Ride a Painted Pony

Ride a Painted Pony

Kathleen Eagle

September 2016 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-710-6

Our PriceUS$13.95
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A woman on the run . . .

The terrified eyes in the middle of the highway belonged to a woman--battered, bruised, and barely conscious. Nick Red Shield swerved his pickup and empty horse trailer to avoid her, but neither he nor the mysterious Lauren Davis could avoid the collision of their lives . . . though Nick's loner instincts kick into high gear, Lauren's vulnerability tugs at him in ways he'd thought long since shut down. More comfortable with horses than people, he's drawn to the secretive runaway. But even in the safe haven of his South Dakota ranch, among the magnificent painted horses of Western legend, the danger shadowing Lauren's life will compel her to new acts of desperation to save her young son and force Nick to confront demons bent on destroying them both.

Kathleen Eagle is a mother, grandmother, teacher, chief cook and bottle washer, and best-selling writer. She has published over fifty books during the course of her long career. She lives in Minnesota with her husband of over 40 years, the Lakota cowboy who continues to inspire the stories readers treasure.


"A poignant, heartfelt story.”

—Library Journal top 5 romance of 2006

"Exceptional—a deeply romantic and wholly entertaining novel... Eagle’s smooth, sweet storytelling works magic on the emotions of the reader who expects slightly larger-than-life fantasy along with her romance reading.”


"Eagle... delivers her signature energy.”

—Publishers Weekly

"An excellent choice for book clubs looking for a thoughtful, yet uplifting read.”


"Eagle’s an expert at creating characters that seem ready to step off the page, a skill in evidence here.”

—Romantic Times BOOKreviews


Chapter 1

TWENTY-SEVEN MILES of dark road and driving rain were all that stood between Nick and the bed he’d reserved for what was left of the night. He might have pulled over and waited for the downpour to pass, but he was set on having himself some pleasure this night. Real, rock-solid pleasure. He was this close to laying himself down flat, stretching out his whole, long, bone-tired body over fresh white sheets and soft pillows. If he had just pulled over, he might have spared himself the one thing he always took care to avoid. Nicholas Red Shield hated surprises.

But more than the surprise of a pair of wild eyes staring back at him in his high beams, he hated making roadkill.

Eyes left. Wheel right.

It was a tricky maneuver. His empty horse trailer fishtailed as he shifted into Neutral, kicked the brake and arced the steering wheel to the left. Getting the trailer in line was only half the battle now that the rubber no longer met the road. Every scrape against the pickup’s precious chassis felt like a bloody gouge in Nick’s own leathery hide. His beautiful blue two-ton dually—as near to new as any vehicle he’d ever had—mowed down a mile-marker post, jolted, shuddered and went still.

Rain pelted the roof of the cab.

Nick took a deep breath and slowly loosened his grip on the steering wheel. He glanced in the rearview mirror, searching for familiar eyes.

"You okay back there, Alice?”

His passenger popped her head up to assure him that she was only slightly less bored with him than usual.

Nick was okay, too, thanks for asking. A little shook up, but he wasn’t going to let it show, even when nobody but the cat was looking. Bad form was bad form.

And stuck was stuck. He couldn’t tell whether the main cause was mud or the mile marker, but his efforts to get loose soon had six tires spinning in all gears.

Nick was not a man to curse his luck. He wasted nothing, including breath. Ever equipped to handle his own problems, he practiced taking care of business to perfection. If the mile marker was the hang-up, he hoped the business of jacking his baby off the damn thing wouldn’t take all night. He chuckled and started humming as he reached under his seat for the flashlight. "Jackin’ my sweet baby off,” he sang softly. Times like this, a little humor couldn’t hurt. He exchanged cowboy hat for yellow rubberized poncho and climbed out of the truck with an unconscious smile. He could really be funny when nobody was listening.

But the sight of his truck’s skewered underbelly was nothing to laugh at. It would take more than a flashlight beam to assess the damage, especially with the cold spring rain rolling off the hood of his poncho. He could have sworn he heard her groaning softly, just like a real woman.

"What do you expect me to do in this rain, girl? Beam you up?”

Something behind him snapped. Nick pivoted and swept the light over the roadside slope until it hit on a clump of bushes and a clutch of bobbing branches. Damn, had he clipped that deer after all? He grabbed his pistol and a loaded clip from the glove box and then sidled down the steep, wet slope. He’d been lucky. Better his precious pickup had impaled herself on a post than gone tumbling trailer over teakettle down the hill.

The bushes weren’t much taller than he was, but they were dense and filled out with new foliage. And they weren’t moving on their own. There was definitely something in there. Nick parted the branches with his gun hand, flashed the light into the tangled thicket and found two more of the night’s thousand eyes.

They weren’t doe eyes, but they were almost as big. "Don’t,” a soft voice pleaded as the eyes took refuge from the light behind a small, colorless, quivering palm. "Please don’t.”

A woman? A child? Nick’s heart wedged itself in his throat. He flashed the light away from her face.

"It’s okay. I won’t...” He shouldered branches aside and dropped down on one knee to discover a woman who wasn’t much bigger than a child. "That wasn’t...” He could barely get the words out. She was curled up, soggy and shaking to beat hell. "Jesus, that couldn’t have been youin the road. Could it?”

"Wh-who are you? Who sent you?”

"No one sent me. Listen, did I... did I hit you?”

"Who are you?”she demanded, pumping up the volume.

"Name’s Nick Red Shield. I could’ve sworn I missed the, uh...” He gestured toward the scene of the crime with the barrel of his pistol. "Sorry. I was expecting a deer.” He tucked the gun in his belt and then pulled the poncho over his head. She needed it worse than he did. "How bad are you hurt?”

"I don’t know.”

"Anything broken? Can you move your...”

Move what? The arms she’d knotted around her knees? He felt like some idiot hunter who’d awkwardly wedged himself into a rabbit’s hole. They were nearly nose to nose, but he didn’t dare touch her, and she didn’t dare move. She couldn’t draw back any farther without becoming part of the undergrowth. Her violent quivering made his bones vibrate.

"Let me help you.” He offered his hand, palm up, as though she might want to sniff it first. "I’ll be real careful.”

"What kind of a name is Red Shield?”

It seemed like a crazy question, under the circumstances. Check out my hand, sure, but my name?

"I’m an Indian.” He couldn’t help bristling. Squaring up, he braced the rebuffed hand on his upraised knee. "Sioux. South Dakota. Look, I didn’t see you until you were right in front of me, and I did everything I could to avoid hitting you. If you want me to try to flag someone else down, I will, but there isn’t much traffic tonight, and I don’t have any way to call anyone. Do you?”

"C-call who?”

"A cop or an ambulance.”

"You... you’d call the police?”

"I would, but I don’t have a phone. And if I leave you here and go for help, I’ll damn sure get charged with hit and run. So make up your mind. What’ll it be?”

"What are my choices?”

"Trust me or don’t. Can you walk?”

She stared at him, sizing him up while she drew several breaths, miserably shaky on the uptake. Finally she loosened her grip on her folded legs and felt around for something besides him to hang on to. She didn’t seem to care what the bushes were doing to her hands, and he could barely hear her answer.

"I think so.”

But it was tricky. She was such a little thing, he could have carried her like a baby if the rain hadn’t made the hill slicker than a cat’s ass. He put the flashlight in her hand, covered her with his poncho and hauled her up against his side, which left him one hand for grabbing whatever solid ground he could find. And, like a cat, she hung on. He could feel her trembling, feel her fighting for control against chills, pain, fear—probably all three—and he gave her credit for holding back on the noise she could have been making, tears she should have been crying, curses she must have been saving up for a time when the man who’d done this to her wasn’t the only help around.

He put her on the backseat of his crew cab, took the wet poncho and started backing out the door.

She grabbed his arm. Shivering and scared, she was little more than the huge pair of eyes that questioned his every move.

"I’ve got blankets in the trailer, and maybe something to...” What he could see of her face now gave him pause. Mean, dark patches spattered over frail and pale skin added up to battered flesh and flowing blood. "Listen, lady, I’ve gotta get you some help.”

"Can you... please... get me away from here?” She had him by both arms now, had him with her eyes and surprisingly strong hands. "Can you, Nick?”

"Yeah.” He nodded, swallowed hard, tried to ignore the goose bumps crawling over his shoulders and down the back of his neck. He slid into the seat beside her and felt her relax her grip. "Sure. I can do that.” He reached over the front seat and felt around for his denim jacket. Locating the jacket also meant he found the cat, but he was able to claim the jacket without trading a strip of skin. Alice wasn’t totally pitiless after all.

"What’s your name?” He didn’t mean to pry, but he’d told her who he was, and he needed to say something while he was wrapping her in his jacket.

But the question set her off on a sobbing jag. Damn. Now what? He drew the jacket tight around her, his fists coming together beneath her chin, whispering, "Try to keep it together. You’ve been doing so good. Do you live around here?”

"No. Oh no.” Head bowed, she slumped toward him, shuddering and sobbing and saying, "Oh no, oh no, oh no.”

"Shh. Just tell me your name.”

"Ohh...” She was like a wet rag, starch draining away, drooping, dripping, sagging against his chest. "Joe-eeey, Joey, Joey...”

"Joey what?”

But she was all out of answers. And he’d never been one to ask too many questions. Part of a name was enough for now. She could give the rest of it at the next stop, where somebody with a form and a uniform would be writing it all down.

"You want some dry clothes?”

Still leaning on him, she shook her head against his chest, forming his chilled nipple into a glass bead.

"You’ll have pneumonia on top of—”

She shook her head again and whispered blubbery words that made no sense but sounded as desperate as he was beginning to feel.

"Okay, Joey.” He patted her hair clumsily "Okay, we’ll get moving.”

With a hydraulic jack and a heavy dose of cowboy ingenuity, he was able to lift the pickup off the hook he’d accidentally made of the steel post, then twist the thing out of the way without ripping the guts from his sweet ride. He’d unhooked the gooseneck trailer in the hope of getting the truck back on the road. But nobody ever expected great traction from a dually, and his four back tires were only spinning themselves deeper into the Missouri mud. Without a push, his baby would soon be up to her axles in moonshit. He threw her into Neutral, braced his chin on his left arm and glowered at the road untraveled.


A glance in the rearview mirror revealed nothing. He hadn’t heard a peep out of her since he’d turned the heater on full blast and she’d thanked him before he’d gone back out into the rain. He turned now and found her huddled up in the corner with the cat. The two pair of eyes peered expectantly toward the front seat.

"Joey, I need you to help me. Do you think you can take the wheel? I need a driver.”

"Drive... the truck?”

"I need a hand to rock the cradle, so to speak. You know how to do that?”

She made a funny sound, like laughing through tears. "Rock the baby?”

"Yeah. Rock my baby. With a little rockin’, a little pushin’, I know she can get us out of here. You rock; I’ll push. Can you help me?”

"I think so.”

"Only you gotta be careful not to run me over,” he said as he opened the back door. Hovering over her with his back catching the rain, he helped her out of the backseat and around the door toward the front.

"Not run you over,” she repeated as she mounted the running board and pulled herself up by the door handle.

"Yeah, ’cause then we’d be in big trouble.” He lifted a lever and pulled the front seat from one extreme adjustment to the other. "Can you reach the pedals?”

"Of course.” She demonstrated. Brake was good, gas was only just.

"You drive a stick?”

She nodded.

"Can you see over the dash? I’m gonna be right there.” He pointed to the front corner on the right. "As long as you can see me, we’re fine. If I disappear, then you stop the music. Okay?”

"Stop the music.” She almost smiled. "Like hold the presses?”

"Yeah, like that. How many fingers?”

"One,” she answered. He doubled his digits. "Two.”

"Good. You pass. One back, two forward. One finger, you put it in reverse, and I push. Two, you put it in low, and I get out of the way. Timing is everything. You think you can handle it?”

"If you can push this thing, I can steer.”

Nick’s brawn harmonized with Joey’s timing on the gear changes. Soon the pickup was free from the mud, and Nick was covered with it. He threw his tools into the box, used the water in the portable tank to wash off some of the mud, and grabbed a blanket from the trailer. He found her slumped over the steering wheel. "You okay?”

She responded simply by sitting up.

"Can you slide over?”

She did, but not easily. She was hurting.

He took her place, making every effort to reassure her while he tucked the blanket around her. "We’re in business now, Joey. I’m gonna find you some help.” He reached across her. "Here, let’s buckle you in.”

"I feel sick. I need to lie down.” She leaned toward him as she pushed the seat belt away. "No, no, this thing hurts. If I don’t lie down, I’ll probably... get...”

"Please don’t.” He gave up on the seat belt and took charge of the wheel while she toppled over beside him, head at his hip. "But try not to fall asleep, okay?”

"How about if I just pass out?”

"Don’t do that, either.”

"Talk to me, then,” she muttered as they finally hit the highway.

"It’s better if you talk,” he told her. He felt a little sick himself, watching his precious gooseneck trailer shrink in the side mirror. He hoped to hell it would be there when he came back for it. "Where do you hurt?”

"Inside. I’m aching in ways you can’t understand, Nick. You’re a man.”

"Oh, Jesus,” he groaned. Females and their mysterious inside parts. It was a wonder there wasn’t blood everywhere. "You’re not, like, pregnant or anything, are you?”


"That’s good.” At least the hit wasn’t a twofer. "I’m not from around here. Maybe you could tell me—”

"I’m not, either.”

"Oh, yeah,” he said, remembering. He glanced at the mop of wet hair that had become a fixture on his wet hip. "I’ll find you a hospital just as quick as I can. I’m having trouble makin’ out the road signs in this damn rain, but don’t worry. I’ll find you some help.”

"All I need is a bed. I need to be still for a while, so my head stops spinning.”

"Lady, what were you doing on the road like that?” he demanded, more heated than he’d intended. "In the night,” he added softly. "In the rain.”

"Fell out of a car.”


"No more questions, Nick. Please.”

"I’m sorry. I swear to God, I didn’t—”

"It was my fault. My own fault.”

"Like hell,” he muttered, craning his neck, squinting. Like squinting would do any good. "Is that a hospital sign?”

"No, please. No hospital.” Her hand found his thigh. "No more trouble, Nick, please.”

"Shit. ‘Falling Rocks.’” He sniggered. "Hell, how about one that says ‘Falling Women’?”

"Fallen woman.” She gave a sad, soft groan as her hand slid away. "What a joke. Here’s your sign. Wear it in good health.”

"Sorry. This is no time for smart-ass remarks.”

"No, it was funny, Nick. And true. I just can’t laugh right now.” She paused, then added quietly, "Keep talking to me, Nick.”

"‘Deer crossing,’” he read aloud as they passed another sign. It wasn’t much, but it was what he could do to keep himself talking. If she wanted a talker, she’d thrown herself in front of the wrong truck. He chuckled. "Now they tell me. I thought you were a deer, Joey. I thought I’d swerved to miss a deer. Are you a Deer Woman?”

"I’m dear to somebody,” she said. "I hope so, anyway.”

"Somebody who drove off and...”Shut up, Red Shield. She didn’t need him rubbing it in. "Forget I said that.”

"No. Someone else. I have someone else.”

"Somebody we can call when we get to a phone?”

"No. He can’t help me.” She raised her head, pushed herself up for better effect. "But you can, Nick. You seem like a good man.”

He spared her a glance. The wounds on her face made the wounded look in her eyes that much harder for him to bear, knowing he’d caused it all. "I’m not about to put you out on the road, if that’s the measure of a good man.”

"It’s a start.”

"And I’m workin’ on the next step, which is to find you some medical attention.”

"Please don’t, Nick.” She lowered her head, but this time she laid it on his thigh. "I really don’t need a doctor.”

Flummoxed, flustered and suddenly way too hot, he whacked at the heater control and cleared his throat. "How do you know?”

"I just know. I don’t need one. I don’t. Not now.” She moved her head just enough to get a rise out of him. "Nick? You’re making me a pillow, Nick.”

He said nothing. He didn’t dare. All she knew about him was that he’d nearly killed her. Either she didn’t know what she was saying, or she really was Deer Woman. The supreme seducer in Lakota lore, that was Deer Woman. Nick focused every ounce of attention he could muster on the road ahead. Between windshield wiper whaps, a swelling of light served as a welcome distraction from the unwelcome swelling between his legs.

What the hell is this woman trying to do?


"Okay, we’re coming to a town. We’re just outside of Mexico. Mexico, Missouri. But all I know about it is the motel where I was gonna stay tonight, which is coming up on the right.”

"Go there.”

"You’re sure?” He was blinking. His blinker was blinking. The neon was flickering, and none of the signs were good. "No vacancy. No more rooms. I’ve got a reservation, but just the one room.”

"I don’t take up a lot of space, Nick.”

Jeez Louise.

"I’ll sleep in the truck if you want me to,” she said softly. "I just need to be still for a while.”

"Yeah, you’re right. And there’ll be a phone. I won’t be driving up and down the street in the damn rain looking for hospital signs.”

"No more signs, Nick. I’ve seen enough signs.”

"Look, I’m not...” Not stupid? Not sure? Not horny, after she’d made herself known to his good-man-be-damned parts?

"Not what?” she chimed in.

He sighed. "You’re safe with me, Joey.”

"Thank you. You have no idea how good that sounds.”

"But you’re hurt, and I want to get you some help. I have to get you some help, Joey.”

"You’re all the help I need.”

He parked in front of the motel office, shut the engine off and tried to shut himself down by staring straight ahead while she gathered herself over one arm and pushed herself up, sitting up, sitting close but no longer touching him. Thank God.

Curse God. Or Deer Woman. Or female parts and man parts and absurd accidents that planted the party of the first part smack in the path of the party of the second part. He did not need this shit.

"Nick, you didn’t hit me. You foundme.”

He turned to her, scowled at her, tried to make sense of her claim. "There was something in the road.”

"It wasn’t me.”

"I didn’t knock you off the road?”

She shook her head.

For some reason, he didn’t feel convinced. It made sense, but it didn’t feel right. The woman had jumped over the fence and back again, playing him for what? Champion or fool?

"You coulda told me.”

"I’m a little discombobulated right now.”

"You and me both.” He jerked on the door handle. "I’m going to check us in, and then—”

"Don’t tell anyone anything,Nick. Please. You didn’t pick anyone up on the road. Nobody’s hurt.” She grabbed his arm. "It’s just you checking in here, okay?”

"Who the hell cares whether... ?” He made the mistake of looking into those sad, badly bruised eyes again. He hadn’t hit her. Whatever happened, he’d had no part in it, and he owed her nothing. He had to get that through his head. Right now would be the perfect time.

He shook his head, but the wrong words came out of his mouth. "Okay. Just me.”

"You told me to make up my mind, and I have. I trust you.”

"Yeah, well, now you’ve got more choices. You’ve got—” his gesture took in the lights of a town that was nothing to him but a handy stop and a catchy name "—all of Mexico.”

"I trust you, Nick.”



Chapter 2

NICK RETURNED to his pickup carrying a key and a promise kept. No one had asked, but if they had, he would have kept the woman on the other side of the rain-streaked glass a secret. His secret. He couldn’t remember having one before. Not that he couldn’t keep one, but he simply had little cause in his life for secrets.

Now he had one. Lying there on the front seat of his crew cab was one sweet little secret. Banged-up, dressed in tatters, stripped of everything but her instinct for self-preservation, she had become a major hitch in an otherwise routine trip. As a rule, he wasn’t real big on sweets, but her sweetness was growing on him.

Nicholas Red Shield had his own instincts, too. The urge to protect the helpless ones had been bred into him from way back, or so he’d been told by people who were interested in the history of his breeding. He could go way back when the subject was horse breeding. As for what his partner called his "warrior instincts,” he would take Dillon’s word for it. So he hadn’t hit the woman with his pickup. He could still help her out. It wasn’t like he was going out of his way.

"The room’s around back.” He tried not to get her wet as he slid behind the wheel, but she wasn’t giving him much margin for dripping. "You awake?”

"Sort of.”

"When is this damn rain gonna quit, huh?” Taking her silence for lack of interest, he checked the number on the key again as the pickup crawled past the bumpers of vehicles belonging to boarders presumably tucked in for the night. He was surprised to find a wide-open and empty parking space in front of the door with his number on it. He smiled, thinking the signs, they were a-changin’.

If Joey was at least "sort of” awake, then her claim that nobody was hurt was bullshit. When he hauled her off the front seat, she made sadly little effort to add her own steam to the task.

"I’ve got you,” he told her, cradling her in his arms. "Just relax and pretend you’re not somebody I picked up on the road.”

"I’m your dry cleaning.”

"Oh, yeah. I’m real big on dry cleaning.”

"You’re a good man. A big man. A man who isn’t afraid to do the right—” He’d shouldered the door to the room shut and was about to lay her down, but she dug her fingers into his shoulder and told him no. "Keep the bed dry. I’m soaked to the bone.”

He put her in a chair, turned on a lamp and sat on the corner of the bed across from her, waiting for his next cue. He still felt guilty. Responsible. It was rude, looking at her this way, like he had a butterfly trapped in a jar and didn’t know what to do with her.

First off, man, get her some clothes.

She was wearing what had probably once been a nice dress. Like everything else—he was just noticing the blood on her legs—it was in bad shape.

"It’s really not as bad as it looks,” she insisted. She hadn’t gotten close to a mirror yet, but she didn’t need one as long as she could read him.

He glanced away.

"How bad does it look?”

He gave her half a smile. "Sure you weren’t hit by a truck?”

"I should have kept quiet.” Gingerly she touched her fingers to her swollen eyelid, bruised cheek, gashed chin. "I could’ve used it for blackmail.”

"And asked for what?” He braced his hands on his knees. "What is it you need, Joey?”

"Joey,” she echoed wistfully. "Funny name for a girl, isn’t it?”

"People go by all kinds of names these days. I know a girl named George.” He leaned closer. "Are you in some kind of trouble?”


"How bad?”

"As bad as it gets.”

He nodded toward the nightstand that stood between the two beds. "Listen, there’s a phone here. How ’bout making a call?”

She shook her head.


"Do you have someone, Nick? A wife? A girlfriend?”

"No, not right now, not...” He arched an eyebrow. "You’re really good at turning the tables. You’re the one who needs somebody. Some family, some—”

"Right now I have no one except for one very good Samaritan.” She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath and made a valiant attempt to smile for him. "Are you from Samaria, Nick? Did you walk straight out of the Bible?”

"I drove straight off the damn road,” he reminded her. "I don’t know what the maps call Samaria these days, but currently they’re calling my country South Dakota. How ’bout you?”

"I’ve been to South Dakota,” she said.

"I’d say just lately you’ve been to hell and back.”

"And hell hath no phone number for a woman scorned.”

"If you say so.” With a sigh, Nick pushed to his feet. "Besides dry clothes, just tell me what else you need so I don’t have to ask any more damn questions.”

"I’d love a hot bath. But it’s your room, so I’ll wait my turn.”

"Right.” Three strides took him to the bathroom. "I’ll come out and find you passed out in that chair.”

"What are you going to do?”

"What any good man would do,” he grumbled.

He glanced in the mirror above the sink on his way to the tub and toilet, which were tucked separately behind a door. Mud, matted hair, homely mug—not a pretty picture. It was a wonder the injured bird hadn’t chosen to stay in the bush. He adjusted the bathtub faucets until he had a warm flow going. Then he treated his face to a sink full of hot water and plenty of soap.

She opened her eyes as he lifted her from the chair. "How do you wanna handle this?” he asked.

"Just put me in the water, clothes and all.”

"Good idea.” She was shivering like crazy. Maybe the water would clear her head enough so she could start figuring out what the hell she wanted to do. "I’ll be right outside. Here’s soap and... Joey?”

Her eyes were closed; her small chin skimmed the water. Her torn green dress drifted around her like seaweed, and her yellow hair billowed about her shoulders.

"Are you alive?”


"Can you... ?”

"I don’t think so.”

He would start with the hair. His knee cracked as he knelt beside the tub, and he knew that if he stayed in this position very long it would fill with fluid. The concern passed quickly as he filled his long brown hands with shampoo and water and mud-clotted hair. It occurred to him that he hadn’t washed anyone else’s hair since he was a kid. Being the oldest, he’d often been given charge of the little ones. But he was the first to grow up and move on, and he’d passed the job on to Louise, the next one in line. Louise had been followed by Bernadette, who had still been sitter-in-residence when Nick had joined the army. Johnny had never had to take his turn.

As quickly as his brother’s name popped into his head, Nick pushed it back into mental storage. He had enough misery on his hands.

Namely, her face. He hated to touch it. He’d tended tender flesh in his time, but he’d never seen wounds such as these on anything so fair and fine. He took it slow, irrigating each abrasion with soapy water squeezed from a clean cloth, while she kindly kept still and quiet. She had to know he was feeling none too easy with any of this. He was no medic. Most of the supplies he carried with him were for the horses, but he was pretty sure he had a few medicines for people in his duffel bag. Probably been there for tona years, but maybe they were still good. There was one bad place on her scalp that he thought could do with a couple of stitches, but it wasn’t bleeding much. Maybe it would be okay.

Or maybe not. But he wouldn’t be the one to decide. It was no good pushing people unless they were pushing you.

Motel management had provided a small bottle of mouthwash—good ol’ piss-color purge—that made her flinch when he applied it to the cut high on her nose. He flinched sympathetically.

"I know it stings, but that’s supposed to show it’s working.”

"Don’t use it all on my face.” She pulled up her sleeves and exposed scrapes on both arms. "From hitting the road.”

"Hell of a way to bail out of a car.”

"And I forgot to yell Geronimo.”

"Just as well. No yelling, and you got yourself a live Indian instead of a dead one.” His glance skated across her face. "You got any more you want to show me?”

"Not until I know you a little better.”

Her wan smile abruptly had him tongue-tied. The only wonder was that it hadn’t happened to him sooner. Well aware of his limitations, he shut the lid on the throne, took himself a seat and jerked the shower curtain far enough across the side of the tub so he couldn’t see anything above her knees:

"Give me those wet clothes, and I’ll hang ’em up.” The tattered dress came first, followed by a slip, bra, panties. He didn’t know much about quality in women’s underwear, but hers was a matched set, and it wasn’t cheesy. He started to wring the water out, but on second thought he turned the sink into a man’s laundry tub—clothes, bar soap and tepid water. He wagged his head at his reflection in the mirror. Nick Red Shield washing a woman’s underwear. Hell of a sight.

Feeling edgy, he turned the TV on, flipped through the channels and turned it off again. A glance at the clothes rack inspired a search through his duffel bag. One of his T-shirts would cover her nearly to her knees. There were jeans, socks, a couple of Western shirts. Besides his favorite fixes for junk food cravings, he had an extra toothbrush, some aspirin, Band-Aids and topical ointment, some pink stuff for stomach trouble and a prescription drug for his weak knee.

Uninspired, he called out to her. "Take your time in there. I’ll go out and get us something to eat.”

"No, please.” Real fear had insinuated itself into the voice beyond the door. "Don’t leave me here alone. I might... I’m really sort of... unsteady.”

"I’ll wait, then. If you need anything, sing out.” She did. Screeched, more like. He’d gone to the outside door and barely touched the knob, which told him she had the ears of an owl to go along with the voice.

"Hey, I’m not going anywhere,” he reported. "Just goin’ out to the pickup to explain the lack of food to the cat.”


"And I’ll get you some ice.” Silence was no good right now. "Hey! I said—”

Disaster struck in the bathtub to the tune of slosh, clang, thud and splash.

"Shit.” Nick strode from one door to the other. "Joey? I’m comin’ in!”

"I got dizzy,” said a voice beneath the fallen shower curtain.

"You okay?” He tossed the tangle of rod, rings and curtain onto the floor behind him while she splashed around, scrambling to clutch her knees to her chest. Then they were both still, staring eye to eye. Reflexively he reached, closed his hand tight and drew back, firmly persisting, "Are you all right?”

"No worse than I was.”

A little better, he thought. At least she had some color.

She nodded. "More embarrassed is all.”

"We’re long past that.” He snatched a towel off the rack above the toilet and then bent over her, flipping open the drain.

"Since I’m the one without clothes on, I think...” He’d already handed her the towel, but still she claimed, "I get to decide.”

"Suit yourself. I’ve got a T-shirt for you.”

"Thank you.”

"One more dizzy spell and you’re outta here, lady. I’ll be callin’ a doctor.”


"One more.” His index finger signaled final word. He turned away, going after the promised shirt and muttering, "One minute she’s dizzy, the next, who knows?”

"I’m not going to die. I know that much.” She was on her feet now, one hand taking support from the toilet tank, the other clutching towel to breast. "Not tonight, anyway,” she promised him softly as he slipped his T-shirt over her head. She gave a shy smile. "I’m past that, thank you very much.”

She made slow work of getting her arms through the sleeves and letting the soft white shirt fall over her torso, as though she’d released the cord on a window shade. Whether she was putting on a show or truly struggling was the kind of question that could only lead to trouble. A smart man would back off, let it ride.

And a slow one would get himself caught by the arm before backing out of her reach.

"Thank you, Nick. I’m past that tonight because of you.”

"Hey.” He shrugged. "It wasn’t a good day to die. So you live to fight another day.”

"You’ve helped me more than you know. I owe you”—she glanced away blushing, disconcerted by whatever she imagined—"so much more than thanks.”

"Truth is, you’re indebted to some unidentified flying animal that also lived to fight another day. So it’s all good.” He pulled her away from the wall. In her eyes he saw her imagination running just as crazy as any wild animal that had ever crossed his path. "All I want right now is a shower,” he assured her as he moved her toward the door. "Help yourself to the phone. You gotta know somebody. Whatever arrangements you can make, I’ll try to help you find a way to get there.”

Once he’d lathered himself head to toe, he hung his head, letting the hot water run over the back of his neck and claim his spine for a riverbed. It felt like God’s tears. One by one the muscles in his shoulders gave in, and he permitted his scarred body a rare indulgence in pity and pleasure. But it was an unholy image his mind’s eye conjured for his pleasure. The only player in it besides himself was close at hand and dependent upon the mercy of that hand. She owed him. She’d said so herself. So much more than thanks. For his continued good grace, she’d hinted that she would favor him in return. Maybe the hint was more like a promise.

And the favor would be more like a payment, which he didn’t need. He had to wonder how hard the woman had hit her head.

He really had to wonder what kind of demon she had dogging her.

She lay still beneath the blankets. He moved quietly, hoping she’d somehow managed to fall asleep. Silently he cursed his noisy knee as he pulled on his boots, but the chinking of his keys was the killer.

"Are you leaving?”

"I need to get my trailer off the road.”


"Horse trailer.”

"I didn’t see any horses.”

"Just an empty trailer. I’m picking up some horses tomorrow.”

"But tonight...”

"I’ll be back with some food.” He moved a step closer. "You think you could eat something?”

"How long will you be gone?”

"An hour, maybe. Did you get hold of anyone?”

"I’ve told you, Nick, there’s no one I can call.” She jacked herself up on her elbows. "Maybe I could go with you.”

"Maybe you could get some rest. Look, I’m leaving my gear.” With a nod, he tried to direct her attention to his duffel bag and all the stuff he’d left around the sink, but he could see she wasn’t buying. He removed a small red-and-white charm from his key ring. "Hold on to this for me. I’ll be back soon.”

Her fingers curled around the scrap of leather and beads. "This is important to you?”

"As important as keeping my word. I’m not gonna run off on you.”

"And you’re not... going to tell anyone.”

"JOEY?” HE HATED to wake her, but he had to be sure she was all right. There was always the chance of a concussion, which was nothing to mess with. He’d had a bad one himself once, so he knew from experience that you were supposed to keep waking a person up to make sure they could still cuss you out for not letting them sleep.

But all this woman did was open those big, sad eyes of hers, which gave him an unwelcome hard-on. A guy had to be pretty hard up to get juiced by such a pitiful sight, even if she was wearing his own well-worn shirt and nothing else.

"You want something to eat?”

"I can’t.”

"I want you to try.”

Jesus, talk about pitiful. When had he started wanting somebody else to do anything but suit herself?

The brown paper sack hit the small table with a solid whomp. "What I mean is, I think you should give it a try. It’s just soup. If you can’t hold anything down...”

"I can. If I show you, will you leave me alone about doctors and hospitals?”

"For now.”

But he wasn’t sure how long he would stay this stupid. If she went unconscious on him, who would back him up when he tried to tell some cop that not getting checked out right away was her idea?

They spoke little while they shared the meal he’d brought. He figured he’d probably traded in his cowboy boots for combat boots by the time she’d reached the age she looked to be right now, drowning in his T-shirt. Her small shoulders quivered with the breath she drew as she presented the cup to show him she’d finished more than half the soup.

He nodded. He needed to remember his own father’s example. Kid shows you his small accomplishment, you hold back everything but that nod. Yeah, kid, I see. It’s no more than what’s expected, and you damn sure don’t want to come up with any less.

She set the foam cup on the bedside table and closed her eyes. "Thank you. That was good.”

He finished her soup. He’d paid for it.

And he went on paying.

Once the lights were out, Nick was doomed to lie still in his separate bed and pretend that her crying into her pillow wasn’t keeping him awake. She was trying to stifle them, but those quivering, watery breaths of hers were deafening. Sputtering, stuttering, tearful little noises. He tried not to imagine himself crawling into her bed and finding ways to comfort her. A man asleep would have shifted and settled again, but Nick was afraid to move. Afraid, for crissake.

He was no good with women. He had no moves, no words, no charm.

You should have taken her to see a doctor, you jackass.

She wouldn’t go.

Who was driving?

Absolutely. Take her to an emergency room and leave her there—that was exactly what he should have done. Leave the rest up to her. It was the only way to deal with people, the only way that made any sense. Own up to your own part and leave them to do theirs. Don’t get stuck with anybody else’s shit.

Now you’re talkin’, man. Nick Red Shield is back in the saddle, back in his own ugly skin.


Anyway, what was one night?

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