When Rian saw the lone rider crest the hill and begin his slow descent down the grassy slope toward the ranch house, she knew that her greatest fear was about to be realized. Seven long years spent hoping that no one would find her vanished as Fate revealed its hand. For one fleeting moment, dark panic captured her senses. As she watched the rider’s approach, the fear that ensnared her heart gave way to resignation. She had been expecting someone to come.
The uninvited caller was still at least a quarter of a mile away. A late afternoon shadow marked his progress across golden grasses bowed gently in the mid-summer breeze.
Rian stifled the sudden shiver that rattled up her spine. In a country where it was as far to the nearest neighbor as Satan was from the golden gates of Heaven, any woman alone feared the appearance of an unknown man, no matter how benign the stranger might appear. Rian’s fear went even deeper. A stranger was worry enough, but she feared the appearance of someone she knew…or someone who knew her.
“Look! Look!” Her nephew, Kendall, pointed a dirty little finger in the direction of the horse and rider now coming at a lazy trot across the field. His luminous green eyes were wide with wonder and his mouth hung open in a slack manner that at any other time would have been comical. An unknowing observer would have thought that the small boy was seeing another human for the first time in his life. “Who do ya think that is?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. She tried to still the shaking in her hands as she laid her broom against the porch railing. Shielding her eyes from the glare of the low-hanging sun, she squinted to bring the rider into focus. Her brow creased into a frown. There was something wrong with their unwanted guest. From the way he’s sitting his mount, I’d wager he’s either injured or ailing.
His body was angled at a dangerous slump and he limply jostled from side to side in rhythm with the horse’s even pace. As the horse drew nearer, probably catching the scent of water and other horses, it picked up speed and began trotting toward the barn. She felt certain she would see the rider tumble from his saddle at any moment.
“He looks funny.” Kendall cocked his head at an inquisitive angle. “What’s wrong with ‘im, Rian?” He clutched a wooden toy horse to his chest. His grubby hand still hung mid-air but the index finger drooped as, with bewildered interest, he watched the stranger bob back and forth atop his mount.
“Kendall, go get the rifle,” she ordered. Her voice was a restrained calm that did not betray the growing fear she felt constricting her throat. Better off safe than sorry, she reasoned ruefully.
She wiped her hands on her apron and tried to steady her nerves. Only once in seven years had anyone ever crossed their homestead unannounced. That single visitor had come through with evil intent, but her brother, Jackson, had been alive to protect them. Now that it was just Kendall and herself, Rian worried daily about just such an instance as this. She hoped the rider was sick or wounded, and not drunk, like the man who had come to the homestead last spring. What if he’s feigning injury or illness to garner a sympathetic, unsuspecting victim? She set her jaw with determination. Well he won’t find one here. We’re ready for him.