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Montana Territory, 1883
The tiny railroad town of Angel Falls was a symphony of noise. Because she was blind, Noelle Kramer had gotten the knack of separating one sound from another. There was the chink of horseshoes on the hard-packed snow and ice as teamsters and riders hurried on their way. The merry bell in the church steeple clanged a melody, marking the late-afternoon hour. The businesslike clip-clip of ladies'shoes on the swept-clean board-walk was like a metronome tapping the meter. The low-throated rumble of the train, two blocks over, added a steady bass percussion as it idled on steel tracks.
It all painted a picture, of sorts, but there was so much missing. She could not see the colorful window displays of the shops. Were they bright with spring colors yet? While she could not know this, not without asking her dear aunt, who was busy fussing with their horse's tether rope, she tried to picture what she could. She hadn't been blind so long that she couldn't remember the look of things. She only had to pull it up in her mind, the main street with its cheerful window displays, awnings and continuous boardwalks.
What she couldn't picture was her friend Lanna, from their school days, who'd been in the dress shop when she and her aunt had stopped to pick up a new hat. Lanna had been bursting with happiness. The brightest notes of joy rang in her voice as she'd been fitted for her wedding dress.
Noelle closed her eyes against the pain; she closed her thoughts and her heart, too. She'd never asked what had become of the wedding gown she'd had made. The one she'd never had a chance to pick up for her wedding day.
She rubbed the fourth finger of her left hand, so bare beneath the thick woolen glove. She understood why Shelton had changed his mind. What surprised her was that her heart wasn't broken; she'd not been deeply in love with him but she'd hoped for happiness anyway.
No, what had devastated her had been his words. You're damaged goods, now. Her blindness was the reason she would never have a hope of marrying. Of being a wife and a mother. Her affliction was a burden to others. She, alone, could not tend fires and watch after servants or see to the dozens of details in the running of a household and caring for small children.
Still, she had a lot to be thankful for.
"Now, you settle down like a good horse." Aunt Henrietta's no-nonsense scolding easily drowned out the street noise. Even her gait was a sensible brisk stride and her petticoats rustled as she climbed into the sleigh.
"Is he giving you more trouble?" Noelle asked, trying to hide her worry.
"He won't if he knows what's good for him." Henrietta settled her heavy hoops and plentiful skirts around her on the seat. "I gave him a talking-to he won't soon forget. He's a Worthington now, and he has a standard of conduct to uphold. I won't be seen around town wrestling a horse for control like some common teamster."
Noelle bit her lip trying to hide the smile for she knew her aunt was dreadfully serious. To Henrietta, appearances and reputation were everything. "I'm sure he'll be fine. He's probably just not used to all the noise in town."
"I don't care what he's used to!" Henrietta huffed. The seat groaned beneath her weight as she leaned forward, perhaps in search of the lap blanket. "Where has that gone to? Wait, here it is. Cover up, dear. There's a dangerous cold to the air. Mark my words, we'll see a blizzard before we reach home, if we make it there in time."
Noelle bit her lip again. She was endlessly amused by Henrietta's drama. A blizzard? Surely that was a dire assessment of the situation. She held up her gloved hand but couldn't hear any telltale tap, tap against the leather. "I smell snow in the wind. It is falling yet? I can't tell."
"Nothing yet, although I can hardly hear you. I shall never get used to that newfangled contraption."
"Which newfangled contraption is bothering you now?"
"Why, the train, of course." Henrietta took delight in her complaints, for her voice was smiling as she gathered the thick leather reins with a rustle. "I can tell by the look on your face that once again my disapproval of modern progress amuses you."
"I wonder why the Northern Pacific Railroad didn't ask you before they laid track through our valley."
"That is exactly my complaint with them." Henrietta gave the reins a slap and the gelding leaped forward, jerking them to a rough, swift start. "There, now. That's more like it. I don't put up with a horse's nonsense."
Or any nonsense, Noelle knew, which was why she hadn't asked about Lanna's dress when they'd left the shop. Why she tucked away her sadness. Henrietta didn't have a mind to tolerate sadness. She always said that God knew best and that was that.
No doubt that was true. Sometimes it was simply difficult to understand.
The wind changed, bringing with it the fresh wintry scent of snowflakes. Noelle could feel them, as light as a Brahms lullaby, and she lifted her face to the brush of their crisp iciness against her skin.
Henrietta snapped the reins briskly, intent on directing their horse. "Do you smell that?"
"Yes, isn't the snow wonderful?"
"Goodness, not that, dear. It's the train. At least you're spared the ugly view of the trailing coal smoke that hovers over the town like a black, poisonous, endless snake. What are we expected to do? Expire from the discharge?"
"I doubt the men in charge of the rail company are concerned by the smoke cloud."
"Well, they can afford not to be! They are not here to breathe it in! And why do we need such progress? Gone are the days when a person labored to get to their destination. I walked beside my parents' wagon halfway to Missouri, and it put the starch in my bonnet. It's what's wrong with young people nowadays. Life is too easy for them."
The train whistle blasted, drowning out her words. And there was another more frightening soundthe high-noted terror in a horse's neigh. Noelle cringed, panic licking at her. Years ago, their mare had made that terrified, almost-human scream when a rattlesnake had startled her and she'd run with the family buggy over the edge of the road. On that day, Noelle had lost her mother, her father and her sight.
Surely, that sound wasn't coming from their horse? She glanced around the street, as if she could see; it was habit, nothing more. She gripped the edge of the sleigh tight in reflex and in memory, but there was no time to open her heart in prayer. The sleigh jerked forward. Wind whizzed in her ears and snow slapped against her face. The sleigh's runners hit grooves in the compact snow at a rapid-fire pace, bouncing her on the seat.
"Good heavens!" Henrietta sounded deeply put out.
"Calm down, you ill-behaved brute"
The train whistle blew a second time. The sleigh jerked to a sudden stop. Noelle slid forward on the seat and something hard struck her chin. Pain exploded through her jaw, as she realized she'd hit the dashboard. Was that high, shrill bugling neigh coming from their horse? Sure enough, she could feel his huge body block the wind as he reared up. For one breathless moment, she feared he might fall on them. Henrietta's terrified gasp confirmed her suspicions.
"Quick!" She found her aunt's arm and gave her a nudge. "Out of the sleigh. Hurry! Before"
Too late. The whistle blew, the sleigh lurched and the horse came down running. The train's loud chugging and clamoring only seemed to drive the gelding to run faster, right down the middle of Main. Shouted exclamations and the sudden rush of other horses and vehicles to get out of the way overrode all other sounds. The sleigh swayed from side to side in a sickening way. They were going too fast for the vehicle. She braced her feet and held on tight. Fear tasted coppery and bitter on her tongue. The past rose up in a colorful image in her mind's eye. Her mother's cry as the buggy broke apart. The horrible falling at great speed. The sudden blinding pain
No. Not again. Lord, stop this from happening. Please. Panic beat crazily against her ribs. Fear felt thick on her tongue. It was too late to jump from the sleigh, and she wouldn't abandon Henrietta. She tried to make her mind clear enough to form another prayer but only one thought came. Help us.
Somewhere, over the sound of Henrietta's continued demands for the horse to stop and stop now, a man shouted out, "Runaway horse! Grab him!"
Maybe someone could stop them. Hope lifted through her panic, and Noelle clung to it. Please, Lord, send someone to help us.
There was no answer as the sleigh began to buck harder and rock from side to side. Had they left the road? Soft snow sprayed against her face. She held on to the edge of the seat with all her might, but her stomach gripped from the sleigh's violent rocking motion. Foliage crumpled and crunched beneath the runners.
Had they gone off the road? Fear shot through her heart. They were going too fast, they were going to overturn and the sleigh was going to break apart. Henrietta must have realized this, too, because she began sobbing. That only drove the horse to run faster. Noelle squeezed her eyes shut. A sob broke through her, and the seat bucked beneath her. They would be hurtor worseand she could not stop it from happening.
The Lord hadn't answered her prayer last time, either, and look at what she'd lost. Her heart squeezed with pain. She could not lose so much again, and yet she had no choice. The sleigh rose sharply upward, and tipped violently to the right, slamming her hard against the dashboard again. She felt no physical pain, only an emotional one. It was too late for answered prayers now.
Then, through the rush of her pulse in her ears, she heard something else. Something new. The drum of hoofbeats.
"Whoa, there, big fella." A man's voice, a deep vibrant baritone rumbled like winter thunder from the sky, overpowering every other sound until there was only silence. Only him. "Calm down. You're all right, buddy."
The sleigh's bumping slowed. Noelle hung on to the dashboard, drawn to the sound of the man's confident and powerful voice coming as if from the sky.
Am I dreaming this? Noelle had to wonder. None of this felt real. The sleigh tipped dangerously and listed to a stop. The dizzying sense of movement stopped.
There was only the blast of the winded gelding's ragged breaths and that soothing baritone. She could hardly believe that they were safe.
Safe. Because of him.
She heard the creak of his saddle as he dismounted. The sensations of Henrietta clutching her, the wind's low-noted howl like a lonely wolf's cry and the chill that set in all faded into the background. She was riveted to his voice; there was something about his voice, but as he spoke low to keep the horse calm over the clatter of the harnessing she couldn't place what it was. Maybe he was tethering the horse.
Relief flooded her. The remnants of fear jarred through her, making her blood thick and her pulse loud in her ears. She turned toward the faint squeaking sound his boots made on the snow. His gait was even and confident; not too fast, and long-legged. Already her mind was trying to paint a picture of him.
"Are you two ladies all right?" The man's baritone boomed.
It wasn't a cold tone, Noelle heard, but warmth in that voice, character and heart. And something more, indefinable like a memory just out of reach.
"F-fine. Considering what c-could have happened." Was that really her speaking? She probably sounded so breathless and shaky from the aftereffect of fear, that was all, and not because of the man.
Henrietta still gasped for breath, frozen in place, but still managing to talk. "We're a little worse for the wear, I d-dare say. I hate to think what would have happened if you hadn't intervened, sir.You s-saved us just in time."
"Looks like it," the rider answered easily as if it hadn't been his doing. "What's important now is that you two try to make as little movement as possible. I'm going to get you out one at a time. Don't worry, you'll be safe."
Safe? Noelle gulped. Did that mean they were still in danger? She could tell they were tipped at an odd angle, but her hearing had failed her. Her ears seemed to be ignoring everything, save for the man's voice. It was strange, as was the feeling that she ought to know him, and how could that be? If he wasn't a stranger, then Henrietta would have called him by name.
"D-dear hea-vens!" Her aunt sounded quite strained.
"A-are you q-quite sure that we're not about to plunge into the river?"
The river? That took her thoughts off their rescuer. Fear shivered down her spine. Only then did she realize there was another sound above the raging howl of the windthe rush of the fast-moving river.
How close were they to the edge? She tried to breathe but her lungs felt heavy and the air in them like mud. As her senses settled, she could better hear the hungry rush of the river alarmingly close.
"Let me help you, miss."
His voice seemed to move through her spirit and, confused, she didn't realize that he was taking her hand until suddenly his fingers closed around hers. His touch was strong and as steady as granite. Every fear within her stilled. It seemed impossible to be afraid as his other hand gripped her elbow.
Stunned, she could feel the faint wind shadow as he towered over her. She knew he was tall, wide-shouldered and built like steel. She knew, somehow, without seeing him. It was as if she was familiar with his touch. How could that possibly be?