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MAVERICK HEART
by Loree Lough

Genre: Historical Romance, Inspirational

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May 1888

Somewhere along the San Antonio Road

“Shut up, fool!” bellowed the rifle-toting robber. “Now we’ll hafta kill ’em, so’s they won’t be able to tell the Texas Rangers they was robbed by the Frank Michaels Gang!”

The Frank Michaels Gang? Why did that sound so familiar? Levee’s question was quickly extinguished by a sickening admission: in her twenty-two years of life, she’d never given a thought to how she might leave this earth. Until now.

“No need to get your dander up,” Mack drawled. “Y’all just keep right on helpin’ yourselves to everything we’ve got. Think of us as the three wise monkeys. We didn’t see a thing or hear a thing, and we won’t speak a thing, either.”

“That’s right.” Liam quickly agreed with their fellow passenger.

Levee looked up at her husband, unable to decide which surprised her more: the fact that he’d opened his mouth or that he’d opened the medical bag that held his Derringer. But in one beat of her hammering heart, his hand disappeared inside it. In the next, his puny revolver dangled from his fingertips. “I think you boys should—”

One shot rang out, and even before its echo fell silent, Liam slumped to the ground. “No-o-o!” Levee wailed, dropping to her knees. She cradled his head in her lap and, for the first time since graduating from the New England Hospital for Women, regretted her nursing degree. Because one look at the bloody wound in the middle of his chest told her that although he wasn’t dead yet, he soon would be.

“I—I wanted to—give them—the gun,” he sputtered, “to p-prove we—c-could be trusted—”

“Hush, now,” she whispered, finger-combing dark curls from his forehead. “Shh.”

Mack threw his Stetson to the ground and kicked it. “Of all the….” Arms whirling like a windmill, he kicked it again. “Did you hear what the man said? He’s from Boston, for the luvva Pete. He meant you no harm. Why, I doubt he could’ve hit the broad side of a barn with that pea shooter of his, even if he’d tried!”

“Looked to me like he was aimin’ to shoot,” one of the bandits insisted, “an’ nobody takes aim at Frank Michaels whilst I’m around.”

The rifleman cursed under his breath. “Thought I tol’ you to shut up, Tom.”

All of you shut up,” Frank snarled.

But Levee paid him no mind. “Fight, Liam,” she urged him. “Stay with me! You promised that as soon as we were settled, we’d—”

His eyelids fluttered open, and an enormous, silvery tear leaked from the corner of one eye. “Aw, Levee,” he rasped, grabbing her hand. “S-sorry….”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for, Liam. You’re going to be fine.” Oh, please, God, let it be true! “Just fine! Do you hear me?” No sooner had the words passed her lips than his body shuddered once, and the fingers that had been squeezing hers went limp. A dribble of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth to his chin. Then, one grating, ragged breath later, he was gone.

She watched the thugs help themselves to Liam’s hard-earned savings. Watched them poke through her small suitcase as Frank Michaels tucked Grandpa O’Reilly’s gold pocket watch into his vest. He looked up, caught her staring, and touched a finger to his hat brim. “My apologies, ma’am,” he said, aiming a steely smile her way. “And to prove my sincerity, we aren’t going to kill you. You have my word on that.” A chuckle passed through the red and black fabric of his bandanna. “At least, not today.”

His implied threat hung on the parched air as Levee looked into her husband’s ashy face. Almost from the moment they’d left Boston, Levee had been afraid. Afraid of ghastly-looking bugs and wild animals, afraid of the unrelenting wind and the dry, desolate land that seemed to stretch on forever. Afraid of the outlaws and bandits she’d read about. Distraught and anguished, she was beyond fear now. A swirl of self-blame, guilt, and shame roiled inside her like a cyclone, putting put her on her feet.

Fists balled at her sides, Levee marched up to the leader’s horse. “You killed my husband for no reason, and you think a phony apology will make things right? You’re—you’re a lunatic, Frank Michaels, and so are these so-called men who ride with you.” Levee swiped angrily at her traitorous tears. “Look at you, hiding behind your masks. Why, you’re nothing but cowards, the lot of you. Heartless thieves and—and cold-blooded killers. You’d better shoot me good and dead, right here where I stand, because the very first chance I get, I will report you to the Texas Rangers, and nothing will please me more than to watch you hang for your crimes!”

Her hysterical tirade silenced even the chorusing insects and chirruping birds. Silenced the amused chortles of Frank and his cohorts, too. The men exchanged puzzled glances, and then the one named Tom said, “You want I should plug her, Frank, or d’you wanna do it?”

Frank rested one leather-gloved hand atop the other on his saddle horn, as if to consider the idea. “I gave her my word, and I intend to keep it.”

Tom snorted. “She’ll probably die of thirst before she reaches the next town, anyway.” Winking, he added, “If the coyotes don’t get her first.”

Levee had been an unwilling eyewitness to what the mangy canines could do to a deer carcass, and in very little time, too. She pressed fingertips to her closed eyes to block the grisly image, and when she did, the picture of Liam’s lifeless body took its place. A dozen thoughts flitted through her head. Could she have used her medical training to do something to save him? Why hadn’t she seen the gunman take aim before he fired at Liam? If she had, what might she have done to prevent the shooting?

“Coyotes,” she heard the rifleman say. “You got that right, Tom. No chance she’ll live long enough to tell anybody what happened here.”

Mack’s voice broke through. “That was uncalled for,” he grumbled. “The poor woman just lost her husband.”

As if she needed a reminder! Please, Lord, please, let this be a terrible nightmare. Let me wake up and realize that—

A deafening explosion ended her prayer. She wasn’t dreaming, as evidenced by the whiff of smoke spiraling from Frank’s gun barrel—and the ghastly sound of Mack’s body hitting the ground. “Not him, too! B-but you promised—”

“I only promised not to kill you,” Frank said, then coolly holstered his revolver. “Tom? Unharness the team.”

Frank and his men had ended four lives in barely more than four minutes, and with four words, he’d dismissed the matter. The howling wind whirled around them, gathering the dust into tiny twisters that hopped across the prairie like jackrabbits. Levee buried her face in her hands, unwilling to let the bandits witness one more moment of her misery. She had the rest of her life for that.

Life. She almost laughed at the notion. Sitting in the middle of the Texas prairie, waiting for only the good Lord knew what to kill her, wasn’t her idea of life.