Widows of Wildcat Ridge
Genre: Western historical romance
With the death of her father last month, Blessing Odell inherited the largest ranch in that part of Utah, the Rafter O. She goes by the nickname Buster and wears men’s overalls but they can’t disguise her regal beauty and natural grace. She is also generous to the community, which is why she’s splitting proceeds from the sale of 100 horses with the widows of Wildcat Ridge.
Thad King has tracked stolen horses to the Rafter O Ranch. He’s determined to capture and see punished the horse thieves who beat his former employer before stealing his horses. He is successful in being hired to work on the ranch, but he doesn’t want to believe Buster Odell or her father had anything to do with stealing horses.
Convinced of her father’s innocence, Buster and Thad work together to discover the real culprit, even though it leads them on a dangerous journey.
Thad continued on the trail toward the [ranch] headquarters. He heard a rider behind him and pivoted on the saddle to check. The woman he’d watched rode toward him, rifle drawn and dogs racing beside her.
Thad raised his hands. “Whoa, I’m peaceful.”
She reined her horse with one hand while keeping the rifle pointed at him and he admired her ability to do so. “State your business.”
“I saw the posters about the horse sale and thought you might be hiring. Asked directions from George Tweedie at the mercantile. I’ve come to talk to Buster Odell or Dub Reilly.”
“Mister, you’re talking to Buster Odell.” She gave him a visual going over so thorough he figured she knew the condition of his back teeth. “You look too well-heeled to be a drifting cowboy. What ranch experience have you had?”
She was a beautiful woman in spite of the way she was dressed. Why would she tolerate being called Buster? Now she was close, her blue eyes with thick, dark lashes mesmerized him. She looped the reins around the pommel and pushed her hat from her head, leaving it dangling by the chin strap.
Her flawless skin was too tanned to be fashionable but created a longing in him to caress her cheek and learn if skin could be as soft as hers appeared. Sunlight caught in her thick blond hair that was even prettier than he’d first suspected. He’d better get hold of himself and mask his thoughts or she’d shoot him for sure.
He flexed his shoulders. “My arms are getting mighty tired. Can I lower my hands before I tell you?”
She motioned with her gun barrel. “All right but don’t make any sudden moves or I’ll shoot. Now talk.”
He laid his hands in plain sight on his thighs. “I worked eight years for Colin Ross the other side of Lizard Hill. Started with his ranch when I was eighteen and worked up to being his foreman.”
“Why would you leave a job as foreman, especially this time of year? You get fired for some reason?”
He shook his head, sorrow warring with anger over his friend’s demise. “Ross died. His heirs were busy stripping the ranch before they sold it. I couldn’t stomach standing by while those vultures argued over divvying up what he’d worked hard for so I cleared out.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You drifted by several ranches before you reached this one—you look for a job at one of them and get rejected?”
Thad figured a woman in a man’s business had a reason to be suspicious but her attitude annoyed him. “I’ve saved most of my wages so I’m not starving. Thought I’d see some of the country. When I hit town those sale handbills caught my interest. I like working with horses.”
As if she’d made a snap decision, she quickly slid the rifle into the saddle scabbard and set her hat on her head. “All right, follow me. You can put your gear in the bunkhouse. Pay is thirty a month on the fifteenth.”
He followed her to a headquarters that appeared straight out of a how-to guide for ranchers. One barn appeared to be for hay while a second one clearly was built to hold animals. A pigsty held noisy swine while chickens pecked on the ground of a large hen enclosure.
The air carried a faint wisp of smoke that let him pick out a smokehouse he gauged was large enough to hold a year’s meat. The bunkhouse of square cut logs appeared sturdy enough to withstand even the coldest winters. What really captured his attention was the house.
Obviously the boxy, two-story house had been added onto over the years. Benches, ladder-back chairs, and a couple of rockers decorated a wide, covered porch. Though plain, the size of the home was impressive for any ranch, but especially out here.
He couldn’t tear his gaze from the house. “Looks like the place was settled quite a while back. Is there a lumber mill nearby?”
She , apparently proud of her home. “Papa set up a mill on the site to cut the timber. He wanted logs for the house but Mama had her heart set on what you see. They were among the first whites in the area. Nothing fancy but we like it here.”
“Looks nice. Your folks ever have trouble with the Indians?”
She stiffened and the smile disappeared. “Papa and I have always got along with them. Fed them when times were bad. He was blood brothers with one of the major Ute chiefs. You okay with that?”
He couldn’t understand her defensive remark. “Sure, why wouldn’t I be? Just making conversation.”
“Lot of people hereabouts don’t like Indians. I figure it’s a person-by-person case as to whether they’re good or not, just like it is with whites.”
“I agree that’s true. Like they say, don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.”
In front of the house, she reined in at a hitching post where there was a water trough for the horses. “Come in and I’ll get your name and mailing address for your next of kin. Always do that first thing because you never know when an accident will occur out here.” She shoved her gloves in her pocket and pointed at a door mat. “Be sure and wipe your feet or have your hide.”
He beat the dust off his clothes before he took off his gloves and carefully wiped his feet. She waited until he followed her into the house. They entered a large foyer and she hung her hat and jacket on the hall coat tree. Then, she strode quietly down a polished wood floor and into another room. He wondered how she could make so little noise while wearing boots.
She sat at a large oak desk and gestured to the chair facing her. Piles of papers littered the desk. Other stacks were on most flat surfaces of the room. Apparently she caught him appraising the state of the office.
“Some sorry sidewinder came in Sunday while we were at church. Made a right holy mess of the office and my father’s bedroom.”
“No wonder you’re suspicious of strangers. They get much?”
“Pfft. Dub and I can’t even figure out what’s missing until we get this mess straightened.” After opening a drawer, she took out a piece of lined cardstock. “You want to fill this out or you want me to?”
“Suit yourself.” He figured some of the cowboys couldn’t read and write well enough, but he didn’t fall into that category.
“In that case, I’ll do it so I can read it. Spell your name the way you want it and then follow by your birth date.”
“First name is spelled T-H-A-D-D-E-U-S and last name is K-I-N-G. Friends call me Thad. I was born April 18, 1858 in Colorado.”
She wrote in a flowery hand much fancier than he could have done. “Next of kin?”
“Sister in Denver, Mrs. Clarice Norton.” He gave her the address.
She blotted the card and filed it in a wooden box atop the desk. “All right, that’s done. Come through to the kitchen. I imagine Marnie’s about to ring the bell for those who want the noon meal at the house.”
He followed her down another hall and into a large kitchen. A long table stretched to accommodate eighteen chairs. As they came into the room, he heard the loud peal of a bell.
A middle-aged woman turned from the range with a plate of beef. “And who is this?”
“New hand. Wait until everyone’s here and I’ll introduce him.” Buster took a seat at the table.
The other woman snapped, “Blessing Odell, you’ll make a proper introduction now or you’ll get no dinner this day.”
Buster slumped a bit then appeared to recover. “Marnie, this is Thad King. Thad, Marnie Keith is our housekeeper, cook, and queen of the castle.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Keith.” For a few seconds, he’d wondered if the housekeeper had called Buster by the name of Blessing or if she was giving a command to say the blessing. He was surprised to realize the young woman didn’t much like her name and wanted to be called Buster. He was even more surprised an employee ordered around her employer.
Another woman came in from ringing the bell on the porch. She skirted around the sides of the room and wouldn’t meet his gaze. Buster didn’t introduce the shy woman who was thin and wiry and looked to be around thirty.
Instead, Buster nodded to the cook. “Guess Tony and Sam told you they’re checking fence all day on the back range. Reckon Mac and Dub will be in, though.”
Sure enough, booted steps sounded on the porch before two men came in. The redhead looked to be in his twenties but the other man was fiftyish.
When they’d all been seated and the older man said grace, Buster gestured to Thad. “Hired a new man. Name’s Thad King. This is Dub Reilly who’s ranch foreman, Mac , and Lucy Garton.”
Dub caught his eye. “Saw your horse out front. Fine animal and looks in top shape.”
Thad nodded. “Raised him from a foal. Official name’s Gold Mine, but I call him Goldie.”
The foreman’s face held question. “Saw Colin Ross’ brand on his flank.”
“Colin was my boss and friend for eight years and a fine man. He died recently and his heirs are stripping the place before they sell it.”
Dub shook his head sorrowfully and forked up a bite of meat. “Ross is dead? That’s a durn shame. I only met him a few times, but he seemed like a good man.”
“He was one of the best. Took me on when I was a know-it-all eighteen-year-old and trained me until I had enough sense to be his foreman. Shame his kin don’t have more respect for him.”
Dub tsked his disapproval. “No figuring some folks.”
“They hardly ever visited him when he was alive. But, when they learned he’d died they couldn’t wait to show up and start carrying off his belongings. Frankly, I couldn’t stomach standing by and watching so I lit out.” He hadn’t been able to keep the bitterness from his voice.
“Well, we can sure use help here. Buster’s father passed away just over a month ago. On top of that tragedy, I had to let one man go last week for laziness.” The foreman speared him with a look. “Hope that won’t be a problem with you.”
He understood the warning. “You can count on at least a day’s work for a day’s pay from me. I enjoy ranching and can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
That was true. Of course, he’d rather ranch his own spread, but that would come in time. In the meantime, he intended to find out who’d killed Colin Ross.