Madge Boom loosened the cinch on her mare's saddle like Paul had showed her. They were resting the horses on a slope of the mountain meadow. It sure was pretty up here.
She could almost be at peace with herself, yet not quite. There was always the anxiety, the worry--the hope that something would happen or someone would come along to change the terrible, monotonous lonliness of her life. She knew she was unattractive because of her overweight....But shouldn't her personality count for something? She loved children and she was a good teacher who really cared about them as individuals. She saw through their fears, their hopes, their anxieties and their hurts and lonliness---because she identified them with her own childhood.
It was awful not to be loved, to not be wanted.
No one wanted her.
On the ride up here, she had found herself alongside Richard Del La Cruz. They had talked some. It was hard to tell how old he was. His prominent Indian features projected a rugged, confidant, not unattractive image. She could picture him easily charging across the prairies in warpaint and bonnet on a pinto horse, avenging the lost freedom stolen from his people.
She wondered why he drank so much.
He was a Canadian, a man with a large frame and big hands. He spoke French, and when he discovered Madge did too, they began to get better acquainted.
Madge sat down on the slope and glanced at Paul McFarland. It seemed strange to her that Dixon always seemed to maneuver himself wherever Paul was.
She liked Paul McFarland and found him a pleasant, easy-going yet hard-working man. Not like the southerner, Jim Rhodes, who took them out somedays. Jim was polite, never less than a gentleman, but there was an untouchable quality about him that never tolerated intrusion.
Paul made the rides so much more exciting, and Kate, too. Kate seemed so charming, and to enjoy her position as hostess. A strong-willed girl, yet she had a quality about her that people could admire.
She turned as Richard sat down beside her. He didn't ask if she minded. He held the reins of his horse loosely. Everyone else was resting, snacking, talking. She saw he was looking at Bob Dixon. Paul was listening politely to something Dixon was saying.
"Funny little guy," she said.
Richard snorted, a sound of disgust. "In more ways than one," he said. "A queer one--, and I don't mean odd."
"Kind of disgusting," she said.
"Him and that Tully," he mused, then brightened. "They should lock them both up together!" He laughed. "Funny they should both show up on the same dude ranch at the same time. Then that girl turns up missing."
"What do you think happened to her?"
He shrugged. "Hard to say. Teenagers are always running away.Maybe she hoofed it down the road to the highway and thumbed a one way ticket out of here. Or maybe out of life, for all I know."
"She was a little flirt. Maybe she flirted with the wrong person."
"She didn't mean nothing by it. Everybody flirts."
"I don't," Madge said. She wasn't being critical in her judgment, only open, as she always was. She sometimes felt her openness drove people away. It wasn't something she wanted to change, or to sacrifice just to have male companions.
"Why don't you?" His eyes played with hers, challenging her to as herself why.
She looked away. No one had ever been quite so frank about the subject before.
"You scared of being rejected? Hell, Madge, there ain't none of us hasn't been rejected by somebody. You've got to learn not to care."
"Is that why you drink so much?"
He shrugged and lit a cigarette. "Hell, I dunno why I drink. Maybe I just like the stuff!" He laughed again in that abrupt way he had. "It sure ain't because I don't want folks to lose their stereotyped ideas of us drunken Indians!"
"I don't think that about Indians," she said seriously, ignoring his attempt at humor. "Or any other race. As a matter of fact I get kind of sad sometimes that the so-called minority races are so took with the idea that all white people hate them they never give me as an individual a chance! I don't hate anybody. I hate habits people have, like homosexuality, or pettiness, or greed---but I never hated anyone....not even skinny people," she added with a grin.
"Some men like fat women," he said, the laugh crinkles playing around his eyes, a twinkle gathering in their depths.
Madge blushed. She sensed he was actually flirting with her. They both looked up as Paul came over. "How'r you two doing?" he asked. He was leading his horse, turning to tighten the cinch.
"Faring better than you," Richard grinned.
Paul looked at him.
"Dixon." Del LaCruz nodded towards Bob Dixon, who had already climbed on his horse and was waiting for the others in the process of mounting up.
Paul turned red. He was naive in some ways and hadn't wanted to believe that the attentions of the little man were what he was beginning to suspect. He was a healthy, redblooded American male with normal male appetites, and the thought of such a thing as the abnormal lust of one man for another appalled and sickened him. He could handle a lot of things, but was actually embarassed that such inordinate affection should be focused on him. In the service he had left the known homosexuals strictly alone, even treated them with ridicule and scorn to assure they kept their distance from him.
Now, to have suddenly discovered one as a guest on his own ranch further added to the problems and perplexities of this season's work.
As they mounted and he led them off up the trail, he couldn't help thinking about the way things were going lately. Maybe it had started with his parents' deaths--peculiar to say the least. His folks had driven that road thirty years without mishap, and suddenly an icy curve had taken their lives. It was thought his father fell asleep at the wheel, because there had been no skid marks. It had been late, and his dad had been unusually tired that morning when he and Mom had left for town.
He had thought Kate would be inconsolable--but Kate had carried her grief well and squared her shoulders and took up the reins as their father had always taught them. She was more like dad, and he himself more easy-going and less stringent, like Mom had been.
He wondered why Kate had never married. He knew men who'd asked her, men who'd wanted to. Maybe she'd never fallen in love with the right guy. Now, though, it looked as if she had eyes for Rhodes--a good man in Paul's judgment.
He thought about his own love for Victoria. Sometimes he was afraid of it, questioning his own depth of feeling. He liked women too well to keep himself check-reined, yet he felt he loved her enough that he could be a faithful husband. But he would not change his ways for her or any other woman. It was fun to flirt; it gave him immense pleasure and women liked it. Vikki's jealousy bothered him. He'd at first not even known she was a jealous woman, and gradually small indications of that trait had shown themselves. He knew enough about women to know they were zealous of their possessions, and some considered their men their possessions.
He'd not be any woman's possession. Looking at it this way, he suddenly realized why Kate had gotten so mad because he'd let Vikki ride Misty. Misty was her possession, and he'd infringed upon her right. He should have known better.
The problem of Vikki's jealousy was the least of his problems at the moment: The disappearance of a teenage girl under his care bothered him more than he let on, and to be compounded by a queer on the make and an apparent sex fiend like Tully grabbing at every female on the place was a little too much. Well, he could fix that problem easily enough. He would have already handed both of them their money back and given them their walking papers, (and don't come back, thank you)-- except for one thing: The law wouldn't let anybody leave.
Lord almighty, though--he didn't know what to do about the girl! God--he hoped she'd just took off and didn't turn up dead somewhere on the ranch!
As he brought the dudes back in to the ranch yard, Rhodes met him in the unsaddling corral.
"Somethng you ought to know, Mr. McFarland," he spoke quietly, as he always did, so that the guests could not overhear.
Paul listened as yet another problem reared its ugly head as Rhodes stated, "The horses won't eat their grain. They hardly touched it this morning."
"Maybe it's just a bad batch," Paul muttered more to himself than to Rhodes, thinking, What in the hell else can go wrong? "It was only delivered last week, for cryin' out loud!" As if I haven't got enough worries on my hands, he muttered to himself. "Did you check the bin?"
"This morning." Rhodes' look told him there was more.
Rhodes glanced around without seeming to be deliberate about it, then squarely back to Paul.
"I think there's something dead buried in it."
That proved to be an understatement. Paul unsaddled and turned out his horse and went with Jim Rhodes up to the grain bin in the haymow. He hadn't been up since the bin was filled. Levers from below controlled feeding amounts and there was no need to check anything unless the grain flow hung up. They kept a lot of cats to keep down the rodent population, and the bin was kept covered except when being filled. A family of barn owls also lived high in the rafters. To that, the cats fended for themselves.
When they opened the cover, the smell of something dead strongly permeated the top layer of grain.
They grabbed shovels and began to dig, careful not to enter the bin itself. Paul's shovel struck something. As he began to uncover whatever it was, and a decaying foot came into view, he cried in horror, "Migod!"--and heaved on the spot.
There was no need to wonder anymore what had become of Sherri Hilliard.
The murdered had been found.