As Lucy walked out of the general store, she was startled by a commotion coming from the stables. Her father, Sheriff Lang, and fiancé, Jim Howell, rounded up a posse earlier that morning to track down a bandit hideout at the south end of the county. With no one else to look into it, she ducked back into the store and asked Frank the shopkeeper to hold her bags while she checked out the situation.
The auburn-haired beauty raced toward the sound and found a group of men fighting to control a rampaging stallion. While four men had lassoed the varnish roan, he was bucking uncontrollably and wouldn't let anyone approach him. A wealthy-looking man stood nearby, readying his gun.
"What's going on?" shouted Lucy.
The man with the revolver sighed, replying, "This bronco's been nothing but trouble since I got him. I'm afraid it's time to put the beast down and cut my losses."
"Can I at least try settling him down before you take the life of such a beautiful creature?" asked Lucy.
"Begging your pardon, ma'am," the man said, "but I don't think this is a job for a lady."
Asserting herself, Lucy replied, "I'll have you know, my father, Sheriff Lang, taught me how to deal with horses when I was a little girl."
"Oh! I didn't realize you were 'Lariat Lucy' that folks talked about."
Lucy silently clenched her jaw. While she didn't mind having the respect of the townspeople, "Lariat Lucy" made her sound like a character out of one of those dime-novels. Still, if she could save the horse, putting up with a silly nickname was worth it.
"Tell you what," said the man, "if you can get him settled down enough to saddle, he's yours. Reckon I was going to get rid of him anyway, so if I can make the sheriff's daughter happy instead, it's worth it."
While she was somewhat taken aback at the man's generosity, Lucy didn't want to belabor the point and have him change his mind. Lucy faced the horse and extended her arms. Slowly she walked toward it, whispering gently, and never breaking eye contact. Although initially apprehensive, the stallion sensed Lucy's intent, and gradually calmed down. Lucy took the horse's head into her arms and caressed his nose. The men holding the ropes relaxed the tension, and the horse stood still, acting as if he'd been Lucy's all along.
Lucy handed his bridle to one of the stable hands and turned back toward the man. "See, the gentle approach always works better than trying to forcibly break something."
"That's some gift you got, Miss Lang," said the man. "Pardon my rudeness, I'm Vernon Garrett. I just came to town a few days ago." He tipped his hat and extended his hand.
Lucy took his hand, "Lucy Lang, and welcome." Vernon was a tall man, although not as tall as Jim. He was clean-shaven with well-kempt hair and an intense gleam in his brown eyes.
"I haven't had the pleasure of introducing myself to your father yet. Is he around?" Vernon asked.
"No," said Lucy shaking her head. "He and several townsfolk rode out this morning to round up some bandits. With any luck, they'll be back this evening."
"Oh, are they looking at that weird cabin a few miles east of here?"
Startled, Lucy replied, "No, they didn't go east. What do you mean, 'weird'?"
Vernon shrugged. "It's hard to say," he answered. "Something just doesn't sit right with that place. It looks abandoned, but different people are riding in and out of there all the time."
"Can you show me?" asked Lucy.
"Sure," said Vernon. "Think your new horse will let you take him for a ride?"
"There's one way to find out," said Lucy.
Although getting the stallion saddled took longer than normal, he let Lucy mount him and seemed to cooperate fine once she took the reins. He did, however, seem skittish when Vernon rode aside of him on his own horse.
The two rode eastward making small talk while Lucy tried to come up with a name for her new horse.
After several miles, Vernon lifted his hand to indicate they should slow down. He pointed to an old cabin sitting out in the middle of a small valley. The two of them pulled up near a group of trees and dismounted.
"That's it," said Vernon.
Lucy shielded her eyes from the sun and stared at the cabin. "I don't see anything. Are you sure this is the place?"
"Well, the sheriff isn't going to find anything south," answered Vernon.
Lucy froze. She hadn't told Vernon which direction her father and Jim went. She slowly inched her hand toward her gun, but Vernon must have realized his slip and noticed her reaction, because he instantly drew his gun and leveled it at Lucy.
"It appears I spoke out of turn," he said.
Lucy scowled at him. "What's the angle, Garrett?"
"Oh, my boys headed south initially, but they should have circled back around once they reached the river, and they should be back in town in about an hour where there's no one around to stop them."
Puzzled, Lucy asked, "So why lure me out here?"
Vernon smiled. "When I rejoin my band, we'll all be masked, and everyone saw me ride out with you, so I won't be a suspect. Additionally, should anything go wrong, I'll know where the sheriff's daughter is, and that could be a handy bargaining chip. Now, slowly remove your gun belt and drop it."
Seeing Vernon wasn't messing around, she complied. "Now what?" she asked.
"Put your back against that tree there," Vernon said, pointing to a small oak. Lucy did as she was instructed, and Vernon moved behind her, grabbing her wrists and tying them together behind the tree. He took a longer rope and tied it around the tree behind Lucy's neck and began wrapping it around her body from her shoulders all the way down to her ankles before tying it off at the bottom of the tree.
"That should hold you," said Vernon. "We can't have you attracting any attention, though..."
Vernon reached up and removed Lucy's neck bandanna and began folding it up into a strip about two inches wide. He took hold of the ends and roughly shoved it between Lucy's teeth, tying it off behind her head.
Lucy uttered some indecipherable curses at him, but all it did was reinforce she wasn't going anywhere nor calling for help.
"Now to finally put this miserable creature out of my misery," Vernon said as he turned his gun toward Lucy's horse. Lucy let out a stifled cry.
As if sensing his evil intentions, the horse quickly darted left as Vernon's revolver discharged and ran off at a full gallop.
"Fine, go die of starvation instead," muttered Vernon. "You aren't worth the cost of a second bullet."
Turning back to Lucy, Vernon tipped his hat, saying, "It was nice meeting your acquaintance, Miss Lang. Sorry things had to go this way. If nothing happens to me, maybe I can let your father know where I stashed you."
Despite her muffled protests, Vernon mounted his horse and rode back to town leaving the helpless Lucy to the mercy of the open plains.
Lucy tried working her hands free, but the rope just bit into her wrists. Additionally, the rope encircling her body didn't allow her enough leverage to forcibly pull against her bonds. After several minutes of struggling, she realized she couldn't free herself. Her thoughts went back to the town. Even if her father and Jim made it back in time to stop the bandits, she had no doubt she'd be used by Vernon to negotiate his freedom.
Tears began to well up in her eyes, but her thoughts were interrupted by approaching hoofbeats.
Lucy craned her neck to see who was approaching, and it was her horse! The stallion stepped close to her and began nuzzling her face with his. Gradually, he moved down her arm, and as if understanding her plight, began chewing at the ropes binding her wrists.
After a few moments, the horse bit through the rope and Lucy's hands sprung free. Working one of her arms free of the rope still wrapping her body, she pulled her gag out and hugged the horse's head.
"Good boy!" she gasped. "I owe you an entire bucket of apples and carrots tonight, but we need to get back to town first!"
She managed to reach behind her neck and untie the top of the rope to free herself the rest of the way. Wrapping up the rope, she snatched her gun belt off the ground and put it on. She climbed into the saddle, pointed the horse west, and raced back to town.
As Lucy approached, she could hear several shots being fired. When she got closer, she spied her father, Jim, and the rest of the posse surrounding the bank. At least they'd figured out the ruse and made it back in time, she thought.
Then Lucy saw a lone rider making his way off to the side. She squinted her eyes and recognized the shirt Vernon was wearing earlier. That snake abandoned his men, and is trying to get away! Lucy changed directions to intercept the backstabber.
With one hand, Lucy fastened a lariat knot in the rope she'd kept and looped the other end around her saddle horn. Approaching on Vernon's blind side, she gave the rope a few twirls and tossed it over him and quickly pulled for her horse to stop. Before Vernon could react, he was being yanked off his horse.
Vernon crashed to the ground on his rump, and Lucy undid the loop from her saddle. She dismounted, and figuring Vernon was dazed, began to reach for her gun.
However, Vernon was just playing possum. He grabbed hold of the lariat and yanked it toward him, causing Lucy to stumble forward and lose her balance, and her gun, in the fall.
Vernon pounced on Lucy's back, pulled her arms back, and began hogtying her like a greased pig at the county fair.
"Untie me, you no-good varmint!" screamed Lucy.
Ignoring her, Vernon crawled over to Lucy's gun, grabbed it, and stood up. "While I'm tempted to use you as a hostage, that little rodeo stunt of yours proved you'd be more trouble than you're worth."
He cocked the revolver and pointed it at Lucy. "Good-bye, Miss Lang."
Before he could pull the trigger, Vernon noticed a large shadow next to him. He spun around, and gasped in horror as Lucy's horse had reared up on two legs and planted both hooves in Vernon's chest. The gun went off, but the shot was far wide. Lucy winced as the horse trampled Vernon a few more times to make sure the job was finished.
Although shocked at the violence, Lucy realized the horse used the only method at his disposal to save her. The shot must have attracted some attention, though, as a few minutes later, Jim came riding up.
"Lucy?!" Jim exclaimed.
"Jim!" cried Lucy, elated that Jim wasn't hurt in the shootout and had come to her rescue.
As he bent down to untie her, Jim said, "I thought I saw one of them ride out this way, but it looks like you got here first. Are you all right?"
Lucy rolled over and embraced Jim, giving him a full kiss on the lips. "Oh, Jim, I'm fine. That was their leader, Vernon Garrett, and... Well, it's a long story. Fortunately, Angel was here."
"Angel?" asked Jim.
"My new horse," answered Lucy. "I figure he saved my life twice today, so if he's going to be my guardian angel, I should name him as such."
"You'll have to tell me all about it," Jim said.
"Later," Lucy replied. "For now, just kiss me."
As the two shared an intimate moment, Angel stood by wondering when he was going to get the apples and carrots he was promised.