She refused to ask how much longer they would be riding. Instead she chose her words carefully to find out the same information, she hoped, without seeming to complain. “Have you chosen our destination?”
He cast her a sidelong glance from under the brim of his hat. For the past few miles their horses had walked side by side, still steady, though definitely the worse for wear.
“Your destination,” he replied.
“Mine? You mean you aren’t going with me?” Her mind was too numb to question the panic that set her heart racing.
“We’re about half an hour from Fort Davis. I’ll get you that far.”
“Fort Davis? I can’t go to Fort Davis!” This time there was no effort to hide the panic, the fear from his scrutiny. She tugged hard on the mare’s reins, pulling the confused beast into a sharp turn as she tried to change direction. Coulter reached out and grabbed the horse’s bridle, holding it steady before she could take off.
“Just what are you—” He broke off, and she saw him eyeing her left hand and the narrow gold wedding band glinting in the sun. “I should have known.” He jerked his hand away. “Running away from your husband, bringing a whole town after me before it’s over with.”
She stared at the wedding ring, and for a moment she saw blood, black and sticky. Joel’s blood. Maybe Clayton was right. If it weren’t for her, Joel wouldn’t have killed himself. Wouldn’t have—wouldn’t have —
She fought the memory, seizing instead on the one thought she must convey. “I can’t go to Fort Davis.” The words were measured, even, showing none of the emotion quaking through her.
“Lady, you don’t have a choice.”
She clenched her jaw and gripped the reins, blinking back the tears stinging her eyelids. “I can’t,” she choked, gulping on a sob. “You don’t understand.”
His words bit through her protest. “I don’t wanna know.”
“Please,” she begged, her wet lashes glistening, spilling tears down her dusty cheeks. “If you’d listen, you’d understand. He—he told them I ki—”
“Shut up, lady!” He whirled on her, his face savage. “Do you hear me? I don’t care what happens to you. You’re going to Fort Davis!”
“No!” The scream tore from her throat, tore with all the anguish of a night of nightmares overlaid with hours of exhaustion. Tore from her in a spasm of pain and desperation. And behind the scream flowed the agony of tears, until she was blinded by them, her eyes seeing instead the dead man who was her husband, the living brother who was her death.
The outlaw stared at her with a guarded face that showed no sign of remorse, no softening of intent. A surge of determination shot through her body, and she plunged a hand into her saddlebag.
The outlaw pulled his Colt from his holster, its barrel flashing in the sun. “Sorry to disappoint you, ma’am, but I relieved you of my gun along about sunrise.” Eyes as unyielding as granite, he steadied his grip, stopping short of aiming it directly at her. “You do what I say, when I say. And I say you’re going to Fort Davis.”
The satisfaction melted from his face when she pulled her pearl-handled derringer from her saddle bag. “Perhaps, Mr. Coulter,” she said, aiming the gun at his heart, “you’d better know what I’m running from. For your own good.”
This time he didn’t cut her off, didn’t turn away. His expression was carefully void of emotion.
“I’m wanted for the murder of my husband.”
Coulter didn’t flinch. His gaze went from her gun, to his, back to hers again. With a click that seemed to echo off the canyon walls, he cocked his. “You didn’t murder anybody, lady. You don’t have it in you.”
She swallowed hard and raised her chin, peering at him through blue-gray eyes the color of the hazy Texas sky over her shoulder. “You’re wrong, Mr. Coulter. I’m not afraid of killing because I’m not afraid of dying. I’m not afraid of you or anyone.” Slowly, deliberately, she cocked the derringer.
“Then we’re at a stalemate. But lady, you’re barely able to sit a horse now. Tomorrow I’d have to tie you on. And before we get to where I’m going, you’ll turn that gun on yourself and blow your head away.”
At that, she swayed in the saddle, her eyes glazing with pain. She stiffened her spine and compressed her wide, full lips in a tight line.
He lowered his gun to his thigh.
Her own grip tightened. “Do you have any rope, Mr. Coulter?”
His nod was barely perceptible.
“You may have to tie me on my horse, but I’m going with you,” she said, her profile silhouetted against the glare of sunshine and the red canyon wall.
“You don’t know what you’re asking, lady.”
“And you don’t know why.”
He dug his knees into Sage’s sides and rode off.
Patricia Burroughs is a fifth-generation Texan, and third-generation Dallasite. She was awarded a highly coveted Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for the screenplay adaptation she wrote of La Desperada.