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Snowflakes drove with wind-propelled force against the sport-utility vehicle negotiating the winding two-lane road leading to the main highway. The driver, a tall man broad of shoulder and massive in bulk, slowed to an even greater degree as the speed of the gale palpably increased, and the visibility worsened. Muttering a socially unacceptable epithet, he squinted against the all-enveloping whiteness, glad at least that he seemed to be the only damned fool driving through what he mentally classed as a blizzard, but which the locals termed an early fall storm.
Even as he drew that conclusion, he spied movement. A heavy-duty pickup truck appeared some distance ahead, to his left. Topping the hill it just climbed, it increased its speed. Fearing that the driver might skid out onto the road he traversed just as he got to the intersection, he slowed a trifle, his eyes swiveling between the road ahead and the other vehicle, rather than checking out the thick stand of willows growing beside a ditch just inside the barbed wire fence bordering the right side of the road.
At that juncture, a huge black shape burst out of the willows, cleared the fence, and plunged across the road, directly in the path of the oncoming SUV.
Jamming his foot on the brakes, the driver felt the vehicle skid, and then slam with sickening force into the moose. The impact caused the body of the unfortunate animal to leave the ground, and light on the hood. Its feet struck the windshield, shattering the glass. One forefoot penetrated, causing a shower of razor-sharp fragments to implode into the interior. That foot withdrew, but all four hooves again impacted glass and metalas the frantically struggling beast slid off the slippery surface to land with a dull thud on the snow-covered road.
Restrained by his seatbelt, so that he escaped being hurled against the disintegrating glass, the occupant threw up a muscular left arm to protect his head, even as he sought to avoid a collision with the pickup. Pain stabbed him, as a spear-like shard penetrated his coat, and slashed his arm. Blood welled from the cut, staining the fabric. The vehicle slid to a halt before it reached the intersection.
A luridly obscene expression escaped the man clamping a huge right hand over his injured left forearm, despite his relief at seeing the pickup stop dead in its tracks at the junction of the two roads. As he watched, the door on the driver's side opened, and a slim figure bundled in a down coat and a woolen hat leaped to the ground, and raced through nine-inch-deep snow towards the wreck.
On seeing the other driver approach, the injured man rolled down the window, only to find himself facing the business end of a .30-06 hunting rifle.
"Don't move a muscle until I see who you are!" That sharp command he saw to be uttered by an armed woman.
Mystified by her action, the traveler froze, relieved to note that the hands holding the weapon nowise trembled. Just as he prepared to reason calmly with her, she lowered the barrel, and offered an explanation.
"You're not who I thought you might be," she asserted evenly, in a flatly unapologetic tone. "But I couldn't take a chance. If you had been listening to the local radio station, you'd have known that three convicts just broke out of the State Penitentiary--men who grew up around here. The Sheriff warned the public that he expects the escapees he knows to be armed to show up in the County. But they're short and skinny--two sandy-haired brothers and their equally scrawny blonde cousin. You're as dark as they're fair, and twice the size of any two of them."
Shock arising from this woman's willingness to confront three armed men mingled with wry amusement. She doesn't seem to find my aspect the least bit daunting, he ruminated, conscious that his seamed face, brown as oiled hardwood, added to an imposing size and a slight Castilian accent, might well spark fear in a woman already on edge from knowing that three escaped felons lurked in the vicinity.
Having marched around to the passenger side of the vehicle, where the moose lay feebly twitching, the woman put a well-aimed shot into its head, killing it instantly.
Returning to the window on the driver's side, the shooter announced firmly, "What I just did violates state law, but I couldn't let the poor thing suffer. You're supposed to call the Department of Game and Fish, wait for one of their officers to arrive, and let him put any animal injured on the road out of its misery. But I'll bet my boots that this road's closed now between here and the highway leading to town, so it might be several days before one of them could get here. If any question arises, I'll take the blame. I'll make damned sure they don't try to pin it on you. So. You're hurt. Let me look at that arm." Yanking open the door, she inquired briskly, "Have you got a first-aid kit?"
Incipient outrage generated by the woman's imperious manner swiftly gave way to admiration for her decisive handling of a situation that would have caused a good many women to grow hysterical. "It's under the passenger seat," the traveler replied equably, his hand still clamped over his slashed arm.
Snow pelted the man stepping out into the road so as to remove his coat more easily. Tossing the garment into the back of the SUV, he bared the forearm, which he saw to sport a long, clean cut parallel to its length.
"You're lucky," the woman opined as she deftly cut a short piece of adhesive tape, and snipped two triangles from its center. After twisting the strip, she blotted the blood from the wound, held the edges together, and applied the two ends of the twisted tape to the skin on either side of the cut. "Butterflies will usually hold two halves of a cut that runs along the muscle, but one that cuts across always requires stitches," she informed him. "You might have to wait a while before you can get to the local sawbones."
As she spoke, she fashioned a row of the clever substitutions for stitches. "There," she declared. "That slash looked clean, but there's moose manure on the hood. If it were my arm, I'd opt for applying iodine before bandaging it, but that'll hurt. Not as badly as an infection will, though." As she spoke, she glanced inquiringly at the man she aided.
"I agree," her charge stated evenly. "Daub it on."
Without further ado, the woman applied a liberal amount of the antiseptic, noting that the brawny stranger neither flinched nor went taut from the pain. Expertly, she bandaged the arm, and then held the coat so that the injured man could don it more easily.
Having walked around to the front of the vehicle, the traveler sighed as he observed the inert body of the moose, the yellowish-green stain in the snow attesting to the draining of the radiator, the crumpled hood, the dented fenders, the shattered headlights and grill, and the destruction wrought on the windshield.
"I need to get this wreck off the road," he observed worriedly.
"Right," the woman replied. "I've got a tow chain. Let me drag the moose off, first." Frowning, she added, "You're an out-of-state hunter, judging by the fancy rifle-cases on the back seat. This road's likely to grow impassable both ahead and behind, right suddenly. I'd be glad to tow your outfit to my house, which is at the foot of the hill, near the river. If this storm grows to whiteout intensity, you could get lost trying to walk to a ranch house, and freeze to death. Far better that you wait it out inside, where it's warm."
Touched by the neighborliness prompting that offer, the stranger yet hesitated. "Would your husband prefer that we ask him first?" he probed.
"I divorced my husband seven years ago," the woman stated bluntly. "This ranch belonged to my parents, who left it to me. I'm free to do exactly as I please. I wouldn't even wish freezing to death on a blasted crook sent up for robbing gas stations and convenience stores, let alone on a visitor to the area. So don't worry on that score."
So that's why she so boldly approached the wreck: out of neighborly concern for someone possibly severely hurt, and in danger from the cold--whether or not he turned out to be a criminal.
His admiration taking a quantum leap, the stranger smiled for the first time since meeting the woman. His rugged face suddenly alight with warmth, he nodded as he replied, "I'll gladly take you up on your offer. And I'd appreciate your towing my vehicle onto your property."
"I'm Alison Haldane," the woman announced.
"I'm Manuel González," the stranger reciprocated, studying the faintly lined face notable for a pair of heavily lashed blue eyes that met his squarely. The black hat totally concealing the woman's hair, together with the soft black scarf wound around her throat, created an effect uncannily like the wimple of a nun. Attributing that odd perception to this blunt-spoken ranchwoman's serene self-possession, he added, "Let me assure you that I'll not trespass on your hospitality any longer than is absolutely necessary."
Exhibiting the same efficiency with which she had dealt with the cut, Alison pulled a heavy chain from behind the seat of the pickup, wrapped an end around a hind leg of the dead moose, and slipped the hook over a link. After backing her truck to the proper position, she jumped out, shaking her head at the man using one hand to hook the chain around the ball hitch below her rear bumper.
"I can do it," she protested. "Don't pop those butterflies open--please."
Mollified by the "please," the autocrat stifled the flash of resentment evoked by her issuing orders. His seamed face expressionless, he nodded.
When the carcass lay close to the fence, the woman again sprang out of the truck. Seeing that Manuel again used only his right hand to detach the chain, she smiled a trifle apologetically. "After I position my truck, you'd better let me squirm under the bumper to attach the chain to the frame of your outfit," she advised guardedly. "That'll take two hands."
Judging that she sought to strike a balance between soothing his ruffled pride and assuring that his wound stayed closed, Manuel nodded. Standing back, he watched as she jockeyed her vehicle so that five feet of space now separated the rear of the truck from the front of the damaged SUV. He made no move to help when she got out, sprawled flat on her stomach, wriggled under the rear bumper, and attached the chain to the frame. When she jumped up, active as a cat despite her bulky clothing, he again favored her with a smile.
"I'll go slowly," the rescuer stated firmly. "Stout as you are, you'll be able to steer with one hand. The hill's steep, but not icy under the snow. Even so, you might run into me. Don't sweat it if you do. My outfit has dents galore. Just stay in contact until the road levels off." Turning, she climbed into the truck.
Amused by the woman's refusal to let any eventuality faze her, Manuel steered with his unhurt hand, roused to admiration of the way the driver towing him prevented any sharp jerk as she set his crippled vehicle in motion. Finding that he could not avoid sliding into the rear of her truck, he yet managed so that the contact occurred with hardly a bump. By the time the driver of the truck came to a stop next to a pole fence surrounding a yard, her guest admitted to his alter ego that his admiration for her skill just escalated considerably.
Stepping out into a white blur of wind-whipped snow, Manuel reached into the rear seat, and withdrew a duffle bag, before obeying the hand gesture urging him to follow his hostess. He noted that she bore her rifle in one hand. Having passed through a gate equipped with a spring that set it closing behind him, the guest strode across the snowy expanse of the yard, and advanced onto a long, wide porch of a rambling, one-storied house built of weathered logs chinked with clay. A neat stack of split wood leaned against the logs.
Stepping through the door the woman opened, he saw that he stood in one end of a long living room, which spanned the width of the house. At the far end stood an obviously antique, marvelously ornate, exceedingly large pot-bellied wood stove. Heat radiated from its shiny black surface, and from the stovepipe rising from its top to pass through the ceiling.
Shedding the coat to which powdery snow clung, the guest saw that the linoleum-floored area before the door served as an open entry hall designed for taking off snowy or muddy outdoor clothing. Having hung the coat on a hook, he seated himself on a low wooden bench, unlaced his insulated leather boots, and pulled them off, lest their deeply grooved soles deposit lumps of packed snow on the carpeting of the living room.
Glancing up at the hostess, who laid the rifle across two wooden supports above the door, he watched as she pulled off the all-enveloping hat to reveal a mass of short, curly, light brown hair. Two inconspicuous touches of gray showed just above her ears. Continuing to observe as she unlatched her boot overshoes and pulled them off booted feet, he silently acknowledged that she moved with fluid grace. He also noted the modest swell to her bosom, and the equally modest flair to her hips. Slim and hard, she exhibited more athleticism than voluptuousness.