Carrie is horrified when outlaws attack the stage coach carrying her and her father west, killing the driver, the shotgun guard, and her father. Left alone in the desert with night coming on, her future seems bleak until a stranger reluctantly comes to her rescue.
Bohannon is a gambler, a wanderer, and a half-breed wanted by the law in South Dakota for killing a white man. He has no interest in taking Carrie to Willow Tree Springs to claim the ranch her father bought, sight unseen. But he can't bring himself to leave her behind.
The trail to Willow Tree Springs is fraught with danger, but as time passes, Carrie's fear and mistrust of the man who saved her prove unfounded. By the time they reach their destination, she's fallen in love with Bohannon, and he with her. Together, they begin working on the badly-rundown ranch, restoring the house, rebuilding the barn, planning for the future.
But their future suddenly looks grim when Bohannon is arrested and taken back to South Dakota to stand trial for murder. Against his wishes, she follows him, fearing that a guilty verdict will end her hopes for a life with the man she loves.
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. Still, it paid to be careful.
"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.
Grogan shook his head vigorously. "N...no."
With a nod, Bohannon eased his gun back into the holster. Rising, he collected his winnings and shoved the coins and 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.
Carrie Lynn 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. Leaving him lying out here in the middle of the desert to be preyed upon by scavengers was unthinkable. She fought the urge to scream her anger and frustration when she broke yet another fingernail. If only she had a shovel. A spade. A sharp rock. Anything.
After an hour, she had barely scratched the surface of the hard-packed earth.
Rocking back on her heels, Carrie 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.
Carrie 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. Why hadn't she thought of it sooner? Scrambling to her feet, she ran toward the back of the Concord. Her suitcase lay on the ground, along with her father's. What hadn't been stolen had been trampled into the dirt 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 slowly 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, Carrie pressed a hand over her mouth to stifle the cry of terror that trembled 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 all 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 big black 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 from the saddle boot, Bohannon climbed inside the Concord. He placed the Winchester on the floor 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 constant 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 bench in the middle, he leaned back, one hand pressed to his side. The Concord had sitting room for nine people, although the third seat was a hard bench in the middle with no back support. Leather curtains covered the windows. They did little to keep out the dust that was churned up by the coach, but they would help to 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?"
"It looks like someone already did that."
"Yeah." Grunting, he struggled to sit up, one hand pressed against the wound, 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 into 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. "It 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."
"Did they hurt you?"
Bohannon frowned. They hadn't killed her or taken her with them. That was downright peculiar.
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. He figured the outlaws had made the same mistake, figured she was no threat, and not worth a bullet.
Carrie felt her cheeks grow warm under his narrow-eyed 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 pants and a shirt would be more practical than dresses and petticoats, considering where they were headed.
She backed away when the man, Bohannon, struggled to his feet.
Carrie 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. Hurts like hell but 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 fatal mistake, Carrie lowered it to her side as he climbed into the coach. Now what? She decided 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. But even that seemed foolish. She couldn't stay awake night and day indefinitely.
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 trusting him wouldn't prove to be 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 of the coach, he stretched his arms out to the side. The girl was asleep, her head resting against the side of the coach. Reaching across the middle seat, he plucked his Colt from where it rested between the girl's hip and the side of the Concord and slid it into his holster. He could easily have taken the gun last night while she slept, but he'd let her keep it, figuring she would 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 had 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 right now, it was a woman, especially one as young and vulnerable as this one.
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 five bodies lying out there in the dirt were getting riper all the time. Comanche stood hipshot in the early morning sunlight.
Jaw clenched against the ache in his side, Bohannon picked up his rifle and 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. Loading the dead inside the coach before he left was the best he could do. Eventually, the stage company would send someone out to look for the missing Concord and either plant the bodies in the desert or haul them to the nearest undertaker.
He stood there for several minutes, enjoying the quiet of the day as the sun rose higher. Plucking his canteen from the saddle horn, he uncorked it and took a swallow. He needed to find water, and soon. He took one more swallow, then corked the canteen and draped it over the saddle horn. With some reluctance, he lifted his shirt and examined the makeshift bandage wrapped around his middle. It was wet with blood. As long as the wound didn't fester, he'd be fine, he thought, 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 had described being a passenger as cruel and unusual punishment. Bohannon agreed with the latter.
Enough stalling. Tucking in his shirttail, he took several deep breaths. It was time to move on.
There was just one thing stopping him, and she was still asleep inside the Concord.