Near the Canadian/US border
The Broken C Ranch
Daniel froze. From the sound of her voice, the woman stood no more than a yard behind him. The sound of several soft footfalls carried to his ears. He glimpsed a few shadows moving among the trees ringing the small clearing.
Great. The woman wasn’t alone and her companions were surrounding him.
Great. The woman wasn’t alone and her companions were surrounding him.
Why didn’t Ranger warn me?
“Hello, I-” Daniel started turning.
“Lift your hands up high or I’ll put a bullet in you.”
Her tone, flat and deadly, didn’t hold a single note of fear. Daniel did as she demanded, his instincts warning him to handle the situation with care. Slowly he shifted around to face a young woman standing to one side of the still smoldering debris.
Long light brown hair tumbled over her shoulders, falling out of a knot high on her head. Soot streaked her jacket, heart shaped face and blue knitted gloves covering her hands. The blue eyes that met his gaze reflected no emotion.
“Who are you?” Her stance and grip on the rifle left him no doubt she knew how to use the carbine.
“Marshal Daniel Reid. Sheriff Deeks sent me to help.”
“Can you prove that?”
“If you’ll allow me to lower my hands, I’ll show you my badge.”
“A tin star would prove nothing.” Her expression didn’t ease. “How do you know Sheriff Deeks?”
“Langston and I served in the war together.” He deliberately used the other man’s first name.
“And today you just happened to run into him?”
“No ma’am, he came down to Cedar Camp last week, said you folks were having some trouble and asked me to handle it.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re claiming to be the Marshal of Cedar Camp?”
“I am,” he affirmed without hesitation.
“I’ve heard that’s a rough town.”
“Not any more.”
“Because of you?”
“Yes ma’am, I’m good at settling trouble.” Daniel held her gaze steady. “Some say the best. That’s why the sheriff sent me.” He paused, allowing her to digest that statement a few seconds before continuing. “What will it take to convince you I am who I say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ma’am,” he prodded gently. “My arms are getting tired.”
“You must be getting old.” An older woman, her fancy red dress mostly covered with a fur-trimmed coat stepped around the one holding the rifle.
“Surprised to see me?”
“You could say that.” In fact, Daniel could hardly believe it. “What are you doing here?”
“Pa bought the Last Chance Saloon in Lacey’s Spring.”
“I passed through there yesterday, nice town, but how does that lead to you being here now?”
“That’s where I met Fannie. She tutors me once a week.” Stella turned to the woman beside her. “I can vouch for him.”
“You know him well?”
Stella nodded. “Almost married him.”
“Well enough then.” Fannie lowered her weapon and Daniel gratefully put down his hands. The women walked along the charred wood that once was a wall to stand near him. She extended her hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Marshal.”
“Ma’am. I-” The sound of an approaching buggy made Daniel pause then before he could pick up where he left off, Stella spoke.
“Did you find her?”
“No,” Fannie answered her tone soft and troubled.
I’m sorry. I wish I could help you search longer but I need to head home now.”
“We didn’t get to your lesson.”
“Don’t worry about that.” The older woman gave her a quick hug. “I’ll see you next week.”
“You shouldn’t travel alone,” Daniel injected without thinking.
Stella turned around and patted him on the cheek. “Thanks for the concern, Sugar, but I know how to take care of myself. And, I’m not alone.”
Before he could think of a response, Stella’s companion pulled up near them, she climbed into the buggy and they drove away.
“She’ll be fine,” Fannie assured him.
“She always is.” Daniel gave her a brief smile and turned his attention to more pressing concerns. “Who are you looking for and don’t you think it’s time to call your other friends out of hiding?”
Her brow furrowed for a few seconds then she frowned. “Children, come here.”
Children? Shock muted Daniel for a moment as fourteen kids of various ages slipped out of the woods. After they gathered around Fannie, he blurted out. “Are these all yours?”
Her expression lightened for the first time and she grinned at him. “Everyone one of them.”
“That’s quite a family you have there.”
“I wish.” She shook her head. “But no, I’m only their teacher.”
“Oh.” Relief washed over Daniel even though it shouldn’t matter.
Before he could get out another word, Fannie introduced him to her students, pointing to each child in turn, as she said their name. “This is Laura, Marshall, Millie, Abigail, Jacob, Seth, Jessica, Kathryn, Gabriel, Joshua, Susan, Donny, Rachel and Charlie.”
“Hello.” Daniel acknowledged them all with a sweeping glance.
“What were you all doing here? Aren’t your parents getting ready to go?”
“Yes ma’am but Seth overheard that you went out looking for Sophie again,” an older girl answered. “And we wanted to help.”
Abigail or did Fannie call her Susan?
“I appreciate that, I truly do, but you all need to get back to your parents right now.”
“But-” Four wagons rattled down the same road Stella’s buggy had come from to stop a short distance from them before the girl could finish her protest. The children scurried away, a few climbing onto each vehicle as all four of the male drivers walked over.
“Everything okay, Fannie?”
“Just fine.” She quickly made introductions. The tired looking men didn’t remain long. Soon after learning Daniel was a lawman they left, apparently eager to get their families home.
“Do you normally have so many visitors?”
“If you are any good at your job, Marshal, you know full well why they all came to visit.”
“Someone burned your building and they came to help you.”
Fannie nodded. “I noticed the smoke after church. Almost everyone followed me home to help.”
“Yes, they are.”
“Friendly too, allowing the teacher to address them by their first names.”
“I’ve known Carl, Amos, Emel and James all of my life.” Fannie’s tense voice revealed her irritation. “If you want to learn who did that...” She gestured in the direction of burned structure then started walking off. “Instead of asking me annoying questions, I’ll be up at the house.”
“Wait.” Daniel dashed over to his horse, grabbed Shadow’s reins and hurried after Fannie. “You know who did it?”
“The same raggedy bunch of low lifes that have been harassing us.”
“Did you see those people anywhere near the fire?”
“No, but they’ve been responsible for all sorts of trouble in and around Cold Spring for months, crashing displays in the mercantile, shooting their guns to scare people and their animals, tipping over outhouses...”
“Which doesn’t mean they are guilty of this.”
Fannie stopped dead, turning to face him. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”
“And I don’t like assumptions.”
Silence fell. Tension deepened between them. Abruptly, Fannie started walking again.
“Who’s Sophie?” Daniel asked softly, breaking the awkward quiet.
“She liked to sleep in that old barn.” Fannie looked over her shoulder toward the destroyed building behind them. “No one has seen her since the fire.”
They crested a small hill and stepped into a clearing with a number of structures, a large farmhouse, barn, chicken coop and a few scattered sheds. The place wasn’t a small homestead as he’d thought. “I forgot to ask, where am I?”
“Sorry. You’re on the Broken C Ranch.”
Without warning, a young man raced up to them. “Miss Carter, come quick.”
“Heavens Roger, what’s wrong? Is it my grandfather?”
“No ma’am, it’s Sophie. I found her in the woodshed but some strange dog won’t let me near.”
Fannie grabbed a handful of skirt in one hand, the rifle in the other and took off running.
Certain he’d discovered his missing dog’s whereabouts, Daniel loosed his horse and followed hard on her heels. Beyond the house, on the edge of the tree line stood a three sided wood shed and Ranger, his faithful mutt.
“Where did he come from?”
“Me.” Daniel admitted to the worried young woman.
Fannie gave him a pointed look then swept her arm in the direction of his pet. “Would you please control your dog so I can check mine?”
“I’m sure she’s fine. Ranger’s probably just taken a liking to her.” His short haired, tan mutt stopped growling when he spotted Daniel, wagging his tail with enthusiasm instead. When he picked up the medium sized dog, a whimper drew his attention to the ground. “Puppies?”
“Yes.” Fannie brushed past him. She directed Roger to fetch an old laundry basket off the porch as she crouched beside a black and white collie, running a hand over Sophie’s fur. “There should be six: Sassy, Ringo, Mopsie, Gracie, Buster and Meisha.”
“Yes, I let my students name them.”
“So is Ranger.” Fannie shot him an amused glance. “Very appropriate a lawman’s dog.”
“Well, he is from Texas.”
Her suddenly pained tone stirred concern. “Is one missing?”
“No.” Her expression anguished, Fannie lifted up the hand she’d been using to pet her dog. Blood covered her palm.
Be Mine, Marshal