Catcher Creek - 2
by Melissa Cutler
THE SECRET TO LOVING A LAWMAN
From the corner, Rachel let out a ragged breath that left the air in the room crackling with tension so brittle he could’ve snapped it like a stick of toffee.
Don’t look at her. Do the task at hand and keep your mind out of the gutter.
He picked up his hoof knife and took to cleaning the hoof, prepping it for the shoe. Ignoring Rachel.
He was doing fine with that until he asked her to bring him the shoe. Because then she came too close and said in a husky voice, “You might not be a rancher by profession, but your heart is pure cowboy.”
Don’t look at her. “Cowboy lawman, according to your sister.”
She let out a throaty laugh and strolled toward her perch in the corner. And then, as if he weren’t having enough trouble keeping his thoughts virtuous, he watched the sway of her ass until she resumed her seat. Their eyes met, and the look she gave him singed him where he stood.
Forcing his focus to shoeing, he tested the smoothness of Growly’s hoof with the pad of his thumb, filed down a couple rough spots, then fitted the shoe on. Before he had enough sense to restrain himself, he blurted, “Unlike Jenna, you dig my cowboy lawman vibe, don’t you?”
“What do you think?”
Actually, he wasn’t sure what the hell he’d been thinking, asking her that. He selected a No. 5 nail and a hammer, then tapped the first nail in place. Hoping to defuse the tension with humor, he painted on his best self-deprecating smile and said in an exaggerated Texas drawl, “Darlin’, how about I show you my six-shooter?”
Rachel snickered. “I bet that’s the line you use on all the ladies.”
“Hey, a guy’s got to work hard to earn the title Most Eligible Bachelor. My pretty face alone don’t cut it.”
The vandals brought beer. A bold move for trespassers. Then again, it was one in the afternoon, so either these punks carried the delusion they were above the law, or they set a new standard of stupidity from the other idiots who’d felt the call of duty to send a message to Rachel Sorentino.
Rachel watched through the zoom lens of her camera from the narrow canyon floor, hidden from view by a smoke tree, as one of four young men shook a can of spray paint. Not too difficult to imagine what he’d write on the boulder he and his buddies were grouped around. Catcher Creek’s small, but zealous, group protesting her family’s new business weren’t all that creative, she’d discovered. Probably involved the word bitchand maybe the classic leave town or else. She wondered if these guys were better spellers than the rest.
Lincoln, her horse, sidestepped restlessly. She understood his discomfort. Even in the shade as she and Lincoln were, there was no escape from the weather. The surrounding walls of soil radiated the kind of dry, baking heat that pricked at the skin like needles and dried noses to the point of bleeding. Didn’t help that this particular May was setting heat records all across New Mexico.
Not for the first time, she considered calling the sheriff’s department, but that presented its own mess of trouble. Besides, this far off the beaten path there was no way a deputy would arrive in time to do any good. And she refused to consider the ramifications of Vaughn answering the dispatch call. Heaven help her if it came to that.
Like always, Rachel had no one to rely on but herself. Well, not exactly. She had Lincoln, her closest companion for over a decade. And she could always rely on the interminability of the ranch’s problems, which hadn’t given her a day of peace in all her thirty-two years of life. Yeah, she could definitely count on the presence of problems pulling at her—livestock problems, sister problems, money problems. The list went on forever.
She wiggled her hand into her jeans pocket and grabbed an antacid from the roll. As it dissolved on her tongue, she lifted the camera from where it hung around her neck and snapped a string of photographs, zooming in on the face of the vandal holding the paint. He’d written the Band the Iin straight block letters on the boulder’s flat face. She swung the camera right and snapped pictures of the truck. It was angled so she didn’t have a clear visual of the license plate, but she could wait to capture that image while they were fleeing the sound of her gunshot.
The revolver in her saddlebag took .38s. She flipped the cylinder open and loaded ammo into two chambers.
Lincoln’s restless sidestep grew anxious. He wasn’t a fan of the gun, not the noise or the recoil or the bitter odor of gunpowder. But he was getting more accustomed to it since the grand opening of Heritage Farm, with its influx of tourists and media attention, had unleashed Catcher Creek residents’ underlying hostility toward her family and turned the farm into a vandal magnet.
Rachel’s first tip-off about the controversy was a low—key grumbling and grousing overheard in the shops and churches on Main Street, as reported by her youngest sister, Jenna, whose number-one hobby in life was keeping her finger on the pulse of the town’s rampant gossip. The low grumblings evolved into a petition to add “anti dude-ranch legislation,” as the petition authors dubbed it, to the next county ballot. It wasn’t long after the petition took to circulating that the first graffiti appeared on the ranch, scrawled on the side of one of Heritage Farm’s brand-new oil derricks.
Four months later, the protestors were still at it, and Rachel and her sisters were as determined as ever to make Heritage Farm a success.
She snapped the cylinder of her revolver in place, then spent a few minutes stroking Lincoln’s neck and whispering words of reassurance into his ear. She offered him a Fig Newton, his favorite treat. He snatched it from her hand, his tension easing as he chewed.
After a few more words of praise and affection into Lincoln’s ear, she straightened in the saddle and winced. The ulcer was bad today. She could actually feel it blazing a hole through her gut. She took the time to land another antacid on her tongue before raising the gun toward the sky, careful to aim to the left of the mesa so there’d be no chance of the vandals being hit by a stray bullet. She was a good shot, and the men probably stood at too great a distance for her to hit, but she respected the firearm enough to understand its inherent unpredictability.
The word bitch had been neatly scrawled on the boulder, spelled right and everything. Impressive. She squeezed the trigger and braced for the deafening echo through the canyon.
Her ears throbbed. The world went mute. All she could hear was the thud of her pulse in her ears and a high-pitched ringing. One of these times, she’d have to remember ear plugs. She kept her gaze on the vandals, who’d stopped painting and joking to scan the valley, searching for the source. They were too far away for her to gauge their facial expressions, but they weren’t running scared, that was for sure.
She fired again.
This time, she kept her eyes closed for a beat as the recoil swept through her system. The violence in the sound and energy of the gun hurt her whole body, from her teeth to her toes. Lincoln reared. She tugged the reins, asserting her control, and lowered the revolver. The vandals were running to the truck now. Excellent.
Setting the gun in her lap, she lifted the camera. Time for the money shot.
But as fast as they leapt into the truck cab and bed, they were out again, their hands filled with rifles.
“Oh, shit.” Damaged as her hearing was, her words were muffled and far away.
She dropped the camera to swing around her neck and took up the revolver again. The sweat on her palms interfered with her grip. She held it tight against her thigh as she dug for more rounds.
The turn of events had her reeling. Why was she loading rounds instead of watching the criminals’ truck haul ass off her property in a cloud of smoke, like the other trespassers she’d caught had done? Who the hell were these guys?
She had no idea, but whoever they were, they weren’t scared of her. Shooing them away with two wide shots hadn’t worked. Grazing one in the leg might, but she’d have to inch closer to stand a chance of making a hit. The revolver wasn’t designed for distance shots, nor did she have much practice with target shooting. Anyhow, inching closer would leave Lincoln vulnerable and alone. He might get scared and hurt himself trying to flee, even if she tied him up.
So she stayed put as the men lined up along the edge of the mesa, scanning the valley below. Bits of red earth crumbled at their feet, rolling down the steep slope like a mini-avalanche.
Rachel held her breath.
With a whoop, the lanky man with the short, dark hair fired in her general direction.
The sound rattled her to the bone. Lincoln tried to spin around. He wanted to run away. That made two of them. But if they turned and made a break for it, she’d give the shooters a clear shot once they’d climbed out of the canyon. Shrouded by shade and the smoke tree, her best bet was to stay still and convince Lincoln to do the same.
She tucked the revolver under her arm and offered him another Fig Newton. He refused to be pacified. She tossed the treat on the ground, grabbed her camera, and took a quick series of photographs of the men. She watched through the lens as one of them shouted something she couldn’t hear over the ringing in her ears. Whatever he said, all four rifles swung toward the canyon she hid in.
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