Red Muldoon was a huge, bear of a man. A thick, dirty mane of red hair crowned his head, an equally thick red beard covered the scars on his face, and tufts of hair poked out of a too-tight prison shirt. Barrel-chested, with tree trunk limbs and meaty hands, he had killed several men by shear brute strength and had never feared anything or anyone. Now he found himself riding furiously trying to save his own life.
He had killed three prison guards while making his break, stopping long enough only to grab their weapons and a horse, and he knew that he could kill any of the other guards if they were foolish enough to follow him. It wasn't them he was afraid of...it was the man he knew they would send after him. The bounty hunter who waited for rewards offered on outlaws to reach one thousand dollars before his interest was piqued. The man who kept just inside the line of the law and killed just as mercilessly as the men he hunted.
The name alone sent an unaccustomed chill down Muldoon's spine despite the scorching heat of the late summer sun. He let out a rumbling growl and spurred his stolen mount harder, ignoring the lather that caked its sides and the milky froth bubbling from its mouth. Ten yards further, the horse collapsed in exhaustion, its sides heaving in a futile effort to breathe. Muldoon cursed virulently and staggered away from the beast, forcing his legs into a run and sparing not a thought to the agonizing death he left behind. His mind continued churning thoughts of the specter he knew was on his trail.
No one knew exactly who Ty Mason was or where he came from. Some tales said that he had been raised by wolves, eating raw meat and drinking blood from the kills. Still others said that Indians had raised him, and he became the fiercest warrior the tribes had ever seen. Calmer minds said that he was merely a man whom the Civil War had twisted into a killing machine, turning his eyes into ice and his heart into cold steel.
Of course, no one knew that the man who had become a figure of legend in the untamed west was, in fact, a woman. That bit of knowledge was a closely guarded secret known only by a few, and they were all long dead. Red Muldoon knew nothing of that, or of the fact that Ty Mason was much nearer than he ever thought possible.
Muttering her own curses, Ty Mason quickly slit the lathered horse's throat, ending its misery. Two long strides took her back to her own mount where she paused to give them both some much-needed water. Stroking its midnight coat soothingly, she whispered in the stallion's ear, causing it to nod its graceful head at her. Once she had him calmed from the stench of fresh blood, she remounted and cocked her head. Her sharp hearing picked up the sounds of harsh breathing and her startlingly blue eyes glittered with suppressed rage. Bad enough to kill humans, but to ride a defenseless animal to its death was too much. She nudged the stallion gently and headed for her prey.
She hadn't ridden far when she spotted him. The gray of his prison uniform was dulled to charcoal beneath sweat and grime. His hair stood out in a red mass of filthy curls and his breathing was even more labored than it had been a few moments before. Still, her hand flashed behind her and drew her Winchester from its saddle sheath. The butt was pressed against her cheek and steadily aimed before Muldoon even heard the sound of the horse behind him. He whirled quickly and lost his balance, sprawling awkwardly on the ground. The barrel of the rifle never wavered from its aim at Muldoon's forehead as Ty cocked the hammer back.
"We can do this the hard way or the easy way, Muldoon. Don't matter to me." The icy blue glare and the raspy voice of death stilled Muldoon's hand as it reached for his gun. The bore of the rifle seemed a mile wide as he stared down into its black depths. Then, suddenly, he grinned showing crusted, yellow teeth.
A courage borne of desperation welled up within him and he laughed. "So, ya'd take me in dead then." He shrugged with feigned nonchalance, taking in the tall, solid build of Ty Mason with a practiced glance. I've got a hunnert pounds on 'im easy. He can't be more'n one seventy-five. "After all the tales I heerd, I'd a thunk ya'd need more've a challenge. Or ya skeered I'll hurt 'cha?"
"Drop your weapons." Ty Mason's voice was raspy, just above a whisper, but its cold menace was loud and clear. Muldoon quickly stripped off the stolen gun belts and threw them at the stallion's hooves. The horse didn't move a muscle. "Shirt." Again the whisper and Muldoon scowled fiercely as he ripped the shirt from his chest, the hilt of a knife protruding from his belt.
Ty watched carefully as the knife landed in the pile, and allowed a feral smile to cross her face. She, too, had heard tales. Red Muldoon had been compared to a grizzly bear in size and temperament, and fought with just as much viciousness. The men he had killed in fistfights no longer looked like men by the time he was through. They were bloody piles of meat.
She eased off the horse gracefully, keeping her rifle trained on her prey at all times. Mud brown eyes glittered at her as she unbuckled her twin holstered gun belt and draped it across her saddle. Eyes still locked, she thrust the rifle back into its sheath and began her advance, her smile mocking the huge man.
Muldoon felt his confidence falter slightly at his opponent's expression. The man seemed like he was actually looking forward to getting the life beaten out of him. Circling slowly, he sized up the bounty hunter again to see what he may have missed. He stood at an even six feet tall, broad shouldered with muscles bunching underneath the black cotton shirt. Deep-chested, his frame was solidly built, but not heavy, powerful, yet not overtly so. Rolled up sleeves showed corded bands of muscles up his forearms, and though his pants were loose across the hips, they tightened over heavily muscled thighs. Muldoon's smile resurfaced as he decided that it would be a good work out, but not a problem.
Then a hard-knuckled fist clipped his jaw and he saw stars.
He shook his head grimly and barreled into his opponent, trying to get him in a bear hug to crush his ribs. Ty sidestepped at the last moment and watched Muldoon slam into a tree. He came up growling and ran straight into another hard fist to his ribs. Something cracked, but he came on anyway and swung a roundhouse that caught Mason on the shoulder. He felt Mason give, and swung again, but missed by a wide margin. He whipped his head around and growled as Mason danced out of his reach. " Stand still, ya bastard. "
Ty grinned, blue eyes flashing fire. "Come get me." For some reason, the gravelly whisper incensed the outlaw and he charged again. Ty ducked down low and slammed her shoulder into Muldoon's stomach. His breath came out in a rush, but he managed to get a grip on Mason's hip and he pawed him into the bear hug. They stood nose to nose for endless moments, Mason straining against the arms that were tightened down around her own and Muldoon squeezing as tightly as he could. Then Ty reared her head back and slammed it forward, smashing Muldoon's lips against yellowed teeth. Blood spouted everywhere and Muldoon's hold slipped enough for Ty to break free. They stood toe-to-toe, trading punches until both were half-blind from blood dripping in their eyes.
There was no sound in the clearing, save hoarse gasps, the pounding of flesh against flesh, and the occasional groan or curse added in for good measure. Muldoon finally decided he had had enough and swung a vicious uppercut. Ty ducked and returned with the heel of her hand up and into Muldoon's nose. The bones shattered and pierced into his brain. It took him a long time to fall, but he was dead before he hit the ground.
She looked down at the body in disgust. Not because she had killed him, but because now she had to lift that huge bulk onto the back of her horse to get him to the nearest town. "Damn it." Her ribs ached, her back ached, her jaw ached, and her left eye was swelling shut.
Her hand reached unconsciously to the scar on her throat, hidden beneath a red bandanna, the only splash of color on her all-black outfit. A habit had formed, over the past five years, of rubbing the scar when she was deep in thought or disturbed by something. The old wound only hurt when she had to talk a lot, which wasn't much of a problem since she rarely had anyone to talk to anyway. And the damage the bayonet had caused to her vocal chords served to mask any trace of femininity, aiding in her disguise. It had been a mixed blessing.
With a sigh of defeat, she pulled her black Stetson low across her short-cropped black hair, strapped her gun belt back on, and whistled the command for the stallion to kneel. It took a few moments, but she managed to wrestle the bulk of the dead outlaw across her saddle and tie it in place. "I know, boy," she replied to the baleful glare the stallion gave her. "He probably weighs more than you do."
Ty paused a few moments longer to get her bearings and realized, with some relief, that she wasn't far from Cedar Creek. It was a middling-sized town, but it had a sheriff's office where she could turn in the body for the reward. And, to her recollection, it had a decent saloon where she could relax for a bit. The town was only about an hour's walk to the west, so she gripped the reins and started on her way.
Helen Duncan herded her three children through the dry goods store, stopping every now and again to slap a hand and heave an exasperated sigh. "Brianna Jolene!" she finally snapped out. "You're worse than the little ones! Now stop grabbing for the candy, get the flour, and let's go. Your father's waiting for us."
Faded brown eyes met sparkling green and the older woman's frowning features softened. Brianna was her eldest child and the apple of her and her husband's eyes. Gentle and loving, and pretty as a picture with her sea green eyes and strawberry-blonde hair, the petite girl was a natural charmer. Unfortunately, she also had a mischievous streak a mile wide, and sometimes drove her parents to distraction.
Brianna's father had long since refused to go into any type of store with her, out of self-preservation and an earnest desire to try to keep at least some of his hard-earned money for necessities. His little charmer had talked him into more trinkets than he cared to admit.
"Leroy!" Helen sighed again as her son ran out of the store. She caught the back of Lily's dress just as she started to run after him. "Oh no, you don't. You stay right here and help me with these packages." She gently prodded the eleven-year-old to the counter and glanced worriedly out the door. Her husband, George, hadn't pulled up with the buckboard yet and she was concerned for her middle child. Birthing Leroy hadn't been easy and he was now a strapping fourteen-year-old with the mind of a five-year-old.
"Don't you worry none, ma'am. The townsfolk'll take care of him."
She cast the storekeeper a shaky smile and nodded. "I know, Wilbur. We were very lucky to find a town with such understanding people in it."
Wilbur ducked his head as a flush spread up his gray-stubbled cheeks. "Yer nice folks. We try to take care of our own."
The sound of the buckboard clattering up reminded her of the reason they were there, and she hurried to finish the transaction so she could find her child. She and Wilbur exchanged bemused glances as Brianna hefted the twenty-pound bag of flour over her shoulder and started out the door.
"Don't worry, Mama. I'll get him," she called out over her shoulder. " Here, Papa. Leroy's run off again." Brianna stopped long enough to heave the flour into the bed of the buckboard and get her hair tousled before taking off down the street.
"George, you really shouldn't let her do all those heavy chores." Helen leaned into the thin frame of her husband as she watched Brianna turn the corner towards the sheriff's office.
George Duncan smiled fondly down at his wife and ran a tired hand through his thinning brown hair. "And who else would there be to help me, my dear? You have enough to do seeing to the house and the children. She's seventeen and more than strong enough to lend me a hand." And Leroy's attention span was too short for him to be of much use, though George was careful to give the boy smaller tasks to make him feel important. He gave Helen a gentle squeeze and turned back to loading their supplies.
Brianna rounded the corner and spotted Leroy just as he reached out a hand to touch a darkly clad man on the shoulder. Before she could call out, Leroy was flat on his back with a pistol pressed against his forehead. As she ran toward them, she saw the two exchanging words and she prayed fervently that the stranger would realize that her brother was harmless and choose not to kill him.
She was still a few yards away when the dark stranger hauled Leroy to his feet and pushed him in her direction. As her brother ran toward her, she saw tears beginning to spill from green eyes that were a mirror image of her own. Even as she hugged the taller boy closely and murmured comforting words, she felt anger building up at his harsh treatment. "Stay here, Leroy," she said firmly. "Don't move."
Ty Mason bit back a sharp retort when she felt a strong grip on her arm trying to pull her around. She thought she had convinced the half-wit to go back where he belonged. As she turned to tell him to go home again, her mouth opened and stayed that way at the vision before her. The eyes were the same color green, but these sparkled with intelligence and not a little anger. Strawberry-blonde hair capped a face that was amazingly beautiful, in spite of, or maybe because of a fierce, defiant scowl. The slender form hidden beneath a faded red gingham dress fairly trembled with the girl's fury. Ty was shocked into immobility. Unfortunately, the furious girl wasn't.
"How dare you put a gun to my poor brother's head! Anybody with the sense God gave a goose would know he's perfectly harmless!" Getting only a sharply raised eyebrow in response, Brianna continued, one hand leaving her hip to poke a sharp finger into the tall man's chest. "Why don't you find someone your own size to pick on? Or are little boys all you can handle?" She rattled on, recklessly ignoring the blazing look she was receiving from a pair of incredibly blue eyes. Well, one blazing eye...the other seemed to be swelled shut. Brianna really didn't want to focus on it for fear of completely losing her train of thought.
Ty opened a mouth that had shut tightly in shock, then closed it once more when the girl took a deep breath and started in again. The sharp poking was beginning to hurt, but she wasn't sure how to stop the girl without resorting to tossing her over her knee for a good spanking, which she was in sore need of, if her mouth was any indication.
"And I'll have you know..." Brianna's voice trailed off at the sudden thump of a huge body falling off the horse at the rail. With a sinking feeling, she realized it was a huge, dead body. She turned wide eyes to the man she had been so emphatically chastising and suddenly knew, without a doubt, that he was the one who had killed him. She barely registered the grin on the man's face as she turned and fled.
Ty was still grinning when the sheriff came out to take care of the outlaw's remains. Sheriff Tom Young grinned back. "I see you've met Miss Brianna. Her family has a homestead just a ways north of here." They both looked toward her retreating figure and the sheriff chuckled. "She's a little spitfire, that one. 'Specially if you pick on her brother."
"I can see that." Ty just barely kept from asking for more information about the girl, and instead turned her attention back to more pressing matters. Not long afterward, she was headed toward the saloon for a much-needed drink and a bath, a note for the bank tucked into her pants pocket.
The sheriff watched him go with a thoughtful look in his eyes. Lawmen shared their own type of information, and Ty Mason was known as a hard, but trustworthy man. He kept to his own business and caused no trouble those rare times he was in a town. The sheriff nudged the dead outlaw with the toe of his boot...and to kill Red Muldoon in a fistfight was no small feat. He glanced back in the direction Brianna had gone and smiled again. Mason was also not known for letting anyone touch him, but he hadn't moved a muscle while Miss Brianna was poking away at his chest. His smile widened. Maybe he could keep that ill-fated wedding from happening yet.
"Are you sure everything's okay, Brianna?" George called over his shoulder. Brianna and Leroy exchanged glances. They were riding in the back of the buckboard, their parents and Lily up front.
"Yes, Papa. We're fine." She forced a cheerful note in her voice to reassure him. When they had returned to the store, she had made up a story to explain Leroy's tears, saying he was afraid of being in trouble for disappearing. They were both uncommonly quiet during the ride, which had caused their father's concern. Neither she nor Leroy wanted to tell him about the dangerous looking gunfighter who had scared the living daylights out of them.
Once they arrived at the homestead, Brianna was too occupied with unloading the supplies, helping with dinner, and taking care of chores to think about the blue-eyed stranger. It wasn't until she had tucked her siblings into bed and managed to get Lily asleep that his image came to mind.
"Sister? D'ya think he really woulda shot me?" Leroy's thick, slow voice quavered a little with the question. He'd been struggling to stay awake just to ask that.
"I don't think so," Brianna answered thoughtfully. "If he was going to shoot anyone, it would probably have been me for yelling at him." She smiled as she spoke to show her brother she was just joking.
"I think you scared him, sister." His eyes were wide with admiration for his pretty sister's bravery. He had trouble saying her name, so he simply called her 'sister'.
Brianna laughed softly. "No, little brother, I don't think I scared him at all. I think he just didn't want to do anything right in front of Sheriff Tom's office." She tilted her head and regarded Leroy intently, causing him to squirm. "What did he say to you?"
Leroy's face flushed and he gripped the threadbare edge of the blanket tighter. "He said I shouldn't go around touching people I don't know." He scrunched his eyebrows together trying to remember everything. "That if'n I knew what was good for me, I'd go back home."
Brianna took a gentle hold of his hand. "What did you say?"
The flush deepened. "Told him I just wanted to pet his horse," he mumbled. "He said his horse don't like no one but him. Then he picked me up and told me to go home again."
"Shhh...it's okay, Leroy. It's over now. He won't hurt you." She started getting up to go to her own room when another thought struck her. After a moment's hesitation, her curiosity won out. "What did his voice sound like, Leroy?" She could almost hear a deep, honey smooth voice in her head. Then she shook herself and waited patiently for the answer.
It took a bit longer for Leroy to think it out this time. His face lit up when he finally figured out how to describe the sound. "You know how Papa's voice sounds when he's got a prickly throat?" he asked her excitedly. Brianna nodded, frowning. "Well, that's what it sounded like, only he kept whisperin'...like he couldn't talk no louder."
For some reason, Brianna couldn't picture the stranger being sick. He sure looked healthy enough to her. At least under all that blood and dirt. She sighed quietly, reminding herself that she'd probably never see him again anyway. Checking Lily one more time, she whispered a soft good night to both of them and left the room. She snuggled into her own straw-filled bedding and drifted into dreams of a knight with laughing blue eyes and a bright white smile.
Ty gently pushed the giggling saloon girl through the doorway, muttering thank you, but no thank you as she closed the door behind her. "Good Lord," she sighed heavily. She eyed the steaming bathtub and warily took in the flimsy lock on the door. She reached for a heavy horsehide-bound chair and quickly jammed it under the doorknob. "That should hold it," she muttered.
Ty had made the grave error of flirting with the girl downstairs in the saloon. She had accomplished the goal of getting a nice, warm bath set up and had almost accomplished getting a flesh and blood back scrubber to go along with it, much to her surprise. She knew women found her attractive, but the intensity of some of their reactions always managed to surprise her, and she refused to sacrifice her male persona in exchange for physical release. She'd managed for twenty-five years with only a few kisses here and there, and figured she could make it another twenty-five, if she lived that long.
Shaking her head slightly, she went to the small window and made sure the shutters were closed. Satisfied that no one could see in, or get in, she began methodically removing her clothes. Dusty, black boots came off with twin thuds, gun belt was draped across the headboard of the bed, black shirt fell to the floor in a ball, and a carefully wound length of cloth became unwound and landed on top of the shirt. She took in a grateful gulp of air and wished, for the umpteenth time, that she were a little less well endowed. Stripping quickly out of her pants and under shorts, she eased into the hot bath with a satisfied sigh and rested her head against the high back of the tub.
Strong, slender fingers gripped a bar of lye soap and the washrag, and she began scrubbing herself until her skin fairly tingled. She could still smell the scent of death on her skin and couldn't relax completely until she'd done her best to rid herself of it. Finally scrubbed to her satisfaction, she leaned her head back again and let her thoughts wander.
They wandered straight to red-gold curls and flashing green eyes, a beautiful heart-shaped face and pert nose, a slender chin jutting out in indignation, and hips that swayed delightfully as the girl hurried away. "Brianna." Ty bolted upright as the girl's name escaped her lips in a soft sigh. "What the hell?" She muttered curses under her breath as she briskly toweled her long limbs dry. Her bare feet stamped across the rough floorboards until she stood in front of a small mirror. She tried to distract herself by examining her swollen left eye.
The swelling had gone down quite a bit already and, though it was still a nasty purple, at least she could see out of it again. Her eyebrow rose as she studied the rest of her face. Her black hair was cut short above her ears and curled slightly where it met the collar of her shirt. The top was cut a little longer, so she could comb it back to keep it out of her eyes. Thick, black eyebrows arched over light blue eyes giving her an air of menace. Her cheekbones were high and sharply defined -- many thought she was part Indian, but she wasn't. Her nose had been straight and nicely shaped until she'd caught a fist a few years back; now there was a small lump in the bridge of it. Slightly full lips were set over a strong jawbone. A rather handsome man, some would say -- gorgeous, others would say. The reflection scowled darkly and Ty stamped back over to her saddlebags to pull out clean clothes.
She berated herself the entire time she was wrapping a clean cloth around her breasts and pulling on her clothes. Why on earth was she so interested in how she looked to other people all of a sudden? It sure as hell hadn't mattered this morning when she was tracking down her prey. And it hadn't mattered when she called out the sheriff with blood and dirt still caking her. Sea green eyes flashed again and Ty scowled even fiercer. Oh, no. I'm gonna get good and drunk tonight, then I'm gonna ride out of here tomorrow, and that little spitfire can find herself another beau.
Ty was halfway down the stairs to the saloon before she realized that she'd even considered being the girl's beau.
She had schooled her features into a blank, hard mask by the time she strode from the small hallway into dusky expanse of the saloon. She scanned the room with a studied look, her ice-blue gaze causing four townsmen to quickly resume their poker game, muttering amongst themselves. The six other regulars buried themselves in their whiskeys and beer. The only person to meet and hold her cold glare was the sheriff, who was lounging at a dark table in the far corner. He tipped his beer to her in wry acknowledgement. She scowled in answer and stepped up to the nicked mahogany bar.
"Shot of whiskey and beer." The bartender's eyes widened at the low rasp. It sounded harsh, like sandpaper across metal. His slight hesitation earned him a narrow-eyed glance, and he hurried to get the drinks before the man had a chance to show him the punishment for slowness. It was pretty quiet in the saloon, but it was only midweek. Come Friday and Saturday, the place would become packed with rowdy cowhands anxious to spend their pay, seek some relief in the arms of the saloon girls, and just blow off some steam.
"Mason, join me," Sheriff Young called out. The bartender heaved a sigh of relief as the bounty hunter shrugged and made his way to the sheriff's table. Ty Mason was known to be slow to anger, but rattlesnake mean when he was. There were many men who wouldn't dare rile him, and the bartender was definitely one of them.
The two eyed each other for a long while, then the sheriff smiled. "I sent a wire to Pueblo. They'll be glad to hear Muldoon's been taken care of." Steel blue eyes watched him steadily. He tried a different tack. "There's been some interesting goings on around here. Rancher by the name of Todd Lundgren has decided he's partial to a small tract of land north of here." Jaw muscles clenched almost imperceptibly. The sheriff took a moment to sip his beer. "Seems there's a creek that flows through that area that he's decided is necessary for his cattle."
Ty sat back in her chair and downed the whiskey. Quicker than a flash, the mug of beer was tipped back and drained. In moments, the friendly saloon girl from upstairs was at her side with refills. She pouted prettily when she was pointedly ignored, and flounced away, muttering snidely about highfalutin' drifters.
"Well, now. There's a lot of people whose past won't stand up to scrutiny. But, Mr. Lundgren...his appears to be squeaky clean." He pulled a dagger out of his belt and cleaned his nails with intent concentration. A sly look at his drinking companion saw jaw muscles clenching and unclenching dangerously. "Seems, though, that he's been married three times, and all three wives met with unfortunate deaths. He's spreading the word that Miss Brianna will be wife number four." He leaned forward and stuck the knife into the tabletop. "Pretty convenient way to get land, eh?"
Ty felt her heart stop beating, then restart painfully. Her nostrils flared as she tried to regain some composure, though she appeared quite calm to anyone watching her. What the hell did she care about what was happening around these parts? If the sheriff had suspicions, then by damn, let him deal with it. Ty would be gone in the morning. Brianna's reflection stared back at her from her mug.
"What's it got to do with me, Sheriff?" she finally asked. "I'll be moseyin' on come daybreak."
Sheriff Young looked at the man thoughtfully. "I kinda thought you could help her out. Her and her family, I mean...seventeen's awful young to die," he added bluntly.
Ty snapped forward in her chair and slapped her palms on the table. "If some young farm girl wants to get herself married, I sure as hell ain't gonna stop her," she growled.
"Mason, that man is an animal and I don't have enough proof to put him away before someone else gets hurt."
"So, what? You want me to kill him for you?" Ty sneered at him. "That's called murder, Sheriff. I ain't wanted for anything yet, and I'm not about to start now for some snot-nosed kid." Ty's temper was beginning to boil and she viciously pushed images of Brianna's blood-soaked chest from her mind. The creaking of the swinging doors caught her attention and she watched the sheriff's face harden. She rose casually and swung her chair around to straddle it backwards, managing to slide it further to the left as she did so. That got her a better view of the saloon and the man swaggering to the bar, while making it appear that she was deep in quiet conversation with her companion.
"That's him," the sheriff whispered unnecessarily. Ty had already figured that out by the way two overgrown thugs had followed the skinny man in. Bodyguards, no doubt.
Todd Lundgren was dressed in a black, broadcloth suit and gray boots with over-sized silver spurs on the heels that jangled when he walked. He was a thin man with sharp features and thin lips. His eyes were set too close together and he reminded Ty of an overgrown weasel. Everything about him spoke of a man who was trying hard to appear debonair and worldly. Ty had seen the type before and was almost certain there was a cruel streak hidden just below the smooth surface.
Her skin crawled with the thought of him marrying the farm girl. Brianna may be a spitfire, but she would be no match for Lundgren. She toyed with several ideas to disrupt Lundgrens's plans, but discarded them all. Every one of them ended up with her at the wrong end of a lynching party.
She turned her cold gaze back to the sheriff. "Got any ideas?" she asked in a clipped whisper.
Sheriff Young grinned broadly. "As a matter of fact I do. He's been talkin' up this wedding and all, but he forgot to do something...like ask Miss Brianna to marry him. The way I figure it, that means she's still fair game for someone else to ask her."
Ty's eyebrow disappeared under the brim of her hat. "So I just mosey out to her place and ask her to marry me," she answered flatly. The sheriff's grin faltered. "Why don't you do it?"
"I'm already sparkin' a girl. She has a bakery shop down the street." He leaned in closer to the bounty hunter. "Look, I know you can't just get hitched with her. I thought if maybe there was some competition, Lundgren would get antsy and screw up. Heck," he continued, " you might not have to get hitched at all!"
Ty frowned down into her beer. She was sure there was a law somewhere about women marrying women. She'd had no trouble passing as a man, but she'd spent very little time in any type of civilization. She mostly wandered through the western states and territories with no company but the earth and sky. When she needed supplies, she was in and out of towns within a day. Even when she was bringing in outlaws, she only stayed a night at the most. She wired the money East, then was gone again.
It was too easy to let down your guard when you stayed in one place too long. You started making mistakes and people started asking questions. She really hated questions. Ty sat forward and steepled her slender fingers in front of her mouth. Sheriff Young visibly relaxed, seeing Ty seriously considering the matter. She was getting bored, and the money she'd sent East would serve its purpose for a while yet. This would be a good test of her disguise. Hell, she'd passed for seven years and she was damn good at everything she set her mind to. If she could woo and win a respectable woman, no one would ever suspect her true nature. This might even be fun and she hadn't had fun in a long time.
Ty took another long, hard look at the man at the bar. Yes, this could be fun. The only thing she hated more than men who were cruel to animals, was men who were cruel to women. She had a feeling Todd Lundgren was cruel to both.
She stood up and flipped her chair back around. "I'd better turn in," she said clapping the sheriff on the shoulder. "Got some sparkin' of my own to do tomorrow."
The sheriff watched the powerfully built man stride to the stairs and smiled. Yessiree, things were looking up already.
The day dawned crisp and clear. A few fat clouds drifted across the bright blue Colorado sky and birds sang merrily to greet the day. Brianna missed most of it since she was still rubbing sleepy eyes. She could never understand why dawn had to come so darned early. Stumbling into the barn, she murmured a quiet good morning to her father.
George smiled fondly at his eldest child and motioned to the milk cows. As he continued to muck out the horse stalls, he kept a close eye on his daughter. She had a tendency to lean her head into the cow's side as she milked, and more than once had fallen back to sleep. She'd almost gotten herself trampled the first time it happened. She'd slipped off the short milking stool and landed right under the cow's feet; only her father's quick reaction had gotten her out of harm's way in time.
Their eyes met and Brianna flashed him a grin, green eyes sparkling. "I'm awake now, Papa. Don't worry." He chuckled in answer, then climbed up into the loft to fork fresh hay into the stalls.
He frowned slightly as a conversation he'd had with the sheriff came back to him. He'd gone into town a few days before to pick up some items from the blacksmith and the sheriff had pulled him aside to speak privately with him. He leaned on the pitchfork and gazed down at his daughter thoughtfully.
"Brianna. What do you think of Todd Lundgren?" He kept his voice casual to keep from swaying his daughter's answer one way or the other. She'd always been good at reading people, seeming to know what they needed to hear. He wanted her honest opinion.
Brianna scowled down into the half-full milk bucket. Her fingers tensed, causing the cow to moo in discomfort, and she absently patted the coarse-haired hide in apology. "I try not to think about him at all, Papa," she finally answered. "He makes my skin crawl," she added bluntly. She glanced up to the loft to see her father giving her a troubled look and her heart fell. "Why'd you ask?"
Her father turned away uncomfortably and continued his chores. "Sheriff Young seems to think he's interested in courting you."
Sea green eyes widened in shock, then narrowed quickly in anger. "He's not interested in me, Papa," she spat out. "You won't sell, so he figures he'll get our land through me!"
The sound of horse's hooves kept George from answering and he quickly climbed down the ladder. "Stay here 'til I call you, Brianna," he whispered on his way past her. He knew she'd be peeking out the barn door the second he was through it, but as long as she stayed out of sight, it was fine with him.
Ty Mason sat atop her black stallion, uncomfortable as all get out. Her new blue jeans were too tight because of the rolled up cloth she'd shoved down her crotch to enhance her disguise, and her new red shirt was making her skin itch like crazy. She silently thanked God that it was cooler out that day, so she didn't have to deal with sweating on top of everything else.
She was running through all the instructions the sheriff had given her earlier and had worked herself into a near panic by the time she heard the creak of the barn door opening. Watching the slender work-worn man walk toward her, she had to quell a sudden urge to jab her heels into the stallion and take off. Instead, she pasted what she hoped was a friendly smile on her face and waited for him to approach.
"Hello there. Is there something I can do for you?" Brianna's father's manner was polite, but cautious. He'd caught sight of the twin colts on the man's slender hips and wondered if Lundgren was going to try for his daughter and his land by force.
Ty cleared her throat nervously. God, she hadn't realized it was going to be this hard. She'd rather face an entire gang of outlaws than try to ask this man for permission to court his daughter. "Ah, yes, actually. I'm here to, ah, talk to you about your daughter." Ty felt a flush creeping up her neck and the red bandanna tied there was tightening like a noose. It took all of her considerable will power not to tug at it.
George tilted his head slightly and hid a smile behind his hand. Brianna took after her father quite a bit. He was pretty good at reading people himself, and this was one nervous gunslinger. He studied the man in silence for a moment, noting how easily he controlled the huge horse beneath him, and his firm, but gentle touch on the reins. He also noticed that he was keeping his hands up on the saddle horn, as far away from the worn walnut grips of his guns as he could without being uncomfortable. His voice was surprising. For some reason, George had thought it would be a deep baritone, but it was a raspy whisper. Not harsh, but definitely at odds with the size of the man. He would have stood silent longer, but he saw the light blue eyes darkening in anger and he held his hand up.
"Why don't you let me take your horse, Mister...?"
"Mason, Ty Mason," Ty answered quickly, relieved that she had apparently passed the initial inspection. "Just call me Ty."
George nodded and allowed his smile to show. He waited as Ty dismounted, then tied his horse to the rail in front of the porch. He waved for Ty to take a seat in one of the chairs on the porch and settled himself comfortably in another one. There was a wooden glider at the other end of the porch and he wondered idly how much use it would be getting in the near future. He and Helen had spent quite a bit of time sitting on a glider back east while he was courting her. His musings were interrupted when Helen popped her head out the screen door.
"Tea or coffee?" She asked without preamble. If her husband had the man sitting on the porch with him, then he must be nice. She had a lot of confidence in her husband's opinions. Todd Lundgren had never made it off his horse.
George glanced at his guest. "Coffee's fine, ma'am, thank you." Ty answered. George smiled again. Handsome and polite, he thought to himself.
Ty took her hat off and held it in front of her. She couldn't remember if you were supposed to take your hat off in the presence of ladies even if you were outside, or not. She figured it was better safe than sorry.
Helen returned with the coffee and leaned down to whisper in her husband's ear before she went back inside. "She's going to make sure our two youngest stay out back while we talk," he answered the questioning look.
Ty nodded and glanced around casually. A chicken coop was off to the left of the house, and to the right there was a small corral next to a fairly large barn. She detected the faint odor of a pigsty and figured it was behind the barn. As her gaze swept past the barn, she caught a glimpse of red-gold hair and she smiled in reflex. When she turned her head back to George, she saw his eyes were twinkling.
"She's finishing up some chores."
Ty felt the flush come up again and twisted her hat in suddenly sweaty hands.
"So, how did you meet my daughter, Ty?"
"We, uh...kinda ran into each other in town yesterday. She came to get her brother."
She hoped silently that the man wouldn't ask for any more details than that.
George raised an eyebrow. Ah, that explains the quiet ride home, he thought to himself. He thought Brianna was rather flushed when she had come back to the buckboard with Leroy in tow.
"Mind telling me what happened?" he asked mildly.
"Well, your son...Leroy is it?" At George's nod, Ty continued. "He came up on me from behind and surprised me. I had my gun on him before I even thought about it." She watched the other man's face closely for a reaction. Not even a twitch. Good poker player, she thought to herself. She took a sip of her lukewarm coffee. "As soon as I saw his face, I knew he didn't mean no harm, so I told him to watch who he was coming up on like that and told him to go home. I imagine I scared him a bit," she added reluctantly.
Ty glanced involuntarily toward the barn and her features softened. George was startled by the transformation. A wide smile crossed the gunslinger's face and George could see the gentleness beneath the hard exterior. He decided then and there to allow him to court his daughter, even though he was still concerned about exactly what the man did for a living.
Ty turned twinkling blue eyes to the girl's father. "Well, to be blunt, sir, she tore me up one side and down the other for being such a bully to her brother! Pretty much told me I didn't have the sense God gave a goose."
They both chuckled at the image of the petite blonde having to tilt her head back to berate the tall stranger. George had no doubt that his daughter would take on a grizzly bear if she thought it was trying to hurt one of her siblings. And the poor grizzly wouldn't stand a chance.
"If you still want to court her after all that, then I won't stand in your way. She can be pretty mule-headed sometimes, Ty." He went on, "But she's worth more than all the gold in the world to me." George's tone held a challenging note.
Ty gazed at him steadily, considering her words carefully. "I'll never hurt a hair on her head, sir," she responded finally. "And no one else will, either."
George knew, without a doubt, that Ty was referring to Todd Lundgren. "Glad to hear it, son." He stood casually and stretched his slender frame. "I think I'll go see what Helen is fixing for lunch...Brianna's in the barn." With that, he opened the screen door and left Ty to her own devices.
I'm a bounty hunter, she told herself firmly as she checked on the stallion before heading to the barn. I track and capture dangerous outlaws for a living. I've hunted for bears, cougars, and coyotes. I've even spent a week trapped on top of a mountain in a blizzard, and survived to tell the tale. I will not be cowed by a little slip of a farm girl!
Her courage thus fortified, she threw back her shoulders, drew herself up to her full six feet and strode confidently into the barn. She met a startled green-eyed gaze, promptly forgot everything Sheriff Young told her to say, and just stared at the small blonde.
Brianna tilted her head to the side, smiling quizzically at the gunslinger. "Is there something I can do for you?" she asked, unconsciously echoing her father's earlier words. When he didn't respond immediately, she took advantage of his silence to study him casually. She noticed, with some surprise, that his clothes were brand-new, and she had the inane thought that he cleaned up well. Even with the fading bruise around his eye he was, by far, the most handsome man she had ever seen. She barely resisted the urge to straighten the bandana that was twisted slightly around his neck.
The barest flicker of pain crossed Ty's features as she reached up to adjust the bandana herself. It was hard to say who was more surprised, Brianna or herself, when the girl reached out a small hand and touched the side of Ty's neck gently.
"Does it hurt? Do you need something to put on it?" Brianna's eyes were soft with concern.
"No, that's all right," Ty replied, sucking in a quick breath. "I've been talking too much, is all."
Brianna laughed lightly. "You talk so seldom that it actually hurts when you do?" she asked teasingly. Her eyes sparkled merrily as a tinge of color crept up the handsome stranger's cheeks. She had no idea why she felt so safe teasing a dangerous gunslinger, but she somehow knew that she had nothing to fear from him. Her features softened at the sound of his voice, the raspy whisper sending tingles down her spine.
Ty managed a small, rueful smile and chuckled. "An old wound that didn't heal right," she explained, arching a dark brow at the girl. "I had to go through your father to see you." Brianna flushed becomingly and Ty's heart leapt in her chest. God, she's a beauty! She began to seriously consider going through with marrying the girl. Who has to know the truth? she asked herself. Brianna does, her conscience answered.
"Inside or outside?"
"What?" Ty was sure she had missed something while she'd been spinning fantasies of white picket fences.
Brianna sighed and spoke slowly, as if she were talking to Leroy. "Does your throat hurt on the inside or the outside?" Her stomach was doing flips at the thought of this man talking to her father about her. Did that mean he was considering...? No. That was too much to hope for.
"I'm okay. Really." Ty would have been willing to swallow broken glass if she thought that would help her in her suit for this girl's hand. "Look, do you want to go for a walk or something?"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she knew she had spoken too sharply. Brianna's face fell and her eyes darkened with hurt. Ty felt like a first-class heel. She opened her mouth to apologize, then held her hand out awkwardly, suddenly not sure what to say.
Brianna drew herself up stiffly, with a look in her eyes that Ty was to become extremely familiar with...stubborn determination. She smiled sweetly and Ty knew for sure that she was in trouble. "Why don't you go out back and wait for me. I just have to run into the house for a shawl." Without waiting for an answer, she brushed past the man and headed for the side door of the house.
"Damn, damn, damn!" Ty shoved her sorely abused hat back onto her head and left the barn at a slower pace, kicking the dirt with the toe of her boot as she walked around to the back of the house.
The sound of children laughing brought her attention to the creek that was sheltered by trees some one hundred yards from the house. Ty smiled as she recalled more of the sheriff's instructions. "Remember, if you can get Leroy and Lily to like you, you'll be half-way there. They're all very close."
Plan A was out the window, so Ty went for Plan B.
Helen Duncan looked up in surprise as Brianna came banging in the side door. "Did Mr. Mason leave already?" she asked, with no little concern. From what her husband had told her, Ty Mason would treat her daughter with respect, but she knew Brianna and was afraid she had run him off without giving him a chance. Helen had no wish to see Brianna forced into marriage with Todd Lundgren.
Brianna stopped short, realizing suddenly that she hadn't even known the man's name. "No, Mama. He's still here. I wanted to get him some hot tea." She continued to the stove, wondering how she was going to find out his first name without making a fool of herself. Her father saved her the trouble.
"He said to call him Ty, Helen. You left him out there alone?" He directed the question to Brianna.
"He's too stubborn to admit his throat hurts, so I'm going to make him some honeyed tea whether he likes it or not, " Brianna stated emphatically, oblivious to how it sounded.
George and Helen exchanged amused glances. Their little girl was already sounding like a concerned wife. Poor Ty, George thought. He doesn't know what he's getting himself into.
"That's nice of you, dear." Helen handed her a large mug for the tea.
Brianna poured a healthy dollop of honey into the steeping tea and gave her parents a shy smile. "I like him," she stated simply. She didn't notice their pleased expressions as she left the kitchen, carefully balancing the steaming mug.
She glanced around worriedly when she didn't see him at once, then she heard husky laughter mixed in with childish giggles. Smiling slightly, she headed for the creek.
"I think you two are cheating!"
"Hey! Them's fightin' words, mister!" Leroy giggled.
"We're not cheatin'!" Lily piped in. "You just don't know how to play!"
Brianna held the tea gingerly, trying not to spill it as her own giggles threatened to overwhelm her. She leaned against the back of a pine tree and peeked around, trying to see without being seen.
Leroy and Lily were sitting cross-legged on the ground, sticks and rocks placed strategically in front of them. Ty had removed her gun belt and was squatting on her heels with her hat tucked down low on her forehead to block out the mid-morning sun.
She had her back to the house.
"You know what men like me do to cheaters?" She gave the children her most menacing glare and they erupted into giggles again.
"We...we weren't cheatin'!" Lily finally gasped out. "Honest, we weren't!"
Ty growled soft and low in her throat. In a lightning fast move, she dove across the playing area and wrapped Lily tightly in her arms. Long, slender fingers dug into the sensitive flesh of the girl's ribs and Lily began laughing hysterically. Not wanting to be left out, Leroy jumped onto Ty's broad shoulders and started yelling at the top of his lungs. "I'll save you, Lil! I got him! I got him!"
Brianna watched the trio rolling in the dirt and shook her head, laughing at the sight of the gunslinger being mauled by two young children.
"You're going to ruin your reputation, you know," she finally called out.
Ty jerked up out of the pile, a huge grin on her face and her eyes brighter than the sky. Brianna was mesmerized.
"Okay, enough." Ty unwrapped herself from her tormentors and stood, dusting off her jeans. "They were cheating," she said sheepishly, pointing a thumb behind her.
"Were not!" two voices answered in unison.
"Were too," Ty hissed back.
Brianna shook her head again and walked toward them. Ty was distracted by swaying hips and almost missed the mug being pushed into her hand. She raised an eyebrow in mute question.
"For your throat," Brianna answered, giving a silent challenge in return.
Ty pursed her lips thoughtfully for a moment and, wisely, took a sip of the tea with no further comment. Her eyes widened as she tasted the honey, and she smiled her appreciation over the rim.
Brianna put her hand on Ty's shoulder and stood on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear. "There are no rules in that game, you know. They make it up as they go along."
Ty choked on the tea. Brianna's warm breath in her ear sent tremors of liquid fire through her veins, and she clenched the mug to keep from dropping it. "Really?" she answered weakly.
Brianna nodded with a smug smile. "Really." Inexplicably pleased with herself, she turned and shooed her brother and sister back to the house. There was a lot of grumbling, but they finally got the hint and left the couple alone. Then she turned back to Ty in time to see him stoop to retrieve his gun belt. "Do you really need to put them back on?" she asked, pointing to the guns.
Ty sobered immediately, eyes glinting coolly. "The world's not always a safe place, Brianna. Not even in your own backyard sometimes."
By unspoken consent, they started walking along the bank of the creek. It was a few moments before Brianna dared to speak again. "Why are you here, Mr. Mason?"
"Ty. Call me Ty, please." Ty's glance was almost shy.
Brianna smiled. " All right...Ty. Why are you here?"
There was no getting around it this time. Ty took another sip of the cooling tea and let it soothe her throat. It did feel better. "I asked your father if I could court you." She stopped and looked at the stunned girl. "If you don't mind, that is."
Brianna reminded herself to breathe. Oh, my. "I...I don't mind," she answered shakily. "I don't know what you could see in a farm girl like me, though." Her voice shook uncontrollably and she wished, desperately, to start the conversation over again.
Smoky blue eyes captured her and she felt like she was drowning. "You're a beautiful woman, Brianna. I'm surprised I didn't have to wait in line."
The husky whisper did her in. Her eyes widened and she watched in bemusement as Ty tilted down toward her. Her eyes flickered shut as soft lips brushed her own, and she pressed further into the kiss, heart beating frantically against the walls of her chest.
It ended much too soon and Brianna sighed at the loss. She opened her eyes to see Ty smiling down at her. "I should say I'm sorry...but I'm not." Ty ran a finger gently down Brianna's jaw line and knew she had lost any hope of leaving this battle unscathed. "Are you?"
Brianna answered by leaning her head into Ty's chest and sighing again. They stood for several minutes with their arms wrapped loosely around each other, hearts beating rapidly. Brianna felt as though she could stay in these strong arms forever...she felt warm and completely safe, and for some strange reason she felt like she had come home at last.
Ty, on the other hand, was struggling with a sudden rush of fear. Against all reason or logic, she had allowed herself to follow her heart, and now reality was crashing in on her. There was no way she could offer this girl what she needed. There was no house with a white picket fence, no safe and secure job, no children...the mug of tea shattered in her tightly clenched fist and both women jumped.
"Damn! I'm sorry, Brianna!" Ty whipped off her bandana and awkwardly tried to wipe away the tea that was steadily dripping down the girl's back.
"Ty...Ty! It's all right!" Brianna twisted around, grabbing for the bandana. She captured it and a darkly tanned hand in both of hers, and waited patiently for Ty's muttered apologies to stop. "What's wrong, Ty?"
Ty's jaw worked silently as she tried to formulate a coherent answer, and she cast her eyes desperately around the area trying to avoid confused green eyes. A glimmer of light from within the trees across the creek caught her attention and she felt her entire body still. "Hush." She placed her free hand over Brianna's mouth. A moment later the glimmer came again and she smiled grimly.
She eased her hand away and rested it lightly along Brianna's cheek. Ice-blue eyes met green intently. "There's someone watching us." Brianna gasped and Ty placed her thumb across the girl's lips. "I need you to act as casually as you can. Just help me pick up the glass, then we'll head back to the house. When we get there, I want you to go inside and tell your father."
Brianna nodded slightly. "What are you going to do?" Her eyes were wide, not with fear, but with excitement, causing Ty to relax and chuckle.
"I'm going to go see who it is," she answered with a hint of a smile curving her lips. She chucked Brianna under the chin. "And you're going to stay inside for the rest of the day!" She raised her hand at Brianna's protest. "No argument. Stay inside and I'll be back once I find out what's going on."
"But the chores...!"
"Your father can do them. Just tell him to stick close to the house." A quick kiss silenced the rest of Brianna's protests. They were both quiet as they picked up the shards of glass and started for the house.
Brianna turned at the door to speak again and was stopped by twinkling blue eyes.
"I'll buy you a new dress, I promise," Ty whispered huskily.
A pleasant shiver skittered down Brianna's spine and she simply nodded with a shy smile. It was long moments before she stirred herself to go inside, her fingers trembling over lips that had been so gently kissed.
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