Read Desperado Online

Authors: Sandra Hill

Desperado (24 page)

In fact, she was surprised at the satisfaction she derived from homemaking, too. Normally, Helen would have been offended at being relegated to caring for the tiny home and the cooking chores—a woman's job—when she was more than capable of performing a man's job just as well. But she loved every minute of her domestic duties.

She cared for the log cabin as if it were a castle. The only furniture in the single room—about twenty feet square—was the massive built-in bedstead, which she'd come to think of as her torture chamber, and the oak table with matching benches. Off to the side were two homemade chairs—upended stumps with cut-off branches serving as tripod legs, and Effie's prized, armless rocking chair.

A cooking fireplace took up one wall. The only light came from the open doorway and two most unusual windows. There was no glass, but Zeb had cut out two windows in facing walls and filled them with colored bottles and glass jars, the area between their necks being filled in with clay. When she'd asked Zeb where he'd got so many pieces of glassware, he told her they'd previously held brandied fruit and pickles and liquor. It had been his wife's idea, he'd added, and the result was a stained-glass effect when the sun shone brightly.

Effie's touch was evident in other areas of the primitive dwelling, as well: Her hand-stitched crimson calico curtains—
was there any other color?
Helen wondered; exquisite quilts;
a few pieces of china displayed on a wooden shelf Zeb had built for that purpose; rag rugs thrown over the rough puncheon floor.

Helen looked over and saw that Hector had been watching her closely. “I don't ever want to leave here,” he said fiercely. “This is my home now.”

“Of course it is, honey,” she said, patting his hand.

“You and Mr. Rafe are gonna leave sometime, though,” he accused.

“Yes,” she conceded, “but we won't abandon you.”

“When you go, I'm gonna stay with Mr. Zeb. He sez I kin call him Granpap.” His voice quivered with tears of uncertainty.

“We'll see, but it's nothing for you to worry about now.” She corrected his work, then scooted him out the door. He and Zeb were going hunting for rabbits that afternoon.

She checked the sourdough in a crock near the fireplace. Mary had given her a starter batch, and every day she added a little flour, sugar, and water to keep it working. With care, it would last forever. She also picked an arrangement of Effie's wildflowers and put them in an empty whiskey bottle. The flowers and the colored light from the “bottle windows” created a warm, homey atmosphere for the cabin.

Afterward, she ambled toward the stream, planning to help Rafe with the gold digging. He was standing thigh-deep in the icy water to the far left of the little valley, working alone. Zeb and Hector must have already left. Usually, a claim was worked by three adult men who could wash out eighty to a hundred pails of dirt a day, but they had to pace themselves here, knowing there were other chores to be done about the cabin.

Many of the miners used more sophisticated methods of prospecting—long toms, or cradles, or sluice boxes—but they required at least a half-dozen men to share the labor. Simple panning—adding water to a pan of dug-up gravel and swirling
it around so the water and lighter materials spilled over the top and the heavier masses, like gold, sunk to bottom—was a centuries-old method of prospecting that still worked for the one- or two-man gold-digging operation.

An unusually warm October sun beat down on Rafe's bare back, which glistened with sweat. Occasionally he stopped swinging a pick against the outcropping of rock and he stood, arching his shoulders.

Helen picked up a shovel and pan that Zeb had discarded nearby and scanned the area. She stepped into the frigid stream, boots and all, with her shovel and pan held up high.

“What do you think you're doing?” Rafe asked, just noticing her.

“I'm going to help you.”

“No, you're not. Don't come any closer,” he warned. “Oh, no, oh, please, don't do anything to get that T-shirt wet.”

“Honestly, you have a one-track mind. In the middle of muscle-deadening work, you can still think about—” Her right boot slipped on a moss-covered rock, and her feet went out from under her. She landed flat on her back in the shallow water.

She expected Rafe to be howling with laughter when she came up spluttering for air, flinging her wet hair back over her shoulders. But he was gawking, transfixed, at her sodden chest.

Looking down, she saw her breasts clearly outlined by the clinging fabric right down to the nipples, which had hardened in the cold stream. “Now, Rafe,” she said, backing away.

“Son of a bitch!” he exclaimed, throwing his pan and pickax up onto a boulder. “Even St. Augustine was never given this much temptation, I'll bet.” He made a flying leap for her, and they both landed in the stream. The snow-cooled waters did nothing to stem his ardor or her fast-matching arousal.

Like a madman pushed beyond his limits, Rafe kissed her lips and neck. His hands roamed frantically over her breasts,
across her back, cupping her buttocks. “Touch me . . . Oh, please . . . Oh, yes, like that,” he pleaded, then almost screamed when she did.

They rolled in the water, splashing, falling under, coming up laughing and kissing and trying to speak but only able to come out with disjointed words. When Rafe's mouth closed over Helen's breast, T-shirt and all, she keened and pounded on his back with her fists. “Damn you! Damn you for making me want you this much.”

He stood, pulling her to him, grinding himself against her to show how much he wanted her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and licked at his ears while he walked up the bank, hissing out wicked words of retribution he planned to enact on her. Instead of dropping down to the grassy bank with her, as she'd expected, however, he stopped abruptly.

“What?” she asked, drawing her head back to look at him. He was still carrying her with her legs wrapped around his waist.

“Shhhh. Don't move.” Backing away, he moved into the water and set her on her feet, drawing her over and onto the wide boulder on the other bank. Only then did she follow his gaze to the cabin, where a loud ruckus took place. A huge grizzly bear appeared in the doorway, their trout dinner in its mouth.

“I don't suppose you brought a gun out here with you,” he asked.

She shook her head. “It's in the cabin.”

Rafe looked at the pickax in his hand. A lot of good it would do against a thousand-pound beast.

The bear appeared again, and this time it was covered with flour and feathers from Effie's goose-down pillows. Molasses dribbled from its snout.

For more than an hour, they sat perched on the rock watching helplessly as Big Ben trashed the inside of the cabin. They could only hope he found enough to satisfy his hunger
and didn't come seeking human fare. Or that Zeb and Hector wouldn't come back onto this dangerous scene.

Finally, the animal loped out, stood on its hind legs, and let out a mighty roar, eying them across the too-short distance. The grizzly seemed to be considering whether to attack them when another animal roared in the forest—a similar but much shriller bellow. Probably its mate. The bear gave them one last glance and went down on all fours, trotting off into the sunset.

Helen thought about their near lovemaking then, the incident that had been a prequel, so to speak, to this mind-boggling spectacle right out of a Disney wilderness movie. “Well, that was good for me. How about you?” she quipped.

At first, Rafe gaped at her. Then he burst out laughing and pulled her to his side in a warm embrace. “Oh, sweetie, someday we'll tell our grandkids about this.” Immediately, he stiffened at his foolhardy words. “I didn't mean that,” he quickly amended, “about grandkids, I mean. I just meant that—”

“I know exactly what you meant, Rafe,” Helen said tiredly.

Maybe they weren't meant to be together after all.

Then again, maybe Rafe was all wet.

Yeah, she liked that idea.

Chapter Nineteen

amily ties really are the ties that bind . . .

y the following evening, everything was back to normal again. The cabin was relatively clean, and no one had been injured. Zeb said they should consider themselves lucky.

Helen sighed, putting aside her uneasy thoughts, and continued to read, “And the redskin's arrow went straight and true through the evil villain's heart, ending his miserable life forever.” She put a slip of ribbon on the page to mark her place and closed the book,
The Last of the Mohicans

“More,” Hector complained sleepily from across the table where he nestled in Rafe's lap.

“That's enough for today, sweetie,” she said, putting the worn leather volume on the shelf, along with Zeb's three other precious books, the Bible, Edgar Allan Poe's
The Purloined Letter,
and Charles Dickens's
Oliver Twist

Rafe stood with the child in his arms and admonished gently, “Helen said no more tonight, and that's that.”

Hector made a whimpering sound of protest and nuzzled
Rafe's neck. Rafe laid the boy on his pallet near the fireplace, where he fell instantly asleep. Returning to the table across from Helen, he sipped the last of his coffee. Zeb continued to rock back and forth in Effie's chair, puffing on an unlit pipe—she'd managed to convert him from the revolting chewing tobacco—and the only sounds in the cabin were the
creak, creak, creak
of his rocker, and the occasional hiss and crackle of the fire.

“This isn't a very exciting nightlife for a hotshot lawyer,” Helen said, wanting to break the silence.

Rafe yawned widely—it had been another grueling day digging for gold—and propped his elbows on the table, bracing his chin. He regarded her tenderly. “I like it.”

“Did you watch a lot of TV when you were a kid?” she asked, forcing her mind in a different direction.

“Nah. I told you, my mother was a tyrant. She always worked, sometimes two jobs a day, and—”

“What kind of jobs?”

“Cleaning houses mostly. In Beverly Hills.” He chuckled. “We got the neatest hand-me-down clothes,” he recalled, wrinkling his nose at her. “Gucci loafers. Polo shirts. Versace jeans. Even a leather bomber jacket from Tom Cruise one time.”


“Oh, yeah, we fit in swell at the local public schools. The other kids wore chic de Levi, and we sported designer duds. That went over

“That's probably when you first learned to fight.”


Her lips twitched with amusement. “Tell me more about your mother.”

“She's about five-foot-zip. Wears polyester slacks—though all us kids have tried to break her of
—with sweatshirts. Her feet hurt from standing all day, so she's never without her thick-soled orthopedic shoes. She's a ball of energy,
always has to be doing something. She yells a lot, but not in a mean way—”

“Maybe she had to yell. A sort of survival skill to be heard over all you children.”

“Probably. Anyhow, my mother had a way of saying our names that could be heard blocks away. When she yelled, ‘RA-FAY-ELL SAN-TEE-AGO!' I ran like hell or got my bottom whacked.”

They exchanged a smile.

“And your father?”

His face tightened. “My father came and went as he pleased. Stayed long enough to give my mother another baby, then zipped off into the sunset. I think it's the only time I ever saw my mother cry . . . when my dad walked out. He's dead now, but I heard a few years back that the bastard had a wife and family in Mexico, too.” He swallowed with some difficulty, then added flatly, “He was a son of a bitch. We kids were glad when he left.”

Helen fought back tears. She wanted to reach across the table and take Rafe's hand, but somehow she knew he would take the gesture for pity. “Tell me about your brothers and sisters.”

He rolled his shoulders in hopeless resignation. “I'm the oldest. Juanita is next. She's thirty-three, a teacher in one of the project schools.” Grimacing, he added, “Juanita and I don't get along. She was always beating up on me, as a kid, and she still rags on me, as an adult. Anyhow, she's got three kids she's raising herself. Her husband got killed in a drive-by shooting five years ago.”

Before Helen had a chance to react to that horrifying news, Rafe went on, “Antonio is next. Tony's a police detective upstate. He's thirty-two and single. Women think he looks like Adam Levine, and he bleeds that for all it's worth.”


“Inez is thirty, a police officer for L.A.P.D. Not the most popular job these days,” he noted, obviously referring to the continuing bad press police got these days. “She's single, and, like me, plans to stay that way.” Helen tilted her head in inquiry, and he explained, “She got stuck with lots of the babysitting, like I did.”

She frowned, beginning to get an image of Rafe's family that was contrary to what she'd always imagined. “Hmmm. You give the impression of having been a rebel . . . a gang member . . . and yet your brothers and sisters have law-and-order careers.”

He shrugged. “Some of us do, but we all went through some rocky times, too. My mother earned every one of her gray hairs.”

“Okay, that's three. You have five other siblings, right?”

He nodded. “Luisa is twenty-eight and has five kids. She's on welfare, although she helps my mother out on some cleaning jobs sometimes. LuLu—she hates that nickname, by the way—is divorced and lives at home.”

A flash of anger in Rafe's eyes warned Helen not to ask for more details about Luisa—for now.

“My mother and I have to help her pay her bills most months. Her husband left her with a pigload of debts. Plus, she has a baby with asthma. I'm hoping LuLu finds another husband soon so she'll get off my back. I don't suppose you know any wealthy, eligible bachelors who're in the market for a ready-made family?”

She knew he was only kidding, or was he? “Go on.”

He stood and stretched, yawning again, then walked over to nudge Zeb awake.

“What? What?” Zeb flustered. “Are you done with yer story already?” he asked Helen.

She and Rafe laughed companionably as Zeb shuffled outside. With still another yawn, Rafe sat on the bed and began
to unlace his boots while she threw a quilt over Hector and made sure he wasn't too close to the fire.

When she turned back to Rafe, he'd already removed his boots and socks and was starting on his shirt.

“So, finish with your family. You were down to Luisa.”

He pulled a face at her. “Eduardo is next. He's, oh, about twenty-six. Eddie keeps changing jobs. Last I heard he was a firefighter. Before that, he drove a truck, worked for the post office, was a disc jockey, and dozens of other things. Even a—you won't believe this!—male centerfold.” He raised an eyebrow at her. “He's trying to find himself.”

“Is he married?”

“Nope, but he's been engaged to the same girl for some time. Her parents don't consider him very stable. He's not.”

“Does he live at home?”

He shook his head. “He and my youngest brother, Ramon, who's twenty, share an apartment in Long Beach. Ramon, when he's not being a rabble rouser, attends UCLA.”

She decided to save her questions about the rabble rousing for later. “You left two out.”

“I didn't think you'd notice,” he groaned. He was down to his T-shirt, which he quickly pulled over his head. He stood, about to unbutton his pants. “Helen, Helen, Helen,” he admonished, “I hope you're not thinking of watching me get naked. After yesterday's near disaster, I'm not sure I could take any more temptation.”

Disaster? He considers our making love a disaster?
She cringed, ducking her head so he wouldn't see the hurt.

Rafe came up behind her and pinched her bottom, whispering against her ear, “Just teasing, Prissy.”

When she looked back over her shoulder, he was already in bed with the quilt up to his waist.

“Finish,” she ordered.

“Yes, ma'am.” He saluted. “Jacinta is twenty-three, a nurse. J. C. thinks she knows everything. Really. She's the world's
biggest know-it-all. Worse than me. She graduated from nursing school last year, and she plans to go to graduate school soon.” His brow furrowed. “She might have already started by now. Wonder if she got the money.”

Rafe's reminder of their return to the future jarred her. To her surprise, Helen realized that she hadn't thought about going home in a long time. How could that be?

“And the last one is Carmen. I skipped her out of order . . . deliberately.” Rafe's voice softened when he said her name. “Carmen is twenty-two. She has the most beautiful smile in the world. I ought to know. It cost me eight thousand dollars in orthodontic bills.”

Helen could tell that Rafe was especially close to this sister, despite his griping.

“Carmen is a dancer. As long as I can remember, practically from the crib, Carmen's been dancing. All kinds of dancing, but the worst was the tap dancing. Lord, oh, Lord! I threatened hundreds of time to hide those damn tap shoes. She would tap from the kitchen table to the refrigerator. She would tap to the bathroom. She would tap while taking out the garbage. Sometimes I still hearing that tap-tap-tapping in my dreams.”

She couldn't help giggling at that image. “So, is Carmen the one who taught you to dip?”

He jiggled his eyebrows at her. “Nah, that was Barbie Bimbolini. She taught me to dip, and a few other things.”

“Liar,” she hooted. “Geez, couldn't you be more original than

He crinkled his nose at her. “Anyhow, Carmen doesn't tap dance much anymore. She's into modern dance, and she just made the L.A. Dance Company. She's touring Europe right now. Of course, she needed five thousand dollars for extra expenses, and guess who she came running to?”

“Oh, Rafe, your family sounds wonderful!”

“Huh?” Her compliment stunned him. “You must be nuts.
I just told you the good stuff. They're a bunch of screwball, loud, interfering, demanding leeches. We had a motto in our house: take a breath, you lose a turn. Take my word for it, you wouldn't like them. Nope, you definitely wouldn't like them.”

“Rafe, I already like them.”

He gave her a level stare. “Then you

“And I love you.”

He closed his eyes and his lips moved silently. If she didn't know better, she'd think he was praying. If fact, she thought she heard him mention St. Augustine.

She decided to answer his prayers and not push him beyond his endurance. “I'm going outside to do some forms and meditate,” she said.

“Stay near the house,” he cautioned.

She turned in the doorway to peer back at him. Rafe was half-sitting against the headboard with both arms folded behind his neck, grinning. His body still carried bruises from his various beatings. His hands were calloused from hard work. She wanted more than anything to make love with the handsome rogue, to feel him inside her body again, to show him with kisses and caresses just how much he meant to her, to strengthen this tenuous bond that was growing day by day between them.
But I can't

“Go to sleep,” she said.
Maybe tomorrow will be the day we hit a strike, and we can head home. Maybe then we can end this sexual torture you've imposed on us. Maybe then we can plan a future together

Together? Will we be together in the future?
Helen wondered, suddenly alarmed. Rafe had never mentioned marriage, or living together, or commitment of any kind. In fact, over and over, he'd made it clear he'd never marry or have children.

That night, Helen had trouble meditating and doing her forms. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't bring her
mind to a state of harmony. Rafael Santiago was clouding her concentration.

The games rogues play . . .

'll give us two more weeks of prospecting. If we don't hit a strike by then, we'll go home,” Rafe told her the next morning. “It's October ninth now. Our deadline will be October twenty-third. Okay?”

Startled by his sudden announcement, she asked, “Why? I mean, why are you giving up now?”

He shrugged. “Reality, sweetheart. We're in a race against the elements. Another two months and we risk being snowed in for the winter. Even Rich Bar will start to empty out soon when the winter exodus to the south begins.”

Helen knew that the northern diggings pretty much closed down for the winter when the rainy season began, and that could be anywhere from late October to early December. Roads became quagmires. Streams flooded into virtual swamps. And at higher elevations, snow was a deadly threat.

“If I were the only one involved, I'd probably just stay till I struck a bonanza, or die trying,” Rafe continued, “but I won't do that to you, honey.”

been here in the past for almost eight weeks already,” she replied defensively. “Heck, we've been at Angel Valley alone for more than a month.”

“And still no gold, no harness, no parachutes, and no immediate hopes for returning to the future,” he pointed out before she could say so herself.

She followed Rafe down to the stream, explaining at length as they walked why his mercenary attitude toward life was filled with loopholes. “You know, Rafe, the worst thing about being in the rat race is, even when you win, you're just another rat.”

Rafe gathered together his pick and shovel and several tin pans, trying to tune Helen out.

“Furthermore,” Helen droned on, “you know what they say about lying down with dogs. You come up with fleas. Just extrapolate that to rats. If you run with rats, you eat a lot of vermin.” She continued to rant on regardless of whether he answered her or not.

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