Western Texas Brush Country
Trace McQuade sprawled on his belly and squinted through the brush at the small cabin. Hidden in the pines, wrapped in shadows, and cradled in a valley, he might not have found it but for the wisp of smoke curling from its chimney.
Even outlaws had to eat.
The scent of frying bacon taunted his senses and reminded him he hadn’t had a hot meal in weeks. Somewhere beyond the cabin, in the woodlands, lurked the rest of Sheriff Dowd’s posse, five more men who, right along with Trace, traveled long and hard to hunt down Slick-Shot Billy Hayes and bring him and his gang in.
No doubt, the posse appreciated the smell of that bacon, too.
If not for the rancher concerned about the activity near his line camp, and the fear his cattle would be rustled, Trace would never have come looking here in this desolate spot. Could be the break he needed.
His belly burned at the memory of how Slick-Shot’s ambidextrous skill with his pearl-handled revolvers had been too much for Trace’s younger brother. Robbie had gone down in a hail of bullets in a street fight that never should have happened. Trace had been robbed of the chance to fight back, to save him, to tell him good-bye.
Mostly, he’d never be able to tell Robbie how much he loved him. Or how proud he was of the man Robbie had become—a lawman, newly-deputized, determined to catch the rustlers who had sucked the life out of ranchers in this county and beyond. Ranchers like Trace, who stood to lose everything without the cattle that provided their livelihood, all because of a ruthless and flamboyant rustler like Billy, who worked for another rancher, a lowlife by the name of Bert Wesley, who provided the cover-up for his rustling operations.
Trace wouldn’t let Billy Hayes get away with any of it. The outlaw would pay the price, all right. Jail was too good for him.
Movement near the cabin blew apart Trace’s bitter thoughts and yanked him back to reality. His finger settled on the trigger of his Winchester rifle; his glance glued onto the two men wearing drifters and Stetsons. They strolled from around the side of the structure, in no particular hurry.
One of them carried the reins to a horse, a pretty palomino. Strange, that lone horse. Must be one of the men was fixing to ride out, leaving the other behind.
Trace’s eye narrowed. If the pair were part of Slick-Shot’s gang, then where were the others? Why would one of them stay back? Were the rest of the band going to return?
His teeth gritted. The longer he ruminated over questions that had no answers, the more time he wasted, and if he didn’t act fast, he’d lose his chance.
He’d waited too damn long for that.
His head lifted. “Hold it right there!”
One of the men whirled, whipping his coat open as he went for his pistol, giving Trace a quick look at a red sash and fancy ruffled shirt. No other man he knew dressed like that but Slick-Shot Billy Hayes.
“Show yourself!” the outlaw shouted back, his weapon ready, even as he eased closer to the palomino.
“You’re surrounded, Billy,” Trace said. He bettered his grip on the rifle, his aim true. “You’re not going anywhere.”
The other man turned toward Billy and clutched his coat sleeve. They appeared to argue, and Trace would’ve given his right arm to know their plan.
Until Billy moved behind his companion, as if for cover, and reached for the palomino’s reins, and Trace knew exactly what the outlaw intended.
“Get away from that horse!” he roared. “Put your hands up.”
He fired a shot into the dirt, a warning he meant business and to let the rest of the posse know things had turned serious. Billy fired back, once then twice, blind into the brush. The ping of bullets alarmingly close reminded Trace in a hurry there was a reason the outlaw had earned the nickname ‘Slick-Shot.’
But he needed to get closer for the advantage. With the Winchester’s butt against his shoulder, he stood. Each step measured, he moved out of the brush’s protective cover and waited for Billy to see him.
It didn’t take long. The pearl-handled pistol jerked in his direction.
“Going to tell you one more time,” Trace said. “Hands up.”
The outlaw didn’t move. But Trace did, one step, then another.
“That you, McQuade?” the outlaw demanded.
Again, the second man clutched Billy’s coat sleeve. Billy shrugged him off.
“That’s right,” Trace said.
“Robbie’s big brother, ain’t you?”
Trace’s gut clenched at the sneer in Billy’s words. “I am, and I’m bringing you in for killing him.”
“The hell you are.”
“For rustling my cattle, too. Me and a whole slew of other ranchers. You’ve run slip-shod over too many folks for too long, and now you’re going to spend a little time with a judge. He’ll make sure you get what’s coming to you. “
The outlaw dropped an arm around the other man’s shoulders, keeping him close to his side as he sidled next to the palomino, a move so casual Trace might have missed it if he hadn’t been watching for any trick Billy might try.
“Always figured you for a smart man, McQuade.”
“No reason to think otherwise.”
“Then you should know I’m not comin’ with you.”
“Me and the posse say otherwise.” Impatient with the outlaw’s stalling, Trace took another set of steps closer. “Drop your weapon. Now. Let’s keep things easy.”
Suddenly, Billy yanked his accomplice in front of him like a shield and fired off a succession of shots that forced Trace to drop into a roll and reciprocate, body braced to feel the burn of a bullet that never came.
But in that moment, maybe two, Billy leapt onto the palomino’s back, bent low and tore off, leaving his accomplice behind, on the ground and writhing.
Trace swore. Viciously.
He leapt to his feet and ran, stumbling and sliding over the uneven earth, until he reached the downed man. Somewhere in the brush, men yelled, and horses galloped, assuring Trace the posse had taken off after the outlaw.
Dropping his rifle and landing on his knees, Trace ripped off the outlaw’s Stetson to get his first good look at the man Billy had abandoned to save himself.
Shock rolled through Trace, holding him immobile, his thoughts frozen. Until the realization set in that this was no outlaw, no ruthless member of Slick-Shot Billy Hayes’ gang, but instead a woman.
The daughter of the rancher who ran the rustling operation with Billy.
The young woman Trace had fancied himself in love with, a love that was destined to fail from the moment he first laid eyes on her, years back when they were both young and green behind the years.
But she’d been feisty, full of spirit, and Trace had liked that about her. He always figured a woman like Emma, the daughter of a cattleman, would be a good wife. Trace had dreams of being a cattleman, too, growing his own spread into the county’s biggest.
What a fool he’d been. How many times had she lied to him? Denied any collaboration between her father and Billy Hayes—and hell, even herself—in spite of the rumors that persisted otherwise?
A blind fool.
Her eyelids fluttered open, and her gaze centered over him. Her mouth curved weakly. “Never thought you’d be the one to give me a bullet, Trace.”
“Never thought I’d ever shoot a woman, either,” he growled, stricken with what he’d done, despite everything. “Where are you hit?”
“Shoulder.” She winced.
Trace ripped open the duster that hid her feminine build and found the fast-spreading crimson. He yanked off his bandanna and applied pressure.
“It hurts, Trace,” she whispered.
“Reckon so.” And it was his fault. He’d give anything to roll back time and not fire the slug that found its mark on the wrong man. Correction—woman. “What made you take up with the likes of Slick-Shot anyway?” he demanded before he could stop himself.
“The thrill of him, I suppose.”
“You were always a wild one, Emma,” he muttered, glancing up to see Sheriff Dowd ride up with Ben Johnson. Both men sheathed their rifles and dismounted.
Seeing her, the lawman grunted his surprise, then studied her wound. “Bullet go through?” Gently, he eased her to one side for a quick inspection. “Looks like it. She’ll live.”
“She needs a doctor.”
“We’ll get her one.”
“As soon as we do, I’ll ride after Billy, hook up with you and the others.”
“Save yourself the trouble.” Emma’s hand touched his arm. “Even after what he did to Robbie.”
Trace’s mouth turned cynical. “Believe me, it’s no trouble.”
“You’ll never find him.”
“Not going to quit before I begin.”
“Where’s he headin’ to, young lady?” Sheriff Dowd asked, his unshaven face stern.
“Where in Mexico?” Trace demanded.
“I don’t know.”
A sheen of tears appeared, making him wonder if her bullet-shot shoulder was the reason, or if she suffered from a different kind of pain.
“Billy didn’t see fit to tell you?” he asked roughly.
She glanced away. “No.”
“Can’t imagine he’d ride that far by himself. Too risky.”
“He—he’s meeting up with the others, but where at, I don’t know.”
Trace regarded her. If she was lying, she was doing a damn good job of it. That she was riding with Billy meant she had deep feelings for him, and it’d be likely she’d want to protect him from the law.
But something about those tears told him differently. Might be she was hurt that Billy hadn’t trusted her enough to reveal his planning. Maybe even regretted what she’d done. Trace didn’t know a woman on earth who wouldn’t be broken that a man—any man—used her to save himself, not caring that she took a bullet meant for him, then ride off, leaving her to bleed in the dirt.
Reluctant compassion stirred within him. Emma had her faults, including a penchant for lies and bad decisions, but she didn’t deserve that.
No one did.
Sheriff Dowd rose. “We’d best start looking for them boys. Slick-Shot’s got a head-start on us. You sure you don’t want me to send Ben to get this young lady some help?”
Trace didn’t move. Despite the anticipation of another chase, of the sensation of time ticking, of his fierce need to avenge Robbie’s killing, a different kind of obligation kept him at Emma’s side.
“I’m sure. Go on. I’ll catch up with you,” he said.
Dowd frowned. “You got a personal stake in hunting down Hayes.”
“I’ll see him caught, one way or another.”
“All right, then. We’ll get the cabin closed up, then ride out.”
After he left, Emma’s cool fingers gripped Trace’s wrist. She appealed up at him, her face pale, her eyes luminous and pleading.
“I’ve done some things I shouldn’t have,” she said quietly. “I wouldn’t blame you if you hated me for spurning you.”
Suddenly weary, Trace covered her hand with his own. “I don’t hate you, Emma.”
“Try not to be. You might not think so, but Billy has given you a chance to start over. Become respectable.”
“I love him. I thought he loved me, too.”
I loved you, Trace wanted to yell. I would’ve given you a good life. A happy one.
Her chin quivered. “Now I’m alone.”
“You have your pa.” Bert Wesley, as crooked as Slick-Shot Billy Hayes, maybe worse. But he shared his blood with Emma, and that ought to count for something.
“Won’t be long you and Sheriff Dowd will throw my father in jail for getting involved with Billy,” she said.
There was no accusation in her tone. Only understanding. Acceptance.
“Folks make decisions every day, Emma. Not all of them are good ones.”
And he’d made his. Sometimes, decisions required sacrifice to do what was right. Making things right for a woman he’d shot was one of them.
Grim, he helped her to her feet, and they headed for his horse, his mind set on the long ride to find her a doctor.