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If there was one thing Belle was sure of, it was that someone wanted to run her out of town. Whether the culprit would become clear or not remained to be seen but she was glad that she seemed to have someone on her side for the time being. He didn’t seem to be much like that men from town and he certainly hadn’t judged or assumed anything about her based on her gender, so he was already scoring points with her. She didn’t mind a man who looked passed the blonde hair and the curves of a woman who looked after herself. He hadn’t once given her and inappropriate glance or said anything against her capabilities to run a ranch, in actual fact, he seemed sure that she was perfectly capable of running this ranch so long as those interfering would leave her alone.
Sitting with him over a bowl of stew was turning out to be quite pleasant and judging by his words, he evidently enjoyed her company in equal amounts to her. [b “I am glad we are both feeling the same way about the company. It makes a change from sitting here alone staring out of the ranch, hoping I might catch the shit who is messing with me. It’s a nice distract and a nice change of pace.”]
Their time together drew to an end as he said that he would be returning outside and she smiled towards him kindly when he offered to help. [b “Oh I’m sure if you are here long enough I might put you to work, but for now you are doing more than enough for me and I simply won’t exploit your good nature. I thank you for a nice evening also. I hope that we can do it again some time.”]
Belle managed to busy herself when he took his leave, cleaning up the kitchen whilst making sure the pot of stew was secure enough as that would probably feed her for the next few days which would give her more time to do chores on the farm rather than waste hours cooking in the kitchen. While she enjoyed it on occasion, and many had suggested it was her place anyway, she much preferred to be on the farm working with her hands. Even the women in town disliked her for it, apparently putting their gender to shame for taken on a man’s work. Gender stereotypes at its finest.
Either way, she was completely oblivious to whatever was going on outside in the ranch because she trusted that Jes had things in hand and would come back inside if there was anything he noticed or wished to share with her. She just hoped that she wasn’t forcing him to waste his time with this, although she didn’t believe for a minute that she had simply imagined all of this. Belle was not naïve, nor was she crazy and she wouldn’t have anyone tell her different. Although, when she glanced outside, peering through the darkness she was sure that she could no longer see Jes and when she counted her cattle, she had noticed that there were two missing. He wouldn’t have been the one to take them after highlighting where the perpetrator might have been coming in, so she worried that he had perhaps been injured in the process of trying to protect her farm.
Picking up her shotgun she went outside, holding it in position, ready to shoot if an intruder was to be found upon her land but when she called out without a reply, she knew that something else was going on and she mounted a horse and rode towards the fence where Jes pointed out the tampering. She could see horse tracks followed by tracks made by cattle following and shoe prints, indicating that Jed had evidently followed. So, she rode and followed the tracks all the way to Rockton just in time to see a fist crash into Jes’ face.
She readied her shotgun as the horse came to a halt in the shadows and she cocked it, ready to pull the trigger. [b “I’ll be asking you once to kindly return my cattle and my friend here. Once is all I have time for, second time I shoot.”]
Jes chuckled at Belle's words. Despite her business-like and aloof demeanour she had a good sense of humour. Even with the fact that he liked to read for fun, and [i knew] how to read, he already felt like an outside with what happened in town. Remember how offended literally everyone looked when he asked for a glass of water in the saloon wasn't one of his finest moments... At least he got to meet the Deputy and he told Jes about the work here, and it seemed like it was shaping up to be a little more nefarious than he would have expected. But that was okay—and it seemed like the Deputy shared this sentiment—Blackwater Meadows was worth it. He wasn't able to prove it now, but considering what Belle had told him and what he's gathered by looking, there might be someone with some money behind the vandalism and grief that's been placed on Belle.
Again, Jes found himself chuckling at what Belle was saying over a mouthful of stew. [b “Take it as a compliment, you don't have to worry about me. But its not just the stew that makes a meal 'good', its also the company. This is a nice conversation despite the circumstances that might have made us both open to it.”] He tells her. He takes a few more spoonfuls of stew; he was almost done at this point which meant he'd be getting to work some time soon, which was, well... waiting around. Jes didn't exactly mind that if it meant he could put a stop to what was happening to Blackwater Meadows.
After his last bit of stew was done, he nods his head at Belle. [b “I'll get back outside and maybe take another look around. If there's anything around here you want me to do in the meantime, feel free to let me know; I'm good with my hands.”] Standing up from the table, he nods his head again. [b “I appreciate your hospitality and you shouldn't doubt your hosting skills. I had a pleasant evening, and I thank you for it.”]
Unless Belle put him to work around the farm or asked him to help with chores, he kept to his word and mostly wandered the property, trying to identify anything else that might be suspicious. However, other than the obvious signs of vandalism and the loose boards fro earlier, it seemed like everything was as it should be which wasn't exactly something he would be complaining about. The less Miss Blackwater had to fret over, the better for everyone he assumed. He half expected he'd have to convince her not to feed the assailant or assailants to coyotes while they were still alive. The woman was tough as nails, and despite being pleasant to look at, scary as Hell.
After a few more hours, the sun finally set and day became night. At that point, Jes moved himself in to the shrubland behind Blackwater Meadows, letting Belle know he'd probably be back at an odd hour in the night. He also knew he'd have trouble keeping up with the culprit if they came on horse, but he knew which direction they were coming from and he could follow their trail. He'd have brought a horse so he could keep up better, but it would probably be impossible to remain unseen and unheard at that point, and he didn't want to spook them before he could get a tail.
So, Jes waited. And waited. And waited... And began to get frustrated.
However, it always seemed to be when he got frustrated things happened. He heard it before he saw it; whinnying and then the trots. Jes stowed himself behind one of the few trees, crouching down as he watched a shadowy figure on a dark brown horse ride up to the fence. Like predicted, he dismounts and begins opening it up, leading his horse in on foot and towards the cattle. It doesn't take him long to rope two of them and attached it to his horse's saddle. He leads the horse back out with the cattle in tow and replaces the boards and nails like he's done it a hundred times... Which might be true. And although he couldn't get a good look at the man's face, the cattle slowed the horse's pace down which made Jes' time him following a lot easier.
Rockton was only a little over a mile away, so he didn't have to follow for too long until they were in town. The setup was pretty much the same of Minto, with wide streets and their own a little shabbier houses and fewer shops. This posed a bit of a problem though. The area was well-lit, and Jes was mostly relying on the cover of night to keep himself from being seen, hiding spaces and what not being very limited. So without darkness covering him, he was exposed and had to devise a different approach than simple reconnaissance. Did he try to remain hidden and follow as best he could? Did he confront the culprit? Did he simply go back to Blackwater Meadows with his findings?
[b “Ah, [i spit].”] Jes says to himself, running to an alleyway and then moving to cut off the thief's escape. He steps out in to the empty street, retrieving his gun from his hip and positioning himself in front of the thief. They could both see each other now, Jes now being able to put a face to the silhouette he's been following. He looked young, like a teenager, his skin almost a black as the night's sky, wearing shabby stable clothes, and once he saw Jes, a look of intense fear crossed his young features. [b “Howdy.”] Jes says, and the boy begins fumbling on his hip, to which Jes raises his hand from hip level, taking aim with his pistol at the boy. [b “I wouldn't try anything stupid, kid, you've been caught red-handed stealing from Miss Blackwater, so if you'll come with me-”]
[+silver “He won't be going anywhere with you.”] A voice, female with a Louisianan accent, comes from... Well, Jes couldn't pinpoint it. Still, he didn't lower his gun, and just looked to his peripherals to see if he could see anyone in the shadows. The boy seemed to cam some when the voice started speaking, which didn't bode well for Jes considering he had a gun trained on the boy. [+silver “I suggest you go back the way you came and forget what you've seen.”]
Even then, he couldn't figure out where the voice was coming from, almost from everywhere and nowhere, or the shadows themselves... [i Ah, spit...] He clears his throat, trying his best not to sweat when he realizes what he might've unintentionally gotten himself in to. [b “Sorry, but that isn't going to happen. Professional obligation and what not, I hope you understand.”] He says trying to seem like he wasn't worried. Which, you know, he kind of was.
[+silver “Then I won't apologize for what happens. You were warned.”] The voice says, and Jes begins to sweat a little bit more, holding his breath waiting for something to happen. The shadows begin to move, and emerging from them are...
[b “Oh, thank God.”] Jes almost cries with relief, lowering his gun and placing his hands on his knees, letting out the breath he was holding. From the shadows emerge a few more men on either side of him, all of them similar shades of dark as the boy on the horse. But they were just [i people], and despite there being a big group of them and Jes only having six bullets in his pistol and no willingness to kill, he was relieved something [i else] didn't happen. When he's done thanking The Lord he wasn't struck down by a lightning bolt or something, he stands up straight and points the gun at one of the groups approaching him. [b “Come no further if you don't want to get hurt.”] He says, but they continue coming towards him. He pulls back the hammer on his pistol. [b “Now I mean it; I will shoot you.”] But he had the distinct feeling they saw through his bluff. He's killed before, but it was out of survival. He hadn't killed anyone since [i that day], and even then, he... That damned Rider [i knew] he didn't have it in him!
Letting the hammer go slowly, Jes puts the pistol back in its holster, and raises his hands up, the group surrounding him, the biggest and meanest looking one inches from Jes' face, scowling down at him. [b “You seem upset.”] Jes remarks, and that's the last thing he remembers before a fist crashes in to his face.
Belle stopped eating for a second when Jessup almost choked and she couldn’t help but wonder if there was something wrong with the stew. There was every chance she had over seasoned it since she has become distracting with the cooking. Having another person on her ranch was not exactly something she was accustomed to and even if the Deputy has sent him she had still kept an eye on him while he did his work outside and could have easily salted it more than once. The momentary panic would have been apparent upon her face as he took the sip of water but she didn’t want to hound him with questions and show herself to be insecure or lacking in confidence, even if it was just about food. Image was everything and she has managed to remain a strong woman in a place that didn’t her value women and she wasn’t about to let any walls come down. Then when he spoke she understood why had made him choke in the first place. Apparently it was her choice of words.
She smiled to herself and then resumed eating, realising that she didn’t really have anything to worry about. [b “No, I suppose I’m not a shy woman. Although, when you live just outside of a town like this, as an observer you soon realise that those are quite literally the two things that define people here and they are to two main commodities too.”] She looked back down at her stew and used some bread to soak a bit of the stock up. Belle had a good appetite and she would make sure every last drop in her bowl was eaten if she had to lick it clean. However, she wouldn’t do that with company around, that much she was sure of.
At least she had Jessup chuckling, even if it was unintentionally. Maybe her hosting skills were not too bad after all. She was a good listener though and didn’t mind listening to him talk. In fact she quite enjoyed listening to his voice. For some strange reason it was soothing, kind of like her father’s was when he was still alive. [b “It surprises me to come across a man who finds enjoyment in reading. If there was anything to give away that you were from out of town it would be that fact alone. These folks have never picked up a book in their lives. Not unless someone had drawn inappropriate pictures upon the pages”.]
When he turned to conversation about the food she raised her eyebrow. [b “You consider this to be a nice meal? I don’t know whether to be flattered or concerned about the quality of your diet Mr Ward.”] She smirked towards him as she picked up another piece of bread.
It sounded like Miss Blackwater has had trouble for a long time because of being a woman Rancher. He was surprised that people weren't happy to be paid by her, even if she was a woman. He guessed that times just hadn't caught up to where Belle Blackwater was just yet. Maybe one day.
As indicated, Jes sat down at the table and waited for Belle to join him. He'd offer to help her with the preparations, but he had the distinct feeling their relationship hadn't gotten to that level just yet and he'd overstep some boundaries. So instead, he again looked around the room, again being impressed that this was all a one person operation.
[b “Thank you.”] Jes says as Belle said he could help himself. He digs in to the stew and listens to Belle talk, and nearly choked when she mentioned booze and sex. He coughs and pats himself on the chest, taking a sip of water before clearing his throat. [b “You really aren't a shy woman, Miss Blackwater.”] He chuckles a little bit, and then thinks on her question for a moment. Considering his new circumstances, he didn't really have a lot of time to pursue any hobbies or fun... Or booze and sex, as Belle put it candidly.
[b “I used to be a blacksmith's apprentice, and I did find enjoyment in it. Other than that, reading is fun and I do occasionally whittle.”] There were other things he consider 'hobbies', but not exactly 'fun', which is why he came here to Minto. Somewhere far away to buy time so he could keep on the move. There were things people wouldn't believe, and Jes couldn't believe his luck in running in to them... It all started with that damn [i Rider]...
Quickly he snaps out of his thoughts, dipping some bread in his stew and eating it. [b “Probably been a while since you've had company for dinner, huh? Its been quite some time since I've actually sat down with any one for a nice meal. Been on the road for a while now.”] Which was mostly true. After fending off some bandits with the family he had originally came here with, they [i did] sit down by a fire and eat bread together, but that was hardly 'nice'.
Belle indicated towards the table and chairs so that Jessup might sit down. He might as well be comfortable while she finished cooking her food. It was a stew of sorts, one that she could keep heating up over the next few days so she didn’t have to worry too much about food. It was a smart way of working really, knowing that she had the whole farm to look after herself, not needed to take hours away to prepare a meal every night. She turned and smiled towards him. [b “I’m not a shy woman Jessup. I am more than happy to discuss payment whenever you are ready or desire to receive it. However, you can consider this food a pat on the back if you wish.”] She looked back to the stew and gave it another stir before turning her attention to the freshly baked bread on the kitchen side. Once she obtained the correct knife she started work on slicing it.
[b “I thank you. I cut some corners with keeping house sometimes which is why I haven’t offered for you to simply stay here. I’m afraid my hostessing skills are not exactly up to the standard one might expect for a woman. But the farm does well. Of course it would be easier to have a hand or two but there are not many I can trust and those that I might be able to trust don’t want their wage from a woman. So I make do with what I have.”] Once the bread has been sliced She placed it in the middle of the table and filled two bowls with stew, placing one in front of Jessup and the other in an empty space where she lowered herself into a seat. [b “Help yourself to bread. There is plenty more of both if you find yourself hungry still.”] She said as she reach for some bread and dipped it into the stew.
[b “Fun? I’m not exactly sure what you mean? I enjoy running my farm and I do so from morning until night and then I sit and I read until I’m tired. I’m afraid I don’t have time for much else and even if I did, I’m not convinced I would be able to find anything fun to do in this town. The only fun is booze and sex and I can’t say that either has ever been of interest to me.”] She said matter of factly before starting to eat the broth soaked bread. [b “What do you do for fun?”]
At this point, Jes was pretty content with the fact he'd have to hang out around the ranch all day until sun down. Despite that being quite some time being idle, he was glad he could help someone in need like Miss Blackwater. He assumed if she wasn't tending her whole operation single-handedly she'd have found the culprit and strung him up by his Achilles tendons by now. Probably to ward off other intruders, so he was also pretty happy he might also be able to save someone from the lady's wrath.
He was about to turn around to find something to occupy himself on the ranch when Belle offered for him to come inside. He tried not to act surprised but kind of fumbled his hat off of his head and nodded his head at her. [b “I'm just happy to help, but I appreciate the hospitality, Miss Blackwater.”] He says and follows her back in to her home. Whatever she was cooking smelled wonderful, and Jes couldn't think of the last time he had a home-cooked meal. He'd been on the road for a while now, and his own cooking skills... Well, they left something to be desired.
[b “I'll have to keep the Inn in mind.”] He thought about that sentence for a second before taking his 'reward' from Belle. [b “Thank you again. And we don't have to talk about payment just yet; jobs not done, and all I found were some loose boards. I'd take a pat on the back for that and call it a day.”] He chuckles to himself but quickly clears his throat. He became acutely aware of how gawky he could get sometimes, and drifting hasn't really done him any wonders in that regard.
He takes a sip of water and looks around the house again. [b “You're quite successful for someone who runs a ranch all by themselves. I've never seen an operation this size without a few hands running around and tending to duties around the place; you're a very busy woman.”] Which is definitely why she being targeted as well. Making enemies was part of being a successful business owner, but that wasn't an excuse to terrorize someone... But they didn't really have to talk about her work right now; that could wait until later when he tracked the saboteur down. [b “Do you do anything for fun? Or are you too busy for that?”]
[b “I suppose you are right. Being paranoid has certainly helped me in my business. I think if I had been any less wary, I might have lost this ranch along time ago.”] Minto was not exactly very accommodating towards women in the first place, most of them working at the saloon as bedwarmers for anyone who paid good money for them. Those women hardly had much worth to the men but offered a service. So, the fact that she was a woman who also happened to take her place in the male world of business was enough to send the men of the town into a frenzy.
Belle looked over the barrel once more now that Jessup was inspecting it. The tap had well and truly been bashed in and she was finding that familiar frustrating rising within her. These barrels were not exactly cheap to replace, and the taps were not easy source in order to repair the damage that had been done. She wasn’t strapped for cash, but she needed to be sensible with her expenditure in case there was a dip in the cattle market or there was another drought that had an impact the growth rates of the grazing grounds. At least she knew that she wasn’t imagining things. Now the two of them started out of the barn as she focused on his words. [b “He probably knows that I would shoot him dead if I caught him on my land. Smart man to keep it quiet.”] She ran her hand over the gun in her hip holster as if to check that it was still there. Belle was not afraid to use it and her father had taught her how to shoot a gun and how to ensure that the bullet found its target.
She looked to Jessup and nodded. [b “Alright. I thank you for your time.”] With that she moved back towards the house and went about her day. She needed to make sure she kept her house as well as the farm, so she set herself up to clean the house. After some time, she found herself glancing out of the window and caught sight of Jessup wrestling his coat from one of the cows. Her lips turned up into a smile and she rose a glass of water to them, chuckling to herself gently as she started to turn away and work on cooking something for dinner. Belle ensured that there was enough for Jessup as it was the least, she could do for giving up his day to help her. While it was cooking, she went outside to refresh the water supply and looked up to see Jessup walking towards her.
[b “The bastard.”] She said after a minute of silence between them. She made and mental note to be more vigilant in checking the fence after today. [b “That’s fine by me, the sooner this is over the better. Why don’t you come inside? Have some food and water. It’s the least I can do to thank you for helping me. Do you have somewhere to stay already Mr Ward? If not, I can recommend The Inn in the town. It’s not exactly the most inventive of names but the owner charges a reasonable rate and will give you a fairer one if you mention that you are helping the Deputy out with some investigating, which you are.”] She smiled and led him back into the house where she checked on the food and poured him another glass of water. [b “Your reward.”] She said as she held it out towards him. [b “Although, I promise your payment will be worth more than this.”]
[b “Being paranoid isn't the worst thing to be.”] Jes says as he follows along Belle Blackwater. It was good to hear that Deputy Jacob and the Sheriff gave Lady Blackwater the time of day about this; from what Jes has been putting together is that most men in power weren't exactly stoked on the only female rancher in Minto. But it left them with a long list of suspects. He could understand why that might rattle some people, but Jes didn't share the same sentiments. If someone was happy with what they did, male or female, Jes was happy too.
The two enter the barn and Belle shows him barrel that was tampered with, giving him a time frame as to when it might have happened. He crouches down and looks at the tap, making note of the multiple but small abrasions in the metal. Whoever did this hit it many times with something like a small hammer or the butt of a gun, it was methodical and would take time, probably to keep noise to a minimum when doing the deed. It would have been much simpler to just unscrew the thing and empty out the water, but they probably wanted to make sure she couldn't use this again or make it bothersome to replace.
[b “Sure looks like sabotage to me. Otherwise you're the only person I've ever met whose dealt with an animal handy with a tool.”] He stands up and faces Belle and nods his head towards the barn exit. [b “The dents were pretty methodical, so he's trying to make as little sound as possible, which is also probably why yo haven't found his points of entry yet. He's not in a hurry when he's here, so he's probably here later in the night to give himself more time.”] Jes tells her and then moves to the barn doors, peaking his head out to look at the ranch. It was a sizable property, for good reason, as Belle would need the space for all of her cattle and other things she might do around the place, so it made it hard to pin down where this person was coming from... But like Jes said, he's seen this before.
Looking back at Belle, he smiles lightly. [b “Why don't you go about your day as normal. I'll go take a look around your fences further out on the ranch to see if I can find any loose boards. It might serve as a point of entry for our person of interest.”] He steps out of the barn and then pokes his head back in. [b “I might be a few hours, so I'll take another glass of water as reward once I come back.”] So, with that said, Jes moves to the first part of the fence closest to the barn and gives it a little wiggle. [i 'Damn...'] Would've just been [i too] easy if it was his first try.
It was sort of a hot and miserable day, but boy was Jes glad he kept his hat on. He'd slung his coat over his shoulder so he'd be less hot, but that only helped for a brief time. It also didn't help that some of the cattle were interested in what he was doing or thought he had food or something, one of them even going as far as trying to eat his coat when he hung it on the fence for a moment. It became a stupid tug'o war match between him and the animal, and he hoped to high Heaven that Belle wasn't watching him make a fool of himself. After that, he'd been walking around the perimeter of the fence for some time now, shaking boards to see if they were loose or tampered with, and so far he's come up with nothing. It was frustrating, and he kind of felt like an idiot for suggesting it... Well, it made sense, really. If this person was rustling up cattle, he'd need a horse, and a horse might be able to jump the fence, but there was no way in Hell any kind of cattle could. So if they were dragging it out, they'd need a horse. Good way to get in and get out fast as well.
He was about half way or more done, and about to call it a day when... [b “Here we go.”] He says, shaking the peculiarly loose board again. He turns to look at one of the cows, it moos at him, and Jes slings his coat over its back. [b “Hold that, will you?”] He then hops over the fence, crouches back down in front of it, and examines the pegs and boards. Two nails were missing, and the other two that were in place could easily be wiggled out so the board could be removed... Looks like he was right after all. It was fun playing detective! Maybe he'd shop his skills out to the Pinkerton's when he was done... Now that idea was laughable, and he does have a little chuckle at it as he turns to look in the direction this part of the fence was facing. There a couple hundred meters away there was what looked to be a savanna and some shrubland, it didn't provide a lot of cover, but it'd be enough at night. But what was beyond that? He closes his eyes and pictures the map of the county in his head he remembers looking at. Minto was the Boom Town in the county, and as such, it had a few other towns now surrounding it. So if the river was East, he was facing South, so... Rockton was passed the savanna, and probably where their perpetrator was coming from. Whoever they were working for wouldn't hire someone in Minto, that'd be stupid, and someone would notice them sneaking around town at night.
It looked like it was time to get back to Belle with his findings, and he turns to hop over the fence only to see the cattle with his coat running off with it. [b “You get back here!”] And he chases after it.
Not long after Jes retrieved his slightly damp and chewed coat, he returns to Belle and points off in to the distance, indicating the direction he found the sabotaged fence. [b “I found where they sabotaged your fence. Nails are missing and the others are loose so they can be easily removed along with the boards.”] He lets that hang in the air for a moment. [b “If you don't mind, I'll wait around until night for our saboteur and follow him back to wherever he's hold up. That way we can figure out who's hiring him to do this to you... Then we can move on from there.”]
Belle had met men like Jessup Ward before. Men who claimed to be looking for honest work when, in actuality, they were looking to exploit a woman who lived alone. Some thought that she would not be able to pay them so would suggest other forms of payment that Belle Blackwater would certainly not use as currency. Men here wanted money in their pockets and their dicks kept wet and she was not about to whore herself out in exchange for some help with keeping her ranch and her cattle safe. Others claimed to want to help her but were working for out-of-towners as they soon turned to conversations about her selling. Apparently, it would be better for everyone if that is what she did. However, this was not just a ranch. This was her home and she wasn’t ready to give that up and she knew that she ever would be. However, Jessup Ward just didn’t seem to fit the type of the other men who had come knocking on her door and if there was one thing Belle trusted more than anything, it was that intuition of hers. Dishonest men didn’t usually ask for water in a tavern full of whiskey drinkers and the Deputy wouldn’t have sent him here if he showed any signs of someone who wanted to cause trouble. Of course, he could have lied about that, but he was not to know that she was on good terms the with Deputy, probably the only man beside the Sheriff in these parts that she trusted, mostly because they were both good friends with her father.
Belle nodded when he seemed to confirm her suspicions about sabotage, glad that he wasn’t trying to brush it under the carpet and suggest that wild animals were the reason she had a cow go missing every week, or why there had been one slaughtered and left of her door step to find on more when she was to go about her normal routine. Someone was definitely trying to bully her, but she wouldn’t accept that and if she needed a little bit of help from Jessup to get that to stop, she would willingly accept it and pay a handsome reward for it. Belle could tell by the way he spoke and the look in his eyes that he meant every word that left his lips and because of that she allowed any barriers she was holding around her to come crashing down. Belle could trust this man. She could see that in his eyes. The eyes of a man gave a lot away and they seemed only to confirm that he wanted nothing other than to help her and earn and honest living from it.
Belle stood up when Jessup walked over to the window and nodded in agreement when he spoke. [b “I have felt like someone has been watching me for quite some time, although the Deputy thinks I’m just being paranoid.”] Belle took the glass from the table and placed it elsewhere in the kitchen. [b “Right this way.”] She led him outside to the barrels where she had just replaced the damaged one with a new one. [b “This barrel here was tampered with at some point between sunset last night and midmorning today. It was full and when I came out this morning there was nothing. It’s not the end of the water because the river runs right behind my property but it’s a pain in the ass hauling these things up and down that hill. I started to lock them away in the barn after the first two. Replaced it this morning."] She would point to the barrel that had been tampered with since she left it next to the other one.
[b “Free water; I could get used to that. Thanks.”] He smiles lightly, raising the glass in mock cheers before drinking some. It was refreshing to finally have some water, especially considering the Californian heat. He'd leave the patrons of the Saloon to the whisky drinking during the day; if Jes was gonna drink, he'd do it at night so he didn't lose his mind to the heat.
While he slowly drank the glass of water, he listened to Belle Blackwater's plight. It appeared that men of status and Miss Blackwater didn't exactly mesh well together considering what she had to say and the circumstances. To a degree, he understood; she was a one woman operation which made her vulnerable in the sense that there was quite literally only one of her. Clearly she wasn't as easily bought out as most people would assume, which could lead to all sorts of problems in the cutthroat world of business and ranching. Then there was the [i woman] aspect of it that seemed to unsettle wealthy men, and if they were trying to pick Minto's bones clean so they could turn more of a profit and Belle Blackwater was standing in their way, yeah, he could see them resorting to underhanded tactics like this. They either were trying to bully her in to selling or undermine her operation.
[b “Coyotes are shifty, but definitely not 'water barrel emptying multiple times a month' kind of shifty. That coupled with cattle going missing, well, I'd have to be really silly to think someone [i wasn't] sabotaging you.”] He agreed, and as Belle sat back, so did Jes, mirroring her relaxed demeanour.
Jes takes her question about himself in stride; he didn't exactly like talking about himself, but in regards to something like this, and with someone who didn't appear to trust easily, he knew at some point he'd be asked about his life. If he wanted this job, he'd have to be more forthcoming than he usually was... Although, he didn't have to 'bore' her with the details. Or himself. [b “I've recently become a freelancer, but I'm no stranger to trouble or dealing with it, in case that's a worry of yours. As for being an honest man?”] He shrugs a little bit. [b “I don't like to mix the truth with fiction, and I feel a lot better about making an honest buck rather than coming by it unfairly. You seem like an honest person to me and those are the kind of people I like to associate myself with.”] Jes pushes the front of his hat up a bit, so she could see his eyes better. [b “Or work for, in this case.”] He grins.
Jes takes the last drink of water from the glass and then stands up from his seat, taking a sidelong look out of the window and to the grazing cattle. [b “This is happening in the night, so I'll take a look around the property for entry points now, and wait around til dusk. Whoever is doing this is probably familiar with your routine by now, so there's bound to be a few missteps... Will you show me to your water barrels?”]
A part of her was glad that the Deputy has decided to send someone over to the ranch because it meant that she didn’t have to try to deal with the situation herself, not really wanting to threaten a man who could so easily overpower her or even use his male status to suggest she was not fit to run a ranch and simply have it removed from her by force. The last thing Belle would do would be jeopardise her position in this town. If the men thought women were irrational and incapable, she would ensure that she was everything but those things. Showing herself to be a very capable woman who could easily take on any man with complete rationality and intelligence. This was probably part of the reason why the other ranchers hated her so much, and the fact that all her profit was her own since she didn’t have anyone working under her, mostly because no man would work for a woman in this town it seemed. Their loss. Her wage would have been competitive.
Belle led the man to her kitchen when she had been sat at the table and turned to face him when he offered a response to her offer of a drink and laugh when he told of his experience in the saloon. [b “Well [i Jes] that will be because most of the men who frequent that bar live and breathe whiskey.”] She turned away from him for a moment to retrieve some water, pouring it into a glass before taking it and placing it in from of him. [b “However as you can see I don’t run a saloon so you are perfectly fine to ask for water. I won’t even charge you for it.”] She said with yet another melodic laugh before sitting down in front of him, trying not to stare at him for too long. Her father had taught her to be cautious of all men, even those who appeared to be friendly. It was partly the reason Belle always had a pistol strapped to her hip. She ran a hand over it as it to check it was still there before placing both of her hands on the table before her.
[b “Something like that. Wealthy out-of-towners, bitter ranchers who believe that my father should have sold them my farm, pretty much every man aside from the Sheriff and the Deputy seem to have it out for me.”] Her tone was quite soft, trying not to sound too irritated by the fact. Last thing she wanted was for this man who was offered to help her, to think that she was just another over-emotional woman who couldn’t take care of herself. [b “I can assure you that there are no wild animals making their way onto my ranch. If it was a coyote, I’d know about it and I sure as hell know that coyotes can’t empty my water barrels. That’s happened several times this month and I am vigilant about my water levels. I triple check my taps are secure at night before I go to bed. They are being tampered with.”]
Belle shifted in her seat, leaning back slightly so that she could appear to be more relaxed. [b “What is it you do exactly? The Deputy sent you so you must do some freelancing work?” Do you consider yourself to be an honest man?”
Wow, that was kind of a surprise. [i This] was Belle Blackwater. Jes had expected to first be talking to another employee of the woman, not immediately the boss. Good thing he didn't say anything stupid... although there was still plenty of time for that. However, instead of opening his mouth, he just nods and enters the home, casually looking around at the place. It was quite impressive that she managed to operate a ranch like this on her own. Jes knew other ranchers with smaller ranches who couldn't lift a finger without the help of at least one assistant.
When inquired about a drink, his gaze turns back to her, and he immediately thought of what happened back at the Saloon. [b “Please, call me 'Jes', and is water... okay? I asked back at the Saloon and almost got ran out of town.”] He chuckles lightly at that. Whisky wasn't exactly the most hydrating thing, and after waking up in the back of the cart, he felt a little parched. Although, he probably should've guessed he would've been met with the kind of reaction he got back at the Saloon asking for water. He would assume Miss Blackwater wouldn't meet him with the same reaction.
That aside, Jes followed along behind Belle until she brought them to one of the rooms, and he walked to one of the windows, peering outside. It looked like Belle Blackwater had a rather excellent looking ranch, and if Lady Blackwater herself was overseeing the whole thing, he couldn't imagine that any head of her stock could have run off under her watchful eye... Her sizing him up upon meeting at the door didn't escape his own notice either. You didn't get to be a successful female rancher without being at least a little suspicious of strange men literally knocking at your door. Her missing cattle could very well be the work of coyotes, though, but he found that to be unlikely and wouldn't insult the woman by even bringing it up. More than likely, it would be-
[b “People been sniffing around your property, Miss Blackwater? Some wealthy out-of-towner trying to buy you out?”] He asks turning away from the window to look back at the lady. He remembers a similar occurrence back before he was on the road year ago, although he wasn't involved in the settling of the matter. He had a different life back then.
It wasn’t exactly an easy task being a woman in this time or this place. 19th Century Western USA was not exactly a place for a woman to prosper successfully in the world of business; not when that also happened to be the world of men. Women here, or anywhere for that matter, were hardly equal to a man; not in the eyes of men themselves or in the eyes of those who seemed to have dominion over law, order and everything else in between. That meant that it was extremely difficult for someone like Belle Blackwater to run her ranch with ease in a town where the population of male cattle barons were on the increase, especially since many miners had already failed to find the gold that was supposedly found nearby. Many of [I those] men saw it as an appalling outcome when they realised that her father had not sold the ranch to another man before his sickness took him. Instead, he left it to his daughter. It was a kick in the teeth to those who wished to gain profit from the land and the cattle that resided upon it. Not simply because it stopped them from benefitting from such a deal, but because a woman could not possibly be rational enough to make appropriate business decisions, nor were they strong enough to run a ranch in the proper manner. But Belle Blackwater was not like other women. Her father had made sure of that.
Jackson Blackwater, when he was alive, had one daughter and not a single son. His wife had unfortunately died during childbirth and because of that, Belle was his treasure. He could have gone a different way and resented her because her mother had lost her life in order to give Belle one, but he didn’t see things that way. Instead he vowed to protect and educate her in the appropriate way to protect herself, so with that in mind he had taught her all the things he might have taught a son if his wife had survived to give him one. Belle wasn’t sure whether the presence of brothers might have changed the upbringing Jackson inflicted upon her but it didn’t matter. It was something she appreciated because as the young woman she was now, she knew how to protect herself effectively. She knew how to handle a gun and she sure as hell knew the cattle industry like that back of her hand. Belle was unwavering about the fact that the other ranchers were intimidated by her knowledge and work ethic just as much as they were shocked by her femininity. She had been approached, several times in fact, to sell her ranch but she was not going to give up her Blackwater Meadows for any sum of money. Perhaps her refusal of such was part of the motivation behind the number of cattle that seemed to disappear from her ranch of late. It might have been nothing at all but Belle was sure that this was a cattle baron, or a group of them were attempting to panic her enough that she might sell something that belonged to her and her alone.
This very morning Belle goes about her morning routine. She tends to the cattle like she does every other morning, mostly making sure that she can account for each and every beast in her possession. Belle knew her cattle well, each and every one of them having their own unique identifier to her. She didn’t need branding to know the difference between her cattle and someone else’s. The fact that she had a closed ranch helped her with that too. She strokes a few of the beasts that roamed freely within the boundaries of her ranch, one greeting her with a friendly noise that. A smile plays across her lips as she runs a hand over his coat, greeting him in her own way. Then she moves about ranch in order to perform her regular duties, tending to the grazing spots for the cattle and ensuring that their water supply remained at an acceptable level. A curse escapes her lips as she approaches the barrels she uses to contain the water she collects, seeing that, for the fourth time this month, someone as clearly come onto her property and emptied it. It was something that frustrated her to no end but she still had a supply she could use in the locked barn. Now she makes her way to the barn and unlocks the door and rolls a barrel out and when she approaches the empty ones she pulls them out of the way and wipes the sweat from her brow. [b “I will get you bastards back for this.”]
Several hours later and Belle makes her way back in side and spends some time looking at paperwork and preparing some food so that she can eat later. It was a rather lonely existence but she managed. She certainly wasn’t looking for a husband to marry her and force her into a different lifestyle, especially when she liked the one she had some much and she was scared of risking her farm or giving it up to a man even through marriage. No. Belle was happy…or so she told herself on a regular basis.
What she wasn’t expecting was a knock at the door which would have explained the instant flinch of her shoulders as she becomes startled. Belle was always engrossed in something and sometimes she would zone out, making any little noise startle her. She rises from the seat at the table and makes her war to the door, absently running her hand over the shirt she wore. The woman of this town were usually caught wearing dresses and such but she could hardly run a farm in something like that, so this is what her daily attire was like. When she arrives at the door it reveals someone she has never met before. She watches him carefully and analyses his body language and the listens to the way he says his words, looking for any indication that he might have and ulterior motive but she could not find one.
[b “I am Miss Blackwater. You will not find anyone else here but me. Do come in Mr Ward.”] She smiles back, stepping back to allow him in. She had thought that the Deputy and the Sheriff were ignoring her requests for help but it seemed they came through this time. [b “I thank you for taking time out of your day to see me Mr Ward. Can I get you something to drink?”]
[i [+purple “You're not gonna die, not here at least.”] A voice told him as his vision began to blur and fade. [+purple “Now wake up; you owe me.”] A skeletal hand grans him by the lapel and shakes him. [+purple “I said wake up!”]]
And with a start, he does, flinching in to an upright position in the back of the wagon. Another bad memory that felt like a lifetime ago. Jes shakes his head a little bit, mostly to get his bearings and rattle the slight sleep hangover he felt before getting to his feet. Once he does, he hops out of the back of the wagon. Its pace was fairly slow, so they must be close now...
“Perfect timing, Jessup.” An older man, whom he had forgotten the name of, skips up on his horse next to Jes as he walks. “We're just outside of the town now.” They were? Moving off the wagon's path, Jes peers off to the side to see the newest Boom Town in California: Minto.
[b “Quick trip.”] Jes remarks to himself. A day or so ago he had come across this family out in the bush in a less than ideal situation, and once they sorted that out, the family told him about Minto, the newest mining town in California. With a large rock formation on its North side and a small river passing by on the East of it, the town of Minto was already the perfect place to build a large and sustainable settlement. It wasn't until a happy accident with the outcrop that the township realized they had been sitting on literal tons of gold. The Gold Rush had finished over two decades ago, and it seemed like this town was going to experience its own now. Jes wasn't exactly excited about being in a town who's population was growing, but he could use the work and the money, and he wasn't here to 'make it rich' like so many others. He'd make some quick, good cash, and then be on his way again.
After thanking the family for their hospitality and transport, Jes makes his way in to the town. It was fairly big at this point, and still growing; lots of skeletons of structures to be built, and it looked like they even had a Church getting thrown up as well... Strangely enough, they didn't have their own railroad yet, though. Seemed like something to ask about later, but for the moment in the midst of this busy little town, Jes needed to get his bearings. So he made his way in to the Saloon, and despite it being in the middle of the work day, it was of patrons drinking, laughing, and gambling. He didn't bother admiring the hubbub of the establishment, and instead, Jessup went up to the bar where it was surprisingly clear of customers. Just one fella with his back turned.
It was almost like the guy had been waiting for Jes all day; before his butt even hit the seat, the man sitting at the bar spun on the stool to face Jes. The movement startled Jes, and he was almost half falling out of the seat, half reaching for the revolver on his waist, and half grabbing on to the bar for stability. The man in question gives him a smile and holds up his hands in mock surrender. [+blue “Easy there, friend. Didn't mean to startle you.”] The man says. Now that Jes got a full view of him, he was of average height and build in dark clothing, a pinched front hat much like his own. He also had a pyramidal moustache and his skin was a beige which Jes couldn't pin down as either being Hispanic or Indian in origin.
[b “Scared the heck out of me.”] Jes points out as the bartender appears in front of him, gesturing for him to order a drink. [b “Just water, please.”] And honestly, he could almost feel the whole bar seize. Conversations quieted or stopped, people looked, the man he was now sitting with looked confused, and the bartender seemed almost offended. Whoops.
[+blue “Don't insult the man.”] And his 'friend' gestures to the bartender, who slides two shot glasses in front of them and fills it with whisky. [+blue “The names Jacob, and you're welcome.”]
Jes nods and takes the shot glass, keeping his eyes on Jacob. [b “You don't look like a 'Jacob'.”] And Jacob laughs at that.
[+blue “Mother was Mexican, father was a wealthy tobacco farmer. Catholic.”] Well, that sure explained a lot. [+blue “You're new here, I presume.”] He holds out his glass which Jes clinks with his own. The two down the whisky and place the glasses back on the bar.
[b “You presume right. The names Jessup Ward, just looking for some work and then I'll be moving on through.”]
Jacob gives him a measuring look, as if to weigh what he just said was true or not. [+blue “Been a lot of people passing through lately, and along with it, trouble. The sheriff doesn't like new faces, and that goes double for his deputy.”]
[b “Then they'll love me; I'm new, but I'm not trouble.”] And that earns a laugh from the both of them. It wasn't far from the truth, but recently Jes has been winding up in all sorts of trouble. He was just hoping it didn't follow him here to Minto.
[+blue “I like you, Jes... can I call you 'Jes'?”]
[b “Of course, we're friends after all, right?”]
[+blue “Right, right, and friends don't screw around in each other's towns, right? They don't make trouble where there doesn't have to be none?”] Jes nods, and Jacob reaches over and pats him on the shoulder before jerking his thumb towards the door. [+blue “Up the road there's a ranch, 'Blackwater Meadows', owned and run by our very own Belle Blackwater. She's been having some trouble with some of her stock going missing. We ain't sure if its coyotes, rustlers, or if they've simply run off, but if you're looking for honest work, you won't find any other here than with Belle Blackwater.”]
[b “Thanks for the tip, I'll have to go pay Mrs-”]
[b “Miss Blackwater a visit. I'll let her know you said 'hello'.”] Jacob nods and tips his head and hat to that, and at the same time it opens his blazer up a bit. Pinned to his shirt underneath was a star, a badge, and it read loud and clear 'Deputy' on it... Oh ho ho, that sneaky sonnuva bitch. No wonder this felt near enough to an interrogation. [b “I'll see you around, Deputy.”]
So with that, Jes went on his way up the road towards the ranch Jacob had indicated earlier. As one might expect, it was a little further away from Minto, but not a terrible trek without a horse. If anything, Jes was more worried about how he looked than how he got to the ranch. He wore generic clothing with a deep brown peacoat, and hat to match. Usually he'd have shaved, but after being on the road for many days, he's grown a bit of a beard and probably looked a little dusty. Jes tried not to worry about it too much; if Miss Blackwater was looking for someone to hunt down missing stock from her herd, hopefully looking a little rough and tough would give him somewhat of an advantage. If she needed someone who was a good shot, he definitely fit the bill then.
Jes makes his way to the door, takes his hat off and looks at himself in the reflection of one of the windows. He knocks and then quickly brushes back some of his hair as he waits for someone to answer. And when someone does, he bows his head slightly. [b “My name is Jessup Ward and I'm here to see Miss Blackwater. I was told she might be having a problem with missing stock, and I might be able to provide some help in that regard.”] He pauses for a brief second, thinking if he should add anything. [b “Oh, and I'm also friends with the Deputy.”] Jes adds with a toothy smile.
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