All but hidden behind a rapidly thickening veil of snow that cold afternoon, Blue River, Texas, looked more like a faint pencil sketch against a gray-and-white background than a real town, constructed of beams and mortar and weathered wood and occupied by flesh-and-blood folks. Squinting against the dense flurries, Sawyer McKettrick could just make out the pitch of a roof or two, the mounded lines of hitching rails and horse troughs, the crooked jut of the occasional chimney. Here and there, the light of a lamp or lantern glowed through the gloom, but as far as Sawyer could tell, nobody was stirring along the sidewalks or traveling the single wide street curving away from the tiny railroad depot.
Beside him, his buckskin gelding, Cherokee, nickered and tossed his big head, no doubt relieved to finally plant four sturdy hooves on solid ground after long hours spent rattling over the rails in a livestock car. Sawyer's own journey, sitting bolt upright on a hard and sooty seat in the near-empty passenger section, had been so dull and so uncomfortable that he probably would have been happier riding with the horse.
Naturally, Cherokee didn't hold up his end of a conversation, but he was a fine listener and a trustworthy companion.
Now, the engineer's whistle sounded a long, plaintive hoot of fare-thee-well behind them, and the train clanked slowly out of the station, iron screeching against iron, steam hissing into the freezing air.
They waited, man and horse, until the sounds grew muffled and distant, though for what, Sawyer couldn't have said. He hadn't expected to be met at the depotClay McKettrick, his cousin and closest friend, lived on a ranch several miles outside of Blue River and, given the weather, the trail winding between there and town must be nigh on impassablebut just the same, a momentary sense of loneliness howled through him like a wind scouring the walls of a canyon.
With a glance back at the station, where he'd left his trunk of belongings behind, meaning to fetch it later, Sawyer swung up into the saddle and spoke a gruff, soothing word of encouragement to the horse.
There was a hotel in Blue Riverhe'd stayed there on his last visitbut he wanted to let Cherokee walk off some stiffness before settling him in over at the livery stable with plenty of hay and a ration of grain, and then making his way back to rent a room. Once he'd secured a bed for the night, he'd send somebody for his trunk, consume a steak dinner in the hotel dining room, and, later on, take a bath and shave.
In the meantime, though, he wanted to attend to his horse. Sawyer gave the animal his head, let him forge his own way, at his own pace, through the deep snow and the unnerving silence.
The buildings on either side of the street were visible as they passed, though only partially, dark at the windows, with their doors shut tight. Most folks were where they ought to be, Sawyer supposed, gathered around stoves and fireplaces in their various homes, with coffee brewed and supper smells all around them.
Again, that bleak feeling of aloneness rose up inside him, but he quelled it quickly. He did not subscribe to melancholy moodsit wasn't the McKettrick way. In his family, a manor a woman, for that matterplayed the cards they were dealt, kept on going no matter what, and tended, to the best of their ability, to whatever task was presently at hand.
Still, there was a prickle at his nape, and Cherokee, rarely skittish, pranced sideways in agitation, tossing his head and neighing.
Sawyer had barely pushed back his long coat to uncover his Colt .45, just in case, when he heard the gunshot, swaddled in the snowy silence to a muted pop, saw the flash of orange fire and felt the bullet sear its way into his left shoulder. All of this transpired in the course of a second or so, but even as he slumped forward over Cherokee's neck, dazed by the hot-poker thrust of the pain, spaces wedged themselves between moments, stretching time, distorting it. Sawyer was at once a wounded man, alone on a snow-blind street except for his panicked horse, and a dispassionate observer, nearby but oddly detached from the scene.
He didn't see the shooter or his horse, but the calm, watching part of him sized up the situation, sensed there had been a rider. If anybody had seen anything, or heard the muffled gunshot, they weren't fixing to rush to his rescue, and he didn't have the strength to draw his .45, even if he could have seen beyond Cherokee's laid-back ears.
Fortunately, the horse knew thatin cases like this anywaydiscretion was the better part of valor. Cherokee bolted for safer territory, leapfrogging through the powdery snow, and Sawyer, hurting bad and only half-conscious, simply lay over the pommel, with the saddle horn jabbing into his middle like a fist, and held on to reins and mane for all he was worth.
Maybe the gunman lost sight of them in the storm, or maybe he just slipped back through the edges of Sawyer's awareness, into the pulsing darkness that surrounded him, but the second shot, the one that would have finished him off for sure, never came.
His mind slowed, and then slowed some more. He was aware of the thud-thud-thud of his heart, the raspy scratch of his breath, clawing its way into his lungs and then out again, and the familiar smell of wet horsehide, but his vision dimmed to a gray haze.
Cherokee kept moving. Sawyer's consciousness seemed to retreat into the far corners of his mind, but growing up on the Triple M Ranch, in Arizona, he'd practically been raised on the back of a horse, and the muscles in his arms and legs must have drawn on some capacity for recollection beyond the grasp of the waking mind, because he managed to stay in the saddle.
It was only when the horse came to a sudden stop in a spill of buttery light on glistening snow that Sawyer pitched sideways with a sickening lurch, jarred his wounded shoulder when he struck the snow-padded ground, and passed out from the pain.
Piper St. James, seated at the desk in her empty schoolroom and glumly surveying the scrawny, un-decorated pine tree leaning against the far wall, wished heartily, and not for the first time, that she'd never left Maine to strike out for a life of adventure in the still-wild West.
Her cousin Dara Rose, in love with her handsome rancher husband, had painted a fine picture of Blue River in her letters, telling Piper what a wonderful place it was, full of good people and wide open to newcomers.
Piper sighed. Of course Dara Rose would see things that wayshe was so happy in her new marriage and, being a generous soul, she wanted Piper to be happy, too. Life had been hard for her cousin and her two little girls, but Clay McKettrick had changed all that.
Piper's pupilsall thirteen of themwere safe at home, where they belonged, and that was a considerable comfort to her. She'd spent the entire day alone, though, shut up in the schoolhouse, feeding the potbellied stove from an ever-dwindling store of firewood, keeping herself occupied as best she could. Tomorrow was likely to bring more of the same, since the storm showed no signs of letting upit might even get worse.
Piper shuddered at the thought. She had plenty of food, thanks to the good people of Blue River, but her supply of well water was running out fast, like the wood. Soon, she'd have no choice but to pull on a pair of oversize boots, bundle up in both her everyday shawls and her heavy woolen cloak, raise the hood to protect her ears from the stinging chill, and slog her way across the schoolyard, once to the woodshed, and once to the well. To make matters worse, she was getting low on kerosene for the one lamp she'd allowed herself to light.
She told herself that Clay, Dara Rose's husband, would come by to check on her soon, but there was no telling when or if he'd be able to get there, given the distance and the state of the roads. For now, Piper had to do for herself.
The wind howled around the clapboard walls of that small, unpainted schoolhouse, sorrowful as a whole band of banshees searching for a way in, making her want to burrow under the quilts on her bed, which took up most of the tiny room in back set aside for teacher's quarters, and hide there until the weather turned.
She might freeze if she did that, of course, and that was if she didn't die of thirst beforehand.
So she put on the ungainly boots, left behind by Miss Krenshaw, the last teacher, wrapped herself in wool, drew a deep breath and opened the school-house door to step out onto the little porch.
The cold buffeted her, hard as a slap, trapping the breath in her lungs and nearly knocking her backward, over the threshold.
Resolute, she drew the shawls and the cloak more tightly around her and tried again. The sooner she went out, the sooner she could come back in, she reasoned.
She stopped on the schoolhouse porch, peering through the goose-feather flakes coming down solid as a wall in front of her. Was that a horse, there in the thin light her one lamp cast through the front window?
Piper caught her breath, her heart thudding with sudden hope. There was a horse, and a horse meant a rider, and a rider meant company, if not practical help. Perhaps Clay had braved the tempest to pay her a visit
She trudged down the steps and across the yard, every step an effort, and got a clearer look at the horse. A sturdy buckskin, the animal was real, all right. The creature was saddled, reins dangling, and she saw its eyes roll upward, glaring white.
But there was no rider on its back.
Although Piper had little experience with horses, she felt an instant affinity for the poor thing, evidently lost in the storm. It must have wandered off from somewhere nearby.
She moved toward it slowly, carefully, partly because of the bitter wind and partly because of her own rising trepidation. She didn't recognize the horse, which meant that Clay hadn't come to look in on her, nor had any of the other menfathers, brothers or uncles of her studentswho might have been concerned about the schoolmarm's welfare.
The buckskin whinnied wildly as she approached, backing up awkwardly, nearly falling onto its great, heaving haunches, lathered despite the chill.
"There, now," Piper said, reaching for the critter's bridle strap. There was a shed behind the school-housesome of the students rode in from the country when class was in session and tethered their mounts there for the day, so there was some hay, and the plank walls offered a modicum of shelterbut just then, that shack seemed as far away as darkest Africa.
Before she could take hold of the horse's bridle, Piper tripped over something solid, half buried in the snow, fell to her hands and knees, and felt the sticky warmth of blood seeping through her mittens.
She saw him then, the rider, sprawled on his back, hat lying a few feet away, staining the snow to crimson.
Sitting on her haunches, Piper stared down at the unfortunate wayfarer for a few long moments, snow-flakes slicing at her face like razors, confounded and afraid.
Bile surged into the back of her throat, scalding there, and she willed herself not to turn aside and retch. Something had to be doneand quickly.
"Mister?" she called, gripping the lapels of his long gunslinger's coat and bending close to his face. "Mister, are you alive?"
He groaned, and she saw one of his eyelids twitch.
The horse, close enough to step on one or both of them, whinnied again, a desperate sound.
"You'll be all right," Piper told both the horse and the man, on her knees in the snow, her mittens and cloak damp with blood, but she wasn't at all sure that was the truth.
The man was around six feet tallthere was no way she could lift him, and it was clear that he couldn't stand, let alone walk.
Piper deliberated briefly, then stumbled and struggled back into the schoolhouse, through to her room, and wrenched the patchwork quiltshe'd done the piecework herself and the task had been arduousoff the bed.
Warmer now, from the exertions of the past few minutes, Piper rushed outside again and somehow managed to get the quilt underneath the bleeding stranger. He opened his eyes onceeven in the dim light she could see that they were a startling shade of greenish azureand a little smile crooked the corner of his mouth before he passed into unconsciousness again.
In a frenzy of strength, she dragged man and quilt as far as the steps, but there was no getting him up them. She had no way of knowing how long he'd been lying in the schoolyard, injured, and frostbite was a serious possibility, as was hypothermia.
She gripped him by his shouldersthey were broad under her hands, and hard with muscleand shook him firmly. "Mister!" she yelled, through the raging wind. "You've got to rally yourself enough to get up these stepsI can't do this without some assistance, and there's no one else around!"
Miraculously, the stranger came to and gathered enough strength to half crawl up the steps, with a lot of help from Piper. From there, she was able to pull him over the threshold onto the rough-plank floor, where he lay facedown, bleeding copiously and only semiconscious.
"My horse," he rasped.
"Bother your horse," Piper replied, but she didn't mean it. The stranger, being a human being, was her first concern, but she was almost as worried about that frightened animal standing outside in the weather, and she knew she wouldn't be able to ignore it.
"Horse," the man repeated.
"I'll see to him," Piper promised, having no real choice in the matter. She collected another blanket from her quarters, covered the man, and steeled herself to hurry back outside.
Ever after, she'd wonder how she'd managed such an impossible feat, but at the time, Piper worked from a sense of expediency. She got hold the horse's reins and somehow led him around back, through what seemed like miles of snow, and into the dark shed. There, she removed his saddle, the blanket beneath it, and the bridle. She spread out some hay for him and found a bucket, which she filled with snowthat being the best she could do for now. When the snow melted, the creature would have drinking water.
The horse was jumpy at first, and Piper took a few precious moments to speak softly to him, rubbing him down as best she could with an old burlap sack and making the same promise as beforehe would be all right, and so would his master, because she wouldn't have it any other way.
On the way back to the schoolhouse, she fought her way into the woodshed and filled her arms with sticks of pitch-scented pine.
The stranger was still on the floor, upon her return, lying just over the threshold, either dead or sleeping.