|Montana Territory ~ 1883
Thick clouds of gun smoke swirled up on the cold morning breeze. U.S. Marshal Kyle Darby eased out from his position behind an upturned wagon, his gaze honed in on white curtains flapping from a second story window.
“Come on out, Chandler! We’ve got you outgunned and there’s nowhere to run.” Eight of his men and four local lawmen surrounded the rundown house serving as a hotel on the far edge of this rural township, each positioned behind bullet-riddled barrels and wagons they had pushed into position.
“Goddamn traitor!” Chandler shouted. “You shot two of my best men!”
Kyle grinned and reached into his coat pocket for a smoke.
All in all, not a bad morning.
Infiltrating dens of criminals was all part of a bounty hunting profession. The fact that he now wore a star didn’t change his line of work. Same job. Less pay. He’d hunt down the likes of Ned Chandler for no pay at all.
As he pulled his cigar case from his pocket a slender gold ring clung to his pinky finger. The fat diamond winked at him in the sunlight, souring the start of his good mood. Shifting his silver case of smokes to his other hand, he stroked his thumb over the smooth gold band, a token to remind him how foolish a man could be.
Gabe Logan, a fellow U.S. Marshal, crouched beside him. His dark eyebrows lifted beneath the brim of his black hat. “You planning to propose to Chandler to get him and his gang out of there?”
“Whatever it takes to get ‘em to the gallows,” Kyle said, ignoring the question in Logan’s gaze as he tucked the useless trinket back into his coat pocket. He'd rather deal with blood-thirsty outlaws than the marital bargaining methods of gold-digging women. Unlike women, outlaws he understood. Chandler was stalling. He hoped to sneak out under the cloak of nightfall after reaping his fill from poor unsuspecting fools.
Perhaps not so different from women after all.
He struck a match and held the flame against the tightly packed tobacco of his cheroot. The tip crackled as Kyle’s gaze trailed down the front of the rundown house. The flimsy structure was more grass than wood, rotted siding filled with sod patches to keep out the critters and the elements. Touch of a flame, and the place would go up like a shooting match.
“I put a deputy on each side of the house,” said the local sheriff, a stout man with a wide mustache who’d annoyed Kyle last night with his hesitation and constant complaints. Wasn’t their fault the band of outlaws chose this town to rendezvous with their gang leader. He’d been waiting a long time to meet up with Ned Chandler and would have been willing for the sheriff and his deputies to stay locked up in the sheriff’s office this morning.
“Did all our shooting wake you?” Logan asked.
Kyle suppressed a grin. He’d been working with www.watchocean.net
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Logan for six months, and had liked the seasoned marshal instantly.
The sheriff scowled. “You said sun up.”
“We said daybreak,” Kyle corrected. His men had snuck into the house before sunrise and ushered out all the rooms not occupied by an outlaw. “Did you find the proprietor?”
“Mrs. Ferrell said all her other tenants are cleared out and accounted for.”
“Awful quiet,” said Logan. “It’s makin’ my back itch.”
“They’re saving the rest of their bullets for an ambush.” It was past time to put an end to their business of killing, robbing and raping.
“This is your last chance to surrender!” Kyle shouted to his captives.
“Or what?” Chandler called back. Coarse laughter filtered through the upper open windows and a bedroom on the lower left.
Chandler clearly underestimated his talents of persuasion. Kyle clamped his cheroot in his teeth. Lifting his rifle, he took aim at a kerosene lamp on a table inside the front window and fired. The glass globe shattered.
“Fine idea,” said Logan, nodding with approval.
“What are you doing?” asked the sheriff.
“What I do best. Give me cover fire,” he said to his men.
Logan straightened and raised his rifle. Two other marshals followed suit, cracking off shots.
Kyle stepped a few paces beyond the wagon, took a last drag off his cheroot, and tossed the lit cigar through the open window of the front room. Glowing embers sparked across the kerosene and burst into an orange glow. A blanket of fire coated the table and caught the draperies. Within seconds, heat rolled out the window like a breath from hell, flames licking out and up the walls. The breeze swirled ribbons of fire across the wood front.
“You set Mrs. Ferrell’s house afire!” shouted the sheriff.
Kyle moved past him. “The government will pay for a new one.” He turned his attention to the half dozen lawmen spaced across this side of the house. “They’ll come out shooting. Be ready.”
“He’s burning us out!” voices shouted from inside. Flames quickly swallowed the house. Certain Chandler would send most of his men out the front while he tried to escape through the back, Kyle worked his way around the barricade. At the side of the house with no windows, he ran across the yard. Gunfire erupted in the front yard followed by shouts and another barrage of gunfire.
Smoke swirled around him, stinging his lungs as he made his way toward the back door. Just as he eased into position, the door burst open. Smoke rolled out, followed by a dense figure covered in a dark shroud. Chandler straightened, shrugging off a wet blanket, two revolvers in his hands. Kyle was already on him, pressing his Colt to the middle of Chandler’s back.
“Drop ‘em,” Chandler stiffened, his guns falling to the ground as he raised his hands. “You sneaky bastard.”
Kyle raised his gun to the man’s temple and dragged him toward the waiting lawmen. “Come on out, boys,” he shouted toward the house.
Men spilled out of the smoky doorway, coughing and choking, their hands raised in the air. Marshals swarmed in on them.
Kyle clasped a set of handcuffs onto Chandler good and tight. The outlaw swung around, his narrowed dark eyes widening at the sight of him.
The flash of surprise gave Kyle a slight stroke of satisfaction. “Hello, Ned.”
“Didn’t we get enough of playing cowboys and robbers as kids?”
“As I recollect, keeping you Chandler boys from stealing our stock wasn’t a game.”
“Sure it was. But then, you never were quick to catch on. You still pining over my sister?”
Chandler’s sneer resurrected six years worth of suppressed rage, tempting him to forget about the star pinned to his chest and the dozens of witnesses milling around them.
“I can see you’re still miffed over Victoria’s little deception.”
Convincing a man he’d found a woman worth loving and then wiping out his safe while he waited in a packed church for his bride’s arrival wasn’t what he’d call a little deception. He’d been young, blind and painfully foolish.
“That courtship might have cost you a bundle, but you did get to dabble beneath her skirts.”
Kyle fisted the front of his shirt. “Mind your filthy tongue,” he growled.
Chandler’s grin widened. “We sure had a time spending your money.”
“That money and your ignorance is what got her killed.” By the time he’d caught up with her in Nevada she had stepped in front of a bullet meant for Ned. Her dear brothers had left her behind to die alone in the street.
“Must smart to know she chose the grave over you.”
“I find comfort in knowing she’s not alone. I’ve already sent five of you Chandler’s on to keep her company.”
All traces of humor fled from Chandler’s eyes as anger darkened his expression.
“Oh yeah, that was me. I’ve been riding with your boys for a while now. Got your message about the job your brother Billy has lined up in the Redwoods. Once I hand you over to an executioner I’ll be heading on to the California to make sure the rest of your kin get a proper send off.”
“Don’t start counting chickens, Marshal Darby. Chandler men aren’t so slow as the womenfolk.”
Disgusted by his lack of respect for the sister who died trying to defend his rotten hide, he shoved him toward one of the deputies. “Take him to the jailhouse. And make sure--”
A woman’s shrill scream pierced the brisk air, raising the fine hair across Kyle’s skin. The men fell silent as all gazes turned to the house now engulfed by flames. Another scream split the silence.
“Mrs. Farrell!” The feminine voice rang clear.
“Son of a bitch,” Kyle breathed. They’d left a lady inside.
Chandler’s low chuckle drew his gaze. “What’s the matter, Marshal Darby? You only like to burn outlaws?”
“That’s my maid!” A woman broke away from the crowd gathering to watch at a distance. She clutched a shawl around her nightdress, her long gray hair loose against her shoulders. “That’s Connie!”
“You said all were accounted for,” shouted Logan, rushing to stop the woman from moving closer.
Flames reflected in the woman’s tear-glazed eyes. “My house.”
Kyle’s gripped Chandler’s shirt, lifting the outlaw to the tips if his boots. “Where is she?”
“Right where I left her, I suppose. She’s a spirited little filly. Must have worked off the gag.”
Smoke billowed out the open from door. Bright orange flames curled up from the top story windows and twisted across the roof. “Get them to the jailhouse,” he shouted to his men. He shrugged off his coat, tossing it to the ground as he ran toward the growing inferno. He grabbed the wet blanket Chandler had used to run from the burning house.
“Let ‘er go, Darby,” Chandler called after him. “Ain’t a woman been born worth dyin’ over!”
He would not be responsible for burning a poor woman alive. He pressed his hat down tight, dragged the damp blanket over his head and charged against the waves of heat pouring out the open door. Instantly drenched in sweat, he ducked low, trying to see through the thick smoke stinging his eyes and nose. Bursts of orange and yellow flared on either side of the narrow hall and glimmered overhead like lightening in a storm cloud. Another scream sounded from up ahead. Thankful she was on the lower floor, he hurried through the first open doorway.
A young woman stood beside a bed engulfed by fire, the massive flames reaching high where a portion of ceiling had fallen through. Armed with a bed linen, she swatted at the fire leaping from the mattress, her expression ferocious as she fought the bright glow racing up her skirt.
Spotting a full laundry basin a few feet inside the door, Kyle picked up the tub as the linen in her hands caught fire. He doused her.
Fire hissed and sizzled as she staggered back, coughing and sputtering. Flames continued to blaze from the mattress. She screamed and yanked at the wrist tied to the bedpost. Kyle drew his knife, cutting her free as he wrapped the damp blanket around her and lifted her into his arms. She struggled against his hold, her fists pummeling his chest with painful force.
“I want to help you!” he shouted over the roar of the fire raging around them.
Coughing from the smoke, she strained to peer up at him. Tears streamed from golden eyes bright with determination. “The others,” she cried as he carried her into the hall. “You have to get them.”
She didn’t know the others had made a safe evacuation, leaving her behind.
“Everyone’s out!" He felt her relax against him even as she coughed from the thick billowing clouds choking the both of them. Tightening his hold, he ducked low to avoid the wave of flames rolling over the ceiling. The dim light at the end of the burning hall looked miles away as he raced beneath falling embers.
The moment he leapt into cool morning air, the woman tensed in his arms. Her scream popped his eardrums. Moving beyond the blinding haze of smoke, he saw her blistered hands for the first time. The lower portion of her skirt had been burned away. The sight of charred broken flesh above the singed laces on her boots took the breath from his aching lungs.
“Connie!” The proprietor ran toward them, forcing Kyle to angle Connie’s injured legs away from her.
"Lady, get back! She’s hurt.”
“Over here,” shouted Logan.
Kyle spotted him standing beside a waiting wagon. The marshal rushed toward them. His eyes flinched at the sight of the girl’s legs. He wrapped a side of the blanket over her exposed skin and draped Kyle’s coat over the girl’s shoulders, covering her to her thighs as he ushered them toward the wagon. “This man will take her to the town doc.”
Kyle jumped onto the flat trailer, cradling Connie against his chest. “Go!”
A whip cracked as he sat down. Connie pressed her face to his shirt, coughing in between her jagged breaths.
“Hold on, darlin’. You’re gonna be alright.”
She continued to cough, her wheezing gasps shorter with each breath.
"Try to relax, honey. It’s just a few blocks.”
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She sucked in a hard gasp then went limp in his arms.
* * *