Authors: Patricia McLinn
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Western
Copyright ©1998 by Patricia McLaughlin
Wyoming Territory, July 1882
The bartender set down the glass with a flourish that slid golden liquid high up one finger-marked shore, and then the opposite. The customer took a long, burning swallow.
"So, stranger, you looking to ride for an outfit?"
Without waiting for an answer, the bartender hooked a thumb toward his chest, where a stain bloomed on his gray shirt. “Simon Hooper can always tell a cowhand. Take it fast, but swallow slow. Like they're dry, so they can't wait, but it might be forever to the next, so they make it last. Same way you done.
"Since you ain't been in the Texas Rose afore, you ain't with no local outfit. And it happens I know an outfit hiring."
The customer still didn't answer. He simply shifted his gaze from the dust-dimmed mirror to the bartender.
"Widow woman up Jasper Creek way is looking to hire. Now, you might be thinking July's late to hire, but the Circle T lost some hands a time back. They're not dead,” Hooper said, with a laugh his customer didn't share. “Went to big outfits. Thomas Dunn—you mighta heard of him. First to run cattle in these parts. He took two of the widow's new hands right out from under her nose after roundup. Gordon Wood, he took double that."
A third swallow left a skim of liquid in the bottom of the customer's glass. He inhaled the saloon smell—a tickle of dust, a bite of fresh liquor, a sour residue as men sweated out old liquor and a fading cleanliness of what they'd left behind.
"There's some as can't understand why Widow Terhune don't marry Wood and take on the Lazy W brand like he keeps asking.” Hooper nodded. “Some say it ain't fittin', him bein’ nearer the grave than cradle. But even those say it's pure mule-headedness for a woman to try running a place, even if Doyle Shagwell is foreman."
The customer had crossed the river of dirt that Chelico called a street to the Texas Rose thinking his only trail was waiting—for an answer and, once he got the answer he wanted, for a return to Texas by spring. This bartender's talk offered a way to fill the waiting.
"Huh? Oh, Widow Terhune's place? Ride east to Jasper Creek. Follow it north a day through Lazy W. When you reach a water hole you're onto Circle T. Keep along the creek half a day or so to the home ranch. Now, the stage road to Miles City runs near enough to spit on Natchez—that's Wood's fancy name for the Lazy W home ranch. It—"
The stranger flipped a coin on the bar and walked out.
Rachel Phillips Terhune came instantly alert. She'd been riding since first light. Now she was near the fork between turning back or spending the night in the open. Only it was hard to quit when she hadn't sighted as much as a solitary calf.
But considering her horse's interest in something on the far side of this rise, maybe her luck was about to change.
Before they crested the rise, she halted, listening. Nothing.
Too much nothing.
The hair on the back of her arms and neck prickled. She pulled her rifle from the holder Shag had added to her saddle. Dandy eased, surefooted, through thin underbrush between cottonwood and willow. With her senses strained for a rustle that did not come, she almost missed the sign. Remnants of a small fire, scattered. One horse. Scuff marks of boots on the hard earth.
She examined the ground from Dandy's back. Before he'd died, Pa had taught her to read sign. There was evidence of only a small fire, enough to heat coffee, maybe cook a meal. Likely someone drifting through. She had no problem with that. As long as they didn't take her cattle, her horses or any more of her men.
Rachel's precise reining guided Dandy through the brush so quietly that their progress couldn't be separated from nature's mutters. But when they cleared the trees’ cover where the creek detoured into a shaded pond, she realized someone had heard her coming.
Two yards into the pond, a man crouched so the water hit him just below the armpits. His face was to her, but his body was sideways, narrowing the target. His extended arm paralleled the water, along with the revolver aimed straight at her.
That didn't concern her much, since she had a rifle aimed at him.
They stared at each other. Neither moving. Neither saying anything. She'd never seen him before. She'd have remembered.
The man had dark hair. Black even, but that might be from the water that molded it to his head and the back of his neck. His skin was tanned. Not just his face and neck and lower arms, but parts generally covered by a shirt. His face was composed of unrevealing angles—squared-off jaw, slash of unsmiling mouth, straight, bold nose. The only hint of emotion came from the V of dark brows. A frown of concentration, she decided. Deadly concentration. The gleam of cold, fierce eyes added to her conviction that if it came to shooting, he'd do his damnedest to make his revolver stand up to her rifle.
She squelched a shiver. Fear leaves no room for thinking, Pa used to say.
It seemed a long time, but it probably wasn't, before the stranger bent his elbow, pointing his revolver skyward.
Rachel eased out a slow breath. She would tell this man what hospitality to expect on Circle T land and what would not be tolerated. She'd done that a dozen, two dozen times with men passing through.
No words came. She just kept looking.
The V of the stranger's brows deepened, the gleam of dark eyes glinting out at her like a reflection of sunlight on moving water.
And when he slowly stood, she still kept looking.
As the water sluiced from his broad chest, down his back, along his lean flanks and the top of his thighs ... As he slowly turned and faced her front on ... Naked.
His nakedness struck her like the jolt of whiskey her father had administered when she'd broken her arm. Like the whiskey, it hit hard and hot, deep in her gut, then flushed warmth and tingles through her body.
But she wasn't thirteen now. She was twice thirteen. A woman, married and widowed. A woman surrounded by men near all her life, and running this ranch herself for four years. A woman who should be well past the sight of a naked man sending tingles and warmth through her. Reaching to parts of her body she mostly ignored and never expected to tingle. Only, she realized with a sort of dazed fascination, she'd never seen a man full naked before.
Stripped of jacket and vest, sure. Down to their undergarments now and then. But even those times Edward had come to her bed to exercise a husband's rights, it had been in the dark, and with the scratch of fabric covering his stout, hairy body. So even if she'd kept her eyes open, she'd have seen nothing.
And if she had seen anything, instinct told her it would not have been this.
Water and sunlight gilded the man's tanned skin to bronze, like one of those statues in her mother's prized picture books. Rachel could see on the stranger the same long rope of muscle in shoulders and arms, the same tapering shape of chest, the same curved power of thighs.
But there was a definite difference from those pictures.
Rachel Phillips Terhune might never have seen a man full naked before, but she had been watching animals reproduce as long as she'd lived, and she knew the function of this change. This stranger was reacting the way Warrior reacted to a mare in season.
Unlike the mares, who most often sidled and pranced in nervous response, she sat rock still, watching the man's body change.
Get out of here! Run away! Shoot him!
Frenetic orders from a horrified internal voice ricocheted inside her head without bestirring a single muscle.
For God's sake, at least close your eyes!
Her eyes stayed wide. But the reality of what she saw began to blend and mix with images from a corner of her mind she'd never encountered before. Images of the man and her. Of bodies and sensations. Of touches and kisses. Of heat and...
Her gaze jerked to the stranger's face, and she saw her imaginings reflected in midnight eyes.
Her trance shattered like a skin of ice under a hoof.
She wheeled Dandy and rode like hell.
Rachel took Dandy direct to the barn corral, encountering only a mild “morning” from Joe-Max. But Shag waited on the kitchen porch. No chance she'd get past him so easily.
"Sure is nice you came back to see us now, Mrs. Terhune."
Optimistically trying to ignore the barrel-chested foreman's heavy irony, she gave him a smile and a “morning. Shag” on her way to the tub and towel Ruth left beside the door for just such cleanups.
"Morning? Is that so? Thought maybe you didn't know the time at all and that's why you didn't come back last night."
"I was too far out to get in before I lost the light, and you know Dandy's not much of a night horse."
She bent and splashed water into her face to get the worst dust off. After breakfast and checking the horses, she'd take a real bath.
The scene at the pond blew into her mind as fast and overpowering as a thunderstorm. She grabbed the towel and buried her face in it.
"I know it and you know it, so how in tarnation did you let yourself get caught out on him?"
"Other things on my mind,” she answered from behind the towel.
"Other things on your mind?
Other things on your mind?
Alone like that? You know it's not all that long ago this was Indian territory—"
"I know, I rode it with Pa then, remember?"
He wasn't listening. “And it's not just them. It's animals, prairie dog holes, snakes and getting thrown.” She glared over the towel and he had the grace to look uneasy. But he didn't halt his scold. “It's bad enough I have to listen to Ruth saying it's my doing that you don't dress or ride like a lady, but to have her at me all night long saying it's my fault if all we ever find of you's some bleached bones—"
"You're pinning this on Ruth?” That stopped him long enough for her to launch an arrow of her own. “Why are you here, anyhow? You said you'd ride out first light to check the north camp."
She turned and gave him a hard look, daring him to say he'd changed his plans because he was fretting about her. They'd gone over and over that, and the last time she'd sworn she'd fire him if he tried to coddle her.
They both knew she'd never fire him, but even saying the words had been a measure of her determination to carry the burdens of this spread same as a man would, and he'd respected it. Till now.
Shag looked toward the south hills, down at his feet, then up at her, his mouth tight, chin pugnacious, and grizzled bushy brows stark against florid skin. She stood, watching, giving no ground.
Finally, he broke the look, glancing toward the side door. “Well, tarnation, Chell, I got three men who come about jobs and it seemed like one of us oughta be here to talk to them."
"Yeah, surprised me, too,” he said in his usual voice. The storm had passed. “It seems Simon Hooper that tends bar over at the Texas Rose is announcing we're hiring pretty near any that know a bull from a jackrabbit."
Her initial pleasure dimmed. “These three any good?"
"Probably not. One maybe. Hard to tell. When it comes to words, he don't use up all his kindling to make a fire. The young one makes the first look like a chatterbox. And the third wore long pants before Moses grew whiskers. But we're not in any position to be saying no. We need what we can get."
She knew the truth of that. Trying to dig the Circle T out of the debt piled up from her late husband and the costs of following her father's dream to bring the outfit north from Platte River, they'd started spring with the barest minimum of hands. Then, roundup was disappointing, with the only explanation that they'd lost more head to the winter than they'd figured. After Thomas Dunn hired away their top two men, then Gordon Wood took four, they needed help, but couldn't afford top dollar to lure a man from another outfit.
"Let's eat, then see what we got."
She followed Shag into the kitchen, redolent with frying steak, coffee and Ruth's sourdough biscuits. Ruth Shagwell had ruled the kitchen—first in the Platte River house and then here—as long as her husband, Doyle “Shag” Shagwell, had been Circle T foreman, Rachel's entire life.
"Morning, Ruth. It smells wonderful."
Without turning from the stove, Ruth pursed her mouth, which looked at odds with her softly graying hair and rosy cheeks. The look promised a lecture—but not until it could be delivered without the distraction of preparing a second breakfast hours after the first-light meal for the regular hands and, more important, without an inhibiting audience. Ruth could, and did, talk to her employer as if Rachel remained a girl with her hair down her back, but anyone else daring a critical word risked a hide-blistering.