Matt awoke with a start. Bright sunlight broke through two grimy windows, illuminating an empty room. Dust floated in the slanting rays; the air was still heavy from misuse despite his presence with the woman during the night.
Not just any woman. Molly.
Standing, he shook off his sleepiness and determinedly went outside. He saw her immediately, walking on a hillside not far from the house. He took a deep breath, relieved. A part of him thought she might have left.
If she had left then it would have been obvious she was a fraud. Did that mean, since she stayed, she was who she claimed to be? Matt had no idea how to proceed. But his gut told him his life would never be the same from this moment forward.
He positioned his hat to shield the sun from his eyes then joined her on the hill. It was the very place where he left her that night ten years ago, the last time he saw her alive.
"Is something wrong?" he asked.
She paced around, staring at the ground. "No, not really." Resting her hands on her hips, she sighed, "You don’t happen to remember where I buried it, do you?"
"What would that be?" he responded, still refusing to give her an inch.
"My survival kit." Squinting at him, she made a box with her hands.
He stared at those hands, fascinated by the slender, feminine fingers, darkened from the sun.
"Do you remember? I was burying it that night, the night of the attack. It was a metal box with, gosh, I don’t even remember everything I put in it now."
"Yeah," he heard himself say, "I’m sure you don’t." Was he really such an ass? He’d have to ask Nathan. He was the only one who would give it to him straight.
Waving him off, she turned away in disgust. "Go away, Matt. You’re really not much use here."
He blew out a breath, trying to summon some of the manners his mother had tried for years to instill in him and his brother. "Why don’t you try near the oak shrub?"
She stared at him then walked over to the scraggly bush. Grabbing a large rock she began digging in the dirt. It was an eerie replay of the same night ten years ago.
He had found her out here, having sneaked away from the party to bury her survival kit. Her pretty yellow dress was smudged with dirt and her chestnut curls hung loose from a matching ribbon as she hunched over the hole, digging away with a rock as she was now. She told him she was burying it in case of an Indian attack—the Comanche were always an ever-present threat. But Molly’s mother feared also the Kiowa to the north and even the Tonkawas to the south, and had instilled a bit of paranoia in her daughters.
Matt knew, even then, that his father and the other ranchers had gone to great lengths to co-exist peacefully with the Indians in the area, but he was never quite able to convince Molly she was safe. And in the end, she wasn’t.
The knowledge twisted like a knife in his gut.
The rock hit something solid.
"I really didn’t think it would still be here," she said, pulling the box free of its dirt home. Dusting the top clean, she carefully unhinged the lid and opened it.
He knew what was inside, for she had shown him that night before burying it, but curiously he looked over her shoulder. A compass, an empty bottle for water, a knife, some matches, and swatches of cloth in the event of an injury. She removed the old tattered slingshot resting on the bottom. "The wren," she murmured. Pushing the remaining contents around she pulled out an envelope.
"What’s that?" he asked.
She closed the box, but kept the faded paper in her hand as she stood. "Just a letter I thought I should hide at the time." She started walking back to the remains of the ranch house, reading what was written on the paper inside the envelope.
Following, he almost ran her over when she suddenly turned around to face him.
With a serious expression on her face, she asked, "Did you ever find out who killed my parents?"
"No." It had been a hell of a time, for him, his mother, his father, the ranch hands, as well as the surrounding landowners who all came out to help search for Molly and the killers of Robert and Rosemary Hart. The suspects somehow eluded them.
"No clues at all?" she asked expectantly.
"We trailed the men who attacked and took you," he said, "but at the end we found nothing."
"But when the Indians attacked I know some of them were killed."
"No bodies were ever found. Did you recognize any of the men who took you?"
She shook her head. "No." She hesitated.
"What?" he asked. She was holding something back.
"You don’t even believe who I am. Why should I share my suspicions with you?"
His gaze locked with her vibrantly blue eyes, and he knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, she was Molly Hart. The how or why of it he couldn’t reconcile, but as he looked at her now, under the bright azure Texan sky, he heard the whispers of the past—not just theirs but thousands of years of lives struggling in this barren land—echoing through his heart and his mind, reminding him how he felt the day he thought he’d lost her.
Molly’s body had been recovered and draped with a blanket where it lay on the ground before the group of men and boys who had searched for her. The remains had been brutally abused. Stunned, Matt had walked out of the valley where the Hart ranch stood, finally stopping at the crest of a hill to stare at the setting sun. The open Texas plains stretched as far as the eye could see; the sunset was bringing dark shadows and a high wind over the land.
It was as if the blast of air blew right through him. His mind, his heart, his dreams—they were all encompassed in what was left of Molly.
He opened his hand and stared at the golden cross resting on his callused fingers. The grief he had struggled to ignore rushed over him, and the tension in his gut uncoiled so swiftly his legs suddenly wouldn’t support him.
He fell to his knees, his body wracked with uncontrollable sobs. He cursed God, he cursed the Comanche, he cursed Robert Hart for bringing three young daughters to such a God-forsaken place, but mostly he cursed himself. If only he had stayed with her that night she might be alive today.
She was alive.
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