Oregon Territory 1866
Harper wasn't a bettin' man, and in fact had never laid a coin down for someone else's takin' in his entire life. But right now, standing underneath the hot sun, slightly irritated by the small drop of sweat trickling down his right cheek, he decided it was time to start. Because he knew for certain that he'd be willing to wager the entire gold piece in his pocket on the Smith-and-Wesson pointing at the middle of his chest. And the bandit pointing it would use it without regret.
"I said hold those hands high, mister, or I won't be responsible for shootin' you right where you stand." Chantel exhaled a shaky breath; it was mid August and damned hot. Elkhorn Pass proved to be a challenge, but worth the effort. Staring into the eyes of the man she'd come to rob, she smiled in satisfaction behind her bandana. "So you're Harper Barnes. You don't look much like a strip miner to me. What do you think, Jess?"
"Never do look the part, Tilley, not one of 'em. But who gives a darn as long as he's got the gold." Jess stepped forward and motioned for the driver to throw the trunk down from the top. "Throw it right here, mister, then sit back down so's I don't have ta shoot ya."
Harper suppressed his amusement. It was one thing to be held up by a skinny old man, but a woman! He could hardly stand the comedy of it and wanted to laugh at the situation but somehow knew if he didn't remain serious the wench just might shoot him out of spite.
All he could see were her eyes, as dark as coal underneath thick lashes that stared at him from behind her bandana. Her voice was deep and sultry, drawing him in the same way a black widow draws in her prey. Oh yes, this woman was deadly. No doubt about it, he would have to be careful if he wanted to live to see another day. Tipping his hat, he stepped forward cautiously. "Why yes, ma'am, my name is Harper Barnes." He smiled when she took a step backward. "Pray tell! To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit on this fine day?"
Chantel scrutinized him. He was tall, lean and terribly handsome. Dressed in a pair of those new denim breeches from the East Coast she'd heard about and only seen in catalogs from Mrs. Buckley's shop. His gray eyes penetrated her, right down to her soul, making her feel as if he could read her mind. Pulling herself together and stepping back one more step, she answered his question. "Not that it makes any difference to the likes of you, but you've taken what doesn't belong to you, Mr. Barnes. I'm just here to take it back to its rightful owners."
Harper nearly slumped forward from the lash of her tongue. God, he longed to rip that bandanna from her face. "Oh, I see now. You must belong to the Sumpter gang. I didn't know they had a woman riding with them." He could tell she was frowning underneath her bandana. "What's the going rate nowadays for a woman bandit? Five or ten dollars? Why, I bet the men get at least double that."
"Shut-up!" Chantel yelled. "The Sumpter gang is a poor excuse for male flesh, Mr. Barnes. Neither Jess nor I would ever lower our standards to that level. No... I'm not taking the gold for myself, or any ridiculous gang." She breathed a sigh of relief as Jess finished filling their saddlebags with the gold. "We'll be leaving you now, Mr. Barnes. Tell your people that as long as they continue to mine Elkhorn Pass, I'll be there to take it from 'um. Good day."
Harper watched as she climbed back up on her horse in one graceful leap. The other passengers were already seated back in the stage and urgently gesturing for him to get in, but he couldn't take his eyes off her. If he was lucky her hat or bandana would fly loose. She wore breeches that hung loosely on her slim hips and a large masculine shirt that she had tucked in beneath an old leather belt. Her efforts at trying to look masculine might have worked if she hadn't been quite so shapely. And maybe, just maybe, if he were patient he'd get to glimpse a few more of those black curls hidden underneath her hat.
But today luck wasn't on his side. As the two of them rode their horses hard in the opposite direction, Harper slowly gave up and rejoined the others. Amidst the crying women and the rocking of the stage he sat quietly and smiled. What a story he'd have tonight back at camp. They'd all laugh until the coyotes sang and then he'd retire to his cabin with one thought to aid him in his desperate need for sleep. How would he tell his aunt that the children would have to wait another month? That a woman and an old man had taken the money she so desperately needed to keep the orphanage afloat? It would all come around; it always did. But delays weren't what he wanted when it came to this place. Delays would only keep him here that much longer. And that just would not do
Chantel and Jess rode hard until they were sure they hadn't been followed. Turning north toward town, they slowed their horses just before the old mine where she'd stowed her buggy earlier in the day. "Jess, you take the gold and my horse on back to the ranch. Turn him out to pasture; I don't think I'll need him any more tonight."
Jess regarded Chantel as she pulled her dress from the back of her buggy. Then when she disappeared behind the opening of the mine and he couldn't see her anymore, he turned away anyway. "All right, Tilley, but mind you don't be too long getting home. You know Mag; she'll skin us both for not gettin' home in time for those vittles of hers."
"I won't, Jess. I have a meeting at town hall to oversee then I'll be home right afterward. Now, don't forget where I said I wanted you to hide the gold." She smiled at his frown from behind her hiding spot as she dressed. "I know you won't, Jess, just making sure, that's all." She smoothed her skirt then bundled her clothes together before leaving the mine. "Okay, I'm ready." Chantel swung herself up on the buckboard and smiled at Jess. "Here, take this home for me, would you? I don't want anyone to see them in my buggy." She tossed her bundle of clothes at Jess. "I'll see you later."
She watched Jess ride off toward the ranch then settled in for her ride into town. The wind had picked up and was now blowing a handful of her thick black curls against her cheeks. She'd tied all of her hair back in a scarlet blue ribbon to match her dress, but it could hardly hold against the strong gusts coming out of the east. Dusk was approaching and she could easily make out the soft glow of the lanterns just as they were being lit. Ever since the gold miners had started downing the forest around their town nothing looked the same. Soon it would look like Fort Baker if she couldn't get control.
Gold Center, as they called it, was three miles outside of town. And she wondered daily why they couldn't have gone the other way. She sighed in despair; her town was at the brink of ruin and she'd be dammed if she were going to let it happen without a fight. Harper Barnes might think she was just a woman but he had no idea how stubborn she could be.
"Good evening, Chantel!"
She nodded as she rode past Mrs. Buckley's mercantile. The old woman was just hanging a closed sign in the front window. "Good evening, Mrs. Buckley. Closing early tonight?"
"Now you know I never miss yer meetin's, Chantel," Mrs. Buckley replied curtly.
Chantel smiled. "I'll see you there then." If her papa, God bless his soul, were here he'd have been proud of her. Beltane Aubuchon was one of the first French to settle the area. After traveling by ship as a deck hand to pay his way to America, he'd emigrated from Boston in the early 40's by wagon train. He met her sixteen-year-old mother along the way and they wed on the trail. After losing two baby boys at birth before her, Chantel's mother gave birth to her in the spring of 1845, healthy, strong and screaming to high heaven. Her pa told her she never stopped.
And although her mother was born in Pennsylvania with blond hair and blue eyes, Chantel took after her father. Some even said she had more French in her blood than he did. Jess said it was her temper that gave her heritage away but Mag told her it was her dark beauty. She laughed so hard that she nearly broke a rib. Beauty, hah! Her ma was beautiful. She wasn't beautiful, no siree. She was strong and practical, just like her pa.
As she pulled her buggy to a stop in front of the church steps she thought, again, about Harper Barnes. He was to be the topic of her town meeting tonight, a sore and hateful subject as far as she was concerned, but necessary nonetheless. She could still feel the penetrating glare of his deep gray eyes as they scrutinized her. She wished that she could tell her town that he was leaving without opening another new mine, but she knew better. The man was here to stay, or at least until she could find a way to get him out. If one more mine opened, her town would be lost for good.
Mindlessly she passed by the pews until she settled in front of preacher Ben's podium. There she watched as the room began to fill and wondered how many more times she would have to disappoint these fine people. After her father died two years ago the town's folk became lost and fearful without their beloved mayor. And since none of them wanted to take his place, she stepped in and took over. It was a natural process that nobody seemed to mind, except Maggie. She believed women were made for making babies and feeding men meat and potatoes until they belched.
Her father had schooled her in all the necessities of the law, and she felt it was her responsibility to take over the town. And all was well, until gold was discovered in Elkhorn Pass. Now at the prime age of twenty-one not only was she mayor of Elkhorn in the great Oregon territory, she was also a bandit, hell bent on protecting her town and her people.
Noticing the room was now full and everyone sat chatting with their neighbor instead of paying attention to her, Chantel addressed the crowd. By putting her forefinger and her thumb in-between her lips she was able to whistle loudly enough to get everyone's attention. "Let's come to order, please. I know we all want to get home early tonight."
"Goodness gracious, Chantel. Do you have to whistle like that? You nearly broke my eardrums again," Mrs. Buckley exclaimed from her seat in the front.
Chantel giggled. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Buckley. I'll remember next time."
"Hmph! We might be a bunch of old geezers but we ain't deaf," Mrs. Buckley replied.
Chantel winked down at the old woman and returned her smile. Then she slowly scanned the crowd, noticing everyone was here. Everyone was expecting her to announce that their town would be saved. Everyone but her. "Good evening! Tonight I would like to discuss Barnes mining with you again. As you know--" She was interrupted mid sentence when Peter Anderson stood, yelling from his place at the back of the small room.
"All I wanna know is, is there gunna be another mine or not, Tilley. Tain't nobody gunna want to settle here fer sure if our countryside keeps getting torn up by them thar strip minin' machines." Peter spat a wad of tobacco out before sitting back down.
"Well, Peter, it looks like Mr. Barnes is planning on setting up another mine. And maybe more, the way things look right now. I plan on meeting with him sometime next week to try and discourage it, but I can't promise anything." She watched their faces drop and averted her eyes; she had to remain strong. But damn it all, it broke her heart to see them so worried. "I called you all here to ask for more time. Please, if we can all just stick together and show the miners we're here to stay...that this is our town regardless of people like Harper Barnes--" She was interrupted again; only this time it was the door slamming open hard against its hinges. The women screamed, then men spit slurs of slang while there in the doorway Harper Barnes stood as big as day, pointing an accusing finger in her direction. Chantel wanted to duck underneath the podium; surely he didn't recognize her, but still... "Sir, you are interrupting our meeting. Either shut the door and have a seat, or leave...please." She squeaked this out between trembling lips.
"Where's your sheriff? The stage I am traveling on has been robbed." By the time he'd finished, Harper realized he wasn't welcome in the small church. If the angry stares of the people sitting on the pews weren't enough, the penetrating glare of the raven-haired beauty standing at the podium could easily have cut him in two.
"We have no sheriff, Mr. Barnes. Or did you forget that one of your men shot him dead last week?" He hadn't recognized her, thank god.
So she did recognize him. "My men don't shoot sheriffs, Mrs...." He waited anxiously for her reply.
"I am Chantel Aubuchon, mayor of Elkhorn, Mr. Barnes." She languished briefly in the surprised look on his handsome face. "Has anyone been hurt? Do you need the doctor?"
Harper shook his head at her question. She was Mayor? How could it be possible? He knew the people of this town were weak, but to allow a woman to run their town, well, it was just plain old hilarious. As his surprise turned to amusement, a slow smile began to play across his face. Finding his voice he finally replied, "No one was hurt, Mayor Aubuchon." He chuckled. "But the women were a bit frightened, if you know what I mean. Is there a hotel in town? I'm sure they would appreciate a rest before we return to Gold Center. Maybe glasses of something cool to drink?"
He'd perturbed her. "You will find the hotel at the end of Main Street, Mr. Barnes." Stepping down from the podium, she approached him. A sheepish grin pulled on her cheeks. "Say, come on back after your refreshments. Our meeting is about you and your filthy mines; maybe you could explain to these nice people why you feel another mine won't bring harm to our town, hmm? It seems only fitting that you should be here."
Harper stared down into dark familiar eyes. She was still a few feet away, but he could smell the familiar scent of her hair before she got there. Dark curls framed her face in an unruly sort of way then ended in tiny ringlets that tickled her neck and chin. The same way he'd have let his fingers if he had the opportunity. She wasn't short, but she wasn't tall either. He could look into her eyes without having to strain one way or the other, and to him, that made her just about perfect. "Now, now, Mayor Aubuchon, there's no need in getting these fine people all fired up over something as trivial as my mines. How about you come to the Center tomorrow for lunch? We can discuss my mines then." He felt the ice from her eyes piercing him. He smiled back, unwilling to be the first to give in.
"Aarogant ane." Without thinking she spoke her mind, then blushed when she realized she'd just called him an arrogant ass in front of the crowd. It was a terrible fault, but she always spoke in French when she was angry.
"Me pardonner la madame. Je suis desole si je vous ai offense." Satisfied with her look of shock, he pulled his hat from his head and bowed deeply in front of her.
"You speak French?" She bit her tongue to keep her mouth from gaping open. She hadn't heard anyone speak French since her papa's death.
"Oui, I speak it perfectly. Surprised?" he asked, knowing she was. But there was no way in hell she'd admit it. Not this woman; she would never back down from an argument, or much else for that matter.
"Well, you aren't pardoned, so please leave. I'd never meet with you at that wretched place," she replied and then quickly added, "but a meeting would be appreciated nonetheless. I can meet with you next week at my ranch. Let's say Tuesday around noon. I'll have Maggie prepare us some lunch." She turned to the podium without giving him another glance or a chance to reply. "Now if you'll excuse me, Mr. Barnes, I have a meeting to adjourn."
"I'll send a messenger around to let you know if, and when, I'll be available, Mrs. Aubuchon; goodnight." He turned quickly to avoid his own anger at her smug dismissal. The stares of the other folk in the room went unnoticed during their conversation but now he felt them creeping up his spine, reminding him he wasn't welcome. Stopping at the door, he looked across the room at her once more before taking his leave. Her head was bent over and she was writing something down on a piece of paper, probably his death warrant. "Not that you seem to care, but just in case...one of the thieves was a woman. She stole a trunk of gold that was on its way to Fort Boise. To an orphanage that is in danger of closing and leaving more than fifty children without a home. Without the gold, those children will soon be sleeping on the streets. I just thought you might like to know."
Chantel's head swung up and her eyes locked on his. "Liar! You'd say anything to get your gold back, wouldn't you? Snakes don't have hearts, Mr. Barnes. Or didn't your mama teach you that?"
"I don't lie, and even if I did I wouldn't include innocent children. Think what you will, Mayor, but don't let your own anger hurt those that cannot fend for themselves." Tipping his hat, he left her staring after him with her pink lips pulled tightly against her perfect teeth. Once again he'd angered her; good, he didn't want to be the only one that felt as though the wind had just been knocked out of his lungs. 'Damn, what a woman,' he whistled under his breath as the doors slammed behind him. "Damn."
Chantel stared into the faces of the people of her town without seeing one of them. He was bluffing her, there was no orphanage. A man like Harper Barnes didn't care about children. Shaking her head, she searched the faces for any sign of understanding, but as always none was there. They always came to her for help, and like always she had to be the strong one. "All right, let's all go home. Next week I'll let you all know how my meeting goes with Mr. Barnes."
"Do you think us ought to send a posse out to look for whoever robbed that stage, Chantel? Those poor children..."
Chantel quickly quieted Mrs. Buckley. "Harper Barnes is lying, Mrs. Buckley. It's his gold and he wants us to help him get it back. Now, I for one don't intend to go out hunting for stagecoach bandits. If Mr. Barnes wants his gold back, he can damned well find it himself. Goodnight everyone, I'll see you next week." She refused to hear anymore about it tonight. She'd had enough of the dashing Mr. Barnes for a lifetime. After saying her goodbyes and seating herself on the buckboard, she headed home. To meat, potatoes and much needed sleep.
Harper stood in the shadows of the hotel patio and watched the mayor of Elkhorn drive her buggy past him. He was well hidden in the dark, and was glad she didn't notice him as she drove by. He'd been coming to Elkhorn Pass for the last two years and had actually only lived at gold center for a few months but had never stopped in the town of Elkhorn until tonight. He took a long drag off his cigar then threw it to the ground before squashing it under his boot. "Lady Aubuchon, Mayor of Elkhorn. A challenge I look forward to," he drawled slowly from deep in his throat. He watched her until she was no longer visible under the moonlit night before he went back inside to join the others. He'd been on his way to deliver the gold, but now it would have to wait until he could build up more. The children would have to be patient; hell, he would have to be patient now. His schedule was beginning to stretch out further and further. His aunt would never release him from their agreement until the children were safe and secure. And neither would he.
Chantel yawned then squinted against the morning light tearing through the small slit in the curtains. She always woke at dawn and could never remember a time when she could sleep in. Many times she felt like pulling the quilts over her head and going back to sleep, but her ranch wouldn't permit it. Her best and last wranglers quit over six months ago, telling her that the promise of gold was more tempting than her meager monthly wage. But Jess had stayed behind, bless him. For if it hadn't been for him, she'd have nobody to help her with the horses. Except for her housekeeper Maggie, she and Jess were the only ones left to run her fifteen hundred acre ranch. Thank goodness they were married because Chantel felt sure they'd have both left long ago if they weren't. They argued like cats and raccoons, but loved each other nonetheless.
Sometimes she wished she had her mother's shoulder to cry on, or her mother's wise advice. But she had died when Chantel was only three, leaving her in the hands of her father and the mostly male population of the ranch. If it weren't for Maggie she wouldn't even know how to lace her own corset. Not that she ever wore the dammed things anyway, but her pa insisted she have at least one. So one was all she had.
She didn't care for men either. As far as she could tell the only thing they were good for was spitting chewing tobacco in the dirt and sucking down whisky. Even Jonas, her only suitor, lived in Baker City, a day's ride from Elkhorn. He'd asked her to marry him just last month and she told him to let her think on it. He was such a gentle man, meek and soft. Not at all masculine like...like... "Ohh!" She scoffed at the ceiling. "No sense in denying it, Tilley, go ahead and say it." Her nose wrinkled and she held her breath. "Harper Barnes, now he's all masculinity." She rolled to her belly then and hid her face. "Dang you, Harper, why do you have to be so darned handsome." His teeth were white when he smiled, confirming to her that he'd never put a pinch of tobacco in his mouth. And he smelled of fresh shaving lather and leather, no whiskey there to spoil a woman's appetite. Not that he was anywhere near her taste in men.
Swinging her feet to the floor, she got up and dressed. Today she had to ride up to the north ridge and try to find one of the mares that were due to foal. But first she needed to make sure Jess had hidden the gold where she'd told him. Over and over again she had to remind herself that the gold was not stolen, that it belonged to her town. But the thought of what she'd had to do to save her town made her sick, and even angrier with Harper for forcing her to such extremes. She'd never shot anyone and she never would; she just prayed that she would never be faced with the possibility of having to make that choice. Yesterday was the first time she'd ever been tempted, thanks to Harper. And he didn't even do anything to provoke her. In fact, he was quite the willing victim.
After donning her cotton dungarees and light cotton shirt she headed out. For the last eighteen years of her life Maggie was there to greet her. This morning was no different. She stood waiting for her as always in the kitchen, bag in hand. As Chantel approached she handed her the bag. "Morning, Mag!"
"I know you won't be stayin' for a proper meal, Tilley, so the least you can do is take along some biscuits and jerky. I also threw in a few boiled eggs." Maggie looked Chantel over from head to toe. "It's no wonder you cain't get a man, young lady, just look at yerself. Why, a pretty young thing like you ought to have babies pullin' at her skirt hems by now."
Chantel grimaced. "I'll have you know that it was just last month that Jonas asked me to marry him."
"Well, I ain't seen no engagement ring yet. So you must of said no." Maggie pressed her hands against her bony hips as Chantel sidestepped her to get to the door.
"You never know, Mag, I might just say yes." Chantel pushed through the door before Maggie could reply. All she needed this morning was an argument about marriage and babies; still, she heard Maggie's final remark before the door slammed shut, 'that'll be the day', as she jumped off the last step.
Today she would be riding alone. Jess had to go into town for some oats and since they were on their last ton, she told him to go. She'd ride up the north trail until she got to Powder River; the cave where she'd told Jess to hide the gold was on the way. After making sure it was well hidden she'd go and look for the mare. "Morning, Moonshadow!" She patted the stallion on his silky neck then fed him a handful of oats. "We have a long day in front of us, boy; your girlfriend ran away again." Moonshadow was her prize mustang. He was what kept her ranch from going bankrupt, and she was the only one he'd allow on his back. He stood nearly seventeen hands and was the color of a copper penny with milky white socks on all four legs. He was born eight years ago when she was just thirteen. She'd been out riding late with her pa when they found him curled up underneath his mother's shadow. Since it was a moonlit night, she named him Moonshadow.
This morning he was full of spirit and as he pranced underneath her she couldn't help but giggle. Like angels and wings, they were made for each other. As they reached the meadow beyond the ranch she lay down low on his withers and held her breath. This was the best part, Moonshadow knew, when she let the reins relax on his neck and she whispered in his ear it was time. Bolting forward, he ran like the wind. As his red mane whipped the air around her, Chantel's hair tore loose from its ribbon and flew behind her in a tangled mass of silky black waves. Together they seared the ground beneath them in a roar of thunder.
A few miles away Harper sat chewing a piece of Indian grass, staring contently at his fishing pole. He was a devoted fisherman, and although he hadn't had any bites since sunup, he wouldn't give up. The idea of fresh trout for breakfast was making his stomach growl. But since it was already nearing noon he figured his chances were growing slim. Powder River seemed the perfect place for fishing, but it was beginning to disappoint him. At this rate he'd be having fish for dinner instead of breakfast.
He stared past the water to the jagged peaks across the river. The incline must be at least thirty feet high. It reminded him of the beautiful mayor of Elkhorn, all jagged on the edges but nice and soft in the middle. Grimacing, he pitched his piece of Indian grass away then got up and paced next to the water.
Chantel Aubuchon had robbed him of a decent night's sleep. Giving up, he rode out before sunup with his fishing pole tied to the back of his saddle. He couldn't figure her out, or for that matter, her townspeople. A woman mayor was unheard of, in any part of the country. How and why did she come by the job? She seemed educated, another rarity among rural women. But then she was barely a woman, maybe in her very early twenties. He would love to get into her head and tinker around a bit. If he could just get to know what made her... Frozen, he stared at the horse and rider on the ridge across from him. Then his breath caught as the subject of his thoughts had just become a reality. She was riding a magnificent, familiar stallion, making her way slowly along as if she were looking for something. Tracks, she was looking for tracks. From his point he could see all around her, including the black coat of another horse about a hundred feet or so in front of her. It was most likely the subject of her search. If he yelled up to her he could point the other horse out and be the hero of her day.
Chantel skirted the edge of the cliff as close as she could. The mare's tracks were becoming easier to find, indicating she was getting close. The sun had her hot and sticky and she was becoming more and more frustrated with every step. She'd been concentrating so intently on finding the mare that the sound of the strong male voice from down below nearly startled her out of her wits. Unable to make out who it was, and fearing she might have stumbled into the Sumpter gang's camp, she grabbed for her pistol. Fumbling for it underneath her belt, she finally managed to pull it free, only to drop it when Moonshadow jumped out from underneath her. The pistol went off on its own with a loud bang just as she hit the ground. She caught a glimpse of hooves flying above her just before she began to roll down the hillside. There weren't many rocks in this area, thank goodness, or she'd have been knocked out or killed. Her arms flailed as she tried to grab hold, but it was useless. She'd been going so fast that nothing would stop her now except going over the edge, which she did. Hanging perilously from a tree root jutting from the cliff wall, she screamed.