"Nell, Little Nell, where are you?"
Nell Cantrell stirred from a half sleep and jumped to her feet. "I'm coming, Mama." Without bothering to find her slippers or put on her robe, she raced across the hall.
Sarah Cantrell sat on the side of the bed with her hands folded in her lap. Her long cotton gown opened at the neck revealing a wide expanse of sagging cleavage. Her once lovely auburn hair, now dull and lackluster, hung in limp strands down her back. As Nell approached, she questioned, "Where have you been?"
The heat in the room was oppressive. "I was in bed, Mama." A candle burned on the nightstand beside Sarah's bed alerting Nell to a new danger. She must remove all matches and candles from her mother's room immediately. Sitting beside the older woman, Nell stared into her vacant eyes. "Lie down, I'll raise a window."
Sarah ignored her daughter's command. "Where is John? I want John."
How did a dutiful daughter convince her mother that the man who had always been there for her in the past was gone and would not--could not--return? She drew the frail woman into her arms. "Would you like me to sit with you until you fall asleep again?"
Sarah pulled from Nell's embrace. "I can't sleep without John beside me."
As Nell attempted to coax her mother into bed, Richard came through the open door. He was barefoot and wearing only a pair of tight pants. His chest expanded as he drew a deep breath. "I heard Mama call." His heated gaze scanned Nell from head to foot. "Go to your room and put on some clothes."
Nell blushed as an emotion she couldn't catalogue quickened her pulses. Through her growing up years Richard had been not only her brother but her champion and her protector. She had always adored him. Over the past few months that adoration had taken on an aspect she was reluctant to own. "I'm not a child. Don't treat me like one."
Richard strode across the room, stood beside the bed and stared down at her. Perspiration beaded his upper lip as his gaze heated. "That's obvious. Get to your room and put on a robe."
Since John's death six months ago, Sarah had declined rapidly, both mentally and physically. The more ill and disoriented she became, the more she clung to her only daughter. Nell protested, "I'm the only one who can cope with Mama when she's like this."
Richard replied, "No one can cope with Mama when she's like this."
His arrogance ignited Nell's anger. Standing, she faced him. He was so near she could feel heat emanating from his body. A new and disturbing sensation replaced her anger. "Richard?" she questioned on a caught breath.
"Oh, God." Richard closed his eyes and opened them again before sweeping Nell into his arms and resting his chin on her head. "My own sweet Little Nell." His lips brushed her cheek.
Nell's response was immediate and incandescent. She twined her arms around his neck and pressed her breasts into his bare chest as a bevy of conflicting emotions swamped her.
Richard put his hand under her chin and lifted her face until he was staring into her eyes. "My sweet torment." Slowly, his lips descended to cover hers in a seductive kiss. After a few moments, he pushed his tongue into her mouth and swept it around in a conquering gesture.
Nell caught fire! She returned his kiss with fervor that both shamed and surprised her.
Richard pressed his hardness into the cavity between her legs. "Nell, Nell, yes, yes!"
David's voice calling from the doorway was enough to cause Richard to break the embrace and step back. "What are you doing here?"
David's face was a thundercloud. "The question is: what are you doing?" He shifted his gaze to Nell. "Get to your room now!"
Sarah began to cry, pitiful little whimpers that filled the humid room. "I want John. Where is John?"
Nell sat on the side of the bed and put her arms around her mother's shoulders. "It's all right, Mama, don't cry."
Sarah clung to her and whimpered, "Nell, my sweet little girl, don't leave me again, ever."
David came to sit on the other side of his mother. "Lie down, Mama, and I'll tell you a story about Papa."
Sara lay down and closed her eyes. "Yes. I want to hear a story about Papa."
David began, "Once upon a time..." He motioned for Nell and Richard to leave the room.
Nell protested, "But Mamma..."
David nodded toward the door, signaling she should go. The fierce look on his face argued for obedience. In a gentle, sing-song voice he continued, "There was a handsome farmer who fell in love with a pretty little school teacher..."
As Richard caught the doorknob, David stopped his narration to say, "Nell's your sister. In the future remember that and act accordingly."
Without bothering to respond, Richard slammed out the door and sped down the hall. As his footsteps died away, David said to Nell. "Tomorrow I will drive you over to Reverend Norman's house. Sister Norman can explain..." he faltered before his voice rallied, "the facts of life to you."
Nell liked kindly, meek Reverend Sidney Norman. She didn't care for his wife. "I can't leave Mama or my household duties to go anywhere. You shouldn't leave either. Richard can't do chores, plow, ride fences and care for Mama."
David placed his finger over his lips as Sarah drifted off to sleep. Standing, he tiptoed across the room, took Nell's arm and guided her into the hall. Once outside, he closed the door. "Sunday morning after church services, there is to be a meeting of The Cattlemen's Association in the church auditorium. I will ask Sister Naomi to speak with you then."
It was not like David to be so dictatorial. "I don't need to speak to Naomi Norman about anything."
David's brow knitted. "How far has this thing between you and Richard gone?"
Guilt made Nell defensive. "What are you implying?"
"I'm not implying; I'm not blaming." This was a man obviously wrestling with intense emotions. "Papa is gone; Mama is becoming more incorrigible with each passing day. We've lost stock because of fence cutters. Nesters' sheep have gotten into the north range and eaten the grass so low that our cows have nothing to feed on. We must be on constant alert lest rustlers take the cattle we have left, or marauding gangs of outlaws murder us in our beds." He paused for a moment before adding, "Must I now also cope with this unhealthy attraction between you and Richard?"
One of Nell's earliest recollections was being punished for using what her father referred to as vulgar language. It had been years since she'd uttered an obscenity. "You insulting son-of-a-bitch." Before the words were out of her mouth she repented of having said them. "I didn't mean that."
David cringed. "I meant no offense to you either, dear sister. Richard is the guilty party. Just because he can have any female who catches his eye doesn't mean he should extend his conquests to his sister."
From what Nell understood, it was the other way around, women pursued Richard. She could understand why. He was the handsomest, most virile man she knew. A little too strenuously she objected, "Richard has never made improper advances toward me."
"That doesn't mean he doesn't want to."
If desire equaled guilt, Nell was culpable, too. "You're worrying needlessly."
David persisted, "Will you talk with Sister Norman?"
Reluctantly, Nell agreed. "If that's what it takes to ease your mind, yes, I will."
Through the remainder of the week, Nell was careful to avoid being alone with Richard. She succeeded until late Saturday afternoon. She was in the backyard drawing water from the well when he came from the barn to stand by her side. "I'll carry that for you." The muscles in his arms and shoulders rippled as he lifted a bucket in each hand and moved toward the kitchen door.
Nell hurried to stay up with him. "David thinks I should talk to Sister Norman tomorrow after church. He is the moderator of the Farmers' Alliance meeting. Can you manage Mama for an hour or so?"
Richard stopped, set the buckets on the ground and turned to stare at her with his eyes blazing blue fire. "David thinks?" he questioned on a sneer. Picking up the buckets, he took long strides toward the back door. "David should mind his own business."
Nell held the back door open. "Will you look after Mama while I talk to Sister Norman?"
Richard stepped inside the house. "I can manage Mama." He set the buckets on the wash stand before turning to face Nell. "Don't attach too much importance to what Naomi Norman says. She's not the saint she'd have the world believe."
That seemed a harsh assessment; Nell suspected that it was also an accurate one. Richard's nearness made it difficult for her to concentrate. "I--yes, I'll remember."
Richard took a step in her direction, "Nell, I..."
"Our pasture fence has been cut," David announced as he burst through the back door, "and several head of cattle are missing." His suspicious glance moved from Nell to Richard. "Charlie and I mended the fence, but we couldn't find the cattle."
Richard's handsome features hardened. "I don't know which is worse a band of Rustlers or a bunch of damn sheep herders."
David shook his head. "I'm not so sure it was rustlers. They usually take the unbranded calves and leave the rest. It could have been nesters. Those sheep men don't want the cows; they want to destroy the herd."
Nell's heart lurched. A confrontation between the newly-arrived sheep herders and the old-settler cattle raisers loomed before her like some dark cloud of doom. "Did you notify Sheriff Simmons?"
David replied, "I will report the incident to him tomorrow when we go into Sweetwater."
Richard hooted. "That won't bring our cattle back or stop these damn sheep herders. We're going to have to do that ourselves."
David argued, not too convincingly, saying, "We can't take the law into our own hands."
Richard shot back, "What law?"
Nell hurried from the room. The sound of arguing voices followed her down the hall and into Mama's bedroom.
Sarah Cantrell lay on her bed with a pillow tucked under her shoulders and her eyes closed. When Nell came into the room she opened them to stare at the ceiling. "What are those two arguing about now?"
Nell sat on the side of the bed. "It's nothing, Mama. Are you ready to come to the kitchen for supper?"
Sarah turned on her side. "They have always been at odds, those two." She sat on the other side of the bed and slipped her feet into her slippers. "I can understand why. Richard is stubborn and passionate and determined and David has always been so placid and composed and easily swayed."
How accurately she had assessed her sons. Nell was learning to cope with her mother's madness. This burst of keen perception left her feeling disturbed and unsure. "They will work things out, Mama; They're brothers."
Sarah shook her head as she stood. "Brothers make the worst enemies."
Nell took her mother's arm. Was there anything more pathetic than wisdom tainted with lunacy? "It's time for supper. Are you hungry?"
Sarah clung to her daughter. "Where is John?"
Nell had long ago given up trying to explain that her father was dead. "He's gone."
Sarah clung to Nell's arm. "I miss him." Her grip tightened. "You aren't going to leave me again, are you?"
"No, Mamma, I won't leave you, not ever." Nell patted her mother's hand. "I made corn meal mush for supper."
As she led Sarah into the kitchen, David came to stand on the other side of his mother. "Let me help you to the table."
Richard stood in a far corner with his arms folded across his chest. As the others gathered around the table, he announced, "I've found another ranch hand to take Charlie's place."
David sat beside his mother and looked around the table. "I'll miss Charlie; he's been here a long time. But I can understand why he wants to retire and go north to live with his daughter." He filled his mother's bowl with corn meal mush and dropped a blob of butter on the top. "I hope this new hand is as dependable as old Charlie has always been." Pouring milk over the mush, he put a spoon in his mother's hand. "Eat your supper, Mamma."
Richard sat in a chair across from his brother. "I'll miss Charlie, too, but I'm glad he's going. He's too near sighted to shoot straight and too old to fight. I've hired someone who can handle a gun and knows how to use his fists."
David argued, "I hope you aren't thinking of engaging a gunfighter to be our new hired hand."
Richard replied, "I already have."
David said emphatically, "Then un-hire him."
Richard's eyes narrowed dangerously. "I'm not asking your permission, little brother, I'm telling you. I hired Dennis O'Quinn. That's the way it is and that's the way it will stay."
David bolted to his feet. "Are you insane? Dennis O'Quinn is a renegade and a gun slinger. I wouldn't trust him in a mile of Nell and Mamma." He struck the table with his fist. "I forbid you to bring that man on this place."
Sarah twisted her hands together and pitched her voice to a screech. "John, John, come quickly. The boys are quarreling again."
Nell sat beside her mother and put her arm around Sara's frail shoulders. "It's all right, Mamma." She rounded on her brothers. "Stop it, both of you."
David sat down and apologized. "I'm sorry, Mamma." He addressed Richard, "We will settle this later."
Richard's jaw tightened. It was the only outward sign of his inward agitation. In a voice smooth as silk, he replied, "It is settled."
That was a lie, Nell thought as she urged her mother to finish her meal. The matter of hiring Dennis O'Quinn was far from over. Ultimately Richard would prevail; she had no doubt of that. He was more aggressive than David and more volatile, too. In the end, David would relent, just as he always had before. The air was heavy with animosity. Nell stood and helped Sarah to her feet. "Come along, Mamma, it's your bed time."