CULLEN MET UP with the wagon train, rain-soaked and weary. His back hurt like hell, and he wanted nothing more than a hot meal and a dry bed. He doubted he’d find either.
Rain cascaded in streams off his hat’s wide brim as he looked across the corral. From behind the veil of water, he didn’t see Kit’s Thoroughbred. He gritted his teeth. “I swear to God, this time I’ll wring her blasted neck.”
He yanked back the flaps of Henry’s tent and ducked in out of the rain. An oil lamp’s light cast a dark shadow of Henry dozing in his rocking chair. A book lay open in his lap, his reading glasses down on his nose, and a snuffed-out pipe dangled from his hand.
Henry sat straight in his chair, and the book dropped to the floor. “’Bout time you made it—”
Henry set down his pipe and folded his glasses. “You can blame me for not stopping her.”
“Hailstorm was coming. She headed out to find cover for that stallion she should have sold in Independence. Can’t keep that gal roped in not matter how hard you—”
“How long has she been gone?” Cullen dragged his hands down his face.
“Rode out early afternoon.”
Cullen checked the time on his pocket watch. “It’s midnight.”
“She’s holed up waiting for the rain to stop. Feel it in my bones. She’ll be back by morning.”
“Damn. I’ve got to go find her.”
Henry rose and squeezed Cullen’s shoulder. “We didn’t get hail. Doubt she did either. Get some rest. Head out in the morning.”
When Cullen turned his face toward the light, Henry let out a slow whistle. “What happened to you, son?”
Cullen twisted out of his poncho. “Merde.” Fingers of pain shot up his back. “Met up with three vaqueros who wanted what I wasn’t willing to give. Eye’s fine. Ribs hurt. Back hurts more.”
“Let me look.”
He shrugged Henry off. “I’ll ask Kit to patch me up.”
“She’s got healing magic that’s for sure. You best try to get some shut-eye.”
Between the downpour causing a ruckus and the throbbing pain in his back, Cullen never closed his eyes. At least that’s what he blamed for his inability to sleep. But he hadn’t slept in the past week since he’d attempted to seduce Kit, which was why he’d welcomed a fistfight. The pummeling did nothing to assuage his guilt and made his bad temper more volatile.
He finally gave up the pretense of sleep, saddled Jasper, and rode out. Each mile he rode, staying balanced in the saddle became harder. With every footfall, he felt the sting of a cat-o’-nine-tails on his sweat-covered back. His poncho did nothing to protect him from sinking into a labyrinth of self-recrimination. He had replayed his last conversation with Kit a hundred times, and each time he reached the same verdict. They were both guilty parties. While he couldn’t condone lying, he couldn’t condone his own behavior, either. She’d tried to stop him, but he’d swallowed her protests with a kiss.
Her plaintive words the problem was with me haunted him, as did the scars on her neck.
KIT WOKE TO the sound of heavy rainfall. That alone didn’t frighten her. The pitch-black darkness did. The arteries in her neck pulsed to the point of exploding. Cold, clammy hands searched for the flashlight she’d been holding when she drifted off to sleep. Where was it now? She patted the ground with open palms, gulping back the knot in her throat. The tips of her fingers touched something hard. It moved, and she yanked back her hand.
It’s the flashlight, silly.
A hard breath of relief whooshed out when she flipped the switch. The beam of light cut through the darkness of the musky cave. Stormy’s soft low whine loosened the knot in her throat. He walked toward her bringing heat and his familiar smell of oats and early mornings in the barn. “Hi boy, you okay?” He playfully nudged her shoulder. “I love you, too.”
Now fully awake, there was no chance of going back to sleep. What she needed was a cup of hot chocolate. There was a package of powdered chocolate and freeze-dried marshmallows in her bag. The warm drink might ease the anxiety that had replaced her fear.
While waiting for the chocolate to heat on the miniature camping stove, she stood at the cave’s entrance and stared out into the inky void. No moon or stars filled the sky. And the only sound was rain splattering on water.
The knot raced back to her throat. She shined the light into the darkness. Water was rising in the gully. Her body froze, gripped in a terrifying moment. The cave could flood if the rain continued. She flashed the light through the cave. A high water event could have left sediment on the cave’s walls. She didn’t notice any, but she wasn’t a spelunker and could easily miss significant signs.
Should she leave before the water rose higher? Stormy would balk if she tried to get him into the water in the middle of the night. She paced. What would her father do? Weigh the risk of leaving a safe, dry place, possibly drowning, against the improbability of the water rising high enough to flood the cave. That’s what he would do. And that’s what she would do. Remain vigilant and stay put until daylight, unless Cullen came by and threw another lasso in her direction. As angry as he was, she put the odds of a rescue at a million to one.
CULLEN HEADED TOWARD the rocks, doubled back, then headed back toward the rocks again. He knew Kit’s general direction, but she could have veered right or left. Visibility was only a few feet.
He stared at a white blur in the darkness. “Whoa, Jasper.” He dismounted and picked up what looked like Kit’s straw hat caked in mud. Then he sent a howling call into the night. “Kit, where are you?” He climbed back in the saddle and let out a second howl. Not for Kit, but a howl against the pain.
The minutes turned into an hour, the hour into hours and still he searched, desperate to find her and apologize for his behavior.
Jasper trudged on, never faltering in his step, never refusing a command.
A beam of white light penetrated the darkness. He followed the beacon to the edge of a cliff overlooking a gulley filling with water. The light disappeared. He funneled his hands at his mouth and yelled, “Kit, where are you?” His voice, however, had abandoned him, and his whispered yell went no farther than his own ears.
Cullen, help me.
Her voice lured him toward the bluff’s lip. He nudged Jasper with his heels, but the horse snorted his refusal to go over the edge. Cullen dismounted, angered by Jasper’s betrayal.
Kristen needed him. Kit needed him. If Jasper wouldn’t carry him, he would cross the gully alone. He stepped into the darkness, slid several feet down the cliff’s side, and hit his head on a rock. With his face inches from the lapping water and Kit’s name on his lips, he slipped into unconsciousness.
AT FIRST LIGHT, Henry found Jasper standing guard over Cullen’s body. He lay face down in the mud with water licking the top of his head. Henry had seen his share of dying men. Fear rose in his throat; fear that he’d lost part of himself without realizing how important it was.
He touched Cullen’s neck. When he felt the twin rhythms of pulse and breath, his own heart beat in quiet gratitude. The boy was alive, and although his face was a sickly white and his breathing shallow, he had a chance to see another sunrise.
Henry heaved Cullen over Jasper’s back and lashed him to the saddle. He took no pleasure in Cullen’s pained moans, but that didn’t stop him from lambasting the pigheaded fool the entire way back to camp.
“Serves you right, you son-of-a-bitch, heading out in the middle of the night, hunting for a whisper in the wind. Soon as you get better, you can dig out your bedroll and drift. I ain’t going to watch you kill yourself over that little widow. She ain’t looking to have her weeds plowed. You need to leave her be.” Cullen never answered him, and Henry doubted he even heard.
When he arrived back at camp, he and John hauled Cullen into the tent, out of his muddy rain gear, and onto Henry’s cot.
“Sarah’s fixing some willow bark tea. Should help with the fever.”
Henry poured water into a bowl and soaked a cloth. “Kit’s his only hope now. Rain’s stopped. Time for her to be coming back.”
“She might not make it, Henry,” John said.
Henry washed the mud from Cullen’s face and hair. “I won’t allow that kind of talk. She’s coming back.”
“Keep your dreams, but prepare for losing them both.”
Henry pointed to the tent flaps. “Go on, get out of here.”
“I’m going, but if you need anything, you holler.”
“I’ll tell you one thing for sure. Only the Lord knows when a person’s time’s up. These two got lives to live. I know it in my heart.”
As soon as John left the tent, the sting of tears came into Henry’s eyes. He’d played a lone hand for a long time. Never met a woman he wanted to settle down with, but if he had, Cullen would have been what he wanted in a son. Henry wouldn’t give up on the boy. Not today. Not ever. “Kit will be here soon enough. I don’t doubt it. No sirree. She’ll be riding in here any minute now.”
When Cullen fell asleep, Henry left the tent to stretch and puff on his pipe. There was a sweet smell in the air from the storm washing the prairie clean. He adjusted his hat to shade his eyes from the morning sun and noticed a horse and rider far off in the distance. He watched for several minutes until he recognized the blonde-haired beauty riding a chestnut stallion with three white stockings.
“Yes sirree, she’s back. Best go tell the boy help’s arrived.”