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Eagle Jack Sixkiller woke up in jail.
There was no getting around that fact. Although his eyes wouldn't open more than a slit and he could barely lift his head beneath the weight of the pain, he glimpsed iron bars on the door -- and a sign, too, in case he had any lingering doubts as to his location. SALADO JAIL was written across the front window of the sheriff's office in big letters (backwards of course, from this direction).
The war drum pounding in his head felled him flat onto the bunk again.
Never, ever, had he had such a hangover. He must've really heard the owl hoot last night.
Scraps of memories flashed across his pain-wrenched eyelids. No. It wasn't liquor that'd left him in this shape.
The fight. He hadn't been drinking; he'd been in a fight.
Yes. And he'd just been getting into the spirit of the fray when he'd glanced around to see a two-by-four hovering over him, already on its way to come crashing down on his head, wielded by one of the owners of the sleek gray Thoroughbred stallion that Eagle Jack's spunky, scruffy mare, Molly, had left in the dust.
That made his head hurt even more and roused a raw pain on the skin of his cheek, but he grinned even more widely.
Sweet victory. Those shysters learned a thing or two about running their pretty gray Thoroughbred against an ugly little Indian pony.
Maybe they wouldn't be so quick to judge a horse by its looks next time.
Carefully, disturbing no more muscles than he had to move to lift his hands, Eagle Jack forced his eyes open enough to see them. His knuckles lookedas raw as a fresh hide. At least he'd gotten a few good licks in.
Matter of fact, it would've been a downright enjoyable fight with its challenge of two against one, and he would've found his rhythm and come out on top if they had played fair. Crooked bastards.
The truth hit him then: those sons of bitches stole his racehorse!
Damn! And just before he started up the trail.
He sat straight up, his head screaming with new pain. Grabbing it with both hands to try to steady himself, he swung his feet to the floor, scrambling to get out of there.
Of course. That's why they'd laid him out cold with a board -- they wanted Molly, the fastest pony on the Brazos. Maybe the fastest pony alive.
He managed to get his bootheels planted on solid wood and his legs propped against the edge of the bunk so he could thrust his battered hands into the front pockets of his jeans. They came up empty. The lowlifes got his money, too.
Well, money was only money, but Molly was a whole different deal. There'd never been another mare like Molly, and it wasn't just her speed and her deceptive looks he loved. It was her personality. What a girl!
He'd trail those horse thieves to the end of the world. He'd get that mare back in his possession if he singlehandedly had to hang both of that fast-talking pair of Kentucky gentlemen (to hear them tell it) who were traveling through Texas and the South campaigning the greatest, running Thoroughbred of all time.
He'd make them rue the day they ever crossed the Texas line. He'd scalp them before he hanged them.
"Hey!" he yelled. "Sheriff! Let me outta here."
Nausea surged in his stomach. He clamped his lips tight and waited, reaching for the bars with one hand so he could stay upright.
Nobody answered him, but he could hear voices out there in the sheriff's office somewhere. Eagle Jack gathered his forces and hollered again.
"I can make bail," he said. "All I have to do is go to the bank."
The sheriff or somebody with a deep voice let out a guffaw and yelled back at him, "Sure, and I own the King Ranch. Sleep it off back there, and shut up."
Somebody laughed from inside the cell, and Eagle Jack looked behind him. The gesture made his head swim and his vision blur, but he could see three other inmates, one grinning, two solemn, looking at him from bleary eyes and another sleeping fast on a bunk in the back. He'd been hurting so bad he hadn't even noticed he had company.
"Set back down there, Injun," said the grinning one, "or they's liable to cut yer hair off."
Eagle Jack ignored him and concentrated on turning his head very, very carefully, to look through the bars again.
The voices out front were still talking. A heartbeat later, though, while he was trying to think what to say that would get the sheriff to come open the cell, they stopped. The bell sounded and the front door swung open, then slammed closed again. Eagle Jack moved nearer to the bars to try to get a better view.
"Ma'am?" the deep voice said. "Can we help you?"
"Yes," a woman's angry -- hot and righteous -- voice said. "I need to bail a man out."
In spite of his hurts and his worries, Eagle Jack grinned again. Now there was something to be thankful for on this pain-filled morning -- another little example of why he was glad he'd never stuck his head in the marriage noose. Somebody's wife was mad as an old wet hen. She'd clean that old boy's clock for sure and probably make him sleep on the floor for a month.
A chair scraped back and feet hit the floor.
"Who might that man be, Mrs ... ?"
"Mrs. Copeland." The sheriff repeated her name respectfully, but she was already sweeping around the corner into the hallway like a high wind.
Eagle Jack's pain lessened at the sight of her ...Cherokee Warriors: The Lover. Copyright © by Genell Dellin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.