Excerpt from The Heart's Charge

Chapter One
Llano County, TX
Spring, 1894

When Mark Wallace left Gringolet two days ago to deliver a prize gelding to a wealthy rancher west of Llano, he never dreamed he'd be called upon to deliver a baby, too. Or that the mother of said baby would be waving a pistol back and forth between him and Jonah as if trying to decide which fellow to shoot first.

"Get outa here! I don't want your help." Her face contorted, and a muffled groan escaped as she wrapped her left arm around her swollen belly.

She might not want their help, but she sure as shootin' needed it. The woman looked as wrung out as yesterday's washrag.

Mark, palms out in front of him, took a step forward. "Easy, now, ma'am. I'm not going to hurt y—"

The pistol exploded. Mark flinched. He took note of the barrel pointing toward the sky, but tossed a look over his shoulder, anyway, to make sure his friend wasn't sporting any new holes. Jonah gave him a nod, his hand curling around the handle of his own revolver, ready to defend them if necessary.

Mark prayed it wouldn't be necessary. The lady in front of him might be a few cards short of a full deck at the moment, but she was still a woman. And a gentleman never abandoned a woman in need. Even if she shot at him.

The sound of the gunshot seemed to startle her as much as it had him. Her eyes widened and her gun arm quivered. Seizing the opportunity, Mark rushed forward, grabbed her wrist, and knocked the pistol from her hand. She shouted, kicked, and pounded his chest and chin with her fists, but Mark ignored the pummeling. Well, until she nearly gouged his left eye from its socket. Couldn't ignore that. A man needed to be able to see, after all. Especially when dealing with a woman in a delicate condition who seemed to have taken leave of her senses.

Doing his best not to hurt her, he trapped her arms behind her back and gently but firmly pushed her back into the rickety cabin.

"No! I don't want you here. Only the angels are allowed." She struggled against him.

Angels? Mark believed such heavenly beings existed, but the way this woman referred to them sounded far from sane.

Then again, nothing about this woman had seemed sane since the moment she emerged through the old cabin's doorway in her nightdress, hair falling down around her ears, gun-in-hand. They'd heard her pain-filled cries from the nearby creek where they'd stopped to water their horses and had approached the rickety old cabin to investigate, calling out to whomever might be inside.

Thankfully, the gelding they'd been tasked with delivering was no longer under their care. The buyer had taken possession of the horse an hour ago back in Llano, so they didn't have to worry about keeping track of an animal worth more than half a year's wages while wrestling an uncompliant female.

And wrestling was precisely what Mark was doing. The tiny, dark-haired woman was drenched in sweat and bent nearly in half, yet she continued to resist him.

"Sorry for the rough treatment, ma'am." Mark apologized as he inched her over the threshold. She nearly tripped herself while trying to stomp his boot with her bare heel and would've fallen had Mark not supported her weight and kept her steady. "But you need to be in bed."

That's where a woman in labor ought to be, right? In bed? He remembered his mother closeting herself away in her room when his little sister had been born. Not that he had an inkling of what actually occurred in the room besides a great deal of groaning, whimpering, and the occasional scream.

He heard Jonah scramble onto the porch behind him and secure the fallen weapon.

"I wish Dr. Jo was here," Mark murmured under his breath, thinking how much easier things would be if Matthew Hanger's wife, Josephine, had been on hand. Not only was she a woman, but she was the best doctor in Texas as far as he was concerned. Saved his life and most likely his arm after a rustler's bullet nearly took him out of commission.

The captain had married her last year, right after taking on a partnership with her father at Gringolet Farms, the US Cavalry's preferred horse breeder. Captain Hanger's new position gave the rest of the Horsemen a sense of permanence they'd lacked during the years following Wounded Knee when they'd wandered from job to job, hiring themselves out to good people the law couldn't or wouldn't help. Mark didn't mind the ranch work—he loved horses, after all—but the permanence was a different story. He'd been itching for a while now. Itching to move on. To explore new territory. Not that he didn't like the life he had at the moment. Good work. Good friends. The occasional job for Hanger's Horsemen to keep his thirst for adventure satiated. But the itch was growing harder to ignore. He had nothing against putting down roots. He just hadn't found the right soil yet. At twenty-eight, he wondered if he ever would.

"Maybe you should have taken stock of your lack of midwifery skills before you stuck your nose in this lady's business," Jonah groused as he sidled around Mark and the squirming woman trying to elbow him in the belly.

She castigated Mark with the name of every foul creature she could recall, from skunk to toad to snake. Some she even used twice. Slimy slug sucker seemed to be a favorite. That one came up at least three times. He had to give her credit. The lady knew how to throw a good insult. Not that her verbal bullets would slow him down any. His mission was to get her to the bed that stood ten feet away, and a cavalryman never allowed anything to stand between him and accomplishing his mission.

"Just because you ride a white horse," Jonah muttered as he straightened the crumpled bed covers, "it don't mean you always got to charge in like some kind of knight-errant. Not all women are innocent damsels, you know. Jezebel. Delilah. Belle Starr."

"Cooper's gray, not white," Mark corrected as he gave up on trying to inch the struggling woman across the floor and just picked her up. His right shoulder protested the extra weight, the site of last year's injury making its presence known in agonizing clarity. He grimaced but managed to ignore the jabbing ache. Not so hard to do when kicking heels and flailing elbows jabbed him in multiple other locations. "And I'm no knight in shining armor." Far from it. Not when he'd failed to rescue the one woman who mattered most. "I'm just a man who feels dutybound to help the weaker sex whenever the opportunity presents itself."

"I am not weak!" A small fist collided with the underside of Mark's jaw.

The unexpected jostling caused him to bite his tongue. "That, ma'am, is abundantly evident," Mark said, his mouth throbbing. Thankfully, they'd reached the bed, and he was able to unload his ungrateful cargo.

Despite her claims of strength, the fight seeped out of her the moment she came into contact with the mattress. She curled up on herself and started rocking. "It hurts."

He imagined it did.

Ease her pain, Lord, and show me how to help.

As her left hand splayed across her pregnant belly, sunlight from the open doorway glinted off something gold. A wedding band.

"Where's your husband, ma'am?" That fellow should be the one here, not him and Jonah. Maybe they could fetch him, drag his sorry, irresponsible hide back here to take care of the wife who was laboring with his child.

"Wendell?" Her head came up, and something that almost looked like a smile passed across her lips. "Wendell's coming. He's meeting me here. We have it all arranged. I just have to get rid of the baby."

Get rid of the . . . ?

Mark jerked a sharp gaze toward Jonah. His stoic friend usually hid his thoughts well, but not even the unflappable sergeant could hide the twinge of shock that had his brows knitting together.

Surely she hadn't meant that like it sounded. She'd meant deliver the baby. Rid her body of the infant who was ready to enter the world. That had to be it. No mother in her right mind would—

"The angels will watch over our baby," she said even as her mouth turned down and her body stiffened. Another pain must be hitting her. Her breaths came in ragged puffs, and her hands fisted in the sheets. "You hear me, God? Time to send them angels you promised." She threw her head back, the tendons in her neck standing out from her throat. "I did my part. Time for you to . . . uphold your end . . . of the bargain . . 'cause this baby's . . . comin'!"

Jonah's footsteps pounded toward the door. "I'll go fetch a doctor."

And leave him alone with a deranged pregnant woman? Not a chance.

"I should go," Mark said, stepping away from the bed and following Jonah. "You grew up on a farm, right? You have at least a rudimentary understanding of what is happening here. I don't know the first thing—"

"You're white," Jonah blurted. He nodded toward the woman in the bed. "She's white. You can't leave a black man alone with a white woman. If word got out . . ."

He didn't need to finish that sentence.

"Either we both go, or I go," Jonah said, his voice like steel. "Ain't no third option."

Ashamed for letting fear of his own inadequacies temporarily overshadow his common sense, Mark nodded. "You're right. Sorry. I'll stay."

He glanced back at the woman muttering nonsense as her head tossed back and forth on the mattress.

"I'm coming, Wendell," she droned over and over. "I'm coming."

He had no idea how he was going to help her, but he couldn't leave her alone. Childbirth had been known to steal the lives of healthy, strong-minded women. There was no telling what it would do to this lost soul.