blackness roared around him. He struggled to surface from it, somehow knowing that if he didn’t, he would die. Sounds reached him as if coming from a great distance—a shout, the scrape of shoes on pavement, the metallic slam of a car door and the sharp clap of a gunshot.
Someone was trying to kill him.
He had to get out of there. The instant he tried to move the blackness swept over him with dizzying force. He heard the revving rumble of a car engine starting up. Unable to rise, he rolled away from the sound as spinning tires burned rubber and another shot rang out.
Lights flashed in a bright glare. There was danger in them, he knew. He had to reach the shadows. Fighting the weakness that swam through his limbs, he crawled away from the light.
He felt dirt beneath his hand and dug his fingers into it. His strength sapped, he lay there a moment, trying to orient himself, and to determine the location of the man trying to kill him. But the searing pain in his head made it hard to think logically. He reached up and felt the warm wetness on his face. That’s when he knew he had been shot. Briefly his fingers touched the deep crease the bullet had ripped along the side of his head. Pain instantly washed over him in black waves.
Aware that he could lose consciousness at any second, either from the head wound or the blood loss, he summoned the last vestiges of his strength and threw himself deeper into the darkness. With blood blurring his vision, he made out the shadowy outlines of a post and railing. It looked to be a corral of some sort. He pushed himself toward it, wanting any kind of barrier, no matter how flimsy, between himself and his pursuer.
There was a whisper of movement just to his left. Alarm shot through him, but he couldn’t seem to make his muscles react. He was too damned weak. He knew it even as he listed sideways and saw the low-crouching man in a cowboy hat with a pistol in his hand.
Instead of shooting, the cowboy grabbed for him with his free arm. “Come on. Let’s get outa here, old man,” the cowboy whispered with urgency. “He’s up on the catwalk working himself into a better position.”
He latched onto the cowboy’s arm and staggered drunkenly to his feet, his mind still trying to wrap itself around that phrase “old man.” Leaning heavily on his rescuer, he stumbled forward, battling the woodenness of his legs.
After an eternity of seconds, the cowboy pushed him into the cab of a pickup and closed the door. He sagged against the seat and closed his eyes, unable to summon another ounce of strength. Dimly he was aware of the cowboy slipping behind the wheel and the engine starting up. It was followed by the vibrations of movement.
Through slitted eyes, he glanced in the side mirror but saw nothing to indicate they were being followed. They were out of danger now. Unbidden came the warning that it was only temporary; whoever had tried to kill him would try again.
Who had it been? And why? He searched for the answers and failed to come up with any.
Thinking required too much effort. Choosing to conserve the remnants of his strength, he glanced out the window at the unfamiliar buildings that flanked the street.
“Where are we?” His voice had a throaty rasp to it.
“According to the signs, there should be a hospital somewhere ahead of us,” the cowboy replied. “I’ll drop you off close to the emergency entrance.”
“No.” It was a purely instinctual reply.
“Mister, that head wound needs tending. You’ve lost a bunch of blood—”
“No.” He started to shake his head in emphasis, but at the first movement, the world started spinning.
The pickup’s speed slowed perceptibly. “Don’t tell me you’re wanted by the law?” The cowboy turned a sharp, speculating glance on him.
Was he? For the second time, he came up against a wall of blankness. It was another answer he didn’t know, so he avoided the question.
“He’s bound to know I was hit, so he’ll expect me to get medical attention. The nearest hospital will be the first place he would check.”
“You’re probably right about that,” the cowboy agreed. “So where do you want to go?”
Where? Where? Where? The question hammered at him. But it was impossible to answer because he didn’t know what the hell town they were in. That discovery brought a wave of panic, one that intensified when he realized he didn’t know his own name.
He clamped down tightly on the panic and said, “I don’t know yet. Let me think.”
He closed his eyes and strained to dredge up some scrap of a memory. But he was empty of any. Who was he? What was he? Where was he? Every question bounced around in the void. His head pounded anew. He felt himself slipping deeper into the blackness and lacked the strength to fight against it.
He simultaneously became conscious of a bright light pressing against his eyes and the chirping of a bird. Groggily he opened his eyes and saw filtered sunlight coming through the curtained window. It was daylight, and his last conscious memory had been of riding in a truck through night-darkened streets.
Instantly alert, he shot a searching glance around the room. The curtains at the window and the rose-patterned paper on the walls confirmed what his nose had already told him: he wasn’t in a hospital. He was in a bedroom, one that was strange to him.
His glance stopped on the cowboy slumped in an old wicker rocking chair in the corner, his hat tipped over the top of his face, his chest rising and falling in an even rhythm. Surmising the man was his rescuer from the night before, he studied the cleanly chiseled line of the man’s jaw and the nut brown color of his hair, details he hadn’t noticed during the previous night’s darkness and confusion. The man’s yoked-front shirt looked new, but the jeans and the boots both showed signs of wear.
He threw back the bedcovers and started to rise. Pain slammed him back onto the pillow and ripped a groan from him. In a reflexive action, he lifted a hand to his head and felt the gauze strips that swaddled it.
In a flash the cowboy rolled to his feet and crossed to the bed. “Just lay back and be still. You won’t be going anywhere for a while, old man.”
He bristled in response. “That’s the second time you’ve called me an old man.”
After a pulse beat of silence, the cowboy replied in droll apology, “I didn’t mean any offense by it, but you aren’t exactly a young fella.”
Unable to recall who he was, let alone how old he was, he grunted a nonanswer. “Where am I, anyway? Your place?”
“It belongs to some kinfolk on my mother’s side,” the cowboy answered.
He studied the cowboy’s blue eyes and easy smile. There was a trace of boyish good looks behind the stubble of a night’s beard growth and the sun-hardened features. A visual search found no sign of the pistol the cowboy had been carrying last night.
“Who are you?” His eyes narrowed on the cowboy.
There was a fractional pause, a coolness suddenly shuttering the cowboy’s blue eyes. “I think a better question is who are you?”
“Maybe it is,” he stalled, hoping a name might come to him, but none did. “But I’d like to know the name of the man who quite likely saved my life last night so I can thank him properly.”
“You dodged that question about as deftly as a politician.” Blue eyes glinted in quiet speculation. “But I don’t think that’s what you are. You strike me as a man used to asking the questions rather than answering them.”
“Now you’re the one dodging the question.”
“My friends call me Laredo. What do your friends call you?”
His head pounded with the strain of trying to recall. Automatically he touched the bandages again.
Observing the action and the continued silence, the cowboy called Laredo guessed, “You can’t remember, can you?”
“I—don’t you know who I am?”
“Nope. But I’ll tell you what I do know—the material in that suit you were wearing wasn’t cheap, and those were custom-made boots on your feet. It took money to buy them, which leads me to think you aren’t a poor man. There’s no Texas drawl in your voice, which tells me you aren’t from around here, at least not originally.”
“We’re in Texas?” he repeated for confirmation. “Where?”
“Southwest of Fort Worth.”
“Fort Worth.” It sounded familiar to him, but he didn’t know why. “Is that where we were last night?” he asked, recalling the city streets they had driven through.
“Yeah. In Old Downtown, next to the stockyards.”
“There’s an old cemetery not far from there,” he said with a strange feeling of certainty.
“You couldn’t prove it by me,” Laredo said with an idle shrug of his broad shoulders.
He fired a quick glance at the cowboy. “You aren’t from around here?”
“No. I’m just passing through. Now that it looks like you’re going to live, I’ll be leaving soon.”
“Not yet.” He reached out to stop him with a suddenness that sent the room spinning again. Subsiding weakly against the pillow, he swallowed back the rising nausea.
“I told you to lie still,” Laredo reminded him. “That bullet gouged a deep path. It wouldn’t surprise me if it grazed your skull.”
He fought through the swirling pain, insisting, “Before you go, I have to know about last night. The man who shot me—did you see him?”
“I guess if you don’t know who you are, you don’t know who he is either, do you?” Laredo guessed. “I’m afraid I can’t help you much. All I saw was the figure of a man with a scoped rifle. I couldn’t tell you if he was old or young, tall or short, just that he didn’t look fat.”
“Tell me what you saw.” He closed his eyes, hoping something would trigger a memory.
After a slight pause, Laredo began, “I’m not sure what it was that first caught my eye. Maybe it was the car door being open and all the interior light flooding from it while the rest of the parking lot was so dark. You were standing next to it facing another man. His back was to me so I didn’t get a look at him. It took me a second to realize you were being robbed. He did a good job of it, too. You don’t have a lick of identification on you—no wallet, no watch, no ring. Nothing. He even took your spare change. Right now you don’t have a cent to your name.”
“But this robber wasn’t the man who shot me.” He recalled Laredo mentioning a man with a scoped rifle. He couldn’t imagine a common thief carrying one.
“No, he wasn’t. The shot came from behind you. The second I heard it, I knew it didn’t come from any handgun. You dropped like a rock. Your robber jumped in the car and hightailed it out of there.”
“I half remember hearing a vehicle peel out. Somebody yelled. Was that you?”
“Yup. I wanted your sniper to know somebody else was in the area. About the same time I saw you moving so I knew you weren’t dead. He snapped off a shot in my direction. I saw the muzzle flash and fired back.”
“Do you usually carry a gun?”
Amusement tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Like I said, we’re in Texas, and the definition of gun control here is a steady aim.”
He managed a brief smile at Laredo’s small joke. “What time was this?”
“Late. Somewhere between eleven and midnight.”
He wondered what he was doing there at that hour. “Aren’t there some bars in the area?”
“A bunch of them.”
From somewhere outside came the familiar lowing of cattle. “Are we in the country?”
Laredo nodded. “The Ludlow ranch. It’s a small spread, not much more than a hundred acres. It hardly deserves to be called a ranch.”
“Why did you bring me here?”
“I didn’t have many choices. I probably should have taken you to a hospital like I first planned. But with you being unconscious, I couldn’t just drop you off at the door. Taking you inside meant fielding a lot of questions I didn’t want to answer. So I brought you here.” He allowed a small smile to show. “I figured if you died, I could always bury you in the back forty with no one the wiser.”
“Except the Ludlows.”
“I wasn’t worried about Hattie talking.”
“Who is Hattie?” The hot pounding in his head increased, making it difficult to string more than two thoughts together.
“Since Ed died, she owns the place.” After a slight pause, Laredo observed, “Your head’s bothering you, isn’t it?”
“Some.” He was reluctant to admit to more than that.
“No need in overdoing it. Why don’t you get some rest? We can talk more later if you want. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can rustle you up something to eat.”
“Did you say you were leaving soon?”
“I did. But I won’t be going just yet.” Moving away from the bed, Laredo crossed to the window and lowered the shade, darkening the room.
He closed his eyes against the pain, but it wasn’t so easy to shut out the blankness of his memory. Who the hell was he? Why couldn’t he remember?
He slept but fitfully, waking often to hear the occasional stirrings of activity in other parts of the house. The instant he heard the snick of the bedroom door latch, he opened his eyes, coming fully alert.