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Sidewinders: Bleeding Texas
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Bo Creel knew he was in trouble.
One of the worst dangers he had faced in many, many years of wandering from one end of the frontier to the other, getting into all kinds of scrapes from south of the Rio Grande to north of the Canadian border, now stood right in front of him, ready to wreak havoc in his life.
"Well, what do you think?" Lauralee Parker asked as she turned around slowly with her arms held out at her sides to let Bo get a good look at the stylish blue dress she wore.
"I think it's, uh, really nice," Bo said. "Pretty. No, make that beautiful."
That description applied to Lauralee just as much as it did to the dress.
She was a lovely woman, slender in the right places and curved in the others, with a mass of curly blond hair that tumbled around her shoulders and eyes as blue as a high mountain lake. A tiny beauty mark near her mouth just added to her allure.
Any man would be proud to have Lauralee showing off a new dress to him and asking his opinion.
The problem was, Bo was old enough to be her father, and he couldn't quite bring himself to forget that, no matter how much he might want to at times.
"You think it'll be all right to wear to the social, don't you?" she asked.
"I think it'll be just fine," Bo assured her. "Every cowboy within fifty miles of Bear Creek will be there, and they're all going to want to dance with you."
"Well, that's just too bad," Lauralee said, "because I'm only interested in dancing with one man."
The gleam in her eyes as she looked at him made it perfectly clear whom she was talking about.
Bo cleared his throat and looked down at the floor. He needed to get out of here. It was bad enough he'd allowed Lauralee to lure him up here to her bedroom on the second floor of the Southern Belle Saloon.
The blatant invitation in her gaze just made it worse.
Bo turned his black hat over in his hands and said, "You wouldn't want to, uh, disappoint all those cowpokes. Some of them will have ridden all that way just to dance with you."
"Maybe, but I don't care. There are other ladies in Bear Creek who'll be glad to dance with them."
But none as pretty as Lauralee, Bo thought.
Not even close.
"I reckon I'd better head on back downstairs," he said. "Scratch is supposed to meet me as soon as he finishes picking up those supplies—"
"Scratch isn't going anywhere," Lauralee said as she came closer to Bo. Close enough to lay the fingertips of one elegant hand on his coat sleeve.
Bo wondered if women knew just how much of an effect it had when they touched a fella's arm like that.
He figured they did.
Lauralee went on, "If you're not downstairs when he gets here, he'll wait for you. You know as well as I do that passing some time in a saloon isn't going to be a hardship for Scratch."
That was true enough, Bo had to admit. His longtime trail partner Scratch Morton was a man who enjoyed a drink and the convivial companionship that came with it.
"So why don't you stop worrying?" Lauralee continued as she moved her hand up his arm to his shoulder.
She was close enough now that he could smell the lilac water she wore, and mixed with her own clean, natural scent, it made for a heady brew.
An insistent voice in the back of his head clamored for him to ignore the difference in their ages and go ahead and kiss her. That was what she wanted, after all.
Hell, he wanted it, too, he thought. He'd always been the more conservative, sober-sided member of the duo as he and Scratch roamed the West, a fact reflected in his parson-like garb, but that didn't mean he lacked a man's natural urges. It would be easy enough to slide a hand under that mass of blond curls, rest it on the back of Lauralee's neck, and lean down to taste those full, rosy lips ...
"You son of a bitch! Go for your gun, or I'll drill you where you stand!"
At the sound of the angry voice coming through the partially open door from downstairs, Lauralee's hand jerked away from Bo's shoulder. He stood up straighter and muttered, "Uh-oh. Scratch must be here."
As a matter of fact, for once the trouble had nothing to do with Scratch Morton. He was still inside the general store, where he had parked the wagon he'd driven in from the Star C, the ranch owned by Bo's father, John Creel.
Scratch had volunteered to pick up the supplies on the list written by Idabelle Fisher, John Creel's cook and housekeeper. Bo had decided to ride along and keep him company.
That came as no surprise. Bo and Scratch had gone most places together, ever since they'd left Texas and gone on the drift more than three decades earlier.
Their friendship had been forged in the bloody fires of war, specifically the revolution that had freed Texas from the brutal grip of the Mexican dictator, General Antonio López de Santa Anna. They were little more than boys when they met during the Runaway Scrape and then fought side by side in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto.
Despite that, they might have grown up and gone their separate ways, although remaining friends, if not for the tragic illness that had claimed the lives of Bo's wife and children several years later.
Unable to stay where there were so many painful reminders of what might have been, Bo had taken off for the tall and uncut ... and Scratch, with no real ties of his own to hold him down, had ridden along with him.
From time to time they had come back to Texas to visit friends and family, and this particular trip had stretched out for several months now, the longest sojourn they had spent in their hometown of Bear Creek for quite a while.
Usually by now one or both of them would have been getting restless, eager to indulge the fiddle footed impulses that years of drifting had ingrained in them.
The fact that they hadn't was starting to concern Scratch a mite.
Had age finally caught up to them?
Were they really ready to settle down at last?
Lord, it was a worrisome possibility, he'd found himself thinking on a number of occasions.
The store clerk was sure taking his time putting Idabelle's order together. Scratch tried to control the impatience he felt building up inside him.
Bo had gone over to the Southern Belle Saloon to say hello to its owner and proprietor, Lauralee Parker, whom they had known ever since she was a little girl running around in her father's saloon. Scratch was beginning to think he should've gone with him.
Lauralee wasn't a little girl anymore, that was for sure. She was as strikingly pretty a young woman as you'd find anywhere. Surprisingly enough, she still had that crush on Bo that had started when she was just a kid.
It was like she had made up her mind when she was young that Bo Creel was the hombre for her, and nothing was going to change it.
Scratch found the whole thing sort of amusing, but he also felt a little sorry for his old friend. Bo was a decent, honorable man—more so than Scratch, to tell the truth—and he didn't think it was right for Lauralee to be saddled with an old codger like him. She kept throwing temptation at him, though.
"Oh my goodness. Sir? Excuse me, but could you help me?"
The woman's voice made Scratch look around. He saw her standing beside one of the shelves along the wall. She wore a dark green dress, and a jaunty hat of the same shade perched on an upswept mass of brown hair. She wasn't young, Scratch noted, but she certainly wasn't old and decrepit, either.
In fact, she was a mighty handsome woman.
"If you could give me a hand ..." she said.
"Why, sure," Scratch said. He took off his cream-colored Stetson, revealing a full head of silvery hair.
His teeth—his own teeth, not store-bought—gleamed whitely in his tanned, weathered face as he grinned at her. He held the hat over the breast of his fringed buckskin jacket and went on, "I'm Scratch Morton, ma'am, and I'm mighty pleased to make your acquaintance."
"I'm Mrs. Emmaline Ashley," she said. "Would you mind getting that down for me?"
She pointed at an enameled blue teakettle that appeared to be just out of her reach on the shelf. Scratch took it down and handed it to her, saying, "There you go, ma'am."
She had introduced herself as a missus, which changed things somewhat. When he was young, it hadn't been completely unheard of for him to get romantically entangled with a gal who had a husband, but these days he tended to steer well clear of such complications. He was too blasted old for drama.
But just because she was married didn't mean he couldn't be pleasant and polite to her. He continued to smile at her as she looked the teakettle over and nodded in satisfaction.
"Thank you, Mr. Morton," she said. "I hated to bother you."
"Oh, it was no bother," Scratch assured her.
"I would have asked my husband to reach it for me if he'd been here, the way he always did."
"He somewhere else today?" Scratch asked.
He didn't realize the finality of her statement until after the words were out of his mouth.
"I'm afraid Mr. Ashley has passed on."
"Oh! I'm mighty sorry—"
"It's all right," she told him. "It's been several years now."
"Well, I'm sorry for your loss, anyway."
"Are you married, Mr. Morton?"
"No, ma'am. I never got hitched."
"Not the marrying kind, eh?"
"It's not that I got anything against the, ah, state of matrimony," Scratch hastened to explain. "It just never has worked out that way for me, I guess you'd say."
"I understand," she said as she nodded. "Sometimes fate takes its own sweet time about these things."
Emmaline Ashley held up the teakettle and said, "If I buy this, I'll want to try it out. Would you care to stop by my house for tea later this afternoon, Mr. Morton? I live only a short distance from here on Caldwell Street."
That was an intriguing invitation, Scratch thought, even though he'd never been what anybody would describe as a tea-drinking sort. Emmaline was a widow, so that meant things could go in one of two different directions.
She might be looking for a new husband to replace the one who'd passed away.
Or she might be more interested in the sort of pleasures a man could give her, without insisting on an actual marriage and all the complications that brought with it.
There was only one way to find out.
He had just opened his mouth to tell Emmaline that he would be happy to have tea with her, when the dad-blasted clerk called from behind the counter, "I've got that order all ready to load up now, Scratch."
That was a reminder he had to take the supplies back out to the Creel ranch, but he could always ride into town again after he finished that chore. And Emmaline had specifically said "later this afternoon" when she invited him for tea.
So this wasn't an obstacle that couldn't be overcome, Scratch told himself. Once again he was about to accept Emmaline's invitation when there was another interruption.
The double doors at the front of the general store were wide open, and the Southern Belle was right across the street. Scratch heard loud, angry voices coming from the saloon's bat-winged entrance, followed by a crash. Sounded like some sort of ruckus had broken out over there.
And Bo had gone to the Southern Belle, Scratch reminded himself.
He clapped his hat on his head, told Emmaline, "Wait just a minute," and rushed toward the doors.
Behind him, she exclaimed, "Well, I never!"
Regretfully, Scratch thought that was probably going to turn out to be true.CHAPTER 2
By the time Bo reached the landing and looked down into the saloon's main room, he could feel the tension that filled the air in the place, along with the familiar smells of sawdust and beer and tobacco smoke.
A big hombre with rust-colored hair under his battered, thumbed-back hat stood next to the bar, stiff and obviously angry. His fingers curled as his hand hovered over the butt of the gun holstered on his hip. He was ready to hook and draw.
Bo recognized the redhead, as well as the four cowboys who stood behind him, ready to back his play. He was Pete Hendry, the foreman of the Star C ranch. The other punchers rode for Bo's father, too.
Facing them were half a dozen men, also in dusty range clothes. Some of them looked vaguely familiar to Bo, but he couldn't recall where he had seen them before.
One of those men, a lean gent with a pencil-thin mustache, said with a faintly arrogant smile quirking his lips, "Rein in that temper of yours, Hendry. We didn't come into town looking for trouble, just a friendly drink."
"You won't find anything friendly here," Hendry snapped. "There are other saloons in Bear Creek. Go have your drink there."
"The Southern Belle is the best. We have just as much right to be here as you and those Star C boys do."
"We won't have you and your Rafter F scum stinkin' up the place," Hendry responded.
Lauralee had followed Bo to the landing. He sensed her beside him and asked quietly, "Who's the fella with the mustache?"
"His name's Trace Holland," she said. "He rides for Ned Fontaine."
Bo nodded slowly. He had already figured out that much from what Hendry had just said.
Ned Fontaine was from back east somewhere. He had come into this part of Texas a while back and bought the old Winthorp ranch from Jim Winthorp's widow. Renaming the spread the Rafter F, Fontaine and his two sons, Nick and Danny, had set out to make it the biggest, most successful ranch in these parts.
That had put them on a collision course with John Creel and the Star C, and the friction between the two outfits had grown steadily worse ever since. A number of brawls had taken place here in Bear Creek when riders from the Creel and Fontaine ranches found themselves in town at the same time, and it looked like Pete Hendry was trying to start another one.
This confrontation had the potential to be worse, though, Bo sensed. As he looked at Trace Holland, he read something in the man's stance and in his eyes that set Holland apart from the other cowboys.
Bo had seen enough gunhawks to know that was what he was looking at now.
Pete Hendry was plenty tough, as well as being a good hand with both cows and men, but he was no gunfighter. There was a good chance that if he drew, Holland would kill him.
"Get back in your room," Bo told Lauralee. She didn't need to be out here if lead started flying.
She didn't take kindly to being given orders, though. She said, "This is my place, in case you've forgotten."
Then she stepped past Bo before he could stop her and started down the stairs.
"If you men are bent on killing each other, do it outside," she called down to the two groups of cowboys. "Even with sawdust on the floor, it's hard to mop up a bunch of blood."
Her intervention eased the tension some, but not by much. Hendry still looked like he was ready to slap leather as he said, "I don't mean to cause a ruckus, Miss Lauralee—"
"Then don't," she interrupted him.
Trace Holland reached up to touch the brim of his hat as he said, "Beg your pardon, Miss Parker. The boys and I just came in for a cold beer on a hot afternoon. We didn't know it was going to cause a problem."
Bo noticed that Holland used his left hand to make that respectful gesture. The Rafter F man's right hand stayed within easy reach of his gun butt, another indication that he was accustomed to trouble.
Holland was lying, too. Bo knew that he and the men with him must have seen the Star C brand on some of the horses tied at the hitch rail outside the saloon. They had been aware before they ever came in here that they were going to encounter some of John Creel's crew.
Bo had come down the stairs after Lauralee. When he reached the bottom, he said, "Back off, Pete."
Hendry glanced at him.
"No offense, Bo, but I don't work for you. I ride for your pa and his brand. And I'm not gonna put up with any insults to John Creel or the Star C."
Holland said, "How did we insult anybody? We just came in for a drink."
Excerpted from Sidewinders: Bleeding Texas by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2014 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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