If the horse hadn't bolted, he'd have been dead three years before, hung for a crime he never committed.
Are you not El Primero Sabe?” Paco asked, and William shook his head. Hiding behind a full tinted hair, skin and beard to cover the scars, he denied any special abilities. Had he any, he would have known to never rob that last stage. If he survived Ollie’s torture long enough, he’d hang. One woman, beautiful, cold and unforgiving, could save him if she didn’t kill him herself. She’d sworn she’d see him hang, not that William blamed her after what he’d done.
They were in a circle around her, hooting and laughing as they slowly undressed her. She stood as still as a wooden carving as they took turns jumping out of the circle to pull a button loose. Her jacket lay in the dust a few feet from her, and only one button still held her blouse in place. Before he could stop them, one jumped forward, flipped the last button free and tore the blouse off.
In Spanish William roared at them as he leaped from a still-running horse. "Fools! Have you no respect?"
"It is as we always do," one exclaimed in surprise.
"Not to ladies." He leaned down and retrieved the woman's blouse. He gave it a violent snap to shake the dust from it before he held it out to her, but he did not forget the part he played no matter how angry he was. He switched to English with a heavy accent. "My pardon this has happened."
Her hand did not move to accept the blouse. Even though he stood directly in front of her, her gray, blazing eyes, in a face that challenged the angels in beauty, did not look at him. Estimating her age to be no more than eighteen at first glance, he realized she was at least a few years older as he moved, putting himself in line with her gaze. She very deliberately shifted her eyes away.
"You are right," he told her quietly. "I am not fit to look upon." He raised her arm, draped the blouse over it, and with a short bow added, "We go now."
As he turned, words from her, cold and hard, stopped him with a jerk. "I will have my locket back," she said, her contempt cutting like a sword.
"You have stolen from her?" he demanded of his men.
Never had any of them seen El Primero angry. The guilty man stepped forward, digging into his pocket. He kept his eyes to the ground, afraid to face the cold fury, and held the locket out with a trembling hand. "The chain is broken."
William turned the locket in his hand, gold, very old, and beautifully crafted with a filigree design covering the front. He could understand why the man had taken it and why she wanted it back.
"Tie it," she ordered as William held it out to her.
He stepped behind her and draped the chain over her head, a head that barely reached his shoulder with hair the color of spun gold, to see the man had not been gentle in taking it. There was a welt on her neck where the chain had been ripped off and below it, barely showing from beneath the edge of her chemise, was a mark he could not believe, distracting him from tying the chain. That Manual had scratched her breaking the chain, yes, but to strike her? The mark was there, yet as he touched it gently to verify what his eyes saw, he realized the bruising was older and fading, the scab nearly healed.
She was lying face down with the sun beating on her back. Her skirts were what William had seen being tossed by the wind. Her face was turned away from him, and not until he knelt beside her did he see the blood or hear the erratic breathing. Cold, gut-wrenching fear washed over him. His movements were jerky, and his hands shook. Once again he had found and was with a woman who had been beaten. If he was seen—William backed off, trembling, the memories making him sick. He couldn't live through it again. If they beat him again, if they beat him like they had before—No, he thought, they'd kill me.
They would make sure he did not escape again, and strangely that thought steadied him. He leaned against Grande with both hands and his head down to catch his breath and settle his nerves. Dead was dead, and if they did get him again, they would finish what they started, doing him a favor. The beating had not been the worst part. He’d been unconscious before it was over. The worst had been the recovery with pain that it had seemed would never end.
Not that he would willingly let them get their hands on him again, but what was he going to do with her? The nearest town was Coburn. He couldn't take her there, nor could he take her to any of the ranches close by. He thought of just giving her water, moving her to the scant shade of a scrub oak and leaving her. Someone would be looking for her. A woman didn't just disappear without someone looking for her, but he couldn't depend on her being found, and he couldn't leave her without knowing someone would soon enough. Nor could he stay to be found with her.
William soaked his handkerchief with water from his canteen and began to clean the blood from her face. His hand froze before he finished cleaning one cheek. Logic told him it could not be her even as his eyes traveled over the dust-covered clothes. The color of her clothing was right, but he had left her miles away in the safety of three men. Paco had told him there were three, though he hadn't noticed.
He didn't believe—didn't want to believe—it was her, but his hand pushed back her high collar. The chain was there, the welt was there, but how could this be the haughty lady from the stage? What was she doing here in that condition? Where were the men she had been with?
His mind raced. One of those men had attacked her, the same way Sharon White had been attacked three years ago in Coburn. That stage was going to Coburn. While three years ago it had been impossible to guess the identity of one specific man in a town full of men, only three had been with that stage. More, she could name the man. For the first time, he might have a chance to clear himself. She had to know which of them it had been.
The next thought sobered his excitement: The man who attacked her also had to know she could name him. She had to be in a safe place until she healed. He couldn't move around with her, and the place had to be safe for him as well. Only two possibilities existed—the hideout or Juan's. The hideout was closer, but she'd take one look at that band of thieves, and he could forget about getting any help from her. He couldn't expect her to trust the ones responsible for leaving her in the desert, especially him, their leader. Juan's was the only safe place for both of them.
The sight of her, arms crossed over her chest and a stony look on her face wasn't encouraging. He had chopped wood for four days using the excuse Juan would need wood to postpone this meeting. He would have liked to leave again, but he had to know. He walked toward her, hat in hand.
Her words cut like a knife. "That was a touching scene. All for my benefit?"
William recognized the tone. He didn't understand the words. "Beg your pardon?" he asked and stopped several feet from her.
"A man kind to small boys can't be all bad. Very well played, but it does not change a thing. You're still nothing but an outlaw. Repented, of course, but still a thief."
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed, feeling the way he had when she had refused to look at him. "You haven't got any use for me, with reason. I wouldn't bother you, only I need to talk to you about what happened."
"To convince me I shouldn't tell anyone that you're Primero? Don't waste your time," she told him with each word slashing at him.
"I won't," he said patiently. "What I want to know is who attacked you. If you don't know his name, just tell me what he looked like."
"Three years ago the same thing happened in Coburn. That's a town—"
"I know where it is, and I don't care what happened there."
She turned into the house. William followed. "No reason you should, but I think it's the same man."
He stopped just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the change of light. "I want that man."
"It was dark. For all I know it was you." She drew back when his hand reached for her and screamed, "Keep away from me."
His arm dropped, but both hands clenched to keep them from shaking. "You know it wasn't me," he ground out. "Don't say it."
"It was your fault! If you hadn't left me out there, it wouldn't have happened. You're as guilty as he is. I should tell them it was you. I hope they catch you and hang you!"
"No!" Juan cried. "Señorita, you do not know what you say."
"Ask him! Ask him if his men didn't undress me like a whore! Ask him!" Her hands were in fist, and she hit him, over and over in the face and chest.
William didn't dodge or raise his arms to ward off the blows. Juan stopped her. When he pulled her away, William turned and left the house.
The reunion was warm and friendly with a lot of back-slapping and hand-pumping. "Nat Gibson, you old son-of-a-gun," Dave said. "What brings you here?"
"This mess you got. What's going on? How did Tipi—of all people—get herself lost?"
Ollie was obviously smarting at being cut out, but Nat didn't care. He figured Ollie was lazy, sitting in his office taking all the credit while Dave did all the work. Good thing Dave had been willing to take the deputy's job after the town voted him out as sheriff, or Coburn would have no law at all. He wanted answers, and he didn't like what he got from that poor excuse of a sheriff.
"Didn't know it was Tipi until an hour ago. Have to go at it different now. Figured a city gal would travel in circles like they all do when they ain't used to the desert. We searched a ten-mile circle before the sheriff called it off. It being Tipi…well, hell you know her. If she did lose track of the rest of the party, she knows where Coburn and Prescott are. She'd head north toward them. It wouldn't be anything for her. She made longer trips than that when she was twelve."
Nat chuckled with the memory of some of the stunts that little girl had played. "Be just like her to take off on her own unless you're worried about some kind of foul play."
"Really don't know what to think. Don't know why she would have gone off without telling anyone she was going and knowing Primero's men were around. They'd seen her, and Harry, the driver, says she's turned into quite a looker. Could be one of them hung around to wait for a chance at her, but from what Harry says, Primero had them whipped like a pack of dogs for what they did."
"Did?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Yeah," Dave said with a quirk of his eyebrow. "Enough for Carlos to figure her honor's been insulted."
Nat grimaced. "What's P.T. say?"
"Don't know yet. I just sent a telegram to tell him and asked him to bring Carlos."
"Carlos would come, asked or not. I just hope we don't need him."
"Who's Carlos?" Ollie asked with distain in his voice.
"Best tracker in the world, and he's Tipi's godfather. One way or the other, he'll find her," Dave answered. To Nat he said, "If it's the other, there will be dead men to pay for it."
Nat nodded. "If it comes to that, I just hope El Puma takes his revenge out of my territory."
"Huh?" Ollie grunted.
"El Puma, the panther," Dave explained. "And Carlos is well named, only don't make the mistake of calling him that to his face."
Somewhere along the line of going from one to the other, many of my reviews were lost. This is one of those. Anyone who would like to give Twisted Wind a review, I would happily provide an ebook copy.