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Whidbey Island, Washington 1894
"Don't scream, or I'll shoot," warned a low-pitched voice.
Leah Mundy jerked awake and found herself looking down the barrel of a gun.
Sheer panic jolted her to full alert.
"I'm not going to scream," she said, dry-mouthed. In her line of work she had learned to control fear. Lightning flickered, glancing off the dull blue finish of a Colt barrel. "Please don't hurt me." Her voice broke but didn't waver.
"Lady, that's up to you. Just do as you're told, and nobody'll get hurt."
Do as you're told. Leah Mundy certainly had practice at that. "Who are you," she asked, "and what do you want?"
"Who I am is the man holding this gun. What I want is Dr. Mundy. Sign outside says he lives here."
Thunder pulsed in the distance, echoing the thud of her heart. She forced herself to keep the waves of terror at bay as she blurted, "Dr. Mundy does live here."
"Well, go get him."
"I can't do that."
She swallowed, trying to collect her wits, failing miserably. "He's dead. He died three months ago."
"Sign says Dr. Mundy lives here." Fury roughened the insistent voice.
"The sign's right." Rain lashed the windowpanes. She squinted into the gloom. Beyond the gun, she couldn't make out anything but the intruder's dark shape. A loud snore drifted down the hall, and she glanced toward the noise. Think, think, think. Maybe she could alert one of the boarders.
The gun barrel jabbed at her shoulder. "For chris-sakes, woman, I don't have time for guessing games"
"I'm Dr. Mundy."
"Dr. Leah Mundy. My father was also a doctor. We were in practice together. But now there's just me."
"And you're a doctor."
The large shape shifted impatiently. She caught the scents of rain and brine on him. Rain and brine from the sea and something else
"You'll have to do, then. Get your things, woman. You're coming with me."
She jerked the covers up under her chin. "I beg your pardon."
"You'll be begging for your sorry life if you don't get a move on."
The threat in his voice struck like a whip. She didn't argue. Spending three years with her father back in Deadwood, South Dakota, had taught her to respect a threat issued by a man holding a gun.
But she'd never learned to respect the man himself.
"Turn your back while I get dressed," she said.
"That's pretty lame, even for a lady doctor," he muttered. "I'm not fool enough to turn my back."
"Any man who bullies unarmed people is a fool," she snapped.
"Funny thing about bullies," he said calmly, using the nose of the Colt to ease the quilt down her body. "They pretty much always manage to get what they want. Now, move?"
She yanked off the covers and shoved her feet into the sturdy boots she wore when making her calls. Island weather was wet in the springtime, and she'd never been one to stand on high fashion. She wrapped herself in a robe, tugging the tie snugly around her waist.
She tried to pretend this was an ordinary call on an ordinary night. Tried not to think about the fact that she had been yanked out of a sound sleep by a man with a gun. Damn him. How dare he?
"Are you ill?" she asked the gunman.
"Hell, no, I'm not sick," he said. "It's
For some reason, his hesitation took the edge off her anger. Another thing she'd learned about bulliesthey almost always acted out of fear.
"I'll need to stop in the surgery, get some things."
"Where's the surgery?"
"Downstairs, adjacent to the kitchen." She pushed open the door, daring to flash one look down the hall. Mr. Battle Douglas was a light sleeper, but despite his name, he wouldn't know the first thing to do about an armed intruder. Adam Armstrong, the newcomer, probably would, but for all she knew, the handsome timber merchant could be in league with the gunman. Aunt Leafy would only dissolve into hysterics, and Perpetua had her young son to consider. As for old Zeke Pomfrit, he'd likely grab his ancient rifle and join her abductor.
The gunman jabbed the Colt into her ribs. "Lady, don't go doing anything foolish."
Leah surrendered the urge to rouse the household. She couldn't do it. Couldn't put any of them at risk.
"You may call me Dr. Mundy," she said over her shoulder. Her hand slipped down the banister as she made her way to the foyer. The man wore a long, cloaked duster that billowed out as he descended, sprinkling rainwater on the carpet runner.
"You're not a lady?" he whispered, his mouth far too close to her ear. His voice had a curious raw edge to it.
"Not to you."
She led the way along a hall to the darkened surgery. In the immaculate suite that occupied the south wing of the house, she lit a lamp. Her hands shook as she fumbled with a match, and her anger renewed itself. As the blue-white flame hissed to life, she turned to study her captor. She noted a fringe of wet hair the color of straw, lean cheeks chapped by the wind and stubbled by a few days' growth of beard. An old scar on the ridge of his cheekbone. He pulled down his dripping hat brim before she could see his eyes.
"What sort of ailment will I be treating?" she asked.
"Hell, I don't know. You claim you're the doctor."
Leah told herself she should be hardened to doubt and derision by now. But some things she never got used to. Like someoneeven a dangerous man hiding behind a gunthinking gender had anything at all to do with the ability to heal people.
"What are the symptoms?" She lifted the flap of her brown leather medical bag, checking the contents. Capped vials of feverfew, quinine, digitalis, carbolic acid disinfectant. Morphine crystals and chloroform. Instruments for extracting teeth and suppurating wounds. A stethoscope and clinical thermometer sterilized in bichloride of mercury, and a hypodermic syringe for injecting medicines into the bloodstream.
"The symptoms?" she prompted.
"I guess.. fever. Stomach cramps. Babbling and such. Wheezing and coughing, too."
"Coughing blood?" Leah asked sharply.
"Nope. No blood."
It could be any number of things, including the dreaded scourge, diphtheria. She tucked in some vials of muriate of ammonia, then took her oiled canvas slicker from a hook on the back of the door. "I'm ready," she said. "And I might add that forcing me at gunpoint isn't necessary. It's my calling to heal people. If you want to put that away, I'll still come."
He didn't put the gun away. Instead, he pushed the flap of his duster back to reveal a second gun. The holsterdarkened with grease for quicker drawingwas strapped to a lean, denim-clad hip. The gun belt, slung low around a narrow waist, bore a supply of spare cartridges in the belt's loops. Clearly, he was a man unused to being given what he asked for. He jerked the barrel toward the back door, motioning her ahead of him.
They passed through the waiting room of the surgery and stepped out into the night. She could feel him behind her, his height and breadth intimidating, uncompromising.
"Is it far?" she asked, indicating the coach house, a black hulk in the sudden gloom. "Will we need the buggy?"
"No," he said. "We're going to the harbor."
A seafaring man, then. A pirate? Whidbey Island saw its share of smugglers plying the waters of Puget Sound and up into Canada. But this man, with an arsenal of weapons concealed under his long, caped coat, had the look of an outlaw, not a pirate.
As frightening as he was, he needed her. That's what was important. The oath she had taken compelled her to go. What a peculiar life she led. In the back of her mind, her father's voice taunted her: Leah Jane Mundy, when are you going to settle down and get married like a normal woman?
The rain drummed relentlessly on her hood. Her booted foot splashed into a puddle and stuck briefly in the sucking mud. She looked back at the boardinghouse. The tradesman's shingle hanging above the front porch flapped in the wind. In the misty glow of the gaslight Leah always kept burning, the white lettering was barely legible, but the stranger had found it: Dr. Mundy, Physician. Rooms To Let.
"Get a move on, woman," the gunman ordered.
The light in the surgery window wavered. There was nothing beyond the lamp glow but blackness. No one in sight but the stranger holding the gun on her, pushing it into her back to make her hurry.
Just who the devil was this man?
Rising Star, Texas
"He called himself Jack Tower," the sheriff said, taking off a pair of ill-fitting spectacles. "Course, there's a good possibility it's an alias."
"Uh-huh" Joel Santana stroked his hand down his cheek, the skin like shoe leather beneath his callused palm. Damn. He'd been looking forward to hanging up his gun belt and spurs, and now this. Many was the evening he'd spent thinking about a parcel of green land, maybe a flock of sheep, and a good woman with broad hips and a broader smile
He crossed one aching leg over the other and absently whirled a spur with his finger. "And you say the fugitive took off six weeks ago?"
Sheriff Reams laid his spectacles atop the hand-drawn map on the desk. "Six weeks Saturday."
"Why'd you wait to call me in?" Joel held up a hand. "Never mind, I know the answer. You and your deputies had the situation under control. This is the first time your posse ever let one get away, am I right?"
"As a matter of fact, Marshal, it's true."
"Uh-huh." It always was. These greenhorns always waited until a criminal had hightailed it across state lines and the trail had grown cold; then they called in a U.S. Marshal. "I guess we'd better get down to it, then. You say this manthis Jack Towermurdered the mayor of Rising Star?"
Reams narrowed his eyes. "Damn right he did. Probably wasn't the first. He had a hard look about him. A mean look, like he didn't have a friend in the world and didn't care to make any."
"Who witnessed the murder?" asked Joel.
Reams hesitated just long enough to rouse his suspicions. "No one's come forward. You need to bring that desperado back and hang him high."
"Hanging folks is not my job, Sheriff." Joel lumbered to his feet, fancying he could hear his joints creak in protest. Too many years on horseback had ruined his knees.
"What in blazes do you mean?"
Joel pressed his palms flat on the desk and glared at the map. The shape of Texas formed a mutated star, its panhandle borders so artificialyet so critical when it came to enforcing the law. "I bring in fugitives, and I'll bring in this Tower fellow. But his guilt or innocence isn't up to us. That's for a judge and jury to decide. Don't you forget it."
But he would have, Santana knew. Likely if Jack Tower hadn't fled, he'd have been strung up on a high limb and left for the buzzards to pick over.
"So what've you got?"
The sheriff lifted the map, revealing an ink-drawn illustration of a man with cropped, spiky hair, a beard and mustache. A small scar marked one cheekbone. The drawing had indeed captured the mean look.
"This here's your man. He didn't leave much behind. Just a tin of Underhill Fancy Shred Tobacco and half of a broken shirt button." Reams handed them over.
"Oh" he laid a tintype photograph in front of Joel "and this here's the woman he fled with. Her name's Caroline. Caroline Willis."
Leah heard a heartbeat of hesitation in her abductor's grainy voice before the word "wife."
It wasn't her place to question, but to heal. Still, she couldn't help wondering why the simple statement hadn't come easily to the stranger's lips. It had been her unfortunate lot to attend the deaths of more than a few women while the husband stood nearby, wringing his hands. There weren't many things more wrenching than the sight of a man who knew he was about to lose his wife. He always looked baffled, numb, helpless.
She glanced over her shoulder at the gunman. Even in the uncertain light of the ship's binnacle lamp, he didn't appear helpless. Not in the least. At the harbor, he'd forced her into a small dinghy. With the gun in his lap and his fists curled around the oars, he had rowed like a madman. It took him only moments to bring her out to a long schooner anchored offshore.
The twin masts had creaked in the whipping wind. She'd shivered and climbed down an accommodation ladder into the belly of the boat. The smell of damp rope, mildewed sailcloth and rotting timber pervaded the air of the once-grand aft stateroom.
An inspection hatch on the aft bulkhead flapped open and shut in the driving wind. Someonethe outlaw, she guessedhad been working on the steering quadrant or perhaps the rudder. Several bolts and cap nuts rolled along the planks. A fraying rope led out through the hatch as if he'd repaired it in hasteor in ignorance of Puget Sound gale winds.
The stranger's wife lay in an alcove bunk on freshly laundered muslin sheets, her head centered on a plump pillow, her eyes closed and her face pale. Suddenly, Leah no longer saw the run-down boat or the faded opulence of the stateroom. All her fear and anger fled. She focused her attention on the patient. Without looking at the man, she motioned for him to bring a lamp. She heard the rasp of a lucifer and a sibilant hiss as he lit one and brought the lamp forward.
"Hold it steady," she commanded. "What's her name?"
Another hesitation. Then, "Carrie," came the gruff reply.
Observation. It was the most basic tenet of healing. First, do no harm. Generations of doctors had violated that rule, poking and leeching and bleeding and cupping until a patient either died or got better out of sheer exasperation. Thank heaven it was more common practice these days for well-trained doctors to stand back, to observe and ask questions.
And so she observed. The woman called Carrie appeared almost childlike in repose. The dainty bones of her face and hands pushed starkly against translucent flesh. Nordic blond hair formed a halo around her small face. Her dry lips were tucked together in a thin line. Frail, defenseless and startlingly beautiful, she slept without seeming even to breathe.
And she looked as if she was on the verge of dying.
Leah unbuckled her slicker, shrugged it off, and held it out behind her. When the stranger didn't take it immediately, she gave the garment an impatient shake. It was plucked from her handgrudgingly, she thought. She refused to let her attention stray from the patient.
"Carrie?" she said. "My name is Dr. Mundy. I've come to help you."
Leah pressed the back of her hand to Carrie's cheek. Fever, but not enough of a temperature to raise a flush on the too-pale skin. She would have no need for the clinical thermometer.
Gently, Leah lifted one eyelid. The iris glinted a lovely shade of blue, vivid as painted china. The pupil contracted properly when the lamplight struck it.
"Carrie?" Leah said her name again while stroking a thin hand. "Can you hear me?"
Again, no response. The skin felt dry, lacking resilience. A sign of dehydration.
"When was she last awake?" Leah asked the man.
"Not sure. Maybe this afternoon. She was out of her head, though. Didn't make a lick of sense." The shadows shifted as he leaned closer. "What is it? Will she be all right?" Tension thrummed in his voice.
"I'll do my best to figure out what's wrong with her. When did she last have something to eat or drink?"
"Gave her some tea with honey this morning. She heaved it up, wouldn't take anything else. Except" He broke off, drew in a breath.
"She asked for her tonic. She needs her tonic." Leah groped in her bag for the stethoscope. "What sort of tonic would that be?"
"Some elixir in a bottle."
Elixir. Snake oil, most likely, or maybe a purgative like calomel, Leah guessed. It had been her father's stock-in-trade for years. She herself was not that sort of doctor. She found her stethoscope. "I'll want to analyze that tonic."
She adjusted the ear tips and looped the binaurals around her neck. Working quickly, she parted Carrie's nightgown at the neckline. Again, she was struck by the freshly laundered cleanliness of the garment and bedclothes. It seemed incongruous for an outlaw's lady. A gunman who did laundry?