After the brutal murder of their parents at the hands of American soldiers, Nina Juarez and her brother Emilio have learned to survive by any means necessary. Skilled with horses and not much else, the two make their name as outlaw wranglers.
But Nina, weighed down with the guilt of their crimes and yearning to settle down, wants out of the business. After their next target, Nina’s headed for California or bust.
When plans go awry, Nina finds herself at the mercy of an army officer on his last mission. She owed these gringos nothing, but now she owes the handsome Lt. Clay Youngblood her life.
Clay, enchanted by his encounter with this Mexican beauty, does the unthinkable for a lawman—he lets her go free. Now Nina is caught between the law, her brother, and the only man capable of taming her heart.
“A unique and wonderful story.” —Janelle Taylor, New York Times–bestselling author of the Gray Eagle series
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Eighteen-year-old Nina Juarez always felt daring and victorious when she rode into Texas from her motherland of Mexico. As far as she was concerned, she was not leaving Mexico at all when she came here, for, she reasoned, this land should still belong to her people, not the land- hungry, murdering Americans who had stolen it from them. She was not ashamed of what she and her brother Emilio, did now for survival. It was a fitting revenge against the greedy gringos. They had stolen from her people; now she and Emilio stole back from them: horses, and the best they could find when on their raids of white settlements and ranches.
"Ándale!" she urged a straggling mare ahead of her. She gave the beautiful horse a light tap on the rump with a piece of twisted rope. "Keep moving, pretty lady." Nina smiled with pride. When she and her brother first got into horse trading, they had gone after only the wild mustangs, but soon Emilio, who was four years older, decided it would be more effective to take those horses already corralled and tamed. They were easier to find, especially now that Texas was becoming so settled, with so many people chasing the wild herds into more remote country where the Comanche and a few Apache still posed a serious threat.
Emilio had found a dependable buyer who had connections all over the West, a man Emilio and Nina knew only as Hernandez. The man took any horses they brought him, and asked no questions. All she and Emilio had to do was capture and take off with them without being caught. Hernandez paid them well and in turn sold the horses to willing buyers, whose names he never disclosed. There were times when Nina wondered if what they were doing was right with God, but Emilio had convinced her it was.
We are only taking from people who stole from us, people who killed our mother and father, he always reminded her. There is nothing wrong in what we do. The Americans took everything from us and left us poor orphans. We do what we must do to survive. As long as it is only gringos who suffer a loss, then we have done nothing wrong. Emilio always seemed to make sense, and brother and sister shared an equal hatred for the gringos.
Nina would never forget the day Texans had come and raided her parents' ranch, men who claimed to be soldiers, but whose uniforms were ragged and mismatched. They had shot down her father, raped her mother in front of her before killing her. They had trampled and burned her father's crops, burned the outbuildings, stolen all the livestock. They had left her and Emilio nothing but memories of the horror of that day. She had only been nine then, Emilio thirteen. They had buried their parents and had survived by their wits ever since.
Emilio's heart still burned with a need for vengeance, and he was satisfying that need by stealing gringo horses. Both of them had become adept at their trade, and Nina enjoyed hearing Emilio laugh with victory whenever they got away with another raid. He was so full of hurt and hate that it was soothing to see him find some form of happiness, even if it came from what others would consider lawlessness.
Nina knew that Emilio felt a keen sense of responsibility to take care of her. Every time he sold more horses to Hernandez, he would buy her something special, always seeming to be trying to make her happy and erase the horror of the day the Texans came.
She watched Emilio as he rode toward her. She was proud of his dashing good looks. He was full of fire and passion, his blood running hot tonight with the excitement of their latest theft. "We should reach Hernandez by morning," he told her. "Then we can rest. Are you all right?"
"I can stay in the saddle just as long as you, mi hermano."
Emilio laughed. Sí. "I should not have asked. Just be careful. You know it is dangerous riding in the dark, but the moon is our friend tonight, no? We will be many miles away by the time that rancher finds his horses missing. We were so quiet, I think those gringos slept soundly right through the whole thing! If they manage to track us, they will follow us only to where we meet Hernandez and then we will be on our way, with money in our pockets — money the gringos helped us earn! We should thank them." He laughed again before leaving her to circle behind a few gently running mares.
Nina smiled, trying to ignore the sadness that hit her at unexpected moments. She loved her brother, and usually she had no regrets about what they were doing, but lately a little voice had been speaking to her, nudging her, making her think about things that never used to concern her. Most of the time she wanted to be here with Emilio, enjoyed the adventure and danger, but another part of her wanted to be sitting in front of a hearth nursing a baby. She was not sure when such thoughts began invading her mind. It was as though there was another side to her, a woman lurking somewhere inside her, a woman trying to climb her way to freedom.
For nine years now she had thought of nothing but survival, had always turned to Emilio for everything she needed. Her brother jealously guarded her, fully aware of the nightmares that plagued her after being forced to watch her mother's brutal attack. The thought of allowing a man to get too close frightened her, and she had never taken a romantic interest in any of the young men who befriended Emilio, even though she did have these longings for a home and babies. There was only one way to make babies, and she was not ready for that. She knew her brother's friends thought her beautiful. Emilio had told her often how they felt, told her of some who wanted to court her, but Nina was not interested.
For now, life was just fine the way it was. Again she put away unpleasant thoughts, concentrating on herding the horses ahead of her. They should reach Hernandez's ranch by tomorrow morning. They would get good money for these fine animals. Maybe she could finally buy the new pair of riding boots she needed so badly.
First Lieutenant Clay Youngblood walked into Major Keller's office. He stood at attention while the major finished some paperwork. When he looked up, Clay saluted. Keller gave a reply salute. "At ease, Lieutenant," he said, thinking how Youngblood's tall, broad frame seemed to fill the room. "Have a chair."
Youngblood sat down, curious as to why he had been summoned. He had been in the Army long enough to know that being singled out usually meant special duty, and often something unpleasant. He was aware there had been more Indian trouble lately, along with a rash of horse stealing in the outlying areas.
"You've been in the Army seven years now, Lieutenant," Keller spoke up. "Just a little under a year left. Are you going to continue with us at the end of this term of service?"
Clay studied the balding man's gray eyes before answering. "Not this time, sir," he said in a firm, deep voice. He shifted in his chair, wondering why the major had asked. "I joined up for personal reasons. My wife had died. I needed the discipline and rigid duty to keep my mind occupied ... too busy to think about things better forgotten. At any rate, I've learned that life goes on. I'm thirty years old, and if I'm going to have a normal life, with a wife and children and a place of my own, I'd better get started. I thought I'd maybe head for California, start a new life."
"California?" The major's eyebrows arched. "You tired of Texas?" The man watched Clay smile, a broad grin framed by full lips and a square jawline.
"Not especially," Clay answered. "But I've heard California is beautiful. Good weather, lots of good land for farming or ranching. I just thought it would be best to start over someplace completely new."
Keller sighed. "You're a good man, Youngblood. I hate to lose you, but I respect your decision. At any rate, I have an assignment for you that will take you away from Camp Verde. You'll go to the Gulf Coast for a while, which should be pleasant enough, and after that you'll be heading for California, so you'll get to see it for yourself. That should help you decide whether or not you want to stay there. Either way, a handsome young man like yourself ought to appreciate such an assignment — going to the Gulf and making a journey to California — lots of pretty little seÃ±oritas out there."
Clay laughed, a little embarrassed. His deep-blue eyes sparkled with humor, and he removed his hat, running a hand through sandy hair that showed streaks of blond from exposure to the Texas sun. His face sported a ruddy tan. "Why do I have the feeling you're buttering me up, sir? When we're given an assignment, we aren't usually tempted with the prospect of finding women, and I've never heard of any Army assignment that left us time for philandering."
Keller grinned, leaning forward, his elbows on his desk. "Well, you're right, Lieutenant. This could be the adventure of your life — or it could be a disaster, and it has nothing to do with women. I wasn't all for it myself in the beginning, but, like you, I just take orders from someone higher up."
Clay toyed with his hat. "And what are my orders, sir?"
Keller rose. He was a short, round man, but brick solid. "Lieutenant, normally I would just call you in here and have you stand at attention while I bark out my orders. I am being a little more lenient here." He walked to a window and looked out a moment, then turned to face Clay. "I decided this project warranted some preparation and discussion. I couldn't choose just any man for this since it's such an unusual project."
Clay watched his eyes. "Dangerous?"
The major looked almost ready to laugh. "That depends. Not dangerous in the way it might be going out after the Comanche or horse thieves. Fact is, I'm doing you a favor. Since you have just a year left, why should I send you into dangerous Comanche country? You've risked your life time and again fighting Indians. No, this assignment isn't dangerous, except that a man might get kicked or bitten." Keller rubbed at his lips as though he didn't quite know how to say what he had to say. "What do you know about camels, Lieutenant?"
Clay blinked, hardly believing the question. "Camels?"
Was this a joke? "Well ... next to nothing, sir. I've seen pictures of them. I've never been to a circus to see one live."
The major seemed embarrassed. He scratched his head nervously as he headed back to his desk. "Well, you're going to learn a lot about them, Lieutenant, firsthand."
The major folded his arms. "Lieutenant, a few months ago Congress allocated several thousand dollars to purchase some camels from a country called Alexandria, to be used in an Army experiment."
Clay shook his head. "I don't understand, sir. I mean, since I know nothing about the beasts, how am I going to be involved in this?"
The major leaned over his desk again, bracing himself with his hands. "I'm sending a platoon to the Gulf to meet the ship that's bringing the camels. It's a specially modified storeship called the Supply, and it will land at Indianola, a port near Galveston, with thirty or so camels aboard. I want you to be in charge of the platoon, and I want you to bring the camels back here to Camp Verde."
"Me? But I just told you, I don't know anything about camels."
"You don't have to. There are supposed to be some Arabs along to help. Your job is just to keep things organized. I'm not sure how easy that's going to be, but if anyone can do it, you can."
Clay frowned in exasperation. Camels? He didn't know whether to be glad or angry. It seemed like a ridiculous assignment. He could end up looking like a fool. "Sir, I appreciate being spared from danger, but ... camels?"
Major Keller moved to sit back down in his chair. "You're thinking this is some kind of insult."
"No, sir. It's just — "
"Lieutenant, this is a very important assignment. I assure you, Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, is behind it. Another major, a Major Wayne, has been working to bring it about — went to Alexandria himself to learn about camels and buy the best ones he could find so that we could experiment with them here in the American desert. He'll be coming out here to help with the entire project. It may prove interesting, Lieutenant. Did you know that camels can go many days without water, sometimes weeks or even months if the temperatures remain cool?"
"I've heard they can go a long time, but I didn't know it was that long. They store water in their humps, something like that."
"That's what most people think, but experts say that isn't true. The theory is that they have an incredible cooling system. They don't sweat at the temperatures men or even horses do, and they can lose an incredible amount of their body weight in water without any effect on their blood or strength. They can carry three to four times the weight of a horse or a mule — up to twelve hundred pounds, I'm told. If the beast grows and prospers here in America, its hide and wool could even be used by our Indians, the way they serve the desert tribes in Far Eastern countries. With the rapid demise of the buffalo, perhaps the camel can replace them. And camels don't even have to be shod."
The man sat back in his chair, watching Clay. "I want this to be successful, Lieutenant," he continued. "It's an important project."
Clay rubbed at the back of his neck. "Well, sir, from what you've told me, I can see why the Army would want to at least give it a try." He sighed. "Do they expect men to ride these things? I can't quite picture fighting Indians from the back of a camel, or trying to chase their swift ponies with those big, clumsy creatures."
"They might not be as clumsy as they look, and I'm told they remain very calm under battle or stress; but I don't think they would be used that way. The main purpose at this time is to use them for hauling supplies. Whenever we have to send a battalion or a regiment out on a long- distance assignment, we won't need as many horses and mules, because the camels can carry so much weight. There will be less worry about water, and camels can eat just about any vegetation they find. We would save a lot of money on livestock, and camels are less likely to be stolen by Indians when we're out in wild country."
What Indian would want them? Clay thought as he listened.
"Once you get the camels back here, the plan is to load the beasts with as much as they can carry and make a journey to California," the major continued. "See how they take it, if they survive — just get some idea if this whole thing can work. I would put you in charge of the expedition to California. What do you think?"
Clay grinned, letting out a little snicker as he pulled on his neatly trimmed mustache. "I don't think it matters what I think. If I'm being ordered to do it, then I'll just do it. It beats having a Comanche sink a tomahawk between my shoulder blades."
The major smiled. "That's the way I look at it. You're a good man, Lieutenant Youngblood. I'm sure you can handle this." The major rose, and Clay followed suit.
"Well, I'll do my best, sir, but I need to know more about these camels to do the job right."
The major picked up a book from his desk and handed it to Clay. "Study this. It was sent to me from Washington. Tells you more about the beasts. Learn what you can from it, and pick out whatever men you think are best to take along with you to the Gulf. Report back to me tomorrow morning, and we'll go over the details of your trip. Once you get back here with the camels, we'll prepare for the trek to California."
The man saluted and Clay went to attention, also saluting. "Yes, sir," he answered. "I'll read it tonight and I'll do my best, sir."
"I know you will. That's why I picked you. Good afternoon, Lieutenant."
Clay lowered his hand and nodded, turning and leaving the room. As soon as he was outside, he rolled his eyes, leaning against the wall of the building and looking down at the book in his hand. "Camels!" He was almost embarrassed to tell his men about this. He could already hear them laughing. "What a hell of a way to end a career," he muttered.
Dawn was breaking as Emilio and Nina herded the horses into the green valley where Hernandez ran a vast, well-guarded ranch south of San Antonio. Some of his neighbors suspected the man was not totally legitimate, but it was almost impossible to penetrate his privacy. Hernandez was the son of a white man and a Mexican woman; his rights to the ranch were completely legal because his father had been an American. He had learned from his father how to trade in stolen horses, and he did his job well. The ranch was well guarded, and neighbors had long ago learned to stay out of the owner's way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shameless"
Copyright © 1993 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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