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By Leigh Greenwood
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2004 Dorchester Publishing
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Chapter OneArizona Territory, 1888
The small but powerfully built bay mare walked with surefooted confidence along the rock-strewn trail, her head swaying from side to side with each stride, her gaze sweeping the ground ahead for obstacles to be avoided by her unshod hooves. Her bulging sides bore evidence that it would soon be time to drop her foal. Without warning, she stopped, threw her head up, and whinnied softly.
"What's wrong, girl?" Hawk Maxwell's hand drifted to his rifle stock as his gaze swept the rocky hills in the distance. "You looking for a place to have your baby?"
The mare whinnied again, shook her head vigorously. Behind her, eight mares halted, their tails busy driving away flies, their heads hung low as they patiently waited on their leader.
"You talk to that mare like she was your woman," Zeke Maxwell shouted from his position at the rear of the small band of horses.
"She's more faithful than any woman I ever had," Hawk said.
"And prettier than your last one." Zeke would have liked to see what had upset Dusky Lady, but they were following a narrow game trail along the San Pedro River through a thicket of willow and cottonwood saplings. Pulling out to look ahead was virtually impossible.
"You're too old to have a kid," Zeke said. "Even a four-legged one."
"I'm only thirty-six," Hawk said, "two years younger than you."
"We're both too old for kids or wives. I guess that limits us to a shady lady now and then."
"I'm sticking with Dusky Lady. She hasn't deserted me yet."
The mare was the last and most costly horse they'd ever bought. With her Morgan blood, they hoped she'd be the lynchpin of their plan to breed quality stock. They already had twenty-one horses, mares, new foals, and yearlings, at a run-down ranch they'd bought about twenty miles from Tombstone. They were trying to get this last and most expensive group of mares to the ranch as quickly and safely as possible.
"Wait until she gets a look at that stud horse Hen Randolph sold us. You won't even be a distant memory."
The mare started forward, but this time she kept her head high and sniffed the wind. The horses negotiated the rocky ground closest to the riverbed cautiously, taking care not to set their feet down on a stone that could strain a ligament or bow a tendon. As the trail turned away from the river and the land rose, rocks gave way to sandy soil making the footing easier and navigation more difficult, forcing the horses to push their way through banks covered with tamarisk thickets interspersed with mesquite, ironwood, and several kinds of cactus. The bright yellow flowers of the Senna plant helped compensate for the unpleasant odor of the creosote bush which had been intensified by recent rains.
"What do you think she scented?" Zeke called to Hawk.
"I'll ride ahead and have a look." Hawk spurred his horse forward. "The old girl is better than a watchdog, but scent can't tell her whether what's up ahead is friendly or not."
As the only two nonwhite orphans Jake and Isabelle Maxwell had adopted twenty-three years ago, Hawk and Zeke had gradually drifted into a relationship that was closer than most married couples. They'd roamed most of the West together, sometimes living and working with members of the Maxwell clan, and other times going off on their own for years at a time. They practically operated from the same mind. It was an advantage on the trail, but a real handicap when it came to women.
While Hawk rode ahead, Zeke scanned the countryside for clues as to what might have startled the mare. They had passed through the rough landscape of the Salt River - an easy place for rustlers to waylay them - into the relatively open and flat desert that covered the part of Arizona known for its sky mountains, isolated peaks that rose as much a ten thousand feet. Due to unusually heavy and lingering winter rains, a trickle of water meandered along the often dry bed of the upper San Pedro River. Despite the danger of exposure to attack, they had decided to follow the river because it offered water and forage for the horses.
The horses were too calm for there to be a dangerous wild animal in the vicinity. But then the most dangerous animal in the West was man. Zeke and Hawk had survived without serious injury because they watched each other's back at all times, were always ready to back each other up whether they were fighting with fists or guns. They'd established a reputation as a tough combination, one most men were reluctant to tackle, but there was always someone who didn't know anything about them or was young and foolish enough to want to build a reputation by taking on somebody other men stayed away from. As Zeke often reminded the ever increasing number of Maxwell grandchildren, he hadn't reached thirty-eight by relaxing his guard.
This trip was different. They'd finally decided it was time to settle down and stop wandering from place to place. They planned to raise quality horses to sell to wealthy ranchers who-
A rifle shot broke the silence.
Zeke jerked his rifle from its scabbard, dug his heels into his mount's side, and shouted, "Watch the horses!" to Dusky Lady as he galloped past. He and Hawk had expected someone would try to steal their horses. Blooded mares were worth a small fortune in Arizona. He found Hawk crouched behind a clump of cholla cactus and bailed out of the saddle to join him.
"Who is it? Where are they?"
"They're women," Hawk said, "and they're camped on a sandbar on the other side of the bend in the creek." Zeke stood, tried without success to see through a tangle of blossoming paloverde.
"Women! What the hell are they doing out here, and why are they shooting at you?"
"They didn't. Just one mighty pretty black woman. The rest of them were hiding under the wagon."
"What did you say to them?"
"I didn't get a chance. She took one look at me and opened fire."
Zeke laughed. "I told you to stop wearing that damned feather. You look like some white man playing at being an Indian." Despite Zeke's constant ridicule - and complaints - Hawk liked to wear a single feather as a headdress.
"I'm not a white man."
"You're not a Comanche, either." It was an old argument. "Let me talk to her. Maybe she won't shoot at me."
Zeke was so used to being the only black person around it was sometimes hard to remember he was an ex-slave. But whenever he started to forget, someone was certain to remind him.
"I'll go back with the horses and let the lady's man take over," Hawk said.
That was anther bone of contention. Zeke refused to have anything to do with women that didn't involve buying drinks or buying sex. As a boy he'd been a slave to a woman who'd abused him. More than twenty-five years later he still couldn't forget it.
Returning his rifle to its scabbard, Zeke dismounted. "Take my horse," he said to Hawk. "Give me about five minutes then ride in."
"You think they're gonna let a big, ugly black man walk right into their camp?"
"I don't plan on asking," Zeke replied.
"Watch out. That woman knows how to use a rifle."
Holding his hands well away from his side and dragging his feet to make as much noise as possible, Zeke started toward the bend in the creek that flowed into the San Pedro River. The shallow streambed would normally have been dry this time of year, but Arizona was green this year. He just needed to get these women moving so he and Hawk could get on their way before anybody with an itching to own fine horseflesh figured out where they were.
Zeke pushed his way through a thicket of tamarisk. A nonnative plant that probably came to Mexico in hay from Spain, the bushes grew in dense thickets. Several stalks branched out from the base of the plant and towered over his head. Dense growth and thousands of tiny leaves made it impossible to see where he was going. Pushing limbs aside as he walked, he felt like he was moving blindly toward an unknown reception. The moment he pushed aside the last branch and stepped into the shade of an ancient and twisted cottonwood, a woman's voice rang out.
"Hold it right there."
"We're not here to cause trouble." Zeke didn't stop, but he did slow down. "We just want to move our horses past you, and we'll be on our way."
"How do I know you're telling the truth?"
He couldn't see the speaker. Her voice seemed to be coming from an area choked with mesquite.
"If you'll wait a few minutes, my partner will bring the horses up."
"Is that Indian your partner?"
"He's only half Indian."
"I don't trust him."
"If you'll hitch up your wagon and move on, you won't have to trust him."
Moving closer to the stream, Zeke rounded the mesquite thicket and came face to face with the most beautiful black woman he'd ever seen. Even as his brain registered that she couldn't be more than half black, his body registered its instantaneous response to a vision that would have caused a more world-weary man than Zeke to be rendered breathless.
"We can't move on," she said. "A wheel came off our wagon."
Zeke fought to force his brain to focus on what she was saying. He was too old to allow a beautiful woman to befuddle his wits. He was also well acquainted with what such beautiful women wanted from life, and he knew he didn't have it. Yet this woman had the kind of beauty that could cause even the most sensible man to betray himself.
"I'll take a look," Zeke said, forcing himself to remember this woman was an obstacle to their goal - getting their horses safely to their ranch.
For a moment she looked as though she wasn't going to let him pass. "Our camp is just ahead," she said before turning to lead the way.
Though she looked like the kind of woman who'd never been more than twenty feet from a mirror, she walked across the rock-strewn ground with a confident gait. Her tan skirt hugged her hips suggestively before flaring out to accommodate her stride. Though the sleeves of her blouse reached her wrists and the collar brushed her chin, any attempt at modesty was foiled by the way it fitted snugly across her breasts and tapered down to her slim waist.
"My name's Zeke Maxwell." Zeke had to get his mind off her body. "What's yours?"
"You won't be here long enough to need it."
"Maybe not, but it's common courtesy to introduce yourself, especially if someone offers to give you a helping hand." He could understand her not trusting him, but her rudeness was something else.
"It's Josie." Her tone didn't invite any comment.
They had made camp on a sandy bank only a short distance away. It was shielded from view by another thicket of tamarisk and mature cottonwoods. The wheel had apparently come off as they pulled the wagon out of the creek. It listed at a crazy angle, the wheel leaning against its side. Three women occupied various positions near a small fire. A tall blond woman stood, feet well apart, as though ready to face any danger. A second woman, a brunette with hair halfway down her back, looked up momentarily before returning her attention to something she was cooking over the fire. The third, another brunette, lay on a blanket between the two and close to the fire. She propped herself up on her elbows when Zeke approached.
"Who's the blond with the attitude?" Zeke asked
"How about the one cooking?"
"Why is the other woman covered with a blanket?"
"Laurie's been having chills for the last two days."
Going over to the wagon, Zeke saw immediately what was wrong. "You lost the linchpin. Didn't any of you see it when it dropped?"
"What's a linchpin?" Suzette asked.
In the twenty-three years since the end of the war, Zeke had met hundreds of men and women coming West. Why didn't they realize they had to learn to do things for themselves? At the very least they could learn something about the equipment and animals on which their lives depended. "It's the piece of wood that goes through the end of the axle to hold the wheel on. It looks like this," he said, pointing to the linchpin on the front wheel.
"It just looks like a piece of wood," Anna said. "Why would we notice it?"
Zeke wondered why women who knew so little thought they could start out on a journey like this by themselves. Either they were fools or they were running from something. Or someone.
"Can you fix it?" Josie asked.
Zeke turned to Suzette. "With Hawk's help, I can get the wheel on in less than a minute. It may take a little longer to find a suitable piece of wood to form the linchpin."
"There's wood all over the banks," Suzette pointed out.
"Cottonwood is soft. Mesquite is better, but I prefer something hard like oak or hickory."
"You won't find that around here." Josie said.
"I'll probably have to cut a piece out of the wagon."
Suzette and Josie looked at each other, their doubt apparent.
"Don't worry. I won't hurt your wagon. I'll go get Hawk. We'll be back in a few minutes."
* * *
"Do you trust him?" Suzette asked.
Josie didn't answer right away because she wasn't sure she knew the answer. She hadn't hesitated to shoot when she saw the Indian. She wasn't stupid enough to think all Indians were trying to kill her, but this was southeastern Arizona where the Apache had been at war until four years ago. Besides, it wasn't the half-breed that concerned her. It was Zeke. Josie was used to men being attracted to her. In fact, she depended on it. She was a dancer and singer. If men weren't attracted to her, she didn't make money. What confused her was her attraction to Zeke. She was never attracted to men, not even handsome men. What was it about Zeke, a down-at-the-heels cowpoke, that could possibly hold her attention, much less her interest?
"I don't trust anybody," Josie said. "I intend to make sure those men leave as soon as they fix the wagon wheel."
"I think we ought to invite them to supper," Anna said.
"I want them gone before dark," Josie said.
Josie didn't like being attracted to Zeke. It made her feel vulnerable. She hated that because it forced her to recall painful memories she'd sworn to forget. She would never allow herself to feel vulnerable again. Never.
"I agree with Anna," Laurie said.
"And what are you going to do when he tries to crawl into your bed?" Josie demanded.
"He won't be interested in me, not with you and Suzette around."
"Thanks," Josie snapped, "but I don't want him in my bed."
"He won't try. He's not that kind of man."
"You don't know anything about him," Josie fired back. But her anger lacked conviction because she felt the same thing. Entertaining men was her business; being able to judge character was a skill she'd acquired through experience. Zeke's physical attraction to her was strong, but he was the kind of man who would never allow his body to overpower his mind. Despite herself, that intrigued Josie. What kind of man could deny his physical need when his body shook from the force of it?
The kind of man who would feel comfortable in the desert, who would know all about linchpins, and who wouldn't be intimidated by her rifle. She looked around her and shivered with disgust. She hated the heat, the bugs, the dirt, the effort it took to wrest a living from the hostile earth. Why would anyone want to live here? The land was covered with plants that offered little shade and came equipped with thorns that were sometimes poisonous as well as painful. She dug her foot in the sand and kicked a smooth pebble into the riverbed. The flow of crystal-clear water was so meager it filled only a few feet of the thirty-foot wide riverbed. Grass, the ever-present willow, and some small, yellow flowers Josie couldn't identify had sprouted in the dry portions of the riverbed. Despite the clusters of flowers, she didn't like the desert.
"I intend to keep my eye on him every minute," Josie said.
"Me, too," Suzette added.
"You'd better keep your eye on the other one," Laurie cautioned. "I don't trust Indians."
"He's a half breed," Josie objected.
Laurie remained unconvinced. "That's even worse. He doesn't belong on either side."
Excerpted from The Mavericks by Leigh Greenwood Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two couples that don't want love find each other on the lonely plains of the Old West. Zeke and Hawk both felt too outcast because of their heritages to ever find a woman who could look past that to love them and Josie and Suzette were dancehall girls. Their past was not one that made for wives. Yet, once the two groups meet, neither can get the other out of their minds. They try, but when trouble forces them to reunite, they find love leading them home. ..................... There is actually very little coherent or cohesive plot here to engage one's attention. The narrative seesaws from one to the other jaggedly, focusing mostly on angst, not romance. The friendships portrayed are noteworthy and heartwarming, but that is not enough to commend this tale as readable.
At the end of the Civil War the Maxwells adopted eleven orphans whom they showered with love and raised to respect others. Though all in this loving brood cherish one another, the two non-white children became best friends. For years, former slave Zeke and half Indian Hawk rode together with neither of them thinking of settling down, but now in their late thirties, they decide to end their wanderlust and raise quality horses to sell to ranchers. --- As the Maxwell brothers escort mares in foal to their ranch, Josie, a black female, fires at Hawk. Zeke persuades Josie and her dance girl companions Suzette, Anna, and the ailing Laurie to stop shooting. Their wagon lost its linchpin stranding the helpless females until the siblings showed up. When Ben Norman arrives to take Anna with him as his wife, the ladies lose their driver and with the help of the guys take Laurie to her parents¿ spread. As Suzette and Hawk fall in love over horses, Zeke and Josie fall in love between jabs. However, while in loving denial, they deal with horse thieves, kidnappers, and an idiot sheriff. --- Leigh Greenwood, known for his terrific western romances, returns to the Cowboys¿ saddle with a fantastic double love story. The character driven tale lassoes in readers from the moment Josie fires a shot at Hawk and never slows down until the final confrontation between her and Zeke. The story line focuses on the dual romances, but is enhanced by the rustlers and a sheriff who applies racial profiling (Suzette is French Canadian) to decide that the four heroes are liars and thieves. Fans will cherish the return to one of the best sub-genre series. - Harriet Klausner