Mallory Rush - [Outlawsand Heroes 02], page 1
Dead or Alive
Outlaws and Heroes
Bestselling, Award-winning Author
Previously titled: Pistol in His Pocket
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Copyright © 1995, 2013 by Olivia Rupprecht All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
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Love and gratitude to Trayce Primm,
my fellow wordweaver whose
auspicious talent is eclipsed only
by the depth of her friendship.
You were right, Trayce,
progress is not a linear path;
faith and ability are facets
of the same stone.
Also, many thanks to Chris Bock,
for sharing his expertise with such
enthusiasm that I can almost
understand why someone would
actually want to climb
an icy mountain or the brutal
beauty of a mile-high rock.
FOR ARMED ROBBERY AND MURDER
DEAD OR ALIVE
Leaning forward for a better view of the outlaw's roughly sketched face, the rider felt his great stallion prance beneath him as icy raindrops pelted his cheeks.
A soft chuckle passed the hard lips clamping a cheroot, red tip glowing in the moon's pale light. Cigar smoke blended with the white puffs of his breath. In a precise, cultured voice, the rider said, "So tell me, Bitter, do you think the picture does me justice?" At the word justice, the horse's snort coincided with the man's low snarl.
"Nor do I," he agreed, neatly ripping the paper from the post to which it was tacked then stuffing it beneath his fur-lined coat. "A memento, Bitter. After tonight, my days of disguise will soon be ended. Ah well, fond as I have become of playing Lucky Luke, there will be no need for him once Noble Zhivago has back what is rightfully his."
Even as he said it Noble knew that unless the dead could be resurrected, he would never have back all that was rightfully his. He felt his hatred surge high and bright, his thirst for vengeance begging to be quenched.
He threw down the cheroot, checked his pistol, then urged Bitter into a lazy saunter. Hat tipped down, Noble nodded to the few stragglers he passed on the main street. It seemed the remaining populace of Juneau had the good sense to favor a fire within over the brewing storm outside.
Such piteous creature comforts, he thought, while images of England played their seductively sweet refrain in his memory. How he missed the simple pleasure of taking tea in an elegant drawing room. And ah, but to bow over the gloved hand of a gentle-born lady, to spend an evening in the company of notorious actors after indulging his frivolous affection for high drama with a Shakespearean play. And a true court of law— now there was real drama, moving soliloquies to make, or to destroy savagely with an eloquent rebuttal.
Noble sighed deeply. If not for the grinding need to see justice done, he would still be living in his mother's beloved England and enjoying the life he'd taken refuge in for nearly two decades before returning to the place of his youth. Here, in Juneau, he had been driven for five years by his vengeful mission: retribution for his parents' deaths, the reclaiming of their land and the gold stripped from it.
Even among relatives in England, even with the comfort of leather-bound books and stately grounds, he had not forgotten that mission—one that had determined his current existence.
He lived, if he could call it living, in nearby Skagway, where he drew up legal claims for prospectors and defended this drunken murderer or that claim-jumping bastard as best he could amid vigilante law.
Skagway was a deplorable little city, brimming with tents and gold dust and shattered dreams.
But it was perfect for his purposes. In Skagway he could live openly as a respectable citizen while seventy miles south his criminal charges mounted.
His coup de grace a robbery and murder away, Noble took stock of his surroundings. Compared with Skagway, Juneau seemed a veritable mecca of sophistication.
Oh yes, how very civilized it was. With distaste, he scanned the street and saw that all appeared to be quite normal. Horses whinnied from the posts to which they were tethered. Rowdy shouts and the off-key pound of a piano spilled from the saloon.
He cut his gaze to the bordello and shook his head. Women were in short supply, and those available were usually shared. Even more than a horse-drawn carriage on a cobblestone street, he missed the fairer sex—the sort that didn't paint their faces and allowed a kiss only if a man had won it with charm or worthy intentions.
But enough of this self-indulgent sentimentality. He had a bank to rob and one remaining henchman to kill before the score was settled. It was a Pyrrhic victory at best, but he'd take it, revel in it, and buy back his rightful holdings with the stolen gold that had first been stolen from him. Once he'd seen to that, he'd take a much-needed holiday in England. Attu, his boyhood companion and trusted partner in crime, would be quite happy to watch over the ten thousand acres of Zhivago land, now bled dry of its gold, in his absence.
Ambling past the brightly lit jail, Noble guided Bitter around the dark bank, the last graceless building on the street.
Once in the deserted alley, he secured his black bandanna over his nose and mouth and rode to the bank's rear entry. There, he whispered a promise of oats and sugar, then slid off his trusty steed. From the saddlebag Noble withdrew the clever tools he'd had an ironsmith fashion for him. They weren't as efficient as dynamite but made considerably less noise.
He seemed to have acquired a certain proficiency at this lowly skill of breaking and entering, given his easy dismantling of the knob and the guts of a new lock. As if they were a child's tooth a yank away from coming out, he removed them, then glided a slender, curved bar inside.
His lips tightened as he probed for the metal bolt and found the interior guard missing. Suspicion and instinct demanded he leave at once. Reason suggested it was simply a matter of human error, albeit a case of gross neglect worthy of immediate dismissal.
Noble swiftly debated. If he left now, it would be a month, perhaps more, before he could schedule another illicit rendezvous with the bank. By then, winter would be settled in deep and Mendenhall Glacier would be even more difficult to traverse. Indeed, he'd likely have to
Shutting out the sharp whisper of instinctive warning, Noble tossed aside the tool and readied his gun. He gave a hard kick to the door. It opened easily and he jumped back at the telltale sound of several clicks in the dark bank.
He saw the flare of the first bullet leaving its chamber, smelled the acrid scent of gunpowder filling the clean air, heard the rapid pound of his heart echo in his ears as he raced against the odds and slung himself astride Bitter.
More bullets than he could count whistled over his head, rushed past his shoulders as Bitter streaked down the alley. The thunder of his hooves beat in time with the slashing pellets of rain, which turned to hail as they approached the icy mountains. Noble calculated a five-minute lead.
A generous calculation. The posse's horses were fresh, and Bitter had endured a three-day trek with only minimal rest. By the time they reached Mendenhall Glacier, the sound of frustrated curses and horses' hooves was increasing alarmingly.
Noble reined in for a few precious seconds.
Take the safest route? But if he did that, they would be overtaken in short measure. Besides, Skagway was quite possibly no longer a haven, his anonymity no longer assured. Somehow he had been found out; otherwise there would not have been a trap for him.
God be with me. Let the damn bastards have enough sense not to follow.
Once past Mendenhall Glacier's icy expanse, Noble urged Bitter onto a rough mountain trail. A cave, if only they could find a cave, they might make it. As they wound their way up the tortuous path, hail and sleet beat at them.
Suddenly Noble spied a refuge, a yawning shadow unlit by the light of the moon. What mercy to find it, and none too soon. The low curses trailing him were a blatant warning. He had been followed.
His only comfort was the certainty that the posse was now fewer in number, those prizing their lives not daring the risk he had taken. And the trail was narrow— they couldn't converge on him en masse, giving him an advantage.
He could pick them off.
"Bitter," Noble whispered as he unmounted on the ledge's slick lip, "for this night, I'll put you to stud with the finest fillies in all of Alaska. I'll find you once I've taken care of this nasty business. Off with you now—"
A bullet ricocheted off the rock jutting just over his head. And then another and another followed as Noble threw himself against the protective guard of the crevasse. It proved much shallower than he'd thought. Were they simply idiots, or were they absolutely insane? A low rumble high overhead filled the air and still the bullets came. Worse than insane, his pursuers must be suicidal! And why wasn't Bitter taking flight as fast as he could?
His heart lurching, Noble saw his beloved mount rare up, blood spewing from his flanks. And then the horse was plummeting over the ledge like Pegasus stripped of his wings, pawing blindly as he descended into a black abyss.
The bastards, the bloody damn bastards. He'd kill them for what they'd done to Bitter as well as his parents. Heedless of the rumble, now sounding closer to thunder, Noble returned their fire. They were all about to die. What could only be an avalanche was sure to bury each and every one of them alive. But he'd do murder for murder first—
And then white, everything white, silenced his next breath before he could draw it. The heavy pall of snow was freezing. And yet it felt warmer than a stack of wool blankets piled on his body, his mind.
Vaguely, Noble wondered why people wore black to mourn the dead. White, pristine white, seemed far more appropriate. It was the color of purity, of sweet-scented flowers that honored weddings, the christening of innocent babes.
So, too, it honored the deceased, among which he was surely counted. His last coherent thought was more a prayer:
God grant me the peace in death that life has denied me.
Despite the thin, cold air, sweat beaded Lori Morgan's brow as she dug in the crampons attached to her boots and hoisted herself onto a ledge of rock.
Crouched there, panting, she called up to her climbing partner. "Ryan, gotta rest."
"Wimp," he taunted, his subdued voice echoing from his higher position.
In an effort to work out the stiffness she had acquired on the ascent, Lori flexed her gloved fingers. Lord, she must be a masochist, she decided. Why else would an otherwise sane thirty-year-old woman subject herself to the rigors of climbing for the thrill of a gorgeous view, shared with a bully like Ryan, who didn't have the decency to work up half the sweat she did on their climbs or, for that matter, in the emergency room. Not only that, he made lousy coffee.
At the moment even a cup of Ryan's brew sounded like heaven. Heaven. They should be there any minute.
Unbidden, tears filled her eyes as Mick's image came into her mind, and she wiped them away impatiently. What was the matter with her, still crying with no more than the thought of him three years after a bullet had taken his life? As for herself, it was a wonder she hadn't died of a broken heart. Then again, maybe she'd simply die of exhaustion in the pursuit of this self-punishing pleasure.
"Lori," Ryan called down, "you okay?"
"I'm fine, dammit," she lied. With renewed energy, she repositioned her gear, then struck an ice ax against the challenge she would conquer.
The snow fell from where she'd landed her frustrated blow. "Oh my God," Lori whispered, and began to brush away the snow in earnest. Fascinated, horrified by the sight revealed, she forgot the ever-present need not to disrupt nature and cried out, "Ryan, get down here! Fast."
"Are you in trouble?" he urgently asked.
"No. But hurry. Please, just hurry." Her heart beating so loud she wasn't sure if it was echoing in her head or bouncing off the crevasse, Lori stared at the man she had nearly axed in the face. He was miraculously intact, surely dead, and given the period of his dress, the antique gun poised in his hand, he'd been frozen in time a century ago.
Had he been a prospector searching for gold in the caves? Or had he been an outlaw hiding the gold he'd stolen? Those were wild and woolly days in Alaska, and whoever he was, she was sure he'd have some incredible stories to tell.
Such a shame he'd met his end so young.
Like Mick. Lori pushed away the thought and focused on the man who was held suspended beneath several inches of ice.
He looked like a cross between the original Marlboro man and Clint Eastwood shooting it out in a spaghetti western. There wasn't a woman alive who wouldn't turn her head and change the direction of her walk to get another glimpse of this rough-hewn hunk.
She was still staring at him, mesmerized, when Ryan gained his footing beside her.
"What's the deal?"
"This." Lori tapped at the ice that separated her finger from an aristocratic nose. "Can you believe it?"
"Holy... ! It's Encino Man!"
"Yeah. Only he's packing a pistol and looks a lot more civilized than savage." But that wasn't entirely true. He did have something of a savage look about him, tempered by an unmistakable refinement in his chiseled features. "Poor guy," she said, feeling a swift compassion. "Buried alive. What an awful way to go."
"We see a lot worse in the ER. My guess is, he probably didn't have time to draw a last breath, much less suffer."
But he had suffered, if not in death, then in life. Lori shook her head, wondering where in the world the certainty of that thought had come from. She dismissed it. Hell, everyone suffered in life; Lord knew that she'd pulled double duty herself. Even so, she hoped this man had been spared pain.
"What are we going to do with him?" she asked, puzzled at the sense of ownership and responsibility she felt.
"Want to throw a thermos of my coffee on his face and see if that thaws him out?"
"Acid would be more kind." She tapped her foot, thinking. And touched what felt like the protrusion of a shoe. Kicking at the rounded hardness, she uncovered a boot. "Look! His feet are barely iced over!"
"Great boots. Chisel 'em out and you can borrow them for
At her sharp glance, Ryan relented. "Okay, so my jokes are as bad as my coffee. Here's what we do—we get back to the Jeep and contact the authorities. There's got to be some scientists around who'd want to inspect our find."
My find, Lori silently amended.
"I don't like that idea," she said firmly.
"Got a better one? It's the logical thing to do."
Logical, true. But there was something very illogical going on in her head that had her gripping Ryan's arm. "You know what'll happen? They'll say thanks, carve him out, then dissect him in a lab. The National Enquirer won't waste a second to make a mint off sneak photos and..." She shuddered. How amazingly alive this beautiful man looked, and yet he would be taken apart, gawked at in checkout stands.
"And what? For Christ's sake, Lori, he's dead. What do you want to do? Keep him for yourself?" At her look of serious contemplation, Ryan snorted in disbelief.
"Aw, no way. You've gotta be nuts to even think about it."
He was right, she knew that. But there was such dignity and character etched in the man's face that it stirred something inside her. Something that was protective and fierce and urgent and made absolutely no sense at all. She worried her bottom lip, trying to come up with a rational explanation for the irrational direction of her response.
"You know, Ryan, I saw an Oprah show not long ago and she had these people that planned to be frozen once they died. And there were experts on the subject, too, and they were saying how it was possible to bring people back to life, only the technology hadn't been perfected yet. But they had frozen a dog and revived it and—"
"Lori, get a grip! Cryonics is out there—waaay out there. You're talking sci-fi stuff."
"Maybe," she admitted. "Maybe not. After all, that's what people once thought about electricity, television, putting a man on the moon." She shot him a challenging glance. "Of course, as Einstein once said, 'Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.'"