About the Author
S. Dionne Moore is a historical romance author who resides in South Central PA, surrounded by the beautiful Cumberland Valley and lots of historically rich locations. Find more about her books at www.sdionnemoore.com.
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Brides of Wyoming
3-in-1 Historical Romance Collection
By S. Dionne Moore
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2012 S. Dionne Moore
All rights reserved.
Renee Dover lifted her head to peer over the rock she hid behind. Excitement pumped through her when she saw the four men sprawled out on the ground in various stages of rest. Only one of the four showed signs of wakefulness, his attention glued to the stick he whittled. A small pile of shavings covered his lap and peppered the ground around his thighs.
The easy motion of the knife against the wood worked another curl from the stick. He lowered the knife and raised his head. Renee ducked behind her rock, her initial thrill oozing into an uneasy feeling that snaked through her veins. All at once, she recognized the foolhardiness that had led her to bait her brother into the hills to try to find the hideout of the Loust Gang. Now that she had stumbled upon their camp, the knowledge that her brother was in the hills on the other side of the valley reinforced the fact that she was alone. With four outlaws. And a gun she had shot only three times before.
Stories of the Loust Gang's deeds swelled in her memory. Her pa worried that their ranch was too close to the Loust Gang's new territory and might be visited by the outlaws, prompting in Renee all types of romantic notions about finding the gang and collecting the reward. And now here she crouched, looking right at them. A shudder trickled through her as she slowly backed away from the rock.
She inhaled sharply at the sound of her brother's voice, distant, calling from the valley floor. She glanced back toward the men to see if they'd heard Thomas's call. The man with the stick lifted his head. Renee ducked down and shifted to the right where a large, prickly bush with no leaves allowed her to see the men but shielded her from view. The lanky man's eyes probed the area where Renee hid. He stared for a long minute, bent one knee, propped his arm along it, and continued to whittle.
"Renee? Shoot your gun so I know where you are."
Thomas's voice was closer. Louder. Renee squeezed her eyes shut. If she didn't answer, he would continue up the hill and get caught. She had to warn him away, but how could she without risking her own safety?
The lanky man rose to his feet this time. He buckled on his guns and toed the man next to him. "Rand, get up. Someone's coming," he hissed.
"Let Lance take care of them," the portly man mumbled before releasing a yawn.
The slender man kicked the man harder. "Get up. I don't know where Lance is. He shouldn't have let anyone wander this close."
"Maybe he fell asleep," Rand mumbled as he frowned up at the skinny man. "With you hollerin', he'll wake up and take care of things. Stop your worrying."
Thomas's voice rang clearer, closer than before. The tall man's head jerked and his eyes narrowed. Renee's heart slammed. Even Rand lifted his head then elbowed himself to a sitting position.
The slender man's head rotated one way, then the other, eyes scanning, before he started in the direction from which Thomas's voice had come. He drew closer to Renee, so near that if she so much as twitched, he would notice. Her heart thundered now, ears roaring with the fear that swelled in her throat. His hand hovered over his right gun. Behind him, Rand marched to the other two outlaws and barked at them to get up and buckle on their guns.
Renee huddled into a tighter ball, afraid to move and afraid not to. She closed her eyes and strained for the sound of Thomas's horse. If they spotted him, she would jump up and hopefully divert their attention while Thomas used his six-shooters. He'd been practicing with his new guns and was good. Much better than she. But if the outlaws got off a shot first ...
She held her breath and waited.
"Ya seen Lance?" Rand's voice whispered, close at hand.
"Guard the gold," the slender man growled back. "Tell Lolly to keep watch to the west, and Dirk to the east."
Sweat trickled down Renee's back, her ears primed for any hint that the slender man had spotted someone and was going to draw. She could see his cruel face in her mind's eye, and she had no doubt whatsoever that he knew how to use those six-shooters on his hips. She exhaled long and slow, haunted by the memory of the article in the latest edition of the town newspaper, already two weeks old when her pa had brought it home, that reported the latest body count as a result of the Loust Gang's thievin' ways was six.
A shot rang out, and Renee gasped and jerked her head up.
"Got 'em, boss!" a deep voice barked up the hill. A new voice.
Thomas! Renee's stomach rolled. Her fault. All her fault. The distant sound of a galloping horse came to her ears then disappeared. Probably Thomas's horse, riderless, returning to the ranch. Pa would be devastated. Her throat burned and tears collected in her eyes. Her body tensed.
"Thought you'd fallen asleep on us," the lanky man said, his hands relaxed at his sides now. She could see the cruelty of his mouth. He scratched along his jaw, his eyes sweeping the rock-littered hillside.
A horse whinnied, and the clop of hooves alerted her to the movements of another man, probably the Lance Rand had mentioned. She would be trapped. And it didn't matter. Not with Thomas dead. She deserved to die, too. Renee slid out from the bush, her back to the camp, her legs stiff from the hunched position.
She heard quick footsteps behind her, just as a horse trotted up the hill into view. Two more seconds and the man on the horse would see her. She didn't care. She stood and faced the lanky fellow just as the horseman hollered out from behind her.
The lanky fellow's head whipped her direction and a gun appeared in his hand, the cold eye of the barrel pointed at her chest. "Get over here where I can see you. You have a gun; shuck it now."
She grabbed the lone gun in the holster awkwardly buckled around her hips. For the journey into the hills, she'd begged Thomas to let her wear a pair of his pants.
Lanky's jaw clenched, though she thought she saw amusement in his eyes. "Got ourselves a boy." His eyes raked down her. "Correction. A girl playing like a boy."
At her back, the clop of hooves stopped and she heard a sardonic laugh. "Prettiest boy I ever seen. What you going to do with her, boss?"
A low whistle rent the air, and Renee followed the movement of Rand and the other outlaws coming toward her. She didn't know which had whistled.
"Fine catch, Marv," Rand said. "Mighty fine."
The lanky man didn't move. She felt his gaze on her but kept her eyes averted, chin high. She would not cry.
"You must be Renee," he finally said.
She refused to look at him and stared, instead, at the horizon, where the sun's color touched the bellies of the clouds, turning them pink. She heard the crunch of his footfall and the blur of motion before a painful vise clamped her arm.
"Look at me when I talk to you," he snarled.
Renee gasped as pain shot up her arm. She faced him, beating down the fear that worse treatment was to come, even as anger flushed through her. "Leave me alone."
A smile shot across his face and he let her go. "Anything you wish, m'lady. Shall I have a noble knight show you to your chambers?"
The men bunched in closer, sharing a good laugh over their leader's wit. Her breathing quickened and her scalp tingled. She did the only thing she knew to show her disgust. She spat, just like Thomas had shown her, and the nasty wad landed right on Marv's shirt.
Silence fell over the group as Marv stared down at his shirt then back at her. His eyes flashed cold and she tensed, waiting for his wrath to fall. But he only stared, muscles trembling along his jaw.
"Well?" she said, her voice sharp, unable to stand his silence a moment longer. "Aren't you going to shoot me?"
"I don't pull lead on a lady." His eyes narrowed and a smirk curled his lips. "Unless I'm provoked or there's something in it for me ..." He lifted a hand. "Rand!"
The potbellied man stepped forward, eagerness to please evident in his demeanor.
"Take the lady" — he drawled the word — "to the cave and stay there with her until I decide what to do with her. Do whatever you need to keep her under control." He pivoted and took two steps, his head whipping side to side. "Lance, get back on watch. Lolly, Dirk, pack things up. We're moving down toward the valley."CHAPTER 2
Tyler Sperry patted the grungy, smelly hound and pushed the rabbit he'd just shot closer to the dog. The hound didn't hesitate, his floppy ears waving, mere ribbons from the many fights he'd had with the coyotes and the snakes. Alerted by the hound's return to camp, Tyler's sheepdog, Teddy, woke and began to move, goading the sheep to their feet. Tyler loved the rhythm of the two dogs. The hound hunted and kept predators at bay, seldom coming into camp, and Teddy worked the sheep daily, ferreting out those that had wandered during the night and moving them when needed. Exactly what Tyler was needing now as he led the herd into the mountains where it would be cooler in the summer months.
Tired, Tyler shuffled to his horse. He stooped and ran his hands down the horse's legs and over her hocks, feeling for the telltale warmth that spoke of pulled tendons. The horse shifted her weight and craned her neck to playfully nip at Tyler's shoulder. "On with you now, Sassy." But the horse's playfulness brought a smile to his lips. He stood and brushed his hand down the horse's back. "You take a swipe at me again and I just might leave you to the bandits. They'd like a horse like you."
Indeed, few cowhands possessed long-legged, powerful horses like Sassy. He'd thought of selling the animal for a smaller horse when he took the job as sheepherder, but he chose to keep her because of the history between them. He ran a finger over the scar on her right shoulder, and his lower knee ached at the reminder of the bullet that had grazed the horse and lodged in his leg.
Tyler saddled his horse and walked Sassy around the camp. "Go ahead and let it out, girl. You know I'm going to cinch you up tighter."
Sassy nickered, and Tyler stooped to tighten the cinch strap where the horse had finally let out her breath. "Can't play the same trick day in and day out and not expect me to catch on." He grinned as he mounted and picked up the reins. But you do try.
Lifting his head, he gave a low whistle, and Teddy appeared from the bunched flock. He nodded in satisfaction. "Good boy, Teddy. Go easy on them, now."
Tyler twisted in his saddle and kept a sharp look as Teddy zigzagged behind the sheep, always keeping them moving forward with quiet efficiency, though the young lambs challenged Teddy's efforts. Satisfied that Teddy was working well, Tyler led the herd toward the taller grasses where the sheep would spend much of the morning munching and drinking water from the streams.
As they approached the verdant hillside, the sheep spread out. The old hound trailed Teddy by a few hundred yards. Tyler knew the dog's instincts would drive him to disappear among the trees and hills that surrounded the herd to look for signs of predators. He cast his eyes over the herd, satisfied to see Teddy setting an invisible boundary where he patrolled the sheep to prevent them from escaping on the side opposite the stream.
Tyler dismounted and climbed onto a boulder to survey the sheep, especially the three pregnant ewes. The other mamas had delivered, but these three were late. He kept his eyes on the herd but allowed his mind to wander. The sunshine warmed him and deepened his weariness. Tomorrow he would need to break camp and move the sheep farther uphill, a good four miles.
As always, the silence both soothed him and made him restless. He loved the peace of the sheepherder's life and hated the isolation. Yet it was the path he had chosen. Had been forced to choose. And he had only himself to blame.
A distant bark brought his mind back to the sheep. Most of the flock went about their grazing, not spooked by the sound, though Tyler knew if the dog continued, the sheep would begin to react. Before he could move to investigate, the hound appeared on a rock ledge above the herd, tongue lolling to one side.
The animal usually howled at coyotes, gaining enough of a response from the predators to enable him to find their location. This was different though. Tyler climbed off the rock, his palm scraping when his foot slid. He took a moment to remove a leather sack from the pack behind Sassy's saddle. From the pack he took out a piece of thin linen and awkwardly wrapped it around his palm to stop the bleeding. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard and set out.
* * *
Every nerve in Renee's body tightened. The stone bit into her back as she shifted to try to see where Rand had wandered off to. Since their arrival at the new location three days ago, he had hardly said two words to her, not that she minded. His rotten teeth repelled her, and the oily glances he sent her way stirred fear in her stomach.
Though he had not tied her, she could see that he was a man — that they were all men — who would let their guns rule any situation. Rand would not be sweet-talked, and she would be crazy not to try to escape. Long into the night she had considered and dismissed several options. Rand stuck close to her. She would have to be careful.
On quiet feet, she moved to the mouth of the shallow cave that had become her new home and peeked out. Rand stood some distance off, his arms loose at his sides, his gaze on some point distant, as if he was listening to something. Or for someone. Was Rand expecting Marv and the rest of the gang? The dawning of opportunity stacked tension along her spine, but the sight of Rand's guns gave her pause.
She owed it to her pa to at least try. Better for him to find out about Thomas than to agonize when neither of his children returned. Even now, she knew he must be sick with fear, if only for Thomas. She doubted he would grieve much over her disappearance.
Renee closed her eyes. She blew a frustrated breath and continued her study of the area. She had to focus on her mission. As they had traveled, she'd tried to keep track of the direction they'd gone, but the constant switching back had left her confused. Regardless, she would escape first and then worry about getting home.
A bush rustled beside the cave entrance where she stood. She tensed for the appearance of a snake, but the blur within the branches seemed larger. A brown mottled face poked out of the brush. A dog.
Stunned, Renee could only stare at the animal. Where had he come from? When he emerged, she saw his shredded ears and the scars along his face and shoulders where hair did not grow. The dog sat down, gave one short bark, then turned tail and scampered back through the brush and emerged as a black blur on the other side.
"That stupid dog." Rand's footsteps closed her window of opportunity. She wanted to hate the dog for his bark, but at the sight of the sorrowful mess of his ears and face, sympathy stabbed through her. The poor mongrel was probably skulking about looking for food.
"Mutt came sniffing around the other night, too. Heard a coyote in the distance and it took off running. Probably scared silly."
Renee doubted it. Maybe the dog was hunting coyotes and smelled them in the form of Rand, Marv, and all his cohorts. The thought plucked the first smile she'd enjoyed since being captured. It slid from her lips, though, when she recalled all that had happened and the way Marv had looked at her that first night after her capture. She shuddered. If she couldn't escape first, she would have to fight hard against their lecherous attempts in hopes they would shoot her dead.
With nothing left to do, she went deep into the cave and lay down. She didn't know how long she slept, but when she woke the sun had dipped farther toward the west. Rand remained in the same place, dozing by the looks of things, but she didn't want to get too close, realizing that his inattention afforded her an opportunity.
She surveyed the area around her again. Purple lupine contrasted the yellow orange of the poppies to create a riot of color. Such a contrast to the ugliness of the situation she now faced. Other than a few scrubby bushes, the lupine and the curved branches of the prickly cactus, she had no other coverage on the hillside. Rand's guns would find her long before she put enough distance between them to feel safe.
Renee turned to stare at the tangle of brush — the same direction the dog had taken earlier. Her heart slammed hard and perspiration beaded along her back as she considered the more densely populated side of the hill. Time was of the essence, for she knew that Rand could come alert at any moment and realize his mistake in not keeping a closer eye on her. From where he sat, the cave would cover her disappearance for a few minutes at most.
Excerpted from Brides of Wyoming by S. Dionne Moore. Copyright © 2012 S. Dionne Moore. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Shepherd's Song,
The Cattle Baron's Daughter,
Valley of the Heart,
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