A Man's World
Liberty Valley Love #1
by Josie Malone
The untamed wilderness of 1887 Washington Territory is A Man’s World. The survivor of more than one deadly ambush, Trace Burdette knows this better than anyone. She masquerades as a man and forks her own broncs. She prides herself on being the ‘toughest hombre’ this side of the Cascades, packing the guns to prove it. Then Zebediah Prescott returns to Liberty Valley.
The savvy woman dressed in masculine garb doesn’t fool Zeb, even if she can almost outride and outshoot him. Determined to win Trace’s trust, he must confront the danger facing them. Before they can have a future together, he will have to deal with secrets from the past and the dangerous outlaw planning to kill the woman Zeb loves.
Release Date: September 15, 2020
Genre: Historical, Western Romance
A Pink Satin Romance
Junction City, Washington Territory
Zebadiah Prescott knuckled away the tears again. It wasn’t the first time his stepfather laid into him with a razor strap, but at fifteen he was nearly a man grown. When would the whippings end? This one hadn’t been his fault. How was he supposed to sell flour full of weevils to Indians when the marshal was in the mercantile? Granted, most men wouldn’t care what the natives got for their furs, but Rad Morgan was different.
He’d told Pa it was against the law, Morgan’s law to sell bad food to poor folks even if they weren’t white. Zeb sniffed hard. His back hurt. So did his rear end. He’d get a second beating from Ma when she saw his new shirt, torn to ribbons from Pa’s bullwhip.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she always quoted from the Bible as she walloped him. “Nobody will say I don’t do my duty to beat the devil out of you.”
He’d be in more trouble for hiding in the town livery, but Zeb didn’t care. The blacksmith was off drinking in the saloon, claiming it was too hot to work at the outside forge. He wouldn’t be back before dark, if then.
“Whatcha doing?” A tinny, childish voice demanded behind him. “Why are you bawling?”
“I’m not.” Zeb turned from where he leaned on the stall wall.
A small girl stood in the doorway of the barn. Long black braids hung to her waist. She wore pants, a dark wool shirt, and store-bought boots. Strapped around her middle was a gunbelt holding one pistol. Who’d be crazy enough to give a little girl a gun? She was smaller than his thirteen-year-old sister, Rachel, but this stranger looked older than ten-year-old Ursula.
“Who are you?” Zeb asked. “What’s your name?”
“Trace Burdette.” The girl swaggered to a stall across from him. A big brown horse lifted its head, hay hanging from its mouth. “I came for Grandfather’s saddlebags. Who made you cry?”
The question irritated Zeb even more the second time. “I’m not crying. Go away, little girl.”
“Take that back!” Fury filled Trace’s face. “I’m not a girl!”
“Sure, you are.” Zeb eyed her high cheekbones, large grass-green eyes, long black lashes, the glint of gold earrings. “I’ve got five sisters. I know what girls look like. You’d be prettier if you dressed proper, in petticoats and a skirt.”
“Salaud!” Trace hissed, then spat at him. She grabbed the leather bags from the back of the saddle. “Estupido!” She stomped to the livery door. “Cochon!”
Had she been a boy, those were undoubtedly fighting words. She wasn’t so Zeb didn’t take too much offense. If it mattered, he could ask his friends, two of the other boys in town, but they’d laugh if he said some little gal cussed at him. His ruminations stopped when a rock flew through the door, narrowly missing his head and the horse in the adjacent stall.
He hurried outside. “Stop that afore you hurt someone.”
A second rock came at him, hitting the barn wall by him. “Girls are s’posed to be polite, not chuck stones at fellas.”
“Bastardo!” Another rock. Another miss.
He hastily sidestepped when he saw her bend down, cock her arm, and hurl a gray object. She’d counted on his move and this time the stone grazed his arm. “Ouch. You brat.” He started after her. “I’m gonna tell your grandpa about you. He’ll lick you.”
“Hijo de puta!” She threw a fourth rock, then a fifth. “Grandfather never hits me.” Another stone. More swearing in French, then in Spanish.
Zeb walked a little faster, trying to catch up with her. He admired the girl’s spunk. His sisters slunk around the house like ghosts. Even the three-year-old twins knew how to hide so they wouldn’t get spanked. None of his sisters would have the nerve to cuss, much less hurl rocks like Trace.
He looked cautiously up and down the road lined with cedar-shake buildings. Where was she? Suddenly, a rock flew by his head. He spotted her a few feet away. She laughed at him, then ran. He followed. His shirt flapped where it didn’t stick to bloody skin. Every time he decided to give up the chase, a rock landed near him. And she kept swearing at him.
Where did she learn all those words? Paul Levine, Gabe Ortiz, and he were considered the best ‘cussers’ in town, but she left all of them behind. Maybe her grandpa should wash her mouth out with soap, only not the strong, homemade kind his ma used. That made him puke for hours.
She scurried up a back street behind the laundry, bathhouse, and brothel. She bolted in the rear door of a new two-story house longer than the saloon. Did she think that would stop him?
He froze in the doorway of someone’s kitchen. Three men sat around a table. A bottle of whisky, glasses, cards, and a pile of money was in front of them. The devil’s handiwork, Ma would call it. Zeb stared at them, recognizing the mayor, a stocky Irishman and the marshal, a menacing fellow in rough riding clothes.
The third man sitting at the far end of the table was a big, wiry stranger dressed in buckskins. Graying black hair hung past his shoulders. His light green eyes were the coldest, the iciest Zeb had ever seen. It was as if he saw all the way to Zeb’s heart and he shuddered under the man’s steady gaze.
Zeb slowly realized the three men stared back at him. He knew what they saw. A tall, thin, barefoot boy in pants that barely reached his ankles and a ragged, white shirt. He was dusty from chasing the little girl who’d thrown rocks at him. He hadn’t had a bath since last Saturday and they probably knew he’d cried from the stains on his face. He’d bet he had hay in his hair too.
“Estupido.” Trace peeked around the man’s back, stuck her tongue out. “Hijo de perra.”
“Grandson.” The man in fringed buckskins shook his head, his voice a deep rumble. He pulled Trace out from behind him, held the girl so she met his stern look. “A brave warrior doesn’t jeer at a wounded one.”
“Brave warrior, hah!” Anger remembered, Zeb glared at the girl. “She cusses like a bullwhacker and throws rocks as if they’re baseballs.”
Trace tossed her head, braids flying. “I hit where I aim, too, canaille.”
“If some fella called me a girl, reckon I’d pitch a few rocks too.” Marshal Morgan laughed. “Can’t blame Trace for that.”
“Hell, you just shoot any man who insults you, Rad,” Mayor Riley said.
“I could do it.” Trace fingered the butt of the gun she wore. She looked up at the man who held her, obviously unafraid. “Please, Grandfather.”
“Make your first shot count, pest.” Zeb glowered at the girl. She might be dressed like a boy, but he felt sure she wasn’t one. When she tossed her head again, he glimpsed gold in her ears. “She’s a girl. She must be with that hair and those earrings.”
“Don’t judge by appearances, son.” Rad Morgan chuckled, amusement in his dark blue eyes. “Trace is part Sioux. Boys and girls have their ears pierced and wear earrings. You’ve seen enough Indian children around town to know most of them have braids.”
Silence fell while Zeb considered the advice, but somehow, he still knew the truth about Trace Burdette. She was a girl, even if the marshal didn’t admit it.
After a few moments, the marshal added, “Looks like you ran into a fight, son. The other boy worse?”
Zeb took a while to answer, scuffing his bare toe against the plank floor. “Pa whipped me for sassing him.”
“I see. Was it because of the flour?”
Zeb didn’t answer. What was he s’posed to say? It was his fault he’d been licked, wasn’t it?
Mayor Riley leaned back in the chair, looking Zeb up and down. “Hell of a beating to leave those kind of marks, boyo.” He glanced at the lawman. “What did you do, Rad?”
“Told Reverend Madison to throw out that infested flour and not to sell it in my town.” Rad met Zeb’s gaze. “I never intended for your stepfather to take out his anger with me on your hide, son. I’m sorry.”
Zeb’s jaw dropped. “It wasn’t your fault, sir.”
“Or yours either,” Mayor Riley said in even tones. “How old are you?”
Trace’s grandfather stood, catching Zeb’s attention. He eyed the stranger warily.
“Have a seat and let me look at you.”
Zeb shook his head. “I ain’t much for sitting right now, sir.”
The empty pale green gaze grew colder and more distant, but the man’s tone remained oddly gentle. “Go find Lizbeth, Trace. Ask if she has a room for your friend.”
“He’s not mi amigo.” Trace lifted her chin. “He’s muy estupido.”
“Ought to have thought of that before you played Coyote, Grandson.”
“Snake-Eye!” Mayor Riley sounded shocked. “Trace is no kind of a coward. Sure, and the boy has sand.”
“Snake-Eye’s raising Trace the way his wife’s family would if they hadn’t been massacred by that band of outlaws, Connor.” Rad drained his whisky. “To them, Coyote is a trickster, a smart, cunning survivor. Trace tricked Zeb into coming here for help.”
Zeb gaped at the marshal before staring at the youngster smirking at him. He hadn’t considered for even a moment that he was being led down the trail he chose. “You fooled me?”
Trace grinned, then headed for the door. “Told you so, cochon. You’re muy estupido.”
Connor Riley smiled and leaned back in the chair, tugging thoughtfully at his bright suspenders. “Your folks let you go to work, son? I could use another man to help the cook at my logging camp near Portage.”
“A job at the camp?” Zeb stared at the big, burly man with the gray-streaked red hair. The idea sounded better than the Heaven his stepfather preached about. “Would I live there? I’d like that.”
“Later, you could join one of the crews. We may even make a faller or high climber out of you, I’m thinking,” Connor said.
Zeb’s eyes widened. A high climber had to go clear up the giant evergreens and chop off the tops. It was dangerous, but the men made more money than the other loggers. “Yes, sir! I’d like that.”
“Long hours for days on end,” Snake-Eye commented. “Working for Riley means you’d hardly ever get to Junction City to see your family. What days off you had would be spent upriver in Portage. Could you abide that?”
“Yes, sir!” Zeb nodded, eager for the chance.
“All right, then.” Rad Morgan pushed back from the table and stood. “Connor, let’s go talk to the Reverend. Snake-Eye, do you want me to send over Doc Jenkins?”
“I don’t know yet,” Snake-Eye said.
“I’ll be all right.” Zeb said quickly. If his stepfather had more trouble with the town physician, the Reverend would never let him work for Mr. Riley. “I don’t need Doc.”
“If you decide otherwise, send Trace for him, Snake-Eye,” Rad said. “I’ll foot the bill.”
“No call for that, sir.” Zeb took a deep breath. “Ain’t like the Reverend is really my pa, or Susanne’s. He married our ma after our father died. Anyway, you were right ‘bout the flour, sir, and you had to say something. It’s not the first time the Reverend licked me.”
“It’s the last,” Connor said. “I’ve never believed in striking a child or animal.”
“Careful, Irishman.” Snake-Eye smiled. “Sounds as if you lived with the Sioux, not me. The town will want to hang you, not have you as mayor.”
Connor laughed. “I’m not worried.” He left with the marshal as a plump woman bustled in the other door, Trace behind her.
Snake-Eye smiled at her. “Lizbeth, Trace brought home another friend.”
“Two-legged, today. What a blessing,” Lizbeth said. “I don’t have room for another cat or dog.”
Indignation darkened Trace’s eyes. “If little brothers or sisters need help, I always bring them to Grandfather.”
Faint amusement seeped into Snake-eye’s face. “I’m just glad it’s not a skunk this time.”
“Me too.” Lizbeth beamed at Zeb. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Ma’am.” Zeb bowed his head politely, but shock held him still. According to his mother, this woman was the madam of the new bordello in Junction City. She’d burn in hellfire everlasting. She didn’t look like a whore. Her light blue dress buttoned to the throat and it had full skirts that fell to her shoes. A neat bun on top of her head confined her red hair. The hurdy-gurdy gals in the saloon wore less.
“What happened to you?” Worry filled Lizbeth’s bright blue eyes. “Never mind. Boys will be boys.” She clicked her tongue. “Come along. You can rest in the guestroom. Trace, did you make the bed this morning?”
“That’s women’s work,” Trace protested.
Snake-Eye pointed down the hall. “Grandson, I’m disappointed in you.”
The girl’s mouth quivered. She muttered something and vanished, obviously heading off to do chores. Zeb stared after her. He’d had worse scoldings than that. They came with blows. Poor kid. Trace seemed more sensitive than Zeb originally believed. He wouldn’t have dared to take Gabe or Paul to the Reverend’s, much less a stray dog or cat. “I don’t need anything fancy, sir.”
“Don’t worry, Hawk. Trace is fine. He knows better than to make excuses.”
“You can’t blame the boy for trying,” Lizbeth said. “Well, you know where the guestroom is, Sidney. Let me know if you want anything else. I need to clean the parlor for tonight. Remember, the girls are sleeping, so don’t disturb them.” She hurried away.
Zeb followed Snake-Eye from the kitchen to a hallway. “I was rude to Trace.”
“He’ll forgive you. My grandson has a good heart.” Snake-Eye paused and lightly touched Zeb’s shoulder. “We’ll treat your wounds, Hawk.”
“My name is Zebadiah. Why are you calling me, Hawk?”
“Many men look.” His tone concerned, Snake-Eye glanced down the hall to where Trace lurked in the shadows. “Few see. Will you remember that, Grandson?”