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Dodge City, Kansas, Late 1870s
Rachel St. Raimes muttered in annoyance as she left the boardinghouse where she lived to hurry down Front Street after dark. Loud guffaws and discharging pistols serenaded her. Texas trail drovers had arrived with their cattle herd earlier that afternoon. This evening they were celebrating the end of the trail by shooting out streetlights and gulping whiskey in more than a dozen saloons and gaming halls that lined the south side of the railroad tracks, which divided the town between rowdy and respectable. "Well, well, lookie what we have here, boys." Rachel tensed when she heard the man with a slow Texas drawl moving up behind her. She didn't glance back to see how many "boys" had swaggered across the tracks to wander the more civilized part of town. She quickened her step on the boardwalk when wolfish whistles filled the darkness.
"What's your hurry, darlin'?" came the second slurred voice.
When she refused to acknowledge their presence a third cowboy said, "Hey, no need to be rude to us. We just want to get to know ya, sweet thing."
Rachel clamped hold of her purse, prepared to slam it upside one of her hecklers' heads. Since the city ordinance prohibited carrying weapons on Front Street Rachel protected herself by stashing a lead weight from a cuckoo clock in her purse. Unsuspecting men hell-bent on manhandling her never knew what hit them until the five-pound weight collided with their skulls and gave new meaning to "getting clocked."
"Maybe we need to show this pretty, dark-haired chit some of our Texas charm, boys," the first cowhand declared.
Just then, Adolph Turner appearedfrom the darkened portal of the freight office, which sat four doors down from the boutique where Rachel worked. Although she disliked Adolph, he provided enforcement against the drunken trail hands.
"Go drink your fill on South Side and leave the woman alone," Adolph demanded sharply.
"Whoa there, friend," said the second cowboy. "We were just tryin' to be sociable."
Rachel wasn't surprised when a pistol appeared in Adolph's hand. He considered himself above the law and acted accordingly. "Be sociable on the other side of town," he growled. "There are plenty of prostitutes to go around."
Rachel gritted her teeth when Adolph snaked out his free hand to latch on to her elbow. He hauled her up beside him. All in the name of pretending to be gallant and protective, she reminded herself resentfully.
Take advantage of opportunity, that was Adolph's motto.
The instant the three unkempt cowboys raised their hands in supplication and backed off, Rachel pried Adolph's fingers from her upper arm. "Thank you," she said stiffly.
"Say the word and you can have my full protection. Your life will become so much easier, my dear," he purred seductively.
"I have made it clear on a number of occasions that I'm not interested in your proposition." Rachel turned to leave, refusing to trade one unpleasant encounter for another.
Adolph grabbed her arm again and towed her inside the freight office. He was still wearing that charming smile she didn't trust. Having dealt with more than her fair share of manipulative men in her twenty-three years of difficult existence, she considered Adolph one of the more dangerous varieties. He had wealth and influence backing him and he didn't hesitate to use it to get his way.
"I have a package for your boss," Adolph insisted as he shepherded Rachel through the dimly lit shop.
"Hey, Mr. Turner, we took care—"
Rachel glanced over her shoulder to see the three hirelings, who worked for Adolph, enter the shop. She had no respect for the scraggly looking henchmen. The strong-arm brigade collected outstanding debts from hapless customers, who were naive enough to accept loans from Adolph.
Max Rother, Warren Lamont and Bob Hanes grinned conspiratorially when Adolph hitched his thumb toward the front door. "Make yourself scarce. I have business to conduct with Rachel this evening."
"Sure, boss." Max smirked, exposing the gap between his two front teeth.
"We have a few more accounts to collect on," Bob Hanes added as his beady-eyed gaze roamed disrespectfully over her.
Warren Lamont, the beanpole henchman with stringy hair, didn't comment, just looked her up and down as if she were his next meal.
Rachel breathed a sigh of relief when the threesome turned on their heels and sauntered outside. The instant she was alone with Adolph, she jerked her arm abruptly from his grasp. She was wary and suspicious of men by nature and habit. It made her twitchy to have Adolph hovering close by.
"I'll tell Mrs. Grantham to pick up the package you claim to have for her tomorrow morning," she insisted.
Jennifer Grantham, owner of the boutique where Rachel worked, hadn't mentioned the arrival of an important package. She was leery of taking Adolph's word for it.
"It's a surprise gift for her daughter." Adolph pivoted to strut toward his office at the rear of the shop.
Rachel frowned skeptically while she waited at the threshold of the office. She was prepared to bolt and run at the first sign of trouble.
"It came all the way from Saint Louis on the afternoon train. I sorted it from the other goods before closing up shop for the night."
When Adolph opened the door to the storeroom and disappeared into the darkness, Rachel waited, her senses on high alert. Having good reason not to put faith in the male of the species, she didn't follow Adolph into the unlit room.
She flinched when she heard the clatter of wooden crates falling to the floor.
"Ouch! Blast it," Adolph yelped, then howled in pain.
Concern got the better of Rachel. She darted across the office to check on Adolph. She recoiled in alarm when he hooked his arm around her waist and hauled her up against him. She could feel his arousal pressing against her hip, and she elbowed him in the midsection to retaliate when he clamped his hand over her breast.
"Is that any way to treat the man who saved you from a mauling in the street?" he breathed against her neck.
Rachel shivered repulsively as she stamped—hard— on the toe of his boot. "Give me the package so I can be on my way."
His slate-gray eyes gleamed wickedly in the dim shaft of light that sprayed from the lantern in the office. "You are the package, love. I'm tired of chasing after you. You aren't a proper lady who has to be courted, but I can give you things that will make your life much easier and more enjoyable."
When his lips came down hard and demanding on her mouth, Rachel shoved the heels of her hands against his chest, then ducked her shoulder and plowed into his mid-section. Adolph stumbled over the crates that he had intentionally overturned to lure her into the storeroom.
With a squawk and a foul oath, the long-legged merchant went down in a graceless sprawl. Fueled by male pride and anger, he bounded up with his fist raised and his teeth bared.
"You troublesome hellion!" he snarled furiously. "I ought to turn my men loose on you after I've taken what I want. If you don't agree to become my mistress I might do just that!"
"And wind up like your previous mistress?" She smirked. "No, thank you."
Rachel had serious doubts about what really happened to his last mistress. Supposedly, she had been so overwrought when Adolph ended their affair that she had taken a flying leap from the second-story window of Four Queens Hotel. Of course, his three henchmen just happened to be on hand to corroborate his story.
There had been no investigation.
"You had better consider what might happen to the Granthams if you don't accept my offer," he growled threateningly. "One way or another, I always get what I want."
"You can go to hell and take your ruffians with you," she spat furiously.
"And you need to learn subservient obedience!" Adolph snarled at her defiance as he tried to backhand her.
Rachel darted sideways to avoid being slapped in the face. She wheeled toward the office, but Adolph latched on to her trailing skirt and yanked her backward. She heard the rending of cloth and she yelped as she staggered to regain her balance. Adolph laughed cruelly as he swung her sideways and sent her sprawling inelegantly on the floor. When she bolted to her feet, Adolph lunged at her, grabbing the neckline of her gown and sending buttons popping.
Outraged, she swung her weighted purse and hit him squarely in the jaw. Howling in pain and shock, Adolph staggered back. He tripped over a crate and slammed his head against the protruding corner of a shelf. He went down like a felled tree. Blood spurted from his head wound. Several objects tumbled from the shelf and landed on his face, chest and crotch.
He lay there so motionless that Rachel wondered if he was dead—especially after the point on an anvil crashed onto his chest and forced the last gulp of air from his lungs. Frantic, she glanced around to find clothing to replace her damaged dress. When she spotted stacks of men's shirts and breeches, she grabbed two of each. She noticed a wide-brimmed hat and a small pair of boots and she grabbed them, too.
The two shiny buttons Adolph had ripped off her gown shimmered in the shaft of light, so she picked them up. Better to remove all evidence of her involvement in what might turn out to be a fatal altercation in the storeroom, she decided.
Rachel surveyed Adolph again but still he hadn't moved. Blood dribbled down his neck to stain the starched collar of his expensive white shirt. Whether Adolph was dead or alive—and she couldn't be sure which—his attack had sealed her fate in town. She had no choice but to flee town. He was influential and vengeful, and she had no doubt that his hired goons would brutalize her, corroborate whatever story he dreamed up to explain the incident in the storeroom.
She predicted he would insist the incident was her fault, just as he assumed no blame when his former mistress took the short way down to the street three months earlier.
When she noticed the pistol tucked in the waistband of his breeches, she retrieved it hurriedly. Then she took money from his wallet to compensate for her torn dress and to provide for necessary traveling expenses. Clutching the garments to her chest to cover her torn gown, Rachel dashed out the back door. She scurried down the dark alley to find a place to change into the oversize men's clothing she had taken as a disguise. When she scampered back to the street— a good distance away from the freight office—she latched on to the first horse that didn't bear recognizable markings.
While the Texans shot out a few more streetlights on South Side and provided plenty of distraction by whooping and hollering, Rachel rode away from town. She lamented leaving without a word of explanation to her boss at the boutique. Rachel had become exceptionally fond of Jennifer Grantham and her ten-year-old daughter, Sophie.
For the first time in years, she had a trusted friend and she had settled into a satisfying niche. Rachel had made a life for herself after years of trading one occupation for another. In every case, the change was the result of her dealings with a man. Damn them one and all!
Now she was on the run, forced to acquire more new skills to support herself so she could survive. She detested feeling like a weightless feather picked up and driven by the harsh winds of fate, but she accepted her destiny. She rode off into the night, carrying a stolen pistol and stolen money and wearing stolen clothing. In addition, she was riding a stolen horse.
Most likely, she had killed the domineering bastard who had pawed at her. Even if he had it coming—and he definitely did—she would be branded as a criminal and forced to remain on the run because of a situation that was beyond her control.
Her Cheyenne grandmother, Singing Bird, would have lectured her sternly for neglecting to avoid bad omens like Adolph Turner. Dead or alive, he would likely make her sorry she had ever been born.
Rachel took a moment to contemplate how many women had hanged for crimes in Kansas—and prayed to white and Indian deities alike that she wouldn't become one of them.
Three weeks later
Rachel glanced sideways while she sat on the wagon seat beside Dr. Joseph Grant. He took a swig from an embossed bottle of a patented cure-all labeled Yarrow Kidney Oil, then ignored her when she frowned in disapproval. Doc, who had saved her from disaster and uncertainty, had offered her a job in his traveling medicine show. Unfortunately, he had the bad habit of drinking his curatives—to excess—after they packed the wagon and rolled down the road each evening.
"It isn't even dark outside and already you're drinking your supper," she fussed at him—and not for the first time.
"Mind your own business, girl," Doc Grant mumbled. "I didn't pry into your past when I found you dressed in men's clothes and walking on foot in the middle of nowhere."
True, he hadn't, and she was exceptionally grateful for that.
After the fiasco with Adolph, she had ridden five miles down the road, then turned loose the horse she had commandeered for her getaway. She hoped the animal had found its owner so horse thieving wouldn't be among the list of offenses on her Wanted poster. She had walked in the darkness for hours before she heard the jangle of harnesses. She had come upon Doc, who was fast asleep on the wagon seat, while the team of horses plodded down the road on their own accord.
Rachel watched Doc tip up the bottle again to guzzle another drink. "I appreciate the fact that you didn't ask prying questions when we met, but that doesn't change the fact that fifty-proof rotgut elixirs and tonics are going to burn a hole in your stomach if you don't watch out."
"It's my stomach."
Doc smiled crookedly at her and her irritation dwindled. She couldn't stay mad at a man who was unique to the medicine-show business. He was a certified physician, not a fraudulent quack, and he preached against relying on patented cure-alls. He insisted that folks contact qualified doctors to treat their ailments. Doc was genuinely devoted to administering to patients in the small Kansas communities. Although he provided the expected entertainment, he examined dozens of injured citizens, and mixed ingredients from his stock of authentic compounds that he stored in the colorfully decorated medicine wagon he had purchased.
Unfortunately, when the sun went down he turned to the curatives he denounced and behaved as if it was his mission in life to drink all the tonics himself. He refused to tell Rachel what demons hounded him when his workday was done, so she couldn't help him fight his battles. But then, she refused to explain where she had been before she had appeared suddenly from the darkness to halt Doc's plodding team of horses.
Rachel was destined to tolerate his drinking if she wanted to remain with his unique medicine show. Tradeoffs. That's what life seemed to be about, she mused as she took the reins from Doc's hand when he draped himself carelessly against the back of the wagon seat. She was allowed to wander the back roads, away from Adolph Turner's wrath—if he had survived. In return, she assisted Doc Grant while he treated patients, then she entertained the crowds by singing, accompanied by Ludy Anderson who played a banjo, harmonica or piano, if there was one available at a local saloon. She also dressed in costume to narrate Indian legends that her Cheyenne grandmother had passed along to her.
At night, she put Doc to bed to sleep off his bouts with the intoxicating tonics, though they weren't potent enough to fend off the demons that came calling from the darkness.
Doc levered himself up on the seat, then glanced this way and that. "Where's Ludy?"
"He decided to ride ahead and drum up business for us in Crossville," she replied.
"Drum up business? Ha!" Doc sniffed, then guzzled more Kidney Oil. "He's not fooling me a bit. He enjoys carousing with the ladies and he rides into every town on our circuit ahead of schedule, every chance he gets."
Rachel shrugged nonchalantly. She liked Ludy, who treated her like a sister, not a potential lover. He left her in charge of Doc more often than not, but Rachel wasn't complaining. All she wanted was to remain on the move and make enough money to support herself until whatever furor she might have caused in Dodge City died down.