Wyoming Territory, March 1886
"Watch it, sodbuster!" The drunk cowboy glowered down at Nicki, or what he could see of her. Only faded dungarees and small booted feet were visible beneath the heavy winter coat and wide-brimmed hat. "Don't you know enough to get out of the way when your betters come along?"
Nicki swallowed a retort and stepped away. The man had blundered right into her as she came out of the mercantile, but the last thing she needed was trouble with three cowpokes from the Bar X.
"Hey, boy," said the man's tall, rangy companion. "You owe Shorty an apology."
Nicki gritted her teeth. She'd rather spit in his face. "Sorry," she mumbled.
"We'd best teach this squatter some manners, Buck," the third man said with a sinister smile. "I say we throw him in the horse trough."
Nicki backed up against the wall and watched the three men warily. She wasn't afraid of a dunking, but such things had a tendency to snowball when whiskey was involved, and these men had clearly been drinking a long time. At least they were too drunk to realize they were dealing with a full-grown woman instead of an adolescent boy. Barely five foot tall, Nicki was used to people making that mistake. Even without her heavy coat, the bulky long johns effectively hid her slender figure.
Suddenly one of the cowhands lunged, and Nicki struck out with a small fist. As her assailant clutched his midsection in pain, the third man grabbed her from behind, pinning her arms to her sides. Struggling wildly, she soon realized it was impossible to escape that way.
She slumped in apparent defeat and waited while the other cowboy approached. When he was a mere two feet away Nicki leaned back and swung her foot up in a vicious kick. Taken unaware, the man holding her stumbled backward as his friend howled in agony when the boot connected with his knee. But it wasn't enough and Nicki knew it.
Her heart thumped wildly in her chest as the two she'd injured picked themselves up and headed for her. Desperately, she fought the hands that held her but to no avail. Nothing but a miracle could save her now.
"All right, gentlemen, I think you've had enough fun for one day." The four combatants froze at the sound of a rifle being cocked. "Let the boy go."
Nicki twisted around in surprise. The voice belonged to a complete stranger. Standing well over six feet, his bulk seemed to fill the doorway of the mercantile. A full beard hid his expression but the blue-gray eyes glinted dangerously as he stepped forward onto the boardwalk. His appearance was nearly as menacing as the rifle he held pointed at the man restraining Nicki.
"Now, Mister," said one of the cowboys, lifting his hands. "You don't understand what's going on. This here is my little brother. He snuck off to town, and Pa sent my friends and me to fetch him home."
"He doesn't seem to want to go with you."
"That's because he was planning on going to the saloon and gettin' himself a woman," Nicki's captor replied.
All at once Nicki found her voice. "That's not true. I..." A hand was clamped over her mouth before she could finish.
The cowboy holding her smiled nervously. "He's a lyin' little brat too." He yelped as Nicki sank her teeth into his hand. "Why you little..." He raised the injured hand to cuff his captive, then froze as the rifle barrel jabbed into the underside of his jaw.
"Somehow I find it hard to believe he's your brother," Levi said. "Now, are you going to let him go, or am I going to have to get nasty?"
Nicki was released, and all three men backed away. "What business is it of yours whether he's my brother or not?"
"Let's just say I don't like the odds." Her savior patted his rifle. "My Winchester and I even them up." He glanced down at Nicki. "Can you shoot this?"
Nicki took the rifle from his hands and fired it once, making a clean hole through one of the cowboy's hats and sending it flying into the street. She ejected the shell and looked up at him.
He grinned. "That answers my question. Is that your wagon in front of the store?" Nicki nodded again, and he squeezed her shoulder. "Good. Keep these sidewinders covered while I go get it."
In a matter of minutes, the wagon rattled to a stop beside Nicki and she felt the large, comforting presence next to her once more.
"Well, son, I've had enough excitement for one day. What do you say we leave these gentlemen to find other entertainment and be on our way?"
With a nod, Nicki handed him the gun. Barely glancing at the big bay mare tied to the back, she climbed into the wagon, picked up the reins and waited for him to join her. Then, with a sharp snap of the reins across the rumps of the horses, they headed out of town.
"Friends of yours?" he asked.
Nicki snorted. "Not hardly. They're two-bit cowpokes from the Bar X Ranch." She glanced at her companion. Without the steely glint in his eyes he wasn't nearly as intimidating. "I'm sorry you had to get involved in that."
He shrugged. "Looked to me like you were doing all right. If there'd been one less of them I'd have probably had to save the other two from you."
She was vaguely embarrassed by the compliment. "Well ... thanks anyway."
"Glad I could help out. By the way, the name's Levi Cantrell."
"Pleased to meet you, Nicki." With a friendly smile, Levi extended his hand to her. The large callused palm was pleasantly warm as it closed over Nicki's smaller one. In spite of his size, there was something reassuring about his ready smile and twinkling eyes.
"It'll be late when we get home. Would you like to stay for supper?" Nicki asked impulsively.
"Maybe you should ask your mother first."
"Don't have one, and I do the cooking," Nicki said sharply, her gaze fixed on the road ahead. "It's the least I can do. Besides, Papa will want to meet you."
"In that case, I accept," he said with a smile. Pulling out his bag of tobacco, Levi glanced back at his companion. He knew all too well what it was like to grow up without a mother. His own had died when he was barely two, and he'd been nearly thirteen before his father remarried.
Levi rolled himself a cigarette, licked the edge, twisted the ends and stuck it in his mouth. At any rate, a home-cooked meal would be a welcome change from his usual fare of beans over the campfire even if it meant another cold night under the stars. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a match and struck it on the wagon seat. With a satisfied sigh, he relaxed and bid an unlamented farewell to his thoughts of a hot bath and soft bed at the saloon.