Luke Jensen curled the fingers of his right hand around the butt of the Remington revolver holstered on his left hip in a cross-draw rig. He pressed his back against the faded wallpaper in the hotel corridor, eased closer to the door at his left, and listened intently.
Snores came from inside the room. The sound of them put a faint smile on his rugged, deeply tanned face. He was a tall, rangy man dressed in black from head to foot, although the trail dust that had settled on him during the past week had given his hat, shirt, trousers, and boots a grayish tinge.
He had spent that week tracking down Frank McCluskey, the outlaw who snored peacefully on the other side of the door, blissfully unaware that his freedom and his life as a lawless desperado were about to be over. Luke had finally caught up to him in the little settlement called Rimrock, in Wyoming Territory.
Poised to pull the Remington, lift his foot, and drive his heel against the door next to the knob, Luke could see his plan playing out in his head, plain as day. When the door crashed open, he would rush in and wallop the startled McCluskey before the outlaw knew what was going on.
Before he could put the plan into operation, he heard footsteps down at the other end of the hall where the stairs from the first floor reached a landing. Someone was climbing those stairsâand singing softly. He couldn't make out the words, but he could tell the voice belonged to a woman.
He bit back a curse and took his hand off his gun. Even though he intended to take McCluskey by surprise and capture him without any shooting, he couldn't guarantee it would go smoothly. He couldn't risk lead flying around with an innocent bystander in the corridor, especially a woman.
Early in his career as a bounty hunter, he might not have worried much about anybody else being hurt, as long as he captured the fugitive he was after and collected the reward. Age had softened him a little, he supposed, as had being reunited with his brother Smoke after many years apart.
Now and then, Luke worried about that. A man in his line of work, tracking the most dangerous outlaws west of the Mississippi, couldn't afford to get soft.
It was a good way to wind up dead in a hurry.
He turned toward the landing as the woman reached it. He figured he could amble down the corridor as if he were a guest leaving one of the other rooms, give her a pleasant nod as they passed, and let her go into her own room. Then he could return to McCluskey's door and resume his plan.
The woman stopped singing to herself as she started along the hallway and saw Luke coming toward her. She was a short woman with brassy blond hair and a voluptuous figure in a dark blue dress made to show it off. She looked at Luke with frank, open appraisal and smiled as if she liked what she saw.
Luke knew good and well that he wasn't what anybody would consider handsome. His face was craggy and the thin dark mustache didn't do anything to relieve the natural grimness of his mouth. But for some reason most women seemed to find him attractive, and he knew that, too. He returned the smile and reached up to touch a finger to the brim of his flat-crowned black hat.
“Good morning,” the woman said.
“Ma'am,” Luke greeted her politely. He didn't pause but moved to the side to go around her.
“I don't recall seeing you around. Are you staying here in the hotel?”
“That's right,” he lied. He kept moving, not wanting to stand in the hallway and have a conversation with her. She needed to just go on into her room, close the door, and let him get on with his business.
“My name's Delia Bradley.”
“Luke Smith,” he said, giving her the false name he used sometimes. “If you'll excuse me . . .”
“Oh, of course.” She waved a hand with long fingernails painted red to match her lips. Rings adorned several of her fingers, as well. She definitely had a flashy look about her, and Luke wondered if she might be a soiled dove visiting someone in the hotel.
He had just stepped past her when that thought went through his mind, followed immediately by the possibility that she might be headed to McCluskey's room. He couldn't help but glance back over his shoulder and saw her taking an over/under derringer out of the little bag she held. Her flirtatious smile had disappeared, but she was still baring her teeth at him in a hate-filled grimace.
Luke lashed out with his left hand as she jerked the derringer up. Grabbing her wrist, he thrust it toward the ceiling as she pulled the trigger, firing the upper barrel. The gun made a little popping sound as it went off, no louder than a man clapping his hands.
At the same time, he struck with his right fist, clipping her on the chin with a short, swift blow. His hand wasn't clenched tight, so he didn't do any real damage, but the punch was enough to stun her. He wrenched the derringer out of her hand as she sagged toward him.
He caught her under the arms to keep her from thudding to the floor and realized she was shamming. She lifted her knee toward his groin in a vicious strike.
He twisted to the side and took the blow on his thigh, where it was still painful but not incapacitating. “Damn it. Settle down!”
Not much chance of that, he realized as she opened her mouth and screamed, “Frank! Frank, get out of here!” She started fighting like a wildcat, clawing at Luke's face with her free hand and trying to gouge his eyes out with those long fingernails.
Anger welled up inside him. He hit her again, still pulling his punch, but not as much. The blow drove her head to the side and caused her eyes to roll up in their sockets. She couldn't fake that reaction. Her knees buckled, and Luke let her fall.
McCluskey might have slept through that derringer going off, but Luke knew the outlaw must have heard the blonde's warning scream. He bounded past her, drawing both Remingtons, and paused just long enough to lift his foot and kick the door open.
He dived to the floor, twisting so that he landed on his belly with both guns up. Shots roared inside the room, coming so close together they sounded like one thunderous blast. Bullets whipped through the air a couple feet above Luke's head and punched through the wall on the other side of the corridor.
He hoped nobody was in that room.
McCluskey crouched beside the bed, gun in hand, wearing only the bottom half of a pair of long red underwear. He was medium height, a little stocky but powerfully built in the arms and shoulders. He had close-cropped dark hair on a squarish head and a slab-like jaw usually thrust out belligerently. That was certainly the case as the hammer of his gun fell on an empty chamber.
He had emptied the revolver without doing a damn bit of good. That was all right with Luke. He didn't have any qualms about shooting an unarmed man who had just tried to kill himâespecially when the reward on McCluskey was good dead or alive.
Luke triggered both Remingtons, but McCluskey was fast as he flung himself onto the bed. He had to be to have stayed alive as long as he had. Luke's bullets narrowly missed. Rolling off the mattress's other side, McCluskey came up and plunged toward the room's lone window.
Luke surged to his feet and was drawing a bead on the fleeing owlhoot when something landed on his back. The impact made him stumble forward a couple steps.
“I've got him, Frank!” the blonde screeched in Luke's ear. “Get away while you can!”
She went after his eyes again, reaching around with both hands as she wrapped her legs around his torso and clung to him like a tick. Her fingernails raked stingingly across his cheek, dangerously close to his right eye. He flung himself back and forth violently as he tried to throw her off, but she hung on to him for dear life.
McCluskey could have made it through the window then if he had tried, but he thought it was too good an opportunity to rid himself of one of the bounty hunters on his trail. He dropped the gun he had emptied and snatched up a bowie knife lying on the little table next to the bed. As he shouted a curse, he lunged toward Luke and thrust the heavy blade at his chest.
McCluskey's impulsive attack had brought him within reach. Luke knocked the bowie aside with the Remington he held in his left hand and struck out with the right-hand revolver, slamming it into McCluskey's head. A blow like that could crack a man's skull and kill him, but just then Luke didn't care about that. He didn't want McCluskey trying to swipe that bowie at him in a nasty backhand.
McCluskey went down hard. Luke figured he would be out for several minutesâbut he had thought that about Delia, too, and she had recovered her wits quicker than he'd expected. He needed to deal with her while he had the chance.
She had knocked his hat off when she jumped on him. He hunched his shoulders and lowered his head to make it harder for her to claw at his face, then holstered his right-hand gun and reached back to grab her. He felt fabric and closed his fingers on it. As he bent forward at the waist, he hauled hard on her dress and heaved her up and over his head, creating a ripping sound as cloth and stitches gave.
Delia cried out as she flew through the air. With a flash of creamy skin, she landed on the bed and bounced.
Luke was a little surprised to see that she had come right out of the torn dress and lay there clad only in a thin chemise that didn't leave much of her lush figure to the imagination. He still held the dress.
She came up off the bed spitting with fury. He threw the dress over her head, blinding her temporarily, then wrapped his right arm around her and pinned her arms to her sides as he lifted her off her feet. All she could do was scream muffled curses and kick her feet. Her heels banged against his shins, but he did his best to ignore that as he tried to figure out what to do with her.
He was saved from having to ponder that for very long by the arrival of a gray-haired, middle-aged man who appeared in the room's open doorway holding a shotgun. He had a lawman's badge pinned to his vest, and as he leveled the Greener at Luke he barked a command. “Throw that gun on the bed, mister, right now!”
“Take it easy, Marshal,” Luke said as he tossed the Remington in his left hand onto the bed. No man in his right mind put up much of an argument when he found himself staring down the twin barrels of a shotgun. “This isn't what it looks like.”
“I don't know what you think it looks like, mister. I was told that all hell was breakin' loose up here, and that's sure as blazes how it appears to me!”