A Good Ranch-Hand
by VA Vazquez
She hadn’t meant to hit him so hard.
Bailey kept her hands wrapped, white-knuckled tight, around the crowbar, despite the fact that his blood was dripping from the claw down the shaft and into the pocket between her index finger and thumb. Her heart was bucking against her ribcage like an untamed bronc trying to unseat its rider. She felt wild, uncontrolled. Feral. Part of her wanted to ratchet the crowbar up above her head and go to town on the man lying in front of her. Her ankle still pulsed from where she’d twisted it during their ring-around-the-farmhousey; it had swelled up after she’d gone down hard at the top of the staircase. He’d managed to get a knife-swipe in at her upper thigh, but she didn’t notice the jagged cut as much as the sprain.
Her phone rang. Probably the sheriff. She’d called earlier that night, told him she’d seen something moving outside on the porch. Sure, Bailey, he’d muttered, the sound of a half-eaten fritter tumbling out of his mouth and onto his paperwork. Probably a coyote. They were having some problems with ‘em over in Frisco last year. Just keep the door locked. We’ll send the first available guys over to look in on you.
Just don’t wanna take any chances, she’d said, peering out from between the slats of her wooden blinds. Not with that maniac still running free.
Aw, shit, Bailey. I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about up there. Just hold tight.
The doorbell had rung a few seconds later. Sure as shit not answering that, she’d thought to herself. But she couldn’t help peeking at the stranger. He had a slick of oil wiped across the bridge of his nose, like he’d been trying to fix a busted auto, and the most delightful shag of windswept curly hair. He’d seen the chink in the blinds, a surefire sign someone was home, and smiled widely at her. He had one deep dimple carved into his left cheek.
“Ma’am?” he’d called. “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you this late at night. But my car’s broken down a few miles up the road. I’m not getting any service out here, and I was wondering if I could use your phone to call AAA.”
“Sir, I’m sorry for your troubles, but I think you’d better get off my porch.”
His eyes were bovine-wide and looked liquid in her patio lights. He rolled up the sleeves of his henley shirt, revealing strong forearms tattooed with an old-fashioned butcher diagram, each cut labelled and numbered.
“I’m going to call the towing company up in Amarillo. They’ll meet you here and get you sorted. Feel free to have a seat out front.”
“Of course. Thank you, ma’am.”
No one at the towing company had picked up, and by the time she’d returned to the front window, had split the blinds with her fingertips, the man was already gone. It made her gut clench, a dishrag wound tight, dripping acidic bile. She called the sheriff again.
“Sheriff Martinez, I really think you oughta send someone out here.”
“I told you, Bailey. First officer free, we’ll send him your way.”
“There was a man said his car broke down. Said he wasn’t getting a signal and wanted to use my phone.”
“The signal is shit out there.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Phone’s been ringing off the hook ever since they started reporting on this Ranchero Ripper. We’re short-staffed, and —“
He cut himself off, but Bailey knew what he wanted to say: And everyone knows you’re obsessed with that kind of thing.
That was when she’d heard the footsteps squeaking on her new linoleum kitchen floor.
She looked down at the man spread-eagled on the cement. There was a trickle of blood on his forehead, and some of his curls were wetly clumped together, but not much damage otherwise. Slowly, she knelt down and pressed the back of her hand against his lips. Breath, warm and moist, panted against her flesh. Alive then.
The Ranchero Ripper. Fourteen confirmed kills to date. All pretty young things, staying alone on secluded North Texas ranches. Bailey didn’t look much like the others: early twenties, sure, but she had rough hands with thick calluses on the joints, freckles patched heavy all over her face (not just on the bridge of her nose where some folks thought they were cute). She had all of his newspaper clippings scrapbooked; needed to put that new Cricut she’d bought at the Hobby Lobby to good use. There were no survivors yet, so they didn’t have all the details about how he hunted them. But the FBI agents on his trail had described how he chased them around the house before slitting their throats and hanging them upside down from their rafters. Bleeding ‘em dry and then removing the choice cuts. He didn’t take the steaks with him though, thank god. Left them piled in the refrigerator, like a 4-H member parading his cuts around for the meat judging program. A good ranch-hand, skilled at wrangling cattle and using a knife.
And good lord, he was pretty.
Prettier than all of the other photos in her scrapbooks, that was for sure. Prettier than Jeffrey Dahmer and Richard Ramirez and even Ted Bundy. Prettier than any boy she’d ever fumbled with in the bench seat of her pick-up truck, gear stick jamming hard into her lower back.
This one was special. Even if she didn’t know his name yet.
The phone rang again. She picked up this time.
“Bailey? It’s Sheriff Martinez. You hung up right quick. I’ve been worried about you.”
The truth hovered on her tongue, but she bit it back, glue-sticking other photos into her scrapbooks. Maybe she could keep him for a while.
“Fine, Sheriff,” she said. “That strange man up and left with the AAA. No need for you to come out here tonight. We’re all fine.”