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Authors: The Horse Soldier

Merline Lovelace

BOOK: Merline Lovelace
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Andrew wasn’t surprised that she failed to recognize him. Three years of brutal warfare and eleven months in Andersonville had left their mark on him, as had the years of frontier service that followed. He wasn’t the same man she’d teased and tempted six years ago, any more than she could be the same woman he’d once risked his life and his honor for.

Andrew halted a few paces from her and hooked his thumbs behind his belt buckle. Deliberately, he let his gaze drift from her face to her throat. To breasts mounted high and firm beneath the cherry-striped silk. To a waist he could still circle with his hands had he a mind to, and hips enticingly displayed by the drawn-back bustle of her skirt.

Color rushed into her cheeks at his blatant inspection. Her eyes flashed fire. “I expect better manners of an officer, sir. Even one who wears Union blue.”

“Do you, Julia?”

The drawled reply drew her brows into a slashing frown. A look of confusion replaced the anger on her face. “Do I know you, sir?”

Sweeping off his hat, he bowed and smiled. Slowly. Savagely. “You did once.”

The result was everything he’d anticipated. Her eyes widened. Every vestige of color drained from her face. She stared at him in shock, in disbelief, in dawning horror. Then, without so much as a whimper, she crumpled.

Merline Lovelace
The Horse Soldier

This book is dedicated to military personnel and their families down through the centuries who have served their country at windswept outposts, snowy bases, or desert sites far from home.

And to

The handsome young captain who swept me off my feet my second day on active duty! Thanks for thirty years of romance and adventure and exploring so many wonderful old historic sites with me, my darling.

Army map of Fort Laramie, 1867

1

Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory
In the area known as Absaraka by the Sioux, Wyoming by the soldiers posted there
June, 1867

“I
won’t have it!”

The shrill protest carried clearly to the officer guiding his mount up a sloping incline toward the wagons camped on the low bluffs.

“I won’t have it, I tell you!”

Major Andrew Garrett glanced up at the circled wagons, lit by flickering campfires and the soft glow of the summer moon. From the sound of it, at least one member of the latest band of travelers to break their journey at Fort Laramie was feeling the strain of her weeks on the trail.

“Now, Augusta—”

“Don’t ‘Augusta’ me, Hiram Hottenfelder!”

Like the caw of a crow, the angry reply cracked above the shuffle of oxen turned out to graze.

“That woman’s not coming another mile with us. Not a single mile, until she pays for her share of the supplies you purchased at the sutler’s store. And such supplies!”

Her voice rose to an outraged screech.

“How could you give a dollar…a dollar!…for a tin of peaches?”

Andrew shook his head in mingled sympathy and exasperation. The sutler’s exorbitant prices produced a constant stream of complaints, not only from the travelers who stopped at Fort Laramie to resupply for the next leg of their journey across the plains, but from the personnel stationed at the post as well.

Aside from setting general guidelines of operation, the Army exercised little control over the sutler who operated the store at the fort. He was a civilian, a contractor whose connections in Washington had secured the lucrative license. He charged whatever he thought he could get for his goods. Since his store was located on post, however, the Army took the brunt of the complaints. Or, more correctly, the Army in the person of Major Andrew Garrett, commander, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, and currently the second ranking officer at Fort Laramie.

“You don’t need to go on so about one tin of peaches, Augusta. You know how…”

“Don’t go on so?” The indignant cry splintered into a shriek. “Don’t go on so! I’ve held my tongue
for weeks now, Hiram, but no more. All that…that French slut has to do is twitch her skirts, and you buy
peaches
instead of the flour and bacon we need! I’m telling you to your face, I won’t have it.”

Hellfire and thunderation! For a craven moment, Andrew actually considered tugging on the bridle, turning Jupiter around, and heading back down the slope. He’d spent the past five days on patrol and returned only hours ago to find the post commander swimming in his usual laudanum-induced stupor. The surgeon, the chaplain and the infantry company commander were all lined up at the headquarters, waiting impatiently with matters that demanded Andrew’s immediate attention. The last thing he needed or wanted right now was to mediate a dispute between a wagon master and his irate wife.

Particularly a wagon master who’d stated his intention of pushing on through to Montana Territory against the advice of Fort Laramie’s adjutant and chief scout. Both had urged the major to talk some sense into the man’s head before he pulled out tomorrow.

Andrew had agreed, although he knew talking would do little good. They were all so desperate, these travelers who swarmed across the Great Plains. So determined to follow their dreams. Thousands had been lured west by tales of rich farmland in Oregon, thousands more by the discovery of gold in California in ’49. Five years later, followers of Joseph Smith had plodded behind handcarts piled high with their pos
sessions, enduring blazing heat and bitter snowstorms to reach the Zion founded by Brigham Young beside the Great Salt Lake. And the Homestead Act signed by President Lincoln in 1862 had reopened the floodgates.

For two decades now, immigrants had streamed past Fort Laramie, leaving permanent wagon ruts in the grass and increasingly hostile tribes of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho in their wake. With the discovery of gold in Montana Territory a few years ago, another stampede had broken out. Eager argonauts led by John Bozeman had carved a new road to the diggings at Bannack and Virginia City. The trail cut right through the Powder River region—the very heart of Sioux country and the last hunting grounds where the Plains Indians still roamed free.

Settlers, miners and freighters supplying the Montana diggings thronged the new road. Incensed, the Sioux and their allies had stepped up attacks on wagon trains and on the forts along the trail. Last December, an entire woodcutting party of eighty men under the command of Captain Fetterman had been massacred outside Fort Phil Kearny, some two hundred miles north of Fort Laramie. As a result, civilian traffic along the trail was not only risky, it was downright foolhardy.

Which is what Andrew would inform the wagon master…if the man could silence his wife long enough for anyone else to slip in a word or two.

“She’s bewitched you,” the woman shrilled. “You
and half the men in this company. I’ve seen the way you look at her. I’ve watched you stumble over your own boots every time she smiles at you.”

Grimacing at the thought of intervening in what sounded very much like a private matter, Andrew guided Jupiter through a break in the circled wagons. The entire company must have gathered to lend support to the combatants. The men were dressed in the usual canvas pants and floppy hats favored by buffalo skinners, prospectors and homesteaders alike. Their sun-browned women wore sturdy boots, homespun skirts and bonnets.

Except for one. She stood alone, slender and ramrod straight. Her back was to Andrew, but he couldn’t miss the stiff set to her shoulders and unyielding line of her neck beneath its heavy crown of hair. Thick and black under a light coating of trail dust, the entwined braids drew Andrew’s startled gaze.

For a moment, only a moment, a long-forgotten ache speared into his gut. He’d once run his hands through a tumbled mass with the same blue-black sheen. Once buried his face in its fragrant silk.

Deliberately, he slammed the door on his thoughts. He’d spent too many months in hell to resurrect memories of the woman who’d put him there.

“I haven’t bewitched anyone. I’ve merely tried to make the journey more pleasant with smiles instead of complaints.”

The ringing reply knifed into Andrew. He jerked on the reins, sending Jupiter dancing back a step or
two. Even after all these years, he couldn’t mistake that voice. Clear, proud, with a lilting note that betrayed her Creole origins.

“Smiles!” The wagon master’s wife went purple in the face. “You’ve tried to make the journey more pleasant, but not with smiles, I’ll wager!”

Andrew paid no attention to the tirade that spewed from her mouth. He sat frozen, his gloved fist clenching the reins, his attention riveted on the slender, stiff-backed figure in poppy-striped silk.

It was Julia. It could only be Julia. The certainty slashed through his chaotic thoughts like a saber. No one but the vain, spoiled Belle of New Orleans would attempt an arduous overland journey in striped silk.

And no one but the Belle of New Orleans could fan such passionate flames.

Those flames had once nearly consumed Andrew. Now, it appeared, they were about to consume the wagon master’s furious wife.

“How many times have you crawled out of the wagon in the middle of the night?” she screeched. “How many times have you spread a blanket underneath? What decent woman would choose to sleep on the ground?”

“One who wished to get some rest!” the target of her venom snapped back. “You snore, Augusta. Most loudly.”

With a shriek, the furious Augusta threw herself forward. Her husband caught her by one arm and planted both boots in the dirt to hold her back.

Andrew’s mouth twisted. It was most certainly Julia. She could wreak havoc with a single toss of her blue-black hair. She’d certainly brought him to his knees easily enough. He was tempted to hang back and watch her play out the scene, but knew he’d better intervene or he’d have to call out the troops to quell a riot.

With a curt command to the men blocking his way to stand aside, he nudged Jupiter forward. The well-trained cavalry charger picked his way through the parting crowd with a jingle of bridle and plop of iron-shod hooves.

The wagon master greeted Andrew’s approach with relief, his wife with a fulminating glance. The third player in the drama caught the direction of their gazes and spun slowly around to face the newcomer.

The years had been kind to her, Andrew saw at once; far kinder than they had to him, although there was little of the girl he’d known in the woman who now tipped her chin and met his gaze head-on. Her delicate features showed a taut edge, the creamy skin stretched tight across cheekbones more prominent than he remembered. A few faint lines etched the corners of her mouth. The slanting amethyst eyes that had laughed and teased and flirted so outrageously now held nothing but disgust and irritation.

Andrew wasn’t surprised that she failed to recognize him. With summer twilight fast deepening into darkness, the flickering campfires threw only uneven light. Even if the sun were blazing directly overhead,
he doubted she would know him. Three years of brutal warfare and eleven months in Andersonville had left their mark on him, as had the years of frontier service that followed. He wasn’t the same man she’d teased and tempted six years ago, any more than she could be the same woman he’d once risked his life and his honor for.

His jaw tightened as a grim anticipation coiled in his belly. This was the moment he’d envisioned, the moment he’d played over and over in his mind during those black months in the hole, until thirst and hunger and gnawing rats had driven everything but survival out of his head. Now that the moment had come, he fully intended to savor it.

Dismounting, he passed Jupiter’s reins to one of the men crowding beside him and limped forward. The gray felt slouch hat he’d worn on patrol shadowed his eyes. His saber rattled at his side. He’d splashed the trail dust off his face after he’d arrived back at the headquarters, but hadn’t taken the time to change his uniform.

Salt caked his dark-blue blouse, an inevitable consequence of patrolling in the ninety-degree June heat. Dust dulled the gold braid on his shoulder epaulets and stole the sheen from his leather boots. He hadn’t shaved, anticipating the ministrations of his orderly, and knew he looked far more like an outlaw than an officer.

The woman facing him evidently thought so, too. Her lip curled, although he suspected the disdain that
flitted across her face probably stemmed as much from the residual hate of the defeated Southerner for Yankee blue as from his disreputable appearance. A scant two years had passed since the War of the Rebellion ended at Appomattox. The scars were healing, but slowly.

Andrew halted a few paces from her and hooked his thumbs behind his belt buckle. Deliberately, he let his gaze drift from her face to her throat. To breasts mounded high and firm beneath the cherry-striped silk. To a waist he could still circle with his hands had he a mind to, and hips enticingly displayed by the drawn-back bustle of her skirt.

Color rushed into her cheeks at his blatant inspection. Her eyes flashed fire. “I expect better manners of an officer, sir. Even one who wears Union blue.”

“Do you, Julia?”

The drawled reply drew her brows into a slashing frown. A look of confusion replaced the anger on her face. “Do I know you, sir?”

Sweeping off his hat, he bowed and smiled. Slowly. Savagely. “You did once.”

The result was everything he’d anticipated. Her eyes widened. Every vestige of color drained from her face. She stared at him in shock, in disbelief, in dawning horror. Then, without so much as a whimper, she crumpled.

Swearing, Andrew leaped forward. His thigh bone stabbed into his hip socket like a sword, but he caught her before she hit the ground. He barely had time to
register the featherweight feel of her in his arms before a shrill cry split the night.

“She’s sick! I told you, Hiram, the woman’s sick!”

“Now, Gussie—”

“Yesterday I saw her leaning over a wheel, so dizzy she could scarcely stand. Now she’s fainted dead away.”

Whispers rumbled from the watching crowd. Augusta’s raucous caw rose above them.

“She’s sick, I tell you! We can all count ourselves lucky if she hasn’t brought cholera or smallpox down on us,” she ended on a wail.

Andrew swung around, an unconscious Julia in his arms. The alarmed wagon master and his wife were already backing away. Others followed their lead, almost tripping over their feet in their haste to skitter back. As Andrew knew all too well, the threat of disease could spread panic faster than a raging prairie fire or the scream of war whoops coming from just over the next hill.

A quick glance at the woman in his arms showed none of the cholera or smallpox symptoms he’d learned to recognize over the years, but her deep swoon had robbed her of all signs of life. She lay limp as a rag doll in Andrew’s arms…and almost as weightless.

If he possessed an ounce of sense, he’d dump her on the ground and leave her to sort out her differences with the wagon master and his wife if and when she woke. That “if” put a kink in his gut.

With another vicious curse, he stalked across the dusty ground in his uneven stride. Tossing his burden over his charger’s withers like a sack of grain, he thrust his foot in the stirrup and swung up. Once in the saddle, he pulled her upright and rolled her into his arms, furious with himself, with her, with the damnable twist of fate that had brought Julia Robichaud into his life a second time.

 

Like the god he was named for, Jupiter thundered down the path to the post spread across the flats below. The well-trained charger needed little guidance, knowing his way through the sprawling outpost as well as any of the cavalry mounts stabled there.

Set at the strategic juncture of the Platte and Laramie rivers, the army fort had been built on the site of an old fur-trading center. The trader’s adobe-walled blockhouse had already crumbled into ruin when the government purchased it in ’48 and renamed it Fort Laramie. Original army plans called for a wooden palisade around the barracks and headquarters building the troops hastily threw up during their first months of occupation. Tight budgets and the lack of an immediate threat had led to successive delays, then, finally, abandonment of any plans for outer defensive walls.

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