Bohannon leaned back in his chair. Swirling the whiskey in his glass, he glanced around the saloon. Thick gray smoke hovered near the ceiling. The whirr of the roulette wheel mingled with the clink of glassware and the scrape of boot heels on the wooden floor.
He recognized most of the men in the place, which made him think he’d stayed in town too long. It was time to move on, before someone recognized him. Not that it was likely in a backwater town like this.
“Hey, Bohannon, you in?”
“Hold your horses, McLoskey.” Bohannon checked his cards, then tossed a double eagle into the pot.
McLoskey laid his cards on the table, face down. “Too rich for my blood.”
“Mine, too.” Scowling, Ian Cole tossed in his hand.
Leaning back in his chair, Bohannon stared at the man across the table. “That just leaves you and me.” Jeb Grogan had a quick temper and was possibly the worst poker player Bohannon had ever met. “So, what are you gonna do? Fish, or cut bait?”
Grogan’s eyes narrowed. “I think you’re bluffin’.”
Bohannon shrugged. “Cost you twenty bucks to find out.”
With a shake of his head, Grogan folded.
Bohannon was raking in the pot when Grogan’s hand closed over his. “I wanna see your cards.”
“Go to hell.”
“I knew it! You dirty half-breed! I…” He shut his mouth abruptly, the money on the table forgotten when he found himself staring into the yawning maw of a .44 Colt. But the gun wasn’t half as frightening as the expression glittering in the black eyes staring back at him.
“What did you call me?”
Grogan swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
Grogan shook his head. “I swear!” Cold sweat beaded on his brow and trickled down the sides of his face.
An air of taut anticipation hung over the saloon as customers waited to see if Bohannon would pull the trigger.
“You still wanna see my cards?” His voice was deadly quiet, yet it carried to the far corner of the room.
With a nod, Bohannon eased his gun back into the holster. Rising, he collected his winnings and shoved them into the pocket of his trousers.
Still watching Grogan, he turned his cards over, one by one. Four kings and a deuce.
His gaze swept the saloon. No one moved as he settled his hat on his head and strode toward the door.
A sudden gasp from his right was his only warning. Dropping into a crouch, Bohannon spun around, drawing his Colt as he did so.
The two gunshots came so close together, they sounded like one long rolling report.
When the smoke cleared, Grogan lay sprawled on the floor, blood leaking from a nasty hole in his chest.
Just as he’d thought, Bohannon mused as he backed out of the saloon, one hand pressed against the bloody bullet wound in his side.
He had stayed in town a mite too long.
Norah Coulter stared up at the night sky and tried not to cry, but it was no use. Tears burned her eyes and clogged her throat as she endeavored to dig a grave for her father in the hard-packed earth with nothing but her own two hands. She had to bury him. She couldn’t leave him lying out here, in the open. She just couldn’t. She fought the urge to cry as she broke another fingernail. If only she had a shovel. A spade. Anything.
After an hour, she sat back, defeated.
She tried to tamp down the panic that engulfed her, the growing sense of hopelessness. And fear. Fear that she would die out in this forsaken land. There would be no one to bury her, either. She imagined dying of thirst, her body bloated and left to rot in the sun, prey to wolves and coyotes. The morbid thought filled her with revulsion.
Pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of her pants, she dried her eyes. It was full dark now. The howl of a coyote sent a shiver down her spine. She stared into the gathering gloom, wishing she had the wherewithal to start a fire to turn away the darkness.
She glanced over her shoulder, fear spiking through her when she saw a dark shape moving toward her. It was too big for a coyote. Or a wolf.
She scrambled backward, her gaze darting left and right as she sought for a place to hide, but there was nowhere to run, nothing to use for cover, only miles of flat, arid desert.
The coach. It was her only hope. On her hands and knees, she scooted toward it, then pulled herself up into the boot and closed it behind her, her heart pounding as the muffled sound of hoof beats grew closer and with it the realization that someone was coming.
Was it one of the men who had killed the driver and the shotgun guard, stolen her father’s gold watch and map, taken the horses, and left her there, in the middle of nowhere, to watch him bleed to death?
She pressed a hand over her mouth to stifle the cry of terror that rose in her throat as the hoof beats grew louder, closer, and came to a halt near the front of the stagecoach.
Bohannon straightened in the saddle, the pain in his side momentarily forgotten when he saw the Concord silhouetted in the moonlight. It was difficult to see clearly in the faint light of the moon, but he could see that the horses were gone. Nor did he have any trouble seeing the three bodies sprawled alongside the coach.
He studied the surrounding countryside; whoever had killed the men and stolen the horses were long gone.
Teeth clenched against the pain, he lifted his leg over the horn and slid to the ground. Spending what was left of the night in the shelter of the coach seemed a lot more comfortable than sleeping out in the open.
He spared hardly a glance for the bodies as he loosened the cinch on his saddle.
“Sorry, old son,” he murmured as he replaced the bridle with a halter, and tethered the stallion to one of Concord’s wheels. “No oats tonight.”
The stallion whickered softly, then lowered his head to crop on a patch of dry brush.
After removing his rifle and canteen from the saddle, Bohannon climbed inside the Concord. He placed the rifle within easy reach, then carefully lowered himself onto the rear seat. A few sips of water eased his thirst, but he couldn’t help wishing he’d filled his canteen with whiskey instead of water.
Pulling his hat low, he closed his eyes. He needed a hot meal and a good night’s sleep. Not that he was likely to get much rest. The leather pads that covered the seats on the Concord were almost harder than the wood beneath.
Propping his feet on the opposite seat, he leaned back, one hand pressed to his side. The Concord had three seats, each capable of holding three people, although the middle seat was only a bench with no back support. Leather curtains covered the windows. They did little to keep out the dust churned by the coach, but they’d turn away the chill of the night. And for now, that was enough.
He was teetering on the edge of sleep when his horse whinnied.
Suddenly wide awake, Bohannon drew his Colt and peered out the window, cursed when he saw someone trying to mount the stallion.
Opening the door of the coach, Bohannon padded up behind the would-be horse thief and tickled his spine with the barrel of the Colt.
The thief let out a high-pitched shriek, lost his footing in the stirrup, and fell backward, crashing into Bohannon. They hit the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, with the thief on top.
Pain exploded through him when a pointy elbow slammed into his injured side. He had only moments to realize the thief was a woman before he passed out.
When he came to, he was staring into the business end of his own Colt. “You gonna shoot me?”
“Looks like someone already did that.”
“Yeah.” Grunting, he struggled to sit up, one hand pressed against his side, which was bleeding again. “I thought you’d be gone by now.”
“I would be,” she said irritably, “but that blasted horse of yours wouldn’t go.”
Bohannon grinned. “Yeah, Comanche’s real particular about who climbs in the saddle.”
“Who are you?”
“Name’s Bohannon. Who might you be?”
“What happened to you?”
“Little disagreement over a poker game. I won.”
“Really?” She glanced at the blood leaking through his fingers. “Doesn’t look like it.”
“The other guy’s dead.”
“Oh.” She nibbled on her lower lip, her expression thoughtful.
“What are you doing out here alone?”
“Four men held up the stage. They killed the driver and the guard.” Her voice broke. “And my father.”
His gaze moved over her. Cleaned up, he supposed she might not be bad looking. At the moment, decked out in whipcord britches, a chambray shirt and a jacket, none of which fit her properly, with her hair pulled back in a tail, she looked like the young boy he had mistaken her for.
Norah felt her cheeks grow warm under his scrutiny. She could only imagine how she looked, her face smudged with dirt and tears. Not to mention her outfit. She had never worn men’s clothing before, but her father had thought it would be more practical, considering where they were going, than dresses and petticoats.
She backed away when the man, Bohannon, struggled to his feet.
Norah stared at him askance when he held out his hand, then shook her head when she realized what he wanted.
“Do you know how to use that hogleg?” he asked, amusement evident in his voice.
“As a matter of fact, I do. My father taught me.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I need some sleep.”
“I think you need a doctor.”
He shrugged. “The slug went on through. Didn’t hit anything on the way. I’m gonna stretch out in the coach and get some shut eye.” Wincing, he picked up his hat, then removed the blanket tied behind his saddle and dropped it at her feet. “You do whatever you have to do.”
The gun was growing heavy. Hoping she wasn’t making a mistake, Norah lowered it to her side as he climbed into the coach. Now what? There were really only two choices – either trust him and get some rest, or try to stay awake and keep an eye on him.
The need for sleep won.
When she climbed into the coach, he was sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him, his arms folded over his chest, his hat pulled low.
Taking a place on the opposite seat, she tucked the Colt between her thigh and the side of the coach, spread the blanket over her as best she could, and closed her eyes, praying that she wasn’t making a deadly mistake.
Bohannon woke with a groan. His back and shoulders ached. His side ached. His mouth tasted like the inside of a spittoon.
Lowering his feet to the floor, he stretched his arms to the side, then reached across the bench seat and plucked his Colt from where it rested between the girl’s hip and the coach and slid it into his holster. He could have taken the gun earlier, but he’d let her keep it, figuring she’d feel safer with it beside her if she woke during the night.
The girl didn’t stir. In the light of day, he could see that she was a lot prettier than he’d first thought. Her skin was smooth and clear, her mouth lush and pink, her brows delicately arched. A lock of dark red hair fell over one shoulder. He spent a moment wondering what lay beneath her baggy clothes, then cursed his wayward thoughts. If there was one thing he didn’t need in his life, it was a woman, especially one as young and vulnerable as this one. Norah.
Dragging a hand across his jaw, Bohannon drew back the curtain that covered the window and glanced outside. The incessant buzzing of flies was a grim reminder that the three bodies lying out there in the dirt were getting riper all the time. Comanche stood hipshot in the early morning sunlight.
Collecting his rifle and canteen, Bohannon exited the coach. Scavengers had been at the bodies during the night. Not a pretty sight. Certainly not fit for a young woman’s eyes but there was nothing he could do about it. He’d pile them in the coach before he left. Hopefully, the stage company would send someone out to look for the missing Concord and either plant the bodies or haul them to the nearest undertaker.
After sliding the Winchester into the boot, he uncorked the canteen and took a swallow. He’d need to find water soon. He hooked the canteen over the saddlehorn, then lifted his shirt and examined the wound in his side. It wasn’t bad. As long as it didn’t fester, he’d be fine, but, damn, it hurt like hell.
Bohannon glanced toward the Concord. The red paint and garish yellow wheels were easy to see through the bracken, making bright splashes of color against the desert floor. Mark Twain had called the coach a cradle on wheels. Others described being a passenger as cruel and unusual punishment. Bohannon agreed with the latter.
Enough stalling. Dropping his shirttail back in place, he took several deep breaths. It was time to move on.
There was just one thing stopping him, and she was asleep inside the Concord.