Friday, July 1, 2011
Luck of the Irish...
This story is a work of fiction. Any references to real people, living or dead, or to any real events or places is coincidental. All rights to this story are reserved. No part of this story can be transferred, transmitted or reproduced without the written permission of the author.
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Luck of the Irish
by Nancy O'Berry © 2011
Maeve pulled the rough wool shawl across her shoulders and cast a cautionary glance to make sure the McKenna boys hadn't stirred from their quilted wrapped cocoons. She placed her hand against the wood of the door jam and pulled it open just enough to slip her slender frame through. In the dark of the night the soft sounds of the Dakota wind whispering through the small grove of trees near the house brought her comfort. From the darkness an old dog arose and fell in behind her footsteps as she moved toward the smokehouse. Bending down, she opened the door and felt a cold nose press against her forearm.
"Sh," she whispered to the hound. Reaching inside, she pulled a gray rucksack from the floor. Then, dropping to one knee she stroked the silken ears of the animal and looked into the warm brown eyes. "Now Odin, you'll be a good dog and stay here."
The dog's head tilted and thumped its tail upon the ground, before resting its paw upon her knee Maeve smiled. "No, you'll stay and keep them thugs that's called me brothers from following me," she whispered in a deep throaty bough reminiscent of her ancestors from County Cork.
The animal turned his head to listen, then whimpered in response. "Here now, I'll be safe." She rose, with one gentler stroke, and headed toward the path that wound through the trees along the creek to the Master's ranch. If the McKenna luck held, she'd be back by early morn and none of her brother's the wiser. Her soft leather moccasins made no sound. The sliver of silver moonlight her guide as she broke free of the tree line and skipped across the rocks that formed a natural bridge to the other side of the pasture. Maeve lifted the plain brown of her skirts and felt the brush of the grasses against her limbs.
Those cursed grasses were what brought her to Master's meadow in the dead of night, an uninvited guest to be sure. At the fence she stood and glazed at the top of the hill and wondered if it was still there. Her hands grasped the wood of the rail and she stared. They'd come to this country with all the hope and promise of streets lined with gold. Instead, they'd found the same hatred and bigotry that lived in Ireland. Only here the cruelty was match with words that said "No Irish wanted".
But, they survived. Moving west, saving what they could to put down roots in this land, hoping against hope that for once, they might succeed. Determination lined her face as she crawled through the space and yanked her sack against her. She had to go on. Higher and higher she climbed, the damp of the night's dew soaking the hem of her clothing, but not deterring her footsteps. As she reached the top of the rise, Maeve paused, her heart racing. The breeze rustled the grasses exposing a ring exposing a ring of dark stones.
Hands trembling, she put down the sack and walked to each stone pushing back the grass, to trace the image of the white crosses glimmering in the moonlight. Fairy stones! Perhaps there was still a chance. A chance to turn their luck in the right way!
Rushing back to the sack, her fingers trembling, she drew back the rope and shook out the contents. Sorting through, she rescued the leather bound book and flipped through the pages of her gram's diary to the place marked with the single red ribbon. "An untouched maid, who dances her way among the fairy stones, may break the spell upon what unhappiness dwells and bring good luck to all." Maeve glanced around the field, and then looked to the candles. This was her chance, the courage of three generations of McKenna seekers coursed through her veins. The skin along her arms pricked. There was no turning back, not now, not ever. The curse must be broken.
Running a ten thousand acre ranch never ran smooth. But, just once, Clay Roberts sure wished it might. He slammed the ledger closed and wrapped his hand around the empty tumbler on his right. Forty more head had gone missing in the past two weeks. While it didn't round to a lot in a ranch who measured cattle in the thousands, small time rustling like this could nickel and dime him to death.
He heaved a deep sigh and pushed himself away from the desk and walked across the oriental carpet that covered the wide planked floors and made his way to the sideboard. Pausing, he poured himself a good two fingers of whiskey and slammed it back. The burn of the alcohol pressed tears against the back of his eyelids. Off in the distance, the chime of the regulator clock echoed from the darken hallway. Sadly, it brought him no comfort.
"Big man," he whispered, denoting the venom that dripped from his own mouth. "You've got the world by the tail or does it have you?"
Hand on the bottle, Clay thought about another drink. The fine cut crystal felt as cold as Penny's refusal. Nothing had gone right, not since that crazed red-headed witch had come to town. Everywhere he went, he saw those green eyes following him. She was a brazen fool. What possessed her to seek him out in the General Store and proclaim some cock and bull story about love, destiny being written in the stars. He lifted his hand. Another good measure of whiskey poured into the glass.
He might as well be arguing with the wind. He took a deep breath and turned. The glass moved to an inch of his open lips. He stopped. Across the room, something in the long double windows caught his eye.
"What the devil," he murmured.
His glass found the sideboard and his footsteps drew him to the image of his land. Eyes narrowed. He must be mistaken. Then, he caught it again. Like a tell-tale breath of some mystical beast, the orange glow took shape and gathered strength.
The word flew from his lips as he rushed from the room. Clay paused long enough to snag his jacket. Flinging the door open, he slid the coat on and rushed down the front steps toward the barn below. Banging on the bunkhouse door, his harsh commands brought the small group of cowboys inside to life.
"Fire!" he bellowed. "Fire in the west meadow!"
Racing toward the barn, he quickly tacked his gelding and led him from the stall. Outside, the yard now filled with men working furiously to load barrels into wagons and fill them with water. Their shouts made the horses nervous, adding to the reign of confusion. One man rushed past him carrying tow-sacks. Clay reached out for one slinging it across his saddle.
"Submerge them in the barrels," he ordered, as two wranglers rushed past trying to get control of a team to hitch between the traces. "Chip, Hank, saddle up and follow me as soon as the wagon's ready."
Wheeling his mount around, Clay leaped into the saddle, and sank his feet against the animal's sides as they raced into the night. Hooves thundered beneath him as he leaned against the horse's neck riding fast and low. They'd had no rain in three weeks, the grass was dry tender and one lone spark could set not only the hills, but the entire valley below aflame.
He racked his brain. Leaning to the left, he took the winding trail that led up to the hills. No dry storms. No pilgrims crossing the trail and leaving hot ash to be blown by the winds. It made no sense. Yet, as he galloped closer, the smell of smoke filled his nostrils telling him it was true.
At the crest of the hill, he reined in his horse and peered down toward the growing flames. A dark shadow darted back and forth daring the fire to move forward.
"Damn, fool," he hissed through clenched teeth and raced down to help.
Mother of God, this wasn't supposed to happen. Maeve swung her shawl toward the greedy orange flames licking at the dry grass as if it were a piece of penny candy from the General Store. One candle had tipped as she tried to light it. She'd snuffed out the flame or so she'd thought. Yet, as she turned her back and repeated the words from gram's book in Gaelic, the damaged had been done. She raised her hand to ward off the heat as the fire's hungry fingers reached for her.
Over the crackle of the flames, she heard the thunder of horse's hooves race toward her. The animal gave a frantic neigh, and then, came the familiar sound of spurs and boots hitting the ground. A curse followed as the steps rushed forward. A hand grabbed her arm and bit deep into her skin, before swinging her around. Light from the flames illuminated the mask of deep seated anger.
"You!" Clay Roberts roared over the crackling of the flames.
Maeve yanked her arm free and stepped back. "Don't stand there, man, with your pride hanging out. Help me keep the flames from spreadin'."
Clearly caught between wanting to kill her and needing to know why, he grabbed for her again this time hauling her against his rock hard body. "We'll talk after this is out."
Maeve felt his shove push her away. Tripping over her own two feet, she stumbled back and pulled her hair from her soot-filled face. Her heart hammered against her chest, but it wasn't from fighting the fire - unless you counted the one raging beneath her skin. Her hand found her middle. She pressed back hoping to keep her stomach from falling to her feet. She took another step back and added a deep breath. Gathering her wits, she rushed back, swinging her shawl, praying this was yet another bad dream.
The roar of the flames filled his ears as Clay waded into battle. Left hand up over his brow for protection, he used his discarded jacket to beat back the ever advancing fire. The hot breath of the blaze spread across the dry grass consuming an ever bigger portion of the range. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see her rushing dangerously close to the burning grasses only to be beaten back by the heat.
"Stay back. My men will be here soon," he ordered. Even as the words left his mouth, he knew she would not heed them. Together they danced, dodging the hot ash.
Soon shouts of other men and the roll of wagons filled the air as his wranglers joined in the fight. The men of the Rocking R converged on the growing fire. "Throw me a wet sack," Clay shouted to the man standing behind the barrels, tossing the burlap to the others. He dropped his smoldering jacket as a sack flew into the air sending a shower of cool water to douse his heated skin.
Rushing forward, he joined his men in a line of defense. Moving together, slinging water, and beating out the flames they began to turn the tide of the orange sea. Advancing, retreating, they continued the macabre dance, uttering a hailstorm of oaths strong enough to make a minister blush. Concentrating on saving his grazing land, Clay forgot all about Maeve Campbell until he heard her frightened screams.
Clay paused. The scream came again from the right. He turned his head and his heart dropped to his boots. Her arms flailing, Maeve rushed away from the smoke and flames, the hem of her skirt consumed by orange. The more she ran, the faster the fire grew.
"Stand still!" he yelled. Turning to the man next to him, he snatched the wet bag from the wrangler's hand and rushed toward her.
"Stop running," he ordered.
Her screams grew louder. She turned, trying desperately to get away from the heat. Opening the wet rough cloth, he captured her in his arms and they fell to the ground, his body covering hers to further smother the flames. In order to silence her, Clay pressed his mouth to hers. As the heat melted away from his legs, suffocated by the wet burlap, another type of heat, one more consuming settled in his groin.
For a mad woman, Maeve McKenna tasted just sort of heavenly. Her cries lessened, turning into soft moans. Instead of beating his chest, her fist gathered the loose cloth of his shirt and she clung to him. Unconsciously, his lips moved over the fullness of her bottom lip, capturing it for the merest of seconds before he let it go. His chest heaving, Clay broke the kiss and pulled away.
The light from the flames danced across her face as she stared at him in wonder, her lips full from his kisses. His body hard from want, he drew his brow together and knew he should not be there, should not be doing this. Steeling his mind from desire, he turned his attention to her skirts.
Slowly, he eased his body away and sat back. He lifted the wet burlap away from her, revealing the burnt edges of her skirt and petticoat. As his heart ceased to hammer against his chest, he could hear Maeve's own rapid breaths. His eyes rolled up her frame. The sodden blanket not only smothered the flames but it transferred its dampness to her clothing, making the muslin blouse nearly transparent.
Clay closed his eyes to count to ten and swore under his breath. "Are you hurt," he asked, looking at her again.
She shook her head. A soft breeze whisked away the remaining body heat and he watched her nipples pebble. The sight sent a molten finger of desire spiraling through his body to make itself at home in his stones.
Clay glanced away and spied the blackened shawl on the ground. Leaning to the left, he snatched it up and tossed it over her upper body. "Cover yourself," he growled. Scrambling to stand, Clay helped her to sit up and draw the blackened material around her shoulders. He moved to the side and slid his arm beneath her knees. "Hold on to my neck," he commanded and drew her to his chest, then stood.
Maeve's arms held tight around him as they moved toward the wagon. He could feel the weight of her cheek against his shoulder. Even though the scent of smoke was strong, a whiff of something clean, something almost flowery washed over him. Using utmost care, Clay placed her on the back of the wagon, next to the barrels of water. Loosening his kerchief, he held it up to the wrangler staring at them. "Soak it, "he snapped.
While he waited, he looked down at the angry red mark on her ankle. "You're burned." He glanced up, their eyes met.
Maeve held her breath. The straight line of his mouth betrayed the anger Clay was trying to mask. She knew he'd be madder than a wet hen when she told him how the fire started. His hand came up and she shrank back.
"Here you go, boss."
She watched as he took the sodden cloth from the wrangler's hands and placed it gently against the tingling flesh. She could feel her skin quiver even though his touch was gentle.
"This is gonna hurt, but it's the best we can do till we can get you to the doctor. You are not to touch it. Not to get up. Just sit here. Do you understand?"
She could feel the rush of tears in her eyes. Instead of answering, Maeve shook her head.
"Bag," he barked.
The wrangler thrust another soaked burlap sack into his hands and he turned and walked away.
"This wasn't the way it was to turn out," she whispered at his departing figure.
As dawn broke over the meadow, the pale yellow light revealed the damage. As far as Maeve could see, the lush green grassland had been reduced to smoldering ruins of gray ash. Dark shapes materialized over the slope, mixing with the rising trails of smoke, moving toward her like the Titans rising from the gates of Hades to rule the earth. She pulled her tattered shawl tighter about her shoulders and shivered.
They drew closer, becoming more men than beasts, and dropped their scared bags at the foot of the wagon before forming a line at her water barrel. She grabbed cup after tin cup, dipping it inside and handing it to the blackened fingers of the men. Their faces streaked with ash and dirt showed no emotion. A simple nod of a head in gratitude for her service and they moved on. She alone, knew the cause. With each wretched look cast her way, she felt her sin weigh heavily upon her shoulders.
Weary, the men stood in clusters, waiting. Their gazes drifted toward the rise and she followed them, her eyes searching for one familiar figure. The air around them filled with tension. The heavy pounding of her heart filled her ears as the seconds went by. Just when she thought she might go mad, the top of his head broke the surface of the horizon. Like a god, he began to emerge. His wide shoulders slumped forward in exhaustion; yet, he somehow managed to balance the mantle of being Lord of the Manor, demanding their respect.
She should advert her eyes. Instead, Maeve gripped the rim of the barrel for support. Her eyes widened. Even in the distance, she knew his glare focused upon her. "Saints preserve us," she muttered beneath her breath and watched as his footsteps stopped at her barrel. Head tipped back she looked up at the tall giant of a man before her.
In the dawn, his eyes looked more like the smoke rising from the earth than that of the clear blue sky. Without breaking contact, her hand reached out and grasped a tin cup. Then giving herself a mental shake, she tore her gaze away and watched as the cup dipped below the water line. The cup rose from the water, the droplets plopping back into the barrel as he spoke.
"I thought I told you to sit still."
She glanced back up. Their eyes met. She could read the anger lying just below the surface. Clay Roberts was a man who did not take kindly to having his orders disobeyed. "You-your men needed water." Her voice no more than a whispered answered him back. Then remembering what was in her hand, Maeve offered it to him. His eyes didn't release her as he took the cup. His fingers brushed hers and heat surged up her cheeks, the warmth sending a shock through her body and causing a small gasp to slip from her lips.
His eyes widened and in the distance, the cry of a hawk registered in her ears. Like that bird of prey, Clay Roberts was about to swoop in and capture her heart. His eyes bore into hers, refusing to let go as he brought the cup to his lips and drank. Spellbound, she watched the rise and fall of his Adam's apple against the blue bandana he wore knotted against his neck. Her mouth went dry. Her gaze crawled up to his strong jaw, partially hidden by the scruff of his whiskers. Her fingers twitched to wipe the drop of water that zigged and zagged through the stubble toward his chin. She gazed further, back to his eyes and watched them harden. She blinked and found the cup pushed back into her hands. Using it as a talisman, Maeve brought it to her chest as protection against his fury.
"Thank you." His voice sounded hoarse from the smoke and flames and he moved toward his men. "Tonight, your actions saved the Rocking R from the loss of its pasture. Joe will pick five men to ride the perimeter for a few hours so the rest of you can get some hot food and sleep. For the next two days we'll keep an eye out for hot spots."
Maeve watched Clay turn around and walk back toward her. She put down the cup and waited.
"How's your ankle?"
"Fine," she croaked finding her voice.
One dark brow arched in surprise. "Clint?"
"Sir?" Behind her, the wrangler hopped down from the wagon and hurried up.
"Grab yourself a horse and go for the doctor. Miss McKenna needs that ankle looked at."
Maeve took a deep breath but one fiery glance put out her desire to speak.
"Yes, sir," the drover replied.
She heard his footsteps fade away. "Me ankle's fine," she said, once again finding her voice and giving her chin a lift of defiance.
"Walk to me."
Her eyes rounded in surprise. "I'll do no such thing."
He held out his hand. "Walk to me."
Maeve dampened her lips with the edge of her tongue acutely aware of the heat that gathered along her right leg. Yet, instinct dictated she show this man no fear. Breathing harder, she turned her right foot toward him. The blistered skin protested. She took a small hobbled step, determined not to show pain, then, another. A fine sheen of perspiration began to layer her skin. Her brow knotted together and she fought against her body's refusal to obey her command.
The distance between them grew. She clenched her teeth. Just one more step, she told herself. Placing her weight on her injured ankle to move her left foot, Maeve felt the muscle tear and her ankle rolled giving way. She gasped and fell forward straight into the arms of Clay Roberts.
Ear against his chest, she could detect his heart skip a beat as he lifted her into his arms. "Madam, you will see a doctor."
Marching over to his horse, he helped her scramble into the saddle. Gathering the reins, he looked up and said. "Lean to the other side, so I can mount."
She grabbed the horn and shifted. His foot brushed hers and he swung up behind her. One hand gathered the reins. The other hand pressed a palm against her middle scooting her back against his body. Maeve's heart raced.
"Just lean against me," he murmured into her ear as the horse began to make his way back to the house on the hill that overlooked the meadow.
Maeve's ankle burned with an unholy fire as they pulled to a stop before the brick house. She clung to the saddle horn as Clay slipped to the ground.
"Slide down easy," he whispered.
She glanced to the left and stared into his outstretched arms. Letting go of the horn, she gave herself into the pain of dismounting and buried her face into the crook of his neck. Her skin felt as if the flames were still licking at her heels. A soft moan slipped from her lips before she could bite it back.
"Easy," he answered as he climbed the steps.
She heard the front door open and turning her head to the right, peeked from beneath the stream of red hair that lay limp against her skin.
"Heard you come up, Clay," the tall cowboy greeted them with a white apron tied about his waist.
"Get some cool water, some butter, and meet me in the guest room, Gene. Doc's on his way, but she needs some relief."
Maeve said nothing, she caught a glimpse of the entry way and the portraits that lined the wall as he took the stairs toward the second floor.
"Where are you tak'in me?"
"To the guest room," Clay answered.
Pausing at the door, he turned so that his fingers might open the door, then pushing it back, carried her over the threshold to a room that took her breath away.
"Now, you lie still," he ordered as he put her down on the softest mattress this side of heaven.
She ran her hand over the lavender satin coverlet and thought to herself, So, this is how the other half lives. He slammed a door and she glanced up to see him moving toward her with a white gown in hand. Maeve's eyes rounded.
"Here now, I'm not that kind of girl," she protested.
Clay's footsteps stopped. "I'm not after you woman, but you can't have those nasty sooty clothes on my mother's bed or creating infection in that leg." He tossed the gown toward her and she caught it. "Change. I'm stepping out of the room."
She stared as he moved toward the door.
"Oh," he said, turning to face her. "Don't try to steal anything. I know the contents of this room."
"Steal," she said with a gasp and glared at him.
"You, Irish, are a shifty lot."
Her mouth gaped.
"You got three minutes," he ordered. She could see the fire in his eyes had returned and pulled the gown before her as protection. "Or I'll do it for you."
With that, he opened the door and left. The wood banged, rattling the pictures on the wall, next to the opening. Maeve stared down at the white cotton gown. Her chin trembled. "Mother Mary, what is he gonna think when he finds out the truth."
A shudder went through her body as she laid the gown beside her and struggled to remove her own rough clothing before he returned.
Clay sat at his desk, to tired and exhausted to move. One thought ran through his muddled brain was why. Why had Maeve McKenna been at the fire when he showed up? Why was she on his property when he'd specifically told her not to set foot anywhere near him or it? Why? With a deep sigh, he scrubbed his face with the palm of his left hand. He needed sleep, but what he would like even more, were answers.
"S'cuse me, Mr. Roberts."
He glanced to find the cook standing in the doorway. "Thought you might need a cup of coffee."
Finally, someone with an ounce of sanity. "Thanks."
The cook crossed the room and placed the cup before him on the desk. Clay leaned to the right to open the bottom drawer.
"No need," Gene told him.
Clay glanced up to see him wiping his hands on the corner of the apron. "I all ready took the liberty seeing how you were out all night and come home with a female. Two finger's worth as always."
Keeping an eye on his cook, Clay brought the cup to his lips. The hot, black hickory brew cut the smoke and ash from his throat as it slipped his tonsils leaving behind the heady wood taste of Kentucky bourbon.
"I got the table set for breakfast," Gene continued. "I reckon the Doc will be down presently, so I set an extra place."
Listening to the cook, Clay leaned back and took another sip, this time closing his eyes letting the warmth of the liquid seep into his bones. "Good."
"You know boss, there is just one little thing that bugs me."
Clay opened one eye. "Is that so?" He couldn't stop the sarcasm that tinged his words. Gene ignored it.
"How come, you come back to the house with a woman? To be more specific, that woman. Lord knows, she cost you a heap of trouble in the past."
Both eyes opened. Clay brought his gaze around to stare at the cook.
"Now, nothing wrong with bringing home a lady, but I ain't never heard of invites to a fire."
"I did not invite, that woman."
"Then it is even more curious. Sure gonna' make some tongues waggle in town. Bound to get out you know." With that statement, Gene exited the room.
"Even my own cook," Clay grumbled. Rising from his chair, he moved from the office back toward the dining room, cup in hand. Yet, the food on his plate didn't interest him. Instead of eating, he pushed the contents around with his fork, while his thoughts swirled on a certain redhead upstairs.
"Now, you don't tell me I need to examine you, too?"
He glanced up as Doc Pritchard came into the room laying his hat and bag on a small sitting chair by the arch.
"Howdy, Doc," he half rose and gestured toward the empty seat next to him. "Come sit down and get a bite to eat. How's our patient?"
Doc Pritchard crossed to the chair he was offered. "Do not mind if I do," he replied and sat down. Pulling his napkin in his lap, he glanced to Clay. "She's in no danger. I expect in about two days she will be right as rain."
"Rain we can use," Clay grunted as he filled the doctor's cup with coffee from the pot the cook left on the table.
"It's a nasty little burn. I gave her some suave to put on it," he said, scooping eggs onto his plate. "I told her to keep it clean and come see me at the end of the week." He speared a cut of ham. "I suggested she bathe completely."
"I'll get Gene to heat some water and take the tub upstairs."
"So," the doctor gave a dramatic pause, "Just how did this fire start?"
"I have no clue."
Doc Pritchard paused. An eyebrow slowly curved toward the snow-white locks on his forehead as he chewed. "You do not know?"
Clay shifted in his chair, chaffing under the look of surprise on the older man's face. In defeat, he lifted his hand, "I saw it out the window. Called the men and rode out, where I found that Irish devil beating the flames with her shawl."
In the quiet of the room, he heard the doctor put down his fork.
"So, the girl was there when you arrived?"
"I just said that," Clay snapped.
"So you did."
He watched the doctor chew on the food in his mouth and wrinkle his forehead deep in thought. "And, did she see anything?" he asked.
Clay bristled. "According to her, no."
"Hum," Pritchard sat back. "Well, young man, you certainly have quite a mystery on your hands."
"Quite," Clay agreed sullenly.
Again, the room grew silent as the doctor completed his meal. Clay waited until he cleaned the crumbs from his face with the napkin. "When can I send her home?"
"Yes," he fumed. "The girl."
Doc Pritchard chuckled. Rising from his chair, he swept back to retrieve his hat and bag. "Well, in my learned opinion, tomorrow."
"Why not today?"
Clay watched the older man's mouth twitch and grew even angrier. Damn, he was laughing at him.
"Cause she's asleep." Doc Pritchard replied. "I doubt she'll wake up till nightfall. It won't hurt to have someone else go with you to take her back either."
"Take her back," he harrumphed. "She came by way of the fence line; she can go back the same."
"Oh, yes, let those three burley McKenna brothers chew on that one," the doctor added.
Clay looked up.
"If I were you, I would have another person, like the preacher or the sheriff ride back with you. It might save you a beating."
"Beating?" Clay glanced up to the ceiling where the woman slept unaware.
"Have a good day," The doctor called cheerfully. Turning toward the opening, paused to allow Joe to enter.
Clay looked with interest as his foreman held up a grey rucksack singed and burned.
"Boss, you might want 'a see this." Joe hefted the bag so he could get a good look.
Anger rose and twisted Clay's face. Pushing back his chair, he strode to the other end of the table and met Joe as he dumped the bag on the polished wood. Something thunked. Licking his dry lips, he reached in while the foreman watched and pulled a blackened leather covered book. "Where?" His voice cracked as he turned the book over in his hands.
"About middle way of the burn, along with these."
Clay watched as he dropped two pods of melted wax on the bag. It wasn't hard to conclude what happened. Joe formed the words.
"Someone lit a candle in the meadow. The grass was so dry; it only took a small spark." He glanced up, "Looks like we got ourselves a case of arson."
A dull knot formed in the pit of his stomach as Clay placed the leather bound book on the table. "Hand me that cloth," he pointed to the napkin the doctor had left beside the plate.
Joe stepped over to grab it.
"Dip it the edge in the water glass."
Joe followed the directions and brought it back, handing it to Clay. the leather appeared cracked from the heat of the flames but if he was lucky perhaps some title might be found. Pressing one hand to the surface, he looked to his foreman. "Here goes." He brought the cloth over the leather journal and pressed the moisture into the leather. A something began to emerge beneath the soot. He wiped again. A few letters began to appear. "Wet this again," he told Joe and waited for the cloth. On the third swipe, three letters stamped in gold appeared. There was no mistaking the M, small c, and capital K.
"Something else you ought a know, boss. Ten head of cattle went on a midnight waltz last night."
Clay looked up. "You searched?"
"Every where possible."
Clay stared down at the letters on the book. "What are you thinking?"
"Diversion," Joe said. "We were all at the fire. What better time to take cattle."
Rage boiled up inside him. The pieces were coming together. His arms shaking, his anger so intense he wanted to put his fist through the wall. Instead, Clay replied. "Go get the sheriff."
It was late when Maeve awoke. It took her a few moments to realize where she was. Rocking R, yes, lord she remembered. She'd gone to the meadow to ask the wee folk for help. However, the candle turned over and set the meadow aflame. She glanced down at the bandage around her ankle. How was she going to explain the fire and her part in the affair?
"Mother Mary, I never make it easy," she whispered.
Tossing back the covers, she climbed from the mahogany bed. With the utmost care, she placed weight upon the ankle. Stiff and sore, she was surprised she could hobble about. With no robe, Maeve pulled the colorful quilt about her shoulders. In slow measured steps, she moved toward the doorway. Her hand turned the brass knob and she peered out.
The hallway on the second floor appeared empty. One hand on the wall, steadied her progress. The other kept the quilt tightly clutched at her chest. The closer she came to the stairway, the louder the voice below. She stopped to listen, their tone unmistakably angry. Fear clutched at her heart. She stopped at the landing.
"You mean to say, you think the McKenna's are behind the missing cattle around here?"
Maeve's eyes opened wide. The sheriff! Her hand let go of the wall to clutch the rail of the banister. She leaned closer, straining to hear their words.
"We found these in the center of the burn." Clay's voice rose.
Found! What did they find? Her heart flipped and sank to her feet. The rucksack, it had to be.
"We figure the girl set the fire to distract us while her brothers cut out the cattle."
Her heart pounded in her chest as she listened to the accusations being branded about down below.
"Look, right now, you got no proof." The sheriff replied.
"I got all the proof I need." Clay's voice was harsh as it echoed in the empty stairwell. "If you don't arrest them, I will take matters into my own hands."
"Is that a threat, Mr. Roberts?" Sheriff Masters asked.
"No, sheriff that is a promise."
The anger in Clay's voice cut Maeve's heart like a knife. Her mind whirled as the sounds of boots scraped the hardwood floors. Through a cloud of tears, she watched the sheriff emerge with Clay and his foreman at his flank. She should do something. Her foot slipped and she gasped as the pain rippled up her leg. Three faces turned to look at her. Caught, dead to right, Maeve had no choice.
"I did it," Her voice shook as she spoke. "I lit the candles. They fell over. I started the fire. But, it is not what cha are thinking. "
Clay's eyes turned to steel. "Sheriff, I want that woman arrested."
To be continued...
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