Ty found the watcher's hiding place with little trouble. She had left the homestead and headed in the general direction of town, then circled back to reach the copse of trees from behind. From the looks of it, either the man had been there a while, or he had spied from there many times before. The undergrowth was well trampled and littered with cigarette butts. Fresh boot prints led her to where a horse had been tethered to a slender pine tree and she nodded thoughtfully. The prints weren't too deep and the impression from the horse's hooves only changed slightly once the man was mounted, leading her to believe it was a fairly small rider.
She went back and stood by the tree the man had been hiding behind. Her eyes glinted with cold fire. The entire back of the homestead was visible from here. With a spyglass, a person could see everything. And if they could read lips... "Bastards."
Ty's expression never changed from its cold mask in the two hours it took her to scout the terrain surrounding the small farm. Small stands of trees dotted the area and tall grasses hid dips and valleys in the ground elsewhere. There were plenty of places where a person could lay hidden from sight until the enemy was almost upon him. She found three more spy sites, but no trace of the men who used them. She resisted the urge to search for more tracks, knowing a small blonde was waiting impatiently for her return, and she finally allowed herself a small smile. In the space of twenty-four hours, the girl had managed to insinuate herself tightly into the bounty hunter's cold heart. Ty couldn't think of any way to get her back out even if she wanted to.
Her mind was occupied coming up with different ways to explain her situation to Brianna as the stallion trotted down the road to the homestead. It took her all of a split second to react to the plucking at her sleeve. In a swift move, Ty was off the horse with her rifle grasped firmly in her hands, the sharp report of the gunshot still echoing in the air. A muffled grunt escaped from her as she executed a tuck and roll that saw her safely behind a large outcropping of rocks.
Steel blue eyes searched the surrounding area, coming to rest on a hillock fifty yards away. Her keen eyesight picked up the barrel of the rifle and she aimed carefully, squeezing off a round and smiling in grim pleasure when she heard a distant yelp. Another carefully aimed shot sent the man's hat flying from his head as he retreated to his horse. She waited until the sound of hoof beats disappeared before she stood to retrieve her own mount.
It wasn't until she was swinging into the saddle, that Ty realized she'd been hit. "Damn...this was a new shirt!" She twisted her head around, trying vainly to see the wound. The bullet had grazed her upper shoulder and the edges of the hole in her shirt blocked her view. The wound wasn't life threatening by any stretch of the imagination. Ty was more concerned with having to mend the hole in the shirt. Sewing wasn't one of her strong points, and there was more than one scar on her body that wouldn't look nearly as bad if she'd have let someone else stitch her up. Ty muttered curses all the way back to the homestead.
"Brianna, it's just a flesh wound! Would you just slap a bandage on the damn...I mean, darn thing and be done with it?" Ty was at her wit's end. She had barely explained the situation to George when his daughter spotted the blood and let out a scream. The next thing she knew, she was sitting in front of the fireplace in the living room trying desperately to keep her shirt on, and Brianna was shouting orders like a five star general. Good Lord, if Brianna had been in charge, the War of Northern Aggression would have been over with in a month!
It had taken some fast-talking, but Ty had managed to be left alone long enough to strip off her shirt in privacy. A blanket was wrapped strategically around her chest, leaving only her upper shoulders bare for her diligent nurse to work on. A nurse who was now standing in front of Ty with her hands on her hips and sparks of green fire shooting from her eyes.
"I am not going to just slap a bandage on it! That wound has to be cleaned and medicated so it won't get infected!" Brianna wondered briefly how this stubborn man had managed to live this long without succumbing to massive infections.
Ty rolled her eyes heavenward and sighed. "Okay, okay! Just get it over with. I have to get back to town and talk to the sheriff at some point in my lifetime!" She turned her gaze to the polished floor at her feet, as Brianna stepped behind her. She missed the small smile of triumph that graced the girl's lips. She was too busy trying to ignore the delightful sensations emanating from where Brianna was touching her.
"Grown men don't pout...you're going to ruin your reputation."
"Oh God." The phrase escaped Ty's lips before she could stop it. Brianna's warm breath in her ear was wreaking havoc with her senses. She closed her eyes tightly and prayed for mercy.
Brianna's eyes were sparkling with something besides anger as she continued to dress the wound. She caught herself just before she started humming happily. Somehow she knew Ty wouldn't appreciate it.
As she finished securing the bandage, she found her fingers lightly tracing the corded muscles beneath the smooth flesh of Ty's shoulders. She watched, as if from a distance, her fingers slowly travel up to play with silky black hair and found herself wishing it were a bit longer. A low-pitched growl startled her from her musings.
"Br...Brianna..." Ty stopped to clear her throat. She twisted slightly to look at the girl. Dazed green eyes stared into warm blue. "...you're killing me," she finished softly.
"I...I'm sorry, " Brianna stammered back. "I don't know what came over me."
Ty gave her a quirky grin and laughed easily. "Well, I do, but I don't think we're quite ready for that yet." She chuckled and cocked her head to the side as Brianna blushed hotly. "Now go." She made a shooing motion with her hands. "I have to get dressed."
Once Brianna left the room, Ty eased the blanket off and put her shirt back on. She shook her head, remembering the panic when she realized Brianna wanted to tear the damn thing off her shoulders. She rubbed the back of her neck absently. It still tingled from the girl's touch. Oh, yeah. This one's trouble with a capital T. She was still smiling as she walked into the kitchen.
Brianna and her mother were busy at the stove. The two youngest were sitting wide-eyed at the table and George was leaning against the outside door, looking out with a worried expression. Ty spared Brianna a quick wink, which made the girl blush again, and then motioned for George to follow her outside.
"Are we in danger?" George asked without preamble.
Ty's expression sobered immediately. "No, sir. I don't think so. They're just trying to scare me off right now." Her eyes never stopped scanning the area as she continued. "I think you'll be safe. Lundgren tries to keep one step inside the law, so he won't do anything directly against you. He wants to get your land legally and he can't do that without Brianna." Ty's jaw muscles clenched just thinking about it.
"You watch your back, son." George was deadly serious. "I don't want my daughter losing someone she loves before she even gets him."
Ty turned startled eyes to the farmer. Loves? "Loves?" she repeated out loud, her voice a shocked whisper.
George smiled, his eyes dancing with laughter. "She's like her mother in a lot of ways, Ty. It took Helen all of three hours to get me to propose to her when we first met!" He laughed out loud. "You should have heard her when she found out we had to wait two months to get married!"
Ty grinned, not sure whether to be embarrassed or whoop with glee. She opted for the more subdued hearty handshake. "I'll try to make sure I stay alive for the wedding."
George gave the bounty hunter a sly look. "The judge will be here in a couple of weeks, you know."
Ty realized, with a sense of utter futility, that she had lost complete control of the situation. And for some reason, she didn't care in the least.
She managed to get all the way back to town without getting killed, her mind enveloped in a warm vision that had sparkling sea-green eyes. Ty Mason was completely at the mercy of the Fates...and the Fates dearly loved a good romance.
The housework was done, the children's lessons were finished, and every bit of mending Brianna could find was completed. She sank back into her mattress and let out a heavy sigh. Nothing had kept her mind from wandering back to the bounty hunter and the feel of his skin under her fingertips.
There was something odd there. She couldn't quite figure out what it was yet. Her experience with men was decidedly limited to the few men in her family, and to the few men she had met in town. She didn't really count Todd Lundgren; their conversations had been very terse and awkward and she hadn't allowed him close enough to touch her. Well, except for that time he had grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it. It was supposed to be a courtly gesture, but she had washed her hands as soon as she got the chance.
With Ty it was different. Just by closing her eyes, she could feel his soft lips brushing against hers in an oh-so-gentle kiss. And the feel of his muscles under firm flesh had been like smooth satin. She sighed dreamily in remembered bliss. She wondered briefly if the rest of him was just as silky-smooth, then tried hurriedly to change the direction of her thoughts as a blush heated her skin, and tendrils of warmth flooded through her veins. Her hands trembled as the unfamiliar sensations took over her body and she pressed her face into her pillow to try to smother her moan as confused tears slid down her cheeks.
Brianna finally drifted into an exhausted sleep, her mind overcome by the new feelings she was discovering. Nothing her mother had told her had prepared her for the longing she felt for this stranger who had entered her life so suddenly. Her sleep was so deep that she was unaware when she was lifted from her bed and carried out of the house to waiting horses.
"Careful, dammit! The boss doesn't want her hurt!" The seedy looking man speaking fumbled in a saddlebag for a bottle and a rag. With exaggerated care, he soaked the rag and pressed it to the girl's face. "Don't want you waking up too soon, sweetheart," he cackled quietly. "It's a long ride to the line cabin."
"C'mon, Charlie! Tie her up and let's go!" Charlie's equally seedy looking companion stared at the dark night sky uneasily. It wouldn't be long before the clouds covering the full moon dispersed and exposed the men's activities to anyone watching. Jack checked the cloth covering their mounts' hooves while Charlie dealt with their unconscious captive. In a matter of moments, they had disappeared into the darkness.
Brianna awoke with a pounding head and a mouth that felt like it was full of cotton. It took a great deal of effort, but she finally cracked her eyes open far enough to realize she was no longer in the safety of her bedroom. She was lying on her right side on a small cot covered by a musty, threadbare blanket and, as she struggled to get into a more comfortable position, she discovered her hands were tied securely behind her back.
A harsh voice from across the long room caused her already rapid heartbeat to increase its pace. "So, you're awake, little girlee. If'n you behave, maybe Jack and me will be nice enough to untie you for a bit." The man who belonged to the disembodied voice reached out and lit an oil lamp, throwing the interior of the building into stark relief.
A quick glance around her showed Brianna that she was in a one-room cabin, much longer than it was wide. There were two other cots at right angles to her own, a cast iron stove in the center of the room, and a rickety set of table and chairs on the far end. Dust and cobwebs covered practically everything, including the beat-up chests at the foot of each bed. It was obvious that the cabin hadn't been occupied in a long time. The squeak of door hinges brought her wandering attention back to her captor. No, captors, she corrected herself silently as she watched a tall, ill-kempt man join the one who had spoken to her.
"Wh...who are you? What do you want with me?" Brianna rasped out. She shivered involuntarily when both men grinned at her, showing crooked tobacco-stained teeth. The taller man stepped close to her and caressed her cheek with a grubby hand. Her nostrils flared as the stench from his unwashed body hit her full force.
"You, me an' Charlie are gonna get to be real close friends." Jack's dark eyes glittered with lust as he stared down at the helpless girl, enjoying the look of fear she couldn't hide.
"Yeah, " Charlie piped in, licking his thick lips suggestively. "And if you play nice, maybe we won't have to hurt ya."
Brianna shrank back in terror as two pairs of hands reached for her and she began sobbing uncontrollably as she struggled to get away from them. The sound of fabric tearing and harsh fingers tugging at her spurred her efforts to get free. She lashed out wildly with her unbound feet, managing to catch one in the groin and the other in the ribs. As she drew back her feet to kick the groaning men again, a shot rang out startling all three of them.
Todd Lundgren advanced through the door, a harsh scowl darkening his features. His darting eyes took in the scene quickly; the girl panting heavily, face stained with tears, and his two men clutching their individual injuries, their eyes as wide with fear as the girl's. Curling his lip into a sneer, Lundgren fired twice more and watched in cold satisfaction as both men crumpled to the floor, dead before they landed.
He turned his cold regard on Brianna and, to her amazement, began to chuckle. "I am so sorry, my dear," he stated solicitously, once he had regained control of his mirth. "They had strict orders not to harm you in any way."
"Why are you doing this to me?" Brianna's voice cracked as she spoke, her throat painfully parched from the chloroform and the exertion of the previous fight. Her fear was rapidly changing into anger and she struggled to sit up to face her tormentor.
"I'll answer your questions in due time, my dear. First, let me get this place cleaned up for you." Glancing once at the bodies on the floor with cool disdain, Lundgren turned and strode back out the door.
He returned quickly with three more men and, in short order, they removed the bodies and mopped up most of the blood coagulating on the hardwood floor. Brianna kept her gaze resolutely on the wall and suppressed a shudder at the sounds of the bodies being dragged outside. A touch on her shoulder brought her attention back to her kidnapper. Despite her revulsion at his touch, Brianna let Lundgren hold her head steady as he held a tin cup of water to her dry lips. As soon as she drained the cup, she jerked her head away from him.
Lundgren's lips thinned in a grim smile, even as his loins tightened in response to Brianna's defiance. With an almost dainty gesture, he swept dust off the nearby bunk and settled his sparse frame onto it. He kept his dark gaze on the young blonde until she was squirming uncomfortably, then he slowly let his eyes drift down her lithe little body.
Brianna felt her skin crawl as the man's black eyes took inventory of her form. It took great effort but she managed not to let her contempt and fear show on her face as his features flushed with lust. She shifted once more, then gasped in shock as his hand shot out and grabbed her breast in a harsh grip.
"You're mine, Brianna. No one else's," Lundgren hissed. His other hand shot out to grasp her arm and he yanked her toward him for a brutal kiss. "The judge will be here soon, and once we're wed no one will stand in my way." His evil eyes glittered as he took in her bruised lips, and he chuckled coldly.
"Ty will stop you, " Brianna spat out confidently, then shrank back in shock as Lundgren tipped his head back and exploded in laughter.
His laughter stopped abruptly and he stood to leave the cabin once more. "Mason will be dead soon, my dear, if he isn't already," he said over his shoulder. "It would be best if you just reconciled yourself to being my happily wedded wife." He stopped halfway out the door to look back at her pale face. "I look forward to taming that unruly spirit of yours."
A flash of gleaming white teeth and sparkling blue eyes followed Brianna into darkness as her sorely abused body and spirit gave up their fight and she slipped into unconsciousness.
"I want no mistakes made this time," Lundgren ground out to the two men waiting by the door. "Make sure Mac and Willie did the job right." His feral black eyes gleamed with hate. "If they didn't, you two need to finish the job." He waited a moment for the men to nod their agreement and head for their mounts, then strode across the clearing to where five more of his ranch hands stood. After ordering two of them to stand guard inside the cabin, he sent the last three out into the surrounding trees to take up strategic positions---just in case Mason proved more difficult to kill than he anticipated.
As his men spread out to follow his orders, Lundgren glanced up at the steadily darkening sky. He'd been in Colorado long enough to be wary of its quickly changing weather patterns and he shivered in anticipation of the snowstorm that was brewing. It was strange how it could be sunny and warm one day and then dip to below freezing the next. He shook his head to be rid of the idle thoughts and turned his attention back to gaining control of the entire town and its surrounding area. Within a week he would be the sole owner of every source of water Cedar Creek depended on to survive.
He mounted his chestnut mare gracefully and turned her toward his vast ranch. Only one man stood in his way and soon, very soon, he would be six feet under and an obstacle no more. Three men shuddered as demonic laughter echoed through the trees, glad to be out of sight of the heartless man who owned their souls.
Ty Mason headed for the boarding house with a small smile tugging at her lips. Her dreams had been filled with thoughts of a certain strawberry blonde, and the feel of tender flesh beneath her fingers. A flash of heat darted from her chest to her lower body, as her suddenly active imagination took off and she had to struggle with her self-control to keep from bursting into an all-out grin. Before falling into slumber the night before, she had run through all the arguments against courting the pretty farm girl - they had all fallen to the wayside by the memory of how the girl's lips felt against her own. Ty knew she would do whatever it took to win Brianna and keep her by her side forever.
She spotted the sheriff waiting at a table for her and spared him a nod before a matronly woman hurried up to her and took her hat. "Hello, Maria. How are you today?"
Maria's face flushed at the deep, raspy tones and she bobbed a quick curtsey without thought. She smiled up into sparkling blue eyes and wished fervently to be thirty years younger so she could lead this handsome young man in a fine dance. "I am fine, senor," she responded breathlessly, leading the bounty hunter to the sheriff's table. "I will be back uno momento with your coffee and breakfast." She fussed slightly with the tablecloth until Ty winked at her and she hurried off to bring him his coffee and some sweets she had been saving.
"What?" Ty asked defensively as she settled into her chair.
Tom laughed at the scowling bounty hunter and shook his head. "Y'know, for someone who has such a deadly reputation, you can sure charm the ladies!"
Ty gave the sheriff a mock glare, then gave in to a smile. "Must be my southern heritage," she drawled out, causing the sheriff to laugh out loud in surprise at the dark man's sense of humor.
Two plates filled with heaping piles of eggs, potatoes, bacon, and steak being deposited in front of them effectively halted the conversation. Maria walked away from the table, beaming in satisfaction as the two men dug into their breakfast with hearty appetites.
The sheriff had just sat back and patted his full stomach when the door to the boarding house crashed open. A young boy stood in the doorway looking around wildly until his eyes finally focused on the men at the table. "Two men just rode in looking for Mr. Mason!" he gasped out. "They look really mean!"
Ty stood slowly and walked over to the boy, putting a steady hand on his trembling shoulder. "Calm down, son. Where are they now?" The boy gulped in air and pointed to the western end of the street where two horses were just coming into view.
Sheriff Young came to stand by Ty's side as they looked down the street. "Need help?" he asked quietly.
Ty stared intently at one of the men, images of others flashing through her mind until she came up with a name. "Mac Horton," she stated flatly. At the sheriff's questioning glance, Ty elaborated. "I killed his brother six months ago. Seemed he didn't take kindly to being brought in."
"So, you want help?" the sheriff asked again. He stepped away from the door when Ty shook his head and watched the young man step out into the street. He heard a gasp behind him and he turned to find Maria standing close by. "Don't worry about a thing, Maria," he told her wryly. "It'll take more than two men to take Ty Mason down."
Ty stood in a relaxed stance, waiting patiently for the two riders to come closer. She had already loosened her guns in her holsters, and let a familiar coldness sweep over her features. Her eyes were chips of ice as she watched Mac Horton dismount and her lip quirked when the other man chose to dismount ten feet away from his partner. Think it'll be harder for me to hit you over there? she asked the man silently, then she turned her attention back to the more dangerous of the pair.
Horton exchanged a quick glance with his partner to make sure he was in position. Looking back at Mason, he felt his heartbeat pick up and adrenaline surged through his body at the thought of finally getting his revenge. A tendril of doubt curled through his mind as he noticed the bounty hunter's relaxed stance, looking for all the world like they were going to have a pleasant conversation rather than try to kill each other.
"You killed my brother," he blurted out. Mason only nodded, a slight smile playing across his lips and the cold, blue eyes never wavering. Horton clenched his jaw. He wanted to see fear, anger, anything but the cool amusement the bounty hunter was showing. He sneered as he tried to goad Mason again.
"I can't wait 'til the boss lets us have our turn with your blonde bitch. She looks like she'd be a good...." Horton's eyes widened as he suddenly lost his ability to speak. It felt like a sledge hammer had hit his chest. As he looked down, his mind barely registered the blood pouring out of the bullet hole in his chest. His last thought before he died was, I never even saw him move! His partner hit the hard-packed earth scant seconds after he did with a bullet hole in the exact same place.
Cold fury radiated through Ty's frame as she slowly reholstered her guns. A flaring of her nostrils was the only sign of the sheer will power she was using to keep from ripping the dead man limb from limb as an example to others of what would happen if anyone dared hurt Brianna. She vaguely heard her name being called and she turned slowly to face the sheriff. With some shock, she noticed George Duncan standing next to him, his face filled with a mixture of fear and grief.
Two short words and Ty felt her life crashing around her. Even the death of her twin brother, Tyrel, had not aroused the rage and pain that consumed her at this moment. The world around her disappeared as she closed her eyes tightly and delved deep within herself to try to reclaim the icy calm that had kept her alive for so many years. When she opened her eyes, the two men facing her stepped back involuntarily in fear. Pale blue eyes of flame glared back at them and when she spoke, the harsh rasp of her voice sent shivers of dread down their spines. "I'll kill them all."
George Duncan swallowed audibly as he tore his gaze from the enraged man who was making his way swiftly to the stables. "Sheriff, I...."
"I'd better follow him, " Sheriff Young interrupted. "Or he really will kill them all." In a matter of moments, George Duncan was alone in front of the boarding house, his mind reeling from the terror he felt since first awakening and finding Brianna gone. He had held a brief hope that his daughter was with Ty Mason, but that had vanished when he saw the look on the man's face when he heard that she was missing. "They know not what they have done," he whispered as Maria gently led him inside to join the rest of his waiting family.
Sheriff Young caught up with Ty just as he reached the stables. Grabbing the bounty hunter's arm to slow him down, he suddenly found the business end of a Colt .45 under his chin. He had no doubts that he was closer to death than he had ever been.
"Don't...ever...touch...me," Ty snarled, her tenuous grip on her anger slipping dangerously. The last time her rage had taken control, two entire Yankee camps had been wiped out: one hundred men dead because they had been the closest to Ty's home where her twin brother and his family had been slaughtered. Knowing only that it had been done by a Yankee patrol, Ty had crept through the two camps and exacted her vengeance. When in doubt, kill them all was the mantra that ran through her mind that bloody night. And she had.
"Ty." The sheriff swallowed convulsively as he hastily dropped his hand from the man's arm. "We need to make a plan. We can't just barge in and shoot everyone in sight." When the Colt was put back in its holster he almost wept with relief.
A feral grin swept over Ty's face. "Why not? You wanted Lundgren taken care of. I'm going to take care of him." She swiftly saddled her horse and threw her gear up behind the saddle. "If you're coming with me, you'd best hurry. I won't wait around for long."
Ty checked her ammunition and her weapons as she waited for the sheriff to return. He was back moments later with boxes of shells under his arm - enough ammo for a small army. The sheriff could only hope that they wouldn't need it all.
"Boss, I don't think this was such a good idea." Shorty Calhoun sat on the very edge of a high-backed chair in Todd Lundgren's den. He'd been Lundgren's foreman for two years and he still had trouble reconciling the man's violent temper and actions with his conscience. Sure he was paid extremely well, but that didn't stop the nightmares he still had sometimes of the deaths of two of Lundgren's wives. Shorty had been a silent witness for both, and he was glad he hadn't been around for the death of the first wife. From what he had heard, hers was the most violent. He shivered involuntarily at the thought, remembering the bodies he had helped bury. Neither woman was recognizable after what Lundgren had done, and he shuddered at what fate may have befallen the first wife. A sharp bark of laughter brought his mind from the past.
"I don't pay you to think, Shorty. I pay you to follow my orders without whining about it!" Lundgren snarled. "That damned bounty hunter is getting to be a thorn in my side and I want him stopped! Now!" His hand slammed down on the top of the desk in emphasis, making Shorty jump.
"All right. Anything you say, boss. But I've heard he's pretty fast with a gun. Are you sure the boys'll be able to handle him?"
Lundgren smiled with no humor, his eyes drifting to a point just over Shorty's shoulder, his thoughts obviously elsewhere. "If they can't, I'll just have to get someone who can. As for the girl," he paused and the smile grew colder, "once I've had her in that cabin long enough, she'll be willing to do anything I want. I'm sure she won't want anything to happen to her poor little brother and sister."
The foreman shivered as his boss' gaze settled back on him, measuring and finding him lacking. "And if you don't think you can do your job, I'll find someone to replace you as well. Do you understand me?"
"Don't you worry, boss. When you give the order I'll knock them kids off faster'n killing a gnat."
"Good. I knew I could count on you." Lundgren swiveled his chair to face the window behind him and Shorty knew he'd been dismissed. His hands trembled slightly as he jammed his hat back onto his balding head, and practically ran out the door. The money was swiftly becoming not enough to soothe his battered conscience. A fast horse to Mexico was high on his list of priorities, Lundgren be damned.
Lundgren steepled his fingers in front of his face and stared sightlessly out the window. Mason's arrival and pursuit of the Duncan girl had forced him to alter his carefully laid out plans. Kidnapping the girl added risk; he didn't like risks. His eyes glittered evilly as he thought over the situation.
The judge was on his way, but it would take a few days for him to arrive. Too much could go wrong in that time span. The only thing to do was to take the girl and meet him halfway. By the time anyone realized they were both gone, it would be too late. They would be husband and wife, and no one could stop him from taking over the entire range. Even if the boys didn't succeed in killing Mason, he knew someone within a hard day's ride that could do the job.
Pounding hoof beats interrupted his thoughts. Minutes later, he watched as Mason and the sheriff galloped up and swung off their horses. Gunfire erupted as his men opened up on the two, and Lundgren hurried out of the den to gather some clothing and get to his horse. He cursed roundly as his plans were altered yet again.
Ty ducked instinctively as a bullet whizzed by her head and she dove off her stallion and rolled behind a water trough. "Oh sure," she said sarcastically to the sheriff as he rolled to a stop beside her. "Let's just go to the front door and knock."
There was a brief flurry of shots exchanged before Tom could respond. "Hell, I'm the sheriff! How was I supposed to know they'd shoot at me?"
A surge of adrenaline coursed through Ty and she grinned at the sheriff, eyes sparkling like blue diamonds. "Those two slack-jaws we left a mile back should have been your first clue, Sheriff!"
She gauged the distance between them and the bunkhouse where Lundgren's men were holed up. She'd have to be fast, but if the sheriff could cover her, she thought she could make it safely. A bale of hay lay conveniently next to the corner of the building, perfect to set the place ablaze.
"I'm gonna smoke 'em out." She pointed toward the bale. "Cover me while I get over there. And for God's sake, keep your head down!"
The sheriff gingerly touched the scrape on his forehead where a lucky shot had grazed him before Ty had killed the two men waiting in ambush. "After this is all over, you and I are going to have a serious talk about respect for the law," he drawled even as he hunkered down lower behind the trough. His hand shot out and grabbed Ty's arm, then released it immediately. "What about the house?" he asked quickly before Mason could say anything about touching him.
"If anyone was in there, they'd be shooting at us by now. I don't know where Lundgren is, but I'd bet he hightailed it to wherever they've got Brianna."
The sheriff nodded, then settled himself into position. At a signal from Ty, he began firing at the bunkhouse, giving the bounty hunter some breathing space as he began his dash for the side of the building.
Ty pumped the action on her rifle furiously as she ran, getting off as many shots as she could while she made her way to the bale. A curse exploded from her as her leg was knocked out from under her, and she did a tuck and roll to make it the rest of the way. She gasped for breath as she hid behind the bale, and examined the wound in her leg. She gave the sheriff a brief thumb's up before she tore her bandana from her neck and tied it around her thigh. "These are new pants, goddammit!"
She smiled grimly upon spotting an open window on the side of the bunkhouse. She worked loose a hefty clump of hay and sparked it, then tossed it through the opening. She pushed the rest of the bale close to the wall and set it alight as well, then scrambled away from the building toward the stables.
Ty had to give them credit. It took the men a whole five minutes before they started pouring out of the doorway, coughing and hacking. It took even less time for her and the sheriff to corral them, tie them up, and find out the location of the line cabin where Brianna was being held.
"You get these men back to town and I'll go after Lundgren." Ty didn't even look up as she adjusted the bandana around her wound, a scrap from her new shirt helping to plug the hole.
"Ty, you're wounded. You can't go after him alone. We'll take them back and go after Lundgren with more men." The sheriff didn't even attempt to offer to help with the bandage. He'd already received one icy glare from the bounty hunter when he'd mentioned it the first time.
Ty finished her task and straightened up to full height. "You saying I need help?" Her eyes glittered coldly and the sheriff gave her a shaky smile.
"Ah, no. Not at all. Never mind. I'll just get these cowpokes to town and you," he waved his hand in the general direction of the line cabin, "do whatever you need to do."
Ty relented and clapped the sheriff on the shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. It's Lundgren who needs to be worried." She strode to the stallion with no trace of a limp, and swung into the saddle with the grace of a panther. Her tone changed to a low growl. "He'll never hurt another woman ever again. Especially mine."
The sheriff's eyebrow shot up in unconscious imitation of the bounty hunter's and he felt a shiver run down his spine. He almost wished he could be there to see that. No, maybe not. His gaze drifted to a body sprawled by the stable doors, its head twisted at an odd angle. Only one person had tried to fight and Mason had broken his neck with one audible snap. The rest had given up in short order. He shook his head and turned his attention back to the prisoners. Mason would be fine. If anyone could succeed against high odds it would be him.
Lundgren's trail proved easy to follow. The man was obviously in a hurry and made no attempts to cover his tracks. Ty's mouth curled up in a sneer as her eyes restlessly scanned the area, subconsciously noting how the terrain of the land was changing; sparse scrub grass with small thickets of trees changing to denser tracts of pines and firs. Even the covering of needles upon the ground did nothing to hide her prey's trail.
Her thoughts cast ahead to where Brianna was, her heart clenching with unfamiliar fear. Somehow, someway, the small blonde had wrapped herself around her heart, and the mere thought of losing her to anyone... much less that madman... scared the hell out of her. I'm coming, Brianna. Be strong for me. A rare prayer from a battle-scarred woman was sent across the Colorado sky, and Ty hoped desperately that it would be enough to get her there in time.
Her hands reined in the stallion almost before she had even registered the sound of metal upon metal. The well-trained horse didn't make a sound as its rider eased from the saddle, strong fingers sliding the rifle from the sheath strapped to its side. Noiselessly, Ty crept closer to where her instincts led, boots barely moving the pine needles beneath her.
A hushed murmur of voices drew her forward, rifle held at the ready, eyes narrowed to icy slits. Well-honed senses swept outward silently telling her where the two men were located, and how far apart they were from each other. Just as she drew the rifle up to nestle it against her cheek, she felt the air move behind her and she rolled, wincing as a bullet tore across her upper arm.
Then all hell broke loose.
Livid curses split the air, mingling with wild gunfire. Ty scrambledback into the cover of the trees, pumping the action on the rifle and hearing the satisfying noise of bullets meeting flesh. A flash of blue caught her eye and she turned and fired again, smiling grimly as the man who had shot at her from behind crumpled to the ground. Swinging back around, she fired off another shot then tossed away the empty rifle, quick hands drawing the six-guns and firing again.
A lucky shot, she would think later. Her torn sleeve caught on a branch, slowing her just enough for a bullet to find its mark in the thick muscles just above her hipbone and driving deep. Through a red haze of pain, she continued firing until there was finally blessed silence. Five men lay scattered among the pines, their blood slowly seeping into churned up earth; her harsh breathing the only sign of life among the tall trees.
Her face was a set mask of pain as she made her way back to her horse, stumbling as she reached him and grabbing for the pommel. No time. No time. Her mind repeated it over and over as she dug into the saddlebags for more bandages. She tore off a strip and quickly wrapped it around her upper arm, tying it off with her teeth. It was just a crease, so she wasn't too concerned with it, but the wound above her hip... that was something else entirely.
She used her elbow to hold a square of cloth over the jagged entrance while her hands took over the task of reloading her guns. A muffled groan slipped out of her as she leaned down to recover the rifle where it had fallen. Her hands shook slightly as she reloaded it, and she frowned in concentration. Closing her eyes tightly, she repeated a mantra to herself and forced the pain to recede deep within her. There would be time enough to deal with that later. Now, she needed to find Lundgren and make sure his worthless life was ended as painfully as possible.
Steady once again, she poked the cloth into the hole of her wound and then wrapped another strip around her waist to hold it in place. New pants ruined. New shirt ruined. How the hell am I supposed to court a girl properly looking like this? she asked herself sardonically. She carefully swung up into the saddle and glanced down. Yup. Boots are scuffed, too. Her eyes glittered dangerously as she let the idle thoughts push the last evidence of pain even deeper, and her feral smile would have chilled the strongest of hearts.
The slightest of pressure urged the stallion forward and she headed toward the cabin, the fading light guiding her the rest of the way in silence.
Lundgren cursed as the struggling form almost knocked him over again. "God damn it, woman! I'll knock you out if I have to!"
Brianna twisted her body one last time in a futile effort to get free, then quieted in the face of the threat. She'd never free herself if she were unconscious. Lundgren had tied her hands in front of her and forced her out of the cabin just as the last echoes of gunfire had split the air. He had arrived an hour before, sending the two guards out to join the others as reinforcements, and her heart had leapt when the first sounds of the fight had drifted through the air to them.
He's here! I knew he'd find me! Her elation was short lived as she had realized it would be five against one, but the panicked look in Lundgren's eyes steadied her. If he had been confident of his men's abilities, he wouldn't be dragging her away from the cabin now and darting fearful glances into the woods around them.
Brianna's eyes widened with a different type of fear as Lundgren dragged her to two waiting horses. She hadn't been able to ride a horse since she was ten years old. One of her family's old mares had gone half-blind and skittish, and kicked the young child square in the chest one day when she was careless enough to walk behind her.
Lundgren thought the stiffening of her body was another attempt to delay him, and he cracked her viciously across the face with the palm of his hand. Green eyes filled with tears causing him to laugh harshly. "Get used to it, bitch. I'm not nearly done with you yet." His fingers dug cruelly into the soft flesh above her elbows as he lifted her into the saddle.
Brianna stared blindly ahead as her heart raced in her chest painfully. She hardly noticed her hands being tied to the pommel, or her feet being lashed into the stirrups. All she felt was the simple-minded terror of being on the horse. Her body lurched forward as Lundgren tugged the horse's reins to lead it, and her fingers tightened convulsively trying to keep her balance.
Please, Ty. Find me. Oh God! I don't know how long I can do this. She closed her eyes tightly and let her thoughts center on coal black hair, bright blue eyes, and a bold smile. Her body slowly relaxed as ghostly arms wrapped around her, soothing her with their strength. She slowly reopened her eyes, filled with a new determination to help Ty however she could.
"You know, he's going to find us," she stated quietly to the man a short distance in front of her. "And when he does, you're going to really regret this. Maybe you should let me go and save yourself."
A hard yank on the lead rope made the horse rear and almost unseat the girl. She clutched at the saddle horn as blazing, black eyes glared back at her. "Shut up!" he spat out, his face flushing with anger. His eyes widened with rage and disbelief as the farm girl he thought would be so malleable stuck her tongue out at him.
His thin form fairly trembled with fury as he dismounted and strode back to his captive, a small riding crop that had been hidden before suddenly in his hand and slapping smartly against his thigh. He licked his thin lips in anticipation as the girl flinched, and he raised the crop to strike her with it, not hearing the hoof beats until it was too late.
The intense waves of rage and protectiveness surged through Ty so quickly her body reacted before her mind fully registered what was happening. She was hurtling off the back of the stallion and slamming into Lundgren's body, giving no thought to the wounds she had sustained.
Lundgren turned, hoof beats and then a low growl stopping the movement of his arm. Then he was flying backwards, Mason's long arms wrapped around his torso and the two of them tumbling across the pine-laden ground. A grunt escaped him as they rolled, and he flailed wildly with his arms trying to get loose from the strong grip. A jab with his elbow was rewarded by the sound of a soft hiss of pain, and he struggled free from the loosened hold.
"You won't win, Mason. She's mine now just as she was before you came." He narrowed his eyes as he and Ty circled each other, his gaze taking in the bloodied outfit of his enemy. A sneer curled his lips as he took note of the wide patch of blood above Mason's right hip. Black eyes met ice blue in silent battle, then Lundgren lunged, aiming his fist at the worst of Mason's wounds.
Ty turned at the last moment and cracked the back of Lundgren's head as his momentum pushed him past her. She had just enough time to brace herself before Lundgren turned and struck her again. They exchanged a flurry of blows, enough to make her realize that Lundgren was much stronger than he looked. A hard clip to Lundgren's jaw sent him sprawling backward on the ground.
Ty spared a quick glance towards Brianna to make sure the girl was okay. Green eyes widening alerted her, and she returned her attention to Lundgren who had taken advantage of the distraction to stand and pull out a knife. The adversaries circled each other once more, Ty's eyes glinting with dangerous sparks and a feral smile gracing her lips.
This was what she lived for, the only thing that made her blood run through her veins with an adrenaline rush. A fight where not only physical strength was required, but a keen eye and sharp instincts, and the winner would be the only one left standing. Muldoon had been a clumsy ox...strong, but stupid. Todd Lundgren was different. His slight physique had required him to learn how to use other means to beat an opponent, aided by an uncanny skill with the blade. Ty had learned a lot from the sheriff during their ride to Lundgren's ranch, and she wasn't about to underestimate the thin man circling her. Not when there was a little, green-eyed blonde depending on her.
Brianna struggled with the rope binding her to the saddle horn to no avail. The flash of the knife slashing through the air filled her heart with fear for the bounty hunter. She had seen the blood caking his clothes, and knew that he was seriously wounded. Her elation at being rescued had faded quickly at the sight.
Oh, God. Please give him strength. Please. Frustrated tears flowed down her cheeks as she was forced to merely watch while the two men fought. She blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision as the men feinted back and forth. She tried to keep quiet, but every time the blade sliced through Ty's clothes a gasp of horror escaped her.
Suddenly Ty fell to his knees, and Brianna stood straight up in the stirrups in reaction. She felt the flesh tearing from her wrists from the ropes biting in, but her attention was solely on the drama unfolding before her. She watched in horrified dismay as Todd's arms lifted high above his head, readying for the killing blow, then she dropped abruptly back onto the saddle when Ty's hand flashed out and Todd fell backwards.
Ty struggled forward to re-grip the knife protruding from Lundgren's bowels. Her face was a feral mask as she glared down into his rapidly paling face. "What's the matter, Lundgren? Didn't think a woman could beat you?" The vicious hiss was followed by a harsh twist of the blade, carving it further into Lundgren's flesh. Ty was rewarded by a flash of horrified understanding in Lundgren's eyes before death claimed the wretched dog.
Ty wasn't quite sure later how they had accomplished it, but somehow she had released Brianna's bonds and they had made their slow, torturous way back to the long cabin. Her last memory was of staring up into glorious green eyes, before the darkness mercifully stole her away.
Brianna's hands shook as she rushed about the one-room cabin. It was a stroke of good fortune that supplies had been readied for a long stay. There was plenty of food, wood for the stove, and stashes of other supplies necessary for living far from town. Pans of water were already heating on the stove, and she found the bandages she was seeking under the other cot in the room.
Her lips moved silently in prayer as she cleaned Ty's face off and tended to the small gashes she found. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself for removing what was left of his shirt. With infinite care, she pulled away the tattered cloth...then her brows furrowed as she found another strip of cloth wrapped around his chest. She saw no blood, but she cut away that strip with great care as well. She gasped in astonishment.
She ran trembling fingers across her eyes and then peeked again. Yes. Two full breasts, marred slightly from the pressure of the binding. Her eyes wide, she stole a glance at Ty's face, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw he...no, she... was still unconscious. The sight of the pale and drawn features brought her attention back to where it was needed, and she focused solely on finding and treating the bounty hunter's wounds.
For hours she sat by Ty's side, running cool cloths over her forehead and murmuring softly to her when she tossed restlessly. She tried vainly to keep the blankets over Ty's naked body...as much to keep the bounty hunter warm as to keep herself from staring at what was so obviously a woman. Her thoughts ran in a chaotic jumble, alternately chastising her for being so blind, and raging at Ty for such a terrible masquerade. By the time dawn's light started to creep through the oilcloth covering of the windows, Brianna had succumbed to exhaustion, her weary body draped gracelessly across the hard wooden chair she had pulled next to the cot.
She awoke to harsh breathing and Ty struggling to get out of bed. It took all of her strength to wrestle the woman back down and it wasn't until she began humming tunelessly that Ty finally settled back into a quieter sleep. Ty's face was flushed and her body radiated heat. Brianna quickly rounded up the buckets and fled from the cabin to the stream outside. When she returned, it was to spend even more hours bathing the woman with cool cloths, dipping them into the water to chill them again, and then starting the process all over.
Gooseflesh rose on her arms as she heard the hoarse voice screaming in feverish pain. Tears dripped from her eyes unnoticed as she continued to try soothing the bounty hunter, stopping only long enough to change the dirty bandages and apply clean ones.
"TYREL! TYREL! Damn them! I'll kill them all, I swear it to you, brother!"
Ty had risen half out of bed, then dropped back limply after the screaming tirade. Brianna shuddered at the violence of the outburst, but her natural curiosity made her wonder who this Tyrel was. Before too long she learned all about Ty's murdered family: her brother, her brother's wife, their two-year-old daughter, and their infant son. All killed by a Yankee patrol except for the little boy, who had survived despite a horrible slash across his little belly.
But Ty hadn't known that until much later. After she had already wiped out the Yankee camp, and had signed on to the closest Rebel outfit. She had done the next best thing she knew, and had anonymously arranged for the boy to be taken in by friends of the family. All this and more, Brianna learned by the feverish woman's bedside. Her heart broke over and over again at the harsh life Ty had been forced to lead.
After a few days, Ty's fever finally broke and Brianna stumbled from the cabin to breathe in deeply of the fresh air. The wounds were healing quickly, but Ty had yet to recover consciousness. Brianna knew it was just a matter of time before she was forced to make her own decision. Could she still love Ty knowing she was a woman? Could she forgive her the lie?
She didn't know. She just didn't know.
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