Prologue

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Two Weeks Ago

Bob's low growl beside Colton Lassiter pulled him from a deep sleep. His eyes sprang open, every muscle contracting like an overwound clock spring. The mountain dog slept like the dead, so his growling meant something was deeply amiss. Colt touched the dog. His rumbling ceased. Colt picked up sibilant whispers from across the campfire. He struggled to hear the words from his two partners in crime, Hal and Leo.

"...All's he did was stand lookout, Leo. Why should he get the same cut as us? A pop in the back of his head, an' we could have his share, too."

"Shoot 'im? But...wasn't it his ideer to hit the bank right afore they delivered to Cheyenne?"

"We did all the work, Leo. We took all the risks. We deserve more."

"But...shoot 'im?"

"Oh, for chrissake, Leo. Maybe I should gut-shoot you."

Why those low-down, dumber-than-dirt turkey farmers Colt had had the misfortune to hitch his wagon to in a moment of weakness. They were plotting to take his share of the money and leave his carcass for the buzzards. He lay on his side, facing away from his would-be partners/murderers. His muscles screamed to uncoil. His mind whirred in anticipation of their attack like the passing scenery from a train window. He couldn't escape a quick shot to the back of his skull. But nothing about these two imbeciles was quick. Especially not their wits.

"Well...if you think so, Hal. Though a knife might be quieter."

Out of the mouths of idiots, Colton thought with grudging admiration. Leo actually said something smart. But then, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

A sound of scrabbling around reminded Colton that these nitwits were dangerous. They were plotting his demise. He held his breath, even as Bob growled again.

"Found it. My guttin' knife."

"What do we do about that damn dog, Hal? He can be mighty vicious."

"Club 'im with yore rifle butt. Get ready."

Colton slid his hand under the saddle blanket he was using as a pillow, found his Colt and grasped it. His anger spiked. Kill his dog? They deserved to be skinned alive for that remark.

A crunch of gravel beneath stealthy boots alerted Colton where his attacker was, and the next instant he boiled out of his bedroll like a spinning tornado. A guttural yell ripped from his throat as he fanned the Colt's hammer rapid-fire. Bob jumped to his feet, barking frantically.

It was over before it began. On twin howls the two traitors dropped to the ground. Leo lay still as a corpse, while Hal rolled weakly from side-to-side. Bob ran toward the bodies, but a sharp negative from Colton brought him back to his side.

In the echoing silence, Colton sucked in deep breaths, his blood stampeding through his body like a runaway cattle herd. His ears rang with every pulse pump. He tried to holster his gun but missed. His hand shook so much it took him two tries before he got it where it belonged.

"I just killed two men," he muttered, starting toward Hal, who wasn't moving anymore. Colton had never killed anyone, hadn't even wounded someone. His walks on the wrong side of the law had never been violent. They'd been more of the stupid decision variety. Until now. This one would have been, too, if not for these greedy bastards. But he couldn't lay the killing of them on their shoulders. Nope, that was all on his.

One of the horses nickered. Colton raised his head, looking in that direction while Bob growled at his side. He turned back toward the fire, leaving his dead partners where they lay. Leo and Hal had been right about one thing. Gunshots carried for miles out here. Best to get going.

He began packing his bags, kicked sand on the fire. His heartbeat dulled to a rapid thud, his movements still jerky and uncoordinated. He'd killed two men. He couldn't get past that fact. Killed them with his own hands. He'd just joined the ranks of murderers. The thought was sobering.

Moving to the Judas twins' horses, he untethered them and slapped them on their rumps. Dragging the animals behind him would only advertise his guilt. On gleeful neighs, they galloped into the night. With some hesitation, he went through first Leo's, then Hal's saddlebags, taking everything he'd need: food, knives, canteens, and extra blankets.

The last item he grabbed was the bankroll from Hal's saddlebag, the cause of this nightmare. His hand began to shake like an over-the-hill gunfighter's. Carrying the heavy money pouch to his saddlebags, he shoved it deep inside one, out of sight, wishing he could forget its presence in his memory that easily. With another, last cursory look around the campsite, he decided these two backstabbers didn't deserve decent burials. Let the buzzards eat their black hearts out.

He called Bob to his side with one shrill whistle, mounted his horse, and disappeared into the night.

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