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Authors: Debbie Macomber

Montana (35 page)

BOOK: Montana
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“Sam…Sam!” Molly screamed in warning as he blocked a punch. He turned to tell her to get out of the way and saw that she'd picked up a shovel.

Unfortunately her aim was slightly off and when she slammed it down, it missed Lance entirely and hit Sam on the shoulder instead. Pain shot down his arm and he crumpled to the ground. He must have briefly lost consciousness when his head hit the ground because the next thing he knew two sheriff's deputies were standing beside Molly. Somehow she'd managed to corner Lance with the shovel. His friend was nowhere to be seen.

“What's going on here?” one of the lawmen asked, moving between the two men.

Molly and Sam both started talking at once. Molly stopped and signaled Sam to continue. He explained what had happened with Clay.

“Someone stole our winter herd last week and shot my husband,” Molly threw out. “Ask him about
that
while you're at it.” She pointed at Lance, her face a study in contempt.

“Hey, you're not pinning that on me.” Lance wiped away blood at the corner of his mouth. He glared at Sam. “If you want to ask anyone questions, you can ask Mr. Hero over there about a certain woman who disappeared. He knows a lot more than he's saying.”

Sam tensed at the mention of Pearl's murder. “You're the one she was hiding from,” he accused, vividly remembering the fear on Pearl's face when she saw Lance.

“My husband had nothing to do with the poor woman's death,” Molly said righteously. “Now arrest that man.” She pointed in Lance's direction. “On kidnapping charges.”

“Is there a problem here?” Sheriff Maynard stepped through the crowd of curious onlookers and presented his badge to the deputies.

“Sheriff Maynard.” Molly sounded relieved, and truth be known, Sam was pleased to see the other man, too. Surely now he could count on the sheriff of Sweetgrass to clear his name.

“I have a warrant for that man's arrest. He's charged with the murder of Pearl Mitchell,” Maynard announced. As everyone watched openmouthed, he slapped handcuffs on Lance's wrists and led him away.

 

“You're an idiot,” Sheriff Gene Maynard—alias Monroe—shouted at Lance.

The younger man sat in the back of the patrol car. “Come on, Monroe,” he whined. “This is a joke, right?”

Monroe could sense Lance's resentment—and frankly it felt good to put handcuffs on that bastard. It was what he deserved for all the screwups. The incompetence Monroe was left to deal with was like an aching tooth. The pain never seemed to lessen nor was it likely to go away. You'd have a bad tooth pulled, he thought. You'd get rid of it. Lance was a disgrace to the Loyalists. A hothead. Insubordinate.

“You're the one who killed her, aren't you?” he muttered as he drove toward Sweetgrass. Despite the so-called alibi provided by the bartender, Monroe believed that Lance was responsible for Pearl's death. It was the only scenario that made sense.

“How many times do I have to tell you I didn't do it?” Lance growled from the back seat.

Monroe felt such a blinding flash of anger he had trouble keeping the car on the road.

“Where you takin' me?” Lance demanded.

Monroe wasn't sure until precisely that moment. “I'm hauling your sorry ass to jail where it belongs.”

“Oh, no, you don't,” Lance squawked. “You can't! You wouldn't!”

Monroe experienced a deep sense of satisfaction on informing him otherwise. “Just watch me.”

Lance fell into a sulk. As they neared Sweetgrass, Monroe asked him, “How'd the kid know it was you?” His gaze met the other man's in the rearview mirror.

Lance shrugged. “No idea.”

“You should've stayed away from the rodeo.”

“Couldn't help myself. I like rodeos. How was I supposed to know Dakota was riding? His name wasn't on the program.”

“Good thing for you that you didn't know.”

“Whaddaya mean?”

Monroe sighed. The question was another example of the man's incompetence. “Well, if you'd known, you might've been able to keep him from picking up the prize money, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Right.”

“So at least you have an excuse for screwing up—again.” Monroe's hands tightened around the steering wheel. Burns and the others weren't going to be pleased when they learned Sam and Molly had managed to come up with the first payment. Damn stubborn fools, Dakota and his wife. They would have saved themselves a lot of grief if they'd given up the ranch sooner. Now Monroe had no choice. The Loyalists needed that land and they intended to get it, but the matter was in Monroe's hands now. He couldn't trust Lance; the man was useless. Besides, freeing him would raise too many questions. Monroe grinned. He couldn't deny he relished this assignment. Sam Dakota needed to be taught a lesson, set down a peg or two. And he was just the man to do it.

 

Sam was tired but happy. He had his family around him and, at least for the moment, all was right with the world. They were home, and the ranch house had never looked more inviting. Especially now that they'd be able to make the loan payment. Sam suppressed the sudden urge to laugh. It was a ticklish sort of feeling, one that bubbled up from the soles of his feet and touched every part of him. The crushing burden of this financial worry had been lifted from his shoulders. And that was only part of the good news.

Lance Elkins had been arrested, and judging by the anger brewing in Sheriff Maynard, Sam guessed that Lance would be making a few more confessions. Perhaps they'd finally be able to get to the bottom of the freak “accidents.” If anyone could persuade Lance to talk, it was the sheriff. Sam almost felt sorry for Lance.

“Sam?”

Then there was Molly. His love, his wife. His pregnant wife. They hadn't spoken about it yet and it had taken him long enough to figure out, but he was sure. So sure. “In here.” He sat in the living room, his feet propped on the ottoman, more tired than he'd ever been in his life. His head ached, his back throbbed, and there didn't seem to be a single muscle in his body unwilling to raise a protest over his return to bull-riding. The fist fight with Elkins hadn't helped.

“Oh.” Molly walked into the room and stopped abruptly.

He opened his eyes. “Oh, what?”

“You…you look tired.”

“That depends,” he said, grinning up at her. “I'm certainly not too tired to make love to my wife.”

“Sam!” She chastised him in a whisper and glanced over her shoulder to make sure the boys weren't listening in.

“They're upstairs,” Sam assured her.

“We need to talk,” she said, and then, as if the subject distressed her, she looked away. “I realize now isn't the best time for me to get pregnant but—”

“Why isn't it?” he asked. He'd given this more than a little thought in the past week, and try as he might, he couldn't make himself regret the fact that they'd been careless. His heart felt as though it might burst with joy, and all because Molly was carrying his child. Burst with joy. He'd heard that expression before; he'd never understood it till now.

“Our insurance only covers a small portion of the cost.”

“Then we'll make payments to the doctor,” he said with complete confidence.

“You never said how you felt about us having a baby…” She clamped her teeth on her lower lip.

Holding back a smile would have been impossible just then. “I don't think I've ever been happier in my life.”

He held out his arms to her and she'd just started toward him when there was a loud crack of sound against the wall. Sam knew a rifle when he heard one. Grabbing Molly's arm, he leaped out of the chair and jerked her forward, pulling her down.

Together they hit the floor. Sam took the brunt of the impact and yelped at the flash of pain.

“What is it?” Molly asked, her eyes wide with terror.

“Someone's shooting at us.”

“No—that's impossible!”

The dogs started barking frantically and Clay raced into the living room. Sam yelled, “Get down!”

The boy dropped to the carpet just as a bullet whizzed by where his head had been a second earlier.

“That does it.” Sam crawled on his hands and knees into the kitchen. “Nobody move.” Just then a blaze of bullets ripped a line in the wall directly across from him.

Molly's cry of alarm intensified his anger and his fear. She covered her head with both hands and buried her face in the carpet.

Clay screamed as a window exploded, spraying glass about the room.

“Sam! Sam!” Tom shouted from upstairs. “What should I do? Tell me what to do.”

“Stay where you are,” he instructed. “Don't move.”

Molly raised her head enough to reach for Clay and drag him to her side where she could protect him.

Sam didn't know what the hell was happening, but he wasn't going to sit still and let his family be used for target practice. All that he held dear was in this house, and whoever was shooting had best make peace with his maker, because Sam wasn't going to wait around for answers.

Slipping into the master bedroom, he opened the bottom dresser drawer and removed a handgun. Exiting the house undetected was no easy matter, but the safest room from which to leave was the bathroom. He climbed over the window ledge and fell into the darkness, landing hard.

Once outside, he crouched low and headed in the direction he'd seen the first round of bullets. His advantage was his knowledge of the land. The horses moved restlessly in their stalls; their tension strong and pungent.

Carefully he made his way along the wall to the corner of the barn.

“That's far enough, Dakota. Drop your weapon.”

Sam stopped abruptly. A chill ran down his spine when he recognized the voice.

“Do it
now,
or you're a dead man.”

Sam's fingers relaxed as he bent forward and cautiously dropped the pistol on the ground. “Maynard?” Slowly he turned around to face the other man.

“I can see you're surprised.”

Sam didn't bother to deny it. “Why?”

Sheriff Maynard continued as if he hadn't heard. “It's a real shame, seeing how you managed to make good and all. Just when it looked like you'd done a turnaround, an unknown assailant attacked the family. In your effort to see to their safety, you were shot and killed. Then a few weeks after you're buried, the town will learn how you swindled old man Wheaton and duped Molly into marrying you. She won't be able to hold her head up in public, and she'll sell out at a lower price than originally offered.”

“What's so important about this land?” Sam demanded, his hands doubled into fists.

“Me and my friends, we need it.”

“Friends?”

A slow grin twisted the lawman's face. “The Loyalists.”

Sam had heard of the militia group and knew they were active in the area, but he didn't know much about them. None of this made sense.

“This country's losing everything it stands for,” Gene Maynard explained. “That's what we believe. The only way to hold on to our freedom is to overthrow the government. It just so happens this land is perfect for training purposes. We knew Wheaton was on his way out, so we had the plans drawn up and we aren't going to change things now.” His mouth thinned. “You threw a wrench into our plans when you arrived.”

Sam realized that his appearance on the scene was one thing, but his marriage to Molly another. No wonder the lawman had had it in for him.

“It's a shame to kill you, Dakota. You've kind of grown on me. But I could see a long time ago that you don't share our views, and that's unfortunate because you could've done us good. You've got guts.”

“Why'd you kill Pearl?”

Maynard ignored the question. “Not long after you're dead, the town will discover you were the one responsible for her death.”

“But he isn't the one who killed her, is he, Gene?” Russell Letson's voice rang out from behind the sheriff.

Maynard froze.

“Drop the gun.”

“Russell, get out of here,” Maynard said, glancing over his shoulder. “Go before I forget we're related.”

“I know who killed Pearl.”

“Great. You can tell me all about it later. Now, for your own sake, leave, and forget you ever saw me here with Dakota.”

“That's one difference between you and me, cousin,” Russell murmured sarcastically. “I have a very long memory. I'm not going to forget anything I heard or saw tonight.”

“This has nothing to do with you.”

“That's where you're wrong. Did she suffer, Gene? Did she beg you to let her live? Did she plead for mercy?”

“For the love of God, man, it wasn't me! Now drop the gun.”

BOOK: Montana
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