“No, no, you can’t be gone, Jamie, no!” Julia panted the half-prayer, half-diatribe over and over again as she pushed the snow away from first a hand, then an arm, a shoulder and, finally, a face. A cold, immobile face.
“No,” she let out a wail to wake the dead as she collapsed over Jamie’s body in grief, sobs pouring out of her like water from a broken pitcher. Guilt over what she’d said and done, and what she hadn’t, filled the empty places he’d left behind, burning their imprint into her soul. Eventually, she quieted, not for lack of grief, but because the deepest levels of emotion can only be maintained for short periods of time. As her sobs drained away to nothing, a tiny corner of her brain wondered where her Aunt Lou was. All the noise should have had her coming on the run.
Lifting her head, she suddenly noticed the chest she’d been resting on wasn’t… still. It moved up and down slowly, painfully slowly. Then… she felt the soft pat of a hand on her back.
“Jamie!” she exclaimed in joyful realization as she turned to look at his face, still blue with cold. But now his eyes were slitted open.
“Must’ve decided on Hell,” he muttered. “Gonna spend eternity with women cryin’ all over me.” Then his eyelids fluttered shut, once again hiding the beautiful crystal blue of his eyes from the world.
“Jamie,” she gasped again, this time plastering hot kisses across the cold skin of his face. “No, wake up, darlin’. Don’t leave me. Wake up!”
“Don’t worry none, I ain’t gonna let ‘im pass just yet.”
The cold words, colder than the wind and snow surrounding them, followed by a quick, vicious kick to Jamie’s ribs that elicited little more than a groan, brought Julia’s head up with a snap.
He stood there looking down at the bedraggled female, hunkered protectively over his rival’s body. What had he ever found attractive about her, he wondered idly to himself. Not that it mattered now. She was his, even if she didn’t know it yet. Once he had his revenge on the worthless snot at his feet, he’d take her home. She could cook, he knew that much. Maybe she could make his Ma’s life easier while keeping him warm during the cold winter nights.
But, first things first.
“Carl, what’re you doin’ here?”
He leered down at her as he reached for something inside his ratty jacket. “Gettin’ what you’ve been promisin’ me since grade school, Injun gal.”
“Carl?” Julia’s voice grew small as she heard the outright hatred in his voice and saw the Colt revolver he’d pulled from his jacket, already cocked. “What… what do you want?”
“Oh, we’ll discuss that at length,” he promised, his disturbing gaze sweeping her from head to toe. “But first, come with me. We’re gonna wake yer beau up, so’s he kin join the party.”
The cold water running across his face, down his cheeks, through his hair and into his clothes jerked Jamie out of his pleasant haze. The sounds of Julia quietly sobbing in the background caressed his ears.
“Yep, Hell,” he muttered to himself as he tried to escape the Devil’s plans for him for at least a few more minutes in the warmth of his dreams. Dreams where Julia plastered his face with kisses and whispered sweet nothings in his ears.
“Oh no you don’t,” Carl hissed, leaning down to wrap his fingers tightly around Jamie’s chin and shake his head back and forth. “Yer gonna wake up and yer gonna watch while I get my share of that slut over there. And yer gonna know that she’s mine from now on. Yer gonna watch us ride off together, knowing that even if you get out of here alive,” Carl’s voice dropped to a harsh whisper as he finished, “You’ll never see her again. And I’ll be havin’ her every night and most days.”
The only thing that kept Julia from losing it, from striking out at Carl with every ounce of her frame no matter how futile, was knowing her Aunt Lou was out there somewhere. That and the fear that anything she might do would push Carl even further over the edge than he’d obviously already gone. She worried what he might do to Jamie then.
She cast another worried glance at her childhood love, now propped up against a tree, barely hanging on to consciousness. His face was beaten to a pulp. She could barely make out his features anymore through the bruising and swelling. She knew from helping him move that he had a major goose egg on the back of his head, most likely from when he fell off his horse. Not to mention the bullet hole in his back and the odd twisting of his leg that told her it was most likely broken. There was little he could do to help them out of the situation other than groan and struggle to stay upright.
“Take off yer clothes.”
“What?” Julia turned wide eyes toward her tormentor.
“Ya heard me. I know ya ain’t got no problem gettin’ nekkid in front of him,” Carl sneered. “So one more watcher ain’t gonna make no never mind to ya. Though I gotta warn ya, after this ya take yer clothes off in front of anyone but me and ye’ll look worse’n him.”
“I will not,” she sniffed at her haughtiest, even going so far as to tip her nose into the air. Though she regretted that move almost immediately when a snowflake went straight down one nostril.
The ominous sound of a hammer clicking back on a gun sharpened her focus on Carl as he grinned maliciously at her.
“Oh, ya will, or I’ll shoot him again,” he sneered. “Somewhere what won’t kill ‘im, just make ‘im hurt a bit more. Ya wouldn’t want that, now would ya?”
Julia looked back over at Jamie, trying to shake his head at her, telling her in his own, silly, protective way not to do what Carl was ordering. Her heart twisted. She could handle much of his foolishness, but she couldn’t let him get shot, again, over her.
Slowly, her hand moved up toward the top button of her coat. As it slipped free and her hand moved down the line to the next button, she kept her gaze focused on Jamie. She’d imagined many times disrobing for him. But not like this. If she kept her eyes on his and the way they devoured her in their unique blue heat, she could pretend it was just the two of them, their wedding night. It really wasn’t so hard, then, she thought as she pulled the shirt off her shoulders and let it drop into the snow on top of her coat. She shivered in the winter wind, nothing but her thin cotton chemise left to stop the cold. But the heat in Jamie’s eyes warmed her from the inside out.
“Hurry it up, Injun,” Carl panted, wetting his lower lip as his eyes followed the movement of Julia’s hand.
And she realized there was a way to distract him. Ripping her gaze from Jamie’s she began to watch Carl instead. The pistol he’d held to Jamie’s head had begun to waiver as his arm tired and his attention focused on her. Instinctively slowing her movements, she bent over as she pushed the trousers over her hips and let them slide down her legs.
“That’s it,” he whispered, a fevered light in his eyes.
“Uh, I need some help here,” she murmured as seductively as she could manage through her inability to breathe properly. “I can’t get them off over my shoes and... the snow is too cold.”
Carl stumbled as he rushed to her side, dropping the pistol on the ground when he fell to his knees in front of her.
“I knew it,” he muttered as he reached for one foot. “I knew ya wanted me.”
“Wanted you to drop the pistol, you bet,” Julia murmured as she pulled back and kicked him in the chin as hard as she could with both legs still trapped in her pants. She had enough force to throw his head back and push Carl onto his back.
She jerked her trousers up and held them closed with one hand even as she bent over and began scrambling through the snow, searching for the pistol with the other. Just as her hand closed over the cold steel of the muzzle, her head was jerked back by the handful of hair Carl had wrapped his hand in.
“Thought ya could put one over on me, did ya? I ain’t so stupid as that.”
Dragging her kicking and squirming into his embrace, he wrapped both arms around hers to hold her in place and plastered his mouth on hers. But she’d managed to hold onto the gun and get it turned around. Just as she was about to cock the trigger, Carl’s hold on her relaxed, his eyes widened and he fell away from her with a surprised grunt.
Without Carl’s possessive clutch, Julia fell to the ground as well, crumpling in place. Still cradling the pistol with her finger on the trigger, she looked up into the grim face of her Aunt Lou.
“What took you so damned long?”
“Had ta wait ‘til ya had him occupied and distracted. What took you so long?” Lou responded with a warning bite in her voice. She bent over and hit Carl in the back of the head again when he started to stir. This time he slumped over, finally completely unconscious. “Least I got here before you shot him. Woulda hated havin’ ta take ya home in handcuffs. Yer Pa woulda killed me fer sure.”
“He was holding a gun on us, on Jamie,” Julia sputtered.
“So?” Lou shrugged. “You’da been acquitted at trial fer self-defense. Wouldn’ta changed me havin’ ta arrest ya. Things ain’t the way they was ‘round here when I was young. They’ve gotten civilized.”
Without waiting for another word from Julia, she knelt down at Jamie’s side and carefully began inspecting his injuries. “Didn’t stop you once ya made up yer mind ta do something. ‘Sides, I couldn’t get a clear shot at him ‘til ya got him distracted enough fer me ta leave cover.” Pointing at Jamie’s leg with her chin, she added, “Check that leg. Is it as bad as it looks?”
“Would you two stop chattering like a pair of hens and help me out here?” Jamie muttered through gritted teeth. v“It’s cold, I’m barely holdin’ on ta my wits and I hurt,” he complained.
Julia knelt on Jamie’s other side and ripped open his pants’ leg to inspect the flesh beneath. The material unexpectedly tore all the way up to the hip, leaving his muscled limb completely bared to her gaze. Julia flushed at the sight and what it made her feel, especially sitting there staring at him while he was barely conscious, under his mother’s gaze. She tentatively reached out and ran her hand up and down the skin, marveling at how soft it was, despite the tensile strength of the muscles beneath. The sight of the bruises already mottling his thigh distracted her from her growing curiosity.
Concentrating on the injury, she began to gingerly push and prod at it to get a feel of the bone wrapped in all that interesting skin and muscle.
“Ow!” Jamie suddenly screeched, pushing her away with surprising strength.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “Sorry.” But she went back to her probing, trying to be a little more gentle. Finally, “It’s definitely broken,” she said. “I can feel both ends.”
“I guess it’s a blessing the bone didn’t break through the skin,” Lou sighed, rocking back on her heels. “But if it’s broken there’s no way he can ride. Not even double.”
“What are we going to do?” Julia asked,
“We’ll have to build a travois,” Lou answered. Looking at her son, she added, “It’ll still hurt like you ain’t never felt before. But it’ll be easier than tryin’ ta ride.”
“Let’s just get this over with,” Jamie sighed, letting his head fall back against the tree trunk.