A Fortune for the Outlaw's Daughter(5)

By: Lauri Robinson



 Cole couldn’t say she was lying, and he couldn’t blame her for being evasive. She wasn’t the first girl he’d been assigned to collect from Hester. She was the last, though. He’d helped with several escapes and liked the adventure of it, but Ridge had caught sight of him last year, and that could jeopardize future rescues. The loss of this woman would bother the outlaw. Her black hair and mature figure, which Cole had tried to ignore since pulling her up behind the saddle, would bring a high price. That was what Ridge counted on. The lovelier, the more expensive.

 It was a good thing this would be the last trip for the Mary Jane this far south for a while. Ridge had too many eyes on the shore to not put two and two together.

 “How old are you?” Cole asked.

 “Nineteen.”

 She was certainly older than the thirteen-and fourteen-year-old ones he was used to moving north, but he’d guess her no more than sixteen. “There’s no need to lie to me.”

 Pulling the corners of the blanket tighter beneath her chin, her blue eyes glistened as she snapped, “I’m not lying.”

 It didn’t matter one way or the other, and Cole decided to let it go. “What brought you to California?”

 “Gold.”

 She hadn’t hesitated in her answer, but it was the gleam that instantly appeared in her eyes that he recognized. Knew exactly what it was like. There wasn’t another word that affected him like that one did. Gold. Just thinking about it got his blood racing, his heart pounding. He had the fever. Caught it last year, but he didn’t let it rule him. Instead, he let it drive him. And it had. All winter. He was now set, had everything lined up, and before long he’d be gathering up more gold than most men only dreamed about. He knew where to find it. Maybe that was why he told her, “There’s no gold in California, darling.”

 “Yes, there is,” she argued.

 “None a man can freely claim.” He wasn’t trying to disillusion her. It was something he knew for a fact. The money being made in California was off the miners, not by mining. It was that way other places, too. He just knew where the odds were better.

 Her lips were pinched tight and her chin had jutted up a notch.

 “Alaska,” he said, thinking of his destination. “That’s where the gold is.”

 “That,” she said sternly, “is a wives’ tale. Alaska’s nothing but frozen tundra.”

 “Now, who told you that?”

 “No one in particular.”

 “Well, go right on believing that, darling. You and the rest of the world.” It would leave more for him to find. Tales of discovering gold in Alaska had spread along the coast for years, and prospectors made their way there only to return saying the same thing she did—mainly because they didn’t know where to look. He, on the other hand, did. Those thoughts had him slowing the speed of which he rowed. The Mary Jane had to be close, and in this fog he might row smack-dab into her side.

 “You’ve seen it?” she asked. “Alaska? Gold?”

 “Yes, darling, I’ve seen it.” Something blocked the wind, and he had no doubt it was Uncle Trig’s ship. Paddling slow until he could make out the ropes hanging down, he said, “We’re here.”

 The rowboat bumped the big hull of the Mary Jane. Cole caught a rope and pulled the little boat beneath the ladder. “You have to climb up first this time. But don’t fret, I’ll be right behind you.”

 There was caution in her eyes, but not fear, and he liked that. He’d had to carry more than one young girl up the rope ladder, which wasn’t easy. She tucked the blanket under the bench seat and carefully maneuvered to the ladder. He waited until she was well on her way to the top before he tied the side ropes to the rowboat so it could be lifted out of the water by the pulleys once he arrived on the deck of the big ship.

 Uncle Trig was at the top and two shipmates were already hoisting up the rowboat when Lucky climbed over the edge.

 “Everything go all right?” his uncle asked.

 “Yes,” Cole answered. “No problems at all.”

 “Did you see Jasmine?” Trig wanted to know.

 “Who do you think motioned me when the time was right?” Cole slapped his uncle on the shoulder. “She’s as lovely as ever.” Long ago Jasmine had been shanghaied from some foreign coastal town much like Ridge was doing to innocent girls, and though she was now the madam of a similar business, she believed girls should choose to work that profession, not be forced into it. Trig had once been a steady customer of Jasmine’s, and though Cole felt there was more—that his uncle had fallen in love with the woman—neither Jasmine nor Trig ever proclaimed anything but friendship. They were cohorts, though, in slipping girls out of town right under Ridge’s nose. Although neither of them would admit to that, either.

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