Read Thunder Horse Redemption Online
Authors: Elle James
Tags: #AmerFrntr/Western/Cowboy, #Romance Suspense
He told himself he was better off single. He’d be no kind of husband to any woman, and especially not to Roxanne.
Tuck was crazy to think a relationship between him and Julia would work out while he stayed an agent, even though Julia had already told Tuck she wouldn’t stand in the way of his career, that she wanted him to follow his dream of being an FBI special agent.
He’d end up quitting the FBI in order to stay home with his wife and baby daughter. From what Pierce had seen, Tuck would give up breathing for Lily and Julia, and Pierce had seen the worry in Julia’s eyes every time Tuck headed back to the office in Bismarck. She’d worry about him until he returned, even though Tuck was a good agent who’d given her no reason to doubt his ability to come home to her at the end of the day. Not like Pierce, who had already let Roxanne down when his mistake ended in her brother’s death.
Even if Roxanne forgave Pierce for Mason’s death, he would never forgive himself. Pierce couldn’t ask her again to be his wife. Being the cause of her brother’s death would always stand between them, not to mention the loneliness, heartache and uncertainty of being the spouse of an agent.
Pierce caught up with Dante and they rode side by side in silence the rest of the way out to the canyon on the border of the Thunder Horse and Carmichael ranches. Dante didn’t mention Roxanne and Pierce didn’t bring her up, preferring to push on, keeping his thoughts completely to himself.
As they neared the trailhead Pierce and Roxanne had ascended earlier that morning, a slew of emotions rippled across his consciousness, the foremost being regret.
Regret that things hadn’t worked out differently, that it had been inevitable they turned out the way they did.
What if Mason had lived? What if he and Roxanne had continued with their wedding plans? They’d be married now.
And their marriage would have been a huge mistake. Roxanne deserved a man she could count on, and that could never be him.
A distant cry echoed off the canyon walls, pushing thoughts of what might have been to the back of Pierce’s mind.
“Did you hear that?” Dante asked.
Both men pulled on their reins and listened.
“Help!” The desperate sound rose from somewhere down in the canyon.
Pierce’s pulse leaped. “Roxanne?” He slapped his reins on his horse’s flanks. Cetan burst into a gallop, heading straight for the trail.
“Pierce, wait!” Dante called out behind him.
At the last moment, Cetan skidded to a halt, sending a shower of pebbles and gravel over the edge.
“Help! Please, help us!” Roxanne’s voice called out.
Pierce dropped down off Cetan’s back and peered over the rim of the canyon.
Roxanne knelt beside a distorted figure lying among the rocks. When she glanced up, she pointed her rifle up at him and shouted, “Who’s there?”
“Roxanne, it’s me, Pierce.” His voice echoed several times off the walls of the canyon.
“Thank God,” Roxanne said, and laid the rifle on the ground, kneeling in the dirt beside the man.
“I’m going down.” Pierce handed his reins to his brother.
Dante caught his arm. “Be careful, Pierce. Looks like there’s been an avalanche.” He nodded toward the edge where a large chunk of the rim had recently fallen away.
Pierce’s throat constricted. Roxanne could have been the one lying hurt at the bottom of the canyon. He left Cetan at the top and walked down the steep trail, his boots slipping on newly loosened stone. At one point the trail all but disappeared, ripped away by a rush of stone and debris.
When he reached the bottom, he hurried across to where Roxanne sat on the ground, holding Jim Rausch’s hand, the tears trickling down her face forming long trails through the dust caked to her skin. She glanced up at Pierce. “Don’t let him die.”
Pierce dropped to his haunches next to Jim’s body and felt for a pulse. “He’s still with us. How long has he been out?”
“Fifteen, twenty minutes, maybe.” She shook her head as she stared at the man. “He fell most of the way down and I couldn’t do a thing.”
“Moving him could cause more damage. We’ll have to get an airlift to get him out of here.”
Pierce glanced up to the rim of the canyon. Maddox had arrived and waited beside Dante. Pierce stood and waved at his brothers.
Dante started the long trek down the damaged trail.
“I’ll be back.” As Pierce turned to go, Roxanne’s hand grabbed his leg.
“Hurry.” Her voice broke, and another tear slipped down her cheek.
Pierce forced himself to move away, climbing the trail as fast as he could to meet Dante halfway up.
“Is it Jim?” Dante asked, his gaze moving past Pierce to the man lying so still. “Is he dead?”
“It’s Jim and he’s still alive. Tell Maddox to radio back to the house and have someone call nine-one-one. We need an emergency medical helicopter here ASAP.”
“Got it.” Dante turned and scrambled back up the trail.
Pierce returned to the base and Roxanne.
He sat on the ground beside her and gathered her in his arms. “He’ll be okay.”
She turned her face into his chest, her fingers bunching his shirt. “Promise?”
“I can’t promise, but we’ll do the best we can.”
She didn’t reply…but she didn’t let go, either.
For the longest time they sat there, waiting for the reassuring thumping of rotor blades beating the air.
When it finally came, Pierce stood, gathered the horses’ reins and held them steady as a helicopter hovered over the canyon and then landed on a flat patch of ground on the canyon floor. At the same time, a handful of emergency medical personnel descended from the rim of the canyon, carrying medical supplies and a backboard.
Pierce pulled Roxanne away from Jim, leaving him in the care of the professionals. He stood with her hand clasped in his, his heart aching for her. Pierce knew what Jim meant to Roxanne.
Jim Rausch was more family to Roxanne than employee. Having survived her brother’s death, she’d be devastated by the loss of her foreman.
He prayed to the Great Spirit to spare the man’s life for Roxanne’s sake. She didn’t need to go through all that again.
Roxanne broke away from him and followed the medical team as they carried Jim on the backboard to the waiting helicopter.
After they loaded the foreman into the helicopter and it lifted off the ground, the technicians returned to clear their equipment.
Roxanne trudged back, her head down until she reached Pierce. “He has to make it.”
“Jim’s a tough guy. He’ll pull through.”
Roxanne’s face turned up to his, her normally bright blue eyes nearly gray, shadowed. “I watched him fall all that way down.”
Pierce pulled her into his arms. “You couldn’t have done a thing to help. It was an accident.”
“No it wasn’t.”
“She’s right—it wasn’t.”
Pierce turned at Maddox’s voice.
His brother was stepping off the trail onto the floor of the canyon.
Roxanne straightened. “I know I saw someone, standing at the ledge right before the avalanche started. Was it him? Did he do this?”
Maddox nodded, his mouth set in a grim line. “You’ll want to take a look at this, Pierce. From the tracks he left behind, there’s no denying it. Someone forced that boulder free, setting off that avalanche.”
Roxanne paced the corridor of the St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck, the acrid scent of rubbing alcohol and disinfectant burning the insides of her nostrils, bringing back nothing but bad memories.
She hated hospitals. Every time she’d gone to one, someone she’d loved had died. Her father, her mother and, more recently, her brother. Now Jim lay in a hospital room—and it was her fault. She should have heeded the warning not to go into the canyon.
Pierce leaned against the wall, his arms crossed. “Getting yourself all worked up won’t help Jim.”
“I don’t need advice, I need answers.” She stopped in midstride and glared at Pierce. “Who did this? And why?”
He shook his head. “We don’t know. We didn’t see any dirt bike tracks this time.”
“I didn’t hear a motorcycle, but then I was at the bottom looking up....” She scuffed her boot across the polished tiles. “I should have seen more, enough to identify the bastard.”
Pierce grabbed her shoulders and forced her to look at him. “Once you realized what was happening, you kept your eyes on Jim. And from what you said earlier, if you hadn’t been watching him, he could have been hit by a boulder traveling at top speed.”
Roxanne’s body shook with her anger. “This psycho has to be stopped before someone is killed.”
“My brothers are searching the canyon rim for more tracks. He couldn’t have gone far without a horse or an ATV. If there are tracks, Maddox and Dante will find them.”
“Why Jim?” Roxanne asked, her brows drawing together.
“Do you mean, why not you?” Pierce shot back at her. “You can’t blame yourself, Roxy.”
“I was stupid, I should have heeded the warning.”
Pierce frowned. “What warning?”
Roxanne tipped her head back, running her hand through her hair. “When you dropped me off this morning, I went inside the barn and found a message spray painted across the walls.”
Pierce shook her slightly. “What did it say?”
“‘Stay out of the canyon.’” She broke free of his grip and walked away. “And I didn’t.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
She spun to face him, anger at herself digging a hole in her gut. “I didn’t want you to come back around. It wasn’t your problem. I called the sheriff and Deputy Duncan came out, asked questions and said he’d check into it.”
Pierce snorted. “You should have called me back before I’d even left.”
She flung her hand in the air. “Hindsight isn’t doing Jim any good now.”
A nurse emerged from Jim’s room, pushing a cart of bloody gauze and surgical equipment. She gave Roxanne a reassuring smile. “Dr. Rhoads will be out shortly.”
Her stomach knotting, Roxanne quickly settled herself in a chair as she felt her knees start to give way. Her breath caught and held in her throat as she waited for the doctor to appear. A crash cart hadn’t been wheeled in. That had to be a good sign. The nurse had smiled. Another good sign.
Jim had to be all right.
She gulped back the sob that threatened to rise in her throat, calling on all the anger that had been simmering to force herself to stay strong and in control.
When the doctor emerged, Roxanne practically pounced on him. “How’s Jim? Will he be all right?”
The doctor’s brows dipped. “Are you his next of kin?”
“I’m his boss and the only family Jim has. That makes me next of kin.” Roxanne stared up at the doctor. “I have power of attorney, but the paperwork is back at the ranch.”
“Good enough.” Dr. Rhoads nodded and laid a hand on Roxanne’s shoulder. “He’s pretty banged up, but for a man his age, he’s in good physical condition and should pull through just fine.”
Roxanne let go of the breath she’d been holding. “Thank God.”
“He’s got a broken arm, sprained ankle and two broken ribs. Had a helluva time getting his boot off. Ended up cutting it away. Since he took such hard knocks to the head, we’ll keep him overnight to make sure he doesn’t have any swelling on the brain.”
Roxanne’s chest tightened at the recurring image of Jim tumbling down the steep walls of the canyon. “He fell a long way.”
Dr. Rhoads laid a hand on Roxanne’s arm. “We’ll keep him in the intensive care unit overnight and check on him every half hour. The good news is that he did recover consciousness while we were patching him up and asked for Miss Roxy. I assume that’s you?”
Roxanne’s eyes clouded with tears. Jim hadn’t called her Roxy since her father had died. “That’s me. Can I see him?”
“He’s hooked up to monitors and oxygen, but yes, though only for a few minutes. He won’t be awake for long, I have the nurse administering a sedative in his IV. It should kick in pretty quickly.”
Pierce flipped out his credentials. “I’m with the FBI. If he’s awake, I’d like to ask Jim some questions about what happened.”
Dr. Rhoads’s lips tightened. “Don’t take too long. He’s been through a lot.”
Roxanne shook the doctor’s hand. “Thank you so much for taking care of him.” Then she scooted around him and into the room, Pierce close behind.
Another nurse was inside, adjusting an IV bag. When she saw them, she smiled and left them alone with the foreman.
Jim lay in the hospital bed, his rugged, sunbaked skin a sharp contrast to the crisp white sheets.
Her chest squeezing tight, Roxanne tiptoed to his bedside and took his work-worn uninjured hand in hers, carefully, afraid she’d hurt him.
Her old friend’s eyes blinked open and stared up at her for a long moment. “Watch that first step,” he said, his voice like gravel, rough and broken. “It’s a doozy.” He chuckled and winced.
A tear slipped from the corner of Roxanne’s eye. Jim always had a way of making her laugh when times were at their worst. “You never did like following the leader,” she said. “You had to go and make a path of your own, didn’t you?”
He closed his eyes and whispered, “Faster.”
She squeezed his hand, reminded of just how quickly it had happened, even in the slow motion of her traumatized view. “Show-off.” Her voice caught on a sob.
Jim’s brow furrowed. “Hey, what’s this? Cowgirls don’t cry.”
She brushed a tear away, but more followed. “This one does.”
“Go home, Miss Roxy.” He squeezed her hand.
“Not without you.”
“Gonna be there soon enough.”
She smiled, feeling better at the reminder that he wouldn’t have to be in the hospital for long. “You better.”
“Now go, cowgirl.” His voice faded.
For a moment Roxanne thought he’d drifted to sleep. She held on to his hand, afraid that if she let go something bad would happen.
Jim’s lids twitched open. “Got my eye on one of the nurses. You’re cramping my style.”
Pierce touched her shoulder. “Come on, the old man needs his rest.”
“And a good-lookin’ nurse.” Jim glanced up at Roxanne. “I’ll be fine. Just need a little nap.” He closed his eyes again and his breathing grew slow and steady.
Roxanne laid his hand on the bed and backed away, reluctant to leave.
Pierce hooked her arm and led her through the door.
“I should stay,” she said, staring at the closed door.
“And do what? The nurses are going to keep an eye on him all night. It’s getting late and we need to get back.”
Roxanne knew he was right, but leaving Jim…
“Look, Dante went by your place earlier to let them know what was going on and get a look at that spray paint. I’m sure your ranch hands would appreciate an update.”
Roxanne’s shoulders sagged as her world rushed back in, reminding her of her responsibilities as a ranch owner. With her foreman out and herself here in Bismarck, there was no telling how the cattle roundup was progressing. She couldn’t afford to lose another day or she’d miss the sale and her only opportunity to make enough money to keep the ranch afloat through the winter. At that rate, she’d have to lay off all the hands and she wouldn’t have anything to pay the mortgage, the men, Jim or his medical bills. “You’re right. I need to get back to the ranch.” She spun on her boot heels and headed for the exit.
Since Maddox had brought the truck to the canyon, Pierce and Roxanne had taken it all the way to Bismarck to check on Jim while Dante and Maddox had taken care of getting the horses home. Pierce would have to take her back to her ranch.
Roxanne left the hospital and climbed into the truck cab, sinking back against the seat, letting the worry for Jim’s safety roll off her.
She breathed in the earthy scent of hay and leather gloves, remembering the many times she’d ridden in this old truck, worked alongside Pierce as they loaded hay onto trailers, hauling it back to be stored in the barn. The memories reminded her of hot summer days and cool, lazy nights, sitting on the porch of her ranch house, just the two of them in the swing her grandfather had built for her grandmother. The old couple had been married over seventy years when they’d passed on within months of each other.
Roxanne had assumed she and Pierce would be like them, sitting on the porch swing, growing old, celebrating their seventieth year together with their grandchildren gathered around.
She shook her head, sitting up straighter in her seat, her eyes focusing on the road ahead. She had been mistaken. Their union wasn’t meant to be.
After Pierce pulled onto Interstate 94, he glanced across at her.
“You should stay at the Thunder Horse Ranch tonight.”
His words ripped through the silence, startling a response out of her. “What?”
“You heard me. Someone has made a point of going after you and your people. It’s not safe for you to go back. My brothers and I can protect you better at our place.”
“And leave my ranch and the hands at the mercy of some lunatic?” She crossed her arms over her chest. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
In her peripheral vision Roxanne could see him staring at her, but she refused to look his way. She’d leaned on him entirely too much that day already. It wasn’t as if he’d be there always. He’d told her she couldn’t rely on him, and she’d taken him at his word.
In this, as in everything else in her life, she was on her own.
* * *
them in the cab of the pickup as Pierce accepted that this was one battle he wasn’t going to win. He knew that Roxanne couldn’t leave her ranch hands to fend for themselves. Much as he’d like to spirit her away from it all to keep her safe, her sense of responsibility wouldn’t let her go.
The warning message led him to believe the canyon was the only place the shooter had issues with, so perhaps she was safe as long as she stayed on the ranch. But the message had appeared inside her barn, close to her home. Pierce didn’t trust that the attacker wouldn’t make it more personal. How could he keep her safe?
The rumble of tires on the road vibrated through his chest. The thought of Roxanne staying on her ranch without the foreman ate a hole in Pierce’s gut.
Jim was the oldest and most trusted employee she had and he’d stayed in the ranch house since the deaths of Roxanne’s parents. With Jim out of the way, someone might take advantage of the opportunity and make a move on Roxanne, a lone woman in an empty house.
By the time he pulled onto the long gravel driveway leading up to the Carmichael ranch house, he’d made up his mind.
Now all he had to do was convince Roxanne.
He shifted into Park in front of her house.
She glanced sideways at him. “Thanks for taking me to Bismarck.”
“I’d have gone anyway.” Pierce switched off the engine. “I wanted to see that Jim was okay. He’s a good man.”
When Roxanne opened her door and climbed down, Pierce did the same.
She stared across the cab of the truck at him, without closing the door. “I can take it from here. You don’t have to stick around.”
“I’m staying.” He closed the driver’s door.
“Oh, no, you’re not.” She slammed her door and rounded the front of his truck, grabbed his door handle and opened it again. “Tuck needs you to help him with wedding planning.”
Pierce shut the door again. “I’m staying.”
“I don’t need you to. I have four ranch hands as backup.”
“And they stay in the bunkhouse while you are alone in the main house.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at her, feet braced, ready for the fight. “I’m staying.”
She frowned. “You’re not welcome, so go home.”
“You need protection. I’m it.”
“I have a gun. I’ll provide my own protection.” She jerked her hand toward the truck. “Go.”
He shook his head, his lip lifting on one side. “Sorry. No can do. You’re stuck with me.”
“You’re not staying in the ranch house.” She heaved a sigh, her shoulders sagging, the shadows beneath her eyes deepening. “Please leave.”
“Not going to happen. Look, if you don’t want me in the house then I’ll sleep outside.” He raised his hands above his head and stretched. “Been a few years since I slept under the stars. Reckon it will be good for me.”
She dragged in a breath and blew it out through her nose like an angry bull. “You’re a stubborn man, Pierce Thunder Horse.”
“I can be.”
“Fine. If you’re staying, it has to be in the bunkhouse with the hands.”
“Kind of missing the point, aren’t you? I won’t be close enough to help you if someone tries to come after you.”
“That’s as good as it gets, cowboy.”
Pierce’s eyes narrowed. At least she wasn’t booting him off her property or calling the sheriff to have him removed. “Done.”
He opened the rear door to the cab and unearthed a sleeping bag he kept rolled up behind the seat in case of a breakdown. Being prepared meant the difference between life and death during the North Dakota winters. Granted it was summer, but the bag remained in the truck year-round, just in case.
Roxanne turned toward the house, her voice carrying over her shoulder. “I’ll fix a sandwich for you. I’m sure the hands have already rustled up their grub. Give me twenty minutes.”
He nodded and took off toward the bunkhouse. He still didn’t plan to sleep there—the distance to the house was too much for his comfort. However, it was his chance to check out Roxanne’s employees. One of them could be the troublemaker.