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Colt Fraser had been raised to appreciate God's gifts, and he was gazing appreciatively at one of them right now -- the curvaceous backside of the passenger climbing into the stagecoach ahead of him. The sweet hips and long legs encased in those pants clearly belonged to a woman.
When the couple had arrived at the stagecoach relay station in New Mexico, Colt had assumed they were both men.
Now he realized that this one was definitely a woman, even though she was dressed in a shirt, vest, jeans, boots, and hat.
They were the only passengers who boarded the stage, and he sat down in the seat opposite them and offered his hand to the man.
"How do you do? I'm Colt Fraser. Looks like we'll be traveling together."
"Jeff Braden," the man said and shook his hand. "This is my sister, Cassie."
Colt tipped his hat. "Miss Braden." He had already noticed she wasn't wearing a wedding band.
She nodded and asked, "You a drummer, Mr. Fraser?"
"No. I'm California bound."
"That accent sounds southern," Jeff Braden said.
"I'm from Virginia, sir."
The "sir" was from habit; Braden looked like he wasn't dry behind the ears yet.
"Most folks heading west stay on the Oregon Trail," the woman said. "It's unusual to cut off onto the Santa Fe Trail. You picked a good time for your sight-seeing; right now the Apaches are quiet. Of course, that can change from day to day."
"I managed to dodge Yankee bullets all through the war. I figure I can do the same with Indian arrows," Colt said confidently.
"You'd find it more difficult than you think. The Apaches are skilled warriors and you'd be fighting them on their ground. I imagine you were in the Confederate army, Mr. Fraser."
"Yes, ma'am, the cavalry. I had the privilege of serving under the command of General J.E.B. Stuart until he was killed."
"Sorry, I never heard of him."
"No other cavalry officer can compare to his skill and courage in battle. Confederate or Yankee."
"However, I have heard of that illustrious Confederate officer William Quantrill and the merciless raid he led on Lawrence, Kansas." Her tone was bitter. "It must have taken a great deal of skill and courage to order the slaughter of innocent women and children, along with the men."
"That raid was not sanctioned by any officer in the regular Confederate army, Miss Braden. and those were not regular Confederate soldiers in his command, but renegades and drifters. Neither I, nor any of my fellow officers, held any respect for the man. He was a mad killer in the guise of an officer, and a blight on the Confederacy and the brave and honorable men who have served it."
"My apologies, Mr. Fraser." She turned her head and stared out of the window.
He couldn't blame her for what she said. Others had said the same. Seemed like since that incident, every soldier or civilian south of the Mason-Dixon Line had borne the scorn for that son of a bitch's actions.
Colt studied her. Cassie Braden was intriguing. Despite her masculine clothing, she had an attitude that made him think of finishing schools and liveried servants.
She certainly was as pretty as any woman he'd ever met, even without all the powder and stuff some women put on their faces to beautify them. Her eyes were the blue of a summer sky against the smooth, sun-deepened bronze of a face shaped with high cheekbones, a straight nose, and a wide mouth with full, kissable lips.
These features, combined with a curve of determination to her chin, gave her face both delicacy and strength. The same characteristics he had noted in her bearing -- a vulnerability when she asked about the war, along with a rebellious boldness.
And the way those pants hugged her hips and long legs didn't hurt, either.
Back home in Virginia, females didn't dress in pants that clearly outlined their hips and legs. And those legs of hers were long, all right; she was easily eight inches above five feet.
From the time he'd crossed the Mississippi and headed west, he'd noticed a lot that was different from the rolling green countryside of Virginia. And the sight of her in those pants had certainly improved the view.
The thought of how they'd feel wrapped around his legs in bed invaded his thoughts, and he couldn't help grinning. His brothers would agree, especially Garth.
Lord, how he missed Garth and Clay. They'd rarely seen one another during the war, and they had no sooner gotten home then Clay and Garth headed west to California.
As if reading his mind, Cassie Braden suddenly asked, "Do you have family in California, Mr. Fraser?"
"Two brothers and a sister."
"So they were in California during the war?"
"No, they came West right after it ended. Our sister Lissy eloped with a Yankee soldier, and Clay and Garth headed West to find her."
Her mouth twitched in amusement. "Imagine that! Eloped with a Yankee!"
He didn't miss the sarcasm; so she was more cat than kitten. "Truth is, Miss Braden, at the time, I couldn't understand how a born-and-bred Virginian like my sister could run off with a Yankee."
"Does seem outrageous, doesn't it?"
"But, since she's happily married with a baby and all, seems it all ended well, and I'm happy for her."
"Even though she married a Yankee. You have a tender heart, Mr. Fraser. So, unable to bear the shame of failure, your brothers remained in California, too."
Colt raised his open palms. "Okay, so this is all amusing to you. I'll shut up." He nodded toward Jeff Braden, slumped and asleep. "Your brother didn't find it entertaining, though."
"You mean you're going to stop without telling me what happened with Clay and Garth. Why did they remain in California?"
"I really don't think you want to hear more."
"Why not? It helps to pass the time."
"My folks had six sons and one daughter," Colt continued, "but my youngest brother perished during Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Other than our older brother Will, Clay had always been the most level-headed among us. That's why it was so perplexing when he up and married a Yankee woman the same day he met her. And now they have a baby boy, too."
"He didn't!" she exclaimed. "And a Yankee, too! Tell me, Mr. Fraser, is marrying a Yankee a hanging offense in Virginia?"
"Forget it. You've had your laugh."
"What do you expect! You talk as if marrying a Yankee is a disgrace. I happen to be a Yankee, Mr. Fraser, and I resent the implication."
"I can assure you, Miss Braden, that unlike my siblings, I have no inclination to wed -- so your spinsterhood is not at risk with me. And I recommend that instead of sarcasm, you begin using that kissable mouth of yours for just that -- or it's unlikely your spinsterhood will ever be in jeopardy, even with a damn Yankee."
Colt opened his newspaper with a snap. As always, the news was bad. People dying from cholera in the East, and an Apache Indian chief by the name of Cochise was conducting murderous raids on settlers and the cavalry in Arizona.
He glanced over the top of the paper at the couple. Jeff had awakened and was sitting in a stupor staring into space. The flame in the firecracker had gone out, and she was gazing out the window.
They bore a deep resemblance to one another. The woman appeared to be in her early twenties, a few years older than the man. Besides having auburn hair and blue eyes in common, their facial features were similar -- but looked a damn sight better on her than they did on her brother.
As Colt studied him, Braden took a silver flask out of his pocket and took a long draught from it.
"Jeff, please stop drinking," Cassie Braden said. "You've had too much already."
"Hush up, Cassie. I don't need you for a mother." He took another drink and returned the flask to his pocket.
Braden's speech was slurred, and Colt had to agree: the man had had enough to drink already.
He resumed reading an article about the rise of outlaw gangs. Since the war's end their number had increased dramatically, and they were as much a menace as the Indians, who were resisting the influx of settlers on their hunting grounds.
Of special note was the James Gang, led by Jesse and Frank James, two brothers from Missouri. Another gang gaining national attention was the Younger Gang, four brothers named Cole, Jim, Bob and John.
According to the newspaper, these two gangs had joined together and were now robbing trains and banks in Missouri, across the Kansas plains, and as far west as Colorado. God help the poor people in their path.
Apparently there was even a female outlaw named Belle, riding with a gang led by an outlaw named Tom Starr.
Female outlaws, bank robbers, wild Indians, and long-legged, slim-hipped women dressed in men's pants -- the West truly was wild.
Colt put the paper aside and stared out the window. The countryside was as wild and startling as the people who rode it. Erosion and extinct lava flows had carved out shallow canyons and craters around the narrow, mountainous trails, with stretches of colorful mesas abundant with forests, white-blossomed yucca, and deep-colored wildflowers. Trout streams, rivers, and cold-water lakes were everywhere.
Restless, he leaned back and reached for the newspaper again. The coach jostled and rocked like a cradle in a windstorm, which soon made reading too much of a challenge. Braden must have had a cast-iron stomach to keep that liquor down, with all the rocking going on.
As the hours wore on, Jeff Braden drank himself into a stupor. His sister had closed her eyes, but Colt could tell she wasn't sleeping.
Suddenly the blast of a gunshot broke the silence, and the driver pulled up sharply on the reins, sending a cloud of dust into the air. The woman was thrown forward and ended up in Colt's lap.
"I'm sorry," she gasped, her blue eyes wide with embarrassment. She quickly shifted over to her seat.
"No problem, Miss Braden. The pleasure was all mine."
Jostled awake, Jeff slurred, "What's going on?"
Five men with drawn pistols rode up to the stagecoach.
"Everybody out," one of the men ordered. "Get those hands up and grab some air."
Colt wasn't about to argue with a man holding a drawn pistol. "Just stay calm, Miss Braden," he advised.
She looked at him with contempt. "Practice what you preach, greenhorn." She raised her arms and climbed out.
Colt followed, and Jeff Braden staggered after him.
Gus, the driver, was out of the box and stood with raised arms. Buck, who had been riding shotgun, was lying on the ground, wounded.
"Get them gunbelts off."
The order came from one of the men who was still mounted: he appeared to be the leader.
There were five outlaws, and Colt figured he could only take out two before they took him down. That would probably get the Bradens killed, too. The fact that the outlaws hadn't shot the driver probably meant they didn't intend to shoot the passengers, either. He unbuckled his gunbelt and dropped it to the ground.
A couple of the outlaws tossed down a box from the top of the stage. As one of the other bandits shot off the lock, the piercing blare of a bugle sounded nearby. The sound was music to Colt's ears.
"Dammit!" the leader of the gang snarled. "Hurry up before that damn cavalry gets here."
One of the men stuffed the box's contents into a black bag, and the men all mounted.
To Colt's horror, Jeff Braden snatched up his gun.
"No, don't try it," Colt yelled, but Braden shot at the riders as they started to ride away.
Colt shoved the woman out of the line of fire and dove for his own gun as the outlaws fired back. He felt the sting of a bullet on his left shoulder but got off a shot, and the man holding the black bag fell from the saddle just as the cavalry arrived and thundered past in pursuit.
Blood oozed profusely from the wound to Colt's shoulder. Feeling woozy, he slumped down and leaned back against a tree. He pulled the bandanna from his neck and awkwardly tried to make a compress with his good hand. Cassie hurried over to help him while Gus went to the aid of Buck.
"Here, let me do that." She folded the bandanna into a thick pad and pressed it against his shoulder. "I'm going to have to take your shirt off."
"Why, Miss Braden, I'm shocked. You must control yourself; we've barely just met."
"Do you men ever have anything but sex on your mind?" she grumbled in disgust. Quickly but gently, she slipped the shirt off him.
"You did that quite speedily. Have you had a lot of practice removing a man's shirt?"
"Yes, I have." His mocking look changed to surprise, and she grinned. "In case you haven't noticed, I wear men's shirts."
"Oh, I've noticed," he said. "And so appealingly that I can barely keep my eyes off...ah...it."
"So I've noticed," she countered as she studied the wound.
"Will I live, nurse?"
"Not if you don't hush up," she said. "Or I'll finish the job for that guy who tried to kill you."
Cassie pressed the bandanna against the open wound again "Now, hold the compress tightly against it to stem the bleeding."
"I'm quite aware of what to do. I've been shot before."
"By a cuckolded husband, or some no-good, lowdown Yankee, Fraser?"
"The latter, Miss Braden. But for now, can we cease refighting the war and get this over with before I bleed to death?"
Gus approached with the canteen and set it down beside her. "Figure you'd be needing this."
Cassie looked up fretfully. "How bad is Buck?"
"Still unconscious. He's hurt bad, Cassie; he's got a bullet in him that has to come out. How's Fraser here?"
" 'Fraser here' will be just fine, but I prefer 'Colt,'" Colt said good-naturedly.
"I think it's just a surface wound," Cassie informed him. "I couldn't see any sign of an entry or exit hole. You've lost a lot of blood, though, so I'll have to get a bandage on it."
"What about the fellow I shot?" Colt asked.
"That sure was one hell of a shot, Colt. That fella won't be holdin' up no more stagecoaches."
"He's dead?" Cassie asked.
"Yep. He'll soon be pushin' up posies on Boot Hill. Bank'll be happy to get the money delivery that these hombres tried to get away with. You sure picked the right one to take down, young fella."
"I didn't pick him, Gus. He just made the mistake of being last in line."
Gus nodded, and then frowned. "Cassie, I've been thinkin' that we shouldn't try movin' Buck. It's 'bout ten miles into town, so I'll unhitch one of them horses to ride in and bring back the doc."
"I think you're right."
"Trouble is, there's no tellin' if them outlaws are gonna show up again, so I hate leavin' you alone with all these wounded men."
"Why don't you send Braden?" Colt asked.
"He's drunker than a hoot owl and passed out cold."
"That figures," Colt said. "Well, once I get a bandage on my shoulder, I can handle a weapon if those outlaws come back."
Cassie returned to the task of bandaging his shoulder. "I don't suppose you have a nice clean, white handkerchief in your pocket."
"Never carry one."
She thought for a moment, then ordered, "Close your eyes."
"Just do as I say." Cassie turned her back to him, removed her shirt, and pulled off the white camisole she was wearing. Quickly donning the shirt again, she buttoned it and turned back to him. His eyes were wide open. She might have known he'd ignore her request.
With a strong tug, she managed to rip the garment in half, then tore a smaller piece off and wetted it from the canteen. She began to cleanse the wound gently, washing away the blood and dirt with light strokes.
"I just thought of something," she said. "Hold this compress on the wound until I get back." Hurrying over to Jeff's sleeping body, she dug into his pocket and found the flask, then returned to Colt.
"There's enough whiskey in here to sterilize your wound. I'm afraid this is going to hurt, though," she cautioned, and gingerly poured the liquid on the wound.
Colt sucked in a deep breath when the whiskey hit, but the shock gave him something to concentrate on besides her nearness.
She folded the other piece of torn camisole into a compress, poured the remaining drops of the whiskey on it, and then pressed it against the wound. Pulling the bandanna from around her own neck, she looped it around his shoulder and underarm to hold the compress in place.
Satisfied, she bent down and looked him in the eye. "What do you think?"
Those kissable lips of hers were temptingly close, but before he could carry out his thought, she straightened up.
"You can use a little cleaning up." Wetting the cloth again, she began to wash away the smeared blood on his chest.
Cassie's strokes gradually slowed as she became more and more aware of the warm flesh beneath the thin cloth. She'd never felt this funny tingle when she'd rubbed salve on Jeff's or her father's chests when they had colds.
With an open palm she slowly ran the cloth across the corded brawn of his chest and shoulders. Her hand itched to toss aside the cloth and run her fingers through the cluster of dark hair that trailed down his flat stomach and disappeared into the top of his pants.
She'd never experienced this feeling before, and it frightened her as much as it excited her.
What was she thinking of? She barely knew this man, and didn't much like him, to boot.
Cassie quickly stepped back. "That should do it. Do you need any other help?"
"I'll say. Now that you've got that camisole of yours tucked tightly against my chest, I can't help thinking of the last place it'd been. And that thought's causing a powerful pain...elsewhere. Don't suppose you'd consider healing that area, too, Miz Cassie?"
Cassie bolted to her feet, her face flushed in fury, her eyes blazing in contempt. "You, sir, are indescribably rude -- and depraved!"
His warm chuckle followed -- as warm as the hungry gaze that regarded the sway of her hips as she stormed away.
Colt got up slowly and tested his legs. They seemed steady enough, so he started to move to where Cassie was kneeling beside Buck, to offer her an apology. His teasing had gotten way out of hand, which wasn't like him.
Jeff was sitting up looking around groggily. "Where in hell is my flask?"
"Over there," Colt said.
Jeff staggered over and picked up the flask. "What the hell; you drank it all!"
"He didn't drink it, Jeff," Cassie said. "I used it to sterilize his wound."
"You wasted my whiskey on a stinking Reb," he snarled.
Still feeling embarassed and frustrated, Colt turned on him.
"You drunken fool! They were riding away. You could have gotten us all killed!" He clenched his hand into a fist and punched the drunken idiot in the jaw.
The force of the blow shot directly up to Colt's wounded shoulder, and the last thing he remembered before blacking out was Braden staggering backward and falling to the ground.
Colt slowly fought his way through the darkness into a gray haze. When he groped instinctively at his aching shoulder, his hand encountered a thick wad of gauze. He opened his eyes to discover he was lying on a cot, but when or how he'd gotten there was a mystery to him.
Colt closed his eyes again, and slowly the picture materialized: the stagecoach, the holdup, and that damn kid setting off the fireworks. Then the burning sting of the bullet.
He sat up slowly and swung his legs over the edge of the cot. For a long moment he fought off the dizziness. When his head cleared, he looked around and gaped in shock. What in hell? He was in a jail cell!
Through the bars, he could see a man sitting at a desk across the room. "Hello," Colt called out.
The man got to his feet and approached the cell. Middle age had set in, in the jowls of his face and the thickened waist of his tall frame. His mouth pursed in a grin as he ran his fingers through thin, sandy-colored hair generously sprinkled with gray.
"So you're finally awake, Mr. Fraser. How are you feelin'?"
"Like I've been shot. How long have I been out?"
"Slept through the night and most of the mornin', son. Doc Williams gave you somethin' to keep you still."
That meant this was Thursday. Perplexed, Colt asked, "Where am I?"
"In Arena Roja."
"Red Sand, if you don't speak Mex."
"How far is that from Santa Fe?"
"'Bout a hundred miles. Name's Jethro Braden. I'm the sheriff here."
That came as no surprise, since a shiny silver star was pinned to his shirtfront. The bad news was his name -- especially if he was related to the drunk Colt had socked in the jaw.
Colt's expression must have betrayed his thoughts, because Sheriff Braden grinned. "Yep, I'm his pa. You in the habit of throwin' punches, son?"
"Only with drunks who start gunfights. He could have gotten us all killed -- your daughter included."
Braden nodded. "Yep, Gus said the same."
"What happened to the wounded guy riding shotgun?"
"He wasn't as lucky as you. Doc Williams had to dig a bullet out of Buck, and he'll be laid up for a couple weeks. The shot you took only peeled off some of your flesh. Trouble is, you bled like a stuck pig. You'll have to take it easy for a couple days."
"Did the cavalry catch up with the robbers?"
"No, they got away. But thanks to you, the money was recovered."
"Then why am I locked up?"
"Door to the cell ain't locked. We ain't got no hospital in town, and the doc only has one cot in his office. Buck needed it worse than you did, so we put you up here for the night."
"Then I'm free to leave."
"Soon as you get your legs under you. You're lookin' shakier than a newborn colt."
"I'm fine." Colt sat down on the edge of the bunk and pulled on his boots, then got up and shoved the cell door open. "Where's my hat and gunbelt?"
"Hangin' on them pegs over there. You can claim your traveling bag at the stage office."
Colt tried not to stagger as he walked over and strapped on the belt.
"You're welcome to bunk in the cell 'til you're up and around. Bed and food are on the house."
Colt plopped his hat on and shook his head. "Thank you, Sheriff. I appreciate your offer, but I think I'll be more comfortable in the hotel." A horrifying thought crossed his mind. "You do have a hotel, don't you?"
"Yep, with clean sheets and no bedbugs." The sheriff opened a drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper. "Want to sign this receipt, Mr. Fraser? There's a fifty-dollar reward on the head of each of them robbers -- dead or alive."
Fifty dollars was a lot of money. Considering the fact that he'd only gotten a grazed shoulder out of it, it was worth having taken the bullet.
"This is an unexpected surprise," Colt said, tucking the money into his shirt pocket. "When does the next stage come through?"
"Depends where you're headed."
"Pulled out this mornin'."
Dammit! Just his bad luck. "When's the next one?"
"Not for a week, son. But the hotel's got hot baths and the grub's good, too. It's even better at the restaurant, if you like steak."
"Sounds like it's just what I need." Colt headed for the door.
"You take care, son." The sheriff's ruddy face split with a wide grin. "I hear you're quick with that iron you're packin', so keep it leathered. I don't want no trouble in my town."
"I'm not looking for any trouble, Sheriff."
They shook hands and Colt stepped out into the bright sunlight and paused to look around.
Arena Roja was typical of the other towns he had passed through -- small, compact, and dusty. A dozen wood-and-adobe buildings stretched for a couple of blocks on each side of an unpaved main street. Scattered houses boxed in the business buildings from the streets behind them.
As Colt walked along the wooden sidewalk that lined the main street, a rider astride a magnificent black stallion rode up on the walk and blocked his path. Colt glanced up and recognized Cassie Braden.
He tipped his hat. "Miss Braden." He might have known she wasn't the type to ride sidesaddle.
She scowled down at him. "Mr. Fraser, I'm grateful to you for saving my life, but I don't figure I owe you anything. I can take care of myself."
"I'm sure you can, Miss Braden. But I don't understand your animosity. Your brother could have gotten us all killed."
"He didn't, though, did he?"
"Thanks to the timely arrival of the cavalry."
"Keep away from my brother, Fraser, or you'll have me to deal with."
"Is that a promise, Miz Cassie?" He grinned broadly. "As much as I would welcome the opportunity of dealing with you, I settled my differences with your brother with my fist. I have no further quarrel with him. If he has one with me, I suggest you offer your advice to him."
His remark brought amused chuckles from the spectators that had been attracted to the scene.
"He's sure got your number, Cassie," a male voice shouted from the crowd.
Her growl remained fixed on Colt. "Consider yourself warned, greenhorn."
When she started to leave, Colt grabbed the reins to halt her and said softly, "It must be painful, Miss Braden, to ride with that thorn you have up your...posterior."
Her darkened glare pierced through him like a saber thrust. Wheeling the horse, she rode off.
Colt watched her ride away. That trim little ass of hers could sit a saddle admirably, but she sure had no sense of humor. Wonder what it took to get a smile out of her?
Two young boys and a girl with a battered hat pulled over her red hair stared at him intently as he passed the livery. He nodded and smiled at them. The youngest one grinned back, and the other two glared at him. Colt figured they must have Braden blood, although, in all fairness, the sheriff seemed to be a very affable fellow.
Colt stopped at the stage office and claimed his luggage, then continued on to the two-story hotel. Its sign promised clean sheets and a hot bath for a dollar a night.
Several men sat in chairs in front of the hotel, and they nodded and offered a "Howdy" when he drew up to them. It became clear that his reputation had preceded him, because they all knew who he was and introduced themselves to him. After chatting with them or several minutes, he excused himself to go register.
Colt liked the feel of the town; maybe hanging around here for a week wouldn't be so bad. He'd get well rested, and the people all seemed pleasant -- except for that termagant, Cassie Braden, and her redheaded kin.
He paused when the object of his thoughts and another young woman came out of a store across the street. Both women were slim and tall, but there the resemblance ended.
A straw bonnet was perched on the other woman's long blond hair, and she wore a bright blue dress.
Cassie must have seen him, because she said something to her companion and the woman turned her head and glanced in his direction. She made a comment to Cassie, and they broke out in giggles. Arm in arm, they walked away.
Good looking or not, Cassie Braden was a pain in the ass, probably as untamed as the mustangs that ran wild out here.
By nature, he was an easygoing man who got along with most people. He rarely started an argument, but it would be a cold day in hell before he'd run from one. And apparently Cassie Braden intended to stir one up. The wisest thing to do was give her a wide berth, but her unruly streak intrigued him.
"She just needs some loving and domesticating," his brother Garth used to say about a wild mare they'd had on Fraser Keep.
Yeah, Arena Roja was looking more and more interesting. A man needed a goal to focus on, and what better motivation than an intriguing and feisty female? His mother hadn't raised any sons who couldn't charm the skin off a snake, and Miss Cassie Braden wouldn't be the first filly he'd gentled to his touch.
Grinning, Colt entered the hotel.
Copyright © 2006 by Anna Baier