Though her father had lost his life pursuing the dream of striking it rich in Arizona, Johanna is determined to succeed where he had failed. Instead, she comes close to losing her virtue on the trail west. Rescued by a dark-eyed, dangerous-looking stranger, she has no choice but to hire him to drive her wagon. Wade Mitchell, she discovers, is hiding something. But then, her mother had raised her on secrets, and now Johanna has one of her own: her powerful attraction to the rugged gunman. Wade can claim her body and soul if he will just give her his heart.
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Night of the Wolf
By Elaine Barbieri
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Elaine Barbieri
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe trail was deeply rutted and dusty. It bounced Johanna's recently purchased covered wagon from side to side with a seesawing motion that was almost nauseating. The wagons ahead of her kicked up a dust that settled inevitably on everything, coating her skin, the plain cotton dress she wore, and the simple coil of her hair with an itchy layer of grit.
Yet another difficult lesson she was learning.
Johanna gazed at the terrain through which they were passing. Rolling plains surrounded the long line of forty-odd wagons strung out evenly under the noon sun. The brilliant color of wild-flowers spotted waving grasses, and the blue sky overhead was unmarred by a single cloud. The flat Texas landscape stretched out as far as the eye could see, as beautiful as it had been described in the articles that had whetted her appetite for this journey. Those descriptions had not prepared her, however, for the reality of insects that buzzed relentlessly around her sweat-dotted forehead, for the lack of bathing facilities, for the tedious pace of the wagons as they moved slowly forward, for the merciless heat that baked her skin. Reality was far different from the highly romanticized description of the "last wagon train heading west."
The journey will give you an opportunity to really see the country as you travel toward your appointment with destiny.
That statement, spoken by a fast-talking salesman, had convinced her to buy into the dream. A naïve Yankee city girl recalling every book she had ever read about the West, she remembered considering herself fortunate to have arrived in Texas in time to become a part of this "historical experience."
Her first mistake.
Johanna suppressed a frown as she glanced at the swarthy fellow driving her wagon. Thomas Riggs was shaggy-haired, bearded, and unwashed. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin was oily, and he stank; but he had not looked or smelled like that when she'd hired him to drive her wagon a week earlier. He had been reasonably well dressed then, and he had been sober, too. She had purchased a wagon and team of horses infinitely more difficult to manage than the docile horse and lightweight buggy she had occasionally driven, and she had realized her only recourse was to find a person who could handle that job for her. Since she had already invested the majority of her savings in the venture and the wagon train was leaving the following day, she had hired Riggs on the spot.
Johanna looked again at the swaying, slobbering drunk who held her team's reins so precariously. They had been on the trail for only a day when Riggs appeared less than sober. Within two days, he was drinking openly in her presence. A week later, he had revealed his true colors by becoming argumentative and uncooperative about every aspect of the journey. Actually, he embarrassed her in so many ways that-
"Get that wagon in line, Riggs!"
Johanna turned toward the source of the booming command that snapped Riggs' attention to the wagon master who rode up beside their wagon. Openly agitated, Gerald McMullen was gray-haired, bearded, of medium height, and tightly muscled despite his years. He was also obviously experienced in a job he took seriously, and was angry enough to spit. Johanna didn't blame him. McMullen was responsible for the safety of this "last wagon train heading West," and he had warned Riggs countless times to keep the wagon in line ... not to allow it to drift ... not to let it fall behind, but his warnings were ignored. McMullen was getting tired of it, and so was she.
Watching as McMullen rode away with a deadly warning glance, Johanna poked Riggs in the ribs and ordered sharply, "You heard the wagon master. Get this team in line, and catch up to the rest of the wagons."
"Don't go giving me orders, lady!" His expression ugly, Riggs said through yellowed, tightly clenched teeth, "That wagon master is picking on me and you know it!"
"Picking on you? McMullen has warned you countless times not to lag behind the others."
"So that's the way it is. You're taking his side against me."
"Taking his side? McMullen is responsible for everyone's safety and you're making things difficult." Her temper flaring, Johanna stared into Riggs' eyes and said more softly, "Do what he says, and do it now!"
"You're turning out to be a feisty little runt, aren't you?" Riggs' sickening smile flashed as he looked at her more closely. "Maybe I should let this wagon fall back even farther so we can settle things between us once and for all."
"Keep up with the train, Riggs!"
Riggs drew back slowly on the reins and said, "Maybe I don't want to."
His implication unmistakable, Johanna reached under the seat in desperation and gripped the handle of the derringer she had placed there. She drew it up into sight and pointed it at him with an expression that gave no quarter as she said flatly, "You don't have to believe I'm a good shot, Riggs, considering all the errors in judgment I've made so far, but at this distance, it won't make much difference. So I suggest that you keep this wagon in line just like Mr. McMullen says."
Uncertainty flickered briefly across his expression as Riggs said, "You wouldn't shoot me. You wouldn't have nobody to handle your wagon for you then."
"Maybe I wouldn't, but then again, maybe I'd be better off without you."
"You can't keep that gun on me forever."
"No, but I can keep it on you until you sober up."
"I ain't drunk!"
The sound of approaching hoofbeats turned Johanna briefly toward McMullen as he approached again. He stopped beside the wagon to question tightly, "Is this fella back-talking you, ma'am?"
Johanna hedged, "He's drunk and he's feeling his oats."
"Maybe he should sleep it off, then."
Riggs laughed at McMullen's response. "This wagon won't drive itself, so you'd better come up with another answer, boss man."
His wiry brows locking, McMullen replied solemnly, "Maybe I will, but in the meantime, I'm warning you to behave yourself. Keep that wagon in line and don't force the lady to use that little gun she has pointed at you ... because if she misses, I won't."
Staring at him a moment longer, the wagon master rode off as Riggs sneered, "Maybe he's the one who should sleep it off. There ain't nobody else on this wagon train who's going to take over the reins of this wagon, and he knows it."
"You think so?" Her expression stiffening, Johanna said warningly, "Just remember one thing: This wagon train may have been a mistake for me, but I'll do what I have to do to get by. I always have, and I always will. That's why I've got a gun pointed at you right now, and that's why I'm not afraid to use it."
Silent for long moments, Riggs grunted and then slapped the reins on the lead horse's back. Inwardly quaking, Johanna breathed a sigh of relief when the team surged forward and swung into line.
She had been saved-but she was sure of one thing: She would have pulled the trigger on Riggs if she had needed to, because she had meant what she said. She had made her full quota of mistakes already. She would not allow herself to make another.
What was that sound?
Pausing to draw back cautiously on the reins of his heavily lathered horse, Wade Bartlett scrutinized the flat, sunlit plain surrounding him with eyes that were darkly ringed with exhaustion. There was no one in sight for miles on the flat terrain, and he made a gruff, disgusted sound. He had been riding with only short breaks for days. His mount was fatigued and he was getting jumpy from lack of sleep. That was to be expected, he supposed, when a man was fleeing from a persistent posse, but he didn't like it. He didn't want to start hearing or imagining things that would dull his reactions if and when a threat finally appeared.
The hand that had gone automatically to his gun relaxed, and Wade nudged his mount into motion. Murder-a deliberate, single shot that had ended the life of an innocent young woman-had infuriated the small town of Millborn, Texas. He couldn't blame anybody for that. The only problem was that the posse was after the wrong man.
It was true that he had been a stranger in Millborn, and that with dark hair and eyes, an intense, unsmiling expression, and an intimidating stature-not to mention the gun that was never far from his side-his appearance was naturally threatening. The fact that he knew how to use his gun was also apparent. And it was true that he had gotten friendly with Mary Malone, but he hadn't used his gun on her. Mary had been sweet and sincere. Their friendship might eventually have turned into something more, but he'd had no reason to kill her. He had simply arrived for dinner at the ranch she shared with her father and had found her lying in a pool of blood. He had tried to revive her and had been found with her blood on his hands.
He had been arrested on the spot when his gun was checked and found to have one bullet recently fired. No one gave him a chance to explain that he had killed a rattlesnake that was coiled and ready to strike as he had ridden toward the Lazy M that day. The sheriff had done his best to protect him, but Wade's unwarranted reputation as a gunslinger had fueled the anger of the community. He had seen the mob gathering outside the jail. He had also seen the rope knotted into a noose meant for him.
Wade lifted his hat from his head and ran his fingers through the heavy dark hair matted to his scalp. He took a deep breath and squared broad shoulders covered with a faded, sweat-stained shirt. He was starting to become too tired to think. He hadn't shaved, bathed, or even slept in a week. He needed to rest.
Taking another deep breath in the hot breeze, Wade wiped his arm across his sweat-beaded forehead and put his hat back on his head. Then he pushed his weary mount on, truly uncertain when and how he had earned his reputation as a gunslinger.
Granted, he had become a drifter after his pa died when he was seventeen, leaving him alone. During the eight years that had passed since then, he'd had no desire to put down roots. He had worked as hard as any man when his funds ran low, and he had used his gun only when necessary; yet somewhere along the way, his accuracy and quick reflexes had earned him a reputation that others sought to challenge. He had met those challenges when pressed, but despite the draw-back of an unfounded reputation, his expertise had never before become a personal threat.
Suddenly aware that his mind was beginning to wander, Wade frowned more darkly. He needed to get out of the sun for a while-somewhere safe. He was too easy to follow on the flat, naked plain, and the posse tracking him was relentless.
Wade drew back on the reins as a familiar dark line moved slowly into view.
Could it be ... a wagon train?
It was either a wagon train or a mirage.
Hesitating only a moment, Wade kicked his mount into motion, determined to find out.
Gerald McMullen drew his horse to a halt and squinted at the fellow riding toward him. He had spent the greater part of his youth leading wagon trains west, and he had jumped at the opportunity to repeat those glory days for the last time. The pay was good, but he was older now, and he was fast becoming wiser. The responsibility for guiding people who had sold off most of their possessions in order to follow a dream was heavier than he remembered. He needed to do right by them.
Aware that the stranger approaching the train was another potential problem, he scrutinized the surrounding plain with a quick glance. There had been attacks on deserted ranches in the area in recent months. An innocent-looking rider had been used as a decoy to find out more about the potential prey each time while the rest of the gang moved into position. He was well aware of the vulnerability of his train.
McMullen straightened up in the saddle as the rider came closer. He frowned when the man drew his horse back so he could ride alongside him.
"There hasn't been a wagon train in these parts in a dog's age," the rider said. "Where's this one heading?"
McMullen studied the fellow with a wary eye. The stranger was a big man with dark, shaggy hair. He had dark brows and eyes ringed with exhaustion. He was sporting a week's worth of beard, his clothes were sweat-stained, and both man and beast had the look of a pair badly in need of water and rest.
In spite of it all, the stranger looked dangerous.
McMullen studied him a moment longer, silently reasoning that no one with a lick of sense would expect this fellow to lull anyone into a false sense of security.
McMullen responded cautiously, "We're heading west ... to Oregon territory. Most of the folks in these wagons are traveling in answer to a promotion that offers them an opportunity for free land and a new life if they participate in this 'historic journey.'"
"Oregon territory, huh? That sounds good to me." The man offered offhandedly, "My name is Wade ... uh ... Mitchell. Do you mind if I ride along for a few days?"
McMullen replied, "Nobody rides along on this wagon train without working his way. I could use an extra hand if you're at loose ends, though, so if you're willing to pull your weight while you're with us, you're welcome."
"I suppose that's fair."
"Damned right it is."
McMullen noted that a trace of a smile flashed across the stranger's face as he replied, "It's a deal, then."
Frowning, McMullen added, "I suppose you can call it that." He paused, adding, "And I suppose you'll be wanting some water for your horse and you."
"That would be right fine."
"You'll be wanting someplace to rest, too, no doubt." At the stranger's uncertain glance, he commented, "Truth is, I can't remember when I last saw a fella looking as worn out as you do."
"There's some truth to that, too."
Making a snap judgment, McMullen said, "My wagon is the first one in line. Tell Bruce I said you could tie up your horse in back and snooze inside for a while."
Noting the stranger's wariness at his offer, McMullen said, "You ain't doing me no favors, you know. I figure you're no good to anybody as tired as you look, and I got plenty for you to do when we stop for the night."
The stranger did not reply.
"Besides, if you don't water and rest that mare soon, she's going to fall down under you." That last comment seeming to make up his mind, the stranger said abruptly, "You said your wagon is the first one in line?"
The newcomer headed toward the front of the train without responding.
Johanna looked at the long line of wagons ahead of them. She glanced at her driver's furrowed brow. The sun was beginning to set and the train would soon stop for the night. Then everyone would start the ritual of preparing the hot meal of the day, which meant a primitive dinner of salt pork and beans for her, considering her culinary talents. Accustomed to finer fare, she inwardly groaned.
As for Riggs, she had kept her derringer trained on him all afternoon. When he had picked up the whiskey bottle at his side in an attempt to refortify himself, she had knocked it out of his hand. The contents had spilled out onto the ground when it fell, and Johanna was sure that if she hadn't held her derringer steady, Riggs would have vented his frustration on her with a heavy hand.
No, the excursion that she had dreamed about most of her life was not working out exactly as planned.
Johanna blinked back unexpected tears at the thought that a month had already passed since she had last seen her sisters. She had left them with high hopes for carrying out the dream she cherished. The decision to separate had been difficult for her sisters and her, but after years of the restricted lifestyle their mother had forced on them, each was determined to accomplish her own dream.
Meredith, the eldest, had spent most of her life in New York City, but she was born in Texas. Because her mother refused to discuss the past, Meredith had become driven to discover her roots. She had left for Texas as soon as the time came for them to strike out on their own. Johanna could not fault her sister for wanting to fill in some of the empty spaces in her life, but that had not been her goal.
Excerpted from Night of the Wolf by Elaine Barbieri Copyright © 2007 by Elaine Barbieri. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a good book. I liked the story, although it was a bit far fetched at times. It was a sweet romance as well as a bit of exciting thriller at times.
The sound of a wolf howling has always frightened Letty Wolf because she knows what it means. So when she hears the noise that rips her gut apart, she fears for her second oldest daughter, Johanna Higgins, who is heading to the Arizona Territory where her father died.------------------ On the trail, Johanna, hearing the wolf's howl, knows she is in trouble. Her warning proves true, but Wade Mitchell saves her from a rape. She hires him to drive her wagon. As Wade and Johanna fall in love, he knows he must let her go as he is on the run from the law if the posse catches up to him, they might act more like a mob and string him up for a murder he swears he did not commit.------------- The second Wolf paranormal western romance (see SIGN OF THE WOLF for oldest daughter Meredith¿s tale) is a fascinating historical. The story line is fast-paced and the lead couple appears to have no chance together although both want it with all of their respective heart. This is a terrific tale in which every time the wolf howls, sub-genre fans will hear the sounds and wonder what tragedy is about to occur.------------ Harriet Klausner