Reining his horse between catclaw and prickly-pear cactus, Ben Williams squinted at the late summer sun’s low angle. Though still midafternoon, shadows lengthened in the mountains. He clicked his tongue, urging his mare up the incline. “Show a little enthusiasm, Althea. If we’re not in Fort Davis by sunset, we’ll be bedding down with scorpions and rattlesnakes.”
As his detachment’s horses clambered up Wild Rose Pass, the only gap through west Texas’ rugged Davis Mountains, Ben kept alert for loose rocks or hidden roots, anything that might trip his mount. A thick layer of fallen leaves created a pastiche of color shrouding the trail from view. He glanced up at the lithe cottonwood trees lining the route, their limbs dancing in the breeze. More amber and persimmon leaves loosened, fell, and settled near the Native American pictographs on their tree trunks. When he saw the red- and yellow-ochre drawings, he smiled, recalling the canyon’s name—Painted Comanche Camp.
“How far to Fort Davis, lieutenant?” called McCurry, one of his recruits.
“Three hours.” If we keep a steady pace.
Without warning, the soldier’s horse whinnied. Spooking, it reared on its hind legs, threw its rider, and galloped off.
As he sat up, the man groaned, caught his breath, and stared into the eyes of a coiled rattler, poised to strike. “What the…?”
Flicking its tongue, hissing, tail rattling, the pit viper was inches from the man’s face.
A sheen of sweat appeared above the man’s lip. “Lieutenant—”
“Don’t move. That’s an order.” Gripping his saddle horn with a sweaty palm, Ben eased down from his horse.
“I’ll get ’im, sir.” Unsnapping his holster, Dawson reached for his Colt .45.
“As you were, soldier.” Don’t need twitchy fingers shooting McCurry by mistake. Scouting the area, Ben spotted a forked branch on a nearby live oak and snapped it off. Faster than the snake could strike, Ben pinned its head to the ground with the cleft stick. Then before it wriggled away, he grasped the rattler just behind its jaws with his free hand and tossed it out of range.
Dawson stared, slack-jawed. “Why didn’t you kill the varmint, sir?”
Ben shrugged. “No need, soldier.”
McCurry paled. “But it could’ve attacked me.”
“That snake let you off with a warning. It’s only fair to return the favor.” Ben helped the man to his feet. “Now round up your horse, and steer clear of sidewinders. If you find one on the trail, you might find more nearby—could be a nest.”
McCurry gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he turned to pick his way through the piled leaves. Grumbling, his voice faded in the distance. “Why didn’t he just shoot the danged thing?”
As the sun’s fingers lost their grip, slipping behind the mountains, Ben led the cavalrymen inside the fort. Tucked in a canyon with steep volcanic rock walls flanking it on three sides, the garrison provided shelter from the winter’s blue northers. However, from a military tactical perspective, the fort offered little defense against Apache attacks launched from the surrounding vertical cliffs. The elongated barracks and most of the structures clustered at the south end of the parade grounds. Several larger houses were huddled at the north end.
He swept his gaze across the fort’s crew of buffalo soldiers, officers, dependents, and civilians. Washerwomen hung laundry near their thatched, wattle-and-daub huts along “suds row” as they watched the infantry drill on the parade grounds. The officers and their families socialized on their front porches during the evening Retreat Parade as the Tenth Infantry band regaled the garrison with spirited march tunes.
Ben noticed a chestnut-haired young lady on the veranda glance toward him and then, seemingly absorbed in her companion’s story, turn back to the officer. Her laughter floated on the twilight’s breeze. As he rode through the entry, Ben returned the Negro sentry’s salute. “Where can I find the commanding officer?”
The guard pointed to a short, trim figure standing beside the woman. “That’s Captain McShane.”
“Obliged.” Ben turned toward his retinue. “Follow me.” Then he guided his mare toward the porch, the hairs on the back of his neck prickling as he sensed the young woman’s gaze. Riding closer, he noticed the freckles on her buttermilk complexion and her upswept, auburn hair. He stared at her starched, gold-and-green tartan dress, comparing it to his dusty, wrinkled uniform.
Though her amused eyes twinkled, her demeanor was condescending. Look but don’t touch. Outclassed, he squared his shoulders and sat taller in the saddle. Then he turned to the graying captain with a crisp salute. “Second Lieutenant Ben Williams reporting for duty, sir, with Privates Dawson and McCurry.” Though seated on his horse, he still had to look up at the imposing figure on the building’s high porch. He counted the steps—seven. Not a porch, it was a podium, a stage.
“Welcome to Fort Davis,” said Captain McShane, his back ramrod straight. “I’ve heard excellent reports about your reconnoitering skills at Fort Clark.”
“Thank you, sir.” Ben straightened his spine.
The captain indicated the woman seated beside him. “Allow me to present my daughter, Cadence McShane.”
Ben tipped his hat, his throat dry. “Miss McShane.”
His backbone rigid, the captain gestured toward the officer seated beside her. “This is First Lieutenant James West.”
“Sir.” Ben nodded to the mustachioed man as his eyes grazed the woman’s.
“We can use another good man.” West nodded. “Too many Apache attacks on travelers along the San Antonio-El Paso Road.”
“If I understood the commander at Fort Clark,” said Captain McShane, “Williams knows Indians. He was raised by Comanches.”
Uncurling her spine, the lady stared at the newcomer. “Is that true, lieutenant?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ben nodded, mesmerized by her copper-flecked, amber eyes that trapped and radiated the sun’s ebbing light. As she sat in a rocker on the raised veranda, her eyes were nearly level with his. Gazing into them, he was reminded of a hungry wolf.
“Fort Clark’s commander also spoke highly of your hunting skills.” Captain McShane puffed on a cigar. “After you get settled, maybe you could organize a wild turkey hunt for the officers.”
Ben’s shoulders drooped. When will I be accepted as an officer instead of a scout? “Yes—”
“Hunting’s good in the area,” said West, rising, “though as the situation is now, we can’t go more than three or four miles from the fort.”
Chafing at the interruption, Ben stifled his sigh. “Why’s that, sir?”
“Too many Apache raiding parties,” said West. “The remnants of Victorio’s renegades would like nothing better than to ambush a lone hunter. Private Willis found a good lake for bass fishing, not five miles from here, but unless a large detail is assigned, the men are easy pickings.”
“No skirmishes if they’re outnumbered. They just make quiet retreats.” Familiar with the Apaches’ tactics, Ben nodded. “They prefer guerrilla warfare, ambushes, and sorties.”
“With your skills, you’ll be a welcome addition to Fort Davis.” Then waving a hand, the captain signaled to a passing soldier. “Corporal, escort Lieutenant Williams to the unmarried officers’ quarters. Then show these men to the barracks.”
“Yes, sir.” The corporal came to attention as he saluted.
Dismissed. Though his skills were welcomed, Ben reckoned, I’m not…socially. Saluting, he sat tall in the saddle. “Thank you, sir.” Again the outsider looking in, Ben watched the captain and his group settle in for the evening. Then ignoring the familiar pang of exclusion, he tipped his hat with a courtly flourish. “Ma’am.” Looking for validation as a fellow human being, he watched her response. Just because they see me as a savage, do I have to act like one?
Cadence McShane watched Ben’s retreating figure, a dark silhouette against the waning sunset’s ruddy blush. While he had talked to them, she couldn’t help but notice his chin-length, dark, wavy hair, warm brown eyes, or how his uniform hugged his lean, muscular body. Neither had the tantalizing chest hairs peeking from beneath his shirt’s neckline escaped her. What would running my fingertips over his chest be like?
As his raised voice drew her attention, she spun her head toward him. “Yes, Father?”
“You were a million miles away.”
“I was just watching the sunset.” Covering her fib, she glanced at the sky’s last glimmer of light. The evening’s crimson and gold colors morphed into plum and amethyst. Elongated shadows stretched across the parade grounds.
“Tell your mother to set another place at the table. I’ve asked Lieutenant West to stay for dinner after we make the rounds.”
Echoing his words, the bugle sounded retreat as the post officially observed the day’s end.
She glanced toward the unmarried officers’ quarters. I wonder what Lieutenant Williams is doing tonight?
The following afternoon, Cadence sat on the front veranda, sipping tea with two officers’ wives. She wore a straw hat, perched at a jaunty angle, that waved with the breeze. Both shielding her eyes from the sun and concealing her as she peeked from beneath its broad brim, the hat let her watch unnoticed as Ben mounted his horse while she chatted with the ladies.
A sudden gust of wind swept down from the mountains, blowing sand into a dust devil. It captured several dried leaves, swirling them round and round as they spiraled higher into the air. As another gust lifted aloft her bonnet, she shrieked, helpless as the wind carried it to the ground and rolled it along its rim toward the tiny cyclone.
Ben dug his heels into his horse’s sides, steering it toward the dust twister at a gallop. Veering at the last moment, he reached with his left hand and grabbed the hat just before it lifted skyward. Then slowing his mare to a walk, he kept his gaze on the young lady as he rode up to the high porch. “I believe this hat is yours, ma’am.”
Standing, she smiled, never taking her gaze off his. “Thank you, lieutenant.”
“You’re welcome, ma’am.”
As he reined away his horse from the veranda, she inhaled, catching the masculine scents of sun-warmed leather and horses. Warmth crept to her cheeks. “Cadence,” she said. Her voice stilled his hand on the reins.
His smile faltering, he touched his fingers to his hat. “Pleased to be of service, ma’am—”
“Cadence,” she corrected him. Noting her companions’ raised brows and exchanged glances, she gestured toward him, her palm up. “Mrs. Sarah McIntyre and Mrs. Flossie Purdue, permit me to introduce Lieutenant Williams.”
“Ma’am.” He tipped his hat to each. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
Seeing him start away with an informal salute, she gave a polite bow. “Thank you again for fetching my hat…Ben.”
“My pleasure, ma’am—”
“Cadence.” Though she meant to establish an informal friendship, she hoped for more.
“Cadence.” Maintaining eye contact, he grinned as he pulled the reins to one side, turning his horse. “Ladies.” With a courteous nod to the women, he rode off.
Cadence watched him canter away. How wonderful to be so free. Sighing, she glanced back in time to see the lieutenant’s petite, fair-skinned wife pouring tea. “Thank you, Sarah, just half a cup.”
“A handsome man, but once you’re spoken for, is flirting prudent?” Flossie arched her brow.
Cadence resisted the urge to argue. Instead, she shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever do you mean?”
“It’s common knowledge you’re pledged.” Sarah narrowed her gaze.
“Not to my knowledge.” Cadence lifted her bare left hand.
Flossie exchanged a sidelong glance with Sarah. Stirring her tea, she gazed at Cadence. “But you have been seeing a lot of James, haven’t you?”
“Do you mean Lieutenant West?” Knowing full well what she meant, Cadence gave her a wide-eyed smile.
“Of course, I mean Lieutenant West.” Her spoon clinking against the cup as she stirred her tea, Flossie pursed her lips, accentuating her left cheek’s dimple. “What other James is stationed at this post?”
Pretending not to notice the tone, Cadence smiled. “The quartermaster—”
“I meant the James who’s under sixty”—Flossie rolled her eyes—“the one who’s been calling on you these past weeks.”
“I’ve heard it on the highest authority,” said Sarah. “He has a glowing career ahead. As I understand it…”
Following her train of thought, Cadence stifled a frustrated sigh while her gaze tracked Ben leaving the fort’s broad exit, its double gates swung wide open. How I’d love to canter alongside him.
But strict military protocol prohibited her from riding unchaperoned with officers or even fraternizing with enlisted men. Though other women resided at the fort, social order prevented her from associating with the enlisted men’s wives or the hired laundresses. Officers’ wives provided her only social outlet.
She glanced at Sarah and Flossie. Beside her mother, these women were her sole companions, but both were married with half-grown children. If not for tea and gossip, we’d have nothing to talk about.
Raised within the same social structure and well versed with their traditions, she sensed their thoughts. These women expected her to marry a dashing, young officer from West Point, someone like James. They considered marrying into the fold her destiny—and privilege—but Cadence questioned its wisdom. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the challenge? Is James even the right one? If only someone else…
“Cadence…?” Sarah tapped her foot. “Cadence.”
“I’m sorry.” As Sarah’s raised voice penetrated her thoughts, she emerged from her reverie to notice the woman’s thinly veiled scowl. “What was it you’d asked?”
“I said”—Sarah drew in a breath, her lips pressed into a thin line—“you and James make such an attractive couple. When are you two setting the date?”
Cadence sipped her tea before she smiled. “I don’t think we are—”
“Only because he hasn’t asked you yet…” Flossie’s words hung in the air.
As if I have no say in the matter. Annoyed as much at the woman’s knowing smile as at the conversation’s personal turn, Cadence arched a brow. “Whatever do you mean?”
“A little birdie told me…” Flossie paused. “James is planning to propose at the Harvest Ball.” Her smile bright, her eyes gleaming, Flossie leaned forward. “Aren’t you thrilled?”
Blinking and shrugging, Cadence asked herself the same question.
Waiting for dinner to end, Cadence fidgeted, glanced at the clock on the mantel, and stifled a weary sigh.
As he finished his last forkful of applesauce cake and downed his coffee, James turned toward his hostess. “Mrs. McShane, without exception, that trout dinner was the finest I’ve ever eaten.”
“Cady made dinner herself.” The woman beamed at her only child.
“A beauty and a good cook, what a heady combination.” Sitting across from Cadence, James eyed her.
Mrs. McShane exchanged a sidelong glance with her husband.
The words are flattering, those of a beau courting his girl, but his tone sounds like a lieutenant bucking for a promotion. Irritated as much with her parents’ sly exchange as James’ appraising stare, she shrugged before looking away. “I didn’t catch the trout. Lieutenant Williams did.”
“I’ve heard he’s quite the fisherman,” said Captain McShane from his chair at the head of the table.
“Really?” Glancing at Cadence, James tweaked the ends of his dark handlebar mustache before turning back to the captain. “Then instead of a turkey hunt, why don’t we have him organize a fishing party?”
“An excellent idea.” Nodding, the captain smiled. “It’d be a diversion for the officers.”
“And the ladies.” Cadence lifted her chin at a defiant tilt.
“Oh, heavens, not me.” Shuddering, Mrs. McShane held up her dainty hands. “And I doubt Sarah or Flossie would be interested in handling wriggling worms or slimy fish, either.”
Cadence agreed. “But wriggles or slime wouldn’t bother me. I’d like to go fishing,” she blurted out, recalling how she had envied Ben’s freedom as he rode from camp.
“You always were a tomboy.” The captain chuckled.
“I’d hoped she’d have outgrown it by now.” Her mother sighed.
“A good cook who’s as beautiful as she is adventurous.” James’ eyes twinkled as he smiled from across the table. “I find the boldness refreshing.”
Adventurous…refreshing…Have I misjudged him? Tilting her head, Cadence peered at him. Is he flattering me or ingratiating himself to my father? Is his goal to be my husband or the captain’s son-in-law?
Three days later, Cadence, her father, Ben, and Lieutenants James West, Tom McIntyre, and Michael Purdue went on a fishing expedition to Limpia Creek.
Ben acted as the guide, sitting in the wagon driver’s seat with Private Smith, a Negro cavalryman.
Smith moonlighted as the captain’s striker, an orderly, who earned additional pay for his extra-duty work—whatever odd jobs the captain required.
A vibrant indigo sky outlined the Davis Mountains’ craggy peaks. Seeing the dusty magenta blossoms of the cenizos in full bloom, Cadence inhaled their spicy-sweet fragrance as she took in the day’s splendor. Though the sun blazed overhead, the ride was comfortable, with a light wind tousling her upswept, chestnut hair.
Sitting across from her, Tom ran his fingers over his blond hair, smoothing it. “I didn’t know trout were so close to the fort.”
Ben turned to address him. “Traveling from Fort Clark, I saw what looked like a good fishing hole, and that’s just what it turned out to be.” Then he stopped the wagon beneath an aged cottonwood growing alongside the creek.
As James helped her from the wagon, Cadence noticed Ben was not with the other officers ambling toward the stream. Instead, he unharnessed the horses, a menial task usually assigned to enlisted men. She frowned. “Why’s Lieutenant Williams unbridling the horses?”
James gave him a passing glance. “He’s a mustang, an enlisted man who was brevetted during the war.”
Cadence did a doubletake. “He’s not a West Point graduate?”
“He’s not an elementary school graduate.” James snickered.
“I’ve never met an officer who wasn’t academy trained.” She turned to stare at the tall stranger. How fascinating. What stories could he tell?
Cadence dangled a line from a bamboo pole, using a cork for a bobber, while the officers fly casted.
When Ben finally joined the group, he dropped his line at a location several yards upstream from the others and, within minutes, caught the first trout.
“Good show,” called Tom.
She watched the other officers congratulate Ben on his first catch. However, when he caught a second, then a third trout without anyone else getting so much as a nibble, she saw their smiles turn to grumbles.
Cadence pulled her line from the water and joined him. “What’s your secret?”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “Tree roots,” he murmured.
“What do you mean?” She cocked her head to one side.
He gestured toward the water’s edge with his chin.
A maze of tree roots tangled beneath the waterline. The sun’s rays penetrated the creek’s translucent water, highlighting the outlines of trout hiding among the roots.
“They’re shy.” His eyes twinkled.
“Why are you whispering?”
“Don’t want to scare the fish.”
How could I forget? With an understanding nod, she pitched her voice low. “I haven’t fished in a while. Mind if I join you?”
“I’d like that.”
Though his smile beckoned, his upraised palm stopped her.
“But step back.”
“Why?” His contradictory actions were confusing, and she wrinkled her brow.
“See how the sun’s casting shadows?”
“Sorry, I’ve been out east too long.” Stepping back, she stifled a sigh, recalling how fish scatter if they see shadows. Standing just inches from Ben as she dropped her line in the water, she studied him in her peripheral vision: his amazing height, aquiline nose, five o’clock shadow, and full lips. How would they feel—A fish nibbled her bait, pulling on her line, and she flinched.
“Easy,” Ben whispered. “Don’t jerk the rod.”
Concentrating, she held her breath as she gripped her bamboo pole with both hands. This time, the bobber went under a moment before she felt the bite.
“Steady,” he murmured.
The cork bobbed in response to the fish’s nibbles, but she kept firm hands on the pole, waiting. Waiting.
Then the bobber disappeared beneath the water as the fish took the bait and ran. Instinctively, she yanked the pole up and back, hooking the trout as she lifted it from the water.
“You caught a beaut.” Ben swept up the fish in the net.
“I did, didn’t I?” Beaming, she looked from him to the trout and back. One arm holding the pole, she had an impulsive urge to reach out with the other in a victory hug. Then a hair’s breadth from his broad shoulders, she stopped with a self-conscious laugh. “Thank you for your help.” As an afterthought, she connected with his gaze. “Ben.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.”
Captain McShane approached with a red-faced, white-lipped James following close behind. The captain looked at the fish and then nodded. “That trout must be fourteen, fifteen-inches long. Good show, Cadydid.”
At her father’s approval, she struggled to keep a straight face. Though the fish was the largest she had ever caught, she shrugged. “Beginner’s luck.” Then turning her head, she shared a private smile with Ben.
“If you’d like to hand me that line, ma’am, I’ll just add your catch to the stringer.” Palm extended, he reached for her fish pole.
“Thanks again.” As she handed him the pole, she swallowed a smile.
After removing the fish and baiting her hook, Ben returned her bamboo pole. “Ma’am.” His back was towards the captain and James.
Though his tone was cordial but aloof, only Cadence saw his eyes crease at the corners in a conspiratorial grin. She couldn’t resist returning a smile.
Captain McShane shifted his gaze between the bristling lieutenant West and his daughter. “Cady, maybe you can teach James your technique.”
“Excellent idea, captain.” James offered her his arm. “Let’s try our luck in another spot…over here, shall we?” Their fish poles in hand, he led her several feet upstream.
Dragging her feet, she peeked back over her shoulder. What other hidden talents does Ben possess?