Behind the Ranges, Book VI
He is seeking a lost child, she her stolen children. Neither suspects their quests could cost them their lives—and their hearts.
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"...a mystery wrapped in history and tied with a sparkling ribbon of romance. In fact, it is several mysteries, which just makes reading it all the more of a pleasure."~~Elizabeth K. Burton, Blue Iris Journal
A ruckus on the street caught his attention. Buff stepped out the door and looked down toward the Deep Six Saloon.
Men were erupting from the saloon and running up from the dock. He headed that way himself, curious. Fights on Sunday mornings, were, in his experience, rare. Most everybody was more interested in waiting out a hangover than starting a new drunk. He was close to the outer edge of the milling crowd when he heard the yell. A woman's voice. Oh, shit!
Deeper, louder cries drowned it out. Buff knew he was probably being a fool, but he pushed through the outer fringe, knowing he had no choice. If there was a woman in danger, he had to help, no matter why she'd got herself in a pickle.
The inner circle of men was, to his surprise, simply acting as a ring around the combatants.
Combatants? It looked to him like the man was doing his best to get away, while the woman was set on beating him to a pulp. She was clubbing him on the head and shoulders with a bent umbrella, all the while yelling imprecations in some foreign language.
"Du ljuger! You lie! Martine stal mina--"
Her voice was drowned out by a cheer as she got in another good swat.
He decided to watch. I wonder who Martine is and what she stole. If the woman started losing the fight, he'd drag her away, but until then he'd mind his own business.
Apparently everyone else had decided to do the same. The men were calling encouragement to both of them, although he'd bet more of them were on her side than his.
The fellow ducked away from another blow. "No. She was alone when--"
"Du ljuger! Djävul, djävul," she cried as she followed him. The movement brought her around so Buff got his first good look at her face.
Siri! My God, it's Siri!
Tears streamed down her cheeks. "Du ljuger!," she cried again, giving her victim one last good whack. "Djävul," she whimpered, as she sank to her knees and let the ruined umbrella fall from her hands.
Amid catcalls and laughter, Buff went to her. Cautiously, because a woman could be as dangerous as a man in the right circumstances. "Siri," he said, softly. "Siri, It's me. Buff Lachlan."
She only drew in upon herself and settled lower onto the rutted street.
Without touching her, he looked around at the few men remaining close by. "Can somebody tell me what that was all about?"
"Hell, she's crazy!" one said.
"He was mindin' his own business and she come up and started yellin' at him," another added.
The big fellow Buff had bested on Friday night was on the porch of the saloon. Barney? Yes, Barney. "What do you know about this?" Buff called to him.
"Not much. Her kids went missing a while back and she's been lookin' for 'em ever since. She yelled something about him knowin' where they was before she started thrashin' him."
Children? She'd said she was a widow. She'd said nothing about children. Well, hell!
Carefully he slid his arms around her. She made no resistance. He might as well have been picking up a sack of grain. When he was on his feet, she lay perfectly slack in his arms. For her height, she was surprisingly light. No wonder her cheeks were hollow and her eyes shadowed. She was nothing but skin and bones.
He headed up Benton, the quickest route to the hotel. He'd crossed Wall and was finding the hill steeper than he remembered when she spoke.
"I can walk." Her voice was rough with swallowed tears.
"I'm doing fine. Why don't you relax and enjoy the ride?"
She pushed against his chest, tried to break free of his grasp. "Släpp mig! Put me down!"
Buff held on tighter. "Calm, down. I'm not going to hurt you. Unless you wiggle so much you make me fall. Then I'll probably land on top of you, and we'll both end up with broken bones."
She pulled back as far as she could go and stared at him. "You are joking?"
"Not a bit. You saw how sick I was last night. I'm still weak. Why, I can hardly hold onto you." He loosened his grip momentarily and made as to let her drop.
She gasped and grabbed his shoulders. "Nej!" Immediately she bit her lip, as if the word had snuck out while she wasn't watching.
"Then hold still."
Actually, Buff hadn't been entirely joking. He was feeling the effects of last night's illness. Now he was honor bound to carry her all the way home without staggering the last hundred feet. It wouldn't be easy. His knees were going rubbery and his arms ached. Good thing she's a skinny little thing. Last night took more out of me than I realized.
He kept silent the rest of the way, knowing if he spoke, his words would show just how hard he was working. No man worth his salt would let a chivalrous deed seem difficult.
It was a good thing he didn't have to climb the last ways to the front door. He'd never have made his legs raise him another half-block. At the back steps, he let Siri slide to her feet and took a deep, hopefully surreptitious breath. As her body slid along his, he noticed that, while she was skinny, she wasn't lacking in the soft flesh that made women so much different from men. So delightfully different.
He held her a moment longer than good manners allowed.
She clung to him a little longer than was necessary.
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