The Widow Maker
(Part Fourteen of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
Nathan stared at his reflection in the mirror and straightened his tie. He licked his palm and slicked down a piece of hair that insisted on sticking up. That might hold it for a while. Beside him the blond boy shifted on the chair, as he sat astride it, resting his arms on its back.
“You calling on the Widow Eldon again?” Jed asked.
“Yep.” Nathan ran the back of his hand down his cheek. Seemed smooth enough; not that he rated his chances of getting that close to her; well not this time at least.
“You like her, don’t ya?”
“I do.” Nathan looked out of the corner of his eye at the boy. “She has very shapely ankles.” Jed smiled.
“And how would you know?” Gerrard asked as he walked from the stove with a steaming cup of coffee.
“I got a glimpse of them when she climbed into the buggy.”
“Betcha were hoping for a glimpse of more than that.”
“You tellin’ me that ain’t true?”
“If the kid wasn’t here, Gerrard…”
“Yeah, right.” The ranch hand took a sip of coffee and headed out the bunkhouse door.
“So what do you do when you go calling?”
Nathan looked down at Jed, two blue eyes hanging on his every word.
“You might take a walk with the lady. You might go for a cup of coffee and maybe, if it’s considered respectable, take her for a buggy ride.”
“Does she own a buggy?”
“So how did you…See her ankles?”
“I hired one in town last time and rode out to her house. Then when she climbed up…” He cast a glance at Jed. “Why d’you want to know all this?”
“I don’t think I did things right with Emily. I want to be sure to do better next time; when I go calling on a girl.” Nathan pulled up a chair and sat down opposite Jed.
“When you meet a girl you really like, you’ll know what to do, Jed.”
“I didn’t though, did I?”
“Then maybe, Emily, wasn’t the one for you.”
“And is the Widow Eldon the one for you?”
“Annabelle. Her name is Annabelle.”
“So is she?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
“By calling on her and going for buggy rides.”
Nathan stood up and grabbed his hat from the set of hooks by the door. Settling it on his head he turned to Jed.
“What do you think? Irresistible to women, right?”
“How should I know?”
“Wanna help me with my horse?”
Heyes was standing in the doorway to the barn when Jed and Nathan approached.
“Is that your best shirt?” Heyes asked Nathan. He sniffed the air. “Have you actually had a wash? She must be special.”
“Don’t get smart, Heyes.” Nathan grabbed Heyes’ hat off his head and threw it to Jed. “Throw that in the lake for me will ya?”
“HEY! Give it back!”
Jed smiled as he ran off with Heyes giving chase as Nathan went to saddle his horse.
Heyes had retrieved his hat by the time Nathan led his horse from the barn. The boys sat on the top of the corral fence watching Nathan tighten the cinch on his saddle.
“Behave yourself, Nathan,” Heyes quipped. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“Like you’d know what to do with a proper lady, Heyes.”
“I know enough.”
Nathan laughed as he hauled himself into the saddle.
“Don’t wait up, boys.” With a wink at them, he rode off up the hill towards Claremont.
“Nathan not back yet?” Jeff Collins asked as he rode up to the bunkhouse as dusk began to fall.
“Nope.” Bill Napier leaned against the porch post and cast another glance into the darkness at the general direction of town.
“The Widow’s a pretty lady.” Jeff leaned forward in the saddle resting his arms on the saddle horn.
“She sure is.”
“A man could lose track of time when he’s in her company. Stay out all night.”
“I imagine he could.” The old friends exchanged a grin. “Don’t bawl him out too much when he gets back, will ya?”
“You know me better than that.”
“Yeah and I know you could use a good woman too.”
Collins shot a fierce look at his friend.
“Don’t over step the line, Bill.”
“I’m talking as a friend, Jeff. You’ve been alone too long. She’d want you to…”
“Don’t! You have no idea what she would have wanted.” Collins turned his horse towards the barn and Bill stood watching his friend ride away.
Annabelle. He liked that name. Annabelle. Nathan smiled at the memory of her pretty face, those brown eyes and the way her nose turned up slightly at the tip. Sweet, delightful, Annabelle Eldon. Annabelle with the shapely ankles and equally soft and shapely…
“Hold it right there, mister!” A man stepped out in front of him on the trail and Nathan pulled his horse to a halt, staring at the Colt .45 pointed at him. “Throw down your gun.”
“What’s the matter fella?”
“Just do as I say.” The man shifted nervously, the gun wavering in his hand. “Throw your gun down.”
Nathan held up his hands.
“Okay, okay. Take it easy.”
“Do as he says or I’ll shoot you in the back.”
Nathan froze at the sound of another man behind him.
“Your gun. Now!”
Slowly, Nathan removed his gun from his holster and tossed it further along the trail.
“Get down off your horse.”
Keeping his eyes fixed on the .45, pointed directly at his chest; Nathan eased himself from the saddle and stood facing the two men.
“What can I do for you, fellas?”
“Empty your pockets.”
“I don’t have much on me, I’ve been enjoying myself in town.”
Nathan reached into his vest pocket and held out a handful of coins. The shorter man, the one who appeared behind him, grabbed the coins and shoved them into his pocket.
“What else you got?”
“If we find you’re holding out on us…” The taller man’s smile turned to a sneer.
“I’m not. See for yourself.”
They did just that. Nathan’s saddlebags were pulled from his horse and the contents tipped onto the ground. As the small man kicked his possessions around Nathan controlled his temper and tried desperately to think of a way out of the situation, preferably alive. His eyes fell on his gun a few tempting feet away. He knew there was nothing else of value in his saddlebags and didn’t rate his chances of survival once they realised that. They hadn’t bothered to hide their faces so they were either stupid or didn’t plan to let him live to tell anyone.
With the attention of both men focussed temporarily on his spare shirt and pants, Nathan edged further away from them. When he saw his chance he made a dash for the gun.
There was a single gunshot and Nathan felt a sharp pain in his left ear. Stunned, he stumbled to the ground. Turning around, he found himself staring once more into the barrel of the Colt .45. Something warm trickled down the side of head as his eyes fixed on the gun.
“Stupid; really stupid,” the taller man said. He aimed the Widow maker and everything went black.
“Call,” Heyes said as he threw the coins into the pot. Around him the men studied their cards and the young man’s face. Was he bluffing? That smile told them nothing. How could anyone so young be such a darn good poker player?
“I don’t think you got anything in that hand,” Henry told him, confidently.
“Well, you know what to do if you want to see.”
Henry took a drink of whiskey and placed the empty glass back on the table with exaggerated care.
“I reckon I’ll see those cards, Heyes.”
The door flew open and Gerrard burst into the room.
“Nathan’s horse is back but he ain’t on it!” he exclaimed, gasping for breath. “Bill says to mount up; we’re riding out to find him.”
Chairs flew backwards, the card game forgotten as they ran to the barn.
“You don’t think his horse just ran off? You know, got bored waiting outside the Widow’s house for Nathan to fin…”
“Shut up, Gerrard!” Bill climbed onto his horse. “Heyes, get your horse saddled.”
Outside the light from the bunkhouse cast a glow across the yard. Jed stood beside the open barn doors.
“Can I come too?”
“No,” Collins told him firmly.
“I won’t get in the way I just wanna help look for Nathan.”
“I said no, Jed. Take care of Nathan’s horse for him. He’ll like that.”
Heyes sat tall in the saddle, proud that they now considered him man enough to ride with them.
“Everyone ready?” Collins asked. The men nodded.
Reluctantly, Jed watched the departing riders until they reached the top of the hill.
“D’you really think something’s happened to him?” Gerrard asked as he rode next to Bill. “You don’t think he’s just cosying up with the Widow?”
“You know Nathan as well as I do. He knows his responsibilities, he’d be back on time.”
“The Widow’s a tempting woman.”
“Nathan would never let his horse run off.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”
With grim determination, they rode on.
“There!” Collins called a few minutes later. He pointed into the darkness. As the clouds shifted off the moon, the familiar shape of their friend could be seen limping towards them.
When they drew closer they could see blood had run down the left side of his face from the top of his ear to his shirt collar. He had an arm held protectively across his ribs. Seeing the riders approach, Nathan sank down onto a boulder at the side of the road, exhausted.
“Boy am I glad to see you fellas. My leg mighta healed but it sure didn’t appreciate the walk.”
“What happened?” Jeff asked as he dismounted and crouched in front of his friend.
“I got robbed. Found myself looking down the barrel of a .45. Not a pleasant experience. I tried to escape but, they shot me.” He took the bandana Collins offered him and placed it on his cut ear. “Bullet grazed my ear. Then I took a whack on the head. Don’t remember anything after that until I woke up with my face in a pile of leaves. I think I got a couple of kicks in the ribs while I was out. Sure feels like it.”
Collins looked at him sympathetically.
“Sorry I was late back, but I’m ready to drop, Boss.”
“You can ride double with Heyes.”
“Thanks. Thanks for coming after me, Jeff.” The ranch foreman nodded and they helped him to his feet then started towards the horses. “I sure was glad to see…” Nathan’s knees buckled and they caught him before he hit the ground.
“How is he?” Jeff asked as he stood beside the bunk, looking down at Nathan.
“Still out.” Henry stood up holding a bowl of water. Nathan’s head was bandaged with one dressing covering his left ear and another on the back of his head.
“His ribs okay?”
“Badly bruised. I don’t think any are broken. That lump on the back of his head bled a lot, he’s got a notch out of his ear and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got concussion.”
“So we wake him up again soon?”
“Yeah. Just like a baby, all through the night.”
“I’ll ride in and see the sheriff tomorrow, bring the doc back too. Best have the boys keep an eye out in case those fellas go after the stock.”
“Bill’ll see to it.” Henry looked down at Nathan. “He was lucky.”
“Yeah, he was.”
Two days later, Nathan sat on the porch and leaned back against the bunkhouse, closing his eyes against the pain in his head. The bullet had left him with a permanent notch out of his left ear. He could put up with that; an inch or two to the right and he’d be dead. The sheriff had his deputies visit the neighbouring ranches and farms asking folks to keep an eye out for the robbers. As far as he knew no one had caught them yet. They hadn’t seemed the brightest of thieves so he didn’t think it would be long before someone caught them. Of course that didn’t say much for him either.
“There’s no excuse to steal, Jed.” Nathan continued their conversation, his eyes still closed as he spoke.
“Maybe they didn’t have a choice.” Jed sat on the porch steps tossing stones at a can a few feet away. The stones hit their target with stunning regularity and a metallic PING.
“There’s always a choice.”
“But if they were so hungry it hurt…”
“Those men didn’t look hungry to me.”
“But other folk who’ve stolen might have been.”
Nathan opened his eyes and looked at Jed through narrow slits. So that was it.
“What did you take?”
Jed threw another stone at the can. PING. Then another. PING.
The boy kicked at the dirt beneath his boot.
“Food.” Nathan remained silent. “We knew it was wrong. I mean we made the choice to do it even though it was against the law an’ all. But we were so hungry.”
Jed cast a glance at Nathan to see if he disapproved. His friend’s expression told him nothing.
“After we left the home Heyes was the only one that could get any work. Everyone thought I was too small or too young.” A stone flew through the air. PING. “If he got any money it was usually only enough to feed one of us. My stomach hurt so much I couldn’t sleep. We both got real skinny and Heyes thought I was gonna…He never actually said anything but I know he was worried about us.”
“So one day we were in a store and Heyes distracted the owner while I grabbed a couple of apples. After that it became easier. When we were hungry we took what we could.”
Two blue eyes turned to Nathan waiting for his response.
“It wasn’t right and you knew it, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same thing in your place, Jed. However, it sure hurts to be on the wrong end of a mean robber. At least you didn’t physically hurt anyone.” Nathan looked at Jed. “Did you?”
“No! No we never hit anyone or robbed them like you were robbed. Never used a gun or anything.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
Jed looked up at his friend, studying the bandage capping his ear.
“Does your ear hurt?”
“Henry said you’re deaf in that ear.”
“Not deaf, just can’t hear soft sounds. The doc said my hearing should be back to normal soon. I’ll tell you a bullet that close makes a heck of a noise.”
They were quiet for a while before Jed spoke again.
“So did you have a good time calling on the Widow?”
A slow smile formed on Nathan’s face.
“Oh yeah. I had a good time…A real good time.”
“What did you do?”
Nathan’s smile became a broad grin.
“Jed. A man never asks another about his time calling on a lady.”
“Then how am I supposed to learn what to do?”
“You’ll just have to find out for yourself.”
“Make myself irresistible to women, huh?”
“Sheesh, like that’s ever gonna happen.”
End of Part 14