Mail order bride Matilda Thornton is a prim and proper lady from Boston on her way to Arizona to meet her new husband for the first time. On the stagecoach heading West, she finds herself in the company of three men she would normally not associate with: the Apache boy she rescues from a side show, a ruthless bounty hunter, and his handsome prisoner. Though wary of her companions, she is willing to risk her life to save all of theirs while traveling through Indian Territory. But it’s her willingness to surrender her innocence and virtue to one of these sultry strangers that is most unforeseen. Will Matilda be able to handle the perils of her journey? And in which stranger’s strong arms will she find refuge?
The sign, printed in gaudy red and yellow letters, caught Matilda Conway's eye as she left the stagecoach office.
LAST CHANCE TO SEE THE INDIAN
the sign proclaimed.
ADULTS TWO BITS CHILDREN TEN CENTS
Indians, Matilda thought irritably. If it weren't for Indians, the stage that should have arrived an hour ago would not have been delayed and she would be on her way to Arizona.
With an impatient sigh, she resumed walking, her thoughts invariably drawn toward the man waiting for her at the end of her journey. His name was Josiah Thornton and they had been married by proxy before she left Boston because Mr. Thornton had thought it would be safer for her to travel as a married woman.
Matilda ran her fingers over the plain gold band on her left hand. Mr. Thornton had promised they could be married again, in church, if she so desired, so they could exchange their wedding vows face to face. She smiled as she envisioned being married in a church. She'd wear a long white gown and a gossamer veil, and he'd whisper that she was beautiful even though it wasn't true.
Mr. Thornton's letters, all fourteen of them, were tucked inside her reticule, along with the money he had sent for the long trip West. He had been most generous, insisting she buy herself a trousseau before she left Boston since current ladies' fashions were not easily obtainable in Tucson. Though they had never met, Matilda felt as though she knew Mr. Thornton quite well. They had been corresponding for almost two years, their letters growing longer and more personal with the passage of time.
Josiah Thornton was a widower in his late thirties. He had brown hair and brown eyes and stood five foot eight in his stocking feet. He had no children from his first marriage, but he had hinted in a most delicate way that he hoped to be a father in the near future. They shared a fondness for art and music, for poetry and literature, especially the works of Mr. William Shakespeare. And Josiah was lonely. As was she.
It was not a love match, Matilda thought with regret, but she was certain that she and Mr. Thornton would get on quite well together. At any rate, she was twenty-five years old and had long ago given up any hope of finding the wild, romantic kind of love she had read about in novels. It was time to face reality, time to stop waiting for a handsome hero to ride into her life and sweep her off her feet. She would be a good wife to Josiah Thornton and a good mother if God blessed their union with children.
Matilda paused as she reached the end of town, her gaze drawn toward the colorful tent set up beneath a gnarled oak. Bright red and yellow streamers fluttered in the late afternoon breeze. A sign, similar to the one she had seen earlier, was nailed to the tree.
She stared at the sign, her curiosity piqued. A real Indian. She dug into her reticule and removed a coin from the bag. Twenty-five cents seemed a rather exorbitant price to pay, but she had never seen an Indian before. New experiences were often enlightening, she reminded herself, and after paying the man standing near the entrance of the tent, she stepped inside.
She was the only customer. The Indian was standing on a raised platform at the far end of the tent. He wore fringed buckskin leggings, a breechclout that reached his knees, a sleeveless buckskin vest, and moccasins that curled at the toe. His hands were tied to the tent pole above his head.
As she neared the platform and her eyes grew accustomed to the tent's dim interior, she realized that the so-called Indian warrior was little more than a boy, perhaps twelve or thirteen, certainly no more than fourteen. He was short, small-boned, and painfully thin.
"He's something, ain't he?"
Matilda looked over her shoulder to see the man who had taken her money ambling toward her.
"He's a child," she said, her voice heavy with reproach.
The man shook his head. "He's an Apache, ma'am. And Apaches grow up real fast these days."
"You should be ashamed of yourself, making money from this child's misery."
"What misery?" the man asked, genuinely puzzled. "He's got a roof over his head and three meals a day. And it's better grub than he'd get at home."
Matilda looked skeptical. The boy looked as if he hadn't eaten in days. "He may eat well," she said doubtfully, "but he's a prisoner."
"So he'll live longer."
Matilda's accusing stare made the man uncomfortable and he left the tent, muttering under his breath about nosy females.
"You, boy," Matilda called softly. "How long have you been here?"
The Indian stared at her, his black eyes betraying nothing of what he was thinking or feeling.
"I'd like to help you," Matilda said, "but I can't unless you answer me."
The boy remained mute and it occurred to her that he might not speak English.
"Do you understand me?" Matilda asked, speaking slowly and distinctly. "Do you live near here?"
"My people live in Arizona in the mountains the pinda-lick-o-ye call the Dragoons," the Indian boy said, his English slow and uncertain.
"In Arizona!" Matilda exclaimed. "Why, that's where I'm going."
A daring plan formed in Matilda's mind. She dismissed it as soon as it took shape, but it immediately returned, demanding her attention. The boy was being held against his will, and she could not tolerate such inhumanity, especially where a child was concerned. She had always championed the underdog, spoken up in favor of the downtrodden, fed the beggars who had come to her door seeking handouts. She could not go off and leave this poor child in such dreadful circumstances.
"I'll be back later," Matilda promised. She smiled reassuringly at the boy, then left the tent.
Returning to the stage depot, she purchased another ticket, then went to her hotel room to pass the time until the stage arrived early the next morning.
Yellow Hawk bit down on his lower lip as the white man lashed his hands and feet together and pushed him down on the hard-packed earth.
"Don't bother me none if you don't eat," Caleb Whitney muttered as he picked up the untouched plate of bacon and beans and brown bread. "Go ahead and starve for all I care. Hell, once you croak, I'll wrap you up in a sheet and tell folks you're one of them there mummy things from Egypt. Probably get four bits for ya when you're dead."
Yellow Hawk stared at the ground, trying to keep his face impassive until the white man was gone and he was alone in the darkness. Only then did he let his shoulders slump in defeat. Only then did he give in to the very real fear that had taken hold of him at the white man's threat to put his dead body on display.
Blinking back the tears that burned his eyes, he turned his thoughts toward home, toward his mother and his father's brother. He had been away for many days now. Did his mother weep for him? Had she cut off her beautiful black hair and slashed the flesh of her arms and legs? The Apache feared the dead. They would burn his belongings and never speak his name again.
He tugged against the ropes that bound his hands and feet. If only he had not wandered so far from camp in search of game that day. If only he had stayed closer to his uncle, Eagle on the Wind. If only he could get his hands free!
He had been easy prey for Caleb Whitney and his companions. They had been hunting, too, but instead of a deer, they had caught themselves an Indian. They had cut a deck of cards to see who would him, and Whitney had won. And now Yellow Hawk was a prisoner, forced to endure the curious stares of the white eyes. It was humiliating, the way they laughed at him, making jokes about the color of his skin, calling him a no-good savage, pulling his braids, taunting him about taking his scalp. He hated them all.
All but the thin, plain white woman in the funny green hat. She had not looked at him with scorn, or been amused to see him bound hand and foot. Her eyes, the color of the sky in the summertime and fringed by long dark lashes, had been kind, and her voice was soft, filled with genuine concern. She had promised to come back. But even if she kept her promise, how could one skinny white woman help him?
It was early morning when Yellow Hawk heard footsteps approaching. Opening his eyes, he saw the white woman tiptoeing toward him, a long-bladed knife clutched in her right hand.
"Shhh," Matilda whispered, relieved to find the boy awake and alone. "I've come to help you."
Yellow Hawk's heart began to pound with anticipation as the woman sawed through the ropes that bound his hands and feet.
"We've got to hurry," Matilda said. "The stage has arrived. We only have a few minutes."
She thrust a stiff white cotton shirt and a pair of black whipcord britches into the boy's hands. "Here, put these on, quickly."
Yellow Hawk stared at the strange clothing. For a moment, he considered grabbing the knife from the woman and making a run for his freedom. He knew his uncle would have slit the woman's throat without a qualm. She was white. The enemy. But Yellow Hawk could not bring himself to hurt her. She had been kind to him. Perhaps she truly meant to help him find his way back home.
Matilda took a step backward, her expression suddenly wary as she saw the boy glance at the knife. Bits and pieces of newspaper stories she'd read about Indian treachery filtered into her mind. Apaches grow up real fast these days, the man had said. Perhaps she had been over-zealous in her haste to help the boy. Perhaps, instead of freeing him, she should have complained to the local authorities.
But it was too late for that now. And then, inexplicably, she knew she had nothing to fear. She turned her back as the boy began to remove his leggings.
Yellow Hawk grimaced as he pulled on the heavy black pants. His people would surely laugh at him if he rode into the Apache stronghold dressed as a white man, he thought ruefully, but it was a risk he was willing to take.
Jess McCord settled deeper into the black leather seat as he gazed out the stagecoach window and swore softly as the shackles that bound him to Elias Kane cut into his left wrist. He had always hated handcuffs, never more so than now.
He stretched his long legs as the driver made a last call for passengers, his narrowed gray eyes drawn toward the two people hurrying toward the coach. He stared at them with no real interest. The woman was decidedly plain and much too thin for his taste. Her hair, as black as the devil's heart, was drawn back so severely he was surprised she could blink. She wore a dark blue traveling suit with black trim on the collar and cuff, a perky black hat, and black kid gloves. The tips of a pair of black boots peeked out from the hem of her skirt. She looked like an old maid, he mused, or an old crow.
The boy was more interesting. Despite his brand-new city duds, he was obviously a full-blood. His expression was sullen, his dark eyes wary and suspicious as he climbed into the Concord.
Jess lit a cigar, inhaling deeply as the two new passengers entered the coach. They sat down on the opposite seat, not touching and not talking, though they were obviously traveling together. It was just as obvious that they couldn't be related, and he felt an uncharacteristic twinge of curiosity as he wondered how the two had gotten together in the first place.
Matilda drew her skirts aside, her annoyance at being in such close quarters with the two men seated across from her readily apparent. She wrinkled her nose with distaste as cigar smoke tickled her nostrils.
She fixed the dark-haired man with a sharp look. "Would you mind putting out that dreadful cigar?"
"Yes, ma'am, I would."
Matilda sniffed her disapproval, but said nothing more as she noticed the handcuffs that bound the two men together.
The man beside the smoker smiled affably. "He doesn't have the manners God gave a goat, ma'am," he replied, tipping his hat with his free hand.
Matilda smiled faintly and looked away, not wishing to engage in conversation with the man or his odious prisoner. If the lawman wouldn't at least forbid the cigar, she wasn't about to be polite to him either.
From the corner of her eye, Matilda studied the two men. The smoker looked to be in his mid-thirties. He was clad in dirty denim pants, a black shirt, black hat, dusty moccasins, and a long black coat. His hair was black and straight as a hat pin. Heavy black bristles covered his lower jaw, and his brows were slightly arched above dark gray eyes.
The other man was impeccably dressed in a dark brown suit and neatly knotted cravat. His hair was dark blond, neatly cut and combed. His eyes were an arresting shade of emerald green. She could feel his gaze resting on her and it brought a quick flush of embarrassment to her cheeks. She was tired of being stared at by these rough Western men, tired of their rude manners and crude language and, oh, so tired of bouncing over these hot, dusty roads.
Yellow Hawk stared at the man in the black hat. The man was a half-breed, and Yellow Hawk wondered what tribe he belonged to and what crime he had committed. His own recent captivity was fresh in his mind and Yellow Hawk felt a wave of sympathy for the man.
He lowered his gaze as the half-breed glanced his way, not wanting to add to the man's humiliation by staring at him. Being a prisoner was a hard thing to bear, and he felt a sudden rush of gratitude for the pale-faced woman who had freed him from captivity.