Stone Cold Cowboy

By: Jennifer Ryan



Why the hell did they stop here?

A fifth horse stopped a short distance away. Another set of large shoe prints walked toward the group. A crushed patch of grass indicated someone fell and rolled. He took it all in, including the drag marks leading up the hill and into the trees.

So, the would-be cattle rustlers got into an argument. Maybe someone came to his senses and tried to stop the others from doing something that could land them in jail for the next ten years.

Rory nudged his horse to follow the tracks leading into the trees. To avoid lopping off his head in the low branches, he dismounted and tied his horse to a thick branch. The horse still shied and spooked at some unseen threat. He wondered what the horse knew that he didn’t.

Something didn’t sit well with him. A strange shiver of awareness came over him, like someone had eyes on him. He pulled the rifle from his saddle, checked it to be sure all was as it should be, and headed up the hill to the rise. He stopped short near the top.

His eyes saw the gruesome image in front of him, but his mind refused to believe it.

The woman hung by her wrists from the tree. Dozens of punctures left ribbons of blood flowing over her body and limbs . . . everywhere. The majority of the blood came from a cut at her ribs and the slash marks across her thigh and other knee. Her head hung down with her chin resting against her chest. Her lips and skin were tinged blue from the bitter cold. He reached for her face, hoping, begging God, the universe, everything that was good and holy in this world to please let her be alive.

He pulled off his leather glove and touched her frozen cheek. Her head snapped up, her eyes flew open, she screamed and wiggled, trying to get away, but all she did was make things worse. The wire dug into her again. She went limp and moaned, and the sound settled heavy in his chest. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out again.

“Oh God,” he whispered like a prayer.

The sweet woman he’d seen around town, usually chasing after her delinquent brother. Sadie. Yeah, he’d asked around about her after she’d slammed into him coming around the corner in one of the aisles at the feed store. He’d felt a shock of heat slice through him, leaving behind a warmth he’d never felt. She’d backed up two steps, apologized, then stepped back another three steps when she looked up at him, and gasped. He scared her, but he didn’t know why. Probably had something to do with that bar fight her brother tried to start with Colt and nearly got her punched in her pretty face. He’d saved her and that no-account brother of hers.

He scanned the wire up her arms to the way it was bound around her wrists, along with the rope holding her up and tied around the tree trunk. If he undid the rope, she’d fall to the ground and the barbs would drive into her body even deeper. He needed to cut the wire off her, then let her down.

“Sadie, it’s Rory Kendrick. Do you remember me?”

Her eyes fluttered but never opened. “You’re supposed to go after them.”

“Who?”

Another soft moan escaped her blue, cracked lips.

“I’m going to cut you down. Hold on, Sadie. I’ll be right back. I promise.”

He ran down the hill to his horse. He shoved the useless rifle back in the scabbard, dug through the saddlebag, and found the wire cutters he kept there in case the cattle broke through a fence and got tangled. He pulled out the scarf he’d forgotten was in there and a knit cap. He’d drunk most of the water he brought along. The two inches of water in the bottle would have to do for now. He’d get Sadie to the hospital.

How? She was in bad shape. He couldn’t ride the four hours back to the ranch with her in the saddle. She’d been tortured enough. He couldn’t put her through a grueling ride, too.

Unsure how to take care of her, he ran up the hill to do what needed to be done immediately. He hated to hurt her, but getting her down meant cutting her free and pulling the wire out of her skin.

Seeing her strung up like that stunned him again. He feared he’d never get the gruesome image out of his mind. He skidded to a stop in front of her and fell to his knees. He started at her feet and snapped the wire around her ankles free. He unwound the wire up to her knees. Whoever had done this had made sure to inflict the maximum amount of pain. The barbs were spread out, but the way they wound around Sadie ensured nearly all of them bit into her pale skin. Some of the punctures would heal, but the deeper ones would leave lasting scars. Not as bad as the ones in her mind, he feared.

“Stop,” Sadie whispered, her body shaking. She barely had the strength to wiggle to get away from him and make herself swing again.

Rory grabbed her thighs and held her still. She tried to kick him away, but he held her in place. One of the barbs sliced his palm. He pulled free, hissing at the sting it left behind. The thought of amplifying that pain more than a hundredfold over his body made his stomach tight and his heart sink. He tried not to imagine the agony Sadie felt, but he couldn’t help himself.

Resolved to the task ahead, he used the cutters to snip the wires up the front of her, then he went to her back and did the same. Some fell to the ground, others remained stuck to her body. Those he gently pulled free at her sides, dropping the bloody mess to the ground. Once he had all the wire off up to her wrists, he scooped it all away from her feet and went to the tree. He untied the knot on the rope and gently lowered her down. With the slack let out, he walked back to her before she fell on her back. He held the rope in one hand and wrapped his other arm around her to hold her up. Once he had her secure against him, he let go of the rope. Her arms fell, her bound hands hitting the top of her head. She yelped in pain.

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