Jeannie Cooper reined up outside the corral of the biggest ranch in the county and took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. Her brothers had told her this was a bad idea, but she hadn’t listened. She was sick to death of everyone trying to force her to be something she was not—a lady, doomed to a life of domestic drudgery. She was a horse trainer. It was just unfortunate that she hadn’t been born a boy—her choices would be accepted, then, instead of everyone looking down their noses at her.
“What do you want?” Halsey’s foreman demanded around the plug of tobacco clenched tightly between his teeth, hands on his hips, a fierce glare fixed on his face. “Go on—clear off! Men are working here. If you’ve come to see the missus, you go on up to the house, that-a-way.”
To the average nineteen-year-old woman, Halsey’s foreman was a formidable opponent. A solid giant of a man with a barrel chest and arms the size of hams, he swore a lot, was generally uncouth and scruffy, and rumor had it that he didn’t tolerate females at all well since his wife, a mail-order bride from back East, had run off with another man.
But Jeannie Cooper wasn’t an average young woman; she was much less timid and much more stubborn than most, and she wasn’t intimidated in the least. She shook her head. “I’m here about the horse-breaking job. Talk around town is Mr. Halsey needs one.”
The foreman guffawed loudly, slapping his thighs in laughter and then coughing at the dust in his face that billowed off his pants. “That ain’t no job for a lady! Get out of here!”
Jeannie stood her ground, her back straight, her head held high, as she held Tosca in check. The stallion pranced, sniffing the air through flared nostrils. Jeannie knew how beautiful he looked. “I’m good at it,” she insisted. “I broke this mustang myself,” she pointed out proudly. “Just a little over a year ago he was a wild colt, running free.”
The foreman’s glare turned fierce. “I’ve heard about you,” he snarled. “You’re the Cooper girl. Don’t know your place. Well, clear off! Halsey’s got no use for the likes of you!” He spat on the ground then, and Tosca reared as the stream of brown tobacco juice landed between his hooves.
“Whoa, boy.” Jeannie struggled to maintain control of the horse as tears of frustration rolled down her cheeks. When all four of the stallion’s hooves were on solid ground again, she blinked. There, leaning against the corral, were several of Halsey’s men, all being entertained at her expense. Their wide smiles were clear evidence of how much they were enjoying watching her rejection.
“We don’t need no woman horse-breaker!” one of them called.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Halsey himself appeared in the midst of the cowboys and his booming voice rang out over the jeers of his men.
“I’m here about the horse-breaking job, sir,” Jeannie said, blinking back her tears.
“You? A horse-breaker? But you’re a woman!” Halsey looked at her first in disbelief then in fury. “Get off my property,” he snarled. “A woman can’t do a man’s job.”
“You heard the boss—go on—get!” Halsey’s foreman ordered. “Hell will freeze over before women become horse-breakers!” The cowboys around him erupted in laughter and color rose to Jeannie’s face in embarrassment. Whirling around, she kicked Tosca into a gallop, the blood pounding in her ears drowning out the noise of the dying laughter behind her.
It’s not fair! Just because I’m a girl! The words swirled around and around in her head, keeping time to the beat of the hooves of the stallion beneath her. She jammed her heels into his sides, urging him faster and faster, trying to leave the rejection behind them. She was a better horse-breaker than most of the men around, and they still wouldn’t let her even try, just because she was a woman.
“Damn you, Halsey!” She shouted the words, but they caught on the wind and died almost before they’d left her lips.
She couldn’t get the image of the laughing, jeering cowboys out of her mind. And Halsey’s foreman was so rude, dismissing her so easily, spitting in her direction! She crouched low over the stallion’s wither, urging him on, pushing him hard. Maybe if she rode fast enough, the wind would blow the memory away, and she could pretend it had never happened.
She didn’t slow up any as she approached the small town. She couldn’t wait to get home. She’d thought she’d die of the shame, standing there in Halsey’s yard, being rejected by his foreman and ridiculed by his men. And it wouldn’t be long before talk of her failure was spread all over town—Halsey’s huge spread was just to the south of the town and his staff frequented the saloon most nights after work, and she knew how the ladies loved to gossip. Angry tears coursed down her face, tracking a path through the dust, and she spurred Tosca again.
“Get out of my way!” she yelled at the man who had stopped a buggy at the edge of the road and was assisting a lady down. He shouted a curse at her as she swerved around him, showering him with dust, missing him and the buggy by a narrow margin.
Townsfolk scrambled for safety as she galloped up the main street of Red Rock, intent on putting the morning’s rejection, and the people who would laugh about it, far behind them. The usually busy street emptied as she galloped through, with people hastily making way for her, yelling threats as she passed.
“Look out!” she shouted the warning but it was too late. Tosca sidestepped to avoid the old lady who was crossing the street, but the very edge of Jeannie’s boot in the stirrup clipped her, and the old lady screamed as she fell to the ground. Looking back over her shoulder, Jeannie saw that townsfolk were running to her aid from all directions, the boardwalk shaking beneath their thundering feet.
“Stop! You come back here, missy!” a few voices called, but she ignored them. She couldn’t stop; she had to get away.
She rode at a gallop the whole eight miles home, the words of Halsey’s foreman ringing in her ears the entire way.
She galloped into the yard and leapt off her horse before she’d even brought him to a complete halt, leaving the reins dangling. Right now, she didn’t much care whether he stayed there or not—she was so mad! She stormed into the house, her spurs jingling with the force of her steps, her boot heels clicking noisily on the rickety wooden stairs. Since their father had died two years ago, things had slowly started to fall apart around the place, even though her brothers tried their best to keep on top of everything. This porch was no exception. It had never used to be so rickety.
“Damn him!” she muttered, half under her breath. “Just because I’m a girl!” She slammed the door behind her angrily.
Her brother, Sam, looked up from his paper as she stomped into the kitchen, an amused smile on his face.
“Is something funny, brother dear?” she snapped at him.
He leaned back in his chair, tilting it right back so the front legs were off the floor, and crossed his hands over his stomach. His smug grin widened. “I told you that you wouldn’t get the job,” he reminded her. “Men don’t hire women to break in horses.” He snorted at the absurdity of the very idea and shook his head, amusement still evident on his face.
“But I’m good at it!” she protested. “You know I am!” And she was—she’d been working with the horses alongside her brothers and Pa ever since she could remember.
“It don’t matter how good you are, no man is going to hire on a woman to do a man’s job. Especially not Halsey. Not after that horse killed his daughter last year. Women don’t break in horses.”
She jumped as the front legs of his chair crashed to the floor when he leaned forward to stub out his cigarette in the overflowing ashtray in the center of the table, before folding the paper neatly and rising to his feet. Resting both his fists on the sturdy wooden table, his eyes met hers.
“That’s about to change. There’s a stage tomorrow—you’ll be on it,” he announced firmly. “You’re going back to Boston, to finishing school. And dammit, Jeannie, you can stay there this time!” Letting go of the table, he drew himself up to his full, intimidating height of six foot four and wagged his finger at her to make his point.
“No!” She stomped her foot to emphasize her refusal. If there was one thing she was not doing, it was going East to learn the refinements necessary to be a lady, and acquire herself a good husband. She was a horse trainer—the last thing she needed was a husband.
She glared at her brother defiantly. “I won’t go!” Her hands flew to her hips as the scowl on her face grew wider. “You can’t make me!”
Sam took a step toward her. “Look, Jeannie, you don’t have a choice. You’re nineteen years old—it’s time you learned how to be a lady. You can’t stay here on the ranch forever, wearing men’s britches and playing with horses. That’s no occupation for a lady.”
“I don’t want to be a lady.”
Sam continued as if he hadn’t heard her. “Half the women in town are scared of you, the other half are critical. You’re a hellcat. And you terrify the men.”
“That’s because I can ride and shoot better than they can!” she informed him proudly. Sam shook his head in despair. “You can’t carry on like this, you’ll never get a husband this way.”
“I don’t want a husband.”
Sam paced the small room fretfully, his boots echoing on the wooden floor as he walked. “Aunt Clementine’s expecting you.”
At her shouted refusal, Sam plucked a letter off the cabinet in the corner of the small room and thrust it at her. “Here—read it. The reminder of the promise Pa made to Ma before she died—that you would be raised to be a lady. Written out in Aunt Clementine’s precise hand.” He sighed. “You’ve got to go, Jeannie. It’s only for a year. A year’s not long.” Sam’s voice had taken on a placating, almost pleading tone, and she knew she’d almost won. It was rare that she didn’t get her own way with her brothers. And when the tone of their voices turned from ordering to begging, she got her way nearly every single time.
She shook her head, refusing to even take the letter. Aunt Clementine had never approved of her being raised out here in the Wicked West, as she’d always called it, and had never given up trying to bring Jeannie to Boston, to ensure she had a proper education befitting a lady, just as her sister would have wanted it.
“Pa gave his word!” Sam reminded her, shaking the letter.
Jeannie glared at him. “Pa’s dead.”
Slapping the letter down onto the mantel, Sam flexed his hands as he glared ferociously at her. “Dammit, Jeannie Mary Cooper, it’s been far too long since you’ve had a good licking.”
He reached for her, but she darted out of his way, ducking backwards, to smack straight into a solid mass. Strong arms steadied her as she bounced off the chest of the elder but smaller of her two brothers. But standing at six foot two, Tommy Cooper wasn’t exactly a small man, and he dwarfed Jeannie completely as his big hands gripped her shoulders. A scowl marred his tanned face as he frowned down at her. Jeannie gulped. Sam might be the bigger brother, but Tommy was stricter. And that frown he wore was not a good sign. His fingers tightened on her shoulders.
“Go and sort out your horse,” he ordered her sternly. “He’s standing out there in the yard with his reins dangling in the mud, still blowing hard from being galloped a long way. You should have cooled him down and stabled him before you even came inside!”
Jeannie avoided her brother’s accusing stare. He was right; she should have tended to her horse. But she’d been so mad! And humiliated. And ashamed, the little voice in her head reminded her. She’d been so angry at Halsey’s foreman as she galloped through town that she hadn’t even slowed down when she’d knocked over old Mrs. Abbott. She hoped the old lady was okay. She wished now that she’d stopped to check. She wished even more that she hadn’t galloped down the main street of town; she was always being scolded for her reckless behavior, but she never listened. She always rode fast when she was upset, and it was a long time since she’d been as upset as Halsey’s foreman had made her.
“Ladies don’t unsaddle their own horses!” she declared, looking pointedly at Sam.
Tommy snorted. “You ain’t no lady. There ain’t no ladylike bone in your body!”
“Tell Sam not to send me to finishing school then!” she cried. “It won’t do no good, sending me away,” she promised, glaring at Sam. “I won’t be changing none, you’ll see!”
Tommy sighed, relaxing his grip on her shoulders. “Go and tend to your horse. We will discuss this later.”
“What do we pay Emmett for, then? Sam wants to ship me off to Boston to learn how to be a lady but I also have to unsaddle my horse by myself? That doesn’t make sense!” She stomped her foot angrily, glaring at Sam.
“You’re not a lady and Emmett works hard enough,” Sam retorted, flexing his hands. Jeannie backed up slowly. She recognized the signals he was sending and besides, he was right. Again. Emmett was a hard worker and she knew her brothers would be lost without him. A thick-set man in his late forties with a wild, untamed moustache, Emmett had been her father’s foreman, confidant, and best friend. Without Emmett, her brothers would never have been able to keep this place going when Pa died. Sam and Tommy were young, just twenty-four and twenty-five, and although they were both hard workers, it was Emmett’s wisdom and experience that had kept their small ranch running successfully.
“Emmett’s job is not to tend to your horse!” Tommy snarled, spinning her around so quickly she nearly lost her footing. “Now go!” He propelled her forward with a hard slap on the backside that made her yelp. “And there’ll be more where that came from if you get Emmett to do your work for you!” he threatened.
“I’m going, big brother,” she muttered. “I’ll go and unsaddle my horse. But I’m not going to Boston!” she yelled over her shoulder.
Jeannie was still fuming as she pulled the saddle off Tosca, her black stallion, and brushed him down quickly. Full of spirit, the stallion reared up, striking out at her with his front feet, and Jeannie laughed, the sound whipped away by the wind. There wasn’t a horse that she couldn’t tame, and this once-wild mustang stallion didn’t scare her. He was fiery, but she knew he would never truly hurt her.
“I can’t go to Boston and leave you behind,” she murmured to the horse, as she ran a calming hand down his neck to his shoulder. “I’ll miss you too much.”
The rattle of a wagon’s wheels bouncing over the rutted road jolted her from her musings and she looked up. They weren’t expecting visitors as far as she knew… who was it? Peeking round the corner of the barn, she watched as the mayor of the small town got down off the wagon and stalked into the house. She gulped. Surely he hadn’t come to complain about her to Sam and Tommy? It had been an accident! She hadn’t intentionally knocked anyone down! But she’d been so angry! Last time she’d galloped down the main street sending people scattering frantically out of her way, the mayor had scolded her and threatened to tell her brothers, but she’d laughed off his threat. The mayor wasn’t known for his bravery, and Sam and Tommy, both of whom towered over the mayor, were very protective of their little sister. This time, however, she knew the mayor would have been left with no choice; she’d heard the disapproval of the townsfolk as she’d galloped out of town. She could hear raised voices coming from inside the house, then the front door slammed shut as the mayor stormed back down the steps, tipped his hat to Maria, their Mexican housekeeper battling with the wash on the line, clambered unsteadily back up onto his wagon and drove away.
“Jeannie!” Tommy roared from the doorway. Out of nowhere, Emmett appeared beside her to finish her job, signaling to her that she’d better obey her brother.
She considered running to hide instead of facing Tommy’s wrath, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good. He’d find her eventually, and then she’d only be in worse trouble than if he had it out with her now.
Tommy was standing tall and straight, his arms folded across his chest and a stern expression on his face, as he waited for her on the porch.
“The mayor tells me that you ran Mrs. Abbott down on the main street of town today. Is that true?”
“It was an accident!” she protested.
“So it’s true?”
Jeannie nodded, avoiding her brother’s piercing stare.
“Was that before or after you applied for Halsey’s horse-breaking job?”
“After,” she told him, her voice small. She’d known she should have stopped to help Mrs. Abbott, or at least check that she wasn’t hurt, but she was so angry! And there were enough townsfolk there to tend to her; townsfolk who had probably already heard about her getting kicked off Halsey’s place. Townsfolk who had nothing better to do than go hurrying off to the mayor, begging him to do something about her.
Tommy sighed, unfolded his arms, and reached for her, grasping her upper arm in a grip so tight it hurt.
“Let me go!” she protested, but Tommy ignored her. Instead, he led her over to the straight-backed kitchen chair that Sam had vacated earlier, and held her in front of him as he sat down in it.
“You were reckless,” Tommy scolded her quietly. “You knocked down an old lady. You’re lucky she wasn’t hurt!”
Jeannie lowered her eyes to the floor, but Tommy lifted her chin back up with his fingers, tilting her face to meet his gaze.
“You didn’t even stop to see if Mrs. Abbott was alright,” Tommy reminded her. “You carried right on galloping; you didn’t even care.”
Jeannie’s head shot up. “I did care!” she protested.
“But you didn’t stop. You should be ashamed, Jeannie.”
Jeannie lowered her eyes again, squirming uncomfortably, wishing her brother’s grip on her wasn’t so strong. She could feel the disapproval in Tommy’s stern stare; she could hear it in his voice as he chided her.
“You were told you would never get Halsey’s job. You know his daughter was killed in a riding accident last year—caused by a badly broken-in horse.”
“That’s why I applied—so I could do the job properly and prevent more needless deaths!” Jeannie cried, fighting back tears. Why didn’t anyone understand how she felt? She’d been riding and helping her pa and brothers with the horses her entire life—she could ride before she could walk! She was good at horse-breaking! Why wouldn’t anyone let her do it? She stomped her foot in frustration.
“Horse-breaking is not a job for a woman,” Tommy told her firmly. “You’ve been told before to stop trying to do men’s jobs! You’re bringing shame upon the family by raging angrily around town refusing to wear dresses or act like a lady, treating the townsfolk with disrespect. You always lose your temper when you don’t get your way, Jeannie Cooper! You’re a brat!”
The words stung. Even though he was holding her chin firmly, she refused to look at him. Her brother knew her too well, and he was right. She could never meet his gaze when he was right. Hearing him scold her now made her feel like a small, errant child, not the full-grown woman that she was.
“You go easy on that girl, Tommy Cooper.” She looked up at the sound of the feminine voice in the kitchen—she hadn’t heard anyone enter the room, but Maria stood there, washing basket balanced on her hip, a frown on her weathered, lined face.
“This little hellcat needs to be taught a lesson,” Tommy insisted.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jeannie watched as Maria fixed her brother with a fierce glare. She bit her lip to keep herself from smiling.
Tommy sighed. “Yes, Maria. Now get back to work. This doesn’t concern you.”
Dropping the basket of washing down by the kitchen table, Maria wagged her finger at Tommy and tutted before bustling off back outside.
Jeannie couldn’t help it; she giggled. The tiny Mexican woman had never been afraid to issue her brothers with orders, especially when Jeannie had done something to get herself into trouble and was about to be reprimanded. The fact that they towered over her, and had done ever since Jeannie could remember, didn’t scare her in the least. She still bossed them around and, most of the time, they listened. That Maria had come to her defense now didn’t surprise her, but it didn’t appear that Tommy was going to heed her instructions this time; his grip on her arm tightened.
Tommy shook his head. “Sam is right. It really has been too long since you’ve had a good licking.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he pushed her down across his thigh.
“You let me up, Tommy!” Jeannie yelled, wriggling and kicking for all she was worth in her attempts to escape her brother’s strong grip.
“I don’t think so.” His flattened palm came down hard on the seat on her pants; pants that had once belonged to him, but that she had begged Maria to help her adjust to fit her.
“Ow! Tommy! You let me up right now!” she ordered. “I’m not a child!”
“Then don’t act like one,” Tommy scolded, punctuating his words with another punishing swat. “Learn to control your temper!”
“Ow! That hurt!” Jeannie screeched. She’d forgotten how hard her brother could spank. It had been almost a year since she’d last been upended over a brother’s knee, and then it had been Sam’s, not Tommy’s. And Tommy spanked so much harder than Sam did.
“It’s meant to,” he said dryly, swatting her again. “Maybe a good spanking will teach you to be more respectful about town.” Another fiery whack accompanied his words.
“Tommy! It really, really hurts!” Jeannie wailed.
“Maybe next time you’re riding through town you will take more care!” Tommy scolded, swatting her twice more, even harder. “Finishing school is going to do you good,” he announced, whacking her again.
“No! I won’t go!” Jeannie yelled, then she scrabbled her fingers against the floor frantically, trying to find purchase as she wriggled around madly in her attempts to avoid the flurry of fiery smacks landing on her backside. But she couldn’t escape; Tommy held her firmly around the waist as he rained spank after spank down on her burning bottom.
“You let me up, Tommy Cooper!” she ordered him again. “Ladies don’t get spanked!”
“You ain’t no lady,” he scoffed, landing a hard swat to the back of her thigh. “You’re a brat and a hellcat. That’s the problem. If you was a lady, you wouldn’t have to go to Boston to learn how to be one.” He smacked her other thigh to drive his point home.
“Let me up! You’re hurting me!” Jeannie wailed.
Tommy chuckled as he helped Jeannie to her feet. “Anyone would think I was trying to kill you, not just give you a tanning.”
“It felt like you were trying to kill me!” she protested, blinking back tears. Tommy’s hand was as hard as a board from so many years of hard work, and it was propelled by strong arms and powerful shoulders.
She reached around with one hand to rub the sting out of her backside as Tommy still held tightly to her wrist, glaring down at her sternly.
“You will go into town and apologize to Mrs. Abbott,” he ordered gruffly. “Sam will go in with you in the morning. And you are going to Boston to finishing school—Aunt Clementine is expecting you and it will do you good. I will put you on the stage tomorrow myself. I’ll even ride along with you to the train station, if necessary. But you hear me well, Jeannie—you’re going.” With a final glare for good measure, Tommy released her. “Now go and tend to your horse; Emmett’s busy enough.”
Resisting the urge to glare at her brother, she stalked back out to the barn, holding her head high, proudly, showing Tommy that while he could ignite a fire in her backside, he couldn’t crush her spirit.
I’m not going, she insisted over and over in her mind. Her brothers had already sent her off to Boston once, just after Pa died, but she’d ran off at the train station as soon as her brothers’ backs were turned. She’d been determined not to go, and had hidden in town until the train had left without her. After much crying and begging, her brothers had relented and brought her home again, and the subject had never been raised since.
But now they were trying to send her again! Well, they weren’t going to. Too bad what Aunt Clementine thought; she wasn’t going. She didn’t want to apologize to Mrs. Abbott either—it would be so humiliating! Everyone in town would see Sam escorting her in, they would see her sitting gingerly in the saddle thanks to Tommy’s hard hand. None of them would say anything to her, not with Sam riding alongside her, but she knew how the ladies liked to gossip! She shook her head in shame. She couldn’t do it! She didn’t mind apologizing to Mrs. Abbott, but she wanted to do it in a few days when the gossipy old biddies had found someone else to talk about.
I’m going to run away! she decided. That will show them I’m not going to Boston! Her mind made up, she led Tosca into the stable. He could eat and rest now; he’d have to carry her again soon, far enough away that Sam and Tommy would never find her in time for the stage tomorrow. And, with a bit of luck, they wouldn’t find her at all, and by the time she returned home, having well and truly missed the start of term, her brothers would be so pleased to see her safe and sound again that they would accept her decision not to go to Boston, and would welcome her back to the ranch with open arms. She smiled to herself. This was going to be easy! She formulated a plan in her head as she forked hay into the stable for the stallion. With the fire still blazing across her bottom fueling her anger at her brother, she knew she couldn’t leave it to chance—she had to plan properly. She had to teach them a lesson; she had to show them that there was no way she was going to Boston, to finishing school. She had no desire to be a lady and wear dresses; she was quite happy just as she was.
Jeannie was in luck. The house was deserted when she entered; even Maria was nowhere to be seen. Quickly, she scurried into the kitchen and took part of a loaf of bread, a chunk of cheese, and some bacon and stuffed them into her bag. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. It only had to last her for a few days, after all.
Neither of her brothers questioned her when she went to bed early. She knew they would have assumed she was sulking. And both of them were still asleep when she rose before dawn, wincing at the noise as the floorboards squeaked under her feet. She added a handful of ammunition to the bag she’d packed with food and lifted the Winchester down off the wall before tiptoeing out to the stable. She saddled Tosca up quietly, moving around efficiently in the dark. The full moon cast shadows on the ground, making everything look spooky, but at least it gave her enough light to see by.
Unused to being disturbed at such an early hour, Tosca was frisky, blowing loudly through his nostrils at her as he danced beside her, and she held her breath, willing him to be quiet. Sam and Tommy might sleep through a whinny, but she knew Emmett would stir at the slightest noise the horse made.
The stallion tossed his head as she tightened the cinch, tying the bedroll and saddlebags on securely, sliding the rifle home in the scabbard, then she leapt into the saddle. Gathering up the reins, she breathed a sigh of relief, nudging Tosca lightly in the side with her heels. She’d made it!
Her bottom ached with every jolting stride the galloping stallion took, making her journey very uncomfortable and many times within that first mile she considered turning back. Her brothers would be fearful for her safety when they discovered she’d run away, she knew, and a pang of guilt shot through her. But then she remembered Tommy’s words: “You’re a brat!” spat at her through clenched teeth as he scolded her. She thought of the shame she would feel when she rode into town, and she imagined how awful finishing school would be, how restricting Boston society would be; how terrible it would be to be forced into being a lady and turning her back on everything she’d ever known. To be stuck inside doing ladylike pursuits instead of working outside training horses. The deepening ache in her bottom strengthened her resolve to get as far away as she could, tears of frustration and pain streaming down her face. Let her brothers worry!
Jeannie pushed the stallion hard for several miles, wanting to put as much distance between herself and her brothers as possible. She wasn’t worried about riding at a fast gallop in the dark—the moon gave off just enough light to see by, and she knew this land well. Besides, Tosca was a mustang, and very surefooted; he knew the land even better than she did. As they left the confines of the ranch behind and ventured further into the wide open spaces of the prairie, Jeannie started to relax. At daybreak, they would travel downstream for a way before crossing it, to hide their tracks, then she’d be safe. There would be no way Sam and Tommy would find her in time to send her away to Boston before the start of term!
“Whoa, boy,” she whispered to the horse, once they’d traveled a good three or four miles. “They won’t be finding us out here.” She eased the blowing horse back to a trot then a walk, letting him rest. There was no sense in exhausting the stallion; they’d traveled far enough already to be able to relax.
Jeannie shivered and hunkered down inside her wool-lined coat. There was a chill in the early morning air and now that they’d crossed the ridge, the wind was picking up. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, the golden light casting long shadows over the tall prairie grass. Sam and Tommy would be up by now, and Maria would be cooking them breakfast. Would they have noticed that she was gone? If they hadn’t, she knew it wouldn’t be long before they did; Emmett would notice Tosca’s stall was empty very soon. She touched her heels against Tosca’s sides again. They had to make the river. Only then would she feel safe. She pushed Tosca into a fast ground-eating lope, quickly putting more distance between them and her brothers.
The sun had risen completely by the time they reached the river and it was glinting off the water by the time she guided Tosca down the riverbank. They trotted steadily downstream for quarter of a mile before they clambered up the bank on the other side. Jeannie grinned triumphantly. Her brothers would never find her in time now! Although they were both excellent trackers, and Emmett was even better, they would waste a lot of time trying to find the tracks again where they exited the water. And by then, it would be too late.
“We’ve done it, boy!” she told the horse triumphantly. “We’re safe!”
“Jeannie!” Maria’s shrill cry came from inside the house. “She’s gone!” The Mexican woman came running out onto the rickety porch, her skirts flying. “She’s gone!”
Emmett hurried into the barn. “Tosca’s gone too,” he confirmed.
“I told you to go easy on her!” Maria reminded Tommy, her arms waving about her face frantically as she launched into a tirade in her native tongue.
Tommy didn’t understand a word of her diatribe but he understood her body language; she was blaming him that Jeannie was gone. Removing his hat, he ran a hand through his hair worriedly.
“She’ll come back,” he announced, sounding much calmer than he felt. “Once she’s missed the train, she’ll be back. She’s probably hiding out in town somewhere. Don’t worry about her.”
“Don’t worry about her?” Maria shrieked. “She’s your little sister!”
“She can also ride, shoot, and take care of herself as well as most men,” Sam interjected. “Tommy’s right—she won’t have gone far. She’s probably gone to stay with a friend. As soon as the train has gone, she’ll be back.”
Glaring at them both for good measure, Maria stormed off, still cussing at them under her breath in the dialect that she always reverted to when she was upset. Emmett hurried after her, frowning slightly.
Glancing at his brother, Tommy shrugged. Jeannie would be all right.
Jeannie wasn’t in a rush anymore. She was content just to amble along, with no particular destination in mind.
She felt Tosca stiffen beneath her, his ears flicking back and forth, all his senses on high alert. Born a mustang, running wild for the first years of his life, the stallion was sensitive to the slightest hint of danger. She looked around nervously. Nothing.
“What is it, boy?” she whispered. And then she saw it: surrounding her, appearing to rise straight out of the ground, were a dozen men, quickly closing in on her. Why hadn’t she noticed them before? They must have been trailing her for a while because there was nowhere for them to lie in wait for her around here. She looked around in a panic. There was nowhere for her to hide, either. And the men were coming at her fast. They had her completely surrounded. Escape would be impossible—there was nowhere for her to go.
She gulped, her heart pounding with fear. These were not good men, she could sense it. Tosca danced beneath her as she fixed her eyes first on one man then another. They all looked like members of the hairy unwashed, their beards thick and matted, all smiling gleefully at their good fortune in encountering a lone woman traveler. She froze.
The rifle! She remembered, too late, about the weapon; before she was able to free it from the scabbard, the man who looked to be the oldest was beside her.
“Leave it,” he snarled, wrapping an arm around her waist and pulling her roughly off her horse onto his own.
She screamed and fought but it was no use—her captor held her fast. Desperately she twisted around and sank her teeth deeply into his arm. She heard his strangled cry, but before she could feel any sense of satisfaction over the small victory, he raised his hand and hit her with a backhanded slap across the face. She reeled backwards but her abductor’s tight grip around her waist kept her from falling.
“You just settle down now, missy,” he hissed at her. “You be nice and we’ll get along just fine. Be real nice, and I’ll keep you all for myself, ‘stead a sharing ya round.”
The smell of his breath in such proximity nearly made her gag as he brought his face up real close to her, leering at her and licking his lips. A hideous scar ran the length of his face from his brow, down his cheek to his throat. She shuddered.
Touching her fingertips to her cheek, she flinched. The whole side of her face was aching and sore.
“Get rid of that horse, Leroy,” he ordered. She watched, horrified, as a slightly younger, equally hairy man moved to do his bidding.
“No!” she screamed, and started struggling in earnest. But it was no use, she was held fast. She watched in terror, completely helpless, as Leroy removed her rifle from its scabbard, gave Tosca a slap on the rump to get him moving, then fired the rifle into the air to speed him on his way.
“No! Tosca!” she screamed, but the horse continued to gallop wildly. “Tosca!” she cried again as the mustang stallion bolted, terrified, his reins and stirrups flying, spooking him even more. What would become of him? Would he eventually make his way back to the ranch, where she’d had grand plans to put him over their mares? Or would he return to the wild, to run free on the prairie as he’d done as a colt? She didn’t know, and her heart clenched in sadness as she watched him putting more and more distance between them.
“Now you’re mine,” her captor leered, pulling her tightly against him, sliding one hand inside her shirt to fondle her breasts with cold, clumsy hands. His lips curled upward in a gleeful smile as he discovered no undergarments barring his way. He exhaled loudly. “Ripe and perfect.” He squeezed her breast as he tightened his grip on her, hurting her. The whiskers on his chin scratched her face as he leaned down close to her to whisper in her ear.
Reeling back, but unable to escape, her heart pounded in fear. She had no illusions about what this man and his cronies were capable of.
Her captor grinned at her, showing a mouth full of missing teeth. “Been a long time since Percy Mullins had him a nice girl.”
Jeannie gasped. She’d been captured by the Mullins gang! She screamed in terror, unable to believe that she’d actually been kidnapped by the most notorious gang in the territory. They’d been terrorizing folks all over the state, rustling cattle and horses, burning down barns and houses, raping women and shooting innocent men and boys, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. And now they had her! Suddenly, the idea of going to Boston didn’t seem so bad at all.
Percy Mullins pulled her in close to him, pressing her body against his, the gleam in his eye and his short, heavy breaths making his intentions clear. Using all her strength and propelled by fear, Jeannie fought. She kicked and punched, scratched and slapped, and after fighting like a wildcat for what seemed like forever, she felt herself falling, her arms coming free of the sleeves of her coat as she slipped from Percy Mullins’ grasp.
She hit the ground with a thud and immediately leapt to her feet, running as fast as she could, despite her pounding head. It didn’t matter to her what direction she ran; she just knew she had to get away.
“Get her, Walt!” Percy shouted.
She forced herself to run faster, her blood pounding in her ears, engulfed by terror. But within seconds another hairy man galloped right up close to her and knocked her flying, laughing as she lay sprawled in the dust. He dismounted and was beside her in seconds, before she had a chance to regain her feet, and he effortlessly wrestled her hands behind her back, tying them with a length of rough rope. Grabbing her by the collar of her shirt, he hauled her roughly to her feet, dragging her toward a pack mule.
She screamed again. It seemed about the only thing she was capable of, screaming. She was completely powerless against these brutish men, and she was as angry as she was frightened. How dare they do this to her! She screamed in terror and outrage, fear and fury welling up within her in equal amounts until she thought she would erupt.
“Shut up,” the man holding her snarled. “There ain’t no one to hear you out here!” Although she fought, she was no match for Walt’s strength as he effortlessly slung her across the back of the pack mule, binding her securely with a long strip of rawhide cord that chafed the delicate skin on her wrists.
“You let me go!” she shrieked, but Walt ignored her as he took the pack mule’s reins in his hand and mounted his horse, dragging the mule and Jeannie along behind him.
As soon as Walt turned his back on her, Jeannie started working at the knot that bound her wrists to the saddle. Riding belly-down across the mule as she was, she couldn’t see what was going on around her, so she tried to limit her movements as much as possible—it wouldn’t do to arouse the suspicion of her captors. For nearly an hour Jeannie pulled at the rope, tugging at the knot until her fingers were too sore to continue. Blinking back tears of frustration, she gave up, succumbing to the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
For several hours they rode, while the sun rose higher and higher in the sky until it was directly above them. The wind picked up as they continued across the prairie and Jeannie shivered. The thin shirt she wore was no protection against the chill and it obviously hadn’t occurred to her captors to give her back her coat. She squirmed uncomfortably; as well as being cold, she was numb from being held in the same position for hours on end without being able to move. She had to get free! The Mullins gang would be stopping to make camp soon for their noonday meal; if the cold didn’t kill her first, the fate that awaited her when they stopped just well might. Although her fingers were numb with cold, she worked again at the knots in the rawhide that bound her wrists together and secured them to the saddle. She worked feverishly, determined to get away. The Mullins gang had already taken away her rifle, her horse, and her coat; they weren’t going to take away her honor!