La Desperada – Sample Chapters

 

 

 

Burroughs-LaDesperada600x900Prologue

 

Clay County, Missouri—1872

 

“Murderers!” the preacher thundered. Torchlight illuminated his gaunt face, giving it a cadaverous quality both powerful and disturbing as he waved a tattered newspaper aloft. “You call them heroes! But they’re robbers and murderers!”

His sudden rage startled even his horses, though they were long accustomed to remaining still while he delivered his sermons from the back of the wagon at any roadside where a crowd gathered to listen. His seventeen-year-old son’s wide shoulders strained as the boy pulled hard on the reins until the horses settled down again.

A low rumbling of dissent rolled through the gath­ering of farmers and their families, huddled in clus­ters against the brisk night air. A crackling voice from the back of the crowd rose above the others. “Why don’t you stick to the Good Book, parson?” The shout was echoed by a chorus of agreement.

“Leave politics to them that knows what they’re doin’,” cried another.

“Politics?” The circuit rider’s voice rang out in fury. “Was it politics when the James boys robbed the Kansas City fairgrounds last week?” He brandished a ragged newspaper, waving its masthead high, just as he had brandished it a dozen times before in a dozen other crowds that same week. “The Kansas City Times would have you think it’s politics! It calls the James gang highhanded, diabolically daring, knights of the round table that we should admire and revere!

“And why do you admire them? I’ll tell you why! Because these robbers attack the banks that hold your mortgages and charge interest rates you cannot pay! These murderers fan the embers of the Confederate cause that you know is dead! Yes, you admire them! You revere them! These are your heroes!”

He leaned forward, his heavy brows lowering over piercing eyes that seemed to see into the very souls of all who listened. “You want the Good Book, Brother Grier? I’ll give you the Good Book! Remember ye the words of Peter, the rock: ‘While they promise you liberty, they themselves are the servants of cor­ruption.’”

“Where were your shining knights when a ten-year-old girl was shot and killed in the panic at the fairgrounds?” The old man grasped the newspaper in his gnarled, workworn hands and ripped it asunder, scattering the torn pages over the heads of his listen­ers. “I’ll tell you where they were! They were holding the guns that killed her! They were riding the horses that trampled her under foot!”

A wave of shock washed over the congregation. And then, a coarse voice shouted, “You lie!”

The preacher’s son whirled round in his seat at the slanderous words, his jaw set with frustration and rage. He half-rose, his fists clenched, as if daring the speaker to repeat his words.

But the preacher merely shook his weary head. Days of riding his circuit, delivering his message, were taking their toll. When he spoke his voice was tired, yet his conviction gave it a resonance that still carried over the crowd. “No, Brother Reynolds, I don’t lie! And I can’t be silenced by threats, though I’ve received them.”

A heavy silence hung in the night, broken only by the uneasy stirrings of people forced to listen to words they did not want to believe. The preacher’s shoulders slumped beneath his frayed, black frock coat, his head lowering as if in pain. But then he raised his face to them, his hard, burning eyes boring into the crowd.

“It is written, ‘The innocent and righteous slay thou not: for I will not justify the wicked.’ Evil begets evil, and wickedness begets wickedness. How many of our youth are taking up arms to join these outlaw gangs? How many farmers in this county alone are providing them refuge? How many of you here in my own congregation?

“And why do you do it? Because they’re your heroes, your champions? Or because of your greed? How much do the outlaws pay you to hide in your caves, your cribs, your barns? To lie for them? To protect them?”

One gnarled fist raised high in the air, and the preacher thundered his last, hoarse question. “At what price do you sell your souls?”

~*~

Hours later, the horses leaned into their leather harnesses, straining to pull the creaking wagon up a steep hill toward home. The preacher’s body was limp against the seat; his son fought to hold his eyes open as the plodding rhythm lulled them.

The horses nickered and grew restless, raising their quivering nostrils to the sky. Stirred from his drowsi­ness, the boy too raised his face to the air and caught a whiff of smoke.

“Pa, wake up.”

Reverend Bridges shifted and blinked into the dark­ness. “What is it, Wesley?”

“Do you smell somethin’, Pa?”

At that moment they crested the last hill before descending into the creek valley where their home lay and saw the red glow of fire. And then, coming toward them, riders, all masked. The boy fought to rein his horses in as the approaching horses split and galloped on either side of the wagon—all plowhorses spurred on to uncustomary speed by desperate riders, save one magnificent beast:

One of the Dougherty’s finely-bred roans. It pulled up momentarily, and the hooded rider shouted, “Let this be a lesson to ya’ preacher! Mind your own business and let us mind our’n!”

And then they were gone.

“Hee-yah!” the boy shouted, a sudden fear filling his veins. He slapped the reins across the horses’ backs as they surged forward, bouncing down the rutted path. They pulled into the clearing moments later, moments that seemed like hours, and before the wagon had come to a complete halt, the man and the boy bolted from it and raced toward the burning cabin.

“I’ll get your ma and Frankie, boy—you get Susan­nah!” The preacher ran through the door, his son close behind.

But when the boy emerged from the smoking, blazing conflagration, young muscles straining under his older sister’s weight, his father was nowhere to be seen. Blood dripped from a cut on his cheek; his shoulder was seared where a timber had crashed on it, yet he didn’t feel pain. The boy hesitated, his tortured eyes darting from his sister’s charred, yet breathing body to the burning cabin. And then the roof col­lapsed with a groan, showering sparks and ashes upward as if to the heavens, trapping the cabin’s occupants in a fiery hell.

“No!” the boy cried. And again, his tormented scream, “No!”

Then his sister’s limp body stirred in his arms, and she began to cough, followed by harsh, wracking groans. Tears coursing down his smoke-blackened cheeks, he turned and ran, stumbling under her weight as he carried her toward the creek. “Don’t die, Susannah,” he sobbed. “Don’t you die on me!” His words, a litany of fear and panic, of grief and hatred, continued as he cradled her body in the cold, flowing water of Boone Creek.

“We’re gonna make them pay, you hear me, Susan­nah?” He choked on his bitter tears. “We’re gonna make those bastards pay!”

 

Chapter One

Cavendish, Texas —1881

 

Elizabeth Dougherty stood alone at the kitchen window, staring into the distance. In that last, lonely moment before dawn, there was no beckoning world on the other side of the glass, no distinction between mountain and sky, only an all-encompassing black­ness, void of moon or stars. Listening to the gentle crackle of the fire in the potbelly stove, she inhaled the rich aroma of coffee, soaking up the solitude and peace that were so precious in this hostile house.

Within minutes the peaks of the rugged mountains to the west appeared, bathed in pink and orange and magenta, honored by the sun’s first rays. With agoniz­ing slowness, the colors washed down the slopes, creeping into the valley, yet Elizabeth remained alone in the semi-darkness, as if the lonely kitchen where she waited was unworthy of the sun’s attention.

A sudden movement in the rocky terrain beyond the barn caught her eye—a bobcat lurked beside a rabbit trail, its keen eyes and ears alert for the sound that would lead him to his last chance of feeding for the night. She shuddered and hurriedly lit the oil lamp hanging on the wall, no longer content to await the sun’s benevolence, then she filled her coffee cup. She spooned white sugar from the china sugar bowl that had been part of her hope chest. A dollop of heavy cream, a quick whirl with a sterling spoon, and she turned, heading for the door.

She gasped, finding it filled with the looming figure of her husband’s brother.

“Good morning, Clayton,” she murmured without meeting his eyes, hoping to pass him and retreat to her bedroom without further contact.

But he didn’t budge, only leaned against the door frame, his heavy-lidded eyes sweeping possessively over her, leaving her feeling defiled. His massive body, only a few short years away from corpulence, filled the door, and she squared her slender shoulders in a self-conscious effort to compensate for her own slight frame.

Five years older than Joel, Clayton’s features were an ugly mirror of her husband’s. How could the same dark eyes burn with passion in one brother, with hatred in the other, the same wide, full lips soften with almost poetic beauty in Joel’s face, yet twist with malicious anger in Clayton’s?

She fought the cold shudder that threatened to ripple down her back, fought to keep him from seeing the effect he had on her.

He straightened as if to let her pass, but when she stepped forward his hand shot out, blocking the door. “What’s the matter, Miz Dougherty, havin’ trouble sleepin’?” His voice was deep and gravelly, and his head dipped closer, his eyes narrowed as his mouth curled in an ugly smile. He looked past her, his eyebrows knitting in a scowl when he saw the single plate at the table. “Where is he?”

“Joel isn’t well this morning.” Elizabeth made a sharp gesture toward the platter of thick-sliced ham and fried potatoes on top of the stove, leftovers from the night before. “There are rolls in the bread box. I’m afraid you’re going to have to fend for yourself this morning while I see to your brother.”

The sheriff finally moved, stepping toward the stove in movements surprisingly light and quiet for a man of his size. “Ain’t nothin’ you can do to help that husband of yours nurse one of his goddamn hang­overs, woman.”

She stiffened, meeting his dark gaze with her cool, clear one. “That is none of your concern.”

But then the dog yapping in the yard drew their attention. Elizabeth walked to the window. A solitary figure was riding down into the shallow valley, his horse’s hooves plowing up dust in his wake. The lanky rider dug his spurs in, driving the beast harder, pushing it on to greater speed.

The young man slowed his mount as he rode into the yard. He swung down from the saddle, almost falling when his boot heel got caught in the stirrup. “Tar-nay-shun!” he spat savagely, limping on a twisted ankle as he trudged toward the sheriff’s house.

“It’s Wendell,” Elizabeth said. When Clayton shot her a dark look, she shook her head. “I’ll see to it.” He grunted and turned his attention back to loading his plate.

Elizabeth smoothed a stray wisp of pale hair into the tight coil on the back of her head as she moved across the kitchen. She opened the door and the cold morning air blew in, swirling her skirt’s full folds. She pulled the door closed behind her and stepped onto the porch. “Wendell, what brings you out so early? The sheriff’s still at breakfast, and I don’t think he wants to be disturbed.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, I’m here on official business. It’s important, beggin’ your pardon for interruptin’.”

“I’ll tell him.” Elizabeth stifled a smile as she turned away from the eighteen-year-old deputy. These bouts of self-importance weren’t unusual. The poor boy was earnest enough; he did so strive to be a good lawman. Yet he was blind to his sheriff’s shortcomings, hanging on the older man’s every word in his eagerness to please, so that his efforts to imitate Clayton were often pathetically inadequate.

Inside the kitchen, her smile faded as she met Clayton’s impatient gaze. “He says he’s here on ‘offi­cial’ matters.”

“Damned impertinent fool,” the sheriff growled low.

Guiltily relieved that Wendell would now absorb the sheriff’s ire, Elizabeth stepped aside as he stomped to the door, his plate still balanced in one beefy hand.

“What the hell are you doin’, botherin’ me this time of mornin’?” Clayton challenged, his deep voice booming.

“I figgered you’d want to know, Sheriff Dougherty,” the young man burst out. “Late last night, a stranger come to town. He’s holed up in the hotel right now.”

Elizabeth had her cup in her hand, grateful for an excuse to leave the kitchen to the two men. But something in the boy’s voice stopped her.

“Stranger? What in the hell does that mean? That’s nothin’ to drag your ass out here at the crack o’ dawn over.”

“But, Sheriff, this ain’t just any stranger. They’re sayin’ it’s Boone Coulter.”

Dougherty swung around and faced the deputy, his body suddenly stiffening. “Couldn’t be,” he growled. “Coulter ain’t been seen for years. Hell—he could be dead for all we know.” He brushed Wendell impa­tiently aside. “Somebody’s just lettin’ their imagina­tion go wild, and I’m aimin’ to think that somebody’s you.”

“Just a minute, Sheriff. This ain’t anybody’s imagi­nation. It’s all over town.” Wendell followed Clayton as the older man snatched a fistful of cold rolls from the breadbox and tossed them onto the pile of potatoes on his plate.

“First, this here maid from over to the hotel comes to the jail like her tail’s afire, jabberin’ a blue streak about outlaws ‘n such. Well, I ain’t payin’ no mind to the likes o’ her. Reckon she wouldn’t know a desperado if he tipped his hat, raised her skirt and said ‘howdy? But then one of them gals from over at the saloon decides to see if she can—well, maybe do a little pleasurin’ on a real outlaw, so she moseys on over there and goes up to his room.”

“Which gal?” Clayton demanded, dropping his plate on the table with a loud rattle.

“Doralee—who else? Anyways, she stays over to the hotel for quite a spell. That’s when I heard about it ag’in. Folks was gettin’ worried that maybe she’d got herself in a fix, and they wanted me to go over there and rescue her. I would’ve done it, too, you know. I ain’t afraid of no outlaws, Boone Coulter, or anybody else. But about the time I got my pistol loaded, out she came, spittin’ mad. Said it was Boone Coulter all right. She wouldn’t say much more, just cussed a lot. So anyways, I went down to the livery stable and looked his horses over. One of them fit the description to a ‘t’. There ain’t no two mustangs anywheres with striped scars on their haunches like that one. Odell said that horse won’t let nobody near it—said the stranger tended it hisself afore he took off for the hotel.”

There was a long silence, broken only by the fork and knife scraping over the plate as Clayton finished his breakfast.

Elizabeth realized she was holding her breath. Vi­sions filled her head—visions of gunfire, of a vicious gunslinger taking aim, of Clayton Dougherty hitting the dirt with blood spreading around him. Grasping the back of the chair, she steadied herself against the shock of truth that slammed through her: the visions brought her pleasure. With a shudder, she sank heavily into the chair.

“Did you wire Fort Davis, boy? Last I heard, the cavalry was still after him.”

“Them range-riders must’ve been usin’ the tele­graph poles for firewood again. Couldn’t get through.”

The sheriff growled low, shoving away from the table with a violent movement. He tossed his crum­pled linen napkin onto his plate, heedless of the wild plum jelly that would stain it, then strode into the hallway to the hall tree where his gunbelt and hat hung.

Wendell followed close on his heels. “What are we gonna do, Sheriff? Think we should rush the hotel and flush him out?”

Elizabeth’s motions scraping the plates slowed as she listened.

“Hell, no, you idiot! Boone Coulter ain’t done nuthin’ to me. If the government wants him, they can catch him. I just aim to see that no trigger happy citizens or deputies stir up trouble.” Yet his words didn’t ring true. Elizabeth raised her head and lis­tened intently.

“But, Sheriff, there’s a bounty on his head—two thousand dollars!”

“Hell, Wendell, I know that.” His voice sounded thoughtful, tempted.

Elizabeth’s pulse quickened at the thought of Clay­ton going after Coulter. They said the outlaw had already killed five, six men, two of them lawmen. There were those who said he hid out like an animal in the mountains, that there was no catching him… that those who tried didn’t live to regret it.

“Boy, you just steer clear of that hotel, and everybody else’d better do the same. I don’t want trouble in my town.”

Elizabeth rose shakily to her feet and was crossing to the sink when Clayton reentered the room. With no attempt at courtesy, he pushed past her and grabbed his mug, tossing the lukewarm coffee down his throat. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he eyed her speculatively.

“Stay away from town today.” He buckled his gun-belt low on his hips and left.

Peering through the kitchen curtains, Elizabeth watched their departure, the sheriff swinging his large body onto his horse with a lithe agility belying his massive form, the deputy attempting to match his authority with little success.

Elizabeth let the starched fabric fall back into place and squared her shoulders. She wasn’t in the habit of taking orders from anyone.

Especially not Clayton Dougherty.

~*~

Coulter stood at the narrow window, his tense shoulders hunched slightly as he leaned forward, peer­ing into the distance, watching. One long, lean finger rubbed slowly over his cheekbone, idly tracing the shape of a small, dimple-like scar. The wound had healed, the memory faded, yet the scar remained.

Boone Creek… Clay County, Missouri…

He pulled the limp, worn letter from his hip pocket and pored over its cryptic message for the thousandth time. Who was this Dan P. Jennings who had written him? What did he know?

He leaned back against the yellowed wallpaper that was speckled with tobacco juice and God only knew what else. Contemplating the sweltering, close quar­ters that constituted a fifty-cent room—the best in the house—he massaged the back of his neck and grim­aced. Strange that he should feel so calm. The ven­detta was coming to an end now. Long years of deadly purpose would cease, replaced with a life unfettered by debts, and yet, he wondered… would the scars remain?

Always.

His hand dropped to the old, weathered gun butt protruding from his low-slung holster, and even though he hated what it stood for, the polished wood was a comfort to his palm. Stretching his long body out on the narrow bed, he slept.

~*~

From deep in the shadows under the overhanging roof of the jail, Clayton Dougherty studied the hotel across the street. His inquiries had revealed which room housed the gunslinger, and now he stared with fierce intensity, his breathing shallow beneath the soft rise and fall of his barrel chest.

What did Coulter want? Why the hell was he in Cavendish? Dougherty pondered the question irrita­bly, coming up with no answers. If the outlaw only wanted a resting place, Dougherty’d provide him a place to hide—for a price. He’d padded his pockets for years that way, and felt perfectly justified. That kind of word traveled fast. Those in need of a few days respite knew Dougherty would provide it.

For a price.

But Coulter had exacted his own price from two lawmen—their lives. Dougherty was no coward, but he was no fool, either. So he stared at the window across the way and waited.

What did Coulter want?

~*~

Elizabeth paced through the lower floor of her house, her fingers trailing across the light film of dust that coated every surface. Regardless how often she cleaned, how diligently she kept the windows shut and draperies pulled, the dust seeped in. And today, just as she had found herself unwilling to prepare an adequate breakfast, she was also too restless to spend an hour wiping and polishing, removing then replacing the knick-knacks that covered every tabletop. And so, instead, she paced.

What grandeur this house represented. Not by Philadelphia standards perhaps, but it was quite un­like anything west Texas had seen.

And all designed specifically for her.

She had waited long months before following Joel to Texas, months when she had endured the choking rigidity of her family in Philadelphia for the last time. The waiting to put Philadelphia behind her had seemed to last forever, but she had endured it will­ingly, for Joel.

Older sisters and younger, already married, had been astounded when an obligatory visit of a distant cousin from the Missouri branch of the family had become the first of many. When Cousin Joel turned out unlike the untolerable ruffian they had expected, but instead charming, refined, with a sad haunting behind his dark, penetrating eyes, they had been surprised.

But when Joel Dougherty’s subsequent calls had become more and more centered on Elizabeth—plain Elizabeth–they had been astounded. Poor Elizabeth? On the shelf, undowered? She was a spinster, for pity’s sake, destined to be shuttled from one sister to another, caring for their sick children, accepting their grudging largesse.

Until Joel Dougherty.

Even now, she could close her eyes and remember her family’s reactions that ranged from barely con­tained jealousy to outright relief when Elizabeth not only had become betrothed, but had also landed a handsome and wealthy man as well.

When Joel had returned to Texas to prepare for their marriage, there had been an emptiness she couldn’t fill. Lost in the middle of a large family of chattering sisters, Elizabeth was accustomed to being ignored. But then she had suddenly become the center of all attention, and she hated it. She had written a tentative letter to Joel, asking if perhaps the bride should not have the pleasure of influencing the plans for her new home.

He had responded quickly, smoothly, delightfully… “No.”

Of all his letters, it stood out in her mind, in her heart. His first letter, his words so warm and natural she could almost feel his breath tickling against her ear as he teased her for her impatience. His first letter, so unlike the others that gradually grew more withdrawn, more infrequent with the passing of time, until her heart was chilled with apprehension.

Joel had insisted upon more and more time to prepare for her arrival. And what preparations. This house had traversed across a nation, crated and bun­dled, piece by piece, first by train, then by wagon for the last few hundred miles. For almost a year she had waited for him to tell her all was finished, every month mounting with tension as she found herself the center of elaborate preparations for a Texas wedding that none of her family would witness.

But her apprehensions were never voiced. Even if there had been someone to listen, she would have kept them to herself, for with each passing day it had become more apparent to her—there was more joy in leaving Philadelphia and her family, in achieving the independence she so longed for, than there was in anticipating her marriage.

And so she had quietly suppressed her misgivings, choosing instead to stoke the flames of her childish infatuation. Childish? Yes, though she had been al­most twenty-three years old, Joel, her first true suitor, had inspired emotions in her that she had witnessed in her sisters many years before.

She paused before a small, oval photograph hang­ing in the dark, green wallpapered hallway, taken moments after her marriage to Joel. It was a picture that still stunned her when she saw it, for framed within that oval of silver was a new Elizabeth. Be­neath the dignity, beneath the poise, there was beauty. Not classical features, perhaps, but the aristocratic bone structure that would be enhanced by age. A few loose tendrils wisped gently from her immaculate coils of hair, softening the angles of her face. The camera revealed a strong woman, a graceful woman, a woman perched on the edge of her wicker chair as if on the brink of some untold excitement.

Leaning against the wall, with her gray eyes closed to the reality of her life and her senses opened to the dreams, she could feel it again… the fluttering hope in her breast, the belief that things could be different. If only she could persuade Joel to abandon this godforsaken place. Thirteen months she had spent here, Joel’s promises to leave growing more infre­quent. What had happened to those plans they had made in a faraway Philadelphia garden, of starting anew in Denver. …

She heard him even before he spoke; her eyes flew open to see Joel at the top of the stairs, his white shirt carelessly unbuttoned, exposing the dark whorls of hair across his chest. His black trousers were mussed, and a bottle of whiskey dangled loosely from one hand.

Joel descended the stairs easily, his mouth curled in a softly mocking smile. “Don’t tell me. My brother left in disgust, and I am supposed to be properly chas­tised and remorseful.”

Elizabeth moved forward without thought, ready to receive his careless kiss when he arrived at the bottom of the stairs. Then, his arm slung casually around her shoulders, she led him to the kitchen. “Let me fix you some eggs and biscuits,” she urged.

But Joel only winced and dropped into a chair at the table, holding one pale hand up to shield his eyes from the sunshine now pouring through the window. “God, no. Coffee, that’s all.”

Elizabeth held a hand against the coffee pot, find­ing it still hot to the touch. She poured the strong brew into a cup and placed it in Joel’s hand, stifling the urge to argue. Similar experiences had taught her it would be useless.

“And shut those blasted curtains—my head is split­ting.”

She had snatched the bows loose and was about to smooth the curtains shut, but the mountains in the distance made her hesitate. “I don’t quite understand it,” she began slowly, “but they always seem to be luring me. Offering me something, though I can’t imagine what.”

Joel shook his head and laughed wryly. “It’s your Anglican upbringing. Too many psalms muddling up your head. ‘I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence comes my—’”

“That’s quite enough,” she replied crisply, but even as she spoke she felt a stab of pain from his words. He had never taunted her in Philadelphia, no matter what fanciful turn her thoughts had taken. She shook herself and turned to refill her own cup.

He shrugged, apparently bored with the conversa­tion. After draining his cup by half, he splashed in whiskey to top it off. “And tell me, what did my dear brother have to say about me this morning?”

She dropped the pot back on the stove top with a clatter. “Nothing. He was too distracted with Wendell. I’m surprised you didn’t hear all the noise the dog was making.”

“Wendell was here this morning?”

“Yes.” Elizabeth set her cup on the table, then dropped nervously into the chair adjacent to his. “The town’s in an uproar over some outlaw who came into town last night.”

Joel pulled upright, suddenly intent. His hand shot across the table and closed tightly over hers. “What outlaw?” He was hurting her, but when she tried to pull her hand away, his grip only tightened. “What outlaw?”

“I don’t remember,” she lied without understanding why. “What’s gotten into you, Joel?” This time when she pulled, he released her.

“Think hard, Elizabeth. Surely you remember,” he coaxed, seeming to relax. But beneath his velvet cajolery lurked a menace that confused her.

“Colt,” she stumbled, evading him. “Coulton. Something like that.”

Joel sank back, his eyes dark, unreadable, his breath coming in quick pants. “It worked,” he whispered.

“What are you talking—”

And then he was standing, pulling her up with him, his hands closing hard over her shoulders. His face dipped closer, and his eyes burned with a fire that was frightening in its intensity. “Justice, Elizabeth. It’s all coming to pass. Justice…”

Elizabeth flinched away, her heart pounding. Once she had longed for his touch, but not like this. Something was wrong, and she was too confused and frightened to understand. “Do you know this outlaw?” she asked, folding her arms across her middle, her fingers closed in tight fists.

“Know him?” Joel seemed to ponder her question, his eyes never leaving her. “What a strange question, Elizabeth. Why would I know a cold-blooded mur­derer?” That thought seemed to amuse him, and his mirth grew to full laughter. “Other than the esteemed sheriff, my brother, of course.”

Elizabeth’s hand flew to her throat, and she found it difficult to swallow. “Clayton, a murderer?”

“This isn’t civilization as you know it, love. Out here, whether a man is viewed as a murderer or not is determined by which side of the law he’s on. Clayton, of course, is on the right side of the law.” Joel tilted the whiskey bottle to his lips and drank deeply, leaning against the doorjamb. When he lowered the bottle, he pushed away from the wall and stepped closer to her. “At least, he is now that he’s sheriff.” Seeing the confusion flickering across her features, he laughed again. “Surely the fact that my brother has killed doesn’t surprise you.”

She didn’t want to ask. Yet, the words came anyway. Barely audible, but laced with fear. “And you, Joel? Have you… killed?”

His eyes flickered with a strange emotion as he raised his hands slowly in front of her. Fine, long-fingered hands. Soft, poet’s hands. “Do these look like hands that could close over the butt of a pistol and pull the trigger? These eyes…” He stepped still closer. “Do they look capable of sighting a prey and marking it for the kill?”

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head. And then he sought her embrace, shivering. Her hands stroked his back in an attempt to comfort. “No, Joel. Please forgive me.”

“Out here,” he groaned, his dark head close to hers, “it makes me less a man.”

“All the more reason we should leave,” she pleaded. “This is no place for us, Joel. You know that as surely as I do.”

He pulled away, his face lit with wild desperation. “Of course I do. And we will leave, I promise. Don’t you see? It’s all going to happen, now. I’ll be able to put everything behind me. We can be happy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“No, and you never will,” he responded. “Be thank­ful that you never will.” He swayed, then slumped against her. It was all she could do to guide him up the stairs and back to his bed.

She swept his assorted newspapers onto the floor a split-second before he collapsed on the rumpled coun­terpane. When she would have stepped away, he reached for her, his hand grazing hers. “Lib…”

“Yes, Joel darling,” she sighed, and stooped to pick up some of the newspapers. One, a Harper’s Weekly, had slid under the edge of the bed. She was reaching for it when his hand closed gently over her shoulder. “Hand that one to me, darling.”

Her fingers closed over the yellowed paper and she handed it up to him.

He cradled it against his breast. “Justice,” he mur­mured, stroking it almost lovingly. And then, “You’re too good to me, Libby.”

She could only look into his ravaged face and shake her head. There were no words for answer. He drifted back into his own nightmare world, the world she would rescue him from if only he would let her. Yet, how? The demons he drank to forget were his own. He refused to share them.

And for the first time, she admitted she didn’t want to. She didn’t want to be dragged into his hell. Her head spun with confusion. What was happening?

Joel’s voice echoed in her mind: Justice… It’s all going to happen now… it worked. Then the sheriff’s words: Stay away from town, today.

Blind frustration coiled and writhed within her, then hardened into hatred for the man who seemed to hold her husband’s will in his powerful palm.

Her restless spirit was no longer content to stay put in the dark, confining walls of the house. Her house. Her prison.

The sheriff’s wishes be damned.

She was going into town.

 

Chapter Two

A yellow mongrel was tied to the hitching post in front of the general store. Elizabeth raised the edge of her tailored brown linen skirt as she stepped past it. Ignoring the puppy’s pitiful whine, she entered the store and tilted her head to acknowledge Rena Ma­son’s subdued greeting.

The older woman at the dry goods counter watched her with furtive interest. Elizabeth smiled and handed her list of necessities to Rena, then waited while she gathered them.

Walking slowly toward the far corner of the single- roomed building, Elizabeth headed toward the patent medicines and scented toiletries. Trailing her slender, gloved fingers across the rows of colorfully wrapped soaps, she appeared to consider their fragrances, occa­sionally lifting a hard milled bar to whiff the aroma of hyacinth, or lilac, or rose. Yet her mind was else­where, with her husband, with the outlaw. Strange that Rena hadn’t mentioned anything about the stran­ger in town. She finally picked up a box of yellow soaps that emitted the strong scent of honeysuckle and carried it back to the counter where her purchases were slowly mounting.

“About the female remedy, Mrs. Dougherty. We’re plumb out of Dr. Kilmer’s. Have you ever tried this Hofstetter’s Tonic? They say it works real good.” Rena offered the dark brown bottle for Elizabeth’s perusal. “It’s real potent, though. You better be easy with it.”

“That will be fine, I’m sure.” Elizabeth pulled a snowy handkerchief from her reticule and dabbed it at the beads of perspiration forming on her upper lip.

“I imagine the sheriff’ll be picking your other things up later, as usual?”

“No.” Elizabeth’s firm tone startled the other woman, and she hurried on, “I’ll be taking them with me. If you’ll have your boy load them in my buggy…”

She paused as Rena beckoned to the young boy sitting behind the counter, his cheek bulging with a sour ball. He began loading his arms to carry the purchases outside.

“Mrs. Mason, have you heard anything about the trouble at the hotel?”

Rena’s face took on new animation. “That’s all a body’s been able to hear all day. It’s hard to know what to think—what with that man supposed to be there. But if you ask me, there’s no knowing for sure he is there. After all, we’ve only got the word of a feeble-brained maid and a—” She hesitated, waiting for the door to close behind her son before continu­ing. “—a harlot to go by. Now, you tell me. Are those reliable sources?” She sniffed her disapproval.

“The deputy certainly seemed sure of himself this morning,” Elizabeth demurred, gathering those items of a more intimate nature and holding them close to her bosom.

“Well, you know Wendell Crutcher,” Rena replied, unimpressed. Then, her expression changing, she remarked in more solicitous tones, “Of course, you have special reason for being concerned, the sheriff bein’ your hus­band’s brother, and bein’ involved and all.”

The bell on the door jangled, announcing a new customer, and out of the corner of her eye Elizabeth caught a glimpse of the older woman stiffening in affronted silence. Elizabeth pivoted slowly to see the cause of the disturbance—one of the “girls” from the saloon across the way.

Hands on her crimson-satin clad hips, the woman bra­zenly surveyed the store’s contents, then dismissed them with a disgruntled toss of her yellow curls. Rena pulled a package from under the counter, her move­ments jerky with embarrassment, her voice tinged with disgust. “This is what you’ve come for, Doralee.”

The woman sauntered nearer, her alert eyes sweep­ing over Elizabeth’s stiffly erect body. How young she looked to be doing what she was doing… how old.

“I hope I’m not interruptin’ anything,” she drawled softly, retrieving a few coins from her reticule. Rena didn’t even hold out her hand for the money. She stared at the whore until the girl dropped the coins on the counter with a wry shrug. For a moment, Eliza­beth felt a pang of sympathy for her. But then the girl turned, her eyes settling on Elizabeth. Her smile was a crooked smirk, never reaching her kohl-lined eyes.

“Well, now. If it ain’t Miz Dougherty. The Dougherty men always did like ‘em uppity.”

Elizabeth stiffened, but the girl pressed closer, her arm knocking some of Elizabeth’s purchases loose and scattering them to the floor.

The girl dropped to her knees and scooped the packages up, then thrust them at Elizabeth, her eyes narrowing. “Why don’t you jest tell the sheriff that littl’ ol’ Doralee said hello. He’ll think that’s real funny, I bet.” She burst into peals of laughter.

She rose gracefully, her own purchase dangling limply from her fingers. Pausing at the door she cast a hooded gaze over her shoulder. With a toss of her curls she walked through the door, letting it bang closed behind her.

Mobilized by the harsh jangling of the bell, Rena shot to Elizabeth’s side near the doorway, mumbling about the nerve of “some people” as she dusted Eliza­beth’s dark brown skirt. Yet, amid all the clucking and fussing, Elizabeth remained stoically silent, her gaze following the figure of the woman as she paused by Elizabeth’s buggy and patted Rena Mason’s bug-eyed boy on the head. She turned then, and the two women’s eyes locked in a battle of wills. It was the whore who finally broke the contact, though not without another mocking smile.

She held her small package in her gloved hand and after a moment’s consideration, she dropped it into the carriage, her face contorting with laughter as if amused by her own secret joke. She turned her back then, and strolled toward the saloon, her hips swaying an invitation to anyone who cared to respond. Even the boy stood transfixed.

“—and to think she would come right in here while you were inside!” Rena’s voice rattled in her head; Elizabeth merely nodded in agreement, her pulse throbbing at her temples. Raising her chin, she si­lenced the older woman with a quelling glance.

Rena accompanied her to the buggy, offering pro­fuse apologies for the incident. But Elizabeth touched her hand, assuring the woman that no harm was done. After climbing onto the seat, she pulled away, driving the buggy around a corner and out of sight of prying eyes.

She reached her trembling fingers toward the pack­age Doralee had cast into the buggy. Disgust and revulsion filled her, yet she carefully removed the brown paper and stared at the flagon of cheap pat­chouli toilet water and the tin of Persian henna in her hands.

You jest tell the sheriff that little ol’ Doralee said hello, today. He’ll think that’s real funny. …

~*~

From his vantage point, Coulter could easily make out the jail across the way. He’d waited all night and half the day for some signal he might not even recognize if it came. The letter was vague, but it had said enough to get him here.

He let the curtains drop closed and dragged his fingers through his tangled hair. Standing by the open window, he heard the creak of saddle leather as a rider dismounted at the saloon next door and a pup’s playful yapping as a young boy chased it down the street.

Coulter dropped to the bed; rusty springs groaned in protest. His head throbbed from the heat. Run­ning. Always running.

Who was this Dan P. Jennings?

How did he know about Missouri?

Suddenly, like a wild animal catching the scent of a predator, he felt the cold burning in his gut. He should have known better than to trust the message. He, who trusted nobody.

Cold sweat broke out on his forehead. He launched himself upward from the bed, reaching for his rifle and ammunition in the same movement.

He was getting out of this room, this town.

~*~

“Sheriff—look at this!”

Dougherty stiffened at the sound of Wendell’s voice. It took scant seconds for him to cross the room and join his deputy at the window. His thick fingers knotted into a fist, his face twisting into an ugly scowl.

The gunslinger appeared silhouetted in the hotel’s open doorway, tall and lean, feet widespread, gunbelt low on his hips, and Dougherty felt a strange excite­ment.

He’d get him—he’d kill the bastard, collect the reward. His hand closed over his gun. A surge of white-hot satisfaction coursed through him. The gun that killed Boone Coulter.

Dougherty pushed by Wendell, out the door, on the boardwalk, his gun drawn. But when Coulter stepped into the sun, the sheriff froze. Time seemed to stand still. Sheriff Clayton Dougherty found himself staring into the eyes that he’d been trying to forget for nine long years.

Their gazes met across the dusty road, met and locked in mutual shock and recognition.

Coulter recovered first and dashed down the steps.

Hands trembling with ice-cold fear, the sheriff took aim. But just as he pulled the trigger, Wendell shouted and knocked his gun arm.

“Goddamn you! You made me miss!” His face blazing with fury, Dougherty backhanded the deputy, sending his spare frame sprawling in the dirt. He fired again, but Coulter was already on a horse and galloping away. Three, four, five futile shots at the fleeing outlaw. None of them hit their mark.

Only when he turned his gaze back to the hotel did he see what Wendell had seen—Rena Mason’s boy, white-faced, with a squirming yellow puppy in his arms.

“Sheriff—the kid ran right in front of you would’ve shot him!” Wendell moaned.

Blind with shock, with desperation, the sheriff clenched his fists and staggered toward his horse. “Don’t just stand there,” he shouted as he mounted. “Round up a posse!”

“But, Sheriff—you said you wanted the cavalry to handle their own business. You said—”

“Shut yer ass up, Wendell,” he snarled, yanking hard on the reins to turn the horse around. “I know what I said. Things are different now!” Almost as an afterthought he added, “The son-of-a-bitch stole Pete Murphy’s horse!”

Within minutes the saloon was emptied, and with a posse of the good citizens of Cavendish, Texas, at his back, Clayton Dougherty took off after his prey. And only Clayton Dougherty knew the truth:

He wasn’t after the man because he was a mur­derer, an outlaw, or a horsethief.

He was after the man because he knew if he didn’t kill Boone Coulter, Boone Coulter would come back and kill him.

~*~

Squinting into the slanting rays of the late after­noon sun, Elizabeth snapped the reins over the roan gelding’s back. Gritting her teeth, she allowed the horse to take its own pace, not caring when its speed picked up gradually from a trot to a canter, faster than was her usual custom. But the wind whipping the light veil of her hat fanned the flames of rebellion in her veins. She only wanted to ride… faster… and faster…

So intent was she on her own thoughts, the unex­pected appearance of a lone rider galloping up on her right caught her off guard. Startled, she jerked her head around to stare at the man leaning over the neck of his horse, apparently determined to pass her even on this narrow stretch of road.

Suddenly, she felt the gelding’s reaction to the other horse. As the black began to pull ahead, her own horse strained at the bit, his nostrils flaring and lips pulling back to reveal dangerous white teeth. Try as she might, Elizabeth could no longer control the beast. He bolted—taking off at a full gallop, trying to edge the stallion off the road.

A scream froze in her throat. Bouncing wildly on the hard leather seat, she grasped the reins, pulling leather with all her strength, but the race was no longer under human control. A quick glance to the right revealed the rider of the other horse struggling as well. Their eyes met for an electrifying split- second, hers wide with fright, his narrowed with dangerous determination.

With a heart-lurching jolt, Elizabeth realized what was coming before the rider did: the trail narrowing at the curve, an outcropping of rocks jutting into the road. Clinging desperately to the reins, she watched in horror as the black horse edged closer to her own. The gelding lashed out, trying to bite, and still the rocks loomed nearer, closing space for the horse­man and the buggy to pass through abreast. At dizzying speed, the boulders grew closer, the trail narrower. Heart pounding, she clutched the reins, squeezing them in nerveless fingers —

And then she heard the screaming neigh. As if in slow motion, she turned her head and saw the black slamming against the rocks, rearing up on its hind legs, the rider fighting to stay astride, as the buggy passed it and left it behind.

There was no time to wonder about the rider’s safety as Elizabeth fought to control her gelding’s frenzy. She pulled back on the reins with every ounce of her weight, and with the other horse no longer a threat, the gelding began to slow his gait, his withers lathered, his massive chest heaving.

It was then that disaster struck. Her left wheel struck a large rock embedded in the red dirt and the buggy careened out of control.

A scream ripped from her throat—nothing to hold onto—nothing to protect her—she felt the reins tear­ing through her fingers, felt herself flying through the air, then slamming into the ground with a jolt that repercussed through every joint in her body.

And then, ear-ringing silence.

The sky spun overhead. She was aware of excruciat­ing pain and lungs screaming for air, yet no sound came from her throat, no breath entered her body. For what seemed like an eternity, she was caught in a vacuum of searing, pervasive pain.

The minutes stretched out, but gradually she felt her chest slightly easing, and the dizziness subsided as her lungs received the oxygen they so desperately needed. Was that low moan coming from her? Was that animal sound her own? She raised her head and gasped at the effort, then, gritting her teeth, strained to a sitting position. Only then did she think to look for the rider whose outright recklessness had caused her accident.

To her relief, he was running back toward her in long strides. Helplessly, she waited, fighting back the burning tears that threatened to spill down her dusty cheeks. Teeth clamped over her lower lip, she watched his approach. Lean and broad-shouldered with dark hair long and tangled on his neck, his face shaded by a battered Stetson pulled low.

But when he reached her, he didn’t stop, just kept going to her buggy, lying overturned on the rocky trail, its traces broken. The gelding, still wild from its brush with disaster, bucked and reared among the splintered remains and tangled reins of the wrecked buggy, his eyes rolling white as he snorted his distress. Yet the instant the man laid his hands upon the horse’s bridle, uttering soothing noises beneath his breath, the beast calmed.

Elizabeth struggled to her feet, unable to stifle a moan as her legs protested the weight she put on them. Slowly, she made her way toward the stranger, unable to speak.

By the time she reached his side, he’d begun to free the horse from the overturned buggy, and turning, faced her with no indication of remorse. In fact, so merciless was his gaze, she found herself stepping back a pace.

“Stay out of my way, lady.” His voice rustled over her as soft and deadly as that of a rattlesnake’s warning.

Raw fingers pressed to her lips, she bit back a sob. Without another word he turned his back on her and continued untangling the reins. Only then did she realize his intent. He had no interest in her physical condition and had never intended to offer her any apology or assistance.

He was stealing her horse.

Rage boiled up in her, rage she’d never allowed herself to display before.

She reached for the buggy whip, the whip she’d never used on any beast. Whip in hand, she stood frozen, waiting until he faced her once more. With an aim more governed by anger than skill, she swung the whip in a wide arc and watched it slice across his hollow cheek, leaving an angry red welt in its wake.

His expression changed from shock to violence, as his long, lean fingers touched the spot where her whip had assaulted his flesh. Yet his eyes never left hers. As long as she lived, she would never forget the stark hatred in those eyes, and the fear that gripped and squeezed her like a vise. He stepped closer, and with a lightning-quick movement akin to that of the rattle­snake she’d compared him to just moments before, his hand shot out and grabbed hers, clenching it in his strong fingers, his thumb digging into her wrist until the whip fell from her numb fingers.

She was unable to move, and it was several mo­ments before she realized there was no more pressure on her aching wrist, that his hands cradled hers with nothing more than a whisper touch, that it was only the power radiating from the venom in his eyes holding her captive.

And then he stepped away. Trembling, she watched his anger fade into confusion as he seemed to compre­hend her condition for the first time. “I’m… I’m sorry, lady.”

His soft voice stroked over her, no longer lethal, almost pleading. His gaze went from her to the horse, then back to her again. He reached inside his shirt and pulled out a small, plain cross. His eyes never leaving hers, he lifted the chain from which it hung over his head.

Elizabeth was helpless to do anything but stand and watch as he approached her slowly, cautiously. He held the cross out, its chain dangling from his fist. She could only stare. Finally he closed the gap be­tween them and pressed the cross into her hand, the gold still warm from his skin.

“Take it,” he said. “It’s all I have.”

She tried to give it back, shaking her head in confusion, but he closed his hand tightly over hers, his expression intense. “Take it for the horse, lady,” he grated. “It’s all I have.” Then, defiant, “I’ll send money back for the other one.”

“The other one?”

He jerked his gaze away from her and stared over her shoulder. “That horse I was riding didn’t belong to me either”

“Why are you taking mine?” she demanded. “What happened to the other horse?”

“He threw me and bolted. But you tell whoever he belonged to, I’ll send the money.” His eyes suddenly glittered with a new emotion. “I don’t steal.”

Elizabeth watched him leap onto the gelding’s bare back and gallop away. Long after the cloud of dust had disappeared over the horizon, she stood in stunned silence.

She ached, she felt feverish, yet of all her discom­forts, one took precedence. She didn’t have to raise her wrist to see the dark bruise forming, to feel its tender throb, to remember the expression of hatred that accompanied its injury. But there was something else. The cross in her hand. The fierce pride when he had told her, I don’t steal.

She felt shame—shame for raising her whip, shame for losing control. What did she care about the horse? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

A tremor of apprehension flickered through her body

He was a madman, this cowboy who’d almost killed her. She’d never seen him before.

There was a stranger in town, Wendell had said. A gunslinger. Stunned, she clutched the cross tighter until it dug painfully into her palms.

Was he Boone Coulter? Elizabeth gazed into the purpling dusk toward the mountains. If so, he’d escaped Clayton Dougherty, unknowingly on the sher­iff’s own horse.

“Godspeed,” she whispered softly. And for a brief moment, she envied the outlaw his wilderness, his freedom.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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