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.