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Snow fell in a wall of white, giving Austin Cardwell only glimpses of the winding highway in front of him. He'd already slowed to a crawl as visibility worsened. Now on the radio, he heard that Highway 191 through the Gallatin Canyonthe very one he was onwas closed to all but emergency traffic.
"One-ninety-one from West Yellowstone to Bozeman is closed due to several accidents including a semi rollover that has blocked the highway near Big Sky. Another accident near West Yellowstone has also caused problems there. Travelers are advised to wait out the storm."
Great, Austin thought with a curse. Wait out the storm where? He hadn't seen any place to even pull over for miles let alone a gas station or café. He had no choice but to keep going. This was just what this Texas boy needed, he told himself with a curse. He'd be lucky if he reached Cardwell Ranch tonight.
The storm appeared to be getting worse. He couldn't see more than a few yards in front of the rented SUV's hood. Earlier he'd gotten a glimpse of the Gallatin River to his left. On his right were steep rock walls as the two-lane highway cut through the canyon. There was nothing but dark, snow-capped pine trees, steep mountain cliffs and the frozen river and snow-slick highway.
"Welcome to the frozen north," he said under his breath as he fought to see the road aheadand stay on it. He blamed his brothersnot for the storm, but for his even being here. They had insisted he come to Montana for the grand opening of the first Texas Boys Barbecue joint in Montana. They had postponed the grand opening until he was well enough to come.
Although the opening was to be January 1, his cousin Dana had pleaded with him to spend Christmas at the ranch.
You need to be here, Austin, she'd said. I promise you won't be sorry.
He growled under his breath now. He hadn't been back to Montana since his parents divorced and his mother took him and his brothers to Texas to live. He'd been too young to remember much. But he'd found he couldn't say no to Dana. He'd heard too many good things about her from his brothers.
Also, what choice did he have after missing his brother Tag's wedding last July?
As he slowed for another tight curve, a gust of wind shook the rented SUV. Snow whirled past his windshield. For an instant, he couldn't see anything. Worse, he felt as if he was going too fast for the curve. But he was afraid to touch his brakesthe one thing his brother Tag had warned him not to do.
Don't do anything quickly, Tag had told him. And whatever you do, don't hit your brakes. You'll end up in the ditch.
He caught something in his headlights. It took him a moment to realize what he was seeing before his heart took off at a gallop.
A car was upside down in the middle of the highway, its headlights shooting out through the falling snow toward the river, the taillights a dim red against the steep canyon wall. The overturned car had the highway completely blocked.
* * *
Austin hit his brakes even though he doubted he stood a chance in hell of stopping. The SUV began to slide sideways toward the overturned car. He spun the wheel, realizing he'd done it too wildly when he began to slide toward the river. As he turned the wheel yet again, the SUV slid toward the canyon walland the overturned car.
He was within only a few feet of the car on the road, when his front tires went off the road into the narrow snow-filled ditch between him and the granite canyon wall. The deep snow seemed to grab the SUV and pull it in deeper.
Austin braced himself as snow rushed up over the hood, burying the windshield as the front of the SUV sunk. The ditch and the snow in it were much deeper than he'd thought. He closed his eyes and braced himself for when the SUV hit the steep rock canyon wall.
To his surprise, the SUV came to a sudden stop before it hit the sheer rock face.
He sat for a moment, too shaken to move. Then he remembered the car he'd seen upside down in the middle of the road. What if someone was hurt? He tried his door, but the snow was packed around it. Reaching across the seat, he tried the passenger side. Same problem.
As he sat back, he glanced in the rearview mirror. The rear of the SUV sat higher, the back wheels still partially up on the edge of the highway. He could see out a little of the back window where the snow hadn't blown up on it and realized his only exit would be the hatchback.
He hit the hatchback release then climbed over the seat. In the back, he dug through the clothing he'd brought on the advice of his now "Montana" brother and pulled out the flashlight, along with the winter coat and boots he'd brought. Hurrying, he pulled them on and climbed out through the back into the blinding snowstorm, anxious to see if he could be of any help to the passengers in the wrecked vehicle.
He'd waded through deep snow for a few steps before his feet almost slipped out from under him on the icy highway. No wonder there had been accidents and the highway had closed to all but emergency traffic. The pavement under the falling snow was covered with glare ice. He was amazed he hadn't gone off the road sooner.
Moving cautiously toward the overturned car, he snapped on his flashlight and shone it inside the vehicle, afraid of what he would find.
The driver's seat was empty. So was the passenger seat. The driver's air bag had activated then deflated. In the backseat, though, he saw something that made his pulse jump. A car seat was still strapped in. No baby, though.
He shined the light on the headliner, stopping when he spotted what looked like a woman's purse. Next to it was an empty baby bottle and a smear of blood.
"Hello?" he called out, terrified for the occupants of the car. The night, blanketed by the falling snow, felt too quiet. He was used to Texas traffic and the noise of big-city Houston.
No answer. He had no idea how long ago the accident had happened. Wouldn't the driver have had the good sense to stay nearby? Then again, maybe another vehicle had come from the other side of the highway and rescued the driver and baby. Strange, though, to just leave the car like this without trying to flag the accident.
"Hello?" He listened. He'd never heard such cold silence. It had a spooky quality that made him jumpy. Add to that this car being upside down in the middle of the highway. What if another vehicle came along right now going too fast to stop?
Walking around the car, he found the driver's side door hanging open and bent down to look inside. More blood on the headliner. His heart began to pound even as he told himself someone must have rescued the driver and baby. At least he hoped that was what had happened. But his instincts told him different. While in the barbecue business with his brothers, he worked as a deputy sheriff in a small town outside Houston.
He reached for his cell phone. No service. As he started to straighten, a hard, cold object struck him in the back of the head. Austin Cardwell staggered from the blow and grabbed the car frame to keep from going down. The second blow caught him in the back.
He swung around to ward off another blow.
To his shock, he came face-to-face with a woman wielding a tire iron. But it was the crazed expression on her bloody face that turned his own blood to ice.
* * *
Austin's head swam for a moment as he watched the woman raise the tire iron again. He'd disarmed his fair share of drunks and drugged-up attackers. Now he only took special jobs on a part-time basis, usually the investigative jobs no one else wanted.
Even with his head and back aching from the earlier blows, he reacted instinctively from years of dealing with criminals. He stepped to the side as the woman brought the tire iron down a third time. It connected with the car frame, the sound ringing out an instant before he locked an arm around her neck. With his other hand, he broke her grip on the weapon. It dropped to the ground, disappearing in the falling snow as he dragged her back against him, lifting her off her feet.
Though she was small framed, she proved to be much stronger than he'd expected. She fought as if her life depended on it.
"Settle down," he ordered, his breath coming out as fog in the cold mountain air. "I'm trying to help you."
His words had little effect. He was forced to capture both her wrists in his hands to keep her from striking him as he brought her around to face him.
"Listen to me," he said, putting his face close to hers. "I'm a deputy sheriff from Texas. I'm trying to help you."
She stared at him through the falling snow as if uncomprehending, and he wondered if the injury on her forehead, along with the trauma of the car accident, could be the problem.
"You hit your head when you wrecked your car"
"It's not my car." She said the words through chattering teeth and he realized that she appeared to be on the verge of hypothermiasomething else that could explain her strange behavior.
"Okay, it's not your car. Where is the owner?"
She glanced past him, a terrified expression coming over her face.
"Did you have your baby with you?" he asked.
"I don't have a baby."
The car seat in the back of the vehicle and the baby bottle lying on the headliner next to her purse would indicate otherwise. He hoped, though, that she was telling the truth. He couldn't bear the thought that the baby had come out of the car seat and was somewhere out in the snow.
He listened for a moment. He hadn't heard a baby crying when he'd gotten out of the SUV's hatchback. Nor had he heard one since. The falling snow blanketed everything, though, with that eerie stillness. But he had to assume even if there had been a baby, it wasn't still alive.
He considered what to do. His SUV wasn't coming out of that ditch without a tow truck hooked to it and her car certainly wasn't going anywhere.
"What's your name?" he asked her. She was shaking harder now. He had to get her to someplace warm. Neither of their vehicles was an option. If another vehicle came down this highway from either direction, there was too much of a chance they would be hit. He recalled glimpsing an old boarded-up cabin back up the highway. It wasn't that far. "What's your name?" he asked again.
She looked confused and on the verge of passing out on him. He feared if she did, he wouldn't be able to carry her back to the cabin he'd seen. When he realized he wasn't going to be able to get any information out of her, he reached back into the overturned car and snagged the strap of her purse.
The moment he let go of one of her arms, she tried to run away again and began kicking and clawing at him when he reached for her. He restrained her again, more easily this time because she was losing her motor skills due to the cold.
"We have to get you to shelter. I'm not going to hurt you. Do you understand me?" Any other time, he would have put out some sort of warning sign in case another driver came along. But he couldn't let go of this woman for fear she would attack him again or worse, take off into the storm.
He had to get her to the cabin as quickly as possible. He wasn't sure how badly she was hurtjust that blood was still streaming down her face from the contusion on her forehead. Loss of blood or a concussion could be the cause for her odd behavior. He'd have to restrain her and come back to flag the wreck.
Fortunately, the road was now closed to all but emergency traffic. He figured the first vehicle to come upon the wreck would be highway patrol or possibly a snow-plow driver.
Feeling he had no choice but to get her out of this storm, Austin grabbed his duffel out of the back of the SUV and started to lock it, still holding on to the woman. For the first time, he took a good look at her.
She wore designer jeans, dress boots, a sweater and no coat. He realized he hadn't seen a winter coat in the car or any snow boots. In her state of mind, she could have removed her coat and left it out in the snow.
Taking off his down coat, he put it on her even though she fought him. He put on the lighter-weight jacket he'd been wearing earlier when he'd gone off the road.
In his duffel bag, he found a pair of mittens he'd invested in before the trip and put them on her gloveless hands, then dug out a baseball cap, the only hat he had. He put it on her head of dark curly hair. The brown eyes staring out at him were wide with fear and confusion.
"You're going to have to walk for a ways," he said to her. She gave him a blank look. But while she appeared more subdued, he wasn't going to trust it. "The cabin I saw from the road isn't far."
It wasn't a long walk. The woman came along without a struggle. But she still seemed terrified of something. She kept looking behind her as they walked as if she feared someone was out there in the storm and would be coming after her. He could feel her body trembling through the grip he had on her arm.
Walking through the falling snow, down the middle of the deserted highway, felt surreal. The quiet, the empty highway, the two of them, strangers, at least one of them in some sort of trouble. It felt as if the world had come to an end and they were the last two people alive.
As they neared where he'd seen the cabin, he hoped his eyes hadn't been deceiving him since he'd only gotten a glimpse through the falling snow. He quickly saw that it was probably only a summer cabin, if that. It didn't look as if it had been used in years. Tiny and rustic, it was set back in a narrow ravine off the highway. The windows had wooden shutters on them and the front door was secured with a padlock.
They slogged through the deep snow up the ravine to the cabin as flakes whirled around them. Austin couldn't remember ever being this cold. The woman had to be freezing since she'd been out in the cold longer than he had and her sweater had to be soaked beneath his coat.
Leading her around to the back, he found a shutterless window next to the door. Putting his elbow through the old, thin glass, he reached inside and unlocked the door. As he shoved it open, a gust of cold, musty air rushed out.
The woman balked for a moment before he pulled her inside. The room was small, and had apparently once been a porch but was now a storage area. He was relieved to see a stack of dry split wood piled by the door leading into the cabin proper.
Opening the next door, he stepped in, dragging the woman after him. It was pitch-black inside. He dropped his duffel bag and her purse, removed the flashlight from his coat pocket and shone it around the room. An old rock fireplace, the front sooty from years of fires, stood against one wall. A menagerie of ancient furniture formed a half circle around it.