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Touch Of Texas
By Tracy Garrett
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Teresa Garrett
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWest Texas, Early March, 1890
Whoever said hell was hot had lied. It was cold, bitter cold. Not that he'd live to tell anyone of the discovery. The snow came down sideways, so hard Jake McCain couldn't see past the end of his horse's nose. He had no way to tell where he was or where he was going. The icy pellets were like razor sharp knives, flaying his face until he figured he must be bleeding. Lucky for him the cold kept him from feeling much of anything. Death dogged his heels and he couldn't find the energy to care.
He'd climbed from the saddle an hour ago-or was it only a few minutes-and started walking. He hated using his horse as a windbreak, but the animal's hide could take the stinging ice longer than his own skin, no matter how many layers of clothes he wore. But Griffin was beginning to tire. If Jake didn't find shelter soon, they'd find whatever was left of him and his horse at the next thaw.
Jake braced himself against the saddle before lifting his head enough to look around. The vicious wind stole his breath. He could barely force his eyes open against the onslaught. He usually had a good sense of direction and distance, but the blizzard and the vicious beating he'd taken at the hands of the men he was supposed to bearresting made it impossible to be sure of anything. He could be close to the mining town he'd been heading for, or miles from anywhere.
Jake narrowed his eyes against the blowing snow and ice. Something flickered, only for an instant, in the distance. Was it his imagination? He started for the spot. Real or not, he'd rather be going somewhere than standing around waiting to freeze to death.
He struggled forward, toward the light, or where he thought it should be. He'd lost sight of it. Jake ducked his head behind Griffin's neck, squeezed his eyes shut a couple of times and looked again, but it was gone. Had he somehow gotten turned around? Just when he decided he'd been walking in circles, the wind backed off, the snow lessened, and he saw the light again.
He concentrated on each step, putting one foot in front of the other. Griffin stumbled, catching him by surprise and taking them both to the ground. It took all Jake's will to drag himself to his feet and urge the big horse back up. He buried his battered face against the animal's furry neck, and trudged on, making for that little flicker of salvation.
The next time he looked up he couldn't see the light. Must've been his imagination after all. He took a step, sinking in a drift. Jake thought of his mother, alone in Abilene. He hoped whoever gave her the news of his death was gentle with it. He dragged his other foot forward. His frozen boot caught on something and he fell face down in the snow. Wooden planks broke his fall instead of rock hard ground. He tried to lift his head, but it took too much effort. Griffin took advantage of the stop to turn his rump to the wind, leaving Jake with no protection from the vicious storm.
Battling against the brutal cold, he dragged himself forward. His head bumped something solid. He pulled himself up until he leaned against a thick wood door, but he didn't have the strength left to knock. Cursing his weakness, Jake tried to force a hand up. No use. Both lay limp at his sides.
If he'd had the breath, he would have laughed at the cruel joke life had played on him, one of many tossed his way. He'd made it-somewhere-and he was going to die anyway. His mind rebelled at the thought of the bastards finally beating him, but even failing his last assignment couldn't give him the strength to lift a fist. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back. At least he would be found and buried properly.
When the darkness came, he fought against giving in, but it was stronger, dragging him down into the unending black.
Rachel Hudson stopped pacing so abruptly the hem of her nightdress fanned the flame in the hearth. What was that noise? It sounded like something hitting the porch.
"Just a tree limb, Rachel," she whispered to the empty room. A branch torn out and flung by the wind.
Her little brother was asleep. He'd gone to bed hours ago and not even the first blizzard these parts had ever seen was going to keep the eight-year-old awake. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the shrieking wind.
There it was again. Crossing to the uncovered window, she shielded her eyes against the flickering light from the candle on the sill and stared into the yard. She couldn't see anything through the swirling snow. Had she left one of the animals outside? She did a quick count. All were safely inside the enclosure across the room.
Curiosity had always been one of her failings, as her brother so often reminded her, and it got the better of her now. Intending to take only a quick peek, she lifted the heavy bar from the door and set it in the corner. Wrapping the blanket tight around her shoulders, she leaned all her weight into the door before lifting the latch. Even braced for it, the wind shoved her back several inches before she caught her balance to push it closed again.
It wouldn't budge. Glancing down, she jumped back, screaming in fright. A body blocked the door.
"Mister!" She shouted against the wind.
No response came from the unconscious man. Rachel reached for him with one hand, but the wind ripped the door away. Struggling to keep her balance, she hung on to the heavy wood and prodded his arm with her toe. Still nothing. She abandoned the door and let it bang against the inside wall. The man obviously needed help, and if she left him where he was, they'd all freeze to death before morning.
"Nathan!" Hollering for her brother, she tried to drag the man inside but he was too heavy for her to budge. "Nathan, wake up. Help me!" She tried again, but slipped in the snow and fell. Gathering herself again, she pulled as hard as she could. It was no use. She couldn't move him.
Rachel scrambled backward with a cry as a huge black shape stepped over the prone man and into the room. "A horse," she laughed at her own rising hysteria. "Only a horse." She rolled to one side to keep from being trampled. As the animal passed, the man lying in her doorway moved. She stared, thinking she must have imagined it. Then she saw the reins wrapped tightly around the man's hand.
Sliding in the snow that blew into the room, she got to her feet and grabbed the animal's reins. Talking over the howling wind, she urged the beast forward until it dragged the stranger across the threshold.
Dropping to her knees and grunting with effort, she rolled the man onto his side and shoved at his legs until his boots were inside. She was shivering with cold by the time Nathan joined her, his shirt hanging out and his blond hair mussed.
"Need ... door ... closed," she managed through chattering teeth. Together they struggled to close the door and drop the bar back in place. Instantly, the sound of the wind diminished, making her feel warmer, safer.
"Put on your boots and ..." She blew warm air on her freezing fingers, willing the shivering to stop. "Then add wood to the fire." She stepped around the huge bulk of the horse. "And please get this horse out of my way."
Grumbling about her lack of a thank you for his help, the young boy did as she asked, for which Rachel was grateful. From the looks of the man on the floor, they had no time to argue about manners.
Nathan stuffed his feet into the boots that stood near the stove and added a couple of logs to the fire, poking at the wood until it caught and flared. "That should help soon."
Rachel struggled with the man's bulk, trying to move him closer to the growing warmth.
"Sis, that won't work. He's too heavy. Move him like before." Nathan grabbed the bridle and led the horse toward the fire, not stopping until the stranger lay full length in front of the flames. Then he bent over to take the reins from the man's hand.
They didn't budge. "Come on, mister. Let go." The boy tugged and yanked, but the man had a death grip on the leather.
"Maybe you could cut them free?" Rachel shook snow from her nightdress and joined him.
"Don't want to if I don't have to." He studied the horse for a few seconds, then reached for the buckle on the bridle. "I'll just take the tack off. I can control him without it. This big ol' horse won't give me any trouble, will you, boy."
While he struggled with ice-crusted leather, Rachel knelt on the floor and concentrated on the man. Careful not to jar him too much, she set to work stripping off layers of wet clothing.
Ice crusted around the buttons of his heavy coat and the fabric was stretched tight across his chest. She hoped that meant he had on lots of clothes beneath. Otherwise she was trying to save a dead man. As it was, she wasn't sure how he'd managed to survive in the storm.
As if her thought had summoned it, the wind picked up, slamming icy pellets against the windows and walls. The chickens across the room shifted in their cages, squawking their displeasure at being disturbed. The goats picked up the tune, until a barnyard symphony threatened to deafen them.
"Quiet down over there," Nathan scolded. "Howling about the wind won't make it stop."
Rachel tossed her long blond hair over her shoulder and bent to her task, repeating Nathan's words until her heart slowed a bit. God, she hated the wind. It always seemed to bring grief and death.
She had the buttons undone and the coat off one arm when the bridle hit the floor beside her. Nathan grabbed the huge horse's mane and coaxed the animal across the room to the makeshift corral. She heard him grunt and swear as he shoved aside the sea chest to make room for the new arrival.
"There's no call to curse, young man," she scolded automatically, then undermined the reprimand by muttering a few unladylike words of her own. She ignored Nathan's snicker. "If the horse can wait, I need your help."
"He'll be all right. I can check him over later, but he doesn't seem anything but cold." Nathan moved a bucket of water close enough for the big animal to reach, then crossed the room and dropped to his knees next to her. "What should I do?"
"Help me with his clothes."
Rolling him side to side, they stripped off layer after layer. The stranger's grunt of pain when she bumped his ribs slowed her a little, but also reassured her. If he could feel pain, he wasn't dead.
"Sorry, mister, but I've got to get you out of these wet clothes or you'll freeze to death."
When the stranger lay with only his red flannel Union suit covering his modesty, Rachel sat back to rest and take her first good look at the stranger. She sucked in a breath when she caught sight of the cuts and bruises on his face. "Oh, Nathan, look. He's taken a nasty fall-or a beating."
She smoothed his black hair out of the way and examined his face, stroking her fingers along one side of his nose, then the other. She felt a slight curve, evidence the bone had been abused in the past, but it didn't seem to be broken now. She wished she could be more certain. She only had experience with the bruises and scrapes Mama's lady friends in El Paso had after a customer got too rough.
"Is he gonna be all right?"
"I don't know. Let's pray his injuries are no worse than what we can see."
Together they rolled him onto his side again to strip the red flannel down his arms and past the bunched leather of the bridle still held in the man's fist.
As she worked, Rachel's hand accidentally brushed the smooth skin of his back and a strange, quivering warmth whipped through her insides to settle in her belly. She snatched her hand away. What was wrong with her?
With Nathan's help, she slid a blanket under the man and laid him down again. Rachel bent to examine the nasty bruise blooming blue and purple all along his left side. "It looks like he's been kicked."
Nathan squinted at the injury. "More than once, I'd say."
She prodded the man's ribs, ignoring his moans of pain.
She shook her head. "I don't think so. But that won't make it hurt less."
Nathan leaned a little closer. "Who woulda done that to him, Sis? Nobody from around here, that's for sure."
She wanted to reassure her brother, but she knew it wasn't necessarily true. A man could change without warning. She'd seen the madness ...
Rachel slammed the door on the memories and concentrated on the present. It had been a decent year for the folks living near Lucinda. None of them did this, she was certain.
That meant more strangers. Her eyes snapped to the door. Were they still out in the storm, looking for shelter? The bar was in place across the door, but it didn't reassure her as much as she would have liked.
Shaking her head, she shoved the worry into a corner of her mind. She had enough to think about right now just getting this one stranger warm.
She took the blanket from around her shoulders and laid it over his broad chest. Nathan bent to tug off the stranger's boots as she reached for the Union suit bunched at his waist.
"Uh, Sis, should you be doin' that? I mean, you bein' a girl and all."
"This isn't the time to worry about modesty. If we don't get him warm, he won't live to care about it."
"Yes, ma'am." But she caught the stain of red that crawled up her brother's neck.
"Once you get his boots off, you can cover him up for me as I get the last of this off."
He nodded, relief obvious on his young face.
She sighed. Nathan was too young to be her protector, but he'd taken on the role late last fall. He'd gone for a solitary walk after dinner and returned to announce that, as the man of the family, he was responsible for protecting her. At the time she'd thought it sweet. Now, more often than not, it was a nuisance. But, she had to admit, she'd been grateful for his diligence more than once since then.
She glanced up in time to see him tumble backward in a tangle of gangly arms and legs when the boot he was pulling on finally came free. The flash of temper in his golden-brown eyes had her biting back the laughter that threatened to bubble out.
Grumbling about wet leather and big feet, Nathan attacked the second boot. Soon, both boots stood beside the fire, close enough to dry but far enough away not to scorch.
She smiled her approval. Nathan might be stubborn, but he usually remembered a lesson once he'd learned it. Wearing a pair of shoes for a year with scorch marks on both toes helped.
As soon as Nathan had the man's boots off, Rachel reached for the flannel, blushing to the roots of her blond hair. Nathan knocked her hands aside.
"I'll do that. You go get some more blankets or somethin'."
Instead of arguing, she pushed to her feet and dropped another log onto the fire. She eyed the wood stacked in the corner away from the hearth and prayed it would last until the storm broke.
Stumbling with weariness, Rachel made her way around the pile of soggy clothes to the sea chest that served as one wall of their animal enclosure. Puffing with effort, she lifted the heavy lid and pulled out every piece of wool she could find, blankets, coats, even an old dress worn thin from long use.
"Leave that be," she scolded the goat as it nudged in to nip at the clothing. "You've already had your supper."
By the time she returned, Nathan had the man's drawers off and another layer of warm wool spread over him. His feet peeked out because the blanket was too short to cover his long legs. Turning back to the chest, she dug out two pairs of heavy socks and tossed them to Nathan. Then she grabbed some old rags to get the melted snow off the floor.
As she mopped up around the stranger's dark head, she discovered blood mixed with the water. She looked away and took several shallow breaths, trying to control her suddenly rebellious stomach. The sight of blood always did this to her.
Swallowing hard, she returned to her task. Rachel moved his head carefully and found the source of the bleeding. A gash, low on the back of his head, wept with every one of his heartbeats.
"Damn," she whispered, earning a look of surprise from her brother. "He's bleeding." The edges of her vision grayed. She scooted away, fighting off a wave of nausea.
"I'll do it."
She put water on the two-burner stove to heat and dug out what they might need to treat the man's injuries, while Nathan worked to staunch the flow. He didn't stop until he was satisfied the bleeding wouldn't start up again.
"It's okay now, Sis. You can come back and help."
Rachel poured hot water into a deep pan and carried it to Nathan. Her stomach rolled at the sight of the blood-stained cloths, but she swallowed the nausea. Lowering herself to the stranger's side, she turned her back on the cloths and set to work cleaning out the wound.
Excerpted from Touch Of Texas by Tracy Garrett Copyright © 2007 by Teresa Garrett. Excerpted by permission.
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