The predator looked on, watched the two men and woman work on moving the carcass of the horse. He could have taken action then, but it was dark, and when he did move, it would have to be perfectly timed.
So he waited.
Roman, Lefty, and Donnie had to be careful not to run up on the back of Givens and the buckboard. On horseback, they were able to move a lot faster than the buckboard, so they had to stay back.
“We could go around them,” Donnie said at one point, “and get there first.”
“We could,” Roman said, “but that ain't the plan, is it?”
“Besides,” Lefty said, “we might get lost lookin' for them. We don't know if they're in a settlement, a house, or just camped someplace.”
“Just be patient, Donnie,” Roman said. “We'll find 'em soon enough.”
“Oh hell,” Lefty said.
“What?” Roman asked.
Roman looked ahead of them and saw the buckboard listing to one side.
“Shit,” he said.
“Shit!” Givens said as the buckboard leaned over.
Joe and Les dropped down from their seat and looked at the wheel.
“What happened?” he asked, hoping the wheel itself hadn't broken. There was no way they'd be able to move on until they got another one from Gunnison.
“Dunno,” Joe said. “We'll have to take a look.”
“But the wheel itself is in one piece?”
“Looks like,” Les said. “Come on, Joe. We should be able to fix this quick.”
Givens watched as the two men slid beneath the wagon, and then he looked behind him. He couldn't see his three compadres, but he gave a helpless shrug anyway.
As he watched the two men work on the wagon, he knew it didn't matter how quickly they got it fixed. This would probably keep them from reaching their destination tonight.
He was going to have to camp on the trail with these two idiots.
Givens and the buckboard ended up stopping for the night well before Clint, Tesla, and Miranda had discovered their dead horse.
Roman, Donnie and Lefty were, therefore, forced to camp as well, keeping themselves well behind the buckboard so they wouldn't be detected.
By the time Clint and Miranda got back in the house after moving the horse, everyone on the trail had settled down...
Givens couldn't stand Joe and Les. They had more muscles than brains, and when they talked, the subject was always inane. He knew that he was often judged by his size, which worked to his advantage. Men usually didn't realize how intelligent he was.
But these two . . . they were as stupid as they appeared to be.
He sat off by himself to eat while the two of them chattered incessantly, food flying from their mouths. Givens was wondering about the merits of an idea. Maybe he should just kill these two and take the buckboard himselfâexcept for the fact that they apparently knew where they were going.
He had tried a couple of times to find out their destination, but all they would offer was that they were following some directions they'd been given. So they didn't actually
where they were going, but they knew how to get there.
Givens ate and tried to block them out.
Roman poured himself some coffee and replaced the cast-iron pot on the fire.
“Givens must be going crazy,” he said. “From what he said, those two ain't very smart.”
“Usually men that big ain't,” Donnie said.
“Except for Givens,” Lefty said. “He seems pretty smart.”
“Smart enough to kill anybody who disrespected him,” Roman pointed out.
“Hey,” Donnie said, “I give him all the respect he deserves. He may look dumb, but he ain't.”
Roman put his coffee cup down and rubbed his shoulder.
“That arm hurtin'?” Donnie asked.
“Like a bitch,” Roman said. “Reminds me why we're out here.”
“I hope there's some profit in this,” Lefty said. “I mean, I know we're out here to get your revenge, but these fellas should have some money on them, or something on those buckboards.”
“We'll take a look, once we've taken care of them,” Roman said. “Hell, we walk away from this with both buckboards, we gotta be able to turn a profit.”
Lefty and Donnie were happy that Roman was even thinking about making a profit. They were worried that his injuryâand humiliationâmight keep him from thinking about anything but revenge.
Clint left Miranda in the house with Tesla as he put the horses back in the makeshift stable.
“Don't worry, boys,” he said, stroking both their necks, “we're not going to leave you out here alone.”
He was taking first watch over them, even though the cat had the carcass of the dead horse to occupy it. Miranda was going to relieve him in four hours' time.
He built a fire in front of the lean-to, hoping that it at least would give the cat pause before it thought about approaching again.
It seemed like, with all the trouble they'd had with the three men at the settlementâwhose number had somehow swelled to fourâand the mountain lion, there hadn't been much indication that the original rumors about someone wanting to do harm to Tesla were accurate.
They had enough to deal with without that rumor turning out to be true.
The big cat moved closer to the horse's carcass. He could smell the scent of humans on the meat, but in the end his hunger got the best of him. He approached the dead horse and began to rip big chunks of meat from it, swallowing some of them whole in its haste to feed.
And all the while he was still aware that there were two more animals available to him.
The predator watched all the activity, and then when Clint settled down in front of the lean-to, he also settled back off his haunches, taking a seat. The fire was helpful. If he'd wanted to take the man with his rifle, he could have, but this man was not his prey. In daylight, when Tesla once again came out of the house, he'd be an easy target.
Beyond the house he could see movement as the big cat consumed the carcass they had dragged off. He felt a kinship with that cat.
They were both hunters.
They were both hungry.
Clint awoke as somebody approached him. He was sleeping in his bedroll on the floor, having given Miranda his room. She had offered him her bed when she relieved him, but he didn't want to feel her warmth on the sheets. He thought thatâand her scentâmight keep him from sleeping.
But it was Miranda who leaned over him and touched his shoulder.
“Whatâ” he said, coming awake. “What's wrong?”
“Nothin',” she assured him. “Nikola was nice enough to come out and relieve me an hour early.”
“Oh,” he said, sitting up. “Why? Couldn't he sleep?”
“I didn't ask him for the reason,” she said, taking his hands in hers. “I just figured we'd take advantage of the situation.”
“Come on,” she said. “My bed is much more comfortable than the floor.”
She yanked him to his feet.
She pressed herself against him and kissed him. Her lush lips were hot and avid on his, her breasts pressed tightly to his chest.
“Come with me,” she whispered, hooking her fingers into his belt.
He allowed her to tug him toward the bedroom, pausing only to grab his gun belt from a nearby chair.
“You really think you're gonna need that?” she asked.
“You never know,” he said as she dragged him into the room and closed the door.
Tesla sat at the fire, looking at the sky as the sun came up. He had his rifle across his knees. It seemed to him he'd been holding the rifle in his hands since they left Denver, and yet it still felt foreign to him. He couldn't wait for the rest of his equipment to arrive so he could get started with his experiments.
He heard a sound off to the right and pointed his rifle that way. He held his breath, but nothing came out of the bushes.
Maybe it was just his nerves.
The predator saw Tesla sitting in front of the two remaining horses, knew that he was there to keep them safe from the prowling cat. But as the sun came up, the scientist was also making a perfect target of himself.
He decided to wait until the sun was high in the sky before taking his shot.
The cat circled around behind the man and sniffed the air. His muzzle was still red with the blood of the dead horse, and yet his hunger was unabated.
He didn't care if his prey was two legged, or four. He was ready to attack again, as the sun came up.
Inside the house, Clint undressed Sheriff Miranda Lawson, marveled at her body. Her breasts were large and firm, her waist small, her legs long and perfect. He turned her around and admired the firm ass and the deep dimples just above the cheeks.
He turned her back to face him, then took her into his arms and kissed her deeply, his hands roaming over her at the same time.
Impatiently, she yanked at his clothes, pulling them off him. They tumbled onto the bed naked, hot bodies pressed together, kissing feverishly. Neither of them realized how much they had wanted this from the moment they met.
Clint finally worked Miranda onto her back and began to explore her body with his hands and mouth . . .
The sun came up, and the predator stood, rifle in hand. He sighted down the barrel, and at that moment Tesla stood and stretched, presenting his chest as the perfect target.
As the predator moved his finger to the trigger, there was a sound behind him. Before he knew what was happening, the cat was on him, huge teeth sinking into the back of his neck. In moments the predator's neck snapped. His finger jerked on the trigger, and the rifle went off . . .
Clint had his face pressed between Miranda's thighs, lapping at the sweet juices that were flowing from her pussy, as the shot sounded. It was a single shot, loud and clear in the stillness of the morning.
“Whaâ” Miranda said.
“A shot!” Clint said.
He leaped off the bed, grabbed his pants, shirt, and boots and yanked them on, then grabbed his gun and ran out the door.
Behind him Miranda did the same, just a bit more slowly.
Clint ran out the front door, knowing that a lot more could have happened during the time it took him to pull himself together. His shirt was open, his belt had been left behind. He paused, waiting for but hoping there would not be a second shot.
When it didn't come, he ran around the side of the house to the lean-to. At first he didn't see Tesla, but then spotted him. He was lying on the ground and not moving.
He ran toward the scientist, hoping that the younger man had not been killed while he was in bed with Miranda.
“Nikola!” Clint shouted, running to the fallen man.
As he reached him, the scientist moved, and stared up at Clint wide-eyed.
“You tell me.”
“I don't know,” he said. “There was a shot . . .”
Miranda came running over with her pistol in her hand.
“What's going on?”
“I'm trying to find out,” Clint said.
“Is he hit?” she asked, then looked at Tesla. “Are you hit?”
“I don't knowâ” He started to sit up, then stopped short. “Ow!”
“Let me see,” Clint said. He pulled aside Tesla's jacket. “There's blood, but not much.”
“We better get him inside,” she said.
“You get him inside,” Clint said. “I'm going to have a look around.”
As Miranda got Tesla up and helped him to the house, Clint looked around, trying to see where the shot might have come from. He decided a straight line was the best bet, and he started walking.
He smelled the blood before he reached it.
The body looked as if it had been torn apart. Blood saturated the ground, but the cat's prints were plain to see.
He found the rifle, a new Winchester with a handmade sight on it. A professional weapon. The dead man was either a soldier or a mercenary.
It looked like the rumor that somebody was going to try to kill Tesla was more than a rumor.
“What did you find?” Miranda asked as Clint entered the house. She was sitting in front of Tesla, who had his shirt off. He was very thin, with an almost concave chest.