Read The tracker Online

Authors: Mary Burton

The tracker

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“I don’t want to kill you.

Just leave me be and let me return to my life.”

“Can’t do that.” He took another step, and then another.

She squeezed the trigger.

Nick reacted quickly, diving to his left, but he wasn’t quick enough.

Buckshot sprayed out of the gun, striking him in the leg. Blinding pain seared through his thigh. He hit the ground hard.

Ellie screamed. She stood on the porch, frozen, her hands locked around the gun. Tears welled in her eyes as the truth of what she’d done sunk in. The baby cried louder.

Nick drew in a breath, doing his best to ignore the pain. “I didn’t think you had the guts.”

“I told you to stop.”

Wincing, he pushed himself up so that he was standing. Warm blood ran down his leg. He didn’t have to look at the wound to know it wasbad…!

Mary Burtonhas published eight historical novels, two novellas and a contemporary romance novel for Intimate Moments. A graduate of Hollins University, Burton enjoys scuba diving, yoga and hiking. She is based in Richmond, Virginia, where she lives with her husband and two children.

THE TRACKERMARYBURTONCONTENTS

PROLOGUE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

PROLOGUE

SOLDIER.Bounty hunter. Killer.

Nick Baron had been called them all.

A cold spring breeze blew as Nick strode down the main street of Thunder Canyon. His black duster grazed the top of scuffed boots and his spurs jangled as he crossed the muddy street toward the saloon.

He knew people watched him.

His gaze was hooded by his wide-brimmed hat, but he noticed the two men in front of the mercantile. They’d been deep in conversation when one had glanced up and spotted Nick heading toward them. The man’s face paled. He whispered something to his companion and the two scurried across the street. A portly woman closed the curtains of her millinery shop as Nick passed. Several women hustled their children inside.

When he’d first moved west, his disregard for danger had been so complete that many outlaws had figured he’d had a death wish. In truth, he’d hadnothing to lose. His bold, sometimes reckless actions had earned him a powerful reputation among those he hunted. And he’d let the rumors of his captures and the exaggerated claims of his kills grow. His ability to intimidate the roughest men had been part of the reason he’d captured so many outlaws.

Yet in the past year, he’d come to realize it wasn’t just the outlaws who feared him. Decent folks, like the ones here in Thunder Canyon, were just as scared. He’d gone a long way to cleaning up this territory, and yet he was an outsider.

The realization made him bone weary. The path he’d embraced more than a decade ago now squeezed the life out of him.

Nick pushed through the doors of the saloon. At the noon hour, the place was all but deserted. The piano was silent. A reed-thin bartender wearing a stained apron wiped off a table while three miners sat by the window playing cards. The room smelled of whiskey and stale smoke.

Nick’s spurs jangled as he moved across the dirt floor to a dark corner where a solitary man sat.

Sheriff Bobby Pool was well past sixty. He wore his long gray hair tied at the nape of his neck with rawhide. Thick eyebrows hovered over sharp gray eyes. A U.S. Marshal’s silver star adorned the front of his jacket.

Bobby wasn’t a big man—he was midsize atbest—but when Nick looked the sheriff in the eye, he’d have sworn the sheriff topped six foot, like himself. Honest, hardworking and ruthless, Sheriff Pool had become a legend in this part of Montana.

Ten years ago, Nick had met Bobby in Jackson in the Wyoming Territory. Bobby had heard three outlaws planned to storm Nick’s camp at midnight and he’d warned him. The tip had saved Nick’s life and Bobby had become as close a friend as Nick had ever had.

Bobby’s eyes sparkled with youthful excitement as he rose and extended his hand to Nick. “Well, you look like Lucifer himself.”

Nick accepted his hand. “You would, too, if you’d been in a saddle for twenty-one days straight.”

Nick and the older man took a seat at the table. Both sat with their backs to the wall. Nick set his black Stetson on the table.

“You created quite a stir this morning when you turned over John Ramsey to the sheriff,” Bobby said.

“So it seems.”

John Ramsey had been wanted for killing a homesteader and his family. Only one member of the family—a six-year-old girl—had survived the attack by hiding in the kindling box. Ramsey had eluded the law for two years until Nick had gotten on his trail.“Ramsey has a talent for hiding under the smallest rock. Took three weeks to find him.”

Bobby rubbed his gnarled hands together. The arthritis pained him most in the spring. “He as mean as they say?”

“Just about.”

Bobby absorbed the information. “So, other than smelling like a dead buffalo, how the devil are you, Nick?”

“I’d be soaking in the barber’s tub right now if I hadn’t gotten word you wanted to see me. I hope whatever news you have is worth keeping me from my bath.”

Bobby ignored Nick’s rough tone. “It’s worth it.”

Nick would have shot back another remark but he noticed then that Bobby looked more fatigued than normal. And Bobby wasn’t one to chitchat. He’d called this meeting for a reason.

The bartender eased over to their table and glanced nervously at Nick. His hands trembled as he set down a glass and bottle of whiskey in front of Bobby. “Can I get you anything, Mr. Baron?”

“Steak and potatoes.”

“Anything to wash it down? A tumbler so you can share the marshal’s whiskey?”

“Just coffee.”

“Yes, sir.” The bartender hurried into the back room as if he were happy for the task.

Bobby’s walrus mustache twitched when he laughed. “You still got the knack.”

Nick leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs at his ankles. “Knack?”

“To make people jump. I ain’t seen a bounty hunter who could strike fear in a man’s heart like you.”

Irritation rose inside him. “Part of the job, I suppose.”

Bobby filled his whiskey glass. “You sound like you’re not happy about it.”

He rarely shared his thoughts, but when he did, it was only to Bobby. “Until recently, I welcomed the fear. It made the job easier.”

Bobby’s chair creaked as he leaned forward. “And no more?”

“I’m tired of the travel. I’m tired of waking up and not knowing what town I’m in or if there is a shooter behind a bush or building waiting to put a bullet in my back.”

Bobby nodded. “Been there myself. Maybe you should retire. I’m planning to.”

A ghost of a smile touched Nick’s lips. “You have been saying that for three years. Last I heard youhadretired.”

“I know. Seemed there was too much work. But Iaim to walk away from law enforcement this summer.”

“I can’t imagine you sitting on a rocker.”

“Can’t say I’m ready for the chair,” Bobby said, grinning. “But I bought myself a plot of land outside of Thunder Canyon. I aim to raise horses.”

The news took Nick by surprise. “I wouldn’t have believed it if you hadn’t told me yourself.”

His chest puffed with pride. “Well, it’s a done deal.”

Nick sighed. “I’ve been thinking about settling down a lot lately. I’m tired of being alone.”

Bobby raised an eyebrow. “You’retired of being alone?”

“You make it sound as if I have a disease.”

“You’re making money hand over fist. Hell, Ramsey had to be worth almost a grand.”

Nick sighed. “How much money can a man spend in a lifetime?”

“Don’t know. But Idoknow that living without money can be a real pain. A marshal’s pay is miserably low.”

The bartender returned to the table with a clean mug and a pot of freshly brewed coffee. “You still take it black?”

Nick nodded his thanks. “That’s right.”

The bartender started to back away. “Your meal will be right up.”

“Appreciate it,” Nick said. He poured himself a cup of coffee and waited until the bartender was out of earshot. “In the last year, I’ve disliked the long weeks on the trail. I’m losing my edge.”

“Somehow I can’t picture you losing your edgeorliving around people.”

There’d been a time long ago when Nick had been surrounded by family and friends. He’d looked forward to holiday furloughs filled with lively music, parties and laughter. “I just might surprise you. I’ve started to think to the future, slowing down, building a spread where I can raise horses.” He sipped his coffee. “Hell, I’ve even dreamed of a wife and children.”

Bobby’s eyes darkened with approval. “No more running from the past.”

Nick didn’t argue with the statement. The old man knew Nick’s wife, Crystal, had died in Virginia giving birth to a child sired while Nick had been stationed at an army post in Kansas. The baby’s father had turned out to be Nick’s brother, Gregory. Nick had nearly beaten Gregory to death when he’d found out. Though acquitted of any crime, Nick had left Virginia and never returned.

Bobby’s demeanor turned serious. He downed half his glass of whiskey. For a moment he was silent. “As a man gets older, he starts to think about the things he’s left unsaid.”

Nick’s gaze sharpened. “You sound like a man who’s ready to die.”

“I have no plans to die anytime soon. It’s just that…well, you’ve been a good friend to me. Hell, you’re more like a son than a friend.”

Nick’s throat tightened. He wasn’t comfortable with emotion. Feelings were best buried and forgotten. “What’s your point, old man?”

“You could go in on the ranch with me. I could use a partner like you,” Bobby said.

Surprisingly, the offer tempted him. “Be careful, I just might take you up on it.”

Bobby traced the rim of his whiskey glass. “I never make an offer unless I’m serious.”

For the first time in a good while, excitement sparked in Nick. “Tell me about this land of yours.”

Bobby leaned forward, his eyes bright. “Dandy bit of acreage about two days’ ride west of the canyon’s mouth. Got a stream running through it. Lots of land for horses. Plenty of room for two cabins, if you can actually find a woman to tolerate you.”

“I’d like to take a look at it.”

“You mean that?”

“Yep.”

Bobby leaned back in his chair, a satisfied smile on his face. “I can just see the sign now. Pool and Baron.”

“Or better, Baron and Pool.”

The old man’s grin widened. “You think you can settle down? As much as you say you hate the travel, do you really think you’d be content to put down roots?”

“Only way to find out is to try.”

The marshal nodded. “The bounty hunting will always be there if you change your mind.”

The truth of his words made Nick both sad and angry. “That’s one thing I’ve learned in the last ten years. There will always be outlaws.”

The bartender delivered Nick’s steak and retreated. Charred on the outside and raw in the center, it was just like a thousand other steaks he’d eaten over the last decade. He took one bite and chewed. It tasted the same as it always did, yet he’d lost his taste for it. He set his knife and fork down and pushed the plate away.

Nick noticed then that Bobby had drunk only half his whiskey. Before Bobby went on a marshaling job, he always left his whiskey glass unfinished, promising to drain the remainder when he returned. He should have known Bobby couldn’t walk away from the work. “You have a job.”

“You know me too well.”

“Who are you after this time?”

He leaned closer to Nick and lowered his voice.“I’m providing security for the railroad’s payroll. Twenty thousand dollars in gold.”

Nick whistled. “A lot of money.”

“Damn stupid, if you ask me. Only a fool would move that much money at one time. Just inviting trouble. But the railroad brass isn’t interested in my opinion. They just want my gun.”

“This a marshaling job?”

“Nope.” He pulled off his badge and laid it on the table. “The money the railroad is paying will cover the cost of my breeding stock. I telegraphed Butte this morning and retired from law enforcement.”

“You want me to ride along?”

“Nah. We’ve got twelve men guarding the train car. Got enough ammunition between us to blow any outlaw to kingdom come.”

Nick smiled, but worry nibbled at his gut. He picked up the tarnished star. “So this is your last job?”

Bobby drew an imaginary X over his heart. “On my mother’s grave, I swear that this is it. Fact, why don’t you keep that star as a souvenir of the old days?”

“I’ll return it when you get back.”

 

NICK NEVER GAVEBobby back his star.

Their dreams of building a ranch vanished threedays later, when word arrived that the train carrying the gold had been robbed by two masked gunmen. Five of the twelve men guarding the train had been killed, the other seven badly wounded.

Bobby was among the dead.

Nick brought Bobby’s body back to Thunder Canyon and saw it properly buried.

Then, at sunrise of the next day, Nick began his hunt for the killers.

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