Lone Wolf's Lady

By: Judy Duarte

Chapter One

Summer, 1884

Pleasant Valley, Texas

“Caroline Graves is dead. And your job is done.”

Tom “Lone Wolf” McCain turned in his saddle, the leather creaking with his movement as he faced Trapper Jack, his crotchety old traveling companion. “She left a six-year-old daughter behind.”

“And the kid’s being raised by a woman who’s known her since she was born.” Trapper Jack lifted his battered hat and mopped his weathered brow with the dusty red flannel sleeve of the shirt he’d worn for the past several days. “What are you going to do? Uproot her?”

“If I have to.” As Tom met the man’s glare, he had to admit that when push came to shove, he wasn’t sure what he’d do. But he owed it to Caroline to see to it that her daughter was safe and well cared for.

If only Harrison Graves had hired Tom to find his granddaughter six months earlier, Caroline might have been alive when he’d followed her trail to Taylorsville. Then Tom would have had a chance to talk to her. He might have convinced her to go back where she belonged, to her grandfather’s ranch in Stillwater.

“You ought to just tell the old man that Caroline died,” Trapper added, as he surveyed the typical Texas town that lay nestled in the valley below. “And let that be the end of it.”

“Harrison Graves is looking for an heir.”

Trapper spit a wad of tobacco to the side. “Seems to me that Graves isn’t too fond of illegitimate heirs.”

Tom knew that better than anyone. And he’d given that some thought, too. After all, when Harrison had learned that his granddaughter was with child, he’d sent her to Mexico to have her baby, instructing her to leave it there. And he’d never mentioned anything to Tom about searching for the baby Caroline was supposed to have left behind in a Mexican orphanage—he’d only wanted his granddaughter back.

So how would the dying cattleman feel when Tom returned with Caroline’s illegitimate child in tow? Would that appease him? Would he rewrite his will, leaving everything to the little girl? Or would he insist that Tom leave her where he’d found her?

Maybe Trapper was right. Maybe Caroline’s daughter was better off not going back to Stillwater.

But was she better off being raised by a fallen woman?

From what Tom had gathered in Mexico, Caroline had run off with a former prostitute from Pleasant Valley. For the next few years, she’d managed to keep her friend on the straight and narrow—or so it seemed. But after Caroline had died, the woman had returned to the only other life she’d known, taking the child with her.

That might be true, but something didn’t sit right. In fact, a lot of things just didn’t add up.

“He could have hired any number of bounty hunters to search for his runaway granddaughter,” Trapper said. “Why’d it have to be you?”

Tom wasn’t sure why Harrison had summoned him, other than his reputation for being good at finding people who didn’t want to be found.

“That old man doesn’t deserve the time of day from you,” Trapper added. “Not after all he did to make your life miserable. I still can’t believe you’d even consider working for him.”

“I’m not doing this for Harrison Graves.” Nor was he doing it for the money. Yet when the wealthy cattleman had handed him the twenty-dollar gold piece, Tom had pocketed the coin rather than explain why he would have agreed to search for Caroline on principle alone.

Trapper chuffed. “I still think you’re making a big mistake, kid. And I’m not about to sit around and watch you make a fool of yourself. I’m going back to Hannah’s place. We’ve been away too long as it is.”

“No one asked you to come along in the first place, Trapper. In fact, if you recall, I tried to talk you out of it, but you insisted.”

“That’s only because someone’s got to look out for you, because no matter how much book learnin’ you’ve had, you ain’t got a thimbleful of common sense.”

Tom sighed and squinted into the afternoon sun. He owed a lot to Trapper. That was a fact. But sometimes the old man forced gratitude to the breaking point.

Trapper grumbled under his breath, then said, “You can’t blame me for worryin’ about you. I’ve been lookin’ after you ever since you was knee-high to a timber wolf.”

If truth be told, Tom had no idea where he’d be today if the old man hadn’t stumbled upon him about twenty miles outside of Stillwater when he’d been sick, starving and scared.

No, Tom owed his life to the man who hadn’t been afraid to take in an orphaned ten-year-old with mixed blood and treat him like the son he’d never had.

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