New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
Where does an outlaw go when he’s ready to turn straight? For Wyatt Yarbro, reformed rustler and train robber, Stone Creek is his place of redemption. And lovely Sarah Tamlin is the perfect angel to help him clean up his act.…
But Sarah keeps a dark secret behind her prim and proper facade, even as her heart is lost to charming, sexy Wyatt. When a vengeful enemy prepares to unleash havoc on the peaceful town, Wyatt and Sarah will discover that they can’t hide from the past. To win the fight, they must believe in something they never trusted before—the hope of tomorrow.
Southern Arizona Territory
A rustler’s moon glimmered faintly in the sky, a thin curve of light soon obscured by rain-ripe clouds. Wyatt Yarbro sat a little straighter in the saddle and raised the collar of his battered canvas coat, not so much against the threat of bad weather as the intuitive sense that things were about to head south, literally and figuratively. He tugged the brim of his hat lower over his eyes as the kid rode toward him, bearing the unlikely name of Billy Justice, along with a shotgun, bad skin and a contentious attitude.
Skirting the restless herd of soon-to-be-stolen cattle, Billy drew his sorrel up alongside Wyatt’s paint gelding, shifted his slight frame with an easy, soft creak of old leather.
“The boys are ready,” Billy said, in that lazy drawl of his. “You with us, or not?”
Inwardly, Wyatt sighed. Thunder rolled across the darkened sky, like a warning from God. Turn your horse and ride, cowboy, said a still, small voice deep inside him. Go now, while the getting is good.
His younger brother, Rowdy, was up north, in Stone Creek, and he’d offered Wyatt a place to stay. Said he could get him honest work, help him leave the outlaw life behind for good. Still, the town seemed far away, like some fairy-tale place. Wyatt was flat broke, his horse—won in a poker game in Abilene two weeks after he got out of a Texas prison—wasn’t fit for the trip.
He supposed Rowdy would wire him some money, if he could swallow his pride long enough to ask, but stealing would be easier. It was the only trade he’d ever learned.
“I’m with you,” Wyatt said without inflection.
Billy nodded. “Then let’s make for the border.”
Wyatt assessed the sky again, watched as a streak of lightning ripped it open in a jagged, golden gash. “I don’t like this weather,” he admitted.
Billy turned his head and spat. “You turnin’ coward on me, Yarbro?” he demanded coolly.
“Ever seen a stampede, Billy?” Wyatt countered, keeping his voice quiet. Young as Mrs. Justice’s boy was, Wyatt had him pegged for the sort who could draw and shoot without so much as a skip in his heartbeat or a catch in his breath.
The cattle, more than five hundred of them, roiled in the gulch below like water at the base of a high falls, swirling in on each other in dusty, bawling eddies of hide and horns.
“Nope,” Billy said, his tone blithe. Wyatt knew the kid was probably planning to gun him down from behind as soon as they’d delivered the herd and collected the loot. He wasn’t afraid of a pockmarked whelp, even a cold-eyed one like Billy, but the charge in the air itself made his nerves claw and scramble under his skin.
“Let’s get this done:’ Wyatt answered, and rode in closer to the herd.
The wind picked up, howling over the bare Arizona desert like a banshee on the prowl for fresh corpses, but the gang, six of them in all, got the critters moving in a southerly direction. Wyatt watched Billy and his four riders even more closely than the cattle, making sure none of them had a clear shot at his back.
They funneled the herd through a narrow wash, raising dust so dense that Wyatt pulled his bandanna up over his nose and mouth and blinked to clear his eyes.
He thought about his brother as he rode. Rowdy, a former member of the infamous Yarbro gang, just as he was, had managed to set his feet on the straight and narrow path. He’d changed his ways, gotten himself a pardon, and now he not only had a wife and a new baby, he wore a star on his vest.
Despite the brewing storm, and his own uneasy feelings, Wyatt grinned wryly behind his bandanna. Rowdy, the erstwhile train robber, a lawman. That just proved what he’d always known: life was unpredictable as hell. Right when a man thought he had it all worked out in his brain, it would twist like a rattler striking from the wood pile.
Wyatt had never known any other way of living than holding up trains. Neither had Rowdy, until they pinned a badge on him and made him marshal of Stone Creek, Arizona. Soon after that, Rowdy had met and married a schoolmarm named Lark Morgan.
While he envied Rowdy a little—what would it be like to settle down with a good woman and a community of friends?—Wyatt wasn’t entirely convinced the change would stick. Once an outlaw, always an outlaw, as Pappy used to say.
And Pappy had been in a position to know.
Wyatt felt a mingling of irritation and sorrow as he thought of his father. If he’d been standing over the old man’s grave at that moment, he wouldn’t have known whether to weep or spit on the headstone.
He was debating the virtues of one approach over the other when a second bolt of lightning struck, this time in the center of the herd. Eerie light illuminated the whole scene—the terrified cattle and the other men stood out in sharp relief against the darkness for a long, bluish-gold moment—and then all hell broke loose, exploding in every direction like dynamite tossed into a campfire.
Wyatt’s horse reared, shrieking with panic, and nearly threw him.
He caught the scent of scorched flesh. Cattle bellowed in fear, and the other riders scattered, fleeing for their lives.
The paint gelding wheeled in the midst of hoof- pounding chaos, and though he fought to stay in the saddle, Wyatt found himself rushing headlong for the ground. The wind knocked out of him by the fall, he lay there in the dirt, blinded by dust, and waited to be trampled to death.
Cattle pounded past him, shaking the earth itself.
He didn’t know where his horse was—he couldn’t see anything—but he supposed the poor critter was already dead. If the horns hadn’t gotten old Reb, the hooves would have.
Wyatt managed to roll onto his belly, raise himself onto his hands and knees. It was a shame he wasn’t going to survive the stampede, because it would have made a hell of a story.
The cattle continued to rush past him, spilling around some shadowy barrier. Amazed at his own calm—the whole thing might have been a yarn spun by some old geezer in a saloon—Wyatt felt his way forward and came up against the side of a dead steer. Ducking low, he felt the sharp edge of a hoof brush his right shoulder, but the crushing pain he’d expected never came.
He huddled close to the dead cow and waited it out, praying his horse hadn’t suffered. Reb was a good old cayuse, deserving of green pastures and peace. He should have died with fresh grass between his teeth, not in the middle of a stampede.
Lightning lit up the landscape again, and then again, and Wyatt saw more dead cattle around him. He began to think he might make it after all, but he didn’t catch a glimpse of Billy or the others, and he was still fretting for the horse.
Gradually, after what seemed like the better part of a politician’s oration at a Fourth-of-July picnic, the din subsided and the ground stopped quaking.
Breathing slowly and deeply, Wyatt waited another few moments before daring to get to his feet. Eyes full of dirt, he wiped his face hard with the bandanna, then threw it aside.
He gave a low whistle, more out of habit than any hope that Reb would come.
But he did. The gelding nudged Wyatt between the shoulder blades, nearly knocking him off his feet, and flickered companionably.
Overjoyed, figuring he must be imagining things, Wyatt turned.
And there was Reb, reins dangling, bleeding where a horn had nicked him on the right side, and coated in red Arizona dust.
His heart swelling in his throat, Wyatt swung up into the saddle.
Pistol shots punctured intermittent rumblings of thunder, now distant, like the cattle.
Maybe Billy and his gang were trying to turn the herd.
Maybe a posse was making its presence known. One way or the other, Wyatt Yarbro had seen the light.
He reined Reb to the north and made for Stone Creek.