Two years later
It was chaos at the hives. Ranch hands were a superstitious bunch, and all manner or ritual and routine was taking place to calm nerves and provoke good omens.
It was a familiar sight to Betty. The first night of harvest was always a thing of heady madness. This was an especially mad night because it was the first night with the newest hives. Arthur stood at the head of it all, directing, instructing, and leading with typical aplomb. He had a subtle way of going about things. Never needing to raise his voice, able to soothe a temper with a smile or a handshake. Betty was nervous but also excited.
The new hives were larger than anything that could be found on their side of the Mississippi. With the help and investment of Richard Goodacre, the Barnette-Ledoux Ranch had grown to become a behemoth in the honey business, and there was a lot riding on the success of the harvest. If all went well tonight, it would be twice the yield from the year past, which had been their best-ever year.
There were more ranch hands now than Betty had ever imagined possible. They’d had to extend and renovate the bunkhouse to accommodate more help. Solid men, each one handpicked by Jorge, who was as good a judge of character as any man was like to be. Arthur and Betty had made a point of treating the Barnette-Ledoux Ranch as a place that caters to all, whether princely or penniless. If you could work diligently and honestly, you would not be turned away from the ranch if you needed a place to stay.
The townspeople of Cody had taken a particular interest in the ranch on account of the story and scandal that had ensued with Walter Wilson’s ill-fated attempt to ruin their farm. For them, “buying Barnette” was an act of retaliation against Wilson and all men of his ilk. They treated Arthur and Betty as though they were some special monument of love, championing their honey far and wide.
Betty, for her part, was scarily calm. She had been a beekeeper since she was a little girl and knew that as a leader, the ranch hands needed her to be cool when they were burning hot. Even still, what gave her a deeper, abiding confidence was the trust she had for her husband. She knew, without any lingering doubt, that even if the harvest failed completely, he would be at her side and they would build again. In him, her was confidence found, for there could be no applause or acclaim as exciting as his smile.
Jorge appeared at her shoulder. “The ambition of it all is frightening,” he said, staring at the constellation of activity.
“Ambition is always a little frightening,” Betty said. “We have done this a dozen times before, only now it’s bigger.”
“Not like this. We’ve never had quite so many ranch hands having their first harvest. There’s a lot that can go wrong.”
“I believe in you, Jorge, whether with ten men or with ten thousand. You are the best at this.”
Jorge blew out an exasperated breath. “When did you become the calm one?”
She smiled. “When I married him,” she said, nodding toward Arthur.
Jorge smiled deeply. “Indeed.”
He made his way about the new hives, checking that everything was in place. Arthur’s idea to make him the leader of the production was a stroke of genius. Together, they had devised a new technique for harvesting that ensured the hives were in continuous, year-long production. The man was a perfectionist in every sense of the word and had turned their ranch hands into a counting, gathering, harvesting machine of the most professional order. At the sight of him, ranch hands set their jaws, gritted their teeth, and began to look alive with purpose. He had that rare capacity to inspire excellence simply through his bearing.
“How are we looking?” Betty asked a passing ranch hand.
He clasped his hands at the navel and nodded, satisfied. “We are looking good, Mrs. Ledoux. Very good.”
Betty nodded and smiled. “Good.”
Arthur appeared at her side and it made her instantly smile.
“We are going to have a wonderful harvest,” he said, grinning.
Betty nodded. “We are.”
“After this is all done, I think we should travel somewhere for a while. Leave Jorge to handle the ranch while we go on a grand new adventure.”
Betty touched her chin. “I do like the sound of that. Where would we go?”
Arthur shrugged. “We could go anywhere in the world. New Orleans, perhaps—I could show you the town I grew up in.”
“That would be lovely.”
Arthur glanced over his shoulder at the workers, then turned his gaze back on Betty. “I think they’re waiting to hear from you.”
“From me?” Betty asked.
Arthur nodded. “You know they look to you when it comes to harvest time. You’re the one who inspires them the most.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Betty protested.
Arthur gave a small laugh. “Believe me. They need to hear from you.”
Betty sucked in a breath. “I suppose it might help if I said a few words.”
“It certainly would.”
She turned to the throng of workers and spoke with her voice at even pitch. “Everyone.”
The noise dimmed to a faint murmur.
“Thank you all for working so hard to get us this far in such a short time. This is our largest harvest night ever. There will be mistakes. There will be inefficiencies. But if I have learned one thing about you all these last few years, it’s that you are smart, you are resilient, and above all, you are talented. There is nothing you will see, say, or do today that you haven’t seen, said, or done before. I believe in you, and I want you to try not to worry about making mistakes. If we don’t deliver this year, we will back the next one with twice the vigor.”
There were murmurs of agreement and encouragement, and Arthur seized the moment to launch a full-scale cheer. “Long live the Barnette ranch!”
A dozen ranch hands answered as one. “Long live the Barnette ranch!”
When it came to rousing the ranch hands, there was none better than Arthur. They seemed to take their energy from his and it made them work with double the enthusiasm. His few words were all that was needed to underscore the simplicity of her own words with a sense of willful purpose.
They worked until the night’s darkness was full, and when the sun rose, they took to working again. By the late afternoon, they had managed to expunge all doubt that the harvest would be anything less than a roaring success.
Their honey had become the centerpiece of the harvest fair, and before their stall was fully furnished, they had a long line snaking around the fair with eager buyers of the latest Barnette-Ledoux vintage.
They sold and danced and made the most of what turned out to be an incredible day. Later that evening, when they returned home, they had a celebratory dinner in the canteen with all the ranch hands in attendance. Decked on the walls were paintings of places and faces that were easily recognizable from the ranch. Betty had lived there all her life but never before had it felt more like home.
Just as the evening was coming to an end, Francine arrived with news of unexpected guests. From her countenance and bearing, Betty immediately knew that whoever the guests were, they had not arrived with warm tidings.
Arthur stepped into the ranch house foyer with Betty. Seated in the room were five faces he had taken great pleasure in not seeing for a long time: Thomas Arnold, Wayne and Kaitlin Franklin, Old Crooked Tom, and worst of all, Walter Wilson.
Each one of them looked as though time had beaten them like dusty carpets. Wilson looked worst of all, haggard and harried about the eyes with his hair now barely covering his scalp with wisps of white. His frown, however, carried all the malice of years previous.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” Betty said without smiling, “what do you all want here?”
Arthur had asked Jorge to secure the perimeter as soon as he had known who their guests were and had made sure Jorge had inspected the foyer himself before letting them in. Arthur carried a concealed weapon of his own beneath his tailcoat. Walter Wilson was not a man to be trusted, no matter how harmless he might appear to be. Had he judged their unwelcome guests on their looks alone, it might have been enough to let all his worry seemed to leak away. These were beaten men and women. It was plain to see in the slackness of their jaws and the slump of their shoulders. But Arthur was not one to let his guard down when faced with men and women who had once done their utmost to contribute to his and Betty’s misfortune. He watched them as the snake watches the mongoose, ready and waiting.
“We are here to make you an offer,” Wilson said, steepling his fingers.
Arthur glanced at Betty but said nothing.
“An offer?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
Wilson nodded. “Your ranch is getting larger and more dominant every day. We don’t stand a chance of controlling Cody anymore. So, we want to sell our business interests to you. Everything—the Arnold ranch, the Franklin ranch, Wilson’s bank, stores, and all my assets. We will leave Cody to you. You can have it.”
Betty sat in silence for a long moment, saying nothing. Arthur let the quiet stretch out as he slid his hand into his tailcoat, again reassuring himself that his weapon was at the ready. At last, Betty spoke.
“After everything we have done, after watching the way we have gone about our business for so long, you still think that our work is about control?”
“Don’t try to barter with us, we won’t lower the price.”
Betty shook her head. “I don’t want your interests. At any price. I wouldn’t take them even if you offered them up for a chewed-up penny. Cody isn’t some prize to be won or lost to the person with the biggest business. I have no interest in controlling it.”
Arthur stepped close. “That’s what men like you never seem to understand, Wilson. You think because you have wealth that you can exert control and influence over people. But that’s not the truth.”
“Before you came to this ranch, I could have had you bought and sold a hundred times,” Wilson snapped. “Don’t think I have forgotten where you came from. You were nothing before you married her.”
Arthur merely shrugged. “Perhaps I was nothing to you, but you see, I was something to her,” he said, placing a hand on Betty’s shoulder. “You once told me you wanted Betty humbled. Brought low. You said she needed to be forced to sell her ranch to you. How strange life is. Rife with ironies. This pitiful display of yours is testament to the fact that Betty is infinitely better at judging the value of a thing than you all are. I don’t care if I am nothing to you; I don’t care if I am everything to you. A man shouldn’t be judged on what he has been able to acquire and control, but on the lives and communities he has been able to change. We are doing our part here on the ranch.
“And we love what we do. We have no interest in doing things we do not love, if only to service our own pride. Keep your ranches or find some other buyers. We have no use for your business interests.”
Arthur glanced at Betty and made a subtle gesture with his hands, which she immediately understood. She responded with a soft nod.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Mr. Arnold, Mr. and Miss Franklin, for you who have ranches and ranch hands in your employ, we are more than happy to extend loans on favorable terms on the premise that you keep your ranch hands in work and commit to doing your very best to help them.”
Thomas Arnold spoke first. “That sounds like a very reasonable offer,” he said, stammering as he spoke.
“Very reasonable,” Wayne Franklin said. “Very reasonable, indeed.”
“You are such a kind man,” added Katherine Franklin.
Arthur laughed. “I am definitely not the kind one. You have my wife to thank for any kindness.”
“What about me?” Wilson snapped. “You haven’t offered me a loan.”
“I would have preferred to offer you a slap,” Arthur said, “for coming here the way you did.”
“The sooner men like you are out of business, the better. Buying your business would only perpetuate your corruption,” Betty said.
“To put it plainly,” Arthur added, “it would best for your businesses to die a natural death. Then, perhaps, you will finally be made to answer for your crimes.”
His lips formed a thin line and his jaw tightened so sharply that Arthur could see the tendon jutting out. He reached instinctively for his weapon, sensing that Wilson was on the precipice of violence—a wounded animal with no place to go.
He glanced at Old Crooked Tom and the two reached inside their coats at almost the same time.
Kaitlin Franklin let out a shriek as Wilson revealed a dark pistol and pointed it directly at Betty.
Arthur had moved with equal speed and drawn his weapon on Wilson. Old Tom Crooked carried a weapon of his own, which was pointed at Arthur. The three circled one another without shifting the aim of their respective weapons.
“What are you doing, Wilson?” Arthur said softly, pools of sweat beading on his forehead.
“Making a deal,” Wilson hissed.
“This is no way to make a deal,” Betty said, her voice remarkably calm despite having a weapon pointed at her.
“Wilson, man,” Thomas Arnold said, “this was not what we discussed.”
“Shut your mouth, Arnold, this doesn’t concern you.”
Betty remained inhumanly cool. “What do you want, Wilson?”
Without lowering his weapon, Walter Wilson reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a document. “This is a deed signing over your ranch to me in exchange for all my businesses.”
“Even if I sign it,” Betty said, merely glancing at the document, “anyone can see that I am under duress.”
“Not if my friends here tell a different story,” Wilson said, gesturing to Thomas Arnold and the Franklins.
Thomas Arnold’s hand dropped and the Franklins both looked away sheepishly. Arthur could see that Wilson was right. If he managed to obtain Betty’s signature on that document, the Franklins and Arnolds would support him in the lie that it was truthfully obtained, and they would have to fight to prove that she had signed at gunpoint.
Arthur’s heart thumped mercilessly at the base of his throat. He had a clean shot at Wilson but couldn’t risk taking it while he had a pistol pointed at Betty.
Focus, Arthur. Focus.
He glanced around the room, searching for some means of escape or diversion, but there was nothing forthcoming. He looked to the window, hoping he could catch sight of a passing ranch hand, anyone who could somehow call for help, but the curtains were drawn and even through the small gap between them, there was no one passing by.
That was when he noticed the large leather boots protruding from underneath the curtain. He sucked in a breath and suppressed the urge to smile as he turned his gaze on Wilson.
“I have a better deal for you, Wilson,” Arthur said, stepping close.
Wilson raised an eyebrow, not changing the direction of his aim. “What might that be?”
Arthur’s heart started to thump more furiously as he took another slow step forward with his pistol raised. “If you leave the ranch now, you won’t have to lose any fingers and should be able to write for the rest of your life.”
Walter Wilson narrowed his eyes for a moment, then threw back his head and laughed. “I’ve always known you to be a mad fellow, but until just now I wasn’t convinced that you were entirely stupid.”
He jerked out another cackle and closed his eyes.
Arthur spoke in a low voice. “That’s the problem with men like you. You spend so much time with your noses in the air, you forget to keep your eyes on the ground.”
Jorge emerged from behind the curtain in a blur of movement and struck Old Crooked Tom down with a single blow from his walking cane. Wilson let out a startled gasp and aimed his weapon, but Arthur fired twice as fast, shooting the gun right out of his grasp.
Wilson screamed as he went down, clutching his bloodied hand. “My hand!”
Old Crooked Tom raised his hands in surrender as Jorge lifted his walking cane to strike again. “I have no problem with you. I was just doing as I was told.”
Jorge struck him anyway for good measure and the man folded like a brittle twig.
Arthur stood over Wilson. “I promise you this, Walter Wilson—if you ever threaten us again, we will come down on you with such sudden and sharp force that you will curse the day you were born. When you leave this ranch, do not ever come back. Do not ever come near. If we so much as hear a rumor of your return to Cody, we will hunt you down and give chase until you can run no more. Do you understand?”
Wilson let out a low defeated breath and gave a resigned nod. “I understand.”
“Good,” Arthur said, taking his weapon away. “Now get gone from our property.”
Betty, who had remained eerily relaxed throughout the entire ordeal, cleared her throat and called for more help. Ranch hands arrived and when they saw the evidence of an altercation, they quickly became irate.
“Make sure our guests get back down to Cody safely,” Betty said as the ranch hands dragged the five of them away.
Thomas Arnold, the Franklins, Walter Wilson, and Old Crooked Tom were escorted from the premises by ranch hands who had to be pleaded with to not get to kicking as they led them out of the ranch.
“Do you think that’s the last we’ll see of him?” Betty asked as they watched them go.
Arthur shook his head. “I hope it is, but I fear it is not.”
Betty took his hand. “Let us hope together, then.”
He squeezed her hand and smiled. “You were so calm through it all.”
Betty gave a small laugh. “Inside, I was terrified, but I just tried to believe that you and Jorge could figure something out.”
“Did you know he was behind the curtain?” Arthur asked, laughing.
She shook her head. “I knew he would be where he needed to be. Just I knew you wouldn’t let me down when it mattered most.”
“I almost missed the shot,” Arthur confessed with a smile.
“But you didn’t.”
“I suppose.” He touched her cheek.
She looked up at him and smiled. “Arthur, I have something to tell you.”
He straightened and raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”
She looked past him at Jorge, who was nodding and smiling in encouragement. He too took a moment to glance over his shoulder and saw that everyone was watching them.
“We’re going to have a child.”
Arthur let out a slow, ragged breath and covered his face, overwhelmed with emotion. Then he bent down and kissed her stomach, wrapping his arms around her back. “Oh, Betty. You are going to make a wonderful mother.” He pulled her tight. “Thank goodness you’re alright. I can’t imagine what—”
“Don’t imagine it. Everything is perfect, as it should be.”
Arthur rose to his feet and pulled her close, kissing her forehead, then he folded her into an embrace and whispered in her ear, “I love you, Betty Ledoux.”
She squeezed the back of his neck. “And I love you, Arthur Ledoux.”