Authors: Jane Toombs
“It’s all right, love.” he murmured. “It’s all right.”
He forced himself to slow, then to cease moving altogether, although he was on fire with need. He stayed within her as he kissed her lips, her breasts, tasting the sweetness of her skin.
His tongue probed her mouth again and soon she was clinging to him, gasping. He began
to thrust again, very slowly. Tessa started to writhe underneath him, arching up against him, moaning, calling his name. Still he held back
Tessa moved wildly, pushing her hips against him, her fingers digging into his back. He matched her rhythm as pulses of pleasure throbbed through him.
Tess cried out, hugging him to her, The sound of her passionate release shot through him and he groaned, thrusting faster and faster, feeling her pulsating, and it flashed through his mind that it had never been like this before, never before. He was truly making love to Tessa, not only with his body, but with all of him.
A flash of yellow and red shot across his eyelids and he seemed to rocket sky high before exploding into a thousand shards of pleasure.
He dressed quickly, once again noticing the chill of the February afternoon creeping through the heat of the dying fire. Tessa was already clothed when he finished and stood before the fire, her back to him. Mark moved to her and turned her to face him. She met his eyes shyly.
“Tessa,” he said. “Tessa.” He wanted to tell her he loved her, but the words refused to leave his heart. What did he have to offer her? Marriage? To ask her to be Mrs. Halloran would be the worst kind of lie.
A horse snorted outside the adobe and Mark turned toward the door. “Looks like my horse is here,” he said.
Once he had her in front of him on the sorrel, heading for Lincoln and holding her close, Mark felt desire rise in him again. His arms tightened until she made a sound of protest and twisted to look into his face.
Damn it, he thought, I’ll have to tell her, even if she hates me afterward. I want things clear between us. He took a deep breath, trying to think how to start.
With what happened in St. Louis, of course, but where to begin?
With the Judge? Or with the sordid details of the triangle of hate and passion that had made him an outcast?
“Tessa,” he began, “I grew up in St. Louis…”
Before he could say another word, a rifle cracked to the south of them. Another gunshot echoed among the hills. Then a third.
Mark kicked the sorrel into a gallop. All he could think of was that he had to get Tessa back to Lincoln before anything happened to her. He was very much afraid that a shooting war had broken out between the two sides and that they may be caught in the crossfire.
Ezra’s urging kept the pinto galloping south. Tessa might never forgive him, but she was a woman and they didn’t understand men’s business. It’d be late afternoon by the time he reached Tunstall’s ranch on the Feliz. He’d taken the trail over the hills around San Patricio. The main road was better but longer.
This part of Lincoln County was pretty with its hills and pines and canyons. A lot nicer than where they’d been in Texas.
Papa had always talked of how close together everything was in England, where a man might ride clear across the entire country in a day and a night if he’d a mind to. Ezra couldn’t remember much at all about England or even crossing the Atlantic Ocean. His memory of his mother was only a faint recollection of someone holding and rocking him.
Tessa was one who’d mothered him. And Texas was the country he remembered. He hadn’t wanted to leave, but now he liked the New Mexico Territory.
“Best country in the world,” Billy had said and Ezra couldn’t help but agree.
Tunstall needed Billy and right now he could use Ezra. Not for chores, but because he was a pretty good shot and getting better all the time. Not that Tunstall wanted a shooting war.
“I won’t sacrifice the life of a single man to keep my cattle,” he’d insisted more than once since the trouble started.
Ezra scowled. It was a cinch Dolan didn’t feel the same.
“I know some of those boys Dolan hired to tote iron for him,” Billy had told Ezra the month before. “Jesse Evans would soon as kill a man as pass the time of day. And I heard that son-of-bitch Morton say he was sharpening his scalping knife. He don’t mean to use it on Mescaleros.”
“What do you aim to do about it, Billy?” Ezra asked.
Billy grinned. “Why I mean to turn you into a crack shot, Ez. Then the two of us’ll go for the bastards,”
Ezra’s jaw dropped and Billy laughed outright. After a moment Ezra grinned sheepishly. Billy liked to joke and it seemed like Ezra never could catch on when he was and when he wasn’t.
“You can count on me when you go after them” he told Billy. “Even if it does turn out there’s only the two of us.”
Billy had nodded. “Keep practicing, Ez. Don’t forget what I told you. You got to say to yourself, I’m pointing my finger, before you aim the Colt. Never fails to send the bullet true.”
Ezra slowed the pinto a little as he began to climb. The land over toward the Pecos was more like Texas with its grassy high plains and only a few cottonwoods and willows by the streams, maybe a tangle of salt cedar. Around Lincoln, though, there has got to be real mountains with snow on the peaks and pines covering the sides. He’d heard there was arid and desolate country to the west, but he hadn’t yet seen it.
This trail he rode to Tunstall’s was over Pajarito Mountain, not so high as some of the others, but not a hill either. Today he wished the going was easier and quicker.
Lincoln itself was a little town of several hundred people with the usual Mexican plaza in the center. Most every building was of adobe bricks. When you entered from the east, you came to the jail and the courthouse and the little San Juan church before you got to Tunstall’s store and the bank. Then came the McSween house.
If you came in from the west you passed Dolan’s store, still called the “House of Murphy,” and right across was the town’s largest hotel, Whortley’s.
Lincoln was built along the south bank of the Rio Bonita right where the canyon opened up. There were lots of cottonwoods scattered between the buildings. Right now they didn’t have any leaves, but Ezra thought it must be nice and shady in the hot summers.
He glanced back toward Lincoln. Tessa ought to be safe enough without him in the house. True, McSween didn’t carry a gun, but Shield did and he lived right there in the east wing. Besides, with two women and six children in the McSween house, Dolan wouldn’t have the nerve to start any trouble.
Or would he?
Ezra slowed the pinto. Maybe he ought to head back. He felt Tessa and Jules were his responsibility since papa died. If only Tessa and Tunstall would get married. Next to Billy, Ezra admired Tunstall most of any man in the Territory. Tessa liked him too, Ezra could tell. But she also seemed to like that smooth-talking Rutledge. And Halloran.
Billy said Halloran was okay, but Ezra didn’t think any man who worked for Dolan could be trusted.
You couldn’t even trust Sheriff Brady. When Dolan said jump, Brady only asked how high. Ezra sighed. He couldn’t take any chances. He’d better go back. As he started to wheel his horse, he saw a rider come into sight over the hill ahead of him. Ezra’s hand rested near his Colt as he reined in.
The rider drew closer and Ezra relaxed. The man was a Negro ex-cavalryman named George Washington who worked part-time for McSween as well as playing the fiddle when anyone had a dance. He seemed to be everyone’s friend. If you wanted to know what was going on just about anywhere in the county, Washington was the man to ask.
Ezra raised his hand, hailing the black man.
“Heard tell there’s a sheriff’s posse after Tunstall,” Washington told him as he drew up.
“Said they was gonna settle accounts once and forever.”
Ezra tensed. “How many men?”
“I was told about two dozen, give or take a couple. They started off this morning from Dolan’s. Bound to be trouble. ‘Specially since Brady ain’t even with them.”
“Does Tunstall know?”
Washington shook his head. “Don’t rightly think so, I’m heading in to let Mr. McSween know what’s going on.”
Ezra watched Washington trot on toward Lincoln, then turned to look down the road leading to Tunstall’s ranch. The news killed any plan to return home. He had to get to Tunstall, so he’d have to ride like hell to try to get to the ranch in time to warn him. He’d take the shortcut Billie once showed him.
As he turned off the trail and kicked the pinto into a gallop, excitement pounded through Ezra. Maybe there’d be shooting. He’d grab the chance to stand with Tunstall against Dolan’s men.
The snow on the high peaks to the west glistened in the sunlight, the pines on the lower slopes green against the white. A crisp, chill day, good for riding. Ezra slowed his horse to pull his Colt, spinning the chamber. All full. When the pistol was back in its holster, he yanked Papa’s old Winchester from the saddle scabbard and checked it. The rifle was loaded and ready.
Ezra Nesbitt was ready, too.
His fervor flagged as the day edged into afternoon. He’d finished the tortilla wrapped
around the beef and beans he’d gotten from Rosalita and he was still hungry. Damn it, he should have taken more food. The pinto was tiring, besides, and needed to be paced, slowing Ezra.
All of a sudden three turkeys flew up from under the horse’s hooves. The pinto shied violently to one side and stumbled. Ezra grabbed the saddle horn to stay mounted. He heard the turkeys scurrying into the underbrush of a canyon off to the right as he fought to steady the startled horse.
As the pinto quieted, Ezra swore. The horse limped. He dismounted to check the off foreleg. Nothing was broken, but when he remounted, the pinto continued to favor the leg and couldn’t be urged faster than a walk.
He’d lost any chance of reaching Tunstall’s before Dolan’s posse. He’d be lucky to get there before dark as this rough trail would be hard on a lame horse.
Ezra sighed. On the one hand, he ought to offer to stand with Tunstall against Dolan’s men—except now he’d probably get there after it was all settled.
On the other hand, Sheriff Brady was still in town and might be fixing to arrest McSween again This’d leave the women and children without any man between them and whatever Dolan planned to do next. Tessa had the other Colt, but she wasn’t much of a shot. Ezra slammed his fist into his palm. He shouldn’t have gone off and left Tessa and Jules like he’d done. Tunstall had a whole crew of men to help him, including Billy, the best shot in the Territory. Tessa didn’t have anyone. Oh, Rutledge, maybe, but Ezra didn’t think he’d be much help. A talker, not a doer. He’d been too damn hasty, that’s what.
“You’ve a good head on your shoulders, Ezra,” Papa used to say. “I’d be happier if you remembered to use it oftener.”
Ezra turned the pinto toward town. The horse’s head drooped as he limped over the rocky trail. Ezra’s shoulders slumped. Shadows lengthened, creeping out from the canyons to hint that the afternoon was growing old.
A rifle cracked. Both Ezra’s and the pinto’s heads came up. A fusillade of shots rattled from somewhere in the hills behind Ezra. He heard faint shouts, the rattle of hooves on stone.
Ezra quickly changed course, urging his horse into the brush of a canyon. He dismounted, led the pinto into a thicket where he was concealed from view, tied him to a sapling and grabbed the rifle. Darting out of the canyon and up the nearest hill, he dodged from boulder to boulder in case any horseman galloped into view.
Better off on foot than on a lame horse. Easier to hide.
Hide he must, until he saw who was doing the shooting and what they were shooting at.
Ezra eased in among a duster of boulders near the crest of the hill and carefully worked himself onto a ledge to’ peer down at a trail winding through a canyon.
Seven horsemen galloped toward a lone rider who was trotting along the trail toward Lincoln. Ezra heard the hooves of many more horses coming up behind the seven, but they weren’t in sight.
The seven horsemen slowed. Stopped. Motioned to the lone rider to come up to them. Ezra’s eyes widened as the three men nearest the rider threw up their rifles so the butts rested on their knees. The oncoming man made no attempt to pull a gun.
By God, the lone rider was John Tunstall!
Before Ezra had time to decide what to do, one of the armed men lifted his rifle to his shoulder and fired.
Tunstall jerked backward and pitched off his horse. Ezra was frozen in place, unable to believe what he saw.
“Through the heart,” he said under his breath. “Oh God.”
Another rider dismounted and ran forward to bend over Tunstall, yanking Tunstall’s pistol from its holster. He pointed the muzzle at Tunstall’s head. Fired. Jammed the Colt back in place. Took the rifle he had tucked under one arm and battered Tunstall’s head with the stock.
Twenty or more riders pounded up and milled around the dead man. Ezra, the sour taste of bile in his throat, watched as two of the riders threw Tunstall’s body over the back of his horse and one of them led the horse into the gloom of a pine grove. The other horsemen followed A single shot cracked.