Read Cowboy PI Online

Authors: Jean Barrett

Tags: #Suspense

Cowboy PI (6 page)

BOOK: Cowboy PI
13.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

“You’ll manage.”

“You sound very sure about that.”

“Why not?” His gaze traveled from her face down the entire length of her figure, his appraisal so slow and thorough that Samantha could feel herself flushing. “You have a body built for the saddle.”

And other things.
That’s what his hot eyes seemed to be telling her. Before she could stop him, he reached out and captured her hands, imprisoning them in his own big hands as he bent his head to inspect them.

“And you have a pair of hands meant for holding reins. Strong hands, I’d say.”

His touch was warm and steady and far too provocative.

“What you learned as a girl will come back to you. You won’t have forgotten those lessons, whether you liked them or not. And if this time around you have a little patience with yourself…yeah, you’ll manage just fine.”

His easy confidence in her was hard to resist, his husky voice and deep, blue-eyed gaze even harder.

“Besides…”

“What?”

“You won’t be alone out there in that howling wilderness. I’ll be riding beside you.”

Not as close as he was now, Samantha hoped, which was too close. She could smell his scent again, and she swore that this time she detected more than just musk and soap. That he bore the odors of leather and horses. Aromas that had poignant associations for her. They set off a warning inside her head.

He’s not just a PI and a bodyguard. He’s also a cowboy who was your grandfather’s friend. Stay away from him.

Their driver sounded the horn of the SUV, signaling them that the road was clear again. It wasn’t necessary to snatch her hands away. To her relief, Roark released them.
The cattle drive was waiting for her, Samantha remembered as they walked back to the car. She was still nervous about it, but determined. She could do it. She
had
to do it. If for no other reason, she needed to overcome the ghosts of her past.

 

N
ONE OF THEM QUESTIONED
his presence. And Roark wondered about that. Asked himself if any of them around the table suspected his real reason for being here. That he’d been hired to protect Samantha on the drive because of a threat to her. That there was someone who might want her eliminated.

Just how had the lawyer explained him to the others who had arrived here from Texas ahead of Samantha and him? Had he told them Roark Hawke was joining the outfit simply to help out? Well, that wasn’t so improbable. He was a rancher himself, a neighbor of Joe Walker’s. After all, another neighbor, who was caring for the Walking W in their absence, had sent his son for that same purpose. The young Alex McKenzie was seated on the other side of Samantha.

Whatever the members of the company supposed, Roark had no intention of enlightening them. They would understand soon enough. For now, it was enough they accepted him as one of them. This they’d readily done when he’d been introduced to them. It had occurred as they’d gathered at the picnic table under the cottonwoods for the last kitchen-prepared supper they would enjoy before they reached Alamo Junction a hundred miles south of here.

The faces around the table were familiar to Samantha. She had known these people from the Walking W and could share their easy camaraderie. But for Roark, who had been too busy every weekend on his own spread to meet more than a handful of his neighbors, they had yet to emerge as distinct individuals. Observant, which he had to be as a PI, he worked now on their identities as he listened to their exchanges.

“How much trail you reckon we can cover per day?”

The question was issued around a chunk of steak, which had replaced the wad of chewing tobacco that had earlier been parked in a corner of the speaker’s mouth. It came from Cappy Davis, whose face was as seamed as bark. He’d been a fixture on the Walking W since his boyhood, which, if his tough old frame was any indication, must have been before the Flood.

Shep Thomas, the Walking W’s earnest ranch foreman who was serving as the drive’s trail boss, considered the question that had been directed at him. “Anywhere from ten to twenty miles a day. Depends on what we encounter. Most of it is public land, and we have permission to cross that, as well as the private stuff. But I won’t kid you. This country is some of the meanest in the Rockies.”

Cappy grunted and went back to his steak.

“Problem is,” Shep continued, cradling his mug of coffee, “we got us a time line. A
crucial
one. We either deliver the cows to Alamo Junction by the contract date, or those stock cars don’t wait for us. It will call for some hard driving.”

The man across from Shep, as jocular as the trail boss was sober, treated the outfit to a long, slow whistle. Roark knew he was the Walking W’s horse wrangler in charge of the drive’s remuda, but for a moment he couldn’t recall his name. Brewster? That was it. Dick Brewster.

“I know what that means. Our butts will be in slings from all that riding.”

Samantha was silent, but Roark could see that Brewster’s comment had her worried all over again. Not that she needed any reminders of tomorrow’s ordeal.

Morning Star’s ranch house, whose golden sandstone walls were just behind them, was situated on the brow of a hill that overlooked a valley. The longhorns were down there. Restless from being rounded up from the open range, they milled about in the lingering twilight, lowing their
objections. Roark was aware that Samantha had been nervously eyeing the herd since the meal had been served.

He was not the only one who sensed her discomfort. Alex McKenzie, that friendly young puppy on the other side of her, tried to come to her rescue. “If it’s going to be all that rugged, Samantha shouldn’t have to put up with it. Not on horseback. She can ride in the chuck wagon with Ramona.”

Dick Brewster hooted with laughter. “That old heap? She’d be jounced to a jelly before noontime of our first day out. That is, if the thing makes it that far.”

All eyes at the table slid in the direction of a sturdy but battered pickup truck parked under a ponderosa pine several yards away. The vehicle’s back end had been fitted up as a rolling pantry. The only gaze that didn’t turn toward the truck belonged to Ramona Chacon, the Walking W’s round-faced cook. Her eyes were busy glaring at the horse wrangler.

“My baby can go anywhere your horses and cows can go, Dick Brewster. And you’d better start having a little respect for her if you expect to keep your belly full on this drive.”

Roark could see that the woman wasn’t genuinely offended. He had already decided that Ramona was too sweet tempered to mind Brewster’s teasing.

Alex returned to the subject of Samantha’s uneasiness.

“Rules don’t say Sam has to be in the saddle, just that she has to finish the drive.”

Roark wasn’t sure he appreciated McKenzie’s concern for Samantha, even though she had explained to him at the start of the meal that Alex’s interest in her welfare was the innocent result of a boyhood crush he’d had on her when he was a teenager. Fine. Except McKenzie was no longer a teenager, and Samantha looked as if she was enjoying his attention too much. And, damn it, why should he care?

Ramona added her invitation to Alex’s plan. “I’d be pleased to have your company in the chuck wagon, Sam.” Wise or not, Roark could no longer keep silent. “Good suggestion. The only thing is, Samantha has already decided she intends to make this drive on horseback along with the rest of us. Isn’t that what you told me on the trip up here, Samantha?”

She turned to him, meeting his challenge. For a moment she said nothing. He’d noticed she had an unconscious habit—whenever she was particularly tense about something—of catching the lobe of her right ear between her forefinger and her middle finger and tugging on it slowly. She was doing that now.

Roark was experiencing his own tension, wondering if she was about to tell him she’d didn’t appreciate his veto on her behalf, that she would express her own decisions. He knew she would be right if she did blast him, but he hoped instead she would agree with him. That she would have the courage to conquer her fear.

Her fingers dropped from the lobe of her ear. “Roark is right,” she said quietly. “I promised myself I would do this on horseback. I’ll stick with that.”

“Then it’s settled,” Roark said, wondering if she had any idea how much he admired her for her resolve. A resolve that he knew couldn’t have been easy for her.

One of the staff at the ranch appeared from the kitchen with a loaded tray. The outfit turned their attentions to the desserts she served them. Roark used the opportunity to study the faces around the table.

The expressions were cheerfully eager as they anticipated tomorrow’s drive. But Roark wondered, Did one of them have another agenda? Could one of this pleasant company be dangerous?

 

A
FTER MAKING SURE
that Samantha had safely locked herself in the bedroom that had been assigned to her for the night, Roark went back to his own room next door.

The old ranch house had no electricity. Hard to believe in this day and age, but its last owner, a contemporary of Joe Walker’s, had preferred it this way. Roark had to use a flashlight to find his way across the room to the oil lamp that had been provided for him on his bedside table.

There were matches beside the lamp. He struck one of them and lit the lamp. Its soft, flickering glow permitted him to perform one last, essential task before he turned in for the night. Reaching for his cell phone, he perched on the edge of the bed and punched in the digits for the number he wanted at a condo back in San Antonio.

As instructed, Wendell was waiting for his call. The young trainee answered on the first ring. “How’s it going?” he asked after Roark identified himself.

He knew Wendell was hoping to hear about some exciting development. Too bad he had to disappoint him. “Fine. We’re all one big, happy family here.”
So far,
Roark thought. “How about your end? Did you get out to the Walking W?”

“Visited that gulch just like you wanted,” Wendell reported, referring to the deep ravine where Joe Walker had been thrown from his horse. “I was careful not to be seen. Not much chance I would be. It’s in the middle of nowhere. Heck of a long hike out there.”

“Find anything?”

“I think maybe I did. There was a lot of wall to cover down in there, some of it pretty high. But I found this spot where the rocks looked like they’d been freshly chipped off by bullets. And if they were, that means the old man’s horse
was
spooked by gunfire and someone
could
have been shooting at him.”

Wendell was so enthusiastic about his discovery Roark hadn’t the heart to tell him that chipped rocks weren’t necessarily evidence of gunfire. “Could you tell whether the rock was scored? You know, as if bullets had left channels in it?”

“The marks weren’t clear. Maybe you’ll be able to tell
something. I took a bunch of photographs. As soon as they’re developed, I’ll e-mail them for you to study. They should be waiting for you at your first stop.”

“That’s fine.” Roark would examine those photographs, but he doubted they would give him anything useful. But Wendell, being Wendell, was so eager to succeed that, again, Roark didn’t want to discourage the overly zealous trainee.

“Tomorrow I’ll tackle the monastery and the Western Museum,” Wendell continued, referring to the institutions that would receive Joe Walker’s estate if Samantha failed to meet the terms of her grandfather’s will. “I’ll let you know what I learn.”

Cautioning him to be careful about how he handled those interviews, Roark promised to keep in touch and ended the call. He hoped he would be able to maintain regular contact with Wendell. He’d had no problem tonight, but a cell phone might not be dependable in a remote mountain area like this. There was also the matter of power, though Ramona Chacon had told him he could keep the instrument recharged using the lighter in her truck.

Roark went on sitting there for a moment on the edge of the bed, listening. Although it wasn’t all that late, a silence had settled over the house. The members of the outfit, knowing that the drive would be underway at first light, had retired early. Which, Roark told himself, was what he needed to do.

Shedding his clothes, he blew out the lamp and crawled under the covers. His phone call to Wendell hadn’t produced anything worthwhile. Not that he had expected it to, but a PI overlooked nothing. It was a beginning, and on the drive he would seize every opportunity to advance his investigation.

His last thoughts before he drifted off were for Samantha next door. He hoped she was sleeping peacefully, not worrying about tomorrow. He also wished he could think
of her as nothing but a client who needed his protection instead of a woman he wanted beside him in this bed. Damn.

 

S
AMANTHA DIDN’T BOTHER
switching on the flashlight on her bedside table to check her watch, but she knew it was late. Probably close to midnight, if not after.

She had managed to drowse for a couple of hours, though fitfully, but now she was wide-awake. The moon had risen, its light streaming through the uncurtained windows. She might have blamed its brightness for her sleeplessness, except that wouldn’t be true.

Nor could she blame the cattle in the valley below, at least not entirely. Although if their occasional bawling was any indication, they continued to be as restless as she was, reminding her of what tomorrow would demand of her. And tonight?

She had to face it. The fundamental reason for her waking was a physical one—she needed a bathroom. In any other circumstances, this wouldn’t have been a problem. In this place it was. The ranch house had neither bathrooms nor electricity and only rudimentary plumbing in the kitchen. Relieving herself meant a trip to an old-fashioned privy out back. Not something she wanted to risk in the middle of the night.

You can wait until morning.

That’s what she told herself, and she believed it. For a while. But the more she tried not to think about it, the more she wanted that privy. When her need became urgent, she gave in.

BOOK: Cowboy PI
13.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Wildling by Curtis, Greg
Small Town Doctor by Dobson, Marissa
Between Two Kings by Olivia Longueville
The Magus of Hay by Phil Rickman
Rich Rewards by Alice Adams
Confessions of a Yakuza by Saga, Junichi