Authors: Genell Dellin
To Artie, always
e couldn’t even get a good night’s sleep and a hot breakfast anymore without somebody trying to kill him.
Cole McCord stopped at the door of Mattie’s Diner and reluctantly turned away from the tantalizing smell of brewing coffee, toward the sound of his name being shouted in the street. He squinted against the midmorning sun to scan the crowded, dusty center of Pueblo City.
The rude summons rang out again. “Cole McCord! I’m callin’ you out! I jist rode two hundred long, hard miles to prove you ain’t the fastest draw there is.”
Damn! Why had he ever come into Pueblo, anyhow? First, that ignorant tinhorn gambler who’d picked a fight last night before he’d heard Cole’s name, leaving Cole bruised and sore—which had brought a scared apology—and now this stupid dare because some gun-happy waddy
know who he was. It was enough to make a man stay away from towns forever.
A creaking wagon loaded with logs rolled on past, and then he could see his challenger—a short, thin boy wearing two six-guns, scattering the good citizens of Colorado in front of him like chickens running from a hawk. Spread out across the street behind him, three rough-looking cohorts followed the would-be badman at the same, slow pace. Weary resignation flowed into Cole’s bones—he’d probably have to kill them all.
He strolled to the edge of the sidewalk, taking deep breaths to loosen up for the draw. But before gunfire, he would try talking.
“After two hundred miles you need a cup of coffee instead of a bullet in your belly,” he called back, his calm voice carrying easily across the rapidly emptying space between them. “Think about it, son.”
“Think about it yourself, old man. You’re the one who’ll be eatin’ lead. My name’s Kid Dolby,” his opponent yelled. “The next dime novel’s gonna be about
.” Cole waited, silent. Talking wasn’t going to do the trick.
Cole stepped into the street, moving deliberately toward the center, raking his gaze over his adversaries, trying to judge them and their intentions. He decided that, most likely, the ruffians backing the kid would let the boy take the first shot: they were watching Kid Dolby more than they were watching him. Damn it all to hell and gone, he was going to have to kill this child.
Kid Dolby’s eyes glinted with excitement and
fear—they shone bright as lights in the shadow of his battered hat. His face looked way too young for such shenanigans. He couldn’t yet be called a man; his voice even cracked when he called out again.
McCord, your rep is a helluva lot faster than your hand.”
The boy’s own hands were shaking, hovering near his holsters, not quite steady enough to go for the guns. But he stopped walking when he reached the cross-street, and he just stood there, his chest heaving. With his next breath, or the next, he would grab his six-shooters and start firing, for he was in too deep to back out now, and his nerve was melting like snow in the sun. Cole got ready.
The circle of silence that always fell around two men ready to draw began to grow as people all up and down the street noticed what was happening. The town got so quiet that he could hear the flapping of a signboard in the wind and then, from off to his left, the sound of hooves and wheels pounding, rattling, coming closer. He needed to keep his gaze steady on the Kid’s hands, but he had to risk a glance.
Dear God. A woman wearing a hat with a feather and a faraway look on her face was driving a big sorrel horse straight at him, headlong. He recognized the instant she noticed him and the Kid and realized what was happening, but it was too late for her to turn or stop. The rig rushed in between him and the boy as a glint of sunlight on metal flickered on the other
side of the open cart where the woman sat. The kid had a gun out. She was rolling right into the line of fire.
Cole’s brain went cold, his body moved on pure instinct, and he lunged for her, grabbing her out of the gig so swiftly that the momentum of her slight weight set him off balance. He hit the ground with a bone-crunching thud, but he managed to hold her tight in both arms and keep her from the Kid, who was firing round after wild round, making the shots echo from the brick buildings and ping off the metal watering trough, making horses whinny and people yell. He kept his body between hers and the shooter as best he could until they came to a stop, lying flat in the dust of the street.
Twisting his neck to try to watch his back, he jerked his right arm from beneath her and pulled his gun, but there was no need. Kid Dolby wasn’t shooting any more, because Sheriff Bass was walking up to him with his gun drawn. Cole glimpsed other men holding guns on the Kid’s buddies. Voices began rising from up and down the street.
“It might’ve been easier to get shot,” the woman said from beneath him, her soft breasts pressing against his chest as she gasped for breath with every word. “You’re a pretty rough rescuer.”
A great confusion of feelings rose in him, flooding his veins to make his nerves tingle as if his whole body had been asleep for years. That silly remark made his jaw clench with anger,
yet her sass, her very
, made him weak with relief that she hadn’t been hurt or killed. Her voluptuous shape, her scent, and the fact that she lay pressed against his length with her legs twined with his and her arm clinging around his neck filled him with desire.
Anger he was accustomed to. He chose it.
shot, lady? That’s a damn-fool, featherbrained thing to say.”
She did have the grace to blush.
“I was only teasing! Can’t you take a joke and laugh a little?”
“You could’ve been killed if you’d been shot.”
She gave an unladylike snort of disdain. “What a bit of wisdom. And
He dropped his gun into his holster and started trying to untangle himself.
“Well, if you had the sense God gave an armadillo,” he said as he managed to get to his knees, “you wouldn’t have come galloping into the middle of a gunfight. What’s the matter with you anyway, driving like a bat out of hell right in town?”
“I didn’t know I was
He stared down into her heart-shaped face, surrounded by the cloud of curly, honey-colored hair. Her hat was long gone. She was beautiful. And, evidently, quite loco.
“Where else but in town do you see buildings and sidewalks?”
“You needn’t be sarcastic. I mean I didn’t
,” she said, holding out her hand to him so he could help her. “I was thinking about something else.”
She sat up and gave him a long, direct look. His hand engulfed her small one in its thin doeskin glove. Her eyes were wide and impossibly blue. Heat began to build beneath his skin.
Kid Dolby’s sharp voice cut through all the other sounds swirling in the street.
“Cole McCord, you ain’t rid of me. Be ready to draw when I git outta jail.”
“Damn that boy, he’s crazy,” he muttered, looking over his shoulder for his tormentor. “He’s gonna keep on until I’ll have to kill him.”
“Oh,” she said, and closed her fingers tight around his. “Oh, my.”
“Don’t be scared,” he said, turning back to her, “the sheriff’s taken the Kid’s gun away.”
But she wasn’t scared at all. She looked cool as fresh water sitting there in the middle of the dusty street.
“Cole McCord,” she said, satisfaction filling her unusual, husky voice. “You’re the man I came to town to see!”
Stunned, he stared at her.
“As a general rule, I don’t like to hear that,” he drawled. “You’re not looking for a fast draw at sundown, are you?”
She smiled and tightened her grip.
“No. I’m here to offer you a job that you’ve just proved you can do—I want you to be my bodyguard while I trail twenty-two hundred head of cattle to Texas.”
Oh, Lord, what next? The last thing he needed was another life in his hands.
“Trail drives’re supposed to take cattle
of Texas,” he said. “You’re going backwards, miss, if you’re moving ‘em north to south.”
“No, I’m not. I’m taking them to the last of the unsettled range—the Texas Panhandle.”
He stood up, fast, and pulled his hand free, but one foot caught in her skirts. He jerked it and made a loud ripping sound.
She grabbed his leg with both hands, and he felt the shape of her slender fingers through his pants and even the top of his boot.
“Let me,” she said breathlessly. “Your spur’s tearing my dress.”
“Sorry. I had no idea …”
He bent double to try to help her, and suddenly their eyes were on a level, their faces close together, although his was upside down. They looked at each other for one long heartbeat. Then she dragged in a deep breath, and he straightened up to let her free him. He felt a fleeting sense of loss when she let go of his leg.
“I’m sorry about your skirt.”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s not important. After all,” she said, flashing him a devilish grin, “we could’ve both been killed.”
He couldn’t resist grinning back at her.
“We do have a law in this town,” Sheriff Bass’s voice boomed, “and you had best remember that, boy.”
Cole turned to see a parade almost upon them, a crowd escorting his challengers to jail, with the sheriff and Kid Dolby in the lead. The Kid was glaring at Cole so fixedly that he ignored the sheriff’s warning and everyone else around him. Various people were holding the Kid’s compadres at gunpoint to follow him; some other concerned citizens—one, the doctor carrying his bag—were headed toward him and the woman. Cole waved them away.
“We’re not hurt,” he called, instantly wanting to be out of all the furor as quickly as possible.
“You’re sure of that, Mr. McCord?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” the woman called, as she freed the spur and took Cole’s offered hand to get to her feet.
The sheriff stopped in front of them, holding Kid Dolby by the arm. The Kid spoke before the sheriff could open his mouth.
“Cole McCord, I’ll be famous yet for killing you. Next time I draw down on you you can’t hide behind no woman.”
People stood back immediately, especially those behind the Kid, watching Cole. He had to resist the urge to yell at them to stay where they were, that obviously he wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man. He forced himself to take a long, deep breath and hold his tongue. Most people did give him a wide berth and plenty of respect, and if they overdid it that certainly was better
than dealing with suicidal fools like the Kid.
“Next time you
me, you’d better be huntin’ a hole to hide in,” Cole said flatly. “Next time you draw down on me I’ll kill you, Kid.”
Didn’t anybody in the world have any sense left? This boy couldn’t be more than fifteen years old, and at least two of those no-good rascals riding with him were old enough to know how to keep him out of trouble.
“Get ready,” the Kid said stubbornly, “I ain’t lettin’ you git away with this, McCord …”
The sheriff twisted his arm harder behind him, and he hushed.
“Sheriff,” Cole said, “can you keep this boy locked in a cell until he grows up?”
“Reckon I might,” Bass said. “Gunfightin’ in the street’s agin the law nowadays in Pu’blo City. Wanted to point that out, is all, Mr. McCord.”
“He called me out. I had no choice.”
“Of course,” the sheriff said hastily, “of course. Not at all. I wasn’t meaning that you done anything to break the law, Mr. McCord, not in any way.”
wasn’t fightin’, that’s right,” Kid Dolby said, in a sarcastic singsong. “Don’t arrest him, Sheriff. The great Cole McCord, the most
man in Colorado, was tryin’ to git away from Kid Dolby, that’s all he was doin’.”
“Shut up, you little smart aleck,” said the sheriff.
He nodded apologetically to Cole and, trailed
by half the town, dragged the Kid on down the street toward the jail.
Cole turned to find the blonde woman still standing at his elbow. She held out her hand for him to shake as a man would do.
“Aurora Benton,” she said, “of the Flying B.”
He touched the brim of his hat, then shook her hand.
“Cole McCord, ma’am.”
“Well, Mr. McCord, now that all the excitement is dying down, I can say thank you for saving me from a bullet and we can discuss my offer of employment to you.”
“I’m not interested in a job but, out of curiosity, I’d like to know why you’ve chosen me for the offer, Miss Benton.”
“You must know that people call you the most dangerous man in Colorado,” she said. “You give no quarter, and you have the fastest draw of anyone, everyone says so. I take that to mean you could protect me from the most
man in Colorado.”
“Has someone threatened you?”
He could’ve bitten his tongue if it would’ve stopped the words. He wasn’t taking the job, so he didn’t need to know that, didn’t even want to know—why had he asked?
“He has told me, in his own jovial, avuncular way, that I’ll never make it across the Texas line with my cattle, and I know him well enough to believe he’ll stop at nothing to make his prediction come true.”
Again, he spoke when he should’ve been walking away.
“Perhaps he’s only trying to discourage you for your own good. Trailing cattle can be a dangerous undertaking, as I’m sure you know.”
She narrowed her beautiful blue eyes and stuck out her chin. There was a definite streak of stubbornness there that she was using for a backbone.
“Obviously, I do know that, which is my reason for coming to you. I need someone to watch my back on the trail.”
Then she suddenly gave him that blinding smile of hers.
“But Mr. Gates’s threats aren’t made with my welfare in mind. He claims the cattle are his, and since he can’t prove it in a court of law he plans to kill me and take them. You, like most of Pueblo, may see Lloyd Gates as a charming, upstanding pillar of the community, but I know he’s a vengeful, ruthless man.”
She was so small and so clearly a very feminine young woman with her lace collar and a ribbon at her throat that it seemed ludicrous for her to be so set on talk of trail drives and ruthless men. Cole’s old Rangering instincts immediately put a string of questions on his tongue, but he bit them back. Maybe she truly was in trouble, or maybe she was a little touched in the head. He didn’t care, he didn’t want to know, didn’t need to know. He wasn’t
to know. He had to get away from her.