Clearly indifferent to the comfort of his passengers, the stagecoach driver rolled over something that had to be the size of a dead, bloated bull. The vehicle tilted precariously to one side. Katie Matthews hissed and gritted her teeth, braced herself for the coach to tip over.
The young mother in the front seat shrieked and held tight to her wailing daughter—the child had been whining for the good part of an hour—while her husband tucked his son close. The others, a circuit judge, a salesman, and a prospector, either reached for the leather straps hanging from the roof for such a purpose or did what Katie did, slapped one hand on the side of the coach while the other clenched firm to the seat.
The stagecoach seemed to hang on the edges of the wheel, as though clinging to a precipice. It wouldn’t be the first one to topple over on her journey west but she’d rather not experience it again. Even though once she’d crawled out of the other and realized she’d survived unharmed, she’d grinned like a fool for having lived through such an adventure.
However luck was in their favor and the coach slammed back onto the road before rattling on. Everything creaked and groaned. Including Katie. The mother blew out a heavy breath, tried to soothe her little girl though they’d all learned the hard way the only time the child was quiet was when she was asleep or when the driver stopped.
“Goddamn driver is going to kill us yet.” This from the portly salesman sitting across from her in the middle row. It was difficult to say which stench poured out of his skin more, that of sweat or of whiskey.
“Watch your language,” the father scolded. “I’ve asked you before not to curse in front of the women and children.”
Katie could have told him the cussing didn’t bother her but she kept her tongue as she knew he was mostly referring to his own family.
The bulky man turned, bumping knees with Katie, and replied, “Then tell the damned driver to stop driving as though the hounds of hell are after us and I will.” He wiped his brow with his grey, sodden handkerchief.
Oblivious to what was going on in the coach, the driver continued his race across Paradise Valley. Unwilling to let any of the constant grumblings ruin what was—despite her cramped legs, flattened backside and gritty eyes—the grandest adventure she’d experienced in her twenty-one years, Katie ignored them all.
Dust coated her clothes, her shoes, the inside of the coach. The back of her throat. With a full coach keeping the leather down to cover the windows proved stifling. But keeping them all open wasn’t possible with the amount of dust being stirred up. Therefore they alternated opening the curtains from one side of the coach to the other. Currently, hers was the one open to the rolling green foothills and the granite peaks rising behind them.
Truth be told, Katie would rather suffer the dust than miss the view. She clung to her window seat, going so far as to refuse to get out when they changed the horses in case her seat was taken before she could reclaim it. The whole of her life she’d not been outside the city of Philadelphia and she’d dreamed, yearned, to see more. To do more. To have the same opportunities her sister had had. When finally there’d been nobody and nothing to stop her, she’d packed her bags and left.
It would take more than cranky, sweaty passengers to ruin this experience for Katie.
The coach banged into another rut. Katie’s head jarred and her teeth came down hard on her lip. She’d learned a substantial number of curses since leaving Pennsylvania and though a few rose to her tongue, she swallowed them. While she enjoyed the rebellious act of cursing, she usually reserved it for when she was alone or certain she wouldn’t be overheard. Unfortunately, the man across from her wasn’t as disciplined.
Katie rolled her eyes as another argument ensued between the salesman and the father. This time, however, as they’d been underway for hours and were due a break, everyone’s tempers were shorter. Soon the coach throbbed with angry voices and colorful curses complemented by mother and children weeping.
Even the rugged mountain range outside her window wasn’t enough of a distraction from the escalating ruckus. With eight of them crammed inside, knees practically touching and not an ounce of personal space between them, it wasn’t surprising tempers were flaring. And with the little girl’s constant whining, even Katie was beginning to have grumbling thoughts. Would it be so difficult to slow down a little? Surely the horses were exhausted. It seemed an especially long time since they’d stopped at the last swing station to switch to a fresh team. Even a ten-minute respite would go a long way to calm everyone’s raw nerves.
Thinking to stick her head out and call for the driver to stop, Katie curled her fingers over the bottom edge of the window frame and scooted forward on her seat.
Before her head cleared the opening something to the right caught her eye. She turned to look behind the coach. Not something. Someone. And not just one someone. Katie’s fingers dug into the wood as the reality of what she was seeing washed over her. Four riders, dressed in black, with hats low and kerchiefs covering their faces, were riding hell for leather toward them.
“What on earth are you doing?” the mother asked.
Ignoring her, and hoping to see a town before them, Katie leaned out and looked forward. Dust choked her, burnt her eyes, but she forced them to stay open, blinked to see past the churning grit. But no amount of willing or praying showed anything but the green valley and the road cutting a meandering path through it.
There wasn’t a town in sight.
Katie ducked back inside, ran a shaking hand over her hair—it was too hot to bother with a bonnet—and absently tucked the pieces that the wind had whipped from her braid behind her ear.
“Yah!” the driver shouted.
On the other end of Katie’s seat, the judge—who’d spent most of his time sleeping, snoring, and drooling—woke himself enough to pull back the leather curtain.
“We must be getting close,” he mumbled. “We just passed the swing station.”
They’d passed the station without stopping to switch the horses? The little moisture the dust hadn’t stolen from Katie’s mouth evaporated like water in a hot skillet. Granted, they couldn’t stop while being chased but there was no doubt now about their chances of outrunning the outlaws.
A team of six exhausted horses pulling a passenger-filled coach loaded with baggage, a treasure box, driver, and shotgun rider outrun men on horseback?
They didn’t have a prayer.
Katie’s heart pounded, giving competition to the horse’s thundering hooves. Her suddenly cold hands twisted together while her mind raced. The shotgun rider was armed and so was the driver. She hadn’t noticed any weapons on any of the men inside so she wouldn’t count on them, but why in tarnation wouldn’t they have brought a gun?
Heck, when she’d packed her bags to come west even she had opted for a Remington derringer as it had two barrels. It was one thing to carry a regular, one-shot derringer in a civilized city like Philadelphia, but the untamed west demanded something more serious. She hugged her handbag closer taking comfort in knowing the gun was within it. But could she use it? Shooting a living person wasn’t the same as the bottles her friend Alex had her practice on.
But if her life were on the line? Could she do it?
Katie thought of everything she’d been through, how hard she’d fought to get to this point. To finally be out of her sister’s shadow. To finally have a chance to discover her own dreams and passions. Could she defend herself for the life she’d dreamed of living? Was she truly prepared to stand her ground? She sat up a little straighter.
Hell, yes. She dug into her handbag and clasped the Remington.
However, Katie wasn’t foolish. While prepared to defend herself, chances were all the bandits wanted was the treasure box underneath the driver’s seat. Gold bars, gold dust, checks, and bank notes would be worth far more than whatever money and jewels the passengers had. Still, she was glad she hadn’t brought any jewels with her, and as for money, Katie had been smart. It wasn’t all tucked into her handbag where it could easily be ripped from her fingers.
By armed men.
Tilting the bag so it hid what she was doing, Katie slid her hand and the gun out of the bag and into the right pocket of her skirt. With the derringer hidden but easier to grab, she closed her bag, wrapped her arms around it and breathed out a worried breath. How much longer until they were overtaken? Would the bandits shout a warning and demand they stop or would they simply start shooting? Her stomach knotted with possibilities.
“Papa? Are we going to stop soon? I need to use the outhouse.”
Katie’s head snapped up. The children. For a moment she’d forgotten there were children present.
“What is it?” the father asked. He must have been watching her. His eyes were solemn and his face was tight. “You saw something out there, didn’t you? Is that why the driver raced past the swing station?”
All eyes turned to her.
The crack of a shotgun kept her from answering.
Katie flinched, the mother and the children screamed. The men leaned toward the windows, trying to see what was happening.
“Don’t!” she shouted to them.
Then, with shaking hands, Katie unrolled the leather and covered her window. She doubted the leather covering would protect anyone from a bullet, but they certainly didn’t need to present themselves as easier targets than they already were.
Someone above them returned fire. The shot pierced Katie’s ears.
“You saw them. How many?” the father asked.
He had his wife and daughter tucked close on one side of him and his son on the other. His voice was calm but fear darkened his eyes.
“Four,” she answered.
“Jesus Christ,” the salesman muttered.
Two more shots fired. A loud thump followed as either the driver or the shotgun rider hit the ground. Cold terror gripped Katie’s heart and squeezed painfully. Only one shot had come from above which meant even if the shotgun rider had hit his mark, it was three to one at best and clearly these bandits weren’t above killing. Katie curled deeper into the corner of her seat.
The coach came to a neck-wrenching stop.
“What’s happening?” the wife asked.
“Surrendering, most likely,” her husband answered.
“Are they going to shoot us, Papa?”
He ruffled the boy’s head. “No, John. We’ll just give them what they want and they’ll be on their way.”
Katie prayed it would be so easy. Back home, tales of stagecoach and train robberies were plentiful. She’d heard many a yarn ranging from gentleman robbers who wouldn’t even take a lady’s handbag clear up to the meanest, most cunning robbers who practically took everything but the shirt off one’s back. Katie had always suspected the truth lay somewhere in between.
She pressed her lips together. She was about to find out.
With the curtains closed they were blind to what was going on outside and frankly Katie was too afraid to look. She could hear the laboring breaths from the team of horses, the trampling of approaching hooves. The creak of the coach as it settled. Her heartbeat thumping in her ears.
“You, get down!”
The coach rocked as the man climbed off the seat. He hit the ground and then there was more rocking and grunting and scraping as the bandits removed the treasure box from under the seat. It landed with a heavy thud on the ground.
“Gimme the key.”
Not long after they heard the unmistakable click as the lock was opened.
A long slow whistle filled the silence. “Well, lookee here.” Paper shuffled and coins clinked. “You two load it up,” the same man said. Clearly he was the leader. “You, come with me.”
Footsteps marched toward the door opposite Katie.
As one, everybody inside looked toward it. The mother mewled, cradled her little girl on her lap. The father shifted, moving so his family was hidden behind him. The judge sitting beside Katie slid further down the bench, nearly flattening her. While she didn’t mind the fact that he likely blocked her from view, she couldn’t breathe, jammed up against the side and she shoved until he scooted back. Barely. The salesman and the prospector watched silently. Sweat trickled down their temples though it was difficult to say if it was due to heat or fear.
Katie didn’t have to wonder about her own perspiration. She knew the moisture dampening her palms was due to fright.
The handle on the door turned. Dread tasted very much like blood.
The barrel of a gun poked through the opening.
Then a tall, bow-legged man stepped into view. A black bandana covered his lower face. Within the shadow of his dusty hat, flinty eyes skimmed over Katie and the rest of the passengers.
His voice was as hard and cold as the revolver he pointed. “Everybody out, nice and slow. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
For a moment Katie feared the loud salesman across from her would try something stupid. Of all of them, he was the only one Katie could envision doing so. Wringing her hands together, she silently willed him to do as they were told. She’d come west for a reason and it wasn’t to die in the middle of a dusty road.
Clearly not willing to risk harm coming to his family, the father moved first. Hands up, he waited until the bandit stepped aside. Once the outlaw was out of the way, he climbed out. Then he lifted each of his children out before taking his wife’s hand and helping her to the ground. As they moved away and the others disembarked without incident Katie’s breathing came easier. When there was nobody left but her, she wiped her sweaty palms onto her skirt and scooted down the seat toward the door.
Just as she was coming to her feet, the bandit poked his head inside. The scream ripped from Katie’s lungs before she had the presence of mind to bite it back. He grabbed her arm and dragged her from the coach. Katie stumbled as she hit the ground but managed to keep her feet. Saying nothing, he shoved her among the others, including the driver, before taking his position before them. He had one of his men next to him; the other two were still transferring the goods from the treasure box to their saddlebags.
Besides shotguns, each villain had a six-shooter tucked into a holster tied to their leg. The leader nudged the stockier man next to him.
“Go check the bags.”
The man turned for the coach without another word.
“As for the lot of you,” he continued, addressing the passengers, “we’re going to divest you of your valuables and I suggest you don’t hold back. We know all the usual hiding places and we won’t be shy about checking.”
Usual hiding places? Not shy about checking? Katie’s heart raced. Did they mean the hem in which she’d tucked away some money? Or the lining of her carpetbag she’d carefully unstitched to hide some more before closing the seam? Or the pages of her family’s bible?
Katie’s gaze darted to the coach. She cringed as bags and trunks were haphazardly thrown from the top with total disregard for their contents. Not that Katie had breakables to worry about or the kind of valuables they were after—other than the hidden money—but she did have some precious items she didn’t want ruined.
The leader of the outlaws stepped to her, his gaze boring into hers. “Got something of value over there?” he asked.
She licked her dry lips. “All my personal effects.”
In fact, what she’d packed consisted of everything she owned. Prior to coming west, she’d given away or sold what remained of her family’s home. After her mother passed, Katie had little use for a large house and all its contents and had no intention of hauling more than she needed all the way to Montana.
But while she might have little with her, what there was she held dear and she didn’t want it stolen by these hoodlums. The thought of losing anything in her bag…
“Ah, so there is something.” He stepped forward, casting her in his shadow. “You’ll show me after. For now, let’s see what you have here. The rest of you,” he said, waving his gun over them, “sit down.”
The moment they sat he yanked her handbag from her fingers and she watched, fear giving way to resentment as he dumped her belongings onto the rutted dirt road.
“No, don’t!” She protested when the outlaw lifted the trinket into his dirty hand.
He peered at her. Judging by the gleam in his eye, she had no doubt he was smirking underneath that bandana. She wished she hadn’t spoken but seeing one of her prized possessions in the hands of a yellow-bellied coward who profited from stealing infuriated her. It would hold no value for him, why did he have to touch it?
He turned the round music box over in his hands while Katie bit her lip to keep from ordering he return it to her right that moment. Jillian had given it to her many years ago and, of the gifts she’d been given over the years from family and friends, it remained a favorite. A painting of a little girl holding a puppy—Katie had always longed for a puppy but her mother forbade it—adorned the top. She’d been thrilled when Jillian gave it to her one Christmas. She’d played it so many times her mother had threatened to take it away if she heard the melody one more time.
She’d taken it to her room, listened to it under a tent of blankets. Then, and in later years, when she’d felt alone and unwanted, the music box had been a balm, a reminder of better times. The crank had long since been worn smooth by her hand. When she’d packed, it had been the first item she’d put in her bag.
“Well, this is worthless, isn’t it?” he said and tossed it over his shoulder.
The music box bounced off the hard ground and the key snapped off. Horrified, she watched the box roll away from the broken key before it wobbled to the dirt. Her fingernails dug into her palms as her hands clenched into fists. Unaffected, the outlaw simply sifted through the rest of her belongings. He took her coin purse, as she expected he would, and tossed it into a sack. Then after another quick glance, stood and faced Katie.
“Turn out your pockets,” he ordered.
Glaring at him, Katie reached in and wrapped her fingers around her Remington. For a moment, she was tempted to shoot the vermin where he stood. Not to kill, of course, but a hole in the foot seemed the least the cur deserved. However, while she tended to be rash on occasion, she was wise enough to know this wasn’t the time to be. Taking on four bandits with one two-shot derringer would accomplish nothing but getting her killed.
She removed the gun and held it in the palm of her hand.
His eyebrow arched. “Well, well.” He took the weapon from her hand, nodded when he saw it was loaded and tucked it into the waist of his trousers.
“Is that it?”
Katie turned both pockets inside out so he could see for himself.
Without warning he closed the distance between them and began pawing her waist, moving far too close to her breasts.
“What are you doing? Get away from me!” Katie shoved him, but it was like trying to move a stone wall.
“I told you we were going to look in the usual hiding places.”
“But you have gold from the treasure box, why bother with anything else. Just go!”
His eyes filled with lust. “Why stop at gold?”
Mortified and afraid in equal measure, Katie brought her arms up to cover her chest. “There’s nothing hidden here.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
“No!” Katie backed away.
The outlaw grabbed her forearms and yanked her onto her toes. His strong fingers dug into her skin. “Would you rather I search your dead body?”
Katie couldn’t swallow but she managed to shake her head.
“That’s what I thought,” he muttered and released her.
Bile rose in her throat as his hands—the first male hands to ever touch her so intimately—squeezed her breasts unnecessarily as he moved over her chest. Biting her lip, Katie focused on the endless blue sky and the puffs of white clouds drifting overhead.
“We’re done with the box,” one of the bandits called over.
“One of you help with the bags, the other come here.”
“Shouldn’t you leave before another coach comes along?” Katie snapped.
He stepped closer and despite the bandana his rancid breath crept up her nose.
“You don’t think we’re smart enough to know the schedule? There is only one coach per day on this route.” He chortled. “And you were on it.”
Katie’s heart sank along with her hope that they’d leave before things got worse.
“Now, where was I?” Anticipating her, he grabbed her before she could move away. “I ain’t done with you.” He hissed.
She shuddered and looked away as his filthy hands once again slithered over her. It was a relief when his hands finally left her thighs and hips but it didn’t take more than a moment for the reprieve to die.
“Just as I thought,” he mumbled when he reached the hem of Katie’s skirt and found the coins hidden there.
Katie’s shoulders fell. She’d been so sure the money would be safe in the hem of her skirt. She’s even wrapped every silver dollar in cloth and sewed each one in so they wouldn’t rattle and clink together.
He wasn’t nearly as meticulous and careful retrieving them and simply took his knife to her skirt. With a sinking heart, Katie counted the money she’d just lost. Only some, not all.
After he added her coins to his loot, he barked, “Take off your shoes.”
“Do it,” he ordered.
“Are you crazy?” she asked. She’d never heard of something so ridiculous. “You don’t think riding days on end in a stagecoach is uncomfortable enough without putting coins in my shoes?”
He aimed the gun at her chest and she could’ve bitten off her tongue. Sometimes, however, her thoughts came out of her mouth at the same time they formed in her head.
“Keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told,” he answered.
Right. Good plan. Behind her, she heard coins clanging as the other outlaw robbed the remaining passengers. Still feeling dirty from his hands on her and willing to do anything to prevent more manhandling, Katie sat and removed her shoes. After days of wearing them and not having a chance to rinse out her stockings, she truly hoped her shoes stank when he grabbed one, then the other. He turned them upside down and ran his hand inside. Grunting, he tossed them at her.
Rather than step over the belongings he’d dumped, he trod on them. Her hairbrush cracked beneath his dusty boot. Her linen handkerchief bore a perfect boot mark.
“Bastard,” Katie whispered.
She tied her shoes then shook the dust off her handbag and began putting her things back in. It hurt her heart to lift the broken music box. Delicately she smoothed her fingers over the painted puppy on the top and mourned the fact she’d never again hear the sweet melody within in. Swallowing her sorrow, she retrieved the key and after wiping them both clean with her skirt, tucked them back inside. Broken or not it remained a treasured keepsake.
“Get back over here with the rest and don’t even think about trying anything foolish.”
Like what, hitting him with a broken music box? He’d taken her gun and other than a few small knolls the land was mostly flat where they were. Even if she tried to run there was nowhere to hide. She’d be an easy target. Besides that, she wouldn’t have had to move away from the group if he hadn’t scattered her belongings. But, as she turned to close the small distance between her and the others, she noticed it wasn’t her he was speaking to.
“I said get back here!”
The salesman turned around. He hadn’t gone far but he appeared to be heading for a small patch of scrub brush. “I have to go relieve myself. You’ve already taken my pocket watch and my money and searched me for God knows what you think I’d be hiding in my drawers. I’m not armed and I can’t wait any longer.”
The click of a trigger being cocked stole Katie’s breath. Her eyes widened until they hurt. The children began to whimper. Undeterred by the goings on, the other two bandits continued to toss luggage to the ground, having moved on to the rear boot of the coach. Otherwise, it was eerily quiet. Even the hawk gliding overhead remained silent.
Her fellow passenger paused. Sweat rolled down Katie’s temple. There was little doubt in Katie’s mind the bandit would shoot an unarmed man in the back and she feared her travelling companion was arrogant enough to ignore the warning. The father gathered his family close, turning them away in case there was a shooting.
The prospector muttered, “Shooting him might be the only way to shut him up.”
Indeed, that might be, but Katie wasn’t prepared to witness—
The shot shattered the silence.
Katie screamed, instinctively covering her eyes with her hands.
“The next time I won’t miss.” The bandit warned.
Katie’s knees went to water. He’d missed? She forced her fingers open and peered between them. Her breath stuttered from her chest. The man remained standing. The click of the trigger being drawn was unmistakable.
“You want to press your luck?”
It was the fastest she’d seen the portly man move. Even with his head down to avoid eye contact, his pallor was unmistakable. At least he finally had the good sense to be afraid. He sat without a word but his backside had no sooner touched the dirt before the leader crossed to him.
“What?” the salesman asked, his eyes round with fear. “I did as you ordered.”
“Too late.” Snarling, the outlaw bashed the man on the side of the head with the butt of his pistol.
He crumpled like a house of cards, out cold. The mother joined her children in weeping. The bandit’s gaze whipped in their direction. Katie crossed her fingers, prayed he wouldn’t harm them for making noise. As though afraid of the same thing, the father whispered to his wife. She nodded, sniffled, and forcibly tried to control her emotions. Katie pressed a hand to her racing heartbeat. If this went on much longer, she feared her heart would give out.
“You,” the villain said as he stepped round before Katie could sit to join the others. For the second time, he grabbed her arm in a vise-like grip. “You’re going to show me which trunk is yours. You,” he said to the man who’d helped strip the passengers of their belongings, “knock down anybody who moves.”
His fingers pinched her flesh; his nearness shriveled her skin but Katie remained silent as he yanked her to the coach and the toppling pile of trunks and bags. The horses, used to standing and happy for the extended rest, lazily swished their tails. Their hides were dark and lathered with sweat, but Katie was happy to see their breath was no longer heaving. Still, they had to be as thirsty, if not more, than the rest of them. Hopefully the outlaws would soon be done with them and the coach would be free to continue on its way.
He shoved her forward. “Which one is yours?”
She caught herself before she tripped over her skirt, and she gnashed her teeth together to keep her temper from spewing forth. Katie scrambled over the pile. Her shoe slid off the side of a trunk. She fell forward, sprawled over the lot, her face pressed between two bags while a sharp corner dug into her stomach. The breath whooshed from her lungs.
He kicked the bottom of her shoe. “Hurry up.”
Go to hell. Flopping like a fish out of water, Katie managed to get to her feet and pull her carpetbag from the pile. While she wished she could have swung it at his head, she dropped it at his feet.
His black gaze slid over her. “Let’s see what you got.”
He leaned closer. Icy fear, colder than sleet in winter, drenched her from her brow to her toes. Moving his rifle from his right to his left hand, he again pulled the knife from the sheath tied to his belt. Katie shrank back.
“That’s what I thought.” He pointed the knife at her throat. “Sit down.”
Gladly. Before her knees gave out beneath her, Katie dropped to the ground. With the same disregard he’d given the contents of her handbag, the outlaw went through her carpetbag. Of course he grabbed the family bible first. Katie schooled her features. Don’t let it bother you. Don’t let him know it matters.
Instead of pitching it aside as she hoped he would, he turned it over in his hands. Her heart sank when he pinched the spine and flicked through the pages. Three small envelopes containing more of her hidden money fluttered to the ground. Defeat pressed on her shoulders. Damn.
“Well, well,” he muttered.
Adding the envelopes to his bag of ill-gotten gains, he then ransacked the rest of her bag. Clothing was pawed then tossed over his shoulder. Katie’s stomach lurched when he grabbed one of her chemises and, with a groan of lust, snuck it under his bandana and rubbed his mouth on it. She’d go naked before she ever wore that chemise again. Disgusted, Katie looked away.
His laugh gnawed down her spine.
The other two men didn’t linger over undergarments. In fact, they didn’t linger over anything. Shirts and trousers, shoes and socks, skirts and blouses flew over their shoulders creating a large pile behind them. It was going to take time to sort through what belonged to whom. For that, at least, Katie could be thankful as her things were being tossed on the opposite side of everyone else’s.
But her gratitude was short-lived.
Now that her bag was empty, he was examining the inside much closer. No, God, please. He’d be sure to find the money she’d hidden within the lining. It wasn’t a hiding spot designed to withstand a close examination, but one that would keep her money hidden if someone upended the bag the way he’d done to her handbag. If he ran his hands along the seams he’d feel it and—
The bandit stopped, peered at her. His eyes filled with satisfaction. Katie was going to be sick. With what he’d already taken from her she was nearly depleted. She fisted her hands as he tore through the lining and stole the last significant amount of money she had brought on this journey. Then, as though he hadn’t taken enough from her he stalked toward her, knife still in his hands.
He crouched before her, slid the knife under her chin. Katie went still as ice.
“I’m beginning to wonder what other hiding places you have.”
“You’ve already searched me,” she said, barely daring to move her mouth. “I have nothing left of value.”
“Oh, I already know differently.” He leered as his gaze fell to her breasts.
Katie had no idea how or with what, but if he tried to force himself upon her she’d fight with everything she had. Being stabbed would be preferable to what gleamed in his eyes.
“Sorry to disappoint,” he said.
He eased the knife from her flesh, rose to his full height.
Katie’s body shuddered. It was all right. It was going to be fine. In a few days she’d look back on this as another adventure. She hugged her legs close, pressed her forehead to her raised knees and drew deep breaths. Well, perhaps it would take longer than a few days.
The jingle of harnesses drew her attention and she raised her head. The outlaws were at the front of the stagecoach. The leader climbed on his waiting horse while the others unharnessed the team. They wouldn’t—they couldn’t—Katie looked to her other passengers and knew by their pinched mouths that she’d assumed correctly. Added to everything else the bandits had already stolen, they were also going to take the horses.
Yet even without horses, it was a relief to see the bandits ride off in a cloud of dust.
“Goddamn thieves,” the driver cussed.
Hands on his hips, he kicked one of the coach’s wheels, then turned in the direction they’d been heading. If anyone knew how far the next town was, he did. Katie scrambled to her feet, hurried to his side. Please don’t let it be too far.
“About five miles. It’s why I was hurryin’. I was hoping we could outrun them before they caught up.”
Five miles. She could walk that. They all could. Shielding her eyes with one hand, she looked up, judged the sun’s position. They had lots of time. One of the many things she found herself in awe of in the west was how long the days were.
“If we start out soon, we’ll be there by supper,” he said.
Supper. Food. Water. Katie’s mouth salivated.
“Everyone,” the driver called out, “Chico is less than five miles. Gather what you can carry and we’ll walk. Another coach isn’t scheduled to pass through here until tomorrow and I don’t know about you people, but I’ve had my fill of outlaws for one day.”
Oh, heavens, yes. Without any of the same care she’d given to packing in Pennsylvania, Katie did little more than shake out the dust before gathering her clothes and shoving them into the bag. Reaching for a bonnet, she grimaced. She hated bonnets. Katie was happiest when she let her red, curly hair fall free down her back. In the coach she hadn’t bothered with a hat but if they had five miles to walk, she needed the protection on her face or she’d be red as a tomato long before Chico.
Tying it under her chin—and already feeling confined by it—Katie finished stuffing her things back in her bag.
Behind her the salesman groaned as he started to come to.
“Just when I was hoping we could leave him behind,” the prospector mumbled.
Figuring if he was coming to on his own, he’d be fine, Katie stuffed her handbag into her carpetbag and headed to the coach where the driver awaited, his own bag ready at his feet. She was the first to join him. He glanced at her, tipped his head.
“You kept your head with those outlaws. Not very many women would have in your shoes.”
His glance drifted to the mother who wept along with her daughter while her husband and son gathered their belongings.
“I may have appeared calm,” she said, “but I was mighty scared on the inside.”
“You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t scared, but you done good. You headin’ to visit family?”
“My sister. She lives near Marietta.”
“I imagine when she hears about this she’ll be of the same mind as I am.”
Katie hoped so, but she wasn’t near as certain as the driver seemed.
She’d wanted to make a good impression on Jillian, but the chances of accomplishing that dwindled at every turn. She’d lost her chaperone in Indiana, something Jillian was sure to take exception to. While Katie couldn’t have possibly known she’d be robbed, and despite having taken precautions against such a possibility, she was nonetheless nearly penniless. The little money the outlaw hadn’t found sewn into her bustle wouldn’t buy much more than a meal or two and since there wasn’t another stage going through until tomorrow, she’d also be a day late arriving.
It wasn’t a promising beginning but Jillian wasn’t unreasonable. Surely she’d see these events were—with the exception of losing her chaperone—out of Katie’s hands. Now all Katie had to do was reach Chico, get through the night, and take the coach to Marietta in the morning.
As long as there were no other mishaps, everything would be fine.
End of Excerpt