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The crowd roared, and a fresh wave of panic washed over Lindsay. Unable to catch a glimpse of her pet through the dense mob, she had no idea what the crowd was shouting at, but she feared Bruno, Judge Roy Bean’s captive bear, was mauling Minnie, her beloved puppy, and the mob was cheering on the bear with their drunken approval.
Vaulting from the mare’s back, Lindsay forgot about Bart in her frenzy to reach her dog. With tears clouding her vision, she rushed forward, cursing in French and slapping at the mass of men. She pushed to the front of the mob and stared… and smelled. The scent of rotting vegetation filled her nostrils, wafting from the moth-eaten brown bear, Bruno.
Bruno squatted on his haunches with his huge paws dangling in front of him. His pig-like snout drooped forward onto his massive chest, snuffling the air. Minnie ran circles around the bear, yelping at him. Bruno, half-drunk on beer, just watched the little dog with glazed eyes, shaking his head to clear away the buzz of flies.
Lindsay’s stomach roiled and bile filled her throat. Her initial terror melted away, to be replaced by embarrassment and dismay. Her dog didn’t appear to be in any immediate danger, but she certainly was making a spectacle of herself. She could imagine what her brother would say when he saw her pet’s antics.
Lulled by the bear's passivity, she broke away from the crowd, intent upon retrieving her pet.
But her sudden movement was a mistake.
Bruno came to life, rearing up. He swatted at her, his broken and dirty claws slicing through the air. Cringing and closing her eyes against the inevitable impact, she felt the breath leave her lungs as she was grabbed from behind and rolled to the ground. The onlookers jeered, making ribald suggestions.
The bear advanced, snapping the end of his chain taut. Minnie was unperturbed, sitting back on her haunches and posturing with her best begging stance.
Dirt scrapped against Lindsay’s back as she was hauled away from the bear’s reach. Dazed, she looked up to see Bart’s face, covered in perspiration, looming over her. Mortified, she pushed at his chest with the palms of her hands and struggled to rise, amidst more suggestive taunts from the crowd about newly-weds.
“Don’t struggle. Don’t give them a show.” His strong arms pinned her to the ground. “Are you all right, Lindsay?” he whispered and shook his head. “I mean the babe and all? If there had been any other way…”
She could only nod. It was a moment suspended in time. The nasty mob faded. Her senses centered on Bart. Their hearts pounded as one, curiously synchronized, and their breaths mingled, lightly caressing. The tensile strength of his arms, and the warmth of his embrace enfolded her.
She melted against him, pliant to his touch, blood surging through her veins.
“Minnie’s fine, but we'll need the Judge to get her away from Bruno. Do you understand?” he asked.
She heard his words as if from far away, they tumbled through her mind but failed to make an impression. Her body’s reaction to him filled her senses.
Bart’s light-blue eyes drilled into hers. He shook her and repeated, “Lindsay, do you understand me?”
The urgency in his voice finally penetrated to her. The low murmur of the mob swelled into a roar. Turning her head from Bart’s disturbing gaze, the world above her took on a razor-sharp clarity. She nodded.
He exhaled. “Good.”
He released her and rolled to one side and then got to his feet. The hot July air felt suddenly cold on her skin without Bart’s body covering her.
Leaning down, he grabbed her hands and pulled her to her feet, announcing, “Show’s over, folks. Where’s Judge Bean?”