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"Raise you a hundred Jamey." The man's enthusiasm flowed over the table to the unaffected player.
The strong, tanned fingers slowly unfolded the cards, fanning them out for his private scrutiny. A full house, which meant Duncan was probably acting. James played him many times on the circuit. Duncan could never hide his eagerness when he thought he had James beat. Tonight certainly wasn't going James' way. A full two rounds of the deal and he'd only taken one small hand.
Looking around at the other two players, he figured this pot was too rich for their blood. They'd fold on the raise leaving only Duncan and himself to bluff it out. Maybe he should call it a night? Damn, it was too early for that, but James knew when the luck wasn't with him. "I'll see your hundred Duncan, and raise you fifty."
He watched Duncan's face blotch in anger. As he expected the others threw their hands down in disgust. James waited for Duncan to get over what his cards told his tight-eyed stare.
"You're a lucky ass hole, Jamey." Duncan tossed the cards into the pot.
James pulled the money and cards over to him, showing little over the defamation thrown his way. Separating out the cards, he gathered the small winnings and pushed away from the table. "It's been nice."
"You calling it a night?"
James didn't bother to answer. Duncan would relish starting a fight. Going over to the bar, James angled himself so he could see the entire room.
"What will it be Mr. McFarlain?"
James saw the captain in the bar mirror as he entered the casino. Captain Welsh wasn't to be taken lightly. The river washis domain and heaven help the bastard stupid enough to cross him. Welsh looked more disagreeable than usual. James cursed the fact this boat had been the only one available for the ride up river. If he wasn't in such a hurry he would never have stepped foot on the Silver Queen.
"You still work'n the river, McFarlain?"
"Now where else would I be, Captain?"
"Thought you might have smartened up and gotten off by now."
Off the river James' business was his own. Gambling wouldn't have entered his past life. But that was before the war and everything he'd known had been destroyed or taken away. "The river feels slow tonight."
"You should be captaining the Silver Queen, you always did know more than most men working the tables. Heard once you had a big plantation, down by New Orleans."
"Times change." Sipping his drink, he didn't mind the man's probing. It was common knowledge who he used to be. What he would be was no one's concern but his own.
"Out of luck tonight or are the tables too cheap for your liking?"
"Like I said, Captain, the river is slow."
"Duncan seems to be having a good night."
James' blue eyes watched the players' reflections in the mirror. He didn't like the way Duncan's group looked, but kept it to himself. It was his last trip up river and he didn't need any trouble.
One of the crew called the Captain away. James motioned Willie to set up another drink. Anxious to be off the river James thought about the future, something he hadn't done for some time.
Mike would be waiting for him in St. Louis. They would start the drive from there to take the cattle to Montana. His crystal blue eyes went deep in concentration over the ranch, Twin Creeks. He didn't like admitting how much he counted on that unknown place.
When he won it off that man last year, he'd been madder than a rattler and ready to throw the deed away in the next hand just to be free of it. Why he'd pocketed the deed he couldn't recall.
That night in his cabin, it fell out of his coat. Picking it up James took his first look at the document. It was all there, all legally his, because of one man's foolish pride in a card game. James thought long and hard over the land he now held title to. Remorse or conscience made him seek out the man that next morning. Mr. Burr must have been on a road of self-destruction. He learned the man got into another card game after James left. In the process Burr picked a fight with the wrong man and got himself killed over a five-dollar pot.
Finding he couldn't give the land back, James decided to investigate what he owned. Wiring a banker associate of his, he learned just about all he could without actually seeing the property. The reports said everything was in order with the deed and that Mr. Burr had no living relatives. The land and ranch were said to be in good shape, though neglected.
Locating his brother Michael proved more of an effort than finding out about Twin Creeks. Mike, like James, left New Orleans after the war and discovering their uncle sold their home to carpetbaggers. It was a blow neither brother took lightly. James turned to gambling because it was there and he proved to be good at it. Being cautious over his playing partners kept him alive. He hated his present life and Twin Creeks looked like the answer he'd been searching for. There were enough funds from his gambling takes to buy a large herd of cattle and the stores needed to start the ranch. Hopefully, what was left would keep them going until she started holding her own.
He learned all he could about the territory and James decided to take one last gamble. The cattle would be their staple stock, but there were herds of wild horses free for the taking. He planned to do just that. The government was hungry for horses, good riding stock, and James intended on getting in on the contracts they were issuing. Purchasing the stallion cost a large chunk of their funds, but he needed a good bloodline to start the horse ranch Twin Creeks would someday become.
Mike hadn't been idle since he'd seen him two years ago. Working as trail boss for various outfits he willingly joined James in the venture. Between them, they would rebuild what took their family generations to accomplish and loose overnight.
"Another, Mr. McFarlain?"
"One more, Willie."
Home? It felt strange to call it that. Neither of them had seen it yet, but James felt anxious to get there.
In the thick darkness she wasn't sure if her eyes were open. But when she moved, the pain in her head sent them squeezing shut.
Holding the back of her head she gingerly made it to her feet. Finding the wall as she reached out in the darkness, Angie bumped into the ladder. Leaning against it, she waited until the throbbing ebbed before trying to climb the slippery rungs.
Angie feared falling again and stopped repeatedly to fight off the dizziness. It felt like it took forever to reach the doorway. After several tries to open the hatch, Angie put her full weight against it before finally dislodging the hatch door. She collapsed on the deck, exhausted by the effort.
Moaning, she struggled to sit up and face the night. A cool breeze came off the river helping to clear away the fog inside her head. Angela cringed over the mishap of falling, deciding she more than missed her dinner appointment.
She managed to standup, leaning against the boat for support, a strange steady vibration moved up her legs. For a second it confused her, but then she realized it was coming from the riverboat. Listening, she heard the swishing sound of the large wheel turning through the water. The movement of the boat was slight and sluggish, but unmistakable. "We're moving! Oh no..."
How long had she been out?
Looking around her she failed to locate her purse, positive she left it beside the hatch. She tried to catch some light to see the time at her wrist, but strangely there wasn't any light coming from the shoreline. Stumbling to the rail she scanned the dark line of trees along the riverbank. Wherever they were on the river was certainly a ways from New Orleans. Stars, she hoped this wasn't an all night cruise.
She was dirty and bruised all over. The knot on the back of her head felt so tender it hurt when she walked. Looking around the deck she couldn't think past the throbbing to figure out what bothered her about it.
She tried to push her hair back and she realized she'd lost the clip holding her bangs. She'd be damned if she would go back down there and look for it. "One fall a night is enough, thank you."
With the rail's support Angela decided she better find the captain or manager, someone that could help her. She didn't think they would turn back just for her, but maybe they could radio shore so her Aunt Belle and Sally wouldn't worry. "Damn! I didn't even tell them where I was going."
She could see it all now. Auntie would call the police within an hour of her missed dinner appointment. They would find her car on the docks, of all places. Auntie would go into vapors. Well, she couldn't do anything about it until she found someone.
The music and muffled voices drew her forward. It sounded familiar; she remembered feeling this way when she entered the room this afternoon. It seemed the Silver Queen was all she'd imagined it would be.
His blue eyes seemed to find her of their own accord. Framed in the doorway was something he never saw aboard Captain Welsh's boat. Funny, but even after his initial shock over seeing the woman's reflection in the mirror, he couldn't stop looking at her.
Wild dark locks of ebony hair floated around the woman like a protective cloak. They did little to hide the lovely creature behind the veil. Looking closer, James also saw the dirt smudged across her cheek and forehead. Sucking in his breath over what his scrutiny uncovered, anger and concern flared in unwanted quantities for the pain and confusion marring her lovely face. James tried to pull his eyes away, but she seemed to hold him in the most peculiar way.
Maybe it was the outlandish attire she wore? It wasn't everyday you saw a woman dressed like a man; an Indian one at that if those boots were any indication. Eyes the color of emeralds, they weren't Indian and neither was that ivory complexion.
James felt the strangest chill move over him. She was undoubtedly beautiful, statuesque, and yet too vulnerable as her brilliant eyes searched the room. For just a second they seemed to latch onto his, making him feel like she physically touched him or something more. But they pulled away too quickly to discover the answer.
Angie wondered what it was about the room that made her uneasy. Things came too slowly past the pain assaulting her head. Just as lethargic were the eyes turning in her direction. Even the murmurs ended as an uncomfortable silence fell over everyone. No, that wasn't right ... every man, there were no women, anywhere!
Angie swallowed hard over the ill feeling this gave her as she unconsciously raised her chin against their probing gazes. She tried to think past the foreboding she felt, but it became increasingly difficult. She wanted to tell them how rude their observations were, yet thought better of it.
Seeing no one standing about that looked in charge, her gaze finally went to the bar. Having so many men in one room must have addled her, because she could swear the room looked different. Taking a deep breath she forced her unsteady legs to walk towards the bar. She could feel their eyes following her. It took all her control not to turn and glare back at them.
She came hard against the bar and held it to fight the dizziness plaguing her. Afraid to look at any of the men leaning there, she tried to concentrate on only the young bartender and forming her words. "Excuse me? I need to see the captain or manager, please."
What was wrong with them? The buzz immediately following her announcement made her knuckles whiten in apprehension.
"Can I help you?"
The effort to turn and see the man who owned the deep decisive voice nearly defeated her. When she faced him his eyes stole the last of her breath.
How long she looked at him she didn't know or care. Shaking away the volatile feelings she brought her thoughts back to the here and now. But stars how he seemed to fill her mind.
He was so ... devastatingly handsome!
Stars, but that hit on her head must have rattled her common sense. What was the matter with her? She never let any man affect her like this and certainly not a stranger. "Are you the captain?"
His smile could melt ice, but it was the questioning in his cool gaze that captured her attention, making it hard to concentrate on his answer.
"No, but are you sure it is the captain you want to see?"
"Well yes, I think so, unless there is a manager around."
Why had he approached her? Knowing every man in the room was glaring bug eyed at them James sure wasn't paying any attention to the warnings. She was trouble he didn't need. "Willie, go fetch Captain Welsh."
"You sure about that Mr. McFarlain? You know he ain't going to like this none."
She listened to the conversation that concerned her yet seemed to be ignoring her presence. Angie hurt too much to care what these men thought. "Look, I need to get to shore or radio the authorities."
One of the men snickered. James watched the lady's pride spark over the insulting remarks bouncing about the room. He couldn't control his admiration when she refused to don the insults with even a reproachful glance.
"Miss La Cross."
"Well Miss La Cross, I think the captain will be more than happy to oblige your request."
She watched the man give a silent signal to the young man behind the bar, sending him out from under it to do as she requested.
"Thank you ... McFarlain, isn't it?"
Angie felt better knowing the captain was coming. She couldn't shake the growing nervousness over these men and their apt attention on her. Chancing a look about the room, not a one of them resumed their game seeming to think she was more interesting. She actually thought a few of the glaring eyes held expectancy in them. "Hey, what's wrong with them?"
"Wrong, Miss La Cross?"
Moving closer to him, she whispered. "Why are they watching me? I didn't mean to interrupt anything. If it's a stag party or something like that, I am sorry."
James couldn't stop looking at her. She made less sense than he felt his actions did. He didn't like the men's gazes anymore than she did. Something compelled him to try and ease her concerns.
"You are a rarity on Captain Welsh's boat."
"A rarity? In what way?"
Was that innocent look in those green eyes as real as it appeared?
"You are a woman."
Her laughter died beneath the unwavering look of concern he held her in. He was serious and Angie felt herself become cold over the implied danger. She would have left, right then, if the dizziness hadn't returned when she tried to move.
The strength in the hands holding her up became all too clear, tearing through her muddled thoughts.
"Miss La Cross are you alright?"
"My head, I fell."
When his fingers glanced over the bump at the back of her head, she groaned and fell against him. Righting herself wasn't possible. Finding the will to leave what she found in his hold defeated her efforts. Closing her eyes she told herself it would only be for a minute, just a minute. There was so much strength ... and safety.
James' hands seemed to move on their own, retaining the embrace she didn't end and he couldn't. God, she was so soft, so very nice. He couldn't stop himself from touching her and allowing the wild hunger loose that holding her drove to the surface.
Shaking himself, his eyes registered the tight lipped anger and wanting his present stance brought out in his staring companions. Swallowing his groan of awareness, James needed to get a hold of himself. What the hell was he trying to do? Commit suicide? Before he could disengage her he heard the gruff astonishment of the Captain coming up behind him.
"What the hell do you think you are doing, McFarlain? Damn, you know my rules and the consequences!"
He lost his concentration to her fingers digging into his sleeve. Her silent fear was unmistakable. The distraction proved to be his downfall.
He felt the hands relieving him of his gun, just before two pairs enclosed about his arms. She remained in his hold. It was the Captain's fingers that came around in front of them to dislodge her.
"Release the harlot this instant McFarlain!"
James' dislike for the man seemed to fuel his irrational behavior towards the woman. Mike and the two thousand head of cattle were forgotten. "I'd love to, but she is hurt."
The scoffs came from the room and James felt the dread close over him. A few well placed calls from the men reddened the Captain's enraged face.
"Look Welsh, I don't...."
"Save it McFarlain, your gentlemanly charms won't get you out of this."
Angie couldn't stop her shiver. Every spoken word made them worse. She should move away from the man whose arms supported her. Why were they mad at them? At him? She could understand the captain being upset over having an unwanted passenger. But why take it out on Mr. McFarlain?
Calling on her remaining strength she pushed away from him and looked into the angry glare of his eyes. Was it her or the captain that lit that fire? His face was like stone, showing nothing of the turmoil she felt in the hands still holding her arms. His eyes held the graying of the storm she sensed, making her shake her head in denial, only to realize her mistake too late.
His hold tightened over her renewed weakness, refusing to obey the Captain's ravings. Pulling her back against his chest was the worse thing James could do. No one wanted to believe he didn't know her. James saw this too often; they were now the night's entertainment. An example for the Captain, not to be dismissed until tried and convicted.
Rage engulfed him over what he knew was coming. Thoughts of fighting his way out ended as quickly as they surfaced. It would mean leaving Miss La Cross to face these men, alone. He couldn't bring himself to do that to her. Neither would he release her to the furious man reaching out to pull her away.
"Keep your hands off her, Welsh!"
It was a foolish threat considering he was unarmed and held by two oversized goons. But the captain took the danger glaring at him at face value and stopped his advance.
Cautiously eyeing James, "Then you admit it?"
What was he saying? Admit what? Angie must have missed something. This had gone far enough she needed to get a hold of herself. She managed to push herself away from McFarlain to face the captain.
James watched the girl that disengaged his hold. She swayed, but he forced himself not to reach for her. Her eyes stayed him from helping. A daring mix of pride and stubbornness held her up. James felt something swell inside him for this woman, something he couldn't define, but had to accept.
"Captain, I believe?"
"You know damn well I am!"
"There is no need to get excited."
James' humor nearly broke free. Her indignation was sending Welsh into a huffing fit.
"Welsh, I wouldn't." James' voice was low and controlled, but it was a warning that silenced the room.
Angie didn't dare look at the man standing close enough behind her that she could feel his heat. Whatever they all saw in McFarlain she cared only for the relief she felt that it kept this bull of a captain away from her.
"Look Captain, I think you have misunderstood. I'm sorry if you find my presence on your boat upsetting, but I can assure you it wasn't intentional." She didn't like the way he was gloating at her. When he crossed his arms over his bloated stomach, straining the brass buttons of his uniform, she bit the inside of her cheek not to groan.
"So your presence wasn't meant to be found out, hey?"
"No ... I meant, I didn't plan to be here at all. I fell down your ladder, and I guess I knocked myself out. Could you please contact the authorities, my aunt..."
"The only authority around here is me and believe me, missy, you've made contact."
Why didn't that make her feel any better? He certainly wasn't what she expected and he'd not get any booking for the party with this kind of insolent attitude. If his eyes raked over her breasts one more time, she ... she'd slap him, that's what she'd do!
"The name is Miss La Cross. Now, would you please radio the authorities and let them know where I can be picked up."
James hadn't heard a Creole accent like that since leaving New Orleans. The lyrical tones almost made him miss Welsh's reply.
"Now, Miss La Cross, I'd be obliged to accommodate you if I had such a thing ... what was it? A raydee-oh?"
She ignored his sarcastic use of her name. "Then just let me off at the next port."
James tensed over what he felt was coming, which caused the brutes holding him to secure their hold more.
"I'd be glad to, only we've some unfinished business to attend to first."
She wanted to ask what, but the whooping and hollering rushing through the room drowned out her voice. Clamping her mouth shut, she couldn't stop herself from turning to Mr. McFarlain for answers.
"Oh my stars!" Angie felt what little color she possessed drain away. Her anger surged over what she stared open mouthed upon.
"Miss La Cross, I think it would be best if you didn't say anything else." James didn't think the woman would listen to his request.
Spinning back to confront the captain, she gripped the bar in order not to fall. Ignoring McFarlain's warning her angry words were forced past clenched teeth. "What is the meaning of this? Release Mr. McFarlain!"
She was shaking under the shock of seeing him held by those men and a knife pressed to his throat! How dare they do that to him!
"Missy, I have every intention of doing just that, but first." She wanted to disappear from the sneer he gave her. "Men gather round."
Looking from him, back to McFarlain and the stern uneasy look he gave her did indeed shut her up. McFarlain's eyes conveyed the message that she only made it worse. The knife pressing close to his jugular vein wasn't a joke. Angie tasted the bitterness of true fear.
"Now you all know my rules about women on board my vessel." Looking directly at her, "They are not allowed and the punishment is severe."
His speech was hilarious, Angie felt like she was in some corny movie. Opening her mouth, she snapped it shut when McFarlain's strained curse reached her ears.
Glaring at him under the circumstances would be silly, but she was getting angrier by the second. Instead, she directed her tempered glare at the captain. Ugh, but she wanted to smack that satisfied grin off his pug face. Who did he think he was, anyway? She'd sue him for falling on his unattended vessel! Physical trauma, yeah, she probably suffered a concussion. Mental anguish was a certainty.
Building up her nerve to verbally attack the man, the tirade froze in her throat over his next announcement.
"Men, we have a wedding to perform."
"Wedding?" Her outburst drew everyone's humorous glances.
"Why yes, Miss La Cross ... your wedding."
The men's laughter echoed through her head like a bad dream. He grabbed her arm and made her follow the men leading McFarlain outside.
To his credit McFarlain put up a valiant struggle. To her dismay, he received a vicious blow to his jaw for his effort. If he got loose the rage burning inside that man wouldn't have stopped until these men were desecrated. Abhorring violence she couldn't believe she was actually wishing he would break free.
Angie swallowed back her cry over what his hard blue eyes told her. This wasn't a joke. These men were serious. They all had to be nuts!
All kinds of crazy thoughts careened through the intense pain that each dragged step sent off in her head.
James never took his eyes off her. When she stumbled he'd gone wild. The anger over seeing her in pain took over. The ache in his jaw snapped him back into some resemblance of sanity, but the fury inside him was near uncontrollable.
If only she'd keep quiet. He feared what they might do to her if she continued. It was obvious she had no idea of the dangerous extent of her situation. Welsh could be a vicious man. He relished the attention he was getting and it made him unpredictable. James wasn't in any position to help either of them. Getting her away from these men was imperative. James didn't like the ugly way the crowd was turning or the looks in their eyes for her. She didn't realize what he was seeing and he hoped she wouldn't, fearing what she might do.
When they placed her beside him he took the chance to whisper to her. "Just do what he wants and agree with whatever I say."
Angie's eyes enlarged over McFarlain's request. Was he crazy too? Didn't he hear what the captain was up to?
She wanted to ask him, but the captain didn't give her a chance.
"Now, I have here the bible and as captain I have legal authority to wed these two. It's legal, you will be husband and wife. What better match, right boys?"
The cheers sent chills up her spine.
"Now, James McFarlain do you take Miss ... what's your first name?"
Glaring at him she had a good mind not to answer. Scanning the sea of expectant faces her pride stiffened. "Angela."
"James McFarlain, do you take Angela La Cross as your lawful wedded wife?"
Not looking at him she held her breath with the expectancy she felt over his answer. Why should she care?
The captain chuckled over the angry outburst everyone knew McFarlain wanted to lash out with.
"And you, Angela La Cross, do you take this man as your husband?"
"What? No love, honor and obey?" Her indignation made her antagonize the man.
"Throw in obey would you Welsh, I think I'll need that one."
Glaring up at McFarlain she didn't know with whom she was angrier. The captain repeated the vow, tossing in obey at McFarlain's request.
"Well, we're waiting, get to it Missy."
Angel didn't need the obnoxious captain to tell her what he expected. "You can wait till...."
"Angela come on, it's not like we're strangers."
Her mouth dropped open over James' remark. She closed it when his hard gaze didn't reflect anything close to what his words implied. Was he only saying this for their benefit?
Instinctively, she knew, he was the only one here she could trust. He didn't want this any more than she did. Why should he? Remembering his warning she gave the only sensible answer. "I do."
"Good, a wise decision Missy. I pronounce you, man and wife. You may kiss your bride, James."
Before she could object McFarlain pulled her into his arms and captured her lips, smothering her protest in a kiss that did more than just silence her outrage. Too stunned to hide her response, she could only stare at him when he released her.
The cheers ended her short lived trance, but the shouts coming at them quickly made her seek the very man that just left her totally rattled. Moving to McFarlain's side she released her breath when his arm came about her waist. "Alright Welsh, you've had your fun."
"Not quite James. You never should have crossed me. Your marriage papers will be filed in St. Louis. You can pick your gear up there."
James had been afraid Welsh would do this. Right now, seeing the eager men surrounding them, it was probably the best way out for her.
"Can I have my gun?"
"Sure. Boys, give the man his gun."
She watched, too confused to do anything else, as the man passed the captain McFarlain's gun. The captain emptied the filled chambers of the bullets. Staring, she watched the bullets hit and roll across the deck before he passed the gun over to McFarlain.
Starting to move away, James stopped and came back to her. Taking her arm, "Come on Angela."
Pulling her arm out of his grip, she stared at him in disbelief finally understanding what they all expected.
"No ... you are all crazy." The shaking of her head wasn't anything compared to what her knees were doing. "No, I am not going into that River!"
Posted February 4, 2013
Posted March 31, 2011
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