When Marshal Oden is left for dead on Snow Creek Mountain he never thought his rescuer would be a reindeer shifter.
Two outlaws take Marshal Oden prisoner and leave him to freeze on Snow Creek Mountain. Marshal Oden tries to find shelter and build a fire, but he knows his time is running out. He sends up a silent plea for help, and is shocked and relieved when a mountain man comes to his aid.
Horatio Kringle is a member of K herd. He knows he’s different from the other reindeer shifters-he prefers men. He hasn’t come out yet, but when he saves Marshal Oden he knows the lawman is meant to be his mate.
The two of them are vastly opposite. Can they find a way to make this sudden pairing work?
“You won’t get away with this,” Marshal Oden shouted. “You won’t live to spend all the money.”
Jack shrugged. “Don’t need to spend all of it to have a good time.”
Ice crystals formed on Oden’s beard and bushy mustache. Apparently, it was a lie that facial hair kept a man warmer. He directed his attention to the saner of the two outlaws. Maybe he could reason with him. “It isn’t too late to do the right thing. They will find my body. You’ll both be hanged.”
Bart gave a deep belly laugh. “I don’t think so, Marshal. Probably won’t find you till spring. They’ll just think you got lost in the mountains tracking us, and you froze to death. Terrible way to die, I hear.”
How he wished he could punch the man’s round face. Or better yet, spit in his eye. Bart fooled many people as he appeared the amiable fat man until you got to know his true colors. Bart’s partner Jack smirked and shoved Marshal Oden from his horse. With his hands tied, he was unable to break his fall. He landed on his side in the snow. The icy crust stung his face. It sickened him that these two might get away with bank robbery and his murder—again. After the Silver City Bank holdup, he’d followed them out here, and once he discovered their identities, he knew he wasn’t safe. Ever since he slipped up and let the two get a jump on him, he’d been cursing himself up one side and down the other. That didn’t change the fact they’d leave him stranded.
He pushed himself to his knees, soaking the front of his trousers. Being on the shorter side at five foot eight, he felt like merely a mouse on his knees with the outlaws looming over him. He held up his tied wrists. When he accepted the badge, this wasn’t how he’d pictured the end. “Can’t you at least cut my hands free? If they find my body with my hands tied, they’ll know it was murder.”
“He’s got a point, Jack,” Bart said. “Better cut him loose. He won’t last long here without a horse or a rifle.”
Jack dismounted, bowie knife gleaming in his right hand. The sun reflected off the snow. It would be beautiful if he wasn’t going to die of exposure in the mountains. He should have accepted the sheriff’s job in California instead of taking the marshal position for Idaho Territory.
Jack approached him with heavy steps, each time sinking into the snow. By the grip he had on that knife, it appeared he was going to slash him instead of cut the rope. Jack had crazy eyes. Marshal Oden had seen it many times during the war and a few times since. When a man got the thirst for blood, it could become an addiction.
Bart must have noticed the look, too. “Just cut the ropes,” he reminded him in a gruff voice. “Killing him now would be too easy. We want him to suffer.”
Jack sneered, revealing his rotting teeth. Marshal Oden hoped he’d use some of the stolen money to get his chompers fixed. He was as ugly as heck right now. The thick red scar running down the side of his left cheek and his greasy black hair that fell to his shoulders didn’t help. When Jack was only a few inches away, Marshal Oden held his breath. The man’s breath stank worse than onions and garlic stewed in tobacco juice.
Jack placed the knife at the rope’s center between Oden’s wrists and sawed through the binding. “You’re free. Not that it will do you any good out here. Figured you were entitled to a last request.” He sneered. “Too bad I won’t make it to the funeral.”
Marshal Oden debated whether to wrestle with Jack and try to get his knife, but Bart had a revolver in his hand. He’d be shot dead in one second. Although, under the circumstances, that might not be too bad.
Still, his desire to live kept him on his knees, motionless. Most outlaws had a deep hate for lawmen, but this was beyond cruel. Heart in the pit of his stomach, he watched the two outlaws ride away and leave him for dead.
Once he could no longer see the backsides of the bank robbers, he stood and tried to brush as much snow off his clothes as he could. If he was going to last more than a few hours, he had to stay dry. Since he was already half wet, that meant building a fire. The problem was it was hard to build a fire in the snow. Most of the tinder was soaked clear through.
The easiest way to build a fire would be in a cave. Although, entering a cave at this time of year meant the possibility of waking hibernating bears. No need to worry about that until he found a cave. If he found one. The area they had stranded him in wasn’t familiar. Although, even familiar locations could look different when covered with snow, the wind creating drifts to further change the terrain.
He wiggled his toes inside his boots. Moving would help keep his circulation going, but what he needed was a fire. He trudged through the snow, his feet sinking with each step. His leather boots were far from waterproof. Feet cold, and shoes waterlogged, it became harder to walk. As if the Almighty heard his silent plea, as he rounded the corner, a cave revealed itself, carved into the mountainside. He rubbed his eyes making sure he wasn’t dreaming. Yes, the cave was still there. He put all his energy into reaching the cave. Just thinking about shelter from the wind and the fire he’d build heated him some.
When he reached the cave, the opening was blocked. Not by a bear, but by a reindeer. The large bull barred his entrance, head held high displaying his tall, stately antlers.
“Is this your cave?” Marshal Oden asked the proud beast.
The reindeer turned his head, and they locked eyes. Clearly the reindeer did not want him to enter this cave, and he did not have a desire to be gored for invading his territory.
“Fine,” he said, his spirits falling. “I’ll look for my own cave.”
His fingers had turned red and pained him. Marshal Oden cupped his hands around his mouth and blew. The hot air rose like wisps of smoke around him. Smoke. Fire. Warmth.
He heard a steady clomping sound behind him. Pausing, he looked over his shoulder. The reindeer followed, practically walking in his own steps. Marshal Oden turned around, facing the beast again. “What do you think you’re doing?” he snapped. “If I find another cave, are you planning on claiming that one, too?”
The reindeer quickened his step until he was a few paces ahead of him. He thought that would be the last of the bull, but the reindeer threw his head back, and stared at him again.
Marshal Oden’s spine tingled. It could be the cold, but he felt like the reindeer was trying to communicate with him. He followed the reindeer through the snow until they came to a densely-forested area. While not a cave, the tree canopy did provide a dry shelter and a break from the wind.
He bent his knees and eased himself onto the pine needle covered ground. The dry tender could provide him with fuel for a fire. He didn’t want to burn it too close to his shelter, though. After resting for a few minutes, he pulled himself back to his feet, gathered dry twigs and small branches, hiked back to the open area, and built a small cone with his kindling, the limbs crossing at the top. Taking a lucifer out of his coat pocket, he struck the match, and with a prayer on his lips, lit the kindling. He blew on the tiny spark until the cone was ablaze. Quickly, he retrieved more dry kindling and began to thaw by the fire.
Hands hovering above the flames, he looked around for his new friend. The reindeer had disappeared. He’d heard from the old timers that a small herd roamed Snow Creek Mountain and the surrounding hills. Few were ever spotted, so he’d thought it was a rumor, an exaggerated tale. Did this bull belong to a herd? If so, where were they? If he was in their territory, was he safe?
Horatio had scented his mate even before Marshal Oden had made it to the top of the hill with those two outlaws. If he hadn’t been so concerned about being shot, he would have gored both of those brutes with his antlers. He wanted revenge for leaving his mate stranded in the snow. Of course, if they hadn’t brought Marshal Oden here, then it would have taken longer for the two of them to meet. Fate often entwined good things in a bad situation.
The question was how best should he introduce himself to his mate? Obviously, he’d have to be in human form, but the law officer wouldn’t be expecting anyone else to be in the area. The only way he could explain his existence would be to show him the herd. Or shift in front of him. And if he shifted in front of him, he’d be stark naked. Horatio snorted, and Marshal Oden’s head snapped in his direction. Horatio stood motionless behind the cover of the thick trees. His heart skidded. It felt wrong spying on his mate.
It is for his own good, though. At the moment, the human could not defend himself. Horatio’s eyes widened. His mate couldn’t feed himself either. It would be hard to hunt without a weapon. He backed further into the thick cover of trees and blinked his eyes. This transported him to the K herd’s territory. Here, he shifted into his manly form. Although his skin didn’t register the icy cold as much as a human, he hurried into his cabin to dress. A sense of urgency spurred his actions. He’d been equally anticipating and dreading this moment for years. How was he going to break the news to his mate? Would the marshal think he was talking out of his head?
Not bothering with underclothes, he stepped into his leather leggings. He reached for his red shirt and knocking drew his attention.
“Go away,” he growled.
“Can’t.” It was a high-pitched female voice. “It is important.”
He exhaled loudly. The only thing important to him right now was getting back to his mate. Herd business could wait until after they’d mated.
“What do you want?”
“To talk to you of course.”
He rolled his eyes. Obviously, she wasn’t going away and talking through the door was ridiculous. He opened the door to find a naked woman, long brunette hair reaching her waist. Some shifters just didn’t like the feel of clothing against their skin.
He scowled. She’d artificially changed her voice so that he would open the door. The last person he wanted to talk to was her. “What do you want, Clarissa?”
“I want to know why you’re not interested in me. My father arranged for our marriage when we were calves.”
“A lot has changed since we were young.” And it didn’t take long for him to realize he wasn’t interested in Clarissa or any woman.
She sauntered forward, the antler necklace he had given her when they were young dangling between her ample breasts. Clarissa picked up the delicate pendent. He had carved it himself. “I used to mean something to you.”
“Yes. Used to being the key words there. It is not that I dislike you, Clarissa. I just… well, we’re best as friends.” Because I’m attacked to men.
He hadn’t come out to his herd yet. Many times, he’d tried to build up the courage to do so and failed. At least after he was mated, he could come out to the herd with his partner by his side. Maybe he was a coward, but he needed that moral support.
Clarissa cocked her head to the right. “You interested in another shifter?”
“It is a human then.”
“Yes.” He did not have time for this. Might as well break her the bad news. “I’ve found my mate, Clarissa. Now it is time for you to find yours.”
Her jaw dropped, and for once in her life, she was speechless. Horatio liked it that way.
“Excuse me. I’ve got to get dressed.”
Her hazel eyes narrowed. “Why not give us a chance?” She reached up and caressed his cheek, her hand traveling down to his shoulder and across his chest. “We can experiment in your cabin you know. No strings attached.”
She might want to experiment, but he’d had enough of her debauchery. Didn’t the woman have any self-respect than to throw herself at some bull? Men were supposed to fight for their partners, not the other way around.
“I’ve found my mate,” he repeated slowly to be sure she understood each word, and then he shut the door in her face. It had been rude, but he’d wasted precious minutes already. He finished dressing, sitting on his bed to tug on his boots. As soon as he stood, he inwardly groaned. They were like heavy boulders attached to his feet. Walking on two legs was much slower than loping on four. Unfortunately, magical transportation only worked in deer form. Life was much easier as a reindeer!
Mating with a human, he’d have to get used to spending more time in this form. It wouldn’t be hard to do with Marshal Oden sleeping next to him. He retrieved his buffalo hide coat and his black slouch hat from the coat rack in the hallway and his rifle from the peg above the door. Several minutes had passed, but he doubted that would be a strong enough deterrent. He drew a deep breath preparing for another barrage of Carissa’s questions. She’d been nipping at his heels for months, saying it was high time they mated. He didn’t expect her to give up now. Luckily, he only had to mate once, and he couldn’t wait to lie close to the marshal.
When he opened the door, all he saw was crusty white snow and two sets of prints. Hoof prints going to the door and human female tracks leaving. He stepped outside and glanced around wondering if she was hiding in the bushes somewhere. That was out of character for her giving up so easily. He shrugged, thankful for small favors. Maybe she’d eyed another bull and was mooning over him already. A shifter could hope.
He trudged through the deep snow, debating on whether to head straight to the marshal or to hunt game first. His mate would be hungry and food would be a good friendly gesture. A few hares wouldn’t be too hard to track down. Yes, he’d build a bigger fire and roast the jumpers and then explain the complicated matters of the reindeer herd. A man thought clearer with food in him. Horatio patted his stomach. He’d probably muddle things up himself without a full belly.
The best hunting grounds were in the opposite direction of Marshal Oden’s campsite. It gave the mating couples privacy. The children were told to stay away from the ceremonial cave until they were of age to mate themselves. He tipped his head back and sniffed the brisk air. His mate’s leather and evergreen scent overpowered any hint of game.
Damn Oden’s scent was arousing. Clarissa shouldn’t settle for anyone less than the partner she was fated to be with. If she caught a whiff of her mate, then she’d understand. Maybe he could get some of the elders in the herd to sit her down and explain it to her. He knew she wouldn’t listen to him.
Hare. He shook his head, reminding himself of his task. He breathed in deeply again, and this time, latched onto the trail of a jackrabbit. Horatio hoped the hare would be a fat one. He wanted to impress his mate, prove he could provide for him.