To SueNell, the next month felt like a year. While she worried all day when they were out working, she still dreaded the evenings when they would come home. Her brother Hob was bad enough, with his tales of signs of this and tracks of that and how cold the ashes were in the campfire, letting them know how close they had come to catching the thief. His grim excitement seemed at least normal. It was Josh’s refusal to give so much as a twitch to indicate that their situation was anything out of the ordinary that riled SueNell so profoundly.
The more they searched, the less they wanted SueNell to move about the ranch in her daily routine. First it was the lake that was off limits. Then Hob told her that she best not visit the trading post to the south by herself. If she needed anything, he would get it for her or take her into town. Finally came the day when she was told to stay within the boundaries of what they called the first fence, that area that stretched between the entrance road and the big barn on one side of the creek and the walnut grove on the other.
The first fence actually encompassed quite a large area and there was plenty to keep her and all the hands busy for a few days while Josh and Hob wrapped up their hunt. They were getting close, they told her, and didn’t want anyone trampling tracks or chasing strays in an area where they were actively investigating. It was safest for all concerned to let the two men get on with things without interference.
The hands, being used to orders, thought nothing of the restrictions. The incredible heat made it easy to stay close to the shade of the grove or the cool breeze down by the creek. No one chafed except SueNell and she was kept so busy with the crops in the gardens that lay within the first fence that she had little to complain about when Hob and Josh returned home in the evening, always promising to wrap things up in another couple of days. They brought home evidence of trespassers and had even caught glimpses of at least one thief through Josh’s spyglass. It wouldn’t be long now.
But the couple of days turned into a week and suddenly even the confines of the first fence weren’t safe enough. Hob gave her further restrictions and told her that he and Josh would be gone for a few days. She was not to count on them for meals, but they would stop by whenever they could. At first, SueNell was happy, hoping that they would find the man who was living off their land. The losses had slowed, but she wanted things to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
By the end of the fourth day, however, she was too curious and fretful to remember caution. She slipped out of the house and made her way down the creek to the bluff where the view of their whole spread was more or less unimpeded. Taking her father’s old binoculars with her, she searched as soon as the light made inspection possible, concentrating so hard on her purpose that she nearly jumped out of her dress when she heard a masculine voice call her name.
“SueNell! What did I tell you about leaving the house after dark?” Josh’s normally friendly eyes were clouded over in disapproval as he looked down at her from his tall dark gelding. “And the first fence is far behind you.”
SueNell brushed the dust off her hands as she stood up from where she had been lying on a blanket looking over the cliff. “I can’t stay in the first fence all the time. And anyway it’s not after dark. It’s broad daylight.”
“It is now, but to get here on foot, you had to have set out from the house before sunup. That’s against the rules.”
“And who are you to be giving rules to me? Last time I looked, the Horsehead was Langly property and I’m a Langly.”
“Your brother is a Langly, too. It’s his half I’m boss of right now.”
“You’ll think ‘absurd’ when I get you back to the house. Now, git! And stay put until I get back.”
“I only wanted to see what was going on. You never tell me anything.”
“We’ve told you everything we’ve found. Kept you up to date right along except this last finding and that’s what I was coming to the house to tell you. We located the rustler’s camp about two miles from here, so I sent Hob to town to get the sheriff.”
“Two miles? So that’s far off our ranch! How did you find him?”
“We got lucky. We weren’t figuring on him only coming on the place to work at night. I thought he had to be lying low during the day in some sort of hidden camp somewhere in one of the back pastures or up in the hills, but we happened on a few tracks coming from the creek and followed them in the right direction. His camp is toward town and definitely not on the Horsehead itself. Hob referred to it as being just past the hoof.”
SueNell smiled at the old name for the location in question. The ranch was named for the shape of the irregular plateau on which it was located. The elevated land looked like a drawing of the front half of a horse in profile, with pastures and grazing land forming the face and neck. The main road to Martin ran east and west through the horse’s ears and along his mane, but was situated at the bottom of the high cliff rather than along the top, which was on ranch property. The house was located not very far south of the point where the mane ended.
There was a small valley that ran down the north-south line that would result if an artist connected the end of the mane to the hoof, then a steep slope upwards toward the east and what would be the horse’s belly and back. The neighboring High Flats ranch comprised that area, where the image of the horse gave way to more normal topography, but people still spoke of the back and belly of the horse and sometimes, jestingly, of his tail.
The hoof area Hob had referred to lay on the Langly side of the small valley. It was a wild wooded expanse watered by the streams and springs that had long ago formed the small valley. It was near another, more isolated, roundabout road to town and a favorite place for travelers to camp. “And when did you figure all this out?”
“Two days ago. We’ve been widening the search grid, spiraling out from the main camp to see if there were any others, but I’m pretty sure there’s just the one.”
“Two days? Why didn’t you tell me then? I could have had the run of the rest of the ranch since Monday and you didn’t tell me?”
“I didn’t want you or anybody stumbling on him when he was picking his next spot. It’s not like he’s on a timetable like the railroad. We think we see his pattern, but we can’t count on that. It was just a few days.”
“But you should have told me what you knew.”
“I told you to stay in the house after dark. That should have been good enough to keep you out of harm’s way. How many weeks have we been tracking and searching? Do you want to throw it all away just so you can go riding to the lake for a picnic?” Josh was referring to the large lake located where the horse’s cheek would have been.
“But that would have been perfectly safe! Why shouldn’t I go where I like?”
“I just told you, SueNell. We know where his camp is and where he’s struck before, but we don’t know for sure where he will and won’t go. Now, please, get back to the house. I have to get into position as quickly as I can. I think tonight, we’ll have him trapped.”
SueNell folded her blanket and started down the bluff, a bit surprised that he wasn’t insisting on taking her back to the ranch house himself. Just as she crossed the first fence, some instinct made her look back up at the hilltop she had so recently used as a vantage point. Something glinted in the sun, telling her that Josh was still there, watching her through the small telescope he kept as handy as his hat. As she closed the gate behind her, she saw him turn his horse and head toward the far side of the bluff.
The long day stretched into a longer night. SueNell tossed and turned for hours before finally giving in and getting up. Dressing quickly, she went into the kitchen to make coffee, but it was useless. She couldn’t stand waiting one more minute. What danger could there be, anyway? She wasn’t a cow, so the rustler wouldn’t be interested in stealing her. She had to find out what was going on.
As hot as it was during the day, the night temperatures necessitated that she wrap a light shawl around her, so she chose the black one she wore at funerals and made her way down to the entrance road with her lantern almost completely shuttered. Still seeing and hearing nothing, she continued down the road toward town, the direction in which Josh had said they had found the camp. As the moon was setting, she decided to settle herself in some bushes, just in case things hadn’t gone according to plan. She only wanted to observe and couldn’t help feeling safe on such a familiar road, so she chose a likely place and kept out of sight until around the bend in the thoroughfare came a man slumped over the neck of a horse.
“Bill Reynolds?” SueNell called out in a hoarse whisper. It was their neighbor to the south, a man whom she had known for years. She recognized him even in the dark from his broad build and the shiny silver conchos on his saddle. They glinted even in the tiny light of the lantern. “Is that you? What are you doing out here at this time of night?” Stepping out into the open and unshuttering her lantern, she peered at him suspiciously.
He had the good manners to look embarrassed. “Good morning, Mrs. Marlow. I must apologize for my appearance and for not alighting to speak. I, uh… I’m not feeling my best just at the moment.”
“I thought as much. You’ve been out on the town, haven’t you? Mr. Reynolds, you should be ashamed! What kind of an hour is this to be dragging home? You have a ranch to tend and a reputation to protect. What would your friend the mayor say?” Her tone made it a teasing tirade, but she hoped he took her point.
“I know it, Mrs. Marlow, and I daresay I’ll pay for it in the morning. I could ask you what brings you out at such an hour, while we’re on the topic.” Belatedly, he removed his hat, revealing his fair hair that waved almost to his collar.
“Nothing nearly as enjoyable as what you’ve been up to,” SueNell replied, giving him a knowing grin. “We’re on the hunt for the varmints who have been preying on our cattle.” Even after they realized their losses were not the results of coyote attacks, they had decided not to spread the news around until the guilty parties were caught. That had been Josh’s idea, but SueNell had promised to go along.
“Well, I surely hope you catch them,” Bill answered stoutly. “I’d best be moving along before it gets so late, we’ll have to call it early. By the way, Mrs. Marlow, I would consider it a personal favor if you could find it in your heart to neglect to mention to anyone that you saw me this evening. I’ve been courting Miss Cynthia Price and she doesn’t approve of… late hours.”
“Or drinking or gambling,” SueNell agreed. “Or any activity that doesn’t set her as center stage, but that’s your lookout, Mr. Reynolds. I won’t mention that I saw you if you’ll return the favor.”
Bill shifted in his saddle, looking rather uncomfortable. “You’re not on an approved outing either, eh? Well, that works out all around then. I’ll be bidding you good night.”
“Mr. Reynolds, before you go, could you tell me if you heard anything while you were on your way here? Any sort of disturbance? It might have been in the woods or as you came around through the hills.”
“Can’t say that I did.”
“Well, keep an ear out. I wouldn’t want you to be surprised and let your horse bolt on you.”
“Will do, ma’am.”
Bill had hardly disappeared around another bend in the road when SueNell heard horses galloping across the field behind her. Whirling around, she held her lantern high, trying to distinguish who might be riding helter-skelter like that through the darkness. The sound of the voices that were shouting to each other resolved into actual words as the riders drew nearer. “What’s that light up ahead?” It was her brother calling out.
She shouted back, “It’s me, SueNell!” but had little hope of anyone hearing her above the other shouts and the pounding hoof beats.
Suddenly, she realized another voice was calling to her. “Put out the light. It’s helping him more than us.” That was Josh and she realized the correctness of his admonishment as the rider in the lead veered off his original course and headed straight toward her. “Then get down! Don’t let him catch you.”
Catch me? Her brain could barely take in the thought before the rider was on her, knocking her down with a swing of his arm. The lantern flew out of her hand and suddenly, rustling seemed the least of their worries as the worst thought in any rancher’s world flashed through her mind. “Fire!” she called out before she even landed on her side. The tall grasses cushioned her fall, so she was able to immediately reach out, searching for the lantern, dreading the telltale sound of crackling grass and the sickening smell of singed hay.
A large thud, like the collapse of small hill drew SueNell’s attention to her left. Without the lantern light, she could only make out vague shapes. “Where are you? What are you doing? Josh? Hob?”
From the ground, Josh’s voice boomed out above the other noise. “Hob, go after the rustler. I’ll get SueNell.”
It sounded as if Hob hadn’t paused, but rather kept going, galloping across the field. SueNell watched as Josh beat the ground with his hat and stomped at the scattered sparks with his huge boots. “Was that you I heard hitting the ground? Are you okay?” SueNell enquired as she gained her feet and joined him beating out the flames. “Why is your shirt all scorched?”
“I rolled off my horse onto my back to put the little flames out. There were too many to get just with my hat. Too spread out.”
“But you must be burned. We have to get you back to the house.” She looked at him in wonder. What had he just done?
“I’ll be fine. I need to go find Hob. You get back to the house. You’ll be fine there now. No way can he get clear of us to double back. The sheriff is riding up the gully to cut him off.”
“But you… we would have lost everything. It’s so dry. Every ranch from here to town would have been lost. You…”
“The only way to fight a fire is to stop it before it starts.”
“Go on, SueNell.”
All the way home, she kept shaking her head, unable to believe what he had just done for them. Sleep was out of the question, so she cooked breakfast for the hands so that it would be ready when it was needed. When the four men they currently employed had eaten their fill and left to start the day’s chores, she cleaned up the kitchen and set a pot of beans on the back burner for supper. Still, there was no sign of Josh or Hob so she got out her mother’s silver candlesticks to polish. They were gleaming brightly by the time Josh pushed the door open and clomped through the kitchen to fall heavily into a chair. “Are you all right?” he queried wearily.
“Me? What about you? What happened?”
“I could tell it better if I had a cup of coffee. I know it’s kind of late for breakfast.”
“Of course. But first let me see to your back.”
“I’d rather have the coffee. My back’s all right.”
SueNell hurried to the stove and brought him back a delicate china cup on a saucer. He nodded his thanks and let his fingers slip over hers as he accepted the drink, but when he tried to put his finger through the loop, it broke off. Half of a swear word slipped out before he caught it. “Sorry, SuzyQ. I didn’t mean to… I… My big hands just aren’t made for little china cups.”
SueNell smiled sheepishly. “I should have remembered, Josh. I knew you preferred enamel mugs. Here.” She brought him a blue enamel mug, which he accepted gratefully.
“Well, as you know, we found the camp where the guy has been staying. It was pretty bare bones. Just some ashes and such, so it was easy to miss. He’d covered his tracks well.”
SueNell heard the back door close as Hob entered. “He’s being nice by not telling you that I searched that area early on and missed it. I should have seen it. All I can say for myself is that I knew I might do something like this, so I called in somebody better.”
“It’s just experience, Hob. And persistence. You’d have seen it eventually. Anyway, we didn’t make any big deal out of it. Just kind of kept an eye on it so we could coordinate with the sheriff. I don’t really know Red, but the folks around here think well of him as sheriff, so I figured we should trust him. It was his idea that we wait until the full moon so it would be easier to see and we wouldn’t give ourselves away with lanterns. Red watched from Cullman’s Bluff while we waited near the camp.”
“He didn’t get there until that late in the night?” SueNell asked, incredulous. She pictured in her mind the high bluff, formed of the same rock that also dotted the top in the shape of huge boulders. The ridge more or less comprised the eastern edge of the small valley and demarcated the border between the Horsehead and its neighbor, High Flats.
Hob shrugged. “Rustlers wait till late to do their dirty work.”
“I’ll admit we had to wait longer than I anticipated, but eventually he showed up.”
SueNell poured her brother a cup of coffee, but continued to move back and forth in the kitchen, reheating the breakfast she had already prepared. “So how could he get away from you? Two against one and you got the drop on him, didn’t you?”
Josh shifted in his chair, always keeping SueNell within his sight. “I thought there would be at least one more man coming, so we waited. The rustler must have heard us. It looked like he had settled in, but all of a sudden, he just got up and wandered back to his horse.”
SueNell placed plates of eggs, bacon, and biscuits in front of the men and they ate while continuing the story. SueNell noticed that Josh kept glancing up at her, but she busied herself with small chores around the kitchen.
“He was just playing it cool like we were, waiting for the right moment. I don’t know what it was, but something lit a fire under him. All of a sudden he jumps on his mount and races off into the night. We mounted up and lit out after him, but he made it to the road. Good thing Red was there to head him off. We caught the varmint just another mile or two up the road. Josh would have been there to see it if you hadn’t interfered.” Hob took a drink from his coffee mug as he leaned forward, elbows on the smooth wooden table.
SueNell turned back to the stove and lifted the skillet she had scrambled the eggs in. Taking it to the scrap bucket, she scraped it vigorously. “How was I to know I would wind up getting in the way? I thought the camp was on the road, so I stayed off it.” That wasn’t entirely true and she regretted the fib, but she had only been on the road for a moment, and Bill had told her nothing out of the ordinary was happening, so she had felt safe even as she removed herself from what she had anticipated to be the main scene of the action. “I never meant to hamper the investigation. I only wanted to know what was going on.”
“But your curiosity wound up nearly scotching the whole project,” Hob fussed. Rising from in his chair, he handed her his plate to scrape then accepted it from her when she straightened up. Following her to the sink, he handed her his plate and coffee mug from the table. “If he had grabbed hold of you! What then?”
She turned and leaned back on the sink. “I know, and I’m sorry. You don’t know the half of it. The rustler tried to set the field on fire. If it hadn’t been for Josh…”
“I knew about it all right. He filled me in while we were waiting for Red to come back from the jail,” Hob replied. “Josh saved us in more ways than one last night.”
SueNell looked up to see Hob’s face, now stern and even angry, a look he rarely carried. “I said I was sorry. If you had told me more about what was happening, I wouldn’t have come out.”
“That’s not true, SueNell and we both know it. You’ve been mixing yourself into this business the whole time, when all we asked was that you let us work. I’ve about had enough and probably so has Josh. He’s just too polite to say.”
Brother and sister looked at their guest, who stood to take his plate over to the scrap bucket. “I don’t regret what I did tonight. I’d do it again and then some, but I shouldn’t have had to do it. If you had listened to me in the first place, SueNell… If you had trusted me, you would have stayed in the house. Somewhere along the line I guess I lost your respect. I don’t know what I did to lose it, but I guess it was something bad.”
Hob moved out of his way so he could give his plate and mug to SueNell. Putting his hat back on, he opened the door before turning back to say, “We’ve gotten rid of our rustler and that’s down to Josh, no denying. For him to say what he just said brings shame on us both. SueNell, we both know if pa were here, he’d take his belt off and make you one sorry little lady. He isn’t here and I can’t bring myself to do it. You’ve been more like a mother to me than just a sister, but you’ve got a reckoning that needs to be paid. Seems to me like you and Josh ought to work something out.” He let the door shut hard behind him.
SueNell looked at Josh for a long moment. He never let his eyes stray from hers. Finally, in a small voice, she spoke. “Do you think that way, too?”
“I suppose I do. When I saw you out in that field, with that light making you a target, my heart about stopped in my chest. That Orus Barns character might not be too dangerous, but we didn’t know that at the time and a man cornered is never safe. He might have done anything to you.”
“But he didn’t, Josh. Everything worked out. I feel worse about you. Your back. I still haven’t seen to it.”
“I didn’t come back to the house to have you see to my back. The doc can do whatever needs doing in town. I came back to talk about us.”
SueNell turned back to the sink and tried to compose herself. Her heart began to race and she willed the heat to leave her cheeks. She had no intention of letting him see how he affected her. “There is no ‘us’ Josh. I’ve told you that before.”
“That’s right. You have. All the flowers I’ve brought you. All the picnics and buggy rides we’ve taken. All the darn poetry I tried to read you, though I’ll admit I didn’t pull that off too well. None of it seemed to reach you.”
SueNell let out a nervous laugh. “You did fine on the poetry, Josh. When I read it, I remember some lovely times we’ve had in the past. But that’s all it is. The past. I don’t intend to marry again.”
“So you’ve said a hundred times and I guess I have to believe it. I’ll be moving back to town today.”
“I think that would be for the best.”
“But before I go, I have to say that I thought it was grand, living here with you. We would have done well together, you and me. I’ve known it from the day I first met you.”
“We were kids. How could you have known?”
“I just did. You’re the only woman for me and I don’t want another, but I do have to make a life for myself, so if you won’t have me, I’ll be moving on.”
“Not out of town, I hope,” SueNell said in a low voice.
“Why should you mind if I leave?” he challenged. “But no, I wasn’t thinking of a new town. I’ve heard old Bossworth wants to go live near his son in Abilene, so I was thinking of buying him out.”
“The blacksmith? I didn’t know you knew how to work with iron.”
“All kinds of metals, really. I learned a lot in the army. And I’ve got the size. I thought I might as well let it play to my advantage.”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll do fine in whatever you choose to try.” SueNell really did wish him well, but somehow the thought of his leaving the house didn’t afford her the relief she had expected.
“Now, there’s just one thing left for me to do before I leave.” Josh turned to her and turned his palms up in a kind of resigned gesture.
She stepped toward him, thinking he deserved at least one small hug for all his romantic efforts. Even a little kiss was not out of the realm of possibility as she gave him a sad smile and closed her eyes. Thus he was able to catch her by the waist and swing her back onto the bench with him before she could react. He had her skirts up and was spanking her backside soundly by the time she was able to form a shout. “Josh! What are you doing?”
“What your brother and you both admitted you deserved, but he couldn’t do. I’m going to make sure you don’t sit down for a week. Pulling a fool stunt like that! When you’re told to stay put, you stay put! Do you understand me?”
“Yes, yes, I do! I understand! Let me up!” A thousand thoughts were racing through her mind one after the other in disjointed jolts. He had no right to treat her this way. No one ever had before. Someone might walk in on them at any moment and make this whole situation even more embarrassing for her than it already was. The worst thing about it was the embarrassment. No, that wasn’t true. The worst thing was the pain. Her bottom really was stinging and burning. How could she make him stop?
She kicked her legs and tried to twist away from him, but he merely held her tighter. “Settle down and take what’s coming to you or I’ll cut a switch.”
That threat froze her in place. It was awful to be over Josh’s knee, but the thought of his using a switch on her was even worse. And what if someone saw him outside cutting the switch? Unthinkable!
“I hate to treat you like this, SueNell, but any man worth his salt would take you to task for what you did last night. Any man who made any claim to loving you. Whether you accept that love or not, he’d have to show it. He’d have to try to keep you safe and if a spanking is what it takes, then a spanking is what you’ll get. Do you admit that you earned it? That you did wrong?”
This time, SueNell couldn’t lie to him. “Y-yes. I suppose I did.”
“Then go get me a wooden spoon and bend over the table here.”
“Bend over the table?”
He helped her stand up. “You heard me. Do you want me to spell it out for you? I need a wooden spoon so I can spank your bottom with it. I’m going to make you red and sore to teach you a lesson.”
Hearing the words spoken out loud like that made SueNell’s stomach tie itself in a knot. Her face felt even hotter than it had been and she was sure anything was better than listening to one more minute, so she lunged for the counter. It wasn’t hard to quickly pluck a wooden spoon from the jar or give it to him, but what proved to be more difficult was to bend herself over the table. He helped her by placing his hand on the small of her back and saying, “Over you go. Let’s get this done.”
He pushed her skirts out of the way again, leaving only her combination undergarment to protect her modesty. With a sharp snap, he applied the head of the spoon to her bottom. First one side then the other felt the sting of the implement time and again. She knew instinctively that if she moved, he would just bring her back and punish her more, so she did all she could to keep her feet in place. After several swats, however, she began stamping and twisting, unable to take the pain without some sort of movement. “Please! That’s enough! I’m sorry!” she wailed, trying to keep her voice soft. There was only one thing that could make the situation more horrible than it already was. That one thing then occurred.
A voice floated through the window. “Is it today I’m supposed to really clean out the chicken coop, Mrs. Marlow? Or just the normal sweeping?” It was Ray, the elderly handyman. He had been dropped on his head as a baby and had never been quite right, but the ladies of the town kept him busy with odd jobs. This week it was her turn to see to him, so he had been staying in their bunkhouse and helping with chores.
Josh never paused in his spanking. “Answer the man, SueNell.”
Taking a deep breath so as to sound as normal as she could, SueNell replied, “Yes, Ray, sweep it out really well. It needs a thorough cleaning at least once a year.”
“Mrs. Marlow? What’s that noise?” Ray asked in his forthright way.
SueNell twisted around to look pleadingly at Josh. He took the hint and answered for her. “Mrs. Marlow is snapping some beans, Ray. These beans are real big and loud.” He popped her backside smartly before adding, “Hear that? That was a big one.”
Ray’s voice got softer, and SueNell could tell he was shuffling off as he commented, “Sure must be some big tough beans.”
Just when she thought she would not be able to hold on any longer, he stepped back. “I’m done. You can stand up now.”
She shot up and rubbed her backside strenuously. “Why did you have to do that here? And now? Where everyone could hear you?”
“I couldn’t do it in your bedroom. That wouldn’t be proper. And I couldn’t wait till the men were back in the bunkhouse. I’ll be leaving in a few minutes, like I said. If I were staying, I’d have waited until it was just us around the house.”
“So you’re punishing me for not begging you to stay?”
“Is that the kind of man I seem like to you?” When she shook her head, he went on. “I didn’t mention it one way or the other because I didn’t want this spanking to affect whether you asked me to stay or not. Either way, you were getting all that was coming to you.” Taking her into his arms, he sighed. “I can’t help caring about you.”
She couldn’t help finding comfort in his embrace. It was nothing like the sympathetic, sisterly hug she had planned to give him. In fact, she had to fight her own instincts to cling to him when he finally stepped back.
“You’ll behave from now on? You’d better. I won’t be here to watch out for you anymore and Hob’s got his hands full with the ranch.”
“I can watch out for myself.”
“Everybody needs somebody to watch out for them.” Josh bent his head to put his hat on, but looked out at her from under the brim. “I’m just a short ride away. If you ever change your mind, remember that.”
“Don’t, Josh. Don’t say that, like you’ll be waiting for me.”
“I can’t help it, SuzyQ. I won’t bother you anymore, but I can’t lie to you.”
“Nothing is going to change.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
He was gone before she could make any reply. The room seemed emptier to her than it had ever seemed before, even just after her parents had died.
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