Authors: Lynna Banning
awk didn't much care what the note said, but it told him Caroline's speech was over. He lifted his Colt and stepped past her. “That's all, folks. Miss MacFarlane just got some bad news and she has to leave.”
Behind him he heard the paper rustle and knew her hand was shaking. He ached to turn back to her, but he couldn't take his eyes off the crowd.
The church began to empty. Women chattered excitedly to each other, the men picked up their sidearms under Deputy Saunders's watchful gaze and went out.
Fernanda edged past him and reached out to Caroline. “
, you look like ghost.
Finally the last man left, followed by the deputy, and Hawk reholstered his revolver. The Mexican woman stood patting Caroline's trembling hands, her face bleached of color. She held the note out to him. “Here,
. You read.”
Hawk had the sinking feeling that the contents were going to tie him into something he wanted no part of. Long ago he'd learned to watch his back when something didn't feel right, and this sure didn't feel right.
He glanced at the paper Fernanda had stuffed into his hand. Crudely printed in red crayon were the words “I WILL GET YOU BITCH.”
He looked up to find Caroline staring at him like she'd been poleaxed, her widened eyes darkening to blue-violet and her mouth clamped shut so tight her lips formed a thin unsmiling slash in her pale face.
He stepped forward and laid his arm around her shoulders.
“D-don't,” she whispered. “I need to be strong.”
He could feel her whole body shaking. “Don't be a fool. You need to stop trying to be brave.”
She jerked her head up. “Don't tell me what to do! If I p-pretend, it gives me courage. I grew up pretending.”
Hawk snorted. “Someone just threatened your life, Caroline. You should be damn scared, not playacting.”
Fernanda nodded emphatically. “Always she pretend.”
Suddenly Hawk wanted to fold her into his arms, but he figured that would frighten her even more. He settled for tightening his arm about her shoulders and gently tugging her toward the doorway behind the pulpit.
“Come on. You need to go back to the hotel and lie down. Maybe have some coffee brought up.”
“I n-need something stronger than coffee.” Her voice was less shaky, but she was still trembling like she'd taken a bad chill. He guided her to the back entrance, but before stepping through the door he pulled her to a stop.
“Wait.” He withdrew his revolver and inched out the doorway far enough to see both sides of the street. Not a sign of a living soul. A faint light shone in the window of the sheriff's office, but no horses were tied at the hitching rail in front of Polly's Cage. Tinny piano music drifted from the saloon. He moved to the corner and studied the buildings on both sides of the main streetâstill nothing.
He stepped back inside. “Looks clear.”
Caroline drew a deep breath and started forward, but Hawk reached out and yanked her close to his side, then motioned to the Mexican woman hovering behind him. “Fernanda, stay on the other side of her.”
She grasped Caroline's arm.
Once inside the hotel Hawk lifted his arm from Caroline's slim shoulders, grabbed the room key and went up the stairs ahead of her, his revolver drawn. He unlocked the door, checked inside the wardrobe and under both beds. Fernanda hurried to close the curtains and then confronted him. “What we do now,
Damned if he knew. He couldn't leave Caroline alone with just Fernanda; even if the Mexican woman did carry a pistol, he'd bet she wasn't experienced, and Caroline...
Caroline needed a shot of Dutch courage. Hell, he needed one, too. He also needed to think. He made sure the women were safe and had locked the door. Then he walked over to the sheriff's office for some reconnaissance and on to Polly's Cage for some comfort.
By the time Rivera returned, Caroline had talked her fear down to a manageable level and explained again to Fernanda that, no matter what, she would not stop making speeches. She would never stop.
She was afraid, yes. Whoever it was had managed to track her down, and sending a child with such an awful note, in front of everyone, had chilled her to the bone. But she could never let it show. And yes, she used her stiff, proper manners to disguise the terror, the fear that she actually
be killed. Her life, speaking out about what had happened to her mother, and to her, compelled her to go on, even when her heart hammered under her buttons and her throat was so dry she could not spit.
Oh, Mama, if you are looking down on me, give me courage, for I know I must go on.
She had just donned her silk night robe when she heard Rivera's voice on the other side of the door. Fernanda stopped brushing her hair, turned the key in the lock and let him in.
In his hand he carried three glasses and a pint of whiskey.
Fernanda reached for the bottle. “Ah,
, you are an angel from God.”
“Not quite,” he growled. “I talked with the deputy sheriff. That kid was the barber's son. He'd never seen the man who gave him the note. No horse that he could see, but the fellow was tall. Spare build. Walked hunched over a bit. Dark clothing and a hat pulled too low to see his face.”
Fernanda poured three glasses of whiskey. “What we do now,
Hawk slapped his hat down on the bed nearest the door and downed a big swallow of the liquor. “You're not gonna like this any more than I do, butâ” he took another gulp “âI'm sticking to you like cockleburs on a horse's tail.”
Caroline sank onto the other bed and eyed him. “I beg your pardon? What exactly does that mean?”
She was dressed for bed, Hawk noted. Bare feet, her hair a loose tangle of curls. For an instant he lost his train of thought.
“It means I'm sleeping in your room tonight. It means you do exactly as I say until I can get you to wherever you're going next.”
“Boise. In Idaho. We plan to catch the train from Oakridge.”
“That's fifty miles from here.”
“There's a stagecoach tomorrow morning.”
He thought that over. Maybe the stage would be safer than traveling on horseback, especially since whoever was trailing them, if anybody really
trailing them, apparently hadn't been fooled.
A suffocating sense of duty descended on him, the kind of obligation he swore he'd never undertake again. But hell's bells, here he was, up to his neck in it again. He prayed to God it would turn out better this time.
He polished off his whiskey and poured another for himself and for Fernanda. Caroline had wrinkled her nose at her first sip and the glass she now rotated in her two hands was still full.
“Okay, tomorrow we take the stagecoach to Oakridge.” And he'd pray every mile that the sheriff in Boise was not holed up in a saloon or out with a posse chasing some outlaw. He wouldn't relax until both women were safe inside the hotel.
* * *
Before first light, Hawk arranged with the livery owner to board Red and the two mares, then walked over to the sheriff's office, where he caught the deputy asleep at his desk. The man was damn incompetent, but at least he listened and agreed to keep his mouth shut. By eight, Hawk had taken the stage driver aside and explained some things while the women climbed on board.
“Ya wanna ride shotgun, Hawk?”
He thought it over. Jingo could probably use an extra rifle, so he nodded and stepped around to explain to Fernanda and Caroline. “Going to be a long trip, ladies, but we'll be stopping in Tumbleweed for fresh horses and some dinner.”
The two women nodded, but neither was in a smiling frame of mind. Couldn't blame them one bit. He climbed up beside the driver and laid his Winchester across his lap. “All set, Jingo. Let's go.”
Jingo released the brake and lifted his whip, but before he could snap it over the team, a tall man barreled down the hotel steps and yanked open the passenger door. “Aw, hell.” Jingo spit a mouthful of tobacco juice beside the coach.
Hawk grabbed his rifle but Jingo laid a gnarled hand on the barrel.
“You know that guy?” Hawk asked.
“Sorta. Gambler sometimes. Horse trader other times.” The whip cracked and the stage lurched forward.
“Is he on any Wanted posters?”
“Naw. Too slippery if ya ask me. S'ides, gambling ain't illegal. Yet.”
“Yet? What does that mean?”
Jingo spat again. “Women get the vote, first thing them straitlaced old biddies'll do is outlaw card playing.”
Hawk kept his mouth shut about the passengers and the straitlaced part. Sure was thought-stopping, though. He'd once won a woman in a card game.
He couldn't help worrying about what was going on inside the coach. Couldn't hear anything over the thunder of horses' hooves and creaking wheels. He knew Fernanda would fire off a shot if something was wrong, but...
“Hold up, Jingo.”
“Huh? What for?”
“You heard me, pull up.”
He was off the driver's bench before the stage rattled to a stop. He strode around to the passenger door and yanked it open.
Fernanda let out a screech. “What happen,
“Nothing, yet. Any trouble back here?”
Caroline sat straight-backed in her severe dark blue dress, her hands primly folded in her lap. Hawk noted her knuckles were white. Gambler man tipped his black derby back off his face and blinked small round eyes at him. “You expecting some trouble, Sheriff?”
Hawk swore under his breath. The man was sprawled beside Fernanda, his long legs resting on the seat next to Caroline. Hawk used the rifle barrel to knock them to the floor.
“Hey, what theâ?”
“You only paid for one seat, mister. The one next to the lady doesn't belong to you.”
“Oh, very well. Excuse me, ma'am.” The watery eyes closed and he tipped the derby back over his face. Caroline sent Hawk a grateful look.
“You all right?” he mouthed.
The ghost of a smile curved her lips and she nodded. Hawk tipped his head toward the stranger and lifted his eyebrows in a question. Again she smiled, and this time it touched her eyes.
He sucked in air as his stomach rolled over, then latched the door and rejoined Jingo on the driver's bench.
“Them ladies all right?”
“Relax, Hawk. We got some hard hours on the road ahead of us.”
“You just drive this contraption, Jingo.” He wouldn't relax until they reached Oakridge. But he couldn't stop thinking about Gambling Man inside the coach, whether he was really on the up-and-up or whether he flimflammed when he saw a badge.
Sweat began at the back of his neck. Another few hours of this and he'd draw his weapon on every male that came within twenty feet of her.
“Ya want me to sing somethin'?” Jingo quipped. “The horses like it when I sing.”
Hawk rolled his eyes.
Jingo warbled in an off-tune tenor voice all the way to the stage station. By the time they pulled up at the small two-room shack, Hawk's patience was wearing thinner than the film on a stagnant frog pond.
aroline stepped down onto the ground and grabbed for Fernanda's steadying hand. Her legs were stiff, a headache pounded in her temples and her bottom was numb from hours and hours perched on the hard leather bench. Behind them, the man who'd introduced himself as Mr. Overby jerked awake and snuffled. “Ah, dinner,” he exclaimed.
She doubted she could eat anything after jouncing along in the stifling heat but she could surely drink something; her throat was dry and scratchy as sandpaper. And her nerves were jumpy.
Fernanda conducted her into the tiny station, asked for water and walked on through straight to the necessary. When they returned, their host, a grizzled old man with a greasy apron looped around his waist, showed them to a rough wood table and dished up bowls of what looked like stew. Caroline picked up her spoon and immediately set it down and pushed the bowl away.
“You must eat,
. We have many miles ahead.”
She couldn't. Caroline drank glass after glass of water, but her stomach was too unsettled for food. She watched Mr. Overby shovel in huge mouthfuls of his meal until he looked up.
“What are you staring at, miss?”
Caroline jerked. “Nothing.” She turned her gaze away and Hawk Rivera slid in beside her, bringing with him the scent of leather and sweat. She much preferred it over the cologne-heavy smell of Mr. Overby. In fact she was beginning to like the way the sheriff smelled, like a man instead of a candy shop. She wished he would sit inside the coach with them.
“Stew any good?” he queried.
“I wouldn't know. I cannot eat it.”
He snaked out his hand and pulled her bowl back to her. “Try,” he ordered. “Making speeches takes strength.”
“Do not tell me you like my speeches?” She worked to keep the surprise out of her voice.
He set his tall glass of water onto the table. “No, I don't.”
Fernanda looked at him from across the table. “
You do not like?”
Their driver tramped in through the door. “Aha, supper! Thought I was gonna starve to death afore we got here. Food any good, Hawk?”
“Yeah.” He slanted a look at Fernanda. “And no, I do not like the speeches.”
Caroline leaned toward him. “Why not?” she intoned.
“But it does matter,” she protested.
“Not to me.”
She sat back and sucked in her breath. “Then why are you...? Oh, of course. You are a lawman. An ex-Texas Ranger, Fernanda said. You feel...responsible.”
Somehow that made her angry. So angry that without thinking she jammed her spoon into the bowl of stew and swallowed down a bite. Beside her, Rivera dipped his head and chuckled.
Well! At least she had cracked that imperturbable demeanor of his.
“It's true I don't like your speeches,” he said in a low voice. “Don't let it bother you.”
“What? Of course it bothers me.”
He laid down his spoon and looked directly at her. “Why?”
She opened her mouth to respond, then snapped it shut. “Why” was a very good question. She should not care what this man thought of her speeches. Or her ideas. Or her.
“Shouldn't bother you,” he reiterated.
“No,” she murmured, “it shouldn't. I will address that issue on the remainder of our trip to Oakridge.”
“Might do better to get some sleep,” he said.
“That,” she said crisply, “is difficult.”
He resumed eating. “Yeah, probably impossible. Better than riding a horse, though, isn't it?”
She laughed aloud, then clapped her hand over her mouth. “Yes, much better,” she said between her fingers.
“Good. You were a disaster on horseback.”
She laughed again. “Was I really?”
He shot her a sideways glance. “You were.”
He didn't say it unkindly, but it nettled her just the same. Was he always so blunt? All at once she wondered what sort of woman he was used to? What sort of woman did he like?
Fernanda patted her mouth with her wrinkled napkin and stood up. “I go for walk,” she announced.
Hawk snagged her forearm as she moved past. “No, you don't,
“Ah,” she acknowledged after a slight hesitation. “Perhaps I do not.”
Hawk grinned up at her. “I do like a smart woman, Fernanda.”
He wondered at the odd look that crossed Caroline's face, but before he could puzzle over it, he saw Jingo signaling him from the doorway. He rose, tossed down the sorry excuse for a napkin, and followed the driver outside. Dusk was falling; the big orange sun slipped slowly behind the hills and shadows were lengthening.
“Time to roll, Hawk. Got us about three hours till full dark.”
Hawk tried to shrug off the tension that tightened his belly into knots. Darkness was never a good time to avoid danger, especially the kind he sensed dogging the two women under his protection.
He paced twice around the stagecoach and tried to think about the situation he found himself in. A woman like Caroline MacFarlane was always going to be trouble, purposely sticking her pretty little neck out and just begging some lowlife to harm her. As soft and female as she appeared, she had a spine of steel and a stubborn streak wide as a housewife's broom.
But he sure did wish her hands weren't so white, that her voice wasn't low and just throaty enough to sound seductive. That her mouth... Ah, hell, he couldn't think about her mouth. And that hair, like fine spun silk and so black it reminded him of an ebony Arabian he'd lusted after years ago.
He handed his rifle up to Jingo and sat until Caroline and Fernanda walked out of the station and climbed into the coach. Followed half a heartbeat later by Overby.
Hawk eyed him. The gambler might not look menacing, but he sure made Hawk's nerves twitch.
* * *
Caroline closed her eyes to avoid Mr. Overby's glassy stare. The stagecoach had set off at a rapid clip and, despite the rough ride, the man had slept until ten minutes ago. Now that it was growing dark outside he suddenly became talkative.
Fernanda sent her a warning glance, and she resolved not to engage in conversation. Like most men, no doubt he was violently opposed to giving women the vote; the less she said the better.
Outside the coach window the landscape changed from gently rolling golden hills and broad valleys to a high tree-swathed plateau. Pines, Caroline guessed. Dark green, like those at their camp two nights ago, only closer together. Not much grew on the ground beneath them save for a kind of straggly grass with pale yellow flowers. Her lips firmed. The state of Oregon was inhospitable to not only women's rights; green growing things struggled for life, as well.
So Mr. Rivera did not like her speeches, did he? She would say he was a typical male, except that he was not typical at all. She had never known a man even remotely like him. In Texas, the Rangers were famous. And feared. After three days in Rivera's company, she could understand why.
Hawk Rivera rarely smiled, and his disturbing green eyes missed nothing. He had even noticed her choking on the whiskey he'd brought last night and that she did not finish her stew an hour ago.
His skin was tanned to a shade darker than even the stage driver's. Perhaps Rivera was part Mexican? But his given name was Andersonânot a Mexican name. Hawk could be an Indian nickname, a spirit name she'd heard it termed. Yes, that was it. He was like a hawk, predatory and no doubt lethal when crossed.
His voice, however, had no hint of an accent, Mexican or Indian. Though his words were blunt, they were carefully chosen and always to the point. Had he had some schooling, then? Also she couldn't help wondering why he had left Texas.
A shout from the driver jolted her to attention. The coach slowed, then swerved hard to the right. Fernanda jerked awake. “What is happening?”
* * *
Hawk spotted something on the road ahead and yelled at Jingo. A tree lay across the trail, fresh cut it looked like.
“I see it,” Jingo yelled. He started to slow the team.
“Don't stop, man! Go around it.”
The driver manhandled the traces, but with the trees so thick, there was nowhere to go. The coach veered hard and rattled to a stop.
Ambush? Hawk cocked his rifle, raised it shoulder high and scanned ahead through the deepening gloom.
“See anything?” Jingo breathed.
“No.” Still, it was too quiet.
“Think somebody laid that pine down a-purpose?”
“Yeah, I do. We'll have to move it to get past.”
“I'll get Overby out here to help.” He swung down to the ground.
Hawk had to lay down his Winchester to help the other two men jockey the tree out of the road, but the instant the rifle left his hand, a gunshot rang out. He dropped his end of the log and dove for his weapon, rolled once and fired into the trees, Then he sprinted for the coach.
“Take cover,” he yelled. A bullet whanged into the passenger door. Wood splintered, and from inside came Fernanda's answering voice.
He sighted his weapon into the trees but saw no movement of any kind. If he could force the man to fire again, the flare would pinpoint his location. He edged around the coach, keeping it at his back. If whoever it was wanted Caroline or Fernanda, they'd have to kill him first.
He waited. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jingo and Overby shove the tree aside, and Jingo scrambled back up into the driver's seat.
“Overby!” Hawk shouted. “Get up there next to him.”
The traces jingled softly as Jingo picked them up, and then the stage started to roll forward. Hawk hooked his left hand onto the coach door handle. “Go!” he yelled.
He heard the whip crack and he swung the door open and hung on. Another shot and this one grazed his upper arm. Jingo slowed just enough so he could fling his body inside.
Hands grabbed him. He pulled the rifle in and felt the stage pick up speed. Someone caught the door handle and heaved it shut. He knew it was the Mexican woman because Caroline was crushed on the floor beneath him.
He lifted his body off her, tossed the rifle down and pounded his fist twice on the roof. He heard Jingo give a Rebel yell and the stage accelerated.
“You are hurt!” Fernanda exclaimed.
“It's minor.” It didn't feel minor; it felt like a dull butcher knife had sliced into his skin, but he was alive and they were moving and he'd count his blessings later. He kicked his rifle out of the way and collapsed onto the seat. Then he reached down to help Caroline up off the floor.
“You all right?” he grated.
She nodded and tried to smile. The half-brave, half-terrified expression on her face sent a swift, sweet arrow straight into his gut. She reached out to touch his bloody arm.
“Don't,” he cautioned.
She snatched her hand back. “Does it hurt?”
Hell yes, it hurt. “Some, yeah.”
Fernanda lifted up her black skirt and ripped off the bottom ruffle of her petticoat. “Let me,
.” She wadded up the pad of cotton and pressed it hard where the blood was oozing. He shoved over on the seat to make room for her.
Fernanda shook her head. “Caroline, you sit next. Press hard where it bleeds.”
Caroline turned white, but the Mexican woman took her small manicured hand and slapped her palm against Hawk's shoulder.
“Don't faint,” he cautioned.
“I never faint.”
“You see a lot of bloody bullet wounds making speeches, do you?”
“Of course not. Who was that shooting at you?”
“Don't know. And I'm betting he wasn't aiming for me. It was you he wanted.”
Her hand jerked away from the compress and her face turned even more pasty. “Oh.”
“You gonna faint?”
“Certainly not.” She slapped the bloody pad back onto his arm. Hawk caught her hand.
“Caroline, you don't have to do this.”
She sent him a look with those purple-blue eyes of hers that stopped his heartbeat. “Oh, yes I do. You are risking your life to protect us.”
“Correction, Miss Speech-Maker,” he muttered. “You're the one out there stirring up the hornets' nests. It's you I'm protecting.”
Caroline said nothing. The truth was she could not think of one single sensible thing to say. And that was not at all like her. For the past year her whole life had been spent saying sensible things.
Fernanda said softly, “I am remember you in my prayers.”
Rivera looked across at Fernanda, and Caroline swallowed hard. Hawk Rivera's green eyes were suspiciously shiny.