Colorado Territory 1872
I’ll be dead in a minute. Maybe less.
Bobbie McIntyre spurred her horse. “Faster, Mack. Hurry.” She peeked over her shoulder, saw the man’s gun poised at her back. Her heart thudded harder than the beat of Mack’s hooves.
“Go, Mack!” The wind swallowed her plea.
The bandit was gaining ground fast. She leaned lower over the saddle. The cold mountain air blurred her vision and whistled past her ears. Mack’s chest heaved and sweat streamed down his neck. He stumbled, then righted again.
She veered left toward the boulders, pulled her pistol from her holster, then turned in the saddle and aimed.
Something slammed into her back. Her gun blasted before it slipped from her grasp. She hit the ground, knocking the breath from her. A heavy weight pressed her down, then rolled off her. She lay dazed.
The click of a gun hammer set fire to panic. She scooped up a fistful of soil and stones, pushed to her knees…and stared into the steel barrel of a pistol. The dirt in her hand trickled through her fingers to the ground.
She peered around for her own gun and faced another barrel. Two men. At least that answered her question of what threw her from the saddle. The second man must’ve been hiding behind the boulder she’d planned to use for protection. She stilled while her mind scrambled for a way out of her mess.
The tall, scruffy man grinned. “Well, looky here, Jace. We chased a man and caught us a gal.”
Jace? Could this be Jace Kincaid?
The man named Jace shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. An outlaw is an outlaw be it male or female.”
The tall man snorted. “Outlaw? This slip of a woman?”
“Well, look at her. She’s sure not dressed like a girl.”
Bobbie grabbed her hat out of the dirt, resisting the urge to fling it at Jace, and shoved it on her head as she stood. “I don’t know who you expected to find, but I ain’t her. And I sure ain’t no outlaw.”
The tremor in her voice didn’t make her sound as ominous and convincing as she’d hoped.
“Get her horse, Grant,” Jace said. “Let’s head on back.”
“So we’re not gonna hang her?”
Bobbie felt the blood drain from her face. “Hang? For what? Look, I’m—”
Jace swung his pistol toward her again. “Stay quiet, miss. You’re already in trouble for prowling around on land that isn’t yours.”
“This is the Double K, ain’t it?”
He scratched his forehead with his thumb. “Yes.”
“And you’re Jace Kincaid?”
Jace squinted and cocked his head. “Right again. But then, I’d expect you’d know that, what with all you’ve been up to.”
“I ain’t been up to nothing.” She glared at him, brushing dirt and dead grass from her coat sleeves.
Jace took a deep breath and stood straighter, making him appear even more threatening. By the look of him, he could wrestle a steer and lasso a calf at the same time.
“Why’d you chase me, anyway?” she said. “I wasn’t prowling. I was on my way to meet you.”
“Likely story.” He motioned to the horses. “Mount up. The next man you meet will be the sheriff.”
Bobbie scowled and took several angry breaths through her nose. “Fine. Maybe he’ll listen to me.”
Grant lifted the strap on her saddlebags.
“Hold on there, that’s private,” Bobbie said.
He smirked. “Not anymore.”
A gun barrel to her back kept her from taking more than a step. She raised her arms. “Those are my things.”
Jace moved beside her. “Leave it be, Grant.”
“I only plan to look.”
“I said quit.”
The tone of Jace’s voice would’ve halted a stampede. Grant stepped back, hands poised in surrender, though a trace of a smile still pulled at his lips.
“Let’s mount up,” Jace said.
Bobbie looked around for her pistol, and Jace pushed the barrel into her back. “Get moving.”
“I want my gun.”
Grant pulled it from his waistband and handed it to Jace. “You mean this?”
Jace holstered his pistol and then pointed her gun at her nose. “Mount up.”
She headed toward Mack.
Jace’s growl halted her in her tracks. He tucked her gun into his belt, jerked a piece of rope from his saddle, and tied her hands in front, then moved past her and yanked her rifle from the scabbard.
“Now you can get on.”
Hoofbeats pounded toward them, and Jace turned to look.
“Great. Hank Willet and his two henchmen. Just what I need.”
The lead man astride a dappled horse reined to a stop in front of them and gave Bobbie the once-over. Long gray hair sprawled from under his fine black hat, and his leathery face showed the number of winters spent in the brutal mountain wind. He leaned his forearms on the horn of his fancy saddle as if he had all day.
Jace pulled his gloves from his coat pocket. “What can I do for you, Hank?”
Hank bumped his hat up with his thumb, and a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “Heard some gunshots. Thought you might need help. I always figured a ranch like this was too much for a boy.”
Jace smacked his gloves against his thigh. “I’ve been doing just fine without you, Hank.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard. At the rate your herd is dropping, you’ll be out of the cattle business by summer.”
“They aren’t dropping from lack of care. Someone’s been stealing them.”
One corner of Hank’s mouth pulled back in a sneer. “Call it what you want, boy. The fact remains that you’re in over your head.” Hank eyed the rope on Bobbie’s wrists. “Who’s your friend?”
“She’s not a friend.”
“Obviously. Having trouble with your women now?” Hank snorted and slapped his leg. “You sure know how to pick ’em.” He tipped his hat. “I’ll leave you boys to your fun.”
He nudged his mount into a gallop and departed with the two other men the way he came.
The scowl on Jace’s face deepened with the glare he pinned on her. He grasped her arm and led her toward Mack. Before she could climb onto the saddle, he spun her around to face him.
“I’ve got to admit that you don’t fit the type of person I figure could be callous enough to steal another man’s cattle.” He crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes as he leaned toward her. “But sometimes it’s the innocent-looking people who need watching the most. So I have to ask, just what’s your business here?”
“I have a note for you.”
“Is that right?” He took a step closer. “Let’s see it.”
“It’s in my coat pocket.” With a nod of her head, she indicated the pocket on the right side of her jacket.
Jace reached carefully into her pocket and found the piece of paper, which he took out, unfolded, and began to read. While he read, she watched his face. His eyes widened as they traced the lines scrawled over the page and then narrowed when he glanced up.
“You’re Bobbie McIntyre?
She licked her dry lips. “Yes.”
“From Roy Simms’s ranch?”
His gaze hardened.
“Is that a problem?”
The muscles along his jaw jumped like a horse with a burr under its saddle. He crushed the letter in his fist and shook his head. “You bet there’s a problem. I was expecting a man.”