Home > The Heart of a Cowboy (Colorado Cowboys #2)

The Heart of a Cowboy (Colorado Cowboys #2)
Author: Jody Hedlund

 


CHAPTER 1


COUNCIL GROVE, KANSAS

MAY 1863

She was going to drown.

The Neosho River wrapped its cold fingers around Linnea Newberry and pulled her down. Frantically she fought the raging current. But muddy water rushed against her face, filling her mouth and nose, making it impossible to breathe.

Above the roaring water, shouts and calls trailed after her. Her grandfather’s anxious voice was the loudest of them all.

She tried to kick and propel herself toward the riverbank, but her heavy muslin skirt, combined with her petticoat and bloomers underneath, tangled around her legs and trapped her like manacles.

For a second the water tossed her high, giving her a glimpse of the back of the covered wagon where she’d perched moments ago. She’d been in the process of analyzing the southern cattail Typha domingensis she’d plucked from a swampy pond that morning. In the next instant, the wheels rolled over a stone in the riverbed, and the jarring threw her overboard.

Now the Neosho, swift and swollen with spring rains, dragged her low. Choking for breath, she clawed at the air, at the water, at anything to keep from going under. As she passed a fallen cottonwood dangling above the surface, she reached for it and her fingers connected with a rough branch.

God, help me. Fear and panic mingled in her chest.

“Hold on tight!” shouted a rider, directing a sorrel horse her way. The river pounded against the steed’s flank, threatening to sweep both man and beast away. But somehow the horse plunged toward her, defying the river’s greedy grasp.

Her wet hand slipped down the branch. Her fingers ached in her desperate attempt to hold on. With her hair drenched, muddy water dribbled into her eyes, down her nose, and over her lips. And a splash from the approaching horse hit her in the face.

Blinking hard, she spluttered.

The rider lunged for her, his gloved hands wrapping around her forearm.

She grabbed on to his stirrup, and as he began to tug her out of the water, she clutched at his saddle to aid in her upward climb. He lifted her with surprising strength, towing her up until he had her by both arms. Then with a final haul, he hoisted her into the saddle in front of him.

She coughed and swiped at the water still trickling down her face. Before she could speak or even glimpse her rescuer, he was angling his horse toward the western bank. Linnea held her breath and clung to the pommel, praying the creature would stay steady upon its feet and wouldn’t be knocked downriver, taking them with it.

The rushing water drowned out all other sounds except the labored breathing of the man behind her. His arms were tense on either side of her, the reins wrapped around his hands. He hunkered low, leaning into her. The muscles in his chest rippled with his effort at controlling and directing his steed.

When the horse began to climb upward into shallower water, Linnea allowed herself to breathe again. Thank you, heavenly Father, for saving my life.

She’d known the journey west would be fraught with difficulties and danger. In all the preparations for their botanical expedition, her grandfather had read tale after tale of death and injury that befell so many who attempted the overland crossing. He cautioned her regarding the perils and warned her against going.

Nevertheless, she hadn’t expected to face death after only ten days on the Santa Fe Trail.

The horse stumbled on loose stones and thick silt. The movement jarred Linnea, tilting her to one side. Her rescuer was boxing her in, keeping her from sliding off. Even so, she grasped his arm.

At the same time, the rider patted his horse’s mane and neck, as though to encourage it. The horse steadied itself and continued plodding uphill.

The sloping dirt embankment gave way to the rolling bluestem hills with cordgrass in the low, wet areas comprised of buttonbush, eastern grama grass, and common ironweed. Burr oak, black walnut, hackberry, green ash, and cottonwood trees converged along the banks, providing shade to groups of travelers who’d already made the crossing.

“Flynn!” called a girl hopping up and down at the top of the embankment under the shady branches of a sprawling cottonwood thick with new foliage. “Howdy-doody! You did it! You saved her!”

A gangly young man of about sixteen years slid down the dirt and gravel toward them. He reached for the horse’s muzzle. “Mighty fine job, Flynn. Couldn’t have done much better myself.”

The man behind Linnea—apparently named Flynn—gave a final nudge of his heels to the horse’s flanks. The creature crested the bank, revealing the river bottoms where dozens upon dozens of cattle grazed on the grama grass, some in the shade of the deciduous hardwoods, others sunning themselves and swishing their tails against the flies.

Two other young men stood on the bank watching, having abandoned their nearby blazing campfire and an iron skillet still sizzling with frying fish.

“You sure got in there fast, Flynn.” The girl bounded toward them, her dark hair hanging in unruly waves about her dirt-smudged face, her brown eyes shining with admiration. Although slender, her body showed the first signs of developing into a woman, especially because her calico dress was much too tight and short—as if she’d long outgrown it. If Linnea had to take a guess, she put the girl at twelve or thirteen years old.

“Grab a blanket to warm her,” Flynn said to the girl.

She shifted her attention, staring openly at Linnea. Only as Linnea tried to formulate a smile did she realize how badly her teeth were chattering and her body shaking. After the initial shock of falling into the river, she’d been so focused on surviving that she hadn’t paid attention to how cold she was.

But now she was aware of the numbness of her fingers and toes. Her clothing stuck to her body like an icy layer of morning frost. Frigid water ran down her arms and legs.

“Go on, Ivy.” The rider spoke again, this time more sharply. “And Dylan, you stoke the fire.”

The girl gave a quick nod, then scampered away. And the young man hurried off to do Flynn’s bidding as well.

Were they his children? If so, where was his wife? Linnea could see no evidence of other women around his camp.

“Hang on.” The man’s voice rumbled near her ear. He shifted, and the warm pressure of his body and arms moved away from her, leaving her exposed to the midmorning air.

It had been warm enough when they’d started out at dawn. It had been warm enough when she’d explored the marshland around a pond they’d passed. And it had been plenty warm when they’d been in the long line of wagons waiting to make the river crossing.

But at present, a chill settled deep inside, and she hugged herself for warmth.

Flynn slid from the horse. Once standing, he peered up at her, giving her a glimpse of his face for the first time. Though he wore the brim of his felt hat low, there was no hiding the handsome features—lean cheeks tapering into a muscular jaw, a firm mouth, and a well-defined chin. A layer of dark facial scruff lent him a shadowed, almost wounded appeal. If that wasn’t enough, his eyes were a bright green-blue, the color of bluegrass.

Since he’d taken charge of the children, she expected someone older, a middle-aged father. But this man, though he was well-built and filled out to the fullest, couldn’t be many years past her own twenty-one.

He was scrutinizing her with the same carefulness, his brows rising as if she surprised him every bit as much as he did her. She was a mess and guessed she looked worse than a wet cat. In her flailing, her hair had come loose from its chignon and hung in tangled curly masses over her shoulders and halfway down to her waist. Even wet, the bright red was as noticeable as always.

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