Thursday, October 21, 2010
Excerpt from Wearing the Rancher's Ring - Western Winter Wedding Bells
Cedar Flat, California
Early December snowdrifts sent a powerful chill clear through Rachel Bodine’s body, despite her heavy winter coat and fur-lined boots. After checking on her livestock and closing the barn door, she scooted across the Double J yard just as Jess, her cook and Mikey Ray, her youngest ranch hand, came barreling up the road in the wagon.
“Miss Rachel! Miss Rachel!” Mikey Ray’s usual smile gone, he waved his arms high in the air to catch her attention. “We found an injured man up on the south pasture,” he shouted from the wagon.
Rachel’s heart pounded seeing a man’s body lying across her buckboard covered in a woolen blanket. Her mind flashed to her husband, Josh, coming home to her this way more than a year ago. Only Josh’s injuries had been fatal. He’d come home to her, dead.
She squeezed those haunting memories away with a quick blink of the eye and focused on the wagon. She couldn’t make out whom the man was, his face covered in a shabby beard and felt hat. Jess reined the two mares in and brought the wagon to a halt just steps from her front porch. “He’s in a bad way, Missy,” Jess said. “Looks like he’s been shot and robbed. He was on foot, his horse probably stolen too. Figured he’d freeze to death out there.”
Rachel gazed into the wagon. “Who is he?”
“Okay, let’s see to him. Bring him into the house.”
“The house, Missy?” Jess asked, his bushy brows gathering like a storm. “You don’t rightly know him.”
“I know one thing, Jess, he’ll freeze to death out in the bunkhouse. He’s likely frostbitten. He needs warming up real fast.”
“But you alone with little Johnny, and this stranger?”
“I’m not alone, Jess. I’ve got Josh’s peacemaker and his Winchester and you’ve seen me use ‘em. Now, bring the man inside. I’ll build up the fire in the hearth. We’ll put him into Johnny’s room for now. Take off his wet clothes and wrap him in a dry blanket on the bed. Johnny fell asleep in the main room near the hearth so be as quiet as you can manage.”
Rachel went inside, tiptoeing past her sleeping little boy as he lay on a bundle of quilts and added logs to the fire. Her ranch hands moved the man inside her house and laid him on Johnny’s bed, the room partitioned from the main room by a curtain. She heard the injured man groan in pain. Quickly, she began heating water on the cookstove to cleanse his wound. She made as little noise as possible, hoping Johnny wouldn’t wake.
Once Mikey Ray and Jess had the stranger situated, they walked out of the bedroom. Jess had a scowl on his face – he’d been with her for years and since Josh’s murder he’d been overly protective.
“I don’t know about this, Missy.”
“Jess, do me a favor.” She took his arm and walked him to the door. “Cook up something good for the boys tonight, something to warm them on such a chilly night.”
“I’ll do just that and I’ll be bringing you a portion of supper when I’m through.”
Rachel cast him a smile. “You mean you’ll be checking up on Johnny and me.”
He scratched his jaw. “That too. I can ride into town to get the doctor.”
“You will, but wait until dawn. The weather’s real bad right now and I don’t need to worry over you trampling six miles through the night to fetch the doctor. I know how to help this man,” she assured him. Jess was getting up in age and was too stubborn to let anyone else go for help. Tomorrow, Rachel decided would be soon enough. Being a doctor’s daughter, Rachel had learned early on how to tend an injury.
She saw the men to the door and then turned her attention to the stranger out cold on her son’s bed. She sent up a silent prayer to her father and all his wisdom to give her the guidance she needed.
Rachel walked into the bedroom with a bowl of warm water and a bar of lye soap ready to cleanse and dress a wound. She looked at the man’s unshaven face and longish hair and couldn’t quite make out his features. His eyes were closed. She always could tell a man’s intent in the quality of their eyes.
Rachel sat down on the bed careful not to disturb him too much and peeled back the woolen blanket to take a look at the bullet wound. The injury was on the right shoulder and the blood had congealed from the frost. A good thing or he might have bled to death. Rachel was thankful once again when she noted the exit wound in his back. The bullet had slashed straight through and she wouldn’t have a need to go digging.
“You’ll be on the mend soon,” Rachel said quietly as she swabbed at his shoulder. She was fully aware of the man’s state of undress, but she’d seen a man naked before many times and wasn’t a wilting willow about it.
This man was powerful and capable, she presumed, by the breadth of his shoulders and the length of his body. A bandit had robbed him and left him to die out in the bitter cold. She could only look upon him as a victim for now, but she’d put Johnny to bed in her room and bolt the door at night. Rachel had learned the hard way that a widow had to keep from falling victim herself and the best way to do that was to always be on guard.
After she cleansed the wound thoroughly, she wrapped his shoulder in bandages, and then covered his frigid body with more blankets and a quilt. She rubbed his body over and over, up and down, watching for signs of improvement and hoping for some color to come to his face.
He didn’t stir but for involuntary groans and moans of pain. Rachel had grown up hearing those sounds. She left the man with no name to check on Johnny a few times. When her son woke up, she fed him from the meal Jess had delivered to her, giving him bits of carrot and potato and spicy stew.
Johnny made the sweetest, sour face when he chewed on the stew, but he ate it. He had a hearty appetite just like his father in that regard.
After checking on her unconscious patient, Rachel bedded down with Johnny in her own room. She bolted the door shut, not that she’d feared the stranger at this juncture. The man was too weak to wake, much less move.
She napped in intervals and stoked the fire, keeping the house extremely warm and worked on her patient several times through the night with a technique her father had taught her, trying to circulate the blood. When her arms couldn’t take the struggle any longer, she retired to her bedroom for the rest of the night.
There wasn’t anything more she could do for the stranger.
Cooper Garnett slid his eyes open slowly, the lids weighted like bricks of clay. Through the narrow slits, a young boy appeared before him and Cooper searched his addled brain coming up with one conclusion. He’d died and gone to his maker and the Good Lord saw fit to reunite him with his son, Donny.
A female voice, soft as a summer breeze, cautioned the boy and Cooper lifted his lids to find a woman standing over him, her arm on her toddler son. “He needs rest,” she said to the boy.
A measure of happiness entered his heart as the blurry visions filled him with relief. He had to be in heaven, joining his family and putting him out of his misery. Jocelyn was here and so was his little son. It was too much to hope they hadn’t died in the fire that claimed their lives. It was too much to hope they hadn’t been robbed and left for dead in a burning house.
Cooper groaned, not from the pain shooting through his shoulder, but from memories that haunted him each day. He’d been too late to save them. He’d missed the murdering bastard by only minutes. He’d ridden in and witnessed hot flames sear through beams that fortified his house. Panicked and spurred on with dreaded fear, he’d bounded from his horse and ran inside, soot and smoke scorching his eyes. A falling post knocked him out and branded his back. A sole ranch hand coming back early from the range had rushed in and pulled him free before the fire claimed him. How often he wished it had.
But now, he was with Jocelyn and Donny again. Somehow, some way, they were here with him and tranquility surrounded him. Since that fateful day he’d never known more peace.
“Come on, Johnny,” the woman said taking the boy’s hand. “Let the man sleep.”
Johnny? Not Donny? Had he heard right?
Cooper’s eyes widened. His mind cleared from wishful sentiments. He focused hard and noted the boy’s blonde locks, the woman’s hair of the same hue. As she moved to brush by him, he grabbed her arm; the sudden movement making him wince. He strained to make out her features. “Who are you?”
Her voice was soft, but wary and he recognized it now. She’d nursed him from his wound. She’d been the one taking care with him. Not Jocelyn.
Heartbreaking pain welled up inside, the disappointment hollowing out his gut and shredding it to pieces. His body sagged and he released her arm. “You took me in.”
“My ranch hands found you shot and left for dead on my land. Yes, I took you in. I’ve been tending to your wound.”
“The boy?” he asked, glancing now at a youngster that only resembled his Donny by size.
She set a proprietary hand on his shoulder and her eyes glowed with pride. “This is my son, Johnny Bodine.”
Cooper glanced away then closed his eyes. He couldn’t bear to look at the woman with her child, not when his immediate wishful hopes had been dashed. How fresh the heartache was still. The rawness of it burned clear through him.
“What’s your name?” she asked softly.
“Cooper Garnett,” he whispered.
“Do you know who shot you, Mr. Garnett?”
He focused on her concerned eyes. Pretty eyes, he noted grudgingly. Why didn’t she let him die? “Someone who wanted my horse and belongings, I suppose.”
She lifted her boy into her arms and he immediately clung to her neck, laying his head under her chin. The loving image was reminiscent of Donny and Jocelyn and Cooper remembered what he aimed to do and why he should be grateful this woman saved him. He couldn’t die, not until he claimed justice for his wife and boy’s death. “Where’s Mr. Bodine?” he asked.
“I’m a widow,” she whispered, as if the pain of that truth still hurt. “How’s your shoulder feeling?”
“Like it saw the front end of a stampede.”
“It’s healing up nicely. You’re strong.”
Cooper touched the spot where the bullet went through, bandaged now. He recalled the sharp shot slicing through him, catching him by surprise and jerking him from his horse. “You know doctoring?”
“My father was a doctor. I know enough. Doctor Reynolds was out here yesterday and checked on you. He said you’d make a full recovery.”
“You likely saved my life.”
“I probably did,” she said in earnest. “Good thing the boys found you when they did or you might have frozen to death. You’ve been unconscious for two days.”
“Son of a bit-” Cooper held up his oath and squeezed his eyes shut briefly. He was damn tired of losing time.
“You need more rest,” she said, ignoring his outburst. “You had fever during the night. I’ll bring you some broth shortly.”
His nod was slight and pained him some. “Appreciate it.”
He watched Rachel leave with her boy and then closed his eyes. He’d been tracking the man called Brett Hollings all the way from Nevada. He’d lost time, right after the fire to heal up from injuries to his scorched back. It had taken a full month to recover and get his mind in the right place. No man should have to witness his family’s demise. No man.
The only clue he’d had was that the ranch hand that’d saved him saw the robber fleeing the fiery scene, hanging onto the strongbox that held the Garnett payroll. He’d caught fire to the left side of his body and by all accounts, his face suffered burns that would be recognizable. He couldn’t figure out if the man deliberately torched the house, or if it’d been an accident during the commission of the crime, but the fact remained that Jocelyn and little Donny had died in that fire.
It had taken Cooper three months to find out the man’s name and another two to track him to the Cedar Flat area. His instincts told him it hadn’t been Hollings who’d shot him. Cooper had been careful not to arouse suspicion. Brett Hollings didn’t know he was being tracked and Cooper would make damn sure it stayed that way. Which meant that Hollings would still be in the environs.
Cooper meant to kill him.
Or die trying.
Rachel ladled broth with bits of beef and potato into a bowl and set it on a tray along with a biscuit. She pulled the curtain back and entered Johnny’s room. Cooper Garnett took one look at her and tried to sit up higher in the bed. His rugged face twisted in pain and he let go a vivid curse.
His impatience reminded her of Josh. Her husband was forever moving faster than his feet could take him. “Hold on, Mr. Garnett. I’ll help you sit up.”
She set the tray on a side table and reached around Cooper’s body, under his arms. “Hold onto to me,” she said, “and let me do the work. Whatever you do, don’t struggle with your bad shoulder.”
He pierced her with a look, his eyes dark, his brows elevated. Heat crept up her neck. It’d been a long time since she’d been this close to a man. Even though his beard covered most of his face she could tell, Cooper Garnett was a handsome devil.
He took hold of her around the waist, his fingers splayed over her hips. She couldn’t think about how good it felt having him touch her. She’d seen him naked from the waist up and knew he was sturdy and powerful. Her blouse brushed his skin and the tips of her breasts skimmed over his chest. “Now wiggle up slowly as I lift you.”
Cooper did as he was told, his gaze never leaving hers as he scooted up with her aid. Her heart fluttered and she turned away from him before he could see her blushing cheeks.
“There, that does it,” she said, reaching for the tray. She set it on his lap and continued to avert her gaze. “I imagine you can feed yourself, but if you need me-”
“What?” She met with his eyes.
“I can feed myself.”
She cast him half a smile and nodded.
“I’ll need my pants.”
“Why?” She hadn’t expected that. Why would he need his pants in order to eat? He wouldn’t be able to put them on unassisted and she wasn’t ready to help him. Not yet anyway. It was all she could do to stop from turning red as a tomato from lifting him up. For all her blustering about being a doctor’s daughter, she realized she’d never tended a man like Cooper Garnett before. Not without her father’s presence and assistance.
A grin slowly spread across his face. “Why do I need my pants? Can’t very well get up when nature calls without them now, can I?”
Rachel pictured him in his long johns and nothing else, the image so profound, she couldn’t meet his eyes. Instantly, she admonished herself for being such a foolish ninny. “I’ll get them for you once they’ve dried. I washed them out this morning along with your shirt. They were covered in blood.”
“Besides, I doubt you can put them on without re-injuring your shoulder. You’ll need help.”
One brow arched up as he assessed her. With a hard gleam, his eyes roamed from her blond hair to her shoulders and lower to her breasts, his gaze lingering just enough to bring more heat to her face before he met with her eyes again. “I’d best be putting my own trousers on.”
With his right hand, he lifted the spoon and dug into the broth. She watched him take a few spoonfuls without much fuss. “Course, if I run into a problem with the clothes, I’ll give you a holler, you knowing about doctoring and all.”
Rachel’s eyes went wide and a protest was hot on her lips until she noted a quick smile emerge from under Cooper’s beard.
She whipped around and her gown brushed the edge of the bed as she made her way out, closing the curtains with a swipe of her hand.
She marched into the main room and put a hand to her chest. “Heavens,” she whispered as an unexpected tremble coursed the length of her. Why was the sight Cooper Garnett and the deep timbre of his voice so, so … appealing? With only youngsters like Mikey Ray and her dear old friend, Jess around the ranch, had Rachel forgotten the heat of a real man’s gaze? Had she forgotten what it felt like to be touched intimately? Josh had been gone a year and a half now and how she missed him, but she was still young and her mourning time was over. She couldn’t abide the loneliness much longer. The winters were fiercely cold and lonely without a husband beside her.
“Maybe I should take Robert Livingston up on his offer for a buggy ride after church,” she murmured as she set Cooper’s clothes closer to the fire. Robert didn’t spark any longing in her, but he was steady and gentlemanly and held a good job at the bank. He was forever asking her to picnic with him. Maybe it was time she thought about it.
“Here he is, Miss Rachel,” Mikey Ray said, appearing in the doorway with Johnny. “We had us a good time in the bunkhouse with the boys, didn’t we, Johnny?”
Johnny bobbed his head up and down and ran to Rachel, clinging to her skirts. She patted his head and met with her son’s big loving eyes. “Did you mind Jess and Mikey Ray?”
“I minded, Mama,” her boy said. At a little over eighteen months old, Johnny was especially bright and talkative for his age. On cold nights, Rachel would sit down with him before the fire and read to him. He loved to listen, to mimic words and before she knew it, he was making short sentences on his own. As smart as he was, he was also adventurous for a little one and Rachel was forever trying to keep up with his antics.
She often asked Jess or Mikey Ray to watch him for an hour or two whenever they could spare the time to give her son some male companionship. As a result, both the men had come to love Johnny as much as Johnny loved them.
“How’s the stranger doing? ” Mikey Ray asked, standing in the doorway, taking a quick glance at the curtain.
“Come in outta of the cold and have a warm biscuit and I’ll tell you, so you can go back to report to Jess.” Rachel grinned, catching him but Mikey Ray just shrugged it off. He never minded doing Jess’s biding. The two fought like cats and dogs at times, but they also cared about each other like father and son.
Aside from one recent incident with a hired hand, Rachel considered herself fortunate in having a small, but dedicated bunch of ranch hands.
She buttered a biscuit and handed it to him. “The stranger’s name is Cooper Garnett and he doesn’t know who shot him. They robbed him of all his possessions and stole his horse. He came to, just a while ago. That’s all I know right now.”
Mikey Ray dug into the biscuit and with a nod, he spoke with a full mouth. “I’ll tell Jess.” He swallowed then took another bite and waited this time to speak once he’d finished the biscuit. “Mighty good, Miss Rachel.”
“I’ll send a batch to the bunkhouse.” Rachel set a dozen more biscuits into a basket and covered it with a checkered cloth. She had three other boys, the same age as Mikey Ray working for her that made up the whole of the Double J outfit. She was short-handed and couldn’t afford to keep up with the bigger, more prosperous ranches in the area who paid their men better.
“Here you go.” She handed the basket to him. “And be sure to share those biscuits.”
“I will. Thank you.” Mikey Ray strode to the front door, then stopped and turned. “Do you feel safe in here, now that the stranger’s awake?”
Rachel took a deep breath, remembering another time when she’d had to fend off the lurid advances of her foreman. Seems that some men thought that widow, meant willing. She’d never put herself in that position again. “I’m not in any danger. I sleep with my Winchester under the bed.”
“I’ll tell Jess that too.”
Rachel watched Mikey Ray close the door and leave.
“I won’t be giving you cause to use that Winchester.”
Rachel spun around to find Cooper Garnett leaning against the curtained wall, his chest bare but for the bandage on his right shoulder, and filling out his long johns with a capacity that made her blink, then blink again.
Heavens, the man gave her pause and palpitations at the same time.
“Unless you refuse to give me my clothes, Miss Rachel.”