Fletcher Hawk has only one thing on his mindbounty! The Texas Ranger is in hot pursuit of a woman accused of murder. He’ll track her down and claim his reward.
But when he finds Savanna Cantrell, something makes him change his goal. Maybe it’s her beauty, maybe it’s because she is the cleverest woman he’s ever met, maybe it’s her innocencebut now he needs to convince her that she needs his help. With dangerous men on their trail, these two fiercely proud and independent people must learn to trust and to love!
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The hot summer sun gleamed off the Red River that separated Texas from Indian Territory. Fletcher Hawk patted his Appaloosa gelding consolingly as the ferry teetered and bumped over the swift-moving channel. Being a half Apache who had been forcefully retained on a desolate reservation in New Mexico, for more months than he cared to count, Fletch got to feeling twitchy as the ferry headed toward the distant dock. He'd been a Texas Ranger for five years, but he'd never had cause to enter the reservations in Indian Territory.
Now he had cause. The murdering son of a bitch that he'd been hunting for five years was reported to have robbed a stagecoach near Fort Worth several months earlier, then headed north. No matter what assignments Fletch had taken, he'd always been on the lookout for Grady Mills. Unfortunately, the slippery bastard had managed to remain one step ahead. But if Grady thought hunkering down in Indian Territory would keep Fletch off his trail then he thought wrong. Fletch had a personal and professional vendetta to settle with that heartless bastard.
A painful memory speared through Fletch's mind. Rage and guilt battled for supremacy, but he squelched the turbulent emotions and turned his attention to the other passengers. Three rough-looking men leaned negligently against the railing. They met his stare briefly then looked away without offering a nod of greeting. But then, neither did Fletch. He was simply surveying his companions.
Fletch's gaze settled on the crusty, bowlegged man who looked to be in his mid-forties. He wore a ten-gallon hat with two bullet holes in the crown. The hat made him look about six and a half feet tall. His mouth thinned out beneath his handlebar mustache as he propped himself against a bay gelding. Obviously the man's left foot was paining him something fierce because he was one boot short of a pair. His well-worn shirt and trousers indicated a hardscrabble lifestyle. Fletch could certainly identify with that. He'd been all over creation for fifteen years, never having a place to call home.
When the older man laid an arm over his horse, Fletch noticed the flash of a tarnished badge beneath the edge of his faded leather vest. Fletch had the alarming premonition that he was looking at his own image ten years down the road. The speculation made him wince inwardly.
His older brother, Logan, wouldn't have to fret about growing old before his time, he mused. Logan had given up his Ranger badge and nomadic lifestyle. He'd settled down with his spirited wife and he was the proud father of two energetic boys.
Fletch had nothing but his Appy pony, calluses, battle scars and dozens of unpleasant memories to keep him company.
His gloomy thoughts scattered when the older man put weight on his injured foot then groaned in pain. Leaving Appy tethered to the railing, Fletch ambled over to lend a hand.
"Problem?" Fletch asked as the man dragged in several panting breaths.
"Damn gout. Picked a fine time to flare up," he said raggedly. "Got a saddlebag full of warrants and a favor to do for an old friend." He looked Fletch over intently. "You're a lawman, aren't ya? You look familiar."
"Texas Ranger," Fletch murmured, inconspicuously pulling the silver star from his vest pocket. "Don't like to bandy it about. Makes some folks nervous, especially when you add my mixed heritage."
The older man smiled crookedly and his hazel eyes gleamed as he thrust out his hand. "Deputy U.S. Marshal Bill Solomon. I remember you now. I saw you in action near Fort Griffin, Texas, two years back. You had a Mexican bandito cornered outside town after he blasted an army convoy to steal supplies for his gang." He nodded approvingly. "Mighty slick apprehension maneuver. Me and a few of the boys borrowed that tactic of here-one-minute-gone-the-next with satisfying success."
Fletch smiled wryly. "Old Apache trick."
The smile faded from Bill's weather-beaten features. "Fought the Apache while I was in the army. Lost a few friends, too."
"I lost most of my family during an army massacre," Fletch said grimly. "Let's not talk about old times, Deputy Marshal Solomon. I've spent years trying to put it behind me."
"Fair enough." Bill stared at him with eyes that had seen countless unforgettable sights. Fletch could identify with that, too.
When the ferry lurched abruptly in a fierce undertow, Fletch steadied Bill, who muffled a pained curse.
"I got a proposition for you," Bill said, levering his weight off his tender foot. "Fletcher Hawk, ain't it?"
He nodded. "Just Fletch."
"You've got a brother who used to be a Ranger, as I recall. Same impressive legendary instincts and reputation, too. He goes by just Hawk, don't he?"
Fletch nodded again then glanced discreetly at the three shaggy-haired cowboys who stood on the far side of the ferry. He made a point not to convey too much information about his brother and family. Ruthless outlaws had a nasty habit of preying on a man's vulnerability for leverage or revenge. The less anyone knew about Logan and Shiloh Hawk, and their two young boys, the safer they would be.
When the ferry pulled up to the dock, Bill braced himself on the railing. "I'd be much obliged if you'd help me off this damn ferry." He handed off the bay's reins. "If you can take my horse ashore, I'll hobble behind you."
Fletch took quick inventory of the three men who had been watching them cautiously the past fifteen minutes. One wore fringed buckskin and had long, stringy blond hair. The tallest one was scarecrow-thin and walked with a decisive limp. The third man was built like a bull. His shoulders were excessively wide and his neck was short and thick. Heavy beards and mustaches concealed all three leathery faces. Double holsters—like the ones Fletch wore—hung low on their hips.
If Fletch were guessing, he'd say these hombres had something to hide and he wouldn't be surprised to learn there were outstanding warrants for their arrest.
The moment the ferry docked, the three men mounted their horses and thundered off.
"Guilty consciences," Fletch speculated as he watched their hasty departure over the tree-choked hill.
"You've got good instincts." Bill limped toward a tree stump that would allow him to take a load off. He stretched out his bootless foot and expelled a long-suffering sigh.
"I'm doomed to spend the next week convalescing at Porter's Trading Post, which is about ten miles north of the Red River. I'm swearing you in as a deputy U.S. marshal so you can—"
Fletch thrust up a hand to cut in before Bill railroaded him into another job that might waylay him from his primary purpose. "I'm already a Ranger and I'm on a manhunt."
"Being a deputy marshal will give you rightful authority in Indian Territory." Bill gestured toward his saddlebag.
"Hand me one of them extra badges. And grab a fistful of them 'John Doe' warrants, too. You never know when you might need 'em. The Territory is a hideout for more outlaws than you can shake a stick at. Each tribal police force handles conflicts between Indians, but you need federal jurisdiction to corral vicious whites, Mexicans and blacks that raise hell in the Territory."
Fletch blew out a resigned breath as he fished into the pouch. He found four badges and retrieved one for himself, along with several warrants. There was also a pint of whiskey tucked in the saddlebag.
Bill waved his thick arms in expansive gestures. "By the powers vested in me, I hereby appoint you a deputy U.S. marshal. The Federal Court in Paris, Texas, pays the rewards for outlaws apprehended in the Territory." He elevated his throbbing foot and reached into his shirt pocket for the paper with four names written on it. "If you happen across any of these hombres who are wanted for robbery and murder in Texas, then take 'em into custody. Haul their sorry asses to the Chickasaw Nation's capital at Tishomingo. When I'm back on my feet, I'll take 'em to Paris so you can get on with your manhunt."
Fletch memorized the names and the brief descriptions on the list. Some he'd heard of; some he hadn't. But it didn't matter. Grady Mills was the top priority on Fletch's personal list. "I've got the first productive lead on this fugitive—"
"But more importantly, I've gotta do a favor for my old friend and I need your help," Bill interrupted. "Robert Cantrell, the Chickasaw Indian agent, has a serious problem."
"I don't have time for favors," Fletch rumbled.
Bill clutched Fletch's arm, demanding his full attention.
"You've got time for this one. Make time. Rob's daughter, Savanna Cantrell, is wanted for murder. There's a $20,000 bounty, compliments of Oliver Draper, the rancher whose son she supposedly shot."
Fletch arched a dubious brow. "Supposedly?" "I don't have all the details, just a warrant the judge issued and a brief note from Cantrell, asking for my help. You find the girl and bring her to Rob's cabin near Tishomingo. Don't let nobody know you got her in custody, hear me? Draper hired mercenary vigilantes to track her down. None of your caliber, mind you, but still tough as nails. With that kind of price on her head she'll never make it to the courtroom to tell her side of the story."
"Folks don't usually take off running if they aren't guilty," Fletch remarked.
Bill shrugged his thick shoulders. "I ain't sayin'it might be self-defense or something else entirely. But you don't put that kind of bounty on someone's head and hire a private army of vigilantes unless you want to take the law into your own hands...or you don't want the real facts to go public. Sounds fishy to me."
"Sounds like an old friend defending someone's daughter out of loyalty," Fletch said candidly. "I can name at least three dozen convicts locked in Texas penitentiaries who swore to me they were innocent. The judge didn't see it that way and neither did I.You can't trust criminals to tell the truth."
"So young to be so cynical," Bill said, and snorted.
"I have thirty-three years of hard lessons to my credit," Fletch said. "If you believe everything people tell you, then you'll wind up dead... With a surprised look on your face. I hate surprises." He frowned pensively then added,
"Take these back. I'm otherwise occupied."
When Fletch tried to return the badge and the bench warrants, Bill shook his head and thrust out his stubbled chin. "You keep 'em. If you bring in that gal, the bounty is all yours. Just make sure you deliver her to me at Tishomingo, not to Draper and his vigilantes."
"I don't give a damn about the money," Fletch insisted.
"I want Grady Mills and this is the first promising lead I've had in over a year. I've got my own fish to fry."
"But the question is, can you go off to fry your fish and live with a woman's senseless death on your conscience?" Bill asked somberly. "You took a vow as a Ranger and you're honor-bound to uphold it. Now you're a U.S. deputy marshal, too."
Can you live with a woman's senseless death on your conscience? Nothing else Bill Solomon could've said would give Fletch pause...except that. The crusty old lawman was unaware of the impact of his comment. But it struck hard and deep and reopened the unhealed memory that had haunted Fletch for five years.
Fletch muttered begrudgingly as he stuffed the warrants into his saddlebag then tucked the badge in the concealed pocket of his vest. "Can you make it to Porter's Trading Post to rent a room on your own or do I need to make a travois to drag you there?"
Bill chuckled at Fletch's sour scowl. "I can make the ten-mile ride if I have that pint of whiskey to numb the pain."
"I thought it was against the law to have whiskey here."
"It's against the law to sell it, but this is for medicinal purposes," Bill insisted.
Fletch hoisted Bill onto the bay gelding, then handed him the pint. They rode off, following the trail through the thicket of trees. Fletch swore he wasn't going so much as a mile out of his way to track a female who probably deserved to have vigilantes chasing her.
Savanna Cantrell probably thought she could get away with murder, just because her father was the Chickasaw agent. If Fletch crossed paths with the woman, he'd do what he could to appease the older deputy marshal. However, he was not going to waste precious time when he had a solid lead on Grady Mills. Fletch had a long-standing debt to repay. He also had a score to settle and he'd been trying to do it for five long years...
His thoughts scattered when an eerie sensation trickled down his spine, putting his seasoned reflexes on instant alert.
"What the—?" Bill croaked when Fletch abruptly shoved him flat against his horse's neck.
Three bullets simultaneously whistled over Fletch's head. He bounded to the ground to pull Bill from the saddle. Bill growled in pain and grabbed at his tender leg. Fletch paid no mind to the agonized deputy marshal. He pulled both Colt pistols and blasted away at the puffs of smoke drifting from the underbrush.