THE GIFT OF THE HORSE
- A HORSE OPERA

by Gail Gardner


The Overture...

There is a tale told in the old country about a man who once rescued one of the wee folk. It had been a wet spring, with more than abundant rain. Little springs became torrents and creeks overran their banks. More terrible was the mighty Shannon which rolled like a wrathful St.Patrick, throwing out the heathen throughout the countryside. A young farmer was riding his pony through the wet, when he heard a desperate shout. There, hanging on for dear life, in the middle of the river, grasping a half-sunken tree, was a poor bedraggled creature. The man at first thought it was a child, but children didn't have full beards and certainly didn't use the language the small man was using. Despite the flood and a certain foreboding (drummed into him by his parish priest) about dealing with the wee folk, he urged his pony into the flood and managed, greatly though the animal's strength and courage, to drag the little man to the shore.

"I'll be thankin' ye..." the wee man said wringing water out of his beard.

"Nay, twas nuthin'."The young man replied and patted his pony nervously. The poor beast was still quivering from the fearsome swim.

"I'll be thankin' ye!" The little man said with insistent firmness and looked at the young man rather balefully. "I'll be given ye three wishes..."

The young man blanched. He knew the stories the granfers and granmers told, better to endure the wrath of ired kith and kin and the condemnations of the priests than to accept three wishes from the wee people. No good ever came of it. And it had a habit of sticking to the whole family down through the generations. A case in point was the Jack O' the Dingle family with all the lads having six fingers on each hand and all the girls ugly as sin. The young man shuddered, he was thinking of courting young Bess, if her family got wind of this...

The pony, nudged the young man with its nose. It was tired, cold, and hungry and all they were doing was standing around in the pouring rain. The young man patted the pony again. He was fond of the small beast. Then he smiled to himself.

"Well now honored sir," He bowed slightly to the leprechaun. "I appreciate your offer, but it weren't really me who saved ye. It were the pony here. I think you should give him the three wishes."

"Oh really?" The little man who was quite dry, through some sort of magic, looked at the wet pony and soggy young man. "Fair enough." He turned to the pony. "All right me lad. Three wishes it is then."

The pony seemed to understand as it snorted nervously and pranced a little. The young man noticed that the pony was really uncomfortable in the wet and took off his own coat to cover the beast.

"That's one." The little man nodded.

"What did he wish for?" The young man almost bit his tongue, Boyo How dy'do was he asking for trouble. "I'll fix ye a hot mash when we get home, eh boy?" He said nervously to the pony.

"Ye'll find out..." the little man sniffed, "After all it's his wishes." He turned to the pony again who was snorting excitedly. "Are ye sure? They always wish for that sort of thing...oh all right, its yer wishes."

In the place of the small pony was now a beautiful long-legged horse with a shiny coat the color of polished mahogany. The horse was very obviously a thoroughbred stallion, not a gelded hill pony.

"Dear God," the young man groaned "I'll be hung for a horse thief. And me Da will whip me black and blue fer losin' the pony."

The little man grinned rather evilly. The pony, or horse; however, was a canny creature and picked up the wee man by the back of his jacket with its teeth and gave a vigorous shake.

"Let go ye filty crayture! I kin fix it." The leprechaun howled. The horse dropped him, but stayed close enough to bite.

"Yer last wish?"He said sullenly brushing off his sleeves. The horse pawed the ground and then looked at the young man and shook his head.

"He wants ye to have the last wish."

The young man thought of young Bess, her saucy blue eyes and curly black hair. "Me love." He sighed.

"Done! And may ye all be happy with what ye got. Oh and by the by, yer youngens will have the gift too, well mebbe some of em." With that the little man disappeared.

No one seemed to be surprised that the young man now owned a stropping big stallion instead of a hill pony. Young Bess' parents looked well upon his suit, after all the boy had the start of a good herd of horses with such a fine stud. It was Bess herself who after hearing the story, figured out what the pony's first wish and what the gift was.

"Ye seem to know when the beast is ailin' and how to make it feel well. The other horses like you powerful well too, even the squires evil black mare won't bite ye. Ye have the gift of the horse."

The young man and Bess were married and had a passel of children, some of whom had the gift of the horse, some who didn't. Those who did, always did well and seemed to find love in the most unexpected places...

*****

We meet the players with a thundering crash of cymbals, a honkytonk pianner', and five cowboys on guitars. The percussionist has in addition to his drums; a gut bucket, a six-shooter, and a spittoon.

ACT ONE
Scene One: Heath Barkley loses a race; but wins a horse and something to go with it.

The horses thundered down the dusty stretch of road. The sound of striking hooves was interspersed with the cries and curses from the riders.

The black's rider was furiously whipping the horse, trying to keep the precarious lead he had on the pack of horses bunched up behind him. His curses were cut off as the foam gathered on the tired horse's neck whipped back to hit him in the mouth.

Heath Barkley gave Charger an encouraging shout as the finish line loomed near. The horse seemed to gather its legs under itself and bounded forward. The lanky roan that had been pacing him the whole of the race also surged forward. The black-haired boy riding the roan glanced at Heath and gave an impudent grin.

The two horses raced neck and neck the last 50 yards, then the boy shouted "Away with ye!", and the roan took off at a pace that seemed to leave Charger just standing still. It easily crossed the finish line three lengths in front of the black and one length in front of Heath and Charger. The crowd were yelling and cheering, but not too enthusiastically as the black had been a local favorite and both Charger and the roan outsiders.

The roan's rider was met by a man who swung the boy off the saddle joyously. "Good for you, Jamie. I won us $100! Think of it boy!" He busily started to gather his winnings leaving the boy to walk the horse. The boy seemed to be about fourteen or even younger. Both the man and the boy had curly black hair, the man's streaked with gray though he couldn't have been more than thirty or so. They were short with shocking blue eyes and similar features that suggested they were related, probably brothers. The man's accent was Irish, and both wore high black boots with low heels, unusual footwear for the west.

"Good race." Heath said also walking Charger to cool him off. "I've never seen a horse take off like that before." He eyed the roan appreciatively. It was prancing with the boy and nibbling on short fellows' curly black hair. Charger seemed to think that the hair was fair game and leaned over for a nip.

"Ye've a fine horse yerself." The boy smiled at the horse and patted Charger's nose confidently. His voice was a softer version of his brother's with an almost musical Irish lilt.

"Careful, he..." Heath went to warn the boy that Charger was apt to bite strangers, but Charger was acting more like a children's pony around the boy.

"Not to worry mister, horses like me. What's his name?"

"Charger." Heath was amused, the boy seemed more interested in his horse, than in himself. "He owns me, I'm Heath Barkley, from down by Stockton." He stretched out a hand to the boy who put a small, but calloused hand into his.

"James O'Shannon and of course, Buddy, nowheres and everywhere's home." The roan tossed his head acknowledging his name.

"Jamie!" The older man came up with an angry twisted expression on his face."I told you not to talk to strangers." He hauled the boy around by one arm wrenching it harshly. His pleasure at winning the race was apparently short-lived.

"The boy was just being polite..." Heath tried to intervene.

"Michael..." The boy began, but got a round box on his ears for the trouble.

"Hey!" Heath said.

"You just stay away from my brother." The older man spat out and limping, dragged the boy after him. The roan followed with ears pinned back and took a neat bite out of Michael's backside. Heath managed to stifle his laugh, but not enough as the look Michael shot him was pure poison.

That evening, Heath went to the saloon for a drink and maybe a little poker. He had gone to Strawberry to visit his mother's grave, something he tried to do as often as possible. It was a good place to think about things. He took his time on the trip back and was interested enough in the $50 prize offered for the winner of the horse race. Seeing the competition was just some of the local talent and the young boy mounted on the roan, he figured he had a good chance. Not that he needed the money, but winning would be a challenge. The boy turned out to be a better rider than he looked and the roan quite a horse. He wouldn't mind owning a horse like that.

The black's rider and the Irishman were involved already in heavy drinking and what looked like a lively poker game. Heath ordered a beer and leaning on the bar listened to the two men's conversation.

"The boy your son?" The cowboy asked, fingering a deep scar on his cheek. Heath had noticed that the cowboy's horse had been put away half groomed after the race. He had felt sorry for the beast, it obviously had once been a fine animal. It was a shame when a man didn't care well for his mount. The O'Shannon horse on the other hand, from what little he had seen of it, was bristling with health and good care.

"No. Me brother and right handful, but he can ride. Not as good as me," He leaned forwards, "If it wasn't fer the war n this here leg I'd've won the race by three - no by God! five lengths." He took a swallow from his whiskey as if it were water. His face was already flushed by the drink. "So, shall we play a little poker? How about you, boyo?" He directed his comments to Heath. "Since I feel bad about you all losing to the better man."

"Why not." Heath said easily, the implied insult and self-aggrandizement noted. It would be good to take this cocky Irishman down a few notches. Especially as it was the horse and the boy who won the race, not his brother.

The game went on for several hours. Already in the first few hands, Heath could tell where the game was going to go. The Irishman and the cowboy drank red eye steadily, Heath stuck to beer. Both were fair players, but the more inebriated they got, the more reckless their play. The Irishman was triumphant when winning, sullen when losing. Little by little, what money he had or had won from the race was now sitting in front of the cowboy and Heath. Finally, a healthy pot sat on the table. Heath could tell by the fevered glint in the Irishman's eyes that he had a good hand.

"All right. I'll see yer hundred and raise ye 20 dollar." He said pushing the last of his money across the table.

The cowboy fingered his scar and tossed off the rest of his drink. "All right Mick," He grinned savagely, he had a good hand. "I'll see that raise and raise it 50 more."

Heath raised his eyebrows, this was getting a bit rich, but... "Okay, see you and raise 50 more."

"I ain't got the cash, but if ye gentlemen will take something of equal value..." The older O'Shannon said.

"Whacha got?" The scarred cowboy looked almost hungry.

"The horse. Worth easily $200. Won the race didn't he?"

"Suits me." The cowboy looked at Heath who shrugged in agreement.

"All right then, I sees yer bets and raises ye the extra hundred. And call."

"I'll see it." The cowboy grunted and looked at his cards again. That fancy red horse was as good as his.

The Irishman laid down two Jacks and two deuces. "Two pair!" He crowed and made for the rich pot.

"Jest wait Irish. I got me three ladies that say I win." He laughed harshly at the awful expression on the Irishman's face.

"Well now, I wouldn't be too quick to laugh," Heath said quietly "I got me a full house, sevens and aces." He looked the two other players in the eye as he took in the pot which included a hastily scribbled bill of sale from Michael O'Shannon.

*****

About an hour later, a few hours before sunrise there was a nasty scene in the barn which was only witnesses by the two parties involved and several horses.

"Buddy is my horse! Ye had no right to gamble him away! He's mine!" Jamie O'Shannon's voice was shrill with anger and a touch of panic.

"Shet yer mouth. Ain't me fault that lyin' dirty cowboy won him." Michael took another pull at the whiskey bottle draining the last drops.

"Which one did ye lose to?" The boy's voice sounded frightened. The black had been a fair state when brought into the stable. Out of compassion Jamie had curried and cared for the abused creature. If the scarred man had won Buddy, then Buddy would just have to disappear...

"Twas the other, blond feller who came in after ye and ye can't go stealin' him back. They'd hang me for a horse thief." Michael snarled.

"Well ye are one, I raised Buddy from a foal..." The boy's tirade was cut short by the sharp noise of a hand hitting flesh.

"That'll teach ye to raise yer voice to me...after all I done fer yer, ye ungrateful."

"Does that make ye feel better Michael? What are we to do now with no horse to race?" Jamie shot back interrupting what seemed to be a familiar tirade.

"I'll think of somethin'!" Michael yelled back and tried to drain more whiskey out of the empty bottle. "I gotta have more to drink. Give me some money."

"I ain't got any. Ye had it all, remember? Oh, Michael what have ye done to us?"

"It's all yer fault, if I didn't have you hangin' round me neck like a millstone ye good-fer-nothin!" There was the sound of a heavy blow and sharp sob from the boy.

"Stop it Michael, for the love of God..."

"I kept ye safe, without me you know where you'd be. Be thankful." With that the drunk man staggered over to one of the empty stalls and collapsed, leaving the boy to cry quietly. The roan, Buddy, whickered nervously from his stall.

"Oh Rosebud, what am I going to do?" Jamie O'Shannon sobbed against the shoulder of the horse tears mixing with the all too familiar sight of blood from Micheal's beatings. "Ye'll be just fine, that Heath Barkley is a good man. See how good he takes care of his horse. Ye'll have a nice barn to sleep in, good hay in winter and ye can run where ever ye want. I wish I could go with ye, but Michael..." The boy sniffed and wiping the streaming blood from a cut lip with his sleeve was quiet for a moment. "Aye, go with ye...mebbe..." The barn became silent with only the sounds of the snoring drunk and the normal movements of the horses.

It was well past sunup when Heath left the little town behind. He had been handed over the roan by a very hungover and half-asleep Michael O'Shannon who immediately went back to sleep in his pile of hay. Heath looked around for the boy, but didn't see him anywhere. He turned towards Stockton and home. Home. That thought these days was no stranger to him, home and family. He felt a tug on the rope that had been leading the roan. The horse had been completely docile up until now, accepting the fact that he was to follow Charger. It suddenly tried to pass Charger and the rope and Charger's indignation stopped it. It fretted worriedly prancing and fighting the rope.

"Whoa, boy!" Heath gave the lead a tug and the roan looked at him...reproachfully and then turned to look up the road nostrils wide and ears twitching forwards and back. Heath sighed when he noticed the boy standing by the side of the road. a worn pair of saddle bags were by his feet. He and Charger trotted up to him. The roan tried to greet the boy, but he didn't raise a hand to the horse's enthusiastic welcome.

"Mr. Barkley." The boy's hat shaded his face, but when he tilted his head up to greet the mounted cowboy it revealed several dark bruises and a split lip that was still leaking a drop or two of blood. The boy wiped at it absentmindedly.

"Mr.O'Shannon." Heath leaned on his saddlehorn with his forearms and waited.

"I would buy me horse back from ye." If the boy was near tears he hid it well. "I don't have any money, but I'll work. I'm a good, hard worker, Mr.Barkley. I can do most anything with horses..."

"Your brother said the horse was his, but if you want him back..." Heath began to untie the rope to hand it to the boy. He'd lost good money on the animal, but he felt sorry for the boy.

"Ye misunderstand me Mr.Barkley." The boy took off his dusty black hat and ran fingers through his curly black hair. "Ye gambled with Michael in good faith and Buddy is yours. What I ask is the chance to earn him back, fairly. Not all of us O'Shannon's are cheats and liars."

And bullies, Heath thought to himself. "What about your brother? Won't he miss you? Come looking for you?"

The boy was silent for a moment and his clear blue eyes dropped to stare at the hat in his hands. "Our ways have parted Mr.Barkley. I'll be lookin' out fer meself now."

"Look, Jamie isn't it? I don't really need your horse..." Heath began.

"Mr. Barkley, if ye were me, what would ye do?"

Heath sighed. "Just what you offered. All right James O'Shannon. You'll get $30 a month with a place to bunk and meals. You can pay me back $100 for your horse, then he's yours again. Deal?" Heath leaned over and held out his hand.

Jamie O'Shannon took the offered hand and shook it strongly. "Aye tis a deal."

"Then mount up, we got a whole day's ride before we get home." Heath untied the rope holding the roan and when he turned around he saw the boy was already in the saddle of the roan. The horse began dancing and curvetting as if on a Sunday parade.

"Too bad we shook already, Mr.Barkley. I hate to be takin' advantage of ye, but a shook deal is a done deal me Da always said." Jamie grinned even though it hurt to smile with the bruises. "Buddy is easily worth $200."

"Well now Jamie what I didn't tell you is that you will be working for my brother Nick. He runs the ranch and you'll be taking orders from him. And Boy Howdy, will he work you hard."

ACT ONE
Scene Two: Jamie O'Shannon's secret is revealed to us - actions by the new wrangler are disturbing to both Nick and Heath.

"I swear Heath," Nick shook his head. "You bring home more strays than we do on round-up."

"The boy wants his horse back and is willing to work for it..." Heath shrugged. "He is good with horses. Even Charger seemed to take a shine to him."

Nick snorted."Okay, but you are responsible. The kid messes up and he goes. You sure you can trust him to sleep in the barn? What's wrong with the bunkhouse with the other hands?" Nick poured himself a generous glass of whiskey and took an appreciative swallow. "And why..."

"What's really bothering you about Jamie, Nick?" Heath said with unaccustomed abruptness.

"Well...he...seems..." Nick sputtered.

"Lost." Heath said quietly and took a healthy swallow of his own drink. "Because his brother beat him, gambled away his only friend, that horse, and made life so miserable that he ran away?"

Nick winced. His own initial reception of Heath had been none too friendly and Jamie O'Shannon's story had awoken long buried memories of that time.

"Nick." Heath put a hand on his big brother's shoulder. "Not everyone is lucky enough to have a big brother like you, to look out for them. Without you and Jarrod and the rest of the family, well.." Heath ducked his head. "I just want the boy to feel safe, that someone can care."

"But for the grace of God, go I..." Nick muttered. He raised his eyes to his brother's. "All right, but if he steals all of the horses or makes off with the family silver.." The warning was tempered by a warm smile and Nick's quick , but affectionate slap on his brother's back.

Considering the extra blanket a good excuse to check up on the new wrangler, Nick entered the barn quietly. The small tackroom and it's cot already showed signs of occupancy with a few personal belongings put neatly on the shelves. His eye caught a small framed picture peeking out from under the bedroll. He picked it up and looked at it. It was obviously a family picture. Even though stiffly posed, there seemed a happiness and closeness in the group. He easily saw where Jamie got his shock of curly black hair from his father who was easily a head shorter than his wife who was stunningly beautiful even after the brood of children. Five boys were posed around the parents, while a little curly-haired girl sat confidently in her mother's lap.

"That's mine." Jamie said flatly from behind him. Nick turned to find the boy standing defensively with his hand out.

"Your family?" Nick asked and handed over the photo. Without looking at it Jamie stuffed it into his saddle bags. The boy had been washing up as his hair was wet and face pink from scrubbing. It made the harsh bruises on his face more noticeable.

"Aye." Jamie said flatly his face turned away.

"You must miss them...?" Nick pried gently.

The boy whirled and the crimson of anger added to the pink. "I'll work for ye, Mr. Barkley, and I'll do a good job, but ye keep yer nose out me business and me things, ye hear?" His Irish accent was strong with anger.

"All right boy. No harm. Bright and early for work." He left the barn, his footsteps fading into the distance towards the brightly lit big house.

Jamie O'Shannon sat wearily on the small cot and looked around. It wasn't the most comfortable place in the world, but it sure beat sleeping rough or spending the night in a hayloft. Blowing out the lantern, Jamie was instantly surrounded by the dark and the comforting sound of horses. Thank heaven Heath Barkley had seen the sense of the argument to let Jamie sleep in the barn, closer to the horses that would need caring for.

It was the first time in her life that she was truly alone.

Jamie O'Shannon sighed. It had been a long day. No, it had been a long life. Sometimes she felt closer to 100 than the mere twenty years she had been alive. Her memories of her happy childhood with Da and Mum and five brothers seemed as flat and as dim as the worn photograph in her saddlebags. The last four years on the road with Michael was like going up and down a hilly road. The good times were good and the bad times which had become more frequent were bad. Pray God that this decision she had made was the right one. Too weary to even cry she fell asleep.

*****

In the following weeks, even Nick had to give a grudging nod of acceptance to the new wrangler. Jamie was a hard worker and handled the horses with an ease and sure hand. Just as Heath was quietly proud and Nick becoming grudgingly satisfied with Jamie's work; there were several incidents to change both of their minds.

The first involved an old pony inaptly named Fireball'. Fireball lived more up to the name of ball' rather than fire'. He was a portly little cowpony of indeterminate brown color and a white blaze on his nose. In nature he was placid, but could be kicked into a gallop if need be. He had been Audra's first pony and even though she had several horses since, the old even-tempered beast had a special place in her heart.

Fireball, while not up to being a working cowpony, still had enough life in him to be a special treat for children and other unexperienced riders who occasioned to visit the Barkley ranch. Fireball was a favorite at the orphanage where he stoicly endured sticky hands entwined in his mane and little heels impatiently drumming his barrel sides while he walked placidly following Audra and the bits of apple she tempted him with.

Then Fireball had an accident. It was a little stumble while out to graze with the remuda, or maybe one of the other horses took to kicking the older pony, but when Jamie went to fetch the horses into the barn Fireball remained in a corner of the field with his head down and no weight on his left forefoot.

Jamie put up the rest of the horses and then went out to the pony.

"Eh, m'boy. Let me have a look." Jamie gently ran her hands down the horse's leg and found the ugly swelling and bruises. "Can ye walk? C'mon my dear. Ye'll come with me to the barn? Ay that's it. One step at a time." Little by little and by coaxing and strength of will Jamie got the horse to it's stall in the barn. She offered the suffering animal water and hay, but he ignored eating, but drank thirstily. "I better tell Mr.Heath."

It was late afternoon at the Barkley house when Jamie went up to the front door, hesitated a moment and then knocked. A small smiling woman opened the door.

"Excuse me, I be looking for Heath, uh Mr.Barkley."

The lady put out a hand and smiled. "You must be Jamie. Come in." She pulled her into the hallway. Jamie always felt small around other people, but this smiling lady and she were head and head and eye to eye which was an interesting perspective.

"I have on boots..." Jamie stammered looking around in awe at the carpets, crystal and beautiful things everywhere. "Oh how beautiful." She said impulsively.

"Why thank you." Victoria Barkley beamed. The boy seemed as nice as Heath had hinted at. "Heath went into Stockton for a few days, but I'm sure Nick is here somewhere. Nick!"

"We are in here Mother." Audra stuck her head out of the library. She smiled easily at Jamie. "Hello! You must be new."

Nick came out to see what his mother wanted. "Yes, Mother?"

"Nick! Introduce us." Audra prodded, she smiled winningly at the young man.

"Audra, my sister, this is Jamie O'Shannon." Nick leaned on the word sister.

"Pleased to meet ye, Miss Barkley." Jamie shifted nervously from one foot to the other.

"Well, boy, what is it?" Nick put his hands on his hips and stared down at the young stable hand.

"Fireball has been injured. I thought He...Mr.Heath could have a look at him."

"I'll come have a look." Nick said and brushed past Jamie towards the door.

"Wait Nick, I'll come too." Audra sped past Jamie and her mother. Jamie turned to Victoria and smiled weakly "Mrs. Barkley." and ran after them. Years of running after horses and big brothers, gave Jamie a nice long stride and she soon caught up with the two Barkley's as they crossed to the horse barn.

Jamie stood outside the loose box with Audra as Nick checked the pony's leg. He shook his head.

"Sorry Audra, but it doesn't look too good."

"Couldn't we have the vet in?" Audra asked. She knew that on a working ranch that animals got old or ill and had to be put down, but she didn't have to like it.

"I'm sorry Audra, but Fireball is an old horse...the best thing we can do is put him out of his pain and misery."

"I could put a poultice on..." Jamie cut in. "He walked from the field to the barn."

"Listen boy..." Nick began hotly. He hated the thought of putting the horse down. He knew how much Audra still loved her first mount. He had a sudden picture of her perched on the pony's back, Audra's pigtails bouncing as their father shouted encouragement and instructions. He ran a hand through his hair. "No. Make him comfortable, if he is no better by tomorrow, then we'll have to put him down."

"Oh Nick!" Audra went into the box stall and gave Fireball a hug. The horse nudged her but was too ill to even do anything more. She then turned to her brother and threw herself into his arms. "I understand why ." she sobbed, "But Father taught me to ride on Fireball, it would be like..." She couldn't finish the sentence.

"I know." Nick said kindly and stroked her head gently. "I know."

Jamie felt a large knot in her throat and looked away. Despite her tomboy ways and the scrapping between her and her brothers, they had always been there for her. It was a side of the big rough boss that she had never seen before. She felt a stab of pain for Audra and, if she was to be totally honest, for herself. Her jaw set in determination. She would do her best for the pony despite the boss' orders.

*****

Silas was surprised, but willing to give Jamie the ingredients she needed for the poultice; stale bread, honey, and a few sacks of rolled oats. He had offered Jamie molasses, instead of honey, but she was adamant. Honey was more dear, but still if it was for Miss Audra's old horse, he was sure the family was willing to make the sacrifice. Of course the sacrifice wasn't found out until the next morning.

"Silas?" Victoria asked looking at the groaning breakfast table. "Where's the honey?"

"Why young O'Shannon needed it for the poultice. I gave the boy the whole jar. He said that he needed that much because the poultice had to be changed so often. You know for Miss Audra' old pony, Fireball, that done took sick."

Nick looked up from his plate of ham and eggs. "WHAT?!"

"Oh Nick, thank you!" Audra jumped up and hugged her brother impulsively. "I knew you wouldn't put Fireball down."

"Now wait a minute...I didn't..." Nick sputtered and pulled his sister from off his neck. "I didn't give any orders..." He looked into his sister's crestfallen face and felt very very angry about the spot young O'Shannon had placed him in. Lips pressed tight in anger he stood up from the table. "Excuse me Mother, Audra. I think I better find out what is happening."

"Now Nick, I'm sure the boy meant well." Victoria said calmly.

"I give the orders Mother, like them or not, I expect them to be obeyed!" Now, totally in a foul temper, Nick stormed out of the house.

He was an easy twenty yards from the barn when Jamie heard his first bellow. "O'SHANNON!"

It had actually woke her from the little nap she had been taking. It had been a long night, changing the poultice every hour or so, soothing the pony and making sure that all of her other chores were taken care of. She had been nodding over the polishing of some bridles when the boss' voice woke her. With little or no sleep herself, her own temper was just a little bit testy.

Nick had managed to yell several more times before Jamie decided to answer. "WHAT?" she yelled back and popped out of the pony's stall to confront the irate man.

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN BY GOING BEHIND MY BACK AND TREATING FIREBALL!!"

Jamie crossed her arms and looked peevishly at the man towering over her. It was something her brothers had all tried on her and it just wouldn't work. She deliberately stepped forward so that she was almost toe to toe with him. Off balance, Nick stepped back, giving Jamie a small but distinct advantage. She had made him move.

"I figured I could make the beast better." She said calmly, but through gritted teeth. He had seemed a fair boss up until now, but if anyone knew horses it was herself. She wasn't going to back down an inch - yet.

"NOW YOU LISTEN TO ME!" Nick wasn't going to lower his voice, "I AM THE BOSS, AND I MAKE THE DECISIONS."

"What harm to it? Ye didn't even want to try! Ye want me to take care of yer horses than trust me to do just that!" Jamie's own temper began to flare. A little voice in the back of her head warned her that she was playing with fire, but she ignored it.

"Well maybe I don't trust you..." Nick said slowly and menacingly and took a step forward hands raised. This time Jamie took a step back and then another just to stay out of hitting range. Her own arms went up defensively to protect herself, as she had done so many times with Michael. That if anything, stopped Nick dead in the tracks of his rage. Yeah he was mad, but he wouldn't have laid a hand on the boy. Well maybe a cuff or two, or a good shaking. He lowered his hands and Jamie lowered hers cautiously when the expected blow didn't fall. The two glared at each other. The tenseness was broken by a whicker from the stall.

Nick turned to look at the horse. Last night it could barely hold up it's head, now Fireball was lipping up hay. Instead of holding his whole leg off the ground, the hoof was down on the ground, but not bearing any weight. Nick shot the boy a glare and hunkering down next to the horse, he ran his hand down the leg to the sticky poultice. Fireball shifted nervously, but let him explore the wound. Jamie also sat back on her haunches next to him and began removing the bandage.

"I have to change it. Ye can see that it is getting better." Her hands were quick and efficient.

"Let me see." Nick grunted and inspected the wound. It was still hot and swollen, but seemed better than last night. The old bandage was crusted with matter and pus that had been drawn out of the wound. The new one, warm and smelling strongly of honey was applied.

"How often did you change the bandage?" Nick asked.

"Every couple of hours or so." Jamie shrugged and wiped her hands off on her jeans. From the look of the dried oatmeal and bread bits sticking to them, it wasn't the first time.

Nick stood up towering over the girl who was still smoothing out the bandage. She in turn stood up next to the horse's head and petting his nose glared at him defiantly.

"You up all night?" He asked crossing his arms across his chest.

"Aye." Jamie said looking him as well as she could in the eye. The darn man gave her a crick in the neck. Heath was much easier to get along with.

"Make sure you don't slack on your other work." He shook a finger under her nose. "And don't go getting Audra's hopes up with all this." He continued sternly.

"Yes boss." Jamie said, realizing with a sigh that she had almost got herself fired. Then where would she and Buddy be?

Nick buried himself in the business of running the ranch that day. He missed having Heath around, especially after this problem with Fireball. It was well into the evening, when he went into the barn to check up on the horse and Jamie. He was pleased to see that the barn and the horses had been taken take of with Jamie's usual efficiency. He didn't see any sign of the boy, but went to look at Fireball who greeted him with some interest and a nudge for a piece of apple or carrot.

"Well boy, you sure are looking better." Nick patted the horse on the neck. He felt the horse's leg, it still seemed sore but much better. The poultice was still warm, so he assumed that the boy was still around.

Jamie peered at Nick from the safety of Buddy's stall. She figured it might be more prudent to stay out of the boss' way for a little while - maybe the next week or so. The pony was going to get better, she could feel it in her bones. Her sigh was echoed by Buddy's snuffle against her shoulder. Nick got up and just as he left the barn turned and said just loud enough for her to hear. "Good job, boy."

Jamie wrinkled her nose at him. Darn the man, he knew she was there all the time. He was as annoying as her brother Sean had been, the know-it-all. Sean had always been so self-righteous, it was no wonder that he had been contemplating joining the ministry before the war broke out. Not that he fooled his brothers and sister. If Sean wasn't right, he made it right or convinced you that he was right even though you were sure you were right.

*****

When Heath got back from his two days in Stockton, he found an uneasy situation between his brother and Jamie. Nick was willing to give the boy credit for saving Fireball, but he was still simmering about the boy's disobedience of orders.

"Dang it Heath, if everyone starts second guessing my orders this ranch will go to hell in a hand basket." Nick fumed.

"Uh huh." Heath nodded, but the corners of his mouth twitched. Jamie just didn't know how to handle Nick.

Nick looked at his brother suspiciously. Heath wasn't siding with the boy, was he?

"Look Nick, why doesn't Jamie handle the men's mounts for a week or two. Getting up before sunrise should take his mind off - ah - aggravating you." Heath said straight faced.

"You think you are going to handle him better than me?" Nick curved an eyebrow at his brother. Heath was riding him. "Bet cha five dollars that you loose your patience in a week."

"Deal! Boy Howdy, I sure do like it when you just hand money over to me." Heath grinned.

If Jamie had anything to say about her new orders, she kept it to herself. The rest of the hands accepted the change with some suspicion. A cowboy depended on his mount and neglect or any mistakes could not only cost a man his ride, but often his most important tool, and more often than not his best friend, the horse he rode. After a day or so, Jamie began to make subtle changes in the mounting. Most of the hands took it in stride, a change of pace was always good. Very few noticed that they were gradually being matched with horses that suited their riding styles and temperament. But of course, not everyone can be satisfied and even the fine Barkley remuda wasn't up to mounting every type of rider - especially the poor ones.

One such hand was Peachtree Williams. Peachtree was a fairly good-looking big man running a bit to a paunch and loosing his hair. Most of his pay was spent on fancy shirts and foul-smelling concoctions guaranteed to return hair to its once resplendent glory. His buddy, Johannsen improved his looks by the addition of gold teeth. He had four and was saving up for a fifth. Peachtree, like most bad riders, fancied himself a great horseman, and favored flashy mounts. When the third morning in a row Jamie had handed over a less than desirable horse he had taken exception.

"Ah always rides Daisy," He said and picked up Jamie by the front of her shirt. His thick Georgia accent thicker with anger.

"Ah, but Mr.Williams yer such a big man." Jamie hoped that her poor shirt wasn't going to tear. "Ye need a strong horse."

"Oh , yeah. Good idea, kid." He dropped the boy and mounted the placid looking hayburner.

Daisy was handed over to one of the hands with a lighter hand on the rein to suit Daisy's sensitive mouth. The horse seemed to nod happily to Jamie at the choice. It was only when the men were sitting around the campfire enjoying a cup of coffee and a quick lunch that the subject of new mounts came up. Daisy's rider made the mistake of saying how he enjoyed riding the horse and what a fine responsive animal she was. Peachtree had a time controlling his own hard-mouthed horse and began to fume.

Johannsen fanned the flames by laughing. "The boy fooled ya, Peachtree, he done gave you a plug."

"None of our horses are plugs." Heath remarked quietly. "Let's get back to work boys." He figured that was the last of the matter.

"Bastard." Peachtree muttered and spat.

Johannsen elbowed him sharply. The boss might really be a bastard, but it wasn't something said out loud on the Barkley ranch. Not and remain employed there.

"He stuck up for the little Irish git." Peachtree snarled and took out a lot of his anger on his mount. This served to make it open warfare between Jamie and Peachtree. Heath began to wonder why it took so long for the crew to get mounted in the morning. His first thought was that Jamie was obvious not up to the job. He was disappointed. He felt like he had a vested interest in the boy. He began to snap at the boy trying to get him to pick up his feet and get going. Jamie was hurt that Heath doubted her skills with the horses. So, she wasn't so good working with that lout Peachtree. He didn't count - the horses did.

"Look Jamie..." Heath began one evening after supper. Jamie was in the stall with Buddy currying the horse to a gleam. "What's going on with you?"

"Tisn't me." Jamie said shortly. Peachtree kept trying to lay hands on her, but she knew better than to let him within arm's reach.

"Well, by golly. There's something goin' on! What it is it, if it ain't you?" Heath was exasperated.

"Look here Heath." Jamie charged out of Buddy's box much to the horse's displeasure. He wasn't done with the brushing. She pulled the steady large horse that Peachtree had been riding the last two days into the aisle in the barn. She showed him the spur marks and signs of rough handling that the horse had endured. "That Peachtree fancies hisself a good rider, but all he wants to do is show the horse who is boss - anyway he can. Daisy was near done in by him, Silverado here is much stronger, but even he is being worn down. The poor beasts are just doing their job, and I'm doing mine!" Jamie crossed her arms and scowled at Heath. Heath had the distinct impression that the next unspoken sentence was, And you Heath Barkley, better do your job.'

*****

Heath handed five dollars to Nick. He went to the pool table and rolled a ball idly across the table.

"What's this?" Nick asked.

"Our bet." Heath said shortly. "I lost."

"Oh?" Nick grinned and held up the bill. "Mebbe I should get this framed?"

"Oh shut up." Heath said grouchily. "Might have to fire someone..."

"Jamie?" Nick's eyebrows knit together. The boy wasn't that bad, not that it was easy to get Heath riled.

"No. Peachtree Williams, he's been riding the stock a might rough." Heath interpreted his brother's expression of burgeoning anger, a horse was a valuable piece of property. "Not too bad, but enough to get Jamie upset about the beasts'. I had to have a talk with Peachtree. He'll be more careful, but I'm afraid things aren't too good between him and O'Shannon."

"Might be simpler to fire O'Shannon." Nick said idly and tucked the five dollars in his pocket.

"He's just doing his job." Heath said defensively. "The boy is just better with horses than with people."

"Well, that's for sure!" Nick laughed. "I think we'll just keep him on so's I can win another five dollars off of you now and again." He patted his pocket satisfied.

ACT ONE
Scene Three: Jamie gets into a fight and has a philosophical discussion with Nick.

On payday, a few days later, Jamie's precious thirty dollars was immediately handed over to a rather embarrassed Heath.

"You should keep a little for yourself. Buy yourself a new shirt or somethin'" Heath untactfully pointed out the neatly darned holes that Jamie's thick wool shirt sported. Even though it was late summer, the heat didn't really allow such a thick shirt. Heath figured that the boy owned a total of two shirts and the wool one was the better of the two. The other was a grey shirt of unrecognizable age and material, it was so worn.

Jamie hesitated, much as she wanted to pay for Buddy, maybe a little for herself wouldn't be such a bad idea. She handed Heath twenty-five dollars and kept five for herself. It was almost a fortune for the girl after Michael's high-handed use of their funds on himself.

Added to the fun of payday was a trip into Stockton for all the hands. Nick himself rode along apparently on business for the ranch, but he enjoyed the happy banter of the hands and teased them about their plans for their pay. Williams scowled at the boy, he was surely riding too fine a horse for just a snotty kid. The roan was just the kind of horse a man like him should be riding.

Jamie was happy to be going into town and riding her horse which was now at least one-quarter hers again. In her euphoria, she didn't notice Peachtree's glares and mutterings. When an impromptu race into town was started she and Buddy soon left most of the group way behind. So, she was in town a good half hour before Peachtree and Johannsen. She spent a nice time window shopping and making some judicious purchases. She spent a whole dollar on a big jar of honey for Silas. It was late afternoon when Peachtree and Johannsen caught up to her in one of the stores. Jamie was fingering a blue-checked shirt critically when she heard the jingle of spurs and the distinctive drawl of Peachtree Williams.

"Well looky-hyar Johannsen." He laughed and it was not a kind laugh. "If it tisn't Heath Barkley's little tame Irish boy." He was joined in laughter by his sidekick Johannsen. "Sitting like some one better on that big red horse."

Jamie glared at the bully, but calmly turned her back on him. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled as she figured he was not done with her, yet.

"Don' turn your back on me boy..." Williams reached out a beefy paw to lay on Jamie's shoulder. "I think mebbe you need to learn a lesson to respect your betters." His fingers dug painfully into her shoulder. "Right Johan..." He never finished the remark to his buddy because Jamie stomped on his foot with her boot and twisted out of his grasp. She danced back out of the way. Unfortunately, Johannsen and Williams were between her and the door. She shot a look at the storekeeper who was more interested in protecting his stock.

"Take it outside boys." He warned and hefted a heavy broom. He unfairly went for the smallest party and swept Jamie into Johannsen's waiting grasp. "Suits me." he grinned showing his four gold teeth. He easily dragged the unwilling victim out into the street.

"It takes two of ye to beat up one?" Jamie said loudly, hoping some passer-by would step in and save her hide.

"We'll take turns." Williams said generously. "Then we'll go and take care of the Barkley bastard."

"He's a good man and ten times better than you scum!" Jamie hotly rose to the defense of her hero. "Yer no better than the manure ye never wash off yer boots." Sure enough, both men looked to their feet automatically and Jamie wrenched herself free from Johannsen's grip. Her temper was up and bad odds or no, she would fight. Having five brothers was sometimes a blessing and it was the twins Liam and Andrew who had taught her how to fight.

"Yer small and yer quick." Andrew said, always being positive. "Ye gotta keep movin'"

"But if they catch ye, yer dead." Liam was the pessimist. "Don't let them catch ye."

"Hit them where it hurts and run like hel- er heck."Andrew advised, mindful of his language around his little sister. Then the brothers told her carefully where it would hurt and made her swear never to use it on any of her brothers in their all-too-frequent family fights. The O'Shannon's all had quick hot tempers.

Jamie had strong and limber legs from years of horseback riding and her kick to Johannsen's most delicate part of anatomy was hard. The result was gratifying. Actually, more than gratifying. Jamie was so amazed at watching the man double over, turn white, then red, then gasp for breath like a beached fish and finally fold to the ground and whimper like a babe clutching his injured parts, that she forgot her brother's second bit of advice - to run like hell.

"You Irish whelp!" Williams bellowed, seeing his friend downed by that little twerp. His roundhouse punch, if had connected, would have probably broken Jamie's jaw and put her back into last week. She turned just in time to catch the blow on her right shoulder, sending her spinning back to slam against the store window which shimmered and shook, but to her and the storekeeper's relief, remained intact. The next punch thrown by Williams shattered the window as she ducked to the right.

Nick had heard William's bellow down by the hardware store. You Irish whelp.' Heath had said that Peachtree would take it out on the boy, but he hadn't put much into it. Maybe he should.

"Put that on the ranch's bill. I'll be back later to pick it up." He said and strolled out just in time to see Williams swing again at the dodging boy. His lips thinned as he saw Johannsen still mewling and rolling in the dust. The two of them had ganged up on Jamie?

"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?" He bellowed in his boss' tone of voice.

Jamie turned instinctively towards Nick's voice and caught a punch in the face. She went flying and landed at Nick's feet. She stared up at him rather owlishly, her ears ringing. His face seemed to shimmer and move. Williams jumped after his prey and seeing that it was down was prepared to do some serious damage. He walked straight into Nick's fist which sent reeling back to step on Johannsen who responded with another howl of anguish and his own quick kick to his friends delicate parts. Both remained an untidy heap in the middle of the street moaning and groaning.

"Who's going to pay for my window!" The storekeeper came out, now that all the combatants were down and out.

"Who started it?" Nick said as he stood protectively near Jamie. The boy was having trouble focusing, but seemed to be moving.

"Them two." The storekeeper pointed a thumb to Williams and Johannsen. He could see which side his bread was buttered on and the Barkley's were good customers. "They was saying bad things about Mr.Heath and the youngin'." He grinned hopefully.

Nick walked over to Williams and pulled him up by the shirt. "You're fired. Both of you. Get your gear and get out." He then nodded to the storekeeper. "Send us the bill for the window."

Jamie pulled herself up into a sitting position. She touched her cheek tenderly and looked in surprise that it was still there. A hand appeared in front of her face. She stared up at Nick . He was grinning at her broadly.

"C'mon boy." He waved the hand impatiently in front of her face. She grabbed it and he pulled her to her feet. Everything went gray for a moment and she found her face plastered against his chest and her feet scrambling to find the ground which seemed to have disappeared out from under her.

"Whoa, easy." The man had the nerve to laugh again and Jamie took a deep breath and found the ground had returned and she could peel her face off his leather vest. She tried to stand on her own, but found that now the town was rotating in a lazy procession around her. Nick Barkley's firm and comforting grip on her shoulders was the only thing keeping her from eating dust again.

Nick waited chuckling, while the boy's eyes began to focus again and his legs steady up. "Your first fight?" He asked amused, the boy seemed all right and was recovering quickly. Williams and Johannsen could have done a lot of damage...

"Uh-huh. Cept me brothers of course." Jamie cautiously opened her eyes and was pleased to find that things had stopped moving around.

Nick put a rather insistent arm around Jamie's shoulders. "Well boy, you've had a good fight..."

"Which I lost," Jamie muttered and touched her cheek again, just to make sure. Nick was guiding her gently, but firmly down the street. "Don't need a doctor." She said suddenly, frightened that was where he was leading her. "I'm fine."

"I know that. But you should celebrate your first fight. And you didn't lose."

"Feels like I did." Jamie muttered.

Nick pushed the boy through the batwing doors into the saloon. "The next thing to learn is how to drink like a man."

She looked around the saloon with a great deal of interest. Michael, for all of his failings, never let her into an establishment so male as this. She watched as Nick swaggered up to the bar and slapping the bar got the bartender's attention.

"Two beers." He ordered in his less than quiet voice.

Jamie straightened her shoulders, the right gave her a twinge of pain, but she managed a credible imitation of Nick Barkley's swagger and caught the eye of the bartender.

"Ye can drink that cat piss if ye want, boss, but I'll have a whiskey." She raised a defiant look to Nick, her blue eyes boring into his in challenge. He tilted his head accepting the dare.

"Okay, make that two whiskeys, Sam." He said to the bartender. He spun a coin onto the top of the bar. "First one on me." He figured the boy would probably die after the first sip of the strong drink.

Jamie took a delicate sniff at the glass, it didn't have the fine peaty odor of a good Irish whiskey, but it would do. How was Nick Barkley to know that her father had taught all of his children to take a nip of the strong drink now and then? She hadn't had a good drink in years, not since Michael had taken to drinking too seriously for anyone's health. She saw him grin in anticipation over his own drink thinking her hesitation fear. Well she had shown him that she could fight when the odds weren't fair, drinking was probably the next test of their...friendship? The thought was disturbing enough to cause her to toss off the whole shot at once, not savor it like Da had taught her. The raw liquid caused her to catch her breath and tears gathered. She blinked them back rapidly as the slow burn slid down her throat to her belly and the warmth began to spread.

Taking the challenge, Nick tossed his whiskey back in one gulp. He grimaced at the bite and smiled as the boy seemed to take the whiskey well in stride. "Another?"

"Why not?" Jamie shrugged and was pleased to notice that her shoulder didn't seem to hurt much anymore. She carefully fished a treasured coin out of her pocket and placed it on the bar. "Ye got anything older than two weeks?"

The bartender raised his eyebrows, not many cowpokes complained about the red eye, and certainly not one that looked like he hadn't even begun to shave. He looked at Mr. Barkley who gave him an imperceptible nod. He pulled a bottle out from under the bar and poured two drinks, careful not to spill a drop of the good stuff.

Jamie took her time to sniff it and admire the color against the light of the late afternoon sun. She took a cautious sip and sighed appreciatively. "That, Nick, is better." She took a good swallow and nodded to him. "Aye a fair drink, mind you, me Da had a bottle of ten year old malt that would make ye cry for it's smoothness. We finished the bottle Micheal and I at his wake and buried the bottle with him. T'was a fitting end." Half of her was startled at the words as they slipped out, but it felt so natural to talk to Nick. He was her boss, her good friend, wasn't he?

Nick grinned down at the short wrangler. This boy was one surprise after another. He had been touched by Jamie's loyalty to Heath and the Barkley name enough to get into a fight he knew he couldn't win. He felt that a beer would be a sign of acceptance and here he was apparently involved in tossing back enough whiskey that would have put most boys Jamie's age running for the outhouse or under a table.

"Fitting end?" Nick asked.

"For the whiskey, of course." Jamie said leaning comfortably against the bar. "Da didn't die happy. Mum's going had hit him hard." She took another swallow of the whiskey and didn't notice as Nick signaled to the bartender to fill up her glass again." Hit all of us hard, but he didn't like us to show the greavin'. Save yer cryin' for the rain, he said."

"That's pretty hard..." Nick said sympathetically. He was learning more about Jamie O'Shannon than he had in the whole month he had been working for them.

"Never rains when ye need it." Jamie muttered. "Ye notice that Nick? " His vest seemed to moving towards her. She pulled herself back and found the bar she had been leaning against had shifted to a new location. Nick's hand saved her from losing her balance completely and re-propped her on the bar. She looked in amazement at the full glass. She swore she had emptied the drink. Oh well, mustn't waste the stuff. She was raising the glass to her lips when a hand stopped her.

"You've had enough." Nick said half laughing. The boy had downed two shots like a trouper, but was beginning to look a little worse for the wear. A third drink and he'd be carrying the boy home across his saddle. Heath wouldn't take to kindly to that, being rather protective of Jamie. Shucks, he even felt a sense of responsibility for young O'Shannon.

"Really? I guess ye be right...poor thing when ye can't hold yer likker. Michael was like that. He just kept on drinking, it never was enough. Why is that Nick? We had the ranch, we could have made it, just the two of us. But he drank and drank." The bar seemed determined to move out from under her.

"Don't know, son. Sometimes a man gets so wrapped up in his own troubles he can't see what he has and what he is giving away. "Nick wrapped his arm around the fast fading youngster and nodded to the bartender. He led her out of the saloon into the gathering dusk. Jamie leaned against him gratefully, thankful for the strong arm that refused to move out from under her like the bar had. He smelled good, leather, horse, whiskey and those awful cigars he smoked. They made their way to the livery stable where all the horses greeted them enthusiastically. Nick was always amazed by the reaction that Jamie O'Shannon caused with the animals. He carefully sat the boy on a bale of hay and started saddling Coco and Buddy. He swore that Buddy looked at him with contempt at getting Jamie drunk.

"Not my fault." He said out loud and slapped the horse's neck as it tried to take a nip out of him.

"That's what I told Michael." Jamie said suddenly getting up carefully from the hay bale. "Not my fault being who I was. But he hated it. In the end, he hated me."

"He was your brother, how could he hate you?" Nick said his brow furrowed. He could no sooner hate his brothers...sure they got mad and fought at times, but hate? He tightened the saddle's cinch. "Can you ride?"

"He won't let me fall. Will ye boyo?" Jamie was next to him. The big roan nuzzled her hair affectionately. "Eh Rosebud?" she whispered.

Nick winced, surely not Rosebud. Probably heard wrong. He gave the inebriated girl a boost into the saddle. Once there her equilibrium seemed sure and the hand on the reins firm. Only the over bright eyes revealed the state of drunkenness. The two of them rode towards the Barkley spread in companiable silence.

"Do ye think that's why he did that?" Jamie asked suddenly.

"Who did what?" Nick felt like he had come into the middle of a conversation that the boy had been having silently with himself.

"When I asked ye about Michael drinking. Ye said a man could get wrapped up in his own troubles he can't see what he has or what he is giving away."

"Yeah. It can be like that. The war changed a lot of men. Sometimes it can make you stronger and sometimes it could make you weaker. You shouldn't judge him for that." Nick felt a sour taste in his mouth. He'd just as soon have Michael O'Shannon here to beat up for making this young man's life miserable.

"I may be young, but I'm not stupid Nick. I still love my brother. But, I couldn't stay with him anymore."

"Because he gambled your horse away."

"No. Because with the horse gone, the only thing he had left to sell was me." With that Jamie dug her heels into Buddy's side and took off at an easy canter that stopped any conversation.

"Damn." Nick rubbed a hand on the back of his neck and let Coco have his head to follow the gelding and Jamie O'Shannon, now he would like to have Michael O'Shannon here to shoot.

ACT TWO - ALAMEDA
Scene One: The horse auction in Alameda - we meet a new, but familiar face.

The next few days were too busy for both wrangler and boss of the Barkley's ranch for their paths to cross other than briefly. Much as Heath liked working with the horses, he found himself giving Jamie more and more responsibility as he helped Nick with the cattle and fence work and other immediate chores. The Barkley horses began to look sleek and healthy.

That Sunday, dinner was a lively affair. Audra had a letter from an old school friend who was in San Francisco visiting. She was over the hill with plans and excitement when Victoria insisted on inviting the girl to the ranch for a few weeks.

"We can pick her up after the horse auction in Alameda." Nick said easily. "Think she'll mind traveling in the cattle car with all the horses we are going to buy?" He grinned as his little sister rose to the bait.

"Nick! Belle is a lady." Audra protested hotly.

"What do you mean horses we are going to buy?" Heath protested, "Any horses you buy will probably have three legs or so swaybacked you don't need a saddle. I thought I'd take Jamie with me and leave you to herd the goats."

"Now look here...goats?!" Nick sputtered. Heath was so good at getting his back up.

"Oh yeah, cattle. It's all right Nick, some day you'll find out the truth." Heath tried to keep a poker face but Audra's giggles and Jarrod's snort of amusement undid them all and they laughed heartily.

"If you think I'm going to let you go without me to Alameda, you've got another thing coming little brother." Nick said smiling broadly. "Jamie would have you buying every knock-kneed toothless nag and tell you I ken make the beast better'." His imitation of Jamie's liquid Irish accent was deplorable.

"And if you think I'm going to let the three of you traipse off to Alameda without me, you have another thing coming." Jarrod said raising his eyebrows.

"Whatsamatter Pappy, don't you trust your little brothers on a simple horse buying trip?" Nick asked.

Jarrod smiled. "Nope."

"Oh good, then I can go too and meet Belle." Audra said happily.

"NO!" All three men chorused together.

"Why ever not?" Audra looked at her brothers suspiciously. "Oh would I be in the way...?"

"That's all right Audra, I think I would like to go too. It would be nice to meet some of our old friends again. And I am sure that our presence won't put a crimp in any of your brother's plans." Victoria eyed her sons, all of whom nodded rather sheepishly, their plans for a wild week in Alameda severely crimped.

When the men gathered in the library for a drink and a friendly game of pool, Heath brought up the subject of the trip again. "Seriously Nick, I'd like to take Jamie with us. The boy has a real knack for horses. He can be a real asset."

"Yeah, sure. Why not." Nick was sitting relaxed in the chair. He smiled as he watched the firelight reflect off the glass of fine whiskey in his hand. He was sure Jamie would appreciate some of Jarrod's good stuff. "We can tell him tomorrow."

"We could ask him." Jarrod said.

"I'm the boss. He takes orders from me. If he doesn't like them..." Nick growled.

"He says so." Heath said quietly and grinned as Nick glared at him. Nick had tried to forget the incident with the old horse that Jamie had insisted on saving. The boy had cared for the sick animal for two days without any sleep and had brought a much-loved but almost useless mount back from death's door. Nick had been furious at the boy's defiance, but had grudgingly given credit to the boy's determination and skill.

"You can...ask him." Nick nodded to Heath.

"The boy will need some new clothes." Jarrod said, "There will be as much horse trading at the social events as in the auction ring. As will you little brother." He pointed his finger at Heath who looked disgusted.

"Mebbe me and Jamie will just bed down with the horses." Heath hated social events with a passion and his big brothers seemed determined to break him of his shyness by force. Both of them smiled at him wolfishly. He groaned.

"Hey, remember that outfit Aunt Julia brought you once from New York?" Jarrod smiled at Nick.

"Oh yeah, the short velvet trousers and the frilly white shirt." Nick gloated.

"I'll shoot myself first, no, by heck I'll shoot the two of you." Heath said and started backing up.

"Naw, wouldn't fit you, but it might fit Jamie..." Nick smiled.

All three men looked very pleased with themselves. Nick chortled to himself, let's just see if Jamie O'Shannon would have something to say about the trip to Alameda.

*****

Heath got the impression that the boy was more than happy to be going with the Barkley family to Alameda. After the threat of the velvet suit, which luckily turned out to be too small, an old suit of Jarrod's proved to be just the thing. None of Nick's old suits seemed to have survived his rough childhood. The short Spanish style jacket suited the young man. His English riding boots were shined to a bright polish and the flat crowned black hat brushed within an inch of a hole being worn into it. He was trying not to seem too enthusiastic but Heath found him still polishing the buggy's harness well after dark the night before they were to leave.

"You better get some sleep." Heath said and pulled the already gleaming leather and brass work from the boy's hands.

"I want them to know that the Barkley's are the best..." the boy blushed and ducked his head.

Heath put his hand on the boy's head. "So are you Jamie O'Shannon. You have done good." He ruffled the dark curls that were soft and springy and wrapped around his fingers. The boy shot him a strange look of confusion and need.

"Thank ye Heath, thank you for everything." He said quietly looking at Heath with a soft loving look.

"Get to bed Jamie." He said gruffly and took his hand off the boy's head. As he left the barn he tried to figure out the look the boy had given him. Kinda like Audra. He shook his head, Boy Howdy, looks like he just got adopted as a big brother. He should ask Nick how to handle this sort of thing. He was the best big brother a guy could have.

*****

The Alameda Horse Auction was a yearly event that pulled horse fanciers, wranglers, vaqueros from Mexico and many people just interested in taking part of the festivities. Grifters, gamblers, con-men and ladies of the night also were on hand for the less choosy in their entertainment. The Barkley's were comfortably ensconced in their own suite in the hotel. They had three bedrooms. Victoria and Audra were to share one. The men the other two. Jamie's enthusiasm for the trip died as she realized that she was expected to share a room with one of the Barkley men.

"I - I can find a room somewhere." she stammered and started backing up out of the door. "I'm just a stable boy..."

"Won't be a free room in town. Everything is booked solid." Jarrod said. The boy looked terrified. "Besides which you are our horse expert, not just a stable boy. Right Heath?"

"Yep. Don't worry, you can sleep with me. Nick and Jarrod snore so loud the windows will rattle. They deserve each other."

"Me? I don't snore." Jarrod protested. "Nick snores, I just breathe heavy."

"Oh yes, you have to stay here." Audra smiled at the young man. He looked ever so attractive in Jarrod's old suit. Her mother shook her head, hopefully Audra wasn't getting ideas about the young O'Shannon. Not that she didn't like the boy, but what did they know about him?

Jamie swallowed, but nodded. She had been working with the Barkley's long enough to know that when they made up their minds it was best to seem to obey. She would find some way to avoid sharing a room with Heath. The thought of sleeping in her clothes for a week didn't appeal at all and how was she going to wash? This trip was rapidly turning from a great adventure to a nightmare.

*****

Dinner in the hotel that night was pleasant. Old friends of the Barkley's were constantly stopping by the table to exchange greetings and trade horse stories. Victoria was pleased to notice that Jamie O'Shannon had neat table manners and ate almost daintily. The boy was quiet, but listened seriously to the talk that flowed around them. He listened intently to Audra's chatter, but in no way seem to encourage the young lady in himself. He actually looked horrified when Audra put a hand on his arm. He managed to remove it without anyone but Victoria noticing. She caught the boy's eye and he blushed furiously and bent his head to his plate.

"Hey, Nick! You old horse thief!" a bright voice interrupted them. a young man with curly brown hair and green eyes approached the table.

Nick sprang up and gave the young man an enthusiastic hand shake. "Joe! Dang it's been ages. Are you all here?"

"Nope. Just me this year." The young man grinned infectiously. "I talked Pa into letting me come alone this year. Left my brothers at home to stew."

"Too bad I couldn't do the same..." Nick muttered.

"Nicholas..." His mother warned.

"Mother this is Joe Cartwright from the Ponderosa."

"Ben Cartwright's youngest? How is Ben?" Victoria smiled at the young man.

"Just fine ma'am."

"Be sure to send him my regards. Tom and I used to see him quite often before, well before Tom passed away."

"Yes ma'am he always spoke of Mr.Barkley with a great deal of respect."

Audra nudged Nick with her foot.

"Ah, Joe this is my sister Audra."

"Miss Audra, my you do bring a ray of sunshine to Alameda." His dimples appeared as he smiled at Audra who was immediately in love.

"And..." Nick dragged the two forcibly apart. "My older brother Jarrod, you've met." Joe Cartwright shook his hand. "And my younger brother Heath."

If Joe Cartwright felt confused about meeting a Barkley brother he'd never heard of he covered it well. "Heath." He said and shook his head.

"This is Jamie O'Shannon our best wrangler. You better watch out, between Heath and O'Shannon we are going to get all the good horses." Nick warned.

"O'Shannon." Joe looked at the young boy. Your family have a horse farm down by Reno don't you?"

"Aye." Jamie's eyes widened as she realized that the Ponderosa had done a lot of business with her father in the years before the war. She remembered the oldest boy, Adam vaguely. Surely, Joe Cartwright was too young to have met her or remember the family.

"Shoot, Pa got me Cochise from your father. He's the best horse in the world." He shook the confused Jamie's hand vigorously. Talking horses was surely going to be more interesting than pursuing the beautiful Miss Barkley. "We'll have to get together and talk about things."

"I'll be pretty busy Mr.Cartwright." Jamie shot a helpless gaze to Heath. She didn't want to talk about things that no longer existed.

"We have a lot to do." Heath cut in. "Jamie is here to work." He nodded to the boy. Joe Cartwright didn't have to bring up bad memories.

"Say," the irrepressible Cartwright said, "You aren't one of those with the gift? I heard Pa and Adam talk about it."

"The gift?" Audra asked looking at the two interesting young men.

"Yeah, the O'Shannon's have the gift of the horse." He laughed. "You know, kinda talk to them." His eyebrows wiggled half in disbelief. "And the horses listen."

Jamie O'Shannon found herself the center of attention. "I'm good with the horses. If ye want to call it the gift of the horse, suit yerselves. Excuse me, Mrs.Barkley, Miss Audra. I think I'll take a walk before turning in." Once outside of the hotel, Jamie desperately went looking for a quiet place to try to think. Unfortunately, Alameda was bristling with extra people and in the early hours of the evening there wasn't a place that didn't have men, women, or horses.

As bad as life was with Michael, he was still there to protect her. To help her keep her secret. Now she had no one. Much as she liked the Barkley's, she knew that they would be disgusted and angry if they ever found out that she had lied to them. She paled at the thought of Heath's silent disapproval, Jarrod's contempt. Victoria and Audra would look at her with barely concealed loathing and Nick would yell and then they would all turn their backs on her.

"There you are." Heath put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't mind a walk myself. Kinda hard being polite when you aren't used to it." He felt the boy jump under his hand, but kept it there and used it to steer the boy towards the corrals. There were already a good selection of horses milling around and a few people like themselves leaning on the fence and eyeing the stock.

Jamie slowly relaxed in Heath's silent company as they eyed the horses silently. One or two came over to whiffle at them and pay their respects.

"What do you think?" Heath asked.

"Nice confirmation, but he's lazy, will never run when he can walk. Let some grandmother buy him or some kid's first pony." Jamie said slowly.

"Boy howdy, Jamie, I thought I knew horses. Joe's right. You do talk to them"

"No. Ye just have to notice things. He has poor muscle tone, likes the feed bag too much, that one. He walks without liftin' up his feet and the hooves are cracked and ragged from only walking. I got a sharp eye." Jamie shrugged.

"How about that one." He pointed out a flashy black that was fighting to keep his corner to himself.

"He's scared. He hates to be boxed in. He's been beaten and used bad. He's got a lot of spirit, and he'll give his heart to ye if ye treat him right."

"Yeah. I see the whip marks." Heath said and looked at the boy next to him. His life was much like that horse's in the corral. "Worth bidding on?"

"Aye."

"Okay."

The two stood there silently until the sun began to slip down the horizon.

"C'mon let's get back before Mother sends a search party out to look for us." Heath finally said.

ACT TWO
Scene Two: We learn a bit about Jamie's past - Victoria becomes intrigued. Little Joe and Jamie head for trouble.

When they got to the hotel room they were greeted only by Victoria who was presiding over a teapot.

"Audra's gone to bed, Nick and Jarrod have gone out for their walk'." She explained.

"I do like a cup of tea before bed. Would you care for a cup?" She didn't miss the permission that Jamie asked Heath silently before answering.

"Yes, ma'am. I would rightly like a cup of tea. Me mum always said that coffee was fine for workin', but a body needs tea for the soul."

"I agree with your mother." Victoria laughed. "The boys only drink tea with me out of politeness. I believe they call it dishwater behind my back."

"Now Mother," Heath protested. "I'm drinking it aren't I?" He tossed the cup of tea back causing both Jamie and Victoria to wince. "I'll think I'll go join Jarrod and Nick in their walk'..." He made a swift exit leaving the two to their steaming cups of tea.

"This is a fine brew Miz Barkley ma'am." Jamie sniffed appreciatively at the heady aroma.

"It is a special blend called Earl Grey. It is quite my favorite. Jarrod buys it for me in San Francisco."

"Da liked China black and mum would put a little lemon and clove in it when we were feeling poorly." Jamie remembered her mother kissing away her tears and giving a cup of fragrant tea. Mum could always make things all right. She felt a knot well up in her throat.

"How old were you when your mother died?" Victoria had noticed the feelings that crossed the boy's face. He must have been fairly young, just like Heath when he lost his mother. There seemed to be a lot of similarities to James O'Shannon and Heath Thomson Barkley.

"I was 14..."

Victoria frowned. The boy couldn't be much older than 16 and yet Heath had said he had been traveling with his brother for about four years.

As if reading her thoughts Jamie looked up, "I am a lot older than I look Miz Barkley. I was running the ranch with my Da since me brother's all went off to the war. Only Michael came back and he wasn't Michael any more. I lost them all that awful war. It makes me so mad sometimes. It killed my mum, and that killed Da. In the end, I suppose I'll die of it too. Better to die with a gun in yer hand than to stay at home and watch it all disappear. Ach, sorry Miz Barkley, I be in a fey mood today. I'll be going to sleep now." Jamie carefully placed the teacup in it's place and was shocked speechless when Mrs. Barkley stood up to pull her into a hug and kissed her forehead.

"That's what your mother would have done, a cup of tea and a kiss."

Jamie blinked, "Aye. Thank ye ma'am." She beat a hasty retreat to the room she was to share with Heath. To her relief there was a small cot made up next to the big bed. She hastily made a wash and groaned when she realized that it was her time of the month, No wonder everything was misery and pain today. This made things a lot harder. Luckily, she never came unprepared for the very female event that came to her whether she wanted to be a boy or not.

Her mind went back to when during the war she had dressed willingly as a boy. She and her father and young Patrick had run the horse farm even though her four older brothers were gone. When Patrick died of influenza and they heard of Sean's death the life seemed to go out of her mother. She didn't seem to notice that her daughter had disappeared and was seen more and more as just one of the O'Shannon boys. At first it was a great adventure and then she became used to it. Grown-out of dresses were not replaced and she became her father's right hand man. The fact that she obviously had the gift of the horse like Sean and her father made her valuable. When they heard of Liam and Andrew's deaths, her mother just gave up. Losing the boys was too much for her mother, she couldn't live for her loving husband or her lonely daughter. She left Alanna with a suddenly grieving, bitter man who resented his daughter for being alive and his wife for being dead. He only stayed alive to wait for his eldest son, Michael to come home before joining his wife in the grave.

Michael was crippled physically and mentally by the war. He looked with jealousy on his sister. He was the oldest, yet it was his brother Sean and his little sister who had the gift of the horse. He could stand it when it was Sean, but to have something so useful, so powerful wasted on a female was a crime. It suited him to forget Alanna and refer her as Jamie for making money. Money he could use to drink, to gamble. All too soon, the once prosperous horse farm was owned by the bank and the two of them on the road to fend for themselves. The more Michael drank, the more he hated himself. The more he hated himself, the more he hated her. He would swear to stop, to not hit her again, but it kept happening. She bit her knuckles, this time she had known that if she was going to live, it meant leaving her brother and making a life for herself. For a young woman of twenty she was remarkably sheltered from the ways of the world. She sent a silent prayer to the angels for finding the Barkley's. The question was how long would she be able to keep her secret? In sudden horror, she realized that she would have to leave and leave soon. She still owed Heath $75 for Rosebud, could she hold her deceit for three more months?

Despite her intentions of not sleeping, she was sound asleep when Heath came quietly into the room. He and his brother's had enjoyed a few drinks with Joe Cartwright and had even neatly helped the young man when he got himself into a little fight. Boy Howdy, no wonder Cartwright's family was reluctant to let him come alone. Trouble just seemed to follow the young man.

He glanced over at the sleeping boy. He was curled up on one side, cheek pillowed by a fist. His long lashes rested on a smooth round cheek, just like sweet sleeping child or young woman. He shook his head, Boy Howdy, he had been out on the trail too long.

*****

Despite her initial feelings of misgiving, Alameda proved to be the best time in Jamie's life. They soon fell into a smooth partnership with her and Heath scouting and spotting the most promising animals while Jarrod and Nick handled the dickering and buying. Jamie found to her everlasting delight to be included in the exclusive company of the men in the evenings. Her brothers had always included her in their lives, so she had thought, but even Michael had never taken her drinking or gambling, or to watch some scantily clad women dancing something that enthused the men to no end, but she couldn't figure what was so special about showing so much leg. They were often joined by Joe Cartwright and some of the other acquaintances of the Barkleys. She even got two quiet job proposals, offering a hefty amount of money to work for them. She politely refused.

And yet, her warmest memories would be of sitting with Victoria Barkley over a cup of tea in the early evenings before being dragged out for a walk' with the men. They would talk of the horse trading, the people Victoria knew, and occasionally about family. It was hard not to trust this small, but forceful woman. One raised eyebrow, and her three grown sons had the look of little boys with hands caught in a cookie jar.

"How do ye do it ma'am?" Jamie made bold to ask and bit daintily into a sugar cookie.

"Do what?" Victoria smiled over her cup of tea. None of her boys would be caught dead having tea with her, except Jarrod on occasion and even he found the niceties trying. Audra and Belle were firmly ensconced in San Francisco shopping the stores dry. They wouldn't be joining them until the last day of the auction.

"Get Ni- ah Mr.Barkley, the boss, to listen to ye? " Jamie could almost bite her tongue, and instead shoved another cookie into her mouth.

"Years of practice, I started out with him small." Victoria said with a straight face.

"Ummff." Jamie replied with her mouth full of cookie.

"Don't talk with your mouth full, dear." Victoria said automatically.

"Yes, Mum." Jamie replied automatically and then blushed. O dhu, now she'd done it.

Victoria Barkley put her head back and laughed heartily. "Oh my, I guess mothers don't change one to the other, do they? How did your mother manage with you?"

"Well Mrs.Barkley, ma'am, me mother had red hair ye see." She paused to take a sip of tea. "And so did all me brothers, except Michael and me of course."

Victoria smiled over her cup of tea her twinkling eyes met Jamie's and they both laughed, understanding one another completely.

Victoria trusted that her sons would not be leading this nice young man too far down the path of dissolution. Unfortunately, she didn't count on them being in the company of Little Joe Cartwright.

*****

Jamie and Heath were holding up a wall at one of the more formal receptions being held at the Stockman's club. A place that boasted having never entertained a female in its existence. That fact alone amused Jamie to no end and the fact that they had a very, very good brand of whiskey on offer. She expected Jarrod to look good in a suit, matter of fact it was more surprising to see him in work clothes. Heath looked good in anything and wore the suit as if it was his old blue shirt and a pair of work jeans. Nick, was more of a surprise, his hair was slicked back and the neatly knotted string tie and white shirt made him look almost as debonair as his brother, Jarrod. He had a cigar in his mouth and was chatting to an intrigued audience of fellow ranchers. Even though he was younger than most of the men he was talking to, they listened. It wasn't just that he was a Barkley, he was Nick Barkley, the very capable head of one California's largest holdings. Jamie looked at him in awe. They were listening to her boss! Her Nick. She suddenly felt that she had been silly and petty to fight with Nick and Heath over such little things she thought important. She silently vowed to be an obedient, useful, ranch hand for them. Well, as much as they agreed with her on horse business.

"Hey! You two holding up that wall?" Joe Cartwright grinned at the two.

"Yep." Heath said laconically. "My brother's are handling the important folk. Me and Jamie gotta hold up the wall." He grinned at Jamie and nudged her with his elbow.

"Can't let the wall fall down." Jamie said seriously. "Iffen we do, then there would be a stampede of women waitin' to get in and all these men would die of the apoplexy."

Joe Cartwright threw back his head and laughed. He had the kind of laugh that cut through the serious talk in the room like a knife. All three of them were given looks of Who let the riff-raff in?' Jarrod looked over at the little potential group of trouble and began to walk over.

"Hey," Joe tugged at Heath's sleeve, "I hear that there's a guy with a horse that can't be rid. He's offering $100 to anyone who can stay on him for more than five minutes."

"And how much does it cost to try your luck?" Heath asked dryly. He had heard of this scam before.

"Just $10."

"Cartwright." Jarrod nodded to the young man. "Ah Heath, Mr. Johnson is interested in our bay mare, if you would come and talk to him?"

"Sure Jarrod." Heath turned to say something to the two innocent looking young men, but then shrugged and followed Jarrod. Surely, they were both smart enough not to believe the horse could be rid?

"Look, it is a sure thing. You can go and do your horse thing with the horse and we win $100" Little Joe said persuasively.

"What d'ye mean we, if it is me riding the fearsome crayture?" Jamie raised a dark eyebrow.

"I pay for the entrance fee and, and well, I'll hold your hat." Joe said and grinned. "C'mon. We can at least go and watch other people eat dirt. This is really dull, all they ever do is talk politics and mourn the good old days."

"Aye, yer right there." Jamie agreed. "Let me just let the boss know I'm escaping." She caught Nick's eye over the crowd and nodded towards the door. He nodded automatically back noticing that Joe Cartwright was leaving too. Much as he enjoyed talking shop, these old boys once they had a few drinks under their belts only talked about politics and mourned the good old days. He would much prefer to go out and raise a little ruckus.

Jamie was more than interested in the money. Even splitting the winnings with Little Joe would give her $50 to pay Heath for Buddy and payday was in two weeks again - Buddy would be hers! And then she could leave, if she wanted to, or worse yet, had to.

Joe Cartwright led through the bustling streets of Alameda to a rather noisome area near the docks. The class of people were a bit shadier and more lowlife. Jamie moved a little closer to Little Joe, at least he was wearing a gun, affording them some protection. By the time they got to the small corral that was encircled by torches and shouting, yelling masses, she was ready to turn around and go back to the safety of the hotel room and the Barkleys.

ACT TWO
Scene Three: Nick takes a hand in Jamie's education - with results less than satisfactory.

Nick strolled over to Jarrod and Heath. He had just about enough of this company, rich but boring. He chewed the end of his cigar thoughtfully. Much as a night with some soft companionship would be nice, he didn't think Mother would appreciate him rolling in at the wee hours of the morning smelling like cheap French perfume. Maybe later on, when all the business was taken care of.

"Having fun Pappy?" He smiled at Jarrod who grimaced back.

"Just as much as brother Heath here, I suspect." Jarrod said with a straight face and smiled toothily at one of the older men. "Damn there's Colonel Andover looking for free legal advice. Brothers, may I suggest an important engagement elsewhere."

"Please." Heath said thankfully. The three Barkley men moved quickly out of the Stockman's club into the noisy streets of Alameda.

"Boy Howdy. I don't see how you put up with all that." Heath loosened his tie thankfully. "I could have sloped off with Joe and Jamie an hour earlier.

"Jamie left with Joe?" Nick raised an eyebrow. "I thought he was going back to the hotel."

"The boys were off to ride an unridable horse." Heath snorted.

"Hmmff, kids." Nick snorted from his wise vantage point of being about eight years older. "D'ya think they'll stay out of trouble?"

"Cartwright and O'Shannon? Not likely." Jarrod laughed. "We better go and find them, or Mother will make one of us drink tea with her in the afternoons."

"How does that boy do that?" Nick asked shaking his head.

"What? Drink tea?" Jarrod asked.

"No. Get into trouble - and drink tea." Nick loosened his own tie. "Well brothers, shall we go see a man about a horse?"

Despite the shabby area of town, and the unreliable-looking people who populated it, the three Barkley men cut a distinct swath through the crowds. Fancy clothes couldn't hide the gun belts and the easy air of men used to getting their own way, with or without violence. It was a potential antagonizers choice.

As they grew nearer, they could hear the unmistakable sounds of a large fight.

"Do you think...?" Jarrod looked at his brothers.

"Hell!" Nick grinned grimly, "We know!"

Heath merely started rolling up his sleeves and cocked his head to his brothers. "Shall we?" "Oh by all means." Jarrod carefully slung his coat over a fence post and joined his brothers in setting a solid front. Rounding the corner of the street they found the expected sight.

Nick cursed as he dodged a wild haymaker slung by a drunken cowboy. Surely Jamie and Little Joe were in the thick of this wild mess?

Jamie and Little Joe were happily counting their money and keeping one eye on the free entertainment. As was predictable, Jamie had no sooner laid a calming hand on the horse when it was somewhat willing to do her bidding.. Betting had been lively with Little Joe talking earnestly to a fancy dressed gambler. A rather seedy horse buyer and his even seedier crew had been drunk enough to cover all of Little Joe's and the gambler's bets. By the time Jamie had mounted the nervous horse feelings and money were running high. The horse gave a few bucks and kicks, but they were mostly out of habit rather than the viciousness the horse had given all of the other previous riders.

There was a unnatural hush when the ride was over. Jamie O'Shannon strolled over to the hang jawed owner of the horse to collect their winnings.

"Hell" The horse buyer drawled dragging the word out into four syllables. "Iffen that there boy ken ride that there hoss, then so can I."

"Ten dollars the gentleman doesn't ride the full time." The gambler called out with a southern drawl.

"Hey!" Little Joe spoke up."I bet the same."

"I'll have a bit of that action Ezra." A large mustached man, who seemed to be with the gambler spoke up. "So will J.D."

"Buck, don't bet my money. I can do it myself." the young man protested but dug out a crumpled bill.

The horse buyers men were soon clamoring for a piece of what they thought was a sure thing. After all if a young boy could handle a few bucks from the horse than Ol' Ed was sure to stay on too!

Jamie was carefully watching the man count out the money. He was rather reluctant to part with his cash even though he'd been raking it in hand over fist.

"Here you go boy." He said roughly and stuffed the bills into her hand.

"That's only $80. I watched you counting it."

"Be thankful you're getting that." He snorted.

"You best be giving the boy his due." A man dressed in black spoke up next to him. He lit a thin cigar and directed a cold glare at the man. A tall man in buckskins backed up the glare.

"Uh. Yeah sure, whatever you say mister." The man stuttered and gave Jamie the rest of her loot.

"Thank ye." Jamie said grinning.

The man touched the brim of his hat and turned to watch the circus that was beginning in the corral.

"Come on Joe, I got our winnings. We can split it up and go back to the hotel." Jamie pulled at Little Joe's sleeve.

"Wait wait. I got ten dollars on this."

Jamie looked at the overweight cowboy dressed in what he thought was fashionable attire, approach the horse which was back to being it's normal vicious skittish self.

"The horse is not going to let that man even get in the saddle." Jamie spat out. "It's a terrible bad crayture that was no too happy about even me ridin' him."

"You seem to see well into the soul of the horse." A tall imposing man next to the gambler said. In the flickering torch light he looked quite frightening. Next to him an imposing black man stood silently, and disapprovingly watching the scene.

"Aye I have that gift." Jamie admitted easily. The man smiled and she found him not so scary.

"Then I believe that is a sign from the heavens. Ezra! Put four dollars on the horse for me."

"As you wish Mr.Sanchez." The gambler grinned revealing a gold tooth.

The man in black who had helped Jamie quietly handed the gambler a bill and grated out around the cigar. "The horse."

As Jamie predicted the ride was short and to the point. The horse neatly bucked the man off and spent the next minutes bucking and kicking furiously as if to make up for lost time.

The horse buyer was not physically hurt but his pride and dignity were seriously bruised. The results were predictable. A fight broke out.

The gambler deftly and with accustomed skill collected the bet money and began to beat a hasty retreat. He stuffed a small wad of bills into Little Joe's hand.

"I suggest you and your young precocious friend should find a vantage point that would be less" he paused briefly to sidestep a wide swung punch and placed a well shod foot in the man's way tripping him."precarious."

"Huh?" the two of them echoed.

"Ezra means get out of the way." The mustached man said gleefully as he threw a man over the fence into the corral. The horse, spying fresh meat, made a run for a new victim. The man threw himself over the fence hastily.

"Well, well, someone besides J.D. who can fly." The big man casually picked a man up and shook him furiously. "Behave yourself." He said and tossed him aside.

Little Joe was itching to get into the fight but the seven men seemed to be handling things rather nicely. Anyway Jamie was carefully counting out his share of the $100.

"There ye go Joe, not bad winnings for a few minutes work."

"Wow! Didya see that punch. Ooo that has gotta hurt!" Joe moved his body with action that was going on around the corral. Going into the corral was not an option as the horse had that territory well staked out and defended tooth and hoof.

Heath found himself standing back to back with a long-haired man.

"You seen a young man, black curly hair. Bout so high" He held a hand up and the man took a quick look over his shoulder. He got a fist in his gut for the distraction. Heath reached over his doubled up body and struck the man in the face dropping him to the ground.

"Over there..." the man wheezed and pointed off to one side where Jamie was trying to restrain Little Joe from jumping into the fray.

"Thanks." Heath said and slapped him on the shoulder driving the man to his knees.

"Don mention it." A tall man in a black duster took Heath's place in defending the downed man.

Heath caught Jarrod's eye and nodded to other side of the corral where the fighting was thin. They had managed to snag Nick's arm and were heading for the calmer side of the corral when the inevitable happened. The young man with a funny hat came barreling into Jamie and Little Joe. Little Joe Cartwright helpfully put him on his feet and together they dove into the brawl that was edging itself like a many-legged mindless animal towards the dock and the cold murky waters of the bay.

Jamie dithered at the edge of the fight trying to keep an eye on Joe and at the same time avoiding flying fists and bodies. Her one experience with fighting had given her a wariness and a wish to never be hit again by an angry man or anyone else, for that matter. Her decision was decided for her when she saw Ol Ed' who had managed to recover enough from being tossed by the horse to tackle Little Joe to the ground.

"Ah darn..." Jamie muttered and threw herself onto the top of the man. The three of them started rolling around surprisingly enough avoiding being stomped on or kicked by the other combatants who were actually winding down a bit. Even the horse had begun to relax. Little Joe found himself as a sandwich between the beefy man on top of him and a rather squashed Jamie under him. Ol' Ed was battering his ribs with ham-like fists and Jamie was pushing at him to get off. His eyes widened for one moment in stark realization what kind of body was under him. His revelation was forgotten as Ed dragged him off the gasping Jamie and tossed him off the dock. Ed himself soon followed suit as Jarrod and Nick railroaded the man off the other side of the dock to land with an almighty splash in the water.

Heath picked up a rather flattened Jamie who was trying to catch her breath.

"He - Heath..." she gasped. "Joe...no splash."

The three Barkley's looked over to the other side of the dock to find Little Joe inelegantly sprawled in the bottom of a half-sunk rowboat.

"Joe? You all right?" Nick called down.

"Girls..." Joe called back. "Girls..."

"That boy has hit his head one too many times." Jarrod said shaking his head.

The rest of the fight had petered out after a rather soggy and quickly sobered up Ol' Ed and his crew wandered off to find more agreeable and less painful entertainment. Some effort was spent on getting Little Joe up to the dock where they discovered that the hit on the head was joined by what suspiciously looked like a broken leg.

He tried to sit up but immediately fell back with a groan.

"Ye stay still, Joe." Jamie scolded him.

"Will you quit yelling at me - you're as bad as my brothers. Nag, nag, nag." Joe complained.

Heath hunkered down next to the young man. "Yep. Looks broke." He looked around. "Looks like the best way is to carry him to the street and see if we can get a wagon to take us to the hotel."

"I'm just fine here." Little Joe said faintly. "Don't want to move."

"I bet you don't." Nick grated out.

"We could just shoot ye." Jamie said unkindly. "Like we do with horses that break their legs."

"You are just mad cause you didn't want to join in the fight." Cartwright tried to shrink back as Heath and Jarrod came at him from both sides. "This is going to hurt, huh?"

"Yes. Most likely." Jarrod said. "Just think how your father is going to react when we tell him you broke your leg and hit your head in a fight."

"You're right." Joe winced. "That will really hurt." He glared at Jamie who was looking rather worried.

"This is all her fault" He said and promptly passed out cold.

"Boy Howdy is he ever out of it." Heath said.

(Little Joe, never remembered too much about the fight afterwards, but two months later when he was having a friendly toss in the hay with Mary Jane Kropectny he had a familiar flash of a similar soft body pressed up against his. "Oh my God Jamie is a girl!" He blurted out, which caused Mary Jane to box his ears for not paying attention and left him to muse and worry over his awful discovery.)

*****

By the time they got back to the hotel, rounded up a doctor, roused Victoria, and sent a telegram off to Virginia City and Ben Cartwright the night was winding down to the wee hours of the morning. Joe Cartwright was ensconsed in Heath's bed enduring the minor torture of having his leg set. Victoria would be sleeping on the cot to keep an eye on him in the night.

Jamie yawned widely and eyed the sofa longingly, but Heath and Nick were already comfortably draped across it long legs stuck out onto the once highly polished surface of a coffee table.

"C'mon boy." Nick said and stood up lazily stretching his large frame idly. "You can share my bed tonight. Ol' Heath can sleep on the couch."

"I can sleep on the couch." She suddenly felt wide awake her heart beating hard.

"I ain't sharing a bed with Heath. He kicks. You are small enough not to take up so much room." He tossed over the small bag of belongings that Jamie had and a blanket. "Get going. I'll give you a ten minute head start. And I sleep on the side next to the door."

She didn't move. Couldn't move. It was bad enough sleeping in the same room as Heath. Sleeping in the same bed with Nick would be - awful.

"Go on git, or I'll undress you myself."

He would too. Jamie didn't doubt for a moment. She ran into the room leaving Nick chuckling behind her.

"For someone who had brothers, he sure is shy." Nick stretched again hearing the satisfying popping of his back. "Little Joe wasn't that little. He was sure a handful to carry."

"Hmmm. You know there's something odd about Jamie." Heath mused.

"Hah! You just noticing now?" Nick challenged.

"Noticing what?" Jarrod came into the sitting room. "I got the telegram off to Ben Cartwright. I expect we'll get an answer sometime tomorrow afternoon. How's the patient?"

"Doctor is just tying him up by now." Nick said. "Mother said she'll spend the night - just in case."

"Would you believe it, she had a pot of her liniment with her." Heath shuddered as did the other two.

"She thought we'd get into trouble." Jarrod mused. "Poor Cartwright. Say, where is O'Shannon?"

"He was dead on his feet, I sent him off to bed." Nick said. "Let's hope he doesn't snore as much as you do."

"You mean from both of you." Jarrod countered. "Well, we have a full day tomorrow, so gentlemen. I think we should all turn in."

She lay as far as she could on the edge of the bed without falling off. The long nightshirt hid most of her, but she still felt vulnerable. Despite wrapping herself in the blanket, she could feel herself shaking with cold. She kept herself very still and hardly breathing when she heard Nick and Jarrod getting ready for bed. The bed sank alarmingly and creaked as a heavy body sank into it. She had to grip the side of the mattress to keep from being pulled into the deep dip Nick caused on the bed. Jarrod blew out the lamp and the brothers muttered good nights to one another.

It was quiet for a while when she felt Nick roll over and nudge her. "Relax boy. I ain't gonna bite ya. You did good with Little Joe." He muttered and sighing gustily turned over again with his broad back to Jamie, much to her relief. "G'night boy." He apparently had the ease of falling asleep quickly because soon she heard his breathing even out and slow. Jarrod was already starting a steady buzz from the other bed in the room. The gravity Nick's body seemed to exert was slowly drawing her against her will to the center of the bed and his broad back which was radiating a comforting heat. Maybe if she just leaned a little on him, just to get warm, her back against his.

Nick woke up with a snort. Something damp was on his shoulder. He turned his head and saw that Jamie had his head on his shoulder. O'Shannon's mouth was open and the dampness was from drool.

"Oh for Pete's sake." Nick muttered and gave the boy a little push. This only made the boy snuggle in closer rubbing a cheek against him like a cat. Nick sighed and closed his eyes. The boy needed someone to curl up next to...well Nick could use a little loving too. A smile curved his lips...Miss Lily would be just the ticket - for both of them.

*****

Jamie looked around the place eyes wide and mouth open. She had only heard whispers about places like this, or crude humor that seemed too strange to be true. But it was true. Women in various costumes showing all together too much skin and leg and other parts were preening themselves or draping themselves over the men.

"Nick, darling!" a well-endowed brunette dressed in an incredibly indecent short skirt and bloomers and only a camisole top enthusiastically embraced the dark man. Their kiss seemed incredibly involved and lasted for much longer than seemed decent. Nick's hands were moving all over the woman's body causing her to make funny little noises in her throat. When they broke off Nick was grinning like a fool and the woman was breathing funny.

"My Nick, how I missed you." She seemed to notice Jamie who was openly staring at them in amazement. "And who is this fine young man?" She purred and ran her tongue over her lips.

"This is James O'Shannon." Nick smiled and squeezed the woman familiarly.

"First time honey?" The woman laughed throatily.

"Uh, I don't think..." Jamie suddenly realized that Nick had expected her to be enthusiastic about this place.

"C'mon boy. It won't be so bad. All of Lily's girls are really nice, aren't they Lily?" He gave the woman a hearty kiss on the cheek and his hand had wandered to her ample bosom. "My treat boy. We Barkley's take good care of our hands."

"You should watch your hands Nick." Lily laughed and batted his hand off her thigh. "You can go with Suzy, she's young enough not for him to feel mmm too nervous." She beckoned a pretty young blonde dressed only in a shift.

"Take James up to your room. Be gentle, it's his first time." This seemed to be funny because both Nick and Lily laughed.

"But Nick, I really don't want to..." Her protestations were left unheard as she was unceremoniously dragged to the girl's room and pushed in with her.

"You'll thank me in the morning, boy." Was Nick's laughing parting shot.

"You want to take off your clothes? I can take mine off." Suzy looked at the boy. She had first timers before, they were always nervous at first.

"I'm not going to do anything with ye." Jamie said tightly, "I'm leaving." She had her hand on the doorknob.

"Wait!" Suzy said unhappily. "If you go, I won't get paid and Lily will be mad at me." She let a tear drip down her cheek. "I can be with you all night and won't have to be with so many men."

"Dear God." Jamie felt her throat close up. Could this have been her fate if she hadn't left Michael? "Can we just stay here, and not do anything?"

Suzy sniffed. This was truly one strange boy. "Sure if you like." This was one of the things that Lily taught her, sometimes the men just wanted a little company before getting down to business. She sat down on the bed that was the only useable piece of furniture in the room besides a large ornate mirror, a small closet, and a fancy commode in the corner. She patted the bed next to her, after all they had all night. Maybe she could change the boy's mind.

"How old are you?" Jamie asked suddenly.

"I'm twenty, well almost." Suzy patted the bed again and wiggled playfully making sure her breasts bounced enticingly. There was no sign of interest, no sign at all.

"Can I ask ye..." Jamie looked embarrassed.

"How a nice girl like me became a lady of the night?" Suzy laughed. "It happens. When I was a kid, there was five of us to one bed and never enough food to go around. This life sure beats that. I got a roof over my head and food to eat. I get plenty of money and can buy myself pretty things." She tossed her blonde curls and pulled up the shift exposing a length of creamy thigh. Damn still no interest. Maybe a more direct approach...

Jamie was torn between sympathy for the girl and her own precarious situation. She began to pace the room, silently damning Nick Barkley to hell for wanting to treat her to this seamy side of life and for her own weakness not in saying firmly no. Though saying firmly no to Nick Barkley didn't work. The man had to be hit with railroad tie and shot before he would listen to Jamie O'Shannon's opinion.

Suzy waited until Jamie was near the bed and she jumped up and wrapped her arms around the startled boy and took a firm grip where there should have been - something. Both of them shrieked.

"My God...you're..." Suzy's eyes went wide as Jamie put a hand over her mouth and pushed her down onto the bed. They heard laughter from the hall, apparently the sound of yells was normal in this place.

"Don't shout." Jamie hissed and let up her hand.

"Are you really?" Suzy looked as curiously at Jamie as Jamie had looked at her.

"Yeah, I'm a girl too." Jamie sat heavily on the bed. "You gonna tell?"

"No. Why should I?" Suzy shrugged. "I still get paid." She grinned. "Can I ask you...?"

"How a nice girl like me ended up being a boy?" Jamie recognized the humor of the situation and grinned back. "It started out as fun, but I can sure tell ye, it isn't that nice any more."

"What do you miss?" Suzy crossed her feet under her. This was like when business was slow and the girls would talk together. Mostly they talked about the customers, this was too interesting to pass up.

"Oh the usual, to wear a dress. Take a nice long bath. Have a fellow look at you like, well you know."

"I know." Suzy sighed. "I got me a beau. He only comes in once a month, but he always asks for me. Maybe someday... Does anyone else know, I mean you being a girl?"

"No. They would be powerful mad."

"What do you do?" Suzy asked.

"I'm a wrangler, work with the horses. I'm really good at it. I'd hate to give it up just to be a girl." Jamie found herself growing more comfortable talking with Suzy.

"Oh you are missing so much. Being with a man can be so nice." Suzy licked her lips.

Jamie looked at Suzy. They were stuck in this room for at least a couple of hours, here was an opportunity to find out, well to find out. Mum had died before telling her daughter much about that sort of thing and well the horse's mouth...

"Uh, what is it like?" Oh dear Mum would be rolling in her grave.

Suzy spent the next hour cheerfully revealing many secrets held by the male sex and how a woman could enjoy the experience and please her man. Jamie had seen horses mating before. It was a cut and dried process compared to this complicated give and take that Suzy described. Suzy enjoyed watching Jamie turning pink and red at times and her exclamations of shock and wonder.

"Is that what Ni...I mean men are doing with the ladies now?"

"Yes, of course." Suzy was surprised about how naive this young Jamie was. Even she had known what happened between a man and woman before she had entered into the "business". Ten siblings and a two-roomed cabin didn't hide many secrets.

Jamie felt sick.

"Men are like that. They need lots of women."

"Even after they are married?" Did Da do this sort of thing?

"Not too many, and then their wives are always sickly or they don't understand their men and their needs." Suzy said with a certain amount of authority based on what the men chose to tell her. "They usually feel bad afterwards and buy the wife a gift. I get paid and he gets to feel good, and the wife a pretty bonnet. It works out real well."

"Oh. I guess that makes sense..." It didn't make Jamie feel much better, but Suzy must know what she was talking about. This was beginning to be too much, she thought of her brother's favorite phrase when she wanted to tag after them when they went to town, Curiosity killed the cat..."

"Would you like to try on one of my dresses?" Suzy asked brightly. "I have three. I bought them new, not even a hand-me down."

"Really?" Jamie felt tempted, all of her boy's clothes were her brother's old things and Barkley hand-me-downs, even her riding boots had been her mother's.

Suzy leapt up and opened the cupboard expansively. She pulled out the first dress which was a brassy yellow with layers of creamy lace and flounces. "This is my favorite." She held it up in front of her. "Come over here." Jamie joined her in front of the mirror and Suzy held the frock in front of her. "No, yellow is definitely not your color..." She imitated Lily's voice of quiet authority that kept all of her girls in line. The next dress was a pink piece of confection that had more ruffles and bows on it than was really tasteful. The neckline had large artificial pink roses sewn on to it. "Well better...but, I believe it will have to be the blue" Suzy pulled out a turquoise dress embroidered with beads and shiny bits. "Well come on, get out of those clothes..." Seeing Jamie's hesitation she added, "All right I won't look."

Jamie undressed quickly, she had plenty of practice doing that in the past years. She removed the linen binding her breasts with a sigh, that always felt good and a quick scratch was a fine reward at the end of the day. She stepped into the dress and pulled it up."How do ye hook this thing up?" She asked twisting around in front of the mirror.

"Well, you should really have a corset." Suzy picked out a boney contraption. "Put this on first." Suzy got the corset on and began to pull it tight with a little more energy than was necessary.

"OUCH, this is uncomfortable. Do all women wear them?" Jamie tried to catch her breath. She felt like a horse had kicked her in the ribs.

"Of course, if you want to look pretty." Suzy said authoritatively and pulled the turquoise dress on. Once buttoned up it sat off Jamie's shoulders with dainty puff sleeves. It showed a lot more skin than any decent woman would like to seen in, but it suited Suzy and the trade she practiced.

"You don't have as much bosom as me..." Suzy was happy to see that the dress looked much nicer on herself than this rather thin girl. Her own white round arms looked better than the tanned muscled arms of Jamie O'Shannon. The turquoise made her look more yellow than tan."And blue is your color, but not this shade."

Jamie slid her hands down the dress, it felt strange, she felt strange. She turned in front of the mirror and tried to imagine what it would be like to really be a girl again. The full skirt felt heavy and strange against legs used to wearing trousers. The corset thing pinched but gave her an interesting shape she didn't realize she had.

"Walk across the room. Don't it feel fine, the silk rustles ever so nice, not like cotton gingham, I can tell you." Suzy said.

Jamie turned and walked as she always had with long strides to keep up with the men and trotting horses. She was a good walker.

"No! No! No! You have to move slowly, let your hips lead the way. Watch me." Suzy walked across the room hips swaying from side to side causing even the thin shift to switch around her ankles. Jamie tried and it took several attempts before she got the hang of swaying inside the skirt.

"You know with your hair long and the right dress you might even look pretty." Suzy said generously, completely deflating any feminine feelings Jamie was trying to awaken. She looked at herself critically in mirror as if she were going to buy a horse. Too small, too thin, her nose was short, well, a mouth full of her own teeth. Her eyes were a pretty blue, but there were minute lines around the edges from working out in the open. Her hands were strong and calloused, not soft and pretty with long nails like most women's. "You'll never be nothing more than a cowpony, at least as a boy she had freedom - freedom to make her own mistakes. She sighed deeply and felt the corset pinch harder. Compared to the strict bindings she used on her breasts the thing was torture. Suddenly, she had enough. "Let's get this off." She said brusquely. Jamie changed quickly into her own clothes and felt a sense of relief and familiarity settle over her.

"I'll be thanking ye Suzy. I've learned a lot today." She dug in her pocket and pulled out a two dollar gold piece. "I don't know if it is much, but...buy yerself something pretty."

"That's fine. I had fun." Suzy said honestly, "Good luck to you."

Jamie crept down the stairs feeling like everyone was watching her. She found Nick sitting in the parlor his long legs stretched out in front of him. His shirt was unbuttoned and one of the girls was rubbing his shoulders.

"Done already boy?" Nick grinned broadly and stood up. He ignored the woman who wandered off. He casually started buttoning up his shirt.

Jamie felt a terrible anger well up in her. How dare he take her here? Show her the place Michael always threatened she'd end up in. Show her finally that she would never, ever be a woman. "I hate you Nick Barkley!" she shouted and threw a punch just like her brothers had taught her. He reeled back, more surprised than staggered by the blow. He put his hand to his nose and looked surprised to see blood. The little squirt had bloodied his nose! Jamie turned and stalked out of the house of ill-repute, black hat set low over her face.

"Jamie! Wait! Hey, what's wrong?" Nick took off after the young man who seemed to have been swallowed up by the night. "Dammit." he fumed and began to look for the boy. Several times he thought of just letting the boy take care of himself, but then he thought of all the pitfalls a young boy could run across at this time of the night in Alameda. He finally gave up and returned back to the hotel just as the sun was beginning to rise. He was relieved to find the boy had returned safely without him and was tucking into an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant.

"Where the hell you been?" Nick sat down heavily and poured himself a cup from the pot on the table. He choked on the first swallow, it wasn't coffee but that dishwater stuff, tea. Jamie glared at him, her lips pressed in a thin line. She kept silent, but was beginning to simmer again with barely suppressed anger, she began to turn red. Nick mistook her anger for shame.

"Look son, maybe I pushed you too soon." He lowered his voice in a confidential tone, "It happens to men. You were just nervous. You'll get the hang of it. Get yourself a girl, I know a lot of nice fillies in Stockton." He sat back satisfied that he had spotted the boy's problem and had fixed it.

"I'm not a boy..." She began rather unwisely her temper throwing caution to the winds. What might have followed was interrupted by the entrance of an imposing white haired gentleman. He was followed by a slim man dressed in black.

"Nick! Nick Barkley!" The man called out and strode over to the table.

"Mr. Cartwright! Hey, Adam!" Nick bounced to his feet. "How did you get here so fast? We only sent the telegram yesterday."

"You were right Pa." Adam Cartwright said wryly "My little brother in trouble?"

Nick threw back his head and laughed. "Broke his leg and knocked himself silly in a big fight. But if the telegram didn't get to you, then what brings you here?"

"Well, actually.." Ben Cartwright looked a little abashed.

"Pa felt that maybe Joe might get into trouble and decided to meet him here." Nick and Adam exchanged looks that spoke about the vagaries of parents.

"Well Mother will be glad to see you, though I think Joe is in more pain from thinking about your reactions than his broken leg."

"Just as it should be. " Ben said firmly.

The three men went up the stairs towards the Barkley suite, Nick looked back to see if Jamie was around, but he seemed to have disappeared.

ACT TWO
Scene Four: More Cartwrights enter the picture. Victoria learns more about the O'Shannon clan and is very close to knowing the secret. Jamie meets a new enemy who fights with a different set of rules.

Jamie groaned as she hid behind a convenient pillar that she had ducked behind as soon as she had heard the name Ben Cartwright. The chances of him connecting a little ten-year old girl with a young man named Jamie was possible and not a chance she wanted to take. Not after seeing Lily's and the kind of life that would be waiting for her if someone found out. Michael had always hinted broadly at her fate, but now she had seen for herself.

"Boy Howdy, you look like you were out all night catting around." Heath had crept up on her unawares.

"I didn't do anything! And don't sneak up on me like that!" She said with her knees shaking.

"Hey, are you all right?" Heath took in the white face and trembling shoulders. He put a hand on her shoulder.

"M' fine." She said looking with interest at her feet. Then with a sigh she pulled out the crumpled wad of bills from her pocket. "This is the money I won the other night, $50. It's for you, for Buddy. " She stared at him challengingly. He looked at her seriously and pocketed the money with a nod.

"I want to get all the new horses shod for the trip. Can you give the farrier a hand? Some of the new stock is a bit skittish and I know you can keep them calm." Heath continued on as if nothing momentous had passed between them.

"Aye. No problem." She lifted her head. At least with the horses she knew what she was doing.

"Here's a dollar for lunch. I suspect the smith will be crowded and I don't know when I'll be free to give you a hand."

"A dollar's too much..." Jamie began.

"Well, you gotta buy apples for the horses and maybe some candy or something for yourself. Enjoy yourself a little. It is allowed you know."

"Well, at least your idea of enjoyment is better than Nick's." Jamie muttered but pocketed the treasure of a whole dollar.

Heath climbed the stairs to roust his brother Nick and was surprised to find two strangers in the sitting room with his brothers and mother.

"Ah, there you are. Ben I would like you to meet my youngest son Heath." Victoria rose graciously and extended her hand towards Heath.

"Heath. This is an old friend of your father's and mine, Ben Cartwright and his son Adam." There was a split second of silence and then Ben grabbed his hand and shook it firmly.

"By God, you have the look your father...glad to meet you Heath."

"I want to thank all of you for taking such good care of my boy." Ben began.

"Now, Ben, you would do the same for any of my boys. Think nothing of it." Victoria said and smiled at her old friend. "I'm sure you'll want to have a word with your son." She and Ben went into the bedroom. Jarrod and Adam were already discussing the vagaries of younger siblings.

Heath sidled over to Nick who was gulping a cup of coffee off the table. "Boy Howdy, Nick. What happened to Jamie. He looked like he hadn't slept all night."

"Well neither did I." Nick growled. "Where's he at? I figured he'd like to meet the Cartwrights seeing how they knew his folks."

"I don't know, that Jamie is as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs when you talk about his past or his family." Heath shook his head. "I sent him to see to the shoeing. You know he'll keep the horses still for the job. What the heck did you two do last night. He wasn't too happy."

"I thought he would like it. I did at his age. How was I to know that - well- things just didn't - ah you know." Nick said rather self-consciously. Jamie was not taking this disappointment well.

"No. I don't know. What?" Heath pressed.

"Aw heck, we went to Miss Lily's, you know." Nick leered and nudged Heath.

"And...?" Heath led on slightly blunting his brother's attempt at lightness.

Nick sighed deeply. "He had...mmm...problems. Poor kid, I thought a little warmth and kindness would do him good." Nick Barkley frowned. "Under all that noise is one lonely youngster."

"Well, maybe if you won't lose your temper with him so often, he wouldn't feel so bad?" Heath raised an eyebrow at his temperamental big brother.

"Hah! That'll be the day." Nick snorted. "So, today we get the new horses ready for the drive home and get them loaded into the train. You did book us a boxcar?" Nick was back to being all business.

"Yeah. Got our tickets and have got a couple of extra porters for Audra's shopping." Heath winked at his brother. "Along with Miss Belle's things we might have to rent another boxcar."

"Yeah." Nick smirked. "Females and their baggage. Thank heavens boys that age, like Jamie, are much more easy to deal with."

*****

Later that afternoon, Victoria Barkley and Ben Cartwright had the opportunity for a little chat.

"Heath is a fine looking young man." Ben said smiling. "You must be proud of him."

"I'm proud of all my boys, just as you are of yours." Victoria raised a mobile eyebrow. Ben was being just a bit nosy , but polite. "Though I see so much of Tom in Heath. Not just his looks, but the way he moves, thinks. I sometimes forget that he hasn't always been with us."

"I can see that." Ben took a sip from his tea. While basically a coffee drinker, he could still appreciate a good cup of tea. "Earl Grey?" He changed the subject slightly, a silent apology for prying.

"Yes. Pity Mr. O'Shannon can't join us. That boy really appreciates a fine cup of tea."

"Umm. Yes Joe mentioned that he was one of Seamus O'Shannon's sons. Damn shame, they were one of the finest horse breeders west of the Mississippi. Joe's paint, Cochise, was bred and trained by them. I swear that horse can all but speak and loyal...I could tell you stories about that horse." He laughed. "They say that the O'Shannons used magic on their horses." He tapped the side of his nose.

"I can believe that."Victoria also laughed, "He has managed to work his magic on our horses too. Disturbs my sons to no end. They are imminently practical."

"Oh I know. Adam came with me on the horse buying trip. He was a very righteous fifteen year old. You know how serious he has always been. He followed the O'Shannon boys and to see what they were doing to the horses." He took a sip of tea again and then shook his head. "It was such a shame that the war took away the whole family."

"All of them?" Victoria asked and held up the teapot asking Ben silently if he wanted another cup.

He nodded and then clarified, "Well, I believe the youngest died of influenza, I suppose the girl did too. She was a bright thing. Curly black hair just like her father and older brother. All the rest were red heads like their mother."

"Yes, Jamie did mention his mother had red hair and apparently the temper to match."

"Oh they all did. Would fight at the drop of a hat. I think Adam had a fight with all of them just in the three days we were there."

"Not really. I just had to beat one of the twins and then I was accepted." Adam said coming in from his brother's room. "Joe's asleep. I hope you have a cup of tea left in that pot for me?" He flashed a white toothed charming smile at his hostess.

"By all means, Adam." Victoria smiled. Jarrod and Adam were so much alike in mannerisms.

"Remember the names of the boys?" Ben asked his son who had fitted his long-legged frame into one of the spindly chairs the hotel considered fashionable and adequate.

"Liam and Andrew were the twins. I am not sure which one I gave a black eye to...Liam maybe."

"I recall he gave you a bloody nose."

Adam waved his hand in dismissal, a bloody nose was a mere detail. "Michael was the oldest, a couple of years older than me. Sean was the one with the gift..."

"Gift?" Victoria asked. " So they did do something special."

"Well, Seamus O'Shannon sure did have a touch with horses. I've seen him calm the wildest horse in minutes, and the horses sure adored him." Ben explained.

"Remember the girl, Pa?" Adam chuckled. "She had a foal that followed her around like a dog. Her mother said that the horse would almost come into the house. Ellen or Alaine I think was her name." He laughed again. "Called this big roan horse Rosebud. Seems she had the gift' too."

"That reminds of the time you boys brought in a wild cat kitten..." Ben mused and began to tell an amusing story that parents tell to embarrass their grown children.

*****

The dramatics of Alameda began to die down as the Barkleys and many others began to leave the city to fade back into dusty dreariness until the next year. A dark gunslinger and his six companions turned their heads back towards a magnificent little town called Four Corners that they called home. Ol' Ed and his crew went off to catch another bunch of mustangs to tame and train for next years auction. The Cartwrights spent a few extra days waiting for Little Joe to heal enough to travel. Little Joe was plagued by dreams of girls, girls with curly hair, but he figured that was just a natural part of bein Little Joe. Jamie began to forgive Nick, grudgingly of course, but when he had appeared to have forgotten the whole thing, maybe that was the best course. Audra and Belle returned from San Francisco laden with an inordinate amount of baggage and constant chatter and giggling.

Man has lost most of his primal instincts when he left behind his days as a hunter-gatherer in the prehistoric times. Then, his survival was dependent upon his five senses highly attuned to the environment in which he lived. The real survivors had a sixth sense, a feeling that would arise from nowhere and would signal fight or flight. Nowadays, the other five senses have dulled considerably but the sixth sometimes could be just as effective, just like modern man's far ancestors.

It was nothing that normal five senses could detect.

They hated each other at first sight.

Belle Smithson was a perfectly turned out young lady. While not staggeringly beautiful, she wielded her prettiness with charm and a light laugh. What intellect she had was bent towards one goal, the conquest of men, and she did it well, leaving behind her a trail of broken hearts that would mend rather too soon than the breaker would have been happy with. At the age of nineteen she was in the height of her powers, soon she would begin the downhill slide into shrewishness and complaint. But before then it would be a good idea to be married. And who better than her dear friend Audra's brother - which ever one came up to the mark first.

She knew that in order to get the man she would have to make sacrifices, spend some time with Audra, be a good guest for Mrs.Barkley, and treat the people around the Barkleys like they were important. But one look at the young man herding the horses a feral grin slipped past the carefully rouged lips. This one was trouble.

Jamie's eyes swung momentarily off the horse she was herding into the gathering pen to meet the cold blue eyes of the young lady standing next to Audra and Mrs.Barkley. Her own lip curled into a snarl and she pulled hard on reins instinctively causing the horse to stop and rear. She dropped her hands and patting a quick apology to the horse she cast a last baleful glance at Belle and then went back to work.

The deep atavistic feeling of two predators defending their own rose in both women. It wouldn't be a pretty war. Blood would be shed.

ACT THREE - THE BARKLEY RANCH
Scene One: War has broken out between Belle and Jamie. Many people are caught in the crossfire.

The first shots are fired.

They had given the new horses a day or two to recover from the train trip and the short drive to the Barkley ranch. Now it was time to test them. Heath and Jamie sat on the fence with identical self-satisfied grins as each horse proved it's worth.

"Not bad." Heath said laconically. "Nope." Jamie said but grinned even wider as Nick watched the horses being run through their paces. He would nod occasionally, or shout an instruction to the rider. "Back him up Charlie. Don't let him have the bit."

Nick mopped the sweat off his brow and set his hat firmly back on his head. They had garnered a fine bunch of horses. He spared a sideways glance at Heath and Jamie who were sitting like a couple of old cats in the sun looking very pleased with themselves.

"God knows what we are going to do with this old bunch of nags." He growled to the two. They both grinned back even wider. "Oh all right, they'll do. But don't go around thinkin' like you two know it all." He pointed an accusing finger at both of them.

"We leave that all-knowin' to you Nick." Heath teased. "Like who's gonna ride the black?" He pointed his chin to the black gelding that was running in nervous circles in the corral next to the barn. This was the horse that Heath and Jamie had seen the first night. They had bought him cheap, which was the only reason Nick had unbent enough to bid on the edgy horse.

Jamie felt her breath catch slightly. She had really liked the black even though it had a lot of bad habits and was going to be handful to ride. She loved Rosebud with all her heart, but she and the horse were so much in tune with one another there was no challenge to riding. The black would be a challenge. Brash, stubborn, strong-willed dark-haired with soft brown eyes that caught your imagination. Now, there was a ma...horse.

Nick caught Heath's eye and the infintismal nod towards Jamie who was trying to look disinterested.

"Go on boy. Let's see how good a rider you are." Nick said gruffly, but with a twinkle in his eye.

Jamie's approach was much like Heath's, a gentle monologue of talk and light touches to get the horse used to her. The black tried to bite her several times, but always got a slap across the nose for the audacity.

"Quick ain't he?" Heath said as the horse took a half-hearted nip at Jamie.

"You should have seen him dodging Williams' punches. That boy could go through a rainstorm without getting wet." Nick laughed.

Preliminaries over. Jamie mounted on the horse. It fidgeted nervously, shifting from foot to foot.

"All right. Ye'll stand for me, but others have got to ride ye." Jamie said and gave the horse a kick in the ribs. Somehow freed from the glamourie of gift the black took off bucking and sun fishing. Sure, Jamie had the gift, but her father and her brothers had also taught her ride- and ride well. It took all of her muscles, leg and arm to hold the black to her will.

"Hey boss, figure Heath there will have some competition at the next rodeo." One of the hands yelled out in admiration. There was soon a cheering crowd of cowboys watching the horse slowly give up to the strong will and good riding of O'Shannon. Her concentration solely on the fractious animal under her, Jamie didn't pay any attention to the noise of the crowd until she had the sweating horse tamed to a slow walk around the corral. He still had some rough edges to work out, but the horse was in her control. She took off her hat to wipe the sweat that was streaming off her face . She looked to see Belle waltz off holding Heath's and Nick's arms. She could of sworn that the blonde looked back at her with an expression of smug triumph. The other men's praise and pats on her back seemed like nothing and she suddenly felt very angry about something.

The lines had been drawn and fire was returned.

"Oh you are such a strong man Heath. You make me feel so small and weak." Belle had neatly cornered Heath in the barn. She was slowly backing him into the shadows, the hunter playing with her prey before going in for the kill. She was licking her lips in anticipation of a kiss from the blond cowboy when they were rudely interrupted.

"Hey Heath! I found worms in the manure. All squirming and writhin' they were. Wanna see?" Jamie had a lump of steaming hot horse droppings in her gloved hand. She thrust it past the woman's nose towards Heath.

"Ahh...umm...Jamie...I don't think now is the time to show me this." Heath began and pulled the disgusted Belle away from the smelly mess.

"Oh aye, ye want to be waitin' when the horses bloat with the worm and start having the runny brown gooey manure that stinks somethin' fierce and the blood runnin down the legs and the flies..." She tried not to look surprised when Belle put her hand over her mouth and beat a hasty retreat.

"Was it somethin' I said?" Jamie asked innocently.

Heath shot her a stern look. "Yes. Fine ladies like Belle are not interested in manure or horse disease. Didn't your mother teach you any manners?"

"Me mother taught me to judge people for themselves and not what they do." Jamie said a little more sharply than she wanted to. "I'll apologize at tea today."

"Is Mother expecting you?" he asked.

"I..." She stopped and then carefully dropped the handful of manure into the straw. "I guess not." It was half a question and Heath's rather stern face gave her the answer. It was like Da always said , "Revenge costs."

Victoria gave a little sigh as she cleared away her tea things. One cup was still clean and unused. Jamie wasn't coming. She still wasn't sure what to do about - the boy. She smiled, sure that she had figured out the convolutions of Jamie O'Shannon's family to her immense satisfaction. All she needed now was a name. A girl's name.

Nighttime reconnaissance, the enemy reveals herself.

The sound of music and laughter from the big house drew her like a magnet. She should have felt happy, a good job, a nice place to lay her head, and good men to work with. What more could she want? Yet, she found herself more and more drawn to the warmth and light of the Barkley house.

Audra's friend, Belle, was the center of attention laughing gaily and flirting outrageously with all three brothers. Jamie's lip curled as she saw even the most sensible Jarrod kiss the coyly offered hand. "Hussy." she muttered and shifted slightly causing the bushes to rustle. A small voice in the back of her mind, that sounded remarkably like her mother's, asked her why she was sitting on the damp ground in the bushes watching other people's business. Yet, she remained.

"Maybe I can persuade to take a moonlight stroll in Mother's rose garden?" Nick asked the lovely blonde in his low husky voice.

"Mother always says a lady must not seem too forward..." Belle cooed, "But she also said it is not kind to refuse a gentleman any reasonable request." She laid a dainty white hand on Nick's arm.

The couple were barely out of the house when Belle turned to Nick raising her face invitingly for a kiss. "You are such a strong man, Nick. I feel so small and weak next to you."

Jamie recognized the line that Belle had used in the barn with Heath. "Don't fall for it Nick..." But of course he did. Despite her disgust at the whole thing Jamie found herself holding her breath as Nick leaned down and covered the willing blonde's mouth with his. It was apparently a different kind of kiss than what he gave Lily at the Golden Gate because Belle only gave a little giggle and a sigh when the kiss was finished. Of course Lily was paid to be enthusiastic.

The enemy recruits former allies.

"No." Jamie said flatly. "She's no rider for all them fancy duds. Fireball is the better horse."

"Really Nick, do you let your servants talk back to you like that?" Belle laid a soft white hand on Nick's arm. Her big brown eyes fluttered at him.

"Saddle up Daisy." Nick said in his flat most angry tone.

"I want that one." Belle pouted and pointed to Buddy. "Please Nick. All of my friends say I have a wonderful seat." She pointedly twitched the part of the anatomy that was referred to.

Nick looked at her critically. Buddy was a lot of horse and while technically not yet Jamie's it was still his horse. He only needed one glance at Jamie's face to make his decision. The boy looked like he'd just been shot.

"Now, Miss Belle, Daisy would match that pretty riding dress of yours. Anyway Buddy there wouldn't know how to behave right around a lady, he hasn't been taught any manners." The last pointed remark was directed over the blonde's head to Jamie. "You just wait right here, and I'll see that you have the prettiest horse in the ranch to ride." He smiled at the beautiful young woman winningly. Still smiling he took Jamie's arm in an iron grip and practically dragged the boy into the barn.

"I'M SICK AND TIRED OF YOUR INSOLENCE O'SHANNON!" His voice carried back to Belle who had the satisfied look of someone who has made trouble on her face.

"Insolence! For seeing past the pretty face to see that yon female has the brain of a chicken!" Jamie shot out more scared than angry.

"SHE DOESN'T HAVE THE BRAIN OF A CHICKEN!" Nick yelled rather injudiciously.

By now, half of the hands were drifting towards the barn to watch the fireworks. Heath found Belle's reactions more interesting. She had made a move on him earlier which he had politely refused, it seemed she was setting her cap at Nick now. He frowned when he saw how she seemed to enjoy stirring up things.

"MISS BELLE IS A GUEST IN OUR HOUSE, I EXPECT YOU TO EXTEND EVERY COURTESY TO HER THAT SHE ASKS!" Nick gave the arm he still held a sharp shake. "NOW SADDLE UP DAISY AND IF I HEAR ANYTHING MORE ABOUT THIS YOU'LL BE WALKING OFF THIS RANCH." He finished angrily. He didn't have time for this sort of thing. He stalked out of the barn, not even watching to see if his orders were obeyed.

Jamie felt as if all of the air in her lungs had been sucked out of her. How could he be so mean? Michael had his reasons for being cruel, the war and the shattered leg and shattered dreams. What had she ever done to Nick Barkley, but try to do her job? Her actions were automatic as she saddled the doomed Daisy to be tortured by the inexperienced riding skills of Miss Belle. The woman gave no heed to Jamie, but snatched the reins triumphantly and gracefully mounted the horse with Nick's help. She gave him a brilliant smile that turned acidic when it brushed across Jamie.

Heath followed Jamie into the barn.

"Boy Howdy, Jamie. When are you going to learn not to go up against my brother?" He shook his head. "Nick is the boss. Even I know that." He chided gently.

"Aye. I'm just the servant Mr.Barkley. I know my place. If ye'll excuse me sir, I got me some work to do." Jamie disappeared up the ladder into the loft.

Heath started to say something, but then thought better of it. Nick would probably forget about the whole thing by tomorrow. He wasn't the kind of guy that held a grudge. Once he blew up that was it. Jamie wasn't too careful with his words either. He shook his head. He was beginning to have a feeling that the appellation of chicken brain' for Belle might be awfully close to the mark.

Up in the loft, Jamie sat hunched into a little ball and tried not to cry. In one week it was payday and she could give Heath the last $25 she owed on Buddy. Then there would be nothing to hold her to the Barkley's and their ranch. She would miss Heath, his shy crooked grin, and Mrs.Barkley and her kind words and tea, Audra was fun to be with, Jarrod was a nice man who loaned her books to read. But she wouldn't be sorry to see the last of that ungrateful, self-satisfied, pompous fool, Nick Barkley. No! Not in a million years! Not that loud voice, nor his eyes that said so much, or , or, any number of annoying things about him. Like that lock of hair that fell on his forehead or the way he his muscles moved when he was doing work and that darn laugh of his, so full of life. She would be damned if she would miss that man!

ACT THREE
Scene Two: Audra notices something interesting and the Barkleys come to some startling conclusions.

If trailing after Audra and Belle on their shopping trip to Stockton was supposed to be a punishment, it surely didn't turn out to be that way. Jamie took careful note to watch the two girls behavior. It was certainly a new experience for her to see what normal girls her age did and talked about. Belle's conversation was almost exclusively about men she knew, men she wanted to know, and men in general. She would talk about fashion and the like, but only in reference to what men' would like. Jamie thought she had the brain of a chicken, you fed it and it followed you looking for more. All a man had to do was look at Belle and she fancied that he loved her and she loved him. She was behaving herself very well today feeling that the Jamie person had been well put in place, of course the gentle talk the Mrs. Barkley had given her last night had also left an impression. It wasn't a good idea to antagonize a potential Mama-in-law.

Audra while interested in men, was much more sensible than her friend and had other more human interests. Compared to Suzy, Audra was much more appealing as a source of information and example of how women acted and were supposed to act around normal men. Men like Heath and Jarrod, not like Nick who was, of course, an uncouth loud-mouthed bully and totally disagreeable.

The dress shop was as good as a corral full of fine horses. Bolts of bright and tempting cloth drew all three in like iron filings to a magnet. Belle was more interested in the rich brocades and velvets while Audra and Jamie hovered over the silks and satins. Jamie carefully ran her fingers over the shiny surface of a bolt of silk which garnered a disapproving cough from the elderly lady running the shop. Audra wandered off to look at some hat trims. Looking around quickly, Jamie pulled a bolt of blue ribbon silk out to hold up in front of herself in the mirror. The color mirrored her eyes and seemed to add a rosy blush to her cheeks instead of making her look sallow like Suzy's turquoise dress had.

"That's a pretty color, but hardly good for a man's shirt." Audra said quietly beside her.

"I - ah- if I was a girl..."Jamie began desperately looking for some reasonable explanation. "My sister, she had the same color eyes and hair as me. I wondered if she would look good..." her voice trailed off.

"Oh yes! The blue matches your eyes perfectly. But Jamie, you never said you had a sister. What is her name?"

Jamie swallowed, it was her name but hadn't been said aloud for years. As if waiting for a bolt of lightning to hit her and sort hoping it would, she opened her mouth, "Alanna," and then a little louder as if it were important to say it again, "Alanna O'Shannon."

"So, is she older or younger than you? Where is she?" Audra took the bolt of cloth carefully out of Jamie's hands. He looked awfully upset all of a sudden. Audra put a sympathetic hand on Jamie's arm. "Did something bad happen to her?"

"Aye Audra. She got lost." Jamie looked at her brown capable hands, hands that guided horses, healed their hurts, hands that were unused to the feel of silk under them.

"Oh dear. Did you look for her?"

"No, Audra. No one looked for her. In my family, girls weren't worth looking for. She stayed lost."

"But Jamie, surely you...I can't believe you wouldn't look for her."

"Ah well, then ye don't know me, do you Audra Barkley. I'll wait outside fer ye and Miss Belle."

Audra looked in total dismay as Jamie left the store. She looked down at the bolt of cloth and a funny thought crossed her mind and then flitted away quickly as Belle bore down on her demanding her opinion on a choice of fine bonnets. The trip back to the ranch was dominated by Belle's conversations about the shopping they had done and her comparisons to the shops in the east. She easily made up for Jamie's silence and Audra's own preoccupied nods and monosyllables.

It was only when Audra was dressing for dinner when that stray thought that crossed her mind in the shop came back. It was preposterous, it was impossible, it was...intriguing! This was too good to keep to herself.

Audra found the rest of her family in the library. Jarrod standing by the fireplace with Heath looking at a book, while Nick was lounged comfortably in one of the chairs. Her mother was carefully working on a piece of mending, probably one of Heath's shirts that always seemed to suffer. Her brothers smiled at her entrance, their unconscious greeting warming her heart. In a sudden burst of love and affection she flew across the room to hug her eldest brother tightly.

"Hey, kitten." He said returning the hug, but confused at her sudden show of love. She was hanging on to him as if she hadn't seen him for a month of Sundays.

"Audra is something wrong?" He asked as she almost reluctantly let go of him.

"If I was lost, would you come to find me?"

"Of course I would." Jarrod said becoming almost alarmed at what Audra was talking about.

"We all would."Heath said seriously.

"What's got into you girl?" Nick asked getting to his feet. "You know we would do anything to protect you. Has something, has someone bothered you in town? I suppose Jamie sloped off to look at horses, when I told him to keep an eye on you two. That's it, the boy can take his damn horse and..."Nick began angrily.

"Wait Nick, it's not like that."Audra took a deep breath. "Did you know that Jamie had a sister?"

"Ben Cartwright mentioned it..." Victoria dropped the mending into her lap and looked with interest at her daughter.

"Her name is Alanna." Audra said triumphantly. "Do you know what happened to her?"

"Well, Ben seemed to think that she may have died when her younger brother Patrick died of influenza or something like that. What of it?" Jarrod added.

"Jamie said she got lost, and that no one in her family thought it important to look for her." Audra said triumphantly.

"Why would they do that?" Heath asked his brow furrowing, "From what Jamie says about his family they were real close before the war. I don't see Jamie not looking for a lost sister."

Nick nodded slowly, "Yeah, the kid is a pain, but loyal to a fault. Look at that fight he got into about Heath and that time in Alameda."

"What fights?" Audra asked temporarily diverted.

"Nothing." All three brothers said at once, causing Audra to wrinkle her nose at them. Men and their secrets.

Victoria carefully put away the mending in her sewing basket ."Tell me, what do we know about Jamie's family?"

"Now Mother, where is this going?" Nick asked gruffly.

"No, fair enough question Nick," Jarrod said, "Let's look at the facts." He switched into lawyer mode. "James O'Shannon has an older brother Michael. Presumedly still living. He had three, no four other brothers. Sean, Liam, hmmm Andrew, and..."

"Patrick who died of influenza." Nick added and settled himself back into his chair. "And now a sister who has died."

"Not necessarily dead."Jarrod asked,"Lost, is that right Audra?"

"That is exactly what Jamie said, lost." Audra said.

"Now Nick you saw the photograph...how many children were in the picture?"

"Four boys standing, the Mother holding the little girl in her lap and the Father a small baby. But what does all this prove?"

"Boy Howdy!" Heath breathed, "You don't think..." He looked at Jarrod who was thinking hard and Victoria who was looking smug. "Adam told me that the little O'Shannon girl had a foal named Rosebud. The horse followed her everywhere nibbling on her curly black hair."

"Who in the family had the horse gift?" Jarrod asked. "Sean and the girl, Alanna. And who had black hair? Michael and the girl, Alanna."

"And how do you lose a sister and not look for her?" Audra chimed in "By turning her into a boy, into James O'Shannon."

"Oh No! No!" Nick said jumping to his feet again. "You all are crazy. Jamie O'Shannon is not a girl." He laughed forcefully. "You all have been reading too many books, out in the sun too long."

Heath shrugged. "Makes sense to me. Jamie keeps to himself, ah maybe herself. That cheek will never see a beard and she acts a lot older than she looks."

"She was admiring a bolt of blue silk, how many boys would do that Nick?" Audra looked very pleased with herself.

"Rosebud can easily be Buddy." Jarrod added.

"Now wait, he, she, Buddy, Rosebud, the three of you are just barking up the wrong tree. Jamie acts like a man, rides like a man, drinks like a man, fights like a man, I even took him to..."Nick broke off the sentence and looked at his little sister and mother. Her unspoken question was never voiced as Silas came to announce dinner.

"Well, whatever secret life James or Alanna O'Shannon may have, I suggest we wait until after Miss Belle has left our company." Victoria said wisely. Audra nodded reluctantly as did Heath.

Nick snorted. "Jamie O'Shannon, a girl, ha!"

Jarrod stopped his mother on the way to the dining room, "How long have you known, Mother?"

Victoria smiled at her son. "Long before any of you."

The day started like most other days with no clue of potential disaster or roll of thunder to herald destruction or doom. Victoria and Audra went off to visit neighbors with a new baby, a pastime that Belle graciously declined. Babies were such noisy distasteful things always taking attention away from others - just like her little brother had when he came into the world - disgusting thing. Superficially she pleaded a headache and a desire for a little rest or maybe pursuing someone interesting. Unfortunately, Heath and Nick and the majority of the ranch hands were out doing some fencing work.

Jamie had spent the morning cleaning tack and brushing down the few horses that were left in the barn. She had expected to join the men with the fencing work, but Nick had looked at her strangely and told her to stay close to home. She shrugged and considered a ride out to the river on Buddy for a bath. Quick wash-ups in a bowl were not getting her clean enough to her satisfaction. Maybe that was why Nick and Heath looked so strange at her this morning. She took a hesitant sniff at herself and frowned.

Jamie had just finished saddling Buddy and was leading him out of the barn when she was accosted by Belle.

"Oh boy." Belle said in a soft syrupy voice. "Are you going for a ride? Could I come too?" She fluttered her eyes at Jamie who wasn't too impressed.

"I'm just going to the creek. Not a pretty ride." Jamie said tightening the cinch on Buddy.

"Please. I really think we should be friends, for the Barkley's sake. They had so many good things to say about you." Belle said winningly.

"Really?" Jamie looked at the young woman who looked all innocence and a touch of remorse.

"I'm sure you would like to know what they said..." Belle tossed the baited hook out.

Jamie took the bait hook, line and sinker. "Well alright, let me saddle up a horse for you. Daisy is out, you'll have to ride Fireball."

"All right." Was the bright cheerful reply. After the fuss of several days ago Jamie should have been on her guard, but the thought of hearing what the Barkley's and Nick thought of her was too good to pass up. Maybe she could stay on the ranch for a while, maybe they could be told her secret...

Heath and Nick were just returning from the barn after caring for their horses after a hard day's work.

"I could eat a bear." Heath said stretchin his back muscles lazily.

"I'm with you brother, but I hope it's Silas' pot roast." Nick said slapping his brothers shoulder affectionately.

"Boy Howdy, what is that?" Heath said suddenly stopping to point at a sorry sight coming into the yard. Fireball was half-trotting half walking, it's rider bouncing awkwardly around. As soon as the rider spied the two men a wail that would put a cat to shame broke out.

"OooooOOOooo." Belle cried and waited until she could fall neatly into one of the men's arms.

"MOTHER! AUDRA!" Nick bellowed inviting someone else to take over the handful of teary muddy young woman.

"My heavens." Victoria said running out of the house. "What on earth happened to you? Are you hurt dear?"

"Well, no." Belle said honestly. "But look at my dress..."Belle sniffed audibly. "It is just ruined! I am completely disheveled, Mother says that a woman must never appear in polite company in a less than perfect order. I must surely bathe, change and then tell you of my most frightening experience." Belle managed to flutter her eyelashes which were unfortunately glued in clumps by mud. Nick nimbly avoided her muddy hand on his arm.

"You go and do that." Nick said gruffly. He turned to Heath, who was patting the sweating, trembling horse. They both watched as the blond girl marched into the house supported by Audra and Victoria, each tantalizing sway of her hips dropping half-dried clumps of mud along the way.

"Poor Fireball' has been rid pretty hard, Nick." Heath said running his hands down the elderly pony's legs. The animal was covered in dried foam and was still breathing hard.

"Damn." Nick eyed the exhausted horse."Take him to the barn, um I'm sure Jamie can take care of him."

"Well, Nick. I think you ought to, seeings how Jamie told you that Belle was too rough on the horses. You can say he was right." Heath grinned his lopsided grin. "Matter of fact, mebbe I'll just tag along and hear you eat crow."

Nick opened his mouth and raised his finger to his brother who was laughing silently. He closed it and pulled the horses reins from his brother's hands. He stalked towards the barn with Heath following at a leisurely pace behind him. Fireball's ears perked forwards as the familiar odors and sight of the barn faced the tired horse.

"Jamie!" Nick called out just inside the barn. He was greeted by a few whickers and shuffling from the horses. Coco stuck his head over his stall door and gave a welcoming farrup. Other than that the barn was quiet. He quickly pulled the saddle and blanket off the horse.

"JAMIE!" Nick bellowed. "Got us a sick horse here..." This would usually bring the boy double time. Heath wandered in looking around carefully.

"Don't seem to be here, Nick. Buddy isn't in his stall. You don't think he took off?"

"Now, why in ell would Jamie take off?" Nick groused and grabbing a brush began to vigorously brush the coat of the grateful Fireball.

"Well now, could be because you yelled at him the other day for calling Miss Belle chicken brain." Heath sat down on a block of hay. He pulled out a whisp and began chewing on it thoughtfully.

Nick snorted. "The boy would have taken off the first day he was here if he was afraid of me yelling at him." He gave the horse a slap on it's rump as it was beginning to lean gratefully on him.

"Jealous." Heath said succinctly. "Look at the way she has been acting around Belle." He shrugged and repeated. "Jealous."

"What? Aw, hell Heath you aren't buying into that crazy idea that Jamie is...is a girl?" Nick staggered a bit as the horse managed to lean on the distracted man. He gave it a less than gentle slap and it looked at him reproachfully.

"Kinda makes sense to me. Y'know her age is right to be Alanna, Buddy is Rosebud, the gift with horses...Jamie is Alanna."

"You all have gone south around the bend..."Nick finished brushing the horse and was covering it with a blanket.

"Face it Nick, you just don't want Jamie to be female. Or maybe..." Heath paused and looked at his older brother thoughtfully and then grinned.

"Maybe what?" Nick shot out and pushed the horse into an empty stall and dumped a measure of grain into the grateful animal's manger.

"Well Nick, maybe you would be more disappointed if we were wrong."

"What do you mean..." He was interrupted by Audra who came running out to the barn. She had a rather distracted Belle by one hand. Belle's hair was half covered in soap and was hanging in unattractive rat tails around her face. She had a robe clutched around her with one hand.

"Nick! Heath!" Audra yelled. "Jamie's in trouble! Belle just told me." Audra shot her old school friend a contemptuous look. Flirting with everyone in trousers was bad enough, but deserting a rider in trouble out on the range was less than human. "Tell them what happened," She gave the girl's arm a tight squeeze, "What really happened, not any of your stories."

"Audra," Belle whined, "You are hurting me, I will have to tell my mother about this breech in good behavior. I will have to cut my visit short." She raised her eyes to look beseechingly at the two men who were paying more attention to their sister than to her. There appeared to be no help from that quarter and Audra did not seem to want to stop squeezing her arm. She began to speak, Nick wondered why he even considered her whiny voice dulcet and sweet.

"I wanted to go for a ride and that nasty boy, wouldn't let me go alone. He saddled two horses, that awful slow one and the pretty red one. I wanted to ride the red one. He was quite rude, I must say..."she began, but paled as Audra pulled her around to face her.

"Tell them what you did." she grated out between her teeth.

"I took the red horse, when he was saddling the other one. My, we took off like the wind. That boy couldn't keep up on that old pony. If it hadn't been for that ditch..." Her voice trailed off.

"Ditch?" Nick said dangerously, the only ditch was the newly dug irrigation ditch for the orchard about five miles from the ranch. It was fairly shallow, but wide, too wide for a horse to jump.

"I thought we could jump it, then that boy couldn't follow. He was yelling, saying such bad words. The horse fell and I got thrown into the mud. I was lucky not to get hurt. That boy helped me out of the ditch with the rope and then he went into the ditch to the horse. He was yelling at me! It wasn't my fault. The horse was making a lot of noise...I got on the other horse and rode here. I was going to tell you..."Her voice trailed off as she faced the three furious people. She took refuge in bursting into tears, her face screwing up and turning red and ugly.

Nick was already pulling Coco out of his stall and was throwing on a blanket and saddle. Heath started to saddle up Charger.

"I can take the south end and you the north, we can ride towards each other, they gotta be easy to spot."

"We have only about an hour of daylight left." Nick tightened Coco's cinch.

"Audra, I want you to get her, "Nick threw a head over towards the sobbing Belle, "out of here."

"Nick. I can come with you." Audra put a hand on her older brother's arm. Nick in a cold rage was not a good thing, better to have him yelling and ranting.

"Better, do as Nick asks Audra." Heath said, "Tell mother. She'll take care of Belle and...and Alanna when we bring her home.

ACT THREE
Scene Three - A death brings Jamie to his end. Nick must be careful to save Alanna's life.

Nick rode at a bruising pace to the Northern and farthest end of the irrigation ditch, it had been quite a job digging the half mile long ditch, but it would make all the difference to the fruit trees during times of drought which plagued the area all too frequently. He turned Coco to face south and began riding at a slower pace. The sun was still up, but the long shadows hid the bottom of the ditch from seeing much.

"Jamie! Can you hear me? Jamie! Answer me boy!" Nick shook his head. Was Jamie a boy? No matter, right now he was someone in trouble. "Jamie!"

He had been riding about ten minutes when he heard a faint answer to his shout. He slid off Coco and paced along the rim of the ditch, the earth was soft and crumbly at the edges, clods rained down to make soggy pattering noises in the muddy bottom of the ditch. The growing shadows softened what was a heartbreaking situation. The roan gelding was down in the bottom of the ditch, covered in thick mud. Jamie was holding the horse's head out of the mud. The animal was breathing heavily, as if it had just run a long race.

"Throw me your gun." Jamie's voice floated like a specter on the breeze, it sounded thin and tight. "I gotta put him out of his misery."

"Legs broke?" Nick said and dallied his rope around the saddle horn, he trusted Coco to hold his weight while he went down the loose side of the ditch.

"Jest throw me the damn gun, Nick Barkley." Jamie's voice was high, it was the first time Nick had heard the boy swear.

"Do you want me to..." Nick said pulling the heavy six shooter from his holster.

"He's my horse, I saw him born, I'll put him down." Came the tense reply.

He handed the gun to Jamie who carefully aimed at a point in the horse's skull and pulled the trigger. Nick was close enough to hear the sharp sob that was almost drowned out by the bark of the gun.

"Jamie, I'm sorry." Nick said brusquely. "I should have listened to you."

"Listen to me? Ah hell, Nick why should ye listen to me?" The gun began to wave in a dangerous direction towards him. She thumbed the hammer back, cocking the gun.

"Whoa, take it easy." He held his hands up."You want to be more careful with that gun, Jamie." He lowered his hands and reached out slowly for the loaded weapon. "You don't want to do this."

"I didna want to kill Rosebud either. He was all I had. He was the last thing in the world to love me. How can ye understand? In that house with yer family around you. Ye took yer time coming too. I sat watching him suffer with no way to make it go away. Did you and Belle take a walk in the garden before ye came to see? Damn ye Nick Barkley I trusted..." Her voice broke off as she took in a shaky breath. The gun dipped and wavered.

"It wasn't like that..." Nick desperately tried to find the words to calm the distraught Jamie. "Belle..." It was the wrong choice.

"Oh aye, believe what ye will. If Belle says so, then by the saints it must be true! I've had enough! YE HEAR! ENOUGH! " As if seeing the heavy pistol in her hand for the first time she raised it up bracing her wrist with her other hand. It wasn't aimed at him anymore, but at herself.

If he jumped at her, the gun could go off.

"Alanna." Her head snapped up and he saw the white twisted face of despair. "Alanna, give me the gun." He repeated. The gun wavered and jerked. He moved closer. He reached out his hand and took the gun from her slack hand holstering it.

Her legs went out from under her. Nick went down on his knees with her.

"Don't do this." He laid a none too steady hand on her cheek and tilted the head back to catch what pale light was left in the sky. Her eyes blinked and he could feel sharp shallow breaths fan his own face as he leaned closer.

"Nick! Jamie!" Heath's sharp voice cut across Nick's consciousness.

"Here!" Nick turned his head to shout to his brother who was a shadowy figure on the edge of the ditch. "It isn't like that. I swear to you," Nick spoke in a low voice his face close to hers his mouth next to her ear. "Alanna O'Shannon I'm sorry."

"Are you all right? I heard a shot." Heath's voice floated over them. All he could see now were bulky shadows. "D'you need me down there?"

"No. We are coming up." Nick easily picked up the limp body of stricken young woman. They were both covered in slick gooey mud and Nick found his grip slipping once or twice as he slogged towards the edge of the ditch.

"Put your arms around my neck." He ordered gruffly. Any other woman would have done it automatically. Belle would have taken full advantage of the situation. The blonde's perfidy and callous disregard for others slid across his mind and his grip tightened as an arm slid cautiously around his neck. "Damn woman." he thought not realizing that he had vocalized the idea. A head which had begun to droop thankfully onto his shoulder jerked back. Nick shifted his weight as one boot became bogged in the sticky ooze. He stumbled and the both of them rolled in the sticky mud. Nick came up swearing trying to keep his balance and hold onto a rather sticky mud-covered Alanna. She remained unusually silent even through being lifted up the side of the ditch by Nick and hauled up by Heath. Getting Nick up the side of the ditch took a little more grunting and swearing by both of the cowboys.

Alanna very quietly took a canteen off one of the men's saddles and poured the contents over her head and hands removing most of the gunk covering her. She also took a swig of the tepid liquid. The men's low-voiced conversation about what had happened did not seem to impinge on her consciousness.

"Jamie umm Alanna can ride double with me. We are already covered in mud, no need for you to get dirty." Nick said swinging into his saddle to settle with an uncomfortable squish.

" Preciate the thought big brother." Heath tried to lighten the mood.

Nick reached out his hand and for a long moment thought that O'Shannon wasn't going to take it. Then a small hand was inserted in his and he pulled her up to sit in front of him on the saddle.

They rode towards the ranch in silence. As the moon rose, lighting the way, the men coaxed their mounts into a quicker walk.

This was a hell of a mess, Nick thought. He was used to straight forward problems with straight forward solutions. Jamie looses his horse through the carelessness of a chicken-brained female (he had his own suspicions). But Jamie is not Jamie, but Alanna a young woman pretending to be a boy.

Alanna's thoughts were in turmoil. How did they find out? He is so mad at me. I feel ... so ashamed...he should have let me...no...

"I didn't mean to." It was the first words she had said since the she had turned the gun on herself. . Nick tightened the arm he held around her waist, feeling the still liquid mud squelch between them. He wasn't sure what she didn't mean to do or say or whatever, but he was smart enough to know that she didn't need any more grief.

"Yeah. I know. " He said simply and could feel the sag of relief in her back. Coco danced a little uneasily, the horse the first to sense the unnatural limpness that followed the sudden relaxation. "Hey! Jam...Alanna!" Nick said worriedly.

"What's wrong?" Heath asked pulling Charger in to ride by Nick's knee.

"I dunno. I think she's fainted or something."

"I ain't surprised." Heath leaned over to lay a hand on one very muddy cheek. "She's breathin' good. Could be just tuckered out. Couldn't have been easy, none of it."

Nick shifted a little in the saddle so that the curly black head rested on his arm. "Most men couldn't have handled all that has happened. Dammit Heath. How did we miss this?"

"Mother seemed to have an idea long before the rest of us." Heath said nudging Charger into a trot as the bright lights of home twinkled ahead of them.

"Mother will know what to do." Nick said firmly dipping his chin towards the sleeping woman.

"Yeah another stray to take in." Heath said ironically. "She's so good at that."

"That she is brother, that she is." Nick said as they caught sight of an anxious Victoria waiting by the front door holding a lantern up to light their way.

EPILOGUE
Like all good endings the start of a new beginning...

"You gonna stare at that drink or do somethin' with it?" Heath teased gently as Nick sat slouched in one of the study's easy chairs. He was absentmindedly swirling a tumbler of whisky in his hand. When his brother didn't reply to the gentle tease he frowned slightly. "Nick?"

"Hmm? What?" Nick started from his reverie and took a healthy swallow from his glass and grimaced as the strong liquor burned down his throat.

"You sure thinkin' awful hard. What's on your mind brother?"

"Ah, nothin'." Nick said stretching his legs out lazily.

Heath smiled and waited patiently. Something was bothering Nick and he would chew on the problem until he came up with a solution.

"Getting kinda cold, figure we better think about moving the stock to winter pasture." Nick said thoughtfully.

"We'll need some extra hands. Maybe two more and someone to handle the remuda." Heath said not really sure if the fall roundup was Nick's real worry at the moment. "We have plenty of good mounts thanks to ones we bought at Alameda." He added and was rewarded by a frown of worry that crossed his brother's face. He should have guessed the problem right away.

"She is having a tough time settling in. " Heath said bluntly.

"Yeah." Nick drained the contents of his glass. "Think I'll turn in. See you in the morning." He left the library and moseyed into the kitchen to look for a slice of pie or a cookie that might be lying around. He found Alanna slipping an apple into the pocket of her skirt.

"Someone else looking for a snack?" He grinned at her as he took one for himself and took a big bite out of it. It had been several weeks since she'd lost her horse and lost being a boy. Victoria had been gentle but firm in getting her used to wearing skirts and learning to act like a woman. Jeans and a ragged shirt had been replaced by a long skirt and a simple white blouse. She nervously tucked a stray curl from her face behind her ear.

"It isn't for me." She began nervously pleating the skirt in her hands. "I thought mebbe..." She sighed and took the apple out and returned it to the bowl. " I suppose it isn't allowed."

"Since when?" Nick took the apple up and tossed it to her. She caught it neatly and for the first time her eyes met his. He thought she looked too pale, too strained. "Let's go see the horses." He strode out of the kitchen and smiled as she joined him matching his long strides with several of her own shorter steps. The skirt was held up rather higher than good taste dictated but how else was she to keep up? Nick stopped to light a lantern, but Alanna had gone straight to the horses and was patting noses and speaking gently to the steeds. She began carving bits of apple for the animals. Charger slobbered his bit of apple affectionately down her front. Nickers and whiffles from the horses greeted her as she went from animal to animal. Nick watched as she and the horses communed with one another. Fireball was leaning gratefully on her pinning her to the side of the stall as she scratched him behind the ears.

"Get over ye lazy beast." She slapped him on the withers and he reluctantly moved off but stretched out his head for another piece of apple.

"It's fair spoiled ye are." She scolded him and Nick could swear the horse look ashamed until he got an extra bit of apple.

"I could use a good wrangler..." Nick began. "Someone who knows horses. Interested?"

She whirled to look at him, "Nick! Could I?" There was life in her voice and even in the dim light of the lantern he could see her eyes light up. Funny how big and blue they were and with such long dark lashes.

"Yep. Mother will want you to do that female stuff, but I figger you'll still have plenty of time for the horses. You'll have to wear boy's clothes of course." He pointed to her once white blouse that had horse drool and bits of apple on it and the skirt that was rumpled from the horse leaning on her.

"You've got a deal! Thank ye Nick!" She said happily and stuck out a hand to shake. Nick took the hand and shook it but didn't let go immediately..

He held her hand and with his other hand gently traced the line of her soft cheek with one finger. She looked at him confusedly. "Bright and early tomorrow morning, all right? Well, go on get going." He urged letting her go..

"Aye boss." She grinned at him and picking up her skirts ran for the house.

Nick smiled as he saw her vault neatly over the water trough, not an easy feat in a long skirt.

When you got down to it Alanna was Jamie, basically the same person. Maybe with some changes for the better.

A faint smile curved on his lips. Yes, maybe a lot for the better.