FOOLS LIKE YOU AND ME by Henry

 

Stepping out on to the dust-covered paving of the porch, Victoria shaded her eyes against the evening sun, enjoying the drift of slightly cooler air across her skin.         

Allowing herself to be momentarily distracted from her errand she paused to tuck away an annoying wisp of dark hair before looking around the compound in search of her brother-in-law. His dark-clad figure was not difficult to identify, leaning idly against the gatepost facing the far distances of the desert landscape. Resentment rippled through her. Most of this was Buck Cannon's fault, but all he could do was stand staring at the sunset as if he did not have a care in the world. Recognising her irritation as only a symptom of her tiredness she let it go. What had happened was no one's fault; Heaven knew Manolito needed no help to get into trouble. At least they had managed after all to save Anne and her sister before it was too late - before they were old enough to marry.

Staring out at the desert scrub Buck was unaware of the desolate beauty surrounding him, his mind too crowded with images of his friend to admit any other impression. He had been over and over what had happened, trying to see any other way they could have acted, but he always came back to Manolito's statement that the Apache would not be averse to dealing with two fools eager to be parted from their money in exchange for a worthless slave. The trouble was, none of it had turned out the way they had expected. It should have been him that took that damned test of courage. It had been his idea, he should be the one to pay - not Mano. Just thinking about what had happened made him feel sick inside. The young Mexican had courage all right, he had proved that. He had also proved something else, something Buck had never before allowed himself to admit, something Montoya must never know about - never.

Hearing the sound of Victoria's footsteps as she approached he had to resist the urge to take off into the desert, to escape and lose himself, leaving behind family and responsibility, escaping the conflict of emotions that would not let him have any peace.

"Buck?"

"Yes'm?" he asked, politely, turning to face her.

"Oh, Buck ... " she breathed, her voice full of sympathy as she reached out to him, wanting to ease the agony in his eyes.

Pulling off his Stetson Buck twisted the brim nervously; there was precious little he managed to hide from his brother's wife.

"It wasn't your fault, Buck," she assured him, quietly. "You must know that."

"In my head, maybe." He tapped a gloved hand against his chest. "But not in here, not where it counts."

Wisely, Victoria decided not to pursue the matter. "Vaquero is busy and I need to spend some time with Olive and with her sister. Please, you will sit with Manolito?"

Reluctantly he nodded. It was the least he could do to try and make amends for the harm he had done.

Smiling gratefully, she took his arm as they walked back to the house.

In the quiet of the lamp-lit bedroom Buck held back, watching as Victoria rested the back of her hand against her brother's forehead.

"He has a fever," she said softly. "That is why I do not want him to be left alone."

"I'll take care of him," promised Buck gruffly. "You just concentrate on seein' to them little gals and then you get some sleep yourself. I'll sit with Mano."

"Are you sure? I don't want ... "

"I'm sure," he said firmly. Victoria had been up most of the previous night taking care of Manolito and the two girls. It was time she took care of herself.

With the smile that had once misled him into believing he was in love with her, Victoria kissed his cheek. "Thank you."

A soft rustle of petticoats and she was gone, leaving him alone with the man who was causing him such confusion. Dropping his hat on a nearby chair he moved closer to the bed and looked into the face he knew better than his own.

Manolito Montoya was his friend. The best friend he'd ever had. Mano always understood him - better than John had ever been able to. He never needed to explain himself to Mano, never needed to make excuses. He shook his head, remembering how he had put that friendship and more at risk in their foolhardy journey into Apache territory. He had risked both their lives, but it was Manolito who had suffered the most - who was still suffering.

Mindful of his responsibilities he reached for the wash-cloth Victoria had been using and, wringing it out, used the damp material to cool Manolito's face and hands, remembering much too clearly the last time he had been in this room.

When the search party had finally arrived back at the ranch-house Olive had been handed over, almost asleep, into the care of her sister and Vaquero - it was Manolito who needed Victoria's skill and attention. It had been left to him to help Victoria care for the injured man, the first necessity being to soak the blood-stiffened material of his shirt away from the weals left by the Apache whips. It had taken a long time, made no easier by Manolito drifting in and out of consciousness. By the time all of Mano's wounds had been cleaned and bandaged they had both been exhausted.

Sickened by the results of his folly he had left Victoria to sit watching her brother as he slept and had not been back - until now. Knowing the Mexican as he did, Buck knew that maybe Manolito could forgive him ... but he would never be able to forgive himself. Would never be able to forget the blood and the bruises, the pain he had caused.

Mano stirred painfully. His brown eyes opened. "Buck?"

"I'm right here, Mano, you just lay quiet."

There was a muttered curse in Spanish as Manolito attempted to move.

"I said lay quiet," admonished Buck. "You want a drink?"

"Si, por favor."

Holding on firmly to the cup, Buck raised Manolito's head sufficiently for him to be able to drink comfortably.

"I'd try and go back to sleep if I was you," he advised, easing Mano back against the pillows.

"That is easier to say than to do, compadre," declared Manolito as he lay with his eyes closed, wishing he did not feel so light-headed.

Buck sat quietly, keeping watch, listening to the soft, pain-threaded sound of Manolito's breathing, hoping the younger man would manage to go back to sleep.

"Buck?"

"I'm here," he said, reassuringly.

"Talk to me," instructed Manolito, his voice no more than a whisper.

Puzzled, Buck leaned forward. "What?"

"Talk to me," repeated Montoya, more forcefully. "Take my mind off this ... " He bit off the words that had almost escaped him and smiled, knowing that unfortunately Buck could see the effort it was costing him. "Tell me about the good times in your life, eh?"

"Good times?" questioned Buck, reaching across to wipe Mano's face with a gentle carefulness that would have surprised his drinking buddies in Tucson. "Seems to me all the good times in my life have been right here - with you and with Blue Boy."

"All? Not all, surely?" insisted Mano.

"No," conceded Buck slowly; but most had been with his nephew and Manolito. He grinned suddenly as memory supplied an incident that might just take Mano's mind off his pain. "There was one time, back at the beginning of the War ... "

"You cannot stop there, amigo," urged Montoya as his companion paused, looking back across the years.

"Well now, I was sent out to scout ahead - and I scouted me the cutest li'l gal you ever saw. Blue eyes she had, and dark hair - Irish..."

Manolito listened closely to the story of the Irish girl with the lilting voice, and to the other stories Buck dredged out of his memory to entertain him. He listened especially closely to what his friend did not tell him, adding that information of omission to his own knowledge of Buck and his older, authoritarian brother.

"I think that we have much in common, amigo."

"Us?" Buck shook his head. "You, you're heir to the Rancho Montoya and me ... I'm nobody."

"Rancho Montoya ... if my father had his way I would not be his heir. He would far prefer Victoria."

"Victoria?" repeated Buck, surprised. "But she's ... "

"In my father's eyes Victoria can do no wrong, while I ... I can do nothing that pleases him."

Knowing how much Don Sebastian disapproved of his only son's way of life, Buck could only shake his head.

"What about the little girl, Olive? He'd approve of that - wouldn't he?"

"Definitely not, my friend. Our journey to the Apache nation would be dismissed as folly and stupidity."

"Stupidity," reflected Buck, unhappily. "That's about what John said."

Brown eyes unexpectedly flashed fire in the lamplight. "He dares to dismiss what you did as stupidity?" demanded Manolito angrily.

"That was afore we went," explained Buck hastily, "so there's no need to go gettin' all het up. Anyways, it was you did it, not me."

"No," denied Manolito. "If not for you I would never have gone in search of Toba. I am not like you, Buck. It was not out of compassion for Anne and her sister that I went, it was because I could not let you go alone."

Mesmerised by the intensity of the brown gaze Buck asked uncertainly, "You went 'cause of me?"

"Si," replied Manolito simply. "You are very important to me," he added, giving in to a strong desire to confess his feelings to the older man, to be done with pretence and concealment, to find out once and for all if those feelings were returned. A part of his mind recognised the folly of his words but it was too late now.

It couldn't be. Mano just couldn't be saying what he seemed to be saying, decided Buck. Looking into the exhaustion-filled brown eyes all his earlier misgivings rushed back. John had been right, as usual; going to the Apache alone had been stupid and reckless and it was Mano who was paying the price.

"Buck?"

"I was just thinkin'," he explained, pulling his attention back to the younger man. It wasn't possible that Mano could know how he felt. His mind in turmoil Buck reached out and took hold of his hand, the way he would have done if he'd never realised how much the other man meant to him, the way he would have reached out to Blue Boy. "You have t'get some sleep, Mano. We can talk some more tomorrow."

Lean fingers tightened their grip slightly. "Si, we can talk tomorrow. Good night, my friend."

"G'night."

Buck did not move, not even when Manolito's even breathing proclaimed that he had finally fallen asleep. All he could think of, all he could hear was Mano's soft voice saying, "You are very important to me ... " He couldn't persuade himself to believe that Mano had meant it the way it sounded. Not Manolito Montoya, who had broken female hearts from here to California, and beyond probably. He was fooling himself into hearing what he wanted to hear; that Manolito could care for him that much. His mind shied away from any clearer definition of the feeling that had rippled through him at the younger man's admission.

 

"Victoria," warned her brother, drawing out the syllables of her name as his temper became shorter.

"You know I am right!" she protested, undeterred.

"I know nothing of the kind. Now, go and tend to the children and leave me in peace."

The resultant outpouring of rapid Spanish made John Cannon pause. He could not understand half the words but there was no doubt that his wife was angry. That her anger should be directed at Manolito would not in other circumstances be surprising, but it was only two days since Mano's ordeal at the hands of Toba's braves and he knew that Victoria was still concerned about him.

Pushing open the door he was immediately seized by the arm.

"Mister Cannon, tell my mule-headed brother that he is not allowed out of this room."

"Well, I ... "

"I am old enough to make my own decisions, Victoria. Please, leave John out of this discussion," requested Manolito easing on his jacket, unable to prevent a grimace of pain as it settled snugly across the weals on his shoulders.

"There!" triumphed Victoria. "You are in pain and should be in bed."

"Si, it hurts," admitted Manolito, unable to do anything else. "But it hurts no less if I am lying almost dead of boredom in that bed. No more, Victoria," he warned as her dark eyes flashed. "No more."

"John?" she asked, appealing to a higher authority than her own.

"I'm sorry, but I have no right to decide what's best for your brother. That has to be his decision."

"Thank you, John," acknowledged Mano, pleased with the outcome of Victoria's meddling. "Now, if you will both excuse me, I need to talk to Buck."

"He isn't here," advised his brother-in-law. "He volunteered to ride out and check the fences down by the river."

A frown creased Manolito's forehead. Buck never volunteered for anything except a fist-fight or a card game. "When was this?"

"He left early this morning, but it shouldn't take too long. I expect he'll be back before midday."

There was a sigh of frustration. "Then I will go and see if Vaquero has any coffee to spare."

"Manolo," pleaded Victoria, softly.

He smiled, revealing his affection for her. "You worry too much, my sister."

When he had gone Victoria gave a sigh. "I know he is not as well as he is trying to make us believe."

"Manolito?" asked her husband incredulously, remembering how many times the young caballero had managed to absent himself when there was hard work to be done. "I'd have thought he'd relish the opportunity to take things easy."

"Exactly." She stamped her foot. "It is only because he is really hurt that he is being so pig-headed!"

"Well, there's nothing you can do about it, but I promise to keep an eye on him. How's that?"

She smiled up at him, knowing he would keep his word. "Thank you, my husband."

 

The sun climbed the sky, reaching its zenith, and Buck had still not returned. To occupy himself and keep his mind off the possible reason for the other man's continued absence, Manolito offered to help Vaquero check the stores, a job that did not entail too much activity and which would keep him out of the way of his sister.

When Buck did finally ride in he closeted himself with Sam Butler and it was not until late in the afternoon that Manolito was able to corner him.

"If I did not know better, my friend, I would think you were avoiding me," he accused with a smile.

Buck shrugged his shoulders, not meeting his gaze. "I been busy."

"Too busy to talk to me?" asked Montoya, the smile fading a little.

"Ain't nuthin' to talk about," declared Buck firmly, trying to edge away.

"Nothing?" Manolito frowned, half puzzled, half annoyed. "What is wrong? Why are you trying to deny the feelings that have passed between us?" he demanded.

The admission that Manolito remembered and was willing to acknowledge their conversation startled Buck into glancing at him. "I ain't sure I understand what it is you're sayin'"

"You did not seem to have any trouble last night, amigo. Very well, I am talking about you and about me - and what we feel for each other."

He watched as Buck scrubbed a gloved hand across his face, a sure sign that he was disturbed.

"All right, I don't deny ... "

"That you love me?" suggested Manolito, his face brightening as he tried to tease the older man out of this unexpectedly serious mood. Swallowing hard, Buck shook his head. "It should never have happened. I should never have let it happen."

"I understand your confusion, compadre. I myself was taken a little by surprise ... but this is not the answer," declared Manolito softly.

There was only silence while Buck glared mulishly at any place except at him.

"We are very alike, Buck," he continued, his voice still soft and persuasive. "We love John and Victoria but are sometimes a little envious of their happiness." He paused. "I have known many women, but never have I met that one special person who would make my life complete - until now."

There was no mistaking the affection in the warm brown eyes regarding him so steadily. Wanting to respond to that affection but afraid of the possible consequences Buck allowed his confusion and conflicting emotions to ignite into anger - anger he could cope with.

"Keep away from me, Mano. I don't want to listen to any more of this."

"Buck ... "

The slight pressure of Manolito's hand on his arm sent a surge of panic coursing through him. Fear and anger boiling over into instinctive reaction, he tried to push the younger man away. Too angry to be aware of Manolito's pain-bleached face, too afraid to recognise the reaching hand as a plea for help, knowing only that he had to get away, Buck let fly with a punch that would have put down Big Bart.

Driven backwards by the blow Manolito staggered, collided blindly with the stockyard fence. Shocked, pain tearing through him, he crumpled soundlessly to the ground, blood roaring in his ears as the world began to dissolve into mist.

Strong hands were supporting him, each careful touch creating new agony.

"God, Mano, I'm sorry. I never meant for this to happen," grated Buck, horrified, his anger dead, killed by the pain and puzzlement in Manolito's dark eyes.

"What in blue blazes is going on here?" yelled John as he ran across the compound towards them, followed by Sam, Pedro and Blue.

"We was arguin', Big John," explained Buck numbly as his brother knelt beside them. "I got mad an' ... an' hit him ... I didn't mean for ... "

"You never do, Buck. You never do," growled John as he examined Manolito. Glancing up, he saw Pedro watching. "Go tell Mrs Cannon what's happened."

"Si," agreed the Mexican, running back towards the house. Lifting the almost unconscious man into his arms, John strode after him, leaving Sam and Blue to stare at Buck.

"Why would you want to hit Manolito?" asked Blue, bewildered by what had happened.

"Cause he was tellin' me the truth and I didn't want to hear it. Now, does that satisfy you?"

Without waiting for a response Buck stamped off to the stables. With no conscious direction from him his hands automatically saddled his horse. He should check on Mano, but he knew he would not be able to bear the silent accusation in the brown eyes. Fresh awareness of what he had done twisted in his gut. Why couldn't he just have been honest with Mano, with himself? Why did he have to feel this way at all? Why couldn't things have stayed the way they were?

Unable to face himself, let alone his brother and, even worse, Victoria, he swung himself up into the saddle. Out in the compound he spurred his horse; sand flying from its hooves, he galloped through the gate into the emptiness of the desert.

 

Victoria hovered worriedly, watching as her husband carefully eased Manolito down to sit on the bed and competently began to strip off the younger man's jacket.

"What happened?"

"He and Buck were fighting," replied John grimly. "There was some kind of a scuffle ... Buck says it was his fault."

"No," denied Manolito through clenched teeth. "It was my fault, not Buck's. I provoked him."

John's grunted comment could have meant anything, but they both understood that he was displeased about what had happened.

Leaving his wife to deal with Montoya, John went in search of Buck; he had some explaining to do, and it had better be good. Fearfully Victoria eased the cotton shirt from her brother's shoulders, afraid of what she might find. His upper arm was bleeding again but there was, thankfully, no other sign of fresh blood on the bandages.

"Mano, how could you?" she asked as she set to work.

"It was not my intention, querida," he confessed.

She shook her head. When he smiled at her that way it was not easy to remain angry with him. Redressing his injuries she muttered to herself in Spanish as she worked, none of it complimentary either to her brother or her brother-in-law.

"Now, you will stay here and rest," she ordered, tidying up the room as she spoke.

"Victoria ... "

Dark eyes flashing fire she cut short the protest. "You will rest, Manolito, or I will ask my husband to put a guard on you!" She shrugged. "Or I will stay here myself and make certain that you behave."

"No," he denied quickly. "No, I will do as you ask."

"Promise?"

"Si," he agreed, wearily. Who could argue with a woman?

A brief knock announced the welcome arrival of Big John.

"How is he?"

"There is nothing wrong with me," replied Manolito before his sister could speak. There was a much more important matter to consider. "Where is Buck?"

"Sam tells me he high-tailed it down the trail. Probably straight to some saloon in Tucson," he added, disapprovingly. Dismissing his troublesome brother from his mind for the moment, John looked Manolito over. "You may say you feel fine but you sure don't look it. You'd best stay put for a while."

It wasn't a suggestion, it was an order, and Mano gave a resigned nod of acceptance. "For a little while," he agreed. For just long enough to give Buck time to cool down, then he would ride into Tucson and find him.

 

"Mano, what you doin'?" asked Blue, his eyes wide with surprise. His father had told him that Victoria had bullied her brother back into the bed he should never have left - but here he was, out in the stables.

"I am trying to saddle my horse, what does it look like?" hissed Manolito, exasperated. Blue was a good kid, but sometimes …

"Here, let me help," offered Blue, taking the weight of the high Spanish-American saddle with its silver trim.

"Thank you, amigo."

"You sure you should be doin' this?" asked Blue, glancing up at the other man's pale, sweating face. He tightened the girth. "You don't look so good."

"I have some business to discuss with your uncle."

"It's a long ways into town, you want me to come along with you?" Manolito shook his head. For what he had in mind the youngest of the Cannon family was definitely one too many.

"Gracias, but I will be in Tucson before dark." He paused. "There is one thing you can do for me."

"Yeah?"

"Victoria, she does not know that I am going into town."

Blue whistled silently. "She's sure gonna be mad when she finds out."

"Si, I fear you are right," agreed Mano. "When I am missed you may tell her where I have gone and that I will be spending the night in Tucson."

"Okay," agreed Blue, "but I sure wouldn't wanna be you when you get back."

Forgetfully, Manolito shrugged his shoulders, wincing as the movement dragged at bruised and lacerated muscles.

 

"Senor Cannon," beamed Miguel in welcome, wiping the counter of his small backstreet bar. "And how are you this evening?"

"Just fine, Miguel. How's Maria and the kids?" asked Buck, returning the pleasantry.

"They are well. You would like a drink?"

"Whisky," agreed Buck, watching as Miguel poured out a shot of cheap liquor. There was no way one shot of rotgut was going to blank out the memory of Manolito's face. He caught hold of the Mexican's wrist. "Just leave the bottle, huh?"

Putting it down as instructed, Patisko looked into the dispirited face of the man he would have been proud to call his friend.

"Something is troubling you, Senor Cannon?"

Smiling slightly, Buck raised the glass in a salute. "Nuthin' that this won't cure."

"It is not always the best answer, Senor."

"No," agreed Buck soberly, "but it's the only one I got."

Unhappily Miguel watched Buck down the contents of the glass in one gulp and then refill it from the bottle at his elbow.

Despite the vacant seats available around him Buck remained at the bar, leaning heavily on the counter, acknowledging the occasional greeting from acquaintances - but mostly he seemed to be lost in thought. From his expression they were not happy thoughts, deduced Miguel, keeping a watchful eye on his customer, thankful that his drinking had slowed down. Buck Cannon was a cheerful, friendly man - it was not like him to drink alone, so quiet and subdued. He fervently prayed that someone from High Chaparral ranch would come to claim him very soon.

 

Buck stared into the glowing amber liquid that had so far done nothing to raise his spirits or dull the edge of the pain that had settled in his chest. Maybe it had been a mistake to come to Patisko's. Not wanting to meet anyone, or get involved in the almost inevitable brawling that accompanied some of his friends wherever they went, he had avoided the larger saloons on Main Street in favour of somewhere smaller and quieter but here he was surrounded by reminders of Manolito Montoya. There were echoes of his voice in the accents around him; Miguel's own smile and dark eyes brought Mano's cheerful face to mind. Buck wiped a leather clad hand across his face, sick to his stomach at the memory of what he had done. Sympathetic pain rippled through him as once again memory replayed the moment when Mano had collapsed almost at his feet.

He tossed back the drink, grateful for the roughness that burned his throat and momentarily helped to blot out the memories. Inevitably they returned.

Ever since Montoya had returned to the ranch with them in the company of his sister, to be employed as a ranch-hand, they had been thrown, not always willingly, into each other's company. Finally they learned to understand each other, each of them realising the other man was reliable and competent no matter how tough things got. From there it was only a step to the closest relationship Buck had ever had outside of his family. The fact that he was older had never made any difference to their growing friendship - had never even been acknowledged by either of them.

Montoya was as proud as the devil - with some reason, considering his family and accomplishments - and apparently had nothing on his mind except the pleasures he could find in life; gambling, women, drinking, fighting, not necessarily in any order of preference. Buck could understand why courtly, imperious Don Sebastian Montoya despaired and disapproved of his son. In spite of all that his father must know there was more to Manolito than his unruly child was willing to admit; must have discovered, as he had done, the hidden compassion and bravery, the sense of personal honour that was unshakeable, and a mind as cunning as the Old Lion's own.

Sighing, Buck poured himself another drink. Manolito had said they had a lot in common and he was forced to admit it was true. Don Sebastian did not approve of Mano, and Big Brother John did not approve of him. They were both outsiders, not really understanding what they had done that was bad enough to merit such disapprobation. The memories continued to unfold; Manolito smiling, his hair dark and glossy in the candlelight, as he raised his wine glass in a toast to his sister and her new husband; the sound of his voice carrying through the warm darkness as he sat on the porch at High Chaparral and sang gentle Spanish songs of love and regret; his anger when faced with cruelty and injustice; the expression in his eyes when he spoke of one special person ...

With a groan of despair Buck drained his recently refilled glass, wondering how much of Patisko's redeye it would take to get Montoya out of his mind if not out of his heart.

 

The two and a half hour ride into Tucson seemed to be taking forever. Straightening his spine, Manolito winced. His chest ached more with every breath and each movement was another painful reminder that he should not be out on the trail. Not even the sheets of Summer Poppy glowing golden under the evening sun could distract him. Letting the horse find its own pace he thought of Buck Cannon, whose stupidity was the reason he was here instead of taking it easy back at the ranch.

He could no longer remember when he had first begun to think of the older man as more than simply a pleasant companion and later a close friend. Many nights they had slept out in the desert exchanging the quiet conversation and shared confidences that brought men together in this vast empty land. He was still not certain when friendship had become something more; a need that robbed him of his sleep, conscious of the other man only feet away from him in the darkness but, he had believed, completely out of his reach. Knowing Buck's gentleness he had longed to feel his strength as a lover - to touch him as he and Santos had touched long ago in a joyful ritual of commitment that had carried them far beyond the boundaries of friendship. A sigh escaped as he thought of those distant, happy times. Santos was dead. Their love had not survived beyond their youth, but friendship had remained to warm them until Castenada's ambition had killed even that. Buck Cannon was not Santos Castenada, would never hurt him the way Santos had. It was strange - he had never doubted that Buck cared for him as a friend, but the depth of that caring had never been apparent until the journey from Toba's village. Every touch and gesture, every look had been filled with concern - and, whether Buck knew it or not, with love. It was easy to understand why Buck was afraid of that love, but fear could be overcome.

Manolito smiled to himself, contented in spite of his aches and pains; it was time Buck was made to understand how important he was, how special.

 

Slowed down by his injuries it was dark long before he arrived in Tucson, his bay making its own way by instinct to that haven of food and rest, the livery stable. Dismounting stiffly, Manolito leaned for a moment against the solid security offered by his horse.

"You need any help, Mister?"

"No," responded Montoya, straightening up. "See that he is made comfortable for the night," he instructed, unstrapping his saddle bags before handing over the reins to the tow-headed youngster who hardly looked old enough to be left in charge. "I will collect him in the morning."

"Sure."

Leaving the stable, Manolito found himself on Main Street. The honest folk of Tucson had retired to their homes and farms for the night, leaving the dark streets and brightly lit saloons to thirsty cowboys, renegades and riffraff of every imaginable kind. Somewhere in the confusion Buck Cannon was probably drinking himself into a fight or insensibility - or maybe even both, reflected Mano, wearily wiping a gloved hand across his face, smearing the film of trail dust he had collected. First things first, he decided. If he was spending the night in Tucson he wanted a bed in a hotel room, then he could wash off some of the dust before he went looking for his friend.

The clerk at the hotel complied with his request for a double room, handing over the keys with a knowing expression in his eyes. Montoya was a familiar figure in the town.

"Expecting company, Senor?"

"It is no business of yours if I am," declared Manolito, taking charge of the key.

"This is a respectable establishment," warned the clerk.

"Meaning?" enquired Manolito, his voice cold with warning.

The clerk backed down. Montoya might have a reputation as a womaniser, but he was no amateur with his gun and was renowned for his uncertain temper.

"You are always welcome here, Senor Montoya, you know that." He did not understand the comments in Spanish that followed but from the tone it was just as well.

 

Closing the door behind him, Manolito looked around the room he had been allocated. It was adequate, no more, although if one had been on the trail for weeks its charms would probably be enhanced. A large brass bedstead, dulled from lack of attention, dominated the room. On examining it more closely Manolito found that the linen was clean and investigated no further, giving thanks for small mercies.

Taking off his hat he slapped it sharply against his thigh to remove the red dust that coated it. Easing off his jacket he shook it out and draped it over the back of the only chair in the room. Resisting the urge to stretch out on the bed, knowing he would not have the strength of will to get up again, he rolled back his sleeves and poured some of the water in the large ewer into the chipped porcelain bowl. Rinsing his hands and face revived him a little, but unfortunately the mirror confirmed his opinion that he would not win any prizes for beauty. Still, Buck had seen him looking far worse than this.

Now that the time had actually come to face his friend a wave of uncertainty suddenly swept over him, tying his stomach in knots and chilling his skin. He thought of Buck's hand warm on his shoulder, his voice anxiously asking if he had been hit, the concern no less when he learned that it was the horse that had been killed - understanding and sharing the bond that developed between a vaquero and his animal. He wanted that warmth between them, wanted it so badly, more than he had ever desired anything in his life before. Smiling to himself, he imagined what it would be like to seduce the older man, to take away the uncertainty that marked so many of Buck's dealings with his brother, to replace it with laughter and a sense of belonging; he wanted Buck to feel accepted for what he was - a man of courage and compassion, honest, sincere and so vulnerable to hurt - something Big John did not seem to be aware of. His resolution restored, Manolito slid carefully into his jacket and, picking up his hat, went in search of his friend.

Out on the sidewalk he paused, noting gratefully that the ground had dried out since the heavy rains of August and the streets, although rutted, were negotiable without too much difficulty.

He glanced along the street, wondering where he would go if he was Buck Cannon nursing a bad conscience and a lot of confusion. Somewhere quiet, he decided, moving into a side street to begin his search.

Pushing open the door of Patisko's he gave a low exclamation of self disgust as he saw a familiar figure propping up the bar. If he had any brains at all he would have come here first, where Buck was regarded as a friend by both Maria and Miguel Patisko. A bottle of whisky, two-thirds empty, stood by Buck's elbow. Hat pushed back from his forehead the American appeared to be miles away in thought. More relaxed now that he had run his quarry to earth Manolito walked unhurriedly over to the bar, noticing the relief that lit Patisko's dark eyes as the cantina owner recognised him.

"Whisky, por favor."

Beside him, Buck tensed at the sound of the familiar voice, hesitating before daring to look up.

"Mano?"

"Buenos tardes, amigo."

The brown eyes were warm with an affection that Buck had convinced himself he had lost forever. Mano's smile was unchanged - a little tired, perhaps, but essentially still the same - and unaccountably Buck felt his eyes stinging.

"Damned smoke," he muttered, scrubbing the back of his hand across them.

It was going to be all right. Montoya raised his glass in salute.

"To friendship," he said, quietly.

"I'll drink to that," agreed his companion, swallowing down the lump in his throat.

There was silence for a few minutes. Manolito returned the greetings of fellow drinkers, giving Buck time to adjust to his presence.

"How long have you been here?" he asked eventually.

"Ever since I arrived in town," admitted Buck.

"Then that is more than long enough," decided Manolito. "We still have to talk," he added, watching for the other man's reaction. Wiping his hand across his face, Buck shook his head slightly.

"Can't we just leave it, Mano? Let things be like they were," he begged.

"Look at me," ordered Montoya gently.

Reluctantly Buck obeyed and found he was the object of an extremely indulgent and loving gaze.

"We need to talk, compadre," insisted Manolito. "I have booked us a room at the hotel, but first I would like some coffee and something to eat."

Wetting his lips, Buck considered the options; it looked like there was no way out. Manolito could be just as stubborn and determined as Big John when he wanted to be. All he could hope to do was to put off the evil hour as long as possible.

"The Hash House should be open," he suggested.

"Good." Swallowing down the last of his whisky, Manolito nodded to Patisko. "Buenos noches, amigo."

Grateful that someone had finally claimed Buck Cannon, Miguel smiled broadly. "Buenos noches, Senor Montoya."

"G'night, Miguel," rumbled the source of his earlier concern, following his companion out into the night.

 

"Buck ... " admonished Manolito as the other man dumped a whisky bottle on the red-checkered cloth.

"I paid for it," replied Buck defensively.

"No drinkin' allowed in here, rules of the house," interrupted a sharp female voice. "There's plenty saloons you can git drunk in without using my place to do it."

"I promise you he will not drink any of it, Eddie," assured Manolito. "Tell me, what is on the menu for tonight?"

The woman took a breath. "Ham'n'beans, egg'n'beans, ham'n'egg'n'beans," she rattled off without a pause.

"Eddie," cajoled Manolito, "what about the stew you keep hidden away in the back?"

"That's for favoured customers only," she objected. Managing to look outraged, hurt and at the same time wickedly attractive, Montoya smiled at her. Buck had seen this act before but was still impressed.

"Eddie, how can you say such a thing? Am I, Manolito Montoya, not a most favoured customer?"

The ice cracked and the woman smiled. "You're a winning cuss, I'll give you that. Stew?"

"For two," added Buck.

"And a pot of coffee, por favor."

When she had gone, Manolito leaned his forehead on his uninjured hand, briefly closing his eyes. The day was catching up with him fast.

"Mano, you okay?" asked Buck anxiously.

"Si," he replied, looking up. "Just a little tiredness." He shook his head as he looked at his dishevelled friend. "Buck, why did you run away from me?" he asked softly.

There was a shrug. "I was ashamed, I guess. I didn't think you'd ... even want to speak to me again ... least, not for a while."

This reply produced a spate of rapid Spanish that Buck did not follow completely but had no difficulty understanding.

"Here's your stew; that'll be a dollar."

"Gracias," responded Manolito, handing over the money.

Picking up his fork Buck poked suspiciously at the mess of meat and gravy in front of him - somehow he didn't think his stomach was going to appreciate it.

"Eat," ordered Manolito. "If nothing else it will help to absorb the whisky that you have drunk."

"Mano, I ... "

"Eat. We have all night to talk."

Not at all reassured by that statement, Buck obeyed.

 

Back out on the street Manolito paused, enjoying the touch of the night air against his skin. It felt clean and cool, reminding him of his home with its marble paving and courtyard fountain, reminding him of the clear air of the mountains. He hated the thought of the threadbare and claustrophobic hotel room they were heading for.

"You okay?" asked Buck, hearing the sigh that Manolito had let escape.

"Si." Manolito's glance took in the vast dark expanse of the night sky, stars laid out like jewels for his inspection and approval, their purity putting the smoking coal-oil lamps to shame.

"I do not like this town," he said unexpectedly. "It has no grace, no dignity."

Buck said nothing, completely lost when Manolito was in this mood. Like poetry, he heard the words but didn't really understand what was being said. Tucson looked okay to him, but maybe it didn't compare so well to those cities in Europe that Mano had visited with Victoria and that Lord Anthony.

"Do you know what I would really like?"

"No," replied Buck, sensing that this time Manolito expected a response.

"To be out in the desert. To be free. Only the two of us, with the stars and a camp fire for company."

"We could do that easy enough," agreed Buck, ready to fall in with any plan that would put off the final confrontation a little longer. "Moon's bright as day," he added. "Trail out to High Chaparral wouldn't be no problem at all." He smiled encouragingly. "What do you say we leave now?"

Shaking his head, Manolito set off towards the hotel.

"Hey, Mano, you're right," exclaimed Buck, catching hold of his sleeve to detain him. "Let's get the hell outta here."

Pushed into replying Manolito gave another, more exasperated, sigh. "Unfortunately I do not think that I am capable of riding anywhere tonight."

Out in the moonlight the pain and tiredness in the younger man's face was clearly visible and Buck suffered a pang of conscience. "I'm sorry ... I ... should have thought."

Again there was that beautiful, loving smile that he had done nothing to deserve.

"Your impetuosity is one of the things that ... " Manolito checked his words, "that I like about you. You have no need to apologise." Brown eyes twinkled mischievously. "At least you are not afraid to be alone in the desert with me," he teased.

"I ain't afraid of nuthin'," declared Buck, like a true Cannon. "Well, maybe one or two things," he amended, pushing his hat even further back on his curling hair, "but you ain't one of them."

"I am happy to hear you say so." The amusement faded from Manolito's face, leaving it serious and intent. "I could never hurt you, Buck. Never."

Uncomfortable with the sudden plunge into an unfamiliar emotional landscape he had never expected to have to cross, Buck wriggled his shoulders. "I know that. It's just ... kinda ... strange, is all."

"Strange," mused Manolito, understanding his friend's inability to be more articulate. "Yes, it is certainly that," he agreed. "It is something that I myself never expected."

"Amen to that," responded Buck as they set off once more for the hotel.

 

For a few moments the moonlight through the thin curtains revealed the outline of the room and its furniture but as Manolito lit the lamp golden light flared and steadied, its glow revealing all that the moonlight had concealed.

Taking off his hat Manolito tossed it onto the dresser before unbuckling his gun belt and hanging it at the head of the bed. Leaving the only chair in the room for Buck's use he sat on the edge of the bed, hearing it creak as it accepted his weight.

Nervously Buck sat down, his attention dominated by the white counterpaned bed and the slender figure of his friend. He took a swallow of whisky to calm his nerves. How in hell had he got himself into this mess anyway?

"There is some whisky left, por favor?"

"Yeah, sure," said Buck, handing over the quarter-full bottle. "It ain't very good."

There was a smile. "It never is."

Not bothering to try and locate a glass he drank straight from the bottle, the rough liquor burning a path down his throat.

An unnatural silence settled across the room. Looking at Buck, who was engrossed in examining his worn leather working gloves, Manolito began to wonder if he was doing the right thing - but they had so much to gain, he told himself. And so much to lose, cautioned an inner voice. They would not lose, he decided determinedly, his natural optimism reasserting itself.

Retrieving the bottle Buck took a long swallow of the fiery spirit - wondering how, after so much effort, he could still be sober. Manolito gave a soft sigh of weariness; it had been a very long day and every muscle he possessed ached. Looking across at his brother-in-law his expression softened; however bad he felt, Buck appeared to be feeling immeasurably worse.

"I think it is time there was a little more honesty between us, my friend."

"Honesty?" repeated Buck, a puzzled frown wrinkling his forehead.

"Si. We have been keeping the truth from each other for far too long; keeping it perhaps even from ourselves."

Not wanting to have this conversation, Buck wiped a leather-gloved hand across his face. "This truth might be better left alone."

"No," breathed Manolito softly. He paused, considering. "I regret wasting all the words I could have used to convince you. This is something new in my life, Buck. I have not felt like this for a very long time."

Watching, he saw Buck wrestling with this statement. "You mean you ... you've..."

"Many years ago," confirmed Manolito with a slight nod. "I was very young," he added, reminiscently.

Silently Buck fought down a surge of jealousy, shocked by the intensity of his reaction.

"It was different then," continued Manolito. "We did not stop to think about such a thing as consequences. We were too busy being in love."

His throat suddenly dry, Buck took another pull at the whisky.

"Does Victoria ... ?"

"No, my sister knows nothing." There was a pause. "I am no longer so young. I know the consequences and the difficulties, but they mean nothing when compared to the feelings I have for you."

There was no response. Buck kept his gaze firmly on the bottle in his hand; that, at least, was familiar.

"For a long time now," continued Manolito persuasively, "I have loved you but was too afraid to speak."

His heart thudding so loudly he was sure the other man must be able to hear it, Buck concentrated on controlling the desire that ran like brushfire through his blood. Helplessly he shook his head. "It's wrong, Mano, you know that."

"Wrong?" echoed Manolito, slightly surprised. It was true Buck had a strong moral streak but it was not of the Puritan persuasion, eschewing all forms of sensual pleasure.

"Yes, wrong," repeated Buck, sharply. "What d'you suppose Big John or Don Sebastian would have to say about somethin' like that?"

"Maldito lo que me importa," snapped Manolito impatiently. "It is us that I care about." He paused to bring his emotions under control.

"Tell me, Buck," he continued softly, "when you look at me what is it that you feel? The truth," he added, warningly.

Heat rising under his skin, Buck looked across at the seated figure of his friend. Torn between his upbringing and the undeniable reality of the strength of his feelings for the younger man he wanted more than anything else to run away. He also wanted to touch the tanned skin, to feel its warmth beneath his hands, to kiss the mouth that was smiling at him so lovingly.

Unable to reconcile the conflicting emotions, he shook his head. "You already know ... I love you ... "

"But ... " sighed the Mexican. "Why are you so afraid, amigo? Do you truly believe that the sky would fall in if I were to kiss you?" he suggested softly.

"Don't," begged Buck desperately, clenching his hands to stop them from trembling.

Sadness flooded Manolito. He could not force Buck to go against his nature. "Lo siento mucho, amore mio."

Surprised by the apology as much as by the endearment, Buck looked up. "It ain't your fault, Mano. It's me."

"No," disagreed Montoya gently. "The fault is mine and I accept it fully. I should not have been so ... so importunate." He hesitated before asking, uncertainly, "We are still friends?"

"Course we are," assured Buck hurriedly. "I hope."

"Si," agreed Manolito, smiling his relief that he had not destroyed their friendship completely.

The discussion finished, exhaustion washed over Manolito leaving him light-headed, longing for the comfort of the bed he was sitting on. Attempting to shrug out of his jacket he choked back an exclamation of pain as the material dragged against his injured shoulder.

"Here, let me do that," demanded Buck getting swiftly to his feet. Gently he disentangled Manolito from his jacket and bent to deal with his boots.

"You should have been in bed hours ago," he scolded, seeing for the first time the depth of tiredness in the brown eyes.

"Si, I am in agreement with you, amigo."

Realising the ambiguity of his words, Buck flushed.

Still smiling, Manolito laid his hand on the other man's arm. "If you think I am capable of doing anything in that bed but sleep you are sadly mistaken," he explained.

Shaking his head, Buck left him to get out of the rest of his clothes by himself.

"I'll be back in a minute," he said, heading for the door.

"Buck?"

"Too much whisky," reassured Buck. "I won't be long."

Dispiritedly Manolito watched the door close, wondering if he had gambled and lost more than he cared to part with.

 

By the time Buck got back, Manolito was already in bed, one brown arm lying outside the covers, his eyes closed. Assuming he was already asleep Buck quietly got ready for bed himself. Extinguishing the lamp he slid between the cool sheets, breathing a soft sigh of relief at having accomplished so much without waking his companion.

Manolito's quiet breathing was like a blessing in the darkness and, for the first time in what seemed like days, Buck finally found himself beginning to relax. Freed from tension his mind wandered to the nights he and Mano had spent away from the ranch, away from distractions and disturbance with the stars and the howl of a coyote for company - nights when he had lain awake, like now, and thought about Manolito and their friendship. He realised now where those thoughts had been leading him, but it was too late to take them back even if he had wanted to - and he didn't. A man couldn't be damned for his thoughts. The warm, breathing reality beside him was different and he did not dare let his thoughts drift too far.

"Buck?"

"I'm here," whispered the older man, surprised.

There was a brief pause as Manolito considered his words. "You admire the Indian very much, do you not?"

"You know I do," agreed Buck, intrigued. "Why?"

"I know that you think like the Indian in many ways," continued Manolito, not answering him. "His god is your god."

"Mano, this is a hell of a conversation ... "

"Es verdad?" demanded Manolito impatiently.

"Yeah," admitted Buck reluctantly. "I believe in the Great Spirit."

The darkness hid Manolito's smile but the warmth of his breath fanned Buck's face as the younger man turned towards him.

"You have travelled among them, you know their ways. Did you never come across the Cheyenne?"

"Sure I did, but I don't see ... "

"What to you is so wrong is to them as natural as ... as anything else created by the Great Spirit. If God made us, as we are taught he did, then he also created our natures, diverse as they are. If the savage Indian can accept this, why cannot we?"

There was no answer.

Having delivered his argument, Manolito turned over. "Buenos noches, my friend."

Somehow Buck managed to recover his wits enough to return the sentiment. Lying awake in the darkness he went over and over Manolito's persuasive words. He and John had been brought up on hard work, plain food and strict adherence to the Word of God as revealed in the Old Testament. Victoria's religion was just as strict but more forgiving; maybe that was why Mano found it easier to break away. In his case, fire and brimstone preaching had given him a healthy respect for the penalties of sinfulness - not that it had ever stopped him from having a good time - and it all seemed a very long time ago now. The desert had reshaped him, taught him another creed, respect for life and a deep appreciation of it. The Indian was closer to his God than any churchman he had ever met - with the possible exception of Padre Sanchez, and he was a first class rogue. If they could balance their nature and their religion then so should he be able to.

Unable to resist the temptation he rested his hand lightly on Manolito's bare shoulder, holding his breath as the younger man murmured in his sleep.

"It'll be okay, Mano," he whispered. "I promise, it'll be okay."

At that moment he believed it.

 

Lifelong habit woke Buck early. He lay blinking at the sun slanting in through the curtains, savouring the pleasure of the new understanding between himself and Manolito. He smiled. It was an understanding that his aristocratic friend knew nothing about - yet.

Carefully he slid out of bed and quietly began to get washed and dressed. He was buttoning his shirt when he realised he was being watched. "Buenos dias, amigo," he called.

Bemused both by the hour and his companion's high spirits, Manolito pushed a hand through his ruffled hair, pleased to see Buck in such good humour. Last night he had feared he had put too much strain on their friendship, had asked Buck for more than he was capable of giving - or receiving.

"You are very cheerful this morning, my friend," he responded with a smile.

The slight shyness Manolito loved to see crept into Buck's eyes and roughened his voice. "I guess I got good reason t'be cheerful."

"Si?" prompted Manolito, intrigued.

"Si."

Moving to sit on the edge of the bed Buck was able for the first time to enjoy simply looking at his friend, lost in wonder at the fact that the smiling mouth was his for the asking. His heartbeat quickening, he concentrated instead on the sleepy brown eyes.

"Mano," he began eventually, "I got to thinking last night about what you said. About the Indians an' such."

"Si," acknowledged Manolito, his tone encouraging the older man to continue.

"I decided ... " He hesitated. "Well, maybe you was right. I've been around a long time but there ain't no-one ever made me feel the way you do. If some folk think that's wrong, then that's their problem."

"There is a need for caution," counselled Manolito, pleased with this positive approach when he had least expected it.

"Yeah, I know that."

Watching, Manolito realised that Buck wanted to say more but could not find the words.

"What is it?" he asked finally. "What is wrong?"

"It ain't wrong, exactly." Worry clouded his eyes. "I ... I need some time," he admitted in a rush, afraid he was risking losing everything with this confession.

Manolito's growing concern melted into a smile of relief. "You shall have all the time you need, amore mio."

The soft assurance brought back the shy, fugitive smile. "I like that."

"As long as you believe it is true."

His answer was the happiness in Buck's eyes. "You know, we oughtta be gettin' outta here. Big John's gonna be plenty mad when we get back."

Manolito shrugged negligently at the risk. "It has been worth Big John's anger." He hesitated for a beat. "I am not so sure about my sister's."

Recognising that he was being teased, Buck laughed. "All the more reason we should get goin'."

"Si, as much as I hate to admit it, you are right, amigo," agreed Manolito, waiting for Buck to remove himself so he could get out of bed.

Once on his feet he held out a hand to Buck to steady himself.

"Hey, are you sure you're okay?"

His skin felt stiff and sore but no doubt it would work out as he began to move around. "Si, si, I am fine." Taking a breath, he straightened up. "Breakfast," he suggested, hoping to distract his companion from worrying about him.

"Sure, but don't you think you'd best put some pants on?"

Laughing, Manolito pushed away the supporting hand. "Out of my way!"

 

The lookout on the roof of the ranch-house saw their approach and shouted down word of their arrival. When they entered the compound there was a welcoming committee waiting for them.

"So, you finally decided to come home," began John Cannon, disapproval in every line of his face and figure.

"Later, John," objected Buck, swinging down from the saddle.

"What?" demanded his brother.

Ignoring him Buck concentrated on helping Manolito to dismount, then making sure he stayed on his feet.

"Hola, Victoria ... " smiled Mano, trying to push him away. "Big John ... "

Concerned by the strain in his face Victoria stepped forward.

"Manolo?"

Dreading her questions, her understandable concern, he shook his head. "Later ... I must see to my horse."

"I'll see to the horses," declared Buck, gathering the reins together. "You see to him."

Deciding maybe his brother was right for once, John took hold of Manolito's arm to guide him into the house. "Later," he warned Buck, over his shoulder.

"I ain't goin' nowheres."

Impatiently Manolito tried to shake off John Cannon's hand but the rancher was insistent.

"You just follow Victoria," he ordered, gravel-voiced. Head spinning, uncertain just how long he could remain on his feet, Manolito knew he had no choice but obedience.

"You need any help?" John asked his wife from the doorway of Manolito's room.

"Could you perhaps ask Vaquero for some warm water, por favor?"

Grunting an acknowledgement, he released his brother-in-law.

Swaying dangerously as John's hold was released, Manolito was grateful for his sister's support as she walked him slowly to the bed.

"Come, sit down," she ordered softly. It was no use scolding him, she decided, helping him out of his jacket. It was too late and he was in no condition to be shouted at. Buck had no sense either, allowing him to ride home in this condition.

A knock at the door announced Vaquero, bringing the water she had asked for.

"Gracias. Take over here, I need to find the salve and some fresh bandages."

"Si, senora," he acknowledged as she passed him.

Putting down the bowl of water he advanced on Manolito, who smiled up at him.

"It's okay, Vaquero, I can manage."

Shaking his head, the houseman did not even hesitate. "Senora Cannon, she gives the orders - we have to obey."

Faced with this ultimatum, Manolito submitted to accepting Vaquero's help. If he was truthful he was relieved to be safely back at the rancho. In Tucson he had felt fine, but the long ride home in the hot morning sun had completely exhausted him.

By the time Victoria returned he was undressed and in bed.

"Thank you, Vaquero," she smiled as he withdrew, closing the door quietly behind him.

Turning back the sheet Victoria pursed her lips, pained and angry at the sight of the fresh blood staining the bandages.

"Why, Manolito?" she asked, carefully beginning to remove the soiled dressings, gently soaking away the material where it had dried against the wounds.

"I needed to speak to Buck," he replied, gritting his teeth.

"Lo siento," she murmured, her face strained.

"Is all right, querida," he whispered reassuringly.

"Was it really so importante?" she questioned, examining the bruised and lacerated muscles for any sign of infection.

"Si, mucho importante."

Satisfied that what inflammation there was was not dangerous, Victoria shook her head at his folly. "Can you turn over?"

Carefully she smoothed the salve into the weals striping his back. If she could keep the skin supple it might help to diminish any scarring.

"You may lie back now."

"I, myself, can manage the rest," he announced, reaching for the jar.

"You will lie still and practice doing as you are told!" scolded Victoria.

"Si," he capitulated, realising how angry she was. "If you say so."

"I do say so," she retorted, resuming her work of trying to minimise any lasting damage from the Apache whips.

"Duele mucho?" she asked softly a few minutes later, regretting her sharpness.

Familiar brown eyes regarded her affectionately. "No, querida, your touch is very gentle."

She continued to work in silence, aware that her patient was becoming more and more relaxed. Finally he was asleep.

Straightening up she drew the sheet back over him. Several of the deeper cuts needed to be re-bandaged but they were healing cleanly and would not hurt for being left for a few hours.

Using the last of the now tepid water to rinse her hands she went out to face her husband.

 

Hand on the door of the ranch house Buck hesitated. He could think of plenty of things he would rather do than see his brother right now - but things weren't going to get any better for waiting. Steeling himself for the storm he went in, pulling off his hat as he got inside.

"You said you wanted to talk to me."

Uncoiling himself from the couch, John Cannon stood up. "Talk doesn't even begin to describe what I would like to do to you and Montoya," he warned, low voiced.

Buck let the words wash over him. He could understand the anger behind them.

"I'm sorry, John ... "

"Sorry?" interrupted the bigger man. "I'll believe you're sorry when you tell me what in tarnation is going on around here!"

"Why, there ain't nuthin' goin' on, John." ... at least, not yet, he added to himself.

Faced with this denial Cannon took a deep breath. "I'll pass over the way the two of you went out to that Apache village against my wishes. I'll even pass over the fact that because of your behaviour we've been short-handed - that much is understandable at least ... but it hasn't stopped there, has it? Now, I want to know what it was you and Montoya were fighting about."

Mulishly Buck shook his head. "I can't tell you."

"You can't ... " John stopped himself, anger seething through him.

"It's between me an' Mano," continued Buck. "It ain't nuthin' to do with you."

"Everything that happens at High Chaparral is to do with me," countered John, "especially when it disrupts the running of the ranch and the lives of my family. Now, are you going to tell me?"

"No." Buck met the furious gaze stubbornly. "Me an' Mano, we just work here, John. You don't own us, we ain't your slaves."

About to retort, John saw the direction of his brother's gaze and turned to see his wife descending the short flight of steps into the living room.

"How is he?" asked Buck, his concern evident to Victoria at least.

"Asleep. It was not as bad as I feared."

"Thank God for that."

"What I do not understand is how you could let him ride home in such a condition!" exclaimed Victoria, unable to prevent the words from spilling out of her.

"To tell you the truth, ma'am, when we left Tucson he was just fine. I didn't know anythin' was wrong till it was too late to go back."

Sighing, she admitted to herself that it sounded very like her foolhardy brother. "I am sorry."

"Ain't nuthin' for you to be sorry for. This whole mess is my fault from start to finish," he admitted.

"Go on," ordered John. "Let's get some work done around here for a change."

When they were alone Victoria moved into her husband's embrace.

"How is Manolito?" he asked, knowing how concerned she had been.

"Only very tired, I think. If only he would rest it would not hurt so much."

"He'll rest," he promised darkly.

"John, you are not still angry ... "

"Yes, Victoria, I am - and you are not going to sweet talk me out of it. But I can wait."

Biting her lip, Victoria wondered exactly what kind of punishment her husband had in mind for his brother and Manolito.

 

Pushing open the bedroom door, Buck glanced through, then, satisfied that Manolito was still asleep, he began to ease back.

"Buck?"

"I'm sorry," he apologised in a whisper. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"You did not," assured Manolito.

"Victoria said you was asleep," explained Buck, closing the door as he entered the room.

"No," smiled the younger man. "I have been only half asleep and half awake for some time."

There was silence.

"What is wrong, Buck? Are you perhaps regretting ... ?"

"No," denied Buck swiftly. "No, I don't regret anythin' that's happened between us ... it's just ... "

"You did not force me to go to the Apache village," pointed out Manolito, knowing exactly what was worrying his friend. "Nor did you force me to follow you into Tucson." Sighing, he wondered how he could persuade the other man to move closer. "I would like a drink, por favor."

"Sure," agreed Buck, hurriedly taking the linen cloth off the water jug and pouring out a glassful.

"Gracias," murmured Manolito, taking the offered glass from him.

"Please sit," he requested.

Gingerly Buck perched himself on the edge of the bed.

"Big John is still angry?" asked Mano, conversationally.

"And how," confirmed Buck. "But he's bidin' his time."

They both knew he was only waiting until Mano had recovered before letting the axe fall on both of them.

"What time is it?" asked Mano suddenly as he realised how out of touch he was.

"Almost dinner time. You been asleep all day."

"How can I then be so tired?" was the irritable reply.

"I reckon that's just everythin' catchin' up on you," soothed Buck, taking the glass Mano held out to him. "You need to rest, take things easy." He swallowed, staring at the weals disfiguring the smooth brown skin. "They ... they ain't gonna go away over night."

Remorse flooding his eyes, Manolito reached out to pull up the sheet. "I did not mean for you to ... "

"I know that," assured Buck. He smiled. "I reckon we're both more than a mite foolish."

"I would have to agree with that," echoed Manolito, holding out his hand.

Taking hold of it, absently caressing the long fingers, Buck seemed to relax a little. "What you thinkin'?"

"How much I love you," replied Mano evenly. "And how much easier it would be to convince you if we were alone."

"I'm already convinced. It's just ... I'm kinda scared."

"You should not be afraid. Not of me."

"It ain't you, exactly," objected the older man.

So much uncertainty, so many opportunities for fearful speculation - that was the danger.

"Kiss me," whispered Manolito unexpectedly.

Apprehension sizzled through Buck's nerve endings. "Now?" he asked, appalled by the risk they would be taking.

"Now," confirmed Manolito quietly. "If you knew how much I need this, how much I need you - you would not hesitate, amore mio."

Blanking out every thought of his brother, of all the other occupants of the house - any one of whom could walk in at any moment - Buck concentrated instead on the appeal in the brown eyes, leaning forward in obedience to that appeal.

Manolito's lips were warm and yielding, exactly as Buck had imagined they would be. He found himself deepening the kiss, wanting more.

"The sky has not yet fallen in," teased Manolito, his eyes sparkling with mischief as they drew apart.

"That ain't no fault of mine," gasped Buck, heartbeat racing.

"I have to agree with that, too," smiled the younger man. Reaching up, he combed his fingers contentedly through the short, curling hair. "There is more, amigo, so much more," he promised.

Shyness suddenly returning, Buck smiled. "Well, I don't think I'm scared any more," he confessed, desire still burning a path along his veins. Unwillingly he released the hand he was still holding. "I don't want to have to leave, but Victoria's planned something special for tonight. I'd best go get changed."

Puzzled, Manolito frowned slightly - then light dawned. "It is for the girls, no?"

There was a nod. "It's probably gonna be their last night here an' Victoria wants everythin' to be real nice."

"I shall get dressed," decided Manolito firmly.

"I think you'd best stay where you are," advised Buck, thinking of John and Victoria's reaction.

"Ask Vaquero to come and help me," ordered Mano, determination lighting his eyes.

"I ain't sure this is such a good idea, amigo."

"How often do we have such guests at Chaparral?" demanded the other man. "It would be unforgivable to miss such an occasion."

Realising he would not get anywhere by arguing, Buck went in search of Vaquero.

 

Glancing from the doorway of the house, Buck quickly found what he was looking for - Manolito's figure was a darker shadow against the night sky. Letting the door close behind him, leaving them alone in the darkness, he soft-footed across the porch to stand next to the Mexican.

"You okay?"

"Si," replied Manolito immediately. "A little tired," he added, sensing that Buck did not entirely believe him.

The silence settled around them again. "It sure is pretty," said Buck eventually, gazing at the vastness of the desert sky; the stars so bright and clear and cold - it seemed like you could reach out and touch them.

The perfume of the night flowering verbena drifted past on the soft air, making the moment complete.

"We are very lucky, amigo," observed Manolito softly, continuing his search of the night sky, identifying the constellations, locating the individual stars whose names he could remember.

Several more moments passed in silence.

"You and Miss Anne sure spent plenty of time together tonight."

Manolito smiled, remembering their conversation. "She was telling me of her plans for when they reach California."

"You think they'll be okay?"

"Si. She still remembers her uncle, and five years is not so long. I made her promise to contact us if there is any difficulty."

"Good idea," approved Buck. He glanced appreciatively at the slim figure of his friend and smiled. "I'm not surprised Miss Anne started to open up a little - you clean up real good."

Manolito half turned, eyes glimmering darkly in the starlight.

"It was not Miss Anne I was trying to impress," he said softly.

The meaning in the low voice was unmistakable. Buck swallowed nervously, his skin suddenly two sizes too small. "No?"

"No," confirmed Manolito, not lowering his gaze.

"Well, you surely succeeded," Buck managed to say. He had hardly been able to take his eyes off him for most of the evening, and had been terrified that someone would notice. The close-fitting Mexican suit with its ruffled shirt proclaimed what they were sometimes inclined to forget - that Mano was no ordinary ranch-hand. He was an hidalgo, heir of one of the oldest Spanish families in the Southwest, with a pedigree that went back to before America had even been discovered. The knowledge was disconcerting and Buck still sometimes had trouble accepting that with his background and opportunities Manolito had chosen him. He gave a sigh.

"Something is wrong?"

"Why me?" blurted out Buck, without meaning to.

There was silence for a moment. "I could give you many reasons - but truthfully, I do not know why."

"You want to give me a couple of those reasons?" suggested Buck, badly in need of reassurance.

"What is it that you wish me to say, compadre?" asked Manolito, laying his hand on Buck's arm to draw him closer. "That it is for your compassion that I love you, your care for those weaker than yourself? Or for your strength, perhaps, for the courage that would have taken you alone to the Apache village?"

Buck moved uneasily, more used to being blamed than praised.

Unexpectedly, Manolito smiled. "Perhaps, amigo, I love you for your dreadful sense of humour, which is only marginally worse than my own," he suggested, teasing a little.

Feeling easier, and a touch foolish, Buck grinned.

"These are reasons," added Mano softly, "but they are not the reason. They do not explain why your smile should mean so much to me, why your touch is a comfort and an excitement both at the same time, or why I have such a terrible longing ... to be held by you," he confessed, his voice roughening.

The night pressed in on them more closely, taking away Buck's ability to breathe properly.

"Mano ... "

Determinedly the young Mexican brought his feelings under control.

"I said I would give you time, amigo, and I was sincere."

"I know that." The familiar shy half-smile chased across Buck's features. "I just ain't sure I want to wait that long any more."

A low chuckle of laughter answered him out of the darkness. "I am glad to hear it."

Before they could say any more the door opened, spilling golden light into the night.

"There you are," declared John, as if he had been searching for them for hours. "You'd best come in, Victoria is about to serve coffee."

"We'll be there," assured Buck.

When it was obvious they were not going to move immediately John went back into the house, calling over his shoulder, "Don't take all night."

Manolito gave a sigh. "Ayyy ... It will not always be like this," he declared.

"No?" asked Buck, unconvinced.

"No," repeated his companion. "We will work something out," he maintained confidently, struck by the sudden fear that Buck might not want a permanent commitment. "That is, if ... "

Understanding and affection filled Buck's brown eyes. He smiled, placing a hand on Manolito's shoulder. "Why don't we just go easy and let ... let things turn out whichever way they will. It ain't no use to worry about it."

"Si, you are right," conceded Manolito, softly.

Wanting to say more, Buck was aware that words were inadequate; he and Mano needed the reassurance of physical contact to reinforce the bond between them, but the presence of the ranch-hands over in the bunkhouse, the sentry on the roof and their family safe inside the house made such contact impossible.

"I love you, Mano," he said, gruffly, still uneasy when admitting his feelings. "It'll be all right," he promised. "You'll see."

Smiling, Manolito laid his hand on top of Buck's where it still rested on his shoulder. "You are a very good friend, Buck."

"Come on," he was ordered. "Afore Big John comes looking for us again."

Nodding his agreement, Manolito took a last look at the star-filled sky before following him back into the house.

* * * * *

John Cannon watched his brother-in-law laughing with Reno over some joke or another and decided that the time had come to put his threats into execution. It was clear that Manolito had fully recovered from his ordeal in Toba's camp and both he and Buck had probably decided that they had escaped his wrath. Well, they were going to find out they were wrong. He had exactly the right punishment worked out for them and was human enough to view the dismay he would undoubtedly cause with some pleasure.

"Buck," he yelled, his voice carrying across the compound to where his brother was busy examining the hoof of one of the remuda animals. Straightening up, Buck raised a hand to show he had heard. "You'd best deal with this, Sam, while I see what it is Big John wants now."

"Manolito," rang out the stentorian voice again. "If you and Reno can bear to break off whatever it is you're discussing, I'd like a word with you myself."

Faced with the cause of so much trouble and worry, John shook his head. Maybe a few days' hard living would make them think twice next time before they set off on some harebrained stunt that was liable to get them killed.

"I've got a job for you."

"Sure, John, what is it?" asked Buck easily.

"I want you and Manolito to go out and check the fences to the south and south-west."

Buck stared at him. "John, that's three, maybe four days' work for just the two of us," he objected.

"That's right," agreed the rancher. "And while you're checking fences you can round up any strays you come across."

"John ... "

"No," he was interrupted. "No excuses, you and Mano just draw your supplies, get saddled up and leave."

"I do not think it will do any good to argue, amigo," advised Manolito quietly.

"You got that right, Montoya," agreed Cannon. "While the two of you are out there with the Apache and whatever else the good Lord saw fit to dump in the desert you might think about how much easier life could be if you would just show a little common sense now and again."

"You mean you're doin' this to ... "

"I think 'punish' is the word you're looking for, Buck, and yes, that is exactly why I'm doing it. Now get saddled up and get out of here, pronto."

Manolito tugged at his friend's sleeve. "I think we had better do as he says."

"You go on, I'll follow." Waiting until Manolito was out of earshot, Buck turned on his brother. "Does Victoria know what you're planning to do?"

"Victoria?"

"That's her brother you're sending out there. Supposin' he ain't fit?"

"He's fit enough," declared John. "And if he isn't, then it's up to you to take care of him. Right?"

Realising he would not get his brother to change his mind, Buck grudgingly agreed. "Right."

"Then jump to it while there's still some daylight left," advised John caustically, leaving his brother to glare after him as he strode across to the forge. The moment had been every bit as satisfying as he had expected it to be.

 

"I will speak to John," declared Victoria.

Manolito caught hold of his sister's arm. "You will do no such thing," he ordered quietly.

She gazed at him mutinously. It wasn't often that Manolito used that tone of voice to her but she had learned to respect it, however unwillingly.

Releasing his grip, Manolito smiled. "There is no need. There is nothing wrong with me, I promise you."

Even as children she had not been proof against that particular smile. "Es verdad?"

"Si." He paused. "And I have Buck to take care of me," he added, laughing.

"Buck? I would not entrust him with ... pah," she exploded, when Manolito could not hold back his amusement. "Go and fix your fences," she ordered, haughtily, spoiling the effect by adding anxiously, "but be careful."

"I am always careful, querida," he assured her softly, tilting her face upwards so that he could kiss her forehead. He glanced across to where Buck was waiting. "I must go."

Buck watched impassively as Manolito crossed the compound towards him. "How'd it go?"

The younger man shrugged his shoulders. "Victoria, she does not like the idea of us venturing so close to the Apache - but me," he smiled, "I am content."

Swallowing down his own satisfaction, Buck wheeled his horse and set off through the gate that led to freedom.

 

They were still within sight of the ranch when Manolito glanced sideways at his companion. "You brother is punishing us in a most remarkable way," he observed, conversationally.

"That's John for you," responded Buck. "He thinks three days in the middle of nowhere with the sun burnin' the hide off you ... and no decent food ... and the Apache ... To him, that's a punishment."

Manolito laughed. "He has forgotten the nights, amigo, with the moon and the stars ... " His good humour mellowed as he looked at his friend. "I like this punishment, I think."

Caught up in the sudden change of mood, Buck nodded. "Me too."

Without warning, he kicked his horse into a gallop, looking back over his shoulder at Manolito racing to catch up with him. Wind streaming past his face he gave a rebel yell of triumph - Brother John had sure surpassed himself this time.

Buck had been alone in the desert many times and had discovered within himself an appreciation of its wildness and purity, a sense of belonging that dispersed whenever other people were present. Make that 'other white men', he amended, as he walked his horse along an arroyo ahead of Manolito. The Indian did not disturb the peace of the desert; he moved over its surface and left no trace, felt no need to improve on what the Great Spirit had created. Mano was the only other person he had met who felt as he did, at home beneath the vast sky, not intimidated by the silence, by the vastness of the landscape, enduring the heat of the desert and the cold of the mountains as the price the land exacted from its children.

Coming up out of the arroyo golden light flowed over the landscape, lengthening the angular shadows of the cholla. Manolito drew level with him, gazing at the scene in front of them with infinite satisfaction, distant mountains rising blue from the floor of the desert.

"I thought we'd make for the river," suggested Buck.

"Si, that sounds like an excellent idea. We can be there before dark."

Buck risked a glance at his companion, who smiled at him.

"Soon, compadre," promised Manolito softly. "Very soon."

Overcome by a variety of emotions the older man wiped a gloved hand across his face and started his horse forward, Manolito following sedately behind.

 

Swollen by summer rains the river ran deep and cool beneath the trees, small islets all but overrun by its volume; even the cold, clear smell of it was intoxicating after the dust of the desert.

"What're you doing?" called Buck, from where he was carefully feeding driftwood to the fire.

"I am thinking ... that I will take a swim in the river."

Getting to his feet Buck went over to him, boots scrunching on the strand of fine gravel edging the sandy shore.

"Is it not inviting, my friend?" asked Manolito, stripping off his jacket.

"I guess," agreed Buck, uncertainly.

"You will join me?" invited Mano, fingers busy with the buttons of his cotton-print shirt, brown eyes sparkling with mischief.

A sudden picture of brown limbs cutting cleanly through the water assaulted Buck's imagination, momentarily taking his breath away.

"Could be," he agreed, unbuckling his gun belt, suddenly aware that his hands were trembling.

The water felt like silk as it flowed across his skin, soft as a caress. Sinking beneath the surface, Manolito swam towards Buck, rising out of the water almost into his arms. Startled, Buck floundered, clutching at the gleaming wet shoulders. Before he could recover his balance Manolito's mouth was covering his, drowning them both more surely than the river could.

 

Broken by the hiss and crackle of the fire, silence stretched out around them, the soft air sighed through the branches of the trees, bringing them the occasional shuffle of iron-shod hooves or the eerie cry of a nightbird to momentarily disturb the peace. Buck never tired of looking at the night sky, pierced by the brilliance of the stars. Tonight they seemed more luminous than ever before.

"It is beautiful, is it not?" whispered Manolito, turning in his arms.

"An' how long have you been able to read my mind?"

"Oh, a very long time ... since I first realised ... "

"Realised what?"

"How I feel about you." He paused, studying the face of his lover, his gaze tracing the strong lines thrown into relief by the firelight. "You are not sorry?" he asked, knowing the answer but needing to hear it from Buck.

"No," he replied, simply. "No, I ain't sorry." He hugged Manolito closer to him. "I never thought anything could be so ... so right."

Satisfied with this reply, Manolito relaxed into the strong embrace. "Buck ... " he began hesitantly.

"What is it?"

"I do not care about the saloon girls, but I would not like there to be another handsome widow."

"You jealous?" asked Buck incredulously.

"Just as jealous as I was then."

Buck gave a sigh. "I wish I'd knowed that then! I was lonely, Mano. John, he had Victoria, and you ... you had just about any gal you wanted. Sometimes it seemed like I'd never... "

Reaching up, Manolito laid a finger against his lips to silence him. "That is in the past, my friend." He gazed into the brown eyes, flecked now with gold by the firelight. "Tell me, when did you first realise how you felt?"

"I don't rightly know," admitted Buck. "First time I admitted to it was when we was bringing Olive back."

So much of that long ride had been lost in a haze of pain and exhaustion leaving only patches of recollection, most of them concerning his partner. Manolito knew he would never really remember all of it.

"When?" he asked softly.

"We'd stopped to rest and you ... you cut the collar from around her neck."

"Si," replied Manolito, remembering the child's tears.

"God knows what kind of pain you had but there you was, tryin' your best to comfort her." Buck gave a sigh. "I couldn't hide any more, after that."

Smiling, Manolito shifted his weight to lean over him. "I am glad," he breathed, lowering himself to kiss the waiting mouth.

Buck held him tightly, fingers tracing pathways left by the Apache lash, knowing without that pain to break down their defences they would not be sharing this passionate exchange of love and trust. True, they would probably have found each other eventually, but how much time they would have wasted!

Returning the kiss, Buck refused to think about the future. However much he tried to avoid them, Manolito had responsibilities that sooner or later he would have to face up to; Don Sebastian wasn't going to live forever.

Not for the first time he thanked the Fates that he had never been an acquisitive man. All he needed was enough to live on; let John and others like him build empires of land and cattle. Trouble was, the Montoya empire was already a fact - a fact that all the rotgut and wild behaviour in the world wasn't going to change.

Manolito settled into his arms with a contented sigh and Buck shook off his preoccupation with the future. Don Sebastian was good for a few more years - time enough for him and Manolito to sort themselves out and decide what they wanted to do with their lives. As far as he was concerned he didn't much care as long as he and Mano were together and he could make the younger man happy. Nothing was more important than that; not the High Chaparral, not Rancho Montoya - nothing.

Satisfied that whatever happened they would be able to deal with it together, Buck gave himself up to the pleasure of the moment. It surely was good of John to punish them this way!

* * * * *