The mid-morning sun beat down upon the plains, burning away the cool of the day.
Lulled into a trancelike state by the gentle sway of his mount, the clouds scudding across the azure sky, and the haunting call of an eagle in flight, U.S. Marshal Heath Turner gave his mount, Warrior, a brown steel dust, free rein to follow the dusty trail west.
He surveyed his surroundings with an appreciative eye. To his left a band of wild horses thundered across the plains. A single lusty stallion stood majestically on a bare peak, silhouetted against the sky. Heath's lips spread in a purely masculine smile when the virile animal, wild with freedom, whistled, reared on his hind legs, then darted toward his harem.
The grasslands he'd just passed had given way to vast stretches of bunchgrass and mesquite. A dust devil, tossed by the breeze, moved lazily across his path. A road runner darted before his mount, kicking sand into the air, seeming never to tire.
Heath couldn't say the same about himself; he was exhausted, thoroughly and totally exhausted. He had been in the saddle so long, he feared the chunk of leather had become a permanent part of his anatomy. His immediate destination was a sleepy little town called Adobe Wells and he couldn't get there soon enough to suit him. All he wanted was a soft bed, a hot meal, a cool drink, and after a bit of rest, maybe a warm, willing woman.
Squinting, he looked at the ball of fire that masqueraded as the sun in these parts. The heat rising from the ground wavered like drunken ghosts dancing the minuet. Dizzying, he remained upright through sheer strength of will.
Suddenly, a rifle shot split the morning air, kicking up dust in front of his horse. The powerful steed danced in alarm. The second shot sent Heath's hat flying off his head.
“What the hell?” he growled, sawing back on his reins, bringing the powerful animal under control.
In a dead run, he dipped to retrieve his favorite Stetsonâsome things were worth risking one's life forâand placed it firmly on his head. Heading to the east side of the mesa, he made for cover. Just as he galloped behind a large boulder, another shot rang out.
The unexpected attack sent stamina flowing through him like hot lava, warming him from roots to soles, energizing his tired body, heightening his awareness. Though he didn't know the nature of his assignment in Adobe Wells, he'd bet a month's pay the ambush was connected with it.
“Usually they wait till I get to town before shootin' at me,” he groused, dismounting in a blur. He pulled his Winchester from its saddle scabbard and cautiously peered around the rock, scanning the cliffs for any sign of the sniper. The shot had come from the ragged precipice that jutted out from the mesa. As far as he could see, there was nothing amiss in that quarter.
Squatting on his haunches, he filled his lungs with warm arid air and tipped his hat back with a tanned finger. He replayed the last few minutes in his mind. The second and third misses were excusable since his horse had been in a dead run, but not the first. His slow, ambling gait had made him a sitting duck.
“Maybe he's just a piss-poor shot,” Heath suggested to Warrior. “Or maybe it was a warning.”
Apparently, his mount didn't have an opinion on the matter. All Heath heard, other than the sound of his own voice, was the wind singing off the face of the cliffs.
When another shot rang out, slamming into the rock just above Heath's head, the impact of the bullet sent fragments of stone and dirt flying into his face. “You're starting to get on my nerves,” he hissed to his unseen assailant, returning fire blindly.
There was no response to his gunfire as he scrambled back out of sight. The sun burned down upon him and sweat trickled between his shoulder blades. He shifted uncomfortably.
A great shadow fell over him as Warrior nudged his shoulder. “Thanks for the shade,” Heath muttered, absently stroking the animal, considering his options. He could wait the sniper out and then slip past him in the night. Or he could backtrack and travel southwest to Adobe Wells. The circuitous route would make the trip much longer, however.
He chewed a dry piece of grass, deep in thought. “Whatcha think boy?”
The huge animal snorted on cue.
“I agree.” Rising in one fluid motion, Heath stowed his yellow boy in the saddle boot, checked the ammunition in his Navy Colt, retrieved a rope from around the pommel, and tied it to his belt with a rawhide piggin string.
Soundlessly, he began climbing the east side of the rock shelf. He lost his footing halfway to the top, dislodging loose gravel from the sheer face of the cliff. Grabbing a toehold, he gasped for breath.
“Damn!” A blind deaf-mute would be alerted by that. Apparently, he was more fatigued than he thought, and it was likely to get him killed. Pressing his cheek into the rock, he expected to feel the sting of hot lead piercing his hide. It never came. After a nerve-settling respite, he continued his ascent, more slowly, carefully.
Easing over the top, he padded on silent feet to the southern rim of the plateau. All was quiet below; peace embraced him on all sides. If he didn't know better, he would think he had imagined the ambush. But the breeze, ruffling his hair through the bullet hole in his John B., proved that someone was out there, someone who posed a grievous threat.
“Where are you, you bastard?” he asked quietly. Exasperated, he jerked his hat off and ran his fingers through long ebony hair.
At first he saw nothing. Then he shifted his gaze and caught glimpse of a slight movement. The toe of a scuffed boot protruded from behind a rock about twenty feet down the abutment.
“Pay dirt.” There was a whisper of triumph in his voice. He watched as gingerly, the sniper stepped into clear view. “Well, I'll be damned.”
To Heath's surprise, his assailant was a girl, dressed from head to toe in black leather. A small Stetson perched atop her head cast her face in shadow, but he could tell that she was young, painfully young.
“And skinny as a fence post,” he muttered. The rifle in the crook of her arm was bigger than she.
Standing stock-still, sucking on the end of a waist-length platinum braid, she looked like nothing so much as a precocious child. “A child?” Not hardly! Children don't take potshots at perfect strangers, no matter how precocious they are. He narrowed his eyes, glaring at his nemesis.
A hazy warning quickened Stevie's gut. She felt as if she were being watched. Tamping down the niggling sense of fear, she cast about for sign of the gunslinger.
If she didn't find him and scare him off, she might well end up like Jeff. Unshed tears caused her nose to tingle. But she gained control of the pain and grief of losing her brother. Pure cussedness stiffened her spine.
With Jeff gone, Pa needed her to be strong. She was all he had. Now was no time to go missish on him.
Thinking of her pa, she spat the silken strands out of her mouth and instinctively wiped her tongue on her shirtsleeve. Pa said ladies don't suck their hair, or bite their fingernails, or dress like boys, or curse like waddies.
Well, who said she wanted to be a lady anyhow? Defiantly, she lifted the end of her braid and clamped it firmly between her front teeth.
A tight coil of apprehension unwound in her chest. She still couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching her.
Where was that gunslinger? she wondered again. The man couldn't just disappear into the air, could he?
Heath watched the girl step closer to the ledge and scan the horizon, obviously searching for him. He smiled a predator's smile. An introduction was in order, he decided. Fashioning a Blocker loop, he tossed the rope over the rim. It fell with a muted hiss and circled her narrow shoulders, effectively penning her arms to her sides. “Gotcha!”
Stevie shrieked and dropped her head back, squinting against the sun. Her rifle fell to the rocks below with an echoing clatter. Desperately, she tried to wrest her revolver from its holster, all the while struggling to escape bondage.
Heath chuckled at her display of outrage, hoping the willful chit didn't shoot her foot off. Enraged, she spoke the language he recognized as Comanche. He understood the foreign tongue with the rolling R's well enough to wonder if some of the vile threats she made against his poor naked body were physically possible. Some of them sounded quite intriguing though.
“Hold still, kid,” he shouted down to her.
His chivalrous intent was to restrain the girl before she did herself grievous harm. Muscles bulged, straining the seams of his cotton shirt as he began pulling her to the upper ledge of the cliff.
Wiggling like a fish on a hook, she hung in midair, spitting another string of curses, even worse than the first. “Damn, filthy, lowdown, stinkin', bastâ”
“Be still before I drop you,” he interrupted. “And stop using that filthy language, dammit!”
When he pulled her over the rim, she flew into him, clawing like a panther, hissing like a snake. One fact was incontrovertible; the kid knew how to fight. What she lacked in physical strength she made up for in passion. Bemused, Heath slipped her revolver from its holster, tucked it in his belt behind his back, and held his arms in front of his face, allowing her to attack him like a setting hen flogging a curious rooster.
“You ass! Cur dog. Bastard!” she slurred him, and questioned his legitimacy again, stomping his booted foot for emphasis.
His Hessians cushioned her slight weight, but frankly, he was tired of her abuse. He subdued her by wrapping his arms around her waist. “Behave yourself.”
“Let me go!” she shrieked, digging in her heels as he dragged her away from the rim of the mesa, creating a wavy trail of dust in her wake. “How dare you rope me and haul me up here like a sack of potatoes? You . . . you stinkin' pile of horse shit.”
“And how dare you shoot at me, you pint-sized brat?” he growled against her ear. “Call me peculiar, but I take exception when people try to kill me.”
Stevie didn't hear his sophisticated northern drawl for the blood roaring in her ears. She had never been held so familiarly before; she found the gunslinger's nearness strangely unsettling. Sensing there was more to fear from him than a bullet, she stopped struggling. “Turn me loose!” she ground out, unable to hide the desperation in her voice.
“You promise to behave yourself?” Heath waited for an answer. Receiving none, he squeezed her around the waist in silent warning, then cautiously released his hold.
She turned to face him, slowly easing away.
His eyes widened at his first clear view of her. She was beautiful; doe eyes, black as midnight, tilted exotically. Skin, dusky bronze, like melted caramel or ripe apricots. High cheekbones, cradling a thick fringe of sooty lashes. Hair, the delicate hue of moonlight on water, so pale as to be almost colorless, so silky as to beg a man's touch. Breasts full and firm, rising and falling with each labored breath. Wasplike waist, flaring into gently rounded hips. Legs, though short and slender, nicely rounded.
But it was the animation of her character that held him spell-bound. The female glaring at him possessed an ethereal face, a curvaceous body, and the temperament of a grizzly with a sore behind. In all, an intriguing combination! He grinned and shook his head, totally absorbed with the enchanting hellion. “Well, beautiful, you want to tell me why you tried to kill me?”
“If I was tryin' to kill you, mister, you'd be deader'n vomited maggots!”
“Now, that's a lovely image. Tell me, princess, where did you go to finishing school?”
Obstinately mute, she knew full well he was making fun of her. Raising finely arched eyebrows, her gaze moved over him with a sweep of her lashes. Trying for a look of total disdain, she failed miserably. He was quite possibly the most handsome man she had ever seen; tall as a church steeple, muscled as a Thoroughbred, glossy black hair, and deep blue eyesâthe color and luminosity of blueberries covered by the morning dew.
She didn't possess the vocabulary to describe his overwhelming physical presence, let alone the raw sensuality emanating from him.
Damn shame she'd probably have to kill him!
“You stroke my ego with your scrutiny, little one. Dare I hope that you like what you see?”
“Go to hell!” she spat out.
Chuckling, he took a step toward her.
“Stop!” She warded him off like an evil spirit. “Don't you dare move one inch closer!”
He regarded her with an amused gaze, but halted.
She drew a deep breath, collecting herself. “Now, I wasn't trying to kill you,” she repeated. “Just warn you that workin' for Judge Jack ain't too healthy. It'll only get you shot . . . or worse.” With her chin held high, she looked down her nose at him. A difficult task considering that he was a foot taller than she. “So you've been warned. And, mister, only one warning to a customer.” Her threatening expression grew blank. “Now, give me back my gun and I'll go,” she finished authoritatively.
Blessing her with one of his heart-stopping smilesâto no availâhe removed the cartridges from the weapon and handed it to her with a flourish.
Enraged that he had confiscated her ammunition, she raised the weapon above her head and lunged at him, connecting solidly with his shoulder.
“Damn you! You little termagant,” he grunted, drawing her flush against his solid length, chest to chest, belly to belly, thigh to thigh. Circling her ankle with his foot, he jerked back and swept her off her feet. Literally. They both hit the ground with a resounding thud.
Disappearing underneath him, she spat and sputtered, fighting to fill her lungs. “Get off me, you overgrown sex maniac!”