South of Dodge City, Kansas—May 1876
The cattle were destroying everything: the tiny apple tree she’d sheltered in the wagon during the long, sweltering journey from Virginia; the fence she’d devoted weeks to repairing over the winter with scraps of deadwood; the vegetable garden she’d sown during the first whisper of spring and painstakingly coaxed to life every heartbeat since.
All trampled, devoured, gone.
Sadie glared at the beasts, eyes burning with tears of hopeless rage. They were thin, ugly creatures, spindly legs culminating in cloven hooves, heads wielding heavy horns that twisted out of their skulls in long spikes. Texas longhorns, the Devil’s helpers. In the middle of them rode Lucifer himself, sent straight up from Hell to torment her and tear away everything she’d slaved to build.
She tracked the long-legged, solid-built cowboy as he steered his horse through the milling beasts, angling toward her and her father—and their sod house which, she realized with a jolt of dismay, was also in danger of being leveled by the heaving mass of cattle. The intruder, similar to all the other Texas drovers, was covered in a layer of trail dust so thick it hung on him like a second skin. But it was one of the only things he and the other men had in common.
While the rest hollered and cracked whips over the backs of the beasts in their charge—trying to persuade them to return to the trail—this man urged his mount through the river of hide and horn, making a beeline for her.
It infuriated her that he was so silent, that he could guide his horse with remarkably little effort. As the distance between them shortened, unease crept up her spine. His gaze was unwavering, never leaving her.
She swallowed, tightened her fingers around the ancient shotgun clutched at her side, and concentrated on her anger and frustration, transferring them from the longhorns to settle solely on him. She did not want him to come any closer. Yanking the shotgun up to her shoulder, she took aim. The cowboy straightened in his saddle but otherwise did not acknowledge her hostile action. Nor did he slacken his pace; if anything, he bore down on her even faster.
Damn him to hell. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
Something slammed down on her shotgun, pitching the rusted barrel earthward. The buckshot tore a savage gouge out of the clay in front of her, kicking up a cloud of dust. The blast rocked her and forced her to stumble back.
Her father’s red face inserted itself between her and the cowboy. With a curse, he jerked the weapon from her numb hands.
As she stood gawking at him, the cattle, spooked by the shotgun blast, bolted—fast and in every direction. Her father sprinted toward their lone plow horse, vaulted onto its back and galloped away from her and the cattle.
Typical. She shouldn’t have expected anything different from him. He’d thought only of securing his own safety. He’d abandoned her alone and unarmed in the center of the herd.
I’m going to be trampled. I’m going to die.
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