Wind pushed against the cabin door as a blizzard raged around the small structure. Battling terror, Abby laid another log on the fire and hoped she had wood enough to last through this storm.
Dear Lord, help us, I don’t know what we’ll do next.
“Aunt Abby?” She turned at the tug on her skirt. Her niece said, “I’m hungry.”
“Let me get you a bowl of soup, angel.” She brushed four-year-old Susie’s blond hair from her forehead. The child’s hair was like that of her mother’s and Abby’s, but Susie’s small body had lost weight this past month.
“Ma and Pa ain’t ever coming back, are they?” Ten-year-old Jimmy’s brown eyes accused her, as if she were privileged to secrets about his parents’ disappearance. His eyes were like his father’s rather than the deep blue of his mother’s family.
She touched his shoulder, knowing he thought himself too old for a hug. “We don’t know that, dear. Not for sure.” But she did. Parents didn’t leave for a week and stay away over a month, especially with Christmas only a couple of days away. Her brother-in-law, Norman, was lower than a snake in her opinion. But her older sister, Laura, would never willingly abandon her children—or her.
Jimmy crossed his arms. “Soon as this storm’s over, I’m setting out for town. Someone there will know what’s happened to them.”
“No, Jimmy, whatever we do, we stay together. No one in town will know any more than we do. If your parents were in Pleasant Springs, they would have come home before the storm hit. Once the weather clears and it’s safe to travel, we’ll all set out together.”
She ladled thin soup into bowls and set them on the scarred table. “Supper will warm your insides.”
Neither child complained about the poor fare. Jimmy was old enough to see their stores had all but disappeared. She knew he worried almost as much as she did. Abby pulled Susie onto the bench beside her.
They’d spooned up the last of their meal when a loud thump jarred the door. Susie yelped, and Jimmy rose and reached for his dad’s rifle. Though just a boy, he tried to be the man of the house. Abby’s heart pounded and her blood raced.
“Get behind me, children.” She slid off the bench. “Jimmy, don’t point the gun at the door in case it’s a friend. Wait until we see who’s there.”
“Might be a bear.” Jimmy said.
Abby strode to the door. “Far as I know bears, don’t knock.” Two-legged coyotes sometimes did, though.
Standing at the door, she called, “Who’s there?”
“Help,” a faint voice called and a lighter thump greeted her, sounding as if it were at the base of the door. Maybe a gunman kicked against the thick wooden barrier. “Help,” someone called again. Bracing herself, she raised the bar and opened the door a crack. A gloved hand flopped into the opening and slapped the cabin floor.
Abby yelped and threw the door open wide. She jumped into the snow that whirled in through the door. “Jimmy, put down that rifle and help me. This man is near frozen.”
With her nephew’s help, she tugged the man into the room. His lips were blue. He mumbled something, but she couldn’t make it out. She leaned near.
“Horses.” His word was barely a whisper.
“I’ll take care of your horses soon as we get you by the fire.” She was no fragile doll, but this man was big. “Help me, Jimmy. Let’s get him closer to the hearth.”
Susie squatted beside the visitor and peered at him. “He gots ice on him.”
“I know that, dear. While your brother helps me, why don’t you get me a couple of quilts?” Abby called, “The older ones” as Susie scampered away.
As soon as Abby had tugged the man well into the room and Jimmy barred the door, Abby set about shucking the visitor out of his coat, hat, and gloves. His long duster over a sheepskin coat had kept him from freezing, but she doubted he’d enjoyed his ride through the blizzard. She gasped as she removed his coat.
“Look at that, Abby. He’s bleeding.” Jimmy pointed at the hole in the man’s shirt.
The bullet penetrated a couple of inches above and to the right of his heart. She wondered if it had missed his lungs. She leaned down and listened. He didn’t gurgle, so maybe it had.
“If the weather weren’t so cold, likely he would have bled to death.” She wondered if anyone was trailing the man. Was he a villain or a victim? For now it didn’t matter. She’d let no man die if she could help it. But with two children in her care and miles from any help, she’d be on her guard.
She pulled the man’s boots from his feet and set the boots beside the fire to dry as Susie returned with two quilts. When the girl started to spread a quilt over the man, Abby held up a hand. “Not yet. I have to remove his wet clothes.”
Susie’s eyes widened. “You’re gonna see him nekked?”
Resigned to doing what she must, she shrugged. “Not if I can help it.” She felt his feet, and his socks were dry but cold as the ice that had clung to his coat.
“Here’re the towels.” Jimmy handed her three of the thin towels they used for drying off after bathing. “Susie, I’ll help Aunt Abby. You get back in case he wakes up.”
“I wanna see him nekked.”
Abby sent her niece a scolding glare. “Susie, no one is seeing anyone naked. Go up to bed. Either Jimmy or I will come tuck you in when we get this man taken care of.”
“Everybody’s always tellin’ me what to do.” Pouting, Susie clambered up the ladder to the loft.
Watching to make sure Susie didn’t fall, Abby was startled when the man grabbed her wrist.
“Horses.” His whisper was gravelly, as if he could barely speak.
She pulled from his grasp. “I’ll take care of your horses, mister, but we have to get you warmed up first.”
“No.” His pale blue eyes opened and bore into hers. “Now.” He made a futile attempt to sit up.
“I’ll do it, Aunt Abby. We still got a bit of feed left in the barn.” Jimmy pulled on his dad’s old coat. Tonight the fact the garment was several sizes too large would help.
“Wear your cap and pull it down over your ears. Be careful with the lantern.”
The man slumped back and appeared to pass out. Abby stripped him down to his union suit. He was a big man all over, she noted, blushing at her errant thoughts. She folded one of the quilts in half as a pallet and rolled him to get it under him, then tucked the other one over him to keep him warm.
By the time she’d finished and laid his clothes over furniture to dry, Jimmy stomped back in. “Mighty fine horses, two of ‘em. I left the saddles in the barn, but figured he’d want his rifle and saddlebags in here. Also had him a bedroll we might need.”
“Good thinking.” She shook out the bedroll and spread it oiled side up over the quilt. “I think he’s out for the night.” She glanced at a bundle Jimmy held under his arm. “What’s that?”
He grinned broadly. “Food! Aunt Abby, he had bacon, and real coffee, beans, flour, and meal. And canned milk and peaches.”
“Thank heavens!” She laid a hand at her throat. They were saved. Temporarily, at least, they wouldn’t starve. Her mouth watered at the thought of good food after weeks of almost nothing.
“We can eat a real meal tomorrow.” His eyes widened. “Sorry, Aunt Abby. I know you’ve made meals out of thin air.”
“You’re right, Jimmy. We haven’t had anything decent in quite a while. I’d tell you to help yourself now, but I think we should at least ask his permission.”
“Reckon he’s a robber?”
She shrugged. “How could we tell? Can you help me see if there’s any lead still in that hole?”
“Sure. Want I should get Pa’s whiskey?”
“Yes.” She grimaced. It was a wonder any remained in the bottle, the way Norman liked it. She gathered bandages, her box of medicinal supplies and anything she could think of she might need.
The man groaned when she used her knitting needle to probe for a bullet. She slid the needle under the lead and popped it out of the wound. “Hold his shoulders for me.”
When she poured whiskey on the opening, the man cried out and sent Jimmy tumbling backwards.
Abby glanced at her nephew. “You okay?”
“Caught me by surprise is all.” Jimmy blushed and stood.
A poultice of flour and gunpowder staunched the blood, then Abby bound the man with bandages.
She leaned back on her heels. “Go on up to bed and make sure your sister is covered. Reckon I better sit in the rocker in case he wakes up.”
“You want I should sit for a while first?”
Indecision struck her and she paused, chewing on her lower lip. “For a bit. I need to clean up this mess and get myself ready for bed.”
She picked up the things she’d used to treat the man’s injury and tidied the room. She cleaned the needle and stuck it back into the yarn beside the rocker. She readied for bed, but decided—with no telling who their visitor was—to sleep in her clothes. After brushing her hair, she plaited it for the night. When she’d gathered a quilt and pillow, she stepped into the main area from the curtained off section that served as her bedroom. She added another log to the fire and settled into Mama’s rocking chair, the only furniture Laura had brought from their home.
“Thank you, Jimmy. Check on your sister and go on to sleep so you can keep watch tomorrow.”
Her nephew climbed to the loft and she heard him moving quietly overhead.
She stared at the saddlebags and chewed on her lower lip. Didn’t she have a duty to her charges to make sure they weren’t harboring a criminal? She pulled the bags near and opened one side and peeked in. Two shirts, a union suit, a pair of trousers, socks. She shook out a pair of the socks and laid them aside. He needed those on his feet. The other side offered a packet of letters, two books, ammunition, and odds and ends. She looked at the name on the top letter. Zach Kincannon. Was that his name?
His coat pockets yielded a handkerchief, jerky, and a small book. She checked his shirt and pants and came up with a few more odds and ends—and a tin star with a dent in it. A Texas Ranger’s star. Looking at the dent and visualizing where he’d wear it, she figured it had saved his life. With a sigh she replaced everything except one pair of the socks. She knelt and slid them onto his feet, which were still icy cold. After tucking the cover more securely around him, she returned to the rocking chair.
Rocking to and fro, she gazed at the sleeping Ranger. His dark hair waved gently. Now that he was warmer, she saw his skin was well tanned. He was a handsome man. At least now she knew he hadn’t come here to kill them all in their sleep. Or she thought she did. He could have stolen the badge. Hmmm, somehow, she doubted it.
He was the kind of man she’d hoped to marry someday. Small chance of that happening stuck here in the middle of nowhere. If Laura hadn’t needed her help so much she would never have stayed all these months. As if she had anywhere else to go.
Perhaps she could teach school, work as a companion, or as a governess. She might find work in a store, but most storekeepers only had family help out in their place of business. Besides, Laura’s pregnancy and losing another baby meant she needed Abby’s help. Now unless she wrote to a matrimonial agency, she’d probably never marry. She admitted she’d never find a man she wanted who wanted her back.
Abby picked up her knitting and tried to concentrate on the sweater she’d almost finished for Jimmy’s Christmas. Poor kid usually had to do with his dad’s hand me downs. What had her sister Laura been thinking to marry that no-account Norman Martin? Now his selfishness had probably cost both of them their lives. If it hadn’t, she was likely to kill her brother-in-law herself when--if--he showed up. Her fingers knitted and purled long into the night as she worried about the people she loved and the one she didn’t.
She woke with a start, to find her knitting had fallen to the floor. The visitor sat propped against the wall and stared at her, his blue eyes red-rimmed but watchful. She gathered up the fallen knitting and only lost a couple of stitches. “I must have dropped off. My nephew looked after your horses. Can I get you some broth or water?”
“Please.” His voice rasped out hoarsely.
She hurried to the fire where the sorry kettle of broth set on the hob. She pushed the hob over the coals to warm the thin soup while she gathered a bowl, cup, and spoon. “We’re a mite short of supplies but your broth will be warm soon enough.” She turned to face him. “Do you mind if I use some of your coffee?”
He shook his head, his eyes watching her every move. He’d been polite. How many men said please out here? But his stare unsettled her. She dug out coffee and rinsed and filled the pot from the snow they’d left melting near the fireplace. When coffee was brewing, she wet a towel and warmed it, then gave it to him. “This might make your face feel better. We were afraid to rub your skin last night because you were so cold. I’ve heard rubbing near-frozen skin causes damage.”
He took the towel from her and wiped his face and hands. “Thanks.”
“This is Laura and Norma Martin’s cabin. I’m Laura’s sister, Abby Perkins. My niece and nephew, Susie and Jimmy, are asleep in the loft.” She waited for him to volunteer his name. When he didn’t, she tilted her head and smiled. “Your turn. Who are you and how did you come to be shot?”
“Name’s Zach Kincannon. Your brother-in-law shot me.”
She plopped onto the rocker. “What?”
“You heard me plain enough.” He still stared at her.
“W-W-Why would Norman shoot you?”
“I tried to arrest him.”
“Caught cheating at cards. Shot the men at the table, scooped up the cash, and ran.”
She leaped to her feet. “Has something happened to my sister? Is Laura all right?”
He motioned for her to sit. “She’s in the hospital in Denison. He left her half dead after he beat her. She told me what happened and that you were trapped here with the kids, few provisions and no mounts. Told me a lot about you and how you take care of her and the kids." He adjusted his position. "I tracked Martin until I caught him then headed for this place.”
Wringing her hands, she asked, “Will she be all right? How badly is she hurt?”
“She’s bleedin’ inside but the doc said she’ll likely heal. Won’t have any more kids, though. Looked like she’d been run over by a team of mules.” He adjusted his back against the wall and tried to sit up straight. “You haven’t asked about your brother-in-law.”
“You think I care what’s happened to that rat after what you just told me?” She gasped. “Oh, the children. How will I tell them?”
Jimmy came down the ladder. “Tell us what?”
Stalling to gather her thoughts, she poured a cup of coffee for Zach Kincannon. “Jimmy, this is Mr. Kincannon. He just told me your mom was injured and is in the hospital in Denison.”
Jimmy looked from Abby to Zach Kincannon. “Ma’s hurt? What about Pa?”
“He didn’t make it, son. Sorry.” Zach watched them over the rim of his cup.
“Pa’s dead?” His voice rose in a half sob.
Abby rushed to him and grasped his shoulders. “Think about your ma. She needs us to be strong for her. Soon as the storm’s over and Mr. Kincannon has gained some strength, maybe he’ll take us to her.”
“Yep. That’s why I brought an extra horse. Figured one kid could ride with each of us.”
Hugging a sniffling Jimmy to her, she met Mr. Kincannon’s gaze over her nephew’s head. “I can’t thank you enough for risking your life to ride through the storm to help us, especially injured like you are. There’s no way to make this up to you.”
He smiled, his blue eyes twinkling. “One of these days when things are settled down, maybe you’ll think of something, me being single and all.”
The End—Or, Maybe It’s A Beginning
From our house to yours, have a Merry Christmas!