Chapter 1

Jim had returned just two weeks before to the Ranger station in Austin from an extended manhunt for an escaped killer in east Texas and Louisiana. A message had been waiting for him from his Uncle Jack, his last living relative on his father's side of the family requesting his help in Laredo.

Tragically Jim had next heard his uncle had been killed shortly before his return. Jim's official contacts in Austin had been able to tell him that no suspect had been singled out as yet.

Rather than riding into town in his official capacity as a Ranger and interested party he had decided to take some of the leave time he had accumulated over the last few years and ease into town in the guise of a drifter.

Jim had expected trouble in Laredo and it sure found him pronto! He stopped in front of a saloon on Main street and stepped off his horse. Jim tied the big stallion to a worn oak rail. He stretched his arms and legs after the long wearying ride and looked up at the front of the saloon at the broken wheel mounted on the wall. The wheel had evidently given the saloon its name, "The Broken Spoke".

He was just thinking that there was probably a humdinger of a story in how the saloon had gotten that name when he saw a tow headed youngster of about ten or twelve years come out of the bar with a bucket and a mop. Jim was about to ask the boy where he could water his horse when the boy tripped on the rough board walkway and spilled his heavy bucket of water onto the porch. There was an obscene shout of anger as the water splashed on the dusty boots of a surly middle aged man who was just coming out of the saloon. The man brutally grabbed the boy up by one arm and drew his sidearm and raised it as if to hit the boy.

"Hold it!" Jim yelled at the man. "There ain't no call to pistol whip that boy. Them boots are a lot cleaner now than they was a while ago!"

A young blond headed man with a bartender's apron came through the bat wing doors quickly and yelled at the hard case, "Put that cannon up, Zack!"

"Stay out of my way or slap leather!" Zack challenged as he shoved the boy out of the way. Jim distinctly heard the click of the rowdy's six-shooter's hammer being thumbed back and saw the gun barrel begin to drop toward him.

Knowing he was an instant from dying in the dusty street, Jim let his reflexes take over and his Colts flashed into his hands and up as he took a quick sidestep. He felt the big Colt in his right hand buck as it spouted flame and lead, a fraction of a second later it's twin in his left hand roared as a second dose of hot lead ripped through the sack of tobacco in Zack's left shirt pocket!

Zack's gun hand swung wide as he was slammed against the wall of the saloon by the two big slugs, he left a broad swath of blood on the wall behind him as he slid down to a sitting position on the porch.

Jim thumbed back the hammers on his Colts again as he warily stepped up on the porch and carefully kicked Zack's cocked but unfired revolver away from his body. He holstered the Colts and he and the bartender examined the body for any signs of life. "Two hits dead center!" said the astounded barkeep. "I ain't ever even heard lies about anybody being that good with a Colt!"

Jim spoke as he expertly ejected his empty shells, "Well, I sure didn't want to have to do that, but he wouldn't have it any other way. It ain't in me to stand by and let any man pistol whip a kid." He thumbed in fresh loads into his .44s and again returned his guns to their holsters. The scrawny youngster that had been threatened had recovered enough that he was scrambling to retrieve the empty cartridges before they rolled through the cracks between the wet boards.

"He didn't give you any other way out." The young barkeeper agreed. "My name is Bert Flores and I owe you a drink. I can always find more customers but it's hard to keep a good swamper like that kid there. Besides, I think Jasper might be my son, me and his mother used to get along pretty good most of the time."

After looking over the boy and finding him to be shaken but unharmed by the violent shove he'd been given they moved inside. More onlookers came in behind them, most of them were asking questions, and all of them were trying to get a better look at Jim.

"I'm Jim Smith, I'm right proud to meet you, Bert." Jim said as they shook hands firmly. "If that offer of yours was serious I could surely use a shot of red-eye whiskey to steady my nerves and wet my whistle!"

"I just saw that he's got the kind of nerves that beat a drawn and cocked gun from a stand still!" Bert said loudly to the growing crowd as a barrel-chested older man with a badge shouldered his way through them. "Hello, Sheriff Long. Mister Smith here just did away with one of the rowdies that has been pestering everybody around here so much of late!"

"Howdy Sheriff, I'm sorry I got into trouble in your town so quickly. I tried my best to avoid it, sir." Jim said respectfully.

"I've already talked to Jasper and another witness." The Sheriff said as he and Jim turned to the plank bar and accepted the glasses Bert poured for them. "I didn't think there was but one man in Texas who was fast enough for that trick you just pulled off and even he is dead now. It appears to me, Zack bit a bigger chaw off the plug than he could chew. At least his gettin' you riled will save me the trouble of throwin' him in jail every Friday night."

The Sheriff turned to Bert and said, "The drinks are on Zack. He had thirty dollars in his poke and five will get him buried. I've talked before to one of the men that rode in with him and he's got no family. I'll auction off his horse and tack later in the week but right now we're going to give our dear departed friend Zack a twenty-five dollar wake!"

Jim put out his hand and caught another full shot glass that came sliding his way. A strikingly lovely young lady had shoved it to him from a few feet down the bar. He paused for a moment as their eyes met and they looked at each other admiringly. "Thank you, Ma'am!" He said politely to the girl.

He was wondering what a girl as exquisitely beautiful as she was doing in a Laredo saloon. Jim realized he and the girl were staring at each other and he was suddenly afraid she might think him rude. He found himself wondering about this reluctance of his, with most saloon women he would have openly flirted.

To cover his momentary confusion he turned and called to Jasper, "Could you water my horse, Son? Here's two bits for your trouble and you can ride him to and from the water." The boy caught the coin in midair and thanked Jim on the run as he went out the door. Jim knew most town boys Jasper's age would do almost anything to get to ride a good horse, especially one as flashy as Jim's stallion.

"That boy would have led your horse to the river on foot just to brag to the other boys that you asked him to." Buck told Jim as they watched the boy running to the hitching rail outside. "You got to being his hero when you saved him from a whuppin' a while ago."

"Well, sir." Jim returned, "I had a hero myself when I was a young one and it never hurt me any; he was my favorite uncle."

The Sheriff shortly asked Jim off to one side of the bar to talk seriously. "Do you have a job at the present, uh, Mr. Smith?" He asked.

"No sir, I'm just passing through." Jim replied. "If I decide to stay for a while I'm sure I'll be able to find some kind of job to keep me off of your list of vagrants. By the way, Sir, my dad's name was Mr. Smith; I'd be pleased if you'd call me Jim."

"Alright Jim, but my dad's name was Sir, so you can just call me Buck like everybody else. I'm offering you a job as my Deputy, young man." The Sheriff explained that the town had been cursed by a string of robberies and shootings over the last several months, one of which had seen the sheriff himself get ambushed from behind. Buck was still recuperating from his wounds, which had caused him to slow down considerably.

Buck told Jim he had been considering retirement for some years since he had a pension coming in from the army and had some other investments. As he explained it to Jim he'd been looking for someone steady and reliable to train as his replacement.

Buck allowed as how Jim had already showed him he was eminently qualified for the job physically and he wasn't smart enough to avoid risking harm to himself to help someone else out of trouble. The Sheriff explained to him amiably that being too stupid to avoid the dirty job was the major qualification to being a lawman in a rough border town.

Despite the Sheriff's frank admissions of the difficulties involved, Jim quickly decided to accept the job. It would fit right in with his own plans of investigating his uncle's murder and put him above the open suspicion that all drifters were subject to until he could scout out the lay of the land.

The Sheriff filled him in on more of the details that he felt were connected with the rash of trouble. Jim tried not to visibly react when he was told of the incident that had brought him to Laredo, the murder of Jack Horn.

According to Buck the problems had seemed to start several years back when more dead beats and ne'er-do-wells than usual had begun to drift into town. The mischief and good-natured fighting and drunkeness normally indulged in by hard working ranch hands had grown to include armed robbery and murder.

Buck had sent most of the drifters packing but the town was still having incidents like the one Zack had just provoked. Another mystery to Buck was how Zack had a man's wages for a month in his pocket when he'd never seemed to work.

Buck also pointed out Red Kelly to Jim as a man who could bear watching. "He's been just a little too close to all of the trouble around here for me!" The old lawman had grumbled.

"I'll sure watch him, Buck." Jim assured the Sheriff. He took up riding herd over the local rough crowd right then and there. Over the next few days Jim worked on not only watching the wild bunch but also on cultivating a friendship with some of the other locals. One of them he really would have enjoyed working up a relationship with was the little darling who helped out at Bert's saloon!

He had been speaking courteously and kindly to her since they'd met but he'd not flirted with her as yet because he thought a young beauty like her was probably already spoken for. Even if she wasn't, she was way off limits to the likes of an old war-horse like him.

A couple of days later Jim was sitting in the Broken Spoke sipping on his beer and admiring that same young lady as she worked. He'd been told her name was Angelina. Jim thought it a fitting name for such a sweet young beauty.

Red Kelly was sitting at a table with a couple of the other questionable characters. Red abruptly rose from his seat and ambled toward the door. There was something vaguely different about his stiff gait that aroused Jim's suspicions instantly. Jim gave him about a minute's head start then he tossed a coin on the table and headed for his horse in the yard behind the saloon. He saddled the horse and followed Red.

Kelly rode out of town to the east, he acted like he was taking his time and was going nowhere important but he had already awakened Jim's hunting instincts. Jim just knew that he was up to some kind of meanness. Kelly rode a couple of miles into open range then he turned into a big grove of brush and vanished!

Jim rode around to where he could see the other side of the grove and waited. Thirty minutes later Kelly still hadn't reappeared and Jim decided to go in and flush him out. He rode carefully into the brush. He reined his horse around and through the brush and was almost in the center of the grove when Red called from behind him. "Put 'em up, Deputy!"

"Well, howdy Red." Jim spoke calmly as he turned to see Red concealed behind some bushes with a gun in his fist. "What are you doing with that gun; you going rabbit hunting?"

"Why, I 'spect I might just have to shoot you with it! Set real still like while I get your guns and then we're going to have us a little talk!"

Jim figured Red sure enough aimed to kill him after that little talk or he wouldn't be openly holding a gun on him. Red came up behind him and snatched his belt guns out of their holsters. "Now get down off of that horse!" Red warned.

Jim started off of his horse, as his leg swung over the saddle he reached for the gun in his boot. He turned the gun toward Red just as Red fired his! Jim's hat flew off of his head, Red had missed but Jim didn't. Red flew backwards and landed flat on his back in the dust as the bullet from Jim's short barreled six-gun entered his chest and pierced his body!

As quick as thought, Jim was by Red's side, he didn't want another repeat of his painful gunfight with Silas Hawkins, but Red was thoroughly dead already. Jim carefully went through his pockets; he found nothing incriminating except Red had over fifty dollars in his pocket which was quite a lot of money for someone who had spent most of his time loitering around the saloon drinking.

A short hunt through the brush produced Red's horse. Jim searched through his saddlebags and bedroll but he didn't find anything that was even remotely suspicious. He loaded Red on his horse and headed back toward town. He took Red over to the Doc's when he rode into town and then he went to report to Buck.

"I had to shoot Red, he threw down on me from behind." Jim told Sheriff Buck as he walked in the office door. "He took my belt guns from my holsters when he first got the drop on me but his not checking me for a hideout gun got him read to from the Bible."

"Well, I'm sorry you had to kill him before we had a chance to question him." Buck said. "I'm sure Red knew more about the shootings and robberies around here than he let on."

"I agree with you there, Sheriff, but you set me to watching him so I trailed him out of here today to see where he was off to. I think he was told by someone to lure me out of town and gun me down. I didn't have a lot of choice but to punch his ticket with my hold out gun after he doubled back and got the drop on me like he did. As it was I just barely beat him."

At this point Jim pulled off his battered felt hat and poked his trigger finger through the new hole in the crown to show the Sheriff how close it had been.

"I'll add the price of a new sombrero to your wages out of my expense money, "Deputy Smith!" Buck was smiling right smart like at Jim when he said his name!

"Now Sheriff," Jim told him, "I think I might know what you're hinting at but you know the Smith family is an awful big one here in Texas since the yankees sent the carpet-baggers down here to run the southern states after the war."

"I know." The Sheriff spoke slyly, "My name may not have always been Buck Long either. I ain't complainin'; your alias sure was handy to help blackmail you into working for me! Now get on back out there on patrol and keep your eyes open. I know you had to shoot Red, but I'll give you a few words of advice. Solving a case by killing all of the suspects ain't always the easiest way!"

As Jim walked out of the Sheriff's office he was studying on how his estimate of Buck's intuition had grown drastically after the perilous events of the last few days. Jim headed roughly in the direction of the Broken Spoke, Bert's saloon, as he scouted the area for signs of trouble.

He was in no big hurry as he was thinking about what step to take next in finding out who or what was behind the recent rash of trouble in Laredo. He was also wondering if he should confide in the Sheriff his real reason for being in the town.

Jim had been spreading out his bedroll at the jailhouse since taking the job but he was considering taking Bert up on his friendly offer of a room in his house behind the saloon. This would put him into closer proximity to the drifters and gamblers who hung out in the bar and he hoped this could possibly lead to more information. Jim was beginning to suspect these maddening crimes were possibly being used as a cover up for something else.

As Jim walked into the saloon the rare and wondrous sight of a heavy brass spitoon spinning through the air disturbed his revery. The spitoon hit a tall, busty, red headed woman right between the eyes. The missile dropped her as limp as a poll-axed steer!

The spitoon was followed closely by a small, slim, vixen of a girl with flashing brown eyes. She grasped a handful of the unconscious woman's hennaed mane and began sliding her towards the batwing doors where she bumped into Jim.

"Whoa, Angelina!" Jim shouted as he backed toward the door. He'd quickly recognized the beautiful little hellion. She was Bert's twenty-year-old cousin, Angelina Cortez; the girl he'd been so taken with the first day he'd rode into town.

"Jim, do something! Stop her!" Bert yelled as he crouched behind the bar where he was forted up. He'd put several chairs at each end of the bar to keep Angel out and he was acting helplessly upset though several other patrons seemed to be enjoying the fracas. "She's wrecking my saloon; Angel's done whipped both of the girls that work for me!"

"Get out of my way, Senor Jim! Bert told me to take this fight outside and that's what I intend to do!" Angel shoved Jim forcefully in the chest with her little fist as she slid the still dazed, much larger woman a foot closer to the door!

"Settle down Angel!" Jim said in a soothing voice. "What did she do to set your moccasins on the warpath? Turn her loose and Bert will take care of her. Come over here and sit a spell and tell old Jim what the trouble is, Honey."

Jim gently steered Angelina toward a table and held a chair for her as she sat down. He purposely sat her with her back to the door while Bert assisted Darla to her feet and into a back room of the saloon.

"Now!" Jim said as he sat down across from Angelina. "What did those two women do to make a beautiful, cultured young lady like you put on the war paint like a liquored up Cherokee buck?"

"Darla and Gloria said they wanted you; that is why I had to fight them." Angel said, she was wringing her hands in anguish. "I loved you the first time I saw you. I beg you not to think that I am a bad woman, Jim, but Darla and Gloria are that kind and I will hurt them if they try to get you."

Jim was shocked by this heartfelt avowal of devotion from a girl he had talked to only a few times. He shouted, "Bert, tote us both something to drink over here while I try to cipher this thing out, and leave the bottles!" He was no more willing to risk taking his eyes off of the feisty young girl than he would have a riled up nest of sunburned sidewinders!

While Jim confidently considered himself a man of action who was generally able to handle anything from flying bullets to charging range bulls he was taken aback but extremely flattered and charmed by the beautiful young girl's unexpected show of affection!

Jim impetuously took her small, but strong hands in his large rough ones to comfort her in her distress. He felt a dull ache of yearning in his chest when he saw the instant look of adoration in her face that had been filled with such brazen fury such a short time before.

He looked at her lovely eyes, delicate features, and fair complexion. She had a faint dusting of freckles across her fine nose and high cheekbones. Jim thought that he'd never seen a more beautiful woman.

"Lady, you are a caution." Jim drawled. "I just thought I was in a heap of trouble up to now! You surely are a lovely young thing to know how to turn a grown man's head like this!"

"Do you think you could ever learn to like me, Jim?" Angelina asked with longing and hope showing in her face as if she might dare to think that he could learn to want her in return.

"Little Angel, it would surely be mighty easy for any man to learn to love a sweet charmer like you!" Jim spoke gallantly.

"I hate to break in on a touching moment like this but here is the bottle you ordered." Bert said sarcastically. "And a bottle of my best wine for Angel. They're both on the house if you can keep her from tearing up the rest of this poor wreck I used to call my saloon!"

Jim had regained a little of his composure by now. He opened the bottle of wine and poured Angelina a glass; he then poured himself half a glass of whiskey and politely toasted her. He drank his shot off in a gulp and poured himself another as he felt the familiar warmth spread through him.

The supreme confidence in his own abilities he usually possessed when he was faced with mortal danger had vanished in thin air when she made her declaration of love! He desperately needed time to sort out the ticklish situation.

Jim found himself caring deeply about this girl's open vulnerability. He had spent the last five years seldom thinking or making plans about the future beyond the next case but now he found himself honestly wondering if it would be possible for him to begin a serious romance with a woman.

"I am very sorry that I caused you trouble, Jim." Angel said. She began to sob softly again. "I was taught in the convents of Mexico and Spain to be a lady but I have had so much unhappiness and loneliness in my life. I heard those girls talking vulgarly and I could not bear to give up my love for you, and now I have offended you."

Jim pulled a clean bandanna out of his pocket and handed it to her as he thought that a man would have to be made of stone not to be entranced by the lovely Angelina. He wanted nothing more right then than to gather her in his arms and comfort her.

As Jim's heart raced he had a sudden thought that any man would be a fool not to take a chance to be with a sweetheart like Angelina, but he felt that surely she deserved more!

"Let's talk about this, Angel." Jim said. "I've lived on the move for the last several years and I don't have a home or property to offer a woman. A beautiful young woman like you should find her a man of substance who is settled down and can give her a future with a home and children."

Angel dabbed at her tears then she straightened up in her chair and gave him a glimpse of the aristocrat she had been raised to be. She clasped both of his hands in hers and told him, "I have watched you for the last week, Jim. You bravely defended Bert's son then I saw you being so gentle and kind not only to him but to everyone!"

Angel dabbed at her eyes with his bandana again, then she continued, "My family has had a sudden reversal of fortunes. The armies of banditos have stolen our ranchos from us so I also have almost nothing, Jim. I was sent to stay with Bert who is a cousin and the black sheep of a once very powerful family. He has been very kind to me but I care nothing of my future if I cannot be with you!"

Angel and Jim talked long into the hours of the night. He got her to relax by talking to her about her family, childhood, and education, which by any standards was considerably more than even most men of affluence. She had been sent to stay with her mother's family in Spain for five years to study art, music, and the languages. She was fluent in English and all of the Latin languages, because her father didn't want a daughter of his to ever be only a decoration for a rich man's sitting room.

She told him of her mother who had been the youngest daughter of a wealthy Castillian family. She had been sent to Mexico in an arranged marriage but had learned to love her devoted husband fiercely. She had died in childbirth with Angel's youngest sibling and her beloved sister, Elena, had been her children's duenna, an escort and tutor to Angelina and her brothers.

Angel related to Jim the heartbreak of seeing her ancestral home burned to the ground by bandits and of her family fleeing to safety only to be met there with intrigue and treason. She had been brought to Texas by vaqueros loyal to her father to stay with Bert in comparative safety. Her Tia Elena had been too ill to accompany her at the time so she had been very lonely since coming to Texas. Her best friend was the Catholic priest, Father Mike O'Rouke, whom she helped in his ministry to the local people.

Bert didn't approve of Angel helping out in the saloon. He felt that it was beneath her dignity as a well brought up young lady. He insisted that her father had provided plenty of gold to provide for her support but she persisted in helping so that she would have something to keep her busy.

Jim told her in turn of his coming of age on a ranch in Texas, of the hard but satisfying work training horses to trust and depend on their rider, and of his pride at being considered a top hand at a very young age. The first tragedy of his life had been the bitter loss and disillusionment of fighting for the south during the war.

He had learned his deadly art of using two pistols during that same war in the company of Mosby's Raiders where it was common practice for each man to begin a cavalry charge with four or more sixguns hung from his saddle. Jim had often led wild calvary charges into the hellfire of rifle and cannon shot with a percussion pistol in each fist and with his horse's reins between his teeth!

Because of Jim's bravery under fire he had reached the end of the war as one of the youngest Captains in the Army of the Confederacy only to find himself a fugitive because of false accusations of war crimes against Federal prisoners.

As he and Angel talked Jim grew to admire her strength and courage all the more and realized that he had never been drawn so strongly to any woman in his life. She was so genuinely sweet and pure. He found himself wanting more than anything in the world to be worthy of the love that she was offering him and to her joy he frankly told her so as he kissed her small hands.

Jim found that he now could not bear to continue to mislead Angel about any of the facts concerning his life. He told her about how after the war his faith in people had been redeemed by a Texas Ranger Captain who offered him a badge upon seeing Jim clean out a saloon after a gang of thugs had attacked him. He also told her of his true reason for being in Laredo. He only cautioned her about not revealing his secrets to anyone until the time was right.

Upon learning that he was a Texas Ranger she couldn't restrain herself from jumping up and grabbing him around the neck in an embrace. The touch of her soft young body and the fresh clean woman smell of her made the blood surge in his veins.

"I knew that you were a good man, Jim. I felt it in my heart when I first saw you!" She clasped his face to her small breasts. "Now I find that you are among the most respected of men!"

Jim's face was thoroughly flushed from the rush of emotions she evoked in him. Her professions of loneliness made him see her as a kindred spirit who was only looking for a special someone to belong with. He suddenly realized that he would be willing to give up his independence to be that person.

Jim had never been a man to take long to make up his mind. The closeness of the open and honest conversation between them over the last couple of hours had made him realize the huge void that had been missing in his life, a void he had become expert at denying in the past. Jim had reached a momentous decision about his future.

He raised his arms and embraced her in return as he stood. "Angelina!" Jim whispered as he bent to kiss her hair, "It may be the hardest thing I ever do in my life to turn loose of you right now but as you were born and raised a lady I'm honor bound to treat you as one!"

After years spent around the Texas border Jim knew enough about the Spanish and Mexican people to know that they surely enjoyed and admired pomp and ceremony. He turned Angelina to face Bert at the bar as he spoke in fluent Spanish. "Bert, since you are Senorita Cortez's ward and the agent of her father in this country, I request your permission to court the lady with the intention of winning her hand in marriage."

Bert seemed to recover from the shock of the request rather quickly. He had made his estimation of Jim days before and now he understood why Angelina had been acting so moon struck and out of sorts all week! In the spirit of the moment he bowed as he took off his hat with a practiced elegant sweep and said courtly in return, "Because you have made your request in the gracious manner of a gentleman the permission of the Cortez and Flores families are granted to you, Senor!"

Angel hugged Jim as she squealed in delight at his voicing of his intentions. "Oh Jim!" She cried. She was speechless and could only smile beautifully at him.

Bert toasted the two of them as the other patrons gathered around to find out what had been the reason for Angel's fight with the two barmaids. When they found out that the popular new deputy had asked Bert for permission to court the well liked Angelina, the whole crowd had a good excuse to celebrate.

Angel and Jim could just as easily have been on an island in the south seas for all the attention they paid everyone else as they sat at their table alone, talking about their new found love.

At closing time Bert asked Angel if she'd like to show Jim to his room. Jim told Angel, "I could and would just sit and talk to you for the next three days but I guess that if we are going to get anything done tomorrow we'd best be getting to our beds!"

Jim got up around daylight the next morning. He had spent his first night sleeping under Bert's roof and had not slept soundly at all. He had spent the first half of the night envisioning the lovely Angelina lying just beyond the thin wall, the rest of the night he had spent worrying that she would come to her senses when the sun came up and get over him! All he could think about was Angelina!

The love stricken Ranger found that he could not endure inaction at the moment so he walked over to Buck's corral to saddle up his stallion for a ride. The horse was all full of himself after several days of rest and hit his slow but extremely flashy and high stepping parade lope as soon as he was turned out.

Jim reveled in the feel of the stud's powerful muscles surging beneath him. As soon as he got out of town and had Chief warmed up a little he kneed the big horse into a gallop as he yelled a wild exultant rebel war cry into the wind and flying mane of his horse! He ran the horse about half a mile on the prairie before he reined him in. "I guess that I'm all full of myself this morning too, Boy!" Jim confided to his horse and then laughed!

Jim walked and trotted the stud back to the corral to cool him. He unsaddled and thoroughly curried him then gave him a bucket of dried corn on the cob before walking back to Bert's for breakfast.

A sullen and bruised Gloria cooked Jim and Bert's breakfasts while they talked about what it would take to make his and Angel's courtship acceptable to her family.

Bert explained to him that in Spain or Mexico at this time a normal courtship for young people of her upbringing could last for years with the intervening years being used by the young man in establishing himself in business and building a home. Jim had seen this custom himself among the aristocratic Hispanic families in south and central Texas.

Angelina had already left to run some errands for the Priest but before she left she had sternly instructed Bert that if he wanted to continue to get along with her, he would use his considerable intelligence and shrewdness to help Jim circumvent this customary formality. Bert knew that if the beautiful and usually loving and kind Angelina resorted to a threat she definitely meant it!

Bert had sent Jasper to Father O'Rouke to inform him of the impending courtship and to request a formal meeting with him. Bert irreverently told Jim, "If you can get that old windbag on your side you've got it made!"

Father O'Rourke sent Jasper back with word that he would give them an audience that same afternoon. Jim told Bert that he would use the hours until then to get himself curried up. Jim went by the Sheriff's office to talk over with Buck what his plans were for the day.

Buck had already heard about the disturbance at the saloon the night before and he was highly amused! "I can't understand what a rowdy like you did to put such a craving on that little sweetheart that she'd want to fight over you. I'll give you a word of advice, if I'd ever had a pretty little thing like her fall for me I would have taken her up on it and I wouldn't be a lonely old man without a family today."

"Buck, I ciphered the same thing in my tally book last night. That little darlin' told me she was swinging a wide loop and dallying off her lariat to her saddle horn. She said she wasn't going to quit throwin' loops till I was hog-tied and branded so I told her that I'd just drift on in to the corral peaceful like."

Buck congratulated Jim profusely. Jim saw that the lovely Angelina had also throughly charmed Buck. Buck's next remark was, "A man could spend his life looking this world over without finding a finer young lady to wed."

"I've sure quit looking, Buck. Right now, I'm figuring to go get cleaned up for a visit with the Priest."

"Alright Jim, check with me later, we need to talk some. I think we may be closer than we think to having something on these crimes." Jim agreed with him and headed for the barbershop and mercantile store.

Jim first asked the barber to draw up a tub of fresh water out of his well and warm it while he bought himself a much-needed new hat to replace the one that the late, in more ways than one, Red had ventilated for him. He had the store keeper lay out a new set of clothes and had him tie up two more new shirts and a couple of extra pairs of pants in paper.

The helper came to tell Jim the tub of water was warm. He luxuriated in the warm water for a time with a good cigar while curiously wondering what an old sinner like himself was doing with such a streak of good luck! Jim climbed out of the bath and dressed, then he leaned back in the barber's chair and treated himself to a store-bought shave along with his haircut while his boots were being cleaned and shined.

Though Angelina walked back and forth to and from the church several times a day, Jim understood that walking just wasn't done for a formal occasion such as this. He went over to the livery stable and hired a buckboard and a team for a formal transport to the church then he drove them over to the saloon. He had asked for a calm team and he was well pleased with them. He pulled the team up in front of the saloon and angled them up to the rail to tie them.

Jim's jaw dropped open when he saw Angelina! She was lovely beyond description, where she had been pure hot flame the night before, today her fierce fires were banked into glowing embers! Jim tried to think of words to describe her, regal, dainty, fragile, and feminine beyond belief all came to mind! They all applied!

She had a tasteful hint of rouge on her cheeks. She had used a dark cosmetic to accent her already exotic dark eyes. He thought that it must be from the Europe because he had never seen it on a woman before. Her glistening brown hair was held up in an elegant coiffure by a splendid silver and ruby comb. She wore a beautifully fitted, long sleeved, and high collared virginal white dress. Jim was even more enchanted than before!

Bert drolly told Jim, "Partner, you'd better close your mouth before you catch some flies in it and hand Angel up if we're going to be on time!" Over Bert's objections Angel insisted on sitting next to Jim. The warmth of her smooth thigh against his leg and the sweet honey-suckle scent of her cologne made Jim fear for his sanity!

Angelina's conversation with them was very prim and proper. With her regal bearing anyone would have thought that she could have been a Princess of Spain, but when Jim lifted her lightly from the buckboard she somehow succeeded in brushing her soft breasts against his arm and chest!

This coquetry sent a sensual feeling and desire through Jim like none that he had ever felt in the sporting houses of San Antonio, Galveston, Austin, or even New Orleans! Jim thought to himself that if this went on much longer that they would soon see him wild eyed, prancing, and snorting like a prize stud horse.

"Bert, I'm as nervous as a whore in church!" Jim said in a quick aside to Bert as they entered the mission alcove.

"Don't worry, Jim. The Padre is also a man, he will understand." Bert assured Jim.

Father O'Rourke joined them with hearty welcomes and warm embraces for Angelina and Bert. Jim received a firm and formal handshake. The Priest then created a diversion for Angelina by asking her, "Angelina, my dear, would you please check on the children in the infirmary? They have been asking for you since this morning." She departed with a warm wink of encouragement at Jim.

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