Reading the Rancher – Kit Morgan

Albert Dunst sat on a fallen log outside of Creede, Colorado and lamented to his friend. “I don’t know why the higher-ups ordered me to do it this way. Besides, who am I to argue with them?” Bob, Albert’s friend, cocked his head to the side and skewed him with one beady eye. “Oh, it’s fine for you,” Albert went on. “Look at you. Everyone thinks you’re wonderful. You can get away with it. But not me.” He jabbed his chest with a thumb. “I need words, Bob. I don’t know how to communicate without them.” Bob the rooster answered with a cluck. “Is that all you have to say?” Albert said in disgust. “What do they expect me to do? Paint a sign and hold it up when I meet her?” Cluck-cluck. “Of course you don’t have hands and arms to do it.

But I do. It’s degrading, I tell you! Degrading!” Cluck, cluck-cluuuuck. “I know,” Albert said as his shoulders slumped. “I am a talker. Perhaps I speak too much.” Cluck! “You don’t have to agree so readily.” Albert sighed, slapped his knees and stood. “Well, I suppose it’s time I mosey to the train station. Miss Dodge will be getting here any moment. Poor thing.

What a horrible fate we’re saving her from.” Cluck “All right, I’m saving her from.” He picked up his hat, smashed it on his head and sighed again. “Thanks for listening. I know I can always count on you to lend a sympathetic ear.” Cluck. “If I need any help, you’ll be the first to know. Thanks again, Bob. You’ve been a good friend.” Bob clucked one last time, flapped his wings, hopped off the log and disappeared.

Albert sighed once more and headed for the trail to the main road and Creede. He didn’t want to be late when his assignment arrived. He hoped she was all right. He also hoped he could find some paper and something to write with. Why those on high insisted he not speak a word during this assignment was beyond him. “Write everything down,” he grumbled. “Use hand signals if you have to. What next? Draw pictures with a pen between my toes?” This might be his most difficult assignment to date. Though he supposed he’d had worse over the years. There was dealing with that awful Olivia Bridger in Cutter’s Creek back in ’66, for one – he shuddered just thinking about it.

But everything had turned out well, and the couple he was instructed to lend a hand to were happily married to this day. There had been other assignments that taxed him, but at least he could talk to those he was charged with. He just didn’t get why this one was different, and perhaps never would. But one didn’t argue with the Almighty. One did as they were told. At the train station Albert sat on a barrel near the ticket office and waited for the train to arrive. He hoped his current charge wasn’t so tired she didn’t notice him. How embarrassing would that be? Especially since he couldn’t shout or yell to get her attention – he’d have to think up something else. At least the woman could read. Speaking of which, he still needed paper and a writing instrument.

Oh well, he’d worry about it later. The train was coming … HATTİE DODGE TOOK a deep breath as the train drew closer to Creede. She’d done it – she’d left Boston. No mean feat by her own admission. “Hold together, Hattie girl, you can do this …” But could she? Her father was rich, her betrothed richer. Would they discover where she went? She’d covered her tracks well, at least she hoped so. Not even her lady’s maid knew what she planned. She’d even bought her train tickets herself. No one would have a clue she ran away at first. Would Bart hire a Pinkerton to track her down? Possibly.

But they’d wait for a ransom note to arrive first. That’s what the law would tell them to do. It was only natural for them to assume she was abducted. After all, what young woman of nineteen would run from the rich and savvy Bartholomew Sullivan? “I would,” she muttered, gripping her reticule tighter. Besides he was far from savvy in her book. “Creede, coming into Creede!” the conductor called as he walked through the car, heading for the next. People began to gather their things, preparing to disembark. She’d brought only the necessities: a few changes of clothes, hairbrush, mirror, tooth powder, a romance novel to read along the way, her small Bible and her lawyer’s contact information. She’d have to know what to do in case her father disinherited her. But was a loveless marriage worth the price? Her escape would cost her father and Bart money, and that most of all would anger them.

Not that she might be in danger, abducted by villains and carried off in the middle of the night – no, they’d be more upset about the cash. But once they figured out she’d run away, things would get worse, much worse. Thankfully she got her hands on a little money before she left. She’d have to find a place to stay, find employment, blend in. Disappear. But could she do it? She’d have to find a – gulp – job first. But that shouldn’t be too hard. She was educated – she’d graduated from Smith and had always dreamed of being a teacher. Her dreams hadn’t, however, involved a one-room schoolhouse somewhere out west. But Creede, considering its population of 10,000, should have quite a few places she could work.

The problem was they were all so public … “Are you getting off, ma’am?” the conductor inquired. Hattie jumped. “Sorry!” Embarrassed she patted her blonde hair and stepped into the aisle. “I suppose I was woolgathering.” “Kindly do less of that and get off the train,” he grumbled. “I gotta schedule to keep.” She retrieved her satchel and hefted it down the aisle. It was quite full, and thus quite heavy. She stepped off the train with a grunt and looked around. The platform was already clearing.

“My, I really was woolgathering.” She set her bag on the platform for a moment to catch her breath. “First things first – I’d better find a hotel.” She picked up her load. “Better yet, a boardinghouse.” She had limited funds and needed to make them last. With a sigh, she took one step forward – and bumped into a man. He was short and pudgy, with thinning brown hair and several days’ growth of whiskers. He looked at her with inquisitive brown eyes and smiled. “I’m terribly sorry.

” She moved to step around him. He stepped with her, blocking her path. She smiled, and he put a hand over his mouth in silent laughter. But when she side-stepped again, so did he. “My goodness, at this rate I’ll never get where I’m going.” Which reminded her … “Sir, might you be able to direct me to a reputable boardinghouse?” He removed his hand, eyes bright, and nodded vigorously. “Wonderful. Where is it?” He tugged on the sleeve of her traveling dress and pointed. Hattie studied him more closely. His clothes were worn but clean – obviously not a man of means, but also not a vagrant.

It was also obvious he was mute, but at least he wasn’t deaf. Her favorite cobbler back in Boston had been deaf and mute, but could understand his customers perfectly. So this wasn’t new territory for her. But Colorado most certainly was. And she needed all the assistance she could get to stay clear of Father and Bart. “Well then, good man, lead on,” she said with a smile. The man nodded, took her by the sleeve again and led her off the platform. COOPER WHİTE PULLED his arm back in warning. Punching his best friend in the face wasn’t going to solve his problem, but it still seemed like the thing to do at present. “What are you doing?” Baxter cried.

Cooper let his arm fall to the side. “Whose idea was it to come to the bookshop again? I thought we were having dinner at Hearth and Home!” “What’s the matter?” Baxter asked. “It’s a great idea!” Cooper frowned. “It’s a horrible idea and you know it!” Baxter rolled his eyes. “Look, we both know you have, um … challenges when it comes to books …” Cooper glanced around to make sure they were alone, then grabbed Baxter’s sleeve. “This is the third time you’ve dragged me to this poetry club.” He got in Baxter’s face and gritted his teeth. “It was bad enough the first couple of times – you know I can’t read! And besides, Tobias let a rooster attend! A rooster!” Baxter reached up, removed Cooper’s hand and tried to smooth the wrinkles. “Well then, joining this club not only makes our lives more interesting, but also means there’s no better time to learn.” Again Cooper wanted to hit him, but people were starting to file into the shop.

He settled for glaring at him. Baxter ignored it. “Mr. Redfern’s little club seems to be attracting quite a few participants.” He grinned. “And I hear they’re going to start one for women.” He eyed a lady appreciatively as she passed by the shop window and elbowed Cooper in the ribs. “What better way to meet the fairer sex?” Cooper rolled his eyes. “Not for me.” Baxter shrugged.

“Can you blame me? Especially after we sent for mail-order brides and, well … you know.” “I don’t want to talk about that disaster,” Cooper said with a frown. “At least Marshal K.C. and some of the women in town made sure we got our money back.” Baxter stuck his hands in his pockets and leaned against the wall as a few more men filed in. “Yeah, thank Heaven. Eighty-five dollars is a lot of money to lose.” He smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry I talked you into that whole mail-order bride scheme.

But I honestly thought Mrs. D’Arcy was a real matchmaker.” “We all did,” Cooper said, still frowning. “But she was a swindler through and through.” The woman managed to cheat at least twenty-four men out of their money. If some of the locals hadn’t figured things out, he and Baxter would each be eighty-five dollars poorer. Unfortunately, Baxter was always looking for shortcuts to get them hitched or rich, so the chance of it happening again was high. Cooper put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you mean well, Bax, but I can’t. That mailorder bride business was bad enough.

This’ll be worse.” Baxter sighed. “I’m sorry. I thought maybe we could meet some women here eventually. Maybe one of them could help you.” Cooper managed a half-hearted smile. “I appreciate it but, these women here …” He gestured at the boardwalk outside. “… aren’t interested in a man like me. They’d be coming here to talk about poetry and stuff. How can I talk about books I can’t read?” “But I’ve seen you do it.

You participated at the first meeting.” “When Tobias was using Scripture for examples. I’m fair with my Bible just from listening in church every Sunday. But if I actually have to read something, how long does a few lines take me – ten minutes, twenty?” He shook his head. “The words get all mixed up and I can’t make sense of them. It’s just no good. I’ll never be able to read.” “But if you tried …” Cooper fought the urge to get in his face again. “My own mother – a schoolteacher! – couldn’t teach me. What makes you think any of these women can?” Baxter stuck his hands in his pockets.

“All right, I’ll stop.” Cooper gave him a friendly scowl. “Much obliged.” “But you don’t mind if we stay for the meeting, do you?” Cooper took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair. “Fine. But if anyone asks me to read, I’m telling them no.” Baxter slapped him on the arm. “Don’t worry, I’ll cover for you. Just like always.” Cooper swallowed hard, watched a few more folks come in and nodded.

He’d punch Baxter later. They followed the others to the back of the shop. Tobias the owner smiled, greeted everyone, then waved them to a small table stacked with books. “I want to thank you all for coming. My hope is that our club will garner new members every week. We may even have to break into several groups,” he said with a happy smile. Cooper cringed. Baxter didn’t. He was glancing around, probably hoping a woman would show up unannounced. Cooper drew in a shaky breath.

Books made him nervous. An all-too-familiar tingle crept up his spine and he shuddered. He never should have let Baxter talk him into this. “This week I’d like to continue with Tennyson’s work,” Tobias said. “I know most of you read the poem I sent home with you last week. Is there anyone here that didn’t?” He looked at Cooper and Baxter. “Good evening, gentlemen. Nice to see you again.” Cooper flinched. He’d avoided reading aloud in the group, even made it clear at the first meeting he wasn’t a reader, period.

What he didn’t let on was that he couldn’t. “I don’t recall much participation from you two last week,” Tobias said. “I know you’re busy with your ranch, Cooper – I’m glad you found the time to join us again.” Not thinking he’d ever be back, he’d used the paper with one of Tennyson’s poems on it as kindling in his stove at home. He felt guilty about that, as Tobias had taken the time to make each man a copy. Tobias was trying to be nice and not embarrass him in front of the other men. Still, Cooper was beginning to feel like a scolded schoolboy who hadn’t turned in his homework – a feeling he knew well. Baxter raised his hand and, much to Cooper’s dismay, stood. He hooked his thumbs in his pockets and smiled. “Evening, gentlemen.

I read the selection and I think it a right fine piece of work.” “Oh?” Tobias said. “Wonderful. And your friend?” Baxter smacked Cooper on the arm. Cooper fought the urge to glare at him, since the last several dirty looks had done no good anyway. “I’m afraid I didn’t really look at it. Got busy …” He glanced at the other attendees, daring them to say anything. None did, thank Heaven, though several looked at him. Probably wondering why he was there at all. Baxter’s latest idea to meet women through the poetry club was ridiculous.

What was he thinking? Was he that desperate? Well, maybe he was. Things hadn’t worked out for either of them so far as women were concerned. Neither of them were bad-looking, and they both had jobs and all their own teeth. And Cooper had an advantage – whereas Baxter had no land or home of his own and was just a hired cowhand, Cooper had his ranch and plenty of stock. But Cooper also had a disadvantage – the whole reading thing. Baxter could not only read and write, but he was good with numbers. He was also one of the best cowpunchers and horsemen in the area, and offered his talents to multiple ranches. All that talent meant that while he didn’t have much stability – work was sometimes hit-and-miss – he was able to keep a little bit of a bank account. But what woman wanted to share that little bit and a room at the boardinghouse? Cooper’s bank account wasn’t huge, but so long as it was just him he had to worry about, it was fine. He had a good stud horse, a few brood mares, and the “horse from hell,” which he’d hopefully sell eventually.

What more did he need, really? It wouldn’t be bad to have a woman to share his bed, but he got along just fine without one … “You may sit down, Mr. Hicks,” Tobias said. Baxter sat to chuckles from a few men around him. He gave them each a friendly smile, then turned it on Cooper. Cooper didn’t return it. “Let’s start our discussion, shall we?” Tobias said. Cooper sighed in relief. At least they were going to talk, not read. Maybe now he wouldn’t break out in a sweat. He always did when he thought he’d have to read and struggled through the first meeting.

He wiped at the drop on his brow and prayed that was the worst of it. The meeting went on and on … at least to Cooper. Baxter, on the other hand, was having a grand time. Everyone liked Baxter – he was witty and charming, the raconteur of the boardinghouse. Men didn’t care about the last part. Women did. “Did you really not read the poem?” Levi Carter whispered next to him. Cooper felt his back stiffen and his gut knot. “Nope.” “Oh, well, neither did I, to tell you the truth.

Are you looking forward to reading this week’s?” Cooper looked at him. “Not really …” He shrugged, as if implying he had so much work to do he couldn’t possibly wedge it in. Levi’s eyebrows rose, but he left it at that. “… Now let’s discuss what we’ll be reading this week,” Tobias said. He seemed to drone on forever, and it was all Cooper could do to sit still. Sweat dripped down his back and chest (no thanks to Levi), and he hoped his shirt wasn’t soaked by the time the meeting was done. For a moment he thought he’d have to read something as Tobias handed out more sheets of paper. His arms broke out in gooseflesh as he took one. One would think he was about to face some notorious outlaw in a shootout, not get handed a poem by bookish Tobias Redfern. He quickly folded it and put it in his shirt pocket – well, he wouldn’t lack for firestarter tonight.

“And that concludes our meeting this week, gentlemen,” Tobias said. “Thank you all for coming, and I look forward to seeing you next week.” Cooper slumped in his chair, relieved it was over. And there would be no next week for him – if Baxter tried to drag him along once more, he’d deliver that promised punch. Baxter could show up by himself with a steak over his black eye if he wanted. Wes Field, sitting in front of Cooper, stood, looked at him and smiled. “Nice to see you here again. I thought after last week you wouldn’t be back.” “That makes two of us.” Sweating, Cooper put on his hat, shoved past Baxter and hurried outside.

.

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