Authors: Elle Marlow
“Yellow Rock will trade or he will die,” the man said.
She turned her head at the sound of approaching horses. There were even more men. Men painted up to look like all the colors of the rainbow. One reached down, scooped her up, and then deposited her face down over the back of his horse. As her head snapped down on the horseflesh, she tasted the animal’s sweat on her tongue. Then, as they broke into a gallop, the horse’s rump bounced her head up and down with every stride. She managed to stretch her gaze to the riders, noticing their bare backs glistening in the hot morning sun.
What did these boys do with their Union-issued blue coats?
I’ve been captured by shirtless Yankees. The colonel will never forgive me for having been captured…
Dutch was used to blood. He’d hunted down, butchered and harvested every part of the animal for his survival. It wasn’t pretty, but what had to be done, had to be done. If someone had asked him, he’d tell them he’d seen it all and was quite used to the sight of things being massacred. But when the posse finally found the dozen wagons, turned over or set on fire with the bodies of men, women and children exposed, badly charred or gutted like cattle, he couldn’t help but bend himself over to expel his horror to the ground.
His eyes watered while his stomach continued to churn. The others struggled to make sense of things, but he knew. The Apaches had to protect what was theirs. Encroachment on a sacred area could not and would not be tolerated. Anger chewed inside of him wondering why these wagon masters hadn’t known better than take a trail so close to a mountain well known for being cursed with the shroud of Apache death.
Everett ordered each body to be lined up side by side so he could write down with description each and every one. After that, they spent hours digging mass graves, placing all the individuals inside.
“The Indians stole all the rifles, but they are long gone. So, if you don’t need me anymore, Everett. I’ll travel with you until I know for sure you’re out of danger, then I’ll be heading up the mountainside. Will you do me a favor when you get back to town?”
“When you tell John and Memaw Wiles that you didn’t find the woman they were looking for? Just leave out the gruesome details of what we did find. If she looks anything like the way you’ve described her, I’m sure those Indians probably took her with them as a coup. I don’t think John’s wife could handle that kind of news.”
Everett nodded. “No point in going into details,” he agreed, then turned to a young boy fresh into his teens. “You’ve got the fastest horse. Go back to Hell’s Creek and deliver the news. And you heard Dutch, leave the gritty parts out. Tell the folks I’ll fill in the rest when I get back.”
The young man, anxious to get away, quickly agreed and then left.
They rode for hours, coating Willow in dust and sweat and undoing any good the bath might have done. She’d catch occasional glimpses of her captors as they’d ride by. The colonel was right. The Union army looked ridiculous with their faces painted up and talking all that gibberish that nobody could understand.
She sneered against the horse. These men needed a good dose of southern manners and a swift kick in their backsides by a well-placed confederate boot. How much longer did they expect her to just lay like this while they insisted on climbing this awful mountain full of nothing but rocks?
Someone pulled on her boots and she landed unceremoniously right to the ground. Then one of them lifted her into his arms, carried her to a tree where he tied her hands high over her head. So this was how her life would end. What was wrong with these Yanks, even to think of tying a southern lady to a tree?
“When the Colonel gets here, he’s gonna blast a hole right through you,” she hissed to the backs of the shirtless soldiers.
Oh. Now she remembered. She was with Indians, and right now they were crouching themselves behind strange rock formations, looking down a steep canyon and waiting on something or someone.
Tears burned, then fell steadily down her face. The sparsely vegetated tree offered little shade allowing the sun to blister overhead. Willow struggled against the rope, painfully boring into her wrist. If she made even the slightest of whimpers, one of her captures would retrieve a thorny spine from a cactus and threaten her with it. Willow was forced to suffer in silence as she watched the shadows grow long from passage of time. She couldn’t feel her fingers anymore, just a dull ache that pulsed with every heartbeat.
Something was coming. Willow fought to keep her eyes open long enough to listen. A troop of Confederate soldiers were marching toward them. Every Union man had gone eerily quiet while they hid themselves behind boulders and waited. She gasped between sobs, hoping those southern boys would find her, when a tickling sensation marched up her legs. Ants began to bite at her skin and with no way to stop them, she threw her head back against the twisted trunk of the tree, and bit hard on her lower lip. When the first sound of gunfire erupted she wondered how she got caught up in the middle of a war battle. Wanting to help the Calvary, she began whistling Dixie as loud as possible.
Dutch knew something was going to go wrong because Fatty wouldn’t shut up. When the line of men ahead of him stopped their horses, Dutch could swear he heard someone whistling out a confederate song. Only, the whistle was decidedly feminine and coming from a steep ledge on the canyon wall.
Clem spotted the figure first. “I swear I see a woman tied to a tree.”
Dutch shielded the glare of the sun with his hand and after his eyes adjusted, he got caught sight of blonde hair just as yellow as any piece of gold he’d ever dug, gleaming in the light. How did a woman get herself tied to a tree so far up a canyon wall?”
“I’ll go get her!” Clem volunteered, already making a move to scale the rocky incline.
“Wait, Clem. This whole thing smells like a trap,” Dutch said, eyeing the walls for Indians like he’d done a million times before. Fatty let out with another bellow. Yeah, there were Apaches in those rocks, alright. Probably lots of them. What were they up to now?
“None of you move a muscle. That woman is being used as bait to lure us in close enough their arrows or guns can get us,” he said finally, and feeling disgusted.
“Is she whistling Dixie? Who in their right mind whistles a southern…Oh wait. I’ll make a bet that’s Willow Blanford up there,” Everett said, starting to chuckle. “It sounds like that poor girl has gone plumb mad.”
“Wouldn’t you be? If you’d been at the hands of Indians for days?” Dutch’s nerves pricked under his skin. These boys had no idea the trouble they were about to get into, and he found nothing funny about any of this.
“Well, what are we going to do, Everett?” Clem asked. All the men had gathered around Everett for answers, but he turned to Dutch. “You’re the only one that seems to escape trouble with the redskins. Plus, you’re also the only one capable of plucking someone off from that distance.”
Dutch’s stomach churned. His skill with the gun wasn’t something he wanted to advertise. The Apaches knew already, and because of it, they’d kept themselves at a respectable distance from him. He’d lived on the mountain for months, side stepping the natives like a fancy waltz. But so far never had a need to shoot one. He didn’t like being put in this situation. So far the only axe the Apaches had to grind against him was also be due to a woman, plus the fact that he’d hung around to dig a few holes into their dirt. Murdering an entire war party would certainly put a fresh target on his back and make the whole idea of prospecting on this mountain a lot more dangerous than it was before.
Willow Blanford interrupted his thoughts by screaming out a line of profanities cursing about everything from “those rotten blue-coated demons,” to then screaming about biting black ants. Clearly, he had no choice. He thought of Memaw’s heartache and knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he left Miss Blanford up there.
“Everyone take cover. And by take cover, I mean, get behind a rock and don’t shoot unless I give a signal.”
No one thought to argue with Dutch. They did as they were told and jumped off their horses to take cover behind what they could. Dutch fired off a shot in the air so the horses and Fatty would run down the dry river bed and stay the hell out of the way of crossfire.
Seconds stretched out to minutes. “What in blazes are you Yanks waiting for! The Calvary is down there waiting to fill you full of gun powder!” The woman’s words, followed by uncontrollable laughter echoed off the canyon and right into his gut. She sounded scared to death and equally out of her mind. Whatever caused all that, birthed a rolling shudder. He knew all too well what must have happened to her and he forced the images out of his mind.
An Apache fired a shot from the canyon wall, the bullet singing over his head before it all went quiet. Then Dutch saw one Apache pull the woman down from the tree, struggling with her for a moment before she screamed and then went limp into the Apache’s arms, at that point, he’d figured he’d seen about all he could take.
Dutch stood and fired taking the lead in a storm of bullets that flew back and forth. He wasn’t really aiming at any of them, he was just hoping he could scare them off. It seemed to work, since after a few shots, the Apaches retreated back into the mountains. Dutch had no idea if they had left the woman behind, so he’d have to climb up there and check. A crazy woman could be as dangerous as a wild animal, and he wasn’t looking forward to what condition he might find her in.
It was several minutes of hard climbing before he made it to the body curled into a ball and lost in a bundle of petticoats and ripped cherry-red fabric. Dirt had embedded into her dress, hair and skin and she was covered with bruises. Dutch turned her on her back, bracing himself to see the cold, unresponsive eyes of the dead. Instead, blue eyes, like the color of the bluebonnets in Texas blinked several times looking up at him.
“Did we get them, soldier? Did you kill them Yankees?”
He couldn’t recall the last time anything rendered him speechless, but Dutch couldn’t find any words. The woman on the ground was as pitiful and as helpless as anything he’d ever seen in his life. But even still, there was an air of finery about her that was in stark contrast to the rough world around her. When he hunched down to make sure she wasn’t suffering from any major trauma, she threw her arms around his neck and squeezed with strength he didn’t think she could possibly have in such a tiny and beaten body.
“I don’t know what took you so long to find me, but I’m glad you did. I’m sure if you return me to Blanford plantation, my father the colonel, shall reward you for your troubles.”
“She’s plain loco,” Everett’s voice interrupted from behind. So taken aback that this woman had her arms around his neck, Dutch hadn’t noticed that someone else had climbed the cliff. Then Everett chuckled. “Looks like you’ve got yourself an admirer.” Dutch had to pry her arms from him. “Yeah, that’s her alright. Willow Blanford. The way that negro tells it, she’s the daughter of Colonel William Blanford, no less. He’d sent her out west to get her out of harm’s way, if you can believe that shit.”
Dutch took her by the hand. It was so small his fingers could wrap completely around hers. He helped her to her feet discovering she was no taller than his chin. “I can believe just about anything right now,” He said quietly, feeling her hand tremble in his. It angered and ripped his heart out at the same time.
He carried her down the canyon wall and by the time they’d reached the sandy bottom, Miss Blanford seemed to have calmed down enough to stay quiet. The only indication of her unease, was the way she’d wrap her arms around his midsection like a child and then tremble anytime another man happened to look her way.
When Clem made some kind of comment about her beauty hidden under all the mess, she buried her face into his chest like she was trying to hide from the world. Dutch had no idea why she’d chosen to trust him so much, but her behavior sparked an unwanted feeling of protection for her even though he was anxious to get her back to Hell’s Creek and back into the rightful arms of John and Memaw Wiles.
“You boys just leave her be,” he ordered. Dutch whispered down into the crown of her head. “We need to ride a horse out of here. Do you think you can do that?” She squeezed herself even closer to him. “You’re a southern gal, right? I bet you were practically raised on a horse. What do you say? Want to give it a try?”
The woman released herself from him enough to raise her gaze at him. Dutch felt a jolt, like someone shoved a hot poker through his gut. Her eyes became wide and her full lips began to tremble.
“Only if you ride with me,” she said.
“I don’t know about that, ma’am,” Dutch said, pulling himself out of her embrace then holding out the horse’s reins to her.
“And let you walk? What kind of woman would I be?”
The other men standing around rightfully walked away at that point. A burning heat flushed his cheeks. It wasn’t what she said, it was the way she’d said it. When she spoke, she swung her hip slightly, tilted her head and threw back her hair. What was going on with this woman? One minute she was cursing out the Yankees, and now she was attempting to use her feminine wiles on him.
“You ride, ma’am, and I’ll walk.”
“In those shoes? Sir, you’re limping. Either you ride with me or I’ll just catch the next coach to Blanford. One should be coming around momentarily.”
Dutch scratched the back of his head. She’d sounded normal, she even had the presence of mind to notice he had a sore foot. She seemed totally sane right up until the very last. Every eye was upon them, and not wanting to create a bigger display, he relented.
“Fine. We’ll ride double.”
She smiled and clapped her hands together. “Good.”
Dutch shifted in his seat uncomfortable. He had to place her in front of him on the saddle because she was too weak to hold herself up. What made the trip worse was when their bodies would accidentally make contact. She’d flinch, spook the horse they were on, and then start to whimper. After mile two, she was so exhausted that she fell against his shoulder, leaned her head back spilling blonde hair all over them both while accidentally giving him a private view straight down the top of her bodice. Every man noticed, and every man shot him looks of envy. Dutch kept his eyes straight forward, silently cursing himself and anyone else could think of.
By morning they were hours from camp. His shoulder and arm ached from holding her sleeping body throughout the night. Then she stirred on the saddle, agitated.
“Stop, please stop. Don’t… It hurts…” Dutch pulled the horse to stop. He closed his eyes while the woman in his arms relived something terrible. It made him wave with a physical sickness. There was no way around it, he’d have to look down at her.
Her face tilted in such a way he got a good look at her profile. A golden brow scrunched from worry, her lips pressed together so tightly, they were nearly white. Then a tear slipped out of a closed eye, balancing on the end of a long dark lash before falling to the swell of a bruised cheekbone. The the reality of what she’d just gone through, compelled him to hold her tighter. Poor woman might not ever be the same.
It was just breaking dawn when they rode into Hell’s Creek. Dutch expected a crowd. He expected at the very least a small welcoming party but all they rode into were empty streets lined with tumbleweeds and empty bottles of whiskey.
“When the colonel sees what kind of mess his plantation has turned into, he’s gonna bend us all over and then paddle our backsides something fierce,” Willow said, her southern accent thicker than he remembered. Then she clicked her tongue in disgust.
Dutch swallowed down a guilty amusement. Willow Blanford might have become a little unbalanced from her ordeal, but she was absolutely right, Hell’s Creek was but a gopher hole of a place. But at least there were two people waiting for her and that would immediately take her to someplace nice, where she obviously belongs.
Clem was the first to dismount and he was right at Willow’s knee reaching up to escort her off the horse. A ripple of concern coursed down Dutch’s spine. If Clem had ideas of turning Willow into one of his cheap saloon girls, he’d soon have another thing coming.
Willow went into Clem’s arms cautiously, and to Clem’s credit, he released her immediately and then backed away to give her some space. She was as touchy as a spooked filly, and had every right to be. Still, Clem’s interest in her was obvious, and Dutch wondered how he’d have his say about it without appearing interested in Miss Blanford for himself, because he was not. Hopefully the Wiles won’t waste any time getting her out of here so he could get back to his prospecting.
“Glad to see you boys. We weren’t sure what took you so long, but at least you’ve all made it, and wow, with a lovely tag-a-long too,” an old man who’d serve as Everett’s deputy, said as his gaze swept over the woman with a male’s curiosity.
Christ, she was filthy, her dress in shreds and it didn’t seem to matter. Dutch rubbed the back of his neck to ease the tension that developed.
Everett removed his hat then slapped it against his leg.
“What the heck are you talking about? I sent a runner to let you know.”
“He came. He got good and drunk, and then told everyone that those travelin’ folks were brutally slaughtered. Yeah, that’s why we figured you’d high-tail it back, the Apaches are ticked about something and are as thick as thieves out there, Everett.”
Dutch forgot all about his neck when he heard the news, because aggravation took over. “He told everyone about the deaths? Even the Wiles couple?” he asked, afraid he already knew the answer.
“Yeah, of course. They sure took the news hard though. Well, we all did. But they visited the bank, and then sent a telegram back to Georgia. By the next morning they’d left on the first stage heading west two days ago.”
Willow spun on Dutch and for the first time he saw crystal clear lucidity in her blue eyes. “The Wiles? John and Memaw? They are as good as family to me. Are they really here?”
Dutch’s heart sunk to his boots. She wasn’t understanding. Then Everett stepped between them. “No ma’am. They’re not here now, but don’t worry, a stage going west will arrive in about a week or so, and you can join them.” There was a moment of silence, and then she dropped her chin toward her chest. “Well, of course they’re gone. The colonel set them free months ago. I just figured they’d at least say good bye or something. But we got them Yankees, didn’t we? Or at least, that fine gentlemen did,” she said looking around Everett to Dutch. “Because of him, now maybe we can all live in peace.”
The deputy scratched his head in confusion. “Yankees? You folks actually encountered Yankees?”
“Never mind that, Horace,” Everett said. Clem spoke up then. “I’ve got plenty of rooms available above the Agave for her,” he offered, stealing another glance her way. “No funny business,” he added, giving Dutch a quick lift to the chin.
Dutch exhaled. He didn’t believe Clem for a minute. He still didn’t think the saloon would be a good place for Miss Blanford, but it really wasn’t his business to intervene on her behalf. The woman stood ram-rod straight without any discernable expression on her face. And judging by the way Clem’s expression continued to change while looking at her, Dutch didn’t figure he’d keep his word. He decided to speak up.
“Everett, she needs the attention of a doc. And Clem, if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, I’m putting a stop to that idea right now.”
Willow maneuvered herself between the Everett and Clem and stood herself so close to Dutch, he could feel her hip press against his thigh. Then she looked up to him. “I’d prefer to remain with you.”
She felt safe with this stranger. But, he shook his head to her question, seemingly anxious to take his leave of her. He hesitated before he answered.
“No ma’am. I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
Disappointment filled her, but she was well used to the feeling. “Well, thank you, sir, for watching over me. I’ll see to it that you’re duly compensated for your trouble.”
The man removed his hat, revealing a head full of thick black hair. It reflected the rising sun and looked just like the deep ebony hair of an Indian. Willow’s heart beat clean into her throat while she struggled to focus. It was horrifying to feel attraction and a whole lot of fear all at the same time. And then he winked at her. “No trouble ma’am. You take care of yourself, and don’t let Clem here, talk you into anything you don’t want to do,” he said, replacing the hat, covering his hair. Her gaze stayed right on him as he walked over to his mule who was busy cleaning up a pile of hay someone had left on the ground by the hitching rail. “Let’s get ourselves back up that mountain, Fatty.”
Tears pooled in Willow’s eyes as she released the breath she was holding. The man turned to take one last look at her, tipped his hat and then just led his mule out of town. She bit down on her lip watching him go. She wanted to go with him, to stay safe. But just like the others, he must have figured she wasn’t worth sticking around for.
When the lawman cleared his throat to regain her attention, Willow looked around at the empty faces staring back at her. She didn’t know any of these men, and her instincts told her there wasn’t a single one of them she could trust.
What was she going to do? She continued to slip out of this world and into the next, without much of an ability to stop it. But always, the man with the funny mule had held a protective arm around her and whispered comforting words into her ear as he brought her here. It was nice, there was something about him that tied her to reality like a velvet ribbon. The thought of being alone, surged a wave of heat to roll over her and press against her chest.
Willow sighed deeply as she slapped dirt off her skirts. Well, that’s what always happens; people tend leave her—even those cursed Yankees left her tied to a tree. So why is she so surprised about the dark haired man doing it?
The man known as Clem escorted her to his saloon and up the stairs to what he told her would be her room. He kept trying to touch her, to hold her arm, or place his hand on the small of her back. Each time, she’d shudder and her mind would go blank, forgetting where she was. She knew this; she didn’t want anyone to touch her ever again. Then she thought of the dark haired man. His touch didn’t frighten her. Dutch was his name, she thought she remembered that, and she wondered about him. Who was he? Where was he going? He was the reason she wasn’t killed by those Yankees—those
Willow ran a palm up the side of her face trying to control her thinking.
Those were Indians, Willow, not Yankees. I’m not in Georgia anymore, now I’m somewhere else. I don’t even know where the hell I am. I don’t know who to trust. I trusted that man. That man with the mule…