"Rustling," repeated Jacob Garrison in a low drawl.
Laramie waited for the accompanying accusation. When none came, he relaxed--some. He wasn't much of a fellow to ever truly unbend, and a man would do well to keep his guard up around the white-bearded cattle baron.
But it surely did help that Garrison hadn't recognized him.
"All the markings," Laramie agreed finally. He shifted in his saddle to glance over the neat, white outbuildings that flanked the two-story house, protective-like. The house itself had flower beds, shade trees, and a picket fence. Four girls of varying sizes added bright, calico color to the back porch. Sweet place, this. No wonder someone figured they could afford to lose some beef. "Good brand burner."
He expected suspicions, after that. It spoke well of the rancher that he merely challenged, "You'd know the difference."
Laramie said, "Yep."
There had been a time when the weight of Garrison's steely, hat-shadowed gaze would have shaken him. No more. Nothing shook the man called Laramie nowadays.
"You runnin' straight now?" asked the rancher.
"Yep." But Laramie lied.
"Looking for work?"
Other, darker reasons had drawn him back to the Big Horn Basin in northeastern Wyoming. But finding that cow, with its botched brand, seemed lucky. Laramie needed a place to bed down while he pursued his own plans. And of all the local ranchers, he reckoned he trusted Garrison more than anyone.
That wasn't saying a whole hell of a lot.
"Maybe." For an extra touch of honesty, he forced out a complete sentence. "Take issue with rustlers."
Garrison's gray eyes burned into him. "How big an issue?"
"Not big enough to make it yours."
The rancher studied him a long moment more, then nodded. "Won't have a hand what's cruel or belligerent. If you're lookin' for killing, callin' it frontier justice, you won't do it on my pay. This ain't a frontier no more."
The way he said that last part sounded almost sad, reminding Laramie of men he'd met in jail or at Robber's Roost, men who lamented the older days of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. Then there was that train-robbing syndicate he'd declined to join, in favor of his personal vendetta. And here sat proof of cattle rustling.
He figured the frontier wasn't dead just yet.
But what he said was, "Fair 'nough."
"Bed down in the bunkhouse. I won't have folks wonderin' who hired you."
Laramie nodded in grudging respect.
"No drinking, gambling, or the like less'n you go into town for it," instructed his new boss. "Anything illegal or immoral, don't come back."
By the time Laramie got around to the illegalities, he wouldn't need the job anyway.
When Garrison turned away, he thought the interview was over. Then the rancher reined his buckskin back and leveled a final, leather-clad hand in his direction. "And stay away from my girls."
Laramie said, "Not a problem."
The cattle baron nodded one last time, then rode away, business done. But he didn't know who he'd just hired. Laramie aimed to keep it that way. Garrison'd had the reputation of a stand-up man when Laramie was a boy, a boy with a different name, a different life.
Of all the men Ross Laramie might end up having to kill this summer, he most hoped Garrison would prove innocent.
But he'd kill him all the same, if he had to.
Victoria didn't wait for her father to reach the fence. She hopped off the back porch where she was washing clothes with her sisters and crossed the yard to meet his horse, catching its bridle. "Who's that you were talking to, Papa?" she asked, as he dismounted. "The man on the black gelding. He's not from around here, is he? He looked tired. Did you hire him?"
Papa paused, one scuffed boot on the first step to the porch, to stare at her. She would think, after almost eighteen years, he would be accustomed to her. Then he said, "None of your affair, Victoria Rose."
He climbed the steps, tugging one of nine-year-old Kitty's brown braids and ruffling six-year-old Elise's blond curls in passing. But he didn't stop to talk.
As if anything about Victoria's family wasn't her affair, no matter how old-fashioned Papa was about that.
Vic's other younger sister, fifteen-year-old Audra, watched from the hand-crank washing machine like a prim schoolmarm. She was old-fashioned, too.
"He's staying a spell, anyhow," guessed Vic, glancing over her shoulder as she followed their father across the porch. "He's unsaddling his horse."
Now that the stranger had dismounted, she saw that he was exceptionally tall. Instead of a cowboy's rolling lankiness, he moved with a tight, contained grace that made her wonder where he'd learned it--and why. His only awkward move, a slight hitch when he first lifted his saddle, caught her attention. Was he hurt?
Had Papa hired him?
Her father sighed. "Where's your mother." When he wanted information, he did not hesitate to ask her.
"She's upstairs. What's wrong with him?"
Now Papa stopped, to squint at her in suspicion. So the stranger had hidden his injuries? Interesting!
"The steer, I mean," added Victoria quickly. "Why'd you pen it? Is it sickly?"
"Best finish your work." Papa palmed off his hat as he entered his wife's clean, modern kitchen.
"It is not polite" started Audra, almost immediately.
But Victoria had heard it too often. "to pry into other people's doings." Not that finishing other people's sentences was polite, either, but they were sisters; politeness didn't carry the same weight between them. "Well if folks don't want me to sneak around, they should tell me more. How else am I supposed to know what's going on?"
Audra shook her head with a Papa-like sigh. Not yet sixteen, she still wore her strawberry-brown hair in a long, neat braid, but once she started putting it up she would look just like the schoolmarm she meant to become.
A small, dainty, prim schoolmarm.
Victoria's hair, darker than any of her five sisters', was already escaping its knot and curling around her face in the heat of the day. Prim was not a word she would use to describe herself. She stayed too busy to worry about appearance. Busy doing chores. Busy writing columns and setting type for a local newspaper, three days a week.
Busy keeping informed about what went on around her.
Another glance showed that the tall man had shouldered his saddlebags and bedroll and was headed toward the bunkhouse. He no longer looked injured, but maybe he just hid it very well. And the bunkhouse meant--
"Papa did hire him!" Then he'd gone to tell Mama about it. "Wait here," Vic told her younger sisters, dropping a wet shirt back into the washtub with a splash and drying her hands on her apron. "I need something upstairs."
And she did. She needed to know what was being said.
"Oh, Victoria!" protested Audra while Vic slipped into the still air of the kitchen, then up the wooden stairs.
"I'll watch for him," her mother was promising, in the upstairs hallway. "But I trust your judgement, Jacob. You picked me, didn't you?"
Her father's silent answer wasn't unusual. Nor was Mama's soft laugh. "Don't give me that look, Boss. You did so choose me. I just may have chosen you first...."
Victoria usually enjoyed hearing her parents spark. Unlike her older sisters, she'd never met a man who made her want to blush or smile that way, and it intrigued her. But this was not what she'd risked eavesdropping to hear.
"Ain't your boss," drawled Papa finally.
"And don't you forget it, cowboy," teased Mama.
Then, just as Victoria began to back down the steps in disappointment, Mama said, "Now go onyou've got an empire to run and bad-guys to corral." Papa must have given her another of his looks, because she added, "Rustlers are so bad-guys! Ask anyone. Except the rustlers, maybe. I imagine they would be biased."
Victoria caught her breath. Rustlers on the Circle-T?
What idiot would rustle cattle from her father?
"Ain't no empire neither," Papa chided.
Victoria tiptoed back down the stairs. This wasn't good news... but it opened a whole new, wonderful box of puzzle pieces. Had rustlers hurt the tall stranger?
Audra was still accepting wet clothes from Kitty and wringing them through the wash-rollers, her young mouth set. While the littler girls didn't ask what Vic had discovered because they didn't know she'd eavesdropped, Audra wouldn't ask from sheer principle. But it was hard to stay silent as Papa clumped across the porch to leave.
"Take care, Papa," Vic called innocently.
He shook his head and went to his horse, his expression sour. "Curiosity killed the cat, Victoria Rose."
That's why they get nine lives. She watched him ride out toward the mountains and wondered what had hurt the stranger, and why he hid it, and why he was here, and what was so important about the steer they'd penned.
As soon as she finished here, she meant to find out.
* * *
The problem with stopping, reckoned Laramie, is that's when a fellow remembered to hurt.
And oh, he did hurt. Hole-in-the-Wall, where he'd been recovering for the last few weeks, was a long day's ride--and a lifetime's--away from this place.
Surveying the empty bunkhouse from caution more than interest, he eased some of the pain in his shoulder by lowering his bedroll and saddlebags onto a bare bed. He kept his '95 Winchester in hand. That the bunkhouse seemed clean and well furnished--with shelves and a foot-locker at each bed, two wash-stands and mirrors in the corner--he only noticed peripherally.
Six windows. He circled the room glancing out each, to make sure nothing dangerous lay outside them to trip up a fellow in a hurry. One door. Good.
Only then did Laramie add his rifle to his small pile of belongings. He let his shoulders sag, took a deep breath--and winced at the hot, sticky pain in his side.
Damn, gunshots healed slow. But they put things into perspective, too. If he'd died after that nasty business last month, he would never have kept his promise. All he'd lived for since childhood would be a lie. So he'd ridden out the fever, and here he stood. If barely.
And he had no idea what to do next.
So he tended his wounds.
Laramie carefully unbuttoned his dirt-stiff shirt and, gritting his teeth, shrugged it off. Then he unhitched and peeled down his union-suit so that its once-white sleeves hung along his trousered thighs. He gingerly unwrapped the bandages from his left shoulder, and the ones around his middle, then--gritting his teeth--peeled back the stained wads of cotton beneath them.
Just more proof of what bullets could do to flesh.
Like he'd needed that.
He scooped shade-cool water onto his face and fingered it through his hair, which felt good. He splashed it onto his chest and arms, then dribbled it more carefully onto his wounds, hissing at both the pain and his inadequacies.
He was here. He'd come back. What now?
"He was rich," he muttered, an angry lullaby that had gotten him through so many nights of hell, so many days of misery. "A rancher, maybe. Bachelor...."
When he dried his torso on a surprisingly clean, flour-sack towel, his seeping wounds left little yellow stains; something else to clean up. "Maybe a bachelor," he conceded, since he knew more of the world now. As a child, he'd never figured his sister could be seduced by a married man. But he hadn't been a child since... forever.
Whoever had seduced his sister had destroyed their lives, seen his father killed, reduced Laramie to... this.
And the bastard had gotten away with it for too long.
Laramie's hands didn't falter as he bandaged his wounds with more rags from the saddlebag. He could handle wounds almost as well as weapons, by now; it was people who gave him trouble. How did a man go about exhuming secrets from over ten years ago without revealing his own?
Ask questions, he reckoned. Talk to people. But--
A light knock at the bunkhouse door caught him by surprise. He spun, dropping the end of a bandage to flare his left hand--then clenched a fist to keep from going for his revolver when he saw who peeked in the doorway.
A girl. No... a lady.
"Oh!" Seeing that he wasn't wholly dressed, she spun away and covered her eyes. "Golly. I should have waited for you to say 'come in.'"
Laramie didn't know how to answer that, so instead he quickly finished binding his shoulder, using his teeth to hold one end of one bandage as he tightened the knot with the other. A lady shouldn't be here at all.
This had to be one of the daughters. He could tell that much by the cut and yoke of her yellow calico dress and the ruffled white apron she wore over it. She'd tied the apron in a big bow, the ends of which trailed down from her waist like rivulets of water, running into and out of the bright folds of her skirt. He could tell by the neat way she wore her hair up, despite the dark-brown curls of hair that trickled across her ears and the bare nape of her neck. Laramie had seen nice girls before--bosses' daughters, or hired girls--but never this close. Proper married women, yes, but not young ladies. He sure hadn't spoken to them.
And even if he were better with words, he felt odd--his throat tight, his skin prickly--just looking at this girl's neck. She looked so... clean!
"I brought some salves," offered the lady toward the door, and lifted a pail with one hand. "And some of my mother's soup. I wasn't sure what was wrong with you."
What was wrong.... He pushed his arms back into the sleeves of his union suit, started fumbling buttons into place. When his gaze drifted downward again, to where her apron ties dipped in and out of her skirt's flounces, even more of him felt tight and prickly. It embarrassed him.
The last thing Laramie was, was clean.
The lady peeked over her shoulder, her eyes quick, her lashes dark. Fingers still on his union suit, Laramie felt himself flush to be caught staring.
"Aren't you going to put on your shirt?" she prompted. "I can hardly ask you questions like that."
Questions? At least that explained why she would have wanted to help him. Laramie scooped a clean shirt out of his saddlebag, tugged it on--and missed his sleeve on the first try. "What questions?"
"Are you decent?" She'd turned away again.
"No." He was still tucking.
"Well first off, I was going to ask if you were all right," she said. "I saw how stiffly you moved, like maybe you'd hurt yourself. That's why I brought the salves, and the soup. Here."
And she put the pail on a shelf by the doorway.
He guessed he should thank her, except that she had no business in the bunkhouse. Even he knew that much.
"Then I figured on asking your name," she said, still speaking toward the door as Laramie finished tucking. "Since Papa didn't tell me that. I'm Victoria Garrison, by the way. Sometimes my family calls me Vic."
When he still said nothing, she peeked over her shoulder again. Luckily, this time he was decent.
Fully dressed, anyhow.
She turned to face him. "So what's your name?"
"Laramie." Some folks knew it for an alias as soon as they heard it. All Victoria Garrison said was, "What's your first name?"
He didn't like this. He didn't like the risk of being alone with the boss's daughter. He didn't like that she'd seen his bandages; so much for hiding his injuries from Garrison. He didn't like how odd he felt at the sight of her skirt's flare or her bare neck, and he didn't like anything distracting him from what he'd come here to do.
Even if he wasn't quite sure how to do it.
He'd given her a handle to hang on him. She was rude to demand more. And yet, when she smiled encouragement, he couldn't drum up enough energy for annoyance. All his energy was going into the prickly, tight feelings.
The lady had pretty eyes. Gray, if the shadows of the bunkhouse weren't fooling him. Laramie liked how her lips turned when she ducked her head to slant a smile up at him, as if to be less threatening that way.
Not that a little thing like her had to duck.
"Some--" He cleared his throat. "Some folks call me Ross." It had once been Draz, but his parents wanted him to sound American. So almost since before he could remember, he'd been Ross, except sometimes to his momma.
Draz had died years ago, not long after his father, his brother, his sister. Draz just hadn't been buried yet.
And Laramie stood there with water dripping off his hair and onto the collar and shoulders of his shirt.
"Pleased to meet you, Ross Laramie," said Miss Garrison brightly. Unsure how to answer her, he just nodded. They shouldn't be here together but since she blocked the door, he wasn't sure how to get out unless it was to dive through one of the six windows.
Stalling, he strapped on his gunbelt. Normally he would check his rounds, but it seemed unnecessarily threatening in front of a lady.
"Welcome to the Circle-T," added Victoria Garrison brightly. "I've already guessed that Papa hired you--is it because of the rustlers?"
Laramie squinted at her. She knew about the rustlers?
"I saw the steer," she explained, while he slid a knife into his boot. "At first I couldn't understand why you and Papa would pen it, since it looks fine--not sick anyway. Then I noticed the brand. I think it's a brand. It almost looks like the steer had a Circle-T and doesn't anymore, although how a person would erase a brand I have no idea. I'd think a rustler would just put a new brand over the old one. Though really, what design would fit over a Circle-T? If it were just a bar, that would be one thing, though I guess that's why not many ranchers use just a bar. But a T is uneven already, and when you put it in a circle!" She shook her head. "But this isn't even that. It's like it's erased. That's what I can't figure out."
Laramie wasn't staring at the gentle flare of the lady's skirt anymore, or even other, less proper curves. He found himself watching her mouth. He'd never heard so many words come so quickly out of one mouth.
She widened her pretty gray eyes, and he guessed she'd meant that last to be a question. His brain lurched back into motion like a spurred horse.
"Blotted," he offered.
She blinked. "Pardon?"
Laramie swallowed. Now she wanted an explanation--about changing brands? He should have said nothing at all. But she cocked her head, and looked so interested....
"Brand 'em through a piece of wool blanket," he explained. "Wet one. Blots over the old brand."
"Really?" She considered that. "It's not particularly convincing, is it?"
It was when he did it. Likely the rustler got interrupted, or distracted. Nobody who regularly botched a job like on that steer could be doing enough damage that Jacob Garrison would hire himself a range detective.
Laramie wouldn't have said all that, even if he could. Neither did he offer that any brand could be changed by a man skilled enough with a running iron and hungry enough for easy cash. Despite her confidence, he could think of three possible counterfeits for Circle-T right off.
But it was better people not know the extent of his education on that topic.
"I should leave," he said, dropping his belongings into the chest at the foot of the bare bunk, hoping she would head out first. Not that he really needed this job. But he preferred to stay in one piece until he did what he'd come to do.
"Don't forget the salves," she offered, and drew a mason jar of what looked like soup from the pail beside her, then offered the pail to him.
Laramie risked stepping closer to her, long enough to take the pail and add it to the chest, shut the lid. It was a rare ranch hand who would poke into another man's belongings. Short-lived, too.
"Got to head out to work, huh?" she asked, stepping outside. But she waited for him, holding the door open. "What is it you're doing for Papa, anyhow?"
He picked up his rifle. "Working."
She narrowed her eyes at his cryptic answer, though with apparent good humor. "Well I hope you enjoy it here. It's probably pretty different from Texas."
He stopped, beside her, and now narrowed his eyes down at her. Texas? She was wrong--but disarmingly close.
She smiled delight up at him, as if he'd greeted her announcement with praise instead of suspicion. "You've got a Texas saddle," she explained. "Not that you couldn't have bought it off someone, but your hat has a Mexican look to it, too. And your spurs. Definitely Spanish."
It occurred to Laramie that Victoria Garrison saw a lot more than she should. The pretty little lady might prove dangerous, and not just to his composure.
It didn't help that he could smell her, she stood so close and warm. She smelled as clean as she looked, like cinnamon and Chinese-laundry soap. Maybe this was why men made such a fuss about women. Since it was usually about whores, Laramie had never fully understood the draw--money bought little more than a brief pleasure which hardly seemed worth the smell, sweat, and embarrassment. Now, standing this close to a neat, shiny-haired lady who'd even smiled at him, he wondered if some fellows pretended that instead of a whore, they were with...
His body felt more than tight, and he had to get away from this particular lady, now!
He wasn't clean. He wasn't decent. And there was still the chance he might have to kill her father.
"Stay away from me, Miss Garrison," he warned, and her upturned eyes widened. He noticed again just how small she seemed beside him, the top of her head barely reaching his breastbone, and yet how curvy she was. He didn't like that she looked scared of him, even if it did keep her away.
But he didn't like a lot of things. "Please."
"Oh." She blinked, regaining her composure so quickly, it unnerved him. He was armed, and a stranger... and a killer. She should probably be at least a little scared. "I'll try. My apologies for intruding. Here."
And he found a jar of soup in his left hand.
"Good day, Mr. Laramie," said Miss Garrison, and--glancing both ways as if to make sure nobody had seen her here--she strode away, her skirt swinging enthusiastically.
She took her soap-and-cinnamon smell with her.
Laramie felt unnerved--and strangely relieved that she'd not called him Ross.