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If Jess Cummings didn't act fast, the colt would have to be shot.
The heartrending sound of the young quarter horse's cries, the sight of blood staining his golden coat, made her eyes sting and throat ache. But she refused to give in to tears. For the colt's sake, for the girls' sake, but most of all, for Dwayne, to whom this land and its every creature had meant so much, Jess had to stay strong.
For what felt like an eternity, while the colt's momma neighed nervously behind the broken gate the colt had slipped through, Jess struggled to free the animal from his barbed-wire cage. Muscles straining, ignoring the brutal December wind's bite, she worked on, heedless of her own pain when the barbs pierced her gloves.
"You've got to calm down," she said, praying the colt her two girls had named Honey would somehow understand.
Not only didn't he still, but he also struggled all the harder. Kicking and snorting. Twisting the metal around his forelegs and rump and even his velvety nose that her daughters so loved to stroke.
The more the vast Oklahoma plain's wind howled, the more the colt fought, the more despair rose in Jess's throat. It was only two days before Christmas, and the holiday would be tough enough to get through. Why, why, was this happening now? How many times had she spoke up at grange meetings about the illegal dumping going on in the far southeast corner of her land? How many times had she begged the sheriff to look into the matter before one of her animalsor, God forbid, childrenended up hurt? For an inquisitive colt, the bushel of rotting apples and other trash lobbed alongside hundreds of feet of rusty barbed wire had made for anirresistible challenge.
"Shh " she crooned, though the horse fought harder and harder until he eventually lost balance, falling onto his side. "Honey, you'll be all right. Everything's going to be all right."
Cold sweat trickled down her back as she worked, and she promised herself that this time her words would ring true. That this crisisunlike Dwayne'scould be resolved in a good way. A happy way. A way that didn't involve tears.
From behind her came a low rumbling, and the crunch of wheels on the lonely dirt road.
She glanced north to see a black pickup approach, kicking dust against an angry gunmetal sky. She knew every vehicle around these parts, and this one didn't belong. Someone's holiday company? Didn't matter why the traveler was there. All that truly mattered was flagging him or her down in time to help.
"I'll be right back," she said to Honey before charging into the road's center, frantically waving her arms. "Help! Please, help!"
The pickup's male driver fishtailed to a stop on the weed-choked shoulder, instantly grasping the gravity of the situation. "Hand me those," the tall, lean cowboy-type said as he jumped out from behind the wheel, nodding to her wire cutters before tossing a weather-beaten Stetson into the truck's bed. "I'll cut while you try calming him down."
Working in tandem, the stranger snipped the wire, oblivious to the bloodied gouges on his fingers and palms, as Jess smoothed the colt's mane and ears, all the while crooning the kind of nonsensical comfort she would've to a fevered child.
In his weakened state, the colt had stopped struggling, yet his big brown eyes were still wild.
"Call your vet?" the stranger asked.
"I would've, but I don't have a cell."
"Here," he said, standing and passing off the wire cutters. "Use Doc Matthews?"
"Yes, but" Before she could finish her question as to how he even knew the local horse and cattle expert, the stranger was halfway to his truck. Focusing on the task at hand, she figured on grilling the man about his identity later. After Honey was out of the proverbial woods.
"Doc's on his way," the man said a short while later, cell tucked in the chest pocket of his tan, denim work jacket. "And from the looks of this little fella, the sooner Doc gets here, the better."
Jess snipped the last of the wire from Honey's right foreleg, breathing easier now that the colt at least had a fighting chance. He'd lost a lot of blood, and the possibility of an infection would be a worry, but for the moment, all she could do was sit beside him, rubbing between his ears. "I can't thank you enough for stopping."
"It's what anyone would've done."
"Yes, well " Words were hard to get past the burning knot in her throat. "Thanks."
The grim-faced stranger nodded, then went back to his truck bed for a saddle blanket he gently settled over the colt. "It's powerful cold out here. I'd like to go ahead and get him to your barn, but without the doc first checking the extent of his injuries"
"I agree," she said. "It's probably best I wait here for him. But you go on to wherever you were headed. Your family's no doubt missing you."
His only answer was a grunt.
Turning the collar up on his jacket, eyeing her oversize coat, he asked, "Warm enough?"
"Fine," she lied, wondering if it was a bad sign that she could hardly feel her toes.
They sat in silence for a spell, icy wind pummeling their backs, Jess at the colt's head, the stranger at the animal's left flank.
"Name's Gage," he said after a while. "Gage Moore."
"J-Jess Cummings." Teeth chattering, she held out her gloved hand for him to shake, but quickly thought better. A nasty cut, rust-colored with dried blood, ran the length of his right forefinger. His left pinkie hadn't fared much better. Both palms were crisscrossed with smaller cuts, and a frighteningly large amount of blood. "You need a doctor yourself."
He shrugged. "I've suffered worse."
The shadows behind his eyes told her he wasn't just talking about his current physical pain.
"Still. If you'd like to follow me and Doc Matthews back to the house, I've got a first-aid kit. Least I can do is bandage you up."
He answered with another shrug.
"Some of those look pretty deep. You may need stitches."
"I'm good," he said, gazing at the colt.
Jess knew the man was far from good, but seeing as how the vet had pulled his truck and trailer alongside them, she let the matter slide.
"Little one," the kindly old vet said to Honey on his approach, raising bushy white eyebrows and shaking his head, "you've been nothing but trouble since the day you were born."
Black leather medical kit beside him, Doc Matthews knelt to perform a perfunctory examination. He wasn't kidding about Honey having been into his fair share of mischief. He'd given his momma, Buttercup, a rough breech labor, then had proceeded along his rowdy ways to gallop right into a hornet's nest, bite into an unopened feed bag and eat himself into quite a bellyache, and now, this.
"He going to be all right?" Jess was almost afraid to ask. "You know how attached the girls are. I don't know how I'd break it to them if"
"Don't you worry," Doc said. "This guy's tougher than he looks. I'm going to give him something for pain, have Gage help settle him and his momma in my trailer and out of this chill. Then we'll get them back to the barn so I can stitch up the little guy and salve these wounds. After that, with antibiotics and rest, he should be right as rain."
Relieved tears stung her eyes, but still Jess wouldn't allow herself the luxury of breaking down.
"How'd you get all the way out here?" Doc asked her after he and Gage gingerly placed Honey and her still-agitated momma in the horse trailer attached to the vet's old Ford. He did a quick search for Jess's truck, or Smoky Joethe paint she'd been riding since her sixteenth birthday.
In all the excitement, Jess realized she hadn't tethered Smoky, meaning by now, he was probably back at the barn. With a wry smile, she said, "Looks like I've been abandoned. You know Smoky, he's never been a big fan of cold or Honey's brand of adventure."
"Yup." Doc laughed. "Ask me, he's the smartest one in the bunch." Sighing, heading for his pickup with Matthews's Veterinary Services painted on the doors, he said, "Oh, well, hop in the cab with me, and we'll warm up while catching up."
"Shouldn't I ride in back with the patient?"
"Relax. After the shot I gave him, he'll be happy for a while, already dreaming of the next time he gives you and I a coronary."
"Should I, ah, head back to your place?" Gage asked.
"Nope," Doc said. "Martha wanted to keep you with us 'til after the holidays, but I figure now's as good a time as any for you and Jess to get better acquainted."
"Mind telling me what that's supposed to mean?" Jess asked once she and Doc were in his truck. She'd removed her gloves and fastened her seat belt, and now held cold-stiffened fingers in front of the blasting heat vents.
"Don't act all innocent with me. You know exactly, what. Have you and my father been matchmaking again? If so, I"
"Settle yourself right on down, little lady. Trust me, we learned our lesson after Pete Clayton told us you ran him off your place with a loaded shotgun."
"He tried kissing me."
"Can you blame him?" the older man said with a chuckle. "If you weren't young enough to be my granddaughter, you're pretty enough I might have a try at you myself."
Lips pursed, Jess shook her head. "Dwayne's only been gone"
"Barely over a year. I know, Jess. We all know. But you're a bright and beautifuland very much alive young woman with two rowdy girls to raise. Dwayne wouldn't want you living like you do, with one foot practically in your own grave."
"As usual, you're being melodramatic. Me and the girls are happy as can be expected, thank you very much. I have no interest in datingespecially not another cowboy you and my daddy come up with."
"Understood," he said, turning into her gravel drive. "Which is why Gage's only in town to help you out around the ranch."
"What?" Popping off her seat belt, she angled on the seat to cast Doc her most fearsome glare.
"Simmer down. Everyone who loves you is worried. There's too much work here to handle on your own especially with foaling season right around the corner. We've taken up a collection, and paid Gage his first few months' wages."
She opened her mouth to protest, but before getting a word in edgewise, Doc was holding out his hand to cut off her protestations.
"While you've been off checking fences this past week, your momma and my Martha have been fixing up the old bunkhouse. Gage is a good man. I've known his family since before he was born. More importantly, he's a damned hard worker, and will considerably lighten your load."
"But I couldn't possibly afford to"
"Shh. Stop right there. Like I already said, whether you like it or not, the man's time has already been paid in full. Once spring rolls around and you're back on your feet after making a few sales, you'll have more than enough cash to support you and the girls and an invaluable hired hand."
The vet turned on the radio, tuning it to an upbeat country classic. From the looks of it, he and her father were taking another stab at matchmaking.
"What're you grinning about?" Jess asked, shooting him a sideways glare.
"Nothin' much," Doc said, keeping his eyes on the road. "Just looking forward to the holidays."
"What's the matter? Someone spit in your eggnog?"
"Let's just say that the sooner this holiday season is over, the better I'll feel."
Gage sat in his truck's cab, wishing himself anywhere else on the planet. He'd known from the start this was a bad idea. He'd have been better off back at his cramped condo. At least there, he knew where he stood.
Though he couldn't hear words, Jess Cummings's animated body language spoke volumes. He wasn't wanted.
When his dad first broached the subject of helping a friend of a friend up in Mercy, Oklahoma, it'd seemed like a good idea. After all, what better way to help himself than by helping others? Now, however, he realized he should've asked a helluva lot more questions about the job.
"Well?" Doc asked outside Gage's window, causing him to jump. "You gonna sit there all day, or help me get our patient to the barn?"
Gage had just creaked open his truck door when two curly-haired, redheaded munchkins dashed from the covered porch of a weary, one-story farmhouse that was in as bad a need of paint as it was a new tin roof. They were followed by an older, gray-haired version of Jess.
"Hey, sweeties," said the woman he'd presumed was to be his new boss as she kneeled to catch both girls up in a hug.
The taller one asked, "Is Honey going to be okay?"
"He'll be fine," Jess said.
"Hi." The older woman smiled warmly, extending her hand. "I'm Georgia, Jess's mom. You must be Walter's boy, Gage."
"Yes, ma'am," he said, removing the hat he'd slapped back on. It'd been a while since Gage had lived in a small town, so he'd forgotten how fast news traveled. "Nice to meet you. Mom and Dad speak highly of your whole family."
"They were always favorites around here. It nearly broke my heart when your momma told me you were moving away. Of course, seeing how you were only two at the time, I'm not figuring the move gave you much cause for trouble."
"Can you give me a hand?" Doc asked from the back of his trailer.
"Sure," Gage said, secretly relieved for having been rescued from small talk. He used to love to meet new folksor, as was apparently the case with Georgia, get reacquainted with old friendsbut lately, he just didn't have the heart.
"He's bleeding!" the taller of the two girls cried at her first sight of the colt. "Mommy! Do something!"
Tears streamed down the girl's cheeks while the younger girl, wide-eyed, with her thumb stuck in her mouth, clung to her mother's thigh.
"Hush now," Doc said. "Honey's a tough cookie. He looks bad, but trust me, Lexie, after Gage and I get him patched up, he'll be good as new."
"Yup. Now how 'bout you and Ashley get some coats on, then meet me in the barn. I could use the extra hands."
"Is it okay, Mommy?"
"Of course," Jess said. "Honey will probably be glad you two are there."
While the girls scampered inside, Georgia asked her daughter, "Now that they're busy, tell me true. Is Honey really going to be all right?"