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Hunger. Biting, clawing at his gut, it reminded him of the mountain lions Pa used to skin.
Collie shivered in the rising wind, squinting as dust and pebbles smacked his face. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. Nothing stayed inside him very long, and everything burned its way out. It scared him, and he wanted it to stop. His belt was already double cinched.
Thunder rolled, and Collie sucked a forefinger. The taste of dirt was comforting as he huddled with the pill bugs and the worms. Every now and then, the planks on the porch above him would bounce, and he'd wriggle further under the stage depot, pressing himself into his trench until the boots strode by. He hated towns. Hated townspeople--except for Sera, of course. But most of all, he hated hunger. That's why he'd forced himself to come back to Blue Thunder, to hunt for slops and see what baked goods he could steal. Lately he'd been getting dizzy whenever he tried to strike a squirrel with his peashooter. And the rabbits had all gotten smart, too smart to be snared.
But Pa must have been watching out for him from above. 'Cause not twenty paces from Collie's hiding place, a big black cat sat in a cage beside some trunks the whip was tossing off the five-o'clock stage.
Saliva moistened Collie's mouth. He stared hard and thought of grabbing that critter and filling his belly till it hurt in a satisfying way. The trouble was, a mustardcolored skirt kept swishing by. And a biddy with a crabapple face had planted herself square in front of Collie's hiding place. He could see the cat between the biddy's legs, since she woredungarees, but he couldn't get to the cat. Not without bowling the biddy over and slowing himself down.
Thoughtfully, he fingered his bowie knife. Scowling, he shoved it back in its sheath. Too risky. The whip could jump down and collar him. 'Sides, he didn't want to hurt nobody, just to frighten them off . If only the womenfolk would go away! He didn't want nobody to see him, especially Mustard Skirt. She looked like the kind who'd start flapping her jaw, asking where his ma was. Or his pa.
But Collie was fourteen. He didn't need no ma or pa, even though some folks, especially the female kind, thought he did. Good Samaritans, he'd heard them call themselves. Collie wasn't exactly sure what Samaritans were, although he was pretty dear they wanted to ruin his life. They always insisted he get a haircut and bathe, learn the three Rs, and five in an orphanage. But Pa used to say orphanages were worse than jails. And since Pa had come out of the last jail in a pine box, orphanages scared the daylights out of Collie.
A tremor shook his bones.
The cat growled deep in its throat. Collie narrowed his eyes. Dang if the varmint weren't staring straight at him. It bristled, as if it sensed his intentions. He licked his lips and bared his teeth.
Suddenly, a shadow dropped out of the sky. Mustard Skirt shouted a warning; a trunk struck the cage, and the bars crumpled, flinging the door wide. The cat shot out of its prison as if its tail were on fire. It made a beeline for the elm at the far end of the yard, and Collie swore foully under his breath.
Now how was he supposed to catch himself a meal?
"Dang cat. I never did see much use for 'em."
Eden Mallory winced at her great-aunt's denunciation of felines. For nearly ten minutes, the woman had done nothing but grumble while Eden tried to coax Anastasia out of the tree. After everything she'd been through in the past eight weeks, the last thing Eden needed was a cantankerous old woman whose coonskin cap and corncob pipe probably explained why Claudia Ann Collier was the last of her bloodline.
Eden damped a hand over her bonnet to keep the lid on her frustration. The fact that she was also hying to keep the rising wind from snatching the straw from her head was a secondary consideration at this point. All her hopes, all her fears, hinged on the outcome of this first meeting with her only living relative. Eden wanted-no, she needed-to lead an inconspicuous life, to hide herself away in a nice, secure home without wheels. Claudia had agreed, albeit grudgingly, to let Eden and her cat live with her in Blue Thunder, and Eden was more grateful than she could say. She just hoped Anastasia's tree-climbing escapade wouldn't ruin their introduction.
Of course, if the weather had been balmy, Eden mused uneasily, she might have felt more confident. Whenever lightning cracked from the heavens, something bad happened--like her mother's riding accident. And Talking Raven's miscarriage. Eden wasn't normally superstitious, but lightning seemed to be an omen in her life. However, she had little hope of convincing her ornery kinswoman that doom flashed in the clouds.
"Anastasia isn't used to cages," Eden said, trying another tactic. "Considering I dragged her halfway across the continent, I daresay Stazzie has every right to be irritable."
Aunt Claudia snorted. "I ain't ever met a puss that needs an excuse to be irritable. Mark my words, missy, that mouser of yours ain't coming down."
"But the storm! Stazzie could be struck by lightning."
"Fried to a crisp," Aunt Claudia agreed, striking a match.
Gritting her teeth, Eden waved away tobacco smoke. Over the years, Papa had chuckled about his mother's spinster sister and her "peculiar" charm. However, he had some-how neglected to mention that Claudia had the manners of a street arab.
Meanwhile, the other object of Eden's frustration dung stubbornly to one of the elm's highest boughs, despite the way her perch was being pommeled by the wind. Eden could feel rather than see the accusation in those topaz eyes, because from the street level, Anastasia looked like a big black dandelion seed ruffling with each gust.Always Her Hero. Copyright � by Adrienne Dewolfe. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.