Authors: Lynna Banning
Is not good what is happen now. Nobody happy. Nobody laugh. The priest, he was right, the world full of things we do not understand.
But this I do understand. My lady she is troubled in her heart. She is not a happy woman. She not thinking clear, as God intends. She is like her
, all the time watching and with the frown. All the time waiting.
I hear her at night. She not know that I listen, but I hear her dream bad things. I hear her cry out, and then I hear her weep.
I think this will not end good, like I had hope.
awk stretched his long frame out on the floor, positioning himself across the doorway as he had for the past four nights. Or was it five? It didn't matter. It wasn't going to end anytime soon.
He'd be damned if he'd give up now. He'd given his word to protect Caroline and he'd never yet gone back on a promise. And if he was honest with himself, it was more than just a promise; he couldn't stand the thought of anything happening to her.
He let out the breath he'd been holding. At the bar, he'd downed enough whiskey to drown a barrelful of pain, but it hadn't helped. It wasn't Caroline's slap across his face that hurt, it was knowing that she didn't want him. That she'd never want him, even if he was the last man in Idaho or Washington or wherever she was going.
But the worst part was something he hadn't counted on; she didn't want him, but by God, he wanted her.
He swallowed back a whiskey-laced bit of moisture and stifled a groan. What sane man would want a prickly, set-in-her-ways, stubborn suffragette lady in his bed?
He groaned again, this time out loud. He did. Hell's bells, he guessed he wasn't as sane as he'd thought.
For a long time he listened to Fernanda's and Caroline's steady breathing in the dark and tried not to follow where his thoughts wanted to take him. He had just closed his own eyes when he heard an odd sound. Not a thump, exactly, more like something heavy, like a glass, dropping onto the floor.
His neck hair prickled. It was a footstep, outside in the hall. Then another. The steps faded, then returned, then faded again.
His heart jumped into triple time. Someone was walking up and down in the hallway. Maybe a man some woman had locked out of her room?
Maybe. The footsteps thudded past once more, and this time they stopped right outside their door. Son of a blue-tailed fly. Very slowly, Hawk sat up and reached for his revolver.
He thumbed back the hammer, then rolled onto his knees and peered through the keyhole. Nothing, just a patch of patterned wallpaper on the opposite wall.
The footsteps returned, again stopping outside the door. Hawk squinted and now something dark appeared through the keyhole.
He was on his feet, yanking the door open, his revolver trained chest-high. A shadowed figure jerked away and bolted down the hall; then he heard footsteps pound down the stairs.
Hawk raced to the landing, but the staircase was empty. Far below he heard a door slam.
Damn. He padded quietly back into the room, shut the door and bolted it.
“Who was it?” Caroline's voice. She was sitting up in bed.
“You heard him? The footsteps?”
“Yes. I thought about getting my pistol from the trunk, but I was afraid I would wake Fernanda.”
Hawk snorted. “Forget Fernanda. Whoever it is doesn't want Fernanda.” He released the hammer on his revolver and stowed it under his pillow.
The bedclothes rustled. “Tomorrow...” She hesitated.
“Yeah? What about tomorrow? You change your mind?”
“N-no. But tomorrow I will keep my pistol in my skirt pocket, I promise.”
Hawk lay down on top of the quilt, slipped the revolver under his hand and tried to stop his bad thoughts. “Go back to sleep, Caroline.”
“I was not asleep.”
“Don't tell me that, dammit. You need to sleep.”
She said nothing for so long Hawk was certain she slept. Or he would have been certain except that he didn't hear any slow, rhythmic inhalations, and that meant she wasn't.
He lay in the quiet for a long time, listening.
* * *
When Caroline awoke, Hawk was gone.
Oh, dear God, what have I done?
She wished, oh, how she wished, she had not slapped him last night. She had wanted him to kiss her. If she were honest with herself she would have to admit she had been thinking about it for days. When she felt his hands in her hair her whole being had come alive, her blood thrumming through her veins like molten quicksilver.
But when his mouth had covered hers, she had panicked.
She squeezed her hands together so hard they hurt. She would never be normal, never be able to be close to a man, even one as trustworthy, as honorable, as Hawk Rivera. Now she had driven him away.
Fernanda eyed her as she climbed out of bed and stood at the chest of drawers, splashing cool water on her face. “
, you look like the devil has drag you around his boneyard.”
“I am quite all right, Fernanda. Just tired. And I am a little worried about today.”
Her companion planted her fists at her ample waist. “Is foolish thing you do today.
Hawk is right. You have the head of a pig.”
Caroline gasped. “He said that? That I am pigheaded?”
, pighead. Hawk leave before you wake to make sureâ”
“He did?” Her spirits lifted. “You mean he is still here in town?”
Fernanda looked at her oddly. “
, in town. Of course here in town. What did you think?”
“I thought...well, I thought he might have left. Gone back to Oregon.”
“Why he would do that?”
“Because I... Because he...”
Fernanda clucked her tongue. “Too many becauses. That man, he would not leave because you have bad words together.”
“But I alsoâ” She bit her tongue.
“Now hurry. You get ready for speaking. Hawk say to be ready when the church bell ring.”
Caroline's hands shook as she donned the dark blue bombazine skirt and the matching high-necked top, not because of nerves, but because of the relief that washed through her.
Hawk had not left
The bell at the church across the street began to clang, and she quickly wound her hair into a twist at her neck and settled her hat on her head. She was just arranging the feather over one eye when someone tapped twice on the door.
Fernanda flew over to it, knocked smartly three times and undid the bolt.
Hawk strode in, his hat pulled low over his tanned features. When he looked up she saw the scowl. He looked furious, but she couldn't blame him. His eyes were hard as jade, and from the set of his mouth she doubted he would ever smile again.
“Ready?” His eyes raked over her. “I hate that hat,” he muttered. “Makes you look sassy.”
Fernanda's spurt of laughter caught him off guard. He cut his gaze to her. “Sassy isn't going to win women the vote. Sassy is going to make every woman in the audience jealous and every man wonderâ” He bit off the rest of the thought.
“And good morning to you, too,” Caroline said.
Fernanda threw up her hands. “Children, do not fight now! Do so later, when nerves have settle.” Murmuring under her breath, she gathered up her black wool shawl and stomped out the door.
Caroline darted after her, but Hawk reached out and snagged her arm. “Stay behind me,” he ordered.
She followed him down the staircase, and at the bottom he dropped back to walk next to her, holding his rifle in his free hand. Enticing food smells wafted from the dining room, and her stomach rumbled. Her steps slowed.
“Don't even think about it,” he growled.
They walked in stony silence out the front entrance of the hotel and across the street to the grass-covered town park next to the church. It seemed like a thousand miles to the small wooden stage constructed in the shade of maple and ash trees dotting the area. With every step, Caroline tried to recall the opening words of her speech.
A good-sized crowd was gathered, some standing, some sitting on the grass. Around the perimeter stood five deputy sheriffs, badges winking in the dappled sunlight. A pile of gun belts and weapons mounded off to one side.
“How did those men know toâ?”
“You think I went out before dawn to order bacon and eggs?”
“You went to the sheriff's office,” she murmured.
“Hawk, thank you. Seeing them makes me feel much safer.”
He didn't reply, just took her elbow as she ascended the single step. But instead of positioning herself behind the waiting lectern, she stepped to the front of the stage. Then, while Hawk watched in disbelief, she unpinned her hat and dropped it onto the wooden floor at her feet.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she began.
Hawk settled into position two steps behind her and nodded at the balding sheriff standing at the back of the wooden platform. He counted at least five rifles and more holstered revolvers than he'd seen on the entire trip. The deputies all looked uneasy but sharp-eyed, and he began to breathe easier.
Caroline's voice carried well. “It is not only voting rights that women are denied. Women cannot serve on juries. Or run for office. Or...”
Hawk hadn't known about all those things a woman couldn't do. All his life he'd been concerned only with what a woman
doâcook, keep house, bear children. And make a man happy.
He thought again about his mother. Had those things been enough for her, living as Luis Rivera's wife? Raising his son?
An ache lodged under his breastbone. What about Whitefern? Had his wife been unhappy living with him in town instead of with her tribe in Black Oak Canyon? She couldn't have voted anyway, being Cherokee. But what about all those other things?
His mind snapped back to Marguerite Rivera. His father had idolized his mother, but then why had she run away? Why? And Whitefern had gone with her. Why?
Questions from the crowd were starting. Hawk strained his ears to hear those voiced from the back of the gathering.
“Why would a happy married woman wanna vote, anyway? Ain't as if she's gonna care about who runs for sheriff, or even president.”
Caroline fielded the queries with more polite good humor than he would have, given how simpleminded some of the comments were. After she had spoken for over an hour, she spied the pitcher of water left for her on the podium behind her. Still talking, she backed up toward it, then turned to reach for the glass.
The next thing Hawk knew she gave a cry and the pitcher crashed onto the floor. In an instant Hawk was beside her, his Winchester aimed into the crowd.
Unable to speak, she pointed under the water glass. Hawk caught her shoulder and pulled her hard against him, then glanced down at the podium.
A square of white paper lay where the pitcher had rested. Printed across it in black crayoned letters were five words: “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.”
“Sheriff Donovan,” Hawk yelled.
“Yo,” came a voice from under the trees.
“Search everyone. Look for a black crayon.”
He turned Caroline's shuddering frame into his arms. “Easy. Take it easy. It's all right. Nobody's gonna get to you.”
One of the deputies leaped onto the stage behind them and Hawk gradually moved Caroline toward him.
“She all right, Rivera?”
“So far. Escort us to the hotel, will you?”
“Sure thing.” The wiry young man looped his free arm around Caroline's shoulders and together he and Hawk walked her across the square and up the seven whitewashed steps into the hotel.
“IâI'm all right,” Caroline managed. She kept repeating the words until Hawk unlocked the door to their room, signaled dismissal to the deputy and moved her inside. The moment the door closed, she pressed her face into her hands and burst into tears.
“What the hell? Caroline?
He dropped the rifle onto Fernanda's bed and wrapped her in his arms, rocking her to and fro.
“Where is Fernanda?” she sobbed.
“With Sheriff Donovan. I asked him to look after her if anything happened.”
“Yeah?” He could barely stand the anguish in her voice.
She sniffled. “Hawk, are you hungry?”
He jerked as if he'd been shot.
“I s-said, are you hungry? Hawk, I'm scared and tired and...hungry. I can do nothing about being scared or tired, butâ”
Hawk stepped back and stared at her. “Yeah, I could eat something. Wait a minute.”
He took his handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped the tears off her cheeks. Then he turned her toward the door and stopped.
“You forgot your hat.”
“No, I didn't,” she said with a choked laugh. “I decided I don't like it anymore.”
Well, hell. If she didn't want to be sassy, what
He was afraid to ask.
aroline couldn't really eat much because she could not stop crying and kept laying down her fork to blow her sniffly nose. Apparently unbothered, Hawk managed to down half a roast chicken and three helpings of mashed potatoes swimming in gravy.
“I am such a coward,” she said, twisting her handkerchief in her lap.
“Whoa.” Hawk paused, a forkful of green beans on the way to his mouth.
“Well, I am,” she pursued. “I am not the least bit brave. I don't know how Mama managed to keep going.”
“Your momma wasn't being stalked. And since we're talking about bravery, let me tell you something I learned before I was out of short pants. Being brave doesn't mean you're not afraid. Being brave is when you're scared out of your skin but you move forward anyway.”
Her eyes filled with tears. Aw, hell, he'd kill the bastard who left that message.
“Caroline, do you have any idea who might want to hurt you?”
She shook her head. “No one ever threatened Mama in this way. It started after she died and I was carrying on alone.”
He gestured at her untouched plate. “Might as well finish your dinner. Then I've got another question for you.”
“Ask me now. I hate suspense, Hawk.”
“Get used to it,” he said. “I'm not about to bring up this subject in public.”
Her eyes widened into two huge purple-blue pools Hawk thought he might drown in if he wasn't careful. He dropped his gaze to his roast chicken and tore off a drumstick. Watching Caroline poke at her mashed potatoes wrung a chuckle from his too-dry throat. Still, she determinedly shoveled in tiny bites until the mound on her plate had shrunk by half.
“Want some more tea?” He signaled the waitress hovering near the kitchen. When she drew near, she leaned over near his ear.
“Sheriff Donovan would like to speak with you, sir.”
“Sure. Ask him to join us.”
Caroline pushed her chair back. “I'll just leave you toâ”
“Like hell.” He didn't look up, just grasped her forearm. “Sit.”
Sheriff Donovan slid his bulk onto an extra chair and hitched it up to the table with a tired sigh. “Afternoon, ma'am.”
“Find anything?” Hawk asked.
“Nope. No crayons. No pencils. Not even any schoolkid's chalk.”
“Know what I think?” Donovan tipped his balding head toward Caroline. “I think that note got wrote out beforehand. Whoever done it waited until that pitcher of water got set in place and then that note got slipped underneath at the last minute.”
Hawk nodded shortly. “Yeah.”
The sheriff lowered his voice. “If I was you, Rivera, I'd take the lady and skedaddle.”
“Yeah,” Hawk said again. “Thanks.”
The sheriff got to his feet. “Skedaddle,” he repeated. He touched two fingers to his hat brim. “Ma'am.”
Caroline clanked her teacup onto the china saucer. “I'm not going to skeâ”
“Upstairs,” Hawk interrupted.
They met Fernanda in the hallway outside the hotel room. “I go light more candles,
“Not yet,” Hawk said. “I spied some cherry brandy behind the bar last night. Could you get it and bring it up to the room?” He slipped a bill into her hand. “Buy all the candles you want with the change.”
He unlocked the door to their room. “Pack up your trunk,” he ordered.
“What? But the train doesn't leave untilâ”
“Forget the train for now. I want you to sit down and hear me out about something. Two somethings,” he amended.
She perched on the edge of her bed. Hawk paced to the window and back until Fernanda returned with the brandy and three glasses; then she slipped out to visit the church again.
From the window he watched the Mexican woman cross the street. When her long black skirt disappeared into the wooden doorway, he uncorked the brandy and sloshed two hefty slugs into each tumbler.
Tentatively Caroline touched her tongue to the liquid. It stung like fire, but it tasted sweet and rich, like ripe cherries. Hawk tossed his back in a single gulp and poured another.
When she had downed about half her brandy he lifted the glass out of her hand, set it on the carpet beside the bed and hunkered down in front of her.
“Two things,” he reminded. “First, about your speech-making.”
She stiffened. “What is wrong with my speech-making?”
“Nothing's wrong with it. Hell, I'm halfway convinced by what you say myself.”
She sent him a smile that made his joints melt. “Then what is it?”
Hawk exhaled on a sigh. “I think you're running on borrowed time. In fact, I think you're out of time. If someone can get close enough to you to slip a note under your water glass, sooner or later that someone is going to do more than connect.”
“Connect?” Her voice sounded breathy. Maybe it was the brandy. Most likely it was gut-deep fear.
“Connect as in kill you.”
She gave a little jump. “Oh.” Once again those eyes of hers got so big he could swim around in them.
“So here's my first question. Can you be ready to leave tonight? There's a train going south at midnight.”
“But I'm not going south, Hawk. I'm going west, to Washington Territory. To Huntington.”
“I want you to go south. Back to Oakridge, and then on to Gillette Springs. And then back to Smoke River.”
“But why? I promised Mama... Hawk, I must continue.”
“Well, Caroline, I'm asking you not to continue. I want to keep you safe, Caroline, but I can't do it with some kind of trap I can't even see closing in. In Smoke River, I...”
He took another swallow of brandy. “I can protect you in Smoke River. I know everybody in town, and I can get help from men I trust. I want toâGod, this is hard to say. I want to set up a trap.”
“Oh. I assume that is not so difficult. Why did you hesitate to tell me?”
“Because, Caroline, you're going to be the bait.”
He snaked her glass up from the floor and pressed her fingers around it. “It's dangerous. But not as dangerous as riding blind in a territory I'm not familiar with, working with people I don't know.”
She took a big gulp of the brandy. He could tell when it went down because her eyes teared up.
“I would have to give up the speaking circuit Mama and I had planned.”
“The one I promised her I would complete after she died.”
She looked straight at him. “I won't do it.”
“Caroline, look at it this way. Do you want to end up maybe changing a few minds, or even a lot of minds? Or do you want to end up dead?”
He thought she'd gone white before; now she looked like a damn ghost. He got to his feet and paced around the room while she just sat there on the bed, nursing her brandy.
“Well?” he said when he couldn't stand it any longer. He squatted on his heels before her.
“Yes,” she murmured. “I want to live.”
Thank you, Lord
“Now,” she said in an unnaturally calm tone, “what is your second âsomething'?”
He held her gaze and prayed she wasn't going to bolt. “I want you to tell me why you slapped me last night.”
She tried to look away but he reached up and caught her chin, turning her face back toward him.
“Yeah, you can.”
“Iâit has nothing to do with you. I swear it.”
“For that I'm damn grateful. But I still want to knowâwhat
it have to do with?”
She tried to look everywhere but at him, but again, he didn't let her escape. His fingers kept gently returning her gaze to his; even when her eyes overflowed he made her look at him.
“It has to do with another man,” she said finally.
“I figured something like that. Want to tell me about it?”
“No,” she said quickly. Too quickly.
“Yes,” he breathed. “Tell me what happened.”
“He...he was bigger than I was. Stronger.” She shook her head and shut her eyes tight. Hawk knew what was coming. His gut clenched, but he kept his hand against her chin and didn't move.
“This man, he...he forced me.”
He didn't move, just waited. Her breathing grew more ragged, and then she was gulping back sobs.
“I was only t-twelve. He held me down and...and...”
He slid onto the bed beside her and wrapped both arms around her. Her brandy sloshed over onto his jeans but it didn't matter.
“And that's why you can't stand for a man to touch you. Kiss you.”
She made an inarticulate sound against his shoulder.
“Who was it, Caroline?”
She shook her head violently and tried to break free. With one hand he pressed her head into his neck.
“Someone you knew?”
She gave a cry and wrenched away from him. Deliberately he brought her back within the circle of his arms.
“Someone you knew?” he repeated in a whisper.
Suddenly she tipped her head back and looked into his eyes. “It was my father.”
Stunned, Hawk stared at her. “God damn him,” he said, his voice quiet. “God damn him to hell.”
She twisted away, but he held on. “Did your mother know?”
She shook her head, her mouth working.
“No.” Her voice was so faint he had to strain to hear.
“Only you know.”
“And then what?” He was afraid to ask, but he knew he had to finish it.
“I shot him.”