The next morning the exhausted crew went about the business of assuring that all the horses were penned in, assured that those who needed it had been treated by the local vet, one of Trick’s best friends, Blade Long Knife, and that they were fed and watered. Trick called the insurance agent in town and reported the fire. By noon the sheriff and the claims adjuster were both at the ranch investigating.
Sheriff Gage Williams was walking toward the house as Trick stepped onto the porch with two mugs of hot coffee. He’d gone upstairs to shower again while the coffee brewed. Standing there on the porch with his shirt unbuttoned and the tails blowing in the warm breeze, he handed one mug to the Sheriff. Then he pulled his fingers through his long wet hair and said, “Well, Gage? What do you think?” He took a deep gulp of the hot liquid. Then he reached for the Stetson that had been left on the porch swing and waited for Gage to spit out his answer.
“Well, Trick, it sure as hell wasn’t an accident,” Gage Williams responded.
“That’s what I thought,” Trick responded. “Any way to figure out who started it, Gage?”
“Not that I can see right now,” Gage kicked at a bit of gravel that had found its way onto the porch. “Any idea who’d want to do this to you, Trick?”
“Hell no, Gage! Damn it all, they could have killed a couple dozen horses and who knows how many of my men trying to save them! As it is, we’ve got three hands that needed first aid and animals with bruised legs, a cut or two, and one with a singed tail and a small burn on her rump. Who in their right mind would do such a thing?” Trick was now pacing back and forth on the porch that ran the length of the front of the house. Frustration all but poured off of him.
“I don’t know, Trick. I don’t know,” the Sheriff shook his head as he watched the younger man pace. “I’ll do my best to get to the bottom of this, but I have to tell you, it’s not likely we’ll ever figure it out unless we catch the son-of-a-bitch setting another fire.” God, he hated to admit defeat, but arson like this one where there was nothing to go on…well, the odds were against him. But he’d damned well try! It was at times like this when he wished he could afford a real arson investigator. Thank God, they just didn’t get enough arson fires to warrant one. Most were caused by a strike of dry lightening which could be seen and heard, thus negating the need for an investigation by a pro.
“I’ll call the State Police and see if we can get somebody out here in the next couple of days to take a look, but I wouldn’t count on them finding anything either.” Well, he knew this much, there was the smell of gasoline in that barn, and Trick didn’t keep anything like gasoline in the same building with his horses.
“Just do your best, Gage. That’s all anyone can ask.” Trick stopped his pacing and patted the frustrated Sheriff Williams on his shoulder.
“That I’ll do, Trick. That I’ll do.” They both looked up as they heard the car approach. “Got yourself some company, Trick. I’ll get back to you as soon as I have anything,” Gage said, as he shook Trick’s hand and stepped down off the porch and headed for his car.
As he drove away, he waved to Pete Holding and took note of the pert little blonde package he brought with him. That’s a real looker, he thought as he drove away.
“Pete,” Trick said, as he watched a man he’d known all his life approach. With him was the prettiest little curly-headed blonde he’d ever seen, wearing a pair of snug and fashionably worn jeans and a very girly-shade of pink T-shirt that clung in all the right places.
“Trick,” Pete replied. “You had some trouble?”
“Yeah, barn burned down last night,” Trick said, not wanting to get into any conversation about it with the local newspaperman until he knew more about it himself. “Who’s this?” he asked, looking down at the little blonde standing next to Pete.
“This here’s Autumn Winters. Autumn, this is Trick Raines, the biggest rancher in these parts. You want to know anything about ranching, horses, cattle, the local Indian population, or the local geography…just talk to Trick.” Then to Trick, he said, “Autumn just arrived from New York. She worked on the Tribune.”
Autumn thought he was a very attractive male. His whiskey-brown eyes looked out from a very attractive face, complete with its not-quite-straight nose which, unless she guessed wrong, had once been broken. The very slight irregularity kept his square-jawed face from being “pretty”. When he tipped his hat during their introduction, she saw the blonde streaks in his dark, honey-toned hair that would undoubtedly lighten more when it dried. It was long enough to spread curls around his collar.
“Miss Autumn Winters,” he smirked at the introduction. “Your parents had a sense of humor, heh?”
Egad, she really did love her parents but did so wish the name business would go away! “Apparently! It could have been worse—they could have used ‘Fall’ instead,” she smiled, refusing to let him know he’d hit a sore spot. She responded by reaching out her hand for a shake. “Your nickname is out of the ordinary as well.”
He had a dark skin tone which—unless he spent a lot of time tanning—combined with the high cheek bones, spoke of an Indian heritage. His sleeves were rolled up, showing long, brown, sinewy arms that ended in wide-palmed hands. When they shook hands, she felt the calluses created by hard work. Broad shoulders stretched his shirt tight across them. Since the shirt wasn’t buttoned, she noticed the springy, light brown hair that reached from just under his Adam’s apple and ran down past his belt buckle. Long, strong legs filled the jeans that showed off a very nice back side. She was definitely a girl who appreciated a nice back side. She guessed his height to be about six-foot two-inches, perhaps a tad more.
“Yes, my dad didn’t really appreciate my daring do or my sense of humor, especially since it started before I even walked steady,” he laughed at himself as much as the comment.
Well, Trick thought, she was no dainty little city lady. She had a nice firm handshake and apparently was willing to give as good as she got.
She was a tiny thing, maybe five-foot two-inches. Her figure was curvy in all the right places and he noted the nicely-rounded perky breasts that made the T-shirt she wore a nice accessory to her shape.
She had a mop of curly and, unless he missed his guess, natural blonde hair that was short enough that, with all that curl, it didn’t hit her shoulders. Her eyes almost made his heart stop. They were cornflower blue and shone like she was in on some joke nobody else had heard yet.
“So what brings you to Tiwa Valley, Miss Winters?” he asked.
“Please, call me Autumn. I’m here to work with Pete on the Ledger.”
“Ah, a reporter?” he said quietly, as he just stood there looking at her.
Pete noticed that the conversation seemed to be coming to a halt as the pair were just standing there staring at each other. Growing slightly uncomfortable, he cleared his throat and just dived in, “Autumn will be in need of some acclimation and I was hoping I could get some help from you in that regard.” He watched Trick force himself to look away from Autumn.
“Really? What did you have in mind, Pete?”
“Well, she’s staying at the inn for now. It’ll take her awhile to find a place to live permanently. I got to thinking about it over the weekend and, well…I was thinking maybe she could stay here at the ranch for a few weeks before getting started at the Ledger.”
Pete was so determined to get Trick to acquiesce that he completely missed the fact that Autumn’s mouth had just dropped open.
“Maybe she could get some riding lessons, learn about the locals, ranching concerns, just the day-to-day operations of a place like this that would give her a real advantage when she starts writing about our little town.”
He noticed the pulsing of the vein on Trick’s temple and knew he was pushing his luck just dropping it on him like this but, what the hell. He’d known Trick since he was in diapers and been his friend since the first time he’d rescued the boy from one of his stunts gone badly—something involving a little red tricycle and a ramp in front of the General Store. He almost shook his head at the memory. The boy had been—still could be—a pistol!
“I see,” Trick said quietly. “Well, actually we could use some help around here. Rosa, Mrs. Rodriguez, took off for Juarez for a few months. Her father is ill and she’s going to stay with him to nurse him back to health. Her mother died last year and Rosa’s all he’s got, so I sent her packing.”
“Ah, gentlemen, you both seem to have forgotten something here,” Autumn finally piped in.
The two men looked at her as if she’d sprouted a second head. What was it with men, she wondered silently? Then she let it go and just sighed.
“Didn’t anyone think I might have a word to say about this?” she asked. Her hands were now on her hips and Pete realized he’d overstepped. He’d gotten so caught up in the plan that he’d forgotten all about how Autumn might feel about it.
“I’m sorry, Autumn. It was an idea that came to me in the middle of the night. I didn’t even think to ask Addie what she thought of the idea,” he said, as if that would get him off the hook with the girl.
“I see.” She smiled sweetly at Pete—the sarcasm it represented was not lost on either man. “You would discuss it with Addie before mentioning it to me?” She sighed deeply, realizing the man didn’t see what he’d done wrong. Then looking at Trick’s face and seeing the amusement on it, she decided to hit him where she could see it would hurt.
“Actually it sounds like a great idea—kind of a crash course in western culture. I’m in, if you are Mr. Raines,” she held her hand out again.
Damned if she hadn’t boxed him in. He thought for certain she would nix the whole idea. What the hell, he thought. “Welcome to the Double R Ranch, Autumn. When would you like to move in?” he asked, as he watched the annoyance cross her face just briefly. Ah, so she had thought he would be the one to nix it.
“Well, since I’m having dinner with Pete and Addie tonight, I suppose tomorrow morning would be soon enough. Is that alright with you?”
“Sounds fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an insurance man heading my way, and he doesn’t look happy!” Trick tipped his hat, “Ma’am. Pete.” He left the pair standing on the porch taking in the view of the burned-out and still-smoldering horse barn.
As Trick moved toward the insurance adjuster, Autumn asked, “Pete, just what does Mrs. Rodriguez do here anyway?”
“Oh, Rosa? She’s the ranch cook,” Pete said, slipping his fingers into his jean pockets braced for the explosion that didn’t come.
“The co…oh dear,” Autumn gripped her temper. Thank God her mother had been a very good cook and a thorough teacher.
Changing the subject as quickly as he possibly could, Pete nodded at the barn and said, “Looks to me like you may have your first storyline here, Autumn.”
She followed the nod and was suddenly drawn to the burned-out building. “Yes, certainly looks like it. Let’s get a closer look,” she said, as she headed for the barn with Pete running along behind her. She didn’t try to go into the barn, just surveyed the damage from what had once been the barn door. “Wow, the fire did a job on it, didn’t it?” she said more to herself than to Pete.
“Yeah,” Pete pointed into the barn. “It started upstairs in the loft. No reason for anyone to be up there at night, let alone with a flame.
“What’s that smell?” She sniffed with her pert nose scrunched up. “Is that gasoline? My God, Pete, this was arson?” she asked.
“Probably, but I don’t know who would want to do this to Trick,” he mused. “One thing you’ll learn about Trick Raines before this is over, Autumn. He’s very well-respected, well-liked, rich and powerful but not in an abusive or self-indulgent way. He’s generous and kind to everyone unless they do something to him first. In short, he’s the least likely person to earn an attack of this type.”
“This barn must have held at least a couple of dozen of his horses. And Trick loves his horses! Everyone who knows Trick knows he loves his horses. It would take a lot of hate for someone to try to do this to a man, especially when the man is Trick Raines.” He shook his head sadly as they headed away from the barn.
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