Two days. They had two days left out here in this wilderness. If they were to survive, that is.
Mariena shifted her brother’s weight. Nisto had long since fallen asleep against her.
Her lips were dry. What she wouldn’t give for a sip of cool water. But she dare not ask. They needed to ration what they had.
What would they do for food?
She glanced at the back of the man who called himself Cutie. Somehow she could not make herself associate that name with a man who risked his life to save them. With this man whose controlled stance and broad shoulders betrayed a muscled physique that was anything but diminutive. No, to her, he would be Charles.
But would he allow such familiarity? She would have to discover if this allowance would be made.
Did he wake? Could she make him more comfortable and keep him at rest?
Looking this way and that, she decided not. There were precious few possiblities atop the mount.
Cutie’s head turned and his warm eyes were on her.
She offered the best shrug she could manage.
Because he was upset? Or because he regretted their situation?
Turning the horse toward one of the grand desert structures, he pressed on.
Mariena sighed. Must it be this way? Always a reason for him to regret they traveled alongside?
When they neared a sparce piece of shade, Cutie turned and reached out his arms.
Did he want her to pass Nisto to him?
Could she? Her heartbeat quickened. Dare she trust her brother into his care? Even for a moment? Hadn’t she promised her mother she would look after him? And now, that was all the more imperative…
But this man had offered salvation when none existed.
That did not mean trust had be secured.
He pushed out a breath. Loudly. “Pass me the boy.”
She put a hand to Nisto’s cheek and pressed him closer. What if Cutie dropped him? Saw him injured? What if he could not, after all, be trusted?
“It is no need. I can…” She moved to dismount.
Cutie’s hands landed on her legs. “Do not. You’ll both end up in the dirt. Maybe break a bone. Then where would we be?”
Her gaze fell upon his hand, solid on her thigh, though separated by her skirts. Was it possible for her to still be heated by his touch? What was this?
She looked to his eyes. Though confusion passed through them, they were clear and seemed honest enough. Why should she suspect him still? Could he have not brought harm upon them any number of times did he wish it?
Fighting a hesitation and the growing ache in her chest, she pulled Nisto away from herself and leaned him toward Cutie’s outstretched hands.
The man needed no further words. He took hold of Nisto, sweeping him from her grasp with ease.
With no further regard for her, Cutie carried Nisto into the small shaded area. Then, leaning his back against the rock wall of the structure, Cutie slid down until he sat upon the earth, still cradling a sleeping Nisto.
All of this took place without stirring her brother. How was that possible?
Cutie’s gaze met hers once more. His brows furrowed. He need not ask the question that was in his mind. It seemed loud enough in his features.
Would she not join him?
She looked at the horizon…the journey ahead. How many steps yet to cover? Still, Cutie took the time that Nisto might have a rest. She glanced back at the cowboy holding her young brother. A gentle warmth poured through her chest. A pleasant warmth. It soothed the ache created from the absence of Nisto in her arms.
Jerking her head to avert her gaze, she hoped he did not see her face heat. Turning her body to face away from Cutie, she wondered at her dismount. Cutie had assisted her each time she got off the animal. And the few times she dared ride among her people, someone helped her down as well.
How was she to do this? Did she use the thing she put her foot in? The stirrup? Would that aid her dismount? Or should she just slide off?
Swinging her leg over the pommel, she began to feel uneasy. And the world shifted a little. Was the horse moving? Or was it in her head?
She gripped the saddle and leaned her weight forward, preparing to slide off.
The mare sidestepped.
And she lost her already precarious balance, pitching her to the ground.
She couldn’t see. Her eyes itched and burned. And she couldn’t pull in air. What was this?
Rolling to her back, she fought for a breath, clawing at the front of her dress. If she loosened it, perhaps she would find the relief she needed.
Hands pulled her upright and then to her feet.
Could she stand? Her legs were as soft pine. They would not hold her.
An arm came below her knees and another behind her back.
Another word was muttered that she did not know.
She opened her eyes again. The stinging remained, but light made blurred shapes of the things around her.
A warm solid body pressed against her, carrying her.
Then she was on the ground, a cool surface at her back.
The figure loomed in front of her, shadowed by the sunlight behind.
“Y-yes?” Her voice seemed too raspy. She continued to drag in air.
“Are you crazy or something?”
“What?” The things around her took more defined shape. Her vision continued to clear. But he wasn’t making sense.
“You could have gotten yourself killed!” Though his voice was forceful, there was something more. Something exasperated…deeply concerned.
“I know what you ‘just.’ But you didn’t.”
She dropped her head. What was the point? Her lungs burned from effort.
He mumbled something. Then lifted his head, as hers came up. And their eyes met.
“Are you injured?” His hands were on her ankles. Massaging.
What was he doing? Should she enjoy it so much? A pleasant sensation rushed from the place where his hands kneaded all the way up her limbs. No. This wasn’t right.
And she was…
His hands moved up to her calves.
She slapped him.
“Whoa.” He put a hand out. “I’m trying to decide if you broke anything.”
“I think you must keep your hands away.” Could he not see? Her face warmed. Surely it had color to it. She ducked her head.
“Hey,” he softened his voice. “I…I’m not one of those guys that…”
He seemed flustered. His words became fractured.
“Please,” she said with more force than she’d intended. “I will check.”
He nodded and sat back on his heels.
She leaned forward and turned her feet this way and that. Then felt along the length of her legs. Bending at the knee, she tested its veracity. And let out a yelp.
“Your knee, is it?” A warm hand landed on her arm.
“May I help?”
Opening an eye, she caught his gaze and nodded.
His hands surrounded her legs at the knees and set them back down on the ground. He rubbed the sides of first the left then the right knee.
When he put pressure to the sides of the right knee, she cried out again.
He grimaced. “I’m sorry.”
She bit her lip and nodded. Must she be such a coward? So…distressed? But as she found the courage to look at him again, she did not find pity in his eyes, rather there was concern. And perhaps regret.
Yet not as she anticipated.
He seemed angry with himself. Why?
She didn’t have time to think on it before his blue eyes locked on hers. How was it possible for them to be so deep? And still so clear?
“I do not think it is broken.”
Glancing at his hand still on her knee, she only then realized his touch remained.
He jerked his hand away. Had he just noticed too?
“But it is not a good idea for you to bear weight on it. Even if you can.”
Then she would ride and he walk the remainder of their journey? No. It could not be so. She would not have it.
“I can…” she started in protest.
He leaned forward.
She silenced. Her breaths coming in somewhat raggidly. The scent of him, the nearness of him…it made her head swim.
His eyes moved over her features. Was he searching for something? What? Did he mean to intimidate her? Or merely say something in reprimand? Had he lost his words as she had? Did he feel what she did?
Azure pools found rest on her lips.
She was frozen, unable to even breathe.
A groan beside her drew her attention.
Would he wake?
She shifted her gaze back to Cutie.
He blinked and leaned away, looking to the ground off to the side. What was he thinking?
What had she been thinking?
For certain, she had allowed her mind to venture somewhere she could not follow.
Cutie had to get his head in the right place. What was he thinking?
He couldn’t take advantage of this young woman. And he wouldn’t. He refused to.
They were maybe a day shy of Brandon’s ranch and he didn’t need to hear their bellies grumbling nor feel the ache in his own to know food had become imperative.
What would he do? Dare he trade their last couple of bullets—the only protection they had left—to hunt for food?
If he didn’t, was there any other way?
He wasn’t useless in the wilderness, but he’d become so reliant on his pistol, he’d not put his mind to capturing game in many years. Would his boyhood methods work?
Perhaps he should give them a try.
Turning from his solace, he moved back toward where he had left Mariena, her brother, and the horse. How much longer should he prolong his respite? Dare he push it further? Would it seem reasonable?
His turn to relieve himself had probably pressed the boundaries of believablility at this point. Yes, he’d best make his way back.
And his confusing feelings.
Then he would either find a way to capture food or face them with his shortcomings.
He strode on feet that were far too sore. The reality of an all day, non-stop walk wore on him. And his steps showed it. But he much preferred it to risking Mariena’s injury on foot.
Allowing his footfalls to be as light and slow as possible, he approached the place where he had left the others.
Open space greeted him.
Where were they? Had something happened?
His pulse raced. What could have become of them?
Did Mariena leave him behind?
He rejected the thought as it entered his mind. It would not take. While he didn’t know her well, something within him would not accept malfesence from her.
A soft clap pulled at him. It could be any number of things. But it was his best lead.
Lengthening his stride, he pushed past the ache and toward the sound. Not too far away, he spotted a rock, crushing an animal, with disturbed dirt around it. And his horse’s lead protruded from underneath the stone.
His gaze followed the length of the rope and there, behind some shrubbery, stood a stoic Mariena and Nisto with his arms crossed and a grin across his features.
Looking back at the rock-trap and then at Mariena, he wondered as he watched a smile slowly spread on her face as well.
How did she manage? What did she know of trapping animals? How had she come up with a dead fall having so little at her disposal? There was certainly more than one could find on the surface with her.
Her teeth now shown. She was breathtaking.
“Dinner!” she announced.
He nodded as he came closer. Picking up the stone, he noted the rather large rabbit that came upon their trap. A prize, no doubt.
As he looked toward Mariena, she put a hand on her brother’s shoulder, using him as a crutch on the side of her weak knee, and came to Cutie.
Once again, his words failed. How did this keep happening to him? What was it about her? His pulse, which had calmed, sped again.
He forced his attention to the rabbit. These moments could not continue. It was his duty to see these two to the reservation. And that was what he would do.
Anything else would be selfish.
And he would not spoil her for momentary enjoyment on his part.
He would not.
Mariena reached for her mother. “No! I can’t leave you!”
“Go! Take your brother and go!”
She sniffled, gripping Nisto’s hand.
“It is your only chance. Our peoples’ legacy…your father and my legacy must live on in you.” Mama touched Mariena’s cheek for a moment. Then released her and pushed Mariena toward the back of the tent. “Now, go! They are coming.”
“Come with us,” Mariena pled, looking back as she pressed Nisto under the flap.
“I must give you time. It is the only way.” Mama’s eyes were so full, so deep. Mariena did not argue further. But she wanted to etch Mama into her memory. Forever. To remember her features, her love, her sacrifice.
So she hesitated. For a moment.
Arms came around Mama, a large knife in hand…
Mariena jerked upright. The night sky greeted her. A gentle warmth to her side.
He slept beside her.
Not far to her other side a small fire continued to burn.
She pulled her knees toward her face, wrapping her arms around them. What had she seen? Had it been only dream?
Yes, her true memory had ended when Mama bid them go. She told them she must stay and give them a time, a chance to escape. Then Mariena had held back her tears and slipped under the flap after Nisto.
What if she had lingered for a few moments? Would she have seen…?
It was too much.
Despite the warmth around her, she shivered.
A hand pressed her shoulder.
She jerked away from it.
As she turned toward the intrusion, she met blue eyes staring at her. Concern naked in them.
And though her heart still beat in preparation to run for her life, she relaxed within herself. She was safe.
Cutie withdrew his hand. “Are you all right?”
She nodded, eyes wide, not able to tear her gaze away from his.
She ran a shaking hand over her face and through her hair. “Something as such.”
“Memory?” He settled on the ground beside her. His voice was soft, and so tender. It caressed her worn senses.
She didn’t answer. But she didn’t have to. He knew.
Hugging her knees, she let the evening breeze wash over her and allowed herself this moment with his kindnesses so that she didn’t feel so alone. Though it would only be for a time.
Her gaze still rested in his.
But he didn’t seem to mind. His features hardened. Was he angry? She couldn’t bear that.
He swallowed and grasped his fist in his other hand. “I hate what happened to you.”
Could it be? His anger was for the Apache and not the burden she and Nisto heaped upon him?
Her eyes watered.
He muttered and looked off into the distance.
Oh, but that he hadn’t broken eye contact. That had grounded her. Tears stung her eyes as they cut across her face.
Why did she let his presence draw her in so? It was dangerous. She didn’t have to lean into it so much.
His gaze found hers again. And his blue orbs widened as they set upon her. The muscles in his jaw clenched. More anger for the Apache?
Her tears would serve no one. She wiped at them and worked to even her breathing. When she glanced toward him again, she found his gaze still upon her.
“It does no matter.” She attempted a smile. Did it appear as awkward as it felt upon her lips?
His brows furrowed.
Pulling her braid over her shoulder and fingering the hair, she wanted for a change of subject.
“Let us not speak so sad.” Her smile became more genuine. “What of you? Rancher?”
One eyebrow lifted. Was he skeptical of her motives? He need not be. She only wished to think on more pleasant things. Who wanted to dwell on grief and darkness?
“I am a ranch hand, that’s true.” He spoke slowly, as if choosing his words with care.
“And will you dream to have a ranch one day?”
He shrugged and looked at the fire.
“No?” Why would he not want his own ranch? “Is not this what all ranch hands want? Work for?”
She held her thoughts and watched him. The dancing flames flickered in his pupils.
“Maybe that’s not for me.”
That pulled his eyes back to her.
“I thought…all ranch hands same.” Her lips would not lift. There was more behind her words. Something she had come to believe differently about Cutie. “To Indians.”
His eyes darkened. “Not me. I’m not that way.”
She nodded. “This…I see.”
His gaze entranced her. Could she pull away? If she wanted to? For in that moment, she did not.
At length, he stood, breaking their contact once more. “I think you should get some sleep.”
He moved toward the other side of the fire as she stretched out her legs beside Nisto. But there was one thing she needed to ask.
He paused, turning, giving her his attnention once more. “Please, call me Cutie.”
She offered a half-smile. “I might ask…if you are okay…could I call you Charles?”
It seemed as if he became a statue. He stopped breathing even as far as she could discern.
Then his throat bobbed as he swallowed.
Was such a request too far? Too much?
After several moments, he spoke. His voice almost uncertain. “My name…is Cutie.”
He gave her his back.
At least he couldn’t see the fresh hurt.
Cutie settled himself across the fire from Mariena’s reclined form.
Why had she asked that?
Why had he responded so harshly?
She hadn’t deserved that. But he couldn’t let her do that. No. That would be too far. He had already let her in too much.
They would be at the ranch by midday tomorrow. That would provide the space they needed. If his words hadn’t.
Perhaps it wasn’t so bad that he had spoken thusly. Maybe she should be put off. Would that create the much needed distance between them?
Yes, it was best.
He allowed himself a moment to look across their small camp to where she now lay.
She had turned her back to him, her long dark hair, much loosened by the winds that day. Why hadn’t she bothered to tighten her braid? Was she so weary? So worn that even that task seemed overwhelming?
But the dark river that flowed down her shoulders toward the ground captivated him. What would it be like to dip his fingers into their depths? Was it as smooth as it appeared?
But then it shook. A slight tremble. Almost imperceptible.
Because of his words?
His fingers ached. He stretched them out from the fists they had formed. Was he truly that disturbed by her emotion? Or by his own?
Leaning his head back, he looked toward the night sky. If only he could pray. If only God would hear. Then perhaps he would ask for guidance. For wisdom. For how to still his thundering heart.
But God would not hear him. Not after all he had done.
And a burning rage filled him.
Not in a million lifetimes could he pay for his actions.
He was doomed, hopeless.
His throat burned.
This was not an allowance for self-pity.
He had earned his place. Now he must accept it.
Never could he measure up. And never would he deserve the unspoiled innocence of someone who deserved every good thing in this world.