...where the men are steadfast & the women are adventurous
August 1876, Dakota Territory
Fighting a growing impatience fueled by rage, Charlie Jennings drew his revolver and urged his horse through the trees flanking the Deadwood Trail. Below him, an Appaloosa with the strikingly similar color of his own horse—white covered from head to hock in chestnut spots—was rein-tied to the back of a buckboard. If the horse hadn’t caught his attention, he might not have given the transport a second look.
He might not have seen her.
The wagon rattled forward carrying one silent and seven grumbling passengers. When a bend in the trail cast the sun in the eyes of the guards, one riding behind and the other in front, he charged his spotted mare down onto the road.
Everyone in the wagon, except for the cowering raven-haired woman, screamed. The driver jerked on the reins. The horses skidded to a halt. The guards scrambled for their weapons.
The click of his revolver being cocked made them all freeze.
The silence that followed was as heated as the summer sun on his back. The guards glared at him through squinted eyes. He kept his focus on them as well—lined up in a neat row down the barrel of his Colt Peacemaker.
“Jennings,” growled the closest man, who went by the name Big Bill. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Yeah,” hollered Bill’s partner, a stranger who resembled a beanpole.
Frontier trails and towns had a way of attracting similarly named men, including the Charlies like him. They also had a fondness for embellishment. The deck was stacked in favor of the rear guard being called Skinny Sam or Loudmouth Pete.
“We heard you were guidin’ a miner ’n his four kids, the ones who lost their ma, away from Deadwood.” At least Skinny hadn’t heard, and used, the double-barreled moniker Charlie had been saddled with since arriving in the Black Hills.
“But you,” he shot back, “didn’t hear that my job finished ahead of schedule.”
“Well,” Bill said on a long breath, “ain’t that a spot of bad luck.”
“Not for one of your passengers.” He didn’t look her way. He’d already seen enough: a ragtag assortment of women, one hunched with her dark head over her wrists tied to the wagon behind the driver—a miner called Whit the Witless.
Whitman had a reputation for being senseless and spineless, which was probably why he was here and not tending his claim. It was also why Charlie risked not keeping the man in his sights. A gamble he might regret and wouldn’t be questioning if he had a partner willing to defend his impulsive backside.
Bill’s skinny cohort in crime leaned sideways on his saddle to peer around Bill’s bulk and scowl at Charlie. “Swearengen ain’t gonna like this.”
“Cut the woman loose and he need never know.”
Bill shook his shaggy-haired head. “If you want her, why not see her whenever you like at the Cricket?”
“What I want is to never see a bound woman on her way to a saloon.”
Bill bristled like a bear with a bee between him and his honey. “A shotgun messenger with a soft heart ain’t a good pairing. You need to stop doing this.”
Charlie swallowed the urge to shout, Stop saying THIS! Call it what it is. Righting a wrong. Living a life that matters. Words wouldn’t give him what he wanted: this standoff over, the men gone, and the woman freed. So she no longer cowered under the gaze of men who like him were hired to protect transports.
Men who now were no better than vilest road agents in his eyes.
Bill raised a questioning brow, mistaking his silence for an opening. “Our pay’s better than yours.”
Folks paid him what they could, and if they couldn’t… “A clear conscience is reward enough.”
“That won’t fill yer belly.”
“Lucky for me, my aunt taught me to track and shoot game, and my gran taught me to cook. Thanks to them, my belly’s well taken care of. Speaking of shooting”—he tightened his grip on his Peacemaker—“you ready to take a bullet?”
“Hold yer fire,” Bill muttered, reining his horse toward the wagon.
“Who’s his aunt?” Skinny hollered.
“She ain’t real,” Bill yelled back. “He’s repeatin’ tall tales.”
The true tales included Hannah rescuing Charlie multiple times starting when he was eight years old. Saving others had now become a thrill he’d chased down so many trails it’d finally brought him here. Where he struggled not to end a life and hand his soul to the devil.
“You’re lucky she also taught me restraint.” He hoped by saying the word aloud he’d hold onto his. “Otherwise, I’d have taken the easy road and shot you already.”
Bill halted his horse. “Jumpin' Geehosofat! Yer tighter strung than usual. You ain’t gonna shoot me when I reach for my knife to do yer biddin’, are you?”
“Can’t be sure.” The closer Bill’s hulking big body got to his slender prisoner, the tighter strung Charlie became. “Better pass your blade to Whit. Let him do the cutting.”
“No,” the driver gasped. “I can’t get involved.”
“You already are.”
“Had no choice. Mr. Swearengen forbid me to show my face in Deadwood until I drove this haul for him.”
“You,” Bill sneered as he angled his horse toward Whit instead of their prisoner, “truly are a witless wonder.”
“Yeah,” Skinny yelled. “Only a lunkhead would ask Swearengen’s prettiest hurdy-gurdy gal to marry him.”
The lady in question had to be Kitty Arnold. Last month, she’d arrived in Deadwood—with Calamity Jane and several other women—in a caravan led by Utter and Hickok, also known as Colorado Charlie and Wild Bill. Kitty had been proclaimed the belle of the town and willingly went to work at the Cricket Saloon as a singer, dancer, and a whole lot more.
Whit heaved a sigh. “She’ll probably be Mr. Swearengen’s wife by the time I return.”
“He’s already married and—” The air disappeared from Charlie’s lungs when Bill held out his knife for Whit. The change of position brought the bound woman into his line of view, an arm’s-length behind her captors.
Whatever beauty Kitty possessed paled next to the raven-haired woman who’d finally raised her head. A buckskin dress with bright blue beading framed her regal neck and striking face. A Lakota princess, a damsel in distress, a woman who needed saving.
Except, she hadn’t been waiting for a savior. She'd been pretending to cower to hide the fact she’d worked free of her bonds and merely held them over her wrists. Her steely-eyed focus on Bill’s knife made Charlie lightheaded.
~ * ~
STEAM LEVEL: Sweet
READING ORDER: Rescuing Raven is part of my Lonesome Hearts series, but it is also a standalone story. This series can be read in any order but chronologically Between Heaven & Hell (set in 1850 on the Oregon Trail) comes first.
During 2018 Rescuing Raven was only available in the Wild Deadwood Tales charity anthology (a limited-edition collection of short stories spanning Deadwood's untamed past to its exciting present) for the benefit of the Western Sports Foundation (which provides a wide range of assistance, support, and education to athletes competing in Western Lifestyle Sports).
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