Authors: Jane Toombs
“I’m sorry Tessa. God knows, I don’t mean to offend you. But you’ll have to learn sooner or later that no fifteen-year-old boy wants to be tied to his sister’s apron strings. Let Ezra go his way.”
She whirled to face him. “But the killings! And Sheriff Copeland claims the Regulators have been rustling cattle. Ezra isn’t the kind to be mixed up with thieves and murderers.”
Calvin spread his hands. “There’s nothing I can do, much as I’d like to.”
Tessa tried to smile, but she was far too upset. “I don’t mean to be cross with you, Calvin. Naturally I don’t expect you to ride out alone to find Ezra.”
The trouble was, that’s exactly what she had half-expected he might offer to do. After all, Calvin was a friend of Alex’s as much as any of the Regulators and certainly they wouldn’t harm him.
She stared out the window into the courtyard where a blue-green yucca thrust its candelabra of creamy white flowers skyward. May already. She hadn’t seen Ezra since around the first of April, right after Sheriff Brady’s murder. He’d sworn he hadn’t fired at the sheriff or his men, but others had been shot since then and the Regulators blamed for it.
“I promised Alex I’d look in at the store,” Calvin said, “but I’ll stop by to see you again tomorrow, with your permission.”
Jules came into the parlor and seated himself on the piano stool. He began to play “Home Sweet Home” with both hands.
The song always reminded Tessa of her father’s death. She was fond of both Alex and Susie—they’d been wonderful to her and the boys despite their own troubles—but it wasn’t the same as when Papa was alive. Would she ever have her own home again?
Calvin touched her arm. “Tessa?”
“Oh. Yes, of course, do come by,” she said hastily.
When Calvin was gone, she stood beside Jules, watching his fingers on the keys. How determined he looked at the piano, earnest and frowning. Yet he loved to play. He was so different from Ezra. More like Papa, perhaps.
Calvin couldn’t seem to understand her worry over Ezra. She mustn’t be so upset because he wouldn’t ride in search of her brother. Just the same, she was disappointed in Calvin.
Mark would have gone.
No, she wasn’t going to think about Mark Halloran.
As if Jules had read her mind, he stopped playing and twirled the stool around to face her.
“Why doesn’t Mr. Halloran come here anymore?” Jules asked. “He plays the piano even better than Aunt Susie.”
Tessa sighed. How could she explain? Jules loved Alex, calling him uncle, and grouped the townspeople into good men, if they were on Alex’s side, and bad men if they weren’t. Was Mark really bad?
In her first anger and grief after she’d heard of John’s murder, Tessa had told herself Mark was no different from all the other terrible men who worked for Dolan.
But he certainly was no outlaw like Jesse Evans and his gang of cutthroats. Mark hadn’t been in the posse who’d gunned down John. She couldn’t imagine him joining such a posse.
If she asked him, would he find Ezra for her and bring him back to Lincoln?
Jules tugged at her hand. “Why, Tess? Doesn’t Mr. Halloran like us anymore?”
“I don’t know,” she told Jules.
“I wish he’d come back.”
After the way I behaved when he tried to talk to me back in March, she thought, Mark will never come back, even if the hostility between Dolan and Alex eases. Would it ever? There were more grievances daily. Calvin wouldn’t hear of her venturing away from the house without him.
The end of April there’d been some shootings in town, but since then things had been fairly quiet. Would it be safe for her to go out alone and look for Mark? He might not be in town, of course, but she’d never find him sitting here.
Ezra was more important than worrying about possible insults she might encounter on the streets of Lincoln.
Tessa changed into a calico gown, blue with a tiny yellow flower print. She’d made the dress from material salvaged from John’s store after Dolan’s men had finished looting it the day after they’d killed him. Now the building was back in Alex’s hands and guards were on duty day and night to be certain it remained his. Tessa tied on a Dolly Varden hat decorated with yellow silk roses. The hat had been brought from St. Louis by Susie as a present, and Tessa loved it. She’d never had such an elegant hat.
Rosalita assured her she’d keep an eye on Jules. “Senorita, you look muy bonita,” she said as Tessa went out the door.
The sun was decidedly warm, Tessa thought as she walked along the edge of the road, heading west toward Dolan’s store. She passed loungers in front of the saloons, but though the men eyed her, no one said anything, A wagon passed and dust rose in its wake to choke her. She hurried on.
As she neared Dolan’s store, her step slowed. She’d never been inside. “House of Murphy.” The sign said. Lawrence Murphy was no longer in Lincoln. Because of illness he’d moved to Santa Fe. Jim Dolan had been his partner, and still ran the store.
And tried to run Lincoln County as well.
A man stepped off the porch of the store and came toward her. She recognized George Peppin. He was no longer a deputy since Sheriff Copeland had been appointed to replace Brady.
Peppin stopped in front of her, forcing her either to halt or go around him. She decided to stop. “Good afternoon, Mr. Peppin,” she said. “Have you seen Mark Halloran?”
“McSween shouldn’t be sending you on his errands,” Peppin said. “My advice to you is to get home. Fast.”
As he spoke, several other men drifted up to them. One man with dark red hair crowded so close to Tessa that she edged away. She didn’t like the way the man’s eyes lingered on her breasts.
“Mr. McSween has nothing to do with my asking for Mark Halloran,” Tessa said.
“But McSween’s got plenty to do with you, I hear,” the redhead told her.
“Knock it off, Kilgore,” Peppin said. “Miss Nesbitt, go home.”
Kilgore paid no attention to Peppin. Grinning at Tessa, he said, “McSween was damn lucky to have a pretty little heifer like you to warm his bed all winter while Susie was in St.
Tessa was so shocked that she couldn’t speak. Alex? She and Alex?
“How dare you!” she managed to say finally.
Kilgore caught her arm. “Any time you get tired of playing second fiddle to Susie, there’s room in my bed.”
Tessa tried to jerk her arm from his grasp. Two other men standing nearby laughed.
“Think you can brand that McSween heifer, Hank?” one of them asked.
“Let me go!” Tessa cried, angry and a little frightened at the way the men surrounded her.
Kilgore’s fingers tightened, digging painfully into her arm. She stifled her gasp, knowing she mustn’t show fear. The men’s eyes, even Peppin’s, had a hot, glazed look that made her stomach knot. What would happen if they forced her inside the store?
Tessa swallowed. She had to do something quickly. She straightened her shoulders.
“Wait until Mark Halloran hears about this!” she exclaimed.
Puzzlement flickered across Kilgore’s face.
“Mark asked me to meet him here,” Tessa went on. “Is this how you treat a guest?” Peppin frowned at Kilgore. “What’s your business with Halloran?” he asked Tessa.
Color rose to her face. “I believe that’s between Mark and me.”
As Kilgore’s fingers eased, she jerked her arm away but made no other move. This was no time to try to run.
“Mark!” she called loudly. “Mark Halloran, here I am!”
A man stepped from the hotel across the street to stare. A head thrust from a second-story window. Four men appeared on the porch of the store.
“It happens Halloran ain’t in town,” Peppin said.
“Well!” Tessa put all the indignation she could manage into her voice. ““ “Then I’ll thank you to tell him I don’t appreciate being stood up.” “Won’t I do?” Kilgore asked.
Ignoring him, Tessa turned on her heel and, heart beating so hard she was afraid its thumping could be heard a yard away, pushed past the men hemming her in. She was brought up short by a Mexican in a black sombrero who swept off his hat and bowed.
“Miss Nesbitt. May I escort you to your home? It would be my pleasure,” he said, offering his arm.
She hesitated, heard Kilgore’s voice behind her and quickly placed her hand on the Mexican’s arm.
“Thank you,” she said.
As they moved away from the group of men, she heard them muttering and expected any moment to have Kilgore confront her again. Then she noticed, for the first time, that five other Mexicans stood next to the cantina beside Dolan’s store, all watching her.
* * *
“My friends,” the man escorting her murmured.” Do not be afraid. I am Vincente Gabaldon and I will see you reach your home safely.”
Her breath eased out in a sigh of relief. She glanced at Vincente Gabaldon, seeing him without a haze of fear. His dark hair was touched with silver at the temples, giving his dark handsomeness a distinguished flair.
“It’s kind of you to rescue me” she said. “Brave.”
He looked over his shoulder toward Dolan’s. “They do not follow,” he said. “Ladrones. Thieves. Muy mal. Very bad. It is not wise for the senorita to promenade alone. Such men as those do not know how to treat a lady. I only regret I did not see what was happening in time to save you embarrassment. It was not until you called out . . .”
Tessa, flushing, put a hand to her mouth and he paused. She’d truly made a spectacle of
herself for half of Lincoln to see.
“Are you a friend of Mr. McSween’s?” she asked Vincente.
“I am not his enemy, but I do not take sides in this disputa.”
She wondered how anyone could manage to avoid being drawn into it and looked at him curiously, only to find him regarding her with open admiration.
Inside her a small glow began. There was something about Vincente Gabaldon that intrigued her. His eyes were so dark, like jet, strangely fascinating eyes . . .
She turned her head away from him. What was the matter with her, staring at a stranger like this?
“I can only thank you again for coming when you did,” she said. “I assure you I won’t venture out alone again.”
“It has been my very great pleasure to be of assistance to the lovely Senorita Nesbitt.”
Tessa was glad to see they were approaching the McSween gate. She found his nearness unsettling.
“If I can ever be of service to you again, you have only to let me know.”
Thank you, Senor Gabaldon.” Tessa lifted her hand from his arm, went through the gate and hurried to the house, her mind and emotions in an uproar.
If only Ezra would come home.
She was more than ever afraid there’d soon be open war between Dolan’s men and Alex’s. A shooting war that would last until Dolan or Alex died.
And Ezra was there somewhere with the man she’d begun to think was the most reckless and dangerous of them all.
Billy the Kid.
Mark reined in the sorrel under the cottonwoods on the bank of the Rio Bonito opposite town. He sat in the darkness, listening. From somewhere upriver an owl hooted three times. Frogs, quieted by his coming, resumed their two-noted calling.
Across the river, muted by distance and the trees, he could hear men’s voices. He was a little downriver from Lincoln. Likely the voices came from the saloons.
Mark was almost certain no one had followed him, but he waited another few minutes before dismounting. He tied the sorrel to a sapling. He was leaving his horse a long way from where he meant to go, but it couldn’t be helped—this was the only decent cover in quite a stretch.
The night was cool, summer hadn’t set in completely, though it was already June. He’d deliberately waited for the dark of the moon.
That goddamned Peppin was sheriff now--he’d never liked George Peppin. When the bastard had told him about Tessa coming to Dolan’s store and being harassed by Kilgore, it was all Mark could do to hold his temper. He’d had some respect for Brady, but he had none at all for George Peppin. It made him wonder, not for the first time, if it wasn’t plain bullheadedness that kept him working for Dolan when he didn’t cotton to Dolan’s actions.
You might say Tunstall’s death had been cancelled by the bushwhacking of Brady and Hindman, but that didn’t excuse the way Dolan was harassing McSween. Mark stuck with managing Dolan’s ranch and didn’t get involved in any gunplay, but there was such a thing as guilt by association.
Neither side was lily-white when it came to that.
Why had Tessa come after him? If only he’d been in town that day. As it was, he didn’t get her message for over a week. And in that week, Copeland was ousted as Sheriff and Peppin put in.
There was no doubt at all that Peppin meant to get McSween by one means or another. The thought of him letting Kilgore put his hands on Tessa made Mark clench his fists. He forced himself to relax.