Nate woke up wondering, Where am I? Outside. Definitely outside. Sky blue peered down at him from above. It hurt to move his eyes as he studied his surroundings. He lay on his back in - an alley? Yeah, he thought so. The spur on his right boot tangled with wooden crates stacked against the side of a building. His hat, crumpled, lay a few feet away from him in the dirt.
He moaned as he tried to sit up, his sides and back on fire. The king of all hangovers exploded through his brain like a war dance of furious hammers. What exactly happened last night? He held his head in his hands, trying to remember. After several impatient jerks, he finally kicked loose from the crates and slowly, carefully stood. Swaying slightly, he took two steps toward his hat and tried to pick it up. It took three stumbling tries before he got it. Nate dusted the sweat-stained Stetson on the side of his chaps and gingerly put it on.
When in better shape, Nate made quite a handsome figure. His height carried his broad shoulders well. Slightly bowlegged, like all horsemen, he still walked tall and proud. His dark hair fell to his shoulders while his eyes changed their shade of blue, depending on his mood. He needed a bath and a shave.
The ka-ching ka-ching of the spurs announced his arrival into the saloon.
"I told you last night to get out and stay out!" the bartender shouted angrily, pointing at him.
Squinting around the saloon, Nate winced at the man's volume. A few barflies scattered around the large room. One table against the far wall hosted an early poker game. Nothing looked out of the ordinary - except the mirror above the bar hung in three jagged pieces, some tables lay in busted piles, and the railing along the top floor needed two new sections.
"I don't reckon I ˈmember what happened last night," Nate mumbled, approaching the bar.
"Don't remember, huh?" The bartender frowned at Nate. "This!" He jabbed a finger at the mirror.
"Was there a fight?" That would explain his sore ribs.
The bartender snorted. "I woulda thrown you in jail except you paid for the damages."
"I did?" Nate patted his pockets which felt flat, empty. There went a month's pay.
"I don't care if she is your sister's girl! We can't afford to keep her any more." Amanda heard her Uncle Louis growling at her aunt. "She's old enough to fend for herself."
"Doing what?" her aunt asked in a pleading voice, oblivious to Amanda listening outside the door.
"I don't know. She's eighteen. Old enough to teach school, take in laundry. Just not stay here."
"But, Louis, where would she go?"
"She's got that little bit of inheritance from her folks' deaths. She can get started with that somewhere."
Amanda never liked her Uncle Louis. Loud and rude, he didn't tolerate anything or anyone who disagreed with him. Only his sense of self-importance outshone his impatience. Living four years with him proved an endurance.
With angry, wounded pride, Amanda stepped off the porch and hurried toward the bank a few blocks away.
"I'd like to make a withdrawal, please," she told the teller.
"How much?" the pinch-nosed man asked her.
"How much do I have?"
He consulted his records. "One hundred eighteen dollars and forty seven cents."
"I'll take all of it."
"You want to close your account?"
"Yes." She watched the small man make an unhappy face. In a few minutes, she walked away from the bank toward the stage station, her apron pockets full of money.
At the station, she stepped up to the counter. "How far will twenty dollars get me?"
"West. All right, that'd take you as far as Taos, in the New Mexico Territories, or Tascosa, Texas or Denver, Colorado."
"When does the stage leave for Tascosa?"
"Tascosa?" The station manager hesitated and then asked, "Are you traveling by yourself?"
"Are you certain you want Tascosa?" Concern filled the manager's voice. "I understand it's desolate country there. And, pardon my saying so, but it's not wise for a young woman to travel alone, especially to the frontier. Going north would be safer."
Amanda bit her bottom lip while she considered his kind warning. Drawing in a deep breath, she jutted her chin. "No. Texas. That's where my father would want me to go, so that's where I'm going."
"If you're sure."
"I am. Now, please, when does the stage leave?"
"Tomorrow morning. Eight."
"Then, I'd like a ticket." She carefully counted out twenty dollars and handed it to him in exchange for her one-way ticket.
Another man walked up, interrupting them. Amanda recognized him as one of her rescuers from the night before.
"Excuse me," he said, doffing his Stetson. "I'd like to introduce myself. I'm Brian McLeod." Brian looked like the Scottish ancestry his name implied. He stood tall, thick muscled, with strawberry blonde hair and pale blue eyes.
"Mr. McLeod. I'm Amanda Clark. I didn't get a chance to thank you for your help last night." She shook his hand.
"It was my pleasure. Really." Brian looked briefly at Nate. "Hi... Bradford, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Howdy." Nate nodded in return. They fell in step, one on either side of Amanda, and continued walking.
"I'd like to welcome you to Tascosa. I know our town is kind of rough, but there are some good folks here, too," Brian said amicably.
"Oh, don't worry," she reassured him. "I'm growing to like it here."
"Are you a cowboy, too?"
Brian chuckled. "I suppose, in a way. I own the Rocking-T Ranch."
"Is it a big ranch?"
"Not as big as the XIT[i], but it's big enough to keep me running from dawn to dark."
They walked a few steps in silence, Nate sensing that Brian wanted to speak to Amanda alone, which made him determined to stay with her.
"Say, Bradford, I'm surprised you're not riding your bunk today with a hangover."
Nate scowled, knowing he couldn't take exception to that usually too-true statement.
"If you need to be somewhere, don't let us stop you," Brian added with false concern.
Nate looked over Amanda's head to Brian, knowing Brian wanted to put him in his place and run him off. "Don't worry ˈbout me none." His friendly tone matched Brian's, but his cutting look sent his true message. Amanda walked between them, oblivious to the tug of war going on above her.
[i] XIT Ranch - The famous XIT Ranch spread across ten Texas counties from the northern border to south of Lubbock and consisted of 3-million acres. This ranch land was granted to the Capital Land Syndicate in 1879 by the state of Texas in exchange for building the present-day capitol in Austin.
His hands fell still, his hat forgotten. "What do you want me to do, woman?" He frowned, confused, not quite sure what she meant.
"What do I want you to do?" she repeated. "You'll think badly of me if I tell you."
"No. I could never."
Amanda took a deep breath, and plunged ahead with her confession, too soon or not. "Then - I want you to kiss me. I mean, really kiss me - full on the lips - like lovers do."
At the bold request, Nate stepped back, surprised at hearing much more than he'd hoped for.
"See, I told you you'd think badly of me. It's too forward. I'm sorry." Deeply embarrassed, she turned away, but he reached out and stopped her.
He had only kissed a few women in his life and they had been for hire and he had been drunk. Except once, when he was thirteen, he kissed Becky Johnson behind the schoolhouse, but that hardly counted.
"Whoa, now. Hold up there," he frowned. "It's not too forward a'tall. Not for us. I ponder on it all the time."
"You do?" Joyous relief laced her voice.
"All the time," he said seriously, taking a step closer. "I've been useless at work jest dreaminˈ on it." He watched her smile at his admission and warned her, "I ain't real steady at this."
"That's good, because neither am I," she laughed once.
She quit laughing when he dropped his hat to the back steps, pulled her close to him, and put his hands around her face.
"You are so damn beautiful," he whispered right before he gave her a short, shy kiss.
"Please, Nate. I need more." She wrapped her arms around his neck while his hands instinctively slid around her waist. She pressed her lips against his in a long, slow, delicious movement.
He eagerly returned the kiss, drawing her even closer against his chest, getting lost in how she felt in his arms. If this was kissing a woman, he now understood what all the fuss was about.
Nate pulled back to look at her beautiful eyes and, without smiling, kissed her again. Taking his own sweet time, he used his lips and tongue in their new-found role of lover with increasing sensuous expertise. He thought he held her as close as possible, but somewhere in that kiss, Amanda melted against him and moaned softly.
When he finally raised his head, she laid hers on his shoulder, her body still wrapped tightly in his arms, and purred, "All right, cowboy. Now that was a kiss."
"God Almighty," he whispered at the new feeling surging through his chest. Nate stood still, afraid to move, afraid to lose this feeling. She dove straight into his heart with those kisses, and he knew he would move heaven and earth to keep her there.
Friday night, just at dusk, Brian came through the restaurant door for dinner. "How's my favorite girl?" he smiled when he saw Amanda.
"Well, hello, stranger." She led him to a table. "Hope you're hungry."
"Famished." He looked around the room full of customers. "Looks good in here."
"It's been going really well. I'll be back with your coffee and dinner."
Before she made it to the kitchen, several shots rang out in the street. A cowboy crashed through the front door, bleeding from his leg, waving a gun. Bullets smashed through the windows, shards of glass twinkling in the dusk light as they flew across the room. Accustomed to feuds settled by guns, everyone quickly crawled under the tables. Everyone - but Amanda.
Bewildered, she stood frozen in the middle of the room. Brian lunged for her, throwing her to the floor. "Get down!" he growled as he whipped his gun from its holster. He made sure she ducked under a table before he crept to the nearest window.
"What is it?" she called out to him.
"Looks like two brands are having a disagreement."
The injured cowboy knelt by the first window, his blood dripping to the floor. He ripped out the gauze covering the window opening and began shooting. Acrid smoke filled the room, making Amanda choke. She could hear curses lobbed back and forth in the street, punctuated by more gunfire. The cowboy's shots drew return fire into the restaurant, sending one bullet whining past Amanda's head and puncturing the wall behind her. Brian and two other men jumped him, dragging him through the kitchen and out the back.
Brian left him with the other men and quickly made his way to Amanda. When he knelt beside her, she grabbed his arm, clinging tightly to him in her fright.
On Wednesday night, Joey had already gone to bed. Getting ready to turn in, Amanda sat on the edge of her bed, brushing her hair. The only light in the entire place came from the soft yellow glow of the lamp in her room.
A noise caught her attention. Her hand stopped the brush in mid-stroke as she listened carefully. Hearing nothing, she continued only to stop a few moments later at another sound. Amanda laid the hairbrush on the bed and quietly stood up, walking to her door. It opened silently as she peered through the dark kitchen. There! She heard it again. With Joey's door closed, she knew it couldn't be him. Someone lurked in the dining room.
Cautiously tiptoeing to the kitchen doorway, she picked up the revolver from the shelf, trying not to make any noise herself. Earlier lessons on handling the gun raced through her mind while her heart raced in her chest.
Check for bullets?...Yes.
Steeling herself, she held the gun in front of her with both hands to stop the trembling, then peered around the doorjamb, hoping to find nothing. Moonlight cast the dining room in silver-black shadows, letting her see the front door gaping into the night. A dark figure hunched over the place where she collected the money from diners during the day.
At the surprise of seeing someone, she demanded, "Who's there?"
The menacing stranger straightened with a jerk. A white blast came from a gun, sending a bullet whizzing past her. Without thinking, she returned fire, heard a cry, and watched the would-be thief run out into the night, clutching one arm.
Joey burst into the room. "Miss Amanda! Are you all right?"
He got one of the lamps lit and held it up. In shock, Amanda slowly laid the revolver on the table next to her.
"I - I'm fine, Joey."
"No you're not. You're bleeding!" He sat her down in a chair to look closer.
"I am?" She raised her hand to her head, only to find her fingers covered in blood. There had been no pain at first, but now she could feel the sting.
Trying to break the ice, Amanda gamely tried again. "I'll be glad when the weather turns cooler."
"We all will," another woman said for the sake of politeness, and then stood mute.
Amanda nervously picked up a cookie and nibbled on it. "This is delicious. Did you make these?" she asked Gertie.
"Look, Miss Clark," one of the women, Opal, shook her head. "You might find better company somewhere else."
"Why? I don't understand?"
"Let's just say we have a different lifestyle than you. That's all," Opal explained tactfully.
"A different lifestyle?" She frowned, the cookie in her hand forgotten. "Just because I own my own restaurant?"
"Not so much that," Opal tilted her head. "It's all the men who keep parading through your backdoor." The woman's eyes filled with dark insinuation.
"All the men...?" Amanda took one step back in indignant astonishment. "What men?"
"There's Joey for one."
Amanda's protest of "He's just a boy" went ignored.
"And I understand Mr. Garza, Mr. Moritz, even Mr. McLeod, to name just a few, are frequently seen coming in and out at all hours."
"For heaven sake!" Amanda fumed. "Most of them are tradesmen, making deliveries of groceries, beef and milk." But it finally dawned on her. Her relationship with Brian made them jealous. These wives ran in Brian's social circle only because of their husbands. On their own, they would never catch the wealthy man's attention.
"Perhaps, but not all of them." Opal's chin rose, daring Amanda to refute the claim.
"Are you accusing me of...?"
Brian hurried over and cut her off in mid sentence. "Miss Clark, would you care to dance?"
Amanda jerked her head around to face him, her eyes shocked and angry. "I'd better," she murmured, "before I really give them something to talk about!" She flung the cookie on the dirt floor and took his extended hand.
As he whirled her away, he said, "You looked ready to fight back there. I can only imagine the conversation, but from the tone of voices, I thought maybe I ought to get you onto the dance floor."
She frowned. "You sure you want to be seen with me?"
"Don't mind them," he smiled. "They're just jealous."
"Yes. Of your beauty, your intelligence. There isn't a man here who hasn't wanted to dance with you. Tonight, those women have only danced once with their husbands and once with the sheriff - one because he had to and the other because he wants the husband's vote next election."
Amanda threw back her head, laughing. Her anger dissipated with each musical step. "Thank you, Brian. Once again, you've rescued me."
"Any time, my dear." A genuine smile crossed his strong, handsome face. "For you, any time."
Sitting in his office, his legs stretched out in front of him in the dark room, Brian sipped expensive whiskey from an expensive crystal shot glass. Normally, this quieted him and eased his mind for sleep. But, not tonight. Tonight, too many ghosts filled the shadows. Refilling his glass, he stood by the window and stared at the thumbnail moon.
Memories of his parents flitted across his mind. When he lost them, he and his sister leaned heavily on each other to get through the grief. They worked themselves almost to death to keep the farm going. His normally stubborn nature turned to flint in his resolve to keep body and soul together. His sister's need for him gave him a reason to keep living, a feeling of worth. When she died a few years later, he'd never felt so alone in his life and, for the first time, he understood fear - suffocating, unbearable fear.
He needed a wife, children and eventually grandchildren surrounding him. Vowing to himself that he'd never be alone again, he married Carolyn and planned to have a large family. They moved to Texas to build the Rocking T Ranch to house his dynasty. Carolyn died before she gave him any children, though, making her the third woman to leave him desolate.
Her death still haunted him. He had been drunk, too drunk to be certain of events. He remembered arguing with her on top of the stairs one minute and the next, he stood over her twisted, lifeless body at the bottom, her head lying at such an odd angle.
Somehow, perhaps though his house servants, rumors - nasty, vicious rumors - began circulating that, in his drunken rage, he'd pushed her. That couldn't be true. It couldn't! He'd loved her too much and needed her desperately. Even so, the guilt ate away at him. What if he had pushed her? What if he had...killed...murdered her? That guilt kept him out of saloons. He didn't want anyone seeing him with liquor.
When they buried Carolyn, they buried Brian's hopes, too. The fear of being alone grew in its ferocity, its gnashing jaws drawing closer and closer to his sanity.
Then he met Amanda.
He thought back to the first time he'd seen her, standing in the restaurant doorway, looking so alone and nervous. When he jumped to her defense and dragged the drunk outside, he would have beaten the man's face in except someone pulled him away. Perhaps he became her protector at that moment.
But, at his party later in the week, his feelings changed. Seeing her dressed in his wife's clothes, having her beside him at the table, accepting his gift of the sign, moved her from being someone under his protection to being the woman of his house.
In the soft moonlight that night, he had wanted to kiss her so badly he could almost taste her lips. It was the first, but not the last time. He had warned off troublemakers in the restaurant, had given her everything she asked for, and more. He'd even killed for her. She owed him - she was his as surely as if she wore his brand.
She'd followed Nate to Ft. Sill, though. What did she see in that nothing of a cowhand? He couldn't give her a house like this, or fine dresses, or servants.
The tick-tock of the grandfather clock filled Brian's silent, tortured reverie. Tonight, though, as he thought of Amanda, the tick-tock turned into ‘Brad-ford, Brad-ford," until Brian thought he'd go crazy.
As he continued staring out the window, the idea of Amanda and Nate together under this same moon sent Brian's jealousy raging. He drained the glass in one furious gulp and refilled it. If Bradford so much as touched her, Brian would kill him! So much as touched her!
Brad-ford. Brad-ford. Brad-ford.
"Damn it!" Brian threw back his drink and slammed the glass down on the desk.
Brad-ford. Brad-ford. Brad-ford.
Hunched over the back of a chair, his hands resting on its arms, his head down, he tried to think of a way to get rid of Bradford - a way that would leave Brian looking blameless to Amanda. He raised his head, his ice blue eyes full of cold, calculated rage as he stared at his Winchester hanging above his desk.
Brad-ford. Brad-ford. Brad-ford.
Brian leapt toward the wall, grabbing the rifle and pumping it once. Whirling on his boot toe, he fired, exploding the deer head mounted on the opposite wall. Fur and stuffing filled the air like confetti.
Still groggy from not enough sleep, Nate shuffled across the dark compound for a light breakfast of hot coffee and biscuits. At the stables, he gave his horse a quick grooming and saddled it. Mounting up, Nate joined the others outside. As he rode away, he glanced once in the direction of Amanda's quarters, a private smile teasing his mouth.
Four men made up the hunting party, looking for deer, buffalo, rabbit, turkey, wild boar, anything that would fill up the larder and smokehouse. They rode for an hour out of the fort and split up. Every now and then, rifle shots could be heard in the distance as one of them found game.
While he hunted, Nate thought about his argument with Amanda the night before. He wanted to get back to her as badly as she did, though he had to do it on his terms. Why couldn't she understand that? To her, he knew it came down to a matter of money. However, to him, it meant much more. If he couldn't provide for her on his own, he didn't deserve her. If he didn't deserve her, he didn't know how he would live. He needed to make this plan work, absolutely needed to! Shaking his head with grim determination, he returned his concentration to the task at hand.
Nate had been out for hours and had bagged a brace of hares. He followed hard on a deer trail when his horse threw back its head, its eyes wide in fear. Nate reached down to pet the frightened animal's neck while he looked around. A panther's scream sent him wrenching in his saddle when he felt claws rip into his left shoulder. He didn't have time to reach for his rifle.
He managed to pull a knife out as the cat shredded the horse's hindquarters. Its frantic bucking sent Nate flying, the cat on top of him.
Nate could feel the animal's hot, fetid breath as it leapt for his throat. Blocking the lunge with his left hand, he jabbed upward with his right, the knife blade glancing off the cat's ribs. With the cat's scream in his ears, Nate pushed as hard as he could against its chest and managed to get to his feet. Undaunted, the crouching cat lunged at Nate, tumbling him backwards, while its murderous claws sank deeply in his chest. He felt his flesh tear as the two rolled through the tall grass, each trying to gain dominance.
"Die, you son of a bitch!" Nate yelled, again thrusting his knife into the tawny fur. This time, it went in to the hilt. Blood, both man and animal, ran down his hands, across his chest. At the newly inflicted pain, the panther went wild; its huge paws frantically tearing at anything it could reach. Nate halfway rolled over, trying to get to his feet again, when he felt fire in his back.
Once on his feet, in one tremendous surge of strength, Nate grabbed the animal by its throat and partially lifted it into the air with one hand. With the other, he sent his blade slicing straight up into the cat. At that same second, the cat sent both sets of front claws into the top of Nate's head and raked downward with vicious force. Nate blacked out for a second, and when he came to, he didn't know if he'd killed the cat or if it'd run off. Too much blood covered his eyes to see. Nate managed to stand up, even took a few steps, before he fell unconscious in the prairie grass, his blood pouring from his torn body.
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