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Authors: Janet Dailey

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BOOK: Texas Tough
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“This is bigger than Axelrod,” Beau said. “Whoever's pulling the strings is still out there.”
 
Stella Rawlins turned away from the big-screen TV above the bar and lit a Marlboro to celebrate. Hoyt Axelrod was dead and couldn't implicate her. She could breathe easy again.
“You gonna tell me how you pulled that off?” Her husky half brother Nick was perched on a bar stool, sipping coffee and munching a stale doughnut. The morning sun, slanting through half-closed plastic shutters, gleamed on the black Maori-style tattoos that ringed his shaved head.
Stella blew a lazy smoke ring. “The less you know, the better, Nicky. For you as well as for me.”
“Gotcha.” Nick carried his cup behind the bar to rinse it.
Nick, who went by Nigel these days, had been a runner for the Rumanian mob in New Jersey. After snitching on them in a plea deal, he'd been forced into hiding. Stella had taken him in two years ago when she'd bought the Blue Coyote Bar in Blanco Springs. He'd proved his worth as her bartender and bouncer. But she knew better than to trust him—or anybody else—with her secrets.
She'd done pretty well for herself here in Blanco. The town was off the beaten track but with easy access to the Mexican border. Trading Texas guns for Mexican drugs had made her a tidy profit. But if she'd learned one thing, it was to keep her hands clean and leave the dirty work to others. So far it had worked. As far as the law was concerned, her record was spotless.
Her business depended on connections and the exchange of favors. Money, sex, and fear were valuable tools, and Stella knew how to use them all. But there'd been some collateral damage along the way—Jess Warner, the waitress who'd stumbled on one secret too many; Slade Haskell, who'd become a useless, wife-beating drunk; Lute Fletcher, the half-breed boy who'd gotten too greedy for his own good; and now Hoyt Axelrod, the sheriff whose one big mistake had been getting himself arrested.
Hoyt had been a wheezing walrus in bed. But his skills with a long-range rifle had come in handy. He wouldn't be an easy man to replace.
Turning back to stub out her cigarette, Stella caught her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Without makeup she looked old and tired. Her flame-colored hair needed a fresh dye job, and the crow's feet were deepening at the corners of her eyes. She was forty-six years old. How much longer could she work this racket and get away with it? She needed something more. She needed security.
A Dallas crime family was looking to expand its reach. They'd sent out feelers about her Mexican ties—a tentative invitation for her to join them. Stella had always prided herself on flying solo, but having an organization to back her wouldn't be all bad. They'd demand a cut, of course, but in return she'd get protection and, if needed, access to a reliable hit man.
But she couldn't go begging to them, or give them the keys to an operation they could easily take over. She needed something to offer them—some sphere of influence uniquely hers, to keep power in her own corner.
The early-morning newscast had ended. Stella was about to switch off the TV when a paid political ad came on the screen. The ad was a low-budget job, just some talking head running for reelection to Congress. The candidate, a silver-haired man, wasn't bad looking, but he could have used better lighting and a decent makeup artist. And why would he be plugging for votes at an hour when so few voters would be watching? Maybe his campaign was short on funds. Prime time had to be expensive.
Nick was watching her from behind the bar. “I've seen that look,” he said. “Why are you smiling?”
“Because I just got one helluva good idea.”
“What kind of idea?” he asked.
Laughing, Stella poured herself a fresh cup of coffee. “As I said, little brother, the less you know, the better.”
 
Sky and Beau had taken the ranch pickup to check the place where Jasper had been shot. At this early hour, a whisper of coolness lingered on the morning air. They rode with the pickup windows rolled down, the air blasting their faces, drinking in the freshness before the rising sun could burn it away. Beau was at the wheel, Sky scouting the parched landscape for anything that looked out of place.
“We don't even know for sure if we're dealing with smugglers,” Sky said.
“True,” Beau said. “But somebody's been leaving tracks and cigarette butts out here. Something's going on—I'd say either drug running or illegal immigrants. Whatever it was, Jasper must've gotten too close.”
“So why didn't they make sure he was dead?” Sky argued. “I'm with Will. I'd bet on a bunch of fool kids who got scared and ran when they saw what they'd done.”
“Maybe we'll find some answers this morning.” Beau steered the pickup around a jutting rock. A collared lizard skittered clear of the wheels. In the near distance, swallows skimmed and darted above the muddy seep where Jasper had been found. They scattered as the truck drew closer.
“Tell me something.” Beau's voice had taken on a mischievous note. “How did that little earring really manage to fall out of Lauren's ear and roll behind the computer?”
Sky glanced away to hide a flush of heat. “None of your damned business,” he said.
Beau guffawed as he pulled the truck to a stop. “Have it your way. Your secret's safe with me. But if the congressman gets wind of it, you'd better have a place to run.”
“I wouldn't back down from Garn Prescott—not even if I wanted his daughter, which I don't.”
“Then you've got more pride than sense.”
“Leave it alone, Beau.” Sky opened the door and swung out of the truck. He hadn't been here since the night before last, when they'd found Jasper. He was curious to inspect the spot by daylight. And he was anxious to escape Beau's ribbing.
“I see plenty of tracks.” Beau studied the ground. “But most of them look like yours and mine.”
“We had to free Jasper. And then I had to come back and load the ATV. If I'd been thinking about clues, I'd have been more careful.” Sky crouched to look closer. “The paramedics left tracks, too. See, here and here? They were wearing sneakers. But unless the shotgun fell off the ATV, somebody had to get close enough to steal it. Here's where the roll bar landed. They would've had to reach—”
He broke off as he found the track. A dozen paces short of the seep, it was almost obscured by the others. It was the shallow imprint of a cowboy boot, the toe long and pointed, the sole and heel worn around the edges, maybe a narrow size 8. Not a big man; maybe even a boy. Or . . .
A sense of unease crept over Sky. He didn't like what he was seeing. And he didn't like where his thoughts were leading him.
“Let's see what else we can find,” he said, rising. “Maybe we'll get lucky.”
“Here.” Beau had started a wider circle of the spring. He'd dropped to a crouch and was gazing at the ground, where the crushed stub of a marijuana joint, hand-wrapped in brown paper, lay in the dust.
“We'd better collect this.” Beau had worked for the DEA between his army stint and his return to the Rimrock. This was his area of expertise. He whipped out his cell phone and snapped a photo. “If they were smoking weed, they could've been dealing it, too.”
“I saw a sandwich bag in the truck.” Sky found what he was looking for and returned. After turning the plastic bag inside out, Beau used it to scoop up the joint.
“With luck it'll have some traceable DNA on it,” he said.
“You're not going to turn it over to Abner Sweeney, are you?” Sky asked.
“Sweeney wouldn't know DNA from his own rear end.” Beau rose, slipping the bagged evidence into the pocket of his shirt. “I'll hang on to this until we learn more. It'll come in handy for matching if a suspect turns up.”
Sky bit back what he'd been about to say. It was too soon to borrow trouble, too soon to make assumptions. He'd need to do more investigating on his own before he voiced his suspicions. But in the end he knew where his loyalties lay. Somebody had trespassed on ranch property and shot an irreplaceable old man—and somebody, whoever it might be, would have to pay.
“Maybe I can find the casing from the shot,” he said. “If we don't collect it now, it's liable to end up in some pack rat's midden.”
“Good luck with that,” Beau said. “It could be anywhere within a couple of hundred yards, and we need to get back before long.”
“Give me fifteen minutes.”
“How about a bet? If you don't find the casing, you'll tell me about your encounter with the delicious Miss Prescott.”
“And if I do find it? Forget the bet. There's nothing I want.” Sky started with the place where Jasper's ATV had wrecked and backtracked from there. Before shooting into the seep, the tire tracks zigzagged erratically in the dust, bouncing against rocks and flying over hollows. Twenty yards back, the tracks changed to form a controlled line. This, then, would most likely be where Jasper had been when the bullet struck him.
Sky studied the spot, calculating where the shot would have come from. The bullet had struck Jasper from the front, which would eliminate most of the area behind him and to the sides. Since Jasper claimed he hadn't seen anyone, the shooter had probably hidden behind something—all guesswork, but if it led him to the casing, he would know he'd been right.
By now the sun was coming up, its rim a blinding streak above the plains. Jasper had gone out early. Had he been facing into the sun when he was shot? Shading his eyes, Sky scanned to the horizon. A big clump of mesquite stood within easy shooting distance. Sprinting toward it, he circled and came in from behind.
This had to be the place. There were plenty of tracks—the smaller, worn cowboy boots he'd noticed earlier and a larger pair that looked more like a motorcycle boot. There were motorcycle tracks as well. Sky studied the tread pattern, setting it in his mind. He thought about calling Beau over, but Beau was impatient to leave. He would look around for the casing and call it good.
Just behind the mesquite clump, he could see a cluster of tracks, as if someone had crouched there. Most of these tracks were made by the smaller boots. But the larger tracks were here, too. Had the shot been fired from this spot? Following Beau's example, Sky used his cell phone to snap a picture.
At the base of a rock, the sunlight glinted on a bit of brass. It was the casing from the bullet. Sky photographed it in place, then picked it up with his clean handkerchief. Maybe he should have made that bet with Beau after all.
Only as he was turning to go did he notice another object, lying in the dust. As soon as he saw it, Sky realized what it was.
Without remembering to take a picture, he picked it up. His stomach clenched. It was a folded two-blade pocket knife—small, cheap, and old. The handle was covered in plastic made to look like mother of pearl. Sky turned the knife over, knowing what he would see. Two initials, darkened from years of handling, were scratched into the plastic.
S.F.
They were Sky's own initials. He'd carved them himself, with the point of a nail, as a boy of ten.
CHAPTER 4
“M
ay I join you, Lauren?” Congressman Garn Prescott pulled out a chair and sat down at the dining room table. Lauren smeared a dab of strawberry jam on her wheat toast. She'd hoped to finish her breakfast and escape before he came downstairs. So far this wasn't her lucky day.
The Mexican cook who came in part time brought him a fresh carafe of coffee and a plate of bacon, fried eggs, and grits. This morning the congressman was dressed in a baby blue shirt with a bolo tie. His striking silver hair was carefully over-combed to hide the thinning spot on top. He was only fifty-two, but up close he looked older. Too much Texas sun had splotched his fair skin. Too much social drinking and greasy food had left him with an old man's belly on his lanky frame.
“I understand you spent yesterday afternoon working for the Tylers,” he said. “I was hoping maybe you and Beau—”
“Beau's engaged—and he's in love with his fiancée.”
“Well, you're spending a lot of time over there.”
“So? The Tylers pay me decently and the experience will look good on my résumé. Besides, Bernice makes the best coffee in the whole blessed state of Texas.” Lauren glanced away to hide the blaze in her cheeks. If her father knew what she'd been up to yesterday with Sky, he'd have her on the next plane back to Maryland.
If she'd dropped her panties for a man with money and influence, the congressman might have secretly approved. But Sky Fletcher had no fortune, no pedigree, and no political clout. The fact that he was part Comanche and worked with his hands for somebody else would be a total strikeout in her father's book.
Could that be one reason she found Sky such a compelling challenge?
Yesterday, after he'd left her steaming, she'd vowed never to go near Sky again. But she'd been angry and hurt. Now that she'd had time to lick her wounds, damned if she wasn't intrigued. She found herself wanting to know more about the fabled horse whisperer of the Rimrock, and wondering whether any woman alive could corral him.
“Why should you bother with a career, anyway?” her father was saying. “You're pretty enough to snag a rich husband and be set for life. And right now I could use your help with my campaign. A lovely young thing like you could get me more attention from the press, as well as opening doors and wallets. Take that fund-raising barbecue I'm staging tomorrow night in Lubbock—the one where the former Secretary of Agriculture will be speaking. You could make an impression on some important people. I hear the governor's stepson will be there. He's good-looking and newly single.”
Lauren stifled a groan. “Please don't start on this again, Dad. I've earned a college degree, and I
want
a career. I came here to get some work experience so I can apply for a real job. Between keeping the books for this ranch and what I'm doing for Beau Tyler, I don't have time to get involved in your campaign. And husband hunting isn't even in the picture. I'm still getting over Mike.”
“How long does that take? It's been a year, dammit! It's high time you were moving on, getting married. You need a man to satisfy your needs and keep you respectable. Otherwise you'll end up like your mother—”
“Stop it!” Lauren rose, quivering. “Whatever my mother did, you probably drove her to it. And if you say one more word against her, I'll go upstairs, pack my bags, and be on the next plane east.”
He sagged in his chair, shaking his head. “Oh, hell, never mind. I still maintain I'm right, but it's not worth spoiling the day. Sit down. Finish your breakfast, and we'll say no more about it.”
Lauren exhaled and surrendered, knowing that storming off would only make things worse. She'd been four years old when her mother had left Garn Prescott and moved back to Maryland to be near her family. In the years that followed, Fiona Wentworth Prescott, blessed with stunning beauty and family money, had flitted from party to party and from lover to lover. But she'd always been there for her daughter. Lauren had never wanted for affection or any material thing that caught her fancy.
Fiona's death in a car crash when Lauren was fifteen had been the most shattering event of her youth. Her cold, practical grandparents had finished raising her, while the father she barely remembered had remained a stranger.
In most ways, Garn Prescott was still a stranger.
“What are you looking at?” he asked her, switching to a less volatile subject.
“That photograph above the sideboard. I've never paid attention to it before. When was it taken?” Lauren was making small talk now, but the picture, mounted in a rustic knotted pine frame, was intriguing. The faces and figures were slightly blurred, as if the image had been blown up from a smaller photo. It showed a summer gathering—a party or picnic—on the front steps of the ranch house.
Rising with her coffee, Lauren moved in for a closer look. One figure was unmistakable. Standing in the center of the photo, dressed in hunting clothes and holding a glass in one hand, was a smiling Ronald Reagan.
“He was still president then,” her father said. “Some party bigwigs invited him to come bird hunting, and my dad volunteered to host a picnic here afterward. See, that's me standing next to the great man. I was still a pup, not even married yet, but that was the day I decided I wanted to go into politics. That's why I hung the picture, to remind me.”
Lauren studied the photo. Her father would have been about twenty. She recognized the wavy blond hair and slightly receding chin. His parents, both of them gone now, were standing on the other side of the president—Ferguson Prescott, short and thickset, with a bristling mustache and a gaze fierce enough to cut steel; his pale wife, Edith, looking drained as always. Ferg had made her pregnant five times. Only Garn had survived.
There were other people in the photo—neighbors, party dignitaries, and Secret Service agents skulking in the background. At the edge of the picture, a tall, slender young woman in an apron held a tray of cocktail glasses. It appeared she'd meant to step back out of camera range but hadn't moved far enough.
“Who's that woman?” Lauren asked.
“The dark one? Nobody. Just the maid.”
“She's beautiful. Look at those dark eyes, and those high cheekbones. She could have been a model. What ever happened to her?”
Prescott shrugged. “Who knows? After this picture was taken, I went away to school. When I came home for my mother's funeral, she was here, but the next time I came back she was gone. I never asked about her. Why should I?” Prescott slathered butter on another slice of toast. “That fund-raiser tomorrow night—is it negotiable?”
“What do you mean, negotiable?” She turned back toward him, setting her coffee cup on the table.
“I don't have the time or energy to spend the whole summer fighting with you, Lauren. So I'm prepared to bargain. Tell me something you want, within reason of course. Go to the fund-raiser with me, and it's yours.”
Lauren took a moment to think. Much as she disliked giving in, her father's offer made sense. The constant friction was wearing them both down. Why not go to the fund-raiser if it meant getting something she wanted?
But what did she want? The idea—so bold that it kicked her pulse into high gear—sprang out of nowhere.
“Only this one fund-raiser, right?”
“For now,” he said. “So what do you want in exchange?”
A thoughtful smile tugged at her mouth. “I haven't ridden since high school,” she said. “I want to take it up again. And I want my pick of any horse on the ranch.”
 
Garn Prescott remained at the table after Lauren left, sipping his coffee and sopping up his eggs with his bread, the way he'd liked to do as a boy. He reached for the carafe to refill his empty coffee cup, then changed his mind and pulled a thin silver flask out of his hip pocket. He was sipping the bourbon he'd poured when his cell phone rang. The name on the display was that of Ted Abernathy, his campaign manager.
“Howdy, Ted.” His voice took on the folksy tone he used with his constituents. “Yup, I'm good to go for the fund-raiser. Even bringin' my pretty daughter along to sweeten up the contributors. Are we set with the barbecue?” He paused as the voice crackled on the other end of the call. “What? They want payment in advance? The hell you say!”
Prescott's fingers snapped the handle on his late second wife's Limoges cup, spilling a trickle of bourbon on the table. He'd planned to reimburse the caterer out of funds raised at the event. To pay in advance would drain his war chest down to pocket change at a time when he needed every penny. Hoyt Axelrod's arrest had taken care of his most worrisome opponent, but other candidates were crawling into the open like rats out of a haystack—and one of them was even a damned war hero. Prescott was fighting for his political life. And the one weapon he desperately needed—cash—had become as scarce as rain in this drought-ravaged summer. Once he got the nomination, the party machine would kick in. But until then—with the nomination in peril, the conservatives deserting him and the primary less than two months away—he was on his own.
All the more reason word mustn't get out that his campaign was hard up for money.
“Pay the bastards, Ted,” he sighed. “If there's not enough in the account, let me know and I'll dig into my own pocket. Let's hope we can make it up at the fund-raiser.”
“Will do.” Abernathy's voice came through as the static cleared. “Did you hear that Hoyt Axelrod died in his cell?”
“What? Hell, no!”
“It's been on the news all morning. Since he was set to run against you, making a statement would get you some press. I can write it up for you—good lawman gone bad, the final tragedy, whatever.”
“Fine. E-mail it to me and set things up with the TV station—maybe that hot little blonde, Mindi Thacker, could do an interview. At least she's good-looking.” Prescott hung up the phone and poured himself another three fingers of bourbon. The way the day was starting out, he was going to need it.
 
Sky pulled the pickup into the hospital parking lot and switched off the ignition. As he turned sideways to swing down from the driver's seat, he felt the press of the little pocketknife he'd slipped into his jeans. All the way to Lubbock, he'd been wrestling with his conscience. Sooner or later he'd have to show the knife to Beau and Will and tell them what it meant. But did he have to do it today, or could he leave it till he'd had the chance to check things out for himself?
Either way, Sky knew the conclusion would likely be the same. Jasper had been shot and left for dead by a member of his own family.
For years Sky had struggled to put his ugly childhood behind him. But there could be no denying who he was and where he'd come from—especially when pieces of his past kept resurfacing in the present.
After losing his mother, young Sky had gone to live with her brother's family in Oklahoma. His aunt had descended from a long line of Comancheros—border bandits who'd dealt in guns, liquor, and slaves. Their lawless traits had filtered down through the generations. Smuggling, theft, forgery, grift, and abuse were a daily part of life in the Fletcher household. At fifteen, Sky had run away, his back scarred by blows from his uncle's belt.
Two of the children, a girl and a boy, had been born after Sky's arrival. Years later, hoping to save at least one of them, Sky had invited the boy to come to work on the Rimrock. But the intervention had come too late. Lute had proved as rotten as the others.
As for the girl . . .
Sky's thoughts scattered as he stepped into the hospital waiting room. Bernice, looking like she'd aged ten years, was dozing in the rocker, her knitting in a tumble on the floor. The poor woman had been here ever since Jasper was brought in. She needed to go home and get some rest.
Scooping up the yarn and knitting needles, Sky laid them gently in her lap. She opened her pale eyes. “Oh, hullo,” she mumbled. “Is it daytime yet?”
“Yes, and I'm here to drive you home,” Sky said. “How's Jasper?”
“All right, I think. He had some pain in the night. But they gave him some pills that seemed to help. When I looked in on him early this morning he was sleeping like a baby.”
“What do you say we go check on him? Then we can head home.” Sky helped her to stand. He could have gone to see Jasper alone, but he knew Bernice wouldn't leave until she was sure her brother was all right.
She took his arm as they moved down the hall. They found Jasper sound asleep. His color was good, the oxygen mask replaced by a tube with a clip. Bernice tiptoed to his bedside and touched his hand, as if to reassure herself that her brother was still warm. Turning, she gave Sky a tired smile. “We can go now,” she said.
In the truck she was quiet. “He'll be all right, Bernice,” Sky said. “Your brother is one tough old cowboy.”
“I know that. But we can't all be tough forever.”
“How come Jasper never had a family? I've wondered, but I never asked. Figured that was his own business.”
“His sweetheart died—drowned in a flood three days before their wedding. Pretty little thing—Sally was her name. Jasper never got over her. But he has a family—Will and Beau, you and me, Erin, and everyone on the ranch. That's his family.”
Ignoring the tightness in his throat, Sky swung the truck onto the main highway. “Did you know Will and Beau's mother?” he asked.
“I never did. She died a few weeks before I came to cook and take care of the boys. You know how it happened, don't you?”
Sky had heard the story—how Bull's wife, Susan, had been driving home from town and blown a front tire on her car. Out of control, she'd crossed the median into the path of a speeding semi-truck and died in the crash.
BOOK: Texas Tough
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