Ride to Ruin
Reaper Book Three
When a religious sect settles north of Fort Dougan in an abandoned city called Ruin, it doesn’t take long for stories to spread that something’s not right about the place. Charismatic preacher Thaddeus Blackwell has promised his flock a better life, unsullied by the decadence of Scraper society and the immorality of life on the border. With an army of cured Reapers under his command, Blackwell is determined to build a godly society…even if he has to use ungodly means to do it.
Working the ranch with the horses she loves, Ellie hasn’t paid much attention to the rumors about Ruin until her sister is charged with Blackwell’s murder. Ellie drops everything to ride to Lu’s aid, only to find that her sister has fled town with a Ranger hot on her trail and Thaddeus’s son, Mordecai, out for her blood.
Ranger Garrett Landry believes Lu is the key to getting his family out of Ruin alive, and he needs to find her before Mordecai gets to her first. Reluctantly accepting Ellie as his partner in the search, Garrett doesn’t expect to fall in love with the brave but in over her head rancher. And he never imagines that Ellie might be the one to save him instead.
A cold wind tugged at Ellie’s torn calico skirt, stinging her wet cheeks and pushing the smoke and dust around until there was no escaping it. Funny. A full week of early spring with nary a cloud in the sky and then this afternoon, just like that, winter came back with a vengeance.
One day too late.
Reapers didn’t like the cold. If the weather had turned just a hair sooner, the Reapers would have already fled south. If it had been later in the season, the Rangers would have been more prepared and not slumbering in their forts thinking they had another few weeks before the packs swarmed north. If Lu had gone to see if the cart was ready, then Ellie’s sister would have been the one to die instead of their mother.
Ellie bit her tongue on that one and swallowed the shameful thought down, along with all the rest of the bitterness welling up inside her. There was no point standing here pondering all the things that might have happened differently. She didn’t truly wish Lu dead instead of their mother. If anything, she would rather have been the one out in the street when the Reapers attacked the town. She was a fast runner. She’d have stood a better chance than her mother or young sister. And if Ellie had been the one to die, her family would have been able to get along just fine without her. Her mother would have known how to go on just as she’d gotten them through that awful time after Pa died.
Now it was only Ellie and Lu left, and they were just kids. What were they supposed to do?
Ellie didn’t have an answer to that question, which was why they were still standing here on the outskirts of town in the deepening twilight. There were decisions to be made, and she was the only one left to make them. She just didn’t know how to start.
She pondered it for a few minutes while the funeral pyre burned low. The glow of the wood was the same dull orange as the setting sun. Her vision blurred as she stared into the last of the fire. They’d had to burn the body tonight. With Reapers around, you had to destroy the bodies of the dead right away or the smell drew the monsters in. At least, that was what the Ranger had told her before riding off after the rest of the pack.
The patrol would return soon. There was noise coming from the saloon where the grateful townspeople had gathered with food and drink to thank the Rangers for their aid. The people down there sounded nearly jubilant, but then, they’d all survived along with their families. They had a right to their happiness. Only one person had died in the attack. No one had been bitten and turned. There were plenty of ghost towns south of here that hadn’t been so lucky.
The next gust of wind made her sway on her feet. Rubbing at her arms, she tore her gaze away from the fire.
“It’s time, Lu,” she said to her sister.
Standing a few feet away, Lu had the same glassy-eyed, slack-faced expression that Ellie felt on her own face. Other than the expression, they didn’t really look like sisters. Lu had inherited their father’s hazel eyes and their mother’s brown skin. Ellie was a shade paler, with their father’s sharp nose and their mother’s black eyes. They had the same heart-shaped face, though, the same mouth, and the exact same dimple in their left cheeks. Lu was only twelve, but when she finished growing, she might end up a touch taller. They didn’t look much alike, but the big difference was in their personalities. Ellie the good girl and Lu the difficult one.
Lu was fixing to be difficult now. Ellie could tell by the way her green eyes glinted fire even in the dim light.
“I want to go home,” Lu said.
“I don’t think that’s best. Tomorrow. We’ll go home tomorrow.”
Tomorrow, Ellie would face the empty house and those decisions closing in around her like the night.
Lu’s chin lifted. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”
Ellie wasn’t in the mood for an argument. She grabbed Lu’s arm and tugged. “Come on. We can go into town and someone will—”
Lu dug in her heels. “Nobody’s going to help us. Don’t you see that? If they wanted to help, they’d be out here with us. Instead, they’re all down there getting ready to throw a party. You go into town. No one will want us to stay with them anyway.”
“Don’t be stupid. Someone will take us in.”
“I’m not stupid.”
“Old woman Maude.”
Ellie shook her head. “She’s not crazy.”
She was…eccentric, too old and stubborn to move off the border even though everyone knew she had more than enough money to buy a place high enough up in the mountains to be safe from Reaper attack. The problem was that in the mountains, Maude would have to live in a building that housed a dozen other families. Space was at a premium up there, and they stacked their houses one on top of the other like towers. Down here, Maude had a great big sprawling place all to herself, with an enormous garden that was the envy of her neighbors. Maude liked to tell people about how her grandmother had planted the rose bushes out front with her own hands. Of course, that was back when the border had been further south and Siloam a more prosperous, safer place to live.
“Besides,” Lu said, kicking at a rock in the dirt, “I’m allergic to cats.”
That was another reason Maude kept to the border. She didn’t want to give up her herd. “What you’re allergic to is manners.”
“I don’t want to stay with her…with anyone down there. If you’re too tired to make it all the way home, maybe we can slip into somebody’s barn.”
“Trespassing.” Ellie set her hands on her hips. “That’s your preference?”
Lu scowled. “It’s more honest than pretending to like any of the people down there. If a single one of them had lifted a hand to help…” Tears welled in her eyes and she muttered a curse as she turned away.
Ellie had the same image in her head she imagined Lu did. Their mother running toward them, the cart abandoned several yards back. She’d yelled at them to run as a Reaper chased her down the street. The naked, wild-eyed man had come upon them so fast there hadn’t been time to even think about arguing. They’d run, and Ellie hadn’t chanced a look back until she was two houses down. Her heart had stopped beating when she realized their mother wasn’t behind them. She was just standing there in the middle of the street watching them flee. The Reaper tackled her to the ground. Lu cried out and Ellie stumbled. When she’d stuck out a hand to catch her fall, Lu had pulled her up. And they’d run their hearts out, leaving their mother behind. Because there wasn’t anything else they could do.
Their mother had known exactly what she was doing—giving her girls a chance—and they couldn’t have squandered that. But in that one backward glance, Ellie had also seen Bette Dixon standing in the doorway opposite with a rifle in her hands. Alford in the above stairs window, gun holstered and his hands braced on the sill as he looked out into the street.
Lu had likely seen the same thing. The townspeople had stood there and watched. They’d done nothing to help their mother, hadn’t even tried.
Why would they? a small part of her whispered. Why waste a bullet? Why help a dying widow who’d never been anything but a nuisance to the town? A reminder of what cowards they all were. Five years ago they’d stood by and watched while Marion Addams’ husband was gunned down in the street by a card cheat, and today they’d stood by and watched her die of Reaper bite. There was a weird kind of symmetry to it. Besides, once the Reaper got to her there wasn’t a thing anyone could have done to save her.
“They had families to protect too,” she said to Lu, struggling to keep her voice calm. “There was no way of knowing that the Rangers would come thundering into town before the rest of the pack got here.”
“You’re defending them?”
When Ellie didn’t answer, Lu let loose with a string of curses that trailed off into incoherence.
Absently, Ellie said, “Watch your mouth.”
“Pardon me, highness. It boggles my mind that you can stand there saying it’s understandable that no one lifted a hand to help our mother while she was mauled in the street by a monster. In my book, that makes them monsters too.”
“They’re good people.”
Lu made a disgusted noise. “They are not good people. I don’t know why you always make excuses for them. And don’t you dare quote the Bible at me. Some things aren’t meant to be forgiven. Dan—”
Ellie sliced her arm in a cutting motion. “Dan wasn’t even in town today.”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” But whatever Lu’s point had been she was kind enough to let it drop. They had fresh wounds. Why slice open old ones too? None of it mattered anyway. Overhead, the stars were winking to life, and they still had to figure out where they were going to sleep tonight.
One thing was for sure. They couldn’t go back to their house, ten miles outside of town. Not at night while there were still Reapers about. They couldn’t stand here in the dying light without bedrolls or shelter or fire, looking down at the quiet town. They could go beg shelter. It was the only option that made sense, and that was what they needed to do, no matter how Lu felt about it.
And the people in town would open their doors. Risk their life against a Reaper? No. Offer two orphaned children a safe spot in front of the fire? Absolutely. People weren’t all good or all bad. That just wasn’t the way the world worked. Lu would see that when she was older. It was Ellie’s job to see that she grew up. Because there wasn’t anyone left to do it.
There, first decision made. They were sleeping in town. She could do this. She would manage it somehow.
“Come on.” She tried again, and this time, after some token resistance, Lu let Ellie pull her forward. “We’ll at least get some food.”
Lu gave her a long, hard look and shrugged off her hand. But she kept walking toward town and that was the important thing. They had to stick together now. They were all each other had left.
The patrol returned sometime before midnight, and when Lu stirred beside her, Ellie rose carefully from the bed. Parting the curtains, she watched as the men rode into town. They kept their horses to a walk and looked more weary than triumphant. Ellie felt a well of sympathy rise up in her heart and she squashed it like a bug. If anyone had failed her family today, it was the Rangers.
She’d always admired them, everyone did. Star-marked and immune to Reaper bite, Rangers patrolled the border territory to keep the Reapers at bay. They were fit and handsome young men who dressed in well-made boots and clothes. They rode the best horses money could buy and never went anywhere without their guns.
Every time the patrol stopped in Siloam, there was a celebration with food, music, and dancing. All of the single women would dress in their very best, hoping to catch the eye of a Ranger for the night. The preacher talked about that like it was an awful burden for women to suffer the attentions of star-marked men to make sure there was another generation of Rangers to protect the border. Ellie’d never noticed that any of the women seemed to regard it as much of a burden. Most seemed to enjoy the thrill of claiming a Ranger for the night, and if they became pregnant, that was a bonus because of the money the forts paid out to raise a star-marked child.
Marta had given birth to a star-marked baby last year, and it was what finally prodded Charlie into getting down on one knee to propose to her. Marta and Charlie had used the money to move into the foothills right after the wedding. Most people with money moved away. The border snuck closer to Siloam with every passing year.
If her mother had survived, Ellie probably would have been arguing with her right now for a chance to go to the party. The last time the patrol had come through, her mother had told her she was too young. That’d led to a doozy of a fight. They hadn’t spoken to one another for nearly two weeks afterward. Grief twisted in Ellie’s chest, taking her breath, and she closed the window to block out the sound of the cheers rising from the saloon.
She tugged the curtains closed, crossed the room, and eased back into bed beside Lu. Her hope that her sister might sleep through the night was destroyed when some drunken fool decided it would be a good idea to fire off his gun. Lu flinched, pulled the blanket over her head, and then sneezed three times in quick succession.
“Stupid cats,” Lu muttered, even as a fat gray tom leapt onto the bed to butt his bony head against Ellie’s leg. No point in kicking him off. This bed truly belonged to the cats, and whether they were presently on it or not wouldn’t make a difference to Lu’s nose. Little Sara Young’s eyes puffed up whenever she came to Maude’s, but Lu wasn’t that bad. She might sneeze a bit, but she’d survive the night. The cat kneaded the blanket and curled himself into a warm, snug little ball of fur behind her bent knees. When he started purring, Ellie felt something start to relax inside her, and she sank a little deeper into the mattress.
“Go back to sleep, Lu.”
“We should have gone home.”
Maybe. Maybe it would have been worth it to risk the ride out to the house in the dark. They could have left the cart behind and ridden double on the horse, but Ellie wasn’t ready to go home quite yet. Not without their mother.
Before she settled in to sleep, she heard a knock at the front door. It sounded muffled to her ears, just two short, quick raps, but it brought her instantly alert. She heard the creak of the door opening, followed by Maude’s high-pitched voice. Ellie climbed from the bed, pulled on a robe that smelled faintly of liniment oil, and cracked open the door to look out.
A Ranger stood in the middle of Maude’s sitting room with his hat in his rough hands. It was the same man who’d ordered her to burn her mother’s body just that morning. Despite her hiding place, the Ranger’s eyes locked right on her, and he paused in whatever he’d been saying to Maude.
“What is it?” Lu asked grumpily from the bed. Shadow, the fat tom, wove between Ellie’s legs, purring. He likely thought she was heading for the kitchen and hoped for milk.
“Nothing,” Ellie said to Lu. “You go back to sleep.”
Tightening the sash around the robe, she stepped into the main room. The lantern on the table had been turned down, making the house seem cozier and cleaner than it was. When she reached the Ranger, she crossed her arms over her chest and waited for him to speak his piece. He was dirty, and there were dark shadows under his eyes like he hadn’t slept for days.
“I wanted to pay my respects.”
He glanced away, looked at Maude and then back at her. “I came to see if you needed an escort home. I understand you don’t live in town. If you’d like, I could stay the night…outside, of course.”
“It’s late,” she said.
“The offer stands for morning too.”
“Are there more Reapers out there?”
His hands flexed briefly on the rim of his hat. “We killed three more. That’s all we found.”
That wasn’t really an answer, but she imagined it was the best he could do. There were always more Reapers out there, weren’t there? A Ranger would understand that even better than she did.
“We’re fine.” She shook her head, and tried again for something closer to the truth. “We will be fine. You should go enjoy your party.”
He looked like he might like to say more, but he didn’t. And after that, he didn’t linger. He murmured another sympathetic phrase or two to her. Empty words that left her feeling hollow inside. He declined Maude’s offer of a drink and then bid them both goodnight.
After the door closed behind him, Maude turned to her. “You could have been kinder to that young man.”
Somewhere in the street, another gun was fired and a shout went up.
“No,” Ellie said softly, before turning back toward her borrowed bed. “I couldn’t.”
Twenty minutes, even ten. If the Rangers had gotten here just a little quicker, then her mother would still be alive. Not that she blamed them, exactly. People died from Reaper bite all the time. Or, worse, turned into Reapers themselves.
It’d been kind of this Ranger to come check on them, but the truth was, it hurt to even be in the same room as him. The last thing she wanted was for him to stay. His presence was nothing but salt in the wound, just like the muffled sound of the party carrying on across the street. She didn’t want condolences. What she wanted was her mother back.
“Goodnight, Maude,” she said, not wanting to argue with a woman kind enough to take them in. “Thank you for letting us stay the night. We’ll be gone first thing in the morning.”
Ten years later…
Ellie read the letter again, but it was just as frustratingly vague as it had been the first time through. Lu was in trouble, that was the only thing she was sure about. The rest, about how Ellie shouldn’t bother coming to look for her and that Molly would know where to find the money, was useless. Of course she was coming if Lu was in trouble. What the hell was her sister thinking even to suggest she stay put and “wait it out”?
The thought had crossed her mind that it might be a coded message, and if she could unscramble the letters, they’d point her in the direction of where Lu was actually hiding. But if there was a code, Ellie just didn’t see it. And she sure as heck wasn’t waiting around on the ranch for another letter that might or might not ever come. She’d track down Lu’s friend Molly, shake the truth out of her, and then she’d go untangle Lu from the “messy situation” she’d found herself in. Messy situation. Ellie flipped the letter over and scowled at the picture on the other side.
Lu’s eyes stared back at her from the image on the Wanted poster. The nose was slightly off, not wide enough, and her eyes were too small, but otherwise, it wasn’t a half-bad likeness. MURDER. “Messy situation” her ass. Somebody wanted to hang her baby sister.
After putting the letter on the bureau, Ellie passed to the storage closet in the corner of her small room and took her old leather bag from the hook. It was small enough to stuff in her saddlebags. She’d have to travel light and fast. Dan wasn’t going to like it with Ghost nearly ready to foal, but he’d have to handle the birthing himself. She’d take Bullet and go to Baxter first. Even if Molly wasn’t there, there was a telegraph office in Baxter. It was a good place to start. If nothing else, she’d be able to get more information about who exactly her sister was supposed to have murdered.
Murder. Lu might be trouble, but she certainly wasn’t that kind of trouble. If she’d put a bullet in someone, it was because he deserved it. The trick of the matter would be proving that to the law, or at least finding a way to get Lu somewhere far, far away from the lawman’s jurisdiction.
Ellie dumped her clothes onto the bed and started to sort through the pile. A dress might be handy in case she needed to look respectable, but, then again, this was the border…there wasn’t a whole lot of respectable to go around and, in general, respectability didn’t tend to impress people much. She didn’t know where Ruin was. That was the name of the town on the Wanted poster, with the sheriff who thought he could go around hanging innocent people. It didn’t sound like a town where respectability was at a premium, but who could say?
She shoved the dress aside and grabbed an extra pair of socks instead, along with a spare shirt. Dropping to her knees, she rummaged under the bed until she found the box that held the whole of her life savings. She hauled it out, sneezing at the stirred dust. The hatbox had a dented lid and was scuffed at the edges. She’d taken it from the old house out of sentiment more than the value, and there wasn’t much in it. Her father’s pocket watch and her mother’s wedding band. The ring was real gold, with a small emerald in the center bracketed by two diamond chips. At first, she set the jewelry aside and only took the cash, but then she reconsidered. She didn’t know what she was heading into and the jewelry wouldn’t take up much room. She might be able to get some money for them, and Lu’s life was on the line here. After shoving the lot of it into her saddlebag, she pushed the empty box back under her bed. She climbed back to her feet, and the door squealed open.
Dan took one look at her and put his hands on his hips. His sigh grated. “What’s gotten into you, Elizabeth? You dropped the post in the yard and shot in here like a rabid dog was on your heels. We still have chores to finish, and Pete is down with a bad ankle.”
Dan’s cousin Pete was down because Pete didn’t like to work. Last month, he’d taken to his bed over a splinter. “I have to go.”
She nodded at the letter still atop the bureau. “Lu’s in trouble.”
While she finished packing her bag, Dan read through the frustratingly short note. Messy situation. Don’t come. In case something happens, Molly has the money. When Ellie tugged the strap closed and took a step toward the door, he blocked her way.
Blond and tall, Dan was a handsome man. They’d grown up on neighboring farmsteads and had known each other since they were children.
After her mother died, Ellie had gone looking for work. She’d always had a talent with horses, but most people weren’t interested in taking on a girl. Dan’s father had been the only one willing to give her a chance. Five years ago, when Dan’s father passed away, Ellie moved into the house, and she and Dan had joined their properties. Lu had already left home by that point, and Dan was a fair man. Ellie got a cut of the profit, when there was profit. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before they got married.
That was what she’d been telling herself these last two years. That Dan would ask after harvest or once spring came. Soon. And she’d say yes, because that was what she’d always wanted—a home she could call her own, a family, children. Security. But Dan hadn’t given her any of those things, and right now all she really wanted was for him to get out of her way.
When he finished reading, his mouth tightened and he looked up, his gray eyes sharp as a nail. “She tells you flat out not to come looking for her.”
“She’s my sister.”
“And she’s wanted for murder. You know the type of people she consorts with. You’ve been telling her it was dangerous for years now, and she finally got caught. No good will come of you getting caught up in it too.”
He folded the paper like that was the end of it. Before he could take it, she snatched it from his hands and tucked it in her vest. The picture might come in handy.
“I’m not getting caught up in anything,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm. “I’m going to straighten this out. You know Lu didn’t murder anyone.” His brows twitched up and her palm itched to slap him. He’d grown up with Lu too. “You know she didn’t, Daniel. And I can’t stay here waiting to find out if she can clear it up on her own. Who else is going to help her?”
“She has friends. The same friends who likely got her into this mess in the first place. Let them get her out of it. Ghost—”
“You can call Jim for that. He’ll help you if you need it. I don’t think Ghost will have any problems with the birth. She’s in perfect health and carrying well.”
He ran a big hand through his hair. “This is ridiculous. Lucille ditched you years ago. And now she expects you to come running on her say-so? I know you don’t want to hear this, but it’s time you let her go. Hell, it’s past time. This is Lucille’s problem, not yours.”
“She’s my sister.”
“Your sister is a petty crook.”
“She is not.” Okay. Maybe she was, but Dan didn’t get to call her one.
“Now she’s a murderer too.” He crossed his arms over his big barrel of a chest. “You’re not her mother, and Lu’s not a child. It’s time she took care of her own problems and stopped looking to you for help. You know what? I half hope they do catch her so you can finally be free. The post was two weeks late. It’s probably all over by now.”
He couldn’t have shocked her more if he’d reached out and slapped her across the face. For several moments, Ellie couldn’t do anything but stare at the man she’d spent the last five years of her life with. She’d known he hadn’t liked Lu much, but she’d always believed he liked her. It felt like the earth shifted under her feet. The whole world spun around while she stood unmoving. When everything was done rearranging itself, she blinked.
Daniel was still there, jaw set like he was ready to take a punch, a hard glint in his eyes. Strong and so damn sure of himself all the time. It was what had attracted her to him in the first place. His home, his family, his confidence. She’d wanted to be a part of that. To belong someplace and have a man strong enough to hold on to a home so near the border. But Dan’d never given her anything of himself, really, not even a child. Just an occasional spot in his bed when the mood took him.
“Lu was right about you.” She recognized a note of surprise in her own voice. Funny how something could be right there under a person’s nose for so long without them realizing it. Lu always said Dan was an asshole who was just using Ellie. For her land, for her skill with horses, for sex. Ellie had always rejected that but…hell, Lu had been right all along.
She moved to brush by him, but Dan grabbed her by the shoulders. “Now, don’t do anything stupid. You’re mad, I get that. But don’t take aim at me. I’m not doing anything but telling you the truth. It’s Lu you should be mad at. Not me.”
She wasn’t mad at Lu, or even Dan, really. Dan was the same man he’d always been. She was the one who’d wanted to see him differently. She hoisted her bag over her shoulder, breaking his hold. This time, when she pushed past him, he didn’t try to stop her. He probably figured she’d come to her senses before she hit the yard. He probably was already looking forward to her slinking back to him after she got to Baxter and found Lu dead.
He followed her outside but stopped on the porch. “How do you think you’re getting there? Your horse is pregnant.”
She turned around to take one last look at him but kept walking, backward. There was a smirk on his face that didn’t seem remotely attractive to her at the moment. She should be upset, angry as hell, but all she really felt was a giddy kind of relief.
“You can keep Ghost. I’m taking Bullet.”
“Keep the land as payment.” Smiling at his shocked expression, she turned around and headed for the barn. “I’m not coming back.”