Authors: Kathleen Ball
Mail Order Brides of Texas
Copyright Kathleen Ball 2016
Historical Western Romance
This book is dedicated to Edmund Rauschuber. He made it possible for me to type again- Thank you!!
To Jean Joachim and Vicki Locey for telling me I can write a book without using my hands.
To the wonderful readers and authors on the Pioneer Hearts Facebook group. Your encouragement made a huge difference.
And to Bruce, Steven, Colt and Clara because I love them.
Copyright © 2016 Kathleen Ball
First E-book Publication: May 2016
Edited by Kay Springsteen Tate
Edited by Ruby Merritt
Proofreader Renee Waring
Cover Art by Ari Tan
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED:
This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission.
All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is completely coincidental
Shane O’Connor swung down off his horse, Jester, and patted its back flank before looking at the hoof. Just as he suspected Jester had a rock wedged deep. “It’s going to be just fine, boy.” He dug out the rock with his pocket knife and watched the paint walk. Damn, the poor horse was limping. “We’ll just take it nice and slow.” Taking off his hat, Shane wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve, while squinting his eyes at the glaring sun. It must be well past noon. He’d have a long walk before he reached town, if he went back.
Sighing, he shook his head. “I don’t know about you, Jester, but I’m tired of chasing down that dang blamed woman and dragging her back to town only to have her run off again.” This was the third time and he’d had it. If she wanted to be gone, let her.
Turning the horse south, he began his long walk home. It wasn’t his fault if Cecily McGuinness didn’t have enough smarts to come in out of the wilderness. He’d done his job and more. He’d rescued her from that big Indian, Long Nose, and every time she ran off, he found her and brought her back. It wasn’t as though she liked living with Long Nose. Besides, he was dead. She’d clung to him the whole way back to town and he couldn’t figure out why she kept leaving.
Other than being in Texas for a month, he didn’t know much about her except she came west as a mail order bride for the unscrupulous John Hardy, who’d tricked many women into coming to Texas. Upon their arrival he’d renege on his marriage proposal and offered them a job at his saloon instead. Putting that piece of garbage behind bars had been a pleasure.
Out the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of rich sable hair.
What the blazes?
She was following him. His lips twitched as he tried to contain his laughter. He’d never figure women out, and he didn’t even want to try, they were too much trouble.
“Are you going to follow me all the way back to town?” He kept walking without looking back, leading Jester at a slow pace. She must have stepped on every twig in her path. “You might as well walk with me. It gets boring being all alone.” He stopped and listened. The sound of footsteps on dry earth grew louder. She was getting closer. “Don’t you get scared in these woods at night? There are bears and mountain lions. Oh, and I forgot to mention the snakes. You don’t have a gun do you?” She didn’t answer him. He walked for another hour before stopping at a creek.
“Jester, you need some rest, ole buddy.” Usually he brought two horses with him, but he’d been on his way to his friend Keegan’s ranch, when another friend, Cookie caught up to him to report her missing. He lifted the saddle off Jester and led him to the water, making sure his hurt foot was fully submerged. Hopefully the cold water would help him some. Filling his canteen, he took a healthy swig, pretending all the while Cecily wasn’t behind the big oak tree. Could be she’d come and sit by him. He was tired of chasing her.
“Jester, I think we’ll spend the night here. It’ll take us all day tomorrow to get back to town. Hope you’re up to it, buddy.” He started to stand to gather wood.
“There’s a shortcut.” Her voice was hesitant and gruff as though she hadn’t talked in a while.
“I’d be obliged if you’d show it to me. I’ve only been in this area a few months.” He went about making a fire, pretending he didn’t care where she was.
“I’m doing it for the horse, mind you,” she said as she stepped away from the tree.
“Of course.” She was a remarkable sight. Her hair reminded him of strong, dark coffee untainted by cream as it cascaded about her shoulders. It gleamed in the afternoon sun, and her wide, brown eyes had a certain spark in them. She was a little bit of a gal, but she could pack a wallop. He fought the urge to rub his shoulder that still bore the bruise he’d gotten while rescuing her a few days ago. Once the fire was lit, he filled his coffee pot with water from the creek, and checked on Jester’s foot. “You’re going to be just fine. Just a bit of rest and a few days off and you’ll be brand new.”
He bit back a smile as she sat in front of the fire. The more he ignored her the closer she came. What a peculiar woman.
“It’ll be cold tonight ?” She shivered as she held her hands closer to the fire. “Strange isn’t it how it’s hot all day then it can be so cold at night? I hear they don’t get much snow in Texas. Is it true?”
“Didn’t bring a blanket? How about food or water?” When she shook her head, he grabbed some dried meat from his saddlebag and handed her some. “Perhaps a change of clothes? If you plan to keep running, you need to plan better. This is the last time I’m coming after you. I doubt the good folks of Asherville will turn against me if I make this my last rescue. They’re getting a mite testy about not having their sheriff in town.”
“I didn’t know I was leaving.” She shrugged her shoulders.
Shane frowned and shook his head. “Coffee?” he asked as he handed her a cup.
“Thank you. This will warm me up just fine.”
He sat down and took a sip of his coffee. He stared at her until she turned beet red and turned her head. “Just how does one go about leaving without knowing about it?”
Cecily swallowed hard and gazed at him. “The nightmares come and the pain in my back… I don’t know, I just start to run and I can’t seem to stop.” Tears shimmered in her eyes. “I know it’s crazy and I’m afraid they’ll put me away in a place for crazy people.”
“The whole dang town. They all watch every move I make, and they sit in judgement of me. I see it in all of their eyes. I know they want me gone from their town. Miss Edith is one of the worst. Taking me in and making herself look good to the rest of you. I liked it better at Shannon and Cinders’ ranch. When Edith’s not in her mercantile she’s glaring at me. She puts her nose in the air and sniffs as if I’m foul. I’m not one for taking charity but for the love of God, couldn’t she allow me to work in exchange for some cloth so I could make a dress? This is all I have.”
“I had no idea,” he said looking at her—really looking at her. Her dress was tattered and obviously had been mended in numerous places. It might have been yellow at one time but now it was stained and honestly, it belonged in the rag bin. Her shoes needed resoling and— How had he not noticed the poor state of her clothes before now. “I bet you don’t have a coat either.”
“No, not anymore. When I made my trip out here to marry that no good John Hardy I had a trunk with me. It had a few clothes and things I had in my hope chest. I’d spent years making tapestries, doilies, embroidered napkins. All kinds of things. I even had four matching tin plates. They’d cost me a lot of egg money, but I was proud I could bring them to my new husband. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be handed over to an Indian and my things taken away. I’ve been through hell, and all people want to know is if I’m carrying. Shannon made me a dress but I lost it last time I ran.” She wiped the tears from her face. “I’m sorry, none of this is your burden.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry. I never checked in on you after we got you back from Long Nose. He’s one mean Comanche. Why did you leave Cinders’ ranch? I thought you were getting along with Shannon.”
“I liked everyone at Cinders’ ranch, but my nightmares were keeping them up and Shannon is having a baby so I thought it best to leave.”
“Well, I really thought Edith was doing right by you. She’s a fickle one; likes some people and doesn’t like others. I should have looked in on you. I should have made sure you had clothes to wear and shoes and a coat too.”
“It’s not your fault, Sheriff. You didn’t know. I think the only people who really knew were the saloon girls. One of them, Noreen, asked me to come work for her. Imagine a woman owning such a place. I guess someone had to take John Hardy’s place.”
“Hardy won’t be luring any more mail order brides out here pretending to be their fiancée.”
“Now, what’s wrong with your back?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know why I even mentioned it. I’m fine.”
“Did you even see the doctor?”
“I was escorted to the doctor’s house by Edith and another woman named Polly. They pushed inside and demanded the doctor tell them what was done to me.” The catch in her voice squeezed his heart. “They didn’t ask
about my time with the Comanche. They asked the doctor what had been done to me. Doc Martin pushed them back out the front door and allowed me some privacy. He’s a kind man.”
“What did he say about your back?”
“That he’d never seen such cruelty before.” Her voice drifted off as she stared into the fire.
“I’m sorry,” he said wishing he had more to say.
“I’m still alive and that’s something. I didn’t understand much of what the Comanche said. Long Nose spoke English, but he thought it was more fun to tell me to do things in his language and beat me for failing. He spoke in English when he described what he was going to do to me.” She shuddered. “I was paying for someone else’s sins. John Hardy’s I suspect. I know I wasn’t with them for very long, but it felt like years. They ruined me and I don’t know what to do or where to go. How am I supposed to fit in with other people?”
She gazed at him, her eyes full of pain, and his heart squeezed as he watched her.
“Maybe I could ask someone else to take you in. There are good people in Asherville, good families.”
“Sheriff, you’re one of the good guys. You can’t expect everyone to see things in the same light as you. To you I’m a woman you rescued. To them I’m a heathen. I’m supposed to be full of shame and acting hysterical. I’m supposed to tell them everything that happened and I can’t do it. Why do they think it’s their right to know?” She gripped the fabric of her dress until her knuckles grew white. “If I told them the truth of it, they’d all most likely faint.”
“What can I do to keep you from running off?”
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “I really don’t know. I can’t stand to be cooped up or told to stay in my room all day and night. I think one day I’d like to have a place of my own where I wouldn’t have to see anyone for weeks at a time.”
Shane sipped his coffee and grimaced as the chilled liquid slid down his throat. “It’s getting dark.” He stood and grabbed his bedroll. “Here, you use this.” He laid it out in front of the fire.
“What will you do?” She shook her head. “It’s yours, you use it.”
“Get some sleep. I’m going to sit beyond the firelight and keep watch. Long Nose might be gone, but he has friends. I’m telling you this for your own good. You were Long Nose’s wife, and he treated you badly. His friends would treat you worse, I’m afraid.”
Her eyes widened briefly, before she nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think of the danger I put you in.”
Her admission surprised him. He’d thought her selfish for running away, even ungrateful but she wasn’t either. She was running from her nightmares.
He stood, grabbed his rifle, and walked along the outskirts of their camp. It would be best to get a feel for the area before he found a place to keep watch. A few scattered dead twigs around the perimeter would serve as an alarm. The snapping of a twig would alert him something or someone was out there. Satisfied with his precautions, Shane found a place to sit where he wouldn’t be snuck up on and waited. Three hours later, a lone wolf braved the fire and started to sneak into the campsite. Shane raised his rifle but a howl from farther away made the wolf’s ears perk up and he trotted away.
The flames from the fire highlighted her thick hair. It made it look red, then lighter brown and finally it’s rich deep color. It was interesting to watch and it kept him entertained most of the night. What had she’d been through? It was bound to be horrifying if she ever told him. The Comanche were fierce and brave, but they were also known for torturing their prisoners. Maybe her status as Long Nose’s wife saved her from a lot of it. He wasn’t about to ask, it wasn’t his business. The rising sun had him back in camp, preparing coffee and gazing at Cecily’s face. She had a beautiful smooth complexion and sweet red lips. Her cheekbones were high and her neck was long and graceful. She stirred in her sleep, and he hurriedly glanced away.
The morning breeze whispered across Cecily’s face, and she panicked. Her heart quickened and she had to fight to stay still. She’d learned the hard way that lying still was her only protection from Long Nose’s morning ire. He was a very big man with an extremely short temper. Keeping her eyes closed she listened to her surroundings, seeking a clue as to where he was.
Morning birdsong and other noises filtered in, and the aroma of coffee mingled with the campfire. Slowly, she remembered she was with Shane. Her muscles relaxed, and she came close to weeping. She had no cause to be afraid this morning.
The morning sun shone right into her eyes as she sat up. She blinked several times and turned her face away from the bright light and found Shane regarding her with an intense gaze. He must want to get going so he could be rid of her. Being out with her all night probably wasn’t good for his reputation. Pain spiraled through her body at the admission.