Cayce's Dating Trials and Tribulations

By Janet Brayden

Cayce McKenna groaned as the headlights of the vehicle she was a passenger in revealed a modified red and white GMC Jimmy parked in the small parking area near her house.

"Oh, no! Not now," she moaned and closed her green eyes in what could have been anger or frustration.

Her date, Peter Yarborough, son of the owner of the Circle Y ranch located not far from Cayce's Lazy M, looked at her curiously.

"What's the matter, Cayce?"

"My 'big brothers'," she said, "have decided to pay me a surprise visit.

"I thought you were an only child."

"I am," she answered him, "but these guys - especially the two older ones, are like brothers to me. We sort of adopted each other about ten years ago. Nick and Cody served under Uncle Brian for a couple of years. Murray came along much later - just a year or so ago."

She sighed heavily, "I love them dearly but they're so protective I could kill them sometimes!"

"Why?" the blond looked at her curiously.

"Because from the time I was fourteen until I was sixteen, when they got out of the army and moved to Southern California, every boy I dated underwent the third degree from three MPs - including Uncle Brian. Most of them got scared off."

Peter pulled his truck over to the side of the road near the entrance to the Lazy M's driveway. As he did so he saw three men, a blond and two brunets, come out of the house and look down the driveway apparently curious about the vehicle they had heard. All three men appeared to be six feet or taller.

Cayce turned to Peter with a slight frown.

"Cody Allen is the blond. He's the oldest and, in some ways, the biggest threat."

"He looks harmless enough." Peter studied the tall blond standing on Cayce's porch.

"He's not dangerous in the same way that Nick can be," his date affirmed. "He's sneaky. When he was fifteen he was introducing himself to his dates' fathers - 'hello, sir, it's good to meet you. I'm Cody Allen and I'll have your daughter back home no later than seven-thirty and we'll probably stop in a church at some point' - completely guileless and innocent and polite. It's disgusting!"

"What about this Nick guy? You said he was dangerous?"

"Nick Ryder. Football hero - member of the Lincoln High School championship team in the late sixties. He and Cody, both, are combat trained and Nick was a combat chopper pilot during the Vietnam War. Nick's half Italian and has the moods and the temper to go with it. Cody is the one who keeps him calm most of the time. He's the kind that would beat up on anybody who mistreated me."

"What about the skinny guy? He looks harmless enough."

"You might think he's the last one you have to worry about," Cayce conceded, "but he's actually more dangerous than the other two."

"That skinny guy?" Pete scoffed.

"Skinny, yes. Physically unimposing, yes. Mentally - well he's a genius."

Pete gave her a funny look.

"His name is Murray Bozinsky. He's a certified genius and quite famous as well." Cayce smiled fondly for she truly adored Murray. "He graduated from High School at the age of thirteen and went on to MIT - the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

"Wow! That's impressive," young Yarborough said.

"Like I said - Murray's a genius. He's a little socially inept - and the guys sometimes call him geeky - but what he can't do with a computer isn't to be done! That's what makes him so dangerous."

"How's that?"

"If he gets hold of your name, or your license plate, he'll be able to get into all kinds of computers and get a full history on you - where you were born, your full name, any trouble you've been in, property you own - the whole nine yards."

"You're right," Peter said. "He is the scariest of the bunch. Good thing I have a clean record, eh?"

Cayce glared at him.

"It's not funny, Pete! Nick and Cody are going to make my life miserable again.!" She reached for the door handle.

"What do you think you're doing? We're not at the house yet."

"I'm going to walk from here," Cayce informed her date. "I don't want those guys getting a look at you, your car, or your license plate until I'm good and ready."

"Cayce! There's no need for that! I'm not afraid of them."

"Good. I don't want you to be afraid, but I do want you to be unknown for a while - until I'm ready to tell them about you."

"Well, all right, if you insist." The young man had his doubts but conceded to Cayce's wishes that he stay in the car.

"I had a wonderful time, Peter," she assured him. "Maybe next time the guys won't be here and I'll feel safe in asking you in for a few minutes."

The young woman closed the car door and waved as Pete backed up and turned around.

"I'll talk to you later," she called as he drove off down the road. Turning toward the driveway she said to herself, "Time to face the inquisition."

Her long skirt swished around her ankles as she walked up the long driveway. Her boot heels clicked on the blacktop, occasionally sinking in where the warm weather had softened the tar they'd recently used to repair it with.

"I've really got to invest in cement," she said to herself. "But planning access to the house without going the long way around while it hardens will be a challenge."

Pasting on a smile she approached the house as her band of "brothers" stepped down from the porch to meet her.

"Hi Cayce," Cody greeted her as she approached the porch. He, and the other two, stepped down as she neared them.

"Hi Cody! Nick, Boz. What a surprise! I know I've told you to consider the Lazy M your second home but you usually let me know you're coming."

"Funny thing," Nick said, eying her suspiciously, "you usually answer the radio - or the phone - when we do. There was no answer this time."

"I was at a meeting," she told him.

"A meeting? Dressed like that?" Nick doubted that story.

"You look very nice, Cayce," Boz told her in an attempt to keep the peace. Even he could foresee the battle that was brewing.

"Thank you, Boz," Cayce replied. She was wearing a chocolate brown three tiered skirt with a ruffle at the bottom topped by a dark green peasant shirt with a ruffle at the top and elastic in the sleeves and neckline. Around her waist she wore a turquoise studded leather belt and her feet were shod with loose knee high boots of buttery soft leather. Her hair was tied back in a single, loose pony tail as opposed to the usual braid, or braids, that she normally wore and the sterling and turquoise cross that her uncle's secretary had given her was around her neck.

"You ought to dress up like that more often," Cody told her. "You look very nice. You know you're just as pretty as Amy Ryan when you take the time."

Cayce just gave him a look. She'd wound up helping them solve a case at a movie studio by working as their temporary livestock manager in charge of the horses. The young actress, Amy Ryan, whose rescue, from a runaway horse had gotten Cayce the job, looked a lot like Amy and Cody liked to remind her of it now and then.

"Your attempts at flattery, Cody, will get you nowhere," she told him. "All I'm going to tell you is that I was at a meeting and, yes, it was the kind of meeting where I would dress up some."

By this time they had entered the house and Cayce went into the kitchen, the men following on her heels, to get a bottle of cold water from the refrigerator.

"I went to a meeting with a friend and that same friend dropped me off at the foot of the driveway at my request so they could continue on home and get to bed themselves. We working ranchers get up quite early in the morning you know so good night fellas. You know which rooms are yours. I'll see you in the morning."

With that she left the three men standing in the kitchen. Two were disappointed not to have gleaned a little information out of her and one was dumbfounded that she was so short with them. That wasn't her normal attitude.

"What did you guys do to make her so mad?" Boz asked his partners. "My detective's instinct tells me there's something going on here that I don't know about."

"Nothing, Murray," Cody told him.

"Nothing?" The bespectacled computer whiz wasn't buying that. "I don't think I believe that, Cody."

"Well, she might be a little mad at Nick for scaring off one of her boyfriends," Cody conceded.

"Me? What about you? You gave the guy the third degree."

"You threatened to beat him up if he didn't treat her right," the blond reminded the Italian.

"Guys! You didn't? When was this?" Murray was shocked.

"It was a long time ago, Boz," Allen told his partner. "We were still in the army then. Cayce was about to turn sixteen and we didn't care for the way this guy was looking at her so we 'persuaded' him that he'd be smart to be on his best behavior."


"Yeah," Nick said. "Then I threatened to break his legs for him."

"You didn't!" Murray was shocked that Nick would threaten a teenager like that.

"The guy was five years older than Cayce and entirely too friendly," Cody explained. "His hands were getting a little too familiar. Problem is that Cayce thought she could handle it herself and she got really mad at Nick for interfering."

The three men continued talking as they made their way upstairs to their guest rooms. They were careful not to disturb Cayce whom they figured was probably already asleep.

The next morning dawned dark and gloomy with a light rain falling - just the opposite of what the previous day had been. Cayce arose at her customary five o'clock and went out to the barn to do some chores. Dressed in jeans, boots and a long sleeved shirt she donned her denim jacket on the way out the door.

When she got back to the house at seven the Riptide detectives were up and in the process of fixing breakfast. Josefina Morales, Cayce's housekeeper, was on vacation or she would have had it ready by the time Cayce finished up.

"Hi guys," she greeted her "brothers". "Sleep well?"

"Yes," Murray said. "It's always so peaceful here."

Cayce laughed. "To you maybe. You're never here when there's a major crisis of mares going into labor, stallions or bulls breaking out of their pens. O when the 4-Hers are frantically preparing for their next horse shows and making out their end of year reports that have to be in to the County Extension Office before the meeting season ends at the end of the school year." She took a deep breath and continued, "Then there's the frantic activity of getting the hay cut, dried, baled and stored before it rains and we have to start all over again.

Cody started laughing. "I think we get the idea."

"Breakfast is served," Nick said as he turned away from the stove with a platter of sausage.

Cody held Cayce's chair for her while she seated herself. Murray brought the coffee, milk, butter and catsup. Nick had made scrambled eggs and fried sausage while Cody had made, and buttered, toast. He'd already put the grape jelly and raspberry jam on the table.

Conversation, for the time being, centered on how the ranch was doing and how

Cayce's 4-H club was doing. It was early spring and the kids were preparing for summer horse shows and demonstrations with the big regional fair to be held in October. The detectives had attended last year as part of Cayce's twenty-fifth birthday celebration. The highlight of the day, as far as Cayce was concerned, was getting her brothers to the pig races. Against their wishes they had been coerced but had found themselves enjoying it anyway.

"So what's on for today, Cayce?" Nick asked none too subtly. "Any 'meetings' we should know about?"

"No, and if by meeting you're referring to last night it wouldn't be any of your business anyway, Nicholas," she replied tartly.

"Cayce," Murray tried to soothe things over, "I'm sure the guys are just concerned."

"Sure they are," she agreed, "but their concern has a way of getting one of the three of us in trouble - if not all of us."

"How so?"

"Well, when I was sixteen they threatened the boy I was at a dance with. We were at Fort Sam and it was my first dance without Uncle Brian. Nick and Cody were among the MPs on duty that night and they thought the guy getting fresh." She glared at the two older men who looked a little uncomfortable.

"Did they tell you they almost wound up the stockade themselves for threatening him?" When the other two looked uncomfortable she continued,"I didn't think so." She grinned unexpectedly. "I bet they didn't tell you about the 'court of inquiry either"."

Murray shook his head.

"I complained to Uncle Brian about them and he called in a couple of his fellow officers - Majors Halloran and Tarbox. The guys got called into Uncle Brian's office to find three rather angry - or so it seemed to them at the time - superior officers wanting to know what they thought they were doing."

"What do you mean 'so it seemed'?" Nick demanded to know. "I've never seen the colonel so mad."

"Serves you right," Cayce shot back at him, "for sticking your nose in where it didn't belong!"

"We were only trying to help," Cody protested. "You were becoming very important to us by then and we wanted to make sure you were safe and treated right."

"And I told you that I could take care of myself," Cayce retorted.

Turning back to Bozinsky, she continued her story.

"Uncle Brian was furious. He trusted me to choose my dates wisely even back then. But these two - morons - decided I was too young and too naive to know what was good for me. They volunteered to chaperon the dance and scared away almost every boy who came near me. Only the meekest, mildest and shiest were allowed to get close." She glared at the older men again.

"Those ones couldn't dance, barely said more than two words at a time and blushed every time I so much as smiled at them. It was horrible! If I danced with Nick or Cody they wouldn't allow anyone to cut in on them but the girls could cut in on me."

"After the shy, awkward ones came the good looking but stupid boys," she said. "The ones who could talk about sports or themselves but knew nothing of History, current events, ranching or geography - or anything else for that matter. I turned seventeen just before they mustered out. The first school dance I attended they managed to sign on as chaperons and they watched every boy who approached me very carefully. I was positively mortified!"

"Aw, Cayce," Nick sighed. "We weren't that bad."

"No," Cody agreed, "and we were only looking out for you."

"Were you guarding me from the world or the world from me?" she wanted to know "Was that me, Cayce McKenna, your little sister or the major's little girl you were guarding?"

"That's not fair!" Cody protested. "We can't separate one from the other."

"Tell me more about this 'court of inquiry'", Boz said.

"Uncle Brian was sympathetic to my cause. He trusted me and told them to back off. The other two majors 'threatened' them with confinement and/or the most miserable details they could think of. It didn't stop them from meddling. For the next few months, until they were discharged they constantly showed up wherever my dates and I were. The boys found it easier to stop asking me out than to answer all the questions these two put to them."

"Guys! You didn't deliberately scare those kids did you?" Murray was aghast.

"Tony Mariani? Yeah. The kid was a tough guy who covered up by talking sweet to the parents," Nick said. "He dated Captain Wilson's oldest daughter until the captain found out about him beating up his last girlfriend."

"I never went out with Tony Mariani," Cayce stated as she picked up her glass of juice.

"That's because we found out he was interested," Nick said. "We had a little chat with him and he changed his mind."

"Would he be the one whose legs you threatened to break?" Boz asked.

"No, that was Colonel Feir's son, Tom," Cody told his partner.

"You threatened a colonel's son?"

"He was worse than the Mariani kid," Nick told him.

"Okay, I'll admit that Tom was a bit more than I wanted to deal with," Cayce conceded as she put her glass of orange juice down on the table. "He was a bully and a coward but I could have handled him myself. I didn't need these two knights in shining armor to rescue me."

Turning to the thin scientist she said, "Cody whisked me off to the seats on the side of the room near the refreshment table while Nick took Tom outside and threatened to break his legs if he tried anything funny again."

"Mrs. Feir wasn't very happy about it and she insisted that the MPs throw them in the stockade. They only got out when half a dozen witnesses told the Colonel that Tom's behavior had been inappropriate toward several other girls at other dances. Those girls were too afraid to say anything." She gave Cody and Nick a dirty look. "I was ready to flatten him - or at least bloody his nose for him when these two butted in. They didn't get released until two days later because Colonel Feir was on TDY, in Aberdeen, Maryland, the night of the dance. "

"Mrs. Feir was all for leaving them in the stockade indefinitely and pressing charges for assault. She never could see that Tom was nothing but trouble. She spoiled him rotten. Colonel Feir was much more reasonable."

Murray was torn between laughter at his partners' predicament and sympathy for the teen aged Cayce who was so outraged by her overly protective "brothers". He didn't dare look at Nick or Cody for fear he'd start laughing so he focused his attention on the young woman sitting next to him.

"So how long were they in the stockade for this?" he asked, pushing his glasses back up where they belonged from where they had fallen.

"As I said, they were in for two days - that time."

"'That time'? You mean they were in more than once?"

"Yeah," Cayce said.

"Uh, Boz don't you want to go do some bookkeeping for Cayce since the weather is so bad?" Cody tried to distract him from what he and Nick, both, knew was coming.

"Yeah, Murray, you know you always check to see how far behind she is and if the computer needs upgrading."

Cayce was not to be deterred.

"That time it was up to Colonel Feir. He's a pretty reasonable guy. The next time they were in the stockade I was the one who put them there."

"You!" Murray was shocked. "Why did you do it? What did they do?"

"It was, oh, about six months before they got out and they showed up at the movie theater, the restaurant and the park where my date and I had gone. Every time I turned around one, or the other, of them was watching every move I made. Even more importantly they were watching every move my date made."

"I got the last laugh on them, though," she grinned impudently. "I called the MPs and had them arrested for being peeping toms and I didn't tell Uncle Brian about it. When they didn't show up for duty the next morning he was livid!"

"You may think that's funny," Nick said, "but we didn't."

"I thought it was hysterical!" Cayce said. "They were right there all the time only nobody knew it. By the time they got around to even thinking about asking me they'd been in the stockade for almost twenty-four hours. Of course I had to drop the charges but not until Uncle Brian lectured me on my sense of humor. They got lectured on making pests of themselves by following me around and he threatened not to process their discharge papers."

She sighed, "It didn't stop them though. I'd get letters, and notes, telling me what to look out for and promises that they were going to come visit and make sure I was seeing the right kind of boy. They finally had to stop when I went off to college because, with the double major I was too busy to date much outside of group events."

"Now Cayce, we were never that bad," Cody chided her.

"Yes, you were," she told him, "and that's why I'm not telling you who I was out with last night." At their looks she told them, "Yes, I was on a date - but it was also a meeting and, no, I'm not telling you who he is. I've already warned him about you guys so you won't be finding out anything soon."

"Warned him? Warned him!" Nick was indignant and shocked. "What do you mean warned him?"

"I told him you'd threaten to beat him up, Cody would worm information out of him and Murray would find out everything he could about him by doing computer searches," he was told.

"That being said my office is off limits to you - in fact it's locked when I'm not in it. I'd better not find any signs of the lock being picked either or I may not invite you to go to the dance at the Double B this weekend. I may even tell you to go home and not come back for a long time."

For the rest of the day, Cayce closed herself off behind her office door catching up on her paperwork. She had checks to write for the normal utilities plus a few others for lumber, hay, grain and tack repairs. A couple of her magazines were due to be renewed and she needed to extend her subscriptions to the three newspapers she got on a regular basis.

By the time she was done Josefina had long since arrived and done the dishes and was in the middle of preparing a lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches - something she often did for her young employer when the weather was gray and gloomy and damp.

This time she was clucking to herself as she sensed the tension between Cayce and her hermanos - her brothers. She vowed to herself to get their relationship patched up because she could tell how miserable all four of them were. Well, the men were miserable. Cayce, she could sense, was aggravated with them for some reason.

After lunch was over the matronly Mexican woman cornered her employer and got the full story from her. They sat at the kitchen table while the men were visiting down at the bunkhouse with Cayce's foreman, Alex McGregor.

"So you see, mamacita, I can't trust them with the knowledge that Pete and I are seeing a lot of each other or they'll want to run a background check on him and talk to him to find out what his intentions are!" She sighed. "Pete and I are good friends and we enjoy each other's company. Where it will go from there we'll have to see but whatever we've got going won't last if Nick and Cody get to him. They'll scare him off even if I have warned him about them."

"I think you worry too much, chica," Josefina said. "They only do it because they care about you so don't be too mad at them."

"Well, maybe you're right. I'll let them go with me to the dance at the Double B - but if they make one move toward Pete that looks suspicious I'm gonna knock their heads off!"

Saturday night came, and with it the dance at the Double B. Cayce wore a denim skirt, a red, Western style shirt, and the boots she'd worn the other night. Having checked with her to find out what the dress code was the men were wearing jeans, denim shirts or casual sport shirts, plus the boots that Cayce had bought for them when they started visiting the Lazy M on a regular basis. None of them wore ties - Cayce told them it was a very informal affair.

The four of them, plus several of Cayce's hired men, piled into the big van belonging to the ranch and headed for the Double B where Brendan and Beth Mitchell were hosting a barbecue and dance for their neighbors on the surrounding ranches and from town.

The yard was ablaze with lights while a side of beef was suspended over the barbecue pit. One of the Double B hands - their cook - was in charge and had several of the younger men running hither and yon collecting firewood, barbecue sauce and keeping the youngsters away from the fire. The smell of that beef made everyone's mouth water.

The Mitchells greeted Cayce with kisses. They were quite fond of the spunky young woman who, in five years time, had kept the Lazy M as big a success as her grandfather had and added to the business as well with her barrel racing and training of racers. The Riptide detectives were greeted warmly as were Brian Hays, Frank Hardin and the others who had come along.

"The food smells wonderful!" Cayce exclaimed. "Is that old Sourdough doing the cooking?"

"Yes, it is," Brendan laughed. "You ought to know by now that he doesn't think anybody else can do as good a job when it comes to roasting a side of beef over the barbecue pit. The men give him a hard time about it but they really do enjoy his cooking."

"Yeah, I know," she said with twinkling eyes. "I think I'll go make some suggestions just to see what he says."

"Now Cayce," Barbara said, "don't you go harassing the cook. He's very temperamental you know."

"I would never 'harass' Sourdough, Cayce responded. "He's actually a very fine cook - he just has to be reminded that he's not the only one around that can roast a side of beef like that. I have a very capable cook as well. The two of them just love to brag on who's the better cook. It's usually wise to stay out of it."

Looking around she saw Pete Yarborough and a group of her friends from the area standing near the dance platform. A few of them had guitars, one had a banjo and another a harmonica. There was even a concertina in the hands of one of the boys.

"Does this mean what I think it does?" Cayce asked with a grin. "Are we going to get Four Legged Friend with Dave and Gene and Midnight?"

"We were thinking on it," the Mitchell's son Gene said. "It's always a big hit."

"Let me know what you decide," Cayce said. "Only Cody, here, has seen a dancing horse up 'til now." She indicated the blond who was nodding his head in the affirmative.

On a recent case, which Cayce had wound up quite involved in, Cody had seen a horse belonging to an acquaintance of Cayce's, dance while his owner played La Cucuaracha on the harmonica. It had been quite entertaining. Nick and Boz had been skeptical. Cayce was a great practical joker at times, and Cody liked to tease his partners, so they'd been just a bit suspicious.

"Come on, guys," Cayce implored, "it's a great way to loosen everybody up."

"Well, okay," Gene Mitchell said with a grin, "but it's on your head if my folks don't think it's funny."

"I'll go get Midnight," Dave Corcoran said and headed toward the small corral next to the barn.

"I'll go get everyone lined up for the show," Cayce said with a grin and went off, the Riptide detectives on her heels, to do just that.

Fifteen minutes later everyone was gathered in a large circle in the open area by the barn. A "medicine show" was set up with Dave acting as the medicine man and Gene, dressed as Roy Rogers had in Son of Paleface, was mounted on Midnight.

As Midnight pranced around Gene started singing.

"A four legged friend, a four legged friend

He'll never let you down.

He's honest and faithful right up to the end

That wonderful one-two-three-four legged friend."

"A woman's like cactus and cactus can hurt," at this point Gene guided Midnight over toward his parents and looked very serious, 'Cause she's just a tight waisted winky eyed flirt.

She'll soon have your land and your pride and your gold,

And bury you deep long before you grow old."

They moved away from the side of the group into the middle again and sang the chorus:

"A four legged friend, a four legged friend

He'll never let you down.

He's honest and faithful right up to the end

That wonderful one-two-three-four legged friend."

Cayce and all the other girls were giggling, the older women smiling and shaking their heads while a few of them men shouted out "you got that right brother".

"A two legged hombre is worthless as sand

He'll smile like a saint with a gun in his hand

He'll promise to stick by your side like a pal

But he'll also promise the same to your gal."

A roar went up from those assembled. Cody and Nick elbowed each other - anybody who knew them would understand that they'd been in competition over girls, let alone who had the most broken noses, for years.

"A four-legged friend, a four-legged friend,

He'll never let you down

He's honest and faithful right up to the end

That wonderful one-two-three-four legged friend"

As Midnight continued to prance Gene's pleasant baritone swung into the last verse and chorus.

"Who carries your burden, who carries your load

On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road

Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies

That four-legged friend with the two honest eyes.

A four-legged friend, a four legged friend

He'll never let you down

He's honest and faithful right up to the end

That wonderful one-two-three-four legged friend."

Dan put down the concertina he'd been playing and put the needle on a record that sat on the nearby stereo. A lively drum beat - Mexican in tone - came over the speakers and Gene soon had Midnight dancing around in the center of the circle. When they were through he had Midnight take a bow as the assembled party goers clapped and cheered.

As he dismounted one of the Double B hands came to take charge of Midnight and led him off to the barn to unsaddle, and groom him. Midnight would find himself rewarded with a couple of big, juicy carrots for his performance that night.

With the big gelding taken care of the son of the hosts took Cayce by the arm and led her to the dance floor. Cody and Nick stood on the sidelines watching briefly to see if there was any reason for them to be concerned. They needn't have worried. Gene was a perfect gentleman and he and Cayce were nothing more than very good friends. They relaxed for the moment.

After the band had played a few numbers the detectives decided to find dance partners for themselves. It was at this point that Cayce took the chance on dancing with Pete. She felt it would be safe enough now that she had danced with several others - the detectives weren't watching her as closely. They were wandering around the yard talking to their hosts and some of the other guests.

"Cayce looks like she's finally relaxing and having a good time," Barbara Mitchell said. "She was awfully wound up about something when you first got here."

"It doesn't take much to get her riled up some days," Nick muttered.

"What was that?" the small red haired woman asked.

"Nothing," Cody told her. "Nick talks to himself a lot lately. I'm sure it wasn't anything important," he said giving his partner a meaningful look.

The trio wandered away to get drinks. Here and there they heard snatches of conversation about the party, the weather, ranching and such. A few comments put them on the alert - both for trouble and for clues as to who their "sister" was seeing.

"Don't Peter Yarborough and Cayce McKenna make a lovely couple?" one woman said to the one standing next to her.

"Yes, they do," the other replied, "but Neil Remy doesn't look very happy. He's been trying to get a dance with Cayce all night but she refuses to have anything to do with him."

"He always was the jealous type," the first woman agreed. "Cayce's been wise to take up with Pete and stay away from Neil. She never did like him anyway."

The detectives exchanged looks. It sounded like Cayce might need their help, though she would deny it. Nick and Cody circled left and Murray mingled among the crowd to see what else they could find out about this Neil Remy and Pete Yarborough.

Something Cody and Nick would never learn, it seemed, was not to interfere in Cayce's social life. They knew she'd probably get mad but they were concerned about how much trouble this Remy guy was going to cause.

Five minutes later they met up again and decided they'd better have a talk with their host about the trouble that seemed to be brewing.

"Mr. Mitchell, could we speak with you for a moment?" Cody asked as they approached.

Brendan Mitchell turned from the friend he'd been speaking to in order to give these guests his full attention.

"What can I do for you gentlemen?" the rancher asked.

"We're hearing about some potential trouble," Cody explained. "Some guy by the name of Neil Remy is looking to start something because Cayce won't dance with him."

"Oh? Why does that not surprise me?" was the response they got. "Where is Cayce?"

"She's out on the dance floor with some fellow - a Pete Yarborough," Nick pointed her out.

"Yes, I see her and Pete," Mitchell said. "Now where is Neil? I'd like to speak to him and see if I can head off the trouble before it begins."

"Would that be him?" Murray asked pointing toward the dance floor - actually a platform set up just for the occasion.

"Uh-oh," Mitchell said as he hastened to try and head off the trouble he saw brewing.

Cayce was oblivious to the trouble that was brewing. From the time she'd stepped onto the dance floor with Gene she had not lacked for partners. Her adopted brothers had been unable to get anywhere near her as Gene, Dave, Keith Campion, Frank Hardin, several of the Double B hands - who weren't in the band and some of the young men from surrounding ranches and Sunny Acres itself all claimed her as their partner.

When she saw that the three detectives were occupied elsewhere she relaxed enough to agree to dance several dances with Pete. She was completely oblivious to the trouble that was brewing with Remy until the man showed up and tried to cut in.

"My turn, Yarborough," he said.

"Find your own girl," Pete told him. "Cayce's dancing with me."

"Go away, Neil," the young woman told him. "I'm not the least bit interested in dancing with you - now or ever." She turned her attention back to her dance partner.

Remy was not to be deterred by the young woman's words. He took her by the shoulder and pulled her around to face him.

"I said you're dancing with me now."

"She said she's not interested," Pete told him, "so go away and leave us to our dance."

Pete was normally as quiet young man little given to arguments or fisticuffs but he wasn't going to allow Neil Remy to just throw his weight around and get what he wanted. Remy was a bully who had a lot of the fellows, and girls , in the area buffaloed - but he wasn't one of them. He tried to free Cayce from Remy's grip on her wrist but the man simply pushed him away.

Pete saw red and tried again only to be pushed back again. On the other side of the large dance floor the Riptide detectives and their host, Brendan Mitchell, tried to reach the combatants before things got out of hand. They were too late. Pete Yarborough tried again to free Cayce only this time Remy released her with a shove and turned to face Pete head on. With one blow he smashed Pete's nose and proceeded to attempt to pound him into a pulp. Cayce jumped on his back and started pounding on him and pulling at his hair all the while yelling in his ear to knock it off and calling him a big bully.

Neil let off Pete long enough to shake Cayce off and shove her into the crowd that stood on the edge of the floor . She was saved from a fall by Cody who caught her as she started to go backward. Allen then put her in Murray's care and joined Nick who was trying, unsuccessfully, to break up the fight. Remy was determined to teach Pete a lesson for interfering. Nick was just as determined that the young man be spared any more of a beating than he had already gotten. It was obvious that Pete was well thought of and that Cayce liked him a lot. That alone, along with Remy's unnecessary and unwanted actions, was enough to make the Italian see red.

"Hey, fella, that's enough," he said pulling him off of Pete.

"Mind your own business!" Remy snarled.

"It is my business," Nick told him. "This young fella was dancing with my sister. That makes it my business."

"Cayce McKenna doesn't have any brothers," Remy said. "She's an only child."

"That's where you're wrong, Neil," Cayce said moving toward the combatants. "I have three brothers and they're all here. You're going to find out just how protective these two are," she indicated Cody who had come to stand next to her, "if you don't leave me and Pete alone."

"I'll do as I please, and no man will tell me 'no' because nobody around here's got the guts."

"Wrong. I have the guts," Nick told him, "and so does Cayce. Seems to me she told you 'no' as well."

"That little..." Remy cursed and called the young woman a vile name. He was about to find out what a mistake he had just made.

As Remy cursed, and swung at him, Nick ducked under the hay maker aimed at his head and landed one in Remy's oversized gut. The punch barely had an effect on the bully who swung again.

Nick wasn't so lucky this time - the blow bounced off his right temple and he saw stars. Cody saw it and immediately jumped into the fray in his partner's defense. Women screamed and ducked behind the men who weren't involved. Cayce struggled to free herself from Boz and Brendan Mitchell who were determined to keep her out of it.

Cody grabbed Remy's arm and swung him around to face him. His first punch barely grazed the man's jaw and almost immediately he found the bully's fist in his face.

"Uh-oh, there goes my nose again," he thought to himself.

Nick shook off the stars he was seeing and jumped into the fight. He was soon overwhelmed by some of Remy's friends who were determined to take over the party and help their pal. Cayce saw red and turned to the other men - especially the cowboys in the group.

"Are you going to just stand there and let them get away with that? Break it up!"

Her own employees, having just arrived on the scene, were the first ones to join the fight. Smokey Jim Kennelly, KC Campion and Brian Hays joined the Double B hands and several of the men from town in the effort to break up the fight. It took a little doing but peace was finally restored when Remy, and three of his pals, lay flat on their backs on the ground. All four were unconscious. The Lazy M and Double B hands were ready to go at it again if necessary but the fight had been taken out of Remy and his pals.

"Pete," Cayce took a wet towel somebody handed her and wiped the young man's face with it in an effort to bring him around.

The young man moaned and stirred. Brendan Mitchell and his son, Gene, helped Pete to sit up. Cayce mopped the blood off his face where his lips had been cut and there was another cut under his left eye.

"Pete? Can you hear me? Wake up." Cayce was worried.

"Cayce? What happened?" Pete was awake, but groggy.

"You tried to defend me from Neil Remy but you got clobbered by him instead," she explained.

"Oh, yeah, Neil."

Pete struggled to his feet with a little help from the Mitchell men. He stood unsteadily for a moment shaking his head in an attempt to clear it. For a moment it seemed to only make him dizzier than he already was but he soon recovered.

Looking down at Cayce who was a little shorter than he was, he asked, "Are you okay? Neil was pretty rough with you."

"I'm fine," she replied.

Taking him by the arm she led him to a seat at one of the picnic tables where she proceeded to finish cleaning him up. Cody was helped to a seat next to him where Barbara Mitchell took charge of him and several of the other combatants who had been bruised and/or bloodied up some.

Nick hovered nearby anxious to know how badly his best friend was hurt. Murray was drafted to help with the first aid - a chore he gladly took up. He cleaned up the scrapes on a couple of the combatants leaving the worst of them to Barbara's capable hands. In no time at all it was ascertained that, while Cody's nose had bled pretty well, it wasn't actually broken this time. It would be tender for a while and it was recommended that he keep icing it off and on for the next day or so.

Pete was hurt as badly as Cayce had feared either. He had a bruise on his forehead, a cut on his cheek under his left eye and his lips would be somewhat swollen for a few days but he came out of better than anyone had anticipated.

"Neil? Neil Remy, where are you?" a woman's shrill voice was heard.

The Shady Acres people looked at each other and rolled their eyes. The speaker was Neil's mother, Laura Remy - a shrew if ever there was one. As the first aid crew finished up their work Laura, a stout woman of about five-five and well over one hundred and fifty pounds came on the scene followed by a very tall, very slim man with thinning red hair - her husband, Charles.

"Neil! What happened to you? My poor baby!" she exclaimed when she saw her son's disheveled and bruised appearance.

"He got what he's been asking for for a long time," Gene Mitchell said.

"Whatever are you talking about? What happened?"

"He got rough with Cayce McKenna and Pete Yarborough took exception to it since they were dancing at the time - Pete and Cayce, that is," Gene told Mrs. Remy. "When he punched Pete Cayce jumped on him..."

"Cayce McKenna? You did this to my baby?"

"No, Mrs. Remy, I didn't but I wish I had. I'm a little tired of your son pushing me around and anyone else who's too small, or weak, to stand up to him." Cayce's eyes were green fire. "My friends, and a few of my employees, took exception to the way he was treating me and what he did to Pete so they settled with him and his three pals."

"He's not a baby," Brendan Mitchell told her. "He's a grown man - and spoiled rotten to boot. You've been told, over and over and over again that if you didn't discipline him something was going to happen." He paused to fix Mr. Remy with a dirty look. "Now it has. Neil tried to force Cayce to dance with him. When she refused he got rough with her. Pete took exception to that and tried to defend her. Your son would have beaten him - possibly to death - if Mr. Ryder and Mr. Allen, here, hadn't interfered."

"Why I never," Laura Remy was astonished.

"No, you never, that's why Neil is such a bully." Smokey Jim Kennelly spoke up. "If you'd taken the time to discipline him instead of always taking his side he might not be such a problem. But you spoiled him and browbeat your husband to the point where it's no wonder nobody wants anything to do with you. I'd say the Mitchells were mighty kind in inviting you here. If I were them, or Pete or Miss Cayce's uncle, I'd be looking to press charges for trespassing, assault, assault with intent to kill and harassment. However, if I know Miss Cayce, and I think I do, she won't press charges as long as Neil doesn't bother her any more - ever. Isn't that right Miss Cayce?"

All eyes, including those of the Riptide detectives were on the young woman. Nobody in attendance truly had a doubt as to what she would say.

"As long as Neil stays away from me - and my friends - I won't press charges this time. Next time he might not be so lucky." Turning toward Neil, who was now standing - and glowering - at those who held him tight she added, "The first thing I will do, if I feel threatened, is to get a restraining order against you. The second thing I do is press charges if you get within a hundred yards of me and, believe you me, Sergeant Ellsbury is just dying for an excuse to lock you up."

Neil, his parents and his friends all left the Double B a few minutes later. Barbara Mitchell had pity on Neil and tried to clean up his injuries but his mother insisted that she would take care of him at home. Fixing those present with a disdainful look she took her precious baby boy by the arm and led him away. Nobody was sorry to see them go.

The party broke up shortly after that. It was eleven o'clock and everybody who lived on a ranch or a farm nearby had to get home in order to get to bed before it was time to get up again.

"Thank you, Mr. Mitchell, Mrs. Mitchell, Gene," Cayce said. "I had a wonderful time until Neil came along. I'm awfully sorry for the trouble he caused."

"Nonsense!" Brendan Mitchell said. "You have nothing to be sorry about. It's like Smokey said - that boy's been spoiled from the get go. He got what he deserved."

"You just go on home and stop worrying about it," Barbara told the younger woman. "We'll see you soon."

The Riptide detectives, Lazy M hands, and the other guests all took their leave of the Mitchells as well.

"Thank you for allowing us to come with Cayce," Murray said. "It was a boss and bodacious affair - the fight notwithstanding."

"Any true friend of Cayce's is always welcome at the Double B," Brendan told him as they shook hands.

As they headed for the Lazy M's van Cayce looked over toward Pete and signed "call me". It didn't escape the detectives' notice and they - well the two older ones anyway - decided to try and get some information out of her about him.

"So Cayce," Nick said. "Who's this Pete guy?"

"A friend," she answered.

"You looked like a little more than just friends," Cody said. "Come on, give. Is he the guy you're dating?"

"None of your business," was the reply.

Seeing they weren't going to get anyting out of Cayce they started on Smokey, KC and Frank.

"What do you guys know about this Pete?" Nick asked Smokey.

"It's like Miss Cayce said," Smokey told him. "He's a friend. His dad owns a ranch."

"So are they a couple or what?" Cody wanted to know.

"Fellas, it could mean my job if I were to tell you what I know," Smokey told them. "We have a hard and fast rule not to discuss Miss Cayce's social life unless we think she's in danger. She's in no danger with Pete - right fellas?" he turned to his fellow Lazy M employees.

"That's right," Frank said. "I wouldn't dream of violating that rule - I value my job too much."

"That goes for me as well," KC said.

"That's right, guys," Cayce said. "They don't interfere in my social life and I don't interfere in theirs as long as it doesn't affect their work or the ranch."

Nick and Cody exchanged looks. There had to be some way to find out about this guy so they could make sure he was truly ok for Cayce to be seeing. All the way back to the Lazy M they tried to get at least Pete's last name out of them but everybody's lips were sealed.

During the half hour drive, back to the Lazy M, Cody and Nick tried everything to get Cayce, or one of the hands, to tell them who Pete was. They were unsuccessful. Murray tried to waran them that Cayce was going to blow her top but the warning fell on deaf ears. Cayce's two oldest brothers were in full flown "protective big brother" mode and they weren't about to back down.

Everything came to a head the following Friday night. Cayce had a date with Pete and she didn't keep it a secret - she had a plan and she had help to execute it. This was the night she was going to teach Nick and Cody a lesson!

At six o'clock that night she came out of her room and down the stairs dressed in tan chinos, a turquoise blouse with short sleeves and concho buttons. On her feet were a pair of brown loafers with tassels on them. Her hair was done up in a single braid and around her neck was the turquoise and sterling cross pendant that Brian McKenna's secretary had given her for her last birthday.

"Where are you off to tonight?" Cody inquired seeing her head for the door with her brown leather purse over her shoulder.

"That's none of your business, Cody," she told him point blank.

"Cayce! That's no way to talk," Murray was astounded that she would speak to his partner like that. He knew she adored both of them and had for a long time.

"If I want him to keep his nose out of my business it is," she responded as she went out the door.

"That pretty much guarantees that they'll follow me," she thought with a wicked grin.

Pete pulled up in his 1982 Dodge Power Wagon. Nick and Cody watched from the living room windows and got a pretty good look at the truck and its driver. All was going according to Cayce's plan.

"We have to follow them and make sure this guy is okay," Nick said to Cody.

"Yeah. Maybe we can finally find out who he is and what his intentions are," the blond agreed.

"Isn't it just possible," Murray asked, "that Cayce is capable of deciding for herself who she wants to see without your help?"

The other two looked at each other then back at their partner.


"You guys are impossible! I won't try to stop you," Murray said, "but I'm not going with you either. You're going to embarass Cayce and I won't have any part of it!"

The others just rolled their eyes and headed out the door. They got into the Jimmy and soon were only a couple of cars behind the young couple.

"Are they behind us?" Pete asked Cayce.

"Yup. They fell for it hook, line and sinker just like I figured they would. Those two are going to be very sorry they got me mad."

"Where's Gene going to meet us?"

"He's waiting at Oak Grove. He's riding Midnight and he's dressed in black. They'll never see him."

"You really are sneaky," Pete laughed.

"It's high time those two learned that I'm a big girl now and I can take care of myself," she huffed. "Neil Remy is one thing - I wasn't disappointed that they stepped in but when I'm out with you, or Gene or one of the other guys I don't need them hanging around messing things up and embarassing me while asking a hundred questions of the guy I'm with about what his intentions are."

"Well, after tonight you shouldn't have to worry," Pete grinned. "Too bad we can't throw in the headless horseman."

"Nah. They had a bit of a scare with a faceless intruder once," she explained. "It was back when somebody tried to convince them that the Riptide was cursed. I don't think a headless horseman would spook them enough. The idea isn't to spook them - just to teach them a lesson."

"We're almost there," the young man said. "Are they still behind us?"

"Yes, now pull into the grove and put your lights out. I guarantee they'll be on us in about two minutess - just as soon as you start to put your arm around me," she told him. "Just remember, nothing's going to happen to you but they're going to get an earful and have a long walk back to the Lazy M to think about what they did."

A quarter of a mile later, Pete pulled into the grove of oak trees, put the truck into park and turned off the lights. A small beam of light, from a penlight, flashed at them twice. Gene was in place and ready to do what they wanted. With an effort, Cayce pulled herself together and stopped giggling at the thought ot what was in store for the two men who had followed her and Pete.

As Nick and Cody watched from the Jimmy, Pete leaned toward Cayce as if to pull her into his arms. That was all they had to see. They bailed out of the little truck and approached the young couple. Nick approached from the passenger side while Cody reached for the door on the driver's side.

"All right, you two, that's enough," Cody said as he pulled Pete out of the truck rather roughly.

Nick reached up and put his arms around Cayce's waist and lowered her to the ground against her protests.

"Let go of me, Nick Ryder!" she exclaimed. "And you, Cody Allen, you let go of Pete! I'm ashamed of both of you!"

"You're ashamed!" Nick was incredulous. "You're out here in the middle of nowhere with a guy - by yourself where anything could happen - and you're ashamed of us?"

"Cayce, what would the colonel say?" Cody asked her referring to the uncle that had raised her.

"He'd say I'm old enough to know what I'm doing, that I know how to manage the men I see and he'd trust me to know when to put the brakes on my date's behavior - even if I had to punch him out. That's what he'd say."

She stalked away from them and leaned on the driver's door of the Jimmy. While Nick and Cody were busy giving Pete the third degree she took the key from the ignition. When she had safely deposited Cody's key ring in her pocket she walked back over to the Power Wagon. Behind them, Gene Mitchell silently eased himself out of the shadows and over to the Jimmy where he quickly, efficiently and noiselessly let the air out of all four tires and the spare. When he was through he went back into the trees as silently as he'd left them a few moments earlier.

"You guys have got to stop treating me like a little girl," she said. "I'm not a silly teenybopper and I never was. It's time you stopped interfering in my social life."

Turning to Cody, alone, she said, "I would think you'd learned your lesson when Uncle Brian told you to knock it off but apparently not."

As she climbed into the Dodge truck she saw Gene's signal with the penlight that he had completed his mission. She grinned and turned back toward Nick and Cody.

"We're leaving now. We're going to the movies or for a drive or something. I don't know exactly when I'll be home." She pulled her door shut as Pete, now free from the grilling he'd received, climbed into the driver's seat. "Don't wait up for me boys. I'll see you in the morning - whenever you decide to crawl out of bed. Just remember breakfast is at six. If you're not there when Josefina puts it on the table you'll have to get your own. Bye."

With that Pete put the truck into gear and the two of them left the detectives eating their dust. It didn't take long before they pulled over in a clump of trees to watch the fun as Cayce put it.

"Do you get the impression that this might not have been such a good idea?" Cody asked Nick. "I think Cayce's really mad."

"She'll get over it. It's for her own good," Nick replied as they climbed got into the Jimmy.

"Hey! Where's the key?" Cody asked.

"How would I know?" Nick responded. "Didn't you leave it in the ignition?"

"I thought I did," the blond said as he searched his pockets - including that of his blue hooded sweatshirt. "I can't find it."

"Maybe you dropped it on the ground," Nick suggested. "We were in a bit of a hurry."


The two of them got out and started searching the ground with a flashlight. There was no sign of the key anywhere. As they started back to the truck it suddenly dawned on them that the vehicle didn't look quite right. Shining the flashlight on the tires they soon realized what the problem was - or so they thought.

"Great! Not only is my key missing," Cody said, "the front left tire is flat."

"Not just the front left," Nick told him. "All of them are flat."

"What?" Cody was stunned. He took a closer look at his truck and started to reach for the spare.

"Don't bother," Nick told him. "It's flat, too."

A minute later Cayce and Pete heard Cody yell, "Cayce! What'd you do with the key and why are my tires flat? I know you can hear me. This has all the earmarks of one of your little tricks."

The only answer was the sound of Pete's truck pulling out of its hiding place and heading back toward Sunny Acres where he and Cayce had dinner and went to a movie before he took her home.

"Where are Cody and Nick?" Murray asked as Cayce entered the house a couple of hours later.

"I imagine they've started walking by now," Cayce said and told him everything.

Murray took her jacket and hung it up for her, smiling at the thought that this "sister" of theirs had so completely put one over on his partners. It wouldn't hurt them to walk and it might teach them a lesson. He'd tried to tell them that it wasn't a good idea to interfere with Cayce's date but they hadn't listened. Now they were "paying the piper" as the saying went.

He followed Cayce up the stairs and went to the room he was staying in. He got into his pajamas, read some more in the Mark Twain book Innocents Abroad, then turned the light out and tried to go to sleep.

It was a weary pair of dusty, sweaty and subdued men that arrived back at the Lazy M in the wee hours of the next morning. The front door was unlocked and the porch light had been left on for them. Even the normally easy going Cody swore when he found his key ring hanging on some twine from the nail in the door where Cayce's door decorations always hung.

Quietly entering the ranch house the two men climbed the stairs to the guest room they were sharing. Thoroughly chastised, and completely exhausted from the long walk, the two of them simply fell on their beds and were instantly asleep.

Murray relaxed and went back to sleep when he heard them come in, smiling to himself that his partners, - well meaning though they may have been - had been taught a lesson about treating Cayce like a child who needed constant supevision of who she saw.

"That'll teach them not to mess around in my social life," Cayce whispered to her Australian sheep dog, Rusty, who had gone on the alert when he heard the men coming up the driveway. "It'll be a long time before they interfere again." She grinned, "I can't wait to tell Uncle Brian about this."