Authors: Shirl Henke
A FIRE IN THE BLOOD
Copyright 1994 by Shirl Henke
Originally published by Leisure Books, a division of Dorchester Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the author.
Cheyenne, Wyoming, Autumn, 1881
"Good-bye, Lissa." His voice was bleak, final. He did not touch her, only stood on the railroad platform with his hands at his sides, his gray eyes as cold as winter storm clouds.
Lissa remembered when those same gray eyes had been silvery with warmth and his voice had been husky with words of passion. "Please, Jess. It isn't too late. Take me with you. We can start over again."
Her hands reached out to clutch his soft leather vest and pull him closer to her, but he grasped her wrists firmly and pushed her back. "There's no place to go, Lissa. Any yahoo could put a bullet in me tomorrow. Then where would you be—alone and penniless in some dusty cow town."
"You could quit—become a stockman like Papa."
A thin, bitter smile etched his lips fleetingly. "And inherit your papa's ranch? I don't think so, Lissa. Even if he'd offer, I wouldn't take it. I hire out my gun, but I don't sell myself."
The Union Pacific train belched a cloud of steam onto the platform as if punctuating his cruel words. "And you think gaining the J Bar through marrying me is selling yourself?" She felt the hope being squeezed from her body just like steam escaped from the train engine.
"Your father adores you, Lissa. He can take care of you. I can't," he replied stubbornly, ignoring the accusation in her voice. "That's the last train west today. I wired ahead to the Squaw Creek water stop. Your pa will be waiting for you."
"Don't do this, Jess." She hated the desperation in her voice.
I won't beg.
But Lissa knew she would if she believed it would change his mind.
"Everything's already been done, Lissa," he replied raggedly. He took her arm and walked the few brief steps to where the conductor stood waiting to assist her aboard.
The old man's wizened face was avid with curiosity. By that morning, all of southeast Wyoming had heard that Jesse Robbins had married Melissa Jacobson. Now he was sending her packing back to her father at J Bar Ranch. Jesse watched her turn away with the ingrained pride that he had come to recognize so well. Willful, spoiled, tenacious, that was old Marcus Jacobson's only child. She climbed up the steep stairs and disappeared into the railway car.
Lissa, what have we done?
Not wanting her to see him waiting on the platform like some lovesick fool, Jess turned and strode toward the street before she could find her seat.
He retrieved his horse from the livery and rode away from the busy cattle town, ignoring the whispers and the stares that always followed him. The train was picking up speed now, moving across the flat open plain, headed toward the Medicine Bow Range, whose jagged peaks were outlined against the golden autumn sky. Jess reined in Blaze and sat hunched atop the big black, watching the train grow smaller in the distance.
Horse and rider remained silhouetted on the rise until the train had vanished and the hot breath of a high plains wind enveloped them. At last he turned the stallion about and kneed him into a slow, steady canter. He rode south and he did not look back.
* * * *
Lissa felt the rhythmic swaying of the train as she stared out the window at the brown grama grass. Jess had not even waited until the train departed. He simply walked away.
Well, little fool, what did you expect? That he'd change his mind and come riding hell-bent to take you back?
Jess would never do that, of course. But she could not help but wish that he would at least regret their parting and think of her once in a while—but not when he was working. He did not exaggerate the dangers of his profession. Lissa had come to accept that after all that had transpired over the past summer.
Suddenly the thought of him lying facedown in a pool of his own blood flashed into her mind. More than likely he was right. He would die just that way.
No, Jess, no ...
She bit down on her fist and tried to banish the horrible image. The waste of it rushed over her like prairie wind.
Feeling another surge of tears gathering, she closed her eyes tightly and leaned her head back against the velvet seat cushion. First-class accommodations. Nothing but the best for old Marcus's daughter. Jess had probably spent his last cash money on the ticket. Her father owed him a lot more, but she knew he would never collect it. His infernal sense of pride, not her father's enmity, would prevent him from demanding what he had earned.
Damn his pride! Pride more than anything had driven them apart. But that same sizzling arrogance had been what first attracted her. Not wanting to face the bleakness of a future without Jesse Robbins, Lissa kept her eyes closed and remembered how it had all begun early last spring when the hard-looking stranger had ridden into Cheyenne and caught the romantic fancy of a foolish young woman. . . .
Miss Charlene Durbin's dressmaking shop was doing a land-office business on Wednesday morning. The weather had finally broken at the end of May and the lashing spring rains abated, allowing the wealthy ranchers' wives to flock to the capital city and gird themselves for the season of galas that always took place in cattle country after the spring roundup. Louella Wattson and her daughter Emmaline were cooing over a bolt of puce velvet, while Sissy Markham and her sister Kaddie searched pattern books with the avid interest of prospectors just handed the map for a motherlode.
"Does it fit comfortably, Miss Jacobson?" Charlene's assistant Clare asked timidly as she stood back to inspect her handiwork, made of yards and yards of bronze satin edged in cream lace. The colors were unusual, but so was Melissa Jacobson. Her pale ivory skin and fiery dark red hair were set off perfectly by the gown.
Lissa turned and inspected herself in the oval mirror standing in the middle of the large, crowded shop. She adjusted the rich lace gathered at the low-cut neckline and nodded to Clare.
"Ooh, look at him.'" Julia Creed hissed, looking out the front window. "Bold as if he owned the capital—governor and all. I've never seen such insolence." As she had intended, a crowd of curious women quickly clustered around her and peered at the street below.
"He's a breed right enough," Lucy Moorhead said with the contempt only a woman raised in Sioux country could muster.
Louella Wattson shooed two of the younger women aside and squinted at the new arrival in town. "Why, it's a disgrace. Where is the marshal at a time like this?"
"Cowering in Professor McDaniel's saloon, or I miss my guess," Lucy replied.
"What's all the fuss about?" Lissa asked. Raising the satin skirts of her unfinished ball gown, she walked to the window and peered out. Her eyes fastened on him at once in spite of the noonday crowd on the street. Surrounded by crude cowboys and officious merchants, the rider on the big black stallion stood out like a mountain lion in a flock of woollybacks.
Lissa's eyes were riveted to the stranger as he rode slowly past, holding his reins carelessly in one hand with a negligent ease that belied the watchful expression on his hard, chiseled features. His other hand rested casually on the handle of the fancy Colt revolver strapped to his thigh. Although his wide black hat with a silver concho headband shaded his face from the sun, she could see that his features were exotically handsome in a bronzed, hawkish way. His nose was straight and prominent, his eyebrows thick and dark, and his mouth wide with sensuously shaped lips. She studied his firm jawline with the faint stubble of a dark beard growing on it. How would it feel to run her fingers across its scratchy surface, to touch those magnificent lips and stare into those slitted eyes?
What color are they, I wonder
She felt powerless to look away as he swung down from his horse at a hitching post across the street. His body was long and lean, with wide shoulders and narrow hips. He moved with the sinuous grace of a stalking puma. Pulling his hat from his head as he stepped into the shade, he ran his fingers through a shaggy head of night-black hair that lightly brushed his shirt collar.
Lissa continued to stare transfixed at the stranger, who affected her in a way no other man ever had. "That is the most sinfully dangerous man I've ever seen," she murmured breathlessly.
What possessed me to say that!
Sissy Markham snorted disgustedly. "Yer pa'd be real pleased to see you makin' eyes at a dirty Injun."
"He looks neither dirty nor like any Indian I’ve ever seen," Lissa replied dismissively. Sissy and her sister were vicious-tongued old maids.
"You'd best watch yourself, young lady," Louella chimed in, her voice stern. "We all realize you've spent the past years back east in school, but you were born here. You should know what it means when a man has mixed blood. That odious stranger is not only a half-breed lowlife, but a hired killer as well. He's got a fearful reputation. Name's Jesse Robbins, and he hires out to wealthy stock growers who want to rid the range of squatters and rustlers. Why, he's little better than an outlaw himself."
Lissa arched her eyebrows as she glanced fleetingly at the fat old matron. "And how do you happen to know so much about this Mr. Robbins?"
"I overheard my Horace talking to Mr. Mathis just yesterday. Why, he was aghast at the sort of riffraff the Association was bringing in."
"Then Lemuel has hired him for the Association?" Lissa asked. Lemuel Mathis was president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and a suitor of hers, although she did not encourage him.
Louella looked a bit flustered. "Well, I'm not completely certain which one of the members is hiring him."
"But we all know he's no good—and so should you," Emmaline Wattson added in the patronizing, nasal voice that had grated on Lissa since they were children.
"I wonder who he's working for," Lissa said pensively.
Suddenly, the women's attention was again drawn to the street when one of the cowhands lounging against the wall of the saloon hauled himself up and stepped off the wooden walkway. He was young, slightly built, and looked purely mean. Spoiling for a fight, he spoke loudly so his voice carried the length of the muddy street.
"We don't cotton to no Injuns drinkin' our whiskey in Wyoming," he said in a heavy Texas drawl.
Robbins finished tying his horse to the hitching rail, then turned slowly and faced the youth.
"You yeller, gut-eater?" the half-drunk kid prodded as the other men around the saloon scooted out of the line of fire.
Robbins betrayed no emotion at the racial slur or the questioning of his courage. He just walked slowly around the young cowhand.
"You are yeller. A damned yeller gut-eating redskin." The boy moved in the tall stranger's path again.
"I never shoot a man for free, but I might make an exception because I'm trail weary and thirsty," Robbins said as he brushed the slight figure out of his way.
That was all the encouragement the boy needed to reach for the Navy Colt on his hip. Before he had it halfway out of the holster, the barrel of Robbins's double-action revolver came crashing down on his forehead.
"Would yew lookit thet," one tall, skinny Texas cowhand said with awe in his voice.
"Never even seen him pull it," another man added as the group watched the stranger step over the crumpled body of their companion.