The town of Dorado swelled like a festering boil fifty miles west of nowhere in the Texas territory. Founded during the conflicts with Mexico in the early 1830s, the town’s insular nature and heavy ranch population defended it in the subsequent battles, many sons losing their lives in the battles of the Alamo, Nagodoches and Rue Hidalgo. Following Zachary Taylor’s Mexican invasion in 1846, the nation of Texas submitted to the United States, gaining entry to the Union as a state. Dorado didn’t much mind the independence, the annexation to the United States or the war with Mexico. Life in Dorado continued much as it had with Anglo ranchers, Tejano residents and even a portion of the remaining Caddos, Comanche and Woppatoma tribes getting along peaceably.
Incorporated in 1833, the Kane family served as the town’s official law enforcers. The ranchers agreeing to the laws set forth by the town ombudsman Jebediah Kane. Jebediah’s four sons continued his work, the eldest, Sam serving as the town Marshal. Marshal Kane had a fair reputation in the county. He kept a firm hand on the goings on, kicking the drunk hands back to their employers for discipline, listening to the complaints of the Church ladies every Sunday picnic, keeping a stern eye on Miss Pontfour’s bordello and her six girls, all the while, making the rounds of the town.
Marshal Kane liked a quiet town, a controlled town, a place where the ladies could step out in the evening and the roughnecks knew better than to unstrap their pistols while within the town’s limits. The occasional drifter wandered through, intent on kicking up the dust, but a couple of nights in jail and the business end of Sam’s colt often resolved the issue.
That was what kept Sam in town on the moonless night, past nine when the saloon was shutting down and Miss Pontfour was sending the last of the ‘gentlemen’ callers home. Dorado rolled up shop by ten, shuttering the windows and dimming the kerosene lamps.
Riders from Laramie warned of a shifty group of bank robbers hitting gold shipments up and down the line. Despite the Compromise of 1850, the Union Army maintained a presence throughout the state and the Federal Gold Depository had sent a series of shipments to banks throughout Texas to handle their paydays.
Dorado had one bank and one shipment sitting in their vault. Most of the ranchers didn’t give a hoot about the Union gold, but Sam drew a paycheck from the Federal government along with the town elders. His tin star read Marshal, not Sheriff, even if he served both masters. So he watched the bank, leaning back in the shadows of the double story wooden structure that housed the town jail and his office, the brim of his Stetson low over his eyes.
The bank was set in the middle of Dorado’s rutted main street. A scatter of corrals and sheds made up the western end of the town while a cluster of frame houses huddled on the eastern slope. Miss Pontfour’s was tucked behind the saloon, where everyone knew its location but the town ladies could pretend it wasn’t. A livery stable, funeral home, gunsmith, barbershop, bathhouse made up the rest of Main Street in addition to a solitary restaurant favored by the ladies who didn’t dare step between the batwings of the saloon. Dorado even boasted a hotel, opened the year before, but the struggling hotelkeeper added a post office and lured in the stagecoach from distant Laredo.
The bank was silent. Run by an Easterner, the doors opened smartly at nine, closed for thirty minutes at noon, reopened at twelve-thirty and closed promptly at five, five days a week, no exceptions save for Christmas. Sam watched the building, contemplating the cigarillos in his pocket. He could stand to smoke one with a cool glass of bourbon, kicked back on the porch of his office, but an itch between his shoulder blades urged him to stay put.
He’d set his younger brother to idling, playing the part of the Marshal’s standard evening routine. A drink, a smoke, and a doze while his town rested. Dorado expected him to be there, so he put Kid in his place. In the dark, the younger man looked enough like Sam to fulfill expectations.
A flash of light, so brief, illuminated the shaded bank windows. Sam’s eyes narrowed, his hand dropping down to rest on the pearl handled colt. A second flash assured him that the first wasn’t a hallucination. The bank’s front doors stood closed. No one had approached them.
The bank didn’t have a back door or back windows. The only thing located in the back was the vault, shipped out in a train of long racks because of the weight.
A third flash of light and Sam moved, striding out of the shadows and across the rutted street, avoiding the horse pies scattered like litter by buckboard and buggy wheels. He stepped up onto the boardwalk, boots shushing silently as he made his way to the doors. Key in one hand, gun in the other, he paused to listen.
No more flashes of light and no sound greeted him. He slid the key into the lock and turned it carefully, motion as cool and controlled as he would use dealing with a spooked horse. The faint snick of the lock giving way seemed to boom loudly in the quiet night air, and Sam waited, but still no sound escaped the bank.
If not for the earlier flashes, he would be certain he was chasing summer lightening. But the itch between his shoulders was a burning fire. Someone was inside Dorado’s bank. It was Sam’s job to deal with them.
Pocketing the key, he brought the colt up close to the opening and turned the knob. Careful as entering a lady’s bedroom, he peeked inside. Nothing moved in the dusky darkness. Sam allowed his eyes to adjust before slipping inside. He made his way through the front office with the slated windows and banker’s desk.
The rear vault was located in the backroom, secured by another door. Pressing close to the door, Sam listened. Whispered voices punched through the wood. He tested the lock and found it fixed, so he shuttled the key into the door handle and turned it gently, the lock surrendered. Stroking his finger over the trigger, Sam led with his gun again, dipping low as he pushed the door open.
The seemingly impregnable vault door stood closed, but the whispered voices that called through the wood were louder in here. Sam paced the edge of the vault slowly, peering around the corner. A flash of light burned his eyes as a body vanished through the wood. Standing at the edge of the vault, holding an oiled leather satchel was a slim figure. The flash reappeared and the figure passed it over, to a second man?
Sam frowned. Where the hell had the second man come from?
“Last one, I think, Rudy.”
More startling than the man’s sudden appearance was the slim figure’s distinctly feminine voice. Her sultry, low, throaty tone went straight to Sam’s britches and tightened them uncomfortably.
“You first then, Scar.” The man’s equally hushed voice was low, the consonants and syllables running together in familiar fashion.
“Take this out to the boys so they can load up. It’s hard to carry more than one thing at a time through. We need to make sure we have it all.”
Her words spurred Sam into action. They were taking the gold. He wasn’t sure how they’d gotten in the bank or how they were getting out of it, but he was of a mind to keep them from taking any more.
Clearing the corner, he cocked the hammer on the colt and drew a bead on the slim figure. “Hands up.”
“Go!” The feminine figure shoved the other man, the flash of light drew sparks across his vision, but he kept the gun steady.
“I said hands up.” He yelled the order this time, but as the shadows sharpened and redefined, he saw the woman was standing there, hands up, facing him.
Her male companion was gone.
Gunshots echoed from outside. Sam rushed forward, seized her arm and hauled her with him out of the bank. His brother met him on the boardwalk, Stetson pushed back from his forehead, revealing a younger, more eager version of himself.
The smell of gunpowder hung thick in the air. Up and down the street, kerosene lights flared up as shopkeepers in long johns stepped out, armed with rifles.
“There were six of them, Sam. I chased them off, but I saw seven hor—” His brother cut off when he spotted the woman in Sam’s grasp. Under the faint light of his brother’s lantern, Sam saw a cascade of red hair, an up tilted chin and a sprinkle of cinnamon colored freckles across a pert nose. Between the alabaster skin and the red hair, she was a picture.
He barely took notice of the gingham shirt with its rolled up sleeves and haphazard buttons which opened at the throat and dipped invitingly down to flesh a lady should never be revealing or the tight breeches that hugged her slender shape. A boy’s clothes should not look so fine on a woman.
But her curves made them more attractive than Miss Pontfour’s dancing girls in their silks and feathers.
“Ma’am.” Kid doffed his Stetson and tucked it against his buckskin shirt.
“She’s not a ma’am.” Sam growled, irritated at the lascivious direction of his brother’s gaze and the fact that he shared the sentiment. “Roust some of the boys together and follow the horses. Wake Mr. Reynolds up. We’ll need to know how much is missing.”
Sam turned to the shopkeepers who lingered in the night air, taking it all in. “Check your shops. I need to know if anything else is missing.” He firmed his grip on the woman’s arm, giving it a warning squeeze as she backed up a pace. He pulled her firmly up to his side.
“What about her?”
Kid still stood there, mouth agape at the woman. Even the lantern seemed to flicker eagerly in her direction.
“Never you mind. Get a move on.” He resisted the urge to cuff his brother. A few months shy of his nineteenth birthday, Kid hadn’t shaken his fascination with the feminine sex.
Grinning sheepishly, the boy doffed his Stetson again before capping it on his head and jogging down the boardwalk to the cabins where the hands could catch shuteye if they were in town too late. The Kanes didn’t approve of overindulging, but they recognized the need and saw to it their men had a safe place to lay their heads when they needed to sleep it off.
Even in town.
Ignoring the curiosity of the shopkeepers not rushing to check their wares, Sam dragged his charge across the rutted street to the Marshal’s office. He’d lock her up first, and then check the vault with Mr. Reynolds. Unlike most women, she didn’t seem to have much to say and he tried not to notice the way her britches clung to her round bottom as they entered the office and he got his first look at her in the light.
Shouts rallied from the western end of town. Horses snorted as they were pulled from their stalls. He had some good trackers in his team, they would have fresh hoof prints to work with, but the moonless night would be against them.
Sam had to holster the colt to grab the keys off the hook next to his desk. He unlocked the only cell his office sported and tugged her inside.
“Are you armed?” He demanded, ignoring the way her lush lips parted over white teeth. Most of the ladies at Miss Pontfour’s were yellowed by this age and even sported a gold tooth or two of their own. Not this red haired filly with her sassy nose and pert ass.
He scowled at the direction of his thoughts.
“No, sir. I don’t believe in guns.” The warm honeyed voice laughed at him and Sam’s mouth thinned.
“What about knives, Miss…?”
“Knives are useful.” She bobbed her head, but the hint of humor perfuming her words set his shoulder blades to itching again.
“Hand it over.”
“I didn’t say I had one Marshal.” Now she was playing coy, her eyelashes dipping over her summer green eyes. The shade was a miracle of spring, a color not favored in their high summers when grass yellowed and drooped in the Texas heat.
He released her, taking a step back and bringing his gun out of his holster again. His father would give him the back of his hand for pointing a gun at a lady, but this lady had been in the bank vault somehow, robbing it. Sam tried not to focus on the haws and the whys. That meant she was a thief, pure and simple. The law had one solution for her ilk and it delivered that promise at the end of a rope.
“Hand it over.”
She sighed, smoothing a hand over her sleeve as though he’d bruised her, but Sam ignored the purely feminine invitation to feel bad for his manners. Thieves didn’t deserve manners. But when she rolled up the sleeve, he frowned. Strapped to her forearm was a four-inch piece of metal dovetailed into a white boned handle.
Two thin leather ties fastened it in place against the pale skin. She stretched out her arm expectantly, a glint of amusement in those green eyes daring him to take it himself.
He obliged, pulling the ties loose and pocketing the knife.
He was mighty suspicious of her cooperation and gestured for her to move over to the single cot sitting in the corner. She lifted her eyebrows, challenging his authority, before deigning to stroll over and sit down. He’d seen that look on his father’s horses, the strong-willed ones who didn’t cotton to breaking. Those horses had to be gentled, persuaded that they wanted to do what was asked of them, but even the most successful behaved as the woman did.
As though she were allowing him to be in control and if he turned his back, even for an instant, he might find himself on the sharp end of a hoof slash.
“Much obliged.” He bobbed his head and backed out of the cell, closing it with his foot and holstering the gun to lock it again.
In the cell, the fiery haired vixen sat down and leaned back against the wall, her arms crossed under the full, firm curves of her breasts that seemed to be straining at their confinement.
Sam forced his attention away and dropped the knife in the top drawer of his desk. He stuck his head out the door and whistled, Cob was making his way up the boardwalk and double-timed it at the whistle. The older man had served as his father’s right hand during the initial settling in Dorado. They’d built the ranch and town together.
At fifty, Cob preferred the town to the ranch. He acted as overseer to the shipments when the horses and cattle were pushed through the town and though he refused to be deputized, he enjoyed helping Sam.
He would keep an eye on the prisoner while Sam dealt with the bank. Sam refused to glance back at the woman in the cell, or think about how pretty the freckles were on her nose or how her curves all but begged for a man’s hands to test their shape. He didn’t think about the urgency to his steps as he filled Cob in and damn near ran across the street.
The woman was a thief. She’d likely be hung as soon as the territorial judge made his rounds.
Sam fixed his Stetson on his head and re-entered the bank. The manager was already there, the vault door wide open and a look of abject horror etched into his face.
Unsurprisingly, the gold was gone.
All of it.
Sam gritted his teeth.
How the hell had the gang pulled this off?