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Claire Montgomery stood and arched her back to relieve the tension in her muscles. Her sweat dampened, blue gingham dress clung to her slim body. She’d spent the morning bent over a large, cast-iron pot doing the week’s washing. She hated the chore, especially in the heat of summer. Sighing heavily, she pushed at a strand of fiery red hair that had escaped its binding and fallen into her eyes. A slight smile pulled at the corners of her mouth as Bartholomew, a large orange tabby, who was sleeping on the porch beside her, opened his one good eye and glared at her.
“Sorry to have disturbed your nap, Bart,” she chuckled. He closed his eye and immediately fell back to sleep. It must be nice, she thought. She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the blinding sun as she glanced across the small yard in front of her cabin. The silhouette of a man on horseback shimmered on the horizon. Thinking her eyes might be playing tricks on her in this heat, she blinked and looked again. The image was still there.
“Tobias!” she called.
A large, middle-aged, black man stepped out of the barn. “Did you call me, Miss Claire?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered. Pointing toward the horizon, she added, “There’s a rider coming.”
Tobias turned to look in the direction she pointed. The approaching rider was slumped forward in the saddle. “He don’t look too good,” he commented. “I best ride out to meet him.” He turned and disappeared inside the barn. A few moments later, he led a bay mare out of the barn, mounted, and started toward the man.
Claire watched as Tobias approached the rider. Her mind hummed with curiosity. Her reputation as a healer was well known and as a result, they frequently had visitors. However, she knew all the townsfolk, and none of them rode a horse as fine as this one.
“Hello!” Tobias called out as he approached the visitor. There was no answer. The man didn’t appear to be conscious. His horse slowed as Tobias neared it. Without warning, the man slid from the saddle and landed face down. Tobias jumped off his horse and hurried toward him. He rolled the man over and shook his head in dismay when he saw the amount of blood saturating his shirt.
Seeing the man fall, Claire spun around and hurried inside the cabin. She immediately started a pot of water boiling and gathered up her remedies. The man was obviously injured. She knew Tobias would bring him to her. She glanced up as his giant shadow fell across the room. He stood in the doorway, holding the man in his arms.
“How badly is he hurt?” she asked.
“Looks like he’s got several bullet holes,” Tobias answered. “He’s out cold.”
“Put him on the table and let me take a look,” Claire instructed.
Tobias nodded and strode to the long dining table in the middle of the room. He gently laid the man down. Claire reached for the buttons of his shirt. Without warning, a hand snaked out and snatched one of her delicate wrists. She sucked in a breath as the hand tightened painfully. Her gaze flew to the man’s face. Grey eyes, glazed with fever, stared straight into hers. Tobias stepped to the table, ready to pull Claire out of the man’s grip. A second later, he loosened his hold on her and dropped back into unconsciousness. Claire and Tobias exchanged a brief look. Then Claire returned to the task of removing his shirt.
“Sit him up,” she instructed, when she’d reached the last button.
Tobias gripped his shoulders and pulled him into a sitting position. The man groaned, but didn’t regain consciousness. Claire began removing the blood-soaked shirt, noting that several of the wounds were still oozing, which indicated they were fresh. However, much of the blood had already dried causing the shirt to stick to the man’s chest and back. Claire was as careful as she could be; however, as she pulled the shirt away from his body, blood began to pour from several of the holes.
As soon as the shirt slid free, Tobias lowered him back to the table. Claire turned to retrieve the kettle of boiling water. She poured some of the water into a shallow bowl and dampened a linen cloth, gently pressing it to the man’s chest. So much blood covered his torso, it was impossible to determine the extent of his injuries. The man’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm. With the amount of blood he’d lost, Claire was surprised by the strength she felt beneath her hand. She’d treated many bullet wounds in her lifetime. Usually, the flesh felt like dough. His was firm beneath her touch. He’s extremely fit, she mused. He’s going to need that strength to recover from this.
“Who’s that?” a child’s voice asked.
“We don’t know,” Claire answered, glancing up at the small boy standing in the doorway. His dark, curly hair was plastered to his head. Mud clung to almost every part of his body. “Don’t you dare step into this cabin, James,” she warned as the boy started to step toward them. “Go get yourself cleaned up.” The boy’s features drew into a frown, but he obediently turned and left. Claire returned her attention to the man on the table.
She counted four bullet holes; one in each shoulder, one on the right side of the chest, and one just below the ribs on the left side. Although the flow of blood had eased, it continued to ooze from the holes in his chest and abdomen. “Hold him up again, so I can see if all the bullets passed through,” she instructed.
Tobias lifted the man’s shoulders off the table. Claire was relieved to see four holes matching the ones on the front. She nodded, and Tobias lowered the man back to the table. “Looks like this is one lucky man,” she commented. “All of the bullets passed through.”
Tobias chuckled softly. “I’m not sure you can say a man with four bullet holes in him is lucky.”
Claire glanced up and smiled. “I suppose you’ve got a point.” She spent the next several minutes cleaning the wounds and applying her special poultice. Then Tobias helped her place the bandages. By the time they finished, the man’s entire torso was covered with white linen. Tobias gathered him into his arms and carried him to a cot in the corner of the room.
“Where am I gonna sleep?” James asked, stepping into the cabin and frowning at the large man in his bed.
Claire glanced over and sighed in exasperation. Water ran from the boy in rivulets, pooling on the floor at his feet. “Go back outside until you’re dry enough not to leave a puddle in the floor.”
“But…” James started to protest.
“No, buts,” Claire replied sternly. “Once you’re dry enough not to drip, you can come back inside, and I’ll do my best to answer those questions you’re dying to get out.” She smiled as the boy dropped his head and shuffled back outside.
Although she wasn’t James’ natural mother, she couldn’t love him any less. She and Tobias found him when he was only an infant. The small wagon train his family had been traveling with was attacked by a gang of outlaws, and he was the only survivor. She and Tobias were passing through a valley, when they spotted a large group of buzzards circling. Curious, they rode over to see what had attracted so many. When they arrived, they found a small circle of wagons with several dead bodies littering the ground around them. The wagons had obviously been pilfered. After spending an hour burying the dead, they were readying to leave, when they heard the sound of a baby crying. It took several minutes for them to locate the infant. He was hidden under a pile of blankets in one of the wagons. Apparently, his mother had hoped to hide him from their attackers. Claire and Tobias took the baby with them. James was now an energetic six-year-old.
Too damn hot, Nathan’s feverish mind kept repeating. He tore at the sheet covering his body. Pain ripped through him as he struggled to regain consciousness. The faint sound of a voice penetrated his mind. What the hell? he thought in confusion as he realized it was a female voice, and it was singing. Am I dead? He dismissed the thought immediately as he knew there was no way he’d have been allowed into heaven with the sins he’d committed, and he was pretty sure there weren’t any singing angels in hell. He gathered all the strength he had and opened one eye.
Through his feverish haze, he saw the outline of a woman sitting in a chair beside him. It was difficult to make out her features as the only light in the room was coming from a single candle on a stand near the cot he was lying on. He blinked, trying to focus. She must have sensed he was awake, because she slid to the edge of her chair and leaned toward him. He blinked again as one side of her face came into view. She was exquisite. Her skin was so pale it was almost transparent. The candlelight danced across her high cheekbones and perfectly formed, full mouth. Then she turned fully toward him, and he sucked in an involuntary breath. The other side of her face was covered in scars that pulled at her skin, completely distorting her features.
He saw a flicker of pain flash in her eyes before she pasted a smile on her face. “Hello,” she whispered softly. “It’s good you’re awake.”
He didn’t reply as he watched her hand move to retrieve a cloth from a bowl at her feet. She gently pressed it to his fevered forehead. He closed his eyes as the cool cloth helped ease some of the heat raging in his body. He reopened them as she leaned to dip the cloth into the bowl again. As she repeated the process a few more times, he felt his eyes growing heavy. Moments later, he slipped back into the darkness.
Claire sighed with relief as the man’s eyes drifted closed, and his chest began rising and falling in the gentle rhythm of sleep. His steady gaze had caused her heart to flutter in her chest. It was intimidating to have someone stare at you in that fashion without speaking. Admiration had flashed in his eyes when he’d gotten his first look at her. It quickly turned to revulsion when she turned fully toward him. She’d grown accustomed to being rejected by people because of her scars. However, she’d never been able to harden herself enough not to feel the pain of each rejection. Tobias and James were the only people she had ever known who didn’t judge her by her scars, and because of that, she loved them with all of her heart.
Trying to ease the ache that seeing the man’s reaction had caused, she returned to softly singing the hymns she’d grown to love as a small child. She’d been raised on a plantation in Georgia. Her parents were wealthy landowners. Before the country had been torn apart by war, they’d attended church every Sunday. From the time she was old enough to talk, she’d loved to sing. It was something she’d continued to do into her adult years. Singing brought her an inner peace she couldn’t feel doing anything else.
She pressed the cool, damp cloth to the man’s face. She could feel the heat of his fevered flesh burning through the cloth. Although the fever had diminished, it continued to blaze within him. His return to consciousness had been a good sign, even if it had only been for a few brief moments. She found herself wondering what sort of man he was. As he slept, he looked so peaceful. Long, dark lashes framed his eyes. A thin scar ran along the right side of his strong, square jawline. During her ministrations, she’d discovered several more scars on his body. He’d obviously led a violent life. She wondered what had pushed him into such a life. She knew the war had caused many men to turn to crime. Was that what happened to this man? The holster and weapon Tobias had removed from around his waist indicated that he was a gunman for hire. Her thoughts were interrupted when the cabin door opened, and Tobias stepped inside.
“Let me sit with him for a while, Miss Claire. You need to get some sleep.”
She nodded. “He woke for a moment. His fever seems to have cooled some, but he’s not out of danger, yet,” she said as she stood.
“Did he tell you who he was?” Tobias asked.
“No. He didn’t speak,” she replied, looking down into the man’s handsome face. Then, glancing back up, she said, “I’ll see you in a few hours.”
Tobias nodded and slid into the chair she’d just vacated. Claire walked over to the pallet of blankets where James slept. Bending down, she placed a soft kiss on his cheek. He’d been so excited by the idea of having a real-life gunfighter in their cabin. She certainly didn’t share in his enthusiasm. She only hoped that whatever trouble the man had been involved in didn’t follow him.
“LET GO OF ME!” a voice bellowed. Claire jerked upright and jumped out of bed. She rushed to her bedroom door and threw it open. Tobias was struggling to hold the man down on the cot. He glanced up as her door banged against the wall.
“He started thrashing around so violently I thought he was gonna hurt himself. Is there anything you can give him?” Tobias asked in a strained voice as the man continued to fight against him.
She nodded and rushed back into her bedroom. Grabbing one of her remedy bottles, she hurried to the man’s bedside. “Hold him steady,” she instructed.
Tobias increased his pressure on the man’s arms. Claire grabbed his nose, forcing him to open his mouth. Then she poured a generous portion of the brown liquid down his throat. The man sputtered and coughed, then roared, “SON-OF-A-BITCH!” One of his arms slipped free of Tobias’s grip. His fist flew up and connected with the side of Claire’s face. She stumbled back, placing a hand on the injury.
Tobias regained his grip on the man’s arm. “I’m so sorry, Miss Claire. The man’s obviously out of his head.”
“I know, Tobias. I’ll be fine. He really didn’t hit me all that hard. He should calm down in a moment,” Claire replied. In the man’s injured state, the blow had not been too forceful. It had been more surprising than painful. In addition, Claire had spent a year on the battlefield treating wounded soldiers. She’d heard every curse word known to man. She’d grown immune to their ranting a long time ago.
A few seconds later, the man’s body went limp. She placed her hand on his forehead and noted the fever had intensified. She felt his wrist and was relieved that his pulse continued to be steady and strong. “We’ve got to do more to get his fever down,” she commented.
“What’s goin’ on?” James’s sleepy voice asked.
“He’s got a bad fever. Can you go outside and help Tobias fill the horse trough with cold water?”
James nodded and followed Tobias outside. Ten minutes later, they returned. “It’s ready,” Tobias informed her. He scooped the man into his arms and carried him outside. The trough was in the small corral behind the barn. He strode over to it and placed the man into the water he and James had carried from the creek. It was fed from an underground spring that remained cool in spite of the summer heat.
Claire breathed a sigh of relief when the man remained unconscious. “He’ll need to stay in the trough until his skin becomes cool to the touch. Then we can carry him back inside,” she instructed. “James, why don’t you go ahead and gather some eggs for breakfast?” she suggested. “The sun’ll be up soon.”
“Can’t I stay and watch?” he asked.
“There’s nothing to see,” Claire said. “He’s just lying there. Now, go do as I said.”
“All right,” James reluctantly agreed.
Thirty minutes later, Tobias and Claire had the man’s bandages changed, and he was once again resting peacefully on James’ cot. As they sat down to eat breakfast, James asked, “What happened to your face? Why’s it all red?”
“I had a little accident this morning, but it’s all right,” Claire replied, reaching up to touch her sore jaw.
James glanced over at the man sleeping on the cot. “Is he gonna live, Ma?”
She nodded. “I believe he will. He seems like a very strong and determined man.”