Sunday, December 30, 2012

THE DUDE RANCH MURDERS: by Sam James, Eighth Installment :


   They hadn't found the teenager yet, and it had been three days. The Sheriff or a deputy had been out almost everyday since then to question the guests and staff.
   Georgia could tell them nothing. She hadn't gotten too well acquainted with the young girl. Of course the question of possible murder was in everyone's mind---Suppose she had gone to meet someone and been murdered, or gone for a walk alone and been waylaid, raped, murdered, or kidnapped? Nothing like any of those things had happened around this country for years.
   She had met Paul when he had been in the Air Force. He'd become her husband's best friend. They'd all been stationed together in the same outfit until Paul had left the service to run his family's ranch. Luke had been a fighter pilot and was killed quite suddenly when his jet malfunctioned and crashed. Her grief had been inconsolable. Then Paul had written and suggested she spend two weeks on the ranch in hopes she would begin to recover from Luke's death. Paul was a good friend, a strong shoulder to lean on, nothing more.
   That night they had walked in the barn and she'd poured her heart and grief out to him. He'd put his arms around her and consoled her and told her it would pass in time. She'd told him how good he was for her, that he'd made her feel much better. She'd been surprised when she had met the woman Paul was to marry. Somehow she'd thought of Paul's marrying a wholesome, outdoor active girl like his sister Kate. With an intuition, she sensed deeper emotions in Victoria Blaine than the woman let people see, and she somehow looked familiar.
   Suddenly she remembered: A few years ago there had been a well-known model who had been indicted for the murder of her husband. Though she'd been acquitted, the scandal had almost ruined her career. Now that she thought about it, Georgia was almost positive that Victoria was that same person.
   The motive was supposed to have been jealousy. Georgia said nothing to Paul about her hunch, only that one remark about Victoria's not understanding.
   Paul had laughed it off, either not realizing or not caring one way or the other about Victoria's jealousy. Paul had never been one to cater to other persons' moods. She hoped Victoria would make him happy, if that's what he wanted. She hoped she was wrong about her.
   She was glad she had come. She felt better since Luke's death than she had at any time. She'd
always loved horses and wanted one of her own, and being here, riding, taking care of her horse, made her forget. She liked to come out after supper and brush the horse she rode, a little blue-splashed mare called Roany, with white socks and a star and a black nose. Tonight she found Roany  in a corral out back. She called the horse as she leaned over the top rail.
   Suddenly someone grabbed her around her waist and began pulling her down from the fence. Instinctively she wrenched free, turning and leaping away, her arm ready to swing. She backed off.
   Ralph Tully's lecherous grin leered at her. She shuddered. There was something unwholesome, something evil about the man.
   "Scared ya, didn't I, hot lips?" he laughed. "You got a nice shape, all right. Nice to feel." His eyes moved deliberately from her face to her breasts and on down her body, greedily undressing every inch.
   She felt color rise to her cheeks. "I'll thank you to keep your hands off me," she said icily.
   "C'mon, baby--cut the act. I seen the way you flirt with McFarland and the redskin. Y're a tart, I know what you want. I seen plenty your kinda women. You flirt 'n' tease'n'taunt an' bedevil a man, but when it comes time to deliver, you're choosy. Well, I ain't." He grinned at her and made an obscene remark about his intentions. He thought he had her cornered, but as he reached for her Georgia was too quick for him. She feigned a duck in one direction but quickly changed directions and darted around him, running for the house, shaking like a leaf.
   She should tell Paul that he had a sex maniac on the place, and no woman was safe.
   She almost collided with Bob Dixon, the detective who'd arrived two days after everyone else, an added guest. He didn't fit a dude ranch, certainly--nor a detective role, either. He was a quiet little man around five feet six, slight of build, thinning hair, a wearer of glasses. His voice and manner were always pleasant, but he'd kept mostly to himself. Several times she'd caught him looking at Paul, or in a conversation with Del La Cruz, or attempting one with Jim Rhodes, who never complied with anyone's attempts to draw him into conversation.
   It dawned on Georgia one day that Bob Dixon might be queer. After that she watched him more. She felt she'd guessed right. The mannerisms, the ways of speech were all there. Though he was polite to the women, it was the men upon whom his attention focused most of the time.
   Good grief, was everyone around here a pervert? Did people actually come to dude ranches seeking sexual prospects? Maybe there was something to Sherri Hilliard's disappearance after all. Maybe Tully'd caught her alone and raped and murdered her and hid the body!
   "Mrs. Long--You look frightened! Is something wrong?" Dixon inquired. He seemed genuinely concerned.
   "Only that Tully! He tried to accost me! I think he's some kind of sex fiend or something. Some pervert, or something! " Her fright had taken a hike. Now she was just plain angry.
   "Well really, Mrs. Long," Dixon said sternly, his eyes suddenly piercing vessels of condemnation, "You can hardly blame the man for attempting something. After all, you've been flaunting yourself quite openly."
   Georgia's mouth fell open. Criticism from this guy? Suddenly she came to her senses. She laughed shortly at how ridiculous that remark was, coming from a guy like him. She brushed past him and went up the steps into the house. Whatever had made her think she'd get any sympathy from him--a pervert himself! Only a pervert would defend another pervert!!
   The Lightfoots were in the lounge, and Georgia joined them. They were an older couple in their sixties. She liked being around them.They were both young at heart and didn't drag around like so many older people did.
   Eva Strong came in while they were talking. Georgia was in the middle of a conversation about Ralph Tully's bad habits. "So he tried it with you too, huh?" Eva said, lighting a cigarette and making herself comfortable. "It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he had something to do with that girl's disappearance. He made a pass at me and Joe walked in and gave him something to think about.
   "We came up here because we've never been on a dude ranch before and thought it would be fun. Paul's nice and Kate's great and most of the guests are neat to be around. But that Tully gives me the creeps! And I'll grant you ten to one that Dixon's a queer if I ever saw one!"
   Georgia laughed. "That's funny--I thought the same thing!"
   The Lightfoots did not exactly enjoy the sexual talk. They excused themselves and went outside for a walk.
   Eva Strong glanced at Georgia. For all the woman's manner, she seemed a decent sort. Some women couldn't help being themselves, and that was Georgia. It must be hard to lose your husband.
Joe had his faults but he was not a womanizer. He didn't flirt, either. Maybe he was just an average, dull man who didn't provide much excitement to her life anymore, but he was hers and all she had, and she'd certainly never have to worry about an affair.
   She felt rather sorry for Patty Vickers. The girl obviously didn't know she shouldn't encourage attention from a man like Ralph Tully.
   This dude ranch vacation, in fact, was providing a little spice to their lives. It was interesting--reading these people, deciphering their intentions and speculations.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

THE DUDE RANCH MURDERS, 7th installment


     I was the first to be informed that Sherry Hilliard was missing. Her roommate Patty came downstairs earlier than usual that morning and I could tell she was upset even before she spoke.
   "Kate, i'm worried. Sherri went out somewhere last nighnt and never came back. Her bed hasn't been slept in all night."
   "Are you sure? She probably just got up earlier than usual and is already outside," I said. We encouraged our guests to use first names and rotated places at meals so that everyone would have the opportunity to get acquainted and remember the time they spent here as more than just a two-week vacation on a dude ranch.
   "I don't think so. She left this." She showed me a note, which I took from her and read. She had reason to be concerned, but I needed to be certain. "When did you find this?"
   "When I came in the room last night. I tried to wait up for her but I fell asleep and slept until morning. The note was where she left it and so is her bed and jams. Her bed hasn't been slept in all night--nothing's changed! Something's happened to her--I just know it!"
   She tried to keep from crying and she couldn't keep the fear out of her eyes.
   I tried to reassure her we'd do everything we could to find out if Sherri was really missing of if she was just off somewhere and had neglected to let anyone know. I didn't really believe this myself. Nothing like this had ever happened to us before. Nobody had ever just disappeared like that. She had to be close. This wasn't the kind of country town folks wandered around in--especially at night, but I didn't mention anything that might alarm her more.

    I met Jim leading two horses towards the barn to be reshod. When he saw my look of concern he
stopped and turned, expectantly. "Yes, ma'am?"
   "Jim, did you see Sherri Hilliard after dinner last night?"
   "Why yes Ma'am, I did. I passed her as I was coming up the porch."
   "Did she say where she was going?"
   "No Ma'am, not s'peciffically. She just said she was going for a short walk out by the corrals. I let it go at that."
   Jim irritated me. It was always "Yes, Ma'am, No Ma'am, or whatever," in that polite way Southerners have that drives you up the walls because they say as little as possible to your face while inside they're either laughing at you or despising you or thinking you a fool.
    Yet I was drawn to him. I think because the man made himself such a mystery.
   His eyes peered lazily into mine. "Something wrong, Ma'am?"
  "You could sure say that, yes: She appears to be missing. Which means we'll have to call off the ride today and everything else to organize a search.
  "As if we didn't have enough soap opera drama around here!" I muttered as I turned away and went in search of Paul. We had to drop everything to get a search going. Of course we had to bring the guests in on it whether we wanted to or not. We needed every hand we had to get on it right away. So we all, guests and staff, made a thorough search of the area, barns, sheds, outbuildings, even rode out to survey the surrounding hills within walking distance  and found....exactly nothing.

   Which meant the Sheriff had to be called in. By that time it was coming on to night and there was no searching anything in these western hills at night, and the deputies wouldn't even get out here until too late to look anymore today. I was informed they'd be out first light, in the meantime if she showed up, call.
    As the day dragged on, a sort of fear and apprehension crept over everybody, you could feel it, and people kept calling her name and looking and we had to finally tell them to stay close to the house when night fell.
   In the meantime, I had the unpleasant task of calling her mother to tell her we couldn't find her daughter.
   And nobody slept a wink that night.