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Lee was filled with dread as he approached his house. It would shatter Clara’s heart to hear about Cecilia. How the hell was he going to break it to her?
In the twilight, as he approached, he almost thought he glimpsed Cecilia’s painted mare grazing in the paddock.
Wait a second. It was her horse. The markings on its face were unmistakable.
Did it escape and run back here?
His heart was racing as he burst through the door.
“Lee!” his wife exclaimed as she rushed into his embrace. “I’m so glad you’re okay!”
“Cecilia! Her horse. . .” They were the only words he could get out.
The sunset light streamed into the kitchen through the parlor windows, and the kitchen darkened as a shadow fell over the entrance.
Lee swiveled around. His heart went to his throat when he saw his sister-in-law standing at the kitchen entry, unharmed.
“Cecilia! My God, you’re okay!”
Cecilia rushed across the kitchen and embraced him and Clara together in a hug. Her eyes shone as the words tumbled from her mouth, “I just went for a ride because I wanted to clear my head. Clara told me what you and Tracker said about my house and about the gang. I never went home—I had no idea about everything that happened!”
Lee had never felt so relieved. “Thank God.” He drew in a shaking breath. “You can’t even imagine what Tracker and I went through, thinking that gang had you.” It made his chest feel tight to remember it. “They told us they killed you in the woods.” He swallowed. “There was a nightdress in their camp, with blood on it. We were certain it was yours.”
“Do you think it was another woman’s?” Cecilia asked worriedly.
Lee was quiet as he considered it. “No. The way Tracker said your room was torn up, I think the man just stole it to bring back as evidence to make the others think he’d found you.”
“But, why would someone do such a thing? What on earth would they have against me?”
The sudden realization made Lee clench his jaw. “I imagine he just took it to torture Jesse.”
Cecilia’s features contorted with confusion. “But, how? He’s with that marshal. . .”
Lee shook his head. “The marshal didn’t get him. The Haskins brothers did.” He paused, trying to decide how honest he should be with her. “Cec, it was brutal, what they did—we found Jesse hanging from a tree when we caught up to them. He’s probably not going to survive.”
“Hanging?” Cecilia echoed, her voice trembling.
Lee swallowed. “He was still alive when Tracker got him down. He’s taking him to the doctor in Gunnison.”
Tears welled in Cecilia’s eyes and she clasped her hand over her mouth.
Lee continued, “Tracker knew about Jesse, too. He knew he was wanted before all this happened. He claims Jesse said he didn’t do all those things he’s wanted for and that he only killed one man in self-defense.” He shook his head. Maybe it was wrong to give her hope that Jesse could be innocent.
“I don’t know what to believe,” he admitted quietly. “I doubt we’ll ever know.”
Cecilia brushed at the tears coursing down her cheeks. “I want to go to him.”
Lee considered it. While he wanted to hope Jesse was innocent, all the lies and his resemblance to that wanted poster were too damning. But, if Jesse survived, he still deserved a fair shake.
He patted her on the shoulder. “We can catch the train to Gunnison in the morning. I’m sure Tracker will send a message to let me know if Jesse made it that far.”
Cecilia sniffed and nodded.
What a hell of a day. Although it was a tremendous relief to know that Cecilia was okay, his heart was still heavy over Jesse. He was exhausted, but there was one more thing to do.
“I need to get a message out to Tracker so he knows you’re alive. It shook both of us up pretty badly—I’m so glad nothing happened to you.”
It choked him up again to think what had almost been. One single decision, to go home or to go for a ride, had saved Cecilia’s life.
He hugged Cecilia again and then turned and embraced his wife tightly, kissing her forehead before he went out the door.
In a silent prayer, he willed Jesse to survive long enough for Cecilia to see him one last time.
The next morning, when Cecilia and Clara met Tracker at the train station in Gunnison, he looked like he hadn’t slept at all. He hugged Cecilia tightly as soon as they stepped off the train.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” he said.
Cecilia nodded. “Me, too.” She hesitated. “Jesse? Is he still. . . ?” She was almost too afraid to ask.
“He’s still alive.”
She closed her eyes in relief. “Can I see him?”
“Yes, he hasn’t woken up since before the doc did surgery last night. But, you can see him.”
Tracker glanced at Clara. “Is Lee with you?”
Clara shook her head. “It’s hard for him to leave right now with both of his deputies gone—the town is upset with him over everything with Jesse.”
Tracker nodded and took their bags. They followed him down the dusty street.
Once they arrived at the doctor’s, Tracker led the way down the hall and stopped, nodding for Cecilia to go in the room ahead of him.
When she first laid eyes on Jesse’s bruised and bandaged form lying quietly in the bed, a pang of grief stabbed her heart.
She approached quietly and brushed her trembling fingertips through his hair. He didn’t stir.
It was hard not to stare at the red and purple bruise around his throat. When she glimpsed the scratch marks, as if from his own fingernails, the sob she’d been trying to contain escaped from her. She clasped her hand to her mouth and blinked back tears. Jesse would want her to be strong for him.
One of his eyes was darkened and swollen, and a red crescent-shaped bruise edged the corner of his other eye. Both his upper lip and one eyebrow were split open, and his left temple was reddened and bruised. His chest was encircled in bandages.
“What are these wrappings for?” she asked Tracker, trying to keep her voice even.
“For his back,” Tracker answered. “They whipped him pretty badly.”
She closed her eyes, trying not to imagine it.
“And his shoulder?”
“The doc says they got the bullet out, but that his shoulder blade was shattered. The bullet somehow missed all the big blood vessels—said that he would have died had it hit those. It’s hard to say if his arm will ever be the same again if he pulls out of this.”
Cecilia nodded numbly, watching the rise and fall of Jesse’s bandaged chest as he breathed.
Tracker drew in a breath to speak. “They’re going to try him tomorrow. They say they’ll do it whether he can speak for himself or not.”
“Can’t they wait a few days?”
Tracker looked grim. “They don’t waste a lot of time with wanted men.”
It was unbearable to think she could lose Jesse again. “Please, can you talk to them?” Her voice came out as a quiet plea. Clara squeezed her shoulder as if trying to give her strength.
“I’m trying, Cec,” Tracker said softly.
“I know, Track. I know you are.” She felt helpless as she gazed at Jesse’s quiet form. “Clara, do you want to go with Tracker? I think I want to be alone with Jesse for a while.”
“Of course.” Clara patted her shoulder. “I think I’ll go send a telegraph out to Lily and John in Boston, and Ma and Pa to let them know he’s still alive.”
After they left, she threaded her fingers through Jesse’s, grasping his hand. It was plum-colored around the knuckles and scraped bloody and raw. She placed a soft kiss on his forehead, willing him to open his eyes.
She imagined Jesse waking up, smiling when she told him about the baby, and assuring her that everything would be all right—that he would make it out of this. But he didn’t move.
She laid her head on the covers next to him as she knelt by his bed, watching the rise and fall of his chest, and caressed the back of his hand with her thumb.
Eventually, when her legs had fallen asleep, she kissed him on the cheek and moved to the chair in the corner of the room. She massaged the feeling back into her legs and picked up a book from the table next to her. She tried to occupy her mind with the first page, but she couldn’t make it two sentences without glancing up and watching Jesse’s back as he lay on his side, waiting for the movement to see that he was still breathing.
She couldn’t remember ever feeling more hopeless.
These scenes, back-to-back, were trimmed from the middle of the book for the sake of space. They showed what happened to Lee when Tracker went to Gunnison with Jesse, and when Cecilia arrived in Gunnison.