Home > A Cowboy for Keeps (Colorado Cowboys, #1)

A Cowboy for Keeps (Colorado Cowboys, #1)
Author: Jody Hedlund


Chapter 1



“Stop or we’ll shoot!” A dozen feet up Kenosha Pass, three robbers with flour sacks over their heads blocked the way, their revolvers outstretched.

Walking alongside the stagecoach, Greta Nilsson didn’t have to be told twice. She froze—all except her pulse, which sped to a thundering gallop.

Next to her, the Concord jerked to a halt.

“Come out and put your hands up where we can see ’em,” called the lanky robber at the center, peering through unevenly cut holes in his mask.

Greta raised her gloved hands and hoped they weren’t trembling. Likewise, the two gentlemen hiking near her wasted no time in obeying.

Before she’d left Illinois, everyone had warned her of the trouble she might encounter on the route to the west, including the growing problem of stagecoach robberies. Over the past eight weeks of traveling, she’d braced herself for the possibility, had mentally rehearsed such an encounter and what she’d do.

But today, on the last day of the journey, she’d finally allowed herself to relax and believe that for once things might work out in her favor, that she hadn’t made a big mistake in moving to Colorado.

Apparently, she’d assumed too much too soon.

At the rear of the stagecoach, several men had been pushing it the final distance to the top of the pass, and they now eased out into the open, their arms up. The driver sitting on his bench atop the stagecoach set the brake, then released the reins controlling the two teams of horses that had been straining to pull them up the mountain. He, too, cautiously lifted his hands.

She guessed, like her, the other passengers were well aware of the tales of murder and mayhem along the wilderness trails. And they weren’t taking any chances either.

At least Astrid was inside the coach. After trekking uphill for the first hour, the little girl’s poor lungs hadn’t been able to handle the exertion. As much as Astrid had loathed returning to the bumpy conveyance, she’d been able to have a seat to herself since everyone else had gotten out to lighten the load.

Last time Greta had peeked through the open windows, her sister had been sprawled out asleep, and now Greta prayed the precocious child would stay that way.

The middle robber inched toward them, his revolver swinging in a wide arc. His leathery hands and dirt-encrusted fingernails contrasted with the ivory handle of his revolver. “Nobody move.”

Morning sunlight filtered through the aspens, their white bark and green-gold leaves making the trail feel more open and airy than other parts of the mountainous road. A cool, dry breeze rattled the leaves, swishing like ladies’ skirts brushing against grass.

Just minutes ago, Greta had been marveling at how different the dry and cooler climate was from northern Illinois, where oppressive humidity plagued the summers and made every chore feel like a burden. What she wouldn’t give at this moment to be back there shucking corn or snapping beans, even if she was dripping with perspiration.

“Anyone left inside?” one of the other robbers asked.

“No,” Greta said quickly. “Everyone’s out.”

Just then the stagecoach door inched open.

The lanky robber with the uneven eye slits swung his revolver toward the door and clicked the hammer.

“No!” Greta threw herself between the robber and the stagecoach, shoving against Astrid’s strong push.

A short distance away beyond the trees, the mountainside overlooked the sprawling grasslands of South Park, nestled between the Front Range in the east and the Mosquito Range in the west. Their destination was within eyesight. If only it was also within shouting distance so they could call for help.

The bandit shifted the barrel’s aim to Greta, his arm stiff, his fingers taut. “Woman, unless you want to find yourself eating a bullet, you’d best step aside and let that person out.”

Inside, Astrid cried out in protest and once again attempted to open the door. But Greta flattened the full length of her body against it.

“Move on outta the way, woman,” the robber said, louder and more irritably.

“It’s her little sister.” One of the other passengers moved to stand beside Greta, a middle-aged man who’d introduced himself as Landry Steele yesterday morning when they boarded the stagecoach in Denver. He’d spent the majority of the journey conversing with the other gentlemen. However, during the few brief interactions she’d had with him, he’d always been considerate.

“The girl is ill and is of no concern to you.” Beneath the brim of Mr. Steele’s bowler, he shot Greta an apologetic look, as though realizing she’d wanted to keep Astrid hidden away and out of the conflict.

“That so?” The gunman’s revolver didn’t waver. “If she’s of no concern, then let her on out.”

Greta pressed against the door harder. She hadn’t brought Astrid all this distance to have her die at the hand of a robber. “She’s only eight years old—”

“I’m nine,” came Astrid’s indignant voice.

“Allow her to come out,” Mr. Steele said with a quiet urgency. “You don’t want her to end up an orphan, do you?”

Astrid an orphan? Never in Greta’s plans had she counted on dying before Astrid. The truth was, Astrid’s days were numbered, and Greta hoped to lengthen and make them as pain-free as possible. But she couldn’t do that if she let the robber kill her.

Swallowing hard, Greta stepped away from the stagecoach. The door flew open with a bang, and Astrid tumbled out. She landed with an oomph onto the grassy road but then bounded up as nimbly as a barn cat. Though the consumption had emaciated the girl so that she was thin and petite for her age, somehow she still retained a fresh and vibrant spirit that made up for her physical frailty.

Her big silver blue eyes, so much like Greta’s, took in the scene—the robbers, their guns, and all the passengers standing motionless with hands in the air. Astrid’s hair was also the same color as Greta’s, a golden brown now sun-streaked from so many days of neglecting her bonnet. Astrid had refused to allow Greta to plait her hair when they’d arisen at half past four in the morning for a hasty departure from the stagecoach station, and now it hung in tangled waves.

Even so, Astrid was the picture of perfection. She had dainty porcelain but beautiful features that drew attention everywhere she went. Greta had never considered herself to be a beauty, not like some of the other young women back home and certainly not like Astrid.

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