(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
A lady is never alone with a man unless that man is her brother, her father, or her husband.
A lady doesn’t wander the wilderness unless she has a gun, a chaperone, or a reputation beyond repair.
And a lady is certainly never caught without her corset in place.
On all counts, my status was in grave jeopardy.
If no one found out, did the rules matter?
The man in question wouldn’t tell. He was dead. I nudged him with my bare toe and his flesh gave way with a squelch that made me retreat to the wide shaded boulder I’d been lounging on before I noticed him. Crouching to wrap my arms around my skirted legs, I settled back on the cool rock to consider my predicament.
What else would Mama say? She thought she raised a lady, despite Papa’s penchant for unorthodox teaching methods. But my parents wouldn’t find out. They’d been gone for four years, their graves in the middle of the Atlantic where their ship went down between England and Boston.
I was on the West Coast now, as far from my childhood home as you could get, so it wasn’t pleasant to note that the man with the squelchy side was from Boston. So his tattoo said. Bostonians were comfortable in the wet.
But here in Idyllwild, California, we were enduring the worst heat wave in anyone’s recollection. All the old-timers groused over it. Our mile-high altitude took about fifteen degrees off of the western downhill city temperatures and twenty off those from the desert on the east side of our slopes, but none of that mattered. August was wicked hot everywhere this year. Probably even in Boston.
The man’s shirt was already drying out.
I was alone at Logan Creek, my hat, shoes, stockings, and gloves tossed aside, and staring at a dead man.
A lady of two and twenty should’ve known better.
“Damn,” I muttered.
Proprieties aside, the real conundrum was my helplessness to do anything about it.
I wiped the afternoon perspiration from my forehead and surveyed the surrounding area. Wild strawberry plants covered the banks of Logan Creek. Green in the shade and crisped up brown in the sun, they were far past the season of flowering and fruiting.
Shade came from ancient arching oak trees and towering pines that rippled out for untold miles of mountain range beyond them. Logan Creek ran no more than five feet deep now in the narrow parts and I’d been able to traverse it in several places courtesy of a multitude of enormous granite boulders.
“So, how did you manage to drown?” I asked him from my perch.
I should have been squeamish. Horrified. A lady would’ve fainted politely away onto the carpet of dead pine needles.
Rubbing my hands briskly up and down my calves, I rolled my shoulders and stood up to try again.
This was ridiculous.
The dead man wore brown trousers that were shiny in the seat, a dirty blue shirt with the arms pushed up to his elbows, and his fingernails were filthy and jagged. His boots had seen years of hard work and were soaked.
My five-foot-four-inch frame was laughably incapable of dragging his bulk away from the creek bank. The closest cabin was vacant. John Wyman owned it and all the valley for miles around, but John was in Virginia indefinitely.
I made myself focus. With help, I would’ve dragged this man to John’s cabin. We had curious wildlife.
Holding my breath, I reached for the hairy, tattoo-branded forearm and, with both hands around his wrist, I tugged with all my strength, but it was impossible.
His pale, shoulder-length matted hair showed white at his temple and continued white into a significant bushy beard, but as he was mostly facedown, there wasn’t much else to see. I dropped the arm and wiped my hands on my skirt.
“Vacation time is over, Blue,” I said.
My blue roan mare perked silky ears in my direction from her shady reprieve.
“Even when we’re closed,” I told her as I gathered my things, “tourists think they can show up and help themselves to the mountain.” I shook my straw hat at her. Green ribbons hung limply from the crown. “Why do they wait until everyone is gone to get themselves into trouble?”
I jammed my hat over the messy pompadour on my head and secured it with a hatpin.
“It isn’t very deep here,” I grumbled as I sat down to pull limp stockings on. I glanced at the dead man once or twice as I secured them with garters.
“You didn’t go for a swim dressed like that,” I finally admitted, wiping my hands on my skirt. I looked over my shoulder at the creek, jealous. I’d pondered going all the way in, myself.
I scowled at him and pulled my scratchy collar away from my neck. “Maybe you fell and hit your head.”
My dusty shoes were next, and I stifled a groan as I banged them together. As uncomfortable as they were over my damp feet, it was always a bad idea to walk barefoot out here. Rising at last, I stood over the man one more time.
“I’m not feeling your head for a bump. I’m not going through your pockets for your name.” I took another slow survey around the area. “I don’t see a horse or a companion or a fishing rod. The fact is, I have to leave you here and ride for help. You weigh three times as much as I do, mister.”
I pulled on my riding gloves, wiggling each finger into place. “Make yourself comfortable. The sheriff is all the way back in town. Not only will it take me a good thirty minutes of riding, but I’ll have to confess where I went today.”
Turning away from him, I marched up to Blue and yanked her cinch up. The saddle fit snugly along the pad on her back, but I wasn’t fooled. Blue looked over her shoulder and blew a soft raspberry at me. I rammed my knee into her broad side and she gave a grunt. The cinch tightened another two notches.
“If I have to wear the trappings,” I said as I scrabbled into the saddle, “you have to wear yours.”
Gathering the reins, I turned her away from Logan Creek and we headed onto the old, overgrown logging road for home. Cloying, aromatic pine oils wafted from the trees and the usual chatter of gray squirrels and glossy black crows was muted in the thick atmosphere. We passed the narrow trail that forked from the road and led to John’s cabin as we left Pine Cove behind. After another few minutes, I peered through the scrub brush and twisting manzanita and recognized the trail that led to the abandoned mine shaft where Elizabeth Nelson occasionally resided.
I stopped Blue at the trail, and a sigh escaped me. It was complicated. I’d lived in the San Jacinto mountains for a while and knew most of the locals well, but people who lived in the tiny town of Idyllwild lived here for a reason. We loved the peace and solitude. We were content with our own company. Surrounded by rich forest and supervised by the rising crags of Tahquitz Peak, the beauty here was undeniable. It was to be expected that locals would wander off and enjoy it.
I was surprised to admit to myself that I was lonely. It felt disloyal. My only companion for the day was a drowned tourist.
An unexpected meeting with Elizabeth might have cheered me up, but my eyes scanned the trees and found no sign of her. Everyone else called her Red because of her wild red hair. She was one of the original old-timers. I estimated her age to hover around forty and she was the legal owner of my hotel.
Elizabeth Nelson had been partially scalped as a young girl in Louisiana and her family had moved her here in an effort to hide her away. None of her family remained, but she had successfully drifted the mountain range ever since, living off the land and the occasional care of locals, including John Wyman, whose abandoned mine she’d commandeered.
Red could be hiding behind a tree or miles from here, but either way, she only let people see her if she wanted to be seen. I had a solitary ride ahead of me.
I frowned, even as I reminded myself that a lady wouldn’t. Frowning caused wrinkles, and this thought made me frown even more. Who on earth was there to care whether I had wrinkles? I shook off my doldrums and moved Blue forward again.
A low, deep rumble came from behind us as we walked away. Blue tossed her head, and I turned in the saddle to see a black shape move through distant trees. It was far too large for a coyote. We didn’t have wolves. But we occasionally had grizzlies in the high country. I nudged Blue into a trot.
A foraging bear would have no quarrel with us, but I looked over my shoulder anyway. Bears could outrun a horse in a dead heat. Plus, they could climb trees. The shape shifted again, moving through the underbrush close enough for me to hear a grumbling huff.
Blue was tense, but against my instincts I kept her at a trot, not wanting to provoke whatever followed us into a chase. Her sweat worked up a light froth along the reins at her neck as she worked her way around the wheel ruts, gopher holes, and rocky washes of the narrow logging road. If she put a hoof down wrong, we were prey, but my eyes continued to scan the trail behind us.
“Where the hell’s my gun?”
My words were cut short as Blue pulled up on her haunches. I turned to see why, and my face narrowly missed the back of her head as she reared. I kept my seat and turned Blue to the side as a man on horseback raised his hand in the middle of the road. Instinct made me duck.
“Easy, miss,” the man called out. “I don’t have one, either!”
I collected Blue beneath me and looked from the man in front of us to the trees behind us. As far as I could see, he told the truth. At first glance, the man held only the reins of his bay gelding and wore no holster at his side. A wide-brimmed fedora shaded most of his tanned face, and his mouth curved up at one corner in curiosity beneath a sparse mustache. He’d left a concentrated finger-width of whiskers beneath his lower lip, displaying a strong jawline and mildly cleft chin.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He peered down the trail behind me. “What’s happening back there?”
Another look over my shoulder showed an empty trail. All of Blue’s attention was on the stranger blocking our path. I followed her lead and took his measure.
Average height, somewhere in his thirties, lean build, at home on his horse. His voice was deep and carried a hint of challenge. He sat easy, but his hands gripped the reins and betrayed a restrained tension. He stared at me and waited.
I became acutely aware that I rode astride with my skirts bunched up around my stockinged knees.
“I think a bear is following us,” I said. My voice was carefully calm but not entirely in control. I wasn’t a great judge of character in the best of circumstances, but something about this stranger had me more afraid of him than a bear or even a body.
“Are you sure?” He squinted down the trail again.
“Yes. I heard it beyond those trees.”
He turned an unconvinced face to me. “A bear is a good reason to carry a gun.”
He knew I was alone and defenseless in the middle of nowhere. This was exactly why ladies remained in the parlor with their teacups. I roundly scolded myself.
The man lifted two fingers to his temple in a mock salute. “How do you do? I’m Ranger Winters.”
“Ranger? Is that your first name?” I stalled, trying to decide how to get past him.
He removed his hat and wiped his forehead with a sleeve. His dark hair was cut very short. The tips curled where perspiration had accumulated at his hatband. His brown eyes locked with mine and I felt him take my measure in return.
“Ranger is my title. I’m part of the San Jacinto Reserve.”
There was nothing official-looking about his clothing or his horse. I hid my skepticism behind a smile. “How do you do? I’m Loveda Brown and I’m on my way to the sheriff’s office.” I moved Blue a step in the right direction. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not be eaten.”
He could’ve been any of the locals that lived isolated along the mountain ridge. Or another crazed tourist on a camping adventure.
“The first name is Kendall. Nice to meet you, Miss Brown.” He reined his horse aside. “I’m headed up to Fern Valley, but I’ll ride behind you and see you safely to town, first.”
“Thank you.” I held my breath as I passed him, then let it out with a hurried, “I would appreciate it.”
Taking Blue into a fast trot, I didn’t look back to see whether he followed. If there was an angry bear behind us, it would go for Winters first. If this Winters was dangerous, I knew Blue could outpace him long enough to clear the trees and get me safely into civilization. And no matter who this stranger was, I needed him to return with me instead of riding on toward Logan Creek. I needed him ignorant.
Lady or no, it never looked good to be caught riding swiftly away from a dead body.
Thankfully, the sheriff and I had worked closely together long enough to skip uncomfortable questions. I glanced back as we rounded a bend in the road. The man was ten paces behind, his face inscrutable.
The road opened into Foster’s Meadow. The Idyllwild Inn, a stately building with a veranda on all sides, held court in its center and was currently closed while the owners, the new Mr. And Mrs. Lindley, honeymooned on the Pacific coast. The stable, under renovations to accommodate automobiles, showed no activity in the midday heat.
All the neighbors were gone.
The man followed as we skirted the meadow and rode down the long drive to the main road. In silence, we passed the empty saloon. Blue kicked up the dust as I urged her forward past the tiny cemetery. Another few minutes of riding brought us around a tight bend and into the town proper. It consisted of a total of four buildings connected by a wooden boardwalk.