1883 – Pine Ridge Lumber Camp
Someone had smuggled a woman into camp.
Juniper Barns surveyed the growing circle of men as he tethered his horse outside the cabin serving as the Pine Ridge jailhouse. Only two things drew such a crowd. There wasn’t enough rooting and shouting going on for it to be a fight.
Cursing beneath his breath, he started toward what could well turn into a riot. He didn’t get paid enough for this job. Hell, just like the rest of the camp, he hadn’t been paid in nearly two months. He needed to get down the mountain and check on John’s widow. His friend’s death was the most recent of fatalities in a lumber camp sliding downhill at an alarming pace.
“Afternoon, Sheriff,” one of the men said as Juniper nudged his way past him and into a strum of murmuring voices.
“What’s going on?” he asked, working through the crowd of men. Just as he’d suspected, he spotted pale skin and colorful ruffles through the shifting veil of bodies. Women weren’t allowed up at the Pine Ridge camp for one obvious reason—they tended to bring out the worst in lonely, rowdy timbermen. To his immediate alarm, she seemed to already be in a horizontal position.
He shoved his way through, then drew to a hard stop.
What the hell?
A pretty lady lay unconscious on a spot of open ground. The woman’s peaceful expression and fancy prim attire shocked him far more than any display of indecency. The men surrounding her seemed just as stunned, none of them daring to go within a foot of her.
Juniper knelt beside her and pressed his fingers to her slender neck where her pulse beat strong and steady. A sigh of relief broke from his chest.
She sure didn’t look like a prostitute or a destitute wife who’d come up here to find out why her husband hadn’t brought home his much-needed earnings. Her green velvet waistcoat, matching leather gloves and colorful fancy skirt had a look of wealth about them. What was she doing way up here?
“What happened?” he demanded, glaring up at the others.
“I didn’t mean to hit her, Sheriff.” Slim, one of the log drivers, stepped forward. He twisted his hat in his hands, his eyes wide with fear as he stared at the woman. “I was moving a load.”
“She ain’t dead, is she, Sheriff?” someone shouted.
“No,” he said, sliding his fingers into reddish blond hair, knocking out hairpins as his fingers moved through the silken mass, searching her scalp for damage. He didn’t feel any fractures. A good-sized lump protruded on the right side of her head.
“Where’d she come from?” he asked, glancing around the circle.
“I looked ‘round and there she was,” said Slim. “I shouted a warning, and she turned straight into the log.” He clucked his tongue. “Knocked her right out.”
Dainty as she was, he was afraid to move her, unsure if the blow had jarred her spine.
“I want to know what she’s doing here,” he shouted. “Who does she belong to?”
Murmurs went through the crowd, every man looking to another.
“No one was with her?” he said to Slim.
“Not so far as I could see, but I wasn’t lookin’ beyond the path of that log.”
She moaned, and the group fell silent. The circle around Juniper drew tighter as the men leaned in.
“Miss?” Juniper brushed a finger across her petal-soft cheek. Long auburn lashes fluttered. She opened her eyes. The smallest rim of green lined the dilated centers.
She shifted, pushing her elbows up beneath her as she started to sit up. Long shiny hair tumbled to her shoulders in a shimmer of russet and gold. “I...” She winced, her eyes pinching shut. “My...”
Juniper quickly slid his hand beneath her head as she dropped back down.
She blinked up at him. Her lips tipped with a smile.
Juniper’s mouth went dry. She sure was pretty.
“Oh my,” she said, sounding breathless.
“You’ve taken a swift hit to the head.”
“I must have.” Her eyelids drooped.
“Can you tell me your name?”
Lily. What was this sweet, delicate flower doing way up here? Her weight relaxed against his palm.
“Lily? Can you hear me? Lily?”
She didn’t stir.
Definitely a concussion. She’d moved enough to assure him nothing was broken. Needing to get her out of the sun and away from all the onlookers, he slid his arms beneath her shoulders and the bulk of her skirt. As he straightened, something solid jabbed against his ribs. He shifted her against him, firming his hold on her, and was pretty damn sure he felt the outline of a revolver packed into the green and violet folds of her skirt.
At least she had enough sense to travel armed.
He glanced up at the crowd of woodsmen. “Anyone willing to claim her?”
The eager expressions of the men told him that was about the stupidest question he could have asked.
“I will!” shouted one.
“I’ll take her off your hands, sheriff,” called another.
He shook his head and carried her toward his office. Whatever her reasons for coming up here, riling the interest of a bunch of salivating lumberjacks was only going to get her into more trouble than she could handle.
“Find Marty and Günter,” he said to no one in particular. “Tell them to high-tale it to my office.”
“You arresting her?” someone shouted after him.
“I sure am! She’s breaking Pine Ridge law by being here. When I find out who’s responsible for bringing her up here, he’ll be packing his gear.”
“Juniper?” His deputy hurried towards him. “She hurt?” Günter rushed ahead to open the door of the sheriff’s office.
“Most likely a concussion,” he said, hoping that was the worst of her injuries. He carried her inside and carefully stepped into one of the two jail cells.
“Who is she?”
“Hell if I know. Go see if you can find Marty,” he said, placing her on a fairly clean cot. “I’d feel better if he had a look at her head before we send her down the mountain.”
As the door shut behind his deputy, Juniper slid his hand into Lily’s skirt pocket. Just as he’d suspected, his fingers closed over a gun. Expecting a dainty Derringer or stylish Colt, the .44 Smith & Wesson surprise him. A right decent weapon by his standards, and any man whose life depended on speed and accuracy. The plain wood grip showed signs of heavy use, some of the varnish having worn through. He opened the cylinder, noting the empty first chamber and clean barrel. To his relief, the use hadn’t been recent.
He glanced again at the woman. She seemed far too delicate to be carrying such a thing. Not that he blamed her for packing iron in such rough country, but why in creation would she have come all the way up here with nothing but a hard-used pistol in her pocket?
Leaving her in the cell, he tugged off his hat and tossed the brown Stetson onto his desk. He set the lady’s revolver on a stack of reports. Crouching before the cabinet that held a pitcher and washbasin, he took out a clean towel. After pouring some water into the white basin, he dunked in the cloth, wrung it out, and went back to Lily.
Such a tiny little thing, he thought as he knelt beside her. Not much over five feet, and he’d bet ten pounds of her slight weight was sheer clothing, her full skirt fluffed up by a stack of petticoats. He laid the cool wet cloth over the knot hidden beneath her hair and stepped back.
She seemed comfortable enough, though her fitted jacket did look rather constrictive. He wondered if he should open the high collar. He reached for the pearl buttons, then decided against it.
“Wake up, pretty lady.”
Günter stomped into the cabin. “Marty went up to check a bad-tempered ox. I sent a man after him.”
Juniper released a sigh of disappointment. “All right. As soon as he gets back, send him over.”
“Da.” Günter poked his head inside the jail cell, taking a closer look at Lily. “Pretty. Yeah?”
“Yeah. A regular sleeping beauty. Go on and get some chow before Cook closes the kitchen.”
Günter didn’t hesitate. Once Cook locked his doors there’d be no chance at getting a hot meal. “I’ll bring you a plate.”
Juniper wasn’t sure when they expected him to eat--he’d hardly slept in a week. Between gun-toting damsels, renegade lumberjacks, crazed oxen, and L.P. Carrington’s latest notice starting riots all over this mountain, he had more trouble than he could handle. The sheriff’s office had somehow become the headquarters for company complaints. Much more of this and he’d be making a trip to Frisco for a little one-on-one with L.P. Carrington. The man clearly had more money than smarts.
Work had been rendered, timber cut and hauled off the mountain. These men needed their wages, not letters asking for patience while some overstuff suit polished his coins.
He leaned down and stroked a few strands of reddish blond hair away from Lily’s face. Her long auburn lashes rested peacefully against her fair skin.
He had a hunch he wasn’t the only one on the warpath. This wouldn’t be the first time a scorned lover had shown up at lumber camp with a pistol in her pocket. If that was the case, one of their lumberjacks had been a right lucky man.
* * *
Lily woke with a dull headache.
She didn’t bother to open her eyes, not wanting to increase the throbbing in her skull. She needed hot chocolate. Reaching out, she blindly searched for the servant bell on her night table, yet the table eluded her.
“Emily?” she called.
“Whoever Emily is,” said a low, smooth voice, “it’s fair to say she ain’t comin’.”
Lily bolted upright. She barely caught a glimpse of the man moving toward her before her brain seemed to slug forward, pounding stars into her eyes.
She swayed. “Oh my goodness.”
“Easy, now.” Warm hands closed over her shoulders and eased her back down. “You took a swift blow to the head.”
Eyes of the palest blue gazed down at her. She had a vague recollection of peering up into those cerulean depths once before.
“How’s the eyesight?” he asked.
Her gaze moved over his tanned features, sharp jaw line and wavy blond hair with startling clarity. He held his hand up, two of his long fingers creating a V.
“How many fingers do you see?”
“Two,” she said, smiling despite her headache. She sat up, slowly this time, and leaned back against the wall.
His swift smile didn’t help her wooziness. The handsome stranger eased back. Light glinted off the silver star pinned to his dark leather vest.
The sheriff. She glanced past him and noticed the metal bars.
“Am I in jail?”
Warm throaty laugher drew her gaze back to sparkling blue eyes. Flutters erupted low in her belly. She definitely remembered him, and was quite certain she’d found him just as striking the first time she’d looked into those sky-blue eyes. A sudden heat flooded her face, and Lily averted her gaze.
“You’re getting some color back in your cheeks,” he said, which only increased the heat flaring into her face.
Good gracious. Lily Carrington did not swoon over men!
Glancing back at the sheriff, she now knew why. Lily Carrington had never been in the presence of a man like the sheriff of Pine Ridge.
He took a step back, his broad shoulders seeming to block out the rest of the world as he leaned against the metal doorframe. He crossed his law-enforcing arms over a strong chest, creating a formidable barrier between her and the open doorway of the cell.
“Mind telling me what you’re doing up here, Lily?”
Her eyes surged wide. How did he know her name?
“Don’t remember telling me your name?”
“No,” she said, lightly touching the tender spot on the side of her head. “I’m not even sure how I ended up in here.”
Golden eyebrows pinched inward, a look of concern narrowing his eyes. “Do you know where you’re at?”
“The lumber camp at Pine Ridge.”
He smiled at her answer. The reaction caused an alarming affect on her pulse.
“Yes, ma’am. How many women do you reckon we have here at the Pine Ridge lumber camp?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“None. Do you know why, Lily?”
“Same reason this logging camp has to employ its own sheriff. It’s not safe. I have enough work cut out for me without our rowdy crews fighting over a woman.”
She certainly wasn’t a woman willing to be fought over! “This is all a terrible misunderstanding. I’ve come to Pine Ridge on business.”
“I am aware.” The corners of his mouth slid upward again, and Lily was quite certain she’d never known a more handsome man with such a charming disposition. “Or was that pistol in your pocket purely for protection?”
Her mouth dropped open. Her hand slid to her empty skirt pocket.
“It’s on my desk.”
Her gaze darted to the side. Her father’s gun sat atop a stack of papers on the sheriff’s desk.
“If that revolver wasn’t so polished, I’d worry about the missing bullet.”
Lily groaned and slumped back onto the cot.
“Lily, why don’t you tell me what this is all about?”
She stared into his gentle blue eyes and wondered if he used such charm to interrogate all his prisoners.
“I can’t cut you loose in this lumber camp, but if you tell me what’s going on, maybe I can help.”
Yes, perhaps he could. “I’m--”
He glanced over his shoulder as Davy burst in through the door.
“What is it, Davy?”
“Barns?” said Lily.
The sheriff looked back at her, and Lily realized she’d spoken the name aloud.
“That’s right,” he said. “Juniper Barns.”
Lily couldn’t draw her next breath. His narrowing blue eyes suggested her expression revealed her shock.
He can’t be.
“Well, heck. You already found her,” Davy said before stepping back outside.
Sheriff Barns didn’t take his eyes off her, eyes that didn’t seem quite so warm and gentle as a moment ago. “Heard of me, have you?”
He wasn’t much older than her, far too young. She’d been only twelve years of age when her father was killed, nearly thirteen years ago.
“Does your father work up here, Sheriff Barns?”
“No, ma’am. I’ve got no blood kin left to speak of. My father died in Missouri nearly fourteen years ago.”
His emphasis on Missouri throbbed through her mind as chills raced across her skin. Her gaze dropped to the holster strapped to his lean hips, the pearl grip of one of his guns visible beneath his vest.
Gunned him down with those pearl-handled six-shooters.
Oh God. She glanced up and fear shivered through her. She’d come to Pine Ridge to kill the sheriff.
And he knew it.
* * *
Copyright ©2007 by Stacey Kayne
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