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Samantha Blair's fingers flexed as she watched the tall, lean man approach with an easy, graceful stride. The man she intended to stop at any cost.
She had stepped off the crumbling porch of the saloon just seconds earlier and stood in the middle of the rutted street in a stance that was all challenge.
Her long duster coat was confining and hot on this unusually warm day, but it disguised her sex. So did her loose shirt and worn pants. A hat covered her short hair, and she'd pulled the brim down over her forehead to cut the glare from the afternoon sun.
Sweat dampened her leather gloves as she stared across the forty feet that separated her from the man with a hard face and a star on his vest. His skin was deeply browned by the sun, his hair black and his eyes deep set. He looked like a hawk to her, dark and predatory. His grim expression did nothing to allay the impression of deadly competence. He moved with a grace that persisted even as he halted.
She pushed her coat back on the right side. He stopped, stiffened when he saw the gun. The intent.
The dry wind kicked up dust, and a hot sun bore down on her and the man who had hunted Mac, one of the three people in the world she loved, for years. She was a healer, not a killer. But now Mac was helpless. Critically wounded. Defenseless.
Except for her.
Mac didn't know she was here. The sign over the saloon— one of only a few structures left in the small mining town of Gideon's Hope after a disastrous fire—hung drunkenly by a chain, while the rest of the building looked as if it were about to fall in.
In the distance she heard Dawg yowl, as if he knew something was terribly wrong. The old hound would be clawing at the door, desperate to come to her aid.
"Go home," the lanky man said in a soft drawl. "I don't shoot kids."
She stiffened. "I'm not a kid," she retorted. She'd hoped her height would offset the impression of youth. "I've killed before," she added, willing him not to see the lie in her eyes. She hadn't killed, but she was good with targets. Very good. And fast.
She could do this, she reassured herself. She had to do it. She wouldn't let doubt rock her. She didn't want to kill the man. Blue blazes, she didn't want to kill anyone. Just stop him. A bullet in the leg would do. Or arm.
Always go for the heart or head. Hit anything else and your opponent will kill you.
How many times had Mac told her that when he'd taught her to shoot? To protect herself. Don't ever expect a gunman to give you an advantage. He won't. And the marshal was a gunman. She knew his reputation. Had dreaded it for years.
The lawman took a step toward her. "I don't want trouble. I'm looking for an outlaw."
"There's no outlaw here," she said.
His mouth curved into a half smile. "Then I'll look and be on my way."
"We don't like strangers, and we especially don't like the law," she said.
"Who is we?" he asked, his voice controlled. No fear. But then he was a lawman, and there was something very sure, very competent in every small movement.
"Don't matter," she replied, trying to keep her voice husky. Her heart pounded. Only the conviction that she alone stood between this man and Mac kept her from turning away.
"It matters to me," he said, taking another step.
It was now or never. If he got past her, then he would go after Mac. Her hand moved to her side, just inches from her Colt.
She had no choice. Mac was like a father to her. Now shattered by three bullet wounds, he lay unconscious in a room inside the saloon. She had to protect him. There was no one else. No one.
"Look, I have no quarrel with you," he tried again. "I don't even know who the hell you are."
"We don't like strangers," Sam repeated. She tried to hide her abhorrence at what she was doing. The fear that turned her blood cold in the hot temperature.
It's for Mac.
Archie was with Mac now. Archie, another of her "godfathers," was the oldest of the three men who had loved her mother and taken over Sam's care when her mother died. Now he needed glasses to see across the room. He would have tried to help if he knew what was happening. And he would have been killed.
Only she stood between the marshal and Mac.
She'd be damned—or dead—before she'd let this man take Mac to hang.
She could have ambushed him, but that went against everything Mac had told her. Only cowards ambushed.
"Leave," she tried again, hoping her desperation didn't reveal itself in her voice. "There's other guns aimed at you." Even as she voiced the words, she knew he wouldn't retreat. Knew his reputation as a ruthless hunter. Still, she had to try. Her heart pounded so hard she feared he could hear it even from a distance.
"Can't do that," the intruder replied. His lips were twisted into a frown. She tried not to look at his holster. Mac said never look at the holster. Or the hand. Look at the eyes. They told you when your opponent was going to draw.
The eyes. Not the face. Concentrate on the eyes. Dark with a glint of blue. Unblinking.
"I'm a U.S. Marshal looking for Cal Thornton. He might be going by the name of MacDonald these days," the lawman continued. "I don't have a quarrel with anyone else." His voice suddenly hardened as he added, "Unless they interfere."
"Don't know no Thornton," she said. "Or MacDonald, either. And that badge don't mean nothing to me."
His gaze didn't leave her face. "That old man in the livery said the owner of the horse there was in the saloon. Thornton rode that horse. There aren't many pintos like it."
"He's crazy. I won that horse in a wager."
"Then I'll just take a look and move on."
"No," she said flatly.
Something about her answer made his lips twist into a smile.
"Where is he, kid?"
She realized with a sick feeling that she'd confirmed the fact that Mac was here. It didn't make any difference, though. She'd seen him talk to old Burley, then start in the direction of the saloon without hesitation. If he'd ridden this far to find Mac, he wouldn't be stopped by a denial. Only a bullet could do that.
She held her ground as he took another step. His gaze met hers, weighing her. Watching her every move.
"No closer," she said. "I'll shoot."
"Are you sure, kid?" His voice was steady. "I bet you never shot a man before."
Her eyes didn't leave the marshal's face. It looked carved from a rock. Lines were etched around his eyes, and she sensed they weren't caused by laughter but by harsher emotions. He studied her with a cool perusal.
Then he started to turn away from her. "I'm going to look in that saloon," he said.
Now. She had to make her move now.
Her heart pounded hard, and her throat was so dry she could barely breathe. She shifted and concentrated. She was good with a gun. As good as any man, Mac said. But he had taught her to shoot only for self-protection. In her heart, she knew he would not approve of this.
"One more step, and I'll kill you," she said.
He turned back to her.
"Go away," she tried one last time. "No one here but a few ghosts."
"And you." His dark gaze seemed to search her soul. "What's he to you?" He was trying to disarm her. She knew it, even as she realized it might be working. She widened her stance slightly and didn't bother to answer. Instead, her fingers inched closer to her holster. Don't stand there talking, Mac had taught her. Some gunmen will try to distract you with talk.
"Don't know what you mean."
"Why isn't he here? Why is he letting a kid protect him?"
She didn't reply. She had the terrible feeling that every time she did, she revealed more than she intended, that he saw under the disguise she'd so carefully assembled.
"I just want to take Thornton to trial. It will be fair."
"Not bloody likely."
He raised an eyebrow at that. "Then Thornton is here."
Blazes. She'd said too much.
She hadn't had much time to plan after a friend of Mac's from the old days had ridden in three hours earlier to warn him that a marshal named Evans was on the way. He'd moved on after issuing the warning. The man had a price on his head, as well.
Evans. She'd known that name. He'd been dogging Mac for years. A vendetta, Archie said once.
She tried to keep her hand from shaking as she stared into the marshal's eyes. She didn't want to kill him. Blazes, she didn't want to shoot him at all. But she could. She knew she could. She was fast. As fast as Mac had been in his heyday, and she'd beaten him to the draw more than once.
But this was no game between teacher and student.
The lawman took a step toward her, his arms at ease. He obviously didn't believe she would really draw.
Her heart quaked. If he reached her, he could easily disarm her. She was strong for a woman, but he was well over six feet and she suspected his lean body was all muscle.
Her hand dove to the butt of her Colt. She saw a change in his eyes. He believed her now. His hand started toward his pistol, as well. A gust of hot wind caught her coat and flung the other side open.
Her finger pulled the trigger at the same second she realized his hand had stopped moving.
She heard the shot echo down the dirt road and saw the surprise in his eyes as his body buckled and he went down.
The impact of the bullet took Jared Evans by surprise.
Blood flowed from his right leg as it started to fold underneath him. The pain would follow. He knew that from too much experience. He prepared himself for it, even as he stared at the woman who had shot him.
In that split second as she went for the gun, the wind brushed open the coat and outlined the slim body. A woman. God damn, a woman. He'd been distracted just long enough…
He looked at her. She stood where she'd fired, gun firmly clutched in her hand.
He still held his gun as he fell to one knee. Instinct. Never let go. His fingers tightened around the grip. He tried to stand again, but his leg was deadweight. The dirt beneath him seemed to move, or was it him? He looked at his leg. Blood. Too much blood. An artery must have been hit.
He debated trying to return the shot. The woman still pointed her gun at him. He didn't know her intentions. She might come in for the kill. But he'd never shot a woman. He dropped the weapon and reached for the bandanna around his neck. Tie off the leg….
A woman, dammit.…
The sun beat down on him as pain hit him. Sudden, searing pain ripped through his thigh as blood continued to flow from the wound and puddle on the ground. He finally tore the bandanna from his neck when he saw the shadow of the woman. If she shot again…
He looked up. She stood above him, her right hand still holding the Colt. He looked at his own gun. He could try to defend himself. But he'd seen enough wounds to know he didn't stand a chance if he didn't stop the bleeding. And his fingers didn't want to work.…
She kicked his gun away and placed her own on the ground well out of his reach. Then she knelt beside him. She took the bandanna from his hands and without a word tied off his leg just above the wound and quickly twisted the cloth into a makeshift tourniquet. He noticed she did it expertly, as if she'd had more than a little practice.
"Hold that while I get something to keep it tight," she demanded.
He obeyed, even as the pain grew more intense. Think of something else. He concentrated on the woman's face, and his eyes met hers. Golden eyes. A light golden-brown, almost amber with flecks of gold. And the expression? Regret? Something more than that? An instant awareness flowed between them. Its power stunned him, left him dazed. The wound. It was the wound and the loss of blood.
But for an instant, her fingers froze on his leg. He knew from the intake of her breath she felt that odd pull, too. She hesitated, then breathed in deeply. Shaking her head slightly as if denying any reaction, she took a knife from a sheath on her gun belt and cut the trouser leg until she saw the wound.
He followed her glance. The bullet had driven cloth from his trousers into the flesh. He fought a wave of unconsciousness, even as he noticed her hands were callused. And gentle.
"The bullet's still inside," she said, confirming what he'd already suspected. Her voice trembled a bit, and he realized she wasn't as sure of herself as she tried to project. And her eyes weren't hard now. They were…worried.
Hard to believe.
He leaned on his arm, trying to muster his strength. He wanted to pull her down to him and demand answers. She couldn't have been aiming for his leg; it would be far too dangerous. He could have killed her. And why was she now determined to help him? He tried to sit up but nothing was cooperating.
"Stay still," she said sharply.
He struggled to focus. The golden eyes were hard to read, and he was usually very good at judging people. Her hat was gone, and short tendrils of damp fawn-colored hair clung to her face, softening it. Pretty, he thought. How could he ever have taken her for a lad? Even for a moment.
He hurt too damn much to notice anything else. Neither was he in a position to question her help at the moment. The leg burned like hell, and he was fading.
"What the Sam Hill happened here?" Another shadow appeared in the late-afternoon sun. An old man sidled next to the woman and brushed her aside to examine the wound. Time had worn trails in his cheeks and forehead. A gray beard reached to the collar of his red shirt. He scowled as his rheumy eyes inspected the wound.
Jared tried to sit, but he fell back. He could barely keep his eyes open. How much blood had he lost in those few seconds?
"Damnation, girl, what did you go and do?" the old man asked.
Her face flushed. "He came for Mac," she said simply, as if that were answer enough.
"Mac ain't gonna like this," the old man said as if she hadn't spoken. He loosened the tourniquet, and the bleeding started again.