End of July 1885, northwest of Denver
“What the hell?” Luke Adams jerked on the reins of his
A muffled crack competing with the sighing winds played
through the mountain pines. Definitely not a gun shot! Thank
God. Not with cattle missing. Twisting in the saddle, he listened.
Nothing unusual. Just the distant lowing of cattle, the
whispering breeze, the creaking of his saddle leather.
Damn. His skin crawled. Superstitious wasn’t his style and
he didn’t believe in premonitions. Hell, there wasn’t much he did
believe in anymore! But, something was wrong.
He gazed out over the narrow valley, surveying the new
grass bending in the gentle wind, grass that would feed his
cattle through the summer. With a movement borne of practice,
he threw his leg over the saddle horn and stared up at the red
rocks that gave the surrounding mountains their name. Peaks
still frosted with touches of last winter’s snow framed the
landscape, as puffy white clouds floated past through a sea of
pure, crystal-clear blue. What sound had shattered this peace?
What had he heard?
Luke inhaled a deep breath of crisp mountain air, ignoring
his own question as he studied the unchanging scene, the same
year after year. Hell! How he wished his life could be as steady
as these rocks.
The pounding thud of an approaching horse interrupted
his thoughts. He glanced back. Could it have something to do
with that cracking sound?
“Came to see how yer doing,” Bud, his foreman, shouted
as he rode into view.
“How many did you find?” Luke asked as Bud halted
“Only two. Thought I’d go east. Them cows have got to
be somewhere.” Bud patted the neck of his horse to quiet him.
“We’ll find ‘em. We’re only missing ten head. They just
wandered off. But you check the valley to the west and I’ll check
that hill to the east.”
Bud gave a salute and rode off. Luke slid his boots back
into the stirrups and started east, dismissing the sound.
Probably been a weakened branch splitting from a nearby pine
Once he reached the hill he stopped near the bottom and
searched above him. Not a cow in sight. He started to turn and
then spun around. Halfway up the hill, a pile of debris littered
the ground. Whatever it was it hadn’t been there earlier this
He prodded Queenie forward. As she picked her way
around a series of rocky outcroppings, he studied the spot
above him. To the right of a large boulder was what looked like
the remains of a fractured buckboard. Bits of grass and dirt
stuck to several pieces of wood and metal. This was recent. Had
this been what he’d heard, this buckboard splitting apart?
Far above, an old dirt road led to a worthless mine. The
gouged out chunks of earth and scraped soil marked the
wagon’s path to the point of impact, as it careened down the
sloop. But what was someone doing with a buckboard on the old
“Better look for the driver,” he said, sighed and swung
out of the saddle. After ground-tying Queenie, he gave the
wreck another quick perusal. No one in that mess.
“Heh! Wait a minute.” There was no sign of a horse. No
leather straps, no harness, nothing. Grabbing at his hat, Luke
slapped it against his pants then ran stiff fingers through damp
“Hell! Nobody could have lived through that.”
As he climbed over another pile of stones, he scanned the
area, then worked around more stones.
What was someone doing on that road, anyway? Never
has been any gold or silver in these parts and everybody around
here knows it. This makes no sense, none at all.
Then, he heard a groan and froze.
Someone had been on that wagon. His stomach knotted.
“Hey, Buddy, can you hear me? Give a shout.” He
stopped in his rush over another patch of rocks.
“Stupid,” he mumbled. The guy could be mortally
wounded and Luke wanted him to shout? The noise had come
from behind that boulder. He moved closer.
Wait. Next to a stone, something moved. Below a dark
swatch of cloth, the edge of a small boot twitched. He climbed
toward the object. Dark drops of what looked like blood
splattered the ground. Whoever was on that wagon had been
Vaulting over more rocks, he slammed to a stop like a
body running into a brick wall. His stomach flipped, his heart
dropped and he swallowed hard. Never expected to see this!
A dark skirt bunched around a pair of legs, long legs with
shapely calves. Full hips flared below a slender waist. A bodice,
once white, was nicely filled with full feminine curves.
“Oh, he--” Biting off the end of the word, his gaze jerked
to her face. Thick brown hair covered a good portion of it, but
blood stained the other half, and soaked into the ground. One
hand was smeared with red, as if she’d touched the wound.
She groaned again.
Thank the lord. At least she was alive. He hunched down
at her side. “Ma’am,” he said, hesitated then touched her
shoulder. “I’ll get help. You rest easy. I’ll just signal my foreman
then send for Doc. Okay?”
Ridiculous! She probably couldn’t hear him.
She moved and for an instant opened her eyes and
blinked. Bright blue eyes, filled with intense pain, stared back at
him. And fear. Fear so stark he could almost smell it.
Deep inside, an emotion long denied, twisted and turned,
like a wind-up toy soldier he’d seen in a Denver store. Luke
gritted his teeth. Where was his resolve? He’d finished with
women. What he felt now for this lady, was pity. She was hurt,
in pain. Pity, that was all! After all, she had been thrown from a
Another surge of emotion hit. Forget it. He needed help,
to get Bud back here.
He pulled the pistol from his waistband and glanced
around. No cattle to worry about. He only needed to fire a single
shot. The men were working nearby. They could take her back
to the ranch while one of the boys rode to town for Doc.
A minute after he fired, the thunder of hooves broke the
sudden silence. By the time Bud halted his horse at the bottom
of the hill, Luke had risen and stood waving at him.
“Yeah. Get the men and empty the buckboard. We’re
gonna need Doc. Some fool drove a wagon over that cliff.” He
glanced down at the woman. She didn’t look like a fool. She was
a looker, that was for sure, with her arched brows, short,
straight nose and lips shaped like a hunter’s bow. He gritted his
teeth. What she looked like shouldn’t matter. Did he have to
remind himself he was finished with women?
Another thought intruded. Had she been alone? He hadn’t
even looked for anybody else.
“Get Carl,” he ordered. “I want him up here to see if he
can find anyone else.”
With the noise, she opened her eyes again. Slowly, she
lifted her injured hand toward him.
“Ma’am were you alone?’ he asked kneeling beside her.
“Was someone else on the wagon with you?”
She attempted to shake her head. It must have hurt for
all she did was groan. Then she said “Help me.” She grabbed at
his shirt. “I don’t want to die.”
Luke patted her arm. He couldn’t remember when he’d
heard that kind of desperation in someone’s voice. “You’re not
going to die,” he growled. “I didn’t climb up here to have you...”
No need to finish talking. She’d lost consciousness. Just
as well. They’d have to carry her down the mountain, and the
ride to the ranch would mean more pain.
Damn, could they move her? How bad was she injured?
I’ll have to check for broken bones. Sweat broke out on
his brow. This was something he didn’t want to do, but there
was no one else. He felt as nervous as he had the first time he
tried to break a horse.
Wiping damp hands on jeans, he murmured a silent
prayer. Let her stay unconscious. He swallowed hard and lifted
both hands. I gotta do this. He groaned, then straightened. But
this was a woman. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d
helped with enough ranch accidents to know he had to find out
if she’d broken any bones. There was no choice, he was it. And
he had to finish before the men arrived with the wagon so he’d
know if they could move her.
First, he ran his fingers down one arm, then the other.
Then he skimmed her shoulders. Sweat poured off, under his
hat, down his shirt, both front and back. The softness of her
skin, the delicate bones, curves he couldn’t ignore, were pure
punishment. Damn. Now his hands were shaking.
“Don’t see nobody else, boss,” Carl announced as he
“Who else rode out with you?” Luke asked. He glanced at
the women, wondering if she could hear them talking but there
was no reaction.
“Just me and Bud. The others headed west with them
cows. Got all ten of ‘em.”
“You head to town for the Doc,” Luke instructed. “But first
thing, stop at the house. Tell Agnes what’s happened, that we’re
bringing in an injured woman. She’d best get the spare room
ready.” He watched Carl bound down the mountain before
returning to the task.
For a second he closed his eyes. Get done with it. Once
more he ran his hands over her shoulders, then traced her
sides, slid over her ribs. Oh, lord. She was wearing one of those
corset things. He couldn’t feel a thing through the whalebone
structure. Why’d women need something like that when they
were already slim and shapely? This woman sure didn’t need it.
Now his hands shook as he lifted the skirt a bit to see if
she’d broken any leg bones. Nothing broken so far. He jammed
his hands into his back pants pockets to stop the shaking. After
a minute, he continued the examination.
When he ran his hands over her head, a goose egg had
formed behind her right ear, then he rolled her over. A dozen
small cuts covered her arms and legs and she had twice that
many bruises. The deep gash on her head was doing all the
bleeding. And what looked suspiciously like rope burns circled
He sat back on his haunches. Strange, those burns? If
she’d wrapped the reins around her wrists as well as her hands
to help control the horse pulling the wagon she might have
some marks, but like this? Probably not, but what else could
have made that kind of injury. Standing, he walked around the
area, looking for tracks. Where was the critter that pulled the
buckboard over that road? And, that bump behind her ear, could
she have hit her head on something on the trip down the
mountain? He’d leave the speculation to Doc.
“Thank heavens,” he muttered in relief as Bud stomped
up the hill. “We’ve got to get her down this mountain and into
Bud frowned. “Just you and me? You know we’re gonna
hurt her carrying her over them rocks. Anything broke?” He
tossed a blanket to the ground.
“I don’t think so. ‘Course, I’m not Doc.” Luke stooped to
spread the blanket over the rough terrain.
“Well, let’s get to it,” Bud said and bent down, gathering
her skirt in his hand. “On the count of three. One, two, three.”
They eased her onto the blanket. Luke grabbed two
blanket ends, Bud the other two.
“Watch for them damned rocks,” Bud ordered.
With the woman between them they struggled down the
mountain, then slid her into the wagon.
“Damn good thing she’s out,” Bud said after Luke whistled
“You drive the buckboard,” Luke ordered mounting
Queenie. “Take it slow. I don’t know how bad she is. I’ll bring
your horse in. Meet you at the house.”
Urging the horse into a trot, and not wanting to see Bud’s
face or hear any complaints, Luke started for the house. A short
time later, he bounded up the wooden steps of the front porch.
He opened the closed door and threw his hat toward the hat
Damn, where was she?
“Agnes?” he called again. Still, no response. Rushing into
the kitchen, he stared at the empty pie shelf where earlier that
morning two sugar cream pies had stood.
“Damn!” Obviously his housekeeper was off being
neighborly. Just when he needed her. The job of getting a room
ready had to be his. As another thought surfaced, he jerked to a
halt. If Agnes didn’t show, he’d have to get the woman settled.
Have to make her comfortable.
Until Doc arrived.
Those clothes of hers were a mess. Ripped, bloody,
covered with dirt. They’d have to come off. Wait for Agnes? No,
better not do that. No telling how long she’d be gone.
Once again, damp shirt and hands plagued him. He
couldn’t even swallow, his throat was so tight. All because he’d
be required to take her clothes off. She wore a corset. That
would have to come off. Hell, he was acting like a youngen’.
After all, he’d had women before; it just had been a long time
Nor would it do to leave her naked. She’d to have
something else on. But what? Nightclothes in the summer didn’t
exist on a ranch. And winter meant longjohns.
What about Agnes? Didn’t she wear night clothes? A time
or two, he’d seen her wearing a nightgown and robe. That was
it. One of Agnes’s nightgowns would have to do and they hung
on the pegs in her room.
After he stripped the coverlet from the bed, he sighed
with relief. At least the bed didn’t need to be made. For good
measure though, he punched the pillows. After a quick glance
back, he headed for Agnes’s room.
Grabbing one of her nightgowns off its hook, he marched
back to the spare room, threw it over the end of the bed and
started for the front of the house. Bud should be arriving any
minute now. Satisfaction sliced through him. Bud was older. He
could take care of the woman.
As Luke waited on the porch, a dust cloud appeared in the
west. The buckboard? Or the wagon Agnes usually drove? He
hoped like hell it was Agnes.
Instead, the cloud followed the buckboard. Finally, Bud
pulled up before the house and Luke sprinted for the wagon.
“She regain consciousness?”
“Nope,” Bud swung down from the seat. “Not a sound.
“Agnes isn’t here. You’ll have to help me get her inside.”
“Not here?” Bud looked confused. “Where’d she go?
Who’s gonna take care of the girl? It’ll be two, maybe three
hours before Doc Spencer comes. Maybe more, if Carl has to go
“Yeah, I know. Look, let’s get her into the house. Okay?”
Luke saw no point in telling Bud he’d been elected. At least not
While Luke grabbed one end of the blanket, Bud eased
the woman’s shoulders out of the wagon.
“You think she’s hurt bad?”
“I don’t know. Doc will have to tell us.” Luke’s voice
sounded grim, even to himself. She couldn’t be hurt bad. If her
injuries weren’t serious, she’d be gone to wherever soon
enough. That’d be fine, because he didn’t want another woman
around here. A lesson he’d learned once. That was more than
Inside the house, they lowered the woman to the bed.
Before Luke had a chance to mention his plan to Bud, the
foreman was at the door.
“Boss, gotta see to the horses.”
Luke opened his mouth to object but the man was gone.
“Well, damn. I’ll have to see to her myself.”
For the next half hour, Luke suffered the punishment of
the damned. Somehow, he managed to remove the shoes. After
pulling stockings from those long shapely legs, sweat formed
again. Must be he’d been too long without female company. And
that corset thing had been constructed to torture men. Getting
the thing unlaced and off without brushing her breasts was
agony. Despite the pleasure, he shook the entire time and
experienced lots of pain, an intense yearning that formed like an
ache in his soul.
Then there was the tussle of trying to slip Agnes’s
nightgown over the woman’s chemise, probably because of his
terrible shaking. Thank the lord, she’d never regained
What he needed was coffee, hot strong, black coffee, so
he staggered to the kitchen.
Thursday, September 10, 2009