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Authors: The Colonel's Daughter

Merline Lovelace

Jack sat unmoving, staring at the deck of cards for some moments after Suzanne left the saloon.

Every instinct in him was jumping like a bobcat with his tail on fire. What the hell had she drawn? Why did she bury her last card without showing it? Who really won the hand, and who lost?

She’d folded a winning pair. Jack knew it as sure as he knew his own name. But why? What did she have to gain by offering herself as a stake in a poker game, then deliberately losing the hand? She had to have known that he intended to collect the debt she now owed him. He’d put it as plain as he could without saying the words outright. He wanted the payment they talked about back at Ten Mile Station. He wanted
her.
He couldn’t breathe without craving her so bad he hurt.

She had to have known what she was wagering. She had to know what she’d just lost.

Abruptly he shoved his chair back. He was done with trying to figure out the woman. Done with wondering just what crazy ideas were swirling around under the mass of silky brown hair. For whatever reason, she’d played her hand the way she’d wanted to, and Jack was going to claim his winnings.

 

Merline Lovelace “writes with humor and passion.”

—Publishers Weekly

Dear Reader,

Are you as fascinated by the old West as I am? Given my military background, I’ve always been particularly interested in the army’s role on the frontier. One of my all-time favorite trips was a swing my husband and I took through Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. I don’t think we missed a single restored fort, battlefield or roadside marker.

One marker especially intrigued me. On a lonely stretch of dirt road near present-day Lusk, Wyoming, we found a slab of pink granite surrounded by a metal-pipe fence. The wind-worn stone marked the grave of Mother Featherlegs Shephard, murdered in 1879 for her money.

Of course, I was hooked. My research into her life and times turned up a host of other fascinating real-life characters, including George “Big Nose” Parrott. They’re both here in
The Colonel’s Daughter,
along with the determined colonel’s daughter and a man seeking his own brand of justice in a wild, untamed land.

So curl up, keep warm and enjoy this tale of times past. And if you enjoy this book, be sure to watch for
The Captain’s Woman,
the next book in the Garrett family saga. When war fever sweeps the country, Lieutenant Sam Garrett joins Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders—much to the dismay of the girl who decides she
won’t
be left behind. Coming from MIRA Books in January 2003.

Best wishes,

Merline Lovelace
The Colonel’s Daughter

This book is for my own handsome hero of thirty-plus years, who makes exploring Badlands and historic old ruins such grand adventures.

1

Wyoming Territory
September, 1879

T
he sharp pop roused Suzanne Bonneaux from a fitful doze. She jerked upright, her spine snapping into a line every bit as straight and stiff as the Misses Merriweather could have wished during Suzanne’s two years at their Academy for Select Young Ladies.

With a shake of her head, she tried to clear the haze caused by dust, the unseasonable September heat and two days and nights of jouncing along in one of the Black Hills Stage and Express Line’s great, lumbering coaches. Frowning, she darted a quick glance from under the brim of her feather-trimmed hat at her fellow passengers.

The portly watch salesman facing her on the
middle seat grasped his merchandise case to his chest. With eight people jammed inside the coach, two of them sentenced to the agony of the backless middle bench, there was no room between the other passengers’ legs to store his goods. At each stop the driver had tried to convince the salesman to relinquish the case so it could be stored in the boot, but the merchant insisted on using it as a pillow in a futile attempt to sleep.

He wasn’t sleeping now, however. Like Suzanne, the sharp crack had jarred him into full wakefulness.

“Did we snap a trace?” he asked nervously.

“Might have,” the blacksmith wedged between two other men on the rear-facing seat replied. “Hard to tell, with all these creaks and groans.”

Like the dust that swirled in through the windows, noise was a constant companion to the passengers traveling aboard the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage. The leather springs on the massive, red-and-gold-painted coach creaked at every turn. Its wheels thumped at each jarring rut. After the first few hours, Suzanne had learned to separate the pop of the driver’s whip from the slap of the reins. Very soon after that she’d stopped listening.

“Didn’t sound like no trace to me,” the ranch hand next to Suzanne muttered. Unsteadily, he shoved the cork into the bottle he’d been guzzling from for the past two hours, ever since he’d stum
bled out of the saloon at the Ten Mile way station and climbed aboard the stage.

“I’m gonna take a look.”

Leaning right across her, he stuck his head out the window. His knees knocked Suzanne’s thigh, and the stench of raw whiskey and stale sweat rose up to penetrate the road dust clogging her nostrils. Drawing her dangling, beaded purse onto her lap and out of his way, she scrunched into the corner.

“There’s riders strung across the road up ahead,” he reported. “Must be a half dozen of them.”

“Could be one of them wants to board the stage,” the traveling salesman suggested hopefully.

“More like they want to rob it,” the wrangler muttered, pulling back inside.

Instant alarm swept through the coach. The watch peddler wrapped his arms tight around his merchandise case, as if to protect his goods from the ruthless predators who preyed upon the stage lines like vultures. Next to him, the youth on his way to the Black Hills gold fields turned as pale as a bedsheet under his round-brimmed hat. He threw a worried look at Suzanne, the only female on the coach, as did the barrel-chested blacksmith.

“You just sit tight, miss,” the smithy rumbled. “We won’t let anyone hurt you.”

“Thank you.”

The calm reply would have done the Misses Merriweather proud, given the unusual circumstances. Despite her unruffled demeanor, however, Suzanne had no intention of trusting her fate to her fellow passengers. She’d been taught to protect herself by someone far more skilled at survival than her elderly preceptresses. Slipping a hand into the side slit of her navy serge traveling skirt, she gripped her two-shot derringer while the other travelers inside the stage hastened to echo the blacksmith’s reassurances.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. If they are robbers, they’re most likely after cash ’n gold. Even Sam Bass and his gang never kilt no passengers, jest a couple of drivers.”

“That’s right, miss.”

Only one of the other passengers voiced no opinion. He remained slouched on the seat opposite Suzanne. Arms crossed over his leather vest, his flat-crowned black hat pulled down almost to the bridge of his nose, he paid no more attention to the commotion than he had to the shocked titillation of fellow travelers when he’d boarded the stage.

His name was Jack Sloan. Nervous whispers about him had circulated among the other passengers from the moment he stashed his saddle in the coach’s boot and climbed aboard. His hand-tooled boots, button-over blue shirt and sorrel leather vest
weren’t remarkable in themselves, but the long-barreled Colt strapped to his thigh had drawn every gaze. He wore it low on his hip, butt forward in the way of the plainsmen. The weapon was old, as was its worn, double-looped leather holster, but none of the passengers doubted its efficiency.

Suzanne had heard of the man, of course. The army troops she’d grown up around were always repeating—and exaggerating—stories about the colorful figures who populated the West. She’d met a number of them, including the flamboyant Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp, who’d spent some months riding shotgun for gold shipments being transported on the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage. Her own stepfather, Colonel Andrew Garrett, had also gained something of a reputation as both Indian fighter and peacemaker on the plains.

In recent years another legend had sprung up. The lurid penny presses and dime novels that fed easterners’ fascination with the Wild West had described Black Jack Sloan as a genuine shootist. If just half the sensational tales written about him were true, he’d killed his first man before his beard had started to come in and had gunned down a dozen more in the years since.

The glimpse Suzanne had caught of his cold gray eyes before he’d stretched out his legs, pulled down his hat and proceeded to ignore his fellow passengers suggested the sensational reports held
at least a grain of truth. Even in his long-legged slouch, he gave off the sinister aura of a diamond-back dozing in the sun. Still, a gunman might be a handy person to have aboard the coach at this particular moment. Assuming he woke up enough to take an interest in what was happening, Suzanne thought tartly.

Another crack split the air, eliminating all doubt among the passengers. To a round of curses from the driver, the lumbering vehicle began to slow.

Suzanne’s heart thumped under her braid-trimmed navy serge half jacket and high-collared white blouse. Given that the Black Hills Stage and Express Line carried the mail, passengers and strongboxes stuffed with cash and gold dust, the stage company employed highly experienced drivers and guards to ride shotgun. If this particular driver was reining in, she could only conclude that he couldn’t maneuver around or fight his way past the outlaws.

Her grip tightened on the derringer. A most unladylike trickle of sweat dampened the valley between her breasts. She should have listened to her mother, she thought ruefully. Julia Bonneaux Garrett had urged Suzanne to wait for her stepfather’s return before departing Cheyenne. The colonel would have arranged a military escort. Or, more likely, would have accompanied Suzanne himself on her urgent quest to find her longtime friend,
Bright Water, once known by the childhood name of Little Hen.

After fifteen years of military service at frontier posts, Andrew Garrett understood better than most the impact of last year’s order directing the Arapaho onto the Shoshone reservation at Wind River. Bright Water’s band was among the last to make the arduous trek to the distant reservation. If Suzanne didn’t reach her friend in time and convince her to at least consider the offer she’d brought back from Philadelphia, Bright Water might disappear forever among the distant mountains and swirling snows.

As Suzanne had explained to her mother, she couldn’t wait for the colonel’s return. She simply
couldn’t.
At which point her younger brother, Sam, had remarked that two years of schooling back East hadn’t replaced the vinegar in Suzanne’s veins with sugar. Scratch her surface and she still showed the temperament of an army mule.

She was drawing on that stubborn streak to give her courage when the drunken wrangler fumbled for his revolver and thumbed the hammer.

“Here, man!” the blacksmith objected sharply. “Don’t fire that!”

“I ain’t lettin’ no stinkin’ road agents take my roll.”

“The guard hasn’t fired a shot. You’d better—”

The smithy never finished his protest. A light
ning-swift kick from a hand-tooled boot knocked the revolver out of the cowboy’s hand. The Smith & Wesson banged against the side of the coach and landed on the floor beside Suzanne’s tan kid boots.

Cursing, the ranch hand turned on the man sprawled across from him. “What the hell you do that for?”

Sloan pushed up his hat with the tip of his forefinger. Steel-gray eyes stabbed into the angry wrangler.

“A man shouldn’t draw iron unless he’s in a condition to use it. Or prepared to die.”

“You oughta know,” the cowboy sneered with whiskey-induced bravado. “Considerin’ the times you done pulled out that Colt, you must be over-ready for plantin’.”

“Some think so.”

The flat reply sent a ripple down Suzanne’s spine. Half fascinated, half repulsed, she stared at Sloan’s face. Lean and hard-jawed, it was shadowed by black stubble. The facilities at the way stations where they’d stopped to change horses and grab a hasty meal hadn’t run to luxuries like hot water for washing or shaving.

“You in the coach!”

The roar came from just outside the window, eliciting various expressions of alarm from several passengers and a startled yelp from Suzanne.

“Put yer hands up and keep ’em up!”

Wedging around on the seat, she came face-to-face with the outlaw peering through the window. Or more correctly, nose-to-nose. The man possessed the most prominent beak she’d ever encountered on another human! Fleshy and red-veined, it hooked like a great, oversize wedge above his bushy black mustache.

While Suzanne stared in amazement, the robber’s avid gaze skimmed past her, lingered on the case still clutched to the watch salesman’s chest, then took in the other passengers.

“Well, well!” A huge grin split his face. “Lookee here, boys. It’s Black Jack hisself.”

Several of the outlaws now ringing the stage crowded closer. One adorned in crossed bandoliers and a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with silver conchos peered through the window on the other side.


Hola,
Jack.”

“Hello, Alejandro.”

The leader of the band winked at Sloan. “Looks like we done found us some ripe pickin’s here.”

His conspiratorial tone raised a decidedly unpleasant suspicion in Suzanne’s breast. Frowning, she cast her fellow passenger a swift look. Was Black Jack Sloan in league with these ruffians?

It was a well-known fact that unscrupulous ticket clerks often “marked” coaches carrying wealthy passengers or particularly rich cargoes.
Sharp-eyed watchers at way stations along the route would note the marked coaches and ride hell for leather to alert their cohorts. Various gangs had even been known to plant one of their own aboard the coaches, with instructions to disarm the passengers—as Sloan had just done to the drunken cowboy.

While doubts swirled in Suzanne’s mind, the leader of the band appeared ready to carry on an amiable conversation. “Ain’t seen you since we stood back-to-back in that saloon shoot-out down to Pecos, Jack.”

“Too bad I didn’t know then you were going to take up robbing trains and stages, Big Nose. I wouldn’t have covered you.”

Sloan’s comment went some way to mollifying Suzanne’s suspicion, but elicited an excited exclamation from the gangly youth wedged next to the watch salesman.

“Big Nose? Are you Big Nose George Parrott?”

“Know anyone else with a bill like this one, boy?”

“I heard about you clear back in Ohio!”

“You don’t say!” Hugely pleased by his notoriety, Parrott’s grin broadened. “Well, haul yer hindquarters outta the coach and you kin tell me what folks are saying about me back in Ohio while you dump yer pockets. You climb out, too, miss, and the rest of you.”

With the inside of the coach just a little more than four feet in width and height, it took some untangling of arms and legs before the passengers could alight. The watch salesman scrambled out first, clutching his precious case. The gangly would-be miner followed. Sloan emerged next, swinging down with a sinister, sinuous grace.

Their descent gave Suzanne enough room to maneuver. Twitching her heavy skirts into decorous folds, she reached for the door frame.

“I’ll take that.”

Before she could protest, one of the outlaws yanked her drawstring purse right off her wrist.

“Hobbs!” Parrott roared. “Mind yer manners! Let the lady climb down before you relieve her of her trinkets.”

Treating the robber to a frosty glare, she ducked through the opening. She had one dainty half boot on the step when all hell broke loose.

“I ain’t handin’ my poke to those bastards!”

She heard a chink of metal against wood, and a chorus of alarmed protests from the passengers still inside the coach. Caught half in and half out of the coach, she froze.

“Dammit!”

The furious oath exploded behind her. A hard yank on her bustle tumbled her backward at the same instant gunfire blazed from the window of the stage.

Suzanne slammed into a hard object, bounced off and hit the sun-baked earth on bent knees and splayed hands. A half second later, what felt like a mountain landed on her back. She flattened like a flapjack as every ounce of air whooshed out of her lungs.

She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see past the feathers on the hat that had fallen down on her forehead. The dead weight on her back ground her into the dirt. The bone stays in her corset gouged her breasts. Through the ringing in her ears, she heard more gunfire, shouts, the rattle of wooden crossbars and hardened oak wheels, but the desperate need to draw air into her lungs drove all other considerations out of her mind.

Lifting her head, she gulped desperately. A rough hand yoked her neck and pushed her face back into the dirt.

“Keep down!”

Red spots danced on her tight-squeezed lids. Choking, wheezing, Suzanne bucked frantically. Whoever lay atop her was obviously trying to protect her from the bullets flying above their heads, but he might very well suffocate her in the process.

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