Terms of Surrender by Lorrie Farrelly
Former Confederate cavalry Captain Michael Cantrell has lost his home and everyone he loved. He roams the western frontier, trying to outrun his demons and find some purpose to his life. One spring day along the Wind River in Wyoming, a violent encounter lands him smack in the middle of Annie Devlin’s war. Standing with the determined young rancher will test the limits of Michael’s courage, his honor – and his passion. TERMS OF SURRENDER is an Orange Rose Award finalist and the recipient of Readers’ Favorite 5 Stars. It is also a finalist in the Historical Fiction and Western Fiction categories of the 2014 Readers’ Favorite Book Awards.
Wind River Basin, Wyoming
“You mule-eared, jug-headed, no-account excuse for wolf bait, I’ve got a good notion to shoot you myself! C’mon, now!”
Annadane Devlin threw all of her hundred-pound weight against Rosie’s bridle and tried to drag the big draft mare forward. Rosie’s head and neck obliged, but the rest of her obstinately stayed put, content to stand in her wagon harness, pastern-deep in mud.
The old buckboard was canted at the sloping edge of an eroded roadbed less than twenty feet above the icy rush of Wind River. The right side wheels of the heavy plank wagon were mired in the tarry muck that seeped up from underground oil deposits common along the range. Despite Annie’s frustration, the placid Rosie seemed to find the whole predicament immensely enjoyable.
“Well shoot, Annie, I don’t blame Rosie,” Robbie observed cheerfully from his seat atop the buckboard, reins draped loosely in his small, quick hands, sea-green eyes dancing with laughter and mischief. Freckles dotted his sunburnt nose, and copper-colored hair, thick, straight, and shiny, fell in heavy bangs over his forehead, making him look even younger than his ten years. “You ain’t exactly making it worth her while none to move. Try sweet-talking her a little, why dontcha?”
Annie blew out a harsh, frazzled breath of air and leaned wearily for a moment against the mare’s broad shoulder. She eyed her little brother, trying not to let him sense her growing feeling of dread.
“You could give her a switch now and then, you know. I can’t move her all by myself.”
Shrugging, Robbie flicked the reins obligingly. Rosie snorted comfortably and shifted her weight backwards, losing the foot or so of advantage Annie had gained by pulling the horse’s head forward.
“Maybe it’s too heavy for her,” Robbie offered. “The wheels are sunk pretty deep. Maybe we should unload the wagon.”
“We can’t. There’s no time.”
At Robbie’s quizzical look, Annie sighed and pushed back damp, tangled strands of wheaten hair from her face. In spite of the cold spring air, she was hot and winded. Her faded cotton gingham dress clung uncomfortably to her back as sweat trickled along her spine.
A stab of real fear gripped Annie’s heart. Robbie was still so young, with precious little enough left of his childhood innocence. She closed her eyes against a wave of dread, knowing they were in far more danger here than he realized. Annie feared this might be the day she would have to ask the little boy she adored to grow up hard and fast.
“Maybe if we sit a spell and have us something to eat, Rosie’ll change her mind, and …”
“Now you listen here, Robbie Devlin, and listen up good,” Annie cut in sharply, ignoring the tug of regret she felt as the easy smile died on the boy’s face. “We’ve just got to get her moving now.” She gritted her teeth and tugged again at Rosie’s bridle, knowing she would have to tell her brother now what frightened her. “Colonel’s men have been following us since we left Crowheart.”
The boy jerked around on the wagon seat, scanning the road behind them. “Where?” he demanded, eyes wide as saucers, his voice squeaking with alarm.
“Back a mile or so, I reckon.” Not nearly far enough. “But I don’t think they know we’re on to them.”
Though Annie had not been able to hide from Robbie the attempts Colonel Elias Randolph had made to force her to sell out, she had tried not to reveal her growing fear of the old man. His power was matched only by his greed, and he’d made no secret of his relentless desire to buy up the smaller neighboring spreads in the long valley cut by the Wind River. With the end of the war, the California, Bozeman, Mormon and Oregon Trails brought increasing numbers of settlers, and the discovery of gold in Montana had brought many more, all eager to stake their claims in the Promised Land.
The army was scrambling to build more forts and steadily increasing the number of troops on the frontier, most of them tough, seasoned veterans of the War Between the States. Beef prices were skyrocketing, and the demand for saddle-broke horses couldn’t be met fast enough. The spreads that bordered the Randolph ranch, including the Devlin place, held some of the finest grazing land in the basin and high valleys. Annie’s repeated refusal to sell out had already resulted in downed fences, missing livestock, and desertion by hired hands.
Now she took a long, deep breath and looked Rosie in the eye. “C’mon old girl, you can do this!” Annie wiped her raw and sweaty palms on her skirt, grimly wrapped her stiff fingers around the bridle leather on either side of the mare’s head once more.
As Robbie flicked the reins and barked an encouraging “Git up!” to the horse, Annie dug in her heels and pulled until she felt her lungs would burst. The old mare grunted and shifted, weathered wood creaked and strained, and for a long moment the wagon seemed to move forward. Then, with a sickening lurch, the whole rig shifted and the wheels slid farther off the road and deeper into the mud. Blowing out a huge rush of air, Annie released the bridle and sagged in exhaustion, groaning, every muscle rebelling.
“It’s no good,” she gasped. “Rosie can’t pull it. We’ll have to help her.” Straightening, she began to move around the wagon, calling back over her shoulder to her brother. “Come around to the back, Robbie, and hurry. Maybe if we both push, we can get her going.”
As Annie moved into position at the back of the wagon, the boy began to climb down to join her. All at once, his foot braced on a wheel spoke, Robbie stiffened and narrowed his eyes, gazing over his sister’s head. He’d drawn up as ear-pricked and alert as a wolf cub sensing danger.
“Annie!” He hissed the warning, his voice an urgent whisper, his heart pounding.
She turned swiftly and saw three horsemen approaching. They rode at an easy, loping gait, with no apparent haste.
Annie took a deep breath. “It’s all right, Robbie,” she said evenly, trying to steady them both, “but you’d best get the rifle, just in case.” Nodding, his face grim, the boy scrambled back up, intending to retrieve the weapon from beneath the wagon seat.
“Well howdy there, ma’am,” the first rider said, drawing up alongside Annie a little ahead of the others. Astride a big, rangy roan, he leaned forward, resting his weight on his crossed hands on the saddle horn. Dark, hooded eyes swept insolently over Annie’s body, then the rider straightened and made a show of studying the mired buckboard. “Got yourself in a predicament here, ain’t you? Well, I reckon you’re a mighty lucky little lady that we come along just when we did, right, boys?”
As his companions grunted assent, he smirked at her ⎯ an expression not of cordiality but of some dark, private amusement. Abruptly the man’s expression changed and he flashed a startlingly cruel, feral warning glare at Robbie. The boy stopped still, scarcely breathing, still unarmed, and Annie’s blood froze.
She knew of this man, and knew what he wanted. Clay Skinner’s fearsome reputation preceded him. Word had it that he had recently signed on with Colonel Randolph’s outfit not as a drover or wrangler, but as something far more specialized and lethal.
Annie lifted her chin defiantly, standing her ground, trying to look unmoved in the face of Skinner’s unnerving and sinister presence. He was a slickly handsome man, trim and sinewy, his long, dark hair oiled, a carefully barbered moustache lining his upper lip. His apparel ⎯ dark frock coat, silk vest, linen shirt ⎯ was far more stylish than the coarse work clothes of his companions. Some might have taken him for an Eastern dandy.
Annie knew that would be a fatal mistake. The heavy, oiled Army revolver at his hip rested in a gunman’s cut-down holster, and Skinner’s eyes, so dark as to be almost black, were cruel and impenetrable. Assassin’s eyes, Annie thought, and knew he would kill without a second thought, and enjoy doing it. Looking into his calm, deadly, viper’s gaze, Annie’s throat went dry and her heart began to hammer.
Her mind raced. There were three of them. How was she ever going to get out of this? And Robbie! Oh, sweet Jesus, how was she going to protect him? She had to think. Maybe someone else would come along to help her if she stalled Skinner long enough.
Shrugging, smiling with a confidence she was far from feeling, Annie struggled to sound unconcerned. “Well now, mister, we’re just fine, thank you,” she said, a little too heartily. “We’re just giving old Rosie here a rest ’til our foreman and some of our hands catch up. They’ll be along directly. So, you see, you and your friends needn’t worry about us.”
“Well, now, Miz Devlin ⎯ you are Miz Annie Devlin, ain’t you?” Skinner peered at her with hard eyes, and when she hesitated, finally giving a short, jerky nod, he continued lazily, “It ain’t that I don’t believe you and all, but I seem to recollect hearing you been having some trouble keeping hands on that lonesome spread of yours.”
Annie stiffened, but Skinner continued as though he hadn’t noticed. “Now, a woman and boy all alone out here?” He cocked his head and made a mocking tsk sound with his tongue, drawing a snort from one of his companions. “Well, all I can say is, ain’t it downright fortuitous that me and the boys happened upon you this way, ’specially seeing as how we was headed out your way anyhow? See, Colonel Randolph, he’s asked my help.”
Skinner grinned then, showing a jagged line of teeth, and Annie fought down a shudder. His cruel gaze bore into her as he went on almost cheerfully. “And being the accommodatin’ sort of fella I am, I told the Colonel I’d be more’n happy to ride on over and convince you to sell out. I assured him that, with a little reasoning, you’d be real anxious to accept his offer. And a mighty generous offer it is, too, I might add, considering the dirt-poor value of your parcel.”
The stinging insult galvanized Annie. Her breath hissed in, hot and angry. Mama and Ned had poured their lives into that “dirt-poor parcel,” and now they were buried on it. Its high meadows of sweet grass, clear mountain streams, steaming thermal springs, and aspen and pine forests were the only home she and Robbie had ever known, and by God, Annie would dance with the devil and sell him her soul before she’d give up so much as one square inch of it.
“If my spread’s of such poor value, Mr. Skinner,” she retorted, “then why would the Colonel be sending scum like you to strongarm me into selling it?”
Behind her, Robbie shifted position, stretching, trying to reach the gun.
Skinner’s smirk froze into a snarl. “Tell the boy to come down here right now, Miz Devlin, ’less you want to go doing this the hard way.”
“Robbie,” Annie said carefully. “Stay right where you are.”
Skinner’s Colt flashed so quickly Annie scarcely saw the man move. A thundering shot cracked close to her ear and she screamed, leaping aside. The wagon shifted, plank groaning against plank, as Rosie dropped heavily in her traces. The mare made no sound, but Annie felt the shuddering vibration of the earth beneath her feet as the great horse collapsed, thudding to the ground.
Exploding into action, Robbie cried out and threw himself down across the wagon seat, grabbing for the rifle. Splinters dug into his fingers as he scrabbled to grasp hold of the weapon.
One of the Skinner’s companions, a burly cowboy with a ragged, tobacco-stained beard, spurred his rawboned sorrel horse forward. He reached up and snagged a fistful of Robbie’s shirt, knotting it tightly in his grasp. He plucked the struggling boy easily from the wagon seat, then, holding him high over the ground like a wriggling pup, struck him a vicious, backhanded slap. Robbie’s head snapped back, and the cowboy dropped him to the muddy ground, where the child lay stunned and senseless.
“You leave him alone! Robbie!” Annie bolted toward her brother.
The brawny cowboy edged his horse slightly forward, blocking her path. Frantically Annie began to climb up into the wagon, to clamber and claw her way over the piled crates and sacks of goods.
Skinner dismounted easily from his big red roan. He inclined his head briefly to the third rider, a spare, wiry man of indeterminate age whose leering grin revealed a mouthful of stained and rotting teeth. The man nodded and circled his mount to the opposite side of the wagon, blocking any escape. As Annie reached the bench and dove for the rifle, Skinner vaulted effortlessly into the wagon bed.
With one long leap he came up behind her and seized her hair, viciously jerking her head back. Annie gasped, a scream choking in her throat. Skinner pulled her roughly back against him, half-straddling her body. She struggled, pulling for breath, clawing at him, hissing with rage and terror. He pulled her head higher and struck her savagely.
Smiling again as she sagged, stunned, beneath him, Skinner dragged her up as he bent his head low. His lips lightly brushed her ear.
“The Colonel wants your land,” he said in a low, silky, almost caressing tone, “and I want you. We’re both gonna get what we want.”
Reeling in pain, unable to think clearly, Annie struggled against the iron-hard grip that held her pressed tightly against Skinner’s body. She had been afraid before, but now, with his hips grinding insistently against her and the rank scent of whiskey and tobacco choking her, she knew raw terror. Panic welled in her throat and she twisted her head frantically, sinking her teeth into his wrist.
“Bitch!” Skinner hissed, striking her again. Annie groaned, and her knees buckled.
“How long the boy lives,” he snarled through gritted teeth, “depends on how good you are.” He smiled without pleasure, without mercy. His eyes were shuttered and lethal, like those of a rattler about to strike. “You please me, I might not kill the scrawny little brat.”
A low sound came from Annie’s throat, half sob, half curse. Skinner raised his head and snapped an order to the burly cowboy.
“Take the boy up there.” He jerked his head toward the thicket of pines above the road, hooked a thumb in the same direction. “I’ll be along. In a bit.”
His companions nodded but stayed put, leering at Annie with hopeful lechery. “Get out of here, dammit!” Skinner snapped.
The bearded man sighed resignedly as he climbed down from his mount and hauled Robbie up, flinging him casually over his shoulder. He crossed the road, leading his horse, and trudged up the rocky grade into the shelter of the trees, occasionally sneaking a resentful look at the woman back over his shoulder. The wiry cowboy followed, picking idly at his teeth.
Skinner shoved Annie to the floor of the wagon bed, slamming her down roughly onto sacks of potatoes and flour as though she were no more than a rag doll. Straddling her body, he shucked his coat with a single shrug, slinging it aside. Abruptly he tore the front buttons from her shirtwaist dress and threw himself down on her, cruelly driving out her breath and nearly crushing her. His knee roughly forced her legs apart as one broad hand smothered her scream.
“Remember that boy, now,” Skinner hissed in her ear. “You want him to live?” He rose up slightly, his free hand pawing at his trouser buttons as he stared down at her. “There ain’t much to you, is there, but what you got’s real nice.” His voice thickened to a rasp. “I ain’t promising you’ll live when I’m done, but maybe the brat…”
When a flurry of shots rang out, Skinner jerked back. Annie screamed, feeling him lurch above her. He cursed and reached for the Colt revolver. When she tried to struggle free, he struck her brutally, slamming her head back.
“Stay put, you hear?” Dazed, Annie barely heard the snarled order.
Skinner moved away and crouched low in the wagon, shielding himself from gunfire. He scanned the road, then the thick stand of evergreens above the roadbed, but saw no one.
“Boyd?” he called out. “Goller? Where are you men? What the hell’s going on? Dammit, Boyd, can you hear me?” Coiled and tense, he listened.
“Yeah, I hear you!” a harsh voice called back from the trees. “I’m all right, but I think Goller’s hit! He ain’t moving!”
“Where are they?” Skinner shouted. “I can’t see nobody!”
“Don’t know!” Boyd yelled back. “Shots came from behind us!!” There was a long pause, then a cautious, “Don’t hear nothin’ now.”
Skinner didn’t answer. Rising slightly from his crouch, he peered over the side of the wagon up toward the rocky, forested rise. Glancing back at Annie to be sure she hadn’t moved, he took careful steps backward, ducking down for cover.
He never saw the hand that grasped his gun belt and hauled him hard and fast backward over the side of the buckboard, slamming him to the ground.
The gun flew from Skinner’s hand on impact, his breath knocked from his lungs, but within seconds he was scrambling up, twisting and kicking at his assailant.
Instantly the other man dodged and brought his own gun down hard, cracking against the side of Skinner’s head. He grunted and went to his knees, shaking his head like a dazed bull. The stranger, still faceless and barely seen ⎯ Skinner’d had only a glimpse of a tall man with a shaggy mane of light hair ⎯ hauled the gunman to his feet, spinning him around and clamping a rigid arm across his windpipe from behind.
“Wait! Wait!” Skinner gasped. “Nobody has to get hurt!”
“Too damned late for that,” a cold, gravelly voice drawled. “One of your men’s already dead. Make your peace, mister. Hell’s waiting for you with the door wide open and the mat out.” The stranger shoved the barrel of his pistol high under Skinner’s jaw, pressing it painfully into the outlaw’s neck.
“No, wait!” Skinner gasped. “Listen, we can deal…”
“Like hell. Call your last man out. Tell him to throw down his weapon and bring the boy out where I can see he’s alive. Now!”
Trying painfully, unsuccessfully to swallow, Skinner obeyed, his teeth gritted. “Boyd! Show yourself! Bring the kid.”
“Throw down your gun! Do it, dammit!”
A long, terrible moment passed in which Michael Cantrell thought they would surely call his bluff. In the earlier exchange of gunfire, Boyd had made a lucky shot. Michael carefully held Skinner angled to the left so he could neither see nor feel the widening bloodstain soaking the right shoulder and sleeve of his coat. The Navy Colt was heavy in Michael’s numb right hand. It was beginning to tremble. Skinner wouldn’t be long in noticing.
“You’re a dead man,” Skinner swore, his voice shaking with fury and fear.
“Better a dead man than no man at all,” Michael retorted, his low tone dangerously even. “Appears your mama hatched nothin’ but snakes.”
Skinner’s body jerked with an impotent rage, and Michael felt the man’s sweat-slick, bulging neck flush hot. All at once the half-conscious woman in the wagon bed moaned. Startled, Michael glanced up, reflexively loosening his hold. As Skinner squirmed, Michael clenched his jaw against the shock of pain that exploded in his shoulder. He flexed his elbow hard, tightening his grip with all his remaining strength. Skinner choked, arching his back, nearly dancing on the toes of his boots. Michael felt his own boots slip in the greasy mud, and in desperation he dug in harder.
“Send the boy out now, Boyd!” Michael called. “Your compadre here is runnin’ out of time!”
When he thought he would surely lose his grip on Skinner, Michael suddenly saw a movement in the dense shadow of the trees. A small, wiry boy, his forehead and cheek bruised, his hair and clothes matted with mud, stumbled from the trees. He half slid down the slope and stopped, staring with wide, shocked eyes at the wagon and the two silent, fiercely struggling men.
“A-Annie?” he cried, his lips trembling.
Michael scanned the thicket of pine. Almost too late he saw the reflected glint of sunlight as Boyd raised a rifle to fire. The bullet smacked into the wagon, scattering wood shards like shrapnel.
“Get down, boy!” Michael yelled, and Robbie instinctively obeyed, diving blindly into the mud.
Michael hauled Skinner sideways, seeking greater cover, but the gunman twisted suddenly and slammed an elbow into Michael’s ribs, driving the air from his lungs, doubling him over and finally breaking his hold. Michael cried out as pain seared his right side from neck to hip.
Skinner snatched up his pistol from the muddy track and bolted across the road for the cover of the evergreens. As he scrambled up the rise, Boyd stepped suddenly from cover. Skinner sprinted past him and disappeared into the trees. Michael leaned heavily against the edge of the wagon, wheezing, still unable to straighten up, his eyes filled with tears of agony. Desperately he transferred his revolver, slippery now with his own blood, to his awkward left hand and willed that hand to rise, aim, and pull the trigger. The Colt might as well have weighed fifty pounds. A sick black dizziness swamped him as Boyd raised his own weapon, aiming to finish it.
Excerpt copyright by Lorrie Farrelly. All rights reserved.
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LORRIE FARRELLY is the author of a Western historical romance trilogy, contemporary romantic suspense novels, and sci fi/paranormal romantic suspense novels. A graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Northwestern University, she’s been a Renaissance nominee for Teacher of the Year, a ranch hand at Disneyland’s Circle D Ranch, and a “Jeopardy!” television quiz show champion. Her novels have earned READERS’ FAVORITE 5 STAR AWARDS, and TERMS OF SURRENDER is an ORANGE ROSE AWARD and 2014 READERS’ FAVORITE BOOK AWARD finalist. Lorrie and her family live in Southern California.
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