Solid-lookin’ cabin, seems like a decent barn over there, three good corrals, two extra horses, the town a quick gallop away.
“Okay, Ranger, looks like we’ll be stayin’ for a bit,” he muttered. “We’d best get you settled, and I’ll go see what’s waitin’ for me inside.”
Tucker swung his leg over and landed with a thud on the dusty ground. He’d been riding since dawn, stopping only to give his horse a few breaks. Un-cinching the girth, he slid off the heavy saddle, set it on the hitching post, then leading his horse to the empty corral, he opened the gate, slipped off the halter, and let him loose to wander into the pen. Tucker didn’t use a regular bridle and bit; there was no need. Sometimes he’d just throw a rope around the horse’s neck and jump on him bareback, and his lips curled into a smile as Ranger immediately sniffed the ground, dropped down, and rolled in the dirt.
“I reckon you needed that,” Tucker grinned. “You got enough hay? Is the water in that trough clean?”
Tucker often talked to his horse. He and the dark bay gelding had been together for twelve years, ever since Ranger had been an unbroken colt. Ranger took care of Tucker, and Tucker took care of him. Climbing through the fence and into the corral, he wandered across to check the water trough and found it clean and the water fresh and cool. He peered into the barrel that held the hay; there was a plentiful supply. Feeling a nudge on his back, he stepped aside.
“Sorry, fella, am I in your way? I’ll bet you’re as hungry as a horse,” he chuckled. “I’ll leave ya to it, and no pickin’ fights with your new neighbors.”
Heading back to the cabin, he pushed open the front door and strode inside, but came to an immediate halt. Standing at the stove was a woman stirring a pot. As she turned around, Tucker guessed her to be in her thirties, and he immediately saw her as a handsome woman. Her better-than-average clothes were covered by a floor-length apron, and her brown hair was braided and tied neatly around her head.
“Mr. Prescott, I heard you ride up,” she said with a warm smile, moving up to greet him. “Welcome. I’m Maude. I’ll be taking care of you.”
“Good to meet you, Maude,” Tucker said politely, removing his hat, surprised by her refined east-coast speech. “Please, call me Tucker.”
“Very well then, good to meet you, Tucker.”
“Duke told me he’d be supplyin’ me with a housekeeper, but I didn’t expect anyone to be here.”
“I figured you’d be tired and hungry after your long ride, and he wanted me to have something ready for you. If you want to wash off your travel, there’s a watering hole about a five-minute walk, or there’s a tub in the back room. I could heat up some water. Might take some time though.”
“The waterin’ hole sounds invitin’, and so does the walk,” he replied, his curiosity growing. How could such a genteel woman be a housekeeper?
“The beef and potato stew is almost done,” Maude said confidently. “The watering hole is easy to find. Just head past the barn to the trees. You can’t miss the trail. There’s only one, and a few minutes in you’ll see a fork, take it to the right.”
“Sounds easy enough,” he nodded, still wondering why such a refined woman would be a living in a place so isolated and rough, but the sound of an approaching horse broke into his thoughts. “Are you expectin’ a visitor?”
“Oh, my goodness,” Maude said nervously, “no, I’m not, and Duke said you wanted your arrival to be secret, so we’ve not mentioned it to anyone, not even the marshal. Don’t tell me there’s going to be trouble already!”
Quickly unbuckling one of his saddlebags, Tucker withdrew his pistol and started toward the door, but there was a gentle knock, and before he could respond, a fetching young woman pushed it open and poked her head in.
“Dolores Baker!” Maude exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
Tucker stared at the girl as she stepped inside, taken aback by both her brazenness and her beauty. She had remarkable copper-colored hair that had been swept up off the sides of her face and was falling in long loose ringlets around her shoulders. Her sparkling blue eyes stared at him, and she broke into a wide smile.
“Hey there!” she said brightly. “Welcome to Tall Tree Ranch.”
“Dolores, you know you’re not supposed to be here,” Maude declared. “You get back up to the house right now!”
“You must be Tucker,” the girl said, moving toward him, completely ignoring the older woman. “I’m Dolly. Only fussy hens call me Dolores.”
“Is that right?” he said, frowning at her. “I don’t think—”
“My father says you’re the man who can bring some peace back to Spring Junction,” she declared, cutting him off. “How are you going to do that?”
“I have my ways,” he replied, raising one wicked eyebrow, “and once things have settled, there are gonna be rules. If they’re not followed, they’ll find out about Tucker’s Justice.”
“Rules? Unfortunately folks in this town don’t care much for rules,” she declared. “I’m not sure how that will work, and what’s Tucker’s Justice?”
“I’m not sure I’ll be stayin’,” he drawled, “but if I do, you’ll likely find out.”
“Dolores, I told you, get yourself back to the house,” Maude interjected. “You have no business being here.”
“Oh, Maude, you’re always such a killjoy,” Dolly snapped. “Tucker doesn’t mind, do you, Tucker?”
“As a matter-a-fact, I do!”
“Why would you say that?” Dolly asked, her voice tinged with irritation.
“I mind a whole lot when a girl doesn’t wait to be invited in after knockin’, then sasses her elders. You’d best apologize to Maude here and do what she says.”
“I’m not a girl, I’m a woman,” she retorted. “I’ll have you know I’m twenty-two years old.”
“You may be twenty-two, but you’re still a girl,” he scowled. “A woman has manners.”
“I have manners!”
“Not from where I’m standin’!”
“What are you going to do? Take me to Kenny Bragg and have him arrest me?”
“I do my own law-keepin’,” he said, lowering his voice, “and you’d best not take that tone with me.”
“I don’t believe this,” she huffed. “I take the trouble to come down here and say hello, and this is the thanks I get!”
“You came down here because you were being nosy,” Maude interjected, “and you know you’re not supposed to be this close to town. Your father has made that very clear. It’s not safe.”
“Is this true?” Tucker asked, taking a few steps closer to Dolly. “Have you been told not to come down here?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” she grumbled. “I’m not ten years old. I can take of myself.”
“I doubt that,” Tucker said, shaking his head. “You’re just a slip of girl, and from what I hear, Spring Junction has some real bad eggs.”
“I can shoot, and I can ride, and I can—”
“Young lady,” he said sternly, moving even closer, “you could no more defend yourself against a curly wolf than you could against a mountain lion.”
“You don’t know anything,” she snapped, staring at him, challenge in her bright blue eyes. “I’m tougher than I look.”
“How tough are you gonna feel when you’re over my knee gettin’ a good spankin’? That’d be your first taste of Tucker’s Justice. You wanna give it a try?”
“Whaaat? How dare you!”
“I’m warnin’ you, girl, you’d best do as you’re told!”
“You have no right to talk to me that way,” she spat, “no right at all, and I’m going tell my father how rude you are!”
“I’m gonna count to three,” he continued, paying no attention to her threat, “and if you’re not through that door and on your way, you’ll be gettin’ your sassy butt spanked. One, two—”
“There’s stuff I have to do anyway,” she shrilled, scurrying to the door, “and I hope I never see you again.”
The door slammed shut behind her, and marching to the window, Tucker watched her climb on to a big-boned gray horse and gallop away.
“She is some spitfire,” he muttered, “but she was right about one thing, she sure can handle a horse.”
“She can handle a lot of things,” Maude remarked, walking over to join him, “but she’s just learned she can’t get the better of you. That was a sight I’ll never forget. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dolly put in her place like that.”
“I reckon she just needs a firm hand,” Tucker remarked. “She’s probably the apple of her pa’s eye.”
“He tries, but it hasn’t been easy,” Maude sighed, “and she can be such a stubborn girl.”
“She sure seems to be, but she’ll think twice about comin’ back this way any time soon.”
“I think you’re right about that, but,” Maude said, pausing thoughtfully, “there’s a lot more to her than you might think.”
“Is that right? Maybe so, but if it’s not safe for her to be hangin’ around here, then she’d best not, and I reckon I got through to her.”
“Oh, you did, you definitely did,” Maude nodded. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her move so fast.”
“Good, ‘cos I make good on my threats. No sense makin’ a promise if it’s not gonna be kept. Now I’m gonna grab me a change of clothes and head on down to that waterin’ hole.”
“Everything will be ready when you get back,” Maude promised, and as she moved to the stove, Tucker returned to his bags and pulled out a clean shirt and pants.
“Do you want some soap?” she asked. “I made sure to leave a couple of blocks here.”
“Sure. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with scrubbin’ up.”
“Here you go,” Maude smiled, opening up a cupboard and pulling out a large, square bar. “I’m a bit fussy about soap. I make Duke buy the good stuff. He can afford it.”
Tucker raised his eyebrows. Not only did Maude not look or act like a housekeeper, she didn’t talk about her employer like one either.
“You may as well know,” she smiled, seeing the confusion in his dark eyes, “I’m a family friend, not one of Duke’s servants. I was his wife’s companion and nurse before she passed away. After she died, Duke asked me to stay on. He needed help raising Dolores. He could have brought someone in, I’m sure, but Dolores already knew me, and I’m from back east. He wanted her to learn to speak more like the young women there. I had nowhere else I needed to be, so I was happy to accept the offer.”
“That explains it,” Tucker said. “You sure didn’t seem like any cleanin’ lady I ever met.”
“There’s a full-time cook up at the house, and now that Dolores has grown up she doesn’t want me around as much, so I’m at loose ends these days. When Duke has someone stay here in the cabin, I volunteer to help. It gives me something to do, and believe me, I’m very pleased you’re here. We haven’t had much luck getting order back in Spring Junction. I hope you can help us.”
“I’ll do my best. Every town’s different. No tellin’ until I give it a look-see.”
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. There’s a cleaning girl, Lucy, who will stop in from time to time. She’s on the quiet side, but she’s a nice girl. She’ll be doing the floors and washing your clothes.”
“Thanks for the warnin’,” Tucker said, the hint of a grin curling the ends of his lips.
“I walked in and saw you, and that was somethin’ I wasn’t expectin’, then the next thing I know, a sassy hellcat bursts through the door. If I came in here and found another female scrubbin’ my floors I’d start to wonder. Towns like Spring Junction don’t usually have a lotta females, and too many can be more trouble than a gang of rustlers.”
“Is that right?” Maude laughed.
“You betcha,” Tucker grinned, then pausing, his smile fading, he asked, “Did Duke tell you about my needin’ privacy?”
“He did, and he told me only to come down when you want me here.”
“That’d be good, and as for the girl, Lucy,” Tucker added, “that’d be the same. She should only show up if I ask for her.”
“What about me cooking for you?”
“I sure appreciate it, and whatever is in that pot should keep me goin’ for a spell. I’ll let you know when I’m hungry again.”
“In that case, I’ll set the table, leave the beef to simmer, and head back to the house.”
“I don’t mean to offend you, but if I’m gonna do what I do, I can’t be worried about keeping women safe while I’m doin’ it.”
“I’m not offended in the least,” she smiled, “and I’m available any time you want a good meal.”
“Thank you, Maude. Tell Duke I should be stoppin’ by in a couple of days, but not to worry if it takes me a bit longer.”
“It’s been nice to meet you, Tucker. Duke said you were different from the other gunmen he’s brought in, and he was right. I hope you’ll stay, and more than that, I hope you’ll stay safe.”
“I’ll sure try, and now I’m gonna take off,” he announced, picking up his hat. Rolling up his fresh clothes, he turned and walked out the door.
Standing on the porch he stared out at the horizon. Patches of green spotted the brownish landscape, and looking up to his left he could see Duke Baker’s big house on top of the hill. When Tucker had met the gentleman rancher in the newly opened, magnificent Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Tucker had been deeply impressed with the man, and when he had asked him why he’d chosen to start a cattle ranch in the middle of nowhere, Duke had simply said:
“It’s good business to buy land nobody else wants.”
Duke’s gamble had paid off, and not just because the west was fast becoming populated, but because gold had been discovered, and Duke’s ranch was smack dab in the middle of it, but along with wealth and a booming town came crime. Duke had offered Tucker a hefty penny to help Kenny Bragg, the town marshal, bring back law and order.
Glad to be walking, and looking forward to washing off the dust and grit from the day’s long ride, he started off, soon reaching the trees and spying the well-worn trail. Following it through the canopy of welcome shade, he turned right at the fork, and exited the thicket to find a flat, green meadow and a running stream in the distance. It was an idyllic spot, serene and picturesque, and moving across the grassy field he came to the edge of a gentle slope, at the bottom of which was the watering hole.
From his many travels he had learned that animals, both four-legged and two-legged, could be troublesome, and removing his boots and socks he stuffed them under a bush, along with his clean, rolled-up shirt and trousers. Pulling the bar of soap from his pocket, he quickly peeled off his dust-covered clothes, leaving them near the water’s edge; he’d fetch them and rinse them out after having his swim.
Stepping tentatively forward he found the water was cool, but not cold, and diving in head first he felt the loose dust leave his body. Coming up for air, he slid the bar of soap across his skin, removing the caked-on dirt, lathered up his hands, washed his face and hair, then tossed the soap back to the shore. Duck-diving, he swam underwater across to the opposite side, surfacing behind a fallen tree trunk, but when he glanced back across the pond he spied movement; someone had darted behind a tree. There was a grouping of reeds near where he’d left his clean clothes, and diving back under he swam toward them. When he lifted his head above the water and peered through the tall green stalks, he couldn’t believe his eyes. Dolly Baker had picked up his discarded shirt and trousers and was moving swiftly across the meadow.