IN THE WORKS
Montana Territory, 1874
He'd been on the run all his life. Running from the brutality of the white man who had been his father. Running from the stigma of being called "half-breed." He had run until he got tired of running, tired of backing down, tired of pretending he was less than everyone else because his mother had been a Cheyenne medicine woman.
His mother. She had been the only good thing in his life. Kind, caring. She had loved him more than her own life and died at the hands of his father rather than let the bastard hit him again. In a move that had become habit whenever he thought of her, his hand caressed the butt of the .44 Colt on his hip. The same Colt that had killed his old man.
Zane Two Shadows smiled faintly. He had killed other men since that night but none had given him the same sense of satisfaction as emptying six .44 slugs into his father.
He had met a priest once who told him he was surely bound for hell. Zane had nodded, thinking he'd love to spend eternity tormenting his old man.
Throwing the dregs of his coffee on the fire, he kicked dirt over the ashes, then swung onto the back of his horse. With luck, he'd make it to town before dark. He'd had enough of his own company, enough of sleeping under the stars. It was time to treat himself to a bed, a bath, and a bottle. And maybe one of Sally's whores.
Cross Creek wasn't really big enough to be called a town. It was little more than a wide spot in the road. If it hadn't been for the two large ranches in the area, the town would have died long ago.
Zane tended to head in this direction whenever he felt the need for a taste of civilization.
Sally's Saloon was one of three that lined the dusty street. Sandwiched between the saloons were a combination barbershop and bathhouse, a hotel with a small restaurant, and a smithy run by a big bear of a man who doubled as the sheriff. Since there was no jail, prisoners were lodged in a wooden shed with iron bars on the windows and a sturdy lock on the door.
As he rode down the street, Zane noticed two new, false-fronted buildings, one on each side of the street at the far end of the road.
He snorted softly when he read the sign on the first. J.J. Lee. Attorney at Law. A lawyer. Here, in Cross Creek? Unbelievable. The population of the town, counting ranch hands and the townspeople, was less than a hundred people. To his knowledge, none of them had ever needed a lawyer.
He perused the second sign. Carmichael's General Store. That made a hell of a lot more sense. He was in bad need of a new shirt. And maybe a pair of socks.
He drew rein in front of Sally's. Dismounting, he tethered his mare to the hitch rail, settled his Colt on his hip, and strode into the saloon. He paused inside the door a moment, letting his eyes adjust to the dim light. The place hadn't changed since he'd been there six months ago – the same long bar stood opposite the batwing doors. The same faded painting of a voluptuous nude hung on the wall behind the bar. Sawdust on the floor. Round tables scattered at intervals. Three men sat at one, engaged in a desultory game of poker. Two men stood hipshot at the bar, arguing over who was going to buy Sally's favorite whore, French Lil, her next drink. The bartender stood nearby, ready to interfere if it looked like words were going to turn into bullets.
Zane took a chair at one of the empty tables.
Looking bored, Lil glanced around the room. Her eyes lit up when she saw Zane. Pushing the two men aside, she hurried toward him.
"When did you get in town?" she cried as she plopped down on his lap. "I'm so glad to see you!" She was a pretty thing, with a mass of curly hair that was too red to be natural, and flashing brown eyes.
"Here now!" one of the men at the bar exclaimed, glaring at Zane. "Get your own whore."
The two men exchanged glances, then strode stiff-legged toward him, eyes narrowed.
"Better move out of the way," Zane advised Lil. "They look angry."
"Damn right, we're angry!" The first man grabbed Lil by the arm and pulled her off Zane's lap. "She's ours."
"Let her go," Zane said, his voice deceptively mild.
"And if I don't?"
Zane unfolded from his chair in a single, fluid movement.
The two men exchanged glances again. The second one nodded almost imperceptively.
It wasn't lost on Zane.
As the first man backed up, dragging Lil with him, the second man reached for his gun.
He never cleared the leather.
The first man's eyes grew wide as his friend sprawled face down in the sawdust. Releasing Lil as if her skin had suddenly scorched his hand, he backed away, then darted out the side door.
"Is he dead?" Lil asked.
Zane nodded. "Get me a drink, will ya?"
Looking a little pale, she hurried toward the bar.
Zane holstered his Colt, then turned toward the door as it swung open.
The Sheriff stood there, rifle in hand. He took in the scene in a single glance. "You kill him, Zane?"
"He didn't give me much choice."
"Did you see what happened, Ed?"
The bartender nodded. "It was self-defense, just like he said."
"I'll send Henry to pick up the body. Zane, I'll need you to come down and sign a
statement. You, too, Ed."
"Sure thing, sheriff."
After giving Zane a stern look, the lawman took his leave.
Zane strode toward the bar. "Thanks for backing me up, Ed."
"I owed you one."
"We're square now."
Lil handed him his drink. "Are you staying in town long?"
Zane shrugged. "I haven't decided."
She leaned against him, her thigh brushing his. "I wish you would."
"Either one of the ranches hiring?" He didn't care much for herding cattle, but he was damn near broke.
"The T Bar K is looking for a few men," Ed replied. "They're short-handed right now. Two of their cowboys got busted up pretty bad a week or so again. They ain't fit to ride."
Zane downed his drink in a single swallow. "Thanks. I'll look into it."
"I hear there's been some Indian trouble west of here," Ed remarked. "You hear anything about it?"
"The tribes are angry about the settlers encroaching on their land, putting up fences. Bound to be a fight sooner or later."
The bartender nodded. "You seen your people lately?"
Ed nodded again. Bringing up Zane's ties to the Cheyenne was a touchy subject. Some of the folks in town didn't take kindly to half-breeds.
Lil locked her arm with his, a question in her eyes
Grinning, he followed her up the stairs.
Kathleen Taggart sat in the wooden rocker on the front porch, shelling peas. She looked up at the sound of hoofbeats, frowned as an unfamiliar rider mounted on a big blood-bay horse trotted down the road toward the house. "Stranger coming," she called to her father, who was inside going over the ranch accounts.
Lyle Taggart stepped out onto the porch, his favorite Winchester rifle at his side. "That hombre looks like trouble."
Kathleen nodded. He surely did. As he drew closer, she was sure of it. He rode easy in the saddle, yet there was an air of tension about him, as if he never truly relaxed. His holster looked well-worn, as did his boots. His hair – glossy black and straight as a string – fell past his shoulders. His eyes were dark gray and wary beneath of brim of a dusty black hat.
He reined his horse to a halt in front of the porch stairs.
Lyle Taggart took a step forward. "Can I help you?"
"I heard you might be hirin'."
"Yeah? Who told you that?"
"The bartender at Sally's."
Lyle grunted softly. "Ed a friend of yours?"
The stranger nodded.
Taggart's eyes narrowed. "You've got some Injun blood in you, or I miss my guess."
A muscle twitched in the stranger's jaw. "You got a problem with that?"
"That depends on you," Taggart said. "You got a name?"
"Zane. And you'd be?"
"Lyle Taggart." His gaze darted to his holster and back. "What kind of work are you looking for, Mr. Zane?"
"Anything I can get."
"You any good with that hogleg?"
"I generally hit what I aim at."
"All right. I'm a little shorthanded right now, but I don't need another cowhand. What I need is a man to keep an eye on the place. We've had a couple of steers rustled in the last few weeks. Two days ago, a couple of my men were attacked while riding fence."
"Any idea who's behind it?"
"Likely the Triple E. The owner, Mark Edling, is bringing more cattle up from Texas. He's eager to buy my south range, but it's not for sale. Not at any price. I need someone to side me who's good with a gun and not afraid to use it, if necessary."
"All right, you're hired. Pays twenty-five a month and found. You can bed down in the bunkhouse. This here's my daughter, Kathleen. She's off-limits."
Zane grinned wryly. "Right." With a nod in the girl's direction, he reined his horse around and headed for the bunkhouse.
Kathleen watched him ride away. Trouble, she thought again. No doubt about it.