Mystic Creek Series
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May 2013 (05-07-13)
IF HE DIDN'T GET A DECENT POKER HAND SOON, he would be a dead man. His body streaming sweat, Tristan Cheney felt like a kettle of boiling water capped with a tight lid. He took another hearty swig of whiskey, then plunked the ceramic jug back onto the dirt beside him. Then, as unobtrusively as possible, he wiped his forehead with his sleeve. No matter how blank a gambler kept his expression, perspiration was always a dead giveaway.
Smoke curled like a ribbon from the feeble flames, and the men who were gathered in a tight circle near the fire leaned closer to see. Tristan curled his lip. Lowlifes. Back in Boston, he wouldn't have acknowledged their kind with so much as a nod, let alone rubbed elbows with them. That had been before he married Laura, of course. Now, because of her, everything had gone to hell, and he was forced to keep company with lice-infested degenerates, the worst of the lot their leader, Francisco Gonzales. For the life of him, Tristan couldn't fathom how such a wellborn, educated man could sink so low.
Unlike his companions, who were still studying their cards, Tristan already had his own memorized. A simple task, that. All he had was a pair of deuces, for Christ's sake.
The night wind whispered in the leaves of the nearby cottonwoods, a soothing lullaby that seemed to be making the other poker players drowsy. Burk Johnson, a thin gringo with more freckles than good sense, kept yawning, picking his nose, and sniffing. Juan Luna's eyelids were drooping, and he occasionally fondled his crotch as if the stimulation was all that kept him awake. Even Francisco Gonzales, who had won most of the poker hands and should have been eager to continue the play, looked weary and kept stretching his neck. At any time now, they would all decide to settle their debts and head for their bedrolls. The problem was, Tristan didn't have the money in his clip to back his bets, and Gonzales wasn't the kind to take an IOU.
All Tristan needed to save his ass were a few decent hands. Just a few, dammit. He had been betting on high hopes for most of the evening, praying he would get a run of luck. Maybe this would teach him not to sit in on a poker game when he was drinking. Whiskey and gambling could be a lethal combination when a man was low on money. He had anted in for the first round of cards thinking he'd play only one hand. Then he had lost and stayed in for one more round, hoping to recoup. One thing led to another, and here he was.
Please, God, get me out of this, and I'll never do it again. I swear I won't. Tristan took another bracing gulp of whiskey. What in hell should he do? He wasn't going to bail himself out of this mess on the strength of two deuces, that was for sure. He flexed his fingers around his cards and fixed a thoughtful gaze on Gonzales. In the past, Tristan had dickered his way out of similar trouble. Never when he had lost so much money, of course, but even Gonzales could be persuaded to be reasonable if given enough incentive.
Mouth dry, tongue thick, Tristan said, "Do you recall seeing my wife, Francisco?"
Nudging back his sombrero, Gonzales fixed Tristan with dark, questioning eyes, his swarthy face cast into eerie shadow by the flickering flames. "I recall seeing her, yes. Why do you ask, city man?"
Tristan forced the tension from his shoulders. The blackness of the night seemed to press in on him from all sides, and he felt swallowed by it. "She's a remarkably lovely woman, my wife. Don't you agree?"
Gonzales fanned his cards and studied them, his speculative smile flashing teeth stained brown by tobacco. "Sí, city man, remarkably lovely." The gurgling sound from the nearby stream filled the quiet between his words and emphasized his hesitation. "But what has she to do with our game, eh?"
Tristan stretched his mouth into a grin. "I was just thinking. I'll bet it's been a while since you've had it with a real lady."
"A pregnant one, you mean?"
Johnson came out of his drowsy stupor long enough to guffaw at the joke. Tristan shot him a glare and said, "By the time we find the mustangs and get back to my place with a herd, she'll have dropped the brat."
Gonzales's smile broadened. "And you will be a very happy man?"
Tristan leaned slightly forward. "No, you don't understand. You could be a very happy man. Think of it. A woman like Laura? Hair and eyes the color of whiskey. Being a Mex, you probably haven't had it with a blonde."
A spark of interest crept in Gonzales's expression. "Are you offering to let me diddle your wife, city man?"
"I was thinking more along the line of lending her to you for a time."
"Lending her to me?" the Mexican repeated.
Heartened by the sudden heat in Gonzales's gaze, Tristan shrugged. "I'm running a little short on funds. An honorable man covers his bets. All I've got of value is my woman. But what a woman. Skin the color of cream, and nipples so sweet and pink, you'll think you've latched onto cherry blossoms."
Gonzales rested his wrist on his knee, the faces of his cards pressed against his grimy denim pant leg. Eyes glinting, he turned his smile on the others. After a moment, he looked back at Tristan and said, "I've sucked my share of pink tits, amigo."
"She's a lady, Gonzales, a genuine lady. In the past, I'll bet you've watched women like her from afar, wanting but unable to take."
Gonzales chuckled. "Wanting and not taking, that is not my way, city man. Surely you know me better than that by now. It is true enough that your wife is very lovely. Before I ever met you, I had heard tales about her from the miners who saw her when you passed through Denver. Not many women have hair and eyes that color."
Tristan nearly whooped with relief. "Then we have a deal?"
For a moment, Gonzales seemed to consider the offer. "I am not so sure. Why should I settle for temporary possession? After I grew bored with her, a beauty such as she would bring a very fine price down Mexico way. As you say, women with her coloring are rare among my people."
Tristan sensed a sudden change in the other men. Those near the fire moved away from him. Those in the darkness behind him abandoned their bedrolls. Fear crawled up his spine. Believing himself to be among friends, he hadn't bothered to strap on his gun belt after washing up for supper.
His taunting smile still in place, Gonzales casually drew his Colt revolver from its holster and blew a breath of air into the muzzle. "Amigo, you insult me. I am too much the gentleman to borrow my friend's wife." He perused the gleaming, nickel-plated barrel, then shrugged his broad shoulders. "Every time I tasted those sweet, pink nipples and ran my hands over her creamy skin, I would think of you and feel very guilty. You understand?"
Tristan understood, all too well. He tried to speak, but his throat felt frozen shut.
"Like you, I, too, am an honorable man," Gonzales continued silkily. "The only way I could ever bring myself to enjoy your woman would be if she were widowed." He looked directly into Tristan's eyes. "And since you are very much alive, that is a problem, yes?"
Frantically searching for a path of escape, Tristan darted his gaze left and right, but the shadowy forms of Gonzales's men stood all around him.
The Mexican went on speaking, his voice deceptively syrupy. "Being such a decent fellow, I would be filled with regret if, to get you out of the way, I had to kill you without a reason." His smile turned feral. "How accommodating of you to have given me one. It is very bad of you to sit in for poker when you haven't enough money with which to play. In this country, that is a shooting offense."
With that, Gonzales aimed his revolver and pulled the trigger.
DIGGING A WELL WAS DARK BUSINESS. AS SHE emptied her shovel, Laura Cheney squinted to see. Feeling with one hand, she discovered that the damp earth in the bucket was mounded high. For what seemed the thousandth time, she set aside the shovel and started up the ladder.
One step. Two. She concentrated on counting and tried to ignore the leaden sensation in her feet. With every movement, the muddy folds of her skirt and petticoat clung to her legs, then pulled free with muted little sucking sounds. Three, four. Perspiration popped out on her face. Five, six. Dirt fell into her eyes. She swiped at her cheek, not remembering until too late that her hands were muddy. So thick and heavy, she swore she could taste it, the smell of mold and dampness nearly gagged her.
Pausing to catch her breath, Laura gazed at the sphere of light above her. Seven more rungs. A cramp knifed down her left thigh, and her leg began to jerk. She bent to knead the knotted muscle. As she shifted her position, the ladder teetered. She gasped and threw her weight against the rungs.
"Blast you to hell, Tristan Cheney. This was supposed to be your job."
Inside the well, the sound of her voice was amplified. The words, ugly and discordant, rolled back at her. The first thing she knew, she'd be taking the Lord's name in vain and smoking a corncob pipe like old Missus Peabody on the wagon train.
Heaving a sigh, she curled her hands around the rung and forced her feet back into motion. As she hauled herself upward, a water blister on her palm tore to the quick. Clenching her teeth, she kept climbing. There was a well to dig, a garden to water, and a baby to care for. Time was precious. The morning sun would reach its zenith in only a couple of hours.
As her head cleared the rim of the well, sunlight momentarily blinded her. She blinked to see and then nearly lost her balance as she focused and found herself nose to nose with a short-horned lizard. A rotund little creature with winged ridges above his beady little eyes, he sat spraddle-legged at the edge of the well. With his belly and wattled throat puffed up for battle, he put Laura in mind of a little armored gladiator. Beneath his triangular chin, she could see his pulse hammering, and by that she knew how badly she had startled him.
Too exhausted to feel charitable, she said, "Shoo!"
As slowly as cold molasses dripping from a spoon, the thorny-skinned lizard lifted one foot. After what appeared to be great deliberation, he finally managed to move another. Laura had been told that his species was one of the slowest on the continent, and watching him now, she could well believe it. At the moment, she felt like a close runner-up for the title and doubted she could defeat him in a foot race. At least he had been blessed with an ability to blend in with his surroundings.
"Shoo," she whispered again, and watched as the lizard made a lackadaisical retreat.
Badly in need of a brief rest, Laura folded her arms on the ladder and rested her chin on her wrists. The morning breeze caressed her cheeks. She gazed at the azure Colorado sky that stretched as far as she could see in all directions. The expanse made her feel minuscule, and a wave of homesickness washed over her. Oh, how she sometimes yearned for the comfortable embrace of city buildings and the wonderful smell of salt air.
No point in wishing, she reminded herself. As her husband, Tristan, so often pointed out, they were both stuck here. There was nothing left for either of them back home in Boston.
Colorado really wasn't so bad. Intimidating but lovely, the sort of landscape she had once admired in paintings. Not far from their squat log cabin, the green plains broke into hilly shrubland. Oak formed dense thickets of glossy jade interspersed by occasional clusters of dull-leafed mahogany in the rocky washes. As a backdrop, thickly forested, velvet green mountains tiered like the seats in an amphitheater to the craggy peaks of the Rockies.
To Laura, though, the most beautiful part of the landscape was the wild roses that lent the hillside splashes of color. Ranging in hue from lavender pink to vivid red, the delicate petals gave testimony that it wasn't only the hardy that could survive in this rugged country. From the flowers developed rose hips, which she could use to make perfume and medicinal tea. Thus far she hadn't made it up there to gather any, but now that she'd had the baby, she hoped to do so soon. All practical reasons aside, a bouquet of dried roses and sprigs of goldenrod would lend a bit of cheer to the otherwise drab cabin. To make a home here, that was her aim. A place so pleasant that Tristan would forget Boston and all that he had been forced to leave behind. In that lay Laura's only hope for her marriage. If she worked hard enough to be all Tristan wanted her to be, perhaps he would make an effort to change as well.
Her throat dry with thirst, she worked her mouth for moisture, swallowed, and took another deep breath before she finished climbing from the well. Her legs threatened to fold under her as she scrambled to her feet. Frustrated by the weakness she hadn't been able to shake since giving birth to her son, she lifted her skirt and one leg of her bloomers to tug up a sagging garter. To her dismay, she found a rent in the knee of her black stocking. She bent closer to estimate the damage and decided she could probably mend it.
As she straightened, a bout of dizziness hit her. She pressed the back of her wrist against her forehead and stood there for a moment until the swimming sensation left. According to Tristan, Indian women squatted by bushes to give birth, strapped their newborns onto their backs, and then raced to catch up to their tribes. Laura wondered how on earth they managed.
She stooped to haul up on the rope and empty the bucket, pleased to note the pile of removed dirt had doubled in size with only two hours of work. A slow process, but at least she was getting it done. Tristan couldn't help but be pleased when he came home. No matter that digging the well deeper should have been his responsibility. She had predicted that the hole would go dry when he had stopped working on it last fall. Dammit, Laura, I'll dig it deeper when the time comes. Right now I have bigger fish to fry.
That was Tristan's biggest problem; he always had bigger fish to fry, and she was left to do his work. She shifted her gaze to the wilted plants in the vegetable garden, which might be all that stood between Tristan's family and starvation next winter. And where was he? Off chasing mustangs. Somehow the thought of surviving until spring on horse meat didn't appeal. Not that she believed he would bring home a herd. That was another problem with Tristan's dreams; big aspirations didn't put much food on the table.
After tossing the empty bucket back into the hole, Laura planted her hands on her hips and arched her back to get the kinks out. The snug band of her skirt pinched her waist, and she ran a finger under the cloth to get some breathing room. Perhaps meager pickings at the dinner table were a blessing in disguise. Carrying a child had not only straightened her curves but had added a few where she shouldn't have any.
Glancing toward the cabin, Laura decided she should probably go check on Jonathan. His sudden restfulness worried her. What if he wasn't feeling better but was just too exhausted to cry? Her knowledge of babies could fit in a thimble. What if he had a terrible disease of some kind?
Pshaw! Leave it to her to borrow trouble. He didn't have a fever, and he was still nursing at regular intervals. Maybe all newborn babies were fretful for the first few days. He probably just had a little stomach upset of some kind. At least she prayed that was it. If not, the nearest physician was in Denver, and Laura wasn't certain she could find her way there.
After scraping her black high-topped shoes clean on a clump of grass, she smoothed a tendril of amber-colored hair from her eyes and headed for the cabin. As she crossed the dusty dooryard, she heard the faint tattoo of a horse's hooves. Her emotions a tangle of dread and relief, she turned and cupped a hand over her eyes, expecting to see her long-overdue husband.
As she focused on the approaching rider, her smile vanished. It wasn't Tristan. Even at a distance, she could see that the man wore a wide-brimmed hat, some sort of sombrero if she guessed right, and a black poncho, the fringed folds trailing behind him in the wind.
Retreating a step closer to the house, she stared with trepidation at the stranger. In the ten months she and Tristan had lived here, they had had company just once, and only then because some disreputable friends of his had stopped by to invite him along on the mustang roundup. Except for her baby, Laura hadn't seen a living soul since.
Spurred into action by the rider's fast approach, she launched herself into a run. In this country, uninvited visitors usually meant trouble. Earlier she had left the door to the cabin ajar so she could listen for the baby while she worked. Now she was grateful that she had. Winter dampness had warped the planks and stiffened the leather hinges, making the door stick sometimes.
She lunged through the entrance and whirled to slam the door closed. A weapon of some kind, she thought wildly. Blast Tristan's hide for taking both guns. No matter that she didn't know how to handle a firearm. A man looking for trouble would think twice before nettling a woman who toted a rifle.
She dashed to the table and grabbed up the knife she had been using that morning to peel potatoes. Stuffing it into the deep pocket of her satin skirt, she whirled to scan the room. Her gaze settled on the handmade broom that leaned in one corner. If she stayed in the shadows and aimed the handle as she might the barrel of a gun, would the man, blinded by sunlight, be able to tell the difference? It was a chance she had to take.
Atremble with fright, she moved Jonathan's makeshift cradle to a protected corner of the room. Then she grabbed up the broom and approached the glassless window, taking care to stand off to one side and back from the spill of sunlight.
As the stranger drew up on the reins and brought his bay to a halt in the yard, Laura decided she had more in common with the little short-horned lizard than she liked to admit. In some situations, all anyone had for protection was bluff and bluster. "State your business!"
At the sound of her voice, Jonathan whimpered and squirmed, but didn't awaken. Laura was grateful for that. The less to distract her, the better.
Throwing the folds of his poncho over one shoulder and nudging back his sombrero, the man narrowed his dark gaze on the window. Dressed in a mismatch of denim jeans, black shirt, conchae-studded gun belt, and beaded leather vest, he looked mean and dangerous. His face was a swarthy brown; his jaw bristled with whiskers that caught the greasy strands of his wind-tossed black hair. On the horizon behind him, gloomy thunderheads wreathed the craggy peaks of the Rockies. "Are you Señora Cheney?"
At the question, she heard Jonathan stir again. She tightened her grip on the broom. How had this man come to know her name? Regarding him more closely, she thought he resembled one of the men who had gone with Tristan to search for mustangs, but she couldn't be certain. She had seen the group of riders only from a distance. "Y-Yes, I'm Mrs. Cheney."
"I bring news of your husband. Very sad news, I'm afraid."
He started to get off his horse, and Laura yelled, "Stay put, mister. If you get down, I shall blow your brains out."
He froze with one leg poised above the saddle. Then, very slowly, he resumed his seat. Squinting to see her, he flashed a tobacco-stained smile. "With which end of that broom do you plan to kill me, señora?"
"I…" There was nothing she could think of to say. Feeling more foolish than she ever had, she dropped the pitiful excuse for a weapon. In one corner of her mind, she registered that the man was well-spoken for a Mexican saddle tramp, but humiliation and fear nudged the thought aside.
"Señora, I won't harm you or the child. If you will think back, you will remember seeing me out by the barn the day your husband left to go on the roundup. He was a friend of mine."
Was? Laura locked her knees and squeezed her eyes closed. Oh, dear God. Not that.
Saddle leather creaked, and she lifted her lashes to see the stranger dismounting. The longer she looked at him, the more familiar he seemed. She supposed he must be telling the truth about being a friend of Tristan's. Not that it was much of a recommendation. Tristan's only acquaintances were seedy individuals he had met in the saloons of Denver.
As the man walked toward the cabin, spurs chinked at the heels of his dusty boots. Feeling numb, she drew the knife from her pocket, hid it within the folds of her flounced skirt, and moved to unbar the door. There was little point in trying to keep him out, after all, not with two large and unshuttered windows to foil her. Her only recourse was to be gracious and pray he would leave as quickly as he had come.
As the door swung inward, the Mexican's shadow fell across her. Wary of his getting too close, she stepped back. A husky man of lofty stature, he dwarfed the tiny room and everything in it when he entered. She clenched her hand around the smooth wooden handle of the knife.
"You neglected to give me your name," she said pointedly.
He gestured with his hands. "Francisco, señora, Francisco Gonzales. As I said, I was a friend of your husband's."
"And wh-what is this news you say you have of him?"
He took off his sombrero. "It is very sad news, Señora Cheney. Perhaps you should sit down."
"I shall hear it standing, thank you."
What looked to be regret clouded his brown eyes. "Your husband&hellip" Turning the brim of his hat in his hands, he bent his head. "I am very sorry, Señora Cheney, but your husband has had a very bad accident. While chasing a herd of mustang with me and my compañeros, he was thrown from his horse and…" His dark gaze sought hers. "It is so very difficult a thing for me to say. Your husband was trampled to death."
Laura flinched. Slowly, dazedly, she went back over the words, trying to assimilate what they meant. Not just trampled, but trampled to death.
She swayed slightly as the enormity of that sank in. The knife slipped from her frozen fingers and thudded to the floor. From out of nowhere, it seemed to her, a warm, gentle hand cupped her elbow. Dizzy and disoriented, she blinked and tried to focus. Tristan wasn't going to come home.
"Wh-Where— is his body? You don't— he isn't with you."
"We buried him in the mountains, señora. It was such a very long way to bring him back here, you understand. The weather has turned so warm.…"
Nausea surged up Laura's throat. Tristan, dead. A corpse that couldn't be transported any distance because it was summer. Oh, God. Oh, God. This couldn't be happening.
He tightened his grip on her arm and steered her toward the three-legged table that Tristan had built last winter. "Why don't you sit down? I'll dip you some water, eh?"
Weakly Laura sank onto one of the stumps she had rolled inside to serve as chairs. Bracing her elbows on her knees, she cupped her face in her hands. "I can't believe it. Dead? He was so young! There has to be a mistake."
She heard the man's spurs dragging in the dirt as he moved toward the water bucket. "Yes, very young. But there is no mistake. These things happen. This can be hard, cruel country."
Hard and cruel, yes. A hell on earth. Not a place for fainthearts, to be sure. Laura dragged in a great, shuddering breath. When the Mexican turned to her, she extended a shaking hand for the dipper of water he offered her. After taking a sip, she whispered, "He isn't coming back."
She felt idiotic for stating the obvious. If Tristan was dead, he certainly couldn't come home. Never again. But knowing that and accepting it were two different things.
Slopping water over the edge, she set the dipper on the table. "How could he do this to me? What in God's name shall I do?"
The questions hovered between them, cold and stark, slicing through the sham that had been her marriage. Like a fist in her middle, it struck Laura how self-centered her reaction was. No grief?
What kind of person was she? Despite everything that Tristan had done, she would never have wished him dead. But she felt no real pain. Just a terrible sense of abandonment.
Laura was no stranger to the feeling. It was a fate she had experienced at Tristan's hands more times than she cared to count, the only difference being that this time his desertion of her was not only ill timed but final. A purely irrational surge of anger jolted through her. How fitting that he should get himself killed right when she needed him the very most. How characteristic of him that was. Men. They were all alike, and only a fool depended on one.
Then the absurdity of her rage hit her, and she gave a hysterical laugh. This was one time she couldn't, in good conscience, blame Tristan for letting her down. It wasn't as if he had deliberately died, after all.
"Señora Cheney, are you all right?"
Laura stifled her laughter and straightened her shoulders. Was she all right? The question seemed to echo. Wetness coursed down her cheeks, and she realized it was tears. Laughing and crying at the same time? She cupped a hand over her eyes and struggled to regain her composure.
"I'm fine," she managed in a high-pitched voice. "I'm perfectly fine." The words no sooner passed her lips than she started to laugh again.
"Perhaps there is someone I can bring to stay with you for a few days? I think you are more shaken than you realize."
Laura pressed a hand over her mouth. Through quivering fingers, she said, "There isn't anyone."
The admission sobered her, and she stared blankly at the empty lard tin on the table that she had saved to use as a vase for dried roses and goldenrod. Flowers? In a lard tin? Another wild urge to laugh hit her. If only her father could see her now. She could almost picture the satisfied gleam in his eyes and hear his refined voice saying, "I warned you." As indeed he had. Just as predicted, she was hundreds and hundreds of miles from home, her baby was sick, and there was no one, absolutely no one, for her to turn to. To make matters worse, she had the sum total of three cents in the money jar. Three measly cents. That wasn't even enough to wire her father that Tristan was dead. It wasn't even enough to buy the paper to write a letter, not in Denver, where everything cost so dearly.
What in God's name was she going to do? The question had become a litany. Drawing her hand from her mouth, Laura swallowed and blinked again. It seemed to her that the cabin had gone into a drunken rotation.
"There must be someone," the stranger insisted. "A neighbor who comes by each day to check on you, a hired man, someone. Surely your husband didn't leave you here alone with no one to help you if something went wrong?"
The change in the stranger's voice was barely perceptible, but Laura, ever cautious around men, noticed it. The fog of hysteria fell away from her like a discarded cape. She forced herself to look into the man's eyes. She didn't like what she saw there. Careful, Laura. Shifting her gaze to the knife where it lay forgotten on the floor, she said, "Neighbors?" A thrill of fear fluttered into her throat. "The neighbors. Of course! I don't know where my head went. Yes, of course, we have neighbors."
That much wasn't a lie; she did have neighbors. The only problem was that pregnancy and inclement weather had kept her housebound throughout the winter, and Tristan had never taken her to visit them. During Tristan's absence these last three weeks, she had watched the cloudless horizon morning and evening for chimney smoke but had never seen any. That meant the other homesteads were some distance away, and no telling where.
"I nearly forgot the neighbors," she said shakily. "Ever since Tristan left, they've been stopping by every day."
"In the mornings, the evenings? When can you expect them?"
Laura's nape prickled. "They, um, they come at different times, whenever it's convenient for them. I haven't seen them yet today. They could show up at any time." She settled her hands over her waist, feeling as though she might be sick. "There's really nothing to worry about. I shall be fine."
"What is their name?" he pressed.
Drawing a complete blank, Laura stared up at him. Their name? Behind him on the canned-goods shelf sat a tin of Field's Oysters, one of Tristan's favorite extravagances, which he had indulged in regardless of whether or not he could afford it. "Fields, their last name is Fields. Henry and Olivia." She hadn't a clue where the first names had come from. "And three sons, all nearly grown."
He nodded and glanced over his shoulder at the shelf. His eyes took on a knowing gleam when he looked back down at her.
Jonathan started to cry, and Laura pushed numbly to her feet. Hurrying over to the crate, she lifted her baby into her arms. When she turned back, the Mexican was still standing there, his thoughtful gaze fixed on her. Not on her face as it should have been, but lower. Much lower. Unnerved by the way he was looking at her, Laura quickly averted her face.
Trying to pretend she wasn't alarmed, she began to jostle the infant. "He's not feeling well. A t-tummy ailment, I think. He cries and cries." Horribly aware that she was speaking too quickly and that her voice sounded shrill, she finished with, "Nothing I do seems to ease him."
"Probably colic." He studied the baby for a moment, then fixed his attention solely on her again. "He is a young one, eh? I would guess him to be only a few days old. It is little wonder you are so pale."
He flicked a glance at her soiled hemline, then returned his gaze to her breasts. Laura knew that her white blouse, which she usually wore under a stiffly boned satin bodice, had become too tight since her pregnancy, but she resisted the urge to shift Jonathan in her arms to hide herself. Like animals, some men launched an attack at any sign of fear.
"It looks as though you've been having a hard time of it," he mused. "A woman should not be working outdoors so soon after childbirth."
Since the Mexican's attention had been lingering mostly on her torso, Laura marveled that he had even noticed her pallor or the condition of her clothing. "I've managed nicely, thank you."
"Have you?" His words hung in the air, more statement than question. "When we left here to track horses, I had no idea you were in the family way. What kind of—" He broke off and assumed an expression of contriteness. "Pardon me. I intend no slander against your husband, you understand. It just seems a bit irresponsible of him to have left you so close to your time."
"I'm sure he did what he felt he had to."
"Still, if I'd known, I would have insisted he stay behind. I assume the neighbor woman attended you during the birth?"
"How did you summon her when your time came?"
"With chimney smoke," she replied quickly. Jonathan stiffened in the crook of her arm and let out a shrill scream. He was probably hungry. Laura moved him to her shoulder and bounced him, praying he would temporarily forgo mealtime and drift back to sleep. "You mentioned something called colic?"
His gaze sharpened. "You have never heard of colic?"
Raising her voice to be heard above the baby, Laura asked, "Is it serious?"
A slow grin spread across his swarthy face. "No, señora, not serious. A digestive disorder of some sort, common to newborns. You have not been around many infants, I take it?"
"None," she admitted. Concern for Jonathan outweighing her fear of the man, she pressed, "Is there a remedy?"
As if to stress his discomfort, Jonathan bowed his back and screamed more loudly. Not knowing what else to do, Laura returned him to the crook of her arm and gave him her knuckle to suck. He nuzzled her hand with hungry eagerness and instantly quieted, his little mouth making audible supping sounds. The Mexican's lips quirked and he lifted laughing eyes to hers.
"I think he seeks something more substantial than your knuckle, señora."
Laura didn't need to be told what her son wanted. She felt a scalding flush creep up her neck. "The colic you spoke of. Is there anything to be done for him?" she repeated.
"Most little ones simply outgrow it, I think. If there is a remedy, I don't know of it. I have no children of my own, you understand, only nieces and nephews, but as I recall, most of them screamed with the colic."
Laura bent close to whisper to her son.
Her visitor placed his sombrero back on his head. "Perhaps the neighbor woman can tell you of a remedy, yes?"
Alerted by the note of amusement in his voice, Laura glanced up. Before she could read the Mexican's shadowed expression, he turned away. "I have your husband's things. I will bring them in, and then I must be on my way."
As far as Laura was concerned, his departure wouldn't come any too soon. He suspected she was lying about the neighbors, that much was clear, which meant he also suspected she had no means of summoning help.
While he was outside, Laura retrieved the knife and slipped it into the deep pocket of her skirt. A moment later, he returned, carrying Tristan's gun belt and black felt hat. The hat, once Tristan's pride and joy, was now smashed and covered with dirt. Seeing the hat brought home to Laura the reality of her husband's death as nothing else had. As the Mexican laid it and the gun on the table, her heart twisted. Tristan. Though theirs had never been a match made in heaven, Laura had always hoped. Foolish, foolish. But hope had been the only solace she had in her marriage.
Tears stung her eyes, and a searing sensation crept up the back of her throat. Tristan's last rotten hand of cards had finally been dealt to him, and this time there was no chance of his recouping the losses.
Forcing her mind back to the moment, Laura met the Mexican's gaze. "My husband had a cartridge belt and watch. Plus his rifle and money clip."
Gonzales lifted his hands. "These were all he had on him, señora. Perhaps the watch and money fell from his pockets and were trampled into the dirt? As for extra bullets, I may have overlooked them in his saddlebags."
"And his horse?"
"Dead, señora. Trampled, just as your husband was. It was not pretty."
She wanted to ask what had happened to Tristan's rifle, but she stifled the urge. Lies, all lies. Even if she hadn't heard it in the man's voice, she would have known. He brought her only a smashed hat and a rusty, antiquated gun? Every valuable possession of her husband's was mysteriously missing, including the expensive rifle he'd won in a poker game.
Mustering her composure, Laura said, "Well, thank you for coming so far to bring me what was left." She wondered why he had bothered. Surely not out of the goodness of his heart. "I'll save the hat and gun as keepsakes for Jonathan. Someday he'll appreciate having things of his father's."
He stroked his chin. "The money clip, you were hoping it was here?"
Laura tensed. The question was idiotic. The humble cabin was testimony in itself to her dire financial straits.
"If you're in need, I would be happy to loan you some money, señora. It is the least I can do."
A prickly, tight sensation crawled up Laura's neck. "Thank you for offering, but that won't be necessary."
"You are sure?" His gaze held hers. "I will not miss a few dollars, and I am always very happy to help a pretty lady."
In exchange for what? Tightening her arms around the baby, she said, "Thank you, but no."
"If you are concerned about repaying me, I am certain we can work out some sort of arrangement," he offered. His gaze darted to her hips. "There are many ways to satisfy a loan, yes?"
Laura's gorge rose. In a couple of weeks, when her milk dried up from lack of nourishment and her son wailed with hunger, she might regret being such a puritan. But she wasn't that desperate yet. "No. A loan isn't necessary."
He shrugged again. "Then I will be going, eh? Unless, of course, there is something I can do for you before I leave?"
"No, nothing," Laura replied. "You've already been more than kind."
He gave a slight bow, touched his hat, and turned toward the door. Laura stood frozen to the spot until she heard the sound of his horse's hooves fading away into the distance. Maybe she was sensing danger where there was none, but she had a horrible feeling she hadn't seen the last of him.
Cuddling her son close, Laura sat on one of the logs to nurse him. She curled her hand over Jonathan's silken cap of dark hair and watched the dark blue of his eyes as his lashes drifted halfway closed in contentment.
Her son… Jonathan Christopher Cheney. She shoved her fears of being alone and thoughts of Tristan aside, cherishing this stolen moment of peace, short-lived though it might be. She curled his tiny fingers over one of her own and gazed at them through tears. Then she touched a fingertip to the dimple that flashed in his silken cheek. Her son, the one worthwhile accomplishment in her life. Oh, how she loved him.
* * *
Two hours later, Francisco Gonzales reached the draw where he had left his men. As he swung down from his horse, he drew his jug of whiskey from his saddlebag, uncorked it, and took a long swallow.
"Well?" Johnson called from where he was lying in the shade of a cottonwood. "She alone, or ain't she?"
Francisco wiped his mouth with his sleeve and flashed a confident grin. "Completely alone, my friend, with only an empty, rusted gun, a broom, and gumption with which to defend herself." Recalling the woman's bravado, he smiled. "She's far more beautiful than she appeared at a distance. I will be none too anxious to sell her once we reach Mexico."
Johnson staggered to his feet. As he walked toward Francisco, he ran his hand down the greasy fly of his jeans. He jiggled one leg as if to reposition his considerable pride. "Hot damn! If yer as randy as me, we ain't gonna leave out fer Mexico fer at least a week." He glanced sideways at Parker Banks and winked. "I'll hump that sweet little piece of baggage till she begs me fer mercy."
Parker snorted. "Way I remember it, you aren't that long on staying power. If you don't lay off the jug, I'll be surprised if you can even get it up."
"Not with a package like her!" Johnson came back. "Just stand aside, boys, and watch how it's done."
Parker laughed. "When the day comes I gotta learn how to diddle by watching the likes of you, I'll be laid out in a coffin. Besides, who says you get a go at her first?"
Johnson threw a questioning look at the Mexican. Francisco inclined his head. "A privilege of leadership, my friend. When I have grown weary of her, the rest of you may draw straws."
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