A Historical Romance
By Cate Duncan
Tom Clayton swore he'd never have anything to do with women after Mary Beth seduced him, got heavy with his child and then married a shop keeper. She said she couldn't marry a man who owned only a horse and a six-shooter, even if he did love her. Now, suspected of the rape and murder of Dona Diego, and running from vigilantes, why should he trust a widow who told him he looked like her dream of the perfect man?
Jessie Dobson couldn't understand why she hadn't kicked the tall, lean stranger out of her kitchen the moment she'd seen him struggling to stand upright, wearing only a vest and a poorly-made bandage over that bloody shoulder. Something about those piercing blue eyes and three-day-old beard told her he needed as much help as she did. And Lord knows, she needed a man around the place, even one as temporarily handicapped as he appeared. So she sat him down in one of her ladder-backed chairs and fried him up some eggs and told him he could stay. Even that early, he'd captured her heart.
A woman who needs a man around the farm; a man who needs a place to hide; two people who can help one another in many ways, but who cannot overcome the obstacles in their pasts. Will Tom overcome his distrust to embrace Jessie's love? And can Jessie save a rapist and murderer from the gallows?
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January 1873, Rancho de los Gavalónes,
The moment Tom Clayton heard the woman’s scream, he forgot his long list of troubles. He should have known that responding to the sound of someone else’s pain would only lengthen the inventory. But like a fool, he turned his horse’s head in the direction that would change his life, dug his spurs into the cow pony’s side, and without a second thought, let it carry the both of them into a world of hurt.
Tom directed Frisco to the mass of boulders off to their left. The horse cantered up the steep slope, his haunches bunching under their combined weight as he jumped over first one obstacle, then another. Then the cow pony entered the field of twenty-foot boulders.
Tom urged the horse forward, familiar with the jumbled rock formation, having chased more than one recalcitrant steer through this maze in the two years since he’d hired on at Los Gavalónes. This particular grouping followed the ridgeline that circled the main hacienda of the Ranch of the Sparrow Hawk, owned by Don Diego de Garcia, the richest man north of La Bajada, the steep hill that rose out of the
It had been a long time since anyone had dared such a thing, but the scream suggested that someone had decided to prey upon those who looked to el Don. As Frisco broke through the last of the towering boulders and resumed his canter, Tom spied that which should not have been there. Not a hundred feet away, at the base of a juniper, a vacquero, a Mexican cowboy, squatted over what appeared to be a bundle of clothing. He picked at a skirt, as if he examined the week’s laundry.
“Severo,” Tom called ahead, recognizing the vaquero as one of his fellow ranch hands. “¿Que Bueno? What’s happening?”
The vaquero whirled around, his six-shooter drawn. He remaining squatting over the bundle of clothing, black eyes narrowed, his narrow shoulders tense under his dark duster.
“Clayton,” Severo Ramirez spat. “Did you see him?”
“Who?” Tom figured he sounded just as confused as he felt.
“The man who did this.” Ramirez stood up and stepped away from the pile of skirts and petticoats billowing in the stiff winter wind.
Tom swung his right leg over Frisco’s rump and steppd out of the saddle. He caught a flash of bright red on white, as he walked over to what he no longer believed to be a pile of laundry. A gust of wind lifted the dark wool skirt and a lacy petticoat, revealing a shapely leg encased in a white stocking.
Losing all caution, he rushed forward. “Is she hurt?” Tom demanded.
Ramirez stepped aside, letting Tom take his place kneeling at the woman’s side.
“Doña Garcia,” Tom gasped. He recognized his employer’s wife, even with her usually impeccable coiffure unbound and strewn all over the sand and gravel of the high plains desert.
“¡Señora!” he cried, placing the back of his hand against her cheek. Still warm, her skin had not yet grown cold.
“Dead, Clayton,” Ramirez informed him. As the cold wind sliced through Tom’s worn sheepskin coat, he noticed that the vaquero’s shadow cut across the body of the woman.
Tom felt for Doña Garcia’s pulse at the base of her throat, not wanting to believe Ramirez. He glanced down to her chest, expecting to catch the rise and fall of her breast as she breathed. There he saw what he had missed earlier, the knife imbedded between two ribs of the below her right breast. Blood seeped from the wound, saturating her white blouse. That must have been the red-on-white color he’d glimpsed earlier between the flapping of her skirts in the wind.
Ramirez had the right of it. Tom could feel no pulse at Doña Garcia’s throat. For a moment he felt his own heart catch, threatening to stop altogether.
“You saw no one?” Ramirez repeated.
Tom shook his head. “I heard a scream when I was on the other side of the ridge and came as quick as I could.” He glanced up at the vaquero.
“El hombre, he must have disappeared in the rocks.” Ramirez peered into the boulder field. “You want to look for tracks or go get help?”
Tom sat on his heels, gazing at the hacienda spread out below them. The murderer had used a knife, the silent killer, for a reason. One shot from his Colt .38 would bring all the men working around the house, barns and corrals. He could see no reason to go fetch anyone.
“You’re sure you saw el hombre go into the rocks?” Tom asked Ramirez, squinting into the sun as it dipped close to the jumble of boulders along the ridgeline.
“I saw no one, just as you claim,” the vaquero grunted. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. Where else would he have gone?”
Tom shrugged, accepting the other man’s reasoning. “Bueno. I’ll go take a look in the rocks. I know the maze. Maybe I can find el aesinio, the murderer. Just fire a shot into the air. That ought to bring out el patrón and his men. No reason to leave La Doña.” Without a glance, he turned away from Ramirez and walked to Frisco, his shadow stretching long and black in the glare of the late afternoon sun. He didn’t look back even after mounting the cow pony and digging his heel into the animal’s right flank to turn him up towards the ridge.
Tom just wanted to get away from the woman’s body and the blood. It reminded him far too much of that night he had come home to find his mother dead and his father incoherent, standing over a bloody corpse with a knife in his hand and unable to speak of the horrors he’d seen. Ramirez and La Doña meant nothing to him. He did not need to be anywhere near Don Diego when the man confronted the reality of his wife’s death. He did not need to witness, once again, the horror of a man seeing the end result of violence done to a woman he loves.
So lost had Tom Clayton become in his memories of that night almost fourteen years before that he paid no attention to what occurred behind him. It came as no surprise when, as Frisco slipped into the shadow of the first large boulder, the expected gunshot rang out. What did surprise Tom was to discover himself face down in the sand, his horse trotting to the cover of the next boulder, and a searing pain piercing his left shoulder.
That asquedero shot me, he thought, rolling to the cover of a chamisa bush. In the shade of the shrub, he assessed his situation. Peering through the narrow, pale green leaves, he watched Severo almost lazily mount his black horse and begin to walk it up towards the ridge, obviously intent on making sure he had killed Tom. The latter weighed his alternatives. Shoot Ramirez as he approached, then tell Don Garcia what had happened when the mob arrived, as they would do any moment? He’d be a captive of the nightmare, reliving his mother’s attack and death, and his father’s false accusation and hanging, all over again. He couldn’t do it, he knew that. The thought sent cold perspiration sliding down his back.
He could hide, and let Ramirez bypass him. The Don would be along very soon, and Severo would have to call off the search any moment now, in order to go tell his story, any story, it didn’t matter what. What if Ramirez said that Tom killed La Doña? Panic struck at the cowboy, only increasing as the vaquero approached. He cowered under the chamisa, trying to make himself as small as possible in the scant shadow.
When the black horse drew opposite the chamisa, Tom launched himself at Ramirez, dragging him from his saddle and jammed his fist into the vaquero’s jaw. Quickly, before Ramirez could recover his balance, Tom grabbed up a broken limb from a downed tree and slammed it against the vaquero’s head. The man fell like a log.
Tom staggered to a standstill, barely able to keep his feet. He glared at Ramirez, waiting for the man to rise, but the vaquero just lay there, out cold. A feeble rise and fall of the man’s chest indicated he still lived, and that’s all Tom needed to know. He swung his head around, feeling dizzy. There, he caught sight of Frisco. A whistle brought the horse to him. He managed to find his stirrup and somehow fall into the saddle. The horse headed into the maze of the boulders, as Tom bled freely from both the back and the front of his left shoulder.
He urged the horse between the looming boulders, dodging into the deep shadows. He thought about how easy it was to lose himself in these rocks, a maze of narrow trails, dead ends and cul-de-sacs. He’d been through it a hundred times and still didn’t know all of its ins and outs.
Tom kneed Frisco off to the right, into a narrow pathway that led to a secret spring a half mile north. From there he could drop to the west side of the ridge and head towards
Some time later, Tom squeezed his thighs and grabbed the pommel like a greenhorn before he slid from the saddle. His head swam. Easing himself to the ground, he realized he could hardly stand on legs that had turned to rubber, and he had to hang onto to Frisco’s saddle to keep himself afoot. Glancing at his shoulder he saw that the dark blood had saturated not only his shirt and leather vest, but also the shoulder of his sheepskin coat.
“Damn,” he swore under his breath.
Looking around to get his bearings, Tom recognized his location, the spring for which he’d been headed. Catching a big lungful of air, he remembered there’d once been a time when he would have sent a thankful prayer heavenward in appreciation for having gotten this far. Instead, he thumped Frisco on the withers and let out his breath, simply glad he had company in this latest adventure.
Knowing he had to stop the bleeding, Tom dropped to his knees and stripped off his coat, vest, and cotton shirt. Although it hurt like the dickens, he could move his left arm, so he knew no major muscles or bones had been hit by the bullet as it passed through. He couldn’t see the hole in his back, but the one in front looked bad enough, huge and gaping. As the exit wound, it had to be the larger of the two. Blood seeped from it in a steady stream. His light head told him he didn’t have much time to patch himself up before he’d be unable to do anything to help himself.
Pulling his knife from the leather scabbard at his waist, Tom quickly slit open the seams at the shoulders of his cotton work shirt. Folding each sleeve into a square pad, he created two absorbent bundles of cotton. With the aide of his knife, he tore his shirt into long strips of cloth. Placing one of the square bundles of cotton onto a strip of his shirt, he managed to position the bandage over the entry wound on his back. He held it in place by pushing back against a nearby boulder while he tied the bandage. The exit hole was easier to cover because he could see it and had better access to it. Still, the pain and cold of the bitter wind blowing through the darkening boulders made his fingers clumsy, and his head got lighter and lighter as the moments rolled by.
Tying the last knot, Tom sank to the ground, wanting desperately to close his eyes and rest for ten or fifteen minutes. He breathed into the sand, the granules feeling cool against his lips. He focused on the feel of the sand on his face instead of the burn of the hole in his shoulder, now ameliorated by the pads of cotton shirt pressing front and back. A shiver wracked his body, the shock of the loss of blood combating the cold air. How easy it would be just to lie here in the sand.
Sometime later, something shoved him, none too gently, in the left arm, only a few inches below the bullet wound. Tom groaned, grabbing at his tormenter, only to wrap his arm around his horse’s nose. Frisco snorted at him and shook his head free.
“Yeah, you’re right, we got to get goin’,” Tom agreed, rather reluctantly, as he rolled to his knees and looked around for his vest and coat. His teeth chattered in the cold wind. If he hadn’t been so methodical when taking off his clothes, he never would have found them, but they lay just to his right where he had put them. It took only a painful few moments to slip back into the stiff leather vest and sheepskin coat, and a moment more to find his feet, with the help of Frisco’s stirrup.
As they left the relative protection of the hidden spring, a few isolated snowflakes began to fall.
January 1873, a farmhouse south of Alamolitos,
Jessie Dobson pulled her worn, brown wool skirt over her chemise and slipped into the sturdy boots she had left by the chair when she had disrobed last night. She grabbed up the hand-knit sweater laying on the chair, and her loaded six-shooter from the bed stand as she headed for the front door.
What could the dogs be so excited about? Dawn had not yet broken, and all three dogs, the two she left outside and the one she let sleep in the house with her, sang out in a riotous chorus, the type they usually made when a stranger came to the farmstead. She’d never had a caller so early in the morning, and she couldn’t imagine who’d be visiting her farm at this time of day.
Passing through the kitchen to the back doorway, Jessie grabbed up a fringed wool shawl to protect herself against the cold morning air that would greet her when she opened the door. She hastily tied a knot at her chest, knowing she’d want to keep both hands free to hold the heavy Colt.
Entering the yard, the wind whipped a flurry of snowflakes into her face. The dim light of the pre-dawn revealed a light skiff of snow on the ground, one that moved across the yard with the wind. She peered into the open yard between her white frame house and the looming barn. The dogs clustered around a lone figure sitting quietly on a horse, waiting for her.
“Temp, Dirk, Tip,” she barked out the names of the dogs, calling them. “Quiet.” With the final word, all three canines ceased their barking, although they maintained their stiff-legged positions ringing the mounted man.
Jessie approached the horseman, holding her Colt before her with both hands.
“What do you want?” she demanded of him.
She couldn’t see his face in the dim light under his hat, but she thought she heard an amused tone in his reply.
“I’ll not be botherin’ you none, Ma’am. I’m just passing through. It was these dogs that stopped me.”
“Oh, well, then,” Jessie didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t used to strangers just passing through, especially ones coming up from the south before dawn. Before she could stop herself, she heard herself offering him some hospitality. “You won’t come in for a cup of coffee? Maybe some breakfast?”
He turned his head sharply towards her, as if he considered her offer, before he looked into the eastern sky.
“You have men-folk here?” he asked.
She had known the question was coming, so she gave her stock answer, the one she always gave when a stranger appeared. “They’re in the fields. We have a line camp my man is checking.”
She felt his scrutiny and didn’t much like it, any more than she did any man’s. She knew she should leave this place, or hire a man to help her, but one day ran into the next, and she never found the time to do one thing or the other, with the routine chores piling up and needing to get done.
He shifted in his saddle, to all appearances considering her invitation. Jessie was sorry she had issued it.
“How far to
“Eighteen miles,” she replied.
He turned his head towards the north, the direction of the city he’d just inquired about. Jessie caught the outline of his cheek in the gradually lightening sky, smooth and well-formed over a strong jaw. In that moment, the sun cleared the distant horizon and shone into a piercing blue eye. Its color took her breath away.
The man turned his deep-set eyes on her. “My horse could use a rest. We’ve been traveling all night,” he admitted. “Could I stable him in your barn for an hour or two while I take a meal with you?”
Jessie swallowed her apprehension as she lowered the Colt. “Help yourself to water, hay and grain. I’ll go start the coffee.” Calling the dogs, she moved out of his way and off towards the kitchen.
Fifteen minutes later, he appeared at her door, sweeping off his hat and stamping off the little bit of snow that clung to his boots. She took the hat and hung it on a hook, then turned back to him to take his coat, noticing for the first time the blood saturating the left shoulder and the bandages under the coat.
“You’ve been hurt,” she stated.
He appraised the bandaged wound as he slid out of his left coat sleeve, looking at it as if for the first time.
“I’m still trying to figure out how it happened,” he admitted, chagrin plain in his voice.
Jessie took the coat from him, shocked to find the stranger standing in her kitchen wearing a blood-soaked leather vest and no shirt. He stood half a head taller than her, probably five foot nine or ten, well-formed muscles in his shoulders and arms bespeaking the tough work of bulldogging steers and roping calves. He planted his boots a good two and a half feet apart, as if he fought to stay upright. His denim pants, although worn and dusty, fit him like a glove, hugging firm, muscular thighs and calves, and a small, well-formed behind. Jessie drew in a quick breath. She hadn’t seen such a good-looking specimen of manhood up this close in her entire life.
Her eyes had wandered up and down his form, returning to the bloody hole in the upper shoulder of his vest. He rocked on his heels, and she forgot about perusing his form. Knowing her face flushed a brilliant red, she dashed for the nearest ladder-backed chair at her kitchen table.
“Please, sit down,” she stammered, as she dragged the chair out from under the table and turned it for him.
Their eyes met, and Jessie felt drowned in the warmth of his blue-eyed regard. She wasn’t sure what she saw there, but it wasn’t malice or belligerence, something more like humor and gratitude.
“I don’t frighten you, Mrs. – ?” he asked.
She kept eye contact with him, wanting to prove her courage. “Dobson. Jessie Dobson. No, sir. Should I be frightened?”
“Yes, Ma’am. You probably should be. A woman’s been killed within the last twelve hours. There’s a murderer riding loose in these parts. What if he’s me?” His blue eyes pierced her.
She met his gaze evenly. “Then I suppose I’m dead, too. In the meantime, while you decide what to do to me, I’m going to finish making our breakfast, and let you get warm. Maybe instead of attacking me, you’ll let me look at that wound and fix it up for you, after you’ve got some food in your belly.”
Jessie smiled at the hint of humor that crept into the crinkle at the corner of his eyes, and the twitch at the edge of his mouth. It was a nice mouth, even and full, lips not too large or too thin, the kind of lips a woman would like to feel on hers. She banished the thought, wondering where it came from. She’d never thought of a man in those terms before, not even her husband in their earliest courting days.
She turned her back on him as he settled into the chair, groaning as his muscles had stiffened while he stood in the kitchen. She heard him scoot the chair up to the table. The sounds of leather and metal scraping against cloth told her that he adjusted the holster and gun around his hips. She didn’t look to see if he took out his revolver. She trusted that he didn’t. He would want food before he robbed, raped and killed her, if that was his intent.
Jessie poured the man a cup of coffee and turned to take it to him.
“You’re trusting,” he noted, taking the cup from her. The revolver still sat inside its holster.
“Some think me a fool,” she admitted. “I prefer to believe that I have a special gift for knowing a person’s intentions when I meet him. I don’t think you’re going to hurt me.”
“There are no men-folk, are there?” he asked, pointedly, narrowing his eyes.
“Now there is,” she pointed out as she returned to the kitchen stove and flipped two eggs over in the skillet.
He cursed. “What makes you think I’ll stay?”
“You need food, rest, tending to while that shoulder mends. Whoever shot you is looking for you. You can hide out here. The neighbors know the widow Dobson’s been looking for a hired hand. When one shows up around the place, there’ll be no questions. You can stay as long as you like.” She filled his plate with crisp slices of bacon and four eggs, over easy.
“You worked it out that quick?” he smiled.
“I don’t imagine whoever’s coming after you is going to be kind and sweet to a lonely widow woman. I may need some protection,” she noted.
“How can I protect you when I’m hiding in the cellar?” he asked, scowling.
“Just the obvious evidence of a man around the place helps. Knowing you’re watching with a cocked Colt also reassures a woman,” she smiled.
She reached out and laid her hand over the fist he had balled up on her kitchen table. “Admit it. You need me, and I need you.”
All of his muscles tensed when she touched him, and she felt a frisson of warmth slide up her arm and invade her body. Her nipples pushed against the cotton batting of the chemise she’d slept in. She withdrew her hand from his, only reluctantly, wondering if he’d felt the same thing.
His gaze met hers, piercing her with the warmth of his blue eyes. She saw a hunger that hadn’t been there before, something that might have scared her earlier, and which now only attracted her the more.
“You’re a seductress, Mrs. Dobson. I can’t resist you or your offer. I pray to God that you don’t rue the day you met Tom Clayton.”
She smiled at him, delighted that she had convinced him to stay, unwilling to think about what trouble she had just invited into her house. She had a farm hand, at least for a while, and someone to fend off the next wave of unwelcome visitors. That’s all that mattered.
“That’s settled then,” she brushed off her hands, as if she had just rolled out a loaf of bread. “Eat up your breakfast, and I’ll change the dressing on your wound. If you need some stitches, I might be able to manage that for you. Then we’ll set you up a bed in the bunkhouse, Mr. Clayton.”
And she bustled off to the stove to get herself a plateful of food.