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Colorado June, 1876
loss your guns down now!" a male voice shouted. "Hands in the air."
Elisabeth Hart couldn't see past the layers of netting on a woman's hat in front of her, but sounds of alarm rippled through the passengers who sat in the forward rows. The interior of the railcar was sweltering beneath the midday sun, and she blotted her eyes and forehead with her lace-trimmed handkerchief. What should have been a routine stop along the tracks to take on water had become life-threatening.
Thuds sounded as firearms hit the aisle. A man in a battered hat and wearing a faded bandanna over the lower half of his face came into view. Eyes darting from person to person, he snatched up the guns.
Another masked bandit appeared in the wake of the first. Sweat drenched the front of his dusty shirt. "Turn over all your cash and jewelry. Ladies' bags, too, and none of you gets shot."
Two more thieves held open gunnysacks and gathered the looted items.
Fear prickled at Elisabeth, but a maelstrom of rebellious anger made her tremble. How dreadful of these men to point guns and make demands. Every fiber of her being objected to their lack of concern for the safety of the passengers and the downright thievery.
She turned to the tall, quiet man who'd been sitting beside her on the aisle side of the bench seat since they'd left Morning Creek, noting the way his hat brim shaded piercing green eyes. He watched the gunman with intense concentration, but made no move to stop what was happening. "Aren't you going to do something?" she whispered.
The man cast her a glare that would have scorched a lesser woman. One eyebrow rose and he gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
"They're going to rob us," she insisted. "You still have your gun. I saw it inside your jacket when you leaned to lower the window earlier."
He focused on the man wielding the revolver, but spoke to her. "Can you count, lady? Just give 'em what they want so nobody gets hurt."
Pausing beside them, the masked robber pointed his gun directly at her seat partner's chest. The man gave Elisabeth a pointed glare and calmly raised his hands in the air before looking up.
"Right in here," the robber said.
The seated man handed him a coin purse and tossed several silver dollars and his pocket watch into the bag.
The barrel of the gun swung to Elisabeth. "Lady?"
Elisabeth's temper and sensibilities flared, but fear kept her silent. Her heart beat so frantically, she thought her chest might burst. She wanted to refuse, but didn't want anyone to get hurt. Begrudgingly, she forfeited her black velvet chatelaine pocket with the silver handle and removed the gold bracelet she'd received for her last birthday, dropping both into the burlap sack.
The robber pointed at her neck. "You got a chain under there."
She clapped her hand protectively over the plain gold ring that rested on a chain beneath her damp and wrinkled cotton shirtwaist. "This was my mother's!"
"Just give it to him," the green-eyed stranger cajoled in his maddeningly calm manner.
"Now just wait," Elisabeth argued with a glare. "You don't understand. This was my mother's wedding ring."
The stranger gave her a quelling look that singed her eyelashes. Passengers called out their displeasure and shouted for her to give up her jewelry same as they had.
The ring was all she had of her mother. Since she'd drowned, Elisabeth had worn it every day and tried to fill the woman's shoes. The wedding band symbolized Elisabeth's childhood and her sacrifices. Parting with it would break her heart but she didn't want to be the cause of anyone getting shot. What would her father have to say in this situation?
She closed her eyes. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. Her true treasures were in heaven. The ring wasn't as important as the lives at stake.
The robber leaned down close as if he meant to take the ring from her neck. She raised her hand to her throat to prevent him from touching her. She could do this on her own. He grabbed Elisabeth's collar and yanked so hard that she jerked forward and the top button popped off.
In that same second, a grim click sounded. The bandit paused dead still.
Elisabeth stared into his shining dark eyes, and the moment stretched into infinity. She could hear her blood pulsing through her veins, her breath panting from between her dry lips. Was this the day she was going to die and meet her Maker?
"Take your hands off the lady, or you're dead." From beside her, the stranger's low-timbered voice was calm, but laced with lethal intent. The hair on Elisabeth's neck stood up.
No one else was privy to the robber's predicament. The green-eyed man's gun was still concealed between the two men, the business end jammed up against the robber's belly. Elisabeth dared a glance and saw the stranger's other hand clamped over the man's wrist, keeping that revolver pointed toward the floor and protectively away from her.
What could only have been seconds, but seemed like an hour, passed with their ragged breaths loud and the tick of a pocket watch encroaching on her consciousness.
"We ain't got all day, Hank!" one of the other thieves shouted.
The robber leaning over her attempted to move, and pandemonium broke loose. A shot rang out and Elisabeth's rescuer grunted in pain. The robber tugged at Elisabeth's collar, and the man beside her fired his gun.
The stench of gunpowder stung her nose. Men shouted. Women screamed. Elisabeth watched the events unfold in a haze of fear and disbelief.
The man who'd threatened Elisabeth crumpled, slumping sideways over the back of a seat. A horrifying crimson blotch spread across his shirtfront. She covered her mouth with her hand to keep from crying out.
The stranger leaped from his seat with his arm outstretched. "Get down!" he bellowed. A rapid succession of shots nearly deafened her. She cupped her hands over her ears, belatedly realizing he'd been ordering her to get down. Praying for safety for the other passengers, she folded herself onto the floor and knelt with her heart pounding. The shock of seeing that man shot and bleeding stole her breath.
Minutes passed with her thoughts in chaos. Would she see her family again? If the stranger protecting her had been shot, maybe other people were being killed or injured, and all because she'd delayed. She'd been going to give him the ring.
An eerie silence followed in the wake of the previous pandemonium, and it took a few minutes to comprehend what that could mean.
The sound of hesitant footsteps and voices told her the battle was over. She opened eyes she hadn't realized were squeezed shut, unfolded her body and peered over the seat in front of her.
One of the male passengers had picked up the gunny-sacks and now doled possessions back to their owners. In numb silence, she accepted her monogrammed velvet pocket and gold bracelet from his outstretched hand while her mind struggled to comprehend what was going on around her. A conductor and several other railroad men stepped over prone bodies on the floor. The sight made her stomach lurch. Elisabeth could only stare in numb disbelief.
One of the uniformed men made his way to the stranger who was seated on a bench with his back against the side of the railcar, his hand pressed to his ribs. "Find something for bandages!"
Spurred out of her frozen state of shock, Elisabeth straightened and stepped into the aisle. She raised her hem and, holding it in her teeth, tore a wide strip from her petticoat. "Here."
Others provided handkerchiefs and scarves, and the conductor handed over the wad of material for the fellow to press against the wound. "Sit tight," he said. "We'll get you to the doctor in Jackson Springs quick as we can."
Several men dragged the robbers' bodies to the back of the car, the dead men's boot heels painting shiny streaks of blood on the wooden floor. Her stomach roiled and she thought she might be sick.
"Are you all right?"
She swung her gaze to those green eyes, now dark with pain. "Y-yes, I'm fine."
Had he killed all of those men? He made a halfhearted attempt to sit a little straighter, but grimaced and stayed where he was.
He'd probably saved her life. Without a doubt he'd saved her from losing her precious ring. She perched on the edge of the seat beside his leg, and reached to replace his hand with hers, pressing the cloth against his cream-colored shirt, where it was soaked with blood that flowed from his side. "I'm Elisabeth Hart."
"Gabe Taggart," he replied.
"That was a very brave thing you did."
His expression slid into a scowl. "Didn't have much choice after the stupid thing you did."
Taken aback, she was at a loss for words. Before that horrible man had reached for her, she'd been prepared to hand over the ring. Now she felt foolish for ever hesitating.
Steam hissed and the train jerked into motion, picking up speed along the tracks. The stranger winced at the jerking movement. The woman who'd been sitting behind them made her way along the aisle in the rocking car. "Thank you for rescuing us," she said to Gabe.
Casting a disapproving scowl at Elisabeth, she returned to her seat. Elisabeth glanced at a few of the other occupants of the railcar and noted an assortment of scathing looks directed toward her. None of them understood the value she placed on the ring or the reason for her delay. She hadn't meant to endanger anyone.
Silently, she prayed for his life, asking God to forgive her for putting him at risk because of her selfish attachment to an earthly treasure. Out of habit, she reached into the jacket pocket of her traveling suit and rubbed a smooth flat stone between her fingers. The keepsake was one of several she'd picked up during her family's perilous journey to Colorado. The stones reminded her of the sacrifice and dedication that had brought them to a new state and a new life.
The train rocked and turned a bend. Several other passengers expressed their thanks to Gabe as the train neared its destination. When at last they reached Jackson Springs, the tale spread to the baggage men and the families waiting on the platform. Several men carefully loaded Gabe Taggart into the bed of a wagon and drove him away.
Grateful this particular chapter of her life was over and that Taggart would be getting medical attention now, Elisabeth released a pent-up breath and joined the others disembarking.
"Thank the Lord, you're safe."
Elisabeth turned with relief and embraced her stepmother, their bodies separated by the girth of Josie's growing belly beneath her pretty green day dress.
"What happened to that man?" her six-year-old half brother Phillip asked. He had shiny black hair like their father's and a sprinkling of freckles across his nose and cheeks.
"He prevented robbers from stealing our things," Elisabeth answered, trying to keep panic and guilt from her voice.
"Lis-bet, Lis-bet!" Peter and John, the three-year-old twins, jumped up and down waiting for her to greet them.
She picked up Peter first, kissing his cheek and ruffling his curly reddish hair. After setting him down, she reached for John. He kissed her cheek, leaving a suspiciously peppermint stickiness on her skin.
Josie turned and motioned forward a slender dark-haired young woman that Elisabeth had assumed was waiting for another passenger. "This is Kalli Tyler. She's my new helper. Your father thought I needed someone full-time, and I didn't argue. She's a godsend, truly. You two are going to get along well."
"I've heard all about you," Kalli said with a friendly dimpled smile. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine." She kept her voice steady, but her in-sides quivered in the aftermath of that drama. She collected herself to study the other young woman.
As her father's assistant, the notary public and a tutor, Elisabeth did have her hands full. It was wise of Father and Josie to hire additional help. At seventeen and sixteen, her sisters, Abigail and Anna, were busy with school, studies and social activities, and their bustling household did need extra assistance to keep things running smoothly.
"I brought a wagon and Gilbert," Josie told her. "You had bags, and I'm not up to the walk."
"Of course," Elisabeth answered. "Phillip, help me find my bags, please."
She turned toward the pile where luggage was being stacked just as two men carried one of the robbers from the train on a stretcher. He'd been shot in the chest and his vest was drenched with dark glistening blood. The man was quite plainly dead.