CHAPTER ONE

ARIZONA, 1881

The pale shadows of the Dome Valley took refuge under low-lying creosote bushes, palo verde trees, to any place offering shelter. Above, the Sonoran sun crawled to a standstill in the center of the sky. In late summer, it was not concerned with its inevitable terminus at the westward horizon. Instead it lingered at its apex, meticulously surveying its kingdom under a burning eye. Even the towering saguaros, husks already withered from dehydration, conceded defeat to the blazing star, their statuesque arms raised in perpetual surrender.

In the sleepy town of Westland, the unfortunate residents whose chores forced them into the noonday heat hid beneath broad-rimmed hats and bonnets, darting to shade at every opportunity. A sickly collie pushed its nose across Main Street, black-speckled tongue dragging in the dirt. It paused halfway across and perked up its floppy ears.

A faint rumbling rose from the earth. From the outskirts of town, a team of six dark horses thundered up the main road. Behind, a faded green stagecoach with red wheels bounced along wildly. Patchy gold lettering labeled the carriage "Desert Rose Stage." A trail of dust the length of a locomotive clung to the wagon's rear wheels, chasing it all the way to the station. The driver, face caked with dirt, pulled hard on the reins, screaming "Whooaaaa!" The few pedestrians in the open hurriedly parted, giving the coach a wide berth.

The standardbreds obediently slowed, spitting foam from their mouths between the bits. Splotches of dirt clung stubbornly to their sweat-glistened coats. Their black manes were as wildly windblown as the driver's hair, who had long ago lost his hat to the swirling gusts of air. He spit a glop of mud from his mouth as the coach rolled to a stop beside the way station. Before the carriage could settle back into its thoroughbraces, the grizzled driver had already hopped from his box and grabbed the door handle. Glaring at him from the window, outlined by a spider web of cracks, was a bullet hole. The man swallowed hard, and opened the door.

From within the cab, a terrified woman emerged in a yellow sun dress. The coach heaved, and seemed to spit out its passengers one at a time. The old driver, known as Charlie, extended a hand and helped her down, followed by her young daughter and wide-eyed husband. They all scurried into the station, leaving their luggage to the approaching porter. The mother was wiping tears from her eyes.

As the dust settled, the carriage bobbed once more as a pair of broad shoulders squeezed through the narrow opening. Their owner donned a coffee-colored Stetson, curled on the sides. Light blue eyes, almost gray, shined from underneath the brim. Below them, strands of silver bristled among an otherwise black mustache, which hung neatly over the edges of a smiling mouth.

The man beamed to Charlie as he hopped to the ground. "Helluva ride, wadn't it?" he bellowed exuberantly, clapping a hand on the driver's shoulder.

Charlie averted his eyes to his boots and wrung his hands nervously. "It was, at that, I suppose." He desperately needed a drink.

At the boot of the coach, the porter struggled with the family's vast array of luggage. Hoisting himself up with a boot wedged between the wheel spokes, Jessup Hunter reached above the young fellow and pulled down his own pack and saddlebag from the roof with his right hand. As he did so, a leather holster peeked from the hem of his gray coat. Back on the ground a moment later, he flung the saddlebag over his left shoulder and hefted his pack in his hand. From within his jacket's breast pocket, Jessup retrieved a silver eagle coin and flicked it at Charlie, whose face lit up. "Sorry about the window, pardner. Come find me at the saloon, and I'll wet your whistle." With a respectful nod, he disappeared into the station.

Charlie waited till he was out of sight, then ran for the sheriff.