Arizona Territory, north of Tucson, September 1878
The two stagecoaches raced onward into the setting sun, hurling dust into the sky like profligate gamblers. A covey of rifle-toting braves could have hidden in their wake’s sandstorm, or their future hosts’ few fences.
Gareth Lowell scanned their back trail using the best spyglass available within a day’s ride from Job’s Wells. Lady Luck had favored him enough at the card tables to give him this expensive piece of optics; he never bothered to look for the fickle wench anywhere else and simply went prepared for the worst.
Apaches were somewhere in this barren valley, but farther than his rifle and pair of Colt Peacemakers could reach. At least the fine bowie knife Portia Townsend had given him couldn’t sink into any enemies at the moment.
He’d ridden all night from Prescott to meet this stagecoach at this dying station. He’d have fought Cochise’s entire band for the chance to slog through hell, if William Donovan had asked him to.
He simply needed a few more minutes until he could escape Job’s Wells.
Built atop an old Indian ruin, the stagecoach station’s lone building was sunk halfway into the ground and no wall stood more than four feet high. Its pale stones melted and blurred at the corners like their builders’ ghosts. Only a few, dark brown splatters survived to hint at why those inhabitants had departed, with deep gouges beside once crimson stains.
A single circle of stones rising in the center courtyard stood stalwart below its wooden arch, silent witness to this outpost’s long purpose. A well was priceless in this wilderness of sand and thorns, carved by mountain ranges like coiled rattlesnakes. Reaching the next drink of sweet water meant riding hard for at least one day, while a man’s skin twitched every time a breeze blew lest it be an Apache death blow.
Five horses fretted in the rickety excuse for a paddock, swishing their tails and warily assessing their surroundings. Four of them were saddled, while the fifth was a fully loaded pack horse. The two best saddle horses came from the Donovan & Sons stable, of course, something which reassured Gareth at a level so deep he merely had to glance at them and his heartbeat would ease.
Now the trailing stagecoach was close enough to count the rifles bristling from every window and the roof. Either the journey through Red Rock Pass had been nastier than usual or this crew was more determined than most of their kind to show how they’d protect the leader at all costs.
Gareth was hoping for the second reason. A smart man would put his money on the first.
“Any sign of Apaches?” asked Baylor. Like Gareth, his rifle rested against the wall beside him but a row of cartridge boxes, like substitutes for absent reinforcements, were lined up before him. His unkempt terrier Tornado paced beside his feet, a ragged ear alertly cocked.
“Nothing on the stages’ back trail, in the east and north,” Gareth answered.
Kenly grunted, the single sound indicating full understanding of everything either the younger man or Tornado hadn’t said. The dog would have sounded the loudest alarm, if he’d found enemies coming in.
As rail-thin as Baylor was barrel-chested, the two had never been seen far apart during the years Gareth had known them. But each other’s company was all they clung to – certainly not steady jobs or a single place.
“Nor where they’re going.” Baylor slung his rifle over his shoulder and rapidly stuffed the ammunition back into his pockets, with the dexterous movements of a poker shark readying himself for a new game.
The first stagecoach turned for the station, still moving so quickly that the ground shook slightly and the air trembled under the horses’ tack’s metallic ringing and the wheels’ heavy rumble.
Baylor and Kenly promptly raced to fetch the previously prepared water for the horses, Tornado uttering small yips at their heels. Here and now, nothing was more important to them than waving the two stages goodbye.
Gareth waited on the yard’s edge, rifle in hand, alert for any signs of attack. Five minutes from now and the visitors would be gone, having left behind the crucial package and its courier. Then they would hit the trail together. Two armed men riding for Tucson these days had perhaps an even chance of making it there alive.
A door opened and a passenger burst out of the dusty coach.
“Gareth, my friend!” A well-dressed apparition hurtled toward him with no hint of his messenger. “Why are you here and not Uncle William?”
Portia Townsend held out her hands to him, her face shining with delight underneath a ribbon-bedecked hat. Her dancing feet sent her new and supposedly grownup skirts’ hems twirling fast enough to kick up small dust devils.
Who the hell had dropped her skirts and put her in that adult dress? Didn’t they know she was a child?
How old was she, anyway?
She’d been twelve when they met. No decent man lusted after a little girl, whether or not she was the boss’s niece. Given how she missed her younger brothers, it was easier to think of her as a younger sister who needed a playmate.
When the devil had she grown enough curves to fill out a corset?
No, he would not consider her that way. This attire was another bit of her chicanery, designed to twist him around her finger and start another escapade.
He would never become obsessed with a child.
But her youth made it made worse for her to be here.
His stomach plummeted into an icy hell somewhere below his boots. He should have known the peace was too good to last. He’d have far rather heard hundreds of war cries erupting out of Victorio’s army, than that single feminine whoop of joy.
If anything happened to her. . . Dear God in heaven, he couldn’t let Portia end up like other victims of the murderous Apaches and similar bandits, bullet-ridden and burned like barbecued hogs because their murderers wouldn’t let anyone leave a long-planned death trap.
The old, never-forgotten stench washed back over him again and his belly knotted like a rattlesnake ready to strike. He snapped his concern at Portia like a lasso, cloaking his worry in a rough edge.
Excerpt from The Devil She Knows by Diane Whiteside
Copyright © 2010 by Diane Whiteside
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