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Authors: Lynna Banning

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Chapter Twenty-Four

awk awoke at dawn to find Caroline propped up on one elbow, staring down at him. Outside the window, the sky was just shading from gray into peach; inside his bedroom it felt like it was all sunshine.

“You were asleep,” she observed. There was a warmth in her voice that hadn't been there yesterday; he prayed he had something to do with it. In fact, he wanted
to do with it.

“Until a minute ago, yeah.” He crooked his arm about her neck and pulled her mouth down to his. A sweeter woman he had never tasted. When he released her she settled back onto the pillow with a sigh.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Where? The sheriff's office again? Does poor Sandy ever get to arrest anyone?” she asked with a soft laugh.

He sat up, pulled her into his arms and buried his face in the tangle of dark hair tumbling down her bare back. It smelled like honeysuckle. And a little like him, he imagined.

“I'm going to relieve Sandy, yes. Then I'll stop by the
and the
offices to set this trap operation in motion.”

“Oh, Hawk, don't you sometimes wish that time could stop? For a while, anyway?”

“You mean so we could have all morning to make love? Yeah, I do wish that.”

“It's a good thing neither of us is lord of the universe, then. Otherwise, crops all over Oregon would fry in the sun.”

He chuckled quietly. “I'd sacrifice a few thousand acres of wheat to get another hour with you.”

“Ranchers would hate you.”

“Would you?” He waited, wanting to hear something sweet and irrational from her lips.

“No, I would not hate you, Hawk. Another hour with you might be well worth thousands of bushels of burned wheat. At least for me.”

With a groan he rolled out of bed, pulled on his drawers and his jeans, and buckled his Colt around his hips. She watched him button his shirt and splash water from the pitcher onto his face. He'd shave later. Probably slice his chin to ribbons with her looking at him and his hand shaking like it was.

He glanced over to where she lay half-covered by the sheet. God and little fishes, she was beautiful. Had he told her that last night? Probably not. There was a whole lot he'd wanted to say, but his brain hadn't been too clear last night. He would say them another night.

If they ever had another night.

He bent to kiss her, then straightened and headed for the door. He couldn't look at her again or he'd never make it out of the house.

At the foot of the stairs he met Fernanda. Hands on her ample hips, her face unsmiling, the Mexican woman looked him right in the eye and slowly shook her head.

Hawk took her shoulders and planted a smacking kiss on each of her cheeks. “Take her some coffee, will you, Fernanda? She's had a...long night.”

He was out the door before she could swear at him in Spanish.

Fernanda watched the tall
sheriff stride down the porch steps and set off up the street. First she scowled, and then she blew out a long, long breath, and then a smile began to curve her lips.

Si, señor
. Coffee,” she murmured. She touched her fingers to her cheek and turned into the kitchen.

* * *

Hawk paid a visit to the
Lake County Lark
, where he spoke with the editor, Cole Sanders, then went across the street to Jessamine Lassiter's
office. He fed the same details to each publisher and was assured that both newspapers would run the announcement and an accompanying feature story about Caroline MacFarlane within a day of each other.

He took no joy in the enthusiasm of both publishers. As a matter of honest fact he felt as if a heavy black net of four-ply rope had been dropped over him.

By Tuesday, when the
was published, Hawk started to hear snatches of excited talk from the townspeople. By Wednesday, Cole Sanders assured him, word had spread to the surrounding counties, and by Thursday the telegraph operator at the railway station would be alerting the entire state of Oregon and beyond.

Caroline's speech was set for Saturday afternoon, and it was all Hawk could think about. Now, at the sheriff's office, he slammed his desk drawer shut so hard the glass of bourbon Mayor Harvey O'Grady was sharing with him teetered dangerously near the edge. Harvey reached out and steadied the half-full tumbler.

“Son,” he began.

Hawk hated it when the mayor used that term. He hadn't been anybody's son since he was eighteen years old, but Harvey had lost his firstborn at Antietam, so Hawk never objected.

“You're jumpier than a grasshopper on a griddle,” the mayor observed.

“Sorry, Harve. Guess I am, a bit.”

Harvey peered at him over the rim of his steel spectacles and pursed his lips. “Just so's you know, boyo, I'm backin' you up. Along with Sandy and Jericho and ever'body else you got lined up.”

“Thanks, Harve.”

“She means somethin' to you, does she?”

Hawk combed the fingers of one hand through his overlong hair. “Yeah. Don't know how it happened. Wish it hadn't.” That was an out-and-out lie, but Harvey probably saw through it. Hawk gulped down another swallow of bourbon.

“Hawk,” the older man said. “You're lyin'. Now, I don't care if you're lyin', but
might. So watch what you say from here on out.”

Harvey heaved himself to his feet and went through the sheriff's office door, and Hawk sat without moving for a good quarter hour. He had some things to say to her all right. But it wouldn't be until this business was over and they could both start to sleep nights.

People began streaming into Smoke River, women bearing hand-lettered signs, men with grim faces who hung out in the Golden Partridge and tried to drown what they saw coming in booze and tinny piano music. Jingo's stagecoach business increased fourfold, and every time the grizzled older man passed Hawk entering or leaving town, he saluted and sent him a toothy grin and a thumbs-up. The hotels in both Smoke River and Gillette Springs were filled to bursting, and both newspaper offices were flooded with letters to the editor. Cole Sanders confided that he'd be glad when the whole thing was over.

Hawk felt split right down the middle, half anxious for the conclusion of his plan and half dreading what it would mean when it was finally finished and Caroline would resume her travels and speech-making.

He couldn't think about it now. He had to think about every detail of the operation, right down to how many people could crowd into the meeting hall behind the barbershop and where they'd be sitting and which of his friends would be positioned where.

In the back of his mind he knew he was more frightened than he'd ever been in his life, even when chasing three murdering renegades into Mexico. This morning he found he couldn't relax long enough to sit at Ilsa's kitchen table while she and Fernanda scrambled eggs and flipped pancakes.

By afternoon he found himself pacing around the backyard where Caroline was hanging up wet shirts and jeans with Billy beside her, handing her clothespins. He chopped a mountain of wood just to give himself something to do, and he tried like hell to keep his eyes off her slim form when she stretched her arms up to the clothesline.

Twice his ax glanced off a chunk of oak, and that's when he knew he was in trouble. Tomorrow afternoon he would need every scrap of concentration he could muster.

Caroline stopped suddenly and sent him a look across the woodpile that made his heart stop. He blew out a long breath and wiped the sweat off his forehead with his shirtsleeve. Tomorrow should go like clockwork.

It had to. It was a simple matter of life and death.

Chapter Twenty-Five

I am worry too much. Is each day I do this and I do not stop, so I go often to the white church and ask Holy Mary to protect my lady. And

I fear for her tomorrow, when this thing will happen. I also fear for him, but it is not because of men and guns and what will be. I fear for him because I know in this house who sleep where.

My lady she is look different. She has smile and long times with no speaking, and she sing when she cook breakfast and when she wash clothes and when she go up the stairs at night.
Madre mia
, I ask you, watch over your children and keep them safe.

I think tomorrow will be very hard. I
Hawk he is a good man, so I
ask please God to keep safe so my lady she can go on with singing.

aroline dressed with extra care in the forest green poplin skirt with the flounces Hawk had insisted on and a plain white shirtwaist with a ruffle at her wrist deep enough to hide the shaking of her hands.

Hawk had risen while it was still dark outside, kissed her with restrained urgency and silently left the room. She listened through the open window for the sharp sound of his boot heels but heard nothing. She knew he would avoid the board sidewalk and would scout the town using back streets and alleyways.

The sun rose and the air heated. Inside the house it was stifling. Billy drooped about the parlor and only when Eli challenged him to three games of checkers did the boy settle down.

“I sure hope Uncle Hawk knows what he's doin',” he confided as Eli jumped his king.

“He does,” the gray-haired man replied. “Your uncle's famous for knowin' ezactly what he's doin', so don't you worry none.” He flashed Caroline a look from across the checkerboard.

“You neither, missy. Hawk'd die afore he'd let anyone hurt you.”

That, Caroline thought with mounting anxiety, was what she was afraid of. She bolted from the faded wingback chair into the kitchen where Fernanda and Ilsa stood at the stove, ladling blackberry syrup into glass jelly jars. Fernanda took one look at her and folded the younger woman into her arms.

“I go early to pray,” her companion whispered. “God is watch over you.”

“And Hawk,” Caroline murmured.

Si, mi corazón
. God will watch
Hawk, or I am speak hard words to the priest!”

Caroline tried to smile but found she couldn't control her mouth.

Ilsa turned to her and thrust an iron ladle into her hand. “Keep busy,” she ordered.

“Is that why you are both making jelly in this ungodly heat?”

Both women stared at her as if she had just announced the end of the world. “Yes, is why,” Fernanda said, her voice quiet. Ilsa just looked at her, and Caroline read the censure in her gaze.

Don't hurt him

She stepped forward and put her arms around Hawk's half sister. “I care for your brother, Ilsa. I am sorry.”

Ilsa's eyes overflowed. “It's not your fault, honey. Hawk is too old to mind his big sister,” she added with an unsteady laugh. “He is a man grown and stubborn, just like his pa.”

She pressed the ladle Caroline held down into the simmering juice and took her place at the stove beside her.

Hours later twenty-seven pints of blackberry jelly sat cooling on the wooden counter, and Fernanda made both Caroline and Ilsa sit at the kitchen table while she made fresh coffee and sliced bread for chicken sandwiches.

Caroline discovered that she could take a bite of the sandwich, but she couldn't swallow. Ilsa pumped her a glass of water from the sink, but still she managed to choke down only half the sandwich. Billy gobbled the rest, and then Eli shooed them all out of the kitchen while he made a batch of sugar cookies.

Caroline paced from the front porch to the parlor and back to the porch. She saw Jericho Silver standing across the street from the house, his rifle barrel glinting ominously in the noonday sunlight. He saluted her with two fingers to his Stetson, and she tried to smile.

Where was Hawk? Was he watching people as they entered the meeting hall? Was he nearby?

A shudder snaked up her spine. Was
here, that man, whoever he was?” Oh, God, would she live through this day?

I have been waiting for this. Been watching you all these months and waiting for the right time. Been planning it carefully. I want it to be in public, when you are spreading your lies about men. I want you to be hurt.

Townspeople began drifting past the house in twos and threes on their way to the meeting hall. Women with placards marched by, their arms linked. Caroline imagined they were sisters, aunts, mothers, even grandmothers. Some were accompanied by men, none of whom looked pleased to be escorting their wives or sweethearts to hear a speech aimed at giving their women the vote and freeing them from the oppression of husbands and fathers and brothers.

She knew Hawk had convinced the newspapers to state that she was staying at the Smoke River Hotel; none of the passersby gave her a second look except for Verena Forester, who waved and smiled, pointing to the flounced green skirt she had sewed for her.

At half-past twelve, Hawk came to walk her over to the meeting hall. By then, Caroline had taken herself in hand and was feeling unnaturally calm. She slid one hand over the pistol hidden in her skirt pocket and with the other, took Hawk's arm.

Just as they reached the front screen door, Ilsa hurried forward from the kitchen, her blonde hair straggly from the heat, her gingham apron stained with dark berry juice. She took Caroline's hand in her own, and the two women looked at each other in silence. Then Ilsa nodded, leaned forward and kissed Caroline's cheek.

“Good luck,” she whispered.

Tears clogged her throat, but she managed an answering nod and returned the pressure of Ilsa's strong, berry-stained hand.

Then she and Hawk stepped off the front porch and moved down the street toward the barbershop.

He carried no rifle she noted suddenly, just his revolver. A chill started at the back of her neck, but she ruthlessly quelled it and worked to force her spirit into a quiet place.

Fernanda followed them down the street with Eli, whose front pants pocket bulged with a weapon of some sort. Caroline knew Fernanda would be carrying her pistol.

Her footsteps slowed. All at once she didn't want to do this. Not now. Not with Hawk risking his life on her behalf.

“It's all right,” he breathed beside her. “We're ready for him.”

At his gentle tug, she moved on past Uncle Charlie's bakery and Verena's dress shop, past the mercantile where baskets of purple-blue plums glistened in the afternoon sun, to the barbershop and into the meeting hall behind it.

Inside, the heat was oppressive. She glanced longingly at the row of windows that ran down one side of the stuffy room, but Hawk caught her gaze and shook his head. Of course. He would allow none to be opened for fear of...

She closed her eyes and counted to ten. Behind her she heard the rustle of Fernanda's folded paper fan; how she wished she'd thought to bring one for herself. But she could not make a speech and fan herself at the same time, so perhaps it was just as well.

Hawk guided her down an uneven aisle forged in the middle of what looked like hundreds—no, thousands!—of chairs and benches of apple crates. At the far end stood a double stack of tall fruit crates, draped with what looked like an old bed quilt that served as a speaker's podium.

Hawk tipped his head at Fernanda, indicating a seat in the front row, next to his deputy, Sandy. Then he walked her to the podium, turned her to face the audience and laid his hand on her forearm.

“Give 'em hell, honey,” he murmured. Then he stepped away and she looked out at the crowd.

Onlookers filled every seat and lined the walls and stood three-deep at the back of the hall. To her intense relief there were no children in the audience. In fact, no one under the age of fourteen had been allowed to enter. That was unfortunate in one way; young girls should grow into womanhood knowing their rights. In another way she was glad; if there was to be a confrontation, even—God forbid!—gunfire, she wanted no child to be accidentally hurt.

The guards she was used to seeing everywhere she went—Jericho and Sandy, Rooney Cloudman, and Colonel Halliday, and the Federal marshal Matt Johnson—were cleverly stationed around the room, blending in with the crowd lining the walls with their rifles hidden at their sides.

Oddly, there was no heckling. No catcalls. Just an ominous, heavy silence. Hawk must have arranged it this way. She knew none of the men in the crowd were asked to give up their guns; Hawk wanted to catch the man red-handed, and he feared that confiscating their weapons would tip him off.

Hawk lounged against the wall nearest her, barely the length of a bedsheet separating them. She locked eyes with him for a brief moment, then swallowed hard and drew in a breath.

“Good afternoon.” She tried hard to smile at her placard-waving audience. A rustle of paper fans swept over the warm room as women sought to cool their overheated faces. Most of the men in attendance sat in uneasy silence.

“I know many of you may be feeling uncertain about the prospect of women gaining the right to vote.”

She hesitated, then swallowed. “Let me assure you, gentlemen,” she continued, “that it is not women who are your enemy. It is, instead, yourselves. I say this because you are alienating the goodwill, even the affection, of your wives, your sweethearts, your daughters and sisters, mothers and grandmothers by not allowing us to share in the decisions that affect our lives. And your lives, as well.”

She paused and gazed out over the sea of upturned faces. Incredibly, no grumbles emanated from the men, and no protests erupted from the sidelines. In the back of her mind she wondered if
was hidden somewhere among them, and she shot a quick look at Hawk who—surprise, surprise!—stood nodding in agreement.

“Let me give you just one example,” she went on. “All of you want schooling for your children, do you not?”

Nods and smiles greeted the statement.

“But do you realize that you mothers have absolutely no say about which teachers are hired and what subjects your child will learn? These decisions are entirely in the hands of the school board, and that body comprises only you men! While I know you are all hardworking and capable parents, you are only one half of the partnership you entered into when you married and produced those children. Women have no vote on school board matters. In fact, in Oregon, a woman cannot even sit on a school board!”

This was greeted with surprised looks and murmurs of disapproval.

“Now, I ask you, is this fair? Is this the equality guaranteed by our Bill of Rights? Should only half of the citizens of Smoke River decide these important matters for your children?

Many in the crowd, both men and women, shook their heads, and Caroline felt a surge of hope. People were actually beginning to see the sense of empowering more than just fifty percent of the decision-makers.

“Women,” she pressed on, “should not be the slaves of men. Your wives and daughters are not the possessions of you gentlemen, no matter how much they may be loved and valued. But you do not
them. They are free human beings, are they not? Therefore, do not women deserve a say in the matters that affect them?”

An undercurrent of agreement circled the hall and she pressed on. “Over a hundred years ago, we fought a war over the practice of taxation without representation. Is it not time for us to live up to what rights our forefathers won?”

She paused and took a sip of water from the glass at her elbow. “Now, I am sure you must have some questions.”

An arm shot into the air. “'Scuse me, ma'am, but God made Adam first and then Eve. Don't that mean a man's more important than a woman?”

Caroline smiled at the man. “Do you honestly believe, sir, that your wife or your sister or your mother is less important than you yourself are?”

“Well...” He sneaked a guilty look at the gray-haired woman seated next to him. “Well, I guess not, when ya put it like that.”

A bent farmer in overalls at the back of the room waved a gnarled hand at her. “What'll happen when women get the vote an' start runnin' things they way they want, huh? They'll want to upset ever'thin, sure as shootin'.”

Male voices rumbled agreement. “Sir,” Caroline interjected, “women constitute only half of your population. That is only fifty percent of the vote on any one issue. You gentlemen have the other fifty percent!”

A long silence descended. Caroline surveyed her audience and waited. She was making progress, she could feel it. She could almost hear their minds opening up.

“Are there any more questions?”

An older, heavily bearded man rose to ask a question. He wore a well-tailored pair of brown trousers and a loose-fitting fawn-colored wool jacket, and his wide-brimmed felt hat was tipped down at an angle that obscured his face.

“I've been following your speeches for some time, Miss MacFarlane. In Texas. In Arizona. And now here.”

Caroline hesitated. The man's voice sounded familiar, but she couldn't place it. Or him. Had she seen him before?

“Do you have a question, sir?”

“You might say I've got a question, all right.” He enunciated the words carefully as he moved into the aisle.

Hawk jerked to attention, his nerves quivering. Something about this man wasn't right.

Then the stranger slowly lifted his head, palmed his hat back, and smiled.

Caroline's face turned dead white. “Papa?

“Thought I was dead, didn't you, Carrie? Well, I gotta tell you, little girl, I'm a lot tougher than you think. And besides that, you're a lousy shot.”

Stunned, she stared at him. Why was he telling her this? Why was he here?

BOOK: Her Sheriff Bodyguard
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