When the West was wild
And man’s law favored the few
These extraordinary women could be found…
…in the heart of an outlaw.
Former outlaw Clay Colby is abuzz with his mail order bride’s expected arrival. He’s fought long and hard to drag Devil’s Crossing out of lawlessness…so when his homestead is set ablaze by a bitter rival, he’s heartbroken. There’s no woman in the world who’d stand by him now.
But Tally Shannon is no ordinary woman.
After escaping the psychiatric hospital in which she was wrongfully detained, Tally only wants someone to protect her and the little girl under her care. She doesn’t mind that Clay’s home is dang near burned to the ground—not when he makes her feel so safe. So cherished. But it’s only a matter of time before the ghosts of her past come calling…and her loving cowboy must defend his new bride—and the family they built together—to his very last breath.
Monday—why was it even a day of the week? Clay Colby thought about shooting whoever had the bright idea to make it one.
He’d always hated Mondays. They brought bad luck, and for a man living one step ahead of the law, he didn’t need more. He’d gladly scratch each Monday off the calendar if he could. Let Tuesday or Wednesday take that space. Now there was a notion.
The giant orange ball of the afternoon sun hung midway on the horizon and his herd of goats bleated nearby. The temperature remained one degree shy of hell, and somewhere, a board banged in the incessant wind.
“Damn Mondays,” he muttered.
On this particular day, his bride was arriving. In fact, she was overdue. His stomach was in a hangman’s knot. Would he like her? Or she him? What if they hated each other? How was he going to make this work when it never had before?
Still, he had a dream and he needed the right wife to make it possible.
He’d already given up on trying to make her welcome perfect. If he just made it passable, that would have to suit. He’d cleaned and straightened the dugout as best he could, but it was a sorry-looking sight. Nothing much you could do with a home that was made of dirt. Except he had built his bride a plank floor. That helped the rough appearance a tad.
Maybe some flowers would spruce the place up a bit more. If he hurried, he could go pick some. Ladies seemed to like colorful blooms.
The tin box on a shelf above the cookstove drew his gaze. Four months ago, he’d opened a bag of Arbuckles and found a ring nestled among the dark coffee beans.
It had appeared to be a sign.
But maybe he’d gone loco and had ridden the outlaw trail far too long to ever be civilized. He was crazy to think of taking a wife.
He’d tried the same thing twice before and the women always backed out.
Would Tally Shannon do the same? As a betting man, he didn’t quite like the odds. After all, he’d never heard of a mail order bride service for men like himself who couldn’t advertise.
Shouts outside jarred him from his thoughts, and gunshots erupted before he reached the door. His dog’s fit of barking made the hair raise on his arm. With reflexes as natural as breathing, he slid his long-barreled Remington from its holster and raced toward the chaos.
A raging inferno greeted him when he opened the door, heat from the fire blistering his face. What the hell? The odor of kerosene reached him, and Clay knew exactly how the ball of fire had formed so fast. Black smoke filled his lungs and he bent double, coughing.
Bullet raced back and forth in a frenzy, his barks becoming lost in the bedlam.
A hungry, belching fire was gobbling up the new buildings. They were the first two Clay had completed and sat opposite the row of dugouts and tents.
A hoarse cry sprang from him. “No! No! No!”
The town—his town—that he’d spent every waking moment working on for the last four months, was engulfed in searing orange flames. The fire licked toward the sky, a hungry beast devouring the lumber he’d spent every cent he had to get. Soon, the two buildings would be nothing but ash.
It was too late to save them. Everything was too damn late, just like before.
Clay stood frozen, staring out at the ruins of his town, fighting the memory of when he was fourteen and the devastating mistake that still haunted his dreams to this day. Rivers of blood. Bodies ripped apart. Horrible screams of the dying. The women and children he’d tried to lead to safety, caught with him in the midst of a bombardment as his best friend lay mangled—the light gone from his eyes.
A bullet whizzed over his head, and he dragged himself from the unforgettable horror, sprinting to take cover next to a wagon. Other men in the camp scattered to wherever they could find a place to shield themselves.
Montana Black stood in the middle of the chaos with a torch in one hand and his pistol in the other. His long, graying hair hung to his shoulders. “I warned you not to build a town and bring the law down on us, Colby. This is my hideout and my life you’re messing with.”
“Put down the gun, Montana, or I’ll shoot you where you stand!” Clay yelled.
Clay’s friend Jack Bowdre arrived at a gallop and took cover with Clay. Ridge Steele raced from his tent to join them a moment later.
“The damn fool.” Jack let out a curse. “We should’ve taken care of him before we raised the first wall.”
“Jack’s right,” growled Ridge. “Montana’s been a thorn in our side since he got here. We should’ve known this would happen when he refused to stay gone after we ran him off. We should’ve fixed him permanently.”
Montana yelled from behind a tall mound of dirt, “You can all go to hell, you bastards! Devil’s Crossing is mine!”
Two of Montana’s followers ran from the tent saloon, yelling and releasing a barrage of bullets. They ducked behind a stack of large crates, where one hollered, “Burn it down, Montana! We’ve got your back.”
Clay returned fire and hit one of Montana’s men. Jack winged another.
“I’m going to handle him once and for all. Cover me.”
“I hope you know what you’re doing, Clay” Jack muttered.
“Makes two of us. Say a prayer, Ridge.” Clay met the preacher-turned-outlaw’s gaze.
“Gave that up a long time ago. Not sure God listens to me anymore. My gun, on the other hand…” Saying that, Ridge rose, took aim, and fired.
Taking a calming breath, Clay stood and zigzagged his way across the open space to the opposite end of the dirt pile. His dog raced at his side, barking. Bullets struck the ground around him, but none found the mark. Montana’s fist connected with Clay’s jaw in welcome, and guns went flying.
Clay grabbed a fistful of Montana’s shirt and delivered a blow to the face and one to the belly that doubled the outlaw over. Pouncing quickly, Clay brought his elbow down on the back of Montana’s neck. The dog jumped and snapped and tried to tear into the old outlaw.
But the fight was far from over. Montana whirled and caught Clay’s throat, choking the life from him. It took everything he had to thrust his arms up and break the hold.
“Get that dog away from me!” Montana kicked at the animal, who scampered back.
Clay and Montana went at each other like two snarling grizzlies: punching, wrestling, trying to get the upper hand. A roar inside Clay’s head blocked out all sound. He had to win. He couldn’t ask his bride to make her home amid killers and scum of the earth. Nor would he ask her to. And Tally Shannon might well refuse to live here unless he got rid of Black and his followers once and for all.
Clay had run off the bad seeds before, but they always came back, usually with a few more men than they’d left with.
Gasping for breath, Clay got Black in a choke hold. “Give up. Devil’s Crossing doesn’t belong to you. I will make this a thriving place.”
Montana snarled, “I’ll burn everything you build to the ground.”
In a sudden move, Montana broke free and slammed a fist into Clay’s jaw, knocking him backward. Pain shot through him. But as he landed, he spotted his Remington lying on the ground only a few feet away. Breathing hard and fighting to keep standing, Clay scrambled toward his gun while Montana ran toward a horse tied in front of the makeshift saloon.
For once, Clay would make his life count for something. This was his final chance to change. There would be no others. He’d used them all up. Clay stood and fired, the bullet striking the older man in the shoulder, spinning him around. Another bullet struck Montana’s side as he pulled himself into the saddle. Bleeding heavily, he galloped away from the outlaw town with Bullet furiously racing along after him.
Clay took three long strides toward Jack’s horse grazing beside Clay’s dugout, intent on giving chase before common sense kicked in. He was needed more in the town.
While Clay and the others brought bucket after bucket of water from the windmill tank to throw on the fire, Ridge and half a dozen of the others rounded up Montana’s wounded followers, taking their weapons. Jack walked behind, sure-footed despite the slight limp from a gunshot to the leg five years ago. Yet, make no mistake, the former lawman still had the toughness this life took. He’d never said what had changed him into an outlaw. Men like him didn’t talk about their past. They lived with the motto—talk low, talk slow, with few words.
The short, bow-legged bartender, Harvey Drake, came from the tent. “I had no part in that.”
“We didn’t think you did,” Jack replied. “But you had to have overheard them.”
“I was busy unpacking the load of rotgut I just got back with and not paying them a bit of mind.” Harvey shoved a hank of hair from his huge, owlish eyes. “You know me. I’m not a troublemaker. I keep my nose clean.”
Jack snorted. “People change.”
Harvey beat a silent retreat into his saloon. Good, or he’d find himself nursing a bullet wound.
Clay holstered his sidearm as he watched the beginnings of his town—his dream—turn to ash and rubble. Maybe this was a sign?
A slice of memory sent him back again to the end of the war. Despite being fourteen at the time, he’d probably seen more than an eighty-year-old. Everything had lain in rubble—death everywhere. He’d walked all the way home, finally making it, only to find his parents had been killed and strangers occupied their land. Every bit of his family gone.
A hand on Clay’s shoulder jarred him from the past. “You all right?” Jack asked.
“I’m fine.” Clay spoke of his body, not his heart.
“What are we going to do with those two over there?”
Clay glanced at Ridge, still holding a gun on Montana’s men. “How bad are they hurt?”
“We’ll have to dig a bullet out of one.” Jack brushed dirt from his black shirt and trousers. “The bullet went through the other one. But both are able to ride. I’m just not sure we should let them go. They’ll only join up with Montana again.”
“I’m against letting them ride out, but we have no jail unless we build one.” Clay scanned the half a dozen dugouts and crude shelters, his gaze landing on one that resembled a cave in the wall of the canyon. “Put them in Montana’s. He’s a dead man anyway if he comes back.”
“Sounds good. I’ll go patch those two up, then get them put away. When is your bride arriving?”
“I expected her before now, but I’m glad she’s behind schedule.”
The day passed slowly as they worked, until Clay dragged his gaze from the smoldering ruins and squinted at the sky. It would be full dark in a few more hours.
Clay’s breath caught. Tally Shannon would see his failure the minute she arrived. What woman would want to be married to someone who couldn’t even carve out a decent place for her? How could he ask her to share nothing but rubble?
Even if she agreed to stay, what kind of bargain would she get with a broken man who’d dared to think he could rise above his past? He snorted.
Jack rested a hand on Clay’s back. “We can rebuild, Clay. It’ll just take a little longer for our dream to materialize, that’s all. If she’s the right woman for you, she won’t mind helping.”
Clay watched Jack limp toward the men guarding Montana’s followers. Maybe Tally would help. Or maybe she’d take one glance and hightail it back where she came from. Most likely the latter. What woman wouldn’t run?
“I wanted everything to be right for her,” Clay whispered. So she could see what he might become, given half a chance. His heart thudded painfully against his ribs. He had nothing more to show for all his years than that boy in rags coming home from war.
Letting out a deep sigh of frustration, Clay strode to a sparse patch of wildflowers and yanked the colorful blooms out, roots and all.
You could dress up a pig, but it’d still be a damn pig. One day he’d change all that, but for now he had to get ready to welcome his bride all over again. He wondered what she’d look like.
Not that it made a nickel’s worth of difference. What was on the inside of a woman meant far more than outward appearance. What he yearned most for was a soft touch, a heartbeat next to his in the dead of night, someone to hold when he was finally still enough for the memories to catch him. His soul was weary of living on the run, always listening for the sound that would put him in a grave.
Luke Legend—an ex-outlaw himself, who operated the underground mail order bride service with his wife, Josie—said Tally was the toughest lady he knew.
She’d have to be to make her home here.
For a minute, Clay wondered what the minuses might be. Everyone alive had minuses, but none deeper or more lasting than his own.
Movement at the canyon entrance drew him. Apparently giving up the chase after Montana, Bullet trotted into what was left of the town and up to Clay for a pat on his large head, his tongue lolling out. Bullet’s pedigree had been diluted so many times the large, stocky breed was anyone’s guess. Clearly he had some wolf markings. The dog was a friendly sort—unless someone messed with Clay. Then, Bullet could put the fear of God in a man before he could blink.
“We’re a sorry pair, you know that, Bullet?”
The dog whined in sympathy and lay down at his feet. They stood listening for the jangle of harnesses until well after dark, when it became painfully apparent that Monday’s curse had taken one more toll.
She wasn’t coming.
Part of him wanted to believe her party had started a day late. But the loudest part drowned out that hope, saying the lady had changed her mind.
Clay finally turned and went inside the earthen house to empty silence and let the wildflowers he’d picked fall from numb fingers onto the rough plank floor.
At a young age, Linda Broday discovered a love for storytelling, history, and anything pertaining to the Old West. After years of writing romance, it’s still tall rugged cowboys that spark her imagination. A New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Linda has won many awards, including the prestigious National Readers’ Choice Award and the Texas Gold. She resides in the Texas Panhandle where she’s inspired every day.