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South Dakota, 1934
He didn't know why God answered his prayers any more than he could explain why he still said them. But there it stood, the protection he'd moments ago begged God to provide, an old farmhouse, once proud, now with bare windows and a door hanging by one hinge. Deserted by the owners, as were so many places in the drought-stricken plains. The crash of '29 had left hundreds floundering financially. And years of too little rain resulted in numerous farms abandoned to the elements. He didn't hold out much hope of 1934 being any different.
Kody Douglas glanced upward. The black cloud towering high into the sky thundered toward him. An eerie yellow light filled the air. A noisy herald of birds flew ahead of the storm. Kody ducked his head against the stinging wind and nudged Sam into a trot. They'd better get inside before the dust storm engulfed them.
In front of the house, he leaped from the saddle, led Sam across the worn threshold and dropped the reins to the floor. Sam would remain where he was parked until Kody said otherwise, but still he felt compelled to make it clear. "You stay here, horse. And don't go leaving me any road apples. You can wait to do that business outside."
He grabbed the rattling door and pushed it shut. A hook hung from the frame. The eye remained in the door, and he latched it.
"Probably won't hold once the wind hits," he told his ever patient mount and companion. Man got so he talked to the only living, breathing thing he shared his day with.
Kody snorted. You'd think a man would get used to being alone. Seems he never could. Not that he cared a whole lot for the kind of company he encountered on the trail. Scoundrelsand drifters willing to lift anything not tied down. Kody might be considered a drifter, but he'd never stoop to being a scoundrel. He had his standards.
He yanked off his hat and slapped it against his thigh, creating his own private cloud of dust.
He jammed the hat back on his head and glanced around. Place couldn't have stood empty for long. No banks of dirt in the corners or bird droppings on the floor. The windows were even still intact.
The wind roared around the house. Sam tossed his head as the door banged in its crooked, uncertain state. Already the invading brown dust sifted across the linoleum. The air grew thick with it. The loose door wouldn't offer more than halfhearted protection, and Kody scanned the rest of the house, searching for something better.
"Don't go anywhere without me," he told Sam as he strode through the passageway into a second room. The drifting soil crunched under his boots.
Again, God provided more than he asked and certainly more than he deserved. A solid door stood closed on the interior wall to his right. He could shelter there until the duster passed. He yanked open the door.
"Hold it right there, mister. I've got a gun and I'm not afraid to use it," a voice cracked.
Kody's heart leaped to his throat and clutched at his tonsils. His nerves danced along his skin with sharp heels. Instinctively he raised his arms in the air, then slowly, cautiously, turned to locate the source of danger. He almost chuckled at the sight before him. A thin, brown-haired woman pressed into the corner, eyes steady, mouth set in a hard line. She held a rifle almost as long as she was tall.
The upward flight of his arms slowed and began a gradual descent. "You ain't gonna shoot me." It was about more'n she could do to keep the rifle level. The business end wobbled like one of those suffering trees in the wind outside.
"Back off or you'll see soon enough what I mean to do."
He lowered his right arm a few more inches, at the same time taking one swift step forward.
She gasped as he plucked the rifle from her.
He cracked it open to eject the bullet. The chamber was empty. He roared with laughter. "Lady, you got more guts than a cat stealing from a mother bear." Amusement made his words feel round and pleasant in his mouth. Unfamiliar, even. It'd been a long time since he'd done more than growl his words. He pulled his gaze from the woman who triggered the amusement, knowing his keen look made her uncomfortable.
She jutted out her chin. "This is my house. Get out."
She lived here? In this deserted house? Alone?
He stilled the questions pouring to his thoughts to deal with the immediate concern. "I don't intend to go out in a blinding dust storm. And no God-fearing, decent woman would expect me to."
She swallowed his accusation noisily. But nothing in her posture relented from her fierce protectiveness.
"I mean you no harm." Without seeking her permission, he sauntered to the corner farthest away, leaving her to plot her own actions. He made like he didn't care what she did, though his every nerve danced with alertness. Might be she had a hunk of wood hid beneath her skirts and would sneak up on him and smack him hard enough to give him a headache to regret. He didn't much figure she could overpower him even with a weighty length of two-by-four. He held back a heartfelt chuckle. Gotta admire a woman with so much spunk.
He heard her slight hiss and from the corner of his eyes saw her take a faltering step toward the door, maybe more intent on escape than anything.
The wind shook the house. The light faded. Through the window he watched the black cloud envelop them. Dust billowed through the cracks around the frame. They needed something to cover the window. In the dim light he made out a pile of material on the floor and, ignoring the woman's indrawn breath, went over to investigate. A ragged quilt. "Why don't you have this over the window? It might keep out some of the dirt."
"What a wonderful idea. I should have thought of it myself." Her sarcasm nearly melted the paint off the wall.
He snorted. "That is a most uncharitable attitude."
She put a rag to her nose. "How do you suggest I get it to stay there? Or do you propose to hold it in place?"
"Ma'am, where there's a will there's a way." What a sharp-tongued young woman. He held the quilt to the window. It greatly reduced the amount of dust coming through the cracks. A nail at one corner served as a hook. He felt around but could find no nail on the other corner. He pulled at the frame. It fit too tightly to allow him to stuff the material behind it. He stood with his arms over his head feeling as exposed as a deer in the middle of a bare field. And he was about to put himself into an even more vulnerable position. "You happen to have a fork or knife handy I could jab in behind the frame and hold this in place?"
She crossed the room and handed him a nail. "It fell out and I couldn't get it back in."
The quilt darkened the room, but even in the dim light he immediately saw her problem. She barely came up to his armpit. She'd need something to stand on to reach the top of the window. She probably needed a stool to brush her teeth. He grinned at his silly imagination and plucked the nail from her fingers. But how to drive it in? "Hold this."
He scooted over to make room for her. She lifted her arms and pressed the quilt as high as her short stature allowed. He felt around the window until he found a crack between the frame and the wall and wedged the nail in as firmly as he could. He caught a corner of the quilt over it and stepped back. "That should do."
"Thank you," she muttered as she headed back to the corner.
He chuckled. She sounded about as grateful as if he'd handed her a bucket of sand. He returned to the opposite side of the room and hunkered down.
"Your house, hey?"
"My brother's. I'm watching it for him."
"Don't look like it needs much watching." The room was about as bare as the mile after mile of windswept fields he'd ridden by. It didn't take a lot of looking to see the place was vacant. Except for this woman. "What's anyone going to take?"
She made a sound that could have been anger or a signal of her intent to argue, but the storm increased in ferociousness. She ducked her head instead.
He pressed his hankie to his nose and prepared to wait it out.
* * *
Charlotte huddled into the corner. He'd accused her of being uncharitable. Her own thoughts rebuked her for being sharp-tongued. Normally she was neither, but her patience had worn thin, and her fears fueled by unexpected, unfair circumstances. Her faith had been sorely tested of late. Tested but not abandoned. What else did she have left but her trust in God?
Our Father, who art in heaven She closed her eyes and silently repeated the words, mentally squeezing each for strength, determined to think of nothing but God's love and power.
But a dust storm raged outside, sifting fine particles of dirt through the air, threatening to dry-drown her, and inside sat a strange man. Her nerves twitched with anxiety greater than she'd known even on her first night alone in the empty house.
And not just any man. An Indian, complete with braids and a feather dangling from his cowboy hat.
I will not fear. God is with me. He will never forsake me.
The words had become her daily supplication since she'd walked into the house and found it emptyher brother, Harry, her sister-in-law, Nellie, and the two children had disappeared.
She'd been at the Hendersons' with instructions from Nellie to help with the new baby. Upon her return she discovered them gonelock, stock and kitchen suppliesand a note from Harry saying he couldn't take the drought any longer. They were going farther west. No room in the truck for her. He'd send for her soon, within a week for sure. He'd arrange for Mr. Henderson to deliver a message.
They'd left barely enough food and water to last her.
"God will take care of me," she murmured.
The frightening man turned. "You say something?"
"God will take care of me." She spoke louder, firmer. After all, He'd led the children of Israel through the desert. Her situation wasn't any worse. Except she was alone. No, not alone. God was with her. So she had reminded herself over and over.
The house shook under the wind's attack. Dirt ground between her teeth. Her throat tickled. She breathed slowly to stop the urge to cough. She longed for a drink. Her last drink had been some unsatisfying mouthfuls this morning. The only place she could get more was at Lother's. She shuddered just thinking of her nearest neighbor.
Eligible young men were scarce as rain. Most had gone looking for work. Seemed wherever they went jobs were hard to come by. She aw them riding the rails every time she was in town, going from one end of the country to the other. Lother, one of the few bachelors still in the community, made it clear he'd be glad to marry Charlotte. He seemed to think she'd be equally pleased to accept the opportunity. If she had to choose between marriage to Lother or rotting on the manure pile, she'd gladly choose the latter. She shuddered again, harder.