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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5


Written by Karen Bruce
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 2

The Prairies, California


Stirring the last embers of her cooking-fire with a stick, Kate undid her bedroll and slipped beneath her blankets. Much as she would have liked to travel all night and put as much prairie as possible between her and Fortune, it was not safe to ride after dark. In the endless ocean of swaying grass that was the prairie, it was hard enough to keep to the rabbit-trail that did for a road by day, let alone in the darkness. And, even on the trail, there were countless holes and trenches over which a tired horse might stumble. She did not want to break the animal's leg and have to walk the rest of the way to Moonshine Creek. As the tired, old saw went, an ounce of prevention was always better than a pound of cure.

Even though she regretted the waste of time, she had to admit to herself it was nice to sleep on the open prairie beneath the stars. They glittered against the dark sky, like God had taken a handful of golddust and flung it into space. The moon was a giant, golden nugget beside them. The air was full of the clean, sweet scent of grass. And, when the winds blew across the prairie, it came alive with whispering, rustling music. It had been her lullaby ever since her daddy had left Mississippi to seek his fortune in California. It had never failed to send her to sleep.

Snuggled beneath her blankets, she was half-dozing, when she heard a rustle in the prairie grass behind her. Fear thrilled across her nerves, like a note played on a fiddle. Was it a bandit come to rob her, or to rape her? Was it Fortune's sheriff coming after her to haul her to lock-up? The city boy must have realised he had been robbed by now. If he was smart enough, which she doubted, he might have even worked out who did it. Worse, was it some Indian brave come to scalp her? She had heard there were tribes in California that roamed the prairies looking to take out their anger at the white man.

She forced herself to lie still and breathe evenly. Her daddy had always told her that the element of surprise was the best advantage you could have. If you could take it away from the other person and use it for yourself, you 'd be ahead of the other person from the get-go. You'd just have to carry that advantage through to a victory. Beneath her blankets, her grip tightened around the Colt pistol that she always wore at her side. Warmed by her skin, the wood of the handle was solid and reassuring in her hands.

The footsteps stopped a few inches behind her. As quick as a rattlesnake, she twisted in her bedroll and came up pointing her gun at the newcomer. Her eyes widened when she saw it was the same Creole boy who had confronted her at the bar. Of all the people she had expected, he wasn't one of them. She had thought the brawl at the bar would have kept him at the surgeon's tent and out of action for a week at the least. He had been luckier than she was, evidently. Apart from a fresh bruise on one high cheekbone and a small cut over his left eye, he seemed to have walked away from the fight unscathed. Which wasn't to say he was going to walk away from this one at all.

Keeping her pistol trained on him, "Why'd you follow me? You some kind o' bounty hunter or something? Hate ta disappoint you, sugah, but there ain't a price on mah head."

"Dere'd ya'd be wrong, chere," his voice was as calm as the expression on his face, in spite of the weapon being pointed at him, "Midas Gold has offered a cool thousand for de recovery of deir money, an' de apprehension of de person who took it. At de moment, I'm de only one dat knows who she is."

"Then you'll take that secret t'your grave," Kate said evenly, even though her insides had turned liquid at his words. She knew precisely what the gold company meant by 'apprension'. They meant dragging her to the nearest tree, knotting a coarse rope around her neck and hanging her until she was dead. Her finger tightened slightly on the pistol's trigger. Even though death came to everyone eventually, she would be damned if it came to her before her time. She would kill this Creole boy before she allowed him to bring her to justice.

"I don't intend t' haul your derriere back to de sheriff. Man like dat doesn't have de good sense t'appreciate how pretty it is," he had the audacity to smirk, "No, chere, I got another proposition for ya."

"You're on the wrong side of the gun-barrel to be tryin' ta cut that sorta deal with me, sugah," Kate said coldly, "Ah might have dressed like a whore ta rob that boy, but Ah ain't gonna buy yo' silence that way. You'll find Ah repay that sorta debt in hot lead."

"Pity, because I find gold much more interestin'," he replied, "Problem is dat I need a partner t'get my hands on more of it dan even my greedy heart could ever desire. Which is why I came after ya."

"Partner?" she echoed, then said in sudden understanding, "You're a thief too!"

"Correction. I'm a t'ief after a prize of a million dollars," he grinned broadly at her, "Now, before I give de game away, do I have a partner or not?"

Licking her lips nervously, Kate stared up at the man standing in front of her. He seemed sincere, but she had heard many a smooth line delivered by many a handsome face in her time. And none of them had ever kept their promises. She wasn't a pigeon to be plucked so easily. She knew that, if she went with him, he would probably turn her into the nearest lawman and collect the bounty on her head. She would have done the same if she were in his scuffed boots and could make an easy thousand. Still, if there was even a slightest chance of getting her hands on a share of a million dollars, she was prepared to take a greater risk than this one. Her daddy - digging away his life in a mineshaft in the hope of the one, big find that would have made him rich - had not even dreamt of making that much.

She smiled sweetly back at him, "If this is a doublecross, sugah, I'll blow your damn brains out."

"I'll take dat as a yes, chere," he hunkered down beside the burning embers, holding his long, slim hands above it to warm them. The flickering light made shadows dance on his face and threw its planes into sharp, dark relief, giving him the look of a demon prince. She wondered with a shiver whether she would be damned by this deal. "Now, let me tell ya my plan. . . ."


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