Authors: Maggie Osborne
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction, #Guardian and ward, #Overland journeys to the Pacific
The Promise of Jenny Jones
" I never heard your name before. I don't know you. I've got nothing to say to you," Jenny Jones stated, her voice cold as she turned her back on the woman the guard had allowed into her jail cell.
Turning to the window, Jenny caught a glimpse through the iron bars of the bored-looking Mexican officials rehearsing the firing squad. A light shudder tiptoed down her spine, and she wiped sweating palms against the oversize men's pants she wore.
At dawn tomorrow, she would look down the barrels of six rifles. She hoped she didn't wet herself before they killed her. She hoped she had the courage to die with a little damned dignity.
"I've come to save your life," Senora Marguarita Sanders said quietly.
That caught Jenny's attention, and she turned around to watch the senora lift a lace-edged handkerchief to her aristocratic nostrils, clearly attempting to smother the stench in Jenny's cell. The elegantly dressed woman glanced at the cramped quarters and released a soft sigh, then gathered her skirts close to her body and prepared to sit on the bare mattress.
"Don't," Jenny advised, turning back to the barred window. "The mattress is infested with lice."
And so was she, but it didn't matter now. Jenny mopped her sweaty throat with a bandanna and decided the heat building in the cell and the incessant buzzing of flies was slowly driving her crazy. She watched six of the ragtag soldiers march in sloppy formation toward a bullet-pocked wall. None of them looked like crack shots. She wondered how many rounds they would have to fire before they actually killed her. The way her luck was running, they'd still be trying atmidday.
"Pardone, did you hear what I said?" Marguarita Sanders inquired softly. She wiped grime from a low stool with her handkerchief, hesitated,then seated herself as if she intended to stay. Her silk hem billowed before settling atop the damp filth coating the cell floor.
There was no humor in Jenny's laugh. "Very dramatic. All right, I'll play along. Just how do you plan to save my life, Senora?" She turned to inspect her visitor again. "Are you going to arrange a jailbreak? Gun down the firing squad? Reverse my conviction?" She watched Senora Sanders cough into her handkerchief, glance at flecks of blood on the snowy lace, then ball the handkerchief in her gloved fist. Jenny's eyes narrowed. "You're coughing up blood." Interested, she studied Senora Sanders's pale face. "You're dying," she stated bluntly.
Death rode Marguarita Sanders's high, gaunt cheekbones, had drained the bloom from her cheeks. Her dark eyes were sunk in purplish circles, and the hair knotted beneath her stylish hat was dull and lusterless. Staring, Jenny could see that once Senora Sanders must have been a considerable beauty. Now, her flesh had shrunk, and she probably looked a decade older than she was.
"Why aren't you resting in your own bed? Why did you come here?" Jenny asked in a gentler voice. Her grimy hand lifted to indicate the tin roof trapping the stench and the heat. "This isn't good for you. Go home."
Home was probably one of the large haciendas on a ranch beyond the village. The lace trimming the woman's handkerchief and the rich fabric of her skirt and cape proclaimed wealth. The thin blade of nose and delicate bones announced aristocratic breeding as surely as did her self-possession and quiet air of confidence. If this woman had ever performed a single act of labor, it had been no more strenuous than lifting her own fork before a servant did it for her.
Such delicate women made Jenny acutely uncomfortable. Beside them, she felt large and ungainly, about as graceful as the balky mules she drove to earn her bread and board. Women like Marguarita Sanders inhabited a different, better world than Jenny ever had, a world she could barely imagine.
Her lip curled. Senora Sanders had never worn the same dirty clothing for a month running, had never bought a vermin-ridden bed for two bits and been grateful to get it, had never picked at blisters on her palms. Jenny would have wagered half the hours remaining to her that Marguarita Sanders had never missed a meal, or prepared one for that matter. She had never worried her pretty head about anything more taxing than what gown to wear to the next fancy event.
Bending, Jenny spit the taste of envy out of her mouth,then glanced up to see if spitting on the floor shocked her la-de-da visitor.
Senora Sanders had missed Jenny's gesture of contempt. She was coughing into her blood-flecked handkerchief again, her dark eyes closed in pain.
When the coughing spell passed, Senora Sanders's chest moved beneath a ruffled bodice, fighting for a full breath of the scorching air. "At five-thirty tomorrow morning," she said when she could speak, "Father Perez will arrive to hear your last confession."
"Tell him to sleep in. I'm not Catholic."
"He'll be wearing an ankle-length cassock and a deep hood. The guards expect him." Marguarita pressed a hand to her thin bosom and drew a shallow breath. "Only it will not be Father Perez. It will be me. You and I will exchange places." Her gaze traveled over Jenny's soiled trousers and the loose man's shirt stained by a month's accumulation of filth. "The commander, a rather stupid fellow, has been informed that you don't wish the firing squad to observe your face as you die, that you have requested a hood. The firing squad was relieved to hear this as they are not accustomed to killing a woman. It is further agreed that Father Perez will supply the hood and secure it."
Jenny stared. Her hands curled into fists at her sides. "What the hell are you suggesting? That I walk out of here pretending to be Father Perez? And you're going to die on the wall instead of me?"
Marguarita Sanders pressed her handkerchief to her pale lips, coughed,then nodded wearily. "I will die in your place."
In the hot silence Jenny heard the fat Mexican official screaming at the firing squad. A horse trotted past the bars of her window, and a dog barked somewhere in camp. A breeze that died as quickly as it arose, curled around the scent of freshly baked tortillas and roasting chilies.
"All right. You have my attention." Leaving the window, she sat on the bare mattress. Her blue eyes burned on Marguarita Sanders. "What's the price? What do you want from me thatis so important you're willing to pay for it with your life?"
Marguarita smiled, and Jenny saw a glimpse of the beauty she had been. "I was told that you are blunt and to the point."
"I didn't have the benefit of a delicate upbringing," Jenny snapped. She glanced at Marguarita's soft smooth hands, then down at her own. Heavy calluses swelled the pads of her fingers. Wind and weather had chapped the backs of her hands into a tanned semblance of old leather. She resisted an urge to hide her hands beneath her thighs and almost smiled at the impulse. She couldn't remember the last time she had displayed an ounce of feminine vanity.
"I can't think of anything I can offer in exchange for my life, but you must have something in mind. What is it?"
She stared at Marguarita, trying to guess what the cost of her life would be. The price would be huge; it had to be. Marguarita Sanders wanted something that Jenny sensed would be hard to deliver, something worth dying for.
"This is what I want in exchange for dying in your place." Marguarita returned Jenny's stare. "I want you to take my six-year-old daughter, Graciela, to her father in northernCalifornia." When Jenny started to speak, she lifted a shaking hand. "If my husband is dead, you must agree to raise Graciela as your own daughter. You are not to give her into the keeping of her grandparents, or anyone else claiming to be a relative. If you cannot, for whatever reason, place her in the safety of her father's arms, you must raise her as your own and provide for her until she chooses of her own free will to marry and establish her own household. That is the bargain I wish to make with you. That is the price I ask for giving you back your life."
Jenny's mouth dropped. She felt as if a chunk of granite had fallen on her head. "That's crazy," she finally sputtered. "If you love your daughter, and I assume you must if you're willing to die for her, then why in the name of God would you entrust her to the care of a stranger? You don't know anything about me except that I'm condemned to die for killing a soldier!"
When Marguarita's coughing fit passed and she'd caught her breath, she fanned her face with her gloves and shook her head. "I know you are honest to a fault. There were no witnesses. You could have denied killing the beastwho attacked you. But you freely admitted it."
"And look where that honesty got me!" Jenny indicated the stone walls enclosing them. "No one believed a man, even a drunk soldier, would try to force himself on a woman like me."
Marguarita met her eyes calmly. "If my information is correct, you have been hauling freight into the state ofChihuahualong enough to know that the instant you admitted shooting Senor Montez, you were convicted." Curiosity flickered at the back of her gaze. "Why didn't you lie?"
Angry, Jenny strode to the window and curled her hands around the bars, ignoring the burn of hot iron against her palms.
"Honesty is all I've got," she said finally, speaking in a low voice. "I don't have family. I don't have beauty, or a man. I don't have money, and I sure as hell don't have a future. All I've got to prop up my pride is my word." Her chin rose. "When Jenny Jones says something, you can bet your last peso that it's true."
"So I have been informed."
"If I don't have my word, then I have nothing. I am nothing!" She stared hard over her shoulder, watching Marguarita Sanders press the bloody handkerchief to her lips. "Everybody needs something to make them feel good about themselves, even me. Honesty is what makes me feel like I've got a right to take up space in this world. It's all I've got. No matter how bad things get, or how low my circumstance, I can always say Jenny Jones is an honest woman. It's the one and only good thing about me."
Honesty was what had placed her in a Mexican jail, a few hours away from a firing squad. "I could have lied to that mockery of a court," she said between her teeth, staring out the window at the adobe wall that enclosed the camp. "And maybe you think I'm stupid because I didn't. But telling a lie would be killing the only thing aboutmyself that's any good." Raising a hand, she scratched at the lice in her hair. "If I don't have my word, I might as well be dead. I'd rather die with honor than live without the only thing that makes me feel like I can face another day."
It was a long speech, and it left her mouth parched. Embarrassment tinted her throat. She could have kicked herself for parading her private feelings in front of this crazy visitor.
"Your honesty," Marguarita Sanders stated softly, "is why I trust you to take Graciela to her father. I believe you will honor our bargain."
"We haven't made any bargain," Jenny said sharply. She leaned against the wall, catching a whiff of Marguarita's powdery perfume. "There's thingsabout me that you don't know. And things about you that I don't know. Like…" She stared at the rich embroidery trimming Marguarita's stylish blue cape. "Why a stranger? Don't you have relatives who could take your kid up north?"
"Oh yes." Marguarita studied the blood spots on her handkerchief. When she glanced up, bitterness deadened her gaze. "Our village is filled with cousins, none of whom would shed a tear if Graciela died tomorrow." She drew a long careful breath. "My story is long and filled with tears, but I'll tell it briefly."
Curious despite herself, Jenny returned to sit on the mattress. "I'm not going anywhere. You can talk until dawn tomorrow as far as I'm concerned. But don't go crying. I can't abide weepy women."
Marguarita turned her gaze to the sunlight slanting between the iron bars. "I grew up on a rancho inCalifornianext to the one owned by Robert's parents. My father hated gringos; Robert's father hated the Spanish." She shrugged and smiled softly. "I loved Roberto." A coughing spell interrupted her story.
"You should be in bed."
"When I was sixteen, I became pregnant with Graciela. The news nearly killed my father; his shame and sorrow were so great." She looked down at the handkerchief balled in her fist. "Our parents would not permit us to marry." Now she tilted her head up to stare at the tin roof. "My father sent me here in disgrace, to my aunt. Roberto caught up to my carriage and we were married in The City of The Angels."
"So why isn't he here with you?"
"I am my father's only child. But Roberto is the older of two brothers. If he followed me into exile, he would have forfeited his inheritance."
Jenny decided she didn't like this Robert, who chose an inheritance over his young wife and child.
"Neither my father nor Roberto's parents recognize our marriage." Pain flickered behind her eyelids, followed by a flash of surprising determination. "But my father will have to acknowledge Graciela after my death. She will be his sole heir." Her gaze met Jenny's. "My father is very wealthy, Senorita Jones, and so is my aunt. But my cousins are not. If Graciela should meet an untimely end, my greedy cousins are next in line and will inherit enough money to make them patróns in a region this poor. Already I see them looking at Graciela and speculating: if this child should die…"