Once

By @mixedhearts

Once

By @mixedhearts

When dangerous men purchase the house beside Ten Mile Ranch, life gets a little more complicated for all parties involved. Can the two families reach an agreement before somebody gets hurt?

Chapter 1

i. Trouble at the Back Fence

“Get your head down, girl,” Shep said in a low voice, peering through the scope of the rifle. There was a cigarette stuck between his lips, glowing orange at the end and wiggling with every word he spoke. It was hard to tell if the plume of white escaping his mouth was smoke or the fog of his breath. The weather was bad enough that it could be either, but his hands didn’t falter as he took careful aim, finger inching toward the trigger.

“What is it?” Marley breathed, ducking down behind the woodpile and looking up at him in question.

“Can’t tell.” Shep tucked his nose into the fleece collar of his jacket and shot a look toward the girl out of the corner of his eye. “Take a look, maybe?” The rifle changed hands, and he shifted closer to point out the dark smudge moving between the trees.

The sun hadn’t even thought about rising yet, but the moon lit up the snow around them in a way that made the ground bright as daylight while the forest across the woodpile remained dark and looming. It was colder than it’d been all winter, and her breath came out in a puff of white as she searched through the tangle of trees for whatever had made Shep tense up so completely.

“If it’s edible, shoot it,” he said, crouching behind her, now. “And if it thinks we’re edible, shoot it.”

She took a deep breath, tasting the sweet tobacco smoke that lingered in the air. It soothed her as much as the warmth of his presence against her back, but still couldn’t completely steady her hands. “And if it’s a man?”

“Then you’d best hand that rifle back to me,” he said, a nervous swear brushing past her ear. Then, possibly as an afterthought but more likely because he didn’t want to know the answer, “That what you see?”

“Think so,” she replied, casting a glance over her shoulder to see his gaze clouded and calculating. After a moment of deliberation, the rifle was removed from her hands and yanked back against Shep’s shoulder. Another low curse escaped his mouth with a plume of white vapor. The cigarette bobbed as his lips twisted into a grimace.

“There’s more,” he said, finger tight over the trigger. “Get your brother, Mar. Stay low.”

Marley stayed low, following the line of the back fence and trusting the blackberry brambles that grew over it to keep her hidden from sight. When she reached the part of the fence where a finger of the woods stretched in past Pat’s fences, she broke into a run, dodging between trees in hopes of shaking off any eyes that might be following her.

She had two brothers, but only one was out there that night. Winslow was a half-mile down the fence from the woodpile, sitting up in the treehouse and watching her approach with wary eyes.

“Trouble?” he asked, speaking only when she was close enough that he didn’t have to raise his voice. The sound still cracked like ice in the chilly air, and they both flinched.

“At the woodpile,” she confirmed. “Men in the woods.”

He was already hopping down, sleek black rifle slung over one shoulder. “Shout inside and tell Brasseye to grab a few men. Make sure your Daddy knows what’s going on,” he commanded, words coming quick as he passed. Watching him go left a painful stitch in her chest, especially knowing that he and Shep would be out there on their own until help arrived. Tearing her eyes away from his back did nothing to lessen this pain, but she surged forward anyway, sprinting toward the cluster of buildings that laid at the center of Pat’s land.

“Hello?” she called, creeping into the barracks and pulling the mittens off her clammy hands. It was quiet aside from the snoring of the hands, some gentle and some loud as the growling of a wild beast. “Brasseye?” Marley’s eyes were pulled to the bottom bunk of a bed across the room, where one of the dark lumps had begun to stir. Shooting a wary look toward the other beds, she skirted the room and called the man’s name once more.

“Whatcha want, girl?” the lump asked, rising and unfolding itself into Brasseye.

“Men at the back fence,” said Marley, edging away from his flinty stare. “Shep and Winnie are there.”

She left as Brasseye was calling the other hands to arms, glad to be out of the gloomy barracks. It’d been a fun mystery when the girls were younger, but Marley no longer had any desire to infiltrate the ranch hand’s quarters. The further she was from them, the better. But she’d also rather not be in the house, where Pat was still slumbering in his bed.

“Daddy,” she said, voice soft. His door was closed, and she thought about knocking for a moment before leaning close to speak through the crack. “Daddy, Shep saw some men in the woods.”

There was a stirring behind the door, heard only faintly by the girl on the other side. Marley backed up a few paces, clasping her fidgeting hands behind her back.

“Lorraine?” Pat groaned, his footsteps heavy. The door swung open, and he squinted at Marley for a moment before asking, “‘S’wrong?”

“Shep saw some men. Near the woodpile,” she repeated, choosing not to correct his assumption. Marley always got the feeling he’d prefer her to be Lora, anyway. “Winnie went to help him. Brasseye’s gettin’ the hands together.”

He blinked at her, then brushed past her and down the hall. Marley followed at a distance, watching as he donned his coat and boots without bothering to change out of his nightclothes. A moment later, the only one left in the house was her. “Lora?” she whispered, drifting toward her bedroom. “Elliot?” she queried, tapping at the door across the hall. No one answered, and she hugged herself in the darkness, wondering if it would be safer to stay at the house or retreat to someplace intruders would be less likely to look.

Common sense won out, in the end. The house might be warm and the doors all locked, but it was also easy to find and even easier to get into. Marley hurried through the back door and headed out into the dim, grey light of dawn. The stables were her destination, half-empty now that the hands had woken and come to claim their steeds. Her horse, though, was standing in his stall near the back, being calmed by Ed while Lora looks on with anxious eyes.

“There you are,” said Lora, abandoning the barrel she’d been sitting on to sweep her twin sister into a fierce hug. “Brass said you ran off.”

“Went to get Daddy,” she replied, shrugging out of Lora’s hug to help Ed reign in her mount. “Here I am,” she soothed, nudging Ed out of the way and running her hand down the side of Danger’s neck. The beast released an irritable huff, but quit his stamping to study her with his wide, dark eyes. “What’d Ed do to you?” she cooed, shooting the man an accusing look.

“Gunfire,” Ed replied, sounding a bit sulky. ******** him. Lora was here – she saw.”

Marley’s accusation slid to Lora, then.

“We weren’t doing anything,” she said, sounding a bit too innocent. Marley ignored that, on the theory that Lora would keep pretending not to leave Marley behind as long as Marley pretended to be on the same page. (She still couldn’t help but think that Ed is their cousin – at least by law – and that she still hadn’t gotten to the chapter where they start thinking late nights in the stables are a good idea.)

“How many? And how long ago?” asked Marley, stroking Danger’s nose, now. She stared intently at the velvety fur around his nostrils so that she would miss any looks that pass between the pair.

“Just one,” said Ed. “Not that long ago. I’m surprised you didn’t hear.”

So was Marley, but she’d been running. Out of breath. Focused on reaching the stables before anything reached her. And now that she was there, “We should get out of here,” she said to Lora. “They’ll look in the stables. They’ll look in the house, too.”

“The hands will stop them before they get that far,” said Lora, claiming her seat on the barrel once more and beginning to pick through her hair for split ends. “Besides, they probably ran off as soon as they heard the shots. If the shots didn’t hit them, that is.”

Marley had to concede. Few were desperate enough to brave gunfire, but the stables still felt like a giant target in the middle of an empty field. She comforted herself with the knowledge that the woodpile was than a mile away, but thoughts like that led her to thoughts of Shep and Winnie, and of the rest of the men that had gone to their aid. Surely, the shots had been fired by them and not by the strange men – otherwise, there would have been more in retaliation.

They waited, but no more shots were fired. Lora and Ed talked quietly while Marley brushed Danger’s ink-black pelt, straining to hear past the walls of the stable. An hour or more passed this way, broken only by Lora’s giggles and Ed’s insistent shushing until the low murmur of distant voices reached them.

A bead of cold sweat dripped down Marley’s spine, and she considered hiding for a moment before a barking laugh had her releasing a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. “Shep,” she said to Lora, vaulting out of Danger’s stall and dashing down the aisle. She heaved open the door and slipped through, continuing down the lane toward the small party coming up the gravel road. Shep was among them, and Winslow and Pat, and the rest were discounted in favor of these three. But it was into Shep’s arms that she flung herself, seeking safety and assurance, and into Shep’s eyes that she stared, silently asking what had happened.

“Later,” he said quietly, eyes narrowing as Lora appeared in the stable’s doorway, Ed not far behind.

“Daddy,” Lora said diffidently, allowing herself to be pulled into a hug by the man. Winslow went next, and then she turned to Shep, who gave her a Look.

“We were waiting for you to get back,” said Marley, hoping to head off any arguments between the two. “All three of us.”

Shep looked at Ed, then, seeming to see right through him. But he said nothing, leading old Topnotch past them and into his stall. Marley remained tense, guessing that Shep was simply unwilling to say anything in front of their father.

Brasseye was among the returning men, but his horse was led to its stall by one of the more junior hands. He’d likely gone back to bed. Some of the others were missing as well, but Marley wasn’t sure whether Brasseye had taken all or just some. Either way, Shep had been laughing, so Marley didn’t think that anything had gone wrong.

“Did you get them all?” she asked Winslow, catching his hand as he turned to follow Pat back out of the stables, their mounts having been returned to their respective stalls.

“I said later, Marley,” said Shep, coming to Winslow’s side and resting a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks for the timely intervention, Winnie. You should get some sleep.”

“Yeah,” said Winslow, passing a curious look between her and Shep. For a moment, he seemed to want to ask something about the exchange, but the thought of his bed overcame any lingering brotherly duty. With a tip of his hat, he headed back toward the house, leaving Shep alone with Ed and the girls.

“Out,” Shep said to Ed, not bothering to sugar-coat it, this time. Ed departed, obviously glad to have been dismissed. “You were in here with him,” he said to Lora, folding his arms over his chest.

“Yeah. So was Marley,” said Lora, raising her chin.

Shep stared at her. Lora didn’t shift under his gaze the way Marley would have. Shep saw through it, anyway. “Alright. If you’re not gonna talk to me, I’m gonna talk to Ed,” he said with a shrug, turning from the pair and heading out of the stable.

“Wait! Shep,” she complained, grabbing onto his arm. “Wait – wait, I’ll talk to you. Don’t talk to Ed. I’ll talk, okay?”

“Too late,” said Shep, shaking her off. The sisters stood together in silence, and Marley tried very hard to convince herself she did not know what Shep and Ed would be discussing. Luckily, Lora had been teaching her how to lie.

“We weren’t doing anything,” Lora said eventually, huddling close to Marley as they walked toward the house. The sun was up, but it was still bitterly cold, and Lora’s jacket was mysteriously absent. Marley wondered how she ended up in the stables without it but decided not to ask. “I mean, we were just talking. And sittin’ together. He had his arm around me, and maybe – it was just a kiss, though. It wasn’t anything to get mad about.”

This brought Marley a small amount of relief. “Shep worries,” she said after a beat.

“Shep needs to mind his own **** business,” Lora replied. “Hey – what do you think happened out there, anyway? He seemed in a mood, didn’t he?”

Marley did not ask if that was any of Lora’s business. “He was laughin’ before he saw you and Ed,” she said instead, but as she thought back on the encounter, she wasn’t sure how well she’d read his mood.

“Laughin’ doesn’t always mean he’s in a good mood,” said Lora, and once again, Marley had to concede. Shep laughed when he was angry, too. Differently from when he was happy, but from a distance, Marley supposed the sounds might not be dissimilar.

Their beds were cold, and Lora elected to invade Marley’s so that her cold toes could be pressed against Marley’s calfs, or maybe so that no one else would hear their whispered conversation. “He’s got no right to meddle in my affairs,” said Lora, her voice vehement even as she drifted into sleep. “Who does he think he is, anyway?”

“He worries, Lora,” said Marley, unable to come up with anything better to say. “He’s just worried.”

“Well, he can stop worrying about me,” said Lora.

They didn’t talk anymore after that.

It was long past noon before either of them woke again. Shep was nowhere to be found, but rumor had it he’d retreated to his bed in the barracks after a quiet talk with Ed. No one quite knew what had been said, but everyone agreed that it had something to do with Lora, who was also mysteriously absent.

Marley, for her part, knew that her twin had retreated to the stables. Ed wouldn’t be working, but it was still one of the other girl’s favored haunts. Besides, it was the furthest building from the barracks other than the sheep barn, and Marley knew her sister didn’t want to be anywhere near Shep.

Torn as she was between these two great loves, Marley had no choice but to stay far away from both of them, hoping that duty would eventually bring them together to find her. She even fancied that she could hear them calling her name, but out near the back pasture and up one of her favorite trees, it could have been anything. Plausible deniability was a must with these things, after all.

Ignoring the voices – whether real or imagined – Marley stared out into the forest beyond the woodpile. There was a mess of footprints going to and fro between the fence and the treeline, and she imagined she could see just where the dark shape had been moving before. It had been a man – she knew that for sure. She could only guess that he’d been killed in the early hours of the morning, or else chased from the property by the sound of guns.

But, as she watched, something that shouldn’t be there broke away from the trees. Another group of men, at least ten strong, all armed with double jacks, shovels, and wooden posts. Marley didn’t recognize a soul among them.

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