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If the bullet hole in his leg didn't kill him, the snowstorm would.
Caleb swayed in the saddle, stiff fingers clinging to the horn as Rebel stumbled in a drift. "Easy," he breathed, the slight sound swallowed up by fat, white tufts dropping in a thick curtain all around him. Ears flicking, Rebel righted himself. Caleb clamped his jaw tight to smother a moan.
He didn't know which was worsethe incessant pain slowly stealing his consciousness, the bone-numbing cold or the knowledge that he was being hunted.
Hopefully the heavy snowfall would cover his tracks and the trail of blood.
Fighting off a wave of dizziness, he tried to get his bearings. The weakness claiming his body wouldn't be put off much longer. Concentrate, O'Malley. Find shelter.
By this point, he'd lost all sense of direction, the towering trees and sloping landscape a white blur as the clouds overhead continued their silent assault. Frustration pounded at his temples. He knew these mountains like the back of his hand. No way could he be lost.
The forest tilted crazily, and he slumped onto Rebel's neck, gulping in frigid air that seared his lungs. "Sorry, boy," he choked out, "doesn't look like we're gonna make it outta this one."
Images of his family flashed against closed lids. His parents. Brothers. Cousins. All the people he loved but wouldn't let close. Josh and Kate were about to make him an uncle for the first time. And from the way Nathan and Sophie acted around each other, they couldn't be far behind. Unlike him, his older brothers were solid. Responsible. They'd be amazing fathers.
And he'd miss all of it.
Would they ever discover what happened to him? Or would they be forced to forever wonder?
Regret flickered in his chest, igniting a tiny flame of resolve. He couldn't give up. He'd brought them enough pain to last a lifetime. If he was going to kick the bucket, the least he could do was give them closure. Caleb eased upright. Urged the big black into motion with a nudge of his boot heel.
The impulse to pray caught him unawares. While he was a believer, he hadn't uttered a single word asking for God's direction for over two years. Not since the sawmill accident. Asking for assistance now just didn't seem right.
The minutes crawled past as they painstakingly descended into the valley, Caleb on alert for sights or sounds that might mean he'd been located. Eventually, though, the burning need to reach home wasn't enough to sustain him, his body unable to withstand the cold or the dangerous lethargy weighing down his limbs.
When the ground dipped and his weight was thrown sharply to the right, he didn't react fast enough. He landed on hard-packed snow. Swirling gloom blocked the gleaming, too-bright world, sucking him into a black void.
* * *
Careful not to slosh milk over the pail's rim, Rebecca Thurston shouldered the rickety barn door shut. The thing was more holes and air than solid wood. One more item to add to an already impossibly long list of things that needed attention around here. A foglike sigh puffed around her mouth. While thankful for the homemaking skills she'd learned from her mother, she wished she'd shown more interest in her father's responsibilities. Knowing how to shoe horses, mend fences and repair barn doors would come in handy now that the running of the farm fell squarely upon her shoulders.
At her feet, Storm's ears pricked.
"What is it, girl?" Rebecca reached out to pet the salt-and-pepper head, but before her fingers contacted fur, the dog bounded toward the woods behind their cabin, paws flinging snow in all directions. "Storm, come back!"
From beneath her cape's fur-lined hood, she peered up at the leaden sky, blinking away flakes that caught on her eyelashes. Already the snow topped the second fence rung and made walking difficult, the icy powder seeping through her pantaloons and stockings and chilling her calves. White blanketed the rooftops of the barn and outbuildings, as well as the cabin. Icicles glimmered beneath the porch overhang. They didn't normally get snow until after Christmas. Sometimes it wasn't until late January. This storm must've caught a lot of folks off guard.
Bunching her skirt in one hand, she forged ahead, anticipating a steaming cup of coffee and molasses-drizzled flapjacks. Storm's frantic barking shredded the morning's hushed stillness. Rebecca halted. Goose bumps riddled her legs. This was no "I've stumbled upon a skunk and come see how cute it is" bark. What had her so upset? Coyote? Mountain lion? Two-legged intruder?
Swirling snow hindered her vision, wreathing the forest climbing up the mountain in an impenetrable veil. Holding the pail aloft, she hurried to the cabin and lifted the latch. "Amy?"
Her thirteen-year-old sister appeared in the doorway and held her hands out for the milk. Instead, Rebecca set it on the floor. "Bring me Daisy. Hurry."
"What? Why?" Curiosity sparked in her big blue eyes.
"Something's upset Storm. I need to investigate." She extended an impatient hand, palm up. "The rifle, please?"
A frown tugged Amy's sparse brows together. "Hope it's not a wild animal."
Bypassing the table and settee with its faded floral upholstery, Amy went to the stacked-stone fireplace and, going up on her tiptoes, snagged Pa's favorite rifle. One he'd long ago christened Daisy on a silly whim.
Chestnut braids bouncing against slender shoulders, Amy brought it to her. "Be careful."
Her gloved fingers closed over the stock, the heavy weight in her hand reassuring. "It's difficult to see out here. If I'm not back in ten minutes, bang some pots together on the porch. The sound will lead me home."
"What if you don't return?" The smattering of light freckles across her nose and cheekbones stood in stark relief against her pale skin. Ever since the tragic wagon accident that had claimed their parents' lives last year, Amy had become prone to worry.
Pulling the lapels of her indigo cape tighter, she left the shelter of the porch. Storm hadn't stopped her alarm, which meant this was serious. She braced the Winchester in both hands. As she neared, a huge black shape took form, startling her. A horse.
The riderless horse shifted his weight and swung his face her direction. The white star between his intelligent black eyes strummed a memory. Her gaze shot to the snow-crusted saddle. Made of dark brown leather, it lacked ornamentation and tooling. Plain and serviceable. She didn't recognize it.
Her dog's barking shifted to a whine. Cautiously she moved around the big black, giving him plenty of space so as not to spook him, and her gaze fell on the object of Storm's distress. Her heart leaped into her throat.
A man. Sprawled on his stomach and half-buried in snow. Dead? Unconscious? Sleeping off too much liquor?
Storm finally quieted and cocked her head, silently imploring Rebecca to do something.
Gun wavering in her suddenly nerveless fingers, she crept forward and extended a boot, lightly nudging the stranger's ankle. No response. She tried again, harder this time. Nothing.
A Stetson lay a few feet from his head. Shaggy hair the color of India ink curled over the collar of his black duster. His boots, though worn-in, were in good condition, as were his fawn canvas trousers. He didn't appear to be a drifter.
"Mister?" Creeping forward, she prodded his shoulder. "Hello?"
Please don't be dead. Setting her rifle within grabbing distance, she crouched down and, yanking off a glove with her teeth, gingerly slipped her fingers beneath his blue-and-white-dotted neckerchief. Relief skittered through her at the faint pulse she detected there. Not dead.
But if she didn't get him up and out of the elements, he would be soon.
Taking hold of his shoulder, she tugged, easing him onto his back. One glance at his face, and she landed on her rear.
"No." The strangled denial brought Storm over, her sturdy, furry body leaning into Rebecca's side.
This was no stranger. The jagged, inch-long pink lines fanning from his right eye marked him as the enemy. Caleb O'Malley. The man who'd single-handedly ruined her life.
Bitterness, as familiar as an old friend, wrapped its tentacles around her heart and squeezed, stifling all reason. She wanted him gone.
"Caleb." Loath to touch him, she poked his shoulder. "Wake up. You need to go home."
Dark stubble skimmed his lean jaw and pouty lips stiff with cold. Stiff and blue-tinged.
The first twinge of alarm pierced her hostility. Skimming his well-built body, she gasped at the sight of vivid red blood spatters on the sparkling white powder. He was bleeding. Hurt.
Scrambling to open his duster, her stomach lurched. His tattered pant leg was sodden with blood leaking from a gaping wound in his thigh. The gravity of the situation slammed into her. If she didn't help him, he would die. And despite the heartache his actions had caused her, she wasn't that callous.
Standing, she eyed his long, muscular length. There was no way she was getting him up on that horse. She'd have to drag him.
Hating to leave her weapon behind but seeing no other choice, Rebecca hooked her hands beneath his arms and began to pull. Adrenaline fueled her for the daunting task. By the time the cabin's outline came into focus, her chest heaved from the exertion and her legs trembled with strain.
"Amy!" she hollered over her shoulder.
The door banged open, and her sister appeared on the porch. "It's been exactly nine minutes since you left." Her relief was short-lived. "Who's that?"
"Hurry and put your coat on. I need your help getting him inside."
Amy did as she was told, eggplant-colored coat scraping the ground and brown lace-up boots crunching. Her jaw dropped. "Is that Caleb O'Malley? What happened to him?"
"I don't know." Rebecca suspected a gunshot wound. "You think you can pick his feet up and help me carry him in?"
With a nod, she went and stood between his legs and took hold of his calves. "He looks different with a beard."
Though it was awkward, they managed to maneuver him inside and onto Amy's bed, situated against the right wall, opposite the cast-iron stove, dry sink and pie safe.
Rebecca straightened and paused to catch her breath and weigh her options. She didn't like the idea of sending her sister out into the storm, but Caleb's wound needed attention now. His pallor and unresponsiveness bothered her. He hadn't made a single sound during the jarring trek here. "Take Storm and retrieve Daisy. Settle Caleb's horse in the barn. I'll unsaddle him later." Probably best Amy didn't see the gruesome injury up close, anyway.
A hint of misgiving flitting across her round face, Amy glanced at Caleb's inert form dwarfing her mattress and squared her shoulders. "I won't be long."
"Be careful." As Rebecca retrieved a box containing herbs, medicines and supplies from their catchall cabinet, she checked the mantel clock and made note of the time. "If you're not back in fifteen, I'll come looking for you."
When the door clicked, blocking out the frosty, pristine world and shutting her in with her wounded nemesis, the cozy cabin transformed into a hostile space. Spying blood seeping onto the colorful quilt beneath him, she forced herself to focus on the present. To forget the past. The loss and grief.
He's just a man in need of assistance. He can't do anything more to hurt me.
His boots had to be wrestled off. Chucking them onto the floorboards, she gingerly removed the Colt pistols from his gun belt and used scissors to slit open his pant leg. The coppery scent of blood filled her nostrils, as did those of horse and earth and pine needles, typical for a man who spent most of his days roaming the mountains.
Dashing to the counter, she filled a bowl with cool waterthere wasn't time to heat itand gathered rags. Folding one into a thick square, she returned to the bed and, covering the wound, pressed down hard to stem the flow. Caleb jerked. An anguished moan started way down in his gut and ripped through his lips. Rebecca's gaze flew to his face, which was whiter than the pillow cradling his head, and compassion trickled into her bloodstream. Not enough to forgive him. Never that. But enough to want to lessen his pain.
Winding a long strip of cotton around his thigh to hold the cloth firmly in place, she tied it off and set to work cleaning his leg as best she could. She cut away the ruined material and tossed it onto the floor to dispose of later. Unable to remove his damp clothing without assistance, she settled for piling every available quilt on top of him.
After adding wood to the fireplace and kindling to the stove's firebox, she set water on to boil. She'd fix him something hot to drink, and later, some thin broth.
"No!" The unexpected plea in his distinctive voice made her jump. "Don't do it. Sheriff
Clearly distressed, he tossed his head from side to side. Without thinking, she placed a gentle hand against his forehead and leaned close. "You're safe, Caleb. Rest now."
Long lashes fluttered. Lifted. And she found herself staring down into twin pools of deepest brown, the color of the mysterious broad-winged hawk's wings. His brow knitted with confusion. "Becca?"