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Cry of the Wolf
By Elaine Barbieri Dorchester Publishing
Copyright © 2008 Elaine Barbieri
All right reserved.
Justine Fitzsimmons had been employed at the Savoy Saloon for only three days, but she had already decided she'd had enough. Her throat burned from the clouds of blue smoke that hung over the barroom as shrieks of drunken laughter grew louder. Dirty floors, chipped furniture, watered-down drinks, and marked cards were the standard of the evening. Scantily dressed women flirted outlandishly with men who smelled even worse than they looked.
Dressed in a cheap, spotted gown provided for her under duress by one of the other women working there, Justine faced the reality that she was expected to join those women in their pursuits and to allow intimate liberties in exchange for money.
It was a harsh realization indeed.
Justine's gaze tightened as she scrutinized her surroundings with open disdain. She had been onstage once that evening. She had sung her heart out to the audience of slobbering drunks, cowboys with more than music on their minds, and dance-hall women who appeared to despise the ground she walked on, but she had known from the outset that she was wasting her time. Her "talent" was the last thing on her audience's mind.
How had her life come to such a pass?
Everything had started out so well. She had responded toan advertisement in a New York City newspaper that offered a position with a troupe of touring actors. In retrospect, she supposed she should have been more careful, or perhaps suspicious of the fellow who interviewed her when she admitted her lack of experience. Instead, she had been blinded by the interest in the elegant Roger Worthington's eyes. He had openly admired her glowing brown hair, naturally highlighted with red and gold; her great, doe-shaped green eyes; her fine, perfectly sculpted features that hinted at the exotic; and her unusually tall, well-endowed figure.
"Do you sing?" he had inquired.
"I sing ... and dance," Justine had added hastily. She had not bothered to say that she had not had professional training, and that she was relying on the musical talent she believed she had inherited from her father to carry her through. Nor had she added that that talent was her only connection to the shadowy figure who had sired her. Archibald Fitzsimmons had been a wealthy, older man who was killed shortly after she was born, and before he could marry her mother. She had always used his family name, but she remembered her shock when she realized how little right she had to it.
She had deliberately avoided mentioning to Roger Worthington that as soon as her sisters and she came of age, they had decided to separate themselves from the mother they barely knew-the mother who had diligently refused to discuss any of their fathers with them.
Justine absentmindedly coughed. It was hot and close in the crowded room. She was choking from the smoke, her eyes smarted, and she didn't like the way a few cowboys at the bar were looking at her. She knew what was expected of her. She also knew that she had run out of excuses.
It was an insult, that's what it was! She sang as sweetly as a lark. Her talent was undeniable. She should have been able to captivate any audience with her dulcet tones. Provided, of course, that her audience was sober.
"Howdy, ma'am. Are you looking for some company?"
Justine looked up coldly at a cowboy who swayed slightly as he stood in front of her. He was clean-shaven and had probably been well groomed when the night began, but he was presently looking at her with drooping eyes, a lopsided smile, and a shirt spotted from too liberal imbibing. He held a half-empty glass of whiskey in his unsteady hand, and appeared not to notice that it sloshed over the rim as he spoke.
She responded succinctly and without hesitation. "No."
If she'd been in a different frame of mind, she might have felt sorry for the fellow as he took a backward step and stammered politely, "I'm ... I'm sorry to have bothered you, ma'am."
But her mood was foul.
She had not expected that the "actors" who had welcomed her so exuberantly into their troupe would abandon her just as easily. She had known their tour was not going well when attendance grew poorer at every stop, except for fellows who arrived at her door with a very different type of entertainment in mind. But never in a million years had she believed that she would wake up in a dingy boardinghouse room in the middle of nowhere to discover that the rest of the troupe had sneaked off in the middle of the night, leaving her with their unpaid debts. Faced with furious creditors, she had been forced to settle all accounts, which had brought her to her presently disastrous financial state.
She had taken the only job available to a young woman with questionable talent-and she was well aware that the bartender of the Savoy Saloon had his eye on her.
So, what was she supposed to do now?
"You don't look too happy."
Justine looked at the old man standing in front of her. He was short and balding, with a straggly gray beard. His bony shoulders and chest protruded awkwardly from his well-laundered shirt, and his trousers were gathered together at his waistline with a worn belt. He obviously had been lacking a few good meals of late; yet there was a wiry strength about him that could not be denied. She had seen him before and had heard some of the women talking about him. A regular weekend customer at the Savoy, he had a small, respectable ranch outside town and was considered a pleasant fellow.
She scrutinized him speculatively as she inquired, "Are you talking to me?"
"Sure am. I said you don't look happy."
"I didn't realize it showed."
"I don't figure you do much to hide it." The old man shrugged as he added, "I suppose there ain't much of an audience for your singing here."
"This town doesn't seem to be interested in my voice."
"Maybe not, but a good-looking woman like you could get by real well if she decided to do what comes naturally."
Justine smarted. "It just so happens that doing what comes naturally doesn't come naturally to me under these conditions."
"I figured as much."
Her patience short, Justine snapped, "Well, if that's all you have to say-"
The old fellow asked unexpectedly, "Can you cook?"
Justine squinted at the old man, assessing him more closely. She had overheard some of the women saying that the old man's housekeeper of five years had recently left to get married, and that things had been in chaos there ever since.
Frowning, she heard herself say, "Of course I can cook."
"How good are you about cleaning up after yourself?"
"What business is that of yours?"
The old man studied her more intently. He said abruptly, "I got room on my ranch for a woman who can cook and clean up a bit. The position don't pay much, but it's decent work. Do you want the job?"
Justine hesitated. An ear-splitting screech of female laughter pierced the raucous din at that moment, causing her frown to darken. This man was a virtual stranger, but her situation at the Savoy was dire.
The truth was, she had no choice.
She responded gruffly, "Yes."
"What's your name, anyways?"
"My name is Camille Marcel."
The old man frowned. "You don't look like no Camille Marcel to me."
Justine sniffed. Acutely aware that she had no right to the family name she had used most of her life, she had thought long and hard before adopting her stage name. She wasn't ready to abandon it any more than she was ready to abandon her temporarily aborted career. She said stiffly, "Like it or not, that's my name."
"All right, Camille. You can start tomorrow-cooking and cleaning up at my ranch, the Double Bar C. It's just outside town. I'll pick you up in the morning."
The heat of the bartender's stare was burning into her back. "What's wrong with starting right now?" Justine asked.
The old man appeared momentarily startled before responding bluntly, "I just got here. I ain't ready to leave yet."
"Looks like you're more desperate than I thought."
Justine did not reply, and the old man nodded.
"All right, I'll tell the bartender you're going with me while you get your things together. He won't give you no trouble." He added in afterthought, "By the way, my name is Sydney Cooper. Everybody calls me Pop."
"I know what your name is."
The old man raised his wiry brows. "That so?"
Justine assessed him more closely. "You knew my name already, too, didn't you?"
"Maybe. Maybe not."
Suddenly wary, Justine said flatly, "Before I go any further, I need to make something perfectly clear. I may be desperate to get out of this place, but I don't intend to go from the frying pan into the fire." Her gaze intensified. "Do you get my drift?"
"I get it, all right." The old man turned away. He said over his shoulder as he started toward the bar, "We'll leave for the ranch in a half hour."
The Texas night was wet and miserable. Ryder Knowles scrutinized the dreary scene, aware that the relentless lightning storm and continuing deluge had turned the ranch-house yard and nearby corral into a quagmire of mud that would take days to dry up. He noted that the horses in the field beyond were gathered under a tree in an effort to escape the pounding rain. He had no doubt that his revitalized cattle herd was seeking similar shelter on the seventy-odd acres of his ranch.
Silently railing at the dampness, Ryder walked toward the fireplace. He easily threw another log on the fire with a muscular strength that he had earned the hard way. Tall and powerfully built, with dark hair, light eyes, and chiseled features, he had a stubborn cleft chin that bespoke the determination with which he had devoted hours of physical labor to the broken-down ranch he had bought years earlier. He ignored the general consensus of opinion that he was the most eligible bachelor in the area. He had no time for it.
The truth was that he had never been afraid of hard work. He'd grown up on a ranch where he had arrived destitute at the age of twelve after an epidemic took his family. He had known from the beginning he would have to work hard to make his place in life. He had been grateful for the many hours his mother had spent educating him before she succumbed. To honor her memory and his own natural curiosity, he had read every book that came into his hands in the time since. He had applied that knowledge and lessons learned the hard way to his life, and the Flying K was the result.
With the help of three loyal wranglers, he had achieved his goal.
He had purposely avoided thinking about the fact that he had married young-a sweet girl with an unrelenting smile whom he had loved dearly-or that he became a widower after a year of marriage when his wife and newborn son died in childbirth.
Two of his wranglers had temporarily taken over the ranch then, while the oldest one, Bart, had taken on the duties of the household in Betty's place. In retrospect, he supposed he couldn't have gone on without them.
Five years had passed since then, and he had never met a woman who could match Betty's indefatigable smile and cheerful personality. He supposed he never would-but that was the least of his present concerns.
A strike of lightning was followed by a startling boom of thunder, and the deluge continued.
"If this keeps up, that corn we've been raising for the herd is going to be pounded into the ground, and the foundation we just set for the new barn is going to get washed away."
Ryder looked up at Bart's comment as the man emerged from the kitchen with dishcloth in hand. Shrugging, Ryden said, "So, we'll start all over again. It won't be the first time."
Bart shook his shaggy head with a half smile. "I suppose there ain't nothing that can make you give up once you set your mind to something."
Their conversation was interrupted by a heavy knock on the door. Ryder hesitated briefly before walking toward it. Both Joshua and Toby had retired to the bunkhouse for the night, and only a fool would venture out in this kind of weather.
Ryder opened the door and stopped short at the sight of the big man standing in the opening. Rain ran in rivulets from the brim of his worn Stetson, his clothing was drenched and clinging to his rounded shoulders, and his face-unnaturally red in color-was covered by a week's worth of whiskers, but Ryder's smile was instantaneous and sincere. Holding out his hand in greeting, he said, "Tom Monroe! Come on in. What are you doing in this neck of the woods?"
His expression blank, Tom took a step and then toppled forward into unconsciousness.
"Get those wet clothes off him."
"That's what I'm doing, boss."
Ryder struggled with the big man's wet shirt while Bart fumbled with his belt. Ryder remembered the last time he had seen Tom Monroe. Ryder had been not more than twenty, newly married with a pregnant wife, and in a dire financial state. Tom was a mature cattle buyer who was wearying of his job and who surprised him one day by showing up to work alongside him while his men and he were digging a new well. Tom had stayed on for a while, and had even gone as far as to supply needed funds in an emergency-funds that Ryder had made certain to repay. Tom had left the ranch suddenly, mumbling something about life being short. Ryder had heard that he'd quit his job as a cattle buyer and traveled north, but he hadn't seen or heard from him since. He would be forever grateful to the man-was glad to see him again-but he was also curious. What had brought Tom back to the Flying K, and with a raging fever, too?
"I ain't going to die, if that's what you're thinking."
Ryder looked at Tom's unnatural color, his fingers halting momentarily as he struggled with the buttons on his wet shirt. His friend's eyes were half lidded and his face red. Ryder replied, "Maybe not, but you made a hell of an entrance. I'm glad to see you, but I wasn't expecting to see you in this shape."
"I've got a fever that managed to get the best of me, but I-"
A bout of coughing interrupted Tom's response, causing Bart and Ryder to exchange glances before Ryder said, "It's more than that, and you know it."
"Maybe so, but I got a job to do, and no fever is going to stop me from doing it."
"I quit my job as a cattle buyer after I left here, you know." His eyes drooping wearily, Tom said, "I took a job up north in the city. The change suited me just fine. I got to move around the country a bit, and to use my brain a little differently."
"You've been traveling, and you only now stopped by?"
"Yeah, well ..." Tom appeared suddenly disoriented. "It ain't been that long, has it?"
Ryder did not respond.
Tom continued, "Anyways, I figured I needed to stop off for a day or so when things started getting mixed up in my head. I need a rest before finishing my assignment."
"Yeah." Tom's smile was halfhearted. "I'm a Pinkerton detective now."
Ryder closed the door behind Doc Martin and watched as the physician hotfooted it toward his buggy. It was still raining, a downpour that hadn't relented for days. The sky was overcast, the ground was saturated, and the situation inside the ranch house was almost as dreary.
He heard Tom call from the bedroom, "You're not going to listen to that old quack, are you?" Interrupted by a bout of heavy coughing, Tom continued breathlessly a few moments later, "I'll be fine tomorrow."
Ryder looked at Bart, silently agreeing when Bart shook his head. Standing in the spare bedroom doorway a few minutes later, Ryder gave his old friend as no-nonsense look. "You have pneumonia, and the doc still hasn't been able to get your fever under control. If you try getting up tomorrow, you won't last a day before you'll be off your feet again-and this time probably for good."
"Trying to scare me, are you, Ryder?"
"Maybe, but everything I said is true."
"I need to finish up the job I started."
"It can wait."
"No, it can't." Glancing away, Tom mumbled under his breath.
"What did you say?"
"I said, I ain't going to give them fellas a chance to say they was right."
"Them fellas that said I was too old for the job."
"What job is that?"
"I told you already. I'm a Pinkerton detective now."
"Right, but that's all you told me."
"It's complicated. Robert Pinkerton sent three Pinkertons out from New York to handle the case. Two of them have already finished their part of the job. Only mine is left. Robert went against a lot of advice by giving me this assignment. He believes in me." A new bout of coughing interrupted him, and then he continued breathlessly, "I'm not too old. Anybody can get sick."
Excerpted from Cry of the Wolf by Elaine Barbieri Copyright © 2008 by Elaine Barbieri. Excerpted by permission.
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