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Middle of Nowhere, Texas
Captain Hudson Stone waited impatiently for Texas Ranger Commander Winston Price to finish his conference with Hud's battalion leader. Winston Price had arrived in camp two days earlier to inspect the troops and assess the situation in West Texaswhich had become a breeding ground for trouble the past few months.
When Major John Ketter exited the tent, wearing a carefully blank stare, Hud didn't know what to expect or why the Ranger commander had singled him out. Hud ducked under the tent flap then nodded a greeting to Commander Price, whose alert brown eyes made a quick inspection of Hud's tattered attire and the week's growth of whiskers that he had been too busy to shave.
The commander sank onto the edge of his cot to stretch out his long legs. The former military officer had served, as Hud had, in the Confederate Army. Winston Price was beginning to show his age, although he still was in reasonably good physical condition. He was in his late forties and sported a thick crop of reddish brown hair. A thin mustache and goatee accentuated the commanding features of his face.
"Nice to see you again, Captain Stone."
"What can I do for you, sir?" Hud was in no mood for idle chitchat. He wanted to be done with this impromptu meeting so he could mount up and focus on his quest to track down a ruthless killer known as Mad Joe Jarvis.
"Your battalion seems to be working effectively in this area, all things considered," Winston commented as he braced his arms on the cot.
"We have a dedicated troop of Rangers who are trying to keep the lid on this area. Unfortunately, it is becoming more difficult by the week." Now get to thepoint, Hud mused impatiently.
"Major Ketter recommended you for the duty I require posthaste," Winston said, surprising Hud. He reached for the pipe that sat on the crude nightstand then lit it up. "My daughter notified me unexpectedly that she wants to consult with me as soon as possible. Since the governor sent me out here to expect the battalions and report on the extent of the trouble we've had in this region I need you for immediate escort detail."
"Escort detail?" Hud croaked, stunned. "But sir, I"
Winston flung up his hand as he surged to his feet. Although Winston was six feet tall and sturdy in stature, he had to stare up at Hud, who towered at six foot three inches in his stocking feet and outweighed the commander by at least twenty pounds.
"I asked Major Ketter to recommend his best Ranger for the task and he says you're it."
"But I'm leading a search to apprehend the outlaw who killed Speck Horton."
Just saying Speck's name aloud sent a wave of grief and frustration pouring over Hud. He and Speck had served in the Confederate Army together and had come to Texas to make a new start. Speck was as close to family as Hud had. The need to avenge Speck's death tormented his waking hours and haunted his sleep. He didn't want to be waylaid by escort detail.
"I have been briefed on your search and I am very sorry for your loss." Winston stared straight at Hud. "I think that might be the other reason Major Ketter recommended you for escort duty. He thinks your vendetta has become too personal and obsessive and that you need a diversion."
Like hell I do! He didn't want to play nursemaid to some prissy tenderfoot female who had no business tramping around in an area that was jumping alive with Indian renegades. Occasionally they sneaked from Indian Territory to express dissatisfaction with conditions on the reservations and their outrage over another of the federal government's broken treaties. Not to mention the problems associated with the influx of white and Mexican outlaw gangs. Plus, ranchers were feuding over water rights, land titles and lease agreements on public lands.
Hud couldn't imagine why Commander Price would allow his daughter to venture out here. Did the dainty female have her father wrapped around her finger? Price had commanded military troops and state Rangers with ease. Apparently he couldn't say no to his daughter. And what, Hud would like to know, was so damn important that the princess couldn't wait until her daddy returned to Austin next month to see her?
"Major Ketter has agreed to let you gather your gear and leave for Fort Griffin within the hour." Winston paused to blow two lopsided smoke rings in the air. "I don't want Gabrielle to linger at The Flat longer than necessary. You know what a rowdy place it is."
Teeth clenched, hands fisted at his sides, Hud nodded his dark head. The Flat was the raucous community that had sprung up at the bottom of the hill below the military fort. Buffalo hunters hauled in their hides for transport by wagon to the Dodge City railhead, where they were shipped to tanneries and millineries in the East. Cattle drovers arrived in town and let off steam by drinking, carousing and firing their six-shooters in the streets before trailing their herds to Dodge City. In addition, card sharks, harlots and all sorts of desperadoes, eager to engage in shootings, knifings and brawls, filled saloons and gaming halls. In short, it was the devil's playground. Certainly not the place for a sophisticated lady.
"Sir, I'm not telling you anything you don't know already," Hud remarked, "but not only is this area dangerous but The Flat is as close to hell as most folks prefer to get. Several men have been killed publicly in showdowns. Then there are the ones who have been strung up by vigilantes. Between the cold-eyed killers, crooked dealers at faro, monte and poker tables and the soldiers who trot down Government Hill to carouse when they're off duty, that is no place for a dignified lady."
Plus, Hud had better things to do with his time than pick up a spoiled brat and deliver her to her daddy. Hell! This was the most ridiculous duty anyone had requested of him.
"I am aware of The Flat's reputation," Winston acknowledged before he took another long draw on his pipe. "Which is why I want you to leave immediately. I don't know precisely when Bri's stagecoach is due to arrive at The Flat. Fortunately her new fiancé is accompanying her."
Wonderful, now he had to babysit and escort two citified greenhorns across the rugged terrain of the outlaw-infested badlands. Damn it, this unexpected assignment kept getting worse by the minute.
"I will be leaving your battalion this afternoon to inspect another Ranger unit," Winston reported. Frustration must have shown on Hud's face because Winston smiled sympathetically and patted him on the shoulder. "I understand your need for revenge, son. I lost several dear friends in the war. But rest assured that you will be back in a few days to resume command of your manhunt. I will assume responsibility for my daughter while she's here."
That should be fun, Hud thought sourly. The other men would be bowing and scraping over her and she'd probably soak up the male attention like a sponge. Most likely one adoring fiancé and a doting father wouldn't be enough to satisfy Miss La-Di-Da Ga-brielle Price.
"Bri is a very unique individual," Winston boasted.
Of course, Winston would say she was unique. He was her father. Either that or sweet little Bri was unique because she had an extra finger on each hand or eyes in the back of her head. Whatever the case, Hud considered her an inconvenience of gigantic proportions.
Winston smiled fondly as a halo of smoke drifted around his head. "As a child she tried to be the son I never had. I called her the little general."
It took considerable effort for Hud to keep from rolling his eyes. He had a personal and professional crusade driving him. He had vowed to apprehend Speck Horton's murderer and this ridiculous escort detail was a waste of his valuable time and considerable skills as a Ranger.
"Then Bri blossomed into a woman and men showed up at my doorstep, requesting her company when she came to visit me."
Hud looked at Winston and tried to imagine his broad forehead and angular features plastered on a female. It was not a particularly appealing image.
He didn't know for sure but he presumed by Winston's comment that he and his wife didn't share the same residence. He wondered if Bri played her mother against her father to get what she wanted. It wouldn't surprise him one bit.
"Now Bri's mother has earmarked a young politician for her match and given her stamp of approval. If Bri is coming to ask for my formal blessing then she will have it. If this is what she wants. Bring my daughter to me, safe and sound, Captain Stone."
The commander's solemn expression and forceful tone implied "or else "
"I will never forget the favor. Plus, I will alert the other Ranger battalions I visit about your friend's killer so they can provide information to aid in your search."
"Thank you, sir," Hud said begrudgingly.
Then he wheeled around so Commander Price couldn't see his scowl. Hud didn't want to be relieved of his duty of tracking a ruthless killer, just so the commander could have his daughter escorted to him for a formal approval of her politician fiancé.
Swearing a blue streak Hud stalked off to gather his gear, saddle his horse and rush off to Fort Griffin to protect the female who should've had more sense than to venture to the hellhole in the first place.
While Hud was in town, he might take time to single out one of the harlots and scratch an itch that had gone unattended for more months than he cared to count. He ought to get something pleasurable from this mandatory trip. For sure and certain, chaperoning a pampered princess, whose father could dishonorably discharge him from Ranger service for disobeying a direct order, could destroy his future plans.
Hud glanced into the distance as he crammed his belongings into his saddlebags. He and Speck Horton had planned to build a prosperous ranch on the land grant they were to receive in compensation for their service to the Rangers. Now Speck wouldn't be around to help Hud make that dream come true.
Still scowling at the unexpected turn of events that interrupted his manhunt, Hud swung into the saddle, turned his back on Angel Mesathe rugged caprock that dropped into a maze of canyonsand pointed himself toward Fort Griffin. Two hours later, he realized that he hadn't bothered to ask the commander for a description of his daughter.
"How the hell am I supposed to know who she is or where to find her?" he asked Rambler, the sturdy black gelding he was riding. "Right." He gave a caustic smirk. "She'll be the one wearing a diamond-encrusted tiara and who has a wide forehead, straight brown hair and dark eyes like her father."
Hud had yet to meet Gabrielleor Bri, the pet name her father used. But he disliked her sight unseen.
* * *
Gabrielle Price squirmed restlessly on the hard stagecoach seat and listened to her unwanted fiancé drone his life story to the three male passengers traveling with them to Fort Griffin. She flung Eaton Powell II a disgruntled glance and wished him to be anywhere else but here with her. She hadn't requested his company on this trip. Indeed, she wanted to come alone but Eaton had insisted on traveling with her. He'd spouted something about protecting her from unscrupulous characters and using the trip to campaign for his next venture as a U.S. Senator.
Bri knew Eaton's wealthy family had bought him votes to get him elected into Austin's politics. She couldn't imagine how many voters he thought he could contact at The Flat and the fort. The community wasn't known for being public- or civic-minded. But Eaton claimed he wanted to branch out and locate other donors who might fund his campaign.
She wondered if his family had finally objected to his excessive habit of throwing around money and ordered him to find someone else to fund his campaign expenses and his extravagant spending.
Whatever the ulterior reason, Eaton had tagged along, much to her chagrin. She had been stuck on the train and then in a crowded stagecoach with him. So much for this spur-of-the-moment trip that was supposed to take her far away from Eaton.
"My father and brother are bankers in Austin," Eaton was telling the other passengers when Bri got around to listening. "But I am more interested in serving my state and nation and becoming a spokesman for the common man."
Bri knew Eaton had no real interest in serving anyone anywhere. His priority was his own ambition.
She turned her head and smirked while Eaton preened and passed around his manufactured smile. He smoothed his dark brown hair into place with an exaggerated gesture of his hand, and called attention to the gaudy rings that sparkled on his long fingers.
Spokesman for the common man? That was laughable. Not only was Eaton an elitist but he was also an exceptional performer. He could tell a convincing story, make all the right noises and sound sincere when the mood suited him. But mostly he was full of hot air and he bored Bri to tears.
She had observed him at his best, worst and all moods in between and had found nothing endearing or appealing about him. Furthermore, she wasn't naive enough to think he felt any fond affection for her. No, it was her mother's prestigious family name of Roland and their vast wealth that attracted Eaton. Bri's mother and Eaton's aunt hailed from what polite society referred to as two of the "first families" in Texas. They had been lifelong friends and they had machinated this betrothal to promote Eaton's rise to political stardom.
Essentially Bri was the feather in Eaton's cap, the merging of one well-heeled family to another. If Bri's mother had her wayand she did entirely too often her daughter would become the extension of her own life. A life that hadn't turned out the way she'd wanted.
Mother is not going to get her way in this instance, Bri promised herself resolutely. At twenty-three, Bri was old enough to make her own decisions and accept an engagement proposal, if and when she wanted to. She had to convince her father to side with her and to stand against his estranged wife. Besides, Bri couldn't possibly plan a wedding while she was accompanying her father on his inspection of Ranger battalions in West Texas, now could she?