BY: RAMONA FORREST
The last thing she needs is another man she can’t afford to trust…
When Cherry Bender discovers her father’s been fatally wounded, she vows to find his killer and stop the constant trouble on her ranch. Very short-handed, but unsure who to believe, she reluctantly hires a tall, gray-eyed stranger who comes to the ranch with the news that her uncle has also been murdered.
He only wanted information…until he met her.
John Carmona didn’t come to the Bender ranch looking for work, but to find out who was illegally mining a rare mineral from the nearby hills. But one look at Cherry and John’s plans change drastically. Determined to save her ranch from the forces working against her, he must fight not only Cherry’s suspicions of him, but also the evil assassin sent to kill them both. Can John win Cherry’s trust in time or will he die trying to save her life?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: Stranger on the Tonto by Roman Forrest is an historical romance with a twist. It is about a young woman in 1893 Arizona, left on her own to not only run, but fight for, her ranch. Dealing with having her cattle rustled and her father murdered, our heroine Cherry doesn’t know who she can trust. When a stranger arrives to tell Cherry that her uncle has also been murdered by a cheating card player, Cherry is devastated. Now she is completely alone. Short-handed because her foreman keeps running off any cowhand Cherry takes a liking to, she hires the stranger to help with the roundup. The stranger, John, isn’t looking for work but for information on who is illegally mining a rare mineral on Cherry’s land. But he takes the job, hoping to both protect Cherry from the people trying to steal her ranch and find out what he needs to, using the job as a cover.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot and Forrest’s characters are totally believable. She really seems to know her Arizona history. The book is definitely worth taking the time to read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Stranger on the Tonto by Ramona Forrest is a believable, true-to-life historical romance. By true-to-life, I mean that Forrest did her homework. The scene descriptions, characters, and dialogue had a ring of truth that I found very refreshing. The story was filled with details that made me feel as if I were experiencing some of the scenes firsthand. For example, when Cherry’s father is murdered, Cherry finds him in the barn, bleeding to death. She gets help to carry him into the house and sends someone for the doctor. Of course, the closest doctor is in the village miles away, and Cherry knows, even as she sends for him, that there is no way he will get there in time. Even if he is not out on a call, by the time the rider gets to town and locates him and then they ride back to the ranch, it will be several hours. Not that there is much that could be done for gunshot wounds in those days anyway.
Forrest also has a good handle on the violence that must have been so prevalent in those days and how things like unpredictable weather can turn into a matter of life and death. While reading the book, the point was brought home to me how easy we have it in the modern world or automobiles, electricity, and hospitals. Woman in 1893 Arizona had a “hard row to hoe.”
Cherry Bender, her face tight with anger, rode at break-neck speed into the ranch yard, looking for her father. She flung herself off Checky, her foam speckled Appaloosa, tossed the reins over the hitching rail, and turned away to search for her father, the tears nearly blinding her. I’ve got to let Dad know about this latest and most disgusting loss of livestock.
The fringes of her doeskin split riding skirt, lashed against the tops of her trail-worn boots as she ran to each of the outbuildings that ringed the expanse between the house and the corrals. Finding none of those areas occupied, she threw out her hands in frustration.
Their ranch had suffered frequent acts of vandalism and cattle theft, over the past two years, but what she’d found out there today had been more than sickening. She wanted to cry but had no time for it. She glanced frantically about, but saw no one, not even the Mexican boy, Manny. Scratching her head in puzzlement, she wondered where everyone had gone to. The ranch yard, usually such a busy area, seemed unnaturally silent and desolate for this time of the day, almost ghostly, in fact.
Cherry looked about the familiar place, seeing how softly the late afternoon sun gleamed off the rust-colored tile roofing of the house and the way the leaves of the gnarled old oak tree shook and trembled in the soft breeze. Over the years that tree had grown and spread its protecting branches over the house. She dearly loved the comforting look of it. Such small things, normal and usual to her, offered little comfort to her after the grisly things she’d just seen.
Over the past two years, their ranch had suffered numerous acts of evil intent. It had happened repeatedly and today, she’d discovered the heartbreaking sight of two mother cows missing. Their two very young calves lay dead—shot and left to rot in the sun.
Tears filled her eyes at the sickening waste of life and her stomach churned. The heat of anger burned her cheeks while her mind asked the questions. Why those? Why not a decent beef animal for heaven’s sake! Was it really rustlers? Her father had questioned that more than once. But it was 1893, and he’d said rustling was a thing of the past in Arizona. But Cherry, a twenty year old rancher’s daughter, had her doubts. She couldn’t see it that way anymore, not on the Bender Ranch.
She left the yard and ran into the ranch house to find Margarita, their Mexican cook and housekeeper, standing white-faced in the kitchen, wringing her hands. At the sight of her ashen face, Cherry asked the woman. “What’s happened around here? You look scared to death.”
“Senorita, I hear gun shooting outside.” Her face, though browned, was ashen-hued, her eyes were wide with terror as she clutched and twisted her apron into knots. Her hands clenched and unclenched as she uttered in a trembling voice, “I much afraid, senorita! I think something go bad out there.”
Manny, a young boy of twelve, hurried from a back room to stand beside Margarita and grab her hand. Cherry noticed his sun-browned face had whitened, and he bore the same wide-eyed look of alarm as Margarita. Manny did odd chores and helped out on the ranch. He was alone in the world, and the ranch had become his home.
“I need to find my father,” Cherry said. “Have either of you seen him lately?”
“Not since we eat this morning, missy. We look for you when we hear man yelling out there, loud noise—hear shooting.” Her eyes brimmed with tears and Manny stood beside Margarita, sweating and fearful. He stroked her hand in his boyish attempt to calm her.
“I need to find him—must be out there somewhere.” She turned and left them standing there. She returned to the yard, searching the outbuildings, and calling his name. Passing near the open barn door, she caught the faint sounds of garbled moaning. The ghastly sounds of distress emanated eerily from somewhere in the dimness of the horse stalls.
Her heart hammering frantically, Cherry listened carefully as she moved quickly towards the sounds that meant trouble for someone—sounds that didn’t belong here. She knew the barn should be empty right now. It always stood unused in the warmer months, unless newborn calves or injured animals required housing for extra care.
She entered the familiar barn and looked upward. Shimmering bits of sunlight shafted through upper open areas. Visible dust motes floated gently about. At any other time, she would have thought it a magical sight, but in searching for her father, she ignored that mundane bit of normalcy.
Her horse had a stall in the barn, but the sturdy little Appaloosa gelding stood tied at the hitching rail, sweating, blowing from her mad ride, and switching flies off his nicely spotted rump.
Approaching Checky’s empty stall, the sounds grew louder. Icy apprehension shot through her as she cautiously approached the moaning sounds. Reaching the source of the noise, she felt shock waves run through her at the sight of the poor soul laying there, sprawled on his back amidst scattered straw and half-dried horse dung.
Instantly, in spite of the man’s swollen, bloodied face, she knew she’d found her father. She’d seen that familiar old shirt many times, and his well-used old boots only hours ago, and right now, those things were all she could identify, along with the familiar long, gaunt form lying in the soiled bedding, bleeding, limp, and helpless.
Falling on her knees at his side, she cried out, “Daddy—Dad! What happened—who did this to you?” Tugging at his flaccid form, she tried to arouse him. His arms moved a little when she pulled at him and he made a soft moan, but did not open his battered and swollen eyes. His head, discolored and misshapen, was barely recognizable in the dimness of the stall.
Desperate to help him, she glanced frantically about, deciding what to do first. Then, looking downward, she gulped for air and clenched her jaw, seeing the bright red blood oozing into the fabric of his frayed old shirt. Horrified, she watched it creep slowly, insidiously, soaking the garment across his chest, and on down into the soiled straw beneath.
She pulled the shirt apart to find a round bluish hole. “Oh Dad, you’ve been shot!” Though she was young, she was a rancher’s daughter and recognized a bullet wound when she saw one. Sick with fear for him, she balled up what she could reach of his shirt, pressing it into the wound. “My God, Dad, you’re bleeding to death!”
She tugged gently to arouse him, but he made no sound and his battered eyes remained closed. Her efforts made him moan once again, but he did not awaken until a short time later, when he moved his head a bit. He opened his eyelids enough that she could see part of his eyes through the bloodied slits.
“Cherry?” He mumbled her name through swollen lips and tried to raise himself, but unable, fell back into the stained straw bedding beneath. His lips opened, and he tried to speak. His weakened voice uttered a few garbled words, “What’s going on here—Link?”
It seemed to her that he didn’t really see who was at his side, but had only responded to her voice. “Dad, what are you trying to say? Tell me, please.” Worried he was delirious or confused from the blows to his head and face, she nearly screamed when his head rolled back and he responded no further.
Knowing she had to find help for him, she pulled his shirt closed, leaped up and ran out of the barn, calling out, “Help, Manny—Margarita—Dad’s been shot!” Her words echoed against the emptiness of the open spaces of the ranch yard. The boy must have stayed in the house with Margarita.
Her jaw clenched tight in anger at her own sense of helplessness and the savage treatment of her father. “I’ve got to get some help here.” Desperation gave her strength, and fear for her father filled her with added resolve.
Heading for the house, she cried out, “Help someone—anyone—Dad’s been hurt!” Her voice died away. She was alone in her crisis, since neither Manny nor Margarita had heard her desperate cries for help.
Her head snapped up as she heard the rapid clip of horse’s hooves. A surge of hope ran through her. The ranch foreman rode in at a mad gallop. Link was a steady, reliable man—a faithful hand who’d always stayed on when so many others had drifted away.
Utterly grateful to see his solid presence, she yelled out to him, “Link, oh thank God you’re here! Come quick, something’s happened to Dad!”
At her words, the big cowboy leapt off his panting, heaving mount, tossed his reins to the ground, and rushed toward her. “What’s wrong, Miss Cherry? You’re lookin’ all churned up.”
“Someone’s hurt Dad. He’s been shot and someone has beaten him so severely, I hardly knew it was him! He’s bleeding! He’s terribly hurt, Link. I can’t believe someone could be this rotten mean.” She let out a sob. “He needs help right now. He needs the doctor!”
While she raced ahead of the heavy-set cowboy, she questioned in the back of her mind why he’d returned to the ranch so early in the day. But that didn’t matter right now. She needed him and was happy to see him. Any other concerns could wait.
Entering the barn with Link close behind, she was glad to hear her father softly moaning. With a rush of relief, she knew he still clung to life. “Look what they’ve done to him.”
She knelt at her father’s side. The terrible rasping sounds of his breath, and occasional deep moaning, filled her with fear for his survival. “Thank God, he’s still with us.” Her throat hurt so much, tears came to her eyes, but there was no time for crying, not now.
“God damn!” Link exclaimed, kneeling on the other side. He made a quick assessment of the man’s condition and turned to her, his face pale, “Miss Cherry, go to the house, fix up a bed for him. I’ll take care of things here and bring him in.” He was emphatic, “and send that Manny out here if you can find him. He can ride for the doc. Go on, girl. Get things ready, this ain’t no place for you, right now.”
Cherry hesitated, fearing to leave her father, yet things had to be done and she was grateful for the man’s help. “Thanks, I’ll get things ready. Bring him quick as you can, and Link…please, be careful.” Before turning away, she asked, “Were you looking for him? You’re not usually back this early.”
He looked up at her, “I wanted to report the loss of more cows from the red herd. Them rustlers have been at it again.”
“I see,” was all she could think to say. She already knew about this latest loss. With a heavy heart, she ran to the house. What was happening? Who’d want her father dead? Rustlers? Why? Fear and anger dogged her every step and her heart pounded with apprehension as she raced to find Margarita. Something had been terribly wrong on this ranch for a long time, and things had come to a head today, in a terrible, deadly way.
Entering the wide oaken door of her home, she called out, “Margarita, quickly, Dad’s been hurt, and we must make a bed for him. We need to pad it good. Link’s bringing him in. He’s lying in an awful mess out there.”
“Miss Cherry, Dios mio! Nada mas?” Margarita twisted her hands together as tears flowed down her dusky cheeks. Her speech sounded more broken that usual. Manny stood there, saying nothing, his face white.
The questions in the woman’s eyes went unanswered until Cherry found her voice again. “Someone’s hurt my father, and he’s real bad. Uncle Omar’s gone to town and not returned yet, either.” She fought a losing battle against her bitter tears as she turned to the boy. “Manny, go to the barn. Link needs you to go for the doctor.” She sobbed the words, tears streaming down her face.
“Si, I go.” The boy, his face tight, rushed out most likely glad to see action—and to help, she guessed.
Cherry got herself in hand. A multitude of things needed doing. She ordered, “Margarita, boil some water, tear up some rags. We’ve got to do what we can to help my father until the doctor gets out here.” She already knew that would be many long hours as Perkins Grove was five long miles away. Sick at heart, she worried that he’d be too late.
The Mexican woman paused from trying to comfort her young charge and sprang into action. She got the supplies she needed, shoved more wood into the stove and put a large pot of water on to heat. Together, she and Cherry made up a folding bed in the front room to receive Cherry’s father when the foreman brought him to the house. Outside, they heard the sound of a horse moving rapidly away, and Cherry guessed Link had sent Manny for the doctor.
Cherry’s mother had died when she was thirteen. Margarita, in many ways, had become a soft, comforting entity in her life. She’d kept the home, cooked the meals and filled the empty places in her life many times, and she was ready to help her now as well.
Taking a moment, Margarita folded Cherry into her ample arms. “Hija, who do this thing to your father?”
Cherry had long since grown used to Margarita’s heavily accented voice and to the fact that she called her, her “child.” She seldom noticed the familiarity anymore, needing and appreciating the warm, loving presence in her life.
“I don’t know, oh God, I don’t Margarita!” Cherry snuggled close to the woman’s ample bosom, desperately needing the comfort of the warmth she found there.
Hearing the sound of thumping boots outside the door, Cherry flung it open to a red-faced Link, puffing his way across the wide wooden porch with her father’s heavy limp form, as he carried the big man into the house.
“Put him right here, Link.” She indicated the bed they’d hastily prepared.
“He hasn’t done any moanin’ for a while,” Link offered, his brow dripping with sweat. Together they knelt beside the bed and pulled away the bloodied shirt to see the fearful way her father’s life force still seeped from the blue-ringed hole in his chest. Cherry was relieved it was above his heart or he’d be gone by now.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, Miss Cherry,” Link said, panting from his efforts.
Fearing to guess how much, she got the scissors to cut his bloody clothes away. Link helped her. They worked together to place a large dressing over the wound. Her father was flaccid and heavy, but with Margarita helping, they removed his soiled clothing, except the lower under things, and washed his body. With satisfaction, Cherry finally saw her father lying in a clean bed.
“Dad?” she called softly as they re-dressed his wound and bound it tightly as possible. She soothed his forehead trying to bring him around, hoping he could tell them who’d tried to kill him. She clenched her teeth, remembering the numerous dark, bruised, and swollen areas where he’d been beaten.
“My God, Link, who could have done this?”
“Don’t know, Miss Cherry. Some low-down, rotten bastard, that’s for damned sure.” He flushed, “pardon my cussin’, I sent Manny for the sheriff and doc right away.” His worried expression dampened any hopes for her father’s chances.
“He looks so bad, Link.” She could barely get the words out, looking at her father’s face—not only pale, but slowly and insidiously taking on the waxy shades of death. Cherry knew the signs. She’d seen people die before.
She had no answers to the questions that flooded her worried mind, but most of all, she feared her father wouldn’t hold out until the doctor to came. It was so far into Parson’s Grove. And what if he were out on a case?
The fine bubbles of blood oozing from her father’s nose and mouth were additional signs that added to her heartbreak. It meant his lungs had been hit. Over the years she’d seen enough injuries to be sure of that.
“Looks like the bleedin’s stopped some,” Link offered, trying to sound hopeful. He kept his eyes on the floor.
Cherry knew he sought to ease her worries, but she wasn’t fool enough to have false hopes.
“Looks like the dressing over his chest hasn’t gotten any darker with his blood,” he added.
She tried to find hope in Link’s words, but her father’s fingers had already taken on the pale, yellowish pallor of death. The blood from his nose and mouth still came at a slow seep, and his rasping breath brought a pinkish froth from his nostrils. She changed his dressings, bathed his face with cooling cloths, and stroked his ashen brow, knowing no other way to help him.
It had long since grown dark, and while she waited for the doctor, she stayed beside her father, hour after hour. Gently, she smoothed his hair and stroked his face. Worried the doctor wouldn’t come until near morning, she murmured, “Even if he isn’t tending some woman in childbirth way out somewhere, it’ll still be a long time before he gets here.” Sick with dread, she faced the fact he’d never come in time.
Her father stirred for a bit while Link had gone for fresh water. His eyes were completely swollen shut, his lips barely moving. She knelt close to hear his words. “Daughter—love you—Link—bewa—” With those few words, his head rolled back and he ceased breathing.
Cherry let out a loud, choking sob and held back a scream. “Oh no, oh God—Margarita, he’s gone! He’s gone, Margarita, he’s left us.” She couldn’t stop her deep sobbing nor did she try.
Margarita sobbed right along beside her. “I so sorry, hija, what we do now, he gone? He was good man.”
Though the woman cried quietly, the deep sobbing sounds caused Cherry to realize the woman’s sorrow was real and very deep, equaling that of a loving spouse. Often in the past Cherry had seen a few instances—a soft touch, a knowing smile—and wondered. In her youthful innocence, she had often considered that Margarita might have been more than just a servant, but she wasn’t sure what that meant.
Link re-entered the room to find the women clinging to each other in their sorrow. He directed his look at Cherry, as she’d had just become his new boss, and offered, “I’m sure sorry, Miss. Don’t you worry your head about things around the ranch, here. I’ll take care of everything.”
Cherry noticed how his broad chest puffed out and, along with his words of comfort and reassurance. His stride, as he crossed the room, had already taken on an important swagger.
Link’s words relieved a burden from her young shoulders and right now, that feeling was welcome indeed. Lost and bereft, she heard only the note of caring in his words and, in her sorrow, was glad to hear them. She’d never given thought to running a ranch, and now it loomed as the next step in her life. Uncle Omar had never been much help to her father, and she didn’t figure he’d help her that much now, but he was a kind and generous uncle, and she loved him.
Looking long and lovingly at her father, she finally reached out and patted the battered face that had once been so warm and wise. Tears fell as she kissed his forehead and slowly pulled the sheet over his head. In her mind, her father’s last whispered words came to her. What had he meant when he said, Link?
“Link will stay and help me, Dad. Did you mean to give him some last orders?” Her brow furrowed as she sat beside him. “You don’t have to worry. I’ll be fine.”