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Rachel and the Hired Gun
By ELAINE LEVINE
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Oregon Trail, Eastern Dakota Territory April 1867
Rachel Douglas shivered beneath the brittle cottonwood. The light was failing, but she could see the wolf's spiky fur. He watched her, head lowered, shoulder blades making peaks in his back. Though he was a dozen paces from her, she smelled his hot, fetid breath. She squeezed the stick she held until the bark pricked her palms.
"Ellie, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she whispered to the little girl in the tree above her. Whimpers were her answer. "You're going to have to get yourself back to the wagon train." More whimpers. "Do you hear me, Ellie?"
"Do you know which way is west?"
"No. Miss Rachel, please don't stay down there." Rachel heard the catch in Ellie's voice. "He's gonna eat you. Please, ma'am, please come up here."
"You'll have the sun on your back in the morning and on your face in the afternoon," Rachel continued, ignoring the child's plea. "Stay close to the river. Are you listening to me, Ellie?"
"I can't do it." She was crying now, in full-belly sobs that excited the wolf. He growled, his lips wrinkled into a snarl, baring white fangs. Rachel steeled herself to the heart-wrenching sound of Ellie's fear as she considered the animal before her.
Wolves had often followed the wagon train, but Rachel had only seen them from a distance. Captain Norbeck said they wouldn't attack people. What was wrong with this one? White foam dribbled from his long jaw, and his steps were unsteady, his strong legs wobbly. He coughed and shook his head, sending spittle everywhere before settling into a growl again.
"Don't come out of that tree until morning," Rachel warned Ellie. "If you can find my horse"-if he's still alive, she thought to herself-"you can ride him back to the company. You'll be fine. You're no more than two days away from camp, if you follow the river and ride hard."
Rachel heard riders coming in fast, horse hooves pounding. The end was near. Ellie felt it, too. She screamed at the same time the wolf crouched, his muscles bunching to power his leap. He jumped forward, his massive, foamy mouth open, his fangs arching toward her.
Rachel extended the stick, pushing upward, eyes squeezed shut. The wolf fell short of his target-her throat-ripping a length of her skirt from waist to hem instead. It was then she heard the dying echoes of a gunshot. The wolf lay unmoving at her feet, the faded wool of her skirt snagged in his fangs. A bullet hole in his side seeped blood and an arrow protruded from his neck.
Dear God-Indians! A new fear filled her, deeper and colder than ever before. Her head jerked up as she looked for the source of that arrow. The horses she'd heard a moment ago pulled up in front of her, their riders an Indian and a white man. At least, she assumed one was a white man-he wore cowboy clothes.
Maybe they hadn't seen Ellie yet. Maybe they weren't here for trouble. They had killed the wolf, after all.
The cowboy dismounted and let his reins hang loose in front of his horse. He was tall and broad-shouldered. His long coat was unbuttoned and spread about him like dark wings as he came toward her. His black hair was cut unevenly and hung in jagged wisps about his tanned face. A few days' growth of beard shadowed a hard jaw. His eyes were a pale color, indistinct in the failing evening light.
He looked her over, his gaze missing nothing, his face angry. She wished she wore her coat, but she'd given it to Ellie. The man looked at the dead wolf and said something over his shoulder to the Indian in a language Rachel didn't know.
"Don't move," he ordered her, holding up a hand. He looked up in the tree, where Ellie was crouching, whimpering. "You hurt?" he asked her. Ellie shook her head. "Then c'mon down." He reached up and plucked her from the branch.
"Miss Rachel!" Ellie cried, reaching out to her.
"No, mister! Leave her alone." Rachel grabbed for the little girl. "Give her to me! Ellie!"
The cowboy pinned Rachel against the tree, his hand on her collarbone, his face full of dark intent as he turned sideways, keeping Ellie away from her. "I said don't move." He held the crying Ellie face down on his hip like a sack of flour. Rachel could only watch helplessly as he handed Ellie off to the Indian, who picked up the reins of the cowboy's horse and his own, then led both horses up the hill to the small campfire Rachel had left burning.
"Miss Rachel!" Ellie called again, reaching her arms out over the Indian's shoulder.
"Please-don't let him hurt her. She's only a little girl," Rachel pleaded.
The cowboy's stone-cold eyes turned on her. "He'll take care of her. He's gonna get some food going. She doesn't need to be here." He pulled the stick out of Rachel's hand and tossed it over by the wolf. Giving her a warning look, he shrugged out of his coat and hung it over a low branch, a little ways away. His vest soon followed. He lowered his suspenders and pulled his shirt free of his pants, unbuttoned the cuffs, then yanked it over his head.
Rachel glanced around, trying to find a way to run-a place to run to. He was big, and he was close. She wouldn't get far. And even if she did, what about the Indian by her campfire-how long could she elude the two of them?
A sick feeling boiled up in her belly as she looked at the man's smooth, naked chest, a wall of dark skin, full of muscles and rippling sinew. He was going to rape her. There was nothing she could do about it. She couldn't run. She couldn't fight-if she did, he might kill her. She had to stay alive for Ellie, had to get her back to the wagon train.
The man gave her a dark look as he leaned over to untie the thongs that held his holsters to his thighs. Rachel watched him, the evening air cold on her tear-streaked cheeks. He straightened and unbuckled his gun belt, laying it over his clothes on the branch. He took his boots and socks off and set them near the riverbank.
The Indian brought a blanket down, some clothes, and a leather pouch of something. He looked at Rachel and spoke in a low voice to the cowboy, then left.
The cowboy gathered up kindling of small sticks and dried grass and as much old wood from the riverbank as he could find. He laid it out in a large circle, then took a match from his coat and lit the pile. Flames spread hungrily over the dried wood and thin sticks and grass. Soon the fire roared. He added still more wood to it.
She watched him pick up the dead wolf and gingerly set it on the bonfire. The flames hissed as the fire consumed the wolf's fur. The sweet scent of wood smoke was soon fouled by the eye-watering smell of charred fur. He went to the river and rinsed his hands, rubbing at them with the soap he'd taken from the pouch. He walked back toward her, his gaze taking in every detail of her person.
"Now, we can do this the hard way or the easy way. But either way, you're gonna strip and get in that river."
She stared at the dark cowboy as panic fused her muscles. He wasn't some random man who happened upon her and Ellie; he'd been sent by her uncle. How else would he know to taunt her with the river? "No," she said, her voice a puny whisper.
"You are. That wolf was rabid. And you have its foam all over you. I've seen a man die of rabies-it's a hard death. It doesn't come on real fast after an encounter. You think you're gonna be okay. Then the fever comes. A week of agony as it chews up your mind, and you're dead. Were you bit?"
She looked at the wolf in the fire, his blackened face still contorted in a snarl. A shiver rippled down her spine. It made sense now, all the saliva, the wolf's weakness. She sighed with relief. This stranger intended neither rape nor to carry out her uncle's mischief. She swiped at the tears on her cheeks. He was right. She had to bathe. "Please, turn around."
"No. I'm not takin' chances-I'm not letting that spit out of my sight. Hand me your clothes, I'll burn 'em."
"You can't! What will I wear?"
"You don't have a change of clothes with you?"
"No." She'd left in a rush to go with the Hansons to find their daughter. She'd barely packed any supplies. The rest of what she owned was back at the wagon train with her mule.
"Then I guess you'll wear a goddamned blanket. Strip."
She glared at him, now grateful she wasn't wearing her coat-at least it wouldn't be burned. Her hands shook as she reached behind her to unfasten her tunic's bow. She lowered her gaze, unable to look at him. She folded the apron front of her tunic over the skirt, then unfastened the skirt.
"Careful-" he coached. She knew her face turned fiery red as he watched her slip the skirt down over her petticoat. She handed it to him. He dropped it on the fire on top of the burning wolf. Light flared as the flames roared over the fabric. Her gaze flew to his face. He met her look, his expression dark, unreadable. She turned her back on him and began unfastening the buttons down the front of her shirt. She undid the cuffs, then pulled it off her shoulders, holding it out behind her. He took it, and again she heard the fire hiss when he dropped it on the flames. Then she felt him tug at the laces of her petticoat.
"No!" She whirled to face him.
"You're taking too long."
"I don't need your help," she ground out as she pulled the petticoat over her hips and handed it to him. The fire hissed. She untied the drawstring at the neckline of her chemise and drew the garment up over her drawers and camisole. She handed it to him. The fire hissed. Except for the thin cotton material of her camisole, drawers, stockings and boots, she was now naked. She'd abandoned corsets early in this trek-they were far too constraining for life on the trail. She regretted that decision now, preferring as many layers as possible between her skin and this man's cool gaze.
"That's good enough." He crouched down and undid the laces of her boots. No traces of saliva on the dusty leather, she noticed. They looked clean enough-surely he wouldn't burn them? When he took hold of her calf, she stifled a gasp at the unfamiliar contact of a man's hand on her leg. Worse, she had to touch his bare shoulder for balance as he freed first one foot, then the other. His skin was warm beneath her cold hand. The muscles of his back bunched and worked as he pulled her stockings down from her knees and set them with her boots off to the side. She watched him warily as he moved the blanket to a branch near the river, took up the soap bar, and waved her on to the water.
"Let me do this myself." She hated the catch in her voice.
He shook his head. "That water's barely above freezing. Once you're in there, you'll have about one minute before you go into shock. It'll take that long for you just to breathe when the water hits you. There's no way in hell you can do this yourself."
"You'll freeze, too. What's the difference?"
"I'm bigger than you are-takes longer for the water to chill me. Let's go. We're gonna do this quick. I'll dunk you, lather you up, dunk you again and get you outta there." He held his hand out to her. "You gotta remember to breathe."
Rachel ignored his hand and took a couple of steps into the water, trying to hide her fear. The water was deeper than she thought. And bitter cold. He knocked her legs out from under her, pushing her to her knees in the water. The fast-moving current washed over her, her panic rising with it. He set his hand at her neck and forced her down under the water, then pulled her up quickly. It was cold, so cold. Her body locked up on her. She couldn't inhale.
"Breathe, damn it, breathe!" he growled in her ear, crouching behind her. He dipped the soap in the water and rubbed it roughly over her stomach. Rachel sucked in a chest-full of air, clinging to his thighs for there was nothing else to hold on to, nothing to keep her from being washed away except the man behind her. He rubbed the soap over her breasts and chest, her neck and arms, scrubbing at her hands. Lifting her with an arm around her ribs he scrubbed at her thighs and knees. Then he lathered her hair, rubbed her face, and dunked her again, quickly swishing the soap off her body and hair.
"Done!" He straightened and dragged her out of the water. Pulling the blanket from the branch, he wrapped her in it, covering everything but her eyes, then scooped up her stiff body. At last she sucked in a breath with a deep gasp. He looked down at her, his eyes pale in the dark shadow of his face.
"Rachel Douglas, I think you're gonna live."
She shut her eyes, too horrified to look at him. God, he was her uncle's man. How else could he know her? She'd come so far. She'd almost escaped them.
The cold air froze the exposed skin of her face and feet. Violent shivers racked her body. He carried her up the hill, depositing her on her bedroll in front of the fire. Anxious to find Ellie, she drew the blanket down, away from her head, unable to see much the way he'd wrapped her up.
"Hi, Miss Rachel." Ellie waved to Rachel from her seat on the Indian's knee. "This here's Blue Thunder," she said, pointing a thumb behind her.
Relieved that Ellie was unharmed, Rachel tried to give her a reassuring smile. The way her teeth were chattering, it was probably more a grimace. She studied the Indian, taking his measure. He wore a necklace of several strands of white beads, a peach calico shirt, and leather jacket and leggings. His face was clean-shaven, and a thin braid bordered both sides of his head. He'd taken more care with his appearance than the cowboy had. Was he one of the hostiles Captain Norbeck was always on the lookout for? He didn't seem very fierce. Ellie certainly appeared at ease around him. And he had prepared food for them. Ellie was scooping something out of a tin cup, eating with gusto. Stew. Rachel caught a whiff of it cooking over the campfire. And coffee. Her stomach growled.
"Was you taking a bath, Miss Rachel?" Ellie asked.
Rachel could only nod; her jaw wasn't working. She hadn't had a chance to talk to Ellie since finding her moments before the wolf caught up with them. The little four-year-old had wandered off from the wagon train nearly three days earlier, delirious with fever. She seemed much recovered, though shadows darkened her eyes, and her small face appeared drawn. There were a few scratches on her neck and cheek, and new tears in her dress, but nothing too terrible considering the adventure she'd been through.
"Blue Thunder said you stunk," Ellie said with a grin, holding her nose. Rachel looked at the Indian. So, he must speak English, she realized. He returned her look with a steady, expressionless regard.
"My ma can wash herself," Ellie said, her mouth full of stew.
Rachel groaned, thinking how this was going to spread like wildfire when they got back to the company.
The cowboy rejoined them then. Rachel was relieved to see he'd put his clothes back on, including a dry pair of trousers. He set his wet pants on a nearby boulder, then started rustling through her saddlebags.
"Wh-what ar-re ..." Her teeth were chattering so that it was hard to form words.
"I'm looking for something dry for you to put on. I can't believe you came out here without any change of clothes. A shirt, somethin'. Here we go!" He held up her cotton nightgown. The wind caught the material, making it billow like a sail. Rachel felt hot blood flood her face. As cold as she was, it burned her skin. She cast a quick glance at Blue Thunder, horrified to see him looking at her nightgown.
"Damn. There's enough fabric here to cover a wagon," the cowboy commented. "If that don't fix your sensibilities, well, I reckon I don't know what will."
"Th-that's a n-nightgown."
"So it is. And it just happens to be night, so I'm guessing it's the right thing to wear. Get over here and put it on."
Rachel shook her head. This was unbearable. Surely he wouldn't make her change in front of everyone? The cowboy gave a long sigh, then went to his pack and took out a blanket from his bedroll. "Look, I'll hold this blanket up. You'll have all the privacy you need. Little Ellie, there, can holler if I peek."
Rachel was still not moving. She was so cold, even if she wanted to she couldn't have gotten her limbs to cooperate. She just wanted to lie down and sleep. The stubborn man came over and picked her up, taking her a little ways off from the fire. Rachel cast a nervous glance back at Blue Thunder as her bare feet hit the ground.
Excerpted from Rachel and the Hired Gun by ELAINE LEVINE Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Levine. Excerpted by permission.
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