The flames were a bright orange against the night sky, and reacting to the danger, Janie urged her stallion to a full gallop. Someone could be inside the burning building! She saw a group of men riding away from the fire as if being chased, and a couple of minutes later, she saw why. The door was securely tied shut, the windows boarded, and she could hear someone inside coughing.
Taking out her wicked looking knife, she sliced through the rope, then kicked open the door. But the heat pushed her back. She took her blanket, soaked it under the pump at the well, and then wrapping it around herself, made her way inside the smoke-filled cabin to find the person inside. As luck would have it, the man was lying just in front of the door.
“Come on, help me! You’re big, and I’m not. Damn it, get on your feet!” she yelled loudly, and the man responded. She held him steady, and they staggered outside and away from the burning cabin, where they fell to the ground. The poor man was coughing, and struggling to breathe. She knew his lungs were burning, but that would ease in time. Janie fetched a cup of water from the well and brought it to him. “Drink this, mister,” she ordered.
Blake swallowed gratefully, the water soothing his sore throat. He managed to get a good look at the young boy and wondered where he’d come from. He was too young to be out this late at night. His own ma would have been waiting by the door with a switch in her hand if he’d run at night when he was that age. He’d learned that the hard way one time, and it just took the one time. “Thanks, kid. I don’t know what you’re doin’ out so late at night, but I’m grateful to you.”
“I ain’t a kid,” Janie said hoarsely.
“Don’t fib to me, boy. You aren’t a full-grown man yet.” Blake waited for him to argue, but he didn’t. “What’s your name?”
“JT Burroughs,” Janie said with a perfectly straight face. The man didn’t need to know the JT stood for Jane Trentwood. Trentwood was her mother’s maiden name, and her father had insisted on honoring his father-in-law. “Who are you and why did those men try to cook you?”
“My name is Blake Maxwell. I’m a US Marshal, working undercover,” he explained. “I must be getting close to the truth,” he whispered.
“Did you see those men?” she asked.
“I heard them, but by the time I got to the door, they’d locked me inside. They put the boards over the window, and I couldn’t see them at all. I did see the horses, and in the moonlight, I could make out the brands.”
“Double X?” she queried.
“How did you know?” He looked at her suspiciously. “Did you see them?”
“No, I was too far away. One of the men, riding in the lead on a white stallion, was Xavier Xander. He’s mine,” she warned.
“What do you mean, he’s yours?” Blake asked, surprised by the vehemence in the boy’s voice.
“I’m after him; you need to stand clear.”
“The hell you say! Kid, I’m a US Marshal. I am investigating Xander, and you need to get your butt on home and stay out of this, or I’ll personally tan your hide.”
“Is that the thanks I get for saving your life? I warn you, interfere with me, and I’ll take you down. I have no patience for the likes of working together. Stay out of my way, mister.” Janie got to her feet, and jumped from the ground up onto Monk’s back. “Don’t make the mistake of crossing me.” She took off, following after Xander.
Blake shook his head. He and that kid were going to tangle. He got to his feet, and went to saddle his horse. He was going to keep searching for more evidence to break up Xander’s band of rustlers. The people in this area had suffered so many losses that they were threatening to hire guns to guard the herds and kill anyone caught rustling. The whole area was like a powder keg, ready to explode, and that was why Blake had been sent here. He had to find the rustlers before innocent people were accused and killed.
Once he was saddled, Blake rode away from the cabin, positive that he was correct. The corrals around the secluded cabin were where the rustlers were hiding the stolen cattle. Blake thought it was odd that the cabin was so rundown and abandoned, but the corrals on the place were all brand new and in great repair. Since the kid knew about this place, he wouldn’t be safe either. Blake was going to need to find him, and tell his folks to keep him home.
Janie watched the marshal ride away, and followed at a safe distance. She needed to know as much about the man as she could learn. He wanted Xander for rustling. She wanted Xander for murder, and she planned to kill him herself. She trailed him to McGregor, which was perfect. Xander’s base was twenty miles away in the town of Mill Creek. She saw Blake enter the hotel, and was pretty sure he was renting a room. Janie rode to the barn she used, put her horse in his stall, and fed him a bag of oats. She then took the time to brush him down and make him comfortable. Before she left to walk to her home, she changed her clothing, and ran a brush through her long, thick, red hair, released from the hat that had hidden it. She peeked outside to make sure she wouldn’t be seen leaving the barn, and then hurried to the main street of town to walk home.
“Hello, Miss Trentwood. What are you doing out so late?” the mayor asked, surprised to see her.
“I was having supper with one of my students,” she explained. “He is having some trouble with spelling, so we had an extra lesson at home. What are you doing out so late, sir?” she asked, just to watch him squirm. She knew exactly what he was up to. There was a lonely widow in town, and the mayor’s wife was too busy minding everyone else’s business to give her husband any attention. Widow Smith flattered his ego, and made him feel young again.
“Oh, just tending to town business,” he lied. “May I see you safely to your door?”
“Why, yes sir. I didn’t want to run my student’s father out when he was exhausted, but I should have thought about the fact it might not be safe for me to be out alone.” She wanted to smile at the lie, but didn’t. Janie was always armed and quite able to take care of herself.
“Oh, yes, Miss Trentwood. I think it is admirable that you care for your students, but you must also protect yourself. Not only would I not want you harmed in any way, I also would not wish to have to find another schoolteacher who can handle those wild boys you teach. For once, we have a teacher who makes the students mind. Tell me, how often do you have to take a stick to them?”
“I tossed the sticks in the wastebasket on the first day of school. If I feel a child needs a spanking, I refer the matter to the parents. Besides, I’ll tell you this in confidence, there has only been one child I would like to spank. She is a very spoiled little miss, and she taunts the other girls mercilessly.”
“Oh no! My granddaughter?” he asked with a frown. He already knew the answer even before she nodded. “Between my wife and my daughter, they have given Melanie such snobby ideas. Will you permit me to handle the situation, Miss Trentwood?”
“I have talked with your daughter, but haven’t noticed an improvement in Melanie’s behavior. I do not want to need to punish her myself; it truly goes against my principles. But if she tells one more child that her dress isn’t as pretty or as expensive as hers, I am going to lose my temper. I would appreciate any help you can give me, sir. You are nothing like that.”
“No, I am not. I was raised poor, and so was my wife. My daughter didn’t always have everything she wanted either. I am going to go home and spank a few bottoms,” he promised. “Thank you for your honesty, Miss Trentwood. Not many young ladies would have the courage to speak up and tell me plainly what they thought. I feel privileged that we were able to hire you.”
“I enjoy my job, sir. You gave me a wonderful opportunity, and I want to do my very best. Thank you for walking me home. It was kind of you.”
“You are certainly welcome.” He tipped his hat slightly, and made sure she was safely inside the boarding house before he went home to deal with the three females in his household.
Janie shut the door to her room. It was time to think, and plot her revenge. Killing Xander was the only thing she’d thought about during the last six years. While other girls were flirting with boys and going to dances, she was learning to ride like the wind and shoot a gun like the fastest hired gun in the west. Janie could fight too. She’d proven herself to some harsh teachers, and now she was going to see Xander squirm and suffer before she killed him slowly. With Xander on her mind, she fell asleep, dreaming the dream over again.
“Take Janie and hide in the cellar, Ruth.”
Ruth grabbed Janie by the hand, took her into the cellar and hid her in a special room that Peter had built into the house. No one but the three of them knew it was there. However, she could hear what was going on outside because the tiny room had a grate that was painted like the house. It blended in with the house, but allowed anyone who was hiding to hear what was happening.
“Stay in here, Janie. No matter what happens. Promise me.” Ruth gave her a little shake, and repeated, “Promise me!”
“I promise, Mama.”
“No matter what happens. Those men out there are no good. I have to try and save your papa. Please, darling girl, obey me. No matter what happens. Repeat that. No matter what happens.”
“No matter what happens, Mama.” Janie wished with all her might she’d refused to promise. She was afraid. She sat in the dark and could hear everything.
“Ruth!” Peter whispered when his sweet wife came out on the porch to stand beside him.
“Peter, Peter, Peter, why are you making things so difficult? I have offered you a fair price for this land. I have given you several opportunities to sign over the deed, but you persist in being stubborn. What am I going to do with you?”
“Xander, why can’t you understand that this is our home? My grandfather left me this land, and I built our home here. We don’t wish to sell.” Peter tried again to explain how they felt about their home.
“Perhaps I have been trying to persuade the wrong Burroughs?” Xander said. “Mrs. Burroughs, Ruth, isn’t it? Surely the money I am offering for this small ranch would go far, say, in New Orleans? Or San Francisco, perhaps? Maybe even London? All you need do is persuade your husband to sign the deed.”
“No. I support my husband’s decision not to sell. Mr. Xander, we love this ranch. It is home to us. Your offer is generous, but we do not wish to sell.”
“This is your final answer?”
“Yes, Mr. Xander. Our final answer.”
A shot was fired and Peter Burroughs fell to the porch, dead, murdered by Xavier Xander.
Ruth cried out, sobbing, and rushed to take Peter in her arms. “How could you? How could you? I hate you!” she screamed at the men.
In the cellar, Janie was crying too, and she hated the man called Xander!
“You will hate me even more, my dear. You’ll soon join your husband, but I don’t see why my men can’t have some fun first. You’ve put me to a lot of trouble. Now I will have to buy the land from the courts, and you may be sure I will. Men, enjoy her as you will. We will make it look like bandits attacked the place, killed him and used her.”
Inside the hidden cellar room, Janie heard her mama’s screams. She heard someone slap her, and then demand to know where her child was hiding.
“She is with a neighbor.”
Janie closed her eyes; she knew her mother was telling her to stay hidden “no matter what happens” and she obeyed her last request until the men eventually rode away. Janie finally came out and found her parents. Her father was on the porch, where he’d fallen. Her mama was lying in the yard, dead. Her clothing was arranged obscenely, and it was easy to see what the men had done to her. “I will kill them all, Mama. I promise you that Xander will pay for what he has done to our family.”
Janie woke up sobbing. The dream was always the same, and it was exactly as the events had happened – every last scream and gunshot. Xander laughing, her mama pleading with them to leave her alone, reminding them she had a child to raise. They didn’t care. They killed her too.
The only comfort she had was knowing that Xander didn’t get her ranch. He never would. He would get her bullet instead – after he suffered.
* * *
The house was quiet when Harold entered.
“Good evening, Mr. Martin.”
“Where are my wife and daughter?”
“The ladies meeting at church, sir. Would you care for dinner?” the maid asked.
“No, thank you, Zelda. Is my granddaughter asleep?”
“No. I put her to bed at the normal time, but she insists she is waiting up for her mother.”
“I will see about that. When Susan and Daisy come home, tell them to wait for me in the parlor. I need to speak with them.”
“Yes, sir.” Zelda watched him head for the staircase and smiled. She loved it when the mayor got all puffy and put his foot down with those two females. They were difficult to please, and if Zelda didn’t have two children to support, she would quit the job and never speak to the women ever again. However, the job paid very well, and she didn’t need to worry about the mayor making advances. Mr. Martin wasn’t that type.
Harold tapped on Melanie’s door and then entered.
“I didn’t say come in, Grandfather!”
“I own this home, little girl, and best you remember it.” He marched over to her wardrobe and looked inside. It was crammed with dresses.
“Aren’t they pretty, Grandfather? Expensive, too!”
“And you are teasing the other girls at school about your clothing, aren’t you?” The dresses were too fancy for school.
“Their clothing is plain and not as pretty as mine,” Melanie stated with a toss of her curls.
“Melanie, some day you will thank me, but I am sure it will be a while before that happens. Right now, you are going to get a spanking for being so mean to the other girls, and the only place you will be wearing these dresses is to Sunday school and church. Other days you will be dressing as the other children here in town dress.”
“No, Grandfather. I don’t have to listen to you. I’m better than other people, Mama and Grandmother said so.”
“They will be changing their tune. From now on, you will be nice to the other girls and not make them feel bad about their dresses. Is that clear?” He went and opened the door to Melanie’s bedroom. “Zelda, please come in here.”
“You shouldn’t say please to a mere servant, Grandfather!” Melanie dared to scold him, sounding just like his wife when she did.
“You always say please and thank you to everyone, Melanie. That is a new rule you will pay attention to.”
“But, Mama says I don’t have to obey you because she is my mama and you aren’t my parent.”
“You will obey me, and so will your mama, who is my daughter!” He was furious. What the hell were his wife and daughter telling the child?
“Yes, sir?” Zelda stood there.
“Zelda, I want these dresses removed from this wardrobe and put in the attic. If Melanie’s underclothing is fancy, remove it as well. Melanie is going to live like a normal child from now on.”
“No! Don’t touch my clothes!” Melanie screamed, slapping at Zelda. The next thing she knew, her grandfather picked her up and carried her over to her bed.
Zelda hurried to leave the room, smiling as she realized what was going to happen.
* * *
Harold was waiting in the pantry when his wife and daughter walked in, complaining about the dessert that Amy Tressler had made for refreshments. “It simply wasn’t classy, Mother.”
“You two come into the parlor right now. We need to talk.”
“Mother, do you hear Melanie crying?” Daisy asked, she dropped her cloak on a chair and was about to run upstairs when her father took her by the arm.
“I said we are going to talk in the parlor. Melanie is crying because I spanked her. She needs to be left alone right now to think over her behavior.”
“Father, you have no right to spank my daughter!”
“I have a right to spank anyone who lives in this house that I paid for, and that I earn the money to supply with food and other necessities of life. In the parlor.” He gave her a firm swat on the backside.
Daisy squealed, and Susan gave her husband a glare that would have melted ice. “What is the meaning of this brutish behavior, Harold?”
“We are going to talk about Melanie and the way you two have been teaching her to be a snooty snob. That child has too many clothes, and they are entirely too fancy for school. She is teasing the other girls, and lording it over them. She’s telling them they aren’t pretty and that their dresses are cheap. She made another child cry just today. I’m not having it. From now on, she wears dresses that are hand sewn by you, daughter. You will buy yard goods and make something similar to what the other girls are wearing. It is plenty good enough for school. I have taken all of her fancy clothing away, and if I see her wearing anything that fancy again, it had better be to church or to a party. Not to school, or both of you will receive a spanking.”
“That is preposterous, Harold! We simply want Melanie to be a reflection of our position in this town. You are the mayor, and Melanie needs to dress above the other children.”
“Susan, I haven’t put a hand to you in years, but that snobbish attitude ends now. You have convinced your granddaughter that she is better than other children. It isn’t the truth. The schoolteacher already talked to our daughter about this, but Daisy did nothing at all. Susan, you can go to our bedroom. I will be in to discuss this matter with you. Do not dare go into Melanie’s room, or speak to her through the door. If you do, I will use my razor strop on your bare hind instead of my hand. That is a bona fide promise. Now go!”
Susan looked stunned, but she left the room immediately. She had no intention of allowing her husband to use corporal punishment on her. However, it seemed prudent to obey him for now.
“Father, I cannot believe you threatened Mother! What has come over you?”
“Daisy, why didn’t you address the issue Miss Trentwood brought to your attention?”
“I didn’t see it as a concern. Melanie has every right to dress nicely for school.”
“There is dressing nicely and dressing too damn fancy, and those dresses that were in her wardrobe were ridiculous. Tomorrow, you will go to the mercantile, buy yard goods, and then you will spend your days sewing until she has at least five different dresses to wear to school. Nothing fancy.”
“I won’t do it! Mother and I ordered those dresses all the way from San Francisco!”
“Too bad. I will cut them into rags if you don’t obey me, and there will be no more ordering things. I will cancel your credit at all the stores in town, and tell the bank not to allow you or your mother to make withdrawals. The only thing you are permitted to buy for Melissa right now is yard goods to make her some proper clothing. Now come here,” he ordered, pulling her over to the sofa. He sat down, and then flipped her face down over his knee.
“No, Father! No! I am not a child to be spanked!” Daisy protested.
“You will always be my child.” Harold put some real effort into paddling her backside.
“Please stop, Daddy! No more!” She started crying, and he continued making his point, scolding her for turning her daughter into a spoiled little brat.
“I had better never hear of you ignoring another complaint from the teacher about your daughter either. If it happens again, I will spank you soundly. It is a huge responsibility to raise your daughter to have some substance. You were raised without fancy dresses, and you had school friends. Melanie doesn’t have any little girls begging her to come and play with them. She has a mean heart, and you are going to make it a priority to change her attitude. Do you hear me? Or do I need to toss up your skirts and use my ruler on you?”
“No, Daddy! Please don’t spank me any longer. I will try to be a better mother.”
“I think it is what David would want and expect, wouldn’t he?” Harold spoke of his deceased son-in-law. David was killed by the Indians while on a routine military patrol. Harold and Susan were quick to move their only child and grandchild home to live with them in their large home.
“David would be disappointed in me,” she whispered, sniffling. Harold helped her up and then stood to give her a big hug.
“The important thing is that it isn’t too late to make amends, Daisy. Melanie is still very young. Why don’t you go on and give her a good night hug, and tell her there will be no more teasing the other girls about their clothing. I also want you to pick one dress that you can strip off the lace and ruffles so that it is more acceptable for school. You will then have tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday to work on new dresses for her.”
“Yes, Daddy.” Daisy hurried to do as she was told, not about to argue with her father while he was in his present mood. She hadn’t been spanked since David had spanked her for being so moody after Melanie was born. It was a well-deserved spanking, and her father was right about Melanie. She didn’t have any little friends to play with. It hadn’t occurred to Daisy until her father pointed it out. If it was because she was teasing them all the time, then it needed to stop.
She walked into Melanie’s bedroom, and found her daughter was hiccupping.
“Mama, Grandfather spanked me and took all my dresses!”
“Did he tell you why he did that?” Daisy asked.
“No!” Melanie fibbed. “He was mean and I hate him!”
“You don’t hate Grandfather, Mellie. He certainly doesn’t hate you. He learned from your teacher that you have been teasing the other girls, telling them their dresses aren’t as pretty as yours, and that yours are very expensive. It hurts their feelings, and they cry. That is probably why no one wants to play with you at recess. You don’t treat them well, honey. That is why Grandfather spanked you. He wants you to be the nice little girl we all know. So, I am going to make you some appropriate school dresses, and you can wear your other dresses to church or if you go to a party.”
“I like being the prettiest girl in the school!” Melanie snapped. “I want my dresses back right now!”