyenne lived here, right?  Who else?"  Lissa inquired.
          "The Ute settled here around 1500 A.D., according to the experts in that sort of thing.  Since then you have the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowas, Comanches, Pawnee, and Sioux living in various parts of the state.  And of course, you have the White-Eyes or Long Knives, depending on what you prefer to call them.  Today, the Northern Ute and the White Mesa Ute live in Utah on the Uintah-Ouray Reservation and near Blanding; the Southern Ute live down near Four Corners near Iganacio; and the Mountain Ute live on the western end of the Southern Ute Rez near Towaoc.  None of the other nations are still in Colorado, although some individual members live here.  I mean there aren't any rezs for them."  Kyle glanced at his watch.  "You ladies better drop back now, we're moving into the trees again.  We'll be stopping for lunch in awhile."
          Both women reined their horses in, waiting until Kyle and Sammy had pulled ahead of them before they moved back into line again.  They rode for another forty-five minutes before Kyle pulled up in a sun-dappled clearing and dismounted.  Ground-hitching Gun, he walked up to Ghost and reached up, lifting Lissa from the saddle.  Leaving her staring after him with her mouth open, he went to Daisy and easily lifted the larger woman from her saddle, setting her on the ground beside him.
          "Thank you, Kyle."  She smiled.
          Kyle nodded and started unpacking lunch from Sammy's gear bags.
          "What did he do that for?"  Lissa demanded, joining Martha.  "I'm perfectly capable of getting down myself."          
          "You young people never cease to amaze me."  Martha sighed.
          "In the first place, he's a gentleman and you are a lady.  What you just experienced is old-fashioned courtesy.  In the second place, what he did subtly tells those three twits that he is looking out for us.  Hands off, in other words, my girl."
          Lissa and Martha strolled around the clearing, stretching and admiring wild flowers while the three men more or less fell off of their horses.  Mull pulled his jacket off and tossed it over a tree branch.  Anders and Jameson moved around stiffly, ignoring everyone else. 
          "Come and get it."  Kyle called.
          The women responded quickly, the mountain air and exercise making them hungry.  Kyle had sandwiches, apples and oranges, and cookies, all laid out on a cloth spread on the ground.  While the group gathered to eat, Kyle grabbed a sandwich and headed for the horses.  Gathering the reins in one hand, the sandwich in the other, he led them toward the trees.
          "Where are you going?"  Mull demanded.
          Kyle turned slowly and studied him for a moment before answering.  "To get them a drink of water.  Unless you'd rather take them?"
          "No."  Mull flapped a dismissing hand.  "You can do it."
          Lissa and Martha stared at him in disbelief, then by unspoken agreement took their lunch and moved to the other side of the clearing, their backs to the men.  They finished just as Kyle returned with the horses.
          "Kyle, we're going to, um, take a short walk."  Martha told him.
          "Don't go too far, Auntie M"  He warned.
          "We won't."  She assured him.
          When they returned, she was walking several feet ahead of Lissa.  Noticing that Mull's jacket had fallen off the branch, she picked it up and started to brush it off.
          "Give me that!"  Mull barked, snatching it from her hands.  "What do you think you're doing?"
          Kyle started to take a step toward them, but Lissa beat him to it, jumping in between her dumb-founded aunt and Mull.
          "Don't be such a jerk!  Your jacket fell on the ground and all she was doing was brushing it off!  You may talk to your wife like that but you won't talk to my aunt like that while I'm around.  I think an apology is in order, don't you?"  She demanded.
          Mull glared at her a moment, then muttered an apology as he turned away to tie his jacket on the back of his saddle.  Lissa put an arm around her aunt's shoulders and guided her to the horses Kyle was holding, mumbling under her breath the whole time.
          "You alright, Auntie M?"  Kyle asked quietly.
          "Heavens, yes!"  She answered indignantly.  "I'm not made of glass, you know."
          "I'd like to punch him right in the nose."  Lissa remarked, still angry.
          "Feisty little thing, aren't you?"  Kyle grinned.
          "Nobody messes with my family."  She flared.
          "Okay, okay."  Kyle lifted both hands, pretending to fend her off.  "Ready to go?"
          "Yeah."  Lissa turned to Ghost, stifling a startled squeal when Kyle's hands closed around her waist, lifting her to the saddle.  "Thanks."
          Kyle assisted Martha into the saddle and mounted Gun, watching as the other three climbed back into their saddles.
          "Are you gentlemen ready?"  He asked blandly, ignoring their angry looks.
          "Yeah."  Mull snapped.

<> <> <>

          Reining the big horse around, Kyle led off; Lissa and Martha on Sammy's heels, the men following about thirty feet back.  Perturbed by Mull's behavior, Kyle headed for a different trail that would allow the women to ride beside him where he could keep an eye on them.  He didn't really expect Mull to do anything, but he wasn't going to take any chances, either.  The guy had a real attitude problem.  He hoped that was all it was. 
          Gun picked his way through the trees carefully, occasionally attempting to brush his rider off by passing too close to the trunks.  His mind on the problem with the men, Kyle cursed silently when his left knee collided painfully with a tree.  He snapped the reins against Gun's neck, accompanied by a verbal reprimand.  Gun shook his head and half-reared, expressing his opinion.  Laughing, Kyle nudged him in the ribs.  Lissa and Martha looked at each other and shook their heads, glad that their horses were better behaved.
          As they settled onto the new trail, the women moved up to flank him on their own initative.
          "Will you continue with the guided tour?"  Martha asked.
          "Sure.  Where were we?"
          "The Indians had just been warehoused."
          "Right.  While the Indians were still here, a few mountain men moved in to hunt and trap.  Then gold was discovered at Cherry Creek and the rush was on.  First it was mostly men, then by and by families started coming in and towns got settled.  After the gold petered out, silver was mined for a few years, then that disappeared, too."
          "What about the rest of the state?  They weren't mining the whole thing, were they?"  Lissa asked.
          "Nope.  The east part of the state has always been primarily ranches and farms, the western part produces fruit.  The southwest corner is fairly dry and mostly canyon lands; that's where Mesa Verde is.  Right along the western border, it's dry canyons, too.
Here in the center, more or less, there are ranches and of course, the ski resorts.  The Colorado River  the one that runs through the Grand Canyon- starts here in northern Colorado at Grand Lake.  Up here in the high country, the growing season is pretty short, but we still manage to produce enough hay and other feed for the winter."
          "How much snow do you get?"
          "In an average year up here, around 10 to 12 feet."
          "Twelve feet of snow?"  Lissa's jaw dropped.
          "Sometimes more.  One year, the year I was fifteen, as a matter of fact, we had fifteen and a half feet officially."  Kyle grinned at her.
          "That's way too much snow for me."  Lissa shuddered.
          "Shucks, that means I can't ask you to marry me after all."  He said soberly.
          Looking at the expression on Lissa's face, Martha burst into laughter, startling Daisy, who tossed her head and shied away from the others.  Controlling her without effort, Martha brought her back into line and leaned forward to look across Kyle.
          "Close your mouth, neice, before you swallow a fly."  She advised.
          "What do you do when you're not catching flies?"  Kyle asked Lissa.
          "I'm an EMT."
          "A what?"
          "Emergency Medical Technician?  Paramedic?"
          "That I know.  Where at?"
          "You came all the way from Texas to ride a horse?"
          "Not exactly."  Lissa laughed.  "I came to Colorado to visit my aunt."
          "Ah.  Auntie M?  What do you do?"
          "I'm a legal assistant.  Very boring, actually.  This is a lot more interesting.  How far will we go?"
          "Today or all together?"
          "Both, I guess."
          "Today, we'll cover probably 35 miles or so.  Thirty five in, thirty five out, makes approximately seventy miles."
          "What time will we stop tonight?"
          "Depends on weather, where we are, and what condition you folks are in."
Twisting in the saddle, Kyle looked back at the three men, who were riding side by side about thirty feet behind.
          "You guys okay?"  He called back.
          "Yeah."  Mull answered.

<> <> <>

          The sun was low in the sky when Kyle led the way into a pleasant, grass-lined coulee with a small stream crossing the far end.  He pulled up and looked around at the group.          
          "This is it, folks.  Your hotel for the night.  We'll spend the night here and head back in the morning."
          "Why are we stopping so early?"  Mull demanded.  "There's still plenty of daylight left."
          "We're stopping for several reasons, Mr. Mull.  One, there isn't plenty of daylight left. Once the sun gets beyond the knob up there, it gets dark pretty quick up here.  Two, this is the best place to camp in the area, and three, because I said so."  Kyle said evenly.
          "You were supposed to take us to the Myriad Peaks."  Mull complained.
          "You are in the Myries, Mr. Mull.  Did you have a specific place in mind that you wanted to go?"  Kyle hooked a leg around the saddle horn, slouching in the saddle while he studied the man.
          "Yes. No.  Where is Nomad's Roost?"
          "Up there."  Kyle gestured toward the peaks towering over them.  "It's quite a ways up and not easy to get to.  We aren't going up that far."
          "That's where we want to go."
          "I'm sorry, Mr. Mull.  We aren't going."  Kyle said flatly.
          "Why?  Because you allowed those women to come?  I paid you good money and I expect you to do what you were paid for."  Mull's voice rose in anger.
          "Take it easy."  Kyle told him.  "The women have nothing to do with it.  When you called, you just asked for a ride to the Myriad Peaks.  You didn't specify an area.  This early in the year, it's too dangerous to go up that high.  You could get caught in a sudden snow storm, or a rock slide.  The Roost probably still has snow on it and you couldn't see anything but snow and rocks, anyway.  Come back in a couple months and I'll be happy to take you but this is as far as we're going this trip.  Why don't you get down and stretch while I set up camp?"
          "I insist that you take us to Nomad's Roost."  Mull demanded angrily.
          "No."  Kyle said firmly.  "We are staying here tonight, and going home in the morning. If you want to come back in a couple months, I'll only charge you half rates."
          Swinging down, Kyle walked over to Ghost and lifted Lissa from the saddle, then did the same with Martha.  Ignoring the men, he unloaded Sammy and proceeded to set up the camp.  After starting a fire in a ring of stones, he laid out the bedrolls, three on one side of the fire and three on the other.  Gathering the reins of Sammy, Ghost, Daisy, and Gun, he strode over to the three the men had finally dismounted from and led all seven down to the stream where he unsaddled and picketed them within reach of the stream.  Lissa and Martha joined him, lending a hand as he brushed them down.  Leaving the women to finish up the last horse, he returned to the fire and started preparing dinner.
Mull, Anders and Jameson stood close together near the trees, talking quietly while occasionally glancing over at Kyle, who paid them no attention.
          "Kyle?"  Lissa came up behind him and touched him lightly on the shoulder.
          "Yeah?"  He replied without looking up.
          "Is there enough time, and is it okay if Aunt Martha and I take a walk?"
          "You have about half an hour.  Don't go too far.  If you get lost, stay put and holler.  I'll find you."
          "We won't go far, and I promise we won't get lost."
          "Uh-huh.  I've heard that before."  He grunted.
          "Not from me, you haven't."
          "Right.  Go ahead and have your walk."

<> <> <>

          He watched out of the corner of his eye as the two women disappeared into the trees, then turned his attention to the biscuits he was making.  Jameson strolled over and perched on a nearby log.
          "So, what is this place that Mart wants to go to so bad?"
          "He didn't tell you?"
          "No.  Just that it's up in the Myriad Peaks area."
          "Supposedly, some of the old outlaws in the area used it for a rendevous.  Legend has it one of 'em buried some gold up there and got killed befored he could retrieve it.  Folks have been looking for it for years, but nobody's found nothin' up there. Just rocks."
          "Where is it?  On the top of the mountain?"
          "Nah.  About three quarters up that peak with the scoop on the right side."
          "It's late April and there's still snow up there?"
          "Yeah.  Some years there's snow up there till the new snows come."
          "If it's so high up, hard to get to, and cold, why did the outlaws use it?  Why not somewhere easier to get to?"
          "If it was easy to get to, the law could get there just as easily.  'Sides, back then people were used to harder living than we are these days."  He shrugged.
Kyle put the biscuits on the fire to bake and stood up, stretching.  He froze when he felt something hard pressing into his back.
          "We're going up there to Nomad's Roost.  You saddle up the horses, fella.  Any funny stuff and I'll blow you away.  You got it?"  Mull growled from behind him.
          "Yeah.  I got it."
          Kyle strode over to the horses and quickly saddled Dunny, Apple, and Storm.
          "You're coming with us."
          "You can't leave the women here alone!"  He protested.
          "I can and will.  Saddle your horse."
          "Mart, if we make him come with us, what's to say he won't lead us in circles?  You got a map, what do you need him for?"  Anders asked.
          "You're right."
          Reversing the pistol he held, he slugged Kyle over the head, quickly stepping out of the way of the falling body.
          "Is he dead?"
          "Who cares?  Get on those horses.  We'll take all of them with us.  Let the broads walk home if they can."
          When Jameson mounted, Mull handed him the reins for Ghost and Sammy; Anders got Daisy and Gun.  Mull climbed into the saddle and they rode away, leaving Kyle sprawled face down beside the stream.

<> <> <>

          Lissa led the way into the coulee, stopping so quickly that Martha nearly ran over her.
          "Hey!"  Martha protested.  "What's up?"
          "Everyone's gone."  Lissa gestured around them.
          "Gone?  Gone where?  Why?"
          "Beats me.  I was with you, remember?"
          "Are the horses gone, too?"
          Glancing toward the stream, Lissa gasped and broke into a run, leaving Martha staring after her. 
          "Aunt Martha!  Hurry!"  Lissa called,  crouching beside something on the ground.
          Martha ran to join her, stopping with a hand to her mouth.
          "Kyle!  Is he alive?"  She whispered in horror.
          "Yes.  Get me some water, will you?"
          Running back to the fire, Martha grabbed the first thing she found, which proved to be a cup, ran back to the stream, filled it and brought it to Lissa. 
          "At least they left the saddles.  Aunt Martha, find my first-aid kit; it's in my saddlebag."
          "Which one is yours?"
          "I don't know, you'll have to look for it."
          Martha pounced on the saddles, dumping the contents of the saddlebags onto the ground until she finally found what she was looking for.  Lissa opened the kit and sorted through the contents till she found the antiseptic wipes and a bandage.  She cleaned and bandaged the gash on the back of his head, then with help from Martha, turned him onto his back and cradled him in her arms.
          "What on earth happened here?"  Martha sank to the ground beside her.
          "I have no idea, Aunt Martha.  Hopefully, Kyle can tell us when he wakes up."
          Kyle woke slowly to find a herd of horses stampeding inside his head.  He lifted a hand to his head, startled when someone grabbed his arm, stopping him.
          "Lay still, Kyle."  A woman's voice said softly.
          Wondering who she was, where he was and what the hell happened, he opened his eyes, barely able to make out a shadowy figure above him.
          "What the hell?"  He mumbled, trying to sit up.
          "Kyle, it's Lissa.  Do you remember me?"
          "Yeah.  You're the one who won't marry me because of snow."  He said irritably.
          "You were hit on the head and unconscious.  Take it easy."  She told him, trying to stifle a giggle.
          "Yeah, I can feel it.  Where is that bastard?"
          "Mull and friends."
          "They're gone.  So are the horses."
          "Aw, hell."  He groaned.  "Help me up, will you?"
          With Lissa holding one arm, and Martha holding the other, he managed to get to his feet and gently explored the bandage Lissa had applied.
          "How do you feel?"  Lissa asked.
          "Like I've been hit on the head.  What do you think?"  He snapped.  "Sorry.  That wasn't meant for you.  Are you two alright?"
          "Us?  We're fine.  Why shouldn't we be?"
          "With Mull around, there's no telling.  Any idea how long I've been out?"
          "At least ten minutes.  Probably not much longer than that since you were still bleeding pretty good."  Lissa answered.
          "This may not be a real good time, but if anyone's interested, dinner is ready."  Martha ventured quietly.
          "Did I make any coffee?"  Kyle asked.
          "No, but I did."  Martha replied.
          "Humph!"  He snorted.  "Probably weak as tea."
          Leaving Lissa supporting him, Martha brought him a cup of coffee.  He took a tentative sip, then a drink, grimacing.
          "What did you do, dump the whole bag of coffee in there?"
          "I thought you wanted it strong."  Martha's white teeth gleamed in the dark as she grinned at him cheerfully.
          "I didn't want to walk on it."  He retorted.
          "Just drink it."  Martha ordered.
          "Yes, Auntie M" 
          Holding the cup in one hand, and Lissa's hand with his other, he walked a fairly straight line to the fire and sat down, pulling her down beside him.  With a contented smile, Martha sat down across the fire from them and started dishing up their dinner.  Kyle took his with an injudicious nod, winced at the resulting pain, and ate in silence.
          "Kyle?"  Lissa finally broke the silence.
          "What do we do now?"
          "Sleep.  In the morning, I'm going after them while you two stay here."
          "Why?"  Martha asked.
          "No, we're not."  Lissa stated positively.
          "Why?  Because he stole seven of my horses, for one thing.  For another, they could get themselves lost, injured or killed up there."
          "I know that, silly.  I meant, why do we have to stay here?"
          "I can move faster alone."
          "You're not thinking well yet, Kyle."  Lissa said sweetly.
          "What do you mean?"
          "Number one, there're bears and mountain lions up here, and we don't have anything to protect ourselves with.  Number two, you've been injured.  Number three, if we sit here and something happens to you, how will we know?"
          "If you go with me and something happens, what will you do?"
          "I am an EMT, remember?  Besides, if you don't agree to take us with you, we'll just follow you and probably get lost, and you'll get sued, and you'll lose the ranch."
          "Alright, alright!  Women!"  He gave in.
          Lissa and Martha exchanged satisfied smiles, then Martha gathered up the dishes and headed for the stream.
          "I'll do that."  Kyle started to get up.
          "No, you rest that poor head of yours.  It won't take me but a minute or two."
          "Kyle, how do you plan to find them?"
          "Track 'em."
          "You mean like they used to do in the old west?"
          "Old west, new west, tracks are tracks."  He shrugged.
          They sat quietly, watching the fire until Martha returned.  Kyle took the dishes from her and stowed them back in Sammy's packs.
          "Okay, ladies, time to hit the hay." 
          With a mischevious grin, he stretched out on the bedroll in the middle waiting to see what they would do.  Mull and company had left their bedrolls behind, so the gals had five to chose from.  Through slitted eyes he watched as they looked at each other, then at the various bedrolls.  Of one accord, they turned and approached him.  They lay down on their stomachs on either side of him, then propped themselves up on their elbows to look at each other over the top of him.
          "Good night, Lissa."  Martha said.
          "Good night, Aunt Martha."
          "Good night, Kyle."  To his surprise, Martha leaned over and kissed his cheek.
          "Uh, good night, Auntie M"  He chuckled.
          "Good night, Kyle."  Lissa leaned over and kissed him full on the lips, then lay down, pillowing her head on her arms.
          Totally flabbergasted,  Kyle lay still, unable to think of a single thing to say or do.  Beside him, he heard Martha trying to smother a laugh.  Struggling to maintain what little dignity he had left, he put his hat over his eyes and tried to go to sleep.  Biting her lip to keep from laughing outloud, Martha peered over him to find Lissa doing the same thing.  Martha gave her a thumbs-up, then lay back down.

          When Kyle woke in the morning, he discovered that Lissa was curled up against him with her head on his shoulder.  Martha lay on her side facing him.  She was wide awake, watching him curiously.  Ignoring her, he carefully slid out from under Lissa, gently lowering her to the blanket, got to his feet and headed for the fire.  Content to lay still in the cool morning air, Martha watched as he built up the fire and started a pot of coffee.  When it was ready, he walked over and extended a hand to help her up.  Smiling, she accepted the offer, mildly surprised to find herself not only lifted to her feet, but also given a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
          "Mornin', Auntie M"  He grinned.
          "Good morning yourself, young man.  How's your head?"
          "Fine.  My Dad always said my head was harder than granite.  Guess he was right."
          "So, what's on the agenda?"  She asked, following him back to the fire.
          "Breakfast.  Then I'll stow the saddles and packs, then go after those idiots."
          "And us?"
          "Auntie M, I know when I'm licked."  He sighed.  "You two will be coming with me."
          "Thank you.  I wasn't looking forward to sitting here wondering what was happening."
          Behind them, they heard Lissa mumbling to herself as she tried to crawl out of the blankets tangled around her legs.  Laughing at her, Kyle strode over, slid his hands underneath her arms and hauled her to her feet.  He set her down, put a hand behind her head, pulling her toward him and planted a kiss on her mouth.
          "Good morning."  He told her, then returned to the fire.
          Lissa stood staring after him with her mouth opening and closing while Martha burst into laughter.
          "I do believe that's the first time I've seen you speechless, niece."
          "Oh, hush, Aunt Martha."  Lissa scolded
          "Come eat while it's hot."  Kyle called over his shoulder.
          "We are talking about breakfast, aren't we?"  Martha asked with a wicked chuckle.
          "Auntie M!"  Kyle glared at her.
          Lissa's attempt at a dignified walk was completely destroyed when she tripped over an exposed root, barely catching her balance.  Ignoring the other two, who were trying hard not to laugh, she sat down across from Kyle and picked up a cup.  Kyle wrapped a cloth around the coffee pot handle and poured her a cup without comment.
          "Yes, Auntie M?"  He replied patiently.
          "Just out of curiosity, what do you plan to do when you find them?"
          "Take them back home, turn 'em over to the Sheriff and charge them with assult and battery, and horse stealing."
          "But, Kyle, there are three of them!"  Lissa exclaimed.
          "Yeah, and your point is?"  He didn't bother to look up from his breakfast.
          "There are three of them and only one of you, in case you can't count."
          "So?  Kyle, you're outnumbered!"
          "I'll manage."  When he lifed his gaze to hers, his blue-grey eyes were cold.
          "I  I didn't mean that you couldn't do it."  She stammered.  "I just...I was..."
          "She's trying to say she's worried about you."  Martha put in kindly.
          "That's nice.  Are you two finished eating?"
           "Yes."  They answered simultaneously.
          "Okay, do whatever you have to before we go.  We're leaving as soon as I pack up the camp.  Bring a jacket."
          "Yes sir."  Lissa snapped a salute.
          "Very funny."  He said dryly.
          He drank the last of his coffee and quickly cleaned the dishes, packed them away, and tied the saddles and packs up in a tree.
          "What did you do that for?"  Martha stared up at them in puzzlement.
          "Keeps the bears from chewing on the saddles and eating the food."  He explained.
          "Umm, Kyle?"
          "What is that you just stuffed in your belt?"
          "Probably what you thought it was.  A gun."
          "A gun?"  Martha looked shocked.
          "Yeah, a gun.  Handy for bears, mountain lions, that sort of thing.  I tried reasoning with them, but it didn't work.  Ready to go?"  Both women nodded.  "Alright, try to keep up with me.  If you're falling behind, tell me.  I don't want you any further back than twenty feet.  If I tell you to do something, do it before you ask questions.  Got it?"
          "Yes."   Martha nodded solemnly.
          "Is all this drama really necessary?"  Lissa demanded.
          The look Kyle gave her would have melted iron, but she stood her ground unflinching.
          "Yes, Lissa.  It is necessary.  You're not on a city street.  You're up in the mountains with hungry wild animals, cliffs, loose rocks and three men, one of whom has already shown that he doesn't mind using force to get what he wants.  You're unfamiliar with the area and the animals.  I've lived here all my life.  You have exactly two choices  do as you're told, when you're told; or stay here.  Which is it?"
          "Sheesh, I just asked."  She muttered.  "Alright, alright, Bwana, lead on."
          "Don't forget your hats."  He ordered as he started away.
          Clapping their hats on their heads, they followed him as he moved through the trees, heading up the mountain.
<> <> <>

          Lissa looked back to check on Martha, toiling up the mountain behind her.  Both women were working hard to keep up with Kyle's longer stride; the higher altitude not helping their breathing any.  Up ahead of them, Kyle stopped to wait for them with no sign of impatience.  He extended both hands to help them over the rock he'd just stepped over, motioning them to sit down on the rock and rest.
          "How ya doin'?"  He asked.
          "We're pluggin' along."  Lissa answered, taking her hat off to wipe her face.
          "How do you know they went this way?"  Martha panted.
          "I can see their tracks.  Seven horses leave pretty clear sign."
          "I don't see a thing."  Martha looked around.
          Kyle squatted down between them, resting a casual arm on Lissa's knee as he pointed to the ground.
          "There's Gun's track.  See that little notch in his shoe?"
          "Notch?  I don't even see the shoe."  Martha shook her head.
          "Right here."  He traced the edge of the print with his forefinger, then pointed out the notch.  "There's Sammy's track.  He has cleated shoes."
          "I'll take your word for it, Kyle.  In the movies, they can tell how long ago they went past.  Can you?"          
          "Sure.  This was made last night.  See how the edges have crumbled a little?  If it was recent, the outline would still be sharp."
          He pulled his hat off and ran his fingers through his blond hair, cursing softly when he hit the bandage.  He put the hat back on, patted Lissa's knee and got to his feet.
          "Com'on ladies, we've got more ground to cover."
          "Did they stop for the night?"  Lissa asked as she stood and stretched.
          "They had to.  There wasn't enough moonlight to travel by and they couldn't follow the map at night anyway."
          "They could use a lighter to see the map."  Lissa countered.
          "Yeah, but that wouldn't show them where they were.  It was too dark to make out any landmarks."
          "If they're on horseback, how are we going to catch them?"
          "Did you know that way back when, the Apache could walk down a horse?"
          "What?  What do you mean?"
          "I mean that yes, you can catch up to a horse.  Especially up here in the mountains.  On foot you can climb rocks and so forth that a horse has to go around. Besides, they have to go fairly slow if they're following a map.  On the other hand, I know where they're headed and can take shortcuts they don't know about.  Enough talk. Let's go."
          They followed him over and around rocks, around bushes and trees, up and down the mountain until they were ready to collapse.  Much to their relief, he finally stopped and motioned for them to sit down.  Lissa opened her mouth, jumping in surprise when he clapped his hand over it and signaled for them to be quiet.  The two women exchanged puzzled and apprehensive looks, but remained quiet.  Kyle took his hat off and laid it in Lissa's lap, then bent over with his mouth against her ear.
          "Stay put.  No matter what you hear.  I'll come back for you.  If I'm not back in an hour, you two head down the mountain and keep going toward the east, the rising sun.  Matt will find you."  He whispered.
          Lissa looked up into his blue-gray eyes and shivered at what she saw there, then reached up and kissed him.
          "Be careful."  She whispered.
          He nodded, kissed Martha on the cheek and vanished around a pile of rocks.  Martha glanced at her watch, then put a comforting arm around her niece's shoulders.  A short time later, they heard yelling, a gun shot, then silence.  Lissa jumped to her feet, her intention obvious.  Martha grabbed her hand tightly.
          "No!  Stay here."
          "Aunt Martha!  How can you..." Lissa demanded frantically.
          "Listen to me, child."  Martha cut her off.  "He left us here.  He knows we are here, in this place.  Any one approaching him would be one of those three twerps, not us.  If you go after him, at the least you may get hurt, at the worst you'll distract him and he will get hurt.  He'll be alright."  She said confidently.
          "How can you be so sure?"  Lissa stared at her aunt.
          "A man like that?  Against those twerps?  They don't stand a chance, honey."
          "But Aunt Martha!"  Lissa wailed.
          "Lissa, sweetie, calm down."  Martha pulled her back down beside her.  "He will be back for you.  He will be fine.  You two will have a long and happy life together."
          Lissa twisted around and stared into her aunt's calm eyes.
          "Aunt Martha."  She almost whispered.  "Second sight?"
          "Yes, dear."  Martha nodded complacently.  "You know that it's never wrong.  We Irish are blessed - or cursed - with the gift of second sight.  Wasn't I right about your father's accident?  Your graduation with a perfect score from EMT training?  Your mother's operation?  Yes, of course I was.  And I'm right about this, too.  Just you wait and see.  He will be back."
          Lissa sighed and hugged her aunt.  "Whatever would I do without you, Aunt Martha?"
          "Oh, I'm sure you'd muddle through somehow."  Martha laughed softly.

<> <> <>

          At the sound of horse's hooves on rock, Lissa jumped to her feet, one hand to her mouth.
          "Lissa?  Auntie M?"  Kyle's voice echoed through the rocks.  "Come on down."
          Lissa flashed a wide smile at her aunt, then turned and dashed toward the sound of Kyle's voice, leaving Martha to follow more leisurely.  When she emerged from the nest of rocks, Kyle was mounted on Gun, Lissa in his lap.  She had both arms wrapped around his neck and wasn't shy about showing him how happy she was to see him.
          Mull, Anders, and Jameson, on the other hand, looked anything but happy.  Mull was the unhappiest by far, his left hand clutching his right upper arm.  Anders' and Jameson's hands appeared to be tied behind their backs, the reins of their horses looped over the horn of Daisy's saddle.
          "Ahem."  Martha cleared her throat.
          Kyle raised his head and grinned at her.
          "Yes, Auntie M?"
          "Is there something you're wanting to tell me?"
          "I don't think so."  He looked puzzled.
          "No?  Then get my niece back on the ground."  She said firmly.
          "Oh.  She does have a point, Lissa."  He grinned guiltily.
          Reluctantly, Lissa slid to the ground, gazing reproachfully at her aunt.
          "Don't be giving me that look, girl.  You know my feelings about such things."
          "Lissa, can you patch up his arm?"  Kyle nodded at Mull.
          "Yes, but it would be better to do it back at the stream."  She replied.
          "Fine by me.  Climb aboard and let's get going."
          Once they were mounted, Kyle led them back to the camp.  Leaving Jameson and Anders mounted, he pulled Mull out of the saddle and pushed him to the ground beside the stream.  With Kyle standing over him, he had no choice but to submit to having his arm cleaned and bandaged.  Kyle helped him back into the saddle, tied his hands to the saddle horn, and then securely tied their horses to a tree branch before repacking Sammy and saddling Gun, Daisy, and Ghost.
          "Ready to go, ladies?"  Kyle asked.
          "More than ready."  Martha replied.
          "You won't let this put you off trail riding, will you?"  Kyle raised an eyebrow.
          "Heavens no!  I just want to get this trash taken care of as soon as possible."
          "Glad to hear that."  He lightly kissed her cheek before boosting her to the saddle.
          Kyle led off with Sammy tied to his saddle horn, Dunny to Sammy, Storm to Sammy, and Apple to Storm.  Lissa and Martha followed behind until the trail widened enough for them to join Kyle.
          "How did you do that, Kyle?"  Lissa asked.
          "I guess I just surprised them."  He shrugged.
<> <> <>

          When they finally rode into the ranch yard, Matt came hurrying out of the barn to meet them, obviously worried.
          "I was expecting you..." He broke off when he realized that the men were bound, and Mull was wounded.  "What in tarnation happened up there, boy?"
          "They jumped me, stole the horses and went looking for gold up in Nomad's Roost."  Kyle told him.  "Let's get the ladies settled in the house, then we'll call Jeff."
          "Sure thing, boss."
          He went straight to Martha, reaching up to help her down.  Lissa caught Kyle's surprised look and grinned conspiratorially as Kyle moved toward her.
          "Animals and men?"  He asked softly.
          "Sometimes."  She replied, noticing that Martha's hands lingered a little longer than necessary on Matt's shoulders when he set her on the ground.
          "Matt?"  Kyle had to call a second time to get his attention.  "Why don't you take them up to the house and I'll bring these three?"
          He tucked Martha's hand under his arm and headed for the house, apparently forgetting about Lissa, who followed, chuckling softly.
          "Are you alright, Martha girl?"  Matt queried anxiously.
          "A little tired and ready for a shower, but I'm fine, really."  She assured him.
          By the time Kyle brought the three to the house, both women were showering and Matt was puttering around the kitchen, making coffee and sandwiches.
          "Where are the ladies, Matt?"  Kyle asked as he pushed the men into chairs at the table.
          "Martha's using the shower in your room, and, uh, the other gal is using the guest room."
          "Her name's Lissa."  Kyle grinned.
          "Oh, yeah, well anyway, that's where they are."  Tom shrugged.
          "Keep an eye on them while I call Jeff."
          "You bet I will." 
          When Lissa and Martha, hair still wet, entered the kitchen, Mull, Jameson, and Anders were sitting against the wall on the far side of the spacious room.  Kyle was leaning against the counter with a cup of coffee in his hand and Matt was sitting at the table, his gnarled hands cupped around a mug.  When the women came in, he jumped up so fast that he nearly knocked his chair over.  Taking Martha's arm as though she was made of spun glass, he guided her to the table and into a chair.  He set a cup of coffee and a plate with a sandwich, apple slices, and a cookie in front of her.  As an afterthought, he did the same for Lissa when Kyle pulled out a chair for her.
          "Martha girl, are you feeling better now?"  Matt hovered at her side.
          "I feel much better now, Matt, thank you."  She smiled up at him.
          "Me, too."  Lissa commented.
          "What?"  He tore his gaze away from Martha for a second.  "Good, that's good."
          "The Sheriff will be here in a little while.  Better eat up before he gets here.  Things will be a bit confused while he sorts things out."  Kyle advised.
          As soon as Martha finished her coffee, Matt was right there to refill her cup.  Lissa held her cup out, but he didn't see it.  Laughing, Kyle took the pot from his hand and filled Lissa's cup.
          "Matt, why don't you take Auntie M to the living room?"
          "Sure, boss." 
          Kyle and Lissa watched in amusement as he assisted Martha to her feet, and insisted on carrying her cup as they left the room.
          "Love at first sight?"  Kyle's eyebrow wiggled as he grinned.
          "On his side, for sure."  Lissa giggled.  "Aunt Martha's never married, but maybe that will change."
          "I've known Matt since I was born, and I've never seen him like this."
          "Wait a minute, I'm confused.  You've known him since you were born, but he's working for you?"
          "It's simple, really.  He and my Granddad both served in France back in World War II.  Same Battalion, different companies.  When the war ended, Granddad came back here to the ranch.  A couple years later, Matt drifted through and hired on.  Matter of fact, he's the one that delivered me.  Dad was out on the range, and I didn't want to wait, according to Matt.  He's been here ever since.  Granddad offered him a partnership, but he refused.  He's content to be what he is."
          "You mean Matt's been here as a hired hand for, what, forty years?" 
          "Thirty-nine, actually."
          "My God, Kyle!  How old is he?"  She demanded.
          "Fifty-eight.  Granddad is sixty-two."
          When the Sheriff arrived, Matt and Martha trailed along into the kitchen. 
          "Evenin', Jeff.  How are you?"  Kyle handed him a cup of coffee.
          "Fine.  What the hell...'scuse my language, ladies, ...has been happening up here?"
          Jeff listened in silence to Kyle's explanation, took statements from the women, and then headed back to town with the three men crowded into the back seat of his car.
          "Where do you think those idjits got that map?"  Matt asked.
          "No telling.  There's always some sucker ready to believe gold is buried out here and some shyster ready and willing to sell him a 'gen-u-wine' gold map.  When do you ladies have to go back?"
          "A couple days."  Lissa answered after a silent exchange with her aunt.
          "Great!  This is Thursday, right?"
          "Yeah."  Matt answered.
          "There's a grange dance Saturday night.  Will you stay at least long enough to go to the dance?"
          "I think that can be arranged."  Martha smiled at Matt, whose face lit up with joy.

A year later..
          "Hi, sweetheart."  Lissa looked up from the pie she was making as Kyle stepped into the kitchen, brushing snow off of his jacket from a spring storm.
          "Whatcha making this time?"  He kissed the back of her neck, then peered over her shoulder.
          "I'm using the last of last year's apples.  Your Granddad called and wants you to call him back."  She turned to look at him.  "He sounded kind of upset."
          "Okay, I'll go call him right now."  Kyle headed for the living room.
          She sighed in loving exasperation as her apron slid to the floor.  Her husband's favorite game was to see if he could untie it without her noticing until it fell off.  A few moments later, Aunt Martha and Uncle Matt came into the kitchen. 
          "Hi there!"  Lissa smiled fondly at them.  "Pull up a chair.  Coffee's hot."
          "Is that apple pie?"  Matt asked hopefully.
          "It just might be.  Why?  Do you like apple pie?"  Lissa asked, as if she didn't know it was his favorite.
          "I should smile!"  Matt grinned back, enjoying the game.  "This old wife of mine won't never make me apple pie."
          "Not more than three times a month, anyway."  Martha retorted.
          Their laughter died away when Kyle joined them, his expression somber.
          "What is it, boy?"  Matt came to his feet, a hand on Kyle's shoulder.
          "Sit down, Matt."  Kyle said, gently pushing the old man back into his chair.
          "Kyle?"  Lissa asked anxiously.
          "Granddad talked to his doctor today, Matt.  He's got less'n a year to live. The doctor says he has cancer."  He held up a hand to still their exclamations.  "He's asked me to do something for him."  He stopped, staring sightlessly at the cup of coffee Martha had given him.
          "What's he want, Kyle?"  Matt asked.
          "He wants to go back to France.  To Normandy.  He won't tell me why, just that he needs to go back there before he dies."
          "Why would he want to go back there?"  Lissa asked.
          "It's something you wouldn't understand, 'less you'd been there, girl."  Matt said slowly.  "Are you gonna take him, Kyle?"
          Something in Matt's voice made Kyle look up sharply to study the old man.
          "Yeah, I am.  You want to go, too, don't you, Matt?"
          "Yes, son, I do."
          "You'll need a nurse for him, won't you, Kyle?"  Lissa asked, reaching out to take her husband's hand.  "Aunt Martha and I will go with you, won't we, Aunt Martha?"
          "Certainly we will."  Martha said firmly.  "When do you plan to leave?"
          "As soon as we can, I guess.  I'll talk to Jake Sims about keeping an eye on the place while we're gone."
          "You do that, Matt.  Lissa and I will take care of travel arrangements and so forth while Kyle goes to see his Granddad."  Martha took charge.  "Lissa, where can I find a pen and a tablet of paper?"
          "In the den, on the desk, I imagine."
          Martha left the room, taking her coffee with her.  The two men stared after her with bemused expressions that made Lissa giggle.
          "You two should be used to her by now."
          "Lissa, that aunt of yours is always a puzzle."  Matt shook his head.
          "Not that you mind trying to figure out that puzzle?"
          "Me? Mind? Not at all."  He got to his feet.  "I'll head on over to see Jake right now."
          "I'll go down to the Springs to see Granddad.  I'll probably stay the night down there, honey."  Kyle said, pushing his chair back.











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