Authors: Shirl Henke
Originally published by St. Martin’s Press
Copyright 1999 by Shirl Henke
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without the written permission of the author.
Other electronic works by Shirl Henke:
A FIRE IN THE BLOOD
“Billie Jo and the Valentine Crow”
House of Torres Books:
PARADISE & MORE
RETURN TO PARADISE
The Blackthorne Trilogy:
LOVE A REBEL…LOVE A ROGUE
The Cheyenne Series:
THE ENDLESS SKY
CAPTURE THE SUN
NEBRASKA TERRITORY, 1863
The “cut hair” rode up the narrow ravine and reined in his chestnut stallion expectantly beside the lone sentinel. Grim faced and silent, he nodded to the older man. Both knew there was nothing left to say.
“He is waiting,” the Cheyenne said, gesturing to the rocky trail behind him.
“Then it will be finished,” the younger man replied bleakly.
As he rode past, the old man whispered so softly the “cut hair” barely heard the words, “No, it has only begun.”
Not sparing the old Indian another glance, the young half-blood kneed his mount into a slow purposeful walk up the trail. Just before he reached the open clearing beyond the boulder-strewn ravine, he pulled the Patterson revolving rifle from its scabbard and checked the percussion caps on its loads. The Patterson was old, but in the right hands it was still a reliable weapon at seventy yards.
The mounted warrior poised at the opposite side of the flat wide plain was better armed with a new Volcanic carbine stolen in a raid on a wagon train. His hate-filled black eyes studied the rocky ravine, waiting. As soon as he saw his enemy emerge, the Cheyenne gave an earsplitting war cry. He kicked his horse into a gallop, leaning low over its neck, merging as one with the great beast.
The cut hair focused on the horseman, who raised his rifle and fired. The shot went wild. Fragments of sandstone stung his face and hands and sprayed his horse's neck and shoulders as the bullet ricocheted off the rocks. The chestnut danced nervously as the man raised his own rifle and sighted in on his rapidly advancing target.
The Cheyenne fired again. This time his shot found its mark, opening a narrow bloody furrow along the right side of the breed's cheek. He hissed at the white-hot shaft of pain but remained motionless, waiting until the horseman raised himself to fire again. The distance was closing now, seventy yards, sixty, fifty. He steadied the chestnut with his knees and pulled the trigger.
The impact of the slug knocked the Cheyenne from his horse. He landed in the short prairie grass like a broken toy flung down by some angry child. The cut hair rode up slowly, then dismounted. For a moment he stood staring at the widening red stain on the bare painted chest which would never again rise and fall with breath. The rifle lay nearby, gleaming evilly in the bright noonday sun. With a curse he kicked the stock, raising a faint puff of dust on the wind. Though he had dreamed of nothing else, revenge did not seem so satisfying now that it lay sprawled before him. His own blood trickled slowly down the side of his neck. Brushing his fingers through it, he looked at them, then rubbed the gory moisture on his pants leg and turned to his horse.
He had tracked his enemy halfway across Colorado deep into Nebraska. Now it had finally ended.
It has only begun.
The whispered words teased the edge of his mind, but he pushed them aside. Swinging into the saddle, he rode back the way he had come to tell the old man that he had killed his brother.
* * * *
VICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI, 1863
“Roxy, darlin',” Captain Nathaniel Darby drawled, undressing her with cool gray eyes. “Give me what I want and I'll let you ride away in the mornin' on a horse pointed north.”
Roxanna Fallon stared impassively at the handsome Confederate officer. “You, sir, are a cockroach, the lowest thing God ever placed on His green earth.”
Darby chuckled malevolently, but the laughter never reached his eyes. “The way I see it,” he replied, picking up a loose tendril of her silver-blond hair, letting it slide through his long elegant fingers, daring her to flinch, “you have two choices.” When she remained stone still, the lazy cat-and-mouse game began to tire him. His voice took on a brisker clip in spite of his thick Mississippi accent. “The Confederate States of America can hang you for the spy that you are...or you can spend one night delivering what you've promised me these past weeks.”
“How can you want a woman under such circumstances?” The moment she asked the question, Roxanna regretted it.
Darby smiled again. “To humble your stubborn Federal pride, why else?”
“Not because I made a fool of you and Pemberton and all the rest of old Joe Johnston's Rebs?” Why was she goading him? To destroy the only slim chance to save her life at the cost of her honor?
As if reading her mind, the captain said in a low silky voice, “You'll come off your high horse after a few more hours in that filthy cell with the rats. Think how a rope will feel on your lovely slender neck. You ever see a man hang, Roxy? It isn't a pretty sight, especially when the poor fellow's too light to fall hard enough to break his neck when the hangman springs the trap. Then he slowly chokes to death, face turns blue, eyes pop clean out of his head... How much do you weigh, darlin'?”
* * * *
Dawn broke over the bluffs. Vicksburg spread across the hills like a jeweled tapestry, its whitewashed mansions gleaming brightly in the misty light of early morning. In the stillness, Roxanna Fallon rode away on a horse pointed north.
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA, 1867
His name was Cain and everyone in the Sierras feared him. In Cisco they knew the tall taciturn man with the cold black eyes possessed decidedly quick hands that could shoot or pistol-whip a man before he could get a running start on making trouble. There was an aura of barely leashed violence about Cain that made folks in the rough-and-tumble rail camps shy away from getting too close.
Of course he was a breed and that would have set him apart, even if he were not the chief troubleshooter for the Central Pacific Railroad. But Cain's solitary status seemed as much his choice as anyone else's. Except to issue curt orders, he talked to no one but the coolies, with whom he conversed in their mysterious Chinese language. The little foreigners with their lampshade hats and blue pajamas were despised by Americans from San Francisco to the Sierras, but the rare times anyone saw Cain smile, it was when he spoke with them.
He walked with deliberate steps down the muddy plank walk toward the main office of the Central Pacific's construction chief looking neither left nor right, seemingly oblivious of the sweaty laborers and hawk-faced gamblers who stepped aside to let him pass. Cisco was a small ugly gash cut in the splendid heights of the Sierras, its crude log buildings and mud-rutted streets offset by jagged snowcapped peaks, crystalline blue lakes and towering white pine trees.
The feel of snow was in the air. Soon the railroad camps would be buried beneath a dozen feet of it once more. The fierce blizzards meant men would die, frozen in their blankets, buried alive when snow tunnels collapsed, starved when cut off from food or swept away in avalanches. He'd lived through two such hellish winters already. He knew them all too well. That was why he was back at the base camp.
A heavy wooden sign that read CENTRAL PACIFIC RAILROAD, ANDREW POWELL, FIELD DIRECTOR hung over the door of a two-story frame building. He shoved open the door and walked inside. The raw musty smell of wet sawdust combined not altogether unpleasantly with Andrew Powell's expensive cigars. Although the outer room was spartan, the interior where the chief and his high-ranking subordinates held their meetings was far more comfortable, even though Powell spent as little time here as possible, preferring the amenities of San Francisco. He let his associate Charlie Crocker slog around in the mud and snow.
“Where's Powell?” Cain's voice was low, deadly.
The clerk in the chief of staff's office practically overturned the room’s lone chair when he saw the look in Cain's eyes. Standing up, he sputtered, “Er, Mr. Powell's in a conference right now, Mr. Cain. I—”
Cain strode past him and yanked open the heavy pine door as the clerk behind him wheezed, “I wouldn't go in there now.” He ignored the sputtering little man, shoving the door closed in his face. “We have to talk, Powell.”
Andrew Powell leaned back in the mahogany spring armchair and crossed his arms over his chest with a scowl. His long angular face was punctuated with heavy gray eyebrows, a straight patrician nose and a narrow slash of a mouth set against a wide, powerful jaw line, an aristocrat's face, hawkish and austere. But his most arresting features were his eyes, dark fierce blue eyes that scorched anyone who crossed him. He tipped his chair forward and stood up with casual grace. “I told Ezra I wasn't to be disturbed, but then you've never possessed civilized manners.”
Cain's eyebrows arched derisively, “I stopped trying to impress you with civility. You steamroll over anyone with manners.” As he spoke, his gaze shifted to the third man seated opposite Powell. “Morning, Larry.”
Lawrence Erskin Powell stood up as well. Unlike Andrew, he was fair-haired and of medium height, several inches shorter than the two tall men flanking him. Lawrence was fine-boned with a round pleasant face that most women would deem handsome. His eyes were blue but a lighter shade than Andrew's, less compelling. At Cain's obvious inference that his father steamrolled over him, the younger Powell blushed beet red as he stammered, ”G-good morning, Cain. Father and I were—”
“We were discussing a family matter,” Andrew interrupted, emphasizing the word
derisively. When Cain stiffened imperceptibly, the older man gave him a chilly smile.
“I'm to be married, Cain,” Lawrence interjected, seeming oblivious to the angry tension between Cain and the older Powell.
“Who's the lucky bride? Some San Francisco belle?” Cain asked, his anger sidetracked by the unexpected announcement.
Andrew replied smugly, “Not San Francisco, St. Louis. Alexandra Hunt is Jubal MacKenzie's granddaughter.”
Cain's eyes narrowed. “I take it you cut this deal,” Cain said to Andrew. It was not a question.
“Of course. When we met in Washington last month, during the congressional hearings. The wily old Scot is hedging his bets. Seems like the Union Pacific isn't laying track as fast as he contracted with them to do. He's tied up half his personal fortune in supplying construction crews.”
“A mistake you and Huntington certainly never made on the Central Pacific,” Cain interjected dryly.
“Only a fool would, when there's so much government money laying around. Of course, Collis and I are a good deal better at siphoning it off from our estimable legislators than those fools Ames, MacKenzie and company. That's why the old man wants a marriage alliance. If he loses his shirt with the Union Pacific, he figures he'll get in on our contract to build Central Pacific lines up to Washington Territory and south into Arizona. And in truth, that might be a good deal all around. He has Washington contacts I don't.”
“What do you think of this Alexandra, Larry? You're the one who has to live with her, railroads be damned.”
“I don't exactly know—that is...we haven't met yet. Father and I were just discussing the preliminary arrangements with MacKenzie.”
“Of course you agreed to the deal sight unseen.”
Lawrence straightened indignantly. Cain always made him uneasy. “It's my duty as a Powell. After all, men of our class can scarcely marry for love.”