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Authors: DiAnn Mills

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BOOK: A Woman Called Sage
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But whatever Frank had seen and possibly done had scarred him. He returned home midway through the war and stayed long enough for Leah to get with child, but by the time John was born, Frank had left again to resume fighting. When the war ended, Frank came back with a bent toward drinking that grew steadily worse. He never stated what he saw or what he did. When he decided to move his family to Colorado territory, Parker came too. The war had destroyed much of the spirit of the Virginians, and he wanted to be a part of the countrys healing and growth. Lately, Frank, too, talked more about shaking the pasts hold. Maybe Parkers concern was for nothing. After all, Frank said he was trying.

Tomorrow was another day, and Parker needed some sleep. He blew out the lantern and crawled into bed.

When he thought about it, hed learned some memorable things from Franklike how to laugh when the road got rough. His brother loved music and could make a fiddle sing. And Frank loved Leah and their five sons. Seemed like that ought to be enough to make a man go straight, work his ranch, and provide for his family. John ran the ranch like a man and did a good job, but he needed his pa to show him how to be a man. All those boys needed that. Instead, Frank demonstrated how not to live. For the most part, Parker felt like hed become Franks daddy. Hard to love an older brother like a man should when he neglected his family.

Someone banged on the door.

Uncle Parker.

John?
Startled, Parker threw back the tattered quilt and grabbed his britches. Im coming. Is something wrong?

Yes, sir. Pas been shot. Johns voice cracked.

Parker flipped his suspenders over his shoulders and flung open the door. In the dark, all he could make out was the young mans figure. How bad, son?

John sucked in a breath, steadied himself. Hes dead. Shot in the chest. Somebody dumped him on our porch.

F
OUR

S
age rode through the sunbathed streets of Rocky Falls, leading Aidens horse. Not a soul was in sight, which caused her to ready her rifle and scrutinize rooftops and the corners of buildings. The journey down from the mountains, along the Fall River, through Estes Park, and southeast to Rocky Falls had taken three days of hard riding, and her body had long since stumbled into exhaustion. Sleep never came to her when she was bringing in a man. Shed rested at night while Aiden slept, but Aidens threats, like those of so many men before him, kept her awake with one hand wrapped around the barrel of her rifle and the other hand on her Colt. Once she turned him over to the custody of the local marshal, shed sleep for two days to recover.

Her fear of succumbing to the pressures of a weary body was her darkest foe, but it was during those sleepless nights that she allowed her mind to slip back to the days when she and Charles were first married, when she carried his child and the world looked sparkling and new. So often she imagined that other widows survived their bleak moments with the same golden memories.

Now, as they rode on through the middle of town, she lifted her face to the cloudless sky. The warmth and the dazzling afternoon sunlight were an indulgence after being drenched to the bone in the chilling summer rains. She could almost taste a decent mealone that promised more flavor than jerky.

Im thirsty, Aiden said.

My canteens empty, she said. You drank it all a few miles back. Ill get you water once youre behind bars.

For a bounty hunter, you take care of me real nice. Wont help though.

Sage ignored the greasy outlaw. After three days of his threats, she was good at it.

This is only the start of your troubles, he continued as she pulled the horses to a halt in front of the marshals office. You best be ready.

Sage had heard enough. Youre wrong, Aiden. This is the end for you, and now Im able to rid myself of your less-than-tolerable company.

He leaned on his saddle horn. Dont understand why a pretty gal like you would want to be a bounty hunter. You must have loved your no-account husband more than he was worth.

Sage bit her tongue. No point letting him get to her. With the mood she was in, he might not make it to jail without a few bullet holes. After shed left Tall Elk in the mountains not far from here, shed let it be known that she was after Charless killers. Aiden wasnt the first to needle her with such taunts.

You didnt even know his right name, he said. Unless he filled you in on the company he was keepin and how he kept money in his pocket.

She choked back another remark and more than a little emotion. This was new. How could Aiden know anything about Charles?

Cat got your tongue? The Ute blood flowing through your veins must run thin, or youd be carving out my heart.

Sage stroked Hawk to calm herself. Shed contemplate how much Aiden knew about Charles later. Still holding onto both horses reins, she dismounted. Relief eased her tired muscles, but not the headache wrapping its demons across the back of her skull. The first thing she intended to do after finding a place
to stay for a few days was to eat a hot meal and brew some of the willow bark in her saddlebag.

Aiden spit at her feet. I say, for an Injun, you aint got much of a fightin spirit.

I suggest you keep your remarks to yourself. With all the murdering you and your gang have done, someone might pull the trigger to save a judge the job of sentencing you to hang.

You aint gonna shoot me. You and the hawk bring your men in alive so you get all of the bounty.

Sage eyed him with more disgust than she normally revealed. Theres always a first time.

A note nailed to the marshals door caught her attention. Get down.

With his tied wrists, he swung his leg over the saddle and dismounted slowly, but he was still light on his feet, like a mountain catand just as deadly. Aiden snickered. Looks like he left you a love note.

She glared at him and gestured with her rifle at the steps leading to the boardwalk. He chuckled before sitting on the wooden planks. Most bounty hunters would have brought him in slung over his saddle instead of riding it. But she believed killing a wanted man for the bounty put her as low as the outlaws. With one eye on Aiden, she read the note.

Gone to a funeral. Be back midafternoon.
Marshal Parker Timmons

Judging from the location of the sun, theyd have about an hours wait. The marshals at a funeral, she said. I bet that puts him in a fine mood.

Hell be in a worse one soon enough. This towns about to make their undertaker a rich man.

Whys that? You still think your brothers are going to spring you?

Aidens face hardened. You and the people in this town are
going to regret ever being born. My brothers wont let anything stand in the way of getting me out of here.

Sage had read enough men to tell the difference between a liar and a man who bluffed to save his life. And she believed Aidens every word. Shed need to stay in Rocky Falls until things settled down. It wasnt what she wanted, but if trouble was riding on her heels, she planned to face it head-on. Since youre so free with your threats, why dont you fill me in on your brothers plans?

His raspy laugh could have been heard all over town. Come to think of it, the town was pretty empty. Whoever had died must have been an important personor well loved.

Now why would I want to tell you the plan? That would curdle the milk for sure. Its a surprise for you and the marshal.

Hawk must have sensed her apprehension because he ruffled his feathers. Easy, fella. Were all right. The proud bird slowly relaxed, but she knew hed tear into Aiden the moment she gave the word. Ive heard enough, Aiden. Hawk isnt as patient as I am.

He turned toward the mountains as though gauging when the rest of the gang would show up for his rescue. Perhaps she was simply too tired and weak to make sense of him.

Nearly an hour later, a tall man walked down the street and made his way toward her and Aiden. His confident stride and erect shoulders indicated he was a man of purpose, possibly the marshal. Others walked in pairs or threes to the various businessesa feed store, livery, a saloon and hotel above it, an undertaker, blacksmith, newspaper and telegraph, and general store. As the man walked closer, his marshals badge caught a sun ray. The shiny star caused acid to rise to the top of her throat. She swallowed hard. Lawmen. Most of them were arrogant and looked down on who she was and what she did. In her opinion, a bounty hunter made their job easier. Of course, some bounty hunters werent much better than the outlaws. So maybe those marshals had a right to their opinion. But that didnt mean she had to like them, especially the ones who were too frightened to go after killers themselves.

Are you Marshal Timmons? she said.

Yes, maam. How can I help you? His light blue gaze trailed to Hawk, then to Aiden McCaw, still sitting on the boardwalk. His face hardened. You must be Sage Morrow. Sorry I wasnt here. Ive been to a funeral.

Did he think she couldnt read? I saw the note. She stuck out her hand.

He shook it, his grip firm and strong. Parker Timmons. Not a smile creased his face. I see you have Aiden McCaw. Appreciate you bringing him in. Folks here are real upset with the killings. He studied Aiden. Hatred, like shafts of fire, emanated from his eyes.

I understand. Thats his horse. She pointed to the office door, where shed propped his rifle and pistol. Those are his guns.

Parker nodded. Lets get him inside. Did he give you much trouble?

Not much. Did Timmons think shed own up to fearing a wanted man? Truth was, she was afraid of every one of them, but shed made a vow the day she buried Charles. You might want to keep your eyes open while hes a guest here. Hes made lots of threats about his gang springing him.

Im a little shorthanded right now. But Ill make do until his trial. He could have been bluffing.

Maybe. Dont you have a deputy?

I did. Lines raked across his forehead. We just buried him.

This town had been hit hard. Im sorry to hear that. Did he have family?

Yes, maam. He was my brother.

Instantly her heart softened to the marshals grief. She hoped the brother had died of natural causes and not foul play. What happened?

He was murdered. Just before he died, he told his oldest son that it was the McCaws. No doubt Aidens brothers. Theyve stolen and murdered their last. At least this one has.

F
IVE

P
arker sucked in a breath to control his anger against Aiden McCaw. The murdering outlaws gang had killed his brother and a friend. For the first time since hed been elected marshal, he wished the accused were dead. And hed like nothing better than to pull the trigger. He took a step toward the outlaw.

Stand up, and dont give me an excuse to kill you. Im not the only one who wants to see you dead. This town didnt take too lightly to having Felter and their deputy shot. They might want revenge. And Im in no mood to stop them. In fact, I might offer my rope.

I aint scared. Aiden stood and sneered. Wont be here long enough to enjoy your hospitality.

Parker opened the door to the marshals office and shoved Aiden inside. The cells open. Get inside.

He wanted to turn his gun on him. Slam his fist into his faceagain and again. But he couldnt. His insides tightened. Hed sworn to uphold the law, not bury himself in revenge. He slammed the cell door shut, then turned his attention to the woman before him, the female bounty hunter who had a reputation that sounded more like a legend. Her dark hair and high cheekbones gave away her Ute blood, and she had eyes the color of rich, dark earth. She stood shoulder to shoulder with him, and Parker was a tall man.

Will you be in town for a few days until your money arrives?

I will. She stroked the hawk on her shoulder, a formidable bird. I need to get some rest. She paused for a moment as
though considering something. Id like to help you guard Aiden until his trial, make sure his threats dont follow throughsince you dont have a deputy.

I plan to stay here tonight to keep an eye on him. Parker hadnt ever depended on a woman before, and he doubted he ever would. Even a female bounty hunter. And the stories behind her name couldnt possibly be trueHowever, she had brought in Aiden McCaw. Ill talk to a couple of locals. Maybe deputize them. Seems like his brothers would have cut him loose while you were riding through the mountains.

She tossed a glance at Aiden, who had lain down on the straw-filled mattress. My thoughts too. It all was a bit too easy. She gave the hawk a smile resembling the affection a mother gave her child. Ill be at the hotel for a few hours, then Ill be back. Sorry to hear about your brother. Did he leave a wife and children?

Parker appreciated her concern, another part of her reputation. Frank and Leah have five sons.

She frowned and compassion clouded her face, as though shed seen too many widows and fatherless children. Theyre in for hard times. She took a breath, exhaustion clearly evident. When the bounty money arrives, Id like to give her and Mrs. Felter some of it.

The stories about Sage Morrow werent all made up. She
was
sympathetic to those whod been hurt by outlaws. Strange woman. Strange personality for a bounty hunter who toted a hawk for a pet. That would be very generous of you. Ill be sure to pass on your comfort. They all are grieving.

Sage nodded. Thank you. Ill not be taking up any more of your afternoon. She hesitated, and the deep brown of her eyes penetrated his. Unless you need me.

He wont be asking you for help until tomorrow. Aiden spit foul-smelling tobacco through the bars. And you aint slept in three nights. Looks to me like you wont be fit to help nary a body.

Is he always this mouthy? Parker said. If the outlaw couldnt keep his mouth shut, he might not live through the night.

Sage walked to the cell and anchored her hands on the Colts at her slender hips. It took all my will not to break my vow to keep all my prisoners alive to stand trial.

He wouldnt have been as lucky with me. Retribution continued to race through his veins. Aiden was a murderous cut-throat.
Lord, Im not honoring You.
Anguish over Franks death hit him hard again.

I understand.

Parker had a wagonload of things to tend to, one of which was Leah and the children. But he couldnt leave the prisoner alone. Neither did he have a candidate to guard Aiden.

Sage took a deep breath. Whos with your sister-in-law?

Shes at the parsonage with the preacher and his wife.

If you need to check on her, Ill stay here.

Parkers insides jolted, as if hed stepped barefoot into an icy mountain stream. What dealings hed had with bounty hunters had been less than pleasant. They couldnt get their money and get out of town fast enough. They didnt like people, and they sure didnt care about anyone hurting over bad times.

Maam, thank you for your kind offer, but I cant ask any more of you.

Yes, you can. She made her way to his untidy desk, strewn with a newspaper from Denver, a tin coffee mug, and wanted postersone of them sporting Aiden McCaws ugly face. Easing down onto the chair, she urged the hawk to step onto the desk. Go ahead and take care of your family. I can spend a few more hours with Aiden.

He hesitated, stunned to find himself about to accept her offer. One hour would help. The plight of his family must have numbed his senses. Are you always this helpful to marshals and sheriffs?

She lifted sleep-deprived eyes. My heart goes out to those
affected by lawless men. But I dont like many lawmen. Never have. Dont like politicians either. There may be a few good ones out there, but I havent met any.

Parker bristled. Why not? After Leah crying on his shoulder for the past two days and trying to comfort his nephews with his own grief weighing on his shoulders, he didnt have any more emotional control. Officials are elected by the people. If some are corrupt, whose fault is that? Anger now threatened to grab hold of his tongue. I plan to enter politics, and Im proud of it.

A cold, impassionate glare met his reproach. My personal experience, Marshal Timmons. Im sure you conduct your business with the utmost of integrity.

The sarcasm cut to the bone, but he chose to keep any more tidbits of information to himself. Her attitude put the two of them on equal ground. He didnt have much use for money-hungry bounty hunters. Even those who appeared to be decent human beings.

Hed see to Leah and the boys and be back in a half hour.

S
age regretted her spiteful words the moment Marshal Timmons left his office. Granted, exhaustion had lit a flame in her body, but that wasnt an excuse to insult a man on the same day he buried his brother. Shed been around scoundrels for so long that shed begun to sound like one. This afternoon, she acted like one too. Forcing her tired legs to stand, she hurried to the door and outside onto the street.

Marshal Timmons? she called.

He stopped in his tracks and slowly turned to face her, red-faced and wearing the lines of a man weathered by grief and responsibility. Sage swallowed her pride.

I apologize for my remarks. I was rude and unfeeling, not at all considerate of your loss.

He hesitated for a moment, leaving her more uncomfortable
with each breath. I reckon if thats the way you feel, you should be able to speak your mind.

Some things are better left unsaid. You dont deserve my remarks on the day you bury your brother and tend to his widow and family.

Marshal Timmons retraced his steps. Shed seen more handsome men, but rarely did she see a man whose eyes spoke for his heart. Eyes the color of a robins egg. Back in Virginia, my mothers father raised sheep. Folks disliked him because of what he did, not because of who he was. Cattle ranchers spit on him, poisoned his watering holes, and used his flocks for target practice. Even in church his pew was known as the stinking sheep row. After twenty years, the preacher still didnt know my grandfathers first name at his funeral.

She had that bit of chagrin coming, so she said nothing. Never mind that she could have told a similar story about folk judging bounty hunters or those who had Indian blood running through their veins.

He studied her a moment and continued on his way.

Back inside the marshals office, Aidens laughter echoed around the room, scraping at her nerves and interrupting her thoughts about a marshal whose grandfather was a sheepherder. Charles had despised sheep, called them wooly worms.

Whats so funny? she said before sitting down.

Oh, Im thinkin how all of this is playing right into our hands.

Aidens life span was rapidly decreasing. Why dont you tell me all about it?

And ruin the fun? Besides, you and Marshal Timmons will find out soon enough. Ive planned for a long time to get the two of you together. Looks like my patience has paid off.

Sage sank into the chair. Id like to know what youre going to do. After all, theres only me and the marshal here to protect the town.

Aint that nice.

And Im too tired to be much use.

He laughed again, a deep-throated growl that reminded her of a mountain cat before it leaped on its prey.

Let him think she was too worn out to make sensible conversation. How many of you are there?

Depends on how many of my brothers show up.

Sage closed her eyes and kept her mind busy with questions laid out like a trap. Rumor is the McCaw gang boasts eight brothers.

Could be.

She needed the real count. Are all of them as mean as you?

The other four are meaner.

Only five, then. Still, the odds curdled her stomach. Im not worried. If they want you so badly, they can have you. I caught you once. I can find you again.

But youre smart enough to know I let you catch me. Wouldnt you like to know why?

Sage kept her eyes tightly closed and leaned back in the chair. The more he revealed, the better she and Parkers chances were. Let me guess. You want to make an example of bounty hunters.

If that was the case, youd be dead back on the trail. Why dont you and the marshal figure it out and let me know?

Weariness settled on her like the evening shadows creeping across the mountains at sunset. And along with the desire to sleep twenty-four hours came a yearning for her bounty-hunting days to be over. Soon shed find the men who killed Charles. But she didnt even know their names.
Fight the sleep.
She needed to contend with Aiden. Why dont you just tell me what this is all about?

Nope. And I aint answering any more of your questions either.

Why? Were just discussing your problem and mine.

Just like ol Charlie, aint you? He had a way of talkin friendly like too.

The blood through Sages veins rushed faster than flood waters. Hed mentioned Charless name too many times. You must have known Charles pretty well.

Not well enough.

She ached to learn more, but she could see Aiden was tiring of their game. Since hes been gone for seven years, whats the harm in telling me? My husband didnt stay home much. Never said where hed been or where he was going.

Maybe you shouldve asked, and he wouldnt have ended up dead.

You could tell

Ask all you want, Mrs. Morrow. Im fresh out of words, specially for an Injun bounty hunter.

BOOK: A Woman Called Sage
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