Western Short Story
K-Bar-K’s top hand, Duke Emsley, on an easy ride about the ranch’s perimeter, saw the three riders cresting a peak ahead of him, and then believed they had seen him and dipped into rocky territory below the horizon and fully out of his sight.
He vowed he’d not be drawn into a close-up check, be at their mercy.
He did not think they were casual riders, but on some sort of errand, detail, or check on circumstances at the ranch in general. Several such intrusions had taken place, all at night: nothing stolen, no horses missing, the cattle undisturbed, sleep unbroken… except his, the chief watchdog among the crew, the lightest sleeper.
No other signs were evident, but something was afoot, of that he was sure; night riders always bothered him from his early days on the border of Mexico, on a wagon train halfway across the Great Plains, until his hire at K-Bar-K. Ken Kingwood had hired him and died only months later from a massive heart attack breaking in a new horse. His wife Beverly had been the boss for two years and leaned on him for direction in most things.
One day he had told her, “Something odd is afoot. We’re being checked out at night, nothing done to hurt us but seeing what kind of protection we have at the ranch, who if anybody is on night watch, what our night habits are.”
As always, since the day of hire, he had been knocked silly by her simple beauty, face and figure, each attribute remarkable upon sight.
When he finished his summation, his warning, he added, “When they come, renegades or whoever they are, it’ll be at night. Not in daylight.”
She asked, “No idea of who they are? Should we hire more people just to protect the place?” She was clearly at a loss in such details.
“I don’t think they have a large gang, that’s why they want to do their whatever at night, knowing the place just as well as we do, or close to it.”
“What are they looking for?” The puzzle ran across her face.
“Well, they obviously know that Ken never put his money in the bank, didn’t trust it so far from his hands, so there might be a connection there.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?” she replied.
“If it was mine, I’d put it in the bank at Crafton and I’d do it today. How much are you talking about?” The serious look sat on his face as sure as an added signal.
“I only counted it once, but it’s close to $5000 and it’s all in bills. It’s in the small wall safe. I’m sure you know where it is.”
“Never once looked at it, Ma’am, never. And Ken had no reason to show me, the less I knew, the better off he was and I was too.”
The pause was intentional for advancing an idea, from down under to the top; “You ought to see the lawyer in town. He can help with business stuff.”
“Is that the one with a sign that says, in jasmine paint if you want to believe it, ‘Lawyer for lost parts, Colors, an unknown face?’ I’ve always wondered about that, it’s sort of …” and she paused before she said, “mysterious, or maybe poetic.”
She had spoken in different terms, as though she was treading in strange territory, her tone moving into new territory.
He responded; “Ken and I spoke about that one time, both of us knowing the lawyer from prior contacts of older days, Ken from somewhere in the business world and me from the long past. Man’s name is Longheart, Thurman Longheart, once a soldier, once a student, now a lawyer. No finer man in all of Texas.” Sureness surged in his voice.
“He sounds interesting,” she said, with no expression on her face, as if not wanting to show any solid interest. “Does he advise on money matters too, how to invest it, where best to do so, not that we have a great deal of opportunities out this way.”
“Well,” he replied, “enough to make it worth your while and his too. He’s got some of my money well took care of.”
“You keep me curious, Ken. You’re more than just a good man to look at.” It was a point she was willing to point out, to expose part of her thinking, reach solid ground with a hired hand, a talented and proficient hired man. One never knows what’s coming down the line at you, for you or against you. She’d be prepared. Besides, loneliness was already sitting at her table, stinging the morning awake, disturbing the night table as evening advanced its colors, its potentials.
She did go to see Thurman Longheart and did go to the bank and made a point of telling Duke Emsley, keeping him informed on most thoughts and deeds, but masking some of her needs and hungers, even as she worried about the sly intrusions, the night check-ups of the ranch and its night activities, like someone looking over her own shoulder much of the time. All of it, of course, worked on her nerves and continued to draw her closer to Duke Emsley, who fully understood her unmasked actions, which he realized were outright revelations, trust on the move.
They drove him onward.
“Do what you have to do, Duke, to protect what we have here. I don’t want any band of thugs or ruffians or thieves taking what belongs here as long as we’re around.
Later that morning, after a closer study of grounds, important objectives, natural barriers and other protective modes, he assigned all the hands to full night’s special places of alert and defensive stations from where needed offensive protection could be sprung.
Beverly Kingwood watched Duke Emsley during all his directions and suggestions, which she knew also contained specific reactive directions, all for protecting her life, her home, her assets. A glow of secretive pleasure began to take control of her senses and feelings.
“I really admire what and how you have brought all of them together for my protection and their rotation too. It’s like you have thought of every possible way they might come at us, and when. It shows a keen mind at work and it draws nothing short of amazement from me. I don’t mind telling you right up front that you’ve made me feel special and that makes you special. You have my gratitude forever no matter what develops here.” She repeated her “forever.”
She caught his glances of pleasure at what she had said, an open revelation at any and all levels. They did not stop there. “I am sure I am in the most able hands of all and it is all my pleasure.” The lingering echoes of her words hung in the air. An “I need you” or an “I want you” could not have sounded any clearer.
He was charmed.
Three nights later, they came slithering out of darkness, each of them on foot, approaching the ranch house and the ranch property without much notice but the single pull of a string from a tree roost where one ranch guardian maintained a night post, the string tied to a small bell at the house porch, alerting a guard to waken all hands to get ready for the attack by, for the time being, horseless bandits, every one of those riders now afoot and dependent for foot speed to get them out of this sudden change in situations..
A few random shots at the feet of the silent attackers, and Duke Emsley’s announced warning “You’re all covered and your mounts have been sent into flight and each one of you is under the sights of a rifle as of the moment you stepped into rifle sight range. There’s no way out this mess so you might as well drop your weapons right where you stand, without a mount to get you out of here. You have foolish flight and quick death as the only other possible outcomes facing you. Nothing else!”
Duke knew he had this one grand chance to bring Beverly Kingwood into account, for the sake of the moment and for all time to come in all the histories that might be written for this end of Texas. “The boss here, Mrs. Kingwood, has placed all her protection plans and alerts directly into our hands, much to your surprise, as well as ours. She is a mistress of protection, you will agree, as will all those Texans from this moment forward who will hear about this night attack on a woman and her property by this group of potential thieves and brigands who go by the following names that each of you will provide for posterity’s sake.”
On the porch or her lovely ranch house, Beverly Kingwood, alert to every word and intention of Duke Emsley, knew that she had fallen in love with her top hand, out of need and out of deed, especially when he added a Spanish phrase.
Duke Emsley hoped some of the distraught bandits understood Spanish for he could hear his mother’s voice saying the phrase he uttered at the moment, “Esta es una gran oportunidad en la historia.”