Paula L. Silici is proud to have been born and raised in the American West. A traveler who has been to scores of remarkable places throughout the world, she wouldn’t make her home anywhere else but close to the Continental Divide. Tales of the Old West have fascinated her since childhood, and her writing reflects the deep respect she has for the American cowboy’s enviable Code and abiding traditions. Paula’s award-winning fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have widely appeared in both national and regional publications. She lives with her husband Frank near Denver, Colorado.
The following is an excerpt from “Wanted.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League finalist for Romance
Out of practice, pain screamed through Jessie’s muscles from hours of riding. Curtis had driven them hard for the last two days and nights. They’d covered more miles over rugged mountain terrain than she cared to count. When she paused to think about it, she wondered how she’d made it. Anger, resentment, and loathing for her cousin drove her, she supposed.
They were pushing due south. Toward Mexico. With every jolt and jog of her horse, the bones in her rear end and spine protested. Hunger and thirst gnawed at her. If they didn’t stop soon, Jessie feared she was going to end up falling out of the saddle from fatigue.
Several yards ahead, Curtis looked back at her and scowled. “Give that horse of yours a kick, Jess. You’re lagging behind.”
“We need to rest for a while, Curtis. Belle’s almost done in. The chestnut doesn’t look too chipper, either.”
Jessie observed her cousin as he looked past her into the distance. It was midafternoon, and they were crossing a long stretch of open ground, which left them little cover.
The sun blazed overhead, hot and merciless. Jessie squinted beneath the brim of her Stetson, then swiped the moisture off her forehead with the back of her sleeve. She saw the nervousness Curtis kept trying to mask and knew the reason for it. Their present position left them vulnerable to rifle fire.
“I said get a move on. We’ll rest soon enough.”
“Why don’t you just leave me behind? You’ll be able to cover a lot more ground a whole lot quicker by yourself. I’ve told you a million times I don’t want to go to Mexico. I’d rather take my chances right here.”
She hadn’t quite been able to keep the irritation out of her voice. Her testy attitude nudged Curtis’s temper.
“You’ll do as I say, and I say you’re coming with me. Once again, do I have to spell it out? The law’s looking for two men now, Jess. Walt and me. I need you in order to throw them off.”
Jessie gripped the reins so tightly the leather creased her palm. Before now, she hadn’t formed the word “hostage” in her thoughts, but the ugly word took shape in her brain now.
She’d been watching for escape opportunities all this time, but Curtis had pushed them so hard, both she and Belle had been in no shape to try. During the brief hours Curtis did stop to rest, Jessie felt too worn out to attempt anything more than drop from her horse and collapse onto her back in a bit of welcome shade.
Another half hour passed. Trees dotted the land now, as well as clusters of granite, but truly adequate cover remained scarce. Jessie could see denser forest a mile or so ahead, and she knew it was this cover Curtis was pushing for.
Perspiration dampened her blouse along her spine and trickled between her breasts. She was feeling somewhat faint, but she didn’t dare complain anymore for fear Curtis’s temper would explode. If she said the wrong thing and he decided to come at her swinging, she doubted she had the energy to defend herself.
So she kept her eyes on Mitch’s saddle, her thoughts on the man himself. She focused on his strength, on the wonders of his virile body, on the sweet way he made her feel inside whenever she lay cradled in his arms.
Mitch. Where was he now? If only she knew what had happened to him. Was he alive and thinking of her? Somehow, even though she couldn’t be entirely certain of anything, in the deepest part of her she wanted to believe he hadn’t been using her, hadn’t been biding his time in order to collect the reward money. Their intimacy together had been too precious, too soul deep between them. He may have never told her he loved her, but certainly he must have cared, even if just a little. When she thought about it, there were too many times that Mitch had, in his gruff but gentle way, pampered her and watched over her. She surely would have known it if he’d been deceiving her for his own selfish reasons. Wouldn’t she?
Curtis gave a shout.
Startled, Jessie’s head jerked up. Her cousin had reined in, his worried gaze riveted on a spot somewhere over her shoulder. She turned, her eyes sweeping their back trail.
There. A faint, smudgy line in the not-so-far-off distance. Horses? Riders?
Curtis yelled at her again, shocking her out of her momentary paralysis. “Come on, Jessie! Ride!”
The safest cover lie only a mile or so ahead, but the horses, like Jessie, were already well past exhaustion. When Jessie refused to prod Belle, Curtis wheeled about and yanked the reins from her numb fingers, forcing Belle to follow as he spurred the chestnut into a run.
The rocky, uneven ground strewn with boulders here and there was far too dangerous for this savage pace, yet Curtis drove the horses onward like a madman.
Jessie, holding tight to the saddle horn, risked a quick glance back. The riders had begun to gain ground.
And then Curtis reined in, bringing both horses to an abrupt halt. Throwing Jessie’s reins back to her, he said, “Stick close. We’ll take cover over there.”
The safety of the trees still lie quite a distance away. With the horses lathered and near collapse, Jessie realized that unless Curtis wanted to risk killing their mounts, he had no choice but to make a desperate stand. By “over there,” Curtis meant a stout heap of boulders off to the left, just adequate enough to hide them and the horses behind.
A tight, sick knot formed in Jessie’s stomach as she followed Curtis until they reached the limited safety of their cover. When they were adequately concealed, he slid from the saddle, pulled Jessie to the ground, then slipped the reins of both horses under a heavy rock. The animals blew and snorted; sweat and lather flew from their withers as they tossed and stomped in agitation.
“What are you going to do?” Jessie demanded.
Curtis reached behind his back and pulled out Mitch’s Civil War pistol. “Take it!” he ordered, shoving the gun into her hands. “I’ll tell you when to shoot.”
Jessie gasped, reeling. “You can’t just shoot them, Curtis! You don’t even know who they are. Maybe they’re just regular folks.”
“Shut up and do as I say,” he snapped. “They’re the law, all right.”
Jessie paled. “And I suppose you know that from past experience?”
“That’s right, smart mouth.”
He didn’t say anything more until he’d dragged her behind a good-sized rock and pushed her to her knees, facing the riders. “You know how to use that thing?” he asked, squeezing her arm.
“Ow! Yes, but—”
“Mitch teach you?”
“You’re hurting me!”
She heaved her body in defense and he dropped his hand. “When I tell you, point it at the knot of horses, then pull the trigger. Maybe you’ll get lucky and hit somebody. But if you learned anything or gained any competency at all in target practice, you know to pick your target and aim for the center of the chest. You got that?”
“Oh, I got it just fine, Curtis.” She lifted the revolver and pointed it at his chest.
Fuming, he shoved her gun hand down to her side. “Don’t you have any brains at all? You shoot me and you lose your ticket out of here. I’m the only one keeping you out of the hands of those lawmen, and if they catch us it means prison or a hanging, Jess. Think about it.”
She did think about it. All her nightmares had suddenly come upon her, and it took every ounce of her remaining strength to keep from falling apart. She gripped the gun tighter, but kept it lowered at her side.
She wanted to shoot someone, all right. She really did. Namely, Curtis. Shoot him point blank, between the eyes. But somehow, the decent, God-fearing side of her wouldn’t allow it. Curtis was vermin, but vermin or not, he was her only living relative. She couldn’t murder anyone, let alone her own blood.
Apparently satisfied she wasn’t going to shoot him, Curtis eased over to his own chosen cover, a flat-topped boulder positioned slightly to the right and behind Jessie. From this vantage point, her cousin had a clear view of the terrain and the approaching riders. They were close now.
“With luck, they’ll think we made it to the trees. They won’t be expecting an ambush. But Lord help us if they get past us, Jess. We won’t have any place else to hide.”
Curtis’s words trailed off as a wave of dizziness swept through Jessie. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. Desperate, she retraced the events of the past months since leaving the wagon train, thinking that nothing, ever, had prepared her for this kind of terror.
“Keep low, Jess, until I tell you to start shooting. And don’t go all worm-bellied on me at the last minute, either. For once in your life buck up and do as you’re told. I expect you to take out as many of those men as you can. Our lives depend on it.”
The pistol lay heavy as an andiron in her hand. Head and heart pounding, she swiped the sweat from her eyes and squinted into the distance. She could see the shapes of the men now. She counted five of them in all, coming at them fast.
“Steady, Jess. Don’t you dare panic or I’ll shoot you myself.”
Jessie heard a quaver in his voice, stark desperation that he couldn’t hide, which affirmed that Curtis was not as calm as he wanted her to believe he was. Not at all.
The men were only about thirty yards away now. Peeping over the edge of the boulder, she could see the grim determination on each face as they spurred their horses onward. Her gaze settled one rider in particular, on the confident way the man sat his horse and those broad shoulders leaning over the pommel.
“Fire, Jess, fire!”
Curtis’s Colt exploded, startling her so much she nearly sprang to her feet. All else forgotten, Jessie raised her weapon high and squeezed off a couple of shots, intentionally missing the men.
When first the posse’s leader, then his men, realized they were heading straight into an ambush, they split up, scattering like rabbits, drawing their guns and shooting as they fled beyond range toward the safety of the trees. One of Curtis’s bullets had hit a man, staggering him. But the lawman stuck to his saddle and, like the others, within minutes had hastened out of harm’s way.
Wildly, Curtis fired, again and again, but his handgun had little distance power. He needed a rifle for this kind of shooting if he ever hoped to eliminate anyone now.
Jessie drew in a long breath. For the moment the gunfire had stopped, and blessed stillness prevailed.
Curtis broke the silence. “I told you to shoot, Jessie,” he hissed. Scrabbling to her side, he gave her a killing look. “You let them get past us! Thanks to you, now they’ve got the advantage, and we don’t have any chance whatsoever of getting out of here alive.”
Her mouth went dry. She could barely push her next words past her thick tongue. Not that she was even trying to hit anybody, but in her opinion, Curtis hadn’t done much to hinder the posse, either. “I did fire the gun,” she protested, reaction setting in, making her teeth chatter.
The smell of gun powder hung in the heated air. Desperate for control, Jessie looked away to stare at the peeling bark of a twisted manzanita bush growing, impossibly, between two massive rocks nearby. A beautiful survivor, she thought. Like her own limbs, its glossy gray-green leaves trembled in the breathy stillness.
Curtis snatched her gun and smelled the barrel, then checked the chamber. A shot rang out in the distance. Jessie heard a faint curse from one of the lawmen, making her think of Mitch.
Was Mitch out there? Had she truly seen him for that one brief moment before all hell had broken loose? Or was it just her overwrought brain playing tricks on her?