Authors: Tatiana March
THE RUSTLER’S BRIDE
Copyright 2014 by Tatiana March
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the permission of the author except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used in a fictitious manner to create a sense of authenticity. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Victoria Sinclair hated hangings.
On her left, Judge Halloran sat like an angel of death in his buggy, dressed in unremitting black, a box of statute books and court ledgers stacked by his feet. Beside him, Sheriff Weston leaned his bulky frame down in the saddle, talking to a small man who had dismounted and was clutching a prayer book in his hands.
All good and legal, with the sheriff present, and the preacher, and two witnesses. Just the way they liked their hangings in Mariposa County. Too bad her father had been delayed in town and she was obliged to take his place as one of the witnesses.
“They’re coming.” Sheriff Weston nudged his dun gelding forward, into the shade of the hanging oak that spread its leafy canopy above them. He inspected the noose attached to a sturdy tree limb. When he released the rope, it swung in the August heat, as if dancing in anticipation of its victim.
Victoria lifted one gloved hand to shield her eyes against the glare of the sun and surveyed the horizon. The wind ruffled the hem of her riding skirt, sending her palomino mare into a skittish sidestep. She calmed Buttercup with a light tug on the reins. Another drawback of two years exiled to a Boston finishing school—her horse was no longer used to a rider in female clothing. Tomorrow, she’d go back to her childhood habit of wearing Levi Strauss’s canvas overalls, and to the devil with the money her father had spent trying to make a lady out of her.
In the distance, she could see three riders approaching at a slow walk. They advanced across the desert plateau with the somber air of a funeral procession. Victoria recognized the deputy riding on the left—an old enemy of hers, Mick O’Malley. Nearing thirty now, he was the same carrot-haired, freckle-skinned bully he’d always been. The deputy on the other side was unfamiliar to her—an older man, clean shaven, with a beaked nose and gray sideburns that looked like tufts of rabbit fur stuck to his skin.
Between the deputies rode the condemned outlaw. Tall and lean, he sat straight in the saddle. Thick locks of hair, as golden as newly minted coins, spilled out beneath the brim of his black Stetson. Victoria tensed. Her eyes narrowed on him.
She’d only seen hair that color on a man once before.
Five years ago, when she was fifteen.
Her pulse quickened as she studied the rustler. In his late twenties, he wore faded denim pants and a tan leather coat that had almost worn through at the elbows. Underneath the tattered clothing, his body seemed strong and agile, corded with muscle. His hands were tied together in front of him with a piece of hemp rope.
When the distance between them shrank, Victoria got a better look at his features. She sucked in a horrified breath. He’d been beaten. One eye was swollen shut. Dark bruises mottled his cheekbones. A bleeding cut made a crimson slash across his chin. His lips were scraped raw, his face battered almost beyond recognition.
And yet, something about him seemed familiar. Could it be?
Could it be?
Her fingers tightened on the reins as a bolt of alarm shot through her. Could it be
? Dear God, she couldn’t recognize his features. Couldn’t be certain. Not with the passing of years, and his face a battleground between his defiance and someone else’s fist.
Side by side, the three riders came to a halt beneath the hanging oak. The blond outlaw was lined up on his horse beneath the noose. He raked his good eye over everyone around him, and finally settled his gaze upon her. He showed no fear. If anything, he gave the impression of being bored with the occasion of his death.
“Do you have any last wish?” Sheriff Weston asked in his booming voice.
The outlaw adjusted his weight in the saddle, his bound hands cupping the horn. “Her.” He jerked his blood-smeared chin in her direction. “I’ve got a blue silk ribbon in my pocket. I want the lady to let all that glossy dark hair down and braid it with the ribbon. Then I’d like her to stand there.” He raised his tied hands to indicate a sunlit spot in front of him. “I want the face of a pretty woman be the last thing I see before I die.”
The sheriff burst into speech. “Miss Sinclair, you don’t have to—”
Victoria silenced him with a gesture. “May I search his pockets?”
Mick O’Malley scoffed with disdain. “Search the pockets of a condemned outlaw and let him take you hostage?” He rolled his beady eyes. “Come now, Victoria, did they pickle your brain in that fancy school in Boston you went to?” He twisted in the saddle and spat on the ground over his shoulder, then leaned across and plundered the pockets of the rustler’s short leather coat. Extracting a ribbon of blue silk, he waved it in the air.
“It’s dirty,” he said with a sneer. “You don’t want to touch this, Victoria.”
Before becoming a deputy sheriff, Mick O’Malley had worked at her father’s Red Rock Ranch. Victoria had never liked the man, not since she’d been twelve years old and Mick just shy of twenty, and she’d caught him outside the Silver Bells saloon, amusing himself by feeding his dog whiskey until the animal staggered about.
Now, instead of challenging him for his bold use of her given name, Victoria chose to reply in kind. “Give it here, Mick.” She held out a hand encased in a pristine kid glove.
Mick threw a questioning look at the sheriff.
Garth Weston nodded in silent command.
Mick eased his sorrel gelding forward and reached out his arm. The strip of blue silk fluttered in his hand. Victoria snatched the ribbon from him. Then she watched as he moved back and caught the end of the dangling rope. Making a show of it, O’Malley knocked the outlaw’s hat from his head and lowered the noose to rest around his neck.
Judge Halloran twirled the ends of his sandy moustache. “Could you hurry, please, Miss Sinclair?” He spoke in an impatient tone. “I have an appointment at two.”
Victoria tore her gaze from the outlaw’s battered face. She studied the ribbon. Not store bought, but a strip of silk cut from a bolt, the edges turned by hand, with a line of dark dots running along it. She recalled how as a teenager, lacking in skill and resentful of the task, she had pricked her fingers with the needle, leaving a trail of droplets on the fabric.
On that day five years ago, she’d lost the ribbon from her hair. She’d assumed it had unraveled while she fought to break free from her captors, and it had been trodden into the ground beneath their heavy, booted feet.
Not so, it seemed.
Her hand fisted around the shiny material.
It had to be him. The young outlaw had saved her once. She could not let him die—could not watch the blue roan beneath him bolt off when the sheriff slapped its flank—could not watch him jerk up in the air and dangle there, his feet kicking in a futile struggle as the rope tightened around his neck, choking off his air. She could not bear to sit there and watch his body twitch in the throes of death. Could not bear to see him finally hang limp at the end the rope when it was all over.
She had to stop the hanging.
And there was only one way to do it.
It was a piece of good luck, after all, that her father had been delayed in town and couldn’t be there, to step in and prevent her from acting on impulse. For prevent her he certainly would. Victoria squared her shoulders, assumed her haughtiest pose, and addressed her words to the judge.
“There’ll be no hanging today. I claim this man for my husband.”
Judge Halloran stared at her, his forehead pleated in a frown, the drooping ends of his moustache twitching. “Young lady, what in devil’s name are you talking about?”
“Marriage ordinance,” she explained.
Mick O’Malley burst into a hooting laughter.
Sheriff Weston made
noises that seemed add odds with his brawny, leather-vested masculinity. “Now, now, Miss Sinclair,” he drawled. “There’s no marriage ordinance in Mariposa County.”
The older deputy, the one Victoria had never met before, shoved his hat back on his head and leaned forward over the saddle horn. He spoke in a friendly tone. “Miss Sinclair, the purpose of a marriage ordinance is to provide labor for widows to keep their farms going in counties where most men of working age lost their lives in the War Between the States. I’m sure you agree there’s no shortage of men in the Arizona Territory. Hence, there’s never been no need for such laws in these parts.”
Judge Halloran gathered the reins of his buggy horse. “Miss Sinclair, we need to proceed with the hanging.” He directed a stern look at her. “Please tie the ribbon in your hair if you intend to grant this man his final wish.”
Victoria could feel six pairs of eyes on her—or, more accurately, five pairs of eyes and a solitary blue one, since the outlaw’s left eye remained swollen shut. Her brain spun around in a fevered search for the right legal argument. Today, she was finally getting her reward for the countless hours of tedium she had endured while laboriously transcribing her father’s notes on town council meetings.
She took a deep breath and launched into speech. “Perhaps there is no marriage ordinance in Mariposa County. However, there is a town bylaw which stipulates that if no relevant legislation exists in the Arizona Territory, the town council may allow a person to refer to a statute passed in some other state or territory they are familiar with. My mother was from Kansas. I believe several counties in Kansas have a marriage ordinance.”
Victoria swept her gaze over the men, her chin high with false confidence as she put forward her closing arguments. “The law is simple. It stipulates that any unmarried woman of good character may save a man sentenced to death by volunteering to marry him.” Her voice gained a sharp edge. “There is no question about the law. I hope your resistance does not mean you are questioning my good character.”
“Son-of-a-bitch,” Mick O’Malley muttered. He hurled another globule of spit over his shoulder to the ground where it landed with a splat that emphasized the silence.
Judge Halloran cleared his throat. “Does your father know about this?
Victoria evaded the question. “He is the one who got the bylaw passed.”
The gray haired deputy spoke again. “The lady’s right. I’ve worked in Kansas. A woman can offer to marry a man sentenced to death, exceptin’ a man who’s been found guilty of murder. If she pays the fine he owes, he’ll be pardoned of his crimes.”
The judge gave the legal documents by his feet a nudge with his shoe. “There’s no need to educate me about law. I’ve got a copy of a marriage ordinance somewhere in this pile and I know exactly what it says.” He reached into a vest pocket for his fob watch, flicked open the lid and checked the time. A notch of irritation appeared between his bushy brows. He slipped the watch back into his pocket and nodded at the preacher. “Augustus, do you have everything you need to marry a couple?”
The small, dark man held up the prayer book in his hands. “I have God’s word and a license granted by the territorial governor. The only other thing I need is permission from you.”
Judge Halloran twisted around on the buggy seat to look at Sheriff Weston and spun his hand in an impatient up-and-down motion. “Get the rope off him,” the judge ordered. “I don’t want a legal wrangle if his horse bolts while the preacher is halfway through marrying him.”
Sheriff Weston gestured toward the outlaw. “Mick, you heard the judge.”
The red headed deputy muttered in protest but levered his stocky frame up in the stirrups and reached for the rope. As he lifted the noose away from the outlaw’s neck, he took the opportunity to bash his knuckles against the man’s bruised lips and swollen eye. The outlaw flinched but made no sound. O’Malley eased back, with a cruel grin on his freckled face and a sly glance in Victoria’s direction.
The judge gave an angry flick of his horsewhip. “Young man,” he thundered. “Up to now, you’ve refused to reveal your name. You can’t be married without disclosing it. What’s it to be? Death or marriage?”
“With her as a bride, I’d choose death,” Mick O’Malley muttered.
A mix of apprehension and relief churned inside Victoria. She couldn’t believe it was really happening. Had she acted in haste? She’d succeeded in freeing the outlaw from the rope, but what would happen next? Only now did it occur to her that her whole life, her future, might be altered by a few rashly spoken sentences.
Turning his blue roan to face her, the outlaw gave her his full attention, as if the others didn’t even exist. “What do you want from me?” he asked. His voice was mellow, with a hint of the educated undertone she recalled from their earlier encounter. The single blue eye narrowed at her.
“I want to save your life.”