Stifled by the extreme heat and the reeking stench of ripe body odor, Elizabeth abandoned the perfumed black lace handkerchief and, in very unladylike fashion, stuck her head out the stagecoach window into the swirling dust of the desert. Off in the distance and closing, she spied the booming gold rush town. She sighed, counting the minutes until the stagecoach pulled into the next-to-last stop for the day.
Although disguised in black widow weeds and a thick veil, Elizabeth had still endured the men in the carriage as they either rudely stared at her, made suggestive remarks, or a few had even been so bold as to demonstrate their lewdness. No, even dressing as a widow had not given her the obscurity and protection a widow would have been granted back East. Indeed, she couldn't wait to disembark and enact her final, and somewhat desperate, idea as a disguise. After all, a true lady simply did not travel unescorted without facing social ruination of her reputation.
She snorted. She was a lady no longer. She was traveling alone into the Wild West. She couldn't care less what people thought; at least, that's what she tried to tell herself. When she finally reached Colorado, Elizabeth would know no one and no one would know her. She could re-create herself into whomever she wanted to be, whatever she wanted people to believe about her, a fresh start. Gone forever was the woman freshly graduated from one of Boston's best finishing schools, a polished and oh so very proper lady.
Elizabeth ignored the foul-smelling miner who bumped into her for the zillionth time as the stagecoach wheel dropped into yet another rut. Whether she had wanted to know or not, all six of the men aboard had previously announced the gold rush town as their last stop. Mercifully, the stagecoach driver hollered for the horses to halt as they rounded the corner of the general store.
Naturally, none of the men offered the courtesy of disembarking first. In fact, Elizabeth climbed down onto the dirt street third, but only because she elbowed her way through the malodorous men still in the carriage. Gulping fresh air into her lungs, she headed into the general store to purchase her last hope as a disguise to offer her anonymity, safety, and protection.
Quick as a flash, she scanned the merchandise until she discovered a table with men's clothing. Having never worn denim pants before, she eyed several different sizes before deciding on the smallest. Also in a young man's size, she bought a black shirt, gun belt, and matching Stetson. Finally, she selected a Colt pistol, ammunition, and a linen sheet.
After she paid the storekeeper with her dwindling funds, Elizabeth hurried to the outhouse behind the building. Once inside, she stripped off her black widow weeds and veil. Then she ripped the sheet into long strips, binding them around and around her bosom until her chest was painfully reduced to the flat-chested appearance of an older teenage boy. Once she figured out how to button the copper rivets on her denim pants, Elizabeth tucked in her black shirt, fastened on her gun belt and shoved her Colt into the holster. She tied a linen loop around her long hair and stuffed it all up under her new black Stetson.
Grinning after she sauntered back to the coach, Elizabeth stopped to drink from the rainwater barrel dipper. When she approached the stagecoach driver, he was busy muttering about the widow's abandoned luggage.
Elizabeth tossed the driver a brown wrapped parcel, her widow weeds now hidden in the wrapping from her new clothes. "Hey, driver," she then cleared her throat and tried to imitate a male voice. "Leave her things aboard. And add this to them."
She flashed her ticket and re-boarded the stagecoach, blessedly alone. Perhaps no one else would board and she would have privacy on the last leg of today's trip before the stagecoach stopped again for the night.
The driver hollered, "Last chance. Moving out to Colorado."
To Elizabeth's disgruntlement, the carriage door swung open and two men climbed inside. She pulled the Stetson low over her eyes and hunched down in the middle of the bench seat. Unfortunately, she had pulled the brim so low, she couldn't see what the other passengers looked like. But neither said a word as they sat on the opposite bench seat.
The driver yelled at the horses, cracking the whip, and the stagecoach bolted off like a bullet.
"The kid's got an attitude," one of the men said in a smooth deep baritone.
"Uh-huh. A snot-nosed brat who could benefit from a good spanking," the other man drawled slowly.
Elizabeth pushed her new hat back in place and glared at the men. Now who had said what?
In one corner, sat a copper-tanned man dressed in buckskin pants and shirt. His shiny ebony hair hung almost to his broad shoulders and matched the chocolate twinkling eyes.
In the other corner, the man in jeans, a blue shirt and leather vest, swiped off his tan Stetson and raked one hand over golden blond hair. Eyes as green as springtime seemed to darken to summer green and sparkle as he stared as hard back at her as she was him.
"How rude," she muttered.
The darker of the two men, the one who appeared almost some kin to Indian, laughed at her outright. "Like you?"
"Well, I never-" she bit off the rest, cleared her voice, and tried to remember to speak in deeper tones like a male.
The almost Indian groaned, rubbed one hand over his eyes, and muttered toward the ceiling, "Lord, why do You put me in these situations?"
The other man, the blond intense one, had groaned also, but leaned forward on his knees. "What's your name?" He paused, grinned, and added, "Kid?" He scooted a little closer and inclined his head toward the other man. "He's Jesse Coleman." Then he swung green orbs to study her again, nodded, and stuck out one hand to shake introductions. "I'm Luke Stone."
She sighed then extended her hand. His large calloused hand engulfed hers in a firm handshake, but he grunted, "Yeah, Jesse. For certain."
Jesse seemed to understand Luke, even if Elizabeth had to ask, "Pardon?"
Now Jesse leaned up on his elbows, too, staring at her. "Your name?"
Jesse hitched his thumb toward her and shook his head at Luke.
Luke laughed, then drawled, "Ya gotta think that hard 'bout your own name, kid? God help us, Jesse."
Elizabeth crossed her arms over her painfully squashed chest and humphed. "Holliday."
Jesse smiled slowly, a straight streak of white against bronze skin. Two dimples carved into his incredibly good-looking face. "You're as pretty as your name."
Heat crept up her neck until she could practically feel the steam rising off her hot face.
Luke laughed, rumbling infectious timbre as nice to hear as his handsome face was to watch. A dimple deepened in his chin. "It must be a burden, kid. All that beauty wasted on a boy. Maybe that's why ya wouldn't tell us your name. Ya got a pretty name, too?"
Replying quickly as lightning without actually doing too much thinking, Elizabeth mentally grasped onto the first three letters in her name. "Eli. Eli Holliday."
Jesse tilted back his head and laughed long and hard before swiping at his eyes. "Whew. Get it? Eli as in he lies."
She fisted her hands on her hips. "Hey!"
"Don't ever play poker, Holliday."
This time Luke moved in a flash, pulling off her Stetson.
Although Elizabeth gasped, she didn't move fast enough to keep her long auburn ponytail from falling over her shoulder down to her knees.
Luke snorted. "Come on, darlin'. You're not part of our plan. If you want to go around pretending to be a boy, you'd best smear mud on that lovely face and put gloves over those so-soft-they-have-never-worked-hands."
Oh no. Trapped in a stagecoach with two very large, very handsome and equaling intimidating men. She straightened her back and lowered her eyes. "What do you want?"
Jesse retrieved her hat from Luke, placed it back on her head, and asked, "Your name, angel?"
"Used to be Elizabeth Holliday, but I always wanted to be called Beth. That's not proper though, or so I've been told over and again until I simply want to shriek!"
Jesse smiled at her. "Proper or not, and we definitely didn't have you figured into the plan, I suppose it is my pleasure to meet you, Beth."
Luke narrowed bright green eyes on her. "Who says Beth is improper?"
Elizabeth stuffed her hair back under her hat before grumping, "I thought the Code of the West was to mind your own business?"
Luke nodded once curtly. "If ya got something to hide."
She huffed once. "Doesn't matter. I don't care what anyone thinks. Miss Elizabeth Holliday, the woman I was is dead and gone. Fresh start time."
Jesse settled back in his seat, but stroked one long finger over one of his ebony brows. "Hmm. Folks can hand out ugly labels, that's for sure, like half-breed. What people think doesn't matter, Miss Beth Holliday. But the only true way for one's old self to die and start afresh is by asking Jesus Christ into your heart."
Elizabeth glanced at him, impaled by deep dark brownish-black eyes that seemed to be trying to look into her soul. He was handsome and, despite his very large frame, seemed to study her with a great gentleness.
Very quietly, emanating kindness, Luke stated, "Only God has the right to judge you. With Jesus guiding ya, your life falls in line with God's will and His plan for your life. He loves ya so much, God knew your name when you were in your momma's womb and had a plan for your life."
"What are you? Preachers?"
"No," Jesse stated.
"Nah," Luke agreed with a chuckle.
"What then?" When neither one spoke up though, she rolled her eyes. "Code of the West? Are you gentlemen hiding something?"
Jesse leaned over and nudged Luke. "Maybe we'd better mark this date on the calendar, being called gentlemen and all." Then he swung his attention back to Elizabeth. "We're Christians, lady, with Christ's Code."
Luke shrugged. "As for hiding something, we're only human but we're doing our best." He glanced back at Jesse. "And we'd best be doin' some prayin' now, to figure out what to do about her."
If possible, Elizabeth bristled even more. "You don't need to do anything about me. Whatever the plan is that you've eluded to more than once, the big picture is that it doesn't include me in any way."
Well all she got in response were two male snorts of disbelief before both of the vastly different looking men shut their eyes. Were they actually praying? They rode in silence for several miles, so Elizabeth finally grew bored.
She scooted over to raise one blind and stare out the open carriage window. The setting sun glowed like a huge crimson fireball over the edge of the desert.
"Whoa, Beth," Luke rushed as he lowered the shade. "Careful."
"Careful of what?" she demanded.
Jesse slightly lifted the shade beside him and pointed from her to the outdoors. "See that twilight rolling in?"
He shot her a lopsided grin. "So, by the time the first star twinkles, miles before we arrive at the stage's last stop, your life will have changed forever." Then he jerked the window blind closed and stared at her as if waiting for a response.
"What do you mean by that?" They might prick her temper, intrigue her, but she had wanted to believe they were indeed good Christian men with high moral standards. At Jesse's comment, however, gooseflesh rose over both her arms.
"Easy, Miss Holliday," Luke soothed like he was calming a spooked horse. "Let's just say that obviously God has placed ya in the big picture with us. You're a part of God's plan for one of us when everything starts going down. I know you just met us, don't know us from Adam, but I'm afraid we're gonna have to ask ya to choose."
Elizabeth didn't like the way this was sounding at all. In fact, she flung open the blind again and jumped toward the window.
Jesse caught her around the waist, pulling her back inside the stagecoach. "No need to be afraid. No need to hurt yourself. Neither of us intends you any harm, Beth. We may not be the sort of gentleman you're used to, but we are good Christian men. That might be a little tough to reconcile with what's going to happen in a few minutes, but know it as a fact before it starts."
"Before what starts?" she whispered.
Off in the distance, one, two, three, four, five gunshots sounded over the rattling thunks of the wooden coach wheels. The stagecoach driver shouted, "Outlaws!"
"What!" Elizabeth nearly screamed as she yanked open the shade once again.
Luke yanked it closed just as quickly. "No time to explain, Beth. In the battle of good and evil, no matter what you may come to believe, we're each on the good side, battling evil, doing God's will as He guides us. Now which of us do ya want to ride away with? Jesse or me? You'll be safe either way, but ya need to choose right now."
The stagecoach careened around a corner, tossing her onto the floor, as three more shots rang out much closer than last time.
"Neither," she spat. "I look male. And I can protect myself."
"Oh, brother," Jesse grumbled.
She clapped her hands together, excited as the possibility occurred to her. "Yes! Your brother. I'll be your brother."
"Oh, Lord, give us the strength to do Your will," exclaimed Luke. He pointed one long finger at her. "Whatever your beliefs, you'd best say a prayer and ask God which one of us to leave with."
Up top of the stage, a shotgun barked an answer to the outlaws. "They're almost upon us!" hollered the driver. "Be ready to defend yourself."
Although she had visited church off and on throughout her life, all the hypocrites in society had turned off Elizabeth. . . . And in light of what had happened to her in the last month, she wondered how, if Jesus was real, had He allowed such disaster to strike her down? Just the same, she uttered, "If You are real, God, then please tell me which man to choose."
Another gunshot rent the air, right outside the window, and the stagecoach driver yelped. Then he hollered, "Whoa, whoa," and the horses slowed to a stop.
Panicky, she glanced toward the men sharing the coach. Elizabeth gasped, "Oh my."
Luke looped the rope once more around Jesse's wrists, knotting it tightly.
The stagecoach door banged opened suddenly and a man with a red bandana covering all but his blue eyes stepped inside. He nodded at Jesse then pointed a gun toward Luke until the metal snout opened his vest to reveal a shiny tin star. "Marshal Stone, wise of you not to start shooting. We've come for Jesse. The boss says he's our best gunslinger. There's no reason to get yourself killed, if you just hand him over nice and easy."
Marshal Luke Stone? Elizabeth shook her head slightly, having seen the badge with her own eyes. Then she glanced at Jesse. "Gunslinger?" she hadn't meant to ask aloud.
The stranger with the gun hadn't even really glanced her way, but he laughed. "Yeah. Jesse Coleman is an infamous outlaw in these parts." Suddenly though, the intruder turned blue eyes on her. "Well, well, well. What do we have here? Hey, boys," he hollered out to his gang. "You'll never guess what I found."
Elizabeth darted one look apiece at Luke and then Jesse. Both men stared at her intently, clearly waiting for her to make her choice known to them. Time for a decision before the situation blew ever more out of control, before an outlaw gang ravished her. Something about this scene was definitely not what it appeared.
The stranger leered at her and she swallowed hard. Stale whiskey breath hit her in the face as he whispered, "Which one of them do you belong to, beauty? The outlaw or the marshal?"
"Uh, I don't actually belong to-"
"Me," Jesse interrupted.
"Me," Luke inserted at the same time.
God, please help me, she prayed in silent desperation. Something nudged Elizabeth, inside her heart and then her head.
In the next instant, the stagecoach robber nudged her shoulder. "Or do you belong to the Dee Gang now? Which is it?" He whipped out a knife and slashed open the ropes binding Jesse's wrists together.
Which man should she choose? Choose now or be violated by the Dee Gang? Both men had said they were Christians, acting with high moral conduct. Both had basically told her things were not as they were about to appear, but she would be safe whichever man she decided to ride away with.
Although different in looks as day and night, both were extremely handsome. Who should she choose, the marshal or the outlaw? The supposed outlaw, she amended to herself. Jesse Coleman? Or Marshal Luke Stone?
Twilight Rolling In:
Decision time - choose who to ride away with
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