Dorado, Spring 1852
Though Jason maintained his silence, the dreamwalker—Buck—wasn’t deterred. “I want to know what your reasons are. I don’t figure anyone has asked you for them. I can’t promise I’ll understand, but I won’t walk away. I’ll even keep the secrets for you.”
Buck’s visit surprised him, but the level of sincerity in his tone left Jason uncertain. He took a moment to study the movement in town. They’d had new arrivals in the last few days, including two brothers and their sister from far north on the Red River. The McKennas had taken one look at the town under construction and inquired about staying on. The brothers applied to manage the livery stable, but—through all their negotiations—their sister, Jenny, hadn’t said a word.
Running…we’re never going to stop running. The utterly hopeless thought had been the most present in the young woman’s head. One so plaintive, lonely and profound… Jason had given them permission and arranged a contract on a home. They’d draw a salary for their work in the livery, a portion to be withheld each month until the full balance of the materials for their home were recouped.
The McKennas fled something terrible, but they bore no threatening thoughts or ideas of causing trouble. They wanted sanctuary and the brothers wanted their sister safe. In fact, her safety rode the surface of their thoughts so loudly; Jason had exerted every effort to keep his focus on the brothers and off their sister to reduce any sense of danger. Jason knew exactly how Jed Kane would react, so Jason made the same choice. He gave them sanctuary.
Buck’s presence continued to weigh on him, but he took time to consider why the dreamwalker chose today of all days to seek him out. The lazy sound of hammers striking interspersed other building noises including the use of a handsaw and, further away, the mill where they cut fresh boards for building.
“You don’t like me.” He relented, finally, because the Morning Star brother seemed in no hurry to go away.
“I don’t really know you.” The brutal honesty in Buck’s response startled Jason. “But what I know about you—what I’ve witnessed for myself—and the risks you took for Delilah, earned you my respect. You didn’t have to help her and, while I may not have appreciated it at the time, you didn’t have to help me either.”
In fact, Buck had wanted to kill him on more than one occasion. Jason had no illusions about how precarious a position he’d put himself in each and every time he’d stepped between the couple. He did not regret his choice, however, not when he’d been the one to encourage Delilah to run—not when it had been his fault she’d ended up in that hellhole where Kid found her. Deep was the debt he owed the siren. Her passing resemblance to—no. Jason blockaded the thought.
Seemingly in no hurry to go anywhere, the stubborn weight of the dreamwalker’s attention pressed in on him. Jason locked gazes with the man and sifted through his surface thoughts. What did he want? All he found was an echo of the words Buck had spoken. He’d told Delilah they needed to address the Jason issue. They owed him, but it wasn’t about debt. It was about friendship, brotherhood, and like didn’t enter into it. As if aware of Jason’s skimming, Buck replayed the conversation with his siren-wife.
Humbled by the readiness of Delilah’s agreement and Buck’s directness, he broke the connection and scrubbed a hand over his face. The buzz of noise he used to keep others out of his head drifted closed like a curtain. He couldn’t afford mental blindness, not while keeping watch over Dorado, but he needed a moment to gather his thoughts. “I don’t understand you Morning Stars.”
The dreamwalker grinned. “I say the same thing about your family.”
Amused, despite himself, Jason paced away to touch one of the main struts in the framework. His humor evaporated. Today was the anniversary of the day he’d met her—first realized what she was to him. Once upon a time, he’d treasured this time each year since he could take out his memories from the box he’d buried them in and enjoy the feelings she’d aroused in him.
Memories now tainted by bitter regret and loss. “I don’t want them to finish this building and I keep fighting the urge to burn it down.”
“Why?” Surprise echoed in the question, but Jason didn’t turn his attention away from the wood. The roughness of it scraped against his fingers. Unfinished.
She’d been unfinished, dammit. It wasn’t fair.
“Because in the old town this is where Olivia lived. In the quarters above the store. She lived there with her parents.” Even saying her name cut him. Why the hell had he said it? He’d kept her name locked away with every other valued memory, barricading it into a space in his mind where no other person or thought could touch it.
The soft sound of Buck’s footsteps were Jason’s only warning before a hand came down on his shoulder. The dreamwalker said nothing and, for once, his thoughts were painfully simple.
I’m sorry for your loss.
Ruthlessly, he shored up that mental wall, sealing away the memories. “We hardly have time for sentimentality—the town will need a general store.” One devoid of Olivia’s laughter and sweet smile. One occupied by another family. He rejected the idea the moment it formed.
“It can wait. We do regular enough supply runs to San Antonio and we can have them haul more in as needed.” Alarm punched a note in Buck’s voice and Jason shrugged off his grip.
“We’ve waited months. Winter was brutal enough. We need to return a measure of normalcy.” It would help the children, although the youngest ones like Cate and Ben adapted to the changes more readily. Jason had been only a little older the Cate the first time he heard the thoughts of others. Children adapted, but it didn’t make their situation easier.
“Do your brothers know?”
Frost chilled his blood. He wanted to ignore the concern in the other man’s eyes and reject the offer of sympathy. Grief strained too many years of rigid control—tested his hard-earned peace of mind. Enough. He couldn’t afford self-pity. “No, and I would consider it a personal favor if you would keep what I said to yourself.”
“That’s an insult.” Buck folded his arms. “Though I have to wonder if you understand how much of an insult?”
The clap of the mental box finally snapping shut still ringing in his ears, Jason frowned. “Conversations with my family about me haven’t gone well as of late.”
“Agreed. I didn’t come here to spy on you for your brothers. I came because it was the right thing to do and you need a friend.”
No. Friends could be killed. Families could be torn apart. They were all far better off if he remained alone. Better to shut down any offer that might put the dreamwalker in the line of fire. “Thank you for being concerned and thank you for not telling them.” The words were awkward, but he did appreciate the sentiment.
Buck said nothing, his frown deepening. “You’re grieving. You’re allowed to grieve. We all need support. There’s no shame in that.”
“It is not shame—” Awareness of another sliced his attention away and Jason strode through the unfinished shop towards the boardwalk. He scanned, relentlessly touching every mind in his range. He’d sensed him.
“Jas—” The dreamwalker cut off at Jason’s upraised hand.
It took all of his concentration to scan in this manner, skimming the surface and not pressing any deeper. The otherness hovered on the edge of his senses, like a word half-forgotten, but he knew he was there. Dammit… Scouting visually, he gazed towards the eastern perimeter of the town—away from the construction. The mental signature seemed stronger, but it faded too rapidly for him to hold.
“What is it?” Buck shadowed his steps and pitched his voice low, damn near close to a murmur.
“The doppelganger.” Ryan. They had a name for the Fevered who’d traveled with Harrison Miller and his gang. Jason’s memories of the man, discolored by Harrison’s brutal torture and attempts to break his mind, were hazy at best. He knew every mind that should be in Dorado and the other stood out.
“Not anymore.” Even the faint trace he’d held onto and tried to use to track the other back had dissipated. “What the hell does he want?”
The answer continued to elude him. Miller was dead. All of the men with Miller, save for Ryan, had also been killed. So why did the doppelganger stay? What did he hope to accomplish?
“Is he still after Delilah? Or maybe Jo?” Tension threaded the words.
Frustrated, Jason blew out a breath. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. He can’t possibly think he can steal Delilah. Controlling her would be impossible unless he knocked her unconscious. MacPherson is…” Please God. “…hundreds of miles north. He couldn’t keep her unconscious for that long.”
“Jo’s gift is animals. She speaks to them. What good would she be against someone like that?” Buck’s scowl deepened. “Or worse, what if it’s not capture he’s going for?”
“It doesn’t matter what he wants with them, he won’t get to them.” The cold in his blood iced the statement. “He cannot cross onto the ranch…” Because if he could, Ryan would have already done it. If Jason could pin the bastard down, he could break into his mind and find out what he wanted.
Then he’d kill him and end the threat once and for all.
“We’re still not sure the barrier’s working.” Buck studied the workers around them, his gaze thoughtful and assessing. “Wyatt crossed onto the ranch without invitation.”
“I am aware.” Not that he had an answer. Touching Wyatt’s mind? Not a mistake Jason would ever repeat. Blackness, brutal and swift, had punched through him and shut him down so hard, it had taken him days to comprehend even the split-second of the thoughts he’d touched. Suppressing a shudder, he turned away from that memory willingly. “Your eldest brother is a force to be reckoned with. We can’t be sure he wasn’t affected by the barrier and didn’t just ignore the pain. You said it was pain, right?”
“Pain, loud—like bees stinging you over and over again.” Buck grimaced. “Miserable feeling.”
“Would it bother him?” He didn’t want to say Wyatt’s name, though he had a far better understanding of the awe the Morning Star siblings held for their eldest brother.
“I don’t know. I don’t think much bothers Wyatt.” He wasn’t looking at Jason, his gaze remained steady on the workers. “You know all of these guys? No way they could be an imposter?”
“I won’t say impossible, but it’s highly improbable. I haven’t exactly been circumspect in scanning them whenever I see them. I know every mind here—check them periodically to make sure nothing has changed about them.” The oddness of discussing the idea wasn’t lost on him. He so rarely discussed his abilities—only once did I make that mistake and never again—but Buck already knew what he could do so he saw no harm.
“What if when the guy doppelgangs he takes on the same kind of thoughts?”
“Doppelgangs?” Humor spiked at the word.
“Well, whatever Ryan does.” Buck’s expression darkened. “What would you call it?”
“It’s as good a word as any.” Jason shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t think he can do that.”
“Why?” The dreamwalker held up his hands when Jason turned to face him. As if by mutual decision, they walked back to the unfinished general store.
“Because Cody identified the scent on the faux Jimmy as wrong when he encountered him in town. If he can’t manufacture a scent, I can’t imagine he can manufacture the thought patterns.”
“He can mimic a gift. Cody said he shifted into a wolf.” It was that aspect of the doppelganger’s ability that truly worried them all. He may not have realized what Jimmy’s was when he got a hold of him, but the wolf brother hadn’t been so fortunate. If Ryan got his hands on one of the more martial gifts, they would have problems. Inside, Buck leaned back against one of the wooden braces and folded his arms. “If he can mimic Cody’s wolf, what do we do if he copies you?”
“I’d wondered if that occurred to you. If he absorbs a gift or can mimic it and he mimics yours, will you be able to scan for him?”
Damnation. “I don’t know.”
“We need more bodies in town.” Buck’s gaze collided with his. “And we need to know how to tell you from him. Cody and Mariska know your scent—that’s one way.”
“Maybe.” He considered the time he spent in the doppelganger’s company. Ryan had not been in charge of his captivity. He’d come and gone multiple times, however. If he could mimic a gift, why hadn’t he?
“Share with those of us not in your head, Jason.” A hint of amusement softened the darker worry in Buck’s voice.
“I was just thinking I spent more than a few weeks with them—Ryan appeared multiple times, always in a different face, rarely as himself. Though I suspect he must have once or twice because I did recognize him from time to time. He has to touch what he’s going to mimic—I think he needs blood, but maybe he doesn’t.” It annoyed him that some images lacked clarity. Shunting the physical abuse to the side had taken nearly all of his concentration. He could have handled the pain, but Harrison kept trying to dig into his mind—his emotions—to pull out of him what he needed.
Jason had to bury himself deep to keep the brutal empath out. The action cost him memories, distorted them and left him with more questions than answers.
“Either way, you don’t get to ride alone anymore.”
“By that logic, Buck. I could be Ryan now and you wouldn’t know.” Unfortunately, since he’d pointed it out, he had only himself to blame when Buck made him cross the boundary to prove he hadn’t been replaced.
The act, though, no matter how irritating, helped him to forget for a little while. Forget that he wouldn’t see her again.
Forget about missed opportunities.
He could be grateful for the respite, no matter how short-lived.
Dorado, Summer, 1836
“Jason!” Sam twisted in the saddle. “Keep up. Pa will skin us if we aren’t back by nightfall.” Not really, but he’ll get angry and then I’ll be the one who gets it because I should have made sure you were home safe.
Hands flexing on the reins, Jason gave his mare a little kick to catch up to his elder brothers. He hadn’t meant to fall so far behind, but in the dark of the pre-dawn hours, he liked pretending he was alone.
…have to make sure we’re back before sundown…work in the barn…training going well with Dancer and Shadow…is Patty’s gait off? Micah studied the sorrel mare Jason rode, his face contorting with a scowl. Didn’t he clean her hooves before he saddled her?
“Yes.” Jason exhaled explosively. “I did!”
Both of his brothers stared at him, and if not for his instant awareness that they’d said nothing, he might have laughed at their twin expressions.
“Did what?” Sam rode in a circle until he came up next to Jason and then all three pointed their horses toward Dorado. The ten-mile ride was a challenge. It would take hours to get there. But Sam knew all the short cuts. Big responsibility, Pa said. Look out for my brothers, get them there and get them back. Don’t dawdle.
Jason grimaced because he didn’t know which part to answer first. Maybe if he focused on the actual question and not the part where Sam’s mouth hadn’t moved? “I was keeping up.”
The response pacified Sam, and Micah slowed his horse to let them pass him up. Okay, she’s not really limping. It’s the uneven ground—wonder if Pa will pick up anymore Indian ponies this year. Cobb and Mr. Stevens both said we could cross-breed with the warmbloods, sturdier, faster horses—better on uneven ground. Miss Annabeth said no sugar for us, but if I pick up some cubes for the horses—
Make sure we’re back. We can camp out tonight, if we only make it back to the river. This side of the river—have to pick up packages at the postal delivery and mail Pa’s letter back east. Don’t know what that’s about. Pa hardly writes anyone. Listen for news, bring back any word—and, if the Spanish are in town, head home.
And so the entirety of the ride went. Jason remained mute, listening to the constant drone of Micah’s never ending litany. Sam repeated Pa’s instructions over and over until Jason could have recited them for him. Distance didn’t do much good, but if he lagged behind he knew they weren’t talking to him.
They paused at midday, just a couple of hours from town. Stripping off all the tack, they let the horses rest under the shade of the trees and drink from a stream. Jason found a spot closer to the running water and settled there to eat the food Miss Annabeth had packed for them.
His brothers said very little—out loud—and seemed content to finish their meal in silence. Jason kept staring at the water. If he tried to only listen to the spill of it splashing against the rocks, it—
JASON! “Jason!” Sam gripped his shoulder and gave him a shake. What is wrong with you? “We need to saddle up and get moving again. Clean this up and I’ll take care of your horse, okay?”
Reeling, Jason could only manage a jerky nod.
Always lost in his head. Pa’s right, he’s going to start putting on airs if we don’t get him to pay attention more. Sam squeezed his shoulder and headed back to the horses. Fighting the urge to grip his head, Jason rose on shaky legs. Fortunately, they hadn’t created much of a mess, and he buried the remnants of food they couldn’t pack and take with them. Better not to leave it out where it could attract scavengers.
The next two hours passed in similar fashion. Jason managed to keep up, but he didn’t respond to them unless Sam yelled his name. Town was better and worse in the same breath. The collective voices crashing together in his head instantly gave him a headache, but the clutter of noise didn’t allow any of them to be distinct.
It was the closest to real quiet he’d been since they set off on this chore. They stopped at the marshal’s office to give Marshal Jared a letter from their Pa. From there, they moved on to several shops—including the dressmaker’s for fabric, and the saddler for a new set of leather tools. Their Pa had entrusted them with the town run and Sam made sure to get every item handled.
Jason trailed along behind his older brothers. They’d both done this before with their Pa—he’d only done it once. Sam made sure to include him, pausing at the general store and sending him to fetch the beans, flour, and sugar. Sam and Micah took care of the tobacco, and checked for pins and soaps for Miss Annabeth.
The dried beans were loaded into a big barrel and Jason hauled the burlap sack over, and used the scoop to fill it. The sound of a little girl giggling from behind the barrel grabbed his attention and he peeked over for a look.
A delicate little figure in a lace dress sat on the floor, back to the barrel. “Scoot!” The order was high-pitched and filled with laughter. The lyrical nature of it stunned him.
“Scoot?” Was he in the way? He glanced around him, but Sam and Micah were talking to the store keep. He and the baby girl were the only two at the feed barrels.
“Scoot!” She banged her hand against the wooden container, but she didn’t stand or look.
Shrugging, he dug in to measure out more beans and she giggled. “Oh.” Realization dawned. “Scoop.”
“Spoop!” She giggled, it really was a musical little sound and he couldn’t help a grin. “Spoop more.”
Since he needed to fill the bag, he complied and she giggled through it all. Shaking his head at her strangeness, he sealed up the bag and set it to the side. Grabbing another, he moved to the flour. It would be dusty. Fabric rustled on the wood and the tiny little tyrant crawled out. “Spoop?”
“I need flour now, not beans.” To his surprise she rose to her feet and trailed along with him, her slender fingers brushing each barrel.
Since he had the scoop already in the barrel, he frowned and tapped the side of it. “This one.”
Her face scrunched, and she plowed forward, bouncing against his side. Steadying her, he braced against her thoughts and kicked the barrel with a booted foot. “Watch where you’re going, little bit.”
“I can’t.” Her chin tipped up and he found himself staring into a pair of silver-grey, pale eyes. The pupils didn’t change, they looked right through him. Latching onto his sleeve, she tugged. “Show me.”
Unsettled as all hell by the fact that she couldn’t see, he put her hand on the flour barrel. She gave him a nod.
“It’s scoop.” He said the word slow, like Miss Annabeth used to do for him.
“Scoot.” She giggled.
“Scoop. Pah. Pah. Scoo. Pah.” He repeated, but the grin tugging at his mouth wouldn’t go away. She was adorable.
“Yes, ma’am.” Still grinning, he dug into the flour and poured it into the sack. The little bit’s face scrunched again.
“I am.” Repeating the motion, he kept watch on her face. She pressed right up to the barrel.
“Oh.” Disappointment turned her mouth down and she sighed.
“It’s flour, soft.” It hit him. She’d giggled at the dried beans because they rattled. “Hold out your hand.”
The trusting little thing stretched her fingers toward him. He pinched off some flour and put it on her palm. She closed the tiny fist around it and began to rub the powder into her palm. Her attention captured, he resumed filling the bag.
He’d never been around anyone who couldn’t see and didn’t know what it meant or why she couldn’t. It bothered him a little.
“Jason, you got those bags?” Sam called out.
“Almost.” He answered and winced when the little bit jerked. He lowered his voice immediately. “Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I’s not skert.” Determination filled the syllables. “More scoo-pah?”
“I need sugar.” Grimacing, he sealed up the flour bag and hoisted it over to rest on the beans, careful of the tiny figure latching onto his pant leg and trailing after him. At the sugar barrel, he repeated the action of putting a pinch on her palm. Glancing around to make sure no one was close, he squatted down so he could be on eye level even if she couldn’t see him. “Taste it.”
No hesitation marked her reaction, she held her palm straight to her mouth and licked the sugar. Her face filled with delight and then she stuck the hand back at him. “More.”
Chuckling, he gave her another pinch and then filled the bag, aware of her forlorn expression as she leaned on the barrel. What else could he scoop that would make noise for her? He looked at the stock barrels. They didn’t need as much sugar as the others, so he sealed up the bag and when he walked down to the barrel of nails, he placed both of her palms on it.
She nodded. “Scoo-pah.”
It made a fearful racket as he rooted through container, but her laughter spiraled upward and he kept at it until Sam thumped him. “We don’t need nails!”
Rubbing the back of his head, Jason glared at his older brother. The little bit grabbed ahold of Jason’s leg and pressed up to him. “Ow.”
“What are you doing?” Micah appeared along with the store keep and the man frowned until he spotted the little girl.
“Olivia!” Parental disapproval cracked through his voice and the little bit fisted her hands against Jason. Instantly disliking the man for yelling at her, he glared. “Millicent!” The shopkeeper shouted over his shoulder. “Sorry, boys. Olivia’s supposed to be upstairs with her Ma.” He snapped his fingers, the action irritated Jason further, but Olivia lurched away from him and followed the sound, with Sam and Micah getting out of her way. Dammit, she’s not supposed to be in the shop. She could get hurt.
The store keep swept her up into his arms and she hugged him. “Sorry, Papa.”
“It’s okay, Mr. Stark,” Jason defended her. “She liked the noise.”
“Yes, she does.” He smiled, but carried the little bit away. “But we don’t play in the store…” He wasn’t talking to them anymore.
Micah bumped his shoulder. “Grab the bags. We need to leave.”
Annoyed, Jason shoved him. “Stop hitting me.”
Blinking, Micah backed up a step. “Hey, sorry. We’re late leaving and you took too long getting the bags.” What’s wrong with you?
Uncaring of the reason, Jason grabbed up his stack of bags and struggled with the weight. Sam reached for one, but he avoided them. It was his job, he’d get it done. Hauling his load up to the counter, he was sweating by the time he stacked them.
The store keep returned—sans the little bit—and eyed the three of them. “All right boys, let me tally this up and tell your Pa, I’ll put it on his account.”
“Thank you, sir.” Sam answered. “Our apologies if Jason bothered your daughter.” Wonder why she talks funny?
He hadn’t been bothering her. Pain twitched behind his right eye.
Don’t know what we’re going to do with that girl, can’t take our eyes off her for a minute.
Want to see about the horses.
Maybe Pa will let me pick out the gun I want on my next birthday.
The thoughts collided and added to the pain drilling into the side of his brain. Seizing the heavy bags, Jason elbowed Sam to get him out of the way and then set off across the store.
He had no idea which one called him, the voices were damn near dizzying. He had to get out of the store. The street wasn’t much better, but he made it halfway to the livery before Sam jerked the heaviest bag off of him. Micah took the others, they could both shoulder the burdens. Digging a knuckle against the corner of his eye, he almost sighed as the noise rose as they weaved in and out of folks. Too much noise seemed to be as much of a relief as none.
Stopping dead in the middle of the street, Jason jerked around to look back at the store. He hadn’t heard the little bit in his head. He’d not heard any of them when she’d latched onto him.
Torn between wonder and tears, he didn’t see Sam until his brother jerked his ear.
The twist hurt and he gave Sam a shove, but he walked backward, staring at the shop. How come he couldn’t hear Olivia?