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A grouse burst from the sagebrush in an explosion of wings. Eve Bailey brought her horse up short, heart jammed in her throat and, for the first time, was aware of just how far she'd ridden from the ranch.
The wind had kicked up, the horizon to the west dark with thunderheads. She could smell the rain in the air.
She'd ridden into the badlands, leaving behind the prairie with its deep grasses to ride through sage and cactus, to find herself in no–man's–land with a storm coming.
Below her lay a deep gorge the Missouri River had carved centuries ago through the harsh eastern Montana landscape. Erosion had left hundreds of ravines in the unstable soil, and the country was now badlands for miles, without a road, let alone another person in sight.
Eve stared at the unforgiving land, her heart just as desolate. She should never have come home.
The wind whirled dust around her, the horizon blackening with clouds that now swept toward her.
She had to turn back. She'd been foolish to ride this far out so late in the day, let alone with a storm coming.
Even if she took off now she would never reach the ranch before the weather hit. Yet she still didn't move.
She couldn't get the image of what she'd seen out of her mind. Her mother and another man. She felt sick at the memory of the man she'd seen leaving her mother's house by the back door.
She shivered. The temperature was dropping rapidly. She had to turn back now. She'd been so upset that she'd ridden off dressed only in jeans and a T–shirt, and there was no shelter between here and the ranch.
A storm this time of year could be deadly for anyone withoutshelter. Turning her horse, she bent her head against the wind as the rainstorm moved in.
A low moan filled the air. She brought her horse up short again and listened. Another low, agonizing moan rose on the wind. She turned back to listen. The sound seemed to be coming from the ravine below her.
A gust of wind kicked up dust, whirling it around her. She bent her head against the grit that burned her eyes as she swung down from her horse and stepped to the edge of the steep ravine.
Shielding her eyes, she peered down. Far below, along a wide rocky ledge, stood a thick stand of giant junipers. As the wind whipped down the steep slope, the branches parted and—
There was something there, deep in the trees. She saw the glint of metal in the dull light and what could have been a scrap of clothing.
Goose bumps rose on her arms as she heard the low moan again. Someone was down there.
The first few drops of rain slashed down, cold and wet as they soaked instantly into her clothing. She barely noticed as the air filled with another moan. She caught sight of movement. From behind the thick nest of junipers, a scrap of faded red fabric flapped in the wind.
"Hello!" she called, the wind picking up her words and hurling them across the wide ravine.
Common sense told her to head toward the ranch before the weather got any worse. Eve Bailey was no stranger to the risk of living in such an isolated, unpopulated part of the state. She'd been born and raised only miles from here. She knew how quickly a storm could come in.
This part of Montana was famous for extreme temperature changes that could occur from within hours to a matter of minutes. It was hard country in which to survive. Five generations of Baileys would attest to that.
But if there was someone down there, someone injured, she couldn't just leave them.
"Hello!" she called again, and was answered by that same low, agonizing moan. Below her, the scrap of red cloth fluttered in the wind and, beside it, what definitely appeared to be metal glittered. What was down there?
A gust of wind howled past, and another low moan rose from the trees. She glanced back at the ominous clouds, then down into the vertical–sided ravine as she debated what to do.
She was going to have to go down there–and on foot. It was one thing to risk her own neck, but there was no way she was going to risk her horse's.
The ravine was a sheer drop at the top, widening as it fell to the ledge and growing steeper again as it dropped to the old riverbed far below. This end of Fort Peck Reservoir was dry from years of drought, the water having receded miles down this canyon.
Across the chasm the mountains were dark with pines. This side was nothing but eroded earth and a few stands of wind–warped junipers hanging on for dear life.
Eve loosely tied her horse to a tall sage. If she didn't get back before the storm hit, she didn't want her mare being struck by lightning. Better to let the horse get to lower ground just in case, even though it meant she'd have to find the mare to get home.
From experience she knew the soil into the ravine would be soft and unstable. But she hadn't expected it to give under her weight the way it did. The top layer of dirt and shale began to avalanche downward, taking it with her from her first step off.
She slid, descending too fast, first on her feet, then on her jean–clad bottom. She dug in her heels, but it didn't slow her down, let alone stop her. As she barreled toward the ledge, she realized with growing concern that if the junipers didn't stop her, then she was headed for the bottom of the ravine.
The eerie sound again filled the air. The wind and rain chilled her to the bone as she slid at breakneck speed toward the sound. She swept past an outcropping of rock and grabbed hold of a jutting rock. But she couldn't hold on.
The rough rock scraped off her skin, now painful and bleeding, but the attempt had slowed her down a little. Now if the junipers would just stop her—
That's when she saw the break in the rock ledge. While the ledge ran across the ravine, a part of it had slid out and was now funnel shaped. Eve was heading right for the break in the rocks.
Just before the ledge, she grabbed for the thickest juniper limb she could reach and hung on. The bark tore off more skin from her already bloody palm as her hand slid along it and finally caught. The pain was excruciating.
Worse, her momentum swung her around the branch and smacked her hard into another thick trunk, but she was finally stopped. She took a ragged breath, exhaling on a sob of pain, relief and fear as she crouched on the ledge and tried to get herself under control.
Trembling from the cold and the fall down the ravine, she pulled herself up by one of the branches. She'd banged her ankle on a loose rock at the base of the junipers. It ached, but she was just thankful that it wasn't broken as she stood, clinging to the branch, and looked down.
She'd never liked heights. She swayed, sick to her stomach as she saw how the ground dropped vertically to a huge pile of rocks in the river bottom far below.
Her legs were trembling, her body aching, hands bleeding and scraped, but her feet were on solid ground.
A jagged flash of lightning split the sky overhead, followed quickly by a reverberating boom of thunder.
Through the now–pouring rain, Eve looked back up the steep slope she'd just plunged down. No chance of getting out that way. She felt sick to her stomach because she had no idea how she was going to get herself out of here, let alone anyone else.
"Hello?" she called out.
No answer. "Is anyone down here?" she called again. She listened. Nothing but the sound of the rain on the rocks at her feet.
She couldn't see the scrap of red cloth. Nor whatever had appeared to glint like metal from the top of the ravine. The junipers grew so thick she couldn't see into them or around them. Nor was she sure she could get past them the way they crowded the ledge.
The wind howled down the ravine as the sky darkened and the brunt of the storm settled in, the rain turning to sleet. From deep in the trees came the eerie low moan.
Chilled to the bone, Eve edged along the rock ledge, clinging to branches to keep from falling as she moved toward the sound. The sleet fell harder, the wind blowing it horizontally across the ravine.
She hadn't gone but a few yards when she heard a faint flapping sound—the cloth she'd seen from the top of the ravine! She moved toward the sound and saw the strap of faded red fabric, the edges frayed and ragged. Past the cloth, dented and dusty metal gleamed dully in the cloud–obscured light.