Chapter 1, Scene 1
Texas State Penitentiary, Huntsville; June 1863
The smell of unwashed flesh hanging in the air assaulted her senses and curdled her stomach as she followed the guard through the maze of gloomy hallways brightened by the occasional flame wafting from a torch nailed to the brick walls. Something skirted the toe of her boot. She stifled a scream, drew her black skirts close and quickened her pace to keep up with him.
Down another passageway he led her, past iron doors secured for the night. A wall of brick greeted them at the end, along with another lit torch and a door on the right. She halted beside the unkempt man and watched him pull a ring of keys from his coat pocket. He inserted one into the lock then glanced at her before opening the door.
"You sure about this, sister? He's a mean sonofabitch."
"He's one of God's children," she chastised softly. "He should be treated as such."
"He's swinging from a rope tomorrow."
"Then his last hours will be met with dignity."
"Why are you here and not the padre?" His gaze flickered over her habit and she shivered.
"The padre is sick. He bade me to come and give this man his last rites." She held her breath, hoping he believed her.
He must have for he shrugged and eased open the heavy door, the sound of squeaking hinges grating through her body. "Don't say I didn't warn ya." He extended his arm inside the room shrouded in darkness. "Ten minutes is all you get to perform his last rites, though you're wasting your time. His soul's blackened beyond redemption."
"A child of God is never a waste of time." She moved past him.
"Be nice, Grayson," the guard called into the cell. "Killing a sister will send you straight to hell, if those thirty men you already killed don't beat her to it."
The door creaked back into place. The key turned the bolt and the guard's footsteps retreated.
"Buck," she whispered, willing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She couldn't help him if she couldn't see him. "Where are you?"
“Over here,” a weak voice hissed from her left. Cautiously, she moved across the floor. Her knee bumped into something. She knelt down and felt her way along brittle hay strewn over a coarse piece of wood. She touched the frame of a bed.
She raised her hand higher and was rewarded with the feel of a human leg, though this one was thin and not the bulk of muscle she remembered. Trailing her hand further along, she felt his arm, the column of his neck and then the heat of his breath on her fingers as she touched them to his bearded mouth. "Buck," she sighed, relieved. Whether clean-shaven or overrun with hair, she knew the shape of his lips well. She'd kissed and caressed them many times.
"Zanna," he gritted. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"I told you I'd come," she reminded gently, unbothered by his irritation. "Let me help you sit up. I have something for you."
She ignored his words, knew they stemmed from the desperate situation he was in, they were both in. If she didn't believe he loved her, she never would have chanced stealing a nun's garb and coming here. "Don't argue with me. We don't have much time. The guard will be back soon."
"Summon him now," he barked, though it was no more than a loud whisper. "I told you that day in the courtroom never come here."
"And I promised I'd defy you to save you." She helped him to sit, heartbroken at the feel of his sunken chest, a chest that had once been so thick with sinew she'd used him for a pillow. "Oh, Buck, what have they done to you?" She caressed his hair, long and shaggy now.
"Nothing I didn't expect," he sneered and then rested his back against the wall. "I don't want you here, Zanna. Or at the hanging tomorrow."
"There's not going to be a hanging," she said matter-of-fact while hiking up her skirts. She removed the gun strapped to her inner thigh and handed it to him. "Do what you must to get out of here. I'll be waiting for you in Revolving Point."
He gripped her arm with less strength than a babe. "You stay away from there. The fire might have destroyed most of the town last year, but it didn't chase away everyone. Percy and his gang run through there every chance they get."
"If I agree, will you join me at my sister's in St. Louis?"
"Shit, no. Her cooking tastes like sawdust," he retorted, showing some resemblance to the Buck she knew. Bartholomew Hanson might have enough money to rob Buck of his strength, but he didn't have enough to rob the outlaw of his soul. "The only place I'm going is hell. You, too, for stealing that get-up you’re wearing.”
“How did you—"
“Saw you in the light.”
“Talk like that only serves to make me defy you even more," she quipped. "I'll be waiting for you in Revolving Point."
"The next time you'll see me is in the afterlife, if I have a mind to look for you."
"I gave you that gun for a reason," she railed. "I expect you to use it."
"You expect too much," he coughed.
"I learned that from you." She stood and smoothed her skirts. "You'd best come for me, Buck. I won't forgive you if you don't."
"Same ole, Zanna." He offered up a chuckle and then coughed again. "Stubborn to a fault."
"Stubborn in my love for you."
"Lust, Zanna. That's what we had."
Her blood ran cold at his comment. Surely, he jested. But what if he didn't? What if what she'd thought they'd shared had existed only in her mind? What if he didn't want the future she wanted? "Buck, you will come for me. Won't you?"
"Nope." He slid back down onto the mattress. "This is the end for you and me. Find someone else."
"No." She grabbed his shoulders, tears filling her eyes.
"Go away, Suzanna. I don't want you or your pity. Guard," he called, surprising her with strength and conviction in his tone, and in his hand for he gripped her arm and shoved her aside.
"But…" she sputtered. "You can't mean that. We—"
"Get it through your thick head. I don't want you. I never did. Whores aren’t trustworthy with a man’s heart.” He leaned up on his elbow. "Guard!" He called again, this time louder and the door swung open. "Get her outta here."
Zanna's Outlaw can be purchased at: www.amazon.com/author/julielence