1884, Delaware Bend, Texas
ey, Mercy, come see this!” Big Jim McMahon called from the swinging doors of the Red River Saloon.
Theodore Lafayette Huntingdon Jr. glanced up.
Lots of folks out West used a “summer name” instead of a birth name. But he hadn't come up with an alias quick enough, so he'd been given one and it'd stuck.
“Now that'd sure make a fine painting.” Big Jim crossed muscular arms across his broad chest as he stared outside over the top of the doors.
Mercy sat at a round table by a front window where he could take advantage of the early morning light. He'd been sketching across white paper as he laid out the design for an oil painting that Big Jim had commissioned to hang over the Red River's legendary bar.
“Get over here or you'll be cussing and damning for days 'cause you missed her entrance.” Big Jim pointed outside.
Big Jim appeared shocked. “You never heard of Texas Belle?”
“Afraid not.” He picked up his whiskey and tossed back a shot. “Are you going to enlighten me?”
Big Jim shook his fair head. “You got to see for yourself.”
Mercy set down his piece of charcoal and stood up. He glanced around the saloon. Several men were hunched over cards playing poker at a back table. A drifter was bellied up to the bar. Most patrons had left for some shut-eye about the time he'd arrived a couple of hours ago.
He pushed open the swinging doors, stepped outside onto the boardwalk, and heard Big Jim follow. As far as he could tell, it was another quiet morning after a wild night in the Bend. The place was infamous as one of the three wildest towns in the West, along with Tombstone, Arizona, and Leadville, Colorado. And for good reason. Outlaws made it a favorite watering hole since they could quickly ride north across the Red River into the safety of Indian Territory ahead of Texas Rangers and other lawmen. Independents, mavericks, adventurers, and folks wanting new lives were drawn here, too, along with cowboys, farmers, gunslingers, and cardsharps.
He'd been raised a gentleman, but one day he'd scrawled “G.T.T.”, meaning “Gone to Texas,” on his front door like so many others across the country and set out for new territory.
As he looked down Main Street toward the Red River, he noticed that Manny's Livery Stable, Adler Emporium, Mama Lou's CafÃ©, and the Lone Star Hotel were open. A few men and women traipsed in and out of stores as they went about their business.
Nothing moved down the dusty street except a lone rider on a flashy horse, a honey chestnut with flaxen mane and tail. Silver filigree on the black leather of bridle and saddle glinted in the sunlight.
“Fancy outfit. Is that your Texas Belle?”
“Wish she was mine, but that g'hal belongs to no man.”
“Sounds like a challenge.”
“She's a sight for sore eyes, all right. But if you trifle with her, you're bound to come out with the short end of the stick.”
“These days, I'm not a trifling man.”
“Good thing. You've got plenty to do in my saloon.”
Mercy sighed, not sure if he'd live long enough to complete all of his Delaware Bend art commissions. He'd been a down-on-his-luck Eastern tenderfoot trading art for whiskey when he'd carved cavorting naked women into the bar's mahogany top, making glasses and bottles sit at odd angles, and then he'd left town. In his absence, the bar had become so popular that patrons had named the beauties and rubbed the shapeliest parts smooth and shiny. Now he was back to repair the bar and create a painting.
As Texas Belle rode closer, he got a better look. She wore a big white cowboy hat, a white suede jacket with long fringe dangling down the sleeves, a malachite-tinted blouse and skirt, white fringed gloves, white cowboy boots, and a long white scarf tied around her neck. She rode astride as if she'd been born to the saddle.
“Somethin', ain't she?” Big Jim said.
“I'd like to capture her on canvas.”
“If she'd allow it, which I sincerely doubt, you'd be the man to do it.”
She rode up to the saloon, eased out of the saddle, and tossed her reins around the hitching post. She walked to Big Jim, reached up, and clasped his shoulders. After a long hug, she stepped back, looked him up and down, and then winked. “How's the weather up there?”
“I ain't shrunk none since the last time you saw me.” He laughed. “Looks like you ain't grown none, either.”
She joined his laughter.
Mercy watched them from the outside looking in. He could use a hug from a lady, but he didn't figure it was coming from this one any time soon.
He cast an artist's eye over her body. She wasn't trussed up with a corset or padded with layers of petticoats, so he could see the generous curves of her breasts and hips. He'd like to strip her naked and paint her in vibrant colors. And then he'd take her to bed. But those were just the randy thoughts of a man who'd sworn off women and regretted it every day.
If Texas Belle had been a fine sight riding up, she was an unforgettable sight standing so close to him. She'd pulled her hair back in a neat chignon, but a few strands of bright burnt sienna had come loose and dangled enticingly over one shoulder. He couldn't decide on the exact color of her eyes, but they appeared to be a fascinating mix of rich umber, vermillion, and amber. Freckles peppered her straight nose like stardust to bridge her high cheekbones. A generous, rosy mouth and pointed chin completed a face that wasn't quite beautiful. Yet he doubted many men would notice because they'd be caught by her style, energy, and sensuality.
She looked like a fashion plate from a cowgirl's
Godey's Lady's Book
except for one jarring item. She wore a beat-up, stained, natural leather gun-belt wrapped twice around her small waist. A Colt .44 with pearl grips and ornate scroll work rode in the holster. He wondered why she didn't buy a gun-belt that fit her small waist. Even more, he couldn't imagine why she'd need so much firepower, unless it was to discourage a trail of men birddogging her tracks.
“Lil Tex, I'd like you to meet Mercy,” Big Jim said.
When she turned her big, luminous eyes on him, Mercy felt it like a punch in the gut. She was no lightweight. She appeared to be searching him for all his secrets, lusts, misdeeds, and mistakes. He shuttered his eyes. He had too much to hide to let anybody in that close.
“Good to meet you.” She cocked her head to one side as her gaze traveled down his body.
He felt her long perusal like a slow, intimate stroke. “Does your father own a nearby ranch?” He wanted to sound clever by letting her know that he recognized she was probably dressed like a rancher's daughter.
She frowned, a quick pinch between her eyebrows.
Big Jim cleared his throat. “Tex ain't with us no more.”
“I'm sorry.” Mercy wished he hadn't brought up an obviously painful memory.
“Tex met his maker six months and three days ago,” she said.
She nodded but made no other comment.
“Get a good lead yet?” Big Jim asked, breaking the silence.
She shook her head. “So far nothing's panned out.”
“You'll find that bushwhacker.”
She pressed her lips together and then put a hand to her mouth as if to hold back cussing or crying.
“He didn't die easy?” Mercy dove into deeper water, but he couldn't resist learning more.
“Shot in the back, knocked off his horse, and left to die alone.” Big Jim's words cut through the morning air like a gravedigger's spade turning soil.
“Indian Territory.” She flicked a glance at Mercy.
“I spent some time over there. Big wild country. He wouldn't be found for a while.”
She raised her chin and straightened her back. “I found him . . . not long after. I picked up sign. But the bushwhacker was smart. Hit rock and water. I lost his tracks.”
“Got to be that bounty you were huntin',” Big Jim said.
“Maybe. Could've been an old bounty out of jail and back in the Territory.”
Mercy looked from one to the other, understanding dawning on him. “You're a bounty hunter?” He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.
She nodded, shrugging a feminine shoulder.
“You ever hear of Tex Thompson?” Big Jim asked.
“Sure,” Mercy said. “He brought in some of the toughest outlaws.”
“Lil Tex here is his baby girl.” At a frown from her, he grinned, chuckling. “I mean she's Texas Belle Thompson.”
“Belle will do.”
“He taught her every trick he knew.”
“Guess he didn't teach me enough,” she said. “That bushwhacker is still out there, laughing at me and laughing at Pa.”
“You must know how to find missing people.” Mercy focused harder on her, turning his thoughts from bed to trail.
“Are you making a joke because I lost that outlaw?” She put her hands on her hips.
“Not at all. Somebody's missing from the Bend.”
“Who?” Big Jim asked, appearing surprised and concerned.
“She works at Mama Lou's CafÃ©,” Big Jim explained.
“And she's been helping me. Far as I know, nobody's seen her this morning. She just up and disappeared.”
“She didn't simply leave town?” Belle asked.
“That happens a lot around here,” Big Jim added.
“I think she's in trouble,” Mercy said. “I'll pay you a bounty to find her.”
“I don't need your money.” Belle tossed him a withering look. “Anyway, if you can't keep track of your lady friend, you don't deserve her.”
“It's not like that.”
“So what is it? You beat her? Starve her? Work her? Make her your plaything?”
He blinked in astonishment. Belle wasn't as pretty inside as she was outside. No telling what horrors she'd seen in her young life. “It's personal.”
“It always is.”
“I mean, I don't want to talk about it.”
“Men never do.”
Mercy looked at Big Jim. “I need help. Tell her I wouldn't hurt Diana. I'm worried about her. She's a nice lady.”
“If she's run out on you, I won't be the one to help find her,” Belle said. “A woman's got a right to protect herself any way she can.”
“You've got me all wrong. Big Jim, please explain who I am.”
“Mercy is . . . the artist.” He drew out the words as if with great reluctance.
Belle dropped her hand to her six-shooter. “So you're the low-down, yellowbelly Yankee who thinks women are nothing but sides of beef.”
Shocked, Mercy stepped back. She was armed and he wasn't. She was mad and he wasn't. She hated art and he was an artist. Still, he couldn't let a few problems stand in the way of helping a friend.
He forced a smile. “When can you start looking for Diana?”