"Hey Gold," Gil called, tilting his hat back from his forehead and pasting a sneer on his sallow face. "Bet you can't break that new bronco before Miss Belle gets back."
Gold looked at Gil from beneath the brim of his own hat and chewed thoughtfully on a piece of tobacco. The French ranch -- generally known as The Book from its rectangular brand -- was nominally the domain of Moe French, but everyone knew that his daughter Belle ran the place with a benevolent hand. Gil had his beady eyes set on Miss Belle, had done from the moment he took on as a hand at The Book, and Gold didn't blame him. She was a pretty little thing and whipsmart with both book learning and, something sorely lacking in most people he'd met, common sense. She was too good for the likes of Gil, that was for sure.
The new bronc did need busting, it was true, and Gold had been working with him a few days already. Spitting out his tobacco, he scratched his unshaven chin and drawled, "Maybe I can and maybe I can't. But he certainly needs a good talking to today, doesn't he?"
Gil flushed, knowing that Gold was referring to the boy's earlier ill-fated attempt to saddle the horse. "Go on then, Gold. Work your magic."
It was true that Gold had a way with horses. The Book didn't keep him around for his personality -- uncommunicative at best -- or his charm. But put him in the corral with horses, and fillies nosed his hand for oats and broncs became docile. He had a way with the beasts, almost as if he could enchant them.
He was just pulling up to the edge of the corral when there was a commotion at the front of the ranch house. A horse, riderless, trotted into the yard, and Moe French was out on the porch as soon as the first shout rang out.
"Good god," he exclaimed, and Gold felt his own stomach twist as he recognized the filly. It was Miss Belle's mount, Fleur. Dusk was falling, and god only knew what had happened to Fleur's rider.
"Gold," French yelled. "Put together a search party."
Gold thought quickly. A group of horses might obliterate whatever tracks were left of Miss Belle's route. The oncoming darkness would only make the job harder, as would the rain that was threatening from the east. He was the best tracker at The Book. "Give me an hour," he said curtly to French. "An hour's head start, before you start kicking up dust and lose the trail."
French eyed him with suspicion; there was no love lost between French and his ranch hand, but fortunately for Gold it was Miss Belle who did the hiring and firing. French was canny enough to use the resources available to him, though, and he nodded reluctantly. "An hour. Bring back my daughter, Gold."
"I will." Gold hoped he was making a promise he could keep.
Belle French tried again to pull her leg out from beneath the stones that had her pinned, and whimpered slightly as a wave of pain overtook her.
She'd been riding Fleur back from Ruby's ranch when the horse stumbled and, to her surprise, reared up. Something had startled Fleur, and Belle, normally a good rider, had slipped from the saddle and down the craggy edge of the path, a small rockslide following in her wake. She must have lost consciousness briefly, because when she woke Fleur was gone and she was lying in a most uncomfortable position surrounded by rubble.
"A fine mess," she muttered to herself, and patted the butt of her gun reassuringly. She might be trapped, with darkness falling and no canteen, but at least she could ward off any creatures that might become curious regarding such easy prey. The ledge she'd landed on afforded her some measure of protection, at least.
Exhaling loudly, she wondered how long it would take for anyone to notice she was missing. She hoped Fleur was okay. She hoped somebody would come looking for her soon. She hoped the rain that was threatening would not wash away her tracks, though as she licked her parched lips she thought perhaps rain wouldn't be such a bad thing. A few hours without water was not a hardship, but the longer she remained in the elements without water the worse off she would be.
She was contemplating the dinner Ruby had offered her and she had foolishly refused when a sound came from the track above her. Palming her gun, she called out cautiously, "Hello? Is anyone there?"
"Miss Belle?" came a voice that she recognized instantly.
"Down here!" she called. And then, because she had no desire to be buried in further rubble, "Be careful, the rocks are unstable."
There was a pause, and some movement, then Gold said, "Watch out, I'm coming down."
A rope landed unceremoniously on her head, and she batted it aside. Then a pair of boots appeared, moving cautiously down the rock face, and Gold landed lightly on the ledge.
"What did you tie it to?" she asked, and Gold blinked at her.
"The rope," she continued patiently. "What did you tie it to?"
He smiled. "My horse, Rum." As if in response, there was a soft nickering from above and the rope moved a few feet to the right. Gold knelt down and touched his hand to her forehead, checking for fever.
"I'm fine," Belle said, shrugging him off. It wouldn't do to let her ranch hand know how often she had dreamed of being touched by him. Yes, practical and sensible Belle French was hopelessly in love with a horse wrangler. Had been, since she poached him from Ruby's ranch with an offer of higher wages and a better bunkhouse. Ruby had just laughed at her and said Gold was well worth the money. Ruby always knew her too well.
"Not much of a damsel in distress, are you?" Gold muttered and examined the rocks under which her foot was pinned. "Can you move your toes?"
"Yes," she said irritably. "But I'm pretty sure my leg is broken."
Gold took in the news silently and started shifting the rocks. He quickly cleared the area around her leg, and Belle craned her head to look. Broken, definitely.
"Well, I can't climb up with a broken leg," she said calmly.
"And I can't fetch you up tied to Rum," he mused. Sitting down beside her, he unhooked a canteen from his belt and unscrewed the cap. Tilting it to her lips, he made sure she'd had enough before taking a swig himself. "Sorry I don't have anything stronger."
She grimaced. "Anything stronger and you might never get me out of here. So what do we do?"
"Wait," Gold said simply. "A search party should be on its way already. They'll see Rum, and we'll pull you up."
Belle eyed the sky doubtfully. "I think it's going to rain."
"You weren't that hard to find. I think even Gil and those other yahoos can find a horse standing on a road."
She smirked. And sure enough, the first raindrops started to fall.
"I knew you'd find me," she said after a while, her voice a little dreamy. Maybe there had been something in that water after all, because she was feeling lightheaded.
Gold leaned over, trying to shield her from the rain, which put his face dangerously close to hers. "Oh?" he said, and his breath gusted across her lips.
"You're our best tracker." Belle was definitely lightheaded. "You're the best at everything."
"Not everything," Gold muttered, and then patted her cheek. "Hey, Miss Belle. Stay with me."
"Always," Belle agreed. "Stay with you always."
Belle drifted away.
Belle was mercifully unconscious when they hauled her up the side of the cliff. Moe French put her in front of him in the saddle and headed back to the ranch, sending word ahead to fetch the doctor. Gold rode behind him, unaccountably jealous that he was not the one cradling Miss Belle in his arms.
A ranch hand had no business thinking that way about the boss' daughter, he told himself, and pushed the notion aside.
He was leaning on the edge of the corral when the slight drag of Miss Belle's footstep sounded behind him. It had been several weeks since her fall, and she was finally up and about, putting right the wrongs that had befallen in her absence and smoothing over problems. She was a fine ranch manager. She was going to make someone a fine wife, someday.
"How are you, Miss Belle?" he asked as she stood beside him at the corral, watching their latest acquisition, an ill-tempered bronc named Hat. He was a fine-looking animal, black-haired and glossy-eyed, but so far nothing but trouble.
"Fine, thanks to you." She put her hand on the corral fence, right next to his, and he could feel the electricity of her touch between them. He remembered what she said on the mountain ledge, had played it over in his mind every night. Stay with you always.
"Glad I could help," he said.
"Good night, Mr. Gold," Belle said, letting her fingers overlap his for the briefest of moments.
She disappeared, and Gold was left rubbing his hand thoughtfully.
He turned, and a solid punch to his midsection brought him to his knees. A kick knocked him backwards, and he scrambled to his feet in time to block Gil's attempt at a hit to his jaw.
"Belle is mine!" Gil shouted, and swung again. Gold stumbled back and hit the edge of the corral, the slats hard against his back.
"Shut up, you damn fool. Belle doesn't belong to you. She doesn't belong to anybody."
"Mine!" Gil roared, and cannonballed into Gold, tumbling them both over the edge of the corral entrance.
Hat shrieked, whinnying and pawing the ground as the two men grappled in his pen. Gold managed to get a hold on Gil's shoulders and pinned him down. "We've got to get out of here!" he shouted, and Hat's answer was to stamp the edge of the corral with deadly hooves.
Gil wrenched himself away from Gold and stumbled back, falling into Hat's radius. It took one kick to fell Gil, another to knock him unconscious, and Gold took a deep breath.
"Hat," he said quietly, extending his hands to the quivering beast. "Shhh." He edged closer, trying to get between Hat and Gil's unresponsive body. "Nobody's gonna hurt you. Shhh."
Hat's eyes bulged and he took in large gulps of air, but he put all four hooves on the ground and began to pace restlessly.
"Shhh," Gold said again. "Nobody's gonna hurt you, boy."
With an eye on Hat, Gold pulled Gil from the corral and reset the slats at the entrance.
"Get the doctor," Belle ordered from behind him, and as someone scrambled to obey Gold checked Gil.
"He's alive," he said, and was surprised to be met with a slap from Belle.
"What--?" he asked, rubbing his cheek in surprise.
"Gold, if you ever do anything as stupid and foolish as that again, I will break your leg myself." Belle stared him down, five foot two of rage. And then, to his astonishment, she leaned forward and pressed her lips to his.
It was a perfect kiss. It was the kiss, the one he had dreamed about when he thought of Belle. Her lips were soft against his, she smelled like roses, and she kissed like she meant it.
It was with regret that he put some distance between them. It was that, or take her right there in the yard like a graceless animal. "Your father?" he asked.
Belle grinned. "We both know who runs The Book. If you're willing, the pastor is in town."
"I'm willing. I'm more than willing." He put his hand in hers. "I'll stay with you, always."
"Always," she echoed.