1

Summer 1868

Echo Basin, Colorado Territory

She's frightened.

She has a walk like honey.

The two impressions came simultaneously to the man called Rafael «Whip» Moran. Whip didn’t know which drew him to the girl more immediately, the fear or the honey.

He hoped it was the fear.

The heat in Whip’s blood told him otherwise. Underneath the girl’s threadbare man’s wool jacket and trousers there was a very female body. And beneath her straight spine, high chin, and determination, there was very real fear.

Whip didn’t know what caused the girl’s fear or why it should matter so urgently to him. He did know that he was going to find out.

For a moment longer Whip stood in the cold mud in front of Holler Creek’s only general store. The chill of the high-country wind cut through his thick wool jacket. The girl must have felt the chill too. She shivered as she hurried through the grubby door of the mercantile.

With the easy motions of a man who was both fit and thoroughly at home in his own body, Whip followed the girl inside. The wind blew the door shut behind him with a loud bang. He barely noticed. He had attention only for the girl with the sweet, softly swinging walk.

She stopped in a shaft of light from the one window that hadn’t been broken and boarded over. For a few moments her eyes ran hungrily over the scattered piles of dry goods, tools, and clothing. The fingers of one slender hand were clenched around something she held in her palm.

As though sensing Whip’s intense interest, the girl turned toward him suddenly. He had a vivid impression of eyes the color of a wild autumn sky, a blue so clear and so deep that a man could look forever and never find an end to the beauty. What he could see of her hair beneath the hat was the color of autumn itself — glossy chestnut with red and gold running through it like leashed fire.

I’ve seen her before, he realized. But where?

With the next breath, realization went through Whip like lightning through a storm.

My dream. She’s the girl in the cabin door, waiting, always waiting…

For me.

Motionless, Whip stared at the girl. A lock of hair had just escaped from beneath the girl’s battered Stetson. The hair gleamed like silk against her pale cheek.

Without thinking, Whip walked closer and lifted his hand to tuck the strand back into place above her ear. When he realized what he was doing, he stopped, stepped back and touched his hat instead.

«Morning, ma’am,» Whip said, nodding to her.

The girl blinked and looked at his big hand. Whip knew why. He had moved so quickly that she couldn’t be certain he had ever intended to touch her instead of tipping his hat politely.

Her glance went from his long fingers to the bullwhip coiled over his right shoulder. Her eyes widened.

Teamsters with bullwhips weren’t particularly unusual in Colorado Territory, certainly not enough so that the presence of a bullwhip should startle anyone. The girl’s involuntary response told Whip that she probably knew him.

Or, to be precise, knewofhim.

With a tight motion of her head, the girl acknowledged Whip’s polite greeting. Then she turned away from him with cool finality.

«Mr. Murphy?» she called huskily.

Whip felt his body tighten as though the girl had stroked him from forehead to heels. Her voice, like her walk, was pure summer honey.

I’ve been too long without a woman.

No sooner had the thought come to Whip than he knew it wasn’t true. He had never been a man to be controlled by his sexuality. He had spent too many years in too many cultures where women were prohibited to foreigners; even to a polite, soft-spoken foreigner with strong shoulders and smoke-gray eyes and hair the color of the sun.

«Mr. Murphy?»

There was a rattle and muttering, followed by the sound of reluctant footsteps from the back room. The storekeeper left his cozy seat by the stove for the barnlike, unheated room where supplies were heaped about in untidy piles. Owning the only store in Echo Basin’s remote gold country had spoiled Murphy. He made his customers feel that he was doing them a favor by selling them his overpriced goods.

Behind Whip the mercantile’s door opened. Reflexively he spun around and stepped out of the way. As he moved, his left hand went to the butt of the bullwhip that was riding his right shoulder. Though quick, the motion wasn’t threatening. It was simply the action of someone who was accustomed to living alone in dangerous places among the most dangerous of all animals — man.

The four men who crowded through the door were examples of why Whip was careful not to turn his back on anyone in Echo Basin. The Culpepper boys were worse than the usual run of gold hunters. Loud, lewd, unwashed and lazy, they weren’t especially beloved by anyone. Including, if rumor could be trusted, their Arkansas mother.

Few people were really sure which Culpepper was Beau, or which was Clim, or Darcy, or Floyd. No one cared. There wasn’t a finger’s worth of difference in the lot of them. Brown hair, pale blue eyes, rawboned, quick to anger; the Culpeppers were all the same. They were pack animals. They prospected, hunted, fought, and whored together.

It was whispered that the Culpepper boys also worked together to rob miners who were taking their gold from Echo Basin to Canyon City, but no one had ever caught them at it. Nor had anyone pushed the matter, publicly or privately. Men who crossed the Culpeppers had a nasty habit of waking up bruised, bloodied, and of a mind to pull up stakes and try their luck in some other part of the Rocky Mountains.

The Culpeppers might have been lazy when it came to hammering gold out of hard rock, but they fought savagely with fists, knives, guns, and boots.

Casually Whip eased farther back toward the wall, giving himself plenty of room. He didn’t expect anything violent to happen, but a careful man was always ready.

Whip was a careful man. From where he now stood, he could see the girl on his right and the Culpeppers on his left.

If the men noticed Whip’s movements, they didn’t show it. Their pale blue eyes tracked each breath the girl took as though she was a lamb born only for their fangs.

«What’ll it be, Shannon?» Murphy demanded. «Talk fast. My chilblains is aggravating me something fierce.»

«Flour. Salt.» Shannon took a quick breath. «And a handful of lard and a pinch or two of baking soda.»

Murphy grunted. «How you payin’.»

It was a demand, not a question.

Shannon’s clenched hand opened. A circle of gold gleamed on her palm.

«My wedding ring.»

Disappointment swept coldly through Whip when he realized that the girl was married.

Of course she is, he told himself acidly. A girl with a walk like that wouldn’t live alone in a place like Echo Basin.

Her husband must be a damned fool to let her come to Holler Creek by herself.

«Gold?» Murphy asked, looking at the ring.

«Yes.»

The stark word said a great deal about Shannon’s emotions, as did the fine tremor in the hand she held out to Murphy.

Whip’s eyelids flinched in sympathy for the girl. The past winter must have been very hard for Shannon and her husband if she was forced to sell her wedding ring for the most basic supplies. And not much of them, either.

Slowly Murphy took the ring. At least he was slow while his dirty fingers touched Shannon’s palm. When he finally dragged his hand away from the girl’s clean skin, he moved quickly enough to test the quality of the gold ring.

While Murphy bit down on the wedding band, Shannon’s right hand dropped to her side. Her clothes, like her hands, were almost painfully clean. She rubbed her palm against her ill-fitting pants as though removing the feel of Murphy’s touch.

The Culpeppers saw, and laughed.

«Hey, old man. She don’t want your dirty paws on her,» one of them said. «How about mine, darlin’? I washed ’em just last week.»

«Your hands ain’t no cleaner than mine, Beau,» said another Culpepper.

«Shut up, Clim,» Beau said. «Go find your own rag doll to fondle. I done found mine. Ain’t I, darlin’?»

Shannon acted as though the Culpeppers didn’t exist.

But Whip could tell that she heard each word clearly. She was standing straighter than ever, and the generous lines of her mouth were drawn flat in fear or distaste.

I hope those boys have better manners than I think they do, Whip told himself grimly. I’d hate like hell to take on the four of them with only a bullwhip and a prayer.

Murphy bit the ring again, grunted, and tucked it into the pocket of his greasy flannel shirt.

«Your husband must’ve cleaned out his claims if this is all the gold you got left,» Murphy said.

«Ask him,» said Shannon. «If you can find him before he finds you.»

Murphy grunted and the Culpeppers hooted.

«The bit of supplies your ring fetches won’t see you through a fortnight, much less a whole summer,» Murphy said.

«My husband is a fine shot, no matter what the game.»

Shannon said nothing more.

Nor did she have to. The Culpeppers looked among themselves uneasily. Then Beau smiled like a Comanchero.

«Yeah, I keep hearing about what a fine shot your husband is,» Beau said. «But I ain’t neverseenhim shoot. Come to think on it, I ain’t never seen Silent John a’tall, and we been comin’ and goin’ from here nigh onto two years.»

As Whip made the connection between «fine shot» and Silent John, he understood why Shannon felt brave enough to come into town alone. Silent John’s reputation as a bounty hunter was of the kind to make a man whisper Silent John’s name — and leave his wife alone, no matter how beguiling her walk.

«Silent John’s not sociable,» Shannon said. «Most men never see him and go on to talk of it.»

Her voice was thin, almost brittle. Not once had she turned to face the Culpeppers. It was as though she already knew who they were.

And what.

«Flour and salt,» she repeated to Murphy. «I would appreciate your getting them now that I’ve paid. It’s a long ride back to the cabin.»

«Sure enough is, especially on that old mule your husband fancies,» Murphy said indifferently. «Soon as I take care of that big stranger and the Culpeppers, I’ll see to your order.»

«I’m in no hurry,» Whip said. «See to the lady. She was here first.»

Murphy grunted, unimpressed by the stranger’s logic. The storekeeper looked at Shannon’s right hand, the one she had rubbed along her pant leg to remove the feel of his fingers. He smiled, revealing teeth stained by chewing tobacco.

«You want to throw in a little something to sweeten the pot,» Murphy said to Shannon, «and maybe I’ll get around to your supplies before dusk.»

«My husband would be very disappointed in you.»

«So would I,» Whip said.

Murphy didn’t miss the warning. He bent beneath the counter, pulled out a shotgun, and slapped it on the scarred wooden countertop. The muzzle was pointed away from everyone, but Murphy’s hand wasn’t far from the trigger guard.

Whip smiled grimly. Murphy wasn’t the first man to mistake Whip for a wandering teamster and think a shotgun was faster than a bullwhip. That kind of misunderstanding was fine with Whip. Surprise would help to even the odds a bit.

But Whip still hoped it wouldn’t come to a fight. Four to one was about three too many as far as any careful man was concerned.

«Just fill the lady’s order,» Whip said calmly. «If those boys are in such an almighty rush, I’ll go to the back of the line.»

A quick flash of sapphire came as Shannon glanced toward Whip again.

«Thank you,» she said.

«My pleasure, ma’am,» Whip said, touching the brim of his hat with a graceful motion.

Despite Whip’s politeness, Shannon turned away before he could prolong the conversation.

Whip was startled by the disappointment he felt. Listening to Shannon’s voice had been as pure a pleasure as watching her walk or trying to see to the bottom of her matchless blue eyes.

«Hey, darlin’,» Beau said.

Shannon kept her back turned to the Culpeppers.

«Nice of her to show me the shape of her butt,» Beau said to no one in particular. «A mite narrow, but still enough to grab hold of so as not to get bucked off when the going gets rough.»

The Culpepper boys laughed as though Beau had said something funny.

Shannon didn’t move.

«Does Silent John do it to you that way, darlin’?» Beau asked. «Or does he bend you over the back of a chair and have at you like the randy old goat he is?»

Shannon’s face became as pale as salt, but she neither moved nor spoke.

Neither did Whip. He simply watched Beau, measuring the distance between Shannon and the four Culpeppers. Two of the men seemed to be leaning on one another, swaying very slightly. The smell of sweat and stale whiskey rolled off them.

Maybe the two of them will only add up to one man in a fight, Whip thought hopefully. In any case, I’ll start on the others first and leave those boys for last.

Murphy moved through the room as though wading in chest-deep mud, slowly putting together Shannon’s small order.

«Now, was it me,» Beau said, «I’d pull down those ragged trousers and grab a handful of —»

«Murphy!» Whip said clearly, cutting across Beau’s words. «No need to measure the salt a grain at a time. I want to be out of here before sundown.»

Beau gave Whip a hard look.

Whip smiled. Beneath his golden mustache the curve of his mouth was cold rather than reassuring, but Murphy was too far away to notice and the Culpeppers were looking only at Shannon.

«Don’t git yer water hot,» Murphy said from the other end of the room. «I’m movin’ fast as I can.»

«Move faster. The lady is in a hurry.»

Something in Whip’s voice made the Culpeppers turn and look at the fair-haired stranger.

Nothing had changed. He was still a big, easy-moving man with a bullwhip riding his right shoulder, a tolerant smile, and neither rifle nor revolver in sight. The Culpeppers each had belt guns, and no reluctance to use them.

«You better take Murphy’s advice, boy,» Beau drawled to Whip, «and don’t get your water hot for nothin’.»

As Beau spoke, his hand settled on his belt, just above the scarred wooden handle of his revolver.

«You’re big enough for two,» Clim said, «but we’re four to your one, we ain’t exactly tiny, and we’re packing guns.»

«I can see that,» Whip said.

It was all he said.

The Culpeppers muttered among themselves. They must have decided that the stranger was suitably cowed, because they began baiting Shannon again.

«Why don’t you turn yourself around, darlin’?» Beau said. «As pretty as your butt is, I’d a damn sight rather look at your teats.»

«Yeah,» Clim said. «We been wonderin’ all winter what you’d look like without them men’s rags you always wear. Are your teats dark like old Betsy’s, or are they red like Clementine’s?»

«Clementine rouges hers,» muttered one of the Culpeppers. «And thet ain’t the only place she greases.»

«Hell you say, Darcy,» Clim retorted. «I done left enough tooth marks on them teats to know what’s real and what’s rouge.»