Round Rock, Texas 1861
The earth was trembling.
That was the first thing Toni thought of when she fell on her hands and knees in the sweltering heat. She lifted her head to look around the seemingly endless desert floor. Seeing nothing, she slowly rose on unsteady legs, as if her five foot five inch height would help as she scanned the horizon.
With her hands linked together and held above her brows to cut down on the glare, it was on her second pass around when she noticed a faint dark line on the horizon, the extreme heat causing the line to dance in the sunlight. Squinting under the brim of her hat, she stared at the spot, then knelt down again, bracing her palm on the hot ground.
Yes, the earth was definitely trembling.
Was it her imagination, or was the trembling stronger? She slowly rose again, focusing hard on the dark line. She could just see a faint dust cloud above the line, almost as if it was . . .
Her eyes widened as her mouth fell open.
"Oh no!" she whispered into the silence. Toni twisted around, looking frantically.
When she turned again to the rapidly growing dark horizon and dust cloud, she noticed a tree standing alone in the midst of the desert. Gone was the fatigue in her limbs and the thirst in her throat. She ran with all she had, her hat pulling at her neck by the small delicate green ribbon that matched her shirt. She kept her eyes focused on the tree. Toni ran toward the tree, the only thing between her and the fast approaching stampede.
With his three men flanking on each side, Conrad was racing alongside the herd. Fifteen minutes ago, five thousand head of cattle was happily grazing in contented peace in the small valley he usually used to do the yearly branding.
Lefty and Juan had been dismounted, one working with the branding iron, the other taking a needed break while he and Trent were on horseback, cutting out the unbranded ones. The men preferred to stay in the saddle and work all day, so the men took turns working on foot.
He was just cutting out the next young bull, his lariat swinging in the air, when he heard the screaming cry of a wild cat echo in the small valley. Unfortunately, the herd also heard the cry and immediately headed as one in the opposite direction. His men reacted immediately, those dismounted were quickly mounted, all of them headed for the herd.
Trent and Juan were directly behind him while Lefty was on the other side. They were slowing gaining on the herd when he looked up into the distance. Sure he was mistaken, he quickly blinked again.
Someone was directly in line with the stampeding herd, running toward them!
What was somebody doing way out here?
He checked where he was again and knew there was no way he could make it to the lone person. He would never be able to cut across through the herd in time.
He urged his horse faster, starting to turn the herd inside. He knew it would make no difference, but he had to try. Trent and Juan also started leaning into the herd, forcing them to turn to the left, causing the whole herd to slowly shift.
Toni was not sure if she was going to make it. The herd was gaining faster than she had hoped. But the tree was closer.
If she could just make the last few feet.
She was able to see the faces of the cattle, their nostrils blowing from their frantic run, their eyes glazed from their fright. She knew they did not see her. She was only an obstacle in their way, one that would very easily be knocked down and run over, effectively put out of the way.
When she was only seven, she had seen the body of a ranch hand who had been trampled by some runaway horses at her father's ranch. She had innocently run to the wagon to see what everyone else was looking at. No one noticed her until they heard her startled gasp. But before her father could send her away, she had seen the deep cuts all over the ranch hand's body, his clothing in shreds from the hooves, revealing deeper cuts. What was left of his face was unrecognizable. For a month, she had nightmares.
With that thought in her mind, Toni concentrated on the tree directly in front of her, forcing her legs to move faster.
She noticed the limb hanging above the ground, a few feet higher than herself.
It was going to be close. She silently counted the feet remaining, ten . . . seven . . . five . . . three . . . two . . . jump! It was less than a minute later when she felt the wind rush below her from the herd as she swung her leg over the limb to hook over her other leg. The tree shuddered from the herd bumping into and brushing by the small tree that was her lifeline. Hugging the limb, she silently gave a prayer of thanks for giving her the needed strength.
Conrad watched in amazement as the person raced toward the tree that was between him and the herd. He watched as he leaped through the air, catching the limb above him, and deftly swung his body out of the way, locking his hands and feet around the limb.
Conrad pulled away from the herd, signaling his men to continue. He then spent the next few minutes walking his horse, Dancer, allowing him time to cool down while the herd passed by. With the dust still clinging to the air, he approached the hanging figure.
Toni realized the herd had finally passed when the tree quit shaking. She had kept her eyes closed the whole time, afraid she would somehow let go. With her ears still ringing from the thundering hooves, she did not hear the approach of the lone horseman, nor did she see the astonishment on his face as he rode closer.
It was a girl!
There was a girl hanging on the limb of the tree! What in blazes was a girl doing in the middle of his range in the first place? He rode toward her in silence, setting his stern face back in place.
When he was almost directly underneath her, he noticed her hair was loose from her run. It was almost pure black with waves and curls. Her hat was dangling from her neck by a thin green ribbon. Most of her hair was cupped in the hat, a few strands escaping on the slight breeze that stirred the air. She was wearing a split skirt, her knees appearing above her worn boots where the skirt had rode up.
He knew he should not stare, especially when she was at a disadvantage, but his curiosity got the better of him. He wondered what she was doing here. Where was her horse, or buggy? He looked around, fully expecting to see one or the other, somewhere.
Nope, nothing at all but empty space.
He leaned forward on his horse and waited for her to notice him. He figured he would have to say something to let her know she was no longer alone when she suddenly started talking to herself.
"So help me, when I get hold of him, I'll kill him! The idiot! Stupid, stupid idiot!! Whatever possessed me to listen to that man in the first place?"
Conrad's right eyebrow rose at her incensed statement. He felt sorry for whoever she was so upset at. She really did sound capable of murder right then. With only a moment's pause, she continued on.
"Getting me lost in the middle of nowhere. So help me, he will rue the day he talked me into this. 'You'll have no problem at all. It'll be so simple.' Hah!!"
Conrad smiled when her voice rose in pitch when mimicking what someone had spoken to her. He knew it was rude to listen and that it would be the proper thing to let her know he was there. But she barely finished one sentence when she launched out with another string of threats for the poor man.
"Incompetent fool! You would think I would learn by now." She paused again, but only long enough to catch her breath. "I swear, a porcupine has more brains and sense than that man does."
She seemed to possess a temper, and Conrad could just imagine the fire in her eyes.
Toni was livid. Here she was, somewhere, probably lost, hanging from a tree, with no idea what to do next. She was ready to launch another verbal attack on her brother when she heard a horse underneath her. She turned her head quickly to see a beautiful Appaloosa with stripes on his hooves and the traditionally dotted patch of white over his rump and loins. But as beautiful as the horse was, what caught and held her attention was the man calmly seated on his back.
He was leaning on one arm, which was resting on his thigh. His worn and battered hat was pushed back to reveal a tanned face with a square jaw. Light brown hair was plastered to his face, emphasizing a hatband mark across his forehead. On his face he wore a darker mustache along with a few days growth of a beard. Dark brown chaps with water and dirt stains were well worn over long legs. A faded blue shirt opened at his collar showing his chest to be as tanned as his face. A tattered red bandana was loosely tied around his neck. The knot was behind his neck, indicating he had used the bandana as a mask to keep from breathing the dust. Hazel eyes were silently searching her face, laughter lurking in their depths.
"Who are you?" she snapped.
Toni knew she was being rude. The poor man had done nothing but approach her on his horse. He was not responsible for her being where she was, up in a tree. She was embarrassed that she was caught in such a precarious position. She knew her skirt was showing more of her legs than was proper, but hanging in a tree limited one in putting her clothes in their proper place.
Conrad watched the woman with the flashing gray eyes as she surveyed him. He knew he should offer her a hand down, but he was enjoying himself so much just watching and listening to this strange woman.
She reminded him of a badger he had found with its paw caught in an iron trap. The skin around his paw became raw where he had tried to pull it free.
The badger snapped at him the whole time he was trying to help. He eventually ended up covering the animal with a blanket, then bundling him up while he worked on the steel jaws holding the small paw. The badger kept up a steady stream of snapping and hissing sounds, plainly letting him know that he felt Conrad was somehow responsible for his predicament. Even calmly talking to the animal while he worked failed to quiet the animal.
Yep, she was just like the badger, snapping and hissing.
That made his smile move from his eyes to his mouth.
"What are you laughing at?"
Conrad was sure the lady would be insulted at being compared to a badger. "I was just thinking about something. Nothing important."
Conrad watched the sparks in her eyes. "Would you like a hand down, miss?"
"Who are you?" she asked again, skeptically this time.
Conrad rose his right eyebrow again. "I am the person trying to help you down from that most uncomfortable tree." When the woman did not move, he added, "I also am the one who owns the land this tree is on, which makes it my tree that you are precariously hanging from."
As if on cue, the limb she was hanging from gave a loud 'crack'.
Conrad urged his horse closer and easily caught the woman as she came crashing down, limb and all. The limb she was holding on to made a valiant effort to remove his hat as it swung in midair before it fell to the ground.
Dancer did not appreciate the additional weight as it was literally dropped on him, but he felt the pressure from Conrad's knees, which told him to hold still.
Toni was out of breath. She was not sure if the cause was from the run, the fright from the stampede, the fall from the tree, or all three. Sitting on the man's lap as she was, she quickly tried to rearrange her skirt to cover her legs and knees.
"Thank you for your help, mister?" She waited for him to identify himself. Hazel eyes showed a sparkle of mischief behind long lashes. Why do men always seem to have longer lashes than women, she wondered to herself.
Conrad tipped his hat. "You're right welcome, ma'am."
For some reason, she was sure he was still laughing at her. Nothing, so far today, was funny in the least bit. She was here on an errand, and the sooner she took care of business, the sooner she could return home.
"I appreciate your help," she spoke as she gave her skirt and shirt one last look over.
"The wheel on my buggy came off a few miles back."
He lowered his hat, the brim effectively shielding his eyes from the harsh sun. "What about your horse?"
She knew her face was already red from the run, not to mention from the sun. Even though she wore a hat, the reflection from the ground had still brought color to her face. But when he asked the question, which she knew he was going to ask, the color deepened.
"Yes, well, the hitch came loose and, uhm, he took off."
She did not have to look at the man to know his right brow rose, again. Not wanting him to question her any further, she continued.
"By any chance, do you know where the Morgan ranch is?"
She looked up to see his face. He had turned his horse so that his hat blocked the sun from her face. His tan looked darker, his eyes more intense.
"Do you know Mr. Morgan?"
"Most folks around here know Mr. Morgan," he answered in a soft drawl.
Toni took a deep breath. "Is his ranch far from here?"
Conrad turned his head and looked to the east. "About five miles that away."
Toni was not sure about what to do next. She was stranded without any means to travel except her legs. But she knew that in this heat, it was not safe to walk the distance.
"Would it be much of an inconvenience to take me there?"
Conrad turned his head back and gave a long look at the woman. "Is he expecting you?"
"Not that it's any business of yours, sir, but yes he is."
Conrad had to smile. Her temper seemed to have an extremely short fuse to it. "Sounds fair."
Toni was wondering what he meant by that when they started heading south.
"I thought you said the ranch was east?"
"I have to let the men know that I'm leaving for awhile. If that's alright with you?"
Toni looked up, intending to give him one of her scalding looks when she saw the laughter in his eyes.
Conrad saw her shoulders relax, then heard the soft chuckle and felt the slight shake of her shoulders while she laughed.
"I'm really sorry. But this day has been one disaster after another. I usually don't snap at people like that for no reason."
"I think everyone has the right to snap every now and then." He looked down into her gray eyes, noticing the fatigue from a day gone wrong.
"Thank you, very much. My name is Toni, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, Toni."
She liked the way he said her name. Lord, the heat was really getting to her. How many times did Wayne call her name like that?
So much for another week going by without her thinking of him. In a way, she was grateful that her rescuer interrupted her thoughts.
She nodded her head once for emphasis. "Conrad."
The lone man at the make-shift camp did not even try to hide his surprise when Conrad rode up with a woman on his lap.
"Frenchy, tell the men I'll be awhile."
Frenchy stared for a moment while Conrad explained about delivering Toni to her destination, then looked up. "Sure Boss. But if you want, I'll deliver the young lady?"
Toni saw the hope in his face fall when Conrad declined the offer.
"Thanks, but I can take care of it."
On the way to the ranch, Toni asked about the stampede.
"What spooked the herd?"
"We seem to have a rogue cat around these parts."
"A rogue cat?"
Toni not only felt the sudden tension in Conrad's body, but she could also hear it in his voice. "Is this the first time he caused your herd to stampede?"
Conrad was quiet for a moment before answering. "You hear him every now and then. We would find a few of our herd laying dead from the kill. But last month, we finally had the herd together. Most of my men were taking a break and eating when the cat sent the herd running. They went right over the chuck wagon. Killed eight of my men, wounded five."
"Why don't you track him down?"
"We've tried a few times, but he always seems to elude us."
Toni looked ahead. Not only a rogue cat, but a smart one at that.
Conrad shook his head, clearing away the memories. "Are you sure Mr. Morgan is expecting you?"
Toni turned around in the saddle the best she could so she could look the man in the eyes. She saw confusion behind his eyes, for some reason.
"Yes, I'm sure." She paused a few moments, then turned back around. "Why do you ask?"
She felt the large shoulders behind her slightly shrug. "Most folks around here know everything that goes on. Don't rightly recall hearing mention about a young lady coming for a visit?"
Toni smiled. Well, at least everyone did not know everything.