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.

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