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By Elizabeth Lane
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
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Chapter OneWyoming Territory June 12, 1866
Molly Ivins darted through the tall prairie grass, her seven-year-old legs pumping beneath the folds of her faded calico skirt. The two coyote pups scampered ahead of her, stumbling on their oversize paws. There was no sign of fear in their playful yelps. They seemed to know, as Molly did, that the chase was only a game.
Her white-gold pigtails flew behind her as she ran. It felt so good to be out of the dusty, lurching prairie schooner, even for a short time. Molly knew she should be sorry that one of the rear wagon wheels had lost a felly, loosening the spokes and forcing her family to fall behind the wagon train while her father replaced the broken wheel. She knew they would have to travel well into darkness, alone on the prairie, to reach the safety of the camp. But the day was so bright and sunny, the prairie such a glorious carpet of sunflowers, mallow, Indian paintbrush and blue-eyed grass that Molly could not muster so much a twinge of regret. She felt as if she could run forever, all the way to Oregon!
The two coyote pups had escaped. Molly stopped and prodded the grass for them, but succeeded only in startling a locust into buzzing flight. She sighed, feeling damp and sweaty in the summer heat. The pups were probably watching her right now, their little pink tongues lolling as they laughed at her in their doggish way. She hadn't meant them any harm. She had only wanted to play with them. But never mind. It was time she headed back to the wagon before her parents started to worry.
Dragging her feet a little, she turned around and began to walk. She would watch for buffalo chips along the way, she resolved. Maybe if she returned with her apron full, her mother wouldn't scold her.
She trudged through the long grass, zigzagging a bit as her eyes scanned the ground for dried buffalo dung to fuel the cooking fire. When she finally glanced up, expecting to see the wagon ahead, she discovered that it was nowhere in sight.
Molly blinked and rubbed her eyes. She was so sure she had come this way. But never mind, she would just retrace her steps to the spot where she'd lost the pups. From there she would have no trouble finding her way back.
With a growing sense of unease, she searched for her own footprints. But it was as if the bent grass had sprung back into place with the passing of her feet. Only the blazing sun overhead looked familiar.
Heart pounding, she stood in one place and turned herself in a slow, full circle. The prairie stretched in all directions, like an endless, rippling sea. And she, Molly Ivins, was no more than a dot on its vast surface - no more than a rabbit or a bird or an insect. Even when she shouted at the top of her lungs, her voice was lost in the huge emptiness of it, like the squeal of a prairie dog.
"Mamaaaa ... Papaaaaa ..."
She shouted until her voice gave out. Only then did she hear it, off to her right - the unmistakable pop and whine of gunfire.
Molly's heart jumped as she wheeled and raced toward the sound. It was all right. Her father knew she was lost. He was firing his rifle to guide her back to the wagon.
But as she ran, the fear grew that something was wrong. There were too many shots, and the difference in their tone and pitch told her they were coming from more than one gun.
Sick with dread, she plunged forward, stumbling now over the hem of her long skirt. The gunfire had ceased, and a terrible stillness had fallen over the prairie. Even the birds were quiet. Molly tried to shout past the knot in her throat but could manage no more than a gasp. Each swish of her skirt against the sharp-edged grass seemed to split the silence like the crack of a whip.
Her foot sank into a badger hole. With a little cry, she pitched onto her hands and knees. Before she could clamber to her feet again, she heard the sound of voices. Men's voices. Laughing.
Did Indians laugh? Heart pounding, she crept forward. Through a blur of sunlit grass she could make out the faded canvas cover of the wagon. Dark shapes moved around it - men, four or five of them, dismounting, with their pistols still drawn. And they weren't Indians, she realized as she flattened herself against the earth and bellied closer. They wore long pants and cowboy hats, and their horses were saddled. They were white men.
Molly bit back the sickness in her stomach as a man emerged from the wagon with her mother's trunk. Laughing, he dumped the dresses and under-clothes on the ground and pawed through them, pocketing the few treasures he found. Someone in the wagon train had mentioned there were bandits in these parts who preyed on lone travelers. But why would they bother her family? John and Florence Ivins were good people, and they had so little to steal.
Where were her parents? As the thought slammed into Molly's brain, she heard her mother's rending scream and the sound of rough laughter from the far side of the wagon. The screams and laughter went on and on, like echoes from a nightmare. Molly shoved her hands against her ears and pressed her face against the cool prairie earth. Please make it stop ... please make it stop ... please -
A shot rang out, and the screams abruptly ceased.
"Let's get the hell out of here!" The tallest bandit had unhitched the team of horses and tied lead ropes to their collars. The others loaded whatever they could carry - flour, coffee, bacon, blankets and a few odds and ends of clothing - into bags behind their saddles. One of the men had taken her father's rifle. Another, Molly noticed, was wearing his old felt hat. Her father had looked so handsome in that hat, with his blue eyes twinkling below the broad rim. The knot of rage that tightened in Molly's throat threatened to choke off her breath.
Excerpted from Wyoming Wildcat by Elizabeth Lane Copyright ©2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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