Bohannon leaned back in his chair. Swirling the rye 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, the soft slap of the cards being dealt at a nearby table, the scrape of boot heels on the raw plank floor.
He recognized most of the men and women in the place, which made him think he had 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 threw 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 another 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…” Grogan shut his mouth abruptly when he found himself staring into the yawning maw of Bohannon’s Colt .44. But the gun wasn’t half as frightening as the expression glittering in the black eyes of the man holding it.
“What did you call me?” Bohannon asked, his voice deceptively mild.
Grogan swallowed hard. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
Grogan shook his head. “I swear!” Cold sweat beaded 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?” Bohannon’s voice was deadly quiet, yet it carried to the far corners of the room.
With a nod, Bohannon eased his gun back into the holster. Rising, he collected his winnings and shoved the greenbacks into the pocket of his trousers.
Still watching Grogan, he turned his cards over, one by one. Four queens and the three of spades.
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 face down on the floor, blood pooling beneath him.
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 middle of the desert to be preyed upon by scavengers. She just couldn’t. She fought the urge to scream her frustration when she broke another fingernail. If only she had a shovel. A spade. Anything.
After an hour, she had barely scratched the surface of the hard-packed earth.
Rocking back on her heels, 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 slowly 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 trousers, she took a deep breath and dried her eyes. It was full dark now. The distant howl of a coyote sent a shiver down her spine. Staring into the gathering gloom, she wished she had the wherewithal to start a fire to turn away the darkness and scare away the predators.
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.
Norah 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. Scrambling to her feet, she ran toward the back of the Concord. Her suitcase lay on the ground, along with her father’s, the contents of their luggage scattered by the outlaws.
After climbing into the boot, she closed it behind her, her heart pounding as the muffled sound of hoof beats grew closer. Closer.
Oh, Lord, had one of the men who held up the stagecoach returned? Had they changed their mind about leaving her out here to die and sent someone back to kill the only remaining witness? They had left her out here to watch her father bleed to death. Wasn’t that enough?
The hoof beats grew louder, closer, then came to a halt near the front of the stagecoach. Eyes squeezed shut, Norah pressed a hand over her mouth to stifle the cry of terror that rose in her throat.
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 make it out clearly in the faint light, but he had no trouble discerning that the horses were gone. Nor did he have any trouble seeing the five men sprawled on the ground. He knew at a glance that they were dead.
A quick look at the surrounding countryside assured him that whoever had held up the stage and stolen the horses was long gone.
Teeth clenched against the pain in his side, he lifted his leg over the saddle horn and slid to the ground. Spending what was left of the night in the shelter of the coach was a lot more appealing than sleeping out in the open.
Bohannon spared hardly a glance for the bodies as he loosened the cinch on his saddle. Ordinarily, he would have removed the saddle, but he was already a man with a price on his head. He couldn’t take a chance on being arrested. If any of Grogan’s friends decided to come looking for revenge, he wanted to be ready to light out in a hurry.
“Sorry, old son,” Bohannon murmured as he replaced the bridle with a halter, and tethered the stallion to one of the 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 had filled his canteen with whiskey instead of water. Whiskey to ease the throbbing in his side and turn away the cold.
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 up by the coach, but they’d help 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, the inept horse thief on top.
Pain exploded through Bohannon 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 revolver. “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, Mr. Bohannon?”
“Just Bohannon. Little disagreement over a poker game. I won.”
“Really?” She glanced at his blood-stained shirt. “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?”
“Five men held up the stage. Three of them got away. The shotgun guard killed two of the bandits before they killed him and the driver.” 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 than dresses and petticoats, considering where they were headed.
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.”
He lifted a skeptical brow.
“My father taught me, not that it’s any of your business.”
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I need some sleep.”
“I think you need a doctor.”
He shrugged. “The slug just grazed my side. Didn’t hit anything vital. 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 until morning.
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.