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Dona Ana County, New Mexico Territory, 1883
"I'm going to enjoy this."
Jacob squinted up into the blinding New Mexico sun. Leroy Blake was only a black shape against the glare, but his gun was inches from Jacob's face, all too solid and seconds away from sending a bullet into Jacob's brain.
It wasn't easy to kill a werewolf, but a bullet to the brain would do it. Jacob knew his odds of survival were almost nonexistent.
"Too bad it'll be over so quickly," he said, wincing as a broken bone grated in his shoulder. "I would have been happy to watch you hang, but I'd have taken the most pleasure out of seeing you squirm as they built the gallows."
Leroy's gun slammed into Jacob's temple, knocking him to the ground. The outlaw's spittle flecked Jacob's cheek.
"You think you can trick me?" Leroy snarled. "You want me to give you a chance to escape? I ain't that stupid."
Jacob lay still. It wasn't just a matter of making Leroy think he was helpless, which he very nearly was. Broken ribs made it hard to breathe, and blood loss was rapidly draining what was left of his strength. He wasn't even strong enough to Change.
not stupid," he croaked, "but you're still a coward, Leroy. Still afraid
1 can get away. I'm surprised you don't run right now and leave one of your men to do your dirty work."
The outlaw dug the toe of his boot into the ground and kicked dirt into Jacob's face. "You ain't nothin'," he said. "Nothin' but a dirty bounty hunter." He leaned down, bathing Jacob in his foul breath. "You want to die slow? That can be arranged." He stepped back. "Silas! Bring that rope over here!"
Silas, one of the four men left in Leroy's gang, brought the rope, stepping gingerly around Jacob's body. Unlike his boss, he had sense enough to recognize that there was more to Jacob than met the eye. He knew it wouldn't take much to spook him.
"Git over here, Stroud," Leroy snapped. "You, too, Ben, Hunsaker. We're gonna give this son of a bitch his final wish."
Jacob remained limp as the men heaved him up and dragged him away from the scant shelter of the rocky outcrop. It was full noon now, and though it was only early May, the desert heat was relentless. A man left without water or shelter would soon be dead. Even a werewolf, unable to Change, badly injured and already deprived of food and water, couldn't expect to live out the week.
But it was a chance. Jacob let them carry him out into the desert, far from any shade, and drop him to the parched earth. Stroud and Hunsaker bound his hands and feet, while Ben hovered nearby and Silas kept a wary distance.
"Don't think we're leavin' you out here alone, Constantine," Leroy said, holstering his gun. "We'll make sure you get nice and warm. See how you feel about things in the mornin'. Maybe you'll beg me to kill you quick
if you last that long."
Jacob didn't answer. He closed his eyes, concentrating on slowing his heartbeat and the blood still trickling from his wounds. That, at least, he could manage. Leroy and his men retreated to find a comparatively comfortable place to watch.
The night was slow in coming. The buzzards, who'd come looking for an easy meal some hours ago, resumed their stately aerial dance. By the time the sun set, Jacob's tongue was swollen, and the bare skin of his face and arms was seared like overcooked beef. His body was too weak to heal itself quickly enough.
The darkness that seemed so absolute to ordinary humans was bright to Jacob's wolfish eyes. Leroy and his men were huddled over a tiny fire built of dead mesquite and rabbit brush branches, their faces etched in eerie light and shadow.
"I say kill him now and be done with it," Silas said.
Leroy snickered loudly. "Why? You still scared of him?"
Silas shook his head. "He ain't no ordinary bounty hunter. You seen how quick he killed Davey. If Stroud hadn't shot his horse."
"He's good," Stroud said, "but he ain't nothin' special. He'll die like any other man."
"Maybe not as quick as you think," Silas muttered.
"I ain't never seen a man take as much as he has and stay alive."
The men fell silent. Using what remained of his strength, Jacob worked at the ropes. They should have been easy to break, but his werewolf's natural stamina had been depleted by lack of sustenance, and the mere effort of staying alive had sapped his endurance almost beyond recovery. After six hours he had barely managed to loosen the ropes around his wrists. But not enough.
When dawn came, Stroud and Hunsaker rode out in search of game, while Silas came to look Jacob over. Jacob kept his eyes closed and his body still, but Silas wasn't convinced. He crouched beside Jacob's head and poked him in the shoulder.
"I know you ain't dead," he whispered. "I know
'cuz I know you ain't normal."
Jacob knew better than to respond, and after a while Silas went away. The sun rose, hotter than it had been the day before. Jacob crawled into the dark, cool shelter inside his mind the way an injured animal finds some untroubled place to lick its wounds and wait out the crucial hours that will determine its fate.
Stroud and Hunsaker returned sometime later, and the smell of cooking rabbit drew Jacob from his private mental sanctuary. Though his wounds had healed over, they were still raw inside. His skin was badly burned from the sun's constant assault, and his mouth was far too dry to water in vain anticipation of food.
He began to realize that he had less time than he'd estimated. Presuming Leroy didn't decide to shoot him first, he would have to get out of the ropes before another night had passed.
It wasn't long before he realized he most likely wouldn't even make it to sunset. Silas came twice to stand over him and mutter about things that weren't quite human. Even Stroud came to look him over, and despite Jacob's efforts, he knew they weren't deceived.
"He ain't dyin'," Silas whined as the sun began its steady descent into the west. "We could be here for days, waitin' him out."
"I hate to say it, but I think he's right," Stroud said. "Constantine looks bad, but he's not near dead. We didn't come after him just to see him walk away."
Ben and Hunsaker muttered agreement.
Leroy, who had been sulking in the only patch of shade for half a mile, hawked and spat loudly. He didn't like to admit to anyone that he'd been wrong, let alone that his own captive might have played him for a fool.
He got up, and Jacob heard the sound of a gun sliding from its holster. "We ain't gonna stick around," he said. "A belly shot will see to him, and he'll still suffer enough to wish I'd shot him in the head."
"But what if he" Silas began.
"Shut up." Leroy's boots stomped in the dirt as he marched across the dozen yards of parched ground to where Jacob lay. Jacob tested the ropes around his wrists. With a final burst of effort he might get his hands free, but his feet would still be bound. Even so, a carefully aimed kick would relieve Leroy of his weaponif Jacob could find some last reserve of strength.
Leroy stopped inches from Jacob's body. He lashed out with his foot, kicking Jacob and sending a fresh wave of agony through Jacob's ribs.
"So long, Constantine," Leroy said with a twisted grin. "Hope the buzzards don't start into you before you're dead."
He aimed his pistol. Jacob gathered his muscles for a single, straight kick.
The gun went off, but Jacob felt no shock of impact, no pain. Leroy howled, dancing like a man who'd just stepped on a red ants' nest.
Jacob didn't give himself time to wonder what had happened. He ripped his hands free of the ropes and threw himself on top of the gun Leroy had dropped. Someone shouted a warning. Stroud came running, and another shot from nowhere took his hat right off his head. He grabbed Leroy and fell flat on his belly.
Clutching Leroy's pistol, Jacob felt his muscles turn to water. He couldn't so much as raise the weapon above his head, let alone get to his knees. He rolled onto his back and concentrated on keeping his hand on the gun. Whoever came for him next would get a bullet between the eyes.
"Stay where you are!"
Jacob laughed. He couldn't have moved even if he'd wanted to. But after a dazed moment he realized the voice he'd heard didn't belong to Leroy or any of his men. It was higherpitched, though it carried strongly enough.
Blackness rolled like thunderclouds behind Jacob's eyes. He fought it, fought the helplessness that was coming. If there was a woman here, she didn't stand a chance against Leroy's gang. God knew what they would do to her once they.
The pistol fell from his hands. His senses dimmed. He heard hoofbeats
One horse, three, six. The gang's mounts, plus his own. More gunshots, and a cry of surprise and pain. Seconds or minutes or hours passed before he heard a different set of horsesthree of themapproaching from the west.
Jacob struggled to keep his eyes open as the riders drew up a few yards away. They dismounted, feet striking the ground more lightly than any man's would have done.
A silhouetted figure appeared, slighter and shorter than any of the outlaws, smelling faintly of perspiration, soap and chamisa. He could see nothing of her face. She stood over him, rifle in hand and at the ready. She prodded his hip with her booted toe.
"Is he alive?" she asked in the same voice that had rung with command so short a time before.
Another woman knelt beside him, and slender fingers touched his throat. It was the first soft, cool thing he'd felt in days.
"He is alive," the second woman said, speaking with a slight Chinese accent. "But he may not remain so for long." The fingers withdrew. "We must take him back with us."
"No man comes to Avalon," she said.
"But, Serenity," a third, younger, voice said, "he'll never survive out here! We have to bring him in."
Serenity. Jacob tried to remember what serenity felt like. He tried to imagine what kind of woman would have such a name. It didn't go with her hard, merciless voice.
"Very well," she said. "But only if we can tie him to one of the horses. I won't have him loose for a moment."
"He may not survive the ride," the woman with the cool fingers said.
"It's the only way," Serenity said. "If he makes one hostile move, we drop him."
Smart, Jacob thought dreamily. Smartand tough. Tough enough to beat Leroy at his own game. But were the men dead? He'd heard those six horses running away, sure enough, but he doubted the outlaws would have fled if they hadn't been caught by surprise. If Leroy and his men were alive, they might come back at any time.
He had to warn these women somehow. He opened his mouth. His lips cracked. His tongue was like a chunk of stiff rawhide, but somehow he managed to move it.
"G.go," he rasped. "Get a"
Lightning flashed inside his skull, and the blackness engulfed him.
She hated him.
Serenity didn't have to know a single thing about the man slung over the back of Changying's horse. One good look at him was enough. It wasn't just the way he was dressed, not much different from his tormentors, or the fact that he had been so quick and graceful and handled the gun like an expert in spite of the severity of his injuries. She wasn't deceived the way Frances had been, assuming this was a helpless victim in need of succor.
No. Helpless he might befor nowbut he wasn't some innocent passerby set on by outlaws. Killers like those other men didn't bother to torture a captive for no reason, and this man had been shot and beaten and put out in the sun to fry like bacon on a griddle.
More than likely he was one of them, or someone just like them. His face told the tale. It was young enough. It might even be handsome under the grime and sunburn.
But it was also hard. Hard in the way only a killer's would be, narroweyed, thinlipped, sharp as the edge of an ax blade. The kind of face people didn't stare into for long, because they knew one look too many might leave them wishing they'd never seen his face at all.
Serenity touched the butt of her rifle in its scabbard. For a red cent she would untie those ropes and leave him in the dust. He was like a sickness, a rot that would invade Avalon and steal its peace even if he never recovered at all.
Her hand closed around the rifle stock. One move
Changying shifted behind her, reminding Serenity that she had more than her own wishes to consider. "It was right to take him," the Chinese woman said quietly. "I know you would never have left him to die."
Changying was right. She wouldn't have left him. No more than she would have left a beaten dog.
When they stopped briefly to rest the horses at the well, Changying reported that he was still alive. Serenity permitted the healer to set him upright just long enough to give him water, but the liquid only dribbled over his flaking lips. Serenity pushed on even after the sun had set, torn between wanting the security of home and hoping the man died before they reached it. There was still some danger that the other men might follow, though she knew she had wounded two of them, one badly.
A mile west of Avalon, Frances spurred ahead to warn the others. By the time Serenity, Changying and their cargo reached the ranch house, several of the other women were there: Victoria, Avalon's blacksmith, her bare arms still coated with ash from her shop; Helene, her belly bulging under her apron; Bonnie, her cascade of red hair falling into her face after a hard day of washing; Michaela and Nettie, both weary from their day's work. Zora, Caridad and Judith were still out on the southern range but should be returning at any moment. They would be of the most use if the man caused any trouble.
Not that she would let him get the chance.