Blurbs & Excerpts!
A lone rider scanned the horizon. The fiery orange sunset bathed the desert valley in a rosy glow. Blotches of desert scrub and tiny bursts of honey yellow flowers from the greasewood plant the only other hint of color across the brown barren stretch of stone, sand and jagged rock. In the far distance, just to the south, were the low mudbrick and wooden structures of Fort McIntosh. The stranger’s destination.
Easing the horse forward, the stranger kept a wary eye on the surroundings. The distinctive grayish-brown coat and black-tipped ears of a bobcat appeared from behind a mesquite bush only a few arm’s lengths away. The stranger pulled on the reins. Although not its natural prey, it didn’t pay to take chances. The bobcat darted east after a black-tailed jackrabbit.
As the fort neared, so did the wide expanse of the Rio Grande as it cut through the valley like a blue ribbon. The dirty canvas tents, tumbledown shacks and brightly, painted clapboard buildings of the rowdy town which sprung up between the banks of the river and the wooden spiked picket fence of the fort also came into view. Shouts of drunken laughter, the tinny sound of a saloon piano and the occasional crack of a gun harshly replacing the calming sound of rushing wind and the call of a mockingbird from the trail.
Wrapping the leather reins around a wooden hitching post, the stranger sucked in a bracing breath before pushing open the frosted glass doors of the Imperial Saloon.
The acrid scent of tobacco smoke and warm, unwashed bodies blended with the cadence of low conversation, clinking glasses and the discordant shrieks of a saloon girl on stage attempting a rendition of When This Cruel War Is Over. The gaudy oil paintings, polished brass lamps, felt tables and mahogany bar of the interior gave an air of tawdry luxury to the saloon that ran counter to the run-down appearance of the town itself.
Eyes averted, the stranger stepped up to the bar. Tossing a bright, double-eagle, gold coin on its grubby surface, their voice scratched out, “I’ll take a flip and some information.”
The barkeep cast a disparaging glance over the floppy, black-felt hat which obscured the stranger’s face. With a shrug of shoulders, the barkeep pocketed the coin and grabbed a bottle of champagne and one fresh, farm egg.
Cracking the egg into a tin cup, the barkeep asked, “What do you want to know?” The town was a popular trade route and the last stop before the Mexican Territories. Folks came and went all the time. Some respectable, most not. It wasn’t uncommon for lawmen, gunfighters, jilted lovers and the like to pass through asking for information. It made for some extra coin in his pocket.
“Looking for a man who goes by the name Black Jack Doolin who might have passed through with a woman not too long ago.”
The caterwauling stopped. The piano music ended with a crash on one long chord. In the sudden silence, the scraping of several chairs along the unpolished, wood-planked floor rent the air.
“Can’t say we like some Johnny Reb strolling into town asking questions,” groused one man as he wiped chewed tobacco spittle from his beard.
After the Northern Aggression, many Southerners abandoned their burnt out farms and headed west for a fresh start. Large swaths of western territory were filled with former Southern belles and Confederate soldiers looking to cash in on the skills they learned during the war.
“I’m talkin to you, Gray Back!”
Apparently this wasn’t one of those territories.
The once bluish-gray shell jacket was now faded to a ragged, brown butternut complete with tarnished brass buttons and frayed black piping. But even through the years of war, the dust of the trail and the ravages of castile soap and the scrub board, the Confederate Cavalry uniform coat was unmistakable.
Resting a hand on the butt of an army-issued Colt, the stranger refused to turn around. “I’m not looking for any trouble. Just trying to track someone down.” The voice was a low, gruff whisper.
“Yeah, well you just found trouble, Johnny Reb. Apparently we didn’t whup your ass enough in the war,” cackled the man. “You still need to learn your place.”
The stranger took a slow sip of the recently poured drink, fingers flexing over the warm, smooth butt of the Colt resting against a hip. In a lot of respects, the war would never be over. “If I’m not mistaken. We’re near Laredo. Didn’t a couple of Rebs fight back over two-hundred Yanks three times at the Battle of Laredo before the Yanks finally left, tails tucked between their legs, crying for their mamas?”
There was a cry of outrage and the shuffling of feet before one beefy hand fell on the shoulder of the stranger, spinning them about. “You’re going to pay for that,” spat out the furious Yankee.
The polished Colt cleared the holster before the Yank had even finished his threat. Taking a step back, the stranger aimed left handed as the edge of their right palm slashed down on the greased trigger. Firing off three shots in rapid succession. Effortlessly turning one man’s shot of whiskey into bits of wet glass, another’s hand of cards into an ace in the hole, and shooting clear through the disagreeable Yank’s kepi cap, knocking it off his damn fool head.
There was the distinctive shrill shout of the Confederate Rebel Yell, an infamous battle cry, before all hell broke loose.
Apparently there were actually a few Southerners in the saloon after all.
The stranger adroitly swung both legs over the bar, taking up a secure position behind its solid wooden base. Grabbing an earthenware jug in each hand, the figure swung out at anyone who dared come within an arm’s length.
The sounds of rough men enjoying rough entertainment was replaced by a cacophony of splintering wood, shattering glass, grunts and groans and high-pitched screams…from both the men and saloon girls as the entire room broke into fisticuffs.
It didn’t take long, before the piercing screech of whistles could be heard as men in blue cavalry uniforms burst into the saloon. It was a patrol from Fort McIntosh. The commanding officer viewed keeping the peace in the nearby town as an extension of the fort’s responsibilities.
The federal soldiers quickly subdued the drunk and unruly crowd. Lining them up against a far wall to assess the situation. The stranger included, whose head never lifted, hidden beneath the wide-brim, felt hat.
“Each of you will be fined twenty-five cents for breaking the lord’s peace,” shouted the corporal in charge.
“Attention!” called a nearby private raising a flat hand to his forehead in salute.
All the soldiers clicked their heels, threw back their shoulders and pushed their chests out.
The stranger listened as a heavy boot trod across the boards.
Major John Thomas Brice, commanding officer of Fort McIntosh had arrived.
An imposing man of six feet four inches, he wasn’t just an officer in the United States Cavalry…he was the cavalry.
His family had been serving in the cavalry back since they were called the dragoons. In The War of Southern Aggression, he served under Union Major General Pleasonton, who commanded the Cavalry Corp of the Army of the Potomac. Major Brice was the key strategist behind the Battle of Brandy Station. The largest cavalry engagement during the war, right at the beginning of the Gettysburg campaign. Major Brice launched a dawn attack against the Rebel General Stuart. It was the first time the Union Cavalry managed to beat the superior Confederate Cavalry. The Johnny Reb cavalry never recovered.
Many considered him a hero of the war…others a legend.
No one questioned his authority.
Brice surveyed the room. The damage was minimal. This time. A few broken chairs. A smashed bottle or two. More bruised egos than blackened eyes. At least the expensive saloon mirror and front windows were spared. He scrutinized the ragtag bunch slouching against the wall.
Similar to the army, society out in the west had its own hierarchy and accompanying uniform. There were the homesteaders, easily recognizable in their blue flannel shirts and woolen pants. The hide hunters, covered head to toe in buckskin, always smelling faintly of sweat and death. The prospectors who pitched widely between threadbare, dusty overalls and oil-soaked hats to ruffled shirts and tailored suits depending on their fortunes.
Each stratagem was represented in equal measure as they stood, hunched shouldered and long-faced, shuffling their feet as they avoided eye contact with the imposing commanding officer.
Of course, there were also the soldiers, former and current.
“Report, corporal.” The command was given in a crisp, clipped tone.
“Bar fight, sir.”
Brice spared an annoyed glance for the young corporal.
“What I meant to say, sir, was mostly civilians. One sergeant and two privates of ours.”
“Men,” barked Brice.
It was only one word…that was all Major Brice needed.
Three men stepped forward out of the rag tag bunch. The stranger recognized one of them as the man who started the trouble and stiffened.
“Sergeant Cleave Stinger, Private Gene Covey and Private Reuben Warnock, sir,” offered the corporal.
“It weren’t our fault, Major!” whined Sergeant Stinger as he worried the brim of his hat in his hand. “That dirty Johnny Reb came in shootin his mouth and his gun off!”
Brice’s hard gaze landed on the slight figure of the former Confederate soldier. Back pressed against the wall, one foot propped up, head bowed, the figure looked tired and uninterested. Brice knew better. He could see the tightening in the shoulders. The subtle twitch of the left hand over the Colt.
Something was not right.
The former soldier presented a slight figure. Narrow shoulders and hips. Shorter than the average man. Young. Malnourished. That wasn’t especially surprising; Brice had heard rumors of a desperate Confederacy taking boys as young as twelve to fight for their lost cause toward the end.
Still, something pricked at his instincts about the man.
Brice scrutinized the man’s worn uniform. The patch was faded and dirty but still visible, he was cavalry. No rank. A horse man was a horse man no matter what side you fought on. His gaze fell on the boots. The boots. The boots were all wrong. Too slim and narrow. They certainly were not cavalry boots. Despite the dirt and mud, they looked almost…elegant.
His gaze flew to the lowered head. I’ll be damned, he thought.
“Corporal, take the men to the Guardhouse. Thirty days fatigue duty,” he ordered.
The sergeant and two privates were escorted out of the saloon. It was a harsh punishment but they knew Major Brice did not tolerate his soldiers setting a bad example in town.
“The town marshal has finally arrived. I will turn the rest over to him.” The corporal did little to keep the disdain from his voice. The town marshal was a dissipated, corrupt drunkard with no discipline or morals. He was the very reason why the soldiers were forced to patrol the town, breaking up fights and keeping the peace.
“All but him,” ordered Brice, motioning to the Confederate with a jut of his chin.
“Him, but he started….” The corporal immediately stopped, knowing better than to question his commanding officer.
Keeping their head lowered, the stranger listened to the sounds of grunts, protests and dragging feet as the men to either side were pulled away one by one.
A moment passed.
Then he stepped close.
A pair of polished cavalry boots. A glimpse of bright, blue wool pants with a canary yellow stripe. The clean smell of soap.
Brice crossed his arms over his wide chest and stared down at the black, felt hat. The brim so wide it almost spanned the width of the slight figure’s shoulders. Even at full height, he doubted if the top of their head would reach his shoulder.
“Time to sound the recall. You’re beaten.” Even through the harsh command, his voice held a hint of amusement.
The stranger didn’t move.
Brice whipped the black felt hat off the Confederate’s head. Even having his suspicions affirmed, nothing prepared him for the sight of the startlingly, beautiful, violet eyes which rose in shock to clash with his curious gaze.
Michaela Armistead pulled her Colt.
Baring her teeth, she threated the imposing man, “Stay away from me.”
There was a slight Southern lilt to her voice. He would guess Georgia. What was once, he was sure, a proper head of waist-length hair, had been chopped to the shoulders. What would have looked like a scandalous mess on any other well-bred woman gave this feisty baggage an irresistible appeal, as if she had just emerged from bed after being good and tumbled by a man. The golden honey locks only highlighted the unusual purple color of her eyes, which at this moment flashed brimstone and fire at him.
The corner of Brice’s lips rose on a seductive smile, “Not a chance.”
For a man who had a gun drawn on him, he seemed remarkably unaffected.
He didn’t know what had brought the little beauty to the far corner of the country, alone and unprotected, but he would be damned if he was going to let her just stroll out those saloon doors.
“You have no right to keep me here. Those men started the fight. I didn’t hurt anyone,” rattled off Michaela.
He made her nervous. She had spent the last several years surrounded by men in the cavalry. Men of all shapes and sizes. Of all temperament. Some good. Some bad. But none like him. There was something about him. The way he held himself. A reined energy, like a powerful horse only barely held in check.
“You just violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice by drawing a weapon on a superior officer,” quipped Brice. His voice a low, dark threat.
Michaela lowered her brow in confusion. “But…I’m not even in the army!”
“That is a matter for the commanding officer to sort out. Till then, you’re my prisoner,” said Brice as he took one step forward. The barrel of her Colt pressing into the tight muscle of his stomach.
“You’re the commanding officer!” accused an exasperated Michaela.
“I know,” grinned Brice.
Without thought, Michaela squeezed the trigger. The hammer fell with a hollow empty click.
Brice wrapped one large hand around her slight wrist and snatched her close. “Dammit woman,” he growled.
Just because he had seen the glint of light through the empty bullet chamber didn’t mean he would excuse her trying to fill his gut with lead. If ever there was a woman who needed to be taken in hand, it was this little, feral spitfire.
Tearing the gun from her grasp, he put a shoulder to Michaela’s middle and easily lifted her slight weight high. Ignoring her indignant screams and shouts, Brice walked with a determined step out of the saloon, tossing a final command to the corporal over his shoulder.
“See that her horse and things are sent to the fort.”
“Yes, sir. Where should I have them brought?” asked the somewhat stunned corporal.
“My quarters,” answered Major Brice without hesitation as he carried an angry Michaela out into the night.