Thursday, April 18, 2013

THE DUDE RANCH MURDERS, by N.A. Vincent, 13th Installment

                                CHAPTER NINE

   When I left Paul I went back into the general lounge area where Deputy Rance Crawford was riding herd on those of the guests who hadn't still gone to bed. He'd been commandeered into the ten to six shift at the Ranch, to see that no one left, and Asa Greer was stationed in the parking lot, keeping the cars under wrap, in case someone decided to sneak out. He'd just showed up unannounced while Paul and me and Victoria were still in the den. I thought, it wouldn't have occurred to them just to round up the keys to all the vehicles---or at least those of the guests--to prevent their leaving, instead of wasting an extra man. But then, on a ranch, you can't do that. You never know when you're going to need a ranch truck.
   Then I laughed to myself. I suppose someone could still make a getaway on a tractor. Or a horse. What'd you do then, lock up all the horses? And the saddles? Dudes weren't much for riding without saddles. Keystone cops. Well, I don't think any murders had happened around here lately, so they were all out of practice as to what they ought to do and not do. But I'm not being fair, am I? Rance was a friend of ours, as were most of the guys to ranchers in the county. We hardly ever had a turnover of deputies in our county. Everyone knew everyone else.
   Georgia Long, the Lightfoots, Ralph Tully and Bob Dixon had retired for the night. Jim slept in the bunkhouse and was never in with the crowds, anyway.
   I thought, myself, again---it was rather silly to leave one deputy to keep an eye on so many people. I didn't have any suggestins as to what else they might do to keep everybody here, short of locking us all in, but still, I had my opinions.
   Richard Del la Cruz stood up. Rance asked him where he was going.
   "To hit the hay. I'd ask you to come along but that's Dixon's line," Richard retorted with a droll grin.
   Rance threw him a dirty look. "Murder isn't funny, hombre." But the look was really in retaliation for the queer remark. Rance was a red-blooded, all American range kid, and had no use for that sort of thing.
   "Never said it was. Look, deputy, I never killed anyone. I came out here to make like the Big Chief, you know--Appaloosas, and all? I got all the babes I need without robbing the cradle, let alone killing one. So how come I have to stay here?"
   He was bluntly sober now. in fact, I'd noticed he'd almost quit drinking since the girl's body was found.
   "Everybody stays, Chief. We can't let anyone go until we're satisfied."
   "Suppose you ain't never satisfied," Del la Cruz remarked facetiously.
   "Then this'll be the longest vacation you ever had," Rance concluded, a dry smirk on his face.
   "I've got to be home next week," Madge Boom said. "I'm a teacher, you know."
   "Look, folks, try just to relax a little. We'll know more in the morning, hopefully, when we finish questioning and checking out everybody. This isn't a picnic for us, either. We aren't exactly getting a lot of cooperation, you know."

   I guess they were all as tired of it as he was. Rance asked me what I knew of Jim.
    I thought of his hands on me that day I slipped and would have fallen if he hadn't caught me. And later, when he kissed me while we were out in the barn.  I didn't know what I felt---confusion, I guess. I didn't want to love Jim--I had my own ideas about love, and what kind of man I wanted. Yet I couldn't deny I wanted Jim---maybe only physically, maybe in some other way. I don't know. I do know he affected me: his look, his manner---whatever it was about him I hated and yet felt drawn to.
   Maybe if I'd met him before now things could have been different. But I was having my own problems. I wasn't ready to give up what I had. Maybe I was attracted to him because he wasn't like other men. He didn't think he was God's gift to women, and he could have been. He let Victoria strictly alone. He was a gentleman. If a man had my love, I don't know that he'd have to be a gentleman. Maybe he'd have to be a little more fun-loving, but serious enough about life that he'd meet it head on and not run away from it. Not like I had the feeling Jim was doing.
   Oh, don't get me wrong. I talk as though I didn't know what love was. I do. But I wouldn't be the first woman who ever fell in love with a man she couldn't have, who belonged to someone else. I knew what it was to hurt with the knowing he'd never be mine.
   I'd managed pretty well to hide what I felt. He didn't even know I loved him and neither did she, and it would have to stay that way. I'd never told Paul about it, either. I know what his reaction would be. I had enough on my mind without that.
   So when Jim Rhodes came along, doing all this stuff to my heart, my thoughts, adding confusion to a life I've always had under control, I thought maybe after all these years I could forget being in love with this other man, and I even hoped--wanted very badly to fall in love with Jim.
   But it didn't help. Jim wasn't in love with me, and wouldn't be. So it didn't help.
   I saw that Rance was waiting.
   "I don't know about Jim Rhodes," I said.
   "What do you mean, you don't know about Jim Rhodes? He works for you. You must know something."
   "He came from Virginia."
   "That's all?"
   "Look, Rance. We don't take life histories of guests who make reservations. He was a guest here. But he was obviously knowledgeable around a working ranch and was great with horses, so Paul hired him to work for us. We never asked questions. He keeps to himself."
   Rance gave me a studied look. "Seems to me, Kate," he said, "You folks got more than your share of odd fish this season."
    "Whatever on earth gave you that idea?" I cracked. I told him I'd be out on the veranda (only we called it "the porch") if he needed me.

   I was surprised when Vikki came up alongside me. She gave me a start, the way she just melted out of those shadows.
   "Aren't you scared to be out here alone at night with a murderer around?" she said. She kind of leaned against the rail, posed, one elbow seeming to support her graceful body.
   "Aren't you?" I retorted.
   "It's spooky," she admitted. "Who do you think killed her?"
   I shrugged. "Who knows? It's all so unreal---I can't imagine anyone being murdered on Sky High. First my folks---"
   "They were murdered? I thought their brakes failed." Vikki interjected quickly.
   "Oh, no--I didn't mean they were murdered. That was an accident. I meant.....death in general. I meant it's hard to imagine people dying here when we started out just for two weeks of fun."
    " She leaned out over the rail, relaxed, both arms folded  and her body bent over. She seemed to be
off to herself somewhere. She said suddenly without facing me, "Kate, have you ever been in love?"
She asked me that so suddenly I was caught off guard.
   I didn't answer. I didn't know Vikki well enough to confide in her. I said, cautiously, "What girl hasn't? I'm no different."
   She was quiet a moment. "Why didn't he marry you?"
   "It's really none of your business, Vikki. If you're going to be my sister-in-law you'd better learn one thing--Stay out of my affairs." I backed off from anything intimate from her. I just wasn't a woman who needed to tell all to other women, no matter who they were. My Mom included.
   "Kate, why do you resent me so much? Is it because of the horse? Or do you think I killed my husband."
   I couldn't understand why she was trying to be so nice. I thought we both understood one another quite well. "I frankly don't care whether you killed your husband or not, Vikki. But I think I know you quite well. Let's put our cards on the table. You have some idea that once you become Paul's wife you're going to undermine my position around here. I don't undermine easily, Vikki."
   Not at all to my surprise, I could see her smile as she turned her face to me. It being dark, I couldn't see her eyes or the look in them. I wasn't fazed, even with her next words. "We'll see, Kate," she said softly. "You think Paul was scared off, don't you? Well, he wasn't. You or nobody else is going to keep Paul from marrying me, Kate. One way or the other. So you might as well realize that I am moving in here and you had better get used to the idea. He's mine, and I won't let him go. One way or the other." She reitterated.
   I looked at her. There was no doubt in my mind she meant what she said.
   She smiled coldly at me and went off down the steps into the dark yard towards the main barn and corrals. 

No comments:

Post a Comment