The savage scream of pistol clicks ripped through the early evening. Shock bolts stabbed him as he spied halfway out the livery. The dim amber beam of a Del Rio streetlight shone onto the nearby alley’s edge revealing the back of a man in a dusty coat. In an instant another man appeared at the first one’s shoulder as the lady marshal on patrol approached, her boots thudding on the boardwalk. The two gunmen raised their irons.
He let out a piecing shriek.
“Look out, marshal!”
In a flash she bellied down and drew both revolvers. Faster than lightning.
He drew too. But his Smith and Wesson had hardly cleared the holster when the two would be killers fell.
Her return fire proved deadly accurate.
He retreated back into the livery.
“You there!” she demanded. “Show yourself!Careful.”
He held his gun by the barrel and slowly stepped into view.
Gunsmoke streaked in the air between them and its sharp burning smell invaded his nostrils while she, a single pistol pointed at his chest, stepped over the dead and hastened at him.
He moved toward her one hand up and when he drew close she snatched his weapon. He raised his other hand.
This was the famed “Jefíta.” The whites of her eyes piercing the shadows,her dark eyes pinned him, her gaze shooting daggers into his heart.
He sucked in his belly that pooched over his belt then took thumb and tipped his hat. “Tully Teeberry’s the name, ma’am. I…I’m not with those…who tried to killin’ ya. I’m just…just Tully.”
“Your warning saved me, señor,” she said. “Gracias. But now, you come with me.”
“Set the hostages free and throw out your guns,” Maria ordered from behind the readied hay wagon.
“Come outta there hands up.” Tully yelled.
“Now!” Able Cotto, former Buffalo Soldier shouted. “Or we’ll burn ya out.”
Tully let out a whistle and lit a log.
“OK, just to show you I’m reasonable,” Leon Dunston, the gang leader barked, “your precious innocents are free.”
Terrorized men and women—jurors that hung a gang member bolted out of the Bar None.
“But fire or no fire we’re still gunnin’ for you, Jefíta bitch! And your goddamn deputies and that stinkin’ nigger! You ain’t gettin’ us without a fight.”
Rapid gunfire. Bullets spat out of the saloon.
Deputized Tully sent his torch crashing through the saloon window. Then her Cousin Cleto pitched a fiery bludgeon under the entry. He and Tully hurriedly set ablaze the hay wagon and shoved it through the batwing doors. Thereafter, lead spraying fromAble and her other deputies’ guns, they stormed the saloon.
Leon Dunston took cover behind the bar and began a torrent of fire from both his roaring six-guns while three other of his men, shielded by card tables turned over on their sides, added a ruthless barrage. Still another mounted his assault from behind the piano. Tully winced as he took bullets in the shoulder and side before he got positioned at the hay wagon’s left rear wheel where he gut-shot two gang members. She, as bullets zinged past her, put a bullet in the heart of the third badman and Cousin Cleto, snaking up to the base of the bar, eliminated the other at the piano with a shot between the eyes. That left Dunston. His guns clicking, he threw up his hands.
“I’m out! Don’t shoot. I give up.”
Cleto handcuffed Dunston but during the fierce gunfight Able had fallen. He lay flat near Cleto between the wagon’s front right wheel and the bar.
Tullyhollered and the prepared noble volunteers rushed to put out the fire before it became uncontrollable. She went to her knees and gently lifted Able’s head.
“I…I…” Able shut his eyes.
“O Able,” she bit back tears as she gently squeezed her black deputy’s hand. “Tully! Get the doc. He’s fading fast.”
Wearing her tin star was like a rail spike driven through the heart. But she
chose to uphold the law as her lifelong duty nomatter how hard it became. No matter
how many bullets flew at her, no matter how bitter, burdensome or excruciating the task.
Even if it meant arresting Diego. Yet no matter how far from the law Diego would drift,
she would never abandon him. Her love for him was deeper than the Gulf and longer than the Rio.
She must get her mind off Diego. Couldn’t something happen today! Del Rio was never like this. Quiet. No fights in the saloon, no ruckus in the street. No robberies. No one had gotten shot in a week. There hadn’t even been a gun fired. For four straight days she’d done nothing but eat, sleep, sit in her office, smoke, sip coffee, read the out of town newspapers and worry. Worry where Diego was and hoping the rumors weren’t true. That he rode with the Golden Jack Gang—the meanest, nastiest most murderous bunch in all Texas. Her younger brother was wild as the prairie wind. Bad he was. Always in trouble. Nothingbut. She wished he were here now, safe. And in her arms. She needed somehow to pry him away from that devil-eyed scoundrel Golden Jack.
Maria Melendez, U.S. Deputy Marshal, glanced over her left shoulder. Even though the yellowed shade on the barred window was up, not even a speck of light peeked in on this gloomy winter day. She’d kill for a little sunshine. The pot-bellied stove in the corner at least provided a tiny bit of warmth. Goddammit it had never been this cold. Shesnatched the bottle of Rye on her desk and poured another swallow into her shot glass.
Her deputies were on holiday. Gone hunting. She hoped they’d bring back a big buck. Damn. What was wrong with her? She never thought she would miss those no goods so badly. Well maybe her older cousin Cleto. But that was different they’d grown up together in the same house. And cleaned up towns together.
“Señor Sheriff,” Cleto would say in his nasal baritone drawl, “me and Maria, we cleee…een up this town.”
She’d helped him clean up little bad ass Texas towns since she was fourteen. That was the beginning of her gaining her reputation. With her pistolas rapidás. Campfire legends had started about her. Songs had been written about her. She was known as “Jefíta” and “the witch of the fast draw.” She loathed those legends and songs. They made her a target for ruthless gunslingers that stank of murder and recklesstinhorns with not so fast guns wanting to build a reputation of their own.
She sucked in a heap of air and let out a gusty sigh. She folded her arms across her chest, leaned back in her chair and pulled her sombrero down over her eyes. Her lids felt heavy and they closed shut just as she heard loud voices and stomping on the boardwalk outside. Bells jingled and the door flew open bringing in a blast of icy coyote wind. A disheveled man with a scroungy beard was shoved into heroffice. His hands were tied in front of him with rope. The other man behind him, one gun holstered the other drawn, stepped in and kicked the door shut. He grabbed the bearded man by the collar.
“Now stand still and keep your trap shut or by the limericks of O’Grady I’ll knock yer pan in.”
She noted a sweet touch of Irish in the man’s speech. She liked it. And at first glance at him delightful tingles rippled through her making her feel a wild attraction to him. Looking on, he filled her mind with lust-filled cravings and intimate imaginations.
But all that ended abruptly when Irish padded dried mud off his boots.
“What are you doing!” she snapped. “I keep this office immaculately clean! You’ll do your business pronto, you nasty burro, and then sweep my floor!”
The disheveled one in a dirty hat gazed at her and grinned.
The other glanced at her and said, “What?OK. Uh lad,” then as she rose, at second look his eyes widened and said, “Man! I mean…”
The bound one threw back his head and hooted, “Ooo suck a billy goat’s rump! No man I ever seed had tits like that.”
The other man vice-gripped the bound one’s shoulder. “I thought I told you to tighten your yapper.” He drew back his revolver with intent to pistol-whip his prisoner.
But she, fueled by the fury kindled by thebearded man, edged past her desk, walked up to the bound one and slapped him.
Stubble face removed his hat and held it at his chest. He nodded and sketched a courtly bow. “Beg pardon…ma’am. Sorry. I thought at first…I…can’t recollect why but… is the sheriff here about?”
Harsh resentment sprang up in her. She hated not being duly recognized. She wore a U.S. Deputy Marshal’s badge on her vest for Christ’s sake. She cast the stranger a frozen stare, “I’m the law here. This is my town.”
The federal government held a grievance with the Texas Rangers for not being swift in the elimination of the numerous outlaw bands overrunning Texas. So President Grant had commissioned her for special assignment—specifically to pursue and bring to justice these badmen gangs committing federal crimes and alarming Texas citizens. Thus she’d been given free reign over the South Texas District. Further, she was provided extensivefunds necessary to hire special deputies chosen at her discretion to assist her at any or at all times.
The Irishman, a bounty hunter she supposed, blinked with confusion. She’d seen that too often too. Damn men. They thought all things were theirs to be had.
“A woman?” The Irishman narrowed his disdainful eyes at her. “What kind o’…”
The disheveled one laughed like a horse. “This is Del Rio, you pea-brained ninny,” he said with a tonof hayseed. “This here’s the witch.”
She whipped out her dagger and held the blade at the man’s throat. “Watch your tongue, gringo,” she said through gritted teeth. “Or I’ll cut it out. Comprende?”
Terror shined in the man’s gaping eyes. With much wariness, he nodded. She withdrew her weapon and returned it to the scabbard. The man said quieter and with summoned respect, “This is Marshal Maria Melendez. Better known in these parts as ‘Jefíta.’”
She gave the bound one a pointed gaze. Had she remembered him from a wanted poster? “Aren’t you…?”
“Bad Dash Anson,” the Irishman answered. He nodded. “Glad to know you, ma’am.” He noted she looked at him with marked interest and questioning eyes. “Rook. Rook Kelly’s my name.”
“Rook?” The funny name tickled her. She threw back her head and laughed. “What! You’re a crow?Rak rak rak.” She made the sound of the foul bird then giggled.
The crow curled a lip then reached into his vest pocket. “I’m bringin’ in this low down murderin’, thievin’ skunk.”
He offered her a folded piece of paper but she, placing her hands on her hips, made nary a move to accept it.
“So you’re a bounty hunter,” she fingered the chin strap on her sombrero as she drew nearer him. Her nose wriggled and a slight hiss escaped her forhe smelled like a lathered horse that had galloped through a dung field. She stepped back.
“Yes ma’am,” he said, kindness flourishing in his tone. “Can I get a bank draft for the reward?”
Again she made no move to accept the paper, only returned both hands to her hips and shot him an expressionless stare.
His politeness and noble manners pleased her. Didn’t have much of that in Del Rio. “Of course.” She took the paper and opened it—a wanted poster of Anson. Flashing Rook a hint of a grin, she turned on her heel, walked back to the desk and opened the drawer. She took out a pen along with her ink well and a draft sheet. She turned up the wick on the paraffin desk lamp to shed more light on her subject. Looking back to the Irishman she pointed with her chin to the keys that hung on a wall hook by the jail door.
“You can put him up while I’m doing this,” she said.
“That’s your job ain’t it?” Rook said. “Putting away prisoners I mean.”
“You look like you can handle it.” Her gaze lowered returning to the draft and she began writing the necessaries.
She looked up. Anson had stomped the Irishman’s toe and bumping him reached for Rook’s holstered gun. Panther-quick she rose and drew both her pistolas.
Rook’s gun boomed. Anson’s face twisted and his eyes shut. Rook’spistol dropped from the bad man’s hand sounding a roll of thuds. Anson collapsed to the floor.
Rook knelt by Anson. The Irishman looked up at her with apologetic eyes. “I didn’t mean to…”
She holstered her guns. “I know you didn’t.”
Rook swallowed hard. “Well he’s wanted alive or dead.”
“Right,” she said, sat down and continued with the bank draft.
“I’ll…” Rook grabbed Anson at the armpits and started to drag him out the door.
“Un momento, señor. He ain’t goin’ nowhere. Won’t take long to finish. You can drag him out after I give you this.”
A moment later she did so and once again settled comfortably in her chair. The bounty hunter stood on the other side of the desk staring at her. Why did she hope he liked what he saw? “Well, old crow,” she cast him a kitty of a grin. “What will you do with the five hundreddollars?”
“Sell the filthy badger’s horse and gear. He don’t need ‘em now. Got me some debts to pay. Need somethin’ to eat and a drink.”
“And a bath too.”
“Oh yes ma’am. Sorry if I offend you. I …I’ll have me a good time then…I don’t know. I’m tired of bounty huntin’. Never fancied it anyhow. Reckon I need me a good job.”
She took the Rye bottle, poured another round and swallowed it then sat back in her chair again andfolded her arms across her chest. She glanced at his gun then back to him. With keen interest. Señor stubble-faced Irish burro was a fine hunk of a man. Sort of tall, wide-shouldered, strong chest, flat belly. He had powerful thighs and thick legs. The quick study of the latter sent a rush of heat through her—-that and a tide of feminine need. That need had long gone unfulfilled. She tore her admiration away from him but about decided that this was one looker she didn’t want to see go. “Any good with that?”
“Fair and a middlin’.”
“Can ya hit anything?”
“Long as it ain’t fleas.”
“We’ll see. Wanna be a deputy?”
“Might. The pay?”
“We’ll see. Interested?” She could read his thoughts as he continued looking her over while entertaining the idea of working for a somewhat hard and mean yet attractive boss, ifbut just for a short spell.
“Think it over and we’ll see.” She handed Rook the bank draft. “Now you can take him.”
She left her desk, went to the door and opened it. “Oo…oo!” She hated the feel of the cold air and letting it into the office but it oughtta get the stench out.
A paint horse and a bay were tied to the nearby hitch post. Rook dragged Anson’s body out and wasabout to toss it atop the bay.
“Drop him right there, come back in and grab the broom,” she told him sharply.
“Yes, ma’am.” For the time being, Rook laid Anson in the street.
She stood just outside the door while Irish did as she ordered. The wind gusted, giving her a haystraw of a shiver. She tugged her vest tight around her. Now flurries floated in the air. Shit. When had it snowed in Del Rio!
Rook finished his chore.
”The undertaker’s that way.” With her forehead she pointed to a sign six buildings down. Rook flopped Anson over the bay’s back, attached a lead cord to the horse’s bridle then swung on his paint. Giving her a hint of a smile and tip of his hat he rode off heading in indicated direction.
She went back inside, shut the door and returned to her desk. And to her Rye. And her thoughts kept dwelling on the Irishman.
How did she feel about him? Did shereally mean to hire him? She could always use more help. Would he accept the job? Sí. He would. For how long? If she needed to she could figure out ways to make him stay. That is, if she wanted him to. But what was her true reason for hiring him? To keep him here? On a string till she decided if she fancied him enough for courting? Should she hire him or no? She poured a drink and swallowed another shot.
She drummed her fingers on her desk. She needed a right hand man. Rook justmight be the one. That stubble-faced hombre was gonna be trouble, she mused. Maybe a welcome kind of trouble.