Unedited Excerpt from Sam's Creed
Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2007
All rights reserved. Harelquin SPICE
They topped the rise. The town, such as it was, came into view. Ten ramshackled buildings formed an uneven cross in the middle of nowhere. It was doubtful a town so small had a hotel. He hoped the hell Kell had town manners.
"You might be right about that bath."
"I am right on many things."
He smiled, struck the sulphur and lit his smoke. She did stick to her guns. The ride to the edge of town was completed in tense silence. As they cleared the first building a sign on the third down caught his eye: Hotel.
"Looks like you might get that bath after all."
Isabella's response was a harsh gasp. He'd heard that sound too many times before to mistake it for anything but fear. Looking over his shoulder, he had a clear view of her. Not her expression as the hat had slipped over her face, but he was able to determine the direction she was looking. Her attention was down the street to where five horses were tied outside the saloon. One of them was a paint with distinctive markings.
As if his glance was a cue, five man came to stumbling through the doorway of the saloon, spilling onto the dirt street in a drunken roar of laughter. Breeze whinnied. Kell snarled and dropped his head, ears flat to his skull in a warning. Out of the corner of his eye, Sweet Pea's head jerk as Isabella yanked him to a halt.
The men looked their way then away, dismissing them as yet another couple of saddle bums blowing into town on the good weather. As long as the no one looked too closely, they'd be fine, but Sam wasn't going to hinge Isabella's safety on a hope that flimsy.
Backing Breeze up until he could reached over and grab Sweet Pea's reins, he tugged them out of Isabella's hands. It wasn't hard. She was still staring at the men, her face a chalky white. Keeping his voice low and soothing, he ordered, "Duchess, I want you to throw your leg over to this side and slide on down."
The shake of her head "no" was barely discernible. He was tired, hungry and even if she didn't want that bath, he sure did. And the sooner he settled this, the sooner he could set about enjoying the pleasures of town. "Do as I say."
The order had no more effect on her than the last one. Leaning over, he handled the matter by grabbing her forearm and giving a tug. Instinct had her grabbing for the saddle horn with a high pitched, undeniably feminine squeal as she listed to the side. Fortunately, Sweet Pea stood solid. Unfortunately, the men heard, stopped and looked back. They exchanged words. Pointed. Retraced their steps.
Sam untied his shotgun from its sheath, double checking to make sure it was loaded before sliding it back. He pulled his revolver from its holster and rested his arm across the saddle as if he had nothing better to do on a hot, sunny afternoon but sit in the middle of the street. "Isabella, go on into the hotel."
For once she didn't argue with him, scooting behind the horse and up onto the wooden walk. The men stepped off the walk and into the street. The glances they shot Bella who was still standing at the door provided a good clue to the topic of their conversation.
"Get inside, Bella."
"It is locked."
The bandits were an ugly looking bunch, non too clean, but colorful in their assortment of clothing. Their spurs clinked softly as they swaggered forward. That swagger worried him. It meant they felt pretty comfortable doing whatever they planned on doing.
He nodded to the leader when they got to about twenty feet away, "Howdy boys." In case they mistook his greeting for an invitation, Sam centered his revolver on the leader's chest. "That's far enough."
The man ran his hand over his full mustache, his fingers lingering on the straggling ends of the right side. "The woman you have with you looks familiar."
"Who rides with me isn't any of your business."
Two of the bandits fanned out in a loose flanking maneuver. Sam glanced around the streets. The smattering of inhabitants that had been walking about had disappeared inside buildings faster than he could wave his hand. Down the street a door slammed shut.
"Isabella, I thought I told you to get inside."
"Then why are you still standing out on the street?"
"Because the people of this place seem to want me outside."
A lanky man with a black hat, dirty chaps and shiny guns, headed toward Isabella. Sam adjusted the point of his revolver. "Mister, you take one more step, and it will be your last."
"You're awfully unfriendly for somebody who just came into town," the leader said with deceptive civility.
Sam gave him back an equally civil smile. "Consider it a flaw in my character."
Sam glanced over Isabella standing on the walkway. She was too exposed. "Duchess, I want you to go around to the alley over there."
She waved to the man at the edge of the walk between her and her goal. "How?"
"Just walk on by."
Her tongue flicked over her lips. Not a single man missed the provocative sight. Damn that woman had a mouth made for loving.
"If he moves I'll put a bullet in his brain. You can trust me on that."
Two breaths and then she turned those eyes on him. "You promise you will shoot him?"
"You will not miss?"
"Likely is not a guarantee."
"Fine, but if you miss I will be unhappy."
Even from here he could see her hands shaking at the thought of passing by the bastard.
"Then for sure I won't miss."
With a short nod she headed toward the alley. Sam waited until Isabella disappeared around the corner of the building, and then he straightened, settling easily in the saddle, letting the coldness that proceeded battle cloak him. "Now that she's gone, we can talk."
"There is nothing to talk about."
"Fine, then I'll just lay it out for you. It's been a bitch of a day. I'm hungry, tired and been stuck on the wrong end of that woman's tongue for the last four hours." From the alley came the faint echo of a gasp. Sam smiled. He thought that would get her going.
"If the woman is such trouble, my friends and I would be happy to take her off your hands."
He just bet they would. Leather creaked as he shifted his weight in the saddle. "And who would you be?"
"Well, Juan, I only mentioned that because, pretty much, all I want is a couple shots of whiskey and a soft bed."
The man near the walkway moved. Sam met his gaze and gave a small shake of his head. He settled back.
"There's no reason you can't have that which you want," Juan said.
"As long as I give you what you want?"
Juan nodded. "Sí."
"That's not going to happen."
"The woman is Tejala's."
"Then Tejala is going to be disappointed."
"I don't think so."
"What's mine stays mine." He nodded toward the alley where Bella hid. "And the woman's mine."
"And who are you to think you can take what is Tejala's?"
Centering the revolver on Juan, Sam answered. "Sam MacGregor. Texas ranger."
The was the murmur from the man near the walk. A whisper of unease spread through the group. A little of the starch left Jaun's stance. But not all of it. After all, Sam's reputation not withstanding, they had him six to one.
Juan spat. "Your badge means nothing here."
Sam shrugged. "A badge means nothing anywhere. It's the man you've got to be afraid of." He smiled. "And quite frankly y'all are wearing on my last nerve. So if you don't mind, I'd like to get this over with."
"And what is 'this'?"
"This is me either peaceably passing through or plugging a hole in some of you." He turned the revolver on the bandit closest to the alley. The shotgun he lined up with Juan's midsection. He didn't need accuracy with a shotgun. "Which way I go is entirely up to you."
Metal slid across leather in an audible hiss as Juan's men drew their guns. Behind him, the unexpected scuff of a boot on sand. Sam dove to the ground, turning and pulling the trigger as he fell, swearing as he saw his target, jerking the gun to the left just in time. The bullet whizzed past Isabella's head. She screamed and crouched down, covering her head with her arms.
"Son of a bitch!" She must have circled round the building. Rolling under the horses' hooves toward the center of the street, he took the line of fire away from her. At least he knew why Kell hadn't given a warning.
"Get your ass back in the alley," he hollered. "Kell, guard."
He hoped the dog knew to guard.
Bullets hit the ground around Sam in rapid succession. Kell hesitated.
"I will help," Isabella yelled. Sam didn't know how much help she expected to be with her hands over her face.
He scanned the street, noting positions. "You can help by getting your butt to safety." He glanced at the bristling dog. "And take Kell with you."
Juan laughed from behind a post. "You cannot even get your woman to obey, and you expect us to fear you?"
"Nah, you I just expect to die."
Rolling to his back, dropping the shotgun beside him, he palmed the hammer on his Colt, unleashing a spray of bullets. Three bandits dropped, two didn't. Shit.
Return fire was immediate. He didn't have any cover. A bullet struck him in the thigh with hard punch and a sickening splat. Isabella screamed. He only had a few seconds to act before the pain came calling. Jumping to his feet, Sam ran for Bella, catching her around the waist as he got even, half carrying, half throwing her into the alley. Kell was right behind. Bullets peppered the building in the spot they'd been a split second before. He pressed his back against the wall. Splinters of wood flew, stinging his cheek as he shoved Isabella to the ground.
"When I say to stay put," Sam growled. "Stay put."
Pointing the shotgun around the corner, he fired blindly, relying on the scatter to do damage. A high pitched yell told him he hit something. The swearing afterward meant probably not fatally.
"Son of a bitch."
There was a tug at his belt. He turned, another curse on his lips. He did not need an hysterical woman on his hands. Isabella grabbed his hand and slapped something into his palm. His fingers closed around familiar shapes. Bullets. He met her gaze. There was steel beneath that softness.
Bullets whined past the alley opening. He cocked the other barrel of the shotgun, waiting for a pause before pointing the barrel around the corner again and pulling the trigger. As soon as it discharged, he tossed it to Isabella along with the pouch of ammunition.
"Do you know how to load that?" he gritted out.
She didn't waste time on words, just set to work with an efficiency that answered his questions. He shoved bullets into the chambers of his revolvers, keeping an eye on the movement beyond the alley as best he could. "It's going to get messy here in a minute."
Her glance fell to the blood on his thigh.
"It already is."
He was bleeding like stuck pig. Yanking his bandana from around his neck, he held it out. "Do me a favor and tie that off."
She did. He bared his teeth against the pain. "Thanks."
She yanked the knot tight before handing him back the shotgun. "Do not miss."
She was a bossy little thing. "I'll do my best.
"It would be best if you succeeded."
Things were too quiet out there. Sam inched along wall being careful his gun belt didn't scrape. A rhythmic jingle of spurs approached. He shook his head at the foolhardiness of trying to sneak while wearing spurs. He leaned back and waited. The thin barrel of a rifle extended past the corner. Sam didn't move, holding his palm out flat behind him warning Isabella not to make a sound. Two heartbeats passed. The gun barrel jerked. Sam dropped to his knee. Fire burned up his thigh. The man leapt around the corner. Sam fired the colt. The bullet hit the outlaw in the heart, stopping him mid leap. He dropped, a stunned expression on his face.
Cocking the hammer again, Sam wiped the sweat from his brow with his shoulder and waited. There was no sound.
He spared a quick glance at Bella. Her face was white and her eyes were big with terror, but she was kneeling beside Kell, holding his jaws shut. Sam added quick thinking to bossy.
Holding his finger to his lip, he indicated she should continue to be silent. She nodded back. Sam inched closer to the corner of the building, blood dripped down his leg in a warm flow. As soon as he took care of the last bandit, he'd have to see just how bad it was. At least the bullet had missed the bone.
"Your friends are dead," he called out.
"I'm willing to let you live, for price." Something crashed to the ground. From the splintering aftermath it sounded like a crate. "You promise to take a message to Tejala, and I won't plug your sorry ass."
Still no response.
"I'm going to count to three. If I get to three I'm going to take that for a no."
Another crash. He stepped around the corner. A barrel tumbled off the stack against the livery. Beside it listed a broken crate. A quick scan revealed no guns poking out of windows, no new additions to the battle cluttered the streets. Apparently the citizens of the town were no more married to Juan and his companions than he was.
He got to the edge of the barrels, his leg aching like a son of a bitch. Ahead of him he could see the bandit scramble backwards across the ground, one arm held awkwardly at his side. Sam advanced, guns cocked, eyes watchful as the man tripped and fell back to his elbows. A hoarse shout punctuated his fall onto his injured arm. He pushed with his feet but there was nowhere for him to go. Behind him was the building and in front of him was Sam. The wall would be easier to get through.
The bandit finally realized he was trapped. He threw up his hand. "Qué quieres?"
Sam didn't answer. He let man stew in his own sweat while he bore down on him. A trickle of blood rolled down his cheek and more blood seeped down his leg.
He kicked the gun away from the from bandit's useless arm. "Why does Tejala want with this woman?"
"I don't know"
"That wasn't what I asked you." Sam fired a bullet into his other shoulder.
He had to wait until the man's shouts dropped to a panicked gurgle before he could repeat his question.
"To marry her. She is supposed to be his bride."
So that part of her story was true.
"If she supposed to be his bride why isn't she married to him?"
"Because I have refused the marriage contract."
Sam should have known Isabella wouldn't stay put. She stood beside him, staring down at the man, no expression on her face.
"I don't remember inviting you to this parlay."
Kell worked between them, his yellow eyes locked on the bandit. Bella folded her arms across her chest. "I do not remember asking you to capture me."
He cocked the other hammer of the gun. "And yet we're both here."
"And here is where?"
It was the bandit that answered with a sneer. "Here is where you will die."
Sam was tempted to end it right there. Instead, he placed his foot on the bandit's injured shoulder and pressed. "Care to share what makes here so damn dangerous?"
It took very little for the bandit to spill what he know. Pretty much one hard push and he was telling all. "Tejala owns this town. Owns this territory. No one will help you for fear of his retribution."
"I don't recall asking for help."
The bandit leaned to the side and spat out a mouthful of blood. "You will need it." He jerked his chin toward the dead. "You killed his cousin. He will not rest until he kills you."
"Which one's his cousin?"
Sam looked at Isabella. She shrugged. The bandit was more accommodating. "The one with the moustache.
"The stupid son of a bitch who came between me and my dinner?"
The man spat again. "In a few days, we will see who is so stupid."
"If you kill him. No one will know who did this," Isabella interjected helpfully.
Kell growled as if he approved the plan.
"True." Sam removed his foot from the bandit's shoulder as he pretended to consider the notion. "Of course the thirty or so town folk peeking at us from behind the window curtains might be a problem."
"How many bullets are in your gun?"
Damn if she didn't have a sense of humor. Swallowing back a chuckle, he shook his head. "Not that many."
The bandit grimaced, showing rotted teeth stained red with blood. "There is no hope for you ranger."
Suppressing an urge to kick those ugly teeth down his throat, Sam kept this voice even. "I wouldn't go that far. As long as I have the woman, I have a bargaining chip."
Isabella gasped. A sly glint came into the bandit's gaze.
"Tejala would pay much for her." He hitched his weight up higher against the wall. "I could bring you to him. We could share the profits."
"I don't share."
"You will need me to find him."
Sam caught Isabella's hand, keeping her from getting any further out from his side. "Or I could just plant my feet somewhere and give a shout as to what I've got."
He ignored to Isabella's, "Bastardo."
"What do you think of that?"
The bandit spat again. He wiped his chin on his shoulder. "I think the you are a dead man."
Sam straightened. "I think you're right. Which means I've got nothing to lose."
Curtains were fluttering like crazy down the street. The town's residents were getting nervous. Nervous people made him anxious. Isabella tugged on his hand. He looked down.
"If you let me go," she said, in a voice that shook. "No one will chase you."
"Now where would the fun be in that?"
"You don't want me."
She had to be shitting him. The woman was a curvy little keg of dynamite that had a man thinking about making her explode with first look. "Darling, there isn't a man alive that wouldn't want you."
He didn't like the assessing look in her eyes as she cocked her head to the side and place her hands on her hips. "You also?"
"Sure. I'm as red blooded as the next man."
"Good." The too big hat fell over her face. She pushed it back with an impatient hand. "Then I will hire you."
"I'm a ranger. I'm not for hire."
She didn't bat an eye. "Then you can hire me."
"You're a ranger in Tejala's territory who's going to have a whole ton of bandidos on his trail in a very short time. You're going to need a guide if you plan on surviving."
Sam pushed his hat back with the back of his hand before rolling his cigarette. "I suppose you're offering your services?"
"You got any references?"
She waved at the near unconscious bandit at their feet. "I have been evading men such as he for the last six months. That must mean something."
What it meant was she'd been running scared longer than any woman should have to. "Well, I might be impressed if you could prove it was true."
That chin came up. The hat came down. She rounded on the bandit. "You will tell him it is true."
The man shook his head. Isabella kicked his calf, then his thigh Sam figured the family jewels were next. The man grabbed her boot. "I'm not telling him shit."
Kell lunged in and snapped at his arm. Isabella stomped on his fingers as he jerked it back. "Tell him!"
Sam chuckled as he pulled out a sulphur. They sure were a blood thirsty pair.
The bandit lurched to the side, cradling his arm. Isabella drew her foot back. Kell stalked forward. It was probably time to step in.
Bella whipped around. "Make him speak."
He quirked an eyebrow at her. "You don't think you've tortured him enough?"
"He must tell."
He put his hand on her shoulder, soothing the panic rippling through her in visible tremors. "Yeah, he must."
But not the way she thought.
Grabbing the injured man by his shirt, Sam yanked him to his feet. "You're going to carry a message to Tejala for me."
"What makes you so sure?"
Stupidity ran deep in this bunch. "Because otherwise," He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "I'll let those two have at you. Make a choice."
The bandit grunted. "What is this message?"
"You tell Tejala that if he comes after Bella, he's coming after Hell's Eight."
The man shook his head. "He will not care. He is crazy that way."
"Funny," Sam struck the match. "So am I."