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The Texas Frontier, 1826
Katherine Barclay straightened from stirring the laundry in the iron pot. She swept loose tendrils of hair back from her face and schooled her features into patience before she turned to her sixteen-year-old sister-in-law. Mary ran into the yard of the garrison, not wearing a wrap to protect her from the winds sweeping across the coastal plains. The young woman was recovering from a fever and didn't have the sense to cover her head on this frosty Texas day?
But Mary revered Kit, and while that admiration frequently tried Kit's patience, she had to remain conscious of it. There was no living with the girl if Kit hurt her feelings.
"What is it?" Kit asked, at the same time Mary blurted, "A man is riding this way!"
Kit's heart thumped. Could it be John? Had the word they'd received of his death on the Texas border been a mistake?
She tamped down that hope as she'd trained herself to do. Fear rose in its place. Only she, Mary and her mother-in-law, Agnes, remained at the garrison standing guard between the Karankawa tribe and Stephen Austin's colony of San Felipe. The other inhabitants had fled. John had urged Kit to accompany him on his mission back to the States, but their young son, Daniel, had been sick. She'd feared traveling would make him worse. Agnes and Mary had agreed to stay with her, a fact she'd been grateful for when she received word that her husband had been killed in a skirmish with outlaws, and when she'd buried her son a week later.
Before regret could squeeze her heart, she closed the door on it. She couldn't dwell on the past now. She was in charge. As much as she loved Agnes and Mary, they were too frail for this frontier life. And now their safety was threatened.
She released the stirring stick she'd been gripping and flexed her cold, aching fingers. "Where is this man?"
"He's coming from the northeast. We saw him through the window."
Another transgression. They shouldn't have had the window set in the fort wall open, not when the January wind had such a bite. The last thing Kit needed was to bury her sister-in-law if she caught another fever. Kit stepped away from the laundry fire and snatched her wrap from the chair nearby. She folded the woolen fabric around herself as she headed for the steps leading to the top of the wooden cabin that sat just inside the fort wall.
"Stay here," she ordered over her shoulder as Mary began to follow.
The command did no good, and the young woman trotted behind her up the steps.
Wind whipped at Kit's already wild hair and tore through her thin cloak and damp dress. The low gray clouds offered no hope of sun. She buried her hands in the folds of her cloak and scanned the flat horizon.
There, astride a beautiful roan, slumped a man in a saddle, heading straight toward the garrison.
Alarm shot through her as she realized she'd left her loaded rifle beside the chair where her cloak had been. She cursed her lack of foresight. She hadn't expected him to be so close.
She whirled to run for the rifle when a movement from the man caught her eye. She turned back just in time to see him drop out of the saddle and remain motionless on the road.
Drunk, was her first thought. Or hurt. Or sick.
She stiffened. No more sickness. She couldn't bear expending her energy on someone else she couldn't help.
She stared at the man, so still in the golden dry grass, his horse standing patiently beside him, and gnawed her lip in indecision.
Mary gripped her arm, huddling against Kit for warmth. "What are we going to do?"