The winner from yesterday's drawing for a free copy of Taryn's debut novel Castway Hearts is Mbagessler3. Please contact Katherine Lowry Logan to get your free read. Congratulations, and thanks to everyone who stopped by. I hope you'll contiue to pop in for a visit.
THE WAGON TRAIN had crossed the toll bridge at the tree-fringed North Platte River then followed Cullen to a camping spot three miles west of Fort Laramie. The fort marked another milestone on the trail, six hundred fifty miles from Independence—less than three hundred miles from South Pass. Kit made notes in her journal, frowning as she often did when she thought of leaving her friends.
“Why are you frowning? It’s a beautiful day.” Sarah sat in a rocking chair mending a pair of trousers.
Kit looked about. The dark blue sky bordered on purple and the temperature hovered in the high seventies, but the dust and an insensitive lawyer kept the day from ranking up there with the gorgeous ones. The paint-worthy ones. The ones she remembered because something extraordinary happened.
“I need to take Stormy to the fort to see the farrier.”
“Take Adam with you.”
“He’s fixing a wheel and doesn’t have time to babysit me.”
Sarah tied off the thread and folded the pants. “What about Ben?”
“He and Clint are both with John.”
“It’s not safe for you to go alone.”
Nothing in the nineteenth century was safe. Cullen wasn’t safe. The trail wasn’t safe. The food wasn’t safe. The water wasn’t safe. Why should the fort be safe? She didn’t have the energy to argue. “What if I put on my short-hair wig and wear trousers? Everyone will think I’m a boy. Will that make you feel better?”
Sarah’s gasp told Kit exactly what she thought of the idea. But her eyes held a spark of interest. “Get dressed and let me see.”
Kit scrunched her face in disbelief. “You sure?”
Sarah gulped. “I think. Hurry up.”
A few minutes later Kit returned with her pant legs tucked into her riding boots and a wide-brim hat covering a short, blonde-hair wig.
Sarah stood, placed her hands on Kit’s shoulders, and spun her around. “Why you’re the prettiest boy I ever did see.”
Kit suppressed a smile. “Can I go now?”
“Please stay out of trouble. If John finds out I encouraged you, he’ll be upset with me. Keep your voice low and hurry back.”
“I’ll be a couple of hours. You sure you don’t need anything?”
“If I do, we can get it tomorrow.”
Kit pulled her hat brim close to her eyes and rode off, passing Henry’s wagon. She didn’t see Cullen’s horse. Did that mean he was at the fort? She hoped not. In the past week, he’d made no effort to apologize. Never again would his smooth talk turn her into a fool.
No talking. No fraternizing. No way. No.
She rode into the fort with her head down, hunching her shoulders. Could she pull off the charade? Sure, as long as she didn’t see Cullen.
The farrier wasn’t at the stables, and there was no one around to ask when he’d return. If he didn’t show up soon, she’d leave and come back later. While she waited, she decided to give Stormy a bath.
A hand slapped her shoulder and spun her around, bringing her nose-to-chest with a scraggly-haired, hard-ass-looking soldier. A lieutenant, judging from his uniform.
“That’s mighty fine horseflesh, boy. You interested in a race?”
He hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat into the dirt next to her toes. “Are you deaf? Do you want to race that there stallion?”
Yuk. A disgusting man with a hard-life story written in the wrinkles of his face. A tale she certainly didn’t care to read. “How far?”
She loved to race and had been trained by some of the best jockeys in the business. A spirited one-on-one challenge was just what she needed to wipe Cullen Montgomery right out of her mind.
“You got yourself a race, mister.”
He pointed toward the other side of the fort. “Track’s that way.”
Kit stretched her neck, looking where he was pointing. “I’ll meet you over there.”
After grooming Stormy, she mounted up and trotted over to the track. News of a horse race had already spread around the fort. A crowd of soldiers, civilians, and a handful of Indians had gathered to watch. A man yelled odds and was taking bets, creating a buzz of activity. The bookmaker set the odds at 20/1 that Stormy would beat the crowd favorite, a stallion whose black coat glistened in the afternoon sun.
Luck was playing nice with her. Cullen wasn’t in the crowd. Relief tempered her excitement. If he had any inkling of what she was about to do, he’d make the same effort to stop her as he’d made rescuing her from the Kansas. He’d throw his lasso and pull her off the track.
Stormy swaggered toward the starting line tilting his ears like a windmill.
Someone yelled, “Look at the boy. He’s got one of them fancy pancake saddles.” The crowd roared. “He’ll fall and bust his ass.”
She straightened, feeling as if her courage had migrated south, leaving her heart pounding faster than normal.
A pistol-toting soldier jogged to the oval-shaped track. He stood opposite the crowd and raised his gun. “Riders ready?”
An ever-swelling howl of catcalls arose from the spectators.
“Set,” the soldier yelled.
Kit knew what Stormy was capable of under normal circumstances. But what had the last few weeks done to his stamina. The horse pranced and waited for the call, and she diverted distractive thoughts to her brain’s trash bin, currently filled to over-flowing.
The soldier fired a single shot, and the crowd burst into cheers.
Stormy broke fast, hurtled away, and ran a length ahead at the break. She balanced in mid-air with her weight on her toes, pressed against the stirrups’ metal bases. Hunching forward, she grabbed the reins just behind Stormy’s neck. The lieutenant drew his whip and laid a series of stinging blows across his horse’s withers. His stallion leaped forward.
The first turn came quickly, and Kit moved Stormy toward the inside. The lieutenant bore in and bumped her horse, almost knocking her off. Someone with less experience would have fallen. She regained her balance and let the reins run through her fingers, giving Stormy his head to lengthen his stride. She positioned him right behind the lieutenant’s horse, turning wide into the backstretch. Kit moved inside and gained the lead, but the black stallion repulsed the challenge and moved ahead by a length.
At the far turn, Kit made her move. Using her entire upper body, she worked with her horse. A chorus of cheers boomed across the prairie. At the top of the stretch, a lion of a roar erupted. Stormy accelerated. His muscled neck pumped beneath her hands, and his hooves pounded the hard-packed ground. The horses hit the last furlong stake, matching stride for stride.
“Come on boy, you can do it.” And he did, pulling ahead and galloping across the finish line. Kit stood in the stirrups and craned her neck to see the other horse back three lengths. She rode to the next quarter turn before circling back.
The high-pitched twittering of a bald eagle drew her gaze to the sky. The creature soared above the plains on fully extended wings. There were similarities between the eagle’s dominance and grace and Stormy’s power and beauty. And there was something else, something intangible—an indomitable spirit linked with hers. Yes, she would get to South Pass and find the answers she sought. And nothing, not Cullen, not snakes, not rivers would stand in her way.
SHOUTING INTERRUPTED CULLEN’S meeting with Fort Laramie’s commander.
“Sergeant,” Commander Garnett hollered. “What’s the ruckus?”
The sergeant appeared at the doorway of the commander’s office. “A race is ’bout to start, sir.”
“A boy from the wagon train camped north of here is racing a chestnut stallion.”
Cullen’s hand jerked and knocked against his cup. Coffee splattered on the corner of a map spread open on the table.
“Against the lieutenant’s black stallion, I assume,” Garrett said.
“Yes sir,” the sergeant answered.
The commander faced Cullen. “If that horse is from your wagon train, Mr. Montgomery, I doubt it will be much of a race. The lieutenant’s horse has never been beaten.”
Cullen wiped up the spill with his handkerchief. “I don’t know who’s riding the stallion, but he can beat anything you got.” He gazed out the window across the parade ground. With the exception of Adam, Cullen couldn’t imagine Kit letting anyone ride Stormy. And Adam was too smart to get talked into a race. If the jockey wasn’t Adam, then who was he?
Garnett’s slow, knowing smile segued into a chuckle. “How much you willing to wager?”
Braham McCabe walked away from the map table and joined his friend at the window. “Cullen and I have known each other since we were lads,” Braham said to Garnett. “As far as I know, he’s never wagered on anything. But as for me—” he thumped his chest, “—I’ve got a five dollar gold piece that says he’s right about this horse.”
Cullen felt a shiver race down his back. “You betting on a horse you’ve never seen?”
Braham grinned. “You’ve seen him, and you’re a better judge of horse flesh than I am.” He slapped Cullen on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s watch a race. If I lose, you’re buying me a drink.”
“Hell, I’ll need more than a drink when this is over.”
A sick expression crossed Braham’s face. “I’ve put money on your horse. Now you don’t sound so convincing.”
“It’s not the horse I doubt.” A nagging uneasiness settled in his gut. Did he want to watch the race, or try to stop it? He vacillated between a slow walk and fast trot to the track. But the commander and Braham set the pace, and they arrived at the starting line as the gun fired.
“What I can see, I believe you’re right about that horse,” Braham said. “But the rider won’t stay on his back riding like that.”
The feeling of imminent calamity punctured his armor with the heavy steel of a battle-ax. Stormy’s rider wasn’t one of the Barrett boys. The graceful curves of the jockey’s derriere rising above the Thoroughbred’s back in a delicate balancing act were obvious to him, if not to everyone else. He couldn’t work up enough spit to swallow. His vision narrowed to only one horse—one rider. Mentally, he prepared to fight or rescue, whatever needed doing to save Kit’s life. Again.
Cheers grew louder as the horses entered the stretch. Cullen braced for the final few seconds of the race. A riot would break out if the fan favorite went down in defeat and the soldiers discovered the winning jockey was a woman.
As long as he lived, he would never forget walking out of the freight office in Independence and seeing Stormy, recognizing immediately the strength and power born of a true champion. But it was the beautiful woman who embodied the pair’s true spirit.
Cullen held his breath as the Thoroughbred’s explosive kick put him across the finish line three lengths ahead of his rival. The dazzling burst sucked the breath from the spectators leaving a momentary hushed silence echoing beneath the pounding hooves.
Relieved, he swabbed his sleeve across his sweaty brow and released a ragged sigh.
Braham took off his hat and waived it high above his head. “Yippee! I’ll be damned. What a race.” He shouted the only celebratory cheers amidst the rising din of disgruntled voices.
Commander Garnett, although white in the face from shock, took defeat in the gracious style of a southern gentleman. “You know your horses, but that rider has an unorthodox riding style.” He flipped a gold coin to Braham. “Hope you give me an opportunity to win that back over a game of cards tonight?”
Braham caught the coin and twirled it between his fingers. “Can’t say no to that offer.”
The crowd dispersed, leaving Cullen and Braham to congratulate the winner.
Kit rode up beside the two men. “Did you see the race?” Her eyes were wide, her chest heaving with each deep breath.
Cullen felt an angry red flush on his face. “We’ll talk about this later. What the hell have you done to your hair?”
Braham stroked his chin, squinting in confusion. “I didn’t think you knew this kid, Cul,” then added, “What’s wrong with his hair?”
“I know him.” He spit out coal-fired words. “At least, I thought I did.”
Kit jumped to the ground and removed the lightweight saddle. “That was my best ride ever. You could congratulate me.”
He grabbed his hat and slammed it against his thigh. “I just spent two excruciating minutes holding my breath, praying you wouldn’t fall off and kill yourself. And why did you cut your hair?”
Kit stepped to him, almost belly-to-belly, glaring. “And why didn’t I ignore you at hello?” She pushed past him.
Cullen stomped off in the opposite direction. It didn’t matter if the path led him to the river or to hell. He was going wherever it took him. He glanced over his shoulder, catching a glimpse of the Siren’s back.
Why didn’t I ignore you at hello? Damn woman. What the hell is she talking about?
KIT KNOTTED HER fists at her sides and stalked away. “What a jerk.” From behind her, a man chuckled, but she ignored him. Must be the man who was with Cullen.
She paid no attention and kept walking.
“Excuse me.” He stepped in front of her and walked backwards, making it impossible to ignore him. “I think my friend needs someone to apologize for him.”
She dodged around him and walked faster. “I wouldn’t accept one from him. I doubt I’d accept it from you.”
“Do you mind if I walk with you?”
She glanced back at him. “Who are you?”
“Braham McCabe. That’s a magnificent horse. Where’d you get him?”
Okay, that got her attention. She stopped. “Thank you. My father.”
“Never seen anyone ride off the saddle before.”
What? “Damn,” she said under her breath. Jockeys didn’t start riding forward-seat style until the end of the nineteenth century. How many people saw her race? How many would remember the ride? A feeling that she’d royally screwed up quashed her excitement. “My father taught me.”
“Bending over the horse’s withers—”
“Lowers the wind resistance. Now, why don’t you leave me alone?
“If he challenges you to a rematch, will you race again? And if you do, can you beat him a second time?”
Enough. She wheeled around quickly to shoo the man like an annoying fly, but hit the brakes when she gazed into green eyes with specks of gold. A spinning sensation almost wiped her feet out from under her. She leaned against Stormy for support and studied Braham’s face. Except for their coloring, he and Cullen looked like bookends. After a moment, she reclaimed her steadiness and said, “Cullen told me about you.”
Braham gave her a raffish smile. “You have me at a disadvantage. He didn’t mention you.”
“I’m not surprised,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’m Kit MacKlenna. Come on. I need to keep Stormy moving.”
“You calculated every move in that race. Didn’t you?”
“Not observant enough, Mrs. MacKlenna.”
She fingered her mother’s wedding ring. “Do you think I’m not what I appear to be?”
Amusement played out in the twitch of Braham’s mouth as his eyes roamed the length of the body. Not in a suggestive way, but in a curious way that didn’t offend her.
“I imagine Cul finds your altered state distracting.”
Her lip turned up, forming a semi-smile. “He can’t accept the fact there are accomplished women who don’t fit his traditional view. He needs to stop thinking inside the box and get out a little bit. And by the way, it’s Miss MacKlenna.”
“I have the impression you’re a reformer, Miss MacKlenna.”
No, just a thoroughly modern Millie. “I suppose I am.”
When they reached the stables, Kit called out, “Anybody here?”
“If you’re looking for the blacksmith,” Braham said, “the fort commander said he went missing a few days ago.”
Her shoulders sagged. Crap. “So much for new shoes.”
“Cullen’s reaction goes deeper than a horse race, doesn’t it?” Braham’s eye dipped in a slight wink, or appeared to.
“Your friend’s an intelligent man who happens to be over-protective, opinionated, and annoying. His reaction doesn’t go any deeper than that.”
“If you’ve seen those sides, you’ve seen the best and worst of him.”
“I’ll take the intelligent side. You can have the over-protective and annoying one.”
“Where Cullen is concerned, you have to take the good with the bad.”
“Fortunately,” she said, resaddling her horse. “I don’t have to take either.”
“Don’t worry about him,” Braham said. “After he thinks about the race, he’ll have more appreciation for what you did.”
Cullen exited the commander’s office. A determined gait replaced his usual saunter.
“Here comes your friend, and it doesn’t look like he’s reached that level of appreciation.”
Braham scratched the back of his neck and scrunched his face in what appeared to be a thinking expression. “He will.”
Kit shot another glance at Cullen. If his eyes were six-shooters, she'd be dead. Dead-dead.
“Give him time,” Braham continued.
“I don’t have that kind of time, Mr. McCabe.” She mounted up. Stormy immediately started his stomping, ear pinning routine that meant he didn’t want to go anywhere. He wanted to eat. Two obstinate studs were two too many. “Come on boy, let’s get out of here.”