COMING SEPTEMBER 2012
West Texas 1886
The sharp crack of gunshots still echoed in Bram Ross’s ears as he urged his horse away from the shoot-out at the Eight of Hearts ranch. Wincing, he wiped at the blood running down his right cheek. He could smell it on the warm May air.
Only minutes ago, Bram and his friends had been in a confrontation with a band of cattle rustlers and the man who had given them their orders. Dr. Annalise Fine had been smack in the middle of it. Thankfully, she was unhurt and safe now with Matt Baldwin.
The sheriff and two other men were taking the dead bodies of the outlaws and their boss back to Whirlwind.
Only one man had gotten away.
Now, Bram rode hell-for-leather after Cosgrove, the snake who had slithered off in a hail of bullets after one of his shots had plowed a furrow out of one side of Bram’s face. He barely kept his fury in check as he followed Cosgrove’s tracks southwest across the prairie from Eight of Hearts land and onto the Baldwins’ property.
Considering how many men had been firing weapons, it was lucky only the outlaws had been killed.
Bram was beyond angry that Cosgrove had escaped. He had more than one score to settle with the rustling bastard. The bastard hadn’t only injured Bram, he had stolen so many Circle R cattle that Bram’s family had come close to losing their ranch.
In moments, he reached Ross land, passing the small cabin his brother had spruced up last year before his wedding. Grass and dirt flew from under his gelding’s hooves as they thundered across the prairie. Bram realized Cosgrove was headed toward the west edge of Circle R property.
And the house where Deborah Blue lived with her mother and three sisters.
Why was the lowlife going this way? Foreboding snaked up Bram’s spine. Did it have anything to do with Deborah? It was no secret that Cosgrove was interested in her, but to come here on the run from the law and Bram? The closer he got to the house, the harder his gut churned.
Though the tracks stopped a good distance from the roomy log house, Bram urged his mount there anyway. If Cosgrove was fool enough to stop here, he wasn’t leaving. Bram quietly dismounted, pulled his rifle from his scabbard and slipped carefully to the corner of the house. No sign of anyone in the garden at the side of the house or in the corral or barn. No one riding through the tall prairie grass behind. There was no sound from inside and no one answered his knock.
If Cosgrove had stopped here, maybe no one had been home. The tightness across Bram’s chest eased slightly. Until he heard the rattle of an approaching wagon. Raising his rifle, he quickly lowered it when he saw Mrs. Blue in her wagon with three of her four daughters. No sign of Deborah among them.
His gut knotted. Instead of waiting for the women to reach him, Bram strode toward them.
Recalling the row he’d had with Deborah last night, he wondered if perhaps she hadn’t answered his knock because she was still angry.
“Hello, Bram.” Deborah’s mother, a tall, thin woman, gave him a wobbly smile. Seeing his bloody cheek, she drew in a sharp breath. “Are you all right? What happened?”
“I’m fine, ma’am.” He yanked off his hat, quickly explaining that there had been trouble at one of the neighboring ranches.
There was no sign Cosgrove had been here, no sign that Deborah had left with the bastard. So where was she? “Deborah isn’t with you?”
“No,” Jessamine Blue said. “She stayed here while the girls and I went to town.”
Apprehension drummed through him. “I knocked, but got no answer.”
Mrs. Blue frowned, touching the knee of the raven-haired daughter beside her. “Jordan, go check the house.”
The sister closest to Deborah in age, with the same black hair and blue eyes, allowed Bram to help her from the wagon, then hurried inside.
He had just handed down the older woman when Jordan returned with a piece of paper. She sent Bram an uncertain look before reaching her mother. “She’s gone! She left a note.”
Gone? For a moment, Bram’s thoughts stalled. Gone where?
Mrs. Blue quickly scanned the note, shaking her head, sounding bewildered. “She’s gone to Abilene to meet with the school board about her new teaching job.”
The words hit him like a kick to the head. “Why? Why would she do that now? School doesn’t start until September.”
After their heated argument last night, she had agreed to think about turning down the job and staying here with him.
The job was only for two school terms. She’d sworn she would return to Whirlwind. And him.
His ma had said the same thing one day when he was four and Jake was five. Bram hadn’t seen her again until eleven years later when he managed to track her down. She had refused to come back to Whirlwind with him. He had never told Jake about that. Who needed to hear that their own mother wanted nothing to do with them? Bram had lived that minute over enough for both he and his brother.
And now Deborah had left Bram, too. That cut too close to the bone. He had asked her to consider staying here, with him. She had considered it all of thirteen hours. He had her answer.
Nothing and no one meant enough to her for her to stay.
Her mother’s blue eyes, faded from age and illness, filled with tears. “I don’t understand why she felt the need to leave now.”
Neither did Bram. He might want to go after her, but what was the point? Besides, he couldn’t lose Cosgrove’s trail.
Cold sharp fury sliced through Bram. Fine. He was done with her. And he was wasting daylight.
He vaulted into his saddle and bid the Blues goodbye as he rode off. After promising to give his proposal some thought, Deborah had up and left instead.
That hurt every bit as much as the searing pain in his cheek. Bram could forget her. He would forget. But he wouldn’t forget Cosgrove. He would hunt down that lying, thieving thug, and have his revenge, no matter what he had to do to get it.
West Texas, 1886
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, tears stung 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 they 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. 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 pale blue floral bodice. Her mind was empty. Why couldn’t she remember anything?
A shiver rippled up her spine. Not only was she completely alone and lost. She had no idea who she was.
* * *
After a week of tracking Cosgrove, Bram 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.
Yesterday, Bram picked up the man’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 the outlaw might have changed direction.
The last 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 bastard 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 two days ago, 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.
What the hell?
From the book: WHIRLWIND COWBOY
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