Authors: Shirl Henke
After they had ridden for a few minutes, she said, "You never did tell me what a Tuareg was."
He ignored her and fixed his eyes on the horizon.
She studied his profile as they rode in silence. His beard was a heavy black stubble that made him look piratical and fierce. Again, she wondered about his family. She could see the thick black curls of his chest hair peeking out above the open collar of his shirt. Half-breeds normally had little body hair. His face did not have the flat contours or curved roman nose of an Indian even though his complexion was as swarthy as any savage's. The straight blade of a nose and cleanly chiseled brow and jawline looked almost Latin.
"You're Mexican, not Indian."
He looked down at her, startled. "No, I'm Indian, too.”
"Then you are Mexican," she said with satisfaction. "You might as well talk to me, Jess. It's a long boring ride to J Bar. Tell me about your family," she wheedled. When he did not answer she said, "All right. I'll tell you about mine. My mother was a St. Louis belle, a Busch. She died in a cholera epidemic when I was very young, so all I remember of her is what Papa's told me. Papa must've loved her very much because he never remarried all these years. He built J Bar up from nothing— started with a fifty-dollar grubstake and worked it into the largest ranch in southeast Wyoming. He insisted I have a proper education the way my mother would've wanted, so he sent me to live with my Aunt Edith and Uncle Phineas when I was eight years old."
He laughed as she babbled on. "As an old partner of mine used to say, 'You sure was first in line when tongues was give out'." He could feel her bristling and looked down into her blazing gold eyes. "Have you ever had a thought in that beautiful empty little head of yours besides what you were going to wear or who was going to amuse you today?"
"You make me sound incredibly shallow," she said softly. "I should be furious—I was furious, but. . . maybe you're right. I do usually get my way." She gave him a wistful smile.
He snorted in derision. "You've got "every man in the territory jumping through hoops for you."
"Every man but you." She sighed. "I guess that's why I'm interested in you. It surely isn't because of your charming personality."
"So that's it, is it. I'm a challenge?" He cocked one eyebrow cynically and looked down at her. "I don't think so, lady. You're a ripe little virgin, all ready for the plucking—curious as hell to find out if the man-woman business is more than just hand-holding and moonlight. And here comes the mysterious, forbidden stranger. The last man on earth your daddy'd ever approve of. You want me to do a lot more than just scrape and bow over you like the rest of your legions of admirers, Princess."
She reached up with a squeal of outrage to slap his face but he caught her wrist and held it fast. She struggled, kicking and squirming, trying to raise her other hand. The big black sidestepped nervously and Jess swore, seizing her other hand and subduing her roughly.
Between gritted teeth he rasped out, "You're causing a scene for your daddy's men. If you don't want them tattling back to him, you'd better straighten up and at least try to act like a lady, even if it puts a real strain on your liver."
She subsided with a glare and leaned as far away from him as she could, mortified by the accuracy of his assessment, but too honest to deny it to herself even though she wanted to do so.
"You're an insufferable cad," she said with as much dignity as she could muster.
He laughed mirthlessly.
As the day wore on, the horizon billowed up with fat, fluffy gray clouds that moved toward them. The wind gusted up to gale force, stinging their eyes with dust and sand. Then the rains came pouring down.
"Damn, not so much as a sapling for shelter," Jess muttered, scanning the horizon through the driving rain. "We'll have to keep pushing on and hope we can find some shelter before the lightning starts up," he shouted to Deevers. The old man nodded, and they rode silently while the forces of nature erupted around them.
Jess could feel Lissa shivering as the cold rain soaked through their clothes. "Surely a bold adventuress like you isn't afraid of a little storm?" he teased as he reached back to unfasten his saddle roll.
"I've hated storms ever since I was a little girl," she admitted.
"You're taking a chill. That frilly thing is pretty but not very practical out here on the high plains." He could nearly see through the sheer batiste blouse. It melted against her skin with a translucent whitish gleam, revealing the outlines of her low-cut lace camisole. Only the row of ruffles down the front kept him from seeing the color of her nipples through the thin, soaked cloth! Their impudent pebbly outline protruded sharply against the fabric. Damn, before he knew it he was dreaming about touching them, feeling them arch up against his mouth when he suckled the delicate points. He growled in frustration as she snuggled closer against him.
Jess unrolled his poncho with a sharp flick of his wrist, and pulled it over his head, covering them both at the same time. Her arms circled his waist tightly, and she laid her head against his chest. Soon a layer of warm body heat cocooned them inside the heavy-woven rain gear. He could smell her orange blossom fragrance mixed with the subtle scent of woman, and he knew he was growing hard.
Lissa felt the pressure of his erection against her thigh. So, she was just a spoiled little virgin? Well, he was just as interested in her as she was in him. In spite of her misery a small burble of laughter welled up inside her.
"Does it put a real strain on your liver riding next to me this way?" she whispered, throwing his words back at him.
He swore, muttering, "It isn't my liver that's strained, lady."
A few bolts of lightning zigzagged across the horizon. Then one struck just in front of Deevers's horse. He snarled an oath and raised his fist at the sky, yelling, "All right, yew ole bald-headed son of a bitch up there! Yew want ta kill me, git it done er quit foolin'!"
"Jeehosaphat! Deevers, don't say thet!" Rob gulped and pulled his horse away from the crotchety old man.
Matt Helmes laughed. "He always does that. Ain't never got him killed yet."
"Jist the same, I ain't hankerin' after a belly full o’ lightnin' bolts. I'll jest ride clear o’ him fer a spell."
Another jagged shaft of lightning hit the ground about twenty yards from them. Lissa jumped, then burrowed down beneath the warm poncho, still holding Jess tightly.
The rain finally broke and the sun came out, hanging low on the western horizon like a great molten ball of orange fire. The sky around it was streaked with gold and fuchsia. They caught their first sight of the J Bar Ranch against this glorious backdrop. It sat majestically, as if such a natural spectacle was the only appropriate setting for the vast cattle kingdom's headquarters.
And a kingdom it was, spread out across the wide floor of a shallow basin at the foot of the Medicine Bow Mountains. A winding stream curled around the valley, and a natural windbreak of tall cottonwoods and evergreens grew by the edge of the water. Several long, low buildings and bunkhouses and a mess hall sprawled beside a series of high corrals where horses and stud bulls were kept. A dairy and an icehouse were situated beside a large dugout for storing root vegetables. The little village of outbuildings was completed by a large stable adjacent to the corrals, a henhouse, and a blacksmith shop.
The real focal point of the place was the big house, old Marcus Jacobson's elegant home. It was made of dressed lumber shipped in from Denver and whitewashed a blinding white with red shutters and trim on the gables along the second-story roof. The windows were in big double pairs, the panes shining in the evening light, revealing lace curtains within. A wide veranda circled the rectangular house on three sides, and clusters of tall sycamores and oaks shaded the shingled roof from sun and wind.
Jess let out a low whistle. Lissa, who had dozed while snuggled comfortably beneath the poncho, sat up as Jess peeled it off and stuffed it partially back into his saddlebag.
"It is rather imposing the first time you see it, I suppose," she said quietly.
He looked down at her, surprised. "You don't like your castle, Princess?"
"I've never felt it was really home, I guess. I've been away at school for the past twelve years. I only spent a month or so, summers, on the ranch. Since Papa sent for me, he’s been gone a lot of the time on business. Germaine is always here, though," she added bitterly.
Jess could see a tall, solitary figure standing on the porch, peering out at the approaching riders. This must be Germaine. She had dark hair pulled high atop her head in a severe coil of thick braids. Her body was lank and thin, and her face was composed of harsh angular planes. A prominent nose with a small knobby tip was framed by sunken cheeks. Her eyes dominated her face—small, piercing black eyes that moved like malevolent raisins from side to side beneath thin, flat eyebrows. The Wyoming wind and sun had not been kind to that face.
As they rode up, Jess could see her purse her lips when she saw Lissa seated in front of him. She stepped onto the first riser of the porch stairs and glared at them.
Germaine inspected Jess briefly, then turned her burning eyes on Lissa. "What will your father say to see you riding with his kind, looking as if you slept with him,
?" she said in a heavy French accent.
"And just what kind is that, ma'am?" Jess asked in a low, silky voice.
Germaine Channault peered at him, meeting his steely gray eyes for a moment, then shifting her gaze nervously to Lissa. "Your father will hear about this escapade," she hissed. Backing up a step, she gave Jess a swift glance and quickly retreated into the house.
Lissa chuckled darkly as she dismounted from the big black horse, holding fast to Jess's arm and sliding along his leg until her feet touched the ground. "You're the first man since Vinegar Joe Riland to buffalo Germaine."
"She any kin?" He could see no resemblance.
"Scarcely. She's French Canadian. She came here with my mother from St. Louis. After Mama died, Papa kept her on as cook and housekeeper. We detest each other."
"And your father won't get rid of her?" He found it difficult to believe that Marcus would deny his princess anything.
As if reading his thoughts she said, "There are some things Papa won't do even for me."
Jess studied her enigmatic expression and wondered what was between the Frenchwoman and Jacobson to so upset his daughter. She returned his perusal with a slow smile spreading across her lips. Realizing the direction of her thoughts, he touched the brim of his hat in a mocking salute and turned Blaze toward the bunkhouse. "Evening, Princess."
"See you in the morning, Jess."
He rode slowly to the cluster of long, low buildings situated around the corrals, all the while thinking about Melissa Jacobson.
She's trouble with a capital T and I have to avoid her.
But avoiding a spoiled, willful female like Lissa was going to be easier said than done. She had led the sheltered life of an Eastern belle. A man who lived by his guns, a man of mixed blood with a fearful reputation, was a novelty. After being cooped up on an isolated ranch all winter, she was bored. He could furnish excitement and amusement for her.
"Her spring juices would have to start flowing right at the time I arrived," he muttered to himself, vexed by his own response to the girl. She was a beauty, no doubt of that, with her dark red hair and those big honey-colored eyes. But she was a white woman from a respectable family. Besides, she was his employer's daughter. One of Jess's strictest rules was that he never mixed business and pleasure.
Putting the disturbing female from his mind, he swung down in front of the stable door, where Rob Ostler stood holding Lissa's gray.
"I'll take care of yore horse, Mr. Robbins," the younger man offered.
"Obliged," Jess said. He handed the reins to Ostler and unfastened his gear from the saddle. The young hand led Blaze and the gray into the musty interior of the big barn.
Jess slung his saddlebags over his right shoulder and carried his weapon case in his left hand. The sounds of coarse male laughter drifted from the long log structure directly across the corral as he approached. He stood in the open doorway and took in the scene, typical of bunkhouses across the plains from Texas to the Canadian border.
The first thing that assaulted his senses was the smell, a composite of coal-oil lamp smoke and sweaty men, liberally mixed with old work boots encrusted by cow manure and the sickly sweet aroma of licorice in chewing tobacco. Because J Bar was such a big spread, the room was spacious as such edifices went, nearly one hundred and fifty feet long. It was large but spartan, with pages from mail order catalogues, newspapers, and dog-eared photographs covering the tightly chinked log walls. Pictures of musical performers and faraway sweethearts were nailed up side by side with advertisements for Dr. Dennigan's Most Marvelous Elixir for Lumbago, Croup, Catarrh, and the Piles. The floor was made of rough wooden planks and littered with boots, saddlebags, and various articles of clothing that had been put there so they would not fall down and get lost.