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Ryder Kelstrom strolled along one of Wyoming's dusty roads in no particular hurry. He'd chosen the slowest way possible of getting from the East Coast to the West because he had a lot of emotional baggage he wanted to deal with before he met his brother-in-law in Fresno. So here he was, hiking along some desolate county road in a place he'd never heard of, with only a map to guide him to the next town and the next bus station.
Fine by him. He was still sorting through a lot, trying to make sense out of the insanity. He felt events settling inside him, but understanding was still beyond reach. Maybe it always would be.
The sky was turning an ugly black-green, and the clouds hung low and heavy. Getting wet didn't worry him, though. He'd managed to live most of his life outdoors, working construction and eventually owning his own building business. He wasn't one to fear the elements except as a possible delay on a contractual deadline. Right now he didn't have any deadlines at all.
Wind pushed at him suddenly, at first chilly enough that he buttoned up his denim jacket. After another half-mile, though, it suddenly turned warmer.
That was odd. He looked up again and could have sworn some of those inky clouds would have scraped treetops if there had been any trees in sight. These wide-open spaces had become familiar to him in his travels, but it still astonished him sometimes to realize he could look horizon to horizon and not see any sign of habitation. He was used to the denser population of the East, and the seemingly empty spaces he'd found since hitting the Midwest delighted him. It was almost possible to feel as if he were alone on the planet.
Certainly he felt utterly alone these days.
The wind buffeted him again, still warm, nearly knocking him off his feet. He staggered a bit then kept on walking. He was definitely going to get wet. A crackle of lightning in one of the clouds concerned him, though. He seemed to be the tallest thing around for miles.
He heard an engine roaring up from behind him, but he didn't bother to stick out a thumb. It was okay to get wet, and he really wasn't in a mood to converse with a stranger. And these days thumbing a ride didn't get you very far very fast. Most people knew better than to pick up hitchhikers and, as he'd already learned from a cop, hitchhiking was now illegal in many places.
But the engine roared up beside him, and he glanced over to see a woman in a battered pickup pacing him. What the hell?
She turned her head and shouted out to him. "Get in. There's a tornado coming and I have a shelter."
He shook his head. "I'll be fine, ma'am. I may get wet, but what's the likelihood a tornado will find me? Slim, don't you think?"
"You don't understand," she shouted as the wind picked up. "This tornado is a mile wide!"
That drew him up short. A mile wide? He'd never seen a tornado in his life outside of news programs, but even so he could appreciate the size of that danger. He'd have to be really foolish to stay out here.
He turned and she braked the truck to let him climb in. He pulled the heavy backpack off his shoulders, tossing it on the floorboard. When he slid into the passenger seat, he couldn't help but notice that she was pretty, with blond ringlets around her face and nicely delineated features. The kind that would be photogenic for sure.
Nor could he escape noticing that she was pregnant. Very pregnant. No judge of such things, he could only guess that she was in her last trimester.
Before he could register more, she hammered the accelerator and dirt and gravel spun out behind them in the seconds before they gained traction. Then they were speeding down the rutted road, bouncing like balls inside the cab.
"It's coming this way," she said, her voice tight. "Straight at us. My place is only a couple of minutes from here." A huge tumbleweed raced across the road in front of them, but she didn't even slow down.
"Maybe it will blow out," he suggested, trying to offer hope.
"Not likely when it's this big."
What did he know? Just what he'd picked up from casual viewing of the news and weather broadcasts. A mile wide? Instinctively he felt she was right: it wasn't going to die very soon, not with that much power in it.
She rounded a bend in the road and he could have almost sworn two of the wheels lifted from the ground. As they swung around, he got a different view of the sky. Now those black clouds seemed to have reached the earth. Was that the tornado?
Drops of rain splattered the dusty windshield. She ignored it. Ahead he could finally see a small farmhouse sheltered by a circle of trees. A few hundred yards away stood an ancient-looking barn. The buildings seemed to be in a slight dip, which had concealed them from him earlier. She headed straight for the buildings as if she wanted to win the Indy 500.
At the last minute she veered, throwing him against the truck's door. This woman was giving no ground to anything in her determination to reach safety. Her fear reached him and made him even more concerned about the weather's threat.
She braked hard and switched off the ignition. "Come on!"
He jumped out, slamming the truck's door, although he wasn't sure it would do a damn bit of good as it seemed the sky had come to earth, inky green, and was racing toward them.
She ran. He worried that she might stumble but she didn't. Then out of tall grasses he spied a metal door in the ground. She bent to open it, but he brushed her hand aside and did the heavy work himself.
It was a heavy steel door. "Get in," he yelled at her as the wind began to howl and tried to pull the door from his grip. She hurried down some cement stairs, vanishing into the ground. Waiting only a second, he followed, battling to drag the door shut behind him.
The day outside had grown as dark as night, but still he glimpsed the bolts that would hold the door closed. There was a moment of struggle, then he banged it shut. Feeling around, he found the heavy bolts and drove them home.
Even with the door shut, he could hear the banshee's wail of the wind outside. He waited.
Then a flashlight beam punctured the darkness, lighting the stairs.
"Come down," she said, her voice shaking, "in case the door goes."
He obeyed and found himself in a tight shelter. It might have held six or eight people at most, but it had a few comforts: a couple of benches, flashlights, a battery-operated radio. It was enough to survive the onslaught.
By the glow of the flashlight, he watched her twist her hands nervously as she listened to the wind howl. He tried to think of something reassuring to say, but he couldn't imagine what. There was a tornado coming and they could do nothing but ride it out.
"My house," she said, fear edging her voice.
"Worry about that if you have to," he said as gently as he could. "We don't know. It might miss you entirely."
"I hope so."
"What about your husband? He's not home I gather."
"He's dead," she said baldly.
He sure as hell didn't know how to respond to that. A woman so far along in pregnancy, and she had no husband to help her? That was pretty bad all by itself, especially out here in what seemed to him, at least, to be the middle of nowhere. "Anybody else?"
"I haven't lived here that long. I don't really know anybody but my doctor."
He was sure this line of conversation wasn't making her feel any better. When she reached over and switched on the battery-operated radio, he was glad of it.
Static hissed loudly, and a mechanical voice advised there was a tornado warning for all of Conard County. It advised taking shelter immediately because there was a large funnel moving northeast from the state highway. Several other funnels had been spotted.
"That's not good," she said, her voice thin. He watched her gaze trail to the storm door that protected them, and just at that moment something banged it hard. They both jumped a little.
The mechanical warning kept repeating in the background, fading out completely to static from time to time. How long could this go on? Ryder wondered. Only a few minutes, surely. But how would they know whether the storm was still approaching and when it had passed? Maybe they'd get an all-clear.
She looked ghastly in the flashlight's beam, and her face seemed to grow more pinched with every second.
"I guess I should introduce myself," he said, hoping to distract her. "I'm Ryder Kelstrom."
Her frightened gaze left the door and returned to him.
"When's the baby coming?"
"About two months."
"It feels like forever sometimes." But he noted the protective way she folded her arms over her belly, cradling her unborn child. "Boy or girl?" he asked.
"Girl. I'm going to call her Linda Marie."
"That's pretty." Maybe talking about the baby was the ticket, he decided, not that he had a whole lot of experience with pregnant women. His own wife had never wanted to conceive, a good thing given how it had all turned out. It was hard enough to explain her suicide to himself without having to explain it to a child.
"Have you got everything ready?"
Before she could answer, however, something else slammed the steel door, nearly deafening them, and then a steady hammering began. Hail maybe. It was loud enough to drown out the radio, which might actually be a mercy.
"I'm from back East," he remarked, raising his voice to be heard, trying more distraction. "I'm not used to this."
"I'm not used to this, either," she called back. "I've only been here a few months. I never expected this."
"Nobody does," he agreed. "I bet even the people who live in Tornado Alley don't expect it'll hit them."
But she was looking at the door again, as if she feared it might give way under the assault. He kind of wondered himself, although he'd felt its heft and weight and judged it to be sturdy. But he had no idea how it might react to a truly powerful tornado. Photos of heaped debris didn't tell him much about the tensile strength of a door like that, just a lot about the tensile strength of the wood used in construction.
"Do you work?" he asked as the elements beat on the door like an insane drummer.
"What?" Her face turned back to him. "Oh. No. I didn't need to, at least not until after the baby" She broke off sharply as the storm's giant fist pounded the door again.
Who would have thought, Ryder wondered, that you might need ear protection in a storm shelter?
Then, so suddenly as to be startling, the world fell absolutely silent.
After a few seconds, she whispered in the silence. "It can't be over yet. That was a big storm."
He agreed. "The tornado might have passed, but the weather still has to be threatening. I guess we should wait for an all-clear from the radio."
"I guess." She wrapped her arms more tightly around her belly, protectively. "The house. It's all I really have."
"Do you have insurance?"
She shook her head. "We couldn't afford it. My husband inherited it, and when he lost his job we moved out here. We figured we could make it on land leases until one of us found work."
"Then you lost him. So no income at all?"
"Just from the leases. There's a lot of land. We've leased it to grow hay, and some as grazing land. It's not a lot, but it was enough for the basics."
She glanced at the door again as the drumming resumed.
"Everything may be okay," he said pointlessly. Although it was easy to tell someone not to worry about things they didn't know, and they certainly didn't know if anything had happened to her house, worry seemed to be a natural human state.
He hated sitting here like this, unable to do anything but wait, and if he hated it, so must she. She had a lot more at stake. But if he'd learned anything at all from his marriage to Brandy, it was that sometimes no amount of effort could solve a problem.
Of course, he still wasn't sure which lessons to take from that. It didn't seem to have improved his patience any. But Brandy had tested his patience for years. He'd learned to roll with the punches and deal with each day as it came. Maybe that was the maximum patience a man could learn.
The radio crackled and a voice came back, telling them the tornado warning had been lifted for Conard County.
Then Marti reached out to switch the dial, and a staticky news station came on. The sheriff reported that damage to Conard City appeared to be minimal, but they were still awaiting reports from outlying areas. Power and telephones were out, and some cell towers seemed to be down. The station pleaded for folks to check on their neighbors and find a way to report emergencies to the sheriff's department.
Marti looked at the closed storm door again, and Ryder could read the anxiety in every line of her. She needed to look but was afraid to.
Finally, despite the drumbeat of what he assumed to be rain, Ryder realized that nothing heavy was battering them any longer, and the wind had stopped wailing. Time to check.
He climbed the stairs, unlocked the bolts and threw the door back.
"Oh my God," he heard Marti say on a breath right behind him.
If it hadn't passed right overhead, the tornado had certainly come close. He saw a cluster of debris around the shelter opening, and beyond it he could see her house.
Part of the roof was gone and some of the trees had come down, although not on the house, the only mercy he could see. The tree trunks looked like splintered matchwood, giving him some idea of the power of the storm that had just passed them.
He shoved debris aside, making a clear path for the woman behind him. He didn't want her tripping on anything.
Then he climbed out and turned to offer her a hand. Steady rain fell, although not heavily, and the sky had lightened to a deep gray. The inky green was gone.
But so was part of her life.