When a rugged stranger darkens the door of her family ranch, Martha Jean Flynn can tell right away that Ridge Longtree is nothing like the other cowboys who show up in search of work. For in the eyes of this raven-haired, half-Indian loner, Martha sees the hint of danger, the depths of sorrow--and the tiniest spark of untold passion.
Indeed, tragedy forced Ridge to leave the Apache stronghold at a young age. But when Martha's father is murdered and Apaches kidnap her younger sister, he cannot bear to see her distraught. Reluctantly, he agrees to lead her to the stronghold to save her kin. But somewhere along the jagged mountain trail, the two discover a passion that threatens to set their hearts aflame and endanger their mission of rescue...
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November 13, 2009
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Excerpt from Under Apache Skies by Madeline Baker
The sound of gunfire rolled through the early morning air like summer thunder. Muttering an oath, Ridge Longtree holstered his Colt. He hadn't wanted to kill the kid, but the young would-be gunman hadn't given him any other choice.
Swinging onto the back of his horse, Longtree urged the big black stud into a lope. The shocked faces of a young mother and her little girl flashed by in a blur as the black raced down the dusty main street, headed for the open prairie beyond.
So much for hanging up his gun and settling down. He had lost track of the men he had killed, the times he had tried to settle down, only to have some young gunsel discover who he was and push him into a showdown. The results were always the same...a blast of gunfire, the stink of death, a quick exodus from whatever town he was in at the moment.
In the beginning, he had relished the thrill of it, the exhilaration of pitting the speed of his draw against that of another. He had lived for the quick rush of fear and excitement as he put his life on the line. But now...hell, now he was just tired of it all.
The black slowed of its own accord after a few miles, and Longtree let the horse set its own pace. Lost in thought, he paid little attention to the direction the stud was taking other than to note that they seemed to be drifting west.
Drifting, he mused. That was all he'd done in the last twelve years, just drift, like some rootless tumbleweed. Of course, for a man who had no ties, and no place to settle down even if he was of a mind to, there wasn't much else to do but drift.
Good whiskey, easy women, and bucking the tiger; those had been his main pursuits since he left home. Somewhere along the way, he had discovered he could draw and fire a gun in the blink of an eye. In addition to being shit fast, he was possessed of an uncanny knack to hit what he aimed at. He had been pushed into killing his first man. He had been young and impulsive at the time, quick to anger, quick to take offense when someone called him a lowdown dirty half-breed. Until that fateful night, he had never fired his Colt at anything more dangerous than jackrabbits and empty beer bottles. But that night, goaded into a showdown, he had drawn his gun and killed a man. He would never forget that night, the recoil of his Colt, the quick flash of muzzle fire, the acrid stink of gunpowder. The sickly sweet, coppery smell of blood that had overpowered everything else.
His first reaction was that he was glad he wasn't the one lying facedown in the dirt. It was only later, after the first rush of adrenaline had passed, that the full impact of what he had done hit him.
He had killed a man only a little older than himself.
He had been arrested and spent the night in jail, only to be released when witnesses declared that Ridge had fired in self-defense. During that one night in jail, he had discovered that he had a powerful dislike for being locked up in small spaces.
He had seen the grief he had caused at the funeral three days later, seen it in the eyes of the young man's mother and father, in the tears that flowed down the cheeks of the boy's intended bride. He had heard the sorrow in the voices of those who had been the young man's friends.
Muttering an oath, Ridge thrust the memory from his mind. He had killed a dozen men since that first one, and in doing so, he had made quite a name for himself. His reputation followed him from town to town, as relentless as his shadow. There was no way to outride it, no way to get shed of it. It stuck to him like a burr to a saddle blanket. In time, he had learned to live with it.
It was near dark when he spotted the house, a sprawling two-story place located in a shallow valley. There were a couple of peeled-pole corrals filled with horses on one side and a big red barn on the other, along with a bunkhouse, cookhouse, and springhouse. Several tall trees shaded the front porch. A long plume of smoke spiraled from the chimney of the main house, and even as he watched, lights appeared in the windows.
The place looked downright prosperous. Prosperous enough to maybe give him a place to bunk down for the night. Clucking to the black, he rode down the hill.
"Rider coming in."
Dani Flynn looked up from where she was setting the table. "Should I set another place?"
Marty Flynn shook her head. "Looks like a stranger," she said, lifting the rifle from the rack above the front door. "And a dangerous one."
"Well," Dani said, "if you invite him to dinner, you might not have to shoot him."
Turning away from the window, Marty glanced at her sister, one dark brow arched. "If I shoot him, we won't have to invite him to dinner."
"Well, you'd better let Pa talk to him before you pull the trigger. We could use another hand, you know. Pa won't like it if you take a shot at this fella and then find out he was just looking for work."
Marty looked out the window once more. "This one doesn't look like a cowhand to me."
The stranger was in the yard now. Mounted on a handsome black horse, he wore a dark gray shirt, black trousers, expensive-looking boots, and a black hat with a snakeskin band. He sat there a moment, his head slowly turning from side to side as he looked the place over. He sat tall in the saddle, his hat pulled low, his hand resting on the butt of his gun.
She watched him dismount, noting the easy way he moved, the fact that he took the time to stroke his horse's neck before dropping the reins over the hitching post. Then the stranger turned toward the house, and she got her first look at his face.
It was a strong face, made up of clean lines and sharp angles. His brows were straight and black, his nose slightly crooked. His jaw was shadowed by a day's growth of bristles. Long black hair fell past his shoulders.
Dani went to look out the window, her eyes widening when she saw the stranger. Maybe her sister was right. He sure didn't look like any of the cowboys from around here. She couldn't put her finger on what it was that set him apart. Maybe it was the way he moved, loose-limbed and confident; maybe it was the fact that his clothes looked more expensive than those worn by the local cowboys. Whatever it was, she didn't like it.
Dani backed away from the window as he climbed the porch steps, sent a worried glance at Marty when the stranger knocked on the front door.
Holding the rifle loosely in the crook of her arm, Marty opened the door.
"Evenin'," said a deep voice. "I was wonderin' if you could put me up for the night."
Standing out of the stranger's sight, Dani watched Marty's gaze move over the man. Marty was a good judge of character, in both horses and in men.
After a long pause, Marty said, "I suppose you can bunk with the hands for the night."
"Obliged to ya."
"Tell Scanlan I said it was okay."
"And you'd be?"
"Martha Jean Flynn."
"Ridge Longtree." He touched a finger to the brim of his hat, turned, and descended the porch steps.
Looking out the window again, Marty watched the stranger take up his horse's reins and walk toward the bunkhouse. He had a long, easy stride. She noticed that his left hand stayed close to the butt of his gun.
"You didn't ask him if he was looking for a job," Dani remarked.
Marty closed the door, her expression thoughtful.
"He's not a cowboy."
Dani didn't think so either, but she couldn't resist asking, "How do you know?"
"Didn't you see the way he wears that Colt? Like it's part of him? I'd bet my last pair of bloomers that he's some kind of fast gun."
Dani leaned forward, her eyes sparkling with curiosity. "Do you really think so?"
"Yes. And you stay away from him, you hear?"
"Don't worry. Anyway, he's leaving tomorrow."
"Yes," Marty said. "And it's a good thing. You'd better finish setting the table. Pa will be home soon."
With a nod, Dani returned to her task.
Walking to the fireplace, Marty put the rifle back in the rack. Pa had gone to town that morning to pick up the mail. Dani was expecting a dress she had ordered from the East. It was the first new dress she'd had in over a year, and Marty couldn't blame her for being excited. Dani set a store by pretty clothes and fancy things. Marty knew Dani was hoping to wear it the next time Cory came to call. Dani was also hoping for a letter from their mother, even though Marty knew a letter would never come.
Nettie Flynn had moved back to Boston seven years ago. She had left without a word, something Marty could neither understand nor forgive. Dani didn't understand it either. She had cried for Mama for weeks, had begged Marty to write their mother and ask if they could live with her, but Marty had flat-out refused. Marty loved the ranch, loved the West, and she wasn't about to go east. Finally, Marty had agreed to write their mother and ask if Dani could live with her. Dani had given the letter to her father and asked him to mail it for her. Weeks passed. Every time Pa came home from town with the mail, she had been certain he would have an answer to her letter. But her mother had never written back.
In the end, Marty had convinced Dani that Mama didn't want them anymore. Marty knew Dani didn't believe that, would never believe it. Marty couldn't help feeling sorry for her sister. She knew Dani often wondered what it would be like to live in the East. If Dani lived with their mother, her life would be much easier than it was now. She would be wearing dresses instead of pants and cotton shirts, pretty shoes instead of boots run down at the heel. But, as Marty had told her sister so often, there was nothing to be gained in daydreaming about things that would never come true.
Putting thoughts of her mother and sister aside, Marty found herself thinking about the stranger. Ridge Longtree. A curious name. He was a handsome man, in a rugged, weathered sort of way. He wore his hair longer than most of the men in these parts. She wondered if he preferred it that way, or if he was just in need of a haircut. Not that it mattered. Tomorrow, he'd be gone.