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Authors: Elle James

Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense

Thunder Horse Redemption (14 page)

BOOK: Thunder Horse Redemption
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“Fine. Toby, go.” Her thoughts were half a mile ahead on Sweet Jessie, hoping it wasn’t too late to save the mare.

“Where should we look for you?” Toby asked.

“Around the watering hole near the rim of the canyon,” Ethan answered.

Toby galloped away, leaning low over his horse.

As Ethan and Roxanne neared the watering hole, Sweet Jessie was nowhere to be seen.

“I thought you said Sweet Jessie was here.”

“She was. She might have gotten up and moved down into the canyon to hide. Maybe she’s trying to find a place to die. We’d better hurry.”

Roxanne’s throat tightened. Not Sweet Jessie, the filly she and Pierce had nursed through a storm. It would be like breaking the last link to their shared past. She nudged her horse, sending her to the canyon rim.

As they neared the edge, Roxanne glanced down the trail they’d used when Jim had been injured. “I don’t know how we’re going to get down in there. This trail is a mess from the landslide.”

Ethan reined his horse to the north. “I know another way down.” He followed the rim for several hundred yards before he nodded toward a rocky outcropping. “There’s a trail on the other side of those boulders.” He started down.

Roxanne had never seen this trail before, hidden as it was in a maze of brush and boulders. She was surprised that it was wide enough for horses to climb in and out of the canyon easily.

As they descended, Roxanne glanced around, keeping a watch out for men with guns. “You know, Ethan, I think it might be better if we wait until Pierce can ride down with us. I’d hate for one of us to get hurt.”

Ethan shot a frown over his shoulder. “Jessie was really bad off. If we wait, she might not make it.”

Roxanne looked above her at the canyon rim, wishing she’d waited on Pierce. But if Jessie was as bad off as Ethan was making her out to be, every minute counted. “Okay. Go.” But she’d keep an eye on Ethan all the way, still unsure of him. Without a gun to protect herself, she could be riding into a trap. But then Ethan didn’t have a gun on him, either.

She rode silently down the trail, working through all the incidents in her mind. Each time she’d been attacked, her ranch hands had been out in the field rounding up cattle—as far as she knew. Rounding up cattle on a large spread meant splitting up to find those animals hiding in the bushes. The ranch hands could have been scattered and busy enough they wouldn’t see if one of them had slipped away.

The time she’d almost been run over by the motorcycle, Ethan had claimed the four-wheeler had broken down. Had he swapped the four-wheeler for a dirt bike to terrorize her?

As the trail leveled out onto the canyon floor, Roxanne pulled her horse to a stop and she stared across at Ethan. “Ethan, have I ever done anything to make you mad?”

He turned to face her. “No.”

“Have I treated you unfairly?”

With a shake of his head, he nudged his horse. “Nope. These tracks might lead to the horse. Come on.”

Roxanne moved out a little slower, letting the distance between her and Ethan lengthen, her gut telling her that being alone in a canyon with Ethan wasn’t one of her brightest decisions. Either he was telling the truth, and he wouldn’t be much protection for her, unarmed as he was, or he was working against her and she could be in danger. She reined in her horse. “I’m heading back to the Thunder Horse Ranch to wait for Pierce. It doesn’t feel right down here.”

Ethan pointed ahead. “There! I think I see her.” He dug his heels into his horse and raced ahead.

Adrenaline shot through Roxanne’s veins. As Ethan’s horse took off, her own horse couldn’t stand being left behind. She tossed her head, trying to loosen Roxanne’s tight grip.

“Okay, fine. We’ll check it out. But if she’s not there, we’re heading back.” Roxanne gave the horse her head.

The animal leaped forward, galloping along the rocky ground.

Ethan and his mount disappeared over a rise.

Roxanne tempered her horse’s headlong rush to catch up, afraid she’d slip on the loose rocks and hurt herself.

As she topped the knoll, she spotted Ethan’s horse standing still, its sides heaving, the saddle empty. The animal stood at a narrow choke point in the canyon, the walls pocked with an array of caves, some mere overhangs, others gaping entrances. Roxanne had spent many summers exploring the canyons with their father and Mason, but she didn’t remember this place.

She eased her horse forward. “Ethan?”

“In here! She’s in here!” His voice echoed off a cave’s walls.

The sound bounced around the cliffs towering over Roxanne’s head. “Where are you?” she called out.

“Follow my voice.”

Roxanne dismounted and walked toward one particular cave. She led her horse by the reins.

The horses occasionally entered the caves to avoid the bitter winter winds in North Dakota, but it was summer. Sweet Jessie wasn’t making sense, unless, like Ethan had intimated, she was looking for a place to die. “Ethan, come out so I can see where you are.”

As she waited for him to appear, she glanced at the ground, searching for hoofprints of an unshod wild horse. Instead, she found narrow tire tracks.

Her breath lodged in her throat. “Ethan! Get out here.”

She backed away from the cave’s entrance, her pulse hammering through her veins. “Ethan. Please. We need to leave, right now.”

Ethan stepped out of one of the larger caves, his right arm by his side, aligning with his right leg. “We’re not going anywhere.”

The tone of his voice sent chills along Roxanne’s spine. “We need to go, it’s not safe here.”

He lifted a rifle in his arms and aimed it at her chest. “Correction…it’s not safe for

Chapter Fourteen

Pierce sat in front of his computer, poring through the criminal databases, trying to find a match on Leah Jennings. So far, nothing. Ready to call it a bust and head back to the ranch, he tried searching the internet for the name in Bismarck.

His fingers tapped against the surface of his desk as he waited. Finally a string of hits popped up on his screen. The first was a high school yearbook photo of Leah Jennings from the local Bismarck high school, dated several years back. In the photo, she was a fresh-faced young woman with long sandy-blond hair who smiled back at him from the screen.

He clicked on another photo of a woman in a mug shot, her hair dirty and streaked purple and pink, piercings on her eyebrow, nose and ears. What made a young person go from girl next door to that? Probably drugs.

Farther down the list was a string of news headlines from a couple months back. He clicked on one and a picture popped up on the screen with a caption that knocked the air from his lungs.

Explosion Claims Lives of Four Feds.

He recognized the picture from one that had been plastered over all the newspapers and newscasts. It showed the night they’d raided the warehouse in Bismarck that had been used to store stolen and illegal weapons. The FBI and ATF had conducted a joint operation to expose and disarm a radical militia rumored to be preparing for an attack on government buildings across North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota.

Pierce had been the one who’d received a tip from a concerned citizen that the militia group would be meeting at a certain time to distribute weapons to their counterparts, using a warehouse in the southern part of Bismarck.

Because the tip had come to Pierce, he, Tuck and Mason had been assigned to assist the ATF in capturing members of the militia and seizing the weapons. At first, everything had gone according to plan. The ATF had lead on the bust, and Mason had insisted on volunteering to go in with them. Pierce and Tuck had set up a communications outpost on the outside. It should all have gone down smoothly.

What they hadn’t counted on was the explosives hardwired throughout the building, set to go off if the warehouse was raided. It had all been a setup. Pierce had led the team into a trap. He’d received the tip and he hadn’t questioned the validity or the possibility that it wasn’t what it seemed. It had been his fault that Mason and the three ATF agents had died in that explosion.

Pierce’s fingers curled into a tight fist, his eyes burning. Mason had lived long enough to die in his arms, his final request for Pierce to look out for his sister.

The memories washed over him like a black, murky wave of swamp water, dragging him down into the well of despair he’d experienced, knowing it was his fault and that he had to be the one to break the news to Roxanne.

The kicker of the entire event was that not all the arms the militia had amassed had been stored in that location. An entire arsenal of deadly weapons had been relocated only hours before the raid. Pierce’s team had moved in faster than the militia had expected, otherwise there would have been no weapons or militia members in the building at the time of the explosion. But the bulk of the inventory—and the militia membership—was still at large, and no one knew where…at least, no one who was willing to talk.

“Anything?” Tuck leaned in the door to Pierce’s office. “I checked criminal databases and didn’t have a match.

His brother’s voice yanked Pierce out of the past and back to the article in front of him. “I’m reviewing old newspaper articles.”

Tuck entered the office and leaned over Pierce’s shoulder. “Damn. Isn’t that—”

Pierce nodded, his empty stomach roiling. “The warehouse explosion.”

“Why are you revisiting it?”

“I did a search on Leah Jennings in Bismarck and this was one of the articles that came up.”

“Holy smokes.” Tuck poked a finger at the screen farther down the page. “Says Leah Jennings was one of the members of the militia who died in the explosion. What kind of coincidence is that?”

The air left Pierce’s lungs in a whoosh. “Leah died in the explosion?”

“You think Ethan has anything to do with the militia?”

“I don’t know.” Pierce opened another tab on the browser and keyed in “North Dakota Militia” and “Ethan Mitchell” and waited for the search engine to do its thing.

A moment later, several articles and images popped up on the screen, all of which had something to do with the militia but held no mention of Ethan Mitchell in particular.

Pierce pulled up photographs taken of a demonstration at the capitol of North Dakota by the local militia six months ago. He blew up the photograph and studied the blurred images.

“There.” He pointed to the screen. “Isn’t that Leah? The one with the purple streaks?”

“Could be. Who is that next to her?”

A young man in dark cargo pants and a slouchy jacket could have been Ethan, but his face was turned too far away to be certain.

“Move the picture to the left.” Tuck’s brows pulled together. “See what I’m seeing?”

Pierce tried to adjust the focus on the image, but it didn’t get much better. “Looks kinda like…”

“Shorty Duncan.” Tuck let out a long low whistle.

“What the hell was he doing at the rally?”

Pierce stood so fast his chair rolled back and hit the file cabinets. “When did the sheriff bring him on?”

“I don’t know, but Mom or Maddox would.”

“I have to get back to the ranch.” Pierce grabbed his keys from the desktop.

“But we might find more information while we’re here.”

“Something doesn’t feel right. I need to get to Roxanne.” Pierce skipped by the elevator and took the steps down to the ground level, Tuck on his heels.

They climbed into the truck and pulled out of the parking lot, Pierce driving, Tuck pressing buttons on his cell phone.

Before he could hit Send to place a call to the ranch house, his phone buzzed, indicating a couple of voice mails had come in while Tuck’s phone had been in a pocket of bad reception.

Pierce strained to hear the message while negotiating the traffic.

Tuck hung up the phone with a muttered curse and stared across at Pierce. “Bad news.”

His pulse shot blood and adrenaline through his arteries. “Give it to me.”

“The first call was from Mom, letting us know that she got a call from the sheriff’s department saying Maddox and Katya had been involved in an accident and were on their way to St. Alexius hospital here in Bismarck.”

Pierce’s heart jumped into his throat. “A car accident? Was their car tampered with, too?”

“Mom didn’t say. She didn’t seem to think it sounded too serious, but she did say that she and Dante were going to drive out and see what was going on. The second message I got is the one you’re really not going to like. It was from Roxanne.”

“Tell me Roxanne went with Dante and Mom,” Pierce said through gritted teeth.

Tuck’s mouth formed a thin line as he shook his head. “Wish I could, but she didn’t.”

Pierce’s stomach plummeted. “Where is she?”

“She called to say that two of her men showed up claiming Sweet Jessie was down and needed immediate attention. She called to let us know that she’d be leaving with them.”

Pierce drew in a shaky breath. “Did she say which two of Roxanne’s men?”

“Toby and Ethan.”

Could it get worse? Pierce forced himself to think. “Call the sheriff’s dispatcher and see what they know of Maddox’s accident.”

Already dialing, Tuck held the phone to his ear and waited, then asked the dispatcher what was going on. A moment later his face looked even more grim. “They never called Mom.”

“See if you can get Maddox on the phone.”

“You know cell phones have little to no reception out that far.”


Tuck hit speed dial for Maddox’s cell phone with no luck, then Dante’s.

“We have to get there faster than driving.” Pierce jerked the steering wheel to the right, sending them south.

Tuck held on to the armrest. “Where are you going?”

“The airport.”

“We won’t get a plane out that fast.”

“We’re not going by plane, if we can help it. Dial your friend Rick Knoell, tell him it’s an FBI emergency.”

“We don’t have clearance from our supervisor,” Tuck said even as he glanced down at his phone.

“If it was Julia, would you question it?”

Tuck searched his contacts list and selected one, holding the phone to his ear. “Rick, I need another favor. I know, we’ve been making it a habit. This is important. We need to get out near Medora ASAP.”

Pierce listened to the one-sided conversation, holding his breath.

“Can you be ready in ten minutes? Thanks.” Tuck shook his head and hit a number on his speed dial, glancing across at Pierce. “I should make you place this one.”

“Who are you calling now?”

Tuck sighed. “Our boss. He’s not going to be happy.”

“Give it to me.” Pierce took the phone from Tuck as their supervisor answered.

“Radcliff speaking.”

“Pierce Thunder Horse, sir. We’ve made a command decision to appropriate the use of a helicopter to get us to the badlands in a hurry.”

“Better have a damn good reason,” Radcliff barked.

“Sir, I believe we may have narrowed down the NorDak Militia weapons stash we lost track of on the raid two months ago. We might need backup should things go south.”

“Then you should wait until I can call in the ATF.”

“Sir, no sir. There’s a possible hostage situation that won’t wait. I believe we can get in and lock down the location before the militia catches wind that we’re coming.” He paused. “With your permission, sir.”

A long pause ensued as Pierce pulled off the highway at the airport exit and sped toward Rick Knoell’s hangar. If he had to, he’d pay Rick out of his pocket for the use of the helicopter.

But if his gut had this right, this was a bigger can of worms than even he had originally anticipated.

“If you’re wrong…” Radcliff started.

“I know, it’ll come out of my pocket.” Pierce maneuvered the truck into a parking space and shifted to Park.

“That’s not all that you’ll lose.”

“I’ll risk it, sir. I have a gut feeling.” Pierce shifted the phone to his other ear and switched off the truck.

“We need more than a gut feeling.”

“Sir, given the last operation, I think we have a better chance of rounding up the weapons without fanfare and joint ops.” Pierce held his breath. He’d go without permission, but having it would help.

“If I didn’t trust you, I’d say you’re risking a helluva lot.” Radcliff snorted. “Hell, I trust you and I
think you’re risking a lot.”

Pierce opened his door and climbed out, still holding the phone.

“Do it,” Radcliff commanded. “Keep me informed.”

“Yes, sir.” Pierce hit the off button before Radcliff could change his mind, and he tossed the phone to Tuck.

Tuck shook his head. “Why did you just tell the boss you’d found the weapons?”

“Because I think we have.” Pierce jogged toward the hangar, Tuck keeping pace. “Think about it. Someone shot at Roxanne when she got near to the canyon. When she tried to go down into the canyon with Jim, they were stopped with a landslide.”

“What about when you two were in the canyon that night it rained?”

“Maybe there were too many people around to get away with anything at the time. We had cover as we descended to the canyon floor. The rain kept us from exploring too far.”

“What about the fire in the barn?”

“I’m not sure, but I have a hunch.” Before he could elaborate, they were pulling out their FBI credentials and showing it to the lady at the desk of the helicopter courier service run by pilot Rick Knoell. Rick was out on the tarmac finishing up his preflight check.

“Ready?” he asked, sliding into the pilot’s seat.

“Let’s go.” Pierce climbed into the front seat and settled the headset over his ears.

“Where exactly are we going?” he asked.

“The badlands north of Medora.” Pierce closed his door and settled back. “Can you hurry? It could mean the difference between life and death.”

* * *

to the left. “Get in the cave.”

“Why?” Roxanne stalled.

“Just do it.” The young man’s lip lifted in a sneer. “Just because you own a ranch doesn’t make you better than anyone.”

“I didn’t say it did.”

“People like you lord it over regular folk, making our lives miserable enough until we want to do something about it.”

“When did I make your life miserable?” Roxanne walked slowly up the incline to the cave’s entrance. Oddly enough, now that she was faced with the man who might have been responsible for the attacks against her, she felt calmer than she had the entire week. Maybe it had to do with finally having someone in front of her that she could deal with directly, not having to wait and worry about when danger would strike. Maybe it was just that Ethan was someone she knew—someone she might be able to talk down from whatever crazy plan he’d formed.

“I hired you to do work on a ranch. You said you’d done ranch work before. Did I ask you to do anything I wouldn’t have done?”

“You’re like the rest of them,” Ethan muttered, his eyes wide, his hands shaking.

Roxanne stopped in front of him, wondering how she’d get through to him when he looked so unstable. “Who is ‘them’?”

“Shut up!” He poked her in the belly with the end of the rifle. “Just get inside.”

“I’d like to know what I’ve done that warrants being yelled at and prodded with a rifle.”

“You poked around where you shouldn’t have.”

“And where was that?”

“Here in the canyon, damn it!” He grabbed her arm and jerked her into the cave.

Roxanne stumbled and righted herself. “It’s part of my ranch—why wouldn’t I go into the canyon?”

“Because that’s where we keep this…” He waved his free hand at the stacks of boxes lining the cave walls. On top of and beside the boxes were military rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns, all shiny and new.

Roxanne’s stomach flipped over as she stared around the interior of the cave, lit by a single gas lantern. “Good Lord, how’d you get all this in here?”

BOOK: Thunder Horse Redemption
4.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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