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Lawless jh-3, Page 2

Nora Roberts

  He could see the driver, an arrow piercing one shoulder, struggling to regain control of the horses. He was doing his best, despite the pain, but he wasn’t strong enough to shove the brake down. Swearing, Jake pushed his horse on until he was close enough to the racing coach to gain a handhold.

  For one endless second he hung by his fingers alone. Sarah caught a glimpse of a dusty shirt and one powerful forearm, a long, leather-clad leg and a scarred boot. Then he was up, scrambling over the top of the coach. The woman beside her screamed again, then fainted dead away when they stopped. Too terrified to sit, Sarah pushed open the door of the coach and climbed out.

  The man in the gray hat was already getting down.

  “Ma’am,” he said as he moved past her.

  She pressed a hand to her drumming heart. No hero had ever been so heroic. “You saved our lives,” she managed, but he didn’t even glance her way.

  “Redman.” The passenger who’d drunk the whiskey stepped out. “Glad you stopped by.”

  “Lucius.” Jake picked up the reins of his horse and proceeded to calm him. “There were only six of them.”

  “They’re getting away,” Sarah blurted out. “Are you just going to let them get away?”

  Jake looked at the cloud of dust from the retreating horses, then back at Sarah. He had time now for a longer, more interested study. She was tiny, with East stamped all over her pretty face. Her hair, the color of honeycombs, was tumbling down from her bonnet.

  She looked as if she’d just stepped out of the school

  room, and she smelled like a cheap saloon. He had to grin.


  “But you can’t.” Her idea of a hero was rapidly crumbling. “They killed a man.”

  “He knew the chance he was taking. Riding the line pays good.”

  “They murdered him,” Sarah said again, as if she were speaking to a very dull pupil. “He’s lying back there with an arrow through his heart.” When Jake said nothing, just walked his horse to the back of the coach, Sarah followed him. “At least you can go back and pick up that poor man’s body. We can’t just leave him there.”

  “Dead’s dead.”

  “That’s a hideous tiling to say.” Because she felt ill, Sarah dragged off her bonnet and used it to fan hot air around her face. “The man deserves a decent burial. I couldn’t possibly-What are you doing?” Jake spared her a glance. Mighty pretty, he decided.

  Even prettier without the bonnet hiding her hair.

  “Hitching my horse.”

  She dropped her arm to her side. She no longer felt ill. She was certainly no longer impressed. She was furious. “Sir, you appear to care more about that horse than you do about the man.”

  He stooped under the reins. For a moment they stood face-to-face, with the sun beating down and the smell of blood and dust all around them. “That’s right, seeing as the man’s dead and my horse isn’t. I’d get back inside, ma’am. It’d be a shame if you were still standing here when the Apaches decide to come back.”

  That made her stop and look around uneasily. The desert was still, but for the cry of a bird she didn’t recognize as a vulture. “I’ll go back and get him myself,” she said between her teeth.

  “Suit yourself.” Jake walked to the front of the coach. “Get that stupid woman inside,” he told Lucius. “And don’t give her any more to drink.”

  Sarah’s mouth fell open. Before she could retaliate, Lucius had her by the arm. “Now, don’t mind Jake, miss. He just says whatever he damn pleases. He’s right, though. Those Apaches might ram back this way. We sure don’t want to be sitting here if they do.” With what little dignity she had left, Sarah stepped back into the coach. The fat woman was still sobbing, leaning heavily against a tight-lipped man in a bowler.

  Sarah wedged herself into her corner as the stage jumped forward again. Securing her bonnet, she frowned at Lucius.

  “Who is that horrible man?”

  “Jake?” Lucius settled back. There was nothing he liked better than a good fight, particularly when he stayed alive to enjoy it. “That’s Jake Redman, miss. I don’t mind saying we was lucky he passed this way. Jake hits what he aims at.”

  “Indeed.” She wanted to be aloof, but she remembered the murderous look in the Apache’s eyes when he’d ridden beside the window. “I suppose we do owe him our gratitude, but he seemed cold-blooded about it.”

  “More’n one says he’s got ice in his veins. Along with some Apache blood.”

  “You mean he’s…Indian?”

  “On his grandmother’s side, I hear.” Because his bottle was empty, Lucius settled for a plug of tobacco. He tucked it comfortably in his cheek. “Wouldn’t want to cross him. No, ma’am, I sure wouldn’t.

  Mighty comforting to know he’s on your side when things heat up.”

  What kind of man killed his own kind? With a shiver, Sarah fell silent again. She didn’t want to think about it.

  On top of the stage, Jake kept the team to a steady pace. He preferred the freedom and mobility of having a single horse under him. The driver held a hand to his wounded shoulder and refused the dubious comfort of the coach.

  “We could use you back on the line,” he told Jake. “Thinking about it.” But he was really thinking about the little lady with the big brown eyes and the honey-colored hair. “Who’s the girl? The young one in blue?”

  “Conway. From Philadelphia.” The driver breathed slow and easy against the pain. “Says she’s Matt Conway’s daughter.”

  “That so?” Miss Philadelphia Conway sure as hell didn’t take after her old man. But Jake remembered that Matt bragged about his daughter back east from time to time. Especially after he started a bottle. “Come to visit her father?”

  “Says she’s come to stay.”

  Jake gave a quick, mirthless laugh. “Won’t last a week. Women like that don’t.”

  “She’s planning on it.” With a jerk of his thumb, the driver indicated the trunks strapped to the coach. “Most of that’s hers.”

  With a snort, Jake adjusted his hat. “Figures.”

  Sarah caught her first glimpse of Lone Bluff from the stagecoach window. It spread like a jumble of rock at the base of the mountains. Hard, cold-looking mountains, she thought with a shudder, fooled-as the inexperienced always were-into thinking they were much closer than they actually were.

  She’d forgotten herself enough to crane her head out. But she couldn’t get another look at Jake Redman unless she pushed half her body through the opening. She really wasn’t interested anyway, she assured herself.

  Unless it was purely for entertainment purposes. When she wrote back to Lucilla and the sisters, she wanted to be able to describe all the local oddities. The man was certainly odd. He’d ridden like a warrior one moment, undoubtedly risking his life for a coachful of strangers. Then, the next minute, he’d dismissed his Christian duty and left a poor soul beside a lonely desert road. And he’d called her stupid. Never in her life had anyone ever accused Sarah Conway of being stupid. In fact, both her intelligence and her breeding were widely admired. She was well-read, fluent in French and more than passably accomplished on the pianoforte.

  Taking the time to retie her bonnet, Sarah reminded herself that she hardly needed approval from a man like Jake Redman. After she was reunited with her father and took her place in the local society, it was doubtful she’d ever see him again.

  She’d thank him properly, of course. ‘Sarah drew a fresh handkerchief from her reticule and blotted her temples. Just because he had no manners was no excuse to forget her own. She supposed she might even ask her father to offer him some monetary reward. Pleased with the idea, Sarah looked out the window again. And blinked. Surely this wasn’t Lone Bluff. Her father would never have settled in this grimy excuse for a town. It was no more than a huddle of buildings and a wide patch of dust that served as a road. They passed two saloons side by side, a dry goods store and what appeared to be a rooming house. Slack-legged horses were hitched
to posts, their tails switching lazily at huge black flies. A handful of young boys with dirty faces began to race alongside the coach, shouting and firing wooden pistols. Sarah saw two women in faded gingham walking arm in arm on some wooden planks that served as a sidewalk.

  When the coach stopped, she heard Jake call out for a doctor. Passengers were already streaming out through the doors on both sides. Resigned, Sarah stepped out and shook out her skirts.

  “Mr. Redman.” The brim of her bonnet provided inadequate shade. She was forced to lift her hand over her eyes. “Why have we stopped here?”

  “End of the line, ma’am.” A couple of men were already lifting the driver down, so he swung himself around to unstrap the cases on top of the coach. “End of the line? But where are we?”

  He paused long enough to glance down at her. She saw then that his eyes were darker than she’d imagined. A smoky slate gray. “Welcome to Lone Bluff.”

  Letting out a long, slow breath, she turned. Sunlight treated the town cruelly. It showed all the dirt, all the wear, and it heightened the pungent smell of horses.

  Dear God, so this was it. The end of the line. The end of her line. It didn’t matter, she told herself. She wouldn’t be living in town. And surely before long the gold in her father’s mine would bring more people and progress. No, it didn’t matter at all. Sarah squared her shoulders. The only thing that mattered was seeing her father again.

  She turned around in time to see Jake toss one of her trunks down to Lucius.

  “Mr. Redman, please take care of my belongings.” Jake hefted the next case and tossed it to a grinning Lucius. “Yes, ma’am.”

  Biting down on her temper, she waited until he jumped down beside her. “Notwithstanding my earlier sentiments, I’m very grateful to you, Mr. Redman, for coming to our aid. You proved yourself to be quite valiant. I’m sure my father will want to repay you for seeing that I arrived safely.”

  Jake didn’t think he’d ever heard anyone talk quite so fine since he’d spent a week in St. Louis. Tipping back his hat, he looked at her, long enough to make Sarah flush. “Forget it.”

  Forget it? Sarah thought as he turned his back and walked away. If that was the way the man accepted gratitude, she certainly would. With a sweep of her skirts she moved to the side of the road to wait for her father.

  Jake strode into the rooming house with his saddlebag slung over his shoulder. It was never particularly clean, and it always smelled of onions and strong coffee. There were a couple of bullet holes in the wall. He’d put one of them there personally. Since the door was propped open, flies buzzed merrily in and out of the cramped entrance.

  “Maggie.” Jake tipped his hat to the woman who stood at the base of the stairs. “Got a room?” Maggie O’Rourke was as tough as one of her fried steaks. She had iron-gray hair pinned back from a face that should have been too skinny for wrinkles. But wrinkles there were, a maze of them. Her tiny blue eyes seemed to peek out of the folds of a worn blanket. She ran her business with an iron fist, a Winchester repeater and an eye for a dollar.

  She took one look at Jake and successfully hid her pleasure at seeing him. “Well, look what the cat dragged in,” she said, the musical brogue of her native country still evident in her thin voice. “Got the law on your tail, Jake, or a woman?”

  “Neither.” He kicked the door shut with his boot, wondering why he always came back here. The old woman never gave him a moment’s peace, and her cooking could kill a man. “You got a room, Maggie? And some hot water?”

  “You got a dollar?” She held out her thin hand.

  When Jake dropped a coin into it, she tested it with the few good teeth she had left. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Jake. She did. She just didn’t trust the United States government. “Might as well take the one you had before. No one’s in it.”

  “Fine.” He started up the steps.

  “Ain’t had too much excitement since you left.

  Couple drifters shot each other over at the Bird Cage. Worthless pair, the both of them. Only one dead, though. Sheriff sent the other on his way after the doc patched him up. Young Mary Sue Brody got herself in trouble with that Mitchell boy. Always said she was a fast thing, that Mary Sue. Had a right proper wedding, though. Just last month.”

  Jake kept walking, but that didn’t stop Maggie. One of the privileges in running a rooming house was giving and receiving gossip.

  “What a shame about old Matt Conway.”

  That stopped him. He turned. Maggie was still at the base of the steps, using the edge of her apron to swipe halfheartedly at the dust on the banister. “What about Matt Conway?”

  “Got himself killed in that worthless mine of his.

  A cave-in. Buried him the day before yesterday.”

  Chapter Two

  The heat was murderous. A plume of thin yellow dust rose each time a rider passed, then hung there to clog the still air. Sarah longed for a long, cool drink and a seat in the shade. From the looks of things, there wasn’t a place in town where a lady could go to find such amenities. Even if there were, she was afraid to leave her trunks on the side of the road and risk missing her father.

  She’d been so sure he would be waiting for her. But then, a man in his position could have been held up by a million things. Work at the mine, a problem with an employee, perhaps last-minute preparations for her arrival.

  She’d waited twelve years, she reminded herself, resisting the urge to loosen her collar. She could wait a little longer.

  A buckboard passed, spewing up more dust, so that she was forced to lift a handkerchief to her mouth.

  Her dark blue traveling skirt and her neat matching jacket with its fancy black braid were covered with dust. With a sigh, she glanced down at her blouse, which was drooping hopelessly and now seemed more yellow than white. It wasn’t really vanity. The sisters had never given her a chance to develop any. She was concerned that her father would see her for the first time when she was travel-stained and close to exhaustion. She’d wanted to look her best for him at this first meeting. All she could do now was retie the bow at her chin, then brush hopelessly at her skirts.

  She looked a fright. But she’d make it up to him. She would wear her brand-new white muslin gown for dinner tonight, the one with the.charming rosebuds embroidered all over the skirt. Her kid slippers were dyed pink to match. He’d be proud of her.

  If only he’d come, she thought, and take her away from here.

  Jake crossed the street after losing the battle he’d waged with himself. It wasn’t his business, and it wasn’t his place to tell her. But for the past ten minutes he’d been watching her standing at the side of the road, waiting. He’d been able to see, too clearly, the look of hope that sprang into her eyes each time a horse or wagon approached. Somebody had to tell the woman that her father wasn’t going to meet her. Sarah saw him coming. He walked easily, despite the guns at his sides. As if they had always been there. As if they always would be. They rode low on his hips, shifting with his movements. And he kept his eyes on her in a way that she was certain a man shouldn’t keep his eyes on a woman-unless she was his own. When she felt her heart flutter, she automatically stiffened her backbone.

  It was Lucilla who was always talking about fluttering hearts. It was Lucilla who painted romantic pictures of lawless men and lawless places. Sarah preferred a bit more reality in her dreams.

  “Ma’am.” He was surprised that she hadn’t already swooned under the power of the afternoon sun. Maybe she was tougher than she looked, but he doubted it. “Mr. Redman.” Determined to be gracious, she allowed her lips to curve ever so slightly at the corners. He tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his pants.

  “I got some news about your father.”

  She smiled fully, beautifully, so that her whole face lit up with it. Her eyes turned to gold in the sunlight. Jake felt the punch, like a bullet in the chest. “Oh, did he leave word for me? Thank you for letting me know. I might have waited here for hours.”


  “Is there a note?”

  “No.” He wanted to get this done, and done quickly. “Matt’s dead. There was an accident at his mine.” He was braced for weeping, for wild wailing, but her eyes filled with fury, not tears.

  “How dare you? How dare you lie to me about something like that?” She would have brushed past him, but Jake clamped a hand over her arm. Sarah’s first reaction was simple indignation at being manhandled.

  Then she looked up at him, really looked, and said nothing.

  “He was buried two days ago.” He felt her recoil, then go still. The fury drained from her eyes, even as the color drained from her cheeks. “Don’t go fainting on me.”

  It was true. She could see the truth on his face as clearly as she could see his distaste at being the one to tell her. “An accident?” she managed.

  “A cave-in.” He was relieved that she wasn’t going to faint, but he didn’t care for the glassy look in her eyes. “You’ll want to talk to the sheriff.”

  “The sheriff?” she repeated dully.

  “His office is across the street.”

  She just shook her head and stared at him. Her eyes were gold, Jake decided. The color of the brandy he sometimes drank at the Silver Star. Right now they were huge and full of hurt. He watched her bite down on her bottom lip in a gesture he knew meant she was fighting not to let go of the emotions he saw so clearly in her eyes.

  If she’d fainted, he’d happily have left her on the road in the care of whatever woman happened to pass by. But she was hanging on, and it moved something in him.

  Swearing, Jake shifted his grip from her arm to her elbow and guided her across the street. He was damned if he could figure out how he’d elected himself responsible.

  Sheriff Barker was at his desk, bent over some paperwork and a cup of sweetened coffee. He was balding rapidly. Every morning he took the time to comb what hair he had left over the spreading bare spot on top of his head. He had the beginnings of a paunch brought on by his love of his wife’s baking. He kept the law in Lone Bluff, but he didn’t worry overmuch about the order. It wasn’t that he was corrupt, just lazy.