The Rancher's Daughter(3)
I hate the heat! I hate the sun! I hate the dust! I hate the thirst! So, what the hell am I doing here in New Mexico Territory in the summer of 1899? Just stupid, I guess. But a bounty hunter has to do what a bounty hunter has to do.
I'm not chasing any particular hombre right now, but I am on the lookout for opportunity. It's hard to make a living out of 25 and 50 dollar rewards, but the big ones don't come along that often. When your best asset is a fast draw with an accurate aim, there's not much else to attract your interest. Still, it's not a way to get rich quick. I have even stooped to punching cows when the pickings got slim enough.
I'm not a good gambler, though I do like to play poker for the fun of it. I am usually good enough to break even, but I could never make a living at it. At least, I have sense enough to stay away from keno and those other sucker games.
It's the saloon women that are my downfall; I just can't stay away. I am what is known as "hot-blooded." It only takes a sniff of pussy and I am in full pursuit. All too often, I just keep after them until I run out of money and then I get bounced out on my ass. I have been lucky so far with disease; I haven't caught any thing yet, but I know that I can't stay lucky forever.
Here I am, mooching along between towns pretty much minding my own business. At least, the road does follow along a creek with enough water to keep a stand of cottonwoods growing. The shade is a welcome change. Suddenly, there is the crash of a shotgun blast, followed shortly by a second crash. What could that be? Maybe a body in trouble? If so, there may be a little opportunity for me. I quickly urge my horse into trot as I pull my saddle carbine to the ready position. You never know what you might find along a lonely road.
I come around a curve and what a sight! A buckboard is upside-down beside the road and an elderly man is sprawled out in a pool of blood with most of his head missing and a monster hole in his chest.
Along side on her knees is a good-looking young woman screaming bloody murder at a man holding a double-barrel shotgun pointed at her. He seems to be gloating over his good fortune with rape on his mind. Since I am still comfortably out of shotgun range, I yell at the man to make him point the shotgun at me instead of the woman. As soon as he swings the shotgun around toward me, I pop off a shot. My .44-40 makes a nice sized hole in his chest (I told you I was fast and a good shot). Just to be sure, I blow his head open with the next shot.
As I continue riding toward her, the woman looks at me kind of funny, like she is not convinced that she has been rescued. She does look a little bit more relaxed when I holster my carbine and tip my hat. I give her a cursory look and notice that she has what looks like a Smith and Wesson .32 holstered to her thigh under her skirt. I like a sensible woman!
"Good day, ma'am. May I be of assistance?" I ask in my most nonthreatening manner.
"You already have been," she said in the sweetest sounding voice I have heard in much too long. "That piece of trash over there just murdered my father and was about to do me great harm when you came up."
"I had better check that he had no confederates in the neighborhood. I'll be right back." I swung off the trail toward the creek. I made a reasonable size loop around the ambush site to be sure it was clear and then went back to pick up the dead man's horse where it was tied. When I got back to the woman, I dismounted and again removed my hat, I had learned that a little courtesy goes a long way with women.
I asked, "Are you alright, beyond the obvious?"
She answered, "I think so, but I do need help getting my father's body back to the ranch. Could you stay with me for that long?"
"It would be my pleasure. Let me check the buckboard," I said as I walked toward it. I checked the body, the axles, and all four wheels. It looked safe enough; it just needed turning upright. I went back to my horse and remounted. I threw a loop around a projection on the far side of the buckboard and wound the rope around the pommel of my saddle. With a little effort, my horse was able to get the buckboard back on its wheels. I recovered my rope and went to get the woman's horse, which had only run a few hundred yards before stopping to graze. Once the horse was rehitched, the easy part of of the job was finished.
As gently as I could, I placed her father in the back of the buckboard and covered his body with my groundsheet. I threw the villain over his saddle and tied him on. After hitching the two riding horses to the buckboard, I helped the woman onto the seat and climbed up, myself. "Where to, ma'am?" I said as I picked up the reins.
She directed me to turn around and head out. We went about 3 miles and turned off on a side road. Eventually, this road led us to a rather grand ranch house, practically a hacienda.
As soon as we reached the house, a boy ran up to help with the horses. When he saw what was in the buckboard and tied behind, he let out a tremendous whoop for help. Several ranch hands and house servants came running to help. As expected, they were all suspicious of me, but the woman calmed them down and a man who was obviously the ranch foreman brought order out of chaos.
I jumped from the buckboard and helped the woman down to stand beside me. We moved into the house, and her father was carried to his bedroom, where he was laid out on his bed. The young woman, the foreman, and I went into the living room. She had been holding my hand the whole time since we left the buckboard and she pulled me down beside her on the sofa. The foreman sat in a chair across from us. She looked at me with a pleading expression and said, "You have been so kind to me and I don't even know your name. I am Sarah York, and this is our ranch foreman Bill Hudson."
"Please forgive me for being rude; my name is Mat Sullivan. I have tried not to press you with my attention, since you are under such great stress. I have been amazed at the strength of character you have shown and I wish that I could do more to ease your burden."
When I said this, Sarah seemed to wilt. She broke into great sobs and grabbed me around the neck. I was completely flummoxed at first, but quickly realized that she needed to release some of the pent up grief she felt, so I just gently held her while she cried. Meanwhile, Bill looked on at a total loss as to what to do.
After about 15 minutes, the tears stopped and Sarah drew back, completely embarrassed. "Oh, Mr. Sullivan, I am so sorry to break down like that. Please forgive me, and I've gotten your shirt all wet!"
"Please call me Mat, and your reaction is perfectly understandable. Maybe it would help if you would tell us what happened just before I met you."
"My father and I left the ranch this morning headed to a lawyer's office in Julesburg. I don't know any details about the meeting; I was just going to do a little shopping while he took care of his business. Since we were early for the meeting, we were moving along at a slow trot when a man jumped out of the bushes beside the road and, without saying a word, fired his shotgun at my father. The first shot caught Dad in the chest and blew him right out of the buckboard. The second shot was fired after Dad was on the ground and obviously dead; I can't imagine why the man would shoot again. The sudden noise caused the horse to bolt and I jumped out before the buckboard turned over. I ran to my father's body and kneeled down. I was screaming in pain and sorrow when you rode up. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!"
"It sounds to me like an assassination, rather than a robbery. Who do you know that would want your father dead?" I said as I looked, with concern, into her beautiful eyes (uh-oh, here I go again).
"I can't think of anyone, right now. How about you, Bill; do you have any notion?"
"No, Miss Sarah. I have no idea who could or would want your father dead. He was the nicest, most gentle man anybody could know."
"Well, whatever the cause, we should report the incident. Is there a sheriff or marshal I could talk to and turn over the body of the murderer?"
Bill said, "Sheriff Tom Hanson has his office in Julesburg; he's there most of the time. It's too far to get there this afternoon; why don't you go in tomorrow?"
"OK, I'll do that. Can I overnight in the bunkhouse?"
"Certainly not!" exclaimed Sarah. "You will stay in the main house, in a guest bedroom. We have plenty of room. We still have time; you can have a bath and rest before you join us for dinner. Carmelita will have no trouble accommodating one more at the table, and she will be thrilled to have a new person to try her excellent cuisine. In fact, please plan to make our house your home while you are in the area."
"You are most kind and I will take you up on that offer."
The bath and the clean clothes sure made me feel better and, I am certain, much nicer to be near. I was called to dinner at 7:00 PM and enjoyed it immensely. That Carmelita sure can cook! The food, along with plenty of excellent coffee, was enough to make me feel like a king.
The sun had set by the time we finished eating, so Sarah suggested that I try one of her father's cigars and we go out on the veranda while I smoked it. Never in my life have I turned down a good cigar. That, coupled with the companionship of a beautiful young lady, was more than enough to get me on my feet and out the door. The temperature had cooled with the setting sun, so I suggested we take a short walk to work off some of the dinner. Sarah readily agreed.
Before I knew it, we were strolling hand-in-hand. About 60 yards from the house, Sarah suddenly grabbed me and planted a kiss on my lips like I had never felt before. It was not the professional kiss of the saloon woman, but a full blown, passionate lover's kiss. "What in the Hell?" I thought, but my quick reflexes saved me from a serious mistake.
I returned the kiss with all of the passion I could muster. I continued to hold Sarah after we had to come up for air. Both of us were rocked to our core by the kiss and were somewhat unsteady on our feet. I could feel her breasts pressing into my chest and her nipples felt hard enough to drill all the way through to my backbone. Speaking of hard; the little me was standing to a hard-braced attention, hoping for the princess's inspection. I started to back away a little because I did not want to embarrass either one of us, but Sarah was having none of that; she pushed her groin into mine with all of the determination of a mink.
Suddenly, a shot rang out and Sarah grunted and fell to the ground. My other reflexes took over and I dropped, too. First thing, I checked Sarah for wounds. There was a small crease in her scalp where the bullet had grazed her, but had not penetrated. She was bleeding, but no more than one would expect from a minor head wound—a lot of blood but nothing serious to worry about. I quickly covered the scratch with my handkerchief and lay her down in such a way as to keep pressure on the wound. There was nothing else I could do for her at the moment.
I spun around, trying to spot the source of the shot. I pulled my hideout .32 from my boot and looked in vain for the assassin. A few seconds later I heard hoof beats racing away. Since the danger appeared to have passed, I holstered my pistol, stood, and stooped to pick up Sarah. This was when Bill and a couple of the cow hands showed up to help. They guarded us as I carried Sarah back to the house and into her room.
With the better light, I examined her wound. She needed a couple of stitches, but nothing else. Carmelita brought the medicine kit and I did the sewing. I was very proud of my handy work; she probably would not even have a scar. All of the men left so that Carmelita could get Sarah undressed and properly into bed. With that, we all decided to call it a night.
The next morning I enjoyed one of Carmelita's spectacular breakfasts. She made me up a snack to have for emergencies and I left for Julesburg. I tied the murderer to his saddle and led his horse on a lead rope as I mounted my horse for the ride to town.
I was at the sheriff's office before 10:00 AM and found him sitting at his desk drinking the usual cup of coffee. "Good morning, Sheriff Hanson, I'm Mat Sullivan, and I want to report the murder of James York." That got his attention! I explained in detail what had happened and that I had the murderer tied to his horse just outside the door.
Sheriff Hanson went outside to look at the situation, grunted, and said, "Lets head over to the undertaker." I led the horse with the body the few doors down to the undertaker's office and we went inside. The shop window had a tastefully painted sign, "Merton Groms, Mortician."
The sheriff walked through the office to another door, which he opened. "Hey, Mert! I've got some business for you. Keep it cheap, 'cause the county is payin' for it."
A voice from beyond the door replied, "OK, Tom. Bring the corpse around to the back and I'll take care of it."
We went out the front door and took the horse carrying the body around back to the loading dock. We untied the body and took it inside. Tom said, "We usually sell the personal items to pay the undertaker, but is there anything you want before I officially take possession of the corpse?"
"Not much, but I would like to have his shotgun and any ammo, if you don't mind," I replied.
"Sure. Go ahead. His pistol, saddle, and horse should easily cover expenses. Oh, Mert, you'll be getting a call from the York ranch pretty soon. It seems that this bozo murdered James York."
"OK, next question. Is there any reward out for this guy? I'd like to cover my expenses, too."
"I don't recognize him, but let's go back to my office and look through the wanted posters."
Back in the sheriff's office, we looked through a mountain of posters. Finally, after about an hour of searching, Tom let out a yell, "It looks like you hit pay dirt with this one! Josiah Blankenship. Wanted for murder in Montgomery, Alabama. Killed a state senator. They're paying $1000, dead or alive. He even used the same kind of ambush and weapon. It will take a month or so to collect. I'll telegraph the Alabama authorities and have them telegraph the money to me. You can collect from me as soon as the money comes in; of course, I'll expect you to pay for the telegram, since you can now afford it. Heh, heh. Where will you be staying so I can contact you?"
I grinned and said, "It looks like my lucky day. Right now, I have been invited to stay at the York ranch, so I'll see if they will put up with me for awhile.
"By the way, I almost forgot to mention it, but somebody took a shot at either me or Miss Sarah last night. From the angle, I think she was the one being shot at, but I can't be sure. I have the feeling that this is a continuation of the murder of her father. In any case, I will keep a close eye on her until we find what's behind it."
"Tom, let's grab a bite to eat, and then I'll head back to the ranch."
Meanwhile, back at the ranch--
Sarah sat in the kitchen talking to Carmelita. "It's so hard to think with this headache. Do we have any of that willow bark extract left? It worked so well when I had my monthly cramps, maybe it will do something for my headache... thanks.
"Do you think Mat... Mr. Sullivan likes me? Am I moving too fast? We seemed to get off to such a good start last night, and then I got banged on the head. I feel so attracted to him I think that I will explode! I just knew that we were made for each other when he rescued me from that horrible murderer. Oh, Carmelita, I am so happy when I am around him and I am so sad, like now, when we are apart. Am I being a silly girl? What am I to do? I don't want to do something that will cause me to lose him. Please tell me what to do."
"Miss Sarah, calm down. Part of your problem right now is your headache, but the rest is you are just lovesick. Believe me, I know what that is! When I first met my future husband, I was just as tied up and aflutter as you are. Things will work out. If you two are meant to be, it will happen. Just have faith.
"But the main thing is don't hang on to his every step. If you do, you will scare him off. Remember the golden rule of romance: 'Let the man chase you until you catch him.'
"But now we have a funeral to plan. I have sent Jake into Julesburg to contact Mr. Groms, the funeral director. I think that we must contact Rev. O'Riley immediately. He will be able to work with Mr. Groms to make all of the necessary arrangements. If you wish, I will take care of that and we can have the funeral in Rev. O'Riley's church. We must get started if we are going to have a proper funeral and have enough time to let everybody know about it. Now, do you agree?"
"Oh, yes, Carmelita. Thank you so much. You are so sweet. Please handle it all."
Later that afternoon, Mr. Groms arrived to pick up James York's body. He said that he would contact Rev. O'Riley to coordinate funeral arrangements. Considering the nature of Mr. York's injuries, there was no question of anything but a closed-casket funeral.
Mat returned to the ranch about 4:00 PM and went immediately to find Sarah as soon as he had turned his horse over to a stable boy. Her headache was gone and she was reading at the shady end of the veranda. He told her everything that had happened in Julesburg and she was delighted to hear that he wanted to extend his stay at the ranch. Unable to control herself, she bubbled over with, "Of course you can stay here as long as you want." The predatory glint in her eye and lilt in her voice were completely lost on Mat; he just attributed them to her general good nature. They spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and getting to know each other.
Before supper, Mat excused himself and went to see Carmelita about arranging another bath. She agreed to set it up, so Mat asked if he could impose and have a bath available to him before supper every night that he was at the ranch. Knowing how much Sarah would be pleased by this development, Carmelita readily agreed.
While the water was being heated for his bath, Mat went to find Bill Hudson. The foreman was supervising some work at the horse corral and was available for a quiet discussion. Mat told Bill that he was sure that the shot last night was aimed at Sarah, but he did not want to make a big thing out of it because he did not want to frighten Sarah too much. Bill immediately wanted to order 4 armed bodyguards to attend Sarah at all times, but Mat reminded Bill that Sarah would not agree. Instead, Mat proposed to be Sarah's bodyguard whenever possible. At other times, Bill could have one man guard Sarah, but not be under foot. After a bit of thought, Bill agreed to this plan.
Two days later the funeral and wake were held in Julesburg. It seemed like virtually the whole county turned out. All in all, it was a very satisfying, though sad, experience for all.
By the end of the next week, things had pretty much returned to normal.