ne rifle and one pistol were the only weapons the homesteader had. The three cowpokes galloping around his house each had two pistols and two had rifles in their saddle scabbards. They also had a bottle of liquor they passed back and forth.

"Get offa the Rymus ranch, you stupid sheepherder!" one of them shouted.

His hut's sod walls protected him from the gunfire, but bullets had smashed his door, and his ammo was getting low. His baby and his wife were lying on the floor, sobbing.

"Y' can't hold out forever, y' danged sheepherder!" one of the cowpokes shouted, laughing as he fired a shot through the window.

"Let's burn 'im out!" another said.

"With what, y' durned fool?"

"This whiskey burns real good!"

"Hey, that'd work!" giggled another.

That was more than Jed, the homesteader, could stand. Rifle in hand, he stood in the door and fired at a passing rider. He missed, and two pistol bullets hit the soddy wall, splattering him with dirt.

"Jed!" his wife screamed.

Panting in fear, he squatted beside her. "Gotta do sumpin', Mary! They gonna set the place afire!"

Even as he said it, they heard the thud of something hitting the roof, and smelled whiskey. The riders were laughing madly and galloping around the hut again. Even worse, Jed heard the approach of another horse. "Oh Lord!" he said, shivering with fear rather than cold, "they's somebody else coming!" He put a protective arm around his wife.

Two shots rang out, followed by screams and the sound of bodies hitting the dirt. A strange voice shouted to the third rider, "Tell Rymus that Sam is back!" Hoof beats could be heard from the fleeing third man's horse.

Frozen with fear, unable to understand this sudden change, Jed remained on the floor, covering his wife and their baby. Then a voice from outside said, "I'm a Texas Ranger. I'll be comin' in." A tall man wearing a Stetson stood in their doorway. "You folks okay?" he asked.

The newcomer, silhouetted against the outside light, deftly slipped his two pistols into their holsters and entered the hut. "Did those fools hurt anybody?" he asked, kneeling beside the homesteader and his family.

"N-no," Jed stuttered, embarrassed that his voice squeaked. Now he could see that the stranger -- Sam -- was wearing a leather vest over a blue denim shirt, with khaki jeans stuffed into leather boots. There was a silver star pinned to the vest that covered his broad chest.

The man stood and looked around the interior. It was just one room, with a bed to the left, a wooden table with stools in the center and, beyond the table, a small iron stove with a granite-covered coffee pot sitting on it. There were a couple of glistening streaks on the side of the stove where bullets had grazed it. The tall newcomer put a hand near enough to the coffee pot to see it was still warm. He looked down at Jed. "Join me with a cuppa coffee?" he asked. "Them fools missed the pot."

Swallowing, Jed got unsteadily to his feet, leaving Mary who was now beginning to sit up, holding the baby. "Y-yeah," he said, forcing a more natural voice. "They's cups on them shelves," he said, nodding at a set of shelves that held their provisions and tableware.

Getting two chipped cups, Sam put them on the unpainted table and sloshed coffee into them. "Black?" he asked Jed.Nodding, Jed wobbled to the table, sat on a stool, and took a sip of coffee. "Why didn't you kill the third guy?" he asked.

"Didn't kill nobody," he was told. "Just winged the others. Tell me what happened."

"Well. . .well, we settled in mebbe a month ago." Jed took another sip of coffee. "When we first got here, it looked -- well, it looked just right for us. No fences. No herds. No sign of anybody. So we fixed some fences to hold the sheep and --" He stopped abruptly. "My sheep!" he said, sitting straight, about to get up. "Did they kill my sheep?"

Sam shook his head. "Sit. All they did was smash a fence or two. You can round 'em up later." He took a drink of coffee, then looked at Jed. "So you moved in, built this soddy, and didn't try to find out whose land it was?"

"We were told there was lots of unsettled land out here and all we had to do was homestead," Jed said, defensively. Then he looked at Sam inquisitively and said, "You're a Texas Ranger?" When Sam nodded, Jed went on, "Then you must know all the rules about homesteading, taking care of one hundred sixty acres, and all that?"

"Problem is, your one-sixty is on Daniel Rymus's spread. It's so big, I'm sure them cowboys only accidentally found out you were here. Lucky for you, they was already so drunk they didn't even think about goin' back and reporting you to Rymus." Sam took another drink of coffee. "They will, now."

"Oh. Oh!" Jed gasped. "You mean we can't stay?"

Smiling, Sam shook his head. "Afraid not. Rymus wants more land, not less."

Jed sagged, then glanced at Mary, sitting on the floor holding the baby. "Mary, why don't you take the baby to bed? Looks like we need to get ready to move on."

Sam asked, "What's your name?"

"Oh, I'm sorry! I'm Jed Brown, that's my wife Mary, and the baby is John." He looked at Sam. "You?"

Sam paused, sucked in a breath, then said, "I'm Sam Rymus."

"Sam Rymus?" Jed asked. "You kin to. . . ?"

Sam nodded. "Daniel Rymus is my father." At Jed's wide-eyed look, he went on, "Left home ten years ago. Didn't like the way my father did things, after my mother died. Ended up in Houston and became a Ranger." He shrugged. "Wasn't till recently I found out he married a fourteen-year-old. That was a year or so ago. Can't get used to having a new mother that's half my age." He finished his cup of coffee and added, "Don't know why I'm telling you all this. Guess it's 'cause of all the trouble you had."

Hesitantly, Jed asked, "'Spose you could. . .talk to him? Mebbe. . .mebbe there's sumpin' we could work out?"

With a chuckle, Sam said, "Like I said, I left home. We ain't on the best of terms." Then he heard a groan from outside and got up. "Sounds like somebody's comin' to," he said, pushing the stool under the table. "I better see to 'em both, see if they needs bandaging afore they goes back."

After the two wounded were bandaged and sent on their way, Sam went back to Jed. "Look, I can't promise nuttin'; as I told you, I ain't seen him for ten years. But, well, I'll kinda feel him out about you staying -- okay?"

Trying to put hope in his voice, Jed said, "Lotsa luck."

Sam tipped his hand to the brim of his Stetson in a gesture of farewell and left.

+ + +

n his way to the ranch, Sam ran a lot of ideas through his head as to how to make his approach. All the commotion with Jed had caused him to forget that his purpose here was to investigate a series of cattle rustlings that had occurred during the last year. There were five ranches within a fifty mile radius and four of them had been plagued by rustlers; the only one not reporting trouble was the Rymus outfit. Either they were lucky or, as Sam thought, they were involved. He was going to find out.

Sam was in no hurry, so he let his horse set its own speed as they passed the occasional cactus, Joshua tree, and a few stunted oak trees. It was spring, so thick grass covered the ground and there were no tumbleweeds. To his right was a high plateau, in the distance to his left were hazy mountains. For miles there was no sign of civilization. He squinted into the afternoon sun and was certain he saw a water tank on the horizon. That would be the ranch.

Since he had already sent word he was coming, Sam decided on the direct approach and rode his horse right up to the ranch-house, got down, went to the hitching post. While he was wrapping his reins around the post, he heard the click of a pistol behind him and then a man saying, "Well lookee here! He messes things up fer us, then comes in fer supper!" There was laughter in the man's voice.

Slowly Sam raised his hands and turned to see the drunk he had chased off; only he didn't seem so drunk now. "I'm a Texas Ranger," he told the man calmly.

The offender was tall and lanky, not wearing a hat, but a smile creased his long face. "Oooh, a Ranger!" he said. "I'm so skeered!" He motioned with his gun toward a nearby storage building. "Get inside, you rotten coyote. You ain't gonna mess up no more fun me'n my buddies are having." He called out, "Joe!" and a short, stocky man wearing a blacksmith's apron came running.

"This here the guy, Smitty?" Joe asked.

It popped into Sam's mind that the blacksmith should be 'Smitty', leaving 'Joe' for the one with the gun. But life isn't always neat and orderly.

Smitty opened the door and pushed Sam inside. "I'll keep my Colt on him while you ties 'im up," he told the blacksmith. "Yer pappy's off on business," he said to Sam, as the blacksmith tied Sam's hands behind his back and then whipped a few turns of rope around his ankles. With an evil chuckle, Smitty went on, "I'm sure he'll put on a big celebration 'cause his prodigal done returned."

The blacksmith contributed his own laughter and then, finished packaging Sam, got to his feet. "That'll hold him," he said. Then he pushed Sam back and the Ranger found himself sitting on a bench.

"Just to be sure," Smitty said, stepping forward and slamming the butt of his pistol against Sam's head.

Blackness erupted in Sam's mind.

+ + +

ne small window was the only illumination in the storage building. The presence of daylight told Sam, when he woke up with an aching head, that he hadn't been unconscious that long. He got busy with escape plans, starting by ducking his head and pulling his hands over and to the front, then he got to work on the ropes around his boots. He had just finished his boots when he heard the voice of a young woman, apparently talking to a guard at his door.

"You can leave," she said, imperiously.

"Huh? Now, Miz Minnie, you know I can't do that! The boss ain't back yet, and I jes' couldn't!"

"You can leave," she repeated. Then, in a lighter tone, she asked. "Remember what happened to randy Sandy that time?"

Even through the door, Sam could hear the guard as he gulped. "Yes'm. Yes ma'am, I sure do!"

For the third time she said, "You can leave." Then she added, a threat clear in her tone, "You better not tell nobody, ya hear?"

The door opened and 'Miz Minnie' walked in.

Sam had no doubt she was his father's young wife, although she did look older than fourteen. "Hello, Mom," he said with sarcasm.

She had long hair, brown and wavy, and was at least five feet, two inches tall. The red dress she wore hung to her ankles, had a white sash for a belt, and a broad white collar. She cocked her head and gave him a calculating look. "So yer Sam, huh?" It was a question she obviously didn't expect an answer to, because she went on, "Texas Ranger, too. Musta done good for yerself. So y' didn't come back askin' for money, hmmm?"

"I come on official duty," Sam said flatly. Then he added, looking her over, "You don't look fourteen -- or fifteen, for that matter."

She smiled, white teeth flashing. Doing a quick curtsey, she said, "Why, I thanks you, sir. Mama allus told me I was big for my age. I'm sixteen," she added. "I wuz fourteen when yer dad bought me, but I had a birthday comin' up soon."

"Bought you?"

"Yup. Mama had a store in Wauseka, about a hunnerd miles away."

"I remember Wauseka," Sam told her.

"Reckon y' would," Minnie nodded. "Anyways, Mama had me workin' in the store, said it helped bring the gents in. One day yer dad walked in, looked me up and down, and said, 'I'll take her.' Put fifty dollar in gold coins on the counter. Mama said, 'You wanna buy my daughter?' and sounded kinda indignant, but her eyes was takin' in all that gold.

"In ten minutes, we was in fronta the local preacher, and that's how I'm here. I was tickled and proud, at first. I mean, only fourteen and married to a important man!" She looked away. "Yer dad brags, 'My child bride!' when he introduces me to someone. Laughs when he sez it." Her head had lowered when she spoke, but now she looked up fiercely. "You gotta take me away from here!"

Sam understood. She was married to a powerful man, and could control the ranch hands, but she was, in truth, his father's prisoner. Escaping by himself was one thing; taking her with him presented an extreme complication. "You ever tried leaving by yourself?"

A desolate look on her face, she nodded. "They watch me. They know I can make trouble for 'em in lotsa ways, but they know it'd be nuttin' compared to the trouble they'd be in if I got away." She looked at Sam imploringly. "Yer a Texas Ranger! Can't you. . .I mean, ya being a Ranger and all, couldn't you. . . ?"

Slowly, Sam shook his head. "Me being a Ranger don't mean beans to these folks. Ain't no other Ranger for miles. They're more scared of you than of me. But," he added, as she seemed to shrink away, "I'll work on it. Gotta be something. . . ." He held out his bound wrists. This would be a test, he knew. "Can't do much all tied up. Can you get me outta these ropes?"

She tried with her fingers for a minute, then looked around and found a screwdriver. "This'll help," she said, slipping the blade of the tool into a knot. In less than five minutes, Sam was free. "Now!" she said, triumphantly, "what do we do next?"

"Is my horse still out there?" When she nodded, he said, "I've got spare pistols and ammo in the saddle bags. But can you get me some rifle cartridges?" Since most people carried the same rifle brand, he was counting on the ammo fitting Jed's gun. He knew no other place to go. . .and, at the moment, had no real plans as to how they were going to get there.

Encouragement lighting her face, she said, "How many boxes y' need?"

He looked her over. "No pockets on that dress. We don't wanna be obvious. You got a purse?"

Minnie laughed. "Does a cowboy have a horse? 'Course I do!" Then realization sunk in. "I see! Two, three boxes of ammo wouldn't show up in my purse. Mebbe a box of pistol ammo, just to be sure. Then what?"

"Can you shoot a pistol?"

She snorted. "Y' think yer dad would let me get my hands on a pistol? I know how to pull a trigger, and that's about it." Minnie began to sag. "Ain't no way we can do it, is there?"

"Not easy," Sam agreed. "But there's gotta be something we can do." He looked around the storage space as if a weapon was hiding there somewhere. Then he asked Minnie, "Got anything to help you sleep? I mean, my father'd be glad to have you sleep while he's gone." Sam was grasping, and he knew it.

Her eyes widened. "Laudanum! He brought me several bottles of it." She frowned. "It tastes so bad, I never took it much. If yer thinkin' we could use it to put the hands to sleep, they ain't gonna drink the stuff."

"In their whiskey?"

"No! Tried that. Still tastes awful."

"Food. . .chili!" he suggested. "Hot enough, they won't be able to tell."

Minnie smiled. "So we'll take a few hours to make enough chili for all the hands?"

Sam scratched his head. "My Stetson!" he said, realizing it wasn't there. Then he saw his hat on the floor and picked it up. Settling it in place, he went on, "There's gotta be a way --"

"The hosses!" Minnie cut in, excitement building. "Ever now'n then I feed 'em biscuits! Nobody'd think anything wrong with me feedin' the hosses biscuits! We can pour laudanum on the biscuits! If they don't have hosses, they can't foller us!"

Sam took a couple of slow breaths, then muttered, "It might work. Dunno what dose a horse would need, don't even know it'd work on one -- but danged if I can think of anything better."

"Cook's fixin' dinner right now," Minnie said, happiness in her tone. "Hands all like biscuits, so he'll cook loads of 'em."

"Better keep your voice down," Sam cautioned.

"I'll get a paper sack," the girl went on, nearly whispering. "I allus do that, take in a sack for biscuits. Cook won't think nuttin' of it. They's, lessee. . .twelve hosses. Twelve biscuits won't make that much difference to th' cook. I'll go back to my room to get the stuff -- No," she said, interrupting her excited flow, "that'd look kinda strange. I'll get a purse first and put the two bottles in it. Ammo, too," she added, sounding proud of herself for remembering. "Get a sack, get biscuits, go between two buildings where I won't be seen. Then I'll split the biscuits open, pour in the stuff, close 'em back, then feed the hosses!"

Smiling at her enthusiasm, Sam interjected, "Not my mustang nor yore own steed."

"Right. Right! No, that'd look strange. I'll leave some biscuits untreated. Then," she added, excitement growing again, "I'll bring mine around and put it to the hitching post. They's several other hosses there right now, so it won't look wrong."

Sam, still amused at her youthful wildness, chuckled and said, "Your mind is really churning out the notions!" Then he added, "But won't they wonder why you moved your mount? Do they let you go wondering off on your own? --And remember to keep your voice down."

Grinning (and in a lower range) Minnie said, "Hell, where would I go? First week I wuz here, I tried riding away. Nobody did nuttin'. Too many miles to anywhere from here. When I come back, yer dad laughed at me and said, 'Betcha won't try that again!' He wuz right. But now. . . ."

"Okay," Sam said. "Better get busy. When all of 'em are eating will be a good time to try it, and I'd guess eating time won't be that long off."

"Yer right," Minnie agreed, moving to the door. "Won't be but about an hour. That'll give the stuff some time to work on the hosses." Smiling over her shoulder, she left, closing the door behind her.

There was nothing for Sam to do but wait.

+ + +

he minutes crawled by like a lazy turtle, and then the door opened again. Minnie entered, holding her purse, a wide grin on her face. "Did it!" she said, remembering to keep her voice low. "Emptied the bottles! None of the hosses refused my biscuits. Didn't see nobody payin' any attention to me."

"Don't mean they weren't," the Ranger said. "Still, you made a good start. Now we wait until they're all eating."

"Won't be all of 'em," Minnie told him. "With Rymus due back tonight, somebody'll be waitin' at the front, to let everbody know he's back."

Sam's thick eyebrows lifted, then he half-smiled and commented, "Couldn't have it too easy, could we?"

"Ain't nuttin' easy," Minnie agreed.

They talked for awhile to kill time, until they were surprised by a rough, whispery voice at the door. "Whatcha up to, Miz Minnie?" Sam recognized the voice of the guard Minnie had dismissed. "Th' boss, he gonna be back in his buggy purty soon. He won't like ya spending time with a Ranger, even with it bein' his son and all that."

"Ain't nunna yer business, Bronk," Minnie shot back. "Remember Sandy! Now, vamoose!"

". . .All right," the guard replied sullenly. "But I done warned ya!"

A few seconds of silence after Bronk's footsteps faded away, Sam asked, "What happened with Sandy?"

Minnie's grin returned. "Oh, he wuz just a hand who kept botherin' me. One day when he came up, a day when yer Dad was here, I screamed, 'You leave me alone! Stop touchin' me like that!' Yer dad came out, slugged him, then kicked 'im while he was down, and tole him to leave afore he kilt him."

Chuckling his approval, Sam said, "Good thinking on your part. And," he added, noticing the darkening window, "Must be about time --"

As if on cue, the cook's triangle clanged. There was the sound of hurried footsteps. "Let's give 'em a few minutes to get settled," the Ranger suggested.

"What about the guard?"

"That's another reason I'd like to wait. I'll need a little more dark."

"It falls dark quick," Minnie said. "But we got near a full moon."

"I can handle that. Look, in a coupla minutes, you to go to your horse. Move it close to mine, get my reins in hand, and be ready to move. Okay?"

"Jest tell me when!"

They listened to the distant clinking of tin plates and the indistinguishable chattering of satisfied cowhands and, as Minnie had predicted, full darkness fell. "Now!" Sam said.

He followed her out the door and headed for the entrance to the ranch. When he drew near, he could see someone sitting on a bench. Shuffling forward, he disguised his voice and said, in Bronk's rough whisper, "Come to letcha eat." Saying that, he crossed to the seated man.

"Hey, Bronk! Thanks a bunch!" The hired hand got to his feet as the Ranger neared, and then he said, "Hey -- you ain't --" That was as far as he got, since Sam was close enough to slam a fist into his jaw.

"Now!" he said.

Having been watching, Minnie was already on the move. She rode up, handed Sam his reins, and they both left. "Run for it!" Sam said. "I thought about going easy, but we need any lead we can get!"

It seemed like almost immediately there was a ruckus behind them, and a voice shouted, "They're getting away! Getcher hosses!"

Now they would see if the laudanum worked.

At first, it seemed it hadn't; there was a clatter of horses' hooves, and then someone said, "What the hell's wrong with my hoss?"

Sam didn't bother looking back.

+ + +

he sound of their hoof beats had Jed standing in the door when they rode up. He had a rifle in his hands. "It's me, Jed!" Sam shouted. "Got someone with me."

"I can see that," Jed said, stepping out into the yard. "A girl," he added.

Swinging off his mustang in front of Jed, Sam said, "Yep!" and turned to help Minnie down. "Jed, meet my new mother, Minnie Rymus."


"Might not have much time," the Ranger said. "Right now, the cowpokes rides are all. . .sick, but Rymus is supposed to show up soon. 'Sposed to be on a buggy, but he'll have some riders with him, I'd bet. Their mounts won't be sick, just mebbe a bit tired from their long ride. That won't stop him from coming after us. We need to do what we can to get ready." He turned to Minnie. "Give Jed the ammo."

Puzzled, Jed took the boxes Minnie gave him. "What're we gonna do?"

"Hafta play it by ear," Sam said. "If it's just Rymus and two, three other riders, we'll have a good chance. He'll be so mad, I don't think he'll wait for the others." Quickly he caught Jed up to date. "Didn't get no proof on the rustling, but didn't have time."

"Rustling?" Minnie asked. "You didn't tell me 'bout that. But it explains how come he done rode several herds off the last few months, none of 'em his."

They were still standing outside. Mary had come out, holding the baby, listening to what was going on. "Jed?" she asked. "What'll we do?"

Shaking his head, Jed replied, "Up to the Ranger."

"I'm countin' on Rymus coming right on out," Sam explained. "We can handle a few men. Now," he added, "I know he's no fool. He won't come in a noisy buggy. He knows we'll hear him real easy. He'll likely take one of the buggy horses and saddle it. Then they'll try to slip up and surround us. If we watch careful, the moonlight will help. But we'll all need to keep a sharp eye out. Dunno how long it'll be, and we might need some sleep. Jed, you and Mary try crawling in. Minnie and me'll watch first. Then we can take turns, if he don't show up in an hour or two."

Jed argued a bit, but the Ranger finally convinced him.

+ + +

heir location was mostly open range. Mountains were in the distance, but there were only a few trees and no buttes around to provide cover. Once Sam muttered, "I'm just hoping Rymus won't wait for moonset. Don't think he will, 'cause he'll be so mad."

"Me neither!" Minnie agreed.

Then the Ranger noted distant movement. "There's one of 'em!" he said, softly.

"What'll y'do?"

"Not gonna try a moonlight shot at that distance," Sam told her. "Look! There's another, far off on the right!"

"Splittin' up, like y'said."

"Rymus might be angry, but he's no fool. If I go after one, then the other'n'll close in, along with Rymus and mebbe one or two others." Sam thought a moment, then added, "There's a chance we can trick 'em. You put on my Stetson, get on my horse, and head out like you're gonna get that one on the left." He handed her his hat. "Wait till I belly up to the house, where the other'n can't see me. When he heads this way, I'll try to pick him off with my rifle. When you hear shots, come back so's you won't be alone."

"But what if --"

"We got no time for 'what ifs'," Sam said. "This'll either work or it won't. Take off when you see me make the house. At their distance, I don't think they'll be able to see what I'm doing." As he snake-bellied up to the sod hut, Minnie put on his Stetson and mounted his horse. When he stood up against the wall, she galloped away. Sam peered around the corner of the hut at the other rider. He smiled when, as he'd expected, the other rider sped up his horse and started closing in. Luckily for Sam, who didn't want to shoot an animal, the approaching rider sat tall in the saddle. There was no wind. The Ranger stepped out, raised his rifle and fired.

The man fell off his horse.

Sam didn't know if he was dead or not, but was sure he was wounded at least, probably scared as well. Sam stood and watched, but detected no movement other than the horse running off. Then he heard Jed saying, "They're here!"

"Got one of 'em," Sam said. "Get your rifle!" At the same time, he heard Minnie galloping back and went out to greet her. "One down!" he shouted. Then he saw the rider Minnie had gone toward. He was sending his horse in after them, and Sam heard another horse running their way. "Get down!" the Ranger ordered, as Minnie rode up.

"Gimme a gun!" Minnie snapped, as she dismounted.

"You said you couldn't --" Sam started.

"I can sure put the fear of God in 'em!" Minnie snapped back. "Gimme a gun!"

"You damned sure could!" Sam grinned, and handed her one of his pistols. Now he heard a third rider approaching. "Keep down!" he added. "You too, Jed!"

Gunshots rang out. One bullet thudded into the sod wall. A couple of sheep bleated to express their dissatisfaction with the ruckus. The baby inside the hut began to cry. Sam heard Mary murmuring reassurance, and hoped the reassurance was justified. Then a rider tore past the hut, firing. Sam fired back, but neither shot had any fortune with its target.

From her prone position, Minnie blasted off a shot of her own, with equally dissatisfactory results.

A rider rushed past the other side. His shot hit the soddy close to Sam, who fired quickly back. His shot at least knocked the hat off the rider, who cursed and fired back, lacking results.

For the next few minutes gun smoke from both sides clouded around them, but the only injury was to a sheep as the three riders raced back and forth. Then one shot grazed a horse which whinnied and reared straight up, dumping his rider. As his mount ran away, the rider rolled to the ground and flattened himself. Even though he wasn't very far away, his prone body didn't offer a good target. Another rider dared to ride close enough to scoop up the dismounted man and they sped off.

There was momentary silence.

"How's everybody?" Sam asked.

The response was pleasantly affirmative, and then two horsemen flew by, shooting. They could hear the third man cursing and running after his horse. One rider, rushing back by, offered Sam a target and he fired. The man threw up his arms and collapsed off his horse. "Another one down!" Jed cried. "Good shooting, Sam!"

"Wish I could hit one!" Minnie said.

"Just protect yourself!" the Ranger replied.

About then, the rider who had been thrown recaptured his horse and shouted, "I've had enough! I'm gettin' outta here!""Damned coward!" somebody said, but then another voice said, "Me, too!" and two horses could be heard trotting away.The third rider didn't show as much enthusiasm on his next attack, and this time it was Jed's shot that brought the man down.

The only sound now was the whimpering of the wounded man. Another moment went by, and Sam finally said, "I guess that's it." He slid his pistols into their holsters and started for Minnie.

"Hold it right there, Sam," said a fiercely intent voice. "Turn around, slowly."

Sam obeyed, and turned to see Daniel Rymus at the edge of the hut, a pistol held steadily in his hand. "Well, well," Rymus said, seeing the star on the Ranger's vest. "So my son has done well for himself. A Texas Ranger, huh?" he sneered. "Well, being a Ranger or my son won't stop me from shooting you!" The click of a pistol sounded like the click of Doom to Sam. Then there was the blast of a shot --

-- And Daniel Rymus collapsed.

"Damn! I did it!" Minnie shouted, in pleased amazement.

"I thought you couldn't shoot!" Sam said in wonder.

"Mebbe I just didn't have the, the motivation," Minnie said, standing on wobbly legs. "I took a long time aimin', then I pulled the trigger. Is he dead?"

Walking up to his fallen father, Sam observed a bloody chest. Bending over, he felt the man's throat, trying to find a heartbeat.

There wasn't one.

The Ranger turned back to Minnie. "I'd say you just inherited the Rymus spread," he announced.

"What?" Minnie asked in amazement. "A widow don't inherit. I'm a woman, remember?"

"No doubt you're a woman," Sam said, "but they just changed the law. The Rymus Ranch is now yours, lock stock and barrel."

"You, you're sure?" the girl said in shock.

"No doubt about it. It's the law."

"But. . .but, what can I do? I don't know nuttin' 'bout running no ranch!"

Sam put his hand on Jed's shoulder. "Mebbe you could raise sheep. Got a good shepherd right here."

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