Stone Heart's Woman
Check out STONE HEART'S WOMAN, now available on audio. Listen to a sample here.
My first audio book, from my first published book, Montana Promises, originally with Topaz/Penguin as Goldspun Promises, is now under contract with Jeff Justus, an awesome Western narrator. I want to thank all those who sent their fantastic auditions and I may get in touch for later books.
Now to work on a cover.
Happy Valentines Day
AUDIO HERE I COME
Having learned and taught uploading books to Kindle, I figured it was time to take on something new. So I'm pleased to say I'm working on my first audio book. The Montana Trilogy will go to audio with the first book, Montana Promises underway right now.
Auditioning those marvelous narrators who bring our books to life has been a keen experience. Especially when it came to hearing the love scenes. This old woman curled her toes at some of the interpretations and it was a tough choice, believe me. I hope to keep the same reader for the entire trilogy, but time will tell. He's a busy guy. Not announcing a name until we're contracted, but we're close.
This has been a super new experience and I can't wait to see what's to come next. I'm not near to being done with this writing business yet, so stay tuned.
WE'RE HAVING A PARTY - GO TO EVENTS
Coming Soon from The Wild Rose Press
Wilda Duncan is pledged to marry Lord Prescott to keep her family together in this new land, the American West. Her plot to be kidnapped by sexy outlaw Calder Raines could put her in more danger than the arranged marriage. when his gang decides she can help them rob a bank. Calder has other plans for the beautiful red haired Victorian lady.
GREAT NEWS! The book will be released to Kindle as an ebook on Dec. 5, free for five days. Then it will be available for $2.99 until the official release date of the print book on Feb. 13, 2013. So get your copies early to use as Christmas Gifts.
FALLEN ANGEL POSTED THIS REVIEW OCT. 4, 2012 NICE ONE.
Stone Heart's Woman
Since her fiancé had deserted her, Aiden Conner's life had changed drastically. She had been making a living singing and dancing for the gentleman of Benson, Nebraska, but it seems the women in town didn't appreciate that and have decided to run her out of town by chasing her down, carrying anything they can get their hands on.
Stone Heart wakes up to find everyone around him dead. After their escape from Fort Robinson, most of his people were freezing and starving to death and he knows that if he doesn't get back to them, the rest would also die. He has been shot twice and knows he has to find shelter or he won't make it himself. After his father betrayed his mother's people, he swore he would never speak the white man's tongue again and made a vow that the Northern Cheyenne would return home or die trying; at least they would die free.
Aiden thought she would die for sure, when she was attacked by Stone, the most beautiful, blond-haired Indian that she had ever seen. When a blizzard hits, Aiden and Stone are stranded in a deserted cabin and Stone knows that he needs to leave, but can't leave Aiden because he knows that she will die.
As they fight to survive, they find that they are more alike than they had though. They discover that they have feelings for each other, but when they make it to Fort Robinson, Aiden finds that she can't give Stone up and will do anything in her power to help him set his people free, even if it means letting him go.
I haven't read many books like this one since I usually like Regency Romance, but I have to say that I really enjoyed this book. It was heartbreaking, with young love that had two people who would do anything for the other. Both knowing that neither would end up with what they wanted and that was each other. I give high marks for the story line and the way it was written. It was an excellent book.
Reviewed by: Dee
Be sure to check out the biography page where you'll find plenty of historical information for your enjoyment. Write me, I love to hear from my readers. Come back often as I'll add new images and text all the time. Enjoy yourself.
Since that horrible night a year ago, when I killed my sister, I dream a lot about running with wolves. In my heart, I experience the joy of breaking free from human bonds and traveling the shadow land with my pack.
Last night the dream in which I roamed the wilderness with my brothers and sisters, morphed into a nightmare. A silver alpha male trotted so close his breath washed over me like a thick cloud. From out of the dark trees ahead, a cloaked figure emerged. Patches of moonlight slithered through bare limbs and reflected on the barrel of a long rifle cradled in his arms. A murmur of impending death rippled through the pack, but not in time to save us all. He aimed and fired into our midst. Some scattered while others dropped. Howls of pain echoed through the darkness, clogged with the smell of death. I raced over blood-soaked ground, but with only two legs to their four, soon fell behind. Gasping for air and sick at heart, I stumbled over a crumpled form and sank to my knees beside the mortally wounded alpha female. My fingers clutched her thick ruff to meld our spirits. Her gleaming amber eyes gazed at me a moment, but before I could read the message there, she was gone. Lost to another world. From the distance rose a powerful lament. My sister Lara cried out my name; the howl of the alpha male begged me to join them. Bereft, I rose and answered their call.
Why not go with them? I had no one, nothing. My life was empty.
I came to my senses standing naked at the bedroom window, my own wail echoing around me. Jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons cut into the ashen sky, like some giant had slashed at the universe with wicked shears. From far away a forlorn baying pricked at my conscience. For so long my soul had overflowed with guilt. This night it was joined with a desire to roam with the pack. To take the place of the Alpha female and mate with the beautiful silver male. An orgasm struck with such intensity that I doubled over and hugged myself, my voice joining the other night cries. What release, what intense joy. My body trembled and my muscles convulsed in a lonely mating dance.
My sister often spoke of a legend that tells how each woman shelters within her soul the spirit of the wolf. But she alone can sing that spirit into being. At that moment I yearned to disappear into the night, never to be heard from again. Ached to sing my wolf spirit into being. Just as La Loba – Wolf Woman – sings over the bones of the dead wolf and resurrects it, I could then do the same for Lara. No lover can elicit this great feeling of love, for this is women’s labor and a solitary work carried out in the desert of the psyche. But it was only a legend. Wasn’t it?
Coming wide awake, it didn’t take much to figure out the mixed message here. Either I needed a man or I needed a wolf. Or I needed a man who was a wolf. Or I needed to make a decision about Lara and about myself as well. It was time to turn off her life support and stop letting her hang on, half dead, nowhere near alive... cripes.
I went back to bed. I guess running with those wolves wore me out, or maybe it was the orgasms. Whatever, I slept hard and dreamless till the alarm went off.
Over orange juice and toast the next morning, the realism of the eerie dream returned to taunt me. God help me, I felt as if I’d experienced that exquisite feeling of having had the greatest sex in the world. This was the morning after, and I couldn’t resist rubbing my breasts until they tingled.
The telephone jerked me from my erotic fantasy. Staggering to my feet, I dug the instrument from under a cup towel on the counter. Too bleary-eyed to read the caller ID, I punched the button but didn’t get a chance to say hello.
“Hey, Liv, rise and shine. Time to go to work.” It was my best friend Ginni, who I could gladly kill anytime before noon, she was so goddamned cheerful in the morning.
“Yes, oh, holy mistress. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Hey, what’s wrong? You sound... um... funny. Still asleep?”
“Something like that.” I did my best to hold a steady voice. Sharing such a fantasy with Ginni would send the conversation rolling downhill fast.
“Hum. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to digging into the shipment from the Horning Museum.”
“Don’t you know it’s a sin to be so happy before ten o’clock?”
She laughed. “Can’t help it. I’m looking forward to opening up those crates.”
Visions of my nighttime experience slowly faded. “Me, too. Too bad the family had to go out of business, though. I liked old man Horning. He was a hoot, walking around dressed like a mountain man and telling those outlandish stories. Pretending he had moved to Pinedale out of the past and brought with him a stash of gold from a hidden mine.”
“Yeah, well, who’s to say he didn’t? Truth be known, he probably didn’t really die, just returned to his own time.”
She believed in some weird stuff, but who was I to judge? “Do you suppose he took his gold with him?”
“Could be. In any case, we can sure use some new exhibits. I’m anxious to get them unpacked and on display before the rendezvous.”
I fell silent. My mind flashed back a year. Lara had danced about in a pretty pink dress, so excited about going to the Green River Rendezvous that she had Brian and me laughing and playing her game. This year, I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t. Not without my sister. As for Brian, well, I’d grown used to being without him. The coward.
As if she’d read my mind, Ginni said, “You have to get past this. I’m someone who knows. I’ll pick you up in fifteen. Better be ready.”
“Sure.” I disconnected. She was good at putting in her two-cents worth, then going right on so I never had a chance to react and explain why I couldn’t get past driving my car off a highway, the accident sending my sister plunging through the windshield and into a vegetative state. It was impossible to just snap my fingers and get over such a devastating loss.
And what had last night’s dream meant, anyway? I guess I should’ve expected something about now. The accident had happened the previous year exactly two weeks after the Green River Rendezvous. And Lara and I had so often spoken of running with the wolves, though not literally. She had the book, Women Who Run With The Wolves, and was fascinated by it. Always quoting something, or reading whole pages, in a soft voice. To me it was a game. I could never really buy into the idea of the wild woman archetype, though it was tempting. Obviously, my subconscious liked the idea.
Okay, so that’s probably what the whole crazy night-flick was about. Lara lying up there waiting for me to set her wild spirit free; me convinced I was responsible for her predicament; and let’s face it, not having a man around to take care of my own wild cravings obviously caused the orgasm. Oh, yeah. About Brian. Well, let’s just say he hadn’t handled my guilt trip well, and he lit out to find a jollier mate. Maybe I should find someone before desperation sends me out looking for a wolf to partner up with. Stranger things have happened. Or so they say. Personally, I doubt it, all those dark tales about werewolves notwithstanding. Men are hard enough to understand, without partnering up with one who turns into a killer wolf when the moon is full. Not for me.
I finished my tea and went upstairs to dress for a day at the Mountain Man Museum, where I had worked for five years. Ginni had started eight months ago, and we became fast friends immediately. She was a screwball who meditated and performed impossible snake-like yoga moves. And communed with the other side on occasion. She was also an activist determined to save the earth and its creatures from mankind. Currently, she was involved as a volunteer in the Federal Wildlife Services’ gray wolf restoration program. Led some sort of organization. But I wasn’t interested.
There’s another connection to the dream. When I thought about it, the fantasy hadn’t been so strange after all. But why the part about some two-legged predator killing the wolves?
Ginni drove up the dirt lane, the little MG her brother had restored before he was killed in Iraq, trailing dust and an echoing roar. I sat on the front porch of my cozy little log cabin, breathing in the scent of honeysuckle and trying not to think about anything much except the beautiful Wyoming morning. Ginni covered her grief with a bubbly personality that didn’t quite hide the forlorn sadness that lurked in her chocolate brown eyes. At least she wasn’t responsible for her brother’s death. But she did know about losing a loved one. From the beginning, that had been our connection. Otherwise, we were opposites.
Stuffing my five foot-eight inch hefty frame in the low-slung MG was no mean task. As for Ginni, she fit quite well, since she was barely five feet tall and probably weighed 98 pounds right after she ate a #3 Combo with extra fries at Mickey D’s.
“Good morning,” she sang when I grunted into the seat. Before I could snap the seat belt, she downshifted and fish-tailed a circle back into the lane. At my insistence she’d added seat belts to the Mustang. If I was going to ride with her. Which I had to right now because I damn well wasn’t about to crawl behind the wheel of a car and kill someone else.
We weren’t even out from under the sheltering pines before she began to sing a Bon Jovi tune.
“When you going to put in that CD player?” I hollered over her wailing.
Mouth open for the next sour note, she gave me a dirty look. “Can’t afford it yet.”
“Well, where can I donate to the cause? You sound like a bull moose calling to its mate. ”
“I guess you could do better.”
“No… that’s why I don’t try.”
She hit the chorus with renewed fervor.
“I’ll give you five dollars if you’ll turn down the volume. You’re about to bust my eardrums.”
She cut off the song with laughter. “Not bust, dear, that’s something you have on your chest. It’s burst. Burst your eardrums. Would you say there goes a big bursted lady?”
“Oh, God, how do you do it this early in the morning? I can’t even see yet, let alone sing bad and tell worse jokes.”
“Hey, what makes you think I can see? I can tell jokes without sight. I can sing, too.”
“That is debatable.”
She see-sawed back and forth on the dirt road that led to the highway to Pinedale.
In no mood for her shenanigans, I screeched, grabbed the dash and hung on. Once she got on the blacktop, she behaved herself, knowing my fear of having a wreck. We were both quiet for a short while, thank goodness.
She broke the silence on a serious note. “Hey, girl, it’s not like I mind giving you a ride or anything, but when are you gonna climb back behind the wheel? It’s time to face your fears and get on with it.”
“You’re so understanding.” I sounded like a grumpy old woman, but didn’t care.
“Hey, I refuse to be an enabler. You need a good kick in the butt. If I wasn’t your friend, I wouldn’t care. But I am, and I do.”
“You’re right, I know. I’ve tried. I get in a car and start it, roll slowly away from the house, but I just can’t get past the end of the lane. Everything flies apart. My hands shake till I can’t hold the wheel, and my leg hops all around from accelerator to brake. I’d be a death machine on the highway.”
Immediately, what I’d said shot straight through to my heart. I was a death machine. I’d already killed. It wasn’t easy to face, and I couldn’t say it aloud. But damn, I’d come close to it this time. I glanced at her to see if she’d noticed.
Ginni had the window open and her curly copper hair blew in all directions so she looked like a gorgeous Medusa. Her fingers tapped the wheel in rhythm to the song in her head. I really cared for her, and that scared me, too. She was the type something bad could happen to and I was damned fed up with losing people I loved.
Using the gears to slow down and speed up, she maneuvered through a curve, and, to my relief, changed the subject. “Guess what happened last night?” She didn’t sound happy anymore.
“Someone shot a wolf and left its body outside Wyoming Game & Fish.”
She might as well have hit me with a board and struck me speechless. Someone killing wolves was right out of my nightmare.
Without noticing my reaction, Ginni went on. “I can’t imagine the mentality that spurs that kind of behavior.”
Swallowing a huge knot in my throat, I managed to squawk, “Ranchers believe the wolves kill their calves and sheep.”
“That’s a crock of bull. Gray wolves live on wildlife and rarely if ever take down domesticated animals unless they’ve been conditioned to it. And there’s research being done that suggests wolves that are killing livestock can unlearn their behavior.”
I’d heard the speech before, and read some as well on the rancher’s side of the issue. The Wolf Restoration Program in Wyoming as well as in Montana and Idaho was a hot topic. I didn’t know who was right; didn’t really care all that much. I sure didn’t want to argue with Ginni, a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the Wildlife Service program to restore wolves to the wilds. What bothered me at the moment was the connection to my nightmare.
Still, I had to ask if they knew who killed the wolf.
She stuck her arm out and up to signal a right turn into the entrance to the museum. Turn signals for the MG were on the same list as a CD player.
“Tom says the year-old pup was shot three times, but they’ll have to do a necropsy to retrieve the bullets. And that could take weeks. Did you know that Arizona has a $45,000 reward out for someone who’s slaying wolves out there?”
Tom Hammer was an agent with Wyoming Game & Fish, who looked a bit like Tom Cruise, only taller with a smaller nose. Ginni was carrying a gigantic crush on him. He, of course, wasn’t aware of it.
A necropsy is to dead animals what an autopsy is to dead people. She’d complained before that it often seemed to take forever to get results after shipping the carcass off to the lab in Oregon. I didn’t know about the Arizona reward, but she didn’t give me time to say so. Hard to keep up with Ginni’s conversational jumps sometimes, much less respond properly. Anyway, I tried.
“If it’s that important out West, why don’t they get on it more here? Seems like I remember someone shot a whole bunch of wolves here a year or so ago. What happened to that guy?”
“Yep, a fellow named Sharpe. That was before I came to work at the museum. Tom went after him in the mountains and finally caught him. He was fined, lost his ranch and went to jail for a whole year. That’s a big fat deal. A year. He’s probably out by now. He tracked down the whole pack and slaughtered them, said they’d killed his full-blood Arabian stallion. Probably wild dogs or a mountain lion that did it. The service allows for legal destruction of wolves that kill domestic animals, but he didn’t have proof, much less see it happen. And he didn’t go about it the legal way. The service takes depredation by wolves seriously and usually deals with it promptly. He couldn’t wait.”
I shivered, again thinking of my dream. Someone shooting at my pack in the dead of night. This was some scary shit. Was I going nuts, or what?
Ginni whipped the low-slung MG into a parking space near the back employee entrance. I pried my way out and caught up with her, shoes crunching on the graveled walk. Fishing the key out of my bag, I let us into the dim interior of the museum. The aroma of the past carried me away from the present and its terrible memories. In my mind mountain men roamed the passageways amidst the exhibits of great grizzly and buffalo, mountain goats and wild cats. My foolish imagination often had me joining them in conversation to escape the sorrows of my own life.
We went from room to room, opening blinds and turning on lights in the display cases before depositing our things in the small employee room. I unlocked the front door while Ginni counted out cash into the register.
Downstairs the items from the Horning Museum were waiting for us. As soon as our boss Dean arrived to man the front desk, we’d get to work unpacking, classifying and searching out nooks and crannies to display the contents.
Ginni glanced up from counting. “You go on downstairs and start; I’ll wait for Dean. Want me to bring you something to drink when I come down? That’s bound to be dusty work.”
“Yeah, an iced tea would be great.” The morning was already getting hot. Air conditioning in the MG meant running the top down.
She nodded and I tripped down the stairs, eager to get to work. Opening new arrivals was oftentimes more thrilling than Christmas. Working at the museum put me in touch with the spirits of people out of the past, those who had actually used the items on display. It was a bit like living with them. Their presence seemed so real that I often talked to them.
At the bottom of the stairs I rounded the rail, deep in thought. Something whispered at my back and I turned, half-expecting to see a ghostly intruder come for a visit. Someone or something shifted through the dark passage to the storage room. The hair lifted on the back of my neck. Ghosts didn’t bother me, but real visitors sneaking about where they didn’t belong did.
“Who is that?” The words came out in a weak croak. No one should be here. I prayed it was a mischievous ghost finally ready to reveal herself to me. Lord knows, I spoke with them often enough. Can’t say I’ve ever had a reply or a visit before, but you never could tell.
A breeze hit me full in the face and a door snicked closed quietly as if someone were indeed sneaking around. Well, I’d soon take care of that. Ghosts didn’t need to open and shut doors. Human intruders were worse than a visit from spirits.
Wondering how this one got in, I hurried after the figure. At the door I paused, then straightened my shoulders, turned the knob and shoved it open. A tall man dressed in buckskins stood in the dim light from the shuttered windows. He shifted into the shadows before I could make out more.
Someone coming early to the rendezvous. But how did he get in and downstairs ahead of me?
“Hello? You shouldn’t be down here. This is private.”
“Hello, Olivia. I’ve been waiting for you.”
Oh, brother. An actor with a voice like Mel Gibson. “Who are you and how did you get in here? Wait a minute, you know my name. Is this a joke? In any case, you need to leave.”
He stepped forward so I could get a good look at him. He was over six feet tall and had long, ebony hair. Whoa, Road Warrior. I’d seen all those early Gibson flicks. The buckskins kind of let out old Mel and the road warrior. The outfit was intricately beaded around the neckline and he wore knee-high moccasins.
“I am Wolf Shadow of the tribe you call the Cheyenne. The Beautiful People.”
This was really too much, and for a minute I couldn’t reply. Finally, I choked out a couple words. “Uh… okay.”
“Do not be afraid.”
Afraid? I was only mildly terrified, but more because of the dream and his appearance put together than of him. I cleared my throat. This guy had to be from the Rendezvous. “You ... uh, you look the part. The beadwork is exquisite. Who did that for you?”
“The wife of my brother.”
“You’re pretty well prepared for the Rendezvous. Are you sure there were Cheyenne present at any of the Mountain Man Rendezvous?”
“I did not come for this thing you speak of. I came for you. Our brother sent me. I am of the Wolf Soldier Clan.”
A shudder rippled all the way down my back. I’ve never seen a ghost, and when I do he has to look like this? His high cheekbones and sculpted jawline stretched the copper-toned skin to a smooth finish. Wide-set ebony eyes regarded me as if he knew my innermost thoughts. Knew of my dream of the previous night. What in the hell was going on here?
Caught up by my thoughts and his gaze, I was temporarily struck mute. Warm sweet oil flowed over my skin in a lover’s caress. A flash of his long, graceful fingers trailing along the quivering flesh of my belly, my breasts. Breath caught in my throat and I took a step toward him before coming to my senses.
I shook my head hard enough to loosen strands of hair from their clip.
My reply sounded weak. “I don’t have a brother.” But he’d said “our” brother. What could that mean?
“Yes, you do. We do. Study the wolves; you will understand. Call when you need our help and I will come.” He shifted and blurred around the edges so I could see through him in places.
“Hey, cut that out. I’m not impressed.” Foolishly, I reached out toward him, not wanting him to leave. I needed answers and sensed he had them. I needed him to.
He backed up and faded through the wall, an outstretched hand being the last to go.
“Okay, now I’m impressed.”
On trembling knees, I backed from the room into the passageway, never taking my eyes off the spot where the tall, beautiful Cheyenne had been only moments earlier.
Once out of there, I shut the door, whirled and fled to the stairs and scrambled up, feet scarcely touching any of the treads. Maybe I screamed, I’m not sure. All I could hear was a roaring in my ears and a terrible thought going round and round in my brain. I had gone crazy. Hallucinations were the first sign, weren’t they? And he couldn’t be real, could he? Of course not. People didn’t go around moving through walls, appearing out of nowhere.
Evidently I had screamed, because Ginni came running, eyes wide. “What is it? My God, what happened?”
Panting hard, I stood before her, fingers spread over my chest. But I couldn’t utter a sound.
“Okay. Five words. First word. How many syllables?” she said.
“I... this is... no... time to joke.”
“Uh huh. Why the screaming and yelling? I thought a banshee had been turned loose. Not that I’d be surprised. We’ve got everything else in here.”
“No... uh, listen. I saw... I saw a man.”
“Well, that’s not so bad.”
“No kidding.” I sucked in a few breaths, determined to get my story out, but doing that with Ginni wasn’t exactly easy.
“Why didn’t you bring him upstairs with you? I don’t see any reason to scream unless he ... he didn’t, did he?” She turned me around, checked out my clothing. “You look all together.”
“Dammit, Ginni. He was there and then he wasn’t. He just backed out of the room, right through the wall.
She studied me for a long moment. “Now, honey. You been taking Ambien again? I told you it’d turn you into a zombie. Hallucinations and all.”
“Stop it. I’m not on drugs and I’m not hallucinating.” At least I hoped I wasn’t. “He called me by name, said he’d been sent to help me. I think it’s about Lara and the accident and everything.” The everything I couldn’t even tell her.
“Aw, honey. Don’t go there. Hey, let’s go down and see if he’s come back. I’d like to see this guy; straighten him out.” She pulled at my arm and started down the steps, obviously trying to humor me.
“You go. I’ll wait here, thank you very much.” I pulled from her grasp and she started down, then turned and gazed up at me, all the teasing gone from her demeanor. “You’re serious, aren’t you? I thought you were messing with me cause I’m into Ouija boards and séances and the like... you know...” She shrugged.
“I’m not messing with you. He was dressed in buckskins and had long, shiny black hair and he talked to me, said his name was Wolf Shadow... oh, God, Ginni, what do you suppose this is all about? Am I going crazy?”
I couldn’t tell her how close I’d come to going with him without question.
“Don’t be silly. You couldn’t make anything like this up. It’s about not sleeping enough, that’s all. It’s about spending all your spare time sitting at Lara’s bedside like you could wish her back. You’re dwelling on your own guilt too much, honey. You’ve got to get hold of yourself. See a grief counselor or something. This has gone on too long.”
“Then you do think I’m hallucinating... that it’s about Lara?” I could still scarcely utter her name, and when I did, I burst out bawling like a baby. Feeling totally helpless and unable to stop.
“Indirectly, yes, I do.” She came back up the few steps and put her arms around me. “Let’s wait up here until Dean arrives, then we’ll go down together and unpack those things. That’ll cheer you up. You always enjoy wading around through old, crackly papers, books and smelly clothing.”
She was right, I did. “But how come when you talk to the departed, it’s okay, and when I—”
“That’s different and you know it.”
Actually, seeing the apparition, or whatever the hell it was, had probably been the result of lack of sleep, or the nightmare, or both. I know the spirits of the long dead linger around places like the museum, where they feel comfortable. They come and go, visit their lost lives, then move on. But I never expected one to actually contact me. Certainly not one so gorgeous. After I’d sat in on a few unsuccessful séances with Ginni, I’d given up on an actual face to face with the departed.
Before we could discuss my sighting further, or go downstairs to investigate, Dean came lumbering in. Now he’s an enigma. A man with two PhDs who has traveled the world digging up artifacts and spent time teaching on the college level, and he settles on running this museum in the back end of nowhere. Well, I don’t really mean that, because I wouldn’t live anywhere else, except Dean’s been in all the famous cities of the world, old and new. He must’ve seen some place he liked more than Pinedale, Wyoming.
“Good morning, ladies.”
Besides being the typical professorial type, he dressed and acted like one. Hearing the greeting, you’d expect him to doff an imaginary hat, but he only shuffled toward the employees room to deposit his ever present umbrella – like it rains that much in Wyoming – his sack lunch and the corduroy jacket with elbow patches he wore year round.
“Going downstairs to unpack the Horning exhibits,” Ginni said when he returned.
He nodded and stopped to align some books in their racks. “You run across the lost gold, be sure to let me know,” he said, aiming a wink at me.
Before I could reply, Ginni grabbed my arm and dragged me down into the deepest recesses of the building. No doubt that was a funny sight, little Ginni dragging a reluctant bigger me toward the staircase when I’d rather have done most anything but go down there and face my fantasy lover. For in those moments, that’s what he’d become. Someone to flee with, someone to take me to his world where my worries would disappear.
Chances are I could’ve resisted Ginni’s grip enough to escape, but just the idea of acting so silly embarrassed me. Especially in front of Dean.
So down we went, into the gloom.
“Where did you see this... this ghost?”
I pointed down the hall. She marched off toward the closed door like she might be twice her size, ready to take on anything, man or beast. And she probably is big enough, considering all the classes she takes in martial arts, some of which I can’t pronounce or spell. I prefer hiking and biking, but haven’t done much lately other than visit my sister Lara. Ginni says that’s for sissies, but she’ll walk and ride bikes if I’ll punch bags and kick other people in the butt. I haven’t yet taken her up on it.
Feeling more and more foolish, I trailed along behind her down the dark hallway, not sure whether I wanted the Cheyenne to appear or not. It would be fun to see Ginni’s reaction. Her and her Ouija board and all the big talk about communing with the spirits.
At the closed storage closet, she shoved open the door and flicked on the light. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.” She glanced back over her shoulder at me with an expression that made me want to smack her. “Nope. No one here.”
“I told you, he left.”
“Yeah. Through the wall, you said.”
I shrugged. “Well, that’s what he did.”
The moment she turned full away from the room, I glanced over her shoulder. Against the backdrop of paneling, two golden eyes glistened in the shadows, then were gone. My yelp came too late for Ginni to see what I saw.
She put an arm around my shoulder. “You know, this isn’t fair. I work like crazy to get even one spirit to talk to me and you run into one without even trying.”
“No. It was nothing. It’s okay. I’m jumpy, is all. It was nothing. I swear, nothing.”
No way in hell was I going to get her started on this. Next thing you know, she’d have me holding hands at a candlelit table, moaning and beseeching the spirits to appear and commune with her. No, I’d handle this myself. After all, the man – or ghost or whatever he was – had made no attempt to harm me. Not yet, anyway.
Images In Scarlet
IMAGES IN SCARLET
The man lay across the trail on his back, one arm curled above his head, the other crooked over his chest. He looked so peaceful he might have been asleep. A long-legged bay mare waited patiently nearby, as if she were used to such unusual antics.
Allie reined in the mules. With a deep ditch on one side of the road, an incline on the other, she couldn't drive around him. He could be dead, shot maybe. Or it might be a trap, someone else waiting in the bushes to spring out at her. Wrapping the fistful of leather reins around the brake handle, she hopped down and studied the man.
He hadn't even twitched.
Beneath the duster, a Navy Colt hung heavy on her belt. She tucked the coat back to clear the butt of the revolver and glanced around cautiously. Ringo, her spirited palomino stallion, pawed up dust and tugged at the line that held him to the back of the wagon. Clearly he liked the looks of that fine mare.
"Hush up, you randy old stud," she said, and approached the man with caution.
His chest rose and fell in the rhythm of sleep. No blood, no visible bullet holes. No one else around. She eyed him once again, shrugged. If he wanted to sleep in such a strange place that was his business, but blocking the road was not.
Expecting bandits to spring out of nowhere, she took another quick look around. A light wind stirred the early spring leaves; the only other sound was the swishing of the animals' tails. She hunkered down, shoved her Stetson back with a thumb, skinned off one glove and touched his forehead. A sheen of sweat there, but he felt cool.
He didn't move.
In repose, he had a pleasant face. Fine dark brows, gently sculptured cheekbones and a high-bridged nose. A battered brown felt hat lay smashed under one shoulder, ebony hair powdered with dust spread around his head in waves. He was beautiful in a wicked sort of way, a little gaunt, as if he hadn't eaten much lately, or slept.
Despite the frustration of the moment, she grinned. He was certainly making up for that. For a while longer confusion kept her from acting.
The truth was, she didn't know quite what to do. She didn't need the trouble this might bring. Let someone else come along and help him out, if he needed help. Maybe he was just a bit strange and liked to sleep in odd places. She could go back a ways, get off the road and bypass him. Leaving him lying in the middle of the trail like this didn't seem right.
Ahead, the mare moved uncertainly, eyed the rambunctious stallion, then trotted off, eyes rolling. She was clearly not in the mood for romance, even if Ringo was. If the mare ran off, she would be faced with yet another dilemma. Worse to leave a man afoot and lying across the trail than to simply leave him and his horse to their own weird business.
Despite her inclination to escape the situation, she stomped back to the wagon for a canteen of water. "The last thing you need, Allie Caine, is some stray to take care of." She untied the bandanna from around her neck and returned to the slumbering man, still grumbling under her breath. When she knelt beside him, he made a small noise down in his throat that startled her, brought her up short. She waited. He slept on, and finally she wet the cloth and began to bathe his face.
Long dark lashes shadowed his stubbled cheeks and they fluttered when she wiped his brow. The hand flung across his chest moved, brushed lightly over the swell of her breast and grabbed at her arm.
It had been a long time since a man had touched her, and pleasant memories feathered through her mind, delicious as a river breeze on a hot summer night.
Without opening his eyes he ran his tongue over dry lips, and she tipped the canteen, letting a few drops dribble into his mouth. He licked the moisture away, rolled his head, groaned.
She could kiss him or kill him; he was that vulnerable.
Smoky blue eyes batted open, flared.
"Lorena?" His voice rasped dry as corn husks in a July wind. "Lorena?"
Unexpectedly, energy pulsed through him, catching her off guard. His muscles bunched and he scrambled to his knees, pushing her away.
"Leave me be. Who the hell are you? Get off, get away from me. Go. I'm all right, dammit. Just get the hell away from me." The words crackled in the silence of the warm afternoon.
She remained there on her knees a moment longer. Shock at his violent reaction kept her from responding until he staggered to his feet.
The mare whinnied, trotted toward him, still keeping an eye on Ringo and his male shenanigans.
The man nailed her with a wild stare, swayed as if he wasn't sure where the ground was, then limped backward, one hand reaching for the dangling reins.
Something was definitely wrong with him. She rose, lifted one hand. The wet bandanna drooled down her arm. "You don't have to act like such a jackass. I was only trying to help you."
A dust devil whipped at her coat tails and lifted the hat from her head. She grabbed at it, flinging an epithet into the swirling grit.
Jake hesitated, mesmerized by long strands of blond hair that danced crazily around the woman's face, reminding him of something he couldn't quite grasp. The flash of memory disappeared, lost in the dark caverns of his mind with all the other images. Dammit, why couldn't he keep them long enough to reconstruct even one complete scene from his past? The mare nudged him between the shoulder blades, but he continued to stare at the woman. She wore a black duster that billowed out like great bird's wings when she chased down the hat. Behind her a strange contraption. Some sort of wagon with dark curtains all around. He'd seen one like it once, but couldn't recall where. A graceful palomino, its mane and tail the color of her hair, stood beside the wagon; two mules waited in harness.
The entire episode made him feel disconnected, as if he were dreaming, yet that couldn't be, for he sensed the terrifyingly familiar emptiness of reality. If he knew what he was doing out here, he would ask her the same. But he didn't, so he kept quiet. Whatever her agenda, it was none of his business.
She stood there scowling at him and absently brushed dirt from the hat with the sleeve of her coat. Even as he readied to mount the bay, who had grown used to him using the stirrup on the right to favor his bad leg, he fought the urge to go back, talk to her, grab her by those bird wings and shout into that lovely face, "Who am I? Who the hell am I?"
With the questions burning in his mind, Jake settled into the saddle, and toed the left stirrup onto his boot.
Fear had boiled into his throat when he'd first opened his eyes and looked up at her, dressed all in black, the wide brim of her hat shadowing those finely etched features. The pounding of his heart had nearly choked him. Why he should have been afraid he couldn't say. He only knew that terror gripped him with a steely fist. One would think he'd be used to it, coming to consciousness not knowing what had happened or where he was. It should be old hat by now, but it wasn't. Each time the panic was the same. God help him.
And so he set the mare in motion without saying a word, because he had so few choices. He didn't understand the things that had happened to him, so how could he possibly explain them to someone else? Besides, there was no need. Riding away was too simple. As the mare moved off, Jake turned his head to catch a last glimpse of the woman.
She stood in the middle of the road, arms gesturing. The wind blew her words at him. "Well, you're welcome, you ungrateful wretch. Next time sleep in the ditch, not in the middle of the danged road. Don't you know someone could run over you?"
By the time she finished shouting she had risen to her toes, one hand jamming the hat down tight, as if it might explode off her head with the eruption of her temper.
He stopped looking back and kicked the mare into a canter.
Allie stomped toward the wagon. "Next time I find somebody passed out in the damned road I'll leave him right there and drive right over the son of a bitch." Immediately she realized how ridiculous the statement was and laughed at herself. How often would she find a man lying in the middle of the trail?
She climbed back aboard the what's-it wagon and uncoiled the reins. As the mules moved off, something on the ground glimmered in the sunlight. She reined in the team and hopped down. Half buried in the red powdery dust was a small mounted picture of a beautiful young woman, a carte de visite once very popular but now somewhat out of date. She picked it up, rubbed her fingertips over the image to clean it and saw scratched into the corner, Love,. Lorena. 1861.
She turned it over, studied the back closely, looked once again at the lovely visage, features indistinct like the popular impressionistic paintings. It was Matthew Brady's work, no mistaking that. What was some down-in-the-heels drifter doing with such a lovely Brady carte de visite? He probably stole it. Or maybe someone else had lost it on the trail. Yet hadn't that been the name on the drifter's lips as she bent over him?
"Lorena," he'd said, like a question. "Lorena?"
No, it belonged to him all right, that was for sure. Too much of a coincidence to go any other way.
Off in the distance a fine trail of dust rose from the hooves of his mount. She ought to chase him down, but to hell with him—him and his attitude. Finally she shrugged and tucked the likeness in her pocket. The next time she saw Brady she'd ask him about it. Chances are he would remember the sitting, having an eye for such beauty as the girl Lorena possessed.
Leaving behind the Missouri Ozarks, she rode on north toward Westport and the Santa Fe Trace. Behind her lay only the ragtag remnants of home. Nothing left there but bad memories. Up ahead, out West somewhere, waited her future, and she had no patience with remembering what had gone before. That life was buried along with her mother and sister, and finally her father. Everything she had known and loved was gone, leaving her alone and on her own.
She propped one boot on the footboard and slapped the mules' behinds with the thick reins. Half the day had vanished, and she was through wasting time on thoughts of some stranger who had passed out in an inconvenient place.
But the expression in his eyes when she'd awakened him stayed with her, a haunting glimpse of poignant hope washed away by despair. She scolded herself for being so romantic. Anyway, one couldn't tell that much from a single brief glance. Such fanciful notions came from being alone too much.
That evening Jake made camp beside a creek. He untied his bedroll, emptied both saddlebags and filled a small tin with water, which he shoved into the fire. Restlessly he prowled the perimeter, rubbing at his aching thigh until the damaged muscles loosened up some. When the water began to simmer he tossed in the last of the Arbuckle coffee. Unrolling a greasy cloth, he scraped thick mold off a slice of fatback with his hunting knife, threaded the meat onto a green stick and propped it out over the flames. His stomach rolled with hunger.
In the next town he'd have to find work for a few days to replenish his supply of ammunition and food. Not that cartridges for the Spencer would do him much good; half the time he couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, let alone a fleeing rabbit or scolding squirrel. Hunger had been his companion for so long he ought to be used to it.
After eating the rancid meat, he propped his head on the saddle that smelled of leather blended with the mare's sweat and his own, and sipped at the coffee. He'd save some for breakfast, though it wouldn't taste very good after sitting near the fire all night. Overhead, stars twinkled faintly through a drift of clouds. An owl called in the warm night air. Everything he smelled or heard or touched evoked bittersweet but fleeting visions from his past.
Dammit, why couldn't he hold on to them? Pain wrenched at his heart, for a man with no past could hardly be expected to dream of a future, could he? And so he just rode on and on, one way to go being as good as another. The chance he'd run across somebody who recognized him was slim, yet in every town hope rose anew.
That woman who'd found him back there on the trail, her dark gaze as velvety as this night, reminded him more of a time than of a person. For just an instant, when he'd opened his eyes to find her leaning over him, he'd thought he was back home and the nightmare had ended. But of course that had been stupid. How could he go home when he didn't know where home was?
Hoping at least for soothing dreams from a subconscious that seemed shut off permanently, he let his eyes drift closed.
The rattling of a wagon, the clip-clop of hooves aroused him; a god-awful crash followed by explosive feminine cussing cut the darkness. Someone sure knew some dandy words. Even as he went in search of the origin of the commotion, he admired the imaginative string of expletives.
He figured he knew who was out there even before he spotted the magnificent stallion glimmering in the starlight and the black hulk of a wagon, canted at an odd angle. He could make out the woman, busily unhitching the team, having turned her verbal wrath on the two mules. They took it pretty well, considering that she was calling them slab-sided, devil-eared critters that couldn't keep their ugly eyes on the trail but had to go gawking off like cross-eyed jack rabbits with their butts on fire, dragging her and the wagon through a damned hole, for God's sake.
Jake chuckled. Lord, she had a vocabulary that would shame a drunken bull whacker. And she also had herself a major problem. It appeared that she'd lost a wheel on that strange-looking wagon she drove. Replacing a wheel was no mean feat for two strong men, let alone a woman, even though she did look and act like she could handle herself. Big gal, tough and stringy, he'd guess, though he couldn't tell much for that duster she wore over all those men's duds.
He decided to make his presence known so she wouldn't take a shot at him. "Ma'am? Ho, lady. If you'd hush up that cussing, them mules'd stand."
"What in tarnation do you know about it?" Her shout caused both animals to tauten their hindsides, and one kicked out, barely missing her.
What she said under her breath, he had a hunch was better left unheard.
He limped to their heads, talking low and sweet, and got hold of the leather harness.
"Ho, girls. Sweet girls, you don't want to make such a fuss." He held the back of a hand to one soft nose, then the other, let the animals sniff at his skin, get acquainted.
Both of the creatures huffed and dropped their heads in submission. He rubbed their noses in turn.
"Got 'em eating out of your hand, don't you?" the woman said with some sarcasm.
Jake scratched one of the mules between the eyes and she actually groaned in ecstasy. "Just got to know how to treat the ladies, I reckon," he said. "I expect you can finish what you started now without any more trouble."
"That's plumb disgusting the way they're lollygagging over you."
"Watch what you say. You'll have 'em all riled up again."
She went to work on the hitches, chains rattled and she loosed the team from the wagon. "I can handle it now, thank you. Better not have broken any of my plates."
"Oh, you're welcome. But I thought I might just stick around and see how you figure on getting that wheel back on, if it ain't busted, that is. 'Course if it is, that's another story."
She moved up beside him till he could smell the womanly fragrance in her hair and clothes, and something else he couldn't quite place, a chemical odor of some kind. Her proximity was disturbing and he took a quick step back. And what was that she'd said about her plates? She had more to worry about than a few broken dishes.
Apparently, she took her first good look at him in the darkness. "You're the man from before."
"The one I found sprawled all over the road. The one who rode off without so much as a thank you after I saved his bacon."
"Was there a stage coming, or maybe a stampede?"
Jake laughed again. That was twice in one evening. He'd have to be careful. Too much jocularity wasn't good for a man in his condition.
"You were very rude," she said.
"I beg your pardon, I truly do. I guess I just don't know how to act around folks. I thank you for saving my bacon, ma'am." He touched the brim of his hat but didn't remove it.
"You don't have to be such a smart mouth."
"Smart ass. Smart mouth. Anything else about me you find intelligent?"
"You know, it wouldn't bother me much if you just went back to wherever you came from and left me the hell alone."
He shrugged and leaned forward to steady the singletree while she unhooked one of the mules.
"What day is it?" he asked.
"You mean, day of the week?"
"No, date, month, year."
"You don't know?"
"I'm just trying to see if you're in your right mind. Humor me."
"May 3, 1866."
He nodded. That was a relief. At least he'd quit losing time. For a while there days, sometimes whole weeks, would disappear into the void of his faulty memory.
"Well, is that right?" she asked impatiently.
"I reckon it is. Look, ma'am, it's awful dark out here to try and fix that wheel tonight. I've got me a little camp just yonder by the creek. I'll share my last cup of coffee with you and you can bed down across the fire. I'm harmless, I promise you, and in the morning I'll help you get that wheel back on."
"No man is harmless. That's why I carry this," she said, and whipped out a wicked-looking revolver, just like she might know how to use it. Thankfully, she didn't point it at him, but simply held it up so he could see its black barrel gleam in the starlight.
"Your point is well taken, ma'am. Join me or not, as you wish."
The owl hooted again and something scurried through the underbrush. Her stallion danced and whinnied before she finally replied.
"Just let me get a light and check inside the wagon, make sure none of my chemicals have spilled." She poked around inside the thing for a while, he saw a match flare and a lantern glowing. After a few minutes, she climbed down carrying the light. "Everything's fine. Packed those plates real good. Don't know how long it'd take to get some more sent out from back East."
"Feller could always just buy an old common plate in a general store. They might be nearly as good as those you could get from back East."
She chuckled. "Not that kind of plate. Photographic plates. I'm a photographer. I take pictures."
"Ah." He was dumbstruck. He'd seen some men photographers toting around those big awkward cameras, but never thought about a woman doing it. Before he could ask, she spoke again.
"Help me lead these dumb animals down there, or one of 'em is apt to fall in a hole and break its leg," she said.
Cheerfully he took hold of the two mules and left her to fetch the stallion. It was nice having someone around, brief though it would probably be. Once she saw him at his worst she'd light out.
Together they staked the animals out near feed and water. The mare he called Molly kicked up such a ruckus they tied her out of reach of Ringo.
"Sorry about that," he said. "I'm afraid she isn't broke to company, especially the male variety."
Allie thought the same of herself, but didn't say so. Instead she produced supplies from the wagon, and said, "Oh, Ringo's randy all the time, like most men." Immediately she wanted to bite her tongue. She didn't even know this man's name, and to say a thing like that to him embarrassed her. She did the only thing she could think of and asked him who the hell he was.
"Jake," he told her tersely.
"No, not Just Jake. Jake. My name is Jake."
"Not Jake What, either."
"You told me so once already. Look, Jake is enough, and what's yours?"
"Allie. Allison Caine." She glared at him across the fire.
"Well, Allison Caine, I'll tell you something if you won't breathe a word of it to anyone."
She looked all around to emphasize that there was no one to tell. "Agreed."
"I'm on a secret mission for the government and that's why I can't reveal my identity."
He threw back his head and laughed again.
She liked the sound of that, yet thought he surprised himself each time it happened, like he hadn't laughed in a very long time.
"You're not going to tell me, are you?" she finally asked after his laughter died away.
"Okay, then, fine. I'll just call you Jake, then."
He looked at her a long time across the fire, tiny flames dancing in the brilliant blue of his eyes. "That'll be good, Allie."
A vague, frightening desire passed through her, and she replied in a sharp, biting tone. "You can call me Miss Caine."
He grinned, one corner of his full lips quirking. "Miss Caine. I'll be happy to do that. And thanks for the extra grub. My supplies have run a mite low."
"Always happy to share. You'll pay me back tomorrow when we fix that wheel."
Allie snuggled down in the bedroll and pulled the wool blanket up under her chin. Dammit to hell, she hadn't wanted to take up with anyone, much less a man. She needed time to recover from her father's death and the sense of guilt that weighed so heavily on her soul. And just as much, she needed to forget Eli and his betrayal, just when she'd needed him most. Yet she felt a companionship with this man. He had a peculiar sense of humor, even though he was a bit rough around the edges. She wondered if he was on the run from the law, but dismissed that possibility. That tended to make a man jumpy, and Jake was certainly well relaxed. He didn't even have a revolver, and the Spencer he carried remained in its scabbard alongside his saddle, not at hand like he might anticipate using it.
He had jumped and run from her earlier, and that had been suspicious. Something had changed his mind, though, and he appeared almost happy to have her company. She was pleased to have his, at least temporarily, for replacing the wheel was not a job one man could do, and certainly not a woman alone.
She feared that wasn't the only reason, but decided not to investigate those feelings. As soon as the wheel was fixed, she'd send him on his way.
Sighing, she turned over and drifted into sleep.
Jake, his saddle and mare were gone when she awoke. She stormed about the camp awhile. He was glad enough to wolf down her food the night before, only to slip off like a blamed coward when he sensed hard work ahead. She should have expected it. Men tended to desert women. She supposed that was just bred into them.
Tears burned her eyes and she moved to the creek to splash cold water over her face.
As she rose she heard a great clamor coming from the direction of her wagon. She hurried back to camp, snatched up her Colt and went to investigate.
She found Jake aboard the mare, and he had rigged up the darndest contraption. A rope hung over the highest branch of a nearby tree and was looped around the rear axle assembly. The mules were harnessed and tied to the other end of the rope.
"Hey, wait a minute," she shouted.
"Morning, ma'am. I was wondering if you were going to join us. I may need your help." He kicked free of the stirrups and slid off the mare. The wheel that had fallen into the ditch leaned up against the side of the wagon. He limped toward it, grinning at her.
"Broke the pin. Only damage I can see. Spindle and hub both seem okay. No busted spokes either. Don't suppose you've got any spare parts and tools?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. Up under the seat. Fella advised me about what to carry. Being a woman, I couldn't be expected to know." She started to swing up onto the wagon.
"Careful there, I wouldn't make any startling moves. Those mules are anxious to do their job. Ho, girls. Steady," he crooned in the animals' direction.
She eyed the setup. "You sure this'll work?"
"Nope, but it ought to. See, as the mules move forward, pulling on the rope, it'll have to lift the wagon up off the ground. And when it does, we'll just slip that thing right back where she belongs, slick as can be. Blamed pin just came loose and fell out, no telling where, and so the wheel worked its way off. Need to check 'em occasionally in the future. That's for your edification, being a woman and all."
She glared at him, thought about hurling the tool kit at his head, but reconsidered when she realized how heavy it was.
He reached up, swung it easily to the ground and opened the lid.
Studying the dangerous contraption he'd rigged, a fleeting fear rippled through her. Did he fall flat on his face very often like he had back there on the road? And if so, suppose he did it just as everything was moving into place. There he'd lie, leaving her to figure out what to do next. He didn't give her time to ponder, but made his way to the mules. Bunching up their reins, he urged them forward.
"Easy now, girls. Don't overdo it. Giddy up there, whoa. How's it doing?"
Allie dragged her fascinated gaze from him and glanced at the wagon. "It's working—it's coming up."
"Watch it, then, and tell me when it's good. Then roll that wheel over. Soon as you can, ease her on and give me a shout."
"Did you hear me?"
"Yes." She rolled the wheel closer. It was heavy and took all her strength to move but she got the job done. Inch by slow inch the mules lifted the rear corner of the wagon until she could slide the cumbersome wheel into place.
"How you doing?" he shouted.
"It's there, but I can't get it all the way on—it's too heavy."
Immediately he was at her back, his own arms spanning her and the large wheel, and with a final mighty heave they shoved it onto the spindle. He lurched against her, transferring heat and strength from his body. Taut thighs rippled against hers, his arms remained around her and she wanted loose, wanted away from his embrace because she didn't like what she was feeling, not one bit.
He appeared not to notice, but said, "Okay, you go hold their heads. Keep 'em standing till I get the pin in place and the washer and nut on. We don't want 'em taking off on us. No telling what might happen."
She was forced to slide under his arm and steadied herself by putting one hand on his bulging muscle. It was like touching bands of iron fresh from a forge.
"Ma'am," he said as she ducked free. "Don't rush up on those mules or you might be digging me a grave."
"No, I won't. And you don't take a dive right now, either."
He grinned, eyes as bright a blue as cornflowers, with a sparkle like sunlight on a creek. A rivulet of sweat trickled from under his hair and ran through the dark stubble along his jaw. His maleness filled her nostrils, his breath washed over her face. Danger—and his enjoyment of it—sent thrills of excitement through her.
She had almost forgotten her warning when he replied in a light and sassy tone, "I'll do my best not to. Go on, now. But real, real easy."
Lips tight, she nodded and moved cautiously toward the mules, talking to them like he did, even mimicking the words he used.
Rope held taut as a bowstring, the animals stood fast and rolled their eyes as she eased to where they could see her well.
Perspiration broke out on her face, even though the morning was cool and dew-kissed. She heard a dull thunk from behind, and was afraid to look. One of the mules twitched an ear and shuffled her front feet.
Allie's heart lurched in her chest. "Ho, sweetheart. Stand easy. Whoa, girl." She held out a hand slowly so that the animal would lean forward to investigate, and wished she'd thought to pull some grass. Then she wound her fingers firmly around the leather and steadied their heads.
It seemed forever before he shouted, "Okay, Miss Caine, you can back 'em down."
Her breath came out in a whoosh! And she did as he'd said, then leaned forward onto the nearest mule's back because her knees were trembling so badly they wouldn't hold her up.
Jake came up behind her, and she whirled and threw her arms around his neck. "We did it! We did it!"
He tensed against the embrace, as if she'd struck him, then firmly removed her arms. "We surely did, but we'd better get these ropes undone before these mules take off and flip that wagon over on its back. Then we'd have us a real dilemma." He sent her a quick grin. "That would break your plates for sure."
As much embarrassed by hugging him as by his reaction to the gesture, she took a fast step backward. Together they untied the rope and hitched the mules to the wagon.
Eyes dancing, he glanced at her and asked, "Reckon we broke any of your plates?"
She sensed he wanted something from her, but wasn't sure what it was. It didn't matter, though, for no matter what he needed, she didn't have it to give. Where men were concerned, she was all used up.
Well, it's finished. All six back list books have been uploaded to Kindle. Now my work has just begun as I try to interest readers without being a pest. Spurs Saddles & Sass goes up free Thursday, April 26 for five days, so take this opportunity to read about all my Western women characters, what their lives were like before the story begins.
Also take a peek at their love life in excerpts from romantic interludes between the heroine and hero. Enjoy
Students struggle to learn Publishing to Kindle at recent workshop
My latest workshop was a big success as a dozen writers gathered to learn how to turn their books into E books and publish them to Kindle.
For information on my next Writer's Workshop, and a possible Publish to Kindle Workshop sometime this summer, go to my Events page.
Review of Wolf Song
Her newest novel, "Wolf Song," takes author Velda Brotherton a step out of her past books, which include romances, westerns, and a non-fiction biography, among others. But don't worry -- it's a good step.
Protagonist Olivia "Liv" Dahl's life is in a sort of limbo. Her parents died when she was just 18, forcing her to put her own plans on hold to raise her younger sister Lara. A year before the story begins, Liv, her boyfriend Brian, and Lara are driving on a mountain road and crash trying to avoid hitting a bicyclist. Liv and Brian are unharmed, but Lara is seriously injured, and has been in a coma since the crash.
Liv has sold her family's ranch and used the money from the sale, along with her parents' life insurance money, to pay for Lara's care in a long-term care facility. Her dream of using it to provide Lara the college education that she never had was another victim of the car crash. The last blow came when Liv's boyfriend left her, unable or unwilling to cope with her grief, her guilt, and the time she spends at her little sister's bedside.
Liv is living in a tiny cabin outside of the town of Pinedale, Wyoming. Each day she bicycles to town to her job in the town's museum, a museum of mountain men and local natural history. At night, her nightmares about the accident have been replaced by strange dreams of running with a pack of wolves led by a huge silver alpha male. When she starts seeing a sexy Cheyenne man whom she can touch, but who can also "melt" through walls, she can't decide if she's just plain going crazy, or if it's the stress of her sister's condition and the doctor's pressure. Since Lara went into the coma, she's been in a vegetative state with no hope of recovery; Liv's money is almost gone, the doctor -- and the mysterious sensual stranger -- think that Liv should turn off the machines that are keeping Lara's body alive, and set her spirit free.
From the opening scene, "Wolf Song" does sing. Brotherton's writing easily creates three-dimensional characters, both good and bad, and a vivid picture of this little valley town in Wyoming between the Grand Teton and Wind River mountains. A variety of events leads the reader through Liv's problems with her sister, the mysterious Cheyenne, a man called Singer, her best (and only) friend Ginni's work with wolf restoration, and the threats from ranchers and hunting guides that Ginni's blog provokes. The threats are followed by slaughtered wolves and a fire at Liv's cabin, and then things start getting really interesting.
With a matter of life and death, a sexy romance with what may be a shape-shifter, and the mystery of who is targeting both wolves and the people who are trying to save them, "Wolf Song" has something for every reader, both YA and adult.
Lori Orser (KimsMom on Amazon)
Stone Heart's Woman
Silence hammered in his ears like the rumble of gunfire that lingered in the haze of his memory. An arm, heavy with death, lay across the back of his neck, pinning his cheek against the frozen, blood-soaked earth. Stone Heart had no muscle or bone but sprawled limp, molded into the snow bank. Either he had perished under the white soldier’s vicious attack or was frozen stiff. Perhaps this was only a vision of himself alive, his spirit determined to take one final look at what horrors had been visited on the Beautiful People before journeying to the afterlife. The only way he knew he lived was the fire that burned in his side and leg.
A stench of black powder hung in the frigid air that earlier had echoed with hideous shouts of blue coats. To the west a huge silver moon poised on the horizon and slipped away, even as a wintry sun rose, nipping at ghastly thick shadows that lay across the battlefield. Everything glistened with a coat of new fallen snow. Still afraid to move, he gazed into the grotesque face of his friend White Elk, who lay still in death, arms and legs splayed awkwardly. Eyes wide and unseeing, mouth open in a silent scream; blood matted the ebony braids, a rime of ice frosted his flesh.
In fear that a white soldier remained to guard the battle ground, Stone Heart slanted his eyes to stare through the mist of his breath into the pearlescent sky. He would wait before learning if his spirit and body remained with the living. Had the soldiers butchered all his people? The women and children, the elderly, along with the exhausted, half-starved warriors who had rebelled one final time, with no hope for anything but death. They must have thought him dead too, or they would not have left him here. He felt a coward, submitting to his wounds while the massacre raged around him. Surely some must have gotten away. They couldn’t all be dead, could they?
Lulled by the dangerous, creeping cold, he lay thus for what seemed like a full night embraced by nightmarish visions. Many who could not escape Fort Robinson had killed their wives and children to save them from the white soldiers, then taken their own lives. Boys armed with broken knives went up against the fiery blast of rifles. Yet still some survived and fled alongside him. When he stirred from the reverie and opened his eyes, the sky gleamed like the burnished blade of his knife. Only a few moments had passed, though it might have been an eternity. An eternity in which he punished himself for failing to save even one of them. The great elk-hide coat had protected him from the cold, yet its weight added to his dilemma. He must rise, for he would be dead if he lay here any longer. It was clear the soldiers had moved on.
He stirred. The slightest movement inflamed the agony of his wounds. Leather fringes of his leggings clung fast to the frozen, bloodied ground. Filled with sadness and a growing rage, he welcomed the lances of pain that alerted his senses. Pushing to both feet, jerking free of the chains of ice and shaking away the snow, he squatted there a moment to breathe raggedly of the carnage-tainted air. And cursed his father’s white blood with each beat of his heart. If slashing his wrists would rid him of every drop, he would yank his knife from its scabbard and do so. Let the hateful legacy of the hated Yellow Hair soak into the ground, mix with the blood of his mother’s Beautiful People.
Fury drove him beyond the pain as he moved about among the dead, lifting a head here and there and recognizing one after the other of his dead brothers. His younger blood brother, Yellow Swallow, was not among them. Only nine summers in age, he too had been sired by the cruel Custer. A man who hated the Sioux and Cheyenne, but loved to lie with their women. Neither son would ever call him father.
Little Wolf carried the precious Chief’s bundle, and Stone Heart was filled with a need to find him and Dull Knife, the great elder leader. With frantic precision he passed from body to body, soon knew neither were among the dead, nor was Hog, the man who most recently had risen to lead the fight for the tribe’s freedom.
From where he searched along the bluffs he could see the dead strewn in the snow all the way down to the bridge over the White River. Let them not all be dead. Let some have escaped onto the prairie. Others may have been taken back to the fort by the white soldiers. Hope diminished the sorrow that cut deep into his heart, but he refused to allow either of the emotions to blur a rage that swelled within his chest until his heart thundered like the drums of battle. His Cheyenne soul and spirit roared in defiance, the bellow cutting the cold air and hammering at the lightening sky. He would kill them all, every white man that walked this land.
If the soldiers had his people, they would be at Fort Robinson, but not for long. Soon they would be sent back down south to Indian Territory, a punishment worse than death. For six moons they had fled that place, only to be recaptured. They must be allowed to go north to their home where they could live and die in peace, yet he had so little strength left in his body. The wounds he’d sustained bled heavily, but no more. Still he felt weak, depleted. How could he make this happen when he could scarcely move? He must rest, recover, and then rescue all who had survived.
With the distasteful purpose in mind, he set about robbing the dead, for only in that way could he live. He would need weapons, medicines, clothing to ward off the bitter cold, and food, though he doubted he would find much to eat on these half-starved, escaped captives.
Hardening his heart and spirit, he searched the bodies of his friends, brave warriors he had lived and worked and played with. He amassed an assortment of items: an old musket engraved with a dragon denoting itself as a trade rifle, good enough only for Indians; a possible bag containing black powder, patches and lead balls; a bundle of herbs and healing potions which he packed into a parfleche that already contained steel and a striking stone, candles and writing tools. From the bodies of the dead he gathered up extra leggings, several blankets and spare moccasins; from the lone soldier’s remains he took jerky, hardtack and a full canteen. The man’s weapon was nowhere, probably retrieved by the victorious army. Constructing a backpack with a large four-point trade blanket, he shrugged into it and retreated from the haunted place of death. To leave his friends like this shattered his stone heart, but he could do nothing for them except save the living.
By full daylight he had traveled a painfully short way from the massacre, driven forward by something buried so deep within him he could not give it a name. Moving beyond the pain and exhaustion into another plane where spirits guided the soul. Only temporarily, he left the White River and Fort Robinson behind. He would return, but for now he stumbled along the bluffs and over the endless prairie, looking for a place in which he could heal. Over and over he pitched face first into drifts swirled into mountains by the wind. Rose to move on only to fall again, until he could only crawl, leaving in the white powder a trail of blood. At last his strength gave out and he slept, in the bright winter sun on the open plains wrapped securely in brother elk’s hide and the blankets he had taken, trusting his friends the animals to keep watch over him. Once recovered he would return to Fort Robinson where he would live or die with what was left of the Cheyenne, whom even the whites referred to as the Beautiful People.
With a sigh, Aiden rose and went to the mirror to pin long blue feathers in her upswept hair.
“Stephan, if I could get my hands on your throat, I’d cheerfully squeeze the life out of you.” She pinched her cheeks to redden them and adjusted the bodice of the filmy blue dress. The color made her green eyes shine like turquoise.
Though she wanted nothing more than to lie down and cover her head, she raised her chin and stepped through the door onto the boardwalk. A bitter wind tore at the filmy skirts, exposed her stockinged legs and threatened to rip loose her hairdo. She fought to keep everything under control. Perhaps that’s why she failed to see the preacher’s wife until the lovely woman slammed her across the back of her shoulders with a broom.
“You’re not welcome in this town, you Godless creature,” Amelia Durbridge screamed and connected with another swing.
Racing from the street a mob of screeching followers descended upon Aiden, who threw her arms over her head in defense. Each attacker came armed with her favorite household weapon, beating her about the head and shoulders. The blows knocked her to her hands and knees, sent flashes of pain through her body. She tried crawling through the sea of swirling skirts, but the women quickly closed rank and trapped her. Some weren’t so kind as Amelia Durbridge, calling her whore and fallen woman as they pounded on her. Embarrassment almost outweighed the pain. If her own dear sainted mother could see her now, she’d die of shame.
One of the women abandoned her weapon to rip Aiden’s cloak from her shoulders, another tore the dress away to reveal her corset. A small bag filled of coins stuffed between her breasts popped out and dangled from the ribbon that secured it around her neck. Scrambling to all fours, she stuffed it back in place. Frantic to escape, she bumped into the solid legs of a man who dragged her upright into the shelter of his enormous bulk. She recognized aone of her admirers, Wiley Lawson, and leaned gratefully into the whisky smell of him.
Lawson's voice all but drowned out by the uproar, he shouted. “Ladies, now ladies.”
He managed to wrap her in a heavy fur coat that smelled of human and animal sweat, grain and tobacco smoke.
But the women had worked themselves into a frenzy and no mere man was about to slow them down.
“Out of the way,” one shouted, and hit him across the shins with the handle of her weapon.
“Dang it, Miz Lucy,” he yelled, hopping around on one foot, and losing his hold on Aiden. “What’s wrong with you? Does your husband know where you are?”
The rest of them turned on him in one huge roil of womanhood, and Aiden fled, dragging the heavy coat. She stumbled along the street, slipping and sliding through the churned, frozen ruts, past the theater where she would not be performing this night. The menfolk of town would have to find other recreation. Behind her the ranting mob finished with Lawson and turned once more on its original prey. She had to escape or they’d beat her half to death. Already her back and buttocks throbbed from the blows they’d sustained.
She rounded the corner into a bitter prairie wind that sucked her breath away. Gasping, stumbling, sobbing, turning her ankles in the absurd high-heeled boots, she jabbed her arms at the sleeves of the heavy coat. Gave up and hugged it around her half-bared chest. She dare not stop to put it on. Fury and outrage had turned the women from meek and obedient creatures to murderous predators. No doubt they’d had enough of their men worshiping at the feet of “that red haired Irish hussy.” If they caught her, they’d not only beat her senseless, they’d no doubt tar and feather her and run her out of town, as suggested by someone in the crowd.
At her back and closing on her quick came the rattle of wagon wheels over the frozen ruts. Lungs on fire, she knew she was lost, for she’d never outrun a team of horses. They must have taken Lawson’s wagon to run her down and finish the job they’d started.
Horror squeezed at her heart, boiled in her stomach, crawled up her back as she imagined them gaining on her. The wagon was right on top of her. If she was going down, she’d look her enemies in the eye. Out of breath and out of options, she turned to face the charging women, chin thrust high, the oversized coat wrapped tightly around her quaking body.
It wasn’t the charge of the virtuous women she faced, but rather a lone driver standing, whip snapping in the brittle air.
He slowed the horses, hauled back on the brake and gestured frantically. “Climb on, quick. I’ll get you out of town. Hurry, ma’am. Hurry.”
She leaped onto the back of the skittering rig, diving over the tailgate to land with a painful thud on hands and knees, the buffalo coat clutched under one arm.
Lawson whipped the team into a full run, sending her tumbling around between bags of feed and wooden casks; an assortment of tools of some kind prodded at her skin. Finally she managed to grab the back of the seat and hang on. Kneeling on a fat gunny sack, every muscle throbbing, she twisted a quick look over her shoulder. The pursuing mob faded into the distance. Howling like a pack of wolves, they brandished their brooms at the glowering winter sky. A wedge of fear in her throat loosened. Sucking at the frigid air until her lungs nearly caught fire, she sank to her butt and held on tight while Lawson urged the team onward. Galloping hooves thudded across the wooden bridge that spanned the river at the edge of town. The cold afternoon air crackled with the noisy clatter of wagon wheels over ice. Hunkered behind her savior, out of the brutal wind, she wrapped up in the warm coat and tried to calm her racing heart. Patted the bulge between her breasts. If she lost the money she would be doomed. Or maybe she was anyway.
When they reached the rise above town, he braced against the reins, handled the brake once more and coaxed his team to a halt on the slithery surface. He glanced down at the small town of Benson, Nebraska, clustered in the snow-drifted valley below. She followed his gaze. The crowd of women had dispersed, leaving the street deceptively peaceful.
“Sorry, ma’am. I couldn’t stop them. When a passel of females get the urge, a man just about has to stand back and let ‘em have at it. You okay?” He fingered his swollen lower lip.
Nodding, she swallowed hard and shuddered. “What got their dander up, do you suppose?”
“Why don’t you put that coat on?” He grinned wickedly. “Might of been that little bump and grind at the end of your finale last night, ma’am. Course I’m purely guessing.”
Dazed, she put her arms through the sleeves and felt instantly warmer. “I see nothing funny about this, Wiley.” Her voice trailed off, lips trembling so she couldn’t speak further. If she wasn’t careful she’d start bawling and the tears would freeze on her cheeks.
“A course not. I apologize.” He angled heavy dark brows at her. “You got a place to go?”
“Home. Saint Louis,” she murmured, “But I don’t know how to get there.”
“This weather, there won’t be no stage to carry you to the depot for days, maybe weeks. I hear some of the trains ain’t even running. You’d think in this day and age, they’d have a way to clear the tracks.”
The team danced nervously, and he hauled back on the reins, making gentling noises, then went on.
“Hell, the war’s been over almost fifteen years, still we live like we do out here. Did you ever see it so cold? And ever dang time it warms up a tad, here comes another blizzard. Haven’t seen the like in twenty year or more. Snow’s piled higher’n an ox’s ass.” A sly grin twisted his gnarly features, a slitted gaze fastened on her bosoms.
With both fists she wadded the coat tight under her chin and moved backward. One heel came down on a short handled cutting tool of some sort.
She ought to be more cautious than grateful. This could go from a bad situation to a worse one. Wiley could have his own reasons for rescuing her, nothing to do with sympathy for her plight.
Never once did he take his eagle eye off her as he wound the reins around the brake handle and made to step over the back of the seat into the bed with her. She’d been right to be wary. She knelt and grabbed the adz, held it at her side hidden in folds of the coat.
In the time it took her to do that, he towered over her, no longer a rescuer but a menacing threat.
“Ain’t nobody gonna come along here for a spell. Maybe we could get acquainted. I’ve seen the way you goggle down at us from off that stage. Looking to pick the one you want. Heard stories too, about how you like to have a little fun. I reckon you might owe me something for getting you out of your . . . little difugalty.” He gestured crudely with stained fingers.
“I am not a whore, nor do I goggle, Sir.” She hoped not to be forced to hit him with the cruel weapon.
One look at the expression in his lustful eyes told her it would do no good to protest what he’d said. He believed it as surely as those women. But it appeared she could do nothing about their perceptions that a woman who sang and danced was also a whore.
His gloved hand shot out, and she jerked away, retreated till the tailgate pressed against her legs. Big and strong as he was, if he got hold of her, all would be lost.
“Leave me be. Go home to your wife.”
“She ain’t as purty as you. Besides I got me four kids sleeping in the same room.”
“Shame on you, you filthy man, for what you’re thinking. And with a family to care for.”
“Yeah, I know.” Drooling, he advanced on her, eyes glazing in anticipation.
There was no place to go but over the side, and he’d catch up to her sure as the world. With a mighty heave she swung the adz upward, just like her brother Cormac had taught her. If Wiley hadn’t managed to deflect the blow the thick blade would have buried itself deep in his throat. As it was one side of the heavy iron head caught him across the jaw with a solid thunk. He made no sound as he fell backward into the seat.
“Oh, God, oh, Mother of God,” she whispered, and dropped the evil thing.
She hadn’t meant to kill him. What could she do now?
He moaned and stirred, driving both relief and panic through her. Thank God he was alive. She couldn’t go back to Benson, but she could send him there. She didn’t want him to freeze to death out here, just go away and leave her be.
Carefully, she crawled out of the wagon bed, her feet crunching in the churned ruts. The reins were stiff and difficult to unwind from the brake handle, but she finally loosened them, released the brake and went to the team’s head. Leading them in a circle she turned the wagon back toward town, slipping and sliding in the button-up shoes. With a hard smack to the flank of the lead animal, she sent the rig off down the road, carrying its unconscious passenger. Without looking back, she started in the other direction, with no idea where she was going.
Many times during that day she wished she’d tossed the unconscious man out in the snow and taken the wagon. Inventing dreadful fates for him kept her staggering along the road while the cold whipped at her face. That subject exhausted, she kept going by damning Stephan for bringing her to this terrible place and leaving her like an unwanted piece of furniture. How could he have done such a thing when only weeks earlier he’d sworn his undying love? Vowed to marry and protect her, too. Back in Saint Louis, sitting in the swing on the front porch, arm around her, smiling so innocently when Mama brought them lemonade. What a terrible joke. And what was even worse, she’d believed him. At her age, she should have known better. But that was precisely why she’d grabbed at the offer. Her thirtieth birthday bore down on her like a circling buzzard after carrion, dooming her to spinsterhood. No man to love her, no children to comfort her.
Occasionally she glanced over her shoulder, but there was nothing back there. Even the town of Benson had disappeared. Would someone come after her when the wagon arrived in town with its cargo? What if Lawson died? Would she be arrested and hanged? She probably ought to get off the road, but the idea of lighting out through piled drifts of snow held no appeal.
Overhead, the sky darkened, and spits of snow stung her exposed hands and face. Along the western horizon remnants of the dying sun purpled a gunmetal sky. Silhouetted against it perched a small house, nearly covered by a blanket of snow. Heart kicking at her ribs, she studied the soddie’s black hulk. It wasn’t quite dark enough for lamps to be lit, but it was quick getting that way. No tracks in the snow to show someone had come or gone. And the wind blew so hard there was no way of telling if smoke came from the chimney.
No matter, this was shelter. For a while longer, she stared at the house, afraid it would disappear. But it was real, and good enough reason for leaving the road. Taking a deep breath and drawing the coat close, she started across the desolate, snow-covered plain. The longer she walked the farther away the house appeared against the darkening sky.
A bank of angry clouds swallowed the last of the light, and she staggered, almost fell. Drifts of deep snow were frozen and slippery, and she fought her way over or around each in turn. Ahead the cabin held out its promise of shelter, but she was no longer sure she would make it. Legs numbed by the bitter cold, she dragged one foot after the other. Icy jags tore at her bare flesh like the fangs of wolves.
Damn the good women of Benson for tossing her out into the bitter January cold to freeze to death. She thought of dropping to the ground, letting the buffalo coat cover her and waiting for the end to come. She’d be there come spring, all stiff and blue as the very sky above. And wouldn’t that please those old biddies?
Before she’d halved the distance to the cabin, the howling wind thickened with icy pellets and fat flakes. If she didn’t reach shelter soon she would certainly die out here. The shack remained just out of reach as if teasing her with salvation. The high-button shoes with their cumbersome heels were nothing but trouble, worse in the snow, for they broke through the frozen crust with every step. She didn’t dare take them off, but struggled on, falling, then rising only to fall again.
Climbing once more to her feet, she gazed around frantically. Only darkness. Where was the cabin? Gone. She turned, turned again. Dear God in heaven, she must have passed it by. Terror took her in its deathly grip. She was going to die. Head bent low, she forced one numb foot ahead of the other, unwilling to give up until she could no longer even crawl.
Off to her right a moon the color of ice rose above the desolate horizon. Pointed across the treeless plain lighting the cabin with its silvery fingers as if pointing out her refuge. Otherwise she would have continued to walk on into oblivion, for she had gone past the place and was headed away. Frozen on the plains of Nebraska, her body might never have been recovered. Her family would never have known what had become of her. Newfound energy sent her stumbling the last few feet, the brutal, incessant wind buffeting her up onto the porch and through the open doorway. She used the last of her strength to shove the door closed, leaned against it gasping at air that fired her lungs. The wind howled mournfully, battered and beat at the walls, as if furious to have lost her.
It was cold inside, but not like out there in that blasted gale. Dropping to her knees, she huddled in the total darkness and thanked God for bringing her this far. With each breath pain sliced through her lungs, but she was safe. At least for the moment. It was easy to see no one lived here, for the place was abandoned.
Exhausted, she curled up within the coat and slept, cozy in the shaggy fur that had once warmed the animal from which it came.
Stone Heart awoke shivering, cold to the marrow of his bones. Winter sunlight probed with tentative fingers at the elk-skin under which he huddled. He must move on. Though he struggled until a cold sweat covered his brow, he could not gain his feet. Scanning the unbroken prairie, he spotted an unnatural shape in the distance. It appeared to be a soddie or cabin, of the kind white settlers used. No smoke came from the chimney. For a long while he kept watch, saw neither man nor beast. He would seek shelter and if he found someone there, he would kill them.
Grinding his teeth, he wobbled to hands and knees and began the journey. Soon, he did not have the strength to crawl and drag the heavy bundle, but couldn’t think of leaving it behind. His wounds ached, his palms wore raw, his thighs and upper arms trembled violently and would no longer hold him off the ground. He collapsed, lay in the snow, breathing heavily, smelling blood, his own and that of those he had robbed. He stared blearily at the cabin as if doing so could make it move closer. But it remained, taunted him as the sun slipped lower in the sky to darken its roof and reveal a door to one side. A door through which he must somehow manage to pass if he were to survive another night.
If he could not crawl then he would creep along on his belly like a snake. One knee dragged forward to shove, then the other, arms and hands numb and unfeeling, pulling him along, inch by inch. Fighting to keep the heavy parfleche and supplies because to leave them meant sure death. The torturous trip would take a long time. Perhaps too long.
Memories of the battleground where the soldiers from Fort Robinson had slaughtered the pitiful small band of Cheyenne kept him moving forward. He would never forget this day nor what it had cost the Cheyenne. All his people wanted was to take their pitiful remnants home, home to the northern plains where the wind whispered of their heritage and the skies smiled with pleasure upon the land. This battle on a remote creek in Nebraska was not the first waged with the white man who would keep them on the reservation or murder them all. It must be the last.
After what seemed forever, he battered his way through the door, squatted in front of a mud and straw fireplace. Someone had piled dried buffalo chips in a corner and he rested only moments before setting about building a fire. Fingers trembled weakly so he could hardly strike steel against stone, or blow the smoking embers to life. Miraculously, he finally dozed in the blessed warmth of crackling flames.
A shuffling of feet, movement of some kind, startled him fully awake. He had no idea how long he had slept, but someone was coming. He tilted his head and listened. Not an animal, nor a big man. Someone small, weary. Even with his wounds, he would have no trouble overpowering this one and slitting its throat. The musket lay in the dark corner, for he had not yet loaded it. He hoped this was a white man approaching, for he desperately desired to count coup, repay the slaughter of the day before. Ignoring the lancing of pain, he crept toward the door, waited out of sight until his prey entered. The only light filtered into the gloom through that opening, and he could be upon the enemy without ever being seen.
The fur-shrouded figure that stepped into sight radiated fire about its head, rays of sun brilliant in long strands of tangled red hair. Already in motion, his arm clamped about its throat, cut off a high scream.
A woman. A white woman.
The robe slipped from her shoulders when she clawed the air and kicked furiously with both feet, her full weight swinging on his forearm. One pointed boot toe struck his shin, another cracked his knee painfully. Gritting his teeth against passing out, he leaned against the wall and hung on, pressed the blade of his knife hard against her mid-section.
Hissed in her ear, “Stop fighting or I’ll gut you.”
I hope you enjoy reading chapter one of Montana Destiny, the final book in the Montana series. To buy, click on the text above the book cover.
Across the sprawling valley patches of new grass shared space with winter-dried bare earth to form a crazy quilt. Purple mountains cut into a brilliant columbine sky. Along the ground clouds of dust moved in the wind like ghost herds pursuing the cattle drive. Mitch squinted into the bright spring sunlight. He was late. Spring roundup had begun.
Between his legs the powerful stallion shifted restlessly, nostrils flaring in a puff of wind. He held the animal yet another moment to absorb the intangible emotions that poured through him, hot raw, and bittersweet. He'd never expected to return to Montana Territory. Yet the past that had kept him away had ultimately chased him back like an angry, wounded animal bent on revenge.
With an impatient grunt he settled the black Stet¬on firmly on his head, tilting it so the brim shadowed a scar that slashed through his left eyebrow. The vivid mark never let him forget what he had lost
He shook off the memories. He'd come here to use his gun, and it was time he got to it. Long past time that someone paid for what had happened. Besides, the man who had hired him was waiting. No need to look back any longer. If he did he might catch sight of the beast that pursued him with such fury.
He loosened the reins. The black stallion neighed into the wind, tightened his haunches, and tore down the incline.
Most of that day Mitch rode across Circle D land until at last he reached the colonel's house, a rambling, low structure squatted on high ground at the horseshoe bend of Little Porcupine Creek. Before dismounting, he rested a moment to study the enormous ranch house, its extravagant glass windows, the wide veranda skirted by freshly dug flower beds. At last he dropped wearily from the horse and pulled a leather gunbelt and holster from his saddlebag. Without removing the black cowhide gloves he strapped on the Colt .44 and settled it low so the gleaming butt rested a trifle below his right hip.
Charlie rode easy in the saddle and let the roan work the milling longhorns. The tough little mare deftly turned the cows and calves and headed them back in the direction of the branding camp. Other cow hands rode in, all herding cattle from their assigned sections.
The rowdy exuberance of spring roundup chased away Charlie's winter doldrums. She grinned broadly. Grains of dust gritted between her teeth and she uncapped a canteen to rinse her mouth and take a long swig. The bawling and bellowing, the cracking of the cattle's horns as they clashed, the pounding of hoofs, were as sweet as first light after a cold night on the trail.
For the first time since her father died, she felt good! The long boring winter of grief and utter, complete isolation behind her, Charlie actually looked forward to life in this new country. She would have to be tough as nails to make it without her father, for Matthew Houston had truly been the strength of the Double H Ranch.
"We'll call it the Double H," he'd said, "for the two Houstons." And then he'd grinned at her and rumpled her hair, the closest he ever came to showing affection.
Could she hold on and fulfill his dream here in this wild and vast country? Its merciless conditions tested the endurance of even the hardiest man. Even so, she enjoyed the turmoil of roundup, the feel of the roan shifting and dancing between her knees, the sweat trickling down her backbone as the sun climbed the sky. The dirt, the smell, the aching muscles. All glorious. And she wouldn't think of Matt's tragic death today. Fury always came on the heels of such thoughts, and she was weary of being angry. Winter had been the time for mourning; spring was for celebration of this new life.
She leaned forward and urged Belle closer to the bunching cattle, laughing aloud at the antics of a calf lumbering awkwardly in a halfhearted gallop after its mother, tongue hanging from the side of its mouth dribbling with foam.
A Rocking R puncher whooped and charged his pony in a wide circle to corral an escaped steer, and Charlie could contain her pleasure no longer. With an answering shout she swept off her worn Stetson. The wind twisted through her cropped hair, cut short like a man's so that the black curls just touched her shoulders.
The herd circled and milled, and she reined up to let the expert cutters begin their exhausting work of roping the calves and dragging them to the flankers for branding.
"Dammit, Matt, we made it," she cried aloud. "We got through the winter. How do you like that, by God, just how the hell do you like that?" She squeezed her eyes shut, willed away moisture that gathered there, and swallowed the thick lump in her throat
She pulled herself away from the brink of grief. She mustn't let go. Not now, not ever.
After a filling meal from the chuck wagon, she rested on her haunches and listened to the tally from the branding fire.
Neighboring rancher Cal Malone settled in beside her, picking up a stick to doodle in the dust between his scuffed boot toes.
"We made 'er, Charlie, we surely did," he said, and traced a gigantic X in the dirt for emphasis.
She glanced at her friend and nodded. Lingering smudges under his eyes told of his own grief last winter. Maybe that's why they had gravitated toward each other like they had.
"Glad to see spring, Cal, I surely am."
He gazed out across the sprawling countryside and breathed deeply. "Wish Becky could...well, you know she loved the springtime. But then, who could blame her? Winters in Montana ain't no picnic." Cal sniffed and rubbed at his nose. "Aw, hell. Anyway, how you think you did?"
Charlie knew the question didn't call for a specific answer, it was just trail talk. Until the tally was done they'd neither one have any idea how their herds had fared over the winter.
"Well, Cal, they say it was a mild winter. Being from Texas I wouldn't know, but I'll tell you one thing. If thirty below for two weeks at a time is mild, I'm dreading the tough ones."
Cal laughed, "Well, hell, gal. Two weeks ain't nothing. I've seen it forty below for a month or more, forty inches of ice and snow and a wind straight off the pole."
"Yeah, yeah, Cal. I've heard the stories."
The two chuckled comfortably. Of all the ranchers, Cal treated Charlie the most fairly. It was like he knew she was a woman and allowed for that, but yet figuredher to do just about anything she set her mind to without qualification.
They had another bond too, one that no one else knew about. Cal wrote poetry and Charlie made up music for the words. Of all things, they'd discovered their similar inclinations at the gathering after Rebecca's funeral the previous October.
Neither of them ever discussed it much, the poetry and music nonsense, like maybe they were a bit embarrassed by it even though they couldn't seem to stop the creating. Every once in a while Cal would hand Charlie a wrinkled piece of brown paper with a poem scribbled on it, words crossed out and rewritten, some nearly illegible, and the next time they met she'd sing him the words, and neither of them able to read a note of music.
"Gawd, don't that smell like money?" Cal said, and pointed with the stick toward the buzz of activity around the branding fire.
As the brander shouted out the mark a calf's mother carried, the iron tender would fetch that particular branding iron from those lined in the fire. Too hot meant a bad blister on the calfs hide, not hot enough meant the brand would likely hair over and become indistinct. Few mistakes were made, for these men were all experts at what they did.
"They're calling twenty Circle Ds to every Double H or Rocking R, though." She inhaled the stench of burned hair, grimaced at the fearsome bawling of the calves when the cherry-red iron sizzled their hides.
"That's okay. The colonel, he's got a spread the size of one of them eastern states. Bound to have more cattle than us."
Before it was finished the joint roundup would cover several hundred square miles and encompass the grazing land of more than half a dozen ranches. And it was true the Circle D belonging to Colonel Hulbert P. Dunkirk was immense, much of it gained by devious means. Still, they'd all work together, it was the only way in this majestic and demanding territory where one mishap could mean death.
Contemplating death made her think of Matthew, even though she tried not to. What a dreadful memory, watching powerless and grief-stricken as they lowered her father's canvas-wrapped body into a muddy grave alongside the trail near Ogallala last fall. Nebraska Territory was a far piece and those heart rending days long behind her. It made her angry that she couldn't bury the worst of the memories and keep only the best.
She tried by joshing with her friend. "Well, hell, Cal, there's another Double H calf."
She was happy to see that. He'd taken his wife Becky's death real hard, especially since their baby had not lived either. He was mighty alone, and she hoped someday he'd find himself another woman. Good women, though, were as scarce in this territory as were the conveniences that attracted them.
She rose and stretched, standing still to enjoy the sun's warmth through her shirt as she raised both shoulders and rolled her head backward to loosen some of the kinks.
"Double H," the brander shouted again.
Smiling, she screwed the bedraggled hat back onto her head, then turned sharply at the rattle of horses' hooves approaching from the southwest.
"Who in thunder is that?" Cal asked, coming to his feet.
Together they shaded their eyes and squinted into the bright white glare.
"Looks like that bastard of a colonel," she said. "Wonder what brings him out here?"
"Got an army with him. What you reckon he's up to?"
She figured whatever the colonel had in mind boded no good. Colonel Dunkirk, a man of reasonable girth, rode in a fancy carriage drawn by a white horse, and he reined in near the rope corral where the extra horses were tied. He wore what appeared to be a military uniform. She knew it wasn't. He ordered his wardrobe in Miles City and the style signified nothing but his ego. Flanking him on either side were more than half a dozen gunhands, men hired not to herd cattle or do any ranch work, but to ride roughshod over smaller ranchers so that sooner or later Colonel Dunkirk would own all they had.
Because Circle D was the biggest spread, Dunkirk's ramrod, a fellow by the name of Bodwell, was running the wagon for this roundup. He bossed the riders, his own and the smaller ranchers', with a harsh fist. Charlie had tried not to dislike the bully of a man, but it wasn't easy. He treated her as if she didn't exist, assigning duties without so much as a glance at her. She was left to pick her own jobs, which she did without comment. He deserved a good punch in the mouth, and she figured she might give it to him if he didn't watch out.
"Well, he sure as hell never rides out to roundup," Cal said. "Not since I've been here. Let's go see what's up."
The colonel acknowledged Cal, another rancher by the name of Duffy McGrew who owned a spread up on the Missouri, and the Double H ramrod Yancey Barton. His eyes wandered to Charlie and he touched the brim of his hat with two fingertips.
She sucked in a frustrated breath. "Surprised to see you out here, Colonel." Red anger flashed through her good humor.
He didn't meet her gaze, but stared out across the prairie. "Why wouldn't I be? My interest in this roundup is a hundred fold more than any of yours." He waved a doeskin-gloved hand to include the other ranchers.
"Depends entirely on how you look at it," Cal Malone said.
Charlie nodded curtly in her rancher friend's direction, and as she swung her attention away the agitated movement of a long-legged black stallion caught her attention. Eyes rolling wildly, nostrils flaring, the magnificent animal pranced into view from behind the colonel. On the stallion's back sat a man every bit as untamed in appearance as his mount. This was no cowhand, nor was he an ordinary gunhand. Back ramrod-straight, long legs taut in the stirrups, he gave the impression of a predator stalking prey. The way he sat his horse reminded her of the vaqueros in the paintings in her grandparents' home in south Texas. Men who were cowboys long before this country knew the meaning of the word. Proud, stalwart, mysterious. There the resemblance ended. His eyes, as green as the deep summer woods on a stormy day, were fathomless and frosted like crystals. They registered nothing, even though his glance flicked over each of the ranchers in turn. He wore a pistol slung low on his right hip and carried a rifle in his scabbard. The black stallion never stopped its restless motion, and the man's body moved lithely to compensate.
After a moment he noticed her studying him and tipped his hat back away from his face to get a better look. A jagged pale scar cut upward from his left eyebrow into a streak of white in the black hair. His expression remained as stoic as a finely hewn statue. Her skin prickled like it did when a sudden thunderstorm approached.
Dunkirk cleared his throat loud enough to get everyone's attention. "Just wanted to introduce all of you to my new man, in case you run across him on the range. This here's Mitchell Fallon, he's my rep, come to help me keep a tally. He'll make sure none of you small ranchers overstep your bounds and burn a few brands where they don't belong."
Charlie's loosely reined temper flared. She tightened her lips and kept her eyes hard on the colonel. "If anyone is likely to do that, sir, it's you and your collection of ratty gunfighters."
Mitch gave the brash cowpoke a second look. On first glance, he had thought her a young man, but now saw that she was a rough and hardened female who looked like a good scrubbing wouldn't hurt her any. Damn shame, considering the shortage of good- looking women, that this one chose to go as a man. But what the hell? It made him no difference. If he came up against her, he'd treat her just like all the rest and do what he'd been hired to do.
He rode for a brand, he honored it Suited him fine that Colonel Dunkirk had a dark craving to rule this land. To the strongest and meanest go the spoils. Mitch didn't much care, one way or the other, who came out on top. This was a job that suited his temperament; it gave him plenty of excuse to get back at men who deserved to pay for what had happened to him.
The colonel ignored Charlie's comment.
Of course, that only made her angrier and mouth- ier. "As for your hired hand, keep him and his kind off my ranch. I may be new up here and I may be a woman, but 'don't make any mistakes you'll regret. I don't intend to lose my land to thieves and killers."
Despite her anger Charlie couldn't take her eyes off the man in black who gazed right past her as if she didn't exist. Though he appeared to be paying no attention to his immediate surroundings, he held his right arm slightly bent, hand almost touching the pistol. Dunkirk had been heard to vow more than once that he would own all of Montana's grazing land one day. And this man was here to help him do just that He was a gunslinger, pure and simple. The way Dunkirk accumulated land was nothing short of stealing. Even if he did give it a fancy name like possessory rights, it was still illegal.
Yancey Barton slid to her side, said under his breath, "We don't need the likes of him, but if I was you I wouldn't rile him."
"You don't have to rile a man like that. He comes riled. Besides, it looks to me like we don't have a choice," Charlie whispered back to her ramrod.
The man in black startled her by belatedly acknowledging Dunkirk's introduction in a voice hard-edged and emotionless. "I'll be around."
Abruptly he met her gaze with a calculating expression that gave her the shudders right down to the depths of her soul. She had never feared any man or beast in her life, but this man's lifeless tone and granite stare were terrifying in a way she couldn't explain. Her mouth dried and her heart paused in its beating. Whatever she might have been about to say to Yancey or Cal, or for that matter the colonel, evaporated. She turned on her heel and fled the confrontation. As she untied Belle she noticed her fingers were trembling. A familiar, unwanted sensation settled in the pit of her stomach, like some long-lost desire no longer recognized. Her reaction to the man terrified her even more than he himself had. '
Yancey sat beside Charlie that evening while they were eating. He didn't say much until both had finished off their plates of beans and biscuits, but she knew he had something on his mind.
"The man's gonna take all the land, Charlie, and I don't see a way in hell we can stop him. It's just a matter of time."
She sipped at her coffee and stared off across the campfire at the lone figure of Mitchell Fallon. He had backed up under a tree and lit a thin black cheroot In the dark he might have been staring at her, she couldn't tell.
Swiftly she turned her attention to Yancey. "What would Matt do?"
"Fight, I reckon. He always did."
"But he had Richard King to back him up. The most powerful rancher in Texas. When you have friends like that you don't have to do too much fighting."
"Did to get where he was though, same as King. You don't think someone handed him that spread in Santa Gertrudis on a platter, do you?" Yancey tossed the dregs of his coffee to the ground.
"You telling me to fight, Yancey? Is that what you're telling me? And if so, will you and the men back me?"
The ramrod studied her for a long moment, squinting his blue eyes so that the sun-wrinkled skin folded in around them. "Ain't no place for a woman, fighting for a spread."
"Don't you dare tell me that, Yancey Barton. Every woman who takes up with a rancher fights for the life as much as her man does. She wears herself out fighting." Hot tears stung her eyes and she turned quickly away, not wanting him to see. Dammit, she had to be tougher than this.
"Now, sweetheart, don't go getting touchy on me. You know blamed well what I meant. Nobody knows better than me how hard you've worked, or any rancher's wife, for that matter.
"It's just you don't have no business going up against men like that'un…"he gestured toward Fallon "…with a six-shooter in your hand. He'll win 'cause he's meaner, not 'cause you're a woman, and that's a fact."
She sighed and drank the last of her coffee. "Then what do I do? Hire someone like him?"
"Well, there's that, and..." Yancey hove to his feet and looked down at her. "...or we could band together, you and the others Dunkirk wants to force out. Go to the law about his thieving ways."
She snorted. "Nobody cares that he rookered a bunch of war widows out of their land-bonus privileges, or that every man in his outfit has filed a claim and signed it over to him. Sheriff Newton turned a blind eye to the vigilantes who strung up those home-steaders a while back. Dunkirk found them squatting on his land and that was all that mattered. And what about poor Ruell Denver? Just happened to be unlucky enough to ride up on some bad doin's and ended up getting blamed for rustling and strung up. What makes you think a man of Sheriff Newton's caliber, lawman or not, would help us?"
"Well, gal, then I reckon you have to go higher than the sheriff. Contact the territorial governor or a marshal."
Charlie stood and stretched. The idea didn't appeal to her. Ride all over hell and creation chasing some politician who would have no inkling what was really going on out here even after she explained it. No, sir, she was a rancher not a crusader, but maybe Yancey did have something in suggesting that the small ranchers band together. Once the roundup was over she would speak to Cal and Duffy about it, see what they thought. There was that Englishman Hawthorne east of the colonel's and Les Burns whose place laid alongside of Duffy's, and a couple more whose names she hadn't learned yet, even though their cows had turned up at the branding fire.
That night, asleep in her bedroll until time for her watch, Charlie dreamed of the man in black with the snowy streak in his hair. Sensual perceptions brought her awake with that all too familiar deprived ache deep inside, and it was a long time before she went back to sleep. She had dreamed of him satisfying those needs in a most unthinkable way, and it disturbed her deeply.
The man in black was certainly not to be desired, even if she harbored such thoughts, which she didn't. She had played the role of her father's son too long to even consider such feminine longings. At twenty- six she was a confirmed spinster, and that was the way she wanted it. She relegated the dream to the place of nightmares where she stored memories too painful to deal with.
Yancey roused her for the early morning shift two hours before dawn. Though most cowboys disliked pulling guard at that hour, she preferred it. It meant that she would be in the saddle longer than those who had drawn guard duty during the night, but it was an even swap considering the quiet beauty of the predawn hours.
Still only half-awake she swung into the saddle and settled easily while the compact quarter horse plodded slowly around the perimeter of the sleeping cattle. Belle too knew her job. After a while Charlie began to hum, softly at first, then louder. The cows liked singing and whistling, it kept them settled down, just as it had during the long arduous drive up from Texas. Roundup was little different from that six-month cat¬tle drive, it just didn't last quite so long. In two or three weeks they'd be finished with the branding and could settle back to normal ranch tasks until fall roundup in August when beeves would be cut out for shipping to market. By then yearlings would have fattened on the lush, green summer grasses and would bring a good price.
She let her clear voice rise to meet the gentle night wind, singing the ballad of Lasca, a favorite of all cowboys.
"Lasca used to ride on a mouse-gray mustang, by my side."
Across the way someone began to accompany her on a mouth harp. Off to her left creek water murmured over its rocky bed, adding to the melody.
"She was as bold as the billows that beat. She was as wild as the breezes that blow."
As she continued the song, Charlie thought she heard the steady thud of horses' hooves out of cadence with those of her own mount. She broke off the stanza and listened intently, but there was nothing but the soughing of the wind through treetops and the sweet song of the harp blending with the rush of water. Off and on during the hours before the sky lightened to silver, and long after she finished the heartbreaking tune with "Does half my heart lie buried, there, In Texas, down by the Rio Grande?" the prickly sensation that she was being watched wouldn't go away. Still she saw no one.
Mitchell Fallon reined in his horse abruptly. He had been so caught up in the singing that he had almost ridden up on a rider skulking along in the shadows. The man appeared to be following someone, but in the dark Mitch couldn't tell who. The rider continued to give that impression by moving in furtive stops and starts.
The singer halted for a moment, so did Mitch and so did the mysterious rider. After a while the woman began to sing again, a tune that plucked at Mitch's heart. He could practically hear tears in the voice as he made out the sad tale of lovers caught up in a stampede and the woman dying in her lover's arms.
Buried emotions rose in his chest and he used anger to suppress them. What in the hell was he doing out here in the middle of the night in the first place? It sure wasn't to listen to some corny love song. The colonel had said he should be visible, keep an eye on things, get to know faces and habits so he would be useful later when the man put into action his strategy for getting rid of these small ranchers.
Deliberately Mitch rode out into the open so that the rider he was pursuing could see him, and shouted a noncommittal greeting that came out more like a grunt. The cowboy replied with a similar sound and Mitch rode on.
Even when he did bed down he couldn't sleep. The strains of the beautiful and forlorn ballad haunted him, and he knew Charlie Houston was responsible. Her and her ebony dark eyes that wouldn't leave a man alone. It was unnerving to catch sight of her watching him. He wanted nothing to do with a woman, especially not one who was supposed to be his enemy. So why was he lying awake in the dark of night thinking about her? He turned one way, then another, but each time he closed his eyes, there she was asking something provocative and dangerous of him.
Finally he rolled from his blankets and, carrying his boots, crept out of camp. He wore no shirt and a ripple of cool air off the water sent goose bumps skittering over his bare flesh. At the edge of the creek he sat on a large boulder and gazed east across the shadowy plains that rose gently toward the sky.
In his heart, his dead wife cried softly, and he could find no way to quiet her. The presence of the Houston woman had reawakened his guilt, and that made him angry. There were times when he simply wanted to ride to the edge of a cliff and dive off, join Celia and their child and be done with facing day after endless day with the unanswered question on his lips. Why hadn't the men who had senselessly killed his wife and child killed him too? He had asked it thousands of times, but there was only silence in reply. The absence of reason nagged at him like a forgotten lyric, a faded dream.
Stars winked in the flowing water and he thought again about killing the men who had so brutally murdered his family. For a long while that was all he'd thought about, but he wasn't a killer, never had been, despite the reputation he'd gained after the war. A war did its best to turn a man mean, and Lord knows that one had, but his outlaw ways had been aimed more at something else. Taking back what should have been his. Payback for having been robbed of his family and his life. He had never returned home to his parents and sister in Missouri, and he blamed the war for that too.
Dear God, how he wished things had been different
During the next few days the roundup chewed away the miles in a slow, distinct rhythm. Riders fanned out into the brushy hills to bring in strays. Men returned covered in mud after rescuing some unlucky animal trapped in a bog. At night exhausted cowboys who had been in the saddle up to eighteen hours snored loudly through a few hours rest. The days became one long blur of backbreaking work that left everyone worn out come bedtime.
Occasionally Charlie caught sight of the gunslinger, but never so that she was forced to acknowledge his presence. He paid little attention to her at all, and it humiliated her to be caught a couple of times staring at him. She did notice that he didn't pull guard and only occasionally rode herd. He was simply there and everyone walked a wide circle around him. He ate alone, rode alone, slept apart from the others like a renegade wolf wary of the pack.
Despite all that, something in his demeanor beckoned to her, made her wish she knew more about him. She wanted to speak to him, to discover what attracted her, but she dare not, for he was the enemy.
Here's an excerpt from Chapter One of Montana Dreams, Second in the Series
Dessa leaned back against the hard seat of the lurching stagecoach and closed her eyes. Strands of long dark hair escaped from under her stylish blue hat and stuck to her sweat-dampened brow. Kansas City had been hot, but this…this incessant hot wind left her gasping for air. With a tired sigh she unpinned her hat and placed it in her lap, touched a fingertip to the bedraggled quail feathers. By the time they arrived in Virginia City, the hat would be ruined and so would she. What a dreadful trip. Who in their right mind would want to live out here in Montana Territory, anyway? Montana indeed. What was her father thinking?
The howling August wind puffed clouds of dust around the window shades so that she nearly choked with every breath. Perspiration ran between her breasts, soaked the stiff corset and camisole. She made a childish face and hooked a thumb under the fabric to scratch.
What she had seen of this horrendous wilderness during the brief stops since leaving the train station at Devil's Gate had not been encouraging. No matter what Mother and Daddy said, she would not stay one minute more than was absolutely necessary.
From a limp reticule she removed a fragile fan and waved it in front of her face. The effort only made her hotter and she dropped both hands into her lap. Despite the dust, she leaned over and rolled up the curtain on the far side of the coach to let in some air. Some choice. Choke to death or fry.
She was fastening the shade when a horse galloped into her line of sight, the rider stretched high in the stirrups. He wore a red bandanna pulled over his nose and a sweaty black hat crammed so low she couldn't make out his eyes. He held the reins in one hand, while the other waved a long-barreled pistol.
His shouted command was buffeted along in the turmoil of wind and swirling bits of debris and heat so that the words arrived disjointed and easy to disbelieve.
"Rein up, rein up there before I shoot."
From up top came a mangled reply, the fierceness of a battle yell, and the sharp crack of a whip. The stage lunged forward, and Dessa grappled frantically for something to hang on to. She bounced around in the empty coach, thunking up and down painfully. The wild and terrifying ride was punctuated by a couple of shots, a scream of agony, and shouted curses that set her heart thundering.
"Whoa down, you omery cusses. Whoa down."
The stage rocked to a halt. Frozen with fear, she knelt on the floor, peering as best she could through a crack along the bottom of the window covering. Thank the Lord she hadn't opened both sides, or they'd see her for sure.
In the next breath she realized how foolish was such a thought. No one would rob a stage and not look inside. The realization gave her such a chill that her teeth rattled. Surely they would hear!
From outside came the snorts of horses; in her chest, the rumble of her own heartbeat. Her temples throbbed and intermittent flashes like stars flaring invaded her vision. This was a holdup, an honest-to-goodness holdup, and here she was right in the middle of it. She caught her breath and remained hunkered where she was. Maybe she could wish herself invisible and they'd just ride away. But then what? Suppose the outlaw had shot the driver and the man riding up top, the disgruntled one who was supposed to protect the stage with that fearsome-looking gun he carried.
She closed her eyes tightly, clenching her fingers together until they hurt. Nothing would happen to her. Surely. Surely, it wouldn't.
The door jerked open. She had pressed up against it so tightly that she almost tumbled out onto the ground. Teetering there, she sucked in a breath, afraid to look, afraid not to.
The bandit grabbed her. "Get down out of there, little lady. Come on, now, don't be shy."
He dragged her out by one arm and tossed her on the ground. She landed on her rear end, legs spraddled in a very undignified sprawl with the skirt of her blue dress hiked to show lacy, beribboned pantaloons.
To her horror both the driver and guard lay sprawled nearby, neither of them moving or making a sound.
"You…you killed them," she said.
The horrid man stood over her. "And you'll be next if you don't behave." His voice was raspy, his eyes cold and hard. Nothing like the romantic figures portrayed in the dime novels she read on the sly. This man's nasty manner was realistically threatening, and he stank like a sweating animal.
"Well, ain't you a fancy little thing?" a younger voice said from out of her range of vision.
Two of them. She was too frightened to look around, so she continued to stare at the scuffed, worn boot toes of her captor. Her daddy was right, she should have traveled with him and Mother. If he was here right now, he'd soon put these scoundrels down. As for that no-account buffoon they'd hired to accompany her, she hoped he rotted in that saloon in Devil's Gate where he was no doubt still drinking and gambling. Some reliable protector he was.
Now she would be killed out here in the middle of nowhere and no one would ever even find her bones. The thought made her more angry than fearful. Hadn't her parents been through enough, losing Mitchell in the war? Tears welled in her eyes and she sniffed.
Red Bandanna said, "Aw, look at this. You've gone and made her cry. Ain't you ashamed of yourself?" He grabbed her wrist, hauled her to her feet, and tugged at the ring she wore.
She jerked her hand away. "No, you leave that alone, you uncivilized animal."
He laughed harshly and tucked the long-barreled pistol into his waist. "What's this? Little fancy wants to fight. Well, come on, honey. I'll tussle with you awhile. Got nothin' better to do anyways. I want me that gold ring. Lookee there. What does that F stand for? Fancy? And look at these purty jewels. See 'em shine. Bet this is worth a lot."
Dessa thought her heart would leap from her mouth, and it probably would have except that her tongue and lips were so dry it just got hung in her throat. She couldn't even swallow or speak except to croak. The rank smell of the outlaw washed over her as he locked both arms around her shoulders and lifted her easily off the ground. This was worse than anything she could have imagined while lying on her bed back home reading Hurricane Nell or Bess the Trapper. This was too real, too dangerous.
"Coody, dammit, quit horsing around. I can't find the blasted money box. Leave that little gal be and get up here."
"I aim to tie her first. I'm taking this one with me."
"Yank'll have a fit."
"It's that or kill her, you lamebrain. You done called me by name and she heard you. How'd you like it if I just come right out and told her what you're called, too? Then she could go right to the sheriff with it. Like that, would you?"
"Holy cripes. Here's the blamed box, jostled tight up agin the rail with this bag over it."
He opened the offending leather satchel—her satchel—and dumped it. A stiff mountain wind grabbed at Dessa's clothing, sailing dresses and undergarments off into the stark wilderness in billowing clouds of color.
Tossing down the heavy metal box, the younger one jumped nimbly from the top of the stage. He let out a grunt when he landed, his worn boots sending up puffs of dust. "Do what you're gonna with that gal and let's get out of here 'fore someone comes along."
Coody hooted. "Yeah, like who? Give that railroad a little more time and won't no one be riding this trail. Won't no towns at all be in this godforsaken country. Won't even be no stages to rob."
While he talked, Coody unceremoniously bundled Dessa up under one arm and draped her facedown across the rump of his horse. He lashed her wrists together behind her, hitching up the leather thong so tightly it cut into her flesh. She bit her lip, refused to cry out.
The other one guffawed. "She ain't gonna stay on that way, you lophead. Start trotting that horse and she'll bounce right off into the dust. Apt to kill her. Here, let me show you."
The younger outlaw dragged Dessa off the horse and plucked at the knots of rawhide his partner had tied.
"Well, hell," Coody shouted, and jumped the smaller man. "You leave her be 'fore I swat you up the side a your head."
Dessa felt as if she were living in a nightmare. Yes, that was it. A dream. Only a hideous dream from which she would awaken and be safe and sound in her bedroom in Kansas City.
Her knees grew weak and she sank abruptly to the ground nearly under the nervous horse's belly. Long legs danced one way, then another, the large hooves barely missing her. She thought of the riding stable in Kansas City and the shiny, groomed gelding she rode every Sunday afternoon. A far cry from this disgusting, unwashed thing that suddenly let go a big smelly green splat almost on the hem of her dress and then gave a whinny that sounded like a laugh aimed directly at her.
Enough. Dream or real, she'd had enough. The men tussled with each other like overgrown boys. Without another thought for her safety, she scrambled to her feet and lit out running, shaking free of the loosened thongs to hold her long dress up out of the way of her ankle-high shoes. Gasping for every breath and afraid to look back for fear that big ugly man was looming right over her, Dessa sprinted through knee-high grasses and dodged scatterings of rock. But she was no match for the long-legged Coody. She heard his harsh breathing just before he latched one arm around her waist, lifting her so that her legs continued to pump air.
She jabbed at him with an elbow and felt a satisfying thud.
"Danged little hellion. You're just what I've been looking for," he panted, and tossed her without ceremony into a clump of bushes.
Up until the moment he covered her body with his, his tobacco-stained mouth sucking at her clenched lips, she had truly thought deep down inside that this wasn't really happening to her. It was, indeed, some kind of dream that she would awaken from before real harm could come to her. But then she looked into that dirty, pockmarked face and felt his stinking body mashing her breasts and stomach and thighs, and she knew it was real. Sick fear squeezed at her insides, and she tumbled mercifully into a black abyss of unconsciousness.
When she came to, she was riding behind the man, wrists bound together around his waist. The thongs had cut into her flesh until both hands were numb. Between her legs, the hot hairy hide of the horse chafed through the thin fabric of her pantaloons. He hadn't had his way with her. Not yet, anyway. She would know for sure if he had.
Her cheek lay against his back and she looked directly into the flaming ball of a setting sun. She closed her eyes, trying not to move and let the man know she was awake. Blessedly, the sun finally sank behind the ragged mountain peaks to the west. Then the horses turned and they were headed in the direction of the flaring orange and purple sky. She must have done something to alert her captor that she was conscious, for a chuckle rumbled in her ear and vibrated her body where it pressed against his.
"Little one's back with us. What we'll do, lad, is stop for the night up ahead in that wash. No sense in trying to get back in the dark."
Her heart tumbled all over itself.
"You just wanta roll around on the ground with that little gal, and you figger Yank'll take her away from you, we go on back to camp."
"Let him try," Coody said. The menacing tone was oddly tinged with fright, like the snarl of a wild thing threatened by a more powerful enemy.
'You say that now."
"Well, I'm stopping anyway. I ain't gonna get my mount's leg broke going over that mountain in the dark. Or my own blamed neck, either, for that matter. You do what you please."
The other man fell back to ride where he could study Dessa. She got a good look at him for the first time. He was little more than a boy, with fuzzy cheeks and a large hat that folded out the tops of his ears. She was reminded of a child playing dress-up. Everything he wore seemed to be too big. Briefly she wondered why he gave orders to the one he called Coody with such alacrity. Maybe they were brothers, or more likely he was just the smarter of the two.
The thought came to her that they were going to use her completely up and then kill her. It was almost a revelation; all of a sudden, the light dawned and everything was crystal clear. No one would come to save her. She had to do it herself or she would die, slowly and harshly. An uncontrolled whimper bubbled from deep inside, but she swallowed it down. If she was going to die anyway, she'd make a quick job of it, and they'd be sorry when it was all over.
At that moment the mountains devoured all traces of sunlight and glowed with a pearly pink halo. The ground became shadowy and indistinct.
"Here. Right here'll do," Coody said, and drew up his horse.
From somewhere nearby water flowed. Oh, God, for a drink. For just a few sweet drops to moisten her tongue, to trickle coolly down the back of her throat. She almost cried out with the need.
Coody sawed the thong off her wrists, unleashing an excruciating pain. She held her silence and bit at her lip to keep from crying out.
"Pull her off here, kid, so I can get down. Ill swear, I'm so thirsty I could drink cactus juice with the spines left in."
The young one held her a bit too long when she staggered around on her feet. "Please," she said, her voice sounding like dry husks of corn rubbed together. "I need a drink."
Fingers of one hand biting into her upper arm, he guided her beyond a darkening thicket toward the sound. At the stream's edge he unceremoniously shoved her forward. She landed on both knees. Gravel bit through layers of clothing to puncture her skin, but she paid no attention. Like a dog she leaned forward on both hands and lapped at the water, sucking in the icy cold snowmelt and gulping down great mouthfuls.
It hit the bottom of her stomach like heavy stones, rolled around there for a while, and started back up. She groaned and sat down right there in the creek, hugging her belly and rocking. In the rushing water shreds of the lovely blue dress boiled up around her.
Once the queasiness was under control, she cupped her hands and sipped delicately, stopping to wash her face and neck, then drinking again.
Coody finished his own noisy slurping and claimed his prize, dragging her out of the rocky stream and up the bank. She couldn't keep her feet under her, but he didn't seem to mind. The younger one he called kid had begun to pile up brush and wood for a campfire. Coody tossed her to the ground, and started flailing the boy around the head with his sopping hat. Curses of rage poured from him, and the boy threw both arms up to protect himself.
"How many damn times I got to tell you take care of the horses first? Look at 'em. Carried us all day, sweating and hungry, and there they stand. Unsaddle 'em and stake 'em to that grass yonder. Let 'em drink some first. I have to run with such a idjit."
Coody wound down at last and the kid surprisingly did as he was told. Frightened by the outburst, Dessa moved backward into a thick growth of brush with dry, cracldy leaves. It was dark there in the wash, but she could still see the shadowy outline of objects back the way they had come. Trees and out- croppings of rock humped blackly into the silver glow of the night.
She didn't really think about what she was going to do, or even consider her chances. If she stayed, this animal would have his way with her, and she would die before she let that happen. She had to try. As quietly as she could, she crept along in the darkness cast by the huge trees that grew on the creek bank. And all the while, all she could think of was the heartbreak of learning of Mitchell's death in the war, of the way Mother looked when she found out, as if her very reason for living had just flown out of her. The anguished gaze in both her parents' eyes when they heard news of her brother's death would remain with Dessa always. If she died here, what would it do to them? They lavished all their love on her—so much sometimes that she felt smothered.
At last her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness and she was able to make out an enormous pile of boulders at the foot of a rise. If she could reach the deepening shadows, Coody would have no idea where to look for her.
Every nerve in her body urged her to bolt for safety like a stampeding animal. She forced herself to measure the distance, judge her chances, and gauge the right time to go. Hair on the back of her neck prickled, chills tightened the muscles of her stomach, and her wet dress weighted her to the ground. Coody was still cursing the boy at the top of his lungs, his back turned to her. She had to do it now or not at all. It was time to move. She slunk away, hunkering low so she wouldn't cast even the vaguest of shadows when she left the shelter of the trees and headed for the rocks.
Chapter One of MONTANA PROMISES First in the Series
Tressie smoothed the mound of the double grave with the back of a shovel. A burning southwest wind licked at the tears and sweat on her cheeks. Weary with grief and exhausted from chopping at the hard earth, she sagged against the wooden handle and gazed at the small plot of disturbed soil.
Almost immediately anger overpowered sorrow, for she found it somehow easier to manage. The unspoken fury she felt could be shouted at the endless white-hot sky, and she did just that, damning her father with long, anguished howls.
The eternal land swallowed her cries and fell silent. Across the arid and flat prairie, shades of dull brown spread like death as far as she could see in any direction.
She fisted the bib of her tattered overalls in folded hands, and lowering her head moved her lips in silence, hoping for a prayer to comfort the shattered remnants of her soul. But none came. Hope had withered and dried as the months passed with no word from her father.
After a long while she plodded back toward the soddy, dragging the shovel along behind. A stiff wind boosted her reluctant steps, snapping the coarse overalls against her legs. Carried on that wind came the distinct whicker of a horse. She stopped for a moment to scan the prairie, leaning on the shovel and shading her eyes against the brutal sun. She saw nothing but endless, wavering heat waves and burned grasses.
Oh, how she hated this terrible place. How she wished for someone, anyone, to come and take her away. There it was again; a soft blowing snort. There was a horse nearby.
Hauling up, she faced south, and spotted the lone rider. Man and horse appeared in the distance as if spewed from the earth itelf. A familiar trick of the heat-scorched prairie, but a sight that never failed to startle her.
Still shading her eyes with one hand, she studied the wavering image, afraid it was only another mirage. If real, who would it be? And where was he bound? Her heart pounded with a mix of excitement and fear. Was this simply a foolish prospector short of food and water?
After the gold strikes, men had poured across the plains like scatterings of lost cattle, some passing on by, others stopping to water at the well in the yard. At first she had been frightened by the strangers, but soon realized that they had but one thing on their minds. GOLD. GOLD. GOLD. It was like a wild disease with them, and one Papa soon caught. Surely there wouldn't be enough of the precious ore to go around.
Once assured that the horse and rider headed straight for her were not a figment of her imagination, she whirled and ran for the house. At the unprotected doorway she tossed down the shovel and scurried inside. From the gloomy corner she lifted a long, heavy Kentucky rifle. Just in case this traveler had more than gold on his mind, she thumbed the hammer to half cock and fingered a percussion cap from the fireplace mantel. She had fired the gun off two days ago and reloaded it, just as Papa had taught her to do.
"Keep the powder dry and keep her loaded all but for the cap," he'd warned.
With steady fingers Tressie placed the cap on the nipple and waited.
Outside, the rhythmic thud of the horse's hooves ceased. She held her breath and didn't move, but nothing happened. Except for the wind, no sound. She peered from the open doorway. The dusty rear haunches and tail of a bony sorrel protruded from around the corner. Nothing stirred save a flick of the matted tail.
What was the man doing hiding out back there? And why didn't he climb down or hail the house?
She crept a few steps into the sunny yard and hefted the gun barrel to aim at something but the ground.
"What do you want?" The question came out like a squawk and she tried to work saliva down her dry throat.
No answer. She took a few more steps, the clumsy shoes scuffing up puffs of dust. Scorching air hung heavy with the odor of horse and sweat, and something she couldn't identify: a brackish, overpowering stench that made her remember the smell in the house before she had removed the birthing bed and burned it.
Inching past the corner of the house, she made out a figure slumped forward in the saddle, not moving. She halted and swallowed harshly. It was blood she smelled. Too much blood. Maybe death, too, lurking just around that corner. Terror took her heart in its fist and she gasped for air past a gagging nausea. Despite all her heartache and loneliness, Tressie did not want to face death. Not some stranger's, and certainly not her own. She'd been up all night with Mama's vain struggles to bear the child, and weariness washed over her. She staggered against the hardened sod bricks of the cabin to keep from going to her knees.
A prayer came to her then, as it wouldn't earlier over the grave. It was only a simple plea for help, and she offered the words up with little hope they would be heard. She asked for just enough strength to see her through one more hardship. Goodness knows, there'd been plenty of those in her seventeen years.
Gasping in a breath, she spread her long legs and once more lifted the heavy rifle to sight on the rumpled shirt of the stranger. "Stay right where you are." The steadiness of the tone amazed her.
"I don't think I have much choice," came a feeble reply. The voice, though cracked by weariness, held an edge of determination. "I could use a hand here. I'd surely hate to fall off this horse, but I reckon it's about to happen."
Expelling a breath of relief, she leaned the gun against the house. There wasn't enough punch left in this fellow to hurt a rabbit, let alone her. Though she was a strapping young woman, the man almost knocked her to her knees when he slid from the saddle into the support of her arms. For a while she thought they wouldn't make it inside. A couple of times she had to stop and rest, and he wasn't doing a whole lot to help her, either. He did drag one leg after the other, but for the most part she supported his weight. He groaned with each step. Head tucked under his arm, the gamy smell of his body nearly overpowered her. He must have been on the trail a long time without benefit of a good washing.
The corn-shuck bed in one corner of the single room appeared miles away, but she got him there. Letting the limp body sprawl where it fell, Tressie ignored his pitiful moans. Exhausted, she collapsed into the rocking chair between the fireplace and the bed. It was Mama's chair and the only one they had managed to bring with them from Missouri. Resting there was the nearest she could come to the solace of her dear dead mother's arms.
It didn't take long for the aroma of cooking food to revive her. She remembered she'd set a pot of soup on the fire early that morning before Mama's birthing pains had grown so intense that all Tressie could do was tend her. She hadn't had a bite to eat since the night before. With scarcely enough energy to crawl, she made her way to the soup pot and ladled out a bowlful. She sat on the floor and drank the thin broth, relishing the few chunks of potato, cabbage, and squash.
"I wonder if I could have a sip of that?" the man on the bed said weakly.
She filled the bowl again and reached it up to him. He managed to raise his head and grasp the bowl in one hand, but then was unable to put it to his lips. Lowering his mouth, he tried to lap at the soup like a dog. She came to her knees and shakily tipped the rim to his mouth so he could drink. Broth dribbled down his darkly stubbled chin, but he managed to swallow some.
"We're a fine pair," she said. "Can't hardly tell which one is the worse off for our troubles."
He noisily sucked up the last drop and let out a feeble sigh before his head lolled back onto the bed. From the rhythm of his breathing he had either fallen asleep or was unconscious. Dried blood caked one side of his shirt. She could do nothing for him until she got some rest, and that was all there was to that. He would either have to lie there and die in poor Mama's clean bed or hold out until she awoke.
Before giving in to her own weariness, she fetched the rifle from outside. Removing the percussion cap, she eased the hammer down and stood the precious weapon back in its place. Every muscle in her body quivered, begging for rest. At last she succumbed, stretching out on a pallet on the earthen floor, where she immediately fell asleep.
A narrow slant of morning sun crept through the window to lie warmly on her cheek. Fear gripped her when she caught sight of the man on the bed before she recalled his arrival the previous day. He could have recovered enough to have had his way with her while she lay nearly unconscious on the floor. She immediately dismissed the thought as tomfoolery, considering his condition. A touch to his brow told her he had not died overnight, though he was burning with fever. Probably from the wound in his shoulder.
For a moment she left her hand lying there to study his features. Gaunt as he was, there was a savage grace about the shape of him. High cheekbones brushed by long dark lashes, prominent nose, a good sturdy brow. The hair, though dusty with travel, was long and black as a raven's wing. Washed, it would reflect the blue-purple shimmer of true ebony. Some Indian blood there.
He stirred and she jerked her hand away, afraid he would awaken and find her staring. But he only shifted an arm so that it lay across his chest. Though grimy, his nails were trimmed, the fingers long and calloused. Thank goodness he hadn't died during the night, leaving her another body to deal with. He might well be more of a problem alive, though.
Taking up the water bucket, she went outdoors into the pearlescent dawn. A breeze freshened into gusts, whipping up spirals of dust devils that settled in a fine grit on her skin. At the well she stripped out of the stiff overalls and bathed from a bucket of cold water, using a bar of yucca-root soap to lather her short hair. The morning sun would dry it quickly, bringing out the red highlights she had once been so proud of. She remembered Papa's anger when she had chopped the waist-long tresses off during the backbreaking labor of that first summer they had spent on the hot, windy plains. Never mind the only water they had at the time was hauled several miles in wooden barrels, he still wanted to keep his long-haired, winsome little girl. Papa had always been unrealistic in his expectations of everything life had to offer.
After the family had been there awhile, a drifter had helped them dig the well in return for food from their summer garden. Though everyone had been grateful, the man's tales of gold strikes in Oregon Territory had soon convinced Papa to abandon the farm and renew his quest for easy fortune, this time alone. The gold camps were no place for the burden of a family, he explained to his tearful wife and daughter.
Papa. Oh, Papa, just see what you did.
A tear slid from one eye and she slung it away with an angry swipe.
She drew another bucket of water and poured it over her head. The icy embrace drove away the last remnants of sleep, and she turned into the wind and closed her eyes.
The loss of her mother and the boy-child who had slipped from Mama's womb without uttering even one feeble cry overwhelmed her. Her heart swelled into a huge aching knot. She wanted to go home. Desperately missed the green Missouri hills and the thick forests and hidden streams. How she hated this unbroken, wind-tossed land.
What nonsense. If she were to survive, there was no time for grief or such useless longings. Just as well to put the yesterdays behind her; they were over and done with. Everyone was gone: Mama and the young'un in their grave, Papa off and wandering, gone to seek his fortune. Dead, for all she knew. But best not admit yet to such a possibility. For if he was still alive, she would find him one day. And she would look him right in the eye and tell him how much she hated him for leaving Mama to die. Going off and leaving the ones who loved him, for what? Tales of gold.
Somewhere out across that flat prairie Papa wandered. She stood tall and pressed both hands into the small of her back, stretching, gazing into the endless expanse. And her, left here alone totally dependent upon herself for what happened for the rest of her life. It was certainly childish to go on believing in Papa's return, for that wasn't going to happen. The admission surprisingly strengthened her resolve. If he lived, the man inside might help get her out of this predicament.
Wiping water from her eyes, she caught sight of the horse the man had rode in on. The bony creature lay on the ground, feet stuck stiffly out to one side. The poor thing had fallen down dead during the night and she hadn't even heard it. She would have to get the saddle off and see what she could do about dragging the dead animal away from the soddy. Sure as anything, with this heat, the smell would soon attract hordes of flies and fill the cabin with a poisonous stench. A chunk of the meat would add taste to her normal fare of thin soup.
Squaring her bare shoulders, she drew another bucket of water, stepped over the pile of dirty clothes, and walked naked to the soddy. She spared no further thought for the dead sorrel. There was only so much a body could handle at one time, and she'd about reached her limit.
All caught up in newfound considerations of her aloneness, she had yet to wonder about the condition of the man lying in the bed over in the darkened corner. He would either live or die, and she would do all she could for him. That was that. She stepped inside and nearly dropped the bucket when he shouted out:
"All dead. All. God help us. I can't go on...I can't."
She recovered quickly. He was raving out of his head, probably didn't even know she was there. Who had shot him, and from who or what was he running? A half-breed Indian on the run could mean just about anything from a simple farm raid for food to a massacre. Perhaps he'd been involved in a robbery or killing and was purely an outlaw. The possibilities were endless, and she would find out as soon as he was coherent. Heaven knew, she had no desire to shelter a killer.
The one dress she could still call more than a rag was dreadfully threadbare, and Mama's were much too small. She lifted it off a hook in the corner and wiggled into the thin garment. Lean of shank, she'd look like a boy, were it not for her high, firm breasts. Once she might have taken more note of their maturation over the past year or so. Now it didn't really matter much. That the dress was stretched a bit too tight across the chest when she slipped it on barely caught her notice.
The man still slept and she had to keep him alive. He made puckery faces when she pulled the blood-stiffened shirt away to look at his shoulder. The wound wasn't as bad as she'd expected. The bullet appeared to have passed through the muscle without hitting the bone. There'd been no bleeding overnight, but it did need a good cleaning, both front and back.
She cut away the rest of the shirt and drew in a ragged breath. He was skin and bones, his ribs standing out so you could count them. Most likely he had passed out from hunger as much as from the bullet wound. Poor creature. She smoothed a shag of damp hair back away from his cheek, felt the heat of fever. Dear God, would he die? The thought brought unbidden tears. There had been enough death in this little cabin for a while. She feared it might only end when she herself died.
The man needed a bath as badly as he needed anything, and she took the time to build a fire and heat plenty of water before cleaning and binding his wound. Granny always swore you couldn't even get over a runny nose if you weren't clean, and despite her situation, Tressie clung to that principle.
Steam from the water filled the small room. She lathered a rag and washed the bluish wound, perfectly round in the front where the ball had entered, gaping and ugly at the back where it had come out. She tried not to hurt him, but he groaned constantly until she finished. When at last the shoulder was bound in the remnants of one of her worn-out petticoats, the pitiful moaning ceased. He never once opened his eyes, even when she undressed him and scoured the dirt from his painfully thin body. Hand supporting the knee of one long leg, she washed the grimy skin and tried not to notice that he was a man.
She was, after all, old enough to think of a man of her own, but the rawboned frontier life had presented no possibilities. Romance existed only in rare dreams that came only when she wasn't so exhausted she fell into a stupor at bedtime.
After completing the man's bath, she tucked a quilt around his shivering frame and lay a dampened cloth on his forehead. His fever had gone down some.
In the remainder of boiling water still in the pot on the coals, Tressie stirred up cornmeal mush. She was dipping the thick stuff into a bowl when he spoke in a dried and grating tone that startled her in its abruptness.
"I thought you were a vision and I had died."
She stood and took him the steaming bowl. "Well, I'm not and you didn't. Sorry, this is all I have. It's weevily, but filling."
He grabbed at the bowl, almost dumped its contents. She rescued it and offered the first spoonful, ashamed when he sucked air and rolled the steaming mush around in his mouth before swallowing.
"It's too hot," she said by way of apology, and began to blow on each bite before giving it to him.
He gulped down mouthful after mouthful, pursing his lips for the next offering before she had it cooled.
To cover her discomfort, she began to chatter as she fed him. "If we were back on the farm in Missouri, there would be milk and sweet cream butter from the cow and molasses sorghum for sweetnin' and flour for bread.
"Instead of this wearisome dry heat, there'd be damp cool mornings and long, lazy afternoons when a body could shell peas or snap beans or shuck corn out under the shade of a big old hickory and not even notice it was summer."
He concentrated on the movements of her mouth but didn't miss a beat in the feeding.
Caught up in her reminiscences, she could almost forget the dilemma facing her and this stranger, and take his measure. His eyes, dark as bottomless caves, held a sadness that plucked at her. His long black hair shimmered with shades of blue since she d washed it. The dark stubble of whiskers covering his square jaw looked more like he hadn't shaved in a while than like he might ordinarily wear a beard. She couldn't guess his age, though she thought him several years older than herself. Somewhere between twenty-five and thirty.
Once begun, she couldn't stop the jabbering, but slowed down the feeding process to keep him from getting sick. "I just have to make do because the cow died last winter, the sorghum run out before that, and Papa took our only horse when he went off in search of his fortune, so we couldn't ride in for supplies if there was any money, which there isn't." She bit at her lip. Telling that small lie was just in case he was a thief and might get ideas when his strength came back. Mama's few hoarded coins were well hidden.
"After the Preemption Act made squatting legal, Papa couldn't wait to leave Missouri and come out here. He talked about land that stretched as far as the eye could see, and how farming it would be so much easier than digging around in that rocky old Ozark soil." She snorted. "Wasn't even a year before he decided that was too tedious as well. And besides, there was talk about a strike at Grasshopper Creek, and so off he went. Couldn't talk of anything but Bannack, Oregon, and gold those last few months before he left."
She sensed his stare and froze, spoon suspended in midair, and met his gaze. "My name's Tressie Majors, what's yours?"
He begged for the bite with his soft dark gaze and she gave it, then scraped noisily all around the bowl for every last morsel. He licked some off the corner of his mouth and darted a quick glance toward the pot on the fire.
She held the empty bowl a moment, challenged him, "I said, my name's Tressie Majors, what's yours?"
"Bannon. Reed Bannon. And I thank you, ma'am, for---" He broke off and lifted the thin coverlet. "Who in thunderation stole my clothes?" With that he pulled the quilt tight up under his chin and turned the brightest red Tressie had ever seen a man turn.
She felt a grin coming on and let it happen. There hadn't been a whole lot to laugh at lately, and it felt kind of good.
"Would you like another bowl of mush, Mr. Bannon? There's plenty."
Any attempt to ignore him laying there nearly naked failed. It wasn't easy to pretend this was an ordinary day and there wasn't a dead horse in the yard. And that she hadn't just buried Mama and that newborn babe out there on the prairie. And she wasn't a young defenseless woman all alone with a stranger in this place with no human habitation for fifty miles or more.
Heat rose flushing her throat and cheeks. Fear came and went, left only a sense of relief. At last she had someone to talk to. A man who blushed, and was near starved and who called her ma'am. Her mind echoed the lingering thought that he might be a killer, and she sobered somewhat, but it didn't last. No sense being foolish.
She fetched him another bowl of mush and offering the first bite asked, "Who shot you, Mr. Bannon?"
He raised thick brows, lips tightening and nostrils flaring like he smelled something bad. But he didn't answer right away, just chewed and swallowed slowly.
She waited awhile, sitting there holding up the empty spoon. Then she cut him a hard look so he'd know that this time she meant business.
"I need to know if someone is going to ride up on us in the middle of the night, finish the job they started on you, and then do God knows what to me. I need to know that if you're going to remain under my roof, Reed Bannon."
"And if they are, will you kick me out? Not even let me have the rest of that?" He gestured and she gave him another bite. He swallowed it down and went on, "Maybe mount me on that poor old wore-out horse and send me on my way. You don't appear to be that kind of woman, if you'll excuse my saying so, ma'am."
At the mention of his horse, Tressie looked away. Should she tell him the bony old nag was dead? She gritted her teeth.
"Just tell me about that." She pointed the spoon at his bandaged shoulder.
He sighed with a weariness that made her almost ashamed she had asked. "That old horse out there?"
She gulped and nodded. Had he guessed?
"I stole him from a Union soldier in St. Louis and the no-good so and so shot me for my troubles. Hell, they had a whole corral of the beasts and I was afoot with a long way to go."
Tressie gaped at the man. "You just walked up and took a horse that belonged to the United States Army?"
"Union, I said Union. Not United States. Price's blue-bellies massacred us at Prairie Grove, and us that could walk away wasn't feeling too kindly toward those boys, you can bet. I didn't mind a little payback, seeing as how I liked to starved just getting to St. Louis."
"You were a butternut?"
"Butternut hell. I was in McCulloch's army. Me and thousands of others. Indians fought there. We didn't turn our back on our kind, like some did." He aimed the accusation directly at Tressie. Folks from Missouri were not looked too kindly upon by southerners.
She hurried to get away from that aspect of the conversation but continued to feed him. "But you're not wearing a uniform. Are you still in the...in the Rebel Army?"
Reed squirmed. "Look, I'm tired. I'd rather just finish that off and go to sleep, if you don't mind. We can hash this out later, when I'm feeling more up to defending myself against a little mite of a thing who hasn't the slightest idea of what war is all about."
"I know what they call a man who runs away from battle," she snapped. "But you go ahead and sleep now, if you've a mind to. As long as I know some owlhoot isn't going to sneak up on us in the night to get his vengeance against you. I would think that Union soldiers have a little more to do than chase one ratty deserter halfway across the plains."
He reared off the pillow, then grimaced with pain, clutching at the shoulder.
Immediately Tressie felt contrite. She shouldn't have pushed him so far when he was so sorely wounded. The wisest move would be to wait till he got better to finish this argument.
Besides, there were other, more pressing things to worry about. She had no idea what might happen tomorrow or the next day, but for right now things were looking up. Despite the story he told—and she wondered if all the truth had come out—his troubles could be handled in their own time.
What was important was that he looked like he might live. And though they had no transportation and only the tiny amount of money she had hidden away, as soon as Reed Bannon had recovered enough, she would get him to take her to Grasshopper Creek and the gold camps in search of Papa. He had to know what horrible thing he had done. He had to pay somehow for killing Mama and the tiny boy-child.
The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks will soon be available as an e book.
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Here's a professional review of The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks
LOST AMONG THE GHOSTS OF HISTORY: VELDA BROTHERTON'S THE BOSTON MOUNTAINS
Brotherton, Velda. The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks. Houston, TX: Old American Publishing Co., 2010.ISBN:978-0-818068-4-6.
You may have read stories about the ring-tailed roarers, the half-men half-alligators who whip their weight in wildcats in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Each of these interesting characters had their origins in the tall tales of the Old Southwest, the region that ultimately became the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
Unfortunately, the reading public has come to stereotype rural people, especially the salt of the Southern earth. While Jeff Foxworthy makes us look inward and discover that there is a little bit of "redneck" in each of us, sitcoms like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dukes of Hazzard have perpetuated the myths that belie the actual people in the "flyover zone," especially those of the South.
Even movies such as True Grit have created the likes of Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn, himself a "half-man half-alligator," while building upon the reputation of "Hanging Judge" Parker.
Although such movie perceptions of the heroic fictional and historical characters may be for the good, it is through Velda Brotherton's The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks that we meet the real people behind what are otherwise media masks. She resurrects the old times and we tour the old towns, some dead, some dying, some prospering; and she introduces us to the tenacious settlers who invested the region with its present-day character.
Supplementing her image-rich prose in The Boston Mountains, Brotherton's photographs capture those people, their homes, and towns that otherwise would be lost to all but family albums and fading pictures in historical archives.
As she loses herself in the Boston Mountains, Brotherton takes the time to interview the descendants of the every-day Davy Crocketts and Daniel Boones who settled the Old Southwest. They planted themselves in the rich soil and grew crops never before imagined. They drank purer water and breathed purer air than they had ever known.
Brotherton's love for people, their places, and their histories is apparent on every page of The Boston Mountains. Drawing us into her world of times past and times present, she says, "The past whispers of secrets long kept, hushed murmurs that embrace me as I walk among the tumbled headstones in a long abandoned cemetery, place my hand on the trunk of a splendid maple that has shaded the ancient Ozark soil for a century or more, and turn my face to catch the kiss of afternoon sunlight that fires great oaks into a golden glow" (i).
Brotherton begins The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks with the history of the region, drawn not only from her first-hand observations of the region but also from historical documents. For example, we learn why Sequoya, the creator of the Cherokee written language, was called "pig in hiding."
We also learn why there is a factual basis for Thomas Bangs Thorpe's exaggerations in "The Big Bear of Arkansas." The "Big Bar," himself, bragged that he would never shoot a turkey that weighed less than forty pounds. According to him, Arkansas' soil runs to the center of the Earth. Moreover, it is so rich that when the "Big Bar's" sow slept one night on a kernel or two, "the corn shot up" before morning and "the percussion killed her dead."
Well, Arkansas soil is not that rich. But Brotherton cites "The Status of Medicine and Medical Men in Washington County, Arkansas 1854-1860," whose muted description of the land parallels that of Thorpe's exaggeration. "Lovely County: here was a county, in many respects unequaled in the producting (sic) of everything, calculated to bring about the best results to man and beast―a soil producting (sic) beyond the average ... . The labors of the husbandman always amply rewarded; orchards and fields always yielding an abundant harvest ... ." (iv).
After providing a brief history of the Boston Mountain region, Brotherton invites us to tour with her. As she says, "This is not a history book, but a book of the people who lived our history" (v). She does so in what could be deemed a travelogue, written with a deft touch, a delicate hand that makes it easy to be "lost in the Ozarks."
We learn that children went to school from two or three months a year; some eight months. In any event, they employed their 3Rs well. At the request of the United States Post Office, for example, John Hiram Mannon ingeniously calculated the distance between Blackburn and Winslow. He tied a white cloth to a buggy wheel's spokes and counted its revolutions. His calculation was off a mere few tenths of a mile.
That was a time when school started with prayer and when school buildings served as community halls and churches. We learn, too, that today's high school youths would have been considered adults in the nineteenth century. Girls married as early as 14; boys, at 17.
Brotherton writes of the "nobodies" who are the important "somebodies." They enriched the region, as well as each others' lives, often with main force and awkwardness in less-than idyllic circumstances.
Tolbert Malone's daughter, Wanda Malone Buckner, weighed only a pound-and-a-half at birth, but her grandmother Rachel Malone kept her "alive in a warming oven ... after doctors told her that baby would never live" (7). Not only did she live, Wanda later survived polio. She married and reared two sons.
Life had other dangers, including the flooded White River that sucked a mother, her infant-in-arms, and her two sons off their horse. In another instance, a sow carried off an infant and killed it, "despite efforts by older children and the family dog" (9).
Despite infants' deaths, floods, and disease, people lived a frugal life of joy and generosity. Audie Parker told Brotherton that two men his father hired to make railroad ties recycled their chewing tobacco. After "they'd extracted all the juices from their chaw," they dried it on a sun-lit stump and later smoked it in their corncob pipes (22).
Adeline Root told Brotherton country hospitality was the norm. "People didn't wait for invitations. They dropped in any time, always knowing they would be welcome. When the women prepared a meal they didn't know who or how many would be there to share it" (170).
Sharing was common even in an Ozark hardscrabble existence. According to a letter written by Jean Malone, Wanda Malone Buckner's younger sister, Mineral Springs second grade teacher Mary Stockburger "decided the children who had never celebrated Christmas or decorated a tree would have both. She collected contributions from parents and with the small amount of money rode horse-back to Fayetteville where she selected small gifts for every child in the community." As for the Christmas tree, she "persuaded a few young men to cut a large cedar" that they decorated with berries and popcorn (7).
There were other acts of generosity, too. The Low Gap (Fairview) School District No. 89 provided a cooperative hot lunch program, according to Juanita Patterson's letter. "One boy gained a pound a day for a week. Our discipline problems became almost nil. The children were busy helping with the cooking, serving and cleanup duties and they were happy." According to Brotherton, the wealthier area farmers provided the "vegetables, meat and bread for the meals" (63).
But not everyone dined so well. According to Glaythra (Chub) France, boys brought their dogs and rifles to the Chapel School District No. 160 as a matter of survival. At the end of the school day, the boys retrieved their rifles stacked in the corner of the schoolroom. Leaving the school grounds, the boys hunted game on their way home. Often, that "would be the only meat the family had to eat" (73).
And yes, there were the real-life ring-tail roarers who could whip their weight in wildcats at Old Skully in 1855. The way station was "a hang-out for the men from the surrounding mountains," who fought for the sheer pleasure of it, but without intentional "killing or maiming." Probably fighting to earn their names, Old Skully most certainly did "because of the many skulls that were beaten and bruised" (116). But the men were no match for Bob and Cole Younger and Jesse and Frank James. When the Old Skully posse chased them down, the gang shot the posse's horses out from under them and made a clean getaway.
We learn of others in history, such as Nathaniel "Texas Jack" Reed who escaped the noose of Fort Smith's Hanging Judge Isaac Parker. We shiver at the mention of the legendary "stranger on a black horse." And we chuckle at the odd names like Bugscuffle Road. Brotherton tells us of schools named Who'd A Thought It and Papa Gimme Nickel, and she tells us why a town came to be called Hog Eye.
Certainly, I wish that I would have been there when the post office ran away. But throughout The Boston Mountains, I am there. You can be, too, when Velda Brotherton visits Chapel School District No. 160. She writes: "But on this day, as I stand in the doorway of the eerily silent school house, I hear the clip-clop of horses' hooves. It's probably a couple of Henson boys riding in on horseback. And there come the Preston and Miller kids threading their way toward us through knee-high clumps of meadow grass. But with a second look, all is still, the only sound the chatter of the creek harmonizing with birdsong and a vivid imagination. I must have eavesdropped on the past, not an uncommon thing at all" (73).
As one who has spent many years living in the geologic Ozarks, it is a pleasure to tour with Velda Brotherton. I see new places through her sharp eyes, hear the voices of the Boston Mountain residents, and revisit places where my travels have taken me.
Loren Gruber is a freelance writer and professor of English and professor of Mass Communication at Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Mo.
Want to read the first pages of The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks?
Click the link under Quick Links and download the excerpt.
The Boston Mountains: Lost in the Ozarks
For ten years the author collected interviews, visited old community and cemetery sites and researched the four counties of the Boston Mountains of the Arkansas Ozarks included in this book. A collection of 197 old and new photos, drawings and maps, plus directions to the old sites make this book a "must have" for genealogists, historians and lovers of the Ozarks and its unique history.
Boston store in Madison County
We located this old store while searching for the Boston Community Building, which we also found. Photos of it are in the book as well.
While looking over the store, a horn sounded and someone shouted. Thinking we were in trouble for trespassing, though nothing was posted, I walked out to speak to the woman who'd parked at the cross road. She only stopped to tell us about the old building. That's how we learned that it was once a vital part of this lost community. Here people traded for goods and purchased everything from seeds and feed to overalls, from food to coal oil to little baby chicks.
On one side facing the road, the store had two huge rolling doors where wagons could pull up and unload what they'd brought, or load what they traded for.
During all our trips through the Boston Mountains, we encountered this type of friendliness. Everyone was anxious to tell us stories and give directions when we were searching for the old communities. It was as if we were all old friends and neighbors. That's the Boston Mountains.
The word Boston means a hard way to go and when one travels through this rugged terrain, it's easy to see where these ancient mountains got their name. By the way, they aren't actually mountains. Read the book to find out what really forms these beautiful Ozarks.
Train wreck on the Frisco Line in Brentwood
What explains the many train wrecks near this spot at Brentwood? It's hard to tell, but over the years there have been quite a few. This wreck happened just at the depot when two trains collided.
In the book you'll read the story of a father and son; railroad workers who saved the lives of everyone on a train speeding through the black of night toward a washout of the tracks during a hard rainstorm.
Wilda's Outlaw: The Victorians
The Duncan girls came from England, Wilda to marry Lord Prescott who had agreed to guardianship of the other two girls.
An old family photo of a reunion
Many of the photos in this collection come from all kinds of sources; sadly some have no identification. But all show a way of life that has passed into the shadows of time. I am proud to bring them to my readers. Who knows? Someone may recognize family.
Fly With The Mourning Dove
A 2008 WILLA FINALIST
Gleaned from the diaries of Cassie Smith and her daughter Edna, Fly with the Mourning Dove
captures the struggles of two women to civilize their portions of the West.
Reader Brenda Black writes: I finished Fly with the Mourning Dove yesterday and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Edna's gentle story is remarkable, and pulls the reader along, wanting to know more. I loved your use of dialog, especially the venacular that rang so true for the time and place. Your understanding of human interaction certainly showed through the dialog.
But I felt your best writing was in the descriptions of the land and feelings of place, particularly in the prologue and epilogue. You captured the feel of that land and the imprint it made on the people who loved it. The box metaphor is incredibly well-done and thought-provoking -- in fact the epilogue is so personal and intimate, I wondered where Edna left off and Velda began. I read the last few chapters to my husband over breakfast, as I was finishing the book, and you had us both in tears by the end.
From a review by Loren Gruber, retired Dean of Arts and Humanities and Professor of English at Missouri Valley College, Marshall, Missouri:
They "cowboy up" as tuberculosis ravages the lungs of Finas, their husband and father; as drought ravages their land; as the Great Depression ravages the economy. While butchering a turkey, overcoming frontier loneliness, and eating porcupine, Cassie and Edna each learn to be as tough and tenacious as the West itself.
Fly With the Morning Dove weaves a colorful tapestry of time, place, and life story, the threads perfectly intertwined to create a picture that is both compelling and complete, a moving tribute to the lives of strong women whose stories should not be forgotten. Brotherton is a rare combination—part historian, part master storyteller, always supurb! --Lisa Wingate, national bestselling author of Tending Roses
In Fly with the Mourning Dove, author Velda Brotherton brings to life characters who have been immortalized in a real-life journal written by Edna, a young girl who found herself living on the New Mexico frontier. Not only must Edna deal with the rites of passage common to all adolescents, she must do so in the loneliness and isolation of the great American desert. This she accomplishes with the grace, determination, and loyalty so characteristic of the western woman.
Brotherton is adept at depicting the strengths and sensibilities of these women who settled the rough and tumble world of the frontier. She steps into the past with authenticity and with a keen sense of place. No where is this more evident than in the relationships she builds and in the pictures she paints of a world we all long to regain.
Sheldon Russell, author of Dreams to Dust: A Tale of the Oklahoma Land Rush
GOOD NEWS: This book is now available on the Kindle Reader from Amazon.
Images In Scarlet
Look for it in 2012 as a Kindle Ebook
Following the Civil War, photographer Allison Caine earns her way west from Missouri. On the trip she photographs Frank and Jessie James, rescues an abused woman and falls in love with a wandering stranger known only as Jake. To show he's worthy of Allie's love, he must prove he is not the killer his fragmented memories suggest.
Rated Four Stars by Romantic Times
Author Jodi Thomas says this about Images In Scarlet: Samantha Lee's book is beautifully original! A pleasure to read. She knows her history and makes it come alive with characters you can't help but fall in love with.
Wandering In The Shadows of Time: An Ozarks Odyssey
Exploring lesser known roads of remote portions of the Ozark Mountains, Brotherton has tracked down and interviewed many of the fine durable folk who settled this region. Travel with her, go within her thoughts and into the minds and hearts of these people. You may not want to leave.
Springdale: The Courage of Shiloh
With over 100 historic photographs and drawings, the book entices both local residents and visitors to discover the appeal of this unique community.