Authors: Outlaw Heart
“YOU SAID ALL I HAD TO DO WAS NAME MY PRICE.”
He caught her just above her elbows and stepped forward. His eyes were dark gray and depthless, as turbulent as a summer storm. “Weil it’s time, we settled up, sweetheart, and what I want is you.”
Abby’s mouth went dry. Her breath came fast, then slow, then fast again. Her heart began to pound so hard she was certain he must surely hear it.
“No!” she cried. “I won’t let you do this, Kane. Do you hear? I won’t let you!”
“Sweetheart—” that arrogant smile still hadn’t left his mouth “—you can’t stop me.”
His mouth came down, sealing hers like a hot brand. She tried to bring her hands up but it was no use. His lips plundered the softness of hers, raw and hungry and demanding …
Wyoming Territory, 1878
There wasn’t a man, woman or child west of Deadwood who hadn’t heard of him. Some said he was spawn of the devil. Some predicted that—good or bad—he’d end up a legend. But for those unlucky enough to cross his path, Stringer Sam was more like a nightmare come to life …
His nickname was apt. Stories about his trademark display of deadliness soon spread from barroom to barroom, from parlor to parlor, from cow town to cow town. Little boys listened in terrified awe as their fathers recounted grisly tales of Stringer Sam’s savagery. Women shivered in fear whenever he was mentioned, while little girls hid their faces in their mothers’ skirts.
But it wasn’t Stringer Sam sitting in the Laramie jail that warm May night. Instead it was Rowdy Roy, reported to be one of Stringer Sam’s gang. There were two deputies guarding him, Andy Horner and Nate Gilmore. Andy was a rangy youth of twenty who had decided six months ago to put an end to his cowboy days. To Nate, who was nearly ten years his senior, Andy had a tendency to run off at the mouth. But he could draw and hit a target with a six-shooter faster than a man could spit, and that was why Marshal Dillon MacKenzie had hired him.
“Don’t know why the marshal insisted both of us be here tonight,” grumbled the younger man. He thumped his boot heels against the wide-planked floor, his lips twisting in a grimace as he glanced at their prisoner.
Nate puffed on his cheroot, then blew a lazy ring of smoke into the air. “The territorial marshal should be here tomorrow night at the latest to take him off our hands,” he said with an idle shrug. “Besides, one thing about Dillon. He usually has a good reason for doin’ whatever he does.”
Like Andy, Nate had drifted into town several years ago—and promptly been accused of cattle rustling. Buck Russell, who owned the Triple R ranch just east of Laramie, had been quick to accuse him. It was Dillon who’d rescued him from a vengeful lynch mob and ferreted out the real rustlers, several of Russell’s own men.
Nate had been quick to gather that there was no love lost between Dillon MacKenzie and Buck Russell. He’d later learned that Dillon’s daddy owned the Diamondback ranch, which shared its northern boundary with Russell’s. On that boundary was a section of rich grassland that Russell coveted for himself, and it had provoked many a harsh word between the two men.
No one was more surprised than Nate himself when Dillon offered him the job of deputy marshal. He had reservations about working for the law after what had happened, but Dillon was willing to give him a fair shake and Nate felt obliged to pay him back. Three years later, he was still here in Laramie, but now he had no thoughts of pulling up stakes and moving on. Dillon had become his friend as well as his boss. Rumor had it that the governor was thinking of appointing Dillon county sheriff, and Nate couldn’t have been more pleased.
Andy blew out a gusty sigh and glanced once more at the cell where their lone prisoner sat huddled in a corner of the narrow bunk. Gaunt and thin, with an ugly puckered scar on one cheek, Rowdy Roy Parker stared through the barred window at the inky sky above, as he had throughout the evening. It was odd, Andy thought vaguely. Though he was spike-whiskered and dirty, Rowdy Roy was anything but rowdy, as Andy had expected. Instead the man looked almost … fearful.
Roy had been caught yesterday trying to steal a horse from the livery stable. He’d been quickly recognized as one of the men with Sam when they’d pulled off a bank robbery in Rawlins last month. Incredibly, he had most of the bankroll still with him. Unfortunately, Stringer Sam wasn’t with him. Sam was a crafty one, all right. Sometimes he worked alone; other times he had as many as five or six accomplices.
Andy inclined his head slightly. “Roy there’s as quiet as a stone wall,” he mused thoughtfully. “To tell the truth, I expected a little more trouble from one of Sam’s boys.” His eyes narrowed. “You don’t think he sent the marshal on a wild-goose chase, do you?”
Nate hesitated. He didn’t want to think so. Damn, but he didn’t! Dillon had at first been skeptical of Roy’s claim that he was breaking all ties with Sam and his gang. But when Roy blurted out that he knew the location of Sam’s hideout, everything had changed. Dillon had grilled him for hours, determined to find out if he was telling the truth.
Apparently Dillon was convinced, for he’d ridden out late this afternoon, intent on capturing Sam once and for all.
Nate scraped back the chair and stood up. He pulled off his hat and dropped it on the desktop, running his fingers through his hair. “I don’t think Dillon would have gone after him if he didn’t think Roy was telling the truth,” he said finally.
For the longest time, neither one said anything. An uneasy, ominous silence descended. It was as if an oppressive black cloud had dropped its smothering folds over the jail.
For the first time, Nate wished fervently that Dillon hadn’t gone after Sam. Sam was not a man to be crossed. He was unpredictable. Wily and cagey, as the lawmen scattered across the Territory knew. For Sam, it wasn’t enough just to steal and rob; it wasn’t enough to cold-bloodedly shoot a man dead between the eyes.
But to think of Sam inevitably brought thoughts of death … and dying. Nate was rather grateful when Andy cleared his throat and turned the conversation elsewhere. And so the two men put Stringer Sam out of their minds.
It would prove to be a costly error in judgment … a deadly mistake.
Andy’s eyes lit up like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. “Say, Nate. You seen that new singer at the Silver Spur? Now there’s a lady makes a man hot as a ruttin’ elk.”
Two fervent gazes looked as one toward the open door and down the street. Most of the town’s male population liked nothing more than to bend an elbow at the Silver Spur. A constant hum of raucous talk and laughter reached their ears. Someone pounded out a bouncy, slightly off-key tune on the piano, trilling along with the melody.
A sly grin etched its way along Nate’s mouth. “Done more than seen her,” he offered casually. “And her name’s Tina, kid.”
Andy’s chair thumped to the rutted wooden floor. He gaped in astonishment. “What! Are you telling me that you … that she … that you and her …”
Nate nodded. His self-satisfied smile spoke for itself.
“Why, she told me she never mixed with the clientele!”
Nate just laughed. “That’s ’cause she’s looking for a
,” he drawled. He chuckled when Andy turned red clear to the part in his tousled blond hair.
Andy’s jaw clamped shut. He regarded the older man suspiciously. “Oh, yeah? Well, I think you’re all gurgle and no guts.”
Nate chuckled and arranged his hands over his belt buckle. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Tina’s a mighty juicy little piece. Fact is, she gave me a ride I won’t soon forget.”
Andy nudged his chair closer. This time he was all ears. Unable to resist, Nate went on embellishing the tale.
Outside, the ever-present wind had not yet ceased its restless scouring of the plains, though the hour was past midnight. A half-moon spilled translucent fingers of light down upon the earth, where a chestnut stallion broke free from the waist-high feathery grass along the dirt road. In the gloom, his rider appeared dark and featureless; his build was wiry, lean and tough. The man wore a black broad-brimmed hat, dark clothing and boots … and no spurs.
The man was alone. He passed two other riders on their way out of town, but spoke to neither. He betrayed no hint of stealth whatsoever as he guided his horse toward the small building squatting near the end of the street. Indeed, his was a bold and daring approach …
But that was his way.
When he reached his destination, he slid from his horse. Inside the jail, two male voices joined in laughter.
A shadow spread through the doorway. The man stepped inside.
Nate leaped up in startled surprise, a hand already reaching for his gun.
Andy never made it that far.
There was a deadly staccato of gunfire. Andy’s chair tipped backwards. Nate slumped to the floor.
Inside his cell, Rowdy Roy began to pray for the first time in his miserable life.
The man with the gun blew a wisp of smoke from the barrel, then slipped the weapon back into the holster at his hip. An expression of distaste on his face, he stepped around the pool of blood on the floor. With the toe of his boot, he flipped Nate’s body onto his back, then bent to unfasten the ring of keys at his waist.
Eyes as black as hell slid toward Roy. An instant later, the door of his cell creaked open.
But Roy made no move toward freedom.
The intruder inclined his head. At last he spoke. “Roy, Roy,” he murmured. He shook his head. “Did you really think you could rob me and get away with it?”
Roy fell to his knees. “I was bringing the bankroll back, Sam, I swear. But then my horse went lame and the marshal caught me trying to steal one—”
An odd gleam entered Sam’s eyes. “The marshal,” he repeated. “Where is he anyway? I have to admit, I was hoping that son of a bitch MacKenzie would be here.” His gaze was utterly remorseless as it encompassed the two bodies lying on the floor.
Roy blanched. He could almost feel the tickle of hemp against his neck. “I don’t know,” he hedged. “Though it seems he might have found out where your hideout is … I heard ’em talking, you see …”
Sam had gone very still. “Is that where he is? Gone to the hideout?”
Roy swallowed, unable to tear his eyes from the other man’s face. “I—I don’t know,” he whined.
“The hell you don’t!” Sam’s shout rang from the rafters. “He went after me, didn’t he? MacKenzie went to the hideout. And you told him where it was, didn’t you, you squirmy little worm?”
Roy’s skin was as pasty-looking as flour and water. “I—I had to, I swear. Sam, I had no choice. He—he told me he’d blow my head off if I didn’t—”
Sam ground his teeth in order to keep from snatching his gun from his holster and blowing Roy’s head off himself. Goddammit, he raged inwardly. Even if he’d wanted to leave the Territory, he couldn’t—not yet. He had a fortune cached at the hideout. He couldn’t leave without one last trip there …
Sam’s face was stripped of all expression, but the fires of hell blazed in his eyes. “When did MacKenzie leave?” he demanded.
“I—I don’t know for sure. He just found out this afternoon, Sam, I swear.” Roy was whining like a puppy dog. “I—I heard one of the deputies say his old man’s got a ranch just east of town … the Diamondback or something like that … Could be he’s gone there for the night and intends to head out in the morning …”