Wyoming Territory - 1869
There were outlaws in the bank. Sarah Hartford sucked in a quiet breath and whispered, “Sweet lord above not again.” Her comment drew the attention of Thomas Jenkins, the clerk working the counter with her. When he looked toward the door and saw the gunmen, he screamed like a little girl. The commotion in the room stopped as everyone inside the building turned to look at each other. When they saw the four armed men at the door, their frightened screams echoed Thomas.
The men stood at the entrance of the bank and Sarah’s heart felt lodged in her throat. How many times had she seen this same scenario play out before? Five? Six? She couldn’t remember. What she did know was, what they wanted and how they’d go about getting it.
She looked at the four men again and didn’t have to be told who led this gang of ruffians. The man still standing by the door did. His presence seemed to suck the air from the room. He was tall and imposing. His shoulders were wide, the dusty, worn trail coat brushing his knees stretched across his frame and made him appear even larger. Or maybe it was the fact the sun was shining in the door behind him, casting him in a ring of brilliant light. He looked like an avenging angel. Well, except for the rifle propped neatly against the crook of his arm. Maybe angel of death was a better description.
His black hat rested low over his eyes, obscuring their color. They looked menacing even from across the room. A red bandana was pulled up over his face, resting on the bridge of his nose, a hint of dark stubble barely seen on the edge of his jaw. Two shiny revolvers hung low on his hips and Sarah was sure he knew how to use them. A gunslinger. She’d bet her inheritance on it. His stance was too casual, too confident, not to be. This was a man who knew what he was doing and she knew, whoever hid beneath that disguise, wasn’t a man to be trifled with. He proved it by casually lifting the rifle in his arms and firing off one shot into the ceiling.
Sarah stood behind the bank counter and watched the men without flinching. The women in the bank all screamed again, along with Thomas, before hitting their knees and cowering before the outlaws. She’d done the same thing a time or two. Her father’s bank had been robbed countless times and today’s robbery played out like all the others. She knew what came next.
The man by the door glanced around the room, his cold eyes landing on every person before he looked back up. “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you can give me just a moment of your time, I’ll make sure this little inconvenience don’t mess with your supper plans.” He took a step, the spurs on his dusty boots clicking on the wooden floor as he walked further into the room. His gait was slow, sure. The butt of his rifle was propped on his hip and he moved like a lethal predator. His whole demeanor matched his voice. Hard, deadly. A shiver raced up Sarah’s spine as her pulse leaped.
The gunslinger nodded to the man on his right before looking over at the counter. “If one of you fine bank tellers would be so kind as to help my friend here empty out your safe, I’d be much obliged.”
Sarah straightened her spine and leaned forward, knowing Thomas would soil himself if he had to look at these criminals, let alone speak to them. “The safe is empty. The stagecoach left early this morning with most of the money.”
The man with the red bandana turned his head toward her, tilting it a fraction. He studied her for long moments. Too long. Her skin heated, her cheeks warming under his intense stare. Did he know she was lying? The skin around his eyes crinkled and she didn’t have to see his face to know he was smiling at her. “Well,” he said, moving the shotgun to lie across his arm again. “That’s mighty disappointing, Miss…?”
Sarah didn’t answer his unspoken question. “There’s enough in deposits to get you out of town. Take the money and go.”
“I intend on doing that, along with what’s in the safe.” He thumbed the front of his hat up a fraction before those crinkles around his eyes were seen again. “I know for a fact the stage hasn’t been through here today and there’s a wad of cash in that vault big enough to choke my horse. Now hand over what you got. Everything.”
Bile rose up quick, hot and thick in Sarah’s throat but she met the robbers eyes briefly before reaching under the counter. She heard Thomas, the other bank teller, gasp when he saw what she was doing and threw him a look, hoping he’d keep his mouth shut. When her fingers wrapped around the shotgun her father kept under the counter, Sarah prayed this wouldn’t be her last day on earth.
A glance at the leader as he directed one of his men to go get the money was all the distraction she needed. Pulling the gun from under the counter, she raised it, aimed at the leader, and pulled the trigger.
The screams echoed in the room again and Sarah was shocked to see the gunslinger look toward the wall behind him. He was smiling again when he turned back to face her. The crinkles around his eyes told her so. “You missed.”
Sarah swore under her breath. She’d aimed at his middle and still missed him? And the arrogant man didn’t even flinch. When the other three men pointed a gun at her, she lowered her shotgun, glancing at everyone in the room before looking back at the leader.
“Take her firearm.” The man to her left walked forward and snatched the gun from her, tossing it to the man she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of. He caught it with one hand and laid her shotgun across his arm with his own. “Now, we’re wasting valuable time here. Get those deposits in the bag, and what’s in the safe, and we’ll be on our way.”
Sarah glared at the man who stepped up to the counter and thrust the bags at her. She snatched them from the outlaw’s hand, scowling as she went about her task. When the bags were full she handed them back to the waiting man.
Looking back at the leader, she raised her chin, meeting his hardened gaze. “You’ll not make it out of town. I’m sure the marshal is waiting for you outside as we speak.”
“I doubt that. It’ll take him a while to get out of the jail, especially after I went to the extra trouble of trussing him up so nicely.” He ordered his men out and sat her gun down on the table by the wall. “Much obliged, Ma’am.” He tipped his hat to her, staring at her for long moments before walking back out into the bright sunlight, the echo of his spurs against the wooden floor ringing in her head long after he disappeared from sight. A collective sigh went through those in the bank and Sarah wanted to join them. Instead, she cautiously walked out from behind the counter.
Her blood was near boiling point now that the immediate danger was over. Her outrage burned like acid in her stomach that these scoundrels would saunter into her father’s bank and steal what little these people had.
There wasn’t a sound from outside. No outcry from anyone. What was wrong with the people of this town? These bandits had robbed them blind and they weren’t going to lift a finger, or their voice, in protest?
Seeing the shotgun on the table, Sarah crossed the room and snatched it up before running to the counter and reloading it. “Thomas, run out the back and try to get to the jail.” He looked at her, startled, and protested but she ignored him and ran to the front door, ignoring those in the bank telling her to stay behind the counter.
Stepping out on the newly laid wooden sidewalk she set her sights on the outlaws, all sitting on their horses now, looking for one in particular. She found him moments later. He was shouting orders for the others to go. Lifting the heavy gun, she sighted on him and pulled the trigger.
The outlaw’s hat flew over the top of his horse’s head. The animal reared up on its hind legs before the rider was able to get control of him. He turned the beast back to the bank and Sarah lifted the gun again. It wasn’t loaded but she hoped he would think otherwise.
His black hair shone in the noonday sun. It was long, curling over the collar of his coat and fell over his forehead to lie across his eyebrows. He lifted his hand to push those fallen strands away from his face and her breath was cut short when he locked eyes with her. She was finally able to see them. They were the palest blue she’d ever seen. They held her in place, taunting her inability to handle the gun. The skin around his eyes wrinkled again and she knew he was smiling. She’d nearly shot his head off and the arrogant man was smiling.
“You missed. Again.”
Sarah lifted the gun another inch. “Maybe, but not by much. Shall I keep trying?”
He laughed, a deep rumbling sound that Sarah felt to the soles of her feet. She glanced down the dusty street at the other end of town. The townsfolk were stirring, some running toward the jail.
If this outlaw had indeed tied William, the marshal, up it wouldn’t be long before he was loose. Looking back at the outlaw, she noticed he seemed in no hurry to leave. He was still watching her, his arms now folded over the pommel of his saddle, his hat abandoned on the ground. She lifted her chin to him when he did nothing but sit there and stare at her. “What are you waiting for?”
“I thought you were going to shoot me.”
She swallowed. He knew the shotgun was empty. He was taunting her. Lowering the gun, she rested the barrel on the sidewalk. “The marshal will be here soon. Stay where you are.”
His laughter followed her curt demand. He sat up suddenly, swung his leg over the horses back, and jumped to the ground. Sarah tensed and took two steps back.
Picking up his hat, he dusted it off and placed it on his head, lowering the front as he turned back to her. “It’s been a real pleasure, Ma’am, but I’m afraid I’m out of time.” In an act that spoke of his arrogance, or complete stupidity, he raised his hand and lowered the bandana that covered his face. Sarah stared at him and knew she’d never see another man who looked as he did. Hard, cold and completely heart stopping.
The dusting of stubble on his chin made him look rugged. His square jaw, firm and strong. Full lips and high cheekbones that only accentuated his eyes more. They were mesmerizing. He was mesmerizing. She blinked and looked back down the street. They were coming. The townsfolk had finally snapped out of their daze and were coming. She didn’t see William, her soon to be fiancé and town marshal, among them.
Turning back to the outlaw, Sarah saw him watching the men down the street. “Looks like they’ll catch you after all,” she said, smugly.
When he turned back to her, he smiled. “Maybe.”
The curve of his mouth caught her attention. The whiteness of his teeth. All straight and he actually had them all. Something she wasn’t used to seeing, especially in those who lived a life as rough as he probably did. Such perfection shouldn’t be given to a rogue the likes of this man. He was too handsome by half. Too handsome for her good sense.
A ground-shaking explosion rocked her on her feet moments before a fireball lit up the sky. Screams and shouts followed, the sound of wood splitting echoing in the distance before burning embers rained down onto the ground. She stared toward the old smithy in stunned silence as the fire grew. Hearing a horse snuffling, she turned back to the outlaw. He was in the saddle, staring at the chaos. With a final glance at her, he tipped his hat, smiled, and turned his horse, heading in the opposite direction of town.
Sarah dropped the gun and ran out into the street, watching him ride away with his stolen money, knowing no one would catch him. A man stepped off the sidewalk at the Saloon at the end of the street and fired one shot at him. The outlaw’s horse reared before he got it under control and he fired a shot back.
More gunfire from behind startled her and she turned. Another masked man was riding toward her. When she realized he wasn’t slowing down, she turned and ran for the bank. She wasn’t fast enough. A strong arm wrapped around her waist and she let out a startled scream as she was scooped from the ground and laid across the outlaws’ thighs, belly down.
“Let me go!” Sarah struggled, kicking her feet and screaming. He smacked her hard on the bottom, laughing when she yelped, before snaking one arm around her waist and holding on. His grip was painful and her heart raced when the man from the Saloon raised his gun at them when they neared. Thankfully he saw her and didn’t shoot.
The outlaw drove the horse at a punishing pace and Sarah was powerless to do anything but shield her face from the onslaught of wind and dust. Her stomach rolled from the rapid jarring as the horse raced across the plain and from seeing the ground pass by in a blur under her. She turned her head to the man behind her and glanced up at him through her lashes. The lower half of his face was covered, his eyes unreadable as stone. He stank to high heaven and his grip on her was this side of painful.
They left the town behind and rode for what seemed like hours through wide-open plains, the sun dipping down behind the mountains in the distance. The area was barren except for the sagebrush painting the horizon. The sun was hot and sweat trickled down her spine. He slowed the horse enough to sit her up. She was thankful as the blood that had collected in her head finally started traveling where it was supposed to go but this new position wasn’t much better. The man behind her was felt more intimately against her bottom with every step of the horse. She shuddered at the thought of what he’d do with her when he reached where he was going.
As time passed, Sarah kept looking over her captors shoulder. She saw no one, no dust cloud signaling the approach of other riders. It meant William wasn’t coming after her. Did he even know she’d been taken?
An hour later, at the base of a rocky outcrop, the outlaw slowed his horse and gave a whistle that pierced her ears. An answering call sounded in the distance and he nudged the horse into a gallop. Riding through a maze of solid rock, and into a small gorge, Sarah saw the others. The men who’d robbed her father’s bank. They were sitting on the surrounding rocks, their horses off to one side grazing on the sparse grass growing in the small enclosed space. She looked for the man she thought was the leader, the man she’d tried to shoot, repeatedly, but missed. She didn’t see him and puzzled over the fact.
She counted eight men total. There hadn’t been that many inside the bank. Where had these extra men come from and were there more of them? Her initial fear grew as they all seemed to notice her at the same time. One man stood, grinned and threw his head back and laughed. “Hot damn, Virgil. Where’d you find that piece of tail?”
The man at her back laughed and dumped her none too gently to the ground. “Standing in the middle of the road outside the bank. Figured since she was there, might as well have her.”
Sarah scrambled to a nearby rock, flattening her back to its rough surface and watched as the men laughed and gawked at her. Her knee ached from the fall off the horse and seeing so many men surrounding her, the fear she’d felt since being abducted grew.
Her hair, once pinned pristinely to the back of her head, had fallen to dangle around her face. She lifted her hand, pushing the mass of curls away so she could see and noticed her hand was shaking. She clamped it between her knees and let her gaze roam the entire area.
The scraggly group of men lounged in small groups, each one interested in her all of a sudden. Her heart started racing as she took them all in and she wondered what they were going to do with her. The images that came to mind caused a shiver to race up her spine.
A tall man, his long stringy hair hanging halfway down his back stood and took a few steps closer to where she sat. He stared at her, spit out a black stream of tobacco juice that dribbled down his chin, and shook his head. “Colt won’t let you keep her.”
Virgil, the foul smelling man who’d taken her, jumped from his horse. “Fuck Colt. He aint the law around here.”
Sarah listened to them argue, Virgil, the loudest. The majority of the conversation was about her but it soon turned to the money they’d stolen and to Colt, the man Sarah now knew led this gang of ruffians. Her thoughts turned to him as she stared at the men around her. If tobacco guy said Colt wouldn’t let Virgil keep her, did that mean he’d let her go? Somehow she didn’t think so.
Long minutes ticked by and they seemed to forget she was there. While the men were occupied in their conversations, and heated arguments, Sarah slid along the rocks, inch-by-inch, careful to not make any sound. She was halfway to the small opening they’d ridden through by the time Virgil noticed her.
He cocked his head to one side, grinning at her. “Where you think you’re going?”
Sarah froze, her eyes wide as she stared at him. When he took a step toward her she leaped to her feet and ran. He caught her before she could make it to the opening of the outcrop they were hiding in. When he picked her up, her feet dangling in the air, she screamed. Her shrieks only caused them more glee, their taunts of what they’d do with her spoken with more certainty.
Virgil yelled for a rope as he carried her to a nearby tree, the spindly branches sweeping low to touch the ground. The trunk was small and lashing her to it was done in a matter of minutes. With her hands behind her, fastened around the tree, she could move nothing but her feet, which she used whenever one of them came near her.
“She’s a hellion, Virgil. Be hours a’ fore we can break her.”
Sarah’s eyes burned and she blinked to erase the tears trying to form. “You come near me and I’ll break your nose!” When Virgil walked toward her, his hands on his belt buckle, she gritted her teeth and hoped to God she’d have the strength to fight them all off.
“I can break her. Aint no woman around who can resist me.”
Laughter from the others was blocked out as Sarah’s gaze fell to Virgil. His belt was undone and when he reached into his pants, pulling out his erection, she turned her head.
The sun was going down, the sky painted in hues of purple and orange. Small puffy clouds dotted the horizon and she again wondered where William was. Of all the people she expected to come for her, he was the first on her list and not because he was the town marshal. He’d asked her to marry him. She should have given him a definite answer instead of telling him she wanted to think about it. Plain stubbornness had made her wait. That same stubbornness would probably be the death of her.
Virgil closed the distance between them and it wasn’t until he was right in front of her that Sarah turned to look at him. And planted the toe of her boot in his groin. His womanly scream was followed by another as she kicked him again when he fell to his knees. Three more kicks followed the first two before he rolled far enough away she couldn’t reach him. She was panting for breath by then, those tears she’d been fighting filling her eyes.
Watching the others, she waited for them to come at her but they were too busy laughing at Virgil’s failed rape attempt to bother. The sun crept lower on the horizon and by the time Virgil was able to stand again, the air had cooled.
The look on his face when he turned toward her would have scared her on a normal day but after what she’d been through since noon, it didn’t faze her much. He was angry, that was a given, and the taunts from his friends only made it worse.
He came at her again, knocking her foot away when she tried to kick him and backhanded her for her trouble. Her face exploded with heat from the brutal hit. When he grabbed her by the hair, slinging her head back into the tree, her vision blurred, her knees went weak, and her body slumped as pain shot through her head. His heated words were harsh next to her ear as he told her what he was going to do to her and she fought the dizzying need to close her eyes and slip into oblivion. He was pulling her skirts up when the laughter she heard in the background stopped. A small clicking sound in front of her forced her eyes open. The noise had come from a gun, its barrel lying against Virgil’s temple.
“Let her go.”
Virgil stilled, his watery eyes fixed on hers. When he smiled, Sarah saw his rotten teeth and looked away, up at the man she’d tried to shoot at the bank. Their leader, the blue-eyed man she knew she’d never forget.
Colt, they had called him, glanced at her briefly; his eyes held a lethal calmness that caused a shiver to dance over her limbs.
Fixing his gaze back on Virgil, he took a step closer and pushed the barrel of the gun harder into the side of his head. “I won’t ask you again, Virgil. Unless you want your brains splattered across this pretty ladies face, then I suggest you let her go.”