Table of Contents
There was no time to think . . .
Her champagne had been drugged. The door opened. The man who stood there looked at Jessie, and his cold eyes gleamed like opals reflecting firelight. She groped for the butt of her Colt with numb and clumsy fingers. Then a blanket came down and enveloped her head. As she slid through the folds of the blanket, her right hand scraped against the stubby derringer nestled in her boot top. Jessie was clinging desperately to consciousness. She slid the wicked little derringer out...
Also in the LONE STAR series from Jove
LONGARM AND THE LONE STAR LEGEND
LONE STAR ON THE TREACHERY TRAIL
LONE STAR AND THE OPIUM RUSTLERS
LONE STAR AND THE BORDER BANDITS
LONE STAR AND THE KANSAS WOLVES
LONE STAR AND THE UTAH KID
LONE STAR AND THE LAND GRABBERS
LONE STAR IN THE TALL TIMBER
LONE STAR AND THE SHOWDOWNERS
LONE STAR AND THE HARDROCK PAYOFF
LONE STAR AND THE RENEGADE COMANCHES
LONE STAR ON OUTLAW MOUNTAIN
LONE STAR AND THE GOLD RAIDERS
LONGARM AND THE LONE STAR VENGEANCE
LONE STAR AND THE DENVER MADAM
LONE STAR AND THE RAILROAD WAR
A Jove Book/published by arrangement with
Jove edition/September 1983
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Copyright Â© 1983 by Jove Publications, Inc.
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eISBN : 978-1-101-16938-4
Jove books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
200 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10016. The words
“A JOVE BOOK” and the “J” with sunburst are trademarks
belonging to Jove Publications, Inc.
“There are people who'd call this land a desert, Ki,” Jessie Starbuck said. Her sea-green eyes swept the seemingly endless expanse of the vast prairie that surrounded them, a vista of low, broken hills and half-hidden arroyos covered with short grass that was beginning to turn yellow in the late summer heat. She tossed her head, and under the wide brim of her low-crowned hat, her shoulder-length mane of tawny hair glinted as the sun touched it. “But I call it home, and I don't think I'd ever want to live anywhere else but here, on the Circle Star.”
“I've heard your father say the same thing, Jessie,” Ki told her. “He loved the ranch, just as you do.”
They rode on across the prairie in companionable silence, letting their horses set their own gait, feeling no need for conversation, until Ki touched the reins of his horse to slow it down. He brought a hand up to the rolled bandanna that encircled his head, and shaded his almond-shaped eyes, the most visible evidence of his Japanese ancestry.
“I see the line fence just ahead,” he said. “But we haven't run into that bunch of stray yearlings Ed asked us to look for.”
“Let's ride the line for a little way,” Jessie suggested. “If we don't see them before we're ready to turn back, Ed will just have to send one of the hands out to find them tomorrow.”
Jessie pressed her leg lightly against Sun's flank. The magnificent palomino turned and started moving parallel to the strands of barbwire that marked the ranch's boundary line. Ki reined his mount to follow her. They'd ridden only a short distance along the fenceline, the hot wind of midafternoon in their faces now, when Jessie reined in suddenly and half-rose in her stirrups, gazing at the terrain on the other side of the fence.
“Ki. Look there. It's a body.”
“You're right,” he agreed. He pulled up his horse and tossed the reins over its head. Like all Circle Star mounts, the animal was trained to stand when its rider trailed the reins. Ki dismounted, telling Jessie, “You wait, I'll go look. It might be unpleasant.”
“Even if it is, I'd rather go with you.”
Jessie let Sun's reins trail, and swung out of the saddle. She walked beside Ki to the fence. He put a hand on the nearest post and vaulted lightly over the top strand of wire, then lifted the middle strand to let Jessie duck through. They walked side by side toward the huddled form that had caught her eye.
Details became visible. The body was that of a small man wearing blue jeans and a denim shirt; a felt hat that had rolled off its wearer's head when he fell lay at one side, exposing a shock of sandy hair. Ki knelt and turned the body faceup.
“Whyâit's just a boy!” Jessie exclaimed. “He's not dead, is he, Ki?”
Ki pressed the back of his hand to the youth's forehead. No. He's breathing, but he's got a high fever and his skin's ght and parched. Heat prostration.“
“I'll go get the canteen,” Jessie volunteered.
Ki had already lowered the youth's head and was on his eet. “I'll get it, Jessie. You stay here and shield his face rom the sun with your hat.”
On her knees beside the boy's recumbent figure, Jessie eld her hat to shade his white, drawn face. She put his age t about fourteen or fifteen. He had not yet begun to shave, ut a fuzz that was neither down nor quite whiskers grew long his jawline and a shading of the same light fuzz overed his upper lip. His cracked lips were pale, almost s light as his skin, and his aquiline nose was pinched and hin. She saw the edge of a folded paper protruding from is shirt pocket, and was reaching for it when Ki returned vith the canteen.
Jessie deferred investigating the slip of paper until later. She slipped off her neckerchief, crumpled it into a wad, and held it while Ki soaked it with water from the canteen. She squeezed the sopping cloth gently, holding it over the boy's mouth, letting a few drops wet his lips and trickle own his throat, then started mopping the taut, parched skin of his face with the wet bandanna.
Ki said thoughtfully, “He isn't wearing a gunbelt, and he's got on shoes instead of boots, and his hat has a narrow rim, so it's not likely that he's a hand from one of the anches around here. He's a little young for that, anyway. f you don't need me to help you with him, I'll do some acktracking and see what I can turn up. I don't see any oofprints around here, but if he was riding, his horse ought o be somewhere nearby.”
“Go ahead,” Jessie said. “I'll be all right, I don't need any help right this minute.”
After Ki left, Jessie concentrated on keeping the boy's ace moistened and trickling water into his mouth a few rops at a time. Treating sunstroke was not new to her. Even those who were accustomed to living and working in the pitiless, glaring sunshine of the southwest Texas summe occasionally misjudged the amount of exposure they'd had and fell victim to heat prostration caused by going too long in the sun's searing rays without drinking enough water to replenish body fluids lost through sweating.
Jessie knew that she had to maintain a careful balance in restoring the liquids the sun and hot air had drained fron the boy's slight body. Drinking too much water too fas brought on convulsions that could kill, but if the water tha a sunstoke victim needed was not replaced rapidly enough there was danger that an equally fatal fever would develop She kept wetting the bandanna, mopping the face and hands of the unconscious youth and squeezing a few carefully counted drops of water into his mouth.
Ki had not yet returned when the boy stirred. His bod) began trembling, and after a moment he opened his eyes. He stared unseeingly into the coppery sky, and Jessie hurriedly held her hat up to shield his face from the sun. Gradually the boy's eyes lost their vacant stare. Jessie held the dripping bandanna above his mouth and squeezed out a few drops. They boy grabbed for it with feeble, uncoordinated movements of his hands, and Jessie moved it quickly out of his reach.
“Lie still,” she commanded. “I know you're thirsty, but if you were to drink too much now, you'd be in worse shape than you already are. Just be quiet and let me take care of you.”
A dry rasping came from the youth's throat, and his lips worked when he tried to answer her, but he could form no words with his swollen tongue. Jessie squeezed a tiny trickle of water into his mouth and he swallowed, his face twitching in pain as he moved his tongue and throat.
“Don't try to swallow,” she cautioned. “Just let the water run down your throat. You'll be able to talk in a few minutes.”
By now the glazed look had left the youngster's eyes. He nodded that he understood, and lay quietly. Jessie kept up her ministrations, and after several more dribbles of water had gone down his throat he wheezed a bit, swallowed hard, and spoke in a hoarse, strained whisper.
“Lady,” he said, “you know where the Circle Star ranch is?”
“Of course. Itâsâ”
“I got to get there,” the boy broke in, trying to sit up.
Jessie slip an arm under his shoulders to support him as she said, “Stop worrying, now. And please lie still! You're in no condition to move yet.”
“How far away am I?” the youth asked. Before Jessie could reply, he went on insistently, “I got to find Mr. Alex Starbuck as fast as I can.”
“Heâsâ” Jessie stopped short. She realized suddenly that almost anything she said to the boy about Alex would only confuse and excite him, and that was the last thing he needed. She said, “You're just a few steps from the Circle Star now. That's its boundary fence, right over there.”
As soon as she'd spoken, Jessie was sorry for what she'd said. The youth pulled away from her supporting arm and tried to sit up. His movement startled her, and she squeezed the bandanna involuntarily. A stream of water ran into the youth's mouth. He gagged, and his body convulsed as he coughed chokingly. The strain of coughing, combined with his struggling movements, was too much for his weakened system. His eyes rolled upward and he lapsed into unconsciousness again.
Jessie dropped the bandanna and placed her hand on the boy's chest. His heart was fluttering wildly when she first felt it, but as the seconds ticked away, it slowed to a normal, steady beat. She let the youth's shoulders down again, and propped her hat on his forehead at a slant that shaded his face from the sun; then she picked up the bandanna and brushed it clean. She was wetting it from the canteen again when Ki returned.