A Cowboy for Keeps (Colorado Cowboys #1) by Jody Hedlund




Chapter 1


COLORADO TERRITORY

AUGUST 1862

“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.