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He'd gained ground in the last hour, bearing down on her, the relentless adversary wearing at her reserves of energy. The cold seeped through her thick gloves and boots, down to her bones.
Alexi Katya Ivanov revved the snowmobile's engine, thankful that the stolen machine had a full tank of fuel. Regret burned a hole in her gut. Somehow she'd find the owners and repay them for the use of their snowmobile. She'd never in her life stolen anything. In this case, necessity had forced her hand. Steal or die.
She'd ditched her car several hours after crossing the border into North Dakota, and she was tired of wincing every time a law enforcement vehicle passed by. But she didn't know where to go. She'd only lived in Minneapolis since she'd been in the States. Instinct told her to get as far away from the scene of the crime as she could get.
Throughout the night, she'd pushed farther and faster, praying that she wouldn't be pulled over for speeding. Not until Fargo did she realize that the headlights following her hadn't wavered since she'd left Minneapolis. Butterflies wreaked havoc in her bellywhether they were paranoia or intuition, she didn't care. Her gut told her that whoever had framed her as a terrorist had also set a tracking device on the body of her car. How else had he found her and kept up with her through the maze of streets in the big cities?
She'd stopped once and taken precious time to search the exterior, but the snow-covered ground kept her from a thorough investigation of the undercarriage. Thus her need to ditch the car and find alternate means of transportation. Out in the middle of nowhere North Dakota, rental cars were scarce, if not impossible to find, not to mention they required a credit card to secure. She hadn't used a credit card since Katya twisted the handle, gunning the engine. She refused to shed another tear. The bite of the icy wind was not nearly as painful as the ache in her heart. Her beloved father was dead. An accident, according to the news, but she'd gotten the truth from one of his trusted advisors back in Trejikistan. He'd been gunned down by an assassin while driving to their estate in the country.
Immediately after hearing the news of her father's death, Katya had been attacked in front of her apartment building. If not for the security guard she'd befriended, Katya would be dead. The same guard had hidden her from the attacker and let her know that the police had been to her apartment, claiming she'd been identified as a suspected terrorist. They'd found weapons and bomb-making materials there. Things that hadn't been there when she'd left to go to church earlier that day, hoping to find some solace over her father's death. The guard hadn't believed her capable of terrorism. Thank God.
On the run since then, she'd avoided crowded places, sure that someone would recognize her from the pictures plastered all over the local and statewide television.
She'd taken her car, switched the license plate with that of some unsuspecting person and driven out of Minneapolis as fast as she could.
Something slammed into the snowmobile, shaking her back into the present. A glance behind her confirmed her worst suspicions. The man following her had a gun aimed at her. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but gently rolling, wide-open terrain without trees, rocks or buildings to hide behind. The best she could hope for was to stay far enough ahead of the gunman to duck behind another hill. As her snowmobile topped a rise, another shot tore into the back of the vehicle.
Ducking low, she gunned the engine and flew over the top of the hill.
The ground fell away from beneath her, as the snowmobile plunged down a steep incline.
Katya held on, rocks and gravel yanking the skids back and forth during the descent into a rugged river-carved canyon. With each jarring bump, her teeth rattled in her head. Her hands cramped with the effort to steer the machine to the bottom. No snow graced the barren rocks, giving the snowmobile's skids little to grab onto. The rubber tracks flung gravel and rocks out behind her.
Katya couldn't worry about bullets from the man following her. It was all she could do to live through the ride.
With a bone-wrenching thump, Katya reached the river bank. She couldn't believe she'd made it. She wanted nothing more than to throw herself on the ground and hug the earth.
Bullets pinged off the rocks beside her, forcing her back into survival mode. She raced the snowmobile along the riverbank, aiming for the bluff that would block the bullets. The machine ran rough, the tracks slipping on the icy surface, getting less traction than needed.
With the shooter perched on the hillside, Katya was a prime target to be picked off. If only she could make it to the bend, her attacker would have to stop shooting long enough to follow.
Hunched low in her seat, she urged the hard-used machine across the snow and gravel. A hundred yards from the bend in the river and the reassuring solid rock of the canyon wall, it chugged to a halt.
Katya hit the start switch. Nothing happened. Bullets spit snow and gravel up around her. Katya flung herself from the seat to the rocky ground, crouching below the snowmobile. A bullet pierced the cushioned seat, blowing straight through and nicking the glove on her hand.
At the shooter's angle, the snowmobile didn't give Katya much protection. If she wanted to stay alive long enough to see another day, she'd have to make a dash for the canyon wall, where she hoped to find a place to hide among the boulders.
As if on cue, the snow thickened and the wind blasted it across the sky. She couldn't see the top of the canyon wall. And if she couldn't see all the way to the top, whoever was up there wouldn't be able to see her. Sucking in a deep breath, Katya took off, running upstream toward the bluffs.
The wind blew against her, making her progress slow, despite her all-out effort to reach cover. But once she was around the bend, the force of the wind slackened.
Katya hid among the rocks, bending double to catch her breath.
Her ride down the canyon wall had been nothing short of miraculous. Would the shooter make a similar attempt? Katya doubted anyone in his right mind would. Which meant he'd have to dismount and leave his machine at the top in order to come down and find her.
Without the snowmobile, she didn't know how she'd find her way back to civilization, but she could only solve one major problem at a time. Her temporary respite from being a target was only that. Temporary. In order to stay alive, she had to keep moving.
As she wove her way through the boulders and rocks, the wind picked up, the snow lashing against her cheeks, bitter cold penetrating the layers of GORE-TEX and thermal underwear beneath. Her feet grew numb and her hands stiff. At this rate, a bullet was the least of her worries.
The cold would kill her first.
Maddox Thunder Horse topped the rise and stared down into Mustang Canyon to the narrow ribbon of icy-cold river running through the rugged terrain. He'd tracked Little Joe's band of mares to the valley below, worried about Sweet Jessie's newborn foal. Full-grown wild horses normally survived the harsh North Dakota winters without problems. But a newborn might not be so lucky. Temperatures had plunged fast, dropping from the low forties to the teens in the past three hours. With night creeping in and the snow piling up, Maddox couldn't look for much longer or he might be caught in the first blizzard of the season.
The handheld radio clipped just inside his jacket gave a static burst. "Maddox?"
Maddox fumbled to unzip the jacket just enough to grab the radio and press the talk button. "Whatcha got, Tuck?"
"I got nothing here in South Canyon. How about you? "
"It's past time we headed back. The weatherman missed the mark on this one. Wankatanka grows angrier by the minute." Tuck attributed every change in weather to the Great Spirit.
The Bismarck weather report had called for snow flurries, not a full-blown blizzard. But Maddox had tasted the pending storm in the air. He understood this land and the weather like his ancestors, the equally rugged Lakota tribe who'd forged a life on the Plains long before the white man came. He'd felt the heaviness in the air, the weight of the clouds hanging over the canyons. Maddox knew if they were to find the horses, they'd have to hurry.
"See ya back at the ranch." Maddox clipped his radio to the inside of his jacket and zipped it back in place. Gathering his reins, he half turned his horse when movement near the river below caught his attention. With the snow falling steadily and the wind picking up, he had almost missed it. Maddox dug out his binoculars and pressed them against his eyes, focusing on the narrow valley below. Were Little Joe and his band of mares hunkering down in the canyon until the storm blew over?
Bear, the stallion he'd rescued five winters before, shifted beneath him from hoof to hoof, his nostrils flaring as if sensing the storm's building fury. Bear didn't like getting caught in snowstorms any more than Maddox did. The horse had almost frozen to death that winter Maddox and his fiancée, Susan, had been trapped in a raging blizzard. Bear had made it back alive. Susan hadn't.
Maddox peered through the blowing snowflakes to the bend in the river. His gaze followed the line of the waterway as it snaked through the canyon.
As a member of the Thunder Horse family, Maddox had grown up living, breathing and protecting the land he and his ancestors were privileged enough to own. Over six thousand acres of canyon and grassland comprised the Thunder Horse Ranch where the Thunder Horse brothers raised cattle, buffalo and horses. They farmed what little tillable soil there was to provide hay and feed for the animals through the six months of wicked North Dakota winter. For the most part, the rest of the land remained as it was when his people roamed as nomads, following the great buffalo herds.
Maddox loved the solitude and isolation of the Badlands. He'd only been away during his college days and a four-year tour of duty in the military. The entire time away from Thunder Horse Ranch he longed to be home again. The Plains called to him like a siren to a sailor, or more like a wolf to his own territory.
Now it would take an extreme change in circumstance to budge him from the place he loved, no matter what sad memories plagued him in the harsh landscape. Time healed wounds, but time never diminished his love for this land.
As his gaze skimmed the banks of the river, he passed over a flash of apple red. Orange-red and blood red he'd expect, like the colors of Painted Rock Canyon, but not bright, apple red. He eased the binoculars to the right, backing over the spot. Squinting through the lenses, he tried adjusting the view to zoom in. A white bump near the river's edge caught the blowing snow, creating a natural barrier quickly collecting more of the flakes. On the end of the drift, a red triangle stood out, but not for long. The snow thickened, dusting the red, burying it in a blanket of white.
Poised on the edge of a plateau, Maddox weighed his options. He hadn't found the mares and he still had an hour's ride back to the ranch house. If he dropped off the edge of the plateau to investigate the snowdrift and the red item buried in white powder beside it, he could add another hour to his journey home. In so doing, he risked getting stuck out in the weather and possibly freezing to death.
Instinct pulled at him, drawing him closer to the edge of the canyon, urging him to investigate. He rarely ignored his instinct, following his gut no matter how foolhardy it seemed. His army buddies called it uncanny, but it had saved his life on more than one occasion in Afghanistan.
No matter how cold and dangerous the weather got, if he didn't go down and investigate, curiosity and worry would eat away at him. He might not get the opportunity to return to investigate for days, maybe months, depending on the depth of the snow and how long the ground remained frozen.
With gloved fingers, Maddox tugged the zipper on his parka up higher, arranging the fur-lined collar around his face to block out the stinging snow now blowing in sideways.
He nudged Bear toward the edge of the plateau.
As they neared the dropoff, Bear danced backward, rearing and turning.
Maddox smoothed a hand along Bear's neck, speaking to him in a soothing tone, soft and steady over the roar of the prairie wind. "Easy, Mato cikala." Little Bear.
Bear reared up and whinnied, his frightened call whipped away in the increasing wind. Then he dropped to all four hooves and let Maddox guide him down the steep slope into the valley below. With the wind and snow limiting his vision, Maddox eased the horse past boulders and rocky outcroppings devoid of vegetation until the ground leveled out on the narrow valley floor. He urged the horse into a canter, eager to check out the mysterious red object and get the heck back to the ranch and the warm fire sure to be blazing in the stone fireplace.
His gaze fixed on the lump on the ground, Maddox pulled Bear to a halt and slipped out of the saddle. His boots landed a foot deep in fresh powder, stirring the white stuff up into the air to swirl around his eyes.
As he neared the snowdrift, the red object took shape. It was the corner of a scarf.
His heart skipped a couple beats and then slammed into action, pumping blood and adrenalin through his veins, warming his body like nothing else could.
He bent to brush away the snow from the lump on the ground, his fingers coming into contact with denim and a parka. His hands worked faster, a wash of unbidden panic threatening his ability to breathe. The more snow he brushed away, the more he realized that what had created the snowdrift was, in fact, a woman, wrapped in a fur-lined parka, denim jeans and snow boots. Her face, protected somewhat from the wind had a light dusting of snowflakes across deathly pale cheeks, sooty brows and lashes.
Maddox grabbed his glove between his teeth and pulled it off, digging beneath the parka's collar to find the woman's neck. He prayed to the Great Spirit for a pulse.