Once Upon A Time…Has Never Been This Hot.
Jacqueline reined in her horse, her focus on the patches of dried blood splattered across the barren dirt. Though pockets of grass and scrubby bushes dotted the landscape, dry parched earth encompassed most of the view. There were some large trees on the distant hills, but the plains remained a wash of red and brown. They’d left at dawn, heading south out of town until Jeremiah had halted them several miles later. Somehow, he’d led them straight to the gang’s campsite, though it looked as if the men had left sometime before sunrise.
She dismounted, holding the reins as she knelt on the ground. Bits of dust covered some of the spots, but there was no mistaking the evidence. Jeremiah had indeed wounded one of the men, more if her hunch was right. She stared out at the horizon, wondering why the men weren’t heading directly south, when Jeremiah called to her. She shifted her gaze. He stood twenty yards off at the foot of some low-lying shrubs.
He raised an eyebrow, nodding at the bushes. “You might want to have a gander at this.”
The expression on his face left little to the imagination. She stood and made her way over to him, leading her horse. The metallic scent of blood wafted across the short space, and she wrinkled her nose as she stopped just shy of him.
“What is that ungodly stench?”
He shrugged. “Looks like Buck’s loyalty doesn’t extend past the grave.”
Jacqueline took a few more steps forward, cursing when a set of boots peeked out from beneath some of the stubby branches. She leaned in, covering her mouth with the back of her hand as she stared at the mangled body. “What on earth happened to him...other than getting shot by you first?”
“Most likely coyotes or wolves...maybe a mountain lion. Not much goes unnoticed out here, and it sure doesn’t get wasted.”
She pursed her lips as she moved back, putting a bit of distance between her and the fresh corpse. “Good to know. But it doesn’t help us much other than reduce the number of outlaws still at large. We both know that isn’t Buck Winters, or his wayward brother.”
“Which means you still have a fugitive on your hands, Marshal.” He pointed off to the west. “From the tracks they left behind, I’d say they’re heading for southern Arizona.”
“I agree,” she said, walking over to a set of footprints a few paces off. “But it doesn’t make any sense. Why not head directly to Mexico? Nothing between them and the border but miles of scrubland and some hills. They have to know the law can find them if they stay this side of the line.”
“Men like Buck Winters figure they own certain towns—Bisbee, Arizona being one of them. Rumor has it he’s got a lot of kin that way who’d be more than happy to hole him up until this round of lawmen get tired. I figure that’s why his brother was one of the men to help bust him out.” He smiled at her. “Don’t reckon they counted on a lady pursuing them. I know first hand women rarely give up...or in, for that matter.”
She laughed. “I couldn’t help but notice how your lovely wife insisted she didn’t need any help bringing your child into the world. I admire her for her courage.”
“Katherine is nothing if not stubborn. And it’s tough to argue with her when she’s generally right. Though she’s somewhat misguided in this instance.” He smiled at her. “I personally sent a telegram to Dr. Barns in Deming. He’s arriving on the stagecoach today, much to Kate’s annoyance, I assure you. She’s sure she can give birth and tend any wounded at the same time.”
“After watching her work on that patient last night, I’m inclined to believe her, Sheriff.” She glanced up at the sky. “Sun’s already getting high. We should head out and try to make up time before the real heat hits us.”
Jeremiah nodded, whistling for his horse as he took off his hat and mumbled a few words over the dead body. Then he vaulted into his saddle and took up the reins, coaxing the animal into a fast walk. The wind picked up, scattering dust from the horse’s hooves into the air. Just their luck, a storm was brewing and Jacqueline knew they’d have little chance of tracking the men if their trail got washed away.
Another gust of wind pelted sand against her cheek as she followed Jeremiah’s lead, muttering a few token words in the direction of the bush before grabbing the saddle horn. She was just about to swing her leg up when she froze. That nagging feeling pressed against her shoulders again, sending a shiver down her spine. She shifted her eyes, readying her body for her next move before spinning around, her gun slipping into her hand as she aimed it at a grouping of boulders behind her. Golden orbs stole her breath as she met the creature’s gaze. The animal was massive, with tawny-colored fur and long, pointed ears that flicked in the blowing wind. Muscular limbs and a lean body peeked out from behind the rock as its bushy tail unfurled on a swoosh of air.
She held her breath, unable to look away as the coyote watched her, nose twitching, eyes boring into hers. It took a single step forward, scenting the air as it shifted its gaze behind her. The loss of contact freed her and she drew in a shuddering breath, jumping when a hand closed over her shoulder. A scream caught in her throat as her gaze darted to the hand before focusing back on the animal, only to find it gone.
She tensed her muscles, but Jeremiah squeezed her shoulder, silently asking her to stay still. Her heart thundered in her chest as she scanned the rocks, looking for the creature.
“You saw that, didn’t you?” She glanced up at him. “You saw the coyote.” She shook her head. “I’ve never seen one so large. It was easily the size of a wolf...maybe bigger. How is that possible?”
Jeremiah didn’t speak as he nudged in front of her, releasing her shoulder as his gaze stayed centered on the boulders. Again she noticed him lift his head, much like the coyote had done moments earlier. The line of his back stiffened and his hands fisted at his sides before he released a slow breath, finally glancing back at her across his shoulder.
The fine lines around his mouth deepened slightly then a halfhearted grin captured his mouth. “I’ve seen some pretty big coyotes out here. The mountain breeds tend to grow larger due to the more extreme climates. They travel down to the valleys during the hotter months in search of prey. It’s probably just after what’s left of Buck’s man.”
Jacqueline looked over at the bush, feeling the wind flutter stray hairs from her face. “I suppose we are upwind of it. It’s just...” How the hell did she tell him she had the feeling she’d seen the same set of eyes last night, back at the town? More than likely he’d figure she’d been standing in the hot sun too long.
She sighed, holstering her gun as she turned to her horse. She mounted the animal in one, smooth movement, eager to get back on the trail. Jeremiah lingered a moment longer then hopped on his horse and nudged it into a trot. Jacqueline took another quick look behind her before pressing her heels into her mare and trotting after the sheriff.