W hen Randolph Baxter opened the door, the sun was rising over the henhouse and General Lee—Rand's prized old English black-breasted red game rooster—was sitting on the back fence preening. Seeing the door open, General Lee ruffled his breast feathers, then stretched his neck, letting go with a loud crow. He was just flapping his wings and readying himself for another majestic blast when Rand stepped off the porch.
"Go do your squawking somewhere else," Rand said, picking up a couple of rocks and throwing them at the rooster. General Lee squawked, his mighty attempt to fly ending with an absurdly awkward landing that left the air teeming with feathers that slowly floated to the ground.
"I came outside to get a little peace and quiet, and I aim to see I get it," Rand said, not feeling the least bit sorry about scolding the old rooster. Normally General Lee and his pompous ways didn't bother Rand, but this morning was different. This morning all hell was breaking loose inside the house, and Randolph had reached his limit.
He crossed the yard and went behind an old toolshed, prying away a loose board and pulling out a pouch of tobacco and stuffing it in his shirt pocket. Two tabby cats, one yellow and one gray, wandered around the corner of the shed, pausing to watch. Rand ignored the cats as he meandered on down toward the creek to sit a spell and have himself a smoke while he contemplated. The cats followed. As he walked, Rand was talking to himself—not really asking himself any questions, mind you, but just laying everything out in front of him, like a woman would pin a pattern to a length of fabric before she started to cut.
"On the one hand," he would say, then he would mumble a few words, then pause, scratching his chin while he thought things through. Apparently satisfied, he would start up again, taking a few more steps before he would say, "But on the other hand," then he would pause again, his hand going to his chin. Over and over it went, starts and stops, until Castor and Pollux, the barn cats, lost interest and turned away. Presently Rand mumbled something about the whole thing not making any sense, then continued down the path.
The grass was still damp and the air carried the heavy sweetness of woodbine and the early spring roses that rambled along the fence. All in all, it was as splendid a spring morning as one could wish for, and Randolph Baxter had many blessings to count: a beautiful and loving wife, a fine spread, a good crop of spring calves, and more money in the First National Bank of Fort Worth than he could shake a stick at.
But it wasn't his blessings that Rand was thinking of this fine morning as he hunkered over his cigarette, it was sin. Or, more rightly, the sins of his fathers, because he was convinced he had some ancestor or other to blame for all his tribulations—those trying experiences in his life that severely tested and strained his powers of endurance. Rand was a fair man, and he believed in giving credit where credit was due or placing the blame where it rightly belonged ... and after years of soul-searching he came to blame some forefather with stirring up a little of God's wrath—and credited this ancestor with having had enough sense to die before he could be punished for it. And that left Rand to pay for someone else's mistakes.
Why else had he been blessed with nine daughters, he wondered as he filled a blanket—a Texas term for rolling a cigarette. He wasn't begrudging God the nine daughters so much as the fact that there hadn't been one son to sort of balance things out. Nine daughters ... it took a rich man to raise nine daughters—and a patient one at that. Why, the house alone had to be huge to contain all those bedrooms, and the rooms themselves had to be cavernous just to accommodate all those doodads women had a fondness for, not to mention all those infernal petticoats. No, it just didn't seem right. He was paying for someone else's sins, sure as shootin'.
But he couldn't think of any sin dastardly enough that would require nine daughters to wipe the slate clean. He prayed he could hold up until he was all daughtered out and the last one was married. Rand frowned, thinking of his youngest daughter, Jenny—the one who was now causing all the trouble and worry. That one might be around for a while.
He watched a lazy old mud cat making circles in the water as he thought about his little Jennifer—perhaps a twenty-one-year-old woman couldn't really be considered little anymore—but his mind kept going back to her, the way she was when she was knee-high to a grasshopper and one of the dearest things in life to him.
And she was still one of the dearest things in his life, but now she was grown and had a mind of her own. And it wasn't always in line with Rand's way of thinking. He flipped his smoke into the creek and closed his eyes, recalling a delicate little face and an abundance of long hair as thick and straight and black as an Indian's, and skin as fair and white as lamb's-lettuce when it bloomed. And her eyes! He wondered how anyone could ever forget Jennifer's eyes—those remarkable, odd-colored eyes of hers. The color of cornflowers, they were, looking more lavender than blue, and so big that they didn't seem to belong on such a tiny face.
No one had ever been able to figure out, exactly, just where those eyes had come from, and how it was that one so small could have eyes that seemed to speak with such expression, you weren't sure if you were privy to her thoughts or simply gaining a little insight to your own.
He remembered the way she had looked early one morning when he'd just come out of the house—she couldn't have been more than five—waiting for him on the front steps, a little bisque doll in starched blue calico sitting primly with her hands folded upon her white apron, her face radiant as she turned the full light of her eyes upon him.
"Good morning, Papa. Where are you going?"
And Rand had answered that he was going "down to the creek for a spell." He shook his head, remembering the way Jenny popped up like a cork and followed him down the steps. "I'll come with you," she had said. Rand, wanting to sneak a smoke, had just opened his mouth to send her on her way when Jenny thrust her hands into her apron pockets and said, "But you don't need to go to the shed for your makings 'cause I have them right here," and pulled his tobacco pouch out of her pocket.
Rand never did find out how Jenny had discovered his hiding place. It was just another one of those mysteries she held in the shining depths of her eyes. But it had become a ritual after that: Jenny waiting for him every morning and slipping her soft little hand into his, the tobacco pouch in her pocket, as they ambled on down to the creek, him telling her how he never did want her to grow up, and Jenny promising him she never would.
But she had grown up and gone away to college, and Rand had never experienced pain like that before. Even now he would sometimes forget that she was a woman grown, out of college, and on her own, and he would find himself coming out of the house in the early morning, looking at that spot on the first step as if he expected to find her waiting there.
But Jenny was gone and Rand felt the pain of it wedge its way into his consciousness. Jenny. His little girl. His ninth daughter.
And he had been through nine kinds of hell since she had sent that telegram last week from Brownsville:
SCHOOL TERM ENDED. STOP. OFF TO MEXICO. STOP. NO SCHOOL THERE. STOP. WILL ESTABLISH. STOP. BE BACK WHEN DONE. STOP.
Rand had fired off a telegram of his own:
OVER MY DEAD BODY. STOP. YOUR MOTHER DISTRAUGHT. STOP. NEED YOU HERE. STOP. WITHIN TWO WEEKS. STOP. EXPECT COMPLIANCE. STOP.
And he had received this answer back:
TELEGRAM NOT DELIVERED. STOP. MISS BAXTER IN MEXICO. STOP.
Rand decided to wire Jennifer's Aunt Winny, who lived near his daughter in Brownsville, and who thankfully was not his sister but his wife Susanna's. He sent the following message:
NEED YOUR HELP. STOP. JENNY IN MEXICO. STOP. SEND LOCATION. STOP. WANT HER HOME.
This was the reply:
JENNY GROWN WOMAN. STOP. MAKES OWN DECISIONS. STOP. MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. STOP. I'LL MIND MINE. STOP.
And that had made Rand furious. "If I ever lay eyes on that scrawny-necked, carrot-headed, shrew of a sister of yours I'll throttle her with my bare hands," he'd said when he'd returned home and showed the telegram to Susanna.
Susanna had immediately started crying, and Rand felt like a fool for making it harder on her. Susanna was as iron-willed, determined, and independent as any woman he'd ever seen, but when it came to their daughters, she was as soft as goose down. And all this business about Jenny's going off to Mexico had her off her feed and nervous as all get-out. And that made it harder on Rand, who was worried enough about Jenny, without adding his concern about Susanna to the pile. Well he knew the kinds of things that could happen to an American woman going into Mexico alone, and one as rich and beautiful as his Jenny would bring every pistolero and bandido out of hiding to jump at the chance to kidnap her and hold her for ransom, slaking his lust during the interim.
Randolph Baxter was worried sick about his beautiful, headstrong daughter, but for his family's sake he kept it to himself. If Susanna ever got wind that Rand was as concerned about Jenny's well-being as he was, she would have to be placed under a doctor's care. Rand had almost lost Susanna years ago, when their baby daughter died. The next time he might not be so lucky. Whatever it took, no matter how much he was bleeding on the inside, he would never let Susanna know the situation was as grave as it was.
An hour or so later Rand wedged the pouch of tobacco back behind the loose board, tapping it into place, and headed toward the barn. He had just finished exercising his horse, Shiloh, and feeding his hounds and was standing in front of the barn talking to one of the hands when he saw a hack coming down the road in a powerful hurry, hitting every pothole and leaving a trail of dust that settled over the new green sprouts in the cornfield. Rand paused, scratching his chin and watching the hack pull up in front of the gate. Then more trouble descended—four women, wagging and clucking, until the front door opened and Susanna let out a loud wail and flew down the steps, followed by three more wailing women coming out of the house behind her.
While Susanna rushed down the walk and enfolded the four women in her arms, Rand just stood there, watching his wife of thirty-five years and seven of his nine daughters making a spectacle of themselves in the front yard. It was times like this that made Rand just a little happy that Heddy, his eighth daughter, had run off with that penniless cowhand last winter. At least she was in Colorado, and not likely to come all that distance just to join her mother and sisters in making fools of themselves in the front yard. As far as Rand was concerned, all this carrying on about the latest calamity in Jenny's life was about as helpful as throwing a saddle on a dead horse.
Knowing there wasn't any way around it, Rand braced himself and headed toward the house. When he paused at the parlor door, his eldest, Abbey, was speaking rather thickly to her mother through a mouthful of sponge cake. Rand might have known it would be Abbey. She was a wrangler by nature, with the demeanor of an army sergeant; always electing herself straw boss and herding everyone together and shouting orders.
"When did Papa get word that Jenny went to Mexico?" he heard her ask.
Susanna was anxiously twisting the gold wedding bank on her finger, her flaming red curls poking from her lace-and-ribbon cap. "Just last week. And I sent those telegrams to you girls straightaway."
Rand was watching Abbey as she cranked up again, wondering how long it would be before she said she was "speechless." Of course, she never was, but it seemed to be a favorite expression of hers.
"Jenny never mentioned going to Mexico in any of her letters, never gave any indication she was developing any interest in starting a school there?" asked Abbey.
"No," said Susanna.
"She didn't? Well, I don't have to tell you, I am speechless. Simply speechless."
"If only you would stay that way," said Rand, ambling on into the room. "I've never seen anyone that could talk in such a steady stream." He looked at Susanna. "We should've named her Flo."
"Papa," Faith said, "remember what the Good Book says about casting stones."
"Faith, just because you married a minister doesn't mean you have to preach like one. Abbey talks too much, and that's a fact ... you couldn't get a word in edgewise around her if you folded it."
Susanna was frowning at him. "I wish you wouldn't go on about Abbey like that. If anyone heard you, they'd think she didn't have a lick of sense. You know yourself that Dr. Brewmeister said verbosity was a sign of intelligence. And the fact that she speaks four languages proves it."
"Yes, and she can't hold her tongue in any of them."
"Ridicule and anger is not the way to store up treasures in heaven," said Faith.
"I've got more treasure stored than I'll ever need, plus a bonus for raising nine daughters."
"Humph!" snorted Abbey. "More than you'll need, my eye! You don't have enough to make the down payment on a harp."
Susanna intervened once more. "Abbey, stop arguing with your father. You can't both have the last word."
"The only thing that could have the last word around him is an echo," Abbey said with a sour pucker.
Rand looked around the room. It was beyond him just why Susanna wanted to be surrounded by all her daughters at a time like this, when their presence, in his opinion, only compounded the problem. All they wanted to do was talk about the horrors that could befall Jenny. And that would worry Susanna into an early grave. He had to find some distraction or do something to lighten the mood a little. And that in itself was hard, for every time Rand thought about Jenny, his own heart twisted painfully and he got something in his eye.
"Do you think she was kidnapped?" Abbey was asking her mother.
"I would rather you didn't mention kidnapping to me just yet, I don't believe I want to think about that right now." A crease was tucked between Susanna's brow, her lips tightly held as she wondered just how things had gotten so far off-track with this youngest daughter of hers. She simply didn't know what to think of Jenny anymore. Jennifer had always been just a little smarter, a little quicker, a little prettier, and a little more headstrong than the eight sisters preceding her.
She had always been just a little more trouble too.
Ignoring her mother's distracted look, Abbey said, "Jenny has disappeared. It seems to me that this is the perfect time to mention kidnapping. Surely you haven't ruled it out as a possibility."
Rand's eyes narrowed with disapproval. "Here now, don't be bringing up something else for your mother to worry about," he said, rounding on Abbey. His words had some effect, for a somber silence settled over the room. Susanna closed her eyes, remembering Jenny's telegram, wonder- ing if it could have been sent by someone else, someone who had kidnapped her and wanted to throw them off the track until they had her hidden safely away. But then she remembered the way the telegram had been worded—exactly the way Jenny would have said something like that. And that was probably because Jenny had said it. And her mother was sure of it. Besides, Susanna's sister, Winny, had always adored Jenny, often saying Jenny was the child she'd never had.
If Jenny had disappeared suddenly, Winny would have notified them. By her telling Rand to mind his own business, she was saying she knew all about Jenny's plans to start a school in Mexico. Not only knew—if Susanna knew her sister at all, Winny probably approved ... wholeheartedly. Sometimes Jennifer acted more like she was Winny's daughter than her own, at least judging from the out-of-the-ordinary kinds of things she did.
"No," Susanna said emphatically. "Jenny went into Mexico of her own free will. She was not kidnapped."
Abbey dusted the crumbs out of the rocking chair and sat down. "Mother, did you wire Heddy?"
"Yes, of course, but Walt wired us back saying Heddy was going to have a baby come fall, so of course she couldn't make the trip."
"A baby! I'm simply speechless."
Rand started to respond to that but saw Abbey had her eye on him like she was about to fire some question at him. "Papa, what have you done about Jenny's situation?" she asked.
"Jennifer got herself into this mess. She can get herself out," Rand said, pouring himself a cup of coffee and going for the sugar bowl. Then he noticed how his words had affected Susanna. "Della, help your mother sponge that coffee off her dress. Susanna, stop your caterwauling. You know I can't stand to see you cry. No, I wasn't serious. Of course I'll help her. Yes, I remember she's the baby ... and how sick she was that winter we lost little Irene." And how you came near to dying with influenza and grief yourself.... "I also remember she's a grown woman, twenty-one years old ... and that she can cause more trouble than a Comanche war party."
"Something she got from your side of the family," Susanna interjected.
"It wasn't me that put those fool ideas in her head. I tried my damnedest to get her to go to TCU, like all the other girls. Mt. Holyoke, my eye! We were yoked, all right, but I'm not sure how holy it was. And before you ask how I can talk like this, I'll just remind you that our prissy Miss Jennifer Leigh should've bounced her bustle back home after she finished college, gotten married, and had herself a couple of kids, instead of going on down to Brownsville to live with that rattle-headed sister of yours and starting up that damn near worthless school ... trying to teach a bunch of bean eaters to read in a language they can't even speak. That's our Jenny—forever putting carts before horses. Always has to have a cause, our little Jenny does. Can't meet some respectable man and get married like the other girls did. Come to think upon it, Jenny never would do anything any of the other girls did. Always had to have it her way, forever going just a little beyond what would be considered normal."
"Randolph Baxter, how can you talk like that about your own daughter?" Susanna wailed.
"Because it's true! The girl has a mind like a teakettle—always steamed up about something."
Rand saw Susanna purse her lips as if she'd taken a bite out of a lemon, and cross her arms over her chest, as she did whenever she was in a sulk, and that just egged him on. "Whatever has happened with Jenny, you can bet your bottom dollar your crazy sister had something to do with it," he said.
"Winny is not crazy," Susanna shouted. "You only say that because she's my sister."
"My love, I say that simply because it's a fact. The old biddy is crazy as a loon."
"She's eccentric, Randolph. There's a difference."
"She may be eccentric, but she's still crazy, and I might as well point out here that ..." Rand paused, catching himself just in time. He had been about to say he held Winny responsible if anything happened to Jenny, a comment Susanna would have collapsed at the merest mention of. Smoothly Rand changed his words to "... I hold Winny personally responsible for half the foolish notions Jennifer gets into that lovely head of hers ... this sashay into Mexico included."
"Randolph Baxter, how can you possibly blame Winny?"
"Did Winny act the least bit concerned after I sent her that telegram?"
Susanna looked a little put out. "No."
"Did she tell us where Jennifer was?"
"Did she tell us not to worry, that Jennifer was perfectly safe?"
"Did she reassure us in any way?"
"Do you think Winny knew Jennifer was planning this trip into Mexico?"
"Do you think Winny approved, that if she hadn't she would have stopped Jennifer herself or wired us?"
"Do you think Winny knows exactly where Jennifer is and precisely how to contact her?"
"Do you think Winny is worried about Jenny, or concerned that something might go wrong?"
"Do you still wonder how I can possibly blame Winny?"
"No, but she's still my sister."
"A fact I have often questioned," Rand said, about to continue in this vein when Esther cut in.
"Mother, I don't think you should have trusted Aunt Winny to keep an eye on Jenny."
"Right," said Clara. "Who's going to keep an eye on Aunt Winny while she's supposedly keeping an eye on Jennifer?"
"Any woman who gets herself thrown out of a court of law—four times!—for disrupting a trial, shouting obscenities at the judge, and dumping his water glass over his head when she didn't agree with the verdict isn't competent to look after anyone, herself included," Della put in.
"I personally don't understand how Jenny can spend five minutes in the same room with Aunt Winny," Gwen said.
"Neither do I," Rand replied. "Neither do I."
"Please," Abbey said. "You were having this same argument about Aunt Winny before I even knew what crazy and eccentric meant ... and that's been for at least twenty-five years. As far as I'm concerned, Aunt Winny may be the only sane person in this entire family. At least she had enough sense not to get married and pass the idiocy in this family on to future generations."
There appeared to be a great deal of wisdom in those words, Rand thought, but Beth must've disagreed because she spoke up. "Well, Jennifer isn't married, and look what a pickle she's in ... hauled off to God knows where. Now, let's get some direction and discuss this sensibly."
"Beth is right, said Della. "Papa, just what have you done?"
"Besides ridicule and poke fun at me," Abbey added.
"Anyone who did that would be a pure fool," Rand said.
Faith gasped. "It's in the Scriptures that anyone who calls another a fool is in danger of hellfire."
"Then Papa ought to be getting awfully warm," Gwen said, laughing.
"Humph! You couldn't warm him up if you cremated him," Abbey said.
"Papa, I asked you what you've done," said Beth.
"Well, let's see. I've tallied all my accounts and exercised Shiloh, and fed the hounds—"
"Papa, will you be serious? I'm talking about our little Jenny."
Rand's expression turned penitent. "I know you are, Puss, and I'm not trying to make light of a serious situation. But with all the facts laid out before me, there are two things that keep reassuring me that things may not be as bad as they seem."
"And what are they?" Beth asked.
"Your Aunt Winny's attitude, which we have already discussed, but I will have to say that I do believe that Winny loves Jennifer more than she does all of us put together, and for that reason alone she would have contacted us if she thought Jenny was in danger."
"If she's competent enough to form a sound judgment," Abbey said.
"That's one of the negatives," Rand said.
"What's the second reason you mentioned?" Gwen asked.
"I guess I have to say I still have a little faith in Jenny's judgment. Even if she acts the part at times, Jenny's no fool ... that is, she's no marblehead," Rand replied, his eyes going over to Faith, who smiled and nodded. "The worst part of all of this is the unknown. It's pure, living hell not knowing just what it is that Jennifer is up to and where she is."
"Well, then, we need to set about finding her. Have you done anything about that?" Abbey asked, looking at Rand. "Are you going to find her?"
Rand looked thoughtful. "It's a difficult thing to know how to handle. On the one hand, Jenny is a grown woman, and has always been independent. How do we respect that, yet ease our own minds a little? You know how she has her own ideas about the way things should be, and resents like hell any interference, interruption, or distraction from what she's about."
"And this is a good time to point out that part of the reason Jennifer has always been so headstrong and independent has been your fault," Susanna said.
And Rand had to admit she was right. He had to accept some of the blame for Jenny's wildness. He had spoiled the little imp. Unable to bring himself to call to task a child as utterly adorable as Jenny had been, Rand had to admit he had allowed her to roam the countryside, swim naked as a sunfish in the water trough, and observe a lot more of Mother Nature at work than he probably should have. He guessed it was simply because he had always felt just a little sorry for someone as exceptional as his little Jenny, having to be born a female at a time when that carried a certain penalty with it. He had wanted to give her sure footing. He had no idea she would take off like she'd been fired from a cannon.
Another glance told Rand his brood was still waiting for his answer. "I spent all day Friday with the sheriff in Fort Worth, and we decided the best thing to do was to hire the best gun we could find to locate Jennifer."
"And then what?" Abbey asked. "Shoot her?"
"I was thinking about extrication."
"Why don't you just go after her yourself?"
"Because I don't know where to start looking."
Susanna looked at Abbey. "What your father is trying to say," she said, "is that he couldn't track a bleeding buffalo through eight feet of snow."
"Finding Jenny may be a hell of a lot easier than convincing her to come home," Rand said. "I've never had much luck getting Jenny to see anything my way."
"Maybe not, but you've sure had more success than anyone else I can think of," Della said.
"Have you located someone for the job?" Beth asked.
"Yes," said Rand.
"Has he already started looking for her?"
"He's coming here first so I can fill him in on the details, give him the telegram, and show him a picture of Jenny."
"When will he be here?" Gwen asked.
"I'm hoping this week; certainly no later than next Friday."
"He's not wanted by the law, is he?" Della asked in a quiet voice.
Rand laughed. "No," he said.
"What's so funny about asking if he's wanted by the law?" Clara asked.
"Because he is the law ... a United States deputy marshal."
"How did you find him?" Gwen asked.
"Through an old friend of mine, a fellow I went through college with named Parker. He's a judge now, in Fort Smith, Arkansas ... Indian territory. I wired Isaac when Sheriff Busbee couldn't think of anyone he knew personally to recommend or whom he would trust to bring Jenny back."
"Do you know anything about this deputy?"
"Nothing more than what Isaac said in his telegram. Said he comes from a fine Southern family ... graduated from the naval academy. Had quite a promising career as a naval officer, from what I understand."
"Had?" Della asked.
"How is it that a naval officer is hiring himself out as a gunslinger?" Abbey wanted to know. "And where did he get his reputation with a gun?"
"Lord! I don't know everything about the man. My information came by wire and is sketchy at best. I would imagine he resigned his commission."
"You don't know why?" asked Gwen.
"No. Maybe he got fed up with politics or discovered he gets seasick. Hell! I'm not writing a book about him. As long as Isaac says he's the best he's ever seen and faster than greased lightning with a gun, it's good enough for me."
"Is he married?"
"I don't know. I would be inclined to think not. Most lawmen aren't. A man like that, courting death on a daily basis, doesn't need a woman at home weighing on his mind, holding him back, interfering with his decisions."
"Couldn't he get here sooner?" asked Beth.
"No. Isaac did say he'd send him as soon as he returned ... something about him tracking Belle and Sam Starr."
"He must be good if he's going after Belle Starr," Abbey said.
"Does this gunslinger have a name?" asked Faith, scooting to the edge of her chair.
"I went to finishing school with a Julia Culhane from Atlanta," Susanna said. "I wonder if it's the same family. Do you know if he's from the Atlanta Culhanes?"
"How in the hell should I know?" Rand said. "Hon- estly, Susanna, sometimes you can ask the most irrelevant questions."
"Irrelevant to you, perhaps, but I was wondering about his family background. After all, this man is going to spend weeks traveling alone with Jennifer, and we both know what kind of effect Jenny has upon men."
"Yes," said Rand. "She intimidates the hell out of half of them. The other half would like to throttle her."
"Jenny is an exceptionally beautiful woman," Susanna said.
"And a lonely lawman like that is in a perfect situation to be influenced by a woman's dedicated love," said Della.
"Influenced by a woman's dedicated love, my eye!" Rand snorted. "A woman's love is about as dedicated as the morning dew. It's just as apt to fall on a horse turd as a rose."
Nobly Susanna refrained from adding that she had passed up many a rose to marry the notorious Randolph Franklin Baxter III.
"Oh, wonderful, now we have something else to worry about—an unknown gunslinger with a reputation going after our sister.... "I just don't know which is worse," Clara said skeptically. "Not knowing where Jenny is or worrying about a man like that going after her."
"We could hire someone else," Faith offered after a few minutes.
"We'll do nothing of the sort," contested Susanna, springing to her feet and drumming her nails on the piano. At least we won't do anything until this Mr. Culhane arrives."
"I can't see what difference that would make," said Gwen.
"It probably won't make any difference at all," Susanna said, and then she added, "But I find it's much better to be looked over than to be overlooked."
"Good God," Rand said, "are we hiring a man to find Jenny or buying a horse? You don't have to count his teeth. Why pick the man to pieces? He is experienced at this sort of thing, spends his life finding people who don't want to be found. And he's deadly with a gun. Sheriff Busbee said he'd heard Culhane could shoot the tapes off a woman's drawers at fifty paces."
"That's what we're afraid of," said Della.
"Look," Rand said, "I told you he comes highly recommended by an old friend of mine. A man I've known for a long time. A man I trust. If you can come up with something better, I'd like to hear what it is."
"There's no reason to get all out of snuff, Papa," Abbey said. "We're just thinking about what would be best for Jenny."
"And you think I'm not?" Rand shouted, forgetting his determination to keep things on a light note. "I've got more damn worries about Jenny than I can count on both hands, but being concerned about what might happen to her in the hands of a U.S. deputy marshal sure as hell isn't one of them. And I'll tell you something else. I'll stop worrying about her the minute this man gets his hands on her. I almost feel sorry for him! He may be a gunslinger. He may be hard as nails. He may know how to handle a woman as mean as a snake ... a woman like Belle Starr. But I'll wager half this ranch and every penny I've got in the bank in Fort Worth that he's never, ever come across the likes of Jenny. The poor fool will earn every penny I'm giving him before it's all over."
Rand stopped and stared at his wife as she said, "There is no point in remaining in the same room with a man who would rather vent his spleen than sensibly discuss something as serious as the disappearance of his daughter." Then she turned and walked regally from the room.
A puzzled frown gathered on Rand's face. He was trying to understand his wife. He had lived with her for over half his life, loving and living, raising nine daughters, but sometimes he felt like he didn't know her at all. His horse he knew. And his hounds too. But Susanna? It was a sad thing to admit—that a man was better acquainted with his horse and dogs than he was with his wife.
He turned to his daughters, "And for your information," he said to them, "I hope and pray this man teaches that sister of yours a lesson she won't ever forget."
Then Rand watched in silence as seven of his daughters rose as dramatically as their mother and filed out of the room in a correspondingly imperial manner.