I had planned to blog about the last day of RT today. The bookfair and the Mr. Romance Competition. Due to time restrictions, I’ll do so on Monday. Meanwhile, here is a picture of me at the bookfair. I had a great time, met some terrific people, and sold a lot of books. LASSO THE MOON continues to do well proving that westerns are not dead! Good to know since I’m currently hard at work on my next humorous wild west adventure—ROMANCING THE WEST (coming 2007) Please enjoy an except from LASSO THE MOON and have a great holiday weekend!
“Sure you won’t stay for some vittles, Sheriff Grant? I can rustle you up somethin’ real quick like.”
Thorn Butte’s stationmaster was as well known for his longwinded story-telling as he was for his hospitality. If Josh stayed much longer, he’d be joining the lonely man for a walk down memory lane. “Much obliged, Ben, but I’m in a hurry to be on my way. Only stopped long enough to rest Buckshot and stretch my legs.”
“Where you headin’?”
“Never been there.”
“You haven’t missed much.” He gripped his saddle horn and vaulted into the leather seat, not bothering to elaborate. As far as he was concerned, the less thought he gave to his new life, the better. Besides, Ben’s attention had drifted to a point on the horizon.
The stationmaster squinted against the noonday sun and scratched his head. “What in tarnation?”
Josh squinted in the same direction. “What is it?”
“The Overland Stage. But I ain’t never seen Moe Wiggins drive a rig that hard. They’re comin’ in fast. Too fast.”
An invisible knife twisted into Josh’s gut. A knife held by Hank, I-told-you-so, Fedderman.
Paris was on that stage. Sure enough, somehow, some way, she’d gotten herself into another fix. The knife plunged deeper as a vivid image of Mason’s runaway buckboard flashed in his mind. Fearing the worst, he raced his horse toward the rolling cloud of dust.
His heart leapt to his throat as he neared the careening stage. That wasn’t Moe driving. It was that accident-prone hellion, and she was doing a damn poor job.
Closing in, he whipped Buckshot around and pulled up even with the rollicking coach. Moe was either drunk or dead. Turkey Dan was plumb missing.
“Glory, glory, hallelujah!”
Paris was singing Battle Hymn of the Republic at the top of her lungs. “Are you crazy?” he shouted over the ruckus. “Pull back on the ribbons!”
“Are you blind? I am pulling back! It’s the horses who aren’t doing their part. His truth is marching on!”
“Stop arguing!” A wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked man hung out the window. He shook a ringed finger at Josh. “Do something, man! I’m not ready to die! Oh, my Lord, my demonstrator model, my—”
The man’s whining faded as Josh spurred Buckshot forward in line with the lead sorrels. He grabbed onto the rigging and, using all his strength, gradually slowed the lathered horses into a winded walk.
The coach rolled to a stop just shy of Thorn Butte’s relay station. Ben hurried forward and took the snorting team in hand. The door slammed open and two men jumped out of the stage as though their seats were on fire.
Josh’s gaze drifted over the unidentified whiner and landed on Burgess Riley. Why was he here, and where in the blazes was Turkey Dan? Though curious, he was more concerned with Paris. Peculiarly silent, she’d yet to budge from her rooftop position.
He dismounted and scaled the stage. To get to her he had to climb past Moe. A quick examination proved the driver dead, the reason unclear. Josh squeezed his bony shoulder before moving onto the uncharacteristically silent girl.
Even though she was dressed in trousers and a man’s shirt, she looked feminine and fragile and, dammit, that chafed. His heart hammered knowing how easily she could’ve been thrown from the coach. Mason, a superior horseman, had met that very end, breaking his neck in the process. Josh breathed easier, noting the battered hat mashed down over her tangled hair. He thanked God for that hat. It reminded him that underneath that ruffled gambler’s shirt beat the heart of a spirited lunatic.
“You can let loose of the ribbons, sweetheart. Ben’s got hold of the team.” He gently pried the leather straps from her hands, frowning at the welts marring her palms. He wouldn’t blame her if she cried, but hoped she held strong. He’d never been good with weepy women. “Where’s Turkey Dan?”
“Gila City. Sick.”
At least he wasn’t dead, which is more than he could say for Moe. He glanced at Paris and swore. White as milk and trembling like a treed cat. “Safe to assume you haven’t driven too many rigs?”
She nodded, but didn’t answer.
He tried a different route. “Mind if I ask why you were singing?”
“Music soothes the savage beast.”
Biting back a smile, he used the pad of his thumb to wipe away the sweat on her upper lip. “Just a suggestion, but you might want to try a lullaby next time. You sang as though you were leading those horses into the heat of battle.”
“This is all very touching,” Burgess shouted from below, “but I’ve got a bone to pick with the one who was supposed to be driving this stage in the first place.”
“Yes,” the roly-poly man with the matching gray bowler and shoes whined. “What happened to Mr. Wiggins?”
Startled out of her daze, Paris lurched forward.
Josh caught her by the waist and held tight. “Nothing you can do, darlin’. He’s gone.”
A tear escaped through her lowered lashes, slid down her cheek, and smacked against his hand. Shit.
“The old goat picked a devil of a time to up and die!”
Josh glowered. “Shut up, Burgess and give Ben a hand getting Moe into the stationhouse. You too, Mr. . . . ”
“Hinklemyer. Horace Hinklemyer at your service.”
Josh kept an eye on Paris as the men maneuvered the driver’s body down from the stage and into the small wooden shack.
“I don’t understand,” she began in a shaky voice. “He seemed fine when I climbed up here to take a nap. Next thing I knew . . . ”
Her voice cracked, but instead of giving in, she looked away and blinked back tears. The fact that she was holding strong did little to ease Josh’s misery. Needing to comfort the both of them, he pulled her into his arms. He knew her tears would rattle him, but this was ridiculous. It felt like someone was squeezing his heart. What in the Sam Hill was wrong with him?