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Rides a Hero
By Heather Graham
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2003 Heather Graham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMay 30th, 1865 Kentucky The Road Home
"It's him, I tell you. It's Captain Slater! Captain Malachi Slater!" The young man seated on the wagon that blocked the road could hardly control his excitement. "We done got him, Bill," he cried.
Startled, Malachi pulled back on the reins of the bay mare that had taken him through numerous battles, and stared ahead. Two young Union sentries were guarding the road that eventually led to his own home. The sight of the sentries here in Kentucky didn't surprise him. The war was over. The Yankees had won. Yanks were everywhere now, and that was the way it was.
At least he no longer had to be wary. His fighting days were over. He was going home. His unit had surrendered, and he had put his own signature on the paper, swearing an oath of allegiance to the Yankee flag. He should have been bitter, but right now he was just tired. He had seen the death toll, and he was just damned glad that it was all over.
So he didn't need to fear hostility from the sentries. And hell, seeing them, he couldn't feel much fear. The Yanks, it seemed, had been dipping into the bottom of the barrel as the war ended, almost as much as the Confederates had. These boys were teenagers, green-gilled, and he was certain that neither of them had ever shaved.
Exceptthere was something ... something about the way they said his name.
"Captain Slater, you just hold on there," the first boy said nervously.
They shouldn't have known his name. His rank, of course, was apparent from the worn gold braid on the shoulders of his gray wool cavalry greatcoat. But his name ...
"You're under arrest," the second boy - the one called Billy - began, and then his mouth started to work hard as if he couldn't seem to remember the right words to say.
"Under arrest?" Malachi roared out in his best voice of command. "What in hell for? The war is over, boys. Haven't they told you yet?"
"You're a murderin' outlaw, Captain Slater!" the first boy said. Malachi frowned and the boy quickly added, "Sir!"
"Outlaw, murderer? I know that you don't give the Rebels much credit, but our cavalry fought as soldiers, same as yours."
"Captain, the poster that's out on you has nothing to do with the cavalry!" Billy said. "And that's a fact. You're wanted for murder in Kansas -"
"I've never been in Kansas!"
"It says right on the poster that you and your brothers are part of the Slater gang, and that you rode into Kansas and murdered private citizens. Yes, sir, you are under arrest!"
Kansas? Hell. He'd not been in Kansas for years. But his brother Cole had been in Kansas, and he had waged a single-handed battle against the cutthroat who had murdered his first wife.
Malachi hadn't been anywhere near Kansas during that time, but that was only part of what was taking him aback. Cole was no murderer either. Someone must be out for them. The Slater gang indeed! That must mean that someone wanted his younger brother, Jamie, dead, too.
The Union boys were trying to ready their breech-loading rifles. They were both so nervous they couldn't seem to rip open their powder bags, not even with their teeth.
Malachi's cavalry saber was at his side and he had a Colt stuffed into the holster beneath his greatcoat. He had enough time to fill them both full of holes. "Listen to me, fellows. I am not going to let you put me under arrest," he said.
The boys looked green. They glanced his way, but they kept trying to get to their powder. When they did get to it, they spilled most of it trying to get it into the well of the gun. They glanced at him again with terror, but they still moved to their pouches for balls, and tried to ram them down according to proper military procedure.
"Confound it," Malachi said irritably. "Do your mothers know where you are?"
The boys looked up again. "Hank, you got him?"
"Hell, no, Billy, I ain't ready. I thought you were ready."
Malachi sighed deeply. "Boys, for the love of God, I don't want your deaths on my conscience -"
"There's a big, big bounty out on you, Captain Slater! A Mr. Hayden Fitz in Kansas is fierce and furious. Says if'n somebody don't shoot you and your brothers, he's going to see you all come to justice and hang by the neck until dead."
"Oh, hell!" Malachi swore savagely. "Damn it!" He dismounted, sweeping his hat from his head and slamming it against his thigh as he paced back and forth before the two. "It's over! The war is over! I fought off the Kansas jayhawkers before the war, and then I fought all those damn years in the war, and I am tired! I am so damned sick and tired of killing people. I can barely stand it! The bounty isn't worth it, boys! Don't you understand? I don't want to kill you."
They didn't understand. He stopped and looked at them, and they might be still green, but they'd gotten their muskets loaded. Billy started to aim his.
Malachi didn't wait any longer. With a savage oath escaping him, he charged the boy, pulling out his saber.
But he was sick and tired of killing. As he leaped atop the wagon where the boys sat, he could have skewered them through, both of them. But he didn't. For some damned reason, he wanted them to grow old enough to have the wisdom not to pull such a stunt again.
He sliced his saber against the boy's musket and sent it flying.
"Run, Bill, run!" Hank suggested wisely. But Hank was holding tight to his own rifle. Malachi swore at him and leaped from the wagon and hurried for the bay mare. He leaped on the horse and just barely nudged her. Like a true warrior, she soared forward like the wind, straight for the wagon.
She carried him up and up and they were sailing. But just as they were over the top of the wagon, a burst of pain exploded in his thigh.
Hank had apparently managed to shoot his rifle. Amazingly enough, he had struck his target.
Malachi didn't dare stop. He kept the bay racing, veering into the woods. She was a good old horse, a fine companion, and she had been with him through many a battle. When pain and exhaustion claimed him and he slunk low against her, she kept going, as if she, too, knew the road home, the long, long road home.
Finally the bay stopped before a stream. For a long moment, Malachi clung to her, then he fell and rolled until he could reach the water. He drank deeply before falling back. His leg was burning; his whole body was burning. Surely it wasn't such a deep wound. He needed to keep moving. He had to get to Cole as quickly as possible.
But it wasn't going to be that night. Despite the strength of his will, his eyes closed.
It seemed to him that a fog swirled up from the stream. Pain no longer tormented him, nor hunger, nor exhaustion. The stream was inviting. He stood and shed his worn uniform. Balancing his way out on the rocks, he dived in. The water was cool and beautiful, the day warm with a radiant sun, and birds were singing. There was no smell of burned powder near him, no screams of the dead or dying; he was far, far from the anguish of the war.
He swam through the coolness, and when he surfaced, he saw her.
An angel. She was standing on the shore, surrounded by the mist, her hair streaming gold and red, sweeping down and around her back. She was a goddess, Aphrodite emerging from the sparkling beauty of the stream. She was naked and lithe and beautiful, with sultry sky-blue eyes and ink-dark lashes, ivory cheeks, and lush, rose-colored lips.
She beckoned to him. And he came. Looking at her, he knew that he must have her. Naked, he tried to hurry, thrashing through the water. He had to touch her. To feel the fullness of her breast beneath his hands, caress her with his whisper and his kiss. But even in the strange seduction of the dream, he knew she was familiar. She was his Circe, calling him with magical promises of unimaginable pleasure, but he also knew her.
Nearer, he drew nearer to her, nearer and nearer ... He started to cough. His eyes flew open.
The only Circe that awaited him was the faithful bay mare, snorting now upon his soaking cheek. Malachi staggered to his feet and looked from his sodden clothing to the stream. He had fallen in, he realized, and nearly drowned.
He had been saved by a dream. The dream of a lush and beautiful woman with golden hair that streamed down her back, and eyes to match a summer's day.
He touched his cheek. At least the stream had cut his fever. He could ride again.
He should find attention for his leg, he thought. But he couldn't spare the time. He had to reach Missouri. He had to warn Cole.
Excerpted from Rides a Hero by Heather Graham Copyright © 2003 by Heather Graham. Excerpted by permission.
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