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The war was over. The town of Esser Crossing
ebbed closer to a slow death while Jodi Parker
and Hunter Johnson fought desperately with
one last chance to save it, and themselves.
Two unlikely people came together against
their own will and struggled to carve a new
empire. Swollen rivers and Jayhawkers were
the least of their troubles on a cattle drive
to Kansas, when both carried secrets that
could easily destroy them. He had to prove
himself, she had to live with her own decisions.
A cruel destiny threw them together. Only
a true and lasting love could save them
1869, Esser Crossing, Texas Jodi Parker's just lost her foreman, he broke his back when his horse threw him. Now she must ask the coward of the town to help her get her stock to Kansas.
Hunter Johnson lives in a shed, he's given up ever having a life until Jodi Parker walks in and offers him a job, herding cattle.
It took all her courage to ask the man she despised, but admittedly she had her own troubles and going to Kansas might help solve them. If Hunter could help her get those cattle through they could save the dying town.
Hershall Walker, the town bully, had raped Jodi and left her pregnant. Somehow she had to rid herself of any reminder of Hersahll and what he did to her. But aborting the baby went against everything she believed in too and she wasn't sure she could live with herself if she went through with it.
Hunter had problems of his own, first off, he didn't want a woman along on the drive, and if she insisted, he'd just have to marry her to keep the peace on the trail. And then there were the hands she'd hired, none of them seem to respect him, until he took matters into his own hands.Branded a coward from the war, he'd have to prove himself all the way to Kansas.
Two unlikely people come together to save a town that is quickly dying. Can they put aside their differences and get the job done?
"Your anger is like a dirty quilt, smothering you. It's time to get out from under it and get on with the living again, girl," the old man muttered with sad regret as he tried uselessly to move something other than his head against the creaking bunk. "The war's been over nearly four years. You have to get over the hurt it has caused; you have to let it go, in order to heal."
"Somewhere….deep down inside me," Jodi said fervently, "I know you're right, Clem. I don't want to grow bitter and hard from it." She glanced his way, then hung her head."But I'm not alone with how I feel about the war, or even Hunter Johnson for that matter. As for my brother dying and maybe my father too, it only adds to the misery of it. The entire town has been devastated. I mean, look at them. They all left so proud." She choked on her own words. "So full of spirit and hope, but now, look at them. Even the ones who did come back, they aren't the same. It's like…they died a little, too." Jodi looked over at her foreman on the bunk.
"That's a fact." He tried to nod, but didn't quite make it. The pained expression he wore was like a slow glacier moving over his face. He swallowed hard. "We got a heap of regrets and unfulfilled dreams to overcome, and now is the time for healing. But before you can heal, you have to forget and forgive. Even the good book tells you that," Clem muttered thickly, his voice raw with a monstrous pain. A pain they were both trying to ignore, him because it was his body, her because she emotionally felt it too. "Not just you, but everybody else. The whole town has to forget and go on. Otherwise, they shrivel up and die. But that's what life is, going on. Somebody knocks you down, and what do you do? You get back up, that's what you do.
"And you have to remember that nothing is going to bring them back. Nothing is going to wipe it out. War isn't something that will leave us, girl. There'll be more wars, like the Bible says. And sometimes, I think the leavings of war are far worse than the war itself. We can look back and see we had too much pride…now. It's a little easier to see that now. So, we were wrong…about a lot of things. We were going to give them 'what for'. Instead, it was the other way around.
"It wasn't just about the slaves-it was much more than that. That's the brunt of acceptance right there. The slaves were merely a reason to go to war. The men didn't come back full of pride, riding on their fancy horses and parading down the streets like they were heroes. Instead, it took all the dignity and brought back the broken spirit. Broken men. That's what losing a war does. But people got choices, Jodi. They can get up off their butts, and dust themselves off, and go on, or they can lie down and die. Ole Har with one arm, young Jesse with no legs, and then there's men like Phillip who run off to the west. Nobody's seen him since. Women left their husbands, husbands left their wives, children got left altogether.
"Okay, so we lost the war, so what? We was alive before the war. We will be alive now. It's a fact we have to face up to, and the dignity we lost comes with facing the facts, and admitting we lost. It is the first step to healing. We lost our pride in ourselves, which is a sad thing to see. Hunter Johnson didn't come back a hero, or anyone else in this sad little community. War destroys even the ones untouched. Your brother died, that's a fact. Your daddy? Well, we don't know what happened to him. And sometimes, that's best, girl, the not knowing."
"And that's why I can't forget, Clem. I won't." Jody Parker cried, a tear slipping down her pale cheek. "Maybe he's out there somewhere, broken, alone…"
"And maybe he's dead." Clem shook his head. "If he's out there, there's a reason he ain't here. Think about that, Jodi. And….we should face facts; he's probably dead by now. If he was coming home, he'd have been here by now."
"I won't believe that. Not until I see his body," she refuted.
"Now, Jodi! Pick up your feet, girl, throw back your shoulders, and lift that chin. God made you a beautiful young lady. You carry the hate around in you and it will eat you up. You can't end a war unless you let go of it. You didn't fight in it, you don't know. You weren't there, you didn't suffer," Clem declared. "Ain't anything you can do to change what's happened." Clem sighed heavily. "You ain't got any choice now, Jodi; you got to wipe it out of your mind. I've seen what hate does to people."
"I don't hate, Clem….just people like…Hunter Johnson."
"You don't even know the man. How can you hate what you don't know? Besides, those cattle got to be moved and Hunter Johnson is the only man who can do it," Clem Morton declared, wincing, disgusted with his own pain.
"You ask too much…I can't do it. You can't ask it of me!" Jodi sighed heavily, her mind working furiously as her foreman groaned. The bunk creaked as he tried to move, and he winced once more. The pain was unthinkable. Jodi watched as a slow trickle of sweat rolled down his cheek, unchecked. Or were they tears?
"What if I made you a board to fit your back and tied you in the saddle? Wouldn't that work?"
"Dad-blame it, girl." Clem's eyes flared with anger, as his body kept him at bay. "Ain't you got any eyes? Can't you see? I'm done in. I can't get in no saddle with a broke back. I can't even get out of bed." This time, a real tear rolled from the corner of his gray eyes, eyes that raked her with frustration and anger.
The catch in his throat made Jodi realize that he was in a desperate position. She knew he couldn't before she'd asked, but she had to ask. She needed him so. She'd always had Clem to count on, always.
Jodi shook her head and squeezed her eyes closed. She couldn't look at his pain any longer. It was too unbearable."This is more intolerable than anything I've ever done. I can't ask him, Clem. You and I both know what kind of man he is. He's a no good coward."
"Oh, Jodi." Clem sighed again, a little too weakly, and his words seemed pulled from his helpless body. Determination and grit seemed to prod him onward. "That's just gossip, girl. I thought you knew better than to listen to the town gossips. We don't know what really happened. War ain't got any rules. Remember that. You never been in a war, you wouldn't know. But I do. It ain't fair to judge a man on hearsay, neither. You and I, we weren't there. We don't know what happened. A decent man probably wouldn't tell it. And it ain't our place to decide if he's a coward or not. Besides, we have to face facts, Jodi. We need help. And we can't be too picky when we're in this kind of predicament."
"Don't you go preaching the good book to me now." Jodi frowned down at her foreman, seeing the dismay in his eyes and wanting to wipe it away, wanting to wipe away the nightmare of the last few days. She loved this old man more than she could say, and to see him this way, all broken up, was unbearably hard, but at least he wasn't dead.
"The truth is-somebody's got to do it. I'm as good as any. You don't have any ma or pa now. So you listen to me, and you listen well, girl. If you don't want to lose everything, you've got to get those cattle moved to the railroad." Clem tried to relax a little, but his facial expression mirrored his success. "It's a chance, a chance for a lot of people around here. And there ain't anyone around these parts, except Hunter, who is able to help you. So just bite the bullet and go ask the man."
"But Clem, the man is such a no-good. My brother lost his life in this danged bloody war, maybe my daddy too, and you want me to go groveling to that coward for help?" Jodi couldn't believe Clem's hard-headedness. She'd get those cattle moved-somehow.
Clem leaned his head back on his pillow, his eyes staring up at the ceiling, glassy-eyed. It scared Jodi. Her breath caught in her throat. Was Clem dying on her too? She hated that lifeless, glassy-eyed dead look.
"Your pa isn't dead. Least ways they didn't send us a body. So there's hope on that one. I'll give you that much. But you have to get what that high falootin' cousin of yours from New York thinks about people out here off your mind. That girl ain't seen anything of life. She's just a little snot-nosed kid who thinks she's better than everyone else. She can't even wash her own clothes, and you listen to her. How could she know what Hunter Johnson is like? You think she's actually met the man? Why, she wouldn't be caught dead near him." Clem was angry and Jodi hadn't meant to make him so. Perhaps some of what he said was the truth, but everyone knew Hunter Johnson was a no-good.
Clem's eyes followed her, and the pain etched on his face was enough to make Jodi cry. She didn't want to stand here arguing with him about the war. She wanted to make him better so they could take care of the cattle together, as they'd always done. But the look on his face told her that wouldn't be happening.
"I'm done in, Jodi!" he said with tired exasperation. "And the only way to help you now is to steer you right. So I'm steering you to Hunt Johnson. Ah, give the man a chance, for my sake, give him a chance. There isn't a soul on this earth who doesn't deserve a second chance." Clem strained to look at her, masking the monster riding his back as best he could from her. He strained to get the words out. His body shook, but he endured while his tongue lashed at her like a leather whip. "The men folk around these parts are scarce. We not only lost the war, we lost the will to go on, girl. A lot of men that had backbone when they left came back with none. You've seen them. Are they so grand? Men came back from the war, broken, beat, with no will to carry on. Some lost their kin, and some their homes, and even more-their lives. We didn't just lose a war, Jodi girl. Take a look around town. There isn't a choice of prime men to move those cattle. Esser Crossing is a bend in the road, not even a town. The bank shut down, the mill is gone. Old man Esser, he tries, and keeps on trying to get a town established. At least the man tries. He doesn't give up. They mock him too, but at least he's trying to do something. It's more than a lot can say. They can't even decide on a name for the place for some reason. Look at the people here. Old Minnie, Doc Fargate, Jude, and Wes are all counting on you to take that herd north. You, a woman…barely. It's the only chance this town has to survive. But you can't do it alone. Heck fire, even I couldn't do it alone."
"Who says?" Jodi rocked on her booted heels, determined she could do the impossible, her thick blonde hair falling in a wave down her back as she yanked the string from it.
"I say! Now stop stalling and get on over there and ask him." Clem's voice held no humor. She saw his face contort, and she eased up a little on her own pride.
She'd pushed him too far. He was almost coming up off that bunk. Jodi raised her hands to stop his movements. "Okay-okay," Jodi said with a reluctant nod.
After a moment of silence, she eyed the old man once more, fighting the urge to run to him and hug him closely. "But this is about the most intolerable thing you've ever asked of me, and you owe me."
"Reckon I do, that's a fact." Clem sighed and scooted down a bit in the bed, his face wracked with unspoken torment. His clear gray eyes registered a fierce pride, but he never voiced it. Jodi was glad. She could barely stand to see her best friend in the world bed ridden.
As she turned away, she wiped at her eyes, her thin shoulders bearing the tension this conversation had produced.
She looked down at her clothes, muddy and dirty, and dressed like a man, but she lived in a man's world now. She had for some time now. That didn't matter. There was no time for frilly dresses and perfumed baths. That had stopped the moment her ma had died.
"Well, spit it out, girl, I'm tired," Clem barked, rubbing his chin against the quilt.
"I-I hate to leave you-here, like this..." Her words died in a whisper on her lips. If he saw the tears, he'd spit at her, and she knew it, but she couldn't hold them in any longer. She turned away, wishing there was something she could say or do for Clem.
Clem cleared his throat, not daring a glance at her. "I'll miss you too, kid. Now, go on!"
Jodi whipped around and saw the old man cover his face with the back of one hand. Without blinking, she reached for the laudanum on the table. Her hands shook as she poured him a swig of it in a cup. She gently reached to hold the back of his head up, and held him so his lips could sip the intoxicating liquid.
He looked at her once, and then he closed his eyes and she slowly backed out of the bunkhouse. "I love you….Clem," she whispered after the door shut.
Clem was right. Esser Crossing wasn't much of a town, not legally anyway. It had been Henderson Crossing before old man Esser bought up the land. Most folks still considered it Guadalupe Valley, Jodi acknowledged as she rode her horse into town. A town that, since the war, didn't move much, didn't breath, didn't grow.
Despite the despair in her heart, she could still hear the mockingbird singing his lonely songs in the top of the old oak tree that graced the front of Main Street. She glanced up. The trees still held their magnificence, even against the harsh, cool winds of a winter that was finally over and a spring that was beginning. The countryside was greening with the breath of life about to arrive.
The Swede, the blacksmith, was pounding out his metals as a chicken scurried across the road. Dust flew from the north, making Jodi aware that winter still left its reminders.
A preacher had moved to town, and he was sadly trying to erect a church with the help of a few farmers who came to town on Saturdays. It would be a lot of Saturdays before the church was built, from the looks of it. Oddly, some people just stood and watched as the preacher worked so hard to get it ready for his people.
Jodi wondered why everyone in town didn't pitch in and help the preacher, but they didn't. They just watched and waited.
The sun shone down on her with a hint of warmer weather to come, but Jodi's journey would not be a pleasant one this morning, and she refused the symptoms of spring fever. Even a smile would be a façade.
The sound of her boots clopping on the boardwalk made her tense even more, if that were possible. She watched as other girls her age, in pretty petticoats and bonnets, crossed the street to the General Store. She sighed, envying them for their innocence.
She had to do this before she chickened out altogether. Each step brought her closer to the Silver Cup Saloon, such as it was. In the beginning, it had been a general store, but later, as people moved around the town, the need for a saloon grew with the cowboys that stopped off going north to the trails before the war. During the war, though, Esser Crossing seemed more like a ghost town. Old farmers came to town once a week for supplies, the women still gathered for their sewing and quilting parties once a month. Some would sit around the fire at the general store and talk about old war stories or about the Indian raids. Life had gone on, but progress hadn't.
The wind whistled a lonely tune as Jodi came to a dead stop in front of the saloon.
She had hated saloons from the first taste she'd had of them, collecting her drunken father too often. And he'd cursed her and embarrassed her till she hated admitting he was her father. She'd thought those days were over.
She was out of her depths in here and knew it. She didn't know what to expect of Hunter Johnson. Her cousin hadn't described the man to her. No one had. Perhaps Clem was right about that. Maybe her cousin had never met Hunter Johnson either.
She'd donned her father's responsibility long ago, and this was something she had to do.
Music filtered the dusty air as her gloved hand touched the saloon's glass knob of the door. The music, although lively, brought nothing to the heart, Jodi noted. It was more a banging than music. She allowed the tune to flow over her before she took a deep breath and opened the huge, glass door. Old Hal, the barkeep, had ordered that door special from Denver. She marveled at how no one had shot it up yet.
Moving quickly, she entered the smoke filled barroom with all the trepidation of a prisoner about to be hung. No one, not one soul, knew how badly her knees were shaking at this moment.
Her eyes teared for a moment, unaccustomed to the haze. Tobacco and whiskey permeated the air like a woman with too much perfume, stifling. Her stomach roiled. Smoke whirled like small tornadoes through the air, destroying any chance of a good breath. It took her a minute to adjust to the different light filtering through the room. Oil lamps flickered, ghostlike, against the dingy walls as Jodi imagined all the killings that went on here on a regular basis. Her own drovers had told her about some of the goings on here.
The bar was a beautiful mahogany wood with spittoons lined up and a brass rail for a foot-hold. The mirror was the fanciest one she'd ever seen. It was etched around the inside of the frame and it was shining.
She squared her shoulders, determined not to run, as a drunk bumped into her, his breath nauseating her further.
She'd never begged any man for help and just the thought of it made the bile rise in her throat. But with what she hoped was some form of dignity, she forced it down.
One of the women leaning against the bar ambled toward her, her skirt swishing like a fishtail in water. A sideways smile glittered on her made up face. Her clothes were too young for her body, and her face too old for make-up. Her cheeks were too red, her eyes too brilliant, and her lips were brighter than a tomato gone ripe, Jodi acknowledged silently. Do men want women like this? she wondered.
"Well, what in the world have we got here?" the woman drawled, her flashing eyes taking Jodi in with little more than contempt.
"Ain't rightly sure, Bonnie, best leave it alone. It don't look too friendly," the barkeep said, his eyes nailing her with dissatisfaction for her intrusion into their world. It was obvious even to them she didn't belong here.
"I'm looking for Hunter Johnson," Jodi said in a strangely steady voice. How had it sounded so steady while everything inside her shook?
"It's a girl," the woman said with a snarly laugh. "Well I'll be danged. I'd of never known it."
For a split second, the insult stung, but Jodi let it roll off her back. What did she care what a harlot thought of her?
The woman stared, glancing from her head to her toes, as though she didn't believe what she was seeing. She seemed obviously confused by Jodi's appearance, as was Jodi by hers.
Jodi looked down at herself for a minute and realized that, as much as she hated to admit it, she was no prize either. Granted, she didn't look like much in her father's outfit, but she had never been taken for a boy before.
"A girl?" several shouted, turning their heads in her direction.
"You came to the wrong place, honey. He's not in here."
When Jodi twisted her head in question, the woman explained, "He lives out back, in the shed. That's where you'll find him more than likely."
Jodi nodded. "I'm obliged." She moved toward the back door and turned the knob. She stepped out the door with trepidation. Her heart bumped against her chest as she saw the doorway to the shed. It was open, so she walked in.
It was a simple wood shed, piled with hay and tools and not much else. There was a pot bellied stove that had a pot of coffee warming on it. But there was no furniture, nothing to show a man lived here.
The man, if he was a man, was face down in the hay.
Jodi approached him cautiously. She couldn't see his face, but she could tell he was breathing.
He had long, black hair and a beard. Oddly, the black hair shone, as though it had been recently washed. It looked feather soft and Jodi's fingers itched to move it away to look at the man. What kind of man lay drunk with shiny hair?
She expected to smell whiskey, but there was none. There were no empty bottles lying around. Only the coffee pot sat on the stove.
She felt queasy, but she didn't let on. She couldn't. She had to force her iron will to stay here long enough to talk to the man.
Jodi cleared her throat effectively. Nothing happened. The man didn't move.
"I came to talk to Hunter Johnson. Would that be you?"
Nothing happened. The man didn't stir.
She cleared her throat again and moved closer. He hadn't moved an inch.
"I said, I came to talk to Hunter Johnson," she rasped in a louder voice.
Wanting this over and done with, she walked over to where the man was lying. She pulled his hair up by one hand and jerked his head from the hay. One eye popped open, then two.
Slowly, he looked at her, and Jodi was startled by the man. Expecting the devil, she found, instead, only an unshaven, unclean coward. Yet, he was somehow-handsome. It disgusted her to admit such a thing to herself, but she had to.
It startled her that she recognized him as handsome. How could someone like this be handsome?
His dark, blue-black eyes raked her like a wild man. His beard was long and shaggy. He stunk of sweat and dirt, but no whiskey. It seemed his clothes were stiff from no washing. Again, her stomach roiled, and again, she paid no heed of it. She looked at his long hair. It had felt like silk against her fingers when she lifted his head.
It didn't add up. His hair was shiny and clean, yet the rest of him was rumpled, and smelled.
The man had strong, angled features, solid cheekbones, a narrow chin, but it was his eyes that held her, deep sapphire eyes that crinkled at the edges, as though he laughed a lot. She couldn't imagine a man like this laughing. What could he possibly have to laugh about?
"Are you Hunter Johnson?" She was killing time, unable to bring herself to ask what she must.
"Last I heard," he mumbled, his voice deep and uncaring, but his scrutiny of her narrowing in on her.
"I got a job for you," she said, frowning at her own exasperation.
"Don't want it," he muttered, and then he got to his feet and looked around the corner, as though he expected to find something there. "Are you still here?" He turned back to look at her.
"Look, I'm not here because I want to be." She raised her nose into the air with defiance.
But Hunter Johnson wasn't listening; he was staring wild-eyed at Jodi.
"Well, are you going to stand there all day, or tell me what it is you want?"
Her face screwed up as she came closer to him. "You're sober?"
"Yes, of course I am. Why wouldn't I be? I don't drink." He looked away from her again.
"You don't drink?" She turned her head again in question.
"Never have," he answered, and then flopped down in the hay again.
"But then, I guess you probably figured I did, huh? Well, you figured wrong. Sorry, I have no furniture here; I can't offer you a chair, so take a seat, and tell me what brings you to my abode." His voice was low and seductive.
"I'm not here because I want to be," Jodi said, stymied by her own confusion of the man.
Blue-black eyes pierced her again. "Then why are you here?" His icy tongue lashed at her.
"I need help," she began with determination. The words were dragged from her lips with all the distaste of acid. Her annoyance of the man was blatant. But he shocked her at every turn. He wasn't what she expected.
"So does everyone else in this town," Hunter mumbled under his breath. He got up again, this time to pour himself some coffee. He looked at her and then crooked his head. "Sorry, but I only have one cup."
"I didn't come here to drink coffee with you, sir."
He went on ignoring her till she'd had her fill, and then suddenly, she drew out a gun and shoved it in his face. She cocked it till it clicked, and then she leaned toward the stranger as he flopped back into the hay.
"I'm here because I got no choice. You are the last man in the territory that knows how to sit a saddle well enough to herd cattle."
Something in her words made him look at her again, his irritation fading to curiosity. His eyes slowly took her in, all of her. "That's the truth."
However, the gun had no effect. He dismissed it like a pesky fly. He probably figured she didn't know how to use it.
She eased back on the gun, but she still held it almost at his nose. He didn't blink, nor did he bother acting afraid. However, he did act as though she had aroused his attention.
She expected him to blink, show fear-something! But she got nothing!
His eyes never left hers, and she thought she saw a spark of admiration twitch at his expression. "But you didn't come willing, did you?" His voice held bitterness that she far from understood. "You must be pretty desperate to come asking the scum of Esser Crossing for help."
He nodded. "Cattle drive?" he ventured, obviously amused at her gall.
"That's right." She gritted her teeth to admit it. She hated dealing with such an irascible sort of man.
He nodded again. "Put the gun down. You won't need it." His voice wore an arrogance she refused to acknowledge.
She drew her brows together and firmed her jaw. "I came to offer you work, that's all."
"You know who I am?" he questioned, giving her another glance, his long, dark lashes veiling his thoughts.
There was more to the question than he asked. He didn't realize he was dealing with honesty. "I know." Her voice lowered with disgust.
"You'd trust me with your cows?" he asked, turning his head first one way, then the other, as though trying to figure her out.
"No sir, but I got no choice," she said flatly, her honesty blatantly making him aware of her.
He nodded again and his look narrowed on her face as though he needed time to assimilate her words and actions. Then he looked at her, not like most men look at a woman, but like she was a puzzle he needed to put together. His dark eyes swept her.
"What's your name?" He sat up in the hay, not paying her much attention as he continued to drink his coffee.
"Frank Parker's kid?" He frowned for a minute, as though thinking about what that might mean.
"That's correct," With new dawning, she realized for the first time that she and this misfit man had one thing in common, and that was for sure, her name wasn't any better than his in this state.
His expression grew serious. He straightened himself. Raking his hair back, he set his hat on his head. "How many men you got?"
Jodi relaxed and faced him again, shocked by his sudden interest. "Six."
"That's not enough. How many head of cattle you got?"
"Got a thousand two-year-olds, and 1,500 three and four-year-olds." She met his cold-eyed gaze. "Not counting the yearlings."
"Yearlings," he scoffed. "They'll have to be put to sleep; they just cause trouble along the way. And Remuda?"
Exasperated, Jodi fumed; holding her temper in was painful. "It's all we got!" she huffed, angered by his lack of understanding. "The soldiers came and took some of our best until we got wise and hid them out. Wasn't enough to take our men and boys, they had to have our horses and cattle too."
"Yeah, the unfortunate war…" Hunter nodded and got to his feet, pacing the small space. Disgust lingered in his dark, brooding eyes.
There was a silence as he seemed to size her up. "I'll get us four more men, and we can pick some horses up on the way. What's the pay?"
"Hundred a month." She was groping for answers to his fast line questions.
"Abilene or Baxter Springs?" His eyes never left hers.
"Abilene…less trouble that way. One of the soldiers came back from the war said Missouri wasn't too friendly to cattle drives from Texas because of the Tick Fever." Jodi let down a few defenses since he was talking cow talk now. She felt she could deal with him on this level. He wasn't a greenhorn, that was for sure. He had asked every right question.
"He's right about that." Hunter shuffled and stood straight. He stared into her eyes till she nearly backed away. Never had a man looked at her the way he was. "You'd be stuck in Missouri if they even let you through the state line. They are quarantining them these days, passing laws to keep us out, like we can prevent the disease."
Jodi eyed him closely. Despite her dread of being here, and her personal feeling towards this man, she knew instinctively that he was a cow man, and suddenly understood why Clem had sent her here. Perhaps he was the only man for this job.
"Fair enough. When you want to leave?" Hunter flopped back down on the hay, his glance scrutinizing her.
Jodi realized he was accepting and felt a small relief run through her. She wouldn't give him the pleasure of knowing it, though. "Meet you at Round Rock in four days."
"I'll be there then."
"So will I." She stood up to leave and saw him staring at her intently again.
He was tall, lean, and dangerous looking, but his expression was entirely sober. She had expected to find a drunk. Instead, she found a man who was completely sober and ready to accept her offer.
It shocked her that he was sober. She certainly hadn't expected that. But to live in a place like this…what manner of man was he?
"You won't be there," he bellowed. "I'll meet your men there." He said it like a command.
"I'll be there." Meeting the steel flint of his gaze steadily, she squared her shoulders. She realized she was in for a battle, and was prepared.
"No ma'am, you won't."
"Look." She moved to face him again. If he'd had been a bear, she wouldn't have cared. She knew being a woman in the cattle business was a hard pair of shoes to fill, but she had filled them since her folks had gone to war, and she aimed to keep on doing it. "I just lost my foreman. He got thrown and broke his back. He'll be laid up for a long time. He can't sit the saddle. And no one's taking that herd north without me, understood? This town…what's left of it, is depending on me to get that herd through. It could mean the life or death of this entire town."
She was facing him like some gunslinger.
Admiration, or surprise, flickered in his eyes. She couldn't be sure which, not knowing the man. When he smiled, his face dimpled, making her more aware of him. She felt that smile to her toes.
"This town is a lost cause, lady. Just like the war. And I won't herd cattle with a female." His voice held little respect. "No man I know would. Women on a trail drive are bad luck, lest you have a man to go along with you."
"I have no man, and if that's the way you feel, then you won't herd my cattle, mister." She turned with a decided slump and started marching out the shed door. No laughter followed her like she expected. Instead, he stood staring at her backside.
But he caught up to her as she entered the saloon the way she came, and he whirled her around and shook his head. Knowing he now had an audience, he pulled her by the arm all the way back to a table and practically threw her in a chair. Then, he turned a chair around and straddled it as he watched her and stared disbelievingly. For long, silent moments he said nothing, as though he was measuring every word she had said.
"What the heck you want to drag yourself through unsettling territory with a bunch of rangy men for? You don't look like an idiot." His eyes held no humor.
His words made her flinch inwardly, but she swallowed them nonetheless.
"I got people depending on me. They trusted me with that herd. You understand that. They worked and scrimped for those cows. Been most the late winter and early spring rounding them up and putting road brands on them. We even got them inspected. There's a market, a good market now, if we can get them there. I'm not going to let some low down scum steal them away from me. They are mine, and I'm taking them to Abilene." Her voice held strong determination.
He stared, his brows knitting in anger, mixed with something close to admiration. It was an expression she couldn't read.
Suddenly, he nodded and with cool indifference, muttered lowly, "On one condition."
"I'm listening." She couldn't hold the contempt from her voice.
"We get married."
Never in all her twenty years had anyone said such a thing to her. But to come from this man's mouth was more than she could tolerate. A man who lived in a shed like an animal, who left the war before it was over, who…
"I loathe you, sir." Her voice became a low whisper, her gaze taking in the saloon, once more, with disgust.
He sneered. "I can see that." He nodded again.
"I got my reasons."
"Would you mind sharing them with me, then, because I see no point to this kind of talk?"
He shook his head in exasperation. "Nope! But it's the only way I'll take that herd through with you in the saddle."
She stood up again, scraping the floor with her chair and shaking her head. "I might have known you wouldn't be a gentleman about it, a coward like you."
If her words stung him, he didn't let on.
"On the contrary, I just asked you to marry...that's pretty gentlemanly of me...don't you think?" The laughter in his voice surprised her again.
Angered by his nonsense, she turned to leave again. She straightened her shoulders, held her head high, and walked out the door. This time, there was no laughter.
Once she was clear of the vermin inside, she felt herself weaken and nearly fall. She needed to throw up, but she squashed the distaste in her mouth and kept moving, momentarily, at least. Then, she paused and leaned against the side of the building, feeling a roaring in her stomach. She pitched her dinner on the side of the road, wiped her mouth, and looked about. A few watched and snickered, but said nothing when she glared at them.
She wanted to scream her annoyance of the man. He was everything her cousin Susan had said he was. He made no sense to her at all. She wasn't even sure he was human.
She grimaced inwardly; she was in the biggest trouble of her life and had no way out.
About to untether her horse, Hershel Walker strode up to her. "Jodi?" he called to her.
Jodi whipped about to see another piece of dirt littering the street. She spat and climbed on her horse as he jerked the reins from her hands.
She stared down into his handsome young face and kicked him with her boot. She took the reins and tried to whip at him. He laughed.
"Now wait a minute, honey. We got things to talk about. I told you I was coming back for a visit. It might as well be now." He grabbed the reins from her hands again.
"Take your hands off me, Hershel, before I blow your head off." She raised her voice to an almost screaming pitch.
"Now, honey," he cajoled sarcastically. "Is that a way to talk to your fella? I know what you been hiding under all them clothes, don't I, honey? Yes sir, and I like what you been hiding, too." He came closer and whispered the words with a sneer.
"You come near me again and I'll kill you, Hershel!" She spit in the road and tried to grab the reins from his hands. Ready to gun him down in broad daylight, she reached for her shotgun. She wouldn't wrestle him, she'd kill him. If facing Hunter Johnson was bad, facing Hershel, after what he'd done to her, was even worse.
But suddenly, a low and dangerous sounding voice yelled, "Take your hands off my woman."
"Your woman?" Hershel yelled with laughter as he twisted about to see who he was talking to. Hershel seemed surprised when he saw Hunter. And when he recognized him, he laughed aloud.
Hunter stood in the doorway of the saloon, his legs spread, and his gun hand ready. "That's right, Jodi Parker and I are going to be married."
"Married?" Hershel shouted again with laughter in his voice.
Jodi's mouth moved to rebuke his words, but something in Hunter's expression seemed to warn her not to say a word. She held her tongue. Two snakes fighting it out, maybe they would kill each other, she pondered as she watched them.
"Well now, I wouldn't think any man would want used goods, but then come to think of it, a man like you probably wouldn't care." Hershel laughed lowly.
"That's right," Hunter said as though totally ignoring what Hershel had just said. "She's my woman. But if I hear you utter one ill word about my intended, I'll kill you before the sun sets." Hunter's hand edged toward his gun.
Hershel stood very still, and then glanced up at her. His smile broadened. "Well, she ain't worth..." he began to shout so everyone in town would hear.
"One more word..." Then came the cock of a gun.
Hershel glanced up at Jodi, then swiping the sweat from his chin, he shot Hunter another disbelieving glance. "We'll take this up later," he laughed and walked down the street, not looking back.
Tears sprang in Jodi's eyes, but she forced them not to fall as she stared at the man who had taken complete control of her life. If she hadn't hated him, she might have thanked him, but pride kept her from it.
"Go home. I'll meet you at Round Rock in four days," Hunter said, and went back into the saloon.
Unable to voice her feelings at the moment, Jodi nudged her horse into a slow gallop.
It was a long ride home.