Award-winning Romance novel

 

Meet the Texas Outlaw

Fancy Holleday has more nerve than the average cardsharp. No man can resist her smoky voice and violet eyes—and that includes the federal tinstar, Cord Rawlins. Cord may have tracked her all the way to Texas to recover the U.S.minting plates that she stole, but the Nevada penitentiary is a long ride north, giving her plenty of time to charm, seduce, or just plain outsmart the handsome Texas lawman. 

Deputy U.S. Marshal Cord Rawlins is sworn to bring renegades to justice—including the brazen lady train robber who turned the tables on him near Carson City. Tracking Fancy down is Cord’s job, but resisting her persistent persuasions is a matter of personal honor. With Fancy’s life in his hands, Cord begins to wonder if his clever prisoner is really as shameless as she pretends to be. Could her wicked smiles be hiding a desperate secret—one that could steal his heart?

Enjoy Chapter One (below) from this award-winning, western Historical Romance. 


 

 

Excerpt

Texas Outlaw

By Adrienne deWolfe

Chapter One

 

Eagle Valley, Nevada

December 1873

 

The last time Fancy Holleday robbed a train, she did it in her bloomers.

On that singular occasion, she’d had only one hired gun to distract from his duties. Tonight, the train carried a railroad detective and a deputy U.S. marshal.  As skilled as she was at disposing of lawmen, even she had to admit she had limitations.

Fancy scowled, careful to hide her tapping boot beneath her skirts. She’d made the unfortunate decision to concentrate her charm on the marshal, since she’d reasoned that a federal tin-star could do her mission more damage than the detective. Cord Rawlins, however, had barely glanced her way. Now her time was running out.

Perhaps the Texican had grown too fond of this horse, she thought uncharitably. How else might she explain his indifference? Other men positively drooled over her lavender eyes and bulging bustline; Marshal Rawlins acted as if beautiful women were as common as fleas on dogs. She had half a mind to plop down on his lap to see for herself if he were bull or steer.

She smirked at the thought — until she heard the clock chime the quarter hour.  Her heart lurched. Only 15 minutes remained before the other outlaws boarded. Only 15 minutes were left to prove to her Spanish lover that she was still valuable to him, in spite of her 25 years.

Damn that Marshal Rawlins. Did she have to look like a beefsteak to interest the man?

Gazing past the scurrying waiters with their trays of crystal and gleaming silver, she glared once more at Rawlins. He had made a face at the menu’s exotic selection of blue-winged teal and had specially ordered beef. His suffering waiter had been sent back twice with orders to “burn” the steak. Now Rawlins was shoveling beans down his gullet with a slab of cornbread.

Fancy sniffed. As far as she could see, Rawlins’s badge was the only thing that distinguished him from a cowpoke. She supposed she had expected more from a federal tin-star. Foolish of her, really. She had yet to meet a lawman whom she could respect. The ones in San Francisco all seemed to be more crooked than she was. That was why she never had qualms about drugging them when they interfered with her lover’s casino business. The way she saw it, laudanum was a far kinder fate than anything Diego might have planned.

But Rawlins, of course, was oblivious to the favor she’d tried to do him. He had refused to sneak off with her to the sleeping car, and he had declined her invitation to dine. Now, short of cracking open his skull in full view of a dozen witnesses, she didn’t see how she could possibly render him unconscious before Diego’s thugs derailed the train.

Diego Santana, so help me God, this is the last time I will ever participate in one of your heists.

She winced inwardly as she remembered their last job, when she had to strip to her underclothes before the laudanum finally took effect on the railroad detective. Her gun hand quaking as much from cold as from guilt, she had herded the pajama-clad passengers from the sleeping car to the snow, where Diego had looted and ridiculed them.

She had hoped then, as she did now, that Diego would come to appreciate her loyalty and that, finally, he would ask her to marry him. Although she and Diego had had their differences of late, tonight he was counting on her to crack the safe in the express car. He had given her another chance, thank God, even though he’d been furious with her for begging him to forget his dreams of a counterfeiting empire. Arguing with him had proven useless, so she had finally swallowed her misgivings and agreed to help him accumulate the kind of wealth he would need to control the Barbary Coast.  Although she didn’t share his new fondness for armed robbery, she loved him. That would have to see her through this ordeal.

Uh-oh.  Fancy’s heart tripped. Marshal Rawlins was on his feet. He was heading for the door! If she bungled this job, Diego might send her back to the whorehouse! She would never see an altar, then.

There was only one thing left to do:  make a scene.  Hadn’t Diego always said that scene-making was her second-greatest talent?

With theatrics worthy of the great Laura Keene, Fancy bounded to her feet, swept the china from her table, and loosed an ear-splitting shriek.

“You cad!” she exclaimed, looming over the innocuous-looking gentleman who sat behind her.

Until that moment, her neighbor had been staring dreamily out the window at the starlight and pines rushing by. Now he turned, blinking owl-like at her through thick, round glasses. Only then did Fancy notice his black frock coat and starched white linen collar. She nearly groaned aloud. Her mark was a preacher! Why in God’s name had she let herself be seated next to a preacher? Convincing Rawlins that this worm of a creature had tried to fondle her would demand the performance of a lifetime.

She let her forefinger shake as she leveled it at the cleric.  “Loathsome man. Never in my life have I been so . . . so vilified! And you, a pillar of the church.  Have you no conscience?  No shame?”

The parson had yet to recover his wits, and Fancy glanced hopefully at Rawlins.  The marshal looked like he was about to yawn – or worse, to continue on his way. She battled a wave of panic.

“How dare you hide your depraved, disgusting behavior behind the trappings of your office!” She flared her nostrils at the
parson.

“My dear young woman, I think you must have mistaken –”

“Charlatan!” She filled her lungs until her breasts nearly spilled from her artfully rigged corset. “You lie! You would have these good people questioning my integrity.  Marshal!” Her bellow rattled the windows and caused at least one passenger to douse his lap with turtle soup.  “Arrest this man!”

Rawlins folded his arms across his chest. Straddling the threshold, with the gaslight slanting across his shoulder, he looked like one of the gunslingers that always seemed to adorn the covers of penny dreadfuls.

“You want the preacher cuffed, eh?”

“Yes, sir, I most certainly do!”

“What in blazes for?”

Fancy hiked her chin. Obviously, Mama Rawlins had neglected to teach her son the finer points of etiquette.

“Because that . . . that beast of a man dared to —” she paused dramatically, “grope me!”

Rawlins chuckled, a rich, warm sound in the breathless silence of the car. “Whoa, darlin’. No one was over there groping anything that you didn’t give away a good long time ago.”

She bristled. Rawlins’s drawl was so pronounced that words like “whoa” and “thing” dragged on for nearly three syllables. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that he’d seen through her ruse.  Despite her stylish emerald traveling suit and the demure black ringlets that framed her face, Cord Rawlins had pegged her for a trollop.   She wasn’t sure she could ever forgive him for that.

“If you’re not man enough to defend my honor,” she said coolly, “then I shall be happy to speak to the railroad detective whom I saw dining here earlier.”

Every eye in the car shifted eagerly back to Rawlins. He appeared undaunted.  Hooking his thumbs over his gun belt, he strolled to her side.  She was surprised when she realized he was only about three inches taller than she. Standing in the doorway, he’d appeared much larger. Nevertheless, the lawman exuded an aura of command.  He reminded her of the wild mustang that Diego had corralled last spring.

“Well, preacher?” Rawlins tipped back his Stetson with a forefinger.  A curl so dark brown that it verged on black tumbled across the untanned peak of his forehead.   “Speak your piece.”

The cleric continued to gape. “Well, I, um . . . “

“Spit it out, man.  Did you or did you not grope this . . .” Rawlins paused, arching an eyebrow at the straining buttons of Fancy’s bodice. “This, er, lady.”

She glared into his dancing eyes. They brought to mind the jade dragon that Diego had won for her – then gambled away. The hurtful memory only made her more determined to dislike Rawlins.  Fortunately, the man had dimples. Bottomless dimples. They looked like two sickle moons attached to the dazzling white of his grin. She thought there should be a law against virile Texicans with heart-stopping smiles. Cord Rawlins had probably left dozens of calf-eyed sweethearts sighing for him back home on the range.

“I’m sure there must be some reasonable explanation,” the preacher babbled.  His scarecrow’s body trembled as he towered over Rawlins. “I’m sure the young lady just made a mistake – “

“The only mistake I made,” Fancy interrupted tartly, “was thinking that this lawman might come to the defense of a lady. No doubt Marshal Rawlins finds such courtesies an imposition on his authority.”

“Begging your pardon, ma’am.” He indulged her with a roguish wink. “I thought you did a mighty fine job of defending yourself.”

Oh, did you now? she thought, seething.  Then just wait ’til you get a load of my .32!  If only that blessed moment would come.  Where in hell is Diego?

“Show’s over, folks.” Rawlins waved his audience back to their meals. “Your pigeons are getting cold.”

“That’s it? Fancy gaped at him, forgetting to hide the embarrassing gap between her front teeth. “That’s all you’re going to do to help me?”

” ‘Fraid so, ma’am. You aren’t any worse for wear, as far as I can see.  And I reckon Parson Brown isn’t any worse off, either.”

“Why, you — !”  Fancy remembered belatedly that ladies didn’t curse. “You can’t just walk away,” she insisted, grabbing Rawlins’s sleeve and hoping he would mistake her panic for indignation.

“Says who?”

A nerve-rending screech pierced the expectant silence in the car. Fancy had a heartbeat to identify the braking of iron wheels. In the next instant, the floorboards heaved, throwing her against Rawlins’s chest.  Silver, crystal, and a diner’s toupee flew.  She cringed to hear the other passengers scream as she clung to Rawlins’s neck. His curse ended in an “oomph.” Fancy was grateful when he sacrificed his own spine rather than letting hers smash against the carpet. For a moment, Rawlins’s tobacco-and-leather aroma and wiry musculature imprinted themselves on her senses. Then her mind whirred back into action.

She had to get his Colt.

Having made a career out of outsmarting men, she found it no great feat to shriek, thrash, and wail in a parody of feminine terror.  She sprawled across Rawlins’s hips and succeeded in hooking her heel behind his knee. She knew she could pin him for only a moment, but a moment was all she needed to slip her Smith & Wesson from her boot and jam its muzzle into his groin.

“Whoa, darling,” she taunted above the distant sound of gunfire.

His face turned scarlet, and she knew he had accurately assessed his situation. He couldn’t reach his holster without first dumping her to the floor.  And that would be risky, she gloated silently. Most risky indeed.

“Have you lost your goddamned mind?”

“My dear marshal, you really must learn to be more respectful of ladies,” she retorted above the other passengers’ groans. “Now real slowly, I want you to raise your hands and put them behind your head.”

“The hell I will!”

She cocked her .32. “Then you’ll have one helluva time explaining to Mrs. Rawlins why you can’t father a little lawman of your own.”

His eyes darkened to pine-needle green.  Fancy grew uncomfortably warm beneath the open challenge in his gaze.

“You’re all spit and no claw, girl.”

A sudden blast of winter air raced down Fancy’s spine. She glanced up to see masked men swarming into the car.

“Perhaps, señor, you are right,” said the lean, elegantly dressed man who stalked toward them.  “My Fancy, she is just a woman after all. But I am fond of watching federales bleed. Too long have I been denied the pleasure.”

She caught her breath, recognizing Diego’s muffled Castilian accent and his immaculate black frock coat and shirt. Blinking against the wildly swinging gaslights, she saw four of his men race into the next car. Two others remained behind, waving revolvers at the diners. Gold, watches, and jewels plunked into grain sacks; a pile of holsters, guns and knives accumulated at the center of the car.  Diego stopped to stand beside that small arsenal. Above the silken neckerchief that covered two-thirds of his face, his coffee-colored eyes were bright with the thrill of his conquest.

Fancy shivered a little. She couldn’t help but notice the bullwhip on his hip.

“Now then, señor. I suggest you do as the señorita says, unless, of course” — Diego’s revolver glinted like a black diamond in his fist — “you wish to piss lead for the rest of your life.”

Rawlins wore a poker face. No one would have guessed that his heart hammered against her chest or that his thighs tensed beneath hers like straining ropes. He was a cool one, this Texican.

“I might have guessed that the dove was in cahoots with someone.” Rawlins’s lip curled, leaving no doubt in Fancy’s mind that he considered her a very soiled dove indeed. “But you’re wrong —  dead wrong, Mister — if you think you can get away with this.”

“Big talk wastes time, little man. Raise your hands, or lose your pecker.”

Fancy’s eyes locked with Rawlins’s. The outrage that blazed there reminded her again of Diego’s mustang, a spirited young stallion that he’d whipped to a bloody death. Would Rawlins actually sacrifice his manhood for a show of proud heroics?  She found herself holding her breath, half-fascinated, half-frightened by the thought. Having lived the last seven years on the Barbary Coast, she was not accustomed to stubborn displays of grit. Most men met their deaths from behind in the alleys of San Francisco’s tenderloin district.

Diego, please, she prayed silently, you promised there would be no killing. No killing except in self-defense.

An eternity passed.  Finally, Rawlins ground his teeth and raised his hands. Fancy’s breath raced from her lungs in a gust of relief.

“Bueno,” Diego taunted. “The marshal’s gun belt, Fancy, por favor.”

Her hand shaking, she groped blindly beneath her skirts.  She found the lawman’s buckle, but the brass was slippery, and the leather was stiff.  She fumbled as she tugged. Diego cursed her slowness. With another barrage of Spanish, he shoved her backward. She cried out when her buttocks struck splintered crystal.  He sneered, reaching for the buckle himself.

“On your feet,” he snapped, slinging Rawlins’s gun belt over his shoulder.

Diego barked a second order in Spanish, and an unwashed wall of flesh stepped forward. Fancy’s nose recognized Bart Wilkerson. The outlaw grabbed Parson Brown and shoved him toward the door. When the preacher resisted, his gangly legs tangled, and he sprawled across the threshold.

“Clod!” Wilkerson bellowed, kicking the parson in the buttocks. “Get up. Get your scrawny ass up before I fill it with lead!”

The preacher squealed as Wilkerson booted him into the snow.

“Your turn, marshal,” Diego said.

Rawlins’s eyes narrowed.  His gaze flickered to his captured holster and the civilian weapons that lay beyond his reach.  Next, he glared at the gunmen who threatened the diners.

“What about the rest of them?” he demanded.

“That depends entirely on your cooperation, señor.”

Fancy pictured the thin, cruel smile beneath Diego’s mask.

“Andale!”

Diego gestured with his .45. Rawlins’s fingers whitened where he’d laced them behind his head, but he kept his peace as he stalked to the door. Diego turned and sauntered after him. Furtively rubbing her buttocks, Fancy clutched the lucky coin she wore around her neck and hurried after Diego.

Outside, macabre hissing echoed in the Valley. The locomotive had capsized, and the ruptured boiler spewed clouds of steam over the twisted spine of the train. Rawlins’s jaw hardened as he gazed upon the scalded remains of what must have been the engineer; Fancy quickly averted her eyes.

Caring is weakness, and weakness his death.

Chanting the old adage over and over in her mind, she stripped off her skirt, revealing the trousers she had concealed underneath. Ribald hoots and catcalls encouraged her from the trees, where a handful of outlaws covered the wreckage with their rifles.  Strewn across the blood-stained snow, a dozen contorted bodies of soldiers and deputies attested to the gunfight that they’d lost shortly after derailment. She shuddered, trying to think of those men as faceless enemies, nothing more, as she tramped past them.

Diego forced Rawlins to crunch a trail through knee-high drifts. The express car lay behind the parlor and sleeping Pullmans, which the rest of Diego’s gang were now looting.  Most of the outlaws considered this robbery routine. Only Fancy and Wilkerson knew of Diego’s plot to steal U.S. minting plates.

In fact, she had been the one to discover the hidden papers ordering coinage operations to commence at Carson City’s branch mint.  According to the federal agent she had duped, the necessary machinery would be secretly shipped from the Treasury Department’s San Francisco office. That was why the Army and the U.S. Marshal’s office had teamed up to ride shotgun on this train.

“Now to business, Marshal,” Diego said as Wilkerson shoved the hostages to their knees. “Call to your men. Tell them to open the door and throw out their weapons.”

“And if they refuse?” Rawlins challenged.

In answer, Diego fired. Parson Brown yelped as the bullet clanged into the car’s metal wall, just inches beyond his ear. Rawlins’s jaw twitched. He tossed a calculating glance at Fancy’s .32, which she aimed steadily despite her shivers. He probably thought she would be the easiest to overpower. He wouldn’t be the first man to make such an error.

“Hamilton! O’Reilly!” he finally called, his face ghostlike in the stars’ frosty light. “It’s Rawlins. Open up.”

A faint scratching answered his bellow. When the door did not open, Diego arched an eyebrow.

“Your men do not seem overly concerned for your welfare, Marshal. Remind them that we have a train full of passengers and enough bullets for each.”

“Why don’t you just blow the car to kingdom come?” Rawlins retorted. “Or did you idiots forget the dynamite?”

Diego stiffened. Rawlins had called the outlaw’s bluff.  Dynamite was out of the question, and Rawlins knew it, if the outlaws hoped to keep the plates intact.

“Call your men again.” Diego ground out the words, his eyes glinting like twin stilettoes. “Or the first bullet sends the preacher to his Maker.”

Brown’s eyes brimmed with tears, and Rawlins clenched his teeth, forced to relent.

“All right, Hamilton. Enough. Open the goddamned door.”

“Sorry, Marshal. I got my orders,” came the muffled reply from inside the car.

“To hell with your orders, Captain.  They’re holding hostages out here!”

Diego, who had taught Fancy everything she knew about theatrics, gestured to her. She nodded in understanding.

“Please, Capt. Hamilton,” she begged, adopting her best scared-witless tone, “do as they say!”

“They got a woman out there?” called a second voice from inside the car.

Wilkerson jammed his revolver beneath Rawlins’s chin before he could answer.

“Yes!” Fancy wailed. “Please, oh please open the door. They said they’d kill me! And Parson Brown, too!”

“I don’t want no preacher’s death on my conscience, sir –”

“Shut your mouth, O’Reilly,” Hamilton growled.

Fancy could see that drastic actions were required.  She gestured for Diego to play along. “Stop!” she sobbed. “You – you’re hurting me!”

“I’m just getting started,” he snarled on cue.

With extra flair, she tore the false sleeve of her gown from shoulder to cuff.  It ripped loudly, and she screamed.

The door clanged open. “Take your filthy hands off her, you sons of —”

“Dammit, O’Reilly!  Close that door –”

The soldiers’ threats died simultaneously on their lips. Gaping, they blinked at the .32 in Fancy’s unwavering fist.  The Captain’s gaze flickered to the hostages. His grip tightened on his rifle.

“You probably think you can kill one of us,” Diego said, his voice pleasant despite his sinister words. “You might be right, señor. But then you would die, and the preacher would die, and the fine young Marshal there would join you all in hell. You see that stand of trees?” Diego waved toward the grove, no more than 30 paces away. “My men are covering you from there. So you see, you would be wise to throw down your weapons.”

Capt. Hamilton, a grizzled bear of a man, glared at Rawlins. “I’ll have your hide for this, Texican,” he said in an unmistakable New England accent. He tossed his rifle so that it jutted from the snow crust; the Irishman did the same.

“Out of the car,” Diego ordered, motioning the soldiers to their knees.  When they were at last shivering beside Rawlins, Diego pulled two grain sacks from his frock coat and thrust them at Fancy. “Empty the safe.”

Her heart quickened. Shoving the revolver into her waistband, she furtively crossed her fingers before hoisting herself into the car. She had to stumble over crates, bruising her shins and banging her knees until she finally found a lantern. She congratulated herself for having had the presence of mind to stash a flint inside her pocket. Living a life on the run, she had learned to survive by her wits.

The wick flared, and light gleamed inside the globe. She retreated hastily, unable to quell a sudden shiver. The outlaws always whispered that a fluttering lantern flame portended death. She glanced over her shoulder, and Rawlins’s gaze snared hers. She felt as if he’d pinned her to the wall.

“Christ, what are you standing there for?” Wilkerson bellowed. “Get a move on! Crack the safe, bitch!”

“If you kept your sewer mouth shut for a minute, maybe I could,” she fired back.  She trusted Wilkerson about as much as she trusted a rattlesnake. In camp the other night, he hadn’t been pleased to learn she no longer sold her services. Fortunately, Diego had been sober enough to protect her —  and himself — from a bullet.

Shaking away those thoughts, she knelt and pressed her ear to the door of the safe. She turned the dial with painstaking slowness, her ears straining for the faint echoes that would betray the lock’s combination. Once, twice, three times, she tried the handle and failed.  It was nerve-racking work. She didn’t realize that she’d worried her lip until she tasted blood.

“We’re gonna freeze to death before that slut figures out what she’s doing,” Wilkerson grumbled. “Let’s blast the damned thing open, and be done with it.”

“You don’t have the brain that God gave a cockroach,” Diego retorted. “Shut up.”

“Stinkin’ greaser!  I’ll carve out your tongue and serve it for breakfast —”

The door swung open. Fancy caught her breath. Never before had she seen so much silver! For a moment, as the car walls reverberated with Wilkerson’s tirade, greed whispered to her heart. Only Rawlins watched her now. She could feel his eyes stabbing through her, but he couldn’t stop her. Not with Diego’s gun trained on him. She could stash a few bars inside her pocket and no one would be the wiser . . .

Visions of Diego’s bullwhip quickly negated that idea. Shuddering, she reached for the nearest bar of ore.

The silver was heavy, and she wasted precious time lifting the bullion from the safe. As if that weren’t bad enough, she quickly found that Diego’s sacks were too small. No matter how she restocked and rearranged, she couldn’t fit all the silver and the four minting plates inside. The canvas seams were in danger of splitting; she wasn’t even certain she could hoist the sacks. She needed to find another way to carry the two remaining plates.

Biting her lip again, she gazed around her. Dangling from the corner of a nearby crate was a heavy woolen duster. Judging by its lingering odor of tobacco, Fancy decided the coat belonged to Rawlins. She couldn’t help but smile. How ironic that a Marshal’s coat would help her commit a federal crime!

Thrusting her arms into the long sleeves, she turned her back on her cohorts and stuffed the two minting plates into her pants.  She used her belt to strap them to her waist before she stashed her .32 in a pocket and buttoned the coat to her chin. The voluminous duster disguised the lumps against her stomach.  Still, she felt clumsy and not at all certain she could ride a horse, despite the coat’s accommodating rear split. Whenever she bent forward, the leaden plates bludgeoned her ribs. She was beginning to think there must be a better solution when Wilkerson stuck his head inside the car.

“What’re you up to, whore? Whatcha got that coat on for?”

She blushed and was glad the lantern threw her face into shadow. Diego’s eyes narrowed as he, too, noticed the duster. She ducked hastily, dragging the sacks forward.

“I’m cold. I ripped my sleeve, remember?” she said, trying not to imagine what Diego would do if he thought she had cheated him.

“Get down, querida.”

She swallowed. “But Diego, I couldn’t carry all the —”

“Get down.”

She thought better of defending herself.  He wouldn’t believe her, anyway.

As she slid to the ground, snow flurries dusted her eyelashes. She blinked, glancing toward the outlaws, who’d mounted their horses and were waiting in a cluster near the tracks. At their forefront was Gonzales. The heavy-set Mexican was recognizable by the double set of cartridge belts that he wore slung across his shoulders. He rode forward, leading Wilkerson’s horse. Fancy’s heart quickened as he approached the express car. Only one horse?  What is the idiot thinking?

Uneasily, she drew her .32.  Wilkerson grabbed the silver bags. Carrying them to his horse, he strapped them behind the saddle.  Diego waved to Gonzalez.

“Our friend Wilkerson is finished now,” he said.

“Si.”

Fancy dashed a hand across her eyes.  Snow was so deceptive. For a moment, she actually imagined that Gonzales had turned his rifle on Wilkerson’s back. Had Diego conspired with the Mexican to kill Wilkerson?

A shot rang out.  Grunting, Gonzales pitched forward. His horse reared, and his unfired Remington sank beside his lifeless body in the drifts.

“What the —?” Wilkerson grabbed a shotgun on his saddle. “Who the hell is shooting?” he shouted as gunfire spat again from the windows of the train.

Near the grove, a mounted outlaw crashed to the snow. The bandits scattered, but three more fell before the horses reached the trees.

“My God, it must be the railroad detective,” Fancy said, glancing nervously at Diego. “He must have stashed rifles on the train and passed them out to the passengers!”

Diego bit out an expletive as he rounded on her.  She heard his gun chamber click, and for a split second, she thought he might actually shoot her.   Then she spied a whir of movement.

“For God’s sake, woman, run!” Rawlins shouted as he dived for an Army rifle, snapped its breechblock, and fired.

Never before had Fancy seen a man move so fast. Diego shrieked when the bullet ripped through his shoulder. Blood spurted, and his gun arm dangled. A second shot smashed through his leg. He crumpled to the snow, and Rawlins rolled beneath the train.

“Diego!”  Her stomach crawling to her throat, Fancy ran toward him. She slid to a halt before the threat of O’Reilly’s rifle.

“Drop the .32.  Drop it!” the young corporal shouted, his voice high and wavering.

The gun slid from her shaking fingers.

“Diego?” she whispered again.

He didn’t answer. He didn’t move. His blood seeped into the snow in an ever-widening circle.  This time when she blinked, she felt the hot sting of tears.

She turned to run. O’Reilly wouldn’t shoot her, she reasoned wildly.  Not a woman.  Not in the back!

“Halt!”

Warning bullets burrowed in the snow around her boots. She stumbled, glancing fearfully over her shoulder. O’Reilly hesitated, and Wilkerson’s buckshot drove through him. She was nearly deafened by the second blast that tore Hamilton’s chest in two.

Rawlins loosed a retaliatory volley, and Wilkerson screamed.  His shotgun clattered across a patch of ice.  Fancy almost retched to see the weapon’s trail of blood.  Gathering her wits, she raced for the horse Gonzalez had been leading.

“You ain’t riding off without me, bitch!” Wilkerson cried as she wrestled with the frightened animal.  She threw her boot into the stirrup, and Wilkerson drew his .45.  Blood bubbled from his chest as he rose, firing at the entrenched lawman.  Bullets pinged off the iron rails, and Rawlins yelped. His curses were vehement when Parson Brown appeared, dragging him back beneath the belly of the train.

“Wilkerson!”  She struggled to sit his skittering mare. “Mount up! Grab my hand!”

He grunted, nearly dragging her to the snow as he threw himself behind her. More bullets whined past her ears.  The mare tried to rear as Wilkerson raked his spurs across her belly.

Minutes passed like hours. They galloped through the maze of trees, leaving the gunfire and shouting behind. The snow began to fall so fast that Fancy could see little beyond the horse’s ears. She was grateful for the flakes on the one hand, for they would delay pursuit and cover her tracks. On the other hand, she feared she might freeze to death before she and Wilkerson found decent shelter. The rifles had long since fallen silent. She couldn’t tell where the rails were, much less the train and the surviving outlaws.

“Slow up.”  Wilkerson’s voice was raspy. “Can’t you see Bessie’s laboring?”

He wrenched the reins out of Fancy’s hands, and the mare stumbled to a halt, her sides heaving.

“Get down, “Wilkerson said.

“What?”

“Get down, you stupid whore!”

Fancy quailed when his gun hammer clicked in her ear. “All right!  All right!  Take it easy, Wilkerson.”

Careful to keep the plates anchored to her waist, she jumped, landing knee-deep in a drift. “Where are we?”

“Hell, I don’t know.  A mile, maybe two, north of Carson.” He doubled over, clutching his chest, then wrenched Bessie’s head around.

Fancy gaped.  “Wilkerson, wait!  You can’t just leave me here.”

He laughed. The sound was cruel and merciless before it wheezed into a cough. “You are stupid.” His hand shook as he holstered his gun. “I got the plates and the silver.  I don’t need nuthin’ else, ‘specially no aging, smart-alecky whore.”

“You need someone to bind that wound,” she countered desperately. “You’ll bleed to death before you reach Carson.”

“This ain’t nothing.  The Yanks shot me up a sight worse at Chickamauga.”

“But I’ll freeze!”

“Then you’d best start walking, eh, long legs?”  He cackled as he spurred the mare. “See ya in hell.”

“Wilkerson!”

Her cry echoed off the valley wall.  He never looked back as he cantered away.

She railed.  She cursed God, Wilkerson, and the elements.  She damned Diego for letting himself get killed.  But most of all, she damned herself for surrendering her .32.

Her throat burned from yelling, but the rest of her felt cold.  Thrusting her hands into Rawlins’s pockets, she rummaged inside.  Her fingers were stiff despite her kid gloves, and she had trouble pulling out the pockets’ contents:  tobacco, jerky, riding gauntlets, and a whittling knife.  She felt a grudging gratitude for Rawlins’s possessions until she remembered how he’d shot Diego.

And quite possibly saved her life.

She hurriedly dismissed such a notion.  Diego had loved her; he would never have  betrayed her as he’d tried to betray Wilkerson.  She would make Cord Rawlins pay for killing Diego.  But first, she had to survive.

Her hands quaked as she tugged on the gauntlets. She reminded herself that she’d lived through tougher spots than this.  She had her flint, and the knife.  She could eat.  All she had to do was keep moving.  She knew that every lawman in Nevada would be looking for her, and that they’d start in Carson City, but it couldn’t be helped. It was either Carson or freeze.

A pearl-gray dimness heralded the rising moon.  The clouds dumped less snow now.  Tucking her fists beneath her arms, she trudged through the dwindling storm.

Lawmen were just men, she comforted herself grimly. And there wasn’t a man alive she couldn’t seduce, outsmart, or bribe.

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Wild Texas Nights: series of Western Historical Romance Novels