American West 1836. If you enjoy action, adventure, spies, and suspense, you'll love this historical western novel. Political intrigue sets the stage for the War with Mexico. A merchant's daughter gets involved with an army officer smuggling arms during the Texas Revolution. He has the authority of the military behind him, but she owns the freight wagons, and they're not rolling anywhere without her.
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Two male voices, charged with emotion, echoed along the shadowy aisles on the freight deck of the Missouri Belle. One sounded grim, demanding; the other shrill with protests. The whumpety-whump of the paddle wheels on the steamboat drowned out all but a few words and phrases.
The sounds halted Amy Victoria Baker in her tracks. After following her brother this far and recognizing his voice, she glanced around for a place to hide, a place where she could listen without being seen. She abandoned the open daylight near the railing and darted into the dim maze of crates, hogsheads, barrels, and casks.
How mysterious--her brother meeting a stranger in the midst of the cargo on the lower deck! A secret rendezvous? Who was he talking to? The hairs prickled on the back of Amy's neck as she crept forward stealthily.
"Muskets?" Jeb Baker asked, plainly bewildered.
"You heard me! And ammunition, too. Did you or did you not agree to deliver 200 muskets? By God, I was counting on you!"
Muskets? Ammunition? To Amy's knowledge, Jeb owned no more than a couple of pistols and a Kentucky long rifle. Where would he get 200 of them?
She hadn't set out deliberately to eavesdrop on Jeb. She'd meant only to waylay him and scold him for his failure to show up at breakfast. She hated eating alone in public; it made her feel conspicuous. None of the other female passengers ever appeared in the dining room unescorted. Why should she have to? After spotting Jeb leave the main salon--an area staked out exclusively as male territory--she'd followed him down to the freight deck, intending to confront him about his negligence. Unfortunately, it sounded as though someone had beat her to it.
"You must be talkin' about my pa, Royal Baker. I never promised to haul muskets."
"I understood the two of you were in the deal-- Never mind, just tell me where I can find this Royal."
"He's dead, Major! My father is dead."
For several seconds, only the throbbing of the engines and paddles broke the silence. "I'll be damned! When did that happen?"
Jeb explained about the saloon brawl which had led to their father's death. The recollection brought a lump to Amy's throat.
"You're certain it was an accident?" asked the stranger.
"An accident is what they told me."
A pause. "I wouldn't be too sure. What if someone discovered who he really worked for?"
"Nobody else knew but me, Major. And I didn't tell."
Major, Jeb called him. Could his companion be that young military officer she'd noticed in the dining room? The one who always sat at the captain's table wearing his impeccable uniform? It did sound like his authoritative voice--the northeastern twang resonated with culture and breeding. She could tell he hadn't grown up along the Mississippi River wading barefoot in muddy water spearing bullfrogs for supper.
Who was he?
When Amy had boarded the steamboat in St. Louis, heading for New Orleans with her brother to pay off their father's creditor, she hadn't expected to meet anyone they knew among the passengers. But this man knew Jeb, and what's more, he apparently expected something from him. She couldn't understand this talk about their father working for someone. Royal Baker had always prided himself on being his own man--a merchant trader on the Santa Fe Trail. He'd never called any man his boss. What did Jeb know about Papa that she didn't know?
Amy inched closer, hoping for a glimpse of the stranger. The two men stood no more than ten feet away beyond some bales of smelly cow hides. Sure enough, through the narrow space between two barrels, she caught the flash of a blue military uniform and identified the strong features of the soldier from back East. She frowned, trying to make sense of it. What business would a well-bred officer have with a raw youth fresh off the frontier?
Amy eased her head up to get a better look.
The major must have been blessed with second sight, because he threw his head up like a stag smelling danger. Glancing around, his gaze pierced the gloom to hone right in on her! His eyes narrowed, pinning her with his glare.
Amy's heart leaped to her throat. For a long second, she crouched frozen, unable to break contact with those furious gray eyes. He moved abruptly, and she ducked, dropping to her knees.
"Someone's there! Baker, you go that way. We'll cut him off."
Amy scuttled away like a rat in a pantry, zigzagging through the freight containers, heading for the stairway. Off to her left, her brother shouted something, and his heavy boots kept pace with her in the next aisle. She dashed by several hogsheads reeking of preserved meat, grateful for their cover and the darkness that cloaked her movements. Rounding the end of the row, she didn't see the army officer until his brass buttons loomed inches from her face. She bounced off him and lost her balance. His arm broke her fall as it hooked her waist in a quick move.
As easily as if she were a child's doll, he set her on her feet. "What in the hell--"
She swayed, trying to collect her wits as his hands closed firmly on her shoulders. Reflexively, she braced her hands against his broad chest and shoved, but he stood firm as an oak tree.
"What are you doing here? Who are you?" He gave her a shake.
Speechless with dismay, she stared up at him. Humiliation burned a path up her neck to her face.
He towered over her, his body hard and muscular judging by the solid impact of the collision. His wide shoulders tapered to narrow waist and hips--he had plenty of what the girls at school coyly referred to as stature. Dark gold hair curled behind his ears and brushed his collar; a deeper bronze shaded his mustache. He appeared to be 25 to 30 years old, but his eyes held an older, wiser look, as though he'd proven his manhood with years of battling life at slim odds. At the moment, those eyes flashed with anger--hard flint sparking off cold steel.
His fingers bit into the flesh of her upper arms. "You're an unlikely looking spy."
"Sir!" Every nerve in her body jangled a silent alarm as she strained to loosen his hold. "Unhand me at once!"
Without releasing his hold, he set her back far enough to flick a hard gaze over her person, from the white lawn cap on her head to the flounce on the bottom of her narrow outmoded skirt which just cleared her scuffed prunella shoes. His perusal made her conscious of her homely well-worn attire.
Jeb peered around from behind the officer, his face stretched in a huge grin. Didn’t he just love seeing her make a fool of herself!
Mortified, Amy writhed out of the man's grip, desiring nothing more than to slink out of sight up the stairway, but the major placed his fists on his hips, elbows jutting, and braced his legs in a wide stance. She was trapped in the passageway.
Jeb's grin faded to a long-suffering look. "Amy, what are you doing here?"
"You know her?" Without removing his gaze from her face, the major reached down and plucked his hat up off the floor. The shape was unusual--the right side of the brim folded up to the crown, attached by a pin with an insignia on it. The left side formed a proper right angle and nestled a plume next to the headband. It struck Amy suddenly that he was wearing his full-dress uniform, complete with sword and scabbard. She wondered why New Orleans warranted such a formal arrival.
"Yeah, I know her." Jeb's tone lacked enthusiasm. "This here's my younger sister, Amy Victoria . . . Amy, meet Major O'Donnell."
The easterner's expression grew more fierce, if anything. "Well, that about caps it, Baker. Who else knows about our little . . . arrangement?"
She lifted her chin and looked the officer in the eye. No acknowledgment to the introduction? Even her untutored brother had better manners than this arrogant snob. Not for anything would she give him the satisfaction of knowing his rudeness bothered her one whit.
Jeb shrugged. "What arrangement? That went up in smoke when Pa died--"
"I beg to differ with you. The U.S. government isn't known for giving up as a strategy of choice." Major O'Donnell's flinty gaze settled on Amy. "How much does she know?"
Under the scrutiny of two pairs of eyes, Amy felt obliged to respond. "I know nothing of your business with my father, sir. He never mentioned you."
The major snorted. "You still heard enough standing there to put my head in a noose." He turned his dark scowl on Jeb. "Well, Baker, did your father by any chance entrust you with a report for me?"
Jeb shook his head. "I haven’t come across it among his things. I have no idea what--"
"No report? Are you telling me we've waited a year for nothing?"
"It wasn't my fault Pa was killed."
Amy frowned in confusion. "What report?"
The officer slanted her a look that would have silenced a more demure woman. He turned back to Jeb. "But you went with him to New Mexico, didn't you? You were there. You must be aware of everything he found out."
Jeb hesitated. "Well, some, I guess. But I really don't see the danged use. With Pa dead--"
"You'll have to take over," O'Donnell finished for him. "So, write a detailed account of the situation in New Mexico, as you observed it. Or as a result of inquiries you made there. Do it today, before we reach New Orleans. I'll dispatch it to Washington as soon as we arrive."
"What do you mean?"
A flush darkened Jeb's cheeks. "I never learned to write."
The mix of incredulity, impatience, and anger on Major O'Donnell's face made Amy cringe with embarrassment. She felt shame for her brother, followed by an immediate flare of resentment toward the condescending man who made her feel that way.
Jeb's expression brightened. "But Amy now--she can write!"
The major turned his dumbfounded look on her.
"It's a fact," Jeb continued. "Pa's had her at a boardin' school for nigh onto six years."
"Now, Jeb . . . " she began. Please don't mention I was a laundry maid. Please! Since the age of twelve, she'd gotten her room and board and some book learning in exchange for scrubbing linens for the pampered daughters of the well-to-do. Now, at eighteen, she could enjoy reading James Fennimore Cooper's books and keeping a daily journal. That still didn't mean she could pass as a scribe. And even if she could, she wasn't about to be pressed into service on behalf of some ill-tempered overbearing man.
The army major heaved a sigh and raked his fingers through his thick gold hair. "Let her write it then, but get it to me soon."
She frowned. "I beg your pardon, but--"
"Jeb, you’ll take over your father's obligations." Major O'Donnell didn't acknowledge her protest with so much as a glance. "We’re proceeding as planned, and I expect you to carry out your part."
"What?" Jeb's scowl settled back in place. "You mean haul your muskets to New Mexico? I can't promise that. Everything's changed now. I don't even know if I'm goin' West this summer."
Not go to Santa Fe? Amy stared at her brother. What was he saying? The trade expedition was all he'd talked about for weeks! She'd been counting on the new life he'd promised her. She’d allowed herself to dream of having enough money for property, stylish clothes, respectability . . .
"Oh, you’re going." The major's stern expression didn't invite contradiction. Clearly, he was running out of patience. "Our strategy depends on it."
"But I can't afford trade goods," Jeb muttered. "How can I--"
"Mr. Baker! If you fail to live up to our agreement, you'll answer to the Secretary of War." The major turned and stabbed a finger in Amy's face. "And you! Not a word of this to another soul, you understand? After you help your brother record his information, you forget everything you heard here."
She opened her mouth to tell him what she thought of his orders, but snapped it shut when his narrowed eyes clashed with hers. He looked like a man who wouldn't hesitate to use brute force to bend her to his will. She straightened her spine. "I want to clarify one thing—two things actually. Since Papa died, I own half interest in the freight company, small as it is. Anything that involves that, involves me. And if I write out anything, it will be for my brother's sake and not yours."
Her words made not a dent in the cold mask of his fury. He spoke through clenched teeth. "Fine. And while you're wet-nursing him, you might keep him away from that scoundrel at the poker table. Then maybe he would have enough money for his expedition."
Her jaw dropped. Jeb gambling? Is that what her brother had been doing instead of taking his meals with her? Closeting himself in the men's salon to play poker? Losing all their money? Her heart sank into her shoes.
Wrestling with angry frustration, Major Tyler O'Donnell took the stairs two at a time and headed down the promenade deck. The last thing he needed on a secret assignment was having to deal with pigheaded civilians. An important part of his well-laid plans threatened to fall apart if he failed to gain Jeb Baker's full cooperation. He didn't know where the hell the sister fit in.
His arm tingled to the tips of his fingers recalling how Amy Baker had fallen into the crook of his arm. Her delicate ribcage and fluttering heart had reminded him of a wild bird he'd once caught. It had beat its wings against his hands as helpless as a moth before he'd set it free. Amy was spunky yet vulnerable like that bird. It insulted his sense of justice to think she had no one fit to watch over her.
Too bad her rattlebrained brother had lost their money. Lord, the man's luck at the gaming table had been the worst! If Jeb was any indication of the Baker family's humble roots, his sister, at least, was making an effort to overcome them. She'd had schooling, apparently, while her brother was no doubt lucky if he could sign his name.
At first, he'd taken the girl for a spy--she'd worn her shabby clothing with the air of a debutante. Then, noting her reticence and naivete, he'd dismissed her as inconsequential in the scheme of things. Young and pretty, to be sure, with most of her blonde hair twisted up somehow under her bonnet, and little curls dangling on each side of her delicate face. Her voice was low, he remembered--more the dove than the warbler. However, he'd judged her to be meek and empty-headed until he saw the fire in her blue eyes.
He paused near the railing for a breath of cooler air but the mugginess lay everywhere like soggy cotton. Along the shore, bracken and tangled brush melted into marshland; eddies swirled and sucked at the mudbanks below. The smell of mud and decaying vegetation thickened the sultry air.
No sign of civilization.
Exasperated, he swore under his breath. The small shabby steamboat, which hauled mostly freight and offered accommodations to no more than two dozen passengers, would have been in New Orleans by now if she hadn't hung up on every shoal and nosed up to every rivertown dock between Natchez and Baton Rouge. If he arrived late in New Orleans, every part of his plan would suffer.
He turned and headed for the stairs to the hurricane deck, hoping the captain, at least, had done what he'd agreed to.
Amy tightened her grip on the railing as the Missouri Belle wallowed past a small island in the Mississippi River. Dread knotted her stomach. The trip that had held such promise when she left St. Louis two weeks before had suddenly taken a bad turn.
"Amy, don’t worry! It’s nothin’." Jeb slouched against the railing beside her, chewing tobacco and directing sidelong glances at her face.
She didn’t answer. What was there to say? She’d thought he shared her hopes and dreams born the day poverty forced them off their dry Missouri farm. Their father had salvaged nothing, just packed up one day and abandoned the shriveled corn and stunted indigo. Her tears had left no trace in the swirling red dust. Thank goodness Mama had no longer been around to suffer it. The terrible loss had nearly crushed Papa’s spirit, still he’d scrimped and saved for years afterwards, hoping to start over on land with fertile soil and lots of water.
Now Jeb was throwing all the money away.
She struggled to keep her voice calm. "He suckered you, didn’t he, Jeb?"
"No! Jackrabbit didn’t cheat me. I just had a little streak of bad luck, that’s all."
"So it’s true." Her heart shrank to a small cold lump in her chest. "You risked our money playing poker. How much of our inheritance did you lose?"
He worked his chaw of tobacco around in his cheek as he often did when he pondered a question--or when he evaded it altogether. She suddenly wondered how well she really knew him, this brother she’d seen so seldom in the last few years. They’d always had their differences, but the contrast between them had widened considerably during his prolonged absences. While she had the fair hair and fastidious nature of their mother, Jeb had Papa’s wild red hair and rake-hell attitude. He wore a filthy buckskin shirt over homespun trousers, an outfit he’d picked up during his last trip out West and hadn’t bothered to change since. He went around smelling of wood smoke and horse sweat and who knew what else. On the frontier he might have gotten by, but not in polite society. Only twenty-two years old, and already his face between hat and beard had baked brown from the desert sun; already little lines creased the skin around his piercing blue eyes.
He looked and acted more like Papa every day.
With more force than needed, she popped open her parasol to shield herself from the blistering rays of the late morning sun. "I thought we were going to pay off debts, Jeb. I thought we were going to set ourselves up in trade and save for that ranch Papa wanted for us. How could you risk our money? Why?"
He leaned on the railing and spat tobacco juice over the side. The golden droplets tumbled lazily through the air for a long moment before joining the Father of Waters. He wiped his mustache on a grubby sleeve. "Pa said a man would have to be a rich cotton planter afore he could even start as a poor sugar planter. It got me to thinkin’—we don’t have enough money to do what we want. That’s why I was sittin’ in the games, to build our stake up."
"But that’s stupid!" Amy’s parasol suddenly became too heavy to hold upright; it swayed, then sagged toward the deck. "You should know better than to think you could get rich that way."
Mrs. Abernathy, with all her frills and jewelry, strolled by with her husband arguing about which opera would play that night at the Theatre d’Orleans. The up and down glance she gave Amy matched the one she’d given the half-cooked catfish at breakfast. Amy squirmed inside. Compared to the woman’s full, wide, multi-layered gown, her own narrow muslin skirt and embroidered bodice looked far behind the fashion. Wistfully, she thought of the new dresses she’d hoped to buy in New Orleans.
Leaning closer to Jeb, Amy lowered her voice to a vicious whisper. "We don’t need a big plantation. Just a piece of ground with a decent house and a barn—something better than where we grew up scratching a living out of a patch of shriveled-up corn!"
Jeb stared gloomily at the swirling river water.
"Talk to me, Jeb! And you can start by explaining that business with the U.S. Army—what was that all about?"
"Pa wanted to make some easy money." He glanced at her accusingly. "For that ranch you want so bad."
"We agreed to spy out Santa Fe last time we was there."
"Spying? On who, for what?"
"We was s’posed to find out how big their army is, what kind of weapons they’re bearing, and such like. And now he wants us to haul a bunch of muskets down there to help with the Revolution."
"But we aren’t at war with Mexico—Texas is."
"So? It was easy money. Leastways, it would have been. Except I can’t put the information in writing. Why he needs it written down, I don’t know. He’s got ears, ain’t he?"
"Papa intended to meet Major O’Donnell here?"
"That was the plan." Jeb drew a deep breath. "Only as soon as we got back from Mexico, everything went plumb to hell! And once things started going downhill, it was like a rock slide over a cliff! No way to stop it. First, American Fur refused to buy the beaver pelts we picked up at Rendezvous—that was purely a back-stabbin’ thing to do—and after that Pa couldn’t get no more credit at the bank. And then he took that bullet . . . "
"Was that an accident?"
Jeb’s lips twisted into a bitter line. "Nothin’ to prove otherwise."
Bells clanged and the steam engines lugged down. The captain in his neat blue uniform appeared on the wing deck above. "Hard right! Half ahead!" The planking rumbled underfoot at half-speed. A roustabout scrambled down a ladder to the boiler deck. The captain glanced Amy’s way, nodded, and touched his cap before disappearing into the pilot house.
Thoughtfully, Amy watched him go. "I wonder what Captain Stott would say if he knew a crooked gambler fleeced passengers aboard his steamboat . . ."
"Don’t even think about goin’ to him with that. You don’t know anything about it."
"That’s just it! I don’t know a lot of things. Isn’t it about time you explained yourself? I have a right to some answers."
"Stop ridin’ me! It’s none of your affair what I do. Pa put me in charge." His sullen expression closed up like a coyote trap.
She bit her tongue, knowing from experience that locking horns with him would only make him dig his stubborn heels in deeper. Struggling for composure, she watched the roustabouts on the boiler deck below attack a floating snag with long poles, shoving it away from the starboard paddle. After a few minutes, the Missouri Belle, under a fresh head of steam, charged the river once more and the paddle wheels continued to pound the collected snow and rain of countless storms.
She drew a steadying breath. "No more gambling, Jeb. Promise?"
"I can’t promise that. I gotta get back the money I lost."
Her patience snapped. "If you’re going to be so bull-headed, I don’t see any other choice but to demand my share of the inheritance." She pushed herself away from the rail. "I’m sorry, but someday, when you come around flat broke and hungry, maybe I’ll cook you supper and give you a quilt to sleep under. Because I know, sure as I’m standing here, you won’t have any of your own."
She returned his gaze without flinching. Let him try to wheedle her into overlooking his folly; it wouldn’t work. She was right and she knew it. Her jaw ached from gritting her teeth, but if her tears were to spill over, she might lose the battle of wills.
He broke contact first and rolled his eyes upward as though beseeching some higher power. "Now, listen. It just ain’t possible. Except for that chest of Mexican silver, there ain’t no way to split our inheritance down the middle ‘til we sell off those furs in the warehouse. And we can’t split three freight wagons, now can we?"
"But I trusted you, and look at the mess we’re in. Somebody shot Papa, the Army is hounding us, a gambler stole our money. We have no place to live. We could starve!" Despair dragged her down, down to a place as cold as the murky river bottom where she could hardly breathe. The plans she’d made for the future floated out of reach like air bubbles popping to the surface. She blinked rapidly to clear the moisture from her eyes, cursing the sign of weakness that would make him think she lacked a backbone.
"Ah, don’t cry." Her brother’s expression softened. "Our money’s not all gone. Tell you what. I’m still plannin’ to buy you that new dress when we get to New Orleans. I’d never hold a few hard words against you."
Angrily, she dashed her hand across her eyes. Couldn’t he tell that her tears signified anger, not surrender? "How very gracious of you!"
"Think nothin’ of it. Come on, let’s head down to my room, and you can write that report for me."
Stalking down the promenade after him, Amy’s every footstep fell in cadence with a grim litany in her mind—no money, no prospects, nothing! Why had she allowed herself to expect anything else? After her menfolk had abandoned her years ago at the boarding school in St. Louis, she had little reason to trust them anymore. Depending on others was futile, she’d learned that much. What she needed was absolute independence. No one to bully her, no one to make choices for her, no one to overrule her decisions. If she didn’t do anything else this summer, she would gain control of her life.
As he climbed the stairs to the hurricane deck, Tyler O'Donnell patted his chest before he caught himself. The packet of confidential orders and sealed letters nestled as safely as ever inside his coat. He chided himself; the need for reassurance had become a bad habit--a smart soldier didn't call attention to the fact that he carried important papers.
He stopped when he reached the top and swabbed his brow with a handkerchief, then ran it inside the standing collar of his blue dress uniform. This blasted Louisiana heat could pop the skin on a sausage! He would have changed into his casual lightweight uniform if President Jackson hadn't insisted that a strong military image would open doors for him in New Orleans.
Things could be worse, he supposed, considering the unpleasant alternative to this assignment. If he thought it was humid here, it would be steamier than Hades for many of the West Point graduates fighting and perishing in Florida in the bloody Seminole War. A fate he had narrowly missed.
On the top deck, the sun glared off the white walls of the officers' cabins, striking Tyler's eyes like a bright saber. Above the cabins soared the pilot house, sparkling with glass and gingerbread.
Captain Stott came down the companionway to meet him with a broad smile. "Major O'Donnell, my boy picked up a copy of the Baton Rouge Gazette for you. It's in my cabin. I hope it's what you need."
"That should do fine, thank you."
"Come up to my quarters--we'll have a mint julep."
The stocky gray-haired captain turned to lead the way, and Tyler fell into step behind him. Maybe the president was right after all--Tyler was getting all the respect and cooperation he could ask for.
As the steamer churned down the center of the Mississippi, huge paddles on either side slapped the water into a boiling froth, throwing up veils of spray crowned by a rainbow. Beyond lay a grand view--a solid wall of green forest stretching across the horizon. Toward the south, Tyler searched in vain for a glimpse of a settlement.
"How long until we dock at New Orleans?"
The captain glanced around. "Ought to arrive by late afternoon."
Tyler frowned. The last time he'd inquired, midday had been the estimate for arrival, but he didn't bother to mention it. In the captain's stateroom, he shifted his scabbard to a safe angle with a practiced hand before lowering himself onto the settee. He accepted a mint julep and the newspaper which he unfolded to the front page.
TEXAS ARMY VICTORIOUS AT SAN JACINTO.
Nothing new there--he'd known that much since he'd left The Hermitage with Jackson's blessing. He scanned the small print, searching for something he hoped he wouldn't find.
His host sank into a chair across from him, sipping his drink. "They say the Texas Revolution is over--but that's what they said after the battle at Bexar. Drove the damn Mexicans south of the Rio Grande, then here they come again like a swarm of hornets. What do you think? Is it over this time?"
Tyler shook his head and kept reading. "I couldn't tell you."
"What puzzles me is how Houston managed to pull the fat out of the fire. He's been running like a scared rabbit across Texas for months. Outnumbered two to one, he suddenly turns on Santa Anna like a wolf. How did he do it?"
"I'm sure I don't know." The questions distracted Tyler; he focused harder on the printed words. Then his eye fell on the last paragraph and he flinched. There it was, just as he'd feared--the story was out. He bit back an epithet. So much for sneaking into New Orleans, accomplishing his mission, and slipping out again quietly.
Glancing up, he found himself under the captain's careful scrutiny. Well, why not appease the man's curiosity? Discretion on the matter was pointless now, and he just might be able to stoke up the fires under the boilers on this tub. He wouldn't have to tell him everything.
"May I take you into my confidence?"
"But of course, sir." Captain Stott leaned forward. "Your words shall not leave this room."
Tyler rose and strolled to the window. "I am on a mission for the President of the United States. And I'm far behind schedule--not that you are to blame."
"Yes, sir. That is, we've certainly had our share of delays. First, the mechanical problems. Then, of course, high water always carries a lot of snags down. Half a day sparring her off a sandbar didn't help--"
"I must reach New Orleans without further delay." Tyler gave him the stern and forbidding look he'd perfected while teaching classes at West Point.
The captain sloshed his drink setting it down on a side table. "What could slow us down now? We're almost there. May I venture to ask--"
"General Houston is due to arrive in New Orleans today or tomorrow. He's been badly wounded. The doctors on the battlefield weren't equipped for that kind of injury--even if the surgeons here are as good as I've heard, it will challenge them to save his life."
"The devil you say!"
"You didn't read this?" Tyler tossed him the paper. "See for yourself. My orders are to meet him and extend every service available for his safety and well-being. Now that the papers are spreading the word, arranging protection for him will be a nightmare. I could use your help."
The captain straightened the paper and scanned it. "By all means, Major. I had no idea."
Tyler rubbed the back of his neck. "The newspaper's been out two days. I know the general boarded a trading schooner at Galveston as late as the eleventh. He hadn't yet arrived in New Orleans when this paper went out, obviously. So if he was bouncing around the Gulf during those storms we had last week, it's just possible we can still beat him to New Orleans."
The steamboat official hesitated. "I had a few stops scheduled for unloading cargo--a couple of plantations and a small town--but under the circumstances, I'll make the deliveries on my way back upriver." He sprang suddenly to his feet and stood at attention. "This patriot fought at the Battle of New Orleans and he'll charge again to Old Hickory's bugle!"
Tyler smiled. "The United States of America thanks you, sir." He lifted his glass in a toast and took a big swallow of his drink. The fresh mint sizzled in the fire of the bourbon. The tension subsided in Tyler's neck and shoulders, either from the effect of the liquor or from the promise of action, he wasn't sure which.
"Captain, before I go, I'm curious about something. One of your passengers, Jeb Baker--"
"That dim-witted stooge!"
"Beg your pardon?"
The captain gave a disgusted snort. "He hasn't the brains God gave a sea biscuit, and that's a fact."
"Then you know he's losing his shirt at the poker table?"
"It’s hard not to notice!"
"What are the chances the game is crooked?"
"If you think I've got any real pull around here, you're wrong. Do you think I own this smokepot? The owners operate out of Natchez-Under-the-Hill, if that tells you anything."
"Not really . . ." The implication hit Tyler. "You mean they hire him for the purpose of fleecing passengers?"
The captain flashed him a wry smile and a silent yet meaningful look.
"And you allow this?"
"Until I save up enough money to retire, I do what I'm told." The captain tossed off the contents of his glass and arose. "Now, if you'll excuse me, Major. You said you were in a hurry to reach New Orleans. My boys do love a good race!" He strode briskly to the door and disappeared.
Tyler wandered to the doorway and paused to finish his drink. A shame he couldn't have done more for Baker, but the young man's predicament was more severe than he'd imagined. Maybe he'd be wise to cut the young trader out of his plans after all. He frowned into his drink, facing a quandary. Nothing infuriated him more than injustice. On the other hand, he didn't have time to champion a gullible dupe right now. His dedication to duty had to come first.
So why, then, did his spirits sag, leaving him cold and lonely inside? He had more than enough on his mind without taking on an additional crusade. Not even for the sake of a maiden with blue eyes like shimmering windows to her soul.
Amy laid the quill pen down on the small writing table and picked up the piece of parchment on which she'd scrawled a half dozen lines. She blew gently on the wet ink, then fanned the paper in the air. "You're sure that's all you can remember? It isn't much."
"O'Donnell will have to be happy with that." Although Jeb could have used the other Queen Anne chair, he had chosen to sit cross-legged on the floor. His crumpled hat sported a brown-striped feather set at a rakish angle. From her angle the wide brim hid half his face.
She rolled up the paper and tied it with a hair ribbon. "What's this worth to him?"
Her brother shrugged. "I don't know--Pa never said. Let's take whatever O'Donnell gives us and act disappointed. Maybe he'll offer more."
"My, what a business man you are!" She tucked the paper into her reticule, then slipped the loop of the small beaded bag over her wrist. "Speaking of business . . . those muskets the major spoke of, did Papa sell them to him?"
Jeb hesitated as though loath to confide in her, then shrugged with an air of resignation. "No, he intended to. He agreed to get two hundred muskets together, not all from the same source. That fell through when the banker changed his mind about our loan. Then the accident finished it all . . . "
"What do you mean, not from the same source?"
"This clerk from the government--I forget his name--told Pa to keep the order a secret. No one was supposed to know we squirreled away that many muskets. Search me why."
"And Papa agreed to haul them to New Mexico this summer?"
She considered that. "Well, if the government is behind it, it ought to be all right. Papa stood to make a pot of money, I suppose."
"I think you should go ahead on it, Jeb. We need the money. Besides, you agreed--"
"No, Pa agreed."
"Same thing." She narrowed her eyes at him until he shifted his gaze away. "We can't stop living just because Papa died. We have to think of the future."
He spread his hands and sighed. "Like I told the major, I can't buy supplies without cash. His muskets wouldn't fill one freight wagon. What am I supposed to do with the other two? I can't go that far unless it's worth it to me."
Amy restrained herself from hitting him alongside the head with her reticule. Could he really be so dense? "Jeb! We’ll just have to find others who want cargo hauled. We still have a few weeks." A grim thought struck her. "If we're out of money, how are we going to pay Henri Dubois? He expects a return on the investment he made with Papa last year."
"I guess he can have the Mexican silver we brought back from Santa Fe."
"Show it to me." She rose from her chair.
With a dispirited air, he slowly got to his knees and unlocked the hefty padlock on the brass-bound chest beside the bed.
Amy pried up the lid. "Is that everything?"
"Every last chalice, platter and filigree necklace we brought back from Santa Fe. I haven't touched it. Henri should be happy with that."
"He's expecting currency, though, right? Isn't that what Papa promised him?" Full of misgivings, she sat on the edge of the bed, marveling at how differently blood relatives could look at things. Especially those who had been separated awhile. She hadn't much to offer Jeb except trust, and he'd stomped a mud hole in that as though it meant nothing. Now he planned to do the same to Dubois.
"He'll understand. Henri's a good fellow."
"Well, I hope you will understand." Amy closed the lid and snapped the padlock closed. "I'm taking charge of this chest. I'll ask the captain to safeguard it until I go ashore. I won't stand by and watch you shortchange Papa's old friend by gambling this away, too."
He gave her an injured look. "Go ahead, if it makes you happy." He settled his back against the wall and pulled his hat low over his features. After a moment, he peered up at her with a tentative smile. "You know, I really believe I could win at poker today. I feel different--like fortune's smilin' on me again. Them cards will naturally fall right if I give 'em another chance. Jackrabbit, he'd treat me fair."
She stared at him without answering. He just didn't get it! How he reminded her of Papa with his dreams and his cocky belief in himself. Except Papa was smart. Jeb, on the other hand, always needed someone to tell him what to do. Now that Papa was gone, he seemed lost.
She prayed for patience. "We cannot rely on luck. It's a matter of survival." It came to her suddenly--Mama had said the same thing once, long ago. To Papa. She'd also said, "At least we have one another." Too late for her parents to make their dreams come true: Papa was dead and buried beside Mama down on Willow Creek.
Amy jerked off her bonnet and dropped it on the bed. "No, we have to get our money back some other way. Soon, before we get to New Orleans."
"That's easy for you to say. Since you been to school, maybe you can tell me how."
A bitter laugh caught in her throat. As if boarding at Miss Ruby Sheffield's School for Young Women had prepared her for this. It certainly wasn't skill in filigree wax work that would help her outsmart a cheat. "At least the swindler has two of us to contend with now. I think I know how we can turn the tables on him. We'll set a trap, and you can spring it. I'll be there to back you up."
"Right-ho! Then we'll come back here, and you can teach me how to tat doilies!"
"Jeb, you're all the family I've got." She reached out to touch his arm. "Please don't shut me out. Let me help."
At least we have one another.
His gaze wavered. "I got us into this, and I'll get us out."
"No. We're both in trouble. You need me."
He regarded her in silence a few moments, until a sheepish smile twisted his lips. She took it as agreement. "Good. Now, here's what we do." She paced the narrow room. "We'll catch this Jackrabbit Jones in the act of cheating, and we'll press charges. If he's dishonest, he'll go to jail. We'll get our money back and go on about our business."
He shook his head stubbornly. "If Jackrabbit cheated me--which he didn't--the manly thing would be to call him out." He jerked a long-bladed knife from its sheath and waved it in the air. "Knives or pistols--his choice."
She paused in her nervous motion. "No, Jeb. Not that. Just get in the poker game as usual, but this time keep your eyes open for once. I'll watch."
"That's your plan?" He snorted in disgust. "What makes you think you can spot a cheater if I can't?"
She sighed, exasperated. How could she make herself useful as long as he saw her as nothing more than a helpless little sister, a mere woman? She kept her tone even. "I'll talk to the captain--no, hear me out! He can probably tell me what a person should watch for. He's in authority here, so he's a necessary part of this. When we've got the evidence, he'll make the arrest."
"I don't like it. You don't know Jackrabbit Jones. You think he'd just grin and say, Shucks, you caught me--here's your money? Not likely."
"But the man must pay for his wickedness." The ominous feeling that Jeb might have a point prodded her to think of insurance. Her gaze landed on the tiny pistol Jeb had taken from his boot and laid on the writing table. How like him to defy the captain's rule about carrying firearms.
She picked it up. The rounded ivory handle fit snug in her palm with the barrel clearing her knuckle by no more than an inch or so. It was the smallest pistol she'd ever seen. "How quaint this is!"
"Put that down!" Jeb glowered at her. "Be careful, now, it's loaded."
"Can I borrow it?"
"Hell, no! What would you do with it?"
"Don't worry, I wouldn't shoot anyone. I might need it to get someone's attention, though." She wondered where she could conceal it on her person. No high-top boots. No pockets. The sleeves on her frock fit snugly from wrist to upper arm.
"Give it here." Jeb held out his hand.
The enormity of her plan daunted her, but only for a moment. Only until her father's image loomed in her mind--the boldest, most courageous man she'd ever hope to know. What would he think of the mess Jeb had gotten them into? He'd never for a minute allow anyone to push him around. And if his own kin was wronged, he'd defend them to the last drop of his blood.
But, he wasn't here.
They had to stick up for one another.
"Amy? Listen to me. You're not gettin' away with this."
"Why not?" She dropped the little pistol down the neck of her bodice. The cool metal slid across her hot skin until it found a resting place in the hollow between her breasts. "I'll carry it where a gentleman would never find it." She grinned at his horrified expression.
"Dang it, Amy! What am I gonna do with you?"
Alone in his room at last, Jeb sailed his hat onto the bed, then struggled out of the heavy leather tunic. His sister was right, though it rankled him to admit it--Pa would have wanted him to dress nice for New Orleans.
He scratched his ribs and opened his portmanteau without enthusiasm. He had let her take the chest of silver--that was fine. Maybe if he indulged her, she'd grant him a little quarter.
He sighed, pawing through the wadded clothing. She sure fooled a person with her spindling figure in a shapeless dress and her big eyes peeking out from under her bonnet. Who'd guess she had a core of iron? Barely eighteen and she knew exactly what she wanted. Headstrong. It wouldn't do no more good to stand in her way than to jump in front of a team of runaway horses.
Wishful thinking, that's what it was, if she believed he'd agreed to take her on as a partner in the freight business. Why was she always planting words in his mouth like that? And save up for a farm? He didn't know as he wanted to break his back farming again. He'd tried to tell her, but would she listen? Not so's you'd notice. His only defense was to agree with her, then turn around and do what he wanted.
He hadn't been cheated, and he'd prove it. Nor had he ruined his last chance to haul freight on the Santa Fe Trail, for that matter. He'd rather put his own money in trade goods than haul everybody else's cargo, anyway. That's where the money was, after all, though he couldn't expect Amy to understand.
He gave a snort of disgust just thinking about her prissy attitude. After she'd gotten the chest and the porters lined out in the hall, she'd paused in the doorway to tie her bonnet strings. Her stern look would have given credit to a cranky schoolmarm. "Why don't you change into that nice suit of Papa's I brought along?" she’d asked. "Remember how he said people treat you like a gentleman if you look the part? Well, I want you to fool everybody, hear?" And without waiting for an answer, she'd hurried away.
Fool everybody. Hah! As if there was anything to being a gentleman besides dressing like one. Unless it also meant having pockets stuffed with money. His were nearly empty now, but he'd soon remedy that.
He pulled out the blue cloth coat and checkered nankeen trousers. Catching a whiff of Pa's sweet pipe tobacco brought a whole sortie of memories rushing at him: Pa and him floating down river together on a steamboat, the two of them making the rounds of the French Quarter in New Orleans, visiting Henri Dubois to repay double his investment and to share his spicy Cajun meal.
Jeb shucked his homespun trousers and climbed into the suit. The fit was comfortable enough. Groping again in the heavy leather bag, he located his horse-pistol. Never mind the captain's rules about carrying a sidearm aboard the boat--Jeb might as well be naked without it. If there was trouble, he wanted to be ready. He dug out his flask and poured a measure of black powder down the barrel, followed that with a patch-wrapped lead ball, and crammed the greasy wad home with the ramrod. A percussion cap on the nipple under the hammer completed the loading.
He hefted the pistol in his hand, admiring the clean line of the barrel. Something in the way the worn metal gleamed as he scrubbed his sleeve over it, the way the carved wooden handle snugged into his palm and the neat fit of the trigger under his finger satisfied some lusty urge in his belly. It was more than just a pistol. Target practice had made it a deadly weapon. Standing between him and his enemies made it a best friend--a guardian angel.
He settled it into its homemade holster and slipped that onto the leather belt around his waist. In front of the mirror, he turned this way and that, adjusting Pa's narrow-brimmed felt hat and checking the slight bulge under the skirt of the coat where the pistol hung against his hip. Not bad. A handsome devil, if he did say so.
Suddenly, a tight feeling in his throat made him swallow. Add a couple of decades or so to the man gazing back at him and he'd be looking at Pa. He blinked and leaned closer. Very much the same, only the eyes lacked something--that veil of sorrow through which Pa viewed the world. The faded light of a defeated spirit was missing, but little else.
Jeb shook off the chill that crawled up his spine and spun away from the ghostly reflection. Pa had made a fatal mistake turning his back on brawling riverboat men. But he wasn't Pa, and he would never make that mistake.
Amy entered the salon with a casual air she didn't feel, pretending to be unaware of her intrusion on male territory, and strolled toward the card tables at the far end. Her tiny pistol nestled in her bodice, a hard lump between her breasts. She prayed she wouldn't need it.
She paused, glancing around. To her relief, the salon was nearly vacant--perhaps the passengers, anticipating arrival at New Orleans, had gone to their rooms to pack. Jeb sat at a table with three other men, intent on his poker game. Except for a quick glance, he paid her no mind.
Wandering closer, she made a show of ogling the bright cluster of oil lamps suspended from the ceiling, the gilded frames on the large mirrors, and the red plush-draped walls. She played the travel-weary girl with time on her hands. Arriving eventually at the only occupied gaming table, she paused behind Jeb's chair to watch the card game in progress.
Going to Captain Stott for advice had been a waste of time. He'd made it clear he wouldn't interfere with Jones without solid evidence the games were dishonest. Somehow, she'd expected more from a man in charge. At least he'd promised to keep her chest of silver safe until she went ashore. She had managed, also, to badger him into describing how a person could recognize a crooked game. The card sharp's basic methods, he'd confided reluctantly, included a stacked deck, invisible marks or trimmed cards and dealing the sucker a decent hand to bet on so there'd be money in the pot.
A blue fog of cigar smoke hovered over the players' heads. A momentary hush settled, broken only by the soft slap of cards on the table and the ting! of Jeb's tobacco juice as it hit the brass spittoon.
Jackrabbit Jones clenched a black cigar between his long teeth and leaned over his fat belly to shuffle the cards with a ripple and a snap. He sported a silver watch, a showy brass watch-chain, and lots of hair oil. Such vanity! These, plus a pile of money in front of him, seemed enough to snare unwary victims. He puffed on his cigar, then laid it on a tray. A plume of smoke from the strong Louisiana Perique tobacco drifted past Amy's face, burning her nose. Heavy-lidded eyes shifted toward her, probing, guarded, calculating as a spider.
The thin man on the left cut the deck, and Jackrabbit dealt with a flourish.
As her brother scooped up his cards, Amy took a peek--two queens.
"What the devil!" Jeb complained. "I keep gettin' the same dang cards!"
He seemed to be none the wiser. Amy wondered how he could have missed seeing that his cards had come off the bottom of the deck. How could the other players have missed it, unless they were too busy watching her face for an unconscious clue as to what her brother held in his hand? As if she'd reveal anything by so much as the flicker of an eyelash!
Another round of cards flipped out around the table--face up. Jeb gasped when he got another queen.
She retreated a few feet from the table and stood with her back to the players, trembling with excitement. She should say something. Now. Call a showdown. Outrage and victory and a crazy feeling of satisfaction made her want to shriek with laughter. Or shout oaths.
Hadn't she tried to tell Jeb? She hadn't been certain until now. Who else had seen it? If she was the only witness, it might be too soon to make accusations.
Behind her, Jeb's voice rang out in sudden profanity. She whirled. Her brother pointed an accusing finger at Jones. "You miserable slick-fingered cheat!"
Clearly visible from where she stood, the gambler's hand concealed a pistol under the table. The butt of it rested on his thigh with his finger curled around the trigger. The barrel aimed straight at Jeb's belly.
She couldn't move. The scene had the unreal drama of a stage play, a stark tragedy, moving relentlessly toward its finale. And she stood frozen off-stage, helpless and dumb. No! Jeb, watch out!
Reality jolted back, and with it free motion. She reached for her hidden pistol. It seemed a natural part of her nightmare that it settled deeper as she groped for it. With both hands, she ripped the threadbare fabric, closed her fingers around the ivory handle, and fumbled the pistol into position. Aim. Fire!
Jackrabbit bucked in his chair as another shot echoed hers. Chairs toppled and thudded to the carpet as two men scrambled away. Jackrabbit's chair teetered for a moment on two legs, then went down with a crash.
Jeb leaned half-crouched over the table, grasping the edge with one hand as though to steady himself. The specter of death shrouded Amy's mind until she realized her brother stood under his own power, clutching a smoking gun. Relief drained the strength from her legs.
Jackrabbit thrashed on the floor, clutching his bloodied right hand and squealing like a pig. The other two men emerged from cover, goggle-eyed and pale. The acrid smell of burnt powder hung in the air.
Jeb backed across the room, his head whipping from side to side as he threw glances toward every corner.
"Wait, Jeb!" Her heart thumped like a barrel rolling downstairs. "They'll come for us! Lock us up! What shall we do?"
Jeb's wild-eyed gaze swept back to her. "No! It was all square. The bastard drew first but never got off a shot. We got witnesses." In his hand, the gun trembled.
"I shot him!" Her shallow, rapid breathing didn't provide enough air. "He was going to kill you, so I shot him."
"Naw, you didn't. Your shot went high. But you rattled him and gave me the edge. He took my lead. He'll live, though. If I'd meant to, he'd be dead. Come on, let's go."
"Wait a minute! Our money!" She ripped off her bonnet and raked Jackrabbit's pile of bills into it, every scrap and coin.
"Hold it right there, ma'am!" One of the poker players reached a shaky hand toward her, but stood as rigid as if his boots were nailed down. "You can't do that."
Jeb held one of the doors open. "Come on, Amy! Now!"
She wadded the fabric around her booty and swiveled away from the table.
"Stop!" The thin man waved his pistol. "I'll shoot, so help me God!"
She dashed for the door, chills prickling her vulnerable back. Jeb couldn't protect her now --his weapon was as empty as hers. The salon stretched ahead of her like a long tunnel. She scrunched her shoulders and ran.
As Amy raced across the salon toward the door, she half-expected a lead ball to bury itself between her shoulder blades. The explosion and stunning impact never came. Behind her, a man cursed. Sounds of pursuit urged her on.
Major O'Donnell stood outside the door. He grabbed her by the arm and shoved her behind him. "Jeb, take her to the foredeck and wait for me!"
A pistol shot sent a ball whizzing past the major's head. He flinched, then stepped into the doorway with all the authority of the U.S. Army. "I beg your pardon, gentlemen. I understand there's been some trouble."
Jeb tugged at her arm, and she stumbled after him in a daze. Nothing seemed real. The sun burned the stark deck with a cruel and unfamiliar light. It was no longer a safe place from which to watch the unwinding river and shoreline. It had become a place of danger, a battleground.
Her brother herded her into the shelter of a stairway, recharging his pistol with a speed and efficiency that amazed her. Was he expecting a showdown?
From every direction, deck hands, firemen, and roustabouts converged on the deck, staring at them and questioning one another. Two boat officials arrived and crowded through to the salon. Curious glances drove Amy deeper into the shadowed corner.
How could everything have gone so wrong? With this kind of luck, her first tour of New Orleans would be a glimpse of the French Quarter on the way to Police Court. Waiting magnified her fear, and dread settled heavy and cold in her belly. Jeb's eyes showed a margin of white as he clutched his pistol and watched the passengers and crewmen gather near the salon.
The crowd split as though parted by a sword, and Major O'Donnell stepped through. In spite of his frown, his commanding presence eased Amy's panic.
"Put it away, Jeb." He halted within a foot of the barrel's tip. "Tell me what happened."
Her brother hesitated, then shoved his weapon into its holster. "I've been every way a fool, sir. I didn't believe Jackrabbit cheated me, and I meant to prove it." A knot of muscle moved along his jaw. "I should have stuck to playin' mumbletypeg like a kid."
"You're saying it wasn't a fair game?"
Jeb's gaze shifted to Amy as he answered. "I saw him do it, just like she told me--dealin' from the bottom of the deck."
She read the message in her brother's eyes: you were right and I was wrong. His shamed-faced look was all the apology she'd ever need.
Taking a deep breath, Jeb faced the army officer. "Lordy, he was smooth! It gave me great pleasure to cripple up his dealin' hand."
The major's face hardened. "Sounds like you might have done the Union a favor, but you've still got a problem."
Amy moved to Jeb's side; she couldn't let him take all the blame. "Sir, to begin with, the dealer drew his pistol under the table. I fired first."
Major O'Donnell raised an eyebrow, staring at her as though trying to visualize such a thing, then dropped his gaze to a spot below her neck.
She glanced down and discovered a torn collar and gaping bodice. It revealed the top of her chemise and a shocking display of bare flesh. With a cry of dismay, she clutched her bonnet in front of her. Salvaging what remained of her dignity, she lifted her chin to stare him in the eye.
The starch went out of his posture. "Jeb, let's get her to her room."
Her stateroom was one of several built along the outer wall of the salon with the entrances facing the deck. Without a word, she marched toward her refuge, the two men forming a discreet rear escort.
The shock of what had happened--the sudden violence and the frenzied escape--had nearly shackled her thoughts. As she hurriedly changed clothes in the privacy of her room, she tried to calm down enough to consider the problem. They had set a trap for Jackrabbit Jones and then had fallen into the pit themselves. She wondered how they were going to climb out again.
She buttoned up her second-best frock and secured it at the throat with a silver pin. Judging from the reactions of the passengers and crew--not to mention the poker players--she and Jeb hadn't made any new friends. Major O'Donnell had given them a chance to explain, but would anyone else listen to their side of it?
She dumped the bills from her bonnet onto the bed and gathered them into a pile. The small pistol lay next to it. Where could she hide them?
An abrupt knock on the door startled her. Jeb's voice sounded urgent. "Amy, can you come out here?"
"Yes, I'm coming." She glanced around, desperate for an idea.
In the mirror, she caught sight of herself standing in the center of the room, poised like a bird in mid-flight. Her dress was modest once more but the small bustle at the back of her skirt was askew, and her wanton hair tumbled from its combs. "Just a moment!"
When she finally opened the door, she found Jeb holding one of the boat's officers at bay.
The official eyed her brother as he might a cornered wolf. "The captain requests that you come to his quarters, Miss. And you as well, sir. He has a few questions to ask. But you'll have to surrender your pistol."
Jeb's hand hung near his holster. "You want it, you take it."
She stepped out between them. "And how is Mr. Jones?"
One of the bystanders, a minister of the Gospel, puffed out his chest like an indignant turtle dove. "He is alive, thank the Lord for His infinite mercy."
The color in Jeb's face deepened. "That's just bully."
"His right hand is badly injured. An uglier mess I have rarely seen, if I may say so."
"Bullier, yet." Jeb's eyes narrowed, shifting from one face to another.
Amy moved closer to her brother, facing the men. If anyone wanted to persecute him, they'd have to go through her. It was all her fault, anyway. She should never have talked him into confronting Jackrabbit.
The major elbowed his way past the minister and stopped before Amy. "If you'll permit me, I'll escort you."
The reassurance she found in his steady gaze bolstered her trust. The other men stepped back to let them pass. Apprehension made her mouth as dry as Missouri dust. Her feet felt weighted, and she mounted the stairs as though they led to the gallows. The major's warm hand under her elbow kept her moving.
Captain Stott met her at the top. "This shouldn't take long--we'll be docking shortly. Come on up, folks."
In his stateroom, Amy ignored the captain's invitation to sit down and retreated to the window to peer through the glass. From the tall smokestacks, thick black clouds boiled into the sky. The steamboat's structure vibrated with speed as it careened past a rocky point. On the bank, two boys sat with their feet in the water, holding fishing rods in their hands. She wished she were baiting fish alongside of them.
She turned as several of the boat's officers and certain distinguished male passengers entered. Some found seats but most remained standing. Major O'Donnell took up a station at the rear, standing rigid as a sentinel. His stance radiated tension. His lips were pressed into a firm line beneath his mustache; his eyes flickered over the crowded room as though he expected more trouble. Amy watched him covertly. Would his influence help or harm them?
Jeb slouched next to the captain's desk, his back to the wall, maintaining an air of injured righteousness. Amy realized it was her brother's short temper that worried her the most. He might forget he wasn't roaming Indian country. According to his own wild tales, law and order out there was as scarce as a powdered wig, and he often had to defend himself like a savage.
The door opened once more, and Jackrabbit Jones shambled in, flanked by the two other men from the poker game. Someone bounded up to offer his chair, and the gambler slumped his heavy body down without a word. A bulky makeshift bandage on his right hand and wrist created the illusion that he held an infant cradled against his breast. He scanned the room with black eyes glittering in a pasty white face.
The captain sat down behind his desk. His calm expression and flat voice gave the impression that the circumstances were nothing out of the ordinary. "Mr. Jones charges the Bakers with robbery and conspiracy to murder."
Murder! The accusation struck Amy like a blow in the stomach. "What are you talking about? He drew on Jeb first! There are witnesses!"
The captain frowned. "Are you referring to any witnesses other than yourself and Mr. Baker?"
"Of course! Those two men right there--"
He shook his head. "Their stories don't support what you say."
Jeb leaned across the desk, staring at the captain and breathing as if he'd run a mile. "Are you calling her a liar--sir?"
"Sit down or you'll be hauled out of here. Miss Baker, if you will take a seat as well, we'll try to work this problem out in a mannerly fashion."
From behind, one man seized Jeb's pistol while another took his knife.
Jeb whirled with fists doubled, scowling at each man in turn. At the point of a gun, he lowered himself slowly into his chair, rigid and watchful. His eyes held a dangerous glint.
Someone pushed a chair toward Amy, and she perched on it, struggling to regain her poise. She hadn't intended for her outburst to goad Jeb closer to the edge. As she clasped her hands tightly in her lap to stop the shaking, she searched her mind for a defense.
Across the room, Major O'Donnell's expression looked grim as he met her gaze. His gray eyes reminded her of lightning-shot storm clouds on a sultry afternoon.
The captain continued in a monotone voice. "Did anyone else see Mr. Jones draw his pistol first? No one?"
She glared at Jackrabbit. "He dealt from the bottom of the deck--I saw him."
The gambler didn't so much as glance at her. "Captain, there's the matter of the robbery. That girl looted the table before she left."
Amy opened her mouth to protest, then stopped to think. If it was her word against theirs, the less said the better.
The captain's expression held little sympathy. "Where is it?"
She held his gaze steadily. "The only money I have is rightfully mine."
Captain Stott sighed heavily, then tugged a watch out of his pocket to check the time.
One of his men spoke up. "I checked both their rooms. No money in either place. But I did find her pocket pistol."
"Search them!" demanded Jackrabbit, baring his long teeth. "One of them must have it."
Amy's stomach clenched, and she thought she might be sick.
The captain took out a large handkerchief and blotted his forehead. "Jeb, do you have the money on you?"
Her brother leaped to his feet and stared around the room. "See for yourself!" He ripped off Papa's coat and threw it at Jackrabbit. The cravat and shirt followed. Jeb broke the stunned silence in the room by bouncing his boot off the gambler's shoulder and eliciting a yelp. He was tugging at his other boot when two men grabbed him.
"Easy, Jeb!" Major O'Donnell moved toward the grappling men. "Let him go. It's plain he can't have more than a few coins on him."
The captain's mouth twisted with contempt. "Get that desperado out of here and put him in irons."
Amy's mind went numb as two robust men dragged her brother, cursing and thrashing, out the door.
Jackrabbit rose and kicked Jeb's clothing aside. He raised his arm and pointed at Amy. "She's got it, then. There's no where else it could be."
All eyes shifted in her direction.
Blood rushed in her ears as she slowly stood up and held her arms out to the side. "Which one of you gentlemen will search me and find out?"
Tyler O'Donnell cursed under his breath. Instead of allowing the captain to handle the situation, the Baker girl had called her accuser's bluff. She might as well have dropped an ember in the tinder box. Now she stood wide-eyed and pale before them, challenging every man in the room with her defiance. In the uncertain silence, Tyler's nerves tightened. What had she gotten herself into?
Cuddling his wounded hand, Jones stalked her. A sheen of perspiration highlighted his swarthy face; his eyes glittered, small and mean.
Tyler edged through the stupefied gathering, alarm adding urgency to his maneuver. Surely the man wouldn't assault a woman in front of witnesses!
Jones closed on her like a predator, snatched her bonnet strings and yanked the cap from her head. Waves of blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders--no bills or hidden loot, just waves of silky gold.
She showed her teeth. "Get him away from me!"
As the gambler reached for her again, she swiped at his face, her fingers curved like claws, and left a row of bloody scratches across his cheek.
Jones snarled and seized her wrist with his awkward left hand. "Give me your bag!"
Tyler yanked his sword from its metal scabbard as he closed in. He gripped Jones' shoulder, spun him around, and held the quivering blade close to the man's face. For a frozen moment, Tyler stared into the bugging eyes and fought the reflex to draw blood. The stifling air had turned rank in close quarters, taking the joy out of breathing. The fat scoundrel inhaled more than his share just being alive.
Tyler struggled to maintain an icy control over his rage. "If you touch her again, it'll be the last thing you do."
The smaller man shrank back as the edge of the sword touched his neck. A muscle twitched near his eye. "All right. Don't get jumpy."
The captain advanced around his desk. "Jones, you're out of order. Back off or the major will run you through. And he'd be well within his rights to do so." He turned to his officers. "We'll keep Baker secured until we tie up at New Orleans. Then we'll hand him and the young lady over to the jurisdiction of this parish."
Tyler blinked in surprise. He opened his mouth to challenge the decision, then stopped himself. His army training forbade him to interfere with a figure of authority, especially before an audience. When the rabbit-toothed gambler sidled from under his sword and retreated toward the door, Tyler pronounced a silent curse on him and replaced his weapon in its scabbard.
Jones paused in the doorway, looking back. "That little bandit's going to be sorry." With a final menacing scowl in Amy's direction, he disappeared.
Amy swayed on her feet, clutching the back of her chair.
Tyler put out a hand to steady her. The flesh of her arm felt cool under his fingers. "Are you all right, Miss?"
"I think so . . . " She sank trembling into the chair. "Merciful heaven, what have I done? It's all my fault."
The anguish in her voice twisted something deep inside him. He peered into her pale face, noting the tracery of bluish veins at the temples, the lack of color in her lips. "Are you feeling faint? Wait here."
When he brought a glass of water from the sideboard, he found her staring blankly out the window, her fingers worrying the tassels on her small beaded bag. She roused herself enough to accept the drink and murmur a thank you. After taking a sip, she glanced up and her blue eyes met his. Cornflower blue. Hair the color of ripe wheat in the sun. For a long moment, he stood spellbound, aware of the grace and beauty the old-fashioned clothing failed to hide. Within her, he sensed inherent goodness; her deeds lacked the black mark of sin. Her vulnerability and innocence touched his heart, disturbing its rhythm. He suddenly and unreasonably wanted her for his own, to safeguard and protect. To carry her off to a secluded spot and make love to her until the harsh realities of life had shrunk to nothing. The realization left him momentarily defenseless.
He glanced out the window, deliberately breaking contact. "We're almost there."
When she dropped her gaze, he began to breathe again.
"Then you'll be wanting this." She dug in her reticule, withdrew a rolled parchment tied with a ribbon, and handed it to him.
"What is it?"
"The information you wanted from my brother. It's all he could remember."
He slipped off the ribbon, unrolled the paper, and glanced at the precise lettering--all of one short paragraph. His heart sank. He'd given up hope of getting the maps Royal Baker had promised, the layouts of Santa Fe and the military fortifications. But the names of the revolutionary leaders he needed to contact was crucial. "This is all? No names?"
"It's a bit meager, I know--"
"Meager? That hardly describes it!" He raked his fingers through his hair. "There’s nothing here. What I need--"
Between her clenched fists, the loop on her reticule snapped with a twang. She blinked at the broken cord and caught her lower lip between her teeth.
Tyler cursed himself for his tactlessness. On top of everything else, she didn't need this. "Never mind. Don't worry about it." He folded the paper and slipped it into the front of his shirt, trying to keep his disappointment from showing.
"Please don't blame Jeb too much. He's had a hard time since our father died."
She had blue eyes a man could drown in. Gazing into them, he felt an internal tug and cautioned himself against giving in to the feelings few soldiers could afford. "I understand. For what it's worth, I don't think he's getting a fair shake."
"You know he’s not."
He tore his gaze away and faced the window, hands on hips, staring at the shifting landscape. He had to get out of her sight before he made a promise he couldn't keep. Important obligations waited for him in New Orleans. Serving as a liaison between the president of his country and the commander of another, he had no business getting involved in someone else’s problems. He had to keep his mind focused!
With firm resolution, he turned toward her, ready to offer his regrets and make his departure, then saw the bruised look in her eyes.
"Don’t worry," he heard himself say. "I’ll do everything I can to get you out of this."
END OF EXCERPT