Authors: DiAnn Mills
Are you talking about your brother? she said, her stomach churning with the implications. Or Charles?
Maybe both. What did Charles look like?
How did she describe the man of her heart? He had hair the color of pecans and eyes as green as a mountain lake. Average build. Seldom raised his voice. She pulled a pocket watch from her britches. It had belonged to Charles, and shed slipped a picture of both of them into it. This was taken right after we were married.
Parker stared at the picture, then shook his head. Never knew a man who looked like that. Doesnt matter. Im riding with you in the morning.
Youll hold me up with those broken ribs.
Lets get one thing straight here, Sage. Im the marshal of this town. My brothers dead, along with another friend, and my nephews are missing. Ive been threatened and beaten. The McCaws arent getting any more of a head start on me than they already have. And we already know theyre watching the town and will know when we leave. The note said for both of us to come. We dont know what they want from us, but Im a praying man, and God has the answers. I believe Hell show us the trail and give us what we need to know.
Sages eyes narrowed. Hed spoken a mouthful, like a speech. What chance did those boys have with a battered marshal who believed God would ride with them?
fter Sage left, Parker talked to God long and hard about his family and his town. The US Marshal was due in a week with bounty money that Sage would never see unless she brought in Aiden McCaw again. An extra gun would help even the odds, but he and Sage had to ride alone. Theyd be riding into a trap, and he knew it. But what choice did they have with Daviss and Johns lives in the pendulum?
Deep in his belly, he realized Aiden wouldnt think twice about
killing either one of those boys. How could Leah survive one more nightmare? The thought sickened him, made him mad enough to kill Aiden McCaw with his bare hands, a feeling that had grown inside him until he burned with hate, like a fire he couldnt douse.
Parker needed to figure out how to outwit a man who boasted of watching his and Sages every move. So far that man had been successful. Did one of McCaws people walk the streets of Rocky Falls? From the sounds and the goings-on in the saloon every night, he could name five men and two of the women working the saloon who were candidates to fit that description.
It was possible Widow Bess might have overheard some talk. She was a decent woman, the only bit of goodness at the saloon and hotel. Every line in her face was pure wisdom. Rumor was if she didnt stop trying to pull the girls out of the evenings profits, she wouldnt have a job.
The truth of a matter had a way of sinking its teeth into a person whether he was ready to handle it or not. One of the McCaws had killed Frank and left a fine woman as a widow. Although there were mountains of frustration and disappointment in many areas of his personal life, Parker had always wanted the best for his brother. Even when it meant giving up Leah.
Parker met Leah when they were fifteen years old in Virginia. Frank, older and oozing charm, won her away from him, and they married just before the two young men enlisted in the Civil War. Both brothers were sure the war would be won in a month and theyd return to their parents modest farm, three younger sisters, and Leah as heroes. Instead it drew out four long years. All during the intense fighting, Parker regretted not standing up to Frank for Leah, but years had passed since hed thought of her like he did when he was a nave boy. He exchanged his tender love for the role of a brother-in-law and an uncle. Too often his role brought him to Frank and Leahs doorstep to help John with work on the ranch. Now Parker simply felt an obligation to his brothers widow to do all he could to help her in her plight.
My minds wandering when I have more important things to do.
Parker wished he knew what the McCaws wanted. For sure a swap lay ahead. Since Aiden hadnt indicated what to bring, the exchange had to be some kind of information. But what? A chest full of gold made more sense than this. If Aiden merely wanted Sage and him dead, then hed have taken care of Parker the previous night and killed Sage while she was in the mountains on his trail.
Lord, looks like were riding into a death trap with no choice in the matter.
And hed be riding with a woman. God knew how he felt about a female slowing him down. Most women couldnt take the rugged mountains. Take his mother, for example. After Parker and Franks father died, their mama tried living in Colorado. But when the weather dropped below freezing and stayed there, she caught the next train back to Virginia. And even Leah had stayed in Rocky Falls only because of Frank.
Then again, Sage Morrow didnt strike him as most women. Sage wasnt a delicate creature whod be a burden. She was strong and resourceful. It amazed him that shed survived the many times shed set out to bring in a wanted man. She set foot in areas that most women shuddered at the thought of. Those were tales, but Parker now believed they held a lot of truth. The image of the defenseless woman who needed a man to protect her ended when he met Sage Morrow.
Glancing out the window to where the sunset streaked across the horizon in slowly deepening orange tones, Parker realized he had to make himself get out of bed. Only a fool would wait till morning to try to move. He breathed in and out several times to brace himself for the pain ahead. But he had to tolerate the agony in order to build up his strength. He gritted his teeth and sat up. Tears filled his eyes, and they had nothing to do with his family. Reaching over to grab the back of a chair, he forced himself to stand. One step at a time. He could do it. He had to.
arkness shrouded the hotel room as Sage allowed the events of the day to wash over her. For certain she wanted to leave in the morning before sunrisewithout Parker. He needed to mend instead of chase his nephews and the outlaws. In the shape he was in, hed get them both killed. Shed deal with the snakes of the McCaw gang in her own way.
Bess, the woman who worked the registration desk of the hotel and saloon and who had invited Sage to eat with her, had given Sage directions to Leahs ranch. From there shed follow the Mc-Caws trail. Finding those children was her priority. Once those boys were safe, shed deal with Aiden and whatever he wanted. The hours spent running down the gang would provide time to figure out what the outlaw alluded toand if Charles had been involved with the wrong people. The thought of her husband riding with outlaws sliced through her heart. Surely it couldnt be truebut the suspicions stacked against him. Perhaps learning the truth now equaled finding his killers.
The sorrow in Leahs eyes haunted her. Enough problems faced children growing into adults without outlaws using them for target practiceand the McCaws would do that very thing. Sages parents had lost five children before her birth, and they still grieved each small body. The time had come to pay Mama and Papa a visit, and she would do so after business ended in Rocky Falls. Long ago shed forgiven them for not liking Charles; they all needed each other. Would they recognize their daughter
in the bounty hunter? Theyd worked so hard to calm her wildness and mold her into a white woman. Mama, with all of her Ute blood, believed the ways of the white man were the ways of the future. She taught Sage about her Indian heritage, and Papa taught her about the white. But always the emphasis was on embracing the white mans mannerisms and their God. Sage didnt understand their insistence. Or maybe she didnt want to understand them.
Sage heard a knock outside her door. Gripping the Colt tied to her right side and eying Hawk, she took a step to the door. Whos there?
Had he gone mad? She unlatched the door to find the marshal leaning against the door. From the looks of his drawn features, the pain drained his strength. He needed another dose of medicinethe kind that would make him sleep and heal.
Im in the next room. He stood as straight as his weak legs would allow. At least he appeared to do so, no doubt in an attempt to look tough. I checked into the hotel a few minutes ago. Wouldnt want you to leave without me in the morning.
She crossed her arms over her chest. Are you drunk or just plain crazy?
Im not a drinking man, and Im sane. Thank you for your caring questions. I have a couple of things to discuss with you if you have a few minutes.
She gestured him inside. Thoughts of the impropriety of having a man in her room vanished from her conscience when she remembered she stayed in a hotel that rented rooms by the hour. Not that it made much difference. Most folks judged her morals once they learned shed convinced a Ute to teach her how to track and survive in the wilderness for the purpose of hunting wanted men. Are your intentions honorable?
He smiled, sort of lopsided. Dont have any money on me.
Then youre probably at the right room. The girls down the
hall have a man slip a gold piece under the door. She laughed at the pitiful sight of him.
She motioned for him to sit on the bed while she stood. The tiny room smelled of those who had come and gone for reasons she cared not to think about. Sort of embarrassing, especially with Parker sitting there.
Ive been rummaging through my brain for what Aiden wants from us, and I have some questions, he said.
If this was about Charles, she might not be able to answer. All right. I may have a few for you too.
He sat straight up. Breathing had to be easier in that position. Aidens claim about your husband not telling you his rightful name is pestering me. You said you grew up in the same area. So you knew his family?
Shed camped on this earlier today while Parker enjoyed the benefits of laudanum. They lived near the same town as I did.
How did they take his death? I mean, were they shocked?
They passed on shortly before we married. Charles inherited their ranch. I remember they were not happy with his frequent trips.
Then he couldnt have lied to you about his name.
Not at all. But something Papa said echoed in her mind.
You made a big mistake, daughter. Lovin a man despite his faults is a good thing, but you loved him without any sense. Now hes dead, and he might have had a wife somewhere else.
How did he pay for his trips away from home?
Parker had edged dangerously close to sticking his nose too deep into her affairs. But wouldnt she do the same? Im not sure.
Then it wasnt from your ranch?
Parker and Papa had a lot in common. Shed learned how to read folks since those days. He never took much money with him.
He nodded, digesting her answers like bad food. Did he take provisions?
Did he say where he was going?
Only to his ranch in northern Colorado.
Did he mention friends there?
The truth about Charles not owning a second ranch had come pounding at the door of her heart. No.
So he was a loner type?
Did he bring you gifts when he returned?
She remembered a broach and ribbons for her hair. Sometimes.
Not really. Parker, your questions remind me of a fancy lawyer. She gathered her emotions with an understanding that he needed those answers just like she did in order to outwit the McCaws. Until today, I never considered him being an outlaw. He was gentle and kind, a good man. But She withdrew into the black cave of doubts. Ive been around enough men to know Charles could have been another man when he wasnt with me.
Do you remember anything at all that could help us?
He could have been connected with Aiden or another gang. I dont know why we were shot, except for the money the men claimed he had.
Parker raised a brow. Whoa. Back up. You were shot too? I hadnt heard that before. My source said you shot two of them before they rode away.
She felt her spunk rising to the occasion. You could consider asking folks for themselves about matters instead of relying on gossip and newspapers.
Youre right, and I apologize. So he died, and you survived.
Right. She blinked to keep the tears away. We were left for dead. My father found us.
He slowly stood from her bed. The man had to be in horrible pain. Im truly sorry for your loss, Mrs. Morrow. Guess you and I have had our share of sorrow, but life is a mixture of bad times and good. I think that is what forms us into the people we are today.
She liked the way he formed his words. Is that another lesson about life from your grandfather?
He grinned. No, its one of my own.
Ill remember itjust the way you spoke it.
An awkward silence hung between them, and she didnt recall feeling this uneasy for many a year.
Is there anything else I should know? Parker said.
I cant think of anything right now. But Id sure like to know what you and I have that makes Aiden willing to risk his neck, kill more people, and abduct two boys. It has to be money and revenge, but for what? Im alive, but Im not supposed to be, which may or may not be related to his game. He allowed me to catch him and set up an escape to lure both of us into the mountains after them. All carefully thought out. Outlaws are smart. Most of them are smarter than those who take out after them without a plan. Thats you and me, Parker. Were doing a stupid thing going after Aiden and playing into his hand. But we dont have a choice with your nephews lives at stake. She pressed her lips together. With Parker, she had a tendency to speak before thinking through her words. What connects you to me or Charles?
I was hoping you might provide a clue to that answer.
She refused to feel defeatedor foolish. If I had an idea, Id have already been gone.
He reached for the doorknob, his face pale and rigid. Youve taught me a valuable lesson tonight. Dont rely on hearsay. Search for the truth. Good evenin, maam. Thanks for taking the time to answer personal questions. Ill be ready at dawn.
Sage respected Parkers determination and admired his tenacity. Hed demonstrated his integrity and strength in the midst of
crisis. Yet hed still find her gone when he struggled to crawl out of bed in the morning.
n hour before intense shades of yellow and purple would swirl across the eastern sky, Sage strapped on her gun belt, made sure her weapons were loaded, and carried her boots and Winchester down the creaky hotel steps. She didnt worry about Hawk; he always found her. The only noises from residents were the deep snores that had the potential to arouse the dead.
In the blackness, she opened the door and sat on the boardwalk to tug on her boots. A near hole was working its way through the top of the right boot, and the heel on the left had been replaced twice. She planned to purchase a new pair after she brought in Aiden. Of course, she promised herself the same the last time she brought in an outlaw. But shed given most of the bounty to the wife and children of the murdered man. The money she did use took care of basic needs in her ongoing search for Charless killers.
Sage pulled her trouser leg down over her left boot, then sat for a moment, hunched on the steps of the boardwalk like an old beggar woman. For seven years the hunt had taken precedence, but now a new craving threatened to overtake her need for revenge: her desperate need for the truth about her husband.
She heard footsteps behind her and swung around with her hand on her Colt.
Slow down, Sage.
She recognized the gravelly voice of the woman who had registered her for a room and prepared last nights supper. Goodness, Miss Bess. You ought to be more careful. Startling someone in the dark could get you hurt.
Oh, Ive been told that before. I heard you come down the stairs and wondered if youd like a fresh cup of coffee.
The woman was a saint. Thanks. You must have read my mind.
Cant remember if I introduced myself proper. The older I get, the more I forget. She held out a mug of coffee. It smelled better than a field of wildflowers.
My papa always says that the best way to get to know someone is over a cup of coffee. Sage inhaled the fresh aroma and took a sip. This smells wonderful, maam.
For a bounty hunter, you certainly talk proper. Like a lady.
Sage laughed. I was born a woman. I chose to be a bounty hunter.
What about breakfast before you head out? Bess sat beside her on the boardwalk. I have some biscuits and ham left from yesterday morning. In fact, I have them right here. I imagine jerky gets old when youre trailing somebody.
Yes, maam, it does. Id be happy to take something to eat. Sounded like Bess understood her habits. Sage had seen how the woman treated the soiled doves, calling them honey and treating them like they were respected women. Perhaps her kindness extended honestly to a woman bounty hunter who was part Ute. Maybe when this is all over, I can enjoy another one of your fine meals here at the hotel.
Glad to help. Bess handed Sage a small cloth bundle, then slapped her ample knees and stood. Ill be praying you find those boys without trouble. Leah doesnt need to bury any more of her family.
Strange for a woman who worked with the worst of the towns men and women to mention praying. Ill do my best.
Wheres your hawk?
Sage heard the fearfulness in Besss voice. Hes most likely watching us from the windowsill until I call for him. He looks menacing, but he obeys me.
Obedience for all of us is an important thing. When we have that meal together, we can sit and talk. Id like to get to know a woman who puts aside a womans role for a hard job like bounty hunting.
A friend was a rarity Sage hadnt ever enjoyed. But a friend equated to trust, and shed never been able to inspire that trait in anyone other than her parents and Charles. Maybe we can.
Bess held up a finger. Dont leave yet. She stepped back into the building, leaving Sage a little warmer and not just because of the coffee. A moment later, she returned with a lit lantern. You can leave it with the livery boy, and Ill fetch it later.
Sage thanked her and stepped into the inky blackness with the lantern to light the way. Last night shed assigned the livery boy the job of keeping an eye on her pony, saddle, mule, and provisions, and told him to sleep in a nearby stall until she arrived this morning.
As much as shed needed another solid nights sleep, dreams of Charles had kept her awake. In the past, nightmares reliving the shooting brought the tragedy to the surface. Other times, peaceful ideals of the life they could have shared together brought tears and a renewal of her vow to find his killer. Oh, for a home again. Bess had observed much in their brief encounters. Sage hadnt completely given up the mannerisms of a proper white woman, perhaps because of some deep understanding that she was just as much white as she was Ute.
Last night, Charles spoke in her dreams about forgiving him. Her nighttime visitation had become a confusing mixture of memories and a vague reality that ended abruptly, as though the dreams meaning was to enlighten her for the days ahead. The quest to find the truth would gnaw at her until it was laid out raw. Until it was, shed not give in to the nagging doubts that plagued her. Hed been a good man. She simply hadnt learned the whole storyyet. Charless words from the past echoed around her as they had in her dream, pointing to a good reason not to believe hed run with an outlaw gang.
A man has two choices in this life, Sage, hed said. He can take the path of his own selfishness or take the path of Gods heart.
Sage remembered the event vividly as it tiptoed across her mind. Theyd been married but ten months.
Race you to the creek, shed said.
But youd have to win. He tossed her a teasing glance, his green eyes sparkling and dancing.
Oh, how she loved him, the way he held her, the way he looked at her. No matter that his wandering ways left her alone on many nights. Shed take what he could give. My horse is faster.