Stormy scrunched low into the tall grasses surrounding the pool of water bubbling out of the prairie. From the tracks around the area he reckoned it was a favorite watering hole for both man and beast. He wasn’t sure which category he fit. He’d have to think on that some—first he needed to stop the bleeding from the gun shot high on his chest.
He took one last look around, then lowered himself to the ground. Normally proud that he stood head and shoulders above most men, now he was wishin’ he could fold himself in two. He grunted as he loosened his shirt from his britches and tried to look at the wound. The bandana stuffed in the hole was sticky with blood, some fresh, some dried and it hurt something fierce when he pulled it loose, bringing black chest hair and a fresh gush of blood with it.
An annoying sound, like a thousand cicadas, undulated in his ears in rhythm with the beat of his heart and he fought to stay conscious. He’d never lost a shooting match in his life, and wouldn’t have lost this one if he had seen his assailant. Careless—that’s what he was. Plain careless. He thought he’d be in friendly territory once he crossed the Kansas border, what with him still wearing the Union blue, but here he sat weak as a kitten, teetering on the very edge of safe and sorry. He’d thought wrong.
He pulled a handful of grass and jammed it into the wound as best he could. Then he leaned on one elbow and retched as the ground rose to meet his face.
“Please don’t go moving around, mister. I just got that hole in your front side all plugged and you can’t afford to lose more blood.”
The girl behind a voice as musical as wind in the pines, moved to wipe his face with a wet cloth. Stormy found himself looking into eyes the color of his ma’s lilacs Even in this predicament he wasn’t beyond taking notice of a beautiful woman, though this one appeared to be a mite on the wrong side of old enough.
Use you charm, Storm. It’s never failed you yet. “I must’a died and gone to heaven, seeing as how it’s an angel talking to me.”
“Pfft, that’s silly talk. If you were dead I doubt it’d be heaven you were seeing.” The girl smiled and his heart thumped. Must be dreadful weak. He’d seen plenty of smiles in his life and most of them held promises he meant for them to keep. This had to be one of the most innocent smiles ever turned his direction.
“You saying I’m not fit for up yonder?” He tried to move but nothing would cooperate.
“I can’t be a judge of that. All I know is your dirty, you stink, and you have a great big hole in your chest that you weren’t born with. And—”, she flung herself down beside him, slammed one arm across his chest and moved close enough he could hear her whisper.
“You best be lying still as death, mister. Whatever you do, don’t say a word, do you hear me? Just take a deep breath if you understand. I’ll feel your chest move and know.”
Stormy obliged. It wasn’t hard—he needed to breathe. Her arm lay across his wound and it hurt worse than ever, but he’d never bickered with a woman lying so close to him before. No reason to start now.
“We’re being peered at from behind those trees yonder. I can’t tell for sure, but I think they’re fellas I know. Until they show themselves, you best be dead or dying.”
She smelled all soapy and clean, and he fought the urge to turn toward her. He took another deep breath and released it only when he felt the toe of a boot grind into his thigh.
“Lookee here, Frankie. Looks like Miz Harding’s limpy little girl finally found herself a man. A dead one at that.”
“Shh.” Her breath tickled his ear.
“Hey you.” The boot connected again and an involuntary moan escaped his lips.
Why, you’re not dead at all. Why don’t you get up then, big strange man. This itty bitty gal wear you out, did she?”
“You hush your dirty mouth.” The girl screamed in Stormy’s ear, then used the arm across his chest to push herself up.
He sucked in his breath to keep from screaming with the pain. Thunder, but that did hurt.
He opened his eyes in time to see the girl fling a handful of dirt into the pimply face of the young man bending over them.
“You got a dirty mind and a dirtier mouth, Charlie Tucker. Say you’re sorry, then you and your ugly brother hightail it on back into the timber where you belong.”
“Ahh, Promise. You don’t mean that. We was only funnin’ ya a little.”
“It wasn’t fun and you know it.” She stood up, arm drawn back with another handful of debris. “You get on out of here before I sic mama, and Bertha, on you both. Now get.”
“What you gonna do about him?” The smaller of the two scrawny boys bent over and peered into his eyes. Stormy blinked, and the kid jumped backwards.
“He ain’t dead, is he?”
“Course he’s not dead, but he’s shot bad. I patched him up for now. I’ll wait and see what Mama wants to do with him, I suppose.”
“Want us to go get your ma for ‘ya?” The pimply-faced one bent low, so close Stormy could count all five whiskers on his dirty face.
“I can manage. You just get on home.” She gave the one called Charlie a shove. “And move away from his face so he can breathe. I can smell you clear over here.”
Stormy moved his right hand slowly down his leg. Had she left his gun on him? She had. What luck. Slowly he withdrew it and tried to raise it enough to point.”
The younger one laughed. Stormy never had a kid laugh at him, and he didn’t like it.
“You think you’re gonna shoot me with that thing, mister?”
The kid straddled him, looming like a giant wishbone above him. “I don’t think ya’ got the strength to pull the trigger, but try if you want.”
“From this angle, young man, I wouldn’t kill you, but I could sure take away a whole lot of your pride. Now move away.” Stormy hoped he sounded tough. The strange buzzing sound was going off in his ears again, and his arm dropped to the ground.
“Promise, call him off. He needs more help than you can give him and I know for a fact you can’t get him home by yourself.”
The girl squatted down beside him. “You game to let them get my ma? First thing she’ll want to know is if the law is after you. Second thing is how you got shot. Then she’ll ask you what your intentions are with me.”
“What do you mean, my intentions? I never intended you to find me in the first place.”
“Don’t figure that’s anybody’s business but my own, ma’am.”
She looked at him and grinned. “Have it you way, Mister. You can keep your business your own, but you surely didn’t shoot yourself so I reckon somebody must be looking for you.” She shook her skirts and turned her back on him. “Guess he doesn’t want anything to do with us, Charlie. You want him?”
“Nah. I’d rather let Bertha have him. Come on Frank. Let’s go get Miz Harding and let her decide.”
Stormy could hear them laughing as they trudged away. Did the girl go with them? It was far too quiet. Surely she didn’t leave him alone. What if he bled to death?
And who in blazes was Bertha?