Morning rose quiet. Stray rays of sunlight seeped through cracks in the blind covering the lone bedroom window. I dressed, made the bed, an old habit born from years of repetition, then I left the room and padded down the hallway. My socked feet silent on the hardwood floor. The murmur of words leaked toward me.
Stepping from the hallway, I paused. Sarah stood with her back toward me. The phone receiver clutched close to her ear. Unaware that I stood there, she turned, exposing her face. One of her small hands viciously tussled her brown, shoulder length hair. Her distorted features stole my breath.
Whoever was on the other end of the line must have been the bearer of mighty harsh news, her face twisted in anger and drained of blood. Sarah stood with her lips pressed tight together, the pale blue of her eyes carried a hint of black, a pair of warning beacons laid against the fair skin of her face.
Unsure whether to proceed or leave her alone, I cleared my throat to introduce my presence. “Are you okay?” I asked.
A flash of anger flitted across her eyes before she realized I had spoken. Turning away she composed herself then spun back in my direction. Swatting stray hair from her face, she replaced the phone and faked a smile while distancing herself from the object of her discomfort.
“Yes, yes I’m fine. You just startled me. With Josh…with your father gone, I’m not used to others in the house. I apologize, I forgot you were here.”
She shifted toward the dining table. “Come, sit down. I’ll set the coffee to brewing.”
I moved toward the table while she busied herself with making a pot of coffee. “Do you mind if I wonder the ranch. It’s been years and I’d kind of like to reacquaint myself. Must be some saddle broke stock nearby, I presume.”
“Oh, definitely. I can get JW, uhm, James Wesley, to show you around, introduce you to the hands.”
“I probably know most of them or at least, I did. It has been a while. Most of the guys were with father since us boys were young lads.”
Sarah fell quiet. She pulled out a pair of mugs from the cupboard, tilted the pot of coffee and spoke while pouring.
“Things have changed since you’re been here last, William. Most of the old hands have moved on. Didn’t like taking orders from a woman, even with your fathers blessings. Now the boys riding for me, on the range and handling the irons, are loyal and not above a woman’s word.”
I stared at her back. “So no one is around from before?”
“Uh,” Sarah turned with hot cups of coffee in both hands, “No. Old Tom Wiggins is still around. Your father was very adamant about Tom’s employ. Until they pack him off here boots first, I believe is how he put it, and the blacksmith, Charles Bronner, still sees to our needs although he’s part-time these days. Doesn’t live in the bunk house any longer. Bought himself a small spread twenty minutes away, over near Clarksville.
A knock on the door interrupted her summary. Sarah stepped quicker toward the table. Hot liquid spilled over the edge of the cups as they contacted the table. Without a word, she rushed to the front room.
“Hello,” I heard her say.
“Morning, Sarah,” a deep, hoarse voice replied. The closing of the door signalled Sarah’s return to the kitchen. A slight flush coloured her cheeks. The gentleman she led into the room filled the doorway to the kitchen. He must have stood a good three or four inches above my six foot three and out weighed my 220 pounds by a good many more. A full beard masked the man’s jaw and surrounded his mouth. The skin showing under the brim of his hat tanned a deep, burnt red and crows feet wrinkled the skin tight around his eyes.
“William, this is our manager, James Wesley Barton. James, William…” I think she stalled searching for my middle name before forgoing the effort, “Boutõn, Elijah’s middle boy. William will be with us for a time. He was recently released from the army.”
She turned back to address me, “Mr. Barton manages the day to day operations. Deals with the hired hands among other stuff. I am sure he’ll be happy to set you up with a horse and show you the lay of the land.”
The big man stepped past Sarah, hand outstretched. “JW, that’s what the boys call me,” he explained as his hand squeezed mine. Raw power flowed through the large man’s grip. A gleam played in his eyes as he studied my face. “Don’t believe we’ve had the opportunity to meet. Don’t recall seeing you about since I hired on.”
“No. Haven’t been home for quite some time. Stationed overseas. Spent my down time roaming Europe.” I said.
“So you decided to come back and play cowboy?”
“Is that what you and your men call it these days. I grew up riding and roping. Long before it was in fashion.” I spat back.
“Understood,” JW quickly back pedalled. A smile climbed back on his face. “Whatever you need, you don’t hesitate call for me.”
Sarah poured a third cup of coffee and the conversation centred around the operations of the ranch and touch lightly on my father’s accident and the part of the business he retreated to. The loss of his legs kept him off of the range for the most part. I caught nervous glances from Sarah in JW’s direction. The glimpses were quick and maybe I read too much into them. Hell, the two worked together daily, why would they need to resort to cryptic exchanges.
I shook off my hyper suspicious mind pushing the thoughts away. A second cup in and JW shuffled his phone from his pocket and typed a text. A few minutes passed when a second knock sounded at the front door.
“That should be Stewart. I messaged him to walk over. I’ll get him to escort you to the stable. Got a couple of dandy horses waiting for you. You pick what you want and Stewart will set your gear up. Can’t see much of the place on foot.” The big man grinned at his words. The gleam returning to his eyes.
Sarah waited until the three men finished their conversation and JW walked back to the table and reclaimed his cup. He stood and sauntered over to the coffee pot for a refill.
“I’ll have more too,” she held her cup forward.
“Sure. Of course. Where are my manners,” JW carried the pot and topped her cup.
“So. What do want me to do with him. Show him a good time until he gets bored and packs it in.”
Sarah looked up into the big man’s face. The kitchen sat silent while she chewed her lower lip. Her mind busy. Her face drained of colour with the recollection of the message from earlier that morning.
“We might not have time,” she went on to explain the message left for Joshua by the Special Ranger from Texas. In the message, the Ranger spoke of travelling to the P/B ranch the next day.
“If he keeps his word, he should arrive here tomorrow. Why,” she complained. “Why, all of a sudden the whole country has to show up on my doorstep.” Sarah went back to chewing her lip. Blood tasted on her tongue before she spoke again.
“What happened in the mountains. Are Joshua and Tom going to be a problem? What have you heard?”
“Rory got a shot at them. Figures he might have hit one, wasn’t sure. The pair slipped from sight.”
“They disappeared?” The question twisted Sarah’s mouth in confusion.
“No. Hell no,” JW furrowed his brow, “Rory caught sight of them when they were about to cross onto a narrow ledge, high up on the side of a rock wall. From his vantage point, he figures at best he tagged one of the men, if not, then his shot must have spooked old Tom’s horse. Rory says it looked like the two may have went over the edge. He was a ways away so he can’t be positive but best kind of scenario if he’s right. I told him to take some boys and find out for certain.”
“Damn. We can’t leave this to chance,” Sarah’s fist bounced off the table top again. “We need to know and we need to know now. Those bodies will need to disappear into a crevice or canyon where no one can find them.” Sarah chewed harder on her bleeding lip.
A short, derisive laugh clawed its way from her chest. “And now his damn son shows up. What the hell are the odds? Clean this up before the boy rides out and gets suspicious.”
“All ready on that. I left a message for Rory and his boys to proceed. Don’t know how long it’ll take them to locate the ledge the exact ledge and carry out a search of the canyon floor for the bodies. A lot of those drops are dangerous for both men and horses. If the two are dead, why not let the son find them. Accidents happen in those hills.”
Sarah sat straight up. The chewing of her lip stopped. “We’ll have to deal with him then. What if he gets suspicious, starts to look over the herds, browses the books. What then?
Silence flooded the kitchen. The two starred into their cups, lost in thoughts of the morning's news. Sarah slapped the table upsetting the coffee in the cups. “What if we tell William his dad is laid up at one of the line cabins. Draw him into the hills?” She said. Her features lightened as she thought further of the bold idea. “Stage a similar trap like you did for Joshua and Tom? So another person succumbs to the dangers of the high trails? Easy to explain. After all, it’s dangerous up there. Especially if one is not so familiar with the area.”
JW studied her face. Slowly the gleam in his eyes returned and a smile curved his lips. “Kill two birds with one stone. Yeah, why not. If both father and son meet their maker, you’ll only have the two remaining sons to deal with and the ranch will be yours. From a bad situation to salvation. Who’s going to mess with a grief stricken widow.”
A rushed knock erupted at the front door while were sitting down for supper. Sarah began to stand when JW stopped her and dabbing his mouth with a napkin, shoved his chair back and left the dining room. I looked over at Sarah while she turned from watching JW leave and looked over at me. Shrugging her shoulders, she picked her fork off the table and resumed eating.
The creak of the front door opening then JW’s booming voice called a hello to the new guest. A quieter voice spoke quickly. Muffled, excited words drifted across the span of the front entrance to where we sat. Two men talked, the words too low to understand.
I only bent back over my plate before the stomp of JW’s boots sounded down the hallway. A second set of footsteps followed. JW stepped into the dining room, a young, smaller cowhand stood close behind the big ranch foreman.
“Sarah,” he motioned with his head for her to join him.
“Whatever it is, you can say it in front of William,” she replied curtly setting her cutlery on opposite sides of her plate before turning her focus back to the two men standing.
JW cleared his throat. “Are you certain.”
“Yes,” she remained seated. Her neck twisted as she looked up at the big man.
JW nudged the smaller man. “You go ahead Lefty. Tell the boss what you told me.”
“Ma’am,” the cowhand removed his hat. “I got bad news.” The cowhand’s fingers fidgeted with the brim of the cowboy hat.
“Spill it,” Sarah implored. “For god’s sake we don’t have all night.”
“Ah, yes. Yes ma’am. Some of the boys riding in from the line cabins…well, they come across a horrible accident. Seems that,” the cowhand’s Adams apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Think they came across a spot where your husband and Old Tom ran into trouble. Looks like the two might have slipped off the edge of a rocky trail high in the back country.”
When I looked over at Sarah, the colour drained from her face. She sat very still absorbing the news.
“How certain are they and why did they come back? Why didn’t they stay to help incase Joshua and Tom were injured?” she asked through clenched teeth. The cowhand swallowed again. The hat in his hand shook with anxiety. The nervous man looked to his boss for help.
JW spoke on cue. “The spot where they might have gone over. The boys say its hard to access. A few stayed to search, two men came back for supplies and extra help.”
I tossed in bed. The thought of sleeping in a warm comfortable bed out of reach of the elements sat heavy on my chest. My father could be fighting for his life while I dreamed. The need to wait until sunrise I understood. Traipsing into the mountains, even when one was familiar with the landscape was still a bad idea. One wrong turn, one missed marker could put one or all of the search party on a path of danger.
As I lay awake, strange noises rose up through the house. A short burst of loud voices caught me as I submitted to sleep. The sounds enough to grab my attention and shake off the drowsiness. Doors slammed and voices argued until the words fell to whispers.
Who, I wondered, was arguing with Sarah, her voice I recognized easily enough. JW, I was certain left the house hours earlier. Did he return with some urgent news or. No. The brief flurry of words spoken by the second voice I heard lacked the deep undertones of JW. Somebody new arrived at the house in the middle of the night.
I thought of leaving bed and finding Sarah. I lay quiet in bed, my eyes closed while listening intently for any rise of Sarah’s voice that bespoke of trouble. A firm knock on the door was the next thing I recalled.
“We’re heading out shortly,” JW called. I grabbed my phone. The LED numbers read 4:00 a.m. Sleep must have claimed me after all.
Daylight was still an hour away by the time the lot of us saddled up and left the ranch yard. JW stayed behind but assigned several of the hands to ride out. Five men made the trip with me. A cool wind swirled off the mountains as we let our horses pick a way in the early dawn toward the high, rocky back country.
The light in the kitchen burned bright against the morning darkness. Sarah cradled a cup of steaming coffee between her hands. The night had turned out to be long. Sleep, a luxury her overworked mind rejected. JW stood off to the side nursing his own coffee. At the table, her brother Noah sat bent over, half asleep leaning on his arms like a pillow. The surprise of finding him knocking on the door in the wee hours, almost more than Sarah found the patience for with all that was going wrong in her life.
“Those cattle rangers out of Texas. Noah says they rounded up his crew two nights ago. Said he was out of sight when the raid broke. Hasn’t stopped running until he arrived here this morning. His crew, along with the cattle, are all gone,” Sarah spit out the words with contempt as she explained her brother’s appearance to JW.
“When it rains…” James Wesley muttered as he stared into his cup. Shaking his head he turned to Sarah’s brother. “Were those Sheriffs able to identify you? Were you followed?” He asked.
“I..no. I don’t think they saw me. I was hanging in this barn where we parked the truck. When the bastards surrounded the corrals and my men, I high tailed into the bush. I didn’t lead straight here if that’s what you’re wondering?” Noah lifted his head off his crossed arms and stared up at the big man standing beside his sister.
“I spent the last couple of days driving and back tracking here and there to throw off their trail. It would be impossible for them to trace me to this ranch.”
JW raised an eyebrow. “They got a bead on your operation. Don’t sell them short.” Glancing down at Sarah, “We can hide Noah in the barracks, keep him out of sight until we know the law ain’t gonna come down on us. Give em a few days, even a week and we can move him. The idea of him being found here with us, along with the other problems we’re having…” JW glared back at the younger brother. “We can’t afford more mistakes.”
Sarah nodded. Her mind still reeled. “There’s still the Ranger who called for Joshua. Said he’d be showing up today. Do you think…”
“Naw.” JW stopped her short. “The Ranger’s message came well before the law would have any idea about him,” JW hooked a thumb in Noah’s direction. “But we still got to be cautious. Read that Ranger careful when you talk to him. See what you can learn from him and then send him on his way. We’ve got too many extra players to deal with already.”
JW walked away muttering, “How many more problems are going to show up here for Christ’s sake.”