Authors: Lindsay McKenna
With both her parents dead, Lark Gallagher was a woman alone in a harsh world that scorned her—daughter of a white man and an Apache woman. But she was determined to survive—and to save the ranch that had been her father’s dream.
Matt Kincaid was also a man with a mission—to avenge the Apache murder of his wife and child. Yet when he was wounded and near death, it was the gentle hands of the wildly beautiful Lark that nursed him back to life—and made desire rage in his heart. As the cruel vengeance of their two worlds threatened their very lives, they clung to each other—until the past’s bitter memories were lost in the magnificent fires of all-consuming love.
Oh Shinnah Fast Wolf,
Tineh medicine woman and crystal healer,
Cherokee medicine man,
Thank you for showing me
the way of The People.
Dark, swollen cumulus clouds rose over the barren Arizona foothills, casting shadows across scraggly oaks and twisted pinyon pines. Matt Kincaid hunched his shoulders as his gunmetal-gray gelding traversed the raw cinnabar-colored land. He kept his eyes down and narrowed on the rocky, cactus-strewn escarpment as the lethargic gelding stolidly continued the upward climb.
The hoofprints of several shod horses were barely discernible on the pebble-hard ground; evidence that the red dust had been disturbed, the break of a twig on a lowlying mesquite bush, or the flattened stalks of hardy buffalo grass were all he had to follow the Apache murderers of his wife, Katie, and his six-year-old daughter, Susan. Kincaid’s mouth tightened and sweat ran in glistening rivulets down the uncompromising length of his solid, unshaven jaw. His bloodshot gray eyes burned with an inner hatred that hadn’t left him during the four weeks he had relentlessly tracked Ga’n and his renegade cohorts.
The sun set early, snuffed out by the encroaching thunderclouds rolling in from the Hualapai Mountains in the west. A pregnant lull settled around Kincaid. His horse plodded on, head hanging, feet stumbling every few strides. That was how Matt felt—bone-weary. Every time he remembered returning home to his small, successful ranch outside Tucson and finding his family dead, his exhaustion was torn away by anger.
He had returned home unexpectedly from Tucson and found Ga’n and his band in the midst of raiding his ranch. While his house burned to the ground, he’d tried to save his wife and child—to no avail. Two crosses now stood near where his home and his dreams lay in ruins.
Matt would never go back to that land. He’d sold everything except the cemetery plot. He had nothing to live for now except revenge. Ga’n was going to pay with his life.
The gray picked his way delicately across a rocky slope, avoiding larger rocks that could cause him a stone bruise on the sensitive soles of his shod hooves.
Matt glanced up briefly, glaring at the vanguard of storms ready to break around him at any moment. Dusk was closing in on him like a shadowy predator. A bitter pang shot through him: the rain would wipe out any trace of Ga’n.
Matt’s gaze moved methodically as he urged his horse to a faster pace. The wind whipped around him in frenzied patterns, a harbinger of the storm following on its heels. Matt’s eyes wrinkled at the corners as he squinted, trying to separate shadow from substance on a small bluff covered with pine trees. His mouth compressed into a single line as he studied one particular rock formation. Or was it a rock? His brows dipped. Was it Ga’n on his rangy buckskin sitting up there on the promontory or just dusk light playing tricks on his vision? Matt wiped his watering eyes with the back of his gloved hand and blinked, studying the formation more closely.
Forks of lightning lanced out like a rattler’s tongue as the first storm raced down the slopes.
. Out of habit, he ran his fingers down the neck of his horse to calm the gelding. It was a nervous gesture he’d acquired during his Civil War days when he had led his men on cavalry charges into the mouths of enemy cannon.
Tension knotted in Matt’s hard belly. He sensed danger. The hair stood up on the back of his darkly sunburned neck. But was the danger real or imagined? He knew from experience that chasing Ga’n for thirty-six to forty-eight hours at a time without sleep could play tricks on his mind and eyesight. It made shadows resemble the Apache and sent screaming tension through him, leaving him with a pounding heart and a shaky weakness. Kincaid wiped his mouth and pulled the horse to a stop. The gelding, exhausted from the two-day marathon, stumbled badly, his mouth opening to escape the curb bit.
The wind was picking up, chasing away the squalid stillness. The buffalo grass and grama grass, long and green from recent rains, bent their thick, graceful stalks to the will of the surging gusts. The gray horse snorted, shaking his head, his ears pricked. The chaps that hung over the back of the saddle slapped against the animal’s rear legs. The horse whinnied plaintively, fighting his rider’s hand.
Without thinking, Matt tightened his grip around the horse’s barrel, hesitating. He stared hard up toward the rocks, waiting for the next streak of lightning to illuminate the murky crest of the bluff. Matt’s mouth went dry and his throat constricted as he waited those heart-pounding moments. What the hell was he doing? By remaining out in the open, he was an easy target for Ga’n to spot. Dazed with exhaustion, Matt realized his normally sharp senses were dulled. Cursing beneath his breath, he felt a sensation of helplessness uncoiling in his gut. That same feeling had descended on him when he had ridden into the yard and discovered Katie and Susan lying in a pool of blood in front of the burning ranch house. Anguish filled his gray eyes as the tortured past roared upon him, making him vulnerable for one split second.
Just as lightning cracked with frightening closeness, the roar of a Henry repeating rifle was muffled by the storm’s descending fury. The white-hot piece of lead slammed into Matt’s left thigh, settling deep in the corded muscle and lodging next to the bone. The impact nearly knocked him off his startled mount. He automatically set his spurs to the flanks of his horse. The gelding sent a spray of dirt and rock behind him as they headed toward the closest arroyo for protection. Clamping one hand over his heavily bleeding leg, Matt stayed low against the gray’s neck, urging him to put every last ounce of strength into getting away.
Hot, scalding tears streamed down Lark’s cheeks, curving into the drawn corners of her mouth. She blinked twice to clear her vision and stared down at the freshly dug red Arizona earth. With the back of her calico sleeve, she wiped her eyes. It was no use; tears continued to fall unchecked. Her gaze shifted to a wooden cross over her mother’s grave. Four seasons had passed since Mourning Dove had gone to the Big Sleep. Now…Lark forced her eyes to focus on the newly made Christian cross set forlornly over a second mound of earth next to her mother’s grave.
A sob tore from her as she sank to her knees at the end of the burial mound, her work-worn fingers outstretched, as if to touch her father, Roarke Gallagher, one last time. He had been a loving and understanding father who had allowed her and her mother to keep the ways of the Tineh, the Apache. Lark hadn’t totally understood the tenets of her father’s complex religion; the Catholic priest who had brought her father’s body back from town had muttered over the grave in an unintelligible language.
Her father, with his dark, auburn hair and eyes the color of the sky she loved so much, had been murdered yesterday outside Prescott. Lark’s anguish warred with a violent anger that threatened to consume her. The priest, Father Mulcahy, had said her father had been found on the right fork of Denton Road. He’d been shot in the back.
Every month, Roarke took the buckboard to Prescott to pay the mortgage on their ranch and buy supplies. After visiting the Prescott Bank, owned by Jud Cameron, he would go over to the saloon for a couple of Irish whiskeys before buying supplies and returning home. Always, he would bring Lark some small gift, perhaps a piece of bright calico, which she loved to make into shirts, or a new pair of jeans.
This time her father had bought her a ready-made dress of the finest cotton that matched her blue eyes. Now it hung in the bedroom closet, untouched. The rest of the supplies her father had bought had been destroyed. The wallet containing the monthly wages for the wranglers was missing. The only other items that remained intact were the bankbooks Lark had found in her father’s pocket.
Digging her fingers into the soft earth, Lark bowed her head, her waist-length black hair sliding across her shaking shoulders, forming a curtain to hide her tears and grief. Who had killed her father? He’d been a successful horse rancher, the animals he raised highly respected by the Prescott community. And then she wondered if the people’s prejudice against Roarke for marrying an Apache woman nineteen years ago and siring a half-breed daughter had finally spilled over in the guise of a bullet in his back.
Why had they hated her and Mourning Dove? What had she and her mother ever done to harm the people of Prescott? Roarke Gallagher had bought ten thousand acres of land near Prescott and then gone east. He’d brought back the Kentucky Stud and settled down with Mourning Dove at his side. More tears fled down Lark’s cheeks as she recalled how her father had spun story after story of how they had come to Prescott and established the Gallagher Ranch.
Both her parents were gone now. Tuberculosis had claimed her mother, as it had so many Apaches before her. A bullet had stripped her massive father from her.
Sniffing, Lark raised her head. Below her, concealed by blue spruce and fine-needled tamarack and evergreens, lay the Gallagher homestead, a sprawling building of logs and mortar. Now it was nothing more than a silent, empty shell. Suddenly the ranch—the vast network of mustang holding pens and outbuildings that held the mowed hay and grain—looked very large and unmanageable to Lark. At eighteen years old, she must now run Gallagher Ranch just as her parents had before her.
Trying to push away the heaviness in her heart, Lark realized she could no longer mourn her father’s passing. The Apache way would be for her to darken her face, cut off her hair, and rub ashes into her scalp as a show of grief. She felt a wild need to wail like a wounded animal caught in a trap, her hot Apache blood clamoring to be expressed.
But she had a ranch to run, Lark sternly reminded herself. Soon, thirty mustang broodmares would begin foaling the Kentucky Stud’s offspring. The foals would ensure the ranch’s survival; money on the hoof to pay the mortgage so that she could keep the homestead. Resolve threaded through her hurt and anger and forced Lark to her booted feet. Roarke had always tried to temper her wild Apache ways with love and understanding. He counseled love of the enemy and turning the other cheek. Lark’s blue eyes hardened as she stared fixedly down at the ranch. She could not understand or accept her father’s strange beliefs. Among her people, the Chiricahua Apache, murder was always avenged by a member of the victim’s family.
Her foreman, Paco Hernandez, slowly guided his jug-headed bay gelding up the hill to where she stood beneath the spreading bough of a pine tree. A weathered sombrero shaded his forty-year-old features. Lark brushed the red dirt off the knees of her Levi’s Lifting her chin, she wondered if her father’s hired hands would stay on. The fifteen wranglers had held her father in high esteem, almost awe, but would they leave or stay?
Paco and his family had lived on the ranch for seventeen years. Miguel and five other hands had been with the ranch between five and fifteen years. Would they drift away now that her powerful father had left for the Big Sleep? Would they leave and the ranch be gulped up by Cameron’s evil bank? Lark’s lips tightened as she walked toward Paco.
I’ll die before Cameron gets our ranch. That snake of a man will never claim it. Never!
“Señorita Lark?” Paco took off his sombrero as she approached. His round, tobacco-colored face mirrored his own grief, his brown eyes permanently squinted from years of fighting the powerful rays of the sun. “The piebald mare she paces her stall.”
Lark halted. Already ranch responsibilities were pressing down on her shoulders. But with a sense of relief she realized that Paco was showing his allegiance by asking her to make the decision regarding the piebald.
“Is she waxing up?” A mare close to foaling time always swelled heavily with milk, the two teats forming a waxy substance on the end of each nipple.
Paco shook his head. “No,
. She merely paces the stall.”
. Lark’s shoulders sagged in relief. Paco had called her father
, or boss. Now he was acknowledging her as his leader.
“It will be a while yet, Paco. This is her first foal, and she’s probably nervous about the forthcoming labor.”
“The other hands” Lark swallowed hard, a lump forming in her throat. Her hands knotted at her sides. Pushing past her fear, she forced out the words. “Who’s staying and who’s leaving?”
Paco’s eyes widened.
“The other hands? Is anyone leaving because my father is dead?”
His white teeth showed from beneath the heavy black mustache. “You need not concern yourself,
. We all stay.”
“Are you sure?” Her throat ached with unshed tears. Two years ago, Jud Cameron had called her father a collector of human garbage because he employed Mexicans, Negroes, and people of other races, who were considered by some to be little more than animals. Cameron, one of the most powerful men in Prescott, had been trying to buy their ranch for as long as Lark could remember. He was a man who hated any color except his own white skin. The fact that his thirty-thousand-acre ranch butted up against their property hadn’t been lost on Lark. Cameron wanted their ranch. He’d
Chewing on her lower lip, Lark wondered if she could earn the wranglers’ respect as her father had before her. She was a woman, not a man, yet the Apache way was to encourage a woman to be physically fit, to ride, shoot and emulate the men.
Paco’s grin deepened, and he wiped sweat off his furrowed brow. “You are his blood,
. No one knows horses better than you. The
said that you have the gift of working with horses. The Kentucky Stud favors you over your father and he admitted as much.”
It was true. Her father’s words came back to her. “Colleen, it’s got to be the blend of your mother’s and my blood that gave you a double dose of horse sense. The Apaches are the best horsemen in the southwest, and the Irish know good horseflesh. Between the two, you’ve got the best of both worlds.” Lark had bowed her head. Such praise always made her feel good about herself, especially when the
, the white-eyes shunned her as a “half-breed squaw.”