Lori Copeland is the author of more than 90 titles, both historical and contemporary fiction. With more than 3 million copies of her books in print, she has developed a loyal following among her rapidly growing fans in the inspirational market. She has been honored with the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, The Holt Medallion, and Walden Books’ Best Seller award. In 2000, Lori was inducted into the Missouri Writers Hall of Fame. She lives in the beautiful Ozarks with her husband, Lance, and their three children and five grandchildren.
Near Piedmont, South Dakota, 1893
“Don’t put me in that barrel!”
“Do you want to die, woman?”
“No! That’s why you can’t put me in the barrel—I can’t swim!” She had gone to the river for a simple bucket of water when this beast had swept in and captured her. She loved the good Lord, but she wasn’t ready to meet Him face-to-face. The sound of rushing water overwhelmed her senses as iron hands gripped her waist. War whoops filled the air as three riders poured over the hillside. She pounded the solid wall of flesh that enveloped her. “Let me go!”
“I’m trying to save your life, lady.”
The stranger heaved her over to the barrel and unceremoniously dumped her inside, stuffing her head between her knees before he slammed the lid down on top.
“I can’t swim!” Her muffled voice echoed in her ears. Was he deaf ? Mad? What kind of man would put a woman in a barrel and send her over the rapids when she couldn’t swim? She banged on the wooden sides. “Let me out!”
All bedlam broke out, and even through the barrel Trinity could hear grunts, shouts, and the sound of bare fists meeting flesh. Her heart hammered in her chest. She willed herself to be still, but she could feel the barrel shifting underneath her, teetering at the water’s edge. “Don’t let me fall in, don’t let me fall in,” she whispered. A flour mill sat downstream, but if she reached it she would be too late. A few minutes in the turgid waters and she would drown.
Grunts. More fists.
Please, God. Please, God.
She swallowed back the urge to shout. Calling out would mean certain death. Her brother, Rob, had written tales of rebels, both Indian and white, banding together to plunder and commit unspeakable acts, but never in her wildest dreams would she have thought to encounter one of the lowlifes. A gunshot—then another. Trinity’s heart crowded her throat as the fighting grew fiercer. The barrel shifted again.
Don’t let me fall in. Don’t let me fall in.
A deep rumble. A shove. Trinity’s heart sputtered. She was close—too close. She could almost smell the cold, rushing water. She heard the shuffle of men’s boots—though now it sounded as though there were fewer of them. Maybe two? Against overwhelming odds, the stranger appeared to be winning.
Rapids rushed in the distance. Relax. That beast of a man is strong. He still faced formidable odds, but it sounded as if he were besting the enemy. Trinity felt the tension draining away from her. The ruckus would be over soon and he would release her from her wooden prison.
And then she would demand to know who he was and how he’d had the audacity to risk her life!
Locked in a duel, the men’s groans filled the air as they strained against one another. The sheer force in their tones made her cringe. Then—the unthinkable. A boot caught the edge of the barrel and sent it toppling into the churning water.
Trinity screamed as the current caught the barrel and bounced it downstream. Terror-stricken, she watched the water seeping through the cracks in the wood. The rapids were only two hundred yards downstream—she had to be getting close.
She was going to die. Rob had perished far too young, and now she was going to join him. And it was all her fault. She should never have left her nice, safe café job in Sioux City and come to this rugged land. She had refused to accompany Rob a year earlier when he’d pleaded with her to join him and help him settle Wilson’s Falls, the plot of land their family had owned for generations. She should have held to her belief that no good would come of her visiting this remote country for even a short time. No amount of money on earth could keep her safe now—not even the handsome sum the railroad was likely to offer for the family’s parcel of land.
The trip was supposed to be brief. Never once had she thought her journey would end at the Pearly Gates.
Jones whirled when he heard the barrel hit the water. The man locked in his grip took advantage of the distraction and landed a blow that took Jones to his knees. He swung wildly, landing a punch that momentarily staggered his opponent.
His eyes swung back to the barrel. Only a few moments before it went over the rapids. The other thug came at him and he managed a hard right and then his signature left, the knock-out blow. His opponent slumped to the ground and Jones took off running down the bank. His boots thrashed through a heavy thicket as his eyes followed the bobbing container. When he reached a wide spot, he dove in and surfaced just within reach of the barrel.
“Hold on! I’m here!” he yelled.
The girl’s reedy voice came back. “I can’t swim! Get me out of here!”
“I’m trying!” He lunged, his hand brushing the barrel in vain. Charging again, he only managed to hurry the barrel along. It flew over the rapids and he heard her screams until the roar of rushing water snatched them away.
Shoot. She was going to be mad as a wet hen.
“Are you still there? I can’t hear you!”
He couldn’t imagine why not. She was yelling loud enough for them to hear her all the way to Canada.
“I’m here! Just hang on!”
“I can’t swim!”
Like he hadn’t heard her the first eight times. Closing his eyes, he dove under the swift current.
The thin wood split as the water and rocks smashed the barrel into kindling. Trinity gasped for air, her breath lodged in her throat. The wind and water whipped wildly about her. Where was he?
Anger churned with panic as she bumped along. Objects blurred as she choked, struggling to right herself. She went down, down, down, thumping and bumping over rocks. This was it. This was the end. She’d never done anything worthwhile in her nineteen years. Nothing but wait tables and serve others—but that was good. To her knowledge she’d never caused anyone an ounce of trouble, so she could meet her Maker in good faith.
Now she would draw her last breath—gurgle it, more like—but…she broke the waterline, choking. A strong hand latched onto her hair as she went under again.
Pain blinded her—pain the likes of which she’d never experienced. Her very roots were being ripped out. She struggled to break the fierce hold, and did, momentarily, but then something snared her and yanked her back to the surface.
“Stop fighting me!” a male voice demanded.
She saw him then—the man who’d stuffed her in the barrel. At the moment it didn’t matter what he’d stuffed her in; he was an anchor in the storm. Her efforts ceased. She wrapped her arms around his neck and held on tight.
He was a strong swimmer, but she was dead weight. Dragging her through the water, he reached a ledge and paused to catch his breath. Paralyzed with fear, her heart threatened to pound out of her chest, and for the first time in her life she couldn’t find the words she wanted. His arms around her were powerful, and the feel of his prickly dark beard against her cheek brought a blush to her face. She’d never been this close to a man before—except Rob, of course. When she poured coffee at the café she bent close, but never this close. She could smell him, hear his ragged breath in her ear.
“Sorry I scared you,” he said, swiping his face to clear the water out of his eyes. “I didn’t mean for the barrel to go over.”
She nodded, still not able to find her voice. She was in the middle of a rushing rapid, standing in the arms of a stranger, finding her brush with death very difficult to comprehend.
“Hold on.” He hitched her up and swam the remaining distance to shore. Throwing her on the bank like a landed carp, he crawled out and collapsed beside her. For a moment they lay in the warm sun, gasping for breath. In a novel the moment might have been romantic, Trinity thought. Instead it was wet and cold and ghastly.
“Who are you?” she asked, finally finding her breath. Since she could speak she should probably thank him—it was only polite—though at the moment she wanted to throttle him for putting her life in danger in the first place.
“Doesn’t matter. I’m just passing through.”
“What’s your name?” She had the right to know who’d almost killed her, didn’t she?
“Just Jones.” Rolling to his back, he stuck out his hand. “Are you all right?”
Trinity stared at the proffered hand, stultified. “Why did you stick me in that barrel?”
“I saved your life.”
“You could easily have taken it. I don’t…”
“Swim. So you’ve said.” Struggling to his feet, he removed his left boot and dumped out a stream of water. “Sorry I upset you, but those men would have distressed you more.”
Her gaze fixed on the tall stranger. She knew she should feel nothing but gratitude, but he’d scared the wadding out of her. “Well, before you stick a lady in a barrel and send her downstream, you might want to make certain you can save her.”
Jones dumped the water out of his right boot. “Don’t figure there’s any reason for me to apologize for saving your neck.” He glanced up. “What are you doing out here alone, anyway?”
“I was doing my wash.” She pushed to her feet and brushed the wet hair out of her eyes.
“You live around here?”
“Not live. I’m staying here for a while. I’m in the process of selling my land, and once I do I’m going back to Sioux Falls.”
“You’ve been there?”
He nodded, shoving his foot, wet sock and all, back into his boot. “Couple of times. Do you want me to walk you back to your place?”
“No, thank you.” She’d had quite enough of him for one day.
Nodding, he set his Stetson on his head and adjusted the band. “You might want to keep a close eye out for the others. The men scattered, but they’ll meet up again.”
Trinity swallowed, trying to retain her composure. She’d get home, and then she wouldn’t rest until she’d sold the land and left this godforsaken place behind her forever. “Thank you. I’ll be careful.”
“You think you can handle these wilds?”
She lifted her chin. “Of course I can handle myself.” Granted, he had caught her in a bad circumstance, but chances were that the men were only passing through and she’d have no more trouble with them.
“Do you have a gun?”
“My brother left one.”
“Do you know how to use it?”
The chin rose higher. “I do—if necessary.”
He paused, a slow grin starting at the corners of his mouth. Dark curly hair, penetrating brown eyes, and skin browned by the long hours in the sun. He was handsome, no denying it, but Trinity had more important things on her mind. “I see you’ve got things well in hand.”
She nodded coolly. He had every right to suspect that she was one of those helpless simpering females, but she was far from vulnerable. She’d been on her own since Rob had left to work this land, and she’d learned to care for herself nicely.
He started off and then turned back. “By the way…”
She pushed another lock of soggy hair out of her eyes. “Yes?”
His gaze drifted down. “You lost your skirt in the water.”
Gasping, she looked down. She was wearing nothing but her bloomers! And he hadn’t said a word until now.
When she looked up, he was gone. Drawing herself up straight, she sniffed. And a good riddance it was.