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Cold. Joe wished, for a long, painful moment, that he could just go back to sleep. There was no pain there, in sleep, no relentless wind. The chill breeze kept him from drifting off again, slipping over and around his prone body like icy fingers until he forced himself to lift his head from the grit that pillowed his cheek.
In a heartbeat he remembered what had happened.
"Sonofabitch," he muttered hoarsely as he rolled himself, slowly and carefully, onto his back to stare up at the stars. Those two weasels had come out of nowhere, jumping him from behind in the dark alley beside the boarding house where he'd been staying. He'd put up a good fight, getting in more than his share of solid licks and heading toward victory, until one of the bastards had hit him over the head with something solid and heavy, and then everything had gone black.
He lifted a hand — it was more of an effort than he wanted to admit — and touched the tender knot on the side of his head.
The night's events came back to him in bits and pieces; slow and gradual as he stared at the black sky sprinkled with countless stars. He'd come awake on the back of his horse, slung over the saddle like a dead man. They were already far from town when he awoke, lost in darkness and silence. As soon as the horse came to a halt, one of the ruffians tossed him to the ground, and then the other ... Joe wracked his brain to remember ... and then the other one shot him.
He put a hand to his side, where his flesh ached and throbbed and burned like hell. "Damn," he whispered when his exploring fingers fell on damp, sticky fabric.
Well, this was no fine end for a respected lawman and fast gun. Jumped from behind, taken by two strangers who had appeared, in Joe's estimation, to be less than ingenious. He moved a hand to his thigh, feeling instinctively for his gun, and cursed again when he found it gone. They'd left him alive — which was most likely a mistake — but they'd taken his weapon and left him out in the middle of nowhere without a horse.
A soft whicker belied that last supposition, and Joe actually managed to smile. They might've tried to scare Snowdrop off, but by God that horse was too well-trained to run far or long.
"Come here, girl," he whispered, and she did, lowering her nose to nuzzle his chin. "If I could move, I'd climb up there right now and we'd head back to town and take care of those varmints, wouldn't we?"
Snowdrop whickered again in response, and Joe reached up to stroke her nose.
"Unfortunately I'm not sure I can move at all, much less make it into the saddle."
That was the sad truth, but Joe ground his teeth and tried to sit up anyway. Lying here in the dirt and doing nothing but admiring the stars was a sure way to die. Every muscle in his body hurt, and the pain in his side was excruciating. When he had almost reached a sitting position, the world swam and tilted and he was sure he'd pass out. Well, he'd pass out if he was lucky. There were worse possibilities at the moment.
No one would miss him. No one would look for him. He'd ridden into Silver Creek on his own, not even notifying the sheriff that he was on assignment in the man's county. No, the locals didn't always appreciate federal assistance, and they usually ended up doing more harm than good. Webb wouldn't miss him for weeks, and then ... by then Joe White would just be another name added to the list of lawmen who'd disappeared while searching for Charlie Lockhart.
"You know, Snowdrop," he said as he sat very still and tried to regain his strength. "I knew this was a dangerous business when I decided to deputy for Marshal Webb, and I knew full well that coming after Charlie Lockhart would have dangers all its own. But I figured I'd go down in a gunfight; take a few bad guys with me; die quick. Leave sobbing, brokenhearted women on the boardwalk." He grinned at his ridiculous words, and even Snowdrop snorted. "I never figured on dying like this; slow, in the middle of nowhere, all alone."
The mare protested, shaking her head and snorting loudly.
"Sorry about that," Joe apologized as he worked awkwardly up and onto his knees. "Of course I'm not alone."
He didn't speak again as he came to his feet; he didn't have the strength. Snowdrop's sturdy leather gear and stirrup made a good handle as he made the slow rise, and the mare didn't seem to mind the weight Joe burdened her with as he used her strength to supplement his own.
His hands shook, his eyes refused to focus properly, and his legs were unsteady, rubbery and uncooperative. It would be easiest to drop to the ground, here and now, and drift back into that restful sleep.... He fought that urge and kept trying.
Standing at last, he leaned against the mare and took a few shallow breaths. Deep ones, he was certain, would send him tumbling to the ground again, and he was pretty sure that if that happened he wouldn't be able to get up.
Joe turned and placed one hand on the saddle horn and another on the cantle. He stepped into the stirrup. The simple act of raising his leg made him feel like he was going to pass out again. No, he thought with the first real touch of panic, not pass out. Die.
He didn't want to die here. Not like this. So, with an effort he knew would be his last, he hauled himself into the saddle. If he fell this would be finished, done; he didn't have the strength to try again. He almost went too far over, almost slid clear to the other side and onto the ground, but he caught himself in time. Barely.
The effort of getting into Snowdrop's saddle started his wound to bleeding again. He felt fresh blood, warm and wet, seep over his cool skin. It would be so easy to just lean over and go back to sleep, to rest on Snowdrop's neck and bleed to death.
Slipping off the vest was an effort. Removing his shirt almost sent him tumbling to the ground. Twice. But eventually he did get the shirt off, and with what felt like the last bit of strength he'd ever have, he wrapped the shirt around his midsection, covering the wound with the thickest folded portion, tying the sleeves to make a nice, tight bandage. The vest was draped across his thighs, and he considered putting it back on as a small amount of protection against the cold. Looking down at the vest, it seemed way too much effort.
"Back to town, Snowdrop," he whispered, and then he let his head fall to the mare's neck. His eyes drifted closed.
"By God I'll heal up, find the sonsofbitches who did this to me, and tear out their hearts. You hear me?" Thinking of revenge gave him strength. For a moment.
He opened his eyes and barely lifted his head. "Snowdrop," he whispered hoarsely, trying to give the reins a tug and finding he didn't have the strength for even that. "Dammit, you're going the wrong way."
And then Joe lowered his head and closed his eyes. The cold wind whipped him one time, then the world went black.
Alice lifted her chin and put on a tight smile. "We'll be fine, Miss Prince," she said, as the schoolteacher wiped a smudge of oatmeal from Glory's cheek. "Really."
"I hate for you to miss any more school than you absolutely have to," Miss Prince insisted, straightening Faith's collar absently. "You're such a smart girl. You and Becky and Clara can't spend every day running this farm and neglecting your studies completely."
Alice wanted to scream at the well-meaning woman. We have no choice! Since their mother's death and the desertion of their one hired man more than six weeks ago, the affairs of this farm and the lives of the seven Shorter sisters had fallen squarely on Alice's shoulders. The fine townspeople of Jacob's Crossing wanted to split them up, to send the sisters in seven different directions. All but Miss Prince, that was, who seemed as determined as Alice to keep the family together.
"We'll study after lunch," Alice said calmly If there's time. "And we always read before bed." If we're not too tired. "I appreciate you helping out with the younger girls, I really do."
Miss Prince had moved into the house after the death of Alice's mother, Elizabeth Shorter, over the objections of the mayor who had hired her almost six months ago. She'd done her very best to help, though she was oddly lacking in everyday household skills.
Miss Prince had been a great help, but Alice knew she was head of the family now. At fifteen years of age, she had responsibilities many adults would be reluctant to take on.
She watched as Miss Prince herded the four younger girls to the wagon her sister Becky had already hitched up. The rising sun made the schoolteacher's red hair turn to flame before the woman covered her head with a plain straw bonnet and set out for town.
Alice headed for the barn and the first of the chores that would fill her long day. Clara worked in the kitchen, and Becky was no doubt already taking care of the animals in the barn and wondering where Alice was.
In this time of crisis everyone had learned to do more of what they did best. Clara, who was barely thirteen, was a wonder at running the household. She was a fair cook, liked everything clean and neat, and did more than her share when it came to dealing with the younger girls. Becky, the second-oldest and less than a year younger than Alice, could be a grump when she didn't get her way, but she was patient and caring with animals of all kinds; especially horses. The barn had become her second home. In the moments when Alice felt panicked and certain this new situation was too much for her, she thought of her sisters and how hard they were working, too.
She had almost reached the barn when something caught her eye. A flash of white in the west, a hint of movement. A moment later she recognized the approaching figure.
"Clara!" she shouted. "Get the gun!" She didn't take her eyes from the horse and the man on its back, afraid if she did she'd lose sight of the stranger ... giving him a chance to sneak up on the house.
He approached slowly, giving Clara plenty of time to deliver the gun to Alice. The three sisters were waiting, the weapon steady and pointed in his direction, when the white horse and silent rider came upon them.
Alice lowered the pistol slowly, sensing no threat from the large, bare-chested man in the saddle. As far as she could tell he was unarmed, and his eyes remained closed. A crude bandage of some sort was wrapped around his waist, she saw as he came closer. The man slumped forward, and bounced loose-limbed with every step the horse took.
"Is he dead?" Clara whispered.
Alice took a step forward and cocked her head to get a good look at the man's face. Goodness, he was pale! His face was almost as white as the horse he sat upon. "I don't know."
About that time he moaned, low and indistinct.
"Not dead," Becky said curtly. "But not far from it, by the looks of him."
They didn't have time for this! But then again, they couldn't very well ignore the fact that a very ill man had found his way to their door.
"Becky, take the reins," Alice instructed. "Clara, you'll have to help me get this man off his horse."
They both balked, but only momentarily. Clara led the horse to the house, where she and Alice climbed onto the raised porch. From there, they could better get a grip on the rider; and he had a shorter distance to fall when his weight turned out to be too much for them.
The man landed on the porch with a thud and a moan. Clara stepped quickly back, squealing childishly as she wrinkled her nose at the wounded man. Becky snorted once, then ignored her sisters and the unseated rider to lead the white horse to the barn. Before they'd gone far, Alice heard her sisters soothing voice; her kind words directed at the fine animal.
With the man lying prostrate on the porch, he looked impossibly big, long and solid. From here it was easy to see that his bandage had once been a shirt, and that it was stained with dried blood and a small spot of fresh blood, as well.
"Should I ride to town and get the sheriff?" Clara asked, her voice small and a little scared. She never offered to run errands to town, but seemed anxious to get away from the stranger.
Alice shook her head. The others had their chores but her responsibilities were greater, more burdensome. She had to take care of everything, to make the decisions, to see that the Shorter sisters stayed together and well and safe.
"No," she said without hesitation. "He's too badly hurt to be carried to town, so it would just be a waste of time. If he's still alive tomorrow, I'll have Miss Prince deliver a message to Sheriff Potter."
She doubted the man would be alive at sunset, much less tomorrow. They'd have to bury him, she thought with a sad sigh. Goodness, she hated burying people. She had lain to rest her father five years ago, her uncle four months ago, her mother.... She still couldn't think about her mother without tears threatening, so she dismissed the memory as quickly as possible.
"Let's get him into the house," she said pragmatically. "You take the feet end," she said, slipping her hands under the stranger's armpits and dragging him toward the front door.
There were hands everywhere; little, warm hands on his face and his hands and his legs, fingers that poked at the wound in his side. He should have protested, but he didn't have the strength.
Joe barely opened one eye, and in spite of the pain he was quite sure, for a moment anyway, that he'd died and gone to heaven. Three fair-haired angelic little women, dressed in calico, hovered over the soft bed he lay upon. One of them was examining his wound; one checked for fever with a soft hand on his forehead, and another straightened the blanket that covered his legs.
"Dammit, Alice," the one at the foot of the bed whispered. "I can't believe you brought him inside."
It was not heaven, after all, unless angels were given to cursing.
"Watch your mouth, Becky Lee Shorter. That's no kind of language for a lady."
Becky Lee Shorter snorted.
The little one who continued to feel his forehead, as if a blazing fever might erupt at any moment, kept her eyes on the one doing the doctoring. "Is it bad?"
"Yes," the one called Alice answered softly. "But the bullet went straight through, so I won't have to go in and dig anything out."
The idea of that child performing surgery on him brought Joe fully awake. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" he growled, his voice much softer than he'd intended for it to be.
The hand at his forehead was finally removed, as that little caretaker jumped back with a squeal. The child at the end of the bed, the one with the smart mouth, backed toward the door. Only the one who'd been examining his wound, the one they called Alice, seemed unaffected.
"Trying to save your life," she said, looking him square in the eye. "Would you like us to stop?"
He had a feeling that if he said yes she'd do just that. Drag him from this nice, soft bed, drape him over Snowdrop, and send him on his way.
"My horse —" he said.
"She's in the barn," Becky said, her voice and her eyes softening a little. "As soon as she's cooled down I'll feed and water her. She's beautiful."
Joe actually smiled. "Yes, she is. Will you take care of her for me?" Until I'm healed. If I don't make it.
"Sure. What's her name?"
Becky smiled. "What a wonderful name."
The name had been, on occasion, more than a little embarrassing. It was hard to strike terror into the hearts of bad men while riding a horse named Snowdrop. "My sister named her, years ago."
It was some sort of delirium, surely, that made him remember so clearly the day his sister had given Snowdrop to him. The day he'd ridden away from home without looking back. It was delirium, surely, that made him ache for the only family he'd ever known. That was stupid. A waste of time. Those days were gone.
Alice appeared to be in charge, and she cleared her throat to silence the room and interrupt Joe's oddly sentimental memories. "Your wound looks pretty bad, but you might make it."
"Thanks for the encouragement," Joe drawled.
Even though Alice looked to be little more than a child, she had a take-charge gleam in her eye, a no-nonsense severity in her posture. When she told the other girls to get back to their chores, they didn't argue with her.
As the two girls left the room, Alice turned her eyes to him. She took a deep breath, and seemed to be pondering the situation. Hard and long.
"What's your name?" she finally asked.
"My name is Alice Shorter," she said primly." Nice to meet you."
He nodded, as best he could.
Excerpted from One Day, My Prince by Linda Jones. Copyright © 2000 Linda Winstead Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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