Excerpt from The Christmas Journey
C"Hey!" The reedy voice coming from inside Wylie's Livery and Bridle Shop thrummed with outrage. "You can't take those horses 'til you settle up with Joe."
Ryland Lassiter halted outside the entry and swallowed an oath. Sounded as if a disagreement was brewing inside.
The last thing he needed was another delay. This trip had already taken too long. He wasn't about to sit cooling his heels, waiting for the tracks to be cleared - not when he was this close.
Ry reached into his coat and fingered Belle's letter. There'd been an air of desperation in her plea to see him, a sense of urgency that gnawed at him. And the closer he drew to Foxberry, the stronger that feeling grew.
Pushing back the worry, he tugged on his shirt cuffs. Might as well wade in and do what he could to help settle matters. The quicker he could get going again, the sooner he could find out what was going on with Belle.
A burst of rough laughter from inside the stable added impetus to his decision. That first voice had been a boy's, but these sounded older and about as friendly as cornered badgers.
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, Ry stood inside the wide doorway. His jaw tightened as he spied a boy of ten or so squaring off against a pair of sneering thugs, for all the world like David before Goliath.
Unfortunately, this would-be giant-slayer didn't have so much as a sling to do battle with.
The larger of the two men, a barrel-chested brute with a scraggly mustache, shoved past the boy. "Outa' my way, kid. Those are our horses and we aim to get 'em."
The man's heavy-handed move forced the boy back a step, but the youngster kept his balance and gamely thrust out his jaw. "You can't take them until you settle your bill," he insisted, hands fisting at his sides.
Ry silently applauded the boy's pluck.
But the pair of philistines didn't share his admiration. The second oaf, whose crooked nose and scarred cheek gave him a more villainous appearance than his partner, scowled. "Like we already said, we settled up with Joe this morning." The man's voice rasped like a dull saw on a stubborn log.
The boy crossed his arms. "Joe didn't say nothin' about it."
Mustache stopped in the act of opening a stall gate. "You calling us liars?" He swiveled toward the boy, jabbing his fist into his palm with a forceful thwack.
That did it. Ry couldn't abide bullies. And he was pretty sure the Good Lord hadn't put him here at this particular moment just so he could stand by and watch.
Clearing his throat, he strolled forward, casually nabbing a pitchfork from a pile of straw. "Good day, gentlemen. Is there a problem?"
The pair froze, then turned to eye him suspiciously. Ry held his genial smile as he mentally gauged his options.
As he'd expected, once they got a good look at his tailored clothes and 'citified' appearance, their cocky grins reappeared. Better men than these had mistakenly equated polish with softness. His years at law school had added the polish, but he was still a born and bred Texan, able to stand up with the best of them.
"No problem," Scarcheek finally answered. "The boy's confused is all. You just stay out of the way, and we'll be done in a minute."
Not likely. Another three unhurried steps placed Ry between the youth and the two men. He pulled out his pocket watch and flicked it open with his thumb.
As expected, both men's gazes latched onto the gold-cased timepiece with a covetous gleam.
"I don't know." Ry glanced down, then closed the heirloom with a snap. "It appears this is taking a good deal longer than a minute, and I've already wasted more time in Knotty Pine than I cared to."
Scarcheek met Ry's relaxed opposition with a lowered brow. "Unless you want to get them fancy duds and that pretty-boy face of yours messed up, you'd best stay out of matters that don't concern you."
Ry flashed a self-deprecating smile. "Well now, that could be difficult. You see, it's an unfortunate failing of mine that I find there are so many matters that do concern me."
Scarcheek drew his pistol and pointed it at Ry's chest. "Don't know about where you come from, Mister, but around here that's not a very healthy attitude."
His smile never wavering, Ry coolly calculated his next step. Using the pitchfork to knock Scarcheek's gun out of his hand would be an easy maneuver. Handling Mustache, who was just out of reach, was a bit trickier. He'd hoped the sight of his watch would tempt the bully to step closer. Still, a few agile moves and a bit of finesse just might help him avoid a bullet while he disarmed the man.
He hoped to handle this without drawing his pocket pistol - the fewer bullets zipping around, the less chance of the boy getting caught in the crossfire.
Bracing himself, Ry shifted his weight and tightened his hold on the pitchfork. No time for doubts. But, as his mother had liked to say, there was always time for prayer.
Lord, I know I don't say it often, but Your help is always welcome, and right about now would be a good time to provide a distraction.
No sooner had Ry formed that thought, than the metallic click of a cocked rifle sliced through the tense quiet of the livery. "What's going on here?"
"Joe!" The boy's shout signaled both relief and warning.
Then everything happened at once.
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