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Texas during Reconstruction
The air held the heavy stillness of August, warning of a late summer storm. The kind of storm that leaves a simmering dampness over the land. Weather that reminded Weston McLain of battlefields hot with gunfire and wet with blood and sweat.
A thin scar on his left cheek was another reminder. Along with nightmares that still stole his sleep and kept his Colt never far from his grip.
As the sun melted away, Wes rolled his wide shoulders along the rough brick building. His lean form straightened from the shadows of the alley and took a step toward the street. Without crossing into the lamplight, he watched in darkness while the good folks of Denton, Texas, filed into the church across the road. The A-frame building looked peaceful amid a town and state primed to explode.
But tonight, Wes wasn't concerned about the town, or the state. The explosion would erupt between him and a lovely lady he hadn't seen in two months. Angela Montago. She'd promised to marry him after a few moonlight kisses, though neither had spoken of love. He no longer believed in love anyway. He guessed she saw the marriage as a bargain, just as he did. Wes wanted a family, and she wanted a man as wealthy as her father.
He'd had no chance to tell her about his sudden loss of funds or how he planned to rebuild. The news of his poverty reached her before he could, and now the Montago gates were closed to him. He needed to explain how he would be back on his feet in a matter of weeks. She wouldn't see him, but heknew he wouldn't have long to wait, for Angela Montago was predictable.
She would attend church tonight. This time, she'd talk to him. There'd be no servants or family barring the door. If she had ended their plans of marriage after hearing of his loss, she could tell him to his face. He deserved that, at least, if her belief in him was so shallow. He'd never tell her of the map and the fortune in gold waiting for him if she refused to stand beside him now.
Angela and her older sister, Maria, never missed a traveling preacherthough tonight's bill seemed to belong more in a circus than a revival. Some circuit minister from Austin planned to exhibit a wild woman who'd lived with the Indians so long he claimed even her soul was savage. Wes had no doubt the benediction would ask for prayers and money to save her.
As he waited, a wagon rattled to a stop in the alley just behind him. Rough boards framed a cage in the wagon bed. A tiny creature could be seen between the slats' shadows.' She was almost too small to be a full-grown woman, huddling in the center with her hands chained to a ring. She wore a filthy, ragged dress several sizes too big. Her mud-colored hair was long and matted wildly about her. Wes couldn't tell if the smudges he saw along her bare arms were bruises or dirt. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"Get back!" the crusty driver yelled. "You'll see her at the service."
Wes ignored the warning and leaned toward the cage. There had been hundreds of accounts of kidnapping of settlers and their children. Most of the men and women didn't survive, but every few months children would be ransomed in trade or brought back by a friendly tribe. Wes had seen more than once, over the three years he'd been in Texas, children who'd grown up Indian and saw their rescue as a kidnapping from their tribe.
The man atop the wagon waved a withered hand and shouted again, "She's crazy wild and she'll kill you without blinking if she gets the chance." The driver lowered his voice when Wes didn't cower away. "So step back, mister." His tone grew more conversational. "I was told to wait here in the alley until time for the meeting to start. Nobody's s'posed to notice her till then."
Wes folded his arms and widened his stance as he glanced toward the street. No one looked in the direction of the alley. Most hurried toward the church.
The driver climbed down and tied the horses to the same railing Wes had used for his own mount. He pulled a bottle from beneath the seat and took a long draw as he eyed the street to see if anyone besides Wes witnessed.
The evening shadows hid his actions from any passerby, but the driver nodded toward Wes before leaning over and taking another drink.
In that glance, Wes met his stare in the moonlight and what he saw chilled the air. The man's eyes were tombstone gray, void of all kindness. Wes had seen men in the war with hate-fevered eyes and a few with a lust to kill reflected in their stare. But Wes would bet his last twenty-dollar gold piece that this man didn't hate, he simply didn't care about anything or anyone in life.
Wes didn't take his gaze off the girl in the cage as he asked the driver, "You the preacher talking about her tonight?"
"Naw." The man rested his withered arm against the wagon. "I'm just hired to get her here. The Rangers who found her gave her over to the reverend I work for part-time. No family would claim her. Can't say as I blame them. A woman who's caught like that living out in the wild.... She'd be better off dead."
He took another drink. "She fights us like a wildcat when we pull her through the crowds. Preacher's even tried to beat the devil out of her while a whole congregation watched, but there just ain't no helping her."
He slammed his fist against the slats as if to keep back a wild animal. "She's a lot of trouble. I liked it better when the preacher did a traveling magic show. You wouldn't believe the act he had. He could disappear with you standing right beside him." The driver finished off the bottle. "'Course, it don't pay like preaching does."
The man lifted his empty bottle, then moved onto the boarded walk. "Get near her at your own risk," he warned. "I'll be right back."
Wes glanced at the woman huddled like a wounded animal. She might be acting as part of the scam, or she might be insane. Either way, she'd fill the offering baskets.
An open carriage, flanked by well-armed guards, pulled to a stop between Wes and the street lamp. In sharp contrast to the chained creature in the alley's shadows, a young woman dressed in white stepped from the carriage. She was tall and walked like a queen. Her every movement spoke of breeding and wealth.
For a moment Wes could only stare. Angela was a woman who expected the world to stop and notice her entrance. Individually, none of her features were outstanding, but combined, they created an air about her. He hardly noticed her older sister and mother move from the carriage and flank her like twin generals.
"Evening, Angela." Wes crossed in front of her, guessing she would be angry at him. But his pride wouldn't allow him to start with an apology. "I was hoping I'd find you here. We need to talk."
She looked straight ahead. One gloved hand pushed back a wayward strand of velvet black hair. Wes had thought she'd be upset about his sudden poverty, but he never thought she'd lose faith in him. All his promises to her would still come true, they'd just take a little longer.
But she wouldn't look in his direction. She obviously thought her denial of attention would be a punishment worse than death for any man.
Her older sister, Maria, was the only one who faced him. "She doesn't wish to speak to you, Weston McLain, so step aside. You no longer exist in her world."
Wes glared past Maria to their mother. "I need to talk to Angela alone for a moment." He tried to keep the anger from his voice as he turned back to Angela.' "I need to explain." He had to tell this stately woman who had never wanted for anything in her life that he'd lost a fortune and had only himself to offer. He might have barely enough cattle left to feed them through the winter, but they'd make it. They could still start the family he'd planned and, in time, the ranch would grow. "Nothing's changed." Surely the strength he saw in her carriage was equaled in her character. She'd given her word and she'd take him as is now without knowing about his plan to be wealthy again in a few weeks.
Maria took a step forward, blocking Wes's view of the woman he'd hoped to marry. "You are wrong. Everything has changed, Mr. McLain."
Maria's anger snapped, sharpening her already angular features. "You are no longer engaged to my sister. As a former cavalry officer, I assume you will be gentlemen enough not to bother her again."
Wes advanced. "I'll hear that from her!"
He was so lost in the hardness of Maria's words and the coldness of Angela's stare, he didn't notice the Montago guards.
The riders were off their mounts and at his side. As he took another step toward Angela, their shoulders closed like a gate, blocking him from passing. He felt the cold press of a gun barrel against his ribs.
Maria smiled as Angela and her mother moved toward the church. "We have nothing else to say to you tonightor ever."
Wes struggled against the guards. "But we agreed. She promised we'd be married as soon as I returned. You'll not stop me"
A sudden blow into his midsection ended Wes's threat.
Moving a step closer, Maria whispered, "As a rich man, that scar across your face added character; but poor, Angela cannot stand the sight of you. Do not muddy her world with your presence again, or my father will have you killed."
Wes jerked against his bonds.
Another blow slammed into his rib cage.
Maria made a motion with her hand as though sweeping away trash toward the alley.
The Montago guards dragged Wes the few feet into the shadows. He fought wildly, angry more at Angela and life than at the men surrounding him. As others advanced, he downed several before two caught him from behind. While they held him, the others took turns plowing blows into his midsection.
Wes took the pounding without a sound. No one in Denton would help him if he called for aid. No one would go against the Montago family. Most would think he deserved such a beating. After all, he, an outsider, had courted a rich rancher's daughter. He dared to think he could step into the closed circle of ranchers with only his hard work to stake him.
Finally, a blow knocked him against the cage. He crumbled to the ground.
"Stay away from the Montago ranch, Yank," a Southern voice ordered. "Or the next time you won't be treated so kindly."
Wes tasted blood and felt along his ribs. "This isn't over."
The guard laughed and kicked Wes hard, folding him over in the dirt. "Yes, it is."
When Wes raised his head again, they were gone.
With great effort, he wrapped his fingers around one board of the cage and pulled himself up. Fighting not to cry out in pain, he held his side and stood in the darkness, knowing no one could see him from the street.
The pain in his body was nothing compared to the wound to his pride. Angela had been part of his dream ... the only part that hadn't died at the Red River when he'd watched two years of work vanish in one stormy stampede. He'd loved the ideal of her, a proper wife and family, though he hadn't loved her. They would have made a good match. But he'd never have that chance now, for the dream or the woman.
He gripped the slat tighter, his pride forcing him to straighten despite the pain.
Timid fingers moved from within the darkened cage and closed over his.
Wes raised his gaze to the woman on the other side of the boards. Kneeling inside her prison, she faced him. Her chains pulled tight against her wrists so she could touch his hand.
All the anger and hurt left him as she raised her hand and gently traced the scar along his face.
A tear bubbled in her eye and fell, cleaning a streak down her cheek.
Wes opened his hand and let her thin fingers lace through his. The world shifted as her cool palm pressed against his. The broken engagement didn't matter, or the beating, or even his lost wealth. All that mattered as he looked into dark blue eyes was this creature dressed in rags.
If it cost him his life, this woman would not be pulled through a crowd tonight!