Authors: Bobbi Smith
NEW YORK CITY
This book is dedicated to everyone at
Dorchester Publishing. You’re awesome!
think I am?” Josh asked, his gaze meeting hers across the table.
Emmie’s breath caught in her throat at the look in his eyes.
“I know who you are—” she began, a shiver of sensual awareness trembling through her. “You’re my partner.”
“You’re right,” he said. “We’re in this together.”
“The ranch or the line shack?”
Again they were laughing, and Emmie was glad. For a moment there, she’d been caught off guard by the way he’d looked at her, and she wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“How long do you think we’ll have to stay here?” Emmie asked, wanting to change the direction of the conversation.
“The storm doesn’t look like it’s showing any signs of letting up, so we may have to spend the night.”
t was a hot, miserable day, and the weather matched rancher Hank Ryan’s mood as he followed his wife, Sarah, and their eight-year-old daughter, Emmie, to the waiting stagecoach.
“You’re sure you want to do this?” he demanded, his tone edged with anger and frustration.
Sarah was trembling as she spun around to face him. The fire of her desperate need to flee the untamed, savage West burned in her eyes as she stared up at him. “Hank, don’t say another word! I’m leaving and I’m taking Emmie with me—I have to go. I can’t stay here—not after all that’s happened.…” The memory of the horrifying Comanche raid that had left their neighbors slaughtered and some of their own ranch hands dead sent a shudder through her. She couldn’t stand living in terror, never knowing when there might be another attack.
Emmie looked from one of her parents to the other, trying to understand why her mother was taking her back East to live. She’d heard them arguing heatedly the past few days, but until this moment, she’d never
imagined her mother would really go. She knew there was danger from the Comanche, but she also knew her father would protect them. He always had. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she ran to him and wrapped her arms around his neck as he bent to pick her up. She clung to him in desperation. “Papa, I want to stay with you!”
Hank held her close, loving her, as he told her, “I want you to stay, too, but for now, you have to go with your mother.”
“But Papa—” she cried.
It was painful for Hank to take Emmie’s arms from around his neck and set her in the stagecoach, but he managed. He faced his wife again, trying to ignore the sound of his daughter’s weeping. “You know what we agreed on.”
Sarah gave a tight nod. “Emmie will be allowed to visit you every summer.”
“Make sure you keep your word.” It was an order.
There was no hesitation as Sarah nodded again, and their gazes met for one last time. She knew her husband well, and she knew he would do exactly what he’d threatened to do if she didn’t uphold her part of their agreement. If she failed to send Emmie back to the Rocking R every summer, he would cut off all her funds and leave them destitute.
“Good-bye, Hank,” Sarah said in an emotionless voice. Then she quickly turned away.
“Good-bye, Sarah.” Hank stepped back and made no offer to help her climb into the stagecoach. She’d chosen to leave him. She had chosen go back East.
Hank remained where he was to watch as the stagecoach pulled out.
“Papa! I don’t want to go!”
The sound of Emmie’s cry tore at his heart as they drove off, but Hank turned away He was aware that some of the folks from town were watching him, but he didn’t care. Though there would be talk, it didn’t matter to him. All that mattered was keeping the Rocking R going. He had big plans for the ranch. He was going to make it one of the most successful in the area.
But right then he needed a drink.
Hank headed for the saloon.
t was almost dark when Josh Grady rode into town. The long hours in the saddle and the unrelenting heat had taken their toll on him. He was tired and would have liked to just enjoy a drink at the saloon, but he was in Big Rock on business. Reining in before the High Time Saloon, he tied up his horse and went inside.
“What’ll it be?” the barkeep asked, eyeing with interest the tall, lean, dark-haired stranger who’d just come to stand at the bar.
“Whiskey,” Josh answered.
The barkeep made short order of serving him and then watched as his customer drank the liquor down real quick.
“I’d say you were a thirsty man.” He chuckled.
“You’d be right,” Josh agreed. He shoved the empty glass back for a refill and tossed some coins on the bar.
“I ain’t seen you around before.” The barkeep wondered what business the man could have in Big
Rock. Everyone in town had been tense ever since the bank robbery.
“I just rode in.”
“Well, enjoy your stay.”
“I plan to do just that. I heard you had some excitement around here a week or so ago.”
“Bad news travels fast,” the barkeep commented in disgust as he wiped down the bar with a clean cloth. “The Barton boys robbed the bank and shot the teller. Killed him. The town sheriff got a posse up and went after them murdering thieves, but they couldn’t track them down. Ned and Tom Barton were too slick for them. They got clean away.”
“I hear there’s a reward posted for bringing them in.”
The barkeep suddenly looked at the stranger with more interest. “There sure is, a real good one. And it don’t matter if they’re dead or alive. Why are you asking?”
“I thought I just might give it a try.”
“I don’t know who you are, but the bank teller was a friend of mine. If you bring those killers in, your drinks will be on the house here every night. What’s your name? I’m Al.”
“Nice to meet you, Al. I’m Josh Grady.”
“I’ve heard of you.” Al looked at him with new respect. “Talk has it you’re one of the best bounty hunters around. I suppose if anyone can track them down, it’ll be you.”
“I’ll do my best.” Josh drained the last of his whiskey and set the glass down. He wanted to do a
little gambling, but time was of the essence. The Barton boys already had a big head start, and he needed to get after them first thing in the morning. He wanted to talk to the law in town before he rode out. “Which way is the sheriff’s office?”
“Just down the street about three blocks.”
As Josh turned to go, Al called out, “Good luck.”
Sallie, one of the saloon girls, came up to the bar to speak with Al. “Why’d the stranger leave so quick? He sure was a good-looking man. I planned on getting him upstairs a little later. Is he coming back?”
“Not anytime soon.”
“Who was he?”
“That was Josh Grady, the bounty hunter, and he’s going after the Barton boys.”
Sallie looked intrigued and disappointed at the same time. “Al, why don’t we put up a wanted poster with my face on it and see if he’ll come back and ‘track me down’?”
Al laughed as she moved off to work the tables.
Ned and Tom Barton sat around their campfire, celebrating their good luck and sharing a bottle of whiskey. They had no doubt now that they had made a clean getaway.
“Yeah, things are working out just fine.” Ned grinned drunkenly at his brother as he took another swig from the bottle. They’d been living a life of
crime for a few years and believed they were getting real good at it.
“Not if you’re hogging all the whiskey they ain’t,” Tom said. He snatched the bottle away from Ned and drank deeply.
Both men were laughing.
“They sure weren’t expecting us at the Big Rock Bank,” Ned bragged.
“And that posse gave up real easy.”
“Almost too easy, but I’m not complaining.”
“Me, either,” Tom slurred, patting the cash-filled saddlebags that lay on the ground next to him. “I’m looking forward to spending this money and enjoying myself with some pretty gals once we get to Black Spring.”
“I like the way you think,” Ned agreed. He knew the saloon girls in Black Spring were always more than eager to please a man who had money. “Let’s head out early in the morning, so we can cover some miles tomorrow.” He grabbed the bottle back and drained the last of the whiskey before tossing it aside.
“Thinking about them little gals, I’m ready to ride out now, but drunk as I am, I’d have some trouble finding my way.”
Ned grinned. He knew how right Tom was. They had both had more than their share of liquor.
Tom fell back on his bedroll and closed his eyes, while Ned got up to stagger off and relieve himself before bedding down for the night.
The sky was moonless, and Josh was grateful for the cover of darkness as he moved silently across the
rugged terrain. He’d left his horse tied up farther back and was making his way toward the distant glow of the outlaws’ campfire. He’d been tracking them for days, and he was certain that to night he would finally bring them down.
Josh drew his gun and stayed low as he closed in. Taking cover behind some nearby rocks to check out the campsite, he couldn’t believe his luck. One of the men had already bedded down, and the other had moved off into the darkness on the far side of the small clearing. Josh was glad to see the discarded whiskey bottle on the ground near the fire. If they were liquored up, they’d be moving a little slower, and it would make the outlaws’ capture easier for him. Josh knew that now was the time to act, while they were separated.
Josh silently made his way around the campsite and closed in on the drunken outlaw just as he was starting back. Josh did not want to give him the chance to yell out to his brother, so he pistolwhipped him from behind. The outlaw fell heavily and lay unmoving on the ground. Josh holstered his gun, and, using the length of rope he’d brought with him, he quickly bound the man’s hands tightly behind his back. He recognized Ned Barton from the wanted poster, and was ready to go after his brother, Tom, when a threatening voice spoke from behind him.
“Hold it right where you are!”
Josh looked over to find the other outlaw standing there with his gun drawn, and knew he had to act
fast. He went for his own gun and dove for cover. The outlaw fired, and the bullet slammed into Josh’s shoulder. As Josh fell, he managed to get off only one shot, but it found its mark.
Tom Barton wouldn’t be robbing any more banks or killing any more bank tellers.
Josh lay on the ground, holding his bloodied shoulder. His mood was grim as he slowly struggled up. He knew he was lucky to still be alive, but he was beginning to wonder how much longer his luck was going to hold out.
Fortunately, Ned was still unconscious. Josh had to clean up his wound and stop the bleeding or he wouldn’t be taking anybody in. Though the gunshot wound was painful, at least the bullet had passed on through, so he wouldn’t have to dig it out. He took the outlaws’ guns with him as he headed over to the campsite to see what he could use to dress the wound.
When Ned finally regained consciousness, he found himself lying facedown on the ground. His head was pounding and his wrists were tied tightly behind his back. He rolled over, all the while fighting to free himself, only to find a man sitting on a rock nearby holding a gun on him.
“So you’ve finally come around,” Josh said coldly.
“Who are you? What’s going on? Where’s my brother?” Ned demanded angrily, still struggling to break free. He could see the blood on the man’s shirt and wondered how he’d been shot.
“My name’s Grady—Josh Grady”
“The bounty hunter…” Ned realized what big trouble he and his brother were in.
“That’s right, and I’m taking you back to Big Rock.”
“No, you’re not! My brother will stop you!” he threatened.
“He already tried.”
Confused, Ned lunged awkwardly to his feet. “What are you talking about?”
It was then that he saw his brother’s body, and rage filled him. Knowing the bounty hunter had been wounded, Ned charged at him, wanting revenge, but Josh knocked him back down to the ground and stood over him. He stared down at the outlaw, his expression cold.
“It’s over, Barton.”
And it was.
Josh grimaced as the doctor in Big Rock stripped off his makeshift ban dage and examined his wound.
“You’re one lucky man, Mr. Grady,” Doc Murray told him. “An inch or two the other way and you might not be here right now.”
“That’s what I figured,” Josh agreed.
“The folks in town are going to be real grateful for what you did, bringing those killers back.”
Josh didn’t say anything. He just nodded. The trek to town had been grueling, but on the way he’d had time to realize just how close he’d come to dying. He was beginning to wonder if the offer his friend Hank Ryan had made some months back
about taking a job on his ranch, the Rocking R, still held. He was seriously considering it, and decided to wire Hank as soon as he was done with the doc. Working on a ranch sounded real good right then.