Rio Bondo

By Jeb

Chapter Two

The checker game was going slowly. Sheriff John Prudhomme studied each move carefully-- a good tactic, he thought, to forestall having to listen to another one of his deputy's complaints about law enforcement in Rio Bondo.

"Sheriff!" Sitting across the table in the small wood-paneled room at the front of the jail that served as their office, Deputy Tessie Jones blew chestnut-brown bangs off her forehead in disgust. "The people of Rio Bondo are counting on us! If we don't make it safe for them to raise their families and run their businesses without fear of being robbed or cheated, who will?"

Prudhomme slowly turned the board around. He seemed to be playing red better than black these days.

"Nayew, Tayssie," Sheriff Prudhomme drawled. "Donchoo go a-wurryin yer purty haid about it. Ol' John has thangs unner control here. Allus has, allus will."


"Missy, Ah took you awn as a depooty outta the kind thoughts I had fer yer late pa. But how 'bouchoo leave the lawnforcin' to ol' John, hey?"

You lazy, broken-down, good for nothing... Tessie didn't bother to answer; she just glared. Damned old coot, she fumed to herself as she spun on her heel, picked up her chocolate-brown Stetson, and stalked out into the hot afternoon sun.

Damn him anyway, she snarled to herself. Should have retired years ago.

Tessie reached to hike up her soft leather gunbelt, the holster swaying off one shapely hip. Her tall leather boots clipped quietly on the boarded walk, and she sent her brown eyes left and right, watching for signs of trouble. But that's the strange thing, she thought. There is always trouble, but I never see the signs of it; just hear about it later from the unhappy victims. It was as though some unseen force came along to clean up all trace of crimes after they were committed. 

"Clean up." The phrase echoed in her head. Sheriff Prudhomme might not have much interest in her concerns, but there was one other person in town who she had heard use that phrase, "clean up", at a town meeting... and might, indeed be in a position to give Tessie some assistance. She turned and headed for the small whitewashed building at the corner of Main Street and Central.

The door stood open in the hot afternoon, and Tessie peered inside. There didn't seem to be the sort of buzz she might have expected from a newspaper office: just a woman, smartly dressed in a dark businesslike frock, studying a paper lying on the desk before her.

"Are you the editor?" Tessie looked uncertainly around the small, clapboard room. The place seemed to be a combination of printer's press, business office, and archive, with every square inch of space stacked with old newspapers, pots of ink, and boxes of metal type.

At the question, the attractive brunette at the desk looked up from her work, peering over a pair of spectacles. Maggie Ross pushed a lock of mahogany hair off her forehead, and squinted back down at the sheet of paper with the ink still shining wet.

"I am." There was a lightly foreign lilt to her voice; she was still scrutinizing the paper. "And until I find a replacement for the incompetent typesetter I fired this morning, I am likely to wear a good many other hats, as well."

"I'm Deputy Sheriff Tess Jones."

"Indeed." The woman sat back, pushed the glasses to the top of her nose, and gave Tessie more careful scrutiny. "One of the factotums of that ass Prudhomme. No doubt chosen to give him something interesting to look at when he is not checking the backs of his eyelids."

Tessie bristled. "I got my job because…" she faltered, suddenly uncertain whether she could, in fact, claim that she'd received the opportunity on her own merits. "Anyway, I'm no 'fake--' whatever you called me! And if you think the Sheriff is lying down on the job, then you and I have something in common-- and I think you'll want to listen to what I have to say."

Maggie Ross stifled a giggle at the almost pompous vehemence of the young girl's response. "Forgive me." She set down the paper, and looked at the almost painfully-intense young face on the other side of her desk. "Take a seat, then, and let's have it."

Tess sat, exhaling heavily. For all the woman's brusque manner, her curiosity seemed sincere. "This isn't easy, you know. I feel like I'm all alone here sometimes. It's just that-- well, you've seen how lazy my boss is-- I realize that no sane person would turn to him for protection from lawlessness, but you would think that someone would come to that office now and again with some kind of problem! I know we have crime, I know we have victims-- but we never catch any criminals! The town is filled with suspicious characters-- and our jail cells are empty!"

"Look, Deputy, " Maggie spoke earnestly, her dark eyes fierce. "There is more to all this than meets the eye. I believe something to be very rotten in the 'state' of Rio Lobo. And Paul agrees with me!"

 Tessie knew that "Paul" was Paul Desmond, owner and publisher of the Rio Bondo Daily Call. He had come to Rio Bondo from the East when his family's publishing business went bust, and had made amazingly quick progress at rebuilding-- but out West. Within the first year, the Daily Call had become the paper of record for Rio Bondo, thanks to the efforts  of writer and editor  Margaret Ross, newly arrived in the American West, and looking for a challenge. Paul Desmond had hired Maggie after her response to one of his first advertisements, and turned her loose, allowing her to turn the Daily Call into a vigorous, crusading broadsheet. And, it quickly became apparent, Maggie had also managed to attract the attention of the rising young publisher on a somewhat more… personal… level. Tess wasn't interested in that, though-- she was only concerned with enlisting this woman's support in her investigation.

"Well, you're not the only ones who believe that," Tess responded. "Some damn strange things have been happening."

"Such as…?" The editor's voice still had the lightest burr of her native Scotland, as she arched one eyebrow.

"Well, how about crimes that happen with no witnesses and no evidence-- and, in the end, no victims?"

Maggie's other eyebrow joined the first. "What on earth do you mean?"

"Let me tell you a story." And the young deputy settled back in her chair and began…

The dusty room was quiet and dark. Tess knew that the old house had lain unused for months, at least; otherwise, the strange thumping sounds would not have attracted her attention as she was walking home that evening-- or drawn her to enter the musty old place, calling "Hello?"

The thumps seemed to be alternating with a scuffling sound, and Tess saw a door standing open to what appeared to be an old storeroom.

As she stepped carefully in the dim interior, Tess aimed her gun directly in front of her-- it seemed as likely a place for a target to be as any.  She shuffled forward as silently as possible, straining her ears for the sound… and was that it again? No, this was different: a sort of soft, muffled whimper? Like an animal... or...?

The sound of the shot crashed in her ears, and she felt the hot sting as a bullet whipped the air by her cheek. She blinked in the dimness, terrified at not knowing from where the shot had come, when the back of her head received the first of a half-dozen collisions as a small avalanche of tools and household implements came crashing down, the shelf upon which they had rested shattered by the stray bullet.

"Aaaagghhh!" Tess cried out in pain, fear, surprise... and as she was falling to her knees, her gun outstretched, her hand closed reflexively on the trigger, and a after a crashing explosion, there was a strangled cry, a heavy thud... then silence.

Tess hung her head, gasping for air. Her eyes were closed, and her ears seemed as though they were, too, as the two reports still sounded in her ears. She seemed wrapped in silence.

Or, almost silence.

As Tess warily pushed her hat back from her eyes, and squinted through the dust and dimness, she heard the whimpering again. Fearful of giving away her position, she didn't call out, but slowly edged her way around the pile of fallen equipment. She quietly picked up a hammer that had missed her head by inches, reached it slowly to the curtains covering the window behind her, caught its head in the folds, and yanked downwards.

The hammer pulled the curtain down, and moonlight streamed in, bathing the spot where she thought the shot had originated.  The very dead man lying on the floor confirmed the accuracy of her guess.

Tessie blanched, her stomach trying to heave as she looked at the lifeless lump with the back of its head missing. Lucky shot… for me, anyway. She bit down on her tongue to suppress the bile, then tossed a small hand spade at the unmoving form… not that the condition of the head left much doubt as to the man's state, but she was taking no chances. When he didn't react, she stepped closer.

The whimpering sound had grown in pitch and intensity, and now that her ears were recovering from the two explosions, Tessie was able to locate the source: next to the corpse on the floor was a large burlap sack, with lengths of rope wrapped around the outside, and holding it shut. The bag seemed to be quivering, and for a second, she just stared, as though trying to decide how a sack of grain could be animating itself. At just about the time the sound changed from whimpering to crying, Tessie realized that the sack contained not grain, but a prisoner.

She stepped cautiously out into the shaft of moonlight, wary of the possibility that the man she killed might have a partner. Gun leveled, she slowly made her way to the squirming, sobbing bundle. After a moment, she concluded that anyone wanting to shoot her would have done so by now, and called out to the sack.

"It's OK. I'm here." She paused for a moment, then added with an unusual flush of pride, "I'm the law."

The pronouncement seemed not to have much effect on the person inside the sack, the muffled wailing only rising in pitch, so Tessie dug out her knife, and went to work on the ropes tied about the sack. She sawed at them carefully; even the heavy burlap wouldn't protect the occupant from a slip of the blade. Finally, she had the ropes cut, and opened the top of the sack.

Blond hair glinted in the moonlight as Tessie began to peel the sack away from its unwilling occupant. As the face and head came into view, she gasped.

The person in the sack was a young woman, who looked to have been expensively dressed before her garments were shredded, presumably during her abduction. Big, blue, tear-filled eyes gazed plaintively at Tessie, but the young deputy scarcely noticed-- her attention was drawn to the state of the woman's mouth.

Well, no wonder I could barely hear her. Strips of heavy cloth had been bound over the woman's lips, covering her mouth completely, tied in back with tight knots cruelly wedged up under her ear. There was a thick bulge under the cloth, where her mouth belonged, so it was clear that something very large had been stuffed in her mouth to muffle any sound she might make. The pallor of her cheeks was criss-crossed with an angry redness where the strips of cloth cut into them.

Tessie tugged at the burlap, and saw that the woman's body was as effectively bound with the tough cord as the outside of the sack had been.

Her arms had been pulled behind her back, and were being held in what appeared to be a terribly uncomfortable position high up on her back. Each wrist had been fastened to the opposite arm, twisted up and back, the arms themselves cinched against her back with a devilish-looking set of knots. The disarrangement of the Sunday-best dress left bare patches of skin where the ropes dug into pale flesh, and for a moment, Tessie wondered where on earth she could insert a knife without cutting the poor girl.

Her arms had to be first priority, though-- she was clearly in terrible pain. After briefly examining the physics of the situation, Tess clucked to the girl, "I'm sorry… this will hurt for a moment, but I don’t know what else to do." Ignoring the whining protest that produced, Tess took the girl's left wrist and carefully pushed it even farther up her back.

The girl's shriek was muffled, but clearly agonized. Working quickly, Tessie used the slack she had created by moving the girl's arm to catch the blade of the knife on the edge of the rope, and as she let the arm return to its original position, sawed the blade back and forth, finally parting the rope with a muted "twang."

A moan came from the gagged mouth; this time, though, relief was evident. The rope holding the girl's arms had only been knotted once, so that Tess was able to unwind one long section of it, and allow the girl's arms to hang, numb and useless but now freed, at her sides.

The trembling blonde sagged, and rather than trying to bear her weight, Tess sat herself down on the floor, lay the girl's head in her lap, and began to work at the knots on her gag. Once more, she had to proceed carefully, since there was almost no room between gag and skin, but after a few moments, she was finally able to unwind the cloth from around the girl's face, and prise an enormous wad of cloth free from her mouth.

"Oh, thank you!" the girl had gasped. "I..I.." she started to sob, and Tess felt distinctly uncomfortable-- her impulse to put an arm around the girl and comfort her was at odds with what she knew a male lawman would have done. She settled for just allowing the former captive to collapse and sob into her chest.

"He… he was going to…"

"I know." Tessie reddened, not really wanting to hear the details of the man's beastly intentions, and ashamed of herself-- after all, wasn't that part of her job?

The girl's story was certainly a strange one. Her name was Floralinda,;  she had been scheduled to attend a cotillion in Rio Bondo that day, and her father had hired one of the local Mexican gunmen to serve as an escort as she rode between towns.

As the two had arrived in Rio Bondo, the Mexican had wordlessly seized the bridle of her horse, dragged her from the saddle, and thrown her across his own, stuffing a sweaty kerchief in her mouth to muffle her screams, holding her wrists in one of his hands, the horse's reins in the other. He'd taken her to the abandoned house, where he had taken his time to bind and gag her, in the fashion that Tess had found her, and used his hands to take liberties that Tess was mortified to hear about. Floralinda had the idea that the man had intended to lie low in the house until morning, but no idea what he might have had planned after that.

"Is your horse still here? I can see you home," Tess offered.

"Not like this!" the blonde wailed. "Oh, God, if my father saw me like this, my clothes half off me, he'd… I just can't…"

For a moment, Tess considered taking her back to the jail-- but her room was too small for two, and that meant one or the other of them spending the night in one of the cells, which didn't appeal.

"All right, all right," Tess reassured her. "Come with me."

After a few minutes, the girl had calmed down long enough to walk, and Tessie escorted her across the street, to where the lights of Rusty's saloon and "rooming house" still burned bright.

"Rusty's is about the only place open this time of night. You can stay here, get cleaned up, borrow some clothes, and go home in the morning, with your modesty intact."

Floralinda looked the building up and down.  "Isn't this place a…?"

"Sure is," Tessie nodded. "Just don't tell Daddy. Anyway, it's the only place right now where you can get clean sheets, hot water, and a change of clothes."

Inside, the evening's poker games were finishing up, and Rusty would soon be sending the paying customers upstairs and shooing out the last of the drunks. Tessie caught the eye of the busty redhead who was currently chastising a bartender for the state of the glassware.

"Deputy Jones," the Rusty Larue smiled. "Don't usually see you in here. Who's your friend? Looks like she's made quite the night of it."

"Her name's Floralinda. She's had… a bad time tonight. Got a room where she can wash up and sleep… and maybe borrow some clothes?"

"I can pay," Floralinda spoke up. "Tomorrow, I can get…"

"Never mind." The redhead waved a hand. "Always glad to help a 'damsel in distress' when I can-- most of my girls have known their share of distress."

"Oh, thank you." Floralinda's eyes brimmed and the sobs came again.

Rusty shook her head, clucking her tongue. "Oh, dear, honey. Here-- " she nodded to one of the "working" girls there, "you go on upstairs with Enid, here. She'll get you settled in."

Tess knew that she should ask them to wait until she'd had time to question the girl further, but the poor thing was so exhausted, she just let her go. "She'll be OK, then?" she asked as she watched Enid and Floralinda disappear upstairs.

Rusty smiled. "I'll have the doc out here in ten minutes, and then we'll get your friend a hot bath and some well-needed rest."

"Thanks, Rusty." Tess was genuinely grateful-- she wasn't a drinker, and not any sort of regular customer, and hadn't actually known if the saloon mistress would assist them. Satisfied that Floralinda would be safe for the night, Tess set out in search of the sheriff.

Tess quickly determined that Sheriff Prudhomme was not at the jail, or in his room next door. He hadn't been at Rusty's, so that only left a private poker game somewhere. It was far too late at night to go hunting that down, so Tess headed to her upstairs room at the jailhouse. She'd just wait until morning-- and give that old gasbag John Prudhomme a look at what a woman could do.

The next morning, Tess could scarcely wait to take the sheriff to the site of last night's adventures. Not wishing to disturb anyone at Rusty's, she woke him at sunrise, and dragged him to the deserted house.  He was skeptical, and understandably annoyed at being dragged out of bed, but reluctantly got dressed and grumpily followed Tess.

Inside the house, Tess threw open the door to the store room where the rescue had occurred, and turned to Sheriff Prudhomme.

"See?" She smiled in triumph, looked inside... and stared.

The room was no longer a dusty ruin. Though far from spick and span, it had clearly had a recent dusting, the curtain replaced... and the floor had been cleaned and swept: there was no dead Mexican, no bloodstains, no bits of cut rope.

"Sheriff, I..." Tessie began, but the lazy drawl cut her off.

"Tessie, I ain't got time fer this foolishness of yer'n. Tain't no shame that yer pa was a great lawman and yer jist a purty little gal. You don't gotta make up stories ta git my attention."

Tessie could feel her face blazing red as she opened her mouth to respond, but Prudhomme chose that moment to break into a hacking cough. Once he had finished, he gave a chuckle and shook his head.

"Like I said afore, honey-- you look right purty in that outfit of your'n. Just keep that up, and leave the law to ol' John."

"But, Floralinda, she-- come on, sheriff. I'll get you proof!" Prudhomme gave an amused smile, as though indulging a child, and accompanied Tess to Rusty's; there being no early risers there, Tess had to hammer on the door until Rusty finally came downstairs to let them in.

"Floralinda found you?" Rusty asked with a hint of sleep in her voice.

"Found me?" Tess stared.

"Last night. While Enid was off fetching the doctor, your friend said she'd feel safer staying at your place-- you being the one who had saved her, of course. I thought that's where she was going."

"You let her go out alone?" Tess was stupefied.

Rusty shook her head. "I didn't mean to. Two of the girls volunteered, but each one went to find her, saw she was gone, and figured she had left with the other."

"Well, tell the sheriff what happened to her, then!" Tessie insisted. "About the man who kidnapped her. Tied her up and gagged her!"

Rusty shrugged. "Sheriff, all I know is she showed up here looking more than a little disarrayed. How she got that way, I have no idea."

"But--" Tessie was nearly speechless, but it didn't matter, since her audience was leaving anyway.

"Next time ya feel like a joke, Tessie, let a man git a decent night's sleep first," Prudhomme called back over his shoulder, leaving Tess feeling red-faced and foolish.

"And that was it," Tess sighed. "Ever since then, he's treated me like an overly imaginative child."

"And you never saw the woman again?"

"No," she wailed. "I've cursed myself for never asking her last name or more about her family. I do know no one in town has reported her missing, but the cotillion was a big event, you remember-- people came from a dozen towns around."

Maggie Ross nodded, and pursed her lips thoughtfully. "That's not the only strange story I've heard about crime... or its absence... here in Rio Bondo," she mused. "But you're the only person who's been able to give me firsthand testimony."  She reached across the desk, and picked up a stack of back issues of the Daily Call. "Give me a day or two to do some research, and let's talk again later in the week."

Tess nodded eagerly, glad to finally have an ally. She left the office with more of a spring in her step than she could recall having in months. Maybe she'd finally get to the bottom of the mysterious kidnapping-- and who knew what else!

Chapter Three

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