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Where was she? The ground was hard beneath her back. Her head pounded as she stared up at a gray sky and the sun hidden behind red-tinted clouds. Carefully pushing herself up on her elbows, she winced as sharp pain speared through her skull. Her shoulder ached, too. She was behind a two-story white brick building she didn't recognize.
She touched her temple, and her fingers came away bloody. She inhaled sharply. Blood also streaked her pale blue floral bodice. What had happened?
A creaking sound had her looking over her shoulder. A saddled black horse watched her with dark eyes. Then she saw a wet stain a couple of feet away.
She eased over and touched it, startled to realize it was more blood.
Cold, savage fear ripped through her and she got unsteadily to her feet, fighting back panic. Whatever had happened here had been deadly. She couldn't remember it, but she knew it.
Her head throbbed as she looked around wildly, trying to identify something, anything. Not the building hiding her or the store across a dusty street or the railroad tracks beyond. Nothing was familiar.
Alarmed and confused, she felt tears sting her eyes.
From the front of the building she heard the heavy thud of boots. A man muttered in a low, vicious voice. The hairs on her arms stood up and fear rushed through her.
There was no thought, only instinct. She gathered her skirts and hurriedly mounted the waiting horse, riding astride. Her skull felt as though it was being cracked open and she thought she might pass out from the pain.
Urging the animal into motion, she rode hard away from the unfamiliar buildings and headed for the open prairie. Someone yelled after her. She wasn't sure what he said, but she didn't stop.
Gripping the pommel with sweat-slick hands, she kept the horse at a full-out run until she was assured no one was behind her.
Then she slowed the horse to an easy pace. As far as she could see there was an endless sea of golden-brown prairie grass, dotted here and there with a few evergreen trees. The landscape looked familiar, but she didn't know why. She didn't know anything.
A forceful gust of wind had her grabbing the pommel. Bits of dirt and grass pelted her face as well as her mount's. The animal slowed, but kept moving.
Dust whirled across the prairie. The horse's hooves pounded in a steady lope. On and on. Daylight turned to gray. They crossed a dry creek bed, then topped a small rise. Through the swirling light and dirt, she spied a small cabin and a barn. As she rode up to the front of the house, she called out, but no one answered. There was no sign of anyone at all.
Glancing over her shoulder, she frowned at a boiling mass of clouds sweeping across the ground. The first stirrings of a dust storm. Being caught out in it could be deadly.
Fighting back panic, she decided to take shelter in the small cabin. She wasted no time settling the horse in the barn. After filling the trough with water from the pump just outside, she closed the animal inside and ran to the cabin, praying she would be able to get in. When she tried the door, it opened and she slipped inside with a big sigh of relief.
Shaking out her skirts then brushing off her hair and bodice, she took stock. A Franklin stove sat in the corner to her left, along with a sink and a pump and a short work cabinet. There was a small but sturdy-looking table, and straight ahead an open door revealed the foot of a bed.
The windows, real pane glass, shook as the wind gathered force. Her shoulders and neck throbbed, but she searched for candles or a lamp in case she needed light later.
Though small, the cabin was solid and would offer protection from the storm. Looking down, she stared at the bloodstains on her bodice. Her mind was empty. Why couldn't she remember anything?
A shiver rippled up her spine. Not only was she completely alone and lostshe had no idea who she was.
After a week of tracking Cosgrove, Bram had lost him and returned home. Whirlwind's sheriff, Davis Lee Holt, had wired every lawman in the state and promised to send word to Bram if he received any news.
Bram had duties at the ranch, but he still checked with Davis Lee every day about Cosgrove. Two weeks after the trail had gone cold, Bram got news. Surprisingly it was from his uncle, not the sheriff. Uncle Ike had witnessed Cosgrove robbing a bank in Monaco.
Bram had ridden straight to the small town located northwest of Whirlwind, where he discovered Cosgrove had murdered a man during that robbery.
Bram had picked up the outlaw's trail again, this time headed east toward Whirlwind. Cosgrove would be a fool to go back there and probably hadn't, but the approaching dust storm had erased any sign that he might have changed direction.
The past three weeks had been hell, and Bram laid that on Deborah as much as the outlaw he chased. He hadn't spoken to her mother or sisters again, though Bram's brother, Jake, had. He had felt it his duty to let Bram know Deborah still hadn't returned home.
Bram tried to tell himself he didn't care. She'd made her choice and it wasn't him.
The spiraling wind swirled across the prairie, flaying his face and body with sharp bits of dirt and grit. The gunshot graze on his cheek was healing. Dragging his dark bandanna up to cover his nose and mouth, he knotted it tightly.
He was worn slick, dirty and madder than hell that this dust storm would force him to briefly suspend his search for Cosgrove, but he would find the low-down dog again. He wouldn't stop until he did. In addition to being a rustler, Cosgrove was now a murderer. Bram wouldn't be the only one out for the bastard's blood. If possible, he hated the cattle thief even more than he had three weeks ago.
The wind swept around him and he barely caught his hat before it blew off. The small cabin on the edge of Circle R property was less than a mile away, so Bram directed his mount there.
By the time they reached the building, the red dust was thickening, spreading. At the barn behind the cabin, he dismounted and slid open the door. When his mount balked at entering, Bram grabbed the bridle to lead the animal inside. He understood the dun's wariness. This storm made him uneasy, too.
The dust swirled inside, the wind noise escalating to a steady hollow hum. Bram quickly pulled off his saddlebags, unsaddled his horse, then removed the bridle.
Scout stomped, shifting nervously. Bram spoke softly, trying to calm the gelding. A clothesline stretched from the barn to the cabin and would enable Bram to find his way if the dust became too thick to see the house. Just as he bent to pick up his saddlebag, the horse backed up, almost pinning Bram to the wall.
"Whoa." He laid a calming hand on the animal's hindquarters and edged away from the weathered wall. That was when he saw another horse deep in the shadows.
Not just any horse. He blinked.
That looked like Cosgrove's black mare.
No way in hell. Bram couldn't be seeing what he thought he was.
He eased closer, noting that the animal was unsaddled and had been brushed down. Speaking softly to the horse, he lifted its left front leg, then the back one. A C had been crudely carved into the top of the mare's rear shoe. It was slyly done, the top of the C coming out of the tack's head, but this was Cosgrove's horse!
The damn brand blotter had been forced to take shelter, too. Here!
Bram's lips twisted. This was too good to be true, and he wasn't going to waste the opportunity to catch the bastard. Or kill him. After the murder committed by Cosgrove during that bank robbery, Bram would have no qualms about taking in a dead man.
Satisfied that there was enough water in the trough near Cosgrove's animal for both horses, Bram returned to his things in the corner and slid his Spencer rifle out of its scabbard.
After checking his gun, he stepped outside. The wind nearly shoved him to his knees as he shouldered the door shut. Gripping the clothesline for support, he slowly made his way to the cabin's back stoop.
He had the advantage of surprise, but because both the front and back doors opened into the large main room, he wouldn't have the drop on Cosgrove for long. Once Bram opened the door, the wind would sweep in, alerting anyone in the cabin.
He slowly turned the knob, then flung open the door. He leveled his weapon, aiming straight at. .a woman!
She screamed, stumbling back against the dining table and folding her arms protectively around herself.
"Sweet mercy." Bram froze, his mind trying to catch up to what he was seeing.
There in the flickering lamplight stood a half-naked Deborah. Deborah.
What the hell?