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Only 05 - Autumn Lover

Titel: Only 05 - Autumn Lover
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range no matter what the light. It was a night-fighter’s trick, or an explorer’s.
    Hunter had been both.
    At least water won’t be a problem , he thought. This place is a remote oasis in the middle of one hell of a desert .
    No wonder the Suttons chose it .
    And no wonder the Culpeppers want to take it, now that someone else has done all the backbreaking work of hammering a ranch out of the wilderness .
    Though surrounded by desert, the Ruby Mountains were themselves not dry. Their high peaks raked moisture from the winter clouds and gave it back as runoff in the spring and summer. All the rills and creeks and streams on the east side ran down to the Ruby Marsh, flooding it with water and life.
    Then the melt stopped and the desert closed in until little was left of the marsh but miles of tawny reeds and small, hidden clearings around clean pools.
    Most of the clearings were protected by stretches ofmud too deep to cross. The remainder provided water and good grazing for cattle. But the paths through the tawny reeds changed with each rain. Today’s clear trail was tomorrow’s deadly bog.
    Even the Culpeppers hadn’t been brash enough to take on the rustling, seething mystery of Ruby Marsh.
    The marsh acted like a moat protecting the east side of the Ladder S lands. The mountains provided protection on the west side. The south was open to anyone willing to make a long, dry ride around the mountains. So was the north.
    The Culpeppers were not only willing to make the ride, they kept a man posted somewhere back up on the shoulder of the nearest peak, watching the Ladder S.
    No cattle had been permitted to leave the Ladder S. No new men had been permitted to get to the ranch, where they were desperately needed as cowhands.
    A sound stitched through the long exhalation of the wind. In the instant before Hunter identified the source of the noise, he turned, drew and cocked his six-gun.
    Just a horse rubbing his neck on the paddock fence , Hunter told himself.
    Smoothly he slipped the gun back into its holster before Elyssa could even turn toward him.
    “Is something wrong?” she asked.
    “Just getting used to the sights around here.”
    “And the sounds?” she asked dryly.
    Hunter made a sound that could have meant anything.
    “If you have any questions, ask,” Elyssa said. “That rattling you heard was just Leopard bumping against a loose railing. He scented you and your horse.”
    As they walked closer, Leopard whinnied and pranced, eyeing the strange stallion just beyond the fence.
    Hunter’s right hand drifted closer to his six-gun once more. Nothing he had heard about Elyssa Sutton’s stal-lion was reassuring. Hunter had no intention of letting his well-trained, well-bred stallion be chewed up in a fight with an ill-trained rogue stud.
    “Leopard, huh?” Hunter said, disapproval naked in his voice. “Is he the spotted devil everybody over at Camp Halleck is talking about?”
    “That collection of ill-sawn timber and crooked logs can barely be called a camp,” Elyssa said crisply. “But I guess that my stallion might be a topic of idle conversation.”
    “Spotted horses aren’t that rare.”
    “Leopard is. The enlisted men were quite impressed when their commanding officer mounted Leopard.”
    “Rough ride?” Hunter asked, though he knew full well what had happened.
    “The man lived. It was more than the pompous fool deserved. I told the captain that Leopard wasn’t one of the horses we planned to sell to the military.”
    Hunter looked at the stallion without comment.
    “The gentleman ,” Elyssa said with scornful emphasis, “told me he would simply commandeer Leopard and pay in army scrip, and I should get out of the way so that men could do men’s work.”
    The contempt and anger in Elyssa’s voice made Hunter suspect that the captain had gotten a rough ride from more than the spotted horse.
    Elyssa is just like Belinda , Hunter thought. Dead spoiled. No thought for what other people might need, even the army that protects her .
    “Paiutes and Shoshones both are looking for scalps,” Hunter said. “The army needs all the men and horses it can get just to protect the settlers heading west along the Humboldt River.”
    “So the captain said. I think people would be better protected if someone cut off his supply of liquor, and that of his superior officer as well.”
    Hunter looked again at the stallion silhouetted against the night. If the soldiers at Camp Halleck were to be
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