Read an Excerpt
Wyoming Territory, September 1889
The report of a rifle echoed through the redwalled canyon, ringing in Marshal Danna Carpenter's chest. A second report sounded close after the first.
She reined in her mount and pushed back her Stetson, instantly alert and scanning the area for trouble.
The shots could've been someone hunting game although there wasn't much of it to be found in these washedout ravines southwest of townor it could've been someone discharging their weapon for a more nefarious purpose. As town marshal, she had to be prepared for both possibilities.
Danna's horse shifted beneath her, its movements telling her it sensed something wrong, as well. But what?
Then she saw him, in the last rays of sunlight slipping over the canyon's edge. A man staggering along the canyon floor, booted feet dragging in the sandy soil. He carried some kind of luggage over his shoulder. From this distance, she couldn't see a rifle
Too far away to determine his identity, Danna guessed she didn't know him. His clothes were too fine for these partsdark pants, vest, jacket and a bright white shirt. Most folks around here wore woolen trousers or denims, and plain cotton shirts.
What was he doing so far from town? And on foot? Any halfwayintelligent person knew you didn't traipse around the unforgiving Wyoming landscape without a horse, or a mule at the very least.
Before she could decide whether to waste the last of the sunlight to check on the stranger, or to head out of the canyon toward home, her horse's ears flicked back and his shoulder quivered beneath her gloved hand. The ground trembled.
From around a natural bend in the canyon, a cloud of dust rose like steam from a kettle and sent fear skittering down Danna's spine.
And the terrible sound she was hearing began to make sense: hundreds of pounding hooves, getting closer every second.
She couldn't leave an injured man to be trampled to death. Danna kicked King's flank and gave a shouted "Hiyah!" The horse rocketed toward the figure still too far away.
Peripherally aware of the canyon walls racing by, Danna watched the greenhorn pause and looked up toward the sky. What was he doing?
A few hundred yards behind him, cattle began to round a bend in the canyon. The beasts bellowed, and that must've jarred the tenderfoot from his stupor, for he turned and faced the approaching wall of horns and hooves.
He froze, the item he carried sliding to the ground.
Words rose in Danna's throat but she had no breath to call out, not when all her concentration centered on reaching him in time. He wouldn't be able to hear anyway.
As the cattle closed in, the man's sense of selfpreservation seemed to kick in, for he turned to flee, caught sight of Danna and began to run in her direction.
Danna fisted her mount's mane with both hands, leaning forward until her torso rested against his foamflecked neck as she pushed the animal even faster.
The man looked up and, for a moment, time seemed to suspend itself. His eyesa bright, clear bluemet Danna's, and she saw his fear and surprise.
A solid wall of cattle closed in behind the man. Too close.
Clinging to the saddle horn with her right hand, gripping with her knees, she caught hold of the tenderfoot under one arm, and used her horse's forward momentum to sweep him up behind her.
"Hold on!" she cried.
The man's arm slung tight around her waist, Danna pulled the horse into a tight turn and fought to keep the stallion from unseating them both. She knew the fear of death in that moment, her twentyfour years playing out before her eyes, so many mistakes made
mistakes she desperately wanted a chance to rectify.
They weren't going to make it.
A squeeze of Danna's legs sent the horse into a smooth canter, but it was too late. Several cattle overtook them, one bumping the horse's flank. The animal stumbled, but somehow managed to keep its feet.
Fear stealing her breath, gasping, Danna clung to the horse's neck as it sped forward, quickly outrunning the cattle and their thundering hooves. Thank God.
What had the fool man been thinking?
"Do you have a death wish?" the womanwoman! who'd saved Chas O'Grady's hide shouted over her shoulder. He barely heard the words over the din of the cattle still surging around them.
Her glossy black braid flopped over one shoulder and thwapped him in the chin. "Didn't you hear the stampede?"
Chas sucked in breath after breath of wonderful, fresh air before he could force any wordslike I thought the racket was distant thunderout of his frozen jaw. "You're a woman!"
His arms still around her, he felt her stiffen infinitesimally. But the pounding adrenaline and building anger in his system kept his words flowing. "Are you entirely out of your head? You could have been killed riding straight into a stampede!"
"Perhaps you'd rather I hadn't rescued you? Because you would've been killedtrampledif I hadn't scooped you up out of there." He felt her inhale deeply, then she blasted him again. "And I certainly didn't see any men around to do the job properly!"
The woman's fiery retort stymied him for the moment, because it was true. There hadn't been anyone else in the canyon, and he would never have been able to outrun the cattle.
The thought of what she'd riskedher lifebrought bitter memories to the surface. Chas blinked away the images of another woman falling, her blood spilling.
This woman, whose name he didn't even know, wasn't dead. Even though she'd put herself in danger for him.
Memories and selfloathing churned in his gut until his rescuer turned her horse up the canyon wall, nearly unseating him with the sudden movement. Chas clung to the woman's waist, eliciting a huff from her.
Her faded denims and widebrimmed hat had caused him to assume she was a man from a distance, but with his arms wrapped around the curve of her waist, there was no mistaking his rescuer was pure female.
He couldn't get a good look at her features from behind her, but she must be nearly as tall as his sixfoot stature; the brim of her hat rested only inches in front of his nose. Several dark strands of hair escaped from her braid and curled along the nape of her long, slender neck. Her head was in constant motion, darting left to right, and it gave Chas fleeting glimpses of her cheekbones, the soft bow of her lips, the dark sweep of her lashes. She was beautiful. And she guided the horse as if she and the animal were one.
In any other circumstance, she would have turned his head, trousers notwithstanding.
Instead, with his detective's nose for curiosity already piqued, his mind swirled with questions. Why was she riding alone in this rough part of the country? And dressed as a man? Could she possibly work for one of the ranching outfits in the area? What rancher or foreman would hire a woman to work on their range?
"What are you doing out here alone, anyway?" he demanded, trying to force back his darker emotions. "It's dangerous."
"I could ask you the same," she returned sharply. "You're obviously from a big city, and this isn't a populated area. These arroyos are subject to occasional flooding. You're on foot. What happened to your horse? Have you gone astray from your destination?"
Her questions implied he couldn't take care of himself, and they sparked his irritation.
"I'm not lost." That statement was a bit of an untruth, but Chas wasn't about to admit that his sense of direction had been compromised by the winding canyon. He'd been operating as a private detective for several years. Being a little out of place was not the worst situation he'd ever managed to escape from. He would've found shelter eventually, if this female cowpoke hadn't come along. Probably.
"And if you must know, I had a horse. I bought her in Cheyenne, but
well, let's say the man who sold her to me may have exaggerated her condition."
He thought he heard a small noise of amusement from his unusual companion, but he couldn't be sure. His curiosity got the better of him and he couldn't resist asking, "Tell me, do all women in the Wyoming Territory dress the way you do? Or are you attempting to pass yourself off as a young man?"
"No" came the sharp retort.
"No to which question?"
She didn't answer, but he felt her draw back on the reins, and the horse slowed.
"Are we stopping?" he asked. "Why?" They hadn't even attained the canyon's rim yet. He'd hoped to make it to the small town of Calvin before evening set in.
"It's getting hard to see." The woman's voice was soft and melodic, but her words were clipped and terse. "I won't risk my horse or our lives trying to climb this shale in the dark."
Chas glanced at the purpling sky, realizing how long the shadows had gotten along the canyon walls. He was no outdoorsman, but even he could tell it would be full dark in minutes.
"We can't just stop, can we?" Chas brought to mind the hotel room he'd hoped to find tonight. With a bed. A chance to wash away the trail grime he'd accumulated since leaving Cheyenne.
"It looks like there's a level patch up ahead." She nodded, though he couldn't see what she was talking about. It all looked the same to himan uphill climb. "We'll stop until the moon comes up."
"Are you sure it wouldn't be better to keep going?" Chas persisted, not ready to give up on the idea of that bed.
She ignored him.
As the last of the sunlight faded into pitchblack, the woman pulled up her horse on a somewhat flat piece of land.
If they were going to spend the next few hours trapped together in the dark, perhaps he should apologize to his companion. Certainly, it wasn't her fault her actions had touched on a sensitive memory he spent most of his time trying to suppress.
Best get it out of the way quickly. "Miss, I'm sorry"
She interrupted him by pulling out of his loose grasp and sliding off the horse's back.
A bit miffed at her dismissal, he followedand misjudged her closeness, thanks to the darkness. His momentum nearly knocked both of them to the ground, but he steadied her with hands on her forearms.
Her breath fanned his chin, her warmth tangible as the night cooled around them. Chas's heart thundered in his chest, much like those hooves that had been so close to taking his life. This time for a different reason.
"Miss, I meant no offense by my earlier words. I was
" He paused, looking for the right thing to say, knowing he couldn't tell her about Julia's death. "I was simply expressing my surprise to find my rescuer a woman."
She pulled away, but he still sensed her nearness. Her movements in the darkgetting something from the saddle?seemed jerky and stiff. It was clear she'd rejected his apology.
He went on. "I am grateful for your fancy riding. I'd rather not meet my Maker today, and I've no doubt those beasts would've stomped all over me if not for you.
"I would've done it for anyone."
Her voice sounded muffled, and he wished for a candle or a beam of moonlight, so he might see her face.
She disappeared into the darkness. Only the muted sounds of boots scraping against stone told him she was still nearby.
Stay here. He mimicked her curt words silently. What did she think? He would wander off in the dark and get lost? She'd already made it clear what she thought of his abilities traversing this very canyon. Agitation and impatience made him restless, and he paced away from her horse.
And stepped right off the edge into nothing.
Danna heard an indistinct shout, the scrabble of falling rocks, and then silence.
"Hello?" she called, not bothering to disguise her annoyance.
She kept after the small stand of bushes she'd spotted as darkness fell. If she had to wait until the moon came up, she wanted to be able to see the man she was stuck with. She tried again. "Mister?"
He'd flustered her with his nearness after he'd landed on top of her while attempting to dismount the horse. She hadn't been so close to a man since her husband's death. And even during their brief courtship and the early days of their marriage, Fred Carpenter hadn't caused turmoil in her gut like the warmth from this man's hands did. What was wrong with her? Fred had only been gone a few months! And she didn't even know the stranger's name.
Irritated with herself, she spoke once more. "Tenderfoot?"
Her extended boot met some resistance and she knelt to gather the dry undergrowth from the bushes. Using the flint and steel she'd retrieved from her saddlebags, she had a small fire burning quickly. She turned toward her horse, standing right where she'd left it, but the man was nowhere to be seen. She resisted the urge to groan.
Making sure the fire had enough fuel to burn for a few minutes unattended, she returned to where she'd left the tenderfoot just moments before.
Past her placid mount, the rocks on the edge of the slope had been disturbed. She frowned and walked over, noting this area had a bit of a dropoff, instead of a gentle slope. It was hard to see in the dark, away from the fire, but by leaning out over the edge and squinting into the darkness, Danna was able to catch sight of the tenderfoot several yards away. He lay still, with one shoulder cocked in an awkward position.
"Oh, no," she breathed. Louder, she called out to him, "Mister, can you hear me?"
A soft moan erupted from his lips, but he didn't move, other than to roll his head toward her.
Forcing calm she didn't feel, Danna retrieved her rope from its tie behind the saddle and looped it around the saddle horn before tossing the length to where her unlikely companion lay.
"Mister? Can you reach the rope?"
She didn't expect a reply, so she wasn't too surprised when none came. Keeping one hand on the rope, she scrambled down the steep incline as best she could. She slipped twice, and rocks bit into her palms as she fought to keep from joining the tenderfoot in a tumble. She wouldn't do him any good if she injured herself, too.
When she reached him, Danna knelt at his head and studied the man.
His hat had slipped to one side, and his sweatmatted hair was dark next to his fair skin. "Mister, you've sure got a way of getting into some pretty good scrapes," she muttered. She probed his scalp and neck gently with her fingertips, searching for injury. Though obscured by a few days' growth stubble, he had a strong jawline.
He gasped when her palm brushed his right shoulder. Keeping her touch as light as she could, Danna ran her fingers over the arm and shoulder, and he moaned again. "Hurts."
"I know. Looks like you've knocked it out of place." She prodded his torso and legs, but found no additional trauma. She did find a gun belt and weapon at his hip, but ignored it for now. "I can reset it for you. But we need to get you up the hill so I can see what I'm doing."
"I'll try," he said, and clenched his teeth as he rolled onto his good side.
She helped him to his hands and knees, but he shook his head and collapsed onto the rocky soil. "I can't
" he wheezed "
"All right." She smoothed a hand over his forehead, as if she was comforting her almostniece, Ellie. "Tell me your name."
"Chas." A breath. "O'Grady."