Authors: Lyn Horner
Tags: #western, #psychic, #Irish Druid, #Texas, #cattle drive, #family feud
; July 1874
Why’d you have to go and get stuck in there?” Lil Crawford muttered. She tugged harder on her rope in an effort to pull the bawling calf from the mud wallow it had wandered into. No luck. The animal was mired nearly up to his shoulders in thick clay gumbo. No matter how hard she pulled, she wasn’t going to get him out.
Nearby, standing beside the creek that had carved out the treacherous wallow along the bank, the calf’s mamma lowed plaintively as if blaming Lil for her baby’s predicament.
“It’s not my fault,” Lil said, sending her a baleful glare. “You should’ve dropped him in the spring like you’re supposed to ’stead of in the middle of summer. Then maybe he’d be big enough to climb out of this dang mud.”
Arms crossed, she studied the situation. She considered letting Major, her buckskin gelding, drag the calf out but feared injuring the little mite, possibly even breaking his neck. She sighed in disgust. There was no help for it; she’d have to get down in the mud and wrestle the calf out. It was either that or
him there to die a slow, miserable death.
Dropping to the ground, she tugged off her boots and socks. She set them near the edge of the wallow, then rose, unbuckled her gun belt and laid it atop her footgear, where she could reach her six-shooter if need be. Her hat joined the pile for good measure.
Lil took a deep breath, set her teeth and stepped into the wallow, cringing as she sank up to her knees in the gooey muck. It squished between her toes and clung to her legs, plastering her britches to her skin. It also stank of rotting grass and other things she’d as soon not name.
Crooning softly to the frightened calf, she wrapped her arms around his middle, coating her hands, arms and shirt with mud in the process. She braced herself, preparing to wrestle the animal free.
A man’s deep-throated laugh caught her off guard. Jolted by the sound, she cried out in surprise and struggled to turn around, fighting the mud that imprisoned her legs. Once she succeeded, she stared, slack-jawed, at the stranger grinning at her from atop the most broken down nag she’d ever laid eyes on. The dude himself was a sight to behold. Togged out in a funny checked suit, with a derby hat atop jet-black hair, he made her lips twitch. However, her humor fled when she met his eyes. Brilliant blue, they shot sparks of light, brighter than the toothy grin
his handsome face.
“Sure’n I must be dreaming,” he said in a lilting Irish brogue. “Or are ye truly a lovely faery maid sent to enchant me?”
His foolish question broke Lil’s frozen stare and roused her anger. She knew she was far from lovely, and right now she was covered with nasty muck besides. “Mister, I’m no fairy and I don’t take kindly to strangers who ride up on me with no warning. So you can just turn that bag of bones around and
“Ah, colleen, will ye not grant this poor beggar a few moments of your company? ’Twould be my pleasure to help
with the wee animal if ye like.”
She snorted at his offer. “No thanks. I can get him out by myself. ’Sides, you wouldn’t want to muddy up your fancy suit, would you?” she drawled with a smirk.
He looked down at himself and grimaced. “I take it ye don’t care for my fine attire.”
came out sounding like
“Well, you’re not the first. A layer of mud might not be such a bad thing, eh? With that in mind, will ye not reconsider and allow me to lend
a hand?” He gave another roguish grin and splayed a hand over his heart. “In truth, your beauty so captivates me that I fear I cannot turn away.”
Lil bristled at his absurd comment. Certain he was making fun of her now, for her
would never captivate any man, she narrowed her eyes. She’d teach him, by criminy!
Without a word, she plowed through the mud over to where her belongings lay piled. She hastily wiped the worst of the mud from her hands onto the grassy embankment, then reached under her hat and drew her Colt. Coldly calm now, she turned to face the impudent stranger. It pleased her to see how fast he sobered with a gun aimed between his eyes.
“This is Double C land, mister. You’re trespassing. I could shoot you dead and
blame me. So, unless you want a hole in your head bigger than your mouth, you’d best get moving.”
Sighing, he crooked his lips.
“As ye wish.”
He tipped his hat to her, clumsily reined his horse around and started to leave, but then he pulled up and glanced at her over his shoulder. He held up his hands when she cocked her gun. “I’m going, colleen, never fear. But first, could ye be directing me to the
place, by any chance?”
Lil stared at him for a moment while questions raced through her head. Normally, she didn’t poke her nose into other folks’ business, but in this case . . . . “What do you want at the River T?” she demanded.
He frowned testily. “I mean no harm, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’m merely trying to find my sister. She’s wed to David Taylor. D’ye
Lil drew a sharp breath. “You’re Jessie’s brother?”
I am. So ye do know them.”
“I know them all right,” she gritted. She should’ve guessed who he was from his damned Irish accent and those blue eyes that were so much like his sister’s. The two looked a lot alike in other ways, too, except Jessie’s hair was dark red instead of black. And he was handsome, not beautiful.
Fiddlesticks! She didn’t care what he looked like. And she didn’t cotton to the way he was staring at her now, as if he was trying to see inside her head. It gave her an uneasy feeling. She wanted him gone. If giving him directions would get rid of him, so much the better.
“Follow the creek. It’ll take you to their place,” she snapped, jerking her head in the downstream direction. “Now leave before my trigger finger slips.
He blinked and seemed to come back to himself. “I thank ye for your kind assistance, milady,” he said mockingly. Facing forward, he kicked his sorry mount into a stiff-legged trot and headed down the creek, bouncing in his saddle.
Watching him, Lil snickered. He was a greenhorn if ever there was one, and he was going to be mighty sore tonight. She waited until he was well out of sight before laying her gun aside and returning her attention to the mired calf.
By lifting and shoving with all of her might, she finally
the loudly complaining critter onto dry ground. Once there,
made straight for her mother. Without a backward glance or a single moo of gratitude, the pair trotted off in search of greener pastures. Not that there was much green grass to be found anywhere on the range at this time of year, Lil thought as she set about cleaning herself up.
A quick dunk in the creek rid her of most of the mud. Climbing out, she slapped her hat on, slung her gun belt over her saddle and mounted up barefoot, toting her boots to save them from getting wet. Then she directed Major toward her favorite swimming hole, about a mile upstream. She wanted more of a bath before heading home.
As she rode, she couldn’t help thinking about her run-in with Jessie Taylor’s pesky brother. Still angry over his mocking remarks about her so-called beauty, she also found herself wondering if he was here for a short visit or if he meant to stay. Did David and Jessie know he was coming? Then she wondered what his name was. Wait, she’d heard Jessie’s maiden name once. It started with D. Doyle? No. Dillon? No. Devlin! His last name was Devlin. Not that it mattered.
* * *
Tye Devlin rode away from the gun-wielding female, awash in despair that didn’t spring from his own lamentable thoughts. This flood of emotion emanated from the prickly, mud-covered colleen. It had overwhelmed all of his carefully wrought barriers, causing him to stare at her in disbelief, until she again ordered him to leave. Incredibly, her intense reaction had burst forth when he identified himself as Jessie’s brother. Why, he had no idea. He regretted causing her pain but saw no way to make amends. His attempts to charm her had only made her angry. If he turned and rode back now, she’d probably shoot him before he could offer an apology. Moreover, if he mentioned her private pain, she would surely question how he knew about it, and he wasn’t about to explain his
to a stranger, no matter how enchanting she was.
All that aside, he had enough trouble living with his own painful burden. He couldn’t deal with anyone else’s right now. All he wanted to do was see Jessie and make sure she was happy with her new life. If she was, perhaps he’d find a wee bit of peace.
He wondered what kind of reception lay in store for him. Jessie would be glad to see him, he didn’t doubt, but David might feel differently. Tye knew he should’ve written to say he was coming, but he hadn’t made up his mind to visit them until he was halfway here. Where he’d go next, he didn’t know. Not back to
, to the mines. Never that! The
had let him escape once, but he doubted they’d be so generous again.
had blamed every freak mining accident on those wicked
spirits. Even though Tye knew they were surely a myth, he’d picked up the same habit from his partner. His stomach knotted as he thought of the superstitious Cornishman, and he smiled sadly to himself. Tom had often accused him of having the luck o’ the Irish, another old wives’ tale.
“Ha! Curse o’ the Irish is more like it,” he muttered.
Guilt washed through him for the part he had played in Tom’s death. Memories of the deadly cave-in and its aftermath flashed through his brain, bringing with it a flood of terror. He broke out in a cold sweat and labored for breath, as if he were in the black pit again, about to suffocate.
No! He mustn’t lose control now, when he was about to face Jessie. She’d worry and ask questions, and he couldn’t speak of it, not even to her. Desperate to hold the darkness at bay, he thought of sunlight on copper-gold cheeks that turned dusky rose with anger. Aye, better to think of
his reluctant guide. She had made him forget the terror and guilt for a few moments. Perhaps he should be grateful for the confused directions he’d been given back in
, the dusty little town where he’d rented his ancient steed. Otherwise he wouldn’t have gotten lost and he never would have met the fascinating, bad-tempered vixen.
His first sight of her standing knee-deep in mud, trying to rescue a helpless calf, had awakened his buried sense of humor. It had also tugged at his heart. She’d brought to mind a guardian spirit – a faery maid – out to save her charge. Then she had turned around, allowing him to see her beautiful face and flashing dark eyes. He’d been instantly captivated.
He wished she had allowed him to help her free the calf, but her wariness was understandable. After all, she didn’t know him from Adam. Now, having felt her flood of unhappy emotions when he told her who he was, he doubted she would ever want to know him. Did it matter? He’d probably never see her again anyway, since he didn’t expect to remain around here for long.
Too bad, because he would really like to win a smile from her.
He hadn’t even learned her name. But David and Jessie would surely know who she was, since she was obviously a neighbor. With new eagerness, he shook the reins and nudged his tired steed forward.
* * *
Lil reached the swimming hole within minutes. Formed by a tight bend in the creek, the small cove was surrounded by trees, making it her favorite bathing spot. She punched cattle alongside the Double C hired hands and considered them her friends, but she wasn’t about to strip down and go swimming with them. This was
place, and since they all knew that, she never worried about anyone intruding on her privacy.