He stared up at the vast blue vault of the sky. He had always known this day would come. Any man who lived by the gun usually died that way. Even now, blood from the gunshot wound low in his left side was leaking through his fingers, soaking into the dirt beneath him.
Only a matter of time, he thought. He might have had a chance of finding help if his horse hadn't been shot out from under him. But maybe that was a good thing. When a warrior died, the People killed his favorite mount so the warrior's spirit wouldn't have to walk to the happy hunting ground. Kade grunted softly as he glanced at the dead mare. At least he had a good horse to carry him to the land of spirits.
Resigned to his fate, he closed his eyes and waited for death.
Norrie McDonald shaded her eyes against the setting sun as she watched a trio of vultures circling overhead in the distance. Something had died. Probably one of their calves or perhaps a cow. A deer, maybe.
Clucking to her horse, she rode that way to check it out.
She didn't see anything until she crossed the shallow river. And there, partially hidden by a boulder, she found the source of the vultures' interest.
Reining her mare to a halt, Norrie stared down at the man. He looked Indian but he was dressed like a white man, right down to his worn leather boots. He'd been shot. Blood caked his shirt front and stained his hands. Flies swarmed around him. He wasn't moving.
Leaning forward, her arms folded on the pommel of her saddle, Norrie tried to decide what to do. She didn't have a shovel, so she couldn't bury him. And she certainly couldn't lift him onto her horse and take him back to the ranch. Heaving a sigh, she decided to ride back to the Lazy Double D and send a couple of the hands out to bury him.
She was about to head back to the ranch when she paused. Maybe before she left, she should make sure he was dead.
Dismounting, she knelt beside him, her fingers searching for a pulse.
At her touch, a low groan rose in his throat.
Startled, Norrie scrambled to her feet and backed away.
He stared up at her a moment, then licked his lips. "You got any water for a dying man?"
With a curt nod, Norrie retrieved her canteen. Kneeling beside him again, she removed the cap, lifted his head and held the canteen to his lips. He drank greedily, then closed his eyes.
Norrie recapped the flask and slung it over the pommel of her saddle. "Can you get up?"
He looked at her through heavy-lidded eyes as cold and gray as storm clouds. "I don't know."
"Well, I can't lift you." Taking the bandana from his neck, she folded it into a thick square, then pulled his shirt from his trousers and pressed the pad over the bullet hole. "Can you sit up?"
He let out a low groan as she helped him.
"The bullet's still in there." After ripping a long strip from his shirttail, she wrapped it around his middle to hold the bandage in place. "You're gonna have to help me," she said, gaining her feet. "Unless you want to feed those buzzards."
He glanced upward. Then, grunting softly, he grasped the hand she offered.
Norrie wasn't sure how they managed it. He was a big man, broad-shouldered and long-legged, but somehow, she got him on his feet. With his arm draped heavily over her shoulders, she walked him to her horse and gave him a boost into the saddle. Putting her foot in the stirrup, she swung up behind him, then leaned forward and grabbed the reins.
It was five miles back to the ranch, she thought as she wrapped one arm around his waist. She just hoped he stayed conscious until they got there.
"What the hell!" Old Tom exclaimed when she reined up in front of the veranda. "Who the devil is that?"
"I don't know. Help me get him into the house."
Between the two of them, they managed to get the stranger into Seth's bedroom.
"Tom, I want you to ride into town and get the doctor."
Grumbling under his breath, he hurried out of the room.
Norrie stood beside the bed, her hands on her hips as she regarded the stranger in her brother's bed. She couldn't help noticing that he was handsome -- in a rough-hewn sort of way -- as she unbuckled his gunbelt, dragged it out from under him and dropped it on the ladder-back chair beside the window. His hair was long and thick and black, his skin the color of copper. A faint white scar ran from the outer corner of his left eye to his jaw.
Taking a deep breath, she unbuttoned his shirt so she could remove it. No easy task, big as he was, unconscious, and unable to help.
She washed the wound as best she could, bandaged it up, removed his boots, then covered him with an old quilt, hoping all the while that the doctor would get there before it was too late.
Kade woke expecting to find himself in hell. The life he'd led sure as hell didn't merit heaven. A quick glance around made him think he was nearer paradise than Hades. The room was good-sized and square, with white walls, and rag rugs on the floor. The bed beneath him was soft, but not too soft. Morning light filtered through the lace curtains at the window.
So, where the hell was he? And how had he gotten there?
At the sound of the door knob turning, he reached for his gun, only it wasn't there. Neither were his pants. His eyes narrowed as the door swung open and a woman carrying a covered tray stepped into the room.
She was a pretty thing, with a mass of curly, dark-brown hair tied back with a red ribbon, and deep-green eyes that looked wise beyond her years. A smattering of golden freckles were sprinkled across her nose and cheeks. She wore pants that outlined a pair of long legs and a shirt that left little doubt that she was all woman.
Careful to stay out of his reach, she moved closer to the bed. He had looked like death warmed over last night. And not much better today. "How are you feeling this morning?"
"I've been better. And worse. How long have I been here?"
"Two days. Doc Williams dug a bullet out of your side. He said you were lucky to be alive."
He grunted softly. "Who are you?"
"I'm the one who saved your life," Norrie retorted. The doctor had said as much last night. "Who are you?"
"My old man called me Kade."
The way he said it made her wonder if it was his real name. "Do you know who shot you?"
She lifted an inquiring brow.
"Could have been one of a dozen."
"You had twelve men chasing you? What did you do? Rob a bank?"
"Not this time."
Norrie stared at him. Was he joking? Or had she rescued a wanted man?
He glanced around the room. "Where's my Colt?"
"I put it away."
"Afraid I'll gun you down?"
"It crossed my mind," she said with asperity.
"I've never shot a woman. Yet." He jerked his chin toward the tray. "Is that for me?"
"What? Oh, yes." Setting the tray on the table beside the bed, she lifted the cloth, revealing a plate of bacon, eggs, fried potatoes, and a cup of coffee. "Do you need anything else?"
He shook his head as he reached for the tray.
"You're welcome." Turning on her heel, she marched out of the room.
"Not only an outlaw," he heard her mutter before she slammed the door behind her, "but an ungrateful one at that!"
Connor McDonald stared at his daughter across the breakfast table. "I still can't believe you brought that outlaw home while I was gone. By all the Saints, daughter, what were you thinking?"
"I couldn't just leave him out there to die. Besides, we don't know he's an outlaw."
"The man's on the run, anyone can see that. You should have taken him into town and let the sheriff deal with him."
"He would have bled to death before I got there!"
"Good riddance, I say. We've got enough problems without you bringing more home. Where's Seth?"
She shrugged. "He went into town last night and hasn't come back."
Her father shook his head in disgust. "Probably sleeping it off at Truvy's place."
"Probably." Truvy Owens was a young widow who owned the boarding house in Clayton's Corner. She had a soft spot for Seth and let him stay the night whenever he'd had too much to drink. Which was far too often.
"Doc say how long the stranger would be laid up?"
"A week. Maybe more."
Her father grunted his disapproval. "Do you know who he is?"
"He said his name's Kade."
Connor stared at her, his expression thoughtful. "I've heard that name somewheres. Can't recall just where. But it'll come to me. In the meantime, you watch yourself around him."
After clearing the table, Norrie went to collect the stranger's dishes. She had hoped to find him asleep and was surprised to find him sitting up in bed, staring out the window.
His gaze swung toward her as she stepped into the room.
A shiver ran down Norrie's spine when he turned that cold, gray gaze on her. There was something in his eyes, something dark and haunted and dangerous. And then it was gone and a lazy smile twitched his lips.
"Can I get you anything else?" she asked, stacking his cup and silverware on his plate.
"Another cup of coffee would be nice."
"Anything else?" she asked, her voice cool.
"I don't know." His gaze moved over her from head to foot, making her shiver everywhere it touched. "What have you got?"
"Nothing you'll ever get your hands on!" she snapped, and fled the room, slamming the door behind her.
The sound of his amused laughter chased her down the hallway.
Kade shook his head. She was a feisty thing. Pretty, too. And a damn good cook. Taking a deep breath, he threw back the covers and eased his legs over the edge of the bed. Hands braced on the mattress, he stood, wincing as a sharp pain lanced through his left side.
He stood there a moment, waiting for it to pass. His gaze swept the room. Where the hell were his clothes? And his gunbelt? He needed to be on his way before the law came looking for him.
The law! He cursed under his breath. They hadn't seen fit to convict the man who killed his brother in cold blood, but that was no surprise. No jury this side of the Mississippi was going to hang a white man for killing an Indian. So, he had taken the law into his own hands. That had been five years ago.
And now, after that dust up in Cheyenne a few days back, he was on the run.
Pulling the sheet from the bed, he wrapped it around his hips. Took a deep breath. And opened the door.
He had hoped to find his pretty nurse.
Instead, he came face to face with a tall, gray-haired man who regarded him through inhospitable brown eyes.
"You must be feelin' better," the man said, his voice flat.
Feeling vulnerable as hell, unarmed and wearing only a sheet, Kade nodded .
"Are you lookin' for something?"
"My pants. And my gun."
"You any good with that hogleg?"
"Why? You got someone who needs killin'?"
"I might, if I ever find out who's been stealing my cattle and fouling my water."
Kade shook his head. "I can't help you. I've got troubles of my own."
"You look like a man on the run," the old man remarked, his expression thoughtful.
"Then don't slow me down."
"My daughter saved your life. I'd say you owe me one."
"What are you asking me to do, exactly?"
"Just hang around and keep your eyes open. You look like a fella who knows how to read trail sign."
Kade's eyes narrowed. "What are you implying?"
The man shrugged. "You've got some Injun in you."
"I'm just saying, your people are good trackers. The ones I'm looking for are good at not leaving any sign. Maybe you can see what I can't." He cocked his head to the side. "You're looking a little peaked. I'm thinking you should crawl back into bed and get some rest."
"I'm thinking you're right."
"You want some help?"
"I can manage." Feeling light-headed, Kade turned and walked unsteadily back down the hallway. His mind replayed his conversation with the old man until he fell asleep.
It was late in the day when Norrie opened the door to Seth's room and peeked inside. She had expected to find Kade asleep but the bed was empty. Had he left? Not likely, she thought with a shake of her head. If he had, he must have taken off in the nude, since his clothes were in the laundry basket, waiting to be ironed.
Alarm skittered down her spine when a shadow passed in front of the window. She was about to reach for her father's rifle when she realized the shadow belonged to her patient, who was slowly pacing back and forth on the side porch. What on earth was he doing out of bed so soon?
Norrie hesitated a moment, then hurried outside. She came to an abrupt halt when she saw him pacing toward her clad in nothing but a sheet. Face burning with embarrassment, she quickly turned away.
"Something you wanted?" he asked, obviously amused by her reaction.
"I…um…just wanted to see if you were…um…hungry. Supper will be ready soon."
It took every ounce of self-control Norrie could muster to keep from running for the door.
Kade stared after her for a moment. Of all the women he had known, she was the first one to blush at seeing a man's naked chest. It amused the hell out of him. And then he frowned. She was nothing like the women he'd known.
He needed to remember that.
Norrie refused to meet Kade's eyes when she brought him his dinner. Keeping her gaze carefully averted, she placed the tray on the bedside table and quickly left the room.
Kade had just finished eating when the old man stepped inside and closed the door behind him.
"Did you give any thought to what I said?"
"I'll stick around for a few days."
"Why's the law after you?"
"I killed a man. It was self-defense, lots of witnesses. But he was white. And I'm not."
"That the only man you ever killed?"
"No. A few years back, I killed the man who shot my brother."
The old man shrugged. "I can live with that. My name's Connor McDonald. I reckon I don't have to tell you to keep your hands off my daughter."
"Because I'm a wanted man?" Kade asked. "Or because I'm an Indian?"
Kade grinned, amused by McDonald's honesty. "I'll need a few more days to rest up."
"Reckon so. Remember what I said."
Surprised to find himself liking the old man, Kade watched McDonald shuffle out of the room. Fathers with daughters, he thought, with some amusement. They were all the same.