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Authors: Catherine Anderson

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Keegan's Lady

BOOK: Keegan's Lady
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KEEGAN’S LADY

Keegan-Paxton 1: Keegan's Lady

 

Half-blind with tears, Caitlin flung herself full-length on the bed and buried her face in the pillow to stifle her sobs.

She felt the mattress-sink under Ace's weight as he sat down beside her. A second later, one of his big, heavy hands settled at the center of her back.

His hands were so wonderful. So awfully, horribly wonderful. So warm and strong. So gentle, yet capable. Never once had he used them to bring her pain. Never once. And yet he was hurting her worse than anyone else ever had in her entire life.

By making her love him.

KEEGAN’S LADY

 Copyright © 1996 by Adeline Catherine Anderson ISBN: 0-386-77962-5
www.avonromance.com

PROLOGUE

 

 

Colorado
Territory

April 1866

 

The night wind wailed like a lonely spectre as it swept over the moonlit grassland, carrying a chill from the snowcapped
Rocky Mountains
to the west. Jamie Keegan lifted his hot face to the coolness and drew in a deep breath.

In all his eleven years, he couldn't remember a single time when he had been so weary. He'd been working nonstop since sundown, and from the looks of things, it would be several more hours before he saw a bed. Needing a rest, he leaned heavily against the horse he'd just hitched to his stepfather's covered wagon, then wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of a dusty sleeve.

"Easy, Patch," he murmured when the exhausted, dun-colored gelding snorted in protest at being back in the traces. "Pa knows what he's doing. Come mornin', we'll find you horses a nice grassy spot near water. You'll see. While we laze about under the wagon, you four-legged beasties can graze and rest your bones."

Even as he uttered those words, Jamie was hard-pressed to believe them. Judging by what he'd seen, the folks in these parts were about as friendly as the Yankee tax collector who'd put them out of their home. They wouldn't cotton to sharing their water—especially not with strangers from the South. Since it was a good two-day wagon ride to reach open country, that put him and his family in one heck of a pickle.

Truth to tell, Jamie was just plain scared. What had begun in
St. Louis
as a dream come true for everyone was rapidly becoming a nightmare. He wasn't sure his fragile mother could survive the hardships of the return journey east, not without some decent food in her belly and a good long rest before they set out.

"Don't see why Pa won't stand and fight those fellers," he muttered to the still unsettled horses. "Not that I think he's yeller, or nothin', cause he ain't," he hastened to add. "That scar he's got on his arm from a Yankee sabre is proof enough of that."

Patch snorted again and rolled his eyes. Back in
Virginia
, Joseph had owned a dozen draft horses. Thanks to the thieving Yankees, Patch and his brother were the only two left.

The dun craned its neck to nuzzle Jamie's shirt front. Wishing he had some treats hidden in his pockets, Jamie rubbed the gelding's velvety muzzle. Since the war, times had been hard, and the days when his ma could spare lumps of sugar were a distant memory.

Looking out over the grassland, Jamie blinked to dry his eyes. Only babies cried, and he was no crybaby. It was hard, that was all, turning around and leaving after they'd gone through so much to get here. It didn't make sense. No sense at all, the way he saw it.

This was about the prettiest country he'd ever seen. To the west, the
Rockies
, their peaks limned by moonlight, rose in craggy silhouette against the slate sky, the sheer granite slopes giving way to foothills and then prairie. His pa said the soil on these rolling flats was rich and fertile, perfect for raising crops or running a herd of cattle. If they looked for a hundred years, Jamie doubted they'd find another piece of land to compare.

How could his pa let a few swindling crooks force him to turn tail and run? The land was theirs, bought and paid for with practically every cent Joseph had been able to scrape together. With his own eyes Jamie had seen Joseph's deed to the land, too. Maybe he didn't understand all the fancy language, but his pa's name was spelled out real clear at the top, and there was a genuine, official-looking seal in one corner, all shiny and gold, with a red ribbon to boot.

No, sir, it wasn't right to let those weasels steal their dream. Jamie wished he were bigger. Big enough to teach that loudmouthed Conor O'Shannessy a few lessons in manners.

After giving Patch a reassuring pat, Jamie crossed behind the now fully loaded wagon and headed for the cookfire where Joseph was repacking the chest holding the staples and some of the cooking utensils.

Hearing Jamie's boots crunch on the grass, Joseph glanced up, his thin shoulders snapping taut. Though the War of Secession had been over for better than a year, he still spooked easy. Jamie figured that was because Joseph was different from most folks, a truly gentle soul from the marrow of his bones. The awfulness of battle ate away at him in quiet moments, never giving him peace.

Looking down at his stepfather now, Jamie wished with all his heart that they had been able to keep the plantation in
Virginia
. If so, Joseph wouldn't be in such an awful spot, homeless and penniless, with a bunch of hungry mouths to feed.

"Pa, can you and me talk private like?" Jamie asked as he stepped into the lantern light.

Joseph flashed him a curious look. "We can, but first hand me that coffeepot yonder, will you, Son?"

Though Joseph spoke with a soft drawl, his manner more humble than authoritative, Jamie obeyed him without hesitation, saying, "Yessir," in the respectful way his ma had taught him.

"Horses all hitched up?" Joseph asked as Jamie handed over the pot.

"Yessir, all hitched to the wagon, just like you said."

"As soon as your mother and the boys return from the creek, we'll be heading out. I reckon we can make it to No Name in a couple of hours, or near to. I'm thinking we can probably spend the night behind the livery. Who knows? Maybe we can even muck stalls for the owner and make a little money for supplies."

Jamie glanced toward the gully where a pretty little creek bubbled over rocks the color of rust. As was her custom, his ma had insisted on bathing his little brothers before bedding them down in the back of the wagon. Cocking an ear, Jamie could hear eight-year-old Joseph chortling and the younger boys squalling. Sometimes, though not often, Jamie was glad to be the oldest. At least his ma didn't feel it was necessary to help him wash anymore.

Joseph wiped out the coffeepot with a cloth before placing it in the proper compartment of the custom-made chest. Then, as though privy to Jamie's thoughts, he said, "I know you don't agree with my thinking on this land business, son, but once you're responsible for a family of your own, you'll find yourself looking at things a bit differently."

Jamie dug at the grass with the scuffed toe of his boot. "Yessir."

The weary lines of his face etched in shadow by the bright moonlight, Joseph sighed and sat back on his haunches. "Try to understand, Jamie. I'm one man against five."

"You've got me to stand beside you."

"And I'm lucky to have you. But you're still only a boy, with a boy's strength. Those are grown men, and mean fellows at that." Joseph shook his head. "I have to think of your ma and little brothers. If there were trouble, they could get caught in the crossfire. I'd never forgive myself."

"But, Pa, we can't just walk away! We have to stand and fight. It's our land, bought and paid for in good faith. Without it, what'll we do? We only got a little money. Our food is pert near gone. You keep talkin' about headin' back east, but what'll we eat? If just one of our horses goes lame, we'll be stranded."

"The good Lord will provide, just as he always has." Joseph closed the lid of the wooden cabinet, then pushed to his feet and reached over to rumple Jamie's dark hair. "As for standing and fighting? You take after your real father, sure as rain is wet, boy. From what your ma says, he was a fighter, too. There's not a thing wrong with that, mind you, so don't think I'm saying that there is. According to Scripture, Saint Peter himself lived by the sword."

Jamie shook with an inexpressible frustration. "Sometimes, Pa, you got no choice. It's that or die."

Joseph wagged a finger. "For the godless, perhaps, but the Good Book speaks of a better way, warning that violence begets violence." He held up a hand to keep Jamie from interrupting him. "Come morning, we'll pay a visit to the marshal in No Name. I'll report what those men have done, show him the deed to this land that I paid good money for. If he's a decent, God-fearing man, he'll take them to task, and we'll get to stay here, after all."

"But what if he ain't decent and God-fearin'?" Jamie knotted his hands into fists. "What if he don't help us none?"

"Then we'll have to leave. I can't put your ma and the smaller children at risk. There's not a piece of land on earth worth a single hair on any of their heads. Nor yours, either."

Joseph bent to lift the chest onto his shoulder. Jamie followed him over to the wagon, then helped as best he could to lift the chest over the tailgate and settle it amongst their possessions. Joseph began checking the canvas on one side of the wagon to be certain the tie-downs were secure.

Schooled to assist his parents in whatever way he could, Jamie ran around to the other side of the wagon. As he jerked to tighten the last rope, an odd sound drifted to him. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw four brilliant flares of light bobbing toward their camp.

"How's it looking on that side?" Joseph called.

Jamie swallowed to get the quivery sensation out of his throat. "Pa, riders are coming this way. Fast! Four of 'em, carrying torches."

Joseph stepped around the wagon to investigate. The white of his shirt looked almost blue in the moonlight. Jamie ran to him and grabbed his arm. "Should I get the rifle out of the wagon?"

Joseph patted his hand. "Don't be silly, son. The coffeepot, maybe. That's a bad habit you're developing, thinking the worst of every stranger who comes along."

Jamie looked out into the darkness. The riders were drawing closer by the moment, and all his instincts told him that he and his stepfather should make ready to defend themselves. Instead, as his convictions dictated, Joseph walked out to meet the riders.

At that moment Jamie's mother Dory emerged from the darkness to call anxiously, "Who is it, Joseph?"

"That's what I'm fixin' to find out," Joseph drawled as he turned to offer her a reassuring smile.

"It's rather late for folks to be out and about. Don't you think?"

In the moonlight, Dory's large blue eyes looked like black splashes in her pale face. When she drew up beside Joseph, he curled an arm over her frail shoulders. "A little late, yes." He glanced around. "Where are the boys?"

"Little Joe is helping them dress. The water isn't that deep. When I heard someone coming, I thought I'd best get up here, just in case you needed me."

Joseph chuckled. "It seems everyone is a bit on edge tonight."

Dory glanced back at Jamie, then anxiously at the swiftly advancing torches. "You have to admit, Joseph, that the welcome we received today was less than neighborly."

"True, but I agreed to leave. O'Shannessy left here satisfied that I would do so before morning. We shouldn't have any more trouble from him or any of his—"

"Paxton!" an angry male voice boomed. "You miserable back-shootin’ coward!"

So thick it was suffocating, dust billowed up from around the skidding horses' hooves as the riders brought their mounts to a stop. Eyes stinging from the grit, Jamie stared at the four men. The big, broad-shouldered fellow in the lead was Conor O'Shannessy, the man who had warned them off the land earlier that day. Behind him rode Estyn Beiler, one of the two scoundrels who had honey-fuggled Joseph in
Saint Louis
. His sidekick, a short, rotund man named Camlin Beckett, wasn't present tonight.

Even in the dim light, Jamie could see the taut lines of the men's faces. Their eyes burned with hatred, a mindless hatred that made his heart thud against his ribs. Every instinct urged him to run for the rifle. Joseph was wrong. The good Lord didn't always provide. Sometimes people had to save their own hides.

Spinning on his heel, he raced for the wagon, the wild pounding of his pulse resounding against his eardrums. His breath whistled in his throat by the time he reached the wagon's tailgate. Grasping the wood, he hauled himself upward, barking a shin and elbow as he scrambled for purchase. The rifle. He had to get the rifle.

When Joseph wasn't carrying the Spencer in his saddle boot, he kept the weapon safely wrapped in one of Ma's quilts and stowed under the wagon cot. He maintained that keeping a loaded gun within easy reach wasn't a safe practice when small children were underfoot.

Dimly aware of the angry voices outside, Jamie dropped to his belly and reached under the bed. The wagon jerked, pitching him backward. He realized someone was up front, messing with the horses. He heard Patch whinny as he shoved his arm back under the bed. Fishing frantically through the layers of quilt, he thought for a moment that the rifle wasn't there. Then, finally, he curled his hand over the Spencer carbine's barrel. Scrambling to his knees, he paused to listen. As near as he could make out, O'Shannessy and the others were accusing Joseph of murder.

BOOK: Keegan's Lady
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