By Layne and Jo

(Layne writing Hannah, Jo writing Ben)

 

Chapter One:

 

 

With a resigned sigh, Hannah adjusted herself on the seat of the stagecoach once more.  The

seat was padded, but just barely and, after two days of sitting, she fancied that she could feel every bump and splinter in the hard wood beneath the fabric.  Between the heat, the dust,

and her aching back, she'd barely been able to nap any at all on this leg of her journey.

This stage was the last part of her long, tedious trip from New York to Green Valley, a little town just outside of Tucson, Arizona.  When Hannah had boarded the first train in New York, she'd been so excited she could barely sit still.  Now, after all the trains, coaches, and wagons she'd ridden in, the excitement had worn down, right along with her sore backside.

The men sitting in the coach with her merely looked bored.  They were used to this.  Got paid to do it all the time.  The coach was not supposed to take on passengers.  It was a Southern Pacific Railroad payroll coach, carrying a lot of money and heavily guarded.  However, she'd been told back at the last little town they'd left--Bisbee, she thought had been the name of it--that the next stage leaving for Green Valley would not be around for three days.

"Three days!"  She'd practically shouted at the poor man who'd passed along the information.  "I could be there in that length of time, not sitting around here doing nothing!"  Then, realizing that the temper that went along with her red hair was surfacing again, she'd quietened her voice.

"Please, sir-"  Hannah had put on her best smile and batted her eyelashes, which was what

men seemed to want from you, whether you were back East or out here.  "Please get me on

this stage."

He'd told her that was impossible--that payroll coaches ran a high risk of being robbed and never took on passengers for just that reason.  As Hannah looked around at the half-dozen men, armed to the teeth, who were to be guarding the stage, she'd replied, "It looks well-protected."

Finally, after more wheedling from her, and an assurance that she wouldn't hold anyone responsible if anything happened to her, he had persuaded them to make room for her and her belongings.  So, here she was.  One more day on this bouncing contraption and she'd be in

Green Valley.  And nothing the slightest bit exciting had happened.

Ben Wade sat on his black, watching, his only movement a slight squinting of his eyes. He might as well have been a mounted statue, so still he sat.  Then his black-vested chest rose and fell with a long sigh. The payroll stage was coming, still distant, but it had appeared for a second between two large outcroppings of peach-hued rocks.  His blue-green eyes located his men, though his head did not move. They were mounted, waiting just beyond a sharp curve of road for the stage to pass. It was all so familiar and the very familiarity of it lay heavily somewhere deep in his belly.  He moved then, just enough to shift his belt as though that might somehow relieve the heaviness in his gut.

A small flying insect buzzed near his right eye and he blinked it away with his lashes. The insect seemed part and parcel of the day, this day so like hundreds of other days. The Arizona sky arced above him, endless in its cloud-free blueness.  A hawk soared over the distant ridge,

wings flapless, riding the thermals.  Ben tipped his head just enough to watch its passage, finding it more interesting than the stage, than his men gathered below.  Pressing his lips together, he forced himself away from pleasant contemplation to the matter at hand.  He liked the results

of his outlawry, liked what the money so gained could bring him, liked the independent freeness

of his chosen profession.  What he found tedious any more was the process of it.

With great detachment he watched his men pull out behind the stage. Some of them would likely die. That was of no real concern to him.  Just do it, he thought. Do the damn thing quickly. Then he could be on with it.  A slight, very wry grin appeared briefly.  Yeah, on with it.

With an even greater detachment  he watched  the man riding shotgun on the stage fall,

pierced through by four bullets, smack hard into the dirt road, roll several times and lie still.  Man should know such ends came with the hiring on for a job like he'd taken.  The stage plowed onward, the driver frantically whipping his team.  Another man was atop the coach, firing a Gatling gun at Ben's men.  One, then two of them,  flipped backwards off their horses.  For

Ben it was all like a game of chess.  Pawns were taken regularly on both sides.

The stage's gunner went down, lying for a moment atop its roof before being finally bounced

off. Another man came through a hatch, taking his place.  He lasted up there less than 30 seconds.  A third man took that position, managing to kill another of Ben's men before he, too,

ended in the road. With some hesitation,  the remaining guard poked his head through the hatch, inch by inch making his way up and to the gun. Then almost at the same moment, the right lead horse went down and the driver crumpled where he sat, shot through the heart. Ben frowned. There were better ways of stopping a stage than killing a horse.  His eyes, hard with disapproval, fastened on his man who'd done it.

Slowly, he began picking his way down the rock-strewn slope to the road.  He'd judged his position well.  The stage had stopped almost directly below where he'd been watching. Stopped, of course, being a pale word for what had actually happened when the lead horse went down

and the driver was killed.  Damn thing had nearly flipped, then rocked wildly from side to side.  The guard atop the roof had been sent flying but by the time Ben was halfway to the coach had scrabbled to his feet and was reaching for his gun.  Reining up, Charlie smiled and shot him in the chest.

Hannah took no notice of the first gunshot she heard.  Such things seemed to be routine out here.  She'd heard them from every stage and wagon on which she'd been a passenger.  A

single shot meant nothing, she'd been told.  Probably just somebody killing a rabbit for supper.

The noise of what sounded like a heavy bag of flour falling off the coach and onto the ground near it did catch her attention, however.  She straightened, the dull ache in her back and the dust on her clothes and face forgotten.  The men sitting inside the coach had lost their bored looks and were eyeing each other uneasily.

A few seconds later, the sound of more gunfire exploded around them like hail.  The driver shouted at the team, and the snapping of his whip added to the cracks of gunfire.  The man sitting nearest Hannah shouted "Get down!" and pushed her out of her seat to the floor of

the coach.

After that, she could see nothing for what seemed like ages, although she could hear the

endless bangs of guns being fired and the rat-a-tat of the Gatling gun that she'd seen mounted

on the top rear of the stage.  The increasingly rapid movement of the coach and the bumps it

was hitting made her feel as though she were a pebble being rattled around in an empty tin

can. The men who had been sitting with her seemed to be disappearing one by one through

the hatch in the top.

Finally, there was a huge, bone-jarring crash.  Hannah was flung forward into one seat and,

just as rapidly, backward into the other.  She clutched the edge of the seat frantically, as the stage rocked from side to side.  Then--silence.

Silence that was interrupted by what seemed to be a last few stray gunshots and the sound of horses hooves outside.  Hannah had no idea what had happened to the men, but she was now

in the coach alone.  That last crash had ended with her piled into one corner like a heap of

old laundry.

Cautiously, she raised her head and peeked out the window on one side.

Ben rode slowly up to the coach as though he had all the time in the world.  His men were all dismounted now, eager to get at the payroll chest, but standing still, watching the coming of their boss. Ben's face was impassive, unreadable, as he, too, dismounted. Without speaking,

he walked past one, then two, of his men, paused, looked Nick in the eye a long moment, then backhanded him across his face, hard. "No need to kill the horse," he said, his voice deep, low.  Slowly, deliberately, he straightened his right cuff, then continued on to where Charlie stood

not far from the stage's door. Ben jerked his head just slightly toward the door and with a big, satisfied grin, Charlie gripped the handle and pulled it open.

Hannah was unable to see anything from the angle at which she sat.  Her head was buzzing and her ears ringing from all the noise and from being rattled about in the coach.  There was a noise that sounded something like a slap, skin striking skin, but she might have been mistaken.  A

slow, deliberate voice was speaking, but she wasn't able to hear it very well.  Something about not needing to kill a horse?

Moving carefully, she tried to edge closer to the side of the coach for a clearer view.  If only

she had a gun in here!  The guards seemed to have taken them all.  She'd barely moved an

inch when the door of the coach was suddenly pulled open.  A man's face had appeared in

front of her.  A young man with a reddish beard, blue eyes, and wearing a wide grin. It caught Hannah by surprise, and she gasped loudly.

"I'll get the...," Charlie began, his words cut off in his amazement at the sight of the woman.

His mouth fell open for a split second, then he grinned again. "Boss!" he called over his shoulder. "You ain't gonna believe what this here coach is haulin'."

Ben, slightly irritated that Charlie didn't just pull the payroll chest out, stepped forward. "Damn it, Charlie, just...."

Charlie hopped backwards off the step to let Ben look inside. Pushing his black hat further

back on his head, Ben leaned in. This whole process was dragging out way too long and he wanted to get the bags of money and be gone. "I...."  He was still standing on the ground, bent

a little forward, and his eyes widened.  He straightened, regarding the woman in the shaded interior.  For the briefest moment his gaze shifted as he made sure there was, indeed, a payroll chest aboard, then they latched back on the woman, narrowing.  One corner of his mouth twitched. "Pinkerton gettin' hard up findin' folks to guard the payroll, now is he?"

When the younger man stepped back, the door of the coach had been filled by an older man.  Dressed in black, he made an intimidating figure, framed in the doorway as he was with the strong Arizona sun behind him.  It took a moment for Hannah's eyes to adjust, but when they had she saw the man's hasty look toward the chest containing the money before he shifted his eyes to her once again.

"I'm-not a Pinkerton."  Still stunned, she could think of nothing else to say.

"Damn good thing, too," Ben replied, his mouth still twitching.  "Not a lotta life-expectancy

with the job."  Behind him, Charlie let out a loud laugh.  At the sound, something in Ben's

face hardened a bit though the half-smile lingered on his lips.  "May I ask why a lady,"  for thusly he had assessed her, "might find herself travelin' in such unsavory company?"

Now that the ringing in her ears and the buzzing in her head was starting to lessen, Hannah's more forceful personality was beginning to assert itself once more.  She could find no reason

for their obvious amusement and, after all that had just happened, it was getting on her nerves.

Fixing her green eyes on the man still framed in the doorway, she retorted, "Are you suggesting that I might find your company any less unsavory?"

Her cheeks flushing with temper, she had totally forgotten that this was one of the men who was in the process of robbing the stage, and that he might be just as inclined to kill her as look at her.  "And I imagine the life-expectancy of a Pinkerton might be a little longer if it weren't for men like you!"

Just then the guard whom Charlie had shot in the chest let out a moan and moved his legs. Charlie turned, drawing his gun to finish the job.

Hannah heard the man's moan and saw the movement of his legs out of the corner of her eye.  The intimidating man blocking the door of the coach apparently heard it, too.  He had moved back a little, turning around to see what was going on behind him.

Seeing the younger man draw his gun, Hannah screamed "Stop!"  At the same time, her instincts led her to scramble suddenly out of the coach.  Before any of them were aware of

what she was doing, she had rushed up to the injured man.

Dropping to her knees beside him, Hannah pushed the long, red hair that had escaped her carefully-crafted topknot back out of her eyes.  Blood had soaked the front of the man's shirt.  Ignoring it, Hannah pulled the cloth aside.  The bullet had entered his chest not quite in the center, but slightly over toward his heart.  He'd lost a lot of blood and was losing more by the minute.

Disregarding the men standing about with their guns drawn, she cast her eyes around.  Seeing nothing useful at hand, she yanked up the bottom of her skirt, tearing a strip from the cotton petticoat underneath and folding it rapidly into a thick pad.   Hannah placed the pad on the wound and put both hands over it, one on top of the other, pressing down with all her strength.  The man moaned again.

A glance over her shoulder found the eyes of the man in black giving her a strange look.  Her face was streaked and sweaty and Hannah had no time for niceties.  Impatiently, she snapped

at him, "You!  Get down here and hold this on the wound!  You're stronger than I am!  You'll

be able to put more pressure on it!  While you do that, I can find my bag and-!"

The man in the black hat hadn't moved.  She shouted at him angrily. "Well!  Are you just going to stand there and do nothing?!  If we can get the bleeding stopped, this man might not die!"

Silently Ben approached and stared down at the pinkerton, making no move to assist.  "I thought," his voice came very low and deep, "that was the general idea...that he was supposed

to die."  He found the man lying in the dirt entirely irrelevant. His gaze lifted and he made a motion with his hand that sent two of his men scurrying to get the payroll chest off the stage.

Charlie had followed them and when the chest was on the ground, he reached in and turned, a black bag in his hand. "She wants her bag," he crowed. "You got knittin' needles in here? You gonna knit the pink back together?"  He laughed and made to throw the bag off into the desert.

"Maybe it's your general idea that he's supposed to die," Hannah snapped, still pressing down on the wound as hard as she could.  "It's not mine!"

Seeing the younger man preparing to throw the bag, she cried out, "Stop, you fool!  That's not knitting needles!  It's a doctor's bag!  I'm a doctor!"

Ben stopped watching the men with the chest and stared at the woman.  "Midwife?" he said. "You mean midwife, don' ya? Doctorin' ain't work for women."  He looked faintly amused by her odd assertion.

Having heard remarks like that for most of her life, Hannah was used to largely ignoring them.  Right now, she was concentrating on the injured man before her and the fate of the bag in the hands of the red-bearded young man.  Adjusting the pad over the wound, she pressed down again.  The strength in her arms was fast running out from leaning her weight on them to add

to the pressure she could put on the man's chest.  All these strong men around and not one of them would help her!  Damn it!

"No!  I do not mean midwife!  I'm a doctor!  A real, actual doctor!  That's my bag!  Now, would you kindly give it to me!"

There was an abrupt jerking motion from the injured man, which dislodged her hands from the pad over the wound.  Hannah heard a gurgling sound in his throat, first softly, then growing louder, before stopping altogether.  The rise and fall of his chest halted.  Frantically, she felt

for the pulse in his neck.  Nothing.

Her eyes and face falling in frustration and sadness, she sat slowly back on her heels.  It was

too late. There was probably nothing she could have done, even with her bag. From the sounds she'd heard, it was likely the bullet had nicked a lung.  She moved to push back the hair straggling into her face, until she remembered the blood covering her hands.  Stopping, she dropped her hands and sat for a moment, feeling helpless.

"He's dead," Ben said, a bit redundantly. "Just as well."  He half-turned. "You got that damn box open yet?" he called loudly to the two men by the payroll chest.  They'd stopped what they were doing to watch the woman.

"Almost, Boss, almost!" one replied while the other used his gun to blast the lock off.

Ben sighed impatiently and looked back at the woman. "Need washin'," he commented, nodding at her hands. "Flies'll find you soon."  He was, in fact, wondering what in hell to do with the female. She shouldn't have been on the payroll coach.  "Why?" he asked, jerking his head toward the coach.

Looking at her hands, Hannah knew she needed to wash soon without him saying it.  Flies were plentiful in the hot Arizona weather. 

At the motion of his head toward the coach, she said,  "I'm headed to Green Valley outside Tucson.  I plan to open an office there." Rising, she surveyed the bodies and debris surrounding the coach.  Such a waste of life.

Seeing a canteen, which had no doubt been thrown from the coach, she went to pick it up. Then, turning toward the young man with the reddish beard called Charlie, she said, "I'll take my bag now, if you don't mind."

Charlie instantly looked toward Ben for affirmation that would be ok with him. When Ben gave him the barest flick of his head, Charlie grinned at the woman, dropping the bag at her feet so she'd have to bend to pick it up.  Then he tipped up his chin and strutted off to join the men by the now-open chest. 

Ben had followed behind her and when her hand came down toward her bag he said, "I'd wash first. Less'n you want blood on them there leather handles."  Then he walked past her to look inside the chest. His mind, though, was not on the moneybags but on the problem of her presence.  The coach was undrivable, one wheel entirely crumbled.  His hat tipped low over his eyes, he studied her. Fine looking woman she was, too. And the fact of her green eyes had not escaped his notice.  But a doctor? He wasn't sure about that at all.

Using water from the canteen, Hannah scrubbed as much blood off her hands as she could.  Being fresh, it came off fairly easily.  She had soap in with her personal things, but she had no idea if that bag was still in the coach, or had been thrown off somewhere during the wild ride.  The group of robbers stood between her and the stage and she was not inclined to pass them right now to look for it.

As she scrubbed, she thought furiously.  What would happen to her now?  Would they kill her?  Had they wanted to do so, there would have been ample time for it already, but who knew how this type of men thought? 

Perhaps they'd rape her.  That thought sent an even colder chill of fear through her than the thought of being killed.  If they chose to do so, she'd have no defense.  She thought of the scalpel and other sharp instruments in her bag, but she knew they would be no defense against so many armed men.

Then, she caught sight of the gun lying near the body of the man she'd been trying to save.  It was several feet away, but the attention of the men was on the chest they'd just opened, on the money they'd been intent on stealing.  Finishing with her hands, Hannah stood up, casually rubbing her hands at her skirts to dry them.  She edged toward the gun on the ground, then

ran, picking it up and turning to hold it on the group of men around the chest.

Eight pairs of eyes instantly latched on to her. Ben stepped out in front of the others. Day wasn't quite so boring any more, but he wasn't sure if he felt amused by the woman holding the gun with shaking hands or irritated because she was causing more delay in their leaving.  A medley
of emotions flickered in his eyes and he paused, rubbing his chin with a hand, regarding her. He realized that for her the scene was like a doe facing a pack of wolves.  Her face was white, eyes round and large,  lips pressed tightly together.  He wasn't going to hurt her and he wasn't
going to let his men hurt her, but she obviously had no way of knowing that. "Listen," he began and took another step toward her, holding his right hand out. 

He stopped, shocked, the sound of a gun firing filling all his hearing.  Somewhat dazed he moved his hand slowly to his left side where warm blood flowed down his vest from the bullet that had skittered across his ribs, embedding in his side.  Lifting his hand, he stared at the blood on it then at her, her face just as shocked as his.  Then his knees stopped supporting him and he sank down, sitting on his heels.

"BOSS!" Charlie yelled, sprinting forward, flinging himself beside Ben. With one hand he clutched Ben's right shoulder and with the other he drew his gun, aiming at the woman.

"No!" Ben gritted between clenched teeth.

"But she...."

"I said no.  No one harms her. No one!"

"But, Boss, she...."

"No one."  He leaned forward, resting his right palm on the ground.  "She's a woman."  He lifted his head enough to see her again. "And she's a doctor." 

 

 

ON TO PART 2

 

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