Read Outlaw Hearts Online

Authors: Rosanne Bittner

Outlaw Hearts

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Copyright © 1993 by Rosanne Bittner

Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Jon Paul

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

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Originally published in 1993 in the United States of America by Bantam Books, an imprint of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Dedicated to my sons, Brock and Brian, of whom I am very proud.

“My son, keep your father's commands

And do not forsake your mother's teaching.

Bind them upon your heart forever;

Fasten them around your neck.

When you walk, they will guide you;

When you sleep, they will watch over you;

When you awake, they will speak to you.

For these commands are a lamp,

This teaching is a light.”

Proverbs 6:20–23

Part One

What we do today will become tomorrow's memory; and often the past we are now creating returns to haunt us.

One

April 1866

Miranda tried to ignore the image of her father's still-fresh grave as she flicked the reins and goaded the draft horses into a slightly faster gait. This was not a time to crumble. She had to face facts. Her father was dead, and her worthless brother was somewhere in Nevada, totally oblivious to the hardships his father and sister had faced these last months.

She was a woman alone now. If not for the war, she would still have a husband. If not for the war, there would have been no marauding outlaws to come and shoot down her father. It seemed that she had spent her entire young adult life thinking about survival, ever since her precious mother had died six years ago. She had been only fourteen then, and after that, one by one, she had lost all those she loved.

She grunted when the wagon hit a hefty rut and nearly bounced her out of her seat, but she kept a tight hold on the reins. The thirty-minute ride to Kansas City from what was left of her father's meager farm led over a rough, often muddy, dirt road. Today it was dry and hard, and the ruts and holes were more jolting; but dark clouds were moving in swiftly from the west, threatening a much-needed rain. It had been an unruly Kansas spring, warm one day, cold the next, and too dry.

Ever since the raiders had killed her father six weeks ago, she had been in a quandary over what to do. Her friends in nearby Kansas City had been urging her to sell the farm and get herself to the safety of town, warning her that it was too dangerous for her to be staying on alone. Maybe they were right. With all the cattle and horses stolen, the chickens killed, the barn burned, what was left? It had taken her several days to get the cabin back in order, and one window, shot out by the raiders, was still boarded up. She had spent most of her and her father's hard-earned savings buying new supplies because so much had been stolen. Thank goodness most of the money was in a bank in Kansas City rather than at the cabin the day of the raid. The outlaws had torn the place apart looking for whatever they could find of value.

She was also thankful she still had the draft horses, one of the few things left that was worth something. She had finally decided to sell the farm, but she would not move to Kansas City. The first thing she should do now was try to find her brother in Nevada, and she could only pray he was actually still there. His last letter had come from Virginia City, but that had been over a year ago.

She couldn't help wondering if Wes was really worth finding, after the way he had abandoned them. Still, he was all she had left, and it seemed to her they should be together now. Besides, he should know their father was dead, and she hoped he would feel guilty about it. If he had stayed on to help with the farm, he would have been there the day of the raid to help protect things, and maybe their father would still be alive.

She felt guilty enough herself. If she had not gone to town that day to participate in a church social, maybe there would have been something she could have done herself to save her father. Then again, God only knew what the outlaws would have done to her… If, if, if. She used that word a lot. If her mother had not died back in Illinois, her physician father would not have felt guilty for not being able to save her. He would not have given up his doctoring and moved to Kansas to try to farm, and consequently, he would not now be lying buried, shot down by rebel raiders.

There was no sense wondering what might have been. What was real was that she was completely alone now. She felt under the seat to make sure her father's prized Winchester rifle had not bounced too far back to reach quickly. She was determined to be ready for any would-be attackers. She had no mercy for the kind of men who had shot down her father in cold blood. Besides the rifle, she carried a derringer in her handbag. She realized the pistol was not as deadly as the rifle, but at short range, it could certainly do enough damage to stop a man in his tracks. Trouble was, for any kind of accuracy, and to do a man any real damage, that man would have to be closer to her than she would care to experience. She could only hope she would never have need of the pistol.

It seemed strange to be considering the best way to kill a man. She worried sometimes that all her losses had left her harder than she ever thought possible. Where were the gentle, loving feelings she used to have? Where was the innocent Miranda Sue Baker who had not a care in the world before her mother died? It was Hayes now, Miranda Hayes—a name taken from a man whose bed she had shared for only two weeks before he left for the war, never to return. That was three years ago. She had not shared any man's bed since.

A chilly spring wind rushed past her as the dark clouds from the west finally moved overhead. A wisp of her honey-blond hair came loose from the bun into which it was twisted, and she quickly pushed it up under her bonnet. A light spray of misty rain tickled her face, and she slapped the reins, anxious to get into town before a harder rain might begin to fall. Within minutes, increasingly bigger drops of rain began to make dark spots in the dry dirt road. She held the reins in one hand and reached behind the seat to pull out a rubber cape, managing to shake it open and fling it over her head and shoulders well enough to protect most of her person from a steady rainfall.

“Damn weather,” she mumbled. Why did the rain have to wait until she made a trip to town? “Hurry it up, you two,” she shouted to the horses. “Don't be so lazy!”

***

Jake drew his buckskin horse to a slower walk to avoid splattering mud from the street onto the horse's belly and his own knee-high leather boots and denim pants. He pulled his canvas slicker closer around him and ducked his head, and rainwater ran off his leather hat onto the black hair of the horse's mane and on down its dun-colored coat. The animal snorted and tossed its head.

“Relax, Outlaw,” Jake said softly to the animal. “A few more minutes and I'll have us both out of this rain—a good livery for you and a bath and a shave for me.” He looked toward a saloon, its doors closed to the fresh morning. “Later tonight maybe I'll find a good card game and end up in the bed of a woman bought with my winnings.”

If
Kansas
City
allows
prostitutes
to
solicit
openly
, he thought. He wondered if he was crazy coming to such a civilized place. He was dangerously close to Missouri, where he knew posters had been tacked up showing drawings of his face and offering a reward for his capture. Thank goodness the drawings were not very good. In a large, busy town like this, a man could usually mix in better and be less noticed than in a smaller town, and Lord knew he needed to get himself some supplies and get a couple days' rest before heading west.

The still mostly unsettled land beyond the western border of Kansas seemed the only place now for a man like him. He knew other men with whom he had ridden and robbed and raided were heading in the same direction, into a lawless land where a man could live by the gun and not worry about prison. The only thing that had kept his own neck from a noose was the utter chaos the country seemed to have fallen into since the war ended. Times had been ripe the past year for hitting banks and trains and finding other ways of making easy money, and he had plenty now—enough to head west and maybe find a way to lead a normal life, if that was possible for a man who'd lived as he had. At thirty years old, he figured maybe it was time, but then life had never seemed to present the opportunity.

Maybe he could start a ranch, or some kind of business. If he could just get through Kansas, he'd be all right. He wondered if it might be best to head south first, to Indian Territory, then head west. The tangled wilds of Indian country were great protection for an outlaw, and most of the Indians themselves didn't mind putting up a stranger, for a bottle of whiskey or a little money. He'd hidden out there plenty of times in the past.

He drew Outlaw to a halt in front of a dry-goods store, noticing a little slip of a woman tying two draft horses to a hitching post. Her head was tucked under a rubber cape and she didn't see him. He watched her curiously, wondering how someone so small managed to handle two such big horses and the beat-up, awkward supply wagon they pulled. The woman rushed into the store, and Jake grinned and dismounted, his brown leather boots squishing into the mud. He tied Outlaw and patted the animal's neck. “I won't be too long, boy.”

He looked around before going inside, still with the uncomfortable suspicion that he was being followed. He had considered circling back a couple of days earlier and maybe lying in wait for whoever might be on his tail, but he was sick of camping out on the cold ground and had been anxious to reach town. Now he wondered if the call of a warm bath and a soft bed had caused him to be a little too careless. If someone was following him, maybe they were waiting for him to hit a town this size, where people would see a public confrontation and it would be harder for him to get away.

He ducked his head to get more water off his hat before stepping up onto the boardwalk in front of the store. An old man was just leaving the store, and he nodded to Jake, then stepped back a little when he noticed the revolvers that hung low on Jake's hips. The old man glanced over at Outlaw, seeing the Winchester repeating rifle and the shotgun that rested in their boots on either side of the horse.

“You carry a hefty lot of firearms,” the man spoke up in a grating voice.

“In these parts a traveling man has to be careful,” Jake replied, keeping a friendly look on his face. “There's a lot of outlaws out there in the hills.”

The old man looked him over. “That's a fact. I don't reckon if you was one of them, you'd be paradin' into a place like Kansas City now, would you?”

Jake's bearded face showed a slight grin. “No, sir, I don't think I would. A good day to you.” He tipped his hat and headed into the store, hoping the old man would go on about his business and not draw attention to him. As soon as he stepped inside he glanced out the window to see the man pull a jacket over his head and shoulders and head across the street on old legs that walked uncertainly in the deepening mud.

Jake turned to realize that the store clerk and the young woman he had noticed tying the draft horses a moment ago were both now staring at him. The woman quickly turned away, embarrassed at having been caught looking. Jake nodded to the clerk. “You got tobacco? Cigars?”

“I've got just about all you need, mister, long as you've got the cash to pay for it.”

“I've got the cash.”

Outside the rain came down even harder. Jake began gathering needed supplies, occasionally glancing toward the woman, who seemed to be avoiding looking at him again. He supposed she thought it would be improper to meet his eyes again and be caught staring, but he wanted to see her face a second time. In that first glance she had looked pretty, and in spite of the cape she wore over her full calico dress, he had a feeling the form beneath all the clothing was slim and pleasing. It had been a long time since he had set eyes on a proper lady, one who was pretty at that. He well knew he was not the kind of man proper ladies had anything to do with, but a man could daydream. The irony was, he had fallen into a life of running against the law by
defending
a very proper lady, little more than a child. Poor young Santana. The memory of what had happened the night he found his father with the girl still haunted his sleep. He had led a lawless life ever since, and he had his father to thank for that. God, how he had hated that man.

***

Miranda refused to take a second look and risk meeting the dark eyes of the man who had just entered the store. If anyone fit the description of the kind of men who had been raiding and killing in Missouri and Kansas since the war ended, this man did. For the brief moment she had taken to look at him when he entered the store, she had noticed his eyes were shrouded in mystery. They betrayed no particular emotion, not even one of greeting. His bearded face left little else to notice but the eyes, and by the look of them, she suspected he was a dangerous man. Few men who lived and worked around Kansas City gave off such a foreboding aura. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and even when she wasn't looking at him it seemed he filled the small store with his presence. She tried to concentrate on her own list while the man's booted feet clumped back and forth as he gathered things and set them on the counter next to her own items.

She walked to where the clerk, Monty Lake, kept spools of thread, and she began choosing some, holding her handbag close. After what had happened to her father and the farm, she felt no stranger could be trusted. The man moved to stand near her then, looking at some tins of coffee. Miranda managed to keep from turning her head as she shifted her eyes enough to see a revolver hanging low on one hip. Not many men in town wore guns strapped to them as though ready for war. His dark green slicker was pushed back behind the gun, and she wondered if it was deliberate. Was this the kind of man who was always ready to grab his weapon? Maybe he intended to rob Mr. Lake instead of pay for his goods.

“Right uncomfortable weather outside, isn't it?” The man spoke up in a deep voice.

Inbred manners caused Miranda to meet his gaze then, but she refused to smile. She suspected the face behind the beard and trail dust was handsome, then chastised herself for the tiny flicker of attraction she felt to the stranger. “Yes,” she answered curtly, quickly turning back to the thread.

“Don't be bothering the lady, mister,” the clerk called out.

Miranda heard a sigh, and the man turned away. “Just making friendly small talk,” he answered, sounding irritated. “When you travel alone a lot, it feels good to see and talk to people.”

“Only when they want to talk,” the clerk replied. “Mrs. Hayes there lost her father recently to no-good raiders, and she's still in mourning.”

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