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Authors: Jane Toombs

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BOOK: The Outlaws
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Susie was young and attractive with curly red hair. Her nose might be considered a trifle large for true beauty, but her sparkle and vivaciousness made her irresistible.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to talk to an educated woman,” Susie enthused. “It’s true I have Elizabeth, but she’s so busy with the children. There are so few women in the Territory, and almost none of them have had schooling.”

Her lawyer husband, Alex, was somewhat older than she, with dark hair and a drooping black mustache. He was as friendly as Susie. Their expensively furnished house seemed like a dream come true. There was even a piano. Tessa hadn’t seen one since she’d left England.

The McSween’s were at the graveside, standing next to John Tunstall. Susie had introduced Tessa to the other men who made up the little group, but she couldn’t remember who they all were—a Southerner named Calvin Rutledge and several men who worked for John. Bill Bonney was the only one she knew.

Clouds slid over the sun and Tessa shivered. She hoped the howling, bone-freezing blue northeaster that swept down from the Arctic to Texas didn’t do the same here in New Mexico.

The day was nothing like the hot and dusty afternoon seven-and-a-half years ago when they buried her mother. She’d scarcely cried then, worried about the tiny baby boy temporarily left in the care of the minister’s wife. Tessa, twelve, would now be responsible for her baby brother and she was terrified.

She took a deep breath, wiped Jules’ face with her handkerchief and stood, holding him against her side. Somehow she’d managed to raise Jules, but now, with Papa gone, she was responsible for both boys. At least they had temporary shelter, thanks to the McSween’s. When she could think straight, she’d find a way to manage again.

Beside her Ezra shook with sobs. Her own eyes were dry, her crying done. Last night, after she’d climbed into the almost forgotten luxury of a featherbed, she’d heard Susie at the piano playing, “Home Sweet Home,” and she’d wept for her father and the loss of all that had meant home to her.

“Dolan’s man,” someone whispered behind her.

Tessa looked up and her breath caught. Mark Halloran walked toward her. I knew he’d come, she told herself. He stopped near the minister and looked across the grave, his compassionate gaze warming her.

She liked and trusted John, but the sight of Mark triggered a quite different emotion. Tingling all over, Tessa lowered her eyes. She’d never felt like this before and it frightened her.

 

Mark wished he could take John Tunstall’s place beside Tessa. She looked so pale and fragile in her black coat that he longed to put his arm about her, to comfort her.

The minister concluded the prayer and walked around the grave to Tessa and her brothers. Mark hesitated, then finally followed him, ignoring the mutters of Tunstall’s men. He wasn’t looking for trouble, but, damn it, nobody was going to stop him from attending a funeral if he chose.

Mark caught Billy’s eye and they nodded to each other, Billy smiling. His companions glowered, especially a tall man in a black frockcoat and black silk cravat. His trim goatee and mustache made him look like an affluent river-boat gambler. He was new to town and Mark didn’t know him.

Mark passed the men and stopped beside the minister, where he waited for him to finish consoling Tessa.

“Mr. Halloran.”

Mark turned to face John Tunstall.

“Mr. Halloran,” Tunstall said once again. “I didn’t have a chance yesterday to tell you I think you’re a hell of a brave man, rescuing the Nesbitt’s from those Apaches.”

Mark smiled wryly. “A brave man rode beside me. That always helps.”

“Billy Bonney. Yes, Billy’s a good hand. Loyal.” Tunstall smiled. “As a matter of fact, I could use another like him”‘

“I have a job,” Mark said.

Tunstall nodded. “Keep my offer in mind.’’

“Oh, John, is this the man who saved poor Tessa?” Susie McSween advanced on them, holding out her hand to Mark.

Tunstall introduced Mark and Susie clasped Mark’s hand between both of hers, holding it tightly. Looking over her black bonnet, Mark saw the minister move on. Tessa glanced toward him.

Mark tried to withdraw his hand, but Susie held him and continued chattering away.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be talking to a member of the opposition,” she said with a roguish toss of her head.

“I’m not in opposition to you, ma’am,” Mark replied, finally able to ease his hand from hers.

“But you work for that awful Mr. Dolan!” Susie cried.

Alex McSween was talking to Tessa now. The tall man in the black frockcoat had left the other men and was striding toward Mark with an angry frown.

Mark tensed. Except for McSween, who was well known to be a Bible-thumper who never toted iron, every man here was armed.

“I’m sure I don’t know why anyone would want to be associated in any way with Mr. Dolan,” Susie went on. “Do you know he’s been accusing poor Alex of simply unspeakable--?”

“Excuse me, ma’am,” Mark interrupted. “I’d like to pay my respects to Miss Nesbitt before I head back to camp.”

Mark took three steps toward Tessa when the goateed man cut across his path and blocked it. When Mark attempted to veer around him, the man shifted to intercept him.

“You’re not welcome here,” he drawled. “I suggest you leave. Now.”

“Get out of my way,” Mark growled. Who the hell did this Southern bastard think he was, ordering him around?

“You heard what I said.” The Southerner didn’t move. “I’m not telling you again. Get out of my way!”

The Southerner sneered.

Mark walked straight at him. The Southerner grabbed at his shirt-front. Mark seized his arm and crouched. With a quick twist he flipped the man into a somersault. He thudded onto his back on the ground .

Would the bastard draw? Instead, the Southerner’s hand slid along the side of his boot.

“What have you done to Mr. Rutledge?”

Mark spun around at the sound of Tessa’s voice. She walked past him to offer a helping hand to Rutledge.

“Are you all right?” she asked Rutledge as he scrambled to his feet.

Mark caught a glimpse of a boot with a specially designed pocket made, he knew, for either knives or derringers. Sneaky bastard.

Rutledge nodded to Tessa. “Don’t worry your pretty little head over me, Miss Nesbitt. I’m fine.” He dusted off his coat.

She turned to Mark. “I’m surprised, Mr. Halloran.” The hurt in her gray-blue eyes fueled his anger at the Rutledge, who’d managed to put Mark in the wrong.

“I’m sorry,” he said to Tessa. How could he explain why he’d become involved in a fight at her father’s funeral?

“You ought to apologize to Mr. Rutledge, not to me.”

“No.”‘

Her eyes widened.

Before Mark could explain, Alex McSween and Tunstall hurried up to flank Tessa.

Rutledge shrugged. “I’m afraid the gentleman misunderstood me and took offense.

Dolan’s hands aren’t noted for courtesy.”

Mark clenched his fists.

McSween raised his hands, palms up. “Now, lads, if we all obeyed the law of God rather than the law of the jungle, life on earth would be a prelude to heaven instead of a preview of hell.

Don’t you agree, Mr. Halloran?”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Mark said as evenly as he could.

“If I could persuade every man in Lincoln County to do as I do,” McSween went on, “to put aside their weapons and not bear arms, we’d soon have no need for Sheriff Brady. Nor for the hangman either.”

“I’m afraid that would take some tall persuading, Mr. McSween,” Mark said. “Most men in the Territory are pretty attached to their Colts. But I do regret upsetting Miss Nesbitt.”

Tunstall offered Tessa his arm. Without another look at Mark, she took it, giving Tunstall a little smile. Mark gritted his teeth. A glance at Rutledge gave him the dubious satisfaction of knowing the Southerner didn’t like to see Tessa walking off with Tunstall any better than Mark did.

I can’t let her leave this way, he told himself.

“Miss Nesbitt!” he called. Tessa looked back at him.

“I’ll come by and see you in a week or so,” he said. “If you don’t mind.”

“If you like,” she said coolly, turning away and continuing on with Tunstall and McSween.

“I suggest you keep away from the young lady,” Rutledge said softly.

“You can go to hell,” Mark told him.

“You’ve been warned,” Rutledge said.

The two men eyed one another.

Mark wanted to walk away, but he didn’t trust the Southerner enough to turn his back on him.

“There you are, Calvin,” Susie McSween called. She waved.

Without another word, Rutledge stalked off to join Susie. As Mark watched her take his arm and smile flirtatiously up into his face, he thought fleetingly that McSween seemed oblivious to his wife’s coquettishness. Maybe not being jealous went along with his peace-on-earth preaching.

Not that Mark wouldn’t like to see Lincoln County a tad more peaceable. But the way he saw it, laying aside weapons would just get the decent men shot first.

 

* * *

 

Two weeks before Christmas, Mark rode into town from Dolan’s ranch. A Yule tree stood in the center of the plaza, a pinon pine from the hills. Red ribbons tied to its branches fluttered in the wind and reminded him of festive St. Louis Christmases of years past.

The Judge wouldn’t have allowed a skinny pinon pine inside—and now probably not me either, Mark thought ruefully. That wasn’t today’s problem. What troubled him was whether McSween would let him in his house so that Mark could see Tessa.

When he reached the U-shaped McSween adobe, Mark tied his sorrel to the post and squared his shoulders before walking up die steps to thump the iron knocker against the front door.

He waited for someone to answer the door. He knocked again. At last it opened. Little Jules peered up at him.

“Hello, Jules,” Mark said. “Is your sister at home?”

The boy nodded. Behind him Mark saw the brown face of McSween’s cook. “Quien es?” the woman
asked.

“Mark
Halloran. To see Senorita Nesbitt.”

“Entrez, Senor.” She pointed to the left and hurried away.

Mark closed the door behind him and stepped around Jules, who tagged after him into the parlor.

Mark perched uneasily on the leather seat of a wooden chair while Jules sat on the piano stool and stared at him. Trying to think of something to say to the boy, Mark came up with “where’s your big brother?”

“He went off to Mr. Tunstall’s with Billy.” Jules’ lower lip pushed out. “Ezra never takes me. Says I’m too little. I’m not!” He swiveled on the piano stool until his back was to Mark. He hit middle C on the keyboard.

“Can you play the piano?” Mark asked.

In answer Jules ran the fingers of his right hand up and down the scale.

“Very good.”

Jules spoke with his back to Mark. “Mr. McSween’s teaching me. But Ezra says I need to learn how to shoot and that men don’t play the piano.”

Mark got up and walked to the piano, spinning the stool so Jules faced him. “Every man needs to know how to shoot. That doesn’t mean a man can’t also play the piano. I’m sure Mr. McSween knows how to shoot and he plays the piano, doesn’t he? “

Jules gave a reluctant nod. “But Ezra says boys who play the piano are sissies. That only girls play.”

“Do I look like a girl?” Jules shook his head.

“Well, I took piano lessons when I was a boy and I can play.”

Jules slid off the stool. “Show me.”

Mark glanced over his shoulder. Damn. Now he’d done it. Reluctantly, he sat on the stool and poised his hands over the keys. He didn’t want to play. Not only because he was at the McSween’s piano without their permission, but because he didn’t want to be reminded of the past. He saw Jules’ mouth tighten, saw doubt gather in his eyes, eyes grayer than Tessa’s, but black-lashed the same as hers. Behind Jules he noticed a fat red candle flickering in a silver holder on the mantel.

It was the Christmas season.

Mark brought his fingers down on the keys for the first chorus of “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen.” As he played he was aware of Jules getting closer until finally the boy leaned against him. When the last notes died away, the boy straightened.

“I know that song.” he said. “Papa used to sing it at Christmas. Will you teach me to play it?”

Mark nodded and offered the stool to the boy. Soon Jules was picking out the melody with one hand.

“You’ve got a good ear for music,” Mark told him.

“I heard you playing.” Tessa’s voice came from behind them.

Mark whirled around. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you come in. I hope my playing won’t upset Mrs. McSween.”

Tessa smiled. “If I know Jules, he wheedled you into it.”

His heart leaped at her smile. She looked especially lovely in a high-necked cream-colored wool dress with a hint of bustle. He was about to tell her so when Susie swept into the room. She wore a gown of bright green, pointing up the red of her hair. It had an elaborate train over the bustle and the neckline dipped to show the tops of her breasts--a stunning woman.

BOOK: The Outlaws
3.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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