The Paladin's Lady Partner (Part 3)
Elliott dove out of the saddle just in time to break Sadie's fall. He carried her over to the side of the road and gently settled her down on the grass. After grabbing the canteen off the gelding, he ran back to kneel back down beside Sadie just as her eyes fluttered open.
He lifted her head and held the canteen to her mouth. "Take a sip, Sadie."
She parted her lips just enough to allow him to dribble a few drops into her mouth. "That's it. Take a little more."
After taking a larger sip, she shoved the canteen away and fought to sit up. When he tried to help her, she scooted backward to put some distance between them. He remained kneeling on the ground where he could reach her quickly if she showed any signs of fainting again. Meanwhile, the shock in her cornflower blue eyes slowly faded to be replaced with a mix of confusion and maybe a touch of fear.
It was tempting to put some more distance between them, but he held his ground as he waited for the inquisition to begin. It didn't take long.
"You died yesterday."
The Regents would expect him to respond with one of the usual explanations, no matter how improbable, but he couldn't bring himself to lie to her. How could he deny the truth when the clothes he had on were still spattered with dried blood and the dust from his makeshift grave?
Before he could think what to say, Sadie suddenly crawled back within reach. Her hand was trembling and cold when she laid it against his cheek. "Please, God, tell me I didn't bury you alive."
Yeah, she had, but this was not the place for this discussion. Even so, he didn't stop her when she shoved his duster back down off his shoulders and unbuttoned his shirt. The cloth stuck to the caked-on dried blood, but that didn't disguise the fact the wound now looked like a weeks-old scar. "You were shot, but it's already healed. How is that possible?"
"Look, can we go someplace more private to have this talk? I promise I'll explain everything, but we're both too exposed out here, especially if whoever tried to have you killed yesterday decides to try again."
She wasn't listening as she dropped her hand down to brush her fingertips across the dried blood on his shirt. "You weren't breathing. I know you weren't, and I had to close your eyes before I covered your body with all those rocks. I didn't imagine any of that. I couldn't have."
When she shuddered, he wanted to gather her into his arms, to offer what comfort he could, but he wasn't sure she'd let him. Considering he hadn't even thought to wash the blood and dirt off in the stream, it was no wonder she was staring at him as if he were something out of her worst nightmares.
"You didn't imagine anything, Sadie, but we need to get moving."
He stood up and offered her his hand. After only a slight hesitation, she allowed him to tug her back up to her feet. She started toward her horse but then whirled back around. "I need to find Mack Robbins-he's the sheriff in Peace- and tell him that you're alive. He went through your stuff, hoping to find a way to track down your next-of-kin. He planned to send a wire to the name on a letter in your saddlebags when he got back to town with the bodies of the men who came after me. If I ride hard, maybe I can get there in time to stop him."
The way Elliott's luck had been running lately, it was already too late. If the sheriff sent the message yesterday evening, there was a damn good chance Jethro had lit out for the town of Peace within minutes of reading the wire, especially if the lawman mentioned Elliott had already been buried.
Elliott gently gripped Sadie's arms and waited until she met his gaze before speaking again. "This is important, Sadie. Does the sheriff know what I look like? Did he actually see me?"
The number of things he was going to have to explain to her was piling up fast. "I promise to tell you everything, but right now we've got to go back and make the grave look as if my body is still there."
"Because my friend could already be on his way there with the sheriff. Jethro will back my play no matter what, but I can't afford for the lawman to ask a bunch of questions we can't answer."
On reflection, though, fixing the grave wouldn't work at all. No doubt the sheriff would offer to help recover the body. That would never do.
He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. He needed to come up with a viable plan and fast. Unfortunately, his recently dead brain wasn't coming up with any good ideas. "I'm sorry you got caught up in my mess, Sadie."
"No, Elliott, you've got it backwards. If you hadn't stopped to help me, none of this would have happened to you." She stepped closer. "Whatever we do, we can't risk anyone seeing you in those bloody clothes. I know you had a spare shirt in your saddlebags. My place isn't all that far. Let's go there first. While you clean up, I'll fix us a quick meal. Maybe we'll both be thinking clearer after a cup of coffee and some flapjacks."
"But if the sheriff sees the grave is empty…" Elliott started to protest, but then he got a good look at his companion. Her face was deathly pale, and her hands trembled as she dusted off her riding skirt. She clearly needed some time to regain control before they risked talking to the sheriff or anybody else, for that matter. Having seen so many of his friends come back from horrific wounds and even death so often over the years, he sometimes forgot that that wasn't exactly a normal occurrence for outsiders.
He gave her a quick nod. "No, you're right. First things first. I need to clean up, and a hot meal sounds damn good about now. Besides, I'm guessing that once he and Jethro see the grave, your place will be their next stop."
As he approached his mare, he spotted a wooden cross tied on the back of the saddle. What the hell? Was that his name written on it? He reached out to trace the first neatly printed letter as a shiver danced up his spine at the reminder of waking up in a shallow grave.
"I covered your body with rocks to keep the coyotes away. I couldn't stand the thought of them…Not after you died saving my life."
He turned to face her. Just as he feared, tears were streaming down her pretty face. She swiped them away with her sleeve. "At least I thought you did. How am I ever going to forgive myself for leaving you bleeding under a pile of rocks?"
A man like him had no business putting his hands on a woman like Sadie, but he'd never seen anyone more in need of a hug than she did then right now. At least she didn't resist when he drew her close to his chest and wrapped his arms around her. "Sadie, there's nothing to forgive. As hard as it is to believe, I really was dead when you found me. I just didn't stay that way. There's reasons for that, ones I've sworn to keep secret. I'll explain everything when we're not standing out in the open. Can you trust me that much?"
She sniffled a couple of times before nodding. "Let's get you home."
"It's not far."
"Good, because I haven't forgotten that you've promised me a stack of flapjacks."
She laughed a little, sounding more in control. When they were both mounted up, he sidled his horse close to hers. "Just in case the sheriff catches up with us faster than expected, call me by my middle name, which is James. We'll say I'm Elliott's brother. I was supposed to meet him in Peace when I crossed paths with you this morning and spotted my 'brother's' name on that cross you made for the grave."
"But what will we tell him happened to the body?"
Hell, he didn't know. None of this was going to hold up if the lawman proved to be too curious to be bought off with such a patchwork explanation. "Think he'd believe that I already hired someone to take the body back to where I live for burial?"
Sadie looked doubtful. "Maybe, but what if Sheriff Robbins asks why you didn't ride along with the body?"
Good question. "Because I want to make sure whoever hired the bastards that killed me…him…and shot at you is brought to justice."
"He won't like you going after them on your own."
Elliott gave her a hard look. "Too bad. I'm not leaving until I know you're safe."
Then before she could argue, Elliott urged his horse into a canter and didn't look back.