I was sitting at the desk looking at wanted posters when that thunderbolt hit. You know it’s close when you feel that snap by your ears and see a lightning flash the same time thunder hits. It rattled the windows and I like to jumped out of my boots. My hand clutched my chest trying to keep my heart from beating itself to death. I about soiled my pants when the door slammed open showing a shadowy form in the doorway. It looked like a water-soaked hat sitting on top of a patchwork blanket. If I didn’t have steady nerves I’d have taken a fright.
The apparition stepped into the room and I saw the brief shine of a spur as a boot kicked the door closed. The blanket came off in a sodden heap next to the door and several acres of dark, red hair escaped the confines of the hat.
Now I was transfixed, watching something out of my control. It’s not every day you see a miniature green-eyed and obvious female cowhand stomping up to your desk. She had a pistol in a cross-draw holster and a skinning knife on the other hip. Her leather shirt filled out real nice. The store-bought pants showed mud up to her knees. She looked mad enough to fry bacon on her forehead.
Her voice brooked no argument. “We need help.”
Since I’m naturally wary I settled back into the chair, hoping I’d look officious. This looked like trouble on a stick. I wasn’t sure I wanted any part of it.
“What’s your name, little girl?”
She stretched to her full five foot height. “Don’t call me a little girl. I’m a full-grown woman.”
Taking a second glance, I could appreciate that. When I didn’t respond, her voice turned downright venomous.
“My name is Marcie McDougall and our place is a couple of miles west of here. You need to come right away.”
It was mid-morning and near dark as night, except for the lightning flashes. I got up, making sure I gave her a wide berth, and walked to a window.
“Look out there. What do you see?”
She came over and got up on her tiptoes to look out. “I don’t see anything but my horse.”
“Yes, ma’am, and that’s a fine horse. Now, I see things different. When I look out there, I see a couple of rivers in the street. I’d bet a shiny new nickel they’re going uphill. If you look real close, you will see a couple of ducks floating face down. Did you know a duck could drown? I saw it once. If you look close, there’s a beaver trying to build a dam next to the saloon. I’m betting it gets washed out. When you interrupted me by busting in here I was working on a schedule for the new riverboat.”
I walked over to the wall and took down a towel that wasn’t much used and tossed it to her. “Why don’t you dry off, sit down over here and tell me about it.”
She stood there wringing water from her hair and drying off the best she could. All the while, she never lost eye contact with me, except when she looked me up and down. She couldn’t have been impressed—I never am if I chance upon a mirror.
“We need to hurry. Someone snuck in on us last night and stole some horses.”
There was a paper and pencil on the desk, so I pulled that to me and started taking notes. “How many horses?”
“Dammit, we don’t have time for this!”
I wondered if her hair was naturally red, or if her temper just burned it that way. “About how many horses were there? Can we identify them? Geldings? Mares? Markings?”
I have seen some mad women in my short life—they tend to get that way around me. I thought this one was going to blow like a keg of black powder. She stood staring at me, with her fingers doing a little drumbeat on the butt of her pistol. I wondered if she was going to drag iron and had a queasy feeling in my gut… wondering what I would do if she did. Instead, she grabbed that paper and wrote on it.
She pushed it to me and turned it around so I could read it. I could feel my face turning red. Young ladies, and I always assumed lady unless proven otherwise, just didn’t talk that way in my neck of the woods. And, I wasn’t sure what she suggested was physically possible.
She went to the pile of blankets she used for a raincoat and slammed on her hat. I came over and offered her a slicker off the coat-tree. Looking at it a moment, she grabbed it and put it on. It came to her knees and looked like a tent. Without a word of thanks, she headed for the door.
She knew damned well I couldn’t let her go. Disgusted that she’d called my bluff, I called to her.
“Wait a minute.”
I checked the loads in my Colt, thankful I had the conversion to brass cartridges, and put on my hat and slicker. I bent over, pulled my pant legs out of my boots and then pulled them down on the outside. Maybe that would keep me from getting a boot-full of water while riding.
“Let me get my horse.”
Old Red was just around the corner in a lean-to and was not happy to see me coming with my saddlebags. After trying to stomp my foot a couple of times, he turned his back and wedged himself into a stall. I finally got all the gear on him and saw that girl standing there with her hand over her mouth trying to hide a laugh. I scowled at her, thinking if she wasn’t armed I could take her in a stand up fight. Well, maybe.
Red stuck his nose outside into the rain and then started backing up. I was trying to pull him out when Marcie walked up, grabbed the reins, and clobbered Red with her fist—right on the nose. I must have looked as surprised as Red.
“I raise horses, remember?”
I mounted my suddenly docile horse, I think we were both confused by that time, and we cantered west out of town following that girl. We travelled beside the road when we could because it was nothing but mud. I could see where a wagon went through and they must have had a team of eight horses to pull the weight. It’d been raining for three days and on the prairie one day at a time is more than enough.
While we rode, I did some thinking. I’d heard someone bought the old Haskell place and guessed this girl must be part of it. The country we were heading into was all rolling hills broken by scrub brush that choked the valleys and an occasional stream. Looking at it from a distance, the prairie looks flat. But, there are many places for concealment. It was ambush country and I needed to keep that in mind. It seemed odd to me any horse thief would pick this weather to round up horses. Most thieves I’d known just weren’t ambitious enough to get wet, and they’d leave a trail a child could follow.
We reined up in front of a big farmhouse built from milled lumber. The last time I’d been out this way the place looked pretty run down, but now looked good with a fresh coat of paint. All the outbuildings looked the same. Somebody was putting some work in.
At Marcie’s call, a man and two redheaded girls came out on the front porch. Stooped over and tired, the man raised a hand in greeting. The girls just stared at us.
“Marcie, you’re late. You took too long getting your posse.” He looked me over. “Is this all you could find? The rest of the girls already took off after those horse thieves.”
I kneed Red forward as close as I could get so we wouldn’t have to shout. “Mr. McDougall, my name is Dan Cupp. You had some horses run off?”
“Damned right I did. Looks like three men. The horses were in the corral and now they’re gone. Three of the girls took off after them.”
That set me back some. “You sent girls after stock thieves?”
The man looked at me a moment. “Mister, I got six girls and no wife or ranch hands. The weather has my rheumatiz acting up. And, I need those horses.”
Now I knew why he looked so run-down. And, why his girls all dressed like boys. If they were all spitfires like Marcie… “All right, then. I’ll see what I can do.”
I rode over to the corral and picked up the trail. Mostly it was churned up mud from the first bunch followed by the second, leaving a trail about ten feet wide and a foot deep. Marcie asked if I needed an Indian tracker, but I ignored her. That girl sure had a mouth on her.
I walked Red beside the trail trying to remember what lay in the direction we were headed. Marcie followed close behind. I was surprised she wasn’t talking. In our short acquaintance, I’d never heard her be quiet this long. Maybe she was half drowned.
It wasn’t long before I saw where the riders rode off the trail and waited. The tracks in the churned up earth showed where the girls came up to them. Then the whole shootin’ match rode off again. I sat my horse a moment. Even Red shook his head and snorted water. The thing that bothered me the most is I couldn’t see any sign of someone trying to escape. In this rain, the sound of shots wouldn’t carry so there was no telling what went on here. I looked at Marcie. From her looks, she could read the sign as well as me.
After an hour of slow riding, we saw an old and dilapidated line cabin up next to some trees. The building actually leaned a bit to the north. The trail went right to it.
We rode up easy and sat our horses about fifty feet from the cabin. It was raining again and the water was falling straight down as if we sat under a waterfall. Those in the house couldn’t have heard a buffalo stampede. Lightning popped a ways off and I could smell pitch burning in the pines.
There were six horses tied to a hitch rail, and three more stood in a rickety pole and brush corral with their tails to the wind. They all looked about as happy to be there as we did. Smoke came from the chimney of that cabin, so I guessed everyone inside was nice and cozy—unlike Marcie and me.
When I looked at her, she just shrugged, pulling her pistol from under her slicker. I liked that. This was a no-nonsense girl. Her voice was soft but she didn’t sound convinced.
“Maybe they’re captured.”
I just nodded at her, although none of this was making much sense. “We’ll go in slow. You stay mounted. If shootin’ starts, you get into the trees.”
Easing off Red, I dropped the reins and jerked on them to tell Red to stay in that spot. Keeping my pistol pointed down so the barrel wouldn’t fill up with water, I squelched through the mud and tiptoed up to a window. Naturally, Marcie dismounted and came up behind me. We were about as sneaky as a stampede.
I can’t say I was surprised at what I saw. “Well, you’re right. They’re captured.”
We went through that door with guns drawn. There were three couples, and I couldn’t tell who’d captured whom. Seems everyone had a partner. One couple sat at a table, innocent enough. Another couple was at the stove cooking something that reminded me I’d missed lunch for this little soiree. The third couple, locked in a clinch on one of the bunk beds, didn’t hear us come in.
Things got real quiet for a second or two before the screaming and shouting started. I fired into the roof. Not a good idea considering the weather, but things did quiet down.
I shook my head because I knew the men. Bob McClellan and Dusty Richards were normal cowboys always looking for a good time. Zeke Barnes was a different matter and he is the one I watched.
“Boys, this can go easy or hard. I don’t know what’s going on here, but I want you to walk over here and put your shooters on the table while we sort it out. And, boys? Be real easy on how you do that.”
Zeke was the one on the bunk. While the other two walked over and gave up their guns, he still stood. He was shirtless, but had a pistol strapped around his waist. I’d heard he fancied himself with that.
“You got no call to bust in here, Cupp. This is none of your business.”
Marcie and I still had our guns out. Seeing the situation, she quickly ushered the girls into a corner of the room.
“Horse stealing is a hanging offense, Zeke. So is kidnapping.”
He backed up on that one. “Horse stealing? Kidnapping? What the hell are you talking about? You got this all wrong.”
“Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.”
Zeke and I were doing an old-fashioned stare down while there was a lot of whispering going on in the corner, and then Marcie stepped out.
“He’s right.” She let out a sigh and glanced over her shoulder at her sisters. If looks could kill….
“We’ve been hoodwinked.” She paused a moment. “Or, I have.”
Well, I’d figured that out a long time ago, but I was still worried about Zeke. I figured him to be a couple of cards short of a full deck and likely to do something stupid. He was not one to back up from anything.
I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t get a chance. One of the sisters stepped forward.
“Look, Mister. My name’s Mary and we’re real sorry. It wasn’t supposed to go this way. All of this you’re seeing is just because we never get a chance to visit. Papa and Marcie run all the boys away. He won’t even let us go to the barn dance held in town once a month. All we get to do is work.”
Another girl stepped forward and I held up my hand. “What’s your name?”
She answered and kept right on talking. I was beginning to see a pattern here.
“I’m Margaret and this is my fault. I met these boys while I was running down a stray. The plan was for them to take some horses and we’d just have to go get them back. It’d take awhile, of course, and we could meet at this cabin to talk and such.”
That raised my eyebrows. “I don’t think it’s the talking that has your sister worried.” With a grateful look from Marcie I continued. “How’d you expect to get away with this? No one would believe three girls overpowered three horse thieves and took their horses back.”
Bob and Dusty yelled at once. “We ain’t thieves!”
The last sister sidled forward. “I figured that one out. I'm Mattie. I was going to tell Papa we sneaked up on them and stole our horses back. Since we didn’t see their faces, there’d be no way of finding them.”
She glared at Marcie. “It would have worked, except someone had to go off half-cocked and run to the sheriff.”
“That’s the most hare-brained story I’ve ever heard. But, it’s just crazy enough to be true.” I pointed my gun at the boys. “All right. You skedaddle on back to the Bar M. I’m sure you’ve got work to do.”
“Why don’t you drop that pistol in your holster and we’ll see who’s the boss here.” Zeke hadn’t given up his gun and I’d forgotten it when the girls started talking.
I was cold, wet and a might put out, so I put a bullet right next to his boot. You’d think we’d be deaf from the gunshots, but with that rain hitting the roof the sound barely registered. “That’s your last warning. I ain’t in the mood.”
He saw the error of his ways, walked up and turned so I could lift his pistol. I also looked to see if he had a hide-out gun.
They didn’t much want to go and I didn’t blame them. It’s hard to look good to the girls when you’re being marched out at gunpoint and I hated to do it, but there were too many people standing about that would get hurt in a ruckus. With a few disgruntled remarks about what they’d do to me if they had a chance, they finally walked out. I followed just to make sure they left, or didn’t try to shoot me through a window with a saddle gun. I didn’t trust Zeke any farther than I could throw him.
They mounted and were about to leave when Zeke turned back. “What’s this about being a sheriff? You ain’t a sheriff.”
I just smiled. “That’s true, but I’m the one holding a gun on you. Now, git.”
They left in a flurry of mud clods and dirty looks. I turned to find Marcie on the porch staring at me. She looked like she was building up a head of steam, like a train engine I saw once. She sure had a short fuse.
“I thought you were the sheriff?”
I figured it to be about ten feet to my horse, unless I jumped the rail. It was muddy so that would add to the time it took to get there.
The volume of her voice was starting to rise. “Why were you in that office looking through wanted posters?”
I shrugged at her. “I was just getting in out of the rain, and was almost dry when you came in. Besides, I was bored and there’s not much to read there.”
“Why would you lie to me?”
One of her hands was on her hip, the other still held her pistol. It was a caution how relieved I was that she had it pointed at the floor. I took my hat off and ran fingers through my hair, wishing for a little sunshine. I couldn’t be wetter if I was standing in the creek.
“Now as I recall, you never gave me much chance to explain anything to you. Watching all you girls together, it’d surprise me if your Papa has got a word in edgewise in the last ten years.”
She was like a dog worrying with a bone. “So, why were you taking notes?”
I shrugged, getting tired of the questioning. “I was leaving a message for the sheriff. You know, so he could help?”
She brought her hand to her mouth. “He’s going to see what I wrote.”
I laughed and then grinned at her, settling my hat back on my head. “Well, he won’t know exactly who wrote it but yes, ma’am. He will.”
“Marcie?” She stopped and looked at me. “With your temper and all, I’d be pleased if you’d holster that pistol—real pleased.”
She smiled real sweet at me. “I will if you will.”
Damned if she didn’t have a point.
I holstered my pistol and followed her inside where she lined her sisters up against a wall. If words were bullets, they’d be the victims of a firing squad.
“What were you thinking? I know mama is gone, but I tried to raise you right. Then sneaking off to meet boys—telling lies to do it? What if someone got shot or arrested those boys for horse stealing? Papa would sign the complaint because he didn’t know the truth. Girls, if you tell a lie nobody will respect you. Ever.”
She got in their faces and none would meet her eyes. Finally, she turned away. “And Mattie? Put your damned pants back on.”
Marching past me, she plopped down on a rickety chair that sat on one end of the porch. With her head in her hands, I could tell she was crying. I leaned against a post, hoping I wouldn’t bring the roof down, and waited her out. It took a few minutes.
Her voice sounded like she’d used up her last drop of energy. “Mama died after Megan was born. You saw her. She’s the youngest at the house with Mona and Papa.”
I did a quick calculation of the Irish names I knew. “Your Papa’s name Michael?”
She looked up at me. “How’d you know?”
I shrugged. “Just a guess.”
After a blank look at me, she continued. “I tried to be Mama. God, how I tried. I was just nine years old. Papa worked outside all the time, so until the older girls could help, I was it. I worked so hard. Papa couldn’t make it on the farm in Missouri, so we moved here.”
She looked like a drowned kitten. “I don’t know what to do. I’m at the end of my rope. They don’t want to do anything I tell them. I’ve never seen anyone so willful.”
Well, that’s the pot calling the kettle black. To my eye, they all were peas in a pod. I’m no great thinker. But, the solution seemed clear.
“So, stop telling them what to do.” I looked closely at her. Under the slicker and hat, it was hard to tell anything. “Marcie, how old are you?”
She smiled at me. “That’s not polite, but I’m twenty years old. Today I feel a hundred. And to answer your next question, Megan is the youngest at fourteen.”
“Sixteen is marrying age around here. Sometimes younger than that. Have you ever been married?” Now I was fishing a little.
“No time, Mr.Cupp. I was raising five girls and taking care of Papa.”
I thought about that a minute. “Well, let’s get the horses rounded up and headed home. I reckon the girls can find their own way?” Glancing up, I could see the sisters piled up at the door. It was obvious they’d been listening.
“As for the other five problems you have, I’d say it’s time they stood on their own feet and made their own decisions. And it looks to me like they had a good teacher. Papa is a grown man and can take care of himself.”
Her gaze held mine as I extended my hand to her. She took it and stood, looking over at the girls. A small smile began to form. “Be hard to do, letting go. I ain’t used to it.”
Suddenly, the porch was full of crying and hugging women. I decided that was my cue to round up the horses. The stolen horses each had a hackamore, so I figured the miscreant girls could each lead one. The rain was letting up some, although there were several toad frogs floating belly up in the puddles.
We made that slip-slopping ride back, each lost in thought. I figured most were thinking about what story to spin for Papa. Once they were home, I started to ride away when Marcie stopped me.
“Dan, I’m sorry I pulled you into this. It turned out to be more of a family drama than thievery. I hope it won’t cause you any trouble with those cowboys.”
While she walked up to my horse, she’d dropped her hat back on its tie strings and the wind parted her hair. We were all a bedraggled mess. Somehow, every time I looked she got prettier.
“No harm done. Sorry you thought I was the sheriff.”
She laughed. “Maybe it’s a good thing you weren’t. Things might have turned out different.” Shrugging out of the slicker, she shook water off it and gave it back to me. “Thanks for this… and the advice. I want you to know I will take it. I am through being their Mama. Mothering can be put off until I have some of my own.”
She stood, lightly gripping Red’s bridle. As I watched, he gently nudged her shoulder.
What the hell is wrong with my horse?
“So, how’s it going to go with your Papa?” My voice sounded hoarse to me and I felt nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.
“Oh, Papa isn’t a problem for me right now. He’ll be upset, but I’ll dress out a couple of pullets for supper. Fried chicken is his favorite. With the cow coming into her milk, I can make white gravy and mashed potatoes. We have some molasses for biscuits. I make real good biscuits. Mary is good at making doughnuts, so I figure Papa won’t have anything to say. He’ll be too busy.”
Well, she smiled at me and I almost cut and run. She patted Red on the nose and turned away. “Thanks for the help, Dan. You come back anytime, hear?”
“You’re welcome, Marcie.”
I tipped my hat and rode back to town. The sheriff came outside so I didn’t step down off Red. “Uncle Tom, I’m not going to take you up on that deputy offer. It’s just too complicated. You can never figure what kind of people you’re going to run up against.”
“Oh, I’m betting you’ll come back if money gets short. Did you get the stolen horses taken care of?” He grinned at me. “Whoever signed your note didn’t seem very confident in your abilities.”
“Yeah, you could say that. I had to work on that.” The sun popped out again and it looked like it would stay out this time so I stepped down off Red. I took off my slicker, after handing him the one I’d borrowed.
“Anyway, it’s all fixed. Officially, let’s say they just wandered off.”
I kept some clothes at the office and changed into something clean and dry. After that, I decided to head on home. Although Red was walking in road slop, it was turning into a beautiful day. A strong breeze marshaled the clouds off to the east and the late afternoon sun painted their edges a bright orange. I took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air. It was a good day to be young and alive.
When I paid attention to Red, I’ll be damned if he hadn’t turned back west toward that red headed farmhouse.
After some thought, I figured that might be a good thing and gave him his head. Those boys from the Bar M would probably be camping out there soon enough. If I hustled, I might just make it for supper. Fried chicken is my favorite, too.