Excerpt from The Hunt for Mari
Western 110,000 words

The thud of horses hooves pounded closer, not rousing Marianne, who sat dejectedly atop one of her smashed trunks. The other could not support her weight having splintered on impact. She barely registered that the approaching horse had stopped, that the rider had dismounted and was standing before her, mysterious in the darkness and the limits of her vision.

"Who. . . who is there?"

"Marianne. Mari, is that you?"

Hunt's voice was deep, and brought her a rush of sweet elation.

"What happened? Did John do this to you?" The calloused palm brushed her cheek as he turned her to face the moonlight.

"Did he do what?" she asked dully, her voice a thin whisper of sound.

"The bruises. The bruises on your face."

"I fell out of the wagon."

"And your things fell with you."

"That's right."

He turned silently away, surveying the damage, staring at the undergarments, nightclothes, expensive store bought day dresses scattered along the trail. Again it struck her that he seemed different. She tried to puzzle what the changes were, what it was about him that disturbed her. Perhaps it was merely that his doctor clothes were gone, that he was dressed as an ordinary rancher. As if anything about Hunt Robinson could be ordinary. His clothes were all black. He blended so with the night that she could only make out a pale rectangle of his face beneath the brim of his dark Stetson. He reached for a filmy undergarment lying in the road, and she noticed his cotton shirt, straining across his shoulders, canvas pants, plain leather chaps. He turned toward her, the dirty silk of her unmentionable bunched in his fist. His anger made her flinch. She'd had enough of angry men.

"Come on then."

"You don't need to do this." Her upper teeth worried her bottom lip. The last thing she needed was to be obligated to this angry man who seemed ever more a stranger to her. "I'm certain someone will be along." Knowing how foolish she sounded, she allowed her voice to fade off.

"Sure." he said sarcastically,, "I'm sure that Reverend Wentworth will be taking a drive along the south road any minute. I'm certain that his daughter Chastity has a tea party to attend at midnight, miles from town." He sighed tiredly and ran his fingers through his hair. "I know you don't want to ride with me, but you haven't any choice."

"I'm not going home. I'm not . . ." To her distress, her lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears. How could she not be all cried out by now? She forced down the piercing grief. "I'm not wanted." There. She'd said it. Whether or not Hunt was a friend of Pa's, surely he wouldn't make her go back to the ranch to face John Lancaster's temper.

He hesitated only an instant. "I'll take you home with me.