Wickenburg, Arizona Territory
August 19, 1865
The stagecoach bounced over the rough terrain. Caroline Larson tried not to slide into the man sitting next to her on the hard, bare wood seat. The least they could have done was put some upholstering on the thing. Then she would not be jostled so much from the side against the window to the poor young man next to her.
Another jolt of the Celerity stagecoach shoved her into his side once again.
“Sorry,” she murmured, glancing at the young man.
“No harm, Miss.” A smirk played on his lips causing the jagged scar on his right cheek to wrinkle unattractively. She wondered how he got the scar. The hint of laughter in his voice indicated he was enjoying this.
Caroline stifled a snort of disgust as she turned to look out the opening with a small canvas cover secured to the top of the window frame. The dust billowing up from the front wheels obscured much of the view, filtering into the interior of the stage. The small town—if one could call it that—of Wickenburg faded behind them. The only good thing about facing the rear of the stage was that she did not have to endure a face full of dust with each breath.
The stage jerked violently, propelling the man across from her forward, landing awkwardly in her lap. She turned her shocked green eyes towards him, narrowing them slightly until the red of embarrassment tinged his cheeks. He offered profuse apologies as he tried to return to his designated seat.
She should have listened to Millie. She and her father had acted as chaperones, escorting Caroline west. Unfortunately, their travels ended in Wickenburg. Millie and her father assured her they would take her the rest of the way to Prescott by mid-September. But, she had come this far and did not want to wait another month or more before being reunited with her brother Adam and her best friend Julia.
As the stage crossed over a huge bump, sending Caroline airborne for a few seconds, her mind returned to her present circumstance. Despite Millie’s concern, she boarded the stage this morning headed for Prescott. Things were just fine. She could handle the inquisitive looks of these men.
Abruptly, the stage skidded to a halt, propelling Caroline into the arms of the man across from her. Her almost apology died on the tip of her tongue.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Rifle fire echoed in her ears. Her head snapped towards the window. The driver fell from his perch on the front of the stage. As she jerked forward, the young man with scar clasped his hand down on her arm. She turned her eyes toward him. He lifted a finger to his lips and shook his head. He pushed her back against the seat, out of the view of the window.
“What’d ya do that fer?” another voice sounded.
“I told him not to reach for his gun.”
Caroline froze. The stage was being robbed!
“Y’all come out slow like,” the first man shouted.
“Miss,” the man with the scar whispered. “Let me go first to make sure it’s safe for you.”
A lump formed in her throat. She watched as he exited the stage. Maybe she had been too quick to judge him earlier.
“How many more of you are in there?” the first robber’s voice asked.
“Just four more,” the man with the scar answered.
That was not true. There were four more men. And her. What was he doing?
“Come out nice and slow.”
The rest of the men did as instructed. Caroline hesitated in the shadows, wondering if the scar-faced man—now she wished she would have asked his name—was trying to protect her. Tapping her finger against her temple rapidly, she tried to figure a way out of this situation. Scanning the landscape offered no solutions. Nothing but vast open desert presented itself. There was no place to hide.
For the first time in her eighteen years, Caroline had no solution. No plan.
“Bart!” the first robber yelled. “Check out the stage. Make sure no one else is lurking around.”
She heard the distinct sound of a man dismounting a horse. Moments later, shuffling feet sounded just outside of the stagecoach door. Flattening herself into the shadows as much as possible, Caroline wished she had not worn her bright yellow dress this morning. Her dark green would serve much better to hide her now.
“Looksee here,” Bart said with a broken-toothed smile. “Come here missy.”
He leaned in and caught hold of her foot.
“Unhand me,” she said before realizing she had destroyed any hope of hiding her presence from Bart’s boss.
As Bart tugged harder on her ankle, she slid off the seat, landing with a thud on the floor of the stage. Kicking his face with her other foot, she freed herself long enough to make a somewhat graceful exit. Bart’s beefy arms clamped around her shoulders as soon as her feet hit the ground. He shuffled her to the line of passengers.
Bart flung her toward the scarred man who helped her earlier. The force was so hard she lost her balance and landed at his feet with a whimper. When he kneeled to help her up, the robber cocked his pistol, stopping him in mid-crouch. All she could see was the scar on the passenger’s face as she tried to control her breathing. It wasn’t as noticeable now as it had been before. For some reason, she found that comforting.
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