The Rancher's Virgin AcquisitionBy: Lynda Chance
To Anne Marie Novark,
From baby dolls and boyfriends to raising kids and writing stories, you've always been a constant in my life. Where sisters are concerned, I hit the jackpot.
And to Clayton,
Thanks for turning the radio off, babe.
Luke Butler walked out of the General Store and looked at the sun already beginning to lower in the western sky. He knew if he was going to get back to the ranch before nightfall, he needed to get a move on.
He strode to his wagon and began adding the provisions he had just purchased to the ones already taking up space in the conveyance.
The trip into the small town of Burnet, Colorado was a monthly chore that had to be done. As much as he wanted to be self-sufficient on his ranch, there were some comforts the town offered that he continued to take advantage of: coffee, tobacco, and women, to name a few.
He'd been here for a full day and night and was itching to get back home. He'd had his more personal needs attended to by one of the saloon girls the evening before, his banking business had been taken care of this morning, and the supplies he needed as well as what his housekeeper had requested were loaded and packed.
Glancing up at the sky once again, he didn't expect rain but didn't want to take any chances. He was standing at the back of the wagon covering it with canvas with sure, quick movements when the sheriff approached him. Luke had lived in this part of Colorado most of his life; he knew the townspeople by sight, even if he hadn't spoken to them. Sheriff Reed Elgin he knew better than most and respected more than anyone else in town for his no-nonsense, tough as nails, yet honest approach.
"The stagecoach is late," the lawman said without preamble as he came to a halt next to the wagon.
Luke finished securing the strap, shoved his hat up and narrowed his eyes at the man in front of him as he zeroed in on the heart of the matter. "How late?"
"Late. Four, five hours." The other man's voice was harsh; Luke could hear the worry bleeding through his tone.
"Any reason to think it couldn't be routine trouble? Broken wheel? Bad axle?" Luke searched for another reason the stage could be late before allowing his mind to settle on what the sheriff probably had already figured out for himself.
The other man glanced up and down the dusty street and stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head and a frown blackening his already dark countenance. "I got a gut feeling, Luke. A bad one."
"You already check to see if it left on time?" Luke asked.
"Yeah, the telegram said it was on schedule. Even with a busted wheel or some such, it should be here by now."
Luke studied the man who had turned back from perusing the street and was now facing him fully. Irritation trickled down his spine as he realized the stagecoach delay would cost him. Letting go of the idea of getting home before nightfall, he turned his attention to the innocent people on the stage who were being more inconvenienced than he was. If they were even still alive.
Lifting himself away from the buckboard and standing to his full height, he sucked in a breath and asked the question any decent man would. "You need my help?"
"I'd appreciate it. I need to spend what's left of the daylight I got rounding up some men to take with me come morning. I'll be heading out at first light with fresh horses and a new day to track the men that did this."
Luke appraised the other man steadily. "You need me for the posse?"
"I need you more tonight. If you'd head back to your ranch along the stage route until the fork at Silver Creek, that'd help. If there was an ambush, that's the probable place. It's a detour that'll cost you some time, but it'd make me feel better if we found any survivors tonight."
Luke nodded his head in agreement, his mind already going to the problem at hand. "And if I find foul play or run into trouble?"
"Shoot first and ask questions later," the other man responded in all seriousness.
Luke swung up into the buckboard. "If I come across any survivors I'll put 'em up for the night and send one of my men to see you come sunrise."
The sheriff gave Luke a grim look. "Chances of anybody being left alive are slim."
Luke's muscles drew up tight as he acknowledged the truth in the other man's words. "You change your mind and decide you need me to come with you in the morning, you know where to find me."