Hearts in Defiance (Romance in the Rockies Book 2) (9 page)

 

 

Ten

 

 

One-Who-Cries shifted on his horse’s back and stared through the
pines at a group of settlers.
A young
girl, dark hair braided around the top of her head, stood beside the creek.
Unaware of the Indians watching her, she tossed a stick for a yellow mongrel into
the rushing water. The dog leaped excitedly into the foam like a bear cub
hunting a fish.

A rock’s throw beyond her, a white woman with loose hair the color
of the sun stirred a steaming pot. One-Who-Cries caught a whiff of rabbit stew
and his belly grumbled. Near her, an old couple rested against the wagon’s rear
wheel, empty tin plates in their hands. The old woman had her hair done up in
the same strange braid as the young girl, like a vine around her head. The old
man’s rifle leaned on the wagon bed beside him.

One-Who-Cries thought there should be one more among them. The
woman with yellow hair would have a husband. He scanned the camp, the woods
behind the wagon, and the boulders opposite them.

Nothing.

Troubled, he caressed the rifle lying across his lap. Perhaps her
man was dead. Perhaps she was alone, with only an old man for protection.

Like Two Moons had been.

The memory of his mother’s mutilated body smoldered in his heart.
Recalling her death made the killing easy.

Beside him, Black Elk tightened his legs around his horse and
silently slid an arrow into his bow. Four other braves sat astride their
horses, side by side with him and One-Who-Cries, watching and waiting.

The sun inched lower and lower behind them, lengthening their
shadows as they waited. Restless, the mare beneath One-Who-Cries took a
cautious step forward. He agreed. The time had come. With a whoop and a scream,
he raised his rifle and kicked his horse. The Indians exploded from the woods
like rampaging grizzlies. The young girl saw them first and screamed. The dog
turned and barked a warning. Black Elk pulled and released his arrow in one
silent, fluid move. The animal disappeared beneath the white foam without even
so much as a yelp.

One-Who-Cries thundered past the girl, shot the old man as he
reached for his rifle, and swung down from the saddle. Like an angry god come
down to earth, he struck the old woman with the butt of his rifle before she
could rise to her feet. He fed on the sound of shattering bone. She slumped on her
husband, dead. The woman with yellow hair raised her spoon over her head and
held it like a knife. Her terror-filled gaze leaped back and forth between the
brave storming toward her and the one headed for the girl. She chose her target
and hurled the spoon at One-Who-Cries’ chest. “Get away from us!”

One-Who-Cries did not slow his charge as Black Elk raced over to
the young girl at the creek and snatched her up into his saddle. She squealed
in terror and commenced writhing like an angry snake. “Eva, help me!”

Eva tried to dodge One-Who-Cries and run toward Black Elk. “Let
her go!” She raised her fist at him. “Let my sister go, you savage!” But
One-Who-Cries caught her and spun her around. The fury in her eyes turned to
the fear of a rabbit staring into the fangs of a mountain lion.

Behind him, the young girl screamed again, the shrill sound
grating on his nerves. A sharp, resounding
smack
ended the screech.
Black
Elk
. Smiling, One-Who-Cries dug his fingers into Eva’s arms and pulled her
closer. “You call us savages. You have no idea …”

Or perhaps she did. Eva jerked and pulled wildly and tried to
wriggle free from his grasp. Impatient with her squirming, One-Who-Cries cuffed
the woman across the face, the crisp sound rising over the water. “Be still and
we will not hurt you.”

Eva seemed not to hear or feel the pain. Acting like a wild animal
with the scent of fire in its nostrils, she kicked and clawed and growled
desperately. She thought to rake her nails down One-Who-Cries’ face, but he
grabbed her wrists. Twisting and writhing, she brought her knee up hard. A
blinding pain blossomed like a fire in One-Who-Cries’ loins. Flinching, he
loosened his grip just enough to give Eva a brief opening. She wrenched free
and sprinted away from him.

Beside them, the other braves had leaped into the wagon and were
flinging blankets, trunks, bags of flour, and any loose items, out the back.
They paused in their raiding to laugh at the blow the white woman had struck
One-Who-Cries. Only Black Elk did not laugh.

One-Who-Cries straightened up. Black fury crashed over him like a
rushing waterfall. It roared in his ears, sucked the air from his lungs. With
that move, the woman had sung her death song, no matter how many rifles she was
worth.

She sprinted toward a large boulder, her drab brown skirt
billowing around her. “Jed! Jed! Help us!” One-Who-Cries was on her, bellowing
with rage. He tackled the woman and the two of them tumbled to the ground and
rolled behind a boulder. He raised a fist and brought it down with every ounce
of hate his body held coiled in his lean muscles. Her screams changed, from
anger and fear to the panicked screeching of a dying bird in an eagle’s claws.
He thought his head would come apart. Her shrieking felt like knives stabbing
his brain and made his forehead throb. Scrambling to stop the noise, he grasped
a rock and swung it hard into the side of her head again and again. Her skull
shattered. Blood and brains splattered across the orange pine needles beneath
them.

Winded, the burn of his hate fading, One-Who-Cries climbed to his
feet and staggered out from behind the rock. He pushed long tendrils of black
hair and feathers out of his face and met Black Elk’s unexpected glare. The
brave had draped the younger girl over his saddle like a dead deer. His stare
said One-Who-Cries should have done the same thing with the yellow-haired girl.

But One-Who-Cries would not be scolded like a child and he raised
his chin. Black Elk understood this and decided not to fight. Instead, he slid
out of the saddle, snatched a tin plate from the dead white man and heaped stew
onto it. One-Who-Cries could not eat, not while the anger still raged within
him.

The braves ransacking the wagon returned to their task with
excited whoops and yelps. One of them dumped a jar of peaches down his throat
then tossed the empty glass aside. He grabbed a burning stick from the fire and
threw it inside the wagon. The canvas caught quickly and smoke billowed toward
the circle of blue sky above them. Two other braves, still digging through a
box of dried goods, shouted curses at him and dragged their treasure out of
range of the heat.

One-Who-Cries let the smoke lift his anger. He watched the ashes
float away and wished he could be that free. Thinking more clearly, he could
see what the girl’s resistance had cost. She had been worth three rifles
because she had yellow hair. She was worth nothing dead. If only she hadn’t
fought. He shook his head, refusing to think about the loss.

As Black Elk wolfed downed the serving of stew, movement in the
bushes brought One-Who-Cries’ mind back down to the earth. The missing white
man staggered into the open. Black Elk dropped his plate and pulled his bow
from his shoulder. The white man raised his Colt, but with an arm that shook
like an old woman’s. Black Elk swiftly loaded the arrow and drew back on the
string. Before he could release it, One-Who-Cries lobbed the bloodied rock in
his hand at the settler’s arm. The gun flew loose from his fingers. Swaying,
the man turned his empty palm up as if wondering how his weapon had
disappeared.

Instinctively, One-Who-Cries took a step back. Something was
wrong. The man’s skin was almost yellow, a dull light filled his eyes, and his
face sagged strangely. His confused gaze drifted over to the water and he took
a few unsteady steps toward the creek.

Sickness.

Black Elk fired multiple arrows, as did two other braves. The
white man managed two more steps then fell into the water, his body pinned like
a porcupine.

One-Who-Cries walked up beside Black Elk, folded his arms across
his chest and studied the dead white man. When he didn’t speak, Black Elk did.
“He was sick.” He jerked his chin toward the girl draped over his saddle. “She
might be, too. We should kill her and move on.”

One-Who-Cries dropped his hands on his hips and stared down at his
moccasins. “We promised Sanchez two women,” he said more to himself than Black
Elk.
The white woman should not have fought. And now we are too near the
meeting place to turn back.
He wanted to bash her head in again.

There was one other place they could get women quickly.
One-Who-Cries pondered Black Elk, the big brave towering over him like a
hulking shadow, and an idea came to him. Black Elk had been to Defiance. And
now he would go back.

~~~

 

 

Eleven

 

 

Wrapped in an old, tattered quilt, Naomi sat down on a log by the
river, her favorite place to pray.
The
radiance from a brilliant full moon washed the last hour before sunrise in
shades of silver and gray. Above the pewter mountains, diamonds shimmered and
blinked in the sky. As always, this view filled up her soul. If she couldn’t
sleep, at least she could marvel at God’s handiwork.

How many times had she retreated to this spot over the last year?
Initially she had come to fuss and fume. The ache of John’s absence and her
anger over God’s
betrayal
had consumed her. Slowly, though, her loving
Father had healed her and she had come to accept Defiance as a town in need of
witnesses. Even more slowly, she had accepted her feelings for Charles.

“Why is Matthew here now, Lord?” she wondered aloud. “He makes my
life with John so fresh and the grief so raw.” She swallowed, surprised by the
tightness in her throat. “I thought I’d laid him to rest.”

Overwhelmed with emotions she couldn’t make heads or tails of, she
sagged on the log and watched the moon beams dance on the rippling water. She
shouldn’t be confused. John was dead. Matthew was John’s twin on the surface
only. Charles had turned out to be a good man who loved her enough to take a
bullet for her and her family. Yet, she was struggling—

“Couldn’t sleep? May I be so bold as to assume that’s because you
were thinking of me?”

His tease, wrapped in a silky, Southern drawl released a torrent
of butterflies in her. He stood near the water’s edge with his frockcoat pulled
back on one side, his hand resting on the holstered .44. The other hand hung at
his side and his fingers fidgeted, playing piano on his leg. He started toward
her, hesitated, then ambled over and sat down. Lacing his fingers, he rested
his elbows on his knees and stared out over the glimmering water. Naomi stared
at him, taken aback by the uncertainty she sensed in him.

“Were you? Thinking about me?”

“Yes.” She bit her lip, feeling guilty, even unfaithful somehow,
that she hadn’t been thinking about him
only
. Several seconds passed and
he continued to stare at the water. Hugging herself against the chill, she
waited, giving him time to find his words.

“It must be unimaginably difficult to see the ghost, so to speak,
of John.” He tapped his fingertips against one another. “And confusing.”

“The grief feels fresh all over again.” A muscle ticked in his
cheek, as if he’d guessed that already and the thought wasn’t welcome. She knew
she needed to say something reassuring, for both their sakes. “Time. I just
need time to deal with it.”

“Is it just me, or is he the
spitting
image of John?”

“They are identical …
were
identical, in looks. That’s
where the similarities end. Matthew was quite a handful. He was always in
trouble and John was forever getting him out of it.”

Charles sighed, a sad sound that surprised her. She’d never seen
him this unsure. He turned abruptly and straddled the log, moving closer to
her. Pushing his hat back, he searched Naomi’s face, his own gaze determined in
the steely light of dawn. “I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if I should
be worried or not. I told myself I wasn’t, yet here I am at five o’clock in the
morning hoping you’d be out here.”

“You’re worried about us?”

His taciturn expression hid his answer.

Drowning in confusion, she turned her head. “I won’t lie. It’s
hard. He even almost smells like him.”
Stupid!
She flinched at her
insensitive words. He had come here to find assurance. She faced him and tried
to feign a confidence she didn’t actually possess. “I’m sure, after the shock
wears off, I’ll be fine.” Charles pursed his lips as he mulled that over. Slowly,
he reached out and touched her cheek. Naomi closed her eyes and tilted her face
into his palm. “I’m sorry, Charles, I don’t know why I’m being so …”

“Female.” He said it as if he was resigned to the curse and
dropped her hand.

Her eyes flew open and her hackles rose. “Well, pardon me for
being a bit stunned by Matthew’s arrival. You said it yourself. He’s the
spitting image of John. I think I’m entitled to be a little muddled. What I’m
not
is some weak-willed, water-kneed child around him just because of the
resemblance. I’ll have you know—”

Charles captured her cheeks with both his hands and kissed her
with a vengeance. Furious, she pushed against him, but her resistance burned
away as fast as summer grass hit by lightning. Eagerly, she slid into his arms
and lost herself to the hunger of his lips and the tickle of his beard. A heady
desire swept over her, but a breathless peace accompanied it, because she was
meant for his embrace. He tightened his hold and kissed her ravenously, till
she felt lightheaded. She floated on dreams of him, wishing she never had to
wake up, never had to let him go.

And just as suddenly as he’d grabbed her, he released her, rose to
his feet and took a step back. She would have been embarrassed at her reaction
to him, except for the satisfied smirk on his lips. “If the matter of your
affection takes a different direction, princess, I would appreciate being
apprised of the change.”

Infuriated by his arrogance, she also found it comforting. Trying
to slow her galloping heart and hold a stern expression, she stood as well,
albeit on wobbly legs. “Garnered quite a bit of information out of one kiss,
did you, Mr. McIntyre?”

Nonchalantly, he pulled a cheroot out of his breast pocket and
raised it to his lips, where the smirk still resided. “Why, yes, I believe I
did, Mrs. Miller.” He reached inside his coat for a match and lit it with a
flick of his thumbnail. Puffing on the cheroot, he explained, “You are a woman
of few words, Naomi. Your actions have always betrayed your heart. If you ever
kiss another man like that, I hope I’m lying dead somewhere.”

She smiled at the way he could take the bluntest statements and
make them sound like romantic poetry. She stepped up to him and laced her
fingers through his. “I’m not sleepy.” Indeed, left to think about that kiss
she might not sleep for days. She wondered if he knew how his touch melted her.
“Would you mind escorting me on a walk?”

Perhaps remembering the Southern gentleman he was raised to be, he
immediately offered her his arm. A mischievous smile lifted the corner of his
mouth. “A walk? Yes, I suppose that will have to do for now.”

Minutes later, they strolled down the quiet main street of
Defiance. In the east, behind the jagged mountains, the sky had started its
march past blue dawn to the reds and yellows of sunrise. Naomi clung to
Charles’ arm. Still reeling from the heat of that kiss, holding him dampened
her memories of John. She wanted to remember him, of course, but not feel as if
she could reach out and touch his cheek or hold his hand. That was too
disorienting.

Oh, why did Matthew have to come to Defiance now?

“How did your family reunion go, by the way?”

“Fine, I suppose.” She frowned, wondering why she felt the need to
lie. “No. Not fine at all. He thought he was coming to rescue us, to take us
back with him to California. He said he has a house for us with a maid.” She
hugged his arm tighter, concentrating on the feel of taut muscle beneath her
fingers. “I feel so badly. I wrote him a second letter. I told him we were fine.
He said he never got it.”

“A house and a maid?” She thought Charles sounded less than
pleased with that bit of news. He puffed on the slender cigar, pondering
things, the soft thud of their shoes the only sound in the early light. “It
sounds like he has a vested interest in this trip. Did you tell him about us?”

Naomi’s step faltered slightly. “No. Not really.” Aware that her
answer sounded evasive, she pulled away and locked her hands behind her back.
“Our conversation didn’t really go that well. It was rather heated. For one
thing, he knows who you are and heartily disapproves of you.”

“A Miller who thinks I’m a scoundrel? How novel.”

Naomi chuckled. “Yes, but maybe he’ll come around like I did.”
Although, after the things he’d said last night, she figured the odds were
pretty steep.

“Just how does he know about me?” His eyes narrowed. “Personal
experience?”

“He said not.” What he did say proved Charles’ point about his
scandalous reputation and her mood sank a bit. “He said everyone knows you.”

Charles didn’t react to that, not that she could tell. Instead, he
puffed on his cheroot.

Naomi couldn’t help but wonder about life inside a brothel. What
did it mean Charles was the best judge of female companionship,
exactly
?
The implications disturbed her, but she couldn’t ask him. Based on his
confession a few weeks back, Naomi had the impression he didn’t really want to
talk about his past. Truth be told, neither did she.

It would only remind her what a good, godly man John had been. She
didn’t want to see his mirror image, so tempting and real, staring back at her,
recalling in perfect detail the one man she’d been with, the one man who had
loved and honored her, been her best friend from the time they were children.

Old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.

The Scripture brought her comfort. The past was in the past. It
had to stay there. “I will tell him about us, Charles. I just haven’t had the
right moment.”

~~~

 

 

It grieved McIntyre to watch Naomi wrestle with things, things he might
not want to know about. He’d almost popped the question when he’d found her
down by the stream this morning, but something had held him back. The ring was
burning a hole in his pocket, but Matthew’s presence and Naomi’s confusion over
a ghost troubled him. McIntyre could understand it. He didn’t necessarily have
to feel that Naomi would choose him over John if the man was still alive, but
he needed to be sure she had let go. He had every reason to believe she had.
Didn’t he?

He supposed the doubts came from the way
Matthew
had looked
at Naomi.

Lost in the thought as he was, he didn’t see Henry Thatcher in
time, though he should have smelled the stench of whiskey. The man staggered
around the corner and bumped into Naomi. Owl-eyed and swaying on his feet, he
stepped back, but as he did, he laid one eager hand on her shoulder and gave
her an appreciative once-over. A lecherous grin revealed his lack of teeth and
obvious thoughts. McIntyre moved to intervene, but Naomi’s temper ignited like
a firecracker before he could speak.

“Get your hands off me!” She shoved the scrawny, stringy-haired
Thatcher away from her. “Honestly, the men in this town.”

Swaying on his feet, Thatcher’s expression darkened. “Now, easy,
love,” he slurred, the liquor thickening his Cockney speech. “No need to be so
unfriendly.” His hand flopped back to Naomi’s shoulder as his gaze roamed over
her again.

Not sure if he was angrier with the men in Defiance or Naomi,
McIntyre quickly inserted himself between her and Thatcher. Moving his fiery
princess out of the way, he shoved Thatcher up against the wall of the drug
store.

Thatcher’s eyes rounded comically with surprise followed
immediately by stark fear. “McIntyre?”

“Why, Henry Thatcher. One of the snakes come crawling back to
Defiance.” Thatcher was a cohort of Tom Hawthorn, the man who had nearly beaten
Mollie to death last November. “And where is your partner in crime? Certainly
not back in Defiance as well?”

His fear shined brighter. “I-I ain’t seen the bloke in months.”

Probably true.

Now what to do about his disrespecting Naomi? McIntyre chewed on
his lip, forcing down the anger that made him want to shove his burning cheroot
into Thatcher’s eye. Such methods of justice seemed at odds with his faith.
This gutless scoundrel standing before them, however, didn’t know anything
about that.

McIntyre leaned in and lowered his voice. “You’re lucky I’m on my
way somewhere, Thatcher.” The man gulped, understanding the message. “Remove
your hat and apologize to this lady for your unacceptable manners.”

Thatcher licked his lips and snatched the dirty kepi off his head.
It irritated McIntyre that the Cockney dog was even wearing the Confederate
cap, but he stepped aside so Thatcher could offer the apology. “I am sorry. I
thought she was one a your—” he bit that off and turned his attention to Naomi.
“I am sorry, madam, for my unacceptable be’avior. I hope you’ll be forgivin’
me.”

He didn’t wait for her response. He smashed the cap on his head
and hurried clumsily down the boardwalk. McIntyre and Naomi watched him stagger
off to his tent—or rock. McIntyre shook his head. Thatcher was a small-time
crook, but he’d been known to man-handle women. If Naomi had been alone ….

He put his hand on her back and sighed as they resumed their walk.
With a great effort, he controlled the frustration in his voice. “Naomi, would
it be within the realm of possibility that occasionally you could meet a
confrontation without throwing kerosene on it?”

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