The hot Arizona sun beat down on his dusty black felt hat, scorching his balding scalp. Heat radiated from the rocky landscape, transforming the desert into an oven. Kynan Madison urged his mustang up a steep incline. A small ranch on the other side of that hill was his destination. He'd known Mort Dobson most of his adult life, but he'd never been far enough west to see his ranch. He wouldn't be here now if Dobson hadn't gotten himself killed in Amarillo. He'd sold some cattle and said he was heading home in the morning. That was his plan, but a card game gone sour changed it abruptly. Madison had been across the street at a café eating his supper when the saloon erupted in gunfire. Dobson lived long enough to ask one favor of his friend. Deliver that money to his wife. It was his first and last mention of a wife.
Madison could guess why. More than likely she was a fallen woman. A woman no longer accepted by so-called decent women. He could write a book about that kind of woman. His mother had been one. She bore a daughter and a son. The daughter she taught how to use a man, the son she used. Well, that was behind him now. He'd learned his lesson. Stay away from women. They didn't like him anyway.
He topped the hill and drew rein sharply. Below him lay the ranch - in smoldering ruins. The mustang snorted his distaste for the situation, tossing his head and backing up a few steps. Madison buried his heels in the horse's sides and they plunged down the hill. Someone could be alive down there. He didn't have much use for women, but he sure didn't want to see one dead, either.
Dobson should have known better than to bring a woman to this wild country. She must have been desperate if she wanted to stay out here. Some referred to them as the weaker sex, but he knew better. They had the strength of a man - they'd badger him until he did their work for them. Maybe that was why Dobson brought in the herd instead of sending one of his two ranch hands.
He found one of the men near the corral. The other lay across what remained of the porch. Both bodies were fully decorated with arrows. The horses were gone. Probably following an Indian pony. And the woman? Had the Indians taken her captive?
A thorough search of the ranch found no trace of her. He stood for a long time beside his horse. He wasn't much of a tracker and he didn't relish following those Indians anyway. The smart thing to do would be to go into town and get help. That would give the Indians time to escape, though. Maybe even time enough to torture and kill the woman. No one should have to suffer that way - not even a fallen woman.
He had one foot in the stirrup when he heard the noise. A low moan. He lowered his foot to the ground and glanced around nervously. It could be a wounded Apache. He cautiously searched for the source of the sound. That was how he discovered the cellar. It was little more than a dugout, but the sod-covered door had probably shielded it from detection. He lifted the door and squinted into the darkness.
Another moan indicated the position of the injured person. It could be a trap. He stepped to the side and struck a match, holding it away from his body. In the dim light, he saw her lying in the floor. He descended the steps, holding the match high. The front of her dress was covered with blood from a shoulder wound.
The flame singed his fingers and he gasped as he dropped the match on the floor. He lit another match and held it over the woman. By the look of her swollen stomach, that shoulder wound wasn't the worst of her troubles. Her eyes were closed, her lips pressed tightly together in pain. In spite of the soot on her face, she was a good-looking woman. Dark black curls framed a pale fragile face. One delicate hand had a death grip on a broken broom handle. She strained and moaned again.
"Thundering horses, woman! Are you in labor?"
The eyes opened, large and blue as the sky. "Who are you?" She asked in an unsteady voice.
"Name's Madison. Your husband sent me."
She closed her eyes and moaned again. Perspiration beaded her upper lip. Finally her grip on the wood relaxed and she opened her eyes again. "Where is he?"
Madison snuffed out the match and lit another. "He's still back in Amarillo. He sent me back with the money." He squatted beside her. "Looks like I didn't get here soon enough." He held the match over her shoulder. "That's a nasty looking wound," he said.
"I drug myself here with the arrow in my back." She paused a moment and then continued breathlessly. "I could see the tip of the arrow through the front of my dress, so I pulled it on through." She paused again, breathing heavily, and then continued. "I put some honey and cobwebs on it.
Madison suppressed a shudder as he leaned over her to examine the wound. The thought of pulling that arrow through turned his stomach. "Looks like it's stopped bleeding," he said.
She gasped and grabbed his arm with unexpected strength. He could hear her teeth gritting as she bore the pain of labor again. The match burned down again and he extinguished it.
"I don't know anything about birthing babies," he said as he stood. He glanced up at the sagging ceiling. "This don't look like a likely spot for the chore, though."
He heard her stir. "If you'll help me…." She fell back to the floor, unconscious.
In the dim light, he scooped her small body from the floor. Climbing the stairs, he carried her out of the cellar. The thick grass in the shade of a Cottonwood tree looked like the best place. He carried her to it and gently lowered her to the ground. Even her lips were pale. She'd lost a lot of blood.
He left her for a few minutes to get his canteen, and when he returned she was conscious again. She suffered through another labor pain in silence. Finally, she rolled her head and looked him in the eye.
"I'm not going to make it," she said matter-of-factly. "I've lost too much blood."
"You'll be fine," he said as he knelt at her side. "You've got that baby to think about, so don't give up yet."
She shook her head. "I'm not strong enough. I'll never be able to do it by myself."
He patted her on the shoulder. "Don't you worry. I'll stay right here with you. You just tell me what to do."
She closed her eyes and was silent for a long time. Finally, she opened her eyes and met his. "I don't want my baby to die. I can feel it move. I know it's alive now." She closed her eyes again. "I want you to cut it from my body."
He stood abruptly and gasped. "Lady, I can't do that."
She opened her eyes. "You have to."
He shook his head violently. "No, I don't have to."
She clutched at the ground and moaned. This time a tear slipped down her cheek. "Please," she whispered.
He knelt beside her and took her hand. "You tell me what to do and I'll help you deliver this baby, but I'm not carving on you." She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off sharply. "You can either take the help I'm offering or I'll ride off. Which will it be?"
He wouldn't ride off and leave her, but she didn't have any way of knowing that. There were two things he was certain about. One was that he didn't know how to deliver the baby and the other was that there was no guarantee that the baby would live if he cut it from her body. He'd tried that with a horse one time and it wasn't as easy as it sounded. The foal drowned in its mother's blood. Anyway, Mrs. Dobson must be stronger than the average woman or she wouldn't have considered such a drastic course of action.
She turned away from him. "I don't want my baby to die," she repeated tersely.
"I don't want either one of you to die," he said. "Now you just tell me what to do."
She turned back to him and glanced at the canteen. She licked her lips. "I need a drink."
He uncorked the canteen. "A person who's lost a lot of blood needs lots of water," he said. He didn't know much about medicine, but he'd seen plenty of wounded men in his life. Never a woman, though - especially not one like this. Why was she so willing to give her life for a baby she had never seen? Was the maternal instinct that strong already? He couldn't remember a time when his mother was interested enough to feed him, let alone give her life for him. His sister was no better. She let her kids run barefoot all over town begging for food while she used her last dime for a bottle of whiskey. He'd been the one who bought them food and clothes. The only thanks he'd got for it was a tongue lashing when he spanked one of them for stealing.
She gripped his hand and stiffened, her eyes closing as she gasped for air. This time it lasted a little longer. A short cry escaped her lips. As the pain receded, she lay gasping for breath. He gave her another drink. "Come on," he said. "You can do it."
She opened her eyes and favored him with a feeble smile. "I can do it," she conceded in an uncertain voice.
It took her another three hours, but she finally did it. He wrapped the infant in the only clean thing he could find - a white linen shirt from his saddlebags. He felt awkward holding the tiny wailing body in his arms. "It's a boy," he said in a voice that was less than steady.
"That's good," she gasped. "What did you say your name was?"
"Madison," he said. "Kynan Madison."
"Kynan," she repeated in a musing tone. "Kynan Madison Dobson. That would make a nice name, don't you think?"
Madison nearly dropped the baby. "Why not Mort Jr.?"
"No," she stated firmly. "He didn't want the baby."
Madison shifted the infant and kneeled beside her. "Lots of men don't like the idea of being a father. I'm not too fond of the idea myself."
Her smile was poignant. "I suppose so, but this is different. Mort couldn't forget that I married him to get away from my father." She took a ragged breath and a tear escaped her eye, cutting a clean path through the soot on her cheek. "I tried to be a good wife. I tried to love him." She sniffed and wiped her cheek on her dress sleeve. "I knew he wasn't going to come back." Her tormented gaze searched his face. "I knew and I didn't care. What kind of person does that make me?" She started to cry.
He squeezed her shoulder, unsure what to say. It wasn't any of his business. Obviously, Dobson knew she was using him. Maybe he figured she'd warm to him eventually. She was wrong about one thing, though. Dobson would have come back. It was something she needed to know. He drew a deep breath.
"He would have come back if he could." When she lifted a wet gaze to his, he continued. "He got himself shot in a card game. He asked me to bring the cattle money to you."
She stared at him for a moment. "He's dead?" At his nod, she turned her face away. "He deserved better than me," she said in a flat tone.
It was hard to tell about women. Maybe she was sorry he was gone, maybe not. "You said you were a good wife," he reminded her as he placed the infant in her arms. "I'm sure you'll make a good mother."
He stood then and walked away. Two men needed to be buried. After that they had twenty miles of desert to cover before they reached civilization. How he'd get her there was another problem. She couldn't ride and she couldn't walk. Briefly, he entertained the idea of leaving her there while he went for help. The Indians weren't likely to come back, but there were coyotes, and she'd need water and food. He had the only canteen. No, he'd have to take her with him. She needed a doctor, and soon.
Those thoughts occupied his mind as he conducted his grim chore - those and the wonder of a woman willing to give her life for her baby. What was so terrible about her father that she would do anything to leave? The thought caught him off guard. What had his father been like? He shook his head. It didn't excuse the things his mother had done.
He finished burying the men and said a few words over them. Then he returned to the woman and her infant. They were both asleep. He hobbled the mustang near the tree and built a small smokeless fire. They'd best eat before it got dark. One thing they didn't need was a light to guide the Indians back.
He boiled some jerky in water and made a broth for the woman. She looked feverish. He examined the wound. It didn't look infected yet. How long would it be before she could travel? A week? They couldn't wait that long. He could make a travois, but it would leave tracks a baby could follow. The only other way was to ride double on the little mustang.
He kicked dirt over the fire and watched the sun sink into the horizon. He was sure in a fix. He glanced at the woman and child. Something inside wrung another unwelcome thought from the depths of his soul. He wasn't the one in a fix; she was. She was alone, wounded, and now she had an infant to tend. His troubles were minor.
That night while she slept, he constructed a travois. If they left at dawn, they'd be across the flat open desert and into mesquite cover in a few hours. There was nothing left at the ranch to attract the Indians, so hopefully the tracks would go undiscovered for a long time. Maybe the woman would improve enough so that she could ride. At least that way they might have some hope of covering their trail.
The mesquite brush blocked any hope for a breeze. The heat was stifling. He halted the mustang and dismounted, lifting the canteen from the saddle horn. He popped the cork and lifted the container to his lips. He paused with it there for a moment and then lowered it. He walked back to the woman and offered her a drink.
She took a few swallows and returned the canteen. "Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you for everything. If you hadn't come along when you did..."
It was hard to tell whether she was too emotional to continue the sentence or didn't have the strength. It was just as well that they didn't talk, though. He never knew what to say to women.
They'd best keep moving. The sky toward the southwest had a look he didn't like. A dust storm was brewing out there, and behind it was probably some rain - neither of which sounded all that attractive. He had no cover for the woman except his raincoat. The infant had been quiet, and that troubled him some too. He'd never seen a baby that didn't squall all the time. Not that he'd seen all that many babies - mostly his nieces and nephews.
He gently pulled the shirt back to examine the infant. Two tiny fists immediately jerked up and the head twisted to the side to avoid the bright light. He quickly covered the baby. He answered the silent question in Mrs. Dobson's eyes.
"He's been mighty quiet. I wondered if he was still alive. How about you? I haven't heard a sound from you in all this bouncing around. How is the shoulder?"
"We're both fine," she said, raising up on one elbow to look at the trail behind them. "But we're leaving a lot of tracks."
He nodded, eyeing the deep gouges in the red sand. "It can't be helped. You're in no condition to ride."
"I'm sorry to be so much trouble," she said as she sank back. She was silent for a moment and finally turned to him. "If they find us, cut me loose and take Kynan out of here."
He stared at her. "Why are you so willing to die? Is life all that bad?"
She smiled sourly. "I don't want to die, but I don't want to be the cause of two other deaths, either. Without me, you could both escape - and that's more important than my safety."
t was too logical - too selfless. He wasn't sure he liked his name being attached to that baby, either. It had the smell of a trap. If she was searching for a new home, she was poking around in the wrong direction. All he owned was a few clothes, his gear and a horse. He didn't want to be saddled down with a kid, either.
"Lady, I'm not leaving you behind," he stated firmly. "Do you have any relatives close?"
She sighed. "My father."
"Well, that's better than nothing," he said brusquely. He wasn't falling for the sympathy scheme, either.
"Yes," she said. "He isn't so bad when he's not drinking. He'll be happy to see Kynan and me. He didn't want me to leave in the first place."
She was a strange one. If he wasn't that bad, why did she leave? He checked the rawhide holding the travois together. "We'd better get moving. We're likely to run into more savages."
She gripped the baby close and gazed up at him. "In a way, I can't blame them. We come in and stake a claim to their water holes and then put them on reservations to starve. No wonder they hate us."
He stared at her again. Would this woman never cease to amaze him? "You're mighty forgiving, under the circumstances."
She met his gaze steadily. "Hatred is a poison. The sooner you get it out of your system, the quicker you heal and the less permanent damage it does."
He turned away and mounted without comment. It was a poison, all right, and it had a bitter taste. She was right about the Indians too, but that wasn't going to keep him from shooting them to save his own skin.
The wind picked up gradually and finally gathered enough sand to decrease visibility. It gave them the cover they needed, but not without cost. The wind driven sand was like thousands of needles striking anything bare. He stopped the mustang and dismounted. Mrs. Dobson was on her side, shielding the baby with her body. It was a natural thing to do, except that all the weight rested on that wounded shoulder. He kneeled and touched her shoulder. He felt her shudder and instantly knew she was crying.
He stood and peered into the brush around them. He had to find shelter - or create it. He found a large sturdy mesquite bush to use as a structure. Then he cut branches from other bushes, weaving them through the heavier bush. It wasn't much, but it cut the wind a little. He hooked his raincoat through the sleeves and formed a crude shelter. It would accommodate one person, but that was all.
He held the baby while he helped her to the shelter. She could barely stand by herself, but he finally got her into the shelter. He handed the baby to her and went back to his horse. They would have to endure the storm together. He pulled his bandanna over his nose and mouth and jerked his hat down as far as possible.
The wind and dust whirled around them, brutally seeking and finding the tiniest patch of tender skin. When the rain came, it turned the dusty air to mud and slammed it to the ground. Madison stood beside his horse, his clothes soaked to the skin with the cold rain. He could only hope the woman and baby were faring better.
The rain left abruptly, leaving dripping brush and rivulets of muddy water behind. Madison waded to the shelter and pulled back the dripping raincoat. Wide eyes sought his.
"Is it over?"
He nodded. "I reckon. We'd better get moving again - if you're up to it."
A moan escaped her lips as she tried to rise. He helped her to her feet and lifted the baby from her arms. How she accomplished it he couldn't guess, but the shirt and baby were dry. Her dress, however, had wicked up half the water in the desert. The worst of it was that her wound was bleeding again. If he didn't get her to a doctor soon she might die.
He secured her and the baby under his raincoat on the travois and started out again. He found the road a few minutes later. The travois glided over the smooth mud like a sleigh on snow. He pushed the mustang faster. Night would come early under the cloudy skies, and wet clothes would make for a cold one. Behind him, the baby began to whimper. The woman was silent. He kicked the mustang. "Come on, boy. I know you're tired, but they need your help.
It was dark when he arrived in town. He found the doctor's office and carried the woman and child inside. The doctor was a skinny old man with gray hair and a sour disposition. He instructed Madison to deposit Mrs. Dobson on a cot and then focused his attention on the baby. He poked and prodded on the boy until he began to cry.
"Take it easy," Madison ordered gruffly. "He isn't a sack of grain."
The doctor's eyes reflected humor. "I'm not hurting him. He's just angry. You must be the father."
"No," Madison snapped, "I'm the namesake. His father is dead, which is what this woman is going to be if you don't hurry up and take care of her."
The doctor eyed him coolly. "Well, since you're not the father, I suggest you go over to the hotel and clean yourself up. Let me take care of them."
Madison paused beside Mrs. Dobson, gazing down at her pale features. "You take good care of her, doc."
Her cold hand sought and found his. "I prayed for help, and God sent you. Thank you for helping us."
He squeezed her hand and turned away without comment. Maybe God had sent him, but not for the sole purpose of saving the woman and child. He'd been nursing a grudge against women for too long. Somehow this one had managed to suck the poison from his wounded soul. He'd probably never be close to his mother, but he could forgive her now. He could let that bitter part of his past go. Tomorrow would be a new day - maybe even a new life.