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Authors: Patricia; Potter

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BOOK: Wanted
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She took the baby and crawled from the wagon. They were in the middle of nowhere, but there was tall prairie grass here. She could hide. She and the baby.

He whimpered, and she pressed him to her. Nicholas. “I'll take care of you,” she whispered, knowing that the others in the cabin must be dead. This baby was a gift, sent by God for her to protect, to take the place of her own boy.

John Davis knew he was going to die. His blood had turned cold when he heard the first Comanche yell. He ran to the door, estimating whether he could reach the wagon; more than likely, he would be caught in the open and Susan and Morgan would have no protection. He had to leave the woman and the other child in the wagon. Thank God she had moved out of sight.

He slammed the door and went for one of his two rifles. It was too late to hide in the cellar; the wagon and smoke from the chimney told only too well of someone's presence.

He broke the glass in the window, aimed, and fired. He hit one of the Comanches, then another. As they drew back, he looked over at Susan, who was now sitting up in the bed, clutching the baby. He laid the gun next to the window, moved swiftly to the trapdoor, and pulled it open. He reached for her.

“No,” she said. “Put the baby in there, but I won't go. I can load for you.”

He hesitated, then saw the determination in her eyes. He knew that look. If he forced her down, she would be back up immediately. He simply nodded, thinking how lucky he was, how lucky he had been, to be loved by her.

Maybe that luck would hold. If he could only hold out for an hour, if Callum could gather others … He put the small wrapped figure of his child in the cellar, holding him tightly for a moment first. Morgan. His firstborn. He rubbed the small dark fuzz at the top of the baby's head, and then shots intruded on that very short time of tenderness. He lifted himself up, closed the door, and replaced the colorful rug.

He turned around and saw that Susan had taken the other gun and was trying to aim it. But her hands trembled. John took it from her, his blue eyes holding hers for an instant before he looked out the window once more.

He saw the wagon horses pull free from where they were hitched and watched as the wagon went careening across the prairie. His distraction ended immediately when a bullet plowed into his chest. He heard Susan's cry, felt her arms go around him, and then there were more shots. He felt another pain, then the weight of Susan's body as it slumped on his, her blood mixing with his blood.

His last thought was of the babies. “God keep them safe,” he prayed as his life emptied on the floorboards.

Callum Smith found the baby in the cellar. He had warned the two remaining families and accompanied them to the Ranger station, where one small unit of Rangers had returned from the border.

Five of them rode hell-bent for John Davis's place, only to find ashes—and two corpses burned beyond recognition. Disregarding the lingering heat from the fire, Callum went to the trapdoor, hoping against hope that he would find someone alive.

His glove protected his hand from the heat that remained in the tin. He and another Ranger pulled until it finally came off, and he heard a weak cry from within.

He lowered himself and found the tiny mewing bundle. The air was hot and stuffy, and he wondered at the newborn's will to live.

Callum picked the child up awkwardly. John had told him he intended to name the baby Morgan if it was a boy, after one of their old commanders in the Rangers. He swallowed. Neither John nor Susan had any family. What would happen to the little tyke? He handed the baby to one of the other Rangers, then climbed up.

If only they had arrived sooner, he thought as he took back the baby. If only …

He looked at the two embracing bodies. What had happened to the other woman? Probably taken by the Comanches. She had been pretty, blond. The kind the savages preferred in white women. The Rangers would look for her, but he didn't hold much hope. White women didn't last long with the Comanches, and he suspected this small group of renegades would head to Mexico now that the Rangers were back.

The baby. Callum felt responsible. He had let down his friend. His fellow Ranger. He couldn't let the child go to an orphanage. He owed John and Susan. He would take the baby and somehow raise it. Maria, his housekeeper of sorts, could take care of the child whenever he was gone. He would raise him as John would have liked.

As a Ranger.

Two days. Maybe three. Fleur Bailey stumbled along the rutted road. Her milk was drying, the milk that had remained in her after her baby died. The milk that kept Nicholas alive.

She was thirsty and hungry. Her left shoulder hurt like the devil, but she had to keep going. She had to find help.

She heard the sound of a wagon, and she dropped to the ground. She had become wary, afraid that the Comanches would come, or that someone would take her child from her. Her Nicholas.

She listened as the heavy wagon came closer and she could see the words on the gaudily decorated sides.
DR
.
BRADEN
'
S MIRACLE MEDICINES
.

A doctor. She crawled on the road, clutching the baby, and heard a shout, heard the sound of a team being pulled to a halt She was tired, so tired. And safe.

Her eyes closed, her body finally succumbing to the shock and exhaustion and fear of the last few days. She didn't even wake when a small man, less than four feet tall, scrambled over to her side. Nor did she feel the arms of the taller man, his dark eyes curious and compassionate, as he picked her up and carried her inside the wagon, while the small man followed with her son.

She wasn't aware of her mutterings, of her scrambled words about Comanches and a dead husband. All were dead, she said. All but her son, Nicholas.

CHAPTER ONE

Wyoming, 1876

A Texas Ranger's face had no place on a wanted poster!

Not for the first time, Morgan Davis pulled out of his pocket the wrinkled piece of paper, stared at the features sketched there, which were so like his own, then folded and replaced the poster. Every time he looked at it, his blood boiled.

He turned his gaze down toward the cabin that sat on the bank of a creek below. After eight weeks of trailing Nicholas Braden, he had finally tracked him here last night to Medicine Bow in southeast Wyoming. Braden
and
his sister, dammit. Morgan had been watching both of them move around outside the cabin since early morning.

When the two had first appeared, Morgan swore softly, reluctantly deciding to bide his time until exactly the right moment. It had taken him two months to locate Braden. A few more minutes didn't matter.

Morgan's hand went up to his face. After being mistaken for Braden several times, he'd decided to grow a mustache in pure self-defense. But he hated the damn thing. He hated being forced to change his own appearance because of a killer. Days of traveling had added even more bristle to his face, and he felt like one of the renegades he'd chased over the past fourteen years. He rubbed his cheeks, despising the feel of roughness, the dust that clung to him.

His outrage had grown when he'd observed that Braden had not felt it necessary to disguise himself. But it was that very carelessness that would be his quarry's downfall. Braden apparently believed he was out of the law's reach. He hadn't counted on Morgan's persistence.

Three months ago Morgan's life had suddenly changed radically from that of hunter to hunted. Three months ago the first bounty hunters had accosted Morgan.

He'd been returning to the El Paso Ranger station after spending four hard weeks tracking a group of cattle rustlers. He'd stopped for the night at a spring when two men rode up. Morgan had been suspicious. Hell, he'd been raised to be suspicious, and nothing in his fifteen years as a lawman had moderated that attitude. But with hand on his pistol butt, he'd extended prairie hospitality, offering to share his coffee. He hadn't liked the two strangers, but, then, he liked few people other than his fellow Rangers. He had a core-deep distrust of his fellow man, and there was a coldness in the newcomers' eyes that bespoke of an occupation Morgan despised. If they weren't gunfighters, he'd eat his well-soiled hat.

None of them talked much, except to discuss the hellishly hot weather. Morgan wasn't wearing his badge; he often didn't when he wasn't on duty. He didn't like attention. He didn't want people remembering his face. He worked undercover frequently, and he'd learned the value of anonymity. Only his eyes were memorable—a rare, deep indigo-blue—and he tried to hide them by wearing his wide-brimmed hat low on his forehead. He also often added an eye patch, which distracted attention from the distinctive color of his uncovered eye.

The three men had retired early, but something had nagged at Morgan, and he'd dozed lightly. In the late hours of the night the two strangers had made their move, and Morgan had heard the cock of a pistol. But Morgan had been faster.

Both were killed immediately. Morgan didn't make mistakes. He went through their pockets and immediately found the reason for the attack. The promise of a five-thousand-dollar bounty. A fortune! His eyes skimmed the drawing, visible in the bright light of a full moon. He stiffened. He might as well be looking at himself. He read the text slowly and carefully.

WANTED

NICHOLAS “NICK” BRADEN

For the murder of Wade Wardlaw of Harmony, Texas

There was a sketch, then a description:

Six feet tall, dark-brown hair, dark-blue eyes, 180 pounds

Rides bay horse

$5,000 Reward

DEAD OR ALIVE

Contact Lew Wardlaw or Sheriff Nat Sayers
,

Harmony, Texas

Hell, Morgan thought, the description fit him. The face might as well have been his, and he too rode a bay horse. The five thousand dollar reward would have every bounty hunter in the west gunning for this Nicholas Braden. Few bounty hunters had scruples. They wouldn't give a damn if they had the real Nicholas Braden or not, as long as they had a dead body with that damned face. There was only one solution, he realized, and that was to find the real Nicholas Braden and return him to Harmony, Texas.

Morgan had heard that every man had a look-alike. But the likeness in this case was uncanny. Perhaps it was only the drawing. Perhaps in person the resemblance wasn't that close. He knew Braden couldn't be a blood kin. Morgan was an orphan, the only child of a couple who had been killed by Comanches immediately after his birth.

He had pocketed the drawing, buried the two bounty hunters, and returned to Ranger headquarters, where he'd requested the job of seeking out Nicholas Braden and bringing him to justice. It was the first favor Morgan had ever asked, and it was readily granted.

He had not left his troubles behind in Texas. The poster had followed Morgan along his trail. He'd had encounters with two other bounty hunters. One he had wounded and left with a sheriff in a small mining town; the other, a man named Whitey Stark, had finally been convinced that he had the wrong man. At least he'd
acted
convinced at the wrong end of Morgan's rifle.

Morgan pinned on his Texas Ranger badge—not that it meant much in this territory. But he wanted no mistakes; he wanted Braden to know he was the law.

He wanted to take Nicholas Braden alive.

Usually Morgan wasn't that particular. A killer was a killer. Morgan had little remorse when he was forced to shoot one, and he never aimed to wound. A dead man couldn't shoot back. It was one of the first lessons he'd learned. But Morgan had no wish to carry a corpse hundreds of miles back to Texas, even though the alternative meant a long, hard journey with a live prisoner.

The only thing stopping him from cornering Braden now was the young woman. He didn't want a female involved in possible gunfire.

He surmised the woman was Braden's sister, even though they didn't look one bit alike. Lorilee Braden had honey-colored hair, and he imagined her eyes were that peculiar golden brown shared by her father and other brother, Andy.

Morgan had tracked the family first, hoping they would give him a lead as to Braden's whereabouts. And they had. He'd overheard them talk about Braden's ranch in Wyoming. He'd also learned from others that Braden had shot an unarmed kid in Harmony and that the entire Braden clan operated a small medicine show that traveled back and forth through Texas and Colorado. Con artists, that's what they were. Wherever they went, rumors followed of card cheating, shell games, selling little more than alcohol as medicine cure-alls.

Morgan loathed the fact that he was mistaken for one of them. It was a situation he intended to correct.

Soon.

Surprisingly, the sister stuck with Braden most of the morning, working alongside him as they completed a corral that they would probably never use. She had tied her long hair at the nape of her neck with a ribbon and wore men's trousers. He'd never seen a woman in trousers before, and he was surprised at the reaction of his own body at the sight of the slender body so neatly outlined.

He shouldn't be surprised, though. From what he'd learned of her, she could tempt angels down from heaven.

The sun was high in the sky when the woman went inside the cabin and Nicholas Braden rode off on a horse, a rifle in its scabbard on the saddle. Going hunting, Morgan surmised. There would be a lot of game here. Morgan had never been this far north, and the area looked like God's country. He'd never seen grass so plentiful. The hills were blanketed with it; nothing could have been so unlike the arid prairies of west Texas.

He waited fifteen minutes, then moved down the hill where he'd spent the night. He left his horse, Damien, tethered above, along with his rifle. The six-shooter should be enough. He had already fastened a pair of handcuffs to his belt; leg shackles and another set of wrist irons remained in his saddlebags. He'd learned the hard way to carry sufficient restraints for taking reluctant prisoners back to justice.

BOOK: Wanted
13.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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