Blind Faith (Lawmen of the West Book 2)
A wounded horse. A half-dead man. She thinks she can save the horse. She doubts the man will survive . . .
Painter Alena McClaine's world turns upside down when an unconscious rider arrives on his injured horse at her isolated California cabin. Both the animal and the stranger sport bullet wounds.
Much to her surprise, the man lives—and hasn't a clue about his identity. Even worse, he's now blind. As the stranger recovers from his head and shoulder wounds, Alena finds herself falling in love.
He remembers his name—and then his mission.
John Harper recalls pieces of his past as a beautiful woman nurses him back to health. Finally, he remembers he is a U.S. marshal hunting a vicious gang of outlaws who have kidnapped a United States senator—the very man who married John's childhood sweetheart. He located the gang, only to be shot before he could rescue the senator and his young son.
When his sight returns, John knows he must head to the gang's hideout and attempt to rescue their captives despite his bum shoulder. Alena, a crack shot, insists on going with him. The secrets and lies that await them test their new and fragile love.
Blind Faith is a standalone western historical romance from Alexa Aston's Lawmen of the West series, which features heroes of the American west in various law enforcement positions and the strong heroines who bring love into their lives.
Release date: July 13, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 286
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Blind Faith (Lawmen of the West Book 2)
Supposedly a day of rest. At least that’s what a preacher man would think.
Jeb Foster’s only concession to Sundays was he didn’t take a drink until noon. Or a quarter of, at the earliest. Living in hell gave a man a powerful thirst.
He laughed aloud as he cast his line into the still waters of Lake Margarita. At least that’s what he called the body of crystal blue water. The sun reflecting off it blinded him with its brightness, much as Margarita’s beauty had the first time he saw her.
Hell. Any time he saw her.
Jeb shifted on the bank. When had he started down his path to meet the Devil? He’d been a right stinker from the start. Sticking fingers into freshly made pies. Swiping an apple or piece of sweetmeat from a neighborhood kid. Slipping a penny from the collection box at church. A thousand things Mama told him he’d done. That is, before she up and left.
He couldn’t blame her. She’d lost a husband and had two little mouths to feed when she hooked up with that Black Irish charmer. Married him when Jeb must have been three or four. He had no memories of his real father—only ones of that whoring drunk who’d made all their lives miserable. Mama finally cleared out one day. Her eyes stayed blackened more often than not. Her body had become a rainbow of bruises piled one atop the other, all hidden under layers of tattered petticoats and cheap gowns.
But did she have to run off and leave Anthony and him with the whoremonger?
That started him on his descent into hell—and his sins piled up over the years.
The pole almost shot out of his hands. Jeb tightened his grip and stood, drawing the line from the water. The fish hooked on the other end put up a strong fight. He watched it struggle, whipping its body from side to side. Finally, the hook tore and the fish flopped onto the ground, straining to reach the water.
With a swift motion, Jeb speared it to the ground with his dagger. Instantly, the impaled fish went still. Its eyes, cold and dead, stared back at him.
Reminded him of his charming stepfather’s.
But that was a long time ago. Jeb had moved on. He’d killed other men. Done things no man should be a party to. Lost Anthony along the way in a barroom brawl. A bit more of him had died each day.
Until he’d met Margarita.
He smiled. Just the thought of her beauty could bring a grown man to his knees.
Suddenly, the quiet of the day was interrupted. Something thrashed through the forest. A wild animal being chased? In flight for its life?
Jeb knew better than to mess with a bear in the midst of his kill but the thought of fresh bear meat made his mouth water. He raced to the nearby tree and reached for his rifle, propped against the trunk.
Whatever it was would be here any moment. Jeb cocked the rifle, ready for what would spring from the dense woods. He was a decent shot and at this close range, he couldn’t miss.
The anguished cry tore through the air. He lowered his gun and placed it on the ground as Alena shot out from the trees. He met her halfway. She flung herself into his arms.
“Jeb, Jeb, Jeb,” she cried, over and over, tears streaming down her cheeks.
He cuddled the small child and rocked her like a baby, whispering calming nonsense as he stroked the raven hair.
Alena raised violet eyes to his, brimming with tears. Her bottom lip trembled. Jeb saw confusion and sadness in her face. And he knew who put it there.
Kevin McClaine. Her sorry excuse for a father.
“Don’t talk, Sweetie Pie. You’re safe with old Jeb.”
Gradually, Alena’s trembling ceased. Her breathing slowed and the tears dried from her cheeks. Jeb vowed this time he would do it. He’d wring McClaine’s neck and throw him in the lake. No, he’d stake him to the ground and let the buzzards gnaw him to death. Jeb wouldn’t let Margarita talk him out of it.
This time, he would kill Kevin McClaine. They could rot in hell together as long as the Black Irishman kept to a different side of the eternal fire.
Alena touched her small hand to his face. “Jeb?” she whispered. “You need to help. Mama said to come find you if we ever needed help.”
He smiled gently at the beautiful child in his arms. Oh, she was Margarita’s, all right. The smooth, satin skin. Large eyes. Delicate chin. Long, straight hair that hung to her waist. This one would grow up to be as breathtaking as her mother. Maybe more so.
“Well, here I am.” He stood and gave her a slight, reassuring squeeze before placing her on her feet. “Let’s go see what your mama needs help with.”
Alena swallowed. Her mouth turned down and then her face crinkled up again.
“Don’t cry, Sweetie Pie. Jeb’ll fix it, whatever it is. You know that.”
Over the years, he had painted the McClaine barn. Birthed their cows. Fixed the plow. Repaired the fence. Sharpened knives. Whatever Kevin McClaine left undone before he disappeared on one of his frequent benders, Jeb Foster completed.
“You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you or your mama. Come on, little girl. Let’s go.”
He took the child’s hand. They set out for the neighboring homestead. The land had been Kevin McClaine’s payoff after his service in the Mexican War. Jeb was used to having next to nothing but he shuddered every time he saw the McClaine place.
Margarita came from fine stock, one of the landed ranchero families of California. Her family disowned her after she fell for the dashing American cavalry officer. Now she lived in abject poverty, with only little Alena as the single bright spot in her life.
As they came closer, Jeb determined to settle things, once and for all. He’d wanted to possess Margarita from the moment he met her. Only Kevin McClaine stood in his way. Funny, he’d killed in anger. Dispassionately. For money. For revenge. Yet in his thirty years, he’d never killed for love. Maybe he’d waited because he knew the love Margarita had for him would die if he shot her husband. He’d stood by and watched that bastard chisel away at Margarita long enough. Now, Alena was terrified. He’d give McClaine a chance to go peacefully.
If he didn’t, Jeb would do what needed to be done. Either Margarita would forgive him—or she wouldn’t. He was ready to take the risk. Whatever the outcome, her life would be better with Kevin McClaine gone from it.
The ramshackle cabin appeared in the distance. A trail of smoke rose from its chimney. Jeb hoped he could find McClaine and make it happen fast. He would force Margarita to realize she couldn’t go on living the way she had for the last seven years. He could save her from her husband’s acid tongue and heavy hand. They would be a family, as he’d dreamed of time and again. Maybe they’d even have a child or two of their own, playmates for Alena.
Alena drew up sharply as they entered the clearing.
“What’s wrong, Pumpkin?”
Her grip on his hand tightened. She looked around, shy as a doe. Jeb knew she looked for her father.
“Daddy kept hitting Mama, harder and harder. She cried and cried.” Alena looked up at him. “Daddy’s so mean to her. He kicked her. Mama just crumpled up in a heap. Daddy yelled for me to get out. I ran and hid in the barn.”
His gut tightened. McClaine had always mistreated Margarita. Jeb had seen the telltale bruises from the time they arrived. At first, she lied and made excuses for how they happened. But Jeb knew. He’d seen it before and heard every story, chapter and verse, in his own mother’s book. Finally, Margarita admitted the truth to him.
“Then I’m glad you came to get me, Sweetie Pie. That was the right thing to do.”
“I couldn’t fix things this time.” Alena sniffed. “Mama lets me brush her hair when Daddy’s been mean to her. She says it makes her feel better. But she wouldn’t wake up. That’s why I came to get you.”
Jeb clamped down on the panic that surged through him. He ruffled the girl’s hair. “Why don’t you go wait in the barn, sweet girl? I’ll check on your mama. Leave it to Jeb. I’ll fix things.”
Alena skittered off, pausing to look at him somberly before closing the barn door behind her. Jeb waited till she was out of sight before starting toward the house. He had a bad feeling.
The fire burned low. A pot of stew simmered in the grate. Margarita had been a terrible cook when she’d first married, servants having prepared every meal for her in the past. She was a quick learner, though. Now her apple pie and biscuits ranked with the best of them.
The stillness caused his heart to race. It didn’t feel right, not at all. Alena’s words echoed in his head.
She wouldn’t wake up this time . . .
He moved past the simple furniture, some of it overturned. An empty whiskey bottle lay on the floor. Jeb kicked it out of the way. He might enjoy a nip every day, but he never drank to the depths Kevin McClaine did. McClaine was a mean drunk.
He moved toward the bedroom. He’d imagined himself and Margarita in there a thousand times, making sweet love in the late afternoon light. Or when moonlight spilled into the room. Jeb set his jaw. That would be a reality soon. He was bound and determined to remove McClaine from their sight. It was time to take a stand.
Jeb entered the small bedroom and squinted. The curtains were drawn tight. Only dim light peered from over his shoulder from the fire and window in the other room.
Then his foot hit something soft. He knelt. Margarita lay before him. He rushed to the window and tore the curtains down. Light spilled in bright waves across the room. He returned to her side. A blanket covered her, and a pillow was partly under her head. Alena’s work. Margarita’s lip was split. Dried blood ran from her mouth in a jagged line. One eye was swollen shut and yet she still looked beautiful to him in her sleep, so peaceful.
Jeb cradled her cheek with his palm and stiffened.
His mind screamed as he gently lifted the blanket. She was nude beneath it. The perfect flesh marred with bruises of various shapes and sizes. Some weeks old. Others much more recent. He stroked the swanlike neck, held the tiny, perfect hand in his.
The bastard had finally killed her. Jeb warned her this would happen. She had laughed, that musical tinkling that gave him the good kind of shivers, and assured him Kevin would never go that far. That his Catholic conscience was even stronger than hers. Beat her, yes. Kill her? Never.
Now, it was too late. Too late for holding her in his arms. Knowing she was finally his. Drinking her intoxicating kisses. Joining their bodies as one.
Jeb pressed his lips to hers, in their first and only kiss. He had loved her from afar. Now, he would mourn her in the only way he knew how. It came easily to him. Maybe it had been born with him.
“Goodbye, my love,” he murmured softly and raised the blanket over his Margarita.
Then he went out to find that no good, wife-killing whoreson.
In the end, it took only a moment. McClaine’s eyes showed the fear Jeb needed to see. He buried the body and then returned for Alena. She was his responsibility now.
And no one would ever come between them.
How did he ever wind up in charge of such rabble?
Dingus cursed the day the last of the Marker brothers and their various cousins were jailed, shot, or hanged. The remaining gang members should have had the good sense to call it quits with the brains dead or locked up.
But this bunch of crazy outlaws lacked common sense.
He stared at Cletus, the nominal leader when he wasn’t around. Cletus ruled the roost by intimidation. If the others weren’t so stupid, they would plot to overthrow the idiot and bury the bones the buzzards left behind.
He didn’t bother to turn in the saddle. He was tired of them all. He found in recent months he came around less and less. His desire for the life the gang provided died long ago. Already, he questioned taking the senator and his son and hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a giant mistake.
He looked over his shoulder and saw the party of horses still followed him. Braden Reynolds rode atop Jimbo’s horse. Jimbo Simon had to be the dumbest man Dingus ever encountered. Sweet-nature for a criminal, though. The fool clumsily jumped from the train as they made their getaway and landed on his ankle wrong. The three hundred-plus pounds he carried likely contributed to his being off-balance.
The gang could’ve handled that. Though an odd sort of misfits, they cared for each other—despite their squabbling and petty disagreements. It had been the lone shot that rang out that undid them. Jimbo fell like a ton of bricks. A bloodstain appeared instantly in his upper back.
Dingus made the decision not to wait around. He hollered for Sammy to put the senator on Jimbo’s horse. The man’s wrists were quickly tied together and to the saddlehorn. Sammy slapped the horse, and Jimbo’s paint took off at a gallop, Braden Reynolds hanging on for dear life.
Cletus swept up the boy with him. The bookish little fellow—small, pale, his eyes huge and round behind wire-framed glasses—made nary a peep. No one ventured a backward glance at Jimbo as the gang hightailed it away.
Dingus wondered who had boldly fired and why they chose Jimbo. Or had they? Was it a lucky shot from a foolish man? He’d never know. If Jimbo died, so be it. If he lived, he wouldn’t talk. Jimbo might be dumb as dirt, but he wasn’t stupid. No one from the Marker brothers’ gang had ever talked.
So now they rode toward the canyon, their hideout for years. His own life had been a rough one and Dingus fell into the gang at a time when he needed companionship. They’d offered it and he’d been grateful for it.
He and Jacob Marker got along especially well, but nothing had been the same since the demise of the blood Markers. Dingus wondered if he would ever escape this association. He was getting old and tired of robbing innocent victims and sitting around in the middle of nowhere with dirty, bedraggled men bragging on their exploits.
That’s why over the years he spent more and more time away. Jacob Marker had seemed to understand Dingus’ need for solitude. In fact, Jacob even encouraged it. Dingus wished now when Jacob hanged that he had abandoned the gang for good instead of foolishly sticking around.
But now sitting before him might be his golden goose. The opportunity to make the break he so desperately desired. Americans everywhere knew the name Braden Reynolds as one of the most powerful politicians in Washington. A self-made man who had acquired a fortune to accompany the power he wielded. Surely Reynolds’ wife would pay dearly for the return of her husband and only son.
He looked over his shoulder again. The key to everything he wanted rode behind him. It would take cunning—but he intended to walk away with every dime from this kidnapping. No sharing. No splitting the ransom.
In the end, it was every man for himself.
They rode the rest of the day and most of the night. No complaints voiced. Dingus learned long ago to give an order and stick to it. The men surrounding him weren’t thinkers; they were followers. Only Cletus questioned him now and then. Sometimes with a glance, sometimes pulling him aside. But even Cletus knew of the treasure they held. He saw the greed in Cletus’ eyes and wondered if it mirrored his own.
Close to sunrise, they made the canyon. If there was a God, He’d definitely claim responsibility for the canyon. It was beautiful, rugged, and dangerous as hell to reach the bottom. Untouched by man, except for the Marker brothers and their gang of outlaws.
The men abandoned their saddles in order to lead the horses down the steep, narrow path. One look at the child and Dingus knew the boy wouldn’t make it. He thought maybe the senator’s wife might have pulled a fast one on her husband. Any man would question this scrawny child being his. Braden Reynolds was a good six feet, broad shouldered, and looked in fair health despite the paunch nestled around his mid-section. This boy was pale, skinny, awkward, and hacked like he had the consumption.
“Put the boy back on your horse, Sammy,” he said quietly.
Sammy nodded and lifted the child back into the saddle.
Along with the dark circles under the boy’s eyes, Dingus saw the terror underscored in young his face. After so long a ride, the child was still fearful. He went over and placed a hand on the boy’s knee.
“Hold on, son. We’ll be there soon.” He didn’t think twice about the reassurance. His soft side came out every now and then and he could tell it soothed the boy.
Within an hour, as dawn broke, the party finished making their way down the canyon and climbed back onto horseback to reach the cluster of small cabins at the far end of the valley.
Dingus dismounted once they arrived and tossed his reins to Sammy.
“Rub him down.” He went to lift the boy from the saddle, placing him on wobbly legs.
He bent low and whispered, “Buck up, son. You’ll be here awhile. Make your mama proud. Be a good little man.”
He and Cletus entered the cabin with Reynolds and the boy in tow. The other men would care for the horses and work on some grub, a routine they fell into long ago. He led the boy to a cot.
“Lie down. You look like you need some rest.”
The child trembled but did as told. He rolled so he faced away from those in the cabin and curled into a small ball. Exhausted, he fell asleep immediately.
Satisfied that the boy was taken care of for now, Dingus turned to look at Braden Reynolds. The man’s jaw was set in granite. His eyes narrowed as he glared at his kidnapper with disdain. His very posture, much less the defiant look he wore, worked Dingus up into a lather.
He had no patience with adults, just a notorious soft spot for kids. And especially no sympathy for a high and mighty senator. The cold bastard hadn’t given his own son a glance that Dingus could tell. No reassuring smiles. No whispers that Daddy’d take care of things. Dingus judged Braden Reynolds to be a pompous ass. He would make this selfish politician sorry. He’d show him who was the boss.
In a quick movement, Dingus threw a right cross, knocking the senator off his high horse and onto the floor. Reynolds fell hard, his hands still tied. Cletus picked up the hostage and shoved him into a rickety chair.
“Dingus? Do you—”
“Not now,” he growled. “Leave me be.”
Cletus knew well enough to do as told and exited the cabin. Braden Reynolds stared up at him now, a small trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth.
“What do you want?”
He smiled. The senator had him some guts, after all. “I want as much money as I can get for your sorry carcass.”
Reynolds turned white as lightning against a dark sky. This intrigued him. Why did the thought of ransom make him so fearful?
“You realize you and your boy are worth more to me alive than dead?”
Reynolds swallowed. Dingus could smell the fear on him now. Reynolds had a nasty little secret.
Dingus aimed to find out what it was.
He thrust his hand into the senator’s pocket. The money clip was almost laughable. For a man in the senator’s position, it held a measly four dollars.
“Not carrying much these days?”
Reynolds snorted. “I don’t have to. My traveling secretary handles expenses.”
He reached in again and withdrew a gold pocket watch. Now this was a keeper. He clicked it open. Inside was one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. The picture entranced him. She had flawless skin and large eyes framed by long, dark lashes. A mass of hair was piled artfully on top of her head, but a few curls had escaped, making her look vulnerable. She could be a princess in a fairy tale.
He winked at Reynolds. “Maybe I’ll get to do my business with your missus.”
Dingus anticipated Reynolds’ action. As the senator stood to charge him, he landed a quick punch to the man’s gut. A rush of air blew out as Reynolds crumpled. Dingus added a swift kick to the head for good measure. He didn’t want his guest going anywhere. He licked his lips. He’d lost interest in the senator’s secret for now.
Instead, he began to think of ways to meet Mrs. Reynolds.
John Harper took a bite of cold biscuit and washed it down with a swig from his canteen. The autumn day was crisp and clear, not so cold that the wind stung his cheeks, but it had that clean smell to it. A blue sky reigned as king, with wisps of white clouds dotting it. Cicero turned her head and nickered softly. He placed the remaining biscuit in his palm and offered it to the horse.
Her lips barely grazed him as she daintily took what was left of his breakfast and nibbled it with relish.
He stroked her between the ears, her favorite place to be petted. “Good girl,” he told her, as he did ten times a day. She was the only woman he’d sworn to have a lasting relationship with. So far, she had given far more than she received in their three years together.
John wasn’t much for women. Human ones, anyway.
He tightened the lid on the canteen and returned it to its place. His knees nudged Cicero’s flanks gently. She responded with a nice trot. He didn’t want to tire her. They had been on the road several days, his latest assignment taking him across northern California. He knew she would like to bed down in a nice, dry stable and have her fill of oats, but until he could find Senator Braden Reynolds and his son, that wasn’t going to happen.
If he found them.
John’s throat constricted. He swallowed hard to push the lump down. He had seen Johnny once, with his parents at a rally in Pennsylvania, just after Gettysburg had been dedicated. The little fellow would have been about three then and his eyes had held all the mischievous charm of any boy that age.
The senator, too, oozed charm—but of a different kind. John had stared hard at the politician. It was the first and only time he saw the man in person. Reynolds had that slickness and confidence that bewitched women and caused level-headed men to trust him. But the suave urbanity prompted John to keep his distance.
That—and the fact that Annabelle had walked up.
John hadn’t wanted to see her, much less let her see him, so he had melted into the crowd and rejoined his regiment. He risked one last glance at her, though. Their eyes met for a brief moment which seemed to go on forever. He wondered if the pain and regret he saw were mirrored in his own face.
He’d never seen her again.
Now the government was trying to track her and her stepdaughter, Olivia, down. Last word was they might be in Italy. Or had it been France? Either way, she would be found and told that her husband and son had been yanked off a train and were now being held captive in parts unknown. Maybe for ransom, maybe not.
It was his job to find them.
He wasn’t the only U.S. marshal looking. A half-dozen others were assigned to the case. Braden Reynolds had a lot of pull in Washington. He would find them, though. He had to.
John rode several hours, reigning in any stray thoughts of Annabelle Martin Reynolds and putting them under lock and key. What they’d had was water under the bridge and a long time ago. Her betrayal caused him to sour on all women. On life, really.
He approached the canyon that Jimmy Littlefoot tipped him about, flat in the middle of nowhere. He trusted Jimmy. The bronzed Indian’s tips always panned out. Jimmy swore the canyon was home to the Marker brothers, an odd gang of misfits active in this part of the country for nigh on thirty years.
John doubted there were even any Marker brothers left. He could name three in jail right now, two that hanged, and another two that died in a shoot-out before Mr. Lincoln’s War ever began. Of course, cousins and friends and hangers-on made up a good part of the outfit. No one really knew who the Marker brothers were right now, but sure as the sun rose every day, some faction of the gang either planned something illegal or were in the act this very minute.
John dismounted. If it really were the Markers who had Senator Reynolds, they would have lookouts. He loosely tied Cicero to a tree and scratched her ears.
“Now I aim to be back, girl, but if I don’t make it, you’re not tied up much at all. Give me a few hours before you light out.”
Amazingly, Cicero would do as told. John had never come across a horse with such keen intelligence. She spooked him at times with what she knew and how she acted. It was almost as if she were human. He held conversations with her all the time as if she could understand him.
He wouldn’t bet against it that she did.
Stealthily, he made his way down. He saw a cluster of four cabins at the back of the canyon. No one visible standing guard. If they did have Reynolds and the boy, they must be fairly certain no one knew it or that no one could track them here.
Smoke rose from three of the four cabins. He wondered how the gang divided up. Would it be on seniority? Reputation? Or whoever decided to bunk wherever?
As he got closer, John shivered involuntarily. His childhood nurse, a superstitious Irish nanny named Maureen, would tell him someone just walked over his grave. He glanced down at the ground beneath his feet before looking up. If he weren’t careful, it would become his grave, unmarked and full of secrets.
He approached from the west, one cabin visible, the others behind it. A crow passed overhead, its mournful cry bringing another chilled shiver racing down his spine. God, but it was quiet. Too quiet. A bad feeling twisted in his gut. Still, he kept on. That’s what a marshal did. Bad feelings didn’t stop him at Shiloh or Fredericksburg when he was a soldier. They wouldn’t here, either.
John crept toward the first cabin. A window smeared with mud would give him a chance to count heads. He peered in. In the dim light he saw four men sitting at a round table filled with cards and chips and shot glasses full of whiskey. Two had their backs to him, but the two he could see full on were armed. Another man stretched out on a bunk, his hat pulled over his face, his pistol at his side within easy reach.
Carefully, he moved underneath the glass. John crouched and pulled his gun. Didn’t hurt to be ready. He rounded the corner after a quick check. The second cabin was empty, no men and no fire. He tread lightly and eased up to the next cabin’s lone window.
Senator Braden Reynolds, looking haggard and heavier than he had at Gettysburg, was tied to a chair that had seen better days. One side of his face was puffed up, with an eye swollen shut. John scanned the room. Three men there, two looking like they were used to taking orders, while the third seemed experienced in giving them. They all stood over the boy.
Johnny Reynolds looked fatigued. Bluish shadows hung under his eyes. His lips were cracked. His lower lip trembled. He seemed scrawny for his age. Maybe it was the hulking men hovering over him that dwarfed him so. Their voices carried from the open window.
“You think your mama’s gonna save you, boy?” One of the minions sneered at the child. “Hell, your daddy can’t do anything and he’s a high-muckety-muck Washington man.”
“Cease badgering the boy!” bellowed Reynolds.
All three men turned to gaze at the senator, sly smiles on their faces.
“Your issue is with me. Not my boy.”
The tallest of the gang grinned, pure evil dancing on his features. “You bet your bottom dollar our beef is with you, Reynolds.” He grabbed a fistful of Johnny’s hair and tightened his grip. Pain shot across the boy’s face.
“Let him go!” stormed Reynolds. “He’s only a child.”
“Yeah. One living a life of wealth and privilege.” The leader turned to Johnny. “Didn’t know your old man got his fancy house and those fancy clothes and servants from the wrong means, did ya, kid?”
Johnny squirmed, his eyes squeezed closed beneath his gold-rimmed glasses.
“Look at me, little feller,” commanded the leader.
Johnny opened his eyes. A single tear slid down his cheek.
“We ain’t no nursemaids, kid. Now if your mama will hurry and come through with the money, maybe you’ll be outta here soon.”
John’s thoughts flew. So since he’d taken off, the gang had sent a ransom demand. He wondered how much they asked.
“My m-m-m-mama’s in Eur-Europe now,” the boy stuttered. “Sh-sh-she’s not home.”
The leader slapped the boy. Both Johnny’s father and John flinched. One couldn’t do anything and the other dared not tip his hand yet.
“Quit yer bellyaching.” The leader turned to the other two. “Maybe those lawmen think we’re pulling their legs.”
Both gang members shrugged. One twirled a toothpick in his mouth. The other spit a spray of tobacco into a corner of the room.
“Maybe we need to shake them up some, boys.”
The leader’s eyes gleamed unnaturally. John cocked his gun, ready to spring from his haunches into action. He didn’t like the looks the leader passed from man to man.
The men sank meaty fingers into the boy as the ringleader jerked the boy’s hand down on the nearby table. Within seconds, he’d whacked off the boy’s pinkie. Johnny’s scream tore into the silent day. John heard muted laughter float from the card players’ cabin as he grit his teeth and forced himself to remain hidden.
“We’ll send this to them government sissies.” The tall man whipped out a dirty handkerchief and wrapped the finger up. “Let ‘em know we mean what we say.”
Johnny collapsed onto the floor, his agony ripping at John’s heart. The boy’s father strained at his bonds, though fear hung over him like a limp blanket. John wondered how he would react if he had been in the senator’s place.
The gang members looked relaxed. Now would be the time to take them, but John didn’t see how he could and get the man and boy out in one piece. The first shot he fired would bring the other four—if not more—running. Much as he hated to, he needed to go for reinforcements.
He moved around the cabin and decided to ascend from the back side. It was steep, though, and he kept slipping. He couldn’t get a firm grip and slid down more times than he could count. He didn’t want to chance going back down and around the long way again. He’d made it this far without being spotted. Besides, fifteen more feet and he would be at the top.
Suddenly, a bullet whizzed so close to his head, he was sure it burned his scalp. He turned and fired a wild shot over his left shoulder, not being able to focus on the target in such a quick moment from his awkward angle. The second bullet struck him in his right shoulder. Pain shot through him like a lit fire under Satan. He gritted his teeth and swung back to fire another shot. It went stray from the shooters. He’d spied two of them.
Knowing his life depended on it, John scrambled up the remaining way. He slid his revolver into his untrained left hand and fired random shots, more to keep them ducking below than hoping to hit anyone. A handful of men in his regiment had felt comfortable shooting with either hand but he never could pull off that feat.
Grabbing a scrubby tree growing halfway out the side of the steep incline, he pulled with all his might. The injured shoulder roared in protest as he flung himself to the ground. He crawled away from the edge and doubled back to see if they pursued him. One did. John steadied the gun in his hand. With the ground and his left hand supporting him, he got off an accurate shot, though his hand spasmed badly. The man fell backward and slid down the side. He saw no movement from him after that.
He couldn’t wait around for any others that might follow. He ran as fast as he could. The shoulder throbbed and oozed blood but he didn’t think it would kill him. At least it wouldn’t if he could get out of here ahead of the others.
And then like a miracle from above, Cicero appeared, galloping to meet him. Damn, that horse was fast. And smart. She would’ve had to start running the minute the first shots were fired, as far as she came. Had she been smart enough to unhitch herself and wait? He wouldn’t question divine intervention at this point.
Cicero reached him and turned, ready to be off again. John jumped onto her and she took off, kicking up dust as she flew across the land. Then she stumbled, a strange warbling coming from her throat. Confused, John looked down and saw the hole in her side, blood dripping from it. Shooting him was one thing; shooting his horse was something far worse.
He turned to fire and felt the bullet graze his temple as he did. It threw him off-balance, as did Cicero’s bucking. John hit the ground hard, his head snapping. A million stars burst across the horizon. He blinked furiously, not able to see anything. He reached out, feeling the jagged rock his head had hit. It was a wonder the blow hadn’t killed him.
Another shot cut through the air. He staggered to his feet and somehow climbed back on Cicero. He leaned down to whisper in her ear.
“Get us out now, girl. Please. Get us out.”
Cicero snorted indignantly, as if questioning his belief in her, and took off again. John clung to her mane as the sound of bullets faded into the distance. He still was having trouble seeing, a map of stars exploding with each jarring motion.
He wrapped his arms around his horse as his world suddenly went black.
Alena pulled the quilt over her and nestled her face into the soft pillow. Outside, the October wind howled, bringing a music all its own. The wind had picked up throughout the afternoon, turning the crisp, fall day into a cold, blustery night. Now the staccato sound of rain began tapping upon the window, harmonizing with the wind’s wail.
She wondered where Jeb was. If he were safe. If he had gotten a good price on the paintings and quilts she sent with him. It had been hard to part with the one of the mother and her doe. Still, the money her art brought would buy much-needed supplies and the little luxuries, like Jeb’s pipe tobacco and her peppermints.
It concerned her that he had been gone longer than usual. Maybe it had been more difficult to sell her work this time. He usually took the quilts to the nearest town and then to others along the way to Stockton until they had all sold. Then he would travel to San Francisco, where he sold her watercolors and oil paintings.
Alena wondered what he said when he sold her work in Ria Vista, the small community about seven miles from their place. She had only been there once, many years ago. She still remembered the stares and the pointing fingers of the townspeople as she rode beside Jeb in the cart that day.
“Don’t worry, Sweetie Pie,” he’d assured her. “You’re different from them, is all. They don’t know any better.”
As a child, Alena knew she was different. She had studied herself in her mother’s mirror. The reflection staring back showed a solemn girl of eight, with smooth, olive skin and luminous violet eyes. As she and Jeb had driven down the streets of Ria Vista, though, no child had her skin color or hair as long and black as her own. The women there were fair-skinned with golden or brown tones of hair, nothing like her or her mother.
She clung to Jeb as they visited the general store, the whispers and furtive glances causing her a physical pain. Did they know her papa killed her mama and ran off, leaving her behind? That Jeb now took care of her and had for the last two years? She had hid her face in the folds of his coat and swore she would never come back again.
And she hadn’t in all these years. What did she need people for anyway, except for Jeb? He was better than her papa had been. More patient with her, teaching her to hunt and fish and shoot. Mama had taught her to cook and sew before she went to live with the angels. Alena figured God must have taught her to draw and paint because the first time she had picked up a brush, it all seemed to come naturally. She had everything she needed in their cabin. She saw no reason to go out into the world.
Alena tried to stop worrying. Jeb always returned in his own time. He was father and brother and best friend to her. They played chess sometimes in the evenings and even poker. Jeb said most women didn’t play poker. Alena hadn’t understood why but she knew she was very good at it. Jeb said so.
The rabbit in the cage next to her bed was restless tonight. She sat up and unhitched the latch, drawing the timid creature into her arms and cuddling it. Her fingers glided over the silky fur. She held the rabbit for some minutes, and it calmed.
Alena placed it back in the cage with a little sadness. Tomorrow or the next day the animal would be well enough to set free. Thanks to her salve, its wound healed nicely. The fox that had latched onto the rabbit’s hindquarters had been a scrawny little critter but its coat had made for a nice hat.
Alena lay down again, sleep overtaking her thoughts of Jeb and the fox.
The whinny of a wounded horse woke her. Alena knew instinctively it was real. Sometimes she dreamed about the injured animals that seem to make their way to her doorstep—but this was no dream.
The wind still whined, whistling its mournful tune. The rain, now a steady downpour, drowned out any other noise. And yet she had heard the horse. Or could it be Jeb returning? She rose and threw a flannel shirt over her plaid shirt and pants and quickly lit a lantern before she unbolted the front door. She opened it only a crack so as to keep the rain out.
There it was again.
Alena had not been dreaming. Somewhere out in the rain and cold was a hurt animal. One that needed her attention. She retrieved her shawl and draped it over her head before picking up the lantern and heading outside. She scanned the clearing before the cabin, adjusting her eyes to the dark, though it would be light in another two hours or so.
This time the neighing was a complaining whimper and Alena set off in the direction it came from. She tracked it to the front of the barn. A large bay stood with a rider slumped in the saddle. Alena made a few clucking noises of sympathy and the horse let her lead it into the dry barn.
She held the lantern high and the horse blinked. Walking slowly around the animal, she immediately found the problem. A small bullet hole pierced the horse’s side. Alena grabbed the limp man’s face between her hands and tilted his head up in order to study him. He was covered in blood and was as still as death. She thought she could save the horse.
She wasn’t sure she could save the man.
Silently apologizing to the bay, she led it back out into the rain, right up to their front porch. She would do what she could for this man. Bury him if she failed.
The horse seemed to know what she needed, lowering itself to the ground. Alena’s eyes widened in surprise. It was if the creature read her thoughts. She scratched it between its ears and the horse seemed to smile.
She wasn’t a large woman but farm chores over a lifetime had made her strong. She half-dragged, half-carried the man into the cabin and deposited him on the floor.
Lord, he was a mess. Blood everywhere she looked. She wondered how he had stayed alive so long but Jeb told her most men were mean and ornery and lived well beyond their chosen time to die. This one must be particularly vile to have lasted this long.
Alena didn’t bother to check his injuries. She would deal with him later if need be. Right now she had a horse to attend, which was far more important to her. She gathered up her basket of necessities and then hesitated.
What if this were Jeb?
Would she want some stranger to care for Jeb’s horse before she looked after him? What if minutes did count in this case? That might be the difference between living and dying for this man.
Torn, Alena hesitated. She had always had an affinity with animals and considered them her friends. Due to their isolation, she didn’t know much about people, except for what Jeb told her and the few she spoke to that passed by their place. And she’d really rather check on the beautiful bay.
Still, it couldn’t hurt to examine the unconscious man first. After all, the horse was still standing. Its wound wasn’t life-threatening.
Before she could change her mind, Alena wheeled and knelt beside the still figure. He was lying on his side, so she turned him over onto his back. The man moaned, a haunting sound that gave her pause. She had to figure out where he was bleeding. She started her search at the top. Immediately, she found the large knot on the back of his head, swollen bigger than a good-sized hen’s egg. She ran her fingers along his soaked hair and found the cause of the blood, or at least most of it. It was a scalp wound. Those were notorious for bleeding like crazy. Maybe he wasn’t hurt as badly as she had first thought.
Alena skimmed her fingers down his neck and across his shoulders. Again, the man’s face tightened in pain. She reached into her necessities bag and rooted around for scissors. Finding them, she cut the man’s shirt carefully, pulling away large parts of it except for on the right shoulder. That’s where he had been hit and the cloth stuck to the wound stubbornly. She rose and took the time to build a good-sized fire and put a kettle on to boil on the right side and a large pot on the left. The stranger wasn’t going anywhere. A few minutes one way or the other wouldn’t make a difference at this point.
She doubled a cup towel and lifted his head, placing the towel beneath it. That would be better than the hard floor, especially with the knot he had back there. She also collected the remnants of his shirt to toss into the fire. As she started to pitch them onto the flames, something sharp raked against her palm.
Alena opened the material carefully. Against the black cloth was a silver star, catching the light from the fire. It proclaimed the wounded stranger to be a U.S. marshal. She wondered if outlaws had hurt this man. A chill blanketed her.
What if they tracked him here?
She pushed aside the thought. She had too much to do. An injured man and horse took precedence over worrying. She fed the remainder of his shirt into the fire and stood, uncertain what to do with the badge.
“Better safe than sorry,” she told herself and walked to her flour bin. She jammed the hand holding the star deeply into the flour and released the badge, making certain it was buried from sight. Dusting off her hand, she set about to more important tasks.
Alena went to what Jeb called a hope chest and lifted the lid. She pulled out several quilts and settled on an old one she didn’t mind getting stained. She placed it over the unconscious man.
Well, she did after she studied him a moment. She had seen Jeb without his shirt on a few times over the years. Jeb and the stranger seemed put together by a very different Maker. Where Jeb was on the wiry side and had about three gray hairs on his chest, this man looked sculpted from stone. His chest was heavily muscled and matted with dark hair. It looked . . . almost beautiful. She didn’t know a man could be beautiful but the stranger’s broad chest certainly was. That is, if all the blood and mud were cleaned from it.
Alena covered him with the quilt and waited for the kettle to boil. Just before it did, she removed it from the fire and poured water from it into a large bowl. She soaked a few clean rags in this and then chose one to wring out. She placed this over the sticky cloth still on his shoulder for a moment and then worked on edging it around the material. Gradually, it loosened up enough for her to pull it away from his skin. He flinched and his eyelids fluttered for a minute, then he was out again.
Alena carefully cleaned the blood from the area so she could examine it more carefully. Her fingers were small and the bullet hadn’t gone in too far. In fact, it had hit the fleshy part between the shoulder and collarbone. Alena retrieved it with little effort.
She applied pressure to stop the bleeding and then cleaned and dressed the wound. She also washed the man’s face and swept the warm, wet cloth gently through his hair. The scalp wound began to bleed again so she pressed strong fingers against it and held it some minutes. Finally, she was able to clean that injury, too.
He was still a mess, though. She wiped his head and face and neck. Might as well do the rest. But as Alena touched the rag to his chest, she flinched. The contact was . . . well, she didn’t know what it was. It was almost like touching a lightning bug and having him give you a quick buzz back. Only harder. Stronger. More intense.
She ignored the fluttery feeling touching a half-naked man gave her and decided to set about her business. He was a man, just like millions of men that walked this earth. No different. No special than the next.
But as she removed the blood and mud from his torso, she found herself holding her breath. A giddy feeling danced up her arm and into the pit of her stomach. Alena shook her head hard to clear it and continued. Finally, he was cleaned up.
And Lord Almighty, did he clean up nice.
His hair was still damp from the rain and her rag but she’d smoothed it. No longer plastered against his head from the rain, it was thick and dark brown, wavy where hers hung straight. His face looked as chiseled in stone as his chest did. His tanned skin told her he spent a lot of time outdoors.
She wondered what color his eyes were or if he had a nice smile. She was curious about the line of hair that trailed down his flat stomach and disappeared below his pants. The thought intrigued her—and scared her just a little bit.
Alena shrugged. She might as well find out. The stranger’s pants were soaking wet from the storm. He needed to get dry and warm. It worried her how clammy and cool his skin was to her touch. She also felt his throat. His pulse was rapid yet weak. She placed her cheek next to his nose. Warm, quick breaths tickled her. Yes, she needed to get him undressed and warm.
She swallowed hard and pulled at one leather boot. It took considerable effort but she was able to remove both. The pants were another matter altogether. They clung to his body like a suckling pig did to its mama’s tit. Alena pulled and pushed and grunted and groaned and pulled some more.
Success came at last and with it, a surprising reward. The man was so handsome, so physically perfect, it made her teeth ache. A strange yearning washed over her, a longing for something she didn’t know existed and wasn’t quite sure what it was about. All she knew was the stranger was absolutely flawless.
And she wanted him. Something primeval sang in her blood, beyond her experience.
She wished to hell she understood what was going on.
The man coughed suddenly, bringing her out of the strange reverie. Lord, she had a naked man lying on her floor, an injured one at that. She needed to do something quick. Anything.
She tossed aside the blood and mud-stained quilt and covered him with a clean one, tucking it under him on one side. She rocked him until he rolled over and she was able to pull the quilt under him. Then dragging it with him on top, she hauled him into her bedroom.
Alena looked from the floor to the bed. She would never be able to get him up there. Instead, she removed the mattress, placing it on the floor, and lifted him onto that. She covered him with her own quilt and folded it about him. She went back to the hope chest and took out two more, returning to place those on top of him, as well.
Finally, she lifted his head and placed her own pillow beneath it. She stepped back to survey her work. His head was the only thing visible. Part of that was covered with the dressing she’d wrapped around it to cover his scalp wound.
He was the sweetest sight she’d ever seen.
Alena idly wondered if a man could ever taste like peppermints.
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