The Outlaw's Lady



THE OUTLAW’S LADY
GINA DUNCAN
Copyright © 2012
Chapter One


Montana Territory, 1875

Cora Belle Talon was a beautiful young woman with only one problem at this point in her life, or so she thought as she moved around in the dark room with the light of a single burning candle. She had always hated the dark, but if she was going to leave, she’d have to do it in the middle of the night while her stepmother Olivia slept. Otherwise she wouldn’t get away. She thought that her father’s murder was the worst thing that could ever happen to her, but now being forced to run away from her home, the only home she’d ever known, might actually turn out to be the worst thing to ever happen to her.
She had no idea of where she would go or what she would do once she got there. The only thing she had ever done was take care of her father, cooking for him and keeping the house. All she knew now was that she had to get as far away from home as possible. She was trying not to think about being out in the open in the dark all alone. She knew if she did, she’d probably change her mind about leaving altogether.
She was dressed in her father’s old clothes and boots. They were a little big on her, and she had tied the britches to keep them up. The boots were also a little big, but there was nothing she could do about it. She had pinned her long blonde hair up and stuffed it under his old hat. Looking in the mirror to be sure it was all hidden beneath the old hat, she was finally convinced she looked more like the young boy she was pretending to be than the woman she had become.
Cora crept to Olivia’s room to make sure the woman was asleep then pulled the door quietly closed as she made her way back to her room to get the satchel of clothes she had already packed and hidden beneath her bed earlier today while Olivia was out somewhere. Taking that and the candle, she made her way to the kitchen where she wrapped some bread in a cloth. She quickly looked around to see what else she could take with her. She wasn’t sure how long it would be before she found a town as far away from this one as she could get, or how long it would take her to get settled once she was there. She didn’t have any money for a coach—not that Olivia or Donavan would let her get on one if she did in the first place.
She headed for the back door then remembered she’d forgotten her locket lying on the dresser in her room. Making her way back there and grabbing it, she placed the chain around her neck. Seeing the portrait of her parents sitting there on the dresser, she grabbed it as well and hurried back to the satchel waiting for her at the back door, stuffing it inside.
Carrying the candle and satchel, she made her way out to the barn where her father’s brown mare was prancing in her stable as if she knew something was afoot.
“It’s all right, girl.” Cora soothed her hand over the mare’s nose after she set the candle and satchel down. She thanked God that her father had taught her how to saddle a horse and to ride when she was a little girl.
She pulled the stool to the mare’s side so she could reach her, throwing the blanket over her back then the saddle, and then stepped down to fasten the cinch beneath of it. She pulled on the horn to make sure she had the saddle tight enough, and then she grabbed the bit and bridle, slipping them into place. She led the mare out of the stable, bringing her closer to the rail, and then tied the satchel to the saddle. She blew the candle out, leaving them in the dark except for the moon that was shining through the open barn doors, and then used the rail to climb onto the mare’s back.
It was a shame her father didn’t own a gun and she’d never learned how to shoot one, she thought. It would sure make her feel a little safer right now if she had one.
She was running from an unwanted marriage to the man she just knew in her heart had killed her father, but had no way to prove it since the sheriff was in the man’s back pocket. Olivia hadn’t even believed her and couldn’t wait until after the funeral to tell Cora that she was going to be marrying her off as soon as possible.
“All right, girl, it looks like it’s just you and me, and this god-awful darkness.” She patted the mare on the side of the neck as she leaned down to make her way out the barn doors.
She wasn’t so sure that leaving home was the right thing to do, yet staying home to marry Donavan Carlyle would have been worse than what she was going through right now. Not really knowing which way she should head, but knowing at least enough not to head toward town and the horrid man she was running from, she headed in the opposite direction.
Heading northwest from Hellgate Valley toward French Town, she knew the terrain wouldn’t be easy. She’d have to cross a high range to reach it at some point, but it would be her best choice. She could have headed south to Bitter Root, but knew that would be the first place Donavan and Olivia would look for her because it was the easier route. At least going to French Town would be easier than trying to head east toward Bears Town. If she had chosen that way, she knew the canyon there was at least forty miles in length with a range less lofty than those on the west, but she would also have to cross over the Hellgate River, which was quite deep in most places considering several streams poured into it. The largest of the streams was the Big Blackfoot, but she would also have to worry about an Indian ambush. They had already heard of fur hunters and trappers being ambushed along that trail just trying to make it to Hellgate Valley.
Cora had ridden slowly for most of the night over the hills and ridges, being careful not to injure the mare or herself. She kept to the shadows, being as quiet as she possibly could. She also kept an eye out for Indians and was always looking back to make sure she hadn’t been followed. It was almost too much. She’d never been out on her own before, and it was scarier than she thought it would be when she’d come up this plan. She wasn’t sure how much farther she or the mare would make it, and now that it was starting to get a little light out, she decided she was far enough away from home to stop for a little while and maybe eat a bite or two of the bread she had brought with her. Sliding off the mare’s back, she then grabbed the reins and led her to a low-hanging branch next to Bitter Root River and tied the reins to it. She thought it’d be best to leave the saddle on, just in case she had to move fast. Cora untied the satchel and pulled out the blanket she’d brought with her. Spreading it out on the ground and sitting down, she pulled the bread out. Looking around, she was sure she was hidden pretty well in the trees behind a fairly big ridge. She felt secure enough after eating a few bites, and she decided to lie down for a little while to see if she could rest.
She must have fallen asleep because she was awoken suddenly by the sounds of gunfire. Sitting up, she began looking around to see where she was and trying to identify where the shots were coming from. The best she could tell, they sounded as if they were coming from the other side of the ridge she was resting behind.
Holding on to twigs and rocks jutting out from the side of the ridge, she climbed and pulled herself to the top to peer over, trying to be as quiet as possible, not knowing who or what was on the other side. She almost cried out when she saw what looked like a nightmare in progress before her. It looked as if there were at least five or six dead men lying on the ground in their own blood. There were five men getting off their horses. All were dressed from head to toe in black, and they even wore black masks to cover the lower halves of their faces. She watched as they began moving around the dead men. They were using the toes of their black boots to nudge the men on the ground.
To make sure they were dead, Cora was sure, and a shiver ran down her spine. She put a shaking hand to her mouth to keep from crying out for fear of being discovered and murdered the same way. She tried to move as quietly as a mouse back down the ridge so she could repack her things and get on her mare before she was discovered. She felt like cursing when rocks and pebbles began to slide down the ridge, making a soft rumbling sound. She stopped suddenly and prayed the masked men were too far away to hear something as soft as the pebbles. She quickly peeked back over the top of the ridge, watching as one of the masked men looked up at where she was hiding. Cora prayed a little harder that she was too small and far away to be seen by the murderer.
She lay there watching until he turned away, and then she slid as quietly and as quickly as she could back to the ground, going to her blanket and satchel. She began rolling up her blanket, stuffing it back into the satchel. Walking softly and quietly, trying to avoid any fallen leaves or sticks the best she could, she made her way back to where she had left the mare tied to the small branch next to the river. She tied the satchel to the saddle and led the mare to where a log had fallen so that she could mount once again.
Cora was glad that she had been far enough away that she couldn’t see the faces of the dead men. She just knew their dead stares would have brought her nightmares for months to come. After all, it hadn’t been that long ago that she’d found her own father lying in a puddle of his own blood. His empty, glassy eyes staring up still haunted her. All at once she began to worry…what if the man who’d looked up at the ridge had actually seen her? Would he come after her now? Would they kill her, too?
She wondered if she should try to make it to French Town quickly and try to find a lawman to tell what she had seen, but if she did, then she would be right back to where she had started from. They’d want to know who she was and what she was doing out along Bitter Root River all alone. Would they return her to Olivia and Donavan? God, what should she do? Trying to put as much distance between herself and the outlaws as possible.
Still, she couldn’t ride very fast or hard until she was clear of some of these larger ridges, but once she was clear of them and some of the thick woods, she’d make better time. She just had to.

* * * *

Royce Wilkason looked to the top of the ridge when he heard the rocks sliding down. There had only been a few, and they hadn’t made enough noise to catch everyone’s attention, but he had grown used to listening for every sound and movement to keep them all safe. He knew someone must have been up there watching. He hadn’t seen anyone, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. He could almost sense someone watching them. He knew someone had seen them, but whom? Yeah, there was no denying that they’d killed these men, but not in cold blood. These men had been sent to do a job, and they’d done it pretty well by the looks of his ranch, broken fences, and dead cattle. He’d almost bet they were the same men that tried to burn their barn down just a few nights ago. Anyone just seeing this fight, though, would think he and his men had chased these men down without any rights and outright killed them. Looking from his brother and hired ranch hands back to the top of the ridge, and knowing there was only one safe pass off that ridge, he knew how to get just ahead of the person who’d been up there, if there had been anyone. He knew he couldn’t take any chances as he turned back to his men.
“See if they have anything that can help us learn who’s doing all this to us, and then we need to get out of here before anymore of his damn men show up,” he said, looking around.
He hated knowing what they had to resort to, what they had become just to survive and keep what belonged to them. At least what rightfully belonged to him and his younger brother, Seth. The other three men were their hired hands. They had been hired to help run their cattle and horse ranch, not to have to kill men. They didn’t mind doing the killing so much anymore, not since their livelihood was threatened, too. If there was no ranch, no cattle, and no horses, there would be no work.
There wasn’t enough head of cattle left now as it was to do much of anything with. Luckily for them, the men had at least got the horses out of the barn before they’d lost any of them. Since whoever it was that wanted their ranch had come along, they’d all had to learn to do things they never thought they would. The man sure wasn’t stopping at anything to get what he wanted. He wasn’t even above murder, Royce realized, when men started shooting at them as they tried to repair the barn that had been half burned down. Hell, they’d even killed a couple of the horses today. When they returned home today, they were going to have to work on the fencing so that head of cattle and horses they did have left wouldn’t get out. The barn would have to wait until after that.
There wasn’t much law about, and what there was certainly wasn’t any help. They were too afraid to leave town to come anywhere near the Flathead Indian Reservation, which was just beyond Royce and Seth’s ranch. Royce was also beginning to wonder if whoever wanted his land owned the law as well. That would certainly be a better reason for the law not to want to come to his ranch. The Flathead Indians had been quite friendly and never gave him any problems. Now their only hope to keep what was theirs and stay alive long enough to find out who was doing all this, and hopefully get enough on the man to take it to the marshal was to kill whoever came after them first. So, dressing as outlaws themselves and killing the men that were sent to kill them or run them off was the only way they had to stay alive and keep what was theirs until they found out a way to stop the bastard.
“Take whatever you find, split up, and head back to the ranch. I’ll meet you there to see if we found anything worth taking to the marshal,” Royce said, slipping the Colt back into the low-hanging holster at his side. He slipped the mask off his face, sheathed his Winchester, and then mounted his black stallion. He removed his hat to wipe at the sweat beading on his forehead.
“Hey, where are you going?” Seth called after him.
“I’ll see you at home. There’s something I need to do. Just be careful and keep out of sight,” Royce said, placing his black gambler hat back atop his head.
Royce waited until Seth nodded his head, and then he took off across the plane headed toward the tree line. He had to know who was up there watching them. Was it the man gunning for them or maybe a spy for the bastard? He’d question whoever it was, and if necessary, kill them. He knew there was someone there. He just couldn’t shake the feeling coming over him. He’d felt their eyes on him, watching and waiting.
He rode hard to be ahead of whoever it was then looked around until he found a place among the trees to hide. He wasn’t about to be discovered and have any of them hung as outlaws when they were all good men just trying to survive. For their own good, he could only pray it was only his imagination and not a spy or the man himself. He hated to have to kill men over cattle, horses, and land, but what else could he do? He was worried enough about Seth, who was starting to behave as if he liked living as an outlaw. No, he decided he couldn’t let that happen. It had to end soon.
Royce heard someone coming before he actually saw them. He smiled to himself, knowing someone had been up there on that ridge watching them. He was filled with apprehension, not knowing what he was going to be facing. Had there been more than one person up on that ridge? He didn’t think so. He hadn’t really felt threatened, and yet that feeling of dread lingered. A chill ran up his spine as the person came into view. It was a feeling he’d never had before and never wanted to feel again. The person didn’t look big enough to be too much of a problem. More like a young boy lost or out to make a name for himself. He didn’t like the thought of having to hurt someone so small, or so young. Maybe he could just frighten the boy a little, put a good scare into the young lad, and he’d learn not to go around spying on people.



Chapter Two


Cora didn’t see the other rider hidden among the trees until it was too late, and then she only felt a hand reach out, yanking her off the mare’s back. She screamed as she fell from the horse, until the impact of the hard ground knocked the air out of her. The next thing she knew, someone heavy was on top of her. They began struggling around on the ground so much so that her hat came off, letting all her blonde hair slip from the pins, coming free to tangle in the leaves and branches on the ground.
The man was looking down at her with shock on his face. He hadn’t been expecting a woman, and then he shook his head as if to clear it, and she wondered if he thought he was just seeing things. Probably suspicious as to why she was out here in the woods all alone.
“You’re just a damn girl,” he said, just above a whisper.
“I’m not a girl. I’m a woman. Were you expecting a mountain lion? Get off of me. What are you trying to do? Kill me or something, you…you—” Cora didn’t know what else to say as she looked up into his face. Seeing the black gambler hat on his head then the black clothes he was wearing, she knew it was one of the outlaws she’d seen earlier, minus the mask. She couldn’t help but wonder if he was going to kill her now. Her body trembled with the thought. Why else would he have attacked her in the first place if he didn’t mean her bodily harm, and why was the heat of his body beginning to make her own betray her as she took in his appearance.
She couldn’t help but notice that his hair was light brown and shoulder length with curly waves. She recognized him as being the tallest of all the men she’d seen earlier, with a slightly larger build. He had a mustache the same color of his hair that seemed to hang down a little farther than most men’s, on the sides of a very handsome, rugged face. He didn’t look anything like she thought an outlaw would look, but then again, she’d never met one before Donavan Carlyle came along. She wasn’t sure she could even consider Donavan an outlaw. He was more like a gentleman murderer. He was kind to a person’s face and a snake to their backs.
Donavan dressed like a fancy, well-educated man, and even spoke like one. Then she found out the truth one day as she overheard him with some strange men talking about taking land and possessions that didn’t rightfully belong to him, but it didn’t matter. He wanted it and so he’d take it. Then he wanted her. Just the thought of it had made her shudder, and then thinking about his hands on her almost made her physically ill.
Why didn’t this outlaw make her feel the same way? Why did this stranger’s hands make her feel warm and tingly in places she’d never even thought about? She wasn’t sure why, but she found herself wanting to know what color his eyes were as her own made their way back up to his handsome face. She looked into his eyes, as green as the grass around them. She couldn’t help but stare at his face. He was so handsome he nearly took her breath away. It was frightening. Why do you have to be a killer? I could fall in love with eyes like yours. She shook her head to clear that thought.
The man was looking at her again as if he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
“I certainly wasn’t expecting a girl. What the hell are you doing here alone? Don’t you know you can get yourself killed sneaking up on people like that?” he yelled, looking down at her. “Why were you watching us?” He offered his hand as he slowly moved his weight off the top of her. “Are you all right? Can you stand? I didn’t know you were a girl, or I wouldn’t have yanked you off your horse.”
Why was he trying to apologize to her? Was it only because she was a woman? He waited as she placed her hand in his and tried to stand, screaming out as she put weight down on her left leg.
She couldn’t believe the pain that was shooting through her leg and feared she’d fall any moment or faint from the tremendousness of it, and then he bent slightly, swinging her up into his arms. When they turned, her mare was nowhere to be seen. She thought it must have been frightened and taken off during their scuffle.
Even in this state, she found that she liked the feeling of being in his arms. It was a strange feeling and one she knew she shouldn’t feel for a stranger, especially an outlaw. Then he smiled as she slipped her arms around his neck, holding on tightly. His arms were hard and firm, and the heat his body radiated to hers warmed her as nothing else ever had. She knew if she hadn’t been wearing those boyish clothes and hat, none of this would have happened. He probably wouldn’t even have let her know he was there. He might have followed her to see where she was headed to and to make sure she didn’t go anywhere near the law. He certainly wouldn’t have yanked her from her horse. He whistled for his horse, and the big black stallion emerged from the trees, walking up to his side. He swung her up on its back then climbed on behind her, pulling her back against him.
“What are you doing?” she demanded to know as he held her there.
“Just holding on to you, ma’am, so you don’t fall off.”
She tried to move slightly away from him, but she seemed to be making matters worse.
“I can assure you that I don’t plan on falling off,” she sneered, afraid of what was going to happen to her once they got where they were going.
“Then you’re riding with me to keep you from jumping off and running away before I find out who you are, what you saw. Then we need to find out just how badly you’re injured.”
“I wouldn’t be injured at all if you hadn’t attacked me in the first place. Why don’t you just walk the horse and let me ride alone.”
“Nah, I think I’d rather ride right here behind you. Besides, it’s my horse.” He laughed.
“I was going to put you on your own horse, but it seems to have taken off. Since we have a bit of a ride ahead of us, why don’t you tell me who you are and exactly what it is you’re doing out here all alone?” he asked as he guided the horse through the trees at a leisurely pace.
Where was he taking her that they would have a bit of a ride? Did he plan to take her to town? Would Donavan be there waiting for her? She knew he traveled from town to town insuring the help of the law there by paying them. She really had no idea where she was heading. She just wanted as far away from Donavan and Olivia as she could possibly get. Was this outlaw going to question her as to why she was watching them from the ridge and want to know exactly what she saw? She knew he couldn’t let her go running to the law. They’d definitely hang him and his men if she did. He couldn’t just let her go. She’d seen his face now.
He was heading west, going the long way around French Town, and staying to the trees. Was he also avoiding town for any certain reason? He didn’t know anyone would be looking for her, so he wasn’t avoiding town on her account. No. He didn’t want anyone from town seeing him, she decided. She also knew he had no intention of letting her go until she was convinced not to go to the law. He didn’t know that he didn’t have to worry about her going anywhere near the law around here. Most were working for Donavan. But then again, what would she do if he decided to hold her hostage or kill her to keep her quiet?
Cora’s face felt hot and flaming. She’d die of embarrassment if he could see her face and know what she was thinking. With each sway of the horse, her buttocks caressed back and forth across something hard, and growing harder. She tried to take her mind off it, but was finding it hard to do.
They were riding through the woods instead of the planes. It was a rougher ride, and that was why their bodies were shifting back and forth so much. She hoped that they were getting closer to flat land, so the ride wouldn’t be as bad, or rough. Riding this way was almost torture, a torture she hoped would end soon and one she hoped to never have to endure again.
Cora could hear the smile in his voice every time he suggested she remain where she was and stop squirming, and it inflamed her. Did he know what she was thinking or what she was feeling? She wanted to turn and slap the smile she knew was there off his handsome, smug face. How dare he manhandle her this way? Just who did he think he was? What angered her most was that he seemed to know what his hard body was doing to her. Her only salvation would be to know that he was feeling just as tortured, and she could only pray so.
They rode until she was sure she would die from the pain in her leg or the embarrassment of what his body was doing to hers. Not to mention that every muscle in her body was already sore from all the riding she’d already done just to be far enough away from home by the time Olivia woke up and found her gone. Then there was that certain part of him poking at her every time the horse caused her to move. She tried moving forward away from him again, but he held her tightly against him as he groaned.
Cora watched as the house came closer into view. It was a beautiful, white, two-story home with a porch that looked as if it went all the way around the house. There was a swing suspended from the rafters of the porch on the left side of the front door. She could see lace curtains in all the windows on the lower floor of the house, and it made her wonder if he had a wife waiting here for him. She felt almost jealous thinking of him holding another woman in his arms. She saw roses growing across the ground at the front of the porch in three different colors. They were so beautiful, and she could even smell them from where she sat on the back of the black stallion.
The man behind her called out in his rough yet smooth-as-silk voice to someone named Seth. Cora watched, full of apprehension, as a handsome man came walking out of the front door, headed right toward them, followed by three other men. She stared at the door, waiting for a woman to emerge, but when none came she turned her attention back to the men. The last man that came out the door seemed to be the shortest among them, yet he had a stocky build. Royce pointed to each man and said their names. Lee was menacing looking dressed in all that black, and even though he had his hair pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck, it was still long and as black as the clothes he wore. His skin was a little darker than the rest of the men, and she thought that he might be part Mexican. She felt frightened as he turned his face up to look at her. His face was covered with the same black hair, and it was long enough that it reached the middle of his chest. A mustache covered his upper lip, so the only thing that was really visible was his eyes—eyes that seemed almost as black as the rest of him. She shivered as she stared at him in spite of herself, but was glad that it hadn’t been him that had yanked her from her horse. He seemed to be a cold, hard man. It would be hard to like him even on a good day.
Next to him stood a tall, slim man with short black hair named Jericho. He also had a mustache the same black color, but his eyes looked brown from where she sat. His beard wasn’t as long as Lee’s, but his mustache had also grown into it. There was a younger man next to him, Kris, who was also tall and slim, but he was a lot more handsome than the last two. His hair was long and dark brown, which he kept tied behind his head. He had a neatly trimmed beard and mustache the same color as his hair, and his eyes looked bluish green.
The one named Seth was standing next to the black stallion looking up at them. His hair was blondish-brown and hung to his shoulders. His face was clean-shaven and looked baby smooth. His eyes reminded her of warm, melted chocolate. He was very handsome, and next to the man who was still holding on to her, he was built the stoutest. For some reason, she felt safe as she looked into his chocolate eyes and baby face.
“So where did you find this little treasure? I don’t remember seeing anything like her on my way home,” Seth said as he reached up, taking her into his arms as the strange outlaw handed her off to him.
“Watch her leg, and just don’t you worry about where I found her. Now give her back to me before you break her any worse than I already did,” he demanded, reaching out for her.
Cora looked from one man to the other as she was handed back, and then carried into the house by the man whose body had tortured her all the way here. Looking around, she saw that it was beautifully furnished and wondered if they had killed the owners and just taken the house over for themselves.
“You have a very beautiful home, for an outlaw,” she said, without thinking that she was giving herself away.
Did he already expect her of being the one watching them earlier and now knew she had been? Was that why he smiled down at her a little strangely?
“Thank you, I do try to keep it that way. But do tell me something, ma’am. What makes you think I’m an outlaw?”
Cora wasn’t aware that she’d slipped up until after he spoke. She shrugged her shoulders and tried to pretend not to understand what he was talking about. “I just assumed by the way you attacked me when I was riding along and the way you are all dressed. You certainly don’t look like a farmer,” she answered as he carried her up the stairs. She listened to the sound his spurs made as he climbed each step. Then he walked down a hall and into a room, laying her on the biggest and most comfortable bed she’d ever lain on. She almost sighed with the comfort of the mattress beneath her and the relief of being on something so soft finally.
Once he had her lying on the bed safe and sound, he grabbed the leg of the old work pants she was wearing and ripped them to her thigh.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded in a rush, trying to sit up as he exposed her leg.
“Be still. I’m trying to examine your leg to see how bad you’re hurt.” His voice was deep and demanding as he spoke, and he sounded like a man who always got his way. “Lie still, sweetheart, and I’ll be back in a minute with something to fix your leg up.” He turned to head out of the door, only to stop when she spoke.
“I am not your sweetheart,” she sneered to his back.
He merely laughed then turned back around and disappeared through the door. When he returned a few moments later, he was carrying a bottle of whiskey in one hand and some kind of bandage in the other. He uncorked the bottle with his teeth and held it out to her.
“I suggest you take a drink. You’ll need it, ’cause it’s gonna burn once I pour it on your leg. Take a small sip at first, though. It’s also gonna burn going down your throat.”
“Don’t be silly. I can’t drink that stuff. I have never taken a drink of anything like that in my life, and I don’t plan to start now.”
He laughed as he looked down at her. “It’s only one drink. I’m sure you’ll be just fine. It’s not like I’m trying to get you drunk or somethin’, sweetheart,” he said with another laugh. She knew it had to be because of the look on her face. She was frowning because he’d called her “sweetheart” again. He had to know she didn’t like him calling her by the endearment, and that was probably why he was insisting on doing it.
He hadn’t lied to her about the whiskey burning her throat on the way down. It felt like liquid fire all the way to her toes, not to mention that it took her breath away and made her body shake.
The outlaw took the bottle out of her hand as he shook his head. “I said a small sip first.” Lifting her leg, he held it over some rags then poured the whiskey over it. He winced when a scream escaped her lips. She didn’t believe he had intended to hurt her any more than he already had, but there was no getting past it. Maybe she wouldn’t get a fever in her leg if he got it cleaned and dressed properly.
 “Sorry, but I did tell you it would burn,” he said as he recorked the bottle and sat it on the table next to the bed. He began wrapping the bandage around her leg as tight as he could without hurting her, but tight enough to stop the bleeding.
“Why are you trying to be so nice to me when you go around killing people and stealing their things? You don’t even know who I am or why I was out there.” She looked up to see that he was looking at her with that strange look again.
“I don’t steal or go around just killing people, only the ones that try to kill me first, sweetheart.”
He said the last to try to get a rise out of her again. She knew it but couldn’t help herself. He must have liked it earlier when she mouthed off to him. He was smiling again, so she must have had that look on her face once more.
Cora noticed that his hand was large but gentle as he lifted her hand to his lips to place a kiss across her knuckles.
“Then you won’t mind my asking why you were all wearing masks as if you were trying to hide who you are.”
“No, as a matter of fact I don’t mind. We were busy trying to rebuild our burned-out barn, and if you must know, it’s hard to breathe when you have all the dust and ashes blowing around. Then those men attacked us, tore down some of the fencing around the land, and shot at us, killing a couple of our horses and a few cattle. We didn’t have time to remove the bandanas to go after them, and that’s what you saw. Now you should try to rest. I have a few things to tend to downstairs and a barn to get back to.” He started for the door but stopped to look at her. “I knew that you were the one watching us today from the ridge. I felt you watching, and then I heard you. I just wanted you to know, I’m not the cold-blooded killer you thought I was, sweetheart. Those men were trying to kill us. I simply took care of them first.”
“Are you going to kill me next?” she asked in a hushed voice.
It was a simple question, so why wasn’t he answering it? She knew if she didn’t convince him that she wouldn’t go to the law, if it came to their safety, what choice would he have? She would probably already be dead if she’d been a man. What was he waiting for? Did he have something worse than death planned for her? She watched him, waiting for an answer. He merely shook his head as he turned back toward the door.
“Answer me, damn you—you’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” she screamed.
He turned away before speaking. “Not unless you try to kill me or mine first.” Then he was gone, leaving her there alone. 



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