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.
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
Tessie didn't bother to answer; she just glared. Damned
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,
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,
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
you?" Rusty asked with a hint of sleep in her voice.
"Found me?" Tess
"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
"And you never saw the
"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
. "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!
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