Dearest little sister,
With deep regret I write this to you, for I abhor casting a shadow over the wonderful time you are surely having at university in Europe. However, I fear you would never forgive me should I not let you know the news immediately.
Papa suffered a heart attack this morning. He is still in crisis, and we are most worried about him. The doctor won’t leave his side, nor will the rest of us, for he has not yet gained consciousness.
You must come, Sonnie. Come back home to us.
Papa needs you now.
Sonnie Mancuso didn’t have to read the telegram again to know its contents. She could recite every paragraph, every word, from memory.
She’d been strolling through Sr. Peter’s Square in Rome when the message had finally caught up with her. Accompanied by her aunt and two of her cousins, she’d raced through the great piazza back to their hotel; within hours they’d embarked on a steamship back to America. Aunt Josephine’s influence had been invaluable in arranging their harried return home.
With gloved fingers, Sonnie refolded her older sister’s message along lines so creased the edges had begun to tear. Her gaze fell, as it had many times before, to the date typed three months earlier.
Three months. Had Papa recovered since she’d received word of his attack? Or had he . . . ?
Sonnie refused to think of the possibility of his death. He was too strong, too smart, too . . . stubborn to die.
And she had missed him terribly since he sent her away.
Vince Mancuso had not been blessed with sons. Sonnie was his sixth daughter, an “afterthought” born nearly ten years after Barbara. Cholera had claimed her mother when Sonnie was yet a baby, and after her passing, Vince had channeled his energies and time into building the Rocking M ranch into a powerful operation. He’d left the care and responsibility of raising Sonnie to his older daughters.
Sonnie’s mouth dipped ruefully at the rush of memories. She’d been a hellcat in those early years, much to the exasperation of her sisters. Willful and too much of a hoyden, she’d resisted their attempts to domesticate her, to teach her of cooking and sewing and cleaning the Big House, when all she’d ever wanted was to brand cows and ride horses and feel the clean Wyoming air blow across her face and through her hair.
She’d longed to be one of her father’s men.
It had been impossible, of course. Vince was determined she’d be a replica of her sisters, a proper young lady with all the feminine attributes inherited from her mother. He’d been appalled at her tomboy ways and had thwarted her keen interest in the workings of the ranch, right up to the day the last of the Mancuso sisters had married and moved away.
Papa needs you now.
Sonnie didn’t think Vince Mancuso had ever needed anyone, least of all her. What use did he have for a tagalong daughter? He’d already raised five. If he ever needed her, or even wanted her, he never would’ve sent her to Boston to live with Aunt Josephine to receive her schooling there, to learn of social etiquette and fashions and the arts, all the things her sisters survived just fine without.
She’d been devastated when he presented her with his decision. He’d refused to listen to her protests, her rants and ravings. She’d thrown a full-blown tantrum, but in the end he’d won, as he always did, and Sonnie left the Rocking M ranch.
She’d been back only once. Once for the holidays in all those years. And even then Papa had plopped her right back on the train headed east.
Papa needs you now.
Sonnie realized she still held Barbara’s telegram between her fingers, and she slipped it inside the satin-lined leather of her bag. A determined vein of hope brought an uncertain smile to her lips.
Maybe Papa did need her. It’d been so long since she’d seen him. Surely he missed her. And perhaps it’d taken a heart attack to make him realize he wasn’t invincible, that he wouldn’t live forever, that the world didn’t revolve around Vince Mancuso and the Rocking M.
Ah, dear, stubborn, headstrong Papa. She couldn’t wait to see him.
She only hoped she wasn’t too late.
The Union Pacific Railroad passenger car swayed along the rails with a rhythmic hum that would’ve been almost lulling had Sonnie been of a mind to relax. All day she’d stared through the window at the golden wheat fields and endless sand hills of Nebraska. Since they left the North Platte and Ogallala Depots, the topography of the land had changed from the gentle swell of the bluffs to the jutting snowcapped Rocky Mountains.
Cheyenne would be their next stop. In growing anticipation, she fidgeted with the seams on her gloves, clasped and unclasped her hands. She tried to maintain an aura of composure, but as the mighty steam engine chugged to a stop, she wanted to throw all dignity to the wind and bolt to the doors like an exuberant filly.
Instead she smoothed the striped silk of her dress over her knees. She sat up straighter and tugged at the black bands of velvet trimming her waist. Her fingers gripped her bag primly on her lap, and she waited for the conductor’s signal allowing them to leave.
From Boston she’d sent a wire notifying her father–or someone–of the exact date and time of her arrival. What if the wire had never reached the Rocking M? The ranch had always been self-sufficient. Days and even weeks passed before one of the men made a trip into town to receive mail and telegrams.
What if they didn’t know she was coming?
Chewing on the inside of her lip–a most unladylike habit, Aunt Josephine always declared–Sonnie stared into the throng of people crowding the platform. The blur of faces revealed no one familiar, and she battled a rising wave of disappointment.
At the conductor’s direction, she maneuvered into the aisle with the other departing passengers. She stepped from the train into the crisp autumn air and rose up on tiptoe to search again for someone she recognized.
“Miss Sonnie? Miss Sonnie! Over here!”
So many years had passed since she had heard the wizened old cowboy’s voice, but the sound washed over her as though it had been only yesterday. Feeling a delighted smile fill her features, she turned, instantly spotting his arm waving over the heads of the crowd. She returned the wave, then nudged her way through the throng toward him.
“Took yer own sweet time in comin’ back, didn’t you, young lady?” Cookie scolded with a frown on his face and a twinkle in his eye. “What’s the matter? Ain’t cow country good enough fer you anymore?”
Knowing there was no malice in his reprimand, Sonnie laughed. Dubbed Cookie for the ready supply of treats he’d kept in his saddlebag to surprise her with as a child, he had worked for her father for as long as she could remember and was as loyal and dedicated as any man could be.
“That’s not true, you grouchy dear, and you know it.” She dropped a quick kiss upon his stubbly cheek. “How good to see you again!”
“What do y’mean ‘grouchy’? Me? Heck, anyone’d turn grouchy standin’ ‘round waitin’ for you and that iron horse to roll in.”
“Don’t you pay him no mind, Miss Sonnie. We hardly waited at all, and Cookie was plain fascinated by that there train.”
Sonnie’s glance lifted upward to the tall cowboy beside him. She smiled. “How are you, Stick?” Painfully shy and obviously infatuated, he’d earned his nickname from his lanky height and bony features, but not a finer wrangler did Vince Mancuso employ. “My, I do believe you’ve gotten more handsome since I saw you last.”
“Aw, Miss Sonnie.” An embarrassed blush crept from the collar of his new shirt upward to his slicked-down hair. “You always say that, leastways you used to, and both of us know it ain’t true.”
“Oh, but it is.” She laughed again and gave him an impulsive peck on the cheek. “Thank you for coming to meet me.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.” His blush deepened from her show of affection. “I’m real glad to see you again, and I’m sure your pa will be, too.”
She searched both weathered expressions. “How is Papa?” she ventured, her smile fading. “He’s all right, isn’t he?”
“Reckon he is.” Cookie patted Sonnie’s shoulder in somber reassurance, and she murmured a fervent prayer of relief. “The heart attack took a bite out of his strength, but he’s gettin’ better. The doc says he’ll need a few more weeks of recoverin’.”
“Your sisters were all here one time or another,” Stick added. “Took their turn takin’ care of him. They’ve gone home to their families, though, now that the worst is over.”
“Yep.” Cookie eyed her shrewdly. “All that’s been missin’ is the baby of the bunch. The littlest Mancuso.”
The littlest Mancuso. Daughter number six. The last in line, the one who always seemed to be nudged aside, sent away, unneeded.
Sonnie met the old cowboy’s bold perusal.
“I’m a grown woman now, Cookie. With a mind of my own.” She squared her shoulders with renewed resolve and turned. “Stick, please retrieve my trunk when it’s unloaded. Ask them to hurry. Oh, and leave word that the rest of my things will be arriving shortly. Cookie, bring the rig around. I can hardly wait to see Papa!”
As both men obediently wove their way through the dissipating crowd, the older of the two mumbled and shook his head in a well-practiced scowl.
“Dadburned bossy woman,” he said. “The way she’s taken to givin’ orders, you’d a-think she was plannin’ on stayin’ fer a spell.”
At the thought, a sudden wide grin spread and softened his grizzled features, and his step quickened to do her bidding.
* * *
Sonnie eyed the interior of the small stagecoach with admiration, noting the tufted leather seats and gleaming wood. The exterior sported a coat of black and gold paint; even the wheels were trimmed in matching hues. In her time away from the Rocking M, she’d been exposed to various displays of wealth and luxury, and this coach, obviously new, ranked among the finest she’d seen.
She wondered at her father’s reasoning in the purchase. Had his preferences switched from traveling by horseback to a mode more sedate? Had his health demanded it? Or had he taken a liking to a more flamboyant lifestyle?
For not the first time, Sonnie realized how little she knew him anymore. They had lived worlds apart for too long. The ties they shared as father and daughter had grown fragile, so fragile that in her loneliest moments, she was sure they were nonexistent.
But she was going home now. She would learn to know him again, just as she would know the ranch and all the cowboys who worked it. Vince would love her as he should, as she loved him.
Because he needed her.
The shiny stagecoach door swung open on well-oiled hinges. Cookie stuck his head inside and squinted at her.
“Stick and I are gonna ride on the box. You gonna be okay inside here by yerself, young lady?”
Sonnie smiled at his concern. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
He shrugged. “There’s been trouble ‘round these parts lately. You know how to use a gun?”
His question startled her. “Why, yes, but–.”
He leaned forward and grasped a small wooden case from the seat opposite her, then tossed it into her lap. “There’s one if you need it. Already loaded and everythin’. Brought a basket of vittles, too. The boss thought you might be hungry after yer trip. Anythin’ else I can get you?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout nothin’. Stick and I’ll take good care of you.” He grinned. “Boss-man would skin us alive if we didn’t.”
As he stepped away, Sonnie noticed the ominous rifle in his hand. The door latched firmly, and she frowned. What kind of trouble brewed that demanded they be heavily armed?
She glanced at the case in her lap and lifted the lid. On a bed of velvet lay a shining, silver-barreled derringer and a ready supply of miniature copper-colored bullets. Somber, she closed the lid again. Years in the city under Aunt Josephine’s protection had sheltered her from the violence that was part of everyday life here in the West. And while there was a time when the sight of a gun and bullets wouldn’t have troubled her overmuch, today it only served to remind her yet again how her father had distanced her from their home at the Rocking M. She thrust the case in a far corner of the seat.
More than ever, she was determined to prove to him how valuable she was, that she belonged on the Rocking M. From the satchel at her feet, she retrieved the latest edition of Special Report on Diseases of Cattle and opened its pages thoughtfully.
How hard she had studied these years! Papa didn’t know of the classes in animal husbandry she’d taken–and that she’d excelled in them. He would never meet her professors in veterinary science or horticulture. He wouldn’t understand how she, as a woman, struggled to learn in a man’s world, to be accepted for her intelligence and not her beauty or gender.
How could he, when he couldn’t accept her himself?
A flicker of hurt and resentment flared before she quickly banked it. No, she had never told him of the studies she’d chosen; indeed, she had sworn Aunt Josephine to secrecy. She would surprise him. She would prove to him she was as good as he was.
The rig lurched forward. Her pensive gaze drifted to the window. Cheyenne had grown, she realized. Businesses flourished; traffic rumbled heavily in the streets. Wyoming had been admitted to statehood only a few months earlier and had prospered from the great westward expansion. The Eastern newspapers often reported the problems that same growth had caused, vexing wealthy cattlemen like her father and threatening the massive lands they owned.
Compared to Boston’s civility, Cheyenne seemed harsh, even crude. The women dressed plainly, quite unlike herself. Sonnie conceded that her tendency to favor the current fashions raging in London and Paris would cast her as an oddity here. Hadn’t she turned more than a few feminine–and masculine–heads at the train station?
The team lumbered past the outskirts of Cheyenne. Lush grasses blanketed the rangeland; grazing cattle roamed the hills and valleys for as far as Sonnie could see. She drank in the sight, which was vastly different from the congestion of the city, and she wondered if the herds of Hereford cattle carried the Rocking M brand.
Eventually, however, her belly reminded her how long it had been since her last meal. She laid aside her book and found the basket Cookie had left for her.
A checkered towel covered the top, and beneath, Sonnie discovered fruit, cornmeal muffins, raisins and nuts, even an india rubber water bottle with a drinking cup.
Papa’s thoughtfulness warmed her. His consideration of her comfort increased her longing to see him all the more.
And when had his men begun to call him “Boss-man”?
The basket’s fare soon eased her hunger. Munching on the last of the filberts and walnuts, she settled into a corner of the coach and eased back into the tufted leather. She propped the book in front of her and began reading of the most recent findings of the United States Department of Agriculture.
The rig jerked in a sudden spurt of speed, and Sonnie frowned.
A shot exploded in the distance. From the box, Cookie shouted a harsh command. A whip snapped; Stick bellowed, and the team heaved forward-even faster. The rutted road bounced the stagecoach without mercy and toppled her book to the floor. Sonnie was forced to grip the edges of her seat lest she fall with it.
Alarm wadded in the back of her throat. Someone had given them chase, but why? A second gunshot erupted closer still. Dear God, what had they done?
Rawhide cracked again and again. Desperation threaded Cookie’s yells as he urged the team to their limits. The coach pitched and tossed, and Sonnie was sure the frame would be ripped in two.
A flash of color merged with the blur of the countryside. A rider, his revolver raised to take aim, galloped terrifyingly close. Another, this one on the rig’s opposite side, did the same. Gunfire burst in her ears. The coach careened wildly, thrusting Sonnie helplessly to one side. She cried out and tumbled with a thump to the floor. The awful sensation of spinning, of growing dizzy and disoriented, assailed her. She slid and banged against the seat, the basket, the door.
And then . . . nothing. Absolute stillness for second after heart-pounding second.
A savage epithet shattered the silence. She blinked at the door above her.
The door. A rational part of her understood that the coach had fallen to its side, and that she lay with legs spread, hat askew, and skirts askance, in a most unladylike position.
“By Gawd, now look at what you went and did.” Outside, Cookie’s voice grated with horror and dismay. He pounded on the rig’s undercarriage. “Sonnie? Miss Sonnie? Oh, Gawd, you all right?”
She couldn’t speak. Shock numbed her.
“We gotta git her out!” Stick rasped.
“Git over here, you sons of bitches, and help us. We got a woman inside, and she could be dead!” Cookie yelled.
Sonnie’s mouth moved. She wanted to reassure him nothing was broken, that she was only bruised, that if they could just give her a few moments to catch her breath and tattered composure–.
The stagecoach began to rock and sway anew. A wave of nausea nearly upended her stomach. Horses whinnied, men grunted and swore, and she slid and bumped all over again. The rig settled upright with a bone-jarring thud.
The door flung open; her edition of Special Report on Diseases of Cattle slid out. Breathing heavily, Cookie appeared in the opening with Stick craning over his gray head.
“She’s alive! Thank the good heavens!”
“Come on, honey. Me and Stick’ll help you out. You okay?”
She managed a wobbly nod. Assured no blood had spilled and all her bones were intact, she righted her petticoats and sat up. Her Italian heritage had gifted her with a fine temper, and though Aunt Josephine had taught her to curtail most outbursts, this time even she wouldn’t deny that a full-fledged scolding was warranted and acceptable.
“What’s takin’ her so long in there?” someone demanded with a snarl. “Git her out here where’s I can see her!”
“We gotta git you out, like he says,” Cookie said in a terse voice. He patted her shoulder in grim reassurance. “We’re in a bit of trouble right now, but you jest let me an’ Stick handle it, and you’ll be jest fine.”
Sonnie scooted to the doorway on her backside and slid her feet to the ground. She drew in an irate breath. “Well, I never in all my born days–.”
A big, filthy hand grasped her wrist and yanked her from the coach. She scurried to keep her balance and spun in fury toward the brute.
Her angry outburst swirled back into her throat. He possessed a body as powerful as the strength in his hand. Coarse black hair hung down to his shoulders; eyes dark as coal scrutinized her with contempt. He was bare-chested and wore only trousers and boots, and his skin was a shade of copper she’d never seen except upon the pages of her cousin Jeffrey’s dime novels.
Her indignation left her in a whoosh. Savages. All of them. So many times Jeffrey had described their war parties and methods of torture, their expertise with tomahawks and penchant for scalp raising.
“Anyone else in there, Snake?”
The Indian grunted a negative reply to his partner’s barked question. He crossed his arms over his mammoth chest and stood in menacing silence.
“Where’s Mancuso?” the other man demanded. He reminded Sonnie of a weasel with his elongated features and crafty eyes. He sweated profusely, though the air carried a chill. His body stank with old perspiration.
“He ain’t here,” Cookie hedged, one eye narrowed.
“This his rig?”
“It is.” The man smiled without humor, revealing two missing front teeth. “Nobody else ‘round here’s got a getup as fine as that ‘un.”
“So? What’re you gonna do about it?”
“I want Mancuso!” he snapped.
“Well, runnin’ innocent folk off the road ain’t gonna git him fer you!” Cookie snapped back.
The animosity between the two men was a tangible thing. Why the weasel and the Indian wanted her father Sonnie couldn’t imagine, but instinct told her no good would come of their meeting.
“Innocent?” The weasel smirked and waved his revolver in their direction. “I know you two’re part of his outfit, and that makes you no more innocent’n he is.” He shifted his attention toward Sonnie. She drew a wary breath inward. “What I don’t know is . . . how this here little beauty fits in.”
Cookie lifted his clenched fists into fighting position; his wiry body shielded hers.
“Git any closer and I’ll tromp yer hide. Don’t think I won’t!” he warned.
“You just leave her alone, mister,” Stick declared tightly. “She ain’t got no part in any of her pa’s doin’s.”
“Shut up, Stick,” Cookie said in a growl.
“Her pa? Well, now. How ‘bout that?” To Sonnie’s surprise, the weasel cackled in sudden glee. “Didn’t know Mancuso had another piece of fluff tucked away somewheres. An’ now she’s here. Well, well, well.”
Offended, Sonnie lifted her chin. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, or spoke of her father, or found such amusement in her return. She had no idea what it all meant, and her confusion stifled the scathing retort she dearly wanted to make, but didn’t dare.
The weasel returned his revolver to his holster and gestured to the Indian.
“Let’s go, Snake. We’ll catch up with the old man later,” he said, still smiling. “I’d say our time here was well spent, even if we didn’t get to the old man, wouldn’t you?”
The Indian returned to his palomino in silence. He halted, one foot in the stirrup. His cold glance touched her like a slimy hand. His hard mouth curled in contempt.
Sonnie swallowed and endured a new fear. Everything Jeffrey told her could be–would be–true with this man.
He mounted and let loose with a shrill, yipping yell that sent shivers down her spine. He kicked his mount’s ribs and tore off into the hills. The weasel followed.
“Oh, Miss Sonnie”, Stick groaned. “I feel right terrible that your homecomin’ was spoilt like this.”
Cookie swore and yanked off his hat.
“You dadburned idiot,” he said in a hiss. He drew back and swatted him against the shoulder once, twice. Stick yelped in surprise. “What’d you go and do a stupid thing like tellin’ ‘em she was Mr. Mancuso’s young’un fer? Don’t you know when to keep yer fool mouth shut?”
The young cowboy blanched in genuine distress.
“Aw, Cookie, I didn’t know . . . didn’t think–.”
“Damn right you didn’t think!”
He looked as if he intended to land Stick a few more blows with his hat, and Sonnie hastened to intervene.
“It’s all right, Cookie. News of my return will spread quickly anyway. No harm done. Truly.”
“Yeah, you’ll think ‘no harm done’ when them two are back stirrin’ up trouble for yer pa,” he muttered, plopping his battered hat back onto his gray head.
Misery cast a pall over Stick’s face. “I’m sorry. Real sorry. We’ll get her on home just as fast as we can, and she’ll be safe there.”
But Cookie’s thumb jabbed the air in the direction of the stagecoach. “We ain’t goin’ nowhere fer a spell. The rig has a dadburned broken axle which ain’t goin’ to get fixed whilst we’re standin’ here exercisin’ our jaws! Now you git Miss Sonnie’s trunk so’s she has somethin’ to set on, then haul yer butt back to help me, y’hear?”
Stick hurried to retrieve her trunk, thrown from the coach a short distance away. Cookie bustled off to gather tools from beneath the driver’s seat. Sonnie stood frozen, awash in guilt and dismay.
If she’d been born the son Vince Mancuso had always wanted, then none of this would be happening. She’d never have gone out east, wouldn’t be returning home now. She wouldn’t have fallen at the mercy of those two shifty men. Cookie wouldn’t be upset and concerned; Stick wouldn’t be mortified from a mere slip of information. And perhaps, if she’d been a son, Vince Mancuso would have confided his dealings, the reasons their assailants hated him so. She’d be knowledgeable, strong enough to fight back, trusted.
Instead she was just one more of her father’s daughters. Another Mancuso “piece of fluff.”
She drew in a slow, purposeful breath.
No, not “fluff.” She was educated now. Useful. More capable than any of her sisters.
Maybe even more capable than any of his men.
Thus bolstered, she gave Stick a reassuring smile as he presented her with the trunk. Opening her handbag, she removed the telegram tucked inside. Barbara’s words, her plea to come quickly, reinforced her resolve.
Papa did need her.
With growing determination, she rescued her abused edition of Special Report on Diseases of Cattle and reverently brushed the dirt from its cover.
Since she didn’t know the first thing about repairing a stagecoach’s axle, she would learn of poisons and parasites, medicines and cures, and return to the Rocking M as the most intelligent daughter Vince Mancuso had.