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We had a little misunderstanding, but it didn’t amount to much. —Doc Holliday
April 30, 1885, Denver, Colorado
Daybreak found Anna Finch astride her horse, Maisie, heading for the foothills west of Denver. Her father had given her the mare before he decided riding horses across the high plains was not for well-bred women of marriageable age.
As the youngest of five daughters, Anna had always been able to tug on her father’s heartstrings and get whatever she wanted from him, and what she’d wanted was a proper saddle. Not one of those sidesaddle contraptions where a lady had to balance herself and her bustles to avoid falling and injuring more than just her pride. Despite her mother’s vocal protests, Anna soon had exactly what she wished for. That old saddle still served her well, though Papa long ago believed she’d retired it, along with her habit of watching the sun rise out on the prairie, astride a trusty horse.
As an observer of people, Anna had learned by watching her sisters, who’d been forced to give up all but the most docile pursuits, that there would come a day when this would be asked of her too. And once that day came, she’d no longer have the freedom to ride like the wind. Instead, she’d be left knitting in some parlor, praying for a breeze.
Shrugging off the thought, Anna urged her horse to a trot and let the mare find her own pace across the plain. Wild streaks of orange and gold teased a sky painted deepest purple as she loosened her hairpins and tossed them behind her.
If the maids wondered why they had to fetch so many hairpins from the mercantile, they never said. Nor did anyone question why Anna’s skirts were often coated in trail dust or why the occasional set of youth-sized trousers found their way into the carpetbag she carried on her rides. Those who resided under the Finch roof, be they servant or family, preferred a sort of self-induced blindness that relegated all but the most obvious to the edges of their vision. And sometimes even the obvious was missed.
Anna, on the other hand, prided herself in seeing details. As a girl, she’d begun the custom of writing in a journal. Once the risk of Mama or Papa coming across a written record of her life became a concern, Anna had turned to poetry and, on occasion, fiction. Writing poems and stories couldn’t be counted against her, she reasoned, so she’d created characters and events that gave her staid life in Denver a sparkle it might not otherwise have.
Her dream, however, was to use her love of writing to make a difference. Wouldn’t Mama and Papa be shocked to know their youngest daughter’s fondest wish was to become a journalist? She smiled at the idea of someday seeing her byline beneath a headline on the front page of the Rocky Mountain News or the Denver Times.
Maisie sidestepped a rift in the ground, jolting Anna back to a more careful observation of the trail ahead.
It did not escape her that tomorrow was May Day. How odd to think that the girls at Wellesley College would don their best gowns tomorrow morning and make merry at the May Day celebration, just as Anna had each year while there. Odder still that she’d gone from that to this, from a woman longing to be a wife to a woman bent on escaping the title by writing about it.
But that was another story, one she’d told time and again through the now-retired character Mae Winslow—named for the May Day celebration that spawned the first story.
Even her best friend Eugenia Cooper Beck, ironically one of Mae’s biggest fans, had no idea the real author of those embarrassing dime novels was Anna Finch herself.
Or had been, Anna corrected as another hairpin went flying. She’d negotiated for a dozen of those silly books, falling into the career backwards when a story she wrote as a joke for her literature class at Wellesley was mailed to an editor at Beadle & Adams on a dare.
Still, Mae’s stories had given Anna a venue for expressing how she felt about the confining institution of marriage as embodied by the arranged alliances her sisters had made. The fact that the only way she could get out of her contract was to marry the character off still galled Anna. At least she had escaped with a nice sum, now gathering interest at the National Bank of Boston.
An amount she would have gladly traded for the opportunity to garner a different type of interest from Daniel Beck, the only man who’d made her reconsider her feelings about donning the shackles of a wedding gown. However, her handsome neighbor, now Gennie’s husband, had never seen her as anything more than the girl next door.
Another hairpin fell, and a strand of hair blocked her vision. She swiped at it and shook her hair free to blow in the fresh breeze. The last day of April looked to dawn kind and gentle rather than with the harsh chill of last week. It was still cold enough, however, for
Anna to wish she’d chosen clothes for greater warmth rather than greater anonymity.
The mare slowed, which meant she’d caught the scent of water. To the south lay a creek that had proved not only reliable but also safe from prying eyes. After a quick check of the sky, Anna decided to allow Maisie her favorite treat, a cold drink of spring water and the carrot Anna had in her pocket.
Beyond the scrub that lined the stream, the bank tilted at an angle just steep enough to allow a horse to traverse it without sliding in. At the water’s edge, the shadows were still long, showing little of the daylight that crept across the plain. The weather was glorious.
The last of the April snow remained only in sparkling patches. Soon the upstream melting would begin and, if combined with a decent thundershower, turn this peaceful stream into a raging river.
Anna guided Maisie to her favorite spot and slipped off the horse. Stretching the kinks left in her back from a night of too much reading and not enough sleep, she debated whether to reach for the Smith & Wesson pistol in her saddlebag and see if she could still match her record of five straight hits on the old log on the other side of the stream. It had been some time since she’d made the attempt.
To keep her hair from hindering her vision, Anna fashioned a hasty braid and retrieved the hat from her saddlebag. She lifted the Smith & Wesson from the bag as well and made short work of filling its chambers with six bullets. After all these years of performing the same rote action, loading the weapon still gave her the tiniest of thrills. Probably because shooting was another in a long line of pastimes she’d been required to give up. At least as far as her father knew.
But then, there was so much he didn’t know.
Anna set the pistol on a rock, then hobbled the horse in case the sound frightened her. Maisie was a high-strung mare under the best of conditions, though she always returned when she bolted. Still, this might be the time she did not, leaving Anna to find her way back to Denver on foot.
Anna raised the pistol and took aim on the log. The fallen tree was slightly larger than a man and of sufficient age to have been used for target practice for two winters. In summer the faded green of the grass made for easy shooting, but in winter the long shadows, occasional covering of snow, and brown earth upped the ante. Here in the golden glow of early morning, the sun danced across the log’s imperfections, invitingly highlighting several places at which to aim. Anna chose a knothole and closed one eye, bringing the makeshift target squarely in her sights.
A squeeze of the trigger, and she saw the first bullet zing off the end of the log. A good shot, but barely, and certainly not close enough to the knothole. Easing her aim a bit to the right, she fired two more rounds directly into the center of the log. Then she heard the bear. At least she thought it was a bear from the volume of its howl.
Maisie heard it too and began to spook. Wherever the bear was, he’d either been hit by one of her bullets or awakened before his winter nap ended.
In either case, Anna didn’t want to meet him.
She tucked the gun into her waistband and ran for her horse. The faster she tried to remove Maisie’s hobbles, the longer it took. Finally she kicked the last one free, pulled out the gun, put one foot in the stirrup, and swung her leg over the saddle.
Only somehow, Maisie slipped from beneath her.
Anna was vaguely aware of the horse’s hindquarters as they trotted over the rise to disappear into the prairie grass. Most of her attention focused on whatever yanked her from the saddle and now held her by the middle in a grip so tight her breath came in short gasps.
Her flailing boots struck something solid, and her attacker dropped her. Anna skittered backwards out of the bear’s reach. The sun blinded her, but she could see the grizzly’s proportions. When her boots refused to find solid ground, she rolled to her belly and began to crawl.
Only then did she realize she still held the Smith & Wesson in her hand.
Panicked math told her three bullets remained in the chamber. Three chances to save her skin. Three shots between her and meeting Jesus well before she expected to. Taking aim wasn’t possible, so she turned and fired off two quick shots. The second one felled the bear, and he went down with a mighty roar and a string of blistering words.
Anna sat bolt upright.
The bear had transformed into a crumpled mass of buckskin and boots, but appeared to be human. And from the sound of his growl, decidedly male. Leaning out of the sun’s glare, Anna eyed her writhing attacker, definitely man and not grizzly, though shaggy and trail-worn.
A few yards ahead, Maisie appeared over the rise, her desire for spring water obviously overruling any fear or good horse sense she might have. Even with an aching backside, Anna thought she could reach the horse faster than this stranger could find his feet and give chase.
But with a howl, he surprised her as she scrambled to her feet by lurching forward and hauling her up by the back of her pants.
“I ought to tan your backside, boy,” he shouted, “but I’ll let your pa do that. Where is he? I doubt he’ll appreciate his son shooting at an innocent man. And the law’s not going to like that you probably chased Doc Holliday himself away. You’re not with Holliday, are you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Her arms swinging wildly, Anna tried to free herself. “Release me this instant, you brute, or I’ll see that my father has you shot. Again.”
It was a stupid comment made in panic, but the bluster did its trick. The man let her go. Anna scrambled for Maisie.
“You won’t get anywhere running off like that,” the stranger shouted. “I’m bigger and faster, and my aim’s a whole lot better than yours. Now stop, or you won’t have to wonder if I’m telling the truth.”
The boy froze. Or rather, the girl froze. This was definitely a girl. Jeb Sanders had become painfully aware of the fact as soon as she spoke. If he were a man given to embarrassment, this would have been the point where he’d have felt it.
Instead, he felt the sting of the shot that winged past him, the one that woke him from the first good night of sleep he’d had in a month of Sundays. It was the second shot, however, that wounded his pride, because he’d stood right there and let her do it.
At least the first time around she’d snuck up on him.
Come to think of it, that was nothing to brag about either.
In an effort to ignore his wounds, Jeb focused on his attacker. That he’d assumed the shooter to be anything but female proved he’d been sound asleep when he made the determination. Though the oversized shirt and trousers she wore looked stolen right off a miner’s clothesline, what lay beneath was pure female and hard to hide. Her expression begged him to believe she’d shoot him again, but her wide eyes told him she’d likely swoon before she could pull the trigger.
That alone disqualified her as an associate of Holliday. Anyone who traveled with him had seen blood and plenty of it.
Jeb followed her gaze to his torso, the apparent cause of her discomfort. Lifting the hem of his shirt, he showed her the slash just above his hip bone where the bullet had grazed him. Cold air hit his bare skin and stung the wound, which was only a few inches long and just deep enough to bleed.
She swayed but caught herself. “That’s a lot of blood,” she said, all her bluster gone.
“It’s only a scratch.”
Wide eyes looked up at him through a tangled curtain of dark hair. He couldn’t see much of her face, but what he did see, an upturned nose and a dimple in her right cheek, he liked.
She still stared at his midsection, so he looked down to see what she found so interesting. He was bleeding like a stuck pig, but it was nothing a few hours and a bandage wouldn’t cure. The woman, however, looked as if she might keel over at any minute. The last thing he needed was a frantic female on his hands.
“This is nothing.” He let go of his shirt and gestured to the place above his heart where a scar served as a souvenir of his run-in with a would-be train robber back in ’82. “You should see this one. It was right after they got Johnny Ringo. Took a bullet that nearly did me in. A man has no idea how much blood he’s got until he’s shot in the chest. Train didn’t get robbed that day after all.” Jeb chuckled then noticed the woman hadn’t caught the humor in it. “Oh, now, come on,” he said, taking a step toward her.
She flinched and backed away. “You mean you were…”
She didn’t seem able to finish the question, so he did it for her. “Shot?” He nodded. “It happens in my line of work, but most bullets that come my way I manage to dodge. Guess that makes you among the few who actually hit what you were aiming for.”
“But I don’t shoot people.” Her lower lip trembled. “N-not in real life.”
“Well, darlin’,” he said slowly, “you did today.”When she swayed again, he reached out to grab her elbow. She allowed it, but only for a second. Feisty, this one, though she appeared to be losing her spunk faster than he was losing blood.
“I didn’t kill you,” she whispered so softly he wasn’t sure he’d heard it.
“Well, not yet,” he said with humor he shouldn’t have felt. His gaze fell to the gun still in her hand. “You don’t plan to, do you?”
She stared at the revolver in horror. “Oh,” she gasped. “Oh no, oh no, oh…”
“You all right?” he asked.
She staggered backward and made a run for the horse. “Hey,” he called. “Come back. You just winged me.”
Why he wanted her to return, he couldn’t exactly figure. She’d shot him fair and square and likely hadn’t known she’d done it until afterward. After all, who expected a man to be taking a nap behind a log in the middle of nowhere? Certainly not a city girl dressed in country clothes.Though the way she slid into the saddle and spurred her horse into a full gallop was too impressive to believe she’d spent all her days in town.
Jeb might have whistled for his horse and tried to catch her, but that seemed foolish. After all, if she was carrying a six-shooter, she still had one shot left.