Authors: Ellen O'Connell
Tags: #Historical Romance
Kansas 1899. Deborah Sutton barely remembers her family's feud with the Van Cleves. Her mother died that summer, and her father was killed. Nothing else mattered to seven-year-old Deborah eighteen years ago. Still, Deborah knows the Van Cleves tried to steal her family's land, and she despises them for it.
Trey Van Cleve does remember the land war. Trey saw bloody bodies hanging from the roof of his home and fled fire in the night. The monster under Trey's boyhood bed had a name, and the name was Sutton.
One night when they both seek solitude in the same shadowy park, Deborah and Trey meet. Each is intrigued by a mysterious stranger who is no more than a friendly voice in the dark. Learning each other's identity is an appalling surprise. How can a Sutton befriend a Van Cleve? How can a Van Cleve love a Sutton? Deborah and Trey are going to find out.
June 24, 1898
Las Guasimas, Cuba
HE FIRST BULLET
smashed into Trey’s shoulder, spinning him in his tracks. The second knocked him off the narrow trail and sent him tumbling down the steep mountainside into dense jungle below. He landed on his back with a thump that drove the air from his lungs.
Long seconds passed before his lungs inflated again. The first wheezing breath was pure pain. Trey stared at the green canopy of foliage overhead as another shot echoed from above. He almost laughed. A Spanish sharpshooter would boast tonight about picking off an American soldier and slowing the advance on the entrenched Spanish positions.
Someday this would be a fine story to share with friends over a drink in a cool bar. Stripped of the dirt, sweat, and pain, it would be funny. Before seeing action of any kind, Trey Van Cleve, best sharpshooter in his outfit, gets blasted ass over teakettle by the enemy. Trey tried to get up and fell back flat. No part of him wanted to work right yet.
He examined the wound in his shoulder. Not much blood had leaked out of the neat, round hole in his flannel shirt. Of course the navy blue color absorbed and hid the wet stain pretty well.
The crimson pool spreading on the crushed fronds under him told a different story. The numbness had passed. Pain throbbed more and more persistently in his shoulder and radiated down his arm, across his chest, and into his side. After tearing through every muscle in its path, the bullet had exited in a much messier way than it entered.
Still, it was only his shoulder. He should be able to sit up or at least roll over by now.
He couldn’t remember hearing a second shot, but something had hit his back and blown him off the trail like a rag doll. He squirmed and explored with the fingers of his good hand. Blood. Not much but enough to lead him to another wound. Right next to his spine.
His fingers trembled as they explored the damage and found another hole in his shirt, in his flesh. One he couldn’t feel. The wound was right
, angling beside and under the bony column that let a man walk upright, and nothing below his waist moved no matter what he did. Legs, knees, ankles, toes. Nothing.
Fighting panic, he tried to think. The shoulder wound was survivable — if he could slow the bleeding — if once the shooting stopped men started combing through this ungodly tangle of trees and bushes looking for wounded — if he was still conscious and could call out when he heard them — if he passed out and they found him anyway.
Did he want to survive half whole, dependent on others for his most basic needs? He’d treated defying death like a hobby these last years, traveling alone in wild places, seeking adventures like this war, but he’d never considered not dying, but living crippled, unable to so much as sit up on his own.
Considering it now, he didn’t find much to recommend it. Then again, paralysis could be a temporary reaction to shock. It had to be. Once the surgeons removed the bullet, everything would work again.
What if it didn’t?
Dying would be easy. Do nothing. Pass out from loss of blood and fade away.
Damn it. The letters to his mother and sister he’d kept putting off would never be written. He’d never find a home, find a wife, settle down and have children.
Gambling against death was one thing. Losing another. Dying on this sweltering, humid, pestilence-ridden island would definitely be losing.
Cursing the Spanish, the Cubans, the American Army, and himself, most of all himself, Trey untied the bandana at his throat and shoved it under his shirt, over the top of his shoulder, and into the hole on the other side, muffling most of his moan behind clenched teeth. Fresh sweat popped out on skin already soaked with old.
He fumbled for his knife, pulled his shirt out of his trousers, and began cutting pieces for more bandage material. When he finished doing everything he could, he lay quiet and waited, grateful the blood-sucking insects that swarmed day and night preferred diving into his spilled blood rather than taking more directly out of him, hoping the stories he’d heard about land crabs in these jungles were exaggerated.
HE SEARCH DETAILS
found him, although he passed out. The doctor in the tent hospital at Siboney stopped the bleeding Trey’s efforts had only slowed.
Medical personnel transported him to an offshore hospital ship where a surgeon used the modern miracle of a radiograph to locate the bullet next to Trey’s spine and remove it. No other miracles occurred. His lower body remained paralyzed.
By the time he reached the hospital in Montauk, New York, Trey was close to drowning in an ugly mix of anger and self-pity. No one had forced him to volunteer to fight the Spanish in Cuba. No one except Trey Van Cleve patched his own wounds and gambled on a different outcome.
Reason made no difference. Trey did not want to live in a wheelchair, dependent on others for almost everything except combing his hair and feeding himself.
More of the men of the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry returned, some wounded, more suffering from pernicious fevers and other diseases. The few ambulatory patients left Trey alone, which was fine with him.
He didn’t want pity or even sympathy. He didn’t want company, and except for doctors and nurses paid to deal with him, he got what he wanted — until the day a living skeleton plopped down on Trey’s bed without invitation.
“I’m Jamie Lenahan,” the skeleton said, “and you’re Webster Alexander Van Cleve.” He paused, then added, “The Third.”
Trey said nothing as he studied the man. Lenahan had the dark hair, pale skin, and blue eyes of the black Irish. Even now, what was left of him was a handsome man.
Getting no reaction from his opening gambit, Lenahan tried again. “I hear a Spanish bullet put you in that chair. A bullet in the back.”
Trey had heard the rumors whispered about him. Until now, no one had shown the courage to face him with the accusation.
To his own surprise, and probably Lenahan’s, Trey laughed out loud. “If you’re spoiling for a fight, you’ll have to find someone else to oblige, and you’re in worse shape than I am. I’ll leave this place alive, and I wouldn’t bet on your odds.”
Lenahan grinned back, blue eyes fever bright. “It’s betting that’s brought me here. I’ve wagered some of the men I can get the truth about that wound out of you, and I’ve a sister who needs all I can leave her.”
“If pure quinine doesn’t help, have you tried any of the other recipes?”
“Quinine is all they’re handing out here, and the chances of snake oil working for me are the same as of you wearing out dancing shoes. What work would I be getting if I went home like this? Now tell the truth, were you running the wrong way when that bullet hit?”
“Surely you know a coward will lie. Why not just ask the doctors?”
“Some of the boyos did, and they were told to mind their own business.”
In spite of a certain lilt to his voice, Lenahan had no real accent except from New York’s Lower East Side. He also didn’t have the problem meeting Trey’s eyes that plagued even the doctors and nurses.
Trey settled back in his chair, enjoying himself for the first time in a long while. “Hiring nurses and caretakers for the rest of my life will be expensive, so I can use the money. How much will we win?”
“Five dollars. It’s five dollars.”
“Sad for your sister.”
The two of them eyed each other a while. Lenahan cracked first. “Devil take it. It’s a hundred, and I’ll give you ten.”
“Twenty-five, and only if you’ve got more than a story.”
“We were marching single file on one of those narrow trails along a ridge, broke through the jungle into a clear spot, and a sharpshooter singled me out. I know the names of men who were behind me and saw it.”
“You’re making that up. You were the sharpshooter. Everyone knows that.”
“Ironic as it is, I was supposed to find a place and set up to pick off some of the Spanish, but I never got that far.” Trey wondered if Lenahan knew what ironic meant, knew defining it for him would be a bad idea. He stared into the blue eyes, waiting for the other man to give way again.
“Twenty-five,” Lenahan said, “and that’s if I can find one of these men you say saw you shot.”
“Done. Talk to Horace Findlay. You’ll have to find which tent he’s in, and I heard he’s in no better shape than you, so you better hurry.”
Lenahan managed to rise from the bed and walk away without staggering. Cursing someone else’s fate instead of his own at least varied Trey’s daily routine. He liked the way Lenahan had charged right at him.
When the Irishman returned the next day and handed him twenty-five dollars, Trey decided to take a chance.
“I’ll give this back if you’ll spend it on whatever quinine formula the doctors think has the best chance of working for you. If it doesn’t work, it’s one more gamble I took and lost. If it does, you come work for me when we get out of here.”
“I’m not taking charity,” Lenahan said, his mouth tightening to a slit.
“I’m not offering charity. I’m going to need help. If you can get back on your feet, you can provide it.”
“You need a nurse, and I’m not one.”
“I’m not asking you to wipe my ass. I’ll hire someone else for that.”
“You have two arms. Wipe your own arse.”
“Only the left arm works worth a damn,” Trey pointed out.
“Use that one and work to fix the other instead of sticking your nose where it’s not wanted.”
Trey nodded and watched Lenahan’s retreating back with regret. Leaving the money on the bed, Trey went back to staring down the line of army cots in the tent that was his home in Camp Wikoff.
Tent hospitals in Cuba were one thing. In New York, Camp Wikoff was something else. Now that the newspapers had discovered the primitive conditions here, the scandal would have politicians scrambling to improve everything from the dirt floors to the food.
The door at the far end of the tent opened, giving a brief glimpse outdoors. The ground was churned to no more than mud flats, but farther on Trey glimpsed the deep greens of late summer in New York. A sliver of homesickness stirred inside him.
Kansas wouldn’t be green this time of year. The native grass dulled and yellowed early there. On the ranch, his father’s hands would be looking forward to the fall roundup. Farmers would be harvesting fields of wheat and oats shimmering gold in the sun.
Let me walk again, and I’ll go home and make what I can of it. I won’t crawl back, but if I can walk, I’ll go.
Aah, who was he fooling. He’d like to see his mother and Alice again, but the last eight years had made no difference in his feelings about his father. In his wildest imaginings, Trey couldn’t conceive of a path to a civil, much less friendly, relationship with his father.
However God felt about the mess that was the Van Cleve family, He certainly knew Trey would never offer any bargain that included an attempt at reconciliation with his father if there was any possibility of having to keep it.
Approaching footsteps sounded behind him. Trey turned to see Jamie Lenahan swoop up the twenty-five dollars from the bed and do a pretty good job of stomping off — for a skeleton.
rented in New York City were more Spartan than Trey would have settled for, with bare floors and plaster walls stained and yellowed with age. Jamie, on the other hand, considered a ground floor apartment with running water and a wash room an unconscionable luxury, one more proof of their very different backgrounds.
Without admitting he had never needed the few dollars from their original bet, Trey reassured Jamie about the cost. After all, bare wood floors made maneuvering the wheelchair easier. Trey and Jamie became experts at ways to get in and out over the front steps.
Jamie benefited from regular gifts of food from Mrs. Farrell on the second floor and Mrs. Long on the fourth. The pharmacist’s concoction of quinine, methylene blue, and other ingredients that sounded more likely to kill than cure didn’t stop the Irishman’s recurring bouts of fever and chills, but the attacks came further and further apart and with less and less intensity. As late summer gave way to fall, he began to gain weight and fill out.