Heart of the Hawk

Heart of the Hawk

Justine Davis

April 2015 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-621-5

Book 2 of The Hawk Trilogy

Joshua Hawk made her a widow. Now, can he make her his bride?

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Blurb

Gunfighter Joshua Hawk expects to hang, and he's made his peace with it. What he never expected was the widow of the man he killed lying to save his life.

Quiet, plain Kate Dixon thought she’d never be free of her brutal husband until the night The Hawk shot first in a dark alley, only to discover the man menacing him was unarmed.

Unwilling to leave town until he discovers why she lied for him, Josh finds himself drawn to the widow, who is determined to run her store without the help of any man. All too soon, plain Kate is swept up in Josh’s plan to pay her back for her kindness. The infamous gunslinger is never more than a whisper away, offering a dangerous attraction for a woman who is beginning to realize The Hawk is nothing like the cold-blooded killer she’d expected.

Josh, so used to being alone, has suddenly found a place, a community, and someone who calls to his soul. But he is haunted by family prophecy and a magic book which seems to write history before it happens. Gambler’s Notch, according to the book, will be where he dies. He’s cheated the noose, but how long can he cheat death when men looking to build their own reputation are inevitably drawn to test themselves against his gun?

Author of more than sixty books, Justine Dare Davis is a four-time winner of the coveted RWA RITA Award, and has been inducted into the RWA Hall of Fame. Her books have appeared on national best-seller lists, including USA Today. Find out more at her website and blog at justinedavis.com, Facebook at JustineDareDavis, or Twitter @Justine_D_Davis.


Reviews

"Enhances her already remarkable reputation for creating rare and riveting romances with this stunning un-put-downable read!"— RT Book Reviews

"An excellent book!” -- Jennifer McGaffey, Librarything Reviews



Excerpt

Chapter 1

Wyoming Territory, 1878

HE WISHED THEY’D just hang him and get it over with.

Joshua Hawk paced the small cell, rubbing a hand over his unshaven jaw. He stopped at the barred window, looking out at the structure sil­houetted by the full moon. For an instant, just a fraction of a moment, he felt a pang of regret, mixed oddly with gratitude. Gratitude that Gramps wasn’t alive to see how the last of the Hawks was going to end.

He stared at the gallows, hoping the hangman they were waiting for was damned good at his job; he didn’t relish the idea of doing a death dance for the fine people of Gambler’s Notch. And all the others who would no doubt make the trek to this godforsaken place once they learned who was going to be hanged. Gambler’s Notch was a stage stop, and if word got out that they were going to hang The Hawk, and given enough time, they’d turn it into a damned party. All the more reason to wish the executioner would get here in a hurry.

Afterward, when they would no doubt display him like some kind of freak, he’d be too dead to care. Not that he liked thinking about it now, just as he hadn’t liked thinking about it when Charlie Curry had died in that fray down in Sweetwater last year. His bullet-riddled body had been dis­played in a store window for days after his death, and folks had come for miles to pay a nickel for a peek at the famous gunfighter.

Probably would have kept him there for weeks, if it hadn’t been summer so they couldn’t get enough ice to keep him from smelling up the place, Josh thought grimly.

He walked away from the window and its ominous view, and sat down on the edge of the narrow iron cot that was a foot too short for his six-foot-four length. No, he amended silently, rubbing at eyes gritty from lack of sleep; the only godforsaken thing in this town was him. And it was his own damned fault. He’d only come here because he’d run out of sup­plies, and the diet of rabbit and questionable greens—and the lack of cof­fee—had begun to weary him. So he’d suspended his profitless contem­plation of his life and come down out of the mountains he’d been holed up in for nearly a month.

"Hell of a price to pay for a cup of coffee,” he muttered to himself.

He stared at the uneven plank floor beneath his sock-clad feet. No doubt his boots would get sold to the highest bidder after he was dead, someone who would get some gruesome pleasure out of wearing them. And maybe talking about it to men gathered in a smoky saloon. "Sure’s I’m standin’ here, these’re The Hawk’s boots. Got ’em right after they hung him over in Gambler’s Notch.”

Grimacing, he stretched out on the cot, his feet dangling over the end. It was a sad state of affairs, he supposed, that he really had so few matters to put in order. All he’d asked for was a promise from the town marshal that his horse and saddle would go to the kid at the stable who had taken such good care of the rangy buckskin, and his rifle to the blacksmith who had fixed the horse’s off fore shoe for free, simply because he didn’t want to see a fine horse go lame because his owner was tapped out. Beyond that, he had nothing to leave, nor anyone to leave it to.

Not even the book Gramps had told him about, that book about the Hawk family. He hadn’t found it among his grandfather’s things after his death, and Josh wondered where it was, if it even existed. Most likely not; the old man had been half out of his head, and most of his rambling words had sounded like the ravings of a crazy man. The disjointed story had sounded like the Hawk legends Gramps had told him on the long trip west from Missouri, only Gramps had sounded like he thought this book was real. But he’d never told his grandson where to find it, just raved on that when the time came he would find it. That it would come to him as it came to all the last Hawks, the Hawks who were the last of the breed.

His illness, Josh supposed. The book probably wasn’t real, any more than the warriors and wizards Gramps had woven into such entertaining stories were real. But he’d never know for sure. He’d never gotten around to looking for the thing. And now he never would.

Dawn was streaking the sky, pale pink to the east, fading to indigo over the mountains, and somewhere close by an early rising meadowlark was pouring out a song when he heard the raspy voice of the marshal calling his name. He wondered if the hangman had arrived and this was it, if this was his last morning. Too bad he’d never appreciated the soft colors of the waking sky before. Or the sweet sound of the little yellow-chested bird. Then he nearly laughed aloud; had there ever been a man looking at his own death who hadn’t thought the same thing?

"Hawk!”

This time the call was punctuated by the sound of booted footsteps. He rose slowly, watching the approach of the round-bellied man who was tugging at his long, curling mustache in a gesture that had become familiar. Caleb Pike was a jovial fellow, but Josh hadn’t been fooled. Anyone who failed to see the steely glint in the man’s blue eyes, or let the apparent softness of his body blind them to the unusual quickness of his move­ments, deserved what they got. He had a feeling he would have liked the man, had the circumstances been different. He had the look of a man to ride the river with.

Pike came to a halt outside the cell door.

"Mornin’, Marshal,” Josh said, crossing his arms over his chest as he leaned a shoulder against the bars. "You’re up early. Hope it’s not in my honor.”

"As it happens,” Marshal Pike answered, "it is.”

Despite his inner certainty that he was resigned to his fate, Josh felt a knot form in his stomach. He glanced upward. I’m sorry, Gramps, he thought. I know I was a disappointment to you. At least where I’m going, we won’t be seeing each other. You won’t have to know.

"Hangman got here, then?” was all he said. At least he could try and die with some pride.

Pike blinked. "What?” Then, smiling so widely the tips of his mus­tache quivered, "Hell, no, boy. In fact, I got good news.”

"If he’s going to be delayed long enough for half the territory to gather, I’d rather you did it yourself, now,” he didn’t have the stomach to ask if there had been invitations to this string party sent out; it was a com­mon enough practice that he didn’t doubt it. Except that Pike didn’t seem the type.

Pike shook his head. "You’re sure eager to die, aren’t you?”

"It beats being a sideshow.”

The marshal looked him up and down, and for a moment Josh had the feeling the man was also wishing they had met under other circum­stances.

"No chance of that, son. Not now.”

He unlocked the door and it swung open with a screech. Josh lifted a brow in query. Pike tugged a revolver from his belt, holding it up so Josh could see it. An old, neglected Dragoon Colt, he noticed. Very neglected. He wondered if the thing would fire. Then wondered why he cared.

Pike waited, as if expecting Josh to speak. When he didn’t, the marshal did.

"We found it,” he said, as if that simple statement explained it all.

Still Josh said nothing, wondering what the man was getting at. Pike ob­viously thought this was important to him, and until he found out why, Josh decided he’d be better off staying quiet.

"Out in back of the saloon,” the marshal elaborated finally. "Right where Arly Dixon jumped you. It was just like you said, he was armed, after all. I’ve already sent off a wire to Judge Edgerton. That hangman won’t be hangin’ anybody this morning, so we’ll just feed him a good meal and send him on his way.”

Josh stared at the man. "You found this—” he gestured at the bat­tered old weapon he suspected hadn’t been cleaned since it had been made—"in the alley behind the saloon? Where I shot Dixon?”

"Yep. It was wedged in behind the rain barrel. That’s why we missed it in the dark. Must have landed there when Arly fell. Luke, the kid from the stable, he found it.”

Josh drew back, studying Pike intently. True, he had thought Dixon was armed when he’d loomed up out of the shadows that night, but only because he assumed nobody would be fool enough to sneak up on him like that without a weapon of some kind. His reaction had been swift, reflex­ive... and lethal. Only when the man lay dead had he discovered he’d been apparently unarmed.

And not a soul in this town had believed any different. No one be­lieved Arly Dixon had been armed. He didn’t have to be around this town, they’d said at the trial; his sheer size and cantankerous disposition made people keep their distance. And the absence of any weapon found where Dixon had died had put the noose around Joshua Hawk’s neck.

"I thought you didn’t believe me,” Josh said slowly.

"Well, what with your reputation as a fast shootist and all, and people looking to make a name for themselves comin’ after you all the time, I figured you might be one to shoot first and look later.”

Josh winced inwardly at the accuracy of the assessment, but he kept his outward expression even. And his mouth shut.

"But,” Pike went on, "Arly was no prize when it came to holding his temper, either. Especially if he thought you were messin’ with his wife. He was plumb unreasonable about that girl.”

Josh shook his head ruefully. He barely even remembered the encoun­ter outside the mercantile, picking up a fallen package for a tall, plain, brown woman in a baggy dress. He’d accepted her hurried, whis­pered thanks, barely noticing that her voice held a hint of Southern soft­ness, reminding him of things long forgotten and better left that way. He had touched the brim of his hat, and gone past her toward the saloon, his mind already on finding a poker game to give himself a stake. He wouldn’t have remembered the chance meeting at all, except that it had come out at the trial.

She’d been there, too, but so swathed in black mourning veils that he couldn’t even be certain it was the same woman. He’d felt remorse then, that he’d deprived this woman of her husband, the owner of the store he’d seen her in front of. He supposed that was when he’d decided to just give in; he’d killed an unarmed man by sheer gut reaction, and he was tired of living that way. Maybe he was just plain tired of living. He’d thought the township of Gambler’s Notch was going to solve that problem for him. And now here he was, free again, and with no idea who to thank. Or even if thanks were in order.

"I barely even spoke to her,” he said yet again, as he had several times at the trial.

"That’s all it’d take, for Arly,” Pike said. "He was a mighty possessive man. And a good-looking hombre like yourself, well... Anyway, when I found out he took this old piece with him that night, it put a whole differ­ent light on things. Makes it self-defense, I’d say. I’m sure the judge will agree.”

Josh swallowed tightly. "Just how did you... find out he was armed?”

"Well, that’s how I knew it had to be the truth, see? Person who told me had no reason to lie, and every reason to want to see you hang.”

Josh straightened up. He knew nobody in this town, and certainly no­body who’d want to help him. "Who told you?”

"Mrs. Dixon.”

Josh blinked. "What?”

Pike nodded. "Yep. Arly’s widow.”

HIS BOOTS BACK on, his hat in his hand, and his gunbelt slung over his shoulder, Josh sipped at the coffee the marshal had poured for him, think­ing the man should use some of the powerful brew to grease that noisy cell door he’d been listening to the entire two weeks he’d spent here, waiting for the judge to arrive and then through the trial.

"Let me make sure I got this right,” he said as he sat on the edge of the marshal’s battered old desk. "The widow of the man I killed told you he’d been carrying a weapon after all, that night?”

Marshal Pike nodded. "She said she found it was missing when she was packing away his things last night. She sent word to me right away.”

"Generous of her,” Josh muttered skeptically.

"She’s a generous sort of woman. Said she couldn’t bear to see an inno­cent person punished any longer.”

Innocent. It had been a damned long time since anyone had used that word about him. And a damned sight longer since it had been true.

"Very generous,” Josh muttered, suspicion biting deep. Why the hell would the woman he’d made a widow want to help him?

"After I found out, I sent Luke over to look around. You know how boys are, he was excited as all get out to be lookin’ for evidence. Done a real good job, too.”

"Thanks to the widow.” Josh’s mouth tightened. This made no sense to him. "I’d like to... thank her personally,” he said to Pike at last. "Where does she live?”

"Well, now, I’m not sure—”

"I’m not going to bother the woman, Marshal.”

"It wouldn’t be smart of you. Folks around here didn’t like Arly much, but that girl’s a different matter. She’s been mighty good to a lot of folks around here.”

"Including me, apparently. I just want to express my... apprecia­tion.” His mouth twisted wryly. "It couldn’t have been easy for her to do what she did.”

Pike muttered something that sounded like "You might be surprised,” but that didn’t make any sense either, Josh thought. After a moment the marshal went on. "She lives over the mercantile. Arly liked to be close enough to stand guard over his store. Kept a shotgun handy to do it, too. He wasn’t the trustin’ sort.”

Including of his wife, Josh added to himself ruefully. What the hell would Dixon have done to a man who had genuinely paid attention to the woman?

"Thanks,” Josh said. "Want to come along, make sure I don’t scare the good widow?”

Pike looked him up and down. The long mustache quivered as the mar­shal’s mouth lifted at one corner. "I don’t reckon you scare many women, son.”

"Don’t forget I killed this one’s husband,” he pointed out dryly.

"Fair fight,” Pike said with a wave of his hand.

Fair fight. Josh suppressed the grimace that threatened. He didn’t want to think about that, not now. He set down the tin cup and stood up.

"I’ll be on my way to the mercantile, then.”

Pike nodded. "You do that.”

Josh’s gaze narrowed at the man’s tone. "Just what do you mean by that?”

Pike met his eyes levelly. "Just that. For now.”

The warning was implicit, and the lack of fear in the older man’s eyes told Josh he wouldn’t hesitate to back it up if he had to. Even against The Hawk; Josh had little doubt the man knew exactly what his reputation was and how many bodies it had been built on. But whatever he knew, the man was clearly not intimidated.

Admiration sparked in Josh for a tough man in a tough job. Although they were a long way from Texas, Josh was tempted to ask if there had once been a ranger star where the town marshal’s badge now rested against the man’s chest; he had the look.

"I’m not looking for any trouble,” he assured the man.

"As I recollect,” Pike drawled, "you weren’t looking for any the other night, either.”

Josh stifled a sigh. "I can’t deny that. But I’m still not hunting for prob­lems.”

"Son, some folks just attract problems, like a carcass attracts flies.”

And that, Josh thought with wry humor, about summed up his life. Pike seemed to discern his whimsy, and Josh could swear the man almost smiled.

"I’ll walk away if I can,” he said, meaning it.

Pike considered this rather rash promise for a moment, then nodded. "I believe you.”

Josh buckled on his cartridge belt and adjusted the holster that hung from the right side. The rig was plain, lacking the fancy leather carving some went in for, but the fit of the Colt .44 in the holster was perfect; it slid out smoothly, yet didn’t bounce loose at a gallop. A box fit, some called it. Whatever the term, it was vital to his survival, and he’d take it over any amount of fancified tooling.

"Folks are thinking about a town ordinance,” Pike said conversa­tionally. "No firearms.”

Josh put on his hat, settling the black Stetson comfortably. Then he looked at Pike once more. "Good luck if they do.”

"Time’s a comin’.”

"But it’s not here yet.”

TIME’SA COMIN’. The words echoed in Josh’s head as he walked out­side, into the sunlight he’d thought he’d never see again, except maybe on that last walk. Time’s a comin’.

He supposed Pike was right. Civilization was advancing westward. The railroad had been completed nearly ten years ago; the long trip he’d made as a child with Gramps was easy now, and it seemed every train disgorged more and more folks aghast at the sight of six-guns in public.

Josh walked to the front edge of the covered boardwalk in front of the marshal’s office. He shoved his hat up, tilted his head back, and let the morning sun pour over his face. Odd, he thought. He’d been resigned to this being his final morning, had even welcomed the thought... yet now he was finding pleasure in as simple a thing as the warmth of the sun on his skin. He wondered briefly if the one had caused the other.

His mouth curved down at one corner; that had been Gramps’s kind of question, one of those things he’d called "philosophical explorations.” The old man had been able to hold forth endlessly on topics that had seemed pointless to his grandson. Only after he was gone had Josh realized how much he’d come to enjoy those continuous discourses.

He grabbed the brim of his hat and pulled it back to its normal posi­tion above his brow. Dodging a board in the walkway that had been warped at some point in the town’s relatively short history by rain, snow, or heat, he started walking toward the big two-story building that stood out both for its size and its slight list to one side.

A quick glance to his right made him smile rather cynically; the proxim­ity to the marshal’s office of the narrow, rather ramshackle building with the words ALEXANDER HALL, LAWYER in obviously newly repainted letters on the weather-beaten gray boards seemed a bit conven­ient. Marshal Pike had suggested Josh wait until the man returned to town and hire him for his defense at the trial, but at the time Josh had had little interest in defending himself.

That had been the conclusion he’d reached in those lonely weeks spent in the lower reaches of the mountains, surviving a month of unpredict­able spring weather that had left him sweating and shivering by turns; he just wanted it to be over. He’d wanted this life he’d come to hate over, and letting the law do it for him had seemed like the easiest way.

Gramps would have seen his release as a sign, he thought as he con­tinued to walk. He would have expounded at length on the portent of it all, that Josh had been given a second chance, that he’d reached a cross­roads requiring some momentous decision. Josh smothered a rather wist­ful chuckle; Gramps would have embarked on another of his stories and somehow found a way to use it to impart some lesson he felt Josh needed to learn.

His amusement faded; he was sure Gramps would find him long be­yond learning now. He’d come a long way from the fifteen-year-old boy Gramps had hugged with the last ounce of his fading strength. And all of it downhill. His grandfather had always said Hawks bred true. Josh doubted he’d say it if he could see his grandson now.

A woman came out of the mercantile just as he got there. He reached out instinctively and held the door for her; at least some of Gramps’s stern instruction had taken root. She took a firmer grasp on her basket, filled with what appeared to be sugar, a crock of apple butter, a length of bright calico cloth, and, if he could trust his nose, cinnamon. Arly Dixon’s death hadn’t halted business for long, he thought. The woman looked up at him.

"Thank you,” she began, then her words faded away as her eyes wid­ened in recognition.

Josh stifled a sigh. "I don’t bite, ma’am.”

She smiled suddenly, lighting up warm brown eyes with an amused twin­kle that made her look like a girl rather than a woman who’d seen more years than he had. "I shouldn’t think you’d have to, Mr. Hawk.”

Josh blinked. He’d been complimented by women on his looks be­fore; something about his dark hair and blue eyes seemed to appeal to them. And for some, it was what he was, rather than his looks. There were women who liked, or so they said, the edge of danger he brought with him. But he’d become so used to women like this, respectable women, sniffing as he passed, assuming they didn’t scurry to the other side of the street so that their skirts wouldn’t have to brush over the same dirt he walked on, that this took him by surprise. Especially when she obviously knew who he was and, since she was coming out of this particular store, no doubt knew who he’d killed.

"Lovely morning, isn’t it?”

Warily, he studied her for a moment, wondering if there really was a glint of teasing humor in her eyes, or if he was imagining it.

"Yes,” he finally said; it seemed safe enough.

"Much nicer than I’d anticipated,” she said, and this time there was no mistaking her meaning, or the jesting tone. Josh found himself smiling back in spite of himself.

"And longer than I’d anticipated,” he agreed. He was oddly gratified when the woman’s smile widened.

"I’m Deborah Taylor,” she said. "I live down at the end of the street. Since my father died three years ago, I also provide what there is in the way of doctoring in this town, should you need it.”

"Thank you, but I hope to avoid that,” Josh said fervently.

Deborah chuckled. "I’d say you avoided a big piece of it this morning. Kate will be glad to see you alive and well. I assume that’s why you’re here?”

"Er... yes.”

Kate. Short for the Kathleen they had called her during his rather abbre­viated trial, he assumed. He’d almost forgotten that was her name; it had only been mentioned once; the rest of the time she’d been simply Arly’s widow. His gaze flicked to the window of the store where, lettered by a slightly steadier hand than had done the lawyer’s sign, were the words DIXON’S DRY GOODS—GROCERIES. He was still having trouble figuring this out, why the woman he’d made a widow would first save him from the hangman, and then be glad to see him as well. He looked back at Deborah.

"She’ll be glad to see me?”

The woman nodded. "She was quite upset at the thought of them hang­ing you this morning.”

At least someone was, he thought wryly. He hadn’t cared much. "A lot more’ll be sorry to miss it. A good hanging always brings people to town. And they spend money.”

"Barbaric.” Deborah sniffed. "You’d think this land had seen enough of death without setting it up as a celebration.”

Something dark and pained shadowed the woman’s eyes, and Josh quickly decided not to point out to her that she was conversing quite easily with a man whose business was death. He knew she already knew that, but for some reason had chosen to ignore it.

"I do appreciate Marshal Pike’s not inviting the whole territory,” he said lightly, and the shadow vanished from the woman’s eyes as if she’d long been used to burying the pain that had caused it.

"Caleb Pike is a good man,” she said, as if that answered him. And per­haps it did, he thought. He nodded.

She glanced at the storefront. "I’ll be on my way. Congratulations on your freedom, Mr. Hawk.”

He thanked her, touched the brim of his hat, and watched her walk away, carefully skirting the leaky water trough in front of the store. Interest­ing woman, he thought as he turned and opened the door of the mercantile, to confront the widow who had bought him that freedom.

At first he thought the store was empty. It was quiet and cool. Morn­ing sun spilled in from the front windows, but the light faded away into shadow as it reached the center of the long, narrow store. Two glass-and- wood display cases full of fancier items—tins of tobacco arrayed beside papers of pins and spools of thread and lengths of ribbon—sat parallel to the long walls. Equally full floor-to-roof shelves ran along all three walls.

A small doorway was set in the back wall beside shelves crammed with ready-made shoes and bolts of cloth, a wall he guessed was a good fifteen feet in from the actual back of the building. Over the door was a sign, rather grandly lettered OFFICE. Beneath that, in a more amateurish fashion, was ARLISS DIXON, PROPRIETER. Josh’s mouth twisted wryly; he doubted anyone had ever pointed out the misspelling to the cantankerous Mr. Dixon. Especially if that shotgun he could just see the stock of protruding from under the counter had always been as handy as the marshal had said.

A sound from above made him tense, the creak of wood making him spin to his right. A ladder leaned against the shelves of groceries: mason jars of fruits and vegetables, sacks of sugar, flour and salt, and a few cans of various sorts. At nearly the top of the ladder, reaching out to hang a large cooking pot on a peg fastened to one of the shelves, was a woman dressed in a faded black dress. Either it wasn’t hers, or she’d thinned out some, Josh thought. It was too large for her slender frame, although from this angle, and bent over as she was, it outlined nicely the womanly curve of her hips.

"I’ll be right with you,” came a soft, feminine voice, one he’d heard be­fore.

The widow. He felt a slight flush as he realized he’d been eyeing the woman whose husband he’d shot down just a couple of weeks ago. True, he’d been a long, long time without a woman, but that was no excuse for ogling her. Nor was the fact that that soft, sweet-sounding voice was balm to ears long used to the drunken growl of rough-edged men.

But somehow, as she finished hanging the pot, he couldn’t make him­self look away from the graceful sway of her movements as she began to come down the ladder. She reached the floor and turned to face him. And paled slightly. He was certain of that, because it was so noticeable beside the ugly bruise that marked her left cheek and jaw. It was beginning to yellow, and looked even nastier because of the fairness of her skin and her fragile-seeming features. She was tall, he’d noticed that before, but almost painfully thin; the Dixons, it seemed, didn’t hold with eating their own inventory.

She wiped her hands nervously on the skirt of the faded black dress. A widow’s dress, Joshua realized. Perhaps she’d had to borrow it, and that was why it fit her so ill. But the dress he’d seen her in the first time had fit no better, nor had it been any less faded. Arly Dixon apparently didn’t believe in outfitting his wife from his stock, either.

"May I...” Her voice broke, and she swallowed, a visible movement of her slender throat, and tried again. "May I help you find something, Mr.... Hawk?”

"No.”

She went a little paler at his abrupt answer, and Josh swore inwardly. He hadn’t meant to alarm her; he truly hadn’t. But now that he was face-to-face with her, he didn’t quite know what to do. She was a woman, and a frightened one because of him. In a quick movement that was a belated and purely habitual reaction to being in a lady’s presence, he reached up and yanked off his hat. He ran his other hand over his hair, which was almost to his shoulders after a month in the mountains and even longer away from any town that had boasted of a real barber.

"You can tell me something, though,” he said.

The fear that had seemed to abate at his hasty removal of his hat turned to wariness in her eyes. Rather striking gold-brown eyes, almost the color of rich, thick honey straight from the comb. Amid the plainness of her other features, they stood out like some kind of gemstones.

"Tell you what?” she asked, wiping her hands on her skirt once more.

Josh glanced around, to be certain they were alone. When he looked back at her, the fear had returned, as if she, too, had just realized she was alone with a man whose reputation preceded him most places.

"Tell me,” he said, figuring there was little to be gained by subtlety here, "why you lied for me.”


 

 

Chapter 2

KATE BARELY MANAGED to keep from putting her hand up to her throat in the helpless kind of gesture she had so hated in her mother. Then self-disgust filled her as she remembered she had no right to hate anyone, for anything. But she’d had a lot of practice at hiding her feelings, and she needed every bit of it now, with the infamous man known as The Hawk standing here staring at her.

"I... don’t know what you mean,” she managed to get out.

Lord, he was tall, she thought. Even taller than Arly, who had been big enough. But where Arly had been burly, brawny, this man was lean and rangy, although she wasn’t sure he lacked any of Arly’s breadth in the shoulders. Shoulders she barely came up to, for all that she was a relatively tall woman. Tall enough to have borne years of teasing from male and female alike. Tall, plain, strange-eyed Kathleen Dayton. Who had become tall, plain, strange-eyed Kathleen Dixon.

"Truly, I don’t know what you mean,” she repeated when he just stood there, looking at her with those bright blue eyes that had mesmer­ized her into immobility the morning she’d first seen him.

She’d thought in that first moment that she’d never seen eyes so haunted, so shadowed, despite the vividness of their color. She’d been stunned when she’d learned who he was; she’d never pictured The Hawk like this—a tall, handsome man with eyes like that, and longish dark hair that brushed his solid shoulders. A man whose low, husky voice had seemed almost kind when he’d spoken to her so briefly that day when he’d picked up the dropped package of Arly’s new, custom-made shirts just in from St. Louis.

She wiped her hands on the skirt of her worn black Linsey dress; her palms weren’t really sweating, but she felt as though they were.

"You don’t need to be afraid of me, Mrs. Dixon. After all, I would hardly harm the woman who saved me from the noose, now would I?”

"You’re The Hawk,” she said simply. "Who knows what you would do?”

An odd expression came over his face, a combination of regret and res­ignation that made her feel something very strange, something that seemed almost like sympathy. She told herself she was being worse than foolish; The Hawk was a cold-blooded killer. What would he have to re­gret, and what would he want with her sympathy?

"Reputation,” he muttered, "is a double-edged sword.”

She blinked. His bitter tone matched her silly thoughts, and that star­tled her. "What?”

He hesitated, then shrugged as if it meant little. "Reputation,” he re­peated. "It keeps the more disagreeable folks out of your way, but it also makes decent people too nervous to be in the same room with you.”

There were some, she knew, who would say he had no right to be in the same room with those decent people. And from his expression, she wasn’t sure he wasn’t one of those who thought that way. How very unex­pected, she thought. Who would have ever thought a man like The Hawk would ever feel the loss of polite society? Or that he would look at himself with such feelings as doubt and distaste?

Her brow furrowed at her own thoughts. One had, she supposed, to have been used to some kind of polite society in order to miss it. Arly had cared little what the "decent people” in town thought of him. He had never held with "putting on airs,” as he called any semblance of refinement or genteel behavior. His language and his manners had been as rough as he was. A far cry from the unexpectedly articulate and mannerly man before her.

"You needn’t frown. I don’t make a habit of intimidating or hurting women.”

She looked at him for the long moment, then drew herself up with an ef­fort. She searched inwardly for her lost nerve; no matter how refined he might seem compared to Arly or some of the local cowboys, he was still The Hawk, and it wouldn’t do for him to know she was afraid.

If indeed that was true. She wasn’t positive that she was afraid, which worried her. Surely she wasn’t foolish enough to believe a good-looking facade couldn’t hide an evil heart? And you didn’t become a famous gun­slinger like The Hawk without possessing the evilest of hearts, she was sure of that.

"Not intentionally, perhaps,” she said.

He lifted a brow at her in apparent surprise, and one corner of his mouth lifted in what was almost an amused grin. She felt as if the breath had been knocked out of her; perhaps she was that foolish, she thought ruefully. But then again, perhaps not—that grin didn’t reach his eyes; they were as shadowed as they had been that first time she’d seen him.

"I’m sorry if I’ve intimidated you,” he said, that husky rumble even more evident as he spoke softly. It made her feel wary, like at the quiet before the storm. A second later she knew her instincts had been accurate. "But I still want the answer to my question. Why did you lie for me, Mrs. Dixon? After I killed your husband?”

She was steadier now, prepared, and answered evenly, "I didn’t lie for you, Mr. Hawk.”

He shook his head. "They looked all over that alley that night. The mar­shal, and that little bald man who came out of the saloon, the one Pike called ‘Reverend.’ That one even looked right behind that barrel where that boy says he found that old six-shooter.”

"Reverend Babcock? Then I’m not surprised he didn’t see it. His eyes aren’t what they used to be, and he’s always misplacing his spectacles. He’s been known to tipple more than a bit, too.”

He studied her for a moment, intently. She made herself hold his gaze. Then, slowly, he said, "That boy...”

She drew herself up even straighter. "Luke doesn’t lie, Mr. Hawk. He may be an orphan, and a little wild, but he’s a good boy. If he says he found it behind that barrel, then he did.”

For some reason, either her defensive words or their vehemence, he smiled. She wasn’t sure if he was pleased or was mocking her, and it didn’t really matter which it was, not when he was having such an odd effect on her. Perhaps he’d been right, and she really was nervous just being in the same room with the notorious Hawk.

"Besides,” she said quickly, filling a silence that was rapidly making her very uncomfortable, "what you said at your trial was right. A man would have to be a fool to come after you without a weapon.”

"Was your husband a fool, Mrs. Dixon?”

The soft—almost too soft—query warned her that she wasn’t acting pre­cisely as a bereaved widow should act. But she found it difficult; if she felt anything at Arly’s death it was relief. Relief, and some uncertainty about her future. And she doubted that would come as a great surprise to most residents of Gambler’s Notch. She searched for an answer that would satisfy him, but not tell him any more than he already knew. She settled on the truth, if not the truth he was after.

"Arly was just fool enough to try and sneak up on The Hawk in the dark.”

He looked at her again, steadily, those bright blue eyes fixed on her with such intensity that she wondered what he could possibly be seeing.

"Odd way to speak of your late husband.” His tone was mild, but Kate didn’t miss the note of curiosity.

"I’ll not lie about it, Mr. Hawk. My husband was not... the kindest of men.”

She saw his gaze flick to her bruised cheek, and resisted the urge to cover it with her hand. Instead she held her head up, as if daring him to comment. She realized the foolishness of daring a man such as The Hawk as soon as she did it.

"He did that to you?”

"That is my concern, not yours.”

"It’s mine if he did it because I spoke to you. That’s about two weeks old, judging by the color.”

She felt heat flood her face as she realized how ugly she must look. On her best days she was nothing to buy a mirror for, as her father had been wont to say; with this unsightly mark on her face, she must be truly un­comely.

"It’s none of your affair, Mr. Hawk,” she reiterated.

"Perhaps,” he said, "but it makes me feel less guilty about killing a man I had no quarrel with, to know he was the kind of brute who would strike a woman.”

Guilty? He felt guilty? The thought that The Hawk could feel such a thing astonished her. But she didn’t dare linger on the revelation. Warning bells were clanging in her mind. She had to put a halt to this; he was tread­ing too close to dangerous ground. She walked around the foot of the ladder, only stopping to turn and face him again when the solid bulk of the counter was between them.

"I don’t care to speak any more of my husband, if you don’t mind. Was there something else?” she asked in her politest merchant’s tone.

He didn’t answer for a moment, and Kate held her breath, wondering if he was going to accept her obvious change of subject. And her explana­tion. It would be very ill-mannered of him to call her a liar. Other than Arly, she’d become used to being treated with at least some amount of respect by the decent men of Gambler’s Notch. But she wouldn’t have expected the same of the man known as The Hawk. A killer for hire hardly fell into the category she would label decent men.

At last he spoke, and Kate gave an inward sigh of relief at his words.

"Only my thanks, Mrs. Dixon. Not many men would have done what you did. And most women would have let me hang and been glad to see it done.”

"One death was enough. I had no wish to see more.”

He didn’t say what she suspected he was thinking, that it was indeed very strange that she didn’t wish to see the killer of her husband punished, regardless of the circumstances. Instead he glanced around the store.

"What will you do now?”

That, she thought, was the very question she’d been tussling with since Arly’s death.

"I will run the store,” she stated firmly, as if saying the words for the first time out loud could make them true.

"By yourself? A woman?”

She quivered inside, then ordered herself sternly to stop. She would have to become used to such reactions. She knew that the idea of a woman alone running a business like this would cause consternation. At least until people got used to the idea.

"Of course,” she said, proud that she sounded, to her ears at least, confi­dent and composed. "I’ve done so often, when Arly was gone.”

And frequently when he was here, she added to herself, remembering all the times when he’d been too unwell from a long night of drinking to open up the mercantile in the morning. All the times when she had borne the brunt of his drunken ill humor, and worn the marks of it for days afterward. Just as she was wearing one now.

But no more. Never again. This was the last bruise she would ever watch people stare at, the last time she would count the days until the last of the mottled colors faded away, before the ache subsided so that she could move freely again. Never again would she have to cower in fear, wondering if this was one of the times when the blows would be followed by something even worse.

And all because of this man.

An emotion that she could not deny was joy welled up inside her, but she knew she didn’t dare let it show. She tamped it down, and said the words again, just to hear them.

"I will run the store.”

Something flickered in his eyes, something Kate thought for one silly moment might have been admiration.

"I believe perhaps you will,” he said. He put his hat back on and touched the brim in what was nothing less than a salute. "My thanks again, Mrs. Dixon.”

She didn’t know what to say to that, so she merely nodded. And watched intently as he turned and strode out of the store, moving with a lithe grace that brought home to her what a ponderous man Arly had been. She stepped out from behind the counter into the center of the store, her gaze still fastened on that tall, black-clad figure as he crossed the street, headed for the livery stable.

This must be what that book about Shakespeare’s plays had called irony, she thought. She’d spent a long time studying that book, trying to work out the difficult words and more difficult meanings, hoping someday to be able to read the plays themselves. She’d had to sneak it at night, when Arly was snoring noisily; he hated her wasting time reading, especially about silly things written by a man long dead in a foreign country.

But this had to be it, that irony she’d tried so hard to understand. Irony, that a man like Arly, a man most would call a decent, law-abiding, solid citizen, had been a lumbering, clumsy oaf who ran to fat and jow­liness; while a man most people feared, a man considered a heartless killer, a man who stayed in one place no longer than it took to kill whatever hapless soul was his target, looked like an angel come down straight from heaven.

More likely cast out from heaven, Kate amended silently. Lucifer, the fallen angel, perhaps, shunned by the righteous and fit only to reside in hell.

She nearly laughed aloud. A fallen angel with the grace and manners of a gentleman. She wondered if she’d perhaps gone a little touched in the head after Arly’s death, thinking such fanciful thoughts.

Or perhaps it was simply the realization that for the first time in her life, she was free. There was no one to tell her what to do, no one to answer to, no meaty fists to dodge, no ugly, evil nights to dread. She was free.

She twirled around, her arms outstretched. A tiny giggle threatened to es­cape her. She clapped a hand over her mouth to stop it. Then she remembered she didn’t have to, and let it out. It became a laugh, and she spun faster, feeling every uneven spot in the crude wood floor through her worn kid slippers, but not caring.

She was free.

She was free, and nothing could mar this joyous feeling. Nothing.

Except the memory of a man’s eyes, and the words he’d so unexpect­edly spoken. Itmakes me feel less guilty about killing a man I had no quarrel with.

She stopped spinning, swaying a little as she came to a halt. "Who would have thought it?” she whispered to herself. The Hawk feeling guilty. How was it possible? He’d killed so many. A dozen, if Luke’s excited, nearly worshipful stories were to be believed.

She stood there for a long moment, pensive, pondering... and just a lit­tle bit vexed at the pall that had been cast over her exultation.

JOSH SMILED IN satisfaction as he slipped his poke into the pocket of his black frock coat and stood up from the table.

"Gentlemen, thanks for the game,” he said to the other three poker play­ers, who looked just as happy to see him go. He’d stopped with the last hand because he’d seen a couple of the losers were on the edge of becom­ingtesty about it, and he didn’t want to push them over that edge. He’d taken some of their money, but not a lot, not enough for them to complain.

It had taken longer than usual, nearly two days, since he’d been play­ing very conservatively in order to not draw any more attention than he already had in this town. He’d intentionally spread his winnings out over as many different players as possible, and not many townspeople, but men from the surrounding territory who were passing through and stopped to wet their throats. And he’d never won or lost big enough to cause any dissension. Occasionally, a player would begrudge his withdrawing from the game a winner, but they seemed to quickly remember who they were dealing with and withdraw the objection; he knew they were thinking that the paltry few dollars he was walking away with weren’t worth dying for.

But now he had enough for his immediate needs. Enough to pay for his own room at the rather rickety building called—facetiously, he had to assume—the Grand Hotel, a room given to him, he was sure, on the strength of his reputation alone. The clerk had been far too afraid to ask for the usual payment in advance. And he had enough now for Buck’s keep, and the reshoeing the smithy had done for him. Rankin seemed a good man, and Josh was glad he’d be able to pay him.

And he’d have enough left to lay in a few supplies. Enough to get him on his way out of Gambler’s Notch, a place he wouldn’t be sorry to see the last of. Maybe even enough to keep him going for a while, until he decided what to do with the rest of the life he’d had handed back to him. Next to that chore, winning enough of a stake to move on seemed easy. It would take one of Gramps’s allegories to show him the way. Or maybe that magi­cal book, the one that was supposed to guide the Hawks, because this Hawk had certainly lost his way a long time ago. Probably the first time he’d taken a man’s money for the use of his Colt.

With a final nod to the men who were already dealing the next hand, he walked out of the dingy, dark building that served as a saloon. Someday, he thought, he’d like to see a building with real windows again, windows on all sides, to let in the light. He got mightily tired of the dimness of most of the places in the kind of town he frequented.

The afternoon sun sent the shadows of the buildings streaking from west to east across the wide dirt street. Soon it would drop behind the Rockies and be gone, but the warmth of the day would linger; in a few weeks spring would give way to the territory’s short, hot summer on the high plains at the foot of the mountains. Still, he felt the coolness as he stepped into one of the shadows. A tall one, and he knew without look­ing—he’d been working hard at not looking—that it was the shadow of the mercantile.

He’d learned a lot in the past three days. Mostly from Luke, the slightly wild kid who lived, at the grace of Art Rankin, in the loft over the livery stable. The kid who’d found that battered old Dragoon Colt behind the rain barrel, and who had been more than willing to tell his story again, especially to the famous man he boasted of saving from the hangman.

Josh no longer doubted that Luke had indeed found the weapon ex­actly where he said he had. He supposed it was possible Dixon could have had it in his hand and he hadn’t seen it. And he supposed in the aftermath of firing his own weapon, with the Peacemaker’s loud report, it was possi­ble he might have missed hearing Arly’s weapon hit the back wall of the saloon and slide behind the water barrel. Possible, but not probable. His life depended on not missing details like that. True, he hadn’t been expecting an attack—no more so than he always was, anyway—but the likelihood of him not seeing the Dragoon in Dixon’s hand, not seeing it go flying when he was hit, and not hearing it land wasn’t very high.

But Luke had found it there.

And Mrs. Dixon swore she hadn’t lied for him. He believed her; when she’d stared up at him and said it, he’d known she was telling the truth. And Lord knew she had no reason to lie, not for his sake. No matter what kind of man Arly Dixon had been, life was hard for a woman out here without a husband.

"Mr. Hawk!”

He turned his head to see Luke running toward him. The boy had taken to following him around, and although he recognized the signs of incipient hero worship, Josh hadn’t had the heart to send the boy away.

"You headed for the stable?”

Josh nodded. "I owe Mr. Rankin some money.”

"Aw, he don’t care if you’re late, s’long as you pay him. He’s a nice man.”

"Yes, he is.”

"I like your horse. He’s a real good ’un, isn’t he?”

"He’s got enough bottom for any man,” Josh agreed. "Thought I’d give him a little attention this afternoon. Think you could round me up a brush, maybe a currycomb?”

"You bet!” Luke yelped and headed off at a run. By the time Josh reached the stable, the boy was already haltering Buck in the big corral.

He found Rankin, a man who had a strength in his powerful chest and shoulders that belied his short stature, out back at the forge, working on a pair of metal hinges. Josh paid what he owed for the work and Buck’s board, plus another day in advance. The quiet man took the money and his thanks with a nod and nothing more; he was a man of less than few words, Josh had discovered.

He walked over to where Luke had tied the big buckskin up to a post at the side of the barn. The horse craned around to look at him, and whick­ered softly.

"Hey, you old sugar eater,” Josh said, grinning as he did so; Buck was a long way from a pampered animal. He was tough, strong, fast, and loyal, and a man couldn’t ask for more than that from a horse. He patted the golden-brown neck, then rubbed up under the shaggy black mane. Buck whickered again.

Josh shrugged off his coat and pulled off his string tie. Luke was there in an instant to take them and lay them carefully over the fence railing. Josh smothered a grin, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and picked up the currycomb Luke had found for him. He began to run it over the golden-brown coat, thinking rather inanely that it was nearly the same color as Mrs. Dixon’s unusual eyes. Shaking off that foolish thought, he worked his way down to the buckskin’s muscled rump. He didn’t speak, teasingly curious about how long the voluble Luke could stay quiet. Not long, he soon found out.

"You’re not leavin’, are you?”

"Not today,” Josh answered.

Seemingly relieved by this, the boy chattered on for a while. Josh only half listened as he curried the horse, at least until Luke started in about the widow.

"I don’t see why a lady can’t run a store, do you? Miss Kate’s a lot smarter than old Arly was. She was usually the one workin’ in there any­way. An’ she’s real good with numbers; does all kinds of addin’ in her head.”

"Did someone say she couldn’t?”

"Aw, just ol’ Reverend Babcock. He’s always goin’ on, telling people what they should or shouldn’t do.”

"I think that’s what a reverend does.”

"Well, he does it too much, if you ask me. He shouldn’t be botherin’ Miss Kate, not with her husband just dead and all.”

Josh went very still for a moment, but Luke didn’t seem to find any­thing odd in bemoaning the widow’s state to the man who had put her in that circumstance. When the boy didn’t go on, Josh resumed his task.

"Is he... bothering her?”

Luke shrugged. "Nah, not really. Just talking big words at her, like he does.”

"Big words?”

"Yeah. Tellin’ her the town’s givin’ her some time, because of her re­cent beriv... beave...”

"Bereavement?”

"Yep, that’s it. But that it wasn’t proper work for a lady to be in busi­ness. Old goat.”

Josh managed not to laugh at Luke’s sniffingly disdainful assessment, but he couldn’t stop his grin.

"She told ’em to go do their business elsewhere,” Luke said as he handed Josh a brush to take to the buckskin’s legs. Josh smiled at the pride in his young voice; obviously the liking between the two was mutual. "Said she’d either run the place or sell every bit of stock and close it up forever, and they could go all the way to Rock Springs for their coffee and tobacco. That hobbled their lips right quick.”

"Sounds like a determined woman.”

"She’s got more sand than most of the men around here,” Luke said.

"Most women do,” Josh said softly, fighting off another host of memo­ries he tried to keep locked away. They’d been harassing him a lot of late, and he didn’t know why. He supposed it had something to do with nearly meeting his maker—and having to account for his no-account life.

"She had a tough time with ol’ Arly. He was a mean one. Really mean.”

Josh stopped moving again, the brush poised for a moment over the black points on the buckskin’s legs. Then he straightened up. "How mean? Did he hit her?”

Luke dodged the question. "Mr. Rankin says he don’t hold with men hit­ting women.”

"He’s right. It’s a cowardly thing to do.”

Luke nodded. "That’s what he says.”

"He may not talk much,” Josh said, willing to let the boy avoid a direct answer for the moment, "but he’s a man to listen to when he does.”

"He looks out for me, since my folks died.”

"How long has that been?”

"I’ve been here since I was eight, an’ I’m twelve now.” He shrugged his thin shoulders. "My folks died of the cholera.”

The boy had been alone since he was eight? Josh didn’t know what made him say it, but before he could stop them, the words were out. "My grandfather died of it, too.”

Luke looked up quickly. "Really?”

Josh nodded. "He was the only family I had left.”

Luke’s eyes widened. "You’re an orphan, too?”

Josh drew back a little. "I never thought about it like that, but I guess you’re right.”

"Guess we’re kind of alike, then, huh?”

The boy was looking at him so hopefully Josh nearly smiled. "Guess we are.”

Luke smiled, and Josh instinctively reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair. Then he nearly laughed at himself. He’d hated that when Gramps did it, and here he was doing it in turn.

Josh went back to brushing Buck’s legs. He still wanted his answer, but he didn’t want to push the boy. He cleaned out the buckskin’s hooves, then straightened up again. Luke was staring across the street at the mercan­tile. The boy seemed to sense his gaze, and looked back at him. He seemed about to speak, then hesitated. Josh said nothing, figuring silence would encourage the boy as much as anything.

Gramps had known that, had known how hard it had been for him at this same age, to talk about the ugly things. He’d made it clear he was listening, then left Josh alone to talk or not as he wished. In the end, he’d always talked; it had been too much to hold in.

"She tried to run away once, a couple of years ago,” Luke finally said. "He caught her. Nobody saw her for a couple of weeks after that. Talk was they thought he’d killed her.”

Something in the boy’s tone caught Josh’s full attention. He saw it in Luke’s face, too. He might not have recognized it had he not been wres­tling with it himself recently. Guilt.

"But he didn’t,” Josh prompted gently.

"No. He just beat her real bad. She could hardly move. Miss Deborah, she went in there and faced ol’ Arly down, made him bring Miss Kate to her place so’s she could nurse her.”

He didn’t doubt that, having met the redoubtable Miss Taylor. But that didn’t explain Luke’s unmistakable look of self-reproach. "What else, Luke?”

The boy’s towhead ducked, and when he finally spoke, Josh had to strain to hear.

"I... tried to help her. Got her a horse and hid it out back. She was al­ways nice to me, let me come in the store when it was rainin’, snuck me hard candy now and then. She even gave me a pair of shoes one winter, said they were damaged and couldn’t be sold, but I couldn’t see nothin’ wrong with ’em.”

"And Dixon found out you helped her?” Another nod. "What hap­pened?” Silence met his query. "Luke?”

The boy stole a glance at him. "He whupped me but good. Knocked out two of my teeth, but Miss Deborah said it was okay, they weren’t my real teeth yet. Ol’ Arly told me if I ever tried anything like that again, he’d kill me.”

The lingering guilt Josh was feeling about having killed the man was rapidly fading. A man who would not only beat a woman nigh unto death, but also a child who couldn’t have been more than ten at the time, de­served killing. But there was something he still didn’t understand.

"Why do you feel guilty about trying to help her?”

"Not that,” the boy said quickly. "It’s just that... he hit her more, be­cause of it.”

"What do you mean?”

"He told me that because of me, he was going to make her sorrier than she’d ever been in her life.”

Josh’s stomach knotted. The world was indeed a twisted, out-of-kilter place when men like Arliss Dixon flourished and boys like Luke carried burdens far too heavy for their young shoulders.

"Luke, it wasn’t your fault. He would have done it anyway, if he was that kind of man.”

Luke looked at him with wide brown eyes far too old for his young face. "That’s what she said. Miss Kate. Later, when she got well. I was afraid she’d hate me, but she just kept telling me it wasn’t my fault. And thanked me for trying.”

Josh took in a deep breath. Sand, he thought, was not enough word for Kate Dixon. She might be plain, but she was a survivor. A survivor with grit, who could sum up what had apparently been a brutally painful life with mild words.

My husband was not the kindest of men.

It is not the kindest of times.

His mother’s voice, just as soft, just as gentle, and so long forgotten ech­oed in his mind. No, not forgotten. Suppressed, forced into that darkest corner of his mind, where he kept the memories that were too painful to look at. Or in this case, too painful to hear.

"Mr. Hawk? Are you all right?”

Josh exhaled, long and slow. "Yes,” he lied. "I’m fine.”

Except that my family would be ashamed of me and I should have died this morn­ing, and I don’t know what the hell it all means.


 

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