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Brave Rock, Oklahoma Territory
Fast wasn't fast enough.
Clint Thornton ignored the knot of iron tightening in his gut. He told his fear to go away, to stop growing colder and heavier with each minute, each uncrossed acre, each dangerous stretch of land between himself and the Brinkerhoff homestead. Oklahoma was hot and dry in June. A fire could turn deadly in a split second. And the fastest fire of all was one that had been set to kill.
He bent over his horse, boots digging into the animal's flanks. Faster. Clint's breath tightened to short, hard gasps. If he failed, Katrine would soon be gasping as well, lungs frantic for air, throat singed by the heat, chest bound by the dread of a cabin burning around her. The men threatening the homestead were once soldiers, after all, men trained in the taking of lives. A renegade soldier was a dangerous man indeed. Clint had learned they were seeking to burn a cabin to the ground tonight, but only when he'd followed a gut instinct to check on the Brinkerhoff place had he learned the blood-chilling truth.
Snapping his reins against the horse's sweating flesh, Clint pressed on toward the four torchlights circling the tiny, nearly finished dwelling in the middle-of-the-night darkness just over the hill.
Katrine had nothing to do with any of this, but that wouldn't stop the cavalrymen or the flames they were about to set. They were looking to kill her brother, Lars, the witness to their crimes, and if she happened to die as well it would be of no consequence to them.
Clint yelled out to the men, hoping to distract them and buy Katrine more time, but he was still too far away for them to hear. The knot in his gut seemed to constrict around his whole body as he watched the leader of those men. In a cruel trick of moonlight, Clint saw Samuel McGraw casually, almost amusingly, touch his torch to the roof of a shed next to the cabin. Air fled Clint's lungs in a helpless whoosh that seemed to say "too late."
No. It could not be too late. Clint yelled, "McGraw!" once, then louder, jabbing the horse with frantic boot heels. "McGraw!" Some survival instinct took over from there, turning his voice to one of conspiratorial indifference even as his insides were going off like cannons at the thought of Katrine trapped in the smoke. Even as he watched embers float lazily from the shed to settle and ignite on the homestead roof. "McGraw, it's Thornton. Hold on there!"
Finally he was close enough to see McGraw's face as he handed his torch to another man and peered in Clint's direction. "Thornton?"
Clint kept at full gallop the last few feet into the homestead yard, even as the fire began lapping up the structure's roof. "There's men behind me," he panted, hoping his breathlessness would come off as strain, not fear. "Just up over the ridge. Go." He pulled on the reins as his horse made uneasy circles, spooked by the growing fire. "Get yourselves gone. I'll cover. I'll say the place was burning when I came up on it."
He needed them to believe he was on their side if his plan to infiltrate the Black Four gang would ever work. But he also needed them to leave so he could save Katrine. McGraw, evidently one to see a job done, didn't seem too eager to be gone. Clint's heartbeat pounded ice against the heat now flushing his face. The ice threatened to swallow him altogether when he heard the sound of a bang from inside. It did swallow him when he saw the plank the soldiers had nailed across the homestead door.
"Get on out of here," he insisted as hard as he dared. "I've reason to be here, you don't. I'll cover for you but it won't do one lick of good in five minutes if you're not gone."
"He's right," Bryson Reeves, another of McGraw's cronies, said as he tossed his torch into the little set of rosebushes Katrine had optimistically planted along the east wall. Clint felt them burning as if the flames nipped at his own throat. "Let's get gone, Sam."
Clint flung himself down off his horse with what he hoped looked like indifference. Every inch between him and that barred front door yawned long and deadly. He gestured over the ridge he'd just rushed down. "Land sakes, McGraw, are you waitin' for an invitation? Go!"
McGraw considered for an excruciating moment, Clint's throat turning to knots as he heard yet another sound from within. The Brinkerhoff homestead held no windows, no way out but the door barred behind him. He thought he heard a cough and imagined Katrine sinking to the floor, her pale hands clasping at her throat. He felt the heat of the flames prickle the back of his neck. The urge to rush over there and physically push McGraw off toward the river nearly overpowered him. He heard a small, insistent thud from the side of the house away from the men and for a terrible moment imagined he was hearing Katrine's body hit the wall.
Then he remembered the logs. The loose two logs on the far side of the house, the ones Katrine was always complaining let the wind in to chill the room. He heard more thuds and realized she was trying to kick them out. Kick, he pleaded to her silently as his hands fisted in frustration. Keep kicking.
"I'm handin' you a gift here, McGraw. Are you too dumb to take it? You've got four minutes, maybe five afore those men behind me catch up and see you standin' here with torches while this shack burns."
"Fine!" McGraw pronounced after what felt like a year, turning his horse and waving his henchmen to ride off.
Clint forced himself to stand and watch, shoving his weight back on one hip as if the burning house was just another prairie brushfire. The kicking behind him had slowed and stopped, halting his blood right along with it. Just twenty more feet. That's all he needed.
Because God have mercy on him if he had to watch one more person die
It was as if the walls of the tiny cabin had come alive, creeping toward her like prowling animals. Katrine's eyes stung, far more from the smoke over her head than from the tears wetting her cheeks. The smoke made it impossible to shout, so she'd tried the door, but it would not open. She'd heard voicesthere were men outside, but they did not open the door. They were not here to save her. The Black Four had struck again, had come to burn down the house to push her off her land. Her brother, Lars, had worried the terrible gang might someday stoop to killing, but she never imagined they would begin with her. I'm not ready for Heaven, she begged God, even though she knew He would welcome her. I'm not brave enough to die. Not like this, not trapped. Not alone.
Not yet. Turning in frantic circles, Katrine scanned the four stalking walls, searching for any help. It was so hard to see, so awful to breathe. My Lord, my protector, save me. She pulled in another scorching breath, seeing the edges of her vision curl in and grow dark. How could even the Black Four bear to stand out there and watch a soul burn to death?
Stumbling to the table more by feel than by sight, Katrine found a dishcloth, then the Mason jar that still held black-eyed Susans from the supper table she'd set.
The supper Lars had not come home to eat. She pulled the flowers from the jar and stuffed the dishcloth inside, the water feeling cool against the growing heat of the room.
For a stunned moment Katrine wondered why she could suddenly see, why the room glowed orange. Then, pressing the blissfully cool cloth over her nose and mouth, she peered up just in time to see a flaming chunk of the roof fall with a hollow whoosh and settle on Lars's bed.
Had they found Lars first? Was he already dead? Katrine's heart froze at the thought that her brother, who'd saved her from how many dangers since they'd come to America, might no longer be alive to save her now. No, he must be alive, she declared silently. He must live and make a future for himself in this new town, maybe a family Her thoughts were coming in tangles now and her eyes stung so badly. Where was Lars? He'd know what to do. He'd built this cabin for the two of them; he'd know how to keep it from being their tomb. Think, Katrine, try to think.
The beams overhead gave a dreadful groan and Katrine backed away from the noise, grabbing the jar of water as she did. She stuffed the dishcloth into the water again, but its paltry contents didn't help much against the smoke and heat now filling the room. Why, why hadn't she fought harder with Lars to make windows? He said they would only let in the cold, but the drafty corner did that already.
The drafty corner. The pair of loose logs on the corner of the house. Oh, how she'd cursed those cracks, how they seemed to welcome the flies and dust into the room. Lars had not yet fixed them; they still wiggled when a boot kicked them hard enough. Katrine crouched down and crawled over to the corner, not caring how the split-log floor snagged on her nightshift or scraped against her knees. Behind her, gold light burst out into the room, and Katrine turned to see Lars's coverlet consumed in flames. It gave her just enough light to find the logs and shift around to start kicking.
Her shifting knocked over a chair, but she merely pushed it aside and continued to slam her bare feet against the loose wood. It shifted, but not enough. "Flytte!" she yelled, commanding the logs to give way in her native Danish as she kicked them again. Behind her the fire's crackle and growl seemed to come closer. Katrine moved up and began kicking with both feet, not caring about the growing pain on her heelswhat would that matter in a few minutes as she lay gasping? The air seemed to race away from her, stealing the breath she needed to keep kicking. She could feel her efforts growing weaker, feel how the smoke robbed her strength.
Keep kicking. Her leg wobbled as she forced it against the log, and somewhere through the thickness of her mind she heard a voice. She thought she heard crumbling, imagined the log was pulling itself from the cabin, coming to life to save hers.
She couldn't actually say whether the voice was real or imagined. Everything was spinning into a black hole in her mind, like water draining through the bottom of a barrel.
The rush of night air hit her face like a slap, clear and startling. She heard a man's growl of effort as another log shuddered loose and fell onto the floor beside her. Air. "Here! Through here!" the voice called. Without thinking, Katrine turned and reached through the ragged opening, clinging to the hands that grabbed her outstretched fingers.
The change in air was astounding. Yellow sparks swirled against a dark violet sky as she felt herself pulled from the menacing heat. Katrine sucked down a huge draught of air, only to curl over in a cough that seemed to tear her throat into pieces. Before she could catch her breath, the hands dragged her across the cool prairie grass as the most dreadful, most unearthly sound filled her ears. A wind-filled echo, an evil rush of air such as she'd never heard before. Katrine looked up to see her home, her cabin, sprout flames from every corner and tumble in on itself, spouting in a volcano of smoke and sparks.
The fire burned hot and bright in all directions, throwing sharp light and flickering long shadows into the night. She coughed again, tasting coal and acid, and felt a hand on her back. Turning to look, she saw the face of Clint Thornton. She was safe in the grip of the town sheriff, thank goodness.
Fear widened his dark brown eyes, sweat glistened on his cheek even as it plastered the front of his dark hair against his forehead. "Are you all right, Katrine? Are you hurt?" His voice was tight and dark with worry.
Was she? She wasn't sure she even knew. Too parched to speak, Katrine managed a weak nod, giving over to the shivers that suddenly took her. She hugged herself and drew up her knees, appalled to remember she was in nothing more than a summer nightshift.
Sheriff Thornton kneeled in front of her, shucking off his coat to wrap it around her shoulders. He took each of her hands and arms in turn, checking them for cuts and bruises. His touch was quick and reassuring. Her feet throbbed and felt as if they were covered in scratches, but she could move them. She started to say, "I'm fine," but the words only became another cough. When he went to stand up, Katrine grabbed his hand, stopping him until he looked at her.
"Thank you," she managed in a thin whisper that hurt with each word. She squeezed his arm again. Sheriff Thornton was Lars's good friend. Surely he would know about her brother. "Lars? Is Lars alive?"
"Yes and no."
Katrine felt her fear surge back up. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Lars is safe, but only if no one knows."
She blinked up at him, confused.
His dark brows furrowed. "I have a plan, Katrine, but you may not like what it is."