Bad Company Excerpt

“Carol Carson’s warm sense of humor
will keep you smiling.”
~Debra Dier, author of Saint’s Temptation

 ……………………………………………….

“With a sense of humor and a cast of likeable characters, Carol Carson paints a lighthearted portrait of the Old West.”
~Julie Beard, Bestselling Author
of Romance of the Rose

What is woman?
~Only one of Nature’s agreeable blunders.
~Hannah Cowley

CHAPTER 1
Grand Fork, Kansas, 1888

Trixianna Lawless had never shot a man before, but a stranger with a drawn gun stood motionless in the shadowed opening of her front door.  She knew she might not have another chance to save herself.  As the sun nudged its head above the eastern horizon, she forced the hammer back on her dear departed papa’s Colt revolver.  She squeezed her eyes shut and pulled the trigger.

The percussion reverberated in her ears.  Nearly paralyzed with fear, she cracked one eye open.  Her breath came in heart-stopping gasps.  She could see by the blood stain on his dusty shirt, she’d hit him high in the right shoulder.  She watched, horrorstruck, as the man’s eyes widened in surprise.

He opened his mouth, muttered, “Well, hell–” and pitched forward at her feet like a felled oak tree.  His long body lay over the threshold, one half in her front parlor and the other half on the covered porch.

She slapped a hand over her mouth to hold back a scream of downright terror.  She’d killed him.

Gingerly placing her weapon on the damask-covered foyer table, she crouched beside him and pressed shaking fingers against his neck.  Finding a steady pulse beneath the warm skin, she thanked God he still drew breath.  She scanned the deserted street outside, then grabbed his arms and hauled the lanky trespasser into her parlor, where he proceeded to bleed all over her best braided rug.  She turned him over to examine his wound.  It was then Trixianna noticed the star pinned to his shirtfront.

In all of her twenty-five years, had she ever done anything right?  Her latest blunder–the sheriff of all people–lay unconscious on the floor.

The bullet had torn through the side of his shoulder and, by some miracle, without seeming to inflict much damage–except indirectly now to the parlor rug.  He bore a knot on his temple the size of a walnut, too.  He was sure to wake with a pounding headache and a bad temper.

She ran to the kitchen, grabbed several clean towels and dashed back to the unconscious man.  She knelt beside him, and her hands trembled as she folded the towels.  She placed one beneath his shoulder and the other, she tucked inside his shirt.  Pressing down, she prayed it would staunch the bleeding. She scanned his pale face in hopes of seeing signs of life.  She loosened the tight grip he held on his gun, and replaced it in the holster strapped around his thigh.

Groaning aloud, Trixianna sank onto the nearest chair.  She’d lived here only two weeks trying not to draw undue attention.

She figured shooting the sheriff would likely draw undue attention.

Sitting, fretful, she rationalized that there had been prowlers, Peeping Toms even.  Their whispers had echoed outside her window for the past two nights and made her a mite skittish.

Even so, she could hardly believe she’d actually pulled the trigger.  She reminded herself that he did trespassed into her home with a drawn gun.  And it was not even a reasonable hour of the morning!  What could the man have possibly wanted?  Even if he was a lawman, the man’s intent might have been to murder her in her bed.  Or worse.  She shuddered at the thought.

Her mouth went dry.  With her head propped in her hands, Trixianna fixed both eyes on her houseguest.  Under different circumstances she might have found him handsome.  His face, bronzed and weathered from the sun, struck her as possessing a particular strength, and tiny laugh lines around his eyes hinted at a sense of humor.  Thick, black brows almost met above the bridge of his straight nose.  He needed a shave; black whiskers darkened his jaw.  His body, long and lean, stretched almost the length of her parlor, and…oh, my stars.  Her stomach fluttered and heat stole through her body, making her quiver from head to toe.

Lord above!  Was she actually thinking romantically about a man whom she had shot—who’d wanted to shoot her?

The sheriff moaned, startling her.  She bent over to peer close, her face mere inches from his.  His eyes fluttered open, then blinked rapidly.  They were a vivid blue and filled with bewilderment.

She jumped to her feet and backed away.

He lifted his head.  Fine lines bracketed his mouth and eyes.  “You’re under arrest,” he said, his voice raspy, “for attempted murder of an officer of the law, bank robbery and…ruining a perfectly good morning.”  His head fell back to the floor with a thud.  He uttered a muffled curse.

“Sir, I have never robbed a bank,” Trixianna protested.  Imagine accusing her of such a thing!

He staggered to his feet, his left hand clutching his injured shoulder.  “But it was you that shot me?” he asked, his voice thick and unsteady.

“I did, sir, but you were breaking into my home with your pistol drawn.”  She tried to look calm and betray nothing of her annoyance…or her fear.

“I am the sheriff.”

“That doesn’t give you the right to trespass.”

He rose to his full height, his feet spread wide.  He appeared a bit unstable, but he filled her parlor with a tall, imposing presence.

Trixianna refused to cower.  Even though her nose came only to the middle of his chest she tilted her head up and scowled at him.

He gave her a tight smile.  “As the sheriff I can pretty much do as I damn well please.”

“There’s no reason to use profanity, sir.”

He continued as if she hadn’t spoken.  “Why shouldn’t I just lock you up and throw away the key, Miss West?”

“My name isn’t West.”

“Oh?”

“No, sir, it’s Lawless.”

He smiled again.  “That’s for sure.”

Honest to Pete!  Attempting to curb her temper with such an exasperating, impolite man proved almost more than she could manage.  She took a deep breath.  Between clenched teeth, she said, “It’s Trixianna Lawless.”

Still chuckling, he clamped a hand around her upper arm.  “That’s a good one, Mad Maggie, but you’re coming with me.”

He moved toward the door, tugging on her arm.  Trixianna tugged back and dug in her heels.

“My name isn’t Maggie, I haven’t robbed any bank, and anyway, I can’t go out without a bonnet.”  She wrenched her arm free, sidestepping him.

“Good Lord,” he groaned.  His face paled as he grasped the door frame.

Guilt assailed her when she saw his pain.  After all, she had caused it.  She stood a minute, thinking about what she should do, then plucked her bonnet off the peg by the door.  She would accompany him but only to see a doctor, and to get these ridiculous charges straightened out.  She glanced at him.  He glared back.

“I’ll come but not because I have done anything wrong.  I see you’re having difficulty and I wouldn’t want you to faint again.”

He gritted his teeth, his expression implacable.  “I never fainted.”

“You most certainly did.”  She propped her hands on her hips, defying him to disagree with her.

“Humph.”  Grumbling a mild oath, he sank to the knees.  Blood seeped through his fingers.

She bent over him, placing the back of her hand against his forehead.  “You need a doctor, sir.”

He slapped her hand away.  “Quit calling me ‘sir’.  It makes you sound like a lady and you’re no lady.”

Trixianna straightened and cleared her throat.  “I am a lady and I don’t rob banks.  What would you have me call you then?”

“Sheriff will do right fine.”

For a man squatting on his knees, he seemed very sure of himself, thought Trixianna.  His confidence hadn’t flagged a bit.  She supposed a man in his position needed all the confidence he could muster.  “Well, all right then, Sheriff, you do need to see a doctor.”

Pulling himself to his feet, he yanked a handkerchief from a pocket, unbuttoned his shirt and placed the scrap of cloth against his wound.  He pulled the bloody towel away and handed it to her.  Grimacing, he glared at her.  “It hurts like hell.”

“I would imagine,” she commiserated, “although, of course, I’ve never been shot.”  He seemed extremely rational for an injured man, but he must be confused in his head to think she could rob innocent people of their hard earned money.  Why, she was as honest as…well, surely as honest as he was.

 

Sheriff Chance Magrane cursed the day he decided to arrest Mad Maggie West alone.  One woman?  How much trouble could one be?  Now he stared at her, dumbfounded.  About as much trouble as sporting a wooden leg in a roomful of termites.

Even coated in Kansas prairie dust, she couldn’t weigh more than a hundred pounds, and she was at least a foot shorter than he was.  But in the blink of an eye she’d managed to bring him to his knees.  In fact, he’d been knocked senseless on the fool woman’s front stoop.  He hadn’t fainted, however.  How could he ever explain how a woman had gotten the drop on him?  He’d be the laughingstock of Grand Fork, for God’s sake.

What was she up to anyway?  Already dressed in a prim–if not downright dowdy–gray dress, with her hair pulled up tighter than a banker’s purse, she looked like his spinster aunt, Tildy O’Hara.  Hell, it wasn’t even six o’clock yet.  Where was she going so early in the morning?

She wore a worried look on her heart-shaped face, and rightly so.  Her pink lips were puckered in an expression of concern.  For his well-being?  He doubted it.  More likely, concern for her own hide.

Two weeks ago Monday, Mad Maggie West had robbed the Dena Valley Bank twenty miles due east of Grand Fork.  The telegram had described her the same way the wanted poster in his office did: red hair, green eyes, short of stature.  The telegram failed to mention the freckles dusting her stubborn nose.  There was little doubt in Chance’s mind, though, that he had the right woman.  She was a dead ringer for the gal in the poster.  The circumstances were right, too–a stranger in town with money in her pocket who kept pretty much to herself.

According to B.J. Johannsen, the mercantile owner, she’d bought all his canned and jarred fruit.  Then, his face as red as store-bought flannel, B.J. had explained how she’d purchased all the fancy lady’s unmentionables in his store.  Poor B.J. thought he’d be stuck with those ‘frilly, gol-darned frew-fraws’ till Kingdom Come.  There weren’t many women in Grand Fork and the few that lived there bought sturdy, durable, and in Chance’s mind, boring underpinnings.

Personally Chance liked to unwrap a woman and discover a little pink lace or red satin and silk.  He hoped he’d never see Mad Maggie in those new drawers; that woman was already more trouble than she was worth.  He hated to admit that he found himself attracted to her, especially those darn freckles.

She startled Chance by reaching out a hand to him, coming dangerously close to his gun belt.  He grabbed her wrist.  Surprised by the delicacy of her bones, he loosened his grip but kept a firm hold.

“Honey, don’t you ever reach for my gun if you know what’s good for you.”

“Sheriff, I know your shoulder is paining you, but don’t be such a silly goose.  I wasn’t reaching for your gun, I was merely trying to assist you.”

“Silly goose?”  Chance would have been insulted if it weren’t so damned funny.  “Silly goose?”

“It’s just an expression,” she insisted.  She brushed a hand over her hair as if a strand had come loose.  He doubted a strand, much less a single hair, could budge loose even in a spring twister.  That bun was tight enough to make his already aching head pound harder.

“I’m arresting you, Mad Maggie, so let’s just mosey on down to my office where I can lock you up.  Then I’ll look up the Doc so you can stop worrying about me.”

She stomped a foot in a peevish show of temper.  “Stop calling me Mad Maggie.  I can’t go to jail.  I’m innocent, and besides, I have things to do, you know.  I’m telling you I’ve never robbed a bank.”

“Never?”

“Never!”

“We’ll see about that.”  He motioned her out the door.

She started around him, albeit with no small amount of reluctance, her head high, her freckled nose twitching in obvious irritation.  Chance figured she hadn’t put up more of a fuss because she had shot him.  Of that she was definitely guilty.  Though she did seem more agreeable than he expected.

The walk between her home and the jail seemed about as long as an Easter sunrise service, particularly in light of the woman’s continual grumbling.  Mistaken identity, never robbed a bank, upstanding citizen, and on and on.  She talked all the way to the jail.  He released a sigh of supreme satisfaction when he had her safely behind bars.

Mad Maggie West.  And Sheriff Chance Magrane had made the arrest and incarcerated her.  Now all he needed to do was find her accomplice, and someone to verify the charges.  Humming, he locked up his prisoner with a twist of the key and went in search of the doctor.

 

Locked up.  In a jail cell.  Trixianna grimaced as the stale scent of unwashed bodies and what smelled like moldy cheese assailed her nose.  There was another scent she didn’t recognize and, in all honesty, preferred not to know.

She wasn’t frightened, even though her heart beat fast and her palms were damp.  No.  She was more perturbed than anything else.  She knew she was guilty of nothing more than defending herself.

Still, the fact that Grand Fork even had its own jail disconcerted her.  How much crime could go on in one small town, anyway?

She recalled with irritation why she moved to Grand Fork, Kansas, in the first place.  Because she’d needed to escape Abilene and hadn’t want to leave Kansas, she disembarked from the train at its first stop.  What a stupid way to pick a place to live.

For better or worse, though, Grand Fork was now her new home.  A curious thing about the town–it didn’t have a fork, grand or otherwise.  It was a typical small Kansas town, with one main street that was muddy when it rained and dusty when it didn’t.  It boasted two mercantiles, a bank, a hotel, one restaurant, a hardware store, livery stable and more than enough saloons.  And a jail with two cells.

“This is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever laid eyes on,”  Trixianna muttered.  She grimaced as she arranged her skirt about her so as little as possible touched the lumpy straw-filled mattress.  She looked around, assessing her surroundings.

Aside from the bed, her tiny cell held only a chamber pot, a tin bucket and a three-legged stool.  A loud snore brought her attention to the identical cell next to hers.  Trixianna couldn’t tell the gender of the person inside since all she could see was a back but because of his dress, she guessed it was a man.  She did think she recognized the odor emanating from the body.  “Phew!”

He was sleeping off a drunk.  Even in sleep he wore a hat, a moth-eaten, stained, ten-gallon hat of indeterminate color.  Aside from the hat, however, he wore nothing but  red-flannel underwear with a rip in the buttocks that displayed one lean, pale hip.  The sight brought heat to Trixianna’s cheeks.  She averted her gaze to take in the rest of her temporary abode.

The sheriff’s office and jail had one small window covered in greased paper that allowed in very little light.  The single room, though small, held a scarred, flat-topped, maple desk, surprisingly neat, and a swivel chair behind it.  On the desk was a tintype of a young woman with her arms around…a goat?  How odd.  Beyond that was a pot-bellied stove, two wooden chairs, and a locked gun cabinet.  Behind the desk the sheriff had nailed auction notices and wanted posters.

Trixianna gasped.

Someone had put her image on a wanted poster!

Below the sketch of her face were these words:

WANTED

DEAD OR ALIVE

MARGARET (MAD MAGGIE) WEST

RED HAIR, GREEN EYES, SHORT STATURE

FOR BANK ROBBERY, GENERAL THIEVERY AND HORSE STEALING

$500 REWARD

CONTACT SHERIFF IN DENA VALLEY OR ABILENE

 

That indifferent lout of a sheriff had left Trixianna alone for over two hours, and according to the timepiece pinned to the breast of her dress, it was approaching nine in the morning.  Where was the man?

Although Granny had always told her it was unladylike to squirm, Trixianna found herself doing so.  Beneath her posterior, the mattress complained.  She grimaced in distaste and stood up.  She stomped her feet once to bring a little warmth into them causing them to ache worse.  They felt like blocks of ice.  The cold cell was damp, and no fire burned in the stove to warm the room.

Making sure her snoring cell-mate was still turned away from her, she arched her back.  She released a sigh of relief.  If only she could relieve the chill in the jail as easily.  She paced the wooden floor, hoping to bring feeling into her frigid toes.

Her stomach growled, and she realized that the sheriff had hauled her away not only without a word of apology, but also before she’d had the chance to eat.  Hot oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins.  A cup of steaming chamomile tea.  Her mouth watered, reminding her that her pies weren’t getting baked by themselves either.

Sinclair’s Fine Restaurant’s patrons would be going without pies this dinner hour.  Mr. Sinclair himself had informed Trixianna only Friday that business had improved considerably since he began serving her ‘delicious, home-baked pastries’.  What would he say when she didn’t come ‘round?

Trixianna tugged on the ribbons of her bonnet, and in a fit of pique tossed it to the floor.  Remorse pricked her conscience.  An image of her granny shaking a finger at her and scolding like an outraged bluejay sent her scurrying over to pick it up and place it upon the cot.  She smoothed the fabric with chilled fingers, and contented herself by imagining berating the sheriff when he returned…if he returned.

How long did it take to get a little wound like the one she’d given him bandaged anyway?  He should be finished and releasing her from this ridiculous situation…now.

“Argh.”

Trixianna whirled at the sound.  Her companion rose from his bed and stretched his arms above his head.  His eyes widened when he caught her staring, but otherwise he showed no other reaction.  He simply removed his over-large hat and sketched her a bow.  A smile played upon his lips.  He seemed not at all embarrassed about his casual state of undress–that is, his red flannel drawers and drooping gray socks.  His silver hair stood up in spiked clumps all over his head.  She was so astonished by his appearance and demeanor, she stared open-mouthed at the man.

He looked at the hat in his hands and held it away from his body, a look of utter disgust on his face.  With a flick of his wrist, he tossed it on his cot.

He cleared his throat.  “Madam, what brings you to our humble abode?”  He spoke in an eloquent baritone, a sharp contrast to his bedraggled appearance.  His very proper British accent tickled Trixianna no end.  She’d heard that the English were interesting people and often infectiously eccentric.

“I shot the sheriff,” she admitted.

“You killed him?”  His tone of voice betrayed obvious astonishment.

“Oh, n-no,” Trixianna stammered, taken aback.  She pressed a hand to her heart.  “I just wounded him.  It was a near thing.  Actually, I didn’t want to hurt him, just scare him away.”

He coughed, covering his mouth with one hand.  Although it was an obvious ploy to cover his laughter, she found the attempt endearing.

He stepped forward, gripping the bars that separated them.  A mischievous gleam came into his eyes.  “And what did our fine sheriff do then, my dear?”

“He fainted.”

This was apparently more than the man could stand.  He backed up, roaring with laughter.  He fell onto the cot, pounding the mattress with his fists as tears coursed down his face.  “He fainted,” he repeated, gasping for air.  “Sheriff Magrane fainted.  Oh, that’s delicious.  Simply delicious.”

He suddenly jumped to his feet, then crossed the expanse between them.  He gripped the bars once more.  “Then what happened?”

“He arrested me.”

“What for?”  His avid gaze never left her face.

“For robbing a bank…b-but I didn’t do it.”

“You jolly well did not.”

Astonished, she asked,  “But how would you know that, sir?”

He tossed his head with a flourish, pomposity discernible in his every move.  His eyes flashed with outrage on her behalf.  “Why, you are obviously a woman of breeding and refinement.  Why, that galoose–no, what is that word you people use over here…?”

“Galoot?” she suggested.  Several others, none as complimentary, came to mind.

“That isn’t what I was looking for, but it will do.  That galoot wouldn’t know a fox’s brush from a hairbrush.”

Trixianna wasn’t sure she knew the difference either, but she knew it wasn’t complimentary to the sheriff.  She liked that.

The man’s expressive face changed, turning somber.  “I have been somewhat remiss, madam.”

“Oh?”

“We haven’t been properly introduced.”  He bowed again.  Reaching through the bars he took her hand in his.  “May I?”

Taking her silence for acquiescence, he continued.  “Alistair Burns, the sixth Viscount of Huxford.”

“Oh, my, are you a lord then?”

“Yes, well…,”  he mumbled, shrugging his shoulders. “I know you Americans hate titles, and when you try to use them you muddle them ever so badly.  Although I’m sure you are that rare exception, madam.”

She grinned at the compliment.

“Forget the lordship nonsense.  My friends call me Burnsey.”

“How nice to meet you, Burnsey.  These circumstances aren’t what I would prefer, however.”

“I fully agree.”

“I’m Trixianna Lawless.”

He still held her fingers through the bars.  He brought them to his lips and gave her a whisper of a kiss across the back of her chilled hand.  “Charmed.”

Trixianna felt an unwelcome blush creep into her cheeks.  “So why are you in here, Burnsey?”

He leaned her way, his face mere inches from hers, and whispered, “I have been known to indulge a bit.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, it’s a fact.  When I drink, I get this urge to gamble, and when I gamble, I always lose my shirt.”  He shrugged his shoulders.  “And my trousers, and my waistcoat, and my boots apparently.”  He frowned at his stockinged feet.  “Whatever I’m wearing.  It’s all so terribly dull, you see.  Someone usually informs Sheriff Magrane when I go on one of my benders, so before I bare myself to the whole of Grand Fork, he escorts me here, where I get the chance to sober up without embarrassing myself further.  This time, somewhere along the way, I misplaced my bowler and ended up with that monstrosity.”  He gestured at the cowboy hat on the cot.  “I’m sure that is some cowpoke’s idea of a joke.”

“The sheriff locks you up just for drinking too much?”

“Oh, I’m not locked in.”  He pushed open the door, and to her astonishment strolled out of the cell.  Then he sauntered back in, pulling the door shut behind him.  He gave her a benign smile.

“You mean, I’m freezing to death and all this time, you could have started a fire in the stove.”  She instantly felt appalled at her bad manners, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

His smile disappeared, and his face reddened.  “I beg your pardon, Miss Lawless.  I wasn’t aware of your condition.  Let me remedy that straightaway.”

He hustled out of the cell, seemingly unconcerned that she could see his bare skin.  He had the stove going in no time.

He walked around the desk, opened the middle drawer and removed a set of keys.  As if he’d done it on several occasions before, he returned to her cell and unlocked the door.  He gestured her out.  “Come stand by the stove and warm up.”

Trixianna felt her jaw drop…for the second time since she’d arrived in the Grand Fork jail.  She took an abrupt step, unsure if she should leave the cell.

“Come, come, Miss Lawless, I accept full responsibility.”  He leaned over to whisper in her ear.  “Maybe we’ll even plan your escape.”

He took her elbow and escorted her across the room.  Like a gentleman, he pulled both chairs near the stove and waited until she seated herself.  The warmth of the stove helped dissipate the chill in her body.

He hustled around and started the coffee.  When it bubbled, he rose to pour each of them a cup.

“It’s not tea, but you Americans seem to adore this stuff even when it’s thick enough to float a boat.”  After handing a cup to Trixianna, he sat down, and crossed one knee over the other in a casual pose.  She tried to keep her eyes on his kind face instead of the gaps between the buttons of his drawers.

She nodded in agreement.  “That’s true enough, Burnsey, but I myself drink a cup of chamomile tea every morning.  I feel it’s good for ill humors.”

He nodded.  “I just knew you were a woman of refinement.  Now tell me, Miss Lawless, how did the sheriff think you of all people could rob a bank?”

She turned, pointing to the picture on the wall behind the desk.

Burnsey’s head swung around and his eyes widened.  Coffee sloshed out of his cup and onto the wooden floor, where it left a widening brown stain.  “God’s teeth,” he muttered as a strained expression spread across his face.  His head swiveled back to her.  “Why, it’s the spitting image of you.”

“I know.”  The coffee churned in her empty stomach, as the truth hit her.  The drawing did look like her.  What chance did she have of defending herself?  No one in Grand Fork knew her.  No one would come to her aid.  She was alone.

Burnsey reached over and patted her hand in a fatherly fashion.  “It may look like you, but I know it’s not.”

“Thank you, Burnsey, but the sheriff thinks it’s me.  What can I possibly do?”

As if conjured up by their conversation, the door swung open and in he strolled.  He’d washed up and changed into a clean shirt of forest green.  He was still unshaven, but the shadow of his beard didn’t mask the pale, strained expression.  He walked with a stiff gait, the arm beneath his injured shoulder held close to his side.

His thick brows drew together in a frown as his gaze passed first over her, then over Burnsey.  To her amazement, a flush started above his shirt collar and worked its way up his face, forming two crimson splotches on his cheeks.  Trixianna watched in fascination as he waggled a finger between the collar of his shirt and his neck.

“Dammit, Burnsey, you could at least cover yourself with a blanket.”

“Good morn to you, too, Sheriff Magrane,” Burnsey replied.  “Where’s your hat?  I never realized you even had hair, but a fine head of hair it is.”

The sheriff rolled his eyes heavenward.  “I lost it,” he grumbled.  He slanted a grim look at Burnsey.  “Just who the hell said you could release my prisoner?”

“How’s your shoulder, Sheriff?”  Trixianna asked, worried about the drawn look on his features.  She was afraid he might faint again.

“I’ll live,” he muttered.

He cleared his throat.  She glanced up to find him staring hard at her.  A muscle quivered at his darkened jaw.  She had been rubbing her free hand up and down her arm to get warmth into it.  Under his intense stare, she self-consciously stopped the motion.

He contemplated her a moment, his eyes widening.  He swiveled his head around, then grimaced at the sudden movement.  He cast a brief look at the stove.  His left hand absently clasped his right arm close to his side.

“Well, hell.”  He strode over and awkwardly poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot warming on the stove.  “Thanks for getting the fire and the coffee started, Burnsey, but you still haven’t answered my question.”

He moved around his desk, his footsteps slow and deliberate.  He sat down, placed the cup on the desk in front of him and crossed his legs at the ankles.  With a grimace on his face, he laced his hands across his flat stomach.  His gaze stayed riveted on Trixianna, and he seemed to be studying her, his expression one of cynical amusement.

“God’s teeth, Sheriff, she’s not going anywhere.”

“Huh,” he said.

She noted his clenched jaw, and watched his narrow gaze fix on her.  “When will I get out of here?” Trixianna asked.  Her voice came out sounding shakier than she would have liked.  The wanted poster had her more than a little worried.  Terrified was more like it.

“When the federal marshal gets to town.”

“When will that be?”

“Well, let’s see,” he said.  He leaned back and closed his eyes.  “I sent a telegram to the sheriff over in Dena Valley and to the one in Abilene.”

“Abilene?” Trixianna asked in a choked voice.

His eyes opened, the pale blue orbs searching her face.  One corner of his mouth twisted upward.  “I expect we’ll see him when he gets here.”

“I can’t stay here,” wailed Trixianna.  Her voice broke with uncertainty.

“You should have thought of that before you robbed the bank over in Dena Valley.  Folks just can’t abide bank robbers.  Why, I remember back when I was just a boy, I heard tell that some rascal tried to rob the bank right here in Grand Fork.  He was caught red-handed, and hauled off to jail.  This very one, in fact.

“The sheriff–it was ole fiery-tempered Red Eubanks then–he didn’t put up with much of anything.  He just took that fella out and hanged him from a tree right at the end of Main Street.  There’s a big old cottonwood near the river just the right size for a hanging.  By God, the criminal element stayed away from Grand Fork for quite a spell after that.”

Trixianna swallowed a lump in her throat that felt the size of a watermelon.  “Oh, my stars,” she whispered.

“Quit trying to scare her, Chance.  You know she didn’t rob any bank,” said Burnsey, coming to her defense.  He stood up and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Besides I want to hear about your fainting spell.”  He winked at Trixianna.

They both turned their heads in time to see Sheriff Chance Magrane blush like a schoolboy.

“Well, hell,” he muttered.