Age of Edward Contest
Your pen name: ericastwilight
Title: Tracking Bella
Type of Edward: Old West Edward
Edward Masen rubbed the back of his reddened neck, cursing the noonday sun above. Taking his canteen from his saddle bag, he wet his bandana for what had to have been the sixth time in less than two hours. After a quick drink, he returned it to his side, always aware of his surroundings.
His dark jade eyes scanned the small canyon pass that lay ahead and wondered if what remained of Jessup's gang had holed up inside, waiting for him and his prisoner to come through. It was the easiest way and fastest route to Denver that would shave almost six hours from his trip.
He hated delays of any kind. They led to more time away from his lovely wife, Isabella. And he was eager to return home, to her. However, his last official assignment as a lawman was to deliver Alec Jessup to Denver, where he would await trial for a series of killings that had devastated three states.
The Jessup Brothers were wanted for the murders. One of those killings was witnessed by Edward's beautiful wife some eighteen months earlier. It was the main reason she'd come to him for his help, for his protection. That and every damn blasted male in town wanted her and the land that she'd inherit upon marrying.
The marriage was originally made for each of their conveniences; he provided his protection, she gave him something to come home to. It was tentative, at first, and they were both stubborn mules, until finally it turned to something so much more since. And to Edward's horror, had almost ended with the loss of his beloved Isabella, when Alec's other half, Jared, had gotten his hands on her.
It ended in a blood bath, with the last ones standing being him, his wife, and his two cousins, but lost a few good friends in the gunfight during her rescue.
Bringing him out of his thoughts, Edward's prized horse, Red, huffed in annoyance beneath him, swishing his tail to swat at a gaggle of flies. Edward smoothed a hand over his friend's neck and leaned to whisper words of praise to his usually temperamental horse, a gift from his wife.
A marshal from the city had agreed with Edward's thoughts on the fact that there were too many individuals with the knowledge of when Jessup would be transferred. These people could easily be bought or scared into giving the information on routes and details of the entire operation by his associates.
The original plan was for Edward to leave Boulder with Jessup on a train, along with five others on Thursday, deliver him to Denver, where more lawmen would await to take Jessup off Edward's hands.
It was Tuesday when Edward set out alone on horseback, with only the son-of-a-bitch to keep him company.
His prisoner was in no position to talk since he lost his ability when he had made comments on Edward's wife and what his men would do to her if he reached Denver. Disgusting and disturbing images had plagued Edward's mind for those few moments, enough to let Jessup know he had found his weakness.
Edward could've ignored him, but considering that his was the only voice he'd heard in the last eighteen hours, it was a bit hard to pretend the man wasn't there. He usually wasn't easily riled but anything bad concerning his wife heated his blood with anger.
"Masen," Jessup growled around his gag, wiping his brow against his shoulder. "Water." Edward looked beside him and eyed the bruised jaw of his prisoner and felt twinges of guilt and satisfaction. Guilt due the fact that he was still the law, and he'd hurt his prisoner who'd been defenseless. Satisfaction because he'd given the bastard a bit of the same pain he'd inflicted on his wife. Simply put, Jessup was lucky he was still alive.
Edward had been after Alec, since his brother died by Edward's bullet during the gun fight several months before. The same fight that, for whatever reason, Alec hadn't been present for, and soon disappeared along with other members of the gang.
Edward and a few members of his family set out to right that wrong, picking off each wanted man until there had been only few left. In their tireless search, they could never catch up to the Alec.
It was his wife that stumbled upon him, during an outing to wash in the creek near their home. Alec had come back for her and if it hadn't been for Edward's trusty half wolf, Chaser, sending out an alarming howl, Edward and every ranch might have been too late to save her.
Alec hadn't gotten far with her though, considering Edward's wife had somehow managed to climb to safety, in a tree, to the very top. The surprise by her sheer willingness to do such a thing had left Alec so stupefied, that Edward had taken him down easily.
However, since his arrest and wait in jail, there had been more than half a dozen prisoner escape attempts or rescues. And it wasn't only by his gang that sought his freedom, but by some of the men that sought revenge on him. Unfortunately, it was Edward's job to keep the vile excuse for a human alive, and he had barely managed it. Alec had a lot of enemies.
Edward tossed the canteen toward Jessup, who caught it easily with his bound hands. With a lightning fast move, Edward removed the gag from inside Jessup's mouth. Eagerly, the man drank from the canteen, panting from the blazing sun.
Edward squinted as he looked around and found a cropping of trees that would help with the heat and allow them to rest. He gestured to Jessup toward the shade, earning a grunt of approval. Edward didn't miss the tiny glance toward the opening of the pass they'd soon come upon.
Nor did he miss the flash of a light from a top a rocky hill near the opening. He continued toward the trees still a good distance away from where Jessup's gang awaited them.
They wouldn't dare attack at the moment. They all knew Edward could pick off them easy as they bottlenecked near the opening of the pass before they made their way toward him and Jessup.
Since his concerns about his route were confirmed, Edward had to come up with a plan. The trees would provide the perfect chance to sit back and come up with the best solution. Though, the chances of getting Jessup to Denver alive had slimmed down considerably and so had the idea of getting to his woman the following night.
They settled down near a few boulders and the remnants of a well-used and recent campfire. Jessup cursed under his breath when he looked at the grey ash and tendrils of smoke. Maybe it was time to scare Jessup into signaling to his men to back off.
He'd give him a few opportunities and if he didn't take any of them, Alec Jessup would have sealed his own fate.
Edward knew that Jessup and his gang hadn't grown in numbers in quite some time. Edward and his family made all too clear in all the nearby towns that harboring any of the gang's members would mean jail time. If they were caught red-handed with one of the brutes, to Edward and his family they'd be considered the enemy.
It was a good thing Edward had the law behind him. A title he'd been given after saving one of the governor's daughters while rescuing his wife from a brutal man's clutches. With his Irish mother and half Indian father, most would run in the other direction whenever he had hit town, and were less inclined to give him such an important position.
Isabella never had run from him, even before she requested Edward's help. She'd smile at him whenever they passed each other in town, and after the first few times, to make sure he wasn't dreaming, he tipped his hat to acknowledge her. There had even been rumors that she had defended his actions against an influential man that that tried to get his hands on Alice the night of the Winter Dance the year before they married.
He'd been half in love with Isabella when she had asked for assistance, so refusing her had never been option. He wanted her since the first time he'd seen her when they were mere children. Before Edward could look back at that moment, reality intruded like a slap to the face.
He was on an assignment and he couldn't afford to lose concentration, leaving himself open for attack by Jessup himself or his gang. After settling down, Edward offered some of the bread his wife made, along with some cold coffee to Alec, though he hadn't deserved one bit of her home cooking. It had already grown slightly stale, but Edward couldn't risk heading into the any of the towns they passed. Too afraid someone would try to free his prisoner or seek their vengeance.
Passing Alec some dried meat, Edward looked at his surroundings as he chewed. From what information Edward and his cousins had gathered, there were at least five more members of Jessup's gang still unaccounted for. That left Edward outnumbered five to one, since he didn't count Alec, considering the fact he was unarmed and unable to even hold a weapon.
His right hand had been crushed during one of the botched escape attempts the previous month, leaving the man nearly useless with a gun. The odds were still in Edward's favor, since he knew that Alec's men awaited them. There was also the fact that he was one of the fastest draws in the state.
But overconfidence had almost cost him dearly in the past year, so he wouldn't take any chances that time around. Besides, his wife would surely resurrect his sorry ass and kill him all over again. Just the thought of his wife spitting angry at him for dying brought a smile to Edward's face.
"What you smilin' at, half-breed."
Edward ignored the man and continued to take a look around. He pulled from his memory, all the best spots for Jessup's men to lay and wait to pick Edward off easily from their perches along the path. There were five such spots and most wouldn't provide him with a clear shot. His best bet was to provide a different target.
"Get up," he growled, removing his gun from his belt and pointing it at Alec. The man's icy blue eyes widened with his mouth gaping open. "Now!"
Alec's gaze darted from the gun drawn on him then toward the pass. Too bad they were under a canopy of trees and the horses provided sufficient cover. With a grumble, Alec rose to his feet, glaring at Edward with such hatred that he was surprised he wasn't burning where he stood.
"Strip," Edward snapped, arming his gun as his mouth pulled up into a devilish smile. Alec sputtered and shook his head wildly. "Do it. I've given you enough chances to signal your men to back off."
"What men?" Alec muttered tersely.
"The men that signaled you with a mirror before we came to this fine shade to rest and eat," Edward said calmly.
Alec Jessup had no idea what to do or where to run. He knew if he even took one step away from Edward, he'd be dead in seconds, and with the law on his side, he'd get away with shooting him in the back.
"I have given you three chances to tell them to back off," Edward stated, gesturing toward his canteen. The metal on it could've easily signaled his men if tipped in the right angle. "The tin cup which you drank that bit of cold coffee, was your second." Alec continued to shake his head as if he was clueless. "And before I moved the horses for cover, my knife you snuck into your boot behind my back could've been used to signal your men."
"There's no one waiting," he spat angrily.
Edward smiled that grin that usually meant that trouble brewed. "Strip," he repeated, that time pointing the gun straight toward Jessup's groin. The man shook where he stood and started to pull at his trousers and kick off his boots.
When Edward stood and started to do the same, Alec's curses renewed with vigor and called Edward every bad name he could think of. "What in the hell are you doing?"
Edward refused to answer and simply took Jessup's clothes from him. Down to his drawers and shirt, it took a few moments for the realization to hit Alec.
"You can't do this," Alec hissed and tried to move away from Edward.
"I assure you, I can."
"Let me signal them!"
"Fine," Edward drawled and grinned. He handed Alec a small polished mirror and positioned Alec where he could give his men word but the men wouldn't be able to see him clearly. With three flashes of the mirror and two returned, his men would likely stand down.
But Edward wasn't one for taking chances. So without another word to Alec, he continued to dress in the outlaw's clothes. At gunpoint, Edward helped Alec into his pants, vest, jacket and hat. Edward gagged Alec and lashed a strip of leather around his mouth and head.
After putting the irate man on Edward's horse, he positioned the hat on Alec's head just right before getting onto William, his other horse. Both beasts were loyal to him and taught to listen to his command, and only his. Edward announced that to Alec, who'd likely never known the kind of loyalty a horse could give its owner if well cared for.
"Lift you head up even an inch and I shoot," he said smoothly to Alec. "A twitch of your hands, I'll shoot. You fall behind or go up ahead from me, and I'll shoot." Alec spit fire from his eyes and there was an unspoken threat behind them, too. "I figure, if they shoot me, it'll only be after you're already dead. And my Isabella would be safe from the likes of you."
Alec growled angrily behind the rag, but nodded. He knew he'd been outsmarted, but something in his eyes told Edward that it wasn't over; not just yet.
They approached the pass slowly, and from under the brim of Alec's hat, Edward watched all the points he knew they'd likely be. He saw tendrils of smoke near one, the tip of a barrel at another; the other three spots had taken more precautions and were hidden from view completely.
They were halfway through the pass when the first sign of trouble alerted Edward. One of Jessup's men had itchy trigger finger and nearly shot off Alec's head. They both cursed and took off quickly with a simple shift of their thighs and boots. Their horses ran with a burst of speed that had Alec cursing behind the gag, since he didn't have the use of his hands to control the horse.
Edward held up his gun, aiming at Alec's retreating figure. "Get control or I'll shoot you!" He'd given himself away, but they had already passed out of shooting range of the gang, but that didn't mean they couldn't follow. Keeping one ear behind him to listen for another sign of trouble, Edward trailed behind Alec by length of a horse.
They needed to get out of the pass before he even attempted to call out to Red. The moment they had, though, with three whistles, Red sharply turned toward the right, heading toward cover. Alec cursed and kicked at the horse beneath him, and with another whistle from Edward, Red unseated Alec with a high whine and huffs of ragged breath.
Within seconds, Edward and William closed the distance, as Alec got to his feet and scrambled to remove his gag.
"Go get her boys!"
Edward's blood went cold at his words as he dismounted. It was obvious that Jessup made plans if he'd made it to Denver was for his gang to go after his wife. Weighing all his options, there was a simple enough solution. With a mighty roar, Edward smashed his fist against Alec's jaw, knocking the man back a few feet and out cold.
Quickly tying the man up, Edward hefted his body onto William and tied him to saddle. Untying a few of his belongings from Red, he swung up onto the saddle and rode out toward Alec's men and hoped he wasn't playing into Jessup's plan.
They had fifteen minutes at most ahead of Edward, but Red was built for speed and stamina, and had made his way through the path in minutes. He stilled his horse near the pass entrance, trying to make heads or tails of the tracks.
There were five men left in the gang, but there were six sets of tracks which proved Edward's assumption correct. Cursing, he turned and headed back to Alec, praying he'd made the right choice. He had to get Alec to Denver before he could go home.
Before he hit the area where he left Alec, he called out to William, who immediately starting bucking. As Edward made his way toward the cursing men and his horse, there was a gun shot.
"Damn it," he spat angrily, knowing he'd likely sentenced his own horse to death.
With his gun poised and ready, he rounded the corner, thankful to see William alive and kicking, but he spat when he realized who Alec's newest recruit was. The yellow-eyed demon was known as James Winthrop, the man who tried to rape his wife, nearly destroyed an entire town when he set the saloon ablaze, and caused so much hell he'd earn the name The Devil.
Edward's mind conjured up the image of wanted poster for James Winthrop, ignoring the reward and focusing instead on the words:
Wanted Dead or Alive
Edward knew which one he preferred.
James rounded on Edward, his gun flashing as it went off. But he was a second too late. Edward watched with a deep, gratifying satisfaction as the bullet penetrated his head. Tiny specs of blood seemed to explode outward like a starburst as a coin sized hole appeared on the weathered, tanned forehead.
A tendril of smoke rose from the blackened hole, signifying the end of The Devil.
For several seconds, Edward's ears rang incessantly, but he hadn't taken his eyes off Alec, who stood with James at his feet. It had taken a few more moments for Alec to snap out of it and try to get James' weapon that lay before him.
Edward shot at Alec's boot, nicking just the tip of it as a warning. "Do it and you die," he groused. "I don't mind taking you both in dead. No one would question my shooting you for trying to escape my custody."
Alec menacing glare did nothing more than make Edward smile. That was until the man said something downright stupid.
"By the time you get back to your wife," he started, smiling gleefully as if he had nothing left to lose. "All of my men will've ridden her real good, used up that fine little body of hers and filled her with their seed. If she lives, she'd carry that bastard child and you'd have to live with that knowledge for the rest of your sorry life. But at least that babe wouldn't be a fucking mongrel."
Edward cold cocked Alec with blinding speed and growled, "I much prefer you silent."
Within fifteen minutes, he, along with Jessup and The Devil, were back on the road to Denver. An hour out of the city, he was met with a few deputies and a marshal. Once inside the local jailhouse, he explained what happened with James and Alec.
"Get a telegram to Boulder," Edward told the marshal, Riley Jamison. He explained what he feared, the retaliation toward his wife. "Tell Sheriff McCarty and my cousins to get out to my ranch, make sure my wife is safe until I get there. I shouldn't be more than a day behind." They'd get to her much sooner than Jessup's men or Edward could get there.
"If you do that," Riley said, "That horse of yours is good as dead."
Edward nodded, knowing he was likely right, but Red was the only one that could get him there in less than a day. "I know," he said as he walked back out and set out to buy more ammo. "I'll send somebody for William in a few days."
Edward's horse's breaths were ragged as he stopped at the set of boots barely hidden in a dry bush by the road. The bumpy path led from Boulder and headed in his ranch's direction, toward home, toward his Isabella.
"Damn," he hissed as he dropped to the ground to inspect the body. Taking his hat in his hand, he laid it over his heart, raking his other through his sweat matted hair.
"Michael," he whispered quietly, kneeling enough to pay a little respect to a family friend. Wiping a trembling hand over his mouth, he offered a little prayer before he methodically checked the poor man's body for wounds.
Sure enough, his hand came up bloody, after inspecting his sides and back. Tapping Michael's chest lightly once, his fingers gently slid the man's surprised, horrified eyes closed.
Why had Michael gone into town? Edward asked himself. Michael had been a family friend to Bella's father and his father before him. In his late fifties, the man proved an invaluable hand at the ranch and good with the horses that Edward raised.
He needed to get home. He made the usual overnight trek from Denver to home in sixteen hours, and had run Red ragged, there wasn't much more that the poor horse could handle. Though he hated leaving Michael's body behind, he had little choice in the matter. Red couldn't handle his weight, and time was of the essence.
Worse, how the hell hadn't the sheriff seen the body? Edward felt something was wrong bone deep. He looked at the tracks nearby; some prints were fairly new, but made little sense. Why had Michael had taken the buggy? Unless, Isabella accompanied him, he thought.
He mounted Red again after offering him some comfort with water and a quick rub down. "I'm sorry, friend," he whispered. "I have little choice in the matter. I have to get to her."
Edward circled twice, gaining his bearing because of that bad feeling he had racking through him when he smelled the smoke in the air. He glanced toward Boulder and realized there were great billowing clouds of grey smoke. As if there'd been a big fire.
Shit, he thought. McCarty has had his hands full. Double shit.
With curses in all the languages he knew, he urged his steed forward. Somehow, Red sensed Edward's urgency and the normally hour-long ride had been shortened considerably. Where the beast found the reserves, Edward had no idea and he wasn't about to complain.
The moment he arrived, he knew something was wrong. He could hear the dog barking somewhere incessantly. He dismounted quickly, calling out for Bella and the other two ranch hands that were left. There was no one there. Worse yet, his riding horses were missing from the stables.
"God damn it!" he growled violently. His wife was nowhere to be found and he had no way to get to her. It was at that moment of loss and desperation that he realized that his dog, Chaser, was barking from within the house.
His poor half wolf-mutt attacked him with vigor before darting outside in the search for his mistress – Edward's wife. There was only one thing he could do, and he hoped it wouldn't be too late. He went to his wife's writing desk and found the pen and notepad he usually used for sales receipts.
He wrote, Isabella gone. Need help, bring me horse.
Taking a length of ribbon from Isabella's things, he whistled for Chaser, who immediately came to his side. Tying the ribbon and note carefully around Chaser's neck, he let the beast lick his face.
"Get Jake," Edward said, motioning toward the west. Chaser looked in that direction and then back up at Edward, barking once before taking off quickly. After he'd gone, Edward examined all the tracks around the house and knew that the gang had separated. There had been only two sets of horse prints. In all likelihood, one set of men came to grab her, and the other went to create a diversion in town.
And the reason the ranch was deserted was because she'd gone into town with Michael and Edward's ranch hands had likely went to repair that area of fencing that needed mending during his absence. He offered a quick prayer of thanks for his assistance on that; he couldn't take anymore loss of lives at the moment.
The two members of Jessup's gang, from what it appeared, likely found the place empty, but Chaser wasn't kind to strangers so they locked him inside. That was why there had been only been two sets of tracks near Michael's body.
But where did they meet up? And in which direction had they gone?
Edward put Red in the biggest stall in the stable, once again offering whatever solace he could as he awaited Jake. If he didn't get there soon, Edward would have to risk one of the mares and hope that it would strong enough to get him to Isabella. He'd ride bareback, if he had to.
He heard the sound of hooves approaching from the south, not from the west as he expected. He armed himself and circled the stable to see who it was.
"We too late, boss?"
"Pray, I hope not," Emmett McCarty said, cursing a few times. "Masen will put a bullet in my head if something happened to her." Damn right, he would, Edward thought bitterly, but he'd feel bad about it later.
"I'm here," he growled, making both men nearly jump back from the horses. "Calm on down. I ain't gonna shoot you."
"Is she…" Emmett said, swallowing. "Gone?" Edward glowered and nodded, refusing to lower his weapon though. "There was a fire at the church," Emmett explained. "Everyone in town went to help."
Edward nodded but continued to glare and brood. He had a good course of anger going and wasn't about let Emmett getaway with ruining it. Besides, he needed something.
"Give me your horse," he spat.
Emmett cringed and thought about it for a moment. "You cannot go out there for her," Emmett hissed. "You're tired and likely just get yourself killed."
"You yourself said I had nine lives," Edward said with a smile that didn't meet his eyes. "The way I figure, I still got about six more left. What's one more…for her?"
"You gotta know what them boys have done to her," the deputy, Lawrence said. "She's as good as used and dead by now."
Edward snarled and shot the deputy in the arm without a second thought. Emmett reached for his gun but Edward bounced another bullet against the shotgun barrel of Emmett's weapon, earning a slew of colorful words from the usually easy going sheriff, spooking the horse for a few minutes.
"I only nicked him," Edward said off offhandedly once Emmett got control of his horse. "He shouldn't be talking about my wife that way," he said, cocking his head to the side. "You gonna let me have your horse?"
Emmett cursed, ready to concede defeat. When it came to Edward's wife, there was no reasoning with the man. He did what he had to do to protect her, save her and avenge her. Before Emmett descended to the ground, they all heard approaching horses and a barking dog.
Edward blew out a harsh breath. "That's my ride," he said curtly. "You best be leaving."
Emmett looked at the approaching figure on horseback and cursed silently. Jake, an Indian who traded occasionally in town was on one of the horses, cutting a straight path toward them.
"You're the still law, boy," Emmett said to Edward firmly. "You can't go out there and do what you're about to do."
Edward smirked and tossed his worn, nickel star shield toward Emmett. "Consider that my resignation," he drawled and without another word mounted the extra horse before it had even come to complete stop. "Michaels' body is between here and Boulder, in the bushes at the bend. Make sure he gets a proper burial."
Emmett grimaced, ignoring the quite whimpers of his gutless deputy. He nodded and gravely asked, "What are you going to do if you find her used, like he said?"
"Bring her home."
Of course, he would. And there'd be hell to pay for her suffering, Emmett realized. "And if she's dead already."
"She ain't," Edward replied, catching something that Jake tossed to him.
"If she is?"
"Give me a week," he answered after a few moments. "If we're not back, make sure Jasper and Alice Whitlock get the ranch. Mr. Jenks has the paperwork in the event that something happened to me and Isabella."
"You wouldn't come back?" Emmett asked.
Jake looked at Edward and knew the answer before he replied.
"Not without her." With that said, both men left in a cloud of dust, the dog doing his best to keep up with them.
"Quit you're whining," Emmett hissed at Lawrence and looked at the wound. "It's barely a scratch."
"He shot me!"
"Well, I would've done the same if you said something like that about my Rose."
Emmett looked at the retreating figures one last time, wondering if he should've told Edward what he'd heard from Doc Cullen in town. It would've only distracted him, he reasoned with himself. Make Edward do something crazy.
He didn't have the heart to tell him Rosalie's warning neither. She'd kill herself before she let them have her that way.
"How long?" Jake asked through clenched teeth, shame and guilt coursing through him. The anguish in his friend's face struck his heart.
"The way I figure, with their slower horses, planning and the distraction in town, not more than eight hours," Edward replied in surly tone. "Maybe even less, you know my wife. She put up a fight, that I'm sure of."
Edward thought about the tracks near poor ol' Michael proved as much. Blood spilled at the scene and not just Michael's, and Edward refused to believe any belonged to his wife.
Jake nodded and searched an outcropping of bushes for any signs of the men. With the hot sun overhead and a warm breeze, tracks had gotten scarce for the last several minutes.
"My fault," Jake grumbled under his breath, a few choice words in his native language. "You asked me to come to ranch while you were gone."
Edward looked over at his friend, shaking his head in protest. Jake had come a long way since he'd become a sort of ambassador between the willing townsfolk of Boulder and his tribe. It was his wife that helped Jake with his English, and he had improved considerably.
"I asked you to check if you had time," Edward murmured. "I knew you had other things to attend to." That was Jake's blushing new bride.
"Still," Jake said with a thump of his fist to his darkly tanned chest. "I owe her my life and you, too."
Edward chose not to reply, knowing the man's head was as thick as cast iron. He glanced at Jake, a name they'd given him since his Indian name was a bit of a mouthful. With his long, nearly blue black hair that hit the middle of his broad back, tanned skin marked with several lash marks from his days as a warring tribe's captive, he was a formative ally.
Edward knew, without a doubt, that Jake would do anything to save his Isabella, and for that, he was grateful.
"Look," Jake said, circling once before descending to the ground. "This hers?"
Edward took the bit of soft-cream lace, the same finery he'd seen his wife mend on her newest lovely blue dress. Chaser whined and bolted further ahead, barking at something he found. Jake and Edward followed him and found another bit of the lacy fluff.
Edward grinned and shook his head. God, how he loved her! The smartest woman in the state, she was, he thought.
"She showed us the way," Jake said, his voice soft and in awe.
"Come on," Edward growled, whistling for his horse. As he mounted, he ordered Chaser to keep quiet as he followed along as quickly as he could. The poor thing fell behind after a couple of minutes, but Edward had no doubt he'd join them soon enough.
After a several hours, the space between trail markers started to widen. It had gotten dark and Edward knew they had run out of time. The question was, why hadn't they killed her yet?
Were they supposed to be meeting with someone else? James, perhaps? Who else would the gang be willing to defy orders for? Most of their enemies were either dead or rotting in jail.
Leaving the horses tied to some trees after they managed to see a fire ahead, Edward and Jake became one with the shadows as they approached the camp. It was too quiet and he hoped that meant the men hadn't laid a hand on his wife.
A soft whimper made Edward and Jake tense when they were within sight of the camp. The sound terrified Edward down to the core, making his heart ache intensely. No matter what, he'd love his wife unconditionally. They'd get through the aftermath, as they had over all the obstacles they had already faced.
Edward chanced a look into the camp, focusing on the men near the fire. What he saw confused him thoroughly. His wife sat with her arms cradling her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth, with three bodies of her captors surrounding her. Shakily, her hand was curled around a gun, staring off in their direction.
"I know you're all still out there, bastards!" she hissed, slowly coming to a stand, gun and a knife poised and ready for anything. "I'm not going down without a fight and I'll gut you before you lay another hand on me!"
She shot wildly at the dark, missing Jake's shoulder by an inch, hitting the tree behind him instead. Jake raised a dark eyebrow in surprise and motioned that he'd go around. Calling out would likely make her keep shooting at every sound.
"I can smell you!" she called out. "Bet your stomach is still burning, too. That's what you get for forcing me to make you dinner!"
Jake stilled and looked around through the trees, finding a dark outline of a body lying in a pool of his expelled dinner, eyes wide open. He pointed it out to Edward silently.
"Dead like the others," Edward whispered. "We still got one more then. Go around back, while I talk to her." Jake nodded and blended into the shadows once again.
"Put your gun down, sweetheart," he said as he carefully came out from behind a tree. "It's me."
Her eyes snapped in his direction, one swollen from bruise that covered most her left jaw and temple, the other unfocused from tears that gathered there. "Who's there?" she said shakily, turning the gun on Edward.
He cleared his throat and said her name, allowing the huskiness with which he usually said it come through. Her hand dropped for a second, sobbing out his name, but before he could close the distance between them and take her in his arms, she turned quickly and shot at something in the dark.
Oh hell, Edward thought, Jake.
"Nice aim," a voice behind Isabella said. "That's all of them, Edward."
Edward sighed and gathered his wife in his arms. She fought him at first, crying out not to look at her. Pressing a tender kiss her temple, he whispered, "I love you so much, no matter what, sweetheart. I'm sorry for not being here when you needed me."
Instead of answering right away, she took his hand and placed it over her stomach. "Take us home," she replied softly against his neck as she suddenly went limp against him. Edward stilled, closing his eyes as her words caused his knees to buckle. Pulling her into his arms, he handed her to Jake before mounting his horse.
Taking his wife from his friend, he shifted her body so that she rested across his lap. "Clean up what you can," he said, pressing another kiss on his fainted wife. "Catch up, we'll be taking it slow." Jake nodded and slapped the horse's flank, sending the couple on their way.
Jake looked around the camp, seeing no blood on the bodies of the dead men. Beside a fallen log, where Edward's wife had been standing was an amber bottle. Lifting it, he couldn't make out the words on it, but had an idea what it was used for that night.
Edward heard Jake's approach some half an hour later, slowing enough to allow them to ride side-by-side.
"They all accounted for?" he asked Jake, tightening his hold on his sleeping wife.
Jake nodded. "They were all Jessup's gang."
"Any idea how she killed the four before we got there?"
"This," Jake said, tossing Edward the bottle.
Catching it with his free hand, he cursed under his breath. He looked down at his wife and wondered how close he'd gotten to losing her.
"What is it?"
"Laudanum," Edward replied.
"Why is Spirit of Fire carrying a bottle of that?"
Edward smiled gently at his wife's given name by Jake's tribe when he was returned, thanks to her. Though the question left him numb, he knew he'd have to answer Jake. The man's curiosity and worry wouldn't allow Edward to let the question pass.
"It's used for different things," he said carefully. "But if one uses too much at one time, it can kill."
"Again? Why would she have it?"
Edward sighed and shook his head. "She started sewing secret pockets in her dresses and petticoats after they first tried to take her. She'd carry a knife or one of them bottles as precautions."
Jake looked at Edward for a long moment. "Was it for protection or to end her own life if she was captured?"
Isabella felt the mattress shift beside her, knowing her husband was leaving the bed before she awoke. He'd been doing the same thing every day since their return home a week earlier. Edward would come to bed late at night, and rise before she stirred.
Her bruises had long faded, but his touch had yet to return. The level of intimacy they had worked hard to achieve after they were married seemed to have vanished.
The morning after her safe return home, she assured him that they hadn't touched her much. She told him that the men were too scared of him and of Edward's cousins to stop riding until they felt safer. Once they had made camp, they forced her to cook their meal, and while she endured their taunts, had slipped the entire bottle she carried in the food.
That explanation had turned into a heated discussion, heavily focused on the fact that she had carried such an item with her. She explained that it had become a habit whenever he wasn't with her. That reply stemmed a terrible argument that no matter what had happened, he'd still want her.
He refused to believe that suicide wasn't her first inclination while in the clutches of those men. She couldn't deny that it had been her first thought, but she decided to fight for her and their child.
As she lay absolutely still, Edward quietly walked to their window, and she wondered what kept him from her. Did he not believe her? Did he not want her because they had managed to paw at her a bit? Or was it because she'd become a murderer? Was he angry that she learned to defend herself, since he had refused to teach her?
She had taught herself how to load a rifle and a six-shooter, using every opportunity during his departures from the ranch to learn how to aim correctly. It had taken months of practice to hit her targets perfectly.
Perhaps, it was the babe she held within her. How could she obtain answers when her husband remained so distant?
She heard his soft footfalls as he approached her side of the bed and felt the touch of his finger along her jaw. A moment passed before his touch was gone and so was he. She waited until she heard the sounds of pots and pans in the kitchen to sigh deeply and wiped away the tear from her eye.
Edward scrubbed a hand over his face, growling at the rain that would keep him inside most of the day. A part of him wanted to remain with his wife for every minute of every day. Another part felt he didn't deserve to be in her presence.
He had failed her.
Before he had left to deliver Jessup to Denver, Isabella had warned him that something didn't feel right about him leaving her. The problem was he still had a job to do, and for him, it never felt right to leave her, for however short of a period. Two to three days would've been the longest since their marriage started if she hadn't been taken.
Edward had told his wife that her safety was his biggest concern and asked for one thing, and that was to remain on the ranch and not go into town. She hadn't listened, though. He'd known she'd likely not listen, and prepared for such an event. He had friends and family keep an eye out for her if she ventured to town.
Yet, something still happened to her, despite all his precautions. And not just to her, but to their baby. A baby, he thought. How could he keep them safe?
Once the coffee was done, he quietly made his way into the bedroom to dress but was surprised to find his wife wipe at tears that flowed relentlessly down her cheeks. His heart broke, and though he wished he could take away all her pain, he built walls around himself instead.
He knew the day had finally come.
"Does this mean you're leaving?" he asked. A part of him always knew she'd leave him someday, and while he hoped she never would, he wouldn't force her to stay.
She turned in bed, sat up and stomped over to him. Thrusting a finger on his chest, she cried out, "How many times do I have to say it! I'm not leaving you, but if you don't want me anymore, then just say so!"
As Edward tried to process his wife's words, she swirled around and started to remove all her clothes from the dresser across the room.
"I told you, they did not touch me," she whispered gravely. "But you do not believe me. I will not stay with you if it's not a real marriage, if you do not love me. I deserve better than that."
Edward swallowed heavily and shook his head. "You do deserve better." Her pretty bottom lip trembled at his words, nodded and continued to pack her clothes in one of the trunks. "You deserve someone that can protect you and keep you safe."
Her eyes snapped to his, narrowing as realization hit. "You are a stubborn fool and a bastard, too!"
He smiled grimly and shrugged. "I told you that the day you asked for my hand."
"I do not need coddling! I need a husband that will love me, despite my troubles, and a husband that trusts me when I say they did not touch me!"
His eyebrows furrowed. "I do believe you."
Isabella looked at her husband and shook her head in confusion. "Then why have you not laid with me? Touched me?"
He cleared his throat, and answered, "Because I'm not man enough to keep you safe."
"I can do that, if need be," she hissed. "I did it that night. Though, if I had a pistol, they never would have captured me, I guarantee it."
"You shouldn't have had to do it yourself!" he roared, pacing the length of the room, naked as the day he was born. He always slept that way, and Isabella had learned that their first night together. "I'm your husband. You came to me to keep you safe from the Jessups' and from all the men that wanted you and your land."
"At first, yes," she replied softly.
He continued as if he hadn't heard her. "And now it's plain as day that you can do that, you can protect yourself, if need be." He sighed deeply. "You don't need me anymore, sweetheart."
Isabella let out a deep breath and approached her husband as he stood with his back to her. Sweeping her hands across his broad shoulders, she pressed a soft kiss to top of his spine. "You are right. I do not need you to protect me."
She felt her husband shudder at her words, but tremble beneath her touch. His head fell forward and she could feel the tension and anger roll off him.
"But I need you to love me," she whispered as she kissed his shoulder blade, nibbling slightly. "I need you to hold me every night." Isabella stood up on the tips of her toes to kiss the nape of his neck, fingering the hair above. "I need you to love me as you loved me before all this happened."
"Loving you was never a problem," he murmured. "It was whether you loved me in return."
"Have I not shown you, said the words enough for you to know that nothing can drive us apart except for you?"
He turned in her arms, facing her, seeing the truth in her eyes. "You're a fool for loving a man that can't keep you safe."
"You'd be a fool if you let me go because of your damn pride," she said with a stubborn lift of a dark eyebrow.
Surprise flickered in his eyes at her words. "Careful there, fire spirit," he growled. "My pride is what keeps the house warm and our stomachs full in the winter."
"Your pride keeps you from making love to me," she countered, lifting her hands to his naked chest. She tilted her head to the side, smiling up to him sweetly. Unable to resist touching her, his thumb brushed along her jaw and bottom lip. "Is it because I killed those men, Edward? It was either them or me and the baby?"
He shook his head. "No. In a way, I'm damn proud of you, for doing what you had to do to stay alive until I came for you."
"Then why do you not love me anymore?" she asked, knowing what the question would do, expose her need for him.
His eyes narrowed as his arms banded around her, pulling her against him. "You know I do," he said firmly, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "And more every day."
She lifted a shoulder and averted her eyes. "How am I to know that you do? You have yet to say the words since our return, to kiss me, too."
He sighed and pulled her even closer, kissing the top of her head. "I did not know if you still wanted me," he said gravely. She pressed several kisses along his chest, making his blood heat with need and love and everything he thought he lost.
Edward groaned and sat on the edge of the bed, pulling his wife between his thighs. Taking her face in his hands, he looked into her eyes. The fire he'd seen when she came to him for help was still there, and he recognized it as not need for protection as he had before, but need for him. And not for what he could do with a gun.
With another whisper of her name, he traced her heart-shaped face, peppered kisses along the fading bruise and said the words they both needed to hear, to feel.
"I love you," they said in unison as their hands drifted softly against each other. His moved her hair from her shoulder, watching as the dark waves fell down her back. His fingers brushed over every inch of her face, leaving her lips for last, wishing they were swollen from his kisses.
Looking up at her, he brushed his mouth over hers softly at first. He tested her desire with a tentative touch of his tongue across the seam of her lips. She moaned softly, wrapping her arms around his neck, gently pulling his hair as she pressed herself closer.
Edward groaned deeply, darting his tongue in her mouth, tasting her as he dreamed of for days. His hands roamed down her arms and along her sides, over the simple, thin shift, a piece of under clothes she wore to bed when the weather was warm. Another sound rumbled through him when he felt nothing but warm, silky skin beneath.
His hands quickly lifted her shift, bunching the fabric around his wrists as his fingers curled around her backside, pulling her closer. Her breasts were soft against his chest, topped with her beaded nipples that made him growl and groan deeply. He stood abruptly, needing to feel the soft contours of her body against the hard lines of his.
Her shift fell to the floor somewhere behind her as he ran his calloused hands over every curve of her. She moaned as he laved a peak with his tongue and teased it with his teeth. When her hands did the same, running down his lean, muscled chest and torso, he stopped her before she could get to her destination.
Shaking his head, his breath ragged against the crook of her neck, he gasped, "No, sweetheart, if you touch me there, it'll all be over before it starts."
She pouted, looking up at him though dark lashes. He nipped on the jutting lip, laughing as she tried to do it again. He manacled her wrists in one of his hands behind her back, smiling down at her.
"Let me love you today," he said, whispering her name before he kissed her again. "And every day."
She nodded and fell back on their bed, waiting for him to follow. However, Edward stood at the side of the bed to look at his beautiful wife. He should question how he could've been so lucky to have someone like her. But if he dared, would she be taken from him? He wouldn't take that risk.
Gently, he crawled over her, laying kisses along the soft skin of her thigh, up the small slope of her abdomen and against the hard peak that called to him. Hands and legs curled around him as she took him in her body with a single thrust. She cried out softly, not in pain, but pleasure. Her desperate hands reached for him, pulling his mouth to hers.
Their mutual sounds were captured as they gained intensity, fueling their passion. His hand gathered her knee, pulling her thigh higher up his hip to thrust deeper. Her head fell back against the sheets, calling out his name, her fingers tightening along his shoulders.
"I love you," he gasped.
"And I you," she replied breathlessly. "Oh please." She moved her hips to meet his with a strength that had him gasping for air desperately. The look on her face made all his worries banish to the farthest reaches of his mind. She wanted him, all of him, despite his faults and insecurities.
One of his hands curled along the inside curve of her hip, brushing a thumb over her to bring her the pleasure she sought. She cried out his name as her thighs tightened around his waist, pulling him even closer. He ground against her every time he thrust inside her, deepening the angle.
They had come a long way since the first time they laid together. It had taken months until passion allowed propriety and insecurities to fall away. Since then, all it would take was a look from the other for them to come together wherever they were; in the stables, in the kitchen, as they bathed or somewhere in the back two hundred acres of the ranch.
He'd never want to let her go, ever. Damn his pride for ever thinking he could.
His lips sought hers as she clenched around him, her body trembling beneath him. With two more thrusts, he roared his release against her slick neck, shaking as she held him. Breathless and sated, he had mind enough to fall beside her and pull her close.
For several minutes, neither of them said a word. Edward's fingers idly traced patterns along her stomach, occasionally kissing along the gentle curve.
It was Isabella that broke the silence. "I was so scared."
Edward sighed. "I know."
"I'm sorry for worrying you."
He nodded, and then shook his head. "I'll worry every minute I'm away from you. Nothing can change that. You're best safe by my side."
"I don't think I would've took the opium if you hadn't had come."
"Did you think I would not come for you?" He felt her shake not only her head, but every part of her.
"I knew you would," she whispered, raking her fingers in his hair. "Which is why I wanted to give you more time to reach me, I only meant for them to sleep. But a part of me wanted this nightmare to be over and to not have to look over my shoulder forever."
"You did what anyone else in your position would do."
After a several minutes, she asked, "The baby? Are you happy?"
He turned onto his stomach, ignoring his body's response to her nakedness for the moment. His hands curved over her hips then expanded over her stomach.
"Yes," he said. "I thought I would never become a father, because of the fever I had as a child. I am so glad I was wrong, sweetheart."
She smiled at his words, touching his lips and jaw with lightly calloused fingers, the hands of a rancher's wife.
The smile he had suddenly fell. "You know this baby probably won't be a pretty pink one like Alice's or Rose's, don't you?"
"I know that and it does not matter to me, you are very handsome. Red-tipped hair and your skin has a warm undertone. You're not any darker than any of the men that spend hours in the sun every day to work. I hope if it's a boy, he'll look like you, but have a little of me, too."
"If the baby is a girl?" he asked.
She smiled and blushed. "I hope she looks like me but with your beautiful eyes."
"Yours are more beautiful," he whispered, shifting so that he hovered over her. "When are we having this bundle of pure sweetness and joy?"
He laughed at her scowl. His family had often joked that if they ever had a baby, with her fiery temper and his normally angry demeanor, that they'd spawn the devil.
"Your cousins are going to be just as ornery about the baby as you," she hissed through clenched teeth. "I swear, if they say one bad word against our little one, I'll knee them between the legs."
"Again?" he asked, laughing as she tried to push him away. Gathering her in his arms, he rolled them over until she sat astride him. Her hands fell against his chest as she pulled back, still scowling at him. "When is our baby coming, sweetness?"
Her eyes rolled as she huffed at his attempt to soothe her ire, then again, his hands running up her thighs surely helped. "Late January," she moaned softly, unknowingly moving her hips over his.
"I can't wait to see you round with your child," he murmured, unable to keep his hands from her belly. "Or see you waddle."
She slapped his hands away, crossing her arms over her chest, showing him a flicker of that fiery temper. "I will not waddle."
He laughed as he sat up and wrapped his arms around his angry wife. "I'll just have to carry you around to make sure you don't."
"You will do no such thing," she said, squirming on his lap, laughing as he growled against her chest. Her fingers ran through his hair and he growled again. "Are we going to stay in bed all day?"
"Damn straight," he answered and he laid her down, sliding into her easily.
She smiled up at him and then pinched his backside. That earned her a yelp and a growl. "That's for assuming I'd waddle." He laughed and kissed his wife senseless.
The future would always be uncertain; Edward had no doubt about that. What he could do was ensure that his future and those of his family that they'd be together for as long as they could. He'd show her how to protect herself, how to run a ranch and how to ride with the same grace as she did everything else.
He knew he wouldn't always be there for her, but he'd be damned if he'd allow his pride come between them again, or allow it from keeping her safe.
For some reason, he'd been given a gift, despite who he was or the color of his skin and hair. He'd been given a woman that could love all of him and for that he'd forever grateful.
AN: beated by kyla713, but any more mistakes are my fault. I may have added a little here and there. If you liked it or any of the other entries make sure to vote for the contest, starting February 16, 2012. Thanks for reading.