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The high desert shimmered in a haze of late August heat. A Wells Fargo Overland stagecoach, half a day behind schedule, rattled across the parched ground toward Spanish Widow station in the New Mexico Territory. Sunburned and sweaty, the weary stage driver's rugged face broke into a wide grin when he spotted the small, bleached adobe building through the thermals rising from the desert floor.
He licked his cracked lips in anticipation of the cool water and hot meal he knew awaited him. He could almost taste Maria's light, brown-crusted biscuits. It was her cooking that made Spanish Widow one of his favorite stops on this bone-jarring route up north to the Colorado Territory. That and the friendliness of her husband, Carlos.
The Mexican couple had been at the remote way station for a little over a year and in that year they'd handled their duties with a cheerful efficiency that impressed the old stagecoach driver. He knew that at this minute, late though he was, the grinning, good- natured Carlos would be standing before the tiny adobe building, spyglass lifted to his dark eye, watching tirelessly for the rumbling Concord coach to appear on the horizon.
And he knew that as soon as Carlos sighted the stage, he'd bob his head happily and shout to his plump, pretty wife, "Put the biscuits in, Maria, they're here!"
In the close, stuffy confines of the Overland coach, Natalie Vallance tucked a lock of golden-red hair behind her left ear, blinked her green eyes, rolled her tired, slender shoulders in a circular motion, and wondered how much longer it would be before she would be able to step down and stretch her stiff legs.
Across from her, the Overland's other passenger, a short, heavyset man, snored loudly. The fatigued woman envied the sleeping man. She'd managed to doze only briefly since leaving Santa Fe and knew she'd get little rest until she reached her mountain ranch at Cloudcastle.
And she was days away from Cloudcastle.
Natalie drew a deep breath and smiled. Hard as the journey was, it had been worth it. The weeks in Santa Fe with Metaka had been enjoyable. The long, lazy summer had slipped past in a pleasant, dreamlike way and Natalie treasured every hour spent with the pretty Indian woman who was to her a sister.
Metaka's family was just as dear. Jake Thompson, good-humored and hardworking, was a devoted husband and loving father to the couple's two brown-skinned, boisterous boys. Natalie had liked Jake Thompson from the first day she and Metaka had seen the big, light-haired rider dismount before Gallen's General Store in Cloudcastle, Colorado Territory, that chilly October day in 1867.
And she'd known, from the way his hazel eyes twinkled when he looked at Metaka, that the young cowboy would be staying in Cloudcastle longer than he'd intended.
And he had.
Jake Thompson had stayed until he could persuade Metaka to marry him and go back to Santa Fe. And Natalie, heavy coat turned up against the biting winds, had stood beside the solemn old shaman, Tahomah, and waved goodbye to the elderly Ute chief's granddaughter and the beaming bridegroom.
It had been a happy day and friends of the newlyweds had thrown rice and shouted good tidings and shot off their revolvers in the cold, crisp Colorado air. She could hear the shots even now.
She did hear shots!
When she snatched back the dusty side-curtains and looked out, her heart froze. The whine of a bullet stirred the still air inside the coach and pierced the white shirtfront of the man seated across from her. A tiny circle of blood appeared just beneath his heart and the passenger slumped over dead, never having roused from his slumber.
The blood-curdling war chants of approaching Indians grew deafening, and, terrified, Natalie slipped from the worn leather seat to the dusty floorboard of the coach, while atop the cab the determined driver raised his long whip to the backs of the weary, lathered horses and the creaking coach lurched violently forward.
Maria Sanchez flashed a brilliant smile at the burly marshal and refilled his coffee cup. Her smile fled when she shifted her gaze to the dark, dangerous man handcuffed to the big lawman. The bearded desperado made her nervous and she was grateful Marshal Cochran had refused to unlock the iron bracelet subduing the criminal.
Maria reluctantly poured steaming black coffee into the cup beside the prisoner's empty plate, her dark eyes flashing with apprehension. The silent, bearded man seemed not to notice. Politely he thanked her and lifted the scalding coffee to his lips with his free left hand.
Maria bustled back to the stove. She was cutting a freshly baked apple pie when she heard the first shots. Fearing the bearded man had somehow broken his bonds, she whirled toward the table, heart hammering, sharp knife in hand.
"Jesus God!" the lawman swore, and leapt to his feet, bringing his captive up with him.
And the quiet summer afternoon exploded into earsplitting, spine-tingling mayhem.
Reports of rifles mixed with the unmistakable whoops of marauding Indians, snorting horses, and the terrified screams of Maria Sanchez.
Marshal Cochran's gunbelt hung on a peg beside the front door, but his Winchester rifle lay upon the wooden bench beside him. He managed to get the weapon unscabbarded. But he never lifted it. A speeding bullet ripped through the open window and tore away his Adam's apple. The heavy gun clanked to the planked floor as the lawman's stunned eyes opened wide with disbelief and his big fingers wrapped themselves about his bleeding larynx, the swift movement jerking upward the bearded man's cuffed hand.
The prisoner's alert eyes went to the woman, Maria. She was running toward the open door and he shouted her name even as he felt the weight of the big marshal slump against him. Wrapping his free arm about the dying man's waist, he lunged toward the screaming woman, purposely tripping her before she could reach the front door.
Maria crashed to the floor, bellowing her outrage, her dark eyes desperately searching the barren yard for her Carlos. The bearded man held her immobile with a long leg clamped over her body while he coolly searched the dead marshal's pockets for a key. He didn't see the frightened little Mexican frantically seeking the shelter of the adobe. But Maria did.
Through tear-filled eyes Maria saw her husband running for his life. Carlos never made it. His feet touched the flat stone porch at the very instant a bullet ripped into the middle of his back. Maria wailed and threw off the long leg trapping her. Before the bearded man could stop her, the hysterical woman dashed out the door and drew a barrage of bullets that turned her bright yellow blouse to crimson. She slumped atop her supine husband, dead.
Now free of his bonds, the bearded man jerked up the dead lawman's Winchester and took up his lookout at a front window. Calmly he began firing, picking off the painted braves with practiced precision and deadly aim.
Inside the clattering, bumping stagecoach, Natalie swiftly stripped the revolver from the dead passenger's waistband. Bracing herself against the worn leather seat, she cautiously peered out, lifted the Navy Colt .44, and fired, striking a determined warrior whose intent it was to board the fast-moving stage.
Fierce face contorted with pain, the young warrior fell from his war pony and disappeared. As Natalie again took aim, she heard the loud groan of the stage driver and knew he'd been hit.
Ned Cass felt the bullet shatter his third rib and slam upward. He gasped in pain, but his big, callused hands never went to the wound. The old stagecoach driver was a professional. His duty was to his passengers. His responsibility: their safety.
Ned was determined to get the Overland coach and its passengers to Spanish Widow station if it was the last thing he ever did. Teeth clamped firmly together, eyes narrowed with resolve, Ned Cass did just that.
The rattling, besieged coach rolled to a stop before the small station, the heavy reins held firmly in Ned's sure grip. Three bullets hit him at once; the brave driver died there atop his halted stage.
Inside, Natalie, terror rising to choke her, frantically searched the dead passenger for more ammunition. There were no bullets left in the Colt. The man wore no gunbelt. The stage driver was dead. The station's occupants were surely dead. She was alone without so much as a bullet to use on herself.
The door of the coach was jerked open.
A strong arm encircled her narrow waist and she was roughly pulled up against a hard male body. The useless gun slipped from her hand and she jerked her head around to look into the face of her captor, expecting to see the grinning, painted face of a redskin.
She saw a face burned dark as any Indian's, and hair black as a savage's, but a pair of cold, steady eyes, blue as the summer skies, looked into hers. A little sigh of relief escaped her open lips, and shakily she wrapped trembling arms around the man's strong neck and buried her face in his bushy black beard.
The bearded stranger said not a word but swiftly plucked her from the coach and carried her into the thick-walled adobe building. Inside, he promptly deposited her on the floor, jerked the Colt from the dead lawman's holster, crouched down beside her, and handed her the gun, butt first.
The man's alert blue eyes turned at once to the moving, shouting targets. He lifted the Winchester rifle, took aim with calm authority, and in a drawl soft yet audible above the melee, cautioned, "If you wish to keep it, you'd best keep your head down, miss."
He fired, and it was then she noticed the silver handcuff dangling from his right wrist. Natalie swallowed hard. Dear God, she thought despairingly, I'm pitted against a bunch of murdering savages with a southern desperado as my only ally.
She lifted the heavy black Colt, wondering whom she feared most. The revolver wavered in her shaking hand and she briefly considered aiming it at the dark, bearded man kneeling beside her. Surely he was every bit as dangerous as the redskins circling the adobe. The Indians were uneducated and untamed; they knew no better, while the dark, deadly man beside her, who spoke in those drawling tones she found so offensive, had no such excuse.
Natalie peered out.
The circling, whooping warriors were pincushioning the lifeless bodies with arrows. Appalled, she leaned forward a little, eyes wide with horror. A bullet whizzed through the air a fraction of an inch from her face. Heart pounding, she whirled away from the window, pressing her shaking shoulders against the smooth stone wall, and stared in horror at a heavy lock of red-gold hair lying upon the planked floor in a shaft of bright sunlight. The lock of hair had been cut by the bullet as though a pair of sharp scissors had purposely snipped it from her head.
The dark stranger, squeezing off another shot that found its mark in the skull of a daring young brave, said coolly, "I warned you. Unless you want me pinning you to the floor with my knee, you'll keep out of the line of fire except to fire yourself." He again pulled the trigger, then added, "That is if you know how to use that gun."
Natalie took one last stunned look at the lock of red hair on the floor, narrowed her green eyes at the outlaw beside her, and cautiously moved into position to take aim and fire.
Straightening her slender right arm, she chose a close, painted target, and pulled the trigger. The Indian clutched his naked chest and slithered from his paint pony, his life- blood streaming down his shining, sun-reddened skin into a bright crimson pool on the hard alkali earth.
The bearded man's lips tightened and he said almost grudgingly, "Not bad for a woman."
Ignoring him, Natalie took aim and fired yet again. And again, with one well-placed bullet, she brought to an end another life. "Not bad for a man," she responded coldly, emerald eyes remaining on the swarming, shouting warriors.
The bearded man's gaze shifted briefly to the remarkable female beside him. A ripping bullet blazed through the window and stung his high, dark cheekbone. A thin furrow of bright red blood rose in tiny droplets, as though he'd cut himself shaving.
"If you wish to keep it," Natalie said, glancing at him, rapidly assessing the severity of the wound, "you'd best keep your head down. And your mind on your work."
He gave no reply.
His blue eyes flickered slightly beneath thick, coal-black lashes and Natalie couldn't believe her ears when she heard him chuckling; the low, rumbling sound came from deep down inside his broad chest even as he fired his weapon.
"Who are they?" she shouted above the whine of bullets.
"Victorio and his band of Apaches," he responded immediately.
"It can't be," she protested, "this is too far north."
"Tell Victorio that," the bearded southerner drawled as he reloaded the Winchester repeating rifle and turned again to the window.
Had anyone told Natalie that she and the dark desperado would have lived through that long, hot afternoon, outnumbered fifty to two against rampaging, bloodthirsty Apaches, she'd not have believed him. But when the blazing August sun finally slipped below the western horizon, the weary, thwarted warriors thundered away toward the south while inside the walls of the small, stifling-hot adobe, the strange pair watched their retreat, exhausted but alive.
Natalie knew, at least until sunrise, they wouldn't return. More than once old Tahomah had told her an Indian killed at night would remain in perpetual darkness throughout eternity. She was safe for the night. At least from the Apaches.
Her eyes went to the bearded outlaw.
Wordlessly he laid aside the Winchester, rose to his feet, slung the dead marshal's leather gunbelt around his slim frame, buckled it over his hips, and reached for the Colt she was holding. Reluctant to release it to the stranger, Natalie shook her red head negatively and her eyes went again to the silver bracelet dangling from his dark right wrist.
He caught her worried glance, took a key from his pocket, unlatched the handcuffs, and threw the worrisome restraints out the window. As he massaged his wrist with lean brown fingers, his keen blue eyes were on her face, awaiting her question.
It never came.
Dying to know just what foul crime this tall, bearded man had committed, Natalie quelled her natural curiosity. He looked dangerous. She'd keep the gun.
Surprised that she did not question him, he lifted wide shoulders in a shrug and put out a hand to help her up from the hard floor. Again she shook her head and rose unaided.
He stood directly before her, tall and menacing. Those blue eyes were on her, appraising, even as she studied him, and she felt the wispy hair at her nape rise.
Abruptly, he stepped around her, lithe and pantherine. He lifted the lifeless marshal up over his right shoulder and went out into the sunset. She turned to watch when he returned and knelt beside the dead Mexican pair lying just outside the front door. The outlaw gingerly smoothed down the bright-flowered calico skirt, modestly covering an exposed brown thigh of the Mexican woman. Gently, as though she could still feel pain, he plucked the arrows from her bloody body, lifted her up into his long arms, and disappeared around the corner of the adobe.
In minutes he returned and carried away the Mexican stage agent, Carlos. Natalie quit watching when the dark, lean man put a booted foot on the step of the stagecoach and reached for the dead driver.
She took a seat at the plank table, feeling faint and weak. Hand firmly gripping the heavy Colt beside her on the long bench, she remained there until her criminal companion came back inside, having completed his gruesome chores.
She looked up. His unsettling blue gaze was on her.
"You've buried them?" she asked, fingers nervously twisting a silver teaspoon she'd lifted from beside a cold cup of coffee.
He shook his dark head. "I'll do it tomorrow."
"There's still a little light," she said indignantly, "surely the poor souls deserve—"
"Miss," he coolly cut in, "we need them."
She stared at him incredulously and felt hysterical laughter threatening to overcome her. "Need them? Dear God, what manner of animal are you?"
"The bodies will man guns at the windows come morning," he calmly explained. "It's a long shot; it may not fool Victorio but it's worth trying." He stepped away from the table and took off his black leather vest.
Natalie drew a labored breath. He'd just confirmed her unspoken fears. The Apaches would return. They'd be back come dawn; rested, angered, and ready to finish what they'd begun. She felt her flesh turn cold beneath the sheen of perspiration covering her tired, slender body.
Excerpted from Cloudcastle by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1987 Nancy Henderson Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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