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When I came to I had a throbbing headache and I was freezing. Someone had blindfolded me and gagged me with a smelly bandanna. More humiliating, I was hogtied with absolutely no hope of escape. I chafed against the ropes, trying to free myself. A chuckle made me stop. “You don’t really think that’s going to work, now do you?”
“Mmff-i-ee.” Yeah, real impressive, I know. But you try talking through a gag. It’s not easy.
With a glare of light the blindfold disappeared. When my eyes adjusted, I saw that I was in an abandoned barn with a familiar shrimp looking down at me with a smirk. “Sorry, darlin’, I missed that.” He pulled the gag off. “Now that there’s no danger of you bein’ heard, we can remove this.”
“Gee thanks. Shouldn’t you be in jail, McFinney?”
He laughed. “Do you think so?”
“Don’t play dumb. You were arrested. I saw you there.”
He rolled a coin around his hand. “Did you really? Funny thing about it, I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in that police station. Are you quite sure it was me?”
I wanted to argue with him, but I noticed that he seemed slightly different. His nose was less crooked and his eyes a touch darker. He was still wiry and small, but there was something different in how he held himself.
A wicked grin spread across his face as he watched me. “Yes, havin’ a brother thirteen months younger than yourself does have some advantages. Especially when you need someone to take the fall for you. But I guess you wouldn’t know that with your age gap.”
“Why do all this?”
“Revenge is a sweet thing, missy. Crushin’ a man’s heart and soul brings a certain satisfaction I don’t reckon you’d understand. But, spending time in jail for it does leave a bad taste in the mouth, don’t you think?”
“And your brother is fine taking that punishment for you? You’re a snake!”
“Oh, I won’t let him suffer too much. You see, we’ve had it all planned out. Your sister goes into court and testifies that he’s the man as threatened her and all that rot. Then I show up at his defense. She can’t tell the dif’rence ’tween us and the case gets throwed out. There ain’t a thing anybody can do to prove which of us was there and which one weren’t.”
“Wasn’t,” I corrected, realizing he thought I was Scarlett. So much for our age difference making our identities obvious.
McFinney scowled at me. “Now ain’t the time to worry ’bout how I talk.”
“If you had this all worked out, why kidnap me? Why tell me your whole plan? Kind of defeats the purpose,” I said. I hoped if I kept him talking long enough I could figure a way out of this disaster.
“Oh, now that I can’t claim credit for. Seems your friend the Bear has more enemies than he thought. Ain’t all that surprisin’ really. There are others who want to see him suffer.”
He shook his head and wagged a finger at me. “Nope, can’t tell ya. You’ll jus’ have to wait and see. He should be around shortly.” Then he laughed as though he’d told a great joke and covered my face with a cloth sack that reeked of sour grain.
“You can’t just leave me here!” I shouted. But there was no reply. “Great,” I muttered. “This is just perfect. I’m stuck in the middle of nowhere with a psychopath on the way who thinks I’m my sister.” I squirmed and wriggled, but the knots were tight. I have to hand it to him, when McFinney decides to tie someone up he goes about it properly. The rope cut into my skin as I continued to struggle. Panic was building inside me. How long would it be before someone noticed I was missing? What would happen when McFinney or the mystery psycho discovered I wasn’t Scarlett? Where was Rooster? “Rooster, here boy.” I whistled. No yips, no response. Just silence. I sent a little prayer up, hoping our puppy was all right. And another one to beg for some help.
I heard a door open and shivers raced down my spine with the blast of cold air that swirled into the room. “Miss Scarlett? Miss Scarlett, don’t you worry. I’ll have you outta here in no time.” I felt a hand grab the bag covering my face. I’d never been so happy to see Shorty in all my life as he looked down at me. “Blizzard?”
“Shorty, thank the Lord! Please, you’ve got to help me. McFinney…”
“What? She’s at home in bed, probably toasty warm and I’m freezing here. Untie me, would ya?”
“This is all wrong. That dagblasted idiot,” Shorty fumed, standing and kicking at a nearby pile of hay.
“Yeah, kidnapping is a crime. Anyway, about the ropes…”
“Think you’re going to be a hero, Shorty?” McFinney sneered, coming into view.
Shorty cursed. “You got the wrong girl, John. First you leave that fuel can at our barn and I have to cover for you, now this? What am I supposed to do with her? Can’t you do one simple thing right?”
McFinney shrugged. “Ain’t my problem. I got what I wanted outta the bargain. You can do as you like with her.”
It was like being doused in ice water. I felt numb and horrified and angry all at the same time. “Shorty, please tell me you are not working with this slime? This is just a joke, right?”
Gone was the carefree, hovering wrangler I’d grown up seeing around Starwood. The look Shorty gave me wasn’t quite hate, but it was darn close. “You see anything funny?”
“Nope, but I see a couple idiots who are gonna be real sorry when Sheriff Henley finds me. Mom knows I went out to check the generator. She will have called him by now and he’ll be on his way.” It wasn’t much of a bluff, but it was the best I could do.
Shorty laughed, and it wasn’t at all pleasant. “I ain’t that dumb, Miss Blizzard. You wouldn’t have woken your mom up for something as simple as turning the generator back on. But you do present a problem for me. Maybe I can turn that around.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I had to make her see me, didn’t I? We were makin’ progress, Scarlett and I. Oh, she still didn’t wanna date me or nothin’, but we were talkin’ at least. It was a start. Then everything went wrong. Josiah Meddleton came back. As soon as that rotten cowboy came to town I knew she’d fall again. She never had eyes for anyone but him. Couldn’t see that he was no good for her. Slinkin’ around with them fan girls of his. I would never treat her so badly. She was my princess.”
He pulled a lighter out of his pocket and I watched in horror as he started flipping the switch. I heard the stone grind against the spark wheel. “Scarlett’s everybody’s princess, Shorty, but she will never forgive you if you hurt me.”
“She wouldn’t know it was me. McFinney’ll take the blame just like we planned. Meddleton will leave ’cause he ain’t got a ranch no more. If that ain’t enough to convince him he don’t belong here, well… But I’ll stay by her. I’ll comfort her when you’re gone.” The lighter clicked again and this time a flame appeared.
“Shorty, this is madness. Don’t do it! We can talk with Scarlett. We can make something work.”
“Oh, but I think this will work,” he said, touching the flame to the hay. “I am sorry, Miss Blizzard. I never wanted to hurt you.”
“Yeah, yeah, let’s get outta here,” McFinney retorted.
The two ran out of the barn. At first, nothing seemed to be happening in the hay. Then I saw the smoke begin to curl towards the ceiling and a yellow dance of flames appeared. The panic which had been building in my chest escaped as a terrified scream. A voice inside me shouted at me to calm down and think. I had to get out of the barn. There was no way to free myself from the ropes. I heard indistinct yelling outside, but I ignored it as I tried to wriggle around to find an escape. It didn’t take long for the fire to begin spreading. I rolled as best I could toward a back door. Soon I heard a voice calling my name. “Blizzard? Blizzard where are you?”
“Josiah, I’m back here!”
“Keep calling, Blizz, I can barely see.”
“I’m over here.”
Like the bear he was nicknamed for, Josiah barreled toward me when he saw me. He lifted me up like I was nothing and ran outside as flames climbed up the walls of the barn. He ran around the side of the barn where his truck was parked and Scarlett was tightening the ropes around the would-be escapees. I don’t know what Shorty said to her, but she decked him so hard his head flew back and hit McFinney. Josiah set me down as we heard sirens wail. Snow swirled around us as he gently untied me. Scarlett pulled the ropes on our prisoners tighter again.
“You’re gonna strangle me.”
“Don’t tempt me you vile…”
I’m not sure what she finished her sentence with, because the fire engine chose that moment to blast its horn, but Josiah was looking at her with a rueful grin. “I thought ladies didn’t swear.”
She glared at him, though she blushed. “Times of great duress can be forgiven.”
He laughed and kissed her forehead. “Don’t make a habit out of it, huh? I rather like my prim and perfect lady.”
As soon as Sheriff Henley had Shorty and McFinney in custody, Scarlett ran to me. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you at all? What happened?”
“Which question should I answer first?” I teased.
She laughed. “I guess you must be okay. You are okay, right?”
“Terrified, a little sore from being tied up, but I’m fine. Is Rooster…” Suddenly I couldn’t bring myself to finish the question.
“He’s fine,” Josiah assured me. “He woke me up. For a dog that small, he sure has a big bark. I guess McFinney didn’t think anyone would hear him over the wind.”
“I woke up because your light suddenly came on and was shining into my room. I went to see if you needed anything and realized you weren’t in your room. I searched the house and couldn’t find you. I tried to wake Mom up, but couldn’t get her up. So I called Sheriff Henley. He said she had probably been drugged and that he’d send over an ambulance to check on her.”
“How did you guys find me?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Josiah admitted. “But we saw the two of them hightailing it out of the barn and figured this was where we’d find you. Then it was just a matter of making sure they couldn’t go anywhere.”
“You roped them?”
“Hey, I haven’t been a champion at the rodeo for nothing,” Josiah winked. “But I wasn’t about to let your sister run into that barn with the fire, so I went in once she had control of the ropes. I knew she wouldn’t let them loose.”
“Hate to interrupt, folks, but this storm ain’t gonna get any better out here,” Sheriff Henley said. “Come by the station tomorrow to give your statements. For tonight, you go on home and check on your mother. Let me know how she is, okay?”
“We’ll do that, Sheriff, thank you.”
We got in the truck and Josiah drove us in silence. There really wasn’t much to say. The puppies crowded us as we came into the house. We immediately went to Mom’s room where paramedics were checking her. “Blizzard? Scarlett?” Mom cried. We ran to her outstretched arms. For a long while we sat and cried, holding each other like we never wanted to let go. After declaring that Mom would be fine, the paramedics left. Josiah sat in the old armchair and waited patiently for us to regain control of our emotions.
It was dawn before we were all calm enough to do much other than sniffle and hug. Josiah left to take care of the barn chores with the other hands. Mom ordered us to get cleaned up and dressed for the day. The warm shower felt good and helped to wash away some of the fear I’d been carrying. I went downstairs to find Josiah setting a box on the dining table. He held a finger to his lips with his mischievous smile. “Shhh.”
I nodded with a grin as he moved around into the shadows where Scarlett wouldn’t see him. Soon she made her way down and noticed the box on the table. “What’s this?” she asked.
I shrugged, though I couldn’t quite keep the smile off my face. “Dunno.”
“Liar.” She unwrapped it and pulled out the model of Zander Josiah and I had found at the county fair all those months ago. Her hand went to her mouth as tears filled her eyes. Mini Zander was wearing a green blanket with a ring sewn on and the words Will you marry me? stitched across it. I beamed as Josiah walked out of the shadows and knelt next to Scarlett.
“Well, Lettie, what do you think?”
She placed Mini Zander on the table slowly, deliberately even. Somehow she kept her face blank and for a horrible moment I thought she might turn him down. Then she threw herself into Josiah’s arms, knocking both of them to the floor. “Yes!” She cried as she kissed him. “Oh, yes!” Then she kissed him again and again.
It might have been embarrassing to watch them that way had Mom not come into the kitchen right then with the puppies. They were not happy to be left out of the fun and were soon crawling and climbing over the couple as Mom asked, “Did I miss something?”
“Just a proposal,” I replied with a smile.
“Ah, that explains it then. Well, I suppose I’ll make breakfast for everyone. Scarlett, dear, when you’re done kissing your fiance, perhaps you could start some cocoa?”
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius