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The Rancher's Virgin Acquisition

By:Lynda Chance
Chapter One

Luke Butler walked out of the General Store and looked at the sun already beginning to lower in the western sky. He knew if he was going to get back to the ranch before nightfall, he needed to get a move on.

He strode to his wagon and began adding the provisions he had just purchased to the ones already taking up space in the conveyance.

The trip into the small town of Burnet, Colorado was a monthly chore that had to be done. As much as he wanted to be self-sufficient on his ranch, there were some comforts the town offered that he continued to take advantage of: coffee, tobacco, and women, to name a few.

He'd been here for a full day and night and was itching to get back home. He'd had his more personal needs attended to by one of the saloon girls the evening before, his banking business had been taken care of this morning, and the supplies he needed as well as what his housekeeper had requested were loaded and packed.

Glancing up at the sky once again, he didn't expect rain but didn't want to take any chances. He was standing at the back of the wagon covering it with canvas with sure, quick movements when the sheriff approached him. Luke had lived in this part of Colorado most of his life; he knew the townspeople by sight, even if he hadn't spoken to them. Sheriff Reed Elgin he knew better than most and respected more than anyone else in town for his no-nonsense, tough as nails, yet honest approach.

"The stagecoach is late," the lawman said without preamble as he came to a halt next to the wagon.

Luke finished securing the strap, shoved his hat up and narrowed his eyes at the man in front of him as he zeroed in on the heart of the matter. "How late?"

"Late. Four, five hours." The other man's voice was harsh; Luke could hear the worry bleeding through his tone.

"Any reason to think it couldn't be routine trouble? Broken wheel? Bad axle?" Luke searched for another reason the stage could be late before allowing his mind to settle on what the sheriff probably had already figured out for himself.

The other man glanced up and down the dusty street and stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head and a frown blackening his already dark countenance. "I got a gut feeling, Luke. A bad one."

"You already check to see if it left on time?" Luke asked.

"Yeah, the telegram said it was on schedule. Even with a busted wheel or some such, it should be here by now."

Luke studied the man who had turned back from perusing the street and was now facing him fully. Irritation trickled down his spine as he realized the stagecoach delay would cost him. Letting go of the idea of getting home before nightfall, he turned his attention to the innocent people on the stage who were being more inconvenienced than he was. If they were even still alive.

Lifting himself away from the buckboard and standing to his full height, he sucked in a breath and asked the question any decent man would. "You need my help?"

"I'd appreciate it. I need to spend what's left of the daylight I got rounding up some men to take with me come morning. I'll be heading out at first light with fresh horses and a new day to track the men that did this."

Luke appraised the other man steadily. "You need me for the posse?"

"I need you more tonight. If you'd head back to your ranch along the stage route until the fork at Silver Creek, that'd help. If there was an ambush, that's the probable place. It's a detour that'll cost you some time, but it'd make me feel better if we found any survivors tonight."

Luke nodded his head in agreement, his mind already going to the problem at hand. "And if I find foul play or run into trouble?"

"Shoot first and ask questions later," the other man responded in all seriousness.

Luke swung up into the buckboard. "If I come across any survivors I'll put 'em up for the night and send one of my men to see you come sunrise."

The sheriff gave Luke a grim look. "Chances of anybody being left alive are slim."

Luke's muscles drew up tight as he acknowledged the truth in the other man's words. "You change your mind and decide you need me to come with you in the morning, you know where to find me."

Emma Martin lay huddled in a small ravine beneath a rock outcropping with a rifle she didn't know how to use cradled in fingers that had gone numb long ago. Every few minutes she set the weapon aside just long enough to stretch her fingers and to keep the blood flowing.

She was cold from what she recognized as shock, her body ached as never before and although she refused to dwell on it, she was scared to death.

The sun had been a fiery ball of orange as it sank below the horizon some five minutes before. Now all that was left of the day was a vivid splash of purple and orange lining the clouds in the western sky.

Had she ever watched the sunset from beginning to end? It was supposed to be a pleasant experience. Any other time it would have been a beautiful sight. But now the looming dark was just one more thing for her to fear. Now when she needed the sun, needed the daylight, seeing how quickly that burning circle had fallen over the horizon was an added trauma to her already lacerated emotions.

It would be full-on dark soon, with only a crescent moon to light the dark night.

She studied the stagecoach standing still and straight in the middle of the rutted path, its door listing open. And then her eyes tracked slowly back and forth, from the west toward the town they had been headed to, and then toward the south where the two men who had murdered the stagecoach driver had disappeared.

How long before help would come? She'd been the only passenger after the last two people had departed at the previous stop.

Now she was all alone in the middle of nowhere.

Her injured leg pained her, the chill of the night was setting in, and the lifeless body of the driver was a sad and constant reminder of the destruction she had witnessed and the dire circumstance she was in.

It had taken awhile for her to conquer her fear that the outlaws would come back and to climb down from the coach by herself without any steps to aid the process. By the time she'd managed to check to see if she could help the poor driver, his body was already turning cold. She'd shut her eyes and said a quick prayer for his soul as she pried the rifle from cold, clammy fingers already turning stiff in death.

She'd had to get away from the stage because she hadn't felt safe in the enclosed area. Anyone could have found her there and she would have made for an easy target. The thieves could come back. Any lawless person could trap her there and she'd have no protection.

She'd felt open and exposed inside the stage, even though rationally, she knew it would have protected her from the elements more than being outside in the open.

But she'd felt closed-in, trapped. So she'd taken the rifle, moved away from the site, and found the outcropping of rock that gave her a modicum of camouflage and shelter. It was the best she could do for now.

She needed to be able to stand up and run if she had to, even while she knew she'd never be able to get anywhere quickly with her damaged leg.

The injury she'd lived with for ten years was being felt in a new way today. Before it had always been a nuisance, an irritant that she carried with her. The limp she suffered slowed her down somewhat, and she had to suffer the looks of pity she saw on the faces of strangers.

But today it was more than an inconvenience. Today it was stopping her from having the choice of walking out of here. It was reminding her she couldn't run if she needed to, and she couldn't begin to think about burying the body of the innocent man who had been gunned down.

The ache in her leg was a reminder of her limitations. As much as she tried to deny it, as much as she tried to ignore it, it was now glaringly obvious she was hampered in a way another woman of her age wouldn't be.

But there was no use dwelling on what she couldn't change.

She had other things to focus on. Although she was terrified those men would change their minds about killing her and come back to finish the job, she had to push that thought from her mind because there were more immediate needs that concerned her.

She would need water soon; she'd already seen a rattlesnake and now that night was falling, she could hear the coyotes in the distance. The howling of coyotes was altogether different when you were outside alone at night as opposed to being inside a snug house with a roaring fire.

She briefly closed her eyes and let the soothing image of a house with a chimney and comfortable furniture calm her frayed nerves.

Would she ever have such a comfort in her life again?

Her eyes snapped open when the sound of the coyotes edged closer.

As much as she hated to give into it, she'd have to get back in the stage and wait through the night. She couldn't spend the dark hours of the night out in the open, with no form of shelter. The situation was too dangerous. Already she was afraid she wouldn't be able to climb back up.

She was about to begin the arduous task of picking herself up off the ground when she heard a different noise in the distance. The biting wind blew the sound in from the west or possibly the south, and fear churned an ugly knot in her belly and rose up in her throat.

She hunkered down as far as she could manage and held the rifle as steady as she possibly could. Sharp rock fragments bit into her knees and thighs as she lay on her stomach and balanced herself on her elbows.

She peeped over the top of the boulder and watched as a buckboard with a single male occupant come to a halt a good distance back. The light was fading fast and he was too far away for her to see him properly. She held herself completely still as he seemed to survey the scene.