Valentine angel, p.4
Valentine Angel, page 4
Mary calculated the distance. Unfortunately, Samuel lay right in line with Sykes’s rifle barrel. That meant if she were to reach Samuel at all, she had to distract Sykes. Or, she decided, if she could get him to come out in the open, she could get him.
She closed her eyes and said another prayer. Then, swinging the door a little wider, she waved to Sarah to get out of the way while she stepped back to position herself on the far side of the table.
If Sykes was looking for the chance to run at the house, this would be it.
Sarah moved to the corner of the kitchen, her eyes full of tears, her expression almost hideous from the strain and fear etched across her face. Then she buried her face in her hands to stifle her crying.
Mary turned back to wait. It seemed forever.
Finally, she heard footsteps. Racing across the yard. Slowing, stopping, moving forward cautiously. She held her breath.
Then the footsteps halted. She raised her gun and took a quick breath.
“He’s mine,” she heard from behind her.
Startled, she glanced over her shoulder. It was Jake. He was leaning against the table, but the harsh glint in his eyes revealed his dark intent.
Impatiently, she motioned for him to get down, but he shook his head and defiantly straightened his spine. “This is my fight,” he said.
That’s when Sykes kicked the door open wide, and, with gun leveled, stepped into the house.
Jake fired first, but Sykes fired almost simultaneously, and Jake fell to the floor with a heavy thud, while Sykes, gasping, dropped his gun and stumbled backward, out onto the porch.
Enraged, Mary jumped up and fired. Then she charged after the stunned Sykes, and fired again, this time hitting him squarely in the chest. “Fiend!” she cried. “Murderer!”
Eyes frozen with contempt, Sykes landed in the yard, only inches from where Samuel lay unconscious and bound. His blood quickly turned the mud a slimy red.
The smell of gunpowder filled the air.
Sarah ran to her, sobbing, and threw her arms around her. “I thought he’d kill you!”
Mary shook herself free. “Sarah, it’s Samuel!”
Instantly Sarah turned, and, screaming, ran out to where Samuel lay. “Samuel!” she wailed over and over.
Meanwhile, Mary rushed in to Jake who lay on the plank floor, blood oozing from a wound to his right shoulder.
He shook his head. “Damn, I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I guess I’m not worth a plug nickel anymore.”
“You’re alive,” Mary cried. “That’s all that matters.”
He tried to smile. “Sykes—”
Mary shook her head. “He didn’t give us a choice.” She leaned in closer. “But I’ve got to go help Sarah. Samuel is out there. Can you stand to wait?”
Mary nodded. “He must have run into Sykes on his way here.”
Jake nodded. “Go, Mary. Go.”
Pushing herself to her feet, Mary rushed out to help Sarah who held Samuel in her arms. Her voice was a hoarse whisper. “I think he’s dead, Mary. I think he’s dead.”
Mary moved closer. “No, Sarah, look.” She leaned over, pressing her ear to his chest. “He’s alive. Come on! Let’s get him inside.”
Weeping, Sarah unwrapped the cords that bound his wrists and ankles. He’d been dragged for quite a distance, thought Mary bitterly. Mud and dirt had filled every fold of what remained of his officer’s coat and trousers, and his normally curly brown hair was coated with mud. As Sarah turned his face toward her, Mary saw that the flesh on his cheeks had been scraped raw.
“Agh!” cried Sarah.
Mary pressed her hand to her sister’s trembling shoulder. “He’ll heal,” she whispered. “Let’s get him inside.”
Samuel was bigger than Jake, however, so it was hard to negotiate the steps up and into the house. Both were breathless by the time they reached the back door.
“Into Papa’s room?” asked Sarah.
“Yes,” huffed Mary. “There’s no way we can get him upstairs.”
They managed to half-carry, half-drag him into the small room and, like they had done with Jake, they stretched him across Papa’s narrow cot. Sarah immediately took control and Mary, relieved that her sister had gathered her wits and was in control, let her take the lead.
“There’s no blood at least,” whispered Sarah, “but the skin on his face and arms is like raw meat. What did Samuel do to deserve this?”
Mary shook her head. “Nothing, Sarah. He did nothing. Sykes was a blood-thirsty killer,” she said. “I think he’d kill anyone who’d stand in his way.”
Sarah raised her head. “What are we going to do with his body? He’s lying there dead in the yard.”
Mary nodded. “I know. I know. But we have two men who are barely alive and need our help. The dead man will just have to wait ’til we can get him buried—or hauled off.” She stiffened. “Maybe we ought to let the vultures have him.”
Mary returned to where Jake sat, propped against a table leg. She knelt beside him. “Let’s get you back to bed. It looks like we have another bullet to remove.” She tore the seam of his shirt away. “I hope this is the last one, Mr. Morris—Jake,” she murmured. “I hope you can manage the stairs? We’ve got Samuel in Papa’s room.”
Jake grimaced. “Sorry about Samuel.”
“He’s safe and he’s alive,” returned Mary. “That’s all that matters. That, and getting the two of you back on your feet.”
Jake took a slow, deep breath. “You are my guardian angel, Mary. You have now saved my life—not once—but twice.”
“And you have undoubtedly saved many lives, Jake Morris.”
He frowned. “But I’ve lived a hard life, Mary. Been around killing and killers for most of my life. Do you understand that that is why I’ve always avoided—this—”
“This?” she asked, hoping he hadn’t noticed how she’d begun trembling.
He smiled a crooked, tantalizing smile. “If you haven’t figured it out yet,” he murmured, “let me say it right out. I—I love you…”
Mary shook her head. “Please—” She was suddenly too undone and her mind hazy, whether from the terrifying events they’d just undergone or from Jake’s unexpected, tender words, she wasn’t sure. “You need a doctor, Mister Morris, but until then, I fear you’ll have to put up with me once again.”
He closed his eyes. “I have no doubt I’m in the best hands possible.”
She shook herself as she reached under his left shoulder to help him to his feet. This was outrageous! How could she even think that Jake’s words were anything more than the rantings of a half-crazed man? “Up,” she directed.
He grimaced and his eyes flew open. “Mary, did you hear me?”
“No, not delirious.” He leaned against her, his face just inches from hers. “And I’m not too spent to repeat it. I love you.”
“Ohhh,” she returned, trying to resist the urge to throw her arms around him. How could she trust such declarations?
When they reached the top of the stairs, Jake had to stop and rest. He leaned against the railing, but he wanted to continue the conversation he’d started. Clearly, Mary was disturbed by his confession. Biting her lip, she hadn’t spoken since they started up the staircase, and he could see the consternation in the way she narrowed her gaze.
“Mary,” he said.
She glanced at him but said nothing.
“I—I don’t say these things to upset you, and I know we’ve only known each other for—” He took a quick breath.
“Less than a week,” she finished for him. She arched her dark brows as if to emphasize how ridiculous she thought he must be.
“Almost a week,” he said.
“Mr. Morris—Jake,” she said, “we have been through a lot, and I suspect that people say—feel—things they might not in other circum
She shifted her position, and he tried to ease the pressure his weight was putting on her, but he wasn’t ready to release her—yet—and he needed her to hear what was on his mind, before he passed out or never got another chance. “So you think what I’ve said is nothing more than delirium?”
Mary hesitated. “Please, Jake, can’t we—”
He glanced down at his shoulder, which had begun to bleed again. “No, not until I’ve finished.” But he was growing weaker by the moment. “I—I never thought I was the marrying kind. I’ve always been a loner.” He hesitated. “But with you, with you, I have found—something. I could spend the rest of my life with you, Mary. And even that wouldn’t be long enough—”
Suddenly, the world began to close in and he tried to shake it away. He had to remain upright. Just a bit longer, he thought. He had to convince her. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Was that her whispering, “My love…”
And was she crying?
He woke up in a brightly lit bedroom. The soft pale linen curtains had been pushed aside and the midday sun came streaming through the open window.
He glanced around. He didn’t recognize this as the room he’d been in before. Looking down, he realized that he was shirtless and had been bandaged; someone had apparently doctored his bullet wound.
He had no recollection of anything… how long had he been out?
Mary’s face appeared at the open doorway. “Hello,” she whispered, blushing as his gaze swept over her.
She looked lovely, he thought. Beautiful. Her hair had been freshly groomed and was brushed up on top of her head. She wore a cream-colored waistcoat that boasted tiny ivory colored buttons. Was she going somewhere?
He pulled himself to a sitting position, grimacing as he flexed his muscles. “You look—look lovely.” He sighed. “Is it Sunday?”
Mary flushed. “No, not Sunday, but the preacher is coming to dinner.”
Mary smiled. “You’ve missed all the excitement, I’m afraid,” she said. “After we got you inside, we caught Sykes’s horse, and I rode to get the doctor. He came out and doctored Samuel—and you,” she added.
“How is Samuel?”
“He was roughed up, but he’ll be fine.”
Jake looked down at his shoulder. “Thank God. So the doctor—”
Mary nodded. “Yes, and he did a far better job than I could have done on your shoulder. The bullet lodged pretty deep.”
Jake shook his head. “You are more than a fair doctor, Mary.”
She shrugged. “Out of necessity only.”
Jake smiled. “And is he still here?”
Mary shook her head. “No, he left right away. Another emergency.” She seemed to be looking him over carefully. “You’ve been out for a good two days. The doctor said between all three gunshot wounds, you’ve lost a lot of blood. He said you’d need rest.”
Jake sighed. “I’m fine—”
“You will be. At least the worst is over. The sheriff and the posse came out. They took Sykes’s body—” She narrowed her gaze. “I honestly hope they buried him in a shallow grave.”
Jake frowned as he peered into Mary’s dark eyes. “He should have hanged. I’d have enjoyed watching him swing.”
Mary cocked her head. “Enough about him. The sheriff brought out a very handsome reward. Sykes murdered a bank teller down at French Creek on his way here, and it raised the reward considerably.”
Jake shook his head. “I can’t take reward money.”
Mary shrugged then smiled. “That’s what the sheriff said, so—” she added slowly, mischievously, “we accepted it on your behalf. And, to be honest, Sarah and I—well, we already spent it.” She lowered her voice as he laughed out loud. “Jake, it was more than enough to pay off the mortgage on this place.”
“That’s good news,” he said. But the money meant nothing to him. It was Mary that meant everything.
“And it not only paid off the mortgage,” Mary piped, “but we were able to purchase a beautiful gelding for you, and a buggy and buggy mare for us.”
He inhaled deeply. “Well, damnation, I’m sorry I missed all the excitement.”
Mary laughed, and suddenly Jake wanted to wrap her in his arms and hold her, inhale her, love her. She was more woman than he ever expected to come into his life.
As she took another step forward, he reached for her right hand and turned it over gently. Her fingers were slender and lean, but they had seen their share of work. He cradled her hand for a long moment and then, without asking permission, he raised her open palm to his lips and kissed it. “You deserve every bit of the money—and more—” he whispered. “So much more.”
He glanced up and caught the flush of color racing to her cheeks. “There is more,” she added, smiling.
“Yes,” she said. “We were able to get hold of the preacher. He comes through only once a month, and he was scheduled to marry Samuel and Sarah on his next trip, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Well, there’s no stopping Sarah once she makes up her mind, and she was not about to let Samuel out of her sight again, limping and bandaged or not—so—”
Jake understood. “So there’s going to be wedding?”
“Yes. In about an hour,” Mary said. “Downstairs. I’m afraid it will be a small, very simple affair—”
“Who needs more than that?” he whispered.
“Yes, who needs more than that,” repeated Mary softly. “They have each other.”
He hesitated, but suddenly he knew what he needed to do. “Mary?”
Her voice cracked. “Yes, Jake?”
Closing his fingers around hers, he pulled her down to him, so close he could smell lilacs. The soft whoosh of her petticoats was the only sound as she sat down on the edge of the bed.
He inhaled her scent. He’d give anything to feel the soft flesh hidden under her dress. He hesitated. “Would you mind helping me shave? I’d hate to show up at a wedding looking like this.” He rubbed his stubbled chin with his right hand. “Maybe a bit of trim around the edges, too?”
“Of course,” she said.
The splash of color in her cheeks heightened his arousal. “And one more thing.”
“Yes, Jake?” She cocked her head as he studied her.
Just then, Sarah appeared at the doorway, a broad smile across her face. Beside her, leaning on a cane, with his left arm in a sling and his face scraped and swollen, stood a handsome young man. It had to be Samuel.
Sarah leaned into the room. “Are we interrupting anything?”
Mary smiled. “Of course not.”
Jake nodded. “It’s about time I met the elusive Samuel.”
Samuel nodded. “Sheriff—”
“Please, just Jake. And I’m sorry you had to meet up with Sykes,” he added soberly. “I trailed him for four weeks and hoped to corner him before he cornered anyone else.”
Samuel hobbled in. “He was a bad one,” he said. “He ambushed me at the bridge. Shot my horse right out from under me. We fought but I’m afraid he got the best of me. After that—after that,” he sighed, “I don’t remember much.”
Sarah sidled up to him and slipped an arm through his. “It was Mary that saved the day,” she said. “I’m afraid I was worthless throughout it all, merely cowered in the corner waiting for—for you,” she whispered into Samuel’s shoulder.
He squeezed her fingers and pressed his cheek against the top of her head. He stood several inches over her, even as he leaned heavily on his cane. “Mary was a godsend, to be sure.”
Jake, eyeing Mary, agreed.
Mary cleared her throat. “Enough.”
Samuel smiled. “Well, this day would not be ours if it hadn’t been for your courage.”
Mary reached out and wrapped her fingers around her sister’s. “And we’ve been waiting for this day for several months.”
Samuel kissed the top of Sarah’s head. “Yes, I daresay.” He turned to Jake. “And we thought you might stand up with us today, Jake.”
Jake, seeing the admiration and adoration Samuel and Sarah obviously felt for each other, sat up straighter. “Absolutely, but I do, however, have a request.”
Samuel nodded. “Anything—”
Jake turned to Mary, her nearness like a tonic. He smiled, hoping she could read the love that was in his heart. He took both her hands in his. His heart pounded as he took a deep breath. “Would either you, Samuel—or Sarah—mind if there was, in fact, a second wedding today?”
Mary’s eyes grew wide. “Jake—”
Sarah tittered, “Oh, Mary! Oh, Samuel—yes—we wouldn’t mind, would we?”
Samuel laughed out loud. “Hell, no! Let’s make it a double ceremony.”
Jake swallowed, and spoke, slowly, carefully, “Save me, one more time, Mary. Be my Valentine Angel and marry me—”
“Jake, are you sure?”
“I’ve never been more sure of anything.”
Laughing, Mary leaned forward and kissed him deeply, longingly, lovingly. Then, with tears in her eyes, she whispered, “Yes, Jake, yes!”
About the Author
Gail L. Jenner is the wife of a fourth generation cattle rancher. They live on the original family homestead where history is part of everyday life. A former history and English teacher, Gail is the author of five regional nonfiction histories (published by Arcadia Publishing and Old American Publishing), and two novels, including the WILLA Award-winning novel, ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS. Gail and her husband have three married children and seven grandchildren. A gardener and cook, she enjoys cooking for ranch hands, family, and friends. In addition to all of this, she enjoys time on the ranch— working cows on horseback or working as her husband’s sidekick. In her spare time, she is a partner in Jenner Family Beef and works as a volunteer librarian, museum curator, and appears as a speaker at local and regional educational and writing workshops.
For more about Gail, visit: www.gailjenner.com
by Gail L. Jenner have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes