Wild and Free by Jackie Stephens
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-6661-9
*****
Jackie Stephens' Wild and Free is an exciting, well-crafted Western romance that packs a punch. This one kept me up reading far too late because I had to find out how all the pieces would fit together. I was not disappointed.

Matt Lanier is on a mission to find two things: his herd of cattle and Jake Walden, the outlaw who stole the cattle and killed Matt's brother, Danny. His brother was the only family Matt had left. Their parents had been killed in a Kiowa raid when the boys were young. To stay together, the two boys had drifted from town to town doing odd jobs for food and whatever shelter they could find. The two had finally pulled together to start a cattle ranch in Wyoming and begin reaching for their dream. Now, Danny is dead.

In his search, Matt runs into Sunny Donovan. Actually, she jumps him from up in a tree. She is also looking for Jake Walden for a number of very good reasons and Matt's presence could stop her plans to find him. Sunny is a complex person with a lot of responsibility on her shoulders. For many years, she and her mother lived willingly with the Comanches. Her mother married Chief Black Eagle and he treated Sunny as a daughter, calling her Morning Sky. She has a younger half-brother, Running Bear, and a younger half-sister, Gentle Wind. Two years earlier, she had seen her mother, stepfather, and fiancÚ, White Bear, massacred in a raid. She was separated from her siblings and had to flee, but was gravely injured. A rancher found her and nursed her back to health.

Sunny and some cowboys she hired actually have Matt's cattle. She had been with Danny when he died and she blames herself because Danny had let her join the drive not knowing that it would bring Jake Walden and his gang down on them. She needs the cover of Matt's cattle to complete her quest, part of which is to keep her siblings out of the hands of a manipulative Indian agent. When she discovers who Matt is, she is afraid to tell him what she is doing because she knows from Maggie, a friend of both Sunny's and Matt's, that he has no love of Indians because of the massacre of his family. She persuades Maggie to talk Matt into helping without really knowing why. Maggie wants her to tell Matt, but she is afraid to try it that way.

Part of the enjoyment of reading this story is how the author skillfully unwraps layer after layer of Sunny's motivation to find Walden. The attraction between Sunny and Matt, however, starts quickly and builds as they maneuver around the many obstacles before them. Matt hasn't trusted a woman since Ashley, Maggie's sister, left him at the altar for another man. But Sunny spars with him and impresses him with her strength. He thinks of her as his little spitfire and calls her his angel. He does have trouble with her giving him the truth in small increments that sometimes leave him surprised and wondering whether to trust her. Sunny hasn't been attracted to a man since White Bear died, but Matt's determination and integrity pull her toward him, but she is not certain he can handle her closeness to her Indian family and friends?

The secondary characters are integral to the story and Stephens manages to show the different points of view of several of them including Maggie, her brother, Will, who was the rancher who found the injured Sunny, and Swift Arrow, a friend of Sunny's. Maggie's part is particularly well done. The villain, Jake Walden, is one of the nastiest pieces of work I've seen in a while. I had figured out some of his connection to Sunny before it was revealed, but it didn't lessen the horror of the man.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. Stephens' descriptions of the violence of the situations is not sugarcoated in any way. While it is not gratuitous, since it illustrates some of the grim realities of frontier life and is important to the plot, it did make me squirm a time or two. It did not make me want to stop reading the story. I only wanted the bad guys to pay for causing such trouble.

Matt's dislike for Indians and his gradual turnaround on the topic is handled with finesse. He doesn't hate one day and love the next, but through Sunny's stories of her life and his exposure to a few individual Indians, he comes around. The various army personnel in the story are also shown to have a number of different views about the Indians, all important to the plot.

I've read a number of westerns lately, from funny to formalistic to sad, but Wild and Free is by far the best one in quite some time. It is worth the time to watch the layers of the story unfold. Matt and Sunny are characters that I won't soon forget.

--B. Kathy Leitle


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