The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 4)
The ride back to her place seemed to take forever. It didn't help that she was tired right down to her bones. Every step the mare took sent a jolt of pain shooting straight up Sadie's spine to rattle around in her head like shards of broken glass. Maybe it was because of how little sleep she'd gotten the night before. More likely it was due to the multiple shocks she'd had over the past twenty-four hours, not the least of which was the fact that she'd evidently buried Elliott Jones alive.
She knew for a fact that one bullet had blown a huge hole in Elliott's chest and another had done serious damage to his upper thigh. She hadn't checked the current status on that one, but the wound in his chest had somehow healed up in less than twenty-four hours. She would have thought she'd been mistaken about his injuries, but the dried blood and holes in his shirt and pants said otherwise.
The pastor in town might call his recovery some kind of miracle. Maybe it was. Regardless of the explanation, the whole idea left her feeling light-headed and queasy.
All she knew for sure was that if she didn't get home soon, she might just keel over and fall out of the saddle for the second time that morning. Considering Elliott hadn't once glanced back in her direction since they'd ridden out, it was doubtful he would be there to break her fall this time.
As they approached a small rise in the road, she urged the mare into a faster trot to catch up with him. "Just past the crest of that hill is the turn off to my place. There's a road that leads to the house a little farther on, but we can cut across country and save time. The house is about a half a mile west of here.
Elliott nodded and kept riding but finally spoke as they left the main road behind. "Anyone else live with you?"
It hadn't occurred to her that she was taking a total stranger home with her, a man she knew nothing about. Well, other than he hasn't hesitated to put himself in grave danger to save her life, a woman he'd never seen before. For that alone, she owed him the benefit of the doubt.
"I had a farmhand working for me, but he up and quit a couple of days ago with no explanation."
She frowned. "Looking back, I have to wonder if the same men who came after me threatened him, too."
"Wouldn't he have said something?"
"Depends on what they threatened him with. He'd only been working for me for a few weeks, and he made it clear when he started that he wasn't planning on sticking around for long. Maybe it was just time for him to move on."
Her companion looked doubtful. "The timing seems too convenient. Which reminds me, you never did tell me what those bastards were after."
She'd wondered when he'd get around to asking about that. "I don't know if you know much about mining, but there are some good-sized lead deposits in the area. I was raised by my grandparents after my folks died. One of Grandpa's old friends, a man named Mick Boxer, owned a small mine near here. I hadn't talked to Mick since Grandpa passed away, so I had no idea he'd left me the mine in his will."
The trail narrowed enough that she had to drop back behind Elliott for a short distance. When it widened out again, he picked up where they'd left off. "Is the mine worth a lot?"
"I have no idea. The reason I went into town was to talk to the lawyer who had contacted me about Mick's will and to sign off on transferring the deed to my name. He gave me the name of the man who managed the mine for Mick. Meeting with him would have been my next stop."
"Did the lawyer say anything else?"
Might as well share it all. "Just that someone had tried to buy the mine recently, but Mick wasn't interested. Evidently the discussion got pretty hot. I don't know why Mick didn't take the offer. As I said, I haven't seen Mick in a while, but even a couple of years ago his rheumatism was getting pretty bad. I can't imagine that he was up to working in the mine anymore."
Elliott's expression looked even more grim. "I have one more question for you. How did Mick die? Was there anything suspicious about his death?"
Her heart lurched in her chest. "They said that most likely something had spooked his horse and it threw him. There weren't any witnesses, but a stagecoach driver found the horse standing in the middle of the road right next to Mick's body. The driver marked the spot and then brought both the body and the horse to the sheriff in town. He rode out to look around but didn't see anything suspicious."
But in light of everything else that had happened, she was very much afraid it was all connected. She swallowed hard and forced herself to ask, "You think he was murdered, don't you?"
One look at Elliott, and she knew she wished she'd kept her mouth shut.
Damn, he didn't want to scare Sadie any more than she already was, but there was no use in sugarcoating the situation. Besides, she'd already shown more gumption that most men he knew. She could handle the truth.
"I'm guessing it's all related. I'll be real interested in meeting the man who made the offer for the mine."
Clearly that wasn't what she'd wanted to hear, because her faced turned even more pale, a reminder that she'd been through a lot since their paths had first crossed. They both needed a hot meal and some sleep. Tomorrow would be soon enough to resume the hunt for the culprit behind all of this.
She looked past him and immediately perked up some. "There's the house. If you'll take care of the horses, I'll get started on the flapjacks. While we eat, I'll put on some water to heat up so you can clean up afterward. I'm guessing you'd like to get shed of those dirty clothes and then get some sleep."
True enough, but not for the reason she meant. Over the years, he'd grown used to wearing blood-soaked clothes for days at a time when the fighting got bad down in the caves. But right now, he'd like to strip both himself and Sadie down to the skin and spend the afternoon giving her something else to think about other than death and danger.
He smiled at her. "I would like that."
Maybe she picked up some of what he was really thinking, because her cheeks flushed rosy as she quickly changed the subject. "Would you like some eggs and bacon, too?"
Coming back to life always left him ravenous, but he wasn't about to tell her that. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble."
By that point, they'd almost reached their destination. He studied Sadie's home, wanting to familiarize himself with the layout before dismounting. The house was two stories, and it looked like it had windows on at least three sides. He was willing to guess there were more in back. Like the house, the barn was solidly built. He'd need to check them both out more thoroughly, but for now it was time to get Sadie inside and out of sight.
Chances were the man who'd sent the riders after her was having to regroup. However, if he'd hired the kind of men who'd be willing to kill an innocent woman, he wouldn't hesitate to do so again.
He swung down out of the saddle and took the reins to Sadie's horse. "You'd best go on in the house and stay there. I'll be in as soon as I take care of the horses."
She'd been heading for the porch but spun back to face him. "You think we're still in danger."
It wasn't really a question, but he answered anyway. "I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I wouldn't stake my life or yours on that being the case."
Her shoulders slumped in defeat, but then they straightened right back up. "They'll be in for a fight."
God, he liked this woman. Pretty and feisty was a hell of a combination. "That they will, Sadie."
"Maybe the sheriff will have found out who was behind this when he gets here."
"Don't forget that he sent for my friend, too. Between the two of us, we'll make the bastard sorry he ever came after you."
She closed the distance between them and stared up into his eyes with fierce determination. "Don't you mean between the three of us? Because I'm telling you right now, I'm not the kind to let others do my fighting for me."
Well, hell. What could he say to that? Not a damn thing, so he did the one thing he could do. He kissed her.