Mat Archer guided his appaloosa carefully down the trail until he entered a small natural clearing. He stopped and surveyed the ranch below. It was a typical, if well-kept ranch with a barn, two outbuildings, a white house and a corral. From where he sat he could see the setting sun reflecting off the ranch house windows. Everything was painted and well-maintained, the way all ranches should be, but seldom where. There was a decisive woman’s hand at work down below, he decided. His horse pranced, eager to get down to the ranch, and the comforts therein. Mat was not so eager. Something didn’t look right about the quiet scene below. Nobody moved, no smoke for a cooking fire, and no movement to feed or milk.
Pushing the thong off the hammer of his colt, he switched the reins to his left hand and rode down carefully, pulling up occasionally to look over the ranch. What was it, what was bothering him? He stopped again and searched the lawn and outbuildings. Suddenly he saw what had been bothering him. The watering trough in the front of the house was empty. A dark patch of muddy ground surrounded the empty trough. And even though it was evening, feeding time for the livestock, the horses were stretching their necks through the fence, feeding on what little grass they could reach. It had all the earmarks of a house under siege. Now it was his job to search for those besieging the house and decide if they were the law, or lawless.
“Easy boy,” he said, reining in the horse. The horse was very eager to be off. Mat could hardly control him. Upon a sudden inspiration Mat slid off the horse, wound the reins around the saddle horn, and slapped the horse on the ass. It took off like a scalded rabbit. It took only a moment to reveal several of those hiding around the ranch. Two tried to stop his horse as he barreled into the yard. A man in the loft of the barn, changed positions to get a shot at whoever may be riding the horse. He lowered his rifle when he saw it was riderless. This helped to make up Mat’s mind. Very few lawmen ambushed riders from hiding. These men were not the law, he would bet on it.
Voices called back and forth. Questions which went on unanswered. Finally two men cornered and caught his horse, tying it near the watering troth. His horse pawed at the muddy ground, drinking what little water it found in the mud.
“Three men,” Mat mused. “There’s probably more around somewhere. I’ll wait until nightfall.”
Mat’s ears perked up at the sound of a female voice. He spun around, looking over the log he had been resting against. The voice was coming from a shattered window in the house. One man with a deep voice answered. If it weren’t for the echoes from the outbuildings, he may have been able to understand what was being said. As it was, there were only echoes.
Mat decided it was time to take a hand. He pulled his pistol from the holster and stuck it down into the back of his pants. He stood in plain sight and began walking toward the house. He stumbled, as if tired, then swore and beat against a dry bush to make noise. He heard a mumbled question.
“Hold it,” a voice came from the darkening yard. It was near the corn crib.
“Have you seen my horse?” Mat called.
“No. Go away.”
“I can see his tracks right here in front of me,” Mat lied, “horse theft is a crime, you know.”
“Who you calling a horse thief?” a second belligerent voice asked.
“You if you have my horse.”
“I don’t. He’s over there by the watering trough. Get him and get out,” the same voice threatened.
“Thanks kindly,” Mat said, advancing toward his horse. It was too dark to see anyone by now. There was no light from inside the house. There had been no voice coming from there. Were they smart, or just afraid?
“Hey, there’s no water in the trough,” he pretended surprise.
“I know it,” the same voice growled. “We ain’t got any.”
“You ain’t got a well? How do you water the stock?” Mat was talking to keep them off balance. He looked toward the broken window. There had been almost no glass hanging from the frame. It had probably been knocked out from the inside by a rifle. If he was quick, and accurate, he could dive through without a scratch. He dropped the horse’s reins and took several steps toward the house. He saw the reflection from a rifle barrel as he neared the house.
“I’m a friend,” he whispered, then dove through the open window. His dive had been accurate, but it landed him against a solid body inside. He heard a woof of expelled air. He felt cloth, then glass against his hand. He raised it carefully to avoid cuts. The person on the floor struggled, then stood. The rifle swung toward him. He batted it down.
“I told you, I’m a friend,” he whispered urgently.
“I’ve got no friends,” a female voice whispered back. He was thrilled by the husky, sexy quality of her voice. He would have given anything to see the face that belonged to the voice. From where he sat, near the wall, there was enough light to show him a slender figure. That was a good start.
“You seem to be surrounded by men of evil intent,” he whispered, while brushing the broken glass from his hands. “You are outnumbered by at least three to one. I am a friend of anyone facing such odds.”
“Thanks,” she sighed. “I could use some help. I could use some sleep,” she admitted. “It’s been three days. I could also use a bath,” she said, sniffing something in the darkness. He could see her upraised arm and chuckled, knowing what she was sniffing.
“You do what you have too,” he said. “I’ll keep watch.”
“Thank you sir, you are a gentleman.”
“At times,” he admitted. “At other times I’m a downright scoundrel.”
She giggled as she left, a delicate and beautiful sound, like one of those fancy glass wind chimes he had seen outside of a store in St. Louis. He settled in by the window for a long night.
Dozing lightly, Mat was startled awake by a horrible screeching sound. He stood and looked into the next room. A woman, naked from the waist up, was working a hand pump over a sink. Her glorious body was startling in the early morning light. Her breasts were firm, sagging only a little, despite their ample size. She turned and looked directly at him. He gasped and stepped back. He heard her laugh come from the next room.
She was beautiful, he thought to himself. Her face and figure more than matched her sexy voice. So why was she alone?
“You are beautiful,” he said cautiously.
“I guess so,” she said without interest, “as are you sir,” she said over the sound of falling water. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Mat, Matthew Archer.”
“I’m Della. Mrs. Della Cage.”
“Widowed,” she called. She was obviously washing her hair.
“Oh,” he said with sudden interest. “Where are your hands?”
“Off rounding up for the fall. They won’t be back for several days. My brother-in-law is outside somewhere. He was hoping to inherit from his brother, my late husband. I feel that since I was married to the son-of-a-bitch for seven years, I am more than entitled to this ranch.”
“Of course,” he called, surveying the many hiding places outside. “How long has he been dead?”
“Thursday,” she called.
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