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Stone Cold Cowboy(8)

By:Jennifer Ryan

Dehydrated, she needed water, especially on her chapped lips. He unscrewed the lid on the water bottle, slipped one hand beneath her neck to hold her head up, and tilted the bottle to her lips, pouring the water in slowly. She sputtered, but then drank deep.

“That’s it, sweetheart. Go slow.” He wished he had more than a couple ounces to give her, but she drank what he had and settled again. He left the bottle on the ground, along with the wire cutter and bloody wire. He’d send the cops back here to investigate and clean up.

“I’m sorry to do this to you.” He slid his hands underneath her and picked her up, pulling her close against his chest. She squeaked in pain as he settled her in his arms. That piercing sound tore his heart to shreds.

He’d never been sentimental. Not since his parents died in an avalanche when he was just a kid. He’d taken on his role as protector for his younger brothers and worked hard to raise them and keep his father’s ranch above water. Hell, he’d put his whole self into being the head of the family. Yes, they had their grandfather to look out for them, but Rory had taken on the role of head of the family and business early on. Granddad was getting older, though that didn’t tame his wild-at-heart ways and outrageous behavior. Rory had to be the serious one.

Still, this slip of a woman got to him on a deep level. One he didn’t want to acknowledge or think about. So he tucked his emotions back in the box he kept them in, buried deep in his heart, and did what needed to be done.

He walked down the hill with her, trying not to jostle her too much. He approached his horse, wondering how to get in the saddle without draping her over his horse and hurting her more. He looked around, trying to find a way to make this easier. He spotted the boulders nearby, grabbed the reins, and led his horse over to the rocks.

Even as a kid he hadn’t needed mounting steps, but with Sadie bundled in his arms, this would make things easier. He stopped the horse next to the rocks, climbed up on the boulder, turned to his side, put his left foot over the horse’s back, and lowered himself into the saddle as slowly as he could so he didn’t spook the horse. He fell harder than he’d like the last foot or so and the horse pranced, but didn’t try to throw him and the extra weight he carried.

“That’s it, boy.” Rory settled Sadie against his chest and on his lap. He grabbed the reins and kicked the horse to move. They rode down the valley toward where he thought the cattle rustlers took his herd. Better to get to the road here than try to take Sadie all the way back to the ranch. He tried to picture where they were in relation to his place and the neighbors’ houses. No matter which way he worked out the journey, they were all too far.

Rory pulled the reins right, leading his horse up a tall hill, hoping he’d get a cell signal way the hell out here. The chances were slim, but he had to try. The horse took the steep terrain at a lumbering lope, jostling Sadie against him. She twisted to get more comfortable and ended up with her face buried in his neck and her chest pressed to his. His coat kept her warm and helped to keep him warm, too, though his bare back froze. He held her close and tilted his head to press his cheek to her forehead and add what warmth he could to her.

The horse made it up to the rise and he scanned the area, making sure the bastards who took his cows and did this to Sadie weren’t near. He pulled his cell from his back pocket and swiped his thumb across the screen. Great, not only was his battery at twenty-four percent, but he had only one bar. Even if the call went through, it would probably be dropped.

“Come on, give me one small break,” he said to the sky, knowing his chances were slim.

He hit the speed dial for the ranch, hoping his grandfather or one of his brothers actually picked up.

“Yo, what’s up?”

Rory had never been happier to hear Colt’s voice. “Grab some blankets, the first aid kit, and hall ass down to Miner’s Road where it cuts close to the creek. You know the place?”

“What the hell happened? Why are you way out there in the boondocks?”

“Don’t ask questions, just get moving, or a woman is going to die.” He hated to speak his worst fear. Her still body, shallow breathing, and utter quiet sent fear shivering through him that had nothing to do with the dropping temperature.

“On my way. Need anything else?”

“Water. Hurry the hell up. Break every speed law you ignore anyway.” Giving in to the desperation gnawing at his insides, he begged, “Please, Colt. Hurry the hell up.”

“On it.” Colt hung up. Rory lit a fire under him. Rory hoped Colt got there before things got worse.