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American Southwest 1839: He's an outlaw. She's a woman on the run. Can they work together to rescue her brother and his motherless son from a band of marauders? It's a dangerous game they play, because their own secrets prevent them from trusting one another completely.
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HONOR AMONG THIEVES
The waning moon slipped out of sight beyond the rim of the canyon as K.D. Axtell worked feverishly in the depths of darkness stashing bags of silver coins in the prairie wolf den. When he had shoved the last one as far inside as it would go, he rose slowly from his knees and listened intently for any sound out of the ordinary. The night breeze whispered through the scrubby pines; a night bird's cry jarred his nerves. The pack mules shifted restlessly on the uneven ground, setting off hollow echoes between the sandstone walls. Nearby, a murmur of voices pinpointed the location of his two companions.
Innocent sounds. Still, a deep sense of foreboding stirred the hairs on his neck. It reminded him of the time he’d nearly ridden into an ambush in West Texas. There’d been nothing tangible to alert him, other than this same prickling apprehension. Sure enough, a half dozen Comanches had been waiting for him in an arroyo. He’d played hell getting away from them with his scalp intact.
Once again, something was out of kilter, but damned if he knew what.
K.D. was not ordinarily the fearful sort. He had survived for years in this heathen land, scraping by on wits and pure nerve. Tonight, though, the shadows among the rocks pulsated as though alive with a mysterious presence. The craggy canyon walls towered above him like monumental jaws waiting to clamp shut on him.
His friend, Fergus McCrae, stumbled down the path toward him, blocking a patch of starlit sky with his angular shape. "Here's the last of 'em."
Three heavy bundles dropped at K.D.’s feet. He stooped to pick up one of them, rapidly calculating the number of bags he'd packed into the short tunnel. Seven? And these made ten—exactly right. Each thousand dollar's worth of coins had been laced tightly into damp rawhide pouches and left to shrink and dry in the August sun until they could be handled without so much as a clink or a jingle. He figured they ought to remain intact a long while hidden in this dry lair.
K.D. cached the last bundle and straightened. "Good—this hole is packed full. You want to get the mules out of sight while I rub out our signs? It’ll be light soon, and we’d better make tracks before those riders you spotted, whoever they are, catch up to us."
"Don’t worry. They're miles away, sleeping like babes around their campfire."
"Better hope you’re right."
Fergus spit out his used wad of tobacco and rummaged for a fresh chaw. "How do you suppose they figured out about us carrying this silver?"
K.D. had been wondering the same thing. "I don't know."
He'd become aware of riders on their trail before sunset and, mindful of Fergus's frontier savvy, had urged his friend to drop back and scout them out. Fergus had returned with the news that a dozen men were tracking them.
"Tracking us?" K.D. asked.
"Damnedest thing. Looked like a mix of half breeds and white men traveling together. And they had what looked like an Apache on the ground sniffing out our trail."
"That’s my bet. The heavy-set white man could have been Mangas Grossman."
The implications had chilled K.D. to the bone. Why would Grossman’s notorious gang of outlaws be after them? And if they were, why hadn’t they closed in before dark?
After some discussion, he and Fergus decided that the Chaguanosos must be hanging back, biding their time, until the main road had been left far behind. If it was Grossman, he undoubtedly planned to rob them.
"We’ll never make it to Santa Fe." Fergus’s voice sounded bleak. "Not with the mules loaded down like this. Damn it all! That caravan will roll in from the States, and my sister will think I’ve abandoned her."
"She’ll just have to wait. Where can she go?"
"Now you see why I didn’t want her chasing out here after me? What the hell was she thinkin’ of? It’s no place for a civilized woman. Ought to have stayed home where she belonged. If I live through this, so help me God, I’m packing her off on the next wagon train heading back east."
"Calm down," K.D. said. "I’ve got a plan."
During the next few hours, in spite of being hampered by darkness, he’d managed to locate the perfect hiding place to stash the silver coins. That done, he planned to turn the bell mare loose so she could return to Fergus’s ranch like the homing pigeon she was, with the rest of the mules in tow just like he’d trained them. Unencumbered by pack animals, the riding horses could be trusted to reach Santa Fe ahead of any pursuers. Especially with a head start.
"Papa? Are we done yet?" K.D.'s young son tripped and fell in the dark, picked himself up and kept coming without a whimper. "When are we gonna make camp? I'm gettin' tired."
A wave of tenderness washed through K.D. He resisted the impulse to pull the boy into his arms and give him a big hug. It wouldn't do to baby him too much. For an eight-year-old, Roddy Axtell was quite a little man. K.D. allowed himself a one-armed embrace around the small shoulders and a firm squeeze. "Almost finished here, son."
Roddy turned and leaned into him, butting his head against K.D.'s ribs. The boy’s short but wiry arms encircled his waist. "Can I have a piece of jerky? I'm starving!"
"Of course." K.D. knelt on one knee and drew his son closer—a little coddling wouldn't hurt, he decided. Roddy was growing up too fast. Soon, such gestures would be lost to him forever. Besides, it wasn't like Roddy had a mother tying him to her apron strings.
He pressed his face into the hollow between Roddy's neck and shoulder, savoring the warm familiar scent. As he got to his feet, hauling the boy up in his arms, he brushed his lips across the soft shell of his ear and kissed his cheek. Emotion, almost painful in its sweetness, stabbed at his heart. "Your uncle Fergus will get you some jerky. You help him get the mules lined out, and I'll be right along."
"He's not my uncle, Papa. Not really."
With an insulted snort, Fergus took the boy from K.D.'s arms and threw him over his shoulder like a sack of grain. "C’mere you! What do you mean I'm not your uncle? Do you have any real uncles?" He strode away toward the mules.
"No, I only got Papa, you know that." Roddy's voice gusted out on little puffs of air as he dangled over Fergus's shoulder.
"Well, then, you could use an uncle, I think. You ought to consider making me part of the family."
"Would I have an Aunt Felicia, then, too?"
"Well, all right. Uncle Fergus? Tell me again how you met Papa in jail, and Felicia brought you food to eat and—"
"Later, Roddy. Right now we gotta move out. Did you get our bedrolls an fixin's tied back on the mules like I said?"
"Good for you." Fergus paused to glance back at K.D. "I'll take the boy up top with me, all right?"
K.D. hesitated. The sky wasn't as dark as it had been—he could almost make out the dim ovals of their faces. "Yeah, all right. Get him out of here—we're easy targets down in this canyon. I'll be right behind you."
"Meet us at the creek where we left the horses." Fergus put Roddy down, and the two of them disappeared into the darkness hand in hand.
While K.D. quickly gathered enough debris to plug the opening of the small cave and arrange branches against it in a life-like pattern, Fergus led the mules up out of the canyon. A cloak of silence settled down, punctuated by a small stone cascading down the cliff trail like a marble on a staircase.
A frisson of uneasiness slithered up K.D.'s spine. Although he'd gotten in the habit of taking Roddy along with him on his trading expeditions, for once he fervently wished he'd left him behind with Fergus's wife.
With a bushy limb from a pine tree, he swept away the mules' tracks in the sandy parts of the canyon floor and off the dusty path up the cliff. In the east, the gray sky brightened to rose.
Just after K.D. left the canyon, carrying his Kentucky rifle in one hand and striking out in his long stride toward the creek a half mile away, he heard the first rifle shot. Before the echo died away, a volley of reports shattered the peace. He broke into a flat run.
The Chaguanosos! They must have broken camp long before dawn.
K.D. cursed himself for a fool. Why had he let Fergus talk him into believing they had plenty of time for this strategy? He should never have allowed him and Roddy to get separated from him.
He threw every ounce of power he had into his wild sprint, legs pumping, arms swinging. The landscape seemed to stand still around him; only the ground under his feet moved like an endless belt winding through a treadmill. He fought to drag enough air into his burning lungs. How had those slow-shuffling mules gotten so far in so short a time?
Roddy! If anything happened to his son— Please, God!
Before he had raced halfway to the creek, the gunfire had sputtered away to nothing, leaving a silence more ominous than the sounds of battle. By the time he reached the banks of the shallow stream, the marauders were galloping away in a cloud of dust, driving the stolen mules and the white bell mare ahead of them. The saddle horses tethered out of sight among the willows whinnied shrilly after them.
Stumbling to a halt, he stared after the departing bandits in disbelief. A large man in a bright red shirt brought up the rear on a spotted horse, struggling to hold a small squirming body across the saddle in front of him.
Bringing his rifle up, he aimed as well as his shaking hands would permit and fired. The bullet fell short as he knew it would. The scene etched itself in horrible detail on K.D.'s mind as he strived to comprehend what was happening.
Nearby, Fergus crawled slowly to his feet and staggered toward him. Blood from a head wound dripped down the strands of his russet hair and spattered his shoulders. "K.D., they took him! They took Roddy. They stole all the mules and provisions, too. God, I tried— But there were so many of them! Got off a few shots, but I couldn't reload fast enough."
K.D. braced his hands on his trembling thighs and leaned forward to drag air into his heaving lungs, fighting the urge to throw up. As the bandits disappeared over the horizon, he couldn't tear his gaze away from the swirl of dust that marked their passage. Deep inside, a cold numbness spread through his body. Life had suddenly become empty, desolate, meaningless.
Mangas Grossman. One big ugly bastard with a band of ragtag thieves had taken from K.D. all he held dear in the world.
END OF EXCERPT
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