Authors: Lori Villarreal
A Legend of the Pantera Novel
This book is a work of fiction. Places, events, and situations in this story are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
A Legend of the Pantera Novel
2011 by Lori Villarreal.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, manual, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.
Cover design by Lori Villarreal
To my grandmother, Lillian Morningstar (1900 – 1994), who had two of her own books published, and has always been an inspiration to me. But most especially, to my parents, whose patience, understanding, and indulgence, gave me the confidence to pursue my dream.
TITLES BY LORI VILLARREAL
Whispers in Time
The Devil Rogue
Kissing Mr. Bellamy
(Featuring Emily and Roger from Whispers in Time)
Devil’s Spur, Texas, 1868
THEY WERE GOING TO hang her.
An angry mob surrounded Cadence. She sat on a nervously sidestepping horse, its hooves kicking up swirling clouds of brown dust. They were gathered on the outskirts of town. Heat, wind, sand, and encroaching vegetation all battled for dominion over the unforgiving landscape.
Two muddy trails marked her dirty, tear-stained cheeks. Her hair and clothes were tinged with the same color as the desert. She’d been dragged from Mamma Reba’s house, followed by a mad ride into town.
Cadence struggled to control the wild panic working its way from her roiling gut, up her spine, to the back of her skull. The townspeople had turned on her; gone mad, snapping at her heels like a pack of feral dogs.
“Yer gonna pay fer yer sins, boy!” someone shouted.
But then, they didn’t know she was really a female.
That had suited Cadence just fine.
Nobody had seemed to notice she was anything other than what she appeared to be – a young boy of an age around fourteen or fifteen years old. Except Mamma Reba.
They also didn’t know Cadence Antoinette LaPorte was something else…something not quite human.
She felt the primitive animal stirring beneath her skin. It wanted to lash out at them – to draw blood. Unfortunately, that would be impossible with her hands tied behind her back.
She’d lived among these very people for the last several weeks, gotten to know them…even liked most of them.
Now, here she was, about to be hanged, which was really rather funny – or tragic – since she was innocent. At least
time she was.
Cadence knew who the real killer was. She could see him out of the corner of her eye, standing next to Mr. Pribbernow, who owned the feed store.
Did anyone bother to ask her what had happened? No.
That miserable coward, Ned Furley, must have ridden into town to proclaim he’d witnessed the kid murder Mamma Reba. Cadence’s tears were for the dear old blind woman who’d taken her in, fed her, and let her do chores in exchange for a place to stay.
Furley had lived here his whole life, so of course everyone believed him. Cadence was a newcomer, an outsider.
They’d brought her directly to the hanging tree.
It was an ancient, twisted monstrosity with black, gnarled branches reaching toward the sky like bony fingers angrily clawing their way to heaven. It sat in rooted silence, a specter with secrets of death and violence, and when they led her horse beneath it, Cadence could feel its malignance.
She’d been settled upright in the saddle, someone yanking her hands behind her back, securing her wrists with a piece of rope. Then came the noose, suspended from a thick, sturdy appendage of the sinister tree. It had been placed over her head to rest on her slim shoulders like a coiled python, poised to choke the life out of her.
Her dark, curly hair had been cut as part of her disguise, and was now dirty and dripping with sweat. An occasional salty bead trickled into her eyes and along her temples. It made the cut near her ear burn annoyingly. Sweat slid in rivulets between her breasts, down her back and between her shoulder blades, while tiny flies buzzed around her head.
The blistering heat of the midday sun caused shimmering mirages to appear on the distant, barren horizon. Civilization, ever vigilant in its show of superiority, maintained a constant struggle to wrestle the forces of nature into submission. She squinted against the brightness, thinking this was to be her last image of life on this earth.
She had to force back the maniacal bubble of laughter that suddenly rose like bile into her throat. How ironic that she was about to be hanged for a murder she
It’s not over,”
her sister, Jaelene, had told Cadence just before she’d left home.
“There’s more trouble coming your way. Be careful.”
Maybe this was best. At least she would finally be free from the guilt of what she’d done, and the torture of her nightmares.
The horse beneath her bobbed its head up and down, blowing through its nose, taking a step forward. The rope tightened against the front of her neck, and for one horrifying moment, she thought the horse would keep on going, but it stopped. She strained backward, attempting to gain even the smallest amount of slack and still keep her seat. The rope’s prickly fibers abraded her skin, the pungent odor of hemp drifting into her nostrils.
She crooned softly to the horse, trying to calm it. Animals, especially horses, tended to get nervous around her kind. They could sense the dangerous predator. But Cadence had learned from her mother how to quiet them by using a special tone of voice and words spoken in her mother’s Romany language. Finally, the horse relaxed, settling back into its original position.
It didn’t change a thing. They were still going to hang her.
This couldn’t be happening!
Images of the people she loved flitted through her mind – the faces of her two sisters, Jaelene and Kara, her father, their housekeeper, Mrs. Riley, and the cook, Mrs. Clemens, and even the young man, Tommy, who did odd jobs around the house.
She should never have left home – her family! How would they get on without her? She missed them so much it hurt, and now she would never see them again.
Her stomach rebelled violently as the reality of her predicament hit her like a sucker punch.
There was no way out of this.
She fought the rising nausea, gulping back a sob.
God, her head ached. Her eyes burned from the dust kicked up by the horses, her nose and mouth filled with the gritty stuff until she felt like she was suffocating.
She was a heartbeat away from full blown panic.
Suddenly, without so much as a by-your-leave or warning of any kind, her horse shot forward. Whether someone intentionally slapped the horse’s rump, or it was stung by a bee was critically unimportant. Cadence was only aware of it sprinting out from under her, leaving no more time to contemplate her impending death. Her air supply was immediately and viciously cut off. Her feet flailed for purchase that wasn’t there.
Time slowed, her heart hammering in terror as her survival instinct howled and clawed its way to the surface.
She didn’t want to die!
The weight of her body seemed to be pulling her head from her shoulders, every muscle jerking and contracting. The pain was unbearable as her lungs were unable to expand. Blood pounded in her temples, threatening to explode through the top of her head.
Blackness crept in from the outer edges of her vision like a phantom.
Then there was nothing.
JONAH PULLED HIS lever-action Henry rifle from its scabbard at the side of his saddle, preferring it to the blue-steel, .44 revolver resting in the holster of his gun belt. He was proud of his rifle, a gift from his father, when after the war the newer lever-actions replaced the old muzzle-loaders.
These people were acting outside the law, and as a U.S. Marshal it was his duty to take the prisoner into custody.
Jonah had spent the last six grueling weeks hunting the kid, who’d covered his trail as well as any seasoned tracker. Jonah was better, though – the best – and he wasn’t about to be deprived of his chance for justice…and revenge. The figure dangling at the end of the rope might look like just a boy, but he’d killed once before and now, apparently, he’d done it again.
Taking careful aim, Jonah fired, only nicking the rope. His horse, Athos, stood rock-steady as Jonah quickly cocked the rifle again, brought it to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. This time the rope was severed, saving the kid from death-by-hanging. He hoped. The boy lay on the ground, unmoving, as the townspeople stood in slack-jawed surprise. As one they looked up at Jonah.
“What in tarnation did you do that fer?” a grisly, white-bearded old man snarled.
Jonah lowered his rifle, resting it across his thigh and showed his badge. “I’m a U.S. Marshal and this here boy is my prisoner.” His deep voice and commanding tone made more than a few people take a step back. “I’ve been tracking him for some time, and I intend to take him back to New Orleans to stand trial for murder.”
“He’s already had a trial for murder, mister,” an unknown voice from the crowd stated.
Jonah narrowed his eyes. “From the looks of it, I doubt it was a fair one.”
The boy still hadn’t moved, not even a twitch. He might very well be dead and if not, Jonah knew he had to get him out of here to see to it that he survived. He’d tracked the kid this far. He wasn’t about to give up on his revenge so easily. “My case takes precedence over whatever was going on here today. Now, hand him up and I’ll be on my way.”
No one moved, each person looking from one to the other, waiting for someone with the gumption to make a decision.
Wasn’t there a goddamned sheriff in this town?
Jonah swiftly pocketed his badge, then swung his rifle around with the practiced ease of a man who was used to handling one. “I said hand him up here.
His softly spoken command and narrow-eyed stare catapulted at least two of the bystanders into action. They lifted the boy, one at his shoulders, the other grabbing his ankles, and performed a sideways shuffle toward Jonah’s horse. After a few clumsy attempts to get the boy over the front of the saddle, they finally slung him across on his belly. The boy’s hands were still tied behind his back. Jonah considered cutting the ropes, but quickly decided now was not the time to take that chance.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jonah noticed a heavy-set man standing off to the side of the group. He wouldn’t have given the man more than a fleeting thought, except that he watched the boy with such hatred, it sent a warning shooting up Jonah’s spine. He’d best watch his back, at least until he got far enough away from here.
Easing Athos away from the crowd with a gentle nudge of his spurs, Jonah grabbed the reigns of the kid’s horse, and headed out of town, into the unending expanse of the desert plain. Later, when he got far enough away, he’d stop and check on the boy’s condition.
He kept a grueling pace, the occasional weak moan coming from the boy proof enough he was still alive. He didn’t stop until the sun was low on the horizon. Swinging down from Athos, he grabbed the boy around the middle, dumping him on the ground like a sack of grain.
The boy stirred, a low, raspy groan escaping from his lips. Jonah stood for a moment, looking down at the small bundle in the dirt. Moving away with a soft grunt, he began the task of setting up camp, all the while keeping a steady eye on the boy. It didn’t appear like he was in any condition to run, but Jonah had been fooled before.