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Paxton's Winter

This excerpt is unedited.
____________

CHAPTER 1

An icy metal circle pressed into the warm hairs at the back of Paxton Terhune’s neck spread hoarfrost through every bone.  The simultaneous rasp of a sidearm’s hammer cocking sounded loud above the frigid wind. 

“Lift your hands away from the gun belt real careful.  Then don’t move.”  A pleasant enough voice, well modulated, a bit higher in pitch than Pax’s own baritone.  He would have found it quite pleasant and even described it as musical were it not attached to that extremely cold gun muzzle pressed to the back of his head.

His mother having never birthed an idiot, Pax did exactly as instructed and lifted his hands well away from his body with exaggerated care.

A long, muscular arm reached around his waist, necessitating what was no doubt an equally muscular body pressing tight to his back.  A hand fumbled a bit before reaching between his thighs to free his holster’s tie down. 

Eyes cast downwards so all other parts of his body remained perfectly still, Pax watched it flutter up to unfasten the buttons on his coat so it could unbuckle his gun belt, letting it fall to the leaf-strewn ground.  The gun tucked in its belt looked appallingly abandoned lying among the bright yellow aspen leaves. 

That well-shaped, almost elegant hand felt about Pax’s belt, up his chest to check below his armpits, then swept behind him to check the back of his waistband and the upper curve of his ass.  Like the voice, Pax would have enjoyed it all immensely were it not for that very disconcerting gun bumping his medulla oblongata.

“You twitch wrong and I’ll blow your head right off.  I get paid more if I bring you in alive but I still get decent money if it’s just your body.” 

Such a pretty voice shouldn’t express such troubling things.

“That’s not a very profitable attitude.”  Besides, it made Paxton’s heart pound and left him a little light headed.  He ran a dry tongue over his lips.  “I’ll do my best not to twitch.”

That almost pretty, though very manly hand grabbed Pax’s right wrist and wrenched it behind his back.  “Stay still.  I mean it.”

“I don’t have the least doubt of that.”  A new metallic cold circled Pax’s wrist above his glove, the clink of iron-on-iron not helping his galloping heart and the sharp constriction in his chest.  Manacles.  Not something he could manage to cut through with the knife hidden in his boot. 

The gun shifted, bumping against his head and he flinched.  “Do me a favor and ignore that twitch, will you?” 

Damn, his bladder felt full.

His captor gave a faint snort and grabbed Pax’s other wrist, jerking it into place next to the right one.  Icy metal circled it in the barest moment.  Securely fastened with no more than a few inches play between his wrists, his captor spun him about. 

Oh my. 

The source of the conflicting images conjured by the pretty voice and elegant hand versus the damnable gun and wrist-irons glared back at him.  His captor matched the former pairing rather than the latter. 

Well, if Pax was about to die, at least he’d have something extremely pleasant to look at in his last moments. 

Black hat pushed back and hanging by the strings across the fine column of a neck, his captor’s dark hair stirred in the icy wind sweeping down from the snow field above them.  Straight ebony locks whipped about a finely chiseled face with a strong Celtic cast, all dark and fine-boned.  Eyes grey as years-old ice and about as warm stared back at Pax from under fine, straight brows.  Several days worth of beard shadowed a well-sculpted jawline and roughened the outline of a fine mustache.  Just an amazingly beautiful man.

His very handsome angel of death seemed to decide it wasn’t time to perform his duty just yet and let the pistol’s hammer down with gentle ease and holstered his gun. 

“Not as hard as I’d been led to believe it would be.”

Pax allowed the pent up breath in his lungs to escape.  “What wasn’t as hard?”

“Capturing you.  I was told you were hell on wheels.”  Paxton’s captor reached to pull his hat back on and turned his collar up, buttoning his heavy coat up to the neck.  That coffee-colored hair barely brushed his broad shoulders as it swirled in the growing wind.

“Perhaps you have the wrong man.”  Pax’s luck at love far outweighed his luck with cards and he suspected this situation far more akin to poker than the arts of Venus.

“Paxton Charles Edward Terhune, wanted for the murder of Benny Cole.  Five-hundred-dollar reward.  An extra two-hundred if I bring you in alive.”  Those charcoal eyes didn’t warm one bit.  Beauty the bounty hunter might be but Pax was beginning to take him in dislike.

“Ah, yes, well.  So you don’t have the wrong man.  Pity.”  Pax shifted his shoulders, trying to find a comfortable way to adjust to his ungainly new confinement.  “Well, now... since you seem to know all about me, might I at least have the courtesy of my executioner’s name?”

“Zane Steadman.”  Beauty scooped up Pax’s fallen guns and slung them over an appealingly broad shoulder.  “I’m not here to execute you, just bring you in.  I’ll leave the executing to a hangman after a judge and jury decide if that’s what you deserve.”

“Now that’s the rub, my... ahm... friend.  I don’t deserve it.  I didn’t shoot Benny Cole in the back.  I never met the man to my recollection.”  Pax shivered as the chill wind swept in his open coat.

“I didn’t say you shot him in the back.”  Beauty’s eyes narrowed, his handsome face rife with suspicion.

“Please.  I’m very aware of what I’m accused of doing.  I’d hardly be riding the outlaw trail if I thought the world considered me blameless.”  Pax’s opinion of the lovely Zane’s mental ability sank.  He sighed.  “Do you think you could rebutton my coat?  It’s turning colder and that wind is straight off the ice fields.”  He looked out over the edge of the ridge where they stood.  Clouds only a few shades lighter than Zane’s eyes hung over the summits of the mountains, heavy and flat bottomed.  “It’s going to snow.”

“It’s too early.  Shouldn’t snow for another two weeks at the earliest.”  The beauteous Zane did move close though and tug at Pax’s heavy sheepskin coat, forced to work at it so he could button it with Pax’s arms in such an ungainly position.

“Suit yourself, but I’ve lived up here for over ten years.  I know snow clouds when I see them and I know the scent of snow on the wind.”  Pax shifted his attention from the wide vista of the San Juans to Zane.  The bounty hunter frowned as he struggled with Paxton’s coat.  If the specter of hanging didn’t loom over him, Pax could manage to enjoy the situation.

“If you’re so sure of that, let’s get you on your horse and head to town.”  Zane’s grasp on Pax’s upper arm steered him toward where he’d hobbled his mount the previous night.

“We won’t make it.  The snow’s coming soon.”  If Pax was any judge, it would descend within the hour.

Zane hefted Pax’s saddle onto Gentleman’s back, the roan patient and well-trained.  “We’ll see.”

Indeed they would.  Zane would have to move the manacles for Pax to mount up.  And if Pax was lucky, maybe he’d have a chance once the damned restraints were in front of him.  With that much use of his hands, he just might be able to escape.

*  *  *

“Mount up.”

The idiot could not honestly expect Pax to climb on a horse without the use of his arms and hands.  “And exactly how are we to accomplish this miracle?”

Zane’s smile annoyed.  “Easy.”  He pointed to a large, boulder.  “You stand on that rock.  I’ll hold the horse and you just swing that long leg over.”

“How about you just tie the horse to that tree and you help me up?  It’ll be about as effective.”  The infuriating man ignored Pax and pushed him toward the boulder.  “Insistent, aren’t you?”

“Family trait.  Mama said Da was stubborn as the Devil himself.  Da said Mama always had to have things done her way.”  Yes, Zane’s smile definitely annoyed.  It might even be working its way up to infuriating.  “Up with you.”

The feel of a strong hand on Pax’s backside, helping heft him up onto the flat-topped rock, shouldn’t have felt even a quarter as good as it did.  Especially not when that touch belonged to a man taking him to certain hanging.  Pax would never get near a judge or jury; he’d be dead before a week passed.  Pity he had no way to explain that to Zane in a fashion the man would believe.

A shudder having nothing to do with the weather worked its way up Pax’s spine.  Hanging.  He couldn’t think of that; he’d lose the ability to move if he did.  “So, how’d you manage to find me?  It’s a big mountain.”

“Been following you for three days.  First time you’ve let your guard down.  Couldn’t even come up on you at night the way you had your camps laid out.”  A final push and Pax stood steady on the rock and Zane’s hand fell away.  “Been trailing you since you left that grave site outside Galleywinter.”

Images of the horror of the hangman’s noose returned.  Pax would never erase the sight of Maddox kicking and swinging as the crowd held Pax away.  The horror of it still woke him screaming some nights.  “You don’t have to do this.  If you take me back, I’ll never stand trial.”

Zane looked up from positioning the horse.  “The circuit judge will be through here in less than a month.  You’ll have your day in court before you know it.”

“No.  I’ll be dead by then.”  The futility of baring his soul to a bounty hunter, even a good- looking one, sealed Paxton’s lips and he swung a leg up and over the saddle horn, managing to settle on the beast.  A strong gust of icy wind stirred the hair at the back of his neck.  “If we don’t freeze to death first.” 

Of the two methods of ending his earthly trials, freezing was probably by far the kindest.

*  *  *

“How do you actually expect me to stay on a horse without the use of my hands?”

Zane ignored the plea in the deep-voiced complaint.  He wasn’t about to feel sorry for some outlaw.  Even if said outlaw happened to be as fine set-up a man as Zane had seen in years.  “I reckon you can use those legs of yours to hold on nice and tight.” 

Hell.  That just brought up thoughts of those long legs holding Zane nice and tight.

The bounty hunter really needed a trip to some big city.  He wanted a whore in the worst way and he wouldn’t find the specific sort he needed in a little place like Galleywinter.  He might have a hard time finding one even in Denver.  And the flesh pots back east and out in California were about equally hard to get to. 

Hell fire and damnation! 

“Just remember if you fall off and kill yourself I still get paid.”

“You’re an amazingly unhelpful man.  And you have an appalling disregard for your own pocketbook.”  Paxton Terhune turned a glare that bordered on pout toward Zane.

A grown man pouting shouldn’t look that good.  And that faint Southern drawl shouldn’t sound as musical as it did.  Zane cursed with all the inventiveness he’d always been accused of, the words racketing around inside his head but never making it to his lips.  Yeah, he really needed take that ride to some nice, decadent, godless town.  Soon.

“Oh, I’m right helpful.  I’m helping the good citizens of Galleywinter sleep safe in their beds at night without worrying about outlaws sweeping down on them.”  The pout turned to pure ire and Zane grinned at the man riding beside him.  “So I’m sure Galleywinter thinks I’m just fine.”

The sound of a deep growl escaped Terhune and Zane’s grin broadened.  He might not have the fine grasp of fancy language his prisoner did but he could hold his own.

“I’m sure.  Except the name of the town is Galena Winter not Galleywinter.”  A tip-tilted nose tipped a little further up.

“The sign outside the town says Galleywinter.”  So did the one over the saloon where Zane managed a decent poker game before setting off after Terhune.  Fellow sure seemed to think he knew a lot.

“Well, it’s hardly my fault the illiterate moron who posted that couldn’t spell.”

Zane coughed to subdue a laugh.  Yep, knew a lot and not ashamed to share it.  A real fancy fellow.  Well-spoken, nice horse, good boots, and a high-tone attitude.  Might have come across a mite better if he wasn’t wanted for back-shooting a miner though.

Zane just shook his head and steered the horses from the stand of evergreens out into a fine alpine meadow still green and lush.  The sweet summer grass didn’t match the arctic blast that greeted them as soon as they cleared the shelter of the trees.  It swept his hat off, leaving it hanging down his back, whipping through his hair with icy fingers.

“Damn!”  He reached back, settling the black Stetson back on his head.  “That’s cold!”

“I told you.  It’s about to snow.  We need to find shelter before we’re caught in a blizzard.”  For once, Terhune didn’t sound annoying.  He sounded concerned.

“And I told you we’re a month out from winter.”  Though the damp, frigid wind said otherwise.

“Were you born this obstinate or is it something you’ve had to work at?”  Terhune’s hazel eyes managed to be utterly condemning while his face remained bland.  “Because I’m not sure if I should congratulate you on the natural talent or on achieving such a high degree of proficiency at being a willful idiot.”

“I’m starting to not like you much.”  Zane hurried the horses just a bit to get across the meadow and back into the shelter of the trees.

“And I’m sure I should be concerned about this.”  Terhune grimaced as he jostled a bit and Zane could see the muscles tightening in the outlaw’s thighs where he gripped the saddle.

Damn.  Zane’s brain wanted to dwell on those thighs.  Long, solid…  He did like tall, lanky men.  Especially when God was kind enough to grace them with broad shoulders and a chest to match.  He went back to silent cursing. 

The outlaw appealed in ways that made it really hard for Zane to keep his mind on business.  If an ounce of fat existed on that lean body, it hadn’t been apparent when Zane searched the outlaw for weapons.  And that ass fit his hands just perfect when he boosted Terhune up onto that boulder to mount the horse.  Firm and hard. 

Lord, looking at the man and thinking of how his body felt turned Zane’s mouth dry and shot hardness between his legs.  Best to turn this one in as soon as he could and not think of him any more.  “I’m the one with the gun.” 

Keep your mind on business, old son.  I’ve just been without too long.  Two years, three months and some odd days too long.  And Zane was damned tired of no one to keep company with but his own hand.  Well, with the money from this bounty, he could take that trip to Denver.  Maybe out to San Francisco even.

“Yes, well that weapon will do you little good against Mother Nature in a pettish mood.  And I fear she’s rather stirred up today.  I’ve no wish to be caught out in her wrath.  If you’d allow logic to enter into your despotic thought processes, you’d admit this and let me lead us to shelter.  There’s a line shack not two miles from here.”  Clear hazel eyes, half obscured by a fall of darkest blond hair, bored into Zane.  “And my hands are losing sensation.  You can’t actually expect me to stay on this horse for the hours it will take to get to town in this condition.” 

“Would a gag improve the condition?”  A snowflake landed on Zane’s nose and he sighed.

“So much for no snow for a month, hey?”  Terhune didn’t have to look that pleased about it.

“It’s just a flurry.”  Zane glanced toward the west and grimaced.  A curtain of white obscured the far mountain.  “All right, a big flurry.”  He sighed.  “You just enjoy being right too much.”

“It’s always best to have one’s observations confirmed.”  The outlaw grinned.

Exasperating, annoying, irritating man.  And too good-looking when he smiled.  Even white teeth gleamed as a new batch of snow swirled about them, setting Terhune’s twilight blond hair dancing. 

“Point the way to your damned cabin.”

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Copyright © 2006 T.D.McKinney. All Rights Reserved.