"Mysterious Hostage In Circle C"
a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Evelyn Boyett
Ten years after his wife and son’s untimely death, and Cal Benson is still chasing ghosts.
To bury the grief, he threw himself into work at the Garrett Ranch with a vengeance, rising to the position of foreman. His arms may have been empty, but his time is always full. It’s a way to get by at least. Cal’s peaceful if lonely existence is thrown into turmoil when he discovers a land grab in progress. When he visits the neighboring ranch to confront its owner, he discovers a secret that has been buried for close twenty years.
Emily Carson is a ghost, or may as well be.
Trapped on her father’s ranch and at the mercy of his ranch hands day and night, Emily prays for some escape. When Cal Benson barges onto her father’s property, she can’t help but feel like someone above has finally decided to listen. But of course, fate is never that kind, and love is never simple. Emily knows that she can’t possibly dwarf the shadow of Cal’s late wife, or replace what he has lost.
With a war between the ranches on the horizon, Emily searches frantically for a way to keep Cal out of the line of fire and simultaneously guard her heart against the wounded cowboy. No men are really, truly safe.
Not even Cal.
"Mysterious Hostage In Circle C" is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.
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Cassie stared out the window, watching the scenery as it went by. The stagecoach rumbled over the rocky road, making her shift back and forth in her seat uncomfortably. The hard, wooden bench she sat on would surely cause bruises on her thighs. Cal would be concerned, of course. Her husband was always concerned with anything and everything that hurt her.
Cassie felt like the luckiest woman in the world. She had a wonderful life at Bush Creek Ranch and soon, she and Cal would be welcoming their child into the world. The first of many, she hoped. She had wanted a big family ever since she could remember. As a little girl, she had many dolls and carried them around with her as if they were her children, preparing herself for what she wanted as an adult.
She placed her hand on her expanding tummy, smiling. How could her life be any better?
For two weeks, she’d been visiting her parents in Bristol, Texas, three hours away from her husband. Cal had originally come with her, but he’d had to return to work after one week. She had stayed longer. Instead of a telegram, they wanted her parents to find out about the pregnancy in person and had made a special trip to tell them.
Cassie wasn’t alone in the coach. There were two other people, a man and a woman, going to west Texas, where Bush Creek Ranch was. She didn’t know them, but she knew the people they were going to see.
The woman, who went by the gracious name of Alexandra, was British. She gave Cassie a big smile, dropping her eyes to Cassie’s stomach.
“You are with child?”
Cassie smiled back. “I am.”
“I’ll bet you and your husband are very excited.”
Cassie enjoyed the sound of the woman’s accent. She nodded. “We are. It will be some months before we see our little one and I know I will be anxious the whole time.”
“When I was pregnant with my first child, I couldn’t stop wondering who the baby would favor more, me or my husband. I hoped if it was a boy, that he would look like Christian. A girl, of course, would preferably look like me.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows, curiously. “And what happened? Did you get what you wanted?”
Alexandra laughed, a pleasant tinkling sound that made Cassie’s smile wider. “I found out what I look like in male form.”
Cassie joined her in laughter. “Oh my goodness,” she said through her chuckles.
“I am pleased to say, I make a good-looking man. My son is just like me, with my hair color and eye color, even the shape of his face is the same. But he’s a handsome man and I am very proud of him.”
“I am sure you are. I will be happy as long as my child is healthy. I have heard of so many women who lose their children during the birthing, or God forbid, lose their own lives.”
Alexandra shook her head, suddenly looking serious. “You must not think that way. Worrying will serve you no purpose. It will make things harder for you as you get closer to the birth. Your body is going through enough. Do not put your brain through it, as well.”
“That is very good advice.” Cassie was impressed. “I appreciate the advice and will take it to heart. I’ll remember, I promise.”
Alexandra smiled again, her serious expression disappearing in the brilliance of her warm glow. “Good. Good.”
“How many children do you have?”
“I have three children. All grown, probably about your age. How old are you? Twenty? Twenty-one?”
“I’m twenty,” Cassie confirmed. “I hope to have three children. Maybe more, if God allows.”
“I hope so, too, my dear. You are young enough and you look quite healthy. God has blessed you greatly.”
“I feel that is so.” She moved her eyes to the man in the coach, who was calmly reading a book, ignoring the two women and their chatter. She wondered if he was actually listening and just didn’t want them to know it.
When he licked his finger and turned the page, his eyes moving over the words, she knew he wasn’t listening. It amused her. Cal would have been listening. He would have participated in the conversation. Even if she was not there and he was riding with two women, he would engage them in some kind of discussion. He was the smartest person she knew.
When she thought of Cal, Cassie’s heart melted in her chest. He loved her just as much as she loved him. He showed it to her in hundreds of ways, bringing her flowers, kissing her softly, holding her in the tightest, warmest hugs.
“Are you returning to your husband?”
Cassie nodded. “Yes, I was visiting my parents. We went to their ranch two weeks ago but Cal had to come home early to return to work.”
“He does not have an understanding boss?”
“Oh, Mr. Garrett is a good man. I’m sure he would have let Cal stay the second week. But my husband feels very responsible for what happens at Bush Creek Ranch. He is the foreman there. They might have gotten along without his help but the men trust him and rely on him to make good, solid decisions. Mr. Garrett depends on him a lot.”
“It sounds like he is a good man. You seem so very happy. That pleases me. I don’t have to know you to recognize happiness and love when I see it. I can tell how much you love him by the way you say his name.” Alexandra smiled. “I felt that same way about my husband. He passed on about two years ago.” She looked upward when she said it, indicating she knew her husband was in Heaven.
“I’m so sorry,” Cassie said, sympathetically.
“I had thirty good years with him. He was a happy man and lived his life that way. He liked to make other people smile and laugh with him. I was very blessed and I wait for the day when I will see him again.”
Cassie’s words were cut short when the coach suddenly began to speed up. She grabbed the edge of the window to hold herself steady as the wheels bumped over the rocky road. She and Alexandra both looked through the windows beside them, pushing their heads out curiously.
Chills ran from the top of Cassie’s head to the bottom of her feet. Three men on horseback were pursuing the coach, bandanas hiding the lower half of their faces. All three were pointing guns at the coach. Cassie sucked in a deep breath when one of the men lifted his gun and shot at the driver.
She screamed when she saw the driver fall from his seat and land on the side of the road. The horses went crazy, galloping at top speed down the dirt road.
She turned and looked back at Alexandra and then to the man beside her. He had tossed his book to the floor and was holding on to the door. He did not look afraid. He looked angry. He had pulled his gun from its holster and was trying to aim at the men on horseback but the movement of the coach made it impossible for him to get off an accurate shot.
He cussed loudly, making Cassie even more afraid. The man’s face was turning red with fury. He shot at the bandits until his gun was empty. After he shot the last bullet and the gun began to click, he tossed it down on the floor of the coach, reached behind his back under his thin coat and pulled out another one.
He looked back at Cassie and Alexandra. “Ladies. I’m going to do everything I can to keep you safe. But if I do not see you again, it was a pleasure meeting both of you and listening to you. I do wish you both the best of luck.”
“What are you going to do?” Alexandra asked, her voice tight with fear.
He hesitated before answering, resting his eyes on her. “I’m going out to see if I can get the horses to…”
He stopped talking when the coach began to slow down and steady itself. The three of them looked out the window again to see that one of the bandits had pulled up alongside the horses and grabbed the reins and martingale to slow it down.
“Oh no,” Cassie breathed. “What could they possibly want from us? I am carrying nothing of value. Are you?”
The man shook his head. “They don’t know that. They would have attacked us anyway. They are taking a chance that there will be money and valuables with us. You two get down low. I will take care of them.”
“Be careful, sir,” Alexandra said, grabbing her skirts in one hand and pushing her hat down on her head with the other. She scooted from the bench seat and hunkered down against the floor. Cassie did the same, wishing she could dissolve into the floorboards. Her heart was thumping hard in her chest. She peeked up at the man as the coach came to a stop.
The man yelled at the bandits, lowering himself and shooting through the window.
“Get ‘im!” Cassie heard one of the men outside yell. “Get ‘im!”
When the next shot rang out, Cassie screamed as the man in the coach was knocked back by the bullet and fell on the other side of the coach, bleeding from his chest. His eyes moved to meet hers. She watched as the life drained from him. When he was gone, his open eyes remained on her.
She began to cry and crawled to Alexandra. The woman was also weeping with fear. Alexandra reached out to her and they held each other as bullets penetrated the side of the coach. Cassie squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t want to see Alexandra get shot.
She didn’t feel it when her own life was taken from her.
Cal Benson sat atop his horse, Bolt, looking down at the herd of cattle from the hillside. He’d felt off since waking up. He’d gone to sleep feeling like something was wrong and it had carried over into his dreams and was still there when he woke up.
It was ten years almost to the day since he’d lost his precious wife. He was numb to the pain but the memories still haunted him. He hadn’t been there to help her. He’d spent the first five years after her death regretting the fact that he’d put his job before the safety of his wife. Then one day he’d woken up feeling better. He didn’t know whether it was a dream he’d had of his dear Cassie or her spirit had visited him and brought him comfort. Either way, he knew when he woke up that morning five years ago that it was time to stop mourning. He would miss her forever. But he could not live with the deep pain and sorrow.
He had an uncomfortable feeling that he was missing something important, something he had to take care of. He’d had the feeling since the day before.
Yesterday, he and his second-in-command, Howie, had patrolled the east side of Bush Creek Ranch, looking for any broken fences or downed trees. It had been raining hard, which was good for the land but bad for the ranch hands. They grumbled a lot when the work was harder than they wanted it to be. And the mud didn’t help the situation.
He and Howie hadn’t seen anything significant that would require the help of everyone to repair. They’d removed two trees that had fallen during the most recent storm and cleaned out the gullies that were packed with mud. The water didn’t flow freely through the land when those particular gullies weren’t clear. It created large spots of dead grass and the cattle didn’t graze properly.
Cal was the foreman of Bush Creek Ranch and his boss, Mr. Garrett, had put him in charge of hiring. Sometimes he wondered why he’d hired a bunch of whiny babies—other than Howie, of course—and contemplated firing the whole bunch of them and hiring new hands.
He wasn’t going to do that, though. He knew it, the hands knew it and Mr. Garrett knew it. They might have whined a bit more than he’d like but they were hard workers and knew what they were doing. He’d hired them for their skills, not their personality. Plus, they limited their visits to the nearby town of Dry Gulch to a reasonable four to five days a month, which meant they were on top of their game when they worked, instead of hungover and cranky.
Another good thing about the men he’d hired: they got along with each other. Cal knew of several other ranches, one that he’d previously worked at as a teenager, where the hands were constantly at odds. At Bush Creek Ranch, Howie was the peacemaker when there was conflict among the men. Fortunately, it happened so rarely, he didn’t have to worry much about it.
He turned Bolt and made his way down the hillside to the fence line. He led Bolt move at a slow pace. There was no hurry today. The only hurry for Cal was the thoughts in his mind, the desire to put his finger on what he’d seen that bothered him so much. Eventually, he would figure out what it was and take care of it immediately. He stared around him alertly, looking for anything that might be different.
The land looked disturbed, something had been changed. He scanned the valley in front of him, his eyes narrowing. Something in the trees just past the fence line caught his eye. There was movement. He focused in on it, turning Bolt in that direction and riding him all the way to the fence.
Among the green of the trees and foliage, he saw tan fabric, poking out from behind a tree. It looked like an elbow.
Cal slid from his saddle and dropped to his feet in the dirt, sending water splashing around his boots. He didn’t feel the need to be quiet. It was his job to protect the ranch, even if he didn’t own it. Someone was hiding out there.
He looked around him. According to the fence line, the man in the trees was on the property belonging to Circle C Ranch, just a few miles from Bush Creek. He wondered why the man was hiding, instead of revealing himself and whatever it was he was doing.
He tipped his hat down so it would provide better shade and put his arms up on the top post of the fence. With one giant leap, he was up and over the fence. He looked from left to right. This land was familiar. Cal had been working at Bush Creek Ranch long enough to recognize it, though to a stranger, it would look like a forest someone could easily get lost in.
He rested one hand on the gun at his side and pushed his chest out. “Hey there!” he called out loudly. “I see ya! Come out! What are you doin’ on this property?”
The tan elbow froze for a moment. Then a man in a tan jacket, blue trousers and a Stetson that looked too big for him leapt to his feet and bolted away from Cal.
“Hey!” Cal yelled out, drawing his gun and leveling it at the man’s back. “Hey! Where ya goin? I just wanna talk!”
Cal wasn’t going to shoot the man in the back but he cocked the gun anyway, hoping the sound would make the stranger stop. Instead, the man zigzagged through the woods, ducking behind trees but never stopping his mad dash away from Cal. He never turned his head and Cal never saw his face.
Cal held the gun up for a few more minutes before lowering it and releasing the hammer with a heavy sigh. He slipped the gun back into the holster and snapped the flap over it. He scanned the ground around him, sure that something was wrong.
He turned and looked behind him.
Something was wrong.
He ran his eyes over the ground, finally realizing what it was that felt so different. He focused on a hole in the ground and went to it, taking a knee beside it and touching the fresh, moist dirt. It wasn’t a hole that had been recently dug. It was a hole caused by a fence post that had been moved.
He rested his arm on his upright knee, flicking the dirt from his fingers and turning his head to look at where the fence was now. Someone had moved the fence.
He turned and looked over his shoulder in the direction the coward had run. The land on the other side of the fence—where it was supposed to be—was owned by Mr. Carson of Circle C Ranch. He frowned in confusion. Who would move an entire fence? What could be the purpose of doing that? If they wanted or needed extra grazing land or access to water, they could easily negotiate with Mr. Garrett, who was an upstanding and generous individual on a normal basis.
He stood up, brushing the remaining dirt from his hands onto his pant leg. He walked back to the fence and went over to get back to Bolt, who was waiting for him, swinging his large head back and forth. He reached up and patted the horse on the neck before pulling himself up into the saddle.
“Yep. Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us now,” he said to the horse, pulling the reins to the left and heading back toward the ranch house.
It was his job to take care of these situations and let Mr. Garrett and his sons take care of the business end of the ranch. He didn’t want to make it seem like he was unwilling or unable to do the job Mr. Garrett had assigned him. The man trusted Cal. He didn’t want to let the boss down.
He steeled himself for what he knew he would have to do. He prided himself on not having to ask for help with anything. He took suggestions and advice but rarely did he feel the need to ask for help.
He passed the bunkhouse and then the chow house, lifting his head to breathe in the scent of food in the air. It was nearly lunchtime. He was looking forward to it. It smelled as if Todd was cooking up something delicious today. He could smell beef in the air. Not that Todd didn’t always cook good food, because he did. And pity to the man who told him otherwise.
Todd took some grief from the ranch hands because he was a small man, shorter in stature than everyone else on the farm. Even the boss’s daughter, Rachel. He wasn’t a midget, but he was close to it. There were stools placed all over the kitchen of the chow house so that he could reach things on top shelves. On a few occasions, Andy or one of the others would ask him if he needed help getting something off a shelf and they did it in the most teasing voices possible.
Cal had to admit he had teased Todd once or twice but he generally left the man alone in that regard and spoke with him about other things. He considered Todd a friend. He glanced in the windows as he passed but did not see Todd inside.
The huge ranch house was in front of him and he rode quickly to the front porch. He slid off Bolt, landing hard in his boots, making his spurs clang and water splash up around his feet. He adjusted his vest and hooked his thumbs in his belt after tossing the reins over the hitching rail.
There were three steps leading up to the porch, which wrapped all the way around the ranch house. It connected to each entrance of the house, on the east, west and south sides. The family- Mr. Garrett, his wife, Samantha and his daughter, Rachel- lived in the north wing. David, Mr. Garrett’s first-born, had taken the east side and his other son, Darren, lived in the west wing with his five-months pregnant wife, Laura.
Cal thought of them all as his own family. Losing Cassie had put a dark mark on his life. He had no parents of his own and Cassie’s parents held her death against him. They sent numerous telegrams telling him what they thought of his inaction in the safety of their daughter, putting the blame squarely on his shoulders. His parents had died during an outbreak of influenza when he was just fifteen years old, forcing him to go off on his own looking for work. At nineteen, he met and married his beautiful Cassie. Two short years later, he lost her and the baby she was carrying.
His family was destroyed in an instant. When news of the tragedy reached Bush Creek Ranch, the other hands and the Garrett family propped him up, supporting him as his heart shattered. The horror of the situation had never left him. When he thought back upon receiving the news, it felt like it had happened just yesterday. He could see Cassie’s beautiful face in his mind clear as day.
He forced himself to stop thinking about it and lifted his hand to knock on the door. Rachel answered, looking bright and refreshed, a smile on her face. It looked like she was expecting someone else because her reaction to seeing him was surprise. She lost her smile for a brief second before it was there again.
“Cal! Hello! How are you today?”
“I’m well, C…Rachel. And you?” Cal had been thinking too much about his late wife. He had almost called Rachel by her name.
“I’m very well, thank you. What can I do for you?”
“Need to talk to the boss, little lady, if I can. Is he here?”
Rachel nodded, taking a step back to let him in the front room. “Yes, he’s here. In his study. He just returned from town, so you have good timing. But he’s preparing himself for a fight.”
Cal stared at Rachel for a second. “A fight?”
Rachel nodded, her auburn hair bobbing on her shoulders. “Yes, not a fight like you’re thinking. It’s a verbal, legal fight.”
Cal wasn’t surprised Rachel knew about her father’s business. She was a curious girl and had a good head on her shoulders. Rachel was well liked by everyone and for good reason. Not only was she very pretty, she was smart and friendly. It wasn’t a surprise. Everyone in the Garrett family had personalities that appealed to others.
Cal felt a strong sense of loyalty to the family. Although Mr. Garrett could be hard-nosed at times, he was always fair and level headed. His sons were their own characters, but both were just as smart. Darren was a non-confrontational young man and his brother made up for it by being rough and tumble, shooting his pistol in the air to celebrate practically anything while hollering at the top of his lungs.
It brought a smile to Cal’s face when he thought about it.
He noticed when Rachel dropped her eyes to his gun holster and widened them. “Is that a new pistol?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Cal replied.
“It’s very pretty. May I see it?”
Normally, Cal wouldn’t hand over his gun to anyone, much less a lady. But Rachel was different. She longed to join the Wild Bill rodeo and shoot guns with Annie Oakley. It was a steadfast dream of hers. She and Annie were close in age and she was absolutely sure they would be the best of friends if she was ever able to meet the girl.
Cal didn’t doubt it. He didn’t know Annie but he did know Rachel and Annie would be lucky to call her a friend.
He unsnapped the cover of the holster and drew out the gun, handing it to her butt first, pointing the barrel back at himself.
“This is a very new model, isn’t it?” Rachel turned the gun over, gazing at it lovingly, running one small finger over the pearl handle.
“Yes, ma’am, I just bought that a month ago. It shoots better’n any gun I’ve had in the past, I can tell you that.”
Rachel looked up at him with a smile that reached her eyes. “I’ll just bet that it does. I’d ask if I could shoot it but you would be forced to say yes when I know you would rather say no.” She giggled, handing the gun back to him. “So I will spare you that.”
“I thank you, Miss Garrett.” Cal smiled back at her, sliding the gun back in the holster. It was a recent model but not brand new. He’d bought a special holster for it because it was longer than any gun he had previously owned. His old holster was getting worn out anyway and with a new gun a new holster was almost a requirement. No decent man would be seen with a brand new gun in an old, withered holster. “It’s a Colt, long barrel, single action .45. This one is actually 1884, so it’s a year old. But it’s brand new to me.”
“I’ll keep that in mind for my next birthday. Daddy has to get me something, doesn’t he?” Rachel giggled again, a very pleasant sound that made Cal feel like all was right with the world. “Go on back to Daddy’s office. He’s in there getting ready. I hope the business you have come to discuss is not terrible. He’s in a foul mood today.”
“Thank you, miss, I’ll keep that in mind,” Cal said, lifting his hat and tapping the edge against his forehead in a polite salute. He wasn’t going to tell her about the moved fence. She didn’t need to know everything that was going on.
Rachel nodded and turned to go back in the sitting room, where she had previously been before hearing the knock on the door.
Cal walked through the large front room down the hallway and past the stairs. The solid wood double doors of Mr. Garrett’s office were at the end of the hallway to the left. He glanced around the house as he walked to the doors, admiring what he saw. It was heavily decorated with artifacts Mr. Garrett’s family had purchased and brought over from foreign countries for the past hundred years. Vases from China, sculptures from Africa, animal heads mounted from the many hunting trips the Garrett’s had taken over time. Cal knew for a fact that some of the mounted animals had been hunted and killed by Rachel. She was a crack shot.
He found it a bit creepy sometimes when he looked at the animals. He was not a hunter by nature, and only did so when he needed the food. He enjoyed rounding up cattle, running the dogs, managing the ranch. Hunting was not at the top of his priority list, at least not to the extent that he would go to a foreign country and kill an animal to stuff the head and mount it on a wall.
He often avoided looking at the animals’ eyes. He felt like they were staring at him.
He lifted one hand and knocked on the door on the right side. “Mr. Garrett? It’s Cal. May I speak with you?”
“Come on in, Cal.” He heard the boss’s muffled voice from the other side.
He opened the door and took a step in, closing the door immediately behind him, as if someone might overhear what he had to say.
“It’s good to see you, Cal,” Mr. Garrett said without a smile. “Unless there’s something wrong. That would not be a good thing.”
Cal shook his head. He could already see the scowl forming on Mr. Garrett’s face. He wasn’t going to be pleased with what Cal had to say.
Mr. Garrett turned his eyes down to the stacks of papers scattered over his desk. His frown deepened and he looked back up at Cal. “I suppose you don’t have something good to report to me or you wouldn’t be here.”
Cal crossed the room to Mr. Garrett’s desk, setting his hat on the table by the door beforehand. He considered Mr. Garrett a friend, but he was still his boss. He felt compelled to handle the strange situation on his own but Mr. Garrett needed to know what was going on. Cal had begun working for the older man only a year before losing Cassie. He’d provided needed support and encouragement, guaranteeing him a permanent position as ranch foreman at Bush Creek Ranch.
He respected his boss to the fullest. He didn’t want to look like a fool in front of him.
Mr. Garrett tilted his head slightly to the side, staring at his ranch foreman. “Yeah, looks like something is wrong. What’s on your mind, Cal?”
Cal wished he didn’t have to ask Mr. Garrett for advice. At least, not at that moment. Mr. Garrett looked upset enough already.
“Should I come back another time, sir? You look like you already have enough on your plate.”
Mr. Garrett dropped into the chair of his desk heavily. He gestured to the chairs on the other side, indicating that Cal should sit down. Which he did. “If you have something to say, now would be the time to say it. Hesitating or postponing might make matters worse, right?”
Cal cleared his throat, nodding. He still didn’t want to approach the topic right then.
Mr. Garrett heaved a great sigh. “Cal Benson. I have never known you to be hesitant when you come here. I pride myself on hiring a man who can handle all business without worry. When you come here, it is usually because you need my permission to take care of something. Is that it today? Do you need my permission to take care of something? Because you have it. Just do whatever it is you think is right.”
Cal blinked. He didn’t want to take the power from Mr. Garrett. He wasn’t about to do that.
“No, sir, I think in this instance, it is your advice I need. I have found something strange and I…I need to ask you about it.”
Mr. Garrett leaned forward, resting his forearms on the surface of the desk, ignoring that he was bending several pieces of paper under the weight of his arms. He laced his fingers together. “Then please, speak up. I have all the time in the world.”
Cal hesitated before responding, trying to gather his thoughts. His boss’s voice was laced with sarcasm, the true sign that he was seething with fury underneath. Whatever his legal battle was, Cal figured it must have been something that his boss did not want to deal with in the least. “I’m not a real smart man, boss, but I know when something is off.”
Mr. Garrett’s frown deepened. “I’m not understanding you, Cal. First off, you are a smart man and second, what the hell are you talking about?”
Cal decided to ask a different way. “Are you selling off parts of your land to neighboring ranches? Circle C, for instance?”
Mr. Garrett stared at him. “Am I what? No. What makes you ask that? You would be the first one to know if such a thing was occurring.”
Cal looked down at his hands, kneading them together. They were rough in patches from the hard work he did. It didn’t matter. He wouldn’t be touching a woman anytime soon. They didn’t need to be soft. He knew Mr. Garrett was right. If anyone knew about land being sold, it would be him. He had to know exactly where the cattle could roam and where the property boundaries were.
“It’s just…Howie and me went up the east ridge out where that old barn and silo are and it looked different to me. Like animals had beaten a new path in it. We checked the fencing but other than a few broken boards, they were all solid. A couple downed trees, too. But…I gotta say, boss, it looked like…” He stopped talking abruptly and pulled in a breath. He knew what he was about to say seemed ultimately improbable.
“Out with it, Cal.” Mr. Garrett prompted him in a barking voice.
“Well, to be frank with ya, the fence was moved, boss. I mean the poles were dug up and someone moved them. To give themselves more land for their cattle, I’m assumin’. Or maybe they want the fishin’ at the stream there. They cut up a few more yards, they’ll cut that stream off in the middle. Maybe even build a dam to keep the water from flowing like it should.”
Mr. Garrett’s eyebrows shot up. He stared at Cal, making the younger man slightly uncomfortable. He’d known it was going to sound crazy.
“You realize it would be impossible for someone to just move that fence.”
Cal hated to disagree with his boss but he had to. He shook his head and spoke in a low, level tone so Mr. Garrett wouldn’t feel threatened. “I gotta say, it’s probably not impossible. We don’t go up that ridge too often. There’s not a lot of water up that way and the beeves don’t like to go out there. Kinda steep too. All they’d have to do is put up a new fence, attach it to the old one and tear down the part of the old one that marked the boundaries of the land. I saw someone too, runnin’ off into the woods toward Circle C.”
Mr. Garrett shook his head. “Unlikely. No one in this region would do that, and I don’t have any enemies on the Circle C ranch.”
“Are you sure?” Cal had his doubts. “It looks to me like the Circle C is letting their cattle through that way. I saw some grazing out beyond the fence line. But I swear, boss, there’s less land out there than there should be. That fence, it’s not in the right place. I saw holes from where the fence posts were and when I saw that man runnin’ off, well, I figured you needed to know.”
“I appreciate the concern, Cal, I really do. But how likely really is it that Carson is up to no good and trying to horn in on my land? I’ve never had trouble from him before.” Cal could hear Mr. Garrett’s grating voice become firm. He hesitated but he had to say something. He was right that Circle C had never caused them any trouble in the past. But men came and went as the seasons passed. Strangers could easily get hired on at Circle C and decide to take advantage of their position.
But this was something that was much too well thought out for it to have been some random ranch hand passing through for a season. Cal held the suspicion that Mr. Carson of Circle C was not the friend to Mr. Garrett that the latter thought.
Cal assumed one of the reasons for the lack of trouble with Circle C was because his boys didn’t go into Dry Gulch very often and they themselves didn’t associate with the fools of Circle C.
“The men at that ranch have a reputation, boss. Ya know that. They get their kicks drinking and gamblin’ down at the saloon in town. They’re loud and obnoxious. If not Mr. Carson, maybe some of his hands are doing this on their own. But it’s done, boss. I’m not lyin’ to ya.”
Mr. Garrett was quiet for a moment. Cal could tell he was contemplating what he’d been told.
“I don’t think it’s even likely,” the older man finally said. “But at the same time, I trust your judgment. I trust you. If they are trying to steal our land right under our noses, it’s a very serious situation. Unfortunately, it’s also a very serious accusation. We can’t just go over there and ask him.”
Cal raised his eyebrows. “We can’t?”
Mr. Garrett’s face showed a sarcastic look. “You haven’t dealt with Mr. Carson before, have you?”
Cal shook his head. “Just know the hands by reputation alone, boss.”
“I know you haven’t had a need to meet him. If you had, you’d know that he does not like surprises. Nor does he like visitors. And he has no friends.”
“All the more reason why we should…”
He stopped when Mr. Garrett started shaking his head back and forth. “No, Cal, you don’t understand. He doesn’t want to be disturbed. He has a short temper and a fist of iron. When he is mad at someone, he is a force to be reckoned with. Better just to be careful around that man. Gotta have some solid proof before I go around accusing a man of land theft.”
“Should I go into Dry Gulch and get the sheriff?”
Mr. Garrett appeared to be thinking about it. His face was like a stone. He lifted his clasped hands and pressed them against his closed mouth. After a moment, he shook his head.
“No. I don’t want to deal with that bunch. I need confirmation that it was someone from that ranch before I do anything about it. I think you must be mistaken. Carson isn’t a man I want to deal with on a personal basis. And I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Carson and the sheriff buddying up in Dry Gulch. Those two have been pals since they were schoolmates.” Mr. Garrett sneered, glancing down at the papers he was smashing beneath his elbows. “Bad enough I have to deal with that sneaky sheriff about this…” He didn’t continue. Cal wasn’t about to ask. Whatever the boss was dealing with had nothing to do with him.
“I know you’ve done business with him before, boss. Why did you do any dealings with a man you don’t respect?”
“The only business I’ve done with him was on necessity basis. I generally don’t like to, as you know, work with people I can’t trust and don’t personally like. But sometimes it is necessary to abandon your suspicions and dislikes in order to help the cause.”
“Or the company,” Cal said, wryly. “I understand. But we really need to check on it, boss. We really do. You need to see it. I need to take a couple men up there and move the fence posts back. And that man that ran off toward Circle C. He had to be a hand there, boss. He might come back. I need to know what you want me to do if he does.”
Mr. Garrett gave him a direct look and then nodded. “All right, Cal. If you insist the fence has been moved, I’m going to take you on your word. But before you do anything, I want you to take David or Darren up there and show them what you’ve seen. Let the boys assess it and then you all come back to me with your report. If it seems off to them, maybe I’ll send you in town to the sheriff. Maybe.”
Cal felt a swift sense of relief. “Okay. I’ll take one of them with me here in a few minutes if one of them is available. I don’t want to go to the sheriff, boss, but I do think it might be necessary.”
“You let me make that decision, Cal. The sheriff is what he is in name only. He’s not who I would have chosen to keep the law in Dry Gulch. I don’t trust him.”
“I appreciate you trusting me on this, boss.”
Mr. Garrett frowned. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, Cal, seein’ as how you take such good care of my ranch. And the men respect you a lot. But you can’t go around making trouble where there isn’t any. I don’t want you goin’ to the sheriff without consulting me first. Do I make myself clear?”
Cal swallowed hard. His boss was in a bad mood. He had never spoken to Cal that way before. Why was he so adamant about not going to the sheriff? He nodded. “I won’t go without asking you first, boss. I swear it.”
Mr. Garrett glanced up at the clock hanging on his wall. Cal looked at it without realizing he was following Mr. Garrett’s eyes. He didn’t know or care what time it was.
“David will be back from Dry Gulch in a few hours. Darren is probably your better bet. I’m pretty sure he is in the house. Don’t know what he’s doing. Maybe spending time with Laura. Come a few months down this road and they won’t have any privacy for years.”
Darren and Laura were expecting a baby in a few months. As much as he hated it, Cal couldn’t help feeling a great deal of sorrow, even though it was an amazing blessing for the entire Garrett family. Darren was the older son and he had started his family at the same age Cal had been when he and Cassie were expecting.
Cal was there when the couple announced their pregnancy and was immediately overcome with a terrible feeling of jealousy, which was followed quickly by remorse and regret. He felt guilty for being jealous and praised Darren and Laura, congratulating them. He truly was happy for them but watching Laura as her belly expanded with their growing child caused him constant pain. The thought of his unborn child and deceased wife was stronger than ever before. For almost five years, he had been able to block out the pain.
He could not do that now that his friends were expecting their first child, their family growing the way he had wanted his to. He stood up.
“I’ll go find him and take him up to the east ridge. Thanks for your permission, boss.”
Mr. Garrett shook his head. “No need to thank me. Like I said, you’re doing your job and we appreciate it. Don’t know what we’d do without ya, You know this ranch better than most of the people in the entire town. I just need you to keep me informed and don’t make any moves without consulting me first. If you feel you have to go talk to the sheriff, tell me first.” He scowled. “Both of those men are very hard to deal with. Have you dealt with the sheriff for any reason?”
Cal shook his head. “No, sir. Not since…”
Mr. Garrett nodded. “Yes, since you lost Cassie. Take my word for it, you don’t want to have to talk to him unless it’s absolutely necessary. The man can be,” He shook his head. “Unreasonable, to say the least. I hate it when I have to deal with him.”
Cal’s eyebrows shot up. He had always thought of Mr. Garrett as a leader, unafraid of any man. He was aware that his boss had begun teaching his young daughter how to shoot the moment they got word that Cassie had been murdered. Now Rachel knew exactly how to protect herself. It was a small bright spot in the otherwise dark memory of Cassie’s death.
Cal remembered receiving the telegram that told him his wife was gone. He had been standing on the front porch, watching as the young Pony Express rider rode up.
“Lookin’ for Cal Benson!” the young man had called out. Cal had responded with some confusion, lifting his hand in the air. He never received telegrams.
He remembered the way his hands shook when as he read the words he would never forget. The report had come from the very sheriff they were talking about. It was blunt and to the point. The words showed Cal’s heart no mercy.
Cassie Benson dead after raid of stagecoach. Dry Gulch undertaker has body.
That was it. That was how the sheriff informed Cal that his beautiful, young wife was gone and that he would not ever see the baby they would have had together. They would never have the happy family they had desired so much.
Cal’s legs had buckled underneath him. He fell to his knees on the porch, the telegram drifting from his shaking hands. He was overcome by the pain and sobbed like a baby, his large shoulders shaking, his hands over his face.
He remembered Rachel, a little girl of eleven, crying out when she saw him, coming up behind him and wrapping her small arms around his shoulders.
“Mr. Cal!” she had cried out. “Oh, Mr. Cal, don’t cry. Don’t cry. What’s wrong?”
To this day, Cal would never forget the love the little girl had shown him. He’d lifted one hand and placed it over one of her slender arms, unable to control his tears of pain. He didn’t tell her what had happened. She was at too tender of an age to understand such things. She had crawled around and wrapped her small body around him in the best hug a little girl like her could give.
He wrapped his arms around her in return and held her to him, trying not to squeeze too tightly. He continued to weep, holding on to her as if she was his own child. She didn’t let him go until her mother discovered her and moved into action, taking over the comfort of the young ranch hand. Even then, she had to pry the little girl from him. Her grip was unrelenting and she was surprisingly small for her young age.
In seconds, Cal relived that moment. Recalling how the sheriff had sent such a blunt and heartless telegram about Cassie made Mr. Garrett’s dislike for him more understandable. He decided that he, too, did not care for the sheriff.
“I understand, sir. I…I don’t care for the man, either. I’ll try not to have to go see him.”
Cal moved to pick up his hat and left the room, nodding his goodbye to his boss.
He walked through the hallway and to the front door. It had started pouring outside, a sure sign that he was going to be dealing with grumpy men all day long. He wouldn’t be surprised if most of them were back in the bunkhouse, hiding out from the raindrops.
He shook his head. He was just about to go out when he remembered there was access to all the other parts of the wings from the main northern wing. No need to go out into the rain. Mr. Garrett had added the hallways after his father died to make access easier for his three children.
Cal hadn’t needed access from inside the house to the other wings before. In fact, he hadn’t needed to get to David or Darren’s sections of the house for any reason at all over the years. The boys came to him when they needed something. He never went to them.
“Cal, why are you standing there like that? You almost look lost. Are you okay?”
He spun around on his heel to see Rachel smiling at him with amusement. “Oh my, you really are confused. Is everything okay?”
Cal shook his head. His memory of her comforting him when he found out about Cassie made him want to hug her again. He was amused by the thought. It would be such a surprise to her if he did that. The hug he’d received from her nearly ten years ago burned in his memory like a candle. “I need to find your brother,” he said simply, trying not to let any emotions come to the surface.
“I have two of those,” Rachel replied with a smile.
He returned it and said, “Yes, you do, don’t you? I’m talking about Darren. I know he’s got to be around here somewhere. He’s not going to leave his wife alone when she is with child.”
The words hit him like a brick and he wondered how he could have even said them. Leaving his wife alone while she was with child was the very reason he no longer had her. How many times had he been told if he was there, he would have been dead, too? It wouldn’t have mattered. He often thought he would rather have been dead than have to live without his wife and child, knowing he had been unable to save them.
When he looked at Rachel, he was glad to be alive. She was full of spirit and happiness. He was happy he’d been able to watch her grow into a beautiful young woman.
Rachel nodded. “They are very nervous. I hope they are able to relax once the child is born.”
“I agree. But they will probably be too busy taking care of the child to relax. They will be uptight for the rest of their lives.”
He chuckled and she joined him. “Oh, Cal. You are so funny. But you’re probably right.”
Rachel came closer to him, looking up into his eyes. He was a full 10 years her senior but she was one of the most level headed twenty-one year old women in Texas and he admired her. Having her stand so close to him didn’t make him uncomfortable because he’d known her for such a long time and thought of her as his little sister.
“You look a little upset,” she remarked, scanning his face. “Are you all right?”
He smiled weakly at her. “I’m fine, Miss Rachel. Glad to know I look terrible.”
She laughed. “I didn’t say you looked terrible, Cal. I said you look upset. Is something going on I should know about?”
“Probably not, miss. Best to leave things like this to the men.”
She lost her smile but did not frown. “So there is something going on.”
Cal chewed on his lower lip for a moment. He wasn’t going to tell her that he had been thinking about Cassie, remembering the overwhelming pain and how grateful he was that she had comforted him. Someday, when he could speak of it without bawling like a baby, he would thank her. But not yet. Allowing Rachel to see him get emotional was not on his to-do list. He didn’t even know if she remembered it. “It’s a possibility, miss. But I don’t want you to worry about it. You are safe and happy and it needs to stay that way.”
“So that I’ll never have a lick of adventure in my life?” Her smile was back. He thought about how it lit up her entire face. Never had he seen a young woman with such a radiant smile before. Except for Cassie’s. No one would ever compare to Cassie’s. He was sure of that. “I’m teasing you, Cal. You don’t have to tell me what’s going on. I’ll ask pa about it later and see what he will tell me. Sometimes he lets me know how business is going and sometimes he doesn’t.”
“I didn’t know he shared anything with you.”
Rachel nodded. “Yes, he does, sometimes. Not often. But sometimes.”
“I better go find Darren, Miss Rachel. And I gotta get to the chow house for some lunch. Stomach’s growlin’ at me. Gotta feed it.”
Rachel’s grin widened. “All right, then. You go on ahead. I saw Darren outside on the lawn with Laura. I think they might have just been taking a walk. I’m not sure.”
“Thanks for telling me, Miss Rachel. I’ll be back later to report to your pa. We may be having some trouble with…” He stopped and gazed at her, pressing his lips together. He had not intended to tell her about the ranch business. She raised her eyebrows curiously, wanting him to continue.
“Yes?” She dragged the word out, prompting him to continue.
He shook his head. “With a nearby ranch. We might be having some trouble. Not sure yet.”
“You can ask me anything you need to know. I know a lot about everyone in town.”
He nodded. “Yes, you do. You are a very popular young lady. Do you know anyone at Circle C Ranch?”
“That’s the ranch to the west of us, isn’t it?”
She looked away from him, gazing off into space as she thought about it. “I haven’t had much to do with Mr. or Mrs. Carson since…gosh, I must have been about five or six? Maybe younger. I have vague memories of playing with a little girl who lived on that ranch. But I believe she died. I remember going to a funeral. I was just so young. It was long before…”
This time it was Rachel who stopped talking. Fear slipped through her eyes. Cal knew exactly what she was talking about. His heart thumped at the thought that she did remember. It meant a great deal to him.
He nodded. “I understand, Miss Rachel.”
“Let me know if you need anything, Cal. I’m always here to help you.”
“I appreciate that. I really do.”
He turned away from her and glanced over his shoulder with amusement when she said, “I’ll be sure to be in the cellar when you do.”
Rachel and her brothers had discovered ages ago that if you stood in a certain spot in the cellar, you could hear every word that was spoken in her father’s study. The three had vowed not to tell their parents or anyone else for that matter. They didn’t want to lose such a prime spot to get information about life. It only took one loose tongue to spoil the whole thing.
But Rachel had given in during her teenage years and revealed the fact to Cal, after hearing something that she felt she needed to speak up about. Cal had kept their secret and, after a few years, had forgotten all about it until she reminded him that day.
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