Gunfire in the middle of the night was never good.
The blast startled Ginger Freeman from the first sound sleep she'd had in a week. She bolted upright in the tent she shared with her friend and fellow traveler, Toni Rodden, and fumbled around in the dark for her moccasins.
"Was that thunder?" Toni asked from the other side of the tent, her voice thick with sleep and worry. She made a shadowy figure as she sat up and reached for her shoes.
"No. Gunfire. I'm going to check on it."
"You don’t suppose it’s Indians?" Toni's voice shook the words into the air.
Ginger understood her friend's fear. Only a short time ago, Toni had been the object of a younger war chief's obsession. But the army had taken care of that─soon after Toni's rescue, a group of soldiers bore down upon the renegades camp, rescuing white captives and rounding up as many of the braves as they could. "If it is a pack of Indians, it's not who you're thinking. But you'd best stay put, just the same.
More gunfire shattered the night, and the sound of yelling echoes through the camp. "Outlaws! Take cover!"
"Did you hear that?" Toni asked, standing and heading toward the tent flap. "I─I better go with you."
The offer brought a smile to Ginger's lips. I thing we can handle it. Sam would have my hide if I let you go out there, and you know it. And I don't think it’s outlaws, anyhow. Most likely Kip Caldwell and some of the other boys playing a joke with gunpowder and a flint." Ginger frowned, hard-pressed to believe her own words, but she tried to sound light-hearted for Toni's sake. "Besides, what kind of crazy outlaws would attack a wagon train the size of the one?"
"The kind with a lot of men and guns?" Toni's voice still shook, but Ginger has no time to mollycoddle her friend. She figured her help was most needed out there with the rest of the guns. More than the rest, truth be told. If there was one thing Ginger knew a little something about, it was outlaws─a fact she couldn't mention to Toni or anyone else. But from her experience, this attack just didn't make any kind of sense. Unless the bandits thought there was an awful lot of treasure to be had among this battered, weary band of travelers, or the men firing into the camp were missing a few brains. Ginger was betting on the latter.
"I'll be back as soon as I can." She checked to make sure her pistol was loaded, then stuffed it into her holster and grabbed her rifle for good measure. She tossed a quick look in Toni's direction. "Hunker down and stay out of sight, Hopefully this'll all be over soon.
"Be careful!" Toni whispered after her. Ginger stopped and turned back. She snatched her pistol from her holster. "Here, take this."
Toni gave a vehement shake of her head. "You'll need it. Besides, I don't like those things."
Ginger shoved the weapon toward her. Now was not the time to take no for an answer. "Take it. I have my rifle. How am I supposed to concentrate, thinking about you unprotected in here, all by yourself?"
Toni's expression softened, and she took the pistol. "Thank you, Ginger."
Ginger ducked her head, swallowing hard. Emotional women always made her uncomfortable. Maybe because she hadn't really spent much time in the company of women since she was a little girl. Before her ma left. She'd been raised around rough men, who laughed at tears and didn't cotton to hugs and coddling. "I'd best be going."
Pulling back the tent flap, she escaped outside, taking care to keep her head down and her senses alert. She gripped her rifle firmly, ready to aim and fire if necessary. And she figured it would be necessary real soon.
She tried to take stock of the situation. Outside the circle of wagons, the dark and dust and sagebrush were thick enough to hide a few outlaws, bent on mischief. But she still couldn't imagine anyone crazy enough to go up against a wagon train the size of this one. Especially if her suspicions were correct─no more than fifteen men would be riding with the outlaws.
She strained her eyes against the dimness around her, Dawn was beginning to break over the snow-capped mountains to the east, but it was still too dark to make out more than shadows beyond the camp's fire.
Ginger crept forward, bending at the waist as she tried to assess the situation. Her body remained tense, every inch of her alert to the danger lurking in the shadowy darkness, as she searched for the most logical spot to hunker down and make the biggest impact. From the direction of the gunfire, she knew they weren't surrounded, and the attack seemed to be aimed toward the middle of the wagon train.
Heading toward the closest wagon, she kept her mind focused on getting to her hiding spot─which was the only explanation for what happened next.