Stormy Hawkins – Ana Morgan

Shick–chick. Startled out of a dreamless sleep, Blade Masters jerked his Stetson off his face and stared into the mouth of a cold-steel, double-barrel shotgun. “On your feet, mister,” a sultry voice ordered. “Keep your hands where I can see them.” Blade drew a quick breath of relief. Female bandits plying the Missouri River usually wanted money, not blood. Still, he’d not expected to be robbed at dawn on the windswept prairie. The rising sun silhouetted his attacker, and he was hit with another surprise. Instead of black petticoats and a lacy neck choker, this brigand wore denims and a faded boy’s shirt. A battered, wide-brimmed leather hat topped braids as red as a St. Louis fire-pumper. Admiring how she held the shotgun steady as he clambered to his feet, he took a half step forward and turned on the charm that had saved him innumerable times. “Name’s Blade, ma’am.” He saluted her by tapping the brim of his hat. “I’m looking for the owner of this fine property.

” “And, I’m a can–can dancer,” she scoffed. “You bank boys know darn well this is Hawkins Ranch land.” Pride, as well as possession, rang in her voice. He stifled the urge to grin. She’d just revealed the name of the ranch owner and how he was probably in hock to a bank. He needed to finagle a meeting with Mr. Hawkins. Find out if he was drowning in debt and eager to sell his land. The cowgirl raised her chin and yipped like a coyote celebrating a kill. Two voices responded, and then a squealing whinny from his prized mare, Belinda.

Risking a butt-full of buckshot, he spun around. Two riders thundered up, reinforcements whose postures suggested they were not open to friendly how-do-you-dos. The taller man had a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard. The other had jetblack hair and Lakota features. His mare ran between them, flanked by a tan and gray wolfhound. Her eyes were wide with fear, and she side-kicked to keep the hound from nipping her heel. She stopped right in front of him. “That’s his mare, all right,” the cowgirl announced. “Mister, saddle up and ride back to town. Tell Vance, next time we’ll shoot first.

” Blade didn’t argue or ask who Vance was. He had three guns trained on him. He packed his gear, saddled and bridled his mare, and donned the heavy leather coat he’d used for a bed. “Prosperity’s that way.” The red-haired cowgirl pointed toward the southwest. “Don’t come back,” the bearded man said. “Unless you’re tired of living,” she added. The hound trailed them for a quarter mile. When it finally turned back, Blade reached down and stroked his mare’s soft neck. He and Belinda had encountered some mean dogs since he’d started scouting properties for his father’s investment bank.

Belinda was his partner, his best and only friend. A fresh, sun-warmed breeze stirred the morning air and dried the last few beads of dew that glistened on her mane. Blade shrugged out of his drover’s coat. A few minutes later, he lifted his hat and retied the leather lace that held back his thick hair. He was on a two-rut road that meandered alongside a creek shaded by towering cottonwood trees. Squirrels raced up and down the deeply-grooved trunks, and thrushes trilled as they flitted between overhead branches. A short time later, the road jagged up a hill. He stopped at the top and scanned the land behind him, hoping to spot the Hawkins’ ranch yard. He saw only prairie grass, rippling like waves in a vast land-ocean. The Hawkins’ house was tucked somewhere out of sight, probably in a gentle valley that protected it from the harsh winter winds.

Off in the distance, he saw a town circled by fields and small farms. He’d once believed that all the good land would be sold before he got a ranch of his own, but after five years of crisscrossing Kansas and Nebraska, he’d learned that anything could be bought for the right price. He’d keep looking until he found a spread where he could raise some cattle and bury his heart. Swallowing the bitter lump in his throat, Blade adjusted his Stetson and tapped the toe of his boot against Belinda’s ribs until she broke into an easy lope toward the town. He’d subsisted on cold beans and jerky for the past week. He was hungry for a thick, sizzling steak. After he ate, he’d indulge in a bath to soak off the past week’s dust. Then, he’d learn all he could about Mr. Hawkins and his ranch. ~ ~ ~ After a routine check of Belinda’s hooves and shoes, Blade rented the roomiest stall in Prosperity’s livery stable and tipped the sleepy proprietor extra so his mare would get a muchdeserved grooming.

With his trail-worn saddlebags draped over his shoulder, he headed for the town’s hotel. A small tin bell over the door chimed as he entered the hotel lobby, replete with a rickety card table and brass spittoon in one corner. Plain wood benches lined the walls. Compared to St. Louis hotels, with their brocade-cushioned opulence, Blade preferred country sparseness. He crossed the room, set his bags on the floor, and waited in front of a chest-high counter. A woman with smudged lip paint and a tilted tower of dark curls stepped from a back room. She made no secret of looking him over. “Mornin’, stranger. You need a bed to sleep it off? The back rooms are quieter.

” “I’d prefer the front. A room with a balcony.” “Just you, or are you expecting company?” “Just me.” “Two bits a night or three dollars a week. Two more will buy your breakfasts.” “Two weeks.” Time enough to befriend Mr. Hawkins and find out what he’d always dreamed of doing. He dug in his vest pocket for a ten-dollar gold coin. “Welcome to Prosperity, Mr.

” “Masters, but my friends call me Blade.” He signed the open register book. “If you’ve started serving, I’d like a steak.” “I’ll rouse the cook.” She held out a heavy brass key with a round, number six fob. He let his hand linger under hers for just a moment. This hotel keeper might know the Hawkins family. “Share a cup of coffee with me? It would be nice to talk with a woman for a spell.” “All right,” she said. “Go get washed up.

There’s water in the pitcher next to the basin. I’ll knock when your steak is done.” ~ ~ ~ In his room, Blade washed trail dust off his face and hands. After patting dry with a blue-checked towel, he stepped out onto the balcony to study the town. The commercial buildings lining Prosperity’s main street were long, narrow, wooden structures, a generation newer than the sod shanties of the original settlers. Each establishment had its own hitching post and covered front porch. Lettering on the wooden façade identified a clothing emporium, barbershop, smithy, lumber and feed store, school, church, and two saloons. A US Mail sign hung in the window of a general store. Compared to other small towns bordering the James River, Prosperity appeared to be thriving. The Land & Loan office, directly across the street, had gold leaf lettering on its front door and campaign placards in its windows.

Vance for State Assembly. Blade was about to go in and unpack his things when a rider charged down the street. He recognized the red-haired cowgirl and her pinto. She reined up in front of the Land & Loan, jumped down, and marched up the thick plank steps clutching a white paper. She pounded on the door with her work-gloved fist. A lean man with a razor-thin blond mustache opened the door. A snow-white towel draped his shoulders, and he used it to wipe shaving soap off his jaw. “Stormy Hawkins.” His voice drifted across the street. “What a pleasant surprise.

” “You no good son of a snake.” She shook the paper in front of his face. The man stepped back and gestured for her to enter. The door closed behind them. Blade felt a prick of sympathy. If that man was Vance, he didn’t deserve the hotheaded lecture he was probably receiving. Then again, he might have done something to set her on edge. Blade leaned against the balcony railing. The cowgirl had a fitting name. Stormy.

She was also related to Mr. Hawkins. Angry shouts erupted from the Land & Loan. Glass shattered. A high-pitched yelp was followed by an uneasy calm. Alarmed, Blade ran out of his room and descended the hotel stairs three at a time. Stormy Hawkins acted tough, but she was a petite woman, no match in a physical confrontation with a bigger, stronger man—unless she had a derringer tucked under her shirt. Or, hidden in her boot—like he always did. The Land & Loan seemed quiet when he reached the pinto. He slipped Stormy Hawkins’ shotgun from her saddle holster and unloaded it.

If she rushed out as hotheaded as she went in, she could end up shooting someone. ~ ~ ~ Stormy kicked aside the jagged remains of the decanter she’d angrily knocked off Jonathan Vance’s big, shiny desk. A year ago, she’d made the mistake of letting him kiss her. Ever since, he’d acted as if he was entitled to her body and her family’s ranch. “For the third time, I don’t want to ‘get comfortable.’” “Suit yourself,” Vance opened a wall cabinet and pulled out a new bottle of whiskey. “I came about this.” She waved the mortgage notice in the air. “How dare you call in our note?” “It wasn’t me.” “Your name is on it.

” “That notice came from the bank in Yankton. They heard about your father’s heart attack and are taking appropriate and reasonable steps.” “Zed is going to be fine. The bank has no reason to be concerned.” “They don’t see it that way.” Vance poured whiskey into a shot glass. “They’ll be sending an appraiser. Don’t shoot him.” Stormy narrowed her eyes. Did she chase off a bank appraiser a few hours ago? He’d appeared to be a down-on-his-luck cowboy.

She shook off the memory of his handsome face and long, lean legs. “We had to borrow the money. Widow Butler wanted to move back east right away.” “And, you guaranteed the loan with the rest of your land.” Vance downed his drink. “Zed read the contract before he signed it. He agreed to those terms.” “Those terms say we have until November 1st to pay back the loan.” She tapped the notice angrily. “The bank can’t change the date.

” “You’re right. They can’t.” Vance teased the crumpled papers from her grip. “Let me have a look.” He made a show of studying the fine print as he shuffled through six pages of legalese. “Just as I thought. Until a note is repaid in full, the bank can reappraise its assets anytime it sees fit.” He rolled out his big leather chair for her. “It’s a formality, Stormy. All it needs is a signature of acknowledgment.

Zed is supposed to sign it, but I’ll vouch for you to sign on his behalf.” Reluctantly, she took off her hat and sat down. Vance leaned over her shoulder and picked up his fountain pen. His pomaded hair smelled like shriveled orange peel. “Sign here, here, and here.” She dipped the gold nib into the inkwell and wrote Ophelia Hawkins, her given name, in the appropriate places. When she finished, he swiveled the chair so she faced him. “Now it’s time to face facts,” he said. “Zed’s heart will not get better. Your scheme to pay back your note is going to fail.

” “You’re wrong,” she said defiantly. “By fall, our steers will be fat. We’ll get top dollar for them, pay off our note, and have money left over. Brownie, Running Bear, and I will work our fingers to the bone, if we have to.” “That’s exactly my point, Stormy. Work and worry got to Zed. Brownie and Running Bear are bound to be next. They’re the same age, old and worn out.” He gripped the chair’s arms. “There are easier ways to make money than ranching.

” She knew what he meant and chose to pretend that she didn’t. “I’ve already told you. I don’t want to live in town. I’m a rancher.” “If you agree to marry me, I’ll pay off your note. Zed will own everything free and clear again.” Vance leaned forward and pushed his thin lips against hers. Stormy felt nothing but revulsion. Shaking free, she wiped her lips with the back of her hand. “I don’t love you.

” “That’s because you haven’t tried hard enough.” He ran the tip of his tongue across his upper lip. The expression on his face changed to one she’d not seen before. Aroused and greedy, it frightened her. She bent low, tried to duck under his arm. Vance seized her. Kicking the chair aside, he forced her face-down onto his cold, polished desk and dug his fingernails into her neck until he drew blood. Her blood. She struggled to twist out of his grip and failed. “Let go!” He relaxed his grip slightly.

“Are you ready to be reasonable?” “Yes,” she gasped. “Good.” Vance smoothed back her hair. Still pinned on the desk, she drew a desperate breath. Using her body as cover, she eased open the center drawer and felt blindly for something, anything sharp. Her fingers brushed against a letter opener. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but she had surprise on her side. She gripped it and whirled around. Jabbed it toward Vance’s waist. With a high-pitched yelp, he sucked in his stomach and backed away.

~ ~ ~ Blade crouched under the Land & Loan’s front window and peered inside. The redheaded cowgirl brandished a slender, shiny knife at the Land & Loan man. The man’s hands were raised in surrender as he backed away from a massive desk. Every muscle in Blade’s body tensed. The hellion was robbing the Land & Loan. He couldn’t allow her to get away with it. His family owned a bank in St. Louis. Though he’d vowed never to speak to his parents or brother again, thieves had to be stopped. He sprang to his feet, flattened his body against the building, and prepared to disarm her when she stepped outside.

The door opened. The cowgirl shuffled back onto the plank landing. “You listen good, Jonathan Vance,” she hissed. “Our steers will be fat by fall, and we’ll pay our note on time. Until then, keep your fence cutting, steer stealing, ranch assessing goons off our land.” Blade sprang forward. In one smooth motion, he snared her hand and stripped the knife from her grip. She cried with surprise and whirled to face him. Her chest heaved as if she’d run a grueling race. Full, round breasts strained the buttons of her shirt.

Crimson marks, oozing blood, marred her throat. He glanced down at the knife. He’d relieved her of a fancy letter opener, the kind used by bankers, not cowpunchers. Her deep blue eyes narrowed in angry recognition. “You again?” Before he could explain why he was here, and why he’d disarmed her, her fist struck the side of his nose. The blow caught him off guard. He staggered sideways. His nose started to run. He swiped it with the back of his hand and was relieved when he didn’t see a bloody smear. She darted around him, ran to her pinto, and clambered into the saddle.

After a brisk rub of her knuckles against her thigh, she patted the butt of the shotgun. “Mister, if I see you again, I’ll shoot. Bank on it.” She scooped up her reins and reeled her horse around. He soon lost sight of her in a retreating cloud of dust. He scratched his head. What the hell had just happened? Only then did he notice that a small crowd had gathered. Clustered in groups of twos and threes, the onlookers gaped and whispered. They’d seen quite a show, but only the last act. They didn’t know what had happened before Stormy Hawkins struck him.

The Land & Loan man stepped outside. He jerked his head toward the cowgirl’s back and uttered a single, harsh laugh. “You got it today, friend. My little fiancée has a big temper.” Fiancée? Blade almost choked on his shock. He’d just witnessed the cowgirl threaten her husband-to-be with the business end of the letter opener and rush off with bloody marks on her neck. He’d never struck Candy when she was his fiancée. Not when she admitted to lying about wanting to live with him on a ranch. Not when he figured out that she’d seduced his brother. The man extended a manicured hand.

Red smears stained the tips of three fingernails. “Jonathan Vance, Mayor of Prosperity. Future state assemblyman.” “Blade Masters.” He held out the letter opener, handle first. “This yours?” Vance slipped it into his pocket. “Thanks. It’s pure silver.” He set his hand on Blade’s shoulder with insincere familiarity and waved like a politician at the townspeople. Blade’s skin crawled with disgust.

He shrugged off Vance’s hand, stepped onto the dirt street, and weaved through the crowd. “Stop by later and I’ll show you the barbershop that’s for sale,” Vance called after him. “Prosperity is growing fast. Lot of opportunity for a smart, hardworking man like yourself.” A prim, middle-aged woman wearing a starched shopkeeper’s apron seized Blade’s arm. “Are you all right? I saw how that Stormy Hawkins attacked you. Let me assure you, the rest of us raise our girls right.” “I’m sure that’s true, Mrs.—” “Farber. I own the general store.

I have a daughter named Abigail. You’ll meet her when you come in for supplies.” She rushed in front of him, blocking his path. “You will need supplies.” “Yes, ma’am. Excuse me, ma’am.” Stepping around her, he ignored the other onlookers and made a beeline for the hotel. To his relief, the lobby was empty. He followed his nose until he found the kitchen and tossed a coin to the startled cook as an apology for walking out on his breakfast order. Four more determined steps led him to the kitchen’s back door.

As he headed back toward the livery, he wondered if he might be the reason Stormy Hawkins had charged into Vance’s office. She’d accused him of being a “bank boy” before ordering him off her land. Then, she’d rushed to town and picked a fight with Vance. The banker had joked about her temper, but she’d had no marks on her neck earlier this morning. Or, when she’d entered the Land & Loan. The banker—Vance—must have put them there. She’d managed to defend herself, but what about the next time? Vance might do worse than bruise her throat. No woman, not even a smart-mouthed, gun-toting, dress-like-a-man redhead, deserved to be manhandled. Did her kinfolk know? And, what was written on that paper clutched in her fist when she pounded on the Land & Loan door? Determined to get answers, Blade quickened his step. He’d find a way to meet Mr.

Hawkins. When he got acquainted, he’d befriend the feisty cowgirl. Describe the possibilities that lay beyond the confines of her ranch and this small town and make her see that she had options far better than Jonathan Vance. Then, when he convinced her family to sell, he’d have two reasons to celebrate.

.

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