Healing Hearts by Cindy Ervin Huff
Lonnie Holt’s external scars remind him of his failures, his internal scars torment him. Genny Collins seeks safety at the ranch once owned by Lonnie’s uncle. When Lonnie and his brother arrive, sparks fly and distrust abounds. While Lonnie and Genny fight the love growing between them, his past haunts him, and her past pays them a visit.
Becoming Brave by Jennifer Uhlarik
When Coy Whitaker stumbles upon a grisly scene littered with bodies, he wants nothing more than to get his boss’s cattle out of Indian Territory. But when a bloodstained Aimee Kaplan draws down on him, his plans—and his heart—screech to a halt.
Trail’s End by Sandra Merville Hart
Wade Chadwick has no money until his boss’s cattle sell, so he takes a kitchen job at Âbby’s Home Cooking. The beautiful and prickly owner adds spice to his workday. Abby Cox hires the down-and-out cowboy even though the word cowboy leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Just as she’s ready to trust Wade with her heart, money starts to disappear … and so does her brother.
Loving a Harvey Girl by Linda Yezak
Eva Knowles can’t imagine why the local preacher doesn’t like Harvey Girls—women who work serving tables instead of finding a husband and falling in love. But if Eva can get the handsome and wayward cowboy Cal Stephens to join her in church, maybe the reverend will accept the girls. Or maybe she’ll forfeit her job for a husband, heart, and home!
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Becoming Brave by Jennifer Uhlarik
Five. Five bodies.
Sweat snaked between Coy Whittaker’s shoulder blades as he stared over the crest of the hill at the ghastly scene below.
“Lord have mercy!” Mitch Tanner whispered, inches from Coy’s right shoulder. “No wonder there’s so many vultures circling.” He shook his head. “Those bodies probably ain’t even cold yet.”
Coy scanned the scene. Three men lay sprawled in different places around the quarter-acre meadow, arrows protruding from their chests or backs. A fourth man, scalp missing, had died sitting up, slumped against the jagged end of a fallen lognear the edge of the . Coy suppressed a shiver as his attention gazeslid to the last body. An Indian, from what tribe he couldn’t tell, lay on his back near the fourth gent, his buckskin shirt stained with fresh blood, and strands of his longhair splayed across the ground.
“We need to get out of here.” He shot a glance at Mitch.
His friend’s blue eyes were full of compassion. “Why don’t you ride back and tell my Pa.” He shifted his attention back to the scene as a vulture landed near one of the bodies. “I’ll stay, get these men ready to bury before we lose the light.”
Coy’s chest tightened. “Something caused that brave’s people to abandon him.” The fact that a lone Indian lay just feet from where several white fellas had died set his teeth on edge. “Just a matter of time ’til they return.” He, for one, didn’t want to be here when they did. “It’s not safe for either of us to stay.”
Mitch shook his head. “We’re not leaving these men for buzzard bait. I’ll choose a spot for burying whilst you ride back with the news.”
His friend was right, of course, and even if Coy could talk him into leaving, the moment Mitch’s pahad the Bar CT’s herd settled, he’d be along to investigate the scene himself. The boss’d make sure they buried these men proper.
Heart pounding, he shot a sidelong glance at Mitch. They reallyneeded to leave here, before… “Fine, but you ain’t staying here alone.” Coy gripped his Colt Navy pistol a little tighter, scanned the area one last time and, mustering his courage, pushed off the ground. “Let’s go.”
God? A shiver snaked through him as the Almighty’s name passed through his thoughts for the first time in many months.If You’re up there and You’re listening, I’ll keep this short. Would You mind to make sure we’re not about to get bushwhacked?He didn’t want no truck with anyone, least of all Indians.
As they strode down the sparsely-treed hill toward their horses, Mitch latched onto his shoulder and tried to spin him around. “Would you stop?”
He shrugged free of his friend’s grasp and, mounting his big black gelding, pinned the other man with a hard glare. “You ain’t gonna get ambushed alone.”
“No one’s getting ambushed!”
Urging Rogue up over the hill, he searched for a likely burial place. Two of the men lay off to the right, paces from each other. A third, almost directly ahead, died near the base of a small rise. And the fella leaning against the tree was to the left. He and Mitch halted at the center of the clearing, and Coy turned his horse in a slow circle, thinking.
“What about there?” Coy indicated the rise ahead, tucked in the long shadow of a huge old tree lining the clearing. Not waiting for an answer, he dismounted and, turning toward the fella reclined against the tree, shoved past Mitch’s horse.
From behind him, saddle leather creaked.“It’s a durn good thing I consider you my brother. You’re about the most bull-headed, ornery cuss I know. Sometimes you’re a little hard to abide, that way.”
“Yeah?” He slowed as he passed the Indian, an eerie pull drawing his steps off their intended track. Was it morbid curiosity that drew him toward the Indian? Coy hesitated, trying to force himself back to his original purpose, though his focus stayed trained on the Indian. Unable to resist it, he walked the final few paces and, throat knotting painfully, squatted next to the pungent body.
The Indian’s unwashed form stank of blood and death. Coy mopped his face in disgust, and his muscles coiled with the nearness.“Did you ever stop to think it’s because I consider you my kin that I’m being such a bull-headed, ornery cuss.” He lowered his voice. “His kind’s already stolen too much from my family.”
“His ki—” Shock and sadness laced Mitch’s tone.
Coy cursed himself. Such talk wasn’t permitted by Bar CT ranch hands. In the eight year’s he’d lived and worked at the ranch, he’d learned that lesson well. But despite the lessons…despite Chet Tanner’s careful tutelage, it was impossible to forget the hatred his ma spewed for all Indians.
Pushing past his repulsion, Coy twisted the Indian’s face his way, noting the warmth still lingering in his cheek. Perhaps the sweltering summer heat wasn’t allowing the body to cool quickly. The Indian’s head lolled, a few long strands of black hair webbing across his face. The brave’s eyes were half-open, mouth slightly agape.
“He ain’t wearing any war paint.” Hopefully that was a good sign.
Looking to the Indian’s torso, he caught the slightest hint of movement—a tiny rise and fall of his bloodied midsection. He darted a glance again to the brave’s face. Just as a faint flicker of life sparked in the dark eyes, something tugged at his hip.
Grabbing for the butt of his Colt, Coy lunged up. Something pulled hard at his trouser pocket, then popped loose with a clatter. He backed up a step and leveled the gun at the brave’s face.
“Don’t shoot him!” Mitch’s footsteps pounded as he ran toward them.
Nerves pulsing, Coy slapped at torn pocket at his hip.
The blasted Indian clutched the strand of earth-toned beads, bone, and grizzly claws which Coy had dug from his saddle bags and stashed in his trouser pocket as they’d neared Indian Territory. The Indian’s eyes widened for the briefest instant, then sought Coy’s face.
“Give me that!” He settled his boot across the brave’s wrist and snatched the trinket from his limp fingers, the gun never wavering.
The Indian squinted at him, and a soft phrase Coy didn’t understand trickled from his lips.
“Shut up!” Shaking, Coy cocked the pistol and trained the barrel between the Indian’s eyes.
“Coy, don’t!” At his side, Mitch redirected the pistol’s barrel and pushed him away from the dying man. “Shooting him won’t solve anything.”
When the brave’s eyes slid closed, Coy looked away, a stuttering breath rattling from his chest. Mitch gently wrested the pistol from his fingers, uncocked it, and slid it back into the holster tied to Coy’s leg.
For a moment, he gulped air and tried to calm the fear surging through his veins.
“You all right?” Concern dripped from Mitch’s voice.
“I’m fine.” The words were thick and unsteady.
Mitch gave him a shove toward his horse. “Go get yourself some water. Take a minute, all right?”
Coy did as he was told. At Rogue’s side, he wiped the bloody fingerprints from the necklace and, wrapping it in his handkerchief, crammed it deep into his torn pocket. He took a long swig from his canteen and, with his nerves thrumming, leaned his forearms on his saddle.
The scene played over and over in his mind. From the unnerving draw he felt to walk to the Indian’s side to the way the brave almost seemed to come back from the dead. And the blasted idiot pulling the necklace from his pocket. The unintelligible words he’d mumbled. The images haunted every corner of his mind.
Mitch knelt at the brave’s side, so Coy drew the necklace from his pocket. Despite holding the abhorrent thing, his pulse returned to normal as he studied its grizzly claws. His mind drifted to the story Mr. Tanner told him about the string of beads. Coy shook his head. Hang it all. The boss never should’ve given him the trinket in the first place.
Movement drew his attention from the necklace. Vultures landed near two of the bodies. Durn things. They’d not get these men if he had anything to say about it. Coy wadded the necklace back into his handkerchief and shoved both into his pocket. He donned his slicker to avoid bloodying his clothes, then strode toward the fella still leaned against the tree.
“The vultures are ready to feast,” he called as he passed Mitch, eyes focused on the white man this time.
“Be there when I can. Our friend here’s gutshot, and I think the bullet severed his spine. He ain’t long for this world, but I don’t figure he ought to die alone.”
“No friend of mine …” He breathed the words, recalling what his ma always said. Indians were nothing more than filthy heathens.
Every. Last. One.
Yet even as he thought it, something gripped his chest, and he looked again at the brave, an uneasy feeling roiling in his gut.
Coy shoved the sensation aside and focused on the white man. With a single arrow buried deep near the center of his chest, there was no chance this fella was still alive. The arrow alone would’ve killed him. But the man’s face and clothes were painted red with blood after the Indian had scalped him. Just like his ma’s first husband, the man whose last name Coy wore. A man he’d never met, but who his ma had always elevated to the status of saint for the way he fought to protect her from the Cheyenne as they swooped down on their wagon train some twentyish years ago.
The gent’s holster sat empty, but no pistol lay in his lap or anywhere nearby. No rifle or shotgun either. Had the brave taken it?
“You see a pistol laying anywhere around that Indian?”
“No.” Mitch paused. “Why?”
“This fella’s wearing a holster with no gun.” He stood and scanned the area but found only grass and blood. No weapons.
A curiosity, to be sure …
Steeling himself, Coy broke the arrow shaft near the deceased man’s chest then, drawing a deep breath, grabbed the fella’s arms. The limp frame slumped against him and, stomach rebelling, Coy hoisted the body up and dragged it a step or two.
A strange whimper sounded from the direction of the log, and with it, a scuffing sound. Warning bells clanged in Coy’s mind. He dumped the dead man and pawed for his revolver. Pistol drawn, he leveled it at the log, only to find… a woman! Filthy. Blood-soaked. Crawling from a hidey-hole in the hollow trunk.
Her brown eyes panned around the scene in a blink and, two-fisted, she hoisted a revolver far too big for her small hands. She trained it on his chest.
Heart hammering, he lifted his hands, letting his own shooter dangle from his index finger. “I don’t mean you no harm, ma’am.”
She wore the look of someone half-crazed. Her jaw cracked open a bit, and for a second, Coy thought she might speak … or scream. Instead, the little gal took a shaky half step toward him before her knees buckled and she pitched into his arms.
“Ma’am. Can you hear me?”
The unfamiliar male voice roused Aimee Kaplan from her stupor, though the enveloping blackness pulled at her. Everything grew still again.
At the repeated word, she stirred and drew a deep breath. The strong scent of dirt filled her nostrils.
It was a pleasant enough voice … deep and rich, though colored with a tinge of concern.
When something wet swiped from her forehead, across one eyelid, and to her cheek, the murkiness fled. Her eyes flew open, and at the sight of two shadowy faces staring back at her, Aimee bolted up and turned on them. Her petticoats tangling about her ankles, she tottered on unsteady legs.
“Whoa, now.” A dark-haired, dark-eyed young man also stood and caught her elbow. “We’re trying to help you.”
“H-h-help me?” Why?
The other man, this one with lighter brown hair and blue eyes, bobbed a single nod. “You remember hiding … in a hollow tree trunk?”
Hiding. In a —
With a horrified grunt, Aimee jerked free of the first man’s grasp. Her knees went soft, and she sank into the ground, dress billowing around her. She cradled her head in her hands, but something stuck to her hair, she pulled back and looked at her palms.
Blood. Edouard’s blood.
A sob boiled out of her as she stared at her hands.
The man with the dark eyes squatted next to her, canteen and handkerchief in his grip. “Let me help.” The tall, lean man sloshed water over the cloth, then looked her way with an expression that begged permission. At her shaky nod, he wiped the dripping cloth across her palms, and when he was done, she snatched it and scrubbed her face.
“Coy,” the second man spoke. “The others are coming.”
Others? She blinked water from her eyes and peered past them both. Several riders and a wagon approached. Her chest seized. Was the man Louis spoke of among them?
“I’ll let Pa know what we found.” The blue-eyed man ambled toward two horses and mounted the buckskin. With a cluck of his tongue, he cantered in the direction of the approaching riders.
She took a long, dazed look at sparse trees that filled the land, even far into the distance, then finally turned to the man. “Who are you?”
“Name’s Coy Gentry Whittaker, ma’am. And you are …”
She flicked a curious look at the holster tied to his thigh. “Where is my gun?” Edouard’s gun—that she’d used to shoot the Indian.
“It’s nearby. You won’t need it. You’re safe now.”
Her skin prickled as the unknown riders drew nearer, one breaking from the pack to meet the blue-eyed man. “I’ll thank you to return it to me.”
Mister Whittaker shoved his hat back on his head, his expression tinged with worry. “I assure you, you’ll be safe with me, Miss—” His brows arched.
Aimee cast a glance around her unfamiliar surroundings, searching for the easiest path away from here. But where would she go?
A choking cry escaped her as a fresh wave of memories of all she’d seen in the meadow bombarded her. Oh, Lord Jesus, help me. They’re dead. Edouard, and Louis, and Paul, and Marc—all dead.
“Ma’am, I’ll ask again. What’s your name?”
She sucked a huge breath and flicked another anxious glance toward the approaching riders. “Aimee Le Chapela—” Her words stalled and, horrified, she shook her head. “Aimee Kaplan.”
His brows rose slightly. “Miss … Le Cha—”
“My mistake, Miss … Kaplan.” Mr. Whittaker’s dark gaze turned somber. “The men in the meadow. Was one of ’em your husband?”
After a moment, she shook her head, and her limbs trembled. “My brothers.”
His jaw hung open a little. “All four of ’em?”
Aimee nodded feebly, but at the sight of the lone rider turning their way, all movement stalled. She drew a sharp breath and again tottered onto unsteady feet, Mr. Whittaker matching her actions.
Was this rider the man she’d heard her brothers discussing in hushed tones? They’d spoken of a young man. Tall, lean, wearing a gun slung low on his hip. For that matter, was Mr. Whittaker—or his blue-eyed friend?
“Where’d you come from, ma’am?”
“And why’re you and your brothers in Indian Territory?” He ducked his head, trying to catch her eye.
Her mind spinning, Aimee stared at the ground.
“Miss Kaplan, are you in some kind of trouble? Other than what happened in the meadow, I mean.”
Yes! Yes, she was in trouble. Her brothers were all dead, and she couldn’t begin to guess which man was pursuing them. Mr. Whittaker fit the description her brothers gave except—she pinned her focus on Coy Whittaker’s almost-black eyes—except his were not the cold eyes of a killer. There was a warmth and concern there that drew her in.
Dare she trust him? The odd stirring in her chest said she should—him and no one else.
The lone rider arrived ahead of the approaching group and dismounted near the black horse. As he strode closer, Aimee darted behind Mr. Whittaker’s back, one hand settling gently between his shoulder blades as she stood on tiptoes to peer over his shoulder.
“Coy? Everything all right?” The voice belonged to an older man, probably notthe one her brothers had spoken of. Despite that, her pulse quickened.
“Reckon it hasn’t been one of my better days, sir.” He attempted to draw her forward into the other man’s view, but she shifted, keeping him between her and the newcomer. After a confused instant, Mr. Whittaker gave up and faced the man. “Chet Tanner, this gal here is Aimee Kaplan. Miss Kaplan, meet part owner of the Bar CT Ranch outta Texas.” He paused. “Sir, Miss Kaplan’s brothers are … needing some final attention just over that rise.”
Mr. Tanner touched his hat brim. “Miss. I’m sorry about your brothers. We’ll see they’re attended to. In the meantime, you’re welcome in the Bar CT camp for as long as you need. Just as soon as our cook gets the chuckwagon settled, we’ll rustle up some clothes and you can freshen up and change in there.”
Aimee glanced at the once-sunny yellow calico of her dress, now stained from neckline to hem with black, brown, and red stains. What had he said to her after promising to attend to her brothers?
“Miss, would you mind if I had a private word with Coy for just a moment?” Mr. Tanner continued. “I’ll return him to you directly.”
Brushing at the stains, she nodded absently. Mr. Whittaker and Mr. Tanner moved off a good ten paces to stand by the horses.
She would need to find her horse—all their horses. Gather whatever belongings they’d brought. Had her brothers thought to pack her a clean dress? They’d left in such a hurry.
“Gather my things …” she whispered, blinking at the rise separating her from where she’d last seen their horses.
A chill swept the length of her. Her coat. She’d hid it in the tree with her. Edouard was always admonishing her. Lower lids stinging, she recalled the urgency of his last words. Aimee, don’t forget your coat! And yet, she’d exited the tree and left it. Panting for breath, she marched up and over the rise. She must get it back.