MaryAnne Branson lifted one of her pistols to give a warning shot as she slapped open the double doors to the saloon. She stood in the entrance, while the pinewood panels swung shut behind her. A swirl of smoke rose from the silver barrel she kept suspended in the air. Seven pairs of eyes stared back at her — six bandits in various poses of imbibing and card playing at the center table and one saloon keeper hunched over the bar behind them with a towel in hand. All seven figures were frozen in time, wholly immobilized by her entrance. “I reckon you know who I am?” She chuckled inwardly at their expressions, which ranged from wary to terrified. It was clear they were very much aware of her identity. “Pardon me, but I didn’t hear your response,” she taunted, twitching the other pistol she had trained directly on them. Three out of the seven men jolted in response, a sure tell that they were the least experienced outlaws in the room. She fixed her gaze on the youngest one and slowly started to smile. “Yes’m,” he muttered, eliciting a muffled oath from the man to his left. “Good. That means you understand that you’re surrounded. You know how this is going to end.” Her gaze left the sandy-haired, freckle-faced teen and settled on the face of the man she’d come for.
He was stocky and fifty-ish with plenty of white streaking his sideburns. One dark eye met hers, seething with resentment; the other was hidden behind a black eye patch. “We can do this the easy way or the hard way,” she informed him in clipped tones as she continued to blast him with what she’d been told was the iciest smile on the planet. “By hard way, I mean hard for you, of course. I won’t hesitate to fire a bullet if you or anyone else in the room so much as flickers an eyelash.” She spoke directly to him, because she knew the others would follow his lead. “You done heard the lady.” He spoke quietly. “Weapons down. Hands up, lads.
” She felt a pang of sadness at the bleak resignation in his voice, hating that it had come to this. Once upon a time, she and One-Eyed Jack been friends — back when he’d been a solid member of Hunter Sherrington’s gang, skirting both sides of the law while adhering to his boss’s strict “do no harm” code, in terms of unarmed bystanders. Then he’d struck out on his own with a few trigger-happy, young renegades, and the casualties had been piling up ever since. “They’s comin’ fer ya, lass,” the outlaw warned in a low voice as he rose from his chair, palms facing her. His shirt was stained, and his trousers were patched in several places. His efforts to form his own gang of robbers didn’t appear to have been overly profitable. “So I’ve heard,” she retorted, accustomed to receiving threats of repercussions from the criminals she turned over to the authorities. “Never could figger out why you turned on us all.” He sounded more regretful than vengeful. “That boy gave you a good life.
” “He certainly did, old friend.” She didn’t expect One-Eyed Jack to understand, so she didn’t bother trying to explain. The truth was, she was using the very life Hunter Sherrington had restored to her in order to pay her debt to him. One day, if everything went as planned, she would give his life back in return. “Aw, hang it, MaryAnne. Don’t bother calling me that, since we both know we ain’t friends no more.” He straightened in the glow of the pendant light fixture that was dangling from the ceiling over his head. It was sporting one of those newfangled incandescent bulbs. She hid her wince with a quick, sharp whistle that brought the federal marshal and his posse of deputies from Headstone crawling from the corners where they’d been hiding. They quickly cuffed the accused and herded their captives outside to the waiting wagons.
MaryAnne was left alone in the saloon with the marshal. Shad Nicholson hadn’t taken part in the roundup. He hadn’t even bothered to draw his weapon, which was odd for a lawman. He was careful to keep his distance from her, however, remaining clear on the other side of the room near the back exit. Though he removed his Stetson and nodded respectfully, she could sense that he was still on full alert. He continually scanned their surroundings, even glancing up at the rafters now and then. She knew it wasn’t because he was admiring the rustic decor of the structure; he was looking for someone. “As always, I appreciate your help, ma’am.” The wry note to his voice told her he was about to ask the same question he always asked at the end of their joint raids. “Where is Hunter Sherrington?” “You know I can’t tell you that.
” “Can’t or won’t?” His auburn hair was clipped short, his jaw clean-shaven, and his clothing relatively unremarkable — a plain white shirt tucked into denim trousers with a brown leather vest thrown on top. He was the kind of fellow who could easily blend in to a crowd, which she suspected was his intention. He did a lot of undercover work. “Both.” She made a face at him. “I do not know his precise location.” Nor would I tell you if I did. She never knew his precise location during a raid. He purposefully kept her in the dark to protect her. All she knew was that he was nearby, keeping watch over her.
“You’re walking a very fine line, MaryAnne.” Indeed, I am aware. She shrugged, finding it prudent to keep silent. “I could have you arrested for obstructing a federal investigation.” She drew a sharp breath. “Which you would have a difficult time proving, considering I just admitted that I do not know his whereabouts.” “I believe your exact words were that you do not know his precise location, which leads me to believe you know something.” He paused a beat. “Such as, whether or not he’s in town.” “All I am trying to do is help you bring bad hombres to justice.
” “Yes, in the hopes of clearing Hunter Sherrington’s name. I am well aware of your motivations.” The marshal’s jaw tightened. “He’s done a lot for his country in recent months. More than many lawmen accomplish in their entire careers, I dare say.” She could vouch for Hunter’s efforts firsthand, since she’d helped him gather the documents necessary to indict one of the biggest human trafficking rings in the history of the continent. “What’s the status on his pardon we’re requesting?” “As I’ve previously explained, I forwarded your request to my superiors in Tucson.” “And?” she prodded when he fell silent. “It’s been weeks.” “I’ve heard nothing back.
” “Then send another inquiry,” she snapped. “Though I’m as surprised as you are by their silence, the law doesn’t work that way, MaryAnne.” He regarded her gravely. “I take orders; I don’t give them.” Well, it should. She scowled at him, sensing he wasn’t finished. “The fact remains, Sherrington has spent a decade committing crimes. My superiors may ultimately decide his actions are beyond redemption, in which case I’ll be forced to arrest him.” Her heart sank at the possibility that no amount of good deeds on Hunter’s part was ever going to be enough for the federal marshal who’d dedicated the past couple of years to hunting him down. “It’s a pity that the law you’ve sworn to uphold is so bankrupt of mercy.
Hunter Sherrington has changed. What justice would there be in prosecuting a man who’s working night and day to right the wrongs he’s done? The good Lord, Himself, wouldn’t ask for more.” “If he’s truly changed, he can prove it by turning himself in.” So you can stick a noose around his neck? No, thank you. She was well aware of the brand of justice that would be meted out to the man she loved if he dared to surrender. “He’d rather hold out for a pardon.” We both would. “I don’t have that kind of authority.” “But you report to those who do,” she countered. It was an unending plea on her part that she was beginning to fear was falling on deaf ears.
“When you commit a crime, there are consequences, MaryAnne. Hunter Sherrington’s list of crimes happens to be rather extensive.” She tasted the tang of despair, fearing she would never get through to the steely lawman standing before her. “His list of good deeds is growing, too. That has to count for something.” Not only was Hunter assisting the U.S. government in arresting some of the toughest criminals on the loose, he was working as hard and as fast as he could to repay every business he’d ever stolen from. “Yes, it counts for something. He’s earned my deepest gratitude, along with my sincere desire that he will turn himself in before it’s too late.
” “Too late for what?” She hid a shiver behind another careless shrug. It was obvious that Shad Nicholson’s patience was wearing thin. “Before it’s too late to keep you from suffering the same fate as him, MaryAnne.” Her chin came up. “I’m no criminal.” “That’s not entirely true,” he retorted sharply. “Aiding and abetting a criminal is, in itself, a crime.” “I’ve only aided and abetted his efforts to atone.” “Like I said, you’re walking a fine line.” “I love him.
” “More’s the pity.” His right hand inched toward his revolver, making her tense. Please, please, please don’t do anything foolish, marshal. “What are you doing?” she ground out. “Trying to decide whether or not it would be prudent to bring you in for questioning, here and now.” No sooner had he spoken the words, a shot rang out. The bullet shattered the light fixture in the center of the room, dousing the light from the incandescent bulb. This was MaryAnne’s cue. She silently jogged toward the bar and let herself through the door leading upstairs to the owner’s loft apartment. Shouts sounded below her as she ascended the stairs.
Good gracious, but it had been a close call this time! She reached the saloonkeeper’s bedchamber, threw open the window, and climbed stealthily out to the rooftop. Squatting over the eaves, she peered into the moonlit street below and watched a trio of deputies converge excitedly on Shad Nicholson. They were waving their arms and chattering a mile a minute. The moment their backs were turned, she made her move. Springing to the rooftop of the General Store the next building over, she jogged across the rear plane of the roof, thankful that Hunter had insisted on outfitting her with a pair of denim trousers. It would have been a lot more difficult running and leaping in a long skirt and petticoats. Once she reached the third building past the saloon, she dared descend the outside stairwell. Hunkering low to hide behind a side porch railing, she sprinted for the back alley. She hugged the walls of the buildings as she ran, zigzagging her way down several streets until she reached the train tracks. The depot lanterns were lit in the distance, making it possible to see the arrival platform a good quarter mile or so away.
The train whistled a warning about its pending departure, indicating she was just in time. She skipped nimbly across the tracks and dropped into the prone position. She waited in the sand until the train lumbered past her, picking up speed. Only when it was fully stretched between her and the marshal’s men did she rise to a crouch, preparing to spring. She counted beneath her breath as the cars rolled past. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight. The thirty-first car was their pre-agreed-upon rendezvous point. It was a luxury Pullman car, an empty one, fortunately. Praise be to God! If the records at the depot were correct, it wouldn’t be claimed by its owners until they reached Tucson in the morning. There would be a handful of stops at towns along the way, none of which should bring any passengers to this particular car.
She sprang for the back railing, catching hold of the top bar. As soundlessly as she’d done everything else, she pulled herself aboard and landed with both feet on the floor of the balcony. The rear door of the car opened, and strong, familiar arms pulled her inside. Hunter. Though it was dark, she’d recognize those arms anywhere. “We did it,” she declared softly. Though they were no closer to securing his pardon, they’d brought another set of vigilantes to justice. In her book, that spelled a successful night.