The sharp crack of a cocking pistol brought Lucas Stone’s head around.
“I’ll shoot if you so much as twitch.” The deputy’s badge gleamed in the dim lantern light of the stable, and his aim was true.
“What’s the problem here?” Luke straightened away from his horse, his hands spread wide and raised slightly. He hoped this didn’t count as twitching; he didn’t want to give the deputy an excuse to flinch.
“Those your saddlebags?” The lawman looked at the bags Luke had just thrown onto his horse and used the gun to point at them. Not a careful man. He looked to be about twenty, and none too bright.
“They are. What’s going on?”
“I got a tip I’d find money in those bags. Money from a stagecoach robbery that happened in these parts last week. Had a man killed.”
A shiver went up Luke’s spine. He’d noticed his saddlebags were moved. He’d left them here with his horse and, since there was nothing worth stealing in them, he hadn’t thought much of someone shoving them to the side, even going through them. Now he had a bad feeling that if he opened the bags, or let the deputy open them, there’d be something tying Luke to robbery and murder.
“You got a tip?” Luke tried to stall for time as he wondered who’d tried to frame him. Only one name came to mind. Flint Greer. A man who had good reason to not want Luke to make it home alive. “From who? I’ve only been in town a few hours. Just passin’ through on my way home to Texas.”
More honestly on his way to reclaim his home in Texas. “I just came in from far north. I have a bill of sale dated yesterday that proves I’m new to these parts.” Luke reached for the breast pocket of his brown broadcloth shirt.
“Don’t move!” The deputy’s gun came up and his finger visibly trembled on the trigger.
“Easy.” Luke wondered how the kid could believe there was a gun hidden in Luke’s shirt pocket, but he slowly moved his hands away from his body. “You want to get the bill of sale yourself?”
Luke hoped he would come within grabbing distance.
Nodding, the lawman edged toward Luke.
Luke knew plenty about being tough, having grown up in north Texas, a land of stark rock canyons and roving bands of Comanche and Kiowa. That alone was enough, but he’d also spent years fighting in the War Between the States, and more time living off the land after the war. And he was boiling with anger as he made his way home to avenge his father’s death. Those things combined to make him a careful, knowing man. A dangerous man.
This deputy was none of those.
Luke was close to home now, and Greer, the man who’d killed his father, knew he was coming because Luke had sent a letter, along with a legal document, telling Greer to get off Stone land. Greer didn’t want Luke to make it home.
Luke knew a setup when he saw one. Which meant there was little or no chance he could talk his way out of this. Which left fighting his only way out. He braced himself, determined not to hurt a lawman—at least not too bad. But once a jailhouse door clanked shut, Lucas expected the only way out would be as he was led to the gallows.
The deputy reached for Luke’s pocket.
Luke shoved the kid’s gun upward, drove his fist into the kid’s belly, then slugged him in the jaw. Luke jerked the pistol out of the deputy’s hand, chopped him on the skull with the gun butt, and grabbed the front of his shirt to lower him, unconscious, to the stable floor.
Luke flipped open his saddlebags to find a cloth cash bag. Dragging it out, Luke looked at it for a few long seconds, tempted. Considering its weight, Luke knew it was gold.
It would come in handy. It’d buy him enough bullets to start a war, which was exactly what Luke had in mind to do.
With some regret, but no interest in turning thief, he dropped the money, then double-checked the saddlebags to make sure there wasn’t more. Whoever had tried to frame him hadn’t wanted to part with too much.
If this was Greer’s work, the man was thorough. So if the deputy was here in the stable, where was the sheriff? Luke eyed the doorway and was sure if he walked out, he’d be facing a firing squad.
With grim silence Luke finished slapping leather on his horse and led it to the back door of the stable. A black horse on a black night, and Luke always dressed to move around undetected. No shining hatband. No silver trim on his boots or Colt. No jingling spurs.
Easing the door open, he saw a stretch of land leading into a copse of trees. Behind those trees, a bluff rose. He’d seen it earlier. But could Luke’s gelding climb the bluff? Being afoot in Texas was a good way to end up dead.
His horse was game, so Luke set out, leading his mount, listening for every night sound, his hand on his six-gun as they paced off the distance to the shelter of the trees.
No one stopped him. If this was Greer’s work, he’d be furious. He was a man who hired his shooting done and he expected his money’s worth.
Luke reached the trees and decided to trust the black to find a way up. Mounting, he rode up the bluff and over the top. As soon as he was out of hearing distance, Luke slapped his horse’s rump and they picked up the pace in moonlight almost as bright as day.
While he put space between himself and the posse that was bound to be coming, Luke wondered how much Greer had paid to kill Pa. Top dollar most likely, because the job had been done right.
His S Bar S Ranch stolen.
Luke was headed home to set things right.
“Ruth, stop dawdling back there,” Pa Reinhardt shouted. “I need you to take the reins.”
Dawdling? It was all Ruthy MacNeil could do to keep from snorting with contempt. She’d been working since before sunup at twice the speed of any of the Reinhardts. But she knew better than to ask questions when Pa Reinhardt used that voice. Usually the back of his hand followed quickly if she didn’t move fast enough.
She shoved the last box, containing the food and skillet, into the bed of the covered wagon and hurried around to swing up beside Ma.
“About time.” Ma turned up her nose as if Ruthy smelled bad.
Ruthy didn’t even comment on Ma being there, settled in, while Ruthy cleaned up the campsite. That was the way of things in this family she’d been dragged into.
Ma rested her aching back.
Pa yelled and doled out punishment.
Her dear brother, Virgil, leered.
At the thought of Virgil, a chill drew Ruthy’s eyes forward to the wagon ahead. Virgil was swaggering toward the second family wagon. He stopped before he climbed up on the high seat and looked back at her.
They’d be married when they reached California—Pa and Ma had declared it so. Virgil was willing. How Ruthy felt about it had never come up.
“You look dreadful, Ruthy. Virgil will despair of such a slovenly wife.” Ma scowled, her usual expression. “Get that coat off. It will be blistering hot today.”
Ruthy looked to the northeast, and the dark thunderclouds made her doubt Ma’s forecast. Rain most likely. Ruthy felt a twinge of caution as she wondered if it was already raining upstream. How high was the river they planned to ford?
Virgil turned away and climbed up onto his wagon, so Ruthy didn’t mind shedding the stifling coat that concealed her curves from Virgil’s crude attention. She tossed it through the opening into the wagon box.
“Leave your hat on, for goodness’ sake. Maybe you can keep that awful freckled skin from getting sunburned again. You’re peeling now from the last time you were so stupid as to leave it off. It covers that flyaway hair, too. Red marks you as Irish trash. You look a fright. You’re lucky my son is willing to involve himself with such as you.”
She didn’t respond to Ma’s comments on her appearance. Her long, loose-fitting coat, flat-brimmed hat pulled low over her eyes, and clunky boots suited her. Everything she owned except her skirt was a hand-me-down, mostly from Pa and Virgil since she’d grown taller than short, stout Ma just after her fourteenth birthday.
Yet it suited Ruthy to dress like this. She wasn’t interested in drawing a man’s attention, and that included most of all Virgil. She could only dream that he found her too ugly to be of interest. But his disgusting behavior, which she worked daily to avoid, indicated he found her red hair and freckles to his liking.
Which was nothing but the worst kind of dirty shame.
Ruthy had the reins in hand and sat waiting for the rest of the wagon drivers to get in place.
“Move out!” Finally the trail master hollered the order to the five wagons that remained in this once-long wagon train.
The lead wagon creaked as it began to roll and within a few paces dropped over the deeply cut riverbank. Another vanished, then another. Virgil was gone next—not forever unfortunately. Pa followed on foot between Virgil’s wagon and the one Ruthy drove. He’d lead Ruthy’s team across. With another glance at those thunderheads, she slapped the reins on her oxen’s backs, feeling the need to get this crossing over with fast.
The Reinhardts’ two wagons brought up the rear. They’d been with a much larger group when they set out from Missouri, but the majority of the group had stopped to homestead in Kansas.
This group was headed for California along the south path of the Sante Fe Trail. Ruthy had no intention of reaching that destination with them. But the Reinhardts didn’t need to know that.
As she descended the trail, she could see the lead wagon halfway across the wide, fast-moving water. They’d forded countless streams and rivers. Ruthy had lost interest in where they were as the miles plodded along, day after day, on their journey westward.
She heard thunder and an unusual burst of nerves shook loose a warning. “Pa, maybe we shouldn’t cross just yet. Rain could raise this river real fast.”
“Those clouds are miles away, you little half-wit.”
“But it’s raining upriver.”
Pa didn’t even look at the water, though he did take a glance at the sky. “Shut up and do as you’re told.”
Shut up and do as you’re told. That would be her life forever if she married into this family. She’d been looking for a chance to run away and beg for protection and hadn’t found one. And she feared greatly what tactics Pa, Ma, and Virgil might use to force her to say, “I do.” The only way to stop the marriage was to be gone from the family and never be found.
Her turn came to ford. She had a reaction so strong, Ruthy felt as if God himself had struck her with terror. If she’d had her druthers, she’d have hopped to the ground and run straight back up to the top of the bank. But Pa led the oxen forward, and Ruthy stayed on the seat.
Just as the last wheel left dry ground, her nigh ox took a slight turn downstream, dragging its partner along.
Pa caught at the halter and yelled at the plodding beast, shoving at it to keep it moving forward.
“Mind what you’re doing, Ruth.” Ma gave Ruthy’s arm a stinging slap that almost knocked the reins out of her hands.
Ruthy fumbled but hung on to the leather and drove with a skill that wasn’t proper for a woman. She did as many chores outside as inside for the Reinhardts and was handier than any of them.
Ahead of them, the lead wagon had reached the far bank and begun to climb. It was a long way up to the level prairie.
Her wheels slid and water slapped against the wagon’s underbelly.
Ma caught at the seat with a faint cry of alarm as the wagon lifted until it was floating. “Can’t you control this team?”
A deep-throated shout drew Ruthy’s attention in time to see Virgil’s rig begin to drift. That surprised Ruthy because the lead wagon had rolled across on solid ground. Was the water level rising? Virgil’s oxen veered downstream, pushed by a current moving faster than even a few seconds ago.
A deep rumble turned Ruthy’s attention to the north for a quick glimpse of the clouds, heavy with rain.
At least the rain wasn’t falling here. This river didn’t need another cup of water to make it rush along even faster.
“I’ve got to go help Virgil.” Pa looked back at her. “I’ve got these boys back in line. Try and hold ’em steady this time.” He knew well enough that Virgil wasn’t as good with a team as she was. No one was going to admit that, but Pa still knew where he was most needed. Virgil’s team was swimming now, which gave them no direction except to be pushed along with the current. Ruthy noticed the wagon ahead of Virgil was floating too, its oxen’s backs underwater as the slow-moving beasts fought to make it across to dry land. She felt her own wheels leave the floor of the riverbed.
“Glad we’re getting the ford done now,” Ma said. Though she was clinging to her seat, she didn’t seem to realize the peril they were in. “The whole train would be across by now if you hadn’t slowed us down.”
Knowing that to be a lie, Ruthy didn’t bother to respond.
Suddenly the rumbling thunder seemed closer, louder. Pa had reached the back end of Virgil’s wagon and was clinging to its side, pulling himself forward with his feet floating. How could he guide the oxen when the water was over his head?
Ruthy’s heart sped up as her team began swimming. She saw Pa look up at the clouds. The man on the lead wagon, now halfway up the riverbank, shouted at his beasts and cracked his bullwhip to speed them along. A second wagon reached the shore. A horse tied to the back of the third wagon pulled frantically against its reins and snapped them. It charged past the other wagons for the shore. The horse was doing better than the rest of them. The train master, the only man riding horseback, kicked his mount trying to reach dry ground. His horse stumbled in the rising current and plunged to its knees. With a shout of fear, the train leader lost his seat and went underwater. The horse swam for the bank.
Her jaw tight as she fought futilely with the reins, Ruthy knew her wagon wasn’t going to make it. None of them still in the water were going to make it.
Turning to study the sky, a noise drew her eyes lower. A slap of rushing water gushed around a curve upriver. Right after the slap, a wall of water blasted around the bend, reaching the top of the riverbank. It rushed at them with the force of a runaway train.
Ma turned to see what the noise was. Her scream cut through the roar of floodwaters.
Pa froze as he faced the oncoming water. Then he scrabbled at the canvas cover of his wagon and tried to pull himself up the side of it. Virgil cried out in terror.
“Ma! Get in the wagon!” Ruthy tried to catch Ma and shove her inside.
“Let go!” Ma clawed at Ruthy’s grip and leapt off the wagon seat into the river.
Water raged straight for them. Not even the wagons that had reached land were high enough.
There was no time for Ruthy to do anything but twist and dive into the covered wagon. She hit the bed just as the water slammed the wagon onto its side.
Water gushed in through the tightly gathered ends on the front and back and closed over Ruthy’s head. She banged into something hard. Stars exploded in her eyes.
Tumbling, sinking, then flying upward, Ruthy had no time to do anything and no strength to hang on to a world gone mad.
The water lifted her high just as the wagon cover was torn away. She dragged air into her lungs. She tried to see what had happened to everyone else in her moment above water. There was wreckage but no people. Pa was gone, the team too. The wagon. Ma. Everyone.
Another wagon, flipped on its belly, raced ahead of her. Ruthy heard the pathetic bawl of an ox and saw one emerge out of the depths, only to sink again.
A man’s head popped out of the water, but before she could identify him or see if he was alive, she fell, plunging downward. The water smacked her into the side of the wagon box. Her shoulder caught on something, and each pitch of the water wrenched at her arm until it felt like it was being torn off.
Sucked down beneath the torrent, the world went silent. Dragging at her pinned arm, she fought for freedom, for life as she desperately held her breath. Her lungs blazed hot with pain.
Something crashed into the wagon and smashed it apart, but her arm remained trapped between a pair of wide planks. Everything erupted upward, dragging her along. She choked, sucking air into her lungs between coughing, terrified of how long she’d have before being dragged under again and not allowed another breath. A tree loomed only feet ahead. Crashing into the tree, chunks splintered off the planks she was riding. But the two boards pinning her held. She clung to the slender remains of her makeshift raft.
Before her, the river curved. The floodwaters blasted into a steep, stony bank. She saw Virgil just ahead, his limp body drove hard into the unforgiving rock. He took the terrible blow at full speed, his arms and legs flailing as he struck. She saw no sign of him fighting the water or being aware of the impact. Ruthy knew it would be impossible to survive. And she was racing straight for the same wall of stone.
A scream ripped from Ruthy’s throat just as a fist of water punched her. She hit the granite bank. A hard crack stunned her and left her numb.
The floodwaters pulled her down into darkness.
Leaned low over his gelding’s neck, pounding out the miles, Luke put space between him and that rotten little cow town.
A posse had come, as he’d predicted, but with a good jump on them, there’d been time to leave a false trail. They followed it. Still, he pushed hard for hours, careful about tracks, keeping off any trails a normal man might use. Luke had learned to be sly in the woods and he used every bit of his skill. The posse would probably go home. But he wasn’t about to get cocky. His horse needed a breather, but he wanted more miles between him and that lynch mob.
Trees ahead told him he was coming up on a river. He’d forded the Arkansas a while back, which made this the Cimarron. He was getting close to home. Slowing to find a way across, he made out a game trail so faint that only hard years surviving in the West told him it was there.
Urging his horse onward, he wended his way down the steep bluffs. If it was shallow, he’d wade for as long as he could, pick a stony spot where he wouldn’t leave tracks and come out a long way from where he’d gone in.
If there was any pursuit left, that ought to end it.
The sides of the river were slick with mud. The game trail was treacherous. The grass and brush were knocked flat. Floodwaters had recently rushed by, running so high they reached the top of the bluffs.
When he reached the bottom, Luke hesitated to head downstream. To be caught by another flash flood would mean certain death in these depths.
Which meant few men following would go this way.
A good enough reason for him to choose it.
The water was smooth and shallow. His horse stopped to take a long drink, then moved along in the cool October breeze, the running water gurgling and tumbling around his hooves. They made good time for several hours and, as Luke began to watch the banks for a way to climb out, he saw boards ahead. Frowning, he wondered if a rancher lived nearby and had lost a wagon in the flood.
Then he got closer and saw someone lying on the boards. A woman!
Rushing forward, he gained dry land and tied his gelding to a shrub.
He dropped to his knees beside her, knowing the chances of her being alive were slim. He tried to roll her onto her back and realized her arm was wedged into a knothole in one of the planks. She was warm—alive. Her chest rose and fell. Carefully he worked her loose from where she was caught.
He lifted her into his arms and carried her to the slim strip of sandy soil along the bank. Lowering her to the ground, he saw an ugly gash in her matted red hair. Judging by the condition of the battered-down grass, he estimated the floodwaters had passed through here at least a full day ago. She’d been a long time trapped on that plank.
“Miss?” He gently patted one of her pale, dirt-streaked cheeks. She moaned but didn’t wake up. Pretty little bit of a thing. Ash white skin with red splotches peeling as if she’d been in the sun too long. She’d had a hard time of it.
With a quick look he decided she had no injuries except that crack on the head—none on the outside anyway.
“Miss, can you hear me?” He had no idea how to make an unconscious woman wake up until she was good and ready. The presence of those varmints on his back trail goaded him. He couldn’t leave her and he had to press on, so the only choice was to take her with him. He lifted her gently.
He couldn’t make good time with a double load. But he was close enough to home that caution was more important than speed. His horse could take it slow. He covered up his tracks, mounted up, juggling the woman and his reins, and headed on for his north Texas ranch.
Unless a town had sprung up since he’d left Broken Wheel, there wasn’t anywhere to leave her this side of home. And he had no intention of turning away from his course.
They headed downstream as Luke kicked around his choices. All he knew for sure was that he’d just picked up an unwilling passenger on his way to start a range war.
Ruthy’s eyes blinked open and the pain knocked them shut again.
“You awake, miss?”
The world was rocking. Her head throbbed, and only knowing how bad it would hurt to move kept her from being sick to her stomach.
The flood. Her hand fumbled at the front of her dress. She was too dry to still be floating.
“My head.” She tried to reach for the pain and something . . . or someone . . . restrained her arms. That brought her eyes open again. She was ready for the pain this time and kept them open to focus on a man . . . rocking her? He was dark, his eyes a velvety shade of midnight brown. He had a deep dimple in his chin that drew her attention for too long. His hair was black as coal, his skin so tanned he almost looked like an Indian. But his perfect English, laden with a Texas drawl, said he wasn’t.
“You’ve got a mean bump on your skull, miss. Best not to touch it.”
Then she noticed the horse.
“Where are we? Who are you?” She remembered Ma and Pa Reinhardt and Virgil. What had become of them?
“I’ve got some questions too, miss. Name’s Luke Stone. I found you run aground on a riverbank. Looked like you’d been riding the current a while. Where’s home? Don’t you worry, I’ll help you get back to your people.”
“I-I don’t know exactly where we were. Our wagon train got caught in a flash flood.” Her throat sounded ragged.
Luke reached for his canteen, and Ruthy was suddenly aware of a thirst so terrible it felt like its own wound.
“The whole train? Aren’t they fifty or a hundred wagons long? How’d you lose all of them?” The man stopped lifting the canteen, and Ruthy was so desperate she almost reached for it to wrestle it away from him. Her arm hurt bad enough she decided not to start a fight with a man whose corded muscles looked to be more than up to besting her in a struggle.
“We were five wagons, split off from the main train. All five were hit. I think two of them were out of the river and headed up, but then the water came.” She shuddered and buried her face against Luke’s chest. “It was a wall of water. It came around a bend as high as the top of the bank. There was rain upstream.”
“Should’ve had sense not to cross.” The man adjusted his grip so her head was lifted a bit and she could see the world better. His strength was so great that he moved her to suit himself with only the slightest shift of his broad shoulders. He raised the water to her lips.
“I wasn’t in charge or we’d have stayed on high ground until the sky cleared.” When had Ruthy ever been in charge of her own life? She sipped the water and it seemed to soak into her mouth before it even reached her throat. She drank again.
“Don’t drink too fast or you’ll cast it up.” He lifted the canteen away.
She wanted to grab at it, fight him for it.
“So what about the rest of your people?” It was almost as if he were offering her the water in exchange for answers to her questions. But no one would be that low-down, would they? Then Ruthy thought of the Reinhardts and decided nothing could surprise her.
“I don’t know how anyone could survive that flood. I don’t know how I did.” She remembered her wagon tumbling. Oxen bawling. She’d seen Virgil’s body. No sign of life. Ruthy clutched Luke’s shirt, felt a terrible agony in her arm, but held on anyway. “I should go back. See if anyone made it.” Ruthy lifted her eyes to Luke Stone. “Can you take me? Can we ride upstream and search?”
True, she had plans to escape her family. Ma slapped her and Pa was a lazy complainer and Virgil paid her disgusting attention. True, they’d never spoken a kind word to her while she toiled for long hours every day for years. True, they were none too smart and none too clean and none too honest. But that didn’t mean she wanted them dead.
“No, we can’t,” Luke said.
His answer caused a wave of relief so strong she felt guilty. “Why not?”
She realized no matter what his reason, she was going to accept it.
“I’m headed south, and I’m in a hurry.” His horse continued to wade relentlessly in a direction away from where she’d last seen the Reinhardts.
Ruthy hoped he remained strong in his refusal. A woman saved from a deadly situation couldn’t exactly dictate where her savior was riding, now could she? This way, the choice to go back and spend days on a futile search was out of her hands. Why of course she’d have gone back and hunted for those dreadful Reinhardts. Except Luke was in a hurry. She had no choice in the matter; she had to go along in whatever direction he was heading.
Why did she feel as if she were making excuses to God?
It was because when her turn came to stand before the pearly gates, she needed to be ready when He asked her why she’d left her family to drown, that’s why.
She debated, then decided there was no sense asking for forgiveness yet. She needed to quit sinning first. It was wrong to be so cheerful, and she did her best to suppress it.
“Why are we in the water?” She saw the steep banks and a cold curl of terror did plenty of cheer suppressing. “More water could come. We need to get to high ground.”
“Nope. Not yet.” Luke seemed unusually alert. Of course she was comparing him to Pa and Virgil, who looked on the edge of napping most of the time. Luke’s focus moved left to right, behind him, overhead, always his eyes roving. The alertness went beyond just watching. He was listening, smelling, most of all thinking. Ruthy knew what that was like, because hiding in the woods when Virgil was hunting her had given her sharp skills of her own.
Even so, she felt like she was buried alive at the bottom of these high banks. Ruthy was tempted to shake the man for his terse answers. She decided to avoid questions he could answer with yes or no. That wouldn’t be hard. That was mostly how she spoke to the half-wit Reinhardts.
“Tell me why we’re riding in the water.”
He looked down at her, his eyes shaded by a broad-brimmed western hat. She had the sense that he was making a decision, and she was afraid she wouldn’t like it.
“Miss, I don’t know you, and it ain’t polite to go asking a lot of questions in the West. If I tell you my business, you may have cause to regret knowing it.”
“Are you an outlaw?”
“Not in any honest court in the land, I’m not.”
Which meant he was.
“I’ll get you to the nearest town, and you’ll have to make your way from there. Folks will help you find your family.” He seemed hard and knowing about the land, but not a cruel man, at least not in his handling of her.
A small shudder was uncontrollable. “I had plans to leave my family when the opportunity arose. They aren’t my family, more like I . . . I worked for them. It’s a shame they probably all drowned, but I won’t miss having them around. Maybe I can find a job in this town.”
It would be wiser to get on a stage and travel far and fast before she settled down, but she had no money for a ticket. Her only possessions were the extremely filthy and battered clothes on her back. It wasn’t going to be easy to put space between her and the Reinhardts. But if they survived, maybe they’d think she was dead. Yes, of course they’d assume she’d drowned. They wouldn’t hunt her any more than she planned to hunt them. She could risk stopping for a while. Earn a bit of money.
“I know a man or two in Broken Wheel, the closest town. They might help you find work. Best to not let on you know me, though. I’ve got trouble to face and a bad hombre might decide to make you part of it.”
So he was taking her to his home. She was tempted to blurt out her fear of Virgil finding her—although she was quite sure he was dead. But just in case, she’d like to ask Luke for his protection. Except if she did, it might annoy him to the point he’d turn around and find the Reinhardts and hand her over, the better to shed any responsibility for her.
Of course to do that, he’d have to veer from his course.
“Where are we?” She thought they’d been in Indian Territory when the flood hit, although they’d been riding for weeks and she admitted to being more than a bit lost.
“Texas. You’ve floated a fair piece, miss. Probably one river ran into another more than once while you were floating along. Doubt we could find your family if we tried.”
Which suited Ruthy right down to the ground.
“Can I have some more water?” She wondered how long it’d been since she’d eaten.
He let her drink longer this time until her belly was full and her throat much soothed. The quenched thirst wed to her relief at being irretrievably lost made her aching head heavy. “Is it a long way to Broken Wheel?”
“I hoped to make it there by nightfall. Once I leave this streambed, I’ll make better time.”
“Well, wake me when we get there.” Her eyes flickered shut.
Luke was tempted to laugh. She was a trusting little thing to fall asleep in a stranger’s arms. Not all that worried that he might not be an honorable protector, never mind that his arms would get mighty tired.
A pretty little thing, too. She was coated in long-dried muddy water. Her red hair was stiff, her sunburned skin peeling. So calling her pretty was saying a lot.
He wouldn’t mind seeing her all cleaned up.
It looked as if he had little choice about carrying her while she napped, and so he did as he was told. The sun was at high noon and he rode along, not pushing his overly burdened horse, enjoying the shade of the towering trees lining the stream. The banks showed the ravages of the flood that had passed through, yet there was no sign of a storm upstream so he stayed down here, lengthening the stretch between entering and leaving the waterway, to make pursuit all the more difficult. He finally picked a rocky spot, rode up onto the plains and headed for home at a fast clip.
They’d covered a fair distance, and the land was taking on the broken look, with the layered red rocks that surrounded his ranch, when he spotted a rocky stretch, wooded, with a spring trickling from a stone. His horse could use a break, and his little saddle partner should probably have more water and something to eat. He’d’ve finagled a meal without stopping if not for her, but he couldn’t show up in Broken Wheel before dark anyway.
Reining in his horse, he swung down with his arms full of sleeping woman.
Her eyes flickered open. They were so blue, so pretty that they seemed to glow out of her dirty face.
“You’re strong.” She spoke so softly he leaned close to catch every word. Those blue eyes blinked and fluttered and he had to think for a while before he figured out what she’d said.
“You’re not a big parcel to carry around.” The way she watched him, her words, woke something up inside him. He felt himself turn into her protector, a man who would fight wars to keep her safe. He looked at her pretty pink lips. They were all tidy despite what a mess she was everywhere else. He realized he was thinking of kissing those lips and it was like a cannon exploding.
Straightening, he laid her on the ground so fast it might’ve counted as dropping her. Stepping away to give her a bit of time to gather her wits—and maybe gather his own—he hitched his horse to a scrub mesquite and pulled beef jerky and hard tack out of his saddle. He kept real busy refilling his canteen with cool water, then settled in to rest his back against one of the countless flat slabs of stone that dotted these broken red rock canyons.
He managed all of that in the time it took her to push herself to a sitting position. She groaned with every move.
“Are you hurtin’, miss?” He couldn’t do much but sympathize, but he could offer her that.
“Hmmm.” It wasn’t exactly an answer, but he got that she was agreeing.
Then she lifted her hands to eye level and gasped. “I am filthy.”
“Well, floodwater’ll do that to a woman.”
“So true.” She flinched and rubbed high on her right arm. “I ache all over, but this shoulder—”
“Your arm was stuck in a knothole all the way to your shoulder. Being pinned to the boards you were floating on probably saved your life. It kept your head above water while you were unconscious.”
Moving cautiously, she lifted the skirt on her calico dress, a badly faded brown, which was probably the mud. Luke had no idea what color it was supposed to be.
She put her hands in her hair and visibly shuddered. She was close enough to the spring, a spate of water gushing from a crack in the rock, that she just crawled over, stuck her hands in, and washed almost frantically. When she was satisfied, she filled her hands with water and drank deeply.
“Be careful, miss. Drink slow and don’t overfill your belly right at first or you’ll get the collywobbles.” Luke wasn’t sure a real thirsty person could keep from drinking to excess, but he saw her fight for control and win. She was a tough little thing. “What’s your name?”
She threw him a nervous look over her shoulder. “I can’t stand what my hair feels like. It’s caked with mud.” She stuck her head in the gushing water and let it drench her. The water ran brown as it rinsed her hair. He suspected the move had more to do with not answering his question than with a real need to wash her hair.
Speaking from under the water, she asked, “You don’t by chance have a bar of soap with you?”
He did and he handed it over. “I intend to reach Broken Wheel around nightfall and make contact with my friends Dare and Vince. They’ll be expecting me, and we’ve got a lot to do.”
“I’ll be quick.” She rubbed the soap into her hair, which to Luke’s way of thinking wasn’t a quick choice.
“Could you please leave me a moment of privacy? I need to wash . . . um . . . more thoroughly.”
It was no more than the absolute truth. “All right, but don’t be all day about it.” Luke moved into the woods and stayed facing away from her. “Call me when you’re done.”
But Luke remembered enough about his ma and little sister to be resigned. So he got comfortable and settled in for a nap.
September 1868—One Month Earlier
The men standing high on the only trail to Luke Stone’s ranch, now in the possession of Flint Greer, sent a chill up Dare Riker’s spine.
The lookouts, one on each side of the red rock towers in this huge canyon Dare had heard called Palo Duro, had their rifles in hand and aimed straight at him. Each of them gave Dare a salute. It looked friendly enough, but Dare knew they were sending a message. They were watching every move he made.
The townsfolk said Greer had started staying close to home because of his wife, but Dare wondered if it had to do with word getting out that Luke Stone was coming home. He’d also heard the guards were new. Greer had only begun posting them in the last three months or so.
Dare was glad of this chance to ride out to the Greer place. He’d have a better picture of what Luke was up against.
Since he’d come to town a couple of months ago and set up shop as the town’s only doctor, he’d never seen Flint Greer. He’d heard stories about Greer turning hermit since he’d gotten married and maybe that was it. But Dare figured it had to do with Luke.
Dare’d ridden out most of the way on a decent road. It had narrowed to a wide canyon with a stream cutting along the base of high bluffs on the west side. Then that canyon kept getting tighter, the strangely layered red bluffs higher and closer to the road.
At some point the stream went underground and the canyon got so slim the wind blew through and made a quiet, mournful song. There were big rocks scattered all around, and the road twisted in a well-worn trail as if those rocks had been there for a generation. Dare looked up and saw more rocks clinging to the side of the bluffs—boulders and red granite slabs that looked like they only needed the slightest excuse to fall. Even without the gunmen training their muzzles on him, it wasn’t a ride to make a man relax.
Luke had told plenty of stories of home when they’d been locked up in Andersonville, so Dare recognized this road into the place. Luke’s pa had picked this spot because there was Indian unrest when he’d settled, and he’d been able to defend his ranch by putting sentinels on the bluffs along the trail.
Just like Greer had now.
Getting into this place was going to be a problem for Luke. Being called out to Greer’s for doctoring was giving Dare a good chance at seeing the lay of the land with his own eyes. Almost as soon as the canyon widened, the ranch house appeared.
He rode up to the front door and swung down, tying his horse to the hitching post. Dare counted the men he saw around the place. A couple of them looked like loafers, but they had sharp eyes and wore their guns tied down. Dare wondered if they were really more guards than cowpokes. The story was that Greer had hired on some dangerous hands just lately. He was acting like a man getting ready to fight a war.
Dare reached the front door just as a blond boy stepped out. “Go on back to town. We don’t welcome visitors.”
“I’m Dr. Riker. I was sent out by someone who said your ma’d been hurt.”
“My ma took a . . . a fall. But she’s fine now. Whoever sent for you shouldn’t’ve done it.”
The boy was skinny, gangly. Boys could grow at real different ages, but Dare thought the kid might be fifteen. He was aiming toward tall, not there yet, but big feet and huge hands said he’d make it. His hair was golden and his bright blue eyes snapped with anger.
“Long as I’m here, I’ll speak to your ma before I ride all the way back to Broken Wheel.”
Annoyed at being called out for an unneeded errand, Dare figured he wouldn’t let it bother him. In fact, it was good luck, a chance to see that well-guarded canyon and the layout of the ranch. The boy didn’t move from the door as Dare walked up to it. Rather than talk more to a kid who wasn’t old enough to make this decision anyway, Dare gently but firmly pushed past him into the house.
Two rooms opened off either side of the entry. Straight ahead was a stairway to the second floor. To his left, a woman sat in a worn-looking upholstered chair, frowning at him as if disgruntled that he’d come in. It had to be Mrs. Greer.
She was golden. Dare had never seen anyone quite so pretty. Her hair was a tawny gold color. Her skin was almost the same shade, except Dare’s doctoring drew his attention to a grayish undertone that told him she was sick or in pain, or both. She blinked her eyes at him and they were like none he’d ever seen. They seemed to glow with a yellowy-gold light. It reminded him of a mountain lion he’d seen once, a beautiful critter.
“I’m a doctor, ma’am.”
“I heard. And I heard my son tell you I’m fine.” Glynna Greer’s lioness eyes flashed with anger.
A snarling, beautiful critter.
“Go away and don’t come back.”
A snarling, beautiful critter who looked eager to bite his head off. This woman was more like that lion every minute.
A young girl of maybe eight years stood beside the chair, nudged up against her ma as if she were trying to hide from sight.
“The hired hand took it upon himself to send for you. I’d have stopped him if I’d known he was doing it. I insist you leave, now.”
Dare walked toward her as she talked, figuring the closer he got, the more he could see. And what he saw was pain. There were furrows in her forehead that made her seem older than Dare had thought at first glance. The gold in her eyes was dimmed, and he saw tracks down her face that could have only been left by tears. He reached her side and crouched.
“I’m Dr. Riker. Dare Riker. As long as I’m here, tell me where you hurt.”
The woman looked at him, then tilted her nose up. “It’s a twisted ankle. I’ll be fine. Be on your way.”
“Let me see.” Dare controlled his annoyance at the high-handed dismissal. He reached for her leg, and she raised her hands as if to ward him off, then gasped in pain and subsided in her chair.
And she hadn’t moved her ankle one speck. So she had pain elsewhere.
Lifting her bare foot, Dare noticed one lace-up boot and a white stocking on the floor beside her chair. Moving the swollen ankle gently, he felt her stifle another gasp.
“No sin in admitting you hurt, Mrs. Greer.”
“I’m fine. You’re wasting both our time.”
The venom in her voice drew his attention. She looked at him as if his hands were unwashed, as if his touch disgusted her.
“Can you move your foot?” He was watching her face to catch any glimpse of pain because she was being so closemouthed. As he knelt there at her feet, being treated like a lowly servant, he thought he saw a shadow on her cheek on the right side. Like an old bruise. But then she turned her head aside to look at her daughter and Dare wasn’t sure.
“I can move it.” She demonstrated so, which gave Dare the confidence her ankle wasn’t broken. “It needs to be bound tight and you need crutches. Do you have any? I can bring some out from town.”
“I’ll get by fine. Don’t bother with crutches. And I can wrap it myself.”
Why in the world didn’t the woman want a doctor’s help? “I’m here. It won’t take long. I’ll do it.”
Dare looked at the boy. “Are there any crutches in the house? If someone has trouble once, they often keep them around.”
“I’ve never seen any,” the boy said in a sullen tone. “I think there’s a walking stick in the back room.”
It wasn’t good enough but it was something. Dare fought the urge to bark with his army major voice at the young’un. “Get it.”
The boy ran off.
“I will pay you nothing for treating me.” Mrs. Greer clenched her hands together on her lap. “My husband is one of the richest men in the area and I know only too well how men like you try and cheat him.”
“Men like me?” Dare felt his brows lift nearly to his hairline. Rather than fight with the arrogant little snip, he gave her doctor’s orders. “You must not put any weight on your ankle.”
Thundering footsteps announced the boy’s sprinting return as if he was terrified to leave his mother alone with Dare. He carried a cane, its top curved. It would help.
“We can get by with this, Dr. Riker.” The boy leaned the cane against his ma’s chair. “You need to leave.”
“As soon as I’ve seen to your ma’s ankle, I’ll go.” And he’d go with great pleasure. “After it’s wrapped, I’ll carry you to your bed. If you must get out of bed, ask your husband to carry you or use the walking stick or crawl if you have to, but keep the weight off your ankle or it won’t heal properly.”
“If you insist on wrapping the ankle, then do it. But you won’t be carrying me anywhere. I don’t want your hands on me.”
Dare lifted her ankle and arched a brow. His hands were most definitely on her.
Mrs. Greer blushed. “Well, I’ve made it clear I don’t like you tending my ankle, haven’t I? That’s the only . . . familiarity I’ll allow. And be done with it quickly. I need to get on with making my husband’s dinner.”
“I just told you to stay off your feet. Your husband can make his own meals for a few days.”
“No, he can’t.” She said it as if she were reciting from the Good Book.
“It won’t bear any weight.” Dare decided he was indeed wasting his time. “I guess you’ll figure that out when you try and walk. What happened anyway?”
“I just stepped wrong and fell.”
He remembered the motion she’d made when she wanted to stop him from coming close. “Do your ribs hurt? Are you banged up anywhere else?” He thought of the bruise on her face, but if there was one, it was old. He was dealing with a clumsy woman.
That little nose tilted up again. “I want you out of my house.”
Dare turned to the boy, who glowered at him. “Get me some rags, son. I’ll tear them into strips and get this wrapped quick so I can stop wasting your ma’s precious time.”
The boy looked at Dare resentfully. Dare got the feeling this was the boy’s usual expression. Nothing personal. “Hurry up if you want me out of here so all-fired bad.”
The boy looked to his ma, and Dare saw her nod.
She said, “Hurry. There are rags in the closet under the stairs.”
The boy turned and ran. There was considerable warmth in the woman’s tone for her son. Dare was thankful for that.
Looking back at the pretty, ill-tempered woman, Dare noticed the little girl standing silent through all of this. “What’s your name?”
The girl seemed to withdraw even more, edged closer to her ma.
“Her name is Janet. She’s shy of strangers. Don’t pester her.” Mrs. Greer’s voice was so frigid it made Dare want to start a fire.
The boy was back in seconds with the rags. Dare tore long strips and bound Mrs. Greer’s swollen leg tightly.
Though she did her best to cover the noise, a few moans of pain got past her clenched jaw. Dare knew her ribs were hurt too, but he wasn’t fool enough to think the woman would disrobe so he could bind them.
Truth was, Dare had never done such a thing for a woman. Well, once he’d delivered a baby, but only once. And now he had one pregnant woman in his care, and it was scaring him to death. He’d been reading everything he could find about childbirth. Beyond that he’d never treated a woman. He mostly stayed to places inhabited by men. He treated men’s wounds and illnesses. If he was to ask a woman to disrobe, it certainly wouldn’t be against her will, as he was sure it would be with Mrs. Greer.
As he finished, he was torn between riding away fast and staying to do his duty as a doctor. “If your ribs are hurt, they need to be wrapped.”
“But if they were—”
“I told you I’m fine.”
Dare spoke overtop of her protests. “It will ease the pain considerably if they’re bound very tight. You can do it yourself.”
Their eyes met, and for just a second the haughtiness faded and her snooty nose lowered a bit. “If . . . if my ribs ever do hurt,” she said, pressing a hand against her chest in a motion Dare didn’t think she was aware of, but it told him the truth, “I’ll remember your advice. Now go. Get out of my house.”
Her words stung like the lash of a scorpion’s tail, and Dare left, glad to be shut of the woman. “Men like you try and cheat him.” As if he’d come out there for the money. His jaw clenched when he thought of her sneering.
He rode down that canyon again, seeing the men, mad enough to tell them he didn’t like being under their guns.
He’d give Luke the details of what he’d seen, and when it came time to toss Greer off this ranch, Dare would take pleasure in seeing that snide missus—no matter how pretty she was—lose her home, too.
Luke had never carried a wet woman before. Honesty forced him to admit he’d never carried any woman. But why did he have to start with a soaking wet one?
She hadn’t exactly asked permission to wash her clothes. He’d fallen asleep instead of riding herd over her, so he deserved what happened.
When he woke up and called out to her, she asked for just a few more minutes. In the few minutes he slept, she washed her dress. And when he called out to her, she redressed in her wrung-out-but-still-drenched clothes. When she told him he could come back, her hair was hanging loose and she was barefoot.
She asked if he had room in his pack for her soggy shoes and stockings and a few other bits of female clothing he couldn’t recognize in their tightly wadded condition. Truth be told, he might not’ve recognized them if he’d been able to see them clearly. Women were a mystery to him. He stowed her things away, and as they rode along, she dried. Some.
He did too. Some.
She asked him for a comb, but he hadn’t owned a comb in years. He ran his fingers through his hair every morning and slapped on his hat and was done. Why did women have to make everything complicated?
As they rode along in the wild, rugged country, the rocks that looked like red layer cake grew up. The grass became increasingly sparse, growing in rounded clumps. There were junipers and cottonwoods, with mesquite trees that sometimes reached a good height but were more often stunted, growing out of stone instead of dirt. Luke startled a white-tailed deer. Under normal conditions he’d have shot it and dressed it. He was running low on grub. There’d probably be time, as he was getting to town before sunset. But the need to be quiet, and knowing Broken Wheel was close enough a gunshot might draw attention, had him letting the deer go.
He might live to regret not taking the shot. Ruthy had eaten a good share of his jerky. She’d taken a drink every few minutes, as if her stomach couldn’t bear a heavy gulp but the thirst kept gnawing at her and driving her back to the canteen.
Eventually, probably once her clothes weren’t so miserably wet, she fell asleep. Her hair had dried in the Texas breeze and it had gone wild, springing into silky red curls that were far brighter than he’d guessed when he’d seen her in her mud-soaked condition.
The curls danced in the wind in a way so happy that Luke felt his spirits lifting. And considering he was going to face down the man who’d killed his pa and stolen Luke’s S Bar S Ranch, that wasn’t something that came easy.
Since she was asleep and wouldn’t know, Luke rubbed one of the little corkscrew curls between his fingers and enjoyed the silk of it. He’d never thought much about a woman’s hair. Now he found himself fascinated. He wanted to sink his hands deep into it, let the silk run over his calluses.
She smelled like his bar of plain old lye soap, but somehow on her it smelled way better. It made breathing deep a pure pleasure.
As the sun dropped over the rim of the bluffs near Broken Wheel and dusk settled in, the little woman stirred. Luke had left the main trail. Though he’d seen no sign of travel on the road he’d followed, caution had him threading around the jagged rocks in the wide canyon his pa had called Palo Duro, Mex words that meant hard wood. It wasn’t an easy life but it had suited Luke, and guilt ate at him that he’d left Pa to hold down the ranch alone.
He spotted the first lights in Broken Wheel and found a heavy stand of cottonwoods, fronted by a thicket of mesquite and grama grass that ran along the west side of town. It took him only seconds to find the house with two lanterns burning in one window, the sign Dare had told him to watch for. Dropping back, he found a place to picket his horse. He dismounted, woman in hand.
She opened her eyes. “Where are—?”
“Hush!” Voices carried a long way on the night air. They were a ways off from town and being in the woods helped mute the sound, but Luke had learned caution in a hard school. “Can you stand?”
She nodded. He lowered her feet to the ground, and she just kept sinking. Luke picked her up again and moved her away from his horse’s iron-shod hooves and eased her onto the soft leaf-covered ground to wake up at her own pace. He tied his horse, pulled a packet out of his saddlebags—more than a little surprised to see any jerky left—and snagged his canteen.
He scooped her back into his arms and carried her to the cottonwood stand near Dare’s house. Getting close enough to whisper was no hardship. “We need to wait until full dark before I try and go in to talk to my friend. I’ll ask him if there’s a place you can stay.”
The woman nodded.
“You ready yet to tell me your name?”
Her eyes got round with fear. It looked like the little woman wasn’t kidding when she said she didn’t want to go back to her family—in the event any of them had survived, which Luke doubted.
“Don’t tell me, then.” He looked at the springing mass of her curls and said, “I’ll just call you Rosie. Between your red hair and your sunburned skin, it suits you. You want some more to eat?”
She nodded with far too much enthusiasm. He handed her a long skinny strip of dried venison, and she put her attention to chewing it up like she was starved half to death. Considering how much she’d already eaten got him to wondering just how long she’d been floating downstream.
He helped himself to the scrap of meat he had left, and they passed the canteen back and forth. When she finally stopped tucking all his food down her gullet, he said, “We need to wait until the town’s gone to sleep, then we’ll slip in quiet-like. That’s my friend Dare’s house, right there in front of us. Dare will go fetch Vince and Jonas if they’ve gotten to town. They’re friends, too. Vince sent me a letter and some legal documents and told me he was setting out for Texas. I had them all signed and witnessed back in Denver and I got my will in order.”
“A will?” She whispered nicely, which meant she was awake enough to be thinking.
“Yep. I found my sister in Colorado. I was at Dare’s house when a letter arrived from my Pa. It told me where my sister had gotten to. She has herself a tough husband, and he’s from a tough family. They can hold this land if need be. I named Callie in my will, in case anything happens to me. The letter from Pa included the deed for my ranch. Pa signed it over to me before he died and got it in the mail.”
“Your father is dead?” In the dusk, Luke saw her sympathy and it warmed him. With all the mess surrounding his father’s death and his ranch being stolen, he realized he hadn’t taken much time to grieve.
“It happened while I was on the trail. He’s been gone a few years now. I can’t just ride into town and stake the claim to my ranch. I need to have everything in order. Then I’m going to go out to my ranch and throw that murdering coyote off my place.”
He said it with confidence, but he knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
“The man living there claims to have bought my pa’s ranch, but he couldn’t have. Pa didn’t own it to sell. He’d already signed the S Bar S deed over to me, had it all legally witnessed, and mailed it to me in care of the one friend I’d mentioned that Pa could find.”
“Why do you need to ride in at night?”
“Because the man who took it over has been trying to kill me since I sent word I was coming home.”
Rosie gasped. “Trying to kill you?”
“Yep. I was running from a posse on trumped-up charges when I found you. Twice before, I had a near miss with a stray bullet, only I don’t think it was so stray. I sent Flint Greer a letter, all legal and proper, throwing him off my land. Now I’ve got to show up and make a lawless murderer obey a signed document. I expect there to be gunplay involved.”
“And that’s why you’re going in at night?” She shook her head again as if she thought maybe she wasn’t awake at all.
“I might not make it down Main Street if I rode in during the day. I expect he’s got a lot more friends in this town than I do. I’ve done a lot of listening since I headed for home, and I’ve heard Broken Wheel has fallen on hard times since Greer cornered all the ranch land in the area not held by Indians. I think if I can just live long enough to make sure everyone knows I’m the true legal owner of the S Bar S and I’ve named my heirs, I can win this fight without much shooting trouble.”
“Life hasn’t been such that I look on the sunny side of things, and Broken Wheel is a wide-open town. Bullets fly on occasion.”
“And you think I’ll b-be able to find a j-job in such a town?”
Luke shrugged a shoulder. “They hadn’t oughta hurt a woman, Rosie.”
“My name is Ruthy.” She must have decided it was safe to tell, but he’d already kinda gotten to like the sound of Rosie.
He decided not to change. “I’ve got a lawman who knows I’m on my way, and friends in town who have come to fight by my side. If they’ve all gotten here, we can claim my property. I need to go in and make sure things are set, but no one needs to see me until we’re ready to make our move. I’ll wait till the lights go out, and then we’ll slip in and talk to Dare.”
“He’s one of your friends? And you’re sure you can trust him?”
“If I can’t trust Darius Riker, then I want someone to shoot me.” He said it, but he hadn’t seen Dare since about a year ago when he drifted through Dare’s home in Indiana. And Luke had no wish to catch a bullet in the back for trusting the wrong man. But Dare was one of them. A Regulator. In Andersonville Prison, they’d done the dirty work everyone wanted done but no one wanted to do. It was a friendship woven with blood and honor.
Yes, he’d trust Dare Riker with his life. For the hundredth time.
His jaw clenched as he watched the lights in town wink out one by one.
The quiet eased his tension and he realized Rosie had fallen asleep where she sat. The woman had lived through a few long, hard days, no doubt about it. And what was he going to do with her in this wild town?
In the cool night, the sound of a tinny piano echoed out of the one building still lit up. Occasional outbursts of laughter were carried along with the music. Duffy’s Tavern was still in business.
There was one other lit-up place on this side of town—Dare’s house. Two lanterns burning in a first-floor window. The house was on the edge of town, far enough away from the saloon that Luke didn’t need to wait for that rowdy mob to quiet down. But there might be men out and about on their way to and from the saloon, so he kept his eyes and ears open.
Looking down at Rosie, Luke felt a moment’s regret at waking her. But it was time to go, and she’d be safer inside Dare’s house anyway. He hoped.
Crouching, he gently shook her shoulder, rocking her awake.
She moaned in her sleep, and he quickly covered her mouth with his hand. Her eyes shot open and she struggled, but when her eyes focused on him, the fear drained out of her on a sigh. He lifted his hand, conscious of the warmth of her breath, then gently touched her slender shoulders, mindful of the one she’d hurt. “Sorry.”
She nodded in silent acknowledgment of his apology. She looked fragile beyond belief. Her red hair looked black in the moonlight. It contrasted with her pale, sunburned skin scattered with freckles. Her eyes had a ghostly gray tone, though they were light blue in the daylight.
“It’s time to go in. I didn’t like waking you, but I can’t leave you out here.”
She rubbed her eyes and ran both hands through her hair. It was so snarled her fingers got tangled up, and he thought she might need help retrieving them.
He eased her to her feet. She was a skinny little thing. But few people had the time or money to get fat in the West.
Luke caught her when her knees gave out. She probably ought to be taken to a doctor, considering all she’d been through. And in this town, that was Dare, and that’s where he was taking her. Most likely, if she got some sleep and food, she’d get well on her own.
His arm felt real good around her waist, and he didn’t let go as soon as a man might have.
She looked up while he was still hanging on and their gazes locked. A breeze fluttered her hair, and Luke felt the curls brush his face. For one second he forgot where he was and the trouble he’d brought with him. All he knew was he was alone with the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. Watching her, her watching back. Silence stretched. The world receded until he felt as if they were the only two people on earth.
A sharp hoot of an owl swooping nearby penetrated the silence and broke up whatever madness had come over him. He turned her to face the town. “See that—” He sounded hoarse, so he stopped talking and cleared his throat. Twice. “See those twin lantern lights nearest us?”
“The ones in the window?” She sounded steady enough.
It irritated Luke that what had been a confusing moment for him had apparently not bothered her much. She was still letting his arm support her, though. So maybe she was still sleep-addled.
“Yep. We move quick and quiet to those lights. Can you walk or do you need me to carry you?”
By way of answering she straightened away from him, wobbled for a few seconds, then steadied herself and lifted her chin. “I can walk.”
She might be skinny and pale, but she had a solid spine. He admired that. If he’d’ve had her in his regiment, she’d’ve been one of the quiet ones who carried her weight and stuck with the troop on a long forced march.
“Let’s go.” With his hand resting on her lower back, they left their cover and walked straight to Dare’s back door. Luke was surprised at how much he was looking forward to seeing his old buddy. When he reached the back door, he tapped with one knuckle four times. He waited to a count of five, then rapped three times, then waited and rapped four again.
Luke waited only seconds before the door was jerked open. Dare’s eyes went from watchful to flashing with pleasure.
“Get in here.” Dare looked past Luke’s shoulder into the darkness, checking for trouble, then grabbed his arm and dragged him forward.
Luke went in, and only when he stepped forward, guiding Rosie, did Dare notice her. He must’ve been looking for taller trouble.
With an arched brow, he asked, “We got to bring a date? No one told me.”
“Yeah, like you can get a woman.”
With a chuckle as deep and raspy as his voice, Dare slapped Luke on the back, and that turned into the closest thing a man wanted to a hug.
“Darius Riker, this is Rosie. Dare’s the town doctor. Rosie was floating down a river, unconscious. I had to either bring her or leave her to some two-legged wolves I had on my tail.”
“Pleased to meet you, Rosie.”
Dare smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I hope you’re not walking into bigger trouble than what brought you to that river, Ruthy. Go straight ahead, kitchen’s on the right. Coffee’s on. Stew pot’s hanging in the fireplace. I’ll go for Vince and Jonas. No light.”
Dare dodged around Luke and went out, shutting the back door silently. Luke felt a twinge of annoyance. “No light?” It was an insult to warn Luke of the obvious. Dare thought Luke had gotten soft or he’d’ve never said that.
In the murky light of the hallway, Luke said to his little woman, “You want some stew?”
Her smile was warmer than Texas in July.