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Copyright © Robin Gideon 2014. All Rights Reserved, Total-E-Ntwined Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
“We’ve got to put an end to this rustling here and now,” Riley Raymond said, sitting easily upon his roan mare, his hands crossed over the saddle horn.
He was a big man, several inches over six feet tall. Broad in the shoulders and across the chest, powerful in the thighs, his naturally muscular physique had been honed and hardened by countless hours in the saddle. His black hair, now dusted prematurely at the temples with silver, was parted on the side and combed back, curling just over the collar of his jacket. Square-jawed, with a prominent nose, Riley Raymond had a mouth that could be fierce or friendly, depending upon his mood and the company he was with.
“It’s not having my cattle stolen that I can’t afford,” Riley said, continuing his conversation with the sheriff. “In truth, unless someone tells me that another dozen head have been rustled, I’d never know it. What I simply can’t afford is to have the word get out that I’m vulnerable, that I can have my cattle stolen right out from under my nose and I don’t do a damned thing about it.”
Riley Raymond was one of the wealthiest men in the territory—at thirty-four, certainly the wealthiest of his age—so a crime against him called for proper action.
Ignoring criminal activity always set a bad example for the padfoots, rowdies and rustlers in Whitetail Creek. And whenever the criminal element felt emboldened to steal from the wealthy, the sheriff’s job always became more difficult. In addition, men like Riley Raymond, by nature of their wealth and social standing, had a powerful influence over the sheriff’s life. When their private ponds rippled, Sheriff Perkins always felt a tidal wave.
“I want the best tracker money can buy,” Riley stated quietly.
There was steely resolve in Riley’s tone. The sheriff’s horse seemed to sense the thinly controlled rage and pranced a few nervous steps.
“It’ll be done,” the sheriff replied, speaking for the first time in many minutes. “But why not let someone else ride after the rustlers? It would be a hell of a lot safer. Besides, you’ve got to have fifty good men on your payroll you can send out.”
“I want to handle this myself,” Riley said. “It sets a good example for the rest of the men to know that I wouldn’t ask anything of them that I wouldn’t do myself.”
“No telling how violent these men might be,” Sheriff Perkins replied. “Apprehending cattle rustlers is gritty, dangerous business. Seems like a job best left to Red-Eye Philo and Billy Friday.”
“Philo and Billy are good men,” Riley agreed, “but I’ll need them at the ranch while I’m gone.”
Riley turned his horse around to return to his ranch.
The sheriff said, “I’ll meet you at my office tonight at six o’clock.”
“Get the best talent money can buy.” Riley smiled. “I like riding with the best. That’s why I like riding with you.”
Then, without waiting for an acknowledgment of the rare compliment, Riley tapped his heels to the mare and rode off at a canter, secure in the knowledge that when he arrived at the sheriff’s office at six o’clock, the finest tracker would be waiting there for him. After that, the apprehension of the men responsible for stealing his cattle would only be a matter of time.
The sheriff’s office for Whitetail Creek was on the northeast corner of the city, far from being centrally located in the cattle town. The jail had first been constructed to deal with the rising violence and lawlessness that came with the itinerant cowboys who passed through town. None of the city’s leaders had been able to accurately guess how fast, large or in which direction the city would grow.
Riley was pleased to see a pinto tied to the hitching post outside the sheriff’s office. It probably meant that Sheriff Perkins had the tracker waiting inside. Never concerned about the sheriff’s ability to find the best man for the job, he was nevertheless reassured to know that the sheriff understood the severity of the situation and that nothing should stand in the way of putting an end to the rustling. After three rustlings that spring, it was time to put the thieves behind bars.
Before dismounting, Riley paused a moment to look up and down the street. A single-horse buckboard passed. Lola Jamison and her new husband were headed into town to do their trading. For only an instant, Lola’s gaze met Riley’s. They exchanged a smile of passionate memories shared. Two springs earlier, Riley and Lola had been lovers, and had separated with no hard feelings. Lola had wanted a husband, and Riley just wasn’t on the marriage market.
Just before the buckboard crossed out of view, Riley’s gaze was drawn from Lola’s soft blue eyes to her husband’s eyes. They were hard and dangerous. Perhaps no one else in Whitetail Creek knew that at one time Riley and Lola had been lovers, but her husband did. And it rankled his nerves.
Priding himself on his discretion, Riley believed that any man who boasted of his sexual conquests was only half a man and three-quarters a liar. But Lola’s husband knew and, though the passion had begun and ended long before he’d ever met Lola or heard of the infamous cattle rancher Riley Raymond, the resentment still bubbled hot and venomous in his soul, burning in the gaze he turned towards Riley.
Riley swung down from his mare. Not especially interested in the husband’s thoughts, Riley still hoped the memories Lola carried with her for those days long past were gentle and kind.
Before stepping onto the boardwalk, Riley looked up and down the bustling street outside the sheriff’s office. Every time he came to town, it seemed it had grown, expanding almost invisibly. More men milling about with nothing to do, looking for a job to make money for the grubstake necessary to get out of city, or looking for a victim to steal that money from—and more new shops and businesses going up every day, with more employees and more customers.
Riley waited a second or two, looking around the new urban chaos into faces both strange and familiar, which reminded him why he’d hired Patrick Jayson as his attorney—to handle his ‘town problems’. Truthfully, Riley disliked coming into Whitetail Creek. He felt edgy, anxious. Always on the side of action, he wished it were possible to leave immediately to track the rustlers.
Riley tipped his hat and gave the slightest hint of a bow to the widow Barker as she walked along the new boardwalk and passed him. Then he entered Sheriff Perkins’s newly remodelled and expanded jail.
A woman was half sitting on the sheriff’s desk, smiling down at Sheriff Perkins, apparently amused at something he’d just said. Her hair, waist-length, absolutely straight and as black as a raven’s feathers, was parted down the middle, hiding though not diminishing the beauty of her skin, which was dark-hued, burnished both by the sun and parentage. Her sleeveless dress, made of deerskin—its two large pieces of leather sewn together with a zigzagged thong of leather at each side—came down well past her knees. The garment, even by the pioneer standards of a cattle town, would have been deemed indecent, even positively scandalous, because the leather stitching holding the halves together ran only from beneath the arm to the hip. With the young woman, her shapely thigh was exposed to Riley’s gaze, left him mute and motionless despite his considerable—and, in some circles, very nearly legendary—experience with women.
“Hello, Riley,” Sheriff Perkins said, rising from his chair with a coy smile on his face. “There’s someone here I’d like you to meet.”
Riley tore his gaze away from the young woman for only an instant to look at the sheriff, then looked back again. When she turned her face towards him, he was startled by eyes that shimmered like wet onyx jewels, dark and fathomless. The sheriff’s visitor looked to be of the Cheyenne tribe and, Riley guessed, something else—one of the many souls of mixed blood in the territory. Riley pegged her immediately as a poor lost creature that had come to the sheriff in a vain attempt to seek redress for some unforgivable wrong that had been foisted upon her or her people by white settlers.
“I’ll just wait outside until you’re done,” Riley replied, already turning back towards the door.
“Don’t go,” Sheriff Perkins said quickly.
There was something unusual in the sheriff’s voice that stopped Riley. He looked back at his old friend, then towards the young woman who had slipped off the desk to stand with her feet spread to shoulder’s width, hands upon shapely, trim hips as though anticipating the need for a show of strength.
“What’s going on, Josiah?” Riley asked, using the sheriff’s first name publicly for one of the few times since the sheriff had taken office three years earlier.
“You said you wanted the best tracker in the territory,” the sheriff replied. “So I’ve brought her to you. Riley Raymond, I’d like you to meet Fox Spirit. Fox, this is Riley.”
Too dumbfounded to speak, Riley took another look at the young woman. He had absolutely no idea what he was supposed to say.
Putting a wary smile on her lips, the young woman stepped forward, extending her hand to Riley in greeting.