Wyoming Territory 1880
The heavy blacksnake whip uncoiled with the speed of a rattlesnake striking. This long, wicked, leather viper snapped with a sound akin to that of a gunshot right between the ears of the two lead mules. They quickly picked up their pace pulling the other cantankerous team with them. The wagon picked up speed.
The home ranch was only a half mile away. That's not to say the place was my own home. No, I didn't own it. I just worked there. I was the cook. I was driving the supply wagon in from the roundup to restock needed provisions.
I hadn't always been a cook. At one time, I'd been a well-respected teacher and educator back in Kentucky. The financial panic of '71 had cost me my home and wiped out my life savings. Two years later, my wife had succumbed to a long illness.
Following the lead of others before me, I drifted west. I knocked around aimlessly until eight months ago I'd ended up on the sprawling Red Bell ranch. I was certainly no cowboy so I took the only job available. Surprisingly, as it turned out, I was a mighty fine cook.
The four-up team pulled through the back pasture gate and headed for the supply shed next to the cook shack and bunkhouse. I jumped from the seat and hit the ground in a single motion. Not bad for an old fella who had just reached the mark of forty years in age!
After tying the team, I turned and saw my employer leave the main house and head in my direction. Mrs. Elizabeth Allison Bell had been widowed a year ago. Out of respect, the ranch hands called her Miss Beth. She was most assuredly a woman deserving of respect.
In the short span of the few minutes it took her to walk the distance to where I was at, I studied the lady's features. I knew her age to be six years younger than mine. Her hair, which was usually tied back in a bun or a braid, was now flying free. Those luminous red locks and her married name had been the inspiration for naming the ranch. The woman had a sprinkling of faint pink freckles adorning each check. While not a classic beauty, she was nonetheless very attractive. Her blue-checked gingham dress covered an unmistakably matured feminine form. Sparkling green eyes glistened in the noonday sun.
Finally, the woman reached her destination, stopped, and held out an envelope. Her melodious voice spoke, "This letter came for you Mister Sharp. It was stuck in with some mail I picked up in town a few days ago. I just now found it where it fell on the floor under my desk."
Unconsciously, my hand reached out. I hadn't had mail since I'd been here. Yet, so enamored was I with the feminine vision before me that I didn't even glance to see who the letter was from. Instead, my own voice replied, "Miss Beth, I'll ask you again to please call me by the name the cowboys do. Mister Sharp makes me feel older than the old-timer that I am."
A grin creased the corners of this lady's summer-tanned face and a twinkle flickered in her eyes. If I didn't know better, I would have thought there was a bit of flirtatiousness in her tone when she said, "Mister Warsester Jackson Sharp, I will start calling you Jack on the very day you start calling me Beth!"
Any further discussion on the subject was interrupted by the barking of the redbone hound standing beside the woman. We both looked in the direction the dog was fixated on. A dust cloud could be seen in the distance. A rider was coming and from the looks of that plume of dust he was traveling fast. Only four years had passed since the battle at Little Bighorn and not all Indians had been pacified. Rustlers and outlaws preyed on secluded ranches.
My hand brushed the holster belted high on my hip. The feel of the .44 Smith and Wesson offered comforting assurance. This revolver was called the Russian model and had the reputation of being one of the finest and most accurate of all handguns. I'd learned that it pays to be careful in this wild, western country. So, as an added precaution, I climbed back on the wagon and pulled a rifle from its scabbard. This was the centennial model 1876 Winchester chambered for the powerful 45/75 cartridge.
I wasn't one to brag, but I considered myself a mighty fine shot with either pistol or rifle. Certainly, I was hoping that gunplay wouldn't now be necessary. This woman and I were the only two here to face trouble. The seven Red Bell ranch hands were scattered all over the north range gathering cattle.
The rider raced through the main gate and spurred his horse straight towards the woman standing beside me. He pulled viciously on the reins and the heavily-lathered horse slid to a stop. As soon as his boots hit the ground Shorty Walsh's voice erupted in a volcanic explosion of high-pitched words, "Miss Beth, oh Lord-a-mercy, Miss Beth! Oh mercy, Ma'am they've got your boys locked up in jail back in Warbow! They're going to hang them! They're going to string them at noonday tomorrow!"
Elizabeth Bell knew as well as I did that Shorty was one of the biggest practical jokers in all of Casper County. This diminutive cowboy worked for Roy Peak on the Rambling Rose ranch. Shorty had been in trouble more than once for his devilish mischievousness. Yet, there was a seriousness of purpose and manner in his voice and actions which belayed skepticism. Why, I believed he was telling the truth! Apparently, so did the lady standing beside me. Her face drained of color. She would have collapsed to the ground had I not caught her in my arms.
One of us had to get the real story out of the winded cowboy, so I sternly spoke, "Shorty, spit the rest of it out! If this is some kind of a joke, I'll plant a 44 slug right between your roguish, devil-may-care eyes!"
The cowboy replied earnestly, "Oh no Sir, this ain't no joke! They got the boys for stealin' a horse. Why, they even owned-up to it! Old Judge Henry is one of them hanging-judges. He said that horse-stealin' just couldn't be abided in this wild western country. He said he'd put the noose around their necks hisself!"
The woman I held, Miss Beth, was rocking her head back and forth upon my shoulder. She had made no attempt to pull away from me even though my muscular arms were holding her tightly in a somewhat intimate embrace. I knew she must be in shock and I had every reason to believe that I was, too. But, I also knew neither of us believed for one second that her two sons were horse thieves! The boys were young, headstrong, and wild. They had become more so in the year since their father had passed. Jason, nearing seventeen, was a natural-born leader. He was quick, intelligent, and curious. Jake, at fifteen, would have followed his brother to hell and back. He was loud, rowdy, and temperamental.
I was more than just the ranch cook to these boys. When their mother had found out that I had been fairly-well educated she had offered me extra wages to tutor them. The nearest school was thirty miles away in Warbow. Surprisingly, the boys and I got along amicably. They took to their lessons without bucking and kicking. Perhaps I spoiled them a bit by cooking up extra treats like cookies, pies, and candy.
Anger flared in me. By God nobody was putting a noose around those boy's necks! Not if I had anything to say about it! And, I had aplenty to say. I started barking out orders, "Shorty, catch you up a fresh horse out of the corral. Ride hell-for-leather out to the north range and round up the hands. Tell them to cut across Juniper Pass and head for Warbow. Tell them to bring their guns. There's going to be hell to pay before anyone harms those boys!"
My next orders were directed toward the lady in my arms, "Beth, run to the house and grab a hat. We're heading for town!"
With the speed of a lady caught in a whirlwind, she ran and was back in a flash wearing a man's floppy, wide-brimmed cowboy hat. In her arms she cradled a double barreled 12-gauge Greener shotgun. I didn't have to ask her if it was loaded. She was a western woman, of course it was loaded!
I gave this woman a boost up to the wagon seat. The seat was high and she was having a time with her dress and the shotgun. Unceremoniously, I placed my hands against the soft, feminine, cloth-covered flesh of a shapely derriere and pushed. Perhaps this wasn't the appropriate thing to do, but in my defense, I silently thought, "Damn the proprieties!"
The blacksnake whip I held was singing in the air. It snapped and cracked as I wielded it like a crazed maestro waving his baton at an unruly orchestra. The four mules stepped lively to the tune. They had a grueling thirty-mile trip ahead of them. My conscious mind had to admit the truth. No matter how hardy and strong those mules were, they would only be able to make about twenty miles before darkness would overtake us. Beth and I would have to camp for the night. Thinking ahead, I knew the perfect spot.
Miles fell behind as swiftly as the hands on a tight-wound pocket watch spin around. An early-evening rain began falling. A cool wind blew in from the north. Looking to my side, I saw Beth shivering. Thankfully, we were only a short distance away from the cliff overhang I sought. The ranch mules seemed to read the anticipation in my mind. They lifted their hooves and began trotting.
Our haste suddenly led us to our secluded destination. The entire team and wagon fit under the sheltering roof of a giant overhanging rock. My arms reached up to help Beth down from the seat. As my hands encircled her waist, I knew that she too was soaked to the skin. Neither one of us had a change of clothing. If it was left up to old Mother Nature, it was going to be a long, cold night.
My eyes gazed at the wet, bedraggled, disheveled woman I had in my arms. What I looked at was the most beautiful female creature I had ever seen! My heart swelled, my manhood stirred, and then I knew love and desire had entered into my life again. Yet, I had no right to think this way. Did I? Beth was a lady rancher while I was only a cook!
In an effort to forestall any more thought on the subject, I spoke with authority, "Beth, you gather up some wood for a fire and I'll tend to the mules. I'm afraid it can't be helped, but we're going to have to settle in for the night. We'll get an early start at sunup."
This woman had a mind of her own, I knew of a certainty to be proven fact. True to the color of her flaming red hair, she had a fiery temper, too. Yet surprisingly, she did not speak her mind and her temper didn't flare. She accepted the unavoidable and simply replied, "Yes Jack."
Beth called me Jack! She stood right there in her soaking-wet gingham dress and used my name without a Mister to preface it! It was only then that I realized I had been calling her by her first name without the preamble of Miss! In a dizzying quandary, I wondered what this meant and if perhaps some boundary of decorum had been intentionally crossed by the both of us.
Beth had the fire blazing when I came back from tethering the mules where they could graze. The fire was not so big as to give out too much smoke or light. She certainly didn't want to attract uninvited guests such as renegade Indians or outlaws. While relatively small, the crackling fire provided comforting solace to tired, weary, rain-soaked muscles. A twitch in my side reminded me of the long scar across my ribs. My body had carried this jagged whelp as an unwelcome souvenir for seventeen years. My blood had saturated a field in the gentle rolling pastures outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Come all ye rampaging renegades with your malicious intent; I was no stranger to armed conflict!
My eyes saw Beth shivering with her hands stretched towards the flames. Night was falling and a chill was in the air. I walked to the wagon and returned with my arms loaded. My stock of camping supplies was meagerly limited to one woolen blanket, a tarp, a cup, and a covered dutch-oven. Luckily, the tarp had covered the other items and kept them dry. Spreading the tarp on the ground beside the fire, I wrapped the blanket around Beth's shoulders and directed her to sit. Joining the woman on the ground, I looked at her with a mischievous grin and then I, not so innocently, inquired, "You hungry?"
My female traveling companion glared at me as if she might think I was an addle-brained idiot. Her brusque reply carried the same conviction, "Of course I'm hungry! Jack, I haven't eaten since breakfast and I bet you haven't either. We rushed away before I could even think about bringing food. Right now, I'd give an arm and a leg for a hot cup of coffee and a piece of bread. I guess we'll just have to starve until we get to town tomorrow!"
Pulling the dutch-oven closer, I smiled and gave my feminine fireside friend a puzzling wink. Despite the circumstances leading up to this unexpected adventure, my answering voice was laced with mischievous merriment, "Not necessarily. Lady Beth, you just happen to be in the company of a cook!"
With that said, I pulled the lid off the heavy, oversized metal pot. Beth's sparkling-green eyes lit up and stared in amazed wonderment. A treasure trove of eatable delights lay within. These were leftovers from the morning meal I'd prepared for the cowboys. Nearly a dozen biscuits lay within along with an equal amount of long, thick slices of cooked bacon.
We ate in famished silence. Beth had moved close enough to share the heavy blanket. We became cocooned in woolen warmth. Why it happened or how, I couldn't have explained, but I gave in to an overwhelmingly irresistible urge. My lips brushed Beth's cheek. Unbelievably, her face turned towards mine and our lips met.
Sleep was a fitful enemy this night. The ground was cold and uncomfortable. The fire and the heavy blanket fought a valiant battle with the frigid darkness. The only consoling comfort found throughout the long night were the ardent kisses given and received.
Morning light chased away the long night's darkness. Brilliant sunshine lit the road to town. The main street of Warbow was crowded as I maneuvered the team and wagon towards the jail. All seven of the Red Bell cowboys were already standing vigil in front of the sheriff's office. The cowhands were each heavily armed.
I pulled back on the reins and the team came to a stop. Sheriff Virgil Clay strode out onto the porch. He raised his voice and spoke with authority, "Mrs. Bell, you'd better tell these boys to stand down! I won't stand for any interference with justice!"
Beth eluded my grip and jumped to the ground. Her red hair was flying and her temper was flaring. She spoke abruptly, "Virgil, you're going to get interference aplenty! You're not hanging my boys! Step aside and let me see them! I'll want Mister Sharp here to come in with me.''
Surprisingly, the lawman stepped aside without argument. I followed Beth inside. The sheriff entered, closed the door, and locked it. Judge Barnabas Henry occupied a chair beside the sheriff's desk. I've heard it said that God-Almighty himself would tremble if forced to face judgment before this fearsome jurist.
The Sheriff Clay brought the boys out from a cell. They both wore heavy shackles on their hands and feet. My own temper was now flaring. My heart was racing. Paternal instincts had been awakened. Blood will flow this day before a noose will encircle either boy's neck!
Beth's eyes were aflame, yet her voice spoke softly, "All right now, I want the story from you boys. As your mother, I will take your words as gospel-truth. So, let's hear you say them!"