CHAPTER ONE, Scene One & Scene Two
Bosque County, Texas; February 1876
Rose Devlin stood outside the corral fence, tensely watching her brother Tye struggle to stay on the brown stallion he was attempting to subdue. Horse breaking, he called it, but man breaking seemed a better description. With head down, the infuriated animal kicked out both hind legs, raising his rump high in the air. Somehow, Tye hung on, but when the stallion performed a wild twisting movement, he succeeded in throwing his rider. Rose cried out in alarm, but to her amazement, her brother hit the ground rolling to avoid the horse’s hooves and rose nimbly to his feet.
Brushing himself off, he cornered the horse with help from a ranch hand named Micah Johnson, an older cowboy who mainly worked around the homestead. Mr. Johnson had lost the use of his left arm in the War Between the States, but he deftly threw his lasso over the horse’s head with his good right arm. While he controlled the animal, Tye climbed back into the saddle.
Rose clutched the small gold cross suspended on a delicate chain at her throat and whispered a prayer as the battle between man and beast resumed. She gave a start when a man walked up beside her. Going rigid, she stared at him as he folded his arms along the top rail of the fence. She’d never laid eyes on him before. If she had, there’d be no forgetting him. Almost a head taller than her, with copper colored skin and long black hair, he wore a wide-brimmed black hat with a black-tipped white feather jutting from the leather hatband.
“Howdy, Miss Devlin,” he said, casually glancing at her.
“Ye . . . ye know who I am, sir?” she asked, wondering who he was and where he’d come from. She thought she’d met all the Double C hands over the past three months.
He turned his head and studied her with eyes as dark as night. “Everybody on the place knows you’re Tye Devlin’s little sister.”
Embarrassed by his close inspection, she looked away, but her curiosity got the better of her. “Who are ye?” she blurted. Then, instantly regretting her bluntness, she stammered, “I-I mean I’ve never seen ye before. Are ye new here?” Darting a sidelong glance at him, she was relieved to see him watching Tye and the bucking, snorting horse instead of her.
“Depends how you look at it,” he replied. “I just rode in yesterday. That’s why we haven’t crossed paths before. I return about this time every year to help out with the roundup and the drive north.”
“Oh, I see.” Rose knew he referred to the yearly cattle drive to Kansas. She’d listened to Tye and his in-laws discuss plans for this year’s drive several times. Herding thousands of cattle over such a long distance sounded like a daunting task to her.
“I heard you fixed your brother’s eyes,” the stranger remarked. “How’d you do it?”
Rose licked her lips and clasped her cross again, seeking an answer that wouldn’t require mentioning her unusual ability. Before she could find words, the horse Tye was on emitted an enraged shriek and ran straight at the fence where Rose and her companion were standing.
“Look out!” Tye shouted.
Frozen in terror, Rose stared at the charging animal. She gasped when two arms closed around her from behind and whirled her aside just as the crazed horse reared and slammed his front hooves down on the top rail of the fence. The wood split with a loud crack, accompanied by a pain-filled neigh from the horse. A hiss of pain also sounded from the man pressed to Rose’s back, his broad shoulders hunched around her. Had the horse struck him while he shielded her from harm? Or perhaps a piece of the broken fence rail?
With the danger past, he released her and stepped back. Turning to face him, she gazed wordlessly into his dark, fathomless eyes. They showed no emotion and not a hint of pain, yet they unsettled her. Quickly looking away, she saw Tye dismount and watched the troublesome stallion stagger along the fence, limping on his right foreleg.
“Stupid beast!” Tye shouted, shaking a fist at the horse. Leaving him for Micah Johnson to catch, he spun around, concern on his face. “Rosie, are ye all right?” he questioned, rushing toward her.
“Aye, I’m fine,” she replied a bit unsteadily. “But Mr. . . .” She looked askance at her protector, who’d moved a step closer.
“Call me Jack, Miss,” he said with a barely noticeable crook of his lips.
“J-Jack, I’m thinking you’re hurt. When the rail split I heard ye . . . .” She stepped behind him and blurted, “Oh, dear!” There was a tear in his shirt several inches long, and blood plastered the fabric to his back.
“It’s nothin’, just a scratch,” he said.
“A scratch! ’Tis far more than that.”
“Let’s have a look,” Tye said gruffly, stepping over the damaged fence. He joined Rose, scowling as he took in the other man’s injury. “She’s right. Ye need tending. Go on up to the house with Rosie. She’s got the healing touch.”
Jack pivoted to face them. Eyeing Rose, he nodded. “What they say is true, then. You have magic.”
“Nay, nay! There’s no magic. ’Tis merely a skill I’ve picked up.” It was a lie, but she dared not admit the truth.
* * *
In the kitchen of the main house, Rose gathered a pan of water and a rag while Jack swung a chair around at the table and straddled it. Uncomfortably aware of him, she waited for him to unbutton his shirt and push it down, allowing her to see the cut running across his left shoulder blade. Hesitantly, she stepped close and began to gently wipe blood from around the wound with the dampened rag. Her tall sister-in-law, Lil, stood watching nearby. Tye had stayed out at the corral, wanting to examine the stallion’s injured leg if the horse would allow him close enough to do so.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” Lil commented. Her protruding stomach brushed Rose’s arm as she bent close to study the wound. She was due to give birth to her and Tye’s first child in late March or early April.
“Nay, the cut isn’t very deep,” Rose agreed.
“Do you need me to fetch a needle and thread?”
Rose shook her head. “I think not. A bit of healing salve would help, but I haven’t any with me.”
“That’s all right. Ma keeps a jar of the stuff, something her ma’s people use. I’ll get it.”
Left alone with Jack, Rose nervously cleared her throat. “I need to wash out the cut. ’Twill hurt a bit.”
“Go ahead,” he said, the first words he’d spoken to her since entering the house.
Biting her lip, Rose wiped bits of wood and dirt from his wound as gently as she could. He didn’t so much as twitch, causing her to admire his fortitude. While working over him, she contemplated his copper skin. She’d thought his face to be dark from working outside in the sun, but he was the same copper color beneath his shirt. It dawned on her that he must be an Indian. Her heart skipped a beat and a tremor of fear raced through her. She’d heard terrible stories of atrocities committed by Indians upon white settlers.
Rose reminded herself that Lil and her mother were part Cherokee, and she’d never been afraid of them. Yes, but Jack was a man. White or red, that was reason enough to fear him. Yet, she couldn’t forget he’d saved her from injury, possibly even death, with no thought for his own safety.
Warily stepping around him to rinse out her rag in the pan of water, Rose surreptitiously studied her silent companion. His features were square-cut, with a high brow, hawkish nose and sharply chiseled mouth, bringing to mind the term noble savage. He turned his head and caught her staring at him. Face heating, she lowered her eyes and hastily returned to cleaning his wound. To her dismay, she encountered a small, jagged edge of wood embedded near the top of the gash. “Begorra! You’ve a sliver buried under your skin. I’ll have to remove it.”
“Do it,” Jack said curtly.
By now, Lil had returned with a small jar, which she deposited on the table. Looking up, Rose asked, “D’ye perchance have some nippers I could use to pull out the sliver?”
“Nippers?” Lil looked mystified.
“Uh, tweezers, I mean.”
“Oh. Yeah, I think Ma has a pair. I’ll see if I can find them.”
Again, Rose found herself alone with her stoic patient. She couldn’t think of a thing to say. Hoping Lil would hurry back, she wiped more blood from Jack’s seeping wound then rinsed out the rag once again.
“You come from Chicago?” Jack asked, drawing her surprised glance.
“Aye, I did.”
“Mm, I figured.”
“Ye did? How d’ye . . .? Oh, ye knew Tye and my sister came from there, I suppose.”
He nodded. “You got more kin up there?”
“Only Da. Um, my father that is,” she explained, wringing out the washrag.
He didn’t say anything more. Stepping behind him to dab at the troublesome cut, Rose dared to inquire, “And yourself? Where d’ye come from?”
After a moment’s silence, he said, “I grew up in Texas, up near the Red River, but I’ve moved around since then.”
“I see.” She wanted to ask where he’d moved around to, but Lil returned at that moment.
“Here you go.” She handed Rose a pair of tweezers that had seen better days. “They’re kind of bent.”
“They’ll do,” Rose said, squeezing the small instrument. Finding it operable, she stepped close to Jack. “Are ye ready?”
“Do it,” he repeated.
“Very well.” Rose gingerly probed with the tweezers, trying to get hold of the end of the embedded sliver. When she finally succeeded, she took a deep breath and pulled.
Jack sat stone still through the probing process, but Rose felt him stiffen as she carefully drew out the long, ugly sliver. He made no sound, however, and Rose wondered how he could be so brave. When it was over, she breathed a sigh of relief and staunched a fresh flow of blood from the wound. Pressing gently along the length of the wound, she felt no other bits of wood.
“I think that’s all of it,” she said, hoping she was right. She was tempted to use her hands to close the gash, but resisted the urge. Instead, she reached for the jar Lil had brought, uncapped it and took a sniff, detecting the scent of yarrow and other herbs she might use in her own healing ointments. Reassured, she dipped her fingers into the aromatic concoction and scooped out a generous dollop. It had to sting as she spread it over Jack’s wound, but once again, he showed no sign of pain.
“There, that should be enough.” She glanced at Lil. “Will ye help me wrap a bandage around him to protect the wound?”
“Sure. Just have to work around Junior here.” Grinning, she patted her rounded middle.