There were only two trees in Two Trees, Texas, and both were in Miss Charlotte Butterworth's front yard.
That was probably why a wild bunch of cowboys rode in a dust cloud into her yard and picked the larger of the two elm trees as the place to hang Walker Reed. When the dust settled, there were six men in all—five to administer justice, one to receive it.
And it was such a nice yard, too—fastidiously kept, just like the white frame house it surrounded. The respectable-looking one-story dwelling had a rather sleepy aura about it late that afternoon just as the sun was sinking behind the elms and dappling the shrubs and flowers that drooped in the heat.
Behind the house was a sparse little garden braving the intense heat. There, too, everything was neat and orderly: two rows of okra, two of black-eyed peas, one of yellow squash, and, farther over, along the fence, trailing vines of tomatoes.
Inside the neat clapboard house, Charlotte Butterworth, whom everyone in Two Trees affectionately called Miss Lottie, was in her kitchen, checking the progress of a vinegar pie baking in the oven of her brand-new Champion Monitor six-hole stove.
The sudden pounding of hoofbeats mingling with the deep boom of voices coming from the road in front of her house startled her, and she slammed the door on her new Monitor harder than she had intended. She was immediately thankful that she had decided on the vinegar pie instead of the Robert E. Lee cake, which surely would have fallen flatter than a flitter when the oven door slammed.
The sound of shouting drew closer. It was probably those rowdy Mason boys chasing another scrawny coyote and trying to corner the terrified animal inside her fence, just as they had done last week. The week before that it had been a half-starved rabbit. A woman living along had to maintain a constant vigil or find herself taken advantage of. That, and the need to protect her flowers from being trampled again, caused Charlotte to drop the two pot holders she was holding into the proper drawer and close it with her hip. Then she dusted the flour from the front of her white apron, overlooking the smudges on her nose, and headed for her parlor.
Removing her spectacles, because she never let anyone see her in her spectacles, she marched with authority to her front windows and peeped discreetly—because she had been taught that a lady always peeped with discretion—through the only lace curtains in the whole county to see what all the ruckus was.
Her gaze crossed the planking of the wide front porch, going over the trailing coils of Carolina jasmine tangled in the porch rails and winding around gimcracks, to see five mounted cowboys from the Triple K Ranch. Just as she had feared, they were trampling her snapdragon bed. That brought a sputter of outrage to her lips, but before she could act on her sputtering outrage, she saw that wasn't all they were doing. They were securing a lariat to the sturdiest branch of her prized elm tree.
That in itself was bad enough, but, to her horror, Charlotte Butterworth discovered—locking her eyes on the lariat looped over her tree and following it backward—that there was a most displeased, if not downright unhappy, stranger attached to the other end.
"Dear Lord," she whispered, "they're going to hang the poor man." It suddenly occurred to her just where they were going to hang him. "In my tree!" she said, as if not believing it herself.
Her mind teeming with thoughts about what was going to occur in her front yard, Charlotte stared, white-faced, at the man's dark hair. Even from her window she could see it was matted with what looked to be blood and caked with sand. His clothes—what was left of them—were torn, and his blood was seeping through a dozen rips. It looked as if he had been tied behind a horse and dragged for some distance. It was quite obvious he hadn't come willingly, but what was one man against five?
She saw that his hands were bleeding and raw and tied behind his back. With heart-quickening alarm, she watched as his fingers clenched and unclenched, the muscles in his arms straining until the blood vessels stood out prominently.
But it was the stranger's face that held her attention, and she watched him for a long moment, absorbing the masculine beauty of his bronzed face with its high cheekbones gleaming with sweat. From the side, his nose was straight, his chin strong and powerful. When his horse danced nervously at the rope hanging along its flank, the stranger turned, and Charlotte saw his eyes were a deep, dark blue, chilling in their intensity and hard with determination. In spite of his impassive and aloof expression, she had the feeling his pride was hurt. It struck her immediately that the man looked ruthless, defiant, and quite capable of violence. Yet, there was an aura of integrity about him. He might be many things, but surely a criminal was not one of them. Something in the proud carriage of his jaw, the way he did not grovel and beg or speak one word to save himself—all proclaimed his innocence.
Charlotte was reminded of another time and another place when she had watched in horror as someone innocent had been murdered. Only that time she had been a child, and unable to help.
Charlotte Augusta Butterworth stood watching from behind her lace curtains, her blue eyes fixed on the stranger. A pain thrummed in her head, and there was a thickening lump in her throat where her hand rested.
She had never seen a man hang.
And she wasn't about to see one hang today, either—not if she had anything to say about it. After all, that was her tree they were using, and she had a right to decide if it was going to keep on being a shade tree or become a hanging tree.
Charlotte had easily recognized the cowboys as Triple K hands, led by old Clyde Kennedy's youngest son, Spooner. She also recognized quite easily that the cowhands were not accustomed to lynching a man. One of the men she knew only as Bridger, was nervously chewing on a small sliver of wood that protruded from his mouth. Bridger was a quiet, shy cowhand, not prone to troublemaking. Two of the hands she had seen on occasion but could not recall their names. The Mexi- can she knew only as Chavez. It was to him that Spooner spoke.
"Chavez, you whip his horse when I give the signal."
Chavez nodded and pushed his sombrero back on his head, the string catching against his throat in a way that reminded Charlotte of what the stranger would be experiencing in a moment if she didn't do something. Chavez swung down and tied his blood bay to one of the pickets of Charlotte's fence. Then he moved to stand beside the rump of the stranger's horse, firmly holding a quirt in his right hand.
Spooner turned toward the stranger. "You got anything to say before we get on with this?"
The stranger, sitting on the horse, his weight resting in the stirrups with the tension of a coiled spring, didn't say anything. Charlotte saw that his eyes were alert, shifting from one man to another.
His face red with anger, Spooner spurred his horse closer to the stranger, his hands reaching out to draw the noose tight around the taut cords of the man's neck. Neither man said a word, but the stranger's eyes were clear and searching as he looked at Spooner, who sheepishly turned away.
That made Charlotte's blood boil with righteous indignation, and whenever Charlotte Butterworth's blood was boiling with righteous indignation—well, there wasn't much in the way of what she wanted that she didn't get.
Mere seconds later Charlotte stood on her front porch, took careful aim with an M-1873 .44-caliber Winchester, and blew a hole through the star on Spooner Kennedy's Texas hat, sending it sailing off his head.
The lynching was postponed.
The steel-blue eyes of the stranger were the first to lock on Charlotte's small frame, hitting her and dismissing her with a look that sent a chill through her, but he said nothing.
Spooner Kennedy, however, wasn't so polite.
"Dad-durn-it, Miss Lottie, what are you doing out here?" he said. "This ain't no place for a lady. Now get yourself back inside." Dropping from his saddle and retrieving his beloved hat, Spooner poked his finger through the neatly placed hole. "Dad-dammit!" he shouted. "Look what you did to my hat."
"You better be glad it wasn't your fool head, Spooner Kennedy," Charlotte answered while taking another bead with her Winchester.
The words were uttered in a high voice that sounded as sweet as a chorus of heavenly hosts to the stranger. Her voice, he decided, was about as close to a heavenly host as he wanted to come—at least for several years. He released a long-held breath, thinking just how close to meeting his maker he had come. Feeling the noose tight around his neck, he realized he wasn't out of the woods yet.
"Miss Lottie, this is no concern of yours," Spooner went on. "We've got some business to settle with this killer."
Charlotte's intense blue eyes grew wider at the word killer, but her aim remained steady. "You'd best be taking your business up with the sheriff, then," she said. "That happens to be my tree, and hanging a man in my tree is my business."
"Now, Miss Lottie," Spooner said, "you know damn well there ain't another tree over five feet tall within twenty miles of here."
Charlotte was not swayed. "Jam!" she shouted. Then again, louder: "Jam!"
A few minutes later, a cotton-haired old black man came around the corner of the house, in no apparent hurry despite the urgency in the boss lady's voice. "Jam," Charlotte said firmly, "take my horse and hurry down to Sheriff Bradley's and tell him to get over here fast. And hurry up. Don't you dawdle none, you hear?"
Jam's hurrying gait was the same as his taking-my-own-sweet-time gait, so he ambled away, staying well away from the cluster of men until he was around the corner of the house. Minutes later he headed down the road on Charlotte Butterworth's old piebald mare, Butterbean.
The stranger shifted his position, his eyes hard on the hands of the cowhand who held the reins to his gelding. Those shaking hands were all that stood between him and hanging. He knew if the cowboy fumbled and dropped the reins, the gelding would bolt and he, Walker Reed, would be left swinging by his neck.
Walker's nose started itching. A hell of a position to be in, with his hands tied behind his back. He thought about raising his shoulder to rub against it, but any shift in his weight might make his horse more skittish, and the horse was skittish enough. The rigid line of his mouth quirked at the thought of him sitting there with a noose around his neck, concerned about something so insignificant as his nose itching.
"You have a strange sense of humor if you find hanging something to smile about," Charlotte said. "Especially when it's your own hanging."
Slowly, purposefully, Walker let his eyes sweep over the cluster of men to rest on the small-framed woman who was his salvation. "It was a smile of relief, ma'am."
Walker studied the woman's face as she accepted his answer with a curt nod. In the shade of the porch her face seemed severe—all sharp angles. But then she took a few steps forward, out of the shade of the porch and into the amber glow of the late-afternoon sun, which brought out her magnificent coloring. Her face was anything but sharp angles, and as far as the rest of her—her leanness was deceptive. A woman like that was as unexpected in this flat, desolate part of Texas as her immaculate yard, whitewashed fence, and brilliant display of colorful flowers. She seemed to be a lot like her house—quiet, respectable, and fenced in. He was suddenly aware he was feeling a stir of something more than gratitude. She was a lovely thing—or would be if she'd release all that glorious ginger-colored hair from the ridiculous knot perched on her head.
Wearing a glossy blue calico dress, she stood there so slim and so stiffly starched that she looked fragile and delicate, but Walker knew that a woman who handled a Winchester the way she did was anything but fragile and delicate. The woman intrigued him, and he wondered how he could feel a stab of desire at a time when his every thought should be centered on self-preservation. Desire, he thought, could rear its ugly head at the most damnable times.
Charlotte caught the flare of interest in the stranger's eyes and felt a gush of discomfort that left a taletale stain on her cheeks. The sheer masculinity of the man was distracting. She neither wanted nor needed to be distracted. Not now. Not when she needed her wits about her like a pack of yelping pups to keep her on her toes.
Charlotte sighed, wondering if Jam had made it as far as the sheriff's office. He might be meandering aimlessly along the fencerows, wandering from one side of the road to the other, finding everywhere things to distract him and feeling quite happy to be the only idle bee in the swarm. She well knew Jam could be fascinated watching a caterpillar crawl up his sleeve.
Suddenly the evening stage came rumbling along the dry, dusty road that ran from Abilene to Two Trees. Hezekiah Freestone, the driver, was working the brake with his foot, the heavy leather of reins from six horses resting in his left hand and the long braided rawhide whip in his right. Just as he drew even with Charlotte Butterworth's porch, he replaced the whip and waved, just as he always did, as if he saw nothing out of the ordinary going on in her front yard.
"You could at least stop!" she yelled after him, wondering how any fool could pass a hanging with nothing but a smile and a wave.
The stage passed in a cloud of dust that settled over the six men and on Charlotte as well, then it sped on down the road, the wheels hitting an occasional pothole or rock that sent the stage bouncing into the air.
At that moment Sheriff Archer Bradley rode into the yard, while Jam, taking his own sweet time on Butterbean, was still some distance behind. Charlotte had never felt so relieved. Now that Archer was here, things would move right along and she could clear this mess of confusion out of her yard.
Archer drew rein and sat there for a spell taking in the situation. His hat of worn felt was pulled low over his eyes, and now and then a quid of tobacco could be seen moving inside his right cheek. Taking careful aim, Archer spit, scoring a direct hit on one of Miss Lottie's irises. Then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He was a man who didn't like to be hurried, and just because a man was sitting before him with a rope around his neck—well, that was no reason to hurry. A jump to wrong conclusions is what happened when you hurried, and Archer never jumped to wrong conclusions.
"Now, just what's going on here?" he drawled, not missing the look Charlotte gave him—a look that said any fool in his right mind could see what was going on.
Deciding the look wasn't enough, Charlotte said sharply, "There's a hanging going on here, Archer ... or there was until I stopped it."
"With that Winchester?"
"Of course," said Charlotte. "Have you ever known a lynching to be stopped with a few kind words—unless they're backed with lead?"
Archer's mirth wasn't hampered in the least by his scowl. His eyes shifted from Charlotte to the stranger to Spooner and back to the stranger, who by this time was looking mighty expectant and mighty relieved.
Once again, Archer took careful aim and let fly with a wad of tobacco. Everyone seemed to be waiting on someone else to say something. But no one did.
While they waited in silence, a dust devil came out of nowhere, rattling the leaves on Miss Charlotte's two elm trees and nodding the heads on her drooping snapdragons before it tugged a few tendrils of fiery red hair out of her carefully coiled bun and whipped them across her face, one spiraling filament sticking to the corner of her mouth. Charlotte let it be, keeping the barrel of her Winchester pointed at the white disk on Spooner's tobacco pouch, which dangled from his shirt pocket. She was busy thinking how men could waste so much precious time standing around spitting and scratching.
"Miss Lottie," Archer said, "you can put your Winchester down. I'll handle things now."
"You took your time reaching that decision, Archer." She turned the full power of her magnificent eyes on him in what could only be called reproach. "Untie that man first."
Archer directed a visual command at Spooner, who passed it on to the man mounted next to him. "Okay, Jake," Spooner said uneasily. "Untie him."
Jake slid to the ground and nervously approached the stranger. "Just a minutes!" Charlotte pointed her rifle at him. "You go around the other way," she said, "so his horse can see you coming. I'd sure hate to have you unintentionally spook his horse and hang him by accident."
Jake stopped. "Why's that?" he said with a cocky grin.
Charlotte did not respond to his grin. "Because then I'd have to shoot you."
Jake was careful to swing a wide arc as he approached from the front and, reaching the stranger, untied his hands. At that instant a shot whizzed past his ear, causing him to dive for the dirt at the same time as the lariat tied around the stranger's neck snapped in two.
His horse snorted and sidestepped nervously. When Walker had him under control, he turned toward Charlotte, feeling much like a banked fish that had just mercifully been tossed back into his natural element. "I'm much obliged for your intervention, ma'am," he said in an accent that was neither southern nor Texan.
At the sound of his low voice, strangely velvet smooth and husky, Charlotte looked at him, meeting his clear gaze for a moment, before she drew a deep breath, her eyes narrowing. Something about him frightened her. Perhaps it was the intensity of his look, unthinkably familiar, considering she had just saved him from death. A shiver of apprehension ran through her, and she was awkwardly aware that every eye was trained on her. She lifted a brow, sending him a look full of so much venomous dislike that he felt a constriction in his chest. The look was both direct and quiet—a reproof withdrawn as hurriedly as it was sent and patently meant for him alone. He dipped his head ever so slightly in recognition.
Charlotte's heart stirred nervously in her chest. "Don't be thanking me," she said. "I just bought you a postponement, not a pardon. You may hang yet. That's none of my affair—as long as it isn't from my tree."
Walker inclined his head once more, this time in a curt gesture, his hard glance deep and penetrating as he caught the grating edge of spite in her words. The woman had just saved his life. Why did his gratitude chafe her so? He was not a vain man, yet he had been on the receiving end of enough sultry looks and honeyed kisses from beautiful women to know that women were attracted to him. That this woman would stick her neck out for him and then insult him when he expressed his gratitude both surprised and irritated him.
He studied her face, the mouth so sensitive that it was difficult to believe it had spoken so sharply to him. Her manner and words bespoke cool control, but he saw in her clear blue eyes a shadow of uncertainty and vulnerability. Something made his heart contract, the blood gushing through his veins. Whether she liked it or not, the woman had done him a tremendous service. He was thankful enough and gentleman enough not to provoke her further.
"Nevertheless," he said slowly, "I am in your debt." He continued to watch her, torn between anger and curiosity over her behavior, studying the aloof tilt to her chin, the stiff shoulders. There was something about the hint of panic he had seen in her eyes that told him she didn't find him repulsive.
Charlotte couldn't help but notice that the stranger was handsome—in a raw, ruthless way. The man's hair had at first appeared dark, but when his hands were freed and he moved out of the shade of the elm tree, it seemed to absorb the setting sun, glinting with golden highlights. His hair was longer than the men in these parts wore, yet his face—in contrast to the assortment of beards and mustaches that surrounded him—was clean shaven.
He was different. In fact, everything about him was just a shade different—his skin a little browner, his eyes a little bluer, his bearing just a little more regal than any man Charlotte had heretofore encountered. When the stranger looked her over with a stare that penetrated her white muslin pinafore and calico dress, then went right through her nainsook petticoat and linen drawers, she looked away, her gaze resting on Archer Bradley, who'd just repeated his question to Spooner.
"I said, what's been going on here?"
Spooner went on to relate how he had been tending herd when he heard a gunshot. Taking several of the Triple K hands with him, they'd ridden in the direction of the shot and found the stranger standing over the body of a dead man, his drawn Colt still in his hand. An envelope in the dead man's pocket contained several thousand dollars and a bill of sale for three brood mares out of Old King, a famous running horse. The dead man's name was Walker Reed. He was from California.
"I'm Walker Reed," the stranger said. "I'm from California. I came out here to buy horses. The man I shot robbed me last night and took the three mares. I'd been tracking him since dawn. When I finally located him and rode into his camp, he drew on me, and I had no choice but to shoot him in self-defense. I was just about to retrieve my horses and my money when these men rode up, jumping to conclusions."
"You have any proof of what you're saying?" Archer asked, fully understanding what the stranger said about jumping to conclusions. This part of Texas seemed to him the jumping-to-conclusionist place he'd ever seen.
"The only proof I had were those papers you heard about, but you could wire the sheriff in Santa Barbara. He's known my family for years. He could identify me."
And he could, of course. Walker's grandfather, Richard Warrington Reed, had come to California during the gold rush. A rich vein had provided the necessary capital to buy a large hacienda and ranch from a dwindling and impoverished family of Spanish descent. Three generations of Reeds had lived there. The sheriff in Santa Barbara had personally known two of those generations. It was the two youngest members of the latest generation of Reeds, Riley and Walker, who had, as youths, caused him more headaches than he cared to count. Riley had finally married last year, at thirty-six. Walker, a year behind his brother in age, seemed in no hurry.
Archer studied Walker for a moment. "You understand I'll have to hold you in custody until the sheriff in Santa Barbara can verify what you say and positively identify you?"
Walker laughed. "Believe me, being detained in a jail is infinitely better than the last offer I had in your hospitable town."
There was something breathtaking about the man's smile, and while Charlotte was struggling to find just where her breath had been taken, the stranger dismounted with lazy ease and approached her. "I owe you my life," he said. "It may be nothing to you, but to me it means a great deal. I'll find some way to repay you. I won't forget."
The caress of his warm steel-blue eyes made Charlotte's pulse thump rapidly. Before she could snap back an angry reply, the man turned, and she watched as he crossed the yard and mounted his horse. Something about him stuck in her craw. Walker looked from Charlotte to Archer and smiled, a tight, knowing, little smile that barely lifted the corners of his mouth. Then his gaze went back to Charlotte. He looked like a coyote that had cornered a polecat. The hair pricked along Charlotte's nape. What an arrogant man! His fancy saddle. Those Mexican spurs. The fifty-dollar shirt. He probably stole them from the last man he'd shot. She should've let the Triple K boys stretch his insolent neck. She was still staring as the men turned and quietly rode, single file, out of her front yard, leaving in a much more orderly fashion than they had arrived.
Charlotte looked sharply away and, with a sigh of annoyance, surveyed her poor snapdragon bed, then her trampled lawn where clumps of grass had been turned up by the bite of horses' hooves. Then she noticed the lariat dangling like a dead snake from her tree, and with a shudder of revulsion she turned and went into the house.
The gloomy silence was broken by the hall clock striking eight, reminding Charlotte that this afternoon's adventure had spoiled the habitual order of her life. The eggs hadn't been gathered. The cows hadn't been milked. The vegetables for tonight's supper were still on the vine instead of simmering in a pot on her stove, their fragrance filling her house as it always did when the hall clock struck eight.
But there was a smell of some kind coming from her kitchen. A strange smell. A smell that had never before penetrated the walls of her house. It took a few minutes for her to figure out just what it was. Suddenly she threw her hands up and, with a helpless shriek, flew down the hall.
Moments later she was in her kitchen. And there, after the day's intense heat, too many chores, abominable dust, a near lynching in her front yard, and a stranger with a look that made her feel a few shades worse than naked, she found and removed from her new Monitor stove a burned vinegar pie.
IF MY LOVE COULD HOLD YOU
Reissue Edition, Out of Print
Mass Market Paperback
Chivers North American
Large Print Edition
RETURN TO IF MY LOVE COULD HOLD YOU
IN "THE LIST"