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Eden Valley, Alberta
Ward Walker wanted nothing more than to get back to the ranch. He'd spent the better part of three days locating a man and delivering a message from his boss about purchasing a prize stallion.
With no interest in the men crowding the saloon nor what they were so concerned about, he sat back waiting to get something hot to eat before he headed back.
"I perceive you are all anxious to see Red." The man to his right lifted a bowler hat from his pomaded hair and held it out. "You willing to pay?"
Each hand dropped in a coin.
He waved the hat toward Ward.
"Ain't interested," Ward said, not bothering to keep a growl out of his voice.
The man roared with harsh laughter. "You'll change your mind soon enough."
"Doubt it. I'm just waiting for a dish of stew." In his twenty-three years he had learned to stay away from trouble as best he could.
As if summoned by Ward's words, the barkeep swung from the back room with a bowlful of steaming food. Ward turned his attention to his meal.
The man shook the coins from his hat into his palm and pocketed them. Grinning widely, he bellowed, "Red."
The silent expectation in the room held Ward's interest despite his vow that he cared only about eating.
"Aw, Thorton, she ain't coming," one disgruntled cowboy murmured. "I want my money back."
"She'll come. She knows what to expect if she don't." The way the man smacked his fist into his palm sent tension crawling up Ward's spine, the words bringing with them memories of another time, another man who said similar things and followed through with fists or boots, or anything he could lay his hands on.
"Red. Get out here. Now." The harsh voice practically stole Ward's appetite. But he had to eat to survive so he took a scoop of the succulent stew.
The gray blanket hanging crookedly in the doorway on one side of the room full of crowded tables fluttered. The men cheered and from behind the curtain stepped a woman with f laming-red hair in a mane of curls down her back. Her blue-green eyes flashed rebellion, as did the set of her mouth. She pulled a man's shirt closed across her front.
"Girl, shed that shirt."
The girl scowled fiercely.
"Need I remind you ?" The man's chair squawked back.
The girl shuddered.
Ward's fists curled as she shrugged out of the shirt to expose a red dress with a bodice that was far too revealing. Her skin flared bright pink.
"That's better. Now give us a little dance. And smile."
Red speared the man with a look so full of heat that when Ward jerked toward him, he thought he'd see scorch marks on his face. Instead, all he saw was a leer. Ward couldn't decide the man's age. Somewhere between his own and already worn out. The man had a clean-shaven face and wore a black coat that looked as if it might have belonged to a preacher, but the narrow set of his eyes and the humorless smile convinced Ward that the man was no preacher.
Red turned, revealing pale shoulders. Her dress didn't quite cover a red streak the width of a belt in the center of her back.
He didn't need such evidence to know that man named Thorton beat the woman, but seeing the bruise filled Ward with rage. He jerked to his feet, sending his chair skidding away. He'd walked away from this kind of abuse once before. He'd regretted it every day since. He would not walk away again. Not even from people he didn't know and who were none of his business.
Thorton jerked about at the noise of Ward's sudden rise. "Something bothering you, boy?"
"You beat this woman."
Thorton laughed. "Only way I can get her to do what I say. She's a bit headstrong, you might say. Ain't that right, fellas?"
The raucous laughter of the men fueled Ward's anger until it burned like an out-of-control forest fire. He was long past being reasonable and keeping his nose out of trouble. "I don't aim to stand back and allow some poor woman to be used as a punching bag."
"Is that a fact?" Thorton grinned. "Now ain't he a feisty little rooster?"
Ward caught Red's startled look, then she shook her head hard. As if telling him to leave it alone.
But he could not. Would not. "I'm telling you to let her go."
Thorton grabbed Red's arm. She cringed, then straightened and faced him squarely, defiance blaring from her eyes. But Ward knew it was only a defensive gesture. One he had grown familiar with. You can beat me all you want but you can't control my mind.
"She's mine," Thorton said. "I do with her as I please. Besides, I have a duty to control her. The good book says" The man puffed up his chest as if expounding words of utmost importance "'A man should rule his own household.' I aim to do exactly that."
Ward stepped closer. He had no plan. He didn't know if Red was the man's lawful wife or not. He only knew he would not allow the abuse to continue.
From somewhere a gun appeared in the hand of a man to Ward's left, leveled at Ward. "We paid to see her dance."
Ward hesitated, his gaze slowly shifting from the gun back to Red.
"This the way you want it, boy?" Thorton shoved Red away. She stumbled. Ward reached to stop her fall but she spun about as smooth as a fox and pushed the tipped chair of the nearest man, sending him crashing to the floor. Several men tumbled like dominos. The gun went off. Bedlam erupted.
Ward glanced down at himself. Saw no blood. He looked for Red. She was sprawled flat-out, a bright pink stain on her skirt.
"That'll bring the Mountie," a man near the door bellowed.
Men scattered, bursting through the door. Ward figured they must have about bowled over anyone approaching the saloon. Horses pounded away. Thorton had slipped into the back room. Only Ward and the saloonkeeper remained. And Red.
"Best get her out of here," the saloonkeeper said.
Ward didn't pause to ask questions or wonder. He scooped Red off the floor and beat it out the door. He scrambled to the back of his horse, Miss Red in his arms. No one asked him what he was doing or challenged his actions. Without a backward look he headed for home.
The bloodstain on Red's dress spread but his sense of decency forbade him checking it. Unless her life seemed threatened, and it didn't. He explored her scalp with his fingers, found a knot the size of an egg and discovered her tangled curls felt all springy and satiny under his fingers.
"I'll take you home and turn you over to Linette," he said. Linette was his boss's wife and she took in strays and injured people, fixed them up and made sure they had a safe place to continue their lives. "What with Eddiethat's the bossand the other cowboys, I don't expect you'll be bothered by Thorton again. Sure hope you're not married to that man or we'll have to deal with the law."
He urged the horse to a trot. He longed for a cool breeze, but the heat of midsummer beat down on them.
If he rode steady he could reach the ranch by the evening. At least with the long summer days there would still be some light. Not that he feared getting lost. 'Sides, if he did, the horse knew his way home.
Red moaned and clutched her head. She'd be confused when she came to, so he tightened his arms around her waist to prevent her from falling.
He knew the precise moment her senses returned. She stiffened like a rod. If he hadn't expected some sort of reaction, she'd have shimmied right out of his arms and likely landed on her head again, or under the horse's hooves.
"Relax. You're safe. Got a little gunshot wound, but I think it'll wait till we reach the ranch." He realized she hadn't heard his earlier words about Linette and Eddie, and repeated them, then gave his name.
She squirmed about to direct those green eyes at him. None of her defiance had faded. "Put me down right this minute."
"Ma'am miss you don't have to worry anymore. 'Less you're married to that" Best not call him a beast just in case "that man." He realized women married scoundrels. Usually because the man in question tricked them with words of love. Love? He snorted softly, hoping she wouldn't notice. Love made a person do foolish things. Made them regret decisions. Sort of messed up a man's or woman's thinking. He'd long ago decided it wasn't for him. Nope. He'd accept responsibility, work and do anything for people he cared about. But he would not allow his heart to rule his head.
She made an unladylike noise. "We are most certainly not married."
"Then you're safe. I'll take you to the ranch."
"I do not want to go to your ranch."
"It's not mine"
"Put me down this instant. Or better yet, take me back."
"You're safe with me."
She exploded into a ball of flailing legs and arms. Managed to scratch his cheek before he could corral her arms. She kicked the horse, sending him into a panicked bolt.
"Whoa. Whoa." Ward had to turn his attention to getting the horse under control before they both ended up on the ground miles from home. It should have been easy, but Red made sure it wasn't. He couldn't hold both her and the horse with only one set of hands, and she slipped under his arm and jolted to the ground.
No doubt she'd felt the pain of her wound, but he didn't have time to give her more than a passing thought as he fought to calm the horse. "Settle down. You're okay." Free of Red's vicious kicks, his mount settled.
Ward turned to see how Red fared. Her skin had turned pale as a sheet. Yet she flashed him continued defiance. He was beginning to understand the peculiar frustration of dealing with Red. He rode to her side and offered a hand. "Come on, get on and I'll take you"
She slapped him away. "I'm going back." She slapped the horse on his withers.
Ward held the horse under control. "Look, lady. You'll be safe from Thorton where I'm taking you."
She took a step, wavered. He kind of figured she was a little dizzy and probably her leg hurt some.
"Leave me alone."
"Yes, ma'am." He kept pace at her side as she took another step and another, continuing to sway like a tree before a brisk north wind. Only difference being a tree had roots that anchored it to the ground. Red had no roots, no anchor. Nothing to keep her from toppling.
He figured he'd be there when she went down.
She paused, sucked in air, pressed a palm to her eyes and slowly folded to the ground.
Ward jumped down and scooped her up. "Here we go again."
She moaned. Her eyes fluttered and she sank against his chest. She'd be a whole lot less trouble this way, but for all he knew she was bleeding to death under that crimson-stained dress.
He kicked the horse into a gallop. "Let's get home as fast as we can."
Red struggled briefly and ineffectively twice more before he topped the last hill. Thankfully the little town of Cross Bar wasn't any farther away. But at least it was far enough to discourage frequent visits. Maybe far enough to keep Thorton from riding after him.
He sauntered past the empty winter pens, thudded over the bridge and passed the new house where the foreman, Roper, lived with his new wife and the four children they'd rescued and adopted. Through the kitchen window, Roper saw him pass, lifted a hand in greeting, then saw Ward had his arms full and leaned closer.
The bunkhouse lay in darkness. The men would be out with the cows or sleeping.
He glimpsed the empty table in the cookhouse as he passed. His stomach growled. He hadn't eaten more than a mouthful of that stew back at the saloon. Maybe Cookie would rustle up something for him.
He continued up the hill toward the big house. As he drew closer, he saw Linette and Eddie through the window. Eddie glanced up as he'd heard the sound of Ward's approach, and went to the window. Ward waved and motioned toward the woman in his arms.
Eddie turned away and strode from the room, Linette in his wake. By the time Ward reached the door, they had flung it open.
"What do you have there?" Eddie called.
"Woman named Red. She's been shot."
Linette sprang forward. "How bad?"
"Haven't had a look. It's her leg."
"Off and on."
Linette reached for Red, but Ward didn't release her until Eddie took her and strode into the house. Ward leaped from his mount and followed.
"I ought to warn you. She's a little feisty."
Eddie chuckled. "Seems pretty standard behavior around here."
Linette's look held both denial and affection. "Let's get her into a bed so I can see how badly hurt she is."
Ward followed as far as the hallway leading to several bedrooms. He plucked his hat from his head and watched Eddie duck into the doorway Linette indicated. "She's in good hands now. I'm going to see if Cookie has anything for me to eat."
Linette turned. "Wait. Who is she? Where did you find her?"
He twisted his hat. He knew nothing about her except her name and he wasn't even sure "Red" was her real name. He'd simply rescued her from a man who ruled with his fists or a belt likely both and other things as well. "All I know is her name's Red and she was in a bad situation."
Linette studied him a moment, then nodded. "She'll get the attention she needs here."
Ward slapped his hat to his head and headed out the door. He cared for his horse, then went to the cookhouse to seek something to fill the hollows of his hungry stomach.
Only as he ate the generous plate of mashed potatoes and gravy and thick slices of beef, raised right on the ranch, the food failed to satisfy the emptiness around his heart that he seldom acknowledged that he'd carried since he'd walked away from his brothers and left them to deal with a situation that mirrored the one he'd found Red in. Sure he'd done it for the right reason, figuring the beatings would stop if he left.
But how could he be certain they did? Would he ever see his brothers again? Or his mother? Love had made her blind to the faults of the man she'd married a few years ago as a widow. The man who became Ward's cruel stepfather. Again he reminded himself, love made a person unable to see the facts.
He pushed the plate away and bolted from the table.