Once Upon a Time in the West #3


   Rose Varner needed a man. And not just any man, but the one the Cheyenne called the White Ghost With Hair of Fire.

   “Folks go into the Smoky Hills,” said a barkeep in one of the endless supply of tiny towns in north central Kansas, “and none of ’em come out.” He lowered his voice as if imparting a secret. “He done killed ’em and buried ’em up there.”

   “Why would he do that?”

   “He lived with the Cheyenne once. Crazy, murderin’ bastards. Done turned the ghost plumb crazy. They say he talks to the spirits.”

   “If everyone who’s ever gone into the hills hasn’t come back, then who’s saying this?”

   The barkeep’s forehead furrowed. “Huh?”

   Rose gave up and moved on. Everywhere she went she heard tales of the White Ghost. He was tall; he was strong; he was brave, bold, and daring. Everyone agreed he’d been a soldier, but some insisted he’d worn blue, while others swore he’d worn gray. He had lived with the Indians. However, opinions varied as to whether he’d been captured and enslaved or joined them willingly.

   She tried to hire a guide to take her into the Smoky Hills, an area of strange, chalk-shaded rock formations that folks had started to call “badlands,” but she could not entice a single soul to accompany her there. The legends terrified everyone.

   Except Rose. She was too terrified of what would happen if she didn’t go.

   The Smoky Hills were visible for miles. She couldn’t miss them if she tried. She didn’t need a guide. She would ride to them alone. Once she was there, she wouldn’t leave until she found him.

   As her funds were dwindling, Rose purchased a small number of provisions. She wasn’t certain what she would do when she ran out. Her split riding skirt and loose man’s shirt had been torn and mended and washed so many times they appeared older than she was. Her boots and her slouch hat were the same. She should have brought her coat, but she hadn’t thought she’d still be riding when winter came round again. She’d been forced to buy another from an undertaker several months back. Hadn’t wanted to—the garment had previously belonged to a dead woman—but the price was right and the snow had been falling.

   She reached the hills about midafternoon and urged her horse through the brush and scrub, then into the shade of the towering rock formations. Shadows flickered, cool and navy blue. Spring in Kansas could go either way. She’d seen patches of snow on the prairie and ice floating on the rivers, which had made the sunshine today seem like pure heaven.

   The rumors of precisely where the White Ghost lived had been as plentiful as the rumors of his origins. Another amazing wealth of information considering that no one had ever returned from the region alive.

   Rose patted her mare’s neck. “Do you think he resides in a cave on the east side or a dugout near the western creek?”

   The horse blew air through loose lips. The sound echoed through a sudden stillness, and Rose bit her own lip, held her breath, listened. Nothing answered but the wind across the plains.

   She found the creek, but no dugouts, no caves, no ghost, unless she counted the bones of a buffalo that decorated the bank. As night hovered, she made camp. The flames of her fire danced with the shadows, making it seem as if a hundred devils approached. But no matter how hard or how long she looked, she didn’t see a single ghost.

 * * *

   He came silently, knife drawn. The mare snored, nose nearly brushing the ground. She never sensed his approach.

   Neither did the woman. He was upon her, blade to her throat before she drew breath to cry out. Not that crying out would help her.

   For an instant the perfection of her cheek—smooth and white—distracted him. He caught the scent of lilies. Her hair, which she’d kept stuffed beneath a man’s hat all day, would have glowed like the sun if she’d set it free. It was free now, shimmering silver beneath the moon. A lock brushed the back of his hand as she stirred.

   He jerked in surprise and blood welled under his blade. He expected her to buck and scream. Instead, her eyes opened—blue, like his—and she smiled.

   “I found you,” she said, as if he weren’t straddling her waist in the dead of night, blade to her throat, a trickle of blood tracing the long, graceful column of her throat.

   Something equally sharp pressed against the inside of his thigh, high up and far too close to parts he’d had no use for in years but still did not wish to lose. His breath caught as he realized she hadn’t been asleep; she’d merely been waiting for him.

   “Can you speak?” she asked.

   He lifted an eyebrow, shifted his gaze to where her knife pricked his . . . prick.

   “I’ll remove mine if you remove yours,” she murmured.

   His treacherous body responded to the images that flickered through his treacherous mind at those words. As he straddled her waist, the weight of her breasts rested against his legs, warm and round, no doubt smooth and soft and white. He hadn’t had a woman since . . .

   He lifted the knife from her throat and rolled to his feet.

   She sat up, eyeing his long hair—still Phelan red, but now shot through with silver. “I see the hair of fire. But why do they call you White Ghost?”

   “Né-néevá’eve?” he demanded. Who are you?

   She didn’t answer. Why would she? How could she?

   The wind whispered, Kill her, and while the wind had been his only friend ever since he’d come here, this time he didn’t listen.

   The first men who’d crept close in the night had planned to capture him and put him on display—five cents to see the White Ghost. If he caused too much trouble, they would kill him and sell glimpses of his body until the smell got too bad.

   The wind had told him just what to do.

   The next group had been searching for the first; they had similar ideas. The wind’s answer had not changed.

   Next came the law—a sheriff, two marshals, a detective. A whisper warned that if they found him, he would have to go back. He was not going back.

   After that, the bounty hunters trickled in. None of them were smarter than the wind.

   So why did he now ignore those whispers that had been his only companion, his best counsel? Perhaps it was the way that she smelled.

   Nevertheless, she had to go. If not from this earth, at least from these hills.

   He clasped his knife tighter, lifted it higher, and gave her a menacing glare.

   She rolled her eyes, and he gaped. He’d dispatched all intruders, yet this woman—Yankee from the sound of her voice—not only pulled her own knife but mocked him with word and deed, invading his territory, alone, as if she had no fear of the White Ghost With Hair of Fire. Perhaps she was insane.

   Like him.

   She got to her feet; her head reached only to the middle of his chest. She was so tiny he stifled the ridiculous urge to ruffle her hair like a child.

   “My name is Rose Varner.” She offered her hand. He stared at it as if it were the mouth of a rattler open to strike.

   She reached forward; he stepped back. Exasperation puffed between dewy lips, and she snatched his hand, pumped it up and down.    On her palm, she had calluses. He wondered why.

   “It’s polite, when someone offers her name, to offer yours in return.”

   Polite? He snorted. Where did she think she was? A drawing room in New York City?

   “I know that you understand me.”

   He was tempted to spin about and disappear into the rock formations. She’d never find him. Except she’d come this far; she’d hornswoggled him by pretending to sleep, and she didn’t seem the type to leave without getting what she wanted.

Whatever the hell that was.

   “Shall we try again?” she asked, sounding like his mother when she’d been trying to teach him his sums.

   “I’m Rose Varner, and you are?”

   He opened his mouth, shut it again, glanced to the left then to the right. “Ná-néehove—”

   It was only when she said, “English” that he realized he’d spoken in Cheyenne. “And don’t give me any of that White Ghost nonsense. Tell me the name your mother gave you.”

   Her words, coming so soon on the heels of the first time he’d thought of his mother in years, made his eyes burn.

   His mother. What he wouldn’t give to hear her voice once more.

   “If you give me your name,” she wheedled, “I’ll tell you what I want.”

   He very nearly told her that he didn’t care what she wanted; he just wanted her to go. But he was curious, and as he hadn’t been for nearly as long as he’d been here, he indulged both himself and her.

   “Luke,” he said, then cleared a throat as dry as the Smoky Hills. “Luke Phelan.”

   Her smile dazzled like the stars above. He had definitely been too long without a woman.

   “Irish,” she said, her gaze brushing his hair. “T’ be sure.”

   He would have smiled himself, if he remembered how.

   “What I want from you, Luke Phelan, is for you to take my daughter back from the Cheyenne.”

   And suddenly . . .

   Luke couldn’t stop laughing.