Mystic Creek Series
Harrigan Family Series
Coulter Family Series
Kendrick Family Series
Other Contemporary Romance
Valance Family Series
Coulter Family Series Historical
Other Historical Titles
COMANCHE HEART (reissue)
As I said in my letter to you at the beginning of Comanche Moon, I am delighted that New American Library/ Signet is reissuing the Comanche series and making these titles available to you again. For too many years, the Comanche series was difficult to find and those titles that were available were sold by used bookstores for absurdly high prices. Time and again, one of you would write to tell me you were about to buy one of the Comanche books, and I always encouraged you to wait, promising that I'd someday get the series reissued. Over the years, I began to wonder if I would ever be able to follow through on that promise. Thanks to New American Library, I can now say with confidence that, over time, you will be able to buy every title in the Comanche series! Even better, New American Library is giving each book a beautiful new cover, more in keeping with story content and theme.
It is wonderful for me, as the author, to finally see these titles receive the respect that I've always felt they deserved. As you will find as you read Comanche Heart, this is no ordinary romance. A sequel to Comanche Moon, it is a continuation of the struggle that the survivors of the Comanche Nation underwent as they tried to mesh with white society.
In Comanche Moon, you met and came to love Amy, the little girl who was kidnapped by the comanchero, and the Comanche boy, Swift Antelope, who helped her make a heartbreaking journey from the darkness back into the sunlight. Now, many years later, the promise of their youthful affection for each other is finally fulfilled in this story.
It is my hope that you will enjoy reading Comanche Heart as much as I enjoyed writing it. I look forward to hearing from each and every one of you! My e-mail address is CatherineDirect1@ aol.com. You can also contact me by visiting my Website and leaving a message. Or, if you prefer, you can send me a letter in care of New American Library.
Happy reading, my friends!
AS I WROTE COMANCHE HEART, MY MOTHER informed me that I am part Shoshone, which explained my interest in and my affinity with the Comanche people, who were actually Shoshones who left their parent tribe to seek a warmer climate and better hunting on the plains. The Shoshones were sometimes called the Snake Indians because they lived in Idaho, a Shoshone word meaning "the land that is bitterly cold," and they often journeyed along the shores of the Snake River into central Oregon to hunt.
I now live in Central Oregon and look out upon the terrain that my Native American ancestors often visited. After leaving their parent tribe, the Comanche people called themselves the Snakes Who Came Back. They derived this name from the fact that they periodically traveled northward to revisit Idaho and the loved ones they had left behind. When they met strangers, they signed this name by holding their hands, palms down at the waist, and making a backward slithering motion.
This book is in memory of the Snakes Who Came Back— a great, noble people who still touch the hearts of everyone who reads about them and the trials they endured. Toward the end, just before the fall of the Comanche nation, the People often said, "Suvate," which means, "It is finished."
What a heartbreaking word, encapsulating a tragic story that still haunts so many of us today. It is my hope that it will never be finished, not for any one of us, for if we can't learn from our past mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them.
LIKE A FORLORN SOUL, THE WIND WHISTLED and moaned as it funneled around Swift Antelope, whipping his hair across his face so that he saw the lonely grave through a shifting veil of black. He didn't blink. The sting in his eyes belonged to the living, and for this moment he lingered with the dead.
The rugged cross at the head of Amy Masters's grave, buffeted by the weather, had long since lost its battle to stand erect. He studied the crudely carved lettering in the wood, nearly obliterated by the hand of time, and wondered if the words sang Amy's life song. Somehow, he doubted tivo tiv-ope, white man's writing, could draw a glorious enough picture to do her justice.
Amy . . .
Memories flowed through Swift Antelope's mind, creating such clear pictures of her that he might have seen her only yesterday. Golden hair, sky blue eyes, a smile like sunshine . . . his beautiful, sweet, courageous Amy. With the memories came tears, which he shed with no shame yet much regret, for he should have mourned her long ago. He hunched his shoulders against the pain. If only he had come sooner. Twelve years. It broke his heart to imagine her waiting here, bound to him by a lifelong betrothal promise, only to die before he could fulfill his part and come for her.
Henry Masters's words, addressed to Swift Antelope only moments ago, rang inside his head. She ain't here, you filthy Comanch. And it's a blessin', if ya ask me, with the likes of you comin' to court her. Cholera got her five years ago. She's buried out back, behind the barn.
With an unsteady hand, Swift Antelope straightened the cross that marked Amy's grave, trying to visualize what her life must have been like, waiting for him on this dusty farm. When she lay dying, had she turned her gaze toward the horizon, hoping to see him there? Had she understood that it had been only the great fight for his people that had kept him from her side? He had sworn to come for her, and he had. Only he had been five years too late.
Swift Antelope knew he should climb back on his horse and leave. His compañeros awaited him a few miles west, their saddlebags filled with gold pieces, their gazes cast northward where they hoped to drive their ill-gotten cattle. But the will to place one moccasin in front of the other had deserted Swift Antelope. His plan to own a prosperous cattle ranch no longer filled him with purpose. Everything that he was lay here, with Amy, in a barren farmyard.
Lifting his head, Swift Antelope stared across the rolling grassland beyond the farm. Within him an awful emptiness took root, similar to that which he had felt a year ago upon entering the Tule Canyon. There, the September before, Mackenzie and his soldiers had slaughtered fourteen hundred Comanche horses and left the animals to rot. Though Swift Antelope had heard of the attack on his people in the Palo Duro Canyon, though he had known they were defeated, it had not seemed real to him until that moment when he saw the thousands of sun-bleached bones scattered across the canyon floor, all that was left of the Comanche remuda. It was then that Swift Antelope knew, deep within, that his people were finished; they were as nothing without their horses.
Just as he was nothing without Amy.
Pushing to his feet, he pulled his knife from its scabbard and slashed his cheek from eyebrow to chin, his final tribute to the spirited tosi girl who had touched his heart with so much love. His blood dripped onto the mound of her grave. He imagined it being absorbed into the earth, mingling with her bones. In this small way, a part of him would be here with her, no matter how far he might travel or how many winters passed.
Swift Antelope straightened his shoulders, sheathed his knife, and strode to his waiting horse. After mounting, he sat a moment, gazing into the distance. His friends waited to the west. Swift Antelope wheeled his horse and headed south. He had no idea where he was going. Nor did he care.
Faint voices and laughter drifted to Amy from outside. A door slammed. A moment later a dog barked, the sound distant and lonely. Everyone in Wolf's Landing was retiring for the night, as she should herself. Five o'clock would come early. Father O'Grady from Jacksonville visited the settlement so seldom that she hated the thought of missing mass. He would leave the area tomorrow on a northward trek to his mission in Corvallis, then west to Empire on Coos Bay, then east to Lakeview. It would be weeks before he once again served mass at St. Joseph's in Jacksonville, let alone visited Wolf's Landing. With a husband, two children, and a visiting priest to feed, her cousin Loretta would need help preparing breakfast. Even so, Amy lingered.
Saying farewell to a cherished friend and precious memories took time.
Sighing, she lowered her gaze to the neatly folded page of Jacksonville's Democratic Times that she clutched in her hand. The horrible rumors about Swift Antelope had been filtering in to Wolf's Landing for a couple of years, but Amy had refused to believe them. Now that she had read this news story, she could no longer deny the truth. Her childhood sweetheart, the one and only man she had ever loved, had turned killer.
Leaning her head against the backrest of her rocker, Amy gazed at the charcoal sketch of Swift Antelope that hung above her mantel. She knew every line by heart, for she had drawn it herself. In the flickering light his profile looked so lifelike that she half expected him to turn and smile at her. Funny that, for she had little artistic talent. Such a beautiful face . . . Swift Antelope. His name whispered in her mind like a caress.
According to this news article, he went by Swift Lopez now; his Comanche name hadn't served him well once he'd escaped the reservation and started working as a cowhand. Even Amy had to admit it had been clever of him, Mexicanizing the last syllable of Antelope to Lopez. Despite the fact that he had been adopted by the People and raised as a Comanche, Swift Antelope's Spanish ancestry had always been apparent in his chiseled features. But, though she applauded his ingenuity and understood his need to escape the strictures of reservation life, she felt betrayed.
A comanchero and an infamous gunslinger. . . . The words from the news story replayed in her mind, conjuring images that turned her skin icy. For so many years she had held her memories of Swift Antelope dear, picturing him as he had been at sixteen, a noble, courageous, and gentle young man, a dreamer. Deep in her heart, she had believed he would keep his promise and come for her once the Comanches' battle for survival had ended. Now, she realized he never would. Even if he did, she would despise him for what he had become.
A sad smile touched her mouth. She was a little old at twenty-seven to be building castles out of dreams. Swift Antelope had made that heartfelt betrothal promise to a gangly twelve-year-old girl, and though the Comanches believed promises were forever, a lot had happened since, the destruction of his nation, the deaths of so many people he loved. Though the child in her hated to admit it, he would have changed as well, from a protective, gentle boy to a domineering and ruthless man. She should be thanking God that he had never come for her.
He probably didn't even remember her now. She was the strange one, living her life around other people, her heart bound to yesterday by promises that had drifted away on a Texas wind.
Bending forward, Amy tossed the newspaper page into the flames. The paper ignited in a whoosh of light. The acrid smell of smoldering ink filled her nostrils. She rose from the rocker and stepped to the mantel. With trembling hands, she grasped the sketch of Swift Antelope. Tears filled her eyes as she bent to toss the likeness into the flames.
When she looked at his face, she could almost smell the Texas plains in summer, hear the ring of youthful laughter, feel the touch of his hand on hers. Keep your eyes always on the horizon, golden one. What lies behind you is for yesterday. How many times had she found solace in those words, recalling every inflection of Swift Antelope's voice as he had spoken them to her?
She couldn't live the rest of her life trapped in the past. The Swift Antelope she had known would be the first to scold her for clinging to memories. And yet . . . She touched her fingertips to the paper, tracing the regal line of his nose, the perfect bow of his mouth, her own curving in a tearful smile.
With a ragged sigh, she returned the sketch to its place on her mantel, unable to surrender it to the flames, not quite ready to say a final farewell. Swift Antelope had been her friend, her innocent love, her healer. He had made her feel clean again, and whole. Was it so wrong to treasure those memories? Did it matter what he had become? It wasn't as if she would ever see him again.
Feeling inexplicably lonely, Amy turned her back on the portrait and circled the small, dimly lit sitting room, coming to a stop at the curio shelf. She ran her fingertips over a wooden figurine of a bear, carved by Jeremiah, one of her students. One shelf down from the bear sat a vase of dried flowers, gathered by the Hamstead girl. Seeing the gifts, simple though they were, brightened her mood. She loved teaching. How could she possibly feel lonely when her life brimmed over with people who loved her, not just her students, but Loretta and Loretta's family?
Though the deeper recesses of the house were dark, she turned and headed for the bedroom, once again forgoing use of the lantern. Afflicted since childhood with a severe case of night blindness, she had long ago familiarized herself with her home and could usually maneuver without mishap if she moved cautiously. Undressing quickly because of the damp chill that seeped through the walls, she tugged on her white nightgown and buttoned it to her chin. Shivering, she folded her underclothing and stacked it in a neat pile on her bureau, handy for morning. Then, drawing comfort from routine, she sat at her dresser, unplaited her hair, groped for her brush, and gave her long tresses their customary one hundred strokes.
She stared in the direction of her bed, unable to discern its outline. She should wrap some warm rocks in towels and slip them between the sheets, but she had no energy for it. It seemed to her that the impenetrable blackness drew closer, silent and oppressive. A peculiar tightness rose in her throat. She laid her hairbrush aside and, lured by the anemic glow of moonlight, went to the window, resting her fingers on the sash. Peering out through the steamy glass, she looked toward the main street of town, cheered by the glow of lights coming from the Lucky Nugget Saloon.
No stars peeked through the clouds. In March, southern Oregon got bursts of spring weather, but today had been drizzly. Fog hung in layers over the rooftops. In the muted moonbeams, she could see a mist of rain pelting the boardwalks. Tomorrow the streets would be a series of endless mudholes. Unlike the nearby town of Jacksonville, Wolf's Landing hadn't as yet undertaken the grading and graveling of its thoroughfares.
Another shiver ran up her spine. She hurried into bed, finding little warmth as the cold sheets settled around her. Pressing her cheek to the pillow, she watched a naked tree limb outside her window sway in the gusts of wind.
Amy dreaded closing her eyes, more so tonight than usual. Reading that newspaper article had resurrected the past, bringing to mind so many horrors best forgotten. In a few short hours dawn would break, but she derived small comfort from that when an eternity of darkness stretched before her. With that news story filling her thoughts, would dreams of the comancheros haunt her sleep? And if they did, would one of the brutal faces leering down at her be Swift Antelope's? Always before, when she had awoken from the dreams, her memories of Swift Antelope had soothed her. Now he rode with the men of her nightmares, killers, thieves— and rapists.
She imagined daybreak on the Texas plains, the eastern horizon layered with muted wisps of rose, the sky lead gray. Would Swift Antelope watch the sunrise? Would the north wind, sweet with the smell of spring grass and wildflowers, play upon his face? When he looked to the horizon, would he, for a fleeting instant, remember that long-ago summer?
As the sun lifted higher and higher in the sky, Swift Lopez sensed a building tension in the men who rode with him. Even his black stallion, Diablo, seemed to feel it, snorting and doing a nervous sidestep. Swift knew boredom worked on Chink Gabriel and his men like locoweed on horses; just a little made them crazy. For too many days now they had been traveling without incident. It didn't help that the warm morning air carried the scent of spring. This time of year made everyone restless. Only these fellows turned dangerous when they got to feeling edgy.
Tipping his black hat low over his eyes, Swift leaned back in the saddle and let the steady clop of his horse's hooves lull him. Birds twittered in the field grass, frantically flapping their wings when the horses drew too close. He spotted a rabbit hopping off to his right.
For an instant he found himself wishing the years could roll away, that he rode with good friends, his long hair drifting in the wind, that just beyond his line of vision lay a Comanche village. It was a frequent wish of Swift's and so sweet, so vivid, that he could almost smell fresh meat over open fires.
In the distance a church bell chimed, telling him what day it was and that a town rested over the rise. His mouth quirked, and he sniffed the air again. Judging from the scent, someone had a side of beef skewered over an open pit. He ran his hand along his whiskery jaw. Right now he could do with a bath and a jug of good whiskey.
Chink Gabriel, who rode beside Swift, reined his roan to a walk. "Be damned if that ain't a church bell. There's a town over yonder. Been so long since I sniffed a skirt, I'm as randy as a buck in rut."
Slightly behind them, José Rodriguez spat tobacco and said, "The last time I had me a gal, I was so damned drunk, the next mornin' I couldn't even remember givin' her a poke. I left town feelin' as randy as when I got there."
Bull Jesperson, whose name suited his massive frame, gave a disgusted snort. "One of these days, y're gonna pay dearly for drinkin' that heavy."
"Oh, yeah? How you figger?" Rodriguez challenged.
"Y're gonna tie up with somethin' diseased, that's how. You'll wake up some mornin' and yer pistol will be rottin' off."
"What'd'ya expect for two dollars?" another man grumbled. "Them last whores we run across was the durtiest bunch of females I ever saw."
Rodriguez chuckled. "The only clean spot on the one I had was her left tit, and that was because Bull went upstairs with her before me."
"Hey, Bull!" someone yelled. "Yer pistol been lookin' peculiar lately? José's is rottin' clean off!"
Laughter erupted, and the men began exchanging their favorite stories about whores. Swift listened with half an ear. He had paid a woman for her favors only once, not because she demanded money, but because her dress had been threadbare. Among the Comanches, a woman never had to sell her body to survive. To Swift's way of thinking, men who patronized sporting houses were encouraging a savagery far more heartless than any the Comanches had ever committed.
Charlie Stone, a stout redhead with a grizzled beard, pulled his gray to a stop. "My neck's swole, too. How's about you, Lopez?"
Acutely aware that the question carried a challenge and that his response was unlikely to sway the vote of twenty men, Swift removed his timepiece from his pocket and checked the hour. "It's early yet."
"Yep, all the little pleasure doves might still be abed," someone inserted.
"Mebbe business was slow last night," Chink countered. "If not, an extra ten dollars will wake 'em up right fast."
Swift didn't cotton to entering towns in broad daylight. He was especially leery today because Chink and the others were itching for trouble. Reining his horse around, he looked across the rolling open range. On the horizon he could see a ranch house. Returning his watch to his pocket, he withdrew a five-dollar gold piece and flipped it through the air to Chink. "I reckon I'll just take a snooze. Bring me back a bottle."
"Ya can't poke no goddamn bottle," Charlie retorted. "Y're not normal, Lopez. You figger y're too good for whores, or what?" When Swift made no reply, Charlie curled his lip. "Where we go, you go. That's the rule. Ain't that right, Chink?"
Swift swung off his black, his spurs ringing as the rowels caught in the grass.
"Y're jist runnin' short on guts, that's what," Charlie jabbed. "Afraid some green kid might recognize that purty face of yers and take it into his head to draw down on ya. That's it, ain't it, Lopez? Y're gettin' squeamish."
Keeping his face devoid of expression, Swift met Charlie Stone's gaze, all the while loosening his saddle cinch. After a few tension-packed moments, Charlie's larynx bobbed in a nervous swallow. He glanced away. Swift pulled the saddle off his horse and, skirting the other riders, carried it to a patch of sparse shade under a bush.
Chink sighed and wheeled his gelding toward town. Swift knew the comanchero leader resented it when one of his men didn't stay with the group, but Swift didn't count himself as one of Chink's men, never had, and would be damned if he'd start now. The only reason he had fallen in with Chink a year and a half ago was to stay on the move. Trouble had a way of dogging a man's heels, and he had to step smart if he wanted to avoid it.
"You sure you don't wanna come?" Chink called.
Swift ground-tied his stallion, then stretched out on his back in the shade, using his saddle as a pillow. Without answering, he closed his eyes. He knew Chink ran too short on guts to swap lead with him over something so trivial.
"Come on," Charlie said. "Leave the greasy son of a bitch to sleep."
When the sound of the horses' hooves grew distant, Swift pulled his nickel-plated .45 Colt revolvers from their holsters, habit compelling him to check the cylinders for cartridges. When he settled back against his saddle, he drifted off to sleep with the confidence of a man who had two loaded guns, sharp hearing, and fast reflexes.
Only a few minutes passed before Swift put both his hearing and reflexes to the test. Horses approached, coming fast. He shot to his feet and pulled his gun before he completely registered the sound. He relaxed a little when he recognized Chink Gabriel on the lead horse. The men were pushing their mounts, and that usually meant trouble nipped at their rumps. Swift holstered his Colt and quickly re-saddled his black so he'd be ready to ride.
"Lookee what we found," Chink yelled as he barreled his horse up beside Swift's. "A girlee, and hot damn if she ain't the purtiest little thing you ever saw."
Swift squinted into the sun and saw that Charlie carried a girl draped over his saddle. Her blond hair had come loose and hung like a shimmering curtain down the horse's belly.
Swift's stomach lurched. Since learning of Amy's death three years ago, he seldom allowed himself to think of her, but every once in a while, like now, the memories came rushing back, bittersweet, filling him with a sense of loss. This girl's hair was yellow blond, while Amy's had been the rich gold of honey, but the similarity still struck him like a well-placed blow. Years ago Amy too had fallen victim to a band of comanchero.
Chink swung off his horse, his whiskery face split in a broad grin. Clamping a hand over his crotch, he gave himself a fondle. "She'll bring a mighty fine price across the border, but a little breakin' in won't hurt her value none."
Charlie rode up and dumped the girl off his gray. She screamed when she hit shoulder first on the grass, then staggered to her feet. She wore clothing like none Swift had ever seen, a pantlike skirt and a tailored blouse that skimmed her breasts like a second skin. Swift guessed that the outfit had been designed for horseback riding, but whatever its original purpose, the figure-revealing lines now served to whet male appetites— twenty of them.
The girl ran. Three men wheeled their horses to chase her, making sport of her attempts to escape. Swift set his jaw. He didn't cotton to rape, but he couldn't do one hell of a lot to stop it when twenty guns voted yea to his nay. The damned fool girl shouldn't have been out riding alone in the first place.
Chink left his horse's reins dangling and ran to catch the blonde, whooping with laughter when she bucked and tried to kick as he carried her back to the spot of shade. The other men leaped off their horses and followed along like ducklings in a queue. Swift watched in passive silence as Chink tossed the girl down and grabbed hold of her blouse. The buttons flew. Cloth ripped. She gave a horrified screech and renewed her struggles to get free.
"Hot damn, Bull, ya won't hafta suck them tits clean," someone yelled.
"Somebody help me git her britches off," Chink ordered.
Swift turned and walked away. Only a fool would get himself killed over a female he didn't know. She'd been asking to get her legs spread, wearing clothes like that. He finished tightening the saddle cinch, doing a fair job of blocking out the girl's screaming. Did she think anyone could hear her way out here? No one who gave a damn, anyway.
Chink grunted as if he had been kicked. The next instant Swift heard the sickening thud of a fist against flesh. The girl screamed again. "Hold the little bitch still," Chink rasped. "Grab her ankles, you two. Not too tight. I like 'em with a little fight. You gonna fight me, sweet thing? You gonna buck and give me a ride to remember?"
Several men laughed and whooped encouragement. Swift knew without looking that Chink was getting into position. He turned his attention to his saddlebags, tightening the straps. The men's laughter nearly drowned out the girl's weakening cries. Even so, Swift's ears began to home in on the sobbing. Sweat popped out on his face. He gave one of the saddlebag straps a vicious jerk. Since there was little he could do, it seemed futile to stay and listen.
Grabbing his saddle horn, he stuck a boot in his stirrup. The girl screamed, "Oh, please, God!"
Swift froze. Memories of Amy spun through his mind. This girl had no connection whatsoever with Amy, of course, except that she was blond and female. He closed his eyes, telling himself he would be ten times a fool if he interfered.
Then, before he could talk himself out of it, he removed his foot from the stirrup and took off his hat, looping the bonnet strings around the saddle horn. It was Sunday. Though Swift didn't hold with tosi religion, he didn't figure anybody who did ought to get raped on the Sabbath. He slapped his stallion on the rump so it would run off to safety, relieved when Chink's mount followed. There was no point in the horses getting hurt.
Swift slowly turned, heartened by the sight of Chink's bare butt shining in the sun. A man couldn't draw too fast with his britches down. "Chink!"
Sudden silence fell. Even the girl grew quiet. All eyes shifted to Swift, who stood with his long, black-clad legs spread, elbows bent and slightly behind him, his hands poised over his holsters. Chink's blue eyes narrowed. "You ain't plannin' to draw on twenty men," he said. "Not even a leather slapper like you would be that crazy."
Swift didn't need Chink to tell him what he was about to do was insane. He'd end up dead, and the girl would get raped anyway. It was mostly a question of how low a man wanted to sink, and he'd sunk as low as he could comfortably go and still live with himself.
"I'm taking you out first," Swift told Chink softly.
The girl sobbed and took advantage of the distraction to slither her hips away from the man who had nearly impaled her. Swift registered everything with sharpened senses, acutely aware of the breeze tossing his shortly cropped hair, the abrasiveness of his shirt collar against his neck, the weight of his guns where they rode his hips. For an instant he envisioned Amy's face, comforted by the knowledge that she waited for him in the Great Beyond, and that by doing this he could join her there with a clean heart.
Chink's eyes narrowed even more. "I'll see you in hell, then, you turncoat bastard." As the comanchero spoke, he went for his gun.
With the speed that had made his name legend, Swift drew, cocking the hammer of his gun with his thumb, bringing his left hand across his midriff to fan the hammer spur. Some of the others around Chink reacted, grabbing for their weapons. To Swift, they became faceless blurs of movement, targets that would kill him unless he killed them first. Six shots rang out from his gun in such rapid succession that they sounded like one explosion. Chink fell backward across the girl. Five other men sprawled, dead before they cleared leather. The girl began to scream, trying to pull her leg from under Chink's body. The horses, accustomed to gunfire, sidestepped and whinnied.
Swift threw himself to the grass and rolled. A slight rise to the ground provided him meager cover. Dirt geysered around him as the remaining fourteen men came to their senses and started firing. He drew his other single-action and, in a second blur of movement, fired three more shots. Three men went down.
In a lull between shots, Swift came up on one elbow, adrenaline numbing him to the fear, his palm poised over the hammer spur. "Which of you bastards wants it next?"
Between them, the remaining eleven men had at least a hundred cartridges, ready to fire. When no one ventured another shot, Swift said, "I'm as good as dead, and you all know it. But if I go, I'm taking three more of you with me." Well aware that José was the closest thing to a leader the men had left, Swift sighted in on him. "Rodriguez, you're going to be first."
A spasm of fear contorted the Mexican's swarthy face. Pupils dilating, he stared at the barrel of Swift's .45. After a moment he holstered his revolver and lifted his hands. "Ain't no woman alive worth gettin' plugged over."
Swift saw several of the other men cast bewildered glances at Chink. Without their leader spouting orders, Swift guessed they weren't quite sure what to do. Taking Rodriguez's lead, they all retreated a step, holstering their guns.
"You want her that bad, you can have her," one said.
"I don't want no trouble with you, Lopez."
Bull spat and shot Swift a murderous glare. "I knowed you was trouble the first time I set eyes on ya. You ain't seen the last of this. I promise you that."
Swift remained prone on the grass until all eleven men had ridden off. Then he turned his gaze to the girl, who had gone strangely silent. She sat hunched over, buck naked and shivering, her blue eyes riveted to Chink's bare lower torso. Swift guessed she had never seen a nude man. There was no help for that. Seeing was far better than what had almost happened.
He rose and holstered his guns, his hands stricken with the uncontrollable quivering that always followed a gunfight. His gaze slid over the scattered bodies, and his guts twisted. He closed his eyes and flexed his fingers, the sweat on his body turning ice cold. Killing. He was so weary of it, so sick-to-death weary. Yet no matter what he did, it never seemed to end.
He whistled for his stallion and when the horse had trotted up he opened the saddlebag that held his store of extra cartridges. He wasn't taking any chances that Rodriguez and the others might come back. Only after he had reloaded his Colts did he clamp his wide-brimmed hat back on his head and walk over to where Chink lay. He dragged the comanchero off the girl's leg and then jerked up the dead man's pants.
"You all right?" he asked, more gruffly than he intended.
She slid a blank gaze from Chink's body to the other eight men sprawled around her. Swift sighed and raked a hand through his hair, uncertain what to do. If he took her to that ranch house on the horizon while she was in this shape, the only thanks he was likely to get would be at the business end of a rope.
He gathered up her clothes, which were torn and barely wearable. Kneeling beside her, he began the difficult task of dressing her, which he decided was pointless before he finished. He touched a fingertip to her cheekbone.
"He busted you a good one, didn't he?"
Her wide blue eyes flicked to his, blank with shock.
Striding to his horse, Swift pulled one of his shirts from his pack. The girl offered no resistance when he shoved her limp arms down the black sleeves. When his knuckles brushed her breasts as he fastened the buttons, she didn't so much as flinch. He guessed she was numb, nature's way of lessening the horror.
"I'm sorry I didn't shoot him quicker," he offered. "But I didn't think I stood a chance. I guess maybe that God of yours heard you hollering and decided to help me out."
She didn't seem to register the words. Swift sighed and fixed his gaze on the distant ranch, wondering if she lived there. Whether she did or not, it was the closest house, and time was playing out. He had to get out of here. Though he had never met them, he knew Chink had two brothers who wouldn't take his passing lightly. Once Rodriguez got to thinking things over, he'd be back. If he let Chink's death go unavenged, the Gabriel brothers would kill him.
Swift carried the trembling girl to his horse. She seemed to come around a bit when he settled her onto the saddle. He mounted up behind her, taking care not to get his hand close to her breasts when he looped an arm around her.
"Thank you," she whispered in a quavery voice. "Th-thank you. . . ."
"No thanks needed. I was hankerin' for a little excitement."
They rode in silence for a couple of miles, the girl finally relaxing against him. After several more minutes she took a long, ragged breath. "You saved me. You could've just rode off. Yet you didn't. Why?"
Swift swallowed and fixed his gaze on the house ahead of them. He wanted to say "Why not?" but he didn't. A girl her age would never understand how pointless life could become for a man who drifted from one town to the next, his people gone, his loved ones gone, his dreams gone.
"I've never seen anybody shoot that fast."
Swift nudged his black into a trot, making no reply.
"There's only one man who can handle a gun that way." She twisted her neck to look up at him, her eyes wide with a curious blend of awe and fear. "My daddy's talked about you. You're Swift Lopez. He has a scar on his cheek, and so do you! Now that I think on it, you even look like him!"
Swift struggled to keep his tone matter-of-fact. "I'm just a drifter who got lucky, that's all."
"But I heard one of those men call you Lopez."
Swift fought down a vehement denial. "Gomez, not Lopez."
"You are Swift Lopez." She turned slightly to study him. "I saw a photograph of you once. You're dressed all in black, and you're handsome, just like in that picture. Is it true you've killed over a hundred men?"
Feeling trapped, Swift dragged his gaze from hers. By this time tomorrow, everyone for fifty miles would have heard about this gunfight, and the number of dead would multiply in the retelling. And somewhere out there, a greenhorn kid who hankered for fame would hear the story and strap on his guns. Sooner or later Swift would find himself standing on some dusty street, facing that kid and having to decide whether he was going to draw or die. And, as always before, in that last split second, reflex would take over and his hand would slap leather.
The scenario never changed, and it never ended. Swift cursed the day he had first touched a revolver.
Turning his face westward, he contemplated the horizon. Oregon. These last few months he had been thinking of his lifelong friend Hunter more and more frequently. Swift was no longer sure if he really believed in the ancient Comanche prophecy that had led Hunter west. It didn't seem possible that Comanches and white people could live in harmony anywhere, at least not in this life. Hunter had probably settled in Oregon to find himself surrounded by nothing but more hatred. But that really didn't matter. To Swift, the thought of being among friends again, even if their number was few, had a powerful pull.
Hunter's tosi wife, Loretta, had sent a letter to the Indian reservation years back, welcoming any of the People who cared to join them in the west lands. Swift hadn't been present to hear the letter read aloud by the minister's wife, but he'd heard others talk about it, whispering the word Oh-rhee-gon and gazing with longing at the horizon. At that time Swift had given up on dreams of finer places, but now . . . A lump rose in his throat. With his life a living nightmare, a dream, even if it had no more substance than a wisp of smoke, had to be sought.
Swift had no idea what kind of a place Oregon might be, but three things recommended it highly: it was a far piece from Texas, the Gabriel brothers, and the legend of Swift Lopez. The minute he got this girl delivered to that ranch house, he was heading west.
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