Mackenzie gasped when she saw what was going on below. A group of her neighbors had a rope around a man’s neck, and were planning to hang him. A lynching! She quickly urged Spirit to a gallop, hoping she would be in time to prevent the men from doing something foolish. She didn’t hold with hanging, and she especially didn’t hold with lynching.
“Mrs. Keller, you shouldn’t be here. This ain’t no business for a woman,” Eugene Marks said with a frown of disapproval.
“This is Keller land, Mr. Marks. I have every right to be here. I insist you stop this foolishness right now.”
“Ma’am, I didn’t steal your horse,” their captive spoke up, barely able to get the words out through his swollen lips, and she was shocked to see how badly they had beaten him. He looked ready to pass out, and the horse he was sitting on was one of the horses that had escaped out of the corral yesterday and was barely broken to saddle. The stallion was skittish, and if he took off running, the man would die.
“Mr. Simpson, please release that rope,” she spoke firmly to one of the other men, hoping that he would be reasonable.
“I cain’t do that, Miz Keller. He’s a horse thief.”
“I am not going to tell you again, Neil Simpson. Let go of that rope. There won’t be a lynching on Keller land!”
“But, Miz Keller, that horse is wearin’ your brand!” Simpson pointed out, as if she were too stupid to recognize her own stock.
“Then I am the one with the axe to grind, not you. I want all of you to get off my land right now. I will see this man to the sheriff.”
“We don’t need no sheriff to deal with this, ma’am.” Marks spoke again.
Mac pulled her gun. “I said get off my land, and I am through talking. GIT!”
Eugene Marks reached out to give the skittish stallion a slap and Mackenzie didn’t hesitate. She fired, and the rope snapped in two, the beaten man falling to the ground instead of dangling from the end of the rope. She turned and leveled her gun on Marks and said, “If you aren’t heading off my ranch in two seconds flat I am going to shoot you down for trespassing, Marks,” she informed him, and gave a warning shot, nicking his earlobe on purpose.
The man gasped in pain, grabbing at his ear and coming away with bloodied fingers. “This isn’t the last of this, Mrs. Keller!” he warned angrily.
“I do not tolerate lynching. Get off my land now.”
Several of the men were already riding away at a brisk pace. Mackenzie Keller’s temper was legendary among the ranchers in the area, and crossing her guaranteed retaliation. After her husband, George Keller, was killed, she had taken on the running of the huge Keller spread, and it was well known that she didn’t back down from a fight. She handled a gun better than most men, and with little to no provocation. It was the general opinion of the men riding fast to get away that Eugene Marks was a damn fool. Mac wouldn’t forget that he had tried to hang a rustler on her land, from her tree.
“Well, Marks? Do I need to shoot you dead to prove I am willing to protect this man until he has a fair trial?” Mac demanded, well aware that three of the Keller hands were fast approaching, having heard the shots.
“I am going to the law with this, Mrs. Keller,” he sputtered angrily.
“You do that, Mr. Marks. I would love to see you locked up for attempted murder, and I promise I will testify at your trial.” Mac was furious with the man, and it wasn’t just this matter hanging between the two. Eugene Marks simply wouldn’t believe that she wanted nothing to do with him, and he was insulted that she refused to consider him as a suitor. She had vowed never to marry again, and looking at the angry man clenching his fists, as he looked at her in unbridled fury, convinced her she had made the right decision.
“Trouble, Miz Keller?” Jody asked as he and two other men rode up.
“Yes, Jody. Will you and Jeff please escort Mr. Marks off of Keller land? He is not welcome here now or in the future, and is to be shot on sight.”
Jody refrained from smiling. “Yes, ma’am. Do you want us to teach him a lesson before we kick him off Keller land?” he asked politely, his dark eyes sparkling with humor.
“If he opens his mouth, yes,” she stated, knowing full well her men would do no such thing.
“You heard Miz Keller, Marks. Get moving,” Jeff spoke up. He and the other men who worked for Mac Keller took a lot of guff for having a woman boss, but not one of them would trade her for another one. She was the greatest, and she treated her hands like they were her friends. She was fair and honest, and working on the Keller spread meant fair pay and damned good food. Mac was a good boss lady.
Once they were out of hearing, Mackenzie turned to Smitty, who was kneeling beside the beaten man. “How badly is he hurt, Smitty?” she asked softly.
“Bad enough I’m gonna have to go for a wagon, missy,” Smitty answered respectfully.
“You go on then, and I will stay here with him and try to do what I can to keep him comfortable,” Mac said, her voice full of concern.
“What were they beatin’ him for, Miss Mac?” Smitty asked curiously. “I ain’t gonna leave you alone with no hombre who might hurt you.”
“Thanks for caring about me, Smitty, but I don’t think he is in any shape to harm me.” She smiled at the older man. “I will be fine until you get back.”
“Well, you got your gun. Use it if’n you need to, honey,” he said gruffly. He mounted up and took off for the ranch at a gallop.
Mackenzie got her canteen and then removed her bandana from around her neck and wet it with water. She gently started wiping the blood from the man’s battered face, feeling bad when he moaned in pain. Smitty had already cut the ropes binding his wrists together, and she also wiped the blood from the rope burns. His neck was raw from the hanging rope, too, and Mac felt like crying. She decided to check for broken ribs and was gentle as she unbuttoned his shirt. It was clear as could be that several of his ribs were cracked from the bruises already forming. To her surprise, she saw the man had a pouch secured around his waist and tucked under the waistband of his pants. Mac had been married for fifteen years and she felt no shame at all in unfastening his britches so she could undo the belt holding the pouch in place. Hopefully she would learn the man’s name and a bit more about him.
Finally, she was able to open the leather bag, and was shocked to find a badge. The man was a federal marshal, and the papers contained his orders to find the rustlers plaguing the ranchers in this area. There was some money, too, and there were two photographs, one a picture of three women, and another of him with a smiling woman. His battered face didn’t resemble the handsome man in the tintype, and she couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever be so good-looking again. Eugene Marks and Neil Simpson had a lot to answer for. Mac decided to wait until Marshal JC Porter regained consciousness to see if he wanted her to contact a relative or whomever he reported to. She put the pouch in her saddlebags, and then went to sit beside him on the ground, and waited for Smitty to return.
JC woke with a start, recalling the rope around his neck, and the fear that he was going to hang. Gentle hands and a soft voice penetrated his consciousness and told him to lie still, and reassured him that he was all right. He opened his dark eyes and saw a pretty woman looking down at him, concern in her pretty green eyes.
“You are fine, Marshal. I got rid of the lynch mob, and Smitty went for a wagon. We will get you back to the house and send for Doc. You have some broken ribs, but I think you will be fine.”
“Thanks,” he whispered, and was shocked at how much it hurt to try to talk. His throat ached from the rope, and his lips were so swollen he could barely form the words.
“Don’t try to talk now, just nod if you can. Do you want anyone to know that you are a marshal?”
“No. Undercover,” JC answered, looking at her through his swollen eyes.
“Very well, our secret then. You can trust me. I hid your papers in my saddlebag. I am Mackenzie Keller, and I assure you that I will do everything I can to help you, Marshal. Just rest now. You are safe, and if that stupid Marks dares to come back here, I will shoot him!” she promised, her temper in full swing.
JC would have smiled if his mouth didn’t hurt so much. He would bet that the redhead’s husband had his hands full trying to control her and keep her out of trouble. She took a terrible risk facing down that lynch mob, and while he was glad that she did, if she belonged to him, he would turn her over his knee and spank her for putting herself in danger. A woman didn’t stand much chance against a mob bent on hanging someone. Yes, she needed a damned good spanking. He closed his eyes and rested, until he heard horses. He struggled to sit up, but she pushed him back down.
“It’s my riders, JC. They’re here to help.”
“How bad off is he, Miz Keller?” Jody asked, dismounting.
“He is in a lot of pain,” Mac answered. “Smitty should be coming with a wagon soon.”
“Do you want us to haul him in to the sheriff?” Marks had told him and Jeff they had caught the man on one of the Keller’s half broke stallions.
“No. I want you to ride for Doc and bring him to the house. This man isn’t a thief, Jody,” she spoke firmly.
“Marks said they caught him red-handed,” he spoke up.
“I know what he said, Jody, and it isn’t the whole truth. Will you please trust me on this and not question me?” she asked with a hopeful smile.
Jody nodded. “I reckon I will.” He mounted up and took off for town at a brisk pace. Jeff stayed with Mac and when Smitty returned, he helped him load the injured man in the back of the wagon. They made JC as comfortable as possible, and headed for the ranch house.
Mackenzie was thankful that the lawman was unconscious as they carried him inside and up the steps to a guestroom. Jeff undressed him, down to his underwear, and then went back outside to work after she assured him she would be just fine. She was the only one who knew that JC was a federal marshal, and she didn’t dare tell her ranch hands, even though she trusted them implicitly. JC asked her to keep his secret, and she had promised that she would. If he didn’t want Eugene Marks and Neil Simpson to know the truth, then he had to have a good reason for keeping his identity a secret.
The door to the bedroom opened and her stepbrother came into the room, his blue eyes filled with disapproval. “Mac, what are you thinking to bring a horse thief into the house?” Smitty had filled him in on all the details.
“He said he was innocent, and I believe him, Jordan.”
“If he was so innocent, what was he doing on one of your horses?” Jordan demanded
“I am sure JC will explain when he is able to do so. In the meantime, what happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’?” She jabbed at him with a grin. Jordan Ramsey was a good attorney, and his list of clients was proof of that.
“Don’t get smart with me, little sister. I’ll turn you over my knee.”
“You and what army?” Mac sassed immediately. If she had a penny for every time her older brother had threatened to spank her, she would be a very wealthy woman. He wouldn’t spank her, and she knew it for a fact.
“If George was living, you wouldn’t be able to sit down at the supper table tonight!” Jordan stated matter-of-factly.
“If George were still living, Eugene Marks and Neil Simpson wouldn’t have dared to try and lynch a man on Keller land,” she retorted. “Don’t you have a will to write or a disposition to take, or a case to research?” she asked, trying to get Jordan to leave the room and give her some peace and quiet. She loved her stepbrother, but his presence in her home was enough to drive her crazy at times. She knew he felt protective of her, and his living at the ranch was his way of keeping her safe on a ranch full of men, but if ever a man didn’t belong on a ranch, it was Jordon Ramsey. Still, he refused to move back into town, thinking his little sister needed him.
“How am I supposed to work when you have brought a criminal into the house, Mac?” he demanded, looking at JC.
“He isn’t a criminal, Jordan,” she said firmly. “Now get on out of here and let the man rest. Doc should be here soon.”
“I’m not leaving you alone, squirt,” Jordan said stubbornly.
“Oh for goodness sake!” Mackenzie exploded. “Look at the man! He can’t even move without pain; he’s no threat to me, especially when I’m armed.”
Jordan stared at the man and then nodded. “Fine. I do have a brief to prepare. Leave this door open, Mackenzie, and call out if you need me.” He turned on his heel and left the room before he gave into temptation and flipped the bratty redhead over his knee. What she needed was another husband to take her in hand, but Mackenzie had vowed that she would never marry again. He hoped the right man would come along and change her mind so that he could resume his life and stop worrying about her out here all alone when he was in town working.
Jody arrived shortly after with Doc in tow, and Doc immediately ordered Mac out of the room in spite of her protests that she had been married for fifteen years. “Not to this man, you haven’t,” Doc scolded, and pushed her right out the door and into the hallway.
When he didn’t come out for a long while, Mackenzie found herself wondering if JC was hurt even worse than she thought he was. Finally, Doc opened the door and said, “Come on in here, Mac. This man is going to be in a lot of pain for a few days. He has been badly beaten, and the best thing you can do is keep him quiet and let him heal. I’m leaving some laudanum ? use it sparingly. If he gets worse, send for me. I don’t think there is internal bleeding, but I have no way of knowing for sure. The sheriff needs to deal with the ones who did this, Mac.”
“I agree, but we both know how well that will go,” Mackenzie stated.
“Yes, I suppose we do. You keep that man in bed, Mac. I’ll be out tomorrow to check on him. No more than a drop or two of laudanum in his tea. No alcohol with it,” he added, hurrying off.
“Do you want something to eat, Doc?” Mac offered.
“No time, honey.” He hurried for the door and was gone.
Mackenzie returned to her guest’s room and took up watch in the rocking chair. She wasn’t about to leave the marshal unprotected throughout the night. She didn’t trust Eugene Marks not to sneak in here and try to take him and finish the hanging.
* * *
JC was in terrible pain when he woke. His mind was clear, however, and he recalled the events of the day in detail. He even remembered the doc poking at him, bandaging his ribs and trying to make him feel better. His eyes were still puffy and swollen from the beating he endured, and JC was going to see to it that Eugene Marks got a bit of his own in return before he left the area. He heard a soft noise in the corner, and turned his head to see the pretty redhead curled up in the rocking chair in front of the window. He tried to remember her name? Keller. That was it. He tried to speak, but only a raspy whisper came out. However, it was enough to get her attention, and she jumped up and came to his bedside immediately.
“Don’t try to talk, JC. Doc said it would be painful for a couple of days, and that you should stay quiet and not move about too much. I have something for you to drink right here.” She put some liquid on a spoon and carefully dripped it between his swollen lips. She gave him a bit more and it wasn’t long before he started feeling drowsy. His last thought before falling asleep again was that she had given him laudanum, and he hated the damn stuff!
Mackenzie checked JC for any signs of fever, or more swelling around his injuries, and once she was assured that he was simply sleeping, she took a blanket from the chest in the room, and curled up again in the rocking chair. She took her job of guarding the lawman seriously, and she vowed to keep him safe until he was able to look out for himself.