"Alyssa, your mother couldn't tell you. I made her swear not to tell you and she has kept her promise to me at a great cost to herself," Esther patted Ruth's shoulder, "Dear sister, you really must allow me to finish the story. Please."

"What right did you have to keep it from me? Aunt Esther, what are you so ashamed of? I don't understand why you had to keep it secret. I spent my whole life wondering who I was and where I came from. I have always wanted to know my family. Do you really think I would've looked down on you?" snapped Allie.

"I should hope not! We are not ashamed of our parents. They were wonderful people and we loved them very much," replied Esther.

"Ms. Thorpe, maybe you should continue the story," interjected Heyes. He wanted to get to the heart of the matter soon. What were the dangers here?

Esther nodded at him. Her opinion of him was improving. His concern for Allie was evident and she found herself touched by his gentle support of her niece. Both of these men surprised her. They were notorious criminals, but it was obvious that they were also kind and decent in many respects. Her Papa had looked to the world like a gambler and a wastrel, but that wasn't who he was to them. To Ruth and Esther, he had been the most wonderful man in the world. She had to give these two outlaws the benefit of the doubt. After all, they had brought Alyssa safely home.

"Yes, Mr. Heyes, I believe that our reasons for keeping secrets will become clear," she said. "We were contented with the Matthews. They had always been kind to us when Papa was alive and that kindness deepened into love as time went on. We used to call them Uncle Paul and Aunt Margaret. It was Uncle Paul who gave Ruth her first set of watercolors. She had always loved drawing ever since she was a child. She would use a small piece of coal to sketch funny pictures of the people we met and the things we saw on the sides of our wagon. I remember how Papa would proudly display her 'art' until the weather washed it away. Once Ruth had colors, and all the paper she could desire, there was no stopping her. She painted constantly. It was almost an obsession and soon Uncle Paul began to display her art in the store. Customers took notice and it wasn't long before she was earning a comfortable living from her paintings and starting to make a name for herself."

Allie knew her mother had painted; there were several lovely watercolors displayed in their home, but she could not remember actually seeing her mother in the process of painting. "Why did you stop, Mother?"

"She was unhappy, that's why, and it was my fault that she was so unhappy," said Esther sadly.

"Esther, please don't take that guilt on, there's already plenty of other things we have to be guilty of," said Ruth, "Please get on with the story. It's time to get it all out in the open."

"Yes, it is," agreed Esther. "As time went on, and we grew older, we settled into our new lives. We made new friends and started to enjoy social activities. Our circle of acquaintances expanded. Ruth was quite a beauty by that time, and had many suitors, but she wasn't interested in a conventional life; she wanted a career as a painter. I couldn't understand it at all. All I wanted was for someone to love me and to have a home of my very own. I became slightly jealous of the attention my sister received, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, I evolved into quite the flirt; desperate to steal some of the limelight. It was all harmless fun until I flirted with the wrong man. I still remember the night I met Jack Slade. It was at my friend Marilyn's house. Her parents were having a party and Ruth and I had been invited along with Uncle Paul and Aunt Margaret. They had rented a band and there was dancing. Mrs. Grimwold had taught us to dance, but I had never partnered with a man before, and I was having so much fun. When the band announced the last song, I felt a hand grip my elbow and I found the handsomest man I had ever seen looming over me. He introduced himself and said he had been waiting all night for a dance with me and he wouldn't take no for an answer. I felt my heart jump into my throat and I mumbled some inane response as he swept me onto the dance floor." Esther's face was glowing at the memory.

"Like our Mama, with Esther, it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, Jack Slade was incapable of loving anyone but himself. I only wish I had been old enough to realize what was going on," said Ruth.

Heyes and Kid looked at each other sharply, they both knew that name. Jack Slade was a very important man in Denver; and, a very dangerous man. Heyes's mind was racing now and he was starting to understand what was happening here.

"What was going on?" asked Allie, naively.

"Jack and Esther disappeared before the party had ended. We looked everywhere. Aunt Margaret and Uncle Paul became frantic when they realize that she had gone off with Jack. They understood what was happening, but I did not. Jack Slade had a reputation. He was a married man with a taste for young, inexperienced girls. A predator in all senses of the word," said Ruth, "and Esther was his prey."

"I was such a fool. He was so charming, so sophisticated, and he told me he had fallen madly in love with me. I was stupid enough to believe him," Esther bowed her head in shame.

"Esther returned home several days later; confused and heartbroken that Jack had left her in a seedy hotel room. The Matthews were furious. Not at Esther. They understood she was a victim, but Uncle Paul wanted to go after Jack. Aunt Margaret begged him not to, and finally convinced him that it was better not to let on what had happened as it would have ruined Esther," Ruth took both of Allie's hands and held them tightly. "When Esther came to me several months later and told me that she was with child, I knew that I had to help her. She had saved my life and now it was my turn to save hers. Allie, please forgive me."

Allie was confused by her mother's words, but Heyes had already seen where the conversation was going and he slipped an arm about Allie, drawing her closer. She had still not realized what her aunt and mother were getting at. Kid, too, understood, and he came over to stand next to Allie and Heyes. Esther began to cry again.

"It was easy to do. The best plans always are. I simply accepted one of the many proposals I had recently had and married a man I didn't love. Albert had been crazy about me and had quickly agreed to a speedy wedding, completely believing that I couldn't wait to wed him. People marry for many different reasons and mine was definitely a marriage of convenience as far as I was concerned. What a mess I made," tears were streaming down Ruth's face.

Allie was crying now, too. Heyes felt her shoulders go rigid with understanding and he quickly gathered her into his arms as she broke down. She was sobbing hard and clinging to fistfuls of his shirt. Kid scowled at the two sisters. He was angry to see Allie so distressed and he directed his ire at them. Both women understood the pain they were inflicting on the child they loved. Patiently, they waited until Allie cried out her agony and began to calm down. She sat up and wiped her eyes. Heyes kissed her forehead gently and whispered in her ear, "We can go. Just say the word and I'll get you out of here and you'll never have to come back." She touched his cheek and looked at Jed.

"No, I need to hear the rest. So many things are making sense now. I need to know more," she said. Allie faced her mother and her aunt. She was so hurt and angry that she spat, "Is this why you never loved me, Mother? Or, perhaps, I should say Aunt Ruth? I spent my whole life trying to be what you wanted me to be, but it was never enough, was it? It could never be enough, because I'm not really yours. I'm just some chore you took on to help out your sister."

"Alyssa, don't you dare speak to your mother that way!" cried Esther. Ruth took her sister's hand and shushed her.

"That's just the point, isn't it? She's not my mother at all," screamed Allie, jumping to her feet. Ruth stood up, too.

"I am your mother in every sense of the word except one. I'm the one who walked the floors at night when you were a colicky baby. I changed your diapers and nursed you through your childhood illnesses. I'm the one who stayed awake at night worrying about how to keep a roof over our heads while my husband was out spending our money on every whore in town," yelled Ruth.

"You never loved me!" accused Allie.

"You are the only thing I have ever really loved in my whole miserable life!" cried Ruth.

Esther grabbed Allie's arm roughly and swung her about. Heyes stood up and took a step towards the sisters, but the Kid reached out and grabbed his shoulder, squeezing it tightly to stop his partner from interfering. Heyes glanced at his cousin, his eyes flashing with anger, but the Kid shook his head.

"Your mother gave up everything for you. Don't you see that? Stop acting like a hurt child and try to think like an adult. She gave up her career and married a man she didn't want to give you a family; something I couldn't do," admonished Esther.

"Why couldn't you do it? Why didn't you want me?" wailed Allie, "You should have kept me and moved somewhere new. You could have pretended to be a widow. Lots of women do. Why didn't you keep me? You are just as bad as she is. No, you are worse! You showered me with love and it was all a lie."

"I wanted to keep you! It was all I wanted, but your father wanted to kill you and, if he had found you, he would have!" screamed Esther. Allie reared back in shock and Heyes froze at attention.

"W…what?" sputtered Allie.

"Your father, Mr. Slade, was a married man, and he was also a horrible human being. He had ambitions and fathering a bastard child was not one of them. When he learned that Esther was expecting, he insisted she get rid of the child. When she refused, he threatened her life. There have always been rumors about Jack Slade. That he worked both sides of the law, that his money came from less than legal sources; but, we didn't know that at the time, we didn't understand how truly depraved he was. An attempt was made on Esther's life. It was meant to look like an accident, but we knew that it was anything but. That's when I knew I had to step in. I sent Esther to a convent in San Francisco and I accepted Albert's proposal. Jack Slade was furious that she had disappeared and he spent years trying to find her. Uncle Paul and Aunt Margaret were led to believe that poor Esther was striking out to make a life for herself. They had no idea she was with child. We lied to everyone we loved.

I thought it would be easy to pass you off as my mine. My wedding night was an unmitigated disaster. I had been so terrified at the prospect of being with a man, let alone with a man I barely knew, that I am amazed Albert managed to consummate the marriage. Every time he touched me, I thought of that filthy man pawing at me. Albert tried to be patient with me, thinking that I would come around, but as time went on, I still couldn't stand to be…intimate. I simply announced that I was pregnant and my doctor had advised me to avoid relations due to possible complications. Albert was so thrilled about becoming a father that he never thought twice about it. I was quite clever about faking my pregnancy and he didn't discover it was all a lie until my time had nearly come. He insisted on being at the delivery. He was adamant about it and I knew then that all was lost. I finally confessed to him what I was up to. It was awful; he was completely destroyed by the deception and stormed out of the house, vowing to divorce me. I had broken the heart of a kind man and I hated myself for it, but I had to be practical, too. My sister was more important. Esther had sent word to me that you had been born and I had no time. I told Aunt Margaret and Uncle Paul that I was going to see a specialist that my doctor had recommended for the delivery. They knew that it was a complicated pregnancy and they never questioned that there were problems and I needed be under the supervision of a specialist. No one questioned it. I left without saying goodbye to poor Albert, coward that I was.

When I returned a month later, I had a new baby daughter. Albert was waiting for me. He was still angry, but he said that he still loved me, and he wanted to try to make a go of our marriage. I was so grateful that he was willing to forgive me, that I agreed. If only I had realized that you can't build a life based on lies. I tried to be a good wife, and although I found intimate relations repugnant, I tolerated them for his sake. Albert was a good man and he tried to be a good father to you. Then, after several years of trying, I became pregnant with Albert's child and he was delighted. I think that was when I started to believe that I could fall in love with my husband."

"Ruth, darling, let me tell her the rest," said Esther. It was painful for her to witness Ruth's confession.

"No. I need to be the one to tell her," said Ruth firmly. "I lost the baby and then I lost two more. The last time was particularly bad and our doctor told us that we had to stop trying or I could die. I was so sick that Esther came back to Denver to care for me. By that time, Jack Slade had given up on finding her. He had no idea that his daughter was right under his nose.

You were only five when Esther moved in with us and you fell instantly in love with your real mother. It was a terrible time for me. Albert despised Esther. He blamed her for all our troubles and, may the good Lord forgive me, I was jealous of the bond I saw growing between my beloved sister and my daughter. I was losing everything.

I became severely depressed and that only made things worse between Albert and me. He withdrew from me as though I had betrayed him all over again by my failure to give him a child. He began to frequent Mattie Silk's bordello and I was humiliated. He was there because of me and I knew it. When he was home, we studiously avoided each other. I spent most days in bed; too heartbroken to get up. It was awful for Esther, too. She knew that Albert didn't want her there and she knew that I needed her, so she stayed.

She had begun to become interested in the Woman's Suffrage Movement while she was in San Francisco, and she started attending gatherings here in Denver to fill her time. Albert hated it. He already felt victimized by a woman, and the last thing he wanted was to hear about women asserting themselves. They had horrible fights over it all and I would hide in my bedroom pretending not to know. When he discovered that Esther was teaching you her militant ideas, he drew the line. Esther was thrown out of our home and I did nothing to stop it. I wanted you all to myself, Allie; only I was too damaged to know how to be a good mother again."

Allie was stunned by her mother's tale. She'd had no idea about the miscarriages. As she had grown older, she had begun to realize that her parents didn't love each other and had eventually known her father wasn't faithful, but she had always thought it was because her mother was frigid. She had blamed Ruth for a lack of emotion. She had not known what her mother had suffered through. Yes, she was angry at the deception, but she could accept that it had been necessary. She took her mother's hand. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were only a child. How could I do that to you and would you have understood if I had? I doubt of would have been capable of telling you; I felt as though I was made of glass and the slightest blow would break me into a million pieces. My life was in shambles. My husband had deserted me, and deservedly so. My sister was gone, and I had wanted her to go because I was so afraid she was stealing you from me. You were angry that we had sent her away and you lashed out at me every chance you got. I had ruined all of our lives. Everything I loved and hoped for was gone. I wanted to die."

"Oh, Mother," cried Allie, throwing her arms about Ruth. She had only ever wanted her mother to love her and Ruth had all along. Allie had simply been too young to know that the coldness she felt from her parents wasn't directed at her. They were suffering themselves, but like children often do, she had thought that somehow her mother's withdrawal was her own fault. She had tried to make up for it by being the obedient daughter she had assumed her mother desired; when only thing her mother really desired was to be forgiven. An overwhelming sadness swept over her and blew away her remaining resentments. It was painful to learn that her life had been an illusion, but she now knew that her aunt and her mother had loved her so much that they had sacrificed their own futures to provide for her.

"Is Allie's father coming for her?" asked Heyes. Every eye in the room turned towards him, surprised by the abrupt question. He knew a lot about Jack Slade and he wanted to be ready.

"Yes, I believe he is. At first, I thought the detective who showed up at my house had been hired by Bill Decker's lawyers. They had sent letters to Alyssa, but I returned them unopened. I didn't know where she was and I didn't want to let on that she was gone. When that awful man came to my door he implied that he was there about the estate. I contacted the lawyers myself, but they denied hiring him. That's when I began to suspect Jack Slade." Ruth turned to Allie again, "You are Mr. Decker's only heir. The lawyers want to settle the estate."

"There is no estate, Mother. Heyes stole all of Bill's money because Bill tried to have him murdered," explained Allie. Esther gasped in shock, but Ruth smiled.

"Bravo, Heyes. The man deserved it. But, dear, you are wrong. After Mr. Decker died, the cattle were sold to pay his debts. The ranch is free and clear and it is, also, yours," said Ruth.

"I don't want it. I don't want anything to do with that loathsome man," said Allie.

"Then sell it. Take the money and do something good with it. Give it away to someone who needs it. A very wise woman once gave me some similar advice," said Heyes.

"Seems to me, there's a lot of other things for us to worry about right now," said the Kid. "I want to know more about Slade and what you think he's up to."

"We need to take care of Jack Slade once and for all," stated Esther.