Dazed and trembling, Mallory clasped her arms around the soldier who had rescued her. She felt as if she’d been caught in a hurricane,
carried on a high wind and flung to the ground. She couldn’t stop shaking, and her brains seemed scrambled, not fully comprehending what had happened. When she thought about the savages who’d taken
her, she wanted to roll into a ball and disappear. But she had to get hold of herself.
Clinging to her rescuer, she burrowed into his back. His chest was broad and muscled. His longish hair, curling over his collar, was brown with shimmers of red shot through it and a few silver stands. He wasn’t a young man, definitely older than thirty, maybe even forty years. But he was strong and capable.
His presence comforted her, though, her stomach still sloshed with nausea and she hoped she wouldn’t throw up again, as she had when the Indians took her. That had been past humiliating.
He smelled good, too, of soap and bay rum, with the lingering scent of coffee clinging to his clothes. He must like his coffee, as her father had.
An hour before, she’d thought her life was over—that she’d be subjected to the vilest of horrors men could inflict upon a woman.
How well she knew what it felt like to be violated.
Disgust dug at her, turning her thoughts to Hiram. But she wouldn’t allow herself to dwell on that dark time—never again. Her tumbling thoughts strayed to Macon, her beloved son.
The stagecoach lurched and rattled behind them. The Indians… the Apache had gone through its contents, scattering some things to the four winds, but mostly, they’d left her trunk alone. If she was lucky, Macon’s picture would still be there, hidden in a side pocket.
Thoughts of Hiram usually made her skittish, making her shy away from men. Despite what had happened today, she hoped she could pull herself together and be a dutiful wife for Mr. Murphy. At least, he wouldn’t see her like this, as there had been no way to tell him which stage she’d be on.
If she won Mr. Murphy’s regard, she could send for her son, and they’d be a family. If her husband-to-be was a kind and forgiving man. If he was as gentle as she instinctively knew this soldier to be.
For some reason, the soldier reminded her of her childhood sweetheart, Beauregard Jackson, a boy from the neighboring plantation. He’d marched off to the War Between the States and returned, fatally wounded. She’d helped his mother nurse him, but it had been no use. His wounds had been deep and had festered.
She and Beau had been dedicated to each other from childhood, and he was a kind and gentle boy. War hadn’t changed him. Even as he lay dying, he’d been more concerned about her future than his death.
And if he’d known her future, he wouldn’t have passed peacefully.
Had Beau lived, how different her life would have been. But the past was behind her, and she needed to make a new future in this hostile place.
The horse stumbled, throwing her to one side. She clutched at the soldier and burrowed herself deeper into his strong, muscled back, lacing her fingers across his tight stomach.
“Sorry, Miss. I didn’t see the prairie dog hole.”
“What’s a prairie dog?”
“Hard to explain.” He shook his head and glanced back at her. His eyes were a silvery-blue, like storm clouds rolling over the ocean.
“A prairie dog is something like a stout squirrel that lives underground in tunnels. They dot the land with their holes, entrances to their tunnels. We try to keep the main road clear, though, as the holes are dangerous. If a horse steps directly into one, he can break his leg, leaving his rider afoot.”
“Oh, I’d like to see a prairie dog. But I guess I’ll need to be careful when I’m riding.” She couldn’t believe she was chatting with him. They hadn’t been formally introduced, but he had saved her life.
As if he’d read her thoughts, he said, “I think I should introduce myself.” He touched the wide brim of his navy-blue hat. “I’m Colonel William Gregor, the commander of Fort Davis.”
She’d known he was a man of substance. To be rescued by the commander of the fort was more than lucky—it was a miracle. She bowed her head and offered a short prayer of thanksgiving to her Savior.
“I’m privileged and honored to make your acquaintance. My name is Mallory Metcalf Reynolds. And I’m beholden to you for saving my life.”
“My privilege, Ma’am, to be sure. May I inquire where you were headed?”
“To your fort, Commander. I’m a mail order bride. Mr. E. P. Murphy placed an advertisement in the Texas Christian Advocate, a Methodist publication that is widely circulated throughout the south. My good friend, Nancy Aldredge, a minister’s wife, showed me the advertisement. I answered it, and Mr. Murphy and I exchanged letters.”