The ad said rancher Rand Harding--a real, live cowboy!--wanted a wife. So orphaned city kid Mack Paxton began planning. He'd pen a gushy letter. Enclose a pin-up picture. Forge his big sister's signature. And presto! Mack would have it nailed: a mail-order marriage for Suzanne and a happily-ever-after home on the range.
Trouble was, Mack's mischief caused surprising friction between rugged Rand and stubborn Suzanne.
So Mack aimed to fan those flames and start the home fires burning!
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February 08, 2010
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Excerpt from Letter to a Lonesome Cowboy by Jackie Merritt
In a small apartment in Baltimore, Maryland, Suzanne Paxton, a pretty, dark-haired young woman, wept quietly in her bedroom. She'd lost her job two weeks before, not because she was an incompetent accountant, but because the company had become so computerized employees were no longer necessary. Well, some were necessary, but she wasn't. Downsizing, they called it. Suzanne had a few other words in mind when she thought of it, but they were words she rarely spoke out loud and certainly not in anyone's hearing. But she'd already wept because of that; her tears tonight were because she hadn't been able to find another job, and she'd been trying so hard. What was going to become of her and her fourteen-year-old brother, Mack? She'd taken Mack in two years ago when their parents were killed in a car accident. She'd been married then, but six months of Mack had been enough to destroy her marriage. Oh, the breakup hadn't been all Mack's fault. Suzanne wasn't dense, and she'd known for a long time before Mack moved in that her husband, Les, had been falling out of love with her. In fact, she believed wholeheartedly that Les had used Mack's intrusion into their life as an excuse for him to walk out of it.
Well, she was over her failure of a marriage but she was definitely not over losing her job. She was the sole support of Mack and herself. Les hadn't stuck around Baltimore long enough to see the final divorce papers, but even if he lived right next door he was a slippery devil, and Suzanne knew she would never receive a dime of the alimony the judge had ordered Les to pay her.
Every time Suzanne wept these days, for whatever reason, some of her tears were because she couldn't control Mack. At fourteen, he knew it all. He skipped school whenever he felt like it, he was a slob around the house, he picked fights with other kids and he stayed out till all hours of the night. Whenever Suzanne tried to talk to him about his behavior, he told her, "Leave me alone, you're not my mother."
It was true, of course, and she knew Mack was still grieving their parents' deaths. But so was she, and a boy of Mack's nature was darned hard to handle for a twenty-four-year-old sister.
Life was the pits, Suzanne thought while choking out another sob. She had a modest savings account, but how long would that last? There was rent and utilities to pay, and food to buy. Insurance, gas and maintenance for her six-year-old car were crucial, and Mack was growing at such a rapid pace he always needed new clothes.
Hearing the apartment's front door slam loudly, Suzanne quickly wiped the tears from her face. Mack was home, and she hoped he was in a good mood, because she simply could not deal with one more problem tonight.
"Mack, is that you?" Suzanne called out. She heard sneakered feet approaching the bedroom and quickly dried her eyes and nose with a tissue.
"Of course it's me. Who else is it going to be?" Mack greeted her in his usual tone, a mixture of boredom and surliness.
He stood in her bedroom doorway, his lanky arms crossed over his chest. He was dressed in his usual outfit--baggy jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a battered Baltimore Orioles baseball cap, with a blue knapsack hanging off his shoulders. Suzanne could never figure out what he carried around in it. She doubted it was filled with schoolbooks since he rarely, if ever, did homework. Being totally honest with herself, she realized that she didn't want to know.
"Did you have anything to eat yet? There's some chicken in the fridge. I could make you a sandwich," Suzanne offered.
"I ate at Kip's," Mack replied. He studied her face, and Suzanne self-consciously wiped her fingers over her damp eyes.
"My allergies went haywire today. Guess spring is really here."
"Yeah, allergies. Bad news," Mack replied. His expression told her that he didn't believe her excuse. Yet, neither did he ask why she'd been crying. "I'm going to watch TV in my room," he said, and turned down the hall. "Good night."
"Good night," Suzanne called after him. She heard his bedroom door shut and then the sound of the small portable set filtered through the thin wall that separated their rooms. Suzanne closed her own bedroom door and sighed. Well, at least there hadn't been any heavy scenes between them tonight.
Mack flopped down on his bed and stared blankly at the TV screen. His thoughts wandered.
Sometimes Mack felt bad about the disagreements with his sister, but she was constantly on his back about something. He was fourteen, for hell's sake, not four!
At least she hadn't tortured him with some dumb lecture about cleaning up his room or getting better grades. He'd probably go crazy living around here if not for his friend Kip Dingle. Kip was the only real friend Mack had made in the two years he'd lived with Suzanne. They'd become friends after a terrible fistfight because Mack had made fun of Kip's name. "Are you sure you ain't related to Kriss Kringle?" Mack had taunted. Kip had come at him with balled fists, and Mack had been ready. They'd fought themselves into exhaustion, bloodying each other's noses and slamming teeth into cheeks and lips, and finally, too tired to throw one more punch, they'd lain flat out on the ground to catch their breaths.
After that they'd started talking and ended up buddies, but even Kip didn't know everything there was to know about Mack. Some things were just too private to talk about, Mack believed. This evening, however, that attitude had changed, although even Mack himself didn't realize it until it happened.
Tonight at Kip's house, after they were in Kip's bedroom, away from his parents' eyes, Mack had pulled a magazine from under his jacket.
"What's that?" Kip asked.
Mack looked a bit sheepish. "A western magazine. I filched it from the newsstand. There's something in it I want you to hear."
Kip made a face. "A western magazine? When'd you start reading those things?"
"Do you wanna hear it or don't 'cha?" Mack demanded belligerently.
"Well, sure, you don't have to come unglued. What is it?"
Mack flipped to the back pages of the magazines and sat on the edge of Kip's bed. "Listen to this. 'If you're a single lady between twenty-five and thirty, honest, clean, a non-smoker and reasonably attractive, write to this Lonesome Cowboy. Kincaid Ranch, Box 16, Whitehorn, Montana.'"
"So?" Kip said.
"What d'ya mean, so? This guy's looking for a wife."
Kip chortled. "I don't think you're what he's got in mind, Paxton."
"You moron, I'm thinking of my sister."
"Your sister! You're the moron if you think Suzanne would write to a jerk who calls himself a lonesome cowboy."
"I know." Mack suddenly grinned. "That's why I'm gonna answer this ad for her. Wanna help?"
Kip stared for a minute, then laughed. "Sure, why not?"
And so the two boys composed a letter they both rated "excellent," and increased Suzanne's chances of receiving an answer by enclosing a snapshot of a scantily clad pinup girl.
Mack read the last paragraph out loud. "I am enclosing a picture of myself so you will know what I look like. Please answer right away. I'm dying to know your name, Lonesome Cowboy, and if it's at all possible, please send a picture of yourself. Hugs and kisses from a lonesome lady in Baltimore, Suzanne Paxton."
Kip collapsed on the bed in a spasm of giggles. "That guy will fall over when he reads that letter and sees that picture."
"That's the whole idea," Mack said, extremely proud of their effort. "Got an envelope?"
"Suzanne's gonna kill you."
"Nope, she won't. She's all alone, except for me, she's out of a job and can't find another one, and I'm solving all her problems with this letter. She won't kill me, she'll thank me."
"Well, I guess you know your own sister," Kip said.
"Yep, guess I do. Now, I'm gonna let you in on a little secret, but first you have to swear you won't tell another living soul."
"Jeez, Paxton, what'd you do now?"
"Can it, Dingle. Do you wanna hear my secret or not?"
"Okay, I swear it will never pass my lips."
"Good enough. Okay, here it is. I've always wanted to go west and live on a ranch. A big ranch, with cows and horses and real cowboys. Once my folks took us on a vacation out west and we stayed over at a real ranch for almost a week. It was way cool."
Kip's mouth dropped open. "You'd really leave Baltimore?" "Kip," Mack said earnestly, "I have to leave Baltimore.
Either that or I'm gonna end up in jail. I know it, you know it, Suzanne knows it. She'll jump at the chance to get us out of here."
Nothing was said for a long moment, then Kip nodded his acceptance of Mack's attitude. "You're probably right, Mack, you're probably right."
This year, spring was as raw and rough as chapped hands. Bundled up against the cold wind, Rand Harding, foreman of the Kincaid Ranch, scowled down at the mutilated heifer lying in a shallow ditch about a quarter mile from the compound. The two men who had run across the animal and then notified Rand nervously shifted from foot to foot and mumbled to each other about devil worshipers and UFOs.
Rand gritted his teeth and glanced at the two men with open disgust. Every weird incident on the ranch--and the events were starting to add up--incited the ranch hands' imaginations. They came up with the most ridiculous reasons--in Rand's opinion--for accidents and dead animals, including ghosts, of all things.
"The person or persons who did this are as human as the three of us," Rand said flatly. He walked to his horse. "Bury it."
Both men backed away, refusing to touch the carcass. Rand knew what was coming next, and his gut knotted. He was right, because they both quit on the spot.
Rand turned to face the men. He'd been losing cowhands left and right, and it was getting harder all the time to replace them. Word was getting around the area, people were talking: something strange was happening on the Kincaid Ranch.
Well, the gossips weren't wrong. Something strange was going on, but the incidents were not caused by aliens or ghosts, and every time Rand heard someone express such a ludicrous explanation, he saw red.
"Didn't think you two were cowards," he said, looking each man in the eye. They flushed and stared off into the distance, but they each bore a stubborn expression that Rand had come to recognize. They wanted to get off the Kincaid Ranch as fast as possible, and nothing he could say would change their minds.
"Forget it," he said gruffly, turning to pick up the reins of his horse. "I'll tell George to draw up your final checks." George Davenport was the ranch's bookkeeper, and he lived in the large, two-story bunkhouse that everyone else on the place called home.
Mounted, Rand pointed his horse toward the compound. From behind he could hear the men scrambling to get on their own horses. Another two down, Rand thought with worry gnawing at his vitals. He'd already been operating with a short crew, and now this. Someone was definitely up to no good, but he sure wasn't a ghost and he wasn't swooping down onto Kincaid land from a flying saucer, either.
Rand puzzled over it all the way back to the compound, exactly as he'd done many times in the past few months. Who was that "someone," and what was his reason for causing so much trouble?
Tethering his horse near the bunkhouse, Rand dismounted and went inside.
The cook, Handy Olsen, the bookkeeper, George Davenport, and Rand used three of the downstairs bedrooms, the crew all slept upstairs. There were too damned many empty bedrooms in the bunkhouse, one on the first level and a good half dozen on the second. Now there would be two more. Rand's expression was grim when he walked into the office and addressed George.
"Joe and Russ quit. Make up their final checks. They'll be in to get them in a few minutes."
George laid his pipe in the ashtray on his desk and gave a brief, wry nod of his head. He was pushing sixty, a lifetime bachelor and shared Rand's disdainful attitude toward ghosts and mysterious beings from outer space. Handy, the cook, was also an older man, and in Handy's own words, "No danged ghost is gonna chase me off this ranch." Rand honestly wished he could find enough older men with good old-fashioned common sense to man his entire crew.
"What happened to send Joe and Russ packin'?" George asked.
"It's the same old story, George. We found another dead heifer. Joe and Russ seem to think there's something supernatural about it. They want to leave, so let 'em. I'm tired of half-wits. Get their checks ready right away."
"Will do," George said.
Rand was getting too warm in his outdoor gear. "See you later." He went back outside and breathed in the stingingly cold air. Winter wasn't letting go this year. It was April, and while Montana weather could be unpredictable, one could usually count on warmer temperatures by this time of year.
Rand's gaze fell on the old Kincaid mansion, vacant since the day he came to work on the ranch. All the Kincaids were dead, except for one tiny girl that had been adopted by Sterling and Jessica McCallum. Sterling and a lawyer named Wendell Hargrove managed the child's estate, and Rand had been hired by Sterling. He reported ranch business to both men, who were as concerned about the accidents, or whatever they were, occurring on the ranch as Rand. Standing outside the bunkhouse, Rand wondered if he should call one of them now and relate the latest incident.
He released a heavy sigh. There was nothing Wendell or Sterling could do about the dead heifer. Hell, there was nothing he could do beyond burying it. As a matter of fact, if he was going to call anyone, it should be Reed Austin, the deputy sheriff who'd come out to the ranch a few times to investigate some of the incidents. Maybe he'd do that later, Rand thought while mounting his horse. But first things first. Right now, getting that carcass underground so it wouldn't attract hungry predators took priority over anything else.
Riding away from the buildings, Rand headed for the southernmost range, where the rest of his crew was moving cattle. His lips set tightly as he wondered how many more men would quit before this was over.
The ranch settled down early at night. While the other men snored in their beds, Rand walked the floor. He had called Reed Austin before supper, and they'd had a lengthy conversation, which kept running through Rand's mind.