July 20, 1846
Lord in heaven, what have I gotten myself into this time? Priscilla Mae Wills stood at the rail of the steamship Orleans surveying the scattered wooden buildings, weathered and unpainted, and the unkempt, seedy-looking men who lined the dock of the strand.
In the distance, the dirt streets of Galveston bustled with activity, wagons heavy with bales of cotton rumbling toward the wharf, men and animals clattering along in confusion. Puddles of mud still dotted the road from a recent summer rain.
Though the rest of the passengers had already departed, Priscilla searched the long wooden dock for the hundredth time, hoping against hope that Barker Hennessey, the man sent to meet her, had discovered the Orlean's early arrival and might yet appear.
You're a grown woman, Priscilla. You can do this on your own. But in all her twenty-four years she'd never traveled by herself, and even with her Aunt Madeline had never gone far from home. And she'd certainly never expected the newly formed state of Texas to be this untamed.
Bedraggled and wind-chafed and tired clear to her bones, Priscilla scanned the dock in search of anyone who might be Barker Hennessey. Several brown-skinned Mexican men singing in Spanish strolled past, but no one that her fiancŽ could possibly have sent to meet her.
Forcing a stiffness into her spine, she stepped off the wharf onto the wide dirt streets. A hot, muggy breeze whipped the dark brown skirts of her serviceable cotton day dress, and with every weary step the stiff white ruffle around the neck scratched the soft white skin beneath her chin. Strands of dark brown hair had come loose from the tight chignon hidden at the back of her bonnet and whipped tauntingly in the wind.
Priscilla glanced up the street. The sign for the Galveston Hotel and Saloon gleamed red and white in the hot July sunshine beside another large painted sign advertising Samuel Levinson's Bath House. Barker Hennessey, the man her fiancŽ, Stuart Egan, had sent to escort her on the final leg of her journey, would look for her at the hotel once he discovered her ship had come in.
And someone from the hotel could fetch the heavy steamer trunks that contained her trousseau: the finely crafted dresses she had carefully sewn over the past few weeks, as well as the doilies and linens and dainty embroidered tablecloths she had stitched and laid in her hope chest throughout the years.
Determined to ignore the heat and the tightly laced stays of her steel-ribbed corset, Priscilla walked the bustling dirt streets. Weathered batten-board structures crouched beside a few sturdy establishments built of pinkish-white stone.
The hotel was by far the best-looking building in town, she thought as she drew near. At least the paint wasn't peeling and the walk in front had been swept clean. It was a far cry from Cincinnati, with its sophisticated brownstones, elegant restaurants, and lavish opera houses. Still the thought of being inside, out of the blistering sunshine, made her quicken her pace.
That's when she noticed the commotion out front. A crowd had gathered, grumbling among itself, then seemed to be backing away.
"Look, Jacob--ain't that Barker Hennessey?" a slender man in a red-checkered shirt asked the small man beside him. The name registered immediately, and Priscilla glanced toward the big-boned man at the opposite end of the porch.
"That's him, all right," Jacob said. "Barker's madder'n a wet hen 'cause he lost his poke to some gambler."
Gambling, Priscilla thought, feeling sorry for the big strapping man in the black felt hat who stood in front of the swinging double doors to the saloon, the devil's own sport. But hearing his name, she also felt a wave of relief that she had found him so easily.
"Excuse me, please." Nudging her way through the crowd, she headed for the porch, intent on catching Mr. Hennessey before he got away. With her mind on the coming introduction, it took a moment for her to realize he was speaking.
"You're a cheat and a liar!" Hennessey called out just as she stepped on the boardwalk. "I want my money back, Trask, and I aim to get it!"
At the angry tone of his words, Priscilla swung her gaze toward the object of his wrath, the tall, broad-shouldered man standing right beside her.
"I won that money fair, and you know it," Trask said.
"Mr. Hennessey!" Priscilla called out, waving a white-gloved hand and starting in his direction.
Priscilla felt the tall man's hand on her arm, his grip so hard it made her flinch. His free hand slapped against the leather holster tied to one long leg. She saw the bluish flash of metal, heard the deafening roar of gunfire. Whipping her head toward Barker, Priscilla breathed the acrid smell of burnt powder and stared in horror at the opposite end of the porch.
Barker Hennessey's eyes remained open, his mouth gaping wide in an expression of astonishment. He swayed on his feet while his sausage-sized fingers clutched the still-smoking pistol in his hand. Only a trickle of blood ran from the small round circle that marked the entrance of the tall man's bullet--centered squarely between his eyes.
Watching Hennessey crumple to the porch, Priscilla wet her suddenly dry lips. Her mouth moved as she tried to say the words that hovered at the corners of her mind, but no sound would come. Her ears buzzed and her knees felt weak. The images on the porch suddenly blurred and jumbled.
Heart hammering, she swayed toward the man named Trask whose painful grip seemed the only thing holding her up. His angry blue eyes fastened on her face just seconds before her lids flickered closed, the world tumbled sideways, and Priscilla sank into darkness.
"Jesus Christ, what next?" Brendan Trask swung the slender young woman up into his arms and stepped off the boardwalk onto the street.
"Nice shootin'!" Jacob Barnes called out to him as he strode toward the shade of an oak tree that grew beside the watering trough just half a block away.
"You'd better get the sheriff," Brendan called back without breaking his long-legged stride.
She all right?" the little man asked, catching up and trying to keep pace without running.
"Just fainted. She's lucky she didn't stop a bullet." Brendan recalled all too clearly the moment she'd started to step in front of him. He glanced down at the small round hole in the full white sleeve of his shirt.
The man followed his gaze. "Lucky ain't the half of it."
"Get the sheriff," Trask reminded him.
"Sheriff got hisse'f kilt last week. I'll see if'n his deputy's down at Gilroy's Saloon." The man scurried off to find the law, though Brendan figured what little there was had probably already been summoned. Galveston might be the wildest port on the Gulf, but a shooting was a shooting, and Barker Hennessey worked for one of the most powerful men in the country.
"Damn." Brendan said the word beneath his breath, wishing he could have avoided the killing, but Hennessey had left him no choice. He just hoped to hell there wouldn't be trouble.
He'd had enough of that already.
Brendan propped the lady against the trunk of the oak tree, noting her somber brown dress, high-necked and long-sleeved, and the tiny waist pulled tight by her corset. Clothes like that in this heat--no wonder she'd fainted. Sometimes women didn't have the sense God gave a mule.
Shaking his head at life's little absurdities, Brendan walked to the old stone trough where a young boy watered several horses. The animals nickered and blew, sucking in great gulps of the cool reviving liquid.
"Guess I missed all the fun," the youth said, a boy of about fourteen. He looked down at the gun riding low on Trask's hip, unlike the pistols of most men, who wore theirs at the waist, and noted the flap that had been cut away from the heavy leather holster for easier access.
He puffed out his chest. "Been savin' my money for a gun of my own. Someday I'll be able to shoot like that. Man don't have to clean stalls and tend horses, he kin shoot like that."
rendan flashed him a look that made him take a step backwards and melted his cocky half-smile. "Better to be cleaning stalls than lying out there in the street. That dead man could just as well have been me--someday it probably will be. You'd best think on that, son.
"Turning away from the boy, Brendan dipped his handkerchief into the water, wrung out the excess, and returned to the base of the oak tree. He untied the woman's bonnet strings and pressed the wet cloth against her forehead.
At the sound of a soft moan, he wet her dry lips. They were full, he noticed and a delicate shade of pink. Her features held a trace of that same fragility: slim, straight nose, fine chestnut eyebrows, thick dark lashes. She wasn't really a beauty, but she was definitely attractive.He thought of Patsy Jackson, the woman he'd spent the night with. He remembered her full ripe curves, red-painted mouth, and fun-loving warmth in bed. There was nothing frail about Patsy, nothing prim or proper. She was the kind of woman who could pleasure a man, have a rollicking good time in bed, but didn't give you trouble in the morning.
Not like this one. This little miss would probably pass out again just thinking about what he had done to Patsy last night. Pretty as she was, she held little appeal for him. Brendan liked his women lusty.
Still, in a town where men outnumbered women a dozen to one, she'd undoubtedly be considered quite a catch. He wondered which man she belonged to--and why that man hadn't the good sense to keep her out of trouble.
She moaned a second time, and her lids fluttered open. Warm-brown, gold-flecked eyes looked up at him in confusion. Brendan shoved his broad-brimmed hat back on his head and assessed her pale oval face. If he hadn't spotted her from the corner of his eye, she'd probably be dead right now. The thought sent a shudder down his spine, and a bit of his anger returned.
"Lady, you are some piece of goods." The words came out a little harsher than he had intended. "What the hell did you think you were doing? Don't you know any better than to stroll into the middle of a gunfight?"
"Gunfight?" she repeated, looking more confused than ever. Her pretty face paled even more.
"Mr. Hennessey," she said, sitting up straighter, "is he . . . is he . . .?"
"Barker picked that fight, not me. I won his money fair and square, and I shot him in self-defense."
"Oh, dear," she said, looking ready to faint again. Her dainty pink tongue wet her lips. "I don't feel very good. I think I'm going to be sick."
"Oh, no, you don't--" Brendan pressed the cool wet cloth against her brow. "Just lean your head back and try not to think about it."
The woman swallowed hard and closed her eyes. Eventually the color returned to her cheeks, and he noticed again how pretty she was. Catching the glitter of the sun on wisps of shiny dark hair beside her cheeks, he wondered what the heavy mass would look like freed from her wide-brimmed, coal-scuttle bonnet.
"Thank you," she said softly, taking the cloth from his hand. "I'm feeling a little better now."
Brendan felt a wave of relief, until an unpleasant thought occurred. "Barker wasn't your husband, was he?" Until that moment it hadn't crossed his mind that a man like Hennessey could have a wife. Especially such a young and tender one.
She shook her head. "No. He's the man my fiancŽ sent to escort me on to his ranch." Her bottom lip trembled. "I never met him before, but he looked like a nice enough man."
Brendan's face went taut. "There wasn't a nice bone in Barker Hennessey's body. He'd have killed me without a second thought if I hadn't shot him first."
Priscilla chewed on that for a while and took a long assessing look at the man who squatted with easy grace on the stiff salt grass beside her. His hair was as dark as hers, but a richer, warmer shade of brown, and he wore it longer than he should have. Several days' growth of beard roughened a rugged jawline, but his mouth curved nicely and his eyes, a light shade of blue, watched her with a look of concern that melted away at the fear she should have felt.
How could that be? she wondered. He'd just killed a man--a man whose help she desperately needed. He was a gambler and a gunman, yet there was an honesty about him, a sense of compassion--and something else she couldn't quite name. Something that told her the words he spoke were true.
"Does that mean the sheriff won't arrest you?"
"Not as long as he learns the truth," he said with sincerity.
Priscilla had always had a knack for judging people. Since she was a girl, she could size a person up in only a meeting or two. On making a new acquaintance, Aunt Maddie often asked her opinion, though she never admitted Priscilla's assessment actually mattered.
And this man had saved her life--probably at considerable risk to his own.He took her hand and helped her climb shakily to her feet. Priscilla clutched his arm to steady herself and felt the flex of muscle beneath his shirt. Though she stood taller than the average woman, Trask towered above her, his wide shoulders blocking the hot yellow rays of the sun. Hard-edged, unkempt, and rugged though he appeared, even in his worn homespun shirt and frayed blue twill breeches he was handsome.
When he discovered her watching him, Priscilla flushed and glanced away. "I . . . I can't believe Stuart would have sent the kind of man you describe here to meet me. We would be traveling together and I don't think--"
"This is rough country, Miss . . . ?"
She swung her gaze to his. "Wills. Priscilla Mae Wills, and I believe your name is Trask."
He nodded. "Where did you say you were headed?"
"Rancho Reina del Robles--the Triple R. Stuart Egan is my fiancŽ."
Trask's hard features closed up. There was an edge to his voice that hadn't been there before. "That explains Hennessey--he's Egan's right-hand man."
"Then you know Stuart?"
He shook his head. "No, but I've heard of him. Most folks 'round these parts know who he is. Why didn't Egan come for you himself?"
"Apparently he was short-handed. The ranch is quite large, you know."
"So I've heard." Something flickered in his light blue eyes. "I'll have someone get word to him and he can fetch you home."
Priscilla's dark brows shot up. "But that would take weeks! I can't stay here--"
She felt his hand on her arm, halting her protest and urging her back toward the hotel.
Priscilla let him lead her, trying to gather her thoughts. From what Stuart had written, the ranch was still quite some distance away. It would take weeks for a letter to reach it and just as much time for Stuart to come, or send someone to get her. In the meantime she'd be alone in this wild Texas town. A place where people got shot in the streets! She had only enough money for a few days lodging and food--what would she do after that?
As they approached the hotel, Priscilla surveyed the porch in dread, expecting to see Barker Hennessey's lifeless body sprawled on the boardwalk among a crowd of onlookers. Instead only a handful of men lounged beside the door of the saloon. The plinkity plink of a cheap piano and the high-pitched sound of women's laughter seemed almost sacrilegious in light of what had just happened.The scraping of a chair drew her attention.
"Where'd you get the new gal, Trask?" one of the rough-looking men called out.
"Looks like a real little lady--you always did have a way with the women." The other two men guffawed, obviously well into their cups though the day was still quite early.
Trask ignored them, but his grip on her arm grew tighter.Another man stepped through the swinging double doors. "Didn't think ya liked your women so proper, Brendan." The red-haired man swept her with a glance so raw it left no doubt as to what he was thinking. "This little gal's so gussied up it'll take half the day just to get her clothes off." Priscilla's face grew hot and her feet refused to move another step."Leave her be, Jennings," Trask warned.
"And that goes for the rest of you men, too." He urged her on, and Priscilla forced her feet to move ahead.
She'd come by steamboat down the Ohio, down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans. She'd traveled to Galveston by steamship, her stomach tied in knots and hating every moment on the sea. She'd sold everything she owned to come west, to marry a man she had never even seen. But nowhere had she encountered men like these.
"Deputy's expectin' you in his office," the one called Jennings said. He grinned and cocked his head toward the hotel. "Better not take too long."
As his meaning hit home, Priscilla's step faltered once more. She fought to keep her eyes straight ahead, but lost the battle and glanced again at the men. They probably eat boiled harness for breakfast, she thought, noting the greasy canvas breeches, shaggy unkempt hair, and the scraggly growth of beard on one. How would she survive the next few weeks alone in a place like this?
Trask tugged her forward, his grip a little harder than it should have been. "Town's full of men like these," he said roughly. "What the hell was Egan thinking, letting you come out here alone?"
"He didn't know I was coming alone," Priscilla defended, beginning to get angry herself. "My aunt died rather suddenly and . . . well . . . there were expenses I hadn't planned on. I couldn't afford to bring a lady's maid, not that it's any of your business."
"Where you from, Miss Wills?" Trask shoved open the door to the lobby, ringing the bell, and held it so she could walk past.
"I was born in Natchez, but I was raised in Cincinnati. As I told you, I was on my way to join my fiancŽ, which, thanks to you, has just become an exceedingly difficult task." Priscilla felt like crying. Difficult was hardly the word.
"I suppose you'd prefer I let him shoot me."
"Maybe. Maybe I would at that." Shoulders thrown back, Priscilla marched up to the desk where a green-visored clerk leaned over a huge leather-bound guest book."I'd like a room, please, and I need someone to obtain my trunks from aboard the steamship Orleans."
The gray-haired clerk eyed her from top to bottom. "You ain't by yourself, are you?""Well, yes . . . I . . ." Priscilla lifted her chin. "My traveling companion fell ill some ways back. I was forced to continue alone." She glanced at Trask, daring him to contradict, and found his mouth curved up in amusement.
"This is a respectable hotel, miss. You look proper enough, but . . . well, let's just say if you're plannin' anything different, you'd best be headin' next door."Priscilla flushed crimson. Dear God, what kind of people are these? "Surely you aren't implying--"
"Get the lady a room," Trask ordered, stepping closer to the desk, "and be quick about it." The little man swallowed and shoved the guest book in her direction.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Trask. Sign here, ma'am." Dipping the quill pen in the inkwell near her elbow, he handed it to Priscilla, and she signed her name in graceful blue letters."How long will you be stayin'?" the clerk asked.
She studied the sign on the wall behind him and chewed her bottom lip. Even at the modest rate posted, she couldn't stay more than four days.
"I . . . I'm not really certain." She'd expected Barker Hennessey to see to her needs until she reached the Egan ranch. She clutched her reticule tighter, wondering what in heaven she would do when her four days had ended.
"She'll be here at least three weeks," Brendan told the desk clerk. "It'll take that long to get word to her people and for them to come get her."
Priscilla swallowed hard. "That . . . that isn't exactly correct," she said. "As I said before, I'm not quite sure how long I'll be here." If only she could find someone to take Mr. Hennessey's place. She could reach the Triple R as they had planned and Stuart wouldn't have to be burdened.
Priscilla glanced at Trask, who appeared ready to argue, and felt a jolt of inspiration that seemed almost divine.Trask! Trask could do it! He was obviously well suited for the arduous journey. He had shot Hennessey, the tough man sent to protect her, he could take Hennessey's place. In fact, it was only fitting--Trask should be the one to take her. He owed her that much.
She flashed him the brightest smile she could muster, which under the circumstances, wasn't all that much. "Do you think Mr. Hennessey booked passage in advance for our journey to Corpus Christi?"
"Probably. But I'm sure they'll be happy to refund the money."
"How far is it from there to the Triple R?""From what I know of it--and I've never been there--I'd say a good four-day ride over some very rough country. Why?" he asked warily.
"Surely you can see, Mr. Trask, the obvious solution is for you to escort me. It could take weeks for word to reach Stuart. It would take time for him to make travel preparations and time to make the trip here. I, on the other hand, am packed and ready to leave."
"No," he said simply.
"Why not? Since you're the man who . . . who . . . posed this particular problem, you are obviously the man who should solve it."
Trask shook his head. "Not a chance, Miss Wills. You're Egan's problem, not mine. Besides, I'll be leaving Galveston at dawn. I've got a job waiting for me on the Brazos."
Priscilla clutched the folds of her skirt, determined he would not see her cry. "What kind of a job, Mr. Trask? Some sort of hired gun--or do you plan to make your money gambling--foxing weaker people out of theirs?"
Trask's look turned hard, his lips becoming a thin grim line. "As a matter of fact, I plan to do a little bit of both."
"You owe me, Mr. Trask. Barker Hennessey was here to protect me. Who's going to protect me now?"
Good question, Brendan thought, for she had just voiced the problem that had been plaguing him since the moment he'd discovered she was alone. Who the hell would look after her? Egan had chosen well with Hennessey. For all his faults, Barker was loyal to Egan and tougher than a cob. Now, thanks to Hennessey's too-quick temper, the woman was left with no one.
He glanced in her direction, saw the worry she tried to conceal--and a surprising amount of determination. She wasn't as young as she'd first appeared, but she was still damned well naive, determination or no. She'd nearly gotten killed her first five minutes on the street. With the sheriff out of the way, and considering the kind of women they were used to, those bastards next door wouldn't think twice about dragging her off for a little fun and games.
"Goddamn it," Brendan swore, feeling his resolve begin to weaken, "this isn't my problem."
Priscilla spun on him in outrage. "Don't you dare blaspheme! If you hadn't been gambling in the first place, none of this would have happened. Mr. Hennessey would still be alive, and I'd be safely on the way to my fiancŽ."
"There's not a damn thing safe about the country you'll be crossing on the way to the Triple R. And I'll damn well swear if I want to!"
"I believe you have an appointment with the law, Mr. Trask," she said with a haughty little tilt of her chin. "Surely the sheriff will have something to say about what happened to poor Mr. Hennessey. Thank you for your assistance, and good day." She whirled toward the man behind the counter, but Brendan caught her arm.
"I told you I shot him in self-defense."
"You shouldn't have been gambling. It's a sin, just like swearing. Now Mr. Hennessey is dead, and I'm stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money and no way to get to my fiancŽ."
"No money? What do you mean 'no money'? Surely Egan gave you the money to get here."
Her cheeks turned pink and she looked as if she wanted to cut out her tongue. "Mr. Egan offered, I refused. I've never even met the man, I wasn't about to accept his money."
"You've never met him?""We've been corresponding, of course, and my Aunt Maddie had met him."
Brendan turned toward the man at the counter, dug into his pocket, and tossed the man a coin. "Have someone fetch the lady's trunks up to her room." He turned back to Priscilla. "I'll pay for your stay. Egan will come for you, and everything will be just fine."
"Not on your life. I wouldn't accept Stuart's money; I certainly won't take yours."
"This is Hennessey's money. He would have used it to get you to Egan so in a way it belongs to you."
She chewed her bottom lip and Brendan thought how soft and pink it looked, how delicate she looked all over.
"If I do take the money, I'll just use it to hire someone else to take me."
"The hell you will. You're staying here. I'll pay for the room in advance if I have to."
"I'm not your prisoner, Mr. Trask. Somehow I'll find a way to get to Stuart--with or without your help."Brendan eyed her from top to bottom. She was a fiery little thing when she got riled up--she just might try it. "You saw those men out there. Where you gonna find somebody you can trust?"
"There's got to be someone. If Stuart's as well known as you say, there's bound to be someone who'll take me to him. Stuart can pay him when we get there."
"You're bluffing. You'd probably faint again if one of those men came near you." But what if she wasn't? What if she was crazy enough to try it? The likes of Conway Jennings would chew her into little bitty pieces--after he and his cronies pleasured themselves with her soft little body.
Damn her! "This is blackmail, Miss Wills, and I don't like it one damned bit." Grabbing her arm, he tugged her toward the door.Priscilla let him lead her. "Where are you taking me?"
"I've got an appointment with the law, remember? You happen to be a witness. You can tell the deputy what happened--how I shot Hennessey in self-defense--and on the way we can discuss our trip.""I didn't see that much." Just a blur of images, a flash of crimson, then darkness. Priscilla stopped short. "Does this mean you're taking me?"
"It's beginning to look like I've got no choice."
She still didn't budge. "Why?" she asked warily.Brendan almost smiled. "Probably because I'm crazy. But you're right about one thing. Hennessey's dead and I'm the man who killed him. In a way that makes me responsible for you. Egan might not get your letter for weeks. In the meantime anything could happen." And probably would."I'm sure Stuart will reimburse you for your trouble."
"Word reaches him about Hennessey's death before we get there, he'll probably shoot me on sight." Brendan tipped her chin up. "You realize you'll be traveling with a stranger--a man who just killed another man right in front of you."
Priscilla searched his face. "I trust you, Mr. Trask."
"You don't even know me. Why the hell would you trust me?"
"I have my reasons."
"Such as?"Priscilla flushed but didn't look away. "You've got kind eyes."
"Kind eyes?" he repeated, incredulous. "You trust me because of my eyes?"
Brendan shoved his hat back on his head and looked at her with a mixture of amazement and frustration. "Then, Miss Wills, I guess I'd better take you. Any woman who's that big a fool hasn't got a chance in a town like this."
Excerpted from Natchez Flame by Martin Kat. Copyright © 1994 by Martin Kat. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.