Fiction Peter Brandvold The Romantics

ISBN 13: 9780312872113

The Romantics

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9780312872113: The Romantics

Jock Cameron never thought to love again after his fiancee was butchered by Apaches. But he's been captivated by a dusky beauty, Marina Clark, who is searching for lost Spanish gold with her husband. Adrian Clark lost his fortune and his honour in the Civil War but knows he can recapture both with gold and a beautiful woman on his arm. These three ride through the Arizona territory, pursued by Gaston Bachelard, an ex-Confederate Army officer seeking wealth and power in Mexico, and by Perro Loco, an Apache Cameron once left for dead, who has sworn to have revenge. Trapped by greed, the Clarks and Cameron go to ground in a cave that holds untold wealth...but to escape, they must run straight into the weapons of their enemies.

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About the Author:

Peter Brandvold lives in Underwood, Minnesota. He is the author of Dakota Kill, Blood Mountain, and Once a Marshall.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Romantics
CHAPTER 1  
 
1879-- Arizona Territory  
THE STAGE HAD stopped at one of those storied bordercountry cantinas, a ramshackle relay station in the rocky, sunscorched bowels of the Arizona desert, where many an hombre has entered and never been heard from again. Flies buzzed in the shade beneath the eaves. The gutted carcass of what appeared to be a wild pig turned on a rawhide rope. From the smell, it had been hanging there for days. "Follow me," Adrian Clark told his wife, a young Spanish beauty with raven hair and night-black eyes. Descended from Spanish kings, twenty-two years old, her name was Marina. "Stay close." Clark hadn't liked any of the stations at which the dusty red Concord had stopped since leaving Tucson. All had the smell of casual death. As the Clarks entered, a half-dozen men dressed in dusty trail clothes turned to look and did a double take. The light of the young woman's beauty shone in their whiskered, sunleathered faces as their bovine eyes played over her Spanish queen's delicate, almond-shaped face and the long black hair that cascaded down from her green felt hat. A small silver cross on a thin silver chain nestled in the hollow between her breasts, which filled a white blouse abovea wide black belt, a black wool skirt, and soft leather boots, the whole slightly worn and dusty from travel. "Madre mia," breathed one of the men, a short Mexican with a weathered sombrero hanging down his back. "Si," the white man next to him said, swallowing. Marina cast her gaze nervously about, then studied the mashed earth at her feet. Adrian Clark cleared his throat. He was a tall, lean man in a Prince Albert coat and four-in-hand tie, an English Bisley tied low on his hip. Striped gray slacks, tailor-made, hung down over shiny black boots with low heels. He wore a planter's hat tipped at a rakish angle, and the color of his Vandyke beard matched the dull red of the hair that curled onto his shoulders. His skin was pale and lightly freckled. In addition to the rest of his attire, the gray vest, gold watch fob, pinky ring, and Cuban cigar bespoke either a gambling man or a wealthy Southern gentleman--or both. "This way, my dear," he said commandingly, as though to a child, in his petal-soft Missouri drawl. Bright sunlight angled through the open shutters, revealing the crumbs and grime on the smashed-earth floor, stains and food scraps on the unwashed tables. Flies buzzed. Outside, horses nickered and clomped. A cicada whined. Peering through the shutters, Clark saw that two hostlers in Mexican peasant rags were switching teams while the driver stood nearby, dipping water from an olla. The hostlers couldn't have moved much slower had they been standing stock-still. Clark cursed under his breath and slid his glance back around the room. His attention was drawn to a tall, willowy hombre in a long gray coat who was sitting half in shadow in one corner. He wore what appeared to Clark, an ex-Confederate himself, to be a Confederate-gray campaign hat. A bony fist rested beside a half-empty shot glass, making theglass appear thimble-sized. The man's broad face was in shadow, but Clark felt the man's cold eyes on him--appraising, disdainful. "You two the only ones?" came a brusque, Spanish-accented voice. Clark turned sharply, startled, hand flicking around the butt of the Bisley. A stout man with a gray beard and thin, salt-and-pepper hair combed back from a sharp widow's peak stood behind the makeshift bar, blocklike fists resting on the planks. His blood-stained apron was aswarm with flies. "I beg your pardon?" Clark said. The man indicated the stage beyond the window. "From the stage. You the only ones?" "That's right." The man lifted his eyebrows and said lazily, "Well, I get paid to feed the weary travelers. You hungry?" Clark looked at the young, beautiful woman who had been his wife for only a month. She sat stiffly in a chair, hands in her lap, and shrugged noncommittally. Clark remembered the carcass hanging outside, and his stomach turned. But neither he nor Marina had eaten since morning. "Maybe we could share a sandwich," he said to the barman. One of the men standing at the bar chuckled. The barman smiled at Clark. He turned to a stew pot and filled a bowl, then brought it over and set it and a spoon before Marina. "Share a bowl of hog tripe," he said. "My specialty." Marina looked at the brothy substance afloat with spongy white intestines and flecked with black pepper. Standing behind her, his hands resting protectively on her chair back, Clark wrinkled his eyebrows. The heavy aroma wafting up smelled like boiled blood. "I don't think--" "No, it looks good," Marina said, looking at Clark with an acquiescent smile. "Menudo. My mother used to make menudo." She gave her lovely dark eyes to the barman. "Gracias, señor." The man shrugged. "De nada, señora," he said with a south-of-the-border flourish, bending slightly at the waist. He limped back to the bar. Clark stared thoughtfully at the barman. He cleared his throat. "Say, we're looking for a friend. Reese McCormick's the name. Have you heard of him?" The barman was refilling glasses behind the bar. He lifted the bottle and looked at Clark with sudden directness. "McCormick?" Clark nodded. The station manager glanced around the room, a wistful light entering his eyes. The other men's stares grew tense, their interest in the strangers renewed and transformed. One of them snickered. "You boys seen Reese McCormick?" the barman asked. No one spoke. They stared at Clark and his wife with eyes bright with mockery. One of the men, a white man, piped up, a taunting smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. "Reese? Hell, he's dead." "Dead?" Clark exclaimed. "How?" "How should I know? Just heard he was dead," the man said, and turned back to his drink, ending the conversation. The station manager turned to Clark. "Sorry, amigo." Clark sighed and cursed under his breath. He coughed, bringing a handkerchief to his mouth, and sat down. Two of the men at the bar were still watching Clark, measuring him against the young woman beside him. They were no doubt an odd-looking pair--a smoky-eyed Latina beauty and a fair-skinned, impeccably-dressed Southern gentleman. In the month and a half he had known the girl, Clark had drawn many such stares, most of which he assumed werestares of admiration. After all, they were an attractive, albeit disparate-appearing, couple. Clark had looked long and hard for such a beauty, for one so deserving of his name and social status--even if that status was really only appreciated in his home state of Missouri and had lost some of its luster since the war. These men, however, stared more at Marina than at Clark, and they pricked his spine with dread. Slowly, by ones and twos, the men turned around to face their drinks. Clark gave a slow sigh of relief. Marina was watching him with a question in her eyes. "It's all right," he told her. "If McCormick is indeed dead, we'll find another guide. There are other men around who know Mexico as well as Reese." Several minutes passed in silence. Finally the stage squeaked and rattled up to the door and the driver came in. "You two can load up whenever you're ready," he said to his passengers. "We'll be pullin' out in about ten minutes ... after I have a shot or two to cut the dust," he added with a smile, heading for the bar. He carried a sawed-off, doublebarrel shotgun. He set the impressive-looking weapon on the bar, where everyone could see it. Angrily, Clark cleared his throat and asked sharply, "Aren't we on some sort of timetable here?" He wanted to be out of this place, away from these border roughs. The driver tossed his hat on the bar and turned back to Clark, running his hands over his short-cropped hair. He looked as though he'd rolled in alkali dust. "Well, no," he said tiredly, "no, we really aren't. Out here I keep my own time, and if you or the company don't like it--if you think you can get anyone else to run that crate out here, with the 'Paches behind every rock and cactus--well, y'all got another fuckin' think comin'." With that he gave a resolute nod, placed his filthy hat back on his head, turned his back to Clark, and knocked down the tequila. "Do that again, will ya, Pedro?" Clark looked around the room, at the dark faces of the cowboys grinning at him, showing their chipped, yellow teeth behind cracked lips. One laughed aloud. The man in the shadows stared without expression. Clark's face colored; his nostrils flared in anger. Marina gave him a beseeching look, but Clark was too good a gambler not to know when the cards were stacked against him. He sat back and puffed angrily on his cigar. Minutes ticked by. Marina shoved the bowl of menudo toward him. "Have some--it's good," she said, irritatingly good-natured. Clark tried a spoonful, making a face. "That's terrible." A tall Mexican with a big round face and a right eye that hugged the outside of its socket no matter where the man was looking turned away from the bar and swaggered over to Clark's table. The cowboy's tattered sombrero was tipped back on his head, revealing black, matted hair salted with lice. He smelled like raw alcohol, horses, and gunpowder. He swayed drunkenly from side to side, staring at Clark with his good eye. Clark positioned his right hand so he could make a quick grab for the Bisley if he needed to. The man stared at Marina for several seconds. "Can I help you, friend?" Clark asked tolerantly. The man brought his right hand up and dropped a small leather pouch onto the table before Clark. It landed on its side, spilling gold dust, which gleamed brightly in the light from the window. Clark looked up at the man and frowned. The man spread his lips in a grin, tilting his head to indicate Marina. He wore a stag-butted .45, butt forward, on his left hip. On the right was a huge bowie with a rope handle. Clark swallowed, trying to calm himself. "She's not for sale," he said tightly. "Half-hour, in back," the man said, indicating a plank door behind the bar. The room had become quiet again. There was only the cicada and the buzz of the swarming flies. "No," Clark said levelly. His pulse throbbed in his temples. If these men tried taking Marina, there was little he could do to stop them. He might be able to get one or two with the Bisley, even three, but the others would send him over the hill in a hail of lead. And they would do to Marina what they wished. If it came to a firefight, Clark speculated, he would kill her himself, before they could get their grubby hands on her. "I give you gold for woman," the man persisted, shrugging his heavy shoulders. "Half-hour only. Fair trade, no?" "No." "Amigo ..." the man lamented, spreading his hands. The stagecoach driver, standing at the bar, suddenly cleared his throat, pounding his empty glass on the planks. "Well, I tell ya, if you two are done fightin' over that girl, I got a timetable to keep," he said loudly, lifting his shotgun off the bar and heading for the door. Instantly taking the man's cue, Clark stood, scraping back his chair and giving a cursory glance at the lone man in the corner. The man sat as he had when Clark had first seen him; only now his grinning lips were parted to reveal two rows of scraggly, sunlit teeth. Marina rose stiffly, watching the tall vaquero across the table. Her eyes were defiant, but as Clark took her arm, he could feel her trembling. As they moved around the table, the vaquero stepped into their path, watching them with a raptor's stare, reeking of tequila. He put his hand on the stout handle of the bowie. Without hesitation, Clark nudged Marina around the man, shoving a table aside, and steered her toward the door. The driver waited there with his shotgun cradled in his arms, covering them as subtly as possible. Clark didn't like giving the Mex his back, but there was no other way. It seemed to take a good half-hour to make the door, but at last, with every hair on the back of Clark's neck standing straight up in the air, Clark shoved Marina out under the overhanging roof, past the carcass, and through the open door of the waiting Concord. The driver slammed the door, as a roar of laughter erupted inside the cantina. As though struck, Clark fell back against the upholstered seat. Marina sat stiffly, clutching her elbows, watching the door as if at any moment the men from the cantina would burst through it and drag her out screaming. Her eyes were wide and bright with fear. A blacksnake cracked like a pistol, and the stage jerked forward, accelerating quickly. After a minute the driver yelled down from the box, his raspy voice rising above the clatter of hooves and the squeak and rattle of the springs. "Never--and I mean never--bring a woman like that to a place like this!" Clark contrived a smile. "It's all right," he said reassuringly to his wife. "It's over now." Marina turned her head to watch the rocky desert slide past behind a veil of heavy dust. "No," she said, voice thin with resignation, her native Spanish drawing out the English and rolling it. "It has only just begun." Copyright © 2001 by Peter Brandvold

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