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Authors: A Taste of Fire

Hannah Howell

BOOK: Hannah Howell
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A Taste of Fire
by Hannah Howell
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Romance

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Copyright ©1988 by Hannah D. Howell

 

NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.

Prologue

Spring, 1857

Shots. Even a child of nine recognized that sound. Suddenly it was no longer a fine spring day, the wildflowers no longer held her interest. The overgrown puppy at the child's feet even ceased its romping. For a moment an ominous silence reigned, as if even the birds waited for a repetition of the sound that too often signaled death in the new Territory of New Mexico.

Standing still, the little girl tried to think. Was it Indians? Was it
bandidos?
There seemed to be so many things to fear. Should she stay? Should she run? Should she hide? The only thing Antonie had been told was where to hide if she was at home and there was an attack. No one had told her what to do if she was picking wildflowers out of sight of her home.

Another shot cut through the still air and her legs began to move. At first it was a slow advance, but then her small legs began to move faster. She had to know. The puppy clumsily tried to keep up with her as she raced toward home.

 

Juan Ramirez was sickened by what he saw. He was a man of violence, but he prided himself on confining it to those he considered deserving or who could fight back. The men who rode with him knew he held firm to his rules. These poor settlers had nothing worth stealing, had been struggling as hard as any of his own people. This violence had gained them nothing, and that infuriated him. It had also wasted time, another serious crime in his eyes. He stared down at the instigator he had just shot and wondered idly if that would be enough of a lesson for his three men, or if he should shoot them, too. At the sound of someone running toward them, he stiffened and turned, his gun ready as were those of his men.

The little girl who raced toward them seemed blind to their presence. He tried to stop her from getting inside the cabin, but she neatly eluded his grasp. Cursing, he followed the child and stood in the doorway to watch her. She stood and looked around at the destruction, clearly not understanding it.

Setting down her flowers, Antonie moved toward her mother's body wondering why she was nearly naked. With an odd dignity that struck to the core the man watching her, she straightened her mother's clothing and shut the woman's wide, staring eyes. All she could think of was that death meant burying. She had to dig two big holes and put her parents in them. That was what they had done with her brother and sister when they had died.

“Why are you still here?” she asked the man who blocked the door. “They're dead. You can't kill them anymore. Move."

Not sure why, Juan moved. He stood scratching his beard as he watched her go to the barn. His men grew restless as they wondered aloud why they were not leaving. Juan continued to watch as the child returned dragging a shovel that was too big and too heavy for her to use.

He compared her to a china doll he had stolen once. Her long untidy curls were the color of cornsilk, her skin like cream, and her stature delicate even for a child he estimated to be about nine. It was her eyes that really fascinated him, however. They were like amethysts, huge pools of purple in her small face, topped by delicate brows and encircled by lush lashes that were several shades darker than her hair. He had no idea what he would do with her, but he knew he could not leave her behind.

"Niña,
my men will do the burying.” He took the shovel from her and handed it to one of the three who had helped in the killing. “You are too little, eh?"

It was a hasty burial. There was a very good chance that men were already on their trail. The border was not far, but Juan did not wish to be caught in a race for it. He left the child putting her wildflowers on her mother's grave and returned to the cabin to throw her few things into a saddlebag. When he went back outside he found her returning to the cabin.

“Juan,” ventured Manuel, his right-hand man, “what can you do with a little girl? This is madness."

Looking at the child who watched them, plainly not understanding Spanish, he replied, “Yes, it is, but she is my prize.” He grinned at Manuel. “I will be a father but without the trouble of a wife. Is that madness?” He asked her in English, “Your name?"

“Antonie Neumann.” She studied the tall, slim, dark man. “Why did you kill my mama and papa?"

“I did not do this thing,
niña."
He gestured to the body of the man he had shot. “This man did, so I killed him. I am a
bandido, sí,
but I do not trouble those with nothing worth stealing.” He watched her nod at the sense of that. “You come with us now,
chica,"
he said as he set her in the saddle.

“Sage. My dog.” She clung to Juan's saddle horn and looked down at the puppy who whined at the horse's hooves.

“Manuel will bring the dog.” He chuckled over Manuel's curses as he mounted behind the little girl. “You will belong to Juan now."

One

March, 1861

Royal Bancroft was unaware of the dangerous company he had wandered into. Just twenty-one, he was drawn to border towns by cheap liquor, cheaper women, and that air of recklessness that prevailed. His jade green gaze had drifted from the abundant charms of the woman by his side to rest upon a sight he had never expected to find in a border town cantina.

The girl made Royal think of a little china doll, despite the roughness of her attire and appearance. Her pale hair hung far past her hips, held in place only by a bandana, her low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat hiding little of it. The black of her shirt and pants only accentuated the creaminess of her skin. In profile her small straight nose and full mouth as well as the delicate bones of her face already held promise of a womanly beauty, sensuality, and passion. Glancing over her black-clad figure, Royal decided that so did her budding figure.

Royal did not like seeing a young girl in such a place. If she had any innocence left it would not last long. He could only think of his sister, Patricia, who was probably this girl's age. It was wrong for that child to be in the cantina and, even as he cursed the idealism and sense of right that drove him, Royal moved to do something about it. He stopped before the girl, a little stunned by her incredibly lovely eyes. He was about to speak when all the noise in the cantina abruptly ceased, accentuating the sound of the hammers on several pistols being drawn back. Slowly Royal raised his arms and, just as slowly, turned around.

“You are young,
gringo,
so I let you explain yourself. Then I might shoot,” Juan shrugged, “or I might not."

Wondering how to ease the deadly tension he had inadvertently caused, Royal said, “I meant the child no harm."

The word child eased the tension just slightly. “Then why do you approach my
niña?"

Despite his best efforts to hide it, Royal knew his surprise was showing. The tall Mexican eyeing him so closely and coldly over the barrel of his gun could not possibly be the girl's father. It was an effort not to look at her again to reassure himself of her fair coloring.

“I was simply concerned about a child being in a place like this."

With a barely perceptible signal from the man, Royal was relieved of his weapons. Cautiously, as the other men put away their weapons, Royal obeyed the man's signal to come and sit at his table. He could not help but smile a little at the way the man roughly pushed the whore from his lap and, with another subtle gesture, summoned the little girl to come and sit there. The way the hard man's eyes softened when the girl drew near, as well as the way she snuggled against him so naturally, made the man seem less dangerous, but Royal knew that was a very costly assumption to make.

“My
niña
always comes with me. She has seen many of these cantinas, eh?"

“Well, all I could think of was my sister, who's about your girl's age. I wouldn't want her in a place like this,” he paused, “learning."

“She is a child. It is too early for her to learn."

“Her childhood is fading,
señor."
Royal nodded toward the girl's chest.

The way she had put her arm around Juan's neck had stretched Antonie's shirt taut against her budding breasts. She scowled as Juan then Manuel looked down and both men's eyes widened. Ignoring her protest, Juan pulled out the front of her shirt to peer inside and gape in total disbelief at the small breasts forming there.

"Por Dios,"
he said softly, hastily letting go so that the shirt fell back into place. “Why did you say nothing,
chica?"

“I hoped they would go away. Then you could not laugh like you did when my woman's bleeding started. I do not like to be laughed at."

“Ah,
querida,
we did not laugh at you, only at you thinking you were dying."

The man looked around at his men pawing the whores and his face darkened. Royal could guess at his thoughts. The child was growing and soon her thoughts would catch up with her body. She could all too easily join the ranks of the women that now offered to pleasure his men for a few pesos.

“Look, just send her back to her room,” Royal suggested gently.

“She sleeps near me, here, when I choose a room."

“My God,” Royal breathed, shocked to his young soul. “You let her watch?"

“No,” the man growled. “She sleeps outside the door."

“So she only hears,” Royal said sarcastically.

“Oh, Juan does not make much noise. Only grunts a bit. Now Manuel—” Antonie's revelations were halted by Juan's hand over her mouth.

“We know how Manuel is. You should not,” Juan said sternly as he removed his hand. “What do I do now, eh?"

Royal was about to offer a suggestion when his gaze was suddenly captivated by a fleeting image in the mirror behind the bar. There was a furtive movement outside, but he was not sure what it meant until he caught the gleam of a rifle barrel. It was taking aim at the man seated across from him, a man too deep in thought to sense the danger or defend himself. So, too, would the child with the lovely eyes get caught in the fire.

Yelling a warning, Royal hurled himself at the man and the child, bringing them all to the floor as the first shot was fired. Unarmed, Royal could do nothing but cover the girl and keep his head down as the battle raged. With a speed that Royal had to admire, Juan had the table and chairs placed as barricades. It looked and sounded like pandemonium, but Royal noticed only two men in the bar were taken down and they had fallen in the first few seconds. The attackers, however, were bitterly defeated, and the ones who were able to fled for their lives. He continued to sit on the floor with the girl and her mangy dog as some semblance of order was restored.

“Who was it?” Antonie asked calmly as she finally returned to her seat with Juan as Royal collapsed in his.

“Raoul and his scum.” Juan looked at Royal. “I owe you,
gringo,
and Juan Ramirez does not forget a debt. Your name?"

“Royal Bancroft,” he answered automatically, in shock at meeting a near legend and saving the life of the man all of Texas was aching to hang. “Texas. Outside San Antonio.” He absently accepted the return of his weapons. “Christ, they would hang me if they knew."

Juan laughed heartily.
"Sí, sí.
You would have not been so quick if you had known, eh?"

Sighing, Royal grinned and shook his head. “There is still the child. They aren't looking to hang her."

“No?” Juan rubbed his cheek against the top of Antonie's now hatless head.

“No.” Royal took a long pull on his beer and decided to be honest. “They think you stole her and would like to take her back."

“It is as I thought. They have already tried, but no one will take my
niña.
She is an orphan. Antonie Neumann."

“Hello, Antonie.” Royal saw her smile shyly at him and could easily foresee her beauty.

“She came with me when she was nine. I am her father now. My men, her family. We see that she goes to church.” Dancing black eyes returned Royal's grin. “We teach her all we know. She can ride, shoot, all of that, as good as any man.” He frowned and looked around the cantina again. “I do not want her to learn of this life, but this
bandido
knows of only
putas."

It was not easy, but Royal hid his surprise. The man was the scourge of Texas and the Territory of New Mexico, swooping across the border to rob and kill and disappear back across the Rio Grande into Mexico. El Diablo was only one of the names given this hard man who eluded capture so easily. Yet, here he sat, as concerned as any father for the chastity of the girl he had picked up on some raid. Royal now thought it a lost cause, but he was willing to help if he could.

BOOK: Hannah Howell
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