Authors: Beth Williamson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
Plum Creek, Colorado, May 1872
hey were getting ready to hang a man. The whispers flittered through the saloon, the general store, the barber, the blacksmith, and finally to the bank.
Madeline Brewster heard snatches of conversation here and there. She usually tried to ignore the gossips. After all, most of the time, they were gossiping about her. But today was different. This time she heard “horse thief” and “hanging,” and her interest was piqued.
There was nothing Madeline hated more than a hanging.
“Mr. Cleeson, come here, please,” she called to the nearest teller.
He looked up in surprise and then shuffled over to her office door. His thinning blond hair and watery blue eyes darted around the room, yet he never looked directly at her. He was dressed in his usual white shirt, bow tie, and black trousers. His scruffy black shoes hadn't been changed since the day she'd hired him two years ago.
“Yes, Miss Brewster?”
“What is all this about a hanging?”
She could almost see him rubbing his hands together with glee to impart the juicy gossip to her.
“Well, I heard that the sheriff caught this Irishman red-handed with Old Clem's horse. They knew it was his 'cause of the blaze on his nose. Judge Martin ordered the hanging.”
Madeline tapped her fingers on the large oak desk. “I see. And when is this event taking place?”
“Any minute now, Miss Brewster. I expect they're just looking for a sturdy rope.”
“And the Irishman? Does anyone know him?”
Mr. Cleeson shook his head. “Came into town a few weeks ago. Was working out at the Double R as a wrangler.”
So, a drifter and apparently a horse thief.
“And his age?”
Mr. Cleeson just looked at her with a blank stare.
“How old is he?”
“Oh, about thirty or so, I guess.”
He sounded perfect. Now all she had to do was get to the old maple at the edge of town before they hung him. Madeline snatched up her reticule and stood, startling Mr. Cleeson.
“I'm leaving early today. I will be back for my usual afternoon hours tomorrow. Be sure to follow proper procedures all around.”
Mr. Cleeson nodded and scurried back to his chair. He was apparently eager to impart the questioning to his coworkers, because as soon as he sat down, he leaned over to Mr. Bryson and started whispering madly.
Madeline pinned on her hat, tugged on her gloves, and swept out of the bank with her head high and her heart pounding. She was about to go meet the man who might change her life. She walked down the wood-planked boardwalk purposefully. Most people nodded a greeting to her, but no one spoke. They rarely did.
Her heeled boots clacked along without slowing. Even so, the walk to the edge of town took more than ten minutes. By the time she got to the tree, a group of twenty men had gathered. In the midst of them, perched upon an old draught horse, was the biggest, filthiest man she had ever seen.
He looked to have black hair, although the dirt and twigs caking it made it hard to tell for certain. His clothing was matted and wrinkled. There was no way to tell what color it had been originally. His legs hung down past the horse's belly. Everything about him was big, from his hands to his feet and everything in between.
Apparently the incompetent sheriff and the drunken judge had put the man on a horse too small to hang him.
Wrapped around his neck was a thick noose of the sturdiest hemp. He had at least a week's worth of whiskers on his face. His bright eyes glanced through the crowd, searching. When they landed on her, the only woman present, he cocked his head to the side and lazily ran his gaze up and down her.
A flush stole over her cheeks at the perusal. Never,
had any man ever looked at her as a woman. And what does she do when one does? Blush like a schoolgirl!
Madeline had been right to come. With a long bath, a razor, and several bars of soap, he would be perfect.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” she said.
A hush fell over the crowd as the entire group, which had been pointedly ignoring her, turned to look at her. The Irishman's eyebrows rose in surprise.
“I would like to know what the charges are against this man.”
Judge Earl Martin walked over to her with his silly bowler hat perched atop his shining head. His suspenders looked to be holding up nothing but the thumbs he'd hooked in them, as his pants were tight against his round belly. He stopped three feet awayâhis usual habit because she was at least six inches taller than he. He regarded her with his bleary brown eyes over his mottled red nose and muttonchop sideburns.
“Now, Miss Brewster. You know this ain't no place for a lady.”
Someone in the crowd snickered.
“A hanging is man's business. Why don't you go on back to the bank and take care of things there. Your pa wouldn't have wanted you to witness this.”
Madeline raised one eyebrow and looked down at the judge. “Fortunately my father has been dead two years, Earl. And unless you find a much bigger horse, there is no way you're going to be able to hang that man.”
Mumbles and curses emanated from the crowd.
“We were just working on that problem, Miss Brewster. But like I said, this ain't no place for a lady.”
“What are the charges?” she insisted.
The judge took off his hat and ran his hand down his face, a sheen of perspiration evident on his bald pate.
“You ain't going back to the bank, are you?”
“Not without the information I've asked for.”
The sheriff was holding the reins of the horse. Jackson Webster was a pompous braggart who couldn't find his ass with both hands. Madeline and Jackson had been in school together until she reached the age of twelve and had to stay home with a private tutor.
Jackson had always been a bit of a bully, and the silver badge pinned to his shirt gave him all the authority he needed to exercise that bad habit.
She grudgingly admitted that he was a good-looking man, well built, with dark blond hair and blue eyes. Unfortunately he was as dumb as he was handsome.
“He stole Old Clem's horse, Madeline. We've got an eyewitness.”
“Is this the horse?” she asked, eyeing the creature in question.
“Yup, this is Bud. Been Old Clem's horse for years and years.”
“And the eyewitness?”
“Arnie Jones saw him leading it into town, pretty as you please.” He looked up smugly at the Irishman. “Danged fool didn't even try to hide it.”
“Did you ask him how he came to be in possession of the horse?”
The group was silent for a moment.
“Of course we did. He said he bought it at the hostelry over in Coopersville.” Jackson snorted a laugh. “As if we would believe that.”
“Old Clem would never sell Bud. Never! So obviously this here fella took him.”
Madeline controlled herself, just barely, from rolling her eyes. “And have you spoken to Old Clem?”
“No, he's not at his house. Pete says he went to visit his daughter in Denver for a month.”
It was worse than she thought. They were all a bunch of incompetent fools.
“Sheriff Webster, you cannot hang that man.”
A collective groan rose from the crowd.
“And why not? You're not going to stop another hanging with your fancy words. Horse thieving is a
Madeline nodded. “I understand that. But you have not proven that he committed a crime. Simply because he had the horse does not mean he stole it. There must be corroborating evidence.”
“Evidence that proves conclusively he stole the horse. I suggest you wait for Old Clem to return to determine if Bud was indeed stolen, and send someone to Coopersville to check whether or not Bud was sold to this man.”
“What do we do with him in the meantime? He wouldn't last one hour in that tiny jail cell, much less a month.” Jackson actually had doubt on his face.
Yes, oh, yes. It was working out exactly as she hoped. Madeline walked toward the horse, and the crowd parted like the Red Sea.
“Put him in my custody. He can work for me for a month taking care of some repairs I need completed at the house.”
look the Irishman in the face. It all hinged on this. Convincing them to give him to her.
“He's a big man, Miss Brewster,” said the judge. “If'n he gets a mind to run, even a woman of your size ain't gonna stop him.”
Madeline let the insult slide past her. She was so close.
“You need not be concerned about me or my safety. I'm sure the gentleman will not harm me. I'm saving his life.”
The judge scratched his sideburn and looked up at the man. “He's pretty dirty. Likely get the house dirty, too.”
“He'll sleep in the carriage house. And we do have soap and water. And a razor.”
Another snicker wafted through the men.
There were some side conversations and some murmuring, but no one protested. Madeline's heart was beating so fast she was certain they could hear it. Her palms were clammy in her gloves, and a bead of perspiration slithered down her back.
“All right, then. We'll put him in your custody until Old Clem gets back,” Jackson said and then scowled up at the Irishman. “You're lucky Miss Brewster took it in her mind to save your sorry ass.”
“I'm much obliged, ma'am. I tried to explain to the gentlemen that I bought and paid for the horse legally. Your intervention is most appreciated,” replied the Irishman.
His voice was deep and rich, sliding over her like warm honey. And he was obviously educated. She repressed a shiver with a great deal of effort.
“Remove the noose and help him off the horse,” Madeline said without a quaver in her voice.
The sheriff complied with the help of a few of the other men. Within a minute, he was standing, actually towering, over the rest of the men. He had to be well over six and a half feet tall. Finally, a man taller than her own six feet, and he was
. For a whole month.
Her plan was nearly complete.
Teague O'Neal looked around the group of men as they tipped their hats, nodded, and walked away. The men who had been ready to hang him now acted as if nothing had happened. Unbelievable.
“You listen to Miss Brewster now,” the sheriff said to him. “I'll have your ass back up on a bigger horse in ten minutes if you don't.” Teague nodded dutifully. “I'm going to keep Bud with the blacksmith until this is over,” he continued as he took the horse's reins and started to walk away. “Be careful, Madeline.”
His savior inclined her head at the sheriff but did not respond. What kind of town was this?
Stupid question, really. He already knew the answer. To top it off, they'd left him in the custody of a woman.
With no protection whatsoever.
Madeline was tall, probably around six feet, with rich mahogany hair that hung in a thick braid down her back. Perched on top of that glorious hair was the most god-awful hat he'd ever seenâwith a long green feather that hung down past her shoulders and little dangling things all around the brim. Her eyes were very dark, almost black, and full of secrets. She had large breasts and plenty of womanly curves that could keep his hands and his mouth occupied.
This job was going to be more interesting than he had thought. It was clear Madeline was something different. Intelligent, manipulative, and used to getting her own way. It also sounded as if she really did hold power over the town.
She was looking him over as she walked around him in a circle. Like a horse at auction.
“See anything you like?”
“As a matter of fact, yes, I do.” She held out her hand like a man to shake his. “I'm Madeline Brewster.”
He looked down at her hand and then held up his for scrutiny. As dirty as a pig in a wallow. He shrugged, rubbed his hand on his equally dirty pants, and shook her hand. She had a surprisingly strong grip for a woman.
“Let's get started on back home. After you've had a bath and a shave, we can talk. I have a business proposition for you.” She turned and started walking away without another word.
Teague bit his tongue to keep from snapping at her. She had just saved his life. He didn't want to seem like an ungrateful ass. She walked a few feet away and then turned back to look at him with her sensual eyes.
“Are you coming, Mr. O'Neal?”