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Sam was getting tired of death.
He pulled Breeze up. The horse tossed his head and sidestepped a protest. Taking a draw on his cigarette, Sam surveyed the scene below the rise. Whether or not he was getting tired of death didn't seem to matter. It haunted him from one day to the next. He blew out a long stream of smoke. Today it lay spread across the hollow before him in a perfect example of how miserable people could be to one another.
The burnt-out shells of two wagons lay tipped on their sides in a loosely stacked V. Charred black, they were just more skeletons on a landscape used to absorbing the death of hope.
From where he sat, Sam could see two bodies bloating in the June heat. Their colorful serapes blazed red and yellow in the bright sunshine. The serapes and state of the bodies probably meant the attack had come at dawn. June nights could still be cool.
At least the wind blew from his back, sparing him the stench of the decomposing bodies, but he didn't need the wind to remind him what he was missing. The memory of that particular odor lingered in his memory, etched there in a moment that had defined his whole life.
Breeze tossed his head. He wasn't a fan of death either.
Sam kept the reins taut. Wagons like these usually meant women. Maybe children. He wasn't in the mood to bury women and children. Especially on the first nice day he'd seen in a week of downpours. The air was hot and clear without the humidity that had plagued everything unmercifully the last few days. Above him the sky stretched endlessly in a crisp blue. It was a day that lent itself to thinking of picnics by the lake and flirting with a pretty girl. The kind of day that made a man realize all he'd given up.
It wasn't a day for funerals.
He urged Breeze forward. The horse tossed his head again and backed up a step instead. Beside him, Kell whined and lagged back. Sam couldn't blame the horse or the dog. Between the stench and the flies there wasn't much to draw a body forward, but if he didn't investigate the area, his conscience would gnaw him raw. If there had been women, their kin would want to know their fate. And he would need to bury them. He didn't leave women and children to the care of carrion eaters.
Kell whined again but didn't insist like he would if they were talking a big body of water or a pot of stew. Kell had a real liking for both and couldn't be trusted to hold a command when faced with either.
Breeze's hooves sounded a steady clop as he reluctantly headed down the slope. Sam unfastened the strap locking his shotgun in its sheath, the little hairs on the back of his neck twitching.
The closer Sam got to the wagons, the worse the stench of smoke, death and hope-gone-wrong became. A flare of pink material protruding from under one of the wagons caught his eye. There had been women. He set his teeth and flicked his smoke to the side. Hell.
A couple more bodies became visible as he guided Breeze to the right of the carnage. All male, at least. That made four total. Three men and a boy who looked too young to pick up a razor. A kid trying to be a man meeting his end way too early. Sam shook his head as he dismounted, dropping the reins to the ground. Damn.
He patted the sorrel's neck. "Wait here, Breeze."
Behind him Kell yipped. Sam motioned him to stay and surveyed the hard-packed dirt for tracks. Nothing worth studying had made an imprint. He turned his attention to the rest of the campsite.
Open trunks listed against the interior of one of the wagons. The contents were strewn about in an array of color. A white glove fluttered on a stand of grass as he passed. He stepped over the charred remnants of a red skirt crumpled in the dirt in an obscene splash of gaiety.
The attackers had to have been white. Indians wouldn't have wasted such a valuable prize. Their women might not wear the dresses, but they would make use of the beautiful material. Indians didn't waste much.
He knelt and fingered the trim on the skirt hem, wondering against his will what had happened to the owner, what she'd suffered, might still be suffering. Hell, he wished his thoughts didn't always go there. A slight rasp interrupted the silence. Kell growled and stalked forward. Sam dropped his hand to the butt of his revolver. The warm wood fit comfortably into his grip.
"Come on out. Now."
The stillness was absolute in the wake of his order. The noise didn't have to have been made by a human. Death always drew carrion, but every hair on the back of his neck said someone was hiding in the wreckage. He stood slowly, pulling his revolver. Had someone survived the massacre? Had the robbers left one of their own behind? Ambush was a tried and true tactic of doubling up the income produced by a raid. Leave the scene looking like it'd been picked over, hide in the surrounding countryside and then swoop down on anyone who came along to investigate.
There weren't many places for someone to hide. The most obvious would be the bed of the other wagon that was half tipped over. A body could hide up between the seat and the floorboards and prepare for whatever it wanted to do.
Cocking his revolver, Sam kicked the top edge of the wagon hard, toppling it over with a loud crack of wood and a jangle of metal. Kell snarled and dove in, his attack silent of barks, betraying his wolf blood more than his masked face and size.
The scream that rent the air was female. It ended when the wagon hit the ground with a suddenness that put a sick feeling in his gut. Sam grabbed Kell by the scruff and hauled him back.
"Stay, damn it!"
The dog growled and whipped his head around.
"Snap at me and you'll be doing without your share of tonight's stew."
Kell stood his ground, hackles up, ready to leap at the smallest provocation, but at least he stayed. He was learning. When he got back to Hell's Eight Sam would have to have Tucker take a hand in his training. No one could sweet-talk an animal like Tucker.
Keeping his gun ready, Sam circled the bed of the wagon. The first sign of life was a foot. Black-booted and tiny, it protruded out from under the toppled conveyance. Clearly feminine. He touched it with the point of his boot. It wiggled. The woman wasn't dead. And if that was a curse echoing around inside the wooden interior, a far cry from unconscious.
Another muffled sound and then a thump inside the wagon. Another thud. Another curse. The wagon was too heavy for the woman to lift.
The foot jerked and then froze. A very cautious "¿Sí?" seeped through the floorboards. Angling his gun away, he bent down and hooked his fingers under the edge of the rough wood, ignoring the immediate protest of old injuries. "Don't be afraid. I'm Sam MacGregor, Texas Ranger. I'm going to lift the edge of the wagon, señora. When I do, I need you to back on out, nice and easy. You understand?"
"Sí. I understand."
Her English was softly accented with the melody of her native Spanish, muffled yet still strangely compelling. "Good." He braced his knee and got his body in alignment. "You got your fingers shy of the edges?"
He'd have to ease up on the color in his language if he wanted her to understand. "Are your fingers away from the edges?"
There was the sound of hands being quickly shuffled across the ground. "Yes."
"Fine. Then here we go."
Kell came snuffling around.
"Get on back now."
"Not you, I'm talking to the dog."
"He is friendly?"
He waved Kell back. Kell lifted his lip. "When the mood takes him."
"I will wait while you restrain him."
He cocked his eyebrow at the foot he could see. That sounded distinctly like an order. "He's not fond of restraint."
"Did you ask him?"
"He's made his preferences known." He tensed his muscles. "Are you ready?"
There was a pause and then, "You will control your dog first."
"Is that a question?"
A longer pause, then, "I can make it one if you would prefer."
The honesty caught on his sense of humor. "That won't be necessary, I can pretend."
That might just have been a snort. Or she could have sneezed. He kind of thought it was a snort. With an unfamiliar smile tugging the edge of his mouth, he hefted the wagon up. He got it up twelve inches and braced himself. "Back on out."
She didn't move immediately.
"I can't hold this all day."
"Your dog, he is restrained?"
He glanced over. Kell had found the glove. The fingers were in his mouth. The rest flipped up over his head like a lopsided bonnet. "He's sitting here as pretty as all get-out."
"You are sure?"
"Yup. Now back on out of there before my arm wears out."
A second foot joined the first. There was the inevitable wiggling and riding up of the black skirt. He didn't want to notice, but the calves that were exposed above the ankle tops of her shoes were trim and lightly muscled, the skin the color of milk spiced with a touch of cinnamon. She kept wiggling and the skirt kept riding. The backs of her knees looked soft, young.
He wiped the sweat from his temple on his shoulder. What in hell was wrong with him? Getting ideas about a woman from nothing more than her lower legs. The woman probably had ten kids waiting for her at home and more than likely was grieving. Her next wiggle had the skirt rising to dangerous territory.
He grabbed the material and yanked it down. The woman squealed and grabbed at her thigh. "What do you do?"
The hand, as small and as delicate as her feet didn't look that old either. "I'm keeping you decent."
She felt around as if to be sure that's what he was doing and then she said, "Gracias."
"You're welcome, now if you wouldn't mind hurrying?"
"I am sorry."
She scooted back, those trim legs a forerunner to surprisingly full hips that sashayed from one side to the other in an unconscious invitation that made his palm itch to cup the plump cheeks. Damn, there were times when his good side was sorely tempted. This was one of them.
She backed the rest of the way out. A long, thick, black braid stood out in stark relief against the white of her shirt. He was actually eager to see her face. The novelty of feeling eager was enough to give him pause. He couldn't remember the last time he felt any emotion, least of all a positive one.
She turned. Only his survival instincts kept him from getting plugged as she swung the revolver in her hand around. The weapon discharged. She screamed and dropped the gun.
"Shit!" After surviving all the outlaws that had drawn down on him, he'd almost met his maker by accident.
Grabbing the pistol, he tossed it to the side. Since when did he make mistakes like that?
The woman lunged for the gun. "Give that back!"
Like hell. Snagging the back of her shirt he let the wagon fall. Wood and metal rattled as it crashed back to the ground. He stood, hauling her with him. "So you can shoot me?"
Quick as light she found her balance and sprang to her feet. She tossed her head. The braid slid back over her shoulder. Her hands hit her hips. Her chin came up. "If necessary."
She reminded him of a pissed-off kitten with her triangular face, pointed chin and big brown eyes blazing bravado. A beautiful, sexy kitten.
"You'd better get some height on you before you go spouting threats."
She took a swing at him. He hefted her up. She missed. "Let me go before I kill you."
She was an amusing little thing. "Doesn't seem to me like you're in any position to be making threats."
She stopped struggling and met his gaze squarely. "I do not have to kill you now. I can wait until you sleep."
He just bet she could, which just piqued his interest more. There weren't many men that could stare him down and not many woman even worked up the courage to try, but this woman was ready to fight. "Seeing as I came here to rescue you, I'm not quite sure why you plan on killing me."
She reached behind her head and tugged at his arm. "You tried to kill me first."
He didn't let go, but the spot where her pinkie met his skin warmed beneath her touch. "How?"
"You knocked the wagon on top of me."
She said that as if that proved her point. "I knocked the wagon on top of whatever was lying in wait."
She blinked, drawing his attention to her eyes. She had very thick, long lashes that highlighted the intriguing flecks of near-black in her brown irises.
"I was in the wagon."
"I got that."
"You flattened me!"