Texas Love Song

Texas Love Song

by Jodi Thomas

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Overview

From the New York Times bestselling author of the Harmony McLain and Whispering Moutain series'.

McCall Harrison was looking for a man. Not a man to love and hold, for her heart had died with her husband. What she needed now was a man for her mission...

Sloan Alexander was looking for redemption. The war had stolen his hope and pride. But a beautiful widow promised him honor, if he helped her save the Cheyenne children...

Taking the children home to the Great Plains as the Indian War raged, they risked their lives. But when danger ignited their desires, they met the greatest risk of all—falling in love...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101645154
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/01/1996
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 193,923
File size: 748 KB

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author Jodi Thomas is a fifth-generation Texan who sets many of her stories in her home state, where her grandmother was born in a covered wagon. She is a certified marriage and family counselor, a Texas Tech graduate and writer-in-residence at West Texas A&M University. She lives with her husband in Amarillo, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Praise for National Bestselling,
Two Time RITA Award-Winning Author

JODI THOMAS

“Jodi Thomas will render you breathless!”

Romantic Times

“Ms. Thomas never disappoints…she comes up with characters worthy of the title ‘friend’ and plots that sparkle with originality.”

Heartland Critiques

FOREVER IN TEXAS

“A winner from an author who knows how to make the West tough but tender. Jodi Thomas’s earthy characters, feisty dialogue and sweet love story will steal your heart.”

Romantic Times

“A great Western romance filled with suspense and plenty of action. It is the two tremendous lead characters…who will have the audience forever reading Forever in Texas.”

Affaire de Coeur

TO TAME A TEXAN’S HEART

Winner of the Romance Writers of America Best Historical Series Romance Award of 1994

“Earthy, vibrant, funny and poignant…a wonderful, colorful love story.”

Romantic Times

“Breathtaking…heart-stopping romance and riproaring action.”

Affaire de Coeur

“Interesting characters, a bit of mystery, humor and danger…enjoyable and hard to put down.”

Rendezvous

THE TEXAN AND THE LADY

“The woman who made Texans tender…Jodi Thomas shows us hard-living men with grit and guts, and the determined young women who soften their hearts.”

—Pamela Morsi, bestselling author of Something Shady and Simple Jess

PRAIRIE SONG

“A thoroughly entertaining romance.”

Gothic Journal

THE TENDER TEXAN

Winner of the Romance Writers of America Best Historical Series Romance Award of 1991

“Excellent…Have the tissues ready; this tender story will tug at your heart. Memorable reading.”

Rendezvous

“This marvelous, sensitive, emotional romance is destined to be cherished by readers…a spellbinding story…filled with the special magic that makes a book a treasure.”

Romantic Times

Titles by Jodi Thomas

Betting the Rainbow

Can't Stop Believing

Chance of a Lifetime

Just Down the Road

The Comforts of Home

Somewhere Along the Way

Welcome to Harmony

Rewriting Monday

Twisted Creek

***

Promise Me Texas

Wild Texas Rose

Texas Blue

The Lone Texan

Tall, Dark, and Texan

Texas Princess

Texas Rain

The Texan's Reward

A Texan's Luck

When a Texan Gambles

The Texan's Wager

To Wed in Texas

To Kiss a Texan

The Tender Texan

Prairie Song

The Texan and the Lady

To Tame a Texan's Heart

Forever in Texas

Texas Love Song

Two Texas Hearts

The Texan's Touch

Twilight in Texas

The Texan's Dream

eSpecials

In a Heartbeat

A Husband for Holly

Heart on His Sleeve

Easy on the Heart

Texas Love Song

Jodi Thomas

Table of Contents

One

THUNDER RUMBLED THROUGH the low hill country of Texas, rattling against the walls of the isolated stagecoach station like the fists of a rebuffed intruder. A winter storm, promising hail and snow before it finished, howled into the frosty night. As icy rain began a second violent assault on the roof, travelers huddled inside the log building. Dustlayered cowhands who’d brought a herd in just before dark ate their first meal of the day at a long table running the length of the north wall. German farmers spoke in a low foreign tone as they waited for even a slight letup in the weather so they could get back to their land. Weary travelers, passing through this sparsely settled country, were suddenly stuck in a place that would never have been a destination of choice.

Sloan Alexander also waited. He was trapped with them all, but part of no group. Unlike the other wayfarers, Sloan wasn’t going to anywhere, only away from everywhere he’d ever been. He had no home and no one waiting for him. His wealth was barely enough to buy him a ticket west, and his only dreams were nightmares.

“Want another?” The station manager lifted a half-empty bottle toward Sloan’s glass.

Sloan tipped his hat slightly in a nod and leaned into the counter, his slim body seeming as solid as the mahogany. He laid worn buckskin gauntlets beside his drink. The gloves were the only part he’d kept of his last uniform. A reminder of his days fighting on the frontier.

The manager didn’t meet Sloan’s eyes as whiskey filled the glass to the brim. The spidery-thin man wearing a dirty butcher’s apron looked tired, Sloan thought. As out of sorts as most of his guests, he was obviously ready for the storm to stop and everyone to leave.

Scanning the crowd, Sloan carefully sized up each of the men for trouble. The back of the large room was filled with mostly locals who’d been Confederate soldiers. They were busy reliving their days of glory and drinking enough to forget their losses. With each passing hour their voices grew louder. The farmers sat along the wide stairs leading to the second floor. For the most part they were unarmed and more concerned with their families than in causing any trouble. Two Union officers drank at a table by the door and openly flirted with the stage station manager’s daughter. The soldiers were making a grand effort to appear relaxed, but a Yankee this far into the South, even three years after the war, would be a fool if he relaxed too much.

A woman, dressed in black traveling clothes, sat alone at a table near the kitchen, looking out of place in this menagerie of humanity. Distant from the others, even though the manager’s wife and daughter stopped by her table-with each passing, she seemed to watch the crowd as a bystander watches a play. Sloan briefly wished it were another time, another place, and he were the sort of man such a lady would allow to just come over and talk to her.

He could almost see himself walking up and lifting his glass slightly in salute. She would smile and fan her hand toward the empty seat. Sloan shook his head and took another drink. It would never happen, so why was he wasting his time daydreaming of such a thing?

He had been little more than a boy when the war broke out and he left Kansas City. Sloan had never even kissed a girl when he’d killed his first man in battle. During the war there was never time to talk to women, and the kind he’d met hadn’t been proper ladies like the one sitting alone. After the war ended, he had to finish his duty on the frontier before he could try to look for the pieces of his life to pick up and start over. Now, he felt too old to even try to learn the subtleties of flirting. He had nothing to offer, not even in conversation.

Leave the flirting to young station girls and Yankee officers. They had dreams of the future; all he had were enemies from the past haunting his nights.

“That’s him!” one of the rebels from the end of the bar shouted in a half-drunken slur. “That’s the man I was telling you about. We made him haul out of the stage and ride up with the driver as soon as we knew who he was. It’ll take more than three years to clear the smell of a traitor away.”

Sloan felt his muscles harden to granite as he swore beneath his breath. He’d let his guard down a moment too long. The folly of staring at the woman might cost him dearly now.

The band of rebels moved toward him, their courage heightened by their number and abundant whiskey. These were not fresh young boys going to war, but hardened, broken men who’d returned home full of hate and despair.

A large redheaded man toward the front of the crowd pushed several travelers aside and headed directly toward Sloan. He was close enough for Sloan to smell his whiskeyed breath when he finally stopped and swelled like a toad. “My friend here tells me you’re one of them Galvanized Yankees.” The man’s voice rose with each word until the final two spat from his mouth in an eruption of hate.

Sloan knew he should run or deny the accusation, but he’d been running for years and this seemed as good a place as any to stop. Maybe he’d chosen Texas because there he knew he’d face his fears one nightmare at a time.

“You a southern boy?” The redhead poked at Sloan’s ribs with huge, dirty fingers.

“I’m a southern man,” Sloan corrected.

“And you wore blue during the war after you’d already sworn allegiance to the Confederacy?” The local was staring at Sloan as if he’d seen his first true freak. “Forgot your loyalties to the South and helped the damn Yankees?”

Several of the others wearing parts of tattered gray uniforms moved closer and mumbled words Sloan had heard before, like traitor, and yellow-belly, and turncoat.

Glancing at the two Union officers by the door, Sloan saw the hate in their eyes as well. A Confederate soldier who changed sides was hated by southerners for what he’d done after he joined the Union and hated by northerners for what he’d done before he changed. Old Pete in the prison had tried to warn him when the soldiers came in to recruit their Galvanized Yankees from among the southern prisoners of war. Pete said that a man don’t change seats in the middle of a poker game unless he’s playing the devil for his soul.

A gang in prison who’d called themselves Satan’s Seven had shown their hatred of the idea from the beginning. They’d voiced a final oath when the Galvanized Yankees left camp that the seven would find them, no matter how long it took, and kill every last traitor.

Sloan had had his reasons for changing sides, but these men before him now would never allow him to answer. He’d known this confrontation would come since the day he’d left the Northern Territory and headed to Texas. Sloan straightened the buckskin fingers of his gloves lying on the bar, and shook his head. If he’d had any sense, he would have changed his name and identity and gone to California like most of the other Galvanized soldiers. Not even Satan’s Seven could find him then. There was nothing for him in Texas. There was nothing for him anywhere, north or south. No one would ever take the time to hear of the filth in prison and how staying alive in Union blue was better than rotting among the thousands with dysentery and fever.

Thunder rattled the walls and hail rifled the roof. Suddenly, men came at him from all directions like hungry wolves on a winter-thin rabbit. Gray-sleeved arms grabbed from both sides. Sloan fought to free himself, but was pinned against the bar, his arms pulled behind him before he could deliver his first swing.

“We don’t want your kind in Texas,” someone behind him mumbled. “My guess is no one wants traitors around. You’re worse than the damn Yankees. You traded sides.”

Sloan strained at the human chains, but he couldn’t free either arm.

The redheaded man took the first blow. Sloan didn’t try to dodge. He felt the man’s knuckles plow into his ribs, shattering bone.

The station manager’s daughter screamed and ran beneath the protective arm of one of the officers. The families nesting on the stairs moved away, wanting neither to interfere nor witness.

As the rain pounded outside, Sloan took another blow, and another and another, until he could no longer stand erect to face his attackers. His left eye swelled and closed in pain and he tasted his own blood along his lip, but Sloan didn’t make a sound. Just as all happiness had long passed from him, so had all sorrow. The only feeling that told him he was still alive was pain.

The Rebs took turns, laughing at the impact of each blow on his body, needing to release the anger they felt.

Just before the welcomed blackness of unconsciousness reached him, Sloan felt the hands holding him slip slightly.

Forcing his head up, Sloan saw his attackers back away one by one, lowering their heads like guilty children. He tried to reason. The manager of the station would never interfere, not with this. The Yankees would have stopped the fight earlier, if they’d planned to help. Only a fool would hold a gun on the Rebs to force them to stop a beating in such a crowded room. Yet the men were backing away as if he were diseased and they didn’t want to be too close.

“Turn loose of him,” one man behind Sloan grumbled to the other, “and come to attention, Brady.”

“Why?” a second voice asked in almost a child’s cry of disappointment.

Sloan looked around, trying to focus on who demanded such respect. He saw only the woman wearing mourning black moving nearer. Her hair was combed back in perfect order and a white lace handkerchief slipped from beneath her cuffed sleeve. She wasn’t the kind of woman to draw closer during a fight.

“That’s Major Harrison’s widow,” the first man whispered and let go of his captive. “There weren’t a braver man who fought under Lee.”

Sloan slumped to the floor while all the ragged Confederates around him strained to attention. Pulling himself up on an elbow, Sloan wiped the blood from his lip with his own worn coat sleeve. When he looked up, the woman was standing above him like a statue. She had hair the color of her dress and eyes as blue as a winter twilight. Her skin told Sloan she was young, but her sorrow seemed ages old.

Without a word, she knelt and touched his chin with two fingers. Her pale face was lined with worry. Her eyes filled with a heartache caused by far more than witnessing a beating.

The redhead removed his tattered hat and began twisting it in his huge scraped-knuckled hands. “Meaning no disrespect, Mrs. Harrison, but a lady like you shouldn’t oughta have to see the likes of this man. It ain’t fitting. Me and the boys shoulda taken this to the barn and not gone and done such a thing in fronta you.”

Sloan thought any woman in her right mind would have shrunk from these men with only pieces of uniforms left. They were bone mean and hard. But this woman, this widow, walked past them as if they were no more than trees or neighbors she’d known all her life and had no need to fear.

The woman brushed the hair from Sloan’s face as though she hadn’t heard the man’s warning. “You’re bleeding,” she whispered. “That cut right at your hairline needs attention.”

“Don’t touch the likes of him.” The redhead’s frustration flavored his words. “He ain’t nothing but scum.”

Sloan couldn’t take his gaze off the pale woman with midnight hair. Though she looked like an angel, he had to still be alive or he couldn’t hear the Rebs mumbling around him.

The widow pulled the spotless handkerchief from her cuff and touched his lip. “Are you hurt bad, soldier?”

There was no disgust in her voice, only concern. She’d called him soldier as though she’d called every man that for so many years it came natural.

Sloan bit back the pain and shook his head.

“Can you stand?” She offered her help.

“Mrs. Harrison,” a clipped northern voice interrupted before Sloan could answer. “I’m Lieutenant Murry from the fort.” The young Union officer looked nervous, but clearly saw this as his duty. “We’ve all heard how brave your late husband was and there’s not a man in this room, northern or southern, who doesn’t respect you for what you did when your man died.” He glanced at the Rebs. “But I think you should stay out of this discussion between these Texans.”

The widow’s face darkened in anger for the first time. “I am also a Texan, sir.” She straightened her back slightly as if she’d stand against any or all in the room. “Do you plan to stop me, Lieutenant Murry?”

The lieutenant backed away, raising his hands as if she’d turned a gun on him. “No, ma’am.”

“Do any of you plan to interfere?”

To Sloan’s amazement everyone took a step backward. The redhead looked worried. “No, ma’am,” he mumbled. “There ain’t a man in this room who’d stop you if you wanted to kill this traitor right now. We’d be happy to drag the body out for you.”

“And if I wanted to help him?”

Her suggestion seemed to startle them.

She turned once more to Sloan without waiting for any answer from the Rebs. “Can you stand, soldier?”

“I don’t need your help,” Sloan mumbled. He didn’t want to depend on anyone. He’d seen people turn too fast from friend to enemy. “I’m fine,” he lied.

She gave her full attention to him. “I asked if you can stand, soldier.”

Somehow, her calling him “soldier” demanded his best effort.

Sloan nodded and gripped his ribs as she helped him to his feet. Pulling away, he bit back an oath. He didn’t want anyone’s help, not even an angel’s, yet he sensed if he didn’t do what this woman asked, no matter how insane it seemed, every man in the room would take a turn at killing him.

“Help me get him upstairs, Annie,” she ordered the manager’s daughter. “Miss Alyce Wren will doctor him.”

The station boss wiped his hands on his dirty apron, then nodded for his daughter to follow the lady’s order. The young girl circled Sloan’s arm across her shoulder. She was probably no more than fifteen, but he couldn’t help but notice she was strong and fully rounded. The two buttons open at her collar told the world she wanted everyone to notice the fact that she was now a woman and no longer a girl.

The widow, slimmer and taller, steadied Sloan from the opposite side. All the families camped out on the steps hurried to make way for the trio.

Fighting the darkness that threatened to blanket his brain, Sloan leaned against the woman in black, depending on her strength and not the girl’s. He could almost feel everyone in the room holding their breaths, hoping he’d die before he escaped, silently begging the widow to turn him loose so they could deliver more blows. Maybe they were hoping she’d make it to the top of the stairs, then drop him.

But she gripped his shirt with her fist and held tightly as they moved. No man stepped in her way. Whatever power she had over these people was great. He could see respect, and maybe a little fear in all their eyes.

Sloan thought briefly that she was the angel of death dressed all in black, and she’d finally come for him. He’d waited many nights on the battlefield for her, even prayed for her to come in prison when the stench of rotting flesh thickened the air and the prisoners’ cries of pain became a sorrowful song that never ended.

As he stumbled, she held tightly to him, giving him strength when he had none left.

“Where…?” he whispered, wondering why he cared.

“I’m taking you to Miss Alyce Wren’s room to get you patched up,” she answered, “and if you die before I get you up these stairs, I’ll shoot you. Miss Alyce may not be a real doctor, but she’s the closest thing we got to one in these parts. She’ll not take kindly if I deliver a dead man.”

Sloan tried to laugh, but pounding pain in his chest muted all thought. “And if I don’t go with you?” he asked as they reached the landing.

“You have no choice,” she answered, helping him up another step. “If you stay downstairs, you’re a dead man. Of course, if you live and go with me when the storm is over, Mr. Alexander, you may be just as dead in a week. Since it seems to make little difference to you, we might as well let Miss Alyce work a little of her charm.”

“I don’t need…” He gritted his teeth, fighting back the pain in his side. “How’d you know my name?”

“I know more about you than you may guess,” she answered as they reached the second floor. “And you may not need my help as dearly as I need yours.” She nodded for Annie to open the door. “I don’t care what side you fought on. The war is long over. Right here, right now, you may be my one hope of survival,” she whispered so only he could hear. “I need you alive and able to at least hold a rifle.”

Sloan doubted she needed anyone’s help, as he bit back a moan and gripped his side.

Annie opened the door and backed away as if she’d done what was asked of her and now had her own plans to execute. “I got to get back to that soldier I was talking to,” she mumbled as if her excuse made sense. “He rode two hours just to see me tonight.”

The woman in black smiled at the girl, then helped Sloan through the doorway.

Standing in the center of the room, surrounded by light, was the oldest woman Sloan could remember seeing. She wore a dress of dark green that made her hair seem even whiter. Her crippled, twisted hands were blue-lined and bone-thin as they extended toward him in welcome. Both wrists were layered in gold bracelets. He thought for a moment that this woman must make her own world, for she certainly belonged in none he’d ever seen.

She stared at Sloan for a long moment, then her aged face rippled in a smile of what Sloan thought looked like liquid insanity.

The woman the men downstairs had addressed as Mrs. Harrison helped him to a chair.

“Miss Alyce, I found the one I’ve been watching for.” The widow lowered him slowly onto the chair. “If we can keep him alive, he’s the man to help us.”

The old woman laced her fingers together and stared hard at Sloan, then at the widow.

Her watery old eyes moved back to him. Her gaze traveled from his hair to his boots and back as if sizing up every inch of him. Sloan wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d opened his mouth and counted his teeth. He’d seen men buy horses with less scrutiny.

Her gaze came to rest on his hand gripping his side, Mrs. Harrison’s fingers atop his as she steadied him back against the cushions. “Oh, yes, this one will do.” The old woman almost giggled. “You’re right, my McCallie, he’s just what I was hoping you’d find.”

Two

MCCALL HARRISON MOVED her fingers over the bandage Miss Alyce Wren had tied around the stranger’s rib cage. She wasn’t sure if he’d passed out from pain, or if he was so tired he’d fallen asleep. His sandy hair, not blond or brown, curtained his sleeping eyes. He looked almost peaceful now, not all hard and cold as he had when he’d watched her downstairs. She’d known he was staring at her, but he’d been only one of several she’d watched since dusk. He had a kind of pride about him, though his clothes told her he wasn’t a rich man. She liked the way he stood, as if no place were ever totally safe and he must always be on his guard. Also, he looked at people directly as only an honest man can do.

“Will he be able to travel soon, Miss Alyce?” McCall asked softly, fear creeping into her voice.

The old woman nodded as she folded her herb bags and sewing kit away. “He’ll hurt, but he’ll live if my stitches keep the dirt out of that hairline cut.” She watched him closely as though trying to guess his fate. “And if one of the cracked ribs don’t break and decide to puncture a lung. Not even those drifters downstairs can kill one of their own that easy. My guess is, he didn’t fight his way through the past four or five years to die now at this crossroad in the middle of nowhere.”

She rocked back in her chair and continued talking more to herself than McCall. “No matter what the men said downstairs, this one’s a knight. I can tell just by the way a man moves. It’s something they can’t hide from a knowing eye like myself even with dirty, tattered clothes. My father was a knight. I know one when I see one.”

McCall looked up at the woman her grandfather always called “the lovely Alyce Wren.” Over the years McCall had gone from thinking Miss Alyce was crazy, to feeling sorry for her, to loving her even though the real world never touched her too closely. She was the one person who knew McCall, who understood her, who loved her without condition.

Gripping the stranger’s gloves she’d retrieved from the bar, McCall asked, “Could you see his soul’s face?” All her life McCall had heard Miss Alyce say she could see what no one else could. She could see the face of a man’s soul. The gift hadn’t come without its curse, for Alyce Wren once told McCall that her ability had kept her from marrying. When she saw what men really looked like, it cut the number of possibilities down considerably.

“I saw the true face of him, child. Young as he is, he’s been walking in death’s shadow so long he don’t remember the sun, but these wounds won’t kill him. I’d be willing to bet there’s nothing in this world he cares about. He’s lost a war, probably any home he ever had, and anyone he ever loved, judging from the look in those eyes. If he’s one of them men who changed sides, he’ll be taking other beatings if he doesn’t get out of the South. He’s a searcher without a map and all he’ll find wandering is trouble.”

“But his inside face.” McCall had to know. She wouldn’t enlist the aid of a man who didn’t measure up with Alyce Wren.

“His inside face is scarred with all the hurt he’s suffered, but there’s good in this man. A knight’s kind of good.”

“I can tell he’s still got his pride.” McCall brushed her fingers once more over the bandage. She could feel the slow rise and fall of Sloan Alexander’s chest. “I knew it the moment the blows started flying and he refused to make a sound. I got the feeling he’d be one who’d die without a word. That’s the kind I need along with me this time. I don’t need a hero.”

“So you think he’ll help you because of his pride?” The old woman moved to the tiny stove and poured herself a cup of tea. The warm, sweet smell of raspberry tea filled the little room as she continued, “All that his pride will do is keep him from telling anyone about this crazy scheme of yours. Pride don’t always make a man a fool.”

McCall sat back in her chair. “You’re right, pride alone would never make him do what I need done. I’m guessing money wouldn’t help much, either, though from the look of him, he could use a little. I’ve decided to offer him the one thing he’s still willing to risk his life for.”

*   *   *

Sloan could hear the women talking, but he didn’t open his eyes. The lady’s words were smooth, polished with education and breeding, while the old woman’s voice was slower, yet no less polished, as if she came to the language as a second tongue. They spoke in a comfortable rhythm of longtime friends.

Finally, the conversation stopped, and he slept, never bothering to open his eyes. He knew the proud widow was still near; he could feel her fingers rest gently across his heart from time to time. She was checking, he realized, making sure he was still alive. Part of him wondered what kind of past she must have had to test so easily for his life’s breath. Part of him wanted her to keep her hand across his chest, for the weight of her fingers touched him far deeper than she realized.

Her nearness kept the nightmares away, and for the first time in longer than he could remember, he slept without dreaming.

Dawn slowly filtered into the room and Sloan opened his eyes to a clear morning. As the beams brightened from the window, he focused on layers of wood, polished to a shine, and fine lace washed so many times over the years it seemed spiderweb thin. A few fine dishes were neatly displayed on one shelf, and a silver service set for tea rested in front of the small stove. He smiled, remembering the old woman who’d met him at the door. She was the only person he’d ever seen who looked like she’d fit in such a room. The room, like her, seemed to have become almost timeless with age.

Slowly, Sloan turned his head. Years of waiting for an attack had created a sixth sense, something beyond touch or sight or hearing…a feeling. He knew someone was there before he saw her sitting beside him.

He’d expected the old woman, but the young widow looked back at him from blue eyes full of curiosity and an intelligence he’d rarely seen. Proper, as before, she showed no sign of having slept. Her hair was still in place and not an unwanted wrinkle bothered her clothing.

“Good morning, Mr. Alexander.” She leaned forward. “How do you feel, soldier?”

Sloan raised an eyebrow, wondering if she’d been there all night, guessing she had. “Fine,” he lied. “But I’m no longer a soldier,” he paused, then added, “in any army.” Bits and pieces of conversation came back to him, and he wasn’t sure what this lady might want of him. “Thanks for helping me out last night, but it wasn’t necessary. I’ve been in worse scrapes and always managed to get out.”

The woman smiled. “Of course. You would have licked them all if I hadn’t stopped the fight. You must have had far more to drink than I suspected.”

Sloan tried to smile but his swollen lip protested. “It wasn’t a fight,” he mumbled, touching his mouth with his fingertips. “It was a beating. Eventually, they would have tired.”

McCall frowned, realizing the stranger cared little about his own welfare. She stood and paced the few steps to the fireplace. “If I hadn’t stopped them, you’d be in no shape to help me.”

“Help you?” he whispered.

She turned toward him, a beautiful warrior making a direct assault. “I’m McCall Harrison and I need your help desperately, Mr. Alexander. I’ve been meeting every stage for the past week, hoping someone like you would come along.”

He plowed his fingers through his hair, trying to clear his brain enough to think. “How’d you happen to know my name? And I wasn’t aware I was applying for a job.” If she was in some kind of trouble, the man on the floor last night—him—seemed to be the least likely pick. “Maybe you should try one of those officers downstairs. Or maybe one of those Rebs with plenty of fight left in him. I’m not looking for any more battles—not even on behalf of a lady.”

“I don’t need a champion; I only need someone I can trust to keep quiet.” She handed him his gauntlets. “Those are Union cavalry issue. Can you drive a wagon as well as ride?”

“Of course I can drive a team, but what makes you think you can trust me to keep quiet about what you’re planning?” He sat up, tucked the gloves in his belt, and looked for his shirt. “I’ve given up causes as well as fighting, and like I said, I’m not looking for a job.”

“You’ll help me because I can offer you the one thing you need.” Reaching behind her chair, she handed him his shirt. As he raised his arms to pull on the shirt, McCall lightly brushed his bandage once more as though checking before she continued, “I saw something last night that told me they can’t beat one trait out of you.”

Slowly, very slowly, Sloan buttoned the shirt. “What’s that, Mrs. Harrison?” He had the crazy longing to have her touch him once more, but she stepped a few feet away.

“Pride,” she whispered, but it was as though she’d shouted “Gold” in a room full of forty-niners. “You may not care if you live or die, but you were still too proud to yell out during the beating I saw you take. So, if you’ll help me, I’ll give you the one thing I think your pride demands.”

“And just what might that be?” Sloan’s laughter sounded hollow even to himself. There was nothing he wanted anymore.

“I’ll give you a reason to die with honor.” Again, she whispered the words.

Sloan met her gaze then and a new fear crept across his tired mind. She understood him. Somehow, this woman in black knew the last hope, after four years of war and endless days on the frontier, that he allowed himself to have. He’d seen bodies rotting in the fields with not enough men left alive to bury them properly. He’d watched pickers move across the dying, pulling the valuables from soldiers not yet cold. A hundred nights when he’d been in prison, weak and sick, he’d thought he’d felt someone rolling him into a mass grave with stiff corpses all around him.

McCall moved closer and touched his arm. He could feel the warmth of her body along his side. He wondered if she had any idea how rare such a warmth was to him?

“What I have to do will probably get us both killed, but I swear that if I live and you should die, I’ll bring you back to my land and bury you with honor.”

“And if I should live through this quest?” He started to smile, but saw that she was too serious to lighten the mood.

“If you live, and we make it back, you can never tell anyone what you did. But, all the rest of your life, you’ll remember.”

The warmth of her hand on his arm almost halted Sloan’s breathing. Part of him didn’t care what she asked. He’d try anything to be closer to such a woman for a few days. Even if he suspected she was as mad as she was beautiful.

“Name the quest.” He straightened to attention. “I’ve nothing to lose from listening.”

For the first time, she smiled. “Come with me.”

They walked to the back of the room, and McCall opened a small door that looked like it might lead to an attic storage. Tiny bells jingled, sounding an alarm as they passed. “All we have to do,” she whispered, “is take these children home.”

Sloan stepped around her into a room packed with children of all sizes. The old woman who’d doctored him sat in the midst of them at a little table, cutting bread slices and passing them to each child.

He froze, speechless.

“We’ve found eleven in all, but by the time we have wagons and supplies ready there may be more.” McCall knelt and hugged a little girl who looked about four. “I don’t know how long it will take to find their parents, but we could hunt for food along the way if we need more, or I have enough money to buy supplies if we near one of the outposts along the fort line. Alyce Wren and I guess it will take a week, maybe two.”

“McCall,” Sloan knelt, too stunned to use her proper title. Now he was convinced the woman was crazy. “McCall, these are Indian children!” He spoke slowly, as if trying hard to get the point across.

“I know,” she answered. “I noticed. They are Cheyenne. Their leader was Black Kettle. From what I understand, they were camped along the Washita River for the winter when soldiers destroyed their village.”

“And where are their parents now?”

“What’s left of the tribe crossed the hundredth parallel three weeks ago after their village was attacked. So, I guess that makes them somewhere in the Great Plains and on the warpath.”

“But how did the children get here?”

“An old medicine man hid them during the fighting, moving south each night. By the time he felt safe enough to travel in light, he was too far from the tribe to catch up and too old to hunt. A friend of Miss Alyce’s found the old man and brought him here for her to treat. Before he died, he told her where the children were hiding. She needed me to get them here and smuggle them into the station.” McCall looked at him over the head of the little girl. “And I need you to help get them home.”

Sloan tried to keep his voice from rising. “You can’t be serious! If we take these children into the middle of an Indian war, any soldiers who find us will at best hang us and take the children back to Indian territory. At worst, they’ll kill the children. Any Indian across the line is considered hostile, and some don’t make exceptions for age.”

He had to make her understand the danger. He’d spent two years fighting on the western frontier and knew the risk she’d face. “Should, by some wild chance, we make it through the fort’s patrols and onto the plains, any war party greeting us will be taking our scalps.” How could this woman think of such a crazy thing as transporting these children into country not safe for the frontier army, except in large numbers?

“I didn’t say it would be easy. We’re breaking the law, and we’ll probably be killed before we can get back. But I’m going if I have to drive the wagon all day and scout the trail all night. And Miss Alyce has agreed to come with me. She thinks it a fine quest.”

Sloan glanced at the wrinkled woman obviously older than any settlement in Texas. “Of course,” he shrugged. Miss Alyce didn’t seem strong enough to make it down the stairs for meals, much less across open country in a wagon filled with children.

He turned McCall toward him with a light grip on her shoulders. “This is impossible. You can’t consider such a thing. The Great Plains isn’t the town down the road, it’s hundreds of miles of land. If the soldiers and Indians don’t kill you, the storms and snakes will. There are herds of buffalo out there so huge a man couldn’t cross them in a day if he could walk on their backs. And they move, thundering across the land, trampling everything in their path.”

She looked at him calmly, as if refusing to be frightened or swayed by the truth.

“The weather can turn cold so fast you’ll freeze before you can find shelter. No one in his right mind would travel alone through such a place.”

The lady in black watched him with pleading eyes and a lifted chin that said she’d only ask once more. “I’m going. Will you go with us? I don’t need a hero, I only need a driver.”

Sloan studied her, then the faces of the children. Some stared at him, openly curious, some fought not to show fear. He guessed they’d been through hell to be this far south and alone. They were going whether he went along to help or not. He wasn’t sure he could live with himself if he sent them out alone, and he wasn’t sure he would live long if he went with them.

He took a deep breath, as if it might be his last, and answered, “I’ll go.”

She’d read him correctly. If he succeeded, he could never tell anyone, and if he died, McCall Harrison was right, he’d die with honor.

Three

SLOAN STRETCHED OUT across the hay in the barn loft and tried to make his bruised body relax. He’d spent hours talking and planning with McCall Harrison. Finally, after several arguments, he’d agreed that they would take two wagons, even though it meant traveling slower and much fatter with supplies than he’d have liked. They’d also take two extra horses. Once the children were delivered, McCall planned to abandon one of the wagons and bring Alyce Wren home on the other. Sloan agreed to ride as far as the first fort with them, then he thought he would turn west toward Santa Fe. Somewhere farther west he’d lose himself and his past, if he had to go all the way to California.

McCall could have put most generals to shame with her detailed planning. Her only weakness lay in her insistence on comfort for the children and her inability to tell Alyce Wren no. These were Cheyenne offspring. They were used to hardships, but Sloan couldn’t convince her. So, he would be heading north as soon as the storm cleared with twice the wagons and supplies they’d need and enough blankets to keep half the children in Texas warm for the winter. To top it off, Alyce Wren had decided she wasn’t leaving her favorite rocker.

Closing his eyes, Sloan pictured how McCall’s face had looked in anger. She had the kind of beauty that stuck with a man a long time, he thought. The kind of woman he’d probably never be so close to again.

A board creaked somewhere within the darkness of the barn. Icy wind blew between the cracks in the walls and rumbled in the distance like faraway cannon fire. Several animals below shifted at once. Sloan felt his muscles tighten.

“Relax,” he mumbled to himself. “The war’s over.” How many times had he told himself that and still he couldn’t believe the words. Awake or asleep, the war still haunted his thoughts. The memory of the curse Satan’s Seven had whispered always seemed to follow him like a shadow. If he changed sides, they promised to find him, even if it took a lifetime.

As he closed his eyes once more and forced his body to uncoil, the thin blade of a knife pressed against his throat…cold, hard, and deadly.

Sloan didn’t open his eyes as every instinct came fully awake.

The blade pressed harder, threatening to break the skin.

Sloan waited for his chance to respond. If he swallowed, the knife would be bloody.

“Don’t move, mister,” a young voice whispered, “or I’ll cut your Adam’s apple out and feed it to you.”

Slowly opening his eyes, Sloan stared at a boy above him. The attacker was one of the older Indian children he’d seen earlier. In the darkness, Sloan could hear that his voice was filled with fear, but his hand was steady. His dark hair hung to his shoulders and his eyes were wide and black.

Sloan raised his hands above his head.

“That’s right, mister,” the boy whispered. “Now if you listen, you might just get out of here with most of your blood and some of your hair.”

Sloan fought down a smile. The kid couldn’t be more than seven or eight.

“The others sent me, ’cause I’ve hunted and killed things before, and I can speak your language better than most born to it. They want me to tell you to get on one of the horses and ride out tonight. We don’t want or need you around.”

“Or what?” Sloan shifted slightly, moving a fraction of an inch away from the knife at his throat.

“Or I’ll kill you in your sleep. I swear,” the boy answered with the chilling confidence of certainty.

“Why?” Sloan moved another fraction away. “I’ve done nothing to harm you. I’ve only offered my help.”

“We decided we don’t want you along. Miss Alyce Wren can doctor us and Mrs. McCall can drive the other wagon. We see you as nothing but extra baggage carrying trouble.”

Sloan guessed that his attacker and one or two of the older boys already considered themselves men enough to protect the others. “And if I refuse?” Sloan whispered as he shifted slightly.

The boy thought a moment. “Then I guess I’ll have to kill you now. There’s no use waiting until you’re asleep.”

Sloan knew he could move suddenly and take the knife away from the child without so much as a scratch, but he’d rip the boy’s pride apart. “Could we talk about this?” The boy hesitated and Sloan continued, “You could keep the knife ready to kill me at any time, but hear me out. After all, it’s only a few minutes of your time and it seems to be the rest of mine.”

The boy leaned back and nodded. “We’ll talk, but don’t make any sudden moves, mister. I sharpened this knife on the bones of a deer.”

Sloan slowly rose to sit cross-legged beside his attacker. “First, any warrior, even one about to die, deserves to know his killer. What’s your name, brave one?”

The boy smiled, his dark eyes shining with pride at the compliment. “I’m called Winter.”

“Winter is a fine name.” Sloan offered his hand. “I’m called Sloan Alexander.”

A warm brown hand slowly touched Sloan’s palm. “We will not be friends, Sloan Alexander,” the boy said as he shook hands.

“Then you will be my respected enemy, Winter. I understand a man can measure his worth by the strength of his enemies.”

Winter nodded and sat a little taller.

“I know you and the others don’t need me to go with the women to take you home.” Sloan tried to guess why the children would want him to leave. “Many of you are old enough to fight and protect all the women and children.”

The boy nodded agreement.

“But when we reach the camps of your people, who will take the women back?”

The boy lowered his knife. “We didn’t think of that. Someone will have to. It would put our people in too much danger to ask them to wait while we backtracked.”

Sloan smiled, thinking this bright little boy would make a great man someday, if he lived long enough in this crazy world. “Then, you wouldn’t mind if I ride along with you just so I can bring the women back? I’ll try to stay out of the way.”

Winter shook his head. “All right. I’ll let you live, mister. But you’d better never make me sorry.”

“Thank you,” Sloan answered. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Also,” the boy added, “you have to swear not to tell anyone that I know English. Once folks find that out it’s a real bother.”

“You have my word, Winter.”

As silently as the boy had appeared, he disappeared. Sloan leaned back on his blanket. There would be plenty of time to ask Winter how he’d learned to speak English so smoothly…or if he was of mixed blood. The boy brought up several questions, but of one thing Sloan was sure. Winter had been willing to kill him if needed.

A light snow continued to fall the next day and the next. Sloan spent most of his time in the barn making sure every inch of the wagons was ready to travel. The station manager’s daughter made excuses to visit often, but soon grew bored with Sloan’s coldness. She was trouble looking for a place to root and grow, and he wasn’t offering to help.

On the third afternoon the sky cleared and a weak sun melted away the dusting of white within a few hours. Sloan pulled a workbench out into the sun and turned his face to the warmth. He carefully folded one leather strap over another, braiding a flat strip like he’d been taught while in the cavalry. In the three days he’d been at the stage station he’d managed to stay out the manager’s way and out of sight of all travelers. Only Alyce Wren seemed to make it her business to keep up with him. The coldness that had worked so easily on the girl only seemed to encourage the old woman to stay longer. Sloan was starting to wonder if the old lady thought she’d hired him, or adopted him.

“I’d make one strap thicker.” Her voice came over his shoulder. Sloan didn’t turn around or stand from where he straddled the bench.

Miss Alyce Wren waddled closer, in a rustle of heavy satin and fur. “The vaqueros on our ranches in my youth always braided an irregular strap in with two of the same size to strengthen the rope.” She moved around the bench so that she could face him. “Now, those were cattlemen—kings compared to the drifters who think they herd today.”

Sloan didn’t answer. He hardly ever answered, but she didn’t notice. She loved to tell him of a time long ago when Texas was a part of Mexico and she was the belle of parties on both sides of the Rio Grande.

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