Someone help me
Someone help me. The vise within her twisted hard. There was only the bright flash of white sparks before her eyes and then she felt the vising gain strength. She lay helpless on the ground, shrouded by snow. Alone.
The physical pain tearing like a hungry predator at her flesh was nothing, nothing at all. Her heart was shattering, and that pain was why she cried out in the worsening storm, why the icy crust of snow beneath her or the dangerous cold did not hurt her.
Unable to move, lost and alone, feeling the life’s blood drain out of her, she listened to the storm rage on, cruel and lethal, as if there was no more hope in this bleak and bitter world.
Joshua cursed the timing of the storm. No, it couldn’t blow over, not on this day when responsibility weighed like an anvil around his throat. The blasted storm seemed to be gathering speed for an all-out blizzard.
It was too early in the year. He’d prepared for bad weather early. This was Montana Territory, and unforgiving storms were a possibility every year. He considered himself a top-notch rancher who accounted for every possibility, but not today. He had some things to say to Claire Hamilton and they needed to be said now. Today. Before Logan or Ham’s brothers decided to make good on their threats to find the truth.
The truth would stay buried with Ham, and Joshua would make damn sure of it. But nothing had been that simple. Ham’s brothers had made it clear they didn’t like him, yet how did either of them know he’d been out Ham’s way that night? Claire. He had to talk to her. He had to know what she might have said—either intentionally or by mistake.
The widow wasn’t his only problem. As Joshua pulled his hands out of his coat pockets to shake the thick layer of iced snow from his muffler and hat, he figured his brother and grandmother ought to have reached the shelter of home by now. His brother—that troubled Joshua, too.
The boy had taken one of the horses, leaving the mare of the matched team to pull Granny’s sleigh to the family ranch. But his younger brother knew something was amiss.
“I thought you had a fire beneath your britches to get chores done,” Jordan had observed, slouched as usual in the seat. “Now you’re headin’ off and orderin’ me to drive Granny home?”
He had been too irritated, Joshua realized in hindsight as he jammed his fists back into his pockets. “I have things that need seein’ to.”
“Things.” Jordan had sounded doubtful as he’d exerted enough effort to shake the snow from his hat brim. “Why in the hell are you watchin’ the road to the mountains? Maybe you could enlighten me, oh lord and master.”
“At least you acknowledge my supremacy,” Joshua had ground out, his fury rising at his brother’s pesky questions. Of course he was in charge. Where would they be if Jordan had taken over the reins of the family? They’d all be starved, homeless and slouching. “Just follow orders and take Granny home. There’s something I gotta do.”
“What? We’re heading into the mountains, eh? Agggh!” Jordan slugged the dashboard in frustration. “I can’t believe you’re doin’ this! I know where you’re going.”
I should have left the conversation there, Joshua thought as he nudged his left spur gently against General’s flank, keeping him on the road that was nearly impossible to see. I should have let him think what he wanted instead of tipping my hand. And now…
A hard gust of wind lashed against him, driving ice through the layers of fur, wool and flannel. Joshua shivered, but it wasn’t from the cold. If Jordan guessed any of the truth, then an innocent woman would go to jail, for the simple fact of defending herself. For what other reason could gentle Claire Hamilton have killed her husband?
He remembered the image of that night, when Ham had first come into sight with his arm back holding a whip ready to strike the fallen woman. Why, he should have killed the man himself and saved her the trouble.
Bile filled his throat. Father had always been one to look the other way, not to get involved in other fools’ problems, and look where it had gotten him, shot in the back and left to bleed out in the far grazing fields. Playing it safe had not protected Father one bit. And yet, matters could not have been worse if he had taken aim and pulled the trigger instead of Claire. It was a mess.
But like this blizzard, it would soon pass and be forgotten. What he had to do was make sure of it.
General had veered off the road again, fetlock-deep in drifting snow. It wasn’t fair to drag the horse out in this. He’d put in a hard day hauling yesterday. Riding into the brunt of the storm was wearing on him. Joshua took his hand out of his pocket to pat the gelding’s neck, encouraging him. He’d make sure the horse got warmed mash as soon as they got home.
“We gotta keep going, fella.”
When the gelding didn’t respond to knee pressure or a flat edge of the spur, he lifted the reins from the saddle horn, shook off the caked snow, and added pressure to the bit.
General sidestepped to a halt. His opinion was clear. He didn’t like the storm any more than Joshua did.
“Sorry, buddy, we gotta—”
Was it his imagination, or did the wind have a strange keel to it? He stopped and cocked his ear. There was something in the wind, a low note to the eerie howling of the wind. A horse? A rider in trouble? “General, you are a fine horse. You take me to ’em.”
He gave the gelding his head, and the big animal stumbled in the drifts of snow and hidden clumps of dead buffalo grass. As if the storm were a living thing, determined to hold them back, the wind pummeled them, driving the snow horizontal, closing them off from the world.
While he knew the grand rise of the Rocky Mountains ought to be jutting straight up from the prairie floor directly ahead, he could see only an endless curtain of gray-white that fell around him, draping him from the rest of the world.
It was damn dangerous letting General wander off the road. More good men than he could count had become lost in weather like this. The sounds of the wind and the thickly blowing snow confused a man’s sense of direction and isolated him from every visual landmark. A man would wander off course and freeze to death, sometimes having come within a few feet of his own house or barn.
But one thing was certain—if he didn’t help, then whoever or whatever was in trouble was facing a death sentence.
He did his best to fix in his mind the position of the road. If he could find the road and keep to it, then eventually it would lead him to shelter. If he could survive the below-zero winds.
General was a well-trained horse, a pure Morgan, strong, sturdy and smart as a whip. He had good horse instincts, and they served both of them well as he pricked his ears, listening. The wind seemed to be teasing them with its sound. It had become a living thing, a lethal force, allowing them a hint of sound and then blowing it away.
But General was true—he halted abruptly and stood. Whatever he found was at his feet.
“Good boy.” Joshua dismounted, stiff from the cold, and without a saddle beneath him, slid easily to the ground. He sank into snow well over his ankles. He couldn’t see a thing. “What did you find, boy?”
Then he heard it—a faint nicker. Not a nicker exactly, but it was some animal in trouble. Joshua trudged forward, keeping a hand on General to guide him along. A shadow moved in the endless swirl of snow. A big Clydesdale with his head hung low lumbered out of the shadows and bumped confused into Joshua.
The impact nearly knocked him off his feet. Joshua realized the animal was panicked and suffocating. How long he’d been standing in this was anyone’s guess. And he was not alone. Another draft horse huddled behind him, looking even more frightened.
All it took was a hand to the animal’s frozen muzzle and most of the snow that had iced to his warm nostrils broke away. The workhorse shook his head, his sides heaving in strong currents of air.