He was a gunfighter, a lawman, a hunter and there was a very good chance she was the prey.
Here is a sneak peek!
New River Stagecoach Station, Arizona Territory
The Colt felt heavy in her hand. When she first grasped the smooth walnut handle, she was surprised it felt cool to the touch. A weapon that shoots fire should feel hot. Her hand began to tremble. Laying the gun across her lap, she wiped her damp palm on her denim pants.
“Dammit, Ezra! Tell your little brother to pick up his gun. It’s almost time,” snarled a man across the dimly lit cabin.
“All right, Clayton. I’ll handle it,” responded Ezra as he left his own post and crossed the clapboard floor.
Ezra went down on his haunches before her. “Get it together, Emma, or you’re going to blow this for us,” he whispered fiercely.
Emma looked into a pair of green eyes that mirrored her own. This whole thing had been his plan from the start. She went along with it because he was her brother, her only family. After their parents’ deaths she went along with his crazy scheme to come out West and mine for gold. When there was no gold and their meager savings ran out, she went along with his plan to rob a mail coach. It was only supposed to be one time, enough for them to get something to eat and back on their feet. When he insisted she dress like a boy because it would be safer, she went along with it, abandoning her hoop skirts and bonnets and donning denim pants and a large brimmed hat. When he had them join up with Clayton’s crew because he said the take would be enough to finally get them back East, she reluctantly went along with it.
Now she was hunched down inside a stagecoach swing station, waiting for a coach full of passengers to come rolling up so they could rob them at gunpoint…and she no longer wanted to go along with it.
“Ezra,” she whispered frantically, watching Clayton from beneath the brim of her hat, “it’s not too late. We don’t have to do this! We can get the money another way.”
“What way, Emma?” he growled in response as he dug his fingers into the soft flesh of her upper arm. “Do you want to become a harlot? Lie on your back day after day for man after man?”
Emma winced and tried to pull away.
“Answer me, Emma! ‘Cause that’s the only way we would get enough money to get us out of this fix. That’s if Clayton and his crew don’t shoot us for trying to bust.”
“I just…I have a bad feeling about this, Ezra,” Emma said in a low plaintive voice, already aware they were attracting the unwanted attention of Clayton.
“You say that every time. Nothin’s going to happen,” he groused.
Emma looked over at the station master. He was on his side on the floor securely tied with a nasty, bleeding cut on his head from the butt of Clayton’s gun.
“This time is different,” she angrily insisted. “We’ve never robbed passengers. We’ve never hurt anyone,” she said with a meaningful look in the station master’s direction. Since that first job, they had robbed two more mail coaches before hitching up with Clayton, all without fuss or injury. Unfortunately, also without much money to show for it. The mail coaches were not heavily armed because there wasn’t much to protect. The real money was on the trains which carried the payroll for all the railroad employees, thousands of dollars in paper scrips and gold coin. Robbing a train took horses and many men, not to mention fire power. The next best thing was to rob one of the more popular stagecoach lines. The Black Canyon line running from Phoenix to Prescott was one of the richest. Wealthy bankers and businessmen frequently rode it. It was also used for small payrolls. There was usually only one whip, an armed driver, easy to overpower. Clayton’s crew had already hit this line several times over the last few months before Ezra and Emma joined up.
Right now they were holed up at the New River Station, an isolated part of the Black Canyon line. It was only a small cabin and horse corral. The coach would stop here for new horses before making the twelve-mile trek to a larger station where the passengers would disembark and get something to eat. It was perfect for an ambush. They were just going to stroll right up to the coach and demand anything of value. No one was supposed to get hurt. So Ezra promised, but Emma was uneasy. She spared another glance for the station master.
Ezra rubbed his hand over his face in frustration. “Emma, you’re just going to have to trust me.”
Whatever she might have said was cut off by the distinctive sound of a brass bugle. It was the driver of the coach signaling their approach.
“Quit your yammering, you two, and get ready,” barked Clayton.
“Keep your head down and your mouth shut,” warned Ezra as he stood, gun at the ready.
Emma watched through the grimy window as the Concord coach with its signature bright yellow wheels and red carriage rolled up. She could see the bored looked on the passengers’ faces, unaware of what was about to befall them. The driver called out for the station master as he placed his Henry rifle by his side and alighted from the coach perch.
Clayton and the rest of his crew emerged from the cabin, Ezra trailing behind. Emma stayed, unable to move.
“This is a robbery. Ladies and Gents, out of the coach. Now,” came Clayton’s booming voice.
The driver lunged for his rifle. There was the ominous blast of a six shooter. The driver fell to the ground, a large red stain slowly spreading across the back of his leather vest.
The female passengers started to scream and wail. Emma covered her mouth, stifling her own scream.
“No more shenanigans from any of you!” snarled Clayton. “Sam, Red, you two get the strongbox out of the boot. Ezra, you collect the coin and jewelry from the passengers. Toby, up on the roof, toss the luggage down, maybe there’s somethin worth somethin. Where the hell is your little brother, Ezra?”
“We don’t need him, Clayton. We got this,” tossed back Ezra as he looked nervously toward the cabin where Emma was still laying low. The killing of the driver rattled him. Emma was right. They should have never hooked up with this crew. They were deeply in over their heads.
As Toby started to throw the baggage off the coach, the first passenger, an elderly man, disembarked followed by a frail widow.
As Ezra moved to assist the distraught widow, silently trying to reassure her it would all be fine, the elderly gentleman pulled open his white canvas duster to reveal a six shooter holster, a glimmer of metal bounced off his silk vest. A deputy marshal tin star.
Pulling his gun, he fired off two shots, immediately wounding Sam and Red.
To Emma it all happened in slow motion, like one of those flip books where the all the pictures together make it look like the object is slowly, awkwardly moving.
The deputy marshal dove into the dirt, onto his back to shoot up toward Toby, hitting him square in the chest, just as Clayton raised his gun. Ezra threw himself in front of the widow, protecting her. Clayton fired one shot.
Emma watched in horror as this sickening expression of shock and disbelief washed over Ezra’s face. Her brother fell to his knees, clutching his chest. Blood seeped between his fingers. Without thought she ran out of the cabin, gun drawn.
Clayton turned in her direction. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
Emma didn’t take her eyes off Clayton. Shouting to the marshal, “Go! Get them out of here! Now!”
Not wanting to risk the rest of the passengers’ lives, the marshal grabbed the driver’s limp body and loaded him into the coach with the rest of the passengers before hopping onto the perch. Giving all four horses full rein, the coach barreled down the prairie road, leaving a large dust cloud in its wake.
Still keeping Clayton in her sights, Emma inched towards her brother, lying still on the ground.
There was nothing she could do. He was gone.
“You killed him! You killed him! You bastard!” she shouted through her tears.
“Yeah…and now I’m going to kill you. You little shit!” shouted Clayton as he cocked his gun.
Emma pulled the trigger. Without thought. Without regret. He fell where he stood.
Oh God! She had to think clearly. There would be time to grieve for Ezra later. At that speed the stagecoach would reach the next station within the hour. The law would soon follow. She couldn’t stay here. She had no money with no idea where to go. Her clothes were splattered with Clayton’s blood. Emma raised a fist to her lips, biting down hard on her knuckle, hoping the spark of pain would stave off her mounting hysteria.
Wiping away her tears, she took stock of her surroundings.
She could wait for the deputy marshal to return. Falling on his mercy…or she could take her chances and run.
Running sounded like a better option.
She had to think! The luggage! Emma anxiously fell to her knees in front of the pile of luggage Toby had managed to toss off the coach before getting shot. There were a few bedrolls and a saddlebag filled with an old pair of drawers and a half empty bottle of whiskey. She clawed through the pile with mounting desperation. She found an old confederate haversack with some biscuits and a few gold coins. It wasn’t enough. Leaning back on her knees, she scanned the horizon, almost expecting to see a line of horses racing towards her. Focusing back on the luggage, she realized Toby’s limp form was laying on top of what looked like a carpetbag. Suppressing a shudder, Emma pushed on his shoulder, rolling his body off the bag. Unbuckling the clasp, Emma gingerly touched the soft fabric of a folded up gown. Shaking off the feelings of loss and pain that threatened to overwhelm her, she dug through the bag finding a bible with the inscription G. Rimmel, a book of sonnets and at least twenty-five dollars in gold coins.
Quickly tucking the Colt and the old haversack into the carpetbag, Emma stood on unsteady feet. Closing her eyes, she took several deep breaths before moving to where her brother lay. Pulling the bible out of the bag, she read from Ecclesiastes 3:1-2. She never was one for church, especially after her parents’ death, but she remembered this verse from her school days. It would have to do. Reading the simple words over her brother’s body, Emma leaned down to give him one last kiss on the cheek. She couldn’t abide leaving him here but she had no choice. Deep down she knew he would have understood. Emma vowed to return when the dust had settled and learn where they buried him.
Emma briefly thought about taking one of the horses in the corral, but then thought differently. The law could very well forgive her for killing a wanted man like Clayton but no one ever forgave a horse thief. Hefting the carpet bag on her shoulder, Emma followed a narrow path that seemed to lead to the Superstition Mountains, looming large in the distance. With luck, she would come across a small town or kindly homesteader.
After spending a rough, lonely night sheltered beneath some mesquite trees with only the hard tack biscuit from the haversack for food, Emma headed out on the small path again. She had changed into a simple calico dress from the carpet bag. Thankfully, it fit reasonably well. That is…with one exception. The fabric stretched almost painfully tight across her more than ample bosom. Emma knew it was dangerous to walk about unprotected without her boy disguise, but she had no choice. The clothes were ruined with blood. Plus, as far as the law knew, it was a young boy who got away, not a woman in her twenties. For now, she was safer as a woman.
She had only walked about an hour when she saw a lone rider approach. Reaching into the carpetbag, she grasped the now comforting handle of her Colt, while still keeping it hidden.
As the rider approached, Emma relaxed somewhat. It was a young boy, no more than fourteen.
“Hello there!” He greeted her warmly as he hopped off his horse before it had even come to a full stop.
“Boy am I glad to see you,” he said, grinning ear to ear. “Momma would have skinned me for sure if you had just come strolling into town!”
The young man burst into laughter as he took off his hat to wipe his brow. Emma forced an uneasy smile.
At her continued silence, the boy leaned in to take a closer look at Emma, “You are Glendolene Rimmel, aren’t cha?”
Emma just stared back.
The boy waved his hand in front of her face. “Hello? Oh boy! What was I thinking? You’re probably done to death from thirst and this darn sun beating down on you!” He reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a leather flask filled with water. Emma took it from him eagerly. Gulping down huge swallows of cool water. The liquid almost painful as it hit her parched throat.
“Thank you,” she croaked, realizing it was the first time she spoken since Ezra’s death the day before.
“You are Glendolene Rimmel, our new school teacher, right?” the boy asked anxiously.
Emma shook her head yes, unable to actually form the lie.
The boy visibly relaxed. “Oh boy, am I glad! Momma has been making me trek back and forth from the station for three whole weeks now. Every day! We just about gave you up for lost!”
The boy continued to chat away as he reached for the handle of the carpetbag. Emma reluctantly relinquished it. As he secured her bag to his saddle horn, she thought she heard the boy mention his name. Jed, she thought, maybe, maybe not…he was talking very fast and everything else was moving so very fast. She missed her brother. She was tired. She was hungry. Everything about her seemed to just whirl and hum.
Jed boosted Emma up onto his saddle, before taking the reins. Walking the horse around, he made his way back home on foot, leading the horse.
“You are going to love, Wickenburg, Miss Glendolene,” he prattled on. “Oh boy! Folks are going to be real excited the school teacher is finally here.”
Emma closed her eyes and allowed the gentle swaying of the horse and rise and fall of Jed’s talking to soothe her like a bubbling creek.
So she would pretend to be this Glendolene Rimmel for a few days.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Willow Brier, Arizona Territory – Same day
Jackson Horn turned his horse to the north and headed out. His friend Mason was no longer in danger. It was time to leave.
As a gun-for-hire, he went where the money was good and the whiskey and women better. There was a cattle baron who needed to roust some rustlers. There was also a man in Wickenburg who needed the crew robbing the Black Canyon Stagecoach line taken care of in exchange for some information Horn wanted.
Horn had a reputation for relentless pursuit. Once on the hunt, nothing deterred him.
He always captured his prey.
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