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Prettiest Little Horse Thief
 


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Prettiest Little Horse Thief


  Prettiest Little Horse Thief

  Gail L. Jenner

  Prettiest Little Horse Thief by Gail L. Jenner

  Smashwords Edition

  Copyright© 2014 Gail L. Jenner

  Originally published in Lassoing a Bride 2014

  Cover Design Livia Reasoner

  Prairie Rose Publications

  www.prairierosepublications.com

  All rights reserved.

  Smashwords Edition, License Notes

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  As water pooled around her ankles, Rebecca felt a refreshing chill. She needed the shock of the cold to clear her mind.

  It had been another hard day. After three months of struggling to get back on her feet, it seemed there should be a silver lining somewhere, but once more, it had eluded her.

  She stepped further into the stream, the water encircling the lacy edges of her knickers. She scooped up a handful and splashed it across her shoulder, gasping at the sudden cold.

  The sale had not gone well. Shih-chai, or Grandfather, her old Navajo ranch hand, had warned her she’d be disappointed, saying that the men who had conspired against Frank were determined to break her.

  She hadn’t listened. But try as she might, no one wanted the two mares she had taken to the sale. The dozen men straddling the board fence had studied the pair of bays before regaling her with every reason they weren’t worth the asking price.

  Dent, a loud-mouthed cowboy who prided himself on his natural ability as a wrangler, had been the most vitriolic. “You may be the prettiest horse thief in this part of the country,” he spat, “but that’s all you are. Frank never paid a dime for anything, and he probably stole these two. Ask anybody. He owed ev’rybody money, which means these cayooses ain’t really yours to sell.”

  She’d stood her ground, flashing him a contemptuous look, then, turning to a second cowboy, remarked, “They’re hardy, and worth double what I’m asking.”

  The sandy-haired cowboy had only shrugged.

  After that, no one offered her anything, so she returned home with two mares and an empty purse.

  The sound of hoof beats against dry earth startled her. Quickly, she scrambled up the rocky embankment, but not quickly enough.

  Three riders approached

  Dent, sitting astride a small Appaloosa, grinned down at her. On either side of him rode men she didn’t recognize. Both let out a whoop when they realized she was standing in front of them with only her thin undergarments covering her pale flesh.

  “I came thinkin’ we could strike a bargain,” crooned Dent as he wheeled off his horse. “But I never bargained on this.” His eyes swept over her with cold and hungry admiration. “Yep,” he whispered, “you gotta be the prettiest horse thief I ever seen.”

  Rebecca steeled herself. What a fool she’d been to think that it was safe to disrobe in the middle of the day. Instinctively, she reached for the dress she’d thrown over a bramble bush.

  Dent reached it first. Raising it to his face, he inhaled. “I do believe I smell— what? Sage?”

  She wrenched it from his fingers. “Why are you here?”

  Dent looked around as if thinking someone might suddenly appear out of nowhere. Unfortunately, Rebecca had left Shih-chai back at the barn, sneaking past him so that he couldn’t stop her from slipping down to the stream. Now, she regretted her foolhardy decision.

  Would she never stop being so impulsive?

  “I want those two mares,” snapped Dent.

  Rebecca held her tongue; she had to think before she got herself into more trouble. “What are you willing to pay?”

  Dent chuckled. “I ain’t paying a dime. I told you, Frank owed ev’rybody something, and he owed me more than thirty bucks.”

  “What?”

  Dent stiffened. “You callin’ me a liar? Seems to me, even a pretty little thief better tread softly…” He took a step closer, his glance sending a sharp warning through her.

  Rebecca hesitated.

  Dent laughed. “Figured as much.” He turned back to his companions. “You got somewhere else to be?” he growled.

  The men snickered and spun their horses back toward the ranch. “Don’t be too long,” called out the man on the right. “We’ll have those mares caught in no time.”

  Rebecca was shivering now, but not from cold or wet. She had to get away. But there was only the water and a rocky escarpment upstream, and she was barefoot.

  Dent, already anticipating her response, grabbed her by the arm. Then he reached for her hair and yanked her down to her knees.

  He was on her before she could get away, and as she tried to wriggle free, he leaned back and slapped her.

  She cried out, but Dent was stronger than she’d realized. She’d been a fool to think he was just a no-account cowboy. His hands were as brutal as vise grips and he held her fast, his breath coming in short, liquor-tainted gasps.

  He hissed, “No gettin’ out of this—”

  The next moments became blurred as Rebecca struggled against his weight and heat. He raked his foul-smelling mouth across hers and, for a moment, she thought she could manage an escape; she drew one knee up under him and violently thrust it upward.

  “Agh!” Dent wailed and slapped her again, his face contorted, his eyes dark with desire. He jerked at the ties of her camisole even as she tried to wrench herself free.

  Suddenly, the distant sound of an approaching rider registered in her brain, and she cried out again. Anyone, she thought. Let it be anyone who—

  But Dent seemed not to hear as he tore at the fabric of her garment. Again, she tried to move out of his grasp, pushing and shoving, but without success.

  Then a horse whinnied, and a man’s thunderous voice boomed. “Let her go!”

  Rebecca gasped, “Please—”

  Simultaneously, Dent fell against her, his body stilled by a blow to the head.

  ****

  Colt Ryman reached down and dragged the unconscious man off of the woman. “You okay, miss?”

  Though considered by many to be a rogue, he could not tolerate disrespect toward a woman— any woman. Neither was he a patient man, so he wasn’t about to wait for the scoundrel to try and explain his barbarous behavior.

  The woman stared up at him, her darkly-lashed eyes brilliant in the dying afternoon sunshine. He helped her to her feet, her thin cotton undergarment torn and hanging loosely about her.

  Realizing she was sorely exposed, he turned his eyes away from her full, heaving breasts and pulled off his own shirt. As he wrapped it around her, he saw she was trembling all over. Blood trickled from a cut on her lip.

  “Can you stand?”

  The woman did not respond at first, then, somewhat dim-wittedly, she raised her face to his.

  He studied the dark eyes; eyes that looked out from some unknown hiding place. What was it that burned there— fear, bitterness, resignation?

  He pulled her closer, wanting to protect her, hoping that his own body heat might comfort and revive her.

  He led her to his horse. “Let’s get you home,” he whispered. “Can you slip your foot into the stirrup?”

  Again, the woman said nothing, only grabbed at the saddle’s strings, so Colt gently hoisted her into the saddle before climbing up behind her. He glanced back at the man still lying in a heap. He consid
ered putting a bullet into him, but decided against it.

  He’d been on the run long enough; he’d like to slow down for a spell— and killing a man in cold blood was not his style.

  Colt’s horse picked its way westward. As they crested a stony ridge, Colt spied a thread of smoke.

  “Is that home?” he asked, looking down at the woman cradled in his arms. Her eyes were closed, her lips parted, her breath coming in short puffs.

  He pressed his horse on. If not her home, perhaps someone here would at least recognize her.

  ****

  The small frame house was square and squat, a simple farmer’s home. There was no picket fence, no flowers. The nearby barn was only slightly better constructed and maintained, boasting a pitched roof and two shuttered windows on the side nearest him. A pole corral looped around three sides of the structure.

  Colt noticed a mare and foal standing at one end of the pen while three or four chickens clucked noisily nearby.

  He rode up to the house and called out. “Hallo!”

  There was no response, but seeing that the barn door was open, he edged his horse closer to the barn.

  He called out a second time. No one emerged, so he decided he’d chance it and take the girl inside. Whoever lived here couldn’t resent being neighborly when this woman needed help so desperately.

  Colt slid out of the saddle, keeping one hand on the woman’s leg. She began to slump, but he drew her to him and lifted her into his arms. He made his way to the house. Oddly enough, the door was slightly ajar.

  He kicked it open and carried the woman into the dim and dreary interior. Spotting a bed in a small alcove, he laid her down and stepped back.

  He really had no idea what to do next. Would she wake up soon? he wondered. He looked around, inspecting his surroundings. There was little to admire, only an elaborately hand-carved rocking chair and a few scraps of fabric at the windows and across the table.

  Glancing back at the woman, he realized she was as pretty as a picture resting there, her dark hair framing a slender and shapely face. Much of her was revealed, in spite of the woolen shirt he’d wrapped her in, and he shook himself for responding to her in such a physical way.

  He needed to find out who she was and where she belonged.

  He left her and headed to the barn. Immediately, he spotted an old man crumpled just inside the barn door.

  Colt rushed to him. The old man, an Indian, had been beaten. Who the hell had done this— and why?

  The man’s eyes fluttered open. They were as dark as two hard chunks of coal.

  “Are you okay?” Colt asked.

  The eyes narrowed.

  Colt continued, “Please, I have a woman–inside–and she’s been hurt…”

  The old Indian staggered to his feet. “Becca?”

  “I don’t know who she is. Maybe you can tell me.”

  Colt helped the old man into the house.

  “Becca,” he groaned as he rushed to the woman. She hadn’t moved, but remained unconscious. He muttered something in a language Colt couldn’t understand.

  Colt felt a wave of relief. “You know her? She was being assaulted, by a man.”

  “You kill him?” The old Indian turned his piercing dark eyes on him.

  “No. Maybe I should have—”

  “Yes,” said the Indian flatly. He murmured, “Shih-chai will.”

  “Shih-chai?”

  The Indian did not explain himself, but Colt wondered if he were Shih-chai.

  The old man grunted. “Bad men take her horses. Five. And Frank dead.”

  “Frank? They killed a man?”

  The man shook his head. “No. Husband… he die many weeks ago. Not a good man. Not a bad man, but no good for Becca.”

  Colt sighed. This was getting more complicated by the minute, and he certainly didn’t need this complication to his already-complicated life. But he wasn’t one to back down, even when the odds were stacked against him.

  He looked down at Becca who had finally begun to stir.

  The elderly man, as tender as any father, leaned over and began to mumble, stretching out one arthritic and wrinkled hand, stroking the young woman as one would a small child. Again he spoke in a language Colt did not comprehend.

  Rebecca smiled. “I prayed you would come, Shih-chai,” she whispered to him, not seeing Colt. “I knew you would find me.”

  Shih-chai shook his head. “He find you.”

  Rebecca looked past Shih-chai. “I don’t remember—” she said, turning back to the old Indian.

  “Just as well,” Colt said, stepping forward.

  “I only remember—” she said, frowning, “the water. It was cold.” She shook her head. “And then…and then…the men.” Suddenly she began to tremble. “Dent. It was Dent.”

  She looked up at Colt. “How did you find me?” Her eyes appeared luminous in the shadows of the windowless alcove as she searched his face.

  Colt explained. “I spotted the Appaloosa from a ridge half-a-mile away, and wondered why such a fine looking horse, saddled and bridled, might be wandering free. I made my way down to the stream...” He didn’t finish his thought…that it was then he spotted the man assaulting her.

  Shih-chai nodded. “And bad men come here. Took mares. And stallion.”

  Rebecca straightened, color returning to her face. “Frank’s stallion?”

  She glanced from Shih-chai to Cole, who stood over her. She looked him over carefully, and his lips curved, watching as she noted his ragged blue pants, well-worn boots and long brown hair tied off with a thong. She wondered if he might be an outlaw. Or maybe a Yankee, still wandering and nowhere to go?

  She cleared her throat. “I need to thank you … sir,” she began awkwardly, looking down. He saw the instant she realized she was dressed in his shirt, and that he’d probably seen more of her than he should have in getting her covered decently. She pulled the shirt more closely about her. “I — I don’t even know your name.”

  Colt smiled. “My apologies. Name is Colt Ryman.”

  Rebecca nodded. “Rebecca Williams. And this is Shih-chai, or Grandfather,” she added softly. “Not my grandfather, although I’d be proud if he was.”

  Shih-chai smiled for the first time.

  “Mrs. Williams?” Colt asked, knowing the answer, but wanting to hear her respond.

  “Widow,” Rebecca said. “My husband died three months ago.”

  There wasn’t much grief in her voice, testimony to what Shih-chai had indicated earlier, that Frank Williams was not a very good man. That pleased him; for whatever reason, it pleased him a great deal.

  Shih-chai spoke. “Dent much dangerous man. Shih-chai will kill him.”

  Rebecca reached for the old man. “No, Shih-chai, you will not. We will tell the sheriff.”

  Shih-chai shook his head. “Sheriff do nothing.”

  “He’s my brother-in-law,” snapped Rebecca. “He better do something!”

  ****

  Colt left Rebecca and Shih-chai then, not sure what he should do. He would stay, at least for the night, but he’d bunk in the barn. Wasn’t fitting for a stranger to accept more. He only wished now he’d shot Dent when he’d had the chance, complication or no. The man’s intention to hurt Mrs. Williams—Rebecca— had probably not been diminished by Colt’s interference. That meant he was still very dangerous.

  Rebecca. Even the sound of her name was sweet to his tongue.

  He led his horse to the barn. It was small but sturdy, with four horse stalls and a wall of tack that indicated that Williams had invested good money in their equipage. Frank obviously cared deeply about his horses.

  Apparently, he hadn’t felt quite as strongly about his wife.

  Colt unsaddled his horse and brushed him down. Then he raked up a small bundle of hay and dropped it in front of the gelding. There was only a scant amount of hay left in the bunk at the end of the barn, another indication that Rebecca Williams was in desperate need.

  How could
he help her?

  He put his hand against the flank of his horse. “You did good today, Marse,” he said.

  When he returned to the house a half-hour later, Rebecca was dressed in a simple brown dress that buttoned up to her throat and boasted little adornment, apart from a strip of pearl-colored lace around her neck. She wore a large apron that accentuated her tiny waist, and her dark hair was swept back and away from her face.

  She was beautiful, thought Colt. Too beautiful. That was a dangerous thing for a woman out here in the arid Arizona Territory.

  And without a husband?

  He stood at the doorway until Rebecca waved him inside. “Please, sit down. It’s not much of a place,” she began. “I apologize—”

  “Don’t. It’s considerably better than the places I’ve stayed in over the last eleven months.”

  She looked at him quizzically. “Do I need to ask if you’re an outlaw?”

  Colt smiled. “I’ve been called an outlaw, but I don’t believe there’s a price on my head. Still, I haven’t stayed in one place for more than a few days at a time.”

  “Oh?”

  Colt scratched his head. He wasn’t sure how much he should reveal at this point. He was far too taken with this woman to jeopardize the next few minutes, or days, or—

  He chuckled. “I’m a bit of a hot head,” he said apologetically, “but that’s all.”

  “Hmm,” returned Rebecca, “my late husband was a hot head. He got us into a fair amount of trouble because of it.”

  “Not to worry, Mrs. Williams,” Colt said. “My temper mostly flares when I see trouble on the way.”

  “Well,” she said with a sigh, “looks like trouble already came. And I think it’ll be coming after you, too.”

  Colt watched the color in Rebecca’s face fade. He took a step. “Please. I only wish I’d come along sooner. It ain’t right that—”

  Rebecca cut him off with a wave of her hand. “No, if it weren’t for you—” Her voice cracked. “I’m so grateful. Ever so grateful.” She took a deep breath. “Shih-chai has warned me many times not to go down to the stream alone. But I never felt I had to worry— until now.”

 
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