|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||ST. MARTIN|
|Product dimensions:||4.22(w) x 6.77(h) x 0.88(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By Cheryl Anne Porter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Cheryl Anne Porter
All rights reserved.
Red River Station, the Chisholm Trail, north Texas April 4, 1870
Angel Devlin never even got a chance to mourn her mother's passing before she found herself being strung up, the torn and bruised guest of honor at a necktie party. Threatening voices and brutal hands reached out of the mob that surrounded her, hoisting her aloft and holding her suspended for a dust-choked second over the enraged men's heads. In the next instant, she was slammed down on the lathered back of a sidestepping white-eyed cow pony. The men's heartless handling of her pitched Angel forward, had her gasping in spine-jarring pain, with barely the presence of mind to sit the animal and clutch its tangled mane.
Scared, panicked, as mistreated as the innocent roan under her, her heart pounding, her long hair hanging in her eyes and tangled all about her face, Angel relied on her gut instinct to save her hide. She knew, from lifelong experience, that no one standing back by the assorted log cabins and shacks that comprised Red River Station, or over by the Silver Star Saloon, would lift a hand to help her.
Because, to them, she was of no consequence. They knew what her mother'd been. And they knew what Angel had done today. So now, as always, it was up to her. She had only one chance to escape the lynching that awaited her. But that was all she asked for—a chance. It was all she'd ever asked for. And unlike every other moment in her abrupt eighteen years of life, maybe this time she'd win that chance.
So, sensing the loosening of the hands that gripped her, and judging this to be her moment, she grasped the pommel tightly and dug her boot heels into the horse's ribs, gouging him and yelling, "Yee-haw. Git up!" The roan under her—held in place by the men but urged by his rider to take flight—froze into a stiff-legged posture, as Angel expected he would. She braced herself, held her breath. All hell was getting ready to bust loose. And she'd see that it did. Again she dug her heels into the horse's ribs, again she yelled for it to git up.
This time, the roan complied. Over the men's yells of "Hang on!" and "Watch out!", the horse fought to lower his head, fought the hands that gripped his bridle, that secured his unwilling participation in his rider's last moments on earth. Angel's grunts of effort matched her mount's bellows of outrage as he twisted and jerked, fighting as much, she knew, to unseat her as he did to free himself.
In his bucking efforts, he nearly succeeded in both. Angel's grip on the pommel broke. Teeth gritted, she clutched spasmodically at it, couldn't get her fingers to lock around it. Instinctively, she gripped tightly with her knees, turning in her toes, the better to circle the roan's ribs. Just when she thought she'd be thrown, her grasping fingers captured the coarse and reddish mane. She held on, despite the flailing, whiplike punishment the thick hair delivered to her exposed arms.
Just then, the horse pranced sideways, bumping against the nearest of the determined men and scattering them. Then, in its panic, it tried to rear, tried to bolt from under the heavy, low-hanging branch of the gnarled scrub oak that had proven, time and again, to be sturdy enough not to break under a body's weight. Something rough slapped against Angel's cheek. She jerked, cried out, snapping her head up ... only to see her destiny.
A knotted rope. A noose. The cowhands had tied a thick rope around the tree's trunk, had snaked its taut length up the bark, finally slinging it over a branch. At the rope's other end, the dangling noose now swung in the rain-dampened wind.
No. Angel's breath came in tight gasps. No. She relinquished her hold on the horse's mane, clutched the pommel and kicked out again. But this time, in her fear and rage, she aimed her kicks at the pitiless men imprisoning her. Finally, she connected. The howl of pain and the crunching of cartilage in some unknown cowpoke's nose brought a snarling smirk to her face.
But with that act, her chance died, just as did the early-spring breeze. One second it was there ... and in the next, it wasn't. The vengeful trail crew prevailed, maintaining their hold on the horse. They stopped its bucking and clutched at the muddied length of Angel's coarse-spun skirt, effectively keeping her atop her winded mount. The ruckus further settled as two men, now straddling the branch above Angel and facing each other, shoved the noose over her head and began pulling it tight around her neck, tangling her hair in the rope's grip.
Angel stiffened, sucked in a breath through flared nostrils, and sought, in her final desperation, a sympathetic face among the twelve cowhands surrounding her and so intent on ending her life. But there was none to be seen. Only hard, angry eyes greeted her, leaching from her any fight she had left. Sudden defeat, a constant companion to her bravado, had her bowing her neck, had her lowering her gaze until she stared at her white-knuckled hands, still fisted around the pommel.
Her vision blurred. Angel sniffed, hating the fear in her heart and the tears in her eyes. She wasn't a sniveling coward who'd go to her death begging for her life. That conviction made her clench her jaw in a resurgence of defiance as she willed herself to do this one thing ... this dying ... right. And that meant going out with squared shoulders and a curse for her killers. Her spine stiffened with intention. She straightened up, ready to deliver her last words.
But it was a whimper that escaped her, that betrayed her. A whimper and a plea. "No. Please ... no."
At that moment, a large callused hand seemed to come out of nowhere to cover hers. Angel stiffened, ready for yet another fight. But the man tightened his grip and said, in a low, gruff voice, "It's all right, sweetheart. I won't let them hurt you."
She should have sought his face, should have looked upon her would-be savior. But all Angel could do was stare at the hand sheltering hers. And try to believe him. Time seemed to stretch into thin, gauzy moments, marked by a rippling tide of sudden quiet that flowed outward from the man nearest her, out to the fringes of the gang ... perhaps all the way to the men observing from a distance, as if they too had heard the man's words and also waited.
The growing silence, the men's waiting, all suited Angel. Because while they did so, she was alive and drawing her next breath. But finally, she angled her head, peering through the dark and tangled waterfall of her hair, trying to make out the man's face. Most likely the last face she'd see in this life. And thus, she studied him. And saw him watching her do so.
Under his wide-brimmed hat, which revealed graying side-burns, the stranger's face was broad and weathered, lined by life and by wind, a face that had seen too much of the outdoors and too much of human nature. Dominating his craggy features were blue eyes with the saddest glint in them that Angel'd ever seen. She didn't know why he'd involved himself, why he would risk his own life to save hers. Nor did she care. Because right now she'd bargain with the devil himself, if need be. Then the man spoke again. "Did you hear me? I said I won't let them hurt you."
Angel stretched her neck against the rope's cloying grip and rasped out, "From where I'm sitting, mister, it appears that they're more likely to kill me than they are just to hurt me."
The barest of nods from him, and perhaps a ghost of a grin, accompanied his words. "I always figured you for one with some grit inside you, Angel."
With that, the big man turned his attention to the lynch mob, drawing his gun with one hand and relinquishing his grip on her to hold the skittish horse's reins with his other. He called out to the men for calm, began trying to get to the bottom of the lynching. And that was when Angel realized that he'd called her by name.
Frowning, her eyes narrowed, she riveted her gaze on the man. Forcing a calm born of hopefulness onto her thoughts, she tried to reason. He'd called her Angel. But he'd also called her sweetheart. So maybe his saying angel was just a coincidence, no more than another pet name to him. It had to be. Because she'd never seen this man before in her life. But then she recalled his exact words. I always figured you for one with some grit inside you. Always figured? He'd have to know her to figure anything about her.
But he could've just seen her around the station. He didn't have to know her to watch her from afar, to make conclusions about her nature. That was true enough. But whoever he was, she felt certain in that moment that she would never forget him.
The two cowboys perched on the limb above her quickly abandoned it when the stranger poked a hole in the air with his raised pistol and fired off a round to silence the men's renewed protests. "All right, you listen to me and you listen good," he was bellowing to the men surrounding them both. "I don't know what she's done. But—"
"Stay out of this, Daltry. She killed Jeb Kennedy. Our trail boss. And in cold blood. Stabbed him right through the heart with his own knife, she did," a skinny, scraggly cowboy called out. "That ain't mud all over her. That's his drying blood."
The man called Daltry jerked his disbelieving gaze back to Angel, sweeping her torso with one glance before looking directly into her eyes. She knew the damning blood was there for him to see. Yet she refused to look away. She returned his stare, but with the assessing solemnity and cool detachment that she reserved for those foolhardy enough to stand with her and try to defend her. She raised an eyebrow, as much as asking Are you still so all-fired ready to help me? As if this were a test he had to pass.
"See there? She don't even deny it. And now she's got to pay for it," another of the trail crew said. Daltry turned to face the speaker, who continued his tirade. "We all know you, Mr. Daltry, and our quarrel ain't with you. But it will be, if you don't step aside right now."
Thus incited, the men surged forward, calling for her blood and raising their fists in open threat. Angel tensed, as did the roan under her.
But her protector, this stranger named Daltry, leveled his pistol until it pointed right between the eyes of the man who'd spoken last, startling them all into stopping short. Then he cocked it—a loud, metallic sound in the sudden stillness—and drawled, "One more step, and you'll be the first one to die, Evans. Like you said—you know me. So you know I ain't bluffing. Tell 'em to back off."
But Evans didn't. He didn't say anything, nor did he budge. Angel didn't even dare breathe. Then, "All right. Have it your way," Daltry said. "And tell your friends what you want 'em to say about you on your headstone."
The air crackled, burned with an acrid scent, as if the gray-haired man's words were bullets he'd fired from his weapon. Finally, into the tense silence, Evans blurted, "Okay, I give." He pivoted to face the other men and raised a cautioning hand. "Hold up right there. She ain't worth dying over, no-how."
Angel raised her chin a notch at the man's words. She wasn't worth dying over. She'd heard that said about her before. Maybe a thousand times. But in this particular instance, her lack of worth just might save her life. A grim irony tugged at her lips, had her shaking her head, even as the men melted back some. Could it be that they really were going to give up, maybe let her live?
She glanced over at Daltry in time to see him relaxing his gun hand. Maybe so. Maybe she would make it through this day, would see the sun set. As she watched, Daltry lowered his pistol to his side, but didn't holster it as he told Evans, "Smart man."
Swallowing as best she could around the noose's scratchy thickness against her windpipe, and feeling hollow inside, Angel remained silent and kept her gaze on the stranger. She couldn't figure him out. At risk of his own life, he'd challenged the mob with no more than a cold stare and a steady gun hand. All for her. But why? She had no answers, only questions, as he continued to speak.
"This girl's no more a cold-blooded murderer than any of you are. So, what the hell happened here?"
"I'll tell ya—if'n you'll first tell us how come you're so all-fired concerned with what happens to a dead whore's daughter." This from the skinny cowboy who'd first challenged Daltry.
A dead whore's daughter. The man's words bounced off Angel ... because she willed them to. But a muscle jumped in her jaw, her gut tightened. She refused even to blink, as Daltry holstered his gun and bowed out his chest, warning, "Watch your mouth, Sully, or I'll watch it for you."
"All I did was speak the truth," the man whined.
"Truth or no, keep it to your sorry self." Daltry's warning came framed in a grimace of disgust.
But was his distaste really for Sully? Or was it for her? Angel wondered. Shame had her lowering her head, had her staring at her white-knuckled hands. This particular slur—whore's daughter—had been flung at her all her life. Surely it should've lost its sting by now. And perhaps, on any other day, it wouldn't hurt. But not today. Because only this morning, in the driving rain, alone except for the grumbling grave-digger, she'd buried her mother next to her long-dead father.
Just then, breaking into Angel's thoughts, Daltry's hand once again covered hers, once again startled her. She met his gaze, but allowed nothing of the inner turmoil that roiled her guts to show on her face. The man's grip tightened with his question. "Is it true, Angel? She's dead? Mrs. Devlin—your mother's dead?"
The note of regret, of caring, in the man's voice pierced Angel's armor. Her throat worked. The barest of nods had to suffice as her answer. Daltry's grip tensed, loosened ... his hand finally slipped away from hers. He took a deep breath, let it out, turned a hard stare on the men, and stepped away from Angel's side to go talk with them in quiet tones.
Although she felt better with him closer to her—since she still had the noose around her neck, and no one held the skittish roan in place—Angel couldn't have been more grateful for Daltry's turning away. She hated that he'd broken through to her. Hated it. And hated him for doing it. She'd fought too hard not to feel anything for her mother's passing. Fought too hard to deny she did or could feel anything for the woman.
And she'd be damned if she would allow grief a place in her heart now. She would be damned—would take it to her grave first—before she would let the pain of it show on her face. Especially in front of these men.
And so, lost and alone, she sat there, bereft of words, willing instead that the hardness in her heart would firm her features, would settle itself on her face. Another thing she hated was having no say in her own fate. She could do nothing to free herself, even given the men's present inattention to her. Surely, if she were to raise her hands to work the noose free, she'd spook the danged horse and end up killing herself. And she had no intention of doing that. She was too ornery to die by her own hand, to give up like that.
And so, with no choice, no course of action—only patience—open to her, she fumed and waited for the men to decide her fate. Would they allow a peaceable end to this scene? Or would they hang her? Right now, she didn't care which because she was getting mighty tired of being a public spectacle atop this roan. Tiring now even of her own thoughts, Angel focused on the men, settling her gaze on Mr. Daltry's back, on his oilskin slicker.
And found that, quite unbidden, her mind wandered again to the note of caring that had saturated his voice and his words only a moment ago. Then it hit her. Her spine stiffened. Devlin. Her surname. He'd used it. Her mind leaped to further conclusions. His calling her Angel a moment ago hadn't been a coincidence.
Her heart pounding, she frowned, narrowed her eyes at the man's back. Who was he that he would care what happened to her? Because now she knew—he did care. That much was obvious. His actions were not those of a mere stranger possessed of compassion for her plight. Because he didn't just know of her ... he knew her. Knew her mother, too. Angel cocked her head, carefully brushed her hair out of her eyes, and wondered about him, about a man who would call the town whore Mrs. Devlin.
Then it came to her. That was it—the town whore. The saloon. That's how he knew her. Maybe he was just one of the more polite customers her mother'd ... entertained. A stab of soul-deep disappointment made Angel slump in the saddle. But instantly, the noose around her neck tautened, cut off her air, reminded her to sit up straight. Angel did, taking the rope's reminder as good advice.
Stiffening her spine again until she sat erect, she watched Daltry come back to her side. Watched him stare blankly at her skirt-covered leg. Watched his mouth work in a way that spoke of pain, of an aching hurt in the middle of the soul, one that Angel knew all too well ... even if she did refuse to acknowledge it.
Excerpted from Captive Angel by Cheryl Anne Porter. Copyright © 1999 Cheryl Anne Porter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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