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Chapter One

A bullet whizzed over his head and the next one sent his hat flying through the air while Zack hit the ground and hurriedly crawled for the cover of some nearby rocks, his gun automatically in his hand, the result of many years wearing a badge.

“Who are you and what do you want?” a husky voice demanded.

“I have business on the Ginger Belle Ranch,” Zack answered, once more thinking it was the stupidest name he’d ever heard of for a ranch.

“You’re on the Ginger Belle, but I sure as hell don’t know you.”

“My name is Zack Harrison. My employer assured me that he’d written to Gregory Bennett, and Mr. Bennett would be expecting me.” His words were met with silence. “This isn’t the most cordial welcome I’ve ever received,” Zack commented, wondering if he’d been mistaken for someone else.

“Mister, I don’t like strangers. The fact you are still alive is about as cordial as it gets around here.”

“What do you think Mr. Bennett is going to say when I tell him how you’ve treated me?” Zack asked meaningfully. He was positive he was dealing with a young boy in his teens, and for two cents, Zack would give him a tanning to remember. The kid shouldn’t shoot at someone unless it was a matter of his life. If Zack shot back, he could have killed the kid.

“Nothing at all,” the husky voice answered with confidence. “You get on your horse and ride directly to the house; no detours. I’ll be watching you all the way.”

“Look, kid, I do not appreciate the way I’m being treated. I was invited here by your boss, and you are going to be very lucky if I don’t take my belt to your backside for shooting at me. And, you owe me for a new hat!” Zack grumbled as he picked up his brand new hat and poked his finger though the hole that was barely an inch above his thick, wavy hair. “Your boss should fire you!” he angrily snapped.

There was no reply and it took a couple of minutes for Zack to realize that the kid had ridden off, leaving Zack alone. He slapped his hat against his thigh and then whistled for Ranger to come to him. Zack had trained the horse well, and Ranger came right away. Zack patted him. “You’re a good friend, Ranger,” he praised the animal, and gave him a sugar cube.

Zack looked around for the kid, but didn’t see him as he rode toward the house, He fully intended to show Mr. Bennett his hat and tell him about the boy shooting at him. If Bennett didn’t give the kid what for, then Zack was going to seek him out and teach him some manners and the value of a cordial welcome. The kid needed to learn that lesson before he got himself killed.

The ride to the house passed without incident. Zack dismounted and slipped the reins around the rail before walking up the steps to the front porch. His first impression of the ranch was a positive one. It was obvious that Gregory Bennett took pride in his ranch. The buildings were all in good repair and freshly painted. The house looked large from the outside, and he couldn’t help but be curious about the inside.

Just as he was about to knock, the door was opened by a pretty little girl who looked up at him and smiled shyly.

“Well, hello there, young lady,” Zack said, dropping down to one knee so that he wouldn’t tower over the child. “My name is Zack, and what is your name?” he asked softly.

“My name is Sally,” she answered, and then added, “I’m not allowed to call you by your first name, Zack, because you’re old and I am to say ‘Mr.’ and your last name, except you didn’t tell me your last name. Do you have one?” she asked, perfectly serious, but it was all Zack could do not to chuckle.

“Yes, I do have a last name, Miss Sally. My full name is Zachary Harrison, and I am here to see Mr. Bennett.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “I’ll tell Em that you are here. Come in and I’ll show you to the parlor.” She walked ahead of him and straight to a nicely decorated, and immaculately clean parlor. “Would you like some cold lemonade, Mr. Harrison?” the child asked with manners clearly taught to her at a very young age. She couldn’t be more than seven years old, and she acted like a young lady of seventeen.

“Yes, Miss Sally, I would love some lemonade. It was a hot and dry ride from town.” He smiled, but this time she didn’t return his smile. When he’d mentioned Bennett before, he had clearly upset her. He just hoped the child wasn’t being abused in some way. He waited, and when the lemonade arrived, it was carried on a tray by a young woman. He got to his feet, wondering if she was Sally’s mother. The resemblance was there, but this female looked too young to have a child.

“Mr. Harrison, I understand you are here to see Mr. Bennett?” she asked without a bit of small talk and without introducing herself.

“That is correct, Miss…” He was still standing, even though she sat to pour two tall glasses of lemonade.

“Excuse my poor manners. I’m afraid I have much on my mind these days. I am Emma Bennett. Please sit down and enjoy your lemonade. I know the day is hot, and you’ve had a long ride.”

“Is Gregory Bennett your father or…”

“He was my father, Mr. Harrison. He was murdered two weeks ago.” Her green eyes seem to look at him with intensity.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Zack said sincerely, understanding the sad look in Sally’s eyes. She was probably Emma’s little sister. “I hope they caught whoever did it?”

“No, our sheriff is useless. He hasn’t even investigated!”

“Would you tell me exactly what happened? I used to wear a badge, and perhaps I can help.”

“Why would you care?” she demanded, her voice sharp.

“I care because I care,” he answered, offended by her tone of voice. “If you don’t want my help, then you are free to say so.” He took a deep breath and then asked, “Who is handling the ranch’s business matters now? I would like to speak to him and see if we can reach a mutual decision that will benefit both parties.”

“I am running the ranch, Mr. Harrison, and I am not making decisions regarding anything until the man or woman who shot my father is caught, found guilty, and hanged.”

“I’ve traveled a good distance, Miss Bennett,” Zack reminded her.

“And how do I know that your employer didn’t hire someone to shoot my father?” she demanded, rising to her feet. “Until the matter of his murder is solved, I am not signing any business papers, and I am not going to entertain any proposals. You may notify your employer of this when you return to town, Mr. Harrison.”

Zack realized he was being shown to the door. Good manners prevented him from telling her what he thought, but someone on this ranch needed a lesson on greeting guests with a cordial welcome. He picked up his hat, and nodded, then marched to the front door and headed outside. Zack would head back to town and wire his boss and find out where he was to go next. Dealing with Emma Bennett right now was impossible. She needed time to mourn her father, and for the killer to be caught and tried. He would apprise his boss of that.

***

Zack couldn’t remember another day like this one, although he had to admit he’d been caught up in some weird situations during his life. The telegram he sent to his boss informing him of Miss Bennett’s reluctance to do business right now upset his employer. He demanded that Zack complete his assignment or else. Zack found himself questioning Blazer’s motives. He wired back and asked what difference it made to wait a couple of weeks until the murderer was caught? Blazer’s reply was that it made every difference. He told Zack to do whatever it took to get Miss Bennett’s signature on the papers. Zack hated the feeling that his boss could be behind the killing, but he was not one to mince words, even when he was positive the question would cost him his job. He bluntly worded the telegram, asking if Blazer had anything to do with Gregory Bennett’s murder. He was fired amidst curse words that weren’t supposed to be sent across the wires, and were a perfect waste of money, but at least Zack had his answer. Blazer was at the top of his list of suspects. Not for the shooting, but for hiring it to be done. Blazer wasn’t one to dirty his own hands when he could hire it out.

Zack was on his way to see the sheriff and let him know his suspicions regarding Gregory Bennett’s death, when there was the sound of gunfire coming from the bank. Without giving the matter conscious thought, he rushed to help. He saw one of the gang shoot down the sheriff, and Zack shot him, sending him, and the bag of money he’d stolen, falling to the ground. Two other men wearing their bandanas over the lower half of their faces took aim on Zack, and he shot both of them. One final member of the gang tried to ride away, but Zack stopped him with a single shot to the shoulder. Within seconds the whole incident was over, and Zack had a prisoner. He marched him over to the jail, put him in a cell and locked the door.

“I’m hurt!” the man, who was really a boy, cried.

“I’ll get the doctor for you, kid,” he said, and then went outside to deal with the bodies. “Is there a deputy?” he asked one man, who dumbly shook his head back and forth, too stunned by the events to speak.

Another man came forward and spoke to Zack. “I’m the mayor, son. We owe you for saving the bank, and for getting the Jelly Gang. You even got Ned Jelly! He was a mean one, and he killed more lawmen than folks know about. Thank you.” He looked at Zack and said, “Did you know the sheriff?”

“No, sir. I was on my way to see him with some suspicions regarding Gregory Bennett’s murder when I heard shots. Old instincts kicked in and I came running to help. I’ve worked as a lawman until recently.”

“Would you be willing to take it up again? I’ll give you the job right here and now,” the mayor promised; and that was how Zack found himself wearing a badge again. He sent a man for the town’s only doctor, and he gave the undertaker permission to prepare the dead men for burial in boot hill. He didn’t know if anyone would claim the bodies, but he doubted it.

Zack was informed there was an apartment attached to the jail, and once the former sheriff’s belongings were moved out, and the place was cleaned, it would be his. In the meantime, the mayor was paying for a room at the hotel for Zack, who was content and thankful that he would have the opportunity to solve the Bennett murder. He asked the mayor if he knew of anyone he could hire to watch over the prisoner while he investigated the murder, and the mayor volunteered his son, provided Zack could wait to ride out of town until Will was out of school.

“Don’t you be fooled none, Sheriff. My boy is only in school because I would tan his hide if he skipped out. He’s going to graduate or else. He shoots well, and he’s got a lot of common sense. You tell him what he’s to do, and he’ll do it well. Make sure he stays busy sweeping up, and he can start to pack up Gus’ belongings to send with his daughter when she comes for the funeral. Celia is going to want to meet you, by the way. She loved that old man, and kept trying to get him to quit. This is going to tear her apart inside.”

“I’m sure it will. Sir, you send your son on over after school today, and we’ll talk about his duties, and if he’s willing to do what I say without risking his life. I don’t want to be responsible for a young kid getting himself killed because he listened to a prisoner who was luring him into unlocking a cell door.”

“Understood, and I’m gonna have to talk to his mama. I think having this job, with the understanding that he has to stay in school, will be the bribe Will needs to keep him at his studies for a few more months. Legally, he isn’t an adult for a few more years, but he has a level head and wants to earn his own way and do what he wants for a living. This will give him a taste of work and we’ll see how he takes to it.”

“Send him by, Mayor. I’ll be glad to talk to him.”

The doctor came and patched up the kid’s shoulder and gave him laudanum for the pain. “I don’t normally do that for prisoners, Sheriff, but he’s only fourteen and riding with his brother because he had no choice. I’ll be at the hearin’ and try to talk the judge into placing him in my custody. I believe I can straighten him out, and my Jean’s cooking will keep him settled. I’ll be by to visit him in the morning. He’ll sleep until then.”

“Doctor, were you called to examine Gregory Bennett’s body?”

“Damn shame, that!” Doc answered, shaking his head. “One of the hands, Nestor, came ridin’ hard for me, and got me out there as fast as he could, but it was already too late for Greg. Those girls of his are all alone now, ‘cept for those of us who love them. Little Emma is just twenty-one; Greg had her party two days before he was shot. Folks came from all over, and she was happy as could be, dancin’ and then singin’ for everyone. It was heartbreakin’ to see her at the funeral less than a week later. And the baby, poor little Sally, she cried so hard that Nell, that’s the housekeeper, had to take her away. My heart breaks for them girls. Emma is bound and determined to run that ranch, but I’m scared for her. Whoever shot Greg might come after her next. Why are you asking? Gus couldn’t figure out anything, and not for lack of trying. No one saw a thing, and by the time I got there, Greg couldn’t talk.”

“Do you think he might have said something earlier?”

“It’s possible, but Emma didn’t say so. You could ask her if you was of a mind to.”

“I’ll ask her. I need to know everything anyone can recall.”

“You seem bent on this, son. Any particular reason?” The doctor wanted to know.

“Yes, sir. I’m afraid I might have worked for the man who hired this to be done, and if that is the case, I’m going to see him hang.”

“I’m on your side, and you just let me know if I can help.”

“Thanks, Doc. I’ll keep an eye on this kid and let you know if I think he can be straightened out; I don’t want your kindness to be stepped on either.”

“Thanks, Sheriff. I’m going to miss old Gus, but the town needed a new sheriff. I’m just sorry as hell it happened the way it did, instead of him retiring and moving in with his daughter and grandkids.” He walked out, in a hurry, as usual.

***

Later that afternoon found Zack hitting the ground for the second time that day on the Ginger Belle Ranch.

“You were told to ride out and not come back!” a voice announced.

“I’m investigating the murder of Gregory Bennett, and I’m two seconds away from arresting you for interfering with a lawman!”

“Who asked you to investigate?” The same husky voice from earlier asked in a sarcastic tone of voice.

“In case you didn’t notice, I’m wearing a badge; and if you don’t put away that gun and come out of hiding right now, you and I are going to tangle. I let you get away with shooting at me this morning, but I’m not in as charitable a mood right now.”

“Then you lied to me?” Emma Bennett came out of hiding, her gun pointed straight at him.

“You?” Zack sputtered angrily. He couldn’t believe the young woman was the one taking shots at him.

“Who better to find my father’s murderer?” she demanded. “You came here under false pretenses?”

“No, I did not. I worked for a man named Blazer this morning. I wired him and suggested we wait to do business until you were ready; he expected me to do whatever it took to get your signature on the contract. I asked him point blank if he had anything to do with your father’s murder; he fired me.”

“Do you think he would go so far?”

“I think he can be ruthless in business matters, but before this morning I would have said no.” He looked at her, and said firmly, “Put your gun away right now, Emma. I’m not the enemy.”

“I don’t know that. You could still be working for Blazer and trying to find out what I know about Father’s death!”

Zack was fed up with the girl’s attitude. And, he wasn’t going to tolerate her shooting at him. He moved quickly and took her by surprise, easily capturing her gun. “No more guns, Emma,” he ordered, and in the next second his jaw exploded with pain. The little brat had slugged him!

Zack fought with his temper, and just when he thought he had a tight rein on his urge to retaliate in kind, the redhead threw herself at him, kicking and hitting, and trying to get her hands on her gun, and when that didn’t work, she tried to grab his gun from his holster. Zack forgot all about his intention to be patient. The little hellion needed to learn a valuable lesson, and she needed to learn it now! If he really were the killer, she would already be dead, and with some unscrupulous men, her behavior could warrant unwelcome attention of another sort. While he was trying to decide how best to deal with her, Emma brought the heel of her boot down on his toes. That was when Zack saw red.

Emma realized too late that she’d gone too far. The big, handsome man was furious with her. She knew that if she reached her stallion, Boastful, she would be safe, and she ran very fast. Em was astounded when she was spun around, and then pulled down over the lawman’s bent knee. In the next instant his hand smacked against the seat of her worn pants. She bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was hurting her, but the longer he continued to spank her, the harder it was to remain silent. Suddenly, it was just too much to bear, and she burst into tears; the spanking releasing emotions she’d kept pent up since finding her father’s wounded body, and trying to save his life. The pain poured forth and she sobbed brokenheartedly.

Zack knew the sobs were too much, and he carefully helped Emma up and just sat on the ground and held her in his strong arms, permitting her to cry. He had a feeling it was long overdue and Emma needed the release. If Doc was right, all of the responsibility for the ranch had fallen on her slight shoulders. She was probably trying to raise her little sister, as well, and trying to help her deal with the loss of their father.

It was obvious to Zack that Emma was out searching for any clues, and riding all over the ranch in the hope of discovering some sort of evidence that would point in the killer’s direction. That was not her job and he wouldn’t permit her to endanger herself. She needed to content herself with caring for Sally and herself.

Emma was mortified! The last time she was spanked was when she was twelve years old and she shoved Beany McGruder into the pond behind his house. She didn’t realize that Beany couldn’t swim, and he had almost drowned before his father’s ranch hand pulled him out. Mr. McGruder came to see her father, and she was called into his office. Her father asked if it was true that she had pushed Beany into the pond, and she’d told the truth. She’d listened in growing remorse as Mr. McGruder told her that Beany very nearly drowned because he couldn’t swim. Her father wouldn’t accept any excuses, either. He said that the law would have punished her severely if poor Beany had died. She would be guilty of murder. He then sent her to her room with instructions to stay there until he came upstairs to spank her. Mr. McGruder felt bad that his son had been teasing her about not having a mother, and Beany received a good tanning, too. It was hard to believe that was only nine years ago, but it was, and she’d deserved that spanking… and this one, too.

“I am sorry I had such a fit, Mr. Harrison. I was inexcusably rude, and I apologize.”

“It really is Sheriff Harrison, but I would prefer you call me Zack, Emma. I am sorry you are going through such a trying time, and I want nothing more than to find out who is responsible for your father’s death.”

“What happened to the old sheriff?” she asked, looking at him warily.

“He was killed by bank robbers this afternoon. I tried to help him, but wasn’t in time to save his life. The mayor offered me the job, and I took it so I could investigate your father’s death.”

“Why would you care?” she asked, looking at him in disbelief.

“I care because my former boss tried to involve me. If he hired a gunman to kill your father, then I will see both of them hang for murder. I’ve worn a badge since I was eighteen years old, and I won’t be used to break the law.”

“I find myself believing you,” she whispered. “Thank you for caring, and now I feel even worse for shooting at you,” she admitted, putting her hands on his shoulders and getting to her feet to look down at him.

Zack rose easily and gracefully. “That is in the past, and we move forward now and find evidence to point to the killer. Could you take me to the place where it happened, or is it too painful for you to revisit?” he asked.

“I’ll take you, but I can’t imagine what you would find now. I’ve looked everywhere,” she insisted.

“I know you have, Em, but I will be looking with fresh eyes, and I just might spot something. At least I want to try.”

Zack made sure to hide his amusement when Emma gingerly sat her saddle. He knew she had to be flaming red under her pants, but the spanking had accomplished what words couldn’t. He managed to get her attention, and he helped her release the tears she’d bottled up. Zack knew that Emma was sad, and so was little Sally. He wanted to find out who murdered Gregory Bennett and why.

To be continued…

 


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