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Miss Murray on the Cattle Trail

By:Lynna Banning


Miss Murray on the Cattle Trail - Lynna Banning
Chapter One

Smoke River, Oregon, 1871

He knew something was wrong the minute he stepped up onto the front porch. For one thing, Charlie was rocking away in the lawn swing with a big grin on his lined face. And for another, Alice, the ranch owner’s wife sitting beside him, wasn’t.

“Been waitin’ for ya,” Charlie drawled.

“Yeah? Not late, am I?” Maybe that was why Alice’s heart-shaped face looked so set, but Zach discarded that thought right away. When Alice Kingman was displeased about something, she didn’t waste time looking dour; she bared her nails and lit right into your hide.

“All the hands are inside, Zach. And they’re damn hungry,” Charlie added.

Alice stopped the swing with her foot and rose in such a ladylike motion for a woman climbing up on her forties that it brought a chuckle to Zach’s throat. Alice was pure female, and in her blue denim skirt and ruffly red-check blouse she looked good enough to eat.

Charlie slapped him on the back. “Come on, Zach. Consuelo’s fried chicken is getting cold.”

Alice disappeared through the screen door, and Charlie draped a heavy arm across Zach’s shoulders. “Got somethin’ I want to show ya.”

All Zach’s senses went on alert. The last time Charlie had had something to show him, Zach had limped for three days after the boss’s new stud horse threw him.

“It’s not a horse, is it?”

“Heck, no,” Charlie spluttered. “Cain’t invite a horse to Sunday dinner, can I?”

So it was a someone, not a something the boss was showing off. Someones got invited to Sunday dinner at the ranch house, along with Zach and the Rocking K ranch hands.

In the dining room, Zach stood between slim, dark-skinned José and Roberto, an older, slightly overweight man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, and waited for Alice to seat herself. He eyed the vacant chair across from him. Okay, boss, we’re here. So where’s the someone?

He heard the rustle of petticoats behind him and caught a whiff of something that smelled like lilacs. Oh, no, not Alice’s Great-Aunt Hortense! Hell’s bells, Roberto had put her on the train for San Francisco scarcely a month ago, and...

Zach swallowed hard and the other hands stiffened to attention, waiting for Aunt Hortense’s entrance.

But it wasn’t Aunt Hortense.

A young woman so pretty it made him swallow hard glided across the room and sat down next to Roberto’s nephew, Juan. The young Mexican’s blush turned the tips of his ears red.

Everyone dropped onto their chairs like boneless sandbags and Zach slid into his upholstered seat and waited. No one said a word. Finally, Alice signaled Consuelo and the meal got under way.

“Boys,” Charlie announced, snagging a drumstick off the platter the cook offered, “say howdy to Miss Murray.”

A rumble of respectful male voices rose. Then another long silence fell.

“Miss Murray is visiting from Chicago,” Alice said, thin lipped. She split a biscuit with a stab of her knife.

“Welcome, Señorita Murray,” Roberto offered. The older man had civilized manners; his nephew also knew what to do, but he was real young and not as polished as Roberto.

“Ees an honor, señorita,” Juan said with an even deeper blush.

Miss Murray smiled across the table. “Why, thank you, gentlemen.”

Charlie took over the introductions. “On your left is Juan Tapia, and to your right is Skip Billings. Across the table is José Moreno, Zach Strickland and Jase Snell. Zach’s the trail boss for the cattle drive.”

Miss Murray inclined her head. “Gentlemen,” she said again.

Man, oh, man, her hair was something else, dark as blackstrap molasses and so soft-looking that Zach curled his fingers into fists.

What was Charlie’s game here? He thought it over while platters of mashed potatoes and green beans were handed around the table. A prettier girl he hadn’t seen in too many years to count, but Charlie knew Zach wasn’t interested in romancing a female ever again, so what did Charlie want to show him?

Before Zach picked up his fork, Charlie dropped a hint.

“You boys still readin’ those newspaper stories from back East?”

“Sure, boss,” Jase volunteered. “Got ’em all pinned up on the bunkhouse wall.”

“Can’t hardly wait for the next one,” Skip added. “Best da—uh, darn horse-racin’ stories I ever read.”

Zach drove his fork into the pile of mashed potatoes on his plate. So that was it. This Murray woman was somehow related to A. Davis Murray, the newspaper reporter whose stories the hands devoured each week. His daughter, maybe? Or...his gut tightened...his wife? Who was she, exactly? And what was she doing sitting all pink and white at Sunday dinner at the Rocking K ranch house?

The hands couldn’t stop jabbering about A. Davis Murray’s horse-racing stories, and Miss Whoever-She-Was Murray looked mighty interested. More than interested. She was hanging on every word and her eyes... Oh, those eyes. Blue as desert lupines. Anyway, they sparkled like they’d been polished.

Zach caught Charlie’s eye and quirked one eyebrow.

“More chicken?” Charlie asked, his voice bland.

Zach shot a glance at Alice at the opposite end of the long walnut table and lowered his eyebrows into a frown. Alice looked madder than a wet cat, and that was a real puzzler. Alice never got mad about anything—not Skip’s rough table manners or Consuelo’s constant nattering about her dwindling supply of coffee beans, not even the time Charlie forgot her birthday.

But for darn sure she was mad today, and Zach figured it had something to do with pretty Miss Murray.

But Charlie always took his own sweet time about things, and this afternoon was no exception. Finally, finally, the owner of the Rocking K swallowed his last bite of strawberry shortcake, groaned like a contented heifer and rapped on his coffee cup for attention.

“Well, boys, today I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Jase’s scraggly blond head came up. “Yeah?”

“What if I told you...” Charlie paused dramatically and Alice rolled her eyes “...that Miss Murray’s first name is Alexandra.”

“What if ya did, boss?” Jase said. “Fancy name, but it don’t ring no bells for me.” Jase’s grammar stopped at the fourth grade.

“Doesn’t ring any bells,” Consuelo hissed as she circled with her coffeepot. “You set a bad example for my José.”

José ducked his head.

“I mean,” Charlie continued, “what if her name was Alexandra Davis Murray?”

“She is marry to the newspaper man?” Juan guessed.

Charlie gulped a swallow of coffee. “Nah. She is the newspaperman. Or, rather, newspaperwoman. This here lady is A. Davis Murray.”

“Ees not possible,” José protested.

Zach stared across the table at Miss Murray. Miss Alexandra Davis Murray. José was dead right, it wasn’t possible. Just what kind of game was Charlie playing?

Miss Alexandra Murray sent Zach an apologetic smile. “It’s true,” she said. “I write newspaper articles for the Chicago Times.”

Skip gaped at her. “You write about all them horse races?”

“I do.” She looked around the table at each of the ranch hands in turn until she came to Alice, who was still tight-jawed. “Aunt Alice doesn’t approve, obviously. But I like horse races. And I like writing about them.”

“Jehoshaphat,” Jase breathed.

“Madre mia,” José muttered.

Zach wanted to laugh. The thought of this soft, ruffly female tramping around a horse stable made his lips twitch.

Then they were all talking at once. During the hubbub, Charlie leaned forward and addressed Zach. “I want to talk to you,” he intoned. “In private.” He heaved his bulky frame out of the chair and led the way to his office across the hallway.

“Whiskey?” he asked when he’d shut the heavy oak door.

“No, thanks. Gotta ride out at first light.”

Charlie pushed the cut-glass decanter across his desk toward him anyway. “I’d change my mind if I was you, Zach.”

Without another word, he filled two glasses.

“Spit it out, Charlie, what’s up?”

His boss touched his glass to Zach’s and tossed back the contents. “Kinda hard to come right out and tell you, son.”

Uh-oh. Charlie only called him “son” when bad news was coming. Zach swigged down half his whiskey. “Let’s have it, Charlie. Like I said, I’ve got an early get-up tomorrow.”

“Well, Zach, it’s like this. It’s true that Alexandra is a newspaper reporter.”

“You already said that. Or somebody did. Anyway, I know that.”

“Yeah, well. See, her newspaper, the Chicago Times, wants her to do a story about a cattle drive.”

Zach slapped his empty glass onto the desk. “No.”

“I understand how you feel, Zach, but you see the answer’s gotta be yes.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Charlie just nodded. “Yeah, it does.”

“Why?” Zach demanded. “Why does she pick this ranch? Tell her to choose another cattle drive.”

“Can’t.”

“Why can’t you?”

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