Authors: Shirl Henke
"For such large-scale losses, the thieves must be doing more than separating calves from their mothers and slapping a running iron on them," Jess said.
"Last week they ran off a whole herd on Fork Creek." Jacobson's eyes blazed with anger.
"I had some calves taken, too. That always goes on in spring when the cows drop em," Cy said philosophically, then added, "But what Marcus is havin', why it's real bad. They're cutting out whole herds."
"Papa, you never told me it was this serious." Lissa leaned forward and tilted her head at her father.
The men had almost forgotten her presence during their discussion. Now Marcus wiped his mouth with a snowy linen napkin and rose, then walked over to his daughter's chair. "Lissa, you shouldn't worry about such things. Let the menfolk handle it. Now, young lady, we have to talk lots of boring stock business. I'm certain the gentlemen will forgive you if you excuse yourself and go up to your room." His eyes narrowed on her sternly, indicating that she had pushed him as far as he was willing to allow.
Sighing, Lissa recognized that hard expression. Much as she would have liked to continue the sparring with Jesse Robbins and learn exactly how a range detective went about his job, she knew her father would not permit it. She stood up when Marcus pulled back her chair and bade the men good night, then kissed her father on the cheek.
As she turned to leave she said, "It was really a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Robbins." Her eyes danced with devilment.
Jess watched Lissa swish away, leaving behind the subtle hint of her perfume.
That woman is going to be nothing but trouble.
Once Jacobson returned to his seat, the men broke out expensive cigars. The waiter poured fine aged bourbon and set the bottle on the table, then quickly cleared the dishes, leaving them alone to conduct business.
"You wired me, Mr. Jacobson. Are you an agent for the Association?"
"No. I'm hiring you myself, but since these men's spreads adjoin mine—and since Lem here is almost a part of the family as well as president of the Association, I felt they had a stake in what we do."
"Fair enough. I get three hundred a month and keep while I'm working. If I stop the rustling I get a bonus. Five thousand for the whole job."
Evers whistled low, the Scot grunted, and Mathis coughed. All three looked at Jacobson expectantly.
"Hell, you get rid of those damned cow thieves. I'll pay it."
Jess nodded, then continued his questioning. "Any chance these rustlers are helped by someone working for you?" His eyes moved from Jacobson to Evers to MacFerson.
Cy Evers was adamant. "I know ever one of my boys and they's good loyal hands. Worked for me for years."
"I hire a lot of grub-line drifters every year, but I doubt they're in with cattle thieves," the Scot replied. His face and voice betrayed a faint grimace, as if he were perpetually sucking on a persimmon.
Marcus considered the problem. "I'd hate to think it. Known most of my hands since they were slick ears, but I run such a big operation. There are always new men signing on. Since I'm the main target... could be."
"Have your ramrod assign any men you aren't sure of to chores close in. That way I can watch them easier." Jess scraped back his chair and rose. "I think that about takes care of things for now. I'll ride to your ranch as soon as you're ready."
The others also stood up. "I'll need several days in town, but I can get a couple of my boys to ride back with you, say day after tomorrow," Jacobson replied.
"Good. I'll be waiting."
As Jess turned away, Mathis added, "Oh, Robbins, you'd better be good. Damn good. Five thousand is what Horn charges."
Jess locked stares with the shorter man. "You lobbying for Tom Horn, why not hire him? He's available, so I heard."
"Because I heard you were better," Marcus interjected. "Don't disappoint me."
* * * *
Dreams haunted Lissa's twilight world between wakefulness and oblivion. Dreams of a darkly handsome face with a blinding white smile and wicked silver eyes that mocked her. She heard his voice, rough and gravelly, whispering low, taunting her. He laughed huskily.
Lissa bolted upright. That was no dream. The voices were coming from the alley below her room. She threw off the quilt and slid into her velvet wrapper as she quickly crossed the thick carpet to the open window. She drew up the shade and peered through the lace curtains.
Jesse Robbins's voice drifted up to her, mingled with the higher yet sensuous chuckle of a woman.
"Hell, it's been too long, Cammie."
"I couldn't believe my eyes,
, when you walked into the music hall. You never change, Jess—only grow more wicked." More low, husky laughter floated up on the still night air.
Lissa strained her eyes, looking through the darkness to where the two figures were entwined in the shadows below. The woman was small and dark-haired, wearing a fantastical costume made of some glittering red material, perhaps sequins. It was cut low, revealing an ample bosom and milky shoulders, barely swathed in a fluffy feather wrap.
She ought to freeze wearing no more than that on a Wyoming night!
But the woman called Cammie was far from freezing as she pressed her breasts against Robbins's chest. "You're still a furnace,
, no matter this thin air."
"It's not warm like El Paso was," he said drily as he nibbled at her neck.
She buried her fingers in his shaggy hair and pulled him closer. "Ah, so you remember El Paso, eh?"
Lissa could see the gleam reflected in her big dark eyes as Cammie turned her face into the moonlight, dropping her head back to allow Jess access to her throat and breasts. The feather wrap floated to the ground as she held him tightly. Her eyes closed in bliss as he cupped a breast, then reached inside the low gown and fondled it.
A low, feral growl escaped him as he claimed her mouth in a rapacious kiss. Lissa could see their lips open and then meld together.
Why their tongues must be ... !
A strange hot flush stole over her, radiating from her face in a relentlessly lowering path, swelling her breasts, tightening the nipples, then clenching her stomach and washing through her belly until it pooled thickly between her legs.
Her throat was dry. She darted her tongue out to lick her lips as she watched the lovers kiss. He seemed to be hurting the woman, but not hurting her, as his mouth ground down over hers and he bent her backward over one arm. Cammie kissed him back with relish, moaning deep in her throat and clawing at his shirt until she had it unfastened and could reach inside.
Lissa's fingers came up unconsciously and touched her lips, rimming them as she watched Jess do the same to Cammie with his tongue. Her breath came in unsteady gasps as she stared down into the alley, mesmerized. They were behaving like lust-crazed animals. In spite of her father's attempts to shield her, Lissa had seen bulls and stallions service cows and mares. This avid tearing at each other was not all that different. It should repel, not excite her. What was wrong with her?
Suddenly, Jesse broke off the rough kiss and held Cammie at arm's length. "You had better come to my room,
, before I take you right here in the mud."
Cammie laughed. "It would not be the first time. Are you certain I won't cause you to be evicted from the hotel?"
"No one will evict me," he said raggedly. She reached down and scooped up the feather wrap just before he swept her up into his arms. He carried her toward the side entrance to the hotel, the feathers floating behind them as they vanished with an echo of soft laughter.
Lissa stared into the moonlit alley, her eyes wide, unseeing. Her mind pictured what Jesse Robbins was doing to the painted actress, undressing her, running his dark hands over her flesh, caressing her breasts. Kissing her deeply with his lips and tongue. But what came after that?
Her eyes closed and heat scorched her face as she tried to imagine him standing before her naked, but she could only envision his face and upper body, not the rest that had been covered in the water of the bathtub. She had seen the great ugly staffs of the stud bulls and stallions. Surely a man was not built like that! A shiver of excitement raced along her spine as she pulled down the shade and turned toward her big lonely bed.
Sinking down onto it, she imagined Jesse laying a woman across it and covering her with his body. But it was not the dark-haired music hall doxy. The woman was her, lying beneath him, clasping him to her and feeling the rasp of his whiskers against the soft skin of her face and neck. She reached up to touch the hard expanse of his chest, but found only cold, empty air.
With a sob, she rolled over and pounded the pillows. "What is wrong with me? I've never thought such a vulgar thing before in my life." Her whisper hung in the still, empty room. Tears clogged her throat and spilled from beneath her lashes. Lissa wiped them away, mortified by her emotional response almost as much as she had been by her fantasy.
"I won't let that arrogant beast affect me this way. I simply won't," she vowed resolutely. If she had half of St. Louis worshipping at her feet, surely she could get the better of one half-breed gunman.
Jesse Robbins would probably be eager to earn his pay and start chasing rustlers as soon as possible. Her father planned to remain in town for a couple of days, attending to Association business. How could she contrive to ride home with the gunman? Smiling, she relaxed and leaned back against the pillows to lay her plans.
Lissa surveyed the open country rising before them in rolling waves of thick, newly greened grama grass. In the west, the Medicine Bow Mountains rose jagged against the skyline. The warm breeze was redolent with the scent of damp, fecund earth. Spring had come to the high plains. But her mind was not on the spectacular scenery or the promise of a beautiful day. She stared at Jesse Robbins's back, fuming.
Here I've given up a week in Cheyenne and for what!
Getting her father to allow her to return to the ranch with Robbins and several of the other hands had been easy. She had packed up one of her new dresses and explained to Marcus that it was a gown Cridellia Evers was considering for the spring roundup party. Mrs. Durbin had asked that she bring it to the valley so Cridellia could ride from the nearby spread and try it on.
When she had shown up at the livery stable that morning, Robbins had been ready to leave, mounted on his blaze-faced black. He wore a pair of snug-fitting soft denims and a dark red shirt with a leather vest over it, and of course the low-slung Colt. With the broad-brimmed hat shadowing his face, he looked almost satanic as his eyes blazed silver and narrowed on her. He had not been pleased to have her returning to the ranch with their small party and made the fact quite plain, issuing only a curt good morning and the admonition that she had better be prepared to ride hard.
Over an hour had passed as they pushed west. Jess seemed intent on ignoring her while they rode. She retreated into a pouting silence—which affected him not at all. He turned and rode past her to talk with the hand in charge of the pack animals at the rear of their group. As the sun beat down warmly on her back, Lissa turned over various ideas in her mind to get his attention.
Rob Ostler, one of the young hands, pulled up beside her and engaged her in shy conversation. He was a homely youth from Texas with carrot- red hair and a gap-toothed grin that was quite engaging. "We'll be stoppin' fer a spell by the Little Sandy, Miz Lissa. I expect you'll be wantin' ta rest a mite by then."
"We are riding like the devil's chasing us, Rob," she said as she turned back to stare balefully at Robbins.
"If'n yer tired, we cud stop now, Miz Lissa," the youth volunteered earnestly. "I'll jest go 'n tell thet fancy range detective they's a lady present." His Adam's apple bobbed up and down like a windmill pump in a gale.
"That's not necessary, Rob. I can keep up. If I take a fancy to stop later on, we will," she added with bravado she did not feel. The hands would stop with her, but that mule-headed savage would ride right on without a backward glance.
Two other hands, one young and the other a grizzled trail veteran, rode with her, offering to draw her fresh water from the packhorse and pointing out various sights and sounds of spring on the high plains. Finally, when she could stand Robbins's icy aloofness no more, Lissa excused herself from her father's men and rode ahead to catch up with him.
When she pulled abreast of him and reined in, he did not spare her a glance. "Get tired of holding court, Princess?" he asked in a bored voice.
"Are you always this rude or have you made a special effort just for me?" Her tone was dulcet.