Chapter 1A

Realizing that she had been staring, Carmella Casey averted her gaze. He had been on the stage only a short time before she had recognized the young man sitting across from her. He had boarded at the last station, tipped his hat, and seated himself. He seemed intent on the scenery, and paid little attention to her. She chanced another glance and felt relief that he had apparently not noticed her rather rude behavior.

How long had he been gone? It must be seven or eight years. Carmella had to admit that he had certainly matured and was now the sort of man that would not, could not, go unnoticed. What would Carmella's daughter, Maria, say when she realized Emerson Trask had returned? What about his family? Could they know?

Considering this, Carmella felt it was unlikely. Of one thing she was certain. Emerson's return would create a stir in Morgantown.

He was almost six feet tall with broad shoulders. His shirt pulled tight across his chest. He wore his dark hair short and his eyes were a gray-blue. He was without swagger, but his demeanor was one of complete confidence.

Carmella had lived in New Mexico her entire life and could not recall another man that had made such an immediate impression on her. There was something about Emerson Trask that set him apart.

Emerson had recognized Carmella Casey the instant he entered the coach, but he had been unable to greet her with more than a nod. As he sat in the stage coach, acting interested in the empty landscape, Emerson realized he should have expected to come across people he knew as he traveled to Morgantown. From the way she had been looking him over, he was positive she had identified him.

Did she share her daughter's hatred of him? Had all his childish attempts to upset Maria caused the mother to dislike him as well? As he remembered back to the fool he had been eight years ago, Emerson knew Mrs. Casey, and everyone else in Morgantown, would hold him in contempt. He had seen to that!

For the next several hours, both passengers rode in silence, each with their own thoughts. Emerson gave the impression he had fallen asleep, thus avoiding any need for conversation. For her part, Carmella was recalling the Emerson Trask that had grown up on her home range. Walt Trask, Emerson's father, had been a rugged man, but not overly ambitious. Those who had worked hard to make something for themselves and their families, were considered by Walt to be lucky, while he was not. It had come as little surprise to the citizens of Morgantown when word reached them that Walt had died in a Mexican Cantina, fighting over a losing hand of poker.

Left behind were a young widow and a twelve-year old son, and very little else. Carmella knew that Emerson had learned from his father to resent the success and even the happiness of others. He also came to share his father's dislike of all non-Anglos. That took in a large part of the population of New Mexico. Carmella, was a granddaughter of a Spanish Don, who had owned a large land grant a few hundred miles South of Morgantown.

Walt Trask's prejudices were not uncommon in New Mexico. Many Anglos resented the heavy influence those of Spanish descent carried in the territory. Many others, however, lived and worked with people of many varied backgrounds without discrimination.

Emerson had been a bitter, unhappy child. His only pleasure seemed to come in tormenting the other youth of the area. Carmella's own daughter, Maria, often was the focus of Emerson's anger. Maria always fought back, but more than once Carmella had discovered her crying in her room after an encounter with Emerson.

Carmella thought back to the day Emerson had left the basin. Maria had been miserable. It took a couple of weeks before she returned to normal, but Carmella suspected Maria still thought about Emerson. When his name came up in a conversation, Maria seemed to perk up. She would do her best to appear unconcerned, but Carmella had picked up on the trend. If there was news of Emerson, Maria would have as many questions as it took to learn everything the speaker knew.

Faking sleep, Emerson was also thinking back to his life on this range. He had given his mother nothing but trouble. Then it had gotten much worse when Miguel Hernandez started courting his mother the summer Emerson turned sixteen. Pat Casey had offered Emerson a riding job. Looking back, Emerson realized Pat had done so in an effort to help both his mother, and him. He had been filled with pride and swagger riding for the KC.

He also came to know and respect Carmella Casey. Her kindness to him, and her almost regal manner had begun to make him question some of his beliefs. She was still a very attractive woman. Her Spanish blood was apparent. She was dark and, Emerson always felt, mysterious looking. He remembered the kindness and tolerance she had demonstrated toward him and others. Whenever Emerson heard the word "lady" used, he automatically thought of Carmella Casey.

Then there was Maria. At the time, he would not admit to himself that he wanted to work for the Caseys because of Maria. Seeing her every day was almost more than he could stand. Two years younger than Emerson, she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She had her mother's dark hair, with a slightly fairer complexion. Emerson recalled how she had been a bit of a tomboy, but her beauty would never allow anyone to mistake her for a male.

An indication of his foolishness was his treatment of the girl he had come to worship. The only way he was comfortable with her was insulting and hurting her. Emerson had been unable to accept or understand his emotions. He even felt guilt for being so drawn to a girl of Spanish blood. Recalling his actions, Emerson had often wished for the chance to change the past.

How would Maria react when she saw him? It probably wouldn't be pleasant. He had been foolish and cruel to a girl that was as sweet as an angel. Was she married now? It certainly was possible, even likely. She would be twenty-two now, and beautiful. She was eight years ago.

Emerson thought back with some pride to the day he had come to Maria's aid. It was that same summer. He had stopped in town for some supplies.

Entering the general store, Emerson had come upon Maria and Len Hogan. The clerk was no where to be seen. Maria had tears running down her cheeks as she faced Hogan from a corner. Hogan was speaking as Emerson walked through the doorway. Apparently, Hogan had not heard Emerson, as his attention remained solely on Maria.

Emerson and Len Hogan had been frequent adversaries as teenagers. Len was two years older than Emerson and much stronger. He possessed an animal cruelty equal to his prodigious strength. He delighted in beating smaller and younger boys. Emerson had felt the pain behind Hogan's punches on several occasions. Still, he had been one youth in the entire area that would not allow Hogan to bully him. Hogan had learned to expect a fight when their paths crossed. As a result, Len Hogan often left Emerson alone.

"You're a nervy little Mex," Emerson heard Hogan say. "Do you think you're too good for me because your daddy has a big ranch? I know how you Mexican girls are. I want-"

"A lesson in manners," Emerson finished Len's sentence. "You must be feeling pretty tough today, Len, to abuse a girl."

Maria gave Emerson a look he had never forgotten. He realized just how frightened Maria was and how very glad she was to see him.

Hogan turned to face Emerson, still keeping Maria cornered. "Why don't you mind your own business, Trask? You have no use for Mexicans either."

Emerson could see the fear in Maria's face. It was obvious that Len had done more than hurt her feelings. He had terrified Maria, and Emerson could only guess what Len intended,. if given the opportunity.

An uncontrollable anger swept over Emerson. Maria's terror caused him to forget the beatings he had received from Hogan in the past. Without another word, Emerson swung.

Emerson was a big, strong boy of sixteen and the punch had power behind it. Hogan staggered back as Emerson's fist connected with his chin.

Len Hogan had fifty pounds on Emerson and he used it. After shaking his head clear, he charged Emerson. The collision sent Emerson falling backward into the street. Hogan was sprawled in the dust near him. There the two stood up and went toe to toe.

Emerson was faster and hurt Len several times. That only seemed to increase Hogan's fury and strength. Eventually, Hogan's strength and weight proved too much for Emerson.

Hogan beat Emerson to the ground, but Emerson would struggle to his feet and go back after Hogan. Emerson remembered how Hogan seemed horrified as he would knock Emerson down, only to have him come back for more.

"Stay the Hell down," he screamed as he hit Emerson again and again. Finally, the time came when Emerson could not get up. Hogan stood over him, his breath coming in great gasps. He was bloodied and shaken. Seeing that Emerson would not rise again, Hogan had turned and lurched to his horse, slowly mounting and leaving town.

Emerson was conscious, but badly beaten. Maria came to his side with a wet cloth and began to wipe the blood from his face. Emerson remembered the shame he felt. He had taken a terrible beating in front of Maria. That knowledge hurt more than the many places Hogan's fists had landed.

He tried again to get up, but couldn't. He lay back down, his head somehow ended up in Maria's lap. It was then Carmella Casey came upon them.

Carmella had been in the hotel. She heard the commotion outside and went out to see what had caused it. As she stepped into the sunlight, she saw Len Hogan riding by the hotel, his face covered in blood. Turning down the street, she saw Emerson struggle to sit up, only to fall back down. Her daughter caught Emerson's head in her lap and was wiping blood from his face.

Cameral hurried to help Maria and Emerson. Maria was crying as she worked on Emerson's swollen, bloody face.

"Did he fight with Len Hogan again?" asked Carmella. "Why would he do that when he gets hurt so badly?"

Maria sobbed, "It was because Hogan-"

"Pushed me too far, Maria," Emerson croaked. "I thought I'd be able to take him this time. Thanks for helping me. I guess I took a real beating this time."

Maria sensed that Emerson didn't want Carmella to know why they fought. She was silent as her mother helped her get Emerson up and out of the street.

"Emerson, you have to stop fighting with that animal," Carmella had told him. "You are much too nice a boy to have this happen. Look how upset Maria is."

Maria was crying again as she watched Emerson try to walk. She had seen him take a terrible beating to protect her, and she felt responsible. The two women helped Emerson on his horse and rode back to the ranch with him.

Emerson remembered how long that ride seemed. Two women had to help him on his horse and take him to the ranch. Once there, he practically fell off his horse and staggered into the bunk house. Although it was early afternoon, Emerson crawled into his bunk and slept. It was the next morning before he woke.

His face was purple and swollen. He could not touch it without pain. When he sat up his head started spinning and he became nauseous. Pat Casey came in to see him as he lay on the bunk.

"You'll have to lay in bed another day or two. That must have been some fight! What set it off this time, Emerson?"

"Boss, he was saying things I couldn't take, and he thought I would be afraid to stand up to him. Maybe, I should be. He sure gave me a beating."

"Emerson, I have a hunch Hogan isn't feeling too good this morning, either. I hope this ends it between you two. Your handsome mug can't take much more of this."

Emerson fell back asleep. The next time he opened his eyes, Maria was placing damp cloths on his face.

"Maria, I rather you didn't see me like this. I'll be as good as ever in a couple of days," Emerson told the girl as he squinted through one eye.

"I brought some soup for you. I didn't think you would be able to chew very well. I also wanted to thank you for keeping that brute Hogan away from me. I will never let myself be alone with him again. He was like an animal! I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't come in. Then I was so afraid you would leave when he told you to."

"I wasn't much help," Emerson replied. "He beat the stuffing out of me." Then Emerson added, "I think it would be better if you don't tell your Dad about Hogan. He might shoot him or something and get in big trouble."

"Emerson, you were great. You gave him something to remember you by. I don't think he will be eager to try you again," Maria answered.

Looking back, Emerson knew that was the friendliest he and Maria had ever gotten. It was only a couple of weeks later, Emerson earned Maria's hatred.

How clearly he remembered that fateful day in September. It was a Saturday and most ranchers were in Morgantown enjoying dinner at the hotel, as was the custom. It was the only social activity most of them had. Riding into town, Emerson saw Maria. She obviously had something she could not wait to tell him.

"Have you heard the news? Your mother and Miguel are going to get married!" she gleefully told Emerson as he dismounted. This was something that Emerson had seen coming, but had never accepted. He felt the need to hurt Maria, simply because she had been the one to voice it, and because she enjoyed telling him something she should know would devastate him.

Emerson remembered how Maria's laughter disappeared when he turned on her and snarled, "You people think you can become Americans by marrying one, but nothing you can ever do will make you one of us!"

These memories were really painful for Emerson. What was he thinking when he decided to return to Morgantown? Although he had tried, he could not forget how he had charged into the hotel dining room and attacked Miguel as he sat with Emerson's mother, eating dinner. Miguel never attempted to defend himself and Emerson had sent him crashing over backwards in his chair. Sam Cook, the town Marshall, and an occupant of a nearby table, had grabbed Emerson and dragged him from the room. Emerson spent that night in jail and the next morning was placed on a stage headed East.

Feeling the stage halt, Emerson opened his eyes, and met those of Carmella Casey looking at him. He knew that he would have to face the people of Morgantown at some point. Emerson decided Carmella Casey would be a good place to start.

"Mrs. Casey, I fear I have been rude. It has been my pleasure to share this coach with you, although I have been poor company. Can I help you down?" With that Emerson opened the door, stepped out and offered his hand to the smiling Mrs. Casey.

"Thank-you, Emerson, and since we still have a ways to travel, you shall have the opportunity to make it up to me." With that she walked to the way station in the warm spring sun. Emerson crossed to the horses and helped the driver switch to a fresh team. Emerson could read approval in the old man's eyes as they quickly completed their task.

Thirsty, he then walked to the station for a drink. As he entered, Emerson saw three men standing at a plank bar with an empty bottle close at hand. They were directing their attention to Mrs. Casey, who was seated at the only table.

The tension on Carmella Casey's face told Emerson these men were not friends. They were obviously under the influence of the whiskey they had been drinking. They gave Emerson a quick glance and again turned their attention to Carmella.

"Why don't you come over and have a drink with us?" A big, dirty red-headed man, and the apparent leader of this ragtag group, was lurching toward Carmella as he spoke.

"Can't stand an uppity Mex. Maybe you'll enjoy the company of some real men, once you get off your high horse!" With that he crossed in front of Emerson to reach Mrs. Casey.

Emerson had seen men like this often. He realized that a man that would accost a lady could not be dealt with in a civil manner. Through out Red's tirade, Carmella had remained seated. The only indication that she had heard Red was a coloring of her neck and cheeks.

Emerson placed his hand on the man's chest. "Mister, why don't you go back and sit down? We'll be leaving shortly, and you can run your mouth all you want then."

Red looked at Emerson, understanding slowly sinking in. "Run my mouth? Run my mouth? I'll show you who's running their mouth!" Red then sent a big right fist at Emerson's chin.

Blocking it with his left arm, Emerson brought his own right around. It started by his shoulder and traveled about a foot, but everyone heard it connect with Red's face. Red dropped to the floor and did not stir again.

Emerson turned to face the other two. They were looking in disbelief at Red's unmoving form. A graying man in his fifties, the next closest man licked his lips and stared at Emerson. He would present no problem. Emerson quickly dismissed him and faced Red's other companion. A slight smile spread across the face of the third drinker as his hand started for the Colt tied at his right side.

Unarmed, Emerson saw the man's intentions and remained still. The smile suddenly evaporated from the gunman's face. Emerson heard the old driver in the doorway as the gunman's gaze was directed that way.

"I don't mean to interrupt anything, but the stage has a schedule and it's pulling out right away." He cradled a scatter gun in his arms as he spoke. Emerson realized this old timer had probably saved his life.

The would-be gunman found his voice. "Fella, you just made a big mistake. Red Gately sure isn't the forgiving type, and you won't be able to sucker punch him next time. When he's finished, I'll have to shoot you just to end your misery. Nobody bucks the lazy T."

"Red needs manners. You boys are lacking in that area as well. I'll be around Morgantown for awhile and be giving lessons out to gents like you. There won't be any fee, except for how Red may be feeling when he wakes up from his nap."

With that Emerson offered Carmella his arm. She gracefully stood, stepped over the prone shape on the floor, and walked to the stage tightly gripping Emerson's arm. The old driver followed and as he climbed up to his seat Emerson gave the man a nod. They both understood how close things had been.

"Young fella, you'd better be able to back your talk with more than fists. That was Stan Mosher and he's kilt more than one man with that .44"

Emerson climbed into the stage, as the driver snapped his whip. The team headed on the last leg of his journey home. Mrs. Casey was gazing intently at him as he took his seat.

"I must thank you for your assistance, but I fear you may be in some danger now. Red Gately is considered a tough man, but the real danger will come from that little weasel, Stan Mosher. He is a gunman in the employ of Mr. Tom Taylor, who controls a good portion of this range."

"You probably remember Len Hogan. He also works for Taylor, and he is bigger and more of an animal than he was when you were last here. I never thanked you for helping Maria out that time he bothered her in town. That was a brave thing to do."

"I didn't think anyone knew what started that. Did Maria tell you?" Emerson asked.

"It wasn't too difficult to figure out, Emerson. I heard enough of conversations between the two of you to guess the rest. It was probably a good thing not to mention it to Pat. He would have done something and possibly gotten in trouble, or hurt, for it. That Hogan is becoming more brazen all the time. I think he makes many women nervous. He isn't exactly right, and he is big enough to be very dangerous. He has beaten several men badly over the past few years,." Carmella added.

"Let's talk about other things." Carmella Casey was far more interested in Emerson, where he had been, and his return to Morgantown. "Tell me all about yourself. Does your mother know you're returning? I think not, or she would have told someone and news like that would travel quickly. Will you stay long? The past seven or eight years have really changed you, and the change appears to be all for the better, if I may say. I'm rambling now. Emerson, I know it isn't considered polite to ask Western men about their past, but fill me in on whatever you are comfortable with."

Emerson had to laugh at Carmella's curiosity. She had always been kind to him, even when he had gone to great lengths to cause bad feelings in others. "Mrs. Casey, there isn't much to tell. Just under eight years ago I was sent to live with my uncle, Sam Bennington. I think you know he is my mother's brother and you also know why I was sent."

"Sam didn't lead what most people would call a normal life. He is the captain of a trading vessel and I have spent most of the last eight years at sea. I caught up with him in Galveston, a month after leaving Morgantown. I was bitter, as I'm sure you recall, and was determined to give him a difficult time. Well, I spent the first five days in irons. Sam referred to that as my "attitude adjustment" period."

"I learned he was the captain and I was the cabin boy. Complaints were not tolerated, and orders were followed. Men were judged by deeds and not by appearances. The first month I was sea sick most of the time and I hated my uncle. And my mother for sending me to him. As time went on, I came to realize the crew would treat me as I deserved, and doing my share and not complaining gained respect."

"In short, it was a great experience. I saw places many people never even heard of, and I met all kinds of people. I learned and saw things that taught me how foolish and self-centered I was. Gradually, over a period of time, my outlook changed a great deal."

"I envy you, Emerson," Carmella replied as she leaned back in her seat. "I have always wanted to see more of the world but had to settle for part of New Mexico, although I do love it here. Did you come back to visit your family, or do you plan on staying?"

"I really haven't made any plans. We were docked in Galveston about a month ago, when Sam called me into his cabin." Thinking back, Emerson continued, "He told me it had been eight years since my mother had sent me to him with the almost impossible task of making an ignorant, pig-headed boy into a man. He felt he had done his job and wanted me to go home."

"I was hurt since I thought he was saying he didn't care to have me sailing with him. I said as much, and that was when he told me the last letter he had received from my mother hinted of trouble. He was concerned for her and felt I should return home. I agreed and here I am."

"Your uncle was correct about this being a troubled range and it will be wonderful for your mother to see you again, but I hope you don't expect to be able to solve the problems faced by the ranchers in this basin." Mrs. Casey continued on, "It is likely that most, if not all the ranchers, will have to sell to Senor Taylor within the next year or two."

Emerson could see the prospect worried Carmella Casey and changed the subject. " How are Pat and Maria doing? I'll bet Maria is married and Pat hasn't changed a bit. He was sure good to me that summer I rode for the KC."

A smile came across Carmella's face and she laughed, "Pat always thought you had "potential" as he called it. He is pretty much the same as he was, except the trouble of the past year has had an effect on him. Maria is not married, or even close, although there are a large number of admirers who would like to change that. I may sound like a mother, but she has grown into the most beautiful young woman! Wait till you see her."

It was Emerson's turn to laugh. "I'm certain she is everything you say. She was all of that eight years ago, but I don't expect a very warm greeting from her. I was pretty miserable to her. I'll be content if she doesn't shoot me."

"I would guess that your return will not go unnoticed by Maria, but I doubt it will include gunplay. I think she missed you when you left."

Emerson couldn't hide his surprise. "Probably everything was too calm and serene without me. I kept it from becoming too dull."

This was a totally different Emerson Trask than Carmella had seen as a youth. He was a fine, rugged looking man, but the change was his character. Maria would never believe he ever held her so highly. His confidence and poise were almost tangible. His return to Morgantown would be a topic of interest for some time.

The rest of the journey seemed to fly by as Emerson answered questions about distant lands and the cultures he had seen. Carmella found him to be one of the most interesting people she had ever spoken with. He obviously received some education while with his uncle. His speech was clear and his words well chosen. Emerson Trask had become a very unusual young man, one that she enjoyed.

The stage pulled into Morgantown around dinner time, and Emerson could see it had grown some, but still was very much as he remembered. It was Saturday and the streets were busy and the walks crowded. He knew his arrival would be seen by most of the town.

When the stage came to a stop in front of the hotel, Emerson stepped down and turned to help Carmella. As she lightly landed in the street Emerson heard a voice behind him.

"How was your trip, Mother? Was Santa Fe as busy as-" and the voice simply stopped. Emerson had turned to face the speaker. It was Maria Casey standing before him, close enough that he could feel her breath. She was, Emerson realized, even more beautiful than Carmella had promised and he had remembered. She had black hair that sparkled in the afternoon light, dark eyes, and smooth skin, seemingly unaffected by the New Mexico sun.

She was tall, perhaps five inches less than Emerson's six feet, with a slender but very feminine figure. That she recognized him was obvious. Emerson looked down into her eyes and could think of nothing to say.

This was the girl he had treated so badly. He had no doubt that she hated him, but that only seemed to make her more desirable. He had been all over the world, but had never known anyone else like Maria. Emerson looked into her eyes and felt wonder, and some fear.

Maria recognized Emerson instantly. She had no idea he was returning to Morgantown, and her surprise was complete. She was unable to move as she stared at him. Part of her mind noticed how tanned and rugged he was as he stood near her. His hair was still dark and he was even better looking than she recalled. Emotions Maria thought had been laid to rest came flooding back.

This was Emerson Trask! How he had frequented her thoughts the past eight years. No one had ever been able to hurt her the way he had. No one else had ever been able to cause so many feelings in Maria. Even now, as she looked into his gray eyes, Maria felt drawn to Emerson' s physical presence.

He was a powerful, virile man, capable and confident. Maria was surprised to realize how strongly she reacted to him. For a second, Maria thought of throwing her arms around his neck and hugging him. He obviouly was well and had survived his stint at sea. She had wondered and worried about him for eight years.

She was still standing very close to him. With someone else, she would have backed off a step or two. With Emerson, she had never given any ground and she wouldn't start now. He couldn't dominate, or control, Maria Casey! So she stood with her face near his, returning his gaze. Time stood still.

Emerson saw the fire in her eyes. He could see emotions were at play. Her nostrils flared and her chin lifted. Emerson resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her and pull her to him. She was incredible.

Carmella was a spectator to the meeting. She marveled at the energy the two generated simply by standing near each other. She had never seen Maria so intense, and for the longest time neither spoke. Carmella began to realize there was more between her daughter and Emerson than she had ever guessed. This reunion was not average!

As Maria's eyes burned into his, Emerson finally managed, "Hello, Maria."

That seemed to release Maria's pent-up feelings. Her right hand shot up and stung his left cheek with a resounding slap. "I hate you!" Maria gave it emphasis by keeping her voice low.

As Emerson stood in the street thinking he had gotten exactly what he deserved, Carmella came to his side. Maria stalked off to the hotel.

"Wow! I guess Maria does remembers you, Emerson. That is a start. Now I want you to meet Maria's friend, Cathy Jordan. Cathy, this is Emerson Trask."

Emerson turned his attention to a pretty blonde girl standing next to Mrs. Casey. As he tipped his hat, she gave a big smile and laughed, "I sure guess she does remember you! I thought you two were going to stare until the sun went down. What did you two have going? She's the only girl in the country that would watch the best looking male this town has ever seen get off the stage and then slap his face. I'll settle for a hand shake." With that she extended her hand.

"Cathy Jordan, it is a pleasure, and a comfort to know that not every pretty girl in this town hates me. At least not until you know me better." Emerson found himself liking this straightforward girl with the firm handshake.

"Well, let's hope I do get to know you better before Maria gets over her mad. She picks the men she wants and I get the leftovers, and the pickings have slim around here, until now." Cathy Jordan seemed to have a way of stating her thoughts without feminine guile. "I have heard your name mentioned more than a few times. You're Molly's son. No one mentioned what a handsome rogue you are. I guess Maria forgot that point. She also forgot to tell me exactly how much you meant to her. That was quite a scene."

"Pat and Dad are having a beer." Cathy continued, "Maria and I promised to watch for the stage and go to the hotel with you, when you pulled in, Carmella. I'm thinking Maria forgot about all that for a minute, but she's probably waiting for us in the dinning room. As for you, cowboy, I'll see you around." With that she and Carmella headed for the hotel.

Emerson waited for the old driver to toss his war bag down. As he caught it a KC rider gathered Mrs. Casey's luggage and headed for the hotel. It was Ernie Hooker, still running Pat Casey's ranch. Emerson recalled how totally dedicated to the KC, and its owners, this man was. He had to be well into his sixties now, but still carried himself like a much younger man.

As he started for the hotel, Emerson considered how Maria had actually made him feel at home. Any reception less hostile would not have seemed right. Considering his treatment of Maria years ago, he had gotten off lightly.

She had grown even more lovely than he remembered. Emerson had wondered if seeing Maria again would end his obsession with her. Perhaps he would find her less in real life than she was in his memory. Shaking his head, Emerson knew that possibility had disappeared. She seemed to be even more than he remembered.

The next order of business would be the most difficult, Emerson realized. Being Saturday, many of the area ranchers would be having dinner in the hotel. That meant there was an excellent chance his mother and Miguel Hernandez would be doing the same. There would likely be a crowd, but Emerson had never let that stop him from embarrassing himself before.

As he entered the dining area of the hotel, Emerson saw he had guessed correctly. Seeing his mother and Miguel seated at a table in the center of the large room, Emerson paid no attention to the others. He strode to their seats and began a speech he had been thinking about for a very long time.

"Miguel, when I was dragged from here eight years ago, I promised I would be back." The room turned very quiet. Miguel slowly stood as Emerson's mother held her hand to her chest, unable to speak. "I also said one of us would be sorry. Well, I'm back and I apologize to you, sir. I am sorry."

For a moment, Miguel looked hard at Emerson, as if making up his mind. Then he smiled and extended his hand, which Emerson gratefully accepted. Emerson knew his mother had married a fine man!

"With your permission, I would like very much to visit you and my mother at your hacienda."

Again Miguel smiled, "Emerson, that which is mine, is also yours. Welcome home!" Emerson marveled at how he could have been so foolish as to dislike this man.

By this time Emerson's mother had found her voice as she stood and ran to him. "Emerson," she cried as she hugged him. "You've grown so big! You're so handsome! I didn't know you were coming home. You'd better put me down!"

Emerson laughed as he lowered her back to where her feet touched the floor. She looked well and Emerson knew that Miguel had been good for her. She would be in her mid-forties now and deserved happiness.

Emerson was completely shocked at what happened next. "Em, his mother barely whispered, "I want you to meet someone. Nancy, come and say hello to your brother." Stunned, Emerson dropped to one knee as the girl approached. He held her at arm's length for a moment, looking into her eyes.

"Mother, she is an angel," he exclaimed as he hugged the dark-haired beauty. To his joy, Nancy was hugging him back, and Emerson knew that coming home had been the best thing he could ever have done. Opening his eyes, he saw the Casey family watching the entire scene. Carmella's eyes were moist while Maria showed no emotion. She just kept watching and Emerson laughed. Nothing could spoil this moment!

Maria had promised herself, that if she ever met Emerson Trask again, she would slap his face. She had recognized him instantly as he helped Carmella off the stage coach. When he turned to face her, Maria was struck by his familiar smile and wavy brown hair. He was older, taller, stronger and more mature. She felt her heart breaking all over again as she looked at him. She had never had anyone cause so many strong emotions in her as Emerson did. It was only after a few seconds of eye contact that Maria remembered her promise and slapped him.

Maria sat next to her mother, watching the reunion, as did everyone in the room. She had expected anything but what she had seen. A fist fight or even gunplay would not have surprised her. Apologizing in public to a man of Spanish decent was not something the Emerson Trask she knew would do! He seemed so sincere that she could not doubt him. Could he have changed so in eight years?

Cathy Jordan was seated across from her and was teary eyed. "Maria, isn't that the most wonderful thing? Isn't he handsome? I hope he hangs around town awhile, cause I could really go for him. Promise you won't get between us."

Carmella Casey looked at Cathy and smiled, "Cathy, I couldn't help noticing that he seemed taken by you earlier. Besides, Maria hates him. Although, it looked like it took a long time for her to remember that fact. For a moment, I thought she was going to embrace him."

At this Maria turned to her mother. "I know you are trying to tease me, but I have good reasons to hate him, and so do you! Cathy, I like you too much to ever wish him on you. Leave him alone."

Cathy looked closely at her friend. "If I didn't know you better I'd think you were trying to discourage me so you could have him for yourself. I'm quite glad you don't like him, but I'll decide for myself just what sort of hombre he really is."

Maria finished her meal in silence. Her mind went back eight years. She had known she would hurt Emerson with the news about his mother's marriage. She thought she would enjoy it. She didn't. She had never forgotten his look, nor the cruel words he hurled at her. That had been the last time she had seen him. The next morning he was on a stage headed east, and her heart was broken.

Over the years, Maria had heard pieces of news concerning Emerson. His uncle would write to Molly, and she would mention things to Carmella and Maria. He never wrote to his mother. Molly thought he was ashamed of his actions, and hoped time would heal the rift.

For a long time Maria wrote letters to herself and signed Emerson's name to them. Then she would burn them before anyone else would see them. No one guessed how much Emerson's departure bothered her. As the years passed, she got over it, she thought. Still, she never could get interested in the many men that called on her. She was the flower of the basin, but seemed cold. Most men had given up trying to break through her reserve.

Emerson awoke the next morning to the snores of three men, each seeming intent on outdoing the others. Pulling on his boots, he strode outside to watch the sun begin its daily trip across the sky. Things really had gone better than he could have hoped. Miguel had welcomed him, his mother was well, and Nancy was a treasure. Sam had told him to expect a surprise, but a sister was more than he had ever dreamed Sam could be suggesting.

The other diners seemed to accept him well enough. Pat Casey shook his hand, causing Emerson to remark that Pat was friendlier than his daughter had been. Cathy Jordan seemed to be a fine girl and he looked forward to meeting her family. They had moved in from Texas four years after he left Morgantown, buying out the widow Doney.

Still, he knew there must be trouble on the range. It was unheard of for a lady like Carmella Casey to be bothered in any way. That the three toughs even considered it, indicated that Taylor's riders were on the prod.

Pat Casey failed to mention the station incident to Emerson, which meant that Carmella hadn't told him. That pointed to Carmella shielding Pat from a possible confrontation with Taylor and his men. Taylor must be a man of some power for Carmella to worry for Pat!

He had grown very comfortable sailing the sea, but standing in New Mexico watching the sun rise, seemed right. This was his home and he would make the most of it.

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Romantic / Heterosexual /