Thursday, October 25, 2012

THE DUDE RANCH MURDERS: 3rd installment

  We had seemed to atrtract an unusual number of predators this year: Richard Del la Cruz looked part Indian or Spanish. He drank a lot, flirted a lot, kidded a lot and passed out a lot.  We weren't pleased to have him on the place at all, because we felt he drank too much. The ladies, however, were all delighted. He had a convincing line, I'll have to admit--and lots of charm.
  Unless you'd heard it all before.
  The widow, Georgia Long, arrived after those others. Her open honesty won me to her immediately, but as the days wore on I could see a sad thing somewhere in her depths; at times she seemed almost frightened and insecure. She was a good rider, though, and honest....a little too honest sometimes. She was an attractive, honey-blonde woman around forty. She was the only one of the female guests who could get any kind of reaction out of Jim Rhodes when she talked to him. The others flirted, connived, put on acts and everything else under the sun to get him to notice them. He didn't. Except with her. Maybe it was because she didn't coyly flirt with him, or try to make a play. I sensed more it was because he felt sorry for her than anything else.
  At SkyHigh, guests, owners, and hired hands all eat together at a long plank table. We all relax together in the Frontier Room, which anybody can use at anytime. The hired help live upstairs like the guests, unless they choose otherwise to live in the bunkhouse down by the creek that empties into the lake by the house. They come and go as they like on their own time. We find we keep help a lot easier that way. They don't quit on us and go elsewhere next season. We trust them like family and try to treat our guests that way, too.
   With this bunch it was hard. Our policy, once we'd had a guest who didn't fit in, was to be "full up" next season if that person wrote wanting to come back. It might not've been too fair a policy, but it worked for us.

   When Paul told me Victoria was coming out to the ranch for a couple of weeks, I had to ask, "As a paying guest?"
   He looked at me. "As my guest, sis. She's going to be my wife. She might as well get a taste of how she'll be living--and what's expected of her."
   I laughed.
   He looked at me as if to say, What's that for?
   "I can just see Victoria with a pitchfork in her lily-soft hands. Probably the only time she ever used one was in that hay ad she did on that commercial. She probably doesn't even know what they're for!"
   Paul threw me a dark look. "You can be awfully petty sometimes, Merrilee." I knew he wasn't too happy or he wouldn't've called me Merrilee. My middle name is Katrina, and I've been called Kate since I was a little girl. Paul always says Merrilee when he's disgusted with me.
   "Well, I just think you could've done better than Victoria Blane--She's mancrazy and she's jealous, and that's a bad combination. She wants her cake and eat it too."
   "I don't see it that way. When you find somebody you love, you'll see it differently." Now he was trying to be reasonable.
   I thought, I've already found somebody I love, only----I broke off my thoughts. There was no use thinking about it at all. I couldn't have this man and he could never have me. I was only a friend to him, that was all. And there was more.....only---.

   I went on down to the stables. Paul was going in after Victoria and this was my turn to stake out the trail riders.
   This being the first ride, everyone was going. Jim Rhodes had asked if he could ride the big black gelding, Chief. Usually that's the horse Paul rides, but when Paul had seen how good Jim rode, he said Jim could use Chief anytime Paul wasn't. We'd decided Jim would ride drag (at the end of the line of tenderfeet) and I'd lead, since Jim didn't yet know all the trails. We'd be a team, and Paul and Bud would team together.
   Victoria didn't ride and hinted she didn't intend to, so we'd have no help there. We worked each team every other day, never taking the same trail twice in that two week period. In the mountains there is no end to places you can ride. We did have our routine, though, and switched off days with every new group so the same team would not be riding the same trails all the time.
   Jim learned the trails real quick. He had a knack for landmarks, and knowing where we were. Once, later on, I jokingly told him if I didn't know better, this being the Twentieth Century and all, I'd think he was some cowboy right out of the Old West.
   He just looked at me--almost like he was observing--and said, "You like to joke a lot, don't you?"
   Well, this set me back a little, kind of made me mad, too. Anything I can't stand is sombody with no sense of humor. "So what?" I almost sneered at him.
   I didn't like the way he was looking at if I were a window and he could see clear through me.
   "Nothing," he shrugged, as if suddenly deciding he'd said too much. "Only sometimes people who joke a lot are hiding things."
   I regained my cool. Let him talk. This was the first time he'd said anything to me that wasn't business.
   "I could say the same about you," I said, "and you don't joke at all." I glanced at the guests. They were all stiff and trying to relax as much as they could on this brief stopover, before they had to climb back in their saddles again and continue on. For the most part, they were talking among themselves and enjoying the mountain air and scenery.
   Jim stroked the black's neck. He'd loosened the cinch, eased the saddle and pad back to let air on Chief's back, and now rubbed the wet area. "So you think I'm hiding something." His green eyes stared directly into mine. I couldn't quite read that look. He was kind of spooky, really, handsome as he was. He gave me a shivering feeling whenever he looked at me like that. I hadn't known him long, yet he could affect me so easily.
   "If you are that's your business," I said, "And if I am, that's mine." I tightened my cinch and led my white mare a couple of steps forward, getting ready to mount. Misty was half Arab, half Walking Horse. She was tall and graceful, with the beautiful dish face and the head of the Arab, except her face was long, like the Walking Horse. She was kind, intelligent, a good mountain horse and a pleasure to ride.
   She was all mine. Nobody rode her except me.

   What I said about Victoria, about her not wanting to ride--she even had me fooled.
   The next day while the trail ride was out I took a moment to go on out to the small pasture I kept Misty in and she wasn't there. Mad as the devil, I checked her tack. It was gone.
   I found Jim in the barn cleaning out stalls. "Where's my horse?!" I flared angerily. I could feel the color rising to my cheeks. I hd no reason to be angry at Jim, but I couldn't seem to hold it back.
   He leaned on the pitchfork, looked all around himself and the stall and said dryly, "Well it's
quite obvious I'm not riding her." Then he looked straight at me again, all amusement gone from his manner.
   "Then who is?" I demanded, his attitude making me madder by the minute.
   "For a pretty woman, you've sure got a temper." He went back to mucking the stall, without waiting for me to flare up. "You're brother saddled her for his fiance."
   "Without my permission?
   "He wiped sweat from his brow with his denim shirt sleeve. He could see how mad I still was. I should have had sense enough, though, to see he didn't want to get involved. Instead, I stood there angerily waiting. He stopped again and stood straight, looking me through with those deep green eyes of his. I'd never seen eyes so green.
   "What do you want me to say, Miss McFarland? Your brother's my boss. If his fiance insists on "that pretty white horse' (here his voice mimiced hers) and no other---I'm supposed to tell her she can't, with him standing there approving?"
   I felt oddly defeated. She had no right to my horse. I'd had Misty since she was a foal, trained her myself. She was mine, and Victoria was not going to have her.
   "I'm sorry, I seem always to be getting mad at you." But inside, I was still seething. She was not going to come here and take over.
   This ranch and business was half mine, this was my home, and she was not going to connive her way into running things.   

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