He guided his horse through the crowded street with casual ease, one hand on the reins, the other resting on his thigh. His gaze never wavered from its direction straight ahead, but Anne Cameron would have been willing to bet he was aware of everyone and everything around him. There was the look of the predator about him, the menacing watchfulness of an animal on the scent of its next kill.
Anne felt his tension in the hollow thumping of her heart. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the sleeve of the shirtwaist that had been white that morning when she'd put it on. A warm whisper of a breeze caressed her hot skin, as a rivulet of moisture trickled between her breasts in the blazing September heat.
Drifter. She'd seen his type before. There had been plenty of them along the Mississippi River, rootless men who wandered from town to town, game to game, dangerous men who had nothing to lose.
Not until he'd passed down the street did Anne notice the body slung crosswise behind the saddle. The horse's movements caused the corpse to sway in a macabre dance, arms and legs dangling on either side of the animal.
She shuddered with revulsion. San Antonio, Texas in 1863 was nothing at all like Natchez, Mississippi - on the surface, at least. You'd never see a man ride down the street with a body draped over his horse, even in Natchez-under-the-hill, the part of the ccity she was familiar with. But life in Natchez-under-the-hill was cheap, and it was evidently cheap in Texas, too.
The man with the corpse stopped before the jail. He swung down from the saddle and walked around to the side of his horse. At the same time, a tall barrel-chested man emerged from the jail. He came to stand beside the body and raised the lifeless head by the hair to get a better look at the dead man's face.
Anne strained to hear the words that passed between the two, but the din in the street was too thick. She took the opportunity to study the gunfighter more closely. Her gaze slid down from his dark head to his broad shoulders to his narrow hips, where a gun rode low against his thigh. At that instant, she looked up and met his gaze.
He smiled, touching a finger to his hat, sending a jolt of excitement tempered with fear through her body, and she averted her gaze quickly. A cold knot settled in her chest, stealing her breath. It was a warning she dared not ignore. She'd disregarded her intuition before and paid a terrible price.
"There's gonna be trouble."
She turned at the sound of a deep male voice behind her to see a whiskered, white-haired man standing in the open doorway of the hotel. He nodded toward the horseman who had just dismounted in front of the jail. "Pistolero. Prob'ly a bounty hunter."
Anne moved pas the whiskered man into the relative coolness of the hotel. She stepped up to the desk, placing her gloves on the polished surface, trying not to think about the gunman.
"See those men on the other side of the street?" the whiskered man persisted.
In spite of her resolve to remain detached, Ann peered through the open door at two dangerous-looking men lounging across the street in front of the saloon, their eyes fixed on the gunfighter.
"Vigilante scum." The whiskered man withdrew from the doorway with a scowl and walked around behind the shiny mahogany desk.
"Mark my words, somebody's gonna be dead before this day is over." He opened the large ledger book with a snort. "Minutemen they call themselves. Their leader, Captain Asa Mitchell, vowed to punish criminals and traitors. Thing of it is, they're deserters and desperadoes themselves. They carry out their own brand of justice.
"Just ast week, they hung a man for getting drunk and turning over a few chili stands in Alamo Plaza. Took him out of jail and strung him up from a chinaberry tree. Few months ago, they hung twenty men in one week."
Anne closed her eyes tightly. Her temples were beginning to throb. She didn't care about this town or chili stands or hangings. Her too-large boots had rubbed blisters on her ankles and heels, despite the thick woolen socks she'd stuffed into the toes to make them fit better. All she could think of was taking those boots off, along with the rest of her clothes, and soaking in a hot tub.
"I need a room," she said finally.
The innkeeper turned the guest register around without another word and waited for her to sign her name.
"Pedro!" he called as Anne finished writing. A Mexican youth appeared, smiling brightly from beneath a large straw hat.
"Take Miss - he glanced at the register for her name - "Miss Cameron's baggage upstairs, pronto!"
The Mexican bobbed his head and lifted the carpetbag Anne had dropped at her feet. She followed him toward the staircase.
One more night in a hotel.
One more night and a stagecoach ride and she'd be in Ubiquitous, Texas, where she would start her new life. Finally she would have a home, a real home that didn't float up and down a river, with Aunt Marguerite. She could almost imagine her aunt's face. She would look like the miniature of Anne's mother who had died when Anne was seven. Her house would smell like home-baked bread. It would be white with a large porch on the front. They would sit and laugh together at dusk like the families she'd glimpsed in Natchez, the part above the bluffs where the decent folks lived, and in Baton Rouge and in Vicksburg....
Anne only hoped Aunt Marguerite had received her letter. She'd posted it from Natchez on her way out of town. There hadn't been time to wait for a reply - it would have taken weeks to reach her, if it reached her at all - so she had taken a chance and struck out for Texas.
She moistened her parched lips. The taste of Texas trail dust was bitter on her tongue. Her gaze returned to the spot where the pistolero had been standing, but he had turned to follow the sheriff into the jail. She glanced across the street at the two vigilantes, who were still watching and whispering to each other.
If there was going to be trouble, as the innkeeper had predicted, she hoped it would wait until she was well on her way.
Sheriff Jim Cooper opened the door to his office and stepped through. He didn't pause or speak as he crossed the dark room to sit in the leather chair behind his cluttered desk.
The gunfighter stood in the doorway, his right hip against the doorjamb, his left thumb hooked in his belt. He blinked his eyes until his vision adjusted to the lack of light, then pushed the hat back on his head. With sharp, wary eyes he studied the room, from the mountain of papers on the desk to the framed maps of Texas and the southwestern territories on the wall behind it.
He moved across the room slowly and lowered his tall frame into a straight-backed chair.
"You said you had papers?" Conner asked gruffly.
The bounty hunter sat forward and dug in his shirt pocket. Peering back at the sheriff with an unrelenting stare that never left Conner's face, he withdrew a sheet of paper, unfolded it slowly and placed it on the desk.
Conner pulled a stack of wanted posters from his desk and rifled through them, his hand shaking slightly despite his best efforts at control. He produced a newer version of the poster the gunfighter had provided.
"This must be your lucky day. Looks like the price has gone up. He's worth five hundred today. He's wanted in El Paso, so I'll have to send for the money. It should be here in three or four days."
"How about a little advance? I could use a bath and a drink or two."
"What the hell do you think this is?" Conner demanded. "Let's get something straight, friend. I don't like you and your kind. In fact, I wouldn't spit on you if you was on fire."
The gunfighter ran a hand over his beard. His eyes remained indifferent, but his annoyance showed in the tightening of a jaw muscle. Slowly he rose to his feet, gripping the edge of the desk. As he leaned toward Conner, the sheriff couldn't help but lean back, away from the threat in the gunman's tightly coiled stance. Without volition, Conner's gaze shifted to the gun on the edge of his desk. He'd never reach it in time - and both men knew it.
"The feeling's mutual, sheriff. But the sooner I get my money, the sooner I'll be outa your town. I've been on the trail for weeks."
"Being a bounty hunter's a tough job," Conner said, swallowing his fear. This was his town. He was the law here. If he started letting men like this one push him around, he'd be out of a job - or dead.
"The way I figure it, I need... oh, three nights of rest here in San Antonio to recover. Now, I can start with tonight, or I can start in three days when the money comes."
Conner studied the man who hovered above him. He wrinkled his nose in disgust. The bounty hunter reeked of death. Those unnaturally pale eyes stared back. A chill crept down the sheriff's spine at what he saw - or rather, what he didn't see - in those eyes. They were blank, as barren as the desert, as emotionless as the gun strapped to the bounty hunter's thigh. Conner didn't want trouble, and he had a feeling that the sooner this man was out of town the better for everyone.
He expelled an angry breath as he turned, opened the safe behind him, and dropped a small money pouch on the desk between them.
"There's a hundred dollars in gold in this bag," he said as he wrote out a receipt and shoved it across the desk. "I'm sure you know the procedure. Make your mark at the bottom."
The sheriff watched the man move the ink quill across the paper.
"So you can write," he said with a snort. "Just what the world needs; an educated bounty hunter."
The gunman returned the quill to its well and slid the receipt forward. The name Conner saw there made his stomach tighten in disgust.
"Rafe Montalvo," he read aloud, then added with more than a little sarcasm, "I didn't know I was talking to a legend."
Montalvo took the bag and turned it upside down. Gold coins clattered loudly against one another as he emptied the contents into his palm, counting the coins in a gesture Conner knew was meant to rankle him. Apparently satisfied, the gunman returned the coins to the pouch. "I knew you were a man of reason."
After dropping the money pouch into his shirt pocket, Montalvoa picked up the wanted poster he'd brought with him and began refolding it. "Mind if I keep this for a souvenir?" he asked, then slipped the folded poster into his other shirt pocket.
Conner rose from his chair, glaring at Montalvo. "You just make sure you stay out of trouble, you hear me? All I need's half an excuse, and I'll have you in jail faster'n you can draw that pistol of yours."
Montalvo's lips curled in a taunting smile. "I hear you, sheriff. Thanks for the warning."
Rafe Montalvo stepped out of the sheriff's office into the noisy street, adjusting the brim of his hat so that it shielded his eyes from at least some of the sun's glare. He glanced down the street, looking for the girl he'd seen standing in front of the hotel moments earlier, her curly pale-red hair peeking out from underneath a battered hat.
page last updated 05/15/00.