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"This doesn't look good."
Ivy gently set the hoof back down on the grassy road and patted the mule's side. "No wonder you're limping, Jubalit 'pears like you've picked up a honey of a stone bruise."
The mule turned around to nip at her, but she avoided him easily enough. Although Jubal might be ornery at times, he usually wasn't mean. Unfortunately, these weren't usual circumstances.
Maybe she shouldn't have set such a demanding pace this past day and a half, but she'd hoped to make it to Turnabout in two days' time. A woman traveling alone for this distance, even if she was dressed as a boy, was vulnerable to gossip and worse.
But it looked as if she was doomed to spend another night on the trail.
"Not that anyone's gonna notice we're late," she told Jubal, "since no one is expecting us exactly. I'm just anxious to find out what the mysterious inheritance is that this Drum Mosley fellow is holding for me."
Ivy gave the mule's side another pat as he brayed out a complaint. "I wish there was something I could do to make you feel better." They were a day-and-a-half's ride from home and headed in the opposite direction. It had been several hours since they'd seen signs of people or habitation, so she figured they'd be better off pressing forward. "Guess we'll just have to get by as best we can."
She turned to her other traveling companion, also of the four-legged variety. "Well, Rufus, I guess I'll be walking the rest of the way alongside you."
The dog barked in response and she rubbed his head, comforted by the feel of his shaggy coat and the trusting look in his eyes.
"Let's hope we find a homestead with neighborly folks who won't mind strangers bunking in their barn." She straightened. "At least there's lots of good foraging to be had this time of year."
She took off her straw hat and wiped her forehead with her sleeve. It might be the first week in June, but the summer heat had already set in.
How far had they come since they'd started out at dawn yesterday? Other than a couple of short breaks, they'd only stopped when darkness made it unsafe to travel last night. They broke camp at daybreak this morning and she estimated it was getting on to four o'clock now. Surely they were getting close to Turnabout. Which meant it would be time to exchange her britches for a skirt soon.
She glanced down at Rufus. "Whatever this inheritance is, it sure better be worth all this trouble. 'Cause we could really use some good luck about now."
She patted Jubal's neck. "Wouldn't it be something if we could return home with enough money to rebuild the barn and buy a new milk cow? That would sure make Nana Dovie's life a lot easier."
Grabbing the reins, Ivy looked the mule in the eye. "I know you're hurting, but we need to make it a little farther before dark."
She moved forward and lightly tugged. To her relief, Jubal decided to cooperate. She glanced down the narrow, deserted road as she absently swatted a horsefly away. They hadn't seen so much as a fence post or wagon rut since before noon. Apparently this shortcut to Turnabout wasn't well used. But surely they'd spot some sign of civilization soon.
Not one to enjoy long silences, Ivy shared her thoughts aloud. "It's been a wearisome day and you two have been great companions. Don't think I don't appreciate it. In fact, I have a special treat for each of you that I'll hand out as soon as we stop for the night."
She glanced at Rufus, padding along beside her. "It would be nice if you and I ended up with a barn or shed to sleep in tonight, don't you think?"
Not that she minded camping outthat's what they'd done last night and, other than fighting off some pesky mosquitoes, they'd managed just fine. But those gray clouds gathering overhead would likely bring rain before morning and she didn't relish the idea of getting soaked.
But as Nana Dovie always said, worrying was like doubting God. If you truly believe He's in charge, then you have to trust He'll work everything out for the best.
Of course, it never hurt to let Him know what you'd like to have happen.
"Mind you, Lord," she said respectfully, "I know we can use a bit of rain to settle the dust. It's just that I'm not sure that sheet of canvas I brought along will keep out more than a spit and a drizzle, and I'd rather not have a mud bath. If You could help me find a dry place to sleep, it would be most welcome."
She glanced over at the mule. "And please help Jubal heal quickly. Amen."
Ivy smiled down at Rufus. "Now, whatever happens, we'll know He has it in hand."
An hour later, she frowned up at the overcast sky. The clouds had thickened like clabbered milk and the heavy air clung to her skin like a damp petticoat. And they still hadn't come across any signs of civilization. Jubal's limp was more pronounced nowshe couldn't in good conscience push him further today. She had to let the injured animal rest.
"Well, boys, as Nana Dovie says, when you don't get the thing you prayed for, it don't mean God ain't listening. It just means the answer is either no or not now. So it looks like we're going to spend another night under the stars. And this is as likely a spot as any."
Mitch Parker sat comfortably in the saddle, soaking in the morning sunshine and peaceful surroundings, letting all the stress of the past few weeks dissolve away. It had rained most of last night, but the rhythmic pattering on the cozy cabin roof had added to the serenity.
And today had dawned bright and warmperfect weather for the first full day of his vacation. The leaves on the trees had that special shine they always had after a rain and the only sounds were those of the birds and insects. He might even take out his sketch pad later.
School was out for the summer, giving him a welcome break from his teaching duties. But more than that, he was ready for a break from Hilda Swenson. The persistent widow and mother of three had made him the target of her attention for the past several weeks and seemed oblivious to his hints that he wasn't interested. She was a flibbertigibbet of the highest ordersomething he had no patience for. And her determined pursuit was playing havoc with the quiet, wellordered life he'd strived so hard to build for himself and was determined to maintain at all costs.
He never wanted to go back to what he'd once been. Nor did he want to be a husband again, not after the tragic outcome of his marriage.
His rebuffs of the widow's overtures would obviously have to be more direct in the futurea confrontation he wasn't looking forward to. Thus his decision to slip away to a friend's cabin for a week or so.
Mitch shook off those thoughts. He'd deal with that unpleasantness when he returned to Turnabout. This week was for relaxing and regaining that all-important sense of control over his life.
And this back-of-beyond cabin had been just the place to do it. He was grateful to Reggie Barr for giving him the use of it. In a way, it was a homecoming. The cabin was where he'd spent his first night in this part of the world, two years ago. Reggie had been a stranger then, but had held his fate in her hands. Now he counted her and her husband, Adam, amongst his closest friends.
He'd made it to the cabin yesterday afternoon, in time to get some fishing in. Fishing, reading and sketching, and no people around. Yes, this was going to be a fine week indeed.
Just before he'd left town yesterday, Reggie had told him he could find some mulberry trees north of the cabin. So now he was heading that way, hoping to gather a generous amount of the fruit, and curious to explore a different section of the woods. Perhaps he'd find inspiration for some of the sketching he planned to do.
A bark echoed through the trees, catching Mitch's attention. What would a dog be doing out here? It was a four-hour ride from Turnabout and as far as he knew, no one lived out this way. Then again, maybe someone had settled here recently. He grimaced at that thought. He hoped whoever it was wasn't the gregarious typehe wasn't in a sociable mood.
But he was getting ahead of himself. A dog didn't necessarily mean there were people around. The animal could have wandered all this way on his own.
Mitch slowed Seeley, then pulled the horse to a stop. Maybe he should turn around and return to the cabin. If there were people up ahead, there was no sense in inviting an acquaintance. Perhaps if he refrained from intruding on them, they'd return the favor.
Then he reluctantly set Seeley in motion again. If he was going to have neighbors, it was best he meet them at a time of his own choosing rather than have them arrive on his doorstep when he wasn't prepared. He could also drop a hint or two that he valued his privacy.
As Mitch neared the spot where the dog's bark had come from, he heard a human voice as well, though he couldn't make out the words. Well, that answered thatthere were people out here.
He peered through the woods and spied a youth standing on a log, plucking mulberries from a tree. It appeared someone besides him had designs on the berries.
Mitch quickly scanned the surrounding area, looking for the other members of the lad's party. There was a scruffy-looking dog and a mule, but no sign of either a homestead or other people.
The dog spotted him first and began barking furiously.
"Goodness, Rufus, what's gotten into you? Is it another squirrel?" The youth turned to look and, as he caught sight of Mitch, his eyes widened and his foot slipped, losing its purchase on the log. His arms flailed as he attempted to catch his balance. The youth's hat went flying and the appearance of a long untidy braid had Mitch quickly revising his initial impression.
A moment later, she was flat on her back on the ground.
And not moving.
Nightmare memories of another fallen woman whooshed through Mitch with the force of a flash flood. He vaulted from his horse, his heart pounding like a mad thing trying to escape his chest.
Not again. God wouldn't be so cruel as to make him relive such a tragedy a second time.
In a matter of seconds, Mitch knelt beside the all-too-still form, checking for signs of life. When he saw the rise of her chest, his frenetic heartbeat slowed slightly. But he refocused immediately. He needed to find out just how badly she was hurt.
His breath caught for a moment as he spotted reddish stains on her shirt and hands. But a heartbeat later he realized they came from berries, not blood.
Why was she out here alone, and why was she dressed as a boy?
He shoved those thoughts asidethere would be time later for those questions, once he'd made certain she was okay.
It was his fault she'd fallen. He hadn't intended to startle her, but that didn't absolve him of the fact that he had. He of all people knew that actions often had unanticipated consequences. He also knew his imposing size could make strangers uncomfortable at the best of times. For a lone female who wasn't expecting himeven one dressed as a boyhis arrival must have been a shock.
She stirred and he turned his attention to her face, only now taking in her physical appearance. Her nose and cheeks were dusted with a liberal sprinkling of freckles, giving her a youthful look. Her still-closed eyes were partially covered by a fringe of reddish-brown hair that had escaped her braid. He absently brushed the tendrils away from her face and was rewarded with a grimace and a soft moan, welcome signs that she was regaining consciousness.
"Easy," he said, still uncertain of her condition.
She started at the sound of his voice, and her eyes flew open, regarding him with wide-eyed confusion and uncertainty. The deep clover-green of her irises startled him momentarily. They were the most amazingly intense eyes he'd ever seen.
"Are you hurt?" He kept his voice calm, trying not to further alarm her.
"I don't My head hurts, but I think I'm okay."
She made as if to sit up, but he placed a hand on her shoulder, gently restraining her. "Easy now. Take a minute before you move around too much."
She gave him a peevish frown. "I need to sit upthe ground's wet."
That's what she was worried about? Probably still addled from the fall. "I understand, but let's check you out first."
The suspicion in her expression deepened, and she attempted to put more distance between them. "I can check my own self, thank you."
Though her words were assertive, her tone was slurred and she seemed none too steady. He didn't want to agitate her further, however, so he nodded.
"All right, but if you insist on sitting up, at least let me assist you." He placed a hand at her elbow and helped her up, keeping close watch for signs of injuries or weakness. Once he was sure she wouldn't fall over again, he eased back on his haunches, ignoring the dampness seeping through the knees of his pants, trying to maintain a nonthreatening pose.
As soon as he moved back, she pulled a knife from somewhere and had it unsteadily pointed at his chest. "If you're thinking to rob me, mister, you should know I don't have much worth stealing, but what's mine is mine."
The dog, alerted by her tone, stiffened and bared its teeth at him.
"Whoa, there." Mitch threw his hands up, palms out, trying to assure her he wasn't a threat. The knife, while not especially large, looked sharp enough to do some damage. And although he was quite certain he could take it from her with little effort, he didn't want to do that unless he had to. "I just want to make certain you're okay, nothing more." She placed her free hand on the dog's back, but he had no illusions she was restraining him.
"I'm talking about before that. Why were you sneaking up on me that way?"
"I didn't sneak up on you. I happened on you while looking for the mulberry trees. My apologies if you were startled."
She blinked those amazing eyes as if trying to clear her vision, and the trembling in her hand grew more pronounced. Was it due to pain? Or weakness?
"Are these trees on your place?" she asked. "'Cause I didn't mean to trespass."
Trespassing should be the least of her worries right now. He didn't like the slur that had crept into her voice. Time to be firm, for her own good. "We can discuss all that later. Right now I need to know if you're badly hurt."
She still didn't lower the knife, though the effort seemed to cost her. But her left hand moved from the dog to the back of her head. "I My head" She pulled her hand back and stared at it as if it belonged to someone else. It was stained with blood.
Mitch bit off an oath. "You are hurt. Let me have a look." He moved in closer, and she quickly raised the knife to block him, swaying slightly with the effort. Her dog let out a warning growl.
This girl had more spunk than sense. "I'm only trying to take a look at your injurythat's all. You're bleeding and it's not something you can tend to yourself."
Without a word, she nodded, her gaze never leaving his face.