Gunfighter's Legacy: The Hard Road

A Preview of Volume 1 in the Beth Caver Saga

© 2019 CR Britting - Reposting elsewhere is expressly forbidden. 

Chapter 1

The Hole in the Ground

 

Miller’s Crossing, Colorado, 1886

The western third of the Circle-C ranch was covered with rolling, grass-covered hills and sprinkled with forests. Two steep ridgelines cut across it, forming a number of small canyons and rock formations. They were perfect places for a young woman to go exploring—never knowing what new, exciting discovery she might make.

 

Just last week, she’d come upon a deer and a fawn. Judging by the way it struggled to get to its feet, the fawn had just been born recently. The girl held her breath as the doe encouraged the little one with a poke of her nose. Finally, the fawn succeeded and stood next to its mother on shaky legs.

 

All at once, the doe looked up and glanced in the girl’s direction, probably catching the scent of the visitor. The doe scampered away, her fawn lumbering as quickly as it could behind her.

 

Elizabeth Carver grinned as she recalled the experience. She was a tall, lanky woman in her early twenties, and her dark tan suggested she was definitely an outdoor person. Her hair was the color of autumn leaves, and today it hung beneath her flat-brimmed hat in a pair of long braided pigtails. Dressed as she was in pants and boots, she might easily be taken for a young man.

 

Elizabeth had come back again this afternoon, hoping to see the new fawn again, but if the deer were around, they were keeping to themselves.

 

“I guess they’re not here, Jumper,” she told the horse grazing near her. “Maybe we’ll see ’em next time.”

 

The little mare flicked her ears in the girl’s direction and shook her head. It was one of her favorite tricks and sure to draw a smile from her mistress.

 

The girl laughed as she gave the animal a pat on the neck. “You don’t think so?” she teased. “Well, I’ll bet you a bucket of oats we’ll see them again.” The horse just looked at her. “You’re not going to bet? Well, then, we better head for home. It’s gettin’ late.”

 

Elizabeth swung into the saddle and turned Jumper east. It took them only a few minutes to reach the valley floor.

 

“C’mon, Jumper,” she said excitedly. “Let’s fly.” She touched her heels against the horse’s flanks.

 

Jumper loved to run, and Elizabeth loved having the sunshine on her face and the wind blowing through her hair. It was a perfect day for a ride and the grassland flashed beneath them as they headed for home.

 

Then, in the blink of an eye, Elizabeth felt herself flying through the air. An instant later, she hit the ground.

 

* * * * *

 

From the top of the mountain pass, Richard Thorne gazed at the lush valley below. It’s funny how some things change and some things stay the same, he mused. The mountains were the same, but he was no longer the foolish young man who’d ridden up this way six years ago.

 

The younger son of a prosperous rancher, Dick had chaffed under the iron discipline of his father, and on his twenty-second birthday, he left home. During the years that followed, he held a variety of jobs, almost all of which were harder than life at home. He even served as a deckhand on a ship sailing to the Far East. On his return a year later, he won the horse he was riding in a poker game. At twenty-six, he got a job as a deputy sheriff in a town whose sheriff was about to retire. He enjoyed the work, but just a week ago, he had received a letter from his older brother informing him of his father’s death and asking him to come home.

 

“Dick, I’m plumb sorry to see you go,” Sheriff Tyson told him. “You’re welcome back anytime.”

 

It had been a three-day ride, but with luck, he might be home in time for supper. He took a swig from his canteen then headed down the long slope, looking forward to seeing his family again.

 

* * * * *

“You got something better to do, Keller?” Lance Poland hooked his thumb back over his shoulder. “If so, there’s the door. Otherwise, shut your trap.”

 

Matt Keller jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair. “You can’t talk to me like that!” he shouted, his hand poised near the butt of his gun.

 

The owner of the Lazy A ranch smiled derisively, his hand drifting toward his own weapon. He wasn’t worried; Keller was mostly talk.

 

Seconds ticked by. Poland had just about decided that Keller might really do it when a man named Richardson walked over and put his arm around Keller’s shoulders in a friendly fashion.

 

“C’mon, Matt, take it easy. Let’s hear what the boss has to say.” He turned toward Poland. “We’re all a little jumpy, Lance. It’s the waiting. You got some news for us?”

 

Keller wrenched free but said nothing further as he picked up his chair and sat down. Poland nodded briefly at Richardson, acknowledging his effort to calm things down.

 

“In fact I do, Jerry. We’re about ready to move. Carver’s putting together a big herd for a drive next week. He should have ’em all rounded up in the next day or two. I’m expecting some more news tonight . . .”

 

“Probably from the lovely Rachel,” someone said. The rest of the group laughed.

 

Poland glared at the man but continued. “When he’s got ’em all ready, we’re going to ride over and help ourselves.”

 

“That’s more like it!” called another man, and a murmur of conversation rose throughout the room.

 

Poland held up his hand. “There’s more. The bank in town is holding a lot of cash right now for the first-of-the-month payrolls. We’re gonna hit it just before we grab Carver’s herd. With any luck, you’ll have some extra dineros to reward you for your patience.”

 

“What’s the beef against Carver?” asked Sloan, one of the older men. “He’s just another medium-sized rancher tryin’ to make a go of it.” He shrugged. “’Course, he does have a right pretty daughter. Any man would be glad to get hold of that.” Several of the men laughed.

 

“You gotta be kidding me,” muttered a low-pitched feminine voice. “She’s just a kid. She looks like a tree trunk, for cryin’ out loud. Not only that, she’ll bite your head off if you look at her sideways.”

 

The only female in the group, Mary Jane Fisher, was a large woman in her early thirties, and she’d done a stretch in prison for killing her husband. She claimed it had been self-defense, but nobody believed her. Mary Jane took a drag from her cigarette. “A man would have to be a fool to want some of that.”

 

“We should choose you instead, MJ?” someone asked. “That sounds real promising.”

 

Fisher grinned back at him. “Anytime, sweetie.”

 

Everyone laughed, and Poland cracked a smile himself. Fisher could always be counted on to lighten things up.

 

“Thanks for that word of wisdom, MJ. As for my beef with Carver, Sloan, that’s my business.” He glanced around to see if there were any other questions. “At any rate, I’m waitin’ for one more man. He should be here soon, then we’ll be ready.”

 

“Who’s that?”

 

“Youngfellow.”

 

“Youngfellow?” asked Jerry in disbelief. “You got him in on this deal?”

 

“I helped him out of a jam a while back, and he owes me. Besides, we can always use an extra gun.” If I can keep him under control, that is.

 

Poland turned to leave. “All right, gents. Sit tight and—”

 

“Ahem,” Fisher said, spreading her hands expectantly.

 

“Oh, and you too, MJ.”

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Sit tight. We’ll be riding soon.”

 

* * * * *

 

Elizabeth Carver stirred as her consciousness slowly returned. She hurt all over, and it took half a minute or so for her to wonder what had happened.

 

Then she heard Jumper crying in pain. She tried to get up, but the effort only brought a groan. She did manage to lift her head, and her heart nearly stopped as she saw her beautiful chestnut thrashing around, her left foreleg almost completely severed.

 

She must’ve stepped in a gopher hole.

 

With some difficulty, Elizabeth finally struggled to her feet. It was hard, especially with the pain in her left knee and shoulder. As she hobbled over to see how badly her friend was hurt, she was nearly kicked by Jumper’s flying hooves. The sweet, gentle horse she’d grown to love was like a wild animal, maddened by her fear and pain.

 

Elizabeth was miles from home, and none of her father’s riders were out this way today. Jumper had been seriously injured, and there was only one thing to do. She hated the idea but realized she had no choice. It would take hours to get any help, and in the meantime, Jumper would lie here in terrible pain.

 

Approaching the horse from the other side, she managed to snatch her Winchester from the scabbard, jumping back just in time to avoid getting kicked. Levering a round into the rifle, Elizabeth lifted it to her shoulder, tears streaming down her face. The front sight of the weapon centered on Jumper’s forehead.

 

After ten seconds or so, she lowered the gun again. She just couldn’t do it. Jumper was such an important part of her life, a true friend and a constant companion.

 

The horse’s cries rang in her ears, and Elizabeth realized she had to do it—there was no other alternative.

 

“Oh, Jumper,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”

 

Taking a deep breath, she brought the rifle back up and jerked the trigger. The Winchester kicked her hard—she’d forgotten to keep it tucked tight to her shoulder—and Jumper’s cries ended abruptly with the roar of the weapon.

 

The sound echoed back and forth among the nearby hills, but all Elizabeth could do was sob as her only friend lay dead at her feet.

 

* * * * *

 

Dick was nearly halfway down the long hill when he suddenly reined in.

 

“Hold up, Red,” he said to the horse.

 

The animal flicked his ears toward his rider, but Dick said nothing further, as he was listening intently. After a full minute, though, he shrugged and touched his heels to Red’s flanks.

 

“All right, let’s go. I thought I heard a rifle shot. I must be hearin’ things.”

 

Chapter 2

Chance Meeting

After more than a mile, Elizabeth realized her riding boots were definitely not made for walking. She was hot, tired, sore all over, and becoming black-and-blue from her fall. Her pants and shirt had torn when she hit the ground, and she had a bad scrape on her left knee. Her shoulder ached as well, from where the rifle had kicked her.

 

She’d have to come back tomorrow with some help to bury Jumper and get her saddle. No way she could drag it out from under the horse, much less lug it for miles. She did manage to pry her saddlebags and bedroll loose, so she’d slung them over her shoulder, hefted the rifle, and headed for home.

 

It was such a relief to come upon a small stream near the road. Dropping her stuff, she went down the bank to get a drink.

 

How good it tasted. The water was cold, but a bath in a little pool she saw upstream sounded like a grand idea. She was covered with dirt and briars from head to toe, and her hair was a tangled mess. Elizabeth always carried a change of clothes in case she got caught in a sudden storm, and the thought of being clean again sounded most appealing.

 

Kneeling by the water, Elizabeth began to rinse the dirt and blood from her knee but quickly froze when she heard something. A few seconds later, she heard it again. It sounded like a horse’s shoe hitting a stone. She jumped up, quickly fetched her things, and hurried to a nearby clump of thick bushes.

 

A moment later, a horse and rider came around a rocky outcropping across the stream. They splashed through the water and rode up the bank to where she’d been earlier. The rider swung down, and from his manner, it was easy to see he was tired. She thought of asking him for a ride, but her father’s warning made her hesitate.

 

“The open range can be a dangerous place for a woman alone,” he had said more than once. “If you insist on riding by yourself, you have to be extra careful.” With that in mind, Elizabeth always carried a gun when she any distance from home.

 

Now her dad’s warning kept her silent until she could judge what kind of man the rider was. With all the trouble in the valley lately, he might be a rustler or someone else she didn’t want to meet.

 

As the rider led his horse to the stream, Elizabeth saw he was a big man, well over six feet tall. His complexion was deeply tanned, and his clothes were well used but seemed to be in good condition. Pulling off his hat, he smacked it against his clothes in an effort to knock off some of the trail dust. It was hard to tell much because he was facing away from her, but he had dark hair and a beard. Something about him looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t decide what it was. He wasn’t wearing a six-shooter, but she could see the butt of a rifle sticking out of the scabbard on his horse.

 

The rider dropped the reins on the ground near the water, and after watching the animal drink for a moment, he headed upstream, right toward where Elizabeth was hiding. She tightened her grip on the rifle, but after a short distance, he stopped and knelt by the stream. Placing his hat on the ground, he lowered his face to the water and drank deeply. After a moment, he straightened up and smiled, wiping his mouth.

 

“That’s mighty good,” he remarked as he rolled up his sleeves. Then to her surprise, he ducked his head and his arms into the water, emerging ten seconds later dripping wet. He looked like a drowned rat. It was the funniest thing Elizabeth had seen in a long time and she laughed out loud.

 

* * * * *

 

Dick Thorne froze at the sudden noise from somewhere behind him. He wiped his eyes as quickly as he could and turned, trying to locate the source of the sound. Movement caught the corner of his eye, and he turned to see a man emerging from the bushes.

 

“Why are you sneaking up on me like that?” he yelled, an angry expression on his face.

 

He’d only taken three steps when he saw the rifle and heard a sharp click as the gun’s hammer was cocked. Dick stopped at the sight of the weapon, his anger undiminished.

 

“Hold up, mister. I didn’t sneak up on you. I was here first.”

 

He was startled to hear a feminine voice. A woman? What’s she doing out here by herself?

 

“You came barging in here like you owned the place,” she continued, and Dick was surprised to see her smile. “Shucks, stranger, you were mighty careless. I could’ve shot you and taken your whole outfit while you were soakin’ your head.”

 

Dick felt his face color at her words. “That what you’re fixing to do, lady? If so, I wish you’d get on with it. Otherwise, point that Winchester someplace else. It’s making me mighty nervous.”

 

She thought it over then eased the hammer off full cock and lowered the weapon. She did not put it down.

 

“You’re in luck today, stranger. I only shoot unarmed men getting a drink on Fridays. I’m sorry to have startled you, but you looked so funny when you ducked your head in the water, I couldn’t help laughing.”

 

Dick relented. “Well, yeah, I guess it must’ve looked pretty funny at that. I’ve been riding all day, and I’m tired. But take a hint, ma’am, be careful or you might get yourself hurt. Someone else might take offense at being surprised like that.”

 

As he spoke, he looked at her closely, still surprised to learn she was a woman. Nearly as tall as a man, she wore pants and a plaid, rather plain, shirt. Her face was streaked from what appeared to be dried tears. Her hair was filthy, and her hat, which was hanging from a cord around her neck, was completely crushed. It was hard to tell much else because she was so dirty. The only clean part of her was her mouth; she’d apparently just gotten a drink.

 

“Say, are you all right, miss? You look as if you’ve been through a cyclone.”

 

All the life seemed to drain from her face. “Jumper and I were having a wonderful time,” she replied, tears forming in her eyes. “She must’ve stepped into a hole or something. I got thrown off and she broke her leg pretty bad.”

 

“Aw, that’s awful, ma’am.”

 

“She was just lying there crying. I . . . I couldn’t bear to see her hurt that way, so I . . . I shot her.”

 

Good grief, this woman actually shot her own horse? Unbelievable. I didn’t think a woman could do that. “I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am, but you did the right thing. If it hadn’t been for you, she might have lain there for hours or days in terrible pain. What you did was a kindness, and if she could, I’m sure she’d thank you for it.”

 

* * * * *

 

Elizabeth nodded, took a deep breath, and tried to pull herself back together. “She was a great horse. I’m going to miss her.”

 

“Well, seeing as how you’re without a horse and it’s getting late, could we give you a ride home?”

 

“Oh, would you? That would be great. Our ranch is only a few miles from here.”

 

“No trouble at all. Red doesn’t mind carrying double, especially when one of them is pretty. At least I think she’s pretty. It’s hard to tell under all that dirt.”

 

Elizabeth could see the rider looking her up and down and wondered what he was thinking. “I was just getting ready to wash some of it off when you came charging in here,” she said with a grin. “Why don’t you take a walk down there by those rocks for a few minutes?” She pointed down the hill.

 

“Way down there?” he protested when he saw her proposed destination.

 

“Move it, mister. Or should I take my rifle to make sure I’m not disturbed?”

 

The stranger threw up his hands in surrender. “Oh, all right. All right, but couldn’t I just go halfway?”

 

Elizabeth tried to keep from laughing and merely pointed toward the rocks. He sighed and started down the hill. She giggled at the sight of the big cowboy walking down the slope. Cowboys never walked anywhere they could ride.

 

When she was sure he had left, she picked up her saddlebags and bedroll then headed upstream toward the pool she’d seen earlier. Elizabeth had no idea who the rider was or what had brought him to the valley, but she was glad he’d come along. He was very good-looking in a rugged sort of way, and he was certainly no tenderfoot on the range. I wonder if he’s married.

 

With that thought, she took a few extra minutes to make herself as presentable as possible.

 

* * * * *

 

What’s she doing out here alone? Dick wondered as he walked down the hill. It’s not safe. She’s likely miles from home, and there’s no telling who she might run into. Things could turn dangerous if she’s not careful.

 

And why is she dressed like a man? What’s she trying to prove?

 

She was his age, maybe a little younger, and he tried to recall the women his age who lived in the valley. He could think of several, but none were tall. Still, he’d been away for a long time. Maybe she was someone new.

 

Whoever she was, he was impressed. She was certainly a strong person, her tears notwithstanding. He couldn’t think of any other woman with the courage to shoot her own horse. And she sure looked like she knew how to handle that rifle.

 

“Definitely someone to get to know,” he said to himself. Then he realized she might be married or engaged. That would be a shame but understandable. A fine woman like her would make someone a good wife.

 

Some ten minutes later, Dick heard her voice. “Hey, mister! You can come back now. Please hurry up. I’m getting hungry.”

 

What kind of a woman is she, anyway? he wondered as he trudged up the hill. When he reached the stream a few minutes later, he gave Red a pat on the neck. He was dying of curiosity, but the woman was nowhere around.

 

“Hey, lady,” he called. “Where are you? I thought you were in a hurry.”

 

“Right behind you, good sir. And I am getting hungry.”

 

Dick turned, and his eyebrows lifted in surprise. She’d cleaned up pretty well and now wore Levi’s tucked into her boots, a man’s shirt, and a leather vest. Her still-wet hair was tied behind her head with a scarf, and she’d even managed to reshape her battered hat into something more presentable.

 

In particular, Dick noticed that she was not wearing a ring on her left hand.

 

“Do I look better now?” she asked as she approached him.

 

Dick didn’t dare say what he was thinking. “I think you look just fine considering what you’ve been through today.”

 

Dick thought he saw a tiny look of disappointment on her face. “Oh well,” she replied, “I guess that’s the best compliment I could hope for. I’ll do better next time we meet.”

 

She knelt to put her dirty clothes in her saddlebags, and he was surprised to see the handle of a revolver inside.

 

“Mister, I’m much obliged to you,” she said, rising to her feet. “My name is Beth Carver.”

 

She offered her hand, but Dick was so surprised he failed to take it.

 

“Beth? As in Elizabeth Carver, from the Circle-C?”

 

“Yes. My father owns it.”

 

By golly, it was her all right; the gangly little girl from the neighboring ranch, now all grown-up. That reminded him of something, and he laughed.

 

Her smile turned into a frown as she dropped her hand to her side. “Did I say something funny, mister?” she asked, a bit of frost creeping into her voice.

 

Dick shook his head and tried to get himself back under control. “No, ma’am. It just looks like the runt has finally grown-up.”

 

He watched the emotions flash across her face. “Runt?” she exclaimed. “Runt? Nobody ever called me that except Dick Thorne, and he’s been gone for six years and . . . what are you laughing at?”

 

“Elizabeth, it’s me, Dick,” he replied with a grin. “Don’t you remember the barn dance on your sixteenth birthday? You wore a really beautiful dress you made yourself. You were tryin’ to be all grown-up, and you even said you wanted to marry me.”

 

* * * * *

 

Elizabeth stared at him in surprise, amazement, and then indignation.

 

“Richard James Thorne!” she exclaimed. “Why didn’t you tell me who you were right off? Letting me carry on like that. I could kill you.” She stabbed him in the chest with her finger. “And if you tell my father about this, I will kill you!”

 

“I’m sorry, Elizabeth. I just didn’t recognize you under all that dirt. And you’ve grown at least a foot taller since I saw you last.”

 

She cracked a smile. “Oh, all right, Dick. I forgive you. You’ve grown some too, and that beard makes you look older.” She peered at him closely. “You know, I really don’t like it all that much. I think you’d look more hands—er, better without it.”

 

“But—”

 

“No matter, you’re back, and that’s the important thing. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time, but now we can go ahead and get married. I’ll need a week to get ready and—”

 

“Hold up there, Elizabeth. I didn’t come home to get married.”

 

She dismissed his protest with a wave of her hand. “Shucks, Dick. I know that. We were all plumb sorry about the death of your father. But now that you’re home, we might as well get hitched. My dress is almost finished and—”

 

“Elizabeth, listen to me,” Dick pleaded, trying to stem her flood of words.

 

“But, Dick—”

 

“Elizabeth!” he roared. “I just came home to visit for a few days. I’m not ready to get hitched to some flighty female.”

 

Dick quickly realized he had spoken more forcefully than he intended, and he saw the hurt in her eyes.

 

“Look, Elizabeth,” he said more quietly. “What I mean is—”

 

“Forget it, mister high-and-mighty Richard Thorne,” she shot back. “Just give me a ride home and I won’t bother you any further.” She turned away, gathered her things, and walked to his horse.

 

Good job, Thorne. Six years away and the first thing you do is make her mad. What a mess. And knowing her, she’s not likely to forget it anytime soon.

 

“Well?” she demanded. “Are you coming, or do I have to walk home after all?”

 

With a sigh of disgust, Dick mounted then offered her a stirrup and a hand. She climbed up behind him but pointedly refused to sit close, holding on only enough to keep her balance. Neither of them said a word all the way to her father’s ranch, and when they finally got to the front gate, she told him to let her off there instead of taking her up to the house.

 

“Thanks for the ride, Mr. Thorne. I can find my way from here.” She turned away from him and headed up the road.

 

“Elizabeth, I—”

 

“Goodbye, Dick,” she replied without turning around.

 

Dick pulled off his hat and slapped it against his leg in frustration. “All right, Elizabeth. If that’s the way you want it, suit yourself.”

Chapter 3

Hard Words

Elizabeth couldn’t help but grin as she heard Dick ride away. She’d forgotten how much fun it was to tease him; he always got so mad over it.

 

She’d prayed for Dick every day while he was gone, and now he was home. Not only that, he’d changed during his time away. He used to walk with a lazy slouch, but now his stature was now strong and straight. No doubt about it, he’d left home a boy and come back a man. And despite what he’d said, she had every intention of marrying him, even if she had to lasso him and drag him to the church. Maybe I should do that anyway, just for fun.

 

She’d only walked a few hundred yards when one of her father’s men rode out of the tree line. At least I won’t have to walk all the way to the house. Despite her words to Dick, the ranch house was still a good half mile off, and Elizabeth was plumb sore.

 

Ethan Darby was just about as handsome as they came. Tall and strong as an ox, he cut a fine figure on horseback. He’d just started working for her father a couple of months back, and right from the start, he had made his intentions clear. He’d asked her to the barn dance so often she finally ran out of excuses and agreed to go with him. He turned out to be an excellent dancer, and with his dark hair and chivalrous manner, she’d actually enjoyed herself.

 

But in the buggy on the way home, he tried to kiss her, and she had to push him away.

 

“What’s the matter, Beth?” he asked. “I thought you enjoyed yourself tonight.”

 

“I did, until a minute ago. I’ve told you before who I’m going to marry, and I’m not interested in anyone else.”

 

He groaned at her response. “Not Dick Thorne again. I’m sick of hearing about him. I’ve told you he’s not coming back. He’ll marry some city girl, and you’ll never see him again. Forget him, Beth. You’re wasting your time dreaming about something that will never happen.”

 

“He is coming back, Ethan Darby,” she retorted. “And I’m gonna wait for him no matter how long it takes.”

 

“Well, whatever you say, Beth, but can we still go to the dance, can’t we?”

 

She thought about how good a dancer he was and how much she’d enjoyed herself. “Sure, Ethan,” she replied with a smile. “I’d like that. Just remember what I said.”

 

Since then, he’d taken her to the dance several times and he’d been a perfect gentleman. They’d gone riding several times too, and that was cause for raised eyebrows among the rest of the crew, for she had never allowed anyone to ride with her before.

 

Ethan pulled up next to her, a smile on his face. “Howdy, Beth. Who was that you were ridin’ with? Where’s Jumper?”

 

Elizabeth took a deep breath, not really wanting to go through the whole thing again. “Jumper’s dead, Ethan. She stepped into a hole and broke her leg. I had to shoot her. That stranger happened along, and I asked him for a ride.”

 

Ethan was taken aback by her words. “I’m sure sorry about Jumper, Beth. She was a pretty little thing, wasn’t she? How come that stranger wouldn’t take you all the way home?”

 

She didn’t have a good answer to that. “Ethan, I’m tired and sore all over. Could you just give me a ride, please?”

 

His eyes lit up, and he beamed with pleasure. “Why, sure, Miss Beth. I’d do most anything for you,” he replied, offering her a stirrup.

 

As she’d done with Dick, she didn’t sit close behind him and held on just enough to keep from falling off. If Ethan noticed, he was wise enough not to say so. After a moment, she forgot him and her thoughts turned to getting married.

 

* * * * *

 

After supper, Poland heard a horse approaching and stepped onto the front porch just as Rachel Stevens rode up.

 

“Hey, Rachel. Come on in. I just made some fresh coffee. And we have some of Shorty’s good biscuits left over from dinner.”

 

“Sounds great,” she said as she swung down. “I could use something to eat.”

 

“So what’s new?” he asked after he’d poured their coffee.

 

“Not much. That loose-mouth Ethan Darby came to town this morning and let slip that Carver’s roundup will be complete tomorrow.” Rachel spread some jelly on a biscuit then glanced up. “Shorty’s biscuits are the best.”

 

“That they are. Any idea when they’re going to start the drive?”

 

“Ethan wasn’t sure. Probably within a few days.”

 

Poland leaned back in his chair. “Sounds like he’s really taken a shine to you, Rachel.”

 

“Darby?” she retorted. “Not a chance. All he can do is talk about the tomboy. Every time he comes to town, he takes fifteen minutes to tell me how he’s going to marry her. I can’t figure out why. All she does is act like a man. The whole town is talking about her.”

 

“No romance with Darby, then?” Poland asked again, pressing the point.

 

Rachel stared at him in disbelief and got to her feet, anger on her face. “Lance, are you unhappy with the job I’m doing for you? If so, I’ll pack my bags and ride out of here.” She turned and headed toward the front door, but Poland caught her before she reached it. He grabbed her by the arm and swung her around.

 

“Don’t you walk away from me, Rachel,” he said in a quiet voice. He then pulled her in close, her face only a foot from his. “You’ve done a good job so far, but don’t even think about riding out on me. I’d have to come after you, and I don’t think you want me to do that. You’re not plannin’ to leave, are you?”

 

Poland saw her anger change to fear.

 

“No, Lance. I just wanted you to know Darby’s nothing to me.”

 

He released her. “Fair enough. I just wanted to be sure we understand each other.” He turned back toward the kitchen. “You want some biscuits to take with you?”

 

“No, thanks. I’ve gotta get going.”

 

“Well, let me know if anything changes.”

 

Poland frowned as he heard Rachel ride away. It was good to remind her who was boss. One of these days, her usefulness would end, and he’d have to settle with her, but not yet. At least not until this deal was through.

 

* * * * *

 

Dick thought of his family as he rode through the main gate of his family’s ranch. He'd been gone a long time. Too long. He’d only ridden a few hundred yards when he encountered two heavily armed men he’d never seen before.

 

“Hold up there, stranger,” said the older one. “You’re on Rocking-T land. We’d like to ask your business here.”

 

Dick wondered why they were acting in such a strange manner and decided to question them further before revealing his identity. “I’m here to see Todd Thorne. What’s the trouble, men? I always thought the Rocking-T was a friendly outfit.”

 

“It is. But there’s been trouble lately, and then the owner died under mysterious circumstances. Everybody’s pretty jumpy, and we got orders to ride guard starting at dusk.”

 

“Mysterious circumstances? I hadn’t heard that.”

 

The rider shrugged. “No one knows what happened. His horse came home without him one night, and the next morning they found his body at the base of a cliff. It’s a mystery how he got there.”

 

“How’s Mrs. Thorne taking it?”

 

“That’s none of your affair, mister. She’s having enough trouble without strangers poking their nose in. Now you can either tell us your business or turn that horse around and ride out.”

 

Dick had many more questions but decided to wait until he talked to his brother. “Men, you don’t know me, you must be new here. I’m Dick Thorne, and I’ve come home to see my mother.”

 

“Golly, Mr. Thorne,” exclaimed the second rider, a young man of about twenty. “We had no idea who you were. Mr. Todd told us you might be ridin’ in one of these days.”

 

The older man was more cautious. “Not so fast, Billy. We only got his word he’s Dick Thorne. No offense, stranger, but neither of us know you. You got any proof of who you are?”

 

“None taken. I’ve got a letter from my brother in my pocket. Some of it’s personal, but would you recognize his signature?”

 

The rider relaxed. “That won’t be necessary, Mr. Thorne. You wouldn’t offer it if you didn’t have it.” He extended his hand. “I’m Cal Jackman, and that young sprout over there is Billy Perkins. He’s only been with us a few weeks.”

 

“Pleased to meet you boys,” Dick said as he shook hands with them. “You can bet I’m going tell Todd he’s got a couple of wide-awake riders working for him. And since we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other, Dick will work just fine.”

 

Jackman waved away the compliment. “Welcome home, Dick. Sorry about your dad. I sure did like him.”

 

* * * * *

 

A full moon hung like a silver globe in the night sky, and Ethan shivered as he rode slowly through the darkness. Another hour and he could return to his warm blanket by the fire. His thoughts turned to Beth, as they often did during his long hours riding herd on the sleeping cattle.

 

He grinned as he thought of her sitting behind him that afternoon. He could only guess what her father had said when she got back to the house but confound it, she was downright foolish at times.

 

Even worse, she actually seemed to like gettin’ all dirty and sweaty helping around the ranch. And while he had to admit she was good at it, why couldn’t she just be a woman? A man needed something soft to hold, and it really amazed him how pretty Beth could be when she put her mind to it.

 

They’d been to the dance several times recently, and it seemed as if she was getting more comfortable with the idea of dressing up. And while she still wouldn’t let herself be kissed, she wasn’t talkin’ about Dick Thorne all the time either. Those were good signs.

 

Patience, Ethan. It won’t be much longer.

 

* * * * *

 

Gunfire. Gunfire all around them. Horses bolting. Men falling. Hands pulling him from the saddle. Cries of agony. A rebel yell. The sounds and images seemed to merge endlessly in slow motion.

 

Then came the laughing face, like it always did. It danced in front of him, just out of reach. It twisted and turned, mocking him endlessly. The laughter grew louder, and the face seemed to twist all out of shape.

 

He woke up drenched in sweat, his bedcovers a soggy, twisted mess. With a groan, he sat up and threw his legs over the side of the bed. He rubbed his face with both hands as if he could make the dream go away.

 

Chapter 4

Old Friends and Bank Robbers

 

Two days later, Dick headed into town driving a buckboard. At breakfast, Todd had mentioned needing some supplies from the store, and Dick had volunteered to go. He especially wanted to see how the town had changed during the six years he’d been gone.

 

It was a pleasant day, and it was great to sit on a real seat cushion for a change. Ginger, the black mare pulling the buckboard, seemed to be enjoying herself, and Dick let her set the pace for the trip.

 

During the long drive, Dick reflected on how good it was to be home. The ranch had changed little in the time he had been gone. Todd had stepped easily into his father’s shoes, and although her hair had changed color, Dick’s mother was just as he remembered her.

 

“Dick,” she’d said when they had a moment together. “I’m plumb sorry you couldn’t be here for the funeral. But I know your father would be pleased knowing you’re back again. You are planning on staying, aren’t you?”

 

“I don’t know, Mom. Ask me again in a few days. Right now I’ve had my fill of bein’ on Red’s back. Maybe I’ll feel different about it later, but for now, I’m just glad to be here.”

 

“I’m glad you’re home too, son,” she replied. “There’s trouble brewing in the valley. You’re needed here.”

 

* * * * *

 

Miller’s Crossing was built at the junction of two small rivers. The readily available water supply, the town’s location on a main road, and the proximity of local ranches had kept the town growing for years. A newly built sawmill and lumber yard nestled against the riverbank and promised even further growth. There were the usual storefronts and a couple of saloons, but the presence of a church, a schoolhouse, and a number of homes suggested the community had begun to settle down.

 

Ginger’s hooves made a clip-clop sound as they crossed the wooden bridge into town. Turning the corner onto the main street, it surprised Dick to see how much the place had changed. The ten buildings he remembered had more than doubled, and there were even covered wooden sidewalks on both sides of the street.

 

Impressed by the town’s growth, Dick turned in at the livery stable and had just swung down when a tall, bearded, heavy-set black man came out to greet him.

 

“Mornin’!” the man said with a smile, wiping his hands on a thick leather apron. “What can I do for you?”

 

Dick turned to him and returned the smile. “Ginger’s due some new shoes. I’ll be in town an hour or so to get some supplies. Do you have time for her?”

 

“Sure. No bother a’tall. I was just finishing up another horse in the back. I can get to her in about fifteen minutes.” He glanced at Ginger’s brand and turned to Dick with a puzzled look. “Say, this here’s a Rockin’-T horse, stranger. Mind telling me how you got her?”

 

“Sorry, I should have introduced myself. I’m Dick Thorne.” He held out his hand. “I just got back a couple days ago.”

 

The farrier took his hand and shook it firmly. “Well, mighty pleased to meet you, Dick. I’m Henry Simpson. Your brother mentioned you’d be ridin’ in. You planning to stay?”

 

“I haven’t really decided.” Dick turned and looked up the street. “The town sure is growing. Nice to see that.”

 

“We were all sorry to hear about your dad. Your father was a good customer and a good friend. It was a tragic accident.”

 

“Are you sure it was an accident?” Some inner sense told Dick Henry was wrong.

 

“Nobody really knows, Dick. The sheriff investigated but came up with nothing, so they’re ruling it accidental.”

 

Dick turned back to him. “Jim Dancy still the sheriff here?”

 

“Sure, he’s been here forever.”

 

“I remember him. He was a tough old bird.” Dick smiled as he recalled several times when Dancy had “invited” him and his friends to leave town when things got a little rowdy.

 

* * * * *

 

Not long after Dick dropped Ginger off at the stable, Elizabeth and her father, Greg, arrived in town for some shopping and to pick up a load of fence posts for the ranch. They were accompanied by Johnny Larsen, one of their riders, who was driving the supply wagon.

 

The elder Carver was a red-haired, good-natured man in his late forties. He carried his responsibilities as the owner of the Circle-C ranch with the easy confidence earned from twenty years in the business. Back in Virginia, he had courted and captured the heart of Emma Whitman, a blonde beauty who shared his dream of moving west. Both husband and wife were quite tall, and while their daughter shared their height, Elizabeth was lanky like her father, and her hair was the color of autumn leaves. Only in Beth’s face did she have a hint of her mother’s good looks. Father and daughter were close, and Emma’s death from a fever some years back had drawn them closer still.

 

Leaving Johnny at the sawmill, Greg and Elizabeth separated and agreed to meet later after her shopping and his trip to the lawyer’s office.

 

* * * * *

 

Dick wandered around town, renewing old acquaintances, and by the time he reached Heavner’s General Store, he had received several invitations to come and visit. He felt welcomed and wondered why he had waited so long to come home.

 

Just as he reached the store entrance, Elizabeth Carver stepped outside, her arms full of packages. A divided riding skirt replaced her Levi’s from yesterday, and her hair hung in a long ponytail down her back.

 

“Good morning,” Dick said with a smile as he stepped out of her way.

 

Surprised to see him, Elizabeth promptly lifted her chin in disdain, making it clear that she had not forgotten their previous encounter.

 

“Hello, Mr. Thorne. Nice to see you. I see you shaved off that scraggly beard. I think you look better without it.”

 

Dick took off his hat and took a bow. “Why, thank you, Miss Carver. I’m glad to know my appearance finally meets with your approval.”

 

Dick missed her reply when he noticed a woman in a pretty blue-and-white dress coming up the sidewalk toward them. The owner of the dress, a shapely blonde woman in her late twenties, smiled as she approached them.

 

“Morning, Joanna,” Elizabeth said. “I’d like you to meet Dick Thorne. His family owns the Rocking-T. He’s been away and just got home night before last. Dick, this is Joanna Sanborn, co-owner of our new clothing store.”

 

Joanna extended her hand and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Dick. Beth’s told me a lot about you. Welcome home.”

 

Dick took her hand and felt a tingle. “Hello, Miss Joanna. I can see I’m gonna need some new clothes real soon.”

 

Joanna laughed. “Fine, Mr. Thorne, you come in whenever you like, and we’ll take good care of you.” She held his hand a little longer than necessary, and the way she emphasized her words indicated she hoped he would come in soon.

 

“A store that just sells clothes?” he asked, aware of his quickening pulse.

 

“My father left me some money when he died. I wanted to start a business of my own, and when I learned Amy Lincoln was a dressmaker, I offered to go in with her. She makes custom clothes for people, and I have a line of store-bought things I get from back East. We split the expenses of the store and spell each other behind the counter. It’s worked out nicely for both of us.”

 

Joanna was the prettiest woman he’d seen in a long time, and when she reached up to brush a strand of hair from her face, he noticed that she wasn’t wearing a ring. Just about then, Dick decided he might stay in the valley after all.

 

“Come to the shop and you can see for yourself,” Joanna continued. “I carry a lot of work clothes ’cause that’s what most folks want, but I also have some dress-up things too.” She turned to Elizabeth. “I’ve got to open the store, Beth, see you later. Nice to meet you, Dick.” She smiled demurely at Dick once more then headed across the street.

 

Awestruck by the woman’s beauty, Dick watched her cross the street, mesmerized by her shapely figure and the way she walked. When she stopped to unlock the door, Joanna glanced back and saw Dick looking at her. She smiled again and dropped her eyes before heading inside.

 

“Gee, Elizabeth,” Dick said with wonder as he watched the door close, “she sure is pretty. How long has she lived here?”

 

When Elizabeth didn’t answer, he turned around only to see her walking stiffly in the opposite direction. What’s the matter with her?

 

With a shrug, Dick pushed his way into the general store where Ben Heavner, an old friend, greeted him from behind the counter. They spent an enjoyable time together as Dick began to gather the things on Todd’s list, but it hadn’t been ten minutes when the bell over the door announced another visitor.

 

“All right, where is he?” a booming voice called. “Where’s that young hooligan?”

 

Dick turned to see Greg Carver, Elizabeth’s father, coming toward him, a big grin on his face.

 

“Dick, boy!” Carver said jovially as he gave the younger man a big bear hug. “Glad to see you.”

 

“Hi, Mr. Carver. It’s good to be home again.”

 

Carver released him and stepped back, a scowl on his face. “Hold up there, son. How old are you now?”

 

“Just turned twenty-eight last month. Why do you ask?”

 

“Time you started calling me Greg,” the rancher said.

 

“Oh, all right, uh, Greg, but that’ll take a while to get used to.”

 

Carver turned to Heavner, who had watched their exchange with an amused smile. “Ben, how about I take this young fella down the street and buy him a beer? We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”

 

“Sure, Greg,” the storekeeper replied. “Dick, give me that list and I’ll box up the stuff for you. It’ll be waiting when you come back.”

 

“How come Elizabeth is so upset?” Carver asked as they stepped outside. “When I saw her a few minutes ago, she was fit to be tied. When I asked, all she said was, ‘That Dick Thorne, he makes me so mad.’ She wouldn’t say anything else.”

 

Dick chuckled. “I guess that’s my fault. I was talking with her when this blonde woman—Joanna, I think her name was—happened to come by. I guess I made a comment about how pretty she was.”

 

“Ha! So that’s it,” Carver replied with a chuckle. “I should’ve known.” His voice quieted. “You know she’s got it in her mind she’s going to marry you?”

 

“Yep. She told me a long time ago. And she sure didn’t waste any time reminding me when I got home.”

 

Just then, Dick noticed three men riding up the street. They glanced nervously from side to side and Dick turned to watch as they passed.

 

“Something the matter, Dick?” Greg asked.

 

For a few seconds, Dick didn’t answer, because he had noticed three more men coming from the opposite direction. The six men joined in front of the bank and dismounted.

 

Dick turned back to the rancher, his instincts telling him that something was amiss. “Greg, do you know those men in front of the bank?”

 

Carver watched the group step up on the sidewalk. “No, Dick, can’t say that I do. Why do you ask?”

 

The words were barely out of his mouth when the riders pulled bandannas over their faces, drew their guns, and pushed their way into the bank.

 

Chapter 5

Gunfire in the Street

“Greg,” Dick said. “Go get the sheriff. Hurry.”

 

Carver ran up the sidewalk in the direction of the sheriff’s office, waving people inside.

 

Dick turned back into the store and saw Ben behind the counter. “Give me a gun, Ben,” he called. “Six men are holding up the bank!”

 

The storekeeper grabbed a Winchester from a rack on the wall, along with a box of shells. Dick upended the box on the counter and grabbed a handful of cartridges then ran to the door, pushing the shells into the gun as fast as he could. “Load me another one,” he called over his shoulder.

 

Outside, he found two ladies on the sidewalk and quickly ushered them inside. The bank was on the opposite side of the street and up a few doors. Dick stepped into the street, hoping he could grab their horses and—

 

The door to the bank opened, and a masked man backed out, his gun pointed inside. Out of time and options and with no good cover nearby, Dick dropped behind a water trough in front of Ben’s store. A few seconds later, the rest of the outlaws emerged and ran toward their horses. Dick lifted the rifle to his shoulder, but just as he did so, a well-dressed young man came racing out of the bank.

 

“The bank’s been robbed!” he shouted. “The bank’s been—”

 

His words were cut off as a blast of gunfire shattered the quiet of the morning. The young man stumbled and fell back into the bank. The unexpected gunshot spooked the outlaws’ horses, much to the displeasure of the men trying to mount them. For a few seconds, it was a comedy of errors as the cursing outlaws tried to control their skittish animals.

 

“Hold it right there!” Dick shouted. “You’re under arrest! Throw down your guns!”

 

The outlaws turned at the sound of his voice, and one of them fired a shot in Dick’s direction. Dick threw himself flat on the ground behind the water trough as the bullet smacked into the thick wood in front of him. After waiting a few seconds, he peered around the end of the trough and saw one of the outlaws carrying saddlebags, probably with the bank money.

 

The roar of Dick’s Winchester echoed back and forth between the buildings, and the man with the money screamed as his leg was jerked out from under him. That didn’t sit too well with the rest of the bandits, who unleashed a torrent of shots in Dick’s direction. Bullets splattering around him, he ducked back behind the water trough.

 

* * * * *

 

At the lumber mill just north of town, Elizabeth and Johnny Larsen had been waiting for the fence posts to be loaded into their wagon when they heard the sudden gunfire. They turned in surprise, and shortly after, Elizabeth saw her father and Sheriff Dancy emerge from the sheriff’s office. The two men ran down the sidewalk, but more gunshots erupted, and her father spun around and fell to the sidewalk.

 

“Daddy!” she screamed.

 

Only Larsen’s grip on her arm kept her from racing down the street. “Wait, Miss Beth. It’s too dangerous.”

 

Sheriff Dancy ducked into a doorway and fired back at the outlaws, but it was an uneven contest with three or four guns against one. Several bullets tore at the doorframe next to him. The sheriff was hit and flung backward. That left only a lone rifleman in front of the store against all the outlaws.

 

“We’ve got to do something, Johnny!”

 

Johnny shook his head emphatically. “If we go down there, we’re likely to get shot too.”

 

“Let go of me!” Elizabeth demanded, wrenching from his grasp. Running to her horse, she grabbed her pistol belt from the saddlebag and yanked her Winchester from the scabbard.

 

“C’mon, Johnny,” she said, tossing the rifle at him. “We’ve got to do something to help!”

 

* * * * *

 

When the gunfire tapered off, Dick levered another round into the rifle and peered around the water trough a second time. The man he had shot lay in the street. Another outlaw had picked up the saddlebags and was mounted on his horse.

 

“Hurry up,” he shouted, “or we’re all goin’ to jail!”

 

“Don’t you leave me, Bart!” screamed the wounded outlaw.

 

Seconds later, the mounted man joined his friend on the ground when Dick shot him out of the saddle. The remaining outlaws gave up trying to mount and broke for the alleyway between the bank and the clothing store.

 

* * * * *

 

As the gunfire continued, Elizabeth crept down the sidewalk, staying as close to the wall as she could. Her mouth was dry, and she could feel her heart racing, but she forced herself to keep going.

 

Across the street, her father had pulled himself behind some wooden boxes on the sidewalk, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she realized that he must not be hurt too badly.

 

Larsen came up behind her. “What can we do?” he whispered.

 

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I can’t see much from here.”

 

Elizabeth and Larsen reached the telegraph office. Next to it was the clothing store, the only building between them and the alley where the outlaws were hidden.

 

All at once, the four remaining outlaws burst out of the alley and made another try for their horses. A gunshot from behind the water trough cut down one of them, but return fire from the others pinned the rifleman down.

 

“There they go!” Larsen shouted excitedly as he ran out to the edge of the sidewalk, raising his own weapon.

 

“Johnny!” Elizabeth called after him, afraid he was too exposed. “Come back.”

 

Her warning was lost in the roar of his gun. A geyser of dirt erupted behind the running outlaws as his shot missed. Elizabeth hesitated. She’d never been in a gun battle before and was unsure what to do with people running everywhere and blasts of gunfire ringing in her ears.

 

The crash of Larsen’s second shot made her jump, and she blinked in surprise when the hat of one of the outlaws was torn from his head. Startled, the man turned toward Larsen, and an orange flame leaped from the barrel of his gun. Johnny cried out, and Elizabeth gasped as the cowboy stumbled backward and fell into the street.

 

Greg Carver joined the fight, adding to the confusion as he fired at the man who had hit Johnny. Carver’s shot missed, and he succeeded only in revealing his position.

 

The outlaw turned toward him, and one after another, bullets smashed into Greg’s hiding place. The rancher tried to shoot back, but before he could get off another round, a bullet flung the rifle from his grasp.

 

The shock of seeing her father under attack broke through Elizabeth’s hesitation. Without conscious thought, she drew her revolver and shot the outlaw’s gun out of his hand. “You leave my father alone!” she yelled as loud as she could.

 

If she had expected it to end there, she was mistaken. The outlaw turned toward her, a look of rage on his face. “You’re dead, lady!” he yelled angrily, drawing his other gun.

 

Startled at the sudden turn of events, Elizabeth darted into the open doorway behind her just as the outlaw fired. The bullet smashed a hanging lamp near where she’d been standing a split second prior.

 

* * * * *

 

Down the street, Dick took a deep breath as he lay behind the water trough. He had wounded three of the outlaws, but he’d run out of ammunition. When he had tried to get back into the store, a bullet had whizzed by his ear. Glancing carefully around the end of the trough, he saw one of the outlaws shooting at someone up the street.

 

* * * * *

 

Just inside the door of the telegraph office, Elizabeth Carver stood wide-eyed as she realized the man intended to shoot her. She hadn’t expected that. What should I do now?

 

Looking around, she saw that the place was empty; the telegrapher must’ve decided to head out the back door—an idea she found tempting, but she couldn’t just run away and let them kill her father. She forced herself to peek outside. As she did, she saw the outlaw coming toward her, a determined look on his face.

 

No time to do anything but duck. Just in time too, for a second later, a bullet tore a chunk of wood from the doorframe next to her.

 

Retreating deeper into the office, Elizabeth knelt behind the end of the counter, her gun pointed at the doorway. It wasn’t long before she heard the tinkle of spurs, and then the thud of boots, on the wooden sidewalk.

 

“I’m comin’ in there, lady. Get ready to die.”

 

His shadow crossed the opening. Seconds later, the outlaw peered around the doorframe, his gun in front of him as he searched for his target. It was not a very wise thing to do, given her demonstrated shooting skill. A second later, the man quickly jerked back outside, yelping in pain as pieces of his broken gun flew in several directions.

 

“Blast you, woman, I’ve had enough of this foolishness!”

 

“Go away!” she yelled. “Leave me and my father alone!”

 

“Not a chance. I’m gonna kill ya right now!” He charged through the door, a big knife in his hand.

 

She fired a third time, and the outlaw halted, staring in disbelief at his broken knife, the blade shattered two inches from his hand. He was a big man, with long, greasy, black hair that fell around his shoulders. He threw down the remains of the knife as Beth rose from her hiding place, a gun in each hand.

 

“Say, what are you, kid? Some kind of female gunslinger?” Above his mask, his eyes were dark and angry.

 

“As I said, mister, go away and leave me and my father alone.”

 

A sudden gunshot from down the street must’ve reminded him to hurry because he suddenly backed toward the door.

 

“We’ll settle this another time, kid. I’ll be comin’ back, and when I do, I’ll kill you.”

 

* * * * *

 

With no one to oppose them, the remaining two outlaws managed to catch their horses. One man swung up the saddle, while the other ignored the cries of his wounded friends and ran to retrieve the saddlebags containing the bank money.

 

The man Elizabeth had disarmed emerged from the telegraph office and turned toward the alley, just in time to see Joanna Sanborn stick her head out of the clothing store to see what was going on. Foolish though he might be, the outlaw knew a good hostage when he saw one. Yanking Joanna out of the store, he threw his arm around her neck and pulled her against him, dragging her toward the alley.

 

Dick got up, seeing that the outlaws were momentarily distracted. He had to get back to the store to get—

 

“Oh, no, you don’t!” yelled the mounted outlaw, snapping a shot at Dick that almost took his head off.

 

Dick dropped behind the water trough once again. The outlaw had almost bored him. Now what? Maybe he should . . .

 

He glanced up and froze. The outlaw had ridden across the street and now had a clear shot at him.

 

“Say goodbye, cowboy,” the man snarled. “You done stuck your nose in for the last time.”

 

With nowhere to hide, all Dick could do was look down the bore of the gun.

 

* * * * *

 

Alone again in the telegraph office, Elizabeth couldn’t believe her good fortune. She hadn’t expected the outlaw to give up so easily. Moving to the doorway, she peered outside just in time to see a mounted man riding across the street.

 

He raised his gun, and Elizabeth saw Dick behind the water trough—an easy target.

 

Without hesitation, she lifted her gun and fired. The bullet crossed the intervening fifty yards and struck the mounted man in the shoulder. Dropping his gun, he lurched forward and fell into the street.

 

As she stood in the doorway, Elizabeth realized she had just shot someone. She hadn’t wanted to hurt him, but at fifty yards and with his back to her, she’d had no choice if she wanted to help Dick.

 

* * * * *

 

Seeing the outlaw suddenly incapacitated, Dick didn’t stop to wonder how it had happened. He ran into the store, exchanged the empty rifle for another, and rushed back outside after a few seconds. The man who’d been about to shoot him lay in the street. Who had shot him?

 

“Listen, you people!” a voice shouted. Dick turned and saw Joanna standing in the alley between the bank and the clothing store, an arm around her neck.

 

“This woman is our ticket outta here,” the outlaw continued. “Anyone tries to play hero and we’ll kill her.”

 

He waited while his companion scooped up the bank money and led two horses down the alley. Then he followed, dragging his hostage with him.

 

Chapter 6

The Outlaws Escape

 

Dick watched in frustration as the outlaws disappeared around the corner. Then he crossed the street, mindful of the four wounded outlaws and concerned that they might still have some fight left in them.

 

That fear proved groundless; they merely looked up as he approached them, apparently realizing they had gambled and lost. After picking up their weapons, Dick flattened himself against the front of the bank and peered around the corner into the alley. No one was in sight.

 

Movement caught his eye. He turned to see Elizabeth coming up the sidewalk across the alley from him. She shouldn’t be here, he thought. She was liable to get herself shot.

 

“What are you doing, Elizabeth?” he cautioned, waving her away. “Get back before you get hurt.”

 

She glanced into the alley. “All right, Dick,” she flared in indignation. “Next time I’ll just let the man shoot you.”

 

Dick’s mouth dropped in surprise as he noticed for the first time that she had a gun in each hand. “You? You shot him?”

 

“Of course. I couldn’t very well let him kill you, could I?”

 

Footsteps sounded nearby. Ben Heavner and several other armed townspeople arrived, and Dick suddenly remembered the outlaws.

 

“Keep an eye on these men, Ben,” he told the storekeeper. “I’m going to take a look around back.”

 

With a final glance at Beth, Dick moved into the alley, his gun ready. He hadn’t taken but a few steps when he heard horses riding away.

 

* * * * *

 

Elizabeth watched, still fuming at Dick’s attitude. Next time, maybe she should let the outlaw shoot him. It would serve him right.

 

Suddenly remembering her father had been hurt, she turned quickly and hurried up the street. She found him trying to sit up, holding his right arm gingerly in front of him. A dark stain spread across his right pant leg.

 

“Daddy!” she cried as she knelt beside him.

 

He looked up with a grimace. “Hi, honey.”

 

Tears came to her eyes. “I saw you get shot, and I was afraid that, that—”

 

He touched her on the arm. “I’m all right, but it looks like I won’t be doin’ any ridin’ for a spell.”

 

Elizabeth looked up to see Doctor Tom Jacobson kneeling down across from her.

 

“Greg Carver,” he said crossly. “Do you want to bleed to death? Lie back down!”

 

* * * * *

 

When Dick reached the end of the alley, he found Joanna standing alone. She held her hands over her face, sobbing softly. No sign of the outlaws, just the fading sound of hoofbeats. Holstering his gun, he moved to her side.

 

“Are you all right, Miss Joanna?” he asked anxiously. “Did they hurt you?”

 

When she made no reply, he pulled her hands gently from her face. “Are you all right?”

 

Joanna looked up, her face blank—completely void of expression. Her light hair, which had been pulled back earlier, hung in her face. Her pretty blue dress hung loosely from a rip at her left shoulder.

 

“Oh, Dick,” she said through the tears running down her face. “I’m so scared.” She flung her arms around him, her sobs beginning anew.

 

Taken by surprise, Dick could do nothing but put his arms around her, pulling her head into his shoulder.

 

“Just hold me, Dick,” she whispered, pressing herself tightly against him. “Please, just hold me for a while.”

 

“Easy, Miss Joanna,” he replied, stroking her hair as he felt her trembling softness against his chest. “It’s all right. No one’s going to hurt you.”

 

After a minute or so, her arms loosened, and Joanna stepped back, smiling a little through her tears.

 

“I’m sorry, Dick. I . . . I was so scared.” She pulled a dainty handkerchief from her skirt pocket and wiped her tears. “I thought for sure that man was going to kill me. Just holding you made me feel so safe.”

 

A bit embarrassed, Dick hoped no one had seen their embrace. “Uh, well, I’m just glad you’re all right.”

 

She dabbed at her eyes again. “Well, I guess I better get back to the store.”

 

Dick slipped his arm around her shoulders and led her up the alley. “I think you should just take the rest of the day off, Joanna. Tomorrow is another day.”

 

* * * * *

 

As it became clear that the battle had ended, townspeople began to emerge from their hiding places, and soon the street was filled with folks helping those who had been hurt. Neil Jennings, the assistant bank manager, and Johnny Larsen were the most seriously injured. Sheriff Dancy had been hit in the shoulder. Greg Carver had been hit in the right thigh and had some metal splinters in his hand from his broken rifle. The four wounded outlaws were expected to recover and would be kept under guard until they could be transported. All in all, Doc would have a busy day.

 

After watching the men carry her father away, Elizabeth had nothing to do for the moment and collapsed, exhausted, into the nearest chair. She leaned forward, buried her face in her hands, and took a deep breath.

 

I can’t believe it. One moment, I’m waiting with Johnny at the lumber mill, and now I’ve shot two people. What’s happening to me? I never wanted to hurt anyone, but now . . .

 

Hearing footsteps nearby, she glanced up. It was Hannah Carlston, whose husband ran the feed store.

 

“Elizabeth Carver,” she declared with a highly indignant look on her face. “Who do you think you are, some kind of gunman? It’s disgraceful, that’s what it is. Your mama would be so ashamed of you for carrying on like this.”

 

Elizabeth had heard this kind of lecture for years and had grown mighty tired of it. She drew a deep breath. “Are you finished?”

 

Carlston apparently failed to notice the hard look on the girl’s face and continued right where she’d left off. “Finished? No, I’m not finished. You should be acting like a lady, not some dusty cowboy. Furthermore, I think your father—”

 

“Stop!”

 

Elizabeth rose to her feet, sick of the woman’s constant complaints. She took a step toward Carlston and something in Elizabeth’s expression caused the older woman to take a step back.

 

“Now wait just a minute,” she stammered. “Don’t you dare . . .”

 

“Mrs. Carlston,” Elizabeth declared in a quiet but firm voice. “I’ve heard enough. A little while ago, I saved my father’s life. Dick Thorne’s too. If it hadn’t been for me, it’s likely they’d both be dead. I’m sorry if that offends you. Good day.”

 

She turned on her heel and started to walk away then paused and glanced back over her shoulder. “One more thing. From now on, I’m going to do what I think is right. Please keep your opinions to yourself and leave me alone.”

 

“Well, I never . . . ,” Carlston sputtered.

 

Elizabeth headed back to the sawmill, but she had only taken a few steps when she noticed several women across the street looking at her. She ignored them and kept walking but encountered an older man and his wife as they left the lawyer’s office. They looked her up and down and frowned as they passed.

 

What’s going on?

 

She looked back over her shoulder only to see them still watching. The woman was murmuring to her husband.

 

What are they looking at?

 

She glanced down and discovered she’d forgotten to take off her guns. She’d carried them so often in her practice sessions she’d grown used to the extra weight.

 

Well, now I’ve gone and done it. My secret’s not a secret anymore. Hannah’s a busybody, and in thirty minutes the whole town will hear about it. Shucks, I’ll probably even read about it in the paper. Great. Daddy will be so proud of me. I should just pack up and head for home before someone else—

 

Elizabeth closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. I can’t leave. I need to stay here with Daddy and Johnny. Oh, boy, it’s gonna be a long day.

 

She shook off her frustration with a sigh and kept walking. A moment later, she reached the lumber mill and gave her horse a pat on the neck. “Hi, Calico, how about we get you guys a drink of water?”

 

She led the animals to the water trough, and while they drank, she put her guns back in her saddlebags. Too little, too late, but at least they won’t have anything else to harp about.

 

Afterward, she asked the lumber mill owner to keep an eye on the wagon, telling him she’d be back later to pick it up. Then, she led the horses to the livery stable to have them fed and stabled.

* * * * *

 

Barbara Hardell ran the boarding house in town and when Elizabeth learned the wounded folks were being taken there she headed that way and helped Doc for a while.

 

After an hour or so, he dismissed her with thanks and she headed outside to take a break. The boarding house had a nice yard and around the side was a large tree and under it was a picnic table. Elizabeth sat down and opened her saddlebags. Her guns needed cleaning after her last practice session, and it had been only coincidence that she’d had them at all that morning.

 

Coincidence? The thought brought another sigh. Sure, I helped Daddy and Dick, but now the whole town knows, and I’ll never hear the end of it.

  

Elizabeth’s guns were .32 caliber revolvers made by Smith and Wesson. Pulling out one of them, she unloaded it and took it apart. She had just inserted the brush into the barrel when she remembered the outlaw’s gun pointing at her.

  

If I hadn’t moved, he might have killed me.

 

Her hand started trembling, a little at first, but then stronger.

 

What’s the matter with me?

 

Elizabeth tried to swallow, but it went down the wrong way, choking her. She felt a brief moment of panic as she fought for her breath. Then her airway cleared, and she slumped against the table, her body shaking. Dropping her head down on her arms, she closed her eyes, her mind whirling.

 

His eyes were dark. Dark and angry.

 

“We’ll settle this another time, kid,” he’d said.

Suppose he does come back? He said he would kill me. When? Maybe he’ll show up tomorrow or some night next week or the week after that. He could hide in the dark most anywhere and it would be easy enough to bushwhack me anytime he wishes. Yeah, and if I don’t have my guns with me, I’ll be an even easier target. And if I do carry them, Hannah and the others . . . I don’t know what to do.

Author's note:

What you've read is a preview version of Gunfighter's Legacy Volume 1, The Hard Road. The complete novel is about 320 pages and it now is available online as follows:

                 Paperback and Kindle versions

                             Paperback and Nook versions

Ebook versions are also available on Google Play and at the iTunes store.

 

There are also three other books in the series and you can read a preview of each one here on this site.

Short Stories:  1  2  3

Entire site (c) 2019

Privacy Policy - Click here