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Northwest of San Antonio, Texas, 1879
The men watched her with hungry eyes. Laurie Bender sat perfectly still outside the circle of firelight, hands bound before her, praying to disappear, knowing from the long, lustful stares that not one of the outlaws had forgotten about her.
She had endured a night and day of hell since her abduction from the train station in San Antonio. She'd been bound, tied and bounced over rough country in the back of a buckboard until she was black-and-blue. But that would be nothing compared to what awaited her next.
She cast a quick glance around the circle to find the biggest ruffian staring at her. The instant their eyes met, he rubbed his groin in the most lewd gesture she had ever seen. She dropped her gaze but could not contain her gasp of shock. The blood drained from her face so fast that her cheeks tingled and her ears began to ring. His laughter raised the hairs on her neck; it was a cruel sound filled with malice and menace. From then on, Laurie kept her eyes on the fire.
If only her father would come before it was too late. Had her letter reached him? Did he even know to expect her?
The shout came from the ridge above the outlaws' filthy little camp, squatting against the cliff of a box canyon around the remains of a broken-down adobe ranch house. The structure now lacked a roof and had been abandoned, Laurie supposed, for lack of one single thing a ranch needed.
All nine men set aside their bottles and rose to their feet, drawing their guns in unison. Three melted into the darkness while the others fanned out. Two mounted up and rode past the second sentry, who was perched high on the cliff above them.
The big one in the gray hat took the opportunity to come straight at her. He grabbed her hair as one might grasp a troublesome weed and yanked, forcing her head back.
He nuzzled against her neck above the top of the knife-pleated ruffle that topped her blouse and then brought his lips to her ear.
"I'm taking you now," he growled.
A pistol cocked close to Laurie's head and the man let go so fast she stumbled.
"I like ya, Larson. I do. But I can't abide a man not following orders." It was the voice of their leader, George Hammer. Laurie recognized it, would never forget it as long as she lived. Everyone in Texas had heard of George Hammer and his gang because he killed all witnesses of each robbery he committed down to the last woman and child. His soul must be as black as ink. Laurie knew he would be punished in the afterlife, but that belief was cold comfort now.
Her father was one of the men after Hammer. Laurie closed her eyes, imagining her father's division of Texas Rangers storming the camp.
The painful grip on her hair eased away and her scalp tingled in relief as Larson stepped back.
"Been a long time since we had a woman, boss," Larson whined.
"Now you apologize to our little guest." The outlaw stood with Larson, moving in a slow-motion pantomime that made Laurie's heart pound.
Hammer held the cocked pistol barrel pressed to his underling's forehead. Larson didn't seem to be breathing, but he sure was sweating. Laurie wondered how he liked being so afraid he couldn't draw breath? Suddenly he didn't look so tough.
"'Pologize!" demanded Hammer.
Larson's eyes shifted to her and she read the glittering hatred there. She prayed he would not have opportunity to seek revenge against her for this perceived grievance. She lifted her chin in defiance, feigning a bravery she did not feel, trying still to be her father's daughter.
"Yes, ma'am. I sure do. I sure am sorry."
"Now git," said Hammer, prodding him with the cold steel. Larson toppled like a falling tree, landed on his backside in the dust and then scuttled away like a scorpion. Laurie noted the pink ring mark on the outlaw's forehead, the imprint of George Hammer's pistol.
George Hammer grabbed Laurie's bound hands and squatted, drawing them both back to a seat on the log, as if they were good friends, except he kept a fist on the ropes, squeezing so the bonds rubbed her chafed skin. All the while he kept that pleasant smile fixed upon his lips. Laurie shivered.
"Time for that later, I reckon," he said, watching Larson disappear from the circle of light cast by the fire. Then he returned his gaze to her.
He looked her over with a critical eye and nodded. Laurie realized his smile never reached his eyes. Oh, no. His eyes were flat and lifeless as smoked glass.
"You don't look much like him. He don't have your dark hair or eyes. Your ma as pretty as you?"
She looked away in answer and learned her mistake when he grasped her chin and wrenched her forward to look at him.
"You know what your pa done to my kin?"
Laurie shook her head, anxiety sitting heavy in her belly, but she kept her posture straight, due for the most part to the long-boned corset that reached her hips, supporting her now that her spine proved unable to do so. She'd lost her straw hat and her upswept hair now tumbled in a dark tangle over one shoulder. Hammer settled beside her and stared off into the camp instead of at her. "Because of him, I had to bring my little brother home to our mama with his tongue all swollen and purple. Wasn't a proper hanging, just strung him up on his horse, so it didn't break his neck." The outlaw stroked Laurie's throat, washing her insides with cold terror. His grip tightened. "He strangled real slow. That's a hard death. Your pa did that."
Her voice croaked like a frog's. "I'm sorry for your loss."
He released her hands and gave them a gentle pat. He turned to face her, letting her see his bloodshot eyes narrowing on her with hatred. "You will be. I'll see to that. Time your pa gets here, there won't be much left." He snorted. "I mean to have justice. Promised my ma I'd make him pay. My little brother for his little girl. But we won't kill ya." He leaned in, so that her nose nearly touched his big greasy one. "But you'll wish we would." He glanced toward his men, all waiting for the rider. "First I'll let 'em get drunk, real drunk. Drunk men ain't gentle." He gave her knee a little squeeze. "'Spect they'll pass you around with the bottle. Gonna be a long night. So you best rest up."
She could hear hoofbeats now. Someone shouted.
"It's Boon. He's alone."
The men holstered their guns, except Hammer.
"You take his pistols?" asked their leader.
"Yeah," called one of the riders, holding up a holster with its weapon still sheathed within.
Three riders trotted into the circle of men. It wasn't her father or one of his Rangers. Her disappointment weighed down upon her. If she'd had a way to take her own life she surely would have. But George Hammer had taken even that, since he left her nothing with which to save herself from ruination.
Laurie's attention went to the new arrival. He rode a shod bay quarter horse with a white blaze down its nose and entered the camp at a slow walk as if he owned the place. The rider's lean body was sheathed in a tan canvas duster. A gray hat with a wide flat brim shaded his face. Beneath he wore a navy blue work shirt, fawn-colored kerchief, a scarred leather vest and dark striped trousers tucked into narrow black boots with pointed toes that fit neatly into the stirrups. He swung gracefully from the saddle, holding the reins as he lifted his gaze and scanned the group of men. Each stood at alert, hands poised to reach for their guns. Was this unarmed man so dangerous?
Laurie glanced to the rider's narrow hips, noticing he wore no holster but had maintained possession of a knife, judging from the antler handle protruding from the top of his right boot.
Boon stepped closer, approaching Hammer. He had a square jaw covered with dark whiskers that didn't obscure the cleft. He lifted his chin and now she could see his face. Her breath caught as she realized he was young and handsome. His size, confident manner and liquid grace had fooled her into assuming he was older, but he seemed to be her own age, perhaps only eighteen or nineteen. The firelight cast his bronze skin orange, but she could see his eyes were pale, like seawater.
"Thought you was dead, Boon." George Hammer stepped forward, grabbed Boon's collar and tugged, exposing his neck. "Don't see no rope burns." He pushed him away.
Boon caught himself easily and his spurs jangled.
Laurie noticed one hand ball to a fist before he relaxed, stretching out his long fingers. "Why ain't you dead?"
Boon met the outlaw's gaze with a steady one of his own.
"Don't know. My horse fell on me. Don't recall what came next. When I woke up you fellers were gone and the Rangers, too."
Hammer narrowed his eyes, his long nose nearly touching Boon's. "They caught Wilson. How'd you get away?"
Boon gave an easy shrug. "Caught my horse and rode the other way."
So he was an outlaw, just like the rest of them. Laurie's hopes flagged. Why had she let his beautiful face make her think he could not be a criminal? She had enough experience to know that looks were no indication of whether a man or woman was good or bad.
Cal stepped into the light. This was Hammer's second in command, a short, lean man. His trimmed goatee, air of authority and Southern accent all made Laurie wonder if he had been an officer for the Confederacy from one of the original secessionist states, Virginia or Georgia perhaps.
He approached Boon, circling him as if Boon was a recruit called out for inspection.
"They shot your horse, Boon," said Cal.
"But they didn't kill him. I did that, riding toward San Antonio. Bled to death not four miles from the last stage station. Told the station master I got bushwhacked by Comanche."
"Damn fine horse, that," said Hammer, straightening up, a note of remorse in his voice. "Fast as prairie lightning."
"He was that."
Hammer's mouth twitched. Laurie found herself holding her breath, though why she should care whether Hammer believed this man's story, she did not know.
"You been gone awhile."
Boon nodded. "Had to steal a horse and I ran into some trouble over the saddle."
Hammer whirled, closing the distance between them.
Laurie inched farther from the circle, praying for some opportunity to run. They had secured her wrists in front of her, but left her legs free. If she could get up on that horse she might get away in the dark. She was a good rider, or had been, in what now seemed another lifetime.
Hammer grabbed the front of Boon's shirt in his fist. Boon didn't cower the way Larson had, nor did he lift a hand to defend himself.
"You bring anyone this way and I'll skin you alive."
"I left that deputy in Abilene. Lay low for a few days. Been looking for you ever since. Tried the holdup we used north of San Antonio but found no sign. I thought that was where you was all heading."
Hammer released him and scratched the stubble on his chin as he eyed Boon. "Changed our mind after you went missing. Those damned Rangers hung Wilson."
Boon flicked his gaze at her. She stopped moving, frozen like a rabbit as her heart pounded in her throat.
He held her gaze an instant longer then turned his attention back to their leader. "Bender and his men."
Laurie's ears perked up at the mention of her father's name.
"Hung Wilson from a mesquite tree on the Brazos. Now I'm looking to hurt him bad. Got the opportunity when Freet here robbed a mail stage. Lucky Cal reads so good. Found us a letter from this little missy here." Hammer stroked her head and Laurie pulled away. Hammer laughed.
"Told us your train and when to meet you. Didn't you, Laurie?"
So that's how they found her. Laurie felt so stupid she could die. Probably would die. Why hadn't she noticed her escort was no Ranger? She should have noticed. Her father certainly would have.
"She's my revenge. Going to be sweet, too." He raised his voice to a yell. "Ain't she, boys?"
The men hollered and whistled while Laurie shivered as if she stood naked before them.
Hammer glanced to Laurie and she went hot and cold until her body seemed to vibrate like struck iron. Hammer patted Boon on the shoulder and led him a few steps away. "Spent some time at a new place outside of Wichita Falls rustling cattle, but too much law over that way so we came west again." Hammer released his hold on Boon's shoulder, that terrible, pleasant smile still fixed on his face. "You get your horse settled and come back. We'll talk about you joining up again. You bring anything?"
Boon nodded, sticking his thumbs beneath his belt. "When do I get my gun back?"
George held Boon's gaze. Boon didn't look away as the others always did. Hammer didn't like that kind of challenge, so the outlaw drew his gun and aimed his weapon at the young man's middle.
Boon held his easy stance, giving no indication he was frightened. George laughed.
"I think I'll keep your pistol for a while, Boon. You understand."
Boon nodded. The man was either the coolest customer Laurie had ever seen or just plain crazy.
The young outlaw turned back to his escorts and motioned with his fingers. The guard who'd accompanied him into the camp made a face, glanced at their leader and then handed over a Winchester repeater. Laurie recognized it, for it was similar to the model her father had given her for her tenth birthday, back when they were best friends instead of strangers.
Boon offered the repeater, butt first, to Hammer.
"Took it off a cowpoke who tried to stop me taking one of their beeves."
Hammer nodded, an absent smile returning to his face. He accepted the offering, spun and aimed at the men standing by the fire, shooting one round after another. The dust at their feet flew up as the men dove behind the ring of logs.
"Seems to fire a little low," said Hammer conversationally to Boon.
"Every weapon takes getting used to," he answered.
Hammer nodded, using the lever to expel the final empty round, and then relaxed his arm so that the weapon now hung at his side.
The outlaws dusted off their trousers and chaps as Hammer turned toward the dilapidated house. Laurie saw her opportunity, bolted to her feet and ran toward the horse Boon had vacated. She leaped and Boon caught her in midair, spinning her around as he captured her in his strong arms. He brought her back to the ground, keeping hold of her, pressing her back against his chest so she faced the others.
He held her as she struggled, his body hard and his grip unbreakable.
George Hammer stalked back to Laurie, opened his hand and slapped her across the face. The sting of the slap made her eyes water, but the damage could have been much worse had her captor not pulled her away from the direction of the blow the instant the outlaw struck.
Laurie blinked in shock, waiting for the second blow, but George Hammer seemed oblivious to what had just happened.
He narrowed his eyes on Boon and raised his voice. "Least one of my men ain't too drunk or too stupid to make himself useful." He whirled and kicked at the closest man, but he dodged, scrambling backward over the log.
"She gets away and I kill someone." He stalked toward the house.
Laurie turned her head to look back at her captor. His face was cold and grim, his jaw muscles bulged.
"Thank you," she whispered.