Western Short Story
Marshal Jake Rawlings tied his horse in front of a weathered building with Saloon painted on the door by a shaky handed artist. The red lettering looked fresh and had soaked into the dry wood before the paint ran to far. The saloon was one of three places left standing in a shanty town Southwest of Joplin, Missouri. The surrounding area was littered with clothing and detriment left behind by fleeing residents. Most of the city of tents and lean-to shacks had disappeared when a twister came through a few days before. It wasn’t clear where all the pieces landed. They could be in Missouri, Kansas, or down in Indian Territory for all he knew.
He inquired inside and found the man he wanted sitting at a table in the smoky room playing solitaire.
“Slim, I’ve a paper here that says you have to appear before the judge in Fort Smith. You need to come with me and get this straightened out. All things considered, I can’t see it taking more than a couple of weeks.” Hesitating a moment, he continued. “This isn’t all that serious. If you give your word, you can do it on your own and I can go on about my business.”
“Well, I appreciate your faith in my honesty, Marshal. But it’s misguided.” Slim looked up at him, his hand making a slow journey toward a pistol showing under his coat. “I just don’t have the inclination or time.”
“Maybe I’m mistaken, but you don’t look real busy.”
As the gambler’s hand touched the butt of his pistol, Jake tried to reason. “Slim. Don’t do this. There’s no need.”
“I disagree.” The gambler grabbed his pistol.
When the deafening shot exploded, the muzzle flash painted a mural of shocked faces around the shadowed room and Texas Slim lay tangled in his broken chair, dead of a bad decision and slow hands.
A woman ran from the back, falling to her knees next to the man, her piercing wail competing with the echoes of the shot. Tears streaked her face, making her look like a vermillion-painted Comanche ready for war. Her bright green dress with dirty-white lace trim turned dark as she knelt in a pool of blood. In a rasping, sobbing voice she screamed at him. “Why? Why did you have to kill him?”
Ears still ringing from the shot, he barely heard her. Replacing the spent shell from his smoking gun, he returned the pistol to its worn holster. Sighing, his shoulders slumped as he glanced around the room. He’d just walked in the door, and now a man was dead. It took less time than a slow-talking man could tell of it. Taking his hat off, he faced her anger. “I’m sorry, ma’am. He didn’t give me much choice. There’s a warrant on him from Fort Smith—he skipped on some debts there. All he had to do was come peaceful.”
She raised her head from Slim’s chest, eyes boring into him. It was hard to tell if her cheek was covered in blood or paint. “He owed money? You killed him for that?”
Movement caught his attention and his gaze pinned the bartender until the man brought his hands above the counter. The bar was made from planks laying on top of wooden crates, with the backsides to the room. The man may have been reaching for more whiskey, but he doubted it. Standing at one end of the makeshift bar an unkempt, wooly looking cowhand drained his shot glass and left without a glance in their direction.
He brought his gaze back to the woman. “No ma’am. He went for his gun. There wasn’t much I could do.” He paused a moment. “I don’t think he meant to win.”
She shook her head, hair tumbling over her face. “You could have tried something else, wounded him or something.”
“I’m sorry. You’ve been reading too many dime novels. There wasn’t time for that.”
The woman used a piece of cloth pulled from her bodice to wipe her face, making the war paint worse. “Slim wasn’t a bad man. He had a run of bad luck that lasted his whole life—just couldn’t make anything work.” She sighed, looking up at him. “This morning at breakfast his eggs were cold and the bacon so hard it could drive nails. He wanted to take a buggy ride down to the river. When I mentioned about my customers to take care of—well, he seemed awful sad. It never bothered him before. He asked me how things could be any worse in his life.” Her gaze found something on the floor. “I told him to be happy with what he had—it could always get worse.”
A couple of women came forward, trying to get the girl away from the body. Jake’s voice stopped them. “Why did you stay with him?”
She looked at him like he’d asked a foolish question. “I loved him.”
Never ask how your day can get worse. That phrase haunted him as he stood by the grave of his wife. She’d died the first of May, 1876, on a day she should have been enjoying the flowers and warm sunshine following a late, cold spring.
They’d been married ten years. Annabelle was the daughter of a mercantile owner in Fort Smith, and worked there until she became ill. He was an orphan who’d joined the secession at a young age filled with a sense of adventure, only to come home disillusioned. The Marshals service gave him a sense of purpose and because of it, he was gone half their marriage following the siren song of justice. Sometimes he felt it was an addiction akin to the patrons of the opium dens. Or the genteel folk who dressed in the finery of their station in life, but never got far from their bottle of laudanum.
His bad days had gotten worse. Why had she stayed with him? She had to be lonely. There were no parting words of wisdom, no gentle admonitions to find another love—she’d died in her sleep while he sat watching the sand run out of her hourglass. He’d nearly missed the last shallow breath that was her ending, so quiet did it leave. That last grain made silent fall while he sat exhausted in a chair by her side. He was ashamed to admit he hadn’t done right by her, hadn’t been a good husband. And yet she’d stayed with him.
He’d turned in his badge that day. The irony did not escape him that she may have prayed for that resignation their entire marriage.
But he’d had it all. Young and full of piss and vinegar serving the law to those who despised it. He’d pitted his skills against all comers—devil take the hindmost. When the contest was over, he had a beautiful wife at home to be enjoyed while he waited for the thrill his next assignment would bring.
The words of that saloon girl preyed on his mind. For ten years he’d had the world by the tail. Now he was adrift, cut loose from life’s anchor with no more future than that gambler.
The day of her burial, he turned Hoss and rode toward an unknown future, hoping to find peace—in life or death.
Jake was riding into the broken country of Eastern Kansas when the sound of a pistol shot made him rein in Hoss. He listened a moment, unable to fix direction or distance, and then moved on with caution. That shot bothered him. A pistol makes a distinct sound, and most hunters would use a rifle. And one shot? Not target practice and if it was an ambush, it was a good one—up close and personal. His mind worried the question as they moved on.
He’d gone another half-mile when he saw the trail. It rained the night before, softening the hard soil and the hoof prints were plain. The churned earth indicated two horses walking close together in a straight line. That would never happen unless they were ridden. Used to riding the lonely trails, he’d kept his skin intact by noticing what others were doing—and where. Two riders and a pistol shot. Being an ex-marshal, he was predisposed to think the worst.
There were several towns to the east, Joplin being the largest. He knew it wasn’t far to where he’d shot Texas Slim, but wasn’t sure of the exact location of that town, or if it still existed. That was a bad memory that happened just before he went home to the ultimate sadness.
Since this land was sparsely settled with few travelers, he gave that trail some thought. There wasn’t much around but cattle and jack-rabbits. A few deer would be found in the draws along the creeks and rivers. But, he was moving north and the riders were headed east so it shouldn’t concern him. Hoss looked in the direction the trail pointed. They’d been together a few years and sometimes it seemed the horse could read his mind.
Heat waves shimmered in the distance and he felt an urge to take his old grey hat off and wipe the sweatband. But he knew if anyone watched, the movement would grab their attention. His clothes were grey with dust and since Hoss was a mottled steel dust, they’d blend into the backdrop of rocks and brush—providing they didn’t move. As fresh as those tracks were, the riders could be close.
The horse twitched his ears and rolled his eyes, trying to turn toward the new trail. Jake pulled on the reins just enough to get his attention. “None of our business, Hoss.”
He waited a few minutes to be safe. This wasn’t like meeting someone on the boardwalk in a town. The only rules in this land were the ones you made yourself. As he waited, whispering winds bent the tops of the long grass and rattled the limbs of the scrub brush surrounding them. Wrens fussed at each other under a clump of poke, and a meadowlark started piping in the distance. The prairie sentinels had given the all clear. With a gentle nudge from his heels, Hoss started walking north again.
Cresting a small rise, he brought the horse to an abrupt stand. A trail of boot-prints marched east. Judging by the size of the tracks, it was a woman, or small man. Slacking the reins, he let Hoss follow this time. He noticed the prints would abruptly stagger left or right—the distance between steps varied. Some of the tracks were brushed over, like something smoothed them out and carried dirt the same direction the walker moved.
A woman? Out here? He’d guess she wore a long dress. Tired and sometimes staggering over the uneven ground, pausing often—maybe looking for something? What the hell? And that pistol shot still worried him. From the looks of the two trails, she was being shadowed. And that shot could have come from any of them, in defense or attack.
Hoss could turn on a dime and leave a nickel change. Jake couldn’t remember pulling on the reins, but three jumps later he was back at the trail of the two horses and moving east. The soft ground muffled the sounds of their passage. Their trail would be the easiest to follow. If they didn’t join up with the woman, he could always go back and trail her.
He pushed the horse into a fast walk, watching the country ahead and resisting the urge to race up the trail. To rush into an ambush would be foolish, but his stomach churned thinking of a woman alone out here. It was July of 1877 and folks could be as good, or bad, as they had reason to be.
It wasn’t long before he found them. Two horses stood together, tied next to a stunted cedar. Shucking his Winchester from its scabbard, he dismounted and jerked down on the reins to leave Hoss ground hitched. Walking up to the mounts, he patted them on the flanks and shoulders, looking over their rigs as he moved past. One old Sharps and a beat-up Winchester were in their sheaths. The leather was worn off the saddle horns, the seats scratched and thin. They looked like hand-me-downs from working cowhands. Bags of supplies were tied over the saddles, along with their bedrolls. Movers, and poor ones at that. Maybe just like him.
A scream kicked him into motion. Running to the top of the hill, a quick glance told the story. Two men had a woman between them, pushing and pulling at her while she fought. One sleeve was already torn from her dress, leaving it pulled low on that side and showing a white expanse of shoulder. She kept slapping at the laughing men while trying to pull her dress up. One man pulled his hand back to hit her.
Jake didn’t hesitate, firing into the ground at their feet. “Hold up there. You men step back and drop your guns.”
The man with his fist raised pushed the woman toward the other man and grabbed his pistol. Jake’s next shot punched through him and he fell squirming in the dust. Grabbing the woman, the other man drew his gun, trying to hide behind her. She was having none of that and stomped on his foot, twisting away. When the man fired up the hill, Jake shot him. The man fell, rolled over and tried to bring his pistol up. The way he was waving the gun around, Jake was afraid the woman would be shot by accident, so he shot into the man again.
Walking down the small incline, he kept a wary eye on the men. He knew where he placed the shots and didn’t expect them to move, but you never know.
The woman stood waiting, one hand holding up the front of her faded, blue gingham dress. The hem brushed the ground when she moved and her apron was stained with blood. Somewhere between slim and sturdy, her dark hair fell past her heaving shoulders as she tried to catch her breath. He gave her his full attention. “Are you hurt?”
She glanced at him, eyes starting to fill with tears. “Thank you for helping me. Those men were trying to….” Gathering herself, she wiped her eyes. “Do you have something to fix this dress? I can’t move much or I’ll be showing more than I want. And, please. We need to hurry.”
“Why? Are there more of them?” After a quick look around, thinking she must know something he didn’t, he touched her arm. “We’ll get to your dress in a minute, it’s not going to fall off. You’ve blood on your hand. Are you hurt?”
She drew away from him. “We do need to hurry. Please. The only thing hurt is my pride—and I’m kinda short of that right now. So, my dress?” She glanced at him, giving the material a tug to make her point.
“Alright. Just wait a minute.” Wondering what the big hurry was, he went over to the men making sure they weren’t playing possum, and going through their pockets. He felt no remorse for killing them. In this part of the country, assaulting a woman was a hanging offense—providing the miscreants made it to court. There were no letters or papers on them to tell who they were. Unless there was something in their saddlebags to identify them, they’d be two nameless graves added to countless others. He stripped their gun belts from them and turned to check on the woman. She stood glaring at him, shifting foot to foot.
He didn’t know what surprised him most, his horse breaking ground rein or what Hoss did next. Head held high to keep the reins off the ground he came trotting up and stopped by the woman, allowing the reins to rest at her feet. She reached up with her free hand and rubbed his nose, speaking softly to him with a smile. Damned crazy horse. It was a rare day he’d allow anyone to do that.
Jake kept a short shovel on his pack for digging a fire pit. When he pulled it out, she stopped him with a soft, firm voice.
“No. You have to listen to me. There’s no time for that. We have to go.”
He looked her over again as Hoss moved with her. “What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Why do you care…?”
He wondered if they were talking two different languages. “Your name? What is it? I have to call you something.”
She made a small puff ball of dust when she stomped her boot. “Look, Marshal—”
“Sorry, ma’am. I’m not a marshal. I heard a pistol shot earlier, were they shooting at you?”
He wasn’t sure she could speak past her ragged breathing, not sure if she was still winded from fighting off the men… or just angry. “Those men shot in front of me to make me stop, or just missed me. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. There’s no time for idle conversation. Now, I can see where your badge was pinned to your vest. The sun bleached everything but that spot. Since you’re a marshal, you have to help me.” She glanced at the bodies. “Well, help some more. That was….”
When her voice faded he jumped in, still trying to get her name. “I don’t help people I don’t know.”
A single eyebrow rose as she watched him. “Just kill them?”
Staring at her a moment, he finally shook his head. “Maybe I should have minded my own business.” He rummaged around in his saddlebag. Finding a ball of rawhide string, he drew his knife and turned to her.
She flinched and stepped back, free hand going to her chest. “What are you doing?”
“Lady, I’m going to fix your dress… that is, if you’ll quit squirrelling around.”
He poked holes in both side of the torn material and then cinched the two pieces together over her shoulder. When he finished, he turned her to him. Taking his kerchief off, he soaked it with water from his canteen and began cleaning her hand. He could feel her stare and took more time than needed. There was a small cut on her knuckle. He’d had similar wounds when he punched someone in the mouth. She’d fought hard. He had to admit that. Her feet were tapping in the dirt and looking for a direction to go. From her expression, he didn’t know if she was going to run away or attack him.
He put his hand on her shoulder, trying to make eye contact and calm her. She was more baffling to him than any trail he’d ever seen. “Now, please tell me why you’re wandering around out here?”
Her gaze snapped to his eyes. “I’ve been trying to, if you’d quit with all these damned fool questions. My daughter is missing. I was looking for her when I noticed those two men following me. I tried to hide, but it was too late and they chased me down.” She shuddered. “If you hadn’t….”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, why didn’t you say so?”
She stared at him a moment with her mouth open. “Things have been a little out of sorts around here for the last few minutes, don’t you think?” Her gaze slid over to the bodies as she shook her head. “You killed two men right at my feet. Their blood….” She was looking at her apron. “Why didn’t you chase them away?”
His sigh was long and drawn out. “There wasn’t time and if I’d run them off, they’d just show up on our back trail. Don’t waste time mourning those men. They were attacking you. I take a dim view of that. The second man shot at me after you got away from him. That was a nice job, by the way. Look, they called the tune. I just danced to it.”
He was walking away to get the other horses when he heard her mumble. “Seemed cold blooded.”
He whirled on her. “Would you rather I’d not shown up? Passed on by?”
Even at a distance he could see her chin quivering, but she stood tall and faced him. “No. I would not.” She didn’t give it up. “You didn’t give them much chance.”
“No, I didn’t.” He held her gaze a moment. One thing he liked about her, she didn’t back up much. “I suppose you wanted me to square off with them, like in those dime novels you see around? Wait for them to draw first? See who’s fastest, two against one? Where would you be now if I’d lost that contest?”
“Lady, there’s only one rule in a gunfight.”
She looked at him with moist eyes. “Which is?”
“Don’t get shot.”
A few minutes later he had the other horses gathered. Hoss still followed her around like a puppy. He stared at the poor horse a moment. The horse was smitten, starved for female companionship. There was no other explanation.
“Alright, ma’am. Let’s get going. Since my horse has adopted you, why don’t you ride him?”
He gave her a hand up to mount Hoss, tried to help adjust her dress and got his hands slapped. Picking the largest of the other mounts, he swung aboard. “Which way to your home?”
“We are not going to the ranch. Haven’t you been listening? We have to look for my daughter.”
Sighing seemed to be a new habit for him. “How long has she been gone?”
Her hands bunched up the extra length of the reins, squeezing repeatedly. “Since early this morning. Her pet foal got away through a hole in the corral fence. She went to find it.”
“So, she came this direction?”
The woman gave him a quick look, before she glanced away. “I don’t know for sure. We were arguing, I was fixing breakfast and she left to look.” Her voice choked off. “She might have come this way.”
He handed her his damp handkerchief, not knowing if she’d hesitate to take it since there was blood on it. She didn’t, just wiped her eyes, and blew her nose.
“I’ve been looking everywhere.” She tried to hand the handkerchief back.
He waved the cloth away. “Did you find her trail?”
She had beautiful brown eyes, with a coating of guilt. Her head shake was more a flinch. “No. There was no trail.”
“Lady, there’s always a trail.” His sighing habit was getting out of control as he rubbed the back of his neck. “So, we don’t know where she is. Where’s your place?”
She dug her heels into Hoss and he leaped ahead with a surprised snort. Her voice drifted over her shoulder. “Fine. C’mon.”
They topped a low hill and he admired how the spread was laid out in the valley below. From a distance it looked good, but by the time they’d rode up to the house he’d seen too much. “Where’s your husband?”
“Why would you think I have a husband?” When he didn’t answer, she stopped on the porch. “Not that it’s any of your business, but he went to town.”
Poles were down on the corral, one of the small lean-to sheds had a hole in the roof. She’d paused going through a door hung crooked on leather make-shift hinges. He shook his head. “Will he be back soon?”
Her back was to him and her shoulders hunched a little, then relaxed. “He went to town for supplies two years ago.”
“So, where’s the town, in California?”
She whirled on him and he was glad she didn’t have a gun. “We’ve got better things to do than….”
He held up his hand. “Sorry, ma’am. Just trying to get the lay of the land around here. Does this runaway husband have a name?”
“Of all the insufferable….” She gathered herself, staring at him. “He went to a gambling town that sprung up about a half day’s ride east of here. It’s called Hard Times.” After going inside, he could hear her rummaging around. Her voice carried to him through the blue-flowered curtains of an open window. He guessed blue was her favorite color. “His name was Ned Pearson.”
He watched her walk through the door dressed in a man’s pants and oversized blue shirt. She had a heavy Dragoon Colt belted around her hips. With her temper, he’d have to be more careful. If she managed to fire that horse pistol, it would go through him, the house and trip a neighbor a mile away—providing there was one.
“I’m going with you. No telling what we’ll run into.”
He held his hand up. “Now, hold on a minute. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. How old is your daughter?”
“Why in hell do you keep trying to slow us down with all these questions? We need to hurry. She could be lost. Or… or hurt.”
He waited, looking around at the corral. Hoss snorted and shivered, his tail making a brisk sweep for flies.
Her shoulders drooped, signaling defeat. He didn’t believe it for a minute. “Angie. And before you ask… she’s twelve.”
“Twelve years old.” He nodded. “Have y’all lived here long?”
Her hand swept to the butt of her pistol. A red hue rose from her heaving chest toward her face. It was not a good look for her. Maybe he could beat her to the draw, but he couldn’t shoot her. Well, maybe her foot… maybe.
“Mister?” She took a couple of deep breaths. “I’m going to go look for my daughter. If you want to stay here flapping your jaws, you can talk to yourself.”
“Sounds fair. I do that a lot. What are you riding?” He patted Hoss on the shoulder, getting ready to mount. “This is my horse—or, I thought he was. These other two spavined animals aren’t worth much and don’t belong to you. Or are you going to start walking again?”
Her mouth formed silent words as she stared at the corral.
“Where’s your mare, Lady? A little foal has to have a momma.” He gave her a glance and a smile. “Just like a twelve-year-old that I’m betting is a tomboy and grew up in these hills. I’d also bet that she can ride anything with hair and knows this land like the back of her hand. Maybe she’s not all that lost. What do you think?”
His glance slid across her and went to the corral. “So, what we need to do is find the trail of a young colt, a girl running after it, and the mare chasing after them. Does that sound about right?”
When she looked at him, he didn’t know whether to run or stand his ground. An old saying came to mind. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Or, was it night? He couldn’t remember, but vowed to keep an eye on this storm brewing. He was sure she could fry eggs on her forehead, if he could get her to lie still long enough.
He rode over to the corral. Part of the poles were down so he figured the mare broke through and walked away. She rode up beside him as they started out of the barn lot following the mare’s trail.
He tried to reassure her. “Most wouldn’t think about it, but a horse can follow a trail like a bloodhound. And this one has a foal to find. I figure if we follow her, we’ll find it and your daughter.”
“Look, I’m sorry for being such a pain in your backside. I panicked this morning. All right? By the time I thought I’d need a horse or a gun, those two men were following me. I didn’t know what to do, so I ran.” She glanced at him. “And I’ll admit to not thinking of turning the mare loose. Satisfied?”
“Lesson in that.” She rode beside him in silence. That surprised him. He might have to re-evaluate. “Anytime you feel things are out of control, it’s time to stop and contemplate—decide what’s going on.”
It’d been a long time since he’d been around a woman that interested him. Before his wife died, none were worth throwing off the yoke. After she died, that part of him seemed to be dead.
Her look at him seemed cool enough to curb any speculation. “I’ll work real hard trying to remember your advice.”
He reined up, looking at the tracks.
“What’s the matter?”
“Your mare was walking back and forth. She must have lost the scent. But she’ll find it.”
Jake rode in a small circle and found the mare’s trail going off at a tangent. Looking close, he could see smaller hoof prints. No boot prints.
“Angie wear boots?”
“Why would that…?” She caught his stare and took a deep breath. “Oh. No, she wore moccasins we bought from a Cherokee family.”
“Good. That explains those prints, and it means we’re close. This sandy soil doesn’t hold that kind of print long.”
They rode in silence. He watched the horizon, looking for anything out of place. She seemed to be looking under every bush, and behind every scrubby tree.
She finally looked at him. “Can’t we go faster?”
“We’re making good time.” Jake patted his horse. “Old Hoss has a pretty good smeller, too.”
Her gaze locked on his, eyebrows raised in question.
“Relax, Lady. I expect Hoss will find the runaways before we do. I know you’re anxious, but we’ll find them. Any water holes close?”
She pointed in the direction they were headed. “Couple of miles. Good water all year.” She glanced at him. “Tell me, marshal. Are you married, or have a woman some place?”
He cut a quick glance at her, surprised at the change if direction. “I told you I’m not a marshal. It’s Jake. Jake Rawlings. I used to be married.”
“Talk her to death? Get tired of your questions so she ran away?”
He studied the trees in the distance, knowing she was kidding—liking it, hating the subject. “She died.”
She gasped and gave a soft groan. “I swear I don’t know how to be around people anymore. I’m so sorry.” Her back was ramrod straight as she rode, shaking her head. “Really, I’m so….”
“It’s alright, ma’am. No harm done.”
Her voice was low and soft. “Can I ask how she died?”
“It wasn’t anything dramatic. She seemed tired all the time. The doctor gave her medicine, but nothing helped. I got back to Fort Smith one day after serving a warrant and she was in bed. Said her chest hurt. She died in her sleep. Good way to go, I guess.”
“How long were you married?”
He chuckled. “You’re getting into questioning pretty good. Is this payback?” When she didn’t answer, he continued. “Ten good years. No children.”
She’d reined in close and put her hand on his arm. “At least you had some amount of closure. My husband… just left… didn’t come back. We looked—went to town… nothing.” She stopped speaking a moment. “So, what now?”
“Turned in my badge and headed out, thought I’d see some country. I’ve been traveling a good long while. No destination in mind.” Hoss didn’t like the other horse rubbing against his side, so he stepped away.
A whinny carried to them on the slight breeze. They turned off the trail and cantered up to a bay mare. She was pushing a bloody foal with her nose.
He looked around quickly. “Dammit!”
“Angie?” Her voice cracked, calling out in anguish. “She should be here.”
Jake dismounted. The dead foal had been attacked by something. Most likely coyotes by the tracks in the loose soil. The blood was fresh. Why weren’t they hanging around? When he looked, he saw a cut on the mare’s fore-leg. She’d chased them off and stood next to her foal, standing guard. He reached out and patted the horse on the shoulder. “Sorry, girl.”
He stepped into the saddle. “Is that water hole you mentioned close to here?”
She pointed. “Right over that hill.”
By the time they crested the hill, he had his rifle out. If his fears were realized, he’d need it. The mare chased away the coyotes, and the girl most likely had blood on her. Deprived of one meal, they’d follow the blood scent for another. It would be a rare thing for a coyote to attack a human. Still… a small girl with blood on her. It the pack was hungry enough….
A little green valley lay between the hills. He could locate the spring by the cottonwood trees growing nearby. Coyotes snarling and angry screams filled the air. Rounding a limestone boulder, the sight brought a smile to his face.
They’d found Angie, but so had the coyotes. She had her back to a rock and was whaling away on them with a long stick whenever they got too close, and he figured she had a score to settle. Looked to him like she was winning. They would run away when approached, but might injure the girl before they left. Better to put a scare in them. He reined Hoss to a stop and shouldered the Winchester. As he pulled the trigger and wounded one of the coyotes, Lady burst by him, her horse at full gallop. He had a moment’s chill down his back. He’d almost shot her.
The pack left, chasing after the bleeding and yipping coyote. They’d make short work of the wounded animal and it drew them away from the girl.
When he cantered up, the woman was on the ground giving her daughter a fierce hug. She was crying and the girl looked embarrassed, casting a glance at Jake. Now he knew what the mother looked like at a young age.
“Mom, I’m alright. I knew you’d come sooner or later, that’s why I came to the spring.” She patted her mother on the back. Then she teared up. “Did you see Callie? Those damned coyotes killed her. There were so many of them and I couldn’t keep them away.”
After another minute of hugs, the girl untangled herself from her mother. “What’s your name, Mister?”
He realized what she held was a walking stick, smooth and straight. “That’s a nice piece of hickory. Did you shave the bark off yourself?” Her eyes widened and he watched the hereditary flush climb up her neck. One woman mad at him was enough. He took his hat off. “Miss Angie, my name is Jake Rawlings and I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Well at least you answered a question. That’s better than my mom will do. How’d you happen to be with her?”
He grinned over Angie’s shoulder at her mother. “Your ma had a little altercation with some men this morning. I helped her out.”
Angie whirled toward her mother. “Those men came back?”
“No.” She shrugged at her daughter. “These were some others.” Her gaze found Jake and then cut back to her daughter. “I guess… you don’t think?”
He stepped up on Hoss. “Maybe you’d better tell me all about it on the way home. We’ll collect your mare on the way.”
Lady mounted and Angie didn’t need stirrups. She took hold of her mom’s hand and swung up behind the saddle like an acrobat he’d seen at a circus. He had to admit wearing pants made more sense.
They rode in silence for a few minutes and he was looping his rope around the mare before Lady said anything. She was about as reluctant to speak as the mare was to leave her dead foal. Once he got the ladies home, he knew he’d need to come back and bury it, or the horse would break out again. It would be a race with the buzzards and coyotes, but he figured Angie would want it done. Another job to do was to borrow a grown-up shovel and go bury those two men.
Not one to take needless chances, he chose a weaving route through the hills. They had trouble enough without making it easy for someone to find them. There’d been too many trials and tribulations this day.
She finally picked up the conversation. “I told you my husband was gone? We can only assume dead. Well, there are a few ranches around that want our springs. We have several and hold the water rights on all of them. To be honest, we’re struggling and they can see that. Lately, some men from the Bar H have been very persistent.”
Angie’s snort turned into a giggle. “A man we’d never seen before came and offered to marry mom. Said she was shore purty and needed a man around.” The girl rolled her eyes. “He couldn’t even talk right.”
“You shouldn’t make fun of people, Angie.” Lady shrugged, giving him a smile. “I used to be a school teacher.”
He watched the interaction between the mother and daughter and had to turn away, clearing his throat. His wife was gone. They’d hoped to have children, but it never happened. These two seemed close as two people could be. He could tell Angie would grow up to be a beautiful woman, like her mother.
“So, these men. They causing—” He glanced at the girl. “Are they causing trouble?”
Angie spoke up before her mother could. “They offered to buy us out. When mom refused, things started happening.” She glanced at her mother. “We used to have cattle. I can’t find any of them now… and I know where to look.” Her voice was tight with anger. “And I for damned sure don’t think little Callie got out by herself.”
“Sorry. I know. Ladies don’t cuss.” She rolled her eyes, hiding a smirk. “I guess I haven’t learned enough.”
Jake stifled a laugh. These two spitfires were the most interesting people he’d seen in a long time. They rode around the last hill and into the barn lot. To put punctuation on their story, three men sat on their horses in front of the house.
“Are these the men bothering you?”
“Just the fat one, I don’t know the others.”
He took the thong off his pistol. “Why don’t you stay back just a bit? I’ll be speaking to these men.”
“Don’t shoot them… well, unless you have to.”
He met her concerned gaze with an innocent expression. “I can be reasonable.”
Lady laughed and he liked the sound of it. “I haven’t seen much evidence of that.”
Angie’s voice broke in. “What? Did he shoot someone?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
Two of the men looked to be regular cowhands. One was lumpy in his clothes, the other whip-cord thin. They’d be dangerous if pushed—which he intended to do. The third man was a different animal. Dressed in black, complete with a black leather vest and polished boots, his tied down holsters held pearl handled pistols. A real dandy.
“You men got business here?” He gave them with a hard stare.
The lumpy cowhand spoke up. “We have as much business here as you, mister. There’s no need for trouble. Why don’t you move on so we can to talk with the woman?”
Lady rode up beside him, thankfully on his left side. Angie had dropped off behind. “The woman, as you call me, has no use for you and is asking you to leave.”
Jake shrugged and smiled. “There it is, boys. Your walking papers. Y’all have a nice day.”
Lumpy gave him a hard look. “My name is Claude Howard. I own the Bar H. My segundo here is Fred Banner. This other man is Clete Davis. Maybe you’ve heard of him? He helps us over the hard spots.” His hand rested near his pistol. “We’ll say if we have business here. Not you.”
Jake noticed movement to the side and saw Angie stepping up on the porch, out of the line of fire. He wished her mother had as much sense. “All right. We can do this easy or hard. The lady said to move on. This is her property… her home. So, that’s the way it’s going to be. If you’d come nice and respectful, things might be different. But you show up with that tinhorn wannabe badman? Trying to run rough shod over defenseless women? You get out of here. Right now. And don’t come back.” His voice turned harsh. “Or, you can start shooting.”
The gunman spoke up, his voice high pitched—odd sounding. “You gonna make us leave?”
Hoss was a big animal. When Jake jumped him forward, the two men between him and the gunman had to back their horses up. “Tell you what, Slick. You’re so anxious? How about you and me? Right now.”
Lady’s voice was quick. “Jake, don’t….”
He shook his head, not looking at her. “Nothing to worry about, ma’am. You see, old Slick here has a problem. Just to impress his boss, he wants to pull those shiny new pistols of his and start banging away. Of course, with that skittish looking horse he’s riding, he’ll hit everyone but me—probably hit his horse between the ears. The trouble is, with those tied down fancy holsters, he has to keep the thongs on his pistols or they’d fall out while he rides.”
He stared at the sweating man. “Where are your loops, Slick? Your guns still tied down?”
With a startled look, the man backed his horse away as one hand started down to check his holster.
Jake nudged Hoss forward again. “You touch that pistol and I’ll shoot you, Slick. Simple as that.”
When the man put his hands on the saddle horn, Jake spoke to the other men. “Since we’re introducing ourselves, my name is Jake Rawlings. These ladies will not be bothered. If they are, I’ll hear about it and come for you.”
The Segundo spoke up. “Boss, I’ve heard of this man. The word is he used to be an honest lawman, but got too quick on the shoot. He kind of went off the rails a year ago. Turned crazy. He’s the one took out Taylor and Cruz a few weeks ago south of here. They were a couple of tough warriors, men for hire. Look. I signed on to run cows, that’s all. I’m out of this.” The man hadn’t taken his eyes from Jake. “I thought you were still down in the Nation?”
Jake shrugged. “I left.” He made eye contact with all three men. “One other thing, there seems to be livestock missing. The ladies didn’t tell me how many, but they need to come home. It would be a neighborly thing for you to round them up and bring them back. And the head-count had better be more than generous. Matter of fact, they better show up real damned quick or I’ll be hanging some people for rustling. Do we have an understanding? Mr. Howard?”
The Bar H owner’s face looked red as an apple and he took a ragged breath. “You men go on. I’ll catch up in a minute.”
After they left he took his hat off, giving Jake a wary eye. “Missus Pearson, my apologies. Our thought was that with your man gone you’d be looking for a good excuse to leave. Never seen a ranch yet that could be run by a couple of women. If we’ve come across too strong in the past, it wasn’t by intention. Some of my men may have got out of hand. That won’t happen again. You have my word on that.”
Howard put his hat back on and then tipped it at Jake. “Good day, Mr. Rawlings.”
Jake nodded to the man and watched him join his men. He’d bet a dollar to a doughnut this wasn’t over. He turned to find Angie standing on the porch and holding an old, double-barreled coach gun. It was pointed their general direction.
With a cold knot in his belly, he spoke to her. “Angie, I’d like you to point that thing straight up before you let those hammers down. If it goes off, it’ll take saints and sinners alike.”
She grinned at him as she let the hammers down, one at a time, and leaned the shotgun against the wall.
“Just watching your back, Jake.”
He could feel a thin trickle of sweat running down the side of his face. “Weren’t you just a little bit scared holding that shotgun?”
The grin still held.
He shook his head. “Uh, do you realize you’d have shot all of us if you fired that blunderbuss.”
Lady broke into the conversation. “We’ve argued with them for ages. Now, it’s over? Just like that? Who are you?”
“I’m just a man that’s been a lot of places.” He shrugged. “Don’t think too much of it. Some people are like those coyotes we saw this morning—brave enough in numbers but if you challenge them they’ll scatter.”
“What about that gunman. The one you called Slick? He worries me.”
“All hat, no cattle. If he comes back, Angie can take her stick to him.”
Jake stood enjoying the cool, evening breeze as he leaned on the porch post. A rare July thunderstorm blew by north of them, giving a welcome break in the heat. Mother and daughter had fed him a good meal—hell a great meal, and did everything they could to make him feel at home and thank him for his days’ work.
Lady came out to stand with him, her shoes clicking on the plank floor. He could hear Angie humming something inside, banging pots around. They had an inside well. Handy.
She leaned her back against the rail, facing him. “So, what now, Mr. Rawlings? You going to ride out, never to return?”
“Might. There’s a lot of country out there. Is there a reason I shouldn’t?”
“Yes, there is. You rescued me and found my daughter. Then, you rescued us again from that rancher. We’re thankful for that.” Her breath caught and she trembled as if a chill came over her. She seemed to have a lot of interest in scuffing the boards at her feet. “It’s been a full day, and you have made an impression. A very good impression. On both of us.”
He considered that a moment. There wasn’t any place he needed to be, or reason to hurry. He knew she wasn’t offering up anything… exactly. “I’m not an easy man to be around, ma’am. I’m kinda slow on the uptake and seem to have a knack for making folks mad. Lately I’ve been moody.”
She nodded and smiled at that admission. “I’ve seen that.”
“That’s not all. I’ve killed men, brought them to court when they didn’t want to go. Dangerous men. Some say I shoot too quick. That’s what you thought earlier today. I can’t outrun my past, no matter how hard I try.”
“I took your advice and pondered about that. I was wrong. Your reasoning was sound. Those men wouldn’t have left us alone.” She seemed to think a moment. “Angie and I have about talked each other out. It’s lonely country out here and few visitors come by. At least, none we want to talk with.” She looked around at him. “Your reasons for leaving… a good woman would deal with all that. A lady would. And… Angie and I… we’re kinda accident prone. We may need to be rescued again.”
They watched a prairie falcon slice between the buildings on silent wings, no sound came from inside the house. The world seemed to pause and listen.
“This is a good place. But, a lot of work needs to be done. Maybe I could stay awhile… if you want. Just to get you caught up. There’ll be branding and such when they bring the cattle back—repairs to make. You wouldn’t have to pay me.”
They both turned toward a window as something fell over inside.
“Damn. Sorry!” A low giggle followed.
The humming resumed inside as she turned him to face her. “I read an article once. Saw it in one of those magazines that come from back East. It talked about men who lost their wives. If it was a good marriage, the man would seek another as soon as possible to get that back. Otherwise he’d wither away and die a lonely, bitter man.”
“I think you’re making that up. That magazine was probably right next to those dime novels I talked about.” He gave her a skeptical glance. “You never did tell me your name.”
Her giggle sounded like her daughter’s as she dropped her forehead on his chest. “Esmerelda.” She glanced up at him. “I kinda like Lady.”
“Well, I can’t think of any way to shorten it. Do you like Essie?”
She shook her head, a small smile forming.
“Then, Lady it will be.”
Her eyes trapped him with a softness he couldn’t escape—left him wondering why he’d want to. She was treating him like some wild thing that might bolt and run at a sudden movement.
“So, Mr. Rawlings what are your plans? Find someone worthwhile, or wither and die?”
He took a slow, deep breath, like a drowning man coming up from ten feet down. “I didn’t treat my late wife very well. I realize that, now. Maybe I’ve learned a thing or two.”
Her eyes widened, and her hand clutched her bodice. “Did you hurt her?”
“Yes, ma’am. I hurt her in the worst way. I wasn’t there when she needed me.”
“And yet she didn’t leave you.” She shrugged, laughter in her eyes. “Lesson in that.”
Inclining his head, he acknowledged that she’d turned an earlier comment back on him. Their conversations would not be boring. He could look in her eyes and never glance away. “No promises. We’d need to get to know each other. Could take a while.”
She looked around, faced into the cooling breeze. “We got nothing but time.”
He’d started a journey of uncertain ending, not knowing what he looked for. Gazing past the buildings, he wished he could see into the future. Beyond the long, rolling hills cast in purple hue of evening tranquility, past the night birds calling in the distance. Somewhere nearby jasmine grew, the too-sweet fragrance riding on the breeze and assailing their senses. If you took time to contemplate… there were always choices.
Here. Now. He felt at peace.
“I don’t want to die.”