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Stone Cold Cowboy(6)

By:Jennifer Ryan


Rory followed the tracks in the mud. After four hours in the saddle, his anger simmered. If he caught up to the men who’d stolen his cattle, he’d kill them just for making him chase them across his land and that of two neighbors. He’d noticed the thefts over the last three months. It started off slow. A couple cattle here. A few more there. At first he’d thought it nothing but strays working their way deep onto the property. He’d eventually find them. That all ended when, on a part of the property they rarely used, he spotted truck and trailer tire tracks on an old dirt fire road that wound its way out to the highway. If his guess was right, whoever stole his herd today was headed for another rarely used road and a bunch of cattle trucks. If he didn’t catch up to them soon, they’d get away and he’d never find out who’d been stealing from him and his family.

The cold wind pushed him and his tired horse forward. He pulled his coat tighter around his chest, thankful he’d remembered his gloves and hat. When he started out looking for the cattle, he never expected to ride this far and long. He craved a hot cup of coffee and a bowl of chili. His empty stomach grumbled with the thought.

The wind shifted direction and blew down from the hills to his right. His horse slowed and shied, stepping back several steps and turning to face the hill. Rory searched for any sign of a predator that might have spooked the horse. He didn’t see anything, but he did notice the muddled tracks in the dirt. Several horses had converged at this point. He spotted human tracks. Three men and either a younger teen or a woman, judging by the smaller shoe prints.

Why the hell did they stop here?

A fifth horse stopped a short distance away. Another set of large shoe prints walked toward the group. A crushed patch of grass indicated someone fell and rolled. He took it all in, including the drag marks leading up the hill and into the trees.

So, the would-be cattle rustlers got into an argument. Maybe someone came to his senses and tried to stop the others from doing something that could land them in jail for the next ten years.

Rory nudged his horse to follow the tracks leading into the trees. To avoid lopping off his head in the low branches, he dismounted and tied his horse to a thick branch. The horse still shied and spooked at some unseen threat. He wondered what the horse knew that he didn’t.

Something didn’t sit well with him. A strange shiver of awareness came over him, like someone had eyes on him. He pulled the rifle from his saddle, checked it to be sure all was as it should be, and headed up the hill to the rise. He stopped short near the top.

His eyes saw the gruesome image in front of him, but his mind refused to believe it.

The woman hung by her wrists from the tree. Dozens of punctures left ribbons of blood flowing over her body and limbs . . . everywhere. The majority of the blood came from a cut at her ribs and the slash marks across her thigh and other knee. Her head hung down with her chin resting against her chest. Her lips and skin were tinged blue from the bitter cold. He reached for her face, hoping, begging God, the universe, everything that was good and holy in this world to please let her be alive.

He pulled off his leather glove and touched her frozen cheek. Her head snapped up, her eyes flew open, she screamed and wiggled, trying to get away, but all she did was make things worse. The wire dug into her again. She went limp and moaned, and the sound settled heavy in his chest. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out again.

“Oh God,” he whispered like a prayer.

The sweet woman he’d seen around town, usually chasing after her delinquent brother. Sadie. Yeah, he’d asked around about her after she’d slammed into him coming around the corner in one of the aisles at the feed store. He’d felt a shock of heat slice through him, leaving behind a warmth he’d never felt. She’d backed up two steps, apologized, then stepped back another three steps when she looked up at him, and gasped. He scared her, but he didn’t know why. Probably had something to do with that bar fight her brother tried to start with Colt and nearly got her punched in her pretty face. He’d saved her and that no-account brother of hers.

He scanned the wire up her arms to the way it was bound around her wrists, along with the rope holding her up and tied around the tree trunk. If he undid the rope, she’d fall to the ground and the barbs would drive into her body even deeper. He needed to cut the wire off her, then let her down.

“Sadie, it’s Rory Kendrick. Do you remember me?”

Her eyes fluttered but never opened. “You’re supposed to go after them.”


Another soft moan escaped her blue, cracked lips.