Authors: Shirl Henke
Several of the men listening to the conversation chorused their agreement and the rest nodded. Everyone had been nervous since getting word about Jacobson's hired troubleshooter. Conyers planned to solve two problems. He would get rid of Robbins, and in so doing eliminate the possibility that Billy Argee's connection to their operation would be discovered.
I give it about one more year until old man Jacobson's cleaned out.” Tom Conyers smiled. When the boss took over the ranch, he would earn a hefty bonus and retire to California. “I'll never smell the stink of another branding fire as long as I live.”
* * * *
Jess slowly retraced his path to the ranch, deep in thought. He had ridden out at dawn this morning and spent the day checking on the ranges from which steers and horses had been taken over the past months. Every trail he had cut had gone cold.
Finally he gave up for the day, figuring he would go to the big spring roundup camp at dawn tomorrow. Perhaps someone there could tell him something useful. Over sixty of the J Bar men would participate in the branding of all the new calves dropped this spring and those yearlings missed last fall and the preceding spring. In addition, representatives from all the neighboring ranches, large and small, would be present to put a brand on their calves and then herd the strayed cows and calves back onto their home ranges.
"Someone has to have seen some sign. A band of rustlers taking this much stock has to be a pretty big bunch. They need a base camp somewhere in this area," he said to Blaze. The big black shook his head as if agreeing.
Jess often talked to the horse about his work. It was a way to think things through in his mind. The western and southern ranges had yielded nothing, but the northeast was closer to the railhead, near the territorial line. It was the likeliest area for the rustlers to be using.
He scanned the horizon, noting the way the low serviceberry bushes had leafed out in the past weeks. Soon it would be full summer, a season that followed hard on the long, bitter chill of winter's blizzards. Just ahead of him by about fifty feet lay an outcrop of shale fringed with scrub pines. By long habit his eyes traveled across the formation. He was about to look away when the glint of sunlight on something metallic bounced from the copse of pines to the south.
Jess leaned to the left side of Blaze and slid his 44-40 Winchester from its scabbard just as the first shot whizzed over the stallion's head with a high-pitched whine. He urged the horse into the small swale by the east side of the road and rolled from the saddle as another barrage of rifle shots shattered the high plains stillness.
Before he reached cover, one shot found its mark, tearing a long wicked slash across his right side. He gritted his teeth and levered the rifle, then searched the pines along the rim of the outcrop.
Amateurs. He had the sun behind him, obscuring their vision while it reflected off their guns. Seeing a flash of metal, he aimed his Winchester and squeezed off a shot. Jess was rewarded by a low guttural cry and the sound of a body rolling back into the brush. He scanned their cover. There were two of them left—unless he had counted the rifle reports wrong or someone had held his fire. Pulling a bandana from his pocket, he stuffed it against the seeping wound in his side and hoped the blood flow would slow down soon.
Rather than wait and risk growing light-headed or having his attackers come after him, Jess began to crawl along the ravine, gaining higher ground. After a few more desultory shots which he did not return, he heard the two bushwhackers calling to each other.
"You think we got 'im, Wilt?"
"Don't use my name, you dumb son of a bitch!"
The latter gravel-voiced command came from a cluster of greasewood about thirty feet from him. Jess tossed a fistful of pebbles near the bushes and waited a beat. A shot zinged out, revealing Wilt's location. Jess fired so closely after it that the two reports almost blended. His blind shot hit its mark. Wilt tumbled backward and landed with a thud, followed by more questioning from his youthful-sounding companion.
Billy Argee was sweating in the cool evening air. This was not going according to plan. First he had missed what should have been an easy shot when that damned breed dived off his horse for no reason—no reason at all. Then Ace took a slug and now Wilt was dead enough to skin. That just left him and the breed. Indians could creep up on a man and shoot him before he even knew one was there. He swallowed the brackish metallic taste of fear and began to move. Maybe he could circle around the breed. After all, he had hit the bastard after he rolled off his horse.
Probably gutshot and bleeding, he reassured himself.
Jess watched the curly-headed young bushwhacker clumsily thrash through the underbrush. Then Argee turned his head, and Jess got a close look at his face. One of the J Bar hands! He stepped out from behind a hawthorn tree and leveled his rifle.
"Drop the weapon, boy. Right now." He watched for any sign the kid would try to make a break, but Argee threw the rifle to the ground.
"Damn you, you gut-eatin' greaser," Argee screamed as he whirled around and grabbed the Army Colt on his hip.
Jess shot him before he cleared leather. As the youth lay sprawled on the hard, rocky ground, Jess muttered, "Second dumb thing you did today." He shook his head. "Stupid way to die, especially considering I didn't want to kill you."
He walked over to the still form, knelt, and began to search the dead man, hoping for some clue to the rustlers. He found a couple of dollars, a photograph of some saloon girl, and makings for cigarettes. He studied the dog-eared picture, then put it in his pocket. "Maybe if I can find her, she'll be able to tell me something about the man you worked for."
A search of the other two men and their gear yielded nothing of any use. By this time, Jess was growing decidedly light-headed. He leaned against the nervous bay and whistled for Blaze. When the stallion trotted up dutifully, Jess held on to the saddle horn for a moment to steady himself before attempting to mount. He was several hours from the ranch and not at all optimistic about his chances of staying conscious long enough to get there. As he rode, he wrapped his soogan around his waist, letting the excess of bedroll fall over his leg. Bulky and hot, it at least staunched the blood. He gritted his teeth and kept his eyes on the horizon.
Lissa dashed across the grass at the side of the house, darting between two birch saplings. The huge gray dog loped effortlessly at her heels, emitting low rumbling woofs as he followed his mistress in the familiar game.
"You awful fellow, Cormac. You know you're not supposed to catch me. Wait until I throw the ball," she said, laughing as she leaned against his rough- coated side and let the dog nuzzle her. Standing on four feet, he could reach her face. His shaggy chin whiskers tickled her as he slurped her, making halfhearted attempts to seize the small leather ball she held aloft in her right hand.
The sound of a rider approaching caused the hound and and his mistress to cease their roughhousing. Glancing toward the western horizon, where the sun was setting in a glorious ball of orange fire, Lissa saw the man leaning over the neck of his blaze-faced horse.
"Jess!" She dropped the ball and raced toward him. Cormac loped past her in long, ground-eating strides.
Jess saw the specter galloping across the yard, too small to be a horse but too large to be any kind of dog he had ever seen. A timber wolf? He shook his head, which was spinning from loss of blood. Was he seeing things? He reached for his gun, aware that his hand was moving horrifyingly slow. Then he heard Lissa’s cry as she ran up behind the brute.
"Don't shoot, Jess. He's only a dog—an Irish Wolfhound. You're hurt. What's happened?"
She reached up as he started to dismount. When he stumbled against her, the dog interposed his considerable bulk between Robbins and his mistress. Shooing him away, she placed Jess's left arm on her shoulder and began helping him toward the house. When her right hand touched his side and came away wet with blood, she gasped.
"Sometimes that happens when I get shot," he said through clenched teeth.
"But who? Where?"
"Three rustlers—one of them worked for your father. Don't recall catching their names."
"Worked . . ." she said with dawning horror.
"Yeah. I tried to bring in their horses but couldn't pull the reins. Had to turn them loose about an hour ago."
Swallowing her bile, she said nothing.
They were approaching the ranch house porch before Jess realized where she was headed. "Not here. I need to get to the bunkhouse."
"Don't be foolish. You'll never make it that far."
“I need patching up. That's usually the cook's job."
"Not at J Bar. I'm the nurse. Come on." She tugged him toward the steps.
Jess considered resisting but knew he would pass out soon and opted not to do it in the yard. A grim-faced Germaine came charging down the hall to head them off at the front door.
"He can't come in here," she hissed at Lissa.
"We always treat injured hands at the big house."
"He's no cowhand," Germaine replied.
"Get out of my way or I'll turn Cormac loose on you."
Germaine gasped in indignation but backed stiffly aside as Lissa and Jess entered the front door. "He'll bleed on my carpets," the housekeeper said tightly.
"Thoughtless of me, ma'am," Jess said with a grin that ended in a grimace.
Lissa ignored the woman's hateful remarks and headed down the long hall to the kitchen. "Make yourself useful, Germaine, and boil me some water."
They made it into the kitchen and she eased him onto a high-backed chair, then set to work gathering bandages and disinfectant while Madame Channault, moving as stiffly as if she were moribund, boiled a kettle of water on her fancy new cast-iron stove.
"Let me help you take off that shirt," Lissa said with a briskness she was far from feeling. "You've lost a lot of blood. You're soaked all the way down your pant leg!" Beneath his swarthy skin, his face was deathly pale.
"You should've seen the soogan I wrapped around me. It took the worst of it," he said as he fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. "You got something to drink around this place? I need reviving."
"Germaine, fetch a glass of brandy from Papa's stock."
"I do not think your father—"
"Considering how much of his liquor you consume, I'm sure he won't mind Jess having a small draught for medicinal purposes." Her eyes met the housekeeper's in a steely glare which convinced the older woman to capitulate.
Lissa finished unbuttoning Jess's shirt and peeled it off, trying not to cause him any further pain.
Germaine returned with the brandy and handed it to Jess, then attended to the water now boiling on the stove. He raised the delicate crystal glass in a mock salute, then downed its contents in a quick gulp and shook his head. "Better," he pronounced.
Kneeling, Lissa inspected the deep gash. "I've never treated a gunshot wound before," she said, chewing her lip as she wrung out a cloth soaked in the hot water and began to cleanse the affected area.
He cocked an eyebrow. "You've treated injuries before though?"
She forced a gamine grin. "You afraid of my skills, Robbins? I was a hospital volunteer in St. Louis." She did not add that she had only been allowed to tend women and children in the hospital. Here at J Bar her duties had never been more serious than to bind up blistered feet or rope-burned fingers.
She felt the housekeeper's eyes burning into her back as she worked. "Hold that pot of water closer, Germaine."
Casting a half fearful look at Jess, the housekeeper spoke in rapid French. "You have never tended a half-naked man before. You should have had the hands carry him to the mess kitchen for treatment. You are only doing this because you desire him. Tis a foolish schoolgirl's fancy."
"Somehow I suspect Miss Lissa's touch is a lot gentler than the mess cook's, whatever her motive," Jess replied in smooth, idiomatic French.
Germaine Channault almost dropped the pot she was so reluctantly holding. Her face took on a hue even darker than the rosy color of the bloody water inside the pot. She sputtered but said nothing.
Lissa jerked the cloth away from his wounded side, her cheeks, too, scalded with a blush. "Where on earth did you leam to speak French?"
His voice was amused. "Not in the same place you did."
"Certainly not likely, since I learned in a girls' school—Miss Jefferson's Academy in St. Louis. Every lady must possess the social graces of French conversation," she parroted in that language. "Where did you study?"