-1My heart pounded as Mr. Sampson's buggy bounced down the road. His words echoed in my mind. "Mr. Alverez lives just down the road if you'd like to speak with him." Chills ran up and down my spine. I wondered how much shock I could take in one day before I fell apart.

"That's it," Charles Sampson said, pointing out a small shack made of flimsy boards by the bay. "I don't know why he didn't want the house himself. Goodness knows, he needs it." He shrugged. "But I guess some folk are more humble than others."

I jumped out of the buggy without his help and felt my heart falter with every footfall as I made my way to the little shack. Perhaps it was a different Alverez, I thought. But the coincidence was just too much. I took in a shuttering breath and held it as I stood on what I assumed was the porch in front of the door (which, it ought to be mentioned, was hanging, lopsided, off of its hinges). Standing up as tall as I could and preparing myself, I raised my fist and knocked on the door. It squeaked and I took a hasty step back, fearing it might fall at any second.

There was no answer, so I knocked again, this time on the frame around the door, to be safe. "Mr. Alverez?" I called weakly.

"Doesn't look like he's home," Mr. Sampson called from the buggy.

And then, an all-too-familiar voice came from the side of the house, making my heart stop. "I'm here."

I turned slowly to see Diego- my Diego- setting down a pile of logs beside the shack. He straightened, looking at me, and wiped at his chin with the back of his hand. His arm froze mid-air when I stepped into the light and he recognized me. His eyes widened and he just stared. "Mercedes?"

My reply came out as little more than a whisper. "Hello, Diego."

He finally lowered his hand. "Hello." He scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting to see you again so… soon…."

He might as well have driven a knife into my chest. "I- I'm sorry to bother you I…." I turned and started walking back to the buggy as quickly as possible, fighting my emotions. I was embarrassed that I had intruded on him when he didn't care for me.

"Wait, Mercedes- I didn't mean for it to sound like that!" He came after me and grabbed my arm.

I swung around and surprised myself by slapping him across the face. I'm sure that my face looked every bit as shocked as his did at that moment and I started to apologize, but then I realized why I'd done it. He had used me! He'd messed with my affections and then left me as little more than a shell of what I'd been before. I was so confused by the storm of emotions I was feeling that I had no idea what to say and I turned back and continued walking to the buggy.

"Mercedes! Will you just let me talk to you for a second!"

I swung back around. It was difficult trying to decide what to do- what to feel. One part of me wanted to run into his arms and beg him never to leave me again; while another part of me wanted to hurt him as badly as he'd hurt me. "What?" I snapped.

A red mark in the shape of my hand was forming on his face, I noted with satisfaction. He rubbed it lightly. "What did you do that for?"

I folded my arms. "Don't play innocent with me, you snake! How I ever fell for your tricks, I'll never know."

He rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Oh, not again."

"Don't you roll your eyes at me. You can't tell me that you love me one minute and then leave me forever the next."

"I wasn't going to leave you forever!"

I glared at him, waiting for him to explain himself.

He kicked a rock with the toe of his boot and stuck his thumbs in his holster belt, looking down awkwardly. "I was going to go see you from time to time."

"Oh, well thank you so much," I said sarcastically. "And did you expect me to prepare tea for your visits and wave you off with a handkerchief?"

He looked away. "Actually, I didn't intend for you to know I was there."

I was confused. Seeing this, he explained, "I have a somewhat selfish nature. I knew I wouldn't be able to stay away without ever seeing you again. So I thought that maybe if I could just watch you from a distance…."

"You mean spy on me?"

"I guess you could call it that."

I frowned, hurt. "That was a stupid idea. Why can't I see you from time to time?"

He shrugged. "I thought it would be best for you if you just forgot about me."

My shoulders slumped. I wasn't sure what to say to that. Of course it was all quite ridiculous. Didn't he know how miserable my life would be without him? How miserable it had been without him? There were so many things I wanted to say, I didn't know where to begin. Then I remembered the more immediate matters when Mr. Sampson cleared his throat in the buggy. "What are you doing here?" I asked softly, looking at the shack.

Diego turned to follow my eyes and a small smile lifted one corner of his mouth. "Waiting for you."

My eyebrows drew together. "I don't understand. I thought you were trying to get away from me."

"I was." He looked at my confused face and then smiled again. "It's a long story. Let's walk." I noticed his eyes flicker to Charles Sampson behind me.

"I'll ask the questions," I said. He had no objection so we began walking. Over my shoulder I thanked Mr. Sampson for the ride and informed him that his services were no longer required. He seemed hesitant to leave, but tipped his hat all the same and drove away.

Diego and I walked in silence for a few moments. I could feel his eyes on me but I didn't look up from my feet, my hands clasped behind my back lightly. Finally I sat down on the log pile beside the shack. There were so many questions in my head, I didn't know which one to ask first. I decided to ask the one I'd been asking myself the longest. "Why did you leave?"

Diego sat down beside me with a heavy sigh. "I told you already. I'm not good enough for you, Mercedes. I had nothing to offer you. I knew my feelings for you were greater than yours were for me anyway, so I thought you'd be happier if you just forgot about me."

"How could I ever be happy without you? Do you realize how miserable I was after you left? Do you realize?! I told you before, I don't care about money. All I want is you, Diego!" I took his hand and looked at him earnestly.

Diego stroked the side of my face with his hand. "I love you, Mercedes," he said gently. "Leaving you was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life." His eyes clouded with anger as he remembered the day. "I was so tempted- you have no idea how tempted- to shoot your father and take you away with me. The things he said…." His knuckles turned white and he gritted his teeth. "It was nearly impossible to keep my temper in check and leave you there with him."

"Then why did you do it?"

The anger vanished and his face softened. "You still don't get it, Mercedes. As much as I want you for myself, I know that you would have been miserable if I'd taken you with me." His voice caught. "And I could never bear to see you unhappy."

"And you still don't get it," I replied. "I can't be happy without you! Don't you see? It's all so much simpler than you think!"

Diego shook his head with a sigh. It was clear we were never going to agree on this. So I asked my next question. "If you had decided to leave me, then why are you here, waiting for me? And why does the bank think that house belonged to Chuck? I don't understand."

A light came into Diego's eyes. "That house did belong to Chuck. That's the reason I'm here!"

When I continued to look puzzled, Diego stood and began to pace as he started his story. "I never told you about Chuck's wealth, Mercedes. No one was supposed to know about it. I, myself, didn't know the extent of it until two weeks ago. You see, in his younger days, Chuck went to try his luck in California during the Gold Rush back in the '40s. Apparently he came out with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth in gold."

"But," I cut in, "if he was so wealthy then why did he continue to work as a cowboy? And when he had a family?"

Diego's face saddened. "It's difficult for a cowboy to change his ways, Mercedes. When I told you in the wagon, three weeks back, that I wasn't ready for a married life, I was telling the truth. It isn't easy to give up the free life of a saddle and all of the wild prairie lands." He looked at me, "That's another reason I'm not good enough for you. Saddle or house, I'm still a cowboy and I don't know how well I'd handle life off of the trail."

He continued with his story, sitting beside me again. "That's one of the reasons Chuck was so grieved when his daughter died while he was away. He was on the trail, doing what he loved, instead of at home where he was needed and where he should have been. You see, at that point riding was more of a sport, or hobby, than an actual profession."

My heart filled with sorrow as I imagined the guilt and heartbreak poor Chuck must have suffered. "Oh," I said softly, looking down at my knees.

"Chuck lived in that house for years," Diego continued. "When I pulled him out of retirement I'd heard of his success during the gold rush, but I'd always assumed that the money was all but gone by then."

I looked up at him. "Is it?"

Diego breathed in and exhaled slowly. He stood up and started pacing again. "After I left you- well, and after I stewed over missing you- I went in to report Chuck's death…." He leaned against the side of the shack, folding his arms, and looked off at the sky. "I reported at the Sheriff's Office and then left, thinking that I'd done all I could." His brows knit together. "But then I got a letter a few days later dealing with his will. I was left his house, his land, all of his positions, and five hundred, thousand dollars."

All I could do was stare. "W-why? Why you?" I put a hand over my mouth as I thought. And then the words of my own letter came to mind; "the remaining family of Chukagna Horsewalker have requested that said house and property go to you." I looked up at him, unsure. "Mr. Sampson said that Chuck's remaining family lived…."

"I told you before that Chuck married a Mexican woman by the name of Rosa Lee. Apparently Rosa Lee's maiden name was Alverez."

I gasped. "Then, he was your father?"

Diego shook his head no. "Rosa Lee Alverez was a pious, quiet woman. She had a sister, however, of a less honorable nature."

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. It all seemed so unreal. "Then… then Chuck was your…."

"My Uncle. His positions would have gone to my mother, but her whereabouts are unknown and she's suspected to be dead. So it came to me." He shrugged sheepishly. "Apparently the government keeps track of all of this."

I half laughed as I stared ahead of me. It was all so ironic! A memory came to mind of one day when Chuck and I had been riding in the wagon and he'd told me that he treated Diego as his nephew. I'd asked if he was Diego's uncle then and Chuck had simply laughed and said, "no, but I like to pretend I am." So his avuncular tendencies weren't so peculiar after all.

Diego pushed himself lightly from the wall of the shack and sat beside me again. "I remembered that you said you wanted a house in the country with a farm behind it and a vegetable garden in front." He looked down at his hat in his hands and twisted it around. "I though Chuck's house might fit what you had in mind."

My heart burned and tears rose to my eyes as I gave a small smile. "And you came here to wait for me?"

He turned to me, keeping his eyes down. "I know that I could never be worthy of you, Mercedes. But, as I said before, I have a somewhat selfish nature and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask you if you'll have me, now that I have the means to support you." He slowly looked up and met my eyes.

My tears spilled over and my smile grew. "What ever happened to me forgetting about you?"

He smiled. "I'll save that as a last resort." Slowly, he reached out and held my hand with both of his and his eyes watched him play with it. "I have the money to support you now, and I've already recruited a new Tejano/Hidalgo to drive my team." He looked up and met my eyes. "But, you see, now all I have is money and nowhere to live. Would you mind very much sharing your house with me?"

I couldn't tell you whether I was laughing or crying at that moment. I could hardly see because of the tears in my eyes, but I must have been laughing because there was a chuckling tone in my voice when I spoke. "I think I can squeeze you in there somewhere."

Smiling that smile of his that I loved so much, Diego leaned forward and kissed me. Butterflies filled my stomach. His hands came up to hold my face and then he kissed my nose. We looked into each other's eyes and he caressed my cheek with his thumb. Then, suddenly, he was standing in front of me and he pulled me to my feet. "Forgive the ways of a cowboy… I don't quite know how to ask, but…. Mercedes, are you gonna marry me or what?"

I laughed. "Only if you promise to practice your tricks on me every day."

"On my honor!" I squealed as Diego swept me up into his arms as if I weighed little more than a feather and pressed his lips to mine. "Well doggy," he exclaimed in his best Western drawl when the kiss ended, "if you ain't the best kisser I ever did see!"

THE END

(A/N. Holy cow, it's actually over! I can hardly believe it! And that's the most abrupt ending I've ever written! Hopefully you all liked it.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU ALL a million times for your incredible patience, amazing compliments and the encouragement! I could never express enough my gratitude to all of you! I feel I owe you all a great big apology for me less-then-frequent updates. I've never gotten writer's block so bad in any story I've written as in this one! Now that it's over, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to miss all of your reviews and all of the characters of this story so much. I guess all that CAN be done is to write more stories and create more characters!

Again, thank you! I hope to hear from you all again sometime!

-R.M.Whitaker