12,807
23.12.2018

Sarah had never been more excited about a dance in her life. Nor had she ever worked harder. The moment the plans had been announced for a town dance to celebrate Independence Day, the orders for dresses began to pour in. She left all the chores to Lucius and sewed night and day.

Her fingers were cramped and her eyes burned, but she had earned enough to put through an order for the wood floor she wanted so badly.

After the floor, Sarah thought, she would order glass for the windows and a proper set of dishes. Then, when time and money allowed, she was going to have Lucius build her a real bedroom. With a little laugh, she closed her eyes and imagined it. If the mine came through, she would have that house with four bedrooms and a parlor, but for now she'd settle for a real floor beneath her feet.

Soon, she thought. But before floors and windows came the dance.

She might have made every frock as pretty and as fashionable as her skill allowed, but she wasn't about to be outdone. On the afternoon of the dance she took out her best silk dress. It was a pale lavender blue, the color of moonbeams in a forest. White lace flirted at the square-cut bodice that accented the line of her throat and a hint of shoulder. There were pert bows of a deeper lavender at the edge of each poofed sleeve. She laced her stays so tightly that her ribs hurt, telling herself it would be worth it. With her hand mirror, she struggled to see different parts of herself and put them together in her mind for a complete image. The flounced skirt with the bows was flattering, she decided, and the matching velvet ribbon at her throat was a nice touch. She would have pinned her cameo to it, but that, like so much else, had been lost.

She wouldn't think about that tonight, she told herself as she patted her hair. She'd swept it up, and its weight had caused her to use every hairpin she could find. But, she thought with a nod, it looked effortless, curling ever so slightly at her ears and temples. It was important that she look her best. Very important, she added, pulling on her long white gloves.

If Jake was there, she wanted him to see just what he'd tossed aside. She swept on her white lace shawl, checked the contents of her reticule, then stepped outside. "Glory be." Lucius stood by the wagon with his hat in his hand. He'd cleaned up without her having to remind him, and had even taken a razor to his chin. When she smiled at him, he decided that if he'd been ten years younger he'd have given Jake a run for his money.

"Lucius, how handsome you look."

"Hell, Miss Sarah. I mean-" He cleared his throat.

"You sure look a sight."

Recognizing that as a compliment, Sarah smiled and held out a hand. With as much style as he could muster, Lucius helped her into the wagon.

"You're going to set them on their ears."

"I hope so." At least she hoped she set one person on his ear. "You're going to save a dance for me, aren't you, Lucius?"

"I'd be pleased to. If I do say so, I dance right well, drunk or sober."

"Perhaps you'll try it sober tonight."

Jake saw them ride into town. He was sitting at his window, smoking and watching some of the cowboys racing in the streets, waving their hats, shooting off guns and howling.

Independence Day, he thought, blowing smoke at the sky. Most of them figured they had a right to freedom and the land they'd claimed. He'd come to accept that they, and others like them, would take the Arizona Territory and the rest of the West. Black Hawk, and others like him, would never stop the rush.

And he was neither invader nor invaded.

Maybe that was why he had never tried to put his mark on the land. Not since he'd lost what his father had tried to build. It was better to keep whatever you owned light, light enough that it fit on your horse.

The town was full of noise and people. Most of the cowhands were going to get three-quarters drunk, and they were liable to end up shooting themselves instead of the targets Cody had set up for the marksmanship contest. He didn't much care. He just sat at the window and watched.

Then he saw her. It hurt. Unconsciously he rubbed a hand over his heart, where the ache centered. She laughed. He could hear the sound float right up to him and shimmer like water over his skin. The wanting, the pure strength of it, made him drag his eyes away. For survival.

But he looked back, unable to stop himself. She stepped out of the wagon and laughed again as Liza Cody ran out of her father's store. She twirled in a circle for Liza, and he saw all of her, the white skin of her throat, the hint of high, round breasts, the tiny waist, the glow in her eyes. The cigarette burned down to his fingers, and he cursed. But he didn't stop looking. "You going to sit in the window all day or take me down like you promised?" Maggie came farther into the room, her hands on her hips. The boy hadn't heard a word. She tugged on his shoulder, ignored the name he called her and repeated herself.

"I never promised to do anything."

"You promised, all right, the night I poured you into that bed when you came in so drunk you couldn't stand."

He remembered the night clearly enough. It had been a week after he'd brought Sarah back from the mountains. A week since he'd been going to the Silver Star, trying to work up enough interest to take Carlotta or any other woman to bed. Drinking had been simpler, but getting blind drunk was something he'd never done before and didn't intend to do again.

"I could have gotten myself into bed well enough."

"You couldn't even crawl up the stairs. If there's one thing I know, it's a man who's too drunk to think. Now, are you going to take me down or are you going to back down?"

He grumbled but pushed himself away from the window. "Nothing worse than a nagging woman."

She only grinned and handed him his hat.

They had no more than stepped outside when John Cody came racing up. "Mr. Redman. Mr. Redman.

I've been waiting for you."

"Yeah?" He pulled the boy's hat over his face.

"Why's that?"

Delighted with the attention, Johnny grinned. "The contest. My pa's having a contest. Best shooting gets a brand-new saddle blanket. A red one. You're going to win, ain't you?"

"I wasn't figuring on it."

"How come? Nobody shoots better'n you. It's a real nice blanket, too."

"Go on, Jake." Maggie gave him a slap on the arm.

"The boy's counting on you."

"I don't shoot for sport." He meant to walk on, but he saw Johnny's face fall. "A red blanket?"

The boy's eyes lit instantly. "Yessiree, about the prettiest one I ever seen."

"I guess we could look." Before the sentence was complete, Johnny had him by the hand and was pulling him across the street.

At the back of the store Cody had set up empty bottles and cans of varying sizes. Each contestant stood behind a line drawn in the dirt and took his best six shots. Broken glass littered the ground already. "It costs two bits to enter," Johnny told him. "I got a short bit if you need it."

Jake looked at the dime the boy offered. The gesture touched him in a way that only those who had been offered very little through life would have understood. "Thanks, but I think I got two bits."

"You can shoot better than Jim Carlson. He's winning now." Johnny glanced over to where Jim was showing off a fancy railman's spin with his shiny new Smith amp; Wesson.44. "Can you do that?"

"Why? It doesn't help you shoot any better." He flipped a quarter to Johnny. "Why don't you go put my name down?"

"Yessir. Yessiree." He took time out to have a friendly shoving match with another boy, then raced away.

"Going to shoot for the blanket?" Lucius asked from behind him.

"Thinking about it." But he was watching Jim

Carlson. He remembered that Jim rode a big white gelding. Jake had seen the gleam of a white horse riding away the night Sarah's shed had burned.

Lucius tipped his hat to Maggie. "Ma'am."

"That you, Lucius? I don't believe I've ever seen you with that beard shaved."

He colored up and stepped away. "I guess a man can shave now and then without a body gawking at him."

"I forgot you had a face under there," Jake commented as he watched Will Metcalf hit four out of six bottles. "You looking for a new red blanket, too?" "Nope. Just thought I'd come around and tell you Hurt Donley rode into town."

Only his eyes changed. "Is that so? I thought he was in Laramie."

"Not anymore. He came this way while you were in New Mexico. Started working for Carlson."

In an easy move, Jake turned and scanned the area behind him. "Donley doesn't punch cattle."

"Hasn't been known to. Could be Carlson hired him to do something else."

"Could be," Jake murmured, watching Donley walk toward the crowd.

He was a big man, burly at the shoulders, thick at the waist. He wore his graying hair long, so long it merged with his beard. And he was fast. Jake had good reason to know just how fast. If the law hadn't stepped in two years before, one of them would be dead now. "Heard you had some trouble a while back."

"Some." Through the crowd, Jake's eyes met Donley's.

They didn't need words. There was unfinished business between them.

As she stood beside Liza, Sarah watched Jake. And shivered. Something had come into his eyes. Something cold and deadly and inevitable. Then the crowd roared when the next contestant shattered all six bottles. "Oh, look." Liza gave Sarah a quick shake.

"Jake's going to shoot. I know it's wrong, but I've always wanted to see how he does it. You hear such stories. There was one-" Her mouth fell open when he drew his right hand and fired.

"I didn't even see him take it out," she whispered.

"It was just in his hand, quick as a blink."

"He hit them all." Sarah wrapped her shawl tighter around her. He had hardly moved. His gun was still smoking when he slid it back in place.

Donley strode over, flipped a quarter and waited until more targets were set. Sarah watched his big hand curl over the butt of his gun. Then he drew and fired.

"Goodness. He hit all of them, too. That leaves Dave Jeffrey, Jim Carlson, Jake and Burt Donley." "Who is he?" she asked, wondering why Jake looked like he wanted to kill him. "The big man in the leather vest."

"Donley? He works for Samuel Carlson. I've heard talk about him, too. The same kind of talk as you hear about Jake. Only…"

"Only?"

"Well, you know how I told you Johnny's been tagging after Jake, pestering him and talking his ear off? I can't say it worries me any. But if he got within ten feet of Burt Donley I'd skin him alive."

The crowd shifted as Cody brought the line back five feet. When the first man aimed and fired, missing two bottles, Sarah saw Johnny tug on Jake's arm and whisper something. To her surprise, Jake grinned and ruffled the boy's hair. There it was again, she thought. That goodness. That basic kindness. Yet she remembered the look that had come into his eyes only moments before.

Who are you? she wanted to ask.

As if he'd heard her, Jake turned his head. Their eyes met and held. She felt a flood of emotions rise up uncontrollably and again wished she could hate him for that alone.

"You keep looking at her like that," Maggie murmured at his side, "you're going to have to marry her or ride fast in the other direction."

"Shut up, Maggie."

She smiled as sweetly as if he'd kissed her cheek. "Just thought you'd like to know that Sam Carlson ain't too pleased by the way you two are carrying on." Jake's gaze shifted and met Carlson's. He had come up to stand behind Sarah and lay a proprietary hand on her shoulder. Jake considered allowing himself the pleasure of shooting him for that alone. "He's got no claim."

"Not for lack of trying. Better move fast, boyo." The onlookers cheered again as Jim Carlson nipped five out of six targets.

Taking his time, Jake reloaded his pistol, then moved to the line. The six shots sounded almost like one. When he lowered his Colt, six bottles had been shattered.

Donley took his place. Six shots, six hits.

The line was moved farther back.

"They can't do it from here," Liza whispered to Sarah. "No one could."

Sarah just shook her head. It wasn't a game any more. There was something between the two men, something much deeper, much darker, than a simple contest of skill. Others sensed it, too. She could hear the murmur of the crowd and see the uneasy looks. Jake moved behind the line. He scanned the targets, judging the distance, taking mental aim. Then he did what he did best. He drew and fired on instinct. Bottles exploded, one by one. There was nothing left but a single jagged base. Without pausing, he drew his other gun and shattered even that.

There was silence as Donley stepped forward. He drew, and the gun kicked in his hand with each shot. When he was done, a single bottle remained unbroken. "Congratulations, Redman." Cody brought the blanket over, hoping to dispel some of the tension. Relief made him let out his breath audibly when Sheriff Barker strolled over.

"That was some shooting, boys." He gave each man a casual nod. Will Metcalf stood at his shoulder as directed. "Good to get it out of your system with a few bottles. Either one of you catches a bullet tonight, there's sure no way I can doubt who put it there."

The warning was given with a smile that was friendly enough. Behind Sarah, Carlson gave a quick shake of his head. Without speaking, Donley made his way through the crowd, which parted for him.

"I ain't never seen nobody shoot like that." Johnny looked up at Jake with awe and wonder in his eyes. Jake tossed the blanket to him. "There you go."

His eyes widened even farther. "I can have it?"

"You got a horse, don't you?"

"Yes, sir, I got me a bay pony."

"Red ought to look real nice on a bay. Why don't you go see?"

With a whoop, Johnny raced off, only to be caught by his mother. After a minor scuffle, he turned back, grinning. "Thanks, Mr. Redman. Thanks a lot."

"You sure did please that boy pink," Barker commented.

"I don't need a blanket."

Barker only shook his head. "You're a puzzle, Jake. I can't help but have a liking for you."

"That's a puzzle to me, Sheriff. Most lawmen got other feelings."

"Maybe so. Either way, I'd be obliged if you'd keep those guns bolstered tonight. You wouldn't want to tell me what there is between you and Donley?" Jake sent him an even look. "No."

"Didn't figure you would." He spit out tobacco juice. "Well, I'm going to have me some chicken and dance with my wife."

There were a dozen tables lined up along one side of the big canvas tent. Even before the music started, more than half of the food was gone. Women, young and old, were flirting, pleased to be shown off in their best dresses. When the fiddle started, couples swarmed onto the floor. Liza, in her pink muslin, grabbed Will's hand and pulled him with her. Carlson, dashing in his light brown suit and string tie, bowed to Sarah. "I'd be honored if you'd step out with me, Sarah."

With a little laugh, she gave him a formal curtsy.

"I'd be delighted."

The music was fast and cheerful. Despite the heat, the dancing followed suit. At the front of the tent the musicians fiddled and plucked and strummed tirelessly, and the caller wet his whistle with free beer.

Couples swung and sashayed and kicked up their heels in a reel. It was different from the dances Sarah had attended in Philadelphia. Wonderfully different, she thought as she twirled in Lucius's arms. Hoots and hollers accompanied the music, as well as hand-clapping, foot-stamping and whistles.

"You were right, Lucius." Laughing, she laid a hand on her speeding heart when the music stopped. "I was?"

"Yes, indeed. You're a fine dancer. And this is the best party I've ever been to." She leaned over impulsively and kissed his cheek.

"Well, now." His face turned beet red with embarrassed pleasure. "Why don't I fetch you a cup of that punch?"

"That would be lovely."

"Sarah!" Liza's face was nearly as pink as Lucius's when she rushed over and grabbed Sarah's arm.

"My goodness, what's wrong?"

"Nothing. Nothing in the world is wrong." Impatient, Liza dragged Sarah to a corner of the tent. "I just got to tell somebody or bust."

"Then tell me. I'd hate to see you rip the seams of that dress."

"I was just outside, taking a little air." She looked quickly right, then left. "Will came out after me. He kissed me."

"He did?"

"Twice. I guess my heart just about stopped."

One brow lifted, Sarah struggled with a smile. "I suppose that means you've decided to let him be your beau."

"We're getting married," Liza blurted out.

"Oh, Liza, really? That's wonderful." Delighted, Sarah threw her arms around her friend. "I'm so happy for you. When?"

"Well, he's got to talk to Pa first." Liza chewed her lip as she glanced toward her father. "But I know it's going to be all right. Pa likes Will."

"Of course he does. Liza, I can't tell you how happy I am for you."

"I know." When her eyes filled, Liza blinked and sniffled. "Oh, Lordy, I don't want to cry now." "No, don't, or I'll start."

Laughing, Liza hugged her again. "I can't wait. I just can't wait. It'll be your turn before long. The way Samuel Carlson can't take his eyes off you. I have to admit, I used to have a crush on him." She gave a quick, wicked smile. "Mostly, I thought about using him to make Will jealous."

"I'm not going to marry Samuel. I don't think I'm ever going to get married."

"Oh, nonsense. If not Samuel, there's bound to be a man around here who'll catch your eye."

The musicians began to play again. A waltz. Half smiling, Sarah listened. "The trouble is," she heard herself saying, "one has, but he isn't the kind who thinks about marriage."

"But who-" Liza broke off when she saw Sarah's eyes go dark. "Oh, my," she said under her breath as she watched Jake come into the tent and cross the room.

There might have been no one else there. No one at all. The moment he'd walked in everything had faded but the music, and him. She didn't see Carlson start toward her to claim the waltz. Nor did she see his jaw clench when he noted where her attention was focused. She only saw Jake coming toward her.

He didn't speak. He just stopped in front of her and held out a hand. Sarah flowed like water into his arms. She thought it must be a dream. He was holding her, spinning her around and around the room while the music swelled in her head. His eyes never left hers. Without thinking, she lifted her hand from his shoulder to touch his face. And watched his eyes darken like storm clouds.

Flustered by her own behavior, she dropped her hand again. "I didn't imagine you would dance." "My mother liked to."

"You haven't-" She broke off. It was shameless.

The devil with it. "You haven't been by to see me."

"No."

He was never any help, Sarah thought. "Why?"

"You know why." He was crazy to be doing even this. Holding her, torturing himself. She had lowered her eyes at his words, but she raised them again now. The look was clear and challenging.

"Are you afraid to see me?"

"No." That was a lie, and he didn't lie often. "But you should be."

"You don't frighten me, Jake."

"You haven't got the sense to be scared, Sarah."

When the music stopped, he held her a moment longer. "If you did, you'd run like hell any time I got close."

"You're the one doing the running." She drew out of his arms and walked away.

It was difficult to hold on to her composure, difficult not to fume and stamp and scream as she would have liked. With her teeth gritted, she stood up for the next dance with the first man who asked her. When she looked again, Jake was gone.

"Sarah." Carlson appeared at her side with a cup of lemonade.

"Thank you." Her small silk fan was hardly adequate for the July heat. "It's a lovely party, isn't it?" "Yes. More so for me because you're here."

She sipped, using the drink as an excuse not to respond. "I don't want to spoil your evening, Sarah, but I feel I must speak my mind."

"Of course. What is it?"

"You're stepping on very dangerous ground with Jake Redman."

"Oh." Her dander rose, and she fought it down again. "How is that, Samuel?"

"You must know him for what he is, my dear. A killer, a hired gun. A man like that will treat you with no more respect than he would a woman who was… less of a lady."

"Whatever you think of him, Samuel, Mr. Redman has come to my aid a number of times. If nothing else, I consider him a friend."

"He's no one's friend. Stay away from him, Sarah, for your own sake."

Her spine shot ramrod-straight. "That doesn't sound like advice any longer, but like a demand."

Recognizing the anger in her eyes, he shifted ground. "Consider it a request." He took her hand. "I like to think we have an understanding, Sarah."

"I'm sorry." Gently she took her hand from his.

"We don't. I haven't agreed to marry you, Samuel. Until I do I feel no obligation to honor a request. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like some air. Alone."

Knowing she had been unnecessarily short with him, she hurried out of the tent.

The moon was up now, and nearly full. Taking the deep, long breaths Sister Madeleine had always claimed would calm an unhealthy temper, she studied it. Surely the moon had been just as big and white in the East. But it had never seemed so. Just as the sky had never seemed so vast or so crowded with stars. Or the men as impossible.

The breathing wasn't going to work, she discovered. She'd walk off her anger instead. She'd taken no more than five steps when the shadow of a man brought her up short. She watched Jake flick away a cigarette. "It's a hot night for walking."

"Thank you for pointing that out," she said stiffly, and continued on her way.

"There's a lot of drinking going on tonight. A lot of men in town who don't get much chance to see pretty women, much less hold on to one. Walking alone's not smart."

"Your advice is noted." She stormed away, only to have her arm gripped.

"Do you have to be so ornery?"

"Yes." She yanked her arm free. "Now, if that's all you have to say, I'd like to be alone."

"I got more to say." He bit off the words, then dug into his pocket. "This belongs to you."

"Oh." She took the cameo, closing her fingers around it. "I thought it was gone. The Apache with the scar. He'd taken it. He was wearing it when-" When you killed him, she thought.

"I took it back. I've been meaning to give it to you, but it slipped my mind." That was another lie. He'd kept it because he'd wanted to have something of her, even for a little while.

"Thank you." She opened her bag and slipped the cameo inside. "It means a great deal to me." The sound of high, wild feminine laughter tightened her lips. Apparently there was a party at the Silver Star tonight, as well. She wouldn't soften toward him, not now, not ever again. "I'm surprised you're still here. I'd think a dance would be a bit tame for your tastes.

Don't let me keep you."

"Damn it, I said I don't want you walking around alone."

Sarah looked down at the hand that had returned to her arm. "I don't believe I'm obliged to take orders from you. Now let go of me."

"Go back inside."

"I'll go where I want, when I want." She jerked free a second time. "And with whom I want."

"If you're talking about Carlson, I'm going to tell you now to stay away from him."

"Are you?" The temper that had bubbled inside her when one man had warned her boiled over at the nerve of this one. "You can tell me whatever you choose, but / don't choose to listen. I'll see Samuel when it pleases me to see him."

"So he can kiss your hand?" The anger he was keeping on a short rein strained for freedom. "So you can have the town talking about you spending the day at his place?"

"You have quite a nerve," she whispered. "You, who spends your time with-that woman. Paying her for attention. How dare you insinuate that there's anything improper in my behavior?" She stepped closer to stab a finger at his chest. "If I allow Samuel to kiss my hand, that's my affair. He's asked me to marry him."

The last thing she expected was to be hauled off her feet so that her slippers dangled several inches from the ground. "What did you say?"

"I said he asked me to marry him. Put me down." He gave her a shake that sent hairpins flying. "I warn you, Duchess, you think long and hard about marrying him, because the same day you're his wife, you're his widow. That's a promise."

She had to swallow her heart, which was lodged in her throat. "Is a gun your answer for everything?" Slowly, his eyes on hers, he set her down. "Stay here."

"I don't-"

He shook her again. "By God, you'll stay here. Right here, or I'll tie you to a rail like a bad-tempered horse."

Scowling after him, she rubbed the circulation back into her arms. Of all the rude, high-handed-Then her eyes grew wide. Oh, dear Lord, she thought. He's going to kill someone. Flinging a hand to her throat, she started to run. He caught her on his way back, when she was still two feet from the tent.

"Don't you ever listen?"

"I thought-I was afraid-"

"That I was going to put a bullet in Carlson's heart?" His mouth thinned. So she cared that much, to come running to save him. "There's time for that yet." Taking a firmer grip on her arm, he pulled her with him.

"What are you doing?"

"Taking you home."

"You are not." She tried and failed to dig in her heels. "I'm not going with you, and I'm not ready to go home."

"Too bad." Impatient with her struggles, he swooped her up.

"Stop this at once and put me down. I'll scream." "Go right ahead." He dumped her on the wagon seat. She scrambled for the reins, but he was faster.

"Lucius will take me home when I choose to go home."

"Lucius is staying in town." Jake cracked the reins. "Now why don't you sit back and enjoy the ride? And keep quiet," he added when she opened her mouth. "Or I swear I'll gag you."