Someone was camped on her land.
Annie's heart pounded in imitation of a Cheyenne war drum as she reached under the wagon's bench seat and dragged out Sam's loaded shotgun. Her fingers were slick with sweat and she wiped them on her skirts.
"What's wrong, Mama?" Melly whispered.
"I don't know. There should be a camp fire---"
The wind rippled the buffalo grass in green waves. Her stomach cramped with fear. She gnawed her wind-chapped lips and squinted against the glare of the westering sun.
Both roaming Indians eager to avoid the reservation and wandering marauders in tattered Yankee blue trousers or Confederate gray coats followed the passing trail between Fort Larned to Fort Leavenworth. She feared them all.
The roan gelding tranquilly cropped at the thick grass. An abandoned saddle and gray blankets were carelessly heaped beside a blackened fire pit. Both saddlebags tumbled open, their contents strewn on the churned-up ground. Two limp boots lay nearby like discarded toys.
Her sweaty hand gripped the shotgun as she reined her tired team to a halt. Both thirsty animals tossed their heads, setting their harness to jangling. They wanted a drink after the hot drive.
Melly carefully rolled the treasured twine she used for cat's cradle designs to amuse her little brother and placed it in her pinafore pocket. She hugged Will to her side when he tried to scramble over the seat. He squirmed to get loose, then subsided at Melly's admonishing shush.
Annie's lips tightened. The relentless wind carried the water's damp scent, the stink of cold ashes and the coppery stench of blood to her flared nostrils. Annie recognized the smell of trouble. She coughed, but the nasty combination clung to her tongue like bitter medicine.
Sitting here wouldn't solve anything.
Keeping the shotgun firmly in her grasp, she lowered herself to the ground. Thigh-high grass tufts of buffalo grass whispered against her skirts as she reached up and put a hand on Melly's knee.
"Stay in the wagon. You know where my purse is hidden. If anything happens, get out of here lickety-split."
"Don't argue with me." Annie's voice softened as she took in Melly's anxious expression. She would follow her mother's instructions. Her purse held the promise of their future. She gave the girl's knee a quick squeeze. "This won't take but a minute. I have to know you're both safe. Promise?"
Melly scooted across the cracked leather seat and gathered up the knotted reins, her thin face determined. Resentment and longing swamped Annie for a moment. Her daughter had never had a chance to be a child.
She dipped her hand alongside the seat and dragged her father's heavy revolver from its hiding place. She laid it across her lap. Will popped his thumb into his mouth and sucked noisily.
"Good girl. And you, young man," Annie gave Will a stern look. His mussed hair hung over his eyes and she smoothed it back. "Listen to your sister. I'll be quick."
Will obediently knelt beside the meager supplies she'd bought with the few dollars she'd found tucked inside the sweatband of Sam's hat.
Annie cautiously approached the jumbled belongings. The seemingly empty grasslands held more then one kind of threat, but the familiar weight of the shotgun gave her confidence. Thankfully, during her first year of marriage, when she had been left alone in places most decent people avoided, she had convinced Sam to teach her to use the bulky firearm as well as a revolver.
The heap on the ground resolved into a bedroll twisted around a man's motionless shape. Annie inched closer. The harness creaked loudly in the stillness. A vulture swooped low, squawked in surprise and flapped noisily away. Melly murmured a low command to the restless animals. The gelding gave a curious whiffle and lifted his head to watch.
Annie took stepped closer and prayed she wasn't going to find a corpse. She bent to draw aside the corner of the cover.
Her breath caught in her throat.
Her hand hovered over a man's face that seemed broken from granite and weathered by the wind. His tangled black hair was matted by sweat. Heavy dark brows slashed above his closed eyes. His clenched jaw and furrowed cheeks warned her to run. Before she could take flight, a violent shiver racked his body and he groaned.
Annie swallowed hard to push the primal fear from her throat. Everything she knew Biographyn screamed that this one was dangerous.
Her shaky legs failed her and she dropped to her knees. She could leave him here to die. And he would die, of that she had no doubt. She reached to test his brow for fever, but when he tossed his head, she jerked her fingers back. The blanket fell open. Sweat coated his face and his breath rasped between his clamped teeth. His large hand clutched the frayed edge.
"Mama?" Melly called, her voice shrill with fear. "What's wrong? What did you find? Does someone need help?"
"Just a minute," Annie answered. Melly's gentle question reminded her she couldn't ignore this stranger's plight. "Stay in the wagon until I'm sure what ails this drifter."
She braced herself and skimmed her fingers over his forehead. He burned with fever. Her gaze dropped to his mouth where his well-formed lips were dry and cracked. He must have lain here for a long time. She and the children had been gone two days, but this close to the buildings Digger should have found him.
The color of his unshaven cheeks matched the gray tint of river clay, but her gaze fixed on the man's closed lids. Lashes long enough to grace a southern belle's flirtatious glance lay in dual crescents above sharp cheekbones. She wondered what color his eyes were. A deep melting brown? Blue as a robin's egg?
When his lean body shuddered with ague, Annie forced her disordered thoughts back into a sensible pattern. She'd been staring at him instead of tending to his ills.
After laying the shotgun within reach, she pried loose his grip on the coverings. His powerful hand turned under hers, but that didn't explain the tingle traveling up her arm and the urge to linger. She chewed her lower lip in puzzlement.
Annie flipped aside the blanket to find him clad in wrinkled Levis and an unbuttoned plaid flannel shirt. One sleeve had been torn aside, exposing a clumsy bandage around his left shoulder.
He'd been shot.
She glanced quickly toward the silent trees along the meandering creek and shuddered with relief. Whoever had done this was long gone.
Her gaze skimmed over the rest of his bare chest. Her breath caught in her throat. The only adult male she'd seen in a state of undress was her husband, and Sam had looked nothing like this.
A thick wedge of wiry black hair angled down to the stranger's waistband. Would it be soft as down or bristly as a brush, she wondered. Her cheeks burned when she realized how inappropriate her thoughts were.
Her lips curled with distaste when she noticed the holstered gun strapped around his narrow waist. Under the buckle, the top button of his denim pants was unfastened. The feathery trail of hair continuing downward, but she averted her gaze before it reached the bulge of his manhood. That part of male anatomy held no interest whatsoever for her.
Her nose twitched at the bitter odor of dried blood. She barely glanced at his muscular thighs and long legs. From the way his denims were worn white, she guessed he must spend long hours in the saddle. Another wanderer.
Annie sat back on her heels. "Melly, set the wagon brake and help your brother down. This man looks bad. He's been shot and he's burning up with fever from his wound."
"Should I bring the medicine box from the wagon?"
"No, just the water jug and a cup." Annie frowned. Dampness chilled her feet right through her high-button leather shoes and knit stockings.
A minute later Melly and Will were alongside her, staring down at the unconscious man. The drifter threw an arm out to the side. Will dodged behind his sister's
skirts and noisily sucked his thumb. The boy's wide brown eyes glistened with the instinctive wariness of a smaller, weaker animal.
Annie gave him a reassuring pat. She prayed time would lessen the boy's fear of men. Silently, she sent a bitter curse after Sam.
"What are we going to do with him, Mama?"
Annie sighed. Despite her doubts, she really had no choice. "The only thing we can. We'll take him home."