The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 1)
Elliott Jones was in no mood to die. But all things considered, the odds of him making it through the next ten minutes alive were piss poor at best. That didn't mean he was going down without a fight. He glanced at the woman beside him and fought the urge to curse loud and long. If he died, chances were he'd come back from it. The same couldn't be said for the lady, which meant getting her the hell out of there took priority over keeping himself alive.
Meanwhile, he held the enemy at bay for a few seconds longer with his rifle while she finished reloading his revolvers. Her hands shook like aspen leaves, but she still got the job done.
After shoving the last bullet in the chamber, she set the gun within easy reach for him. "That's the last of the ammunition for the Colts. There are five cartridges left for each of our rifles."
He was impressed by how calm she sounded, especially considering that meant they had fewer than twenty shots left between them. They both knew the six men that had them pinned down were only waiting for them to run out of ammunition before making another charge. He'd be waiting for them, sword in hand, but even the best of blades didn't offer much in the way of protection from a barrage of bullets.
Maybe it was time for some introductions and maybe an explanation or two. "By the way, my name is Elliott Jones. I'm sorry for not introducing myself sooner, and I wish we were meeting under happier circumstances."
The woman managed a small smile. "Sadie Benton, Mr. Jones. I'm right sorry that you've gotten caught up in my problems. You might have lived longer if you'd kept right on riding instead of trying to help me."
Several shots rang out as if to prove her point. It was tempting to return fire immediately, but he couldn't afford to waste any of their limited ammunition until he had a clear target. He traced the drifting gun smoke back to its origin before pulling the trigger. He grinned when a yelp of pain echoed across the clearing. It was impossible to know how badly he'd injured the shooter, but at least he'd made sure they'd be more cautious in the future.
"Why were they after you?"
Her smile evaporated. "I have something their boss wants. I went to town to talk to my lawyer. They must have been waiting for me when I left for home. I live south of the crossroads that's about a mile west of here."
That wasn't much in the way of an answer. What could she have that was worth killing her for? Before he could demand more information, a movement at the edge of the trees caught his attention. Someone had just gotten careless. Elliott took careful aim and pulled the trigger when the man moved again. A scream of pain and the sound of thrashing in the undergrowth made him smile. One bullet, one more man down.
Sadie had ducked down closer to the ground when the firing started, but she slowly rose higher to peek over the cluster of boulders where they'd taken cover. The rocks formed a rough circle, one just big enough to hide the two of them and Elliott's mare. The high cliff behind them meant that their attackers would have to ride a long way to come up behind them.
Of course, when that happened-and it would-he and Sadie would be easy pickings. He had to get her the hell out of there while there was time. Her horse had taken off running once the bullets started flying, which meant Sadie would have to take his mare. He briefly considered riding double but rejected that idea. His horse would give it her best, but she couldn't carry both of them nearly fast enough or far enough with the extra weight.
Another one of the enemy showed himself long enough for Elliott to teach him a lesson. "I counted six of them. Does that sound about right?"
Sadie nodded, her blue eyes darkening in anger. "That's all I saw. I had stopped to water my horse when I saw them coming. When they started firing, my gelding spooked and kept rearing up. Since I couldn't get back up in the saddle, I grabbed my rifle and saddlebags and then ran for cover."
That was right about the time Elliott crested the hill a short distance from where they were pinned down now. He'd been coming from the opposite direction, heading south toward the Paladin headquarters down near the boot heel in Missouri. All it had taken was one look at a woman running on foot from a pack of armed killers to know which side of this particular fight he needed to weigh in on. No matter what she'd done, she didn't deserve to be hunted down like that.
He'd urged the mare into a full out run straight toward her, firing a few shots at the other riders along the way. They'd slowed up as soon as the man in the lead took a shot in the shoulder, giving Elliott time to scoop the woman up off the ground before veering back the way he'd come.
With the gang riding hard straight for them, he'd had no choice but to take cover. The town where he'd spent the night was too far away for them to reach safely. The next one was closer, but they would have to break through the line of shooters first. That made it unlikely either one of them would live long enough to get there.
But she might make it clear if he laid down a line of fire while she and the mare rode like hell for the road. Sadie had shown a lot of gumption, and he had a feeling she'd fight him if he ordered her to leave him behind.
Still scanning the woods across the clearing for any more sign of movement, he told her, "The longer we stay here, the more likely we'll both die. My mare is still pretty fresh. I want you to get ready to mount up and ride like hell."
Sadie was already shaking her head. "I can't leave you here to face them alone. They're after me, not you. Maybe you can make it to town and bring the sheriff back."
Elliott grabbed her arm and forced her to look at him. "No matter what happens, I'll be fine. You go and ride straight to the nearest lawman. Don't stop and don't look back. Got that?"
She wasn't done arguing. "But they'll kill you and come looking for me again."
They didn't have time for this. "Damn it, woman, don't argue."
Her eyes shimmered with tears. "Elliott, I don't want you to die because of me."
He couldn't tell her how many times he'd already died or that this time might be the only time his sacrifice might actually make a real difference. Since he couldn't tell her the truth about who and what he was, he wrapped his hand around the back of her neck and pulled her closer, trying to make sure she listened. "When I get clear of this, I'll come find you. Then we'll do whatever it takes to put a stop to this. I promise."
It was hard telling which one of them was more surprised when he gave into the temptation to kiss her long and hard. He halfway expected her to slap him for taking such a liberty, but she didn't. When he finally released her, they were both wide-eyed and breathing hard. He softened his final order for her with a rueful smile. "I wish we had time to do that again, but we don't. Now please go while you have a fighting chance of getting away."
When she finally nodded, he gave her one last order. "Wait until I shoot again and then run for the horse. I'll do my best to make sure none of them are in any shape to come after you."
Sadie turned away and inched farther from him, moving toward the mare. When he shot three times in rapid succession, she was off and running. It took her two tries to haul herself up in the saddle. She had the mare at a full gallop within seconds.
The enemy saw their prey making a break for it. Two of them broke free of the far edge of trees intending to head her off. They probably thought they were out of range, but Elliott proved them wrong. He had a real talent when it came to blades, but he'd had plenty of practice with firearms, too.
By his count, at least four of the men were either wounded or dead, which left two for him to deal with. Evidently, they were smarter than their companions, though. While he was watching the woods for some sign of them, they'd somehow worked their way around behind him. The first shot tore into his thigh, the second ricocheted off the rock in front of him, showering him with splinters of rock.
He ignored both the trickle of blood on his cheek and the more substantial flow from the leg wound. There was no use in worrying about either of them until he was out of danger. He used up two more bullets trying to take out the closest shooter. It took two more shots to make sure the bastard wouldn't be coming after Elliott again anytime soon.
That left just one more to contend with. When a heavy silence settled over the clearing, he had to wonder if he wasn't the only one running low on ammunition. A few seconds later, he caught a blur of movement off to his left, too late to do anything but curse when the man's rifle spit fire. The bullet hit Elliott's chest like a sledgehammer. His lungs were working like a bellows trying to draw in enough air to keep him alive.
He was fighting a losing battle just to breathe, but he found enough energy to grip his revolver one last time as he struggled to bring the man who'd just killed him into clear focus. He remained still, hoping his heart would keep pumping long enough for the idiot to give Elliott one clear shot at sending him straight to hell before he bled out himself.
The gun wobbled a bit when he brought it up to fire, but he took pleasure in the seeing the spray of blood bursting from the center of the man's chest. There was a look of surprise on the shooter's face as he stumbled backward to hit the ground, already dead or at least dying.
Elliott smiled through his own pain. "Sadie, you're safe for now."
His day's work done, he stared up at the blue sky until everything turned black and all sensation ceased.
Each minute that carried Sadie farther away from Elliott Jones was pure agony. When the shooting started up, she reined in the mare and stopped to listen. The gunfire came in a series of furious short bursts, which was followed by a terrifying silence.
Even though she'd promised to ride hard for the nearest lawman, she turned back. What if Elliott was hurt and bleeding? If she waited until she could track down the sheriff, her savior might very well be dead.
At the first sign of trouble, though, she'd hightail right back toward town to fetch help. But all was quiet. Too quiet.
When she reached the edge of the clearing, she dismounted. There was one man dead just inside the trees. Another a short distance farther in. She could see a pair of legs in the deep shadows off to her left. That accounted for three of the riders who'd come after her. She found another one, his eyes dull and his body twisted and broken from where his horse had thrown him.
The final two were near the boulders where she and Elliott had taken cover. She was only dimly aware of the tears burning their way down her face when she finally found him. Odd that, unlike the others, he looked strangely at peace as his dead eyes stared up at the Missouri sky.
It would likely be tomorrow sometime before she made it back with the sheriff, which meant there was only one thing she could do for Elliott before she finally did as he asked and rode to town. The scavengers would be moving in soon. She didn't have time or the energy to bury all the dead, but she wouldn't let the coyotes and vultures have at Elliott.
Without a shovel to dig a grave or a wagon to carry his body, she did the only thing she could do. She laid him on the blanket from his bedroll and covered his body in a thick layer of rocks.
When she was done, she ached from head to toe with exhaustion and grief for the man she'd known for such a short time.
"Elliott, I promise I'll make sure you get a proper burial and do my best to track down your next of kin to let them know what happened."
Then she said a short prayer for his immortal soul and rode out for the second time that day.