When a stranger rides onto the ranch looking for work, Kathleen Taggart has to agree with her father – he looks like trouble. Still, there is something about the man that intrigues her even as her father warns her to stay away from him.
Zane Two Shadows is a drifter, a bounty hunter, and a half-breed wanted for murder. He's not looking for anything more than a chance to earn a few dollars before he moves on.
In spite of her father's certainty that the stranger is trouble, Zane is just the kind of man Tobias Taggart is looking for – a man who's handy with a gun and not afraid to use it.
Circumstances and fate throw Kathleen and Zane together, proving that her father was right – Zane was definitely trouble. But not the kind her father warned her about.
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 for years 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 twelve years ago.
Zane Two Shadows smiled faintly. He had killed other men since that night but none had given him the same sense of satisfaction as firing six .44 slugs into his father.
He had met a priest once who had 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 would 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 spend an hour or two with one of the whores at Sally's Saloon.
Cross Creek had once been little more than a wide spot in the road. If it hadn't been for the three large ranches in the area, it would have died out long ago. The place had grown some through the years.
Zane tended to head in this direction whenever he felt the need for a taste of civilization.
Sally's Saloon was the largest of the three that lined the dusty street. Sandwiched between the saloons were a combination barbershop and bathhouse, the Cross Creek Bank, a hotel with a small restaurant, and a smithy run by a big bear of a man named Karl Powers, who'd been acting as the sheriff since the last one up and quit six months ago and no one else wanted the job.
As he rode down the dusty 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, not counting cowboys and ranch hands, was less than a hundred people. To his knowledge, none of them had ever needed any legal advice.
Zane perused the second sign. Grant'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. The doctor's office resided in a single-story house at the end of the block, identified by a small hand-lettered sign that read Doctor Joseph Fontaine, M.D.
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 spend an hour or two with Sally's favorite whore, French Lil. The bartender stood nearby, idly polishing a glass, ready to step in if it looked like words were going to turn into action.
Zane took a chair at one of the empty tables. He noted French Lil looked bored by the argument going on. He grinned when she looked around the room, her eyes lighting up when she saw him. Pushing the two men aside, she hurried toward him.
"When did you get in town?" Lil said 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!" the taller of the two men at the bar exclaimed, glaring at Zane. "Get your own whore."
The two men exchanged glances, their former animosity apparently forgotten as they 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 tall 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 tall man and his companion exchanged glances again. The shorter one nodded almost imperceptivity.
The move wasn't lost on Zane.
As the tall man backed up, dragging French Lil with him, the other man reached for his gun.
He never cleared leather.
The tall 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.
Karl Powers 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 acting sheriff asked.
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 sign a statement. You, too, Ed."
"Sure thing, sheriff."
After giving Zane a stern look, Karl Powers took his leave.
Zane strode toward the bar. "Thanks for backing me up, Ed."
"I owed you one," he said, handing him a drink.
"We're square now."
"Are you staying in town long?" Lil asked, coming up beside him.
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 the whiskey 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 that?"
"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 been to seen you 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 tugged on his hand, 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 buckskin horse trotted down the road toward the house. "Stranger coming," she called to her father, who was inside going over the ranch accounts.
Tobias Taggart stepped out onto the porch, his favorite Winchester rifle held loosely 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.
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."
Tobias grunted softly. "Ed a friend of yours?"
The stranger nodded. "He said you were short-handed just now."
"Yeah. Couple of my men got busted up trying to break a loco bronc." 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?"
"Taggart." His gaze darted to the stranger's holster. "What kind of work are you looking for, Mr. Zane?"
"Anything I can get."
"You any good with that hogleg?"
Zane shrugged one shoulder. "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."
"Any idea who's behind it?"
Taggart shook his head. Mark Edling, the owner of the Triple E, is bringing a herd of cattle up from Texas. He's eager to buy my south range, but it's not for sale. Not at any price. But Edling wouldn't bother stealing a few head. I'm looking for someone to keep an eye on things. Someone to side me who's good with a gun and not afraid to use it."
"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.
Her father was right, she thought, as she watched the stranger ride away. He looked like trouble, sure enough. No doubt about it.