"I ain't gonna do it, Miss Megan. I just ain't."
"Hector, for God's sake, the outlaws won't try to rob you today."
"You don't know that, ma'am, and I'd just as soon not find out."
Megan Adams gritted her teeth and tightened her hands into fists at her sides. Three of her five stagecoach drivers had already quit because of that blasted gang of outlaws. The Adams Express was at serious risk of going under, and if Hector didn't take this run, the customers were bound to bad-mouth her business right into the ground.
"I'll give you all of next week off."
"I'll make sure both you and Zeke have weapons."
"I'll double your pay."
"Blast it, Hector, you know how bad things have gotten lately. I'm not asking you to walk through fire. I'm just asking you to drive the damn stagecoach."
"No, ma'am," he said with a shake of his dirty brown hair. "Nope. I ain't doin' it no matter what you say."
"If you don't take this run, you're fired."
"Aw, come on, Meg. You fired me twice last week, and I'm still here. That threat just don't wash no more."
Megan tapped her foot in agitation, wondering if an ass full of buckshot would change his tune. She doubted it.
"I'm asking one last time, Hector. Begging you. Please take this run."
Hector shuffled his feet uncomfortably, keeping his gaze on the floor. "I'm sorry, Miss Adams, but I can't. I'd be more than happy to keep an eye on the office for you, though."
"Fine." She plucked her Stetson off the desk behind her, slapping it against her thigh. "But don't expect your usual pay for sitting around selling tickets," she said as she stormed out the door.
She tugged her worn hat down over the pile of curls atop her head, pulled a pair of leather gloves from the waistband of her tan trousers, and went to the door of the Concord waiting just outside the depot. "Sorry for the delay, folks. You'll be on your way in a minute or two. If it gets too dusty for you, let the window covers fall shut." Giving the passengers a smile, she made her way around the team of horses at the front of the stage.
Megan climbed onto the tall vehicle and took hold of the reins. "Looks like I'll be keeping you company today, Zeke."
"That young upstart giving you trouble again, Miss Megan?"
She smiled at the graying, potbellied man for his intuitiveness. "Nothing I can't handle, Zeke," she said, patting the six-shooter strapped to her right thigh.
Megan motioned to the shotgun lying flat across Zeke's lap. "You keep that thing cocked and loaded, just in case."
"Always do," Zeke said with a grin.
Megan took a deep breath to stiffen her resolve, slapped the reins, and set the stage in motion. She had lied to Hector when she assured him the outlaws wouldn't attack today. In truth, there was a good possibility that they would. She was carrying a strongbox full of railroad payroll, after all.
She cursed under her breath. But how the hell did they find out? It seemed that every time her stage was carrying one, they took great pleasure in relieving her of it. Worse, she was the only person who knew precisely when the payrolls were being transported. Her stage picked up the boxes at the Kansas City station, then delivered them to the Union Pacific offices in Atchison. She kept all the information confidential, the paperwork under lock and key. So how the hell did they find out?
The stage took a sharp turn around a high, smooth expanse of rock face. A perfect place for outlaws to lie in wait, unseen.
"We got trouble," Zeke said, lifting his shotgun.
Megan didn't have to turn her head. She could see riders approaching them from all directions, clearly aiming to surround the Concord. Slapping the reins, she drove the horses faster, hoping to outrun the men closing in on her.
"It's no use, Miss Megan," Zeke called over the noise of the rattling stage. "I've been through this before. They'll catch us no matter what you do." He got off a shot, but the riders were moving so fast, his bullet was bound to miss its mark.
Megan didn't say anything but urged the team to ever more dangerous speeds. The outlaws raced beside and behind the stage. One reached out and tried to halt the horses, to no avail. Then a shot rang out, and the lead mare dropped to the ground, pummeled and dragged by the other animals until they had no choice but to stop.
As she tugged on the reins to slow the heavy vehicle, Megan yelled for the passengers to stay inside the coach no matter what. She couldn't stop the bandits from halting her stage, she might not even be able to keep them from taking the railroad payroll, but for damn sure she wasn't going to let them hurt her customers.
"Nice to see you again, mister." The man who spoke to Zeke seemed to be the leader. His mount pranced nervously at the scent of blood from the lead mare. "Mind throwing down your weapon?"
Zeke did as he asked without argument.
"You killed my horse, you bastards!" Tired of letting the bandits have the upper hand, Megan reached for her gun. But before she could aim it at any particular target, the pistol flew from her grasp, and a sharp, stinging vibration ran through her fingers.
Damned if one of the bastards hadn't shot the gun right out of her hand! She raised her eyes and glared with icy disdain at the bandit guilty of disarming her. A thin trail of smoke floated up from the barrel of his Colt revolver.
"Must be a new driver," the leader called out. "He thought he could get the drop on us. Nice shot, Luke."
The man named Luke remained silent. Even with a brown bandanna hiding the lower part of his face, Megan could see cold disinterest in his blue eyes. He leaned forward in the saddle, an arm lazily draped across the pommel. It seemed to annoy him that he'd even had to remove the Peacemaker from its holster.
Megan stared at him long and hard, memorizing every detail from his pale eyebrows to his scuffed boots. She might not be able to identify all the members of the outlaw band, but she was going to make damn certain she could pick this particular man out of a crowd.
"Throw down the strongbox," the leader commanded.
"Over my dead body," Megan spat.
The leader shrugged. "Don't like to hurt anybody if I can help it, but since you seem so determined, I'd be happy to oblige." He raised his gun and aimed it at Megan's heart.
"Just throw down the damn box!" the man named Luke called out.
His voice sounded tense, and Megan wondered why he should care whether she was killed or not. She stood and pushed Zeke across the seat and out of harm's way. With a clearer view of the leader, she put her hands on her hips and lifted her chin a notch. "Over my dead body," she said again.
"Christ, this one's a real pain in the ass." The leader cocked the hammer of his pistol and pulled the trigger.
Megan held her breath and waited for the searing pain to rip through her body. After a second, she realized the bullet hadn't hit her. He had only shot her hat off.
Lucas cursed under his breath when the shot rang out. He thought for sure Evan planned to kill the boy, or at least make him wish he were dead.
"Son of a bitch!" another member of the gang yelled. "He's a woman!"
When a veil of midnight-black hair fell around the driver's shoulders. Lucas lost his train of thought. The hot July sun brought out streaks of auburn in the waist-length mass, and its owner's brown eyes shone with angry defiance. Damn it, the chit had more brass than brains. Didn't she know better than to hassle a gang of gunmen?
The woman grabbed her Stetson from the shotgun rider's lap and shoved it back on her head. She turned to Evan and straightened her spine, once again ready to do battle.
"Frank," Evan said, "take care of her, will you?"
"Right, Ev." Frank swung a lasso above his head and tossed it around the girl's slight frame, quickly tightening the rope so that her arms were pinned to her sides. Dismounting lazily, he climbed aboard the Concord and plucked her from the stage, dangling her in the crook of his arm. With his free hand, he loosened her gun belt and let it fall to the ground.
"Let me down, you son of a bitch! I'll see you all hanged for this, I swear to God."
Frank simply got back on his horse, redistributing her weight on his arm.
Hanging upside down, she continued ranting. Lucas couldn't contain a chuckle at her colorful language.
"Okay, old man," Evan said. "We'll take that money off your hands, and you and the passengers can go about your business. Dougie, unhitch that dead horse so these people can be on their way."
Zeke didn't move as one of the bandits climbed up behind him and dragged the heavy black strongbox from the stage. When they all began moving away from the Concord, he cleared his throat and asked, "What about Miss Megan?"
"Well, seeing how Miss Megan here gave us so much trouble, I think we'll be taking her with us for now." Without giving the man time to argue, Evan raised his gun and fired several shots into the air, spurring the horses forward and causing Zeke to struggle with the reins to regain control of the team.
"Tommy, you take the money. Frank, keep a tight grip on that little gal. Everything taken care of?" he asked, looking around the area of their latest robbery. When no one said anything, he continued. "Good enough. Let's go."
They started out at a brisk pace but soon had to slow due to the weight of the strongbox and the struggles of one Miss Megan Adams.
Maybe his luck wasn't so bad after all, Lucas thought, allowing a smile to spread behind the cover of his bandanna. So this spitfire was Megan Adams. Imagine that.
In his letter, Brandt had been adamant that the Union Pacific Railroad suspected the Adams Express proprietress of being involved in the robberies. Not just involved, Lucas amended, but likely the ring leader. As me head of railroad security, Brandt was damn sure Megan Adams was feeding information to the bandits, telling them when and where it would be easiest to rob the stages of the payrolls being transported to the railroad office in Atchison. The problem was, since she'd seen his face before, Brandt could hardly infiltrate the gang for proof of Adam's complicity.
Lucas had thought he would have to gain information from the outlaws first and then go after Megan Adams, but as fate would have it, she'd fallen right into his lap. Yes, this assignment was coming along better than he'd hoped.
Why, though, had Megan been driving the stage? It was odd enough for a female to be running her own business.
Lucas looked at the woman slung over the front of Frank's saddle. They were less than half a mile from the band's hideout, and it seemed that she'd quit fighting. So perhaps there had been a reason for her to drive the stage today.
He shook his head. Of course. That hellfire-and-damnation rant had all been an act, contrived to convince everyone that Megan was being taken against her will, when in reality she had planned to meet up with her cohorts.
Any other time, Lucas would have considered the idea far-fetched. But Brandt had sounded quite certain that Megan Adams was involved with the robberies. And why else would she have driven the stage? Why else would Evan decide to take Megan when he had, by his own admission, never before taken a hostage? Besides, if Brandt believed Miss Adams guilty, that was enough for Lucas. The sooner he wrapped this up, the better. He had more important things to do than save a few bucks for the bigwigs who owned the railroad.
It was bad enough that he'd been saddled with this pack of bandits. He'd never seen such empty-headed idiots before. They used their real names in front of their victims, only covered their faces when they remembered to, and had accepted him as a new member of their gang much too quickly for his peace of mind. The only one who had a lick of sense was Frank, and he was down-right intimidating. Frank was mean enough and tough enough to get out of any situation--his many scars attested to that.
Single file, the horses threaded through a thick patch of trees and undergrowth until a small, slanted shanty came into view. The men dismounted, tethered their mounts, and went inside. Lantern light made the place seem livable, but it also illuminated the dirt and grime that covered the plank floor.
Megan walked into the shack on her own, guided only by Frank's hand pressing into her back. She looked around, wondering how six people--five rather large men and one fair-to-middling woman--were supposed to be comfortable in such a tiny space.
"This is nice," she said sarcastically.
"We like it," Evan replied.
The men still wore their bandannas over their noses and mouths. Megan noticed and commented, half hoping they would opt to keep them on so she wouldn't have to see their faces. She didn't have much hope that they would be easy to look at.
"Yeah, Ev. We don't gotta keep these dang things on, do we?"
Evan cocked an eyebrow, holding Megan's gaze. "Nope. Our little prisoner here won't be telling anybody who we are. Will you, Meggie?"
"Of course not," she answered. She had no intention of describing these men to anyone--except Marshal Thompson, the Leavenworth Daily Times, and the Kansas Weekly Herald.
But now that the outlaws were revealing themselves to her, she had to do some serious planning on how to get away. She wasn't naive enough to think they would let her live after she'd seen their faces.
Evan pulled his red handkerchief down around his neck and gave Megan an engaging smile. She had been fully prepared for the outlaw leader to resemble the back end of a bull moose. Instead she faced a handsome, dark-haired man with sparkling brown eyes. Without a doubt, Dougie was Evan's younger brother. They had the same chestnut hair and high cheekbones.
Frank made Megan's skin crawl. His black hair fell far past his shoulders in matted tangles. She thought the ends might have dangled into his supper on more than one occasion. A scar circled his neck, but she wasn't close enough to determine if it had been caused by the blade of a knife or an uncomfortably tight rope. Either way, he had escaped from some sort of deadly trouble. Megan made a note to avoid Frank as much as possible.
Tommy seemed to be about Dougie's age--sixteen, if she didn't miss her guess. Hair the color of summer wheat tumbled into green eyes filled with adolescent excitement.
And then there was Luke, the one who had shot the pistol right out of her hand. He was a good shot, she'd give him that much. He hadn't so much as nicked her with that little trick. His bandanna remained over the bottom half of his face.
When he noticed her gaze upon him, he gave a wink and tugged the brown material down over the bridge of his nose, the pale pink of full lips, and the slope of a strong chin in need of a shave. Megan swallowed and lifted her eyes back up to his. They shimmered like chips of ice melting in the hot summer sun. Oh, yes, she would remember him.
"Have a seat, will you, Meggie?" Evan waved to the four chairs surrounding a lopsided table. "No sense acting like complete strangers, now is there?"
Megan arranged one of the chairs at an angle so she could keep the whole room in view. Frank leaned over, lifted the table, and pulled a deck of cards out from under a leg. The table thudded back to the floor, teetering precariously.
"Deal me in." Dougie straddled a chair and rested his elbows on the table, which then slanted to the other side.
"We need some grub," Frank said, but he made no move to do anything about it.
Evan nodded. "Tom, Luke, you go into town and see what you can find. Take money from the strongbox if you need it."
Tommy bent over and shook the padlock.
"Don't bother," Luke said in a low voice. "I've got some cash on me. No sense getting into that yet."
"I agree," Evan said. "After we get a bite to eat, we'll divvy it up."
"No hurry." Luke shrugged. "It's not like we're going anywhere for a while."
Evan chuckled. "Right. Luke's the sensible one," he pointed out for Megan's benefit. "Glad you came along, Luke. Mighty glad."
Megan watched the door close behind the two men, then turned her attention to the game of poker going on at the scarred, lopsided table. Frank raised a booted foot to rest on one corner, and the spur dug deeply into the wood. Well, now she knew how the surface had gotten so scratched, Megan thought a moment before asking to play.
"Think we got enough supplies here?" Tom asked, glancing down at the two sacks of fruit and meat and cheese in his arms.
Lucas didn't answer but kept his eyes on the scraggly black gelding standing in front of the makeshift saloon of Cubilo del Diablo. Why the town just outside Leavenworth carried that name, Lucas would never know. He hadn't seen that many Mexicans in residence. But then, the outlaw crowd of Diablo stuck around about as long as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Lucas stopped in the middle of the street and handed me overburdened Tom the sack of bread and eggs he'd been carrying. "Take this to the horses. I'll be right, back."
"Where ya goin'?" the boy asked.
Lucas ignored him. When he reached the gelding, he ran a hand over its rump, stroking the ridge of a long, straight scar. The hair hadn't grown back after the injury.
Lucas clamped his jaw shut. He adjusted his hat to conceal his face and took slow, sure steps as he made his way into the saloon, keeping his eyes down the entire time. The press of customers inside the small building made it easy for Lucas to sidle up to the bar and remain inconspicuous.
"What'll ya have?" The bartender yelled over the roar of voices.
"Five bottles of your strongest whiskey," he said over his shoulder, holding up his fingers for the man to count. He kept the brim of his hat low and scanned the room.
Disappointment rushed through his veins when he didn't find what he was looking for. And then he heard a bark of laughter. His eyes narrowed as he focused on a table near the stairs.
A group of scantily clad women clustered around the occupant of that table. A dusty black hat sat atop the customer's head. His black beard held a hint of white that hadn't been there when this all began.
Hatred, thick and vile, pooled in Lucas's gut. He hated this man with every fiber of his being. With every thought, with every motion, with every breath, he wanted this man dead. And Lucas intended to see it done.
But not here. Too many people. He wanted to kill Silas Scott out in the open, where the man would have nowhere to run, no one to interfere. He wanted to make the bastard beg for mercy.
Lucas turned around. "Who's in charge of the girls?" he asked the barkeep.
"Gracie." He arched a thumb in her direction. "End of the bar."
"Watch the whiskey for me, will you?" Lucas said.
Gracie turned out to be a large, flaxen-haired woman with exceptional hearing. "Lookin' for me, hon?" she asked, keeping her eyes on the group of girls surrounding Silas Scott.
"Then, I'm lookin' for you. Do you usually let that many of your girls work on one customer?" Lucas asked, making sure he honored her position as the saloon's madam.
"One customer doesn't usually throw money around the way he's been doin'." Gracie stuck out her ample bosom, which looked ready to pop from the tight white satin camisole she wore. "What's it to you?"
"Well, I've got a proposition for you. If you're interested, that is." Lucas knew that if it involved money, she would be interested.
She slanted her eyes in his direction but didn't answer.
"I'd like you to keep that man entertained for a while."
"I have a feeling he's going to be plenty entertained."
Lucas chuckled. "Yes, I imagine so. But, you see, I'd like you to keep him entertained until I get back."
"I take it you don't want him to know."
Gracie shrugged a plump shoulder.
"You get your girls--as many as it takes--to keep him liquored up, and I'll make it worth your while."
"How worth my while?"
"Very. I'll pay for the whiskey and the girls. Double."
"You mean you're willin' to pay me twice what it costs to get him drunk and happy?"
"That's right. All you have to do is make sure he stays here till I can get back"
"What're you gonna do then? I don't want you stainin' my sheets with blood or nothin'. That stuff's a real bitch to get out."
"No blood. As soon as I get back, you can go about your business and let him leave the saloon."
"That's it? I'm supposed to go to all the trouble of keepin' him here and then just let him leave?"
"Yep. I'll take care of the rest."
Lucas and Grade both watched as Silas stood and started none too steadily up the stairs, flanked by a blonde and a redhead.
"Looks like he's about to be entertained," Gracie said.
"And you're about to make a great deal of money."